Monday, 25 March 2013

Some of You Are Going to Die

A month ago I told of the unsuccessful start to my quest to acquire Lone Wolf books 3 & 4. Before I conclude the account of that day, a little background information wouldn't go amiss. Both of my sisters were Brownies, and attended meetings on Thursday evenings. Our grandparents' home was closer to the hall where the Brownies met than the parental home, so my sisters started having tea with the grandparents before the meetings, while I just went home after school as usual. Except on the Thursday when I decided to get the books. I don't know why that sole exception was made, but then, maybe it wouldn't have been a one-off if I hadn't been so late on account of making a needless detour before setting off for the grandparents', and then stopping again once I was on my way to get The Caverns of Kalte and The Chasm of Doom from WHSmith. I explained my lateness by saying I'd been buying books, but it turned out that that day the shops were closing late, so I'd have been able to make the purchase after tea, on the way to where my sisters were going, so my excuse did not go down well.

That evening, Kalte got most of my attention, and it was at least the next day when I started to focus on Chasm. While I don't remember how that attempt ended, I do recall that I paid the penalty for not having the Discipline Camouflage (and, as it's a fairly minor penalty in game terms, and I'm going to have to do the book with just 5 Disciplines rather than the 8 that a veteran would have, I'm sure I'll pay it again here, assuming I don't die before getting that far). When playing the 12-book saga through in the nineties, going right back to book 1 every time I failed, there were at least two occasions on which the annoying unavoidable bit with the 10% chance of Instant Death made it necessary for me to restart.

With each successive adventure the 'start from scratch' option becomes more implausible. My new Lone Wolf is developmentally at the same stage as the blunderer who knocked himself out at the start of book 1, lacks the magic sword which is the region's primary defence against the Big Bads, and has these stats:
Combat Skill 12
Endurance 28
Disciplines Healing, Sixth Sense, Weaponskill (Sword), Mindshield, Mindblast
So he hardly seems the best choice to lead the expedition sent to investigate the disappearance of the expedition sent to investigate the disappearance of a convoy of wagons from the mines of Ruanon.

Still, I have been picked, so I join the fifty Redshirtangers who will be accompanying me, and get creeped out at the sight of a crow, as that's apparently a bad omen. Looking on the bright side, I didn't almost trip over it, which is more common with start-of-adventure sinister portents.

Comparing editions, I see that the text has been tweaked for the Mongoose Chasm, becoming more long-winded ('The Story So Far...' now points out that I'm Lone Wolf twice, in case I needed it clarifying that I was the hero) and adding grammatical errors of the sort that the Microsoft Grammar Checker encourages.

Like my predecessor, Captain D'Val, I have no trouble for the first few days. Upon reaching 'Raider's Road' I automatically send off scouts. One returns a little later to indicate having found a spoon hut that shows signs of occupation. I decide to investigate, and am just noticing that careless wording indicates the door to be set into the moss rather than the wall when a voice addresses me (by name) from within the hut, inviting me inside. The book gives me the option of overreacting dramatically, but I remember what happens here, and just enter.

Inside, an old man sits gazing into a crystal sphere. He states that our meeting was foretold by the stars, pretentiously intones 'Be not alarmed...', hands me a scroll bearing six lines of verse prophesying the rise of the dead of Maakengorge (a large chasm south of Ruanon) and then fades away. A non-essential encounter, but if I survive long enough ('long enough' being some way into book 6), I'll get diverted through an extra section as a consequence of it, and given the 'restore 1 point of Endurance' aspect of having Healing, that's a detour that could be worth making.

Returning to the road, I set off again, and after a while we encounter a caravan of travelling minstrels. I stop to question them (and have any mimes summarily executed), and a comic relief idiot mistakes us for bandits and draws his sword so clumsily as to wind up making a pratfall. One of the more competent members of the group mentions that the people in this area seem sad and dispirited, suggests we make camp together, and offers to have the troupe entertain us. I accept: if nothing else, it should provide some indication of whether the poor reception they received is indicative of something being afoot in the region, or just an understandable reaction to the quality of the performances.

Well, given that my main reaction to the performance is to notice that one of the actors is using a genuine Sommlending cavalryman's sword as a prop, I suspect that they're not that great. After the show I approach the man with the sword, who runs away. Lacking the Disciplines that would aid in pursuing him, I nevertheless manage to work out that there are only two places he can be: a caravan, or a coach with a handkerchief beside it. Could the hanky be a decoy? On the off-chance that it is, I enter the caravan, and find the actor cowering under a blanket. When questioned about the sword, he claims to have bought it in a tavern at the last town where they performed, and gives it to me. The name tag indicates it to be Captain D'Val's sword (which explains why the name seemed familiar when the bonus adventure stated that in it I'd be playing the part of D'Val, not to mention why Ruanon makes a point of having the reader lose the sword at an early stage).

The following day we continue on our way, observing storm clouds gathering in the sky. A tavern refuses us entry, so we get caught in the downpour. Eventually the rain stops, and I'm about to have the men make camp when a scout warns of approaching bandits. A couple of hundred of them. To reinforce the 'sure, you have plenty of chance of winning even if this is your first adventure and you got lousy stats' message from the start of the book, I then get asked whether or not my character has three books' worth of experience. Not as such, so I must choose between attacking enemy forces that outnumber us four to one, sending most of my men west to lure away the bandits while I carry on with the not-quite-so-dispensable troops, or trying to outrun the bandits to the forest. As I recall, no matter what I do, none of the Rangers accompanying me survive to the end of the book, so I accept the inevitable and send 80% of my men to buy the rest of us a little extra time at the cost of their own lives.

The ruse works, and the text makes out that I didn't actually sacrifice those men, as they're sure to be able to hide in the trees that the map indicates to be 80-100 miles away. I take my remaining enemy-bait on with me, and after several hours we spot some large black birds swooping about above a distant ridge. Without Animal Kinship I cannot be certain, but I suspect that they're scavengers, and I don't remember anything good coming from investigating their activities, so I don't investigate.

Further on we reach a junction. Continue heading where we're supposed to be going, or make a detour to the town where the actor bought D'Val's sword? Ruanon gave no indication that the sword automatically homes in on the nearest tavern if lost, so I'm guessing that the town might not be entirely unfriendly towards the bandits, and we may be less than welcome there. Onwards to Ruanon (or whatever sidetrack is necessary for the elimination of my remaining companions).

Towards nightfall we reach the edge of a forested valley. There's a signpost here, and I learn that Ruanon is now 40 miles away (the Mongoose text makes it clear that I discover this from the signpost, whereas the original is less specific. Maybe LW fandom in the eighties was beset by a terrible schism between the fans who believed that Lone Wolf discovered the distance by osmosis and those who speculated that he worked it out by using the Sommerswerd as a theodolite, and Joe Dever clarified the point to avert a recurrence of the bloody wars to which this disagreement led).

I send scouts into the forest to report on whether or not the way ahead is safe. None return, from which I infer that the answer is probably 'no'. Do I send more, just to double-check that doing so is a bad idea, or would it be better to wait until first light, allowing the killers to come to us under cover of darkness, or even go back to the junction and thence to Collaboratorville? Sixth Sense should alert me when the nocturnal attack comes, so I'll pick staying here as the best of a bad bunch of options.

Surprisingly, it's an uneventful night. Next morning we set off again, soon catching sight of a burned wagon beside a turning to the east. This looks like the obligatory side-track, so I'll ignore the wagon and investigate the turning. Before long we find hoofprints in the ground, but my lack of the Tracking Discipline keeps me from learning anything useful from them.

The track leads to a mine entrance. The mine is in bad repair, but I see two sets of footprints leading into it. No sign of the horses that made the other tracks, but I shan't send my remaining troops to try and find them, as a dilapidated mine looks just the place to whittle our numbers down until only I remain.

The book compels me to leave three men guarding the horses. Not a problem: I have vague memories of a few situations designed to eliminate the final four. Up ahead, the passage is almost blocked by fallen earth, but there's a small gap, and footprints indicate that whoever was here before us went through there, so I follow. The footprints lead us to a timber-floored chamber, and I stop following shortly before the point at which both sets disappear into a hole. A quick look into the hole reveals it to contain the bodies of two of my scouts, leaving me to reflect on what kind of ineptitude led them both there.

There are two exits. Still unable to take handy hints from Tracking, I take the passage that leads more directly towards my intended destination. It leads to a cavern bisected by a river, with a rowing boat conveniently abandoned on this side. Remembering that going downstream leads to a waterfall, I opt to row across, so we get attacked by something tentacled. Two Rangers are immediately grabbed and dragged to their doom, and I get knocked into the water and have to fight the Giant Meresquid (which is presumably a much worse opponent than a mere Giant Squid). I only have enough breath in my lungs for the first seven rounds of combat, but that's not too serious a problem, as I kill the squid in four.

Naturally, none of the Rangers survived. My equipment is still intact, though, and I make it to the far side of the river and continue on my way, idly reflecting on how odd it is that the tunnel which was said to be leading west a few sections back now goes east. (Isn't that the sort of thing these wretched rewrites should be fixing?)

Eventually I arrive at the highest level of a 'great hall' where a variety of tunnels at different levels meet. Inexplicably, the Mongoose edition includes an extra page-and-a-third of text detailing how I come to be separated from the accompanying Rangers (you know, the guys killed by the squid last section) by a collapsing bridge, and direct them to head to Ruanon by boat (that'd be the one smashed to pieces by the squid). My regret at the discontinuation of the range dwindles further.

Getting back to the plot, the different levels are connected by ramps. Lower down, I see people pushing wagons of ore, being brutally urged on by red-armoured thugs. Every ramp is guarded. Fortuitously, the men guarding the ramp down from the level I'm on are drunk, but a series of rolls almost as appalling as the rewrites on this book cause me to be spotted, and to take more damage from one inebriated guard than I did from the pesky squid.

The fight nets me some food, some gold, and a key. Another guard spots me and sounds an alarm, and the rewrite gets verbose, so I hurry away. Soon I reach a section where repairs are under way. A single prop supports a cracked roof beam, and as I hear multiple guards giving chase, I decide to risk knocking it out of the way. It's tough, but I get lucky, and even manage to get out of range before the ceiling collapses.

After some time I reach a chamber divided by a shaft. There's a bridge over the shaft, guarded by a warrior who's whittling and complaining about his boring job. I make the job more interesting, then terminate his employment. Moving on, I see a lever, which elicits a comically suspicious reaction until I realise that it operates a portcullis. Dropping the portcullis to deter pursuit, I then smash the dreaded lever and set off again.

Not far off is section 291, which describes my crouching beside a door that has people talking behind it. Probably best not to disturb them, so I take the passage with the ore wagons in it. Before long I hear sounds from up ahead: footsteps, shouting, and the crack of whips. Hiding in a wagon could get me pushed deeper into the mines, so I duck into the shadows. Good choice, as I go unnoticed while bandit overseers force Ruanese slaves to take the wagons into the mines. Before long I make it to the way out of the mines, and escape unnoticed. Almost up to the tiresome bit, then.

Stealthily I make it to Ruanon - well, to what remains of it. The sight of the flag flying from the tower is reassuring. The sight of three bandits approaching is rather less so, especially in view of the question I'm asked. While this Lone Wolf has neither the Discipline nor the past experience required to recognise the liquid with which the bandits' spear tips are coated, I think he'd have the common sense to be wary even if I didn't personally remember the stuff. Running towards the tower brings its own risks, but a 10% chance of Instant Death is still better odds than I'd have in a fight against opponents whose weapons have that particular poison on them.

My bursting from cover attracts some attention, and before long I'm dodging arrows. Then some Warhounds head for me, so I quicken my pace. This works quite well, and I gain some encouragement when the men in the tower recognise me from my costume, and cheer me on. I've covered three quarters of the distance by the time a bandit sniper hiding in the ruins of a cottage puts an arrow through my leg. He takes aim at my head, an arrow flies through the air, and Captain D'Val's shot is bang on target, taking out my attacker in the nick of time. The Captain fells the approaching Warhounds with more arrows, and carries me to safety.

Soldiers attend to my wound, and Captain D'Val expresses his pleasure at having had reinforcements arrive (i.e. me). He tells me that only one other person made it out of the mines and past the snipers and Warhounds: the Baron of Ruanon. I am taken to see him, and encounter a wreck of a man, whimpering on the floor and babbling verse - the same verse that's on the scroll I was given. Explanations follow: the bandit leader intends to sacrifice the Baron's daughter in order to fulfil a prophecy and raise the dead of the Maakengorge. Long ago, that was where Vashna, the mightiest of the Darklords, was defeated, and he and his soldiers were flung into the gorge. Somehow the fact of its being a bottomless abyss isn't enough to keep them from coming back out of it if the correct procedure is followed.

Still, that's something to worry about if we survive the attack of the bandit army. I gain an extra section's worth of Healing by giving the Captain his sword (a detail omitted in Ruanon), and then we see that the bandit leader Barraka is using Ruanese hostages as human shields, and get inconvenienced by a brief shower of flaming oil. After another 'tough luck if you didn't play books 1-3 first' moment, I wind up in combat against a Vassagonian warrior. He's less trouble than that drunken guard was, and the soldiers alongside me fare equally well at repelling attackers.

Then the Vassagonians bring a large shield on wheels into play, and it covers the approach of a wand-wielding mage who blows a hole in our barricade. Cavalry charge through the gap, a horseman with a lance singles me out, and I dash to the tower. An ally with a bow blocks my way, and I duck just before he fires, felling my pursuer. We return to what remains of the barricade just in time for the next wave of attackers, who are accompanied by Warhounds. A couple of the beasts go for me, and I spend a couple of rounds being gnawed before the soldiers alongside me help get rid of the pests.

Spearmen advance. A lone enemy attempts to get his horse to leap the barricade, but it can't make it, and hurls him over it. He lands with a satisfying thud, and I leave him where he fell, and concentrate on organising the response to the approaching spearmen. My input helps turn the tide of battle in our favour, though some enemy troops remain to be dealt with. I move to help the Captain dispose of the troops that still beset him, but that thrown Vassagonian must be a Player Character, as he turns out to have been playing possum, and knocks me down as I'm about to jump over his 'body'. The subsequent fight is the hardest I've had all adventure, but I prevail, and by the time my foe falls, his allies are being decisively routed.

That still leaves the little matter of the impending sacrifice. It won't happen until full moon, but that still only gives me three days to get through 50 miles of enemy-occupied territory and defeat their leader. Captain D'Val gives me a healing potion and a rope to help.

The road to the Gorge is full of retreating Vassagonians, so I'll have to sneak through the forest to one side of it. With a sigh, I choose the left side. After a while I spot a log cabin with a light in it, and take a chance on looking inside. It contains a wounded Vassagonian, who rapidly becomes a dead Vassagonian.

By morning I've made it to the edge of the forest. Fields thick with crops line the tracks, and upon hearing approaching bandits, I quickly hide in the plants. This is the bit I remember from my first attempt: lacking the Camouflage Discipline doesn't result in my being noticed, but it does make me nervous enough that the scent of my sweat attracts blood-sucking insects that drain a couple of points of Endurance. Unpleasant, but survivable.

By night I've reached the ruined city of Maaken, and I spend a chunk of the next day keeping watch, trying to ascertain the location of the entrance to the temple where the sacrifice is to be held. Eventually I narrow it down to two possibilities: a guarded crypt door and an unguarded flight of marble steps. There must be a reason why the steps aren't guarded. Let's find out what it is...

The steps lead into a darkened vault. I have no light source, and while that doesn't mean I can't go in, it does make doing so inadvisable. All right, how about that guarded door?

For a while I keep watch on it. Some more Vassagonians arrive, are challenged, and give the password. I decide to try using the password myself, and bluff (or rather roll) well enough that my lack of Camouflage doesn't matter. The guards let me past, and I hurry along a torchlit corridor before anyone observant can see me.

Or so I thought. The corridor leads down some steps to a junction. I turn the wrong way, and am clubbed unconscious by a guard. When I come round, I'm in a cell, and if I had the Discipline Mind Over Matter, I'd be pretty peeved at not being able to try using it to pick the lock. Heck, even Mindblast, which I do have, might be effective against it. But no, I just have to wait in the cell until Barraka has done his dirty work.

Things could be worse. Slightly. While playing, I inadvertently caught sight of a particularly awful Mongoose edit to a similar failure ending. While similarly problematic in the 'disregarding potential avenues of escape' department, it did at least have a nicely atmospheric final sentence: 'Four days pass before the lock slides back; but the hands that open the trapdoor are bony and fleshless.' The new edition goes on to point out that those hands belong to an undead enemy, presumably to ensure that no readers make the mistake of assuming that they're being rescued by someone suffering from severe malnutrition.

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