Friday, 24 May 2013

Do Our Demons Come to Visit Us?

The only thing I remember about getting the first Robin of Sherwood gamebook, The King's Demon, by Graham Staplehurst (and, AIUI, an uncredited Paul Mason) is that I found it in a charity shop in Tunbridge Wells. I played it once, coming to a sticky end as a consequence of having picked up an item belonging to the main villain, which made my character vulnerable to a lethal magical attack.

The system seems a little complex. Not at Sagas of the Demonspawn levels, but there are ten attributes to keep track of, plus companions and wound locations, so it's more elaborate than many. Character generation involves allocating a random number of points among the attributes. I get 39 to add to the starting scores, ending up with:
Hand-to-hand Combat 9
Ranged Combat 9
Healing 6
Stealth 6
Riding 1
Disguise 7
Minstrelsy 4
Perception 6
Charm 4
Woodcraft 5
No idea how well-suited that is to the adventure, but the sample character in the rules section took a low score in Riding, which could be taken as indicating that there's at least one viable route through the book with no major equestrian challenges. Although it could be that the authors want to penalise anyone 'lazy' enough to copy the sample character (not that I have done a straight copy - only one other stat is identical).

I also have to choose three items from a list. For obvious reasons, I won't be taking the horse. Knowing what little I do about the villain, I think the silver crucifix might be useful. Rope is almost always handy. And a large cloak should go well with my comparatively high Disguise rating.

The last thing to take into account is Power of Light and Darkness (henceforth abbreviated to Power). It serves the function of a few different attributes I've encountered in different systems: my score at the end (assuming I win) is an indicator of how well I did, points can be used to help me evade unpleasantness, and they may also be docked for inappropriate behaviour, with failure automatic if my score ever drops to zero. Though I don't have to commit suicide if that happens - the powers that be just recast my character, as it were.

Anyway, on with the adventure. Marion has been to Nottingham, and returns with news of a visiting French nobleman, Sir Jean de Melusine. I recall a legend that the original matriarch of the de Melusine line was a demon in human form, and that King John is one of her descendants. Sir Jean is being appointed to the Royal Council, and I think it unlikely that the nepotism is the worst aspect of the situation.

Will Scarlet and Little John are keen to ambush de Melusine on his way to Nottingham, while Marion and Tuck advise caution. I'd rather be better informed before I take any action, and Marion offers to go back to town and see what further gossip she can pick up. I suggest she wait until morning, and accompany her to the town walls. Something seems to be afoot at the gates, and I opt to investigate. All I'm able to find out is that a load of soldiers are arguing about something. Marion returns quickly, and we head back to the forest.

She explains what she was able to find out. Sir Jean and his entourage arrived earlier than anticipated, and were displeased at not getting a formal reception. This was causing some brouhaha, and then Gisburne recognised Marion in the crowd, forcing her to take evasive action. At this point in her narrative, I'm asked if I have an item that wasn't on the list of starting equipment. No idea whether missing the encounter that would have led to my acquiring it is a good thing or bad.

We return to our camp without incident, and I decide to visit a few villages through which de Melusine might have passed on his way here, to see if they have any useful information on him. Fenigley's likely to have been on his route, and a tavern owner there owes me a favour, so I head there. Along the way I see someone in a tattered cloak, who's obviously fleeing from someone. Or something...

The stranger runs away from me, and I follow, almost running into a couple of men who've just caught the fugitive. They accuse her of being an egg-thief, and don't like the look of me, either. But are they villains, or just villeins? I try a bit of diplomacy. Name-dropping myself does the trick and, finding nothing to back up their suspicions about the woman, the men leave. Turning my attention to the woman, I see that she's passed out, so I use what natural lore I have to find something to revive her. She turns out to be the friend Marion was planning to meet in Nottingham earlier today, and explains that there are guards after her.

We don't loiter in the area, but our pace is moderate enough that she can explain why she's on the run while we're on the move. She was serving at the feast held in de Melusine's honour, and overheard Sir Jean expressing an interest in the Ram Day festival due to be celebrated in Haxhey some time soon. He then noticed her, and gave her an ominous look that convinced her it was time for a career change. Oh, and she did slightly snoop around in his room and pilfer an ivory disc with strange engravings on the way out. After handing me the disc, she scurries off to find her sister's home, and I go back to my initial plan of action.

An itinerant 'fire and brimstone' priest is ranting at the crowds in Fenigley, and mentions that tomorrow he'll be confronting 'the Devil's brood at Haxhey'. I pop into the inn, and learn that de Melusine and his men came through Fenigley but didn't stop. Nothing to find out about him here, then, but that second mention of Haxhey prompts me to head there next.

The villagers there are preparing for something, and while the general tone is jovial, one or two people appear perturbed, and a woman tries to hide her marked face from me. Catching sight of Father Cedric, an old friend, in the church, I speak with him, and he invites me to stay for the impending festivities: the Parade of the Lamb, the inter-village Hood Game, and the fire of banishing. I decide to invite the rest of the Merry Men here, too, in case Sir Jean and his men intend to gatecrash.

Before long I find their trail, and soon after that I find them looking for me. Not entirely sure how to interpret the instructions at the end of the section, though: I'm asked if Will Scarlet is with me now. As I was searching for the lot of them, he should be in their midst, so the answer would be yes. Unless the question's a poorly-phrased attempt to ascertain whether or not Scarlet was with me on my recent expedition, in which case it's no. Well, I'll assume that it means what it says, but bookmark the section with the question, so if taking the 'yes' option leads to something that doesn't follow on from what's been happening, I can switch to the other one. Not really cheating, because I'm trying to clarify an ambiguity, not give myself an out in case of fail section.

Scarlet urges me to ambush de Melusine on the way to Haxhey. Robin of Sherwood's take on the character always did have the natural restraint of a peeved Klingon. Frankly, I doubt that the gamebook allows for defeating the villain even before he can make a start on putting his evil scheme into action, so I veto the ambush.

Back at Haxhey I learn that Abbot Hugo has levied an extra tax on the villagers in connection with the festival. This may merit further investigation. Father Cedric is reluctant to take any action that might constitute opposing the Abbot, so I'll have to see if any of the villagers can tell me more. Spotting the woman with the bruised face again, I speak with her, and she reveals that the tax-collectors were to blame. She overheard them discussing their next ports of call, and suggests a good spot for intercepting them on their way back to the abbey. I could gain 1 Power at this point by giving her the crucifix, but I'm not sure that would be the best use I could make of it.

My companions accompany me on the way to setting this ambush, and along the way Herne makes an appearance to deliver cryptic advice: face the evil in the fire. Who holds the skull? (I'm guessing that 'Hamlet' isn't the right answer.) Where I see one, there will be two. But, reading between the lines, use of my sword and Power should be enough to defeat whatever it is that I'm to confront.

We only just have time to set up our ambush. My high Ranged Combat score enables me to get in a headshot on the lead tax collector (with the same roll, the sample character would only have got him in the leg). Taking the money is easy after that - perhaps too easy. But I narrowly fail the Perception roll to figure out what's not right here, so we just lug it back to Haxhey.

The headman is happy to have the money, and we make merry for a while. Then Father Cedric bursts in, sporting a scalp wound, and pleads for help. He indicates that he was assaulted by soldiers who wanted something from him (but doesn't indicate what that something is). They're searching his house, and I opt to tackle them in there - less chance of one getting away with the item in question.

A botched Stealth roll prevents us from taking them by surprise, and I have to fight them, though only one can get to me during the first three rounds. I badly wound his arm, then fell him with a blow to the head, which creates an opening for the second soldier to attack sooner than he would otherwise have been able, but that's not really grounds for complaint. Another arm wound, and then I strike a clumsy blow that does no damage but throws him off balance, sufficiently discombobulating him that even the lousy roll I make the next round is enough to put him out for the count. In fact, I'm going to have to give the blighter some Healing if I want to interrogate him. But I mess up that roll, as well, and the book makes the morbidly humorous observation that the man 'unhelpfully' dies on me.

Next morning Father Cedric gives me what the soldiers sought: the horn of Cernunnos. He urges me to take it to Hoden Hill in the evening. I could go off in search of de Melusine, but think it wiser to stay in the village. The Parade of the Lamb commences, and then semi-regular character Alison of Wickham turns up to let me know that her son and some of his friends have gone off to play a prank on Guy of Gisburne, and if they wind up in trouble or dead it'll be because I've been a bad influence on them. What's the betting that refusing to get sidetracked into abandoning Haxhey will mean a Power penalty?

I'll just have to bite that bullet. No penalty for having my priorities in order, but I do get the option of sending one of my companions to look for the brats before they can get into too much bother. Little John's level-headed enough not to wind up joining in with their shenanigans, so I send him.

A dark-robed figure interferes with the parade, snatching the lamb's leash from the girl who was leading it. Not one of de Melusine's men, but the ranting preacher who was in Fenigley yesterday. I let Tuck engage him in theological debate, and with back-up from Father Cedric, he convinces the priest to be on his way. I fail another Perception roll, and can only wonder what I've just managed not to spot. In character as well as out: as Robin I get the impression that I'm missing something important, but can't figure out what.

The Hood Game commences - well, it will as soon as the slacker with the Horn of Cernunnos remembers to blow it to start the proceedings. Oh, oops! The game's quite violent, and several competing villagers are soon too badly hurt to play on. If Little John were here, he'd be joining in, so maybe it's a good thing that I sent him off on that side quest. Not being much of a sports fan, I don't bother following the progress of the game. The other male Merry Men join the Haxhey team, though, and I reflect that the purpose of the whole silly game might be to get the men out of the way while preparations are made for the evening's celebrations.

In the end Calnestone wins the game, possibly because Little John wasn't playing. No big deal. I mean, it's not as if Haxhey was in the relegation zone (in case you were wondering, I've picked up some of the jargon from friends who are Hull FC supporters). The feasting commences, with a toast to the two men who died in the game. Slightly ominously, both were Boggans - sort of linesmen with extreme prejudice, who wore masks and distinctive costumes to indicate their function, and ought not to have been at any real risk of harm. I wonder if they still had the costumes when their bodies were discovered...

When the feast is over, it's time for everyone to head up the hill for the Fire of Banishment. Father Cedric is to leave last, which sounds like a recipe for trouble. Can I loiter to keep an eye on him, or does that Horn come with obligations that'll get in the way of doing so? No, I can hang around, but the rest of the Merry Men troop up the hill. Father Cedric seeks my aid in shifting the altar so he can get to some paraphernalia he requires, which turns out to be a costume for dressing up as some oversized figure with a ram's skull for a head. Don't think any of this is covered in The Book of Common Prayer.

Before I can broach the topic of syncretism, two of de Melusine's soldiers turn up in the doorway and start taunting me. I'm not going to be provoked into a rash attack. But they're not going to let us out. Not by the door, at least. But while the church lost its bell years ago, the rope is still there, so we could try a rooftop escape.

Father Cedric drops the skull, attracting unwelcome attention. And crossbow bolts. Outnumbered, I can do no more than hurry up the hill to warn the villagers. In fact, I only just reach them ahead of whoever has donned the ram-skulled costume, and I'm too fatigued to say anything helpful. He's less out of breath, and turns out to be preternaturally good at imitating Father Cedric's voice.

I confront him and, not having been given the opportunity to get rid of that wretched ivory disc, wind up immolated just like on my first attempt at the book. How very tiresome.


  1. Though I don't have to commit suicide if that happens - the powers that be just recast my character, as it were.

    Ha! Oh yes, very good!

  2. Enjoyed this playthrough. These gamebooks have a nice feel to them (probably helps that I love 'Robin of Sherwood', especially the first two series, of course). Pity mine are buried somewhere in my parents-in-law's attic...

  3. Yes, I have both of these books. Shame there weren't more. You seem to have got very near the climax of the adventure anyway! Further than I did. IIRC one of the two books features the third and final appearance of Robin's arch-nemesis the Baron de Bellême. Though which Robin was which is unclear... Praed or Connery?

    1. While the cover photo is Connery, Tuck mentions some of the villains Praed faced when debating with the preacher, so I imagine it was written with Michael Praed's Robin in mind, but the TV company insisted on putting the then current lead on the front of the book.