Monday, 5 November 2012

If Heroes Don't Exist, It Is Necessary to Invent Them

I had mixed feelings when I first heard that the Lone Wolf series was to be reissued and, all being well, properly concluded (the original follow-up run having come to an end four books earlier than planned). This was largely on account of the announced changes to the first book. Fixing errors was one thing, but changing the plot so that, rather than surviving the massacre on account of being unconscious in the forest nearby, Lone Wolf was actively involved in the Kai's last battle? That sounded decidedly 'Greedo shot first' to me. I liked that the hero was not yet hero material, that his surviving was partly on account of klutziness, that the objective was the pretty low-key 'survive to warn others of the danger' rather than the sort of epic stuff that soon became the norm for the series. I prefer 'numpty who rises to the challenge and winds up becoming a proper hero' to 'epic hero who just keeps getting epicer'.

Nevertheless, I try to keep an open mind about things, so when a bundle of the first 10 reissues turned up on eBay at an affordable price, I put in a bid and was successful. I made a start on Flight from the Dark - Special Edition shortly after I received the bundle, but stalled part of the way into it. This will be a fresh attempt, and I'm hoping that blogging about it will motivate me to keep going this time.

The preface to the adventure is set a little earlier than that of the original version, joining the action at the point where Silent Wolf falls foul of his tutor, Star Fire. One detail I do like is that Star Fire tosses a coin to help him choose between punishments for his inattentive pupil, so anyone taking a Many Worlds Theory stance can situate the original books in the subset of realities where the coin came down tails rather than heads and Silent Wolf was punished with firewood-collecting duty instead of supplemental weapons training.

Character generation is unchanged, and here's this reality's Silent Wolf.
Combat Skill: 15 (some things are consistent across realities)
Endurance: 28 (but this Kai is fitter)
Disciplines: Sixth Sense, Healing, Weaponskill (Warhammer - about as useless as Mace), Mindshield and Mind over Matter

After around half an hour of combat practice using dummy weapons, Star Fire and I are taking a breather when the alarm sounds. The monastery is under attack. Star Fire hastens off to assist in the defence, ordering me to accompany him. I pause in order to get a real weapon, and the text forces me to dither rather than going straight for the weapon I've had special training in using, so when Star Fire loses his rag and yells at me I randomly grab... a short sword. There's a warhammer right next to it, that would give me a decent combat bonus, but choosing sensibly isn't an option. In a parallel reality, Silent Wolf has just concussed himself on a low branch, but this version isn't making a plausible case for being any more competent a hero

Dual-wielding a sword and an axe, Star Fire takes on a group of Giaks (the cannon fodder of the Darklords' armies). One of them goes for me, knocks me down, and attempts to spit me with its spear. However, Star Fire turns out to have the obscure Magnakai Discipline of Being Brian Blessed, and lets out a yell that blasts the Giak away from me for long enough that I can get back up and defend myself. There are different sections to turn to depending on whether the fight takes 1-3 rounds or longer, but even if I had the minimum possible Combat Skill and rolled the worst number every round, I would still win the fight in round 3, so the '4 rounds or more' section is superfluous (and could have been used to allow characters with Weaponskill to make an informed decision at the rack).

As it happens, I turn the Giak to paste in the first round. Authorial contrivance disarms me so Star Fire has to throw me his sword, which I catch just in time to fend off an attack by another two Giaks. They don't last much longer than the first one. Star Fire then instructs me to ascend the highest tower in the monastery and jump out of the window light the beacon that will warn the King of the attack. Even as I set off to do this, huge Zlanbeasts fly over and drop nets filled with Giak troops, not all of whom survive the landing, but some of those which do live manage to get in my way. So does the Kai Master Swift Owl, who pretty much accuses me of cowardice because I'm not heading towards the fighting, and then distrustfully probes my mind when I explain the truth. Doesn't even apologise afterwards, so I'm not going to be massively upset when poetic justice leads to him getting several Giak spears poked through his cranium.

I'm given the option of looking in some cupboards. Metaknowledge tells me that the monastery will fall no matter what I do, and since the 'travel to Holmgard to warn the King' aspect of the plot still takes up a hefty chunk of the book, something's liable to prevent the beacon from serving its purpose, so a brief delay shouldn't matter. But the book says the cupboards are used for spare furniture, which reduces the likelihood of my finding anything useful in there. It's not as if I have Weaponskill in flatpack chiffonier.

My path takes me through the kitchens, just as Giaks start smashing the skylights to gain access. Then I reach a junction, where I must choose between heading towards the dormitories and going to the training park. My character would know if one of those ways is more likely to lead to my goal than the other, but either it makes no difference or that information is being withheld through authorial incompetence/malice. The dormitories sound more dead-endy, so I'll pass up the opportunity to find out whether or not I have a plush Kazim to collect from my bedside locker, and make for the training park. As the name suggests, this is outdoors, so it has a couple of Giaks in it. But not for long.

Dever-induced ineptitude has me forgetting to close the door behind me. As I'm about to head back and shut it, my Sixth Sense alerts me to an imminent attack from an airborne Giak with a cursed spear. I dodge, and then fling the spear at the Giak horde making for the door, and the resultant carnage gives me time to secure the door. Very cinematic, but this is a book, and flashy heroics don't make up for having been cretinous enough to make that mistake in the first place.

A brief detour to the armoury turns up little, as most of the weapons are being used to defend the monastery. Still, the small selection remaining includes a warhammer (but not a mace, so I'm better off than the other me would be). Continuing on my way, I find a dead guard and a ladder being used by Giaks to descend from a trapdoor in the roof. The Giaks are still some way up, so I give the ladder a hefty tap with my hammer. A few Giaks become smears on the floor.

Further on, I find that a hole has been blasted in a wall, killing three Kai sentinels. A couple of Giaks are stabbing the corpses, so I pause to demonstrate that in situations like this, one's energies are better spent attacking living opponents. I'm sure they'd thank me if their heads weren't quite so pulped.

After delaying to rescue a couple of horses from the burning stables, I see that the way I was planning on going is blocked by debris, and a lone Kai is fighting to defend the beacon (which is unlit because he lacks the Kai discipline of Protagonism). The only way left for me to get to him is via the Chapel, which is on the other side of the training park. I ride one of the horses across, trampling several Giaks, before attracting the attention of a Drakkar, one of the humans in the invading army. He fires a crossbow at me, and this Silent Wolf's selection of Mind Over Matter instead of Hunting is vindicated as I psychokinetically divert the bolt. The Lone Wolf of a later book would have made it flip round and hit the Drakkar in the eye, but I'm content with not getting killed.

Entering the Chapel, I meet fellow Initiates Rain Dove and Steel Sky (proof that randomly generating character names has its drawbacks) and have the option of arming myself with a replica of the famous Iron Pearl Broadsword. I grab it as a backup weapon in case it has any special qualities.

Further progress is impeded by a stone door with a combination lock. For some perverse reason, we now get a trivia quiz shoehorned into the book. I have to answer questions about earlier in the adventure, each answer constituting one digit of the section number to which I'm supposed to turn next. Which makes no sense whatsoever. A proper intelligence test I could understand. Needing to recall some detail to prove that you'd acquired an essential item or bit of information would make sense as an anti-cheat mechanism. But this is just absurd. Unless Lone Wolf  fans are notorious for going, "I can't be bothered to read the whole book. I'll just start at section 291 and take it from there," and Dever wanted to penalise such a playstyle. I may include a 'section 291-watch' feature in future LW playthroughs, just to see if there's anything that would support that hypothesis. Still, it's not very likely.

This is actually the main reason I lost interest in the book last time I tried it. Not because of any difficulty in answering the questions. I knew the answers then, I know them now, and you could find them by rereading the previous half dozen paragraphs of this blog entry. It irritates me because it's so ridiculous. Mind you, it is also unfair for anyone who has to read the book in fits and starts owing to limited free time. It's one thing to remember an incidental detail you read a few minutes ago, but if you had to put the book down at an inopportune moment and couldn't get back to it until the following day, that would get a whole lot trickier. If the reissues do all get done and Mongoose Publishing proceed to the planned-but-never-published final four books, fans who can't get through a whole adventure in one sitting risk having to take ludicrously copious notes in order not to fall foul of further such nonsense. But one of the questions refers to something that didn't happen, to provide the digit 0. So those notes would have to include details of what didn't happen. And identifying the right kind of nothing in order to mention it in case it should come up in a quiz ranks somewhere below 'picking the winning numbers for every variant of the National Lottery every draw for a month' on the probability scales.

Okay, rant over. Back to the book. Beyond the stone door I find a corridor leading to the Grand Hall of the Kai, and stop to search for useful artefacts. There are a few bonus-bearing weapons - no warhammer, but there is a mace, so I'm now worse off than alt-Lone Wolf would be. There's also a healing potion, a couple of crystal grenades, and a gold key, any or all of which could come in handy.

A broken ladder impedes my progress. Lacking a rope, I have to activate a rising screen and grab onto it so it will lift me up to the gallery I need to reach. The top of the screen is sharp for no remotely sane reason, but it gets me close to the beacon. And closer to the corpse of Kai Master True Path (if the name is symbolic, something else is seriously wrong with this book). He's the one I saw by the beacon, and appears to have spent the last few minutes of his life sealing off the roof access to keep his killers from getting in. So they're probably still out there, trying to find a way to sabotage the beacon. Time to use one of those grenades, I think. Ideally the one full of sleeping gas, as I don't want to blow up the beacon.

It works, but before I can activate the beacon, a Giak Captain is airlifted to the roof, and I have to fight him off. Then I finally get to perform the task I was sent here to do. Which attracts a good deal of not-entirely-welcome attention. Nevertheless, I take a chance on searching the dead Captain before going back indoors, finding a Meal and another healing potion.

Grand Master Brave Blade telepathically contacts me with instructions to escape to Holmgard and warn the King, and then gets killed. Authorial contrivance sends me to a window to look down on the carnage, and something nasty spots me and lobs a fireball in my direction. I get singed and the books nearby catch fire, just in case a direct order from a superior wasn't enough of a reason to leave. There's only one way out not being assaulted from the other side, and that's locked. Good thing I have that key, as otherwise I'd probably have to gnaw a finger into the shape of a skeleton key to get out.

The way out leads through the Vault of the Sun, where I get some healing from a few pictures and find more weapons with bonuses. This time they do include a warhammer, so I'm now as well equipped as I'm likely to get for a while. On the way to the exit I change my name, and after emerging, I'm presented with the same choice that comes in section 1 of the original book. Yep, this far, it's all been additional material, and I'm sure there's more to come yet.

The next change is actually a subtraction. Using Sixth Sense again warns me to avoid the paths, but this time I don't have the option of heading in an inadvisable direction. Heading south, I avoid being spotted by a Kraan, and continue to a junction. Unlike Tailsworld Lone Wolf, I continue south and find a watchtower, which I take a chance on climbing. The ladder is old and rotten, and a rung breaks, causing me to fall. I am redirected to the original description of the clearing, so either I can try the ladder again and hope for a better roll, or this is further authorial sloppiness. Going with the first option, I get to the top this time, observing that a port to the north is on fire, there's a fight going on to the south-west, and someone left a box up here. The box contains a quarterstaff, which isn't worth taking.

I decide to investigate that fight, which can't be the big battle at the bridge unless someone mixed up east and west. The trail leads me to a clearing containing skeletal remains. Closer examination reveals a spear lodged in the rib cage, but that's of no more use to me than the quarterstaff. Rules explicitly forbid carrying more than two weapons (except for when a weapon gets classified as something other than a weapon as a clumsy means of getting around the restriction), and the weapons I already have give me bonuses, so I have no incentive to drop either one in favour of something less useful. Even if I had Weaponskill in either of the types of which I've found examples, the weapons in the Vault of the Sun included a +1 quarterstaff and a +1 spear, so I can't see why any player would feel the need to take the ones in the forest.

Further on, I reach a stone circle, where I am attacked by a wounded black bear (though if I had the Kai Discipline of Animal Kinship, it would prove absolutely useless here). Mr. Dever appears to rather lack confidence in Lone Wolf's abilities, as he provides the option of escaping after three rounds of combat, but the bear doesn't even make it through the first round.

A nearby cave catches my attention, and turns out to be the mouth of a subterranean tunnel. I investigate, finding a box containing money and a key, and eventually reaching a damp chamber from which a rotting door leads onwards. Something ticks ominously beyond it, I sense a malevolent presence, and the book forces me to leave. Either that's foreshadowing something, or it's the most pointlessly over-elaborate dead end in all gamebookdom.

Resuming my trek through the forest, I find my way blocked by a stream, and turn east, apparently afraid to get my feet wet. Some way downstream I find a dead Kraan and rider, and help myself to the latter's money (which is in the local currency, as if the dead Giak popped to the bureau de change-equivalent before joining the invasion, hoping to get a spot of souvenir shopping done in between bouts of looting and pillaging).

Further along, I reach a bridge and get to choose between heading south towards Holmgard (and the big fight that's between here and there) or continuing east and finding out whether or not the road travel sections around here are still as problematic as they were in the original book. This Lone Wolf is better equipped for battle, and I'd rather not rant again so soon after the trivia quiz, so I go south.

Before long I reach a road on which many people are heading south, probably refugees from the blazing port. Joining them is liable to lead to the painfully unsubtle encounter where I wind up having to defend helpless children from the invaders (well, there is an 'abandon them to their fate' option, but I suspect that that leads to a contrived Instant Death. Possibly inadvertently throttling myself when the moustache I twirl as I watch the carnage gets wrapped around my throat).

Avoiding the refugees and attendant crude emotional manipulation leads instead to the encounter with the wounded soldier. After healing him and hearing his tale, I continue on my way until I hear sounds of fighting from the west. That's odd, as the battle at the bridge is still to the south. Taking a quick look, I find that this is an encounter I'd assumed I'd missed. An unpunctured magician stands amidst the ruins of a temple, beset by Giaks but frying them with blue flames. He hasn't noticed one that's preparing to attack him from behind, so I shout a warning. He fries the little sneak, and the Giak commander sets a couple of his troops on me. I may not be able to shoot magical fire, but my warhammer can be just as lethal in the right hands, i.e. mine.

After seeing me mash my assailants, the Giaks retreat, the leader yelling something incomprehensible but probably rude as he goes. I then have a short chat with the magician, Banedon, who will become a recurring character in later books. He reveals that he was on his way to deliver a message to the Kai monastery. It turns out to be a warning about the gathering enemy armies, and a recommendation to forget about the traditional celebrations and prepare to defend against the invaders. The Guildmaster really should have paid the extra and gone for express delivery. Banedon name-drops a renegade from his guild who'll become a more significant nuisance slightly later on in the series, gives me a pendant to signify that we're best buddies now, and heads home to announce the 'successful' completion of his task.

Resuming my journey, I evade more enemy troops and help myself to a rope and a healing potion from a fisherman's hut. Then I reach the River Unoram and an info-dump about local geography and history (there'd better not be another quiz, Dever), plus a brief mention of the innumerable enemy hordes gathering close by. I sneak away, but have to come out into the open to cross a turnpike. The outcome of this is randomised, and I get a number lousy enough that I'd still get the bad option even if I had both the Disciplines that provide modifiers here.

Mind you, the bad option is only 'get spotted by a Giak who only notifies two friends, lure them all to a spot where nobody will notice your flattening them, and fight an unchallenging battle against them', so as catastrophes go, this is pretty minor. I take their money and blanket, endure more traveloguing about the bridge (save it for the RPG sourcebook, man), and creep to the nearer of the bridge gatehouse towers. I need to get into a tower, and there's no obvious reason not to go for this one, so I hurry up the ladder and into a chamber that contains the bodies of the bridge guards. They haven't been looted, so I can help myself to a selection of superfluous weapons, some Meals, or another healing potion. Lacking a Meal when required by the text to eat one costs 3 Endurance. The potion restores 4 Endurance. When there's not room in the Backpack for everything, is anyone ever going to go for the food? I have to dump the blanket to make space for this one, but I think it unlikely that the book contains many situations where lack of a blanket will cost me more than 4 Endurance.

Sneaking across part of the bridge by means of a raised walkway, I come across some barrels of explosive powder. These were to be used to blow up the bridge and inconvenience the invaders, but they never got used because that would have left me with no way to cross the river. I have no means of lighting the fuse, so I can't use the barrels either. With the aid of the fisherman's rope, I get to use a parapet to hide from enemies as I continue on my way.

When I reach the part of the bridge where the battle is raging, I'm some way above the action. As in the other reality, the Prince is felled by an arrow while fighting the Gourgaz, and I need to intervene. But on account of my being so high up, I need to hurry down a staircase or do something cinematic involving a cargo line on a pulley. I go for the flashier option, as the stairs are probably being staked out by several dozen snipers. Again the random factor determines how I fare, and again I get a rubbish number, but I'm only mildly hurt by my bad landing. Then events between the two realities sync up again, though here the Gourgaz doesn't do as much damage before I kill it. The dying Prince gives me a verbal plot hook for book 2 and tells me to take his horse, my Healing powers prove insufficient to save him, and I ride south.

The Meal check along the way has been dispensed with, but the vandalised signpost is still there. I go the same way as my mace-trained counterpart, and spot an unspecified number of Giaks (but apparently no Doomwolves) on the road up ahead. I could try charging through them, but 'a group' doesn't make it clear whether or not there's a reasonable chance of succeeding, so I leave the road instead. Alas, close by is a secret Giak encampment that my Sixth Sense totally failed to pick up on, and a flurry of arrows comes my way. This time the random number generator is merciful, and I merely take an arrow in the money pouch (and that is not a euphemism) before getting away.

As in the other timestream, I wait until it's darker than seems entirely smart before taking a break for the night, but encounter no further hazards before catching sight of Holmgard. Sticking with what I know, I make my final approach to the city via the Graveyard of the Ancients, and fall into the usual hole. In this reality I take minor damage from the fall, but the tomb into which I have fallen is much the same. Including the way in which it makes my Sixth Sense quietly suggest, "GET THE **** OUT OF THERE NOW!"

Something's just occurred to me. Down here is an ancient evil so powerful that it could potentially snuff Lone Wolf out with less effort than I need to hit the spacebar on my keyboard. But by the time this book series hits the late teens, the hero is able to confront evil deities and survive. So does he ever pop back to actually do something about the malignancy that's been festering just outside his capital city since before the start of the first book?

At the junction I find not two but three paths onwards. I stick with what I know, but when I get to the chamber with the throne and the winged serpent, I leave the 'statue' alone. A search reveals the hidden exit, but not how to activate it, so I risk sitting on the throne. The winged serpent comes to life... and fetches a Golden Key for me (not to be confused with the completely unrelated gold key I found back in the Kai monastery).

Never underestimate the effectiveness of a nice sit down.

The door opens, so I leave. The exit from the tomb is much the same as before, but in this reality I have the key. And Mind Over Matter, which I chose over Hunting for just this eventuality, but since I got the key, I might as well use that. It unlocks the door, with none of that 'falling granite slab' unpleasantness. However, as I head for the Graveyard exit, something inhuman within the tomb laughs at me, spooking me into running the rest of the way. Like my slab-dodging counterpart, I am recognised and cheered on by the guards, but after swooning, I am offered water rather than alcohol.

An officer has horses brought, and we ride into the city, but then we encounter one of those annoying clichéd arrogant superior officers who interfere and refuse to listen to explanations. Slightly regretful that I didn't choose the Discipline of Mindblast, which would come in very handy right now for psychically giving a certain Captain a much-needed kick up the backside, I follow the twit as he intimidates the crowds into making way for him. My reluctance to have my horse trample civilians causes me to fall behind, and I decide to abandon the horse and continue on foot.

To remind me of why I'm going to risk my neck to save these people, Dever has me robbed by some light-fingered low-life, knocked down by an out-of-control horse and cart, and attacked by a lunatic with a cleaver. Fearful that defending myself will lead to a misunderstanding with local law enforcement, and my being locked up until the city falls to the invading armies, I evade the nutter and wind up forced into an alley, where a freshly-painted door catches my attention. Above it is a partially faded sign (or the printers did a bad job on the illustration) advertising a Sage and (presumably) Herbalist. Great.

Back when the original Flight From the Dark first came out, I flicked through a copy in the WHSmith in the shopping precinct. What I read then did not motivate me to buy, but it did show me an unappealing Instant Death in a Sage's shop. So do I go back to the crowds, or confront the homicidal maniac?

I return to the streets, and am forced by authorial fiat up onto the roof of a tavern, after which I have no choice but to keep travelling across the rooftops towards the palace. An inconveniently wide street lies between me and my goal, I have no option of returning to ground level, and there's a 30% chance of ignominious death from making the leap. Maybe I should have fought the lunatic or the murderer: I'd have had better odds. And I get a big, fat(al) zero. So no chance to find out what other tiresome complications Mr. Dever has crammed into the endgame, but I do vaguely remember having heard something that suggests the man with the scar is now an evil traitor who tries to keep Lone Wolf from reaching the King.

Based on what I've experienced of this version of the book so far, I still prefer the original. Edits aren't always improvements.

1 comment:

  1. I have only ever played the Project Aon editions and nothing I have read here has persuaded me that the Mongoose versions are superior.