Monday, 29 February 2016

For It Is the Doom of Men

Like Siege of Sardath, I first encountered Knights of Doom, Jonathan Green's second Fighting Fantasy book, as a library copy. Well, a soon-to-be-ex-library copy, as I came across it in a sale of withdrawn stock. This was during one of my 'off-gamebooks' phases, but I was still curious enough to have a quick look in the book. The Instant Death that caught my eye was not sufficiently engaging to entice me into buying the book, and I didn't read on, because there were still lots of other sale books to check out.

When I finally did buy a copy of Knights, it was the book I bought at the same time that I got Island of the Undead. So, coincidentally, both of the books I added to my collection at that point were ones I could have acquired previously, and had even looked at before deciding not to get them.

My previous online attempt at Knights is the first of those playthroughs not to have been included in the back-up file I rediscovered a couple of years back. It's not completely lost, thanks to the Wayback Machine, but it was one of the playthroughs that I posted in multiple instalments, and at least two of the posts containing parts of it have been lost, so what does still exist of it is almost as fragmentary as an early Patrick Troughton Doctor Who story.

Moving on from my past, it's time to get on with the background to this adventure. I am one of the Templar Knights of Telak, based somewhere to the east of the setting of Mr. Green's previous book. A century ago, a Templar named Belgaroth turned to the side of Chaos (motivated primarily by excessively authoritarian tendencies and jealousy of his brother, King Chivalras) and created his own personal army of Chaos Knights to try and seize power. War ensued, and eventually Chivalras' troops laid siege to Caer Skaal, Belgaroth's fortress, and wiped out Belgaroth and his men. Since then, the fortress has been an abandoned, haunted ruin.

Until recently, that is. But a few weeks ago, a gateway to the Spirit Planes opened in the vicinity of the ruins of Caer Skaal, allowing through some evil force. Since then, things have taken a turn for the worse in the kingdom, with trouble being stirred up by practitioners of witchcraft, assorted walking dead, and warriors bearing the banner of Belgaroth's Chaos Knights. In places, the ancient Forest of Lein is dying, and consequently King Rannor, being one with the land, is sick. Evidently Belgaroth's spirit has returned, and must be destroyed again in order to put an end to all this unpleasantness.

The logistics of gathering together an army like the one that defeated Belgaroth before are proving a bit tricky, so the King's advisers have suggested giving the 'lone knight succeeding where a larger force could not' thing a try, and I get asked to be that lone knight on account of being the best of the Templars. And the dice (allocated, of course) indicate me to have:
Skill 9
Stamina 16
Luck 9
Evidently the Templars are going through a rough patch.

There's an Honour score as well, but that always starts at the same level. I do also have four Special Skills, to be selected from a list of nine (or twelve if you add the subcategories into which one is divided). Banish Spirit may be essential, and Arcane Lore has proved handy in the past, so I'll take those two Priest Skills. As regards Warrior Skills, I've seen it claimed that a combination of Ride and Weapon (Lance) can help with some of the nastier combats. Probably not enough to make up for that Skill, but time will tell.

As I'm about to set off, the doors to the audience chamber burst open, and the sound of an approaching horse fills the air. The hoofbeats reach the chamber, with no visible source, and the temperature drops as the traditional Jonathan Green 'section 1 hostile encounter' starts to manifest itself. A spectral knight on horseback appears, the rider's face disconcertingly skeletal. The knight yells at us to beware, and his horse rears up to attack me. I manage to dodge out of the way, and the ghostly knight prepares to attack.

Well, this is a little embarrassing. I had a nice rant prepared about this book offering the option of using either of two Special Skills against the spectral knight, only to render them both discouragingly useless, but then a spot of double-checking revealed that, in fact, only one of them proves ineffectual. The one I actually have turns out to work just fine. Wish I'd given it a try at the appropriate moment, rather than relying on my faulty memory and losing half my Stamina in an avoidable fight.

Before vanishing, the knight delivers the rather redundant warning that Belgaroth lives. The King thanks me, and says that I'd better be on my way, but I can stop off at the armoury before I go. I'm allowed to take up to two items, and while the names of the available weapons and pieces of armour do give a hint as to what they do, the only way to find out precisely what anything does is to choose it, by which time it's a little late if that turns out to be of little use.

I don't remember anything I chose last time ever coming in handy, so I'll leave those items on the shelf. The Paladin's Lance seems an obvious choice, considering that I have the relevant Special Skill. Its effect doesn't look that impressive (succeed at a Skill roll to inflict 2 Stamina damage), but maybe that's a big deal in the right context. I can only carry two weapons, so unless I want to get rid of my sword (which has a minor enchantment causing it to do damage to creatures unaffected by normal weapons), I'd better get armour (or nothing) for my second choice. I won't get the Griffin Shield, as there are many other shields to be found along the way in this book. How about the Dwarven Breastplate? Reduces combat damage, but also diminishes my effectiveness in a fight. Could do more harm than good, but I guess finding out in the course of an attempt I have no real chance of winning anyway is better than have the thing wreck what could have been a more viable go at the book.

By the time I reach the stables, my horse has been saddled. I get given a backpack containing Provisions, a light source, a couple of draughts of healing potion, and some money, and ride off. Along the way I see signs of the baleful influence spreading across the land, and then my way is blocked by a mob, led by three self-proclaimed Prophets of Doom. One is dressed as the grim reaper, wearing a mask made from a wolf's skull. The second is a leper, described as being of average height, though the illustration shows him to be more than a head shorter than everyone else, making this an uncharacteristically tall mob. The third 'Prophet' is an emaciated woman, who appears not to have eaten in weeks.

The Prophets try to stir up the mob against me, talking of the Templars' living in decadent luxury while the common people struggle and starve. I try to defuse the situation, explaining that I'm on my way to deal with the real source of their woes, but fail to convince the people. One of the Prophets urges them to kill me, forcing me to flee. Some of the crowd are trampled as I ride away (which inflicts an Honour penalty), and someone gets in a glancing blow with a weapon. This is not going well.

As I ride on, I consider possible courses of action. I could head for Caer Skaal as quickly as possible (if I wanted to absolutely guarantee my failure). Alternatively, I could try raising an army as I go (failing to do enough of this brought my most successful attempt at this book to an end). I might seek the assistance of the powers that inhabit the Forest of Lein (probably advisable), or try and find the legendary Elf-Spear Aelfgar (almost certainly essential).

It gets dark, so I stop for the night. Lacking the Skill of Commune, I must trust to Luck to determine whether or not I sleep too heavily, and fortune is not with me. I wake with a sudden pain in my side, caused not by cramp but by the fact that a floating, disembodied hand has just stabbed me with a dagger. Not lethally, and I haven't forgotten that Banish Spirit works on this spectral assailant. The dagger remains, though. The text doesn't say whether or not it'd take up one of my weapon slots if I add it to my inventory, but I'll err on the side of caution and leave it where it fell.

Before getting back to sleep, I reflect that that was no random encounter. Somebody with occult knowledge summoned the spectral assassin and sent it after me. Still, I take some encouragement from the fact that it failed.

In the morning I continue on my way, drawing near to the settlement of Wendeford. The sage Herluin lives not far away, so I decide to stop off and see if there's anything to be learned here. At the local inn, the Bristling Boar, I ask about current rumours, and the landlady tells me that the ghost of a priest has been glimpsed in the local graveyard, druids are performing dark rites in the forest, and robber bands are roaming the land. On a whim, I then ask about the inn's name, learning that it refers to a monstrous boar that terrorised the region years before, and was eventually trapped and killed by Felder the Hunter. Finally I seek directions to Herluin's, and as she tells me the way to go, the landlady warns that he doesn't like time-wasters.

I set off to his cell, noting that the wood in which he lives gets quieter the further into it I go. Equally ominously, it's a cold day, but no smoke issues from the chimney. Nevertheless, I enter the cell, finding it in a state of disarray, with Herluin's corpse in the midst of the mess. An owl flies in, and this time I succeed at the Luck roll which substitutes for having Commune. Herluin's spirit speaks to me, warning that the clerics are in league with the Usurping Serpent, and advising me not to waste any time here. Before fading away, he explains that a Demon killed him.

I should probably leave as advised, but there's a time limit for doing things here, which makes me curious. I can afford to have a quick look at the book he was reading just before the attack that cost him his life, right? It's in an unfamiliar language, but my knowledge of Arcane Lore helps me to deduce that it's some kind of spell. Somehow I can also infer the terms 'summoning' and 'assistance' from the incomprehensible text.

I should definitely have done as Herluin said. That's 'assistance' as in 'a Demonic Slayer'. And Banish Spirit doesn't work on Demons. Nor does the breastplate provide any protection from this one's talons, so I get the disadvantages but not the benefits of wearing it. And the Demon's Skill is higher than mine even without the penalty imposed by the awkward armour. I manage to wound the thing a couple of times, but it wins the fight. That was very careless of me. Must pay more attention next time.

Friday, 26 February 2016

This Place Is Neither Safe Nor Sound

Back when I played the tenth official Tunnels & Trolls solo adventure, Sorcerer Solitaire, I mentioned that a revised version of the adventure had appeared in the 24th and final volume of the series. While the original was written by Walker Vaning, the rewrite is attributed to James L. Walker, and dedicated to the original author. I think it’s time to see how the two versions compare. Mind you, given that the original version is one of the very few T&T solos that I survived, I can’t help but wonder if the reason it got a revised edition was to make it more lethal...

Looking at the introduction to the New Edition, I see that it could be treated as a follow-up to When the Cat’s Away, the first adventure in the book that contains it. In WtCA, I played an apprentice wizard, while the viewpoint character in SS(NE) has just completed an apprenticeship, and is about to be sent on a Quest to mark their ascension to journeyman mage status. All right, so the apprentice was training under Servald, and had a none-too-friendly relationship with him, while the journeyman’s Master is referred to as the Aged One, and they’re on more friendly terms. Nothing that can’t be explained away, though: there were indications that the decidedly antagonistic relationship between the apprentice and Servald’s pet ferrid had improved by the end of WtCA, which could be enough to help Master and apprentice start getting on better. And maybe the apprentice discovered that ‘the Aged One’ is how the ferrid thinks of its master (the creature does have some telepathic ability), and decided to start using it as a nickname for the Wizard.

Anyway, I’m playing as the same character because I need to level someone up sooner or later, and this is the only experienced character I have who fits the background at all well. The Aged One explains my Quest: Vaning Manor has been abandoned for 50 years. Not long after it was constructed, a strange malaise killed the last Lord Vaning, his wife, and their servants. More recently, Princess Nanus disappeared in the vicinity of the Manor, and the Aged One suspects that whatever evil infested the Manor is growing in strength. I must find out what is going on there, take what steps I can to stop it, and if possible rescue the Princess.

Kessel Joris, a local hunter, takes me close to the Manor, but will go no further because of the place’s reputation. It is at least as unpleasant a night as the one on which the original Sorcerer Solitaire was set. I make my way to the front door, which is secured by a padlock. This time I don’t even get to choose whether or not to cast Knock Knock, though I do get to choose whether or not I want to enter the Manor after being forced to spend Strength to open the door.

No point in loitering outside. The door still creaks, and slams behind me, the foyer has the same number and kind of exits as before, and there is again a glowing skull on a pedestal. I decide to investigate the skull, and that’s where things start to get different. In the old adventure, the skull’s effect was largely benign. Here it’s painful and random, and shatters the skull rather than charring it. When the agony ends, I discover that I’ve gained fangs and a prehensile tail. This significantly diminishes my Charisma, but I do gain a bite attack and the ability to (rather clumsily) carry more stuff.

As I head for an exit, the text rather casually reveals that the skull was made of crystal. I’m not going to leave this room by the exit I chose when playing the original version of the adventure. If the encounters to be had through that door are largely unchanged, I’m just going to wind up briefly rehashing what I wrote last time, and then dying because this character doesn’t have the stats to make an Oh Go Away spell work on the soulsucker. Going left may well get me killed anyway, but at least I’ll be dying in new circumstances.

I step onto a particularly rotten patch of floor, and fall through into the basement. Dust and debris break my fall, keeping me from taking any damage, but there’s no immediate way of getting back up. There is a passage leading away, though. It’s poorly lit, but I can make out what could be rats scurrying away, and bones on the floor. Possibly human bones. It gets cold and dark, and something approaches with a growl. It’s not very clear from the text, but I think a Will-o-wisp spell won’t work here, though I could try the significantly more costly Oh There It Is to see if there’s anything invisible or concealed down here.

I can’t afford to expend that much Strength. Rummaging around in the near-dark is probably not a good idea, so I’ll risk approaching whatever is growling. As I get closer, I become aware of an unpleasant smell, which I suddenly recognise as the stink of a Troll. For some reason I’m only allowed to cast defensive spells at this point, and as the rules have never categorised spells beyond specifying what level they are, an element of subjectivity creeps in. A sneaky peek at the Magic Matrix  (which has been added for the New Edition) reveals that, in Mr. Walker’s eyes, Oh Go Away (which can scare away opponents) is not a defensive spell, but Vorpal Blade (which temporarily increases the damage done by edged weapons) is. I briefly thought the 50-foot range of OGA might be the reason for its unavailability here, but the paragraph states that I am ‘only a few feet’ from the Troll, so this is just a disagreement over how defensive ‘make the monster not want to attack me’ is compared to ‘increase the effectiveness of daggers’.

As I get even closer, I am horrified by what I see. No, not the Troll that practically blocks the passage: repeated use of ‘it’s’ where the text should say ‘its’. A quick comparison with the original version reveals that this encounter was there before, but the error has been specially introduced for the New Edition. Still, it is only bad grammar, and thus not as bad as some of the blunders I’ve seen in certain other reissued gamebooks.

A Troll like that is unlikely to be affected by OGA, or killed by my one blasting spell (Take That, You Fiend), and a physical assault would have no chance. Can I outwit the brute instead of outfighting it? Alas, my Charisma is too low for the Troll to consider it worthwhile listening to me, though he doesn’t consider me too ugly to eat.

The Troll attacks, and things get a bit messy. In terms of game mechanics, rather than regarding my fate (well, probably both, actually). The rules state that OGA can only be cast before the target’s stats are revealed, so now the text has given the Troll’s Monster Rating, it should be too late to cast the spell. But the Magic Matrix says that now I can cast it. Not that it’ll work, as my reduced Charisma brings the total of my relevant stats to just below what they’d need to be to affect the Troll. Literally one point short of target. Still, as I intended to cast it back when I should have been allowed to, I’m going to turn to the relevant section anyway. An unsuccessful OGA spell causes the target to focus more intently on the caster, so I may as well find out if my failure would have got me killed any more severely than I’m going to be anyway.

It turns out that the author hadn’t forgotten the limitations on casting the spell. The option for casting it even after seeing the Troll’s stats was to reflect an aspect of the creature’s psychology: this Troll is a bully and a coward, as a result of which the effectiveness of the spell is doubled. So I guess that, rather than failing by the narrowest possible margin, I actually succeed quite decisively, causing the Troll to scream loudly and run away, whimpering and blubbering about the nasty human that won’t let him eat it. I’d better not get cocky, though. That spell had a not insignificant Strength cost, so until I can get some good rest, I’m in a pretty flimsy condition.

In fact, the section to which I am directed as a consequence of not dying in the fight tells me I’ve killed the Troll, so I guess I scared it so much, its heart stopped. Comparing the texts, I see that in the original version the Troll did just run away if OGA was used effectively against it, but it dropped its treasure as it did so. But it wasn’t such a coward in the first version, so I’d probably be dead by now if I were playing the earlier account of the encounter. Oh, and that treasure’s become decidedly unimpressive: an assortment of copper coins and a piece of quartz, with a combined value of almost half a gold piece (compared to over 200GP worth of rubies and a couple of magical items in the unrevised version).

The passage becomes quiet, and I see moss on the walls. I have the option of resting for long enough to restore all the Strength I’ve spent casting spells. Doing so may result in my being attacked by slow-moving but exceedingly lethal Killer Moss, but that’s a risk I’m willing to take.

A Saving Roll on Luck determines whether or not my rest is undisturbed. Either there’s a typo in the text, or Mr. Walker is bending the rules (and it is another quirk unique to the New Edition – I checked), because the target number is 10 lower than it should be for the lowest level of Saving Roll. What I roll is high enough to succeed either way, so it’s not that big a deal. Though I guess if the newer text is pioneering the Level 0 Saving Roll, I’d get no Experience for it. I’ll go with the ‘typo’ interpretation and treat the roll as Level 1, unless I get evidence to the contrary later on.

Walking on for as long as I rested, I encounter no unpleasantness, and if I hadn’t already returned to full Strength, I’d gain half as much (rounded down) for the quiet walk as I did for the rest. Then I reach a room hewn from the rock, with water dripping from the ceiling, and phosphorescent fungi providing enough illumination that if I’d found any items between my fall and my encountering the Troll, I could find out what they were.

Another Saving Roll, this one by the rules. I narrowly fail it. The lights fail. Yes, even though they’re fungi. And if I had a torch or a tinderbox or tried casting Will-o-Wisp, that wouldn’t help. I sense something evil. Is it the soulsucker I encountered on my previous attempt at the book? If so, I doubt that that, too, has become a coward, so I won’t waste Strength on another Oh Go Away. Not that conserving Strength is likely to achieve more than making my death take slightly longer (or marginally reducing the degree of overkill).

Anyway, I flail around in the darkness, trying to find an exit. No joy. The sense of evil grows stronger. I get the option to reconsider using magic. That makes me suspicious, reminding me of a prank in another gamebook that provided an opportunity to waste a spell against a nonexistent threat. So I’m still casting nothing, which means drawing my staff and preparing to fight off the unseen opponent that I hope isn’t really there. The text tells me what a twit I’m being, which just strengthens my suspicions. Yet another Saving Roll ensues. I fail that one less narrowly.

I was wrong about the imaginary nature of the threat. A tentacle wraps around me, draining my will-to-live. This version of the adventure is a little more discreet about my demise than the original, but leaves me just as dead.

Monday, 22 February 2016

He Might Be Dead, He Might Be Not

A while back I mentioned my first passing encounter with the Virtual Reality Adventure gamebooks. Dave Morris' Necklace of Skulls was definitely one of the ones that turned up in the charity shop where I found them, as it was the one that most strongly tempted me to end the 'no gamebooks' phase through which I was going at the time. I didn't give in to the temptation, though, so I only acquired the book several years later, during a brief visit to Manchester. There was (maybe still is) a big subterranean second-hand bookshop not far from the bottom of the hill on which the train station stands, and while I was passing a little spare time in there, a copy of Necklace caught my eye, and I bought it. I had a go at the book on the journey home, my character dying by a process of attrition of Life Points, ultimately expiring from injuries sustained in the course of a rather brutal ball game.

My character in this book is one of the Maya people, named Evening Star. I think this time I'll try one of the pre-generated ones, and I'm going for the Mystic, who has a range of skills that cover a lot of bases. There are still some deficiencies that could cause me problems, but short of cheating and creating a character who massively exceeds the set number of skills, there's nothing I can do to remedy that. Anyway, time to get on with the adventure.

After a troubling dream concerning my brother, Morning Star, I consult the local soothsayer, who interprets the dream as a reminder that I must carry out my brother's duties while he is away on ambassadorial duties (though he admits that his 'prophecies' are based more on observation and inference than any supernatural insight). My concerns persist, the unusually strong bond I have with my brother convincing me that the dream signifies some ill which has befallen him. It thus comes as no great surprise when I hear that one member of Morning Star's expedition has returned, bearing bad news.

I hurry to the meeting being held by the Council of Nobles. Though I am not a member, the guards let me in on account of my being related to Morning Star. I arrive just in time to hear the returned warrior tell of how the Great City to which they had travelled had been ransacked by an army of werewolves. Morning Star led his expedition into the desert from which the werewolves had come, and they had eventually found a seemingly derelict palace. Informed in a dream that the palace was the dwelling of a sorcerer named Necklace of Skulls, Morning Star entered it to try and learn if Necklace of Skulls had sent the werewolves. He never emerged. After waiting for eight days, the rest of the expedition decided to come back here to report what they knew, but only the one now speaking survived the desert crossing.

The King announces that Morning Star must be assumed dead. I decide not to take it for granted. Of course, the only way of finding out for sure would be to cross the desert, find the palace, and check with Necklace of Skulls. Which isn't going to be easy. But family is family...

I meet with the clan Matriarch to seek permission to go off in search of my brother, speaking of my duty to rescue or avenge him. She asks about my duty to the rest of the clan, and I'm not sure that either of the answers I may give are particularly satisfactory, so I say nothing. A nothing that turns out to be over 50 words long, which suggests that politics might be the ideal arena for me. The Matriarch notes that I am as impetuous as my late father and my possibly late brother: a heroic characteristic, but one that could drastically curb my life expectancy.

Resignedly, she grants permission and hands me a letter to take to a distant cousin named Midnight Bloom in the coastal town of Balak. Midnight Bloom, being involved in coastal trade, will be able to arrange a sea crossing to Tahil, the port closest to the desert.

Now authorised to go on this quest, I head to the market to equip myself for it. The rugs on which the traders display their wares are colour coded to indicate the type of goods they sell. I'd better make a note of what each colour signifies, in case there's a test later on. Owing to the lateness of the hour, many traders have already finished for the day, but my funds will only just cover all the potentially useful items still available. Do I buy the lot and hope not to incur any further expense before I get fresh funds, or do without an item or two so as to have a little currency left? And if the latter, what not to buy? Two of the items on the list aren't as obviously useful as the rest, but gamebooks being gamebooks, it could turn out that I'll need chilli peppers and dye more than, say, a rope. Actually, the Skill of Agility (which I have) might substitute for a rope (at least as a climbing aid, though less so if I need to tie something or someone up), so I'll go with that: buy the waterskin, the firebrand, the dye and the peppers, and leave myself a few cacao to cover unexpected financial demands.

I set off before sunrise the following day, adding to my possessions a parcel of maize cakes prepared by my aunts. The soothsayer turns up to wish me well and give me a jade bead, which can be used as currency if I decide to try travelling through the underworld on my way to Necklace of Skulls. That's a little annoying, as there's a limit to how many items I can carry, and the bead (which I have to take) pushes me over it. Besides, having had my second attempt at this book end quite rapidly as a consequence of attempting the underworld path, I wasn't planning on going that way again. I suppose I'll have to leave the dye.

As I set off, I point out to the soothsayer that his interpretation of my dream turns out not to have been that accurate (and by now I seem to have come to the conclusion that Morning Star is dead after all). He replies that the world isn't as simple as 'right' and 'wrong'. Is that just spin, or a hint that the reality in which this adventure is set is on the malleable side? Either way, I need to get going, so I leave the city, wondering if I'll ever see it again.

The causeway to Yashuna (a town on the way to Balak) passes fields and orchards. The sight of the peasant workers labouring amidst the cotton plants makes my character feel thirsty (oh, the hardship!), and I reach up to help myself to a papaya from an overhanging tree. I happen to grab one that has a tarantula on it, but my Wilderness Lore skill enables me to avoid any unpleasantness. From the spider, at least. But my actions have attracted the attention of an elderly peasant, who seems displeased. Etiquette is one of the Skills I lack, but running away is probably a more serious gaffe than anything I could say in my ignorance, so I wait to see what the man has to say.

Recognising that I'm one of the nobility, the peasant has to guard his words. He offers to sell me a papaya, halving the price when I complain about the tree being 'infested with poisonous spiders'. Still no sale, because I'd have to add the papaya to my inventory, which would mean discarding another item, and I doubt that lack of a papaya is likely to guarantee my failure at a later stage of the adventure.

Continuing on my way, I see a group of children taking an interest in a plum tree, though they show more caution than I did when approaching the fruit. I could give them my maize cakes, but they seem to know what they're doing, so I might learn something by watching them. And that's pretty much a non-encounter.

The next day, I reach Yashuna. There's a market on, but surprisingly few customers at it. My inventory is still full, but I'll check the stalls just in case there's anything that looks more worth having than one of the items I carry. I see a couple of things that could be of use in certain circumstances, and note that the items this place has in common with the other market are cheaper, but make no purchases.

A fisherman complains about finding no buyers, and I point out that his wares are past their prime. Offended, he tries to sell me a lobster pot. He also complains about not having had any decent bread for days, so I could try to see if he has anything good to trade for the maize cakes. Only a parcel of salt, but I could easily name a couple of gamebooks with authorial input from Dave Morris in which salt is a handy thing to have at one point, so I agree.

Now I head north, partly because that's the way to Balak, and partly out of curiosity: most of the locals appear to be heading that way, and I wonder what the big attraction is. They're gathering at the sacred well of Yashuna, a vast sinkhole that apparently leads to the underworld, in preparation for a sacrifice that they hope will placate the rain god. I don't have the item that would enable me to join the young couple who are to have the honour of throwing themselves into the well, so I hurry on to the north, in no mood to see anyone embrace death. That jade bead can almost certainly be dispensed with now.

I reach Balak without further incident, and seek out Midnight Bloom. She's due to sail to Tahil in a week, and agrees to take me with her. If I'd sustained any injuries along the way, they would heal during the week I spend waiting for the ship to be made ready. This is also where I get my first codeword, an unfamiliar term which a quick google reveals to be the word for a Mayan causeway like the ones on which I came here.

We set sail on a rather poetically described morning, and it's a smooth journey until evening, at which point a storm sends us way off course. We wind up close to the 'fabled' Isle of the Iguana (and right now it would probably be very handy to know the relevant fables with which my character is familiar). The ship is damaged, so we need to land to make repairs, and I get another codeword. Another Mayan term for a road, as it turns out.

On the island we meet an old man, wearing the tattered remnants of clothing that denotes someone wealthy and important. He introduces himself as the wizard Jade Thunder, who overcame his arch-rival here, but has been stranded ever since, as his wand was sealed behind a barrier of flame by his dying opponent. He shows me where it is: a beach that shows signs of the fallout from the wizards' magical battle, where twisted trees bear grim-faced coconuts that stare at the multicoloured sands. There are two Skills and an item that could be used to recover the wand, and I have none of them, so I must either walk through the green wall of fire or decline to assist Jade Thunder. Dare I risk it? The assistance of a powerful wizard could come in handy.

I walk through the fire, and my Skill of Charms significantly reduces the damage I suffer. Jade Thunder eagerly seizes the wand, and I have a section transition in which to wonder if I've just aided an evil wizard. Apparently not. He just creates a magical path across the sea (which only he can use), and advises me to sail south to the mainland, where the giant who's buried up to his neck will grant me one wish if I tell him how many stars there are, as he's been trying to count them since the dawn of time. Jade Thunder does also let me know the answer, and when I return to see how the repairs to the ship are going, I find that we now have a much more sturdy vessel with enchanted sails.

When I ask Midnight Bloom about the possibility of making a detour to the south, she agrees because of the business opportunities it would provide. She doesn't want to hang around for long, though, so I'll have to find the giant quite quickly. Which automatically happens in the next section. The subsequent encounter has a touch of humour (now he knows the right number, the giant is left with the perhaps tougher question of why he felt the need to count the stars in the first place), but I do get my wish. Within certain limits - I can get health, wealth or advice. Advice is probably the best thing to get here. Or maybe not, as the giant advises me to buy a waterskin. Done it already. He also tells me to invest in a sword or a knife, explains the best strategy for using such a weapon against the four-headed serpent that dwells in the desert, and reveals how killing it rather than simply avoiding it could help me against Necklace of Skulls. I ask how to kill Necklace of Skulls, and he tells me that being greater than my enemy will be more of a triumph than mere revenge would. Thanks, I think.

Before extricating himself from the sand and strolling off into the sea, the giant coughs up my brother's skull, explaining that its proper place is with me, and he's just acting as the instrument of destiny to ensure that I get it. Well, I guess that definitively answers the question of whether or not Morning Star is dead. And as I gave the letter to Midnight Bloom, I can take the skull without having to discard another item.

I rejoin Midnight Bloom, and we travel on to Tahil. The harbour is crowded with refugees, and no sooner have we pulled in at the quay than an arrogant nobleman commandeers the ship. I'm not pleased about that (and I imagine Midnight Bloom is even less so), but I have none of the Skills that could be used to make him change his mind. So I don't like it, but I'll have to go along with it.

The last town between Tahil and the desert is Shakalla. It takes me weeks to get there, but Wilderness Lore enables me to complete the journey without weakening. I arrive around midday, finding that the remaining inhabitants are sheltering from the sun's heat. A dog lies in the shade cast by a shop's awning. Hope this shop sells knives... It does. I discard that bead to make space for one. Now, if Wilderness Lore acts as a substitute for a waterskin in the desert (as it has between Tahil and Shakalla), it might be an idea to ditch the water in favour of a blanket. If it only reduces dehydration-based damage... Maybe the firebrand will suffice against any cold I encounter. And I'm going to need an inventory slot for once I've dealt with the serpent. Okay, hang onto the water, and by the time I've encountered the serpent, I should know whether or not I need it. If I do, I'll just have to hope that I won't need the knife again.

The west exit from the town is a tunnel through the surrounding wall. Graffiti depicts a man with scorpion-like claws and tail, and a four-headed dragon (the serpent, depicted with a bit of poetic license?). There are guards at the end of the tunnel, surprised to see someone coming through the Gate of Exiles. Wonder if they'll let me through if I have to come back this way after dealing with Necklace of Skulls.

Emerging from the tunnel, I stare across the desert. A very short path leads to a boulder. I ask the guards about it, and they explain that it's for protection against the dust demons, which stir up whirlwinds and set them on desert travellers. They can only travel in straight lines, though, so a single boulder in line with the tunnel mouth is enough to keep the demons from devastating Shakalla.

Wilderness Lore helps me work out the best times for travel and shelter, and provides me with a means for conserving water. Its effectiveness is limited, though, and I eventually use up the water (looking on the bright side, I can keep the knife). Cliffs rise up, enclosing me until I find a point where I can scale them. Not long after I reach the top, I see half a dozen whirlwinds converging on me. I don't have either of the Skills I could use here, so I need to work out which of the two unpromising options left to me is more likely to let me use the knowledge gained from those guards. Will 'stand ready to fight' give me a chance to leap aside at the right moment? Can I pick a tangent with which none of the whirlwinds' paths will intersect if I turn and flee? I risk the latter, and realise the clue I'd missed: clifftops are very handy for dealing with attackers that can't turn aside. As the dust demons plunge over the edge, I cannot resist an anachronistic, "Beep beep!"

Either there's more than one route through the desert in this book, or I've found one of the 'glitches' to which Dave Morris referred when I thought I'd be playing this book 2 years ago: just a few sections after being told that I'd emptied my waterskin and had to throw it away, guess what I'm being asked if I have? (Incidentally, apologies for taking so much longer than planned to get to this playthrough, Dave.)

Recognising signs of dehydration, I realise that I'm going to have to try and get water from a desert plant. There are three different varieties in sight, but Wilderness Lore saves me from having to guess (and my readers from having to endure a cheesy Blind Date parody as I list the candidates). I still lose 1 Life, as the one plant that can help can only do so much, but I got off lightly (and possibly avoided some potentially life-threatening hallucinations).

By now I can't be far from the palace where my brother met his end. Pressing on, I crest a dune to see a warrior confronting the four-headed serpent. I know better than to sneak past while they're distracting each other, and the only way of joining in runs contrary to the giant's advice, so I'm afraid I shall have to watch the warrior get shredded before demonstrating to his torch-bearer the correct strategy for fighting the serpent.

The warrior isn't completely clueless, but he's not smart enough, and loses his head just before he can strike a killing blow. I charge down the dune, and the serpent emits four snarls. For a while I dodge out of the way of its attacks, and eventually it loses its temper and just charges at me headslong, providing the perfect opportunity for me to strike at its weak spot with my knife. In this instance, one head is better than four.

A drop of the creature's blood congeals into a sphere, much like a rubber ball, which I take. The dead warrior's servant pleads with me to restore his master to life, but that is beyond my capabilities. He accompanies me away from the corpses, and after almost a day he asks if he is to be my servant now. I tell him he's a free man, and he says that if he'd known that, he'd have taken his late master's waterskin. Another waterskin check follows, and again Wilderness Lore reduces the damage I take. Even so, I'm down to half my Life, and anticipating an ending similar to that of my first try at the book.

At last we reach the palace. Double doors open to admit me, and we are confronted by a large group of vaguely canine-seeming men with stone axes, who warn me that I won't get to see their master unless I spend five nights with his courtiers. I ask about my brother, and they suggest that I might meet him in a while. The servant is then dragged off to a nearby group of buildings, and the chief courtier tells me that I must choose a route to their compound.

Four archways lead to the next courtyard. One leads (via steps designed to prevent a running jump) to a pit of smoking coals. The next is the mouth of a tunnel blocked by a confused mess of wooden beams, some of which are holding up the walls. I'd need to remove some beams to get through, but taking the wrong one is liable to cause a cave-in. Sort of Extreme Jenga. The third opens onto a vault containing no obstacles, but with inscriptions denoting calamity and catastrophe on the lintels. Psychological warfare, or warning signs? The last one is guarded by the chief courtier's 'second cousin twice removed', an ill-tempered albino hound.

I have to find out what the catch is with the third one. After a couple of steps, the lintel overhead creaks, and dust falls from the roof. I have both of the Skills that could help here, though, and with the help of Charms I make it through the vault without having anything fall on me. The courtiers are displeased, and one of them makes the mistake of looking into the vault, which promptly collapses on him.

The courtyard I am in now leads to a massive gateway constructed from human bones. The chief courtier tells me I'll wind up part of it before long. Closer to me are five windowless buildings, which the chief courtier identifies as the Five Houses of Destiny. If I survive a night in each of them, the gate will open and I will get my audience with Necklace of Skulls.

The first of these is the House of Fire, which contains a channel full of smouldering charcoal, lined with stones that glow with heat. A night spent in its stifling heat further depletes my Life Points. In the morning I notice a lump of charcoal that must have fallen from the channel, and spot that one of the stones (no longer red hot, but still warm) is loose. It's not clear whether these constitute one item or two: if the latter, I risk dropping the knife in order to take the stone, otherwise I'll have both.

Next is the House of Bats. Vampire Bats, predictably. I have no means of repelling them, and end the night in a slightly anaemic state. Not dead, though, so I get to spend the next night in the House of Knives, obsidian blades that come to life as the sun sets. Crouching in a corner, I use the stone from the House of Fire to shield myself from the knives' attacks. Over the course of the night, the stone gets chipped away to nothing, but it keeps me from taking any damage, much to the disgust of the courtiers.

The House of Cold follows. At last that firebrand proves to have been worth getting. The heat it gives off, and the natural resilience that comes with Wilderness Lore, enable me to get through another night without further loss of Life. However, increasingly peeved at my continued survival, the chief courtier declares the use of items to be cheating, and confiscates my travelling pack for the duration of my stay in the final House.

This is the House of Gloom, which contains the graves of the courtiers' ancestors. I am provided with a short candle. As long as it remains alight, the ancestors' ghosts will leave me alone. A candle that size could last for up to an hour - but an inconvenient draught blows it out even sooner, ending my run of unscathed nights. Even so, I survive, earning the respect of the courtiers and the chance to meet Necklace of Skulls.

Beyond the gate is an avenue, with a black pyramid at the far end. The courtiers climb steps to the tops of the side walls, and I realise that this avenue is designed like the arena in which my people's sacred ball game is played. From inside the shrine atop the pyramid, Necklace of Skulls announces that it is time for the game to start. He also tells me that my brother played it before me, and lost, so his life was forfeit.

Two shadows gain substance. They are to be my opponents. As two against one would be unfair, my brother's ghost is summoned to play alongside me, and I get a codeword that isn't a Mayan thoroughfare.

The ghost has to shield his eyes against the sun, which puts us at an immediate disadvantage, as players are only allowed to hit the ball with wrists, elbows and knees. Points are scored by hitting scoring zones on the walls, and instantaneous victory can be achieved by getting the ball through one of the vertical hoops on the walls. And the game is also a contact sport, with bone-breaking tackles permitted. As I recall, the shadowy origins of my opponents don't keep them from hitting hard.

Game on. We have the first serve. One of the shadow men charges at me, and I dodge, my Agility keeping me from losing half my remaining Life to what would be a foul under normal rules. My brother's inability to use both arms keeps him from getting the ball to me, and team shadow score their first point. Now they have the serve, and I risk trying to tackle their attacker. It hurts me more than him, and but for Agility, I'd be dead. The shadows get two points this time. The target score is seven.

Our serve again. I have to take a long shot. It scores us two points, but gives the shadows possession. They manage to get the ball through a hoop. We lose. Necklace of Skulls atomises my partner, and howls with fury. The courtiers transform into wild dogs, and flee. Necklace of Skulls absorbs the shadows back into himself, and the shrine splits to reveal my nemesis: a grey-skinned humanoid twice the height of a normal man, with too many joints in his limbs, wearing a robe of flayed human skin. Round his neck hangs the accessory after which he is named, the skulls still blood-spattered, and with eyes still in the sockets.

This is the first chance I've had all book to use Targeting and my blowgun. It's not likely to work, but the only alternative is melee, and I'm on my last Life Point. I get him between the eyes with a dart: a mortal wound against a normal opponent, but only painful to him. He retaliates with a blast of fire, and while it only grazes me, that's still enough to end my life.

Oh, well, I lasted slightly longer than on my previous best try. Next time it might be worth customising a character. Wilderness Lore is too good to do without, but none of the sample characters has it alongside Spells, which seemed to be a viable option much more often than any of the other Skills I lacked (and most of the ones I had).

Saturday, 20 February 2016

Veiled by Mist and Water

This is the second part of my playthrough of Robin Waterfield's Deathmoor. Funnily enough, it starts with my turning to the exact same section to which I would have turned if I'd chosen to do things differently back in section 1. Context matters, though. If I'd set off to where I'm now heading before I took the various actions described in the previous instalment, Princess Telessa would have been killed, and her kidnapper Arachnos would thereby have got rid of the only bargaining tool he had in his plan to economically destabilise the kingdom of Arion, which would have been a pretty unsatisfactory outcome for all concerned. Leaving it until now ensures that someone will prove successful, but only time will tell whether that's me on my quest to save the Princess or Arachnos in his scheme to make money and cause chaos. Considering the difficulty level of the book, the odds favour Arachnos.

For three days I head away from the city, encountering nothing and nobody (and apparently not needing to eat anything, either), but occasionally getting the impression I'm being watched. Then a half-giant emerges from the shelter of a cluster of boulders, introducing himself as Otus. He gives me some of the Princess's hair to prove that he's with her captors, and I hand him the letter in which the King agrees to the ransom demands. Reading the letter, Otus comments that his master, Arachnos, will be pleased. I'm so glad I took the time to investigate the Baron den Snau, consequently getting savaged by Gutterlags, giving away almost half my remaining funds as a bribe, and risking an unpleasant death at least twice, in order to learn the identity of the villain whose name has just been given away by this hulking brute.

Otus tells me to wait here for a couple of days while he fetches the Princess. I don't, because that's how I failed my second attempt at this book: having got what he wants, Arachnos has the Princess returned in little bits. The section describing this outcome speaks disparagingly of any player stupid enough to trust a villain, but surely the real idiot in this situation is the King for signing over the output of his gold mines in perpetuity without specifying that it's 'subject to the safe return of Princess Telessa to her family' or words to that effect.

I wait for long enough to convince Otus that I'm doing as instructed, and then follow him. It soon becomes apparent that he's heading for Deathmoor (so that's the other bit of information I got from the Baron given away too). Formerly the site of an advanced civilisation, Deathmoor was transformed by a sorcerous battle into a mist-shrouded, monster-infested zone of unmappable incoherence and gratuitous Instant Deaths. So following Otus through there ought not to be too much bother, right?

A pheasant erupts from some tall grass nearby, distracting me from Otus, but drawing my attention to something that's heading my way at considerable speed. It's Fang-zen, preceded slightly by a spear, which I dodge. The book claims that he's after 'revenge for the theft of his quest', despite the fact that I acquired the quest from him quite legitimately. Bad loser! His Skill is specified as being 2 lower than mine, so regardless of my Initial rolls, the odds are in my favour, but not so much so as to make the fight a pushover. Except that, even though he has a higher Skill than any other opponent I've fought in this adventure, I don't lose a single round of combat against him. Mind you, considering his twisted view of things, I wouldn't put it past him to ignore the fact that I killed him, and carry on being a bane to decent, hard-working heroes long after he should have sunk into well-deserved obscurity.

On the body I find more gold than I wasted on that porter, a lamp, and some food. He'd be justified in accusing me of stealing that stuff. If he weren't dead. I then attempt to get back to following Otus, only to find no sign of his trail. Now I'll just have to trust to luck to help me find Arachnos' lair. Kicking the corpse a few times to express my annoyance, I note that it's starting to get dark, and decide to find somewhere to shelter for the night.

There's a village inventively named Outpost not far from here, so I decide to see if anyone there will offer me a roof over my head. Judging by the number of shutters that are slammed in my face, probably not. Still, there is a burned-out shell of a hut that might be better than nothing. Or maybe not, as it's still warm and smouldering. And there's fresh blood on the doorpost. This is now looking more like somewhere to investigate dark deeds than a place to stay, but that still means not leaving yet.

Inside, I sense that something evil has happened here. Well, I guess that means I can cross all the nice causes of house fires and bloodshed off my list of possible explanations for what has occurred. Something moves in a corner. I draw my sword just to be on the safe side, and ask, 'Who's there?' The thing in the corner whimpers, and the book gives me the option of lashing out with my sword. Personally, I've never found whimpering to be particularly threatening behaviour, so I curb the violent tendencies and take a closer look.

Huddled in the corner is a mortally wounded woman. Before expiring, she explains that Otus forced her to let him stay in her cottage the previous night, so once he'd turned in for the night, she set her house on fire and ran away. He escaped unharmed, pursued her to a stand of oak trees, and gave her a fatal beating. While doing this, he dropped something, and the woman, knowing a little magic (but evidently nothing that could protect her from Otus' attack) cast an invisibility spell on it. Once Otus left her for dead, she crawled back to Outpost to die in familiar (if charred) surroundings. With her last words she explains how to neutralise the spell, so I can find whatever it is that Otus lost. I hope it's something more useful than a used handkerchief.

After the woman passes on, I bury her and leave Outpost, making camp in the open air. I doze off, waking to find a timber wolf snacking on the food in my backpack. She attacks me, somehow managing to communicate the fact that this is for the sake of the starving cubs back in her den, and I don't think I can say anything more about this incident without winding up sounding like a Daily Mail reader, so I'll skip to morning, when I set off in search of Otus again.

Following what could be faint traces left by Otus, I make slow progress, but by mid-morning I've reached the stand of oaks where Otus attacked the woman. The item he dropped turns out to be a weird key, with a flat face that has a crescent moon and a number inscribed on it. It takes me a little over a day to continue to the outskirts of Deathmoor, so shouldn't Otus be on his way back to the rendezvous point by now? It's around noon on the day after the day after he said to wait for two days, so unless familiarity with the region enables him to cover the intervening terrain in just a few hours (and the fact that he had to find shelter for the night in Outpost suggests that it can't have been that quick), the only way he could get to the 'you gullible numpty!' ending on time would be if he'd already dismembered the Princess and set off to bring her to me.

Still, contemplating certain chronological anomalies isn't going to help me bring this adventure to a conclusion. My way is blocked by a fast-flowing river with scum and decaying fish floating on it. It's quite possible that the choice of whether to head upstream or downstream in search of a place where I can get across may determine whether or not I have the faintest chance of succeeding at this adventure. I think the last time I got this far, I went upstream and died in a corrosive cloud, so on this occasion I'll try downstream. The section for doing so has not yet been entered into my gamebook manager, confirming that that's not the way I went last time. So as long as there's nothing important between where I reached the river and the cloud, I'm on the right track.

As I head downstream, the river slows almost to walking pace. Thick gorse bushes line the path, making it narrow enough that when I run into a couple of patrolling Dark Elf/Orc crosses known as Blackhearts, they can only attack one at a time. Some kind of complication could arise any time I take a blow in the fight, but the one time a Blackheart does manage to wound me, I avoid getting knocked into the thorns or the river or whatever other misfortune could add worse than insult to injury.

One of the Blackhearts wears a medallion with a letter 'A' on it, which I put on between my shirt and armour: it may come in handy at some point, but openly displaying a 'Faithful Follower of Arachnos' badge is liable to make any non-evil inhabitants of the moor regard me with distrust or hostility. The other has a map showing the way to their encampment, which probably contains more Blackhearts, but might also have a partner to that moon key in it. Before heading off to investigate, I add the dead Blackhearts to the pollution in the river.

To my surprise, there are no other Blackhearts in the camp. Just food too repulsive to add to my Provisions and a piece of broken stone with the letter 'S' on it. I do hope this isn't going to turn into an episode of Countdown. Though if the Conundrum turns out to be HATEDROOM, I'll have no trouble solving it.

Returning to the river, I continue south. Something moves in the bushes, and when I involuntarily glance towards it, the Spit Viper expectorates a gobbet of acidic venom at my eyes. It mostly misses, and its Skill is low enough that the temporary Attack Strength penalty caused by the droplets that find their target doesn't keep me from winning the fight.

Further on the river becomes shallow enough to ford, but having already been exposed to one noxious fluid today, I'd rather not wade through that filth if it can be avoided, so I keep walking south. After a while, the river bends west, away from the path. Continuing along the path, I find a damaged milestone. What remains of it reads:
For some reason I'm not able to make a deduction as to the number of missing letters based on the size of the gap, and the book has me wondering if the damaged word could be 'Precious' or 'Poisonous'. Why stop there? How about 'Porous'? (Which would, admittedly, make for a seriously rubbish well). Given the prevalence in FF of sentient versions of normally inanimate objects, a 'Pugnacious' well wouldn't be out of the question ("You want water? You're gonna have to fight me for it!") 'Pusillanimous' is another (unlikely) option. As are 'Parsimonious', 'Perspicuous', 'Perspicacious', 'Polygamous' and (mildly less implausibly) 'Precipitous' and 'Pecunious'. Or maybe it was a reminder from the Guild of Moneylenders to 'Pay IOUs well'. 

More seriously, the book doesn't ask if I've previously come across a piece of stone with a letter on, and no types of stone have been mentioned to make it more obvious whether or not the bit I found in the camp could be from here. Occam's Razor suggests that that 'N' is supposed to be one of the missing letters, but would the extra ink necessary for specifying that both were marble (for instance) have bankrupted Puffin?

Close by, the continuation of the path has been wiped out by a severe landslide, causing it to end in a cliff edge. From the sound of it, the river carries on to a waterfall, so following that instead of the path probably won't help much either. Looks like I'll have to go back to the ford.

The foul water doesn't harm me. Nor does the Granochin which emerges from the deeper water alongside the ford to attack me. Even after fighting it (and studying the illustration), I'm not entirely sure what a Granochin is, but I'm fairly confident that the eyeball set into the tip of its tongue is a bad idea.

It’s getting dark. No matter what Otus’ travel time, by now he should be at the rendezvous point with the Princess’s remains, wondering why I’m not around to appreciate his master’s ‘joke’. Still, now that the passage of time has been rendered completely meaningless, I need have no qualms about making camp for the night.

In the morning I have a choice of directions. South should take me to where the river bends, and subsequently to the waterfall I heard. Before heading west, I’ll see if there’s anything of note to the north on this side of the river.

I pass through a valley, and get the patently erroneous impression that I’ve been here before. This déjà vu is combined with a feeling of dread at what lies ahead, and I’m not going to trust that any more than I do the sense of familiarity, so I keep going. Before long I start to notice bones scattered around the slopes. Mostly from animals, but some from humanoids. And to make it easier to figure out which bones come from which kind of creature, the skeletons start reassembling themselves. Wait, that’s not good!

There’s a ruined farmhouse at the end of the valley, but I don’t think it’ll offer much shelter from the gathering skeletal horde, even if I could successfully run the bony gauntlet. Better to wait and see if the skeletons want something other than my demise. The book suggests that I give them something, and lists an assortment of items, some of them more obviously daft than others. Will offering my sword be taken as indicating that I lack the sort of prejudice against the post-mortem community that is so widespread in this world? As it turns out, yes. Or, at least, it convinces the skeletons that I’m not the sort of person to perpetrate the kind of atrocity that’s responsible for their condition, so they stop moving and allow me to go back the way I came. As long as there’s nothing essential in the farmhouse, I’ve handled that about as well as can be expected. And I think the skeletons let me keep my sword. At any rate, there’s nothing about a Skill penalty for being unarmed.

My wanderings bring me to a well with a bench next to it. Stopping for a drink is probably a bad idea, and this doesn’t appear to be one of those wells you can climb down into to get treasure. There’d be more links here if I’d already played a couple of other gamebooks I own. Or taken a different route through The Forest of Doom at one point.

Passing by the well, I continue until I reach more of the cliff edge created by that landslide, which must have been a real doozy, as the direction from which I hear that waterfall indicates that I’m on the far side of it from where I was when I heard it yesterday. I stroll west along the cliff edge, and a bird of prey known as a Pterolin attacks me. It joins the ‘dies without inflicting a wound on me’ club.

One of the items I bought in Arion market was a rope. I can use it to climb down to the Pterolin’s nest in search of treasure. Like maybe the key I know to be somewhere in this book, because not having found it got me killed at least twice before now. The first thing I find when I reach the nest is a tunnel leading into the cliff behind it. A bit of a quandary, that. Do I enter the tunnel first and risk it leading me to somewhere that denies me the opportunity to search the nest, or do I look in the nest first and risk getting knocked to my death if something bursts from the tunnel to attack me like a rock-dwelling Granochin?

Nest first. No key, but I do find a whistle inscribed with a number and the words ‘Follow me’. Blowing it attracts the Pterolin’s larger and more aggressive mate. Do I take refuge in the tunnel (and hope there’s nothing in there) or fight in this somewhat precarious position? I risk fighting, and despite Mr. Waterfield’s attempts at making the encounter more intimidating with the colour text, the bigger, badder Pterolin causes me no more hassle than its deceased partner.

The fact that the section number for exploring the tunnel is the same as the number for fleeing into it makes me a little wary, but I check it out anyway. And find it blocked by the web of a Giant Spider. On one level, I like that so many of the opponents in this book aren’t beyond the capabilities of someone who rolled a rubbish Skill score. But when the text keeps trying to make out that a Skill 7 (or lower) opponent looks set to be more than a match for me, it starts getting a bit ridiculous. I’ve already double-checked the rules once to make sure I didn’t miss something about Skill being something other than the standard 1d6+6.

Cutting through the late Spider’s web somehow causes the roof to cave in behind me, so I was right about there being no turning back. The book explicitly tells me to cross off the rope I left dangling down to the ledge with the nest on, which backs up my theory that the skeletons let me retain my sword.

Further in is the only option. The tunnel becomes smaller, first forcing me to wriggle on my stomach, and then making it necessary to take off my backpack. Do I push it ahead of me, or drag it behind me? It shouldn’t be possible for anything to sneak up behind me, so I think the risk of losing everything else should be reduced if I drag the pack behind me.

Not having chosen the shield as my reward for facilitating the arrest of those 'plumbers', I get a fireball in the face. A relatively small one, that does significantly less than fatal damage, but still an unpleasant surprise. I hope to be able to make the wizard responsible regret his actions very soon.

The tunnel ends in a cavern containing a pool of lava, which occasionally spits fireballs in a random direction. Not a wizard, then. And I don't think I can fight lava (unless it forms into an anthropomorphic being - stranger things have happened in gamebooks). My priority is getting to the exit on the far side of the cavern before the heat and fumes overwhelm me. A slightly unconventional roll of the dice determines how this goes - as well as the total, I need to note the individual numbers rolled and the order in which they came. I do hope Mr. Waterfield hasn't been picking up bad habits from Luke Sharp.

There are two possible outcomes based on the total, one of them not insignificantly more likely than the other. My rolls fall within the less likely range, which may not be a bad thing, given that one of Mr. Waterfield's earlier books has just a 1 in 6 chance of acquiring one vital item.

It is a bad thing. A 'black out and topple into the lava'-level bad thing. A pity, because I was actually enjoying the book more than I'd expected to. Then again, I didn't get as far as the 'randomly pick a section number from these options' bit that soured me on the book on my third (and, to date, joint most successful) attempt at it, so maybe if I had got further, I'd have wound up in a mood to drop Deathmoor into a propinquitous well.

Wednesday, 17 February 2016

I Didn't Wanna Be This Late

When describing how I first acquired a copy of Spellbreaker, I mentioned that I bought another FF book at the same time. That book was Deathmoor, Robin Waterfield's fourth and final contribution to the series. While its 'rescue the Princess' plot was never going to win many prizes for originality, the relatively small stakes involved made it look like a refreshing change from the likes of 'save the world again', 'save the world yet again', 'save the world once more' and 'look, stop me if you've heard this one before, but the world needs saving, and you appear to be the best candidate for the job'. Plus, the fact that the quest had already been given to someone else looked as if it could be an inventive twist. Okay, those of you who know Deathmoor can stop laughing now.

My first attempt at the book proved one of my more rapid failures: having slightly skim-read the Background section, I'd failed to pick up on the indication that taking matters into my own hands the wrong way would result in the decapitation of the Princess. In view of discoveries made on a subsequent attempt at the book, the potentially world-threatening implications (sigh!) of acceding to the kidnappers' demands could be seen as making her death a better outcome than most. But that would have been scant consolation to her or her parents, not to mention making for even more unimpressive an adventure than the one that is to be had by making the right decisions.

So, a Princess has been kidnapped. More specifically, Princess Telessa of Arion, who may be related to the hero of one of Robin Waterfield's previous FF books, and has the same name as the sword wielded by the hero of another. Upon learning of what had happened, her parents summoned an assortment of adventurers. Regrettably, I was overseas (in the islands where a couple of non-Waterfield-authored books were set) at the time, and a less-than-smooth crossing delayed my arrival long enough for the increasingly desperate King to award the quest to the unscrupulous adventurer Fang-zen of Jitar, with whom I have evidently had the odd run-in before now.

Apparently Fang-zen was the best available candidate at the time. He's not as good as I am (one of the book's neater gimmicks ensures this), but could still have reasonably impressive stats, as mine are:
Skill 11
Stamina 16
Luck 11
I would have allocated dice, but that's how they fell in any case.

Still, the relative competence of our characters is irrelevant right now, as Fang-zen has the King's letter to the kidnappers, and without that, I can do nothing to help Telessa. Depressed, I wind up in a seedy dockside bar, overhearing fragmentary dialogue, some of which will turn out to be relevant to the adventure.

Seeking a better seat, I spot several other adventurers, most of them drowning their sorrows after losing out to Fang-zen. He’s there too, celebrating having got the quest, so I quietly intimidate one of his cronies into vacating a chair. Catching sight of me, Fang-zen taunts me with sub-playground insults, and my attempts at witty riposte are equally pathetic. It’s almost painful to read such appalling dialogue, and there’s really no reason why the mockery needs to be so feeble. I know the book was brought out by a children’s publisher, but so was Talisman of Death, which includes some serious rudeness without stooping to ‘adult’ language (if you own a copy, see section 11 for a particularly blistering example).

Fang-zen is thin-skinned enough that even my insipid invective is enough to provoke him. I then challenge him to a game of pinfinger, which he accepts. Once we get started, I try to psych him out by looking him in the eye rather than concentrating on the blade that I’m rapidly jabbing into the gaps between my splayed fingers. I only just make the Skill roll that determines the outcome of the game, but ‘only just’ is good enough, and I remain uninjured while Fang-zen blunders and stabs himself in the hand. I ask for my winnings, and he admits to having no money. There’s not much behaviour that could offend his associates, but failing to cover a bet will do it, and the only way he can avoid a serious beating from his friends is to give me the King’s letter.

Now that the quest is mine, I head for the exit, the impressed crowd parting to let me through. The barman beckons to me, and I go to see what he has to say, thereby hearing the important bit of his parting words to the man with whom he had been conversing. He demands compensation for the damage done to his tabletop by our game, and I tell him he can stick his furniture bill up his nose (or some equally unimpressive put-down).

There are other useful or essential items to be found in Arion, but staying any longer automatically means seeking out another pub on the grounds that 'you may as well carry on drinking, now that you've started!' Makes a bit of a change from the warnings to drink responsibly that appear on almost everything alcohol-related these days.

There are two more establishments nearby, 'The Bushel' and 'Elfbane Bar', and if I don't go to the right one, I'll miss out on something important. The last time I wrote up an attempt at this book, I chose poorly, but didn’t leave myself or other readers any clues as to where I should have gone. Mind you, that is in keeping with the tone of this part of Deathmoor, which instructs anyone who didn’t get the letter to give up, thereby denying them the opportunity to use their sure-to-fail character to explore and get some hints of what to do and what not to do during future attempts at the book.

The pub I choose this time has an entry fee. I don't remember having to pay last time, so either my memory's letting me down, or I'm on the right track today. I pay up and go in, and yes, this is where I need to be. Among the patrons of this bar are a couple of dodgy characters out on the town with their girlfriends and half-troll bodyguards, and clearly displeased that the City Guard have some questions for them. The one called Oiram states that they're plumbers, not criminals, and his associate Igiul (read their names backwards for a pointless in-joke) backs him up, and states that they can't be anything to do with the murder under investigation, as they've been here all night.

Not yet having killed anyone in this adventure, I'm confident that the murder is nothing to do with me, so I ask one of the guards what's afoot. He explains that a business rival of the 'plumbers' was fatally trampled by a horse, and the only clue to the identity of whoever was responsible for the trampling is part of a torn handkerchief in the dead man's hand. I must now suggest the name of a suspect, regardless of whether or not I have the faintest idea of who could be to blame. The book provides half a dozen names from which to pick, the red herrings including the name of the bar across the road, a planet from a 1960's Doctor Who story, and Dangermouse's assistant.

Now, while there is a torn hanky to be seen in one of the illustrations in this book, it's not at all obvious that that's what the item depicted is. Consequently, the clue's really only likely to be of any use to a reader who learned of the crime on a previous attempt at the book, and is on the look-out for anything that might be the remnants of a handkerchief. The first time I got this far, I was only able to point the guard to the right person because, having had to piece the character's name together from two separate snatches of overheard dialogue, I figured there must be a reason it was only possible to find out the man’s name in that manner.

The man I name is known to the City Guard, and often does work for the ‘plumbers’, so the guard thinks I may be on to something (which makes me wonder why the guards never thought to suspect him on their own). The guard tells me to come to his office tomorrow to see if my tip has led to an arrest.

After that I can go to the other pub (wonder if that’s still an option for anyone who accused it of being the killer) or call it a night. Might as well check it out. I don’t think there’s anything vital to be gained there, but there is something potentially useful.

Some geese fly overhead as I approach the bar. Not an incidental detail I remember leading to anything, but I’m mentioning it in case that overheard-in-bits name isn’t the only not-so-throw-away trivia in the book. The landlord of this other place is a taciturn chap, not even speaking as he uses a broom to expel an old woman who enters seeking buyers for her ‘lucky heather’. As I recall, the best way of getting good fortune at this juncture is to ignore the woman and make use of the tavern’s gambling facilities. Yes, I automatically win here, and need only use a die to determine how much money I gain. Not enough to be in danger of having any thugs come after me in search of a handout, on this occasion.

Returning to my boat, I settle down for the night, but have my rest disturbed by a couple of visitors. Back before the start of this adventure, when I was overseas, I was diving for pearls, and I got one before receiving the message that my services were required here. Only it turns out that that pearl was sacred to the Pelagines, an amphibious species native to that part of the world, and a couple of them have swum after me to retrieve it and poke a number of holes in me with their tridents. Their scaly hides reduce the damage I can inflict while defending myself from them, but I still prevail.

In the morning I call in at the guardsman's office, and he tells me that the resident torturer elicited a confession from the man I suggested might have committed that murder, so I can have a reward: gold, a shield, or a Truthstone. I choose the Truthstone, which can be used to compel one intelligent being to tell the truth. And the guards chose to use a torturer rather than a Truthstone to get that confession because...? I'd love it if, the next time Fighting Fantazine features a mini-adventure set on this continent, one of the illustrations could include a tattered 'Free the Arion Three' poster pinned up somewhere in the background.

Next I head to the market, where I spend around three quarters of my money (the text advises me to retain a bit) on items that may be useful or just random clutter. Then I stroll down to the docks for a good gossip. It's almost time for the fishermen to set sail, but I can ask them one question before they leave. Most of the questions I have the option of asking seem tangential to my mission at best, so I go with the one that could be relevant: do they know anything about the kidnapping? Heck, asking some random stranger appeared to work out for that guard last night, so...

One of the fishermen advises me to see Baron den Snau (whose name I also overheard at the first pub last night), as he tends to be involved in any evil shenanigans afoot in this part of the world. I wonder if that includes the murder I helped 'solve'. Regardless, I obtain directions to the Baron's mansion, and then wait until near sundown before heading off to see if he is able to shed any light on the matter. Along the way I encounter a pack of Gutterlags, scavengers that usually seek their food in the town's sewers, but which aren't averse to attacking live prey if they outnumber it sufficiently. The ratio of Gutterlags to adventurers-en-route-to-the-Baron's is more than enough to embolden them, but I manage not to take lethal damage while changing the ratio in my favour.

The mansion has a high wall around it. Trying to sneak in may be unwise: villains with poor security systems tend not to last long enough to gain the sort of notoriety that the Baron has. Instead, I go straight to the front gate. The porter, who may be an Orc, asks if I have an appointment. Rather than risk getting caught in a lie, I offer him gold to let me in, and he accepts. Given the way things were priced at the market, and the warning not to spend everything, it is unlikely that a player would not have the amount specified for the bribe, but it is still possible, so the lack of any 'if you don't have that much money' option is a bit careless.

Now I'm in the grounds, sneaking is probably not so inadvisable, so I take a side path rather than heading straight for the front door. It leads to a shrubbery that appears to be occupied by something large, so I change my mind and backtrack. For once I manage not to attract any attention while doing so, and get to enter the mansion unnoticed. Nevertheless, the Baron is there, waiting for me on a flight of stairs. Maybe the gatekeeper somehow alerted him to my arrival.

The Baron asks what I want, and my reply suggests that the dialogue in the opening sequence of The Prisoner (original version, not the regrettable remake) is such a powerful meme that it can even influence people in realities where the show was never broadcast. On a reckless whim, I charge up the stairs at the Baron, and a lucky roll ensures that I leap over the booby-trapped step. Having expected to see me fall victim to the trap I inadvertently avoided, the Baron has done nothing to protect himself, and I wind up accidentally headbutting him in the stomach. He leaps to the floor below, drawing a sword, and I do likewise.

This fight is what killed me on my previous attempt at Deathmoor: the Baron's sword is poisoned, and if he hits me twice, I'm doomed. Despite having a higher Skill than last time, I cannot bank on a more favourable outcome, as the Baron's Skill is identical to that of the Pelagine that inflicted two wounds on me yesterday. Nor does my already having hurt him slightly help, as the Stamina loss he suffered is too low to reduce the number of rounds I must win to defeat him. Still, I do better in this fight, mortally wounding him before he can land a single blow.

I could leave without interrogating the dying Baron, but that would render this whole excursion a waste of time. Still, I'm not sure that this is the best occasion on which to use the Truthstone. Kicking the Baron's sword out of reach, I ask him what he knows about the kidnapping, and he admits to having arranged it for Arachnos, who now holds the Princess beneath Deathmoor. The Baron adds that he's glad to have told me this, because he's certain that going there will get me killed. Then, just in case he's wrong, he uses his dying breath to summon a big flock of giant vampire bats.

Recognising that this is one fight I'm not likely to win, I beat a hurried retreat. The gate is locked, but the porter isn't yet aware that he's joining the ranks of the unemployed, and while he dawdles over letting me out, he does so merely because I appear to be in a hurry.

As I head away, I reflect on the Baron's revelations. I know of Arachnos. The text makes out that he's smarter than most villains, but it doesn't really take a Moriarty to come up with a plan of action like his, which pretty much boils down to:
  1. Carry out evil money-making scheme.
  2. Use money to fund new evil money-making scheme.
  3. Repeat steps 1 & 2 until WORLD DOMINATION!!!!!
Still, I've achieved all that I can in Arion, so it's time to take the King's letter west until I am contacted by Arachnos' agents. And this seems like a good point at which to pause the narrative and conclude this post. If things go well enough (or badly enough, in-game), I might be able to post the next instalment before the end of the week. If not, I will at least try to get it done this month.

Monday, 15 February 2016

The Sickness of the Abbey

After a significantly longer wait than followed my most memorable failed attempt at Lone Wolf book 8, I’m having another go at it. The background is, naturally, the same as it was last time, and I don’t see any reason to change my decision as regards my new Discipline, Weapon Proficiency, or equipment. Though I will put an extra 10 Gold Crowns into storage at the Kai monastery, to free up some space in my pouch for local currency.

Not that I’m certain of acquiring any cash on my travels this time, since I’ve decided not to travel by barge, as has previously been my custom when playing The Jungle of Horrors, so as to avoid having the early part of this playthrough (and possibly the whole of it, if I don’t get better numbers when fighting that pesky Helghast) turn out more or less identical to the previous post on this book.

Thus, after Lord Adamas parts company from Paido and me, I opt to travel to Tharro by the Great North Road. Initially the journey is uneventful, and by noon we’ve covered half the distance to our destination. However, the weather takes a turn for the worse, and torrential rain drenches us and our horses. As is all too often the case with the Mongoose Publishing reissues, the prose also takes a turn for the worse, spelling things out that bit more blatantly for the benefit of the slow-witted individuals whom Joe Dever seems to believe make up a substantial amount of his fan base.

Not far away are two potential shelters from the downpour: an inn and a mill. The inn being the more obvious choice, I decide to check out the mill instead. It appears deserted when we peer through a window, but when Paido ascends a rickety staircase to a platform jutting from the mill wall, he comes to an abrupt halt and puts his hands up. The Mongoose text helpfully points out that he looks as if he's surrendering, lest I assume that he's chosen to start playing charades at a woefully inappropriate moment, and adds that I sense danger, no doubt to keep me from making the all-too-common error of thinking that he's surrendering to something completely benign and unthreatening.

I don't have the Discipline of Invisibility (and have no intention of getting it before at least book 10), so sneaking up on whoever has ambushed Paido isn't an option. All I can do is watch as the spear-wielding individual who surprised Paido demands an explanation for his trespassing, and is answered with an unexpectedly loud yell that blasts him through the platform's parapet and onto a convenient compost heap. Paido explains to me that he used a Vakeros power-word, a special ability I am slightly peeved to note was not available to me when playing the character of Paido in the mini-adventure accompanying the Mongoose edition of Jungle.

We can search the mill or continue on our way through the filthy weather. The behaviour of the man with the spear suggests that there might be something dodgy going on here, so I think we'd better investigate. But the mill turns out not to be in use by some criminal gang, dodgy cult or other such dubious group - it's just being used to grind corn and house the man who threatened Paido. I wonder what could be going on in the region to have prompted such a hostile reaction from the miller. Not that he's going to be any more hospitable in future, as I do slightly borrow the map of Tharro that he has in his room (though I let him keep his food and axe).

Now we have to resume our rain-drenched trudge north. The road descends into a valley, in which a track leads east. A signpost indicates that it leads to Topham, a place too insignificant to appear on the map in the front of the book. Despite more of the mildly insulting over-clarification, the Mongoose text is better here, because it fixes a pretty serious error in the original version: one of the choices given at the end of the section has been duplicated from another section on the same page, so rather than having the option of ignoring the side turning and continuing north, I must either go east or help Paido fight off the attackers who won't actually be bothering him until the end of this adventure.

Still, the fact that I can now see where to turn if I don't want to take the detour is not in itself sufficient incentive to keep me from investigating the dangers and/or treasures that might be found in Topham. The track leads us to a few cottages and an abbey, and we get there just in time to see a group of brown-robed monks lowering a coffin into one of several freshly-dug graves. Divination alerts me to the fact that they are communicating telepathically in a language I don't understand, and that our presence makes them uneasy. The Mongoose text also points out that, while the monks of this region are notorious gluttons, the group here are all looking distinctly malnourished.

Curious, I stop to pay my respects to the deceased, and the monks throw back their hoods to reveal skeletal features. By which I don't mean 'even more seriously underfed than I'd realised', but 'undead monstrosities'. More specifically, the type known as Vordaks, with which I've had bother before now. They make a sound that panics our horses, which inflicts a Combat Skill penalty owing to my lack of Animal Control. I could use Psi-surge against them to more than make up for that penalty, but I think I have enough of an edge on them anyway. And a quick comparison of columns on the Combat Results Table reveals that using Psi-surge would have ended the fight slightly more quickly, but the Endurance cost for doing so would have left me in worse health despite my being hit fewer times.

In the abbey, Paido and I find the corpses of the real monks. Paido doesn’t understand what interest the Darklords could have in the Abbey, so I explain their preference for sending infiltrators into lands they intend to invade, and speculate that the fighting elsewhere which deprived us of our escort to Tharro may have been instigated by the Darklords.

While burying the monks, I find a Lodestone, which the text insists that I take, even if doing so forces me to discard a Special Item. I’ve put enough probably-not-going-to-be-needed-again clutter into storage at the Kai monastery that I do still have carrying capacity, but only just. I would not have been happy if I’d had to ditch something useful just to provide Mr. Dever with a means of discreetly confirming my awareness of the massacre at Topham Abbey. Oh, well, at least I’ll have something to use as a paperweight when I’m allowed to leave behind the Pass I was forced to carry back at the start of the book.

Continuing along the trail, we eventually reach the River Phoen. There's one house here, a noticeboard identifying it as the Ferry House. The book only offers a choice between waiting for a barge and investigating the Ferry House. Having already made up my mind not to travel on the river this time, I'm not that keen on either option, but I'll go for the Ferry House. Even if checking it out only provides a brief interlude before I get forced to wait for the barge anyway, it'll provide an extra section or two for Healing. Unless it, too, has been taken over by undead minions of the Darklords...

No, the hideous monstrosity that confronts me after I knock on the door is just an old woman with poor personal hygiene. Considering some of the bizarre creatures I've encountered in the course of my adventures, it's a bit much that the book has me scarcely able to believe that the decrepit figure before me is actually alive. She asks me what I want, and the book asks if I've met a character named Jako. He must either have been in the inn I avoided or someone I'd have encountered if I hadn't stopped off at the Abbey.

Not having a good in-game reason for having knocked on the door, I dither, and the crone asks if I'm here to find out about the ferry or to see her daughter the Prophetess. The Prophetess sounds more interesting, but the price of a consultation is prohibitive. Affordable, but higher than I'm willing to pay. Especially as, while whatever she may have to say will probably be true, I'm not sure it'll be all that helpful. I'd happily cough up the necessary if I thought she'd tell Paido, "Don't eat the stew," and he'd heed her warning, and thus be on hand to help me fight the Helghast, but odds are that her words will be some pseudo-mystical riddle that only makes sense in retrospect. So thanks, but no thanks.

For the sake of another point of Healing, I also ask about the barge, which costs just half the price of a consultation with the Prophetess. If I were thinking about taking it, I'd want to know if that's the cost for the two of us or per person.

Slightly carelessly, both sections covering asking the old woman a question give the option of asking the other question without specifying 'if you have not already asked'. The loophole-exploiting sort of player could thus keep alternating between the two questions until Healing restored all the damage taken in that fight.

Still some way short of full health, I wait by the river for an hour. The ferry arrives, and I learn that the price the woman gave me was per person. But if I were going to get on the boat, Paido would pay his way. The book does give me the option of not boarding the barge even if I can afford it, but doesn't explain why we spent all that time waiting for a ferry we had no intention of catching. Funnily enough, in the very next section, Paido points out that we ought to get a move on, as we want to reach Tharro before nightfall.

As we head back along the track, the book asks if I have a Lodestone. Acknowledging that I do have the blasted thing leads to my being informed that our horses become agitated as we near the abbey, forcing us to make a detour. I wonder what would have happened if the answer had been no. An ambush by the undead infiltrators?

Anyway, we get back to the Great North Road, which eventually brings us to another village that's not on the map. An old man in rusty armour blocks our way and demands that we pay a toll. Paido gets argumentative, and the old man indicates a placard, faded to illegibility, but with the Queen's seal still just visible, as proof of his authorisation. I show my Pass to prove that we're on royal business, but the man is too short-sighted to be able to read it, and proclaims it a forgery. He does hand it back, though, so I don't get to cross it off my inventory just yet.

Paido insults the man, and his yelling attracts the attention of a dozen villagers armed with farming implements. Before the situation can deteriorate further (incidentally, I've not been able to make a decision and influence the course of events since we passed up the second chance of going on the ferry), the old man offers a compromise: if we can solve his riddle, we can go. If not, we have to pay the toll. I'm confident enough in my riddling skills to accept his terms. And the riddle... I correctly solved the variant of it that appears in Deathtrap Dungeon on my first attempt, back when I was around half my current age. This version is no trouble.

Both publishers of this book were a bit careless with the art here, as their illustrations of the old man show no sign of the droopy moustache clearly mentioned in the text. And yes, the Mongoose edition does have another of those irritatingly pointless 'this is the section corresponding to the right answer to the puzzle you just solved' interjections. Still, Paido and I are at least allowed to resume our journey without further hassle.

At last we reach Tharro, and the text asks if I still have the Pass. Presumably it must be possible to lose the thing in the encounter with the old man. Hmm, wonder if it's possible to lose any other Special Item there. Like that blasted Lodestone. Or the Sommerswerd! Imagine that - Lone Wolf, multiple-times saviour of civilisation, forced to surrender the greatest magic sword in all the world to a crusty old codger for failing to work out the weight of a brick. I'd say that the books would never allow something that ludicrous to happen, but then I remember a certain Instant Death from later in the series. And the fact that it's technically possible (though almost as unlikely as winning Crypt of the Sorcerer by the rules) to be killed with a cabbage in book 18.

I do have the option of refusing to show the guard my Pass, but having been forced to use one of my inventory slots for the thing, I'm going to get what use I can out of it. Upon seeing Lord Adamas' seal, the guard salutes and lets us through (and in the Mongoose text I return his salute). Only two roads lead from this entrance into the town: Copperpiece Lane and Hog-Foot Run. The latter sounds more interesting.

At this late hour, most of the shops are closing, but we do encounter one which is open for business. It sells magical paraphernalia, and I decide to have a browse. My Kai abilities inform me that most of the items in stock are fakes, but there is a ring which radiates magical energy. It costs more than the ferry from Topham, but not as much as a meeting with the Prophetess. On the downside, I have no idea what it actually does, and it's probably a Special Item, which would take up my last free slot until such time as I can ditch the Pass and/or Lodestone. Best to leave it, I think. But spending a section looking in the shop has enabled Healing to finish bringing me back to full health.

Not before time, either: leaving the shop and continuing along the road brings us to the square outside the Temple of the Sword. On this occasion I do have a map of Tharro, which informs me that the nearby watchtower is called Shieldwarden Tower. Paido tells me that the Shieldwarden is the commanding officer of the town garrison. Anyone think that calling on the Shieldwarden will enable me to bypass the potentially lethal shenanigans in the Temple? No, me neither. And just in case whatever contrivance would force me back to the Temple involves Endurance loss, I shan't even try to visit the tower.

So, as before, we enter the Temple. I refuse the stew, but Paido eats (clearly having learned nothing from the incident at Topham). The black-robed monk reveals himself to be a Helghast, and I take the Combat Skill-boosting Alether before attacking. Do I risk using Psi-surge? Despite what happened last time, yes.

It wasn't worth it. I win the fight, but if I hadn't used Psi-surge, I'd have won just as quickly, and lost less Endurance in the process. Still, the important thing is that this time I'm the one who's not dead at the end of the fight.

The Helghast’s corpse dissolves, but the sound of running feet from beyond the refectory door indicates that there’s more trouble on the way. The only alternate exit is the hatch into the kitchen, so I bundle Paido through it. Before I can follow him, the door bursts open and a mob of angry monks bursts into the room. Not keen on another fight in my condition, and doubtful that firing my bow will help much, I scramble through the hatch.

Upon finding the smouldering remnants of the Helghast’s robe, the monks start shouting about murder, suggesting that the infiltration of the Temple was not yet complete. The Helghast can’t have been the only Darklord agent here, but this lot seem unaware of the evil that was lurking in their midst. Not that now would be a good time to try and enlighten them, so I just carry on fleeing. One of the monks gets close enough to jab a sword into my leg before I’m completely through the hatch, but only does minor damage.

The kitchen is unoccupied. As I carry Paido towards the door at the far end, I spot a vial of liquid beside a cauldron of stew, and the text has me pocket it. That’s another Special Item, so if I’d bought that ring, I would now be forced to get rid of it (or something more important) just so that I can confirm that the poison with which Paido was poisoned is poisonous. Well, the good mood inspired by my winning the tough fight didn’t last long.

Beyond the door, a corridor leads to another door and a flight of stairs. Divination informs me that an aura of good emanates from the top of the stairs, suggesting that it leads to a place of worship, but gives no indication of whether or not there’s anyone in there. I decide to go in, as the monks are probably all busy searching for me. And they might just think that someone as evil as they assume me to be would be incapable of entering somewhere with such an aura of good.

Well, the prayer hall to which the stairs lead is deserted. Taking a closer look at that vial, I discover its contents, which have the same appearance and consistency as the poison that the assassin back in book 2 tried to use on me, are, in fact, the same kind of poison. Now there's a shocking twist! If I don't want Paido to die, I’m going to have to come up with a cure, and soon. But there is a more immediate concern: the sound of running feet and growling dogs from downstairs. So much for the monks not suspecting I’d take refuge here.

The hall has another door, but it’s bolted on the other side. I still don’t have Invisibility, so I must either find a hiding place or confront my pursuers. My Endurance is still a bit low for a fight, and trying to hide in a pew seems like a bad idea (all the more so in the Mongoose text, where a typo implies that there’s just one pew). The pulpit won’t be much better, but it should at least be a bit more easily defensible if there’s no way of avoiding a fight.

As it turns out, the defensibility of the pulpit turns out to be less of a concern than expected. By an amazing coincidence, when I put Paido down, his tunic catches on a concealed lever which activates a lift that takes us down to a secret room below the hall, then returns to its normal position before the pursuing monks can learn of the existence of this convenient bolt-hole.

Paido is now comatose, and Healing alone won't save him. Not yet having upgraded to Curing, the only way I can prevent the poison from killing him is by feeding him the healing potion I've been carrying since the start of the adventure. It takes several hours to do this, as I have to do it very gradually in order to be sure not to choke him, and dawn is breaking by the time I'm certain that Paido will live.

When he regains consciousness, he is amazed to learn that the Temple has been infiltrated by Darklord agents. I can only assume that the poison has somehow destroyed his memory of what happened at Topham Abbey. There isn’t even an ‘If you have a Lodestone’ option that would enable me to remind him of the incident (so why am I still having to lug the blasted thing around?).

A passage leads away from the secret room, so we head along it. It twists and turns, eventually leading to a door that opens at the press of a button. The hexagonal chamber beyond is decorated with tapestries depicting grotesque creatures, and contains several plinths, each supporting a bowl of silver liquid. As we enter the chamber, one of the bowls emits a humming noise. Its contents glow, illuminating the domed ceiling, and a hideous, vaguely giant fly-faced image appears, addressing us in an unfamiliar language, of which the only word that makes any sense to me is ‘Gnaag’, the name of the new Darklord ruler. Then the monstrosity recognises that I’m not a Helghast, but Lone Wolf, and with a roar of anger, Gnaag terminates the sorcerous videoconference before I can make some kind of pun about having killed his Helghast.

A quick search of the chamber turns up two Meals’ worth of food (does that mean that Magnamund’s undead derive their sustenance from the same sources as the living?) and a couple of weapons. The sword is of no use to me, but I take arrows to replace the ones I used just before the Helghast shed its disguise. We also find a lever which opens yet another concealed door, this one leading to a descending staircase. Paido urges me to leave, and after knocking over the bowl through which Gnaag communicated, I head down the stairs.

At the bottom is a warren of catacombs, but my Kai abilities help me identify the way out, and we exit via a trapdoor in the ceiling. It leads into a courtyard encircled by trees, which provide enough cover for Paido and me to avoid being spotted by the two monks that are also present. Those monks enter a nearby building, soon after emerging on the backs of our horses and riding away. Pests! Wish I’d left the Lodestone in a saddlebag.

We sneak into the stables to see if there are any other horses in there. There are, and in just as good shape as the ones those monks took. I guess the monks were tempted by the novelty value of new-to-them horses. I saddle up a couple of black stallions while Paido keeps watch, and he warns me that more monks are headed our way. We quickly get onto the horses and ride out, startling the approaching monks. One of them throws his sword at me, but a combination of Huntmastery and Divination enables me to dodge this potentially lethal missile with ease.

It’s early enough that the streets are still pretty empty, so there’s nothing to delay our escape until we reach the town’s north gate. The guards on it have been on duty all night, and don’t appreciate our being in such a hurry, but they let us through with just a little grumbling.

We ride on towards Syada, the last town before the eponymous jungle. By midday the terrain has changed from grassland to an uneven rocky plain, and we draw near to an abandoned mine. Or is it abandoned? I spot a face in the window of a stone cabin by the entrance. I’m not going to investigate, though, because doing so could lead to unnecessary combat, and Healing hasn’t yet taken care of all the damage I sustained in the fight. Besides, I might end up compelled to take some useless piece of mining equipment with me.

The road leads to a ridge. Before ascending, we stop to let the horses drink at a handy stream, and have something to eat. Continuing to the top of the ridge, we encounter one of the 'You see something that horrifies you, but must turn to another section to find out what it is' transitions so beloved of Joe Dever. On this occasion, the appalling sight turns out to be Syada. In flames. With the invading army swarming the hills to the north, and a vast crowd of refugees heading along the road towards us. Though in the Mongoose edition, the really appalling sight is the accompanying illustration: perspective has been botched to the extent that the soldier on horseback warning us to turn back must either be a giant or levitating.

Peculiarly, the text stresses the impossibility of continuing east along the road. We were heading north-west along it anyway. But now we'll either have to leave the road and head west towards the Danarg via the Mordril Forest or turn back. Let me think... take a more uneven route towards where I need to go, or head back to the town where those gormless monks have probably had enough time to get our faces on wanted posters for murder, horse theft and spilling arcane substances on the carpet. Perhaps I should check the map before deciding, as Mr. Dever advises.

We head west, before long running alongside a stream. The invading army sounds as if it's less than 20 miles away. Eventually we approach the edge of the forest, which Paido notes is gradually succumbing to the baleful influence of the Danarg swamp. Crossing a brook, I spot fresh tracks in the ground, but can't identify them because I don't have Pathsmanship. Doubtless we'll run into whatever made them before long. Yep, after a while, the track we're following leads to a pool at the foot of a waterfall, bridged by a fallen tree, and while we're crossing the 'bridge', something gets on it at the other side and starts heading towards us. Another suspense-enhancing section transition delays the revelation of precisely what is advancing, but I'm pretty sure it's not Little John.

The approaching creature turns out to be a rather hideous hybrid of lizard and mammal, and it looks as if every species that's ever contributed DNA to its lineage was a carnivore.
Imagine this crossbred with a grizzly bear, an ogre, and Jean-Claude van Damme.
Or don't, if you want any sleep tonight.

Will firing an arrow at it help? Probably not (unless I were allowed to smear the head with some of the poison I was forced to collect from the kitchen), but I'll give it a go anyway. And it's a tricky shot, which is fair enough, as I'm firing from the back of a scared horse standing on a damp log, with Paido too close behind to make backing away an option. Unsurprisingly, I miss, and there's no time for a second shot, so I hurriedly draw the Sommerswerd as the beast draws near.

My horse gets so alarmed that I have to dismount. The stupid animal then blunders into Paido's steed, and both stallions overbalance and plunge into the maelstrom below. Paido leaps from the saddle and manages to grab onto the side of the tree, but he doesn't have a good handhold, and I can't help him up until I've dealt with the attacking monster, now identified as an Anapheg. At least it has a low Combat Skill. In fact, even if I get the worst possible number every single round of this fight, I'll still win. All that the random number generator will determine is how much damage I take in the course of killing the thing.

3 Endurance, if you were wondering. After a first round that went as badly as was possible, I managed to follow up with a killing blow. And I'm able to get to Paido and grab his arm just before he loses his grip. Mind you, there was no time limit on the fight, so I'd have saved him at the last moment whether I one-shotted the Anapheg or took three times as long to kill it as I actually did. Maybe Paido just has too much of a sense of the dramatic, and felt that he had to start falling at the moment that I reached him.

We resume our journey, and our surroundings become more oppressive. The text asks if I need either of a couple of substances I know to be heavy-duty healing potions, so I guess that somewhere along the way I avoided contracting some nasty infection. A bird with dark plumage watches us for a bit, and then flies away. That's a little ominous, as I remember a similar bird being the servant of a Vordak way back in book 1.

It's getting dark, so we stop for the night. Paido tosses a coin to determine who takes first watch. Divination tells me which way the coin has come down, so I deliberately choose wrongly, as Paido probably needs the rest more than I do. As it turns out, the night is uneventful. Apart from the moment when I spot something watching us. Whatever it is, it doesn't attack, but knowing it's out there makes it hard for me to sleep when it's my turn, so I'm bleary-eyed and grouchy by the time we have to resume our journey.

The ground becomes steeper. I remember being told that the Danarg is in the crater of an extinct volcano (is it really likely that a swamp could form in such a location?). By midday we've crossed the lip of the crater, and forest soon gives way to swamp. We wade through ankle-deep muck until we reach the edge of a deep, murky pool, which tell-tale signs indicate to be inhabited. I haven't acquired Pathsmanship since the last check, but I do know which direction tends to be the optimal one when making a blind choice in this series, so I skirt the pool to the south.

Well, nothing bad happens, and after a bit we reach a spur of volcanic rock that acts as a causeway, giving us solid ground underfoot. The spur splits, giving a choice of continuing south or heading west. Having Nexus would be of help here, but I picked Psi-surge, didn't I? A peek at the rules reminds me that at the rank specified, Nexus provides protection from noxious gases, so I guess the atmosphere is going to get a bit unpleasant. Not that that gives any hint of the way I should go here. Still, I get the impression that the abandoned Temple we seek is in the middle of the Danarg, so west seems the better option.

Nothing bad happens. Maybe the bad air is only on the southern branch. After a bit, the spur slopes back down, and we have to start wading again. Something howls to the north, suggesting that I did choose the better direction to go around the pool. We have to stop and eat again, and while the text has said nothing about Huntmastery being ineffective as a means of acquiring food in this charming environment, I'll have a Meal from my Backpack anyway.

Further on we reach a more solid mound with a tree on it. I remember this part of the book well. The red fruits on the tree aren't fruit, and the pool of water it overhangs is not water. Or a pool. The tree is a tree, though, so it's okay for Paido to climb it to use a device that should help him get a bearing on the Temple. While he is thus occupied, I go nowhere near anything that's not what it seems.

Troubled, Paido climbs back down and announces that his device, which can detect a rare substance used in the manufacture of the Temple, found nothing. I climb up and have a go myself, with equal lack of success, but I spot a red island of volcanic rock to the north, and speculate that it could be blocking the device. I also remember from my previous attempt at this book that the mapmaker in Tharro claimed to have seen the Temple from a ‘scarlet tor’ that was almost certainly that very island (not that my character would have any way of knowing this, having missed the encounter with the mapmaker).

Paido thinks my theory about the island blocking the signal from the device is plausible. In any case, with no other indication of where the Temple could be, we might just as well head in that direction as any other. We make slow progress as the day wears on, and a Mongoose edit gets rid of a bit of daft hyperbole, making some fissures we pass deep rather than bottomless.

Suddenly a massive swamp python with envenomed fangs erupts from the muck underfoot. Lacking Animal Control, I must fight it, and my not having Curing means that it will do double damage. Still, its Combat Skill is almost as bad as the Anapheg’s, so the odds of it killing me are very low. And I do survive, though I lose as much Endurance as I did fighting the Helghast, largely on account of getting three 3s in a row at the start of the fight.

Other denizens of the swamp start to show an interest in us, but none of them try anything before we reach the island and clamber onto solid ground. A trail leads through the undergrowth, and Paido and I follow it to a thicket of trees containing a settlement of crudely-made huts. We catch sight of brutish creatures which Paido identifies as Ghagrim, the warped descendants of the people who inhabited the region before it became corrupted, and Paido urges me to leave quickly.

We have already been noticed, and though we flee, the Ghagrim are better adapted to the territory, and soon catch up with us. Now seems like a good time to use one of the Fireseeds I picked up before embarking on this adventure. Yes, the flames dazzle the Ghagrim, enabling us to vanish into the undergrowth. Probably only a temporary delay, but it enables us to reach a seemingly deserted track that skirts the settlement. We should make better time on the trail, and it’s heading in the right direction, so I stay on it, and we get to a rocky promontory on the north-western tip of the island without further incident. With no sign of any pursuers, we even manage to get a little rest before dawn.

By daylight we resume our search for the Temple, and I spot its spire even before Paido’s device pinpoints it. Howls indicate that the Ghagrim are back on our trail, so we climb back down to swamp level and carry on towards the Temple. Randomness determines that we encounter nothing unpleasant all morning, and when we stop for lunch, Paido is confident that we should reach the Temple before sundown. A little ominously, the text states that so far we’ve managed to avoid the swamp’s more hostile inhabitants. Okay, so the Anapheg wasn’t much bother, but that python was no pushover. If there’s anything worse in the vicinity, I’d rather not become acquainted with it.

We don’t. To my surprise, we make it to the Temple without any more trouble. Clearly the circumstances leading to the death that so exasperated me back in the nineties are not quite as I remembered, as the point at which I could have blundered into it appears to have passed unnoticed.

The Temple is a massive ziggurat, decorated with vast quantities of precious stones. The swamp has not tainted it in any way (though I imagine that might change once I take the Lorestone housed within it). We ascend a staircase of amber to a pair of doors, which Paido knows how to open, and are the first people to enter the Temple in seven millennia.

I am drawn to a crystal dais, on which I am bathed in golden light. The Lorestone appears in my hands, restoring me to full health (a whole three sections before Healing would have done so anyway). Paido tells me we should be on our way, and I am less than ecstatic at the thought of returning to the swamp. That won’t be necessary, though, as the Temple also houses an ancient but fully functional skyship.

We board the ship, Paido activates the hangar doors, and we’re on our way. Naturally, a quiet trip is too much to ask for. A hideous shriek heralds the attack of a squadron of Kraan (the winged beasts used by the Daklords’ troops) piloted by Vordaks armed with iron staves that spit blue fire. One of the Vordaks shoots, and the Sommerswerd’s ability to deflect magical attacks comes in handy for the umpteenth time.

Another two Vordaks drop down from their mounts onto the deck, and start attacking the skyship's superstructure, so I hurry over and make use of the Sommerswerd's ability to hack up undead. Unusually for a Lone Wolf book, these Vordaks have separate sets of stats rather than being treated as a single entity more powerful than a lone one of their kind (which is how the group of Vordaks at the Abbey were handled). One has a slightly higher Combat Skill than the other, but the difference isn't enough to make using Psi-surge against the superior Vordak worthwhile. I kill the first with one blow, taking no damage myself, and achieve an identical result against the second.

More Vordaks arrive, this lot concentrating on Paido. As I move to assist him, a Kraan dumps a load of black crystal cubes on the deck. Divination (which I can choose not to use in the Mongoose text, just in case I'd rather remain ignorant of impending peril) warns me that they are explosive devices, which could damage the ship badly enough to cause it to blow up. Getting rid of them takes precedence over assisting Paido, so I start grabbing cubes and slinging them overboard, to explode in the swamp below. The Mongoose text fixes a bit of sloppy grammar in this section, and also replaces 'collecting' with 'snatching up' when describing my actions. Given the number of items this book has compelled me to take and keep, I'm fine with that change of phrasing.

Returning my attention to Paido, I see that a Kraan-rider has dropped a barbed net on him. Only one of the Vordaks that had attacked him still stands, but with Paido immobilised by the net, he's at its mercy. I hurry towards him, but before I can get close enough to help, the Vordak has tied a rope dangling from the hovering Kraan to the net. I yell a battle-cry (misspelled in the original text), and the Vordak turns towards me, a terrified expression on its face. That surprises me, in part because the actions of the other Vordak boarders suggested that they had no qualms about giving their lives (unlives?) in the attempt to thwart us, but mainly because I'm not sure how a fleshless skull displays terror. Not that it matters, as I decapitate the Vordak in an instant, and all its face is going to display from now on is mud and slime.

However, in the time it's taken me to eliminate the Vordak, the Kraan has gained height, lifting Paido out of reach. Cawing exultantly, it flies away, too stupid to realise that, 'Okay, so we failed to kill Lone Wolf or prevent him from getting the Lorestone, but we did capture his friend,' is the sort of report that's likely to inspire Gnaag to rip its wings off and poke them into its eyes.

Incidentally (referring back to something I said near the start of my first playthrough of this book), this is why reading the last section of the book before playing it was a bad idea: the knowledge that Paido's capture is unavoidable might have made it that bit more obvious that I should dispose of the crystals rather than going to his aid. Though the knowledge that they were about to explode and destroy the skyship was a pretty powerful motivation anyway.

The power of the Lorestone provides me with a mystical insight that tells me Paido will survive, and one day we will be reunited and again fight side by side. Either I'm forgetting something from a certain later book, or Joe Dever's plans changed a little between writing this and Paido's reappearance. We shall see.

Paido had programmed the skyship to fly to the city from which we embarked on this adventure, and I spend the journey working out how to land the thing in one piece. On arrival, I inform the Elder Magi of what happened to Paido and me, and they let me know how successful the Darklord invasion is proving. Their leader then shows me a vision of the city of Tahou, which has been built on top of the remains of the much more ancient city which houses the next Lorestone I need. So that's where I'll be spending the bulk of the next book.

Still, before I head to Tahou, I’ll be popping back to the Kai monastery. I need to stock up on Alether again. Besides, it’s where I’m allowed to abandon unwanted items, and right now I still have a Pass, a Lodestone and a vial of poison that need to not be cluttering up my inventory any more.