I had a copy of the White Dwarf containing the third and final part of Sutherland and Hill's The Dark Usurper long before I acquired the preceding issues. I'm fairly sure I got it in the same second-hand shop where I got my first batch of Flying Buffalo Tunnels & Trolls solos - a belief backed up to some extent by a suddenly resurfacing memory of having read the magazine's book review column while crossing Grosvenor Bridge, which is on the route from the road where that shop was to where I was living at the time.
Despite having owned it since the early nineties, I didn't attempt TDU part 3 until after I'd got and survived the first two instalments. My (now lost) previous playthrough of it ended up in two parts because a particularly egregious error caused me to abandon it in disgust for a short while, but the version of this adventure in my gamebook manager includes the section number omitted from the printed edition, so that’s one annoyance that I won’t have to face this time round. Pity the rest aren’t so easy to eliminate…
As I made it through part 2 a few weeks back, I'm going to have to use the woefully low-statted character I rolled up back then, which means I'm probably doomed. But let's see how it turns out.
By the end of last time, I'd gained an army and a base, but lost a (rubbish) mentor. It is now morning on the next day, the city's defences have been improved, and an enemy force is approaching. Face them on the field of battle, or take advantage of the defences we've been preparing? Let them come to us, I think. I have 600 troops, while there are a couple of thousand in the advancing army.
The invaders concentrate their attacks on the east side, so I reinforce the troops with some of my reserves. Not enough, though, and the invaders start to get in, so I commit the rest of the reserves, and enemy casualties in the clash are double the number of friendly losses. Somehow that's decided the battle, the death of 7% of the enemy forces proving enough to rout them. Two dice rolls to determine the outcome of the conflict. The fact that I had to make some vaguely strategic decisions beforehand means that this is still better than the mass battle system from Armies of Death, but only slightly.
Another meaningless choice is presented. I either pursue the fleeing troops, or I stay put, but staying put leads to the authorially imposed decision to chase the defeated enemies. Well, I suppose fake decisions like that do help pad the adventure out to a nice round 98 sections (or the whole thing to 297).
There are reinforcements on their way, but trying to link up with them would mean engaging with the authors' belief that sending scouts ahead of my army is more dangerous than blindly marching into the unknown, and doing so would provoke enough yelling to scare the neighbours. Besides, the amount of railroading that this adventure's contained to date makes it a virtual certainty that I'll meet up with the reinforcements even if I make no effort to do so. Which is precisely what happens.
The next couple of decisions determine whether I encounter negligible opposition on the way to the castle, am barely troubled by enemies while heading for the castle, or meet with next to no trouble from Barnak's troops as I advance on the castle. This may be described as a 'solo game', but I increasingly get the impression that the authors considered 'one' to be an excessive number of players for it.
Now I must assault the castle, lay siege to it, or try subterfuge. Odds are, the besieging option will lead to a paragraph saying, 'It doesn't work. Try an assault or subterfuge.' Actually, I'm going to try and find out. Oh, and I get to choose how long the siege lasts - two days or four. Both of which seem kind of short for a siege. I choose the longer one, which leads to the revelation that by the end of day four, plague and desertion are both rife within the castle... and the text compels me to respond with a subterfuge, turning to the exact same section as I would have if I'd just done that in the first place, so the aforementioned depletion of enemy troops will not make any difference to the resistance I face. Hill and Sutherland must have wanted to write a story, not a gamebook. And I wish they'd been able to, because then I could have ignored the wretched thing.
(I just snuck a look at what would have happened if I'd gone for direct assault. If I'd got over 30 on 8d6, I would have failed the adventure. Otherwise, the success of my army's attack would have prompted me to follow it up with, you guessed it, subterfuge. One or both of the authors must have a Hobson somewhere in the family tree).
Free will, Sutherland & Hill-style
Accompanied by ten volunteers, I sneak into the castle through a secret tunnel, while the rest of my army attacks the castle. Snipers kill two of the volunteers before we get to the tunnel, but the rest of us get in all right. I know from my last playthrough that attempting to rescue the idiot regent who allowed Barnak to take control of the castle will lead to my character's committing cold-blooded murder, plus my reaching the section where somebody left out the 'turn to' direction at the end, so I'll ignore that detour and focus on killing Barnak.
We head for the main hall, which has over 30 guards in it. Fortuitously, it is around now that my army breaches the castle's defences, and over half those guards scurry off to help repel them (or escape while they still can). I catch sight of my sub-par mentor Asmund in a cage, and the dice determine that I charge into the hall. Now I have to fight four goblins. Or eleven, if I take the text literally when it says that my men 'will fight one each day', because I doubt that the goblins are prepared to stand around and get butchered one at a time over the course of more than a week.
The saner interpretation of the text leads to my losing three quarters of my Stamina, and an equal proportion of my men. Now I face Barnak himself, and another arbitrary die roll establishes that I am still incapable of any strategy other than 'yell and hurl myself at the enemy'. But there's no sign of the authors, so I shall have to attack Barnak instead. Given that his Skill and Stamina are both higher than mine, it comes as no great surprise that I fail to survive the fight. Not that Barnak will last much longer now that my army has fought its way into the castle, so I guess that in the end, everybody loses. Which pretty much sums up The Dark Usurper, actually.