Monday, 12 November 2012

The Harder They Fall


Memory can be very arbitrary. The only reason I am certain that I bought Proteus issue 4, David Brunskill's The Forgotten City, on the way to school is that a friend showed interest in the back cover ad, which listed Captain Britain's stats for TSR's Marvel Super Heroes RPG. As for early attempts at the adventure, I vaguely recall failing what turned out to be a crucial Courage check at one point, but that's about it. The Quest Sheet has been filled out in pencil, but tells me only that I repeatedly took damage and got healed on the attempt recorded there.

The plot is very straightforward. A while ago, the evil Wizard-King Chaladon and his mutant servants conquered the city of Meldoin. Chaladon cast a spell which turned the majority of its residents into mindless slaves. A dozen of the locals managed to escape, though, and they believe that they could inspire their fellow townsfolk to rise up and overthrow Chaladon's armies if only some adventurer could kill Chaladon himself and lift his curse. So I've been hired to take care of those little details. This makes the title something of a misnomer: if the city truly were forgotten, there'd be no people pooling their savings to try and get someone to bump off its ruler.

No magic powers at all this time. I have only my sword, my food, two helpings of restorative herbs, and my stats, which stand at:
Dexterity 14 (still 1d6+8, but not for much longer)
Strength 25 (2d6+15 again)
Courage 8 (dropped to 1d6+4, which is a little harsh).
I don't appear to have mapped this one, but it wasn't lethal enough that sheer repetition has burned much of the optimal path into my brain, so I may well get lost and fail here.

A few hints about what I need to do have been provided thanks to the efforts of a couple of spies. I'll need a couple of keys and Chaladon's book of spells (and he's created a couple of fake books of spells to make things harder for would-be assassins), and I may be able to bribe or otherwise subvert some of his associates. Oh, and the secret tunnel the spies used to get in and out is still there. Guess how I intend to try and get in.

The tunnel has not been discovered since the spies last used it, so I gain access to the city without difficulty. Not long afterwards I'm spotted by a Bolgroth, a boar-faced humanoid, and have to fight him. It's an easy fight, and I leave his necklace untouched, as I seem to recall that Bolgroth stuff is generally bad for humans.

Soon afterwards I reach a crossroads. Great. A random choice that may doom me if I get it wrong. I try south, which leads me into a darkened alley. Some careless individual has dropped a nail-studded log in it, and I get off comparatively lightly, losing only just over a third of my strength when I trip and impale myself on a few spikes.

A bird is singing in a glowing tree. Which sounds like the sort of code phrase I might use to identify myself to a spy working for my employers. Perhaps it is, and the correct response is, "You are beneath the Tree of Listening." That's what the bird says to me, anyway. She then tells me that I'm on the right road, and many dangers are ahead. The latter I could have guessed. Gamebooks in which no harm can come to the hero are rare (but more common than they used to be, more's the pity).

A little further on there's a well at the side of the road. Not sharing a certain gamebook blogger's traumatic past, I choose to investigate it. Tossing in a stone reveals there to be no water at the bottom, so I lower the bucket and climb down the rope, reaching an underground network of bland tunnels with mildly glowing walls. After a while, my wanderings lead me to a cavern, where I am attacked by a Lumberbug. There's a significant disparity between words and illustration here: the text says 'a kind of huge slug slithering towards you', but the picture shows a four-legged thing with a caterpillar-style segmented body, a ratlike tail, and a head that appears to be part cat, part dumpling. After killing the monster, I find a stone casket which contains a bronze key.

Further exploration leads to a fight with a Serpent, which is guarding an egg-shaped stone. The stone was being used as a paperweight for its instructions, which indicate it to be a Deathstone, that can be used to one-shot an Armoured Knight.

Eventually I find the door that the bronze key unlocks. The glow from the walls fades beyond it, so I am soon heading into darkness. A Flying Skull attacks me, and things get nasty. I automatically lose a point of Courage when I see the wretched thing, and I now have to roll under my remaining Courage to not be scared away. Even if I'd had the highest Courage possible when I started, I'd need 8 or less on 2d6 to not fail the adventure (of course the Flying Skull's guarding something essential). Having rolled up less than the maximum, my chance of making it is under 50% - and I just miss the target number. Well, I'm doomed. The only question remaining is how I'll die.

Climbing back up and resuming my doomed journey, I catch sight of a house with a light in it, and investigate. Inside is an old man sitting at a table with two jugs on it. Knowing better than to attack random old men in gamebook adventures, I greet him, and mention that I'm looking for Chaladon's Palace. He says I'll need to be clever to get there, and sets me a test, pouring liquids between jugs and asking about relative quantities of their original contents. I solve the puzzle without difficulty, so he gives me one of the jugs, stating that it will help me against the Vortigern.

Returning to the street, I walk on to a junction which is overshadowed by a ten-foot-high statue of a lizard with a barbed tail. A plaque identifies it as the Vortigern, and goes on to call it 'the terror of Tylwyth Teg'. Sounds like a pulpy horror novel set in a Welsh mining village. Inevitably, the statue comes to life and moves to attack me, so I throw the contents of the jug at it, and its scales melt away, leaving it more vulnerable. It's still quite a formidable opponent, but I manage to kill it anyway. The barb on its tail comes off, so I take it as a souvenir of the battle.

After heading down a couple more streets, I find my way blocked by a barricade of spikes and stakes (also on fire, going by the wording of the paragraph, which strikes me as a little odd - won't the wooden parts of the barricade burn up, weakening its structural integrity?). Brigands surround me, four of them pointing crossbows in my direction, while their leader states his terms: I must turn back now, or give him... a Mandrake Root. Not quite a shrubbery, but still a pretty odd thing to be demanding. And given one of the purported properties of Mandrakes, I have to wonder if the long, pointy components of the barricade are to compensate for something.

Lacking a Mandrake Root, I have to turn back and try a different path. Another Bolgroth attacks, but I kill him and leave his 'attractive' wristband where it is. Moving on, I see another house with a light in it, and go inside, finding three men sitting at a table, staring vacantly into space and making no response when I greet them. I place a helping of restorative herbs on the table, and the same primal instinct that causes people to consume entire bowls of nuts or twiglets without even noticing that they're doing so kicks in. The text describes the men's eating of the herbs as 'robot-like', which jars a little in this quasi-medieval setting.

Gradually the men regain their self-awareness (and since the Mandrake incident, I'm starting to see all sorts of possible metaphors in the text). They thank me for freeing them from Chaladon's influence, and let me know that I shall soon be passing the home of Miletus, one of Chaladon's deputy-sorcerers. He's apparently vicious and cunning, and loves jewels. One of the men offers me an emerald ring, which I take to use as a bribe.

Well, evidently I managed to avoid the run-in with a band of robbers. I know it precedes the encounter I've just had, as a bad roll of the dice can result in falling into an open sewer and rendering all food and herbs inedible. Apart from that regrettable aspect, it's not a particularly noteworthy event. Mind you, the accompanying illustration is by far the worst drawing in the magazine, clumsy foreshortening of limbs making a couple of the robbers look a little like thalidomide victims.

The road becomes a tunnel for no obvious reason, and I'm still underground when I reach a stone hut with Miletus' name on the door. Entering, I see assorted clich├ęd magical paraphernalia, and am confronted by a short, bald man with rotten teeth. This is Miletus, who proclaims himself Chaladon's 'chief Wizard'. Not wasting any time, I offer to give him a jewel, and he indicates a preference for emeralds. Good thing I have one, eh?

Now I've got his interest, I suggest that he could wind up in a very powerful position if anything fatal were to happen to Chaladon. My theories interest him, and he gives me a silver key, directions to Chaladon's palace, and the promise of a high rank when he's in charge. (Incidentally, having this encounter go badly can lead to one of the nastier deaths in the book: being trapped in an airtight coffin made of unbreakable glass, so Miletus can watch me suffocate.)

Following his directions, I soon emerge back into the open air, and proceed until I catch sight of a mist-shrouded lake that contains an island, with a rickety footbridge leading to the island. I cross the bridge without incident, and out of the mist comes a beautiful elfin girl, accompanied by a horned beast with scales and spines, which wears a chain with a pearl on it. I greet her, and she replies telepathically, in a voice 'like the sound of spring water over smooth pebbles'. Somehow I discern that this would be a good time to hand over the Vortigern's barb, and the girl introduces herself as the Faerie Tylwyth Teg. She explains that she wants to see the people of Meldoin freed from Chaladon's power, but her powers do not extend beyond the island (and yet her name can be used to open Chaladon's lair, so there must be some loophole to those limitations).

Continuing on my way, I reach the palace gate. Locked, of course, and that rotten Flying Skull still has the key. So I charge the gate, and some invisible power sweeps me up into the air, high enough to see the whole city from above. Then it lets me go, and I return to the ground rather too rapidly and forcefully to be able to go any further.

Well, I was bound to fail a Proteus sooner or later. I could probably have beaten this one if not for rolling a 7 when I encountered the Skull, but sometimes the dice just don't fall the way you need them to. Apart from that rather unfair bit, there's very little to complain about in the adventure. Well, I suppose if you stretch hard enough, you could probably find a dubious subtext in there, but I imagine the same could be said about almost any gamebook.

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