Friday, 31 August 2012

Haven't You Always Wanted a Monkey?

As I recall, once I started collecting the Golden Dragon Adventures, I managed to find a copy of the second book, Dave Morris and Oliver Johnson's The Temple of Flame, at Ballard's model shop (which did a side line in RPGs, and had a small selection of books). I'd had a flick through a different copy in another shop some time before, but it had made little impression beyond the fact that there seemed to be a lot of sections that said nothing more than, 'You reach out your hand... (turn to [section number])'. In fact, there are only four or five, but being so short, and identical, they did stand out a lot.

There was once a party of adventurers who went seeking treasure in some ancient tomb. Many of them fell victim to assorted hazards along the way, but three made it to the sarcophagus. A final trap was triggered, opening up a pit. Two men fell into it, but one of them managed to grab onto the edge. He called for help from the third man, Damontir the Mad (a name that should probably have made the party wonder if this was really the sort of chap they wanted swelling their numbers). Damontir stomped on his hands, causing him to lose his grip, and took all the treasure for himself. But the man whose fingers Damontir trod on landed on a ledge, and survived, eventually managing to drag himself out of the pit. That man is the hero of this book, the Dragon Knight of Palados, greatest warrior of the known world, an armoured fighter who wields a sword so massive that lesser men can barely lift it.

Which makes me wonder why the cover artist for the US edition chose to make him look like this.

The dice, meanwhile, make him look more like this:
Vigour: 29
Psi: 8
Agility: 4
That Agility's pretty poor, but to be honest, there's no such thing as a promising character in this book. The Temple of Flame was pretty much the poster boy for 'unwinnable' until Ian Livingstone raised the bar above the stratosphere with Crypt of the Sorcerer. For this playthrough, I'll be satisfied if I get as far as the candidate for 'most counter-intuitive optimal decision in gamebook history'.

This quest I shall be mostly seeking the golden idol of Katak, which resides in a lost temple somewhere in this jungle. I found clues to its whereabouts in the library of Achtan. Funnily enough, not long before my trip there, someone else had consulted the mouldering tome that contained the leads to the temple. Wonder what he was researching... Still, best not to concern myself with other library patrons, or old betrayals, for that matter. After all, it's not as if they're likely to affect me all the way out here, right?

For a while I hack my way through the foliage, and when I stop for a breather, I spot a monkey being menaced by a viper. In the interests of primate solidarity, I kill the snake before setting off again. The monkey bites at the hem of my cloak, trying to divert me, and eventually I twig that he's trying to warn me away from a patch of quicksand. I let him accompany me, as he's more help (and less annoying) than many gamebook sidekicks, and name him Minki because apparently I'm that bad at naming pets.

Passing by an ancient grave, I reach a bend in the path. My research suggests that the temple is straight ahead, and as Minki isn't dancing the Dance of Nearby Quicksand, I decide to cut my own more direct route. I'm not in a side quest mood today. After a little zealous pruning, I find a centuries-old road that leads to the temple. I gaze at the great edifice, more than a little awed at the thought of being the first civilised man to set eyes upon it in millennia, and two louts in armour ruin the moment by tramping round the side of the place. Blasted tourists!

Hurriedly concealing myself, lest they try and get me to take a picture of them or something, I overhear enough of their chatter to ascertain that they are in the employ of Damontir, who has beaten me here. Not a completely unexpected development, if you have even a vague grasp of certain dramatic principles. Or read the back cover of the book.

Anyway, Damontir has left these comedy working class mercenaries on guard outside the temple, while he and his Nightmare Guard minions seek the idol. So not only did my erstwhile comrade have the sobriquet 'the Mad', but he was also known to employ beings known as Nightmare Guards, and yet I was surprised when he turned out not to be a nice guy? Just goes to show that there's little correlation between Psi and intelligence.

A mildly amusing ruffian can still be dangerous, so I attack the guards before ascending the ziggurat. As soon as I kill the first one, the second flees. Probably runs into something lethal in the jungle, but that's not my problem. I help myself to the other man's money and gin, and start to climb. Minki does not appreciate the anthropological significance of the statues that line the steps, nor enjoy walking on hot stone.

There are more human guards at the top. One is inattentive, and in the time it takes him to register my presence, I bludgeon him senseless without needing to touch the dice. The other is asleep, and my honour will not permit me to attack him like this. Minki resolves my quandary by poking him in the eye, and as honour doesn't explicitly forbid slaying a man who's been half-blinded by a monkey's paw, I carve him up.

A brief search turns up a trapdoor that clearly hasn't been opened in years. So that's not how Damontir got into the temple. And while I know from past attempts that there is a potentially useful item (with a twist) down there, I also know that its guard is capable of transforming the low in Agility into a smear, so I'll make for the main entrance. Which is close to a granite monolith in the shape of a demon, engraved with the glyphs of the five principal deities of the long-lost Anku Empire. The name of the fifth has been lost, very probably because generations of schoolboys didn't care about the god of arts and crafts when the rest of the pantheon had dominion over cool stuff like thunder, flames and the underworld.

So, which glyph will gain me access to the temple of the flame-god, rather than sending me (via one of those ubiquitous-seeming 'You reach out your hand...' sections) to my grave? The clue is in the title, and within moments the dais on which I stand is descending into the temple, coming to halt in an antechamber with two exits. Pick the wrong one, and I'm almost certainly done for.

A short distance down the passage I choose, I pass a side turning blocked off by a heavy grille, which I think means I went the wrong way, drat it. No turning back, alas, so I carry on until I reach a room containing a pit. In the middle of the pit is a plinth, bearing a large wooden box. A similar set-up to one of the traps in The Citadel of Chaos, though this one works a little differently, and is worth risking.

I jump across the gap to the plinth, and open the chest. A cloud of noxious fumes billows out of it, but I do not leap backwards (straight into the pit). In a rare acknowledgement of the fact that booby traps can lose their effectiveness with the passage of time, this gas, which would once have melted my face off, has diminished in potency over the course of the past couple of thousand years, and has no more effect on me than chopping onions would.

The box contains an unspecified potion, a belt with uncertain properties, and a Ring of Intangibility with one charge. It's odd, the way you only have to handle some items to know what they do, while others remain a mystery up until the moment when their powers take effect.

Turning and jumping back across the pit, I continue past another junction and find myself on a balcony, overlooking an awe-inducing flame-and-mirrors set-up that has remained in perfect working order for centuries. Minki is less impressed by it than I, and thus notices the approaching Nightmare Guard who would have garotted me while I stood gawping, but for the simian screech that draws my attention to the approaching assailant.

Once destroyed, the Nightmare Guard disintegrates into the sulphurous ashes from which it was created, and I take a quick look at the garotte. Under normal circumstances, just a silk scarf (though, as the design is a pattern of white skulls on midnight blue, not the sort you're liable to find outside the wardrobe of a kitsch-loving Goth), but in the hands of a Nightmare Guard, a deadly weapon. Well, deadly-ish. Okay, it only did 2 Vigour damage, but there was a 1 in 6 chance of Instant Death every time Old Nightie won a round.

Proceeding onwards, I reach a narrow walkway across a shaft of indeterminate depth, the distant bottom obscured by clouds of steam. I'm more than half way across, when a voice rings out from the archway ahead. It's Damontir, uttering florid threats. He looks much the same as when we last met - widow's peak, pentagram tattoo, 'glint of insane evil in his gaze' (and I thought he'd make a good addition to a party of adventurers?) - and is accompanied by around a dozen Nightmare Guards. He can't spare the time to give me a really slow and painful death, and just fires his Ring of Red Ruin. At Minki. Guess he knows who's the brains in this partnership.

Cackling like the Bond villain he so obviously wants to be, Damontir summons the reanimated corpse of his servant Sulsa Doom (no comment), last seen falling from a great height following a failed attempt at regicide (I'm going to assume that Doom's attack on the King post-dated that fateful expedition, because I can only cope with so much stupid in my character), and sets him on me before heading further into the temple.

Now, Doom isn't the impressive opponent he's been made out to be - sure, he can dual-wield swords, and thus gets a 1 in 12 chance of wounding me twice in a round, but the odds are still in my favour. Even if the fight were more dangerous, the only alternative would be to jump off the walkway into the steaming shaft that yawns below me. But if I hadn't taken the wrong turning just after entering the temple, evading this not-that-tough fight by hurling myself into the unknown would be the best thing to do. Yes, it did take me a lot of tries at the book to find that out.

However, I didn't acquire the item that transforms suicidal cowardice into the only way to acquire a near-essential item, so I have to face Damontir's Doom. Who gets me with both swords in the first round of combat, but succumbs to repeated blows from my one sword over the course of the rest of the fight.

Once Doom is properly dead, I set off in pursuit of Damontir, hungry for revenge. It's one thing to betray me, hurt me, and leave me for dead (or does that count as three things?), but kill my monkey, and I will hound you to the ends of the world.

Beyond the exit is a long flight of stairs, interrupted every ten metres or so by a landing. Mid-way between the second and third landings, I tread on a booby-trapped step, prompting a cameo appearance by the boulder from the opening sequence of Raiders of the Lost Ark. The boulder got a lot of gamebook work back in the eighties (he was in The Shamutanti Hills and Deathtrap Dungeon, too), but eventually typecasting took its toll, and his career went downhill until he hit rock bottom.

I manage to avoid getting crushed, and descend to a sort of junction. One of the passages leading onwards is blocked, though I could use that Ring to get past the obstruction. I'm pretty sure it's not worth it. At the next junction I take a side passage, and fall into a bone-filled pit that also houses a massive Golden Scorpion. It could be a genuine creature with an unusual coloration, or it might be an elaborate automaton. Either way, it manages to kill me.

Not that I'd have lasted much longer anyway. Without an item located in a part of the temple that can only be reached by jumping off that walkway, an imminent encounter would have gone like this:
  1. Roll equal to or under Psi (1d6+3, remember) on 3d6 or die horribly.
  2. Lose 3 Psi.
  3. Roll under Agility on 2d6 or die. Non-horribly, but dead is dead.
  4. Roll equal to or under reduced Psi on 3d6 or die horribly.
  5. Lose 3 more Psi, and die horribly if that brings your Psi to 0 (yes, the likelihood of having survived step 4 with such a low Psi is very low, but that just makes it all the worse, as the elation of making that 1-in-216 roll is promptly undercut with a 'you still die').
And the climactic confrontation with Damontir is brutal, too. Especially the first time you encounter it, as what would normally be a wise course of action to take at that point turns out to be severely disadvantageous. The book's not impossible to win without cheating, but it's certainly one of the most difficult ones that can (just) be beaten by the rules. This is as harsh as Golden Dragon got, though that doesn't mean subsequent adventures are easy. Just less tricky than this one.

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