Monday, 23 July 2012

Walk Like an Egyptian

Time to have a go at a gamebook I've never played before. This time round I'm going for something from Herbie Brennan's not-that-imaginatively-titled Adventure Game Books series. In gamebook circles, Brennan's probably better known for Grail Quest and Sagas of the Demonspawn, both of which I mean to try here at some point, but I have at least half a dozen more gamebooks by him.

AGB is a slightly unusual series, in that it's larger in French than English. Four books were written, all were translated, but only the first two were published over here, while France got the lot. And better titles. I only have the two English ones, and I shall be starting with Egyptian Quest (Le trésor des pharaons, i.e. Treasure of the Pharaohs). I know the listing at Demian Katz's as-near-definitive-as-you-can-get gamebook web page says it's the second in the series, but the picture of the two UK AGBs inside the back cover shows EQ first, and I'm going with what that implies.

No reminiscing this time round, since there's not a lot to say beyond 'I got it on eBay' and 'a previous owner's name and school have been written in ink on the first page, so someone in Jersey has earned my enmity'.

Oddly, the book opens with a longer and more lurid blurb than the one on the back cover. Then there's a bit that says the rules are at the back. A quick check reveals them to be partly a simplified version of the basic Grail Quest rules, plus a hint of Brennan's Monster Horrorshow RPG. A brief glossary follows the rules, because these are edumacational gamebooks, but my familiarity with Brennan's sense of humour reassures me that there's still a fair chance of finding some fun in here.

Character generation consists of rolling up Life Points, which are generated by rolling 3d6, picking the highest and multiplying by 10. I roll 6, 5 and 1, so that's 60 LP.

So I'm a schoolboy on a trip to the British Museum, looking at assorted Egyptian exhibits and waiting for the coast to become clear. Assorted Egyptian deities are briefly described, perhaps just to inform me, or maybe to set up tests of knowledge later on. Rather a nice description of the sarcophagus "covered not only in hieroglyphs, but in Japanese tourists."

While waiting for the crowds to move on, I have the choice of checking out the Rosetta Stone or the Anubis Relief, and it's not a difficult choice, because it's not only gamebooks that can teach you things. Thanks to a certain Doctor Who novel, I know what the Rosetta Stone is, and can see how it might prove ever so slightly invaluable when, as might be predicted even if it weren't mentioned in the inner blurb, I'm going to wind up taking a trip to Ancient Egypt.

Yup, just got myself a simplified guide to translating hieroglyphs. Also got proof that I'm not like my real self was back in my schooldays, as gamebook-me is utterly bored by the history of the stone, and only cares about the 'Hieroglyphs for Beginners' bit. Regardless, I must now return to section 1 and, presumably, investigate Anubis. Which, to be honest, schoolboy-me would probably have done first, on account of not having yet learned about the Rosetta Stone, but knowing that Anubis was to do with the nastier side of Egyptian myth and thinking that kind of thing cool.

And while I'm looking at Anubis, everyone else leaves, so I can do what I've been waiting for an opportunity to do - hide inside the sarcophagus. Because a) for some reason the intended occupant was never buried in it, b) a fellow pupil made a bet that I wouldn't spend the night hiding in it, and c) I am a gamebook character, and recognise that sometimes I have to do insanely stupid things to make the plot happen.

The sarcophagus bears a warning, giving me a chance to reconsider and miss the adventure, and there's also an optional educational aside about what befell the people who opened Tutankhamun's tomb. Which boils down to 'Lots of them died. So did a pet canary.' Still, checking that out does lead to the option of finding out a bit more about the Pharaoh for whom the sarcophagus was intended, so I'll do that next. And that's quite a hefty info-dump. This book isn't long enough for the dates mentioned to double as section numbers, though. Still, notes made in case it matters.

Digressions over, I enter the sarcophagus, doze off, and have to roll 1d6. And the Brennan tradition of having a section just for character death continues, though at this point I can only get there by failing to roll 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 or 6. Good thing I'm not using a Backgammon die, eh?
Still better odds than some Ian Livingstone books.
So I wake to find either that the warning was true or that the boy who bet against me has gone to considerable lengths to rob me of my victory, because I'm now in a sunlit courtyard between pillars carved to resemble Osiris. Steps ahead of me, a gate behind me. Forwards, I think.

I enter a building that contains little of note beyond what I take to be a large stone sentry box, its doors secured with string. Well, let's see what horrors await me inside it... Just a human-sized statue of Isis. Which does not animate. But three shaven-headed men come in and yell at me 'in a strangely archaic tongue which, somehow, [I] understand perfectly'. I appear to be in trouble for trespassing in a temple, and my not being a skinhead causes the men to doubt my hurried claim to be a visiting priest. I am asked to accompany them, and opt not to resist arrest as I'd rather not try out the combat rules for the first time in a three-against-one situation.

As they escort me 'to see God', I have the option of trying to escape by making an 'Absolutely Anything Roll', which has a 1/36 chance of proving lethal, a 1/6 chance of proving successful, a 5/9 chance of allowing me one reroll, and you can work out the odds of a straight fail yourself if you care. I decide to give it a go, and get a reroll followed by a success. So I get away. Whether or not that turns out to be a smart thing to do, I cannot yet tell.

I flee to a market place, where a jeweller offers me a magic ring if I run an errand for him. Sounds like a good deal to me. Especially as declining involves being ruder than strictly necessary, which looks to me like just asking for trouble.

The ring has 12 charges, though I'm not sure what it actually does yet. And to earn it, I just have to deliver something to the address written on the package. Good thing I learned how to read hieroglyphs, eh? But Brennan's in a lenient mood, and gives the option of cheating by turning to the section where the instructions may be found. Oh, and I have the option to ask what the ring does before I go. Hmm, random. Literally. I'll say more when or if I use it.

While Brennanglyphs obviously aren't the same as real hieroglyphs, they're slightly more realistic than most gamebook non-standard alphabets, as many of the symbols correspond to more than one letter, so interpretation is required as well as standard decryption. The package could be OLJNT, but it's more likely to be URGENT. And it needs delivering to the local undertaker and embalmer, who offers me a chance to watch the mummification of the ultimate recipient. Oh, why not?

It's another educational tangent, not only explaining methods but also pointing out unusual (to a modern reader) customs. There's a bit of light mockery of the Ancient Egyptians' beliefs, which probably constitutes badwrongfun. And then I have to get less than 12 on 2d6, or die of squeamishness.

But I survive long enough to be recognised by two guards. Fighting still looks inadvisable, even taking the ring into account, so I quietly accompany them to the deity. Unsurprisingly, this turns out to be the Pharaoh. Surprisingly, he knows I'm from the future. And he wants to shake my hand, though his musclebound minders have warned me not to touch him on pain of death. Decisions, decisions...

Better not to displease royalty, I think, and it does work out all right. For values of 'all right' that include being escorted into a chamber containing a live lion. Corectly guessing the lion to be a pet, I avoid making a bit of a faux pas, and learn that it's called Archimedes. And the Pharaoh is aware of the anachronism. He quotes 19th-20th century Egyptologist Sir Wallis Budge at me, and explains that the sarcophagus is a time machine. While, in Grail Quest style, it's shifted my consciousness into a 4th century BC Egyptian's body (which is supposed to explain how I understand the language), it has also (more than slightly bizarrely) clothed the host body in what I was wearing when I entered the sarcophagus. Clothes that have a museum pamphlet on Egyptian history in one of the pockets. Which is potentially ominous given that the Pharaoh set all this up to summon someone from the 20th century to help him defeat the Persians. The rules section of the book is lamentably inadequate as regards the possibility and advisability of changing established history, so I'm none too sure how to behave here. Still, angering someone who can have me executed on a whim is obviously risky, whereas there are at least three ways interfering with the past could go: I prevent myself from existing (not good), I return to an altered future (could be good or bad), or I don't actually make any difference (acceptable). So interfering appears more survivable from where I'm sitting.

It turns out that he wants me to find assorted weapons and artefacts that have been stashed in a pyramid in Giza, conveniently alongside the only thing that can help me return to my own time. He gives me a pigeon for notifying him of success (which I put in my pocket!) and teaches me an incantation to transport me to the pyramid. In hieroglyphs, of course, which is probably what allows Brennan to get away with slipping the word 'ess-ee-ex' into a kids' gamebook (I'm spelling it out like that to reduce the risk of becoming a target for some iffy Google searches like Galactrix's blog did). And if you're wondering why the word is there, it's followed by the word 'shun', so when pronounced aloud, it sounds like 'section'. Yes, the rest of the incantation is similarly groansome.

All right, Giza. A classic Brennan 'map with section numbers for all the locations on it' set-up. I think I'll start with the non-pyramid stuff, and then work my way through the pyramids in ascending order of size.

First I visit what turns out to be a cluster of tombs with a name that lends itself to juvenile humour. Further investigation would require me to fight three hostile mummies, so I think I'll look for a weapon and, if successful, return to discover what they're so keen for me not to find. Next I check out a couple of pits, where I could obtain a potentially useful item in exchange for something I don't have. More of those tombs follow, one of them with a shiny electrum ankh on display. And protected by a potentially lethal curse, as I discover when I try to 'borrow' it. But I suffer a lesser consequence, namely being teleported back to the pits. Hmm. Might come back later if I see signs that the benefits of owning the ankh outweigh the risk of being killed.

Proceeding to what the map indicates to be an empty patch of ground by a road, I am a little surprised to find myself in front of the Sphinx. A passer-by info-dumps the legend about an entrance to secret chambers between the paws, so I decide to have a look. Digging leads to a randomised 'stuff happens' table. This time I find an amethyst rod which will render unconscious two foes. Time to see what those mummies were guarding.

Well, the first two aren't worth wasting the powers of the rod on, and the worst thing about the third is his 'rip my head off on a double 6' ability. Even so, I lose almost half my Life in the fight, so I risk sleeping. No chance of wacky dream sequences as in Grail Quest, but it could heal me, harm me, or do nothing. This time it's harmful, bringing me down to exactly half my starting Life. And it turns out that the rest wasn't even necessary, as the mummies' loot includes an pill that can repeatedly heal 2d6 Life provided I'm not put off by the way it becomes reusable. And a kills-with-one-successful-blow dagger. There must be some seriously tough opponents up ahead. Especially as Isis turns up to give me an item that could take out three separate groups of enemies. Or maybe I'm supposed to be hoarding these for the Pharaoh.

In the ruins of a temple I find a Dibbler-type offering a variety of unwanted services, and have the option of buying a 'magical' talisman from him. For some reason, despite having recognised an ankh as an ankh earlier on, this time I think one of the talismans resembles a stick-figure man with no legs. Not having any money, and being unwilling to barter any of what I do have, I must pass up the opportunity to find out whether or not the talismans are the rip-offs they appear to be.

I was told that the vendor looked 'vaguely familiar', and the same happens with the next stranger I encounter. I hope this is going somewhere other than a The Wizard of Oz-style ending. This chap has a spare statue of Bastet, and will only exchange it for an electrum ankh. Maybe he looks a bit like Noel Edmonds. I'll continue to search around for a bit, hoping to find an acceptable ankh that doesn't have a 1/3 chance of killing me.

The only remaining external location is another ruined temple, where I come into possession of a Rosetta Stone-alike that can help me translate a different kind of hieroglyph. I am mildly disappointed that the 'standard' hieroglyphs on it read, 'The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog' rather than some more thematically appropriate pangram. Slightly more annoyed that it says 'jumped' rather than 'jumps', thereby denying me one rather important letter. Okay, so when I find a message in the second code, I can deduce that an unfamiliar character is 's' because there's not much else it could be, but still...

So, I must enter a pyramid, or try and get the ankh so I can get the Bastet so I can get the other item. Try the smallest pyramid, I think. No obvious entrances, so I search for a way in, and either this pyramid is a complete waste of time, or I'm missing some textual clue like the infamous "You find yourself...".

If I ignored the pyramids' actual names and distinguished the three in the style of the bears encountered by Goldilocks, I'd now be checking out the Mummy Pyramid. Sometimes even I hate my punning ways.

Anyway, a 'familiar-looking' man offers me a map of all the secret entrances to the pyramid, and wants my shoes in return. Two things occur to me. Firstly, it might be the same man each time, and he's always described as looking familiar because Brennan had no way of knowing which encounter with the pest I'd have first. Secondly, if the pyramid has no secret entrances, the swindler could trade me a blank page for my shoes and would technically be in the right vis á vis consumer rights. Sticking with my 'Ancient Egyptian Noel Edmonds' theory, I tell him, "No deal!"

Seems I've misjudged him, as he gives away several secrets about the hidden entrances to try and prove his authenticity, and when I tell him to go away, he punches me in the face. Doing less damage than I'd take walking around with no shoes for the rest of the adventure, but even so, that's not very nice. Still, his overenthusiastic sales pitch has enabled me to figure out how to get into the pyramid. Think I'll try the ground level entrance first.

Befor long I find a trapdoor, and investigating it causes me to fall into an escape-proof pit. My pill could, theoretically, keep me from starving, but that'd just mean eventually dying of boredom or old age. However I look at it, I'm off to section 13. Not one of Brennan's more entertaining 'you are dead' sections, alas.

Arbitrary Instant Death sections are rarely fun, though, and that one certainly wasn't, but overall I enjoyed the adventure. It certainly merits a replay at some later date.


  1. Never knew anything about this book. Nice review, and it definitely sounds like fun.

  2. Nice to see someone reviewing the less well-known gamebooks out there.

    1. Thanks. I wanted to do something to distinguish this from the other gamebook blogs, and it helps motivate me to actually read some of the books that have been sitting untouched on my shelves for years.

      I've drawn up a rough plan for what I intend to play over the course of the next few months. The August line-up includes a few of the more obscure books.