Friday, 8 February 2013

That's Not Even a Proper Word

Apologies for the longer-than-intended gap between posts. I'm going back to books with a wintry feel for a bit longer, and today I shall be starting on J.H. Brennan's Sagas of the Demonspawn, a series best known for being a) significantly less humorous in tone than Brennan's other gamebooks and b) a lot more complicated than it needs to be.

I acquired the series out of sequence, and remember nothing of how I got hold of the first book, Fire*Wolf (the '*' is not silent, but the only indication of how it should be pronounced is the description of it as a guttural). A price has been stamped on the book in the way the second-hand bookstall at Swansea market marked its wares (for all I know, still does, if it still exists), but there's also a price pencilled in at the top of the Quest Journal in the style of many charity or second-hand shops, so I can't say much more than that I probably got it in Swansea. As I recall, I attempted it once after completing the collection, and died in or shortly after the first serious fight.

The book starts with an explanation of what RPGs and gamebooks (or, to use Brennan's preferred term, 'participation novels') are, plus a plug for the RPGs Brennan had published the year before, and then comes the first challenge: character creation. There's the odd bit of dry wit in there - describing death as 'usually a bit of a nuisance' in the real world, and noting that the first five characteristics all relate to 'the popular human occupation of fighting' - but it essentially boils down to repeatedly rolling two dice and multiplying the results by eight to generate percentages (not that percentile dice are ever required when playing the books). Fire*Wolf's starting Life (these books are third person narrative) is equal to the sum of all the randomly generated stats (plus Skill, which is this game's term for Experience Points). Clear?

Even if it isn't, I'm the only person who has to worry about this. And it tells me that Fire*Wolf starts out like this:
Strength 80
Speed 24
Stamina 56
Courage 80
Skill 0
Luck 56
Charm 80
Attraction 48
Life 424
Slightly above average, then, but that low Speed could prove his undoing.

A brief prologue tells that astrologers have been predicting the return of the Demonspawn, and this has been causing consternation and ruckus among the people of the Realm. There's no real danger until summer, when the snow in the mountain passes will thaw for a few weeks, but that fact hasn't prevented panic, rioting, evacuations and general brouhaha. Spring brought a new, more positive prediction from the astrologers: the appearance of a new Messiah...

Fire*Wolf is a member of a Barbarian tribe, exiled after being caught in flagrante with the Chief's daughter. Weakened by lack of food and water, he is rescued by a hermit who calls himself Baldar. Baldar deduces from certain of Fire*Wolf's physical traits (and his demonstrating a modicum of self-control when called 'ignorant') that Fire*Wolf is not actually of Barbarian stock. Over the course of the next few days, Baldar starts to teach his guest survival skills, and when Fire*Wolf shows signs of overconfidence, Baldar instigates a non-lethal fight to teach him a lesson.

Combat is a barrel of laughs. Initiative is determined by a dice roll, modified with Speed, Courage and Luck. Once it's been established who gets to strike first, their attack is determined by a dice roll, modified with Skill and Luck. If the blow hits, damage is derived from the number rolled for the attack by means of subtraction, multiplication, and the addition of an eighth of the attacker's Strength (plus any weapon bonuses). Damage is subtracted from the opponent's Life (minus any armour bonuses), and if the opponent isn't dead, the opponent gets to hit back. And so on until one combatant is dead or the player loses the will to play on (except that every so often, Fire*Wolf has to miss an attack owing to fatigue). I've spent a chunk of today messing around in Visual Basic to get the computer to handle the faff, so battle should be less disheartening.

To Fire*Wolf's surprise (though probably not that of any reader), Baldar turns out to be a pretty capable opponent, who only takes a little damage in the course of incapacitating him. Baldar then invokes a Barbarian custom: the loser of the fight must grant a favour to the victor. He explains that he has a daughter named Yalena in the town of Belgardium, and has recently divined that she is in danger, and can only be saved if someone takes her to a place named Kraal. The favour he requests is that Fire*Wolf go to Belgardium, find Yalena, find out where Kraal is, and take her there.

Fire*Wolf has the option of refusing, but I'm pretty sure that that will prove fatal even more quickly than accepting. Not that he has much chance of survival anyway - though his options might not be as bad as I thought, because a cursory look through the book suggests that I may have misunderstood part of the rules (if something that isn't stated at all can be considered part of the rules).

The thing is, the rules don't actually say how healing occurs. They state that it can happen, and that it can never raise Life above the total of all the other stats, and that's it. Previously, I interpreted the set-up as being like it is in most gamebooks with health management: after a fight, the stat determining how fit you are remains at the level it was at the end of the fight until something is done to restore it (consumption of a meal or potion, in-text instructions to add points, use of special healing powers etc.). But what if it's like The Cretan Chronicles, in which you automatically return to full health after any fight you survive? The only references to healing I've seen within the adventure itself relate to restoration of Life during battle. And there's a quirky option whereby, if Fire*Wolf gets killed in combat, rolling under an eighth of his Luck on two dice allows him to restart the fight, restoring his opponent and himself to full Life. No mention of what his Life was at the start of the fight, which could be taken as indicating that he's always supposed to start a fight at full Life. Come to think of it, I don't recall having seen any sections that inflict loss of Life outside of combat, either. So I'm going to go with my new interpretation. If, in the course of play, I do encounter something that disproves it, so be it. But the alternative is going into the book's first 'to the death' fight in so enfeebled a condition that a single successful blow would kill Fire*Wolf, which seems a bit ridiculous. All the more so when death carries a 5 in 12 chance of being able to restart the fight at full health.

Anyway, Fire*Wolf sets off on his quest, and after four days' travel (during which time some healing should have taken place), randomness occurs. This turns out to be an attack by a constrictor lizard. Fire*Wolf wins the fight, but his wounds become infected, he becomes feverish, and this allows an unknown assailant to knock him out.

Fire*Wolf comes round to find himself bound hand and foot, having been captured by slavers. He gets a little more freedom when the slaver caravan makes camp for the night, but his hands remain tied together. Nevertheless, he decides to take action when a slaver named Baj attempts to force himself upon a teenaged female slave. A flying drop-kick get's Baj's attention, and a hefty boot to the groin convinces him to change his plans for the night. Other slavers give Fire*Wolf a flogging as punishment, but take care not to permanently damage the merchandise.

The slavers also leave Fire*Wolf's hands untied, assuming that he's been too weakened to cause any more trouble. This makes it easier for the mother of Jara, the teenager he saved, to reward him with a magical stone that provides limited healing during battle. And for Jara to express her gratitude by giving Fire*Wolf 'that comfort which I denied the slaver.' The section does not go into graphic detail about the rest of the night's activities, which is probably a good thing: while this series was released under the Fontana label rather than Armada (the publishers' juvenile range, which included Brennan's Grail Quest), the books still tended to wind up in the children's section at bookshops, and with gamebooks coming under fire from 'concerned parents' anyway, explicit sexual content would only have fuelled the fire.

For a couple of days, Fire*Wolf feigns being weak from the flogging. Then the caravan reaches a narrow path, with a valley wall on one side and a steep decline on the other, so everyone has to go single file. When the path comes closest to the valley floor, Fire*Wolf pretends to collapse. The slaver who comes to investigate is Baj, and Fire*Wolf throttles him before any other slavers can work their way along the path to intervene.

Fire*Wolf then flees into the valley. None of the other slavers give chase. He finds this a little odd, as he knows from overheard chit-chat that fighting slaves are currently fetching very good prices, but doesn't dwell on the issue. Silly Barbarian!

Much of the valley floor is swampland, and as Fire*Wolf wades in the direction of a building he glimpsed from the path, he becomes aware that it's quiet... too quiet. Becoming aware that something is heading towards him, he arms himself with a length of wood, which may prove insufficient against the 15ft-long reptile  that emerges from the mist. Still, in these conditions, running away is unlikely to help much, so Fire*Wolf strikes at the creature, and fails to hit it. A couple more similarly unsuccessful blows lead to the realisation that the reptile is much smaller, but can create illusions. This makes the illusion lizard's stats partly random, and the information given implies that I should have been applying the fatigue rules to opponents as well as to Fire*Wolf. So why did the rules state 'this applies to your opponent as well as you' with regard to two other aspects of combat, but not this one?

Based on what sense I can make of the set-up, Fire*Wolf wins the fight. The rules governing gaining Skill become that bit more confusing, but explaining why would take at least half a dozen more lines of text than I can be bothered to write on the issue. Fire*Wolf is also confused, but because of the illusions rather than the rules. He runs until he reaches the bank of a river, then hastily lashes together a raft. This takes him close to the building he noticed earlier, which turns out to be a derelict castle. Exploring it, he finds a strangely unrusted sword, which he picks up, and I think there's a mistake in the writing here, as there's no way of exceeding a number in the 16-96 range on just two dice. I shall assume that the number rolled is supposed to be multiplied by eight, like the rolls at character creation, which gives me a 5 in 12 chance of success, an equal chance of failure, and a 1 in 6 chance of frustration at Brennan's having overlooked the fact that 'equal to' is a possibility as well as 'more than' and 'less than'.

A nice low roll, so Fire*Wolf doesn't get his brain fried as a result of picking up Stor Doombringer, which is to be his signature weapon from now on. It can talk to him, he cannot lose it, and in battle it absorbs some of his Life every time he strikes with it, but on a successful blow it also absorbs Life from the opponent and feeds it back into is wielder, just to add another wrinkle to combat. None too impressed at its quasi-vampiric nature, he tries to discard it, but it returns to his hand. He attempts to shatter the blade against a wall, and a burst of magical energy transports him away.

The next thing he knows, he is locked in a cell elsewhere in the castle. There are three levers set into the wall by the door, and the cell also contains an ancient bronze statue of some monstrous deity, standing on a pedestal which bears an inscription in an ancient runic script he doesn't know. I've done a fair bit of codebreaking in gamebooks (see, for example, the last paragraph of this plus the second paragraph of the following post), but this is going to be tricky. For starters, two characters in the inscription are faded to illegibility. Then there's the fact that spacing is uncertain, which is going to make identifying words that bit tougher. It's also difficult to tell whether certain similar-looking characters are supposed to be the same, but have minor variations like the ones you get in handwriting, or if the little differences indicate that they're different letters.

Still, I should give it a try rather than just randomly pulling levers, in case this is like the trap with a similar set-up in Brennan's first Grail Quest book. I think I can identify sixteen different characters, so I'm going to assign a numerical value to each one and copy out the inscription in number format - pattern recognition should be easier with a load of recognisable symbols than with unfamiliar squiggles...

And after more effort than can be implied by the paragraph break, I have to concede defeat. Random lever-pulling it is, then. And, annoyingly, the book gives all seven possible combinations of lever up-or-downness as options, despite the fact that a) they must already be in one of them (most likely all up or all down) and b) there are actually eight possible combinations, of which 'down/up/up' has been omitted for no sensible reason (the book has 183 numbered sections, so it's not as if adding one for the eighth combination would have spoiled a nice round number).

Anyway, Fire*Wolf has two hands, so provided each lever can be moved one-handed, it should be possible to reach any not-all-the-same variant in one move. If they're all up, he pushes down the levers on the left and right. If they're all down, he pulls up the middle one. Either way, the end setting is the same. And I'm choosing that one first because a) it amuses me that the acronym for that set-up reads 'DUD' and b) that combination leads to the same section number as the way out of the similarish room in Grail Quest 1.

Well, that was informative. It transpires that the levers started in an in-between position (so why were there no options for leaving one or two of them neither up nor down?). And that Mr. Brennan may harbour some animosity against metagamers, as the 'escape from the room' section from The Castle of Darkness corresponds to the 'Fire*Wolf falls into a spiked pit and dies' section in Fire*Wolf.

I'm hoping to get back to the Monday-Wednesday-Friday pattern of posting here now that life has stopped being quite so cluttered.


  1. It never occurred to me that Fire*Wolf should heal between battles, but of course that is the only way he has any realistic chance of surviving more than a fight or two. Not that it makes much difference. As with most books by this author, the odds of survival are somewhere between infinitesimal and minute. A pity, because they are such fun to read.

    1. 3-4 of the Grail Quest books have reasonable odds of survival, but most of Brennan's output does discourage playing by the rules.