Wednesday, 13 February 2013

The Desert is Always Dangerous

"In Temple of Terror, you are the hero and you are on a vital mission."

In June 1985, one of the homework assignments set by my English teacher, 'Diddy' Davies, was to write a book review. As indicated by the opening line quoted above, I chose to review Ian Livingstone's most recent gamebook. I'm not sure quite how long I'd had the book by then: publication history indicates that it had already been out for over a month, and my review indicates that I'd played it at least six times by then (it wasn't until the sixth attempt that I realised that the wall of text at section 180 included a reference to being given 25 Gold Pieces).

I must have acquired the book on a Saturday or during half term, as I was in town with my dad when I first attempted it, in the pub on Camden Road. By then I was FF geek enough to already have dice on me, and I was more or less playing by the rules, hence the frustration I experienced when the Giant Eagle on which my character was riding got into a fight with a Pterodactyl that had a higher Skill score, and all I could do was roll the dice until the Eagle was dead and my character was plummeting to his doom. Second time around I got luckier in that fight, but I now know it to be on a false trail, so I'd have failed that try even if I hadn't missed a chunk of the action by reading section 38 when I should have been looking at section 39.

This is a book in which fudging character creation may be advisable, not just on account of the two unavoidable fights against opponents with double-figure Skill scores, but also because the best route through it includes a 'succeed or die' Skill roll that has prematurely ended a statistically improbable number of attempts at the adventure. And I roll three ones and a four, which is pretty abysmal. Nevertheless, with
Skill: 10
Stamina: 14
Luck: 7
I still have a reasonable chance of getting further than in my last playthrough.

"You must travel to the lost city of Vatos and get five carved dragons before the evil Malbordus can get to them. If he gets just one, he can turn it into a dragon and destroy your homeland, Allansia."

My teen self's plot summary fails to pick up on the subtle nuances of Malbordus' characterisation: he's evil because he was born under a full moon, and there were wolves outside the hut. Well, to be fair, the book only gives that as a possible explanation for his wicked ways, but an idea that stupid shouldn't even be in there as a suggestion. Another detail eighties-me left out is that Malbordus' search for the carved dragons is a rite of passage, to prove to the evil Dark Elves who raised him after he was abandoned by his mother (don't you love black-and-white morality?) that he is worthy to learn their most powerful magic and lead the army they are raising to conquer Allansia.

At the start of the adventure, my character is at Stonebridge village, recuperating after an unspecified adventure (possibly The Forest of Doom, though that's never made explicit, and I certainly don't have the helmet which was given to the triumphant hero of Forest) when the wizard Yaztromo turns up bearing news of Malbordus' plans, which he knows because his pet crow overheard an exposition-heavy conversation between Malbordus and the Dark Elves (what, all of them?). I volunteer to try and thwart Malbordus' schemes, so Yaztromo takes me back to his tower to teach me magic. Yes, apparently it is that easy. All right, so I can only learn four out of a possible ten spells, but this is an emergency, so we can only spare a couple of minutes.

Vatos is somewhere in the Desert of Skulls. Deserts don't contain a whole lot of water, so Create Water is an obvious choice. They can get very cold at night, so Fire also has its merits. Jump could be useful, I suppose. I remember enough from past attempts that I don't really need Read Symbols, but I'll take it anyway, because there are problems with most of the others: I'm only aware of one situation where Light can be cast, and in that instance it's better overall to remain in the dark. I have no recollection of ever needing to cast Language. Magic Arrow is most useful on the route that guarantees failure. Creature Sleep only works on opponents weak enough that the Stamina cost of casting it could be higher than the damage I'd take just fighting the creature. Detect Trap is timey-wimey and inconsistent - it causes you to cast itself when there's a trap in the vicinity, but apparently doesn't consider an unseen sword blade at ankle-height to be a trap. Open Door I'll rant about in the appropriate place, if I get that far.

Yaztromo gives me some money, and has his crow guide me as far as the Catfish River, where I buy passage to Port Blacksand on a barge. Shortly after arrival, I encounter an old man who offers to lead me to cheap accommodation for the night. I know the book well enough to be aware that this set-up is as legitimate as Joe's Garage, but walking into the trap is the only way of acquiring an essential item. The thugs who attack me are dim enough to fight one at a time, but they wouldn't be much of a challenge even attacking simultaneously. I defeat them and take their treasure, then manage to find a tavern in which I can get a room.

In return for a small bribe, the barman introduces me to the first mate of the Belladonna, a ship that's heading the way I want to go, and I book passage. As I'm heading for the stairs, a man bumps into me and spills the drinks he's carrying. The subsequent fight is not inevitable, but avoiding it comes at too high a cost, and I defeat the Pirate with ease.

The next morning, I head for the docks and discover that the Belladonna is a pirate ship. The first mate tells me that I'll have to help load cannonballs if there's a battle, as one of the gunners died in a tavern brawl last night. It's a small world...

In the afternoon we have a run-in with a hostile man-of-war, which manages to hole the Belladonna. This is where that tiresome Skill roll occurs, and it's a 'roll under' rather than 'roll equal to or under' one, so failure would be a possibility even if I had the maximum possible skill. But today I'm in luck, and manage to escape from the ship before it goes down..

I swim to the man-of-war, which turns out to be crewed by Dwarfs (so shouldn't it be a dwarf-of-war?), and explain my mission. Suspecting that I'm a pirate making up a story to save my neck, the Captain asks me a trivia question about Stonebridge, which I have no difficulty answering. The Dwarfs replenish my Provisions and take me as close to Vatos as they can. Which isn't that close, given the location of the city and their means of transport, but they do drop me off on the shore of the desert.

I head inland, and am soon attacked by Needle Flies, giant wasp-like insects that fight me one at a time because in this cramped and congested desert there's no room to assault me on multiple fronts simultaneously. If I'd learned to cast Magic Arrow, I could have used that to defeat the Flies, at a cost of 6 more Stamina than I actually lose in the fight. Guess how much I'm kicking myself for not having picked it.

Continuing on my way, I find a dead man clutching a pouch that contains a golden key. This is not the most random and arbitrary 'find something of use' encounter in the book. A little later I encounter a man on a camel, who offers to trade me a canister of water for one of the valuables I acquired in Blacksand. It's an affordable price, but the Create Water spell has no Stamina cost, so I needn't bother. Next, Ian Livingstone rolls a 32 on the Giant Sand Creatures encounter table, and my pathetic Luck score causes me to get caught in the sandstorm long enough to take some Skill damage, and to miss what is the most random and arbitrary 'find something of use' encounter in the book.

Last decade I spent a couple of weeks in the Middle East on a working holiday. While that experience doesn't qualify me as an expert in desert survival, it has made me aware that the way this book handles the topic is... not good, to say the least. During the afternoon, my character pauses in his trek for a drink of water, then trudges onwards until he spots a nomad's tent.

A nomadic trader's tent - what would a gamebook be without the chance to spend money on stochastic tat? While there's little likelihood of my surviving long enough to get to use any of the worthwhile items, I buy the Onyx Egg, Bracelet of Mermaid Scales and Crystal Key.

Resuming my trek, I am attacked by a Giant Sandworm. Its Skill is higher than mine, its Stamina is higher than mine, and my Luck gives me a less than 50% chance of improving my chances at all during the fight. So I'm quite impressed that I managed to bring it down to its last 2 Stamina points before getting killed.

"I would advise you to stay alert with this book. Who knows what will happen next?"

On this occasion, the game ends.

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