Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Take Away That Fool's Bauble

Jamie Thomson and Mark Smith's Talisman of Death had been plugged in Warlock, so I knew about it before it came out, but had little idea of what it was going to be like. I vaguely recall coming across the fight with Hawkana's spirit while leafing through the book in WHSmith, and making a small start on properly reading the book on the way home from town, but that's it for memories of my first experience of the book.

Like House of Hell, it got a lot of focus from misguided Concerned Evangelicals, and it was probably the most heavily-quoted of all the books flagged up as harmful influences in a big scaremongering pamphlet that was produced in response to the gamebook 'threat'. Someone from the RPG group at my school brought in a copy of the pamphlet, and we poked fun at it. At one point it contained a quotation from Margaret Thatcher, which Nick Cheeseman read out in a reasonable impersonation of her voice.

The thing the author of the pamphlet failed to understand was that depiction was not endorsement. Yes, the book included some gruesome scenes, and a sequence involving unpleasant rites being carried out in an evil temple, but these were clearly made out to be bad things even within the context of the book. Pretty much anyone who, in the course of playing the adventure, reached any of the sections quoted would try to avoid returning to them on future attempts because they made victory less likely.

Unlike most FF fantasy adventures (given the number of FF gamebooks set in different genres, I don't think the term 'FF fantasy' has quite the same kind of redundancy as the likes of 'PIN number'), this one is not set on Titan. Instead, it's on the authors' own creation, Orb, which went on to feature in their The Way of the Tiger series and make the odd cameo in other books of theirs. Also, the protagonist is from Earth, and transported to Orb by a couple of powerful beings to save it from a threat that can't be fixed by the local heroes. A few strange FF fans try to make out that the protagonist is actually from Titan, but when the book explicitly names Earth at least four times, and describes 'your' home world as lacking a variety of creature and character types known to exist on Titan, it takes a wilful misreading of the text to stick with that theory. Not so much 'death of the author' as 'creeping up on the author, bashing in his skull and sticking the remains under the patio'.

The adventure starts as I wake up in unfamiliar surroundings, wearing unusual clothes, with only a hazy recollection of the past, and a vague awareness that I've been trained as an expert swordfighter. Not quite your average morning after the night before, then. Besides, I feel fine. How fine?
Skill: 12
Stamina: 18
Luck: 12
I was prepared to fudge character creation, as a single-figure Skill pretty much guarantees failure, and if you wanted to read a playthrough that ends at the first really tough fight, you could go here, but that's how the numbers came out anyway.

A talking bird addresses me as 'Champion of Fate' and tells me I'm in the Garden of the Gods on Orb. I am then summoned into the presence of the bird's masters, a hairless (and eyeless) woman whose face shows visions of my destiny, and a man whose form constantly flows from infant to old man and back again. They explain that they've summoned me to fix the balance of nature, and show me an incredibly detailed map of Orb. I find myself drawn towards it, and as it becomes apparent that in this instance Korzybski is mistaken, and this map most definitely is the territory, I black out.

Coming round in a vast subterranean chamber, I see two nearby archways and hear something nasty howling. Running footsteps approach and, aware that I must have been sent to this specific location for a reason (and that at this stage in the book, all options ultimately lead to the same section), I decide to wait and see who's coming. Stone blocks drop to seal the exits, and a party of adventurers emerges from the darkness. The woman points her crossbow at me and demands to know who I am and what I'm doing here. I admit to not being a local, and the party's Priest magically discerns that I'm telling the truth. The gold-wearing Wizard states that he can only teleport one person out, and speculates that I may have been sent to continue their quest.

A substantial info-dump follows. Essentially, these four are the last survivors of a group of Crusaders who were sent to steal the Talisman of Death, which Death's minions can use to summon Death to the surface of the world to destroy everyone else. Nobody is safe as long as the Talisman is on Orb, but if I can find some way of getting back home and taking the Talisman with me, that should remove the immediate threat. I accept the mission, and the teleport spell takes just long enough to cast that I get to see a horde of monstrosities burst into the chamber and start killing the party before I find myself somewhere else.

Transported to 'the lip of an immense chasm' (in a sentence inexplicably absent from Murray's copy of the book), I decide to head for Greyguilds, the city the Wizard told me to go to, via a nearby forest. Not the most direct route, but less conspicuous, and as the monsters dwelling in the chasm will soon be after me, I think it wise to get under cover.

Before long I reach a clearing where a massive wolf is suckling her young. She's not to pleased to see me, but when I throw her a chunk of meat from my Provisions, she quietens down. Then the Guardian Druid of the grove (who must be huge, judging by the illustration - either that or the artist didn't get the memo about the wolf being roughly pony-sized) thanks me for taking the path of non-violence, and gives me an apple to replace the meal I just sacrificed.

After sneaking past a dozing Basilisk (which blinks at a passing mouse to prove that it has a petrifying gaze), I see an old woman up to her neck in a pond and crying for help. By this attempt at the book I am well aware of the true nature of the situation, but with 12 Skill I think I can afford to demonstrate the bizarre reality to my readers, so I wade in to rescue her, and discover that the old woman's head is actually just a fleshy outgrowth used as a lure by the six-tentacled Grendel that lives in the pond.

Earth Grendels are not like Orb Grendels.

After killing the creature, I continue on my way until I reach a moor, where I encounter a score of horse-riding warrior women. Their Captain demands to know what I'm doing there, and I decide that this time honesty may not be the best policy, so I pretend to be a survivor from a caravan that was ambushed. The Captain asks where the caravan came from, and suggests one possible starting point. I know the book well enough to be aware that this is a trick question, as the location she named is in the opposite direction to the one from which I'm coming. As a means of testing someone's veracity, it's a little odd, as I imagine that most of the people who might be encountered out on the moor would know enough of Orb's geography to be aware that they were being asked the equivalent of, "So are you heading from London to Oxford via Yakutsk?"

I do have the option of naming one of the places the Priest spoke of in his info-dump, but it's a bit of a stretch that I'd be able to remember them. Could you, without peeking, say who it was that did the Margaret Thatcher impersonation I mentioned earlier? And I'll wager you haven't been distracted by trekking through a forest and fighting tentacled monstrosities since that name passed briefly through your consciousness. Still, I've played this book enough that I can remember which is the most sensible place to name, so I do so. Consequently, the Captain offers me safe conduct to Greyguilds, and makes me ride pillion on Elvira's horse, much to Elvira's displeasure.

One awkward journey later, I'm at Greyguilds, and go for a stroll down Store Street, where I encounter a woman in robes similar to those worn by the Druid I met earlier. We get chatting, and it turns out that the two of them are old friends. She's a Priestess of the All-Mother, and invites me to accompany her to the temple. Now, this is one part of the book that never got mentioned in the pamphlet, though it could be argued that accepting the invitation leads to breaking the first of the ten commandments. And, unlike attending the abhorrent rites in the temple of Death (a sequence that was heavily referenced in the pamphlet), doing so has distinct advantages, as the visit leads to the acquisition of some magical chainmail, and information that will be of use when I have to leave the city.

A little later on a carriage pulls up nearby, and I notice that it's carrying a coffin with my name on it. Wonder if the surname's spelled correctly - people get it wrong with depressing frequency, even when I tell them the right spelling. The passenger in the carriage turns out to be a skeletal Envoy of Death, who demands the Talisman. I send him back to his boss to indicate my refusal to comply via the most direct route (that is, by killing him).

Catching sight of a library, I pop in for a quick look around, and wind up learning a lot about the city from a work of fiction that has curious parallels with a highly acclaimed 20th century English novel. Basically, the place is a hotbed of religious in-fighting, and even the (all-female) forces of law and order are divided between adherents of two faiths, some following the All-Mother while the rest favour the nondescriptly evil Fell-Kyrinla.

The other patrons of the library depart, and if the librarians had wristwatches, they'd be meaningfully glancing at them, so I also head out onto the streets. One thing not mentioned in my recent reading was the city's appalling litter problem, which I learn about by stepping on a man-trap that some slob has carelessly left lying around. Several sickly-looking Goths approach, proclaiming themselves to be the Priesthood of Death. One of them takes the Talisman from me, but then a contingent of the City Watch turns up. Things then get a little chaotic, and ultimately one of the Watch decides to take the Talisman to the lost property office in the temple of Fell-Kyrinla. I remain caught in the man-trap, vowing not to rest until I have regained the Talisman.

A passing do-gooder releases me and offers a bed for the night. Forgetting the resolution I just made, I accept. The following morning my host says he overheard me talking in my sleep, and wonders what I had stolen from me. It's a good thing my sleep-talking was plot relevant: the one instance of such behaviour I know to have had in real life consisted of the enigmatic utterance, "Teeth?"

Figuring that I could do with some help, and the whole 'trying to prevent the destruction of almost all life on the planet' thing is the kind of mission most people would find a worthy cause, I tell him my tale. He advises me to seek the assistance of the local Thieves' Guild, and tells me where I can make contact with representatives of the group. Not being Bruce Willis, I decide against taking on the followers of Fell-Kyrinla on single-handed, and follow his advice.

Passing up the opportunity to acquire an artefact that would compel me to address others in the most offensive language the authors could get away with, I go to the inn frequented by some of the city's more prominent thieves, and join a suitably shifty-looking bunch. Strangely enough, while the god of thieves, liars and cut-throats is the most popular deity in the city, these gentlemen are more than a little sensitive about their chosen profession, and it is only by being quite circumspect that I am able to arrange an appointment without getting knifed in the back or told to use the booby-trapped entrance to Guild headquarters.

More customers enter, and the innkeeper is evidently displeased to see this particular couple, but tries to hide it. They sit at my table, and the man insults me, but I know that these two make a few appearances in other books by the same authors, and thus cannot be killed, so there's no point in starting a fight. Besides, I've been called worse things than he comes out with in the real world.

My appointment's not until tomorrow, so I go back to the house where I spent last night, stopping along the way when offered a chance to earn some more money. The job turns out to involve animal testing, as a couple of Sages have created a hybrid giant cockroach/crocodile/ogre for use in battle, and want to test its capabilities against a trained fighter. One brief skirmish later, they have to go scurrying back to the drawing board - but not before paying me for my efforts, with a Spell of Agonizing Doom, as their wealth turns out to be on a par with their skill at creating monsters that pose a threat to Skill 12 characters.

There can be few gamebook features more useless than an anti-cheat mechanism based on the honour system. Not that I am cheating, but if I were trying to go somewhere I had no right to be, a simple 'can you prove you're allowed in?' wouldn't be much of a deterrent. My host has invited round a friend who happens to be an expert on travel between realities. Convenient for me, but I can't begin to imagine the career path he must have followed. Anyway, he tells me about a portal that should be able to take me back to Earth. I also learn the correct formula for calling upon divine assistance in an emergency, not that I'm ever likely to need such a contrivance, right?

The following morning, on my way to meet the Thieves' Guild, I pause to watch a street magician, whose final trick involves making other people's money disappear (with a little help from his not-so-glamorous assistant, the man who insulted me back in the inn). I am then invited to have sherry with a city elder by the name of Mortphilio. Marginally less unsubtle than De'Ath, but still something of a giveaway. He lives in a bamboo hut with a servant and a talking skull, only the bamboo turns out to actually be human bones, which he animates and sets on me. I dash through the only available exit, which turns out to lead into the temple of Death.

Disguising myself with a convenient robe, I watch as the high priest summons half a dozen wraiths, whom he instructs to recover the Talisman. There was a brief period when the similarity of the words 'wreath' and 'wraith' caused me some confusion regarding the appearance of such apparitions. Making a brazen exit (the best way of not attracting attention), I continue on to my appointment. On this occasion, it's best to be blunt: the thieves have some wacky idea about the Talisman's being immensely valuable (okay, I guess Death's followers might be prepared to pay handsomely to get it back, but the Orb-encompassing genocide that would follow soon after completion of the transaction is certain to get in the way of spending the money), and decide to organise a raid on the spot, before the Talisman can be moved to a more secure location.

Four thieves accompany me on the job, breaking into the temple of Fell-Kyrinla through the roof. I'm the only member of the party to notice an elderly servant who might have spotted us, and I say nothing to the others, because the one part of this book I do find morally objectionable is the bit where going along with his cold-blooded murder has a less unfavourable outcome than sparing his life. The alarm is raised, my companions desert me, and I have to defend myself against one of the guards (after narrowly avoiding a death scene lifted from Hamlet Act 3 Scene 4) before making it to the Inner Sanctum, where the Talisman is being held.

Also present is the High Priestess, Hawkana (how come the high priest of Death didn't get his title capitalised?), who responds to my interrupting her devotions by attempting to immolate me. I retaliate with Agonizing Doom, which only really lives up to the first part of its name, but sufficiently weakens Hawkana that I'm able to finish her off with little difficulty. Having her stay dead is trickier, but I know how to prevent her from coming back to life in the short term, and use the source of her unnatural healing to patch myself up.

The thieves are waiting just outside the doors, and claim to have been unable to get in to help me. We return to the room where we entered, and one of the thieves treacherously attempts to knife me. Doing so causes him to get in the way of a large number of crossbow bolts fired in my general direction by a group of guards, but whatever moral might be derived from this happenstance is lost on him, as he's too busy thrashing about and expiring to reflect upon the bitter fruits of betrayal.

I make my escape from the temple, and the others let slip that that murder attempt was part of the plan all along. Still, having seen my fighting prowess, they're reluctant to try and finish the job, so I find myself alone. But not for long, as one of my erstwhile allies tells the tiresome twosome from the inn about my having the Talisman. Accompanied by the illusionist I saw earlier in the day, they harass me with assorted tricks and tomfoolery until I have no choice but to ask the All-Mother for a little help. Well, it's either that or get decapitated and, through one of the quirks of the book, have time wound back to just before I was teleported out of the Rift, replay virtually the entire adventure and (assuming I don't get myself properly killed on my way back to this confrontation) then face the same choice that got me sent back the first time (repeat until fed up).

An eagle swoops down and bears me away, but the preternatural weight of the Talisman prevents the bird from carrying me all the way to the portal (has someone been listening to criticisms leveled at The Lord of the Rings?). Recalling what I heard at the temple that didn't contain anyone who wanted to kill me, I keep a low profile until the Watch switches from the Fell-Kyrinla shift to the All-Mother shift, and then head for the gate. A Dark Elf doesn't want me to leave, but I insist quite forcefully.

I take the direct route towards the portal, which involves much trudging over rough moorland. One of those Wraiths threatens me, but I refuse to be intimidated. The following night, he comes back with all his friends, but in the mean time I've read the instructions on the back of the Talisman, and use it to banish the spectral sextet.

The next day I reach a cliff with steps carved into it. These steps take me past a waterfall, and I find a cave entrance concealed behind it. A door at the back of a cave bears a picture of a dragon and a spear. Beyond the door is a passage to a crossroads. I know from past attempts that whichever way I go, I will experience the same thing: a room containing mildly cryptic advice about what is up ahead, plus a booby trap. The only difference will be what I read and the precise nature of the trap. As it turns out, I pick the one with the message I didn't properly understand for years (shockingly, I didn't even pick up on the idle/idol pun), and the potentially lethal cascade of sand.

I was kind of hoping for the rip-off homage to this scene.

Evading the trap, I proceed to the room where the paths in here reconverge. It contains three pillars, though the door into it bore the message 'Only one can be read'. I avoid the pillar that's the same shape as the one in the room I just left, and look at one with a more straightforward message (at least for anyone who's been paying attention). All three pillars then vanish (somehow without adversely affecting the structural integrity of the ceiling), and I leave through the only door that will open.

This leads into a hall containing a gruesome idol. On the far side are four doors, each marked with a different symbol: a snake, a monkey, a scarab beetle and a dragon. Now, I could enliven things by deliberately going for the door that causes the idol to animate, but it's getting late, so I'll just pick the exit. Not that it looks much like an exit at first, as a portcullis drops behind me, and up ahead is just a chamber containing a sarcophagus. Inside the sarcophagus is a mummified warrior with two weapons, and I grab the one hinted at earlier. Of course the mummy comes to life and attacks me. Doesn't put up much of a fight, though.

Beneath the sarcophagus is the entrance to a tunnel which eventually takes me back to those steps. Resuming my ascent, I dodge a couple of falling boulders and then carry on to the top of the plateau, where I encounter a group of Hogmen. My options are inconveniently restricted to attacking them or offering them some meat if I have any left. Well, I still have nine portions of Provisions (plus the apple), but the book isn't very clear on what exactly those Provisions are. Was what I gave the wolf all the meat I had, leaving me with nothing but a selection of jam sandwiches, a bag of Monster Munch, a carton of Kia-Ora and a couple of pink wafers?

To be honest, the choice barely matters. I lose a couple of Stamina points if I attack, but I could recover them (and more) by eating the portion of Provisions I didn't give the Hogmen. Dragged before the Headhog and asked my business, I state the truth one more time. This pleases the Headhog, as the portal I seek is guarded by a Red Dragon that's been a nuisance to his people in the past. To help me get rid of the Dragon, he advises me to make a shield out of Dragon scales, and provides me with a gourd of gum to stick the scales together.

Further climbing leads me to the cave where the Dragon has made its lair, and I sneak in, ignore the vast quantities of loot lying around, and help myself to a few shed scales. After assembling the shield (which is a lot less faff than the Airfix kits I had as a child), I carry on to the portal. The Dragon flies up and tells me it's on guard. I explain my mission, and the Dragon tells me I'll have to get rid of all my weapons and money before I can pass through. Tell me, Dragon, am I made of china and full of a hot drink? No? Then how come you think I'm a mug?

My nice new weapon is specially designed to hurt Dragons, so I only have to jab it into old Red a few times before he attempts another trick. I attempt another jab, and the Hogmen have nothing more to fear from their old nemesis. I step through the portal, and find myself back on Earth, in the middle of a circle of standing stones. The entities who dragged me into this adventure in the first place thank me, identify themselves as Fate and Time, and mention that they might call on my services again. They do not let me know precisely where on Earth I am (bet it's miles from home), nor do they mention what happened to the clothes I was wearing back when they dragged me off to Orb (my cashcard and housekeys are in the trouser pockets), or how long I've been gone (I have library books that might be overdue).

Wonderful. I saved Orb, and now I'm lost, with no ID, wearing chainmail and a helmet and carrying two bloodstained weapons, and possibly trespassing on National Trust property. They're going to sling me into the padded cell next to the guy who made it through House of Hell.

1 comment:

  1. There aren't many magic helmets available in the Fighting Fantasy series, so it's tempting to use a character from Titan in this book, just to bring one back from Orb to use in future adventures.

    Some of the books are so difficult in terms of combats and attribute checks that the only ways to have a decent chance of success are to re-use characters from other, easier books (who already have some kit or stat increases) or use the AFF rules to give yourself Special Skills. Of the two methods, the former seems less cheat-y.