Wednesday, 29 May 2013

It Really Tied the Room Together

Clash of the Princes, Fighting Fantasy's only 'two-player adventure', by Andrew Chapman and Martin Allen, came out during the summer holidays, and I remember nothing of the circumstances of my buying it. I do remember receiving a (severely wrongly addressed, and only delivered thanks to some impressive lateral thinking on the part of the postman) postcard from one of my gamebook-playing friends, in which he mentioned having got the books as well. Funnily enough, I'm not sure we ever played against each other.

It never occurred to me to try playing both books simultaneously, so I had to attempt one of them first, and I chose The Warlock's Way. Perhaps because part of its cover illustration was on the front of the slipcase, making it look as if it came first, or possibly just because I preferred the idea of playing the wizard character rather than the warrior. At that point in time I wasn't particularly interested in playing fairly, and I remember going back on one decision when it got me killed by a Nightmare.

In this adventure I play Lothar, one of the twin Princes of Gundobad. Following the ritual abdication of the old king (inconsistent capitalisation of titles is as in the book), my brother and I are both sent on the Trial of Kingship to get rid of the pair of us determine who is to ascend to the throne next. To demonstrate my worthiness to rule, I must find one of the missing gems from King Ossil the Harmful's crown. Before my brother does.

These books are harsh, so I'm allocating dice to slightly reduce the likelihood of my failing. This gives me the stats:
Skill 10
Stamina 15
Luck 9
Magic 20
Probably still not enough, what with the variety of arbitrary deaths, but at least this time round I might be able to avoid being robbed by Ogres, which happened during my last playthrough.

Two-player play is an interesting mix of competition and cooperation. Obviously there can't be two winners (and more often than not there aren't any), but this doesn't stop the brothers from getting on well with each other (for the most part - there are a couple of instances where Lothar can set up traps for his brother (but not, as far as I'm aware, the other way round)). Thus, in a two-player game, the parts where the players can interact tend to involve working together. Nevertheless, there are times when knowing what the other brother has done would inappropriately influence the decision-making process, so I won't be playing the books together like I did The City of Shadows.

So I say goodbye to my brother, arranging a rendezvous that will never take place, and have a couple of uneventful days' travel before encountering the Ogres who beat up and robbed the previous Lothar. Time to avenge his humiliation. For some reason the two of them constitute one opponent, who's barely tougher than the average lone Ogre. This is not a detail with which I am unhappy, as I only take a little damage in the fight, and half of that heals back anyway.

Continuing on my way (and not, as directed in the text, waiting for a cue from the other player for obvious reasons), I reach a shallow lake. Not far off are men with boats, and as I know that wading will get me killed, I approach the boatmen. They explain that this is the Lake of Death, which is full of invisible venomous fish, and they'll ferry me across for a fee. Sounds like a con (especially as the lake is fed by the River Scamder), but the bit about the fish is true. The rest of what they say is more open to interpretation, with a significant price rise occurring about half way across.

I think that, despite the 1 in 6 chance of failure, I'll use magic to get across. Not the least costly spell: one of my sisters once attempted this book and discovered that the Jump spell wouldn't take her character all the way across the lake. And there were some of those fish where she splashed down. The slightly more costly spell to walk on water, by contrast, has no more harmful consequences than getting my bootsoles wet.

Beyond the lake I enter a forest. Two paths, and I have a sneaking suspicion that an essential item can be acquired on one of them. I pick the wrong one, and reach a stone circle, with around a dozen robed men in it. Spying on them will get me killed. Approaching them might get me killed, unless I can remember the proper procedure. Let's see: reciprocate the gesture made by one of the men, respond in kind to his drawing a mystical symbol, reinforce the gender stereotypes of astral bodies, then burn the right plant - and I've picked up enough folklore to be able to guess which one I shouldn't cast into the flames. After that I must choose a goblet to drink from, and I don't think it matters too much which I pick. Silver gives me a vision of armed men on horseback driving the Druids into a blazing forest. Foretelling the future, or have I been chatting with ghosts, and just seen what happened to them?

Regardless, I go on once I come round. If I still had my horse, it would run away. I guess it got left on the other side of the lake. Heading into some hills, I find a magical staff in two parts in a crevasse. Quite a handy weapon, as it drains opponents' Skill whenever I hit them with it.

The route onwards crosses a steaming rock pool with stepping stones. From my last try I know that the stones are safe, so I use them. Well, 'safe' is relative: along the way I am attacked by a Volcano Salamander, but my new weapon ensures my victory, its Skill-depleting power enabling me to win a couple of rounds that would have gone less well against an undiminished Salamander.

Further on I see a white villa with spires, and decide to pay the owner a call. It's guarded by warthog-like creatures (depicted as bipeds, though the text doesn't specify this), who think that I'll make a good meal for their master. I hit them with my staff until they change their minds.

Inside the villa I find a number of people levitating in the lotus position. If I don't wake one of them up, I'll wind up inadvertently jostling and disturbing a random meditator. On my first attempt at this book, as I wasn't using dice, I picked the '3-4' option, on the grounds that, while it probably wouldn't be the best outcome, it was unlikely to be the worst. Sound reasoning: a punch in the mouth, while not pleasant, is preferable to 50/50 odds of being slain on the spot. But these days I know this part of the adventure well enough that I deliberately wake the one person who won't resent my action. She blesses me, restoring some of my Magic points. I think the use of the word 'restores' must mean that I can't exceed my Initial score here, even though the rules don't expressly forbid doing so (whereas they do clearly state that each of the other attributes cannot rise above what it was at the start).

In the next room a Djinn is entertaining his guests by releasing prisoners and then killing them before they can get out of the room. I know from my last go at the book that he has a higher Skill than I, and while a couple of lucky blows with the staff would have a levelling effect, there's no guarantee that I'll be able to hit him. Besides, I'm not sure I've ever actually tried the alternate course of action, which I know from reviews to lead to a pretty gonzo sequence. One that could arbitrarily end in death, but I've already failed this book by going the wrong way just after the lake, so I may as well use my doomed character to explore some of the outcomes here.

Also in the room is a rug, floating in the air, with assorted drinks standing on it. Leaping aboard (and doubtless spilling the drinks), I manage to bring the rug under my control and, grabbing a random prisoner, fly off. The Djinn hops onto another airborne floor-covering and gives chase. We fly through a window, startling several sylphs, and then through a doorway into a hall with d├ęcor indicating some rather dubious tastes on the part of the homeowner (as if the eating itinerant Princes and murdering prisoners for fun weren't proof enough already). The doorway with black velvet drapes looks like I could get entangled in it, or stuck in a queue for Alannah Myles' autograph, so I fly through an opening in the ceiling. This leads into a long corridor, and up ahead I see an open archway and a twist in the corridor. I try the arch, and enter a room containing the Djinn, who punches me in the head. Hurriedly I go through a door, rushing through an empty room into another corridor. This leads to a dead end with three exits (is it a dead end if there are exits?), and I recognise the section numbers for two of them. Glad I'm not trying to map this place. I try the number I haven't seen before, and get ambushed by a couple of guards. Unable to break free, I can only wait for the Djinn to catch up with me. The book is mercifully discreet about what happens next.

Well, if Gundobad's going to have another king, he won't be a wizard. But at least the next Lothar will know better than to fly through that particular window.

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