Wednesday, 6 March 2013

I've Never Walked the Gangplank, and I've Never Owned a Parrot

I got Andrew Chapman's third Fighting Fantasy book, Seas of Blood, not long before another family holiday. While I don't remember taking the book with me when we went away, I can place my acquisition of it so close to the holiday because of other memories. It must have been the 25th of July 1985 when I bought the book, possibly from Boots, as I put my first attempt at it on hold in order to listen to the first couple of instalments of the problematic Doctor Who radio serial Slipback. The following week, I was unable to hear how Slipback continued on account of being on holiday.

Seas is unusual for FF in that it has the reader playing a villain. I'm one of the two most infamous pirates on the Inland Sea, engaging in a contest against my rival Abdul the Butcher to see which of us is the better buccaneer. To give it its due, the book doesn't try to make out that pirates are heroic, but the more unsavoury aspects of their lifestyle are largely glossed over: slaves are just treated as a commodity which can be exchanged for gold, with no acknowledgement of the suffering involved in the trade.

On my first try at the book, I made it through to the climax (which convinces me that I can't have been using dice), but didn't have quite enough gold to win. I went into a little more detail about it in my previous playthrough, which also includes some ranting about some of the stupid things which have been said about the book.

A bit of fudging at character creation is essential: as well as my own character, I need to roll stats for my crew. If they're bad fighters, we'll get slaughtered in battle. If they're weak, we're unlikely to make it to the end. Conveniently, I get a decent selection of rolls: nothing lower than 3, and a preponderance of 5s, which can be distributed to create the following:
Skill 11
Stamina 19
Luck 11
Crew Strike 12
Crew Strength 16
Still plenty of potential for failure, though.

My ship, the Banshee, sets off, and I decide to take a chance on heading east to Lagash. At this point, it's actually more advantageous to fail the Crew Strength roll, but the odds of my doing so are not good. Indeed, we make the trip that bit too quickly, consequently encountering a couple of Lagashian warships rather than the more promising target that will be in the area a day later. Still, the crew don't let me down in the resultant pursuit, so we only have to take on one of the warships. We overwhelm its crew, slinging the few survivors into the hold, and I decide to see if the pickings are better on the isle of Enraki.

Again my crew make good time, and I leave them aboard ship to rest while I head up to the fortress of the warrior priests who have made their home here. Posing as an emissary from Lagash, I gain an audience with the abbot, and get down to business. "You have a nice monastery here, Abbot. We wouldn't want anything to happen to it."

Not being on the same page as I, (I'm on 102, he seems to be on 44), the abbot activates a trapdoor beneath me. Four doors lead out of it, each bearing a different symbol, and the vagaries of memory make this bit dangerous. Two doors unleash threats which, should I escape them, will provide a way out of the pit. The other two activate traps, one avoidable but unhelpful, the other inescapably lethal. I can only remember what one of the symbols signifies, and it's the one that's least useful to know.

Thinking about it, I have a sneaking suspicion that the crescent may indicate the more hazardous of the ways out. If I'm right about that, avoiding it (and the one I know not to be worth opening) would give me a 50% chance of selecting Instant Death. I don't like those odds, so I'll take a chance on having remembered correctly: if it is the one I think it is, I'll only have around a 1 in 12 chance of getting killed.

Yes, a large and vicious beast comes through the door. Way beyond my capability to fight, but if I can dodge it for long enough, I can use its back as a springboard to get out of the pit. Oh! No dice involved. As long as I know the correct procedure (which I do), opening that door is actually the safest way out of the pit.

The abbot and his attendant haven't yet noticed that I've survived his trap (probably busy watching the pantomime horses fighting), and after consulting the errata I manage to run the attendant through before he can react. The abbot then defends himself, but I outclass him, and return to the Banshee with a reasonable amount of money and his rather nifty sword. It provides a Skill bonus, which would be mildly annoying except that this is one of the few FF books where the rules don't forbid exceeding Initial Skill, so I can claim the bonus after all.

There are major trade routes to the south, so I give the order to patrol them. After a few days we sight a heavily-laden merchant vessel, and soon catch up to it. One of the passengers knows magic, and summons a Shade to attack me, but my new sword helps me to deal with it. Fearful of repercussions, the merchantman's crew tie up the magic-user and drop him overboard, then offer me their gold. I take it, and a couple of the passengers, and we head south: by now, more than a quarter of the time available for completing this challenge has passed, and there's no telling what delays we might encounter before the end.

A vicious squall convinces me to temporarily turn back, and we encounter a merchant ship that appears to have taken heavy damage in the storm. We attack it, and the Captain turns out to be a bad loser, who scuttles the ship and leaps overboard with all the money.

Not to be used as a flotation device.

'Rescuing' the remaining crew, we then make for the island of Trysta. I know my mythology well enough to dissuade the crew from slaughtering any of the cattle we find there. The King of the Four Winds sends a herald to invite me to dine with him, and I know better than to refuse. However, I keep quiet about what I'm actually doing, as my crew are good enough that I can do without the help the King would offer if he knew, and I'm not convinced I can afford the cost that comes with it.

We head on to the Island known as the Roc, named after the giant birds that nest there. One of them attacks the Banshee, killing a few of my men. The rest of us explore the island, and I am separated from the crew when the dead bird's mate returns. Forced to take shelter in a subterranean passage, I ignore the bodies lying in it, and am attacked by something invisible. Far from invulnerable, though, and I'm soon on my way again.

While descending a flight of steps I catch sight of a group of Troglodytes with a heavy chest, and hide behind a boulder. Knowing how boulders love rolling down slopes, I give this one a hand on its way. The noise I make while doing so attracts the Troglodytes' attention, and they come to investigate, which makes it all the more difficult for them to get out of the way once the boulder starts moving. They get squished into interesting shapes, and I take the contents of the chest and continue on my way. Emerging from the interior island, I am reunited with my crew, and we set sail once more.

Our next port of call is the port of Shurrupak, where we offload our 'cargo'. That atrocity concluded, we make for the trio of islands referred to as the Three Sisters. One of them has orchards on, but I don't think those are cherry trees. As I recall, two of the islands aren't really worth visiting, so I have us drop anchor by the palm-covered one, where we encounter some other pirates digging a hole. They're no match for my crew, and it's not their treasure that winds up buried on the island.

We set off towards our final destination, and another storm blows up. Despite Roc-instituted depletion, my crew are able to keep the Banshee under control, and we arrive almost a fortnight ahead of the deadline. Well, we would, but I can heal Stamina by idling, and knowing what awaits me, I'd rather be at full health and just a week earlier than necessary. Abdul is already here, either way, and I know that I don't have enough gold - should have made some more detours. Still, while defeat is inevitable, I might as well try to make it past the final obstacle.

The thing is, to reach the actual rendezvous point with Abdul, I have to fight the 'keeper', who turns out to be a Cyclops. And this is no ordinary fight: instead of the usual dice-rolling, I have to get tactical. Every round, I'm given a choice of attacks to make, and depending on what I do, the Cyclops gets hurt, I get hurt, or we both get hurt. Being a pirate, I don't exactly bother with Queensberry rules, and by mostly targeting joints (and going for the eye when the opportunity presents itself), I make it through the fight almost unscathed. Funnily enough, it was the dirtiest tactic I employed that got me injured, a boot to the groin having no noticeable effect on the Cyclops, but giving my ankle a nasty sprain.

Nevertheless, I am the victor in that contest, and proceed to my meeting with Abdul, who boasts of his exploits like someone gloating about having acquired both Park Lane and Mayfair in their first circuit of the Monopoly board. Unsurprisingly for someone so conveniently lucky, he wins.

It would be remiss of me to conclude this blog entry without providing a link to Per Jorner's superlative review of Seas of Blood. In addition to being highly amusing, it makes a number of highly pertinent observations, which is all the more impressive when you consider that the author had not actually had the opportunity to read the book beforehand.

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