Friday, 27 July 2012

Time Can Be Rewoven

There's been a minor resurgence of interest in the Golden Dragon Adventures at the FF forum recently, so now seems as good a time as any to focus this blog's attention on the series.

I was a bit of a slow starter on the GDAs. Can't say why, as I didn't come across anything off-putting when flicking through copies in shops. Indeed, one of my strongest memories of the first book, Dave Morris' Crypt of the Vampire, is of coming across a nicely gruesome Instant Death (contracting a plague nastier than a hybrid of Ebola and the Black Death's worst aspects) in the Tonbridge branch of WHSmith in early 1985. Still, for whatever reason, I didn't make a start on collecting the books until 1986. By which time CotV had disappeared from the retailers' shelves, so it remained on the want list until a copy turned up in a second-hand bookshop. Probably the Book Exchange I'll say more about in the next entry. The previous owner had written on the Character Sheet in pencil, and appeared to believe that 'Lesley Crowther' was a suitably heroic name for their character.

While several of the later GDAs provide fairly detailed character biographies, this one has nothing. Not even a generic 'you are an adventurer'. It just starts with me lost in a forest as nightfall approaches. So what can I say about my character?
Vigour: 26
Agility: 8
Psi: 8
Not bad, considering that Agility and Psi are each 1d6+3. So I'm moderately healthy, fairly quick on my feet, and possessed of a decent amount of mental fortitude. None of which will do me a lot of good if the wolves I hear get to me. Good thing I've just come across an isolated stately home, right?

There's a wall around the grounds, and a gate with an unusual design - latticework in the shape of a taloned figure. Vines growing up the wall provide a less sinister-looking way of getting in. An Elf with a bow approaches, and memories of past attempts at the book prompt me to attack before he can fire. He's delirious rather than villainous, but an arrow in the arm hurts just as badly regardless of the archer's intent. The fight is soon over, and the dying Elf mumbles something about an evil Lord who sleeps until sunset. My character can't be particularly genre-savvy, as he speculates that the puncture marks on the Elf's neck could be an animal bite.

Outside the house is a stagnant pond, with a few coins half-buried in the muck at the bottom. Contrary to what might be expected, taking the money has no harmful consequences beyond mild unease at the sliminess of the water, so I pocket the gold before trying the front door, which is unlocked. Nosing around, I find a library. Apart from the inevitable books, I find a lantern and an ornate ivory chair. The accompanying illustration shows the latter to have a displeasingly skeletal motif. This library is a good deal less informative than Balthus Dire's (who thought an encyclopedia with no coherent order to its entries and no index was a good idea?), so I don't sit down for a read.

Rummaging around in a storage room, I am attacked by a very puny animated skeleton, and find a golden helmet. The next door I reach has a crucifix embossed on it, and leads to a room where a monk lives. Harkas, the monk explains that this building is owned by Lord Tenebron, a Vampire. Lacking the fighting prowess to get past Tenebron's guards and kill him, Harkas has created a sanctuary for himself where he can offer advice and aid to adventurers who have a shot at destroying the Vampire, which strikes me as a good practical example of Studd's 'rescue shop within a yard of hell'. Since the Elf who entered the crypt a fortnight ago appears to have been unsuccessful, Harkas provides me with a back-up lantern and the choice of a crucifix or a Potion of Iron Will. Only one, so if I fare no better than the Elf, he has something for the next adventurer. Not much of a vote of confidence, but it makes sense.

Descending to the cellar, I choose not to drink... wine, but press on into the network of passages below the house. The next door I try leads to a bedroom, where I, er, collect the silverware to get it assessed for an insurance claim. A Witch with a pet crow enters and orders me to leave, creating a beast out of smoke and setting it on me when I decline. I have no trouble dealing with it, and the Witch vanishes to plot a rematch. Searching the room turns up nothing else of note, except for the chimney, which I could climb. Not that there's any particularly rational reason for doing so, but when did I ever let a detail like that stop me?

Some way up I use a loose brick as a foothold, but manage to keep from falling, and find a Moebius strip-shaped ring in the cavity behind the brick. Climbing on, I emerge into the forest. Wasn't I trying to get away from it at the start? Still, now I'm up here, I may as well take a moonlit stroll.

Trudging through the mist, I notice some fungi and, remembering legends that the wood's mushrooms have mystic powers, contemplate eating one. My character does get some wacky ideas. I go along with this one and, after a (well-written) brief hallucination that the trees are about to get me, receive a regrettably unusable bonus. After which, by authorial command, I decide to climb back down the chimney rather than proceeding to the mildly spooky teaser encounter with Tenebron that I know can be found in the forest.

The descent is not without its hazards, as wandering around a damp forest has cost me some traction. Nevertheless, my Agility holds out, and I reach the bottom with dignity and health intact. And back to the actual quest.

Further along the corridor is an evil chapel, with black candles and a chalice of suspect red liquid. I'm not fool enough to try drinking (though the option is there). A quick search reveals a hidden compartment containing a bone-shaped piece of marble. This time I don't get to steal assess the candlesticks.

The next stretch of corridor is decorated with portraits of the various Lords Tenebron, and a right rogues' gallery they are. Close by the picture of the thirteenth, the Vampire, are the mouldering remains of one of my predecessors (or possibly an art critic). His armour has rusted, but his sword of shimmering blue metal is still in good nick, so I take it.

The corridor leads to a long-abandoned dining hall, dominated by a painting of an archer. You know how, with some portraits, it seems as if the eyes follow you around the room? With this one, the arrows follow you around the room, and they do just as much damage as the real thing. Now you know why an art critic might need to wear armour.

I demonstrate that that strong light sources don't generally do works of art a lot of good, by throwing my lantern at the painting. The archer doesn't like that. Lighting my spare lantern, I ascend one of the flights of stairs leading from the room and encounter a hostile Barbarian, who manages to wound me a couple of times before I permanently pacify him. His treasure consists of a little cash and the remains of his lunch (and GDA doesn't restore health with Provisions like FF), but there are some useful items among the comestibles. Garlic has obvious value for the climax, but you'd be surprised at the inventive ways in which threats can be diminished or averted with cheese, pepper, or fermented yak's milk. Well, with two of them, at least.

In another room I play chess against a silent old man, only it gets a little too immersive, as I wind up commanding a white-clad army against black-garbed troops, ultimately getting bludgeoned to death by the Black Queen. This is surprisingly non-lethal, but does deplete my Psi a bit. Next time I'll ask if we can try Scrabble or Connect 4.

The next noteworthy room has two exits, and contains a chest with a coil of rope on top. And yes, the rope does animate and try to throttle me when I get close. There are quite a few Instant Death paragraphs accessible from this encounter, the majority resulting from what should be self-evidently stupid choices (no, when the rope is already wrapped around your neck and choking you, running away will not help), but there are a couple of ways of getting out of it alive, and I go for the one that doesn't carry some risk of ending in a severed jugular (impressively OTT though that demise is). And the contents of the chest do justify the unpleasantness that precedes getting them.

Some more good writing in the next room, as it becomes creepily apparent that there's something alive under the floorboards. It doesn't stay under them for long, though, an arm bursting through. My sword has no effect on it, and as the arm's owner erupts into the room, I recognise it as a Wight. Emulating Colonel Mustard in the study, I hit it with a candlestick. That does the trick, eventually, and I grab the Wight's golden armband before moving on.

Reaching a corridor illuminated by an oil lamp, I decide that another spare light source could come in handy, and take the lamp with me. This makes it a lot easier to extinguish the lamp and creep through a nearby door under cover of darkness when a couple of concealed snipers take an interest in me.

Relighting the lamp once the door is between me and the archers, I see that I'm at the top of a staircase. There's a hole in the wall, big enough for me to put my hand into, and deep enough that I get elbow-deep before finding anything interesting. The Wight's bling saves me from a poisoned needle trap, and I retrieve a key from the end of the hole.

Down the stairs and along the corridor, stopping off to check out a door that leads into a paladin's tomb. Guess what I do here.

If you answered, 'steal his shroud' then either you know this book as well as I do, or you're weird. (The former may be a subset of the latter.) The thing is, taking the shroud renders me intangible (but still subject to gravity), and avoiding unwise decisions that would end my adventure nastily allows me to pass through the floor into a secret chamber, where I can acquire a magic shield. I'm not sure what moral this is intended to illustrate.

The passage leads to a murky pool, crossed by stepping stones. While the water is quite shallow, wading is inadvisable, as this pool is inhabited. By Zombies. This is another hazardous encounter, unless you happen to have a paladin's shield, in which case its Unicorn insignia comes to life to slaughter the Zombies. That moral's not becoming any clearer.

Up ahead are three doors. Two are locked, but that copper key opens one of them, to reveal my old enemy the Witch, too intent on brewing up something nasty in her cauldron to spot me. I creep up on her, intending to add her to the ingredients of her noxious concoction, but a creaking floorboard warns her, and she summons up something nasty. Not nasty enough, though, and her combat skills are risible. The spoils of this fight are a silver key and three unlabelled bottles of liquid, one of which I know to lead to that sticky end that so impressed me back in '85. The other two restore my attributes to their starting levels, though, so I drink them and leave the lethal one where it is.

That silver key opens the other locked door, behind which is a table with five gems on it. One gem is useful. Three others deplete attributes. The last is a really nasty trap, which either sends you to an Instant Death or hurls you back through time to the fight with the Elf. But I know which is the safe one.

From there I proceed to a cluttered storeroom, where a spinning wheel catches my eye. It's too early in Dave Morris' gamebook-writing career for hundred-year-long naps to be a serious risk, so I look closer. It's damaged, but the wheel still turns. Spin it anticlockwise, and for a moment I find myself back in the Witch's bedroom, stealing her candlesticks (and I checked years ago - there is no way of getting to this room if you didn't take them). Spin it clockwise, and I flash forward to being pursued down a winding corridor towards a candlelit chamber containing a coffin. And then I'm back at the wheel.

Moving on, I reach a four-way intersection, and am told I turn right because that passage is widest. While I appreciate that there often has to be a way to ensure that the reader picks 'onwards' rather than 'the wrong way along an alternate route to this bottleneck', is passage width really the best explanation Dave could come up with?

The wide passage leads to a choice of two doors with fancy handles. Deverites will be exasperated to find that there's no indication which is on the left. But they'll probably pick the pewter handle because it has bits of moonstone in it and the McGuffin Grey Star needs is called the Moonstone. It won't help them. Won't necessarily harm them, but if they insist on investigating the item behind that door, they're liable to wind up undead, dead, or wealthy. Okay, so one of those options isn't so bad, but are you willing to risk the other two for a chance at it? (If so, Ian Livingstone has a Dungeon you might like to enter. More than one, in fact.)

I try the copper-and-jade handle instead, and enter a room containing a wooden chest. The chest is packed with treasure. But that helmet I acquired a while back has limited illusion-detecting capabilities, and reveals that all the loot has 'This is a fake' written on it in felt tip, as it were.

Moving onwards, I enter a hall with windows that look down on open countryside, where a group of knights is approaching a couple of tents. This strikes me as odd, given that I'm currently underground (and that's in the text, not just blogger-me quibbling). Curious, I watch to see what happens, consequently learning that my puzzlement was the helmet's way of telling me that there was a heavy-duty illusion in place here to distract me until the Giant Spider could make it difficult for me to escape.

Not the most effective way of explaining something important, to be sure, but clearer than some. Now isn't there something I was forgetting?

Oh, yes.
Good thing the Spider's a rubbish fighter. I kill it with ease, extricate myself from the web, and take its loot.

Yet more stairs lead down to a corridor guarded by a Hellhound. There's more than one way to get past this beast unscathed, but by far my favourite is the marble bone, which turns out to be the Hellhound equipment of a dog toy. Vicious, fire-breathing beast suddenly becomes soppy and playful. Love it.

Past Fido I find a drawing room, where a tall man is sitting reading. He orders me to come over and sit with him, but I have other things on my mind. You see, I found a silver crucifix in the Spider's room, and I'm not sure whether or not it's Harkas' handiwork. I get it out, along with the one the monk gave me, and ask if the man thinks they could have been made by the same person. His response is unprintable.

Yes, this is Lord Tenebron XIII. Not fighting at his peak thanks to the garlic I'm carrying, and he only manages to hit me once all fight. But is he really dead?

Yes, because the shiny blue sword turns out to be magical enough to have properly killed him. So the spinning wheel flashforward of the frantic pursuit towards the coffin never happens. I've just proved the existence of free will. Or possibly broken the space/time continuum.

Two wins in a row. An enjoyable book (and one of the few in the series that can be won with relative ease), but that playthrough made me aware of how arbitrary and even counter-intuitive some of the optimal decisions are. Even so, this is nowhere near the worst offender in that regard, and the quality of the writing in several sequences is ample compensation for the odd daft element.


  1. I imagine it's just a coincidence that the Instant Death I described as 'impressively OTT' above has just been featured on YOU CHOSE WRONG. Nice to see it getting its moment in the limelight, anyway.

  2. I always took the crucifix, using the logic that the Potion of Iron Will was one-use, while the crucifix could in theory be used as often as needed.