Friday, 28 September 2012

To Be Wrong With Authority

In the previous entry I mentioned having looked through some of the Golden Dragon gamebooks in the shop where I bought Scorpion Swamp. Oliver Johnson's The Lord of Shadow Keep was one of them, and I remember the sequences involving Ghouls making quite an impression. Nevertheless, it was a while before I got a copy of the book. When I did decide to collect the series, the WHSmith in the precinct was selling a package of books 3-6 (possibly a box set, though if so, I have no idea what became of the box), so I bought that.

There's a fair bit of backstory to this one (in the real world, too, as there was a time when it could have wound up a Fighting Fantasy book co-authored by Dave Morris). To cut a long story short, while King Not-Richard has been away on a crusade, his brother Not-John has been left in charge of the realm, and has become a reclusive tyrant, leaving the kingdom in a sorry state. I'm one of the King's Imperial Guard, and after learning that the crusade went badly, I decide to quit the day job and find something more worthwhile to do. I then discover that the King is less dead than rumour has it, but in bad shape. When he returned to his kingdom and found out what had become of it, he stayed incognito to investigate, coming to the conclusion that Arkayn Darkrobe was to blame. Given the name, you can probably guess Darkrobe's profession (hint: he's not a quantity surveyor). Anyway, the King's brother has been Darkrobe's undead puppet for some time, and when the King tried to do something about this, he wound up prematurely aged by a sorcerous blast. So now he'd like me to try and do a better job of killing Darkrobe. To aid me in this quest, I can use the King's sword. And an old woman gives me a ring, though this one doesn't double as a compass or detect evil. Or make me invisible.

How does the would-be saviour of the realm look?
Vigour: 29
Psi: 9
Agility: 6
Not catastrophic. It's especially good to see a decent Psi, as I can remember two instances where failing a Psi roll guarantees ignominious death. At least one of them is on the optimal path, too.

I ride off towards Shadow Keep, Darkrobe's home, and soon become aware that someone is pursuing me on horseback. Halting to confront him, I discover that he's disconcertingly skeletal in appearance, and a lot like the figure in the British cover illustration, except for the colour of his cape and the fact that the one in the book isn't showing off by wielding a scythe two-handed as he rides his horse. An instinctive stab with the King's sword causes rider and steed to collapse into a heap of bones, and a quick search of the remains turns up a parchment bearing a rune that can unlock gates and portals.

Further on, I reach a river. There's a shadowy ferryman on the far side, and a bridge a short distance to the right. I choose the bridge, which bears a crudely written and misspelled sign demanding all my money as a toll. Knowing that the outcome will be the same whatever I do, I pay nothing. As I step onto the bridge, Trolls emerge from hiding at either end, the one behind me killing my horse. I kill them in return, and help myself to their money and bowling ball.

Up ahead is a swamp, spanned by a narrow causeway. As I make my way across, I see an old man with a staff heading towards me. Some might be so terrified at this that they run and hide in the swamp (well, the option to do so is provided), but I am made of sterner stuff, and keep going. When I get closer, he says he is blind, and tells me to get out of the way. A polite request would have been better, but I step into the mud anyway, finding the ground to be a lot firmer underfoot than it looks. The man rewards me for my kindness with a bag of fast-growing acorns, a slightly morbid but informative rhyme, and his staff, which he says will turn one of Darkrobe's minions into an ally. He doesn't make clear that it only works on one specific minion, but these days I know better than to follow the path that circumvents the relevant encounter.

Beyond the swamp is an inn with the punful name 'The Knight's Rest'. There is a Knight in there, in rusted armour. Also present are a group of gambling Ruffians, and the Innkeeper is washing up glasses. I speak to the Knight, who reveals that he has a silly name and has been immobilised for a year by his rusted armour. The Innkeeper feeds him and sees to his other needs (don't think about it) because it amuses him to see the noble Stentorian of Snout so humiliated.

The Knight asks me to oil his armour, and I do so, as this is not a situation that should be allowed to continue. He then seizes a halberd, and the Ruffians draw swords. Three against one seems a little unfair, so I join the Knight. Together we prevail, and he buys me a meal and lets me know which is the most dangerous entrance to Shadow Keep. He then sets off back to Snout, and I take the Ruffians' money and a locket I shouldn't need.

At last I reach Shadow Keep itself. The parchment I found earlier saves me having to disturb the gatekeeper, and once inside the courtyard I head straight for the Keep. A Zombie Hawk swoops to the attack, but the blind man's staff transforms it into a gleaming golden bird, and I get a Psi boost that allows me to exceed my starting score. The Hawk flies away, but I sense that I've probably not seen the last of it.

Three doors lead into the Keep, the first one made of iron, the second of gold, and the third of wood. The rhyme spoke favourably of the substance associated with 'the box in which you'll one day lie', and my tastes aren't so extravagant as to run to some fancy sarcophagus once I'm dead. Behind the door I open is a corridor, lined with halberd-bearing suits of armour. Suspicious, I roll the Trolls' bowling ball ahead of me, and it triggers the trap that brings the halberds crashing down. Strike! I hurry past in case the trap automatically resets after a short time.

A chasm lies between me and the Inner Keep. Two staircases lead down, and I can see what's at the bottom of each one and make a semi-informed decision. Left is the graveyard where one of those Psi checks occurs, as well as a fight against an opponent that inflicts Instant Death on a double 1. Right is a terrace providing access to a massive tree that could theoretically be climbed down. I go right but, not trusting Darkrobe's tree, drop one of those fast-growing acorns into the chasm, and descend the oak that springs up. As I do, the older tree shrivels into a woodworm-riddled deathtrap (though, oddly, the threat faced by anyone who climbs down it has nothing to do with rapid rot).

Close by, a drainage tunnel leads into the Inner Keep. I climb up it, and suddenly get kitchen slops in the face. Failing the subsequent Agility roll, I fall back down the chute and take a little damage. I try again, reaching the top just as another bucket is about to be emptied, and while this time I retain my grip, another failed Agility roll leaves me temporarily blinded by a lettuce leaf, allowing the kitchen Orc to get in a free strike with his cleaver. He only manages to get in one more blow after that.

Moving on, I reach a room with two exits. There's a window leading onto a ledge, but it's just started snowing outside. And there's a door, but when I peek through the keyhole, an eye looks back at me(!), and a dog starts barking and howling. I've won every fight I've been in this book, and failed every Agility roll, so I choose to face the dog. Which wags its tail, does not attack, and draws my attention to a seemingly unremarkable wall.

Cautiously I check out the wall. If the dog has scented bones, they may not be inanimate. No, nothing skeletal. Just a secret door to a chamber with a fountain and another exit. I take a closer look at the fountain, and find that there's not just water in it. In many places, people throw coins into fountains. Here, it's footwear. Those boots may confer an Agility bonus, so I shall risk wading in to get them. The water animates and attacks me, but is easily defeated, and I was right about the boots. Agility rises to 9.

Beyond a pair of double doors carved with Minotaurs, I find a passage running to east and west, and section number recognition kicks in, so I go the way I remember to be fun. Just past an abandoned banqueting hall I encounter a rapier-wielding Lizard Man wearing a white ruff and purple pantaloons. Lisping outrageously, he demands to know the password. With all the conviction I can muster, I tell him it's 'Sesquicentennial'. Startled, he mutters that he thought it was 'Thadowth', but is convinced by my bluff.

Further on, I am addressed from an alcove by someone who has mistaken me for the Lizard Man (whose name turns out to be Spitter, poor chap). Doing my betht to imperthonate the thaurian'th idiothyncratic manner of thpeech, I creep up on the man, but at the latht minute he thpotth that I'm not Spitter, and lunges at a lever. I'm not quite quick enough to prevent him from pulling it, and a trapdoor drops me to my death.

A disappointing ending there, but on the whole I enjoyed that. While there are occasions in the book on which the correct item to use is preposterously arbitrary (that locket kills a Weretiger because, um... it does), the right choices are pretty logical on the path I followed (at least as far as I got), and there's a quirkiness to some of the encounters that makes the adventure more than just the generic 'kill the evil wizard' quest it could have been.

Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Well, We Know Where We're Goin'

I got my first copy of Scorpion Swamp (by a different Steve Jackson from the co-creator of Fighting Fantasy, in case anyone reading this doesn't already know) as part of a box set, Fighting Fantasy Gamebox 2. You'd have to be a serious FF geek to realise that that is actually a confession of an adolescent wrongdoing. The thing is, Scorpion Swamp was not part of the box set. I swapped it for one of the books that was supposed to be in there. There's nothing I can do to remedy that misdeed now, as the shop closed over 20 years ago. I can't even remember its name. I know it was on the High Street, it was not part of a chain, and it was there that I finally tracked down the second Be An Interplanetary Spy book, there that I flicked through copies of a few Golden Dragon books, there that I bought one other FF book (but I'll say more about that another time), there that I got one of the Storytrails books for a friend during their closing down sale... I got some Doctor Who novelisations there, too. And I no longer have the faintest idea what it was called.

My first attempt at the book left little impression on the memory. It must have been the first time I came across the word 'paladin', as I do remember being surprised that my character had a name, and such a strange one, too (it took me a while to realise my mistake there). I also remember when my dad played the book, principally because I was quite shocked when he opted to look into the quest being offered by the evil wizard, Grimslade. I now realise it was probably his way of checking to see if the book was a bad influence. Given that his response to Grimslade's attempt at testing his suitability for the job ended with the wizard dead and his character having to find an alternate sponsor, if he was testing the book, it passed.

On to the premise. The eponymous swamp is infamous, as the twisty-turny paths through it, the fog that constantly hides the sky, and the strange way it renders compasses totally inaccurate make it completely unnavigable. At least until my character helps out an old woman and is rewarded with a magic ring. While wearing the ring I can always tell which way is north. Also, it heats up in the presence of evil. No invisibility, though. Still, I can explore the swamp where your average adventure fears to tread, now that I have a totally reliable way of telling which way is which. I mean, what more could I need?
Skill: 8
Stamina: 19
Luck: 9
Well, better stats, for a start. And Provisions, too. But attribute boosts are scarce, and food even more so.

The book includes a couple of innovations (three if you include the Spell Gems). Firstly, there's the fact that there are three separate quests that can be undertaken within it, and you only get to pick one on any individual attempt. This means that the book has more than one 'victory' ending (and none of them are the final section). Secondly, there's much greater freedom of movement within the swamp than in most FF books - going back the way you came is almost always possible (and there's a reason why it can't be done on the few occasions that it's not), and there's a simple but functional system to allow actions to have consequences, so the monster you fought the last time you were in this clearing is still dead when you return (unless you Escaped, in which case it's probably waiting for you). While Scorpion Swamp isn't one of the FF greats, it certainly deserves some praise for daring to try out some new tricks.

Anyway, on my way to the swamp I stop off at the village of Fenmarge. The locals in the inn are shcked to hear of my intent, and mention that, in addition to the known dangers of the swamp, it has recently become home to a group of powerful magicians, and the one that came into town not so long before was not the friendly type. I don't let them deter me, but do allow myself to get waylaid by a man who suggests that I might want a better-defined goal than 'wander around the swamp killing monsters'. I agree, and head off to see what the local good wizard, Selator, wants done in the swamp. He explains that the last surviving bush of the Antherica plant, which has healing properties, is located in the swamp, and if someone were to bring back a berry from it, he could make the plant widely available again. I accept the mission, and get to take half a dozen gems that will enable me to cast spells. Based on my memories of what the swamp contains, I take three Fire spells, one Ice, one Stamina and one Bless. And then I set off.

Before long I reach clearing 1. All the clearings in the Swamp have been numbered, to facilitate the 'if you have been here before' checks. I'm not sure if there's any actual logic to how they're numbered - I don't think any two adjacent clearings have consecutive numbers, and some numbers are just missing. There is no clearing 2, for starters. Whether that's just to make the layout more confusing for the readers, or indicative of edits having removed the occasional clearing, I cannot tell. Clearing 1 itself is little more than the convergence of three paths, though it is possible for a sufficiently Unlucky player (Hello!) to fall over and get mildly injured.

Mapping is strongly recommended, and the book suggests an approach much like that of a Tube map, which largely ignores the way the track twists and bends, and concentrates on showing the stops and line intersections.

On the map, this would be a straight line


I head east and arrive at clearing 12, which also has three exits. It also contains a hollow tree and some flat stones, and is a pleasant spot to stop and rest (becoming less pleasant if you decide to investigate the strange sounds that start emanating from the tree after the rest has healed as much damage as the earlier stumble did).

With better stats I might go for a thorough exploration of the swamp, but I can't afford the Stamina attrition that's liable to ensue if I start doing things like heading west to encounter the unimaginatively named monster from the cover illustration, so I go north. Before long I cannot help but notice the growing profusion of cobwebs, and soon I come to clearing 17, the silken pavilion of the evil Master of Spiders.

One thing that puzzles me about the book is the relative scarcity of scorpions in it. They appear in only three clearings (and only as an incidental detail in one of them), which is pretty low for a place named after the creatures. It's a pretty odd mix anyway, what with scorpions favouring arid regions, which are about as unlike swamps as you can get. This isn't even the only gamebook to stick such an unlikely combination into its title: Dave Morris went on to write one entitled Swamp of the Scorpion for his Transformers series a few years later. But the really strange thing is that, having decided on a scorpion-based title for this book and its setting, when Mr. Jackson decided to give one of the resident wizards an arachnoid theme, he went for spiders rather than scorpions.

Anyway, I know that this particular Wizard will kill me as soon as talk to me, so I waste no time, and break out the first of those Fire spells. This causes the whole place to go up in flames (would have been a great opportunity to do something with the myth that fire causes scorpions to sting themselves to death). I get somewhat singed as I hurry to the north exit, but take no more damage than I would have from a single wound in combat against the Master of Spiders, and given his higher-than-8 Skill, I suspect I would have taken at least one wound fighting him.

Further north is clearing 24, a pleasant, grassy spot until I realise that the grass is growing a lot more quickly than usual, and its blades end in cute little pincers that uncutely snap at me. This is a clump of Crab Grass, a joke that loses some of its effectiveness in Britain, where the term is rarely used. In keeping with the gag, it's got a low Skill, making it easy to hit, but a high Stamina, so killing it takes a lot of effort. I do prevail, but not without taking some damage along the way.

Observing the message 'Beware of Orcs' burned onto a nearby tree, I hurriedly head west to clearing 5. A battle has taken place here at some point, as three dead Swamp Orcs and one arrow-riddled human litter the place. The dead man has been looted, but a golden pendant in the shape of a magnet hangs around his neck. This set-up forms part of one of the most annoying aspects of the whole book. An astute reader might infer from the corpse's having been stripped of valuables that there's something dodgy about the pendant. Some may even wonder if it has anything to do with the number of arrows sticking out of the dead man's chest (it does). So naturally, the best course of action to take here is... to grab the pendant and take it with me. Seriously. I know from past attempts that if I don't, I will regret it.

Wesy of clearing 5 is clearing 29, another grassy one, with an injured Unicorn in it. The Unicorn is initially hostile, but after I use my Bless spell to all but heal the gashes on its flank, it becomes friendly, and digs up a couple of Spell Gems that someone had buried in the clearing. so I gain a Luck spell and a Friendship spell. The clearing has four exits, but right now the only one that'll be any good for me is the one leading back the way I came. So I return to clearing 5, where I find that someone (or something) has removed the dead Orcs. The first scorpion I've seen all swamp watches me as I continue east back to clearing 24, where the Crab Grass has not grown back.

East again, into new territory for this attempt at the book, namely clearing 26, which contains a trio of Swamp Orcs with bows. They fire at me, the magnet pendant does its trick, and the arrows hit me. Not lethally, just painfully. So why did I take the magnet? Because if I didn't have it, one of the arrows would have just clipped my arm and taken off a point of Skill, and Skill loss damages my chances in combat a lot more than Stamina loss. I attack the Orcs before they can reload, and from looking at the numbers rolled, I can see that losing that Skill point would have resulted in my taking more additional damage in battle than was inflicted on me by the arrows. So taking the item that was obviously going to be bad for me has proved less harmful than leaving it alone like any sane person would. Now you see why I said it was annoying.

The Orcs have a little gold, and a largely uninformative map that does show a frog with a crown to the south. I have nothing to gain by investigating the path that leads south (though if I were on a different quest, I would have an opportunity to name-check Deathtrap Dungeon, thereby confirming that this is set in the same world as the last few FF books).

To the north is clearing 3, where nothing happens except that I choose the exit that goes east to clearing 21. This contains a pool of water, which turns out to have healing properties. Funnily enough, the shop where I got my first Scorpion Swamp was not far from the spring which gave Tunbridge Wells its name. Mind you, I'm pretty sure repeat visitors to that spring don't usually get fired upon by an unseen bowman, as would happen to my character if he were to come back to this pool at any time. Not good for the tourist trade, snipers.

Back west to clearing 3, then, and west again to clearing 13, which is full of scorpions. Mildly evil scorpions, to judge by the ring's reaction. Regardless, I leap over them as they rush me, and hurry north to clearing 35, location of the bridge over the charmingly named Foulbrood River. The bridge is in excellent condition, and by far the safest way of getting across the river to clearing 16. This clearing contains a large tree, and up the tree is a large nest, and not in the large nest, but giving me a funny look is a large Eagle. I do my best to look harmless, and the Eagle flies to the nest.

West of here is clearing 32, the other part of Scorpion Swamp that actually has anything scorpion-related in it. In this instance it's a single Giant Scorpion, which is currently busy killing a Dwarf, so I decide not to get involved, and creep back the way I came. And by the time I get back to clearing 16, the Eagle has departed, so I can climb the tree and help myself to the large golden chain that's wrapped around one of the branches.

This time I take the exit east, which leads to clearing 30, where I get slightly bogged down in quicksand, but manage to extricate myself before I can get into serious trouble. Hurrying north to clearing 7, I catch my foot in a depression in the ground and trip over. Funny depression - looks almost exactly like a 50cm-long bootprint...

And not far away is a Giant. Wearing open-toed sandals, so I guess the art brief for this illustration wasn't quite precise enough about his footwear. The ring indicates that he's not evil, but he appears to be impersonating Gandalf at the Bridge of Khazad-dûm, which isn't very convenient for me. I ask if he can do an impression of a confused Mastermind contestant instead, and he reveals himself to be deeply unhappy because someone has stolen the new handkerchief his wife had made him. From past attempts I happen to know that the handkerchief-thief happens to have a Skill of 10, so he's far enough out of my league that I shan't be going anywhere near him. Still, the Giant is no longer in a fighting mood, so I continue on my way.

To the north is cleaing 11, which contains the Antherica bush. Hurrah!

It also contains two Wolves. Not so good.

I get savaged to death. Bother.

And that fight could have been avoided if I'd made more use of my knowledge of what else can be found in the swamp, and made a detour into clearing 4 along the way. But if I'd done that, I might have been tempted to take a different route, and wound up fighting the Sword Trees. There's no way of completely avoiding getting into battle with the wretched things, as the fire in clearing 17 never goes out, and the only other path to clearing 1 goes through the one with the Sword Trees in. But as there's a good chance that they'd have turned my character to fertiliser, I went for the route that would give my readers a chance to see more of the swamp before I got into the one inevitable fight against a Skill 10 enemy. Oh well, at least the berry's still on the bush, where some other hero might find it one day.

Monday, 24 September 2012

Wizard Needs Food Badly

Tunnels & Trolls solitaire adventure 5, Dargon's Dungeon, appears to have a more convoluted history than most. I have the second edition, 'from an original dungeon by Bill Hart', rewritten and edited by no less than four people. The introduction goes on about how the 17th-level wizard Dargon has recently finished a radical redesign of the dungeon he created for his amusement, which may be the rewriters/editors' way of saying 'we changed a lot from the original version'. Never having seen the first edition, I can't be sure.

My own history with the book is a good deal more straightforward. No Corgi release, so it was just a name on a list until I found a copy of it along with Labyrinth in Archeron Books, and bought both at the same time. Similarly, the copy I now have was part of the same eBay job lot as my replacement Labyrinth. The adventure didn't make much of an impression, beyond a rather nasty pun-based threat (the title of the adventure hints at a love of wordplay, being a riff on the name of a certain fantasy RPG) and a character who overreacts to any romantic proposition by transforming the offending character into an insect, stomping on it, and erasing everybody's memories of the deceased. Reminded me of one student's reaction when I asked her out back in the early Nineties, though she lacked the ability to obliterate me quite so comprehensively, and had to make do with just acting as if I didn't exist from then on.

The adventure features a couple of innovations. At least, it's the first one in numerical order to feature them, but I have no way of knowing whether or not they were introduced in later adventures and retroactively inserted as part of the rewrite. Regardless, I've not played any adventures with a Magic Matrix for this blog before now. The Magic Matrix greatly simplifies the use of Wizard characters in solo adventures. Instead of giving a few 'use magic' choices in any section where it might be appropriate, there's a big grid at the back of the book that indicates the outcome of any spellcasting in every section where it's permissible. One page to handle what would have required hundreds of sections or massively limited the available options.

The other new thing is the opportunity to use multiple characters. I can create a party of up to three to send into the dungeon, and as I still have no experienced veterans, I think a trio of first-timers has slightly more chance of surviving than a lone newbie. And here they are:
Hadri (Dwarf Warrior) - Str 22 Int 7 Lk 5 Con 24 Dex 9 Cha 6 Spd 13. (As a human, he'd have been pretty dismal, but the increased Strength and Constitution a Dwarf gets help compensate for the poor Luck and so-so Dexterity.)
Kras (Human Rogue) - Str 8 Int 13 Lk 13 Con 7 Dex 15 Cha 12 Spd 12. (Rogues fight better than Wizards, but can use magic. These stats weren't ideal for any character type, but I've not yet tried a Rogue, and out of the three, this was the character best suited to that rôle.)
Saba (Human Sorceress) - Str 10 Int 15 Lk 10 Con 10 Dex 14 Cha 8 Spd 9. (Why should all my characters be male? She's better suited to magic than Kras, having a higher Intelligence and more Strength with which to cast spells.)

At some point before climbing to the Dungeon entrance, Saba converts a stick into a Magic Staff, and tests it out by teaching Kras the basic T&T blasting spell, 'Take That, You Fiend'. It is customary to charge for this service, but the rules don't specify a cost for Level 1 spells, and starting characters don't have that much cash anyway, so she keeps the fee low: an ally who can help atomise an Orc or two is liable to be worth more than money anyway.

Once they're as kitted out as they can afford, they make the ascent, and beyond the entrance, they are welcomed 'to the Four Gauntlets of Chromatic Doom'. A glowing black sphere teleports them into a circular room with a disorientating pattern painted on the floor, and four exits, each a different colour. I probably went looking for Shakin' Stevens jokes behind the green door on my first attempt. This time I'll try the blood-red one and keep an eye out for von Beks.

An armour-wearing centaur with a loaded bow stands in front of a cabinet. He says we can pass through, but if we don't leave, he'll have to kill us. I get the impression that there may be something important in the cabinet. Kras is best at dodging, so he raises his shield and steps forward. The centaur randomly picks a victim, and the dice say he aims at the Dwarf (so he's a show-off, going for the smallest target). He misses (and, judging by the damage he can do, the arrow must go straight through the door. Or the wall!), so we now have the initiative.

That's not an arrow.           That's an arrow!
Annoyingly, the options don't include mixing melee and missile combat, so it's not possible for Kras and Saba to blast him while Hadri gets in a blow with his axe. Two TTYFs will only take off half the centaur's health, leaving him free to fire a second arrow, but without knowing what he's like in close combat, I can't judge how much better or worse hitting him with sharp objects will be. But I do know that my magic-users only have the Strength for one shot each (though Saba will recover much more quickly), so I'll just have to hope that the centaur's less of a threat up close.

He's able to reload and fire again as we close with him, and Hadri's high Speed makes him the target again. This time the centaur doesn't miss, and my Dwarf becomes a shish kebab. The centaur then draws a Kris knife. They dispel magic, so it's a good thing I didn't try blasting him (unless the dagger only takes effect when unsheathed). But this looks set to be a woefully one-sided battle. Yep, he guts both my remaining characters in the first round.

I seriously need somebody to survive one of these adventures. The problem is that they're designed to be challenging to a more experienced hero, and all too often, that means making them that bit too tough for a starting character. Bit of a vicious circle, that.

Friday, 21 September 2012

Still the Stories and the Rumours, and the Search Goes on…

Back in 1987 I somehow managed to completely miss Jon Sutherland and Simon Farrell's Double Game, which the blurb claims was 'an exciting new development in role playing adventures'. I'm not sure that's a particularly accurate claim, given that Smith and Thomson's Duel Master, Joe Dever's Combat Heroes and Fighting Fantasy's Clash of the Princes all did the two-player gamebook thing in 1986, and they were all in the wake of James M. Ward's 1-to-1 Adventure Gamebooks, which started in 1985. Still, there does appear to be one innovation in there: the player characters' goals are not mutually exclusive, so it's theoretically possible for both to win. Theoretically possible, but not very likely, if Double Game is anything like the Sutherland and Farrell gamebooks I have tried before now.

The books can be played solo, which is a good thing, as I'm only one person, and I'm not sure I'm up to the challenge of playing two books simultaneously. Maybe once I've familiarised myself with the system, but I've not actually attempted any of the Double Game books before. I learned of them from online FF fandom, and got at least two of them on eBay, including the one I'll be trying today.

The first pair are collectively known as The Glade of Dreams, and in book 1 of TGoD my character is Darian - Master Magician, apprentice to the sorcerer Gorechin (who's probably not a Vampire with messy eating habits). For decades, Gorechin has been vainly seeking the means to transmute lead into gold. Unwilling to devote the rest of my life to this quest, I decide to cheat. According to legend, somewhere in the Wailing Forest is the Glade of Dreams, and anyone who sleeps there can have his dreams fulfilled. So I just need to find the Glade and dream that I already know the secret that Gorechin has failed to find for so many years, and it will be so. Of course it's going to be as easy as that.

Double Game characters are created, not rolled up. I have 50 points to divide among 5 characteristics. None may be higher than 12, or lower than 2. Swordsmanship costs double because I'm not a warrior. My Magic score determines how many different spells I know (and which they are), and they cost Strength to cast. I think I'll go for
Strength: 10
Agility: 9
Luck: 9
Swordsmanship: 6
Magic: 10
That means I know all four possible spells, and I'm pretty competent on most fronts. A sub-par fighter, but not catastrophically bad. I hope.

I enter the Forest and soon find a path leading east and west. The Glade probably isn't on a path, or it'd get a lot more visitors, so I go off the beaten track. After hacking my way through vegetation for a while, I reach a clearing, and stop for a rest. Something large is crashing through the undergrowth nearby. Not wanting to get into any more fights than necessary, I hide. Moments later, a 200-foot long armoured worm passes through the clearing, leaving a trail of slime and crushed flora. So that's what makes the paths. And unless it started out as a regular worm that dreamed of being the biggest, baddest worm in the world, I think it's safe to conclude that the paths have nothing to do with the Glade.

By evening I've reached a strangely deformed region of the Forest. A giant raven rhymes at me, mocking my ambition and raising questions about the nature of reality. It then flies off, repeating, 'Don't think, can't think, never think!' There are some political parties that would appreciate its sloganeering skills.

As night falls, I must choose between sleeping in a cave or camping out in the open. It is unlikely that I've reached the Glade without realising it, but I shall sleep outdoors anyway, as caves tend to be lairs. I take a chance on lighting a fire, and if someone else were with me and reading the second Glade book (Issel - Warrior King), this is a point at which our characters might meet up.

There is no player 2 here, however, so I have an uneventful night until the giant bat arrives. Time to see how combat works here. A straightforward 'roll equal to or under Swordsmanship (or equivalent) on 2d6 to hit' set-up, with the twist that a double 1 automatically kills the opponent (and that works both ways). After the first round I can use magic if I wish, so I try a Fire Hand spell, which brings the bat near to death. I then risk using my sword to try and deliver the coup de grace. The bat manages to wound me a few times before I strike the fatal blow (with a double 1, though anything below 7 would have done the trick).

Once dead, the bat transforms into a man. Did I just kill Bruce Wayne? Sleep is a long time in coming as I contemplate the implications of what just happened. The next morning I set off again, and if I had a companion, so would he. A rock face blocks the way ahead. There is a cave leading into it, but a disconcertingly alluring light shines from the cave mouth. If I have to make an effort not to automatically walk in (and I do), the place is probably best avoided. But as soon as I start to move away, the Forest becomes icy. Only the path to the cave is unfrozen. Another Fire Hand spell might help here, but I can't really afford the Strength it would take to cast, so I decide to see who or what is so desperate for my company.

The climate's messed up in fantasy world, too.

It's a blind hermit, who says that all who seek the Glade come to him. He warns me that my powers could be used more wisely, and the power I seek does not exist. He then levitates an amulet into my hands, and claims that it will power my spells, so I need not draw on my own strength any more. I risk putting it on: if it's a trap, I'll probably die (or become a bat), but until I can get my Strength back up, I'm extremely vulnerable, so I may well be doomed anyway if I don't take it.

And it's legit, with a reservoir of 20 Strength points in it. Enough to set ten bats on fire. The hermit reveals that he lost his youth and sight in the Glade, but I am not dissuaded from my quest. Slightly confusingly, the section ends by stating that 'the rock face and the cave are soon far below you', and it's not until the next section that I find this to be because I climbed a hill rather than unexpectedly levitating.

At the top of the hill I hesitate, uncertain of the best way forwards, and opt to climb a tree to look for landmarks. Not being in a valley, I shouldn't get discouragingky confused like Bilbo Baggins in Mirkwood. My Agility is just high enough that I manage not to slip and fall, and I see an obelisk not far off. Might as well check it out. And it bears an inscription about the unlikeliness of finding one's heart's desire, and the fact that even those who succeed still lose out. Cheery stuff. At this rate I wouldn't be surprised to find that the closest thing to a victory ending in this book is recognising the pointlessness of my search and going off to do something more worthwhile.

A trail leads to a clearing full of grotesquely deformed people chanting. Let me guess, this is the AGM of the Glade of Dreams Failures' Association. More careful listening leads to the realisation that they're not chanting but moaning. The text points out that now I know why this is called the Wailing Forest. Because these people moan in it. So why isn't it called the Moaning Forest? (The passage always says they're 'moaning', never 'wailing'.)

Another clearing contains a pit, with several tree stumps serving as seats around it. Something in the pit wails. Not moans. Maybe this is where the Forest gets its name, and the authors got it wrong in the previous section. I investigate, anyway. And it's effectively a Sarlacc. Within seconds I've been grabbed by a tentacle and dragged into a gaping maw. Researching place names can be a dangerous business.

Not the most engaging gamebook I've ever played, and that arbitrary death was a bit rubbish. Still, what I got to experience of the solo player version prior to getting devoured wasn't bad, and I'd be interested to see how the two-player variant works out. If any of the other gamebook bloggers have one of these books, and want to try some collaborative effort, I'm open to suggestions.

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

You've Had This Place Redecorated, Haven't You?

I didn't get the first issue of Warlock magazine when it came out in the shops. It appeared to be mostly a reprint of  The Warlock of Firetop Mountain, which I already had, and cost almost two thirds the price of an actual gamebook. The second issue didn't initially appeal that much, either, but I knew what was in it, and when I saw the book of Caverns of the Snow Witch in the shops, I erroneously assumed that the 'teaser' version of it in the magazine was the whole adventure, and as there was still a copy of issue 2 in the newsagents on Monson Road, I bought it as it was cheaper than the book. I soon realised my error, but enjoyed the magazine anyway, got all subsequent issues, and eventually came across a second-hand copy of the first one, at which point completism kicked in and I bought it. I must have found another one, in better condition, since then, because I remember using the squared paper on page 11 to map Firetop Mountain as far as the river (at which point I ran out of space), but there's not a trace of pencil on page 11 of the magazine I have here.

I'm not sure when I discovered that the version of TWoFM in the magazine wasn't quite the same as the book. Well, as it was split across the first two issues, I knew that some sections had been moved around so every decision prior to the 'To be continued' led to a section in issue 1, but for a long while I had no idea that there was more to the changes than that. But the correct path is not the same as in the book, some of the keys have been moved, and there's been the odd other tweak here and there. So as this provides an opportunity for a playthrough to cover some areas of Firetop Mountain I'd normally avoid, as I did pretty poorly at the original version of the adventure, and as someone has expressed an interest in seeing the Warlock variant covered here, it's time to visit an alternate reality's version of the very first Fighting Fantasy adventure...

The first difference is the Background section. Which was called 'Rumours' in the book. But it's not just the title of the prologue that's changed. In the original version, I was already set to enter the mountain and kill the Warlock, and had spent a couple of days in an unidentified village close by, listening to half-accurate gossip. Here, I start out just trekking across the Pagan Plain, where I encounter an old man who, upon hearing that I'm looking for adventure, suggests helping him and his community out. They live in the village of Anvil, two days' travel from the mountain, and are worried about the 'vile creatures' that have been moving into the region. They also hold the Warlock responsible for the failure of their crops. Circumstantial evidence at best, but 'save the downtrodden peasants' is a little less mercenary a motivation than 'nick the Warlock's treasure'. The actual information the villagers provide is much the same as in the book, with a little added colour, but the advice about the ferryman has changed to 'beware the strange ferryman who charges Gold Pieces for his services'. It's called 'capitalism', Dennis.

There's a new illustration of the cave leading into the mountain, too. A bit fanciful, depicting mist and beasts and skeletal remains unmentioned in the text, but quite evocative.

The rules are the same as in the book, right down to the 'two doses of Potion, which can be drunk at any time' quirk. This time round my character is a more promising
Skill: 10
Stamina: 16
Luck: 11
I'll take the Potion of Strength, as the Stamina's a little low, but it shouldn't be a problem as long as I don't get overconfident.

The adventure itself starts off just like the book. I'm pretty sure the wrong turning at the first junction still leads to the room where the Warlock keeps his spare hole in the ground, and sufficiently certain that there's nothing important that way to not bother checking. Dozing guard, check. Slumbering relief guard with boxed mouse, check. Snake-in-a-box, check. But inside the box along with the snake are six gold pieces, rather than the key expected by anyone who's burned the optimal route through the book into their neural passageways through repeated play.

Drunken Orcs guarding Dragonfire spell, check. The biographical details that go with the spell don't actually make a lot of sense. Di Maggio spends his life developing a spell that works exclusively against evil Dragons, and which will destroy the caster if used for the wrong purpose. But he's too old to go Dragon-slaying himself, so to ensure that the spell doesn't fall into the wrong hands (even though it's already rigged to burn any wrong hands that attempt to use it) he hides it in a complex of tunnels inside a mountain ruled over by an evil Warlock. Er, what?

Junction with one turning leading to a room where the Orc Chieftain is beating his servant, check. And the servant still suffers from Stockholm Syndrome (or the Allansian equivalent - let's call that Craggen Rock Syndrome, since the first FF book with a 'wind up serving the villain' failure ending is set there) and attacks you if you try to defend him. Booby-trapped treasure chest, che- Ow! And in addition to its usual contents, underneath the glove is a key. But not the key that was originally in the snake box. This goes to 125 (not 111).

Junction with turning leading to a room full of squabbling Orcs, check. Superfluous Skill bonus for beating the Orcs in battle, check. Bow and silver arrow that archery experts say is entirely the wrong design for use against humanoids, check. Locked door with ex-adventurer imprisoned in the room behind it, check. The accompanying illustration takes up a whole page, and the increased size enables me to notice details that had previously escaped my notice, like the little critter in the muck (bottom left-hand corner), or the prisoner's rather horrid overgrown toenail. The man still calms down when yelled at, and reveals whether or not the genuine and booby-trapped levers by the portcullis have been switched around for this variant.

Locked door to weapon store containing shield that's barely worth using, can't be bothered to check. Goblin torturers (as in Goblins who are torturers, rather than torturers of Goblins), dead Dwarf, and cheese, check. Portcullis and levers, check. And the lever indicated by the man in the cell is still the correct one.

The junction beyond the portcullis is the point at which the major divergence between book and magazine versions occurs. Well, the encounters to be had on the various branching paths ahead are the same in both variants, but the path on which you find all the necessary keys is not the same. So it's farewell to familiar territory, and off into the less well-known...

A side tunnel leads to an empty chamber, and Schroedinger's Ogre follows me into it. I call him that because he's only following me if I actually enter the chamber. Halt outside, decide not to go in, and turn back, and there's nobody behind me. Step across the threshold, and I immediately hear him approaching. (Insert Twilight Zone theme music.) Now, if you're familiar with the victory-proof routes through the book, you may know that this Ogre carries a key. Not this 'this Ogre'. He's pawned it for 3 gold pieces, by the look of things.

Ignoring a side turning that just leads to a dead end and being laughed at, I reach another junction. Go the wrong way here, and I'm in trouble. This would have been a tricky decision three years ago. However, in 2009, having been introduced to the fantasy-themed turn-based strategy game Wesnoth by friends, I made a few custom maps for it, including one based on Firetop Mountain, and I've played on that map often enough that I know which way leads to the Troll. And that's the way I don't want to go here.

Beyond that junction I'm less clear on exactly what is where, but I know the layout well enough that I should be able to check out every room between here and the river. The first one I check contains an old man, who invites me to have a wager. I decide to give it a go, and the game turns out not to be fixed. Winning also gives me a boost to all three attributes, most of which are already at maximum, but if I'd pulled the wrong lever back at the portcullis, the Skill replenishment would be very welcome.

My route next passes through the room with the mosaic floor. Even if you've never been this way, you'll probably have seen the illustration if you've played the book, as one of the paragraphs across the page from it is set in the Maze. It's another full-page picture here. Perhaps not the best candidate, as the blank walls and ceiling make it a bit sparse, and at this magnification it becomes clear that the tiles at the far end of the room are a little crudely drawn. Still, it wasn't supposed to be seen this big, so it's not much of a reason to criticise Russ Nicholson.

I cross the floor using only the safe tiles, and take the correct turning at the next junction, winding up at a door with a skirt. Beyond it is the room containing the next key. Of all the keys in the dungeon, the one that really couldn't be relocated is this one, as it's shown in a picture. Well, the room could have been swapped with another one, but when the key is depicted hanging on the wall, there's no opportunity to say that this time round it's inside a boot or in a Sandworm's stomach or wherever. Anyway, I get the key and, catastrophically, fail the roll to hold my breath and avoid breathing in the toxic gas that gets pumped into the room. It's not lethal, but the Skill it costs me could be vital later on.

At the next junction I don't get to choose which way to go, because there's an arrow carved into the rock, and the text says I decide to go the way indicated. Lucky for me that it's not showing the way to some inescapably lethal trap, eh? Despite my depleted Stamina, I don't pause to eat Provisions by the river, because I know what will attack me if I try, and it's not worth getting into the fight. Not even for the full-page version of the picture in all its Sandworm-erupting-from-riverbank glory.

So I jump into the water, and the current whisks me downstream to the point where all post-portcullis routes converge. This stretch of the river is rather more inhabited than the rest, so I won't try swimming across. Use the raft, though it steers worse than a supermarket trolley? Risk the rickety bridge? Or ring for the dreaded Money-Charging Ferryman? I take a chance on the raft, and manage to get across to the far bank.

There are three ways to go from here, and it might matter which one I choose. Up to four keys can be acquired between the entrance and the Warlock's chest, and I can't remember which of the four is the red herring. If you know the book well enough to be aware of the location of the first key after the river, you know which way I have to go now. But this time round, it's the right way for the wrong reason.

Regardless, I head for the room where I'll find the sleeping man with the dog and the untied bootlaces. I wake the man and chat with him, as his story has some interesting implications. Apparently, several years ago a heavy thaw caused the river to swell and cut off this part of the subterranean complex. Its inhabitants starved to death, so the Warlock turned them all undead. So if everyone who inhabits the region north of the river is undead, and this man lives north of the river...

He sets his dog on me. It breathes fire. Soon it doesn't breathe anything. This displeases the man, who turns out to be a Werewolf. The sort that operates on the Incredible Hulk model rather than the lunar cycle. Despite having a higher Skill than almost every opponent I've had to fight in this adventure (and my now having a reduced Skill), he doesn't so much as inflict a scratch on me. Not that his form of lycanthropy is contagious, but I was half-expecting to need a swig of potion before the fight was done.

Anyway, I help myself to the ring of keys on the wall. In this version of the adventure, one of them is numbered. The key to the boat house door is there as well, but I don't need to go to the boat house to get the key with the number on. Good thing, too, as there's something very useful on the path that doesn't go via the boat house. So I just grab the only edible thing in the Werewolf's larder (a jar of pickled eggs, so some may disagree about 'edible'), and make for the door in the cliff face.

Incidentally, if you were to search the part of the boat house that contains the key in the book, you'd find a silver-tipped throwing dart that can be used to injure an opponent before a fight commences. A little thought has gone into that: shortly after the boat house there's an opponent that can only be harmed with silver weapons. Thanks to the silver tip, any damage done by the dart doesn't have to be retroactively negated following the revelation that conventional weapons do nothing. Oh, and the picture of the boat house is another full-page job, so Murray might want to track down a copy of the magazine so as to get a better look at the Skeletons (which, judging by the description of their movements, must have been animated by Ray Harryhausen. As are all the best animated Skeletons).

But I'm not going that way. I'm going via the darkened room where I get rendered unconscious by a blow to the head. Not that I'm a fan of cranial trauma (mind you, I do have a still-just-discernible scar on my left temple as the result of a disagreement with a paving stone several years back), but if I can survive the fight with the Zombies that inhabit the room, I can do something about remedying that depleted Skill of mine.

Anyway, I come round, and deduce that it was probably the Zombie with the club that hit me, as the scythe, the axe and the pick carried by the others would have drawn blood. The Zombies must have some conception of symmetry, as the corpse of their previous victim is in the north-east corner of the room, while I've been dumped in the south-west. Three of them injure me during the subsequent fight, but at the end I'm the one still standing, so I make my way over to the corpse in the corner and search it.

This eggshell-skulled individual has a sword, shield, leather armour, a little money, and a silver crucifix. I'm pretty sure this is the only crucifix in all Fighting Fantasy. There are crosses aplenty in later books, but a crucifix has someone crucified on the cross. Given that most FF books are set in a completely different reality to the one I inhabit (one in which, to judge by the little evidence available, crucifixion has no significance beyond being what Black Elves do to people who annoy them), I can see the logic behind dispensing with the overly specific iconography of the crucifix while still retaining the cross as a symbol that repels evil (on account of its familiarity in western media).

For inadequately explained reasons, I can only take two things from the dead adventurer. Oh, and somehow the very act of searching the corpse provides a Skill bonus, which I'd forgotten about. Once I've chosen, I get to learn more about what I took. The book gets a bit melodramatic here: 'What are these mysterious items you have collected?' While I didn't go for it, the dead man's money is one of the 'items', and there's nothing very mysterious about money (apart from the way that it keeps running out). Still, I chose the sword and the crucifix, which rather makes me sound like a Crusader, now I come to think about it. Oh, well, never mind. Anyway, there's nothing very remarkable about the crucifix, but the sword turns out to be enchanted, and gives a bonus to Initial and Current Skill, leaving me better off than I was at the start of the adventure. To give a counter-moral to Marsten's: Rum may refresh, but a magic sword penetrates the parts drinks cannot reach.

An unidentified noise startles me into leaving the room. I'd have got a more specific noise if I'd investigated something other than the corpse, but the sword more than makes up for the vagueness. The next room I enter is a crypt, containing an altar and several coffins. Of course there are Vampires here. Well, at least one Vampire. Possibly more. Regardless, the route I took to get here bypassed the place where I could have got some wooden stakes, so I can't have a shot at being the klutziest Slayer ever (you can read about how that pans out in Marsten's playthrough, which I've already linked to once) and the loot in the crypt isn't important enough to justify the risk of fighting the Vampire, so I don't loiter.

Beyond a crossroads, I reach a part of the complex that is under construction, with a staircase to a lower level being excavated by magical tools. Or rather, with an assortment of magical tools slacking off beside an unfinished staircase until I show up, at which point they suddenly get busy. Love it! While working, they hum Heigh-Ho. Yes, the tune from the animated Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. My theory is that the Warlock plans to turn this mountain into Disneyland Allansia. Whatever the truth, while watching the tools at work, I relax sufficiently to recover that last missing Skill point, after which I head back to the crossroads and go a more finished way.

Before long I see an opening in the wall, leading to a completed flight of steps leading downwards. This is the point at which the portion of the adventure in issue 1 concludes. Not the most exciting cliffhanger ever. Normally, I will cover serialised adventures in instalments, but as The Warlock of Firetop Mountain was designed as a complete adventure and just split up for the magazine (plus the fact that the remainder of the adventure consists mostly of wandering around a maze), I shall not stop here.

The room at the bottom of the stairs contains three corpses. I find some money on the first one. Somehow, as I move towards the second one, I manage to kick the third one, which lashes out at me, and unexpectedly wounds me. This is the Ghoul that so morbidly fascinated me on my first attempt at the adventure, and while the delightfully repulsive illustration isn't full-page, it is a little larger here than in the book. Even the more recent trade paperback variant.

My improved Skill should suffice to win me the fight, and even if it doesn't, the Ghoul won't get to paralyse me and eat me alive, as my Stamina is just low enough that the wound that would paralyse me will kill me instead. As it turns out, I don't take another scratch. The only thing of value the Ghoul has is a pair of earrings (in a pocket, and thus not visible in the picture at any magnification), but the body I was going to search when I was so rudely interrupted has on it a bottle of fluid and a barely readable map of the Maze of Zagor. There's no illustration to enable even an attempt at making out the layout of the maze (not that I need one), and the semi-legible text merely indicates the presence of ---GER in the north and SM--- P---LE to the east. It took me years to twig that the latter was probably 'Small People'.

Not as informative as this

I also have the option of testing the liquid. Alarmingly, my technique turns out to be 'swallow some and hope it's not harmful', but on this occasion it pays off, as the liquid is Holy Water, which restores most of my lost Stamina. In later books it becomes apparent that Holy Water is harmful to Ghouls, so I have no idea how corpse two managed to get himself killed by this one. Unless he died elsewhere, the Warlock found the bottle on the body, and he thought it would be amusingly ironic to have it guarded by the Ghoul, so nobody would find it until they'd dealt with the opponent against which it would be most effective.

Stairs up lead to another passageway, and a portcullis drops behind me. I have now reached the Maze. And I don't need to refer to the picture above to help me through it. First off, I head to the Minotaur's room. This Minotaur isn't so tough, and before long I have the key he guards. Hey, while I said there was only one key that couldn't be relocated, I never claimed it was the only one that didn't get relocated. And from the number on this one, I deduce which of the keys I've found is not required.

That done, I take the most direct route to the Dragon's chamber. Oh, I could visit the Dwarves or the Mazemaster (who gets an all-new full-page illustration that omits one of the doors leading from the room), but there's no need. I go through one secret door along the way, managing not to trigger the alarm when I activate it. The spell I learned way back near the beginning gets rid of the Dragon, and beyond that is just the Warlock's suite.

Of course, not having fought the Iron Cyclops this time round, I don't have the item that averts combat with the Warlock. There are still two potential ways of making it easier, and as one requires me to successfully Test my Luck, and I've already had a couple of implausibly Unlucky rolls this adventure, I won't chance another. Instead, I down the Potion of Invisibility I found in the Orc Chieftain's chest. Treasure chest, not anatomical. That makes the fight a lot easier, and all that lies between me and victory is key selection.

So I try the keys I think are the right ones, and get redirected to section 387.

This is a stroke of evil genius by whoever reedited the adventure for the magazine. You see, there are some section numbers that tend to stick in the memory. And if you know The Warlock of Firetop Mountain well, you may be aware that 387 is the 'use all the wrong keys and get killed by poison darts' ending, while 169 is the 'use all the right keys and get sent to 400' section (and 192 is the unreachable one put in to make an even 400 sections). In the magazine, 169 and 387 have been swapped around. So back when I made my first successful attempt at this variant (having already got the 'you don't have all the right keys, and thus fail' ending at least once), reading that instruction filled me with dread and confusion. At least two of those keys had to be right. It wasn't possible that they were all wrong. And yet I'd been sent to the doom-laden 387. So I turned to it, realised what the sneaky reeditor had done, and breathed a sigh of relief.

Now I know the trick, there's not the same mix of emotions. But it still feels good to win, even after playing often enough to have inadvertently memorised the optimal route through the Maze.

Monday, 17 September 2012

Lost Hearts

On to the fourth and final The World of Lone Wolf book, War of the Wizards. My history with this book is like a summary of what happened with the rest of the series: I first read it under similar circumstances to book 1, I acquired my first copy in the shop where I bought my original book 2, then (a while after getting rid of both) replaced it on the same day that I got book 3, in either the charity shop or the second-hand bookshop - whichever one I didn't get Beyond the Nightmare Gate in. My current copy was part of the same eBay lot as the others, but the previous owner hasn't written as much in it as in the others, and 'Laumspur' is spelled correctly in this one.

The rules for carrying a character across from a previous book have changed again. Combat Skill is recalculated anew, but I get to add any left-over Willpower and Endurance to the default starting scores. Additionally, possession of the Moonstone allows me to select several higher magicks to complement my existing powers. There are six to choose from, each a more advanced version of one of the seven lesser magicks, and the one lesser one that doesn't have an improved variant happens to be the one I never acquired. Such is life. I can have five, so I opt not to pick up Necromancy.

Having the Moonstone also makes it possible for the Shianti, my former mentors, to contact me with important news. There's a temporal disconnect between the Daziarn and Magnamund, something like the one between Earth and Narnia, so while Tanith and I have been here less than a week, seven years have passed back home. The city I helped the resistance movement take over has remained independent, and inspired further rebellion, and has just sent out an army to try and take the port where my adventures began, unaware that a force three times its size has been gathered to oppose them. My first task, when I get back, is to warn the Freedom Guild and take them to the forest where the two pages of the frontispiece map meet, so they can hide in the unreadable bit right by the spine of the book.

By the time this has been explained, they're almost out of credit, so I can only ask one question before the call gets cut off. It could be handy to know where we'll be arriving. The answer is not that encouraging: a region to the north-west of where we left, in the land that was once home to my book 2 companion Samu's people. Which is a) a long way from the army I need to contact, b) the wrong side of those near-impenetrable mountains, and c) heavily demon-infested. Not the most convenient spot, then.

So we get transported back to Magnamund, and the Moonstone is less shiny. I could spend Willpower to find out that nothing's gone wrong, that's just the way it looks outside the Daziarn, or I could just figure that that's the case and save the Willpower for when I need it. Besides, I'm more concerned that Tanith seems to have become Tawny Madison (in character, not appearance), as she informs me that we've arrived where the Shianti said we would arrive.

Uh-oh. 'Suddenly you realize that you have no food or water.' We haven't just returned to Magnamund, but to the realm of shoddy gamebook design. At the end of the previous adventure I had three Meals in my Backpack, and I've had no instructions to delete them. If I were starting with this book rather than carrying a character across, I would have four Meals as part of my starting equipment. How this means 'no food', I cannot tell. And I'm presented with a choice between trekking hundreds of miles across plain, mountain and desert to the city where the villain has his stronghold, or going in the direction that'll lead me to the army I'm supposed to meet. At this rate, when I encounter a demon I'll probably be asked if I want to attack it or beat myself around the head with my Staff.

After a while we encounter a creature so misshapen and malformed, it could have been drawn by Rob Liefeld. It almost attacks me, but vanishes when I prepare to defend myself (doubtless having hoped I'd react by poking myself really hard in the eye with something pointy). The same choice of directions is offered, causing me to suspect that I was going to have this encounter whichever way I went. There's also a reminder about the lack of food and water, which just gets me wondering why I'm not getting the option of using Prophecy to find out the best way to go, or Elementalism to make it rain, or Evocation to summon up the ghost of Ian Page's authorial competence and try and get it to lure the decent writing back.

Continuing in the same direction, we fail to locate the lake that lies somewhere around here, but do spot a building. It's getting late, so I decide to check out its suitability as a place to spend the night. It's a ziggurat built by the Masbaté, Samu's people. Even Grey Star wonders why nomads bothered constructing such a vast structure. The doors (not a feature I tend to associate with ziggurats, but I'm no expert) are too heavy to open, but a spot of Prophecy helps me find the opening mechanism, and I can choose between Sorcery or its more advanced sibling Thaumaturgy to try and activate the thing. I'm tempted to try out the newer Power, but its description makes it sound less appropriate, and practicality trumps shininess.

I trigger the mechanism, which breaks down part of the way through doing its job, but opens the door wide enough for Tanith and me to squeeze through. Inside, we find a well. Already having seen proof that this isn't one of those ancient temples where everything still functions perfectly, I am careful, and manage to avoid breaking the rope. Attached to the end is a bowl, not a bucket, which is a nicely understated signifier of cultural differences.

Further investigation reveals this place to be a shrine and a tomb. There are some potentially useful items lying around, so Tanith arms herself and I take a Water Bottle, a Torch and a Tinder box. I have to free up a little Backpack space for the last of these, but the likelihood of my needing a bunch of keys I found in the Daziarn is low enough that I'll risk leaving them behind.

After a restful night, we are woken by a rather unpleasant dawn chorus. Remember how the door got jammed in a half-open position? Well, the demon hordes have just noticed that. And they don't like sunlight, or are curious, or who knows what, but the upshot is that they're coming in. In their hundreds. They haven't noticed us yet, as we're on one of the higher floors, but sooner or later...

Following the release of the Necromancy upgrade, Evocation's 'protective incantation' function appears to have been discontinued. Consequently, the only options open to me are to attract the demons' attention with a preemptive strike, or to hide and hope they don't notice us. Both not-that-great ideas, but which is less likely to get us killed? Try keeping a low profile. There's a two-person sized alcove close by, so even if we do get noticed, the demons will only be able to attack from one side, and not many at a time. Okay, so there's no chance of successfully fighting off hundreds of the things, but there must be some kind of cavalry en route, as these books don't really go in for No-Options Kill-Centres.

Naturally, a demon finds us. Possessing zero tactical skill, Grey Star steps out of the alcove to fight it. Not too tough a fight, but more demons are gathering in the corridor. Grey Star's lack of genre savviness prompts a decision to try and get out of the ziggurat, and I'm going to have to try to keep him on the path of least getting-killedness until the inevitable surprise rescue. A ranged attack with the Staff looks less suicidal than charging the horde, so I spend Willpower blasting a hole in one demon, and the wretched book directs me to the section to which I'd have turned if I were charging. I hate this kind of 'illusion of choice' rubbish. Not quite enough to give up on the book in disgust, but it came close.

The demons turn out to be more scared of me than I am of them, so it's surprisingly easy to get back to the entrance hall. Where their decidedly un-intimidated Master is waiting... His Combat Skill is just high enough to ensure that he does the maximum possible damage regardless of Grey Star's CS, which gives him a 2 in 10 chance of killing me on the spot every round. So this would be a good time to waffle on about the one 'didn't think it through' aspect of the system that got a passing mention last book: use of Willpower in battle. If I'm using my Staff (and there's a hefty CS penalty for using anything else), I have to expend Willpower every round. I get to choose how much, and whatever damage I inflict is multiplied by the number of points spent. The only limit to how much I spend is what I can afford. This beast outclasses me like a tank against a unicycle at a demolition derby, but if I blow 10 Willpower in the first round, I have a greater chance of vaporising him than he has of crushing me.

Of course, when one combatant has a 20% chance of automatic victory, and the other has contrived a 30% chance of the same, that still leaves a 50% likelihood that neither will succeed. He rips a gash in me with his terrible claws, I strike him a glancing blow that costs him a quarter of his Endurance. In the second round my Willpower expenditure is a little more conservative, but I might as well have gone for the minimum, as I do no damage, and anything times zero is still zero. The instructions at the end of the paragraph hint that the cavalry will be turning up in the fourth round, so for round three I do spend the minimum: the odds of his getting an automatic kill are the same either way, and I no longer have anything to gain by blowing him apart. And if I'd rolled in round one what I rolled in round three, the Demon Master would have been just a smear by the time whoever's about to save my bacon turned up. Typical!

Actually, looking at the wording, it's possible that I may have to fight round four as well. But if so, I'm not allowed to win the fight in that round, regardless of how much damage I may inflict. Even if I kill the wretched thing, he still gets to fly up into the air and kick me in the head, and only the eleventh hour arrival of some ally can save me from being savaged by my already deceased foe. The only argument against that interpretation of the text is that it is unspeakably idiotic, but if we were to go disregarding readings on such grounds, that would invalidate the whole book.

You know what? This whole shambles has so soured me on the book that I'm going to fight the fourth round in the hope that that 1 in 5 chance comes off and I get a legitimate excuse to stop reading.

The random number generator is cruel. I make it through round four without a scratch. My minimal Willpower expenditure there means the Demon Master is only half dead by then, so it makes sense that he's able to take off and smack me in the temple with a hoof, but by now I wouldn't much care if he responded by transforming into a mime in a fez and tutu and half-decapitating me with a fluorescent orange vuvuzela made of hummus.

Anyway, a whole load of Masbaté troops come swarming in and butcher the demons. Yeah, the report of their genocide was an exaggeration. Tanith convinces them that we're on their side by heaping scorn on them, 'a gifted healer' manages to restore one measly Endurance point, and after someone repairs the door, we set off towards the Masbaté's new home, conveniently in the direction I was supposed to be heading anyway. Their leader is Samu, which might be a pleasing development if I still cared about the plot.

Following a hefty info-dump, I adopt a convoluted plan that involves using the Moonstone to seal the magical portal that enables the demons to teleport away from danger, then tricking the demons into attacking the Shadakine army before it can engage the Freedom Guild. Meanwhile, Tanith has to leave because of a plot contrivance.

Depending on whether or not the reader has successfully completed an earlier book in the series, Grey Star has either four or five of the six higher magicks. Bearing this in mind, how many of the higher magicks does Grey Star not have? If your answer is, 'Three or more,' then you are Ian Page and I claim my five pounds.

My knowledge of Theurgy (advanced Alchemy) makes it possible for me to brew up a potion of temporary invulnerability from plants that grow in the region. Or I could ignore that fact and either spend Willpower to create a similar effect with another power, or just face the demon hordes without any kind of protection. Don't tempt me...

Stuff happens. Then stuff fails to happen. Both circumstances offer opportunities to waste Willpower. I don't fall for all of them. Eventually I reach the portal. My attempt at closing it is thwarted by an immensely powerful entity within or beyond it. There's an illustration that looks like it goes with this section, but the caption claims that it relates to another one. The picture's less appropriate for that one, but it's a little late to expect any sense here.

And no cheers, please, for this book's 'choose failure' option. The being in the portal has an almost overwhelming psychic attack, but seems unable to gloat and attack at the same time, so when it starts mocking me, I have a window of opportunity. 'You know that you must resist now before you are enslaved forever.' All I have to do to save myself is spend 2 Willpower, and I still have over 40. But the expenditure is voluntary. If I want, I can let the Big Bad consume my mind. Was Page expecting his readers to have lost the will to continue by this stage?

Much as I'd like this to be over, I'm not taking a dive. Resisting costs 2 Willpower. Closing the portal costs another 5. Or 4. Or 9. Whatever. As I do it, the entity instructs his demons to destroy me, evidently having failed to notice that they were attempting to kill me even before I got his attention. Still, his instructions do save me from having to come up with a way of getting the horde to follow me until I can set them on the enemy troops.

I can't be bothered to describe the trivial complications that ensue until I introduce the demons to the Shadakines. They get on like a house on fire - in the sense that much devastation and destruction occurs. I rejoin my allies (almost getting killed, because I disguised myself as a Shadakine) and destroy a bridge to discourage pursuit. Can we get on with the endgame now?

After much waffle, and a chance to waste more Willpower, we hook up with the Freedom Guild, and I persuade them to hide out where the Shianti said. I refer to the Shadakine army as if it were still at full strength, despite the fact that they've lost men to the Masbaté and the demonic hordes, but then, my dialogue has been written by somebody who has trouble with numbers.

Passing up an opportunity to get into an unnecessary fight, I get more exposition. In book 2 I was shocked to learn that Shasarak was a Shianti, but somehow now I know great chunks of his biography, including the fact that he was the one to blame for turning a thriving civilisation into Desolation Valley. The ghosts of his victims are said to haunt the forest where the Shianti want us to shelter, so the troops are none too excited about going there.

In the forest, the book wants to know if I have Alchemy or its upgrade Theurgy. There are separate entries depending on which I have, the more advanced Power reaping more benefits from the indigenous flora. All very sensible, only it asks about Alchemy first, thereby potentially causing readers with both Powers to miss out on the advantage of having the better one. I only found out because I've come to expect authorial carelessness and deliberately checked both sections in case of another blunder.

At night I find myself drawn to a hill in the heart of the forest. There, seven shining behemoths sing a song about how they are the Kazim, their stone hearts have been stolen by evil, and they're waiting for the Grey One, who will help them reclaim their hearts. I have the option of attacking, but the song's not exactly up there with 3-2-1 riddles in the incomprehensibility stakes, now is it?

So, the Kazim turn out to be ancient stone beings. Shasarak stole their hearts (literally - the Kazim Stones through which Shadakine Wytches channel their powers used to be the Kazim's internal organs), and they've been revived after centuries by the presence of the Moonstone. I can use it to give them mobility. Just after I do this, I hear Shadakines attacking the Freedom Guild, so I hurry off to help out while the Kazim shake off the moss and lichen.

The battle includes further wastefully superfluous shenanigans. Eventually the Shadakines are routed, the Kazim reclaim their hearts, and further resistance springs up. Aware that Shasarak could be doing a lot more against his enemies than he is, I decide to use a teleport potion to skip to the endgame.

And just like that, I'm in the hall outside Shasarak's room. Between me and the door is a grotesque demon that looks so human I have to remind myself that it's a demon, not a man (so either it changes shape without explicit mention of the transformation, or Page changed his mind about its appearance mid-section ('Hey, you know what's really monstrous? Nazis! I'll make it look aryan!') and neglected to amend the initial description. It gloats about having the power of hate, but doesn't do anything to me. Maybe it draws strength from my hostility, so if I attack it, it'll wipe the floor with me, but if I think happy thoughts I can saunter past it.

Yup. Not attacking means I just enter into the presence of Shasarak, who is kneeling at the end of a shadowy hall, facing a wall of flame. He spins round as I enter (that'll be hard on the knees), and the same Demon lord I encountered back at the portal speaks from within the flames, trying to convince Shasarak to accept his terms. They can't be very favourable, as Shasarak tries to attack me instead. The Moonstone shields me from his power, so he invites me to a duel. I down every potion I have (except the one that creates a noxious gas) and fight. Thanks to the performance-enhancing nature of one of those potions, he doesn't outclass me quite as much as the Demon Master I had such trouble with (only a 10% chance of one-shotting me), and judicious use of Willpower plus a couple of lucky rolls enable me to defeat him in two rounds.

Except that he tries to cheat death by accepting the Demon's bargain, which will enable them to switch places. Shasarak will get to live on in eternal torment in the equivalent of hell (now that's a bad loser for you), and the Demon lord Agarash will be free to wreak havoc in Magnamund. Unless I can seal the portal before Agarash can step through. So I throw every last remaining point of Willpower at it, and black out.

That was enough, though. Eventually I regain consciousness to find Tanith by my bedside. She tells me that the Shadakines have been overthrown, and I've been elected ruler of the former Empire. Yay me.

As with book 3, that had a pretty good endgame. I actually found myself enjoying the book by the climax. But it's a real mess in places - sufficiently so that I'd have wound up reshelving it unfinished but for this blog entry.

Mongoose Publishing are currently reissuing the Lone Wolf books. They appear unwilling or unable to do the same with The World of Lone Wolf. Maybe if they got the rights and had the books thoroughly proofread, playtested and rewritten to get rid of all the bugs, flaws, annoyances and ludicrous nonsense, they might come out with something great. But without a major overhaul, I wouldn't go near a rerelease.

Friday, 14 September 2012

Another in the Mesh

The Wizards, Warriors & You series didn't make much of an impact on me when it reached the UK. I saw the books in shops, even flicked through at least one (at the same Boots display stand where I first encountered Fighting Fantasy books 6 and 7, though on a different occasion), but didn't get interested enough to buy any of them. At least until I wound up owning half the series (half the British releases, that is - the American ones went on a lot longer) in circumstances I shall explain at a later date. But having three of the books changed my attitude sufficiently that when I came across a second-hand copy of the first one, R.L. Stine's The Forest of Twisted Dreams, I bought it. At a later date I parted copy with them all, but some time after that, a capricious search on eBay turned up a collection of all the WW&Y books I'd previously read, nostalgia prompted a bid, and nobody else wanted the books badly enough to outbid me.

This is a series in which characters don't have any stats, but there's still a random element and (potentially) a little inventory management. The random aspect comes in for a fair bit of criticism, because it does get arbitrary at times. Making success dependent upon a successful coin toss is one thing, but it gets a bit silly when the deciding factor is what number you think of, the day of the week or time of day when you're reading the book, or whether the cock crows three times before dawn and twelve hens lay addled eggs. Okay, not the last of those, but I do recall one instance where failure could result from having been born on the wrong day!

The principal gimmick is that these books have a duo of heroes - the Wizard and the Warrior - and the reader gets to play one of them and have the other as a partner. The Wizard, predictably, has a selection of spells to cast. The Warrior has access to an armoury, and gets to pick three of the weapons from it, in addition to the magic sword he carries by default. The basic plot is the same for both characters, but the manner in which it unfolds varies according to which the reader is playing.

In a romanticised medieval England, under the reign of a King Henry (number not specified), the Three Years' War (not the one in Nova Scotia) has recently ended. Celebrations are cut short when giants invade and steal the Magic Helmet of Cornwall, the main treasure acquired in the war. While the knights prepare for battle, the King summons the Wizard and the Warrior and sends them on a commando mission to the Kingdom of Giants to bring the Helmet back again.

I'll be the Warrior this time, and alongside the Sword of Authorial Imposition, I shall take the battle-axe, the longbow with poison-tipped arrows, and the double-pointed mace. Against an army of giants, I think a ranged weapon and a couple of hard-hitting ones should be useful.

We set off. Between King Henry's realm and the Kingdom of Giants is, unsurprisingly, the Forest of Twisted Dreams, home to all manner of sinister beings. However, we may not even get that far, as the giants have left a horde of Mandroths to hinder pursuers. No, I don't know what a Mandroth is, but they ride six-legged flesh-eating 'horses', and they're not very friendly.

As the Mandroths approach, I ready my bow. For this battle I must flip four coins, and I succeed if I get three heads or three tails. Problematically, I get four tails. The text is a little unclear as to whether the desired result is at least three coins the same way up, or exactly three the same. Two heads and two tails - definite fail. Four of one and none of the other - not specified. I got three tails - I just got another tail after that.

The mace is also usable in this situation, so I'll take the option to switch to that. The rules are clearer on this one: flip two coins. If they come up the same, that's a kill. I have ten flips in which to kill four opponents, and I manage my fourth kill on the seventh flip. Even if I get more doubles, I can't unkill any Mandroths, so that seems a pretty clear success.

Things get a bit weird now. Weapons suitable for battling a horde of Mandroths may not be ideal for use in the Forest, so the Wizard casts a spell that takes us back in time, enabling me to choose some different weapons (but only two in addition to the Sword), yet somehow the Mandroths remain routed. And this whole adventure could have been averted if the Wizard had cast that spell during the intro, moving back to before the giants attacked so he could warn the King and his knights of the imminent invasion.

Yes, I know...

Still, I can take a hint. I'll switch to the dagger, in case I wind up having to fight while hemmed in by trees, and retain the battle-axe, as that wasn't called for in the Mandroth fight, and may come in handy if the trees themselves turn nasty.

We're still in the Forest when it starts to get dark. The Wizard advises making camp until it gets light again, but the Warrior contemplates exploiting the cover of darkness to get close to the giants unobserved (I say 'the Warrior' as this is in the text rather than anything I personally have considered). The final decision is mine, and I'm heeding the Wizard's advice. Some of the Forest's denizens were described as 'moon-worshipping' earlier, so they're probably most active at night.

The following day we resume our trek, and find ourselves sinking into some boggy ground. A fisherman approaches, intending to add us to his net, which is made of living people (how does that even work? Evidently artist Earl Norem doesn't have a clue either, as the illustration looks like a regular net full of humans). The fisherman hurls the Wizard into the net, and when he pulls me out of the mud, I get a chance to attack. The dagger is one of the weapons singled out here, so I choose that, and stab him with it. It doesn't harm him. I wind up netted. No hints, foreshadowings, or explanations, just a big 'YOU CHOSE WRONG'.

This was never my favourite of the WW&Y books I played, so I shall try not to let its flaws prejudice me against the rest of the series. The others may prove just as problematic, but it'll be a while before I return to this series to find out.

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Fair Enough

I acquired the second book of Steve Jackson's Sorcery!, Kharé - Cityport of Traps at the same time and in the same way as the first book in the series. However, I do have a couple of memories of looking at it in shops before I got properly interested in the series. I came across the 'killed by the Mantis Man' ending while flicking through a copy in the bookshop at a London railway station that served as an intermediate stage on some school trip. Then a copy turned up in the newsagent's half way down the hill from the church my family attended, and I was a little puzzled by the stuff about kissing in section 2. On my first attempt, I missed a crucial encounter, and was technically unable to complete the adventure (though I had acquired enough data to be able to cheat).

If you haven't already read Marsten's playthrough of this adventure, I recommend you do so, as it's a highly entertaining account of an attempt at the book in which he winds up experiencing almost every indignity that can be inflicted on an unfortunate player. I'm hoping to fare rather better than he did. If I do, that may be good news for the individual who wound up directed to my post on The Shamutanti Hills as a result of Googling 'khare+cityport+traps+rhyme', should he or she venture back to this blog.

So, my character from book 1 draws near to the eponymous city, which is somehow the only way of getting across the Jabaji River. It is surrounded by a fortified wall, and when I get there, the gate is locked. Good thing the Svinns gave me a key, eh? It works, but I carelessly leave it in the lock as I enter the city. Then a guard surprises me and throws me into a cell, because Steve needs a way of getting me to sit down and listen to some exposition. Also in the cell is an elderly sorcerer who lost his arm to an Ogre - possibly the one I killed last book. He lets me know that the gate through which I need to leave the city is magically locked, and I need to learn an incantation to open it. Each line of the chant is known to one prominent citizen (though not so prominent that my cellmate knows who they are).

I am also informed that I should get released as soon as the guards have carried out a CRB check on me, but I can't be bothered to wait that long, and decide to try a spell. The decision is slightly problematic: in addition to the standard lock-picking spell, I have the option of casting one that turns pebbles into explosives, and that costs less Stamina. However, I somehow failed to find any pebbles while trekking through the countryside to get here, so unless there happen to be some lying around in the cell, the spell won't work and I'll have wasted my Stamina (and possibly my only chance of using magic here). Oh, the difference is small enough that I'll use the more costly but more reliable option. Still, if I die from Stamina loss in this book, it will be partly a consequence of the lack of opportunities to pick small stones up off the ground.

The old man takes advantage of the escape opportunity I offer, and moves impressively quickly. He turns right at a crossroads. To the left I see a group of backpackers, who are probably on a gap year, so I hurry off in the opposite direction before they can start boring me with fashion tips from Kristatanti, half a dozen separate accounts of having helped Alianna escape from the cage in which she'd been locked, and cautionary tales about unwary travellers who wandered into the Lotus fields.

Not wishing to seem like I'm stalking the old man, I avoid the hut into which he disappeared and investigate one with an interesting smell. I ask permission first, and thus avoid a variant of the 'bucket balanced on top of the door' trick, which the owner had set up just in case some random stranger came bursting in unannounced. Inside is a kitchen, and the chef is part-man, part-jelly, with tentacles instead of arms. I ask about the price of a meal, but it's a bit expensive, so I just move on.

There's a fair or market up ahead, which means I've gone the wrong way, but all is not lost, as I spot an old friend in the crowd. Well, a guy who tried to murder me the last time we met, and owes me a favour since I spared his life when his ambush backfired on him. It just so happens that he knows one of the citizens I seek, and is able to direct me to the man's house.

I knock on the door, and the man of the house says I can come in if I let him have my sword. I guess he also befriended the assassin following an attempted freebie. Best not to antagonise him, especially as he has a pet spiked lizard that he could set on unwanted guests. He leads me through to his study, and a close examination of the illustration indicates that among the varied tomes on his shelves are a portfolio of work by the book's artist, a bound collection of White Dwarf back issues, and a book by some 'Jackson' character. Less in-jokey titles include Necropolitics, Unlife Vol II and Dwarf Hymns. In return for my solving a rather arbitrary puzzle, he tells me one line of the spell I need to learn. He also gives me a green wig, which can be used to cast a couple of spells, and lets me have my sword back as I leave.

Further down the street are a portrait painter with no hands, and a man who makes coloured fires. I investigate the latter, who appears to be responsible for a preposterous Star Trek novel, and invites me to check out the 'special fires' in his hut. While that may sound like an appalling chat-up line, I recall from past attempts at the book that he only wants to kill and rob me. And proves unable to do even that after I cast the right spell, which enables me to take his bait (some cash and a spell item) without so much as getting singed.

Returning to the streets, I find myself back at the fair. This time I take an interest in the fighting ring, where FF's first Anvar the Barbarian (there's another in a much later book, but that book's not set on the same world, which is one reason he's not likely to be the same character) is about to take on Skullsplitter the Ogre. I place a bet on the Barbarian, as I get a better return if he wins. Given the disparity in stats between the two combatants, his survival seems unlikely (the fight is to the death), and as I have more than just a financial interest in the outcome of the fight, I covertly intervene to give him a slight advantage. It's not enough, drat it (and Anvar's death here is the other principal reason I doubt he's the same one who appears in the other book). So not only have I lost the money I gambled and the Stamina cost of the spell, but I now have to fight the tougher of the two.

For certain values of 'have to', admittedly. I'm not forced into combat, but I remember from past attempts that entering the ring is the only way to get a lead that will help me find the second line of the spell that unlocks the gate, and once I've entered the ring, the only way out is over the other fighter's dead body. So I take the risk, and while Skullsplitter's manager is using an illegal healing spell on him, I happen to overhear someone greeting the well-connected friend mentioned by the innkeeper I helped out in book 1. I call out to him, and arrange to have a chat with him after the fight. Providing I survive...

One blunder I managed to avoid in the previous book would have resulted in my losing my sword. The section describing the incident spells out the consequences of being deprived of a weapon. He makes no mention of any such thing here, so I must conclude that there's nothing to keep me from using my sword in this fight, however inappropriate it may seem for the setting, and thus I get to utilise all the bonuses I picked up in the first book. They don't help. A combination of abysmal rolls and the ludicrous selection of spell options given in this situation (where was the foe-demoralising SAP when I needed it?) leaves me as dead as Anvar.

A disappointing outcome, there. This is usually an enjoyable book, but it is marred by a number of details that don't make sense, and arbitrary restrictions on what can be done. I shall have to roll up a fresh character for the next book in the series, and I now have a quandary to ponder for when I get to the last one.