Friday, 22 February 2013

Pyramid Power

The fifth Golden Dragon Fantasy Gamebook, Oliver Johnson's Curse of the Pharaoh, didn't make any impression on me back when I would flick through the books in shops. I acquired it as part of the set I bought when getting into the series, and memory suggests that I was in a car when I first attempted it. No dice were involved, and I recall only that I got myself teleported into a chamber where I had to sacrifice an item to get out again. I think that the first time I played it using dice, a string of bad rolls caused me to die in the very first fight.

As the title suggests, there's a distinctly Egyptian tone to the adventure, though it's set in a fictional analogue to Egypt rather than the real-world country. My character has come into possession of half a stone tablet that could be a lead to the long-lost tomb of the Pharaoh Kharput, and at the start of the adventure, he's nearing the end of a two-hundred-mile journey to the city where the man from whom he bought the stone acquired it. Arriving in the city of Arkos, he ignores the advice of passers-by and enters the charmingly named Inn of the Coiled Serpent to ask the barman for directions to the merchant who sold the half-tablet in the first place. The Inn's only other patron makes a hurried departure, which isn't suspicious at all.

The book's about to hand control of the character over to the reader, so some stats would not go amiss.
Vigour: 25
Psi: 9
Agility: 7
That Vigour's a little low, which could be a problem in view of some of the fun awaiting me.

Gabbad the antiquarian dealer lives near the bazaar, so I head there. It's getting late, and all but one of the traders have already shut up shop. The lone exception, Ahmed's Emporium, sells a variety of potentially useful items, and I can afford the lot and still have money left over, so I buy everything.

After that I can go gambling, go to another inn, watch a fire-eater or talk to some children. While approaching the children will lead to the fight that got me killed on a previous attempt, I'm pretty sure that the other options can lead to equally bad or worse trouble. The best-dressed of the children offers to take me to Gabbad, so I go with him. He leads me up some steep steps, and two black-robed assassins rush to attack me. The boy hasn't deliberately led me into a trap, though: he trips one of my attackers, who tumbles down the steps and is in no fit state to bother me any more by the time he reaches the bottom. I have to fight the other, though. And I win with ease - those must have been utterly abysmal rolls the time I lost that fight, as I'd have had to roll low at least four times as often as I rolled high in order to get defeated.

The boy leads me on to a nondescript house and introduces me to Gabbad, his uncle. I ask the old man where he got the stone, and he tells me that he had nothing but trouble as long as it was in his possession. Guess how delighted he is that I've brought it back. He explains that on one expedition into the desert, he encountered a delirious man with a remarkable number of broken bones, who claimed to have fallen foul of the Pharaoh's curse on account of not having the other half of the stone. He and his apprentice followed the man's blood trail, and just caught sight of the pyramid before a sandstorm blew up. He never saw pyramid or apprentice again.

Realising that he's just an expendable NPC, Gabbad decides to let his brother take over the family business, and he will try and lead me to the pyramid. The following morning he gives me a cloak and some water, and we're just setting off when a passing washer-woman turns out to be another inept Assassin in disguise. Despite being a worse fighter than the previous one, he manages to wound me a couple of times.

A momentary inexplicable shift of perspective occurs as we get going: 'soon you are tiny dots moving over the huge, undulating surface of sand'. We trek through the desert for two days, during which time none of the damage I've taken is healed, and our water starts getting low, even though one of the things I bought from that merchant is a bottle that always has some water in it. There appears to be an oasis nearby, but I know it's actually a monster in disguise, so I head into a bone-strewn gorge where we get attacked by Jaguars instead. Good thing I had the foresight to buy two Potions of Swiftness from Ahmed, eh? Gabbad and I each down one, and run the rest of the way to the pyramid before the Jaguars can lay a paw on us. Realising that he's served his purpose, Gabbad drops dead from exhaustion, and I continue on my way alone.

The pyramid entrance leads into a room illuminated by the sun shining through a hole in the ceiling. The room has no visible exits, but contains a large number of arrow-riddled skeletons and a statue with a jewel for its eyes. One gem, representing two eyes. Don't ask. It's almost midday, and the beam of light looks like it'll hit the gem dead on noon, so I wait to see what will happen then.

Actually, a secret door opens, but I'd already gone to the effort of getting the screen grab.

The passage revealed leads into a nearby hill, which turns out to be a disguised pyramid. There are alcoves set into the walls, so when I hear voices from up ahead, I quickly hide. Two tomb robbers approach, struggling to keep control of a magical rope they've found somewhere. This encounter is awkwardly structured: the robbers talk about having murdered the man from whom they took it, but that detail isn't mentioned until after I decide whether or not to attack them, so it's only after launching an apparently unprovoked ambush that I retrospectively learn that there is a degree of justification for my actions.

Making a mental note to look out for the flute the robbers didn't bother to take from their victim (but considered worthy of talking about as they passed my hiding place), I continue on my way. The next room also has a sun-hole in the ceiling, and contains a plinth, on which I can see a golden goblet of wine, some golden apples, and a sun-shaped medallion. There's a trap here, but the section leaves out the direction to the paragraph where the trap is sprung, so I can only actually choose between inadvertently disarming the trap and ignoring the whole set-up. Actually, when I originally added CotP to my gamebook manager, I checked the errata at Demian's gamebook site and added the missing number, but this book is tough enough without deliberately harming my character just because I can. So I take the medallion, thereby dispelling the illusion and discovering that the wine is gas (some noxious heavier-than-air substance that's remained toxic for centuries, if that makes any sense) and the apples are snakes.

Continuing on my way, I notice that a hole has been made in the wall. I look through it, and see a chamber containing two golden scorpions and an assortment of treasure. I also spot some sloppy writing: the hole was small, and at head height, but I have the option of crawling through it as if it were larger and lower. Not worth the hassle.

Further on, niches contain statues representing this land's animal-headed deities. Two are empty, the one dedicated to Bos the bone cracker and the one devoted to the serpentine Ipo. I remember that the first of these is what teleported me the first time I played this book. The other one is also a teleporter, but with a more interesting twist: stepping into the niche will transport me to the climactic battle. That would enable me to avoid all the traps, fights and other inconveniences between here and there, but it also means missing out on the opportunity to acquire items that would give me a much better chance of winning the fight. I'll take the longer but potentially safer route.

Steps lead down to a causeway across a crocodile-infested lake. In the middle of the causeway is a platform with a small pyramid on it, and there's a golden casket atop the mini-pyramid. Two wooden statues partially block the causeway, a raft is moored beside it, and the accompanying illustration puts the statues and raft in the wrong places and has rubbish-looking crocodiles. I can't remember how this trap works, but I'm guessing that going between the statues will trigger it, as going around them looks riskier on account of the potential for getting knocked into the lake. Nope, it's either more or less subtle than that: as I edge past a statue, it tries to push me off the causeway, and I fail the Agility roll to dodge, so the crocodiles get to eat me.

Provided I can maintain the three-playthroughs-a-week pace, and don't make any drastic changes to the schedule, I should get to a much better Egyptian-themed gamebook in about four months' time. Funnily enough, that's not far off the length of time that elapsed between my originally acquiring CotP and this other one.

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