Friday, 15 September 2017

We Know It Is There, Beneath the Surface

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 8 September 2017

This Is All Terribly Wrong

It's time to dip into another gamebook series that I, perhaps unwisely, acquired in full without taking the time to find out whether or not I actually like it. On this occasion it's the Car Wars Adventure Gamebooks, which took me around a decade to collect, so I had plenty of time in which to try one, and will only have myself to blame for any misery caused by playing the later ones, should the series prove not to my liking.

The first book is Battle Road, by Steve Jackson. The one who wrote Scorpion Swamp, not the author of House of Hell, in case you were wondering. It was the first of the series that I acquired, during a period when my saved searches on eBay were bearing little fruit, so I tried looking for 'gamebook', and in the midst of all the listings that duplicated books I owned, were not actually gamebooks, cost unreasonable amounts or just didn't appeal, I found this one. And during the time between my making the purchase and receiving the book, some other interest came to prominence for a while, and the book just went on the shelf. Well, its day has finally come.

The instructions open with the revelation that the Car Wars books are set in 2036, 50 years on from the date of publication. By now we're more than half way through those 50 years. I feel old.

No dice are involved in character generation. I have 5 personal stats, and 10 points to allocate to them, with a minimum requirement of 1 for each. While I could just go for straight 2s across the board, I'm going to try a little prioritising, and hope not to be seriously challenged on the characteristics for which I take a lower score. The title suggests an emphasis on combat and driving, so I'm going with:
Driving skill 3
Gunnery skill 3
Mechanic skill 2
Prestige 1
Wealth 1
I'm sure I'll find out whether or not that's a wise choice before long.

My character is a professional duellist, who has been summoned to the Republic of Texas by the Undersecretary of Energy for an important and secret mission. President Jordan and his daughter are being held prisoner in Oklahoma by the politically ambitious John Twoeagles, and even if Louisiana's People's Militia were powerful enough to take on the Oklahoman military and Twoeagles' own private army, the whole affair would become public knowledge, undermining Jordan's authority enough to potentially bring down his government. I'm not sufficiently clued-up on politics in the world of Car Wars to know whether or not that government is worth preserving, but thwarting Twoeagles is worth doing if for no other reason than that he intends to strengthen his position by forcing Angela Jordan to marry him. Ugh.

The wedding is scheduled to take place in exactly 24 hours, so I need to hit the road promptly. Mind you, I have been given a down payment on the reward for rescuing Angela, so it might be worth investing in some extra hardware for the car first. I make a stop at the local branch of Uncle Albert's Auto Stop and Gunnery Shop and invest in some Improved Body Armour, a couple of limpet mines and four grenades. That's one hour already gone, but as some of the upgrades I passed up would have at least doubled the wait, I'm guessing that time isn't that tight, so I'll also see what intel I can gather before setting off.

Being a member of the American Autoduel Association, I visit the local branch to ask about road conditions between here and Oklahoma. When asked about the purpose of my journey, I make up something about a routine courier job, as making a big deal about the confidential nature of my mission would only draw unwelcome attention. The report I receive warns of bad weather and possible flooding, a massive price hike on mechanic and recharge fees (owing to the scarcity of gasoline, cars are electric these days) in Waco, and a gang of murderous looters in the vicinity of a place called Ross. Waco and Ross are the first two locations marked on my route map, so if that information is going to be of any use, the journey is liable to be eventful from the outset.

It is, but the first trouble I encounter is not what I expected. It's hay. Numerous bales of the stuff scattered on the Highway, and their placement in the illustration suggests that they've been placed there with malicious intent rather than falling from a truck with an inadequately secured load. Whoever is responsible probably hopes I'll slow down or go off-road, so instead I'll see if I put enough points into Driving to enable me to weave around the obstacles without coming to grief. I did. Just enough, in fact, that I can't actually fail the roll.

Beyond the bales, I see their source: a farm truck on its side, with one front wheel blown away and the other still spinning. This strikes me as highly suspicious, and I opt to pass by without stopping or opening fire, just in case someone's booby-trapped the wreck.

After two hours' driving time I reach Waco. Not having sustained any damage on my way there, I have no need to stop for repairs, and just keep going. I could get an overpriced recharge, but there are apparently many cheaper truck stops between here and Dallas. One fewer than there should be, thanks to those looters, but many minus one still comes to significantly more than zero, so I should be okay.

A few miles further north I see a sign for the truck stop I know to have been destroyed by that gang. Another sign proclaims it to still be in business and offering free charge-ups, so either I was misinformed about everyone there having been killed or this is a trap. My mission is not to check the accuracy of AADA reports, so I ignore the turning.

Not long after I pass through Ross, the threatened rain starts to fall. So far it's not a problem, so I just turn on the wipers and headlights. An hour later I draw near to the town of Hillsboro, and encounter my first time check. That visit to Uncle Albert's has put me outside the earliest bracket, but I'm still comfortably short of the latest. Which turns out to be all the worse for me, as it means I arrive while the highway is barricaded for the annual April Fool Marathon. If I survive the mission, I shall be complaining to the AADA about their failure to mention this road closure.

The road circumventing the town is purportedly in an abysmal state - that's why the highway now runs through the town - so unless I want to risk driving on that mess or attempt to smash through the blockade, I'm going to have to wait for two hours. I don't suppose there are any recharge points this side of the barrier...? Apparently not. I'm not injured, so there's no point in going to the nearby ambulance, which only leaves working on my car or having a few drinks with the cops on the barricade. Have drink driving laws been abolished? The car doesn't need any work done on it, but I don't want to risk having my keys confiscated overnight, so I'm going to have to do a load of unnecessary tinkering under the bonnet. At least the rules don't allow for a critical bodge that could leave the car in a worse condition than it was when I got here.

At last the stupid race is over and I can drive into town and get a recharge. The garage is also the local AADA office, so I decide to see if they can tell me anything useful about potential delays or hazards. There's another bad weather warning, and mention of cycle gang trouble north of Dallas. Do I have to go through Dallas? The map implies that it's possible to travel via Forth Worth instead.

Resuming my journey, I reach a fork in the road, offering just the choice I was hoping for. The Fort Worth route is normally the slower one, but in view of the cycle gang report, I'll take it. No need to go looking for trouble when I can expect more than my fair share once I hit Oklahoma.

Nothing bad happens on my chosen route, and while I could stop off in the city, I'm not sure it's worth the delay. As I continue on my way, the radio gives notice of impending thunderstorms, and by the time the two branches of the highway merge again, there is a heavy downpour. There's a truck stop close by, but I don't want to risk being stuck the wrong side of the expected floods, so I drive on. There's a chance of going off the road, but again the combination of my Driving skill and the car's Handling Class is sufficient to guarantee a successful roll.

Up ahead, I see a tornado heading in my direction. I don't fancy my chances if I drive straight at it or turn around and head back the way I came, so I shall look for a temporary detour. There's a turning close by, and again the roll to avoid an accident is a foregone conclusion. A momentary cessation in the sound of the rain alerts me to the fact that I'm driving through an underpass, so I stop there until the tornado has passed. Then I resume my drive, and risk maintaining my usual speed in spite of the debris left by the storm. A good choice, as there are no modifiers to the inevitable rolls, which means I still can't fail them.

I do have to slow down when my way is blocked by an overturned tanker truck, though. Rolling down my window, I smell no fumes. Good news, but no reason to loiter, so I don't. As I approach the Oklahoma border, there's another time check, but this time I'm in the earliest bracket. Which is not as good as I'd hoped, as the bridge over the Red River is flooded, and closed until at least the end of the first time bracket.

I had been wondering how the book would handle the need for sleep. The enforced wait provides me with an opportunity to get some rest, and while I wind up snoozing until over an hour after the projected reopening time for the bridge, that does at least mean I'm in with a chance of getting under way as soon as I'm awake, and don't have to worry about dozing off at the wheel or being forced to take a nap break once I'm in Oklahoma.

At the border I'm stopped by a uniformed trooper, who wants to search the car. There are a lot of uniformed people here, in a variety of different uniforms. Is this connected with Twoeagles' plans, or is there some other trouble afoot? I could try offering a bribe and asking what's up, but that might just raise suspicions, so I think I'll keep quiet and be patient. I still have a little over 10 hours.

While the trooper looks through my supplies, I look around, noting that some of the uniforms being worn bear the Twoeagles insignia, and that the different uniformed groups don't appear to be that happy about each other's presence here. My armaments are too mundane to attract undue attention, but there's a Prestige roll before I can leave, and I fail it. Still, the only consequence is a slight delay while a few jobsworths in other uniforms perform the same checks as the first trooper.

As I drive on, I listen to the radio, hearing a news story about the impending nuptials and a warning of further bad weather. A flash of lightning alerts me to the approach of another storm. I keep going, and a little way beyond the town of Ardmore I see flares around an 18-wheeled van. An attempt at contacting the driver on my CB comes to nothing, so I just drive past.

Offered the option of pushing my speed up a little, I trust in the stats that have served me well so far, and they continue to suffice, so I make it to Oklahoma City without any unpleasant incidents. There I need to get another recharge, and while I'm doing that, I call a number I was given for getting info on the Twoeagles ranch. Ominously, nobody picks up.

The option of shopping for new equipment turns up nothing of interest, but checking out the store keeps me in town until the AADA office opens, so I get an update on the roads. More bad weather, a recommendation to take the Turner Turnpike to New Tulsa in order to avoid bandits, and a warning that the militia of several oil companies seem to be gearing up for something.

There's quite a hefty toll for using the Turnpike, but I can afford it, so I do. Route 66 may be more celebrated in song, but if its bandits delay me or do any significant damage to the car, I'm likely to get stuck listening to a particularly unpleasant rendition of Here Comes the Bride. On the Turnpike I get the choice of three speeds, and on this occasion I go for the middling option. That still means a Control Roll, but unmodified, so I stay safe. 5 hours to go.

There's another time check in New Tulsa, and I'm in the earlier bracket, so I can spend an hour or two seeking information or interesting armaments and still get back on the road with time to spare. The AADA advise against travelling on US 75, and as Uncle Albert's is closed on account of the ongoing bad weather, there's nothing else to keep me here. I might have acquired a helpful local contact if I'd risked some encounter on my way here, but as it is, I'm on my own.

And it appears that US 75 is the only route from here to Bartlesville, the closest town to Twoeagles' ranch. I guess my conflict avoidance strategy is about to stop being workable. Yep, some machine-gun-toting nut on a trike takes an interest in me. Time for some defensive driving. This time there's a modifier to the Control Roll, but I should be okay as long as I don't get a 6.

I get a 6. My car skids, flips, bounces, and finally explodes. If all the potential conflicts I avoided on the way to New Tulsa were as hazardous as this one, and that helpful contact I missed turns out to be an essential encounter, this book is going to be tough.

Friday, 1 September 2017

This Serious Moonlight

In 2004, while I was trying to come up with an entry for a gamebook 'teaser'-writing competition at the official Fighting Fantasy website, one of the ideas I considered revolved around being wounded by a werewolf and needing to find a way to keep from winding up as a werewolf yourself. In the event, I went with a different idea, but I still wanted to do something with the 'race against lycanthropy' concept (which had the working title Wolfsclaw). So I was a little disgruntled when, a couple of years later, Wizard Books announced that their next all-new FF book, Howl of the Werewolf, would have pretty much the same premise.

I didn't react like the tantrum-throwing fan whose dummy-spitting antics had so amused me when Bloodbones was scheduled for publication, though. I knew that I had no right to get proprietorial about the concept - I'd never even mentioned anything about Wolfsclaw at the FF website, so author Jonathan Green must have come up with the idea for Howl off his own bat. These things happen. Inspiration is no guarantee of uniqueness. Consequently, I didn't make a fuss in public, didn't privately resolve to boycott Howl or Wizard Books, just shelved my undeveloped plans for Wolfsclaw and got on with whatever other creative endeavours were at the forefront of my mind back then.

Time passed, Howl reached the shelves of Brown's bookshop, and when I bought and played the book, any remaining disappointment faded. Howl was a much better gamebook than Wolfsclaw would have been. My adventure was going to be dark and 'edgy'. Howl was fun. And, unlike Mr. Green's previous FF books, it was winnable. Not too easy, despite some fans' complaints, but it clearly gave the reader a fair chance, and didn't have the sort of narrow 'true path' that can get so tedious.

For convoluted reasons not worth going into, I reached the end of my second attempt at the book before finishing my first go at it. And because of a twist in the adventure, my first failure effectively occurred a long while before that attempt at the book ended. I defeated the main villain, but an unlucky roll during an earlier encounter had caused me to fall under the influence of a secondary villain, who was only too happy to step into the power vacuum I created in the climactic battle.

As with Stealer of Souls (at least prior to my playing it for this blog), I can't say for sure whether or not I've ever properly won Howl. When I had a go at it for the 'play all FF books in order' thread at the no longer extant unofficial forum, I got all the way to the last fight, and then hit an ambiguity in the rules governing it. According to one plausible interpretation of those rules, I won. According to the other viable way of reading them, my character died. A 'Schroedinger's werewolf' outcome, as it were. Will I achieve an undeniable victory at Howl here, as I did with Stealer? Time will tell.

Character generation is not quite as usual for FF, providing a narrower range of possible Skill scores and a lower starting Stamina. I'm going to take a bit of a chance, and take the dice as they fall, getting:
Skill 9
Stamina 20
Luck 12
Pretty good, all things considered. There's also a Change score, but that starts at 0.

Not entirely surprisingly, my character is an itinerant adventurer. Even less surprisingly, given the author, I start the adventure in a perilous situation. After setting off to the next village later than was wise, and taking an inadvisable short cut in the vain hope of making up for the initial error, I now find myself being pursued through a forest by a pack of wolves. Well, given the title, it was hardly likely that I'd start out confronting a menacing dray of squirrels, was it?

It becomes apparent that I am surrounded. The leader, a black-furred brute with a streak of grey, advances on me, and I steel myself for the inevitable attack. The beast leaps, and even though I have the higher Skill, I still lose the first two Attack Rounds. The fight lasts no longer, because I then get distracted by the other wolves, which have decided that they're not content just to sit and watch. A moment's inattention causes me to trip on a protruding root, which allows the black-and-grey wolf to bite me again. The premise of the adventure being what it is, there's no way of avoiding that bite, and it's only the not-quite-timely-enough intervention of a woodsman that keeps me from being further savaged as I black out from the pain and blood loss.

I wake from a vivid nightmare in the woodsman's home, my wounds cleaned and dressed. My rescuer introduces himself as Ulrich and tells me that there's something I must see. When fighting off my attacker, he severed a forepaw. That paw has since metamorphosed into something between wolf's paw and human hand, indicating to my character what I as reader have known had to be the case from the outset: the wolf that bit me was a Werewolf, and unless I can find a cure, I am doomed to become one as well. With this realisation comes the first increase in Change.

Ulrich advises me to throw the still transforming paw/hand into the fire, but I give it a close examination first, finding a signet ring with a crest depicting a wolf's head and full moon. That I retain as a possible clue to the human identity of my lycanthropic assailant, while doing as recommended with the hand that wore it.

One interesting thing that comes out of these playthroughs is that they prompt closer readings of the text than normal. Often, after my first attempt, I'll skim-read sections I've read before, or just rely on the summary I typed into my gamebook manager (and I must admit that there have been times when I wasn't paying that much attention even on the first read), but for blog posts I return to what the book actually says, which sometimes leads to my picking up on details that previously eluded my notice. This must be the first time I've actually reread the section following on from my burning the hand, as it contains foreshadowing that never really registered before. Now that I know what's coming in a bit, it seems pretty blatant, but a decade or so ago I was too busy rushing on to the next decision to spot the hints that Ulrich has something to hide.

As I bewail the fate that awaits me, Ulrich points out that there is still hope - for me. If I can find and kill the Werewolf that bit me, or eat a sprig of belladonna, I may be cured. Or I can seek the assistance of the wise woman known as Grandmother Zekova. I choose the latter option, and we trek through the forest for about an hour to get to her cottage.

Once Ulrich has explained the situation, Zekova says she can brew me a belladonna-based potion, and asks if she can bleed me first to enhance its effect. I agree, and lose enough blood to become quite light-headed (and drop to almost half my starting Stamina, too), but the potion does reduce my Change. Not to 0 - it's far too soon for that - but enough to ensure a favourable outcome at least at the start of the next bit of trouble to come my way.

A series of howls from outside indicates that the wolf pack has surrounded the cottage, and then somebody knocks on the door and, quoting a predictable fairy tale, demands entry. Zekova refuses, and the man outside becomes insistent, anger causing him to break into a howl. The wolves join in, and I feel a compulsion to do likewise, but my Change is low enough that I can resist.

The wolves then try to break in, and what follows is reminiscent of the occurrence at Stanford in Dead of Night. There are three potential points of entry: the door and two windows, and I decide who guards which entrance. The door being sturdy enough to repulse one attacker, I post Zekova by it, and Ulrich and I take the windows. Randomness determines the wolves' tactics, but as it turns out, each of the first three wolves tries a different way in. Despite having a Skill significantly lower than mine, the one that comes through the window I'm guarding manages to injure me. The next three wolves mimic their predecessors, except that the one that goes for me does no harm.

The last two wolves both go for the door, overcoming Zekova, so I hurry across to repulse them. The dice go back to showing a bias in favour of my opponents, and I wind up taking lethal damage. So, not only did I fail to obtain the hoped-for unambiguous victory, I actually died in the earliest potentially lethal encounter.

Tuesday, 29 August 2017

There's a Time and There's a Place Where I Can Choose

The second Tunnels & Trolls mini-adventure to appear in Sorcerer's Apprentice and be reprinted in the Compendium is Ken St. Andre's Seven Ayes, which was originally published in issue 2. The introduction indicates that it's part of the same world as the author's Deathtrap Equalizer Dungeon (though the the intro's omission of the second 't' in the title suggests a rather different type of challenge from what might actually be encountered in that adventure) and Naked Doom, and is best suited for a freshly-created Warrior, of any humanoid variety other than Fairy or Giant. There is the option of bringing in a pre-existing character, but as none of the Warriors I've created in the course of this blog are still alive, I shan't be finding out what happens if I try doing that.

Creating a new character requires me to roll a die before I start, and that roll takes me to a section which announces that I'm going to have to generate a Dwarf. A better-than-average Dwarf, in fact, as the text indicates that in addition to the standard bonuses on Strength and Constitution, I get extra Luck and don't appear to be affected by the usual Charisma penalty. That means I end up as:
Strength 30
Intelligence 14
Luck 12
Constitution 24
Dexterity 10
Charisma 6 (even without the penalty, I'm ugly)
Speed 13
I also start out with a pickaxe and a dagger (but no armour) and some money.

The section to which I must turn once I've created my character is the same one to which anyone bringing in a veteran character was directed at the start, so it turns out that there are no surprise penalties for playing with an established adventurer. I apologise to Mr. St. Andre for suspecting him of such skulduggery.

The Seven Ayes is a tavern at the north of the fishing village (and secret pirates' and smugglers' haven) of Frarrg, and has become the favourite meeting place of all the rogues, scoundrels, villains and rapscallions in the region. So naturally it's where I decide to go for a cool drink after a hard day's work down the mine.

It's not the most salubrious of establishments, and the furniture shows signs of past fights and fires. Dogs chew on discarded bones, and a Rock Troll bouncer tells me I'll have to leave my pickaxe by the door. Refusal is likely to be unwise, I'm not aware of the axe having any special significance (sentimental or otherwise), and I can at least retain my dagger, so I put the pickaxe in the rack indicated and proceed to the bar.

The bartender is a large cyclopean Ogre with lice the size of mice. He tells me that they sell bad wine, hot beer, and fermented pig's milk. I think the pig's milk might actually be the least bad option there. It costs less than I have on me, but not much less, so the assorted ne'er-do-wells who take a sudden interest in me when I hand over the money are going to be disappointed if they try robbing me.

The drink is served in a clay-lined human skull, and has things swimming in it. Nevertheless, I chance a swig, and my Constitution is high enough that I might even have a decent chance of keeping the stuff down. And I succeed at the Saving Roll, but only because a double means an extra roll. Still, success is success.

A greenish Elf with a scar, bad teeth and black leather clothes introduces himself as K'Neevle (so I guess he's evil), compliments me on my taste, and invites me to join him and his friends for a friendly low-stakes game of Death Cubes. Perhaps because of the drink, I can accept or rudely decline his offer, but a polite refusal is out of the question. If they're con artists, they won't get much out of me, and if not, I might be in with a chance of winning something, so I accept.

It turns out that K'Neevle's idea of low stakes is still higher than my remaining funds, and the text doesn't really allow for that possibility. That's rather ill-thought-out, given that the Random Treasure Generator which determined how much money I have on me gives very low odds of having enough. Not knowing how much the other drinks cost, I don't know the bare minimum required to have a drink and still be able to afford the stake, but at least one time in four, the Generator won't even provide enough money for the stake, let alone the cost of a drink beforehand. I think I'll have to go for the 'lose all cash without getting a losing streak' option.

K'Neevle and his friends apologise, and then laugh at me to show that they're not really sorry. I can make that fit the actual circumstances. Accusing them of cheating wouldn't really be an appropriate response, but if I wanted trouble, I'm sure I could come up with something equally insulting to say that would make sense in context. I don't want trouble, though, so I just walk away from the table, retrieve my pickaxe, and leave. Something of an anticlimax, but, to paraphrase the pilots' adage, any T&T solo your character can walk away from is a successful adventure.

Sunday, 27 August 2017

Too Much Stuff Going on or Not Enough

It's been a long time since I failed at The Green Hydra, the second book in Gary Gygax and Flint Dille's Sagard the Barbarian series. In view of the fact that the series includes some character progression, and there is an ongoing storyline (just about) in at least some of the books, I've decided to try and win Hydra before progressing to the third book. For the sake of the Experience and the items that can be carried across, I've also replayed the first book, but since I did almost the same as on my previous attempt, that doesn't merit its own post.

A couple of paragraphs, perhaps. Feel free to skip this and the next one if you don't care about the few ways in which my replay of The Ice Dragon differed from my initial attempt. When Glanda asked me to join her on her Ordeal, I declined, but then she accused me of not being a man and, what with my being a) part of a barbarian culture that cares a lot about such things, and b) a male teenager, I promptly agreed to accompany her in order to demonstrate my prowess, after which the encounter followed the same pattern as before.

At the end of the valley I checked out the cave, which led to a frozen waterfall that I opted not to descend. Then I checked out the portal, which led to an ancient tomb. Four ghostly warriors were in it, and when I attacked, I found that I couldn't harm them. They couldn't do anything to me, either, so I was able to get past them and reach a cavern illuminated by glowing moss and inhabited by a crowd of pale and spindly creatures that turned out to have been trapped there by their fear of the ghosts. Viewing me as their saviour, they rewarded me with some nutritional moss, a stuffed bat, and an assortment of tat that I abandoned as soon as I'd escorted them to the valley and shown them on their way. Then I went to the crevasse as before, and subsequent events transpired as on my previous attempt. Except that this time I was the one who delivered the coup de grace to the Ice Golem.

And so to The Green Hydra. Initially I do pretty much the same as on my previous attempt, so I shall summarise that part of the adventure in verse, emulating the structure of the not-that-great poem spoken during the dream sequence at the mysterious ruins. Inconsistent metre, weak rhymes and all. It's not the first time I've tried such a gimmick.

Sagard and some other tribesmen
Went south on a trading mission,
But met a group of Hukkas:
Most became carrion.

Among the Hukka corpses
He found a reptile Slith
And, departing in a canoe,
He soon again faced death.

He slew the Crocosaurus.
A woman healed his wounds.
Other Sliths tried to kill him
As he camped by a ruin.

He then dreamed of priestesses
Who chanted ancient hymns
That told of Sliths and undead
And evil in a tomb.

He breakfasted on Ambroth,
Which healed him again
And would do so a second time
If he were close to dying.

Proceeding to the city of Suthorp and the shop owned by Chaga the trader, I accept the price he offers. He then tells me that he has no gold coins, so I'll have to take payment in store credit. Looking around, I see that his prices are high, so I'd only be able to afford a leather jerkin and a few days' rations. Between them, they cost 80 gold, and somehow I expect to receive the balance in change despite Chaga's claiming to have no cash. I can object, though section number recognition tells me that doing so leads to the fight with his other patrons, or I can accept his terms and hope that this is some kind of test.

I'll avoid the fight. As a reward for having the wisdom to accept his offer, Chaga gives me an extra 30 of the gold pieces he doesn't have when handing me my change. Why does the book not have me questioning this? If he'd said something along the lines of,  "I don't have anywhere near that much money, so you'll have to take most of the payment in goods from the shop," there'd be no issue, but he quite clearly stated, "I have no gold coins," before going on to pay me 50 of them. I can think of a few governments that would view him as an ideal candidate for Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Still, I survived the visit to the shop, which is the main thing. I proceed to an inn for a drink, and am rather taken with a young woman I notice there, though she vanishes into the crowd before I can say anything to her. Stepping outside, I see an old man collapse, a Slith dagger in his back. Before dying he gives me a scroll, instructs me to deliver it to Ketza Kota, and pronounces a curse on me if I should fail. Then a Slith assassin demands the scroll. The book offers the choice of attempting a surprise attack or handing over the scroll with a view to ambushing the Slith to get it back. Rather confusingly, the 'surprise attack' option opens with my handing over the scroll to distract the Slith. I double-checked to make sure the section numbers weren't the wrong way round, but no, the option that isn't 'give the Slith the scroll' results in my giving the Slith the scroll. And then drawing my sword and determining who gets first strike, but still...

The Slith is a formidable opponent, but his proficiency decreases as he loses hit points, so in the first round I hit him with a couple of the daggers I took from the Sliths who attacked me at the temple, taking him down one level before he can even get a blow in. After that it doesn't take me long to gain the upper hand and ultimately prevail, but he still halves my hit points in the time it takes me to kill him.

My winning blow takes the Slith's head off. Disconcertingly, after rolling into the gutter, it threatens me for a bit, and only falls silent once it's  finished predicting my agonising death. For some reason I get two separate experience bonuses for my victory, too. A quick search of the corpse nets me some gold and a piece of paper with 'Ketza Kota' written on it.

A crowd is gathering, so I make my way to an inn and crash out until I've returned to full health. I then decide to see what's on the scroll, but there's no sign of it. Until I discover that it was underneath me in the bed. Unrolling it, I see that it shows a map of a maze-like structure, with annotations in an unfamiliar alphabet. Just a basic substitution cypher, and with a little help from the title of the adventure, I soon crack the code, discovering that some of the accompanying text is a letter to the mysterious Ketza Kota, who's apparently a High Priestess.

For a note that purports to have been written in haste, it's a bit verbose in places, but the mistakes towards the end of the first paragraph may be deliberate, put there to indicate that the writer of the letter got a bit sloppy while hurrying. Or they might just be typos. In any case, the bulk of the letter consists of instructions on how to kill the Green Hydra using resources available in its tomb and escape intact afterwards. And directions for the section to turn to if you've managed to make sense of the message.

Given that the section number was written as words and encoded, it's hardly likely to be a typo, but the transition is awkward enough to make me wonder. The map and accompanying letter made no mention of the location of the Tomb of the Green Hydra, and yet I suddenly find myself seeking a ship willing to take me to the Isle of Slith. It soon transpires that there's only one man who'd be willing to sail there: the untrustworthy Swarny Pate.

Pate's ship is in poor shape, and its captain isn't in much better a condition, even lacking an eyepatch to cover the gaping socket where his right eye should be. He also has a parrot/lizard hybrid sitting on his shoulder. The price he names is more than I have, but I agree to his terms, making a down payment I can afford, and promising to pay the balance when I'm back safely. There'd better be some decent loot in that tomb...

It would appear that Pate's crew have not been informed of the terms of our agreement - either that, or they think I'm naïve enough to be carrying the rest of my fare on me. Regardless, it's clear that if I drop my guard, they will attack me, so I do what I can to stay awake during the voyage. And the book either has the section numbers mixed up or is sacrificing realism in favour of playability: a character in poor health is more likely to struggle to remain on the alert, but the possibility of dozing off and having to fight off a couple of murderous sailors is only available to those who have more than half their hit points. I kill them quickly enough to dissuade their treacherous captain from joining in, but take a lot of damage along the way.

Pate warns me that if I kill him, I'll never find the island. I warn him that if he tries any funny business, he'll get to find out what it feels like to be inside a shark. We continue towards our destination, minus the bodyweight of my assailants, and I eat what would have been their lunch, regaining a fraction of the hit points I lost in the fight.

After some time we sight the Isle of Slith, an inhospitable-looking volcanic cone that slowly spews molten rock into the surrounding sea. The far side is a little less forbidding, with trees growing on it, and shows some signs of Slith habitation. Pate is able to manoeuvre through the mist and rocks and bring the ship into an inlet.

After dropping me off, Pate says he'll wait for me if I give him 50 gold pieces. For no remotely sensible reason, the text just carries on, revealing a few lines later that Pate sails away whether or not he was paid to hang around. Why not go 'If you are willing and able to pay, go to Section X. Otherwise, go to Section Y', or at least throw in a section break to conceal the captain's possible treachery? The adventure has 101 sections, so adding one or two wouldn't spoil a nice round number.

I proceed to the Slith habitations, which are either a village or a city, depending on which line of the paragraph I'm reading. Whatever Slithville may be, it's surrounded by dahlia fields. Judging by my subsequent encounter with a group of glazed-eyed, incoherently muttering individuals, the dahlias here are a source of some kind of narcotic.

The tomb is easy to identify, but guarded. Still, the guards don't pay a lot of attention to the robed individuals who transport dahlias into the building. Once I discover the pit where the Sliths dispose of their dead, it's easy enough to pilfer a robe from a corpse, and smearing my face and hands with ash helps conceal my human features. I then tag along behind a group of dahlia carriers as they file into the tomb, stopping at the first junction while they trudge further in.

It is at this point that a problem with the map becomes an issue. The locations mentioned in the letter are all marked, but the markings on two of them are identical, and since one of those two is the source of the arrows I'll need to use against the Hydra and the other is the Hydra's lair, visiting them the wrong way round would be inadvisable.

Reading the rules for exploring the tomb makes it possible to deduce which is which, as there are restrictions on movement that make it impossible to visit everywhere listed in the note in the right order unless the Arrow Chamber is the smaller of the two places it could be. There are 22 places in the tomb where something could happen, including the five locations marked on the scroll (all of them indicated by letters of the alphabet, from A to I, K to Q and S to X - I guess one of the authors really wasn't a fan of Dallas), and I'm not permitted to go to any of them more than once. I'm also advised to avoid crossing my own path, though doing so will be unavoidable if I want to follow up a bit of advice from the letter.

At the section explaining about exploration, I also see proof that this copy of the book was previously owned by a barbarian far more primitive and savage than Sagard: the brute drew on the map. In biro. Obscuring many of the letters identifying significant places. And unless they cheated, their scrawl doesn't even correspond to the route they took through the tomb. Mind you, even that pales by comparison with the abuses they perpetrated on the next book in the series, but that's a rant for another day.

I opt to follow that advice that will make it necessary to cross my own path, in part because it could lead to my getting hold of an impressive-sounding weapon, but also to find out how serious the consequences of crossing my tracks are.

The first noteworthy place I reach turns out to be rather unexciting, but informative. As I head to the Hall of Bones, I tread on a skull that someone must have dropped on their way there. This attracts no unwelcome attention, allowing me to continue on my way without incident. However, the directions mentioned now make it clear that the map has east at the top rather than north, which may be useful to know.

Unsurprisingly, the Hall of Bones is filled with the remains of the dead. Hearing approaching footsteps, I hide among the corpses while the patrolling Slith guards go past. Then there's another of those silly mid-section choices, giving me the option of leaving at once if I've changed my mind about searching the Hall. I wouldn't have backed out anyway, but the unavoidability of noticing the absence of combat details further down the page eliminates whatever tension could have been wrung from the possibility of being spotted by guards while searching. My search turns up a little Slith currency, and what I was hoping to find: a pouch of fire darts, each of which has a 75% chance of eliminating one opponent in a fight.

The layout of the tomb around here forces me to head back along a corridor I've already used, as a result of which four Elite Slith Guards surround me. I can use up to two fire darts in a round of combat, so I hurl a couple at the two most proficient of my opponents. Both darts are on target, and my odds of surviving have just significantly improved. The surviving Sliths both injure me, and I decide that they're dangerous enough to justify using more darts. That 1 in 4 chance of missing leaves the stronger of the two still standing, but now we're one on one, I'll risk a straight fight with him. He inflicts enough damage that the once-off mid-fight restoration to full health provided by the Ambroth kicks in, after which I kill him with very little bother. The Experience provided by the fight enables me to level up, and I may now cross my own path with impunity. Probably won't need to again, but at least I have the option.

In view of the fact that the path-crossing business only leads to trouble once, I may have to retract something I said earlier. The previous owner of the book might not have cheated after all. But they're still a book-defacing vandal and utter disgrace.

Back at the first junction, I ignore the path to the chamber at the centre of the tomb, as I've been given no reason to go there. Referring to the undefiled picture of the map back at the 'reading the scroll for the first time' section, I work out the optimal route to follow, which is a lot more circuitous than it would be if I could enter the Oil Chamber more than once. I also realise that in places, some of the walls on the 'Tomb Exploration' version of the map are obscured by the white space around the letters indicating significant places, creating the appearance of openings in a couple of places where there's no way through. Sloppy.

Proceeding east, I draw level with an opening to the south, and moaning noises from beyond that entrance attract my attention. A female Slith is chained to a stone table, and appears distressed at this state of affairs. The presence of something that growls nearby is doubtless a contributory factor to her unhappiness. This may well be a trap, but leaving her to whatever unpleasant fate approaches would be unheroic and possibly racist, and as regards restrictions on movement, going to her aid would just mean a minor detour, so I'm going to have to help.

As I enter the room, a hairy arm makes a grab for me, and randomness determines the outcome. I manage to dodge the arm, which belongs to a part-lizard, part-bear monster chained in the adjoining room. A room through which I shall have to pass on this detour. But first I must free the female Slith - and as soon as I break her chains, she metamorphoses into a demon and attacks me. Sigh.

I win the fight without too much bother, but now I'm going to have to go through the room with the other chained monster, and I already know that its chains don't restrict its movement that much. All right, you horrible hybrid, time to end your moreause existence. And the Berard turns out to be a sufficiently threatening opponent that I have little hope of winning a straight battle. A fire dart to the brute's face does the trick nicely, though.

The next place of significance I reach is just a junction. Growling sounds from the south indicate that the authors expected me to have ignored that trap - either that, or something weird is going on with the Berard's corpse. Best to just keep moving, especially as I hear more guards patrolling close by, so I head north, round a bend, and back south to another junction that merits a section of description. It's not that interesting, but does answer one question raised by the 'Tomb Exploration' map: there are four dead ends with the same letter at different spots around the tomb interior, and I had been wondering if they were sentry posts. Turns out that they're pits, and the text suggests that the one nearby might provide a means of escape. Why would I want to escape with my quest unfulfilled?

Proceeding north along another corridor, I am ambushed by two Slith Guards. The last of my fire darts takes care of one of them, but the other gives me a bit of bother. The leather jerkin I got at Chaga's is destroyed, and I eat the food I got there after the fight in order to improve the odds of my surviving whatever unpleasantness next comes my way.

As I head west, someone hisses to get my attention. A man, clearly not long for this world unless he gets help, has recognised me as a Rattikan, and asks for my assistance. He explains that he's a builder named Antoth, who was abandoned in the tomb by the architect some weeks ago, and says he can be my guide if I join him. The sound of Slith guards draws near, and the man urges me to join him in his hiding place. His knowledge of the tomb's secrets is just that bit too convenient for plausibility, and unless I've ditched my disguise without having been told that I did, his having spotted who I am is also highly suspicious. I reckon this is another trap, and make myself scarce.

Ignoring another of those pits, I draw near to the next of the locations mentioned in the letter. The Arrow Chamber has two guards, but for now my disguise has them convinced that I'm just a dahlia carrier. Well, that confirms that I'm still wearing it, and strengthens my conviction that Antoth was not to be trusted.

I enter the Chamber, which contains a small statue with a green gem for an eye. Another twenty gems are arranged on the floor before it, like an offering, and there are half a dozen arrows stacked in one corner of the room. Taking any of the gems is sure to provoke the guards to attack, but what will they do if I pick up the arrows? On this occasion there is a section break before I find out the consequences of taking anything, but it would be more effective as an anti-cheating mechanism if the new section were not on the facing page. I don't peek before taking just the arrows... and the guards take no action as I leave by the other exit from the Chamber.

On my way to the Oil Chamber (and disregarding another of those pits) I encounter a group of dahlia carriers, burdened with buckets of what must be dahlia oil. According to the letter, I need to dip the arrows in the oil, and doing so here will save me from having to enter the Chamber and possibly deal with guards. Unless there's some crucial additive introduced in there, but I doubt that that's the case, so I dip the arrows into a bucket. And as one of the dahlia carriers tears my disguise while attempting to get me to carry his bucket for him, I now need to avoid further encounters within the tomb wherever possible.

I flee the dahlia carriers, and after I've rounded a couple of corners the book has me grab a lamp and throw it behind me, starting a fire that will discourage pursuit (but also makes turning back impossible). Further along the blazing hall, I encounter four unhappy-looking Slith Priests, all clearly under the influence of the dahlia-derived soporific. One warns me that killing the Hydra will unleash a terror that will destroy everything on the island, and offers me a large ruby and safe passage to an escape route if I abandon my quest. I don't trust him, his warning, his ruby or his escape route, and hasten along the corridor.

The last of those pits is close by. Still not going to investigate. I think I can proceed directly to the Hydra Chamber from here: if I'm supposed to have to pass through area F first, the placement of the letter on the map is misleading. Looking at one of the other letters, that F could definitely be closer to the Chamber entrance, so I'm treating it as an optional detour and avoiding it.

Inside the Chamber is a seven-headed Hydra, which is just waking up. Each of my dahlia oil-dipped arrows has a 50% chance of killing one head outright (and either I've missed something or the authors are being careless again, because the text makes out that if I have arrows, I have seven of them). I fire my arrows, killing three heads. The Hydra rears up, and I see that it is chained - but then it spits on the chain, and its saliva evidently has corrosive properties, as the chain starts to melt.

I'd been saving that nutritional moss from the first book for an emergency, and I think the impending battle counts as one, so I eat while I can. A bit of a waste, but it improves my chances of survival. As does using the last of the daggers I took from the Sliths that attacked me in the ruins. They don't provide enough of an improvement, though. I don't even manage to kill one of the remaining heads before the four of them tear me apart.

Well, at least next time I try this book I'll know to ignore the chained Slith, and there may be a way to avoid the ambush that prompted me to use up my last fire darts. Whether or not that'll be enough to give me a chance in the fight against the Hydra remains to be seen, but it should help.

Sunday, 20 August 2017

Fine and Private

I must admit to a little curiosity about whether this post will have significantly fewer readers than normal. It is a continuation of the attempt at Bloodbones which commenced here, and in the course of the first session I made a blunder which guarantees that I will not be able to succeed at the book. But will knowing that failure is a certainty - for some fans, even knowing the exact point at which my adventure will end, assuming I don't meet a sticky end before I get that far - put anyone off reading this account of my doomed exploits? We shall see.

So far my search for the hidden base of the Pirates of the Black Skull has been unsuccessful, but not fruitless. Indeed, the detour I took to the ruined lighthouse will prove to have been essential. Nevertheless, I think it's time I was heading for where the action really is, and I'm pretty sure that that's the cemetery.

As I make my way down Corpse Way towards Dead Man's Gate, I get a codeword check. I have one of the four on the list: the one I picked up for evading the Pirate near the market. One of the others looks as if it'd be a consequence of having gone to that bogus rendezvous at the Silent Donkey, another could be the result of imagining the Pirates to have been so obvious as to locate their secret base at the harbour, and the last might be part of the consequences of talking to the wrong person in the Temple Quarter. In any case, I've only made one of the mistakes that could come back to bite me at this point, which means a run-in with a couple of the Pirates: a noose-wearing nutter who goes by the name of Silas Gallows, and a Khulian mercenary called Wu-Lin. Gallows erroneously gloats that soon there will be another corpse on the eponymous Way - by the end of this little distraction, there are two new dead bodies littering the street, and neither is mine.

The cemetery has perturbing statues by the entrance, and is shrouded with fog. The snapping of a twig alerts me to the presence of a couple of sailors carrying a chest. Having missed out on a certain clue (perhaps to be found on the body of the Pirate I avoided), I have no idea what is afoot here, but follow the men anyway. They enter an overgrown tomb and, after waiting for them to get far enough away that they won't notice me, I light my lantern and step through the door.

A passage leads into darkness. Not complete darkness, though, as a glowing spectral figure appears and glides towards me, demanding to know the password. I say the one I found in that ineptly burned letter, and the ghost allows me past.

Steps descend to a junction, and I have no idea which way I should go here. Still, this is the sort of situation that justifies playing on even when I know I can't win: if going one way is particularly inadvisable, better to find out now than wind up wasting a character who has a chance of victory. I try Ian Livingstone's favourite direction, and wind up at a door, which sounds and smells as if it has something nasty behind it.

Naturally, I open the door - there isn't even an option to leave it shut - and am confronted by a beast which is a hideous monstrosity and a worse pun. A feline brute with eight more tails than is natural, all of them barbed: a literal cat-o'-nine-tails. I take a lot of damage fighting the thing, but manage to avoid getting stung by any of its tails. Once it's dead, I take a proper look around the room. A door leads on from it, and there's also a cave entrance, with a raised portcullis overhanging it. The cave may well be a trap, but I might as well investigate it just in case...

Unsurprisingly, the portcullis drops behind me. Not having purchased a Potion of Giant-Strength, and having a mediocre Stamina even at full health, I am unable to raise it, so I'm trapped in here until I starve. Unless the Pirates think of an even nastier way of ending my life once they find me...

Wednesday, 16 August 2017

Some Strange Scent of Death

When Wizard Books announced that their next previously unpublished Fighting Fantasy release would be Jonathan Green's Bloodbones, probably the best-known of the books that were in the pipeline at the time the Puffin range came to an end, fan response was mixed. In some quarters, the excitement of finally getting to see the long-lost book was overshadowed by memories of the extreme difficulty of Mr. Green's previous FF books, not to mention the disappointment that the Eye of the Dragon remix had been. And one particularly obnoxious fan was most displeased because he'd been writing his own (abysmal) gamebook called Bloodbones, and considered the title to be his property (never mind that the writer 'taking' the title was the man who'd come up with it in the first place). I endeavoured to keep an open mind about the book (and was highly amused at the outrage of that fan).

The book was slow in getting to Hull, so I'd already read a bit of feedback on it by the time copies finally appeared on the shelves of Brown's, and was expecting a pirate-themed gamebook much like Jonathan Green's previous FF books - a plot involving a returning evil, a pretty narrow 'true path', enough tough fights to doom any character who started with a Skill under 11, a hostile encounter in the very first section... An adventure I'd need to replay a lot before I could even start to figure out everything required for successful completion. Which is pretty much what I got.

My first attempt at the book ended when I discovered one of the ways to get knocked out and come round just in time to be sacrificed. My most successful attempt only got as far as a fight with a monstrous arachnid on a tropical island, and I wouldn't be surprised if that fight's not even half way through the book.

I t's around ten years since my character's father and brothers were killed in a pirate raid on my home village, an incident that was probably also to blame for the illness that subsequently killed my mother. At the time, I vowed to have my revenge on the captain of those pirates, a voodoo cultist named Cinnabar and nicknamed Bloodbones. Since then I've been working and travelling on ships, learning about Cinnabar and his crew, the Pirates of the Black Skull, and honing my skills to the point where I feel ready to track him down and make him pay for the death of my family.

Allocating dice to at least marginally reduce the likelihood of my dying before I can make any progress, I find that I have
Skill: 12
Stamina: 14
Luck: 8
That's not good. Maybe I'll wind up finding a new path to the first ending I reached.

Anyway, my travels have brought me to the insalubrious Port of Crabs. Rumour has it that the Pirates of the Black Skull have a secret base not far from here. I enter a tavern in the hope of finding a lead in my search for Cinnabar, but then the landlord points out one significant flaw in my plan: a bounty hunter by the name of Conyn killed him half a year ago. The body was lost at sea, and Cinnabar's second-in-command took his ship, the Virago, and sailed away to try and retrieve his remains.

As I'm heading out of the tavern, an elderly patron, somewhat the worse for drink, mutters about Cinnabar's death only being a temporary thing, and arranges a clandestine meeting with me. At the time specified, I head into an alley by the tavern, and find the old man badly beaten and semi-conscious, with three pirates standing over him. Their leader, who appears to be a Half-Ogre, makes a rubbish joke, and the other two advance on me. I stand my ground, taking just one wound in the course of defeating them. The Half-Ogre then attacks, and a lucky blow in the first round knocks me down, subjecting me to an Attack Strength penalty. The tide of battle turns in my favour after that, and I kill him without difficulty.

The old man is, of course, dying, but before expiring he manages to tell me that one of Cinnabar's crew recovered their captain's body, that he's currently neither rightly dead nor rightly alive, and they're planning to bring him back completely with black magic. Resolving to thwart their schemes, I start searching for clues to the whereabouts of the pirates' base.

As I recall, a lead may be found at the Gambling Pits. And also a chance to make some money and thus be able to buy more during the inevitable shopping excursion. The Pits are in the worst part of town, their doors guarded by two Trolls who warn me that fighting is prohibited. Three games in particular catch my eye, and I start by having a go on the Arrow of Providence. The outcome is completely random, with the odds not in my favour, and I lose my stake. Still, Luck is with me as I leave the table: the noise of the crowd does not drown out the words of a nautical rogue as he tells a fellow rapscallion that the Virago sets sail for Bone Island at midnight.

I proceed to Calabrius' Calculator, a machine that produces numerical sequences, with a cash prize for anyone who can figure out what comes next in the sequence. When I pay to have a go, the sequence displayed is very straightforward (and would be a whole lot more so in base 8), so I make a tidy profit there.

As I recall, the last game available is a con, and the Troll bouncers are quick to intervene if anyone attempts to remonstrate with the fraudster running it, so I give it a miss and head for the exit. While I'm pushing my way through the crowds, an old woman slips a sealed envelope into my hand. Checking the contents once I'm outside, I find a key and a message inviting me to meet 'A Friend' at the Silent Donkey inn if I want to defeat the Pirates of the Black Skull. I decide against heading to this rendezvous, as I know from a past failure that it's been arranged by some of Cinnabar's cronies who consider me a donkey in need of silencing.

Now I think it's time to head to the market. I'll start with the Bazaar, where the more outlandish goods are sold, because there's at least one essential item to be found there, and I'd rather make sure I can afford that before I start stocking up on Provisions and other less Instant Death-averting oddments. At a Talismonger's stall I buy a bracelet of shark's teeth, a lock of Elvin's hair that will improve my chances of successfully Testing my Luck, and a purportedly magical compass that I was too smart to be taken in by on every previous attempt at the book. Regrettably, I had to buy it to learn of its supposed properties, and now I know that it allegedly shows the way to large quantities of gold, I wouldn't much care for it even if I believed that it worked (which it most likely doesn't, given that the Talismonger was selling it rather than using it to track down unclaimed hoards).

Proceeding to the more conventional markets, I buy some Provisions and a rope. As I'm leaving, I catch sight of a man with one eye, a wooden leg, and clothing of the sort traditionally associated with buccaneers. He has a pet monkey (with a costume much like his own) rather than a parrot, but apart from that he's got 'Pirate' written all over him. Possibly literally, if his tattoos are not that imaginative. He indicates for me to follow him into an alley, and as my first failure at the book was a consequence of allowing him to lure me into a trap, I hurry away. Which may not have been the wisest course of action, as I have to note down a codeword. I think previously (except for that first time) I approached him but didn't let him distract me from the thugs sneaking up on me, which meant a fight and my getting to ensure that he wouldn't get to report back to the other Pirates of the Black Skull.

I spent too much. As I'm making my departure, I catch sight of a cartographer's store, and pop in to see if I can find out anything about Bone Island, but I don't have enough money to jog the proprietor's memory. Which almost certainly guarantees failure, but also ensures that I won't make that mistake again.

Is it time to stop searching for information? I'm pretty sure that two of the remaining investigatorial avenues open to me are just trouble and wasted time (I am having to keep track of the hours as they pass), and I'm not sure that the other one leads to anything essential. But maybe I should check. If I'm already doomed for want of information, I can't make things that much worse for myself even if the Temple Quarter is nothing but a wild goose chase.

Looks like it is a waste of time. After queuing for a while, I am told that the Overpriest is too busy to see me, though I am welcome to make a donation. I'm tempted to give the obstructive cleric a piece of my mind, but I don't want to get into a fight with the armed and armoured priests guarding the inner sanctum.

The street outside is crowded, and a few men in different religious outfits sit at the side of the road, offering the fruits of their wisdom in return for slightly more money than I have on me. I depart, a little surprised to have only wasted an hour here.

Now I will go looking for the pirates' base. Thanks to the time I've spent snooping around, night has fallen, which will give me some cover. My enemies likewise, of course... There's a codeword check, but not for the word I picked up when evading that pirate, so I have no idea what I'm missing out on here. Probably nothing good, given the codeword being asked about.

There's obviously a lead I missed somewhere, as I've never heard of one of the locations mentioned here, and don't have the concealed section number that would allow me to visit it. Well, I'll just have to give that place a miss. I decide to start with the ruined lighthouse to the south-east, and as I draw near to it, I catch sight of a flickering light close to the cliff edge beyond the ruin.

Investigating the light first, I discover a trio of miscreants using a lantern to lure a ship towards the rocks lining the coast along here. Taking advantage of these Wreckers' focus on their would-be victim, I draw my sword and attack before they're aware of my presence. They respond quickly once they know I'm there, but I only take one wound in the course of the fight. With the lantern extinguished, the ship changes course in the nick of time.

Searching the dead, I find some money and a Skeleton Key. I also catch sight of a cave mouth at the foot of the cliff, and climb down to investigate. My high Skill ensures a safe descent, and I see that a narrow ledge leads into the cave. Having come this far, I'm not about to turn back, and enter. The waters below the ledge churn, and two tentacles emerge and make for me. I hack them apart with ease, and their owner, a Giant Octopus, emerges from the water to attack me. It fares no better than the preliminary tentacle assault, and I'm soon able to search the cave undisturbed. No Pirates' lair here, though.

Climbing back up the cliff, I now turn my attention to the lighthouse. The door is locked, but the Skeleton Key opens it. Inside I find the Wreckers' den, which contains crude furniture, some food, and the remains of a letter that somebody did a substandard job of burning. Only a few lines of text are legible, but they happen to be the very part of the letter that the recipient was supposed to destroy, revealing the password to... somewhere.

There's also a trapdoor in the floor, but I don't open it. Which is bad news for the cat that one of the Wreckers imprisoned beneath it, but keeps me from further Stamina loss.

Convinced that the Pirates of the Black Skull do not have their base here, I head back to the Port of Crabs to choose somewhere else to search. But it's been a week since I last posted anything, so I'll save further investigation for a subsequent post. There should be less of a wait for that one, as I'm not expecting to get a whole lot further before my failure to obtain information from the cartographer brings the adventure to an end. Nevertheless, I shall play through to the inevitable failure. Starting tomorrow.