Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Over the Hills and Far Away

I was strangely slow to get into Steve Jackson's Sorcery! Though aware of the books, I just didn't bother with them (beyond the occasional flick-through in bookshops) for some time. They'd switched from wraparound covers to orange spines by the time I actually got interested in them. That happened in late 1984, and I managed to persuade my maternal grandparents to get me The Shamutanti Hills for Christmas or Birthday (I was born in late December). As I recall, on my first (probably diceless) attempt, I managed to blunder into every booby-trapped dead end in the endgame caves before reaching the climactic confrontation.

In case anyone is unfamiliar with the series, it was a Fighting Fantasy spin-off with two principal innovations. Firstly, you could play a warrior or a wizard. Secondly, there was an ongoing quest that ran through all four books - a common enough aspect these days, but Sorcery! preceded the likes of Lone Wolf and The Way of the Tiger, so it was radical stuff back then.

The premise is simple enough. The villainous Archmage of Mampang has stolen the magical Crown of Kings from Analand (not in person - he got some Birdmen to do it for him) and somehow a lone hero is better suited to the task of retrieving the Crown than an army.

I shall make my character a wizard, as they get a wider range of choices than warriors, and have more chance of surviving even if they roll low numbers during character creation. Wizards start with a lower Skill score than warriors, but get to cast spells. There's a list of 48, each identified by a three-letter title that often (but not always) hints at what it does - HOT creates fireballs, ZAP fires lightning bolts, YAZ... the book came out years before The Only Way Is Up charted, so it's got nothing to do with levitation, and there's no obvious link with obscure Iron Age cultures, the hits of Clarke and Moyet, or even the wizard from The Forest of Doom, so I haven't the faintest idea of the reasoning behind the name.

All spells cost Stamina to cast, some don't work unless you have the correct item, and nobody knows what the last one on the list actually does. Oh, and you're not allowed to consult the list during play, but must work from memory, as carrying a spell book into enemy territory is not permitted. I suspect that I can remember the list a lot better than much of what I was being taught at school back when I originally played the books. Anyway, my stats:
Skill: 6 (with what I rolled, a warrior would have had next to no chance of surviving the climax)
Stamina: 19
Luck: 12
Despite knowing of more than two dozen items necessary for casting spells, I don't have any of them when I set out. No, that's not quite true: one spell can turn a coin into a shield, and I do have some money, but more than half the spells on my list are currently off-limits. Evidently preparedness is considered a vice in Analand.

The Sightmaster Warriors who guard the gate, famed for their impressive powers of vision (which somehow failed to pick up on the Birdmen flying in to steal the Crown (though a later book hints at an explanation for this lapse)) let me out, and the Sightmaster Sergeant tells me the route I must follow (which I should probably have researched before now, but maybe I was too busy not collecting items to think about how to get to where I'm going).

After a while, I reach the village of Cantopani, where I claim to be a trader, and spend most of my money to acquire a sword that makes me a better fighter, a flute that enables me to cast one of those spells, and an axe that has a number carved on it, and thus is bound to come in handy at some point even if it's not much use in a fight.

Just outside the village I am waylaid by bandits, but I can do a reverse-Pied Piper manoeuvre with the flute, forcing them to dance away from me. (I'd make some kind of snide remark about Bardsmanship here, but it'd only make sense to people from the rpg.net Lone Wolf thread).

As I am contemplating which way to take at a junction, an old man trapped up a tree asks me to help him down. I do so, and in return he tells me a rhyme that may be of some use and gives me a page from a Spell Book. Not much use on its own, but it might (i.e. will) come in handy later on. There's also a beehive up in the tree, and I raid it, getting slightly stung but acquiring a meal's worth of honey and some beeswax (another spell component).

Down into a valley, or up into the hills? The clue is in the title. I get the feeling I'm being watched, and don't stop for a picnic, but as dusk falls I make camp and have something to eat, as Sorcery! requires you to eat at least once a day or lose Stamina, and the breakfast back in section 1 appears not to count as a meal. No nocturnal predators take any interest in me, and I set off again in the morning.

In a clearing I see a selection of heads on poles, clearly intended as a warning not to take one of the paths leading onwards. What's less clear is which way I'm being advised not to go. Metaknowledge may be helpful here: if I go the wrong way, there's a chance that my head might end up adorning a pole, too. But it's possible to meet that fate without passing through the clearing I've reached (the reference back to a warning you never saw is one of the acknowledged bugs in the book). So I want to take the path that's less likely to join up with the one I didn't take yesterday, right?

Right. I reach a Goblin-operated mine instead. Might as well have a look around. I soon reach a locked door, and a reminder of one of Sorcery!'s quirks. In almost every situation where magic can be used, five options are offered. Often, some of the options are tricks - spells that don't exist, spells that require items you can't have acquired yet, and/or spells that are just totally inappropriate for the situation. Here, I get to choose from two fakes, one that I need a Galehorn to cast, one that (IIRC) highlights the best way to escape from a trap, and one that unlocks doors. Didn't have to look anything up to work that out, either. But the same academic year that I got Sorcery!, we did Zaire (among other countries) in geography, and right now I couldn't tell you a thing about the country. Beyond the fact that it's not even called Zaire any more.

With the aid of the appropriate spell, I open the door to find a room in which an Ogre is operating a rock-crushing machine. That's not likely to be a quiet process, and yet I never heard a thing from the other side of the door. The Ogre is somewhat hostile, but I manage to defeat him and grab a couple of jewels before departing.

One of those jewels pays for a meal and a night's rest in the village of Kristatanti, restoring all the Stamina I lost in the mine. The route I take out of the village is the blindest of blind choices - not so much as a hint of direction, just two section numbers from which to pick. I go for the one that's a cube, because that's as good a reason as any.

Not a bad choice, as it takes me to a clearing containing a signpost. Bit of an odd signpost, as I know from past attempts that one of the names on it is a village, and the other is a person. Well, I'll start by paying a call on Alianna. Who is locked in a cage, allegedly on account of 'mischievous Elvins'. The lock is no problem for me, and I can choose between two rewards. One is a selection of items useful for casting spells, but I go for the other, an armband that will boost my fighting prowess, as there are times when combat is unavoidable, so I'd do well to be at least reasonably competent when I have to resort to swordplay.

After handing over the armband, and some money as well, Alianna decides she doesn't want me to take her stuff after all (so why did she give it to me in the first place?), and transforms a chair into a Golem to attack me. But she hasn't reckoned on my owning a flute. Dance, Golem, dance!

Putting that rather bizarre interlude behind me, I return to the clearing and head for the village of Dhumpus, where Alianna's money covers my expenses quite nicely. It's an uneventful stay, but if I'm remembering rightly, one potential encounter in this village can lead to a lot of trouble later on, and it only occurs because Steve Jackson makes you say something mildly rude. Some authorial impositions are really strange.

The next day I reach a bridge, and a rhyme-speaking hunchback tells me I must answer two questions in order to cross it. I should be okay as long as he avoids the one about the air-speed velocity of an unladen swallow. The first question concerns the name of the 'witch held in captivity' (so does the hunchback have some kind of preternatural knowledge, or is Alianna notorious for getting herself locked up?). I get that right, and can also correctly name the three villages through which I've been, so I am rewarded with free passage and a warning about the location of the traps in the 'cave-demon's maze'.

Continuing on my way, I am joined by a small flying creature roughly the size of my thumb. I don't have any choice in the matter, but this is at least a case of the little pest choosing to inflict himself on me regardless of my wishes rather than the author deciding that my character wants to spend time with some annoying twerp. My new travelling companion is a Minimite called Jann, who has a natural anti-magic aura. Yes, for a chunk of this book, the entire spell list is unusable. Now you see why I was so keen to become a better fighter.

Jann tells me that the village up ahead is Birritanti, which is something of a tourist trap, and thus expensive. But that's okay, as I should be able to pay my way with an axe. No, I'm not about to resort to violence - the local tavern is owned by a man whose name is the same as the one carved on that axe I bought earlier. I let him have it (in the non-lethal sense), and he gives me a drink and a free pass to the Crystal Waterfall, as well as mentioning a rescue mission I might (i.e. am certain to) get sent on in the village of Torrepani, and telling me about an influential friend who lives in the city of Kharé, which is where the next book in the series is set. He doesn't help with accommodation for the night, but the opportunity to name-drop if I should get into trouble in book 2 is more than worth the cost of the axe.

The next day I'm continuing on my way (still accompanied by Jann) when a scimitar-wielding individual in black blocks my path. This is one of those unavoidable fights I mentioned earlier. Thanks to the sword from Cantopani and the armband from Alianna, I'm able to overpower him, and I let him surrender once he's almost dead, as he's another contact worth cultivating. Sure, he's a not-so-deadly assassin who randomly ambushes people he's not even been hired to kill, but he could help put me back on track if I take a wrong turning in the next book, so I'm willing to overlook his questionable ethics.

Further on, Jann and I pass a hut, and the old woman sitting outside it invites me over. This is one situation where refusing hospitality is not only impolite but also fatal, so I pay her a visit. She makes drinks for me and herself, and while she's back in the kitchen opening a pack of biscuits or something, I don't switch mugs because it's inconceivable that she might have drugged my drink. After hobbling away to swig down the antidote to the drug she slipped into her own drink to catch out untrusting guests, she not-so-casually asks if I happened to encounter any old men on my journey. Not because she's looking for some nice octogenarian to settle down with - it transpires that the chap I rescued from the tree way back at the start of the adventure stole a page from her spell book. I hand over the page, which turns out to be part of a spell for getting rid of unwanted sidekicks even if they do have magic-nullifying capabilities. Which is implausibly convenient, but still... bye-bye, Jann.

The path leads me to Torrepani. a village inhabited by a tribe of Man-Orcs known as Svinns. They're not very happy, which is understandable when I think back to what I got told in Birritanti: their chief's daughter has been abducted by villains who mean to sacrifice her to a Manticore. Some Svinns realise that I'm an adventurer, and they mob me and lock me into a hut. For some reason, though my character looks in vain for a way of escaping, it never occurs to him to try the spell that unlocks doors.

Eventually the village elder comes to me and explains that he wants me to rescue his daughter. He only had to ask; there was no need for the rough stuff. I'm not happy with my character's attitude here. While the Svinns haven't been very nice, they don't seem to be evil, but I still find myself contemplating making a break for it and leaving the girl to get slaughtered. Or if I choose to accept the quest, the book says it's because I'm hoping for some big reward rather than because saving children from being sacrificed to monsters is the sort of thing heroes are supposed to do. Is it cause they is Svinn?

Following the advice from the hunchback's rhyme, I find the Svinn girl. So far, so good, but as Chekhov so very nearly said, if in the 233rd section a Manticore is mentioned, then in the endgame it should attack the hero. Having been de-Minimited, I'm able to use a barrage of spells to keep the monster at bay until the child and I can get out of the cave. It costs half my Stamina, but I'd almost certainly have lost at least as much fighting the brute. In fact, just as a 'what if', I'll play out the combat to see how it would have gone... Whoa! It would have cost me a lot of Luck, but with strategic use of the first spell, followed by a shift to swordplay, I'd have ended the fight triumphant in no worse (nor any better) a physical condition than I wound up by using magic.

Either way, the Svinns reward me with restoration to full Stamina and Luck (and if I'd failed to rid myself of Jann... well, I'd be dead by now, but had I managed to survive with him present, he'd have been banished), plus a little money and a key to the city gates of Kharé. And they don't subsequently change their minds and attack me with chairs, so I'd say that they're better people than some humans I've had to deal with on this quest.

I'd better file this character away. The next couple of Wednesdays I'll be in Livingstone territory, but the week after that, it will be time to send the hero of this adventure into Kharé - Cityport of Traps.

1 comment:

  1. Ah, what memories! I must have played that book for months, on and off. The original spell book was nice, with all the humorous/grotesque John Blanche illustrations, and getting rid of the atmospheric wraparound overs was 80s branding madness.

    My, Jann was annoying. But somehow it's nice to have a sidekick -adventuring can feel lonely. They're always annoying pillocks though!

    Great replay/review, I enjoyed it muchly. Good luck in Kharé - that was a fun one too!

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