Wednesday, 17 October 2018

What's In a Name?

This is my 300th post here (though, for various reasons, not my 300th playthrough - that won't be for a while yet), and as my 100th and 200th posts weren't playthroughs, this won't be one either. Instead, I intend to spend a little while waffling on about the titles I give to my posts.

If the topic doesn't interest you, feel free to skip to below the asterisks near the bottom of the post, where I'm seeking input on a completely different matter. As far as I can remember, there's only ever been one comment on the title of a post, so they may be of negligible significance to most readers. Then again, stats have indicated that one of my playthroughs got a lot of additional traffic as a consequence of people googling the proverb I'd quoted in the title, so they do have some effect. And whether or not anyone else cares, they matter enough to me that I take time choosing them (possibly more time than it takes to play and write up some of the more lethal adventures), and some of the things I intend to say here have been cluttering my head for so long, it'll be a relief to finally get them out.

As you may well be aware, the titles are quotations. Mostly. There's the odd paraphrase (some intentional, others on account of the vagaries of memory), and very early on I did once slip into the mindset I had when posting Proteus reviews to a Yahoo! group, coming up with a vaguely pithy phrase of my own devising. Oh well, consistency is for sauces.

Quotations from what? Songs, popular idiom, TV shows, essays, poems, novels, proverbs, plays, computer games, films, historical figures, comics, short stories... Even a gamebook, on one occasion. Every so often I'd arbitrarily come up with a rule restricting the possible sources. Every time I've played a superhero-themed gamebook, the title has come from a comic. Not only do all my attempts at J.H. Brennan's Horror Classics take their titles from the book which inspired the gamebook, but they're quotations from the character I am playing in that specific playthrough. And as I quote Doctor Who so frequently, I made a point of not quoting it when writing up attempts at gamebooks based on the series.

While it might not be obvious in some instances, the title always has something to do with the content of the post. Sometimes the connection is blatant, sometimes there's a bit of lateral thinking involved, and on a good day I find something that works on more than one level. Here, for instance, the title obviously relates to my failure to avenge my fellow slaves, but the name of the song from which I took it (Johnny Cash's Hurt) is also relevant, as my character's death was caused by a Gauntlet of Pain. (And yes, I am aware that the song was a cover version, so NIN fans needn't feel obligated to correct me).

When I pick a title varies. Sometimes I have it in mind from the outset (which doesn't always work out: I didn't get anywhere near far enough through Creature of Havoc for my planned title to be relevant, so I found an alternative, and am saving the original idea for a more successful attempt). On other occasions I've wound up with a completed write-up that lacks a title, and had to delay posting it until I could find something apposite. Once I even forgot I had no title, and had to edit one in after posting. If you are able to correctly identify the post in question, you should probably find a more productive use of your time.

There has, to my memory, only been one title directly influenced by current events in the real world, and even that wasn't planned as such. After the death of David Bowie, I decided to listen to one of his albums as a tribute, and one of the lyrics I heard while doing so struck me as being as appropriate to the playthrough in progress as the title I had selected, so I changed to that one.

Incidentally, while most of the song lines used as titles can be found on albums that I own, there are a few that just lodged in my head on account of having been near-ubiquitous on radio at some point, and one or two others that I dug up online because some other factor had led me to believe that the singer might have come out with something vaguely fitting at some point. Any artist who's been quoted in more than one title is definitely represented in my music collection, but there are still a few groups who have a significant presence on my shelves, yet have not so far had their output mined for this blog. Their time will come. Probably.

I'm not sure that anything much has come of these reflections. Still, now I've raised the issue, if anybody wants to know the source of some particularly obscure quotation, or precisely how one of the more cryptic ones relates to the post to which it is attached, you're welcome to ask. And this post has been easy enough to write that it shouldn't hold up the next proper attempt at a gamebook.

* * *

Talking of which, the subject of my next playthrough will be the mini-adventure from issue 1 of Fighting Fantazine. Now, some readers may be aware that I am the author of one of the Fantazine mini-adventures, so there is a question regarding what I should do with my own handiwork. Several options suggest themselves:
  1. Just play it like any other gamebook. I've played gamebooks I know very well before, and the fact that my familiarity with this one comes in part from having created it shouldn't matter.
  2. Play it like any other gamebook, but add an 'author's commentary' explaining inspirations and other points of possible interest.
  3. Get a guest writer to play it.
  4. Use a guest writer for the playthrough and add my own author's commentary as in option 2.
If you have any opinion on the matter, or alternative options to add, or favour option 3 or 4 and wish to volunteer to be a guest writer, please comment here to let me know.

Friday, 12 October 2018

It's Time We Quit This Hoping and Expecting

In all probability I got Proteus issue 17, Ken Bulmer's Black Crag Castle, from the newsagents near my school. I remember reading part of it in one of the classrooms where we did French, and as the sequence I was reading occurs near the beginning of the adventure, I can't have spent much of the walk to school looking at the magazine. Then again, it was February, so I might have been prevented from reading en route by filthy weather.

I have already explained that the relatively short shelf life of the magazine motivated me to get the issues as they came out even when I wasn't particularly motivated to play the adventures, and that issue 16 was the last one to which I gave negligible attention at the time I bought it. It's possible that by the time this one came out I had already rekindled my interest in gamebooks by buying Midnight Rogue. Or it could be that the Proteus adventure helped get me out of the gamebook doldrums. Either way, I had a proper go at it, and subsequently took the time to figure out how to beat it. Which wasn't easy, as Mr. Bulmer proved quite devious in places.

Mechanically it's not that different from your average Proteus adventure. Most of what needs to be found along the way is information rather than items, and there's one 'hub' region that allows a little more freedom to explore than the majority of issues, but overall it follows familiar patterns structurally. The writing is another matter. It's a bit quirky (nowhere near as wacky as Grailquest, but doesn't take itself as seriously as the preceding adventures (with one exception)) and has, for want of a better word, attitude. I remember being a little surprised to read my character using a naughty word at the end of the brief introductory passage. Mild cussing, by today's standards, but my upbringing was such that 'd*mned' still constituted strong language in my eyes.

Such an utterance is understandable, given that the introduction has my character (in flashback) discovering my home village in ruins, my parents dead or dying, and the family's most precious possession stolen. All I know is that the perpetrator of these outrages is a pirate with one ear, and I intend to make him pay for his crimes, and to recover the Talisman he has taken, as the survivors of the massacre will have no hope for the future without its protection. Not that it did much to help them against the one-eared villain, but my character is too furious to make picky observations like that.

For a Proteus adventure I need to know more about my character than just 'too angry for quibbling'. I remember that there are a couple of nasty fights in this one, so I reserve the right to allocate dice if doing so would avert a 'fat chance' Dexterity and/or an unhealthily low Fate. And a minor tweak gives me:
Dexterity 12
Strength 21
Fate 11
That should give me a reasonable chance, as long as I don't forget anything important.

I have never visited the nearby town of Alfanzar because of what I've heard about it, but those same tales make it sound the sort of place that the pirate I seek might frequent, so now I go there. Finding a tavern named the Blue Anchor, I bide my time until a mob of pirates enters. Their leader, addressed by his companions as Panash, removes his hat to reveal that he has lost an ear. That'll be the man I want, then. But attacking him right now, while he's surrounded by comrades, would not be all that clever. Also rather less than smart is the sloppiness that has me learning Panash's name a second time while waiting for a more propitious moment to deal with him.

Eventually they leave the tavern, and I discreetly follow. While trailing them through the streets, I hear Panash mention the location that, for them, is home - the first of the nuggets of information that I must note down if I'm to have any chance of success. I also learn that I'm not as discreet as I think, as some of the pirates abruptly round on me and promptly render me unconscious.

I come round in the gutter outside the Blue Anchor, down two Fate points (an unavoidable loss). The tavern is closed, so I have to choose which way to head along the street. I'd forgotten about this choice - wonder if it's a fake one.

Proceeding to a jetty, I learn that Panash and crew have already set sail, and am advised to see Tiny Matison at the Boiled Lobster. The Boiled Lobster turns out to be another drinking establishment, and I arrive outside it just as a large man is sweeping out the debris from last night's festivities. A vigorous swipe with the broom leaves a mound of broken glass and other mess (including a dead ginger cat) piled around my feet, and the man responsible laughs at the sight. Again suppressing the urge to resort to violence, I ask to speak with Matison, and the man with the broom becomes enraged and attacks me.

This fight won't be to the death, but it could take a while, as my fists and Tiny's broom only do half the damage of most weapons. Fortunately for me, despite Tiny's size, he's not much of a fighter, and I pummel him into submission without incurring any damage myself. I demand information on Panash, and Tiny reveals that the one-eared pirate killed his cat because he can't abide them, and mentions the name of the villain's galley. That's as much as he can tell me, but there are two vital hints in there.

What I've found out isn't much to go on, and I've started to attract attention. Exactly how much attention only becomes apparent when an unseen assailant delivers a hefty blow to the back of my head, causing me to black out for a second time.

Regaining consciousness, I find myself chained up, in the company of several similarly immobilised and unhappy people, and subject to another two-point Fate penalty. Somewhat disgracefully, players are guaranteed to lose between a third and just over half of their Fate (depending on what was rolled during character creation) during the early stages of the adventure. And yes, there will be at least one unavoidable Fate roll with fatal consequences for failure.

A new arrival, wielding a whip, orders us onto a jetty, where we see the galley that is to be our new place of work, and most Proteus readers have the word 'coffle' added to their vocabulary. As we're being herded aboard, I get an opportunity to attack one of the crew, but there's no way anything good can come of doing so. Swallowing whatever remains of my pride, I go where I am directed, and am chained to an oar alongside a few other unfortunates. Following a brief tutorial on the basics of galley-rowing, the ship departs from Alfanzar, propelled by me and my fellow-slaves. Sneakily, there's an essential clue concealed within the description of my predicament, though at this stage of the adventure there's no indication that calculating how many oars the galley has is an essential step along the way to not getting sliced into little bits.

A quarter of the galley slaves die over the course of the next week. I should probably be thankful that there's no randomised chance of being among their number. As the galley heads for land in order to 'recruit' replacements, the somewhat deranged slave next to me on the oar reveals that he and another slave intend to make an escape bid tonight, and asks if I wish to join them. Their plan is too poorly-plotted to have much chance of succeeding, so I decline.

After the would-be escapees have failed and been fed to the sharks, I decide to start work on a properly organised escape plan, and begin discreetly recruiting reliable slaves and weakening chains. Our chance comes a week later. The ship passes by a rock inhabited by a trio of... well, they're subsequently revealed to be mermaids, but the initial description mentions no tails, leaving the impression that this is either a very select nudist colony or some uncharacteristically non-predatory Sirens. Anyway, while the crew are busy gawking at the preening beauties, my co-conspirators and I break the weakened chains and rush up to the deck.

A fight breaks out, and I seize a cutlass from a downed seaman. The Captain attacks me, and as I parry his initial blow, a conducted tingle indicates his blade to be Blessed - which may explain the high Dexterity. Not high enough, though: I take a few blows, but kill him, at which point the rest of his crew surrender. The other escaped slaves choose me as their new Captain, and I get one Fate point back, plus use of the late captain's Blessed sword.

Another of the slaves is dragged before me, and my comrades reveal that he tried to raise the alarm when we broke free. They want him made to walk the plank, but I decide there's been enough bloodshed for one day. Accepting my judgement, my new crew content themselves with a few kicks before herding the old crew down to the oars to take up our former posts. The liberated slaves decide to become pirates, and as that's not a career path that particularly appeals to me, I ask if they'd mind dropping me off at Panash's base of operations before they start plying their new trade. At this point, any reader who failed to make a note of the location mentioned by Panash just before the first knock-out is in trouble... unless their gaze strays to the section below, which has him naming the place, and thus makes cheating remarkably easy.

I remember the name anyway, so my allies take me there. During the voyage I recover all lost Strength and prepare some Rations. We pull into a cove during an ominous sunset, and the sight of the fortress overshadowing the island convinces the rest of the freed slaves to stick with their original plan. As I step ashore, Maltby, the collaborator I spared, expresses his gratitude by revealing that he once knew Panash, who revealed the location of the safe entrance to the castle while drunk one night. While telling me about this entrance, Maltby also mentions the name of the Necromancer who was the previous occupant of the fortress, which would be another essential datum if not for a bit of careless game design about which I'll say more later.

I head towards the castle, which is on the other side of a chasm spanned by a drawbridge. Ignoring the bridge, I turn to one side and keep walking until a clump of thorn bushes blocks the path. A quick search reveals the trapdoor under one of the bushes mentioned by Maltby, and I raise it, revealing a flight of steps. Lighting my lantern, I see a rusting handrail against the wall. The steps are so creepy that I lose the Fate point I only recently recovered.

Descending the steps, I see a green glow to the north. A dishevelled man carrying a skull approaches, and I greet him. He introduces himself as Amdi and seems unimpressed at the sight of me. Apparently everyone he's seen come through here, other than Panash, has met with a nasty end. It is possible (and advisable) to work out from his rambling account how long he's been working here, though that can easily be missed owing to the more obviously helpful revelation that Panash always heads east whenever entering the castle this way.

I go east, and the passage changes direction a few times, leading through a subterranean graveyard and down more steps. By the time I start heading up again, I'm confident that I'm past the chasm. I wind up in a tunnel heading west, and then see a side passage branching off. This is one of the areas where I could fail the adventure: somewhere in this warren of tunnels there are two facts I need to learn graffitied on the walls, and I don't remember the route that takes both in.

The side passage leads to a dead end, but then the wall rotates, and I find myself standing at a corner of a passage that glows purple. Heading south, I get into a fight with a giant spider with an alarmingly high Dexterity. It only wounds me once, though, and doesn't seem to be venomous. Continuing through the maze, I next encounter a Shambler, whatever that might be. Easier to defeat in battle, at least. And then, to my annoyance, I reach the chamber I know to be the way out of the maze. Well, I'm doomed. Still, might as well go as far as I can before my ignorance undoes me.

I've just entered a torchlit hall containing an imposing-looking black marble mausoleum. Set into its base are two doors, but of more concern right now is the giant snake's skeleton coiled around the plinth, as an eldritch glow has started to illuminate its eye sockets, and those bones are moving.

The Giant Skeleton Snake attacks me, of course, and I kill it with ease before turning my attention to the mausoleum. Beneath a sheet I find a set of scales and a sack of pebbles, and when I give a slight push to one of the pans on the scales, a panel in the plinth slides open to reveal an inscription. The writing outlines a simple mathematical puzzle for determining the correct number of pebbles to put in the right hand pan, thereby opening the doors.

Beyond the doors another flight of steps leads down, ending in a tunnel that heads north. When I descend, a huge block of basalt drops down, blocking off the way back. The tunnel leads to a flimsy brick wall, which I manage to break through on my second attempt. On the other side is a slope leading up, and I ascend for a while before realising that at times water flows down the slope. A lot of water, by the sound of it. Catching sight of a small opening in the ceiling, I make a leap for it, and succeed at the Fate roll required to catch the edge.

Once the water has thundered past, I decide to investigate the opening more carefully. It leads to a room containing the skeletal remains of a Warrior Woman. By her side is a sword with precious stones set into its hilt. Taking it, I discover that it has more powerful magic than the blade I took from the Captain, which will give me a bonus in combat. Saluting the spirit of the Warrior Woman, I receive a Strength boost that heals what damage I took fighting the Spider and breaking down that wall.

Returning to the slope, I continue up, eventually coming to a choice between a side passage and a ladder set into the wall. I don't remember which way I should go here, but I have a sneaking suspicion that one option is the way forward and the other is a detour that will provide another essential factoid. This sort of thing is the reason why it's worth carrying on even when failure is guaranteed: I now have a chance of establishing what I should do at this stage, reducing the risk of making a fatal error on my next attempt.

I ascend the ladder, and go through a trapdoor into a well-lit room with one exit. Probably the way I should have gone second, then. The exit leads to a location I remember well from previous attempts at the adventure: a hall decorated with the proceeds of innumerable pirate raids, from which lead another six doors, each one with an animal carved above it.

This is the hub I mentioned earlier. One of the doors leads on to the next stage of the adventure, one leads via a series of ultimately irrelevant choices to unavoidable death, and at least three of the others lead to areas in which something helpful but non-essential may be obtained. And there are assorted perils to be faced behind almost every door.

On this occasion I think I'll skip the optional doors I know to be of potential assistance, so I can cover them in a future playthrough. There's no point in trying the invariably lethal one, so that just leaves the one I'm not sure about and the eventual exit, and I'm not entirely sure which is which. I'll try the Lion door.

Behind it is a long hallway, its walls adorned with weapons and shields. Lion pelts are strewn on the floor, and as I advance along the hallway, I think I see one or two of them twitching. Nevertheless, I reach the doors at the far end without incident. The door I choose leads to a square chamber, but I only get a glimpse of it before something falls over my head and shoulders. This turns out to be another lion pelt, and its claws scratch me as I struggle free of it. Not wishing to loiter, I take the other exit from the chamber, which leads back into the Hall of Animals through a door that cannot be seen or opened from the other side. Well, that was fruitful.

The text says nothing about only being able to go through an animal door once, so I could try the Lion one again and see if the other exit from the hall leads to anything more useful or hazardous, but I think I'll try the Tiger door instead. The hallway beyond this one leads to a trophy cabinet, and the floor is decorated with tiger pelts. Three of them come to life, so I grab a spear from the wall and hurl it at the lead tiger as it bounds towards me. A successful Dexterity roll means that the spear kills that tiger, so I need only fight the other two. The rules governing fighting both simultaneously are a little less clear than they should be, but I definitely kill both tigers, and the only question is how much damage I take along the way. It's not likely to matter.

As I recover my breath, a red-faced individual enters the room and asks if I have the Captain's spyglass. When I indicate that I don't, he makes a snide comment and hurries off. I leave the scene of the fight, and another one-way door takes me to the Hall of Animals again. So I was right about the non-exit big cat door leading to nothing of note, and have now identified the unnecessary one. Time to try the Lion door again.

The alternate exit from the preliminary lion hallway takes me into another hall with lion pelts on the floor, though this time they completely cover it. And come to life as I approach the far door. A Fate roll determines whether or not I get to the door before the animated rugs get to me, and I fail this roll and am shredded.

Unless I am very much mistaken, the best case scenario requires the reader to score 8 or less on two dice to pass beyond this stage of the adventure. There are certainly worse odds to be had in some gamebooks, but that's still an unnecessarily high chance of getting killed.

Friday, 5 October 2018

Lucky, Lucky, Lucky

If you missed the start of my attempt at The Castle of Darkness, the first of J.H. Brennan's Grailquest gamebooks, you can find that here. Otherwise, or if you're happy to join the adventure in medias res with no explanation of what has gone before, read on.

Now that I have the Luckstone, I think I can risk checking the remaining two passages leading from this crossroads. I remember at least what can be found along one of them, and know that a dice roll determines whether or not I have a chance of surviving the trap that brings some reward, so being able to influence the outcome will decrease the risk. And it's quite possible that what I've forgotten in the opposite direction will also become less hazardous now that I can raise or lower the outcome of some or all rolls. Those ambiguities I brought up in the previous post are still a pain, though. In another encounter I remember, they could make a big difference.

Anyway, for now I think I'll see if I'm right about the traps I remember being to the east.

I'm wrong.

But what I discover along this passage does jog my memory. There's another door at the end of this corridor, but something has smashed through it, so it hangs from one hinge. According to the text, it's unclear whether the thing that broke the door was coming out or in. The positioning of the debris in the illustration suggests out, but that could be illustrator John Higgins exceeding the brief. Especially as I can hear something breathing in the darkened room beyond.

My torch does nothing to dispel the darkness. Something strange is afoot here. And, for the first time, I notice that this section includes one of the typographical errors that mar the early Grailquest books. Never having been so intimidated by the preternatural darkness as to want to turn back, I hadn't previously spotted that the wrong number has been given for the retreat option. Programming the content of the book into my gamebook manager tends to enhance my awareness of section numbers, though, so now I'm aware of the mistake, and giving it more attention that I did the arguably more serious incorrect section number that comes straight after the fight with the Skeleton that I avoided.

But I digress. I'm not afraid of the dark, even when it refuses to respond to illumination as it should (in gamebooks, at least: I'm pretty sure I'd be at least a little disconcerted to experience something like this in real life), so I advance past the remains of the door. The sound of breathing grows louder, I ask who's there, and silence falls. Followed by a tension-building section transition.

Something savages my ankle. Considering the boost to my Life that I received in the previous encounter, the damage done is nowhere near lethal, but it's not pleasant either. Fighting an opponent I cannot see carries a substantial penalty to rolls - even with the Luckstone, my chances of hitting are significantly diminished. I could try for a Friendly Reaction, but that's a situation in which the Luckstone ambiguities come into play. At the very least, the odds go up from 5 in 432 to 37 in 432, but if the modifier can be applied to single die rolls made on behalf of my attacker, they improve to 52 in 171. I think I'll try to avoid the question for now by seeing of one of my Firefinger lightning bolts will light up the room.

It works, enabling me to see that the anklebiter is a Leprechaun. Invoking a national stereotype in a manner that would be frowned upon these days, the book now gives me the option of offering to buy him a drink. If I don't do so, I'm probably going to have to fight, and most of the people who'd condemn me for exploiting the stereotype would consider killing the little feller at least as bad a course of action, so I'll take the non-violent route.

In another instance of authorial failure to consider all the routes by which the reader might come to a section, the darkness vanishes again, providing me with a second opportunity to discover that the occupant of the room is a Leprechaun. Disengaging his teeth from my ankle, the Leprechaun apologises for attacking me, saying that he thought I might have been a monster or the Wizard Ansalom. To make up for the damage done to my ankle, he hands over a leather purse before vanishing. Inside the purse I find some money, including a double-headed copper coin, and a scroll. Dice decide what I find on the scroll. And in a rather surreal editorial blunder, the list of sections corresponding to different rolls ends with the 'Go to 14' direction that's missing from one of the sections covering the consequences of knocking the wrong number of times on the Fiend's coffin.

Also on the blundering front, 1 is again included in the list of possible rolls. And while the Luckstone does make it possible to get a score of 1, the lack of options for -1, 0, and 13-15 makes it unlikely that the gemstone's possible effect was being taken into consideration. As I recall, the 1-2 option is the worst on the list, so the unlikelihood of getting it is less of an issue, but the inaccuracy still bugs me.

I score 10. So I could make it 7 or 13, but as there's no option for the latter, and I think I remember what's on the scroll when 7-8 gets rolled, I shan't modify the roll. Not that the 7-8 outcome is a bad one by any means - I'm just curious. And I get a Hypnotism spell, which, if cast successfully (and with the Luckstone I cannot fail) can enable me to avoid one opponent altogether.

There's nothing else of note here, so I must return to the crossroads of no pit traps. Unless my memory is even worse than I think, process of elimination means that the chamber I expected to find in the east must be to the west. I don't really have to go there, but I might as well.

Yes, this is what I expected. A circular chamber containing a statue of a Wizard (though I'd forgotten the odd detail that in one of the statue's hands is a sack from which protrudes a pig's head). As I step into the chamber, it rotates, blocking off the entrance. There's no other obvious exit, though I can see a wooden chest, a lever set into the floor, and an inscription on the statue's base. The inscription is a poem - not very good, but still better than the Fiend's work - which indicates that I will need to exercise my brain if I wish to get out of here, and points out that 'curiosity killed the cat'. The last two lines appear to be gibberish, but very basic codebreaking skills reveal them to be an explanation of how to escape. I remember that nothing good can come of pulling the lever, so my choice narrows down to following the encrypted directions straight off or checking out the chest.

I'll try the chest. Which turns out to be more dangerous than I'd thought. Thanks to the Luckstone the poison gas released when I lift the lid doesn't kill me (just), but I do lose half my Life. Checking the chest for a false bottom prompts another dice roll, and I find a hidden compartment containing some gold and a mouldy clove of garlic. Written on the true bottom of the chest is a piece of free verse,  declaring that the writer left in the chest something 'more precious than gold' for which I may find a use in a Guard Room on a northern corridor.

I think I'd have been better off leaving the chest and just claiming the Experience Point for decoding the inscription. Well, what's done is done, so I do the necessary to rotate the chamber back to its original position and return to the crossroads, though on this occasion not to the "No pit traps today, mum!" section.

Having already explored to the north and east, I now need to go back south. Which is not given as an option, but the Hints section did say to include section numbers on my map, and that I can return to anywhere that hasn't been blocked off, so I have no trouble heading back to the room before the hall with the dead Zombies in. Incidentally, I suspect that applying those hints may be the only way to make Brennan's Dracula's Castle playable, so I shall bear them in mind if I ever get around to replaying it again.

Anyway, back to that other room, which (you might recall) has a flight of steps leading up to a door that I have yet to check out. Well, actually it doesn't, because the top two thirds or so of the flight is an illusion, but the only way to get to where I need to go is to fall into this trap (a trick Brennan will reuse in an even more tiresome manner later in the series). And since there's more trouble to be had just after I fall, I shall try and heal first.

Sleep, and I dream again, this time of having to escape from a tower by climbing down the outside wall. The dice determine whether or not I fall, and an additional roll or rolls would determine the outcome of a fall, but I succeed at the first one, so I needn't worry about them. All right then, I'll use another dose of potion. And that almost restores me to full health, with a little help from my Luckstone.

Actually, I'm going to try a little online research. Back before the end of the paragraph... No definitive ruling, but I have found something approaching a consensus that the Luckstone bonus can be applied to single die rolls, but not to opponents' rolls. So I'll go with that unless anybody can point me to an authoritative source that says otherwise.

So, steps. Walk up, fall as soon as I tread on one that isn't there. The fall does a tiny amount of damage (would have been more but for the Luckstone), and causes my torch to go out, so I'm back in the dark. Still, the book elides the amount of faff actually involved in using a tinderbox, so I relight the torch without difficulty.

I tell a lie. The book just waits until the next section before telling me that relighting the torch is tricky and takes a while. Still, what matters is that I manage to light up my surroundings before the giant Spider in the pit reaches me. Welcome to the 'more trouble' I mentioned four paragraphs ago.

Upon seeing the Great Dane-sized arachnid creeping in my direction, I draw EJ, who shrieks upon seeing what I intend to wield him against. Perhaps I should try for a Friendly Reaction from the Spider instead. The text calls me a lunatic for even trying, and the dice do not produce the desired result, even with the Luckstone. Nothing for it but to fight, then. Predictably, the Spider is poisonous (sic.), but I won't be affected until the third time the Spider hits me, and with EJ's bonuses surprisingly unimpaired by his terror, plus the damage bonus provided by the Luckstone, I manage to render the Spider unconscious before it can launch its third attack on me.

The book assumes I killed the Spider, but even a non-lethal battle could have cost my opponent a few limbs, so the description of the aftermath can be made to fit. I shall now search the pit, as I was about to do before the no longer eight-legged pest so rudely interrupted me. And I find a Snake, with tell-tale skull and crossbones markings indicating that its bite is a one-way trip to section 14. The Luckstone gives me the first strike, and my attack roll is good enough to win the fight in one blow even before applying any bonus. Phew!

Search. A. Gain. And this time I find a secret door. The text acknowledges that it's hidden in 'an extremely sneaky place', though the profusion of nasty opponents in the pit should have been a hint that there was something of note down here. Now I just have to roll to determine whether or not I can open the thing. And I don't even need to use the Luckstone to succeed.

The two Guards on the other side of the door are taken by surprise, so I get first strike. It is theoretically possible to try bribing one or both of them, but there's no guarantee that the bribe will work, and even if I throw in that magical ring, I could only afford to have a go at paying off one of the Guards. In any case, the Guards' armour is no proof against the combination of EJ and the Luckstone.

Beyond the secret door is an anti-room (sic.), from which a corridor leads north. This part of the castle feels more lived-in than the areas through which I've been before now, so I should stay alert, and maybe not risk searching for any more secret doors unless it proves essential. After a while the corridor ends in a T-junction, and I have no idea which way I should go from here. In view of the writing in the chest with the gas, I need to head further north, but the options here (apart from looking for another secret door) are east and west.

I head east and reach a crossroads. Straight ahead a flight of steps leads down, and the passages north and south end in doors. However, the door to the south has a couple of guards in front of it, and while they haven't spotted me peeking round the corner, they cannot fail to notice if I go any further. Might as well simplify matters by drawing EJ and charging south. Surprise gives me the first strike, which is enough to lay out one of the Guards. The second takes a little longer to deal with, but fails to land a blow on me, and dies rather than just being knocked out.

The room they were guarding is packed with arcane clutter, and one of the few clear patches of floor has a circle drawn on it, inscribed with mystic sigils. I remember what happens to anyone fool enough to step into the circle, so I steer clear of that while searching for anything useful in the midst of the sorcerous gubbins. Perhaps unwisely, I use the Luckstone to influence the outcome of the roll that determines the outcome of my search, getting the least likely option, which turns out to be a crystal ball. This shows me a vision of Queen Guinevere in a dungeon, but provides no indication of the way to said dungeon, so I'm not really any better off as I leave the room.

North may well lead to my goal, so I'll check out the steps east first. They are less well-lit than this corridor, but I can see that they end at another door. The difference in lighting levels would probably make it easy for the Guard outside the door to spot me, were he not fast asleep. I decide to try and help myself to his keys, and roll such a good result that I couldn't fail even if I decided to use the Luckstone to make things harder for myself. Taking the keys, I unlock the door, which leads to a dungeon, though not the one I saw in the crystal ball. This one doubles as a torture chamber, but is not currently in use, so I make my departure before the Guard can wake and get any ideas.

Unless I want to return to the previous junction and see what's in the west, it's time to go north. I can't remember any other noteworthy encounters apart from the endgame and what directly precedes it, so I'm tempted just to try the north door. Okay, so I couldn't remember the Leprechaun until I saw the broken door, but still...

No dragging things out. North it is. The door opens onto what is obviously a Guard Room, with a variety of weapons in racks, plus the sort of furniture and other trappings you'd expect to find where mooks spend their off-duty hours. So how come there are no Guards in it?

Additional doors lead east and north, so I head for the east one. And a soft voice whispers the explanation of the room's apparent lack of occupants: I failed to spot the Vampire that Ansalom considers an adequate Guard-substitute. This is another opponent I could try bribing, but unless there's an absolute fortune that I missed to the west, the only way to have enough money to even attempt it would be to have provided the Fiend with a poem the size of The Canterbury Tales. Time for that past-its-prime garlic to demonstrate its worth. And it doesn't just repel the Vampire: it causes him to disintegrate, leaving only dust, grotty clothes, and a valuable but non-magical ring.

The east door leads only to an unoccupied dormitory. It makes sense for there to be one adjacent to the Guard Room (or would if regular Guards used it), but there's nothing of note to be found here. This nod to realism reminds me that a later Grailquest adventure is one of the few gamebooks to feature any kind of toilet facilities. Sewers crop up a good deal more frequently, now I come to think about it. Make of that what you will.

Better try the north door, then. A little ominously, it swings open of its own accord as I approach. Beyond it is a throne room, with a colour scheme that's heavy on maroon and black. On the throne sits the Wizard Ansalom, dressed in about as stereotypical an 'evil Sorcerer' costume as you can get, with two savage-looking black Hounds at his feet. He calls me a 'little person' and sets the Hounds on me. Bizarrely, they also can be bribed, though I'd have had to provide the Fiend with something on the scale of the collected sonnets of Shakespeare to afford their price. Time to show Ansalom what a real put-down looks like.

I knock one Hound out and kill the other. Ansalom either has quite the sense of fair play or is mighty slow to act when things don't go as he expected, as I have time to down a couple of doses of healing potion and make good all the damage I've taken since the stair that wasn't there. Then he gets angry at my having killed the Hounds, and the final battle is on. Could be quite nasty, too, as he has his own brand of Firefinger lightning bolt. Not 100% accurate, but there's a possibility that he could zap me to death with them. So I make use of the fireballs that Merlin gave me for just this sort of eventuality, and even though Ansalom manages to get me with two lightning bolts, I incinerate him in return.

A sound from behind the throne alerts me to the presence of a secret door, which opens onto a flight of steps leading down to the dungeon I glimpsed in the crystal ball. Mission accomplished.

The 'Pip Triumphant' section describes the return of Queen Guinevere to Camelot and the related honours given to me, as witnessed by a raven which is subsequently revealed to be a shape-shifted Merlin. Mean Jake apologises for the fight at the start of the book, asks if we can be friends, and then steals all the treasure I found after defeating Ansalom (which is more than enough money to bribe a dozen Hounds), just in case I was getting a little too hubristic. Merlin turns up, initially in raven form, and tells me off for thinking he's a blackbird (on the grounds that ravens are noble, whereas blackbirds are obsessed with people's noses) and for showing off to Mean Jake. Though he does then compliment me on a job well done, before telling me it's time for my consciousness to depart from Pip's body and return to my own time. At least until someone valiant and resourceful is needed to save the day again...

Well, that was fun. Flawed, but entertaining. And I shall be able to retain some of my acquisitions for the next adventure, even if the money has gone. It will be a while before I return to Grailquest, even if I manage not to go off-blog again in the interim, but I'm quite looking forward to it.

Friday, 28 September 2018

It Is a Silly Place

First impressions are not always reliable. Back in the early mid-eighties, when assorted publishers were doing their best to grab a share of the market opened up by Fighting Fantasy, and new gamebook series started fighting for shelf space in the local bookshops, I would often take a quick look at non-FF gamebooks in the shop, fail to be impressed, and reshelve them.

Lone Wolf is one of the few series that I retained when I got rid of the bulk of my gamebook collection back in the nineties, and yet it failed to grab me when I flicked through Flight from the Dark in WHSmith's. I've previously mentioned what finally prompted me to give the books a proper go and got me collecting them, so I shan't go into that again here. I only bring up the subject at all because I'm about to start replaying the other gamebook series that got off to such a rocky start with me, only to become so beloved that I never even contemplated disposing of the set. I'm pretty sure that I was even in the same shop when I first looked at a copy of The Castle of Darkness, book one of J.H. Brennan's gloriously silly Grailquest series.

As with Brennan's later Horror Classics books, as well as The Legends of Skyfall and one other series (about which I will say more at a later date), it was my friend Simon who got me interested in Grailquest. I played his copy of Castle while visiting his house, neglected to avail my character of the healing available at an appropriate moment and, as I recall, took my first trip to section 14 (where Grailquest characters go when they die) after losing a fight against an animated compost heap. Soon afterwards I bought my own copy, along with the second book in the series, after which I went on to buy every subsequent release at the earliest opportunity. I think there's only ever been one other series that I collected with such zeal (and that's another story for another blog post).

The series name is informative, up to a point. Insofar as it is evocative of an Arthurian setting, it's accurate. And the potential implication of Pythonesque absurdity is not far off the mark either. Still, while most of the books do involve some kind of quest, the Holy Grail is never actually the item sought.

I've spent a chunk of today tinkering with my gamebook manager to get it to handle the Grailquest rules (well, the basic set-up, at least - the additional rules introduced in book 2 can wait for another day), so I'm ready to give the first book a try. It purports to be a spell cast by Merlin, which will transport the reader's consciousness into the body of Pip, a youth living in Merlin's time.

The Grailquest system only has one randomised attribute, namely Life Points. To determine them, I roll two dice three times, pick the best result, and multiply it by four. That's a bit more straightforward than the character generation process Brennan came up with for his next gamebook series, and a lucky double six gives me a total of 48 Life.

Following a quick explanation of the combat rules and a short list of hints on play, the book launches into a scene-setting passage, retelling the background of the Arthurian legends (and providing a few indications that these books are not entirely serious, such as the author's going out of his way to contradict the 'many' people who insist that King Arthur invented cricket). This section ends by focusing on a farm near Glastonbury, home to a freeman named John, along with his wife Mary and their adopted child Pip, who lives a quiet, peaceful life.

Cue ironic jump to a series of OTT threats of violence. I have been left guarding Freeman John's cart in the market square while he sees to other business in town, and now local bully Mean Jake has turned up with the avowed intent of decapitating, dismembering and otherwise terminally inconveniencing me. This is the prelude to an introductory fight which, despite Mean Jake's bluster, ought not to end in a fatality. If I'd been incredibly unlucky when rolling up my Life, there would be a slim possibility of Pip's not surviving the encounter, but anyone with stats that abysmal is going to be doomed anyway, so now's as good a time as any for getting rid of a hopeless character.

The punch-up with Mean Jake includes an additional rule, which I don't think it worth taking advantage of. Should I choose to target Mean Jake's nose (which involves a trickier roll than the standard 'to hit' one), I could do extra damage, but the increased difficulty makes it five times as likely that I'll do less damage than I would fighting normally. In this instance it makes no difference anyway: a couple of lucky rolls on Mean Jake's part give him a decisive victory, regardless of whether I went for the easier target or the harder one. Even so, the beating I've taken cost me less than a quarter of my Life, and the book clearly states that on this occasion I'll heal all the damage by the end of the day, so while this is not the most promising start, it's no cause for concern.

Indeed, life goes on, with a brief narratorial shift from second to third person. The most noteworthy event in Pip's life following his recovery from that fight is that Freeman John buys some chickens. Elsewhere in the Kingdom, the Wizard Ansalom is becoming a nuisance, inflicting misfortune on people as the mood takes him. When asked to deal with him, the Knights of the Round Table tend to suddenly remember prior commitments. All except King Pellinore, who at least agrees to try and thwart the Wizard, but gets lost on the way to his castle.

And we shift back to second person narrative as a group of men-at-arms turns up at Freeman John's farm, seeking Pip. After establishing my identity, they indicate that I should get on the spare horse they have brought and accompany them. Refusal is not an option. Well, actually it is, this being a gamebook, but I remember that turning to the relevant section merely delays the inevitable, so I just go with the men-at-arms. After a while we enter an unfamiliar forest, and towards sundown we arrive at a log castle. No, that's not a typo: the structure is a small castle, complete with moat and drawbridge, but made of logs rather than stones. Inside the castle we are greeted by a limping hunchback named Igor, and the men-at-arms make a rapid departure once they've dropped me off.

Igor leads me to a study and transforms into Merlin, who explains that the disguise is because someone of his standing is expected to have servants, but he can't afford the wages. Following a brief detour back into third person to address the question of how demented Merlin must be to think that a local farmhand could be housing the consciousness of someone from the distant future, Merlin explains that Ansalom is going to kidnap Queen Guinevere, and I shall have to rescue her, so I need to be prepared for the mission.

For starters, Merlin provides me with a magic sword, Excalibur Junior (who prefers to be addressed as E.J. - yes, my sword is sapient, self-aware, and able to talk), as well as a suit of dragonhide armour and a few bottles of healing potion. He then draws pentagrams on both of my palms and asks me if I can read a piece of parchment that has 'FIREFINGER 1' written on it. This is one instance where it pays to be a pedant: saying, 'Yes I can read it, thank you very much,' rather than just reading out the words keeps me from wasting one of the spells that I have just been equipped to cast (and almost setting the place on fire). I am now able to fire lightning bolts from my forefingers (five per hand), and to hurl fireballs (only one per hand, but they do a lot more damage if they hit their target).

A commotion outside indicates the arrival of messengers bearing news of the kidnapping of the Queen, so Merlin shifts his shape back into the form of Igor and heads out to greet them. Again the narrative focus shifts, to provide the reader with a rather witty account of the circumstances surrounding the kidnap, the response made by King Arthur and his knights (I love the understatement of the observation that Lancelot "was really a bit too fond of the Queen for his own good"), and the sequence of events that lead to "a very nervous and confused young person, equipped with a sword that looked suspiciously like a sawn-off version of Excalibur" being left on the outskirts of Ansalom's demesne. The humour takes on a slight dark edge when the knights subsequently realise that nobody thought to ask for the name of this unlikely-looking hero: "The oversight caused much general annoyance. As Percival remarked, they would have nothing to put on the tombstone."

Back in the second person, I find myself in the forest surrounding the Dark Castle of the Wizard Ansalom, checking the contents of the backpack provided by the Quartermaster General. My gamebook manager is going to need a bigger inventory section. The list of additional equipment includes a couple of anachronisms - the rope is in metres (unless you want to argue that sloppy workmanship just happened to make what should have been a 50-foot rope almost 9½ inches too short), and my lunchbox contains bully-beef sandwiches - and deviously downplays the significance of one item that will prove very important towards the end of the adventure. I was never caught out by the trick, as Fighting Fantasy had already reminded me of a certain non-culinary use of garlic by the time I read The Castle of Darkness, but even my mid-eighties self could appreciate the sneakiness.

The path leading into the forest forks, and the turning I take leads me to a clearing containing the ruins of a building, possibly an abbey. Inside the ruin I come face to visor with a forbidding figure in jet-black armour, who could be the Black Knight, second only to Ansalom in the 'local villain' stakes. As it turns out, he's just King Pellinore, still lost in the forest, and likely to remain so for a while yet. After he rides off, I find an exit from the clearing and proceed to an oddly-structured section that provides the option of exploring a side turning before giving away (in hard-to-miss capital letters) the fact that the main path leads to the Wizard Ansalom's Dark Castle. Okay, so exploring 'insignificant' diversions often turns out to be essential in gamebooks, but this is one instance where it's not, so I shan't.

The Castle looks forbidding, and has a reputation to match, but I am not deterred. The book recommends that from this point onwards I draw a map, and as navigation in Brennan's books can be tricky, I shall take that advice.

Across the drawbridge is a tunnel leading to an open portcullis. I can either hurry through or proceed with caution, and I'm pretty sure the latter option is the wiser one. Yep, going slow enables me to notice the murder holes and stay out of the way of the boiling oil that gets tipped through them.

Beyond the portcullis is a courtyard, and I can still remember every mistake I made here when attempting this book at Simon's, so I can now avoid taking damage several ways. The chickens ambling around in the courtyard are a lot more vicious than your average chicken (and, having had to look after my neighbour's chickens while she was on holiday, I know that even an ordinary chicken can get nasty), and the battlements are populated by projectile-firing insects, so I'm best off staying away from both of them. That leaves heading straight across to the double doors in the north or heading east to investigate an assortment of carts, crates and barrels. I go east, not because there's anything worth having among the clutter, but because heading for the doors from there is the only way to avoid falling through a surprisingly well-camouflaged hole in the middle of the courtyard.

The doors open onto a second courtyard, this one paved. It has a skeleton manacled to a whipping post in the middle, and there are several buildings around the walls. I remember that the skeleton is animated (and, in the unlikely event of my getting a Friendly Reaction, proves a little informative), but my memory of what can be found in the different buildings is unhelpfully vague (even though I must have read the relevant paragraphs a little more recently than I did the ones relating to all the harmful encounters in the first courtyard).

The bolted door suggests that there may be something hostile in the structure to the west. I think the one near the east wall is where I find the sneaky old man, and as he may have something useful, I'll risk checking. Yes, beyond the door I find an elderly Watchman eating stale bread and mouldy cheese, who pleads with me not to harm him, and then goes for me with a concealed dagger while I'm reassuring him. Thanks to my armour I take negligible damage in the fight, though I may still incur a minor case of blood poisoning that'll cost me a little more Life.

Incidentally, this section has one of several poorly-placed illustrations, as the picture of the Watchman is on the other side of the page, next to the section detailing the nigh-unreachable conversation with the Skeleton. While taking a look at the illustration I noticed for the first time that it includes the dagger, though mostly hidden by the table rather than up the wretch's sleeve as in the text. I also inadvertently read part of the facing page, and was reminded that the Skeleton unsuccessfully attempts to impersonate Queen Guinevere if it doesn't attack. And there I was, thinking the hard-core daftness didn't kick in until about book 3...

But I digress. The outcome of the fight is slightly awkward, as I render the Watchman unconscious, but the text only gives section numbers to turn to for killing or being killed by him. Well, I'll just have to treat unconscious as equivalent to dead, because stabbing a helpless opponent is not right even if he is a treacherous front-stabbing rogue. The only noteworthy possession he has is a quantity of money, which I take. Not that it'll be of much use to me in this book, unless I want to try bribing an opponent, which is probably not worth it.

Still, the damage I took in the fight is low enough that I can risk trying to heal it by sleeping. Sleep is a risky prospect in Grailquest, as it carries a 2 in 3 chance of leading to Dreamtime, and dreaming can be harmful to the health, especially in the first couple of books. I get lucky, though, and am restored to full Life. A few of the dreams are amusing as well as dangerous, so I might try sleeping again at some point.

Returning to the paved courtyard, I now check out the cluster of buildings along the north wall, as I think they might be where I can potentially find a little information. They're stables, currently disused, and containing only rotting straw and manure. Or so it seems, but a thorough search reveals a scrap of parchment on which is drawn a map of the first courtyard, including the location of the trapdoor (not just a hole, then).

This is one of the places where having drawn my own map comes in handy, as the paragraph describing the discovery of the parchment gives the section number for safely lowering oneself through the trapdoor but says nothing about going back to the paved courtyard, which ought to still be possible: the hints section states that "You are free to wander about as much as you like just so long as you know where you're going and the way has not been blocked." And as the parchment is not the vaguely-remembered item I was expecting to find, I want to risk checking out the building with the bolted door.

I was right about it containing something hostile: two Hounds go for me as soon as I unbolt the door. But as I was anticipating trouble and had E.J. ready, I get the first blow. The Hounds do more damage than the Watchman did before I knock them out, but I'm still in pretty good health, so I might try sleeping again once I've searched the building. It contains a casket which holds a diamond ring, possibly magical. The dice decide... and yes, I can use it to heal a good deal of Life, or to give me an extra lightning bolt. If it were non-magical I'd have found a slip of paper with a possibly helpful hint on it inside the casket as well, but I think the magic is going to be more useful.

I do try sleeping again, and this time I dream that I'm in a banquet hall, forced to drink from one of two chalices. I'd riff on The Court Jester here, but now is not the time for poetry as bad as what comes to mind. Anyway, I choose poorly, and lose more Life before waking. All right, I'll try the Healing Potion instead.

Restored to full health, I return to the first courtyard and use the trapdoor to climb down to a damp, mildewed corridor, which leads to a cave. I head along it, and tumble into a pit trap with poisoned spikes at the bottom. I need to roll two dice to determine how I fare, and authorial or editorial sloppiness means that the possible totals are given as 1-3, 5-10 and 11-12. Not a big deal on this occasion, as I get 6, which means I miss the spikes and 'only' take 20 points of damage. Time for another nap: if I dream, I might lose enough Life to make it worth using the healing from that ring. But my slumbers are untroubled, so I regain some of the Life I lost. I'll use a little of the healing salve that cam in the backpack, and while that won't restore me to full health, it should at least make me fit enough to survive the next encounter.

I'd forgotten about the cave to which the corridor leads. The floor is littered with bones, some of them human-looking. Searching the cave turns up no treasure or unpleasantness, and merely wastes a bit of time. Not as much as writing this paragraph did, though.

The cave beyond is more familiar territory, as it contains a Compost Heap (and Brennan's use of capitals  is a bit of a giveaway). There's no way of avoiding a fight with this sentient midden, but as I recall, I can go for a more dangerous battle that nets me a little cash if I survive or a less hazardous combat with no reward. Money's not everything. And a quick section comparison reveals that the difference between the fights is negligible, but I've made my decision, so I'll stick with it. The Compost Heap does a fair bit of damage before I kill it, but I'd have survived even without that healing. Nevertheless, I take another tot of Merlin's potion before going any further.

A corridor leads north from this cave, soon turns left, and ends in a door. I'm offered three courses of action, but common sense tells me that charging 25 metres and then headbutting the door is not clever, the fact that another of the options is covered in the section directly below my current one makes it hard not to notice that knocking achieves nothing, so that really only leaves trying the handle... which causes the door to open. How's that for a twist, Mr Night Shyamalan?

Beyond is a torchlit room, with a flight of steps leading up to a door in the north wall and a ground-level door leading west. I wasn't expecting this room quite so soon. Remembering what can be reached from it, I swig down another dose of healing potion. And then risk sleeping. Bad idea, as I dream that while hunting boar I encounter an Ogre intent on devouring a young woman. Still, the Ogre's a slow mover, so I might manage to kill him with my arrows before he can pulp me with his club. Regrettably, only three of my shots are on target, but I also get to strike one blow at him with my bare hands before he tries to hit me. There's no way I can kill him with a single punch, but if I get really lucky, I could knock him out. I'm not that lucky, but the Ogre's first attack misses, and my second blow does the required damage, so the Ogre becomes unconscious and I get to wake up in no worse condition than I was. Arguably slightly better condition, as the rules don't say that fights in Dreamtime contribute no Experience points.

Still not happy about the state of my Life, so I drink more potion and use another application of salve. That brings me back up to 46, which I hope will be enough to get me through the encounter behind the door to the west. For that door leads to a hallway populated by Zombies. Half a dozen of the things. And Grailquest zombies are a pain, as they can only be killed by rolling 9 or above on two dice. On the more positive side, they're sufficiently slow-moving that I get to strike twice before the survivors hit at me en masse, but this has the potential to be a slow battle, and potentially death by painful attrition for me.

My armour is invaluable here: after two rounds of battle I've lost just 1 Life Point, but without the armour I'd have taken over 15 damage. And it's not until the third round of combat that I manage to kill my first Zombie. Another two bite the dust in the fourth round, and then there's just ineffectual slashing and clawing until I take another point of damage in the seventh round and kill another Zombie in the eighth. The fifth Zombie manages to hit me for another 2 damage before I kill it, and the sixth just flails ineptly until I'm finally able to deliver the coup de grace. That didn't go as badly as I'd feared, but was still a tiresome slog. Mind you, there are worse Zombie encounters in gamebooks (and one of these days I may come back to this post and add a hyperlink to that observation).

So, with the Zombies dead, I search the corpses, finding only a silver ring with an incomprehensible inscription. Without thinking (i.e. having the decision made for me by the book) I put the ring on. It tingles slightly, and the book makes no big deal about it. Yet.

Beyond a curtained doorway in the north wall I find another corridor, which leads to a crossroads. Enforcing learning from past mistakes, the book insists that I check for pit traps as I continue along it. There are none, and as I'm liable to be returning to this crossroads a few times, the 'No pit traps' at the start of the section is going to become increasingly redundant.

This crossroads is, incidentally, what I was expecting to encounter before the room that led to the hall of Zombies. I know what to expect along two of the passages I can take from here, but not the third, as it's not going to lead to the Zombies I've already killed. And as I now know my memories to be vaguer than I'd thought, I'm not sure how much I can trust the impression that the place I don't want to visit first is to the east. Still, the passage north leads to a door, which seems promising.

It's a dead end. The door vanished somehow while I was unnecessarily checking for pit traps. And while the existence of the number 4 is not ignored this time round, the roll to search for a concealed door still allows for the possibility of scoring just 1 on two dice. I succeed at the roll, and a section of the wall opens to reveal a stairway leading down.

The steps lead via a short corridor to a vast subterranean cavern containing a lake. It's so quiet I can hear my own heart beating. Until a voice starts whispering my name. It takes me a little while to twig that I'm being addressed by EJ, who doesn't like it down here because there might be spiders in the darkness. A faint glow out on the lake catches my eye, and as it gets closer I can see that it emanates from a small boat, moving with no obvious means of propulsion. The boat draws up beside me and, ignoring the book's insinuations that nothing good can come of this, I step aboard.

The boat pulls away again, taking me on a long journey to an island that appears moonlit (though the text acknowledges that having the moon underground isn't exactly likely). I get out, and the boat promptly departs. Close by is what appears to be a Grecian temple, but I opt to explore the rest of the island before approaching it.

There's not much else here. Lots of rock formations that look as if they could be hideous monsters until I get close enough to see that they are just rocks. And a cave mouth in a cliff to the north. Naturally I check it out, disregarding the slightly skull-like appearance of the cave. A narrow fissure leads to a cavern containing a rather incongruous signpost. Arms point to all cardinal points of the compass, though three of them just say 'NOWHERE'. The exception is the arm pointing east, which indicates the way to the Crypt of the Fiend, helpfully labelled as an ancient monument. And just three metres from the signpost is the door to the crypt, which bears a plaque confirming that this is the Crypt of the Fiend and requesting that I knock.

The door opens at my touch, revealing a chamber with a jet-black marble floor, walls draped in black velvet, and an ebony coffin on a dais at the centre. It's like, how much more black could this be? And the answer is none. Except maybe the silver plaque on the dais could be less shiny. Which would make it harder to read, and given the quality of the doggerel inscribed upon it, decreased legibility would be a positive. The poem, in lines of inconsistent length, indicates that the Fiend within the coffin is a poet, and if I solve the puzzle on the lid and praise his poetry, assistance will be forthcoming, while failure to do so will prove more than slightly lethal.

It's too late to turn back. A plaque on the coffin lid precedes the puzzle with a warning that if I fail to follow the instructions given, the coffin will explode, destroying the castle, all Avalon, the world, the universe, and probably me. No pressure, then. The puzzle essentially consists of a series of If... Then... Else...  statements that explain how many times I should knock on the coffin, followed by a warning that if I don't start knocking within five seconds, the coffin will explode anyway.

I spell doom for David Tennant's Doctor, and the coffin lid opens, revealing a tall, pale figure anachronistically dressed in opera cape and white tie-and-tails evening suit. His eyes are dark, and two elongated teeth jut fanglike over his bottom lip. He sits up, turns to fix me with his gaze, and speaks: "Hello, Duckie."

After complimenting me on not blowing myself up, the Fiend emerges from the coffin, asks me what I want, and then seeks my opinion on his poetry. I compare it favourably to the works of Milton, Keats, Shakespeare and Pam Ayres (though McGonagall, Thribb, Barron and Jeltz would be closer to the mark) and, while obviously unfamiliar with the names I mention, the Fiend is flattered, and improvises an ode in response. Most poems have metre: this is closer to 37½cm.

He then invites me to demonstrate my own poetic talents to him. Remember how, 19 paragraphs ago, I said that it wasn't the time for poetry as bad as what I came up with in response to my dream? It was because I remembered that this challenge came later in the book. But it's in my interest to come up with more than just a few couplets, so I've embellished my original idea a little. And now, for your questionable entertainment, I present...
The Dream
I stand alone and small
In a banqueting hall.
Inside this palace is
A pair of chalices.
One is a vessel
That's carved of crystal.
The other one's
Made out of bronze.
I have to drink from one,
But that might not be fun:
While one is full of wine -
To sup from it is fine -
The other contains poison,
Which is completely noisome!
Yet drink I must.
To luck I trust,
And take a sip
But become sick.
I convulse, shake,
And - phew! - I wake.

(What I wrote at this stage of the adventure back in the eighties was no better, though at that time I wasn't being self-consciously bad.)

Anyway, the Fiend loves the poem and gives me as many gold pieces as there are lines in the poem (which is why I padded it out so much). He then admits to being a little weak in the arithmetic department, and asks how many lines long the poem is. As it's more than ten, I get an additional reward, which the Fiend declares to be his most precious possession: a garishly painted wooden duck that looks as if it used to have wheels. Apparently it's magical, though the Fiend doesn't know what it actually does. Still, if ever imperiled by evil sorcery I can call upon the duck by reciting a short verse. After explaining this, the Fiend decides that he needs a rest, and shuts himself back into the coffin.

Time to investigate the temple, then. As I approach it, I catch sight of movement within the colonnade, and draw EJ as a precautionary measure. Reassuring me that I am in no danger here, a beautiful lady in white steps out of the shadows. I wonder if this could be the Queen I seek (royal faces not being so easily recognisable in this day and age) and, reading my thoughts, the lady says she is flattered, but I am wrong. She is no queen, nor even a mortal, and Arthur knows her as the Lady of the Lake. Though the island we're on isn't in the lake, just a lake.

She beckons me into the temple and stops in front of a white marble altar, on top of which are a jewelled chalice and a velvet cushion bearing a gemstone. The Lady then explains that this temple does not exist in the world as I know it - nor, for that matter, does the island, which will disappear forever as soon as I leave it. She has come because she is opposed to evil, and offers to aid me against the Wizard Ansalom. When I indicate acceptance of her assistance, she instructs me to drink from the chalice, which I do.

The chalice contains neither wine nor poison. The liquid within tastes of honey and blackcurrants, and not only restores me to full Life, but also provides 25 Life Points on top of my regular score, which cannot be replenished but will soak up damage until depleted, after which I go back to losing and (ideally) healing Life at the normal rate.

The Lady also gives me the gemstone, which she explains is a Luckstone. As long as I have it (and I can keep it as long as I avoid getting killed, even potentially carrying it into later books in the series), I can increase or decrease any dice roll I make by 3. Before I can join in with the fourth wall-breaking aspects of the book by asking "Does your use of the term 'dice roll' indicate that a roll made on just one die is unaffected?" or "Do rolls made on behalf of my opponent during combat count as rolls that I make?" the Lady, the temple and the island disappear, leaving me back at the crossroads with no pit traps.

It's been a week since my last blog entry, and this seems like a decent point at which to take a break, so I shall now post what I've written so far for this adventure, thereby indicating that last week's resumption was not a one-off.

Friday, 21 September 2018

They're Just Waiting for You to Resurface

Resuming (at long last) my latest attempt at Stormslayer, I head for the docks. As yet, Sturm's device has had little or no effect around here, so it's business as usual. Consequently, I pay a quick visit to the market before starting to look for a ship that can take me where I need to go. A rope and grapple will almost certainly come in handy, and I'm a little intrigued by the Wyrmskin cloak: it's a kind of armour, but not quite as effective as the chainmail that's available here for a lower price, which suggests that it may have other benefits that are less obvious. Well, there's only one way to find out if there is more to it than meets the description, and that's to buy it.

Proceeding to seek a ship, I find that my character was a little hasty in assuming Chalannabrad to have been unaffected by Sturm's shenanigans. The harbour is packed with ships, and there's not a vessel to be seen actually at sea. An old sailor with a wooden leg explains that the Captains are reluctant to set sail owing to the increased frequency and ferocity of storms and Great Eel attacks, and I spend most of the rest of the day searching for one who's insane courageous enough to go out to sea anyway. Eventually I find the renowned Captain Katarina, who agrees to take me in return for half of the loot I recover on my dive. The last time I attempted this book, I didn't find much in the way of treasure down below, so I suspect that she may be in for something of a disappointment.

We set off in her ship, the not remotely inadvisably-named Tempest, and the following day a thick yellow fog comes out of nowhere. Captain Katarina suspects that there's something sorcerous about it, and my sword becomes restless in its scabbard, which suggests that it agrees with her.

On all my previous attempts at this book, I picked a Hunting Horn as part of my starting equipment, and it came in useful here. This time I went with a different selection, leaving me with no choice but to draw Wyrmbiter and see if this fog is thick enough to cut with a magic sword. A face appears, and tendrils of fog lash out at me, but I defeat the Fog Elemental without difficulty.

The night passes without incident, and I wake to find that the Tempest has reached its destination. Down below is the Devilfish Rift, said to be the location of the Sunken Temple of Hydana, Titan's equivalent of Poseidon. Owing to the inadequate waterproofing of my backpack, I can't take all of my belongings with me when I go looking for the Temple, but I can keep my sword and two other non-food items. Not sure the rope or cloak will be of much use down there, so I'll hang on to the rest of my starting equipment.

After downing the Potion of Water Breathing, I step overboard and start to sink. The potion works, and I descend to the seabed unharmed. To my right is a wrecked galleon, and on the left is the rift. If there's any treasure on the wreck, I have yet to figure out how to get it, and on this occasion I'm not even going to bother trying. Instead I head straight for the rift. And then I make the same mistake I've made every time I've played this book so far, and investigate a cave. The assorted aquatic fauna that attack me are not the problem - I deal with them as easily as I did the Fog Elemental. No, the problem is that Jonathan Green remembers The Empire Strikes Back, and this is no cave. I narrowly succeed at the roll to get out of the leviathan's mouth before its jaws slam shut, but acquire a codeword that is sure to lead to unpleasantness on the way back up.

Further down the rift, I find what the scavengers have left of a dead Bullwhale, a creature so big that it could potentially have swallowed a ship. I might as well check it out, as doing so can't make things much worse than the error I've already made. Entering through a wound in the corpse's chest, I disturb a giant fluke worm, which attacks me. Talking of flukes, despite having a lower Skill than every other opponent I've fought on this voyage, this is the first one to actually harm me. I do kill it, though, and find a shield with a Red Dragon emblem in the whale's stomach contents.

Further down, I catch sight of what could be the Sunken Temple. And then up from the depths rises an aquatic horror like something Lovecraft might have dreamed after overdoing it at a seafood buffet. The fight is a tough one, and three times I get grabbed by a tentacle, which does only minor damage but also inflicts an Attack Strength penalty for the next round of combat. Nevertheless, I prevail, and swim on towards the Sunken Temple.

Inside, I find a huge jade statue of Hydana, depicted as a fishman and wielding a golden trident. On a plinth in front of it is a sea shell. The trident is probably there to distract the greedy from the real prize (I'd call it sucker bait, only it seems not to have attracted the attention of any of the octopoid denizens of the rift), so I go for the shell. As I take it, three female figures made of seawater manifest in front of the statue, accusing me of profanation and defilement. I explain why I need the shell, pointing out that Sturm's actions will eventually cause harm even down here, and the Naiads decide that I can have the Shell of the Seas after all.

This part of my mission accomplished, I start swimming back up to the Tempest, at which point that codeword comes back to bite me. Or rather, the Leviathan I disturbed earlier does. Skill-wise we're evenly matched, but my Stamina was lower even before I got wounded by the fluke worm and the Abyssal Horror, and as I wasn't able to bring any Provisions down with me, I'm still in a pretty beaten-up state. Consequently, even though I manage to win more Attack Rounds than the Leviathan, I still wind up becoming fish food. Just like on my first attempt at this book.

Maybe next time I'll remember not to go swimming into that 'cave'.

Friday, 22 September 2017

Conquer the Blue Sky

For some reason, after the publication of Howl of the Werewolf, Wizard Books restarted their range of Fighting Fantasy reissues, bringing out yet another new edition of The Warlock of Firetop Mountain, this one a different size, with a selection of pre-generated characters for the benefit of readers who found the whole 'roll four dice and add numbers to them' aspect of character generation too burdensome. The numbering of the books also restarted, but remained consistent with the numbering of the original Wizard run. For the first three books. Then came another new release, Jonathan Green's Stormslayer, which was the first book in the new Wizard range that I actually bought.

I suspect that Brown's Books must have undergone its drastic reduction in size at some point between when Howl came out and the publication of Stormslayer, as I wound up buying the latter online when it failed to show up on the shelves of the few remaining local bookshops. A little browsing when I placed the order led to my discovering reasonably-priced second-hand copies of a couple of other gamebooks I was after, which was a pleasant bonus, but not being able to flick through the new FF book in a shop felt like a loss.

While Stormslayer has more balanced gameplay than Mr. Green's first four FF books, I have yet to successfully complete it. As I recall, on my first attempt, my character got eaten by a sea monster. The end fight of the book's volcano sequence has claimed the lives of more than one of my later characters, but since the last time I tried the book, I've heard that it is possible to skip the volcano and still have a chance of succeeding, so I might put that to the test this time round.

My character is a bounty hunter, who starts the adventure in a tavern in the village of Vastarin, celebrating the successful completion of a quest and having a little gloat at having again beaten long-standing rival Varick Oathbreaker. It's possible that his appearance at this stage is setting things up for a clash later in the adventure, but if so, that must be an incident I have yet to reach. Let's hope that he doesn't prove as tiresome a nemesis as Fang-Zen.

Oathbreaker warns that there's a storm coming my way, and is startled when his veiled threat proves not to be just a metaphor: in an instant, the tavern in which I am recounting tales of past triumphs is shaken by thunder, and deluged with hail heavy enough to break the tiles on the roof. Lightning lashes the travelling Menagerie of Monsters parked by the village square, and I find myself slightly at a loss to be confronted with a threat I can't just repeatedly hit with my sword, Wyrmbiter.

Wyrmbiter is just one of the special items I possess at the outset. It's an enchanted sword, so it can harm undead and magical beings, and is particularly effective against Dragons and their kin. I also have two of a possible four other items, and pick a Sabretooth Fang and a Sun Talisman. As regards my stats, I've decided to take the dice as they fall, and wind up with exactly the distribution I'd have gone for if allocating dice, namely:
Skill 10
Stamina 17
Luck 10
Also randomly determined at this stage of the adventure is the day of the week, as that affects the sort of magic and opponents with which I will be contending. It turns out to be Windsday, which is good news: the trouble I'm about to get into would probably be that bit worse if it were Stormsday.

So what is that trouble? Having just been regaling the locals with tales of my heroism, I can't exactly sit back and do nothing while grapefruit-sized hailstones imperil their friends and neighbours. I head for the heart of the hailstorm in the hope of discovering what is responsible for these freak weather conditions. As Luck would have it, no harm befalls me along the way, and I find myself up against an Ice Elemental. Pity this didn't happen two days ago, as the Elemental would have been weaker on Fireday. Still, that Talisman provides some protection from my foe's attacks, so I only take half as much damage as I would have without it.

The storm moves on, and I glimpse what appears to be a vessel in the shape of a large bronze fish at the heart of the clouds. As the people of Vastarin prepare to start rebuilding their homes and lives, I vow to deal with whoever is to blame for the storm.

The storm came from the south, and continued to head north, in the direction of the kingdom's capital city, Chalannabrad. It's possible that following the trail of storm damage back to its origins might provide me with some clue as to what this is all about, but I opt to visit the College of Mages in Chalannabrad and see if they can shed any light on the situation.

It's Highday by the time I reach Chalannabrad. Having carried out missions for the College, I have no trouble securing an audience with the High Council. Getting them to believe that there's a meteorological menace out there is another matter entirely: they seem to be in a state of denial about the possibility that anybody's activities could affect the weather in ways that might cause large-scale harm. But there is an explanation for this ridiculous and implausible-seeming state of affairs, as is revealed to me in private by a member of the Council with whom I have worked closely in the past.

The truth is, the Council know exactly what is going on, but they're too embarrassed to acknowledge that the problem exists because the man responsible used to be a member of the College. Balthazar Sturm, an Elementalist specialising in weather-based magic, was thrown out for attempting to combine magic with machinery, and vowed vengeance on the whole kingdom. He has now created a flying machine and bound four Greater Elementals within it in order to gain the power to control the weather. To defeat him, I will need to harness the power of the elements myself, which means visiting a series of thematically appropriate locations.

Matteus, my friend within the Council, can provide me with a small amount of magical assistance. It's almost a week until Seaday, so I decide to start with the water-based quest, and ask what help he can give me with that. He hands over a Potion of Underwater Breathing, and tells me he'll try to persuade the Council to do what little they can to counteract Sturm's magic. And it's high time I got started on the next stage of my quest.

It's been a week since I last made a post to this blog, so I shall pause my account here, and hope that the coming week will be less busy (and that I fare better at this adventure than I did Mr. Green's previous book), so the next entry might be a more substantial one.

Friday, 15 September 2017

We Know It Is There, Beneath the Surface

This is the second part of my third attempt at Lone Wolf book 10, The Dungeons of Torgar. Regular readers may be wondering what happened to the first part, so I shall explain. Back when I decided to have a go at the really tough route through the book for my second try, I knew that there was little chance of my succeeding, what with that whole 'really tough' thing. I also knew that the easiest route through the book starts in exactly the same way as the really tough one, and during the early stages of that second try I discovered that with the right Disciplines and decisions, there are no fights or incidents with randomised outcomes prior to the point at which the really tough route branches off from the easiest one. Therefore, I split my playthrough just before the branching point, so in the likely event of my failing the adventure, the first part of the playthrough could double as the first part of any subsequent attempt. I wasn't lying when I said I was breaking off the narrative at that point so as not to have a gap of over a week between posts - I just didn't mention that even if I'd had a less busy week and reached that point in just a day or two, I'd still have concluded the post there and started a fresh one for the pivotal decision.

Anyone unsure of the basic premise of the adventure can get the essentials from paragraphs 4, 6-8 and all but the last sentence of paragraph 9 of my first try at the book. The story so far on this latest attempt is, as explained above, here. And this is the continuation.

So, the partisans taking me to see Sebb Jarel, their leader, introduce me to an unprepossessing figure, and Divination tells me that I am being deceived. I comment that if this is Sebb Jarel, then I'm his brother Halgar. The real Jarel, who has been watching from the shadows, undetected by Divination, laughs and steps into the light, revealing himself to be the sort of person who'd have been played by Brian Blessed if this had been made into a film in the eighties. He sends his impersonator and the other men in the cave out to stand guard, and asks what I want of him. I explain, and he agrees to be my guide even though he knows it could cost him his life, as he can tell that I'm the protagonist only I have any real chance of defeating the Darklords.

Jarel tells the other partisans what they need to know about the mission he is undertaking, and in the morning we set off. Though we start on horseback, we have to go on foot once we reach Forest Taintor. Nothing of note happens until after nightfall, when Jarel takes first watch, and I am woken by the howl of a wolf. I stand back-to-back with Jarel as we prepare for the attack, and when the wolf breaks cover, I get to use my bow. Thanks to my Weaponmastery, even my getting a 0 on the random number generator only means getting the middling outcome, which is wounding the wolf but still having to fight. There'd be some consequence if the fight lasted more than four rounds, but it only takes me two to kill the wolf.

That consequence probably relates to a second wolf, which leaps to the attack, but gets lethally intercepted by Jarel. We hurriedly gather our belongings and move on before the scent of blood can attract further predators. By mid-morning we've reached the river that flows into the Hellswamp, and I get an info-dump about the smuggling that used to go on around here. Jarel gets a boat out of a hut that has seen better days, and we take it to the river. As he starts rowing, he makes a comment indicating that he used to be a smuggler. Over the course of the day, Jarel tells me a lot more, but I'm spared further detail.

At dusk we leave the water, and are beaching the boat when a Gorodon (whatever that might be) emerges from the surrounding vegetation and advances on us. Not having Animal Control, I am unable to persuade the creature (which turns out to be a large predatory reptile) to head off in search of prey that won't kill it. Incidentally, this is one of the rare occasions on which I actually prefer the illustration in the Mongoose edition.

Once the Gorodon is dead, Jarel cuts off its horns, claiming that potion-makers pay well for such things, and offers me one of them. That has regrettable echoes of appalling practises in the real world, even if I did only kill the beast in self-defence. Still, there's a slim possibility that trading in a horn might be the only way to get a potion that could help me through one of the ridiculously harsh fights in the next book, so I'll retain it on the off-chance, and if I only get money for the thing, I shall donate that to the MWF, or found the organisation if it doesn't yet exist.

We make camp in a convenient stone hut, which provides shelter from the rain that starts during the night. The rain persists into the following day, on which we reach the Hellswamp, in which our progress is slower. Despite the ominous name of the place, nothing of note happens until late in the evening, when we spot an island that might be a suitable place to rest for the night. Then randomness determines that the night is as uneventful as the day.

Some way into the next day we reach the confluence with the River Torg, which leads to Torgar. Around 10 miles up the Torg, the boat suddenly and unexpectedly becomes immovable, despite the lack of obvious obstacles on which we could have run aground. There's a Discipline check after the boat gets immobilised, and I meet the requirements. A quick peek at the rules reminds me that the relevant Discipline at the appropriate level provides warning of an imminent ambush. Pity it didn't kick in before we hit the trap, eh? And it transpires that the 'obstacle' is actually a group of submerged amphibians who've grabbed onto the underside of the boat. So the Discipline that was supposed to have alerted me to an impending ambush at 500 yards' range only kicked in when the attackers were less than a foot beneath me. That's rubbish!

What little advance warning I did get gives me a Combat Skill bonus when half a dozen Ciquali emerge from the water to attack, but I would have had the most favourable Combat Ratio achievable even without that bonus, so the Discipline's belated attempt to make itself look useful is a wasted effort. There's a time limit on the fight, but even with the worst numbers possible, I'm still certain to kill the Ciquali within the target number of rounds, so the only reason to actually play through the battle is to find out if I take any damage along the way. 5 points, as it turns out, and I fillet my attackers with a round to spare.

Some of my attackers, it turns out. Two of them dive out of range (and I'm a little alarmed to see the text describing our self-defence as 'murderous'). There's an unnecessary and clumsy change to the text in the Mongoose reissue here, splitting a perfectly decent descriptive sentence into two clunky ones in the manner of an author who places too much trust in their word processing software's grammar checker.

Being sore losers, the escaping Ciquali then ram a sharpened stake through the underside of the boat, and Jarel and I soon find ourselves swimming for the shore. I make it, but the Ciquali grab onto Jarel's cloak and drag him down to a watery grave. For fairness' sake I should note that the Mongoose edit has the better description here, but it's not as much better as the previous section was worse, so if this were a contest, the original text would be ahead on points.

The book has me spend an hour staring at the river, grief-stricken, before I resolve to get on with my quest, making the recovery of the stolen Lorestones the means by which I shall avenge the tragic death of Expendable Companion #97 (or thereabouts). I then spend eight days trudging along the riverbank towards Torgar, highlighting one of the flaws in the way the rules handle Endurance recovery: over the course of those eight days, my Kai Discipline of Healing restores only half as much Endurance as it did in the few minutes I spent swimming for my life and watching Jarel get killed. On the ninth day I finally emerge from the swamp, and promptly encounter another rules absurdity in the form of a Meal check: for over a week of plodding through mud and being pestered by insects, I had no need for food, but a few hours' walking on dry land and suddenly I have to eat. And that hunger-inducing morning provided as much Healing as the eight Meal-free days that preceded it.

I'm about to cross a bridge across a polluted-looking stream when I catch sight of some approaching horsemen. Yes, I do have Huntmastery at the level where I gain telescopic vision, so what does it tell me? That they are Talestrian cavalrymen (and the few moments it takes me to use my enhanced vision provide as much Healing as that 8-day slog). The Talestrians are on my side, but may be suspicious, so I'd better hope that I've correctly remembered the way they salute. Or I could hide under the bridge, but if they're on the way to Torgar I might be able to get a lift.

They are initially suspicious, but my cover story convinces them that I'm an ally, and they take me to see their commander. He is with the troops besieging Torgar, so I finally get to see the eponymous fortress, which stands on the far side of a ravine, accessible only via a lone causeway. As one of the cavalrymen leads me into their commander's tent, I am asked if I've been to Talestria in a previous book. I've played through all of them, so the answer must be yes, but I lose track... And a quick scan of blurbs reveals that Talestria was the setting of part of book 8. Don't say my face is familiar from wanted posters on account of what happened in the Temple of the Sword... No, the commander turns out to be Lord Adamas, the almost-companion who went off to fight Warlord Zegron's armies in section 1 of that book rather than risk getting sidekicked to death. Once we've brought each other up to date on developments, he observes that we have the same goal here, becoming significantly more verbose in the Mongoose edit.

A lengthier-than-necessary info-dump tells me that the Talestrian army has taken heavy losses while forcing a couple of Darklord armies to retreat to Torgar, but the fortress contains thousands of Talestrians who were captured during the initial invasion, and who could reinforce Adamas' troops if released. The Elder Magi have provided Adamas with a device that could breach the gates of Torgar, provided somebody can get close enough to use it.

We move closer to the gate. Adamas' troops have managed to erect a log wall on the causeway to provide some protection from enemy fire, but that still leaves almost 50 yards of exposed ground to cover before the device can be put into play. The device turns out to be an agglomeration of triangular crystals , with a protruding shard that serves as a 10-second fuse. Recognising that he and I are the only people present in good enough condition to have a chance of delivering the explosive, Adamas flips a coin and invites me to call. If Healing hadn't already restored me to full health I might have been tempted to try and use Divination just for the extra section's worth of Endurance recovery, but as there's no need to draw things out, I'll simply go for tails.

Tails it is. I hadn't consciously remembered that - just got lucky. Or unlucky, if the fact that Adamas has to take the risk significantly increases the chances of failure. Mongoose Adamas continues to say more than his original self as he prepares to run the gauntlet, and randomness determines what happens next... Boulders are hurled down, but Adamas dodges them, gets to the gate, and places and primes the explosive. His luck runs out on the return journey, though, as a rock fells him. I guess I'd better try and rescue him: having a named companion die at the wrong moment can be fatal for Lone Wolf. I get him to safety in the nick of time, and find myself musing on semantics: in the Mongoose edit I pull Adamas behind the rampart with 'barely' a second to spare rather than 'just' one second as in the first edition. That makes the escape marginally narrower, right?

Judging by the illustrations, the explosion blows a large triangular hole in the gate. Better attribute that to magic, as I'm pretty sure that in conventional explosions there's not that precise a correlation between the shape of the explosive and the destruction done. In any case, Adamas and I lead the troops through the hole, and soon battle rages around us.

Up ahead, a regiment of Drakkar troops presents a shield wall, in front of which are a couple of robed figures holding yellow globes. Divination informs me that the globes are a form of incendiary grenade, so I attempt to shoot one of them before the bearers can throw them at us. Thanks to my Weaponskill, I have decent odds of succeeding, but with the number I get, there's no need for a bonus. My arrow shatters one globe, and the resultant explosion causes the second bearer to drop the one he's carrying. The Drakkar troops who weren't immolated make a speedy retreat, and we advance. My companions join up with others from their regiment, and I continue on my own, reaching an open square containing a conical iron tower. Something here is vibrating intensely enough to make the very flagstones throb.

Proceeding into the tower, I have no trouble evading the hostile troops within until I reach a stairway lit by an orange glow from below. A random number check occurs, and I haven't yet completed the Lore-circle that would give me a bonus here. It's the same Lore-circle that would have helped in the lead-up to the pirate ambush in book 6, but I'm guessing that some other ability it confers is what matters here.

The lack of that bonus means I get the less favourable outcome, which is failing to evade a repulsive-looking Drakkar officer on his way up the stairs. He's not immune to Mindblast, so I decide to use that but not Psi-surge, which turns out to be the best choice: the fight would have gone on for longer if I'd used neither, but wouldn't have ended any more quickly if I'd used the more advanced Discipline, and the Endurance cost for using it would have left me significantly worse off.

Searching the body, I find a Black Key, a Dagger, and some money. It's in Kika, the currency used in Darklord territories, which continues the trend of having the coins' size directly proportional to the exchange rate with Gold Crowns. The original text is a little too uninformative about Kika, whereas the Mongoose text goes into slightly unnecessary detail about them. In any case, I top up my money pouch, and help myself to the key.

The stairs lead to a parapet overlooking a pit in which thousands of slaves toil. There's nothing I can do to help just yet, so I take the other exit, which leads to a locked door. Good thing I picked up that key, eh? It does fit the lock, and the door opens onto another passageway. Half way along it there's another door, with a barred window. I peer through and find myself staring into a cell containing Paido, the warrior-mage who accompanied me for most of book 8 and got taken prisoner at the end. The key to the cell hangs on a hook nearby, so I unlock the door, and Paido is delighted to see that the stories of my death in the Danarg were a lie.

I inform him of the quest that brings me here, and he tells me that he knows where the Lorestones are. We sneak along various passages to a chamber in which a squad of Death Knights guards a pair of huge iron doors at the top of a staircase. An alarm bell rings, and the Death Knights start to descend the stairs. Divination reveals that the alarm is nothing to do with Paido and me: Adamas and his troops have reached the tower entrance, and the Death Knights are being summoned to help repel them. That'll make the job harder for the Talestrians, but saves us from a fight where the odds would not be in our favour.

We wait until the Death Knights are out of the way, and then open the doors they were guarding. In the chamber beyond is a huge pit, surrounded by figures bizarrely clad in transparent robes and masks. Glowing crystal rods fire beams of light into the air, the beams converging above the centre of the pit, bathing the three Lorestones in green fire. Hearing the alarm and seeing Paido and me, the beings around the pit make a rapid exit. This is another scene for which I prefer the illustration in the Mongoose edition, though it's less accurate than the original.

The pit appears bottomless, and the Lorestones are out of reach, though they should be accessible from one of the rusting metal gantries that span the ceiling. Examination of the rods reveal them to be bombarding the Lorestones with negative energy in an attempt to destroy them. However, the beams are also keeping the Lorestones suspended above the pit, so breaking the rods would cause the Lorestones to fall in. After a little reflection, I come up with a cunning plan. If I climb onto the gantry closest to the Lorestones and cup my hands beneath the ball of fire, and Paido then starts smashing the rods, the Lorestones will drop into my hands rather than the pit when the beams cut out. What could possibly go wrong? (I ask this only because there's no way of avoiding what's about to happen, other than failing altogether.)

I get into position, the gantry shaking alarmingly as I inch along it, and Paido begins smashing the rods. Once half of them are broken, the glow of the Lorestones begins to show through the flames. One of the Lorestones drops into my hands, suffusing me with fresh enlightenment, but a harsh voice interrupts my jubilation. Darklord Gnaag stands in the archway through which the oddly-clad minions fled when Paido arrived, and gloats that he's about to do as he said he would at the end of the last book. He then raises a crystalline weapon and fires two bolts of energy at the gantry. The first of these blasts the remaining Lorestones out of the green fire, causing them to drop into the pit, and the second one snaps the gantry, as a result of which I also fall.

The pit turns out to be a portal leading to the Daziarn, another world that I once visited as a different character, but more recently turned into a penal colony for Magnamund's worst criminals. And even more recently utilised as a means of disposing of unwanted Kai Lords. Still, as passage through it is neither automatically lethal nor quite as one-way as is generally believed, Gnaag may have been a little premature in announcing my destruction. Time will tell.

And I never needed to memorise saluting technique after all. But I would have done if any of my attempts at this book had taken me through section 291 (yes, I'm still checking them), which is part of an alternate route to Jarel's camp.