Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Dirty Old Town

City of Thieves was the first Fighting Fantasy book of which I owned a copy. I found it in the Book Exchange where I got my copy of Proteus 1, and commenced a diceless readthrough on my way home, getting as far as the harbour. My parents were out that evening, probably at a game in the local darts or cribbage league, and my sisters and I spent the evening at the home of a family friend. There I resumed my attempt at the book and, presumably having been cured of my most egregious cheating ways by The Citadel of Chaos, failed as a consequence of missing two essential items (well, one, as became apparent on subsequent attempts).

It's also one of the few FF books my father attempted. I read out the sections, he made the decisions. We did this on a train trip to the village where his parents lived. He did worse at it than I, refusing to pay the sum demanded by a group of concealed snipers, and consequently getting 5 arrows in him. We were playing by the rules, and his character's Stamina just wasn't high enough to take that much damage.

That's enough about the past. On with the plot. Zanbar Bone, a malignant undead being known as the Night Prince, wants the daughter of the mayor of Silverton for unspecified but probably nasty reasons, and is nocturnally besieging Silverton with savage Moon Dogs until he gets his way. The only person who knows how to kill Zanbar is the wizard Nicodemus, who lives in the nearby haven of scum and villainy that is Port Blacksand. I am a generic itinerant adventurer, employed by the mayor to find Nicodemus and persuade him to do something lethal about Zanbar. And how well-suited am I to the part of hero?
Skill: 8
Stamina: 17
Luck: 10
Not great, but we're still one book away from Ian Livingstone's declaring war on anyone who rolls low during character creation, so all is not lost.

I set off to Port Blacksand, and am stopped at the city gate by a guard who wishes to know my business. This is one instance where what initially seems unwise turns out to have beneficial consequences, so I tell the truth and am promptly arrested. Rather than resist, I let myself be dragged away and locked up. The old man in the adjacent cell offers to provide me with a way out - for a price - but I don't need his assistance. Bizarrely, a key to the cell door is concealed behind a loose stone in the wall. Even more absurdly, after letting myself out, I put the key back and then yell abuse at the guards to provoke a potentially avoidable fight. If I'd remembered that I didn't get to keep the key, I'd have gone for the combat-free escape option. Still, I take the other spoils available and head into town.

A crossroads presents the first, and least risky, blind choice of three options in the book. Success is possible no matter which street I choose, but my chances of victory can be significantly improved by items found on two of them. I pick the middle one, Market Street. In a tavern named the Spotted Dog I sit at a table occupied by two arguing Goblins. They promptly forget their differences, and turn on the interloper.

Sticking your nose into someone else's fight is rarely appreciated

I'm a better fighter than either of them, and collect my 'mediator's fee' from them before returning to the street. There, two thieves make the painful discovery that I'm not the easy target they thought I was. A house catches my attention by virtue of not being terraced, and I decide to take a closer look at it. The owner's pet wolf nearly bites me, and I feel the need to complain about this potential threat to passers-by. When I knock on the door quite vigorously with my shoulder, the lock breaks, letting me in.

There are three upturned silver goblets on a table. Another blind choice of three options, and I happen to know that only one goblet is safe to touch. Still, this choice is not compulsory, so anyone who picks a wrong goblet and pays the price only has their own greed or curiosity to blame. In an adjacent room is a locked chest, and I can't come up with any spurious justification for picking the lock. Still, the shield inside may save my life at a later point in the book. That doesn't excuse the breaking and entering or the theft, but gamebook morality is rarely an effective guide to how one should behave in the real world.

Having provided the home-owner with a clear illustration of the inadequacy of his security measures, I return to the street, and proceed to a crossroads where authorial fiat compels me northwards to the bottleneck that is the market square. The authorial compulsions persist until I've given in to peer pressure and hurled eggs at the man in the pillory, after which I can start making decisions for myself again.

I avail myself of the services of some market traders, but opt not to pay to join a game of cannonball catch, nor to consult a clairvoyant, as it's not essential in this book. At the charmingly-named Singing Bridge (its name inspired by the noise the wind makes whistling through the skulls mounted on the bridge supports) I investigate a wooden hut, which turns out to be Nicodemus' home.

Ganda Nicodemus explains that he's retired, but he would like to help his old friend the mayor, so he tells me how to kill Zanbar. Essentially, acquire McGuffins A through E (all of which can be found in Blacksand) and use them against the villain in his lair (not in Blacksand, but here's a map). So off I go on an item hunt.

My wanderings lead me to an area where a group of Bays are playing Bays' Ball. I join in, but miss the ball, losing the match for my adoptive team, and disgruntled fans rob me of a couple of items. I get to choose what I lose, and pick the least essential items, but even those would have averted trouble later on. Pity I wasn't carrying any maggot-ridden biscuits this time round.

After avoiding being run over by a speeding horse-drawn carriage, I reach the harbour and sneak onto a pirate ship. I'm only able to access two rooms on it, but in one I manage to pilfer a pouch containing several examples of McGuffin C, and in the other I interrupt a pirate's bath and intimidate him into revealing that I can probably get the silver McGuffin I need from the local silversmith (You don't say!).

Leaving the ship, I explore the harbour a little further, and gossiping fishwives mention that there's a good source of McGuffin D to be found in the local sewers. I already knew that from past attempts at the book, but chose to get the hint because one of my fellow gamebook bloggers specifically complained about the lack of clues pointing that way.

Heading down the street the pirate said the silversmith's shop was on, I acquire some dispensable tat from an unsuccessful assailant, then reach the shop in question and acquire the necessary item. Two down, three to go.

The next junction is one of two points in the book where it can all go wrong for the reader. Take the wrong turning, and you don't get to visit the sewers. I take the correct one and, after losing an embarrassing amount of Stamina to a trio of Giant Rats with Skill scores significantly lower than mine, encounter a Hag, who magically assaults me. I'd have protection from her magic if I'd managed to win the Bays' Ball game, but as it is, I shall have to rely on my Luck to be able to break the spell. I succeed, and fare better in the resultant fight than I did against the rats. After taking the necessary McGuffin, I head back above ground.

Continuing along the street, I find my Spidey Sense tingling. Checking my Played This Book Way Too Much Sense, I come to the conclusion that I'm probably better off returning to that junction and heading the other way. That means an optional fight against two bad guys rather than an unavoidable fight against three. I'm idiot enough to get into the fight, which almost kills me, but the man I rescue from the thugs rewards me with some healing that restores half the damage I took defending him.

A man with a ball and chain shambles up to me and begs for protection from the town guards. He claims to have been imprisoned because he was robbed of the money he'd saved up to pay his taxes. The guards say he's a murderer. I hand the man over to them, partly because his tale is a little too 'hard luck story' to be plausible, partly because there are magical wards on the ball and chain, and security that heavy seems more plausible for a killer than a tax dodger, and mainly because my memory of the book tells me there is no way of helping the man, so I might as well take the option that's least trouble for me.

Further up the road, I see the entrance to the Public Gardens. McGuffin E is a flower, so I'd be a fool to ignore this hint. Entrance is via a coin-operated turnstile - not quite the 'honesty box' mentioned in a certain other playthrough, though I imagine it could still be circumvented with little difficulty. The Gardens do contain a few blooms of the plant I need, guarded by animated topiary, but I have little difficulty committing herbicide.

Beyond the Public Gardens is a more subtle variant of Wrong-Turning-Means-Failure Junction. Even if buying fruit from the barrow doesn't kill you, it means missing out on a trip to the local tattooist, and McGuffin A just happens to be a tattoo. Of a white unicorn against a yellow sun, so even if I survive this adventure, my street cred is pretty much doomed.

Two Trollish guards approach. A charming pair by the names of Sourbelly and Fatnose - but don't let the comical monickers fool you: these guys are tough. Now, one of the items I lost to the aggrieved Bays' Ball fans would have got me through this encounter without any hassles. As it is, I'm going to have to either fight the guards (and I've taken enough damage from inferior opponents to be wary of taking on enemies I know to be tougher) or hand over all my gold. Well, money's not going to do me any good in the rest of the book, so I pay the price. It's been a long time since I did that - my gamebook manager, which I've been using to play FF books for almost a decade, hasn't yet had the relevant section entered into it. And at least the guards aren't interested in anything other than the hard cash, so as they eject me from the city, I still have everything I need.

More than everything, as it transpires. Nicodemus sends me a note by pigeon post to say, 'You know how I told you to use a mixture of McGuffins C, D and E to kill Zanbar Bone? Well, actually, you should only use two of them. Try C and D. Or maybe D and E. Or perhaps C and E.' Thanks for narrowing it down, you incompetent moron! Yes, here we have the set-up for the final blind choice of three options. Only one is correct, and there are no second chances in the endgame. The first time you get to the climax, unless you've learned the solution from some external source, you have a 2 in 3 chance of arbitrary Instant Death. It's at about this point that Ian Livingstone deletes 'remotely fair' from his list of Things a Gamebook Should Be.

But I need to survive long enough to make it to that choice. Following a run-in with a wandering monster, I consume Provisions to bring my Stamina back up to the maximum, and proceed to Zanbar Bone's tower. Which is guarded by a couple of Moon Dogs, with Skill scores 9 and 11. And this is an unavoidable fight. Even with the shield (or the similarly effective item from one of the other three streets), there's a 50% chance that any honestly-generated character will be a worse fighter than the second dog.

I only take two wounds killing the first dog, which is my equal in terms of fighting prowess. I only inflict two wounds on the second dog before it shreds me.

In terms of plot, setting and characterisation, this is a definite improvement on The Forest of Doom. During my on-off relationship with gamebooks in the 1990s, City of Thieves was one of the books I tended to reacquire in the 'on' periods. Nevertheless, its endgame marks the start of the slippery slope to Ian Livingstone's 'Die, reader, die!' phase of the late eighties. Even if I could ignore its foreshadowing of badness yet to come, I'd still have to acknowledge that it's flawed. Better written than the last gamebook I played for this blog, but that's not saying much.


  1. Wonderful reminiscences. I'd love to know which other books your father attempted. My nearest familial contemporaries were my mum who watched "Robin of Sherwood" religiously, and got uppity about D&D when I made my brother cry by killing him in "Keep On The Borderlands". I've been a Carnacki fan ever since.

    1. I shall be reminiscing about the other ones my father did. There'll be something about one of my sisters when I get to Island of the Lizard King, too.

      I've been a Hope Hodgson fan for many years, too. My unfinished gamebook The Sanguine Wave shows his influence in several places. His The Night Land has massive potential for a gaming setting, too, though researching it would be quite a struggle on account of the authorial voice.

  2. P.S. Sorry if you've explained it before, I've only started reading recently - what is your gamebook manager? (Presuming you were not being satirical!)

    1. No, it's a real thing. The fiddly aspects of playing gamebooks - character generation, stat management, combat, inventory and so on - all handled with a few mouse clicks. Very helpful with the more dice-heavy systems.

      At some point, to reduce wear and tear on the physical books, I expanded its functionality to incorporate cut-down versions of the actual gamebooks themselves - a summary of the section, followed by a list of all the choices, with clickable buttons to jump to the chosen section. Needs typing in as I go along, but before long I have enough in there that it becomes less hassle than continually leafing back and forth through the book.

      For the purposes of this blog, I do refer to the original texts rather than just what I've entered into the manager, but it's still a helpful tool for the mechanical stuff. Besides, the not-so-good books gain a little entertainment value from the snarky comments and in-jokes I put into the summaries.

      It's still a work in progress, but it can (to varying degrees of effectiveness) handle Fighting Fantasy, Golden Dragon, Tunnels & Trolls, Forbidden Gateway, Lone Wolf and The Legends of Skyfall.

  3. Actually, there's a way to get another item to boost your Skill by 2 in combat, so unless you've rolled a 7 the Moondogs can be tackled

  4. The one-in-three choice of ingredients isn't random, so if you get that far three times, you should be able to get it right 100% of the time. I think that's far preferable to the random rolls that some books have, that can never be avoided, no matter how many times you play.

    I do wish that the unused item (whichever one the reader chooses) could have some beneficial effect, like in Moonrunner, where items can be saved for the final battle or used up beforehand.