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.
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:
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.