Friday, 3 July 2020

Any Place Is Another Place

The Labyrinths of Fear is the second of Dave Morris' Knightmare tie-in novelette/gamebook combos, though the first to put his name on the spine. As I explained when attempting the first Knightmare book, I never got into the series when it originally came out, so I have no noteworthy memories associated with any of them. I got at least one of them in a now-closed charity shop on the avenue where I've been doing most of my shopping during lockdown, and it might have been Labyrinths, but I can't say for certain.

I started by reading the story that takes up slightly more than half the page count. It's a decent enough yarn (though it lacks a proper comeuppance for the contemptible antagonist), various elements of which reminded me of some of Morris' other books, which I enjoyed more. Anwin Wood, the principal setting for the story, is reminiscent of Crypt of the Vampire's Wistren Wood, the mythic portals of ivory and horn featured in The Eye of the Dragon make a fleeting and seemingly insignificant appearance, and the final twist is a variation on the big twist to the second scenario in the fourth Dragon Warriors book. The book's title doesn't seem particularly relevant to the story - it might be easy for outsiders to get lost in the wood, but that doesn't make it a labyrinth, and the subterranean tunnels through which Treguard and his pursuers travel on the way to the climactic confrontation don't come across as being particularly labyrinthine, either.

Anyway, the main event as far as this blog is concerned is the gamebook. Little has changed rules-wise since the first book. Life Force Status still runs on the traffic light system, though it is now possible to carry food and (where permitted by the text) consume it to go back up a colour grade. Carrying capacity has increased, while the Adventurer's Code has been simplified (though chivalrous behaviour is still advised).

On with the adventure. Treguard equips me with the Helm of Justice and a meat pie, and leads me to the dungeon entrance. I head down a tunnel and reach three doors. The previous book said that, in the absence of any indication that one direction is preferable to another, it would be advisable to go right. No such hint was provided here, but I'll try the right door anyway.

I proceed to a room in which a crone is stirring a bubbling cauldron. She sees me before I can sneak away, so I might as well talk to her. It transpires that her name is Mildread, and she doesn't think I look much like an adventurer. Nevertheless, she allows me to take one item from an assortment in a chest, and her pet crow advises me to pick the clue, so I need to figure out what he means by that. A quick look at the etymology of the word suggests that the ball of thread is the wisest choice, so I take that.

Mildread scorns my selection (regardless of what I picked) and tells me to buzz off. I could try and steal a second item, but that's probably the sort of unchivalrous act that would get me penalised, so I leave. It becomes apparent that not all the items I passed up are irrelevant, but since I didn't take the blank parchment, I don't know if it's something useful or harmful.

Regardless, I wander along until I reach another room, this one occupied by a feasting jester, who offers to share his food if I answer his riddle (which the text points out to have iffy grammar, but excuses it on the grounds of poetic licence). Is the citadel about which he asks the one that came up in conversation early in the story? The name isn't identical, but is close enough that it could be an example of the sort of linguistic mutation that had Beijing rendered as 'Peking' for so many years, so I think I'll go with that. And I get two ham rolls, so I was right to make that inference.

Presented with a choice of two exits, I decide to see if the jester can offer a hint. If he has any advice, it'll probably be in the form of another riddle, but a cryptic clue is usually better than none. No,it turns out that he wants a bribe. It appears that giving him back a roll will suffice, so I do that. And then the jester comes out with a puzzle, this one another take on the 'one liar, one truthful speaker' set-up that Morris has used before, drawing on a poem written centuries after the time in which this adventure is set. It's a bit sneaky, but the answer I get to the one question the book has me ask is enough to provide a solution.

The jester directs me to the door I'd have chosen in the absence of any hint, but as I have yet to see any instruction to change my Life Force Status, I don't think there's too much risk of my coming to regret having handed back some food. The route indicated takes me to what appears to be the entrance to the next level of the dungeon, though there is also a maze entrance nearby. Since I took the thread from Mildread, I should probably use it to help me check out the maze before I descend.

At the centre of the maze I find a fountain that would heal me if my Life Force Status had been depleted. There's also a key in the water, so I take that. The thread then enables me to retrace my steps to the entrance, and along the way I see that some of the maze layout has changed, so if I'd got that parchment instead, acquired a quill, and drawn a map, I'd still be at risk of losing my way.

A wellway leads to the next level. Drawing up the bucket, I find it to contain bones and rusty armour. Ominous. Nevertheless, I contrive a way to lower myself down, and at the bottom I equip myself with a stray rib-bone in case I need to distract a dog or similar creature. Around now I could do with a bit more clarity regarding inventory management. Does the Helm of Justice count towards my total, or does wearing it not count as carrying an item? Do I still have the thread? If the answer to both is yes, I now need to eat or discard something. Wonder if I can trade in the roll for a Schroedinger's Kit Kat...

Treguard's voice warns me not to become complacent just because I've made it as far as Level Two, and reveals that Elf-King Arawn, an enemy of his from the story, is below Level Three, and seeking to topple the castle's foundations. I need to get to him and thwart him - and I'm likely to need more than a thread, a bone, a key, and an uncertain number of food items to do so.

The only exit leads to Merlin's alchemical laboratory, in which the wizard himself is too preoccupied with a contraption to notice me. Stealing spell ingredients would be a bad idea, and I've had no indication that Merlin is hostile, so making a hurried exit seems unnecessary. I attempt conversation, and Merlin complains that the clock he's just made is faulty, and the hands go in the wrong direction. This may be a low-key way of telling uninformed readers the meaning of 'widdershins', or just a whimsical interlude before the real point of the encounter: Merlin gives me a Smoke spell (which falls into a separate category from items, so there's no need to wonder if I should be dropping anything just yet) and tells me which exit to take.

Another passage leads me to a chamber illuminated by a chandelier. Doors lead left and right, and Granitas the Wall Monster manifests in front of me, its booming voice causing a candle to fall. I have the option of taking that candle, and decide that even if I do still have the thread, I probably won't need it again, so I add the candle to my inventory in its stead. Granitas presents me with a riddle that will indicate which way I should go from here, threatening death if I get it wrong. The only answer that makes any sense suggests that I should ignore both doors and walk into the stony maw ahead, so I risk doing just that.

Right choice. I proceed through a tunnel to a room in which a black cat lies on a table next to a plate of roast meat. I've still had no instructions to lower my Life Force Status, so there's nothing to be gained by eating the meat, which leaves me with just a choice of exit. The same directions as led from Merlin's lab, so I think I'll go with the one that worked back there.

The door leading that way is fastened with a gilded padlock, so I use the golden key to open it up. Beyond is a larder, containing three joints of what may be pork. On the floor is a silver coin, one side showing the mistletoe-crowned head of Arawn, the other bearing an inscription of an oak tree. The key has presumably served its purpose by now, so I drop it and take the coin.

There's no way through the larder, so I take the other exit from the room. This leads to a convergence of paths, and the sight of a faint blue light compels me in a certain direction. The tunnel leads me to a cavern spanned by a chasm, with the immortal sorceress Lilith lounging on a couch on the far side. If I'm to get any further, I shall have to offer her something, and I only have one of the items listed as potential gifts for her. If the rib-bone originally came from Adam, I may be in with a chance here...

Well, I had the right allusion in mind when considering the possible significance of the bone, but Lilith is offended by my offering it to her, and fires a bolt of lightning that sends me tumbling into the chasm. The Helm preserves me, but I'm down to Life Force Status red, so I'd better eat something the next time the text gives me the option. Which is almost immediately, so I go up to amber, and am no longer clear on whether or not I have any food left.

A winding tunnel leads to a torture chamber, currently unoccupied, but in a disconcerting state of readiness. There are three exits, and a verse scratched into the floor hints at the correct exit. I was right about that 'widdershins' clue, and now I've learned a new word (or perhaps a very old one). Having made my choice, I'll look 'deiseal' up to see if it means what I have inferred it to mean... and I'm right. Not that I'm likely to have cause to use it any time soon.

On the way to the exit I catch sight of an iron poker, which is probably a torture implement. Still, as the story reminded me, iron is an effective weapon against faerie folk such as Arawn, so I take it. Besides, if I'm carrying it, the torturer can't be using it on some new victim, so repurposing it with a more noble goal in mind is not exactly unchivalrous. Oh, and stooping to pick it up inadvertantly causes me to duck out of the way of a globule of lava fired in my direction by a fire elemental, which strongly suggests that I chose wisely.

Hurrying through the door, I enter a room with at least one pillar in it. A roar terrifies me, and a glowing lion emerges from behind the/a pillar, its brightness increasing in intensity and starting to dazzle me as the beast approaches. I don't possess what is required for half of the available options, and the wording of the section appears to rule out doing nothing if I am capable of taking one of the viable actions, so I must either cast the Smoke spell or attack the lion with the poker. The previous book warned against getting into any fights, and while that advice wasn't reiterated here, it's probably still a good idea, so I'll cast the spell.

Not only does the spell obscure me from view for long enough that I can fumble my way to an exit, but the description of its effect adds another word to my vocabulary. Could come in handy if Pointless ever does a round on different shades of grey (the colour, not the books).

The way out leads to a vestibule with many exits. If wearing the Helm doesn't count as carrying an item, I can now eat once more and go back up to Life Force Status green. Stairs lead down from one of the exits and, knowing that I must descend in order to get to Arawn, I go that way. Halfway down the stairs I hear a sound right behind me, and turn to see what is there. No, not Christopher Robin or Kermit the Frog's nephew. It's a rapier-wielding elf-maiden. Now, the only elf-maiden in the story (indeed, the only female character of any note in it) assisted Treguard, but having that poker overrules any decision-making at this point, so I don't get to see if this one is on my side. She assumes me to be the torturer, and stabs me with the rapier, taking me down to amber or red (rassin' frassin' ambiguous emcumbrance rules). The text has me throw the poker at her and flee, and the next section confirms that she is the same character who was in the story. Sigh.

Two archways await me at the bottom of the stairs, each marked with a different religious symbol. I choose the one more likely to be associated with chivalry. The passage leads past what appears to be the door to a monk's cell. I stop to investigate, and find that appearances have not been deceptive. The monk within introduces himself as Brother Leo, asks if I have a candle, and makes an inadvertent pun about illumination. The text suggests that he might actually be a disguised goblin, but I decide to trust him and hand over the candle.

If there's trickery afoot, the reveal is a long time in coming. For a few minutes I watch Brother Leo at work, and then he remembers my presence and asks if he can help. I explain my quest, and he gives me a few pointers about which saints protect against which threats before I continue on my way.

Up ahead, a barrier of flame blocks the way. Recalling what I have just learned, I invoke the name that should fireproof me, and it works. Proceeding into another cavern, I am fired upon by a group of archers, and call upon the appropriate saint. As I pass unscathed through the hail of arrows, my assailants assume me to be more powerful than I really am, and flee.

The approaching zombies will not be so easily intimidated. Lacking the spell that could be of use here, I can only hope that the last saint on Brother Leo's list will help me against them - and I am enabled to fight my way through the horde without taking so much as a scratch.

Reaching another intersection, I am beckoned into one of the passages by a man in green. It leads to a blood-drenched cave, where the man sets Cerberus on me and departs. Do I still have that rib-bone? I offered it to Lilith in the hope that she'd create a bridge across the chasm, but as she was on the opposite side, I wasn't able to hand it to her, and the text said nothing about my losing the bone when I fell into the chasm, so it is at least possible that I've been able to retain it. Well, I'll say that I do still have it, and if the author reads this and disagrees, he is welcome to correct me on the issue and invalidate the rest of this blog post.

I toss the bone to Cerberus, and the two heads that don't catch it turn on the one which does. While the hellhound is fighting itself, I sneak past and follow the green-clad man. He's waiting beside a cage in the next chamber, and upon seeing me, releases the ghoul bear that was imprisoned in the cage. I definitely have neither the spell nor the item that could help me here, so at this point I definitely end up dead.

Given the number of times I was given the impression that whichever chamber I was leaving had only one non-lethal exit, I'm surprised at just how much of this adventure I've obviously missed. Maybe I'll get a clearer idea of how that works the next time I attempt to play it.

Sunday, 28 June 2020

I Ain't Seen the Sunshine Since I Don't Know When

I've been intending to get back to this blog and failing to do so for a while. Apologies to any readers who've been waiting for new posts. The recent easing of lockdown makes it a vaguely appropriate time to have a shot at the next adventure on my list, so here I go...

The mini-adventure in issue 6 of Fighting Fantazine, Sunil Prasannan’s Escape from the Sorcerer, didn’t make much of an impression when I originally played it. While not particularly encouraging, that’s not necessarily a bad sign – I would probably remember more if it had been truly horrendous. As it is, I only recall the basic premise (and what’s wrong with it) and the way my character died: blasted out of existence by a disembodied entity for not having any dice handy (which may indicate that Prasannan has issues with readers who don’t properly play gamebooks).

There’s a fair bit of geopolitical backstory in the adventure’s background, explaining about the long-standing hostilities between the kingdoms of Alkemis (good guys allied to the noble Lion-Men) and Agra (demon-worshipping scumbags). I am an officer in the Alkemisian army, one of a few dozen taken captive when the Agran forces and their Lizard Man allies massacred the inhabitants of one of our towns. The Agran ruler, an eeevil sorcerer named Kreshnel, attempted to use us as bargaining tokens in his negotiations for Lebensraum for Agra, and has been systematically executing the prisoners as Alkemisian King Alburian has refused to give ground. Now, a month after we were captured, I am the only hostage remaining, and two guards have just come to my cell to take me to my death, leading me to conclude that it might be an idea to try and escape.

No explanation is given for why it’s taken me a month to come to this decision, though it wouldn't have been hard to come up with one. The only previous reference to Agra in a gamebook was a sacrificial mask that compelled its wearer to commit suicide: surely the sorceries involved in its construction could have been adapted to keep prisoners subdued and pacified. As for why it stops working at the start of the adventure, perhaps the spell only works while I'm chained to the cell wall, or maybe it's been lifted so the sadistic guards can watch me squirm on my way to the gallows/executioner’s block/monster pit/spikes/vat of warm marmalade… But no. Instead, it would appear that Alkemisian soldiers are just too stupid or apathetic or riven by infighting to even attempt to orchestrate a Great Escape. It’s hardly surprising that King Alburian refused to make any concessions in return for the release of such mediocre troops.

I don’t know if decent stats are essential in this adventure, but I’m not sure a viewpoint character as inept as this deserves allocated dice. I’ll take them as they come, and if that means certain death, so be it.
Skill: 9 (reduced to 7 in combat until I get my hands on a weapon)
Stamina: 19
Luck: 12
No starting equipment, of course.

The first decision I get to make is when to act on the inspiration that has belatedly struck: do I attack the guards in my cell, or wait until we are on the way to whatever means of execution has been chosen for me? I opt to bide my time until a more opportune moment, forgetting that the author and I might not agree on what constitutes a good time to start fighting. As it transpires, I only wait until we're in the corridor outside the cell, and then launch a surprise attack so inept that I wind up hitting the wall rather than a guard and injure myself. Not the most encouraging of starts to a fight, and the penalty for being unarmed makes things a whole lot grimmer.

I manage to beat my opponents to death (with use of Luck to hasten the coup de grace against the second one), but they hack me down to just 4 Stamina before I overcome them. As if that's not bad enough, neither of the dead guards has a key to my manacles, so while I am able to arm myself, I'm still not at full Skill owing to my limited mobility, and the sound of the fight has attracted another three guards. There's a time limit for the battle against them, but there's little likelihood of my experiencing the consequences of taking too long, as I'm not likely to survive that many rounds if I don't win every one.

Further use of Luck enables me to briefly delay the inevitable, and to kill one of the Trolls even as the Lizard Man runs me through, but I'm not even a quarter of the way to the time limit when my death brings the fight to an end. Let's hope my real world return to blogging isn't as short-lived as my character's bid for freedom.

Sunday, 6 October 2019

A Light From the Shadows Shall Spring

The Tunnels & Trolls mini-adventure in issue 5 of Sorcerer's Apprentice is by Ken St. Andre, and has the punning title A Sworded Adventure. It's for a low-level Warrior who wields a sword and has an Intelligence no higher than 12. I managed to generate just such a character straight off, and chose to make him a Dwarf as he'd still meet the requirements but have better chances in a fight (at the cost of becoming less good-looking). Thus, I start out like this:

Strength 26
Intelligence 7
Luck 9
Constitution 20
Dexterity 11
Charisma 9
Speed 7

My opening funds stretch to a sabre and a few oddments of armour. When checking out the character requirements I inadvertently spotted that what happens first in the adventure depends on how much money I have on me, but in order to have the sum that makes a difference I'd need to go for an inferior weapon and even less armour (or none at all), so I'll go with a better-equipped hero and 'poverty'.

I stroll through the Great Bazaar of Khazan, my sword at my side. But my scabbard hides a secret: the sword is broken. If I'd known that was how things were going to be, I'd have picked something cheaper. Anyway, I'm hoping that Mordo the Dwarf will be able to reforge the fragments into something that can keep the hostiles at bay until I can afford a replacement. However, my slightly sub-par Luck lets me down, and... a barrel falls off a stack on a wagon, and is about to hit me. That wasn't what I was expecting.

To my relief (and, no doubt, the annoyance of players whose Dexterity is their best attribute), the text has me attempt to catch the barrel rather than dodge out of the way, and at the set difficulty level, my chances are as good as they can ever be. There's a minimum 1 in 9 chance of failing any saving roll in T&T - though, on the vaguely positive-ish side, no saving roll is ever completely impossible, either, even if the odds of success do become infinitesimally minuscule at times.

I catch the barrel (though if I'd kept my character human, he'd be injured at best and a pancake at worst) and help the wagon driver replace it and secure it more carefully. He gives me a coin for my troubles - not much reward, but as I wasn't injured and this world has yet to spawn the phrase 'an accident that wasn't your fault', I'm happy to have emerged from the incident marginally better off than I was before it happened.

Mordo is closing down for the day when I reach his stall. The price he asks is a good deal more than I can afford, and the list of things not covered by his guarantee leaves me unconvinced that it would be worth it even if I did have the money. I say that that's too much, and Mordo offers to sell me a past-its-prime magic sword that he recently acquired. As regards dealing damage, it's worse than most models of sword, but in the highly unlikely event that I ever have to fight a Water Elemental, the sword's enchantment will prove lethal to the hostile H20.

I can't afford that, either. I'd have enough money (just) if I'd bought a Lidl sword when equipping my character, but I didn't know that I'd be throwing away whatever I spent on my weapon, so I chose something more expensive and didn't get what I paid for.

Whether or not I buy the sword, that's the end of the adventure. Which is quite the anticlimax. I shall have to come back to the Bazaar tomorrow and buy a crowbar - that's the best weapon I can get for the money remaining to me. Given the lethality of most T&T adventures, even 'wind up with a mediocre weapon' is more of a success than usual, but it's still an unsatisfying ending.

Monday, 30 September 2019

Lost Luggage and Lost Souls

Events in the real world are making it difficult for me to get motivated to play the gamebook I was planning to cover next at this blog, so instead I'm going to try and learn from my mistakes. As I have mentioned before now, there have been times when I bought a gamebook about which I knew little or nothing, went on to buy others in the same series before having a proper go at the one I now owned, and wound up discovering that the books were pretty rubbish (with the odd exception). If I'd actually bothered to play those initial purchases before succumbing to my completist tendencies, I'd have more shelf space and fewer lousy gamebooks. Also fewer rants here, so some readers may consider my choosing to exercise a little more caution for once a bad thing, but the shelf space thing is becoming a bit of a problem.

Back in the summer of 2005, I briefly visited my former home town of Tunbridge Wells because a couple of friends were getting married in the area. The day before I returned to Hull, I was able to do some browsing, and in a charity shop in Tonbridge I found and purchased a gamebook of which I'd not previously heard, which was part of a series of which I was equally ignorant. I read a little of it on the walk back to Tunbridge Wells, got annoyed when my character was robbed of a potentially useful item, and put the book away in my bag, meaning to get back to it later. I didn't expect 'later' to mean 'in a little over 14 years', but life got in the way.

The book was Clive Gifford's The Cosmic Toaster, from the Plot Busters series. The other day I happened upon a couple of other Plot Busters books, also by Mr. Gifford, so I'm going to have a proper go at Toaster to see if it's likely to be worth taking advantage of this opportunity to get more in the series, and I'm going to write it up here in an attempt at circumventing this reality-induced gamebook blogger's block.

Beyond inventory management, the book has no rules, so the 'How to play' page is pretty basic. It concludes with a substantial paragraph that aims to discourage cheating by pointing out that doing so will:
  1. adversely affect the replayability of the book
  2. diminish any bragging rights gained by succeeding at the adventure, and
  3. potentially lead to my being arrested and taken for torture by the Plutonian Fib Police.
I prefer not to cheat anyway, though some books do make it necessary to creatively interpret the rules to have any chance of success. This seems unlikely to be one of them.

It is the year 2677, and I am Griddle, an apprentice kitchen orderly in the Imperial Palace. My immediate superior, the Deputy Junior Assistant Imperial Chef, catches me researching 20th century cookery on my antiquated CD viewer when I should be working, and punishes me with a shift of welding cheese onto a cake. Once that's done, and I approach him for a new chore, he admits that he's irritable because he's worried. The Imperial High Priestess of the known universe is having one of her whims, and this one seems even worse than the time she wanted all her meals colour-coordinated with her favourite dress. So many chefs have been imprisoned for failing to provide whatever it is that she wants, my boss fears that he's now next in line to become Breakfast Chef, and shortly afterwards to join his predecessors in the dungeons.

All too soon his fears prove accurate, and he's not the last of the kitchen staff to disappear. Eventually I decide to try and find out exactly what has caused the downfall of so many colleagues, and attempt to confront the High Imperial Priestess in the Great Chamber. Droids intercept me, but the scuffle attracts Her Most Greatness' attention, so I ask why so many chefs have been imprisoned.


Chief advisor Faxit clarifies her answer. Way back in the 22nd century, Her All Powerfulness once tasted the Earth delicacy called toast, and now she has a hankering for more, but the secret of making it has been lost. One after another, the chefs have tried and failed to create the dish, and have been punished for their lack of success.

My mouth overtaking my brain, I blurt out something I read on a CD: there is apparently still one toaster in existence, on the planet Neptune, in the possession of a troll of some kind. The Priestess orders me to travel to Neptune and fetch the toaster, overriding Faxit's protests that the mission should be entrusted to someone better qualified. I could try refusing to go, but considering the way the Priestess has punished so many of her staff for being unable to do what she wants, there's no way that outright defiance of an order can end well for me.

I have a few minutes in which to pack before embarking on my quest, and take a moment to refer to my CD reader. The screen is barely functional, but I can still make out half a dozen options, some more obviously germane to the situation than others. Would 'About this machine' give any indication of how I might be able to keep the device running? Or is this going to be my only shot at getting data that could help me achieve my goal? I'll see what I can find out about that Troll.

It would appear that Trolls are not as bad as they're made out to be. Sure, they have perpetrated the odd dismemberment, but not enough to merit the near-genocidal attentions of the superheroes who have brought them to the brink of extinction. They spend most of their time clearing away astroweed, which has a strange tendency to grow in profusion wherever Trolls go, and worshipping. A glitch in the CD reader somewhat scrambes the data on Trollish religious practises, but I can read mirror writing with little difficulty, and thus have no trouble learning that three-eyed Trolls venerate household objects, and tend to get violent if challenged about this. As an average Troll weighs 1200kg, getting into a fight with one is inadvisable. Judging by the last line of text on the screen, I may need to track down a tin opener and then persuade the Troll that it's more sacred than the toaster.

There may be time for one more bit of research. While I am a little curious about what relevance the Great Cosmoburger Wars could have, I think finding out what I can about the CD reader may be more useful in the long run. Or maybe not: most of the technical data on the Uranuco Series 7000 is summarised in volumes 6, 71 and 193 of the condensed user manual, which may have been provided back when the original owner first bought the device, but is nowhere to be seen by now.

As punishment for my time-wasting, I am only issued with eight galactic credits to fund my endeavours. I'm advised to remember that my exit code from Neptune is the opposite of my entry code. As I collect my cybersack, the Imperial Dentist bursts into the room and implants a tooth containing my travel details. The accompanying illustration, showing my POV of this surgical procedure, 'incidentally' includes the printout of my entry code, so I make a note of that.

Proceeding to the Cruiser that will take me to Neptune, I find that I'm in cargo class, along with some crates of jet scooter parts and a gang of Martian Astral Polo hooligans. Checking my inventory, I find that I've forgotten to pack the CD reader. While double-checking that I didn't just fail to spot it mixed in with my nuclear candle, peeling knife, cheesecake and tin of spaceflea stew, I drop a CD, which rolls away from me and is grabbed by a Martian for frisbee practice. It's not going to be a lot of use without the reader, but could still come in handy somehow, so I'm going to risk getting into a fight with the hooligan. Well, I would have, but my travel tooth beams the message "Don't bother," into my brain, and I'm going to assume that that's an instance of being given the opportunity to reconsider an unwise move rather than the author treacherously attempting to discourage an essential course of action.

The journey becomes tedious, and the mutant Celery in front of me gets stroppy when I try to read over its shoulder (or equivalent growth). I could try and sneak a vidicom machine out of Luxury Class, but it wouldn't surprise me if there were some useful or essential information hidden away in the in-flight magazine. In fact, there's quite a selection of outdated periodicals in the pouch. Disregarding the tabloid and the puzzle magazine, I'm left with a choice of What Matter Transporter and Universe Today News.

I take a chance on the latter, which includes a couple of reports concerning Neptune: once-popular superhero Thorag is now a fugitive from the Food Enforcers because of his brawling, and illegal chess-playing rings are on the increase.There's also an ad for the Galax Lottery, with an amusing disclaimer in the small print.  The cover date indicates the magazine to be a century old, so I don't know if any of this is still relevant, and I'm sure I'll wind up kicking myself if I wind up having to make a blind choice between different models of matter transporter, but there's still a slim chance that there's something useful to know in there.

The Cruiser reaches Neptune, and a stroppy robot demands to know the purpose of my visit to 'this hell hole'. Given the robot's attitude, claiming to be a tourist may sound suspicious, so I risk telling the truth. A sceptical Food Enforcer promptly takes over my case, and I am 'escorted' away to be searched. My food items are confiscated, and I'm about to be thrown into a dungeon when an underling points out to the Inspector that my travel tooth hasn't been checked. The Enforcer Dentist is summoned, and the tooth confirms that I am working for the High Priestess (but is inadvertently extracted during the scanning process). Not wishing to annoy Her Incredible Fragrantness, the Inspector becomes apologetic, and it takes me a while to remember the formal response, so he's forced to grovel for an awkwardly long time.

Before letting me go, the Inspector asks what a toaster is, and when I explain, he says there's no such thing on Neptune. All foodstuffs and cooking devices have been banned in order to prevent a recurrence of the events that triggered the Great Cosmoburger Wars, and tablets are the only source of nutrition here. I think it unlikely that anyone would have dared tell the Troll that his toaster needed to be destroyed, so I take the Inspector's claims with the permitted level of sodium chloride.

As I get ready to move on, the Inspector advises me to seek assistance from the Food Enforcers' main office in the city of Neptunia. I'll bear that in mind, but I start by visiting the Tourist Information Centre, which contains only a poster advertising the casino, a vidicom, and a hovering grey box that attempts to persuade me to join the waiting list for the Galactic Theme Park. When I insist on asking for information on Trolls, the box says that they live in the Wilderness That Knows No Name, and hardly anybody knows where that is. My best bet would be to keep a look out for kitchen appliance-seeking Trolls at the auction house or antique shop. The box dispenses a crumpled map of Neptunia and warns me that jumping from Hoverway Two to Hoverway One could be dangerous owing to the ongoing hoverworks.

Proceeding towards Neptunia, I catch sight of a café with the unappealing name Chez URGH. It could be that URGH is a perfectly normal name on the proprietor's home world, and there's nothing wrong with the meal tablets they serve, but I'm not going to take that chance. Close by is Hoverway One, and I jump on it and start gliding towards the city centre.

The layout of the street depicted doesn't match the map: the buildings are on the wrong side of the road. The side street looks like a good place to get mugged, and I'd want to be sure of the mood of the mob in Priestess Square before I try confronting them. Agful Antiques obviously merits a visit, but I think I'll check out the Museum first. The place seems deserted, and is dark, but my nuclear candle provides adequate illumination. On the wall is a map of the maze-like layout of the Museum, and an area on it illuminates when I ask about the Troll exhibit. Three passages lead away from where I am, but the map enables me to figure out which is the only one that will get me to where I need to go.

Unhelpfully, the passage leads me to the Astral Polo exhibit, where I learn that, owing to the use of black holes as the goals (or 'Peles', to use game-specific terminology), games tend to end after the first Pele is scored, there being no way of retrieving the ball. For the purposes of bug-checking rather than cheating, I take a quick look at the sections for the other passages, and one of them does lead to the Troll exhibit, though on the map that one goes only to three dead ends. Up until that error I was rather enjoying the book, but such sloppiness has soured my mood.

Forced to leave the Museum, I now visit the antique shop. A three-eyed old lady is dusting some of the stock, and tells me that she used to have a toaster in stock, but a Troll took it a century ago. The Troll actually came to the shop in search of the Sacred Butter Dish, but the shop didn't have a butter dish, and the Troll decided that the toaster was the next best thing. He left behind a pointed stone, which is still in the shop. In the intervening years, the owner has also acquired a butter dish, though it doesn't look particularly sacred. Nevertheless, I buy the stone and the dish.

Checking the map again, I see that the auction house is just off Priestess Square, so I suppose I'd better go to the square after all. A Plutonian explains that the crowd has gathered for the auction of a genuine Earth motor vehicle. I opt to stick around just to see what the vehicle actually is, and am slightly disappointed when it turns out to be a sports car - I was expecting something more quirky, like a dodgem car or a Bigtrak. The bidders are not impressed either, heaping scorn on it for not hovering or having an autopilot. Despite the fact that it could be useful for traversing the Wilderness (the only place on Neptune it may be driven, owing to the noise and toxic emissions), and the first bid placed is for just two credits, I don't have the option of trying to buy it.

Unless I want to test my theory about the side street, all I can do now is use Hoverway Two to head to another part of town. Here I can see the previously mentioned hoverworks (there's a nice visual gag in the illustration), and visit a Diner, the Food Enforcers' main office, or a Travel Agent's. The book suggests that I might be able to get a map of the Wilderness at the latter, so I check that out. A giant Stellar Parrot starts telling me about various holidays I could go on, and when I'm finally able to make my wishes known, the Parrot advises me to seek Glug the Soothsayer in a nearby alley. I turn to leave, and the Parrot adds that I'll need a matter transporter. Definitely chose the wrong magazine, then.

The alley looks insalubrious even by Neptunian standards, but I head into it anyway. A club-wielding mutant Celery blocks my way and demands a bribe. I refuse to be intimidated, and he refuses to let me past, so I have to leave the alley.

Back at the Hoverway, I decide to see if the Food Enforcers can help me at all. I give the code number mentioned by the Inspector, leading the Enforcer on the desk to assume that I'm an undercover Enforcer. Commenting that they don't have many Trolls on file as most of them stay out of trouble, he leads me to the filing room, where I see a wanted poster depicting Thorag. By now I think I've made enough mistakes to have no chance of success, so even if asking about the poster causes me to miss out on information about criminal Trolls, it's not going to make things much worse. And it's just an aside on the way to the Troll records anyway, revealing that the lack of new enemy galaxies to conquer has caused Thorag to hit the alcopills and pick fights with anyone who looks at him.

The Enforcer finds some century-old vidifits of Troll villains. Three of the five have no name on record, and the second of those three seems the most likely candidate, as 'Theft of pointy stone' is one of the charges against him (along with 'Pretending to be interesting' and 11 separate counts of robot bashing). The record also notes a possible connection with Martian Astral Polo fans, and unhelpfully gives his address as a hut somewhere in the Wilderness. The Enforcer indicates one of the other unnamed Trolls and tells me that it had no vocal cords or tongue.

That's as much information as I'm likely to get here, so I take a chance on checking out the Diner. That turns out to be a bad move, though things would have gone differently if I still had any food on me. As it is, a three-headed waitress cons me into spending a credit on a meal with some old Earth ingredients she managed to buy before the planet was towed away - a pill with mustard and ketchup on it.

I don't want to risk returning to Hoverway One, so I'm more or less finished in Neptunia. All that remains before I leave is a trip to Honest Zarg's Matter Transporters. Zarg is very talkative, and puts one of her three arms around my shoulder as she leads me around the showroom. It turns out that in this world 'matter transporter' has nothing to do with teleportation - they're just vehicles. One of them is out of my price range, though I could try visiting the casino in the hope of winning more credits. Mind you, the expensive model comes with an autopassenger - an AI designed to provide company on long journeys, with personality types such as Constant Talker, Loud Snorer and Hated Enemy - so I'm probably better off not getting that one anyway.

The cheapest model is probably dangerous, so I opt for the Protox Four. As I speed away on it, the gamebook describes an incident of which my character is not aware: Troll criminal Nikit congratulates Zarg on the transaction she just conducted and steals the credits I paid her.

My having failed to obtain a map of the Wilderness may prove my downfall, as the trail splits at a lone tree. I choose a direction at random, eventually reaching an astroweed-infested hut built from mud, twigs and matter transporter parts. As I knock on the door, a Troll sneaks up behind me. He introduces himself as Drago the Disappointing, and when I explain that I'm from the Imperial High Priestess's kitchen, he offers me some Earth cookbooks. Then, living up to his name, he remembers that he made a fire with them yesterday. To make up for it, he mentions that the Troll on the other side of the Wilderness has a toaster. Drago doesn't care if I take it, as he's a Frying Pan worshipper himself.

I head back the way I came, but at the tree the matter transporter's failsafe engages and a computer takes over the steering, returning me to Neptunia because there's only enough fuel remaining for that trip. When I object, the computer starts complaining about how it used to be one of the chess-playing greats, and had to become a cabbie following the criminalisation of the game, so I turn down the volume on the speaker.

As soon as I arrive back at Zarg's, she launches into a disclaimer denying all responsibility for whatever might be wrong with the matter transporter, and is surprised when I interject that I just need more fuel. There are, of course, complications: the Imperial High Priestess has grown impatient, and is threatening to have Neptune closed down. The announcement of this has caused citywide panic, leading to fuel rationing, so while Zarg does still have one fuel pill, she's not prepared to let me have it. I attempt to take it anyway, and she seizes my arms with two of hers and uses the third one to knock me out.

I come round in cold, wet darkness. The nuclear candle is still in my cybersack, so I switch it on, off again, and back on once I've calmed myself. I'm in jail, and one of the force-field shackles hanging from the wall has a skeletal arm in it. Scrawled on the wall close by is a riddle, which I solve in case doing so will be of some assistance. I take a quick look at the section with the number indicated by the riddle, but that's completely unrelated to my current situation, so unless I got the wrong answer, it would appear that prison cell graffiti is not actually an indicator of a way out. How disappointingly like real life.

Time passes. A Food Enforcer opens the door and lets me know how lucky I am: rather than allowing me to face vigilante justice, they've merely arrested me, and as I wasn't guilty of a food offence, I'm in the deluxe prison. The thought that somewhere on Neptune there are cells even more unwelcoming than this one does little to improve my mood.

More time passes. There's a flash of light and a smell of burning, and suddenly Faxit is in the cell with me. He explains that her Majesty doesn't want me languishing here, and then gets distracted by the fact that the teleporter set his clothing on fire. I use my water supply to extinguish the flames, and Faxit hands me a headset and confirms that the answer to that riddle is what I'd calculated it to be. I put the headset on, and it renders me unconscious.

I come round in cold, wet darkness again. The nuclear candle reveals that I'm now languishing in the High Priestess's personal dungeon on Jupiter. This is not an improvement. It is, however, the end of my adventure.

Apart from that bit with the mixed-up section numbers on the maze puzzle, that was pretty entertaining. Absurd, but intentionally so, for comic and satirical effect, rather than because the writer was showing contempt for the readers' critical faculties. I think I'm going to end up buying those other Plot Busters books I found after all.

Sunday, 8 September 2019

Scramble for a Living

Brett Schofield is almost certainly the most talented of the artists who’ve illustrated Fighting Fantazine mini-adventures. For issue 5 he went that bit further, and provided the words of Bones of the Banished as well as the pictures.

The hero is a young member of one of the tribes of humans who eke out a living on the Plain of Bones. Following the recent death of Ngodo the chieftain in a not-remotely-suspicious hunting accident, Valfrek the shaman has proclaimed the ancient Rite of Banishment. All eligible adults are to be thrown out of the tribe, and each must seek a trophy in the wilderness. Whoever returns with the best trophy becomes the new chieftain (assuming there’s still any tribe there to lead once it’s been left undefended for around a month while every remotely competent fighter goes off into a dinosaur-infested wasteland to try and single-handedly beat up a few apex predators). I've recently come of age, so I have to actively seek death rather than sit and wait for it.

My anticipation of failure is partly based on the 'Hints on Play' section in the rules, which more or less states that I'll need to make multiple unsuccessful attempts at the adventure before I can start to figure out what I actually need to do to have a shot at winning. The first time I attempted to play Bones, I made doubly sure of failure by rolling a mediocre Skill. As I recall, my character ended up dying while fighting a feline predator in a tree, though it wasn’t his opponent that killed him: a bad roll early on caused him to fall off the branch and sustain lethal injuries upon hitting the ground.

Doomed though I almost certainly am, I shall nevertheless be allocating dice: a decent Skill should give me more chance of surviving long enough to learn something that'll be of use on subsequent attempts.
Skill 12
Stamina 18
Luck 12
There's also a non-random stat called Delays, which will come into play if I survive the first half of the adventure, and in addition to my dagger and Provisions, I get to take either a rope or a torch with me. I choose the torch. 

Before heading out across the Plain I may speak with someone. Last time I made the mistake of talking to the shaman's miserable apprentice, who said something discouraging and hit me with a Luck penalty. The tribe's best hunter is unlikely to say anything helpful to a rival, which narrows the options down to my childhood friend Paru and my close friend Kuwi.

I choose Kuwi, who turns out to be the most beautiful woman in the village, and daughter of Wanushu, the aforementioned mighty hunter. This kind of detail should have been included in the section where I was offered the choice of person to approach: my character would already have known such things, and it would be useful for the reader to be aware (for example) that Wanushu is an overprotective father who almost certainly disapproves of our friendship. I hope that 'will require several attempts' warning at the start doesn't come with an unsaid 'because the author is withholding information and will harshly penalise players for not taking into account facts he deliberately failed to mention'.

Kuwi recommends seeking out the terrible winged lizard that dwells in the black mountain to the north. She also urges me to try and kill it quickly, as she's not comfortable with having all the village's best fighters sent away like this.

Well, the sooner I get going, the sooner I'll be back. Or dead. On my previous attempt I disregarded Kuwi's hint about the lizard because of my sub-par Skill, but this time I could be in with a chance, so I'll head north. This leads me through a light forest of thorn trees, and my Skill enables me to avoid hurting myself as I pick my way through it.

Beyond the trees I find grassland, and I see water in the distance. This turns out to be a watering hole, which is being used by many of the local fauna, including Antelope, Buffalo and Threehorns. I can stop for a drink or press on to the west, which is odd, as I was heading north. Maybe west is because the watering hole prevents me from continuing straight ahead and, I don't know, some stupid tribal custom forbids going anticlockwise around bodies of water. Or perhaps it's sloppiness, or change of direction enforced by authorial fiat.

I drink, and random chance determines that... nothing happens, so I move on. To the west, judging by the section number. Except that that section says that I'm far to the north of the village. And, as it's already been entered into my gamebook manager, I must have passed through it on my first attempt at the adventure, in which I started out by going east. I'd hate to have to map this region.

Anyway, night is falling, and I must decide whether to risk sleeping in the open or shelter in a tree. I'm not making the mistake I did last time: that chance of falling is no respecter of Skill, and it would be foolish to invite the same death that ended my previous attempt. Especially as the only noteworthy thing I've learned so far on this playthrough is that the local geography is disconcertingly muddled.

Nothing dangerous happens when I sleep in the open. The author just described it as a risk in order to trick readers into encountering the real threat in the tree. In the morning I must eat or lose Stamina, but there's a loophole in the rules that would make me better off going hungry now and voluntarily eating a meal later in the day. The same oddity is present in many FF gamebooks, but a mistake doesn't stop being a mistake just because lots of people make it.

Anyway, it's time I was heading off to wherever Mr. Schofield has decided I should be going. Which is somewhere other than north, as I am startled by a loud cracking noise that seems to emanate from a group of men and camels in that direction, and have the option of approaching them instead of continuing towards the cliffs towards which I had been trekking. The interstitial illustration just above this section depicts a crude firearm, which could be a hint (deliberate or otherwise) about the source of the noise. I think I'd better investigate further.

There are four people in the group, a Dwarf (though, presumably never having encountered his kind before, I take him to be a small human) and three non-locals whose clothing and mode of transport suggests that they come from a desert region. The Dwarf tells me that he's come from the city of Vynheim on a hunting expedition (which, in terms of distance, is a bit like someone from Berlin employing a few natives of Toulouse as tour guides for a trip to Rome). It's not going well, and he's proving a lousy shot with the blunderbuss he borrowed (he incorrectly says 'loaned', but I'm willing to attribute the confusion of opposite-meaning verbs to the character rather than the author). If I had a trophy I didn't need, I might be able to get something worthwhile in return for it. As it is, all I gain here is the knowledge that I should try and find something to kill before I get this far the next time I have a go at the adventure.

Heading on towards the cliffs, I learn something else that would have been self-evident to my character: I'm approaching the gorge inhabited by my people's traditional enemies the Oldbone tribe. I could turn back, but since the author went to such lengths to bring me this way, I suspect that I'm going to have to keep going. Especially as leaving is said to be 'safer', which is a warning sign after 'risk' proved the less lethal option when choosing where to spend the night.

On the alert for guards, I become nervous when I catch sight of a lookout post which appears to have been left unmanned. Indeed, the whole area seems more desolate than it should be. I think I'd better investigate. Descending into the gorge, I search for the entrance to the Oldbones' caves, and my high Luck guarantees success. Judging by the abandoned spears I find just inside, this place used to be guarded, but something must have befallen the guards. Can I find out what without falling victim to it myself?

The text compels me to head further into the caves, and the passage splits. No clues as to whether left or right is the better option, so I arbitrarily pick left. This leads through various chambers showing signs of recent occupation, but there's nobody here. Eventually I reach a cavern in which three holes have been gouged out of the rock and then covered with lids woven from branches and bones, with large stones holding them shut. Could be used to imprison animals or wrongdoers. I'll take a chance on opening one, in case there's someone in there who can tell me something useful.

I can choose which hole to check. Annoyingly, the section for investigating the middle one is directly before the one offering that choice, and I inadvertently glimpse enough to see that it leads to trouble. Well, I'm not going to let sloppy design deny me the opportunity to make a decision, so I'm ignoring that spoiler and going for the leftmost pit.

The hole is too deep for me to be able to see what's in it. I hear a moaning sound, possibly human in origin, and an unpleasant smell emanates from the hole, but I can't find out anything more without a rope, and I don't have one of them.

A systematic investigation would now have me turn my attention to the middle hole, but I'm still annoyed at the placing of that section, so I'll try the rightmost one instead. That one is also too deep for me to be able to find anything out without using a rope. What possessed the Oldbones to excavate such deep pits? I could understand them using deep ones that already existed, but the text indicated that these are not naturally-occurring holes, which means the tribe went to the effort of chiselling their way through tens of metres of solid rock when a dozen or so would most likely have sufficed.

And nobody involved in the production of Bones spotted the use of the wrong section number for looking in the leftmost hole here. Having one of the choices in section 180 lead to section 180 is even more careless than having 135 give 134 as an option.

Logically, there's no real reason why 'I tried it on a previous attempt and bad stuff happened' should be a more legitimate reason for avoiding a decision that 'I accidentally caught sight of the section and saw that bad stuff happens in it'. Nevertheless, it feels that way, so I am now going to check out the middle pit to give myself grounds to not do so when I play this again (assuming I ever get that far).

A big tentacle emerges and wraps around my throat. I have only a few rounds of combat in which to defeat it before it can drag me to my doom, but my Skill is high enough that I have a decent chance. It's a close call, but I do just succeed. However, further tentacles emerge from the hole, forcing me to flee. I also pick up a codeword - a straightforward example of the 'word related to what just happened, only spelled backwards' technique that Jonathan Green has employed on several occasions, so the suggestion in the rules section that readers would find it difficult to grasp the significance of the codewords used in the adventure is frankly insulting.

Back at the entrance I can investigate the other turning or leave. That codeword means it's probably a bad idea to stick around, but I suspect that by now I've already missed more than enough to guarantee failure, so I might as well find out as much as I can in these caves before meeting whatever grisly end awaits.

The other passage splits into three, and the choice here is marginally more informed than in the entrance cave: something glows to the left, the passage straight ahead descends sharply, and to the right I can only see darkness. I was denied the opportunity to check out both non-tentacle-containing pits by my having chosen a torch rather than a rope, so if the torch doesn't prove of any help with the darkness I shall be even more peeved than I already am.

Yes, the torch is useful. Proceeding to the right without it would mean a temporary and substantial Skill penalty. The passage leads to a hall with a throne in it, and there's actually someone here - the Oldbone chieftain, judging by the crown. Disconcertingly, he doesn't react to my arrival, and just goes on staring at the wall opposite.

I tell him to note down the codeword 'evitnettani', and a red glow enters into his eyes. Moving like a man possessed, he attacks me with his spear, winning a statistically improbable number of rounds before I kill him. As he dies, his mind returns to him, and he accuses me of having been sent to kill him by the man who took his people in return for worthless stones. Given that just in front of the throne is a heap of gems that appear to be my people's handiwork, that has some ominous implications. And his dying declaration that I'll end up a slave too isn't exactly encouraging, either. I take his crown as a trophy and return to the junction.

Next I take the left branch, and discover that that glow is daylight: the end of the passage looks out into the gorge. I risk a closer look, seeing that it's a long way to the bottom. Turning away, I am startled to see a spear-wielding Oldbone warrior, who attacks. Luckily, I dodge his initial attack, grabbing the haft of his spear and using it to unbalance him and send him plummeting to a messy death several hundred metres below.

There's nothing else to be done here, so I go back to the junction and try the middle passage. This leads less precipitously to the bottom of the gorge. Two openings lead out, both blocked with gates made out of bones. I open the smaller gate and step out into the gorge. Close by is a pit, which I investigate. It appears too deep for me to be able to get out again if I enter it, and may have been used for gladiatorial combat, judging by the blood and bone on the floor. I shan't take a closer look, what with the apparent impossibility of getting out again.

Heading left along the gorge, I see splatters of what's probably guano on the ground, and a nest on a ledge further up. Having come all this way, I might as well investigate the contents of the nest. It's big, and contains a large egg and some human remains. Suddenly cast into shadow, I look up to see the owner of the nest swooping to defend it. Luck is not with me, and the beast seizes me and starts to fly up. A roll of the die determines whether or not I'm able to break free, and I succeed, though a second roll to determine falling damage almost finishes me off, and then the Quetzalcoatlas swoops to the attack again. Despite the Attack Strength penalty for my precarious position, I survive, and I take the egg as a trophy, since there's nothing else of note in the nest.

Returning to the caves, I head back up, and this is where I face the consequences of having opened up the middle pit. The time I took descending and coming back up again has allowed the owner of the tentacles to extricate itself and follow me, and the creature hasn't come to thank me for releasing it. Against the whole thing rather than a lone tentacle, I don't stand a chance.

As I noted at the start of this playthrough, Brett Schofield is a talented illustrator.

Saturday, 31 August 2019

Now You Are In For It At Last

I bought issue 18 of Proteus, Brian Allanson’s Into the Dragon’s Domain, on the way to school. Probably at the newsagent’s closer to home, as the sequence I remember reading while waiting outside the music room was some way into the adventure. As I recall, I failed my first attempt by failing to learn that, in the world in which Domain is set, Wyverns have a lethal sting. Well, failing to learn it before I encountered the Wyvern. I found out soon enough when I got into a fight with the beast – and that was the last thing that that character did learn.

Domain is the one Proteus adventure that I might not have won when I played through the series in order to review the lot back in the noughties. I say ‘might not’ because of something on the letters page. Somebody had written in to ask why Dexterity was now being generated by adding 6 to the roll of a die, rather than 8 as in the first couple of issues, and the response was that it made the adventures 'more realistic (i.e. harder!)' but readers could go back to adding 8 if they preferred.

Now, the climactic fight in Domain is harsh. The eponymous Dragon has 16 Dexterity, and the adventure provides no means by which the player can increase their Dexterity above the starting score. Depending on the route taken to the endgame, the player can either gain a weapon that does double damage, but automatically lose at least 4 Strength at the start of the fight, or have a chance of commencing battle at full Strength, but only do normal damage, thus needing to win twice as many rounds against a superior opponent.

On my many attempts at the final battle, I played by the rules set out at the front of the magazine, but also made a note of how things would have gone if I’d been using the variant permitted on the letters page. Every character with a Dexterity of 1d6+6 died. On one occasion, the 1d6+8 variant narrowly managed to defeat the Dragon. Even if I can still remember the optimal route through the adventure, I think it unlikely that I’ll do any better this time round.

As should already be obvious, the primary antagonist in this adventure is a Dragon. Known as Dagmor the Terrible, he lives in a system of caves not far from the village of Mittelden, and has been making life that bit harsher for the locals by preying on them and their livestock. He also has the ability to charm people, unless they happen to be wearing a certain magic helmet that, for inadequately explained reasons, is stored somewhere in the cave network – and not buried in the mound of treasure on which Dagmor likes to chill out, where it could be kept out of the way of bold adventurers seeking to add ‘Dragonslayer’ to their resumĂ©.

Even more bizarrely, Dagmor has a number of prisoners, including a hermit who can teach people the essential ingredients for a Potion of Fire Resistance, and an alchemist who will brew up such a potion if provided with those ingredients, yet he has never charmed them into ceasing to do this. It’s not as if this is the only piece of interactive fiction to indulge in such absurd contrivances but the daftness of it all does seem to stand out that bit more here, perhaps because the straightforwardness of the plot does little to distract the reader from details that make little sense.

Anyway, the combination of the challenge posed by Dagmor and the substantial reward being offered to his slayer has inspired me to try and kill the Dragon. This, as indicated a few paragraphs above, would be unwise even if I had the highest stats attainable, and the dice aren't that favourable. Even allocating rolls (and gambling on not needing to make much use of the third attribute), I can't improve on:
Dexterity 11 (13 if I do as permitted on the letters page)
Strength 21 (or 24)
Fate/Fortune 7
There's no ceiling on Fate/Fortune, so I might be able to push that to a more respectable score if I get lucky, but that Dexterity is not going to be enough. Better than the 7 (or 9) it would have been if I'd taken the dice as they fell, but comparatives of doomedness are largely irrelevant.

Stopping off for supplies in the hamlet of Yarrowdale, I meet a villager in his sixties who proves remarkably well-informed about the Dragon. He claims that he just happened to come across an entrance to the caves many years ago, and was inspired to make researching Dagmor and his environs into a hobby, but it's still quite a stretch to accept that he's been able to find out as much as he passes on to me. In addition to telling me the way to the caves, he warns me about Dagmor's powers, mentions the oddities described above, and points out that somewhere in the caves are a couple of items it might be worth trying to find: the Dragonshield, forged from the scale of another Dragon, and Albus the Avenger, a sword especially created for killing Dragons.

Proceeding to the cave entrance, I spot the Hobgoblin guard whose careless monologuing revealed to Mister Info-Dump that this is a way in to Dagmor's lair. Today the guard is taking a nap, so I think I'll sneak up on him and see if a little threatening behaviour can make him loose-lipped again. The text includes a rather nice line about Hobgoblins being 'occasionally prone' to good manners when held at sword-point. I am offered a choice of things to ask, and I think that finding out what can be found in the immediate vicinity of the entrance might be a good start.

The Hobgoblin tells me that there's a cavern with three exits nearby, and the leftmost one leads to a Minotaur. With a little encouragement, I get him to also remember that a 'strange old man' can be found on the right. That's the extent of his local knowledge, and as he can't be trusted to keep silent about my presence, I tie him up and gag him. Killing him in cold blood is not an option, and I see little point in getting into an avoidable fight.

Before long I get to the cavern. It's illuminated by torches, and I take one and have a quick search before moving on, finding a sack that contains a glass eye. This adventure is proving a little quirkier than I remembered it being.

The old man is likely to be another source of handy hints, so I seek him first. The tunnel leads to a door, and I knock on it. "Who is it now?" grumbles a voice, and I love the implication that the man is a bit fed up of being repeatedly disturbed by doomed adventurers. I claim to be a friend, and footsteps approach the door, which opens to reveal a man wearing red robes and an eyepatch. He invites me in and I miss out on something on account of not having eavesdropped before I knocked. Probably an opportunity to give him his lost eye and receive some reward.

The man asks why I consider myself a friend, and I explain that I mean to kill the Dragon who holds him prisoner. He tells me that, if I wish to reduce the effect of Dagmor's fiery breath, I will need to take some amber, a Minotaur horn and the tip of a Wyvern's tail to the potion-maker. Along with this advice, I am given a couple of section numbers to note down, so I can act on this information when in a position to do so. It's more blatant than the standard gamebook tricks for leading readers to otherwise inaccessible sections, but some readers might prefer that approach. 

The man also gives me a bead necklace, for which the Fire Imps will be willing to trade me some amber, and opens a secret door in the west wall that will lead me to Fire Imp territory. I have the option of assuming that the secret door is a trap and going north instead, but that seems a bit daft. It could work if some peculiarity of the Dragon's charm spell were to make his prisoners intermittently lie, with some tell-tale signifier that would enable the well-informed player to distinguish between fact and falsehood, but that would be too subtle for this adventure.

I go along the secret passage, which ends in another concealed door. This leads into a faintly glowing chamber with exits to north, south and west, and after a moment I spot two small humanoids on a ledge. They have in turn noticed me, so I wave the beads at them and point at the amber necklace that Mr. Allanson neglected to mention when describing the Imps.

There's a delightful little twist here: having conducted the trade in the manner of a colonialist explorer patronising aboriginals, I get laughed at by the Imp, who eloquently explains that he knows why I'm here, and wishes me well in my endeavours. To further assist me, he provides a key to the door at the end of the passage leading west, beyond which he has never dared to venture.

Thanking him, I head west. The passage ends at a T-junction, with the aforementioned door set into the west wall. I unlock it and find another passage, this one leading to an apparently deserted chamber with litter on the floor. Upon closer inspection, some of that litter turns out to be human bones, and a snorting from behind me draws my attention to the Minotaur that I somehow failed to notice while performing what must have been a very perfunctory examination of the place.

Owing to several poor rolls, I take a bit of a battering in the ensuing fight. Nevertheless, the Minotaur takes twice as much damage, which is enough to kill it. I eat to restore some of my lost Strength, and the text prompts me to make use of one of the numbers I noted down earlier (not that I needed the reminder). I remove one of the horns, which comes with another number to write down (as did the amber), and again I am simply told to make a note of the number - no 'there are this many lumps of amber in the necklace' or 'you estimate the horn to be so many centimetres long'.

Returning to the junction, I can only go north, though some awkwardly-phrased text indicates that east would have been an option if I'd not already been that way. That implies that it is possible to break down the door if you don't have the key - but I'd have had neither reason nor opportunity to take the horn if I hadn't spoken with the old man first, so I was right to go the long way round.

The passage twists and turns and leads to a descending flight of steps. I head down to a chamber containing a pool of water, with exits to the north-east and north-west. Taking a closer look at the pool, I wind up drinking from it, and regain the rest of the Strength I lost to the Minotaur. Now I must leave, and it's a blind choice.

The north-east exit takes me to another door, with a little light shining through from the other side. Listening at it proves uninformative, so I go through into a dusty, cobweb-shrouded room. A mouldering tapestry hangs on the wall, a wooden casket sits on a table, and a glass case sits on a stone column in the centre of the room. If this is where I think it is, I should leave the glass case until last.

The casket is cleaner than the rest of the room, suggesting that someone has recently been doing something with it. I cautiously raise the lid - but not cautiously enough. Still, the damage done by the darts which hit me is far from lethal. Inside the casket is a sealed scroll, which I open. On it is written a message indicating that the helm of protection is in the glass case, followed by a straightforward numerical puzzle that provides the correct combination for opening the case.

For thoroughness' sake I check out the tapestry, which tells me that I'll need to find the scroll before I try to get into the glass case. Having already found it, I automatically proceed to the case, and it turns out to be a good thing that I did look at the tapestry, as I wouldn't be able to find the concealed switch on the side of the case without a hint provided by the tapestry. The switch causes half a dozen columns to appear on the glass, each with a different number of helms in it. I touch the columns corresponding to the digits of the solution to the puzzle, and one side of the case slides open, allowing me to take the helm within.

My familiarity with gamebook foibles enables me to make ominous inferences from the options for leaving the room. I shan't explain the thought processes in tedious detail, but I think I should have taken the other exit from the chamber with the pool, and now I'm probably going to miss out on something helpful. Still, there is a slim chance that I might be able to get what I've missed without consequently missing something else, so I'll give that a shot.

Taking the north-west exit, I follow a meandering passage to a firelit chamber, and the description of the exits is not encouraging. Still, now that I'm here, I may as well have a proper look around. In an alcove is a stone table, with a glyph-inscribed marble box and a cloth-wrapped rectangular object on it. I pick up the cloth bundle, which contains a book. There's writing on the cover in both the language I speak and glyphs like the carving on the box. Turning my attention to the box, I attempt to decipher the inscription with the aid of the book.

This puzzle is a little more sophisticated than most of the substitution ciphers found in gamebooks, as there are a few characters that represent combinations of letters in addition to the 26 corresponding to the Roman alphabet. Not all of these combination characters appear in the inscription, so either there are more of these puzzles to come or the author went above and beyond what was essential for solving this one. And there's a second inscription inside the box, but that doesn't use those characters either. Following the directions, I use some of the powder contained in the box, which induces a vision that provides a couple of hints about dealing with Rock Trolls (and a section number to turn to if I should have cause to act on this information). Nice to know, but maybe not as helpful as what I'd have discovered if I'd taken the other exit from the room with the helm in.

I have no choice but to take the exit to the north. This leads to another door, and listening indicates only that the room beyond may be occupied. It is, by an Ogre who's roasting meat on a spit. He asks what I want, and I can be honest, rude or aggressive. I'll tell the truth. The Ogre observes that others have come to kill Dagmor and failed, and indicates that he'd like to be left alone. I risk asking what he knows about his immediate environs, and he tells me that a Wyvern lives to the east, and he'd very much like it if I could bother that instead of him.

As I turn towards the exit leading east, the Ogre attempts a sneak attack, but on this occasion I succeed at the Fate/Fortune roll and dodge the knife he throws at me. Over the course of the ensuing battle he manages to land a couple of lucky blows on me, but once he's dead, I decide not to let his food go to waste, and it restores as much Strength as I lost in the fight.

Now I can go east unhindered, and find myself in a chamber with a hole in the roof, through which the sun is shining. Having been forewarned of what I can expect to encounter here, I stay close to the wall in order to reduce the number of angles from which I can be attacked. The sound of beating wings heralds the arrival of the Wyvern, the remnants of its last kill still in its mouth, and I climb up to the ledge on which it has perched. My Fate/Fortune lets me down and I stumble, attracting the Wyvern's attention and missing out on a chance to sever its sting before battle commences. Not that it matters in the end: the Wyvern never gets a fighting power sufficient to use the sting on me, and I don't lose a single round in this fight.

After helping myself to the tip of the tail, I leave the chamber. The path forks again. Maybe north-east will be a good idea this time... And it leads to a torchlit chamber containing both the Dragonshield and a Rock Troll, the latter apparently napping on the floor. I say 'apparently' because that vision told me that Rock Trolls often feign sleep in order to surprise their enemies. An amusingly blatant instance of section number padding follows: I am asked if I want to make use of any knowledge I might have gained regarding Rock Trolls, and when I turn to the section indicated, it tells me to turn to the section number I was told to note down earlier.

While my vision-derived knowledge enables me to avoid the Rock Troll's ambush, my mediocre Fate/Fortune denies me the opportunity to exploit the weakness also highlighted in the vision, so I have to fight. Despite being described as having a low Dexterity, the Rock Troll actually has a higher Dexterity than the Minotaur and the Wyvern, and I take a bit of a beating before subduing it and helping myself to the Dragonshield.

Continuing on my way, I reach a dead end, and a trapdoor opens beneath me. Another failed Fate/Fortune roll causes me to take some damage from the fall, so I eat another meal before moving on. There's a door to the north, so I check that out. Listening at it reveals that something is bubbling in the room beyond, and somebody is pacing back and forth. I must have hit my head quite hard in the fall, as I have no idea what could be bubbling even though I'm well aware that there's a potion maker living somewhere in these caves.

I knock on the door, and the thought processes outlined in the text back up my theory that my character is now mildly concussed. A voice tells me to "Come in, if you must!", so I enter. The bubbling comes from a cauldron, and the occupant of the room looks irritable, so I apologise for disturbing him. He asks why I'm here, and I risk giving him a straight answer - there is also the option of not mentioning my quest, and just asking if he's the potion maker. The man warns me of an evil individual who lives in a blue glowing cave and likes to kill outsiders, and is rumoured to be the keeper of a powerful magic sword.

I can follow up this lead or stay and chat a while longer, so I choose to stick around. In the course of the ensuing conversation I learn that he is the potion maker after all, so I provide him with the ingredients I've collected, and he sets to work blending them into the potion. When he's finished, he reveals that he is cursed to remain in this room as long as Dagmor lives, so succeeding in my quest is all I need do to repay him for his assistance.

Before moving on, I eat again, as I remember from past attempts that the man the potion maker mentioned is a dangerous opponent, and I'm liable to take a lot of damage fighting him. That is, if I do encounter him: the passage forks again, and there's no mention of a distant blue glow either way, so I'm going to have to guess which direction to take.

On reflection, I may have been wrong about that first north-easterly passage being a bad choice. I have the helm, the potion and the Dragonshield, and the only reason I don't have Albus the Avenger is that I haven't yet got far enough to have the opportunity. I got the warnings about the Wyvern and the Rock Troll, and I've seen no indication of there having been other clues that I didn't find. So what could I have missed out on?

Well, if north-east was okay the first time and the better option the second time, will it be the right way to go again on this occasion? My gamebook manager has no data on the section for going that way, so that's a no. This will be a learning experience, then.

The passage shows signs of not having been used in a while. Some way along it, I find an alcove, which I investigate. Scraping away the dirt and slime on the wall, I find an inscription that poses a riddle. Simple stuff, and answering it provides me with a ring of fire resistance. Not as useful as the sword would have been, but better than nothing.

Continuing along the passage, I reach a large chamber, littered with corpses. Oh, and in the middle there's a whacking great mound of treasure with a massive Dragon squatting on it. Funny that I didn't notice that first.

After downing the potion, I advance on the Dragon. The combination of Dragonshield, potion and ring will reduce the damage his fiery breath does by four quarters, but the extra damage I'd be doing if I had Albus the Avenger would still give me better odds of winning the fight.

Dagmor looks into my eyes, but the helm protects me from his attempts at charming me. He then bathes me with flames, which, as noted above, do zero damage, before attacking with tooth and claw. And, as expected, the Dexterity disparity does for me again. I win one round of combat (and with the alternate stats I'd have managed two) before being added to the assortment of corpses in the chamber.

An unsurprising outcome, but the adventure proved a little more enjoyable than anticipated, with a couple of instances of wit that I'd previously failed to appreciate. Not one of Proteus' finest, but nowhere near as awful as some others, even with that killer of a final fight.

Saturday, 24 August 2019

Tell the Animals in the Undergrowth

For logistical reasons, my family's 2016 Christmas get-together took place in my childhood home town of Tunbridge Wells. As I don't drive (in the real world - gamebooks are a different matter) and public transport doesn't run on Christmas Day (nor even Christmas Eve in some instances), I had to travel down a couple of days in advance, so I took advantage of the opportunity to check out the local second-hand and charity shops while I was there. In the (since then closed) Barnardo's shop near Tesco, a small bundle of books caught my eye. Four slim trade paperbacks in a browse-proof criss-cross of wrapping ribbon. While the packaging prevented me from looking in the books, and from seeing anything more than the spines of the middle two, I could still get a proper look at the front cover of the top book and the back cover of the fourth one, and between the slogan 'Live or die, YOU decide' on the former and the blurb on the latter, it was easy to confirm that this was a series of gamebooks I'd not previously encountered.

What little the ribbon permitted me to read made it clear that Tracey Turner's Lost books were all about trying to survive in hostile environments. No fantasy or SF elements, definitely no Smoke Monster, just a selection of real-world perils. Which was not a problem in and of itself - Edward Packard's similarly-themed Mountain Survival had been one of the more enjoyable of the Choose Your Own Adventure books I'd read back in the 1980s. Nevertheless, being unable to get a proper look at the books made me wary.

The local library was only a few minutes' walk away, so I went there and used one of the public computers to do a little research, thereby discovering that gamebook fandom had little to no awareness of the series. While that meant that there were no reviews to indicate the quality of the writing and playability, it also meant that the books were obscure enough to have some tradable value even if they turned out to be rubbish, so I went back to the shop and bought them.

An attempt at the first book, Lost in the Jungle of Doom, made a few things clear. Firstly, it was nowhere near the worst gamebook I'd ever played. Secondly, the back cover's claim 'With choices on every page...' was incorrect - some pages are informative sidebars, some merely redirect the reader to a new page, and around a score of them end in character death. Thirdly, the book could be tricky. My character got eaten by a black caiman because of a decision prompted by advice in a sidebar. But that wasn't one of those annoying 'gotcha!' incidents found in some gamebooks, just a reflection of the fact that what would normally be a sensible course of action may prove inadvisable when other factors come into play.

Assorted distractions kept me from replaying Jungle or attempting any of the others in the series until recently. But, while I was pretty inactive on this blog during the first half of the year, I was still playing gamebooks some of the time - just concentrating on ones I didn't plan to cover here. When it comes to interactive fiction that's low on the 'game' aspect (little to no random element, fewer and lengthier sections), I tend to repeatedly read the books until I've gone through every section. Or gone through all the decisions and found that there is no in-story way of reaching some sections (whether through authorial intent or error). And that's what I'm currently doing with Jungle. Which is what led to a new discovery about the book.

I had assumed that every choice had just one non-lethal option. So after my first failure this year (getting eaten by the same black caiman under slightly different circumstances), I decided to get some of the dead-end choices out of the way before having another go at completing the book. Otherwise, once I finally beat the book, my obsessive side would compel me to follow up victory with a long series of idiotic demises just so I could tick the 'Read' box for Jungle on my book database. Thus, on my next replay I chose to venture into the cave I had previously avoided and find out the nature of the occupant that would kill me.

Only I didn't die. At least, not upon entering the cave (that didn't happen until I carelessly trod on a bushmaster and got lethally bitten several decisions later). It turns out that, just as some not-inherently-bad decisions nevertheless have fatal consequences, so some sub-optimal choices turn out not to lead straight to death. My loose characterisation of the Lost gamebooks as a variant of the 'puzzle book' subgenre was less accurate than I'd thought, so maybe it would be worth adding them to the list of titles covered in the blog after all. Hence this post.

The adventure starts with my character's regaining consciousness in the wreck of a small plane. I remember that I was on a flight from Bogota to Rio de Janeiro, and that a mid-air collision of some kind - most likely a bird strike - took out one of the propellors and caused the plane to crash. Somehow I survived with only minor injuries, but I'm now alone, somewhere in the depths of the Amazon Rainforest, equipped with only the clothes I'm wearing, a battered metal container salvaged from the wreck, and a Swiss army knife that airport security inexplicably allowed me to retain. Can I make my way back to civilisation, or will I join the ranks of those who disappeared without trace in the Amazon?

After establishing the premise, the book gives me a few pages of exposition. There's a brief summary of different things here that could kill me - large predators, smaller dangerous animals, disease-carrying insects, poisonous plants, contaminated water, flash floods - as well as some description of the local flora (not much undergrowth because the tree canopy lets little light through) and how noisy the place can get, especially when the nocturnal denizens are out and about. A list of survival tips follows, incidentally making the point that my clothes and footwear are fortuitously practical, covering most of my skin but not being too heavy for the climate. So there are a couple of errors in the cover illustration, what with the short sleeves and ankle-exposing trousers depicted.

It's getting late, and I am aware that travelling at night would be a bad idea, but I also need some kind of shelter to protect me from animals that hunt at night. I can build something, or investigate a nearby cave. Since it was the cave that made me aware this book could be blog-worthy, I'll go with that.

As I approach, I become aware of an unpleasant smell emanating from the cave mouth. The ground nearby is soft with droppings, making me aware that something must be occupying the cave already - and then a large cloud of vampire bats flies out. They startle me, but do not attack. Nevertheless, I reflect that they are liable to return before sunrise (if I were Aussiesmurf I'd be tempted to post a photo of Julie Delpy round about now), and decide I'd be better off spending the night elsewhere. A page of facts about vampire bats precedes the next decision, and the mention that they sometimes carry rabies includes a pointer to another fact page which goes into detail about the disease.

Rain begins to fall, and I realise that building a shelter is no longer a practical option. There is another cave not far away, so I take a chance on that one rather than continuing to explore. This cave proves to be unoccupied (and free from disease-carrying corpses), so I cover a patch of the floor with large leaves and my waterproof jacket before bedding down for the night.

A growling sound from outside wakes me. Oddly, the book gives me no choice but to investigate, but that proves informative from a metagaming perspective: had I built myself a shelter, I would have heard the same noise and been allowed to decide whether or not I wanted to find out what was making it, and on both routes it's the same page for taking a look - which means that unless the book is sloppily structured, there's little likelihood of a 'you didn't notice at the time, but you got scratched by a bat and infected with rabies, so you die horribly' ending later on. Such shenanigans - that is, a 'wrong' decision right at the start guaranteeing failure, but no indication that the reader's character already has no chance of winning - are not unheard-of.

Anyway, I cautiously approach the area from which the sound emanated, and eventually notice the jaguar that made the growl. Running away is almost certainly the sort of 'looks like a bad idea' option that will get me killed, so I stand my ground and do what I can to create the impression of being neither threatening nor prey. Slowly backing away, I get out of sight of the jaguar and hear it moving off in search of something unambiguously edible.

That encounter made me sweat, which reminds me that I need to find drinking water. The facing page is full of facts about smart and not-so-clever ways of getting water in the rainforest, with pointers to other pages that say more about getting water from bamboo and the advisability of boiling water. Slightly carelessly, the bamboo info page is also the page for deciding to use bamboo as a water source, so seeking information effectively compels you to make that choice, but it's probably the smartest option anyway, so I'm not massively bothered about it.

Anyway, with the help of some bamboo I get enough drinkable water to slake my thirst, which just makes me aware that I'm also hungry. Close by, a fallen tree has made enough of a hole in the tree canopy to permit some growth at ground level, and the young vegetation includes a tree with fruit that resemble papayas. My character is more familiar with papaya than I am, and cuts open a fruit, discovering that the resemblance continues beneath the skin, and extends to the smell. If it's something toxic, it's doing a very good job of impersonating edible fruit.

The facing page is another informative sidebar, this one on surviving without food and water, which makes the point that you can last a lot longer without eating than you can without drinking. Nevertheless, I'm probably going to have to eat something here sooner or later, and it's less of a risk to sample a fruit that seems identical to something I know I can eat than to try a completely unknown quantity, so I taste a probable papaya, and it turns out to be what I thought it was.

After eating my fill, I contemplate picking more papayas to take with me, but as attempting that is what led to my fatal encounter with a snake the last time I got this far, I will leave the rest of the fruit on the tree, and hope to find something else edible by the time I need to eat again.

For a while I walk on, but my feet are beginning to hurt, so I sit on a handy log and remove my shoes and socks. The soles of my feet are disconcertingly pale and wrinkly. This could be a warning sign of a condition mentioned in an earlier info-dump, which could lead to infection and death, so I'll take a break and hope that giving my feet a good airing will keep things from getting too much worse.

Right choice. A convenient stream enables me to wash my socks, and giving them and my boots time to dry out helps avert, or at least delay, the onset of a potentially crippling bout of warm water immersion foot. Once my footwear is dry again, I put it back on and get ready to resume my trek.

A chirping sound draws my attention to a tiny blue frog at the foot of a tree. I'm pretty sure that bright colours on frogs are usually an indicator that they produce some of the most potent naturally-occurring toxins in the world, so I make a swift departure, hoping that I haven't just missed out on a chance of getting directions to a nearby tavern.

Noise from overhead heralds the arrival of a group of monkeys. They notice me, and stop swinging through the trees. A little disconcerting, but I don't think running away would be an appropriate response. Trying to follow them when they resume their travels might not be advisable, though. Even if they don't get territorial and hostile, concentrating on them would increase the danger of failing to notice something hazardous at ground level.

The monkeys pause for a meal, dropping some fruit and leaves, then swing away. I consider sampling one of the avocado-like fruits, but choose not to push my luck: I've already eaten today, and substances that do no harm to one species are not necessarily safe for another. The list of facts about Amazon monkeys on the facing page says nothing about how their digestive systems compare to humans', but that doesn't mean there's no risk.

Time passes. I decide that I need to find a river, as most of the native human population will live near one. If ghosts existed in this gamebook series, a couple might pop up to mention that black caimans also make use of the rivers, but these books are more concerned with the natural than the supernatural. Following the sound of trickling water, I find a stream and follow it until it joins a river. There's more bamboo close by, and I use some of it to build a raft. Another sidebar gives advice on raft construction, and I hope my character knew the thing about using cross poles to increase sturdiness, because I get no input into the raft-making process.

Drifting down river is a lot less hard work than trudging through the jungle, but also means that I'm no longer in the shade, and the heat of the sun soon becomes uncomfortable. Stopping to build a rudimentary shelter seems like a smart thing to do. In the short term, the exertion of punting to the riverbank makes me feel worse, but more bamboo provides water to stave off dehydration, and the stems provide some of the materials for constructing a crude tepee.

Back on the water and now shielded from the sun, I drift off - in more than one sense. Waking from my doze, I find the raft in shallow water near the riverbank, and see that there's something alive close by. The text says it looks like a small hippo, but the accompanying illustration looks more like a manatee. Should I go back onto dry land, or return to the main stream of the river? If the animal is a hippo, I'd be better off out of the water, but manatees aren't as dangerous, so I'll take a punt on steering back to the current. Yes, that works all right.

Further down the river I encounter some more animals. There are otters swimming in the water. Should I join them? It would be an opportunity to cool down and get clean, and they probably wouldn't be here if there were any major predators in the vicinity. Nor are they likely to pose much of a threat themselves - you can kill an otter in about a second. Except that, rather than being small, they're far away: these are giant river otters, and while they're still not particularly dangerous to humans (the sidebar on giant river otters stresses that they have far more to fear from people), swimming in their midst is not recommended. Still, the distance that caused me to underestimate their size also means that they take a while to reach me, and by the time they get close, I'm back on the raft and out of harm's way.

While keeping an eye out for another source of drinking water, I catch sight of a rowing boat in a clump of trees. It's in pretty shabby condition, and those trees could house something nasty, so I opt not to investigate it. Still, it's an encouraging sign that I'm not the first human to have come to this stretch of the river. And before long I see further evidence of people: a hut made of rusting corrugated iron, with another boat tied up at a rickety jetty nearby. I punt over to the jetty, tie up the raft, and investigate a well-worn trail leading into the vegetation.

Around a bend I find a village, and while I don't speak the local language, that doesn't stop the villagers from providing practical assistance. My wounds are dressed, an air ambulance is summoned, and before long I'm on my way home. Success, on only my fourth attempt.

Several more pages of factual information follow, providing data about the Amazon Rainforest and the people who live in it, and a couple of real-life examples of individuals who survived getting lost there. There's also an index, but I'll avoid that for now, as there's obvious spoiler potential in seeing, for example, which pages mention anacondas. I do still intend to explore the paths not taken, and while there are over a dozen deaths I have yet to encounter, I'm sure there's at least one more viable route through the book, so I can try to finish off with another victory. As far as this blog is concerned, I've finished with the book, but I still have another three in the series, and I note that there are a further two that I don't yet own, so they're going on the want list.