Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Heading for Something Somewhere I've Never Been

There's not much to say about my personal history with part 2 of Sutherland and Hill's The Dark Usurper. I got the issue of White Dwarf that contained it from the same eBay seller who provided me with the preceding one, and completed the adventure on my first attempt. This playthrough is liable to wind up very much like my previous, no longer extant one (unless I die), as part 2 seems to follow a narrower path than part 1: choices tend to be either meaningless or obvious, and I used up my 'try something blatantly inadvisable just to see what happens' allowance when I decided to replay this adventure.

If last week's attempt at part 1 had not ended with my character bouncing off an exterior wall and experiencing authorial euthanasia while succumbing to the force of gravity, I would probably have succeeded in escaping from the castle. If so, I would have found my father's sword, ingeniously hidden in a well-lit hole in the ground. I might also have learned that the friend I'd left in charge while I was away had been overthrown and made a prisoner by Barnak the brigand. And the text went to some effort to ensure that I had my horse Aryl with me. Not sure why, as Aryl is smarter than I, and has run off between parts 1 and 2 so as not to have to appear in the adventure any more.

As the character I rolled up for part 1 died, it would be absurd to use him here, and this section of the adventure is ridiculous enough already, so I should roll up fresh stats.
Skill: 7
Stamina: 19
Luck: 8
Pretty dismal, but that shouldn't matter too much.

I wake in the forest near the castle, 'seemingly unaware of [my] regained freedom.' I think the first time I played this, my brain decided (in the interests of preserving some semblance of sanity) to pretend that that line had never actually passed through it. But I just had to replay TDU, didn't I, and this time round my psychological defences weren't able to protect me.

Anyway, I head for the road, and become aware that a couple of pumas are following me. I know from last time that they want to lead me to their owner, Asmund the sub-par sage advisor. And I suspect, based on other parts of the adventure, that if I don't follow them, some other contrivance will force me to meet him anyway, so I'll just go with the pumas and avoid the textual equivalent of being poked with pointed sticks by the authors.

Asmund, being a bit rubbish as wizards go, has been tied up by three goblins. His pumas, being a bit rubbish as big cats go, have sought me out to fight the goblins for them. The text, being a bit rubbish as gamebooks go, doesn't specify whether I'm fighting the goblins one at a time or simultaneously. I'll assume the latter, and use Jackson rules (FF never having standardised the procedure for fighting more than one opponent at the same time), because they're less hassle than the other variants. The fight doesn't go that well, but I survive and the goblins don't.

The choice of what to say after releasing Asmund is probably meaningless, so just for a little variety, I tell him of my troubles. He responds by saying that he knows much of the past and can see my future. But evidently not his own, or he'd have found some way of not getting tied up and jabbed with spears by goblins. He also invites me to his home, saying, "Perhaps I can teach you things to help you survive." If he can see my future, shouldn't he already know whether or not he'll be able to teach me anything useful?

I go with him rather than waste time finding out how Sutherland and Hill mean to herd recalcitrant players to Asmund's hut. Continuing to take the path of least resistance, I hand over the gem from the pommel of my sword, and after a night's rest and a meal, I get some new clothes, a lance, a shield, and a chance to learn some magic I'll never get a chance to use if I do what I'm supposed to. The lance also seems a bit useless now I have no horse, but I suspect that all the new equipment has only been provided to ensure that I actually look like the subject of the picture on the facing page. Who looks nothing like the character depicted in the illustrations for parts 1 and 3, but then, those pictures don't match the text so well.

In-story, the new gear makes me look like a prophesied hero, provided everyone's prepared to be a bit flexible in their interpretation of the atrocious verse: the pumas may be accompanying me, but they're not 'kin' (unless there's something Asmund isn't telling me about a particularly twisted branch of my family tree). Asmund tells me to go north to a town (which he doesn't bother to name) and meet up with an ally named Jorkell, so it's a bit odd that the text provides me with a choice of directions. Not going due north is sure to lead to some contrivance that forces me to go the way I was supposed to, and I'm not masochistic enough to want to read more paragraphs of this adventure than are strictly necessary, so I just head north.

Before nightfall I catch sight of lights in the distance, and the place name needlessly omitted from Asmund's directions is shoehorned into the text. It wouldn't surprise me to learn that the locations featured in this adventure are all part of the setting for a rĂ´le-playing campaign the authors and their friends ran. Nothing wrong with that per se, but the place still has to be made interesting to any readers who weren't in that campaign: I get the impression that the revelation of the name is supposed to make me go, 'Oh, wow! It's Kari!' and think back to the tremendously thrilling and exciting thing that happened to the party there, which is a bit difficult when I wasn't part of the game.

More people know of this Kari than the one in Skeln.

The following day I reach the town, and head straight for the gate as the bright red cloak makes any attempt at stealth a bit pointless. The liberation of Kari is pretty undramatic: I walk past the guards, make a speech that wouldn't sound out of place in a Party Political Broadcast, hand Jorkell a gem fragment that disperses the imperceptible effect of Barnak's never-mentioned-before-or-again sorcery, and play no part in the butchering of Barnak's minions.

Jorkell then explains that he vas only obeyink orders because otherwise Barnak would have stationed some of his men here, and I do not have the option of considering that a flimsy excuse for collaboration and throwing him to mob justice. Mind you, he does provide me with a horse so that he can show me the extent of Barnak's control. Then, not having thought things out beyond the end of the sentence, he asks me where we should go. I manage to identify the quickest route to the unavoidable battle scene, avoiding the side trip to some other place I've never heard of before.

We have fifty men with us, and are at the top of a hill. Approximately two hundred goblins surround us. There are three tactical approaches open to me, two of them only slightly more sensible than 'see how far you can ram the lance through your head'. The rules governing mass battle are awkwardly explained, dull, and vastly superior to the ones used by Ian Livingstone in Armies of Death. We lose four men and kill at least twenty-six times as many goblins. The rest surrender, and as Jorkell was not among the casualties, I don't have to Test my Luck to find out whether he's actually still alive or just didn't die. No, I did not make a mistake in that last sentence. Jorkell's survival is a certainty, and the roll is just to make it look as if the adventure's less railroady than it actually is.

Sutherland and Hill decide that I seek further advice from Asmund. He's not at home, though, and a brief search of the surrounding area reveals some crushed foliage. Acting like this is CSI:Skeln, I conclude that Barnak has captured Asmund, and head back to Kari. Jorkell expresses surprise that Asmund didn't foresee this. Maybe I should tell him about the incident with the three goblins...

And that's the end of part 2. Mercifully, as I'm working my way through FF in publication order, it'll be more than a week before I have to tackle the third and worst part of The Dark Usurper.

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