Sunday, 23 July 2017

Back to Where You've Never Been

When Wizard Books announced that their range of Fighting Fantasy reissues was to include a new gamebook, I had mixed feelings. An actual addition to the series was a great idea in principle, but my enthusiasm was tempered by the fact that the new book would be a) written by Ian Livingstone, whose last several FF books had been less than stellar, and b) an expansion of the uninspired Eye of the Dragon. Some of the comments I made online at the time survived the destruction of the forum hosting them as a result of being quoted elsewhere: "The question is, will the basic plot be retained but the old adventure be rewritten and improved, or will the original version simply be cut-and-pasted into the middle of something new? I really hope it's not the latter. A lump of coal remains a lump of coal, no matter how ornate the setting into which you put it."

Around half a year later I took a trip to Penzance for a few days to research the locale for a novel I was writing. There, while browsing in the shops that sold books, I came across the expanded Eye for the first time, and took a quick look inside. The section to which I turned was new material, but failed to grab me, at least partly on account of a jarring Americanism. Thus, I replaced the book on the shelf, continued to browse around town, and wound up buying a second-hand copy of Cryptonomicon to keep me occupied on the long coach journey back home. The new FF book didn't get to Hull until a while after that, but eventually it showed up in Brown's Books, and at some point after that I bought a copy. As I recall, my first attempt at this version of the adventure ended when I tried on a cursed helmet and didn't have the item that could negate its lethal effects.

To give Ian Livingstone his due, he did make some changes to the pre-existing material above and beyond renumbering the sections and changing the stats to the FF standards. He didn't change enough, but the alterations are significantly more substantial than the little that was done to the Caverns of the Snow Witch teaser when that was incorporated into the full book.

The set-up is much the same as in the original, though some details have been altered. While I'm still a down-on-my-luck adventurer, I don't eke out my living with bear-wrestling, and the tavern in which I'm lodging is the Blue Pig rather than the Black Swan. It's also located in the town of Fang, but I'm there a month too early to take a chance on the current iteration of Deathtrap Dungeon. The man who tells me of the solid gold dragon now has a name, Henry Delacor, and I find him a bit shifty and untrustworthy. Though not until after drinking the poison he proffers. The forest beneath which the dungeon complex lies is now identified as Darkwood, the setting of The Forest of Doom, which seems to have a busier underground than London, what with the fungus farm and Gremlin tunnels of Forest, the Dark Elf city where Temple of Terror's villain grew up, and now this place.

Owing to a nasty unavoidable fight that killed one of my more successful characters in this book, I'm allocating dice, which means I get:
Skill 12
Stamina 19
Luck 11
I'm not sure why an adventurer of this calibre is so poor (nor how, when I was struggling to earn the coppers required for food and lodging at the start of the Background, I can equip myself with 10 gold pieces and the standard 10 Provisions before setting off to the forest).

The journey to the hut containing the entrance is a little quicker than the one in the first version, and takes me past several familiar locations, providing Ian with an opportunity to reveal that Firetop Mountain has regained its distinctive colouration in the time that has passed since Return. The hut is in the same condition as the one in Dicing, right down to the probably irrelevant axe head that can be found in the clutter. However, when I descend the stairs, the optimal direction in which to head is not the one that's preferable in the previous variant. This book is less harsh than most of Livingstone's on the 'choosing directions' front: while some routes are more challenging than others, it'll take more than just turning left rather than right (or vice versa) at a junction to guarantee failure.

My preferred direction takes me to a door that blocks the way ahead. It's jammed shut, but I manage to barge it open without difficulty. The room beyond has one other exit, and is empty apart from a mirror on the wall. Looking into the mirror causes me pain, and I find myself unable to look away, but a blow from my sword shatters the glass and dispels the effect. Evidently Allansia doesn't share one of this world's superstitions, as I take a piece of the mirror with me as a lucky charm.

Beyond the exit is a passageway leading to a room containing a pool with several coins in it. I ignore the pool and head straight for the far door, which opens onto another passageway. The next door I see is set into a side wall rather than ahead of me, and has a window set into it, enabling me to see that the room beyond is occupied by a woman, who's facing away from me. I enter, try to get her attention, and realise that I should have been paying more attention, as I somehow failed to notice that her hair is a mass of snakes. Yes, it's another Medusa, but I have no trouble avoiding her lethal gaze, and that shard of mirrored glass gets her to reflect on the drawbacks of a petrifying stare. Searching the room, I find a silver necklace with a snake's skull on it, which I try on, and see a vision of two animated skeletons with swords. The vision fades before I can find out if they're Titan's equivalent of Trinny and Susannah, about to remonstrate with me for this questionable fashion choice.

Returning to the passageway, I walk on until I draw level with another door. This opens onto a small room containing only a single playing card: the Queen of Spades, who has an oddly wide grin. I pick the card up, and it jumps out of my hand. A flash of light dazzles me, and in place of the card I find an old woman dressed as the Queen of Spades, who gives me some money for my trouble and leaves the room. Somewhat puzzled as to the point of this incident, I resume my exploration.

A scratching sound comes from behind the next door. This does not discourage me from going through, and nor does the sight of the three Giant Rats scavenging in the trashed kitchen beyond. They're no match for me in a fight, and a search of the kitchen turns up only a bottle of unidentified liquid, which I sample. A sip heals the damage done by the mirror, and I put the unfinished bottle into my backpack, wondering how much Stamina the remaining liquid will heal, as the text gives no hint.

Continuing along the corridor, I see a 'formidable-looking iron door'. I doubt that it's as dangerous as some doors I could think of, so I open it, and... get attacked by a Goblin with two daggers. That's quite an anticlimax. I kill the Goblin with a lot less effort than the book suggests, and help myself to its chain-mail coat, which provides a Skill bonus that is of no use to me. Yet.

The next door blocks my way, and an iron gate drops down behind me to ensure that I go through. The room beyond is empty, but on its marble floor is a silver circle around a pair of golden footprints, and a sign on the wall requests that I stand on the footprints. Thunder rumbles in the room, and I hear evil laughter, so I wait to find out who or what is coming my way. The laughter becomes louder and causes me to become disorientated, the door slams shut, and I crawl to the footprints and stand on them. My surroundings start to spin, and I lose consciousness.

I regain consciousness in a small room with featureless walls, illuminated by a green-glowing crystal, and with reduced Skill and Stamina. Now I'm below my Initial score, I see no good reason not to take advantage of the bonus provided by that chain-mail. Rummaging around in the dirt on the floor, I find a bolt holding closed a trapdoor. Now I know there's an exit, I continue to search the room, finding a pouch that contains a gold bracelet and a gold nugget. I pocket the latter and put on the former, which turns out to be cursed, doing further Skill and Stamina damage. It won't come off, either.

The trapdoor leads into a disused torture chamber, its contents including an iron chest. Inside the chest are some money, a silver box (so far, so just like the iron chest in the disused torture chamber in the previous version) and a dagger with a crystal blade, all of which I take.

The text doesn't take into account the possibility that I might not have entered the torture chamber by the door in the wall, and automatically sends me in the direction I'd have been heading if I'd come the way I did when playing the Dicing variant. This leads to the bridge over the pit, and as my recent misadventures have left me in a state where I would benefit from a Skill bonus, I risk climbing down and confronting the Ghoul. This one has the ability to cause paralysis if it hits me often enough, and cannot be repelled with a cross (not that I have one with me this time round). Thanks to my diminished Skill, I take a couple of blows, but not enough to doom me. And in this version of the adventure, the shield doesn't provide a bonus. Great.

Beyond the pit is a junction, and I think I'm going to go the direction I didn't in Dicing. The passage turns a corner and passes a door, from behind which I hear a woman chanting a rhyme. I go through, and see a hideous crone stirring a cauldron. Not wishing to judge by appearances, I greet her, and two Vampire Bats attack me. Killing them is easy, but displeases the old woman, who opens a trapdoor and sets a horde of rats onto me. This reveals that cursed bracelet to possess some beneficial properties, as it repels the rats, which scurry back through the trapdoor.

Enraged, the Witch transforms her forearms into snakes and attacks me. She gets two attacks to my one, and the rules are annoyingly uninformative regarding what happens in the second round of combat: my Attack Roll is higher than her first, but lower than her second. So do we wound each other, or does her successful second attack negate mine? The next round makes the question irrelevant, as both of her attacks succeed, sending me off to a new instance of authorial sloppiness. Getting bitten a third time means that the snakes' venom starts to affect me, and I have to swig down the rest of that healing potion to save my life. And the witch apparently just stands back and watches as I rummage through my backpack for the bottle, uncork it, and gulp down its contents. The text says 'If you are bitten three times,' not 'If you win, but were bitten three or more times in the course of the fight,' and the section describing the outcome for anyone thrice-bitten who doesn't have the potion states that the Witch laughs as she watches the doomed adventurer's death throes, so she's definitely still alive while I heal myself. She just inexplicably does nothing about it, and continues to stand idly by as I take up my sword again and stab her with it.

She vanishes in a puff of smoke, yelling, "You missed!" When the smoke clears, I see a mouse on the floor (but not a ghost). It disappears into a hole in the wall, and the Witch's cauldron starts to boil over. Her image forms in the steam, laughing inaudibly at me, and reaches out a hand, on which is an eye-shaped emerald. This has to be a trap, but I reach out for the gem anyway. It's just an illusion, and while I'm grasping at nothing, the cauldron explodes, but I only take minor damage from shrapnel.

The Witch's image speaks to me, telling me that her name is Vigdis, claiming to be the most beautiful woman in the world, and asking for my opinion of her appearance. I tell her that even the Ghoul I fought down in the pit was better looking, and she thanks me for the compliment, telling me I can go, and take the wooden box on the corner shelf as a reward. The box contains garlic, money, a tooth and a bronze key with a number on it.

Further along the corridor I reach not a door but a cave entrance. The cave contains a sleeping Ogre, with a leather bag hanging on the chair in which the Ogre is slumped. I sneak in to take the bag, and though I carelessly step on a rat's skull, which cracks underfoot, Luck is with me, and the Ogre does not wake. The bag contains a dagger and a gold ring, which I put on my left thumb for reasons that may make sense to Ian Livingstone.

The corridor ends in a door, behind which is a poorly-illuminated room. Something sparkles on a shelf, so I check out the shiny. It's a crystal pendant on a chain, which I risk putting on. It feels warm and gives off a green glow, ad I have the option of removing it. If it were dangerous, I probably wouldn't be getting a chance to reconsider, so I leave it on, and it provides a Luck bonus and somehow communicates to me the fact that it will light up if somebody lies to me.

I leave the room, and the floor gives way beneath me, dropping me into a chute. I slide into another pit, this one containing a Giant Spider, which attacks me. I kill it and search the pit, finding a glass ball, a broken dagger, a numbered iron key, a stick sharpened at both ends, and a pouch containing a flower with a scent that restores a little Skill and Stamina. I climb out of the pit and, as with the torture chamber, the text has me 'return' to a corridor in which I've not been before.

I trudge on to the next door, which opens onto a room containing a stone table with two breastplates on it. No doubt one of them is beneficial, the other harmful: the exact same gimmick Livingstone used with helmets in The Warlock of Firetop Mountain, shields in City of Thieves (though at least in that instance a little logic could be used to figure out which was the safe one to take), suits of armour in Crypt of the Sorcerer... I'm still not back to peak performance, so I try one of them on, and it's the cursed one, leaving me even worse off. Stupid arbitrary choices.

Back to the corridor and along to the next door, from behind which come female cries for help. I go through into an ornately furnished room, with an incongruous iron cage containing a young woman. I go across to the cage, and find it to be unlocked. The woman shows her Vampire fangs and lunges at me. The garlic I acquired from Vigdis repels the Vampire for a moment, and... No, this time round I don't have a silver dagger. I have a wooden stick, sharpened at both ends, which should make an adequate stake, but there's no option to use that. Why provide the pointed stick if it can't be used against a Vampire? Unless there's an encounter I have yet to reach in which I'm attacked by someone armed with fresh fruit.

Anyway, I fight the Vampire, using a less-than-ideal weapon because I'm not allowed to use the one that would actually be effective here, and the Vampire kills me. Right now I'm actually okay with that, as it means I won't have to spend any more time with this dreadful book for a long, long while.

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