To diminish the likelihood of my failing this attempt as rapidly as I did last Wednesday's, I'm diminishing the randomness of character creation. My preferred method of doing this is to roll for all three attributes simultaneously, and choose which die gets added to which characteristic. That wouldn't actually have helped much last week, as every roll was sub-par anyway, but today's dice are a good deal better. There's no way of getting a Skill below 9 out of that lot, but 9 is still too low for this adventure, whatever page 17 may claim, so I'm going for
Failure is still a near-certainty, but at least I should be able to get through a fair chunk of the book before my inevitable demise. I get the standard choice of Potions at the start, and take the one I'm most likely to need.
The premise of the adventure is unchanged, and my actions in the early stages are pretty much the same as when I did the teaser. I may now have a good chance of killing the Mammoth that awaits anyone who avoids the ice bridge, but that fight is still likely to do me a lot more harm than the one against the Snow Wolves. So, in summary: bridge, Wolves (this time without taking a scratch), implausible igloo-building, hut, weapons, trapper's fall, thrown spear, Yeti fight (follow the link above for a more detailed account of those encounters).
Even with the superior Skill, I still wind up losing half my Stamina in the fight. But half isn't all. So I turn my attention to the dying trapper, who tells me that yesterday he finally discovered the entrance to the 'legendary' Crystal Caves, home of the Snow Witch, who intends to bring on an ice age and take over the world. The trapper's words are paraphrased rather than quoted, so it's unclear whether he just says, 'the Crystal Caves' and I remember the legend, or he actually launches into a massive expository info-dump as his life ebbs away. Regardless, he reveals that he saw one of the Snow Witch's minions pass through the illusion that conceals the entrance, and marked it. The book says nothing about him then going, "Hey, is that my warhammer? You thieving..." (dies), but it doesn't say I can only discard items when explicitly told to, either, so I'm reading the unspoken accusation in his eyes and using the hammer to mark his grave. The book forced me to pick it up, and I'm better off without it, so this seems as good a time as any to ditch the thing.
Under the assumption that anyone who starts reading a gamebook entitled Caverns of the Snow Witch isn't going to pass up the opportunity to visit the eponymous location, Mr. Livingstone gives no option to ignore the dead man's plot hook, return to Big Jim, collect the Yeti-killing bounty and wake up entombed in a glacier the following morning, so I automatically set off in search of the entrance.
Next on Ian's list of snowy mountain clichés is an avalanche. Luckily for me, the avalanche chooses to take a different route down the mountain than the one on which I'm ascending, so I'm not inconvenienced by it. And that's the last obstacle before the entrance. Passing through the illusory wall (good thing none of the Snow Witch's servants spotted the trapper's marker, recognised its function, and moved it to a solid rock face), I advance to a junction and part company with just about every other gamebook blogger who's tried the book, because I know how fond Ian is of the direction right.
On this occasion, going right leads to a dead end, but a dead end containing a ladle of the Snow Witch's patent anti-chill medicine, designed to prevent her slaves from being rendered unproductive by frostbite, hypothermia and chilblains. A quick swig restores some lost Stamina, and if I'd got frostbite and somehow managed to survive the Yeti fight despite the Skill penalty, I would now be cured.
Turning around and heading back the way I came, I then meet a Mountain Elf. I'm so familiar with this encounter, I'd actually forgotten how counter-intuitive the best course of action here is. It was only when all the other gamebook bloggers did their best to avoid attracting attention that it occurred to me that what I automatically did any time I got this far was not the obvious choice.
So I go up to the Elf and ask, "Is this the right place to sign up for perpetual slavery to the Snow Witch?", and he tells me I'm nuts, and he's only working for her because of the obedience collar he's been forced to wear. I then admit that I'm actually planning on killing her, and he gives me a double thumbs-up and his cloak, and tells me which way to go at the next junction.
I must admit to some confusion about exactly how the obedience collars function. One way this encounter can go leads to the Elf commenting, "If I lost my obedience collar, I'd try to escape. AAAAGH! THE PAIN! OH, SWEET GALANA! MAKE IT STOP! I WAS ONLY KIDDING ABOUT NOT WANTING TO BE A SLAVE! AAAAAARGH!" (faints). But if he goes, "Yeah, kill the Snow Witch. Let me help you as much as I can!", not a twinge.
I proceed to the junction and take the correct turning (not the one that Murray, Marsten and (implicilty) Dan took, because none of them let the Elf know they'd come to kill his Mistress). Before long I spot the local kitchens, and pop in to have further friendly banter with the staff, namely a Gnome and a Neanderthal. I'm not sure what a species named after a German valley is doing on a world that has no Germany, but never mind. Offended at the Gnome's Marie Antoinette impersonation, I draw my sword, and the Neanderthal grabs a knife and a stool and attacks me. I provide him with a practical demonstration of the concept of extinction, and the Gnome runs away screaming.
There's still time for me to search the kitchens before he returns with reinforcements, and I do so, finding a flute, a wooden stick with runes carved into it, a withered rose and a book entitled The Secrets of Toads. The Gnome is evidently a practitioner of extreme nouvelle cuisine. The flute plays itself, the rose restores Stamina when sniffed, the stick is unreadable, so I hang onto it (ostentatiously in the hope of finding a Rosetta Stone-equivalent later, but actually because I know I need it for another purpose) and the book is booby-trapped with a poisoned needle, but has been converted into a container for a jade frog talisman that will come in handy later.
Moving on, I reach a chamber where ten of the Snow Witch's followers are worshipping the effigy of a demon, carved from ice. I try to sneak past, but my Luck lets me down, and I get asked why I didn't join in with their devotions. There is no simple way out of this situation, so I take the somewhat risky option of attacking the mob. They overpower me and dump me in a blue-dyed circle of ice (no, not blue ice), and the effigy comes to life and attacks me. Its bad breath does a lot more damage to me than its frozen fists, but I prevail, and my iconoclasm sufficiently intimidates the worshippers that they let me go.
At the next junction, I hear cries for help from the left, and thus investigate. The cries come from a Dwarf in a pit, who's having chunks of ice dropped on him from above because that's the sort of thing the Snow Witch's followers do for entertainment. I help him out of the pit, and his tormentors boo me but aren't smart enough to throw things at me. The Dwarf warns me to beware the white rat (unhelpful advice, as there's no way of avoiding the thing other than to die before encountering it) and gives me a sling and ammunition.
There's no way on from here, so I return to the junction and head right. That leads to a chamber with three exits, one of them carved into the shape of a huge skull. An ugly man with a prism steps out of that one, and tells me to turn back, as only the Snow Witch's personal servants are allowed beyond this point. Bluffing him would be unwise, so I just attack. He creates illusory duplicates of himself, but I stab the real man. In seconds, his wound has healed, so I grab his prism and smash it. He flees back into the skull-shaped exit, and a Genie emerges from the remains of the prism and offers to turn me invisible once.
A great deal has been written complaining about how this pans out. Basically, there is no way of getting beyond this cavern (and not getting inescapably trapped) without freeing the Genie and getting the offer of invisibility when required. Remember that for slightly later on.
Two of the exits from this cavern lead to traps, and the items needed for getting out of those traps can only be found on the route I didn't take on the Elf's advice. So I have to follow the Illusionist I just de-prismed. The passage must have a high roof, as it leads to a chamber occupied by a Frost Giant, currently in the process of lifting a wooden chest onto a high shelf. Recognising a 'David and Goliath' set-up when I see one, I use the sling to propel an iron ball into the big guy's temple, and he collapses 'like a house of cards', dropping the chest. It contains a bottle of perfume, which did not survive being dropped, and three rings. I ignore the actively harmful one, and take the others because, while careless structuring means I'll never get the opportunity to benefit from their powers, the Luck bonuses for acquiring them should come in very handy.
Moving on, I reach a crossroads and see a Crystal Warrior approaching. This is one of the toughest opponents in the book, and cannot be harmed by edged weapons. I can only fight it if I have a warhammer. But I abandoned the warhammer back at the trapper's grave, so my only hope of escape is if I can call on the Genie. Just think about that. It is impossible to get this far without getting the Genie's offer of assistance (so the 'if you can't do that, you die' text is redundant), which means that not possessing the warhammer is a guarantee of being able to avoid one of the most difficult fights in the entire book. But you automatically acquire the warhammer when you get the spear, and without the spear, the Yeti is about as dangerous as the Crystal Warrior, so unless you're already aware of how messed-up this book is and exploit the tenuous loophole I have, you have to either fight the Yeti at full strength or fight the Crystal Warrior. Oh, and the invisibility can only be used here, so if you do bring the warhammer this far, you waste the Genie's boon. I guess the rate at which Ian was writing gamebooks back then didn't allow time for playtesting.
Anyway, I've fiddled my way around the fight, so I can proceed to the next junction and take the tunring that leads to a door. Behind the door is a storeroom, guarded by a Zombie. I defeat him with ease, and get to take three items from the stores. There are five from which to choose, three are of actual use later on, and unless you're already familiar enough with the book to know what matters, the choice is almost entirely based on guesswork. I say 'almost' because there can be few players who won't go for the garlic on principle, but only metaknowledge will help when it comes to choosing the other two. What makes this all the more galling is that in about two sections time my character will remember a use for one of the items here, but right now, when I have to decide whether or not I want to take it, not even a hint. It would have been so much better for Ian to mention potential uses for all the different items in this section, so the reader could make a slightly more informed decision. There'd still be guesswork involved first time round, but less arbitrary, along the lines of, 'Am I more likely to need to cast a Spell of Deception or to have to counteract a Metamorphosis Spell?'
I was wrong. It's in the very next section that I get the inventory check for one of the less obvious storeroom items. I enter a chamber containing a sarcophagus, and out jumps a white rat. The one I was warned about, but the Dwarf's warning didn't go so far as to say, "Because if you don't have the right item (which can be found very close by), it'll transform into a whacking great Dragon and try to kill you." I do have the correct item, and thus avoid a fight even worse than the one against an unwounded Yeti or Crystal Warrior.
But not having to fight the fight won't keep me from complaining about another aspect of it. Remember those rings I got after killing the Frost Giant? One of them would provide protection from the Dragon's chilly breath, and that's fine. The other can summon a warrior to my aid. Interesting idea, lousily implemented.
- Flaw 1: the only opportunity to use it is against the Dragon, despite the multitude of other situations in which it might come in handy.
- Flaw 2: the warrior summoned has a Skill somewhere between 6 and 9, and is thus about as much use as a chocolate flamethrower against this Skill 12 brute. What kind of Ninja has just 6 Skill?
- Flaw 3: after summoning the warrior, I just sit back and watch him get slaughtered, and only when he is dead do I take up arms against the potentially unscathed Dragon. Steve Jackson came up with rules for fighting alongside an ally back in Citadel of Chaos. Ian's been using rules for when the player character fights more than one opponent simultaneously since The Forest of Doom. There's no good reason why I shouldn't be able to attack at the same time as the warrior. Even if it just means a couple of chances at hitting the Dragon while it's busy eating the World's Most Rubbish Ninja.
Catching sight of something frozen into the ice wall, I investigate and discover that this is where the Snow Witch keeps her treasure (the legend was true, Murray!). Using the same skills I demonstrated when procuring igloo components, I excavate the loot. By authorial fiat, the very first bit of treasure I pick up happens to be the one item that is enchanted to transform into a golden Sentinel and attack any unauthorised person who touches it. But anyone with the Skill to defeat the Yeti should have little trouble against the Sentinel, and I only take one wound in the fight.
That's where the teaser ends, with the hero getting all the treasure and preparing to return to Big Jim and claim the Yeti bounty because no matter how much money you have, you could always do with a little more, right? But in the book, I'm barely half way. I still get to take some treasure, but as it's heavy stuff, there are rules governing how much I can take. Stupid rules. Basically, for every item I discard, I can take 50 gold pieces. So the less stuff I have on me right now, the less gold I will be able to carry. And a pointed stick, a flute and a bulb of garlic apparently each weigh as much and take up as much space as 50 gold coins.
A Dwarf and an Elf enter the cavern, and as I prepare to defend myself, they reassure me that they and all the other unwilling servants of the Snow Witch are rebelling now she's not around to activate the obedience collars, and they're fighting her followers. To save me from having to get embroiled in the battle, they've come to show me her super secret escape route, which is concealed behind another illusion.
We go through and advance to a junction. Both directions have their merits, but one leads to a threat and a not-quite-essential item, while the other is less hazardous. I think I can afford to miss out on the object, so I take the more risk-free route. My new companions introduce themselves: the Elf is called Redswift, the Dwarf Stubb. Both intend to return to their homes, and offer hospitality. Stubb spots a glass orb swirling with colours, and Redswift advises against touching it. I ignore him, and pick the orb up. It becomes warm and the colours speed up, but I just keep holding it, and get a Stamina boost.
After a bit, we spot an iron casket with a serpent-shaped handle, and as nobody is willing to open it, we draw lots. No 'just leave it alone' option here, more's the pity. Redswift draws the short straw, which is sort of handy, as he's the only one of us who can open the casket without triggering the trap. It contains a pair of boots that enable the wearer to walk silently on any surface, and we draw lots again to see who gets to wear them. Stubb is the lucky recipient, but I'm not too upset about that, as the only purpose the boots serve is to enable avoidance of a fight that leads to the acquisition of something useful.
At a T-junction we encounter a Cave-Man (not sure how he differs from the Neanderthal beyond having a slightly higher Skill), and as Ian still doesn't want to work out rules for fighting alongside allies, I send Stubb and Redswift down one passage and attack the Cave-Man on my own. It's an easy fight, and the only treasure I get is what Ian calls 'a star-shaped metal disc'. Okay, so data storage media have slightly confused the issue in recent years, but as a rule, the principal defining characteristic of a disc is its shape, and unless we're talking the solar variety, 'like a star' isn't even close to right.
Heading off to rejoin Stubb and Redswift, I find them busy having their mental energies drained by a Brain Slayer. It tries to compel me to join them, but the amulet from the Gnome's book enables me to resist, so I get to fight the monstrosity instead. While my companions recover, I search the chamber and find two pots. One contains 'a square metal disc' (that's worse than 'star-shaped'), the other a scroll written in fast-fading ink, which teaches me a spell for protection against Air Elementals.
Ignoring a dagger that sticks out of a door, we reach a section that very nearly gets the book hurled across the room, as Livingstone forces a food break, compelling me to waste two portions of Provisions on doomed sidekicks. It's unclear whether or not I'm allowed to gain Stamina from the portion I have to eat (and even if I do, half of the gain is wasted because I'm still in good health at the moment). In view of the Stamina attrition that's coming in the later stages of the book, having no choice but to effectively throw away 8-12 points of healing is immensely tiresome.
After the next junction, we reach a dead end. A shield hangs on the wall, so I grab it. Doing so summons an Air Elemental, which I dispel with ease. Heading back to the junction and the other way, we come to a door. A parchment hangs on it, and authorial fiat compels me to try and read it, then show it to Redswift when I fail to make sense of it. He looks displeased, shreds it, and urges us to get a move on, but doesn't bother to explain what's wrong. Beyond the door is a tunnel with dripping stalactites on its ceiling. Not wanting to get dripped on, I use the shield as an umbrella, and throw it back to my companions for them to do likewise. So we never discover that the dripping water is actually acidic (which I'm fairly sure makes no sense from a chemical standpoint, as the compounds involved in stalactite formation tend to be alkaline).
We reach an icy cavern containing a globe on a plinth. An Orc enters from the far exit, and the Snow Witch's face appears in the globe. She gloats that she still has power, and to demonstrate this and provide the subject for the original cover illustration, she makes the Orc's collar throttle him. She threatens to try the same trick with Stubb and Redswift's collars, and I decide to see if the globe is as fragile as a Frost Giant's skull. The iron pellet I hurl from the sling is on target, but instead of shattering, the globe fires a bolt of energy at me. I dive out of the way, and spot that the globe is at least cracked.
The Snow Witch starts to throttle Redswift and Stubb, and I insult her. She leaves them alone for the time being, and sets Zombie replicas of them on me. Both attack simultaneously, and are more dangerous than the average Zombie, so now would be a good time to use the warrior-summoning ring. Not an option, drat it, and I lose half my Stamina in the fight.
After that, the Snow Witch challenges me to a game involving discs. The shapes on the three discs (yes, I only found two of them, but that doesn't matter) have a power structure wherein circle beats star, star beats square, and square beats circle. I have to conceal a disc in my hand, then the Snow Witch will name a shape, and if the shape of my disc beats the one she names, we get to go free. I win, and the Snow Witch is defeated. Yes, the means by which this book's Big Bad is ultimately thwarted is that I beat her at a variant of Scissors-Paper-Stone. I actually included something in my sequel to Caverns to try and retroactively make this confrontation less ridiculous. No idea whether or not it works, but even if it doesn't, I can't see how it could make things any dafter than they already are.
Anyway, the globe shatters and the roof caves in. The latter detail is not as bad as it may seem, as my companions and I manage to avoid getting hurt by falling debris, and we can use the big hole above us as an exit from the caverns. Once out, I decide not to bother chasing after Big Jim, and Redswift and I accompany Stubb as he heads for his home in Stonebridge.
We travel south for two days, during which nothing of note happens. No Stamina lost or gained, no meals eaten, nothing. Then we get to a river, and the boatman is too lazy to take us across. I could bribe him, but doing that is indirectly what got me killed on my first readthrough of the book. You'll understand why in time. As he won't take us across the river, we head downstream until we find a boat just tied to a tree. Still feeling twinges of guilt over having stolent the trapper's weapons, I insist that we wait for the boat's owner. I doze off while waiting, and am woken by the sounds of fighting. Turns out that the boat belongs - well, belonged - to a Dark Elf, one of Redswift's natural enemies. Redswift wins, and a search of the body turns up a phial of liquid. I drink it, thereby discovering that it is a Potion of Health.
On the other side of the river, we encounter an old man who offers information in return for gold. I'm pretty sure that this is the only time in the whole book where spending money does not have harmful consequences. I hand over the cash, and the man reveals that the closest water-hole has been poisoned and Hill Trolls are gathering near Stonebridge. If the second of those details sounds familiar, it's because this adventure actually precedes The Forest of Doom, and the set-up in that book follows on from events in this one. I'm a little surprised that when Wizard Books chose to republish selected FF books, they never tried bringing this one out before Forest.
For no very good reason, a Bird-Man decides to attack me. Stubb and Redswift do nothing while we fight, which is especially fun when you realise that this is the highest-Skilled unavoidable opponent in the whole book. I lose two thirds of my Stamina before killing the wretched thing, and all I get out of the fight is the opportunity to keep walking. Thanks a lot, 'friends' and author.
We reach the water-hole I was warned about. A dead Ogre floats face down in it, which should be a bit of a deterrent even to anyone who didn't pay for the warning. I lose a point of Stamina owing to thirstiness, but then gain one when we find a friend of Stubb's who's been killed by Trolls and has no further need of his water bottle. I wonder if someone, somewhere, survived the Birdman attack on their last Stamina point and consequently died from that temporary thirst-based Stamina loss. We bury the late Morri and keep going until nightfall. I have to Test my Luck to get a quiet night, but the rest heals no Stamina because Ian has now reached the stage where giving his readers anything remotely resembling a chance is anathema to him.
The next day we finally catch sight of Stonebridge. We also see half a dozen Trolls, and Borri immediately charges to the attack. I don't have the option of sitting out the fight as payback for the Bird-Man incident. Nor of using the warrior-summoning ring to save myself having to fight two of the Trolls simultaneously. Most of the Stamina I'd restored by using up the last of my Provisions gets bashed away in that battle.
At last we reach Stonebridge. Stubb learns that the Dwarfs aren't motivated to defend themselves because of the stolen hammer, and promptly joins Bigleg's quest into Darkwood Forest to try and retrieve it, so presumably he dies in the ambush that fatally wounds Bigleg. Redswift then says he has something important to tell me, and we leave the village in order to discuss the matter in private. We evade further Trolls, and then Redswift explains that that parchment just before the dripping stalactites was a Death Spell. There's a man known as the Healer who lives somewhere in the Moonstone Hills and has experience of curing Death Spells, but Redswift fears that we won't reach him in time. I am assuming that somehow Redswift knows the spell only affects anyone who tried to read the parchment, because otherwise his deliberate avoidance of letting Stubb know about it makes him one of the most evil characters in the whole book.
That Potion of Health I drank earlier slows the Death Spell's effect on me (which is why it was essential not to bribe the boatman). Redswift dies, and for the moment I only incur penalties to Skill and Stamina. By rights, I shouldn't have to take the Skill hit, as I still have the amulet and the shield, both of which provide Skill bonuses I haven't been able to use before now on account of not being allowed to exceed my Initial score.
I avoid a load of hazardous padding by crossing a rope bridge. Ignoring a mysterious cave, because it's not the right mysterious cave, I am (just) Lucky enough to avoid being bitten by a Rattlesnake. Ah, yes, this is part of the mercifully brief period where Ian put Rattlers into every book he wrote. There was one in Island of the Lizard King, but I avoided it because my Stamina was too low to handle the venom. In Ian's next book, it's impossible to avoid getting bitten by another one while acquiring an essential item. I wonder what prompted that short-lived obsession.
Further on I notice a ladder leading up into a tree-house. It's not the Healer's home, but there's something useful in there, so I climb up and wind up killing the Man-Orc who objects to my invading his property. The fight goes the same way regardless of whether or not I'm going with that Skill penalty. I help myself to the Man-Orc's candle and tinder box (does that mean I had no means of making fire while on a mission in snowy mountains?) and continue on my way.
Trudging onwards, I catch sight of a sleeping Barbarian. I try to sneak past, but as I don't have those elfin boots, I fail, and he attacks. Again, that contentious Skill penalty makes no difference. I win, but take some damage, so it's time to down the Potion of Strength I've been lugging around since the start of the adventure. Back up to full Stamina, for now. The Barbarian owns three silver arrowheads, and an armband that adds 1 to my Skill when I put it on. So even if I wasn't allowed to claim the bonus from the amulet or the shield, I'm now back at full fighting capability.
Next I see another cave. This one has a flaming bird carved next to it, which means it's the one I want. I enter, and greet the Healer. He makes me wear a Mask of Life to halt the spread of the Death Spell. Putting it on costs Stamina - slightly more than I was down to before I drank that Potion. To complete the ritual that will cure the Spell, I must go right through the cave, which means crossing a deep pit spanned by a narrow log. Lighting the Man-Orc's candle makes the crossing easier.
For the next stage of the journey I need to be calm. The Healer knows how to brew up a tranquiliser, provided I have the necessary ingredient. Which just happens to be the third item I picked up back in the Snow Witch's storeroom. Once he's prepared the draught and I've drunk it, we continue on our way to the part of the cave that is home to a Banshee. She shrieks and wails and prophesies my doom, but the Healer's home-made valium does the trick, and I just ignore her, thereby avoiding a fight slightly tougher than the one against the Bird-Man.
We emerge from the cave, and the Healer tells me that all I have to do now is watch the sun rise at dawn. Though I will need to be on top of Firetop Mountain at the time. Which means that I have quite a climb ahead of me - unless, that is, I happen to have some silver to attract a Pegasus. Which I do, thanks to not having had those elfin boots.
The Pegasus takes me to the top of the mountain, enabling me to confirm that its distinctive reddish colouration is caused by vegetation. Sleeping Grass, to be precise, and its scent soon causes me to drop off. Towards dawn, the Healer invades my dreams with a vision of the bird he has carved by the entrance to his cave. If I can identify it, I get to wake up. I know my mythical avians well enough to pass this final test, and get into position to see the sun come up.
I don't believe it. I just won.
So, that was Caverns of the Snow Witch. On the positive side, it has an epic scope, a variety of environments, a couple of twists along the way, and significant worldbuilding. Negatives include stuff that makes no sense, things that weren't properly thought through, exasperating authorial impositions and a difficulty level that makes success highly unlikely even for readers who know the optimal route as well as I do. I'd have had no chance if my Skill had been just 9 or 10.
Mind you, after this adventure, Ian Livingstone started making his books a lot tougher. Sigh.