Saturday, 27 November 2021

I Know You're Evil and Everything, But...

The first time I played the mini-adventure in issue 10 of Fighting Fantazine, Kieran Coghlan's Hand of Fate, I did not enjoy it. The main reason for that is probably still going to annoy me this time round, so I'll save that rant for when I get to it in the playthrough (which won't take long). However, it is possible that the bad mood created by that particular aspect of the adventure caused me to view what followed in an overly harsh light. Thus, in the hope of increasing my appreciation of the 200+ sections that might not be a kick in the teeth, I want to indulge in a tangential reminiscence for a few paragraphs.

For a while during the mid-to-late 1980s I collected a comic by the name of Oink, which might best be described as a pig-obsessed, child-friendly version of Viz. Much of its content was satirical, including two gamebook parodies that wouldn't be suitable material for this blog (The Unfair Funfair only has one ending, and The Sword of Blatterlee only has one decision), and there was an occasional comic strip called Dice Maniac, about a schoolboy so obsessed with gamebooks and RPGs that he treated his entire life like one.

My favourite contributor to the comic was Jeremy 'Banx' Banks, whose output included the surreal Mister Bignose, Burp (the misadventures of an alien with sapient and independent internal organs: sometimes packed with barbed social commentary, sometimes gloriously absurd, sometimes regrettably crude), and a selection of preposterous cautionary tales in which characters with ridiculous names met with grim fates (such as Ian Nasal Cavity, who spent most of his life headless as a result of not wearing a clip-on tie).

Another of Banx' highlights was Hector Vector and His Talking T-Shirt, in which antisocial youth Keith Disease annoyed a demon and was punished by being transformed into 'a tasteless print' on the T-shirt of hapless passer-by Hector. Still possessed of the power of speech, Disease went on to get Hector into trouble, assorted bizarre perils, and, at times, intensive care, by coming out with a wide range of creative insults directed at whoever Hector happened to be interacting with, or just anyone in his general vicinity. Readers who are familiar with Hand of Fate may be starting to see where I'm going with this. Others should get the point soon enough.

Only slightly worse an outcome than usual for Hector.

My character in Hand is a veteran adventurer - in fact, he's the hero who slew Balthus Dire during a successful attempt at The Citadel of Chaos. Consequently, even though the 'zine tells me to roll up a character in the usual manner, I shall reuse the one with whom I won that book back in the early days of this blog, who has:
Skill 12
Stamina 21
Luck 8
And should have a Magic score of 13, but the rules and character sheet make no mention of that attribute. No, this is not a Mongoose Publishing-style editorial blunder.

Anyway, I'm on my way to the city of Zengis in search of new adventures, confident that my abilities should suffice to deal with any Orcs or Goblins who might seek to waylay me, but still alert to the possibility of an attempted ambush. Yeah, right.

The thing is, while strolling through a wooded valley, I catch sight of a wounded man who pleads for help, claiming to have been attacked by Rhino-men. Right on cue, a trio of halberd-toting Rhino-men emerges from the trees and advances on me, and I smugly reassure the man that they're no cause for concern before casting a spell. It doesn't really matter which I choose, but I have to pick one, so I go for Creature Copy, sorcerously cloning one of the Rhino-men. They mistake my creation for an ally, and by the time they've realised their error and killed it, one of them is dead and a second is seriously injured. I finish off the wounded one with ease, and then the man puts a knife to my throat from behind and has Brus, his surviving Rhino-man ally, club me unconscious.

There is no way of avoiding that outcome. If I'd chosen a different spell, I could have faced a slightly tougher fight or no fight at all before being ambushed by the man, but this is like one of the 'every option leads to failure' decisions with which Steve Jackson liked to taunt doomed players. Except that Steve only used them in situations where the reader had made a sub-optimal decision at an earlier stage in the adventure, which tempts me to suggest that 'playing Hand of Fate' was the bad choice I made here.

Okay, so the plot hinges on my getting myself captured. But there are more than just a few other gamebooks in which getting imprisoned is unavoidable, and none of those present the reader with the illusion of agency while forcing them to do something which is not only stupid but also directly contradicts what has just been said about their character. I'd have preferred to have had the capture as a fait accompli, covered in a couple of paragraphs of the 'Background' (and without making the hero such a gullible cretin), and followed by a lot more of the set-up (which is currently crammed into the massive section 198), with the inevitable escape attempt starting in section 1. An unoriginal approach, perhaps, but nowhere near as annoying as taunting the reader with a meaningless decision and implicitly blaming them for what the author has already decided is going to happen regardless. And since doing that would trim 4 sections from the adventure, and the errata informs me that there is no section 189, it would take the adventure's purported 235 sections down to a nice round 230.

Moving on to more of what I'd have shunted from section 198 to 'Background': the man who 'masterminded' my capture is Fang-Zen, the mediocre antagonist from Deathmoor. A while back the author revealed that Hand is set before Deathmoor, so it doesn't contradict the bit in that book where Fang-Zen gets killed. Just leaving the question of how he gets from the locality of Zengis to Arion in between - roughly equivalent to travelling from Salt Lake City to Mogadishu in the real world (in an era before powered flight or even steamships). He is working for Balthus Dire's widow Lucretia, who has joined forces with Temple of Terror's back-up villainess Leesha, and in order to achieve the mayhem they have planned, they need a hand from me.

Literally. Overheard dialogue indicates that when I killed Balthus, some mystical key that he had was transferred to me, and now resides in my left hand. It can only be passed on by killing the bearer in honourable combat (presumably a rather loose definition of 'honourable combat' which encompasses 'not fighting at all, but exposing the loser to something which has a lethal effect on them' for the sake of readers who took that option to win Citadel). Or someone could take possession of the key by amputating the hand that contains it, so long as they keep the owner of the hand alive. So that's what my captors do, after which they swan off to Leesha's home city of Vatos to retrieve the 'Juggernaut' that the key activates, leaving me chained up, with Fang-Zen, Brus, and an entity in a glass bottle to keep watch over me and make sure I don't die before Lucretia is ready to fight me to the death.

The loss of my hand has left me in a fragile state, mentally speaking, and cost me 1 point of Initial (and presumably also Current) Skill and 3 Stamina.  I'm pretty much out of action until the day the bottle's occupant starts talking to me. It is a Ganjee, one of the malignant spectral beings that formed one of the last few lines of defence before I confronted Balthus himself, now trapped in the bottle as punishment for letting me past. The Ganjee is far from happy about this state of affairs, and has taken advantage of a brief moment when he and I are alone to try and bring me back to my senses. Fang-Zen has snuck off to indulge his gambling habit, and Brus is answering the call of nature, which gives the Ganjee just enough time to tell me the bare essentials of my part in the escape plan he's formulated.

As Brus returns, the Ganjee bursts out laughing and, as directed, I feign similar amusement. The Rhino-man wants to know what's so funny, and the Ganjee tells him that he is the joke - a guard so useless that even with just the one hand, I could easily defeat him if not for the chains. This provokes Brus into releasing me so that he can give me a good beating - he shouldn't get into trouble with his mistress as long as he doesn't actually kill me - and I quickly prove the Ganjee's point, killing Brus without difficulty in spite of the (somewhat lenient) Attack Strength penalty for lacking a weapon.

Small error missed by the editorial staff: 'the' should be 'then' in one of the last sentences Brus utters before freeing me to kill him.

The Ganjee tells me his name is Sussurus and delivers an insult-laden info-dump. I've lost my magical abilities on account of the severing of my left hand, which contains the key to control of a forty-foot-high automaton that used to be the chief weapon in the arsenal of Vatos. I'd already figured out much of what he tells me based on the conversation that preceded the amputation, but since the patronising exposition comes from a being who considers humans to be barely capable of rational thought, it's not as unreasonable as when a gamebook author directly treats the readers as morons.

I take what I can from Brus - a backpack, some food and water - and lament my inability to use the two-handed weapon he wielded. As I'm about to leave, Sussurus demands that I take him with me. He can only be freed from the bottle if Lucretia releases him or dies, so as repayment for helping me to escape, he wants to tag along with me. It is perhaps indicative of his desperation that he doesn't Ganjeesplain how bad a mood Lucretia will be in when she returns to find me gone. I could be ungrateful and leave him behind, but since the summary of the adventure on the 'zine's contents page mentioned being accompanied by a Ganjee, it's pretty obvious that abandoning him will lead at best to a penalty and my being forced to accede to his wishes, and at worst to an Instant Death. Thus, with some difficulty (and to the accompaniment of further verbal abuse) I attach the bottle to my belt, and am about to head upstairs when Sussurus points out that they're booby-trapped, and indicates which ones are safe to step on.

At the top of the stairs is a disused kitchen. I'm about to head out of it when Fang-Zen returns to the house. He is, understandably, surprised to see me. Less understandably, I just dither while he takes out and loads a crossbow. If not for the fact that many of Sussurus' insults are glossed over in reported speech, I might start to suspect that the author did have contempt for the readers, and just came up with the Ganjee as a pretext for hurling abuse at them. Under the circumstances, I'm not sure my character can be trusted to remember about the booby-trapped stairs, so charging a mercenary with a loaded crossbow looks less inadvisable than trying to retreat to the cellar.

Fang-Zen fires at me, but only manages to hit my shoulder. A brief fight ensues, and here he has fixed stats, unlike in Deathmoor. He's still outclassed, though, so I win the first round, consequently managing to throw him down the stairs, and hearing proof that Sussurus wasn't lying about the trap. I don't loiter to see if Fang-Zen survived - though now I know that he must have done, since he will return in his first appearance (prequels can have odd effects on chronology), which also raises the grim prospect of his making a nuisance of himself again before this adventure is over. My not checking the body also means that I don't get to arm myself with Fang-Zen's scimitar, because obviously it wouldn't do to get rid of that Attack Strength penalty just yet.

Leaving the building, I discover that I'm in Zengis, and the local pie-eating champion makes a brief cameo to prove that the author has read the FF book which featured Zengis. Sussurus says that I need to catch up with Lucretia and Leesha quickly, and when I point out that I'll need money to equip myself for the trek through the Desert of Skulls, he comments that employment opportunities for a one-handed ex-mage are going to be a bit thin on the ground. I could ask him to use his powers to help me, but I suspect that imprisonment limits his abilities, and trying to get the locals to part with money in return for bespoke insults from the spooky face in the bottle seems unlikely to be an effective means of fundraising. My maimed status could work to my advantage if I were to try begging, though.

The lack of an existing entry to cover this choice on my gamebook manager indicates that on my previous playthrough I must have attempted to get Sussurus to perform tricks. I remember dying in a fight with some guards very shortly after leaving the house, so that was obviously not a good decision. Well, not for my character, though an argument could be made that, since the guard killed me in honourable combat, the key would have passed to him, making the hand in Lucretia's possession useless and thereby thwarting or at the very least delaying her plan, making it a favourable outcome for the people on whom she had intended to set the Juggernaut. Still, 'you defeat the baddie but die in the process' is rarely treated as a win in gamebooks, so I should try for a more positive ending this time round.

Once it occurs to me to exploit my stump, begging does indeed prove a decent earner. So much so, in fact, that I wind up getting the money that would normally have gone to the local beggars, who are somewhat disgruntled at the sudden drop in income. A few of them come up to me to express their grievances, and I try to talk my way out of trouble, explaining that my predicament is a very recent development, and reassuring them that I will be leaving today. It seems to be working, until Sussurus expresses his contempt for their setting their sights so low as to seek a monopoly on begging. Now they demand all the money I've made, threatening me with worse than the loss of a hand, so I demonstrate that I can still throw a good punch with my right.

The beggars are pretty poor fighters, though one of them does manage to hit me once. The fight only lasts five rounds before something intervenes, and I choose to switch opponents each time the one I'm attacking drops below 3 Stamina, hoping that avoiding killing anyone will work in my favour. Luckily for me, the interruption to the fight comes in the form of a group of watchmen rather than reinforcements for the beggars. They arrest the lot of us, confiscate my belongings (including the money and Sussurus), and sling me into a cell.

Time drags until I am brought before a Magistrate. The trial has barely commenced before my previously unmentioned good friend Tynar, a retired warrior-priest, bursts into the courtroom to speak up in my defence. Well, that was convenient. And contrived. The Magistrate grudgingly accepts his testimonial, and since I managed to avoid killing anyone, the odds of my getting a good verdict are as high as I can get. Still, it all hinges on the roll of a die - and with that roll, I could have killed two beggars and punched a watchman and I'd still have the more favourable outcome. And since the 'good' verdict is that I regain my freedom but not my money or Sussurus, I imagine that a harsher verdict would have been a game-ender.

Tynar invites me to his home, where I explain what's happened to me over a restorative brandy. While unwilling to come out of retirement, Tynar is prepared to help me in other ways, and gives me some money and a small healing potion. Still no opportunity to arm myself, though - does a retired adventurer really not have any old weapons that he could give or at least lend to a friend who's about to embark on a hazardous quest to save the region from a sorcerous WMD?

As I suspect that not retrieving Sussurus will guarantee failure, I'm going to have to ask my old friend to help me steal back the pest. Except that it turns out that a daring heist isn't required: I can get the Ganjee back by paying a 'Magical Beings Tax'. The adventure does give me the option of refusing to pay that much, but I don't know if that'd lead to the burglary I was expecting or just an enforced decision to head off to Vatos on my own, so I'd better hand over the money and hope that that doesn't leave me lacking the wherewithal to purchase some essential item.

The clerk pockets the money, leading me to suspect that it was not so much a tax as a bribe, and brings me Sussurus, who's almost pleased to see me, as he was bored by all the talk of accounts and legislation at the courthouse. Thankful that he seems not to have realised just how much he could have increased his ability to cause suffering if he'd made the effort to learn how bureaucracy functions, I proceed to the market to see what I can still afford.

A couple of the city watch guard the entrance to the market square. As I approach, the text of the adventure asks if I've killed two watchmen, which seems oddly specific. That might make more sense if I'd taken a different path to get here: as it is, I'm left pondering the possibility that the guards would be unbothered if I had killed just one of their fellow officers. "I'd have to gut you if you'd done for Vasgo as well, but Jayem had it coming, didn't he? Kept everyone in the barracks awake with his snoring, and his body odour could knock out a Mucalytic, so we're well rid of him. Cheers, mate. On you go."

Slightly surprisingly, I avoid the vendors of arbitrary weird stuff that could inexplicably prove essential, and head straight for a stall that sells useful items. And having paid that 'tax' does make a difference for the worse: the cloak and large water flask are both liable to help a lot in the desert (even if the author does try obfuscating by saying that the cloak would provide protection from 'the rain'), but if I buy both of them, I can't afford a sword. Still, it is only a small Attack Strength penalty, and I'm more likely to be able to pilfer a weapon from a defeated enemy than to find either of the other items just lying around, so I'll continue to fight bare-handed, and get some more provisions with the funds that don't quite stretch to a sword.

Oh, and I do not intend to throw away my regular water flask just because I now have a large one. Yes, the large flask holds twice as much as the one I took from the Rhino-man, but that means the two flasks combined hold three times as much as Brus' flask on its own, and as I'm about to head into a desert, that bit more water could be a life-saver. And since I'm not lugging around the weight of a sword, I shouldn't find it too difficult to carry a second flask. This is a Fighting Fantasy mini-adventure, not an ad for Wash & Go.

Anyway, I'm as well-equipped as I can get right now, so it's time I was heading off in search of Vatos, Lucretia, Leesha and the Juggernaut. As this seems like a convenient break in the narrative (and some of the readers are getting impatient), I'll post what I've achieved so far, and save the next stage of the adventure for another blog entry.

Monday, 15 November 2021

The Element of Surprise

The last regular issue of Proteus came out in April 1988, probably during the Easter holidays. I must have bought it in town, because I have vague memories of commencing a dice-free attempt at it while heading homewards along Upper Grosvenor Road.

What little publicity the previous issue had contained for the adventure, Boneshaker's Mountains of Forever, gave what turned out to be rather a false impression of it. Which is a little odd, as the 'taster' quoted extensively from the opening paragraph of the 'Your Quest Begins..' intro. It just so happens that, while that first paragraph does have you as the leader of a group of men paddling a canoe through a jungle in pursuit of a villain who robbed you, by the first decision you're on your own, exploring a network of subterranean tunnels in an attempt to rescue some kidnapped children from an evil wizard.

Mountains is by Ken Bulmer, author of the earlier Black Crag Castle, and the two adventures do have some similarities, not all of them good things. This isn't as quirky as Castle, though it does have its off-beat moments, and it didn't motivate me to keep trying it until I won - at least until I reviewed it back in the early noughties, at which point my appreciation for it improved. While tough, and with quite a narrow 'true path', it's not as unfair as Bulmer's previous adventure could be.

I still have the map I made back when repeatedly playing Mountains for review purposes, which is both overly and insufficienty detailed: overly in that I wound up including all the wrong turnings and dead ends as well as the places that have to be visited, and insufficiently because I didn't note the locations of several items essential for success. Referring to it will still be helpful, but won't guarantee success even if I get stats good enough to bring me through the tougher fights.

Talking of stats, I should generate some. A low Dexterity is liable to get me killed, so I may allocate dice, but I don't think a really high score is essential, so I'll accept a middling one if that's what I get.
Dexterity: 9
Strength: 20
Fate: 9
I did take the dice as they fell. Time will tell whether or not I was wise to let the best roll go towards Strength.

So, the remnants of my crew and I are heading up-river in Amazon-esque surroundings in order to get back what Corelli the Butcher stole from us, and make him pay for his betrayal. But then we get surrounded and captured by angry natives, who take us to the assortment of huts they call home and present us to their leader, who looks like a cross between Apocalypse Now's Colonel Kurtz and Homer Simpson. He demands to know why we're here, and he and his people react badly when I mention Corelli.

It turns out that when Corelli preceded us here, he took the local king's two daughters and the skinny chief minister's son hostage, and dragged them off to the nearby Mountains of Forever, which this tribe are forbidden to visit. As we know Corelli, we are sentenced to death in his stead (back when this adventure came out, the tribe would have come across as stereotypical savages - nowadays they seem more like a Twitter mob), but I think quickly, and point out that we also want Corelli dead, and aren't banned from going near the Mountains, so if we're allowed to continue on our way and take our vengeance on him, we can bring back his captives. After some reflection, the King offers a modified version of my suggestion (not as unreasonable as Twitter, then): I can go on, while the rest of my men stay here as prisoners. If I do kill Corelli and bring back the children, we'll all be free to go. If I don't return with the abductees safe and sound, my crew will be sliced and diced a week from now.

It's too late in the day for me to set out now, so I have a not particularly restful night, during which the girls' mother pays me a visit in order to describe her daughters, since nobody else had thought to give some pointers that would help me identify them. Somehow, despite the whole 'jungle village' set-up, the older of the princesses is wearing a white dress with pink ribbons and gold thread. Maybe her mother bought it on amazon...

In the morning I set off, reflecting on the fact that Corelli was a fellow adventurer of mine up until he grabbed all our treasure and absconded. Not that that will discourage me from taking my revenge when I catch up to him. My journey to the Mountains is uneventful, though I am bothered by insects. Oh, and by a mysterious entity radiating blue light which manifests for just long enough to glower at me so intimidatingly that I lose 2 Fate points straight off. Unavoidable and arbitrary penalties are one returning Bulmerism I do not appreciate.

A jagged opening leads into the closest mountain, so I step through. A tunnel heads north, and then east into a cave, which contains a heap of bodies. Atop the pile is Corelli, not yet dead, but clearly on his way there. Recognising me, and evidently feeling a twinge of guilt, Corelli tells me that an evil wizard has taken over the underground palace beneath the Mountains, and the children are now in his hands. He then expires, and I sum up the life and death of my comrade-in-arms-turned-nemesis with the pithy epitaph, "He just didn't run fast enough." Well, so much for my original original quest...

Searching the body on principle, I find an ebony figurine the height of my middle finger, depicting a half-man, half-beetle monstrosity. This is depicted in an illustration, revealing that somebody has a strange idea of how long middle fingers are. At last I get to make a decision - indeed, I have two in the one section: to keep the grotesque figurine or leave it with the corpses, and to take the north exit or the east one.

I go east. The passage leads to another cave containing bodies, and then a gust of wind blows out my torch and I lose another Fate point. Faint lights at the far side of the cave, accompanied by a shuffling sound, indicate that something is approaching, so I attempt to relight my torch. Which turns out to be a bad idea, as it makes it easier for one of the two advancing wolf-faced, four-armed humanoids to throw a spear at me. They then attack, one at a time, but each gets two attacks per round because of the extra arms.

Though the two Wolfguards are identical stats-wise, the second gets much better rolls than the first, and between them they hack me down to 2 Strength before I prevail. After a quick meal to move myself a short distance from death's door, I help myself to the meagre assortment of copper coins the Wolfguards have on them, and take the iron key that one of them has around its neck.

The exit east leads to a junction where I can go north or continue east. I take a chance on east, and soon find my way blocked by an immovable iron door, so I have to return to the junction and head north. This sort of thing is one aspect of the adventure that I do like: my nit-picky side needn't bother itself with questions of 'how did the people who lived down here do [activity essential for maintaining life or an ordered society] without the appropriate facilities?' because those facilities could be in one of the areas I'm unable to access. Some players may resent the existence of places they never get to explore, even if they don't contain anything relevant to the quest, but I see it as low-key worldbuilding.

The passage north soon turns east, but set into the north wall at the corner is a wooden door. I go through it into an untidy room with further exits to east and west. Of more immediate interest is the loaded crossbow affixed to a table and pointing straight at me, the pair of dead Wolfguards with crossbow bolts in them, and the tripwire I can see not far from the crossbow.

Going south or west would take me back towards the entrance, so I can only take the exit east. Unless I want to risk a closer look at the crossbow, which I do - after another meal. Stepping out of the line of fire, I prod the tripwire with my sword. The crossbow swivels on the spot to point straight at me, but then the quarrel falls off. A hoarse voice cries out, asking if I'm Ashenar or Fanfrar before the speaker realises that I'm a stranger. Since I'm obviously not a bone shaker, the man asks if I'd be willing to aid a dying elementalist. Reluctant to risk antagonising someone with magical abilities, I agree, and a door appears in the north wall, but before I can go through it, the elementalist says he wants to be sure that I understand what he is, and as proof asks me to say how many elements he commands.

I assume that we're talking classical Aristotelian rather than periodic table, and answer accordingly. The door swings open, and I step through. At once the door vanishes, leaving me in a bedchamber with no exits. The shrunken figure in the bed introduces himself as Flavian, and explains that this place has been taken over by a necromancer named Stirkness, also known as the Boneshaker. Flavian has split his powers into five, sharing each part with one of his acolytes, and he gives me a bronze talisman, which he identifies as the Quantrell, to aid me if I should meet any of the acolytes. A typo has the Quantrell described as being 'crossed-shaped' - hardly a major flaw, but sloppy all the same.

Flavian also mentions that his neophytes can be recognised by their green shoes, and that they believe help might be provided by an entity named Narn, if someone knew the correct way to invoke her. Or if some champion could be found to reunite all of Flavian's powers and call on Narn, that could mean the end of Boneshaker altogether. Care to hazard a guess as to what might be required in order to win at this adventure?

Having worn himself out with all this exposition, Flavian uses his powers to create an exit to the north, which reseals itself behind me. I continue north to a T-junction, and am again denied the option to head back west. The path east leads to another door, behind which I find a room strewn with dust, rubble, and damaged coffins and sarcophagi. There are exits in all four walls, though the door to the north is blocked by a collapsed wall.

Or rather, it was, but the wall rebuilds itself before my eyes, allowing a young woman with a torch, a white tunic, and golden shoes to step through the doorway. My appearance startles her, though, and before I can try showing her the Quantrell, she flees back the way she came and the wall tumbles down again, somehow leaving the dust in the same state it was in when I entered the room.

I go over to the re-fallen rubble, and a gleam catches my eye. It's a gold ring, with a black stone set into it, and the inscription 'Ashenar'. I pocket the ring and risk squeezing through the rubble to the north exit, which turns out to be a bad decision, as I lose some Strength and Fate doing so, and gain nothing for my efforts. The only sign of the woman is a footprint in the dust by a solid wall to the north.

After eating again I take a door east to another corridor, which ends in a bronze door. Beyond is a room in which a bronze handrail encircles a sandy area, above which a hook dangles from a crane-like device. Scraps of clothing on the hook suggest that it's been used for a rather nasty purpose, and a Giant Beetle emerges from the sand and attacks me. Though I have a higher Dexterity, I don't fare too well in the fight, and if I hadn't consumed half of my meals between the Wolfguard encounter and here, I'd be dead by now.

Movement in the sand suggests that there are more of the Beetles, so I don't loiter. There are two exits to the south and one to the east, and I go through the easternmost of the south doors. This leads to a large room which has clearly been the scene of a battle: in it I find four dead Wolfguards, one dead dog, and the corpse of a young man in a yellow tunic and green shoes.  There are no fewer than six exits, two in each wall bar the west, and again I go to the more easterly of the doors leading south.

Beyond it, the corridor soon turns east, and runs past an opening to the north. I take a look inside the opening, finding another dead neophyte, this one female. In one hand she holds a scrap of vellum with four letters printed on it, which I take in case it should prove important. There are no other exits from here, so I return to the passage and go further east, choosing to ignore a turning to the north.

The passage leads into a lobby, and while there's a second entrance from the west to the south of the one through which I come, I exit via a door to the east. This leads to an L-shaped room, in which two Wolfguards and a jackal-faced beast are brutally flogging a golden-haired girl who wears a tattered dress. A glowing oval appears in the air, and within it I see a beautiful woman in silvery clothes, her hair also golden, and decorated with rubies. With her left hand she makes a gesture to ask for help, and then her face turns to a skull, and she covers it with a scarf. Oh dear, it's all gone weird again.

I don't fancy my chances against this trio, but failure is guaranteed if I don't play the hero here, so I choke down the last of my meals to bring my Strength as high as I can, and then charge in to the rescue. And this fight is going to be tough. As before, the Wolfguards attack one at a time, but each gets two attacks. However, Jackal-face will also be trying to hit me while I fight the Wolfguards, so each round I have to defend against three separate attacks - and Jackal-face's Dexterity is equal to my own.

While fighting the first Wolfguard I take no damage from anyone. As with the previous pair, I have more trouble with the second: in two separate rounds of the fight against him I get hit by all three opposing attacks, but it's cumulative damage from slightly less catastrophic rounds that winds up finishing me off.

I may have been mistaken about the Dexterity range that offers a reasonable chance of survival. Still, this unsuccessful attempt at the adventure has reminded me of some things it's useful to know, so it was nowhere near my most unfruitful failure.

Wednesday, 10 November 2021

Nothing Was Going to Stop Them Then, Anyway

To celebrate the 30th anniversary of the publication of The Warlock of Firetop Mountain, Ian Livingstone brought out a new gamebook, Blood of the Zombies. Eschewing the nostalgia-heavy approach of his previous FF anniversary celebration, Return to Firetop Mountain, Ian's new book avoided the world of Titan altogether, did away with much of the standard ruleset, and set a new benchmark for being unplayable by the rules.

Return was intended to be the last FF book published by Puffin, but it sold so well that the series kept going for another 3 years and 9 books afterwards. I don't know if it was by design or not, but Blood was the last FF book brought out by Wizard Books. In a recent poll at the Fighting Fantazine forum, it was voted the worst book in the entire range, and more than a third of the voters gave it 0/10. I rated it slightly higher than that because of the artwork, but it is currently my least favourite book in the series. I say 'currently' because I haven't yet had a go at any of the titles published after it, and while Blood-induced lack of motivation isn't the only reason the later books remain unplayed in my home, it is a significant contributory factor.

I bought a copy online when it originally came out, and I seem to remember my first attempt at it ending with my character losing a fight against a horde of sewer rats. My second try ended when I decided I couldn't be bothered to keep playing, and this blog entry will cover my third go at it.

My character in this adventure is a second year student of mythology, and I'm spending the summer break seeking legendary creatures in Southern Europe. I don't know if my failure to grasp that mythological creatures tend not to actually exist is more an indictment of the quality of the teaching or of my own intelligence, but either way, I doubt that I'm the sharpest spoon in the drawer.

To be more precise, I was trying to find assorted fantastic beasts, but during a vampire-hunt in Romania I was captured by a trio of thugs, and am now shackled to the wall of a cell in Goraya Castle, a prisoner of someone named Gingrich Yurr. Apart from his name and the fact that he's in charge here, the only thing I know about Yurr is that he intends to kill me.

My jailer, an overweight bully named Otto, amuses himself by putting my food just far away enough that I can't reach it without stretching my chains so taut that the shackles cut into my flesh, and no visit from him is complete without a vicious kick to the ribs. The food is terrible, and there's not enough of it to meet my basic nutritional needs, so I'm in pretty bad shape, all things considered.

There's no Skill or Luck in this adventure, which means that character creation consists of determining Stamina by rolling two dice and adding a number. Originally the number to add was 12, but in response to complaints about the excessive difficulty of the book, Ian Livingstone upped it to 20. Which is a bit like initially setting the bar for a high jump at 2km, and then lowering it by 50 metres when the contestants say it's not possible to jump that high. Nevertheless, I will go with the revised method, so I end up with:
Stamina 26
The rules don't say anything about whether or not it's possible to exceed my starting Stamina, which I'm interpreting as meaning that there is no limit. According to one statistically-minded fan who enjoys analysing probabilities, the chances of winning even with this take on the rules are less than one in a million, so even if I knew the optimal path through the book, I'm not likely to succeed at it. Nevertheless, I will have a proper go at it, despite the temptation to deliberately fail at the earliest opportunity and move on to a more enjoyable book (which description covers almost all of my gamebook collection).

As in Escape from the Sorcerer, it has taken my character an inordinately long time to reach the conclusion that an escape attempt would be advisable. You'd think that being told that my captor is going to kill me would be sufficient grounds to want to get away, but no, it's taken almost a week of inadequate (and rancid) food and physical abuse to bring me to the point of deciding to seek my freedom. Perhaps, being a student, I've grown accustomed to leaving important tasks to the last minute (or later), but with no TV, bar, friends or internet in my cell, it's not as if there's been much to distract me from the task in hand.

Calling out to Otto might put him in a bad mood, so I wait for his next scheduled visit. When he brings me a fresh bowl of near-inedible stew, I provoke him into attacking with an insult (a rather idiosyncratic one, but by no means the most ridiculous one to appear in FF). As he prepares to kick me, I lash out with my legs first. I have the option of trying to kick him in the head, but I'll go with what John Steed once described as the 'old school' approach: "Always aim for the body." More chance of hitting something.

Seizing Otto around the waist with my legs, I manage to topple him, and use my chains to choke him into unconsciousness. Relieving him of his keys, I unlock my shackles and transfer them to his wrists. He starts to come round, and I intimidate him into telling me everything he knows about Yurr by threatening to kick him in the ribs. He must have a very low pain threshold, as the previous section stated that I was barefoot, which is liable to limit the damage I can actually inflict with a kick. Mind you, that 'everything he knows' isn't particularly helpful, as he's never met the man, and all he's found out about Yurr's plan is that it's something 'unspeakably terrible' involving his prisoners.

As I head for the door, Otto begs me to release him, so I throw the shackles key out of his reach and taunt him before leaving. The corridor outside leads to a door in one direction, and further than I can see in the other. Might as well see where the door leads first.

I step into Otto's living quarters, which are in a pretty grotty state (though better than my cell). The only things of interest to me in it are a shoulder bag (startlingly, I don't have the option of keeping any of the random clutter inside the bag, so I guess there's never going to be a moment in this adventure when survival depends on my having a magazine about accordions on me) and a half-eaten plate of meatloaf and potatoes. I polish off the food, gaining some Stamina in the process, and catch sight of a metal box under the stove. Investigating, I find that it contains a penknife, fifteen dollars, and some string, all of which I add to my inventory.

Returning to the corridor and heading the other way, I observe some grafitti on the walls, only some of it in a language I know. What I can read is decidedly doom-laden. Further along I catch sight of a black canvas pouch hanging from a hook. This being one of Ian Livingstone's later books, investigating things is almost as likely to get me killed as not investigating things. Still, if I check out the pouch and die, I know to avoid it in future, while if I don't take a look at it, and there's something essential inside, I'm dooming myself without learning anything helpful. So I open the pouch and find a key with a number on it, a box of matches, and a marker pen. Nothing obviously lethal (well, the matches could theoretically lead to a scenario in which I get set on fire and die horribly, but then, not taking them might lead to horrendous doom on account of being unable to set something else on fire), so I'll take the lot.

At the far end of the corridor is another door. I can hear footsteps from behind it, but it's not as if there's anywhere else to go if I want to escape from here, so I go through, finding myself in a store room in which a couple of Yurr's staff are taking inventory. One introduces himself as Boris, and indicates his willingness to accept a bribe in return for not raising the alarm. The other, named Gregor, has a bandaged head.

Attempting to make a dash for the other exit from the room seems like a bad idea, so I'll see if Otto's money is good for buying more than just silence. And for some reason choosing not to try running away results in my telling the men how I was kidnapped. I mean, why would I bother recounting my woes when Boris has already indicated that he knows at least part of what befell me and is only interested in whatever money I might have? Mind you, my sob story does appear to have slightly distracted him, as he seems to have forgotten the 'pay up to keep me quiet' thing, and is now offering to sell me useful items in return for the cash he craves.

The first thing Boris wants to sell is information about what's going on here. Even if whatever exposition he can provide is not essential for success, there's no way of getting to see what equipment he's willing to sell unless I pay for the info-dump (thereby preventing repeat players from relying on what they can remember from previous attempts and saving their money for additional useful artefacts), so I hand over ten of my hard-pilfered dollars.

Boris then explains Gingrich Yurr's insane plan. Which is not just insane in the way that any megalomaniacal fictional villain's plan to destroy humanity/the world/whatever is, but also in that it makes no sense and could never work if the author weren't glossing over certain fundamental flaws which are liable to guarantee its eventual failure.

So, Yurr hates humanity. Boris doesn't give a reason for this, but as I know that elsewhere in the book it is revealed that Yurr owns a set of FF gamebooks, I shall draw on my own experience and speculate that, when he remained a fan even after the fad had passed, his 'cooler' classmates started to mock and deride him for his interest in the series. And attempted to defenestrate him on one occasion. But while I eventually moved on from such experiences, he remained embittered and decided that the best response to having been bullied would be to create an army of Zombies with which to conquer the world. Thus, with the assistance of some scientists whose motivation is even sketchier than his own, he has created a mutant gene which, when introduced into the bloodstream of physically weak individuals, transforms them into mindless Zombies. For the past year he's been having his henchmen kidnap people, and, after imprisoning and starving his victims until they're sufficiently feeble, zombifying them with injections of tainted blood. Some time soon he's likely to infect himself with the mutant gene, and then lead his Zombie army against the rest of the world.

The prospect of dying in or becoming part of a Zombie apocalypse has convinced Boris that the good wages he's been getting are no longer incentive enough to remain in Yurr's employ, but staff aren't permitted to leave the castle (and the retirement plan probably involves a syringe of contaminated blood), so Boris is hoping to be able to bribe his way out. Mind you, now that I've escaped from my cell, he comes up with a new idea, and encourages me to single-handedly track down and kill every single Zombie in the castle, since if I don't, he, Gregor, I, and every other human alive, must surely be doomed.

Let's just think about how inevitable Yurr's triumph actually is. What I know of the book's mechanism for determining ultimate success or failure tells me that the maximum possible number of Zombies in Yurr's army is the number of sections in the book - 400. The rules indicate the Zombies not to be the most robust of opponents - even using just my bare hands, I could potentially kill three of them in a single round of combat. And while the infection hazard posed by the mutant gene in their blood does theoretically mean Yurr's army can add to its numbers, the fact that it seems not to affect healthy people - hence the whole 'chain abductees up and half-starve them for around a week' part of the zombification process - should limit its effectiveness. 

A quick online search reveals that a couple of years ago the land-based divisions of the Romanian Armed Forces numbered a little under 36,000. So even just to conquer the country in which Yurr is based, his puny Zombies will have to overcome an army that outnumbers them something like ninety times over, and is equipped with tanks, machine guns, assault rifles, grenades and, at a pinch, pointed sticks. As serious threats to humanity go, Yurr's Zombies don't even rank alongside TikTok challenges.

I concede that this Zombie army does pose a threat to me. I'm one man, currently in fairly poor condition, and armed only with a penknife. Thus, Boris' decision to leave all the Zombie-killing to me rather than start thinking of low-risk ways in which he could, say, use the contents of this store room to thin the Zombies' ranks isn't a whole lot smarter than Yurr's scheme. But as my character is the sort of idiot who thinks the smartest response to, 'Oh! An escaped prisoner. Give me money and I won't alert the guards,' is to whine, 'Some mean people with clubs captured me and brought me here against my will,' I agree to oppose Yurr's army single-handed.

Desperate for money as he is, Boris completely forgets about how he was going to sell me tat from the store room in return for whatever cash I have left after paying for the plot summary, so I have to jog his memory by asking if there's anything here that might aid me in my quest. He rattles off a list of items, each costing one dollar (expensive for pencils, but not bad value for steel pulleys). I can only afford five, so I go for rubber gloves (to reduce the risk of infection), AAA batteries (in case I need to power something), a hacksaw (which could help me get through metal bars), a magnet (for a shot at retrieving otherwise inaccessible keys) and one of those pulleys (no idea why I might need one, but it's such a weirdly specific thing to have on the list that I'm not taking the risk of going without). They may not all be of use, and I might have passed up something that will prove essential later on, but right now I'm mainly operating on guesswork ('mainly' since Boris dropped a blatant hint about the open wounds on my wrists, so the gloves seem a pretty sure bet).

Once I've made my purchases, the book asks if I want to bring up the subject of provisions. As I've just spent all my money, it looks a bit pointless, but I'll give it a go anyway: even for Ian Livingstone at this stage of his writing career, 'bludgeoned to death by someone who sees you as the saviour of humanity because you dared ask him for food' seems that bit too ludicrous an Instant Death to include. And Boris is suddenly in a generous mood, and gives me a chocolate bar and a bottle of water, giving my Stamina more of a boost than Otto's meatloaf and potatoes did. There's no mention anywhere in the book of a sponsorship deal with the likes of Evian or Nestlé, but sometimes you have to wonder...

Leaving the store room, I head down another corridor to a T-junction. Going the wrong way here is sure to guarantee failure, but there is a brief plea for help written in blood on the left-hand wall, so I'll take a chance on its being a hint and go that way. It leads to another door, which I open. Behind it is a laundry room, and my attention is drawn to a cupboard door, in front of which are a kit bag and some cleaning equipment. There may be a Zombie in the cupboard (House of Hell features a couple on one doomed path), so I'll check the bag first. It contains some clothes and trainers (footwear at last!), and a baseball bat that does better damage than the penknife I found earlier.

Scratching noises from within the cupboard appear to bear out my suspicions, so I grip the bat in one hand and reach for the door handle with the other. The doors burst open to reveal two Zombies, and I take a swing at them. I may be the one holding the bat, but it's the Zombies that are 'out' by the end of this little set-to.

Inside the cupboard I find a medical kit, which I can use to restore some Stamina, and two boxes of bullets. No gun into which to load them, but I'm sure I'll find one before long. There's no exit from the laundry room other than the door through which I entered, so I return to the junction and go the other way.

After a while I see a small latched door to my right. A reasonable rule for late Livingstone books is 'check everything, and when something harms or kills you, remember to avoid it next time round (unless it looks like a dangerous but essential encounter, in which case hope to fare better against it in future)'. Don't rely on it in real life, though, because reality lacks a retake option. Behind the door is a pretty filthy storage cubbyhole, with a couple of plastic boxes in it. One contains old newspapers and magazines, the other holds books, a wallet containing a couple of dollars, and another box of bullets.

The book has no rules regarding encumbrance, so I take everything. If I need kindling to go with those matches, a newspaper should suffice. Those books aren't likely to pose any kind of threat - I guess one of them could turn out to be a copy of Blood of the Zombies and provoke a game-ending existential crisis, but that seems a bit too outlandish a trick for Ian Livingstone. Even if Edward Packard was doing that sort of thing for Choose Your Own Adventure as far back as 1983. And there are obvious uses for the bullets and money (even though there's no option to go back to Boris to buy scissors and packing tape).

Further along the corridor I see an old mattress propped up against the wall. I can't take that with me, but I can look behind it - and, of course, it's concealing a side turning, which is just wide enough for me to squeeze through sideways on. Predictably, I investigate, finding it to lead to an abandoned workshop containing an anvil and assorted tools. Oh, and eight Zombies hiding behind a plastic curtain, who rush to the attack. There's no way I'm getting through this fight unscathed, and a series of mediocre rolls causes me to take 12 Stamina damage while slugging my way through the undead octet. If I'd only been armed with the penknife, I'd probably be dead by now.

The only tool worth acquiring from here is a pair of blacksmith's tongs. No idea what I'll need them for, but I'm sure Ian has something in mind. Behind the curtain is another door, so I take a closer look at that. It's locked, but that numbered key I found earlier fits it, so unless Ian is being devious, this is the way to go.

Behind the door is a coal store. One other door leads out of it, and a key hangs on a hook next to it, but I'd better check that there's nothing under the coal before I go any further. And I find a plastic sack containing a rope and grappling hook. Bound to come in handy somewhere...

The key next to the other door unlocks it, letting me into a boiler room. That too has another way out with the key beside it, but I'd better search the boiler room before I go any further. And I find a small cupboard behind a boiler, containing some medical supplies that restore a little of the Stamina I lost fighting that last bunch of Zombies. While I'm treating my wounds, a trio of Zombies slids down the air vent and into the room, and I have no problem bludgeoning this lot into inactivity.

Resuming my search of the room, I find a crowbar. As a weapon, it's no better than the baseball bat, but I take it anyway, as the bat won't be much good if I need to prise something open. And if I'd been unarmed or only had that lousy penknife when I got here, I'd probably be a bit annoyed that I didn't get to find the crowbar until after fighting the Zombies.

I unlock the next door, which takes me to another corridor, probably a continuation of the one with the mattress in. No choice of which way to go, though, as I can hear someone approaching from the right, and as killing every single Zombie is the only way to win, I have to investigate. And that 'someone' turns out to be a quartet of Zombies. Batter up!

While I lose another point of Stamina in that fight, the Zombies lose their existence. And one of them is carrying a pistol - unloaded, but as he was holding it by the barrel, the likelihood of my getting shot would have been around zero even if it had contained any ammunition.The bullets I found earlier fit it because the complexity of the rules is not of the right calibre to allow for differentiation of bullet types.

Further along I see a wooden crate next to a manhole cover. The crate is nailed shut, so it's a good thing I brough that crowbar. Especially as the crate turns out to contain a couple of grenades. Going through the manhole would lead to the fight that ended my first attempt at this book, but I'm in better shape this time round, and if there are any Zombies in the sewers... Gotta catch 'em all.

So I pry open the cover, descend into the sewers, and get attacked by 15 Mutant Sewer Rats. I don't think these count as Zombies, but I'll make a note of them anyway. A grenade takes out almost half of them, a clip of bullets eliminates most of the rest, and I save ammunition by using the crowbar on the rest, losing 11 Stamina in the process.

Continuing to explore the sewers, I find the anticipated Zombies (so fighting the rats is unavoidable, and guaranteed to cost some Stamina). Only two of them, so it only takes a swipe with the crowbar to put them out of action. One of them is wearing a gold locket, which opens to display the photo of a young woman and the engraved name 'Amy Fletcher'. Even taking decomposition into account, I don't think the Zombie looks anywhere near similar enough to the subject of the photo to be Amy, so I'm guessing that it stole the locket, or was a friend of Amy's in former life.

More exploration leads to an exit from the sewers and a metal grille blocking the way further down the tunnel. As I bought that hacksaw, I can cut my way through the grille, and I think I'd better do so. Needing to use an item to get past something increases the likelihood of there being something important on the other side. It doesn't take long to cut a hole I can get through, and a little further ahead I catch sight of a green bottle floating in the sewage. I use a stick to flick it out of the effluent, and it smashes to reveal a piece of paper, on which is printed the number of a combination lock. Don't even ask...

Up ahead, the passage terminates in an opening too small for me to get through, even if I wanted to try a Shawshank Redemption-style escape bid. So I turn around and head back to the nearby shaft leading up. That leads me to another room, containing nothing but the key to the door that is the only other exit. I appreciate that all these 'locked door with the key close by' set-ups are a means of ensuring that readers who went the wrong way earlier don't get the opportunity to explore the areas they missed when the true and false paths converge, and locked doors are less of a contrivance than 'you decide to ignore that route because you have a bad feeling/it smells funny/just shut up and turn to the section I say you should turn to, loser', but this is still a bit hokey.

The door leads to a corridor, which doubtless connects to the one I left in order to enter the sewers. But to my right is a flight of stairs leading up, which is so much more appealing than checking that my subterranean detour didn't bypass a Zombie that I automatically head that way. Yes, I know that whatever vestigial sense of fairness remained in Ian Livingstone by the time he wrote this means that there won't be essential encounters on both of two mutually inaccessible paths, but my character doesn't know that this is a gamebook, and thus has no good reason to assume that there's no need to double back and make sure he didn't miss something.

Anyway, stairs. They lead to the ground floor of the castle, where life-sized portraits adorn the walls and a hallway leads off to both left and right. I'd better check the portraits for convenient clues and Zombies doing the corny 'peer through cut-out eyeholes' routine. They depict Yurr patriarchs throughout the years, up to and including Gingrich himself. The text says it shows him to be a fearsome individual, but the accompanying illustration gives me more of a 'middle-aged version of Lewis Carroll's Alice' vibe. 

I take a closer look in case the picture's detailed enough to show the registration number of the car in the background or a name on the collar of Yurr's white rabbit or some other detail that'll turn out to be a crucial password or the like at a later stage. The only detail of the picture made clearer by this advanced scrutiny is the make of the car, and I'm nowhere near enough of an automotive geek to know what (if anything) is signified by its being an Austin Healey. Mind you, I do also notice that the painting is slightly askew, so I check behind it and find a concealed door.

Naturally, I check behind the door. It's another cupboard, this one containing a shotgun, four boxes of cartridges, and two of bullets. None of which bring me any closer to knowing whether I should head left or right along this hallway, so I'll go for the direction that is more frequently correct in Ian Livingstone gamebooks.

I pass a mirror, and am startled to see how much of a toll my imprisonment has taken on me. Around a corner I see a door on one side, and of course I investigate. Behind the door is a washroom, and someone has left a wristwatch and a pair of glasses on the basin. After a good wash and a restorative drink of tap water, I continue on my way.

Another turn of the corner, and the corridor passes the foot of a staircase. I imagine this is where the two turnings at the top of the previous stairs converge, and suspect that there may have been Zombies on the path not taken. No opportunity to check, though, as noise from the top of these stairs alerts me to the approach of a dozen armed Zombies, one of them wielding his own severed hand, which holds an axe. This lot do extra damage with their weapons, so I use the second of those grenades to do as much damage as possible at the outset, eliminating three quarters of the mob before any of them can get in a blow. After that, few enough remain that I risk going back to the baseball bat rather than use up ammunition on them, and I fell them without losing any more Stamina, but I'm still down to single figures by now.

Proceeding up the stairs, I take the axe (but not the hand that grips it). Damage-wise it's no better than the bat or crowbar, but it's good to have in case I ever need to reenact a scene from The Shining. At the top of the stairs I have a choice of three directions. For what it's worth, I'll stick with the one I tried before, in case it's the correct choice this time round.

The corridor leads me past an abandoned gymnasium. No Zombies in it, so I'm sure that was another wrong turning, but I do restore a couple of points of Stamina at the water cooler before continuing towards my inevitable failure. A little further on I find the changing rooms, which have been thoroughly trashed, but contain none of the undead vandals. In one of the lockers I find a wallet containing a bit of money, some receipts, an assortment of cards (some membership, the rest credit) and a piece of paper with a number on it. Most likely a red herring. Convenient for me that the signs on the doors are in English rather than Romanian - less so for any non-multilingual locals.

At the top of another flight of stairs is, no doubt, the point at which the routes from the last junction all converge. Noise drifts up from downstairs, so I have no choice but to descend, finding sixteen Zombies fighting over a dead dog. All turn their attention to me, so I use the shotgun to thin their ranks. A couple of blasts take out the lot, but the Zombies that survived my initial attack give me a pretty serious mauling while I'm reloading, so I doubt that I'm going to last much longer.

Close by is an alcove containing a bloodstained wheelie bin. Checking the contents, I find a number of plastic bottles that, judging by the dregs they contain, were used to transport blood. Most likely tainted blood. One is cracked, and has leaked blood all over the notebook that is the only other thing in the bin. I put on my rubber gloves before reaching inside to retrieve the notebook. It turns out to be a log of victims turned into Zombies - mostly just one or two a day, but I'm guessing that the mad scientist who kept this log came from America, as they were particularly productive on the third of July, doubtless expecting to be taking the following day off.

More usefully, the notebook also mentions Yurr's telephone extension. Now all I need do is leak it to a few call centres, and he'll be so busy fielding calls about PPI, insurance comparisons, funeral plans, and accidents that weren't his fault, he'll never find time to unleash his Zombie horde.

Continuing on my way, I become aware of a particularly foul smell, and find a blood trail on the floor. The trail passes straight by a side turning, which makes me suspicious. It's such an obvious hint to follow, it could be intended to distract me from a short but essential dead end. There's no way I'm winning on this try, so I might as well put my theory to the test. If the side turning is an instant death or an obvious detour past a Zombie encounter, I'll know to ignore it if I ever play this again and fare better on the way up to this choice.

I proceed to a corner decorated by a marble bust and a suit of armour. Putting the armour on is such a ridiculous idea that I have to see what happens if I try - maybe there's something important hidden inside it, which can only be found by someone daft enough to consider wearing it.

Rather boringly, it just weighs me down enough to further deplete my Stamina. If I hadn't had a drink at that water cooler, putting on the armour would have killed me. The armour is accompanied by a sword, which does the same damage as the bat, the crowbar and the axe, and despite its being less versatile than a couple of them, I still take it with me.

Somewhere not far behind me, somebody unleashes a pack of slavering Attack Dogs. The weight of the armour makes it impossible for me to outrun them, and they rapidly bring me down and go for the vulnerable points of the suit, quickly biting away what little Stamina remains to me.

Looks like I should have gone with the obvious trail of blood after all. Still, dying like that means I can now reshelve the book and move on to something more fun. I do have dishes to wash...

Saturday, 30 October 2021

The Punishment Was Damaging

 I should be playing the 65th Fighting Fantasy gamebook, Blood of the Zombies, for this blog, but I'm finding it hard to summon up the motivation for such a dreary slog. In the mean time, here's something seasonally appropriate...

A while back I mentioned that I didn’t own any of the Plot Your Own Horror Story books back in the 1980s. However, my sister did get a couple of them, both of which I borrowed and read, and playing through Nightmare Store for the blog got me sufficiently nostalgic that I now have copies of both of them as well.

The first one she acquired (IIRC from the shop near the end of the High Street where I found Demons of the Deep) was Horror House. Well, that was what it was called in Britain. The US release had the title Craven House Horrors, which may be a reference to some aspect of American culture that never really caught on over here. Or perhaps the UK publishers just thought that, the name ‘Craven’ being strongly associated with news bulletins targeted at children, including it in the title might adversely affect sales.

What with author Hilary Milton’s name sharing so many letters with that of a certain former candidate for the US Presidency, I can’t help but think of the potential for a satirical parody of the book, changing the title to White House Horrors and, depending on the parodist’s political leanings, representing Hilary as either the source or the primary victim of the eponymous horrors.

The first time I played the book, I wound up getting my character killed in the fastest way possible. This involved encountering a robot that fired a beam which caused my heart to beat with increasing rapidity until it could no longer take the strain. Not a mistake I will be repeating today. I also remember how to avoid the ending that most perturbed me, so I shan’t be getting myself paralysed and very slowly eaten alive by a bird (possibly a raven, though I don’t think the book ever specifies the type), either.

Anyway, that’s enough reminiscence. Time to play the book again and see if I can also avoid the unpleasant fates about which I don’t remember so much…

Following a visit to my cousins, who live a few miles from my home, I am summoned by my mother, as a severe storm is on the way. I set off, not certain that I’ll be able to cycle back before the storm hits, and contemplate taking a short cut along Willow Lane. It’ll cut more than a mile off the journey, but the road is barricaded at both ends, purportedly because it’s the private property of the man who owns Craven House.

Craven House is a dilapidated plantation house which pre-dates the First American Civil War. It’s generally accepted that the Craven family’s fortunes took a turn for the worse during that war, though local legends disagree about who died and how. It is also rumoured that the great-grandson of the original owners now leads a hermit-like existence in the house. He’s believed to be a scientist or an engineer or a doctor, and also a genius or insane or both. Regardless, the locals shun the house, and my cousins and I suspect that the barricades are there to keep the old man in rather than everyone else out.

Just as I’m passing the first set of barricades, the rising wind brings down a tree, blocking the legitimate route home. It doesn’t occur to me to turn back, return to my cousins’ home, and get my aunt to telephone my mother to explain that I’m going to have to stay there until the storm has passed. Maybe creepy old houses emit an aura that suppresses people’s ability to make rational decisions – that would help explain a lot of horror films…

So, erroneously concluding that I ‘have to’ take Willow Lane, I circumvent the barricades, and resume my journey. The road, being disused, is in a poor state of repair, and between that and the worsening weather, I end up in a ditch with a badly buckled front wheel. The accident takes place more or less in front of Craven House, and as the rain starts to fall and lightning flickers across the sky, I opt to shelter on the porch.

Much of the porch is in a state of ill-repair, the floorboards closest to the front door appearing least likely to give way beneath my weight. I move onto them, and of course the door opens. I step inside because the Idiot Protagonist Field is much stronger here, and see that the house’s furniture is much as it must have been back when whatever misfortune beset the Cravens took place. The sound of some kind of machine operating elsewhere in the house fills the air, but isn't so loud as to keep me from hearing the door close and latch itself behind me.

Seeking the source of the mechanical noise would get me killed as in my first attempt at the book, so my choices are limited to attempting to leave at once and waiting here until the storm is over. I might as well get confirmation that departing is not going to be as straightforward as entering was. Yep, there is no handle on this side of the door, so I'm not able to reopen it.

As I mentioned in my previous Plot Your Own playthrough, one of the more contentious aspects of this series is that sometimes the options at the end of a page involve determining what happens rather than what the reader's character does. Here I have what appears to be a hybrid choice, unless 'Is there' is supposed to mean 'Check to see if there is'. Still, rather than risk warping reality to create a conveneint open window, I'll try searching for something I can use to raise the latch from this side.

Fumbling around on the mantelpiece, I find what I think is a nail, but my attempts to pick it up lead to the discovery that it's actually a switch that activates a classic 'creepy old house' fixture: the secret door disguised as a bookcase. The decision presented here is a new variant: what am I expecting to find behind the secret door? In other words, I could be mistaken in my belief...

A hidden passage is more likely to be of use to me than a concealed treasure hoard (and have fewer potentially lethal security measures), so I hope that's what I've found. And I'm right about what it is, but wish I wasn't. As I step through the secret door, I inadvertently trigger a lever that closes the door behind me, and am unable to reopen it from this side. Steps lead up to a large room, empty apart from the picture covering the whole of one wall. This depicts a battlefield at evening, strewn with the dead and dying.

Before I can turn away, the picture somehow becomes more real, the reek of gunsmoke and worse filling my nostrils. Stumbling over a corpse, I cry out, attracting the attention of a wounded soldier, who charges towards me. There isn't time for me to flee before he raises his rifle and pulls the trigger. He's out of ammunition, or there's something wrong with the firing mechanism, but that doesn't help me for long, because the rifle is also fitted with a bayonet, which the soldier plunges into my stomach.

While not quite up there with 'pecked to death while unable to move', that was one of the top three nasty bad endings I remembered from reading my sister's copy of the book. (The other one, in case you were wondering, involved becoming the subject of a surgical procedure that starts with the extraction of the brain. Possibly without anaesthetic.) I'd hoped to survive the adventure, but, as the news so often shows, things don't always end happily. 

Sunday, 18 July 2021

Heads You Lose

This is my 300th playthrough on this blog, and today is exactly 9 years since I first posted here. I didn't originally intend to have the two coincide, but then life got in the way of the blog for a while, and the anniversary provided a little extra motivation to resume work on the entry.

As requested by Gloccus, I am having another go at Starlight Adventures book 3, Kim Jordan’s Island of Secrets, in which my character is a young woman taking a summer job as a villa girl on a Greek island, seeking to avoid the career path onto which my mother is trying to steer me. Let’s hope that this time I can avoid that clerical posting by a means less extreme than drowning.

If the matter should arise, my character’s knowledge will be limited to whatever is learned this time round. What I found out about assorted other characters on my previous attempt is still likely to influence me (call it intuition, if you will). However, if asked outright whether or not I have found a specific piece of information, I won’t pick the ‘yes’ option unless I did discover it this time round. Being wary of someone with no clear evidence of wrongdoing on their part is acceptable, but remembering a conversation my character didn’t actually overhear is out.

So, I travel to the island of Simnos, meet my co-worker Penny, and join her in a taxi with a stereotypically reckless driver before reaching the villa. My room contains a few odds and ends left behind by my predecessor, most significantly a yellowing pamphlet on local history.

Just to see if it makes any real difference, I handle the complaining guest in a more conciliatory manner on this occasion. There’s no Luck penalty for being a doormat, and I still end up catching sight of Penny in conversation with a young man who is neither a local nor a tourist. She gives me the lowdown on local talent, and invites me to accompany her to the disco. On this occasion I choose to tag along.

Upon arrival, Penny joins a group of friends, and they all head onto the dance floor. Since I know and like the song being played, I decide to join in, hoping that a bit of independence will attract a better calibre of encounter than I’d get in wallflower mode. As it turns out, dancing unaccompanied seems to be the norm here – at least until the DJ switches to something more smoochy. I’m not sure what there is to be gained (as regards getting somewhere with the adventure) by approaching the DJ with a request, so I sit this dance out and wait to see what happens.

A group of men, noticeably older than the others present, catch my attention, and one of them, an overweight individual with a tattoo of a serpent, makes a pass at me. I turn him down (the tattoo alone is grounds for suspicion). It’s the wrong decade for ‘No means no’ to have gained much weight in the popular consciousness, and the man gets a bit physical. My options here are woefully limited: hope that Penny will intervene, or make an excuse and leave. In the absence of any opportunity to more forcefully enlighten him about the importance of consent, I’ll be on my way. Assuming the roll of the die favours me, that is…

He’s not expecting me to try and get away, and though there’s a moment when it looks as if he might try coming after me, one of his friends dissuades him from making a scene.

Somehow this leads to my approaching the DJ with a request after all, and while he’s too cool to talk to me, his assistant Liam proves more approachable, and we have a pleasant conversation, intermittently interrupted by the DJ’s selecting what to play next. Eventually my request gets through to him, and I dance to it with Liam.

Liam decides to take a break and go for a walk, and I opt to accompany him. He points out various local landmarks and the yacht belonging to shipping millionaire Georgios Koutalas, and reveals that he has a summer job at the archaeological dig on the island of Simnaki. I show an interest in this, and he mentions the legends of a hidden treasure before admitting that the dig has yet to turn up anything particularly noteworthy.

Becoming aware of how late it is, I head back to the villa. Not yet tired enough to sleep, I take a look at that pamphlet, which reveals more about Simnaki, and the drunkard who claimed to have met Aphrodite there.

In the morning I have to do the shopping because last night's activities left Penny in no fit state for the task, and I have to go via the territory of one of the young men she's mentioned to me because the author wants me to. As before, I wander past the villa where the 'not very sociable' Garth is staying, and on this occasion I manage to befriend his dogs (in the process gaining a Luck point) and learn their names. Garth is not in, though, so I don't find out anything else.

Once the shopping for the villa is done, I get a sun hat, and this time I try buying an icon rather than a pendant. It turns out to be a fake, but I try to focus on the positives: even if it's not an antique, it's still a product of the local culture, and will brighten up my room.

I settle into the job, learn windsurfing, and improve my Greek. There's a slightly awkward bit of exposition relating to the archaeological dig, which effectively introduces Liam a second time, revealing him to be Irish. I just double-checked, and there's no indication of that during the conversation at the disco and afterwards (except possibly his name, and since IRL I know a Liam who's not from Ireland, I made no automatic association of name and nationality). It would have been easy enough to mention an accent back at the first meeting.

Anyway, Penny decides it's time for another trip to the disco, and I hook up with Liam again while she chats up Garth. Liam offers to take me on a trip to a ruined fort tomorrow. I'm interested, but as I'd have to get Penny to cover for me, and she isn't the most industrious of co-workers, I can't commit myself straight off.

Penny then reveals that Garth has invited her and me to accompany him on a visit to Koutalas' yacht tomorrow. I tell her that I've already made plans with Liam, and that she'll have to cover for me, and though initially she protests, eventually she agrees. I do have to put up with snide remarks from her for the rest of the evening, though.

The folowing day I have the option to change my mind and go to the yacht instead, but I stick with the trip to the fort. As I'm about to set off, the annoying guest with whom I clashed at the start of the adventure buttonholes me with a complaint about her mother's room not having been tidied. That was Penny's job, and this time I'm not going to be bullied into doing what this pest wants. She threatens to call my employers in London and make a formal complaint, and I walk off.

She does indeed make the call, and unleashes a tirade that warps the space-time continuum, such that even though I don't find out about this until I receive the written reprimand at a later date, the associated Luck penalty takes effect instantaneously.

As arranged, I meet up with Liam, who reveals that the fort is a couple of hours' walk away, and suggests that we hire mopeds or donkeys. The donkeys would be accompanied by a guide, who might be a source of somr useful nugget of information, so I'll pick them.

Not such a smart idea, as it turns out. Liam and the guide spend the journey practicing each other's native languages, and then an inconsiderate motorcyclist spooks my donkey, who bolts through the surrounding olive groves. A roll of the die establishes that I come to no harm and eventually bring the donkey back under control, and Liam learns some interesting new words from the guide.

Continuing on our way, we eventually reach the moss-covered stones that are the remnants of the fort and surrounding town. Liam finds a passageway concealed behind a boulder, and ruefully concludes that he can't be the first person to have discovered it, as the ease with which the boulder can be moved suggests frequent use.

He wants to investigate anyway, and I decide to go with him. The passage narrows, forcing us to crawl, and another roll of the dice establishes that we end up on our hands and knees (isn't that the same as crawling?) before reaching a chamber with no obvious exits other than the passage we took. Not very interesting.

The return journey is uneventful, but I'm quite saddle-sore bt the time I get back to the villa. That night I can't sleep, and wind up reading a couple of airmail letters from my boyfriend Nigel, which I've been ignoring since they arrived, The first one indicates that he and my family aren't too happy that I've not been writing to them more often. By the end of it I am feeling a bit tired, but I turn my attention to the second one anyway, thereby discovering that he's about to pay me a visit. Due to arrive the day after tomorrow, so it's a good thing I didn't delay reading it any longer.

I could try seeking advice, but none of the people I have the option of consulting seem all that likely to be helpful, so I decide not to bother - which turns out to be the best course of action, netting me a small Luck bonus. 

The day before Nigel is due to arrive, I repeatedly chicken out of calling him to try and put him off, and then he phones to check that everything is okay. On my previous attempt at this book I tried to discourage him, and things got unpleasant. I can't see them going a whole lot better if I wait for him to travel all the way out here before letting him know that the relationship isn't working, but there's little point in choosing what I already know will end badly.

Unsurprisingly, the visit does not go well. My local male acquaintances all avoid me while Nigel is around, and at the end of a decidedly non-fun week, Nigel begs me to accompany him on the journey back to England. Alarmingly, I don't get to choose: this decision is left to a die roll. But I get the best possible outcome - that evening, Nigel befriends a group of German students who are about to go on a tour of the Greek islands, and he decides to tag along with them, so our final farewell is comparatively amicable.

Time passes. I attend a beach barbecue, and decide to visit Simnaki on the following day. Based on what I remember from the last time I played this book, I know whom I would prefer to accompany me on the visit, but the book doesn't ask for the name of my preferred companion: the question posed is which of the listed candidates I know best. So I'm going to have to go with Liam again, which means that only the random factor or deliberately making unwise choices can bring a different outcome.

I arrange to join him and the archaeological party on tomorrow's boat crossing, and on the way across I hear everyone's complaints about the director of operations. After I find the actual archaeological work dull, Liam offers to show me around one of the ten tombs they've found on the island. I accept, and he gives me a bit of a lecture and then shows me the stone that could open a concealed chamber. I give it a tug as directed, and the toss of a coin determines what happens next.

The stone comes loose, revealing an embalmed human head, gnawed down to the skull in places. A rat is in one of the eye-sockets, but the motion of the stone startles it, causing it to scurry away, and this movement unbalances the semi-skull, causing it to fall onto me. I remembered that incident from a go at the book way back in the 20th century, but I'd forgotten just how gruesome it was. Under the circumstances, fainting doesn't seem that severe an overreaction.

While unconscious I have been taken back outside, and a concerned crowd has gathered. The director of operations has now turned up, and instructs that I be taken back home. A little later (seemingly the same day, which doesn't quite match the timeline from the last time I played this), I learn from one of the locals that the temple on Simnaki has been robbed of its treasures. Presumably the thieves left some blatant evidence of their crime, since up until now the existence of the treasure was only rumoured.

Could I have thwarted the thieves if the incident with the head hadn't occurred? Perhaps, but it looks as if I should have made different choices at an earlier stage if I wanted to cultivate the right contacts to cut down on random outcomes towards the end of the adventure. Even if the arbitrary stuff can't be completely avoided, the right companion would at least cut out the 50/50 shot at being taken out of action the way I was this time.

Looking on the bright side, at least I survived this time, and I think I ended the book with a higher Luck score than on my previous attempt. But a less severe failure is still a failure.

Friday, 5 February 2021

All You’re Concerned With Is Revenge

It's time I had another go at Avenger!, the first of Mark Smith and Jamie Thomson's The Way of the Tiger gamebooks. Well, first published: as regards internal chronology the prequel, Ninja, comes first, but I don't own that one, and the series worked fine without it for decades (for values of 'fine' that include containing occasional bugs and lacking a proper conclusion), so Avenger! leads the way.

The only aspect of character creation into which I have any input is skill selection. I have four of a possible nine, and while Shurikenjitsu is mandatory, I get to choose the others. The discussion which followed my earlier attempt at Avenger! for this blog indicated that the ability to spit Poison Needles is pretty much essential, so I'll take that one. For the others, I'm sticking with Immunity to Poisons and Picking Locks, Detecting and Disarming Traps. I do remember that, at least in the second book, Arrow Cutting can be a literal life-saver, but I also recall the possibility of gaining a bonus skill in that book, so I won't worry about that until I actually reach the stage where I can progress to book two.

The eraly stages of this adventure are liable to follow much the same pattern as my previous try, so rather than repeat myself in detail, I intend to summarise all that happens as it did before. If you want more details, just follow the above link.

For a bit of fun, I'm going to try and make the summary a pastiche of the secret litany of the Ninja Grandmaster featured in the book. I wonder if I still have the version I wrote for the unfinished parody The Way of the Hedgehog, on which I wasted a fair bit of time back in the mid-eighties... 

My kicking is what brings down Gorobei.
My answers are correct.
My dream is precognitive.
My mission is given.
My journey is interrupted.
My Ogre foe dies, just.
My Fate roll leaves me unobserved.
My throw is ineffectual.
My block is unsuccessful.
My Endurance drops below zero.
My adventure was ended by the Buccaneer Captain's morning star.

I can't exactly say that the dice were not in my favour this time round, because I did get some good rolls. The only problem is that they were during the not-to-the-death opening combat and the irrelevant Fate check, and I wound up taking a lot of damage in the first couple of serious fights. Enough to kill me, in fact.

On the positive side, those fights did highlight some deficiencies in how my gamebook manager handles combat in The Way of the Tiger, so I have now fixed them, which should come in handy the next time I attempt this book.

That's two rapid failures in a row. My next playthrough will be my three-hundredth, so it's going to be another replay, and I need to choose from the shortlist nominated by Gloccus a shockingly long time ago. Over the weekend I shall take a look at them all, and decide which is most likely to provide a more substantial (and hopefully successful) entry.

Wednesday, 3 February 2021

Cold, Cold Heart

Just before I started covering the Fighting Fantazine mini-adventures here, I raised the question of what I should do when I got to issue 9, given that I am the author of the mini-adventure in it, Return to the Icefinger Mountains. The readers who expressed an opinion were in favour of my playing it like any other one, and adding an 'author's commentary' to provide (hopefully) interesting trivia about the writing process, inspirations, influences, and so on. So that's what I'm doing, using a different font for the commentary bits.

This is unlikely to be a particularly criticism-heavy playthrough, because when I wrote Return I tried to avoid the sort of things that I find annoying in gamebooks. It's been several years since I last played it, so I don't rule out the possibility that the odd detail might strike me as being less of a good idea than it seemed back when I was writing it, but a full-on rant is unlikely. For a review (not a playthrough) without authorial bias, you could always check out what Malthus Dire said about it, but he didn't hate it either, so there is a possibility that Return is, in fact, not that bad.

Return to the Icefinger Mountains started with an ending. I'd been playing a demo of a computer game, and a minor element of it fired my imagination, giving me an idea for an unsuccessful outcome to an adventure. I can't design computer games, but I had turned my hand to gamebook-writing in the past, so that seemed the obvious way to develop the idea.

An ending isn't much use in isolation, so I had to start thinking about what kind of set-up could lead to such an outcome, and before long I came to the conclusion that extreme cold would be an effective way of getting the doomed hero into the required state. Being familiar with Caverns of the Snow Witch, I realised that making cold a key element of the setting and/or the villain's powers would inevitably invite comparisons, and since there were some elements of Caverns that I liked, I figured that I might as well make this new adventure a sequel. That way, the similarities would come across as homage rather than rip-off.

Years passed between my coming up with the initial concept and the actual writing of the adventure. During the intervening time, I got into gamebook fandom, and became aware of a lot of the issues that people had with Caverns. Few FF readers would deny that there are certain elements of the book which, if you think about them, don't make a whole lot of sense. I could have chosen to just ignore the absurdities once I got going on the follow-up, but there was a temptation to try and explain away some of the illogical aspects.

Before now I've mentioned that, in addition to being a fan of gamebooks, I'm also a fan of Doctor Who. A lot of DW fan fiction (including some licenced tie-ins) has been written to try and explain away inconsistencies between stories, plug narrative gaps, and generally tie up loose ends from the TV series. Much of that specific type of fan fiction (including some licenced tie-ins) is dreadful. Much, but not all. And what tends to set the decent material apart from the rest is that it is focused on telling a good story, and treats the continuity-fixing as an incidental extra. Bearing this in mind, I chose to prioritise creating the best adventure I could. If the creation of new lore that could provide a rational explanation for some of Caverns' oddities helped with that goal, so much the better, but the important thing was to write an entertaining and challenging addition to the series. Or at least try to.

On with the playthrough. My character is not the hero of Caverns. Instead, he is a former slave of the Snow Witch, liberated when she was killed, but still bearing the mental scars of the period when he was forced to serve her. Thirty years on, the trauma has faded... at least until I have a nightmare, the first in over a decade. I don't remember much about it, but the Snow Witch was in it.

At some point I had developed a preference for gamebook plots that included a personal element. To me, 'former slave with psychological baggage' struck me as having more potential than 'itinerant adventurer who killed the Snow Witch and managed to survive her revenge'. Besides which, once I'd decided to acknowledge the 30th anniversary of the creation of Fighting Fantasy by setting Return three decades after Caverns, I needed a character who'd been young at the time of the original adventure.

There is a slight connection between the viewpoint characters in the two adventures, though. In Caverns, the only weapon effective against the Snow Witch is found in the kitchens following a fight with one of the staff. At the time the Snow Witch was first killed, the hero of Return had just been sent to work in the kitchens as the replacement of a worker 'killed in a brawl', and consequently had easy acces to a knife when the slaves started to revolt. One combat, two people who benefited from it, without ever coming into contact with each other. And the plot makes sense regardless of whether or not the reader picks up on that connection.

Troubled, I seek out my old friend Reniso, another former slave, who tells me that he had a similar bad dream, and reveals that he'd always suspected that the Snow Witch might not be gone for good. For years he has been seeking to learn about the source of her power in the hope of being able to turn it against her. This is where one of my more substantial retcons comes in: previously, that source was identified as the Ice Demon which can be encountered in Caverns. Now, Reniso reveals that part of the assistance provided by the Demon consisted of giving the Snow Witch access to the secrets of an ancient civilisation, whose ruins lie beneath the Crystal Caves.

Alterations to established lore are more likely to be accepted if they expand on what is already known rather than just contradicting it. The details of when this lost civilisation existed are deliberately left vague, but a passing reference to a major cataclysm that's an acknowledged element of FF history tentatively dates it to a period of which little is known. Since the history laid out in Titan includes such a convenient era of ambiguity, why not make use of it?

Not long ago, Reniso made contact with a scholar in Salamonis who has been studying that lost civilisation. The scholar is now travelling here, and Reniso plans for the three of us to return to the Crystal Caves, seek out the lost city beneath them, and find a way to thwart the Snow Witch's return, or discover a weapon to use against her if it's too late for that. Before I return home, he warns me not to mention the planned expedition to anyone, as the Snow Witch's surviving followers have formed a cult, and would not hesitate to kill us if they knew of our intentions.

The following day, after putting my affairs in order, I return to Reniso's home, only to find that it has been vandalised and he has been murdered. Worse yet, the blood that has pooled at his feet has been used to spell out the words 'SHE WILL RETURN'.

That's where the 'Background' section ends, so I should generate some stats before I go any further. I shall be tailoring them: while a high Skill score is not as essential as in, say, the majority of Ian Livingstone's FF books, a rock bottom Skill would probably guarantee failure, and some readers have complained about the number of Test your Luck rolls in the adventure. I end up with:
Skill 10
Stamina 17
Luck 12
That should give me a reasonable chance of success on the correct route.

There are basically two different ways of winning this adventure. One path to success is in the style of most of Ian Livingstone's books, and is pretty much impossible without 12 Skill. The other is strongly influenced by the FF books of Paul Mason, and (as you may have deduced from my having chosen to max out Luck rather than Skill), that is the one I intend to go for. Apart from being easier if you know what to do, it also has what is generally considered the more satisfactory conclusion.

I can see that there is something in Reniso's mouth, but decide against taking a closer look. There is some information to be gained by doing so, but it's not essential, and not getting it enables me to avoid one Test your Luck, as I won't get blood on my shoes and potentially become a murder suspect.

Deciding to leave and try to find a way of avenging Reniso's murder, I open the door, and am startled to find an elderly man right outside, on the verge of knocking. He is just as surprised as I, and puzzled about who I could be, as I'm too young to be Reniso. Unsure of what to do, I stall by asking the stranger who he is, and he turns out to be the scholar from Salamonis, whose name is Denati. Deducing from the circumspect manner in which he describes the reason for his visit that he is aware of the need for security, and thus knows about the Snow Witch's followers, I indicate to him that I know what's afoot, and let him know what has happened to Reniso. After a little debate, we decide to go ahead with the expedition, and Denati gives me money to buy the equipment we will need.

In a departure from FF norms, the text lists everything purchased rather than allowing the reader to choose what to buy. This was a practical decision rather than a conscious subversion: the adventure was long enough without having to dedicate multiple sections to the consequences of failure to obtain necessary equipment at this stage, or the attempted use of whatever 'red herring' items I made available. 

Once I've made the requisite purchases, we head out of the village. The warden on the north gate is a bit of a bully, with whom I've had at least one run-in before now, but today he is content to merely delay us with a few unnecessary questions before allowing us to proceed. We make good progress, reaching the trading post at the foot of the Icefinger Mountains before sundown, and spend the night there, my nightmares causing me to disturb some of the others in the dormitory.

The following day we head up into the mountains until the sounds of many animals up ahead indicate the need for caution. We stop at a point overlooking a valley, through which a group of Toa-Suo and Snow Wolves are passing. Not wanting to waste any time, I head down into the valley as soon as they have passed, rather than waiting until they're out of sight, and one of them looks back at the wrong moment and catches sight of us. It attracts the attention of its companions, and they turn and race to the attack.

There are too many of them to fight, so we run. A Stamina roll determines how I fare, and oh dear, that's a lot of sixes. Even if I'd put the highest of my character creation rolls into Stamina, I'd still have failed. Our pursuers catch up to us, and we end up torn apart.

I do believe that's the earliest possible death in Return. Experiencing it was sheer bad luck - even with the lowest possible starting Stamina, I'd still have had a 50% chance of making it, but the dice just fell very badly for me. The 'advantage' of having written the adventure couldn't help me there.

Kieran Coghlan offered his playthrough of Return if I decided to get in a 'guest player' rather than attempt Return myself here. Since he got a good deal further through the adventure than I did, I've written an author's commentary to go with that as well.