Monday, 8 October 2012

Example is the Checker to the Key

I must have got issue 3 of Proteus, Shinderg's Tomb (by Richard Barron), on the way to school, as I have vague memories of being outside the music room while looking into the Instant Death for characters who persist in going the wrong way at the start. I made my first (and, for a long while, only) proper attempt at it at my grandparents' house, and wound up fatally banging my head while flying over a Zombie horde. I'm not sure I actually went back to it again until I was reviewing the series for Demian's website, and by the time I'd finished it, my mild dislike for the adventure had changed to outright loathing.

It is 2058 a.d., four decades after the war of the three Geostates transformed the world into an uninspired fantasy setting. The New World is under threat from Zartog's Bewo Warriors. As the last surviving member of the Inter-Sector Brotherhood, I must now travel around the world to collect all four parts of the Key of Peace and reassemble it in the tomb of the Great Fathers in order to save the world.

Character generation is a little different from usual. I have to roll dice to determine my Strength and Geo-Secular Powers of Flight and Invisibility, and choose four of the nine Low-Order Powers. No Dexterity or other Skill-equivalent: in this brave new world, all combatants are equally adept. So I roll:
Flight: 19
Invisibility: 16
Strength: 17
At least, that's what I get if I'm correctly interpreting the word 'dice' in the rules as plural. For Low-Order Powers I select Enchantment, Breath of the dragon of pyroxen, Zephone (ill-defined 'feats of magic') and Self-healing power from the school of the Old Zenbians (also poorly defined, but in the absence of evidence to the contrary, I'm assuming I can use it to replenish my Strength). One of the Low-Order Powers I choose not to take is Eyes of the Great Predator, which would enable me to see any distance (not sure how it takes planetary curvature into account) and through any substance other than Grigon. Whatever that is.

I receive my mission briefing from Shinderg, who is apparently Supreme God of the New World. He wears clothes of pure Grigon (so was he worried I might be a Peeping Tom with Eyes of the Great Predator?) and recites a rather horrible poem to hint at the correct order in which to visit the four sectors of the world. Frankly, I find it hard to be awed by someone who spouts such doggerel as:
"Remember that, on your way you may die
And only I am the one who will not lie."

There are doors to all four points of the compass, and the way to figure out which is the correct one is to 'search your heart'. I think this refers to my being the bearer of the legacy of the Great Western Warrior, and west is the correct direction to go, so that would appear to back up my theory. Then again, the default 'facing' in gamebooks tends to be north, and if you're looking north, your heart is on the west side of your body (assuming conventional anatomy) so...

Anyway, I go west, and an old man in desperate need of a manicure gives me the first quarter of the key and vanishes. The poem prompts me to seek out the harbour, where my way is blocked by the evil Gorf (not related to the eighties video game of the same name). I can fight or use Invisibility, and as it's advisable to evade combat whenever possible, I opt for the disappearing trick. Unexpectedly, rather than just sneaking past, I watch him flail around like an unskilled mime for a while, and then punch him to death when fatigue sets in.

There are three ships in the harbour, one heading for each unvisited sector. The poem explicitly said that the second segment is 'not to the North' (a poor rhyme with 'Gorf'), so only a complete idiot would take the northbound boat. Rather more subtly, the last segment was said to be 'a pole apart' from the third one, and as I've already been west, that suggests that the last two are to the north and south (though not necessarily in that order). So I pick the boat that's going east.

Along the way, one of the deck-hands gives me a silver cross that was given to his great-grandfather by a member of the Inter-Sector Brotherhood and passed down through the generations. Authorial sloppiness transforms it into a key as I pocket it. The journey itself is uneventful, and I soon reach the Eastern sector. 

The sad thing about this next sequence is that there are some wonderfully imaginative concepts in it, but the author doesn't do anything worthwhile with them. A stone desert, populated by forests of nomadic plants that cluster around oases of blood, should be more than just window dressing. But rather than explore this bizarre environment, I just encounter a monster. This is the 'fabled' Monoculus, a fearsome brute that wields a living branch from the nomadic forest. As the name suggests, it has but one eye, but unlike your average Cyclops, the Monoculus keeps its eye in its torso. This has the potential to be quite a tough fight, but one quick burst of Enchantment, and the formidable beast is purring and obligingly pointing out the Bewo Warriors who have the next part of the Key.

There is no way of avoiding a fight with the chief Bewo Warrior, whose magical abilities are on a par with mine. I prepare myself for a drawn-out exchange of blows that will probably leave him dead and me in a pitiful state, but the 'automatically kill your opponent on a double 6' rule comes into play in the fourth round of combat, so I'm barely bruised as he expires (leaving me unsure whether or not I can claim the full Strength bonus that follows, as it would take me above my starting score). The other warriors do nothing, so I take his part of the key and, for lack of anything better to do, continue to head east.

The temperature drops, and I find a horde of antiworld creatures coming after me. The way ahead is blocked by a wall of ice. Good thing I picked up the fire-breathing Low-Order Power, eh? I melt my way through the barrier, incinerate my pursuers, and swim away in the tepid stream that was a mountain of ice just moments before. Look, if you want an adventure that makes sense, you'll have to come back another day.

Reaching the coast, I am aided by a past annoyance. There are, as far as I can tell, no clues as to the correct direction from here, but when reviewing the adventure, I ranted about a preposterously counter-intuitive Instant Death on the journey to the final sector, and aspects of the set-up of that ludicrous incident involved direction of travel, so based on that I can remember which way I was going, and thus I can work out the correct way to go now. Backing up my theory is the fact that I soon reach an abandoned harbour and find a stone into which someone has chiselled a cross-shaped indentation. I slot in the cross I was given, and the stone rises up to reveal three gold keys.

Resuming my travels, I find another harbour, which is in a cage. The door to the cage has three locks, and the keys I just found fit the locks. In the harbour is one unmanned ship, and a note pinned to the cabin door with a human bone (I wonder which one) confronts me with a riddle in verse almost as bad as Shinderg's. The solution is straightforward, and activates the autopilot. Unable to influence whatever is moving the ship, I get some rest.

Waking to find the ship becalmed, I start looking for a sextant (because the only thing keeping the ship from moving is my not knowing where it is, right?), and inadvertently unbottle the Genie God of the Seven Seas. In return for his release, he offers to grant me a wish, and my character is too unimaginative to think of anything beyond transportation to one of the remaining sectors. Why not wish to be teleported straight to the location of the third quarter of the key, and cut out whatever faff there is between it and here?

I arrive in the appropriate sector, which is inhabited by Headleggers, odd creatures with an illustration that doesn't really fit the description. The text can be read more than one way, but what is clear is that, at least facially, they resemble humans, though with long legs in place of ears.

Does your face look like any of these? If so, seek professional help.

They're just another arbitrary incidental detail, though, and I am soon on my way to the castle of Gabordex, holder of the third part of the key. Before long I reach a gate that can only be opened from this side (so the castle grounds let people in but not out?). After that I spend a while wandering down featureless paths and having to make arbitrary choices of direction. At one of the many junctions, we get this deathless prose: 'You are almost exhausted but, knowing that the world is in grave danger, you make a quick decision.'

Eventually I encounter a Corpylex, a massive arachnid with the evolutionarily bizarre feature that its knee-joints are human skulls. I don't know, maybe it's what a Headlegger turns into if it gets fed after midnight. I am unable to make use of any Powers in this encounter because the author won't let me. Unexpectedly favourable dice ensure that the Corpylex fares no better than the Bewo Warrior, and after helping myself to the creature's golden collar (it was someone's pet?) I resume my search for the palace.

When I finally get there, a guard challenges me, backing off when he sees the badge that identifies me as a member of the Brotherhood. I wonder what happens to the people who aren't able to convince the guards that they have legitimate business here. Remember, the gate doesn't let anyone out.

Gabordex is surrounded by guards, and tells me that I must solve his puzzle. If I get it right, I get his part of the key. If I get it wrong, I die. He then dismisses his guards (so I'm not sure how I'd get killed if I couldn't solve the puzzle) and reads out another horrible poem, this one non-rhyming. Not a tricky puzzle, and once I have the next quarter of the key, I decide to have a rest. What happened to the 'quick action on account of global peril' thing?

A guard offers me useful information in return for gold, so I hand over the Corpylex's collar. In return, I receive a map of the secret tunnel used by Eastern smugglers to travel to the Northern sector. Considering that the great ocean lies between all the sectors, that's quite some tunnel. The tunnel goes west, then north, then turns east, and after a while, illumination is provided by fires in skulls.

I reach the junction that prompted the rant that helped me remember where to go third. I'm heading from the Southern sector to the Northern sector, and must choose between going north or south. And north is an Instant Death. So I head south to prolong the agony. After a while the passage turns east, the light fittings become less Goth, and the Zombies that indirectly contributed to my first character death approach. This time round my Strength isn't so low that banging my head on the roof will kill me, but I use Invisibility anyway, in case my next fight doesn't go so well. I weave my way through the horde (so they can't be very close to each other, as a single touch means infection and death).

Further on, I rest again. Somehow taking a break in a subterranean passage adds Strength, while relaxing in a luxurious palace did nothing. I reach another junction, take a chance on north, and find a red key in an alcove, indicating that I've reached the really bad stage of the adventure. It's a maze, and somewhere in it are assorted other keys, some of which I need. If that were all, I'd have no problem with this sequence. But at least four of the turnings in this maze lead to Instant Deaths (two of which would be especially galling if I'd taken Breathing-power of the Neptunian Gods as one of my Low-Order Powers, as there's no option of using it for protection from the naturally-occurring nerve gas that turns a couple of passages into dead ends). So I need to search quite carefully if I want to get out, but one wrong turning and I'm dead.

Okay, so just about every gamebook Ian Livingstone wrote in the latter half of the eighties works on much the same principle, but somehow having it concentrated in one area makes it all the more horrid.

The maze proper starts in a cavern with three exits and assorted carvings, including an inscription which explains that 'the key to the key is three keys from seven keys'. As I recall, there's a monster lurking in whichever passage I try the first time I leave here, but not on any subsequent departure from the cavern. I'll try the east exit this time. And that leads to a fight against a Kortex, which is not as cerebral a foe as you might think. My worst fight yet, but I survive all the same.

After a short time I manage to retrace my footsteps to the entrance cavern (not grasping my strategy, the text states that I am disappointed to find myself back there). This time I head north, and find a bunch of green keys, so I take one. Further cautious exploration brings me back to the entrance cavern twice more, and I find a pot of black keys in the eastward passage (must have missed it while fighting the Kortex), and a string of yellow keys in the tunnel that leads south from the cavern. But I only ever find keys when heading away from the cavern, so I had to loop back those three times in order to get the lot.

By now I've found seven turnings I have yet to investigate. If my vague memories of the layout of this place are correct, I know two to avoid. I think I can work out which of the other five may yield keys, and if I'm right, I anticipate discovering at least two more turnings that I can label no-go areas.

A tentative systematic approach suggests that the layout may be more complicated than I'd hoped. I'm glad I decided to map this area out again. Further investigation turns up an orange key and confirmation that my extrapolations from memory have not been entirely accurate. Hey, I haven't touched the dratted adventure since January 2004. How much can you remember of what you were reading back then?

It looks as if the keys over here can only be found by going in one direction, too. Finding no key in a passage that, to fit the emerging pattern, should have had one, I went back the way I'd just come and discovered a white key. Man, if I hadn't been so stubborn as to keep playing until I beat the rotten adventure back when I was reviewing it, I wouldn't have had a chance here.

Checking that things connect up as I should, I get the text 'You are by now feeling lost.' WRONG! Because I made a map just like page 3 advised me to, and I know exactly where I am. Plus, I have a new theory about the layout, and reckon I have a good idea where the exits are, so there!

For one horrible moment it looked as if my theory was so egregiously wrong as to have led me into one of the Instant Death havens, but it's just a new monster. A Stoneman (one of the Instant Deaths around here does involve being suddenly outnumbered by animated stalagmites, hence my confusion) that's twice my size, but it appears to be vulnerable to Zephone (it's about time that Power came in handy). Indeed, I transform it into a heap of dust and continue on my way, and just round the corner is a door painted red, orange and green. I have keys in all those colours. They unlock the door, providing access to a ladder which takes me to the Northern sector. So much for 'feeling lost'.

At the top of the ladder I find myself in a mountain range, the only obvious exit a canyon running east. But I've not used my Power of Flight all adventure, and now turns out to be a good time to start, as west of the mountains I see a castle and a busy harbour. Swooping down to investigate, I find the final piece of the key in the strangely deserted castle. Shinderg's voice reminds me that I still have to take the whole key to the tomb, and he manifests in human form to keep me company on the journey.

We board a waiting ship, and the food, drink and rest I get on the journey do nothing to restore lost Strength. Arriving back in the Western sector, we are attacked by servants of Gorf, The dice are a lot less favourable to me this time, but having more than twice the Strength of my assailants enables me to prevail. Shinderg has no trouble dealing with the others. Victory is mine, right?

Not quite, because once we're in the tomb, Shinderg suddenly reveals himself to be a disguised Brimgeth. Luckily I have just enough points left in my Invisibility to use it one last time. I sneak past the Brimgeth, and the real Shinderg appears. He congratulates me, I hand over the key, and he takes up residence in the tomb. If 'residence' is the right word, since I think he's now dead.

Completing this quest has infused me with great power, which I must use to protect the weak from the likes of Zartog and his minions. The end of this adventure is the start of another one. But Mr. Barron never wrote for the series again, so I will never play through the further adventures of the last of the Inter-Sector Brotherhood. Yay!

Beat you again, Shinderg's Tomb! Please, please, let that be the last time I have to play you.

1 comment:

  1. If "Breathing-power of the Neptunian Gods" just means you don't have to breathe, then it won't actually protect you from nerve gas, which can take effect from mere skin exposure.

    Still sounds like a less than thrilling adventure, though. Instant deaths in gamebooks should have some kind of hint to them.

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