Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Before You Embark on a Journey of Revenge, Dig Two Graves.

I'm pretty sure I was still ignoring dice when I first tried Ian Livingstone's Island of the Lizard King, and as this is the last of Ian's books not to use a narrow True Path, glossing over combat and the like meant that it was hard to lose. As I recall, I went via the beach with the crab, completely missed Sog's Helmet, made use of the harmful items as well as the beneficial ones in the box in the pond, took the route through the marsh that missed all the fights (but inflicted Giant Leeches on me instead), didn't discover the Horn of Valhalla (so had to fight the Cyclops), and had to use the Lizard King's own Fire Sword on him.

At the start of this adventure, my character travels south from the setting of Deathtrap Dungeon. There's no mention of his being laden down with several thousand gold pieces of prize money, so I think we can conclude that he is not supposed to be the victorious champion of the previous book. More likely, he formed part of the crowds that watched half a dozen idiots march into the dungeon, and gradually came to the realisation that waiting for a winner to emerge was going to be like waiting for Godot. Or Walter the Wallabee.

Anyway, I head down to Oyster Bay, home of my old friend Mungo, who greets me with something along the lines of, "Lizard Man slavers attacked our village this morning, and I'm about to head off to their home on Fire Island to kill them all." I offer to accompany him, because nobody else will. And a fat lot of help I'm going to be, looking like this...
Skill: 8
Stamina: 15
Luck: 10
This book may be easy for cheats like me-in-1984, but a by-the-rules chap such as I am today is unlikely to get far without a double-figure Skill and, ideally though less essentially, 20-odd Stamina.

As this is probably going to be a very brief entry, I'll give a bit more background detail to the adventure. Fire Island used to be a penal colony, with Lizard Man mercenaries for guards. When their employer ran out of cash to pay them, they took over the island, and started using the inmates as slave labour to dig for gold. The one who became King has been dabbling in voodoo and genetic engineering (a very popular joint honours course at Blacksand Polytechnic), as a result of which the place is full of hostile mutant flora and fauna as well as resentful Lizard Men. Owing to the high death rate among untrained, ill-equipped, malnourished mineworkers with brutal human-hating overseers, and the lack of fresh inmates being sent to swell the workforce, output has been dropping off a little of late, so the Lizard Men have started preying on nearby coastal villages for new workers. This book was published less than a month after the miners' strike of 1984 commenced, so any similarities you may perceive are going to be coincidental, but I'm sure all sorts of surreal analogies could be read into it if you were determined to read it that way.

Anyway, we sail to Fire Island, and I guess it's time I decided how we're going to die. There are two separate coves accessible from the inlet where Mungo moors his boat: Death-By-Pirate Cove, and Death-By-Giant-Crab Cove. In honour of the tenth anniversary of International Talk Like a Pirate Day later this month, I'll head for the former. Shockingly, it's being used by half a dozen Pirates to bury their treasure. We attack them, managing to kill the first two before they've finished going, "Yarr!". I only take minor damage against the next two, while Mungo rapidly dispatches one of the others, and then turns his attention to the Captain. Who runs him through on the spot. I get lucky and skewer the Captain shortly afterwards, but Mungo is done for. He wouldn't have survived if we'd gone for the other beach, either (one of my sisters attempted the book not that long after I got it, and was so upset when Mungo got killed by a Giant Crab that she almost gave up at that point). With his dying words, Mungo asks me to avenge his death by killing the Lizard King. Who's only very indirectly to blame, but it's quite an effective guilt trip to keep me focused on the quest despite the loss of half our forces.

Before moving on, I investigate the loot that cost six Pirates and Mungo their lives. It's a load of iron bars. Stupid colour-blind Pirates weren't even burying any decent treasure. I grab an iron bar in case I need to put up a lightning conductor at some point in the adventure, and head inland. Dusk soon falls, and after an uneventful night I set off again. Hacking my way through the undergrowth is tiring, but I know that if I stop for a rest, the lush, aggressive vegetation will go for me, so I persevere.

Three Headhunters take an interest in me. Each manages to wound me once while I am expressing my reluctance to become part of anybody's collection, but they have some bananas that restore a fraction of the Stamina I lost in the fight, so that was a totally worthwhile encounter. A plume of smoke implies the existence of a village to the south-west, so I head north-west in the hope of avoiding more offensive stereotypes.

This isn't the way I normally go when playing this book, as there is a possibility of acquiring something useful from the village. And of getting to commit arson in a good cause. But with my stats, the risk outweighs the potential benefits, so into the (relatively) unknown I go. And I promptly discover the skeletal remains of an escaped convict, with an axe and a rope lying close by. Being reliably informed by Murray that there are no animated Skeletons in the book, I don't hesitate to add the items to my inventory.

Further on I see that someone has constructed a platform up a tree, and vague memories come creeping back. Doesn't the guy up there throw coconuts at your head if you try to climb up? I'm pretty sure that it is possible to get information out of him in exchange for food, but I need all the Provisions I can get in this adventure, so I shan't bother investigating.

Out of nowhere, I get attacked by a Giant Dragonfly. After the fight I have the option of sampling some fungus that grows on a rotting log. I suspect that Ian Livingstone may have had a traumatic experience involving a toadstool when he was very young, as this is not the only time he throws such an encounter into his books, and eating the stuff rarely ends well.

This toadstool with a face has been lying around in my Photobucket account for 5½ years. It's a long story. 

Moving onwards, I find a clearing that contains a glowing green gem. Acting like a complete idiot in a 1950s horror film, I touch it, and it heals most of the damage done by the Dragonfly. I don't push my luck, though, and hurry away. Into an ambush by half a dozen Pygmies, who have blowpipes trained on me. Attacking does not look like a wise option, even if the illustration makes it appear that several of the Pygmies have really bad aim (or my body is the size of a zeppelin). They appear to want something from me, so I hand over the axe, which impresses them far more than it should. Maybe I've blundered into a The Forest of Doom-style situation, and just returned their tribe's stolen axe, without which they would have been inexplicably unable to defend themselves against the enemies who were preparing to attack them.

My path converges with the Headhunter village route on the edge of a marsh. I see a Marsh Hopper - a small reptile that knows the safe paths through marshland, but has the unpleasant habit of leading travellers into the territory of predators in return for whatever scraps remain once the unwary human has been savaged to death. I follow this one a short distance, and then blaze my own trail when it starts heading in a direction that doesn't fit my plans. That does result in my picking up a few Giant Leeches, which cost me some Stamina and the salt from my Provisions (note that in the real world, putting salt on leeches is not the best thing to do), but enables me to avoid a fight that would probably have left me far worse off.

After the marsh, I reach some hills. If I had a decent Stamina, I could acquire something useful here, but the ordeal that must be endured to get it is likely to be too much for this character, so I take the most incident-free route possible here. At the far end of the gorge, someone has carved the words 'Turn back or die' on a boulder. Unhelpfully, the precise positioning of the inscription makes it impossible to ascertain whether the warning is for people who've just come through the gorge like I have, or those just about to enter it from the other end. Well, it's foolish to expect to find anything important just randomly carved on a boulder, anyway.

Footprints in the sand indicate that somebody was apprehended around here not too long ago, and one of the participants in the fracas has dropped a brass snuff-box. Magpie-like, I grab it, and find it to contain a gold nugget and a note from the slave whose escape attempt ended here. The note mentions a couple of facts of potential use to any would-be rescuers, and is not signed, so even if its author hasn't been fatally punished, I'm not likely to get the opportunity to give him back his snuff-box.

Following the footprints, I encounter a Giant Lizard, and the luck that has sustained me through several more fights than expected finally runs out.

Among the things I didn't get to encounter in this playthrough are a trip into the mines (which are a good deal more mine-like than The Mines of Malagus), a series of challenges set by a Shaman so I can earn the right to learn how to overcome the Lizard King's virtual invulnerability, a pitched battle between liberated slaves and the Lizard King's troops, and a chance to totally fail to impress an attractive woman. Plus a minimum of two unavoidable fights against opponents more powerful than any I faced above. Ian has now mastered the art of making his books effectively unwinnable to at least two thirds of characters played by the rules. The books still make the by now laughable claim that the true path is still 'fairly easily' beatable even for characters with weak initial rolls. I'll keep an eye out for when the publishers finally drop the pretence.

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