Friday, 31 August 2012

Haven't You Always Wanted a Monkey?

As I recall, once I started collecting the Golden Dragon Adventures, I managed to find a copy of the second book, Dave Morris and Oliver Johnson's The Temple of Flame, at Ballard's model shop (which did a side line in RPGs, and had a small selection of books). I'd had a flick through a different copy in another shop some time before, but it had made little impression beyond the fact that there seemed to be a lot of sections that said nothing more than, 'You reach out your hand... (turn to [section number])'. In fact, there are only four or five, but being so short, and identical, they did stand out a lot.

There was once a party of adventurers who went seeking treasure in some ancient tomb. Many of them fell victim to assorted hazards along the way, but three made it to the sarcophagus. A final trap was triggered, opening up a pit. Two men fell into it, but one of them managed to grab onto the edge. He called for help from the third man, Damontir the Mad (a name that should probably have made the party wonder if this was really the sort of chap they wanted swelling their numbers). Damontir stomped on his hands, causing him to lose his grip, and took all the treasure for himself. But the man whose fingers Damontir trod on landed on a ledge, and survived, eventually managing to drag himself out of the pit. That man is the hero of this book, the Dragon Knight of Palados, greatest warrior of the known world, an armoured fighter who wields a sword so massive that lesser men can barely lift it.


Which makes me wonder why the cover artist for the US edition chose to make him look like this.

The dice, meanwhile, make him look more like this:
Vigour: 29
Psi: 8
Agility: 4
That Agility's pretty poor, but to be honest, there's no such thing as a promising character in this book. The Temple of Flame was pretty much the poster boy for 'unwinnable' until Ian Livingstone raised the bar above the stratosphere with Crypt of the Sorcerer. For this playthrough, I'll be satisfied if I get as far as the candidate for 'most counter-intuitive optimal decision in gamebook history'.

This quest I shall be mostly seeking the golden idol of Katak, which resides in a lost temple somewhere in this jungle. I found clues to its whereabouts in the library of Achtan. Funnily enough, not long before my trip there, someone else had consulted the mouldering tome that contained the leads to the temple. Wonder what he was researching... Still, best not to concern myself with other library patrons, or old betrayals, for that matter. After all, it's not as if they're likely to affect me all the way out here, right?

For a while I hack my way through the foliage, and when I stop for a breather, I spot a monkey being menaced by a viper. In the interests of primate solidarity, I kill the snake before setting off again. The monkey bites at the hem of my cloak, trying to divert me, and eventually I twig that he's trying to warn me away from a patch of quicksand. I let him accompany me, as he's more help (and less annoying) than many gamebook sidekicks, and name him Minki because apparently I'm that bad at naming pets.

Passing by an ancient grave, I reach a bend in the path. My research suggests that the temple is straight ahead, and as Minki isn't dancing the Dance of Nearby Quicksand, I decide to cut my own more direct route. I'm not in a side quest mood today. After a little zealous pruning, I find a centuries-old road that leads to the temple. I gaze at the great edifice, more than a little awed at the thought of being the first civilised man to set eyes upon it in millennia, and two louts in armour ruin the moment by tramping round the side of the place. Blasted tourists!

Hurriedly concealing myself, lest they try and get me to take a picture of them or something, I overhear enough of their chatter to ascertain that they are in the employ of Damontir, who has beaten me here. Not a completely unexpected development, if you have even a vague grasp of certain dramatic principles. Or read the back cover of the book.

Anyway, Damontir has left these comedy working class mercenaries on guard outside the temple, while he and his Nightmare Guard minions seek the idol. So not only did my erstwhile comrade have the sobriquet 'the Mad', but he was also known to employ beings known as Nightmare Guards, and yet I was surprised when he turned out not to be a nice guy? Just goes to show that there's little correlation between Psi and intelligence.

A mildly amusing ruffian can still be dangerous, so I attack the guards before ascending the ziggurat. As soon as I kill the first one, the second flees. Probably runs into something lethal in the jungle, but that's not my problem. I help myself to the other man's money and gin, and start to climb. Minki does not appreciate the anthropological significance of the statues that line the steps, nor enjoy walking on hot stone.

There are more human guards at the top. One is inattentive, and in the time it takes him to register my presence, I bludgeon him senseless without needing to touch the dice. The other is asleep, and my honour will not permit me to attack him like this. Minki resolves my quandary by poking him in the eye, and as honour doesn't explicitly forbid slaying a man who's been half-blinded by a monkey's paw, I carve him up.

A brief search turns up a trapdoor that clearly hasn't been opened in years. So that's not how Damontir got into the temple. And while I know from past attempts that there is a potentially useful item (with a twist) down there, I also know that its guard is capable of transforming the low in Agility into a smear, so I'll make for the main entrance. Which is close to a granite monolith in the shape of a demon, engraved with the glyphs of the five principal deities of the long-lost Anku Empire. The name of the fifth has been lost, very probably because generations of schoolboys didn't care about the god of arts and crafts when the rest of the pantheon had dominion over cool stuff like thunder, flames and the underworld.

So, which glyph will gain me access to the temple of the flame-god, rather than sending me (via one of those ubiquitous-seeming 'You reach out your hand...' sections) to my grave? The clue is in the title, and within moments the dais on which I stand is descending into the temple, coming to halt in an antechamber with two exits. Pick the wrong one, and I'm almost certainly done for.

A short distance down the passage I choose, I pass a side turning blocked off by a heavy grille, which I think means I went the wrong way, drat it. No turning back, alas, so I carry on until I reach a room containing a pit. In the middle of the pit is a plinth, bearing a large wooden box. A similar set-up to one of the traps in The Citadel of Chaos, though this one works a little differently, and is worth risking.

I jump across the gap to the plinth, and open the chest. A cloud of noxious fumes billows out of it, but I do not leap backwards (straight into the pit). In a rare acknowledgement of the fact that booby traps can lose their effectiveness with the passage of time, this gas, which would once have melted my face off, has diminished in potency over the course of the past couple of thousand years, and has no more effect on me than chopping onions would.

The box contains an unspecified potion, a belt with uncertain properties, and a Ring of Intangibility with one charge. It's odd, the way you only have to handle some items to know what they do, while others remain a mystery up until the moment when their powers take effect.

Turning and jumping back across the pit, I continue past another junction and find myself on a balcony, overlooking an awe-inducing flame-and-mirrors set-up that has remained in perfect working order for centuries. Minki is less impressed by it than I, and thus notices the approaching Nightmare Guard who would have garotted me while I stood gawping, but for the simian screech that draws my attention to the approaching assailant.

Once destroyed, the Nightmare Guard disintegrates into the sulphurous ashes from which it was created, and I take a quick look at the garotte. Under normal circumstances, just a silk scarf (though, as the design is a pattern of white skulls on midnight blue, not the sort you're liable to find outside the wardrobe of a kitsch-loving Goth), but in the hands of a Nightmare Guard, a deadly weapon. Well, deadly-ish. Okay, it only did 2 Vigour damage, but there was a 1 in 6 chance of Instant Death every time Old Nightie won a round.

Proceeding onwards, I reach a narrow walkway across a shaft of indeterminate depth, the distant bottom obscured by clouds of steam. I'm more than half way across, when a voice rings out from the archway ahead. It's Damontir, uttering florid threats. He looks much the same as when we last met - widow's peak, pentagram tattoo, 'glint of insane evil in his gaze' (and I thought he'd make a good addition to a party of adventurers?) - and is accompanied by around a dozen Nightmare Guards. He can't spare the time to give me a really slow and painful death, and just fires his Ring of Red Ruin. At Minki. Guess he knows who's the brains in this partnership.

Cackling like the Bond villain he so obviously wants to be, Damontir summons the reanimated corpse of his servant Sulsa Doom (no comment), last seen falling from a great height following a failed attempt at regicide (I'm going to assume that Doom's attack on the King post-dated that fateful expedition, because I can only cope with so much stupid in my character), and sets him on me before heading further into the temple.

Now, Doom isn't the impressive opponent he's been made out to be - sure, he can dual-wield swords, and thus gets a 1 in 12 chance of wounding me twice in a round, but the odds are still in my favour. Even if the fight were more dangerous, the only alternative would be to jump off the walkway into the steaming shaft that yawns below me. But if I hadn't taken the wrong turning just after entering the temple, evading this not-that-tough fight by hurling myself into the unknown would be the best thing to do. Yes, it did take me a lot of tries at the book to find that out.

However, I didn't acquire the item that transforms suicidal cowardice into the only way to acquire a near-essential item, so I have to face Damontir's Doom. Who gets me with both swords in the first round of combat, but succumbs to repeated blows from my one sword over the course of the rest of the fight.

Once Doom is properly dead, I set off in pursuit of Damontir, hungry for revenge. It's one thing to betray me, hurt me, and leave me for dead (or does that count as three things?), but kill my monkey, and I will hound you to the ends of the world.

Beyond the exit is a long flight of stairs, interrupted every ten metres or so by a landing. Mid-way between the second and third landings, I tread on a booby-trapped step, prompting a cameo appearance by the boulder from the opening sequence of Raiders of the Lost Ark. The boulder got a lot of gamebook work back in the eighties (he was in The Shamutanti Hills and Deathtrap Dungeon, too), but eventually typecasting took its toll, and his career went downhill until he hit rock bottom.

I manage to avoid getting crushed, and descend to a sort of junction. One of the passages leading onwards is blocked, though I could use that Ring to get past the obstruction. I'm pretty sure it's not worth it. At the next junction I take a side passage, and fall into a bone-filled pit that also houses a massive Golden Scorpion. It could be a genuine creature with an unusual coloration, or it might be an elaborate automaton. Either way, it manages to kill me.

Not that I'd have lasted much longer anyway. Without an item located in a part of the temple that can only be reached by jumping off that walkway, an imminent encounter would have gone like this:
  1. Roll equal to or under Psi (1d6+3, remember) on 3d6 or die horribly.
  2. Lose 3 Psi.
  3. Roll under Agility on 2d6 or die. Non-horribly, but dead is dead.
  4. Roll equal to or under reduced Psi on 3d6 or die horribly.
  5. Lose 3 more Psi, and die horribly if that brings your Psi to 0 (yes, the likelihood of having survived step 4 with such a low Psi is very low, but that just makes it all the worse, as the elation of making that 1-in-216 roll is promptly undercut with a 'you still die').
And the climactic confrontation with Damontir is brutal, too. Especially the first time you encounter it, as what would normally be a wise course of action to take at that point turns out to be severely disadvantageous. The book's not impossible to win without cheating, but it's certainly one of the most difficult ones that can (just) be beaten by the rules. This is as harsh as Golden Dragon got, though that doesn't mean subsequent adventures are easy. Just less tricky than this one.

Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Pour le Prestige *et* Pour l'Argent

I'm pretty sure that Deathtrap Dungeon was the first gamebook I got new rather than second-hand. I have vague memories of beholding a blue-and-red spread of copies of it and Island of the Lizard King in the book section of Boots (they used to have one), and of being amazed at the profusion of Instant Death sections right at the start of the book.

My very first attempt went worse than it should have done because I blundered, reading section 12 when I should have gone to 13, thereby missing out on a significant chunk of the dungeon, including the first of the vital jewels and an essential piece of information. I wouldn't have won even if I hadn't made that mistake, as I passed up the opportunity to acquire the second jewel I needed. And I think I cheated a bit, and pretended I hadn't knocked on a trapdoor when it became apparent that doing so led to getting speared in the throat by a Goblin.

It seems unlikely that I used dice, as I recall making it as far as the exit and lacking all the necessary jewels a few times, and there's no way of avoiding at least three fights against opponents with Skill scores in double figures on the way there. Then again, I hadn't quite managed to beat the book by the time my dad had a go at it, and dice were definitely being used by then, because I deliberately ignored the double six rolled for the Giant Scorpion at one point during that fight, as that would have meant Instant Death. And during the final battle, after the Manticore won a few rounds in quick succession, dad insisted I let him take over the dice-rolling as I was doing so badly. Maybe he thought I was cheating a bit, so he wouldn't win the book before I did. He never did find out about the times I'd fiddled things to keep his character from dying.

So, the premise: some years ago, the ruler of an obscure province came up with an unlikely but successful tourist attraction. It's a large subterranean complex with one way in, one way out, and a load of traps, monsters and other life-endangering stuff in between. Once a year, anyone who thinks they're up to the challenge gets to go in. If anyone were ever to make it out of the other end alive, they'd get a large sum of money, but nobody has. And vast crowds gather every year to watch an unspecified number of adventurers go through the entrance one at a time and never be seen again. Imagine a reality TV show in which cameras aren't allowed where the contestants are, the public don't get to vote, and there's a high probability that all the participants will die. Actually, don't, or Sky TV might get ideas.

This year, my character has decided to be one of the contestants, not so much for the money as the fact that nobody has ever survived - a more extreme version of the 'because it's there' factor that motivated the viewpoint character of The Warlock of Firetop Mountain. So let's take a look at the man who believes himself capable of beating a challenge that has a 100% fatality rate up until now...
Skill: 8
Stamina: 21
Luck: 11
Idiot.

This doomed fool travels to Fang, the town where the eponymous dungeon is located, via Port Blacksand because Ian Livingstone has started world-building. After a few days spent sampling whatever entertainments Fang reserves for those about to die, he wakes from a dream that vaguely foreshadows the sequel to this book, and is led to the dungeon entrance where the other doomed contestants await. There are six in total, and he is the next-to-last to go in. Time for a quick perspective shift...

A short distance into the dungeon I find a table bearing six boxes, one of which has my name on it. I open the box to find a parchment bearing a message from dungeon proprietor Baron Sukumvit and two gold pieces. The note mentions that I 'will need to find and use several items' to make it through the dungeon, and for some deranged reason I memorise this and then destroy the parchment. Had it never occurred to me that acquiring McGuffins would be necessary? Is that fact such a super special secret that I really need to ensure that the last contestant doesn't get a chance to learn it? Am I not concerned that one of the other boxes may provide him with the exact same clue? Or even a different one, like 'you will have to kill some monsters' or 'the traps in this dungeon are harmful, and you would do well to avoid them'?

At a junction I see footprints indicating that three of my predecessors turned west, and one east. This is not one of Ian's patent 'go the wrong way and you've failed already' junctions, though there are some deeper in. Still, not following the crowd gives me a marginally better chance of surviving one impending encounter, so I follow the loner. After clambering over a disconcertingly squishy boulder, I have to turn north, and soon become aware that the temperature is rising. A recess in the wall contains a bamboo receptacle with clear liquid in it. Quite a neat dilemma for first-time players - is the liquid deadly, and the heat a trick to make the cautious more willing to drink it, or is dehydration the real danger, and the liquid the solution? Of course, by now I am well aware of what's going on here (I even flagged up an error in the text for the book's listing at Demian's site), so I know the optimal course of action, and take it.

Beyond the heated stretch of corridor, I see a door with a sliding plate set into it. Behind the door are the first of many pits to be found in this place, and a coil of rope. Having been advised that useful items are useful, I have the brilliant idea of taking the rope.

The passage turns west, and I run into a couple of Orcs. There's a chance of getting disarmed at the start of this fight, but I get off comparatively lightly with a flesh wound. Some appalling rolls mean that I take a lot more damage than I should against such minor foes - if I'd lost my sword, I'd probably have wound up dead.

Continuing on my way, I see more of the footprints I noticed earlier. They go up to a door in the wall, but don't come back out again. Behind the door I see why: the Barbarian who was second to enter the dungeon is impaled on several spikes protruding from a large board that must have sprung up from the floor when he triggered it. I help myself to his provisions, as he won't be needing them, and ignore the silver goblet I see in an alcove, as it's not something I need.

Returning to the corridor, I reach a junction, and see evidence that the three contestants who went left all survived the dangers of their chosen route, as their footprints all emerge from the passage facing me and turn north. I automatically follow in their footsteps, entering a large cavern that contains a massive idol with jewelled eyes, flanked by two big stuffed birds. It's a little surprising that none of the others to pass through here attempted to pilfer a gem. Maybe they were worried that doing so might cause the idol to animate (what a ridiculous idea), or they didn't want to risk the climb.

I have a rope. This makes it pretty easy for me to ascend to the idol's head and start to prise out one of its eyes. The idol does not come to life. The stuffed birds do, though, and while I manage to clip the first one's wings, the dice remain predominantly unfavourable. A little later, the sixth contestant will pass through here and, based on what I know of his character from more successful attempts at the book, will probably hurry away, wary of whatever caused my death. And everybody will fail, as the jewelled eye I died trying to acquire is one of the items needed at the end of the challenge.

By this book, Ian Livingstone has definitely lost faith in the FF mantra, 'any player, no matter how weak on initial dice rolls, should be able to get through fairly easily'. Before long, he will have unofficially switched to, 'any player, no matter how strong on initial dice rolls, should struggle to make it even half way through the book'. And a couple of books after that, he'll just turn nasty.

Perhaps if this book hadn't been so massively popular back in its day, FF wouldn't have got quite so ridiculously uplayable as it did at times. But the fans wanted tough fights and gruesome deaths, and that's what we got. And continued to get, even after at least some of us had matured enough to recognise that there were better ways of making a gamebook interesting than repeatedly shredding the player's character.

Monday, 27 August 2012

Pa-pa, pa-pa, pa-pa, pa-pa, pa-pa-pa. Pa-pa, pa-pa, pa-pa, pa-pahhhhh…pah!

What connects City of Thieves, Demons of the Deep, Deathmoor and today?

Well, the first three are all Fighting Fantasy books in which pearls are somehow significant, and today marks 30 years since The Warlock of Firetop Mountain came out, so it's FF's Pearl Anniversary.

Three cheers to Steve, Ian, and those who've added to their legacy. Thanks for the adventures.

He's Even Got a Twin Like Me

Back to The World of Lone Wolf again, as Grey Star travels Beyond the Nightmare Gate in the hope of retrieving Magnamund's major McGuffin, the Moonstone. My first go at the book was much the same as my initial attempts at the rest of the series, and the first copy I owned was acquired in Swansea in the mid-to-late nineties. Either from a charity shop in Uplands, or the (now defunct) second-hand bookshop on Dillwyn Street (I got books from both shops that day, and I'm not sure which was where). That went to a charity shop during a subsequent purge, and my current copy, like the rest of the set, used to belong to someone who spelt 'prophecy' with two 'f's.

Checking the rules, I find that killing off my character in the previous book so as to be able to start with a healthy one here would have been a foolish thing to do. Whereas book 2 talked about carrying over stats from book 1, this one has me generate a fresh character regardless, only veterans from earlier books get bonus Willpower and an extra Power. Doesn't make a whole lot of sense, but I guess passing through the Shadow Gate revitalised me, or it's a side-effect of what Shasarak's been doing (not that my character knows about that yet). Regardless, instead of starting with 3 Endurance and 0 Willpower, as I thought I was going to have to, I get a much healthier-looking Endurance 25 and Willpower 32. My Combat Skill drops to 13 for no good reason, but I'm still much better off than I was, and I acquire Elementalism into the bargain.

Tanith and I arrive in the Daziarn, a separate world from Magnamund that can only be accessed through the extradimensional portals known as Shadow Gates. By the time of the Lone Wolf books it's a dumping ground for Magnamund's most dangerous criminals, but I'm pretty sure this series precedes the Australiafication of the Daziarn. The ground seems to be made of clouds, but is solid enough to bear our weight. We can see only two things of note: a distant building and a hunched man.

In this playthrough I'll ignore the man, but I shall go into a little detail about the encounter from memory. He turns out to be an insane extra-dimensional nomad, who attempts to beguile Grey Star and Tanith into joining him on his futile wanderings. Resisting his power only costs a point or two of Willpower but, in this book's 'choose failure' slot, there is an option to follow him, and wind up abandoning the quest. Oddly, the book categorises doing this as falling victim to 'a subtle magic' rather than making an utterly idiotic decision.

I'd rather not have to spend the Willpower in the first place, so I don't go anywhere near the crazy old man. So, off to the building we go. It has a tower, built from some black crystalline substance, and parts of it seem to disappear when viewed from certain angles. We also notice strange holes in the cloud-ground, and I'm not so daft as to stick my head or hand into any of them. Can't remember what happens if I do, but I doubt that it's good.

The tower has no door, but bears a plaque with an inscription that translates itself into a language I can understand before my very eyes. It even manages to make the translation rhyme, which is often tricky. In effect, it says to go clockwise around the tower to find a way in. And the author has little confidence in his readers' ability to understand it, as there are options to head in the wrong direction, or to use Psychomancy or Prophecy to try and figure out the meaning of a string of directions reading south ->west ->north ->east -> south.

We follow the directions, and there's a door under the plaque by the time we get back there. A locked door, and five animal-themed keys hang on the wall beside it. Do I try one at random, attack the door, use a Power, or try rereading the plaque? Not the most difficult choice I've ever faced. The message on the plaque has changed, and it's now a riddle that indicates which is the correct key. A simple riddle, but brute force and magical cheating are still options for the hard-of-thinking. I use the key indicated, which unlocks the door, and can take the others in case they come in handy somehow. There's a little confusion over terminology, but I think I get the point Page is trying to make. Nevertheless, when the system explicitly distinguishes between Backpack Items and Special Items, it's not helpful to call the keys Special Items that must be kept in my Backpack.

Inside the tower is a hall, with paintings on the walls, a door leading left, stairs going up, swords carved on the flagstones, oh, and another inscription that might explain how to avoid any nasty surprises awaiting me. But evidently the latter doesn't merit as much attention as stairs. Nevertheless, I check that out first, and while reading a more cryptic rhyme, notice that there are lots of swords hanging from the ceiling, points down. The poem mentions swords, being 'at odds' and the 'even-tempered', strongly suggesting that the question of whether or not it's safe to step onto any given flagstone depends on the number of swords carved on it.

My interpretation of the rhyme gets me to the other door without incident. The door's locked, and I left those keys with Tanith, so I shall have to use other means of opening it. Lacking certain ingredients for a powerful acid (again), I must either use Sorcery or blast the door. Violence often rebounds on its users, so I try Sorcery, and find stairs leading down behind the door. Could be a cellar. Good place to put things, cellars, so I have a quick look down there, and find more keys. Nope, Mr. Page is definitely confused about the difference between Special and Backpack. Still, keys are liable to be useful, so I take them.

After ascending to the hall, I am told that I don't like the look of the stairs down, so I decide to make for the ones leading up instead. Sloppy design, that. Back to the flagstone 'puzzle', and I manage to reach the stairs unimpaled. Tanith does likewise, and on the next level we find just one door, unlocked. Burst through, peer through, or use Prophecy? Why spend Willpower when my eyes can do the trick just as well?

The room beyond is full of mirrors (but 'completely empty' - the writing really is poor). Again I have the option of using Prophecy, and this time I think it might not be such a bad idea after all. I sense that the mirrored room is not dangerous, but the one beyond is. I have my suspicions of what awaits, but I'm not sure if they're based on deduction, memory of when I read the book before, or memory of making that deduction before.

A quick search turns up a small prism, which I pocket. Then I can go on or turn back. Not sure what there is to be gained by retreating, so I advance into a hallway that's crowded with randomly-positioned statues. That suspicion's just got a whole lot stronger, and the 'disturbingly life-like' nature of the 'statues', combined with their tormented expressions further reinforce it. I don't have Psychomancy, but even if I did, using it here would be like asking Deanna Troi for advice.

At the end of the hall, stairs lead up to a cell door with a key in the lock. I don't need Prophecy to tell me what's coming. The door bursts open to reveal something monstrous, Tanith and I flee back to the mirrored room, and the creature pursues us there, then reflects on its capabilities and gets stoned. We are congratulated by a portly man in black, who introduces himself as Spittlethrift and takes us to meet the rest of the Academicians in the tower. Exposition follows.

This region of the Daziarn is known as the Neverness. Other parts are ruled over by powerful entities which have reshaped their territory with their minds. Travel between the different realms borders on impossible, but the Acadaemicians have devised a means of doing so, and are willing to make it available to me - so long as I undertake a little quest for them, now that I've proved myself resourceful enough by passing their tests. They want me to go to a place known as the Singing City, home of the Elessin, and steal the musical jewel known as the Threnogem, and I don't really have a lot of choice in the matter.

The way out of the Neverness is a flying machine, the Ethetron, invented by the thoroughly unpleasant Crabkey. In order to ensure that I don't just fly off in it and never come back, Tanith is to remain in the tower as a hostage. She has some choice words to say about that, but once she's done intimidating Spittlethrift, she tells me to accept their terms so we can get the side quest out of the way.

Once Crabkey has explained how to control the Ethetron, which is something like a hybrid of a Viking ship, a flying saucer and the Batwing (at least in the text, though the illustration doesn't really get the 'saucer' aspect), another Academician hands me a Gyronome, which makes a noise to indicate the direction in which I should travel, and I set off.

After some high-larious 'can't control the Ethetron that well and nearly crash' shenanigans, the Gyronome indicates that I should descend, so I fly into one of those weird holes we passed earlier, entering a darkened void. A quick recitation of the local variant of, 'I must not fear. Fear is the mind killer,' restores a little Willpower, and the Gyronome indicates that the correct way to go from here is any and every direction. Things get a bit late-2001: A Space Odyssey before the Ethetron emerges into sky above ground, and I have to hurriedly bring it under control. This is randomised, and there's an alarming 40% chance of getting the bad option (halved if I have a certain item from book 1). I just manage to roll high enough for a smooth landing (and a sneaky peek at the other outcome reveals it to be less disastrous than I'd expected).

Some figures are heading my way, so I decide to see if they can provide any useful information. They look a bit like George Pal Eloi, and despite not being able to understand their language, I somehow know that they're Elessin. They appear to want me to come to their city, and since that's where I'm supposed to be heading, I see no need to attack them.

I know it's inadvisable to judge by appearances, but the Elessin show no signs of being the villainous types that the Academicians made them out to be. Consequently, I'm not too concerned about being introduced to the one who appears to be their leader, or being beckoned into the palace. Yes, I am being a bit conspicuous, considering that I'm supposed to be stealing the Threnogem, but being welcomed in is preferable to fighting my way through an angry mob.

The leader takes me into a hall containing 'a grotesque, but life-like, statue of a child'. I quote the statue's description in its entirety to set up another rant about the writing. The Elessin leader greets me telepathically, introducing himself as the Guardian of the Threnogem. I am offered the choice of attacking him, telling him why I'm here, or grabbing the Threnogem from the statue's mouth. Now, reread the description in the first line of this paragraph. Roughly how well would you say it describes Grey Star's first catching sight of the very item he's come here to acquire? Pick one of the following:
  1. Overly purple prose.
  2. Needlessly dry text.
  3. Suitably evocative of this significant moment.
  4. Nice work, Page. You only forgot to mention the most important detail.
Given that the Guardian is a telepath, I might as well tell the truth. Maybe he'll recognise my need. Once I've told my tale, he tells me all about the Threnogem. Basically, it creates silence, and the Elessin made it in order to gain freedom from the demonic Master of Sound whose slaves they were. He's the statue, and every day the Elessin pour more power into the gem to ensure that he stays that way. If the Academicians want the gem so badly, they can have it, so long as they take the statue as well.

Sounds like a good deal to me. A crowd of Elessin transport the statue to the Ethetron. Delighted at finally being free of the need to periodically recharge the gem, the Guardian offers what help he can for my principal quest, retuning the Gyronome so it can guide me to the Realm of Paradox, home of the man most likely to know the Moonstone's whereabouts.

Back at the tower I receive a less than warm welcome. It turns out that, while I was away, I turned up, much more powerful and dressed in black, and intimidated them into handing over Tanith despite not having the Threnogem on me. I also forced them to tell me all they knew about the Realm of Paradox, and then departed with Tanith, not needing any mode of transport to cross from one realm to another. This is news to me, and I decide to quickly pursue the Grey Star who took Tanith. After unloading the statue, I speed off in the Ethetron, forgetting to warn the Academicians about the need to leave the Threnogem where it is. Oh, well, I'll just have to pop back and let them kn-

A hideous screech rings out, and the tower disintegrates.

Oops! Not that I can do anything about my (authorially imposed) blunder, as moments later I'm out of the Neverness. Well, I'll just have to hope that the Master of Sound isn't able to get out of there and wreak havoc upon the Elessin.

The Realm of Paradox is full of the sort of weird stuff Ford Prefect and Arthur Dent experienced while subject to the effects of the Infinite Improbability Drive. Freaky, but not particularly paradoxical - the sort of inappropriate nonsense you'd expect to find in the Realm of Irony if Alanis Morissette were in charge of it. Having the Power of Enchantment enables me to ignore the wackiness rather than crash the Ethetron into an inverted mountain.

I attract the attention of the Chaos-Master, who waffles on about reality being an illusion, and tells me I'll have to pay a price if I want Tanith back. So is this a 'doomed if I accept his terms' set-up, or a 'flattened for defying him' set-up? I'll take a chance on agreeing. At once I find myself in the court of the Chaos-Master, whose form is in constant flux, like someone in a multi-species scramble suit. Also present are Tanith and her captor, Grey Star With a Vengeance.

Social functions can get awkward when someone else is wearing the same face.

My doppelgänger is 'a perversion of nature and a being of great evil' known as a Jahksa, which is close enough to a certain surname to make me wonder if Mr. Page has issues with one of the co-creators of Fighting Fantasy or an American games manufacturer. For now the Jahksa isn't saying anything, but the Chaos-Master wants to know what I'm after, so he can set his price. Having missed whatever tangent would have led to the acquisition of a certain item, I have to make a double-barrelled request, and ask for Tanith and the whereabouts of the Moonstone. The Chaos-Master is fine with both of these, but his price is that I let my annoying kid brother the Jahksa accompany me to the next Realm. Well, that's going to be a fun journey.

In the initial stages, the Jahksa just smirks at me while I steer the Ethetron. A storm brews up - possibly his doing, but I'm not convinced it's worth spending Willpower to find out whether or not it's a natural phenomenon. Better to unwrap my new Elementalism and try a spot of cloudbusting. This enables me to ascertain that my unwanted passenger is to blame, and I try to take control of the Air Elementals he has summoned. It costs me some Willpower, but eventually works. And then Tanith pushes the Jahksa overboard, which is actually quite funny. Not sure the Chaos-Master has grounds for complaint (if he's even able to do anything), as Tanith was not a signatory to my agreement with him. Of course, we don't see a corpse...

We soon reach the Realm of Peace, and after some Endurance-restoring snacking on local flora (which heals enough that I've evidently missed a lot of opportunities to get hurt), we make for a settlement. Then I get a bad feeling. Probably sensing the Jahksa, and I can't be bothered to spend the Willpower to check. The settlement is giving off an unusual amount of smoke. Because it's on fire. And I think I know how it started, given the terrified reactions of the villagers when I try to lend a hand, plus the exclamation of 'He is back!'

I make it rain to help put out the fire, and the Jahksa turns up to mock me for helping the 'peasants'. I mock him back for letting the villagers see us both, thereby foiling his own plan to besmirch my reputation. He can't manage a better riposte than 'Next time, Gadget!', and vanishes. Now the villagers know I'm the good guy, they invite me to a feast, and as the inhabitants of this Realm apparently know the way to the Moonstone, I figure I'm better off chatting to the ones who like me than wandering off to find another lot and potentially having to prove that I'm not the Jahksa again.

The villagers take Tanith and me to a lake. We need to fly the Ethetron into it when the moon is at its highest, and we will be transported to the Realm of the Moonstone. Or the villagers secretly still blame me for my double's actions, and want to see me crash and burn. But they're on the level, and the passage describing our passing through this magical gateway is some of the best writing I've seen all series.

The improved quality of the prose continues as we soar through a void above a sea of mist. A house-sized claw rises up to attack us, damaging the Ethetron's power source and causing us to lose altitude. Eyeless (but by no means toothless) heads erupt from the clouds, blindly seeking us. I'd rather not attack, in case whatever sensory apparatus they have can detect magical energies. Just have to hope there's still enough fuel that I can steer around the monsters... The deciding factor is a combination of Combat Skill and Willpower, and I've been sufficiently frugal with the latter this book that it's not even close.

Beyond the strange beasts' territory I spot a Trianon, a structure created by the beings who raised me. That'll be where the Moonstone is, then. But before we can get there, a flock of Chaos-birds approaches. I let them get too close, and wind up having to fight one. It has a considerable advantage in the Combat Skill department, but an ill-thought-out aspect of the rules enables me to multiply whatever damage I inflict by the number of Willpower points I spend. I risk 4, which gives me a 20% chance of vaporising the bird in the first round, and my gamble pays off.

That still leaves the rest of the flock, so I use Elementalism to create air turbulence. This fends off the Chaos-birds, but causes the Ethetron to collide with the Trianon, tipping me over the side. Luckily, Tanith manages to grab the Trianon with one hand and me with the other. As gamebook sidekicks go, she's one of the most competent.

I know how to reveal and open the door into the Trianon, and we step through into a corridor with hundreds of doors leading off it. With irritating vagueness, the only decisions given are to explore or not. So is the latter another 'choose failure' option, or does it mean doing the right kind of nothing so the Moonstone can find me, or something else entirely?

Out of curiosity, I choose not to explore, which turns out to mean walking along the corridor. I see a glow at the end, and Tanith notices the Jahksa (how did I miss him?). Ignoring him, I move into the light, and wind up back in the corridor, much to my duplicate's amusement. Still unwilling to spend Willpower on the pest, I try a door. It leads to a chamber containing the Moonstone. The Jahksa reaches for the Moonstone, and I don't intervene, in case there's an Indiana Jones ending coming up.

Nothing terrible happens to the Jahksa when he grabs the Moonstone, but Tanith warns me not to fight him. Given that the 'take her advice' option leads to the last section of the book, and this series pre-dates the 'unexpectedly lethal end paragraph' twist, I refrain from attacking. He strikes me down, and becomes more dead than he could possibly imagine. As far as I'm aware, this is the first time a gamebook has made not killing your evil double the right thing to do. So now I have the Moonstone, and all I have to do is return to Magnamund and defeat Shasarak. Of course, there's a whole book 4's worth of complications to fit in between those two tasks, but that'll be another blog entry.

That book was something of an improvement on its predecessors. Perhaps a bit too easy after the punishing difficulty of the first two, and the writing was still pretty poor in places, but I was really impressed by the sequence between the lake and the Trianon. If the last book in the series builds on what was good about this one, we could be in for a decent climax.

Friday, 24 August 2012

I Should Cocoa

The second (and, in English, last) of Herbie Brennan's Adventure Game Books is Aztec Quest. I got my copy via Amazon. It used to be part of a school library in Durham, and consequently has several labels on the cover and a big ink stamp on the first page. No pages missing, though, and the overall condition suggests that it didn't get much attention while it was in the library.

The cover artist doesn't appear to have had much contact with the actual text, as the picture shows someone wearing glasses, but the internal blurb indicates that my character is from the 16th century. Apparently the people of my village were mistreated by the Aztecs, and joined forces with the invaders from the east. I got knocked out and taken prisoner, and am now in a cell, awaiting the final decision on how I am to be sacrificed.

A guard arrives with some food. There's been no indication that I'm at less than full Life Points, but the text says that I'm feeling weak, so I'll eat anyway. On the menu are assorted delicacies unlikely to appeal to your average 20th century European, but which are presumably nothing out of the ordinary (or maybe something of a rare and special treat) to my character, so I shan't change my mind. Yes, the ants go down a treat, the only problem with the grubs is that the chilli on them is hotter than I like it, and the rat in chocolate sauce is good enough to give me a hefty damage bonus in my next fight.

Speaking of which, that guard's waiting to take the dishes away, so I hurl myself upon him. And though I outclass him significantly, a couple of bad rolls cause me to narrowly lose the fight. An overly abrupt ending (again), but at least it means that Montezuma II doesn't get to have me sacrificed.

Another one to revisit at some point. It appears that at some point in the book I have to play a board game (which a brief look suggests to be not dissimilar to Chess, possibly of Brennan's own devising, or maybe an authentic Aztec game, but not as well-publicised as Patolli), and I'm a little curious as to how it fits into the story. Still, there are a lot of other gamebooks to try before I come back to this one.

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Over the Hills and Far Away

I was strangely slow to get into Steve Jackson's Sorcery! Though aware of the books, I just didn't bother with them (beyond the occasional flick-through in bookshops) for some time. They'd switched from wraparound covers to orange spines by the time I actually got interested in them. That happened in late 1984, and I managed to persuade my maternal grandparents to get me The Shamutanti Hills for Christmas or Birthday (I was born in late December). As I recall, on my first (probably diceless) attempt, I managed to blunder into every booby-trapped dead end in the endgame caves before reaching the climactic confrontation.

In case anyone is unfamiliar with the series, it was a Fighting Fantasy spin-off with two principal innovations. Firstly, you could play a warrior or a wizard. Secondly, there was an ongoing quest that ran through all four books - a common enough aspect these days, but Sorcery! preceded the likes of Lone Wolf and The Way of the Tiger, so it was radical stuff back then.

The premise is simple enough. The villainous Archmage of Mampang has stolen the magical Crown of Kings from Analand (not in person - he got some Birdmen to do it for him) and somehow a lone hero is better suited to the task of retrieving the Crown than an army.

I shall make my character a wizard, as they get a wider range of choices than warriors, and have more chance of surviving even if they roll low numbers during character creation. Wizards start with a lower Skill score than warriors, but get to cast spells. There's a list of 48, each identified by a three-letter title that often (but not always) hints at what it does - HOT creates fireballs, ZAP fires lightning bolts, YAZ... the book came out years before The Only Way Is Up charted, so it's got nothing to do with levitation, and there's no obvious link with obscure Iron Age cultures, the hits of Clarke and Moyet, or even the wizard from The Forest of Doom, so I haven't the faintest idea of the reasoning behind the name.

All spells cost Stamina to cast, some don't work unless you have the correct item, and nobody knows what the last one on the list actually does. Oh, and you're not allowed to consult the list during play, but must work from memory, as carrying a spell book into enemy territory is not permitted. I suspect that I can remember the list a lot better than much of what I was being taught at school back when I originally played the books. Anyway, my stats:
Skill: 6 (with what I rolled, a warrior would have had next to no chance of surviving the climax)
Stamina: 19
Luck: 12
Despite knowing of more than two dozen items necessary for casting spells, I don't have any of them when I set out. No, that's not quite true: one spell can turn a coin into a shield, and I do have some money, but more than half the spells on my list are currently off-limits. Evidently preparedness is considered a vice in Analand.

The Sightmaster Warriors who guard the gate, famed for their impressive powers of vision (which somehow failed to pick up on the Birdmen flying in to steal the Crown (though a later book hints at an explanation for this lapse)) let me out, and the Sightmaster Sergeant tells me the route I must follow (which I should probably have researched before now, but maybe I was too busy not collecting items to think about how to get to where I'm going).

After a while, I reach the village of Cantopani, where I claim to be a trader, and spend most of my money to acquire a sword that makes me a better fighter, a flute that enables me to cast one of those spells, and an axe that has a number carved on it, and thus is bound to come in handy at some point even if it's not much use in a fight.

Just outside the village I am waylaid by bandits, but I can do a reverse-Pied Piper manoeuvre with the flute, forcing them to dance away from me. (I'd make some kind of snide remark about Bardsmanship here, but it'd only make sense to people from the rpg.net Lone Wolf thread).

As I am contemplating which way to take at a junction, an old man trapped up a tree asks me to help him down. I do so, and in return he tells me a rhyme that may be of some use and gives me a page from a Spell Book. Not much use on its own, but it might (i.e. will) come in handy later on. There's also a beehive up in the tree, and I raid it, getting slightly stung but acquiring a meal's worth of honey and some beeswax (another spell component).

Down into a valley, or up into the hills? The clue is in the title. I get the feeling I'm being watched, and don't stop for a picnic, but as dusk falls I make camp and have something to eat, as Sorcery! requires you to eat at least once a day or lose Stamina, and the breakfast back in section 1 appears not to count as a meal. No nocturnal predators take any interest in me, and I set off again in the morning.

In a clearing I see a selection of heads on poles, clearly intended as a warning not to take one of the paths leading onwards. What's less clear is which way I'm being advised not to go. Metaknowledge may be helpful here: if I go the wrong way, there's a chance that my head might end up adorning a pole, too. But it's possible to meet that fate without passing through the clearing I've reached (the reference back to a warning you never saw is one of the acknowledged bugs in the book). So I want to take the path that's less likely to join up with the one I didn't take yesterday, right?

Right. I reach a Goblin-operated mine instead. Might as well have a look around. I soon reach a locked door, and a reminder of one of Sorcery!'s quirks. In almost every situation where magic can be used, five options are offered. Often, some of the options are tricks - spells that don't exist, spells that require items you can't have acquired yet, and/or spells that are just totally inappropriate for the situation. Here, I get to choose from two fakes, one that I need a Galehorn to cast, one that (IIRC) highlights the best way to escape from a trap, and one that unlocks doors. Didn't have to look anything up to work that out, either. But the same academic year that I got Sorcery!, we did Zaire (among other countries) in geography, and right now I couldn't tell you a thing about the country. Beyond the fact that it's not even called Zaire any more.

With the aid of the appropriate spell, I open the door to find a room in which an Ogre is operating a rock-crushing machine. That's not likely to be a quiet process, and yet I never heard a thing from the other side of the door. The Ogre is somewhat hostile, but I manage to defeat him and grab a couple of jewels before departing.

One of those jewels pays for a meal and a night's rest in the village of Kristatanti, restoring all the Stamina I lost in the mine. The route I take out of the village is the blindest of blind choices - not so much as a hint of direction, just two section numbers from which to pick. I go for the one that's a cube, because that's as good a reason as any.

Not a bad choice, as it takes me to a clearing containing a signpost. Bit of an odd signpost, as I know from past attempts that one of the names on it is a village, and the other is a person. Well, I'll start by paying a call on Alianna. Who is locked in a cage, allegedly on account of 'mischievous Elvins'. The lock is no problem for me, and I can choose between two rewards. One is a selection of items useful for casting spells, but I go for the other, an armband that will boost my fighting prowess, as there are times when combat is unavoidable, so I'd do well to be at least reasonably competent when I have to resort to swordplay.

After handing over the armband, and some money as well, Alianna decides she doesn't want me to take her stuff after all (so why did she give it to me in the first place?), and transforms a chair into a Golem to attack me. But she hasn't reckoned on my owning a flute. Dance, Golem, dance!

Putting that rather bizarre interlude behind me, I return to the clearing and head for the village of Dhumpus, where Alianna's money covers my expenses quite nicely. It's an uneventful stay, but if I'm remembering rightly, one potential encounter in this village can lead to a lot of trouble later on, and it only occurs because Steve Jackson makes you say something mildly rude. Some authorial impositions are really strange.

The next day I reach a bridge, and a rhyme-speaking hunchback tells me I must answer two questions in order to cross it. I should be okay as long as he avoids the one about the air-speed velocity of an unladen swallow. The first question concerns the name of the 'witch held in captivity' (so does the hunchback have some kind of preternatural knowledge, or is Alianna notorious for getting herself locked up?). I get that right, and can also correctly name the three villages through which I've been, so I am rewarded with free passage and a warning about the location of the traps in the 'cave-demon's maze'.

Continuing on my way, I am joined by a small flying creature roughly the size of my thumb. I don't have any choice in the matter, but this is at least a case of the little pest choosing to inflict himself on me regardless of my wishes rather than the author deciding that my character wants to spend time with some annoying twerp. My new travelling companion is a Minimite called Jann, who has a natural anti-magic aura. Yes, for a chunk of this book, the entire spell list is unusable. Now you see why I was so keen to become a better fighter.

Jann tells me that the village up ahead is Birritanti, which is something of a tourist trap, and thus expensive. But that's okay, as I should be able to pay my way with an axe. No, I'm not about to resort to violence - the local tavern is owned by a man whose name is the same as the one carved on that axe I bought earlier. I let him have it (in the non-lethal sense), and he gives me a drink and a free pass to the Crystal Waterfall, as well as mentioning a rescue mission I might (i.e. am certain to) get sent on in the village of Torrepani, and telling me about an influential friend who lives in the city of Kharé, which is where the next book in the series is set. He doesn't help with accommodation for the night, but the opportunity to name-drop if I should get into trouble in book 2 is more than worth the cost of the axe.

The next day I'm continuing on my way (still accompanied by Jann) when a scimitar-wielding individual in black blocks my path. This is one of those unavoidable fights I mentioned earlier. Thanks to the sword from Cantopani and the armband from Alianna, I'm able to overpower him, and I let him surrender once he's almost dead, as he's another contact worth cultivating. Sure, he's a not-so-deadly assassin who randomly ambushes people he's not even been hired to kill, but he could help put me back on track if I take a wrong turning in the next book, so I'm willing to overlook his questionable ethics.

Further on, Jann and I pass a hut, and the old woman sitting outside it invites me over. This is one situation where refusing hospitality is not only impolite but also fatal, so I pay her a visit. She makes drinks for me and herself, and while she's back in the kitchen opening a pack of biscuits or something, I don't switch mugs because it's inconceivable that she might have drugged my drink. After hobbling away to swig down the antidote to the drug she slipped into her own drink to catch out untrusting guests, she not-so-casually asks if I happened to encounter any old men on my journey. Not because she's looking for some nice octogenarian to settle down with - it transpires that the chap I rescued from the tree way back at the start of the adventure stole a page from her spell book. I hand over the page, which turns out to be part of a spell for getting rid of unwanted sidekicks even if they do have magic-nullifying capabilities. Which is implausibly convenient, but still... bye-bye, Jann.

The path leads me to Torrepani. a village inhabited by a tribe of Man-Orcs known as Svinns. They're not very happy, which is understandable when I think back to what I got told in Birritanti: their chief's daughter has been abducted by villains who mean to sacrifice her to a Manticore. Some Svinns realise that I'm an adventurer, and they mob me and lock me into a hut. For some reason, though my character looks in vain for a way of escaping, it never occurs to him to try the spell that unlocks doors.

Eventually the village elder comes to me and explains that he wants me to rescue his daughter. He only had to ask; there was no need for the rough stuff. I'm not happy with my character's attitude here. While the Svinns haven't been very nice, they don't seem to be evil, but I still find myself contemplating making a break for it and leaving the girl to get slaughtered. Or if I choose to accept the quest, the book says it's because I'm hoping for some big reward rather than because saving children from being sacrificed to monsters is the sort of thing heroes are supposed to do. Is it cause they is Svinn?

Following the advice from the hunchback's rhyme, I find the Svinn girl. So far, so good, but as Chekhov so very nearly said, if in the 233rd section a Manticore is mentioned, then in the endgame it should attack the hero. Having been de-Minimited, I'm able to use a barrage of spells to keep the monster at bay until the child and I can get out of the cave. It costs half my Stamina, but I'd almost certainly have lost at least as much fighting the brute. In fact, just as a 'what if', I'll play out the combat to see how it would have gone... Whoa! It would have cost me a lot of Luck, but with strategic use of the first spell, followed by a shift to swordplay, I'd have ended the fight triumphant in no worse (nor any better) a physical condition than I wound up by using magic.

Either way, the Svinns reward me with restoration to full Stamina and Luck (and if I'd failed to rid myself of Jann... well, I'd be dead by now, but had I managed to survive with him present, he'd have been banished), plus a little money and a key to the city gates of Kharé. And they don't subsequently change their minds and attack me with chairs, so I'd say that they're better people than some humans I've had to deal with on this quest.

I'd better file this character away. The next couple of Wednesdays I'll be in Livingstone territory, but the week after that, it will be time to send the hero of this adventure into Kharé - Cityport of Traps.

Monday, 20 August 2012

Got a Problem? Odds Against You?

I don't have much to say, nostalgia-wise, regarding the second T&T solo, Ken St. Andre's Deathtrap Equalizer Dungeon. It was released by Corgi (minus the last word of the title, perhaps to avoid confusion with FF's Deathtrap Dungeon) in the same book as Naked Doom, so obviously the story of how I originally got ND covers my first experience of DE. Similarly, the job lot of Flying Buffalo editions that contained my second copy of ND also had a second edition DED in it. About the only thing I can add is that, during my diceless attempt at the Corgi edition on the train, I must have encountered one of the character deaths, because I remember being puzzled at the claim that Ken St. Andre was laughing at me. The in-world owner of the dungeon was called Umslopagaas, and the Corgi books didn't put authors' names on the covers, so I hadn't yet discovered that Mr. St. Andre was the writer of the thing.

Now I come to think about it, I do recall GMing the adventure for a few members of my school's RPG group. Only one incident sticks in the memory: one of the players' character encountered a benevolent deity, and decided to hit it on the head with a stick. Exit that character, char-broiled. T&T's gods are not big on forgiveness.

And enter my new character. This is the first T&T solo to allow wizards so, stats permitting, that's what he will be.
Strength: 8 (not good, as Strength is what fuels spells)
Intelligence: 11 (just above the minimum necessary for a magic-using character)
Luck: 11
Constitution: 6 (potentially not such a bad thing at one point in this adventure)
Dexterity: 12 (significantly above the minimum necessary for a magic-using character)
Charisma: 14 (could help lead into a tangent on Corgi editorial policy)
Speed: 8
And enough money for a Quarterstaff (which I convert into a makeshift Magic Staff), some rope, and stuff to wear.

DED is not so much a dungeon as a series of micro-dungeons, which can be entered by putting on a magic ring. A Frog Ring will take its wearer to a randomly determined micro-dungeon, whereas a Lion Ring takes its wearer through all 16 micro-dungeons in sequence. The Lion Ring experience is for epic heroes, and my rolls were decidedly sub-epic, so I'll be using a Frog Ring as many times as the text permits, or until too dead to continue.

On goes the ring, and... I'm transported into the presence of Haksum the robber, a charmless thug with a double-headed axe where normal people have a left hand. He wants my money. Since I only have a single gold piece left, and my chances of defeating him in combat are negligible, I think I'm going to have to pay up. Even if Haksum's lying about magic not working in this room, the way T&T combat works pretty much guarantees my not making it through the first round. I'd be able to blast Haksum, but unless he's almost as low on Constitution as I, that's not going to be enough to kill him, and in the mean time he'd be hitting me with his broadsword and axe. Not sure about what damage the sword can do, but the axe's stats are given up front, and there's a little over 50% chance of his being able to do lethal damage with just one blow from that. Better hand over the money. Oh, it's not just my money he wants, but everything except for the Frog Ring. Still preferable to having a third T&T character die in the very first encounter.

Except that, jealous of my good looks, Haksum decides to disfigure me. I fail the roll to dodge, and he cuts off my head to spite my face. Yes, it might not have been his intent to kill, but the damage inflicted is more than three times as much as my low Constitution can handle. Those ruminations on Corgi edits will have to wait until later.

I may wind up revisiting some of these T&T solos sooner than originally planned. Certain of the later ones require experienced characters, and if I don't get any survivors who meet the requirements of those adventures, I shall have to come back to the early ones until I get a hero who actually lives long enough to have a chance at the quests for the more advanced characters.

Friday, 17 August 2012

You Know the Quick From the Dead

2005 seemed like a good time to be a gamebook fan. It saw the publication of the first new Fighting Fantasy gamebook in years, and even if that book was nothing special, it opened the way to more new books. It also saw the launch of Fantom Empires, a series of Steampunk gamebooks by Jon Sutherland. Well, planned as a series, but it never got beyond an online teaser adventure, one book, and titles for the follow-ups that never were. I was very enthusiastic when the series was initially announced, but largely indifferent to its cancellation, because by the time it became apparent that there wasn't going to be a book two, I'd acquired and attempted book one, The Golem of Brick Lane.

I don't actually remember much of my first (and, until now, only) attempt - just that I reached a point where the text was making out that my character had done something I'd chosen not to do, or been to a place I hadn't yet visited, or something along those lines. It's by no means the only gamebook to have such a structural flaw, but other details had already worn down my good will towards the book, and that was the proverbial last straw. I'm hoping that blogging about my second attempt will help me persevere if it gets irritating.

My character is Nicholas Fantom, a Fleet Street reporter and presumed orphan (though if the series had gone anywhere, the uncertain fates of his parents and sister might have been revealed). Currently small fry as journalists go, and with a tendency to get stuck with the wacky stories. A Victorian Carl Kolchak, then.

His stats are tailored rather than randomised, and this is where I have my first problem with the book. It's pretty much essential to create an unbalanced character. I get 24 points to allocate to 3 characteristics (Body, Intellect and Nerve), with a minimum of 4 in any one characteristic. So I could go for a well-rounded 8-8-8. Except that that's the worst possible combination. You see, there are special skills, too, and the rules governing skill selection are very simple: if a characteristic is at least 9, I can pick three of the related skills, but if it's 8 or under, I get nothing. So for skill optimisation, I need to knock one characteristic down to 6 or less, and boost the other two to 9 or more. And, not that Mr. Sutherland wants to make one characteristic the obvious dump stat or anything, but Fantom's physical health and fighting prowess are derived from Body and Nerve. Intellect doesn't really matter that much (I guess Fantom writes for one of the tabloids). The sample character shown in the book has 9 Body, 9 Nerve, and 5 Intellect (which just goes to show that reduced Intellect can impair mathematical skill). I'm tempted to defy authorial intent and create a smart character, but it is my intent to try and play the book properly, and it looks as if not creating a burly moron would be equivalent to taking a dive. So heer am mi kariktur:
Body: 10
Intellect: 4
Nerve: 10
Constitution: 30
Combat Skill: 30
Special Skills: Athletics, Armed Combat, Swimming, Brawling, Marksmanship, Stealth

The adventure starts in the offices of The Daily Examiner, where I am called away from a letter about pixies in the garden to hear a Mr. Katz tell his story. Katz is a member of the local Jewish community, whose Temple on Brick Lane is being targeted by vigilantes who blame them for the Golem which has been abducting people of late. Further dialogue establishes that it's the sort that fantasy game bestiaries tend to call a Flesh Golem, and non-gamers are more likely to call a Frankenstein or a Frankenstein's Monster (depending on how well-informed and pedantic they are). I decide to let Conan Doyle handle the pixie story, and accompany Katz to Brick Lane after collecting my journalistic equipment. No, not a notepad and pencil - knuckledusters.

The Police are doing a reasonable job of keeping the angry mob under control, but only my Athletic prowess keeps me from being hit by a hurled brick. Confronting the person who threw it looks like a good way to escalate things into a full-scale riot, so I just head indoors.

The Temple Elder only speaks Yiddish, and my low Intellect can't get past the language barrier. Katz translates as best he can, and tells me a very simplified version of the story of the Golem of Prague. Further research is fruitless owing to my lack of smarts, so I decide to go to a local pub to listen to the gossip. I learn that one of the patrons doesn't like 'toffs', and get slightly jabbed with a broken bottle before demonstrating that he should be more wary of the uppercut than the upper class. Shortly afterwards, I am visited by Mr. Herbert Lusk of the Brick Lane Vigilance Committee, who blames the Jews for the 'monster' and mentions plans to burn down the Temple this evening. I have sufficient Nerve to persuade him to postpone the arson for a few days while I investigate, and he summons an urchin named Charlie who has a tale to tell.

I treat Charlie to a meal (somehow not having to spend anything, though I am supposed to keep track of my finances). He claims to have seen one of the abductions take place, and offers to lead me to the other witnesses. I follow him to a rough part of town, and my Athletic ability keeps me from plunging through rotted floorboards to an uncertain fate. Another urchin describes how he he saw one of his friends seized and carried off, and claims that the thing carried its victim off to a nearby archaeological dig. Could the excavations have disturbed some long-buried horror? Probably not, as there's not a great deal to connect Roman ruins and Golems.


There's all kinds of fun stuff buried under London

My lack of Intellectual Skills keeps me from persuading the archaeologists to let me have a nose around, so after a quick meeting with Inspector Abberline, my principal contact in the local Police force, (unproductive, but it does establish his existence to make it look less contrived when my knowing him becomes important) I sneak back to the dig when work has concluded for the day. A careful search reveals a section of wall in which the bricks are not held together by anything - a hidden tunnel entrance, though taking the bricks down and putting them back after going through must be a real time-waster.

The passage smells bad, but the precise nature of the stench is not made clear, so I can't yet tell if this leads to the sewers, some mass grave, or something else entirely. After a while, the passage splits, and there are no indications that the smell is stronger one way than the other, so this is a blind choice. Further in, I conclude that it's a sewer smell, and notice a side passage to a chamber. Investigating, I am attacked by a humanoid figure with ratlike features, armed with a cleaver (that looks a lot more like a scimitar in the illustration). She's not that tough an opponent, but the swarm of conventional rats that follows her gnaws me to the bones in next to no time.

Well, that was more enjoyable than my first attempt.Even if I didn't have to move on to the next title on my list for Monday's blog entry, I doubt that I'd be raring to have another go at the book, but I'm no longer as reluctant to come back to it as I was before this playthrough.

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Dirty Old Town

City of Thieves was the first Fighting Fantasy book of which I owned a copy. I found it in the Book Exchange where I got my copy of Proteus 1, and commenced a diceless readthrough on my way home, getting as far as the harbour. My parents were out that evening, probably at a game in the local darts or cribbage league, and my sisters and I spent the evening at the home of a family friend. There I resumed my attempt at the book and, presumably having been cured of my most egregious cheating ways by The Citadel of Chaos, failed as a consequence of missing two essential items (well, one, as became apparent on subsequent attempts).

It's also one of the few FF books my father attempted. I read out the sections, he made the decisions. We did this on a train trip to the village where his parents lived. He did worse at it than I, refusing to pay the sum demanded by a group of concealed snipers, and consequently getting 5 arrows in him. We were playing by the rules, and his character's Stamina just wasn't high enough to take that much damage.

That's enough about the past. On with the plot. Zanbar Bone, a malignant undead being known as the Night Prince, wants the daughter of the mayor of Silverton for unspecified but probably nasty reasons, and is nocturnally besieging Silverton with savage Moon Dogs until he gets his way. The only person who knows how to kill Zanbar is the wizard Nicodemus, who lives in the nearby haven of scum and villainy that is Port Blacksand. I am a generic itinerant adventurer, employed by the mayor to find Nicodemus and persuade him to do something lethal about Zanbar. And how well-suited am I to the part of hero?
Skill: 8
Stamina: 17
Luck: 10
Not great, but we're still one book away from Ian Livingstone's declaring war on anyone who rolls low during character creation, so all is not lost.

I set off to Port Blacksand, and am stopped at the city gate by a guard who wishes to know my business. This is one instance where what initially seems unwise turns out to have beneficial consequences, so I tell the truth and am promptly arrested. Rather than resist, I let myself be dragged away and locked up. The old man in the adjacent cell offers to provide me with a way out - for a price - but I don't need his assistance. Bizarrely, a key to the cell door is concealed behind a loose stone in the wall. Even more absurdly, after letting myself out, I put the key back and then yell abuse at the guards to provoke a potentially avoidable fight. If I'd remembered that I didn't get to keep the key, I'd have gone for the combat-free escape option. Still, I take the other spoils available and head into town.

A crossroads presents the first, and least risky, blind choice of three options in the book. Success is possible no matter which street I choose, but my chances of victory can be significantly improved by items found on two of them. I pick the middle one, Market Street. In a tavern named the Spotted Dog I sit at a table occupied by two arguing Goblins. They promptly forget their differences, and turn on the interloper.


Sticking your nose into someone else's fight is rarely appreciated

I'm a better fighter than either of them, and collect my 'mediator's fee' from them before returning to the street. There, two thieves make the painful discovery that I'm not the easy target they thought I was. A house catches my attention by virtue of not being terraced, and I decide to take a closer look at it. The owner's pet wolf nearly bites me, and I feel the need to complain about this potential threat to passers-by. When I knock on the door quite vigorously with my shoulder, the lock breaks, letting me in.

There are three upturned silver goblets on a table. Another blind choice of three options, and I happen to know that only one goblet is safe to touch. Still, this choice is not compulsory, so anyone who picks a wrong goblet and pays the price only has their own greed or curiosity to blame. In an adjacent room is a locked chest, and I can't come up with any spurious justification for picking the lock. Still, the shield inside may save my life at a later point in the book. That doesn't excuse the breaking and entering or the theft, but gamebook morality is rarely an effective guide to how one should behave in the real world.

Having provided the home-owner with a clear illustration of the inadequacy of his security measures, I return to the street, and proceed to a crossroads where authorial fiat compels me northwards to the bottleneck that is the market square. The authorial compulsions persist until I've given in to peer pressure and hurled eggs at the man in the pillory, after which I can start making decisions for myself again.

I avail myself of the services of some market traders, but opt not to pay to join a game of cannonball catch, nor to consult a clairvoyant, as it's not essential in this book. At the charmingly-named Singing Bridge (its name inspired by the noise the wind makes whistling through the skulls mounted on the bridge supports) I investigate a wooden hut, which turns out to be Nicodemus' home.

Ganda Nicodemus explains that he's retired, but he would like to help his old friend the mayor, so he tells me how to kill Zanbar. Essentially, acquire McGuffins A through E (all of which can be found in Blacksand) and use them against the villain in his lair (not in Blacksand, but here's a map). So off I go on an item hunt.

My wanderings lead me to an area where a group of Bays are playing Bays' Ball. I join in, but miss the ball, losing the match for my adoptive team, and disgruntled fans rob me of a couple of items. I get to choose what I lose, and pick the least essential items, but even those would have averted trouble later on. Pity I wasn't carrying any maggot-ridden biscuits this time round.

After avoiding being run over by a speeding horse-drawn carriage, I reach the harbour and sneak onto a pirate ship. I'm only able to access two rooms on it, but in one I manage to pilfer a pouch containing several examples of McGuffin C, and in the other I interrupt a pirate's bath and intimidate him into revealing that I can probably get the silver McGuffin I need from the local silversmith (You don't say!).

Leaving the ship, I explore the harbour a little further, and gossiping fishwives mention that there's a good source of McGuffin D to be found in the local sewers. I already knew that from past attempts at the book, but chose to get the hint because one of my fellow gamebook bloggers specifically complained about the lack of clues pointing that way.

Heading down the street the pirate said the silversmith's shop was on, I acquire some dispensable tat from an unsuccessful assailant, then reach the shop in question and acquire the necessary item. Two down, three to go.

The next junction is one of two points in the book where it can all go wrong for the reader. Take the wrong turning, and you don't get to visit the sewers. I take the correct one and, after losing an embarrassing amount of Stamina to a trio of Giant Rats with Skill scores significantly lower than mine, encounter a Hag, who magically assaults me. I'd have protection from her magic if I'd managed to win the Bays' Ball game, but as it is, I shall have to rely on my Luck to be able to break the spell. I succeed, and fare better in the resultant fight than I did against the rats. After taking the necessary McGuffin, I head back above ground.

Continuing along the street, I find my Spidey Sense tingling. Checking my Played This Book Way Too Much Sense, I come to the conclusion that I'm probably better off returning to that junction and heading the other way. That means an optional fight against two bad guys rather than an unavoidable fight against three. I'm idiot enough to get into the fight, which almost kills me, but the man I rescue from the thugs rewards me with some healing that restores half the damage I took defending him.

A man with a ball and chain shambles up to me and begs for protection from the town guards. He claims to have been imprisoned because he was robbed of the money he'd saved up to pay his taxes. The guards say he's a murderer. I hand the man over to them, partly because his tale is a little too 'hard luck story' to be plausible, partly because there are magical wards on the ball and chain, and security that heavy seems more plausible for a killer than a tax dodger, and mainly because my memory of the book tells me there is no way of helping the man, so I might as well take the option that's least trouble for me.

Further up the road, I see the entrance to the Public Gardens. McGuffin E is a flower, so I'd be a fool to ignore this hint. Entrance is via a coin-operated turnstile - not quite the 'honesty box' mentioned in a certain other playthrough, though I imagine it could still be circumvented with little difficulty. The Gardens do contain a few blooms of the plant I need, guarded by animated topiary, but I have little difficulty committing herbicide.

Beyond the Public Gardens is a more subtle variant of Wrong-Turning-Means-Failure Junction. Even if buying fruit from the barrow doesn't kill you, it means missing out on a trip to the local tattooist, and McGuffin A just happens to be a tattoo. Of a white unicorn against a yellow sun, so even if I survive this adventure, my street cred is pretty much doomed.

Two Trollish guards approach. A charming pair by the names of Sourbelly and Fatnose - but don't let the comical monickers fool you: these guys are tough. Now, one of the items I lost to the aggrieved Bays' Ball fans would have got me through this encounter without any hassles. As it is, I'm going to have to either fight the guards (and I've taken enough damage from inferior opponents to be wary of taking on enemies I know to be tougher) or hand over all my gold. Well, money's not going to do me any good in the rest of the book, so I pay the price. It's been a long time since I did that - my gamebook manager, which I've been using to play FF books for almost a decade, hasn't yet had the relevant section entered into it. And at least the guards aren't interested in anything other than the hard cash, so as they eject me from the city, I still have everything I need.

More than everything, as it transpires. Nicodemus sends me a note by pigeon post to say, 'You know how I told you to use a mixture of McGuffins C, D and E to kill Zanbar Bone? Well, actually, you should only use two of them. Try C and D. Or maybe D and E. Or perhaps C and E.' Thanks for narrowing it down, you incompetent moron! Yes, here we have the set-up for the final blind choice of three options. Only one is correct, and there are no second chances in the endgame. The first time you get to the climax, unless you've learned the solution from some external source, you have a 2 in 3 chance of arbitrary Instant Death. It's at about this point that Ian Livingstone deletes 'remotely fair' from his list of Things a Gamebook Should Be.

But I need to survive long enough to make it to that choice. Following a run-in with a wandering monster, I consume Provisions to bring my Stamina back up to the maximum, and proceed to Zanbar Bone's tower. Which is guarded by a couple of Moon Dogs, with Skill scores 9 and 11. And this is an unavoidable fight. Even with the shield (or the similarly effective item from one of the other three streets), there's a 50% chance that any honestly-generated character will be a worse fighter than the second dog.

I only take two wounds killing the first dog, which is my equal in terms of fighting prowess. I only inflict two wounds on the second dog before it shreds me.

In terms of plot, setting and characterisation, this is a definite improvement on The Forest of Doom. During my on-off relationship with gamebooks in the 1990s, City of Thieves was one of the books I tended to reacquire in the 'on' periods. Nevertheless, its endgame marks the start of the slippery slope to Ian Livingstone's 'Die, reader, die!' phase of the late eighties. Even if I could ignore its foreshadowing of badness yet to come, I'd still have to acknowledge that it's flawed. Better written than the last gamebook I played for this blog, but that's not saying much.

Monday, 13 August 2012

Don't Go There

My playthrough planner tells me that it's time to return to The World of Lone Wolf, resuming Grey Star's adventures as he seeks The Forbidden City. Though 'resuming' isn't really the word for it, given that when I attempted the first book, Grey Star was killed by atrocious gamebook design. But in an alternate reality, he avoided the decisions that revealed that fatal encounter to be such a clusterfish, and made it to the end of the book.

Along the way, the villainous Mother Magri would have set a demonic entity known as a Kleasá on the party, and Grey Star's destruction would only have been averted by a self-sacrifice on the part of Tanith, who seemed to have something to do with the summoning of the thing. Then Shan would have died, probably killed by a giant poisonous flying toad. And Grey Star would almost have been killed by huge insects, but for a last-minute rescue by the Kundi, the lost tribe he was seeking. By way of a rather weak cliffhanger, the book ended with Grey Star needing to prove his credentials to the Kundi by correctly answering a riddle...

Scant pickings on the nostalgia front here. My first attempt was much the same as with the previous book in the series. However, I did get my own copy back in the eighties. On a trip to London, if I remember rightly. Possibly from Foyles on Charing Cross Road. In the early 1990s I got rid of a lot of gamebooks - maybe half my collection - and TFS was one of the victims of that culling. My current copy was part of the eBay job lot in which I got the whole set, and shows that the original owner's spelling hadn't improved since book 1.

In one respect it's not such a bad thing that my first Grey Star died. The rules to the second book start by noting that anyone who's already completed book 1 will already have Combat Skill, Endurance and Willpower scores, and awarding 10 bonus points of Willpower. Which doesn't sound problematic unless you know that, at the point where book 1 Grey Star appeared to have no chance against the insect hordes, there was a compulsory 'spend all your remaining Willpower'. Thus, a character being carried over would have a starting Willpower of 0, boosted to 10 to represent character growth, whereas a character being generated at the start of this book gets a Willpower of 20-29. Being able to retain equipment acquired in book 1, and getting to choose an extra Magical Power, do something to balance that out, but 'start at less than half the Willpower of your average newcomer' is still not much of a reward for winning the first book.

Anyway, Grey Star II (Greyer Star?) has Combat Skill 16, Endurance 27 and Willpower 20, and the same Magical Powers as the original. And he automatically knows the answer to the Kundi's riddle, as the author's not the sort to hit his readers with a puzzle that can only be solved by referring to a separate book. (All being well, around a year from now I shall be saying not entirely complimentary things about a gamebook writer who does precisely that.)

Now the Kundi trust me, I explain that I need to find the entrance to book 3, which is invisible to non-Kundi. The Shaman Urik is appointed my guide, and has a vision revealing that the climax of this book is due to occur in Desolation Valley, over on the side of the frontispiece map that I haven't yet visited, in a fortnight's time. Well, the timeframe is an assumption based on the state of the moon as seen in the vision, so it could theoretically be two weeks plus an unspecified number of lunar months, but as Dénouement Valley is not renowned for its calendars, that's as precise a date for section 310 as we can hope for.

The following day we set off early, Urik uttering Native American-style 'wisdom' that sounds profound but doesn't take into account the harsh gamebook-reality of the rules. Along the way my alchemical skills lead me to notice leaves that can be burned to provide protection from evil. The odds of these leaves not coming in handy before the end of the book are negligible, so I take as many as I can get.

Urik summons an Ooslo bird (something like a Roc, but with a head reminiscent of a dodo) to carry us closer to our goal. It saves a lot of time, but isn't the most discreet mode of transport, and before long a crossbow-packing party of villains takes an interest in us. A Sorcerous shield provides protection, though making it big enough to cover me, my guide, and my ride costs a lot of Willpower. Still, it keeps us alive until the bird reaches its nesting grounds, the Gurlu Marshes, at which point Urik and I must part company with it.

As evening approaches, we hear the sounds of something in distress. Is this going to be a quid pro quo rescue, or a trap? A bit of both, as the source of the noise is a wounded Chaksu (a type of intelligent lizard), and the reason it's injured is a bunch of the bad guy's men, and I have to survive two quite nasty fights before mummy and daddy Chaksu turn up, eviscerate the remaining troops, and give me the means to summon them any time I need some thugs mutilated. Other noteworthy elements of this encounter are Urik's use of a boomerang that can sever limbs (!), and the fact that one hunting hound has a higher Combat Skill and Endurance than two Shakadine warriors combined.

The next day, I get to pick a route. I opt for the slower, safer one, as quicksand is rarely fun in gamebooks. Urik finds some edible blue fungi along the way, prompting me to learn something, as the text's description of them as 'tubers' looked wrong to me, but a spot of research has revealed that truffles fit both categories. I spot a performance-enhancing drugs bush, and decide not to bother with it as the rules governing its effect are unclear enough that I can't be bothered with the headache of untangling them.

We're still in the marsh by nightfall, but a convenient hillock (and a bush from which I can create an insect repellent with Alchemy) ensure trouble-free rest, and by the next day we get back to dry land. A line of marching slaves, watched over and brutalised by Shakadine warriors, offers a new opportunity to get into trouble, and when a veil-wearing mob erupts from the marshes to attack the Shakadines, we join the battle.

The Shakadines try to use the slaves as a human wall, but the slavemaster makes the mistake of using a Mind Gem to compel one slave to defend him. A quick burst of Sorcery robs the gem of its power, and it's emancipatin' time! Before long the battle is won, and I have a new friend, Sado of the Long Knife. We travel to the nearby city of Karnali via a secret passage, and Sado explains about the resistance group he runs. Mostly drawn from the criminal classes, as becomes apparent when one man is caught trying to pick my pocket.

Sado and his men have something audacious planned for tonight, and seek my aid. With assistance from the Chaksu, we prepare to assault the Shakadine fortress. The opposition have back-up from a magic-user with a Kazim Stone, but the Mind Gem enables me to make the garrison commander throttle the Wytch (sic, or should that be 'syc'?), ensuring victory for Sado and his men.

With the city now liberated, my attention returns to my quest. The title of the book gets a name-check as Sado notes that the only pass through the Mountains of Morn into Desolation Valley is the dreaded city of Gyanima. Not entirely surprisingly, he'd rather have me stay around and help with the next stage of the revolution than swan off to Certain Deathsville, but eventually he accepts that a Wizard's gotta do what a Wizard's gotta do.

Urik and I set off the next day, joined by Samu, the ex-slave I freed from the influence of the Mind Gem. Apparently the Shakadines wiped out the whole of the rest of his tribe, and he thinks accompanying me will help him avenge them. Considering how well my sidekicks fared in the first book, there's a good chance that his accompanying me will lead to the complete extinction of his people, but it's not as if I have any choice in the matter.

As we head for the mountains, it becomes apparent that someone is following us. An ambush is prepared, and Samu catches the would-be pickpocket from several paragraphs back. Carelessly, the text describes him as the man who tried to steal my money, though anyone who started with this book is unlikely to have been carrying currency. Hugi, the thief, explains that he's interested in the treasures purported to be in Gyanima, and wants to join our expedition. At this rate we're going to wind up looking like a Blake's 7 tribute. I'm evidently angling for the Avon role, given my 'quip' about having Samu break one of Hugi's legs if the thief tries to sneak away.

By the next day we are drawing near to the 'dead lands', a region rendered barren by some past magical disaster. Just outside this area is an excluded middle: if I have no food with me, I get to go on a foraging expedition, but if I have enough food to complete my quest, I just press on. If there is more than one Meal check before the end of the book (and as it's not yet half way through the fortnight I have in which to find the end of the book, I think it likely that that will be the case), I can see that being annoying to some players. More than four Meal checks, and I'll be joining the ranks of the annoyed.

Did I say the dead lands were barren? The very soil is ash. Hugi knows the legend, and recounts it. Essentially the sorcerous equivalent of a nuclear power plant blowing up. Gyanima is the only surviving remnant of the civilisation wiped out in the cataclysm, shielded from the blast by the mountains.

My musings are interrupted by a new arrival, but this isn't another addition to the party. It's a Deathgaunt, one of the villain's supernatural minions. Evocation is useful for creating wards against spectral entities as well as summoning them (that's part of why I picked it), so I keep the Deathgaunt from getting too close. Not a trick I'll be able to do often, as I'm running low on Willpower.

One of those leaves I picked up earlier keeps the party safe at night. Well, safe-ish. In my dreams I am visited and mocked by Shasarak, the big bad. He's the disfigured kind, with a metal plate covering the burned half of his face. Also given to lurid and hyperbolic threats. I don't like him.

The next day, three Deathgaunts turn up. In the interests of conserving what little Willpower remains to me, I rely on the not-so-magical art of running away. With assistance from Samu, this works until nightfall, at which point I use another leaf. Again my dreams are invaded by Shasarak, and this time he torments me with visions of Tanith, trapped in another plane of reality (or possibly an extra-dimensional fridge).

On the following day we draw near to the city. Still some way from the deadline, unless I've miscounted, so I hope the transition to book 3 is similarly over-punctual. But before we get to the city, there's a river to cross. It has a crumbling bridge across it, which looks less unpromising than the actual river. Hugi agrees that it should be safe to cross the bridge one at a time, but is reluctant to test his hypothesis - at least until Urik has made it safely to the far side. Samu advises me to go next as he's the heaviest member of the party, and also he needs to put on a red shirt.

Back at Karnali I received several gifts from Sado. One was a rope, and I can guess what fun complications having it is about to cause. The gifts also included a couple of healing potions, so I down them in case Endurance is a factor in the imminent 'try not to get dragged to my death by doomed comrade' situation. Yup, it all goes a bit Antodus, and not only is Endurance the sole deciding factor in what happens to me, but the line dividing survival and doom lies between my Endurance pre- and post-potion. Genre-savviness or buried memories of a previous attempt just saved my life.

Urik, Hugi and I press on to the city, which is less deserted than the thief hoped. An elderly gatekeeper says we must announce ourselves before he can open the (non-existent) gate. It's probably safer to humour him.

Probably

Some bluffing by Hugi persuades the man to let us through the imaginary gate, and Hugi sends him off to stable our imaginary horse. Bit of mood whiplash there, as it's only a couple of sections since the framed-as-tragic loss of Samu, and now we're going for 'mock the delusional' gags.

Advancing into the city, I sense danger, but can't afford the Willpower to use Prophecy and identify the threat. Which turns out to be an ambush by a deranged wretch, who does a lot of damage before dying. Many more of his kind then charge at us, so we flee into the side streets. Hiding in a house looks like a great way to get cornered by the mob, and the only other option given is to take to the raised walkways. Pity the stairs up to them are unclimbably rotted. We get captured.

Imprisoned in a pit, we seem doomed. And I get the first Meal check since entering the dead lands. Suddenly the pit turns into a cell, and the door bursts open to reveal Samu, who survived the plunge into the river and has been waiting for an appropriately epic moment to rejoin the party. We start moving again, and Hugi manages to lock a door behind us, hindering pursuers.

Eventually we find ourselves on a balcony overlooking a shabby throne room, where a dishevelled king watches ragged courtiers dancing a pavane to no music. The only way onwards is down a stairway to the throne room. Best to brazen it out, I think. By acting as if we belong here, we are accepted, and soon wind up in a dining hall for a banquet. The dish of the day turns out to be a platter of human limbs. Declining the mad king's hospitality would not be wise, so we accept what's offered, and within seconds everyone else is too busy eating to notice that we haven't touched our 'food'.

Eventually the whole insane court departs, and we head back to the throne room. Hugi finds a hidden exit, but at the far end of the secret tunnel is a wall of flame. My Willpower is still too low for me to try any tricks, so I hope that the lack of any mention of heat is a hint rather than careless writing, and step into the fire. Which is an illusion. Phew!

In the chamber beyond, Hugi finds a locked chest. To his disgust, it contains books, not gold. I'm none too happy about this discovery, either, because the tomes within provide undeniable proof that Shasarak is a renegade from the beings who raised me. I wonder if he was the wizard who brought about the cataclysm that devastated the dead lands. It would explain how he lost so much face.

Also in the chest is a black rod, which I grab in case I wind up having to open the British Parliament. Stranger things have happened in gamebooks...

The only way onwards is magically locked, and I have to spend my last Willpower point to ascertain that the rod is the key to the exit. 0 Willpower isn't lethal in and of itself, but without the ability to use magic (and with my Endurance in tatters), my prospects look bleak. With the rod I open the door, and I get to choose whether or not to go through. I've been aware for some time that the last two books in this series include ridiculous 'choose defeat' options, but I hadn't realised there was one here, too. Well, I assume that that's what it is - it's not often that 'decide not to proceed towards your goal' is the sensible option.

Beyond the door is a passage to a crossroads. This is the series that inflicted the 'always turn left' meme on rpg.net culture, so as I can't use Prophecy to identify the optimal route, I might as well follow the Deverite crowd. Doing so leads to a 'small cave' where I see 'miles and miles' of heat-distorted rock. Presumably it overlooks Desolation Valley, but that's just my attempt to make sense of less-than-informative text. There is no way onwards, just some skeletal remains, so after grabbing a silver knife from one of the dead, I return to the junction.

What was straight on is now left, so I try that, and it leads to the valley. Somehow it's full moon already, and Urik senses that the end of the book is underground. The valley floor is riddled with potholes, and as I try to ascertain which one leads to where I need to be, a Scree Wyrm slithers from one of them and advances on us. I'm in no fit state to fight, so I leave that to Samu. Urik finds the right spot, and another Scree Wyrm approaches. It's all go, here.

I am asked if I have a rope. Does the one used in the bridge crossing count, or did Samu cut too much of it off when not-really-sacrificing himself? Looking back at the relevant section, it says nothing about crossing the rope off my equipment list, whereas I did get told to delete a leaf every time I burned one, so I'm saying I still have it, and if that wasn't Mr. Page's intent, he should have expressed himself more clearly.

Apparently Samu won the fight, as I leave him guarding the hole while Hugi holds the rope and Urik and I climb down into a network of tunnels. Urik knows which way to go, and apparently my Prophecy kicks in despite the lack of Willpower (and indeed the possibility that I might not have selected it at the start), because I 'prepare to meet [my] enemy', despite the complete lack of any prior indication that this book has an end boss.

There is one, though. A Kleasà. No, the  Kleasà, as I can see Tanith trapped within its shadowy form. All but one of the courses of action open to me at this point require Willpower, so I have no choice but to use the black rod. I remember how this book ends, so I know the (somewhat counter-intuitive) right thing to do, but there are two ways of going about it, so I go for the more amusing one.

Contemplate the scene: Grey Star the Wizard, drained of magical ability and hanging on to life by a thread, confronts a supernatural opponent that trounced him way back when he was in decent shape. His only hope is to use what may, long before, have been the wand wielded by this demonic entity's master. In desperation, he raises this powerful magical artefact, and... throws it at the monster.

It bounces off.

Like a dog playing 'fetch' (a huge, demonic, shadowy, vaguely humanoid dog), the Kleasà pounces on the rod, and flies off (add 'ill-trained' to the previous parenthesis). Tanith remains behind, on the far side of the portal to book 3. Grey Star staggers towards her, painfully aware that if he'd done something suicidal moments before, he could have started the next book with a fresh character, rather than one who's a sneeze away from expiring.

Nevertheless, at this point Grey Star is in much better shape than my nostalgic fondness for the series.