Monday, 13 August 2012

Don't Go There

My playthrough planner tells me that it's time to return to The World of Lone Wolf, resuming Grey Star's adventures as he seeks The Forbidden City. Though 'resuming' isn't really the word for it, given that when I attempted the first book, Grey Star was killed by atrocious gamebook design. But in an alternate reality, he avoided the decisions that revealed that fatal encounter to be such a clusterfish, and made it to the end of the book.

Along the way, the villainous Mother Magri would have set a demonic entity known as a Kleasá on the party, and Grey Star's destruction would only have been averted by a self-sacrifice on the part of Tanith, who seemed to have something to do with the summoning of the thing. Then Shan would have died, probably killed by a giant poisonous flying toad. And Grey Star would almost have been killed by huge insects, but for a last-minute rescue by the Kundi, the lost tribe he was seeking. By way of a rather weak cliffhanger, the book ended with Grey Star needing to prove his credentials to the Kundi by correctly answering a riddle...

Scant pickings on the nostalgia front here. My first attempt was much the same as with the previous book in the series. However, I did get my own copy back in the eighties. On a trip to London, if I remember rightly. Possibly from Foyles on Charing Cross Road. In the early 1990s I got rid of a lot of gamebooks - maybe half my collection - and TFS was one of the victims of that culling. My current copy was part of the eBay job lot in which I got the whole set, and shows that the original owner's spelling hadn't improved since book 1.

In one respect it's not such a bad thing that my first Grey Star died. The rules to the second book start by noting that anyone who's already completed book 1 will already have Combat Skill, Endurance and Willpower scores, and awarding 10 bonus points of Willpower. Which doesn't sound problematic unless you know that, at the point where book 1 Grey Star appeared to have no chance against the insect hordes, there was a compulsory 'spend all your remaining Willpower'. Thus, a character being carried over would have a starting Willpower of 0, boosted to 10 to represent character growth, whereas a character being generated at the start of this book gets a Willpower of 20-29. Being able to retain equipment acquired in book 1, and getting to choose an extra Magical Power, do something to balance that out, but 'start at less than half the Willpower of your average newcomer' is still not much of a reward for winning the first book.

Anyway, Grey Star II (Greyer Star?) has Combat Skill 16, Endurance 27 and Willpower 20, and the same Magical Powers as the original. And he automatically knows the answer to the Kundi's riddle, as the author's not the sort to hit his readers with a puzzle that can only be solved by referring to a separate book. (All being well, around a year from now I shall be saying not entirely complimentary things about a gamebook writer who does precisely that.)

Now the Kundi trust me, I explain that I need to find the entrance to book 3, which is invisible to non-Kundi. The Shaman Urik is appointed my guide, and has a vision revealing that the climax of this book is due to occur in Desolation Valley, over on the side of the frontispiece map that I haven't yet visited, in a fortnight's time. Well, the timeframe is an assumption based on the state of the moon as seen in the vision, so it could theoretically be two weeks plus an unspecified number of lunar months, but as Dénouement Valley is not renowned for its calendars, that's as precise a date for section 310 as we can hope for.

The following day we set off early, Urik uttering Native American-style 'wisdom' that sounds profound but doesn't take into account the harsh gamebook-reality of the rules. Along the way my alchemical skills lead me to notice leaves that can be burned to provide protection from evil. The odds of these leaves not coming in handy before the end of the book are negligible, so I take as many as I can get.

Urik summons an Ooslo bird (something like a Roc, but with a head reminiscent of a dodo) to carry us closer to our goal. It saves a lot of time, but isn't the most discreet mode of transport, and before long a crossbow-packing party of villains takes an interest in us. A Sorcerous shield provides protection, though making it big enough to cover me, my guide, and my ride costs a lot of Willpower. Still, it keeps us alive until the bird reaches its nesting grounds, the Gurlu Marshes, at which point Urik and I must part company with it.

As evening approaches, we hear the sounds of something in distress. Is this going to be a quid pro quo rescue, or a trap? A bit of both, as the source of the noise is a wounded Chaksu (a type of intelligent lizard), and the reason it's injured is a bunch of the bad guy's men, and I have to survive two quite nasty fights before mummy and daddy Chaksu turn up, eviscerate the remaining troops, and give me the means to summon them any time I need some thugs mutilated. Other noteworthy elements of this encounter are Urik's use of a boomerang that can sever limbs (!), and the fact that one hunting hound has a higher Combat Skill and Endurance than two Shakadine warriors combined.

The next day, I get to pick a route. I opt for the slower, safer one, as quicksand is rarely fun in gamebooks. Urik finds some edible blue fungi along the way, prompting me to learn something, as the text's description of them as 'tubers' looked wrong to me, but a spot of research has revealed that truffles fit both categories. I spot a performance-enhancing drugs bush, and decide not to bother with it as the rules governing its effect are unclear enough that I can't be bothered with the headache of untangling them.

We're still in the marsh by nightfall, but a convenient hillock (and a bush from which I can create an insect repellent with Alchemy) ensure trouble-free rest, and by the next day we get back to dry land. A line of marching slaves, watched over and brutalised by Shakadine warriors, offers a new opportunity to get into trouble, and when a veil-wearing mob erupts from the marshes to attack the Shakadines, we join the battle.

The Shakadines try to use the slaves as a human wall, but the slavemaster makes the mistake of using a Mind Gem to compel one slave to defend him. A quick burst of Sorcery robs the gem of its power, and it's emancipatin' time! Before long the battle is won, and I have a new friend, Sado of the Long Knife. We travel to the nearby city of Karnali via a secret passage, and Sado explains about the resistance group he runs. Mostly drawn from the criminal classes, as becomes apparent when one man is caught trying to pick my pocket.

Sado and his men have something audacious planned for tonight, and seek my aid. With assistance from the Chaksu, we prepare to assault the Shakadine fortress. The opposition have back-up from a magic-user with a Kazim Stone, but the Mind Gem enables me to make the garrison commander throttle the Wytch (sic, or should that be 'syc'?), ensuring victory for Sado and his men.

With the city now liberated, my attention returns to my quest. The title of the book gets a name-check as Sado notes that the only pass through the Mountains of Morn into Desolation Valley is the dreaded city of Gyanima. Not entirely surprisingly, he'd rather have me stay around and help with the next stage of the revolution than swan off to Certain Deathsville, but eventually he accepts that a Wizard's gotta do what a Wizard's gotta do.

Urik and I set off the next day, joined by Samu, the ex-slave I freed from the influence of the Mind Gem. Apparently the Shakadines wiped out the whole of the rest of his tribe, and he thinks accompanying me will help him avenge them. Considering how well my sidekicks fared in the first book, there's a good chance that his accompanying me will lead to the complete extinction of his people, but it's not as if I have any choice in the matter.

As we head for the mountains, it becomes apparent that someone is following us. An ambush is prepared, and Samu catches the would-be pickpocket from several paragraphs back. Carelessly, the text describes him as the man who tried to steal my money, though anyone who started with this book is unlikely to have been carrying currency. Hugi, the thief, explains that he's interested in the treasures purported to be in Gyanima, and wants to join our expedition. At this rate we're going to wind up looking like a Blake's 7 tribute. I'm evidently angling for the Avon role, given my 'quip' about having Samu break one of Hugi's legs if the thief tries to sneak away.

By the next day we are drawing near to the 'dead lands', a region rendered barren by some past magical disaster. Just outside this area is an excluded middle: if I have no food with me, I get to go on a foraging expedition, but if I have enough food to complete my quest, I just press on. If there is more than one Meal check before the end of the book (and as it's not yet half way through the fortnight I have in which to find the end of the book, I think it likely that that will be the case), I can see that being annoying to some players. More than four Meal checks, and I'll be joining the ranks of the annoyed.

Did I say the dead lands were barren? The very soil is ash. Hugi knows the legend, and recounts it. Essentially the sorcerous equivalent of a nuclear power plant blowing up. Gyanima is the only surviving remnant of the civilisation wiped out in the cataclysm, shielded from the blast by the mountains.

My musings are interrupted by a new arrival, but this isn't another addition to the party. It's a Deathgaunt, one of the villain's supernatural minions. Evocation is useful for creating wards against spectral entities as well as summoning them (that's part of why I picked it), so I keep the Deathgaunt from getting too close. Not a trick I'll be able to do often, as I'm running low on Willpower.

One of those leaves I picked up earlier keeps the party safe at night. Well, safe-ish. In my dreams I am visited and mocked by Shasarak, the big bad. He's the disfigured kind, with a metal plate covering the burned half of his face. Also given to lurid and hyperbolic threats. I don't like him.

The next day, three Deathgaunts turn up. In the interests of conserving what little Willpower remains to me, I rely on the not-so-magical art of running away. With assistance from Samu, this works until nightfall, at which point I use another leaf. Again my dreams are invaded by Shasarak, and this time he torments me with visions of Tanith, trapped in another plane of reality (or possibly an extra-dimensional fridge).

On the following day we draw near to the city. Still some way from the deadline, unless I've miscounted, so I hope the transition to book 3 is similarly over-punctual. But before we get to the city, there's a river to cross. It has a crumbling bridge across it, which looks less unpromising than the actual river. Hugi agrees that it should be safe to cross the bridge one at a time, but is reluctant to test his hypothesis - at least until Urik has made it safely to the far side. Samu advises me to go next as he's the heaviest member of the party, and also he needs to put on a red shirt.

Back at Karnali I received several gifts from Sado. One was a rope, and I can guess what fun complications having it is about to cause. The gifts also included a couple of healing potions, so I down them in case Endurance is a factor in the imminent 'try not to get dragged to my death by doomed comrade' situation. Yup, it all goes a bit Antodus, and not only is Endurance the sole deciding factor in what happens to me, but the line dividing survival and doom lies between my Endurance pre- and post-potion. Genre-savviness or buried memories of a previous attempt just saved my life.

Urik, Hugi and I press on to the city, which is less deserted than the thief hoped. An elderly gatekeeper says we must announce ourselves before he can open the (non-existent) gate. It's probably safer to humour him.


Some bluffing by Hugi persuades the man to let us through the imaginary gate, and Hugi sends him off to stable our imaginary horse. Bit of mood whiplash there, as it's only a couple of sections since the framed-as-tragic loss of Samu, and now we're going for 'mock the delusional' gags.

Advancing into the city, I sense danger, but can't afford the Willpower to use Prophecy and identify the threat. Which turns out to be an ambush by a deranged wretch, who does a lot of damage before dying. Many more of his kind then charge at us, so we flee into the side streets. Hiding in a house looks like a great way to get cornered by the mob, and the only other option given is to take to the raised walkways. Pity the stairs up to them are unclimbably rotted. We get captured.

Imprisoned in a pit, we seem doomed. And I get the first Meal check since entering the dead lands. Suddenly the pit turns into a cell, and the door bursts open to reveal Samu, who survived the plunge into the river and has been waiting for an appropriately epic moment to rejoin the party. We start moving again, and Hugi manages to lock a door behind us, hindering pursuers.

Eventually we find ourselves on a balcony overlooking a shabby throne room, where a dishevelled king watches ragged courtiers dancing a pavane to no music. The only way onwards is down a stairway to the throne room. Best to brazen it out, I think. By acting as if we belong here, we are accepted, and soon wind up in a dining hall for a banquet. The dish of the day turns out to be a platter of human limbs. Declining the mad king's hospitality would not be wise, so we accept what's offered, and within seconds everyone else is too busy eating to notice that we haven't touched our 'food'.

Eventually the whole insane court departs, and we head back to the throne room. Hugi finds a hidden exit, but at the far end of the secret tunnel is a wall of flame. My Willpower is still too low for me to try any tricks, so I hope that the lack of any mention of heat is a hint rather than careless writing, and step into the fire. Which is an illusion. Phew!

In the chamber beyond, Hugi finds a locked chest. To his disgust, it contains books, not gold. I'm none too happy about this discovery, either, because the tomes within provide undeniable proof that Shasarak is a renegade from the beings who raised me. I wonder if he was the wizard who brought about the cataclysm that devastated the dead lands. It would explain how he lost so much face.

Also in the chest is a black rod, which I grab in case I wind up having to open the British Parliament. Stranger things have happened in gamebooks...

The only way onwards is magically locked, and I have to spend my last Willpower point to ascertain that the rod is the key to the exit. 0 Willpower isn't lethal in and of itself, but without the ability to use magic (and with my Endurance in tatters), my prospects look bleak. With the rod I open the door, and I get to choose whether or not to go through. I've been aware for some time that the last two books in this series include ridiculous 'choose defeat' options, but I hadn't realised there was one here, too. Well, I assume that that's what it is - it's not often that 'decide not to proceed towards your goal' is the sensible option.

Beyond the door is a passage to a crossroads. This is the series that inflicted the 'always turn left' meme on culture, so as I can't use Prophecy to identify the optimal route, I might as well follow the Deverite crowd. Doing so leads to a 'small cave' where I see 'miles and miles' of heat-distorted rock. Presumably it overlooks Desolation Valley, but that's just my attempt to make sense of less-than-informative text. There is no way onwards, just some skeletal remains, so after grabbing a silver knife from one of the dead, I return to the junction.

What was straight on is now left, so I try that, and it leads to the valley. Somehow it's full moon already, and Urik senses that the end of the book is underground. The valley floor is riddled with potholes, and as I try to ascertain which one leads to where I need to be, a Scree Wyrm slithers from one of them and advances on us. I'm in no fit state to fight, so I leave that to Samu. Urik finds the right spot, and another Scree Wyrm approaches. It's all go, here.

I am asked if I have a rope. Does the one used in the bridge crossing count, or did Samu cut too much of it off when not-really-sacrificing himself? Looking back at the relevant section, it says nothing about crossing the rope off my equipment list, whereas I did get told to delete a leaf every time I burned one, so I'm saying I still have it, and if that wasn't Mr. Page's intent, he should have expressed himself more clearly.

Apparently Samu won the fight, as I leave him guarding the hole while Hugi holds the rope and Urik and I climb down into a network of tunnels. Urik knows which way to go, and apparently my Prophecy kicks in despite the lack of Willpower (and indeed the possibility that I might not have selected it at the start), because I 'prepare to meet [my] enemy', despite the complete lack of any prior indication that this book has an end boss.

There is one, though. A Kleasà. No, the  Kleasà, as I can see Tanith trapped within its shadowy form. All but one of the courses of action open to me at this point require Willpower, so I have no choice but to use the black rod. I remember how this book ends, so I know the (somewhat counter-intuitive) right thing to do, but there are two ways of going about it, so I go for the more amusing one.

Contemplate the scene: Grey Star the Wizard, drained of magical ability and hanging on to life by a thread, confronts a supernatural opponent that trounced him way back when he was in decent shape. His only hope is to use what may, long before, have been the wand wielded by this demonic entity's master. In desperation, he raises this powerful magical artefact, and... throws it at the monster.

It bounces off.

Like a dog playing 'fetch' (a huge, demonic, shadowy, vaguely humanoid dog), the Kleasà pounces on the rod, and flies off (add 'ill-trained' to the previous parenthesis). Tanith remains behind, on the far side of the portal to book 3. Grey Star staggers towards her, painfully aware that if he'd done something suicidal moments before, he could have started the next book with a fresh character, rather than one who's a sneeze away from expiring.

Nevertheless, at this point Grey Star is in much better shape than my nostalgic fondness for the series.

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