Friday, 7 December 2012

He Talks as the Man of His Age Talks

After Gary Chalk stopped illustrating Lone Wolf books, he worked on the short-lived Prince of Shadows series with the new-to-gamebook-writing David Kerrigan. These are comparatively slim volumes - less than 100 pages - but the pages are a lot larger than in most gamebooks (220mm x 265mm). The way the text is presented on the front cover has caused confusion to some people: on more than one occasion I've seen the series referred to as Mean Streets (the title of the first book).

As with the Eternal Champions books, I initially acquired the second in the series as the result of a random search for gamebooks on eBay, after which I deliberately sought out, and eventually acquired, the first one. However, I have had a couple of goes at this one before now (the percentile-based system inspired me to expand the scope of my Gamebook Manager), whereas my blog entries on the EC books were my first attempt at each. As I recall, my first try ended when I got into a fight with a guard.

The previous owner of the book has written on the Adventure Chart in pencil, and I can see the partially erased traces of at least two attempts preceding the last one listed. Also vaguely noteworthy is the fact that the Combat Value Chart was omitted when the book was printed, so the publishers had it printed on a label and stuck into the blank space where it was supposed to be. Not very carefully positioned - it's at a slight slant, and overlaps the edge of the box in a couple of places - but better to have it slightly sloppily glued in than not there at all.

Not much background is provided, but the essentials are covered. I am Prince Edrix of Salos, but the city is currently under the rule of the usurper Luko, so I'm masquerading as an actor named Dermik. Luko is not popular, but has maintained control with the help of barbarian mercenaries and secret policemen. As things stand, I have nothing to aid me against him but a dagger, some coinage, and my stats, which are
Strength: 23 (above average as rolled, but below average once a rounding-up mechanism in the rules is taken into account)
Princely Skills: High Tongue
Street Skills: Streetfighting, Gutter Speak, Orientation
(The number of Skills I have is fixed, but the proportion of Princely to Street Skills is randomised.)

The adventure opens with a textual version of a common cinematic/televisual gimmick, starting way up in the air above the land (or world) of Vortimax, then following a bird (a not-at-all-symbolic-I'm-sure vulture) as it swoops down, zooming in on the city until it reaches the street where the action commences. The vulture flies past a window, cries out... And cut to Our Hero waking up.

I am soon ready to go out, and then more sounds from outside get my attention. Two Street Sharks are beating up a beggar, and while I'm sure 'Street Sharks' will turn out to be either a slang term or the name of a gang, the text hasn't yet clarified that, so the mental image evoked is probably not what the author intended.

I could have gone for the shark carved on the pavement outside a local bank, but this is more striking.

While not in a position of authority at the moment, I do feel some degree of obligation towards my would-be-subjects, so I decide to intervene. Besides, one of the Sharks is holding the beggar up against my front door to make him an easier target for the other, so I'm not going to be able to get out without disturbing them, unless I dive through the window.

As I recall, combat can be pretty nasty in this system, so it's something of a relief that the resolution of this situation turns out to be pretty slapstick. When I flight the door open, the beggar and the man holding him up both fall through, and the one inflicting the violence blunders into the point of my dagger. Not lethally, but he's in no mood to stick around, and hurriedly limps off. His friend also departs, and the beggar offers to do me a good turn one day.

I head out into the streets and come across a blind story-teller addressing a small crowd. He states that the city was founded by two brothers, who landed here one midwinter's day, and adds in a whisper that, according to the old calendar, tomorrow is midwinter's day and the turn of the millennium. This talk of forbidden topics prompts the crowd to request the true story of King Luko, and the storyteller insists that everyone present pays to hear it. My character probably knows it already, but the readers don't, so the text has me cough up in order to get the exposition omitted from the background details.

Last year, an 'accidental' fire killed King Errian, his wife and (purportedly) his crescent-moon-birthmarked son Edrix, leaving the throne to Errian's brother Luko. No doubt purely coincidentally, a number of Luko's personal guard were spotted in the city, dressed as goatherds, shortly before the tragic blaze. And while we're on the topic of coincidences, just yesterday there was an incident it'll cost extra to hear about. The section concludes with a drily witty description of the effect this announcement has on several pickpockets and an equal number of unexpectedly impoverished individuals who were standing close to them.

I pay the surcharge, but don't much like what I hear. Just yesterday, in the Baths, someone spotted a young man of about the age that Prince Edrix would be, if he were still alive, who had a birthmark just like the late Prince's. So if the rumour hasn't already reached the ears of the Silent Watchers, it will soon, and then I'm going to have a lot of people looking for me. But not to get my autograph.

Now I'm less incognito than I'd planned to be, I should try to contact the local Resistance movement and see if we can work together to bring down Luko. As I wonder how to go about this, a street pedlar selling goat-meat pies approaches, ringing a bell to attract potential customers' attention, and I overhear a man taking advantage of the noise to pass on a message almost unnoticed. He speaks in the debased version of the local language favoured by those at the bottom of the social ladder, but I iz down wiv da kidz, and thus understand that I've just heard almost everything I need to know about a Resistance meeting later today. And I buy a pie, too.

A nearby explosion alerts me to the fact that my strolling has brought me to the magicians' quarter, and I hurry to a safer part of town. Loitering near the venue of the meeting for over an hour before it's due to start looks like a great way to get taken for a spy and gutted, so I opt to spend a little time at the docks. Which turns out not to be that smart a decision either, as I run into a press gang. I don't like the combat odds (looks like a 64% chance of being defeated), so that only really leaves the option of jumping into the water and swimming for it. This allows me to elude capture, and I shelter in a boat. Not much later, someone else comes aboard, but the paraphernalia in the boat suggests that the owner's a fisherman, so he's probably not dangerous to me. Maybe if I were an octopus, but I'm pretty sure that's one plotline that has yet to be used in a gamebook. Yep, a fisherman, and a friendly one. He lets me dry off, recognises my birthmark and takes me to the bridge near where the meeting is being held. A crescent moon shines down on the city as I head for the tavern in question.

The place is virtually deserted, but when I say the password, he directs me to the Snug Bar. This is at the end of a darkened passage, and I find myself at knife-point when I get there. The conspirators demand to know who I am, and I give them my current alias. They're not entirely convinced by that, until I repeat my line from last night's performance. Then they want to know what I want from them, so I build up to the big reveal, and then hit them with my true identity, pointing out that their chances of getting the crowds to rise up would be much better with the true heir on their side. To cap the performance, I show them my birthmark.

As discussions break out, my knowledge of argot comes in handy again. At least some of the Resistance think I'd be just as bad as Luko, so they want to use me to help overthrow him, but then bump me off before I get to the throne. Well, that's a problem for another day.

At the top of the agenda for this meeting is the plan to revive the forbidden Festival of the Founding Fathers. There's a Horn (important enough to merit a capital H) which was traditionally blown at the top of the Repository of the Founding Fathers at sunrise to usher in the Festival, and the Resistance plan to sound the Horn at the right place and time.

A late arrival doesn't come in the way I did. I figure that interrupting the speaker is going to be less risky than not knowing all the ways out of here, so I ask about the concealed entrance. He explains that it leads to the privy, which has a second secret door leading to a weaver's yard, and then returns to outlining the plan. Arrangements have been made to drug the guard in the Repository, and while a large group of Resistance men causes a diversion elsewhere, one man can break into the Repository and find the Horn. Guess who's just been picked for the solo mission.

The leader tells me to take a seat while he and the others finalise plans for the diversion. I pick one close to the secret door. This proves advantageous when some of Luko's guards raid the tavern, as I'm one of the people who get out. A third secret door leads from the yard to a flight of steps leading into a warren of alleys, and I pause briefly to try and work out the optimal route through with my Orientation Skill. I've not quite figured it all out by the time someone warns me the guards have made it to the privy, but at least I have the beginnings of a plan.

A plan that starts to look inadvisable even before I can start to implement it, as there's a two-page spread depicting the maze of streets, with section numbers dotted around it to show what encounters can be had there, and following the route spelled out in the previous section would lead me in a circle. Still, I can see a viable-looking route if I make one small addition at the start, so I'll try that one.

Others accompany me, and when we see an approaching watchman, one offers to kill him. I favour a more subtle approach, which turns out to be a good thing, as he has a friend close by. We make a generous contribution to his pension fund, and he is afflicted with a bout of absent-mindedness that causes him to forget that he saw us.

Further on, I espy a guard who has become separated from his comrades. I'm about to give the order to rush him when I realise that somehow I've lost my companions, too. He is still at a disadvantage, as his sword's too big to easily swing in the alley, and he hasn't yet noticed me, but I can probably sneak past, while a fight would last at least four rounds, and is liable to attract attention. So I leave him alone. Alas, he hears me and chases after me, emerging from the narrow alley and thus getting a distinct advantage in battle. He strikes the first blow, and as one of the 'fun' aspects of the system is that taking damage significantly reduces the likelihood of being able to hit one's opponent, I rapidly become too weak to put up a fight, and wind up sliced into pieces.

Another failure, then. Still, that was quite an entertaining adventure, with a bit of a sense of humour in places. Nasty combat system, but I did have the option of fleeing from battle, and just forgot to use it because it's so rarely worth doing in gamebooks. It was definitely more enjoyable than some of the stinkers I've been playing recently.

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