Monday, 27 August 2012

He's Even Got a Twin Like Me

Back to The World of Lone Wolf again, as Grey Star travels Beyond the Nightmare Gate in the hope of retrieving Magnamund's major McGuffin, the Moonstone. My first go at the book was much the same as my initial attempts at the rest of the series, and the first copy I owned was acquired in Swansea in the mid-to-late nineties. Either from a charity shop in Uplands, or the (now defunct) second-hand bookshop on Dillwyn Street (I got books from both shops that day, and I'm not sure which was where). That went to a charity shop during a subsequent purge, and my current copy, like the rest of the set, used to belong to someone who spelt 'prophecy' with two 'f's.

Checking the rules, I find that killing off my character in the previous book so as to be able to start with a healthy one here would have been a foolish thing to do. Whereas book 2 talked about carrying over stats from book 1, this one has me generate a fresh character regardless, only veterans from earlier books get bonus Willpower and an extra Power. Doesn't make a whole lot of sense, but I guess passing through the Shadow Gate revitalised me, or it's a side-effect of what Shasarak's been doing (not that my character knows about that yet). Regardless, instead of starting with 3 Endurance and 0 Willpower, as I thought I was going to have to, I get a much healthier-looking Endurance 25 and Willpower 32. My Combat Skill drops to 13 for no good reason, but I'm still much better off than I was, and I acquire Elementalism into the bargain.

Tanith and I arrive in the Daziarn, a separate world from Magnamund that can only be accessed through the extradimensional portals known as Shadow Gates. By the time of the Lone Wolf books it's a dumping ground for Magnamund's most dangerous criminals, but I'm pretty sure this series precedes the Australiafication of the Daziarn. The ground seems to be made of clouds, but is solid enough to bear our weight. We can see only two things of note: a distant building and a hunched man.

In this playthrough I'll ignore the man, but I shall go into a little detail about the encounter from memory. He turns out to be an insane extra-dimensional nomad, who attempts to beguile Grey Star and Tanith into joining him on his futile wanderings. Resisting his power only costs a point or two of Willpower but, in this book's 'choose failure' slot, there is an option to follow him, and wind up abandoning the quest. Oddly, the book categorises doing this as falling victim to 'a subtle magic' rather than making an utterly idiotic decision.

I'd rather not have to spend the Willpower in the first place, so I don't go anywhere near the crazy old man. So, off to the building we go. It has a tower, built from some black crystalline substance, and parts of it seem to disappear when viewed from certain angles. We also notice strange holes in the cloud-ground, and I'm not so daft as to stick my head or hand into any of them. Can't remember what happens if I do, but I doubt that it's good.

The tower has no door, but bears a plaque with an inscription that translates itself into a language I can understand before my very eyes. It even manages to make the translation rhyme, which is often tricky. In effect, it says to go clockwise around the tower to find a way in. And the author has little confidence in his readers' ability to understand it, as there are options to head in the wrong direction, or to use Psychomancy or Prophecy to try and figure out the meaning of a string of directions reading south ->west ->north ->east -> south.

We follow the directions, and there's a door under the plaque by the time we get back there. A locked door, and five animal-themed keys hang on the wall beside it. Do I try one at random, attack the door, use a Power, or try rereading the plaque? Not the most difficult choice I've ever faced. The message on the plaque has changed, and it's now a riddle that indicates which is the correct key. A simple riddle, but brute force and magical cheating are still options for the hard-of-thinking. I use the key indicated, which unlocks the door, and can take the others in case they come in handy somehow. There's a little confusion over terminology, but I think I get the point Page is trying to make. Nevertheless, when the system explicitly distinguishes between Backpack Items and Special Items, it's not helpful to call the keys Special Items that must be kept in my Backpack.

Inside the tower is a hall, with paintings on the walls, a door leading left, stairs going up, swords carved on the flagstones, oh, and another inscription that might explain how to avoid any nasty surprises awaiting me. But evidently the latter doesn't merit as much attention as stairs. Nevertheless, I check that out first, and while reading a more cryptic rhyme, notice that there are lots of swords hanging from the ceiling, points down. The poem mentions swords, being 'at odds' and the 'even-tempered', strongly suggesting that the question of whether or not it's safe to step onto any given flagstone depends on the number of swords carved on it.

My interpretation of the rhyme gets me to the other door without incident. The door's locked, and I left those keys with Tanith, so I shall have to use other means of opening it. Lacking certain ingredients for a powerful acid (again), I must either use Sorcery or blast the door. Violence often rebounds on its users, so I try Sorcery, and find stairs leading down behind the door. Could be a cellar. Good place to put things, cellars, so I have a quick look down there, and find more keys. Nope, Mr. Page is definitely confused about the difference between Special and Backpack. Still, keys are liable to be useful, so I take them.

After ascending to the hall, I am told that I don't like the look of the stairs down, so I decide to make for the ones leading up instead. Sloppy design, that. Back to the flagstone 'puzzle', and I manage to reach the stairs unimpaled. Tanith does likewise, and on the next level we find just one door, unlocked. Burst through, peer through, or use Prophecy? Why spend Willpower when my eyes can do the trick just as well?

The room beyond is full of mirrors (but 'completely empty' - the writing really is poor). Again I have the option of using Prophecy, and this time I think it might not be such a bad idea after all. I sense that the mirrored room is not dangerous, but the one beyond is. I have my suspicions of what awaits, but I'm not sure if they're based on deduction, memory of when I read the book before, or memory of making that deduction before.

A quick search turns up a small prism, which I pocket. Then I can go on or turn back. Not sure what there is to be gained by retreating, so I advance into a hallway that's crowded with randomly-positioned statues. That suspicion's just got a whole lot stronger, and the 'disturbingly life-like' nature of the 'statues', combined with their tormented expressions further reinforce it. I don't have Psychomancy, but even if I did, using it here would be like asking Deanna Troi for advice.

At the end of the hall, stairs lead up to a cell door with a key in the lock. I don't need Prophecy to tell me what's coming. The door bursts open to reveal something monstrous, Tanith and I flee back to the mirrored room, and the creature pursues us there, then reflects on its capabilities and gets stoned. We are congratulated by a portly man in black, who introduces himself as Spittlethrift and takes us to meet the rest of the Academicians in the tower. Exposition follows.

This region of the Daziarn is known as the Neverness. Other parts are ruled over by powerful entities which have reshaped their territory with their minds. Travel between the different realms borders on impossible, but the Acadaemicians have devised a means of doing so, and are willing to make it available to me - so long as I undertake a little quest for them, now that I've proved myself resourceful enough by passing their tests. They want me to go to a place known as the Singing City, home of the Elessin, and steal the musical jewel known as the Threnogem, and I don't really have a lot of choice in the matter.

The way out of the Neverness is a flying machine, the Ethetron, invented by the thoroughly unpleasant Crabkey. In order to ensure that I don't just fly off in it and never come back, Tanith is to remain in the tower as a hostage. She has some choice words to say about that, but once she's done intimidating Spittlethrift, she tells me to accept their terms so we can get the side quest out of the way.

Once Crabkey has explained how to control the Ethetron, which is something like a hybrid of a Viking ship, a flying saucer and the Batwing (at least in the text, though the illustration doesn't really get the 'saucer' aspect), another Academician hands me a Gyronome, which makes a noise to indicate the direction in which I should travel, and I set off.

After some high-larious 'can't control the Ethetron that well and nearly crash' shenanigans, the Gyronome indicates that I should descend, so I fly into one of those weird holes we passed earlier, entering a darkened void. A quick recitation of the local variant of, 'I must not fear. Fear is the mind killer,' restores a little Willpower, and the Gyronome indicates that the correct way to go from here is any and every direction. Things get a bit late-2001: A Space Odyssey before the Ethetron emerges into sky above ground, and I have to hurriedly bring it under control. This is randomised, and there's an alarming 40% chance of getting the bad option (halved if I have a certain item from book 1). I just manage to roll high enough for a smooth landing (and a sneaky peek at the other outcome reveals it to be less disastrous than I'd expected).

Some figures are heading my way, so I decide to see if they can provide any useful information. They look a bit like George Pal Eloi, and despite not being able to understand their language, I somehow know that they're Elessin. They appear to want me to come to their city, and since that's where I'm supposed to be heading, I see no need to attack them.

I know it's inadvisable to judge by appearances, but the Elessin show no signs of being the villainous types that the Academicians made them out to be. Consequently, I'm not too concerned about being introduced to the one who appears to be their leader, or being beckoned into the palace. Yes, I am being a bit conspicuous, considering that I'm supposed to be stealing the Threnogem, but being welcomed in is preferable to fighting my way through an angry mob.

The leader takes me into a hall containing 'a grotesque, but life-like, statue of a child'. I quote the statue's description in its entirety to set up another rant about the writing. The Elessin leader greets me telepathically, introducing himself as the Guardian of the Threnogem. I am offered the choice of attacking him, telling him why I'm here, or grabbing the Threnogem from the statue's mouth. Now, reread the description in the first line of this paragraph. Roughly how well would you say it describes Grey Star's first catching sight of the very item he's come here to acquire? Pick one of the following:
  1. Overly purple prose.
  2. Needlessly dry text.
  3. Suitably evocative of this significant moment.
  4. Nice work, Page. You only forgot to mention the most important detail.
Given that the Guardian is a telepath, I might as well tell the truth. Maybe he'll recognise my need. Once I've told my tale, he tells me all about the Threnogem. Basically, it creates silence, and the Elessin made it in order to gain freedom from the demonic Master of Sound whose slaves they were. He's the statue, and every day the Elessin pour more power into the gem to ensure that he stays that way. If the Academicians want the gem so badly, they can have it, so long as they take the statue as well.

Sounds like a good deal to me. A crowd of Elessin transport the statue to the Ethetron. Delighted at finally being free of the need to periodically recharge the gem, the Guardian offers what help he can for my principal quest, retuning the Gyronome so it can guide me to the Realm of Paradox, home of the man most likely to know the Moonstone's whereabouts.

Back at the tower I receive a less than warm welcome. It turns out that, while I was away, I turned up, much more powerful and dressed in black, and intimidated them into handing over Tanith despite not having the Threnogem on me. I also forced them to tell me all they knew about the Realm of Paradox, and then departed with Tanith, not needing any mode of transport to cross from one realm to another. This is news to me, and I decide to quickly pursue the Grey Star who took Tanith. After unloading the statue, I speed off in the Ethetron, forgetting to warn the Academicians about the need to leave the Threnogem where it is. Oh, well, I'll just have to pop back and let them kn-

A hideous screech rings out, and the tower disintegrates.

Oops! Not that I can do anything about my (authorially imposed) blunder, as moments later I'm out of the Neverness. Well, I'll just have to hope that the Master of Sound isn't able to get out of there and wreak havoc upon the Elessin.

The Realm of Paradox is full of the sort of weird stuff Ford Prefect and Arthur Dent experienced while subject to the effects of the Infinite Improbability Drive. Freaky, but not particularly paradoxical - the sort of inappropriate nonsense you'd expect to find in the Realm of Irony if Alanis Morissette were in charge of it. Having the Power of Enchantment enables me to ignore the wackiness rather than crash the Ethetron into an inverted mountain.

I attract the attention of the Chaos-Master, who waffles on about reality being an illusion, and tells me I'll have to pay a price if I want Tanith back. So is this a 'doomed if I accept his terms' set-up, or a 'flattened for defying him' set-up? I'll take a chance on agreeing. At once I find myself in the court of the Chaos-Master, whose form is in constant flux, like someone in a multi-species scramble suit. Also present are Tanith and her captor, Grey Star With a Vengeance.

Social functions can get awkward when someone else is wearing the same face.

My doppelgänger is 'a perversion of nature and a being of great evil' known as a Jahksa, which is close enough to a certain surname to make me wonder if Mr. Page has issues with one of the co-creators of Fighting Fantasy or an American games manufacturer. For now the Jahksa isn't saying anything, but the Chaos-Master wants to know what I'm after, so he can set his price. Having missed whatever tangent would have led to the acquisition of a certain item, I have to make a double-barrelled request, and ask for Tanith and the whereabouts of the Moonstone. The Chaos-Master is fine with both of these, but his price is that I let my annoying kid brother the Jahksa accompany me to the next Realm. Well, that's going to be a fun journey.

In the initial stages, the Jahksa just smirks at me while I steer the Ethetron. A storm brews up - possibly his doing, but I'm not convinced it's worth spending Willpower to find out whether or not it's a natural phenomenon. Better to unwrap my new Elementalism and try a spot of cloudbusting. This enables me to ascertain that my unwanted passenger is to blame, and I try to take control of the Air Elementals he has summoned. It costs me some Willpower, but eventually works. And then Tanith pushes the Jahksa overboard, which is actually quite funny. Not sure the Chaos-Master has grounds for complaint (if he's even able to do anything), as Tanith was not a signatory to my agreement with him. Of course, we don't see a corpse...

We soon reach the Realm of Peace, and after some Endurance-restoring snacking on local flora (which heals enough that I've evidently missed a lot of opportunities to get hurt), we make for a settlement. Then I get a bad feeling. Probably sensing the Jahksa, and I can't be bothered to spend the Willpower to check. The settlement is giving off an unusual amount of smoke. Because it's on fire. And I think I know how it started, given the terrified reactions of the villagers when I try to lend a hand, plus the exclamation of 'He is back!'

I make it rain to help put out the fire, and the Jahksa turns up to mock me for helping the 'peasants'. I mock him back for letting the villagers see us both, thereby foiling his own plan to besmirch my reputation. He can't manage a better riposte than 'Next time, Gadget!', and vanishes. Now the villagers know I'm the good guy, they invite me to a feast, and as the inhabitants of this Realm apparently know the way to the Moonstone, I figure I'm better off chatting to the ones who like me than wandering off to find another lot and potentially having to prove that I'm not the Jahksa again.

The villagers take Tanith and me to a lake. We need to fly the Ethetron into it when the moon is at its highest, and we will be transported to the Realm of the Moonstone. Or the villagers secretly still blame me for my double's actions, and want to see me crash and burn. But they're on the level, and the passage describing our passing through this magical gateway is some of the best writing I've seen all series.

The improved quality of the prose continues as we soar through a void above a sea of mist. A house-sized claw rises up to attack us, damaging the Ethetron's power source and causing us to lose altitude. Eyeless (but by no means toothless) heads erupt from the clouds, blindly seeking us. I'd rather not attack, in case whatever sensory apparatus they have can detect magical energies. Just have to hope there's still enough fuel that I can steer around the monsters... The deciding factor is a combination of Combat Skill and Willpower, and I've been sufficiently frugal with the latter this book that it's not even close.

Beyond the strange beasts' territory I spot a Trianon, a structure created by the beings who raised me. That'll be where the Moonstone is, then. But before we can get there, a flock of Chaos-birds approaches. I let them get too close, and wind up having to fight one. It has a considerable advantage in the Combat Skill department, but an ill-thought-out aspect of the rules enables me to multiply whatever damage I inflict by the number of Willpower points I spend. I risk 4, which gives me a 20% chance of vaporising the bird in the first round, and my gamble pays off.

That still leaves the rest of the flock, so I use Elementalism to create air turbulence. This fends off the Chaos-birds, but causes the Ethetron to collide with the Trianon, tipping me over the side. Luckily, Tanith manages to grab the Trianon with one hand and me with the other. As gamebook sidekicks go, she's one of the most competent.

I know how to reveal and open the door into the Trianon, and we step through into a corridor with hundreds of doors leading off it. With irritating vagueness, the only decisions given are to explore or not. So is the latter another 'choose failure' option, or does it mean doing the right kind of nothing so the Moonstone can find me, or something else entirely?

Out of curiosity, I choose not to explore, which turns out to mean walking along the corridor. I see a glow at the end, and Tanith notices the Jahksa (how did I miss him?). Ignoring him, I move into the light, and wind up back in the corridor, much to my duplicate's amusement. Still unwilling to spend Willpower on the pest, I try a door. It leads to a chamber containing the Moonstone. The Jahksa reaches for the Moonstone, and I don't intervene, in case there's an Indiana Jones ending coming up.

Nothing terrible happens to the Jahksa when he grabs the Moonstone, but Tanith warns me not to fight him. Given that the 'take her advice' option leads to the last section of the book, and this series pre-dates the 'unexpectedly lethal end paragraph' twist, I refrain from attacking. He strikes me down, and becomes more dead than he could possibly imagine. As far as I'm aware, this is the first time a gamebook has made not killing your evil double the right thing to do. So now I have the Moonstone, and all I have to do is return to Magnamund and defeat Shasarak. Of course, there's a whole book 4's worth of complications to fit in between those two tasks, but that'll be another blog entry.

That book was something of an improvement on its predecessors. Perhaps a bit too easy after the punishing difficulty of the first two, and the writing was still pretty poor in places, but I was really impressed by the sequence between the lake and the Trianon. If the last book in the series builds on what was good about this one, we could be in for a decent climax.

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