Friday, 17 August 2012

You Know the Quick From the Dead

2005 seemed like a good time to be a gamebook fan. It saw the publication of the first new Fighting Fantasy gamebook in years, and even if that book was nothing special, it opened the way to more new books. It also saw the launch of Fantom Empires, a series of Steampunk gamebooks by Jon Sutherland. Well, planned as a series, but it never got beyond an online teaser adventure, one book, and titles for the follow-ups that never were. I was very enthusiastic when the series was initially announced, but largely indifferent to its cancellation, because by the time it became apparent that there wasn't going to be a book two, I'd acquired and attempted book one, The Golem of Brick Lane.

I don't actually remember much of my first (and, until now, only) attempt - just that I reached a point where the text was making out that my character had done something I'd chosen not to do, or been to a place I hadn't yet visited, or something along those lines. It's by no means the only gamebook to have such a structural flaw, but other details had already worn down my good will towards the book, and that was the proverbial last straw. I'm hoping that blogging about my second attempt will help me persevere if it gets irritating.

My character is Nicholas Fantom, a Fleet Street reporter and presumed orphan (though if the series had gone anywhere, the uncertain fates of his parents and sister might have been revealed). Currently small fry as journalists go, and with a tendency to get stuck with the wacky stories. A Victorian Carl Kolchak, then.

His stats are tailored rather than randomised, and this is where I have my first problem with the book. It's pretty much essential to create an unbalanced character. I get 24 points to allocate to 3 characteristics (Body, Intellect and Nerve), with a minimum of 4 in any one characteristic. So I could go for a well-rounded 8-8-8. Except that that's the worst possible combination. You see, there are special skills, too, and the rules governing skill selection are very simple: if a characteristic is at least 9, I can pick three of the related skills, but if it's 8 or under, I get nothing. So for skill optimisation, I need to knock one characteristic down to 6 or less, and boost the other two to 9 or more. And, not that Mr. Sutherland wants to make one characteristic the obvious dump stat or anything, but Fantom's physical health and fighting prowess are derived from Body and Nerve. Intellect doesn't really matter that much (I guess Fantom writes for one of the tabloids). The sample character shown in the book has 9 Body, 9 Nerve, and 5 Intellect (which just goes to show that reduced Intellect can impair mathematical skill). I'm tempted to defy authorial intent and create a smart character, but it is my intent to try and play the book properly, and it looks as if not creating a burly moron would be equivalent to taking a dive. So heer am mi kariktur:
Body: 10
Intellect: 4
Nerve: 10
Constitution: 30
Combat Skill: 30
Special Skills: Athletics, Armed Combat, Swimming, Brawling, Marksmanship, Stealth

The adventure starts in the offices of The Daily Examiner, where I am called away from a letter about pixies in the garden to hear a Mr. Katz tell his story. Katz is a member of the local Jewish community, whose Temple on Brick Lane is being targeted by vigilantes who blame them for the Golem which has been abducting people of late. Further dialogue establishes that it's the sort that fantasy game bestiaries tend to call a Flesh Golem, and non-gamers are more likely to call a Frankenstein or a Frankenstein's Monster (depending on how well-informed and pedantic they are). I decide to let Conan Doyle handle the pixie story, and accompany Katz to Brick Lane after collecting my journalistic equipment. No, not a notepad and pencil - knuckledusters.

The Police are doing a reasonable job of keeping the angry mob under control, but only my Athletic prowess keeps me from being hit by a hurled brick. Confronting the person who threw it looks like a good way to escalate things into a full-scale riot, so I just head indoors.

The Temple Elder only speaks Yiddish, and my low Intellect can't get past the language barrier. Katz translates as best he can, and tells me a very simplified version of the story of the Golem of Prague. Further research is fruitless owing to my lack of smarts, so I decide to go to a local pub to listen to the gossip. I learn that one of the patrons doesn't like 'toffs', and get slightly jabbed with a broken bottle before demonstrating that he should be more wary of the uppercut than the upper class. Shortly afterwards, I am visited by Mr. Herbert Lusk of the Brick Lane Vigilance Committee, who blames the Jews for the 'monster' and mentions plans to burn down the Temple this evening. I have sufficient Nerve to persuade him to postpone the arson for a few days while I investigate, and he summons an urchin named Charlie who has a tale to tell.

I treat Charlie to a meal (somehow not having to spend anything, though I am supposed to keep track of my finances). He claims to have seen one of the abductions take place, and offers to lead me to the other witnesses. I follow him to a rough part of town, and my Athletic ability keeps me from plunging through rotted floorboards to an uncertain fate. Another urchin describes how he he saw one of his friends seized and carried off, and claims that the thing carried its victim off to a nearby archaeological dig. Could the excavations have disturbed some long-buried horror? Probably not, as there's not a great deal to connect Roman ruins and Golems.

There's all kinds of fun stuff buried under London

My lack of Intellectual Skills keeps me from persuading the archaeologists to let me have a nose around, so after a quick meeting with Inspector Abberline, my principal contact in the local Police force, (unproductive, but it does establish his existence to make it look less contrived when my knowing him becomes important) I sneak back to the dig when work has concluded for the day. A careful search reveals a section of wall in which the bricks are not held together by anything - a hidden tunnel entrance, though taking the bricks down and putting them back after going through must be a real time-waster.

The passage smells bad, but the precise nature of the stench is not made clear, so I can't yet tell if this leads to the sewers, some mass grave, or something else entirely. After a while, the passage splits, and there are no indications that the smell is stronger one way than the other, so this is a blind choice. Further in, I conclude that it's a sewer smell, and notice a side passage to a chamber. Investigating, I am attacked by a humanoid figure with ratlike features, armed with a cleaver (that looks a lot more like a scimitar in the illustration). She's not that tough an opponent, but the swarm of conventional rats that follows her gnaws me to the bones in next to no time.

Well, that was more enjoyable than my first attempt.Even if I didn't have to move on to the next title on my list for Monday's blog entry, I doubt that I'd be raring to have another go at the book, but I'm no longer as reluctant to come back to it as I was before this playthrough.

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