Monday, 15 October 2012

Snakes. Why Did It Have to Be Snakes?

The Seven Serpents was actually the first Sorcery! book I owned. I got it because I had some money burning a hole in my pocket, and the first book-selling shop on the way into town from school was Ballard's, which had a rather limited selection, TSS being the only book that appealed. The shopkeeper told me I'd need The Sorcery Spell Book as well if I wanted to play it properly. In fact, it was with TSS that the publishers started including the spell book at the back, so I had no need of the separate volume that owners of the pre-orange spine Shamutanti Hills and Kharé had had to buy in order to be able to play as a wizard, but as the shop didn't have any copies of TSSB in stock, I'm sure Mr. Ballard was genuinely trying to be helpful rather than just angling to sell me more stuff.

I soon realised that the book was part of an ongoing saga, hence my dropping hints that got me the first two volumes for Christmas or Birthday, but I didn't wait to get the start of the series before reading this one. Even bits I shouldn't have: the section explaining how to use the ring acquired in book 2 caught my eye at an early stage, and I didn't hesitate to look into the secrets it revealed at every opportunity during my readthrough. For this attempt I shan't be cheating in that manner, but I cannot unlearn those secrets, and as several of them warn against courses of action that would prove lethal in book 4, I shall act on that knowledge where necessary when I get that far.

This was also the first gamebook to get a substantial write-up when I played it at the unofficial FF forum. I don't yet know how much this blog entry will differ from what I wrote in 2009, but here I am aiming for greater accessibility (not everyone is as familiar with what goes on in the books as your average member of a forum dedicated to the series) and fewer obscure in-jokes. Valid criticisms are likely to recur, though I shall be writing them afresh here, and if they wind up phrased much the same way as they were first time round, that'll just indicate that I haven't much changed the way I say things since then.

As my original Sorcery! character died in the previous book, I shall have to create a new one. How this Analander managed to get to the far side of Kharé without acquiring any equipment or losing or gaining gold is a mystery, but somehow it's happened. And if I'm going to be picky about such things, one might wonder how someone with
Skill: 7
Stamina: 18
Luck: 9
managed to survive this far anyway.

I commence my crossing of the Baklands, a region of which my character knows little. Hearing the sounds of birds drawing nearer, I reassure myself that they can't be Xamen Birdmen this far from their territory. That's a bit optimistic, given that it was Xamen Birdmen that stole the crown I'm seeking to retrieve, and they went a lot further from home than here in order to do that. But I am correct. It's just four Nighthawks seeking to prey on me.

As is traditional, more than half of the spells I could cast here are tricks for the unwary: one only works indoors, one requires an item that even a veteran of books 1 & 2 has not yet had a chance to obtain, one creates quicksand, which isn't going to pose much of a threat to airborne opponents, and as Marsten discovered, another is effectively ignored by the birds. Leaving one that might work but costs 4 Stamina to cast, so if I get lucky, I'm better off just fighting.

I am not lucky, and lose slightly more Stamina than I would have casting the spell. But I do kill one of the Hawks, which is better than Steve Jackson though I'd do, as he has a Goldcrest Eagle (a particularly formidable variant of messenger pigeon) turn up, kill two of the Hawks, and scare off the other two. This assistance is not unwelcome, though the message the Eagle carries is far from good news. Basically, spies in the employ of the Archmage who stole the crown have learned of my quest, and have despatched the Seven Serpents (particularly ophidian variants of messenger pigeon) to warn him, so he can prepare a less-than-friendly welcome for me. If I could see my way to tracking down and killing the lot of them as I cross the Baklands, that should make the next book less difficult. The message also advises me to seek out Shadrack the Hermit, which I shall do even though I know him to be less well-informed than the message makes out.

I stop by a lone tree to eat Provisions, and the twigs reform into a creepy-looking face that gives me directions to Shadrack's. The way the message is phrased implies that this is not Shadrack remotely contacting me, though it subsequently becomes apparent that the tree did take on Shadrack's likeness while addressing me. Regardless, the advice given is accurate, and before long I'm enjoying the Hermit's hospitality. He is able to tell me the history and names of the Serpents, and that each has one particular vulnerability (though not what most of those vulnerabilities are), but not where to find them (which is only really an issue because that note said, 'naught moves through the Backlands (sic.) without his Knowledge', and it's a little disappointing that his knowledge of their movements boils down to, 'yeah, they're here somewhere').

The next morning I set off again, back to full Stamina and with a gift in my backpack. A gift which almost gets broken when I fall over as a result of being surprised by a Baddu-Beetle. This is a nasty fight, and unavoidable for anyone starting in this book, as the choice of spells to use here is again largely useless. If Steve Jackson had written a gamebook series entitled Cookery!, I'd expect to encounter situations like needing to peel potatoes, and having to choose from a list of implements that went: Sugar tongs, Tea strainer, Segway, Knife, Measuring jug.

Anyway, I attack the Beetle, and as soon as I hit it, it spits acid at me. Every time I wound the dratted thing, I risk taking damage (and, of course, I definitely take damage any time the Beetle wins a round). Use of Luck to double the damage I deal cuts down on the number of times I have to roll on the Beetle Payback Table, but there's no way of completely avoiding it, and I wind up getting half-blinded (though the book doesn't bother to specify precisely what effect losing the sight in one eye has on my stats). In the interests of verisimilitude, I'm writing the rest of this entry with a scarf wrapped around my head to cover my left eye.

After gathering up some dust I can use in a spell, I continue on my way until a couple of disembodied eyes appear in front of me. Considering my Beetle-inflicted injuries, that's just cruel. A skeletal figure takes shape, and beckons to me. I get closer in order to point out what I think of those who mock the afflicted, and now that I'm close enough to see properly, perceive that this looks a lot like the Deathwraith that would have given me a hard time if I'd lived long enough to encounter it in Kharé.

For once there's an opportunity to cast a useful spell, dispelling the illusion before me to reveal a balding prankster. The book is annoyingly unclear here: it provides the man's stats and gives me the option of killing him or sparing him, but doesn't specify whether or not I have to beat him half to death before letting him live, as with the Assassin in The Shamutanti Hills. As it says I 'may' fight, I'm interpreting that as meaning I don't have to, and as his Skill's only slightly less than mine, I'd rather avoid combat and skip straight to the intimidation.

The man gives me money, a throwing disc and a vial of powder I can use to cast a spell, and starts to tell me something about the Serpents before dying of fright. Suddenly it gets dark, and the Moon Serpent appears overhead. Again I get a chance to cast a spell worth casting, and while this one costs half my remaining Stamina, it's cheap considering that the alternative is fighting a Skill 13 opponent. Bizarrely, as the Serpent dies, it transforms into another spell component.

The next choice of directions is a bit odd, as it points out that going one way will, after several hours, lead to my spotting something that brings me to a halt. The book has 498 sections, so it's not as if shifting the 'several hours later you see something unexpected' to an interstitial paragraph would have resulted in a more awkward number. It's not even that remarkable a sight - just a bunch of caravans that turn out to belong to a clan of Black Elf traders. They're none too hospitable at first (to the extent of firing warning shots), but as soon as I offer to pay for a meal, I'm everybody's new best friend. The food includes an unpleasant yet Luck-replenishing cheese, which more than justifies the price.

After I've eaten, I entertain my hosts with a few Goblin jokes, as a result of which I get offered a special rate on any of their wares that I might wish to buy. Comedians must be in short supply in the Baklands, if the jokes in the book are the best entertainment the Elves have had in a long while. With the discount they offer, I'm able to get extra Provisions, a couple of spell components and a suit of chain mail and still have more than enough money left to rent a caravan for the night. I'm not back to full health yet, but I'm significantly less close to death than I was.

Setting off again in the morning, I encounter a fast-moving gnomelike creature that demands a gift. Knowing how this encounter can pan out, I hand over the powder the illusionist gave me. This so pleases the creature that it dispels its own illusory disguise, revealing itself to be a tall woman, who gives me a vial to use against the Sleepless Ram in Mampang, warns me that the Earth Serpent is close by (and lets me know its weakness), and hands over her walking stick, which is a spell component and also weakens Serpents.

Continuing on my way, I stop on a rocky outcrop to eat a meal, and afterwards I inadvertently kick a stone, which rolls a short distance before turning back and hitting my ankle. The top of the outcrop explodes, and rocks fall towards me, but slowly enough that I can cast the spell that turns one of my remaining gold pieces into a shield. This protects me from the shower of stone, but is less use against the grave-shaped pit that opens up beneath me. A heated rock emerges from the ground, and as I try to climb out of the pit, something bites me. Steve's gone back to the useless spell lists, so I have to try climbing out again. And this section is atrociously written, telling me that I have to roll against my Skill, and not specifying what happens if I fail the roll. As I remembered this shambles from the forum playthrough, I kept a finger by the page for the previous section and, for want of clearer directions, will treat a failed roll as leading to the 'stay in the pit' option. Stamina loss results, but I get to try again, and this time I succeed. (Incidentally, if Mr. Jackson disagrees with me regarding what happens as a result of failing that Skill roll, he is welcome to call round and write a correction into the book.)

Climbing out does not end my troubles. Cracks radiate out from the pit, a boulder fidgets, awaiting its cue to reenact its favourite scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark, and a small snake winds itself around my leg, preparing to bite me. I swat it to the ground, and it reveals itself to be the Earth Serpent. Hurriedly extracting the right item from my backpack, I cast the spell that enables me to blow the Serpent into the air, where, like Antaeus (I've done my research since 2009), it is unable to draw strength from the ground, so I can kill it.

With the Serpent dead, the terrain stops behaving so badly, and I carry on towards the next stage of my journey, the Forest of the Snatta. It's getting late by the time I reach the outskirts, so I make camp for the night, regaining some of the Stamina I lost against the Earth Serpent.

The next day I set off into the Forest, and the path splits. I take what turns out to be one of the less good routes, straying into Snattacat territory. Like the Cheshire Cat from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Snattacats can appear and disappear more or less at will. Unlike Carroll's feline, they're more interested in attacking adventurers than engaging in unhelpful banter.

Fleeing, I discover a hillock with a door set into it, and investigate. Beyond the door, a passage leads to a room where a spindly creature is talking to a Glass Orb. I announce my presence, and she introduces herself as Fenestra, an Elf Sorceress. I talk magic with her, and she agrees to a trade of spell components. She gets more out of it than I do, but as I'm certain to fail without the item I acquire from her, it's still a good deal.

As we're getting on so well, I mention my quest, and she reveals that she hates the Serpents because the Water Serpent killed her father. Consequently, she has been stockpiling oil (its principal weakness), and has trapped its associate the Sun Serpent in her Orb, hoping to use it as bait in a Water Serpent trap. One potential flaw in the plan is that the Sun Serpent's weakness is water, so the Serpent she seeks to lure here is pretty much the last one that'd be sent looking for Sunny Boy.

It'd be like sending this lot to rescue someone with a severe peanut allergy. 

Aware that once I leave the Forest I'll have to cross Lake Ilklala (and having learned from past attempts that this is my only opportunity to get the item essential for doing so), I ask for Fenestra's advice on how best to go about it. She sells me a whistle for summoning the ferrymaster, and then offers me a gift (one of the gift options being a whistle just like the one I just paid for). The medicinal potion could be handy, but I'll take the lucky charm instead.

Beyond Fenestra's home, the path splits again. The fork I take leads to an encounter with a Wild Bear, so I try out my newest spell component and do a Doctor Dolittle impersonation, in the hope that I can persuade this ursine obstacle that we don't have to fight. Alas, the Bear's conversational gambits go no further than, "I'm hungry. You look edible." So I use the staff I got earlier, and temporarily immobilise the Bear instead.

Continuing on my way, I reach the Lake and make camp for the night. In the morning I blow the whistle, and the ferryman asks me where I want to go. This is his 'little jest', as people only ever call him if they want to cross the lake. Maybe I should tell him about the Black Elves' love of stand-up comedy. He wants 4 gold pieces, which is more than I can afford, and Steve Jackson evidently disapproves of contemporary economic policy, as he doesn't give me the option of creating illusory wealth with which to pay. (Back when I was being attacked by a giant, acid-spitting beetle, then I could have created a mound of fake treasure, but here, where the spell could actually benefit me? Don't be silly.) Instead, I use the same spell I did on the Bear, and threaten to leave the ferryman frozen in place unless he takes me across the Lake free of charge. Not very nice, I know, but the only other viable option provided by the book was to repeatedly punch him in the face until he agreed to transport me gratis. Sometimes there are no good choices.

The ferryman disappears into the undergrowth to fetch his boat. I know from past attempts that, just after he vanished from sight, he was killed by the Air Serpent, which then inhabited his corpse, but even if I weren't aware of that, my suspicions would be raised by the surly attitude 'the ferryman' displays when he reappears. I wouldn't expect him to like me after what I did, but in view of the way I intimidated him, he wouldn't dare display the sort of rudeness with which I am greeted here. I refuse to take the oars when ordered to, and the ferryman shrivels like a balloon as the Serpent exits his cadaver. Remembering what Shadrack told me (and what happened every time I got this far through the book before today), I take a look at the ferryman's remains, find the Serpent's shed skin, and rip it apart, causing the Serpent's gaseous form to disperse.

Now I do have to row the boat myself, but out of necessity rather than at the behest of an enemy. Around half way across the Lake, I notice some intriguing bubbles, and take a closer look. My Luck suffices to keep me from being thrown overboard to my doom when the bubbles attack the boat from beneath, and after a moment of tension-building calm, the source of this aquatic strangeness reveals itself to be the Water Serpent. Not exactly the most unexpected twist, now is it? Slickly, I get out the bottle of oil from Fenestra and throw its contents all over the Serpent, which drops out of the confrontation.

Continuing to the far side of the Lake, I tie the boat up and start to head through the Vischlami Swamp. Hearing a group of creatures heading my way, I wait to see what's coming. It's a group of Marsh Goblins, and casting the spell that enables me to speak their language is more helpful here than in the encounter with the Bear. The Goblins explain that they're being chased by a Serpent. Fenestra gave them a scroll with a spell to use against it, but none of them can read it. They show it to me, and I promise to deal with the Serpent for them.

Soon afterwards I encounter the Serpent, and use the scroll I just picked up. The Serpent of Time finds its mode switched from fast forward to slo-mo, and I have no problem defeating it in battle. Well, it would have wounded me once, but for the debilitating effect of the Staff I carry.

The Vischlami is a lot less hassle to cross than Scorpion Swamp, and I'm soon at the foot of the Zanzunu Peaks. Time to pause and take stock. I killed the Moon, Earth, Air, Water and Time Serpents, and left the Sun Serpent trapped in Fenestra's Orb. That makes six. That wrong turning in the Forest denied me an encounter with the Fire Serpent, so I'll be playing book 4 on difficult mode. Mind you, I lacked the item to which that Serpent was vulnerable, so if I had met it, I might have ended up like Marsten (to whom I've already linked once on this page), in which case I'd still be playing The Crown of Kings on 'hard', but without the benefit of the items I've acquired in this book.

Inspired by having only slightly failed to get all the Serpents, I recover all lost Stamina (and Skill, if I had been missing any, but as I'm not, I'll take off the scarf instead). The Archmage's Fortress comes into view and, having little understanding of alternate timestreams in which I got killed at a funfair, I reflect that the most perilous stage of my quest lies ahead...

This is the only Sorcery! gamebook not to make it into the top 10 in Fighting Fantazine's gamebook poll. Well, one of them had to come last (out of the Sorcery! series, that is - it still beat over 50 of the regular FF books), but I don't think it's significantly worse than either of its predecessors. There's definitely room for improvement, but the same could be said for every other book in the series. For all its faults, it's a lot of fun, and never made me want to treat it like the Air Serpent's skin, and that alone raises it above a significant number of gamebooks.

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