Monday, 17 September 2012

Lost Hearts

On to the fourth and final The World of Lone Wolf book, War of the Wizards. My history with this book is like a summary of what happened with the rest of the series: I first read it under similar circumstances to book 1, I acquired my first copy in the shop where I bought my original book 2, then (a while after getting rid of both) replaced it on the same day that I got book 3, in either the charity shop or the second-hand bookshop - whichever one I didn't get Beyond the Nightmare Gate in. My current copy was part of the same eBay lot as the others, but the previous owner hasn't written as much in it as in the others, and 'Laumspur' is spelled correctly in this one.

The rules for carrying a character across from a previous book have changed again. Combat Skill is recalculated anew, but I get to add any left-over Willpower and Endurance to the default starting scores. Additionally, possession of the Moonstone allows me to select several higher magicks to complement my existing powers. There are six to choose from, each a more advanced version of one of the seven lesser magicks, and the one lesser one that doesn't have an improved variant happens to be the one I never acquired. Such is life. I can have five, so I opt not to pick up Necromancy.

Having the Moonstone also makes it possible for the Shianti, my former mentors, to contact me with important news. There's a temporal disconnect between the Daziarn and Magnamund, something like the one between Earth and Narnia, so while Tanith and I have been here less than a week, seven years have passed back home. The city I helped the resistance movement take over has remained independent, and inspired further rebellion, and has just sent out an army to try and take the port where my adventures began, unaware that a force three times its size has been gathered to oppose them. My first task, when I get back, is to warn the Freedom Guild and take them to the forest where the two pages of the frontispiece map meet, so they can hide in the unreadable bit right by the spine of the book.

By the time this has been explained, they're almost out of credit, so I can only ask one question before the call gets cut off. It could be handy to know where we'll be arriving. The answer is not that encouraging: a region to the north-west of where we left, in the land that was once home to my book 2 companion Samu's people. Which is a) a long way from the army I need to contact, b) the wrong side of those near-impenetrable mountains, and c) heavily demon-infested. Not the most convenient spot, then.

So we get transported back to Magnamund, and the Moonstone is less shiny. I could spend Willpower to find out that nothing's gone wrong, that's just the way it looks outside the Daziarn, or I could just figure that that's the case and save the Willpower for when I need it. Besides, I'm more concerned that Tanith seems to have become Tawny Madison (in character, not appearance), as she informs me that we've arrived where the Shianti said we would arrive.

Uh-oh. 'Suddenly you realize that you have no food or water.' We haven't just returned to Magnamund, but to the realm of shoddy gamebook design. At the end of the previous adventure I had three Meals in my Backpack, and I've had no instructions to delete them. If I were starting with this book rather than carrying a character across, I would have four Meals as part of my starting equipment. How this means 'no food', I cannot tell. And I'm presented with a choice between trekking hundreds of miles across plain, mountain and desert to the city where the villain has his stronghold, or going in the direction that'll lead me to the army I'm supposed to meet. At this rate, when I encounter a demon I'll probably be asked if I want to attack it or beat myself around the head with my Staff.

After a while we encounter a creature so misshapen and malformed, it could have been drawn by Rob Liefeld. It almost attacks me, but vanishes when I prepare to defend myself (doubtless having hoped I'd react by poking myself really hard in the eye with something pointy). The same choice of directions is offered, causing me to suspect that I was going to have this encounter whichever way I went. There's also a reminder about the lack of food and water, which just gets me wondering why I'm not getting the option of using Prophecy to find out the best way to go, or Elementalism to make it rain, or Evocation to summon up the ghost of Ian Page's authorial competence and try and get it to lure the decent writing back.

Continuing in the same direction, we fail to locate the lake that lies somewhere around here, but do spot a building. It's getting late, so I decide to check out its suitability as a place to spend the night. It's a ziggurat built by the Masbaté, Samu's people. Even Grey Star wonders why nomads bothered constructing such a vast structure. The doors (not a feature I tend to associate with ziggurats, but I'm no expert) are too heavy to open, but a spot of Prophecy helps me find the opening mechanism, and I can choose between Sorcery or its more advanced sibling Thaumaturgy to try and activate the thing. I'm tempted to try out the newer Power, but its description makes it sound less appropriate, and practicality trumps shininess.

I trigger the mechanism, which breaks down part of the way through doing its job, but opens the door wide enough for Tanith and me to squeeze through. Inside, we find a well. Already having seen proof that this isn't one of those ancient temples where everything still functions perfectly, I am careful, and manage to avoid breaking the rope. Attached to the end is a bowl, not a bucket, which is a nicely understated signifier of cultural differences.

Further investigation reveals this place to be a shrine and a tomb. There are some potentially useful items lying around, so Tanith arms herself and I take a Water Bottle, a Torch and a Tinder box. I have to free up a little Backpack space for the last of these, but the likelihood of my needing a bunch of keys I found in the Daziarn is low enough that I'll risk leaving them behind.

After a restful night, we are woken by a rather unpleasant dawn chorus. Remember how the door got jammed in a half-open position? Well, the demon hordes have just noticed that. And they don't like sunlight, or are curious, or who knows what, but the upshot is that they're coming in. In their hundreds. They haven't noticed us yet, as we're on one of the higher floors, but sooner or later...

Following the release of the Necromancy upgrade, Evocation's 'protective incantation' function appears to have been discontinued. Consequently, the only options open to me are to attract the demons' attention with a preemptive strike, or to hide and hope they don't notice us. Both not-that-great ideas, but which is less likely to get us killed? Try keeping a low profile. There's a two-person sized alcove close by, so even if we do get noticed, the demons will only be able to attack from one side, and not many at a time. Okay, so there's no chance of successfully fighting off hundreds of the things, but there must be some kind of cavalry en route, as these books don't really go in for No-Options Kill-Centres.

Naturally, a demon finds us. Possessing zero tactical skill, Grey Star steps out of the alcove to fight it. Not too tough a fight, but more demons are gathering in the corridor. Grey Star's lack of genre savviness prompts a decision to try and get out of the ziggurat, and I'm going to have to try to keep him on the path of least getting-killedness until the inevitable surprise rescue. A ranged attack with the Staff looks less suicidal than charging the horde, so I spend Willpower blasting a hole in one demon, and the wretched book directs me to the section to which I'd have turned if I were charging. I hate this kind of 'illusion of choice' rubbish. Not quite enough to give up on the book in disgust, but it came close.

The demons turn out to be more scared of me than I am of them, so it's surprisingly easy to get back to the entrance hall. Where their decidedly un-intimidated Master is waiting... His Combat Skill is just high enough to ensure that he does the maximum possible damage regardless of Grey Star's CS, which gives him a 2 in 10 chance of killing me on the spot every round. So this would be a good time to waffle on about the one 'didn't think it through' aspect of the system that got a passing mention last book: use of Willpower in battle. If I'm using my Staff (and there's a hefty CS penalty for using anything else), I have to expend Willpower every round. I get to choose how much, and whatever damage I inflict is multiplied by the number of points spent. The only limit to how much I spend is what I can afford. This beast outclasses me like a tank against a unicycle at a demolition derby, but if I blow 10 Willpower in the first round, I have a greater chance of vaporising him than he has of crushing me.

Of course, when one combatant has a 20% chance of automatic victory, and the other has contrived a 30% chance of the same, that still leaves a 50% likelihood that neither will succeed. He rips a gash in me with his terrible claws, I strike him a glancing blow that costs him a quarter of his Endurance. In the second round my Willpower expenditure is a little more conservative, but I might as well have gone for the minimum, as I do no damage, and anything times zero is still zero. The instructions at the end of the paragraph hint that the cavalry will be turning up in the fourth round, so for round three I do spend the minimum: the odds of his getting an automatic kill are the same either way, and I no longer have anything to gain by blowing him apart. And if I'd rolled in round one what I rolled in round three, the Demon Master would have been just a smear by the time whoever's about to save my bacon turned up. Typical!

Actually, looking at the wording, it's possible that I may have to fight round four as well. But if so, I'm not allowed to win the fight in that round, regardless of how much damage I may inflict. Even if I kill the wretched thing, he still gets to fly up into the air and kick me in the head, and only the eleventh hour arrival of some ally can save me from being savaged by my already deceased foe. The only argument against that interpretation of the text is that it is unspeakably idiotic, but if we were to go disregarding readings on such grounds, that would invalidate the whole book.

You know what? This whole shambles has so soured me on the book that I'm going to fight the fourth round in the hope that that 1 in 5 chance comes off and I get a legitimate excuse to stop reading.

The random number generator is cruel. I make it through round four without a scratch. My minimal Willpower expenditure there means the Demon Master is only half dead by then, so it makes sense that he's able to take off and smack me in the temple with a hoof, but by now I wouldn't much care if he responded by transforming into a mime in a fez and tutu and half-decapitating me with a fluorescent orange vuvuzela made of hummus.

Anyway, a whole load of Masbaté troops come swarming in and butcher the demons. Yeah, the report of their genocide was an exaggeration. Tanith convinces them that we're on their side by heaping scorn on them, 'a gifted healer' manages to restore one measly Endurance point, and after someone repairs the door, we set off towards the Masbaté's new home, conveniently in the direction I was supposed to be heading anyway. Their leader is Samu, which might be a pleasing development if I still cared about the plot.

Following a hefty info-dump, I adopt a convoluted plan that involves using the Moonstone to seal the magical portal that enables the demons to teleport away from danger, then tricking the demons into attacking the Shadakine army before it can engage the Freedom Guild. Meanwhile, Tanith has to leave because of a plot contrivance.

Depending on whether or not the reader has successfully completed an earlier book in the series, Grey Star has either four or five of the six higher magicks. Bearing this in mind, how many of the higher magicks does Grey Star not have? If your answer is, 'Three or more,' then you are Ian Page and I claim my five pounds.

My knowledge of Theurgy (advanced Alchemy) makes it possible for me to brew up a potion of temporary invulnerability from plants that grow in the region. Or I could ignore that fact and either spend Willpower to create a similar effect with another power, or just face the demon hordes without any kind of protection. Don't tempt me...

Stuff happens. Then stuff fails to happen. Both circumstances offer opportunities to waste Willpower. I don't fall for all of them. Eventually I reach the portal. My attempt at closing it is thwarted by an immensely powerful entity within or beyond it. There's an illustration that looks like it goes with this section, but the caption claims that it relates to another one. The picture's less appropriate for that one, but it's a little late to expect any sense here.

And no cheers, please, for this book's 'choose failure' option. The being in the portal has an almost overwhelming psychic attack, but seems unable to gloat and attack at the same time, so when it starts mocking me, I have a window of opportunity. 'You know that you must resist now before you are enslaved forever.' All I have to do to save myself is spend 2 Willpower, and I still have over 40. But the expenditure is voluntary. If I want, I can let the Big Bad consume my mind. Was Page expecting his readers to have lost the will to continue by this stage?

Much as I'd like this to be over, I'm not taking a dive. Resisting costs 2 Willpower. Closing the portal costs another 5. Or 4. Or 9. Whatever. As I do it, the entity instructs his demons to destroy me, evidently having failed to notice that they were attempting to kill me even before I got his attention. Still, his instructions do save me from having to come up with a way of getting the horde to follow me until I can set them on the enemy troops.

I can't be bothered to describe the trivial complications that ensue until I introduce the demons to the Shadakines. They get on like a house on fire - in the sense that much devastation and destruction occurs. I rejoin my allies (almost getting killed, because I disguised myself as a Shadakine) and destroy a bridge to discourage pursuit. Can we get on with the endgame now?

After much waffle, and a chance to waste more Willpower, we hook up with the Freedom Guild, and I persuade them to hide out where the Shianti said. I refer to the Shadakine army as if it were still at full strength, despite the fact that they've lost men to the Masbaté and the demonic hordes, but then, my dialogue has been written by somebody who has trouble with numbers.

Passing up an opportunity to get into an unnecessary fight, I get more exposition. In book 2 I was shocked to learn that Shasarak was a Shianti, but somehow now I know great chunks of his biography, including the fact that he was the one to blame for turning a thriving civilisation into Desolation Valley. The ghosts of his victims are said to haunt the forest where the Shianti want us to shelter, so the troops are none too excited about going there.

In the forest, the book wants to know if I have Alchemy or its upgrade Theurgy. There are separate entries depending on which I have, the more advanced Power reaping more benefits from the indigenous flora. All very sensible, only it asks about Alchemy first, thereby potentially causing readers with both Powers to miss out on the advantage of having the better one. I only found out because I've come to expect authorial carelessness and deliberately checked both sections in case of another blunder.

At night I find myself drawn to a hill in the heart of the forest. There, seven shining behemoths sing a song about how they are the Kazim, their stone hearts have been stolen by evil, and they're waiting for the Grey One, who will help them reclaim their hearts. I have the option of attacking, but the song's not exactly up there with 3-2-1 riddles in the incomprehensibility stakes, now is it?

So, the Kazim turn out to be ancient stone beings. Shasarak stole their hearts (literally - the Kazim Stones through which Shadakine Wytches channel their powers used to be the Kazim's internal organs), and they've been revived after centuries by the presence of the Moonstone. I can use it to give them mobility. Just after I do this, I hear Shadakines attacking the Freedom Guild, so I hurry off to help out while the Kazim shake off the moss and lichen.

The battle includes further wastefully superfluous shenanigans. Eventually the Shadakines are routed, the Kazim reclaim their hearts, and further resistance springs up. Aware that Shasarak could be doing a lot more against his enemies than he is, I decide to use a teleport potion to skip to the endgame.

And just like that, I'm in the hall outside Shasarak's room. Between me and the door is a grotesque demon that looks so human I have to remind myself that it's a demon, not a man (so either it changes shape without explicit mention of the transformation, or Page changed his mind about its appearance mid-section ('Hey, you know what's really monstrous? Nazis! I'll make it look aryan!') and neglected to amend the initial description. It gloats about having the power of hate, but doesn't do anything to me. Maybe it draws strength from my hostility, so if I attack it, it'll wipe the floor with me, but if I think happy thoughts I can saunter past it.

Yup. Not attacking means I just enter into the presence of Shasarak, who is kneeling at the end of a shadowy hall, facing a wall of flame. He spins round as I enter (that'll be hard on the knees), and the same Demon lord I encountered back at the portal speaks from within the flames, trying to convince Shasarak to accept his terms. They can't be very favourable, as Shasarak tries to attack me instead. The Moonstone shields me from his power, so he invites me to a duel. I down every potion I have (except the one that creates a noxious gas) and fight. Thanks to the performance-enhancing nature of one of those potions, he doesn't outclass me quite as much as the Demon Master I had such trouble with (only a 10% chance of one-shotting me), and judicious use of Willpower plus a couple of lucky rolls enable me to defeat him in two rounds.

Except that he tries to cheat death by accepting the Demon's bargain, which will enable them to switch places. Shasarak will get to live on in eternal torment in the equivalent of hell (now that's a bad loser for you), and the Demon lord Agarash will be free to wreak havoc in Magnamund. Unless I can seal the portal before Agarash can step through. So I throw every last remaining point of Willpower at it, and black out.

That was enough, though. Eventually I regain consciousness to find Tanith by my bedside. She tells me that the Shadakines have been overthrown, and I've been elected ruler of the former Empire. Yay me.

As with book 3, that had a pretty good endgame. I actually found myself enjoying the book by the climax. But it's a real mess in places - sufficiently so that I'd have wound up reshelving it unfinished but for this blog entry.

Mongoose Publishing are currently reissuing the Lone Wolf books. They appear unwilling or unable to do the same with The World of Lone Wolf. Maybe if they got the rights and had the books thoroughly proofread, playtested and rewritten to get rid of all the bugs, flaws, annoyances and ludicrous nonsense, they might come out with something great. But without a major overhaul, I wouldn't go near a rerelease.

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