Monday, 29 April 2013

Lie Still, Little Bottle

Issue 6 of Proteus contained Elizabeth C. Caldwell's second adventure, The Fortress of Kruglach. It has the minor distinction of going on to be the first back issue to sell out (issue 1 never having been advertised as a back issue), and demand for copies was high enough that the adventure was actually republished in issue 15 alongside the rather atrocious main adventure and the Christmas special.

As usual, I got my copy on a schoolday. I don't remember much about that day, beyond being in or on the landing outside the school library when I reached the section with the throne. I'm pretty sure I failed my first attempt on account of missing at least one vital item, and I vaguely recall trying to solve one of the puzzles and failing owing to a The Omen-inspired assumption that the 'evil number' referred to in the text was 666. The adventure would have had to be over a thousand sections longer than it actually is to contain a section with a number corresponding to the answer I got.

The eponymous fortress is situated on the other side of the regrettably-named forest of Regnad from the village of Arn Gate. Centuries ago it was the home of the evil Sorcerer Kruglach, who would blight, abduct and otherwise make life miserable for the villagers, but then the unpleasantness stopped for no readily apparent reason. More recently it has started up again, leading the villagers to conclude that whatever happened to Kruglach all that time back has now unhappened, and they're offering a reward to the adventurer who manages to make it rehappen, preferably on a more permanent basis. Enter my new character, who has:
Dexterity 11
Strength 20
Fate/Fortune 8
Decent enough, but it'll take more than just good stats to beat Kruglach.

On my way through the forest, which is quiet, too quiet, I get so nervous that only my determination not to break my word keeps me from abandoning the quest. Then I come across a wooden hut with a strangely cold fire outside it, and a human skull next to the fire just to give the place that bit more ambience. Lightning and thunder precede the arrival of a strange creature which declares itself to be from another dimension and time, and claims to have been known as Raaka Dihar. I don't know if the name's supposed to mean anything to me (or my character, for that matter), but it merely evokes vague memories of Rok da House (which didn't chart until some time after Kruglach was first published, so there's probably no connection).

Raaka Dihar explains that it was he who bottled Kruglach's soul several centuries ago, and he's not happy that some stupid mortal went and opened the bottle (one of the ways of dying in Ms. Caldwell's previous adventure is to release something monstrous that's been trapped inside a bottle, though that's probably a completely different bottled evil to Kruglach). As it was a mortal that freed Kruglach, it has to be a mortal that traps him again, so Raaka Dihar teaches me the Spell of Soul Capture, and tells me of the three items I'll need in order to cast it, and the two protective talismans I'll require to ensure that it doesn't backfire on me. Let the item-hunt begin...

The fortress is surrounded by a moat, which shows signs of being occupied even though the water is stagnant. A rotting drawbridge is the only way across, and I cross with great care, narrowly succeeding at the Fate/Fortune roll to keep from falling off. To help bulk section numbers up to 200, it takes three sections to open and step through the door at the end of the drawbridge.

I enter a courtyard, noticing two look-out towers, a well, and a door into the main body of the fortress. I know from past attempts at the adventure that it's almost closing time in the south-west tower, so I head there first. There's another non-essential section split here, but this one is more acceptable, as the division of the passage creates and then defuses a little tension: as I start up the stairs, I hear a strange rumbling noise... which turns out to be the snoring of a Goblin Guard who's failing in his duty as a look-out.

Gently poking him in the ribs with the tip of my sword to wake him up, I let him know that the next prod will be a good deal more forceful unless he can give me some hints about where I might find one of the spell components (since Kruglach, evidently never having read the Evil Overlord List, has everything I need in stock here). The list of things I need includes 'the Eye of a Sorcerer' (and evidently neither of the ones in Kruglach's head will do), and the Goblin tells me of an Amulet known as the Eye of the Sorcerer, which he believes to be hidden in the library. It seems odd that something named after what I require would actually be a viable substitute, but in this case it will work. Mind you, if I were to decide that my sword needed a name, and try calling it 'Two Teeth From a Cyclops', it would prove an inadequate substitute for the pair of Cyclops-teeth that the spell requires.

Apropos of nothing, the Goblin also tells me about the 'evil number', which is some 653 lower than my original estimate. I then have the choice of running him through or letting him take me on in a fair fight. Out of curiosity I once checked the penalty for murdering him in cold blood, which turned out to be nothing at all. Nevertheless, my Dexterity is high enough that I can take the less dishonourable option without too much risk of coming to harm, even bearing in mind the fact that Proteus Goblins are much better fighters than your average gamebook Goblin. Well, he wounds me once, but that's a small price to pay for not compromising my ethics.

Hearing other Goblins approaching, and realising from their dialogue that they're about to seal off the entrance to this tower, I race downstairs and roll through the doorway just before a heavy portcullis seals it off. Slightly disappointingly, this all happens within one section: breaking it up would have added a little tension (all the more so if there'd also been a roll to avoid being trapped or injured), and would have been a better way of achieving the target section count than some of the padding that is used. Talking of which, if I now wanted to check out the other tower, I would turn to 23.

However, I know that it's better to investigate the well first. It's a bit slimy and fungus-infested, but I climb down the rope anyway. No, actually I climb down my own rope, which hasn't been mentioned before. Considering the condition of this place, that's liable to be a good deal safer, but a brief starting inventory somewhere in the rules or the 'Your Quest Begins' section would have been handy.

Another just-successful Fate/Fortune roll gets me to the bottom of the well without incident. Beyond the fact that between the shallow water and the solid ground is about a foot of mud and rotting vegetation, into which I sink as soon as I let go of the rope. This dislodges a bottle that was buried in the muck, causing it to surface. I'm not going to deliberately fail this adventure just for the sake of an awkward 'Wash & Go' ad parody, so I grab the bottle, noting the slab of the magical metal Rubidium that's attached to it, and attempt to climb back out. And succeed without needing to make a roll, even though the text states that the rope is now more slippery, and not so easy to climb.

Now I turn my attention to the tower in the south-east, at section 43. Ascending the stairs, I reach a room containing a casket with an inscription on its lid: 'In memory of Arcturus, star of the North, winged horse of the Gods'. One of the talismans I require is a feather from the wing of a flying horse, so this looks worthy of further investigation. The casket is sealed, but there is a square of Rubidium set into the front, with an indentation that the slab attached to the bottle would fit. I slot in the slab, the Rubidium glows, and the casket opens to reveal the feather I need.

There's a door leading out of the room. Opening it triggers a trap that costs me a couple of Strength, which is a little tiresome. After that I return to the courtyard.

Incidentally, section 23 would have had me reach the same room and find the same casket. But as that was for entering the tower before going down the well, obviously anyone reading that section (and the ones to which it leads, which are not the same as the ones to which 43 leads) wouldn't have the Rubidium slab. Even so, the sections following on from 23 still ask if you have the Rubidium, and allow you to use it to open the box if you lie and say that you do. So why have two separate yet functionally identical sets of sections covering the exploration of this tower? Presumably because the redundant ones increase the number of sections by 10. I can think of better ways of padding the section count.

The door out of the courtyard leads into a torchlit corridor that ends in a T-junction. Going the wrong way probably means missing something essential, but I don't recall the correct route off hand. I try going east, and the passage soon turns north. Beyond an ornately carved door I find a long-abandoned banqueting hall. There's a long table with sixteen chairs beside it, and at the head, a throne, flanked by a statue of something hideous and a statue of a Unicorn. The second talisman is a Unicorn's horn, so the latter statue catches my attention.

Taking a closer look, I get the impression that it's looking back at me. No obvious indication of how to acquire the horn, so I turn my attention to the throne. There are two buttons set into one of the armrests. I press the one that's the same colour as the unicorn, and a hidden compartment in the table springs open to reveal a parchment. This explains that to get the Unicorn's horn I must touch the right part of the statue (and something bad will happen to me if I touch the wrong one). Three pairs of statements follow, each consisting of one falsehood and one fact, and the application of a little logic enables me to pick the correct part. The statue disintegrates, leaving only the horn intact, so I take that and move on.

Doors lead west and north. Maybe there are useful items on both paths from the junction. I head west just in case, and reach a door with the letter 'L' engraved on it. 'L' for 'Library'? Yes, but not a very good one: it only contains three books, entitled Acid, Charms and The Eye of the Sorcerer. The decisions open to me are a little ill-thought-out, ignoring the possibility that I might have decided not to question the Goblin, or to ask a question other than the one I did ask - there's an 'if you have not met the Goblin' option, but apart from that there's only acting on what he said about a spell component or distrusting his words.

Funnily enough, while the Goblin was telling the truth, I'm better off being wary, as that allows me to check the other books first. Well, one of them, the other being a rather unsubtle trap. When I open the one that's safe to touch, mist rises from its pages and forms into the shape of Raaka Dihar, who tells me the mathematical formula for working out Kruglach's number. If I can figure it out (which I need to know the 'evil number' to do) I can learn an incantation of potential use in the confrontation with Kruglach. This is really basic maths - addition followed by multiplication - so I have no difficulty getting the number, and the word 'Megoboneend' appears on the page for long enough to make me wonder what Ms. Caldwell was thinking when she wrote this bit.

That done, I get down The Eye of the Sorcerer, which has been hollowed out and used as a receptacle for the Eye of the Sorcerer. Not exactly a subtle hiding place, is it? No sooner have I found the amulet than I am forced to leave the library, and as I'm not allowed to retrace my footsteps, the north door is the only option.

A short corridor takes me north, then east to another door, which leads into a kitchen. A large Ogre is hacking at a carcass with a cleaver, but decides that he'd be better off using the cleaver on me. Despite having a lower Dexterity than the Goblin, he manages to wound me three times before I fell him. He carries some money and a selection of herbs, including wolfsbane (as well as garlic, but as I need some Werewolf hairs for the spell, and don't require anything Vampire-related, I think the wolfsbane will be more useful).

On a shelf is a cage containing two white rabbits, and labelled, 'Tomorrow's Dinner'. The likelihood of encountering a Monty Python and the Holy Grail in-joke here is low enough that I risk releasing the rabbits, and thus discover that the paper lining the bottom of the cage has a poem on it regarding the use of silver and wolfsbane to kill werewolves. Guess what metal the coins I took from the Ogre were...

The door east leads into a store room, its contents way past their prime. I search among the mouldy sacks of grain and heaps of rotting rope and cloth, and attract the attention of a formidable-looking Thundergrunt. It does me as much harm as my previous two opponents combined, but I prevail, resume my search, and find a coil of golden rope concealed amidst the junk.

I also discover a trapdoor and, opening it, see steps leading down to a lower level, so I descend. It ends in a north-south tunnel, and I suspect that this is the point at which picking the wrong direction will doom me. The default direction of travel in gamebooks is usually north, so south may be a brief detour to acquire something essential. But south leads back under the rooms I've been through, so I might be close to the northernmost extremity of the fortress and Kruglach somewhere at its heart, in which case the crucial detour would be north.

North I go. The passage turns west and ends at a door, and I have the option of turning back and going south, which suggests that I've made the right decision. Behind the door is another passage leading south, but  iron bars have been used to turn the west side of the passage into three cages. The middle one is occupied by a sleeping man, and a bunch of keys hangs on the eastern wall of the passage.

I unlock the cage and sneak in (it was either that or ignore the prisoner altogether). Another Fate/Fortune roll is just successful, so I don't wake the man, and thus get to choose between killing him in his sleep (I'm starting to get a little concerned about the domestic arrangements in Ms. Caldwell's life back when she wrote this) or waking and questioning him.

He introduces himself as Teel, an adventurer who was captured by Goblins some months ago, and asks if he can accompany me out of the fortress. One of the ways of getting killed in the previous Proteus was a consequence of trusting a fellow adventurer who turned out not to be what he seemed, so anyone familiar with Caverns of the Enchantress might be suspicious of Teel. Or they might assume that Ms. Caldwell wouldn't try the same trick two adventures running. Actually, Teel isn't just another adventurer. But not letting him come with me would have disastrous consequences. So that's kind of a twist.

Teel would be a lousy poker player: his reaction when I say he can come along makes me suspicious. We head south, and go through a door into a laboratory straight out of a Hammer Frankenstein movie. Green liquid bubbles away in a complex set-up, there's a large table with a glass helmet attached to electrodes on top of it, and a couple of books are on a shelf by the table. I would like to stress that what happens next is an authorial imposition rather than any choice of my own: I invite Teel to become an experimental subject, encouraging him with a prod of my sword. He reacts badly to this.

Very badly, in fact.

Luckily for me, I have some of what I picked up in the kitchen - and I'm not talking marjoram and thyme, here. I fling the silver and wolfsbane into his face, and he drops dead on the spot. After extracting the required number of hairs from his tail, I decide against trying on that helmet, but take a look at the books. One is full of incomprehensible formulae and jargon. The other is misleadingly entitled Make Your Own Monster - rather than explaining how to emulate Doctor Moreau or you-know-who, it's actually a detailed bestiary for the world, which mentions that it is possible to subdue a Cyclops by looping a golden rope around its neck.

Apart from the two doors in the north wall, there are exits to the east and south. I try east first, entering a passage which soon turns south and ends at a rusty iron door. There's a sliding plate set into the door, and on the wall a key hangs from a hook. I open the panel, and catch sight of a Cyclops. Readying the rope, and wishing I could call on Wonder Woman for assistance, I unlock the door. Throwing the lasso involves a Dexterity roll, which makes sense, and is also a good deal easier than another Fate/Fortune roll would be. But what I roll would be a success either way. The rope settles neatly around the Cyclops' neck, and the beast sits down, not even flinching when I pull out a couple of its teeth.

The passage leading south from the Cyclops' cave eventually ends at an ominous-looking black door, which I suspect leads to Kruglach. As I have everything I need, I decide to open it (not that I'd have any alternative if I were missing anything essential). The door is cold and frictionless, and slowly disappears when I touch it. Beyond is another cave, illuminated by flaming pedestals, and occupied by a tall man in black silk robes, whose eyes look like the substance of which the last door was made. He doesn't seem to do much while I extract the spell components, the bottle and the talismans from my pack, so I am able to cast the spell without hindrance. Things get chaotic for a bit, but when they quieten down, Kruglach's body lies on the floor, and his soul fumes away in the bottle. I decide that my next quest should be finding somewhere distinctly inaccessible to hide the bottle from his minions.

That was a bit anticlimactic. Considering the number of superfluous section breaks in the adventure (I stopped mentioning them after my rant about the duplicate tower sections, but there were plenty more of them), it wouldn't have been hard to free up some paragraphs for a little interaction with the villain, maybe some kind of effort by Kruglach to prevent the casting of the spell. It needn't have been particularly challenging (I like the way it's possible to win without fighting anything that has a Dexterity above 9, giving even sub-par characters at least a chance of making it through to victory), but one final obstacle to overcome would have made for a better climax.

And for all its flaws, this is still vastly superior to the 'serious' adventure alongside which it was reprinted. But that's a rant for another blog post.

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