Thursday 30 November 2023

In My Meanderings I've Come Across Something Rather Unpleasant

While Boneshaker's Mountains of Forever made it clear that Proteus was to cease being a monthly magazine, it did mention the possibility of a future 'special' issue, and towards the end of the year, when I popped into the newsagent's at the Five Ways end of the shopping precinct, I saw that there was indeed a new Proteus. It contained a new adventure, The Orchid of Life, a reprint of an older adventure, an unimpressive short story, a few comic strips, and an ad for back issues at a reduced price, which prompted me to get copies of a few of the better adventures as a Christmas present for a fellow fan of gamebooks.

Though Orchid is credited to the magazine's most prolific author, David Brunskill, and is a sequel to one of his previous Proteus adventures, reveals that Mr. Brunskill says he didn't write it. It's all a bit odd. While it is by no means the worst Proteus adventure, it is decidedly average - before I learned of the mysteries surrounding its authorship, I considered Orchid something of a disappointment compared with David Brunskill's last contribution to the magazine. Besides which, it doesn't look good. Well, Colette McKenzie's illustrations aren't that bad for the most part (though the Tyrannosaur is pretty dismal), but the text itself looks as if the publishers dispensed with the usual typesetting process and just reproduced the output of Mystery Author X's typewriter on the printed page. All in all, while it's not among the candidates for worst adventure ever published by Proteus, Orchid does see the series end with more of a whimper than a bang.

Anyway, it seems that I am an adventurer who succeeded in recovering the Sceptre of the Elvenking. While visiting Fourways, a town of the sort favoured by adventurers seeking something to do, I find the local tavern to be rather gloomier than usual, and am approached by an Elf named Tamlane, who knows of my past exploits, and explains the death and despair I'm needed to avert this time round.

Basically, a necromancer by the name of Liknud is planning on taking control of the region and subjecting everyone in it to all manner of necromantic unpleasantness. Within a few days he will be in a position to do so, having stolen the Orchid of Life, a source of great power that flowers just once a century, and is about to come into full bloom. Eildon, the Elves' best sorceress, has already attempted to thwart Liknud, and failed. She's not dead yet, but it's only a matter of time until Liknud becomes powerful enough to destroy her, after which nobody will be able to stand against him.

Well, that is, unless some valiant hero (guess who) is able to find the dagger of Telledus, an enchanted weapon capable of killing Liknud, which was recently lost to some 'loathsome creature' within the forest of Ardristan. Oh, and I should try to find some elf-fruit and the root of a Hellbane plant for protection against Liknud's magic (though, as I recall, those are not essential for success, just helpful - but there are also some other vital items that Tamlane doesn't mention because he doesn't know about some of the threats present in Liknud's lair).

I'm back to just two stats in this adventure. While combat in Orchid never gets anywhere near as challenging as in Proteus' harshest fight, starting out with the lowest possible Dexterity is a virtual death sentence, so I'll allocate dice and go in with:
Dexterity 12
Strength 19
Consequently, I'm more likely to fail as a consequence of deviating from the typically meandering viable path and missing out on something essential than because I lose a fight.

Before Tamlane and I go our separate ways, he gives me a potion of Healing, 'which will restore [my] strength when it is at its lowest ebb'. The rules say nothing about the potion, so unless it turns out to be something I can only use when prompted to by the text, I'm going to have to guess what that means in terms of game mechanics. Does the 'lowest ebb' bit mean I have to wait until Strength drops below 3 before I can use it? Can I swig it down during a fight? Or between opponents if I have to take on multiple enemies at once?

So, I head into the forest, and soon reach a crossroads. Whimsically choosing the direction that's best to pick at the start of the very first Proteus adventure, I get attacked by a wild boar, and while I win the fight without taking any damage, the fact that in most rounds I only narrowly beat an opponent with a Dexterity 6 lower than mine bodes ill for any combat against enemies that come closer to matching my ability.

Despite being aware that Liknud's malign influence is corrupting the forest and its denizens, my character finds it puzzling that the boar attacked. Oh dear.

Before long the trail changes direction, and I catch sight of a couple of wooden huts, one of them with a smoking chimney. There's no response when I call out, which, in gamebooks and the like, practically constitutes an invitation to break in and help myself to anything that looks useful. So I enter the first hut, which appears to have been a woodcutter's home, and find a slightly odd state of affairs. The place has been abandoned long enough for the half-eaten meal on the table to go mouldy, but the stove hasn't gone out. Oh, and there's a python lurking in the rafters, just waiting to drop down on anyone who happens to wander in. Though the snake coils around me, there's no Dexterity penalty for being encumbered by its weight, nor any mandatory constriction damage every round of the ensuing fight.

The python is a slightly better fighter than the boar was, and manages to injure me once before I kill it. After that I can get on with looting the place, and in a rather desperate attempt at padding the adventure out to 200 sections, there's one section for looking in the chest-of-drawers first, another for checking it out second, and yet another for searching it third (and likewise with the box and case near it), even though the order in which I investigate these receptacles makes no difference to what I find in them. All right, this set-up does mean I can only search each of them once, but so would the phrase 'if you have not done so already.'

The box contains a larger-than-standard gold coin with the image of a dragon on both sides. The case contains a variety of tools, of which I may take only two because gamebook logic, so I go for the rope and the axe. Most of the contents of the chest-of-drawers are, predictably, clothing (seemingly not women's), but I do find a bottle containing a single dose of Invisibility potion. The text says the bottle is engraved with a description of its contents, but in the picture across the page it has a label, and is covered in cobwebs in a manner that seems unlikely given that it was stuffed into a drawer full of old clothes.

Leaving the hut, I proceed to the neighbouring one (and the neighbouring section). This hut is also abandoned, but contains a puzzle promising access to the ring of power, which apparently protects the wearer against would-be stealers of souls. A key is provided, and there are three small locked doors, each with two statements inscribed above it. According to the parchment in which the key was wrapped, both statements above one door are true, and both statements above another are false. Nothing is said about the third door, but an inference can be made, and it helps me to pick the correct door, so I get the ring.

As I continue on my way, the path turns again, and I am surrounded by a group of armed men, all daubed with blue clay and wearing dragon masks. Their leader dances up to me and holds out a hand, and when I give him the double-dragon coin from the first hut, he and his companions melt back into the trees, allowing me to proceed to a crossroads.

The route leading directly back to where I entered the forest is off limits, but that still leaves two ways I could proceed. Going straight ahead could loop round to the entrance via the other path I didn't take at the start (in which case something will probably intervene to prevent me from heading that way), or it might lead to another junction (and potentially thence to another useful or essential item). I think I'll check it out.

The path bends in an unexpected direction, but does lead to another junction. The side turning here may loop back to the start, and I think I've pushed my luck in that regard enough, so I continue the way I am now going, and just before the path bends again, a Pterosaur swoops to the attack. The ensuing fight is easy enough, but winning merely enables me to continue until I reach another junction, at which point the text compels me to go deeper into the forest. That encounter was the kind of insignificant event that's often found on false trails, so I guess I went too far or not far enough, and will have to just hope that anything I missed was merely useful rather than essential.

After a while I reach another junction, and the sections for the two routes possible are, sloppily, both on the same page as the decision. I'll try another change of direction, and endeavour to avoid looking at the path not taken. The trail leads to another junction, and this time I keep going straight ahead until I hit a T-junction. One path appears to lead to marshland, the other is cast into shadow by overhead branches. Let's see what's in the dark...

More darkness, and beyond that darker darkness, which is not dispelled by lighting a torch. I get an item check for something I missed, and must choose between heading deeper into the darkness or turning back. I'm probably doomed either way, but turning around could help with identifying further true or false paths, whereas advancing will probably only reveal what form of death awaits characters who advance into the darkness without the appropriate light source.

The other way leads into a swamp (checking, I see that swamps have more trees than marshes, so the author appears to have done a bit of research). A Swamp Lizard confronts me, but chooses its moment poorly, as I'm on a decently solid bit of ground when it attacks. Though I have a substantial lead Dexterity-wise, I still take a few hits during the fight, and eat a meal afterwards to restore some of the lost Strength.

And that's it for swamp encounters. Next thing you know, I'm back on solid ground and facing another junction. I take the turning, and walk face-first into a clump of elf-fruit, which turns out to be like purple grapes, but harder. After taking a bunch, I continue on to what appears to be a dead end, but out from the trees steps a female Elf, described in a manner which suggests that the author was hoping that Mark K. Dunn would provide one of his trademark 'provocatively dressed beauty' pictures to go with this section (though the only picture on the page is of a Watersnake encountered elsewhere in the adventure - and by the looks of it, you're definitely going to need a bigger boat). She shows me a way through the not-so-impenetrable-after-all foliage, provides directions to Liknud's lair, and then strolls off in case Tamlane is in need of a spot of railroading too.

The forest is decidedly unhealthy around here, in places obviously due to deliberate destruction rather than just Liknud's general aura of badness, and I catch sight of a cave that practically screams 'bad guy in here'. While I'm looking at it, a group of thugs sneaks up on me and clubs me senseless.

I come round in the cave, being force-fed a healing potion by Tamlane (with no indication whether or not this is supposed to be the one he gave me back at the start). Tamlane hurries away before I have time to get to my feet, and I hasten after him, pausing when the tunnel ends in a pair of wooden doors. They're not locked, and beyond them is a chamber that's been converted into a dungeon. Many pairs of shackles line the walls, a couple of them in use, and two inattentive guards are playing a dice-based game. Doors lead to east and west, and I decide to see if rescuing the prisoners will provide any clues as to which way I should go now.

Taking the guards by surprise, I kill one of them before he can react. The other grabs a weapon, but doesn't put up much of a fight. Using his keys, I release the prisoners, who turn out to be woodcutters. They mention a recent kerfuffle when somebody brought in a nifty-looking dagger and Liknud was not pleased, cursing the weapon and ordering that it be taken away and put under guard. One of them also heard mention of a potion which serves as an antidote to the curse, so I make a mental note to keep an eye out for that.

The woodcutters then leave, and I pocket the money with which the guards had been gambling. Then I go through one of the doors, which leads via a corridor to a booby-trapped door. Half a dozen crossbow bolts come my way, and an unlucky roll has most of them hit me, so I wolf down a couple more meals to restore myself to full health.

Beyond the door is a room with shelves on the walls, and on those shelves are bottles containing a selection of coloured liquids. I take a bottle of the colour mentioned by the woodcutter and ignore the others, as an Instant Death section I inadvertently glimpsed earlier suggests that one of the other liquids might be lethally toxic.

Another door and an archway lead out of the room, and I choose an exit. The corridor beyond soon turns a corner, and I see a side turning leading to another door, which I investigate. The door is locked, but somebody has left the keys in the lock, so I am able to open it. It leads to a cell in which a young woman is shackled to the wall. She screams as the door opens, and then, upon seeing that I am not a guard, she begs me to release her. This could be a trap, but remembering the ineptitude of the guards I encountered earlier, I can believe that one might be careless or lazy enough to leave the keys in the lock, so I free her. She doesn't have any useful information for me (which could mean that this whole encounter is just padding), but if she is an innocent victim, rescuing her is a good thing regardless.

Heading back along the main passageway, I check out another turning, which leads to a room with three guards in. I fight them simultaneously, the specifics of which aren't covered by the rules, but going with one of the standard FF variants, I win while taking a fair bit of damage. Another meal helps with that, and I am a little disappointed to only get more cash as a consequence of my victory.

Again I return to the long passage, which finally terminates in a door. Beyond it I find a room cluttered with sorcerous paraphernalia, and occupied by a stereotypical-looking wizard. He introduces himself as a conjurer and illusionist named Aarko (though that appears to be a typo, as subsequent references to him say 'Zarko'), and turns a wand into a bunch of flowers. His next trick involves staring fixedly at me, which causes me to feel light-headed, but then the ring I picked up earlier starts to glow, bringing me back to my senses. Realising that he has failed to entrance me, Zarko flees through a door behind him, and I give chase.

Not quickly enough, though, as a short corridor leads to a T-junction, and there's no sign of the magician in either direction. The turning I take leads to a room in which beams of light imprison a female Elf on a raised dais. Close to the archway through which I came, a glowing gemstone stands on a pedestal, and near the captive Elf are three brutish men. The Elf yells at me to smash the jewel, and the thugs charge at me.

I down the potion of Invisibility, and my disappearance confuses the guards for long enough that I can shatter the stone. The lights around the Elf vanish, and she utters an incantation which causes the men to turn on each other, fighting to their mutually assured destruction.

The potion wears off, and the Elf turns her attention to me. She is Eildon, of course, and we've only just introduced ourselves when Tamlane dashes into the room and asks if I found the dagger. I admit that I haven't, and then Liknud explosively teleports into the room. Eildon confronts him, and is destroyed in psychic combat, after which he finishes me off with a hail of fire-bolts.

Well, that was by no means a great ending, but things could have gone worse. And that's as true for Proteus as it is for my character.

Tuesday 31 October 2023

Here's One I Prepared Earlier

This month I've been busy on many fronts, and while I have made a start on the next playthrough for this blog, I'm nowhere near far enough in for it to be worth posting what has been written.

Instead, here's a little exclusive. When I wrote Return to the Icefinger Mountains almost 12 years ago, I did it for National Novel Writing Month. The target word count for NaNoWriMo is 50,000, and the completed Return came in at around 42k. Not wanting to force unnecessary padding into a mini-gamebook that was due to be published in Fighting Fantazine, I made up the missing word count with a selection of 'deleted and alternate scenes' - prose passages expanding on or providing alternative perspectives on sequences from the adventure, none of which ever got published anywhere.

Until today.

So here are a few bits of the supplementary material I wrote to help me hit the target. If there's sufficient interest, I can publish more at some later date.

The dream

It is the worst day of your life.

You are six years old, nearly seven, and you and your parents are travelling north to visit your uncle and his family.

The carriage in which you are travelling comes to a sudden stop. The road ahead is blocked by a fallen tree. The driver asks for help in moving it, and your father is one of those who volunteer their services.

You know that this is a trap, and long to warn him, to tell him not to go, but you can do nothing, say nothing except what you did back on that terrible day, and then you knew nothing of the waiting danger, knew only the impatience you felt at the delay which would mean less time for playing with your cousins. You have learned, you have changed, but the tragic events about to occur remain the same every time you have the dream.

You watch, bored yet inwardly screaming, as the driver, your father, and a couple of other passengers bend over the tree. You cry out in surprise and terror at the horribly familiar sight of the arrows hitting them, and the Orcs and Neanderthals bursting from cover. You wince in anticipation even before your mother's shriek splits the air, watch helplessly as she tears open the carriage door and begins to run towards the brutes that menace your father, cannot even shut your eyes to keep from seeing the arrow taking her in the back, or tear your appalled gaze from the sight of her falling to lie in the mud and get trampled underfoot by the raiders as they charge towards the carriage.

Repetition has not diminished the terror you feel as an Orc looms up in the carriage doorway. Aware that there is no escape, you still cower away, hiding your face as if not seeing could mean not being seen, yet unable to block out the creature's vile stench, and feeling somehow betrayed by your nose as a warty green hand seizes your ankle.

And then you are dangling head downwards, being carried on the back of a hairy Neanderthal, your mouth gagged with a foul-tasting rag. This is one difference: originally you fainted when the Orc grabbed you, and regained consciousness to find yourself in this position, but the dream will not permit you that brief oasis of oblivion between horrors.

The ground across which you are being borne is rough, and covered in snow. From time to time the ends of your fingers pass through the top of one of the powdery white mounds, and you weep from the cold. That part of you that is aware this is a dream, a memory, aches with the knowledge of the far worse sorrow and suffering yet to come.

The snowy ground is replaced by an icy floor, on which you are soon dumped, and an Orc forces a metal collar around your neck. "Now you do what we say," the Orc growls. "If you not obey…"

The collar tightens, starts to hurt, makes it impossible to breathe. Pathetically, you claw at it, but can do nothing to keep the pain from growing. For several seconds the Orc watches you choking, and your vision narrows to the ugly grin on its hideous face. That, too, becomes hazy, and then the grip around your throat eases and you can breathe again, the cold air burning your aching windpipe as you gulp it down.

After that, the dream becomes vague, imprecise, jumbling together the worst of your experiences from the two-and-a-bit years of horror that follow: forced into a narrow crevasse in the wall to dig it wider, kicked and pummelled by your brutish captors, not to punish resistance or make you work harder (the collar takes care of them) but because they enjoy inflicting pain, treated just as badly by fellow slaves who seek an outlet for their frustrations by picking on those too weak to fight back, watching in terror as the statue of the beast worshipped by your cruel masters comes to life, being forced to grovel before the monstrous woman who reigns in this hellish place while she decides which of the slaves before her to feed upon, seeing the walking corpse of her chosen victim and realising that the same fate could befall you the next time she grows hungry…

Usually it is at the sight of his dead eyes, staring dully at nothing, that you wake in a cold sweat, but tonight the nightmare persists a little longer, ending in a vision that matches no memory, yet seems no less real than all that has preceded it.

(Segue into the vision of the awakening Snow Witch in the 'Background' of Return)


Death in the village (includes potential spoiler for the endgame)

The knock at the door had an unfamiliar rhythm. Curious as to who might be calling round at such an early hour, Reniso crossed the floor of his hut to see who was there. The worn face disclosed as he opened the door was not one he recognised, yet there was a faint hint of familiarity.

"Reniso?" asked the stranger before he had a chance to speak. Without waiting for confirmation, he continued, "I'm Denati."

"From Salamonis! I didn't expect you so soon." Reniso beckoned his visitor in. "It's good to see you here, though. There are strong indications that something is afoot. These last two nights, dreams of the Snow Witch, too vivid to just be ordinary dreams."

A flicker of emotion, perhaps fear or concern, passed over Denati's face. "Then it's good that I got here when I did."

"Oh, absolutely. And I'm not the only one. A young friend of mine, another escapee, has been having the dreams too. He's agreed to come along on the expedition – in fact, he was all set to start without you." Reniso chuckled. "The impetuosity of youth, eh? But it'll be good to have someone strong along, to help out."

"Indeed." At his host's invitation, Denati sat. "So how soon will we be setting off? It sounds as if there's not a moment to lose."

"My friend should be calling round again later today, and then we can start making all the necessary arrangements for the expedition. We might even be able to get going this afternoon."

"At last. You have no idea how long I've been waiting for this. To explore lost Cyrantis…" The visitor smiled, his thoughts clearly going elsewhere.

"I'm rather more concerned with ensuring that the Snow Witch stays dead, or goes back to being that way, if she's already risen."

"Yes, I suppose you would be. Different priorities." He smiled again, less warmly.

Again the sense of familiarity. "Excuse me, but you don't have family in these parts, do you?" Reniso stroked his chin. "There's just something about you reminds me of somebody, but I can't think who."

Denati frowned. "Not that I'm aware of. I seem to have one of those faces. You're far from the first person to tell me I bear some resemblance to an acquaintance of theirs."

"Fair enough. Well, we might as well make some use of the time while we're waiting for my young friend to return. Last night he and I started to draw up a list of equipment we're likely to need for the expedition, but your knowledge of the Cyrantians' city and culture might highlight a few omissions. Things that would have seemed perfectly ordinary, maybe even essential, to the people who lived there, but which would seem out of the ordinary to us, here and now."

"You must understand that being one of the experts in the field doesn't actually mean that much. My ignorance of Cyrantian ways is a little less than that of the people working the fields outside, but the amount that I don't know is still vast. I'm hoping to learn a lot more when I get back to the city."

Reniso frowned, puzzled. "Back to the city? I thought you said you'd never been this far north before."

Denati fidgeted, tugging at each finger of his right glove in turn as he blustered, "Obviously I've never been there before, but you and your friend were, and I chose to speak from the viewpoint of the majority of our party. It is a common mannerism in academic circles…"

His voice tailed off as the sceptical expression on Reniso's face grew more pronounced, and a glimmer of recognition appeared in the former slave's eyes. Unhurriedly, Denati continued to pull at the glove until it came off.

"You were there. In the caves. I remember now. One of her favoured servants, a bard…" Reniso began to rise to his feet.

"A minstrel, to be precise," noted Denati. "Though my profession has genuinely been that of scholar for the past few decades. Nevertheless, my musical skills have not entirely deserted me."

Even as Reniso lunged at him, the seated man brought the ring he wore to his lips and blew into it, producing a high-pitched note that caused his would-be attacker's muscles to spasm. Convulsing, Reniso fell to the floor.

Dispassionately, Denati watched him writhe. "I shall have to choose my words more carefully when dealing with your friend. I have already lost one guide and protector, and while I dare say that my music will be just as effective against any hostile denizens of the mountains, there are certain to also be naturally occurring dangers not easily overcome without the assistance of another person."

Reniso had fallen still. With a sigh, Denati stooped to grasp his wrists. "Even this exertion is something I would rather leave to another, but of course that is not an option. Your friend must not be allowed to learn that I am responsible for your tragic fate, or he would become unwilling to help me."

With some difficulty he dragged the limp body of his victim across the floor to the supporting pillar at the centre of the hut. After checking that it would still be some time before Reniso could regain control of his limbs, Denati began to search the hut, flinging the contents of cupboards and bookcases onto the floor. At one bound volume he hesitated for a moment. "A pity to destroy my own handiwork. But sacrifices must be made."

With that, he seized several pages and ripped them from the spine, scattering them about the debris-strewn floor. The last one he retained, crumpling it in his hand as he crouched down beside the appalled owner of the hut. "In case you should regain your voice inconveniently soon."

Pinching Reniso's cheeks to force the old man's mouth open, he then stuffed the ball of paper into it and pushed the jaws back together. Further searching turned up a length of thin rope, unsuitable for mountaineering, but more than sufficient to restrain a man in his sixties, and even to haul him upright for tying to the pillar.

Mingled fear and anger showed in the immobilised Reniso's eyes as he watched Denati extract a slim dagger from a sheath on his belt.

"This is probably going to hurt. A lot. But it should be quick. I do need to have you properly dead by the time your friend gets here." Reniso felt a sudden sharp pain in his side. "And one final detail ought to convince him of the urgency of the situation, so he will be eager to escort me – his last hope of learning the secrets of Cyrantis, with you gone – to the city."

Cleaning the dagger's blade on Reniso's jerkin where the flow of blood should soon erase all traces, Denati stepped back and waited for enough blood to pool on the floor that he could spell out the words that burned within his heart.


The awakening (includes potential spoiler for the endgame)

It had been no great surprise that there was pain at the end of her life (if being a Vampire still constituted life). And when her spirit, preserved by safeguards she had prepared in advance, had contended with her killer in an attempt to win back a corporeal existence, and had been defeated a second time, then the pain was also to be expected. But that the return to life should also be accompanied by exquisite agony seemed somehow unfair.

Yet that was how it was. The return of her consciousness to her reconstituted, revitalised body brought such excruciating pain that a lesser spirit would have fled the flesh, returned whimpering whence it came. Shareella fought through the agony, clung onto her new life (or un-life), forced her essence into every atom of her body. As her spirit reasserted its hold on her rebuilt flesh, the pain receded, dwindled. By the time she had enough control of the body to be able to scream, the need had passed. Existence was no more than a dull ache, and even that discomfort soon faded.

Mistress of her own body once more, she sat up, looked with eyes around herself. Close by were two living creatures, and the warmth radiating from their bodies stung her skin, yet awakened a raging thirst and hunger within her.

One of the creatures, the men, was, she now perceived, the servant she had charged with bringing her remains to this place. Time had chewed him up and spat out the gristle, and the life that burned in his veins was but a dim flicker, scarcely worth the tasting. The other, though, still had vigour, and Shareella rose to her feet, determined to feed, and then to let a little of the power flowing through her transform the husk that remained into something that would serve her, become the first member of the army she needed to wage war against the living on her behalf.

Saturday 30 September 2023

The Deck Is Uneven

With the end of September looming, I suppose I ought to get around to clearing the traffic jam in which my playthrough of Steve Jackson (American) and Creede and Sharleen Lambard's Car Wars Adventure Gamebook Fuel's Gold has been stuck. As explained previously, my character is a professional autoduellist and part-time militiaman, who's been given a delivery job (and an inordinately high number of opportunities to nope out of the mission) and is now preparing to help defend an old friend's truckstop from a terrorist attack, following the conclusion of a side quest involving a hitch-hiker and an unexpectedly cultured biker gang called the Hellriders.

So, heading back to Louie's, I encounter a militia roadblock. I display the pass I got from the Colonel, and am allowed past. After a quick word with Louie, who's overseeing the installation of a mortar (artillery, not masonry), I report in with the Colonel, who briefs me on the imminent hostilities and gives me a hat to show which side I'm on.

It seems that the Anarchists are travelling in a disorganised convoy, with a few non-combatant vehicles mixed in because they're too anarchic to set rules about who can drive with them. The plan is for me to lead a group of unmarked Militia vehicles in infiltrating the convoy, and intervening when the Anarchists start trying to cause trouble.

We blend with the convoy easily enough, and use our CB radios to monitor chatter from both sides of the impending conflict. Once we're about five miles from Louie's, a call goes out on the Anarchists' channel for everyone to identify themselves. They're using playing card-based code names, and as I recovered a card from the thugs who tried to attack me in the hotel, I could try passing myself off as one of them.

Not the smartest idea I've ever had. The Anarchists already know that their goons messed up, and I've just identified myself as the man responsible for their arrest. Multiple cars break off from the convoy to deal with me, but judging by the fight that ensues, they're doing it one at a time. First up is Five of Diamonds, whose Defense Class is high enough that I need to roll 13 or above on two dice to be able to damage him. Yes, six-sided dice, so I think I'll just skip all the tedious-at-the-best-of-times rolling and turn straight to the 'If you lose' section.

Oh, bother. It's not an automatic 'game over'. That means I'm going to have to play through the fight after all, since the Special Damage Chart includes the possibility of wounding the driver, and I'll need to know if I'm injured or not going forward. Well, to save time I'll only roll for the enemy's attacks, since I know mine can only ever end in failure.

34 rounds later my car finally gets put out of action, the vengeful mob loses interest in me, and the convoy moves on. Remembering what Louie told me about a hidden tunnel leading out of the truckstop, I decide to try and use it to get in, in the hope of being able to make a more meaningful contribution to the defence of the place.

It takes a while to walk along the tunnel, but I get through okay, and head for Louie's office, where I find that the mole the Colonel speculated about has come out into the open. Louie is on the floor, badly wounded, and standing over him is a 'trooper' I recognise - possibly the one who interfered with my earlier investigation of the area, though the text doesn't specify exactly where I saw him before. As I'm not wearing the hat, the infiltrator can't immediately tell which side I'm on, and asks what my card is.

Not keen on making the same mistake twice, I resist the temptation to say 'Mister Bun the Baker', 'Colonel Mustard', or 'Uno reverse', and just open fire with my submachine gun. He retaliates, and after several rounds of combat (which is not a whole lot less tiresome without the cars), he's dead and I'm wounded. Louie's condition is somewhere in between our states, so I decide to see if I can find a medic.

Nope, the Militia are all rather busy dealing with a massive horde of Anarchist vehicles allowed in by their inside man. Considering how heavily outnumbered the Colonel's men are, and how badly hurt I am already, I don't think I can achieve much by joining them, so I'll see if I can get Louie to safety through the tunnel.

Transporting him to the tunnel isn't too much bother, but it's obvious that we're not going to get much further without a vehicle, and I no longer have a car. Still, there are enough around that I should be able to get hold of one, so long as I don't get hit by a stray bullet or a moving vehicle.

It turns out that my character is smart enough not to head into the thick of battle. Returning through the tunnel, I reach the road and find a few wrecks - plus a damaged but still functional car, whose driver (Eight of Diamonds) fell victim to a lucky shot. I can't see that trying to impersonate him will do much to tip the odds against the Anarchists, so I'll stick with trying to at least save my friend's life.

Once I've collected him, I head for the highway, but another vehicle moves to intercept me. I'm going to have to fight again. And this combat has an inadequately explained complication: my opponent has a front-mounted, driver-operated machine gun, and a gunner with a flamethrower in the back. Given that they face in different directions, only one of them will be able to fire on me in any given round, and... You'd think that with the book having three authors, someone would have thought to ask 'How will the reader determine which of the car's occupants is in a position to attack?', but no, I'm going to have to make something up.

The gunner is significantly more likely to be able to hit me, so I shall try and manoeuvre to stay out of his way. At the start of each round I'll make a Control Roll, and if I succeed, I stay out of the gunner's field of fire, and the driver shoots at me. That means that five times out of six I'll be fired upon by the less dangerous foe, but if the authors wanted to have him play a larger part in the fight, they should have been less vague about how to handle the either/or bit.

In any case, I lose. I did more damage to the enemy car than they did to mine, but since my vehicle was pre-damaged, they managed to do enough to total it. And Louie didn't survive the wreck.

For once the book doesn't ask if I want to opt out of the action. I make for the hill that the Colonel designated an emergency rendezvous point, and as I'm now wearing the hat he gave me, the militiamen assembled there recognise me as an ally. And, it turns out, the highest ranking man present, so I'm suddenly in charge.

Things are not looking good. Most of the Militia are dead or taken hostage, the Anarchists have control of the truckstop, and they've taken in four trucks laden with barrels of gasoline, and are threatening to immolate the hostages if their demands are not met. On the slightly less negative side, we have just captured one of them. Do I risk taking the time to interrogate him? I think I'd better.

I had vaguely hoped that the prisoner might turn out to be one of the Hellriders, providing an opportunity to get the bikers involved, but no, it's an Anarchist. Ace of Clubs, to be precise. I attempt to intimidate him into providing some useful information, but even with the boosts to Prestige I've gained in the course of the adventure, I'm just not imposing enough.

So, do I go back through the tunnel again and try to salvage something from the situation, or just sit and wait to find out if the Anarchists are serious about torching everyone? Another question not worth asking. I don't remember much in the way of 'just don't do it' options in the other book in the series by Mr Jackson, which suggests that this relentless drive to have the reader avoid participation in the plot is the Lambards' handiwork. Sneaking a peek at the later books, I see that they also wrote the fourth one, so I'm expecting every other decision in that book to be a variation on 'Are you sure you wouldn't rather just go for a holiday somewhere quiet?'

Using a trike (presumably motorised), I return to the truckstop once more, and snoop around for a bit. While the occasional flash of light reflecting from binoculars indicates that the trucks are under surveillance, there's no sign of any Anarchists here, leading me to conclude that there must be remote-controlled detonators attached to the trucks. Consequently, the 'try driving one of them away' option offered here looks impressively suicidal. So do I try to find and remove the detonators, or attempt to release the hostages? If a watch is being kept on them as well, there'll be little likelihood of my freeing them without attracting attention and prompting the Anarchists to prematurely set off the explosives, so I'll have to see if there's any way of discreetly disabling them.

A quarter of an hour remains until the deadline for detonation. Not having been able to get any details from Ace of Clubs, I spend three minutes searching before I find out where the detonators are. Defusing one requires me to roll equal to or under my Mechanic skill (which is just 2) on two dice, with a bonus for every non-catastrophic failed roll in sequence.

The first detonator takes two minutes. It takes 30 seconds to move from one truck to the next. Time is short, but I'm still in with a chance. A lucky double one enables me to put the second detonator out of action before the four-minute mark. The third is inoperative by the sixth minute. And I get a disastrous double six while working on the final one, setting it off.

In some circumstances, three out of four isn't bad. This is not such a situation.

Thursday 31 August 2023

I Do Tend to Get Involved With Things

Well, I guess it's time to get back into the driver's seat of my playthrough of the second Car Wars Adventure Gamebook, American Steve Jackson and Creede and Sharleen Lambert's Fuel's Gold, which stalled after an unengaging fight against some anarchists.

I drive off, and soon see a sign indicating the turning for where I'm supposed to deliver the package. Now I must decide whether to complete my mission or drive on and take Kathy the hitch-hiker all the way to where she's going. Yes, it's another opportunity to try and avoid the whole point of this adventure. By now I'm beginning to wonder if, at an early stage in the creative process, Mr Jackson and the Lamberts discussed the book by telephone, but there was a lot of interference on the line, and somebody misheard the title as Refuse Goal.

Anyway, I proceed to my destination, which is a hotbed of Militia activity. After checking my pass, the guard on the gate asks about Kathy, and my explanation of her presence doesn't exactly match the sequence of events. Well, not unless I've chosen to interpret the anarchists shooting at my car as 'two guys [...] bothering her'. It would appear that the authors assumed I'd be unwilling to give her a lift ("Hey, here's another opportunity for the player to choose not to get involved!") and be forced to take action by witnessing the attack (or whatever constitutes bothering in this context). The guard tells Kathy she'll have to stay in the restaurant, and lets us through.

I attempt to give my car a recharge, but a jobsworth guard refuses to let me, even when I show him my pass, so I get shunted on to the same section I'd have turned to if I hadn't bothered trying to keep my vehicle ready for action. More padding, yay.

After a couple more checks of my pass (and the book keeps stressing its colour even though I no longer have the other one, and thus no longer have the potential to get them mixed up) I finally get to deliver the package, which contains a folder that holds a hand-written note. The Colonel shows me the note, which reveals that some members of Anarchist group the ARF have discovered a fuel dump, and intend to use the barrels of gasoline in a terrorist attack on Boston. He asks if I'm willing to lend a hand with defending this truck stop, as the ARF are likely to want to make use of it on the way there.

Predictably, the book gives me the option of declining, but I also have the opportunity to show the Colonel the pamphlets I recovered from the wreck of the car that attacked me. Odds are, doing so will just take me through more section number padding before either giving me the same 'help or refuse' choice or railroading me into assisting, but I'll give it a go anyway.

Yep, beyond prompting speculation that the ARF have a mole in the Militia (I'd rather like it to be that officious twit who wouldn't let me plug my car in, but unless he's in deep cover, an Anarchist isn't likely to get overly strict about following the rules), this is just a momentary diversion that makes no difference to the choice facing me.

So, do I want to help my old friend defend his livelihood, get back at the people who've already sent heavies after me twice, and, you know, engage with the plot of the gamebook, or would I rather say, "Nahh, I only shoot at people recreationally, and right now I need to get to New York to trash some cars for the fun of it,"? Just checking... Yes, the cover of the book definitely says Car Wars, not Quitters, Inc. Well, I guess I should probably stick around, then.

Things aren't going to kick off for a few hours, so I have a little free time, and the Colonel issues me a different-coloured pass so I can go for a stroll or something and get back in afterwards. He also gives me a note to cover payment for a meal, so I proceed to the cafeteria. Kathy is there, eating an algaeburger, and I use the Colonel's note to take care of her bill as well as mine. Then I ask her to wait while I check what I can do around here.

First I call on Louie, the old friend who owns this place. He tells me a little more about the situation - nothing particularly noteworthy - and asks if I plan to stick around. I confirm that I'll be fighting alongside him and the Militia, and he lets me know about a secret tunnel leading out of here.

A bit of casual nosing around leads me to a tarpaulin that could be covering a car. Before I can investigate, a militiaman tells me that all civilians must evacuate the area. I show him my new pass, and he tells me to leave again, but salutes me and adds "SIR!" to the end of each sentence. If this is the pest who wouldn't let me charge my car earlier, that's further grounds to suspect him, but I have no way of telling whether or not it's the same man.

There's an Autobank on site, so I deposit my payment for the job there. Now, is there any chance of getting the damage my car sustained in that fight repaired? There is, but it'd take up the rest of the day, leaving no opportunity to get Kathy away from here before the trouble starts, and it sounds as if she's got to go, so I think I'd better take her on to Boston while things are quiet.

It doesn't take long to drive the remaining distance, but traffic slows to a crawl at the checkpoint leading into the city. Once I get to the head of the queue, the security man recognises Kathy and becomes a lot more friendly, waving me through without any further delay. I could potentially drop her off now, but that encounter suggests that she has some good connections locally, so I'll take her all the way home and see if anything good comes of it.

Home turns out to be in the part of the city that never got rebuilt after the Food Riots, which is sparsely populated, and the few people I do see look a bit survivalist-y. Kathy directs me to a parking garage, and tells me I'll be able to get my car recharged there. I'll risk trusting her: if she were trouble, I doubt that the man at the checkpoint would have been so pleased to see her, if she were ARF, she'd probably have tried something on before I could deliver the package, and if she's fronting for a gang of robbers, they're going to be disappointed, because my money's already in the bank.

Inside the garage I see indications that this is the HQ of a rather notorious biker gang known as the Hellriders, who've been fighting a turf war with another gang for some time. Rounding a corner, I see a group of belligerent-looking men. Kathy gets out of the car, warns me to stay put for the moment, and heads over to the biggest and most threatening-looking of the mob. Several weapon-toting heavies move to surround me, and I take Kathy's advice. Sometimes doing nothing is the best course of action.

Kathy hugs the big biker and brings him over to meet me. This, it transpires, is 'Mother', who thanks me for assisting Kathy and offers me the recharge Kathy mentioned, as well as a share in the meal the gang is having tonight, which apparently contains real beef. The book gives no indication that there isn't time, and refusing their hospitality could be taken as an insult, so I accept.

In conversation with some of the Hellriders, I discover that they're not as stereotypical as they look, and will discuss literature as readily as they do weaponry. After around an hour the meal is ready, and the part of the garage that's been converted into a dining room is decorated like something out of a Merchant Ivory production. Conversation during the meal is even more eclectic, ranging from horticulture to brass knuckles to architecture to the ARF... Discreet questioning leads to the revelation that the gang don't like them, and have bugged a base that the Anarchists established on the edge of Hellrider territory, so they know that there's trouble planned, but don't have as much info on it as the Militia do.

The gang could be helpful allies, so I let them know a bit about my mission... and there's a bit of authorial sloppiness here, as the text assumes I came here before delivering the package, and thus don't know what it contains or have any information on the planned ARF action.

Once the meal is over and the washing-up is done, my car is returned to me, not only recharged, but fully repaired, and even repainted. Mother invites me to join them in a raid on the ARF, but acknowledges that my other responsibilities could take precedence. I tell him that I'd better get back to the truck stop and fight on the front to which I've already committed. He tells me a password I can use to call on the gang for help, and provides a quartet of bikers to safely escort me on my way. They guide me back to a more 'civilised' part of town before heading back to base.

I now have the option of checking out other parts of Boston, but I think I'd better hit the road. While this book isn't keeping track of the time like the previous one did, acting as if I've still got all day feels too much like cheating. Not having purchased a certain piece of equipment or got into trouble with the law, I have no difficulty getting through the checkpoint on the way out, and that recharge ensures an uneventful return journey. Except for yet another 'Are you sure we can't tempt you to ditch the mission and head for New York?' check.

You know what? I'm not going to shirk my duty, but in view of the date and time, I will call it quits on this particular blog entry, and save the actual showdown with the ARF for another post. Maybe that will satisfy the writers' peculiar craving for reader disengagement.

Monday 31 July 2023

Participating in a *Conspiracy* Called 'Traffic'

Today I'm back in the world of the American Steve Jackson's Car Wars Adventure Gamebooks. The second book, Fuel's Gold, which was written by Mr. Jackson along with Creede and Sharleen Lambard, is the only one in the series I've bought more than once: I got a copy not long after I started collecting the series, and then some time later I came across an eBay lot containing all the Car Wars books I still lacked, plus Fuel's Gold, and bid what I was prepared to pay for the books I wanted. Nobody outbid me, so I completed my collection and wound up with a spare Gold.

Unlike Battle Road, the first book in the series, Gold throws me straight into the action, starting at the climax of a bout of vehicular combat. This is a professional sporting contest rather than a fight with an enemy, so defeat shouldn't mean game over, but I imagine that some or all of the damage I incur in the course of my showdown with Al Blaine's mine-slinging Morningstar is liable to have consequences when the adventure proper gets under way, or the prize money if I win will enable me to better equip my car for the mission ahead.

Character generation is as it was in the first book. The build I used last time worked well until a flukey roll caused me to crash and burn, so I'll try it again here. Thus, I have:
Driving skill 3
Gunnery skill 3
Mechanic skill 2
Prestige 1
Wealth 1
I never got into a proper fight in the first book, so this unavoidable combat may give me a better idea of how well-optimised I am.

Terminology with no in-book definition adds a complication to the battle. It may well be that 'your Driving skill roll' is exactly what the name suggests, but the rules do mention a 'Control Roll', which uses Driving skill with a modifier. If they're two distinct things, it would help to have both mentioned on the list to make it clear that one is not just a different name for the other. I'm going to assume that they just neglected to spell out that this is an unmodified roll, because while the 50% chance of hitting a mine each round that that gives me seems a bit high, the impossibility of my taking mine damage if it's a Control Roll goes too far the other way. No, wait, reading on, I see that a Control Roll would give me a 1 in 36 change of being damaged by a mine. Still unconvincingly low.

So, based on our Gunnery skills and our cars' Defense Classes, it appears that Blaine and I both need to score above 9 on two dice to inflict damage. I have the added complication of being at risk from mines (not sure why they can't damage Blaine's car once they're just lying around where anybody could drive over them, but that appears to be the case), but Blaine is low on ammunition for his machine-gun, and will have to concede defeat if my car is still functional 9 rounds from now.

Well, that was underwhelming. I took damage from a mine, Blaine's gunfire hit me once, and then I scored a hit on him, doing negligible damage but also getting to roll on the Special Damage chart, as a result of which I obliterated his gun. Given that I would have won if he'd run out of ammo, causing him to run out of guns should likewise constitute a victory for me, right?

My win increases my Prestige by 1, and in addition to the prize money, I get my car completely repaired and all weapons reloaded free of charge. I also qualify for entry in a similar contest in New York the following weekend. The one I've just won took place in Albany, which is in the region of 150 miles away - possibly a longer drive, depending on the post-apocalyptic infrastructure.

I might not make it, though, as a Colonel I know is waiting in my dressing room. The precise nature of our history with each other is left unclear, but give the talk of 'activating' me to take a courier package to Massachusetts, it's possible that I am a member of the Federal Express Division of the United States Armed Reserves about which I speculated recently. It's ostensibly a volunteer mission, but while the book offers the option of declining, that's just a bit of section number padding, as persistent refusal just leads to a no-choice between volunteering and effectively being drafted. Once I have submitted to the inevitable, the Colonel briefs me on where to get the package and gives me a pass to facilitate entry, then leaves.

Now I must decide what to drive, as I have a car for everyday use in addition to the one in which I was just fighting. As regards my 'professional' vehicle, there hasn't been time for the repairs I was promised, only for reloading the weapons, so its armour will still be in a pretty sorry state, while the other car is in better condition but not so well-armed. On this occasion I'll go with the undamaged one, though that's largely because I didn't keep a record of exactly how much armour the other one lost before I disarmed Blaine (the claim that it would be fully repaired gave me no reason to think I'd need to continue tracking the damage), and thus no longer have accurate stats for that vehicle.

As I choose which car to take, my character reflects on the possibility of using a loophole to justify ignoring the mission and heading straight to New York. Seriously? Was Joseph Campbell constantly pestering the authors about the 'refusal of the call' element of his inordinately venerated monomyth? In this setting it's possible that contract disputes are resolved not by legal wrangling but by a discreet bullet to the back of the head, so I'm getting on with the job while my skull still has only the standard number of holes in it.

Driving to Fort Caswell, I hand in my pass, and receive my payment, two other passes (colour-coded), the package I am to deliver, and more detailed instructions. I'm also presented with a form to sign, and given the option of not taking the time to read it first. Much of my real-life job involves dealing with bureaucracy, and I'm not exactly delighted to be confronted with more of the stuff in gamebooks (with some exceptions for parody and humour, but this looks more like an opportunity to unnecessarily make things more difficult for myself). Hoping that the gamebook will at least summarise the content of the form rather than make me wade through the same mounds of legalese with which my character is confronted, I check what I'm actually committing myself to before formally agreeing to it.

No hidden surprises (and, it appears, no consequences for spending time reading it, so this would appear to be just more section number padding), but I do now know the punishment I can expect if I fail to complete the job. Though, given the nature of gamebooks, if I do fail, I'll probably be too dead to care about the fine and/or prison sentence.

I leave the fort and, after making a big deal about noting down which pass is to be used in which situation, the book just automatically has me show the correct one on my way out. All right, so a 'use the wrong pass and get penalised for your idiocy' option would have been tiresome, but stressing the importance of these details and then having them not matter isn't much of an improvement.

Proceeding to my hotel, I stash my valuables in the safe and turn in for the night. Before I can drop off, someone knocks on my door, claiming to be room service. Just in case this is a simple error (or a pleasant surprise arranged by friends - yeah, right), I try calling reception to ask about this, and am told that they know nothing about it. Whoever is outside knocks again and asks if I'm in there, addressing me rather more informally than I'd expect a hotel employee to speak to a guest.

I decide to risk taking a look through the spy hole in the door, but it has been blocked. Again my unsolicited visitor tries to ascertain if I'm present and I get redirected back to the list of possible responses. So do I let them know I'm here (seems unwise), open the door (even more inadvisable) or just wait? It would help to know if that's a 'prepare to confront an attacker'-style wait or more of a 'gormlessly sit around and let the stranger have the initiative' wait, but that does seem the least poor of the remaining options.

Oh, I get to determine the nature of my waiting, and it's all reasonably proactive stuff. Not sure how I can choose to 'have a brilliant idea', but I'm intrigued enough to see what that entails. A 50-50 die roll, as it turns out, and the number I roll leads to a blanket-based ambush that enables me to subdue the two thugs who burst into the room with ease. I search them, finding that each carries a single playing card - the eight of spades - and a pamphlet implying revolutionary tendencies.

Pocketing the cards, I call hotel security, and encounter more section number padding in the form of a superfluous Prestige roll (I checked both outcomes because the positive consequences of failing made me wonder if the book was actually penalising success, but it turns out that more or less the same thing happens either way. Disregard the underlined words in the following sentence if you want to know what difference a successful roll would have made.) After I fail to convince the hotel detective that the two men tried to attack me, he calls the police to have them figure out what really happened, but then my would-be assailants trip him up and attempt to flee, so I intercept them, the thugs are taken into custody, and I get another boost to my Prestige for my handling of the incident.

The rest of my night's rest is undisturbed, and in the morning I put my armour on, breakfast on scrambled algae, retrieve the package and my money from the safe, and drive off. Now the text sees fit to tell me that the place to which I'm delivering the package is owned by a friend, and I'm looking forward to seeing him again. At least it doesn't delay as long in letting me know that a car is shadowing me. Given that the 'wait' option in the hotel room showed that the writers are crediting my character with a degree of competence, I decide not to take any action just yet: best not to provoke anything before I have a better understanding of what's afoot.

In the early afternoon I stop at a diner for lunch, and my meal is interrupted by the sounds of an explosion and my car alarm. Hoping that the diner staff will contact the police, I promptly hurry out to get a better idea of what's up, and catch sight of a trio of rogues running away from my car. They pile into the vehicle I'd noticed trailing me earlier and drive off, and for the first time I notice that they have no license plate, just an anarchy symbol on the bumper.

My car has sustained damage from the attempted forced entry, but the anarchists didn't manage to steal anything. Reflecting that my career as an automotive duellist probably means I don't get much of a no-claims bonus anyway, I resume my travels.

A while later I catch sight of a young woman hitch-hiking, holding up a sign that reads 'Home to mother'. Well, that's not remotely suspicious. However, while turning pages to get from one section to the next, I've seen more than one picture of her, which suggests that she's more plot-significant than just bait for an ambush, so I stop for a word. She says she's heading for Boston, which is a short distance past where I'm headed, so I offer to take her as far as I'm going, and she seems happy with that.

The text then has me ask where she's headed, which leads me to suspect that this is where a 'decide against picking her up but get railroaded into doing so anyway' path rejoins the route I'm taking. She introduces herself as Kathy, and we make small talk until a car approaches from behind and starts machine-gunning my car. Kathy offers to drop some grenades, and I advise her to save them for an emergency. Time to start fighting back.

John at Gamebook Odyssey has complained about the combat in these books, and I can see why. This is a gunfight between two speeding cars, and here's a round-by-round account of how it plays out:
I fire my machine-guns and miss. My opponent fires his machine-gun and misses.
I fire my machine-guns, and one of them scores a hit. My opponent fires his machine-gun and misses.
I fire my machine-guns and miss. My opponent fires his machine-gun and misses.
I fire my machine-guns, and one of them scores a hit. My opponent fires his machine-gun and hits me.
I fire my machine-guns, and both hit, one of them damaging a tyre. My opponent fires his machine-gun and misses.
I fire my machine-guns and miss. My opponent fires his machine-gun and misses.
I fire my machine-guns, and one of them scores a hit. My opponent fires his machine-gun and misses.
I fire my machine-guns and miss. My opponent fires his machine-gun and hits me.
I fire my machine-guns, and one of them scores a hit. My opponent almost loses control of his vehicle, and cannot retaliate.
I fire my machine-guns, and one of them scores a hit, slightly damaging my enemy's gun. My opponent fires his machine-gun and misses.
I fire my machine-guns, and one of them scores a hit. My opponent almost loses control of his vehicle, and cannot retaliate.
I fire my machine-guns, and miss. My opponent fires his machine-gun and misses.
I fire my machine-guns, and miss. My opponent fires his machine-gun and misses.
I fire my machine-guns, and one of them scores a hit, slightly damaging my enemy's armour. My opponent almost loses control of his vehicle, and cannot retaliate.
I fire my machine-guns, and miss. My opponent fires his machine-gun and hits me.
I fire my machine-guns, and miss. My opponent fires his machine-gun and hits me, damaging a tyre. 
I fire my machine-guns, and both hit, wrecking my opponent's vehicle.
And if you find reading that dull, I can assure you that playing through it was a lot more so.

The pursuing car skids to a halt, and by the time I've turned my car round, somebody is torching the wreck, which explodes. The debris scattered by the car's destruction includes a wooden box, which I investigate. It contains machine-gun ammo, which could come in handy if this book's inventory management system actually acknowledged how much ammunition I was carrying when I started, and a load of pro-anarchist leaflets, which I take to show to the authorities. The leaflets appear to trouble Kathy, but she doesn't say anything.

I'd been hoping to finish this book one way or another before the end of the month, but after that tedious fight I need to take a break, as my motivation to play on is in a similar state to the car I just fought. Still, this seems like a reasonable point at which to pause the narrative, so I'll post what I've written so far, and resume play when I'm less fed up with the book.

Saturday 17 June 2023

A Fortress Deep and Mighty

The mini-adventure in issue 14 of Fighting Fantazine used a system other than Fighting Fantasy, so I'm skipping that one for now and moving on to issue 15 and Brett Schofield's Lords of Stone. This is the first of the Fantazine mini-adventures on which I worked as a playtester, so I've played it a lot more than any previous mini-adventure (apart from the one I wrote).

Judging by the playability (or lack thereof) of certain published gamebooks, I think it not unreasonable to say that my playtesting technique is more thorough than some. It has three main phases:

  1. Play the adventure with a randomly-generated character, marking all options not taken.
  2. Repeatedly replay the adventure (continuing to mark options not taken, and removing markers from options when I do try them) until I win.
    Once I have at least a rough idea of the stat requirements, I'm likely to 'save' and reuse the first character I roll up who appears to meet those requirements, to cut down on unnecessary repetition. The priority here is to confirm that the adventure can be beaten using an achievable character.
  3. Continue replaying the adventure until I have gone through every single option. Broken links can occur at any stage of an adventure, and checking each transition is the only way to be certain of finding however many there may be. Not that my finding and reporting them is any guarantee that they'll be fixed before the 'zine is published, but I do at least try.
Anyway, the point is that a little over eight years ago I played Lords a lot. It's a fairly generic dungeon-crawl, in which the reader plays a seasoned adventurer who has assisted the Dwarfs of Stonebridge in the past (and thus could be a veteran of more than one FF book - not that the third of those is likely to produce any veterans) and, consequently, gets called in by King Gillibran to deal with a new peril. As they say, no good deed goes unpunished.

This time the bad guy is Mor Orthor, a Dark Elf who has established a base in an old mine, and is experimenting with Elementals, presumably with the aim of raising an army and laying waste to the region. While Gillibran starts out by saying he needs to ask for my assistance again, by the end of the Background he's just ordering me to get rid of Orthor, his cultists, Elementals, and whatever other hostile creatures or entities might be in the mine. I'm beginning to wish that his hammer had stayed lost.

As I recall, on my very first attempt my character ended up locked into a cell and left to starve. Over the course of a few months I played the mini-adventure dozens more times. Played it, mapped it (sort of - it is not a cartographer-friendly dungeon crawl), won it, played it still more until I'd followed just about every conceivable route through it (including trying out all the Instant Deaths) and completed and sent off my list of corrections and other suggestions. After that I didn't play Lords again until it came up in last year's Fantazine forum challenge, and my low-Skilled character died in a fight against a trio of Dark Elves. Well, a pair by the end, but killing one opponent wasn't enough to save him.

This time round my character has:
Skill 8
Stamina 21
Luck 9
Not the best of stats, but if I'm careful and lucky I might survive.

I shall be using my map of the setting as I play Lords here, because there are some areas that contain nothing but penalties, and I'm not keen to revisit them. To be honest, I'm not that keen on revisiting anything in this adventure, as I'm not particularly enthusiastic about generic dungeon crawls, but I'm not going to condemn Lords because of its setting. Why have a go at it over a matter of personal taste, when there are so many non-subjective reasons to haul it over the coals?

In addition to the usual provisions and potion, I get to take some Elemental Runestones with me. These are magical items that can be used to deal with element-based threats and obstacles. Each is associated with one of the classical elements, and is effective against one other element: water overcomes fire, fire destroys earth, earth beats air, and air counters water. A Dwarf gives half a dozen of them to me, and somehow I get to choose the type of each, even though my character had no input into what the Dwarf handed over. I'll go with two fire, two air, and one each of the others.

Oh, and it's not clear whether Gillibran arranged for me to receive the Runestones, or if the Dwarf who handed them over thought something along the lines of, "What, the King's not even loaning our would-be saviour his precious magic hammer? Well, if old Swill-for-Brains isn't going to provide some assistance, I'd better do so myself."

Anyway, getting to the mines is apparently a bit of a struggle, though not sufficiently so for me to have any encounters, incur damage, roll dice, or indeed do anything other than read that it is an arduous journey. Along the way I see signs of the destruction wrought by Orthor's Elementals. I'd go into more detail, but the author didn't, so your guess is as good as mine. Burned-out farmsteads? Roads blocked by landslides? Blown-down trees with drowned Dwarfs clinging to the upper branches? Whatever: this adventure is all about the subterranean shenanigans.

I enter the mine and head along a tunnel, before long reaching a wooden door set into the left-hand wall. Opening it, I find a room with blood on one wall and bones on the floor. Having only recently played Mine of Torments makes it more noticeable that this place isn't actually that much like a mine. Maybe the Dark Elves added the door so that one of them could get up to whatever unspeakable rites he wanted to practise here in privacy, but still, a room? Not a chamber, a cavern, a cave - you know, the kind of larger space you actually get in a mine that's been used by miners for mining? In any case, I search it, and find a length of rope before returning to the passage.

Continuing on my way, I reach a junction. On the floor is a wooden box, inscribed with violent images, with a green gem set into the lid. Unable to remember what it contains, I open it, and oh, for goodness sake, I corrected that typo, and it's still there in the published version out streams a cloud of Stamina-sapping gas. To get away from it, I run to the right - yes, this is the kind of adventure that goes with subjective directions rather than anything compass-based.

Ignoring a boarded-up door in the right wall, I proceed to another junction. Though it is obvious that the passage leading left has caved in, I head that way, finding some comparatively fresh Dark Elf corpses partially buried in the rubble. The bodies have already been looted, but a roll of parchment remains clutched in the hand of one cadaver. Removing it, I find it to be a basic guide to translating some unfamiliar script into language I can read.

Turning around and entering the non-blocked tunnel, I eventually round a corner and find a dead Dwarf with a couple of obviously badly broken limbs. Close by is a war-hammer, and around his neck hangs a gold medallion. Though aware that there must be a reason why this corpse hasn't been robbed, I check out the Dwarf's possessions all the same. The hammer is a straightforward weapon, which I can take with me, though I must leave my sword behind to do so because... just because.

Taking the medallion summons a Stone Golem, which attacks me. As I'm using the hammer, I do additional damage, whereas the sword would do reduced damage. Though my Skill is higher than the Golem's, lousy rolls cause me to lose more Attack Rounds than I win, and if not for the extra damage done by the hammer, I doubt that I'd have survived to the end of the fight.

To add insult to injury, the rules only permit me to eat Provisions when the text says I can, or when I'm in an unoccupied room. Quite apart from the question of whether or not a room can be considered 'unoccupied' if I'm in it, the implied ban on eating while in tunnels, passageways, corridors and the like makes no sense, and was not in the text I was sent to proofread, or I'd have ranted about it to the author and editor before publication in the interests of making the mini-adventure less broken. Oh, and guess how many times the text explicitly says you can eat a meal. Out of 200 sections, of which around 170 are neither combats nor Instant Deaths, the number in which 'the options allow' you to consume Provisions is zero.

So, do I reinterpret the rules in a manner that makes the adventure less of a shambles, or do I potentially doom my character by accepting these absurd limitations and not healing until I'm next in a room that contains no living beings other than myself? Well, everyone else who's played the published version was stuck with the preposterous restrictions, so I'll endure them as well, and if that means I die in the next fight, at least I'll have a valid reason to stop playing.

I'm not going to deliberately get myself killed, though, so I ignore the next boarded-up door I pass, and the later door with a spider nailed to it. A little further on, the tunnel 'bends left and then straight', whatever that's supposed to mean. It curves to the left and then straightens out? It curves to the left and then winds back to continue in the same direction I was heading? This is why we can't have nice maps!

Whichever way I'm now going, there's a side passage to the right, which I investigate. It leads to another boarded-up door, but this time I remove the boards. The cave beyond contains only stalactites and a bottle I know better than to open, but it's somewhere I can eat a portion of Provisions... Unless I go for a really strict interpretation of that stupid rule, and have to go without because this is a cave rather than a room... No, a 'for research purposes only' check of the section for opening the bottle reveals that it refers to the cave as a room, so it's officially a room, so I'm eating, so there!

Back outside the room I notice a concealed door in one of the walls, and open it to reveal a concealed passage. Investigating, I follow it as it twists and turns on its way to an iron door with a misshapen and probably non-human skull mounted above it. Behind the door is a large cavern, split in two by a chasm crossed by a narrow stone bridge. On the far side I see a crystal chest and a stone humanoid.

As I have a rope, I could try to lasso the chest, but I remember from playtesting that that wouldn't work and could get me killed, so I step onto the bridge instead. The Boulder Beast animates, and as its Skill is equal to mine, and there is some risk of my being knocked off the bridge and to my death, I use a Runestone of Fire to weaken my stony foe. Finishing it off in combat is easy enough after that.

The chest turns out to be an illusion, which infuriates my character to an inappropriate degree, especially as it was concealing a key, so it's not as if that fight was for nothing. And if a cave is a room, I don't see why a cavern shouldn't also be a room, so I have another meal.

Returning to the 'main' passage, I continue along it, and soon see another door. It leads to the room where a previous character got killed by Dark Elves, so on this occasion I shall pass it by. Further along, the passage splits again, and there's a wooden chest on the ground just before the junction. The key I recently acquired fits the lock, so I am able to open it without triggering any traps. Inside are a ring, an amulet, and a shield. I take the amulet, thereby discovering it to be a Charm of Learning, and the shield, which bears the image of a griffon (even though FF more commonly spells it 'griffin') and gives me a decent Attack Strength bonus. I forget what the ring does, but I'm pretty sure it's nothing good.

Heading left, I discover that my character is unfeasibly stupid. Well, the text doesn't say that quite so blatantly, but it's the only explanation for what does happen. Protruding from the ground are a load of sharp stalagmites, and in the ceiling directly above them is the mouth of a shaft. And rather than realising that this must be the business end of a rather nasty trap, I wonder what the stalagmites are there for. Though, given the level of cluelessness required for such bafflement, I imagine my thought processes run more along the lines of "What... pointy... rock... things... do?"

Somehow managing to get past the stalagmites without losing an eye, I reach another door, and open it. Beyond is a small chamber with symbols painted on the wall (possibly in blood). And this is another instance of the error that bugged me in Lone Wolf, where 'or' needs to be taken as 'and/or' for the text to make sense: having the Charm of Learning in addition to the Translator scroll should make it that bit easier to decipher the symbols, but a strict reading of what's written here indicates that having both leaves me as clueless as having neither.

Interpreting the words in a way that makes sense, I use one or both data sources to translate the symbols, thereby discovering how to open a concealed alcove that contains an assortment of items. Most are 'something only a brain-dead Orc would consider treasure' (so I presume my character finds them too intellectual to bother with), but there are a few things that might be worth taking.

I shall leave the leather boots: having been made from the hide of a Snattacat, they would improve my agility, thereby increasing the difficulty of any Skill rolls I make while wearing them. Yes, increasing: I queried this in my playtester's notes, and the text remains unchanged, so I must conclude that in Lords of Stone being agile is regarded as a liability when determining how well a jump goes. Why bother to query the logic of that when the boots' effect is founded on the premise that items made from the skin of an animal most notable for its ability to turn invisible will naturally enhance the agility of their wearer?

So, no boots. But I will take the small bottle, which turns out to contain a healing salve, and the tattered cloak, which can be wrapped around one arm as a crude and short-lived shield. While learning about the capabilities of these items, I also see that the text calls the chamber a room, so I have another meal and almost get back to full Stamina.

Returning to the passage (now described as a corridor), I find that it ends in another door. I shan't bother going through, because there's no longer any pressing need to eat, and because the trap it contains would prompt another rant and I'm fed up of getting annoyed at this mini-adventure. So I return to the junction and take the passage opposite. This bends to the right, and somehow leads to a flight of stairs which terminates at the top of the shaft above the stalagmites. Well, I suppose if it were a big enough curve, that could sort of make sense, but the text says it 'soon' reaches the steps, so it would have to be something like this:
Not completely impossible, but still a headache for mapping.

On the floor a scrap of paper sticks out from under a stone. I take a look at it, finding the message, 'The key is in the wall.' And while you or I might be prompted to muse on questions such as 'The key to what?' or 'Which wall?', my cretin of a character has 'no idea what it means'. Frankly, I'm amazed he still remembers to draw breath from time to time.

Anyway, to proceed I must jump across the shaft mouth, and I make it to the other side without my character gaining a painful understanding of what the stalagmites can do to any adventurer 'agile' enough to fall down the shaft. Stairs lead down, and before long I pass the door to the cell in which my first attempt at this adventure ended.

Ignoring the door, I proceed to another junction. A cold breeze blows from the right, so I head left. After a short while I see a large stone door to my right. The effort of opening it costs a Stamina point, so it's now worth using a dose of that salve to restore myself to full health.

In the chamber beyond, I see a metal grille in the floor, coated in green slime, and in one corner of the room is a skeleton. The skeleton has a helmet on its head, a slimy sword in one hand, and a bow in the other. I don't have any arrows, and it's not advisable to touch any slime, so the only course of action that might be worthwhile is to check out the helmet. No, that just causes the skeleton to come to life and attack me, and in spite of the Skill advantage conferred by the shield, the dice hate me today, so I still take a couple of wounds. Still, this is a room, so once the skeleton is no longer active, I can eat and restore what Stamina I lost.

Further along the passage is another door. Moans sound from behind it, and I think I've pushed my luck more than enough as it is, so I don't open it. Soon after that, the passage ends at a cave-in. On the ground is a skull, the top of which has been cut in order to create a lid. Remembering from my playtesting days that some malicious prankster has used a venomous snake to turn the skull into a kind of semi-lethal jack-in-the-box, I leave it alone and head back to the junction.

The cold I noticed before intensifies as I head into it, and the passage becomes icy and snowy. That cloak helps protect me from the chill, and after a little while the temperature returns to normal.

Before long the tunnel terminates in a wooden door. The sound of whimpering comes from behind it, and the text clumsily railroads me into opening it. All right, so I know that the left turn at the previous junction leads to a dead end, but anyone who went right straight off would have no idea of that, and if they had a cloak, the cold area would be no deterrent, so 'no choice but to enter' is just an authorial 'you will go this way because I say so'.

The room beyond is occupied by an emaciated Dwarf who screams a lot. He turns out to be a 'fellow Stonebridge Dwarf' (at times the text makes out that my character is a Dwarf, and in other places it implies that I'm human, and nobody to whom I mentioned this after playtesting appears to have thought that there was any need to clarify the issue, so make of the contradictions what you will).

The Dwarf explains that he was captured by the Dark Elves some weeks ago, and escaped more recently, since when he's been keeping a low profile down here, evidently failing to grasp that keeping quiet involves not whimpering loudly enough to be audible from the other side of a door. Or screaming.

I promise to help him out of the mines as soon as I've dealt with Mor Orthor, and a passing Cave Manticore takes that as a cue to fire a stone spine from its tail into his back, killing him on the spot. The Manticore fires more spines at me, but I use the shield to protect myself and there's another flipping typo that I corrected to no avail. As the brute advances on me, I decide that now might be a good time to use that cloak as a shield. It helps a little, but the vindictiveness of the dice ensures that I still take a fair bit of damage during the battle.

Back when the Dwarf first screamed at me, this chamber was referred to as a room, so I eat and get back some of the Stamina I lost in the fight before going on my way. On the Dwarf's body I find a potion that will heal a little Stamina, and I save it for closer to the endgame.

A passage leads onwards, turning left after a while. A wooden barrel stands in the corner, and I lose a point of Stamina doing something that turns out to be futile. I could spend paragraphs ranting about all the corrections that were ignored here, but what's the point?

Continuing on my way, I reach a side turning. Growls emanate from it, but I go that way anyway. A Fog Elemental attacks, and I could use a Runestone to weaken it, but it's not exactly a threatening opponent even at full health, so I don't bother. And the dice are still in a mood, so I take almost as much damage as I did fighting the Manticore.

Further along the corridor, there's a cobweb-covered door set into one wall, behind which I could face a pointless test or take an unnecessary risk in order to get a bonus that'd leave me no better off than I already am. The passage turns right a little later, and I notice a hole in the wall. Reaching into it, I find another key, its end in the shape of a horned bat. Around the corner the passage slopes down and becomes flooded. Mandatory use of a Runestone of Air dries out all but a puddle.

Eventually I reach a spiked metal door, embossed with the image of a horned bat. After downing that potion and using the rest of the salve, I use the key I recently found, which lets me through into Mor Orthor's study. The Dark Elf is perusing a bookshelf, and after issuing a threat that shows him to be no Balthus Dire, he summons a Water Elemental to attack me. Or rather, he creates the illusion of one, but the Charm of Learning enables me to discern that it's not real.

I throw the medallion I found on the first dead Dwarf to Orthor, and he puts it on because why should my character be the only idiot in the room? The Golem appears and attacks him, and while he does destroy it, he takes a fair bit of damage and loses some Skill in the process.

Wanting to finish this, I charge in to fight, and Orthor fires a bolt of lightning, which is nullified by my Runestone of Earth. We then trade blows, and as I now have a two point advantage Skill-wise and only need to hit him once to bring his Stamina below the threshold necessary to progress to the next stage of the confrontation, the dice dig in their heels and allow him to wound me three times before I narrowly win a round of combat.

Orthor vanishes through a wall. A cursory examination of the wall reveals a button, and when I push it, I find myself in a vast cavern. This, like the one where I fought the Boulder Beast, is riven by a deep chasm with a bridge across it, but the bridge here is in a bad shape, and starts to crumble as I hurry across it. A Skill roll determines whether or not I reach the far side, and if I were wearing those boots I wouldn't have made it.

At last I catch up to Orthor, who is performing a mystical rite at an underground temple. This allows him to transform into a fusion of the four primary types of Elemental, but I am able to weaken him with the last few of my Runestones. The dice have become complacent, and I win the first two rounds of the fight, using Luck to increase damage both times. At this point one more blow will kill Orthor, but the dice realise how close I am to victory, and allow him to win another four rounds and draw at least one before I finally get to deliver a killing blow. He has randomly determined special attacks that kick in whenever he wins a round, but all they amount to in this fight is a small amount of extra damage, and my being unable to harm him during a round that I didn't win anyway.

Mission accomplished, I return to Stonebridge. Pay no attention to the fact that I was on the wrong side of a seemingly bottomless chasm that no longer had a bridge across it. Gillibran buys me a pint of beer and says that further rewards will be forthcoming. Which probably means fresh opportunities to get killed, but never mind. I've won, so I shan't have to play the adventure again for this blog, and Lords has already come up in this year's challenge at the Fantazine forum, so it's not likely to come up on my 'to play' list again any time soon. All right, it's by no means the worst Fantazine mini-adventure, but right now another seven years without going back to it looks to me like a good start.

Wednesday 31 May 2023

The Choice Between a Single Line and Thin Line and a Wrinkled Thing and...

So, having now replayed everything that precedes Lone Wolf book 11, The Prisoners of Time, I have a character who's better equipped, has slightly superior stats, and is currently in less than ideal health. In the gap between adventures I finish assimilating the power contained within the Lorestone of Luomi, gaining the Discipline of Pathsmanship and completing another Lore-circle, which adds another point to my Combat Skill, and two to my starting Endurance.

I'm not sure why getting the Lorestone didn't restore any Endurance, given that the ones in books 7-9 did, and book 10 states that I am filled with 'renewed strength' when the Lorestone falls into my hands. The Mongoose edit doesn't help: though it adds 'and vigour' to that, there's still no mention of any restoration of attributes, so I remain at less than half health even as an unavoidable Endurance loss in the very first section of the next book approaches.

Assuming I don't die before I get to do anything, I'll mostly follow the same path I did on my first attempt at Prisoners for the blog, and when I deviate from that route it'll be in the same way that I did on my next try - at least, up until the fight with the Chaos-master. Ideally, I won't die this time round, and to aid me in attaining that goal I'll be downing the Alether potion from Kalte rather than eating unrefined berries, for an additional boost to Combat Skill.

In brief, then: I take a lot of damage travelling through the portal, and shelter in the sepulchre. The Yoacor find me and take me to the Beholder. Food restores a little Endurance, but I lose more than that from the combination of the Beholder's mind probe and passage through the Dimension Door. I proceed to the city via as direct a route as possible, and the damage I take from the pawing and poking of its citizens would be enough to kill me if I weren't wearing a leather waistcoat. That would be a more preposterous way of dying than the rubbish one from book 13 that I rant about every so often.

Once I meet Serocca I get an info-dump which takes in enough section transitions to be tedious even when condensed to snarky bullet points by my gamebook manager, and have all my lost Endurance restored. It's about time.

Doomed companion T'uk T'ron takes me further, I get the same vague waffle from the fortune teller as on the last two occasions I played the book, and the ambush at the bridge leaves me on my own for a bit. I meet Ironheart's troops, doing my best to avert the friendly fire incident that they seem so keen on, get yet more exposition from Ironheart himself, and head for the tombs in the company of another redshirt.

When I encounter the helmeted warrior who's trying to take the Lorestones, I attempt to put an arrow through his throat. He tries to dodge, but the bonuses I get for having the Silver Bow and Weaponmastery in Bow help me find a chink in his armour. This being one of the more railroady parts of the book, I merely wound him, so he still grabs the Lorestones, and I have to fight him for them. His stats are lower than on either of the last two times I fought him, and I kill him in the first round of combat, but his winged steed inevitably denies me the opportunity to recover both Lorestones. The one I do get restores me to full Endurance again (not that I'd lost much anyway), reminding me afresh of what I was complaining about in the second paragraph of this post.

In Baylon's Tomb I help myself to the healing wine from the sarcophagus, and before long it's time to fight the Chaos-master again. I use the slightly lower stats from the Mongoose edit, down the potent Alether potion, and find myself in a situation where Psi-surge might just be worth using.

I win, losing just over half my Endurance in the process. On my way to the city from which the helmeted warrior came, I get into a fight with a big grey lizard. It's particularly vulnerable to psychic attacks, but has a Combat Skill so low that I have the best possible Combat Ratio even without using Mindblast or Psi-surge. Even so, it wounds me a few times.

As I plod on through a dead landscape, the mind-numbing dreariness causes me to start to lose my grip on reality. That reminds me of something in real life... oh, yes, it's a bit like reading this book. Eventually I encounter a trio of bargain basement Ringwraiths, who launch a psychic attack, but my Psi-screen not only blocks it but uses some of the energy from it to reinforce my mental defences. Sensing this, the phantasmal riders urge their steeds closer to me, and a new kind of psychic combat takes place, conducted using much the same rules as a physical fight. Most of the bonuses I get to apply in normal battles don't apply here, but the Mongoose text says that I can still use the one provided by the Silver Helmet I wear (the tinfoil hat-wearers of the world might take this as an endorsement of their views). I also get to add Combat Skill for possessing Disciplines above and beyond the base three, and for having the ring I bought in book 8.

I win the fight, and I'm not sure if I lost any Endurance during it, as the text doesn't specify whether or not the cost of employing Psi-surge during a standard combat also applies here. Assuming the worst, I deduct an appropriate amount.

The wind brings the sound of a bell to my ears, and I am irresistibly drawn to a golden light. A shining globe hangs above a stone tower, and through a portal in its side I see a tunnel leading to a distant light. One of the Lore-circles I've completed enables me to heal extra Endurance. A load of mystical mumbo-jumbo follows, made more bearable by the fact that every separate section of this cosmic twaddle allows me to regain a point of Endurance. I see visions of everyone and everything that has shaped my destiny (I wonder if that includes an unimpressed reader and a random number generator, because they've been doing a lot of the heavy lifting of late), and get a pep talk from Lone Wolf's god.

Then I find myself at the bottom of a sheer cliff, at the top of which is the city where the Lorestone I seek now resides. Close by is a sewage outlet, which could be an easier way in than the straight climb, especially as Nexus should protect me from mephitic vapours. Not that they're actually an issue here, as it turns out. A giant sewer snake, on the other hand...

I kill it, taking a little damage, and continue my ascent. Eventually I emerge onto the streets of Haagadar. The place stinks of salt and sulphur, and the locals use damp pads on their faces to block out the stench. Tethered outside a temple I see the bird that transported the helmeted warrior, and I sense that the Lorestone is now inside the temple. There only appears to be one door leading into the building, and that is guarded. A vent on the roof could provide another way in, but I have Invisibility, so I opt to cover my face (getting flashbacks to 2020) and try to bluff my way past the guards.

The guards are convinced by my imposture, and assume that I'm in trouble - potentially a lethal amount. Amused, they let me past, and I proceed along a curved corridor past numerous doors with writhing serpents painted on them (does that remind you of anything?). It leads to a staircase, which ascends to a balcony overlooking a hall. This hall contains alchemical paraphernalia and the Shadow Gate that could take me home. By now Healing has made good a fair bit of the damage I'd sustained, and I use the Oede herb I've been toting around to restore me to full health in anticipation of the imminent boss fight.

A group of six people in vaguely familiar clothing approaches. I hide behind the table of alchemical gubbins and study the sextet until I twig what I've recognised: their clothes are in styles popular back in my homeland. This enables me to identify the people: a selection of Sommerlund's Most Wanted, all of whom were exiled via the Shadow Gate. Brief descriptions of their crimes are provided, but as I've had nothing to do with five of them before now, the accompanying illustration has more impact, so they come across as: fat villain, villain with eyepatch, villainess, villain with goatee, villain with long beard, and Vonotar the Traitor. The latter gloats about being able to take his revenge, and sets the others on me mob-handed.

I down a handful of Alether berries and, as this scurvy bunch has no immunity to Mindblast, use that (but not Psi-surge, in view of the Endurance cost) to give myself a decent edge in the fight. It takes me six rounds of combat to kill the lot, and I take less damage than I did against the Chaos-master. If I'd used Psi-surge, the fight would have been a bit quicker, but I'd have lost almost twice as much Endurance, so I reckon I made the right choice there.

Vonotar makes a move towards the Shadow Gate, opening a lead box he carries, which contains the Lorestone. I charge at him, and he blasts me with a bolt of energy from a magical ring, doing a not insignificant amount of damage. He fires again, but this time I dodge, and I attack before he can try a third time. I shan't be using Psi-surge in this fight, either, because it doesn't affect him. Two blows with the Sommerswerd suffice to finish him off, though, and he inflicts no wounds on me during the fight, which is a good thing, because the last Lorestone is another 'no Endurance restoration for you, loser' one, and I remember from the 1990s that the next book starts with another Shadow Gate-induced Endurance loss.

Anyway, I take the Lorestone and proceed through the Shadow Gate, heading for home. This victory doesn't so much give me (the reader) a sense of triumph as the kind of relief you feel when the car alarm that's been going off for the past 20-odd minutes finally shuts up.

And that's that book done with, mostly. I do still have the mini-adventure from the Mongoose edition to play through, but I think it unlikely that that will be anywhere near as dismal a slog as Prisoners turned out to be, and in any case, it'll be a while before I get to that one. Probably not this year, unless I pick up the pace of my posts, and there's enough going on elsewhere in my life (and little enough enthusiasm regarding ploughing on through the series) that that's not massively likely.