Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Fair Enough

I acquired the second book of Steve Jackson's Sorcery!, Kharé - Cityport of Traps at the same time and in the same way as the first book in the series. However, I do have a couple of memories of looking at it in shops before I got properly interested in the series. I came across the 'killed by the Mantis Man' ending while flicking through a copy in the bookshop at a London railway station that served as an intermediate stage on some school trip. Then a copy turned up in the newsagent's half way down the hill from the church my family attended, and I was a little puzzled by the stuff about kissing in section 2. On my first attempt, I missed a crucial encounter, and was technically unable to complete the adventure (though I had acquired enough data to be able to cheat).

If you haven't already read Marsten's playthrough of this adventure, I recommend you do so, as it's a highly entertaining account of an attempt at the book in which he winds up experiencing almost every indignity that can be inflicted on an unfortunate player. I'm hoping to fare rather better than he did. If I do, that may be good news for the individual who wound up directed to my post on The Shamutanti Hills as a result of Googling 'khare+cityport+traps+rhyme', should he or she venture back to this blog.

So, my character from book 1 draws near to the eponymous city, which is somehow the only way of getting across the Jabaji River. It is surrounded by a fortified wall, and when I get there, the gate is locked. Good thing the Svinns gave me a key, eh? It works, but I carelessly leave it in the lock as I enter the city. Then a guard surprises me and throws me into a cell, because Steve needs a way of getting me to sit down and listen to some exposition. Also in the cell is an elderly sorcerer who lost his arm to an Ogre - possibly the one I killed last book. He lets me know that the gate through which I need to leave the city is magically locked, and I need to learn an incantation to open it. Each line of the chant is known to one prominent citizen (though not so prominent that my cellmate knows who they are).

I am also informed that I should get released as soon as the guards have carried out a CRB check on me, but I can't be bothered to wait that long, and decide to try a spell. The decision is slightly problematic: in addition to the standard lock-picking spell, I have the option of casting one that turns pebbles into explosives, and that costs less Stamina. However, I somehow failed to find any pebbles while trekking through the countryside to get here, so unless there happen to be some lying around in the cell, the spell won't work and I'll have wasted my Stamina (and possibly my only chance of using magic here). Oh, the difference is small enough that I'll use the more costly but more reliable option. Still, if I die from Stamina loss in this book, it will be partly a consequence of the lack of opportunities to pick small stones up off the ground.

The old man takes advantage of the escape opportunity I offer, and moves impressively quickly. He turns right at a crossroads. To the left I see a group of backpackers, who are probably on a gap year, so I hurry off in the opposite direction before they can start boring me with fashion tips from Kristatanti, half a dozen separate accounts of having helped Alianna escape from the cage in which she'd been locked, and cautionary tales about unwary travellers who wandered into the Lotus fields.

Not wishing to seem like I'm stalking the old man, I avoid the hut into which he disappeared and investigate one with an interesting smell. I ask permission first, and thus avoid a variant of the 'bucket balanced on top of the door' trick, which the owner had set up just in case some random stranger came bursting in unannounced. Inside is a kitchen, and the chef is part-man, part-jelly, with tentacles instead of arms. I ask about the price of a meal, but it's a bit expensive, so I just move on.

There's a fair or market up ahead, which means I've gone the wrong way, but all is not lost, as I spot an old friend in the crowd. Well, a guy who tried to murder me the last time we met, and owes me a favour since I spared his life when his ambush backfired on him. It just so happens that he knows one of the citizens I seek, and is able to direct me to the man's house.

I knock on the door, and the man of the house says I can come in if I let him have my sword. I guess he also befriended the assassin following an attempted freebie. Best not to antagonise him, especially as he has a pet spiked lizard that he could set on unwanted guests. He leads me through to his study, and a close examination of the illustration indicates that among the varied tomes on his shelves are a portfolio of work by the book's artist, a bound collection of White Dwarf back issues, and a book by some 'Jackson' character. Less in-jokey titles include Necropolitics, Unlife Vol II and Dwarf Hymns. In return for my solving a rather arbitrary puzzle, he tells me one line of the spell I need to learn. He also gives me a green wig, which can be used to cast a couple of spells, and lets me have my sword back as I leave.

Further down the street are a portrait painter with no hands, and a man who makes coloured fires. I investigate the latter, who appears to be responsible for a preposterous Star Trek novel, and invites me to check out the 'special fires' in his hut. While that may sound like an appalling chat-up line, I recall from past attempts at the book that he only wants to kill and rob me. And proves unable to do even that after I cast the right spell, which enables me to take his bait (some cash and a spell item) without so much as getting singed.

Returning to the streets, I find myself back at the fair. This time I take an interest in the fighting ring, where FF's first Anvar the Barbarian (there's another in a much later book, but that book's not set on the same world, which is one reason he's not likely to be the same character) is about to take on Skullsplitter the Ogre. I place a bet on the Barbarian, as I get a better return if he wins. Given the disparity in stats between the two combatants, his survival seems unlikely (the fight is to the death), and as I have more than just a financial interest in the outcome of the fight, I covertly intervene to give him a slight advantage. It's not enough, drat it (and Anvar's death here is the other principal reason I doubt he's the same one who appears in the other book). So not only have I lost the money I gambled and the Stamina cost of the spell, but I now have to fight the tougher of the two.

For certain values of 'have to', admittedly. I'm not forced into combat, but I remember from past attempts that entering the ring is the only way to get a lead that will help me find the second line of the spell that unlocks the gate, and once I've entered the ring, the only way out is over the other fighter's dead body. So I take the risk, and while Skullsplitter's manager is using an illegal healing spell on him, I happen to overhear someone greeting the well-connected friend mentioned by the innkeeper I helped out in book 1. I call out to him, and arrange to have a chat with him after the fight. Providing I survive...

One blunder I managed to avoid in the previous book would have resulted in my losing my sword. The section describing the incident spells out the consequences of being deprived of a weapon. He makes no mention of any such thing here, so I must conclude that there's nothing to keep me from using my sword in this fight, however inappropriate it may seem for the setting, and thus I get to utilise all the bonuses I picked up in the first book. They don't help. A combination of abysmal rolls and the ludicrous selection of spell options given in this situation (where was the foe-demoralising SAP when I needed it?) leaves me as dead as Anvar.

A disappointing outcome, there. This is usually an enjoyable book, but it is marred by a number of details that don't make sense, and arbitrary restrictions on what can be done. I shall have to roll up a fresh character for the next book in the series, and I now have a quandary to ponder for when I get to the last one.


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  2. Sounds like you managed better than I did :)
    I'm curious as to whether playing these books back-to-back actually makes the game easier or harder! I mean, it should be easier due to gaining more items and your stats rising as you progress. But it MAY prove harder to avoid all of the long-term difficulties like losing your sword etc.

    1. Sounds like you managed better than I did
      It's all relative. I got more of the spell, but you made it across the river.

      I think the advantages of playing the books in sequence outweigh the disadvantages - if I hadn't befriended the assassin, I wouldn't even have got one spell line, and my not living long enough to acquire a certain item from the market in Kharé means that a costly spell is going to be the only way to defeat the first Serpent in the next book. The drawbacks that carry across are (in most instances) not enough of a problem to make it worth abandoning the benefits gained in the earlier books.