Wednesday, 25 July 2012

"I Reckon It's a Political Statement."

I've worked out a rough pattern for playing the gamebooks. A three-stage cycle.
1) Something from one of the more substantial series.
2) The next Fighting Fantasy adventure.
3) Something from a short series, or a one-off.
So having done one from each category, I'm now back at the start of the cycle, and I think it's time to venture into Joe Dever's Magnamund. I'm counting The World of Lone Wolf and the mini-adventures from The Magnamund Companion and the Mongoose Publishing Lone Wolf reissues as part of the LW series, and endeavouring to go by internal chronology rather than publication order. Which means starting with TWoLW, as far as I know. To give credit (or blame) where it's due, this series was actually written by Ian Page, with Joe acting as editor.

With series like this, that have actual character progression, I shall be carrying the same character over from one book to the next - if I succeed at the book. If I fail, I'll create a new character at the start of the next book (but expect anecdotes about the different and insane approach I tried back in the nineties once I get to the LW books).

I start my adventures in Magnamund as Grey Star the Wizard. For a surprisingly long time, I didn't own this book. The first time I played the series, I borrowed all the books from my friend Edward Webb (if you've just discovered this site as a result of googling your own name, Ed, hello). Eventually I acquired copies of some of the series (more about them when I get to the relevant books), but by the time I definitively got back into gamebooks, I didn't have any TWoLW, and wound up buying the set on eBay. I got in a surprisingly low bid on a lot that contained all four, plus the Magnakai LW books, and as I already had the others, I managed to convince the seller not to send them, thereby drastically reducing the price of postage. The seller can't have been the fan who originally collected them (and wrote on the Action Charts in pencil, demonstrating an inability to spell 'Alchemy' and 'Prophecy' correctly), as I had to explain which were the books I actually wanted (the ones with green spines, not pink).

And on with the adventure. Lots of backstory, which can be boiled down to, 'I'm the chosen one, raised by ancient otherworldly mystics to fight the big bad because they're forbidden to intervene, and must now go on a quest for a mystical McGuffin to save the world.'
Combat Skill: 14 (If I'm remembering a certain fight correctly, I am so dead)
Willpower: 27
Endurance: 22 (Not so much Grey Star as Red Shirt)
Magical Powers: Sorcery, Enchantment, Alchemy, Prophecy, Evocation

My quest starts with me departing the island where I've been raised and trained. I may be in for a rough journey, as I didn't pick Elementalism as one of my powers. No, just minor inconvenience. Before long I reach the Port of Suhn, and opt to sneak in after dark. A one-eyed ne'er do well spots me, and the price of his silence is selling him my boat for not much. My Prophetic abilities let me know that letting him rip me off is probably the best thing to do, so I agree to the deal, and follow his advice on where to seek information.

Proceeding to the Inn of the Laughing Moon, I must choose a conversational partner. Will it be the sailor snoring away in a drunken stupor, the merry merchant, or the not-remotely-suspicious-honest hooded figure in the shadows? I could use Prophecy, but it's not that hard a choice anyway. Especially as I remember from my previous playing of the book that the merchant is this series' designated Mungo. (On the off-chance that anyone reading this doesn't know that a Mungo is a doomed ally in a gamebook, all will be explained around 17 blog posts from now.)

The merchant, whose name is Shan, may know something about the people I need to seek as phase 1 of completing my mission. He does not, however, know that talking about them loudly in a crowded pub is liable to lead to trouble with the authorities. Though he learns that quite quickly, and I get arrested as an accessory to mentioning forbidden topics.

I am taken for interrogation, and have my mind probed by a glowing stone. There's a Willpower check here, which makes me aware of two things. 1) I've evidently found one of the most painless routes to this point, as I still have more than 10 points above the target WP (and would be comfortably in the safe zone even if I'd started with the lowest possible score). 2) Someone on the authorial/editorial front wasn't paying attention, as there are sections to turn to for scores below 15 and above 15, but nothing for if I'd somehow wound up smack on 15. Not a problem right now, given point 1, but a flaw none the less.

My magical abilities are detected, so I must do something to prevent Mother Magri the seer from learning my origins. Attack is said to be the best form of defence, so I use Sorcery against her stone, but don't put enough power into it. A long, exhausting, and mutually fruitless struggle ensues, only ending when I go into a kind of protective trance. Dumped in a dungeon until fit for another session with the mind probe, I am reunited with Shan. Even though we were arrested together, it's apparently only now that he realises I was captured too. What was he drinking?

Not that the guards who arrested me can have been that clear-headed, either. Okay, so they took my Magician's Staff and my backpack, but let me keep everything else. Including my alchemist's Herb Pouch. Mind you, the lack of backpack is a little problematic. For the book. The thing is, there's a third prisoner in the cell. A dying man who used to serve the people who brought me up. And I have the option of easing his suffering with a certain potion, if I have it. Which I do, only it's a backpack item, so I don't have it on me, and unless there's some way of winding up in the cell without getting my stuff confiscated, there's no possible way I could have the potion on me, so what's the point of asking me if I have it?

So he dies. Breakfast is served by a young girl, who holds some unpleasant attitudes. I chat with her anyway because I remember that she has an important part to play in plot yet to come, and she's sufficiently not keen on the idea of my being tortured to add a vitamin supplement to my food. For no very good reason I spend the rest of the day thinking about escape, and only at nightfall do I get to take action. Pick a Power, any Power. Having sneered at the guards for letting me keep my Alchemist stuff, I feel I should use it. Except that I'm missing one crucial ingredient on account of not having taken the right sidetrack. Choose again.

Do I blast the door with Sorcery? Mess with a jailer's mind using Enchantment? Use Prophecy to find out how I'm going to escape (assuming such timey-wimey shenanigans are permissible)? Or Evoke the vengeful spirits of everyone who's ever died here and prove myself little better than those I oppose?

With Enchantment I convince the jailer that the cell is on fire, and he lets us out. Attack him while he's distracted, or flee? I'm unarmed, so fighting seems unwise.

I'm a regular at the forums at rpg.net, which has a number of threads dedicated to playing through old and (usually) OOP gamebooks, with a group of players voting on what to do whenever a choice comes up. These group playthroughs have spawned an annoying meme: always turn left. Any time a choice of direction comes up, a number of participants will insist on going left, some even if there are clear indications that going a different way would be much more sensible. And this is the book that started it all off. At some point during the jailbreak, their Grey Star was warned to go left at every junction on the way out. The circumstances weren't completely identical to mine, as they had just summoned up a host of angry wraiths to wreak revenge on the jailers, and I have (so far) managed to avoid doing that, but nevertheless, I suspect that this time I will have to go along with the Sinistral Deverites, and turn left here. Oh, and sorry to disappoint anyone interested in reading that playthrough, but it's no longer accessible for legal reasons. Yes, the 'always turn left' thread had to be deleted owing to a lack of rights.

You know what's to the left of my cell? The entrance to the Darkling Room, a zone of psychic horribleness built on a multitude of corpses, where I would have been taken if I'd hung around waiting to get tortured. Yes, taking the advice that is this book's legacy to gamebook culture has led me to the exact place I least wanted to go.

Psychic combat against the powers of the Darkling Room is conducted like physical combat, except that instead of Combat Skill, I use the sum total of my Willpower and Endurance. Which is all for the good initially, at least, as (22+18) is a lot higher than 14, but as the combat system makes it possible to take damage even when winning a round, unless I win quickly, my mental Combat Skill is going to go down over the course of the battle, so I'll be likely to take more damage and have my CS drop even further. I believe this is what is known as a Death Spiral.

I get lucky. The damage taken in the first round is just low enough not to affect the Combat Ratio, and in the second round I manage to inflict an Instant Death, but that had the potential to get nasty. Shan and I flee down a corridor, with no clear idea of where to go, and then we're confronted by someone. It's Tanith, the girl who brought us food, and she has my confiscated equipment and claims to be looking for me. Being a Doctor Who fan, I am reminded of the cliffhanger to episode 2 of The Pirate Planet. Especially as Tanith wants to help, not hinder, and in mere moments the three of us are heading through a secret tunnel towards freedom. Yes, I have managed to escape without having to let loose countless malicious spectral entities, which puts me one up on the rpg.net mob.

As we hurry on our way, it becomes apparent that my companions don't get on well with each other. We take shelter in a forest, and it again becomes apparent that the people responsible for this book chose not to pick Checking for Consistency when selecting their Editorial Skills. I started the adventure with four Meals. I had to eat two of them while crossing the sea. I have had no opportunity to acquire replacements. Here I am informed that I must now eat a Meal (or lose Endurance) and give my remaining two to Shan and Tanith. Two plus one plus two is...

(a chandelier crashes to the floor in the background)

Anyway, knowing what the future holds for the three of us, I do not intend to starve while my not-going-to-make-it-to-the-end-of-the-book allies stuff their faces. They can share my remaining one Meal, on the grounds that Grey Star followed the 'You must eat' directive before reading on and finding out that he was expected to feed everyone.

In the morning we must carry on, and it is at this point that my not knowing where to find the lost tribe I seek (well, they wouldn't be lost if I knew where they were) becomes problematic. Shan advises going south, while Tanith suggests consulting with a sage to the north. On the grounds that the sage may give me some adventuring paraphernalia, I decide to pay him a visit.

Food is not an issue over the course of the next few days, as Tanith is able to charm the birds out of the trees and into Shan's saucepan. As we draw near to the sage's territory, winged apes swoop towards us. Shan impersonates Admiral Ackbar, but Tanith says we have nothing to fear. I think this looks bad for the apes. No, apparently they serve the sage, and wish to guide us. Shan finds this a bit too Lando for his liking, but I'm pretty sure it's not yet time for Tanith's sudden but inevitable betrayal, and follow them.

A wise choice. We meet the sage, who effectively says, "Yeah, the lost tribe is where Shan thought. Also, I have pressies for you." So everybody gets to go, "I told you so!" The long trek back south gives me time to recover from my ordeal, and prompts more petty quibbling. Firstly, as we go through the forest again, I am told that 'this time' we encounter no enemy patrols. As opposed to the 0 enemy patrols we encountered on our previous journey through the forest, right? Secondly, Willpower, unlike Endurance, has no cap, so I can claim the whole of the Willpower bonus offered here, even though it takes me beyond my starting score. But the text says to 'restore' Willpower, and restore means 'return to a former condition', so once I go above 27, I'm not restoring but gaining or adding. Thirdly, if you're making a bonus equal to half of a current score, you should point out whether fractions round up or down.

Sounds of combat draw our attention to a half-dozen paladin-types defending a wagon from at least a score of the bad guys. Time to help even the odds a little. Reinforcements for the villains turn up, armed with crossbows. Charging a man with a crossbow is probably a bad idea in a gamebook, so I'm going to have to spend some Willpower. Another illusion might do the trick... And one friendly fire incident later, only ten enemy troops remain. Now I'll risk physical combat.

Ouch! No, not damage taken in battle. Tanith just fell through a gap between paragraphs. She's at my side at the start of the section, but in the time it takes me to utter six syllables, she's vanished. Maybe if I'd been less verbose, she wouldn't have had time to slope off.

OUCH! Still haven't lost any Endurance, but this fight has not been thought through. I don't even want to get into what a mess this is. The only way it can remotely make sense is if, the moment Shan and I burst from cover, the Knights we're trying to help stop fighting, get out the popcorn, and watch, commentating like Waldorf and Stadtler, as the last of their assailants turn on us. Absolutely atrociously designed encounter.

You know what? Forget it. I'm not going to bother playing through Grey Star's getting carved into little bits because Page and Dever never thought to consider that the prior elimination of half of the enemy combatants might just possibly influence the flow of battle. Book back on shelf. Game over, hero killed by authorial ineptitude.

4 comments:

  1. Excellent write-up. I've only read this once and thought it was so so (the book that is, not your review!). As all my LW books are deeply buried in my parents-in-law's attic, it'll be a while before I can try it again.

    Oh, and 'if in doubt, turn left' has always been something I've done and known others to do - how long has that been around?

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    1. Maybe the 'always turn left' thing pre-dates GStW and Page was just riffing on it. Regardless, it's in this context that it has become annoying.

      And it's very bad advice in a lot of FF books. Guarantees failure in at least 7 of the first 10.

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    2. There is a way to have Laumspur for the old priest: instead of visiting the Inn of the Laughing Moon, you could have visited the market square and purchased some and this vial is a herb pouch item instead of a backpack item. For some reason the authorities only take away your backpack but not your herb pouch when you are arrested.

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    3. Great minds think alike: when reading the play-through I was planning to make exactly the same comment as you. I even checked the references for confirmation.

      For four and a half years, nobody spotted that and now two of us have within a month!

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