Friday, 7 September 2012

The Price I Pay for Being a Man

The Sagard the Barbarian series by Gary Gygax and Flint Dille never made much of an impression on me back in the eighties. I got one of them second-hand, and was not sufficiently impressed to seek out any others. Not enough juicy death scenes. A little while after getting back into gamebooks, I discovered scans of the whole series (among other gamebooks) at the Underdogs' website, and found them diverting enough to request physical copies as part of a gamebook trade the following year. At some point in their troubled history, these books were the property of a person who wrote in them with a biro, and because of the way the series handles combat, that means that a lot of pages have been defaced.

These books use a rather different system to anything else I've played for this blog, so I've spent a little while messing about in Visual Basic to adapt my gamebook manager to handle it. It's a bit more cumbersome than ideal - too many variables at play - but I think I've got the bugs out of it. At the very least, the d4 emulator I've added should do a better job than the 'flick through the book and note the number at the top of the page' mechanism provided.

The book uses a pre-generated character, so there's no need to list any stats, and I can just get on with the background. I am, as the series title suggests, a Barbarian named Sagard. My tribe lives in the inhospitable regions of Upper Ratik, and I have decided to undertake the Ordeal of Courage in order to be recognised as a warrior by my peers. Basically, I need to leave the village, do something heroic, and bring back proof of my actions. If what I've done is impressive enough, I gain access to the Warriors' Lodge. If not, I get exiled.

Two courses of action suggest themselves to me: go west to the mountain range known as the Rakers, purported to be the home of an Ice Dragon, or head south to the Marsh (a frozen wasteland rather than the marsh the name suggests), home of the Painted Frustis and, allegedly, the site of the legendary Lost Colosseum. This book's called The Ice Dragon, so choosing which way to go is not difficult.

As I set off, I cannot help but notice a slight mismatch between text and cover artwork. In the book, Sagard is 16 years old, and equipped with spear, dagger, cloak and wineskin. On the front of the book is a bearded bloke in hypothermia-inviting shorts and boots, wielding a sword against some blue meanie.

I leave the village at night, then come to the conclusion that it's too dark to head through the mountain pass in safety. Consequently I decide to shelter in a nearby cave until it gets light. The cave's occupant, a Mountain Lion, does not approve of my plan. Theorising that killing a Lion would go some way towards satisfying the Warrior Idol panel, I get into my first fight. I take a bit of damage before prevailing, but it turns out to be the exact same number of Hit Points that can be restored by barbecuing the rabbit that Leo had been saving for breakfast.

The following day is uneventful, and I make camp in a valley at dusk. During the night I sense someone approaching, and wake to find a perfumed figure close by. It could be a woman, but then again, it might be Uncle Monty a hostile Medigian Trader, so perhaps I should attack before the new arrival knows I'm awake. As I recall, these books don't really go in for Instant Deaths, so the worst that can happen here is taking a little damage before getting into a fight. Therefore I'll try and figure out whether or not this person is actually an enemy before I start poking my spear at them.

A wise choice, as this is an attractive young Ratikkan female by the name of Glanda, who's on her own Ordeal of Courage (the fact that both genders have them is a good deal more egalitarian than I expected to find here). She intends to claim the heart of the Ice Dragon as her prize, and invites me to join her on this quest. I'm torn between wanting to accompany her (for fairly obvious reasons - which is a bit of a surprise, given that this book is published by the same company that bowdlerised the sexual references in around half a dozen Tunnels & Trolls adventures) and thinking that her intentions are foolish and suicidal. You know, it would have been a good time to make the reader aware that seeking the Ice Dragon is a mug's game back when I got given the choice between venturing into Ice Dragon territory and trying to find out what in Ratik a Painted Frusti is. Well, two of us should have better chances against the beast than one, and if her plan to use 'guile and speed' actually has any substance to it, a partnership could prove advantageous.

The somewhat regrettably-named Glanda claims to have heard that the Ice Dragon lives in an ancient Gondorian temple (Gondor? This isn't Middle Earth.), and she has 'some notions' about the whereabouts of this temple. Then, in the next section, she admits to having no idea where it is. Before I can query this discrepancy, we are interrupted by another Ratikkan youth, apparently from Glanda's village, and evidently very jealous. If I want to stick with Glanda, I'm going to have to fight him.

As I contemplate my decision, the book mentions that the Ordeal is supposed to be done single-handed. And this didn't come up when I was deciding whether or not to join forces with Glanda in the first place because...? I'm starting to have second thoughts about the whole thing: her plan now appears ill-thought-out, and fighting someone over a woman appeals to me as little in a gamebook as it would in real life. These two obviously have some history between them, and I'd rather not get mixed up in their affairs. Glanda is displeased, apparently having hoped to see a bit of violence. Definitely a situation I'm best out of.

After a couple of days I come across a trade route, and conceal myself when I hear a wagon approaching. It belongs to a couple of Medigian traders, who have a rather nifty-looking sword, and a Ratikkan woman in their cage. For once the book sums up the pros and cons of an action before I have to decide: if I attack, I get the advantage of surprise, but the slavers outnumber me. And apparently Sagard's ethics do not include any sense of duty towards Ratikkans who aren't from his village. But I've lived in Hull for the last 15 years, and Wilberforce's opposition to the slave trade is a big enough part of its heritage to have had some influence on me. Fear dictates that I remain hidden, but I'm not taking notes.

I get in four decent blows before the traders are able to start retaliating. After that I take something of a beating, but ultimately I prevail. Turning my attention to their prisoner, I find that she is a Valkyrie who was travelling incognito. She heals my wounds, gives me the sword, and lets me know that she has been watching over me, and would have protected me from death, but from now on I'm on my own. So the gamebook contrives to ensure my survival in the early stages of the adventure, then gets losable once I have a few encounters under my belt? I quite like that.

Oh, and I'm going to have to fight the Ice Dragon. Once it's been prophesied by a mystical being, it stops being a stupid idea, right? However, I have no more idea where the Dragon actually lives than Glanda, so I decide to seek the wisdom of the Frusti Sage. Who lives in the north, despite Frusti territory being to the south. Maybe he's a Nicodemus-style recluse.

There's no response when I knock at his door, and I am unwise enough to enter unbidden. The Frusti is in, and accuses me of trying to steal from him. He won't tell me what I want to know unless I give him my sword or fight him. Not that much like Nicodemus, then. The sword is too high a price to pay (especially as I had to discard my spear when given it), so I'm going to have to beat the Freedom of Information Act into this Sage. Who turns out to be a Berserker. Definitely no Nicodemus. He hits a lot harder than I do, but lacks armour, so the fight could go either way. And I win, but not by a very comfortable margin.

I take a map, wait until I'm fully healed, and then set off again at dusk (why the repeated departure as it's getting dark? Okay, so in a movie, you could get some lovely visuals of the hero striding towards the sunset, but this is just words on paper). This time round I don't wind up sheltering in a cave, as I find a Gondorian road, constructed of marble block that glow in the moonlight. It leads to a ruined stadium, beyond which is a mist-shrouded valley. The smell of a campfire leads me to a couple of Tehnite tents, with an ornately painted shield nearby. I consider stealing it, but reflect that Tehnites are brutal fighters. Better to do without, then.

As I sneak away, the mist suddenly dissipates, and I find myself forced into the combat I sought to avoid. The same section serves for 'try to steal the shield' and 'get spotted while departing', making for an awkward transition and a surfeit of Ackbarisms. As it turns out, the Tehnites are no better at fighting than I, their combined Hit Points are fewer than mine, and they don't have the damage bonus provided by my sword. Still, there are two of them, so I shouldn't get cocky. It's a less punishing fight than the one against the Frusti or the traders, but there's less healing to follow. Still, the shield will provide some protection in future battles, and also serves as a trophy.

During the afternoon I encounter the rare (and soon rarer) Furred Snake, and the shield takes something of a battering before the Snake dies. I rip out the Snake's fang (it only has one?), not just because it makes a good trophy, but because its venom will restore me to full health when I drink it (which isn't quite as daft as it may sound, as venom needs to enter the bloodstream to do damage, unlike poison, which is harmful when ingested. So you shouldn't really call snakes and other creepy crawlies 'poisonous' unless you're referring to ones that aren't good to eat - the ones you don't want biting you are venomous. Regardless, I do not advise drinking venom: if you do so, and it gets into a cut in your mouth and kills you, don't come complaining to me!).

At the end of the valley I see three potential ways forward: a crevasse, a cave, and what looks like a man-made portal. If there was anything in the rumour Glanda had heard, the portal is the most likely option. Still, this section is a self-confessed hub, so I could check out the other places first and see if there are any fun trophies to be had in them.

The crevasse turns out to house a flock of bats, which attack because fictional bats do that sort of thing. It's a tiresome fight, and I have to make use of the venom owing to the cumulative effect of multiple trivial wounds, but I survive. Lighting a fire against the unnatural cold, I discover that this cavern is artificial, and shreds of clothing on the floor hint that bad stuff has happened here. I'm given the option of turning back (leaving half way through the section, because sloppy structuring earlier and the authors' desire to have a round number of sections in the adventure leave no room for any 'if you advance, turn to X' option), but choose to face the nameless horrors of this place.

Which turn out to be a load of plucked birds (quite tasty) and a quartet of Kobolds that are almost as flimsy as the bats were. I mash them without taking any damage, and ignore another mid-section 'you can turn back now if you're scared', descending to a chamber strewn with the remnants of a large number of warriors, which appear to have been dumped here via a chute. Retreat doesn't look quite such a silly option now. Nevertheless, I ascend the chute, and cross a bridge over a river. The bridge collapses, but not until I'm far enough across to leap to safety. Still, there won't be any more 'turn back'options from here.

A huge door leads onwards. It's locked, but the keyhole is big enough that I can pick the lock with my dagger. Behind it is an Ice Golem. Even with the most favourable rolls imaginable, I could only chip away half of its Hit Points before it flattened me. But if I can dodge past it... I have to fight a couple of rounds before I manage, losing a quarter of my Hit Points and not quite managing to lop off a sixteenth of the Golem's.

Beyond the Golem is a building containing many cells that hold animals' remains. I encounter a few penguins waddling down the corridor, and by now I do feel a little p-peckish... So, back up to full health, I continue on my way. Beside each cage is an illustration of the creature that was held in it. Observing an impressive picture of a fearsome Snow Tiger, I peek inside to see the mighty beast's skeleton. The skeleton turns out to still be covered in flesh and fur, and contains a selection of fully functional internal organs, plus almost everything else necessary for sustaining life. The only missing ingredient is food. Which is where I come in, as far as the Tiger is concerned...

Mind you, this is one meal that's not going down without a fight. And the Tiger will be a skeleton before long. Albeit one that's missing a jaw, as I need my trophies. Oh, and that battle enabled me to level up (yes, this game has experience points and skill levels), so I'm a better fighter now. Still not good enough to have much of a chance against that Golem (and some of the wording on the encounter suggested that I may meet Icy Boy again), but improvement is improvement.

Hearing voices, I investigate, and come across a couple of Yeti hunters preparing to ambush their prey. A fight breaks out moments later, and I decide to join in, as I have a 50% chance of getting embroiled in the melee even if I try not to get involved. The Yeti kills one hunter and hurts the other, but eventually succumbs to our attack. The surviving hunter then turns on me, wanting to claim the pelt for himself. Somehow he manages to lose half the Hit Points he still had (whereas if he'd only survived the fight by the skin of his teeth, he'd have been inexplicably invigorated). I make short work of him, and claim the Yeti pelt and the hunters' rations.

After a while I draw near to the Ice Dragon's lair. Four armed men calling themselves the Zokapers guard it, and attack when I refuse to surrender to them. Singly they'd be no hassle. En masse, they don't quite manage to kill me, but they do come mighty close. One turns out to be only mostly dead, and offers to let me know a secret way out if I swear not to kill the Ice Dragon, which is apparently a load-bearing boss. There's a chance to earn XP here by deducing what this place actually is, but that's a detail I remember from reading through the pdf a decade or so ago, so I don't think I can claim it this time around. Considering that I'm on my last legs, I wouldn't mind taking the Zokaper's deal, but I don't know that he's definitely trustworthy, and besides, I'm on a mission to get the Ice Dragon's heart, not to get close to the Dragon and then chicken out, so I'm not sure I can just sneak out the side door.

Now, this is interesting. I think I must have accepted the Zokaper's offer back when I did this adventure before, because I can't see how I'd remember the original function of this place, and yet forget the big twist. Which is that the Dragon isn't a Dragon. It's a machine! The power source for the vast refrigeration unit that's been running here for centuries (not that Sagard could put it in such terms, but he gets that it's man-made).

I am distracted by a pounding on the door. On the other side, pleading for release, are some people who call themselves Teknikans, keepers of the Ice Dragon. They claim that they're prisoners. If they genuinely want to be freed, they could probably show the safest way of removing the huge jewel that is the heart of the dragon. Then again, I'm near enough to death that even a couple of Level 0 opponents could kill me if they got lucky, so if this is a trick by people desperate to hang on to their jobs, I'd be a fool to fall for it.

Overall, I think that tinkering with the technology of the ancient Gondorians while it's still running is liable to be more harmful to my health than fighting a few boffins. A wise choice, as the Technikans are legit (and, from their description, possibly von Danikenesque humanoid aliens), and do want their freedom. The bad news is that I need to destroy the Ice Golem to enable them to escape. Better news is that they have a healing salve which restores me to full health, and that they deactivate the Ice Dragon before we set off for the end boss fight. Take away the artificially generated cold, and Jack Frost starts to succumb to John Thaw.

The melty man cometh

The Teknikans help out in the fight. By 'help out' I largely mean 'take the damage dealt by the Ice Golem while the rising temperature and I do serious damage to it', but they do get in the odd blow, and it's the three that survive who chip away the last of its Hit Points. In its death throes it hurls me across the river, and a bed of slush gives me a soft landing.

Returning to my village, I face the judgement of my elders (and observe that the former owner who wrote in the book is a liar and a cheat, who claimed to have two trophies that lie on mutually exclusive paths). They are so impressed by all that I have accumulated, they want me to become the new chieftain. I decline, as there are another three Sagard the Barbarian books, and the challenges that come with leadership get explored by The Way of the Tiger rather than this series.

Well, that was entertaining. Perhaps a little too easy - every time it showed signs of getting dangerous, a massive healing boost came along - and some things could have done with being made clearer (or explained at a more appropriate moment), but it was fun, and occasionally required a little intelligent decision-making. As my schedule currently stands, it'll be a long while before I get to the second book in the series, but as I enjoyed the first book more than I'd expected to, I may bump it up a little.


  1. Hi there, can you say whether there is much interior artwork in these Sagard books? I am considering buying them at the moment.

    Thanks in advance.

    1. About 15 full-page illustrations (plus the map at the start, and additional maps in a couple of later volumes). No small pictures between sections in the style of series like Fighting Fantasy, Lone Wolf and Way of the Tiger, though.

    2. I appreciate the reply Ed. ;-)