Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Got to Get In to Get Out

It was definitely a Friday when I got issue 9 of Warlock magazine. Apart from the usual fragmentary memories of playing the mini-adventure at my grandparents' house, I have physical evidence. The thing is, one of the readers' letters printed in that issue talks about colouring in the pictures in gamebooks (regarding this as a positive thing, however anathema such behaviour may be to your average gamebook collector). Among the things the grandparents kept at the house for the purposes of keeping visiting grandchildren entertained was a set of watercolours. Thus, seven of the illustrations accompanying Tom Williams' Fortress Throngard, the mini-adventure in that issue, have been crudely colourised by my 14-year-old self.

Back in 1986 I didn't think that much of Fortress Throngard, but I was a good deal more impressed after my last attempt. One of the adventure's quirks is that it uses subjective directions (left and right, mostly) rather than compass bearings. These made it easy for my paintbrush-wielding self to lose my bearings, to the extent that I failed my first attempt by reaching the humiliating 'you walk back into the cell from which you initially escaped, the villain gloats about having been toying with you, and you lose all hope' ending. For the more recent replay, I paid attention and kept notes, and as far as I could tell, there are no mistakes in the directions given in the text.

In this adventure I am squire to Sir Falfax the Fair, and following his abduction by the minions of the evil wizard Throngard, I have decided to rescue him. Being ill-equipped to storm Throngard's fortress, I decide to conceal a picklock and a knife about my person, then get myself captured. Once imprisoned in the fortress, I'll just have to break out, find Sir Falfax, free him, and break back out. Experience tells me that stats of
Skill 12
Stamina 21
Luck 12
are no guarantee of success, but they should help.

Throngard's victims are generally captured in the Forest of Ergon, so I go for a wander around there, carrying a stick so it won't be obvious that I want to get caught. A few thugs descend upon me and, after putting up token resistance, I allow them to overpower me and knock me out.

I come round chained to the walls in a dungeon. The picklock is accessible, so I'm able to free myself from the chains without too much bother. I then bide my time until I hear a key in the lock, at which point I hide behind the door, fatally surprising the guard who's bringing me mouldy bread and water.

Stepping out into the corridor, I head left, ignoring the door with the runic inscription, and the one with the peephole, which I remember leading to a cell with an occupant who has Stockholm Syndrome (or whatever you call the equivalent condition in a world with no Stockholm). The storeroom opposite is more useful, providing me with a bag and a rope. That's as far as it's wise to go in this direction at the moment, because the sounds of dogs emanate from behind the next door.

Retracing my steps, I now try the door opposite the cell from which I escaped. The guard stocking shelves in the room I find does well to injure me, considering that my Skill is twice his, but I land all the other blows struck in the fight. This being a provisions store, I then eat something to restore my Stamina to its Initial level, and cram the bag with as many portions of food as will fit into it. I also help myself to the guard's sword.

Back to the corridor, and left (because I'm now facing in the opposite direction, so the way I've already been is on my right). A couple more doors, both locked, but nothing my picklock can't handle. One leads to an armoury, where I find a magical breastplate of questionable utility: it halves all combat damage, but carries a significant Skill penalty, so I'm liable to be hit more often while wearing it.

The opposite door leads to a fairly luxurious cell. The occupant beckons me in, and I approach him. He introduces himself as Gandorn, who was once Throngard's tutor. When his pupil turned to evil, Gandorn opposed him, but was defeated. Still possessing some small degree of decency, Throngard chose to imprison him in relative comfort.

Gandorn explains that he knows of my quest, and says that I can free the prisoners, but not defeat Throngard (though I can temporarily immobilise him with the help of some Words of Command that Gandorn teaches me). He refuses to leave his cell because Throngard is partly his responsibility, but advises me to find the secrets in Throngard's library.

Continuing along the corridor, I reach another pair of doors. The one on the right has a grimy plaque next to it, and I take the time to wipe the plaque clean and see what it says. A wise decision, as it reads, 'Guards - Off Duty Room', and I think it unlikely that anyone in there is going to take his downtime so seriously as to ignore any escapees who poke their noses into the room.

I hurry away before anyone comes near the room I just avoided, ascending a flight of steps to an iron door, beyond which is another corridor. My previous attempt at this adventure failed because I went through the door opposite me too soon. For now I'll try going left. Before long I see another door, and I try this one. A Vampire Bat attacks me, but I kill it. The room beyond contains a mallet and stakes, which I can take because I have a bag (oddly, there were stakes in the storeroom where I got the bag, but I wasn't allowed to take them), and a chain which I could take even if I were bagless.

Emerging, I have no choice but to continue along the corridor. Soon I reach two more doors, and the sturdy iron one gets my attention. Behind it are steps leading down to a wine cellar. Now is not a good time to try drinking, so I don't loiter. The other door leads to a sulphur-smelling room which contains a dusty book on a table, and two statues of demons flank the fireplace, which seems to be the source of the smell. I risk looking at the book. It's a grimoire, containing details on the proper technique for killing Dragons with bow and arrow, the way to kill Vampires with mallet and stake, and the fact that warlocks' associates have moles on their bodies. The room becomes colder, freaking me out, and I rapidly depart.

For some reason I am forced to ignore the next door I pass. Reaching another pair of doors, one iron, one not, I note that careless design means at least two of the options open to me, and possibly all three, are going to be on the same page. I try the iron one - the section for which starts at the bottom of one page and continues on the next, so it's on the same pages as both of the others I could have turned to, though each of them only shares the page with part of this one. The door is locked, and as I try to pick the lock, I smell sulphur, and look up to see a troop of Demons approaching from the right. They attack en masse, with a Skill of 13 (which would be significantly reduced if I had a crucifix, which I don't), and it takes some lucky rolling (and copious use of Luck to increase damage when I wound them) for me to survive.

For some reason I'm not allowed to try the other door (though I could have another go at the iron one and get attacked by more Demons if I were insane), so I just move away. The corridor leads to the kitchen, and I decide to try and intimidate the chefs into letting me eat (this being an adventure in which I can only consume Provisions when permitted to by the text - and by now I need food-induced healing). My being armed with a sword convinces two chefs to surrender, but the third goes for me with a kitchen knife. I defeat him with ease, and use kitchen towels to tie up and gag the other two. Then I can eat (only one meal, but even that leaves me a lot less close to death), and I also help myself to some bones that are lying in a corner.

Heading back along the corridor, I now have the option of trying the door opposite the iron one. It leads into a corridor with a locked door at the far end, and this section has already been entered into the gamebook manager, confirming something I've wondered about since the room with the grimoire: after leaving it, I got turned around (not through confusion on my part, but because the text forced me to go one way without specifying which way it was), so the door I was compelled to ignore was the one leading to Bat, mallet, stakes and chain (sounds a bit like a company of solicitors), and the locked iron door leads back to the dungeons.

So I can try to open the locked door at the end of this corridor, which will lead to an encounter with some guards and a Puma, after which I may be forced to confront Throngard's Dragon (and I don't have the bow and arrow I'd need to have a shot at killing it), or I can turn back. But the way section transitions were handled prior to my last fight has left me with a sneaking suspicion that returning to the corridor might mean encountering another bunch of Demons. As Bart Simpson put it, "Well, you're damned if you do, and you're damned if you don't."

It would be silly to get into a fight against a Skill 15 opponent just because I think I might otherwise be forced to take on a Skill 13 opponent, so I should see if there's any substance to my suspicions.

There is. And with my Stamina and Luck still depleted from the previous fight, I don't survive the rematch. This could have been avoided if I'd been given a choice of directions after leaving the room with the grimoire, or even just been told which way I went. The adventure's only 172 sections long, so it's not as if Mr. Williams didn't have room for a section covering that detail. After this attempt, I must revise my opinion of the adventure again: Fortress Throngard isn't as bad as I used to think it was, but it does still have some serious problems.

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