Friday, 3 May 2013
It's Time to Go
Many gamebook writers have also produced novels, some of which are a good deal better than others. To my knowledge, the only author to combine interactive and conventional fiction in one volume is Dave Morris. He's written or co-written at least nine books consisting of a novella and a short gamebook, and today I'm having a go at one of these. It's the first of three tie-ins to the fantasy-based board game HeroQuest.
Earlier in the week I read the novella, The Fellowship of Four. It tells of the coming together of a group of characters (a Wizard, an Elf, a Barbarian and a Dwarf) to avert the local equivalent of Ragnarok, and is quite fun. The first four chapters are each told from the perspective of the character they introduce, and the fifth one switches to third-person narrative. I was quite impressed with Eildonas the Elf's chapter: the Dragon Warriors RPG that Morris co-wrote in the eighties tried to take Elves back to their folkloric roots, rather than the 'camp hippy' stereotype that had become the default, and TFoF builds on that, giving Eildonas a decidedly alien mindset. Another aspect I particularly liked was Anvil the Dwarf's comparison of saving the world to washing-up: a tiresome chore that keeps needing to be done, no matter how often it's been done in the past. All in all, it's an entertaining tale, but nothing that remarkable.
Still, this blog is about gamebooks, so I should focus on the second part of the book, which is entitled In the Night Season. It's for a party of four, though one player can control the lot (as in the Blood Sword series, which was another of Morris' collaborations in the eighties). It is also possible (at least in theory) to get together with three friends and have everyone play a different character, though I suspect that most such parties would have one person read out the text, and then argue about what to do, rather than getting four copies of the book, as suggested in the text. The party has the same make-up as the one from the story, and could even be the same characters.
Stats are predetermined, so there's little point in listing them. I do get to decide one thing, though: the order in which the different characters move. The default sequence for parties that cannot agree on an order isn't bad (Barbarian, Dwarf, Elf, Wizard), but I'm swapping round the rear two characters so that if we ever get ambushed from behind, it's not the weakest fighter who'll take the brunt of the attack.
The party has just travelled to the land of Knochlor for some unspecified reason. In ancient times, this was the region from which the King of the Dead sent forth his armies, but he was defeated long ago, so there's nothing to fear from him or his undead minions (yeah, right).
Things are unusually quiet and subdued in the local inn, though they pick up slightly when a tall old man enters and conducts a whispered debate with the landlord and some of the elders. Eventually he leaves them and goes over to stand by the fire, a worried expression on his face. Clearly it's time we intervened.
The man introduces himself as Douse the Glim, a former adventurer who's now too old to go about putting things to rights. He could tell us what's currently amiss, but hints that first we'd have to rescue him from the horrors of an empty ale-mug. Resignedly, the Dwarf pays for a fresh drink, and Douse explains that Perdita the milk-maid has been abducted. She's probably being held in the old manse, former haunt of the evil Grim Dugald, and now occupied by 'goblins and dead things'. Tonight being Samhain Eve, none of the villagers have the courage to attempt a rescue, and by morning it's likely to be too late.
Naturally, we accept the quest. The locals are less than impressed - in fact, they seem afraid of us once we've announced our intentions. Wonder if there's something that Douse neglected to mention...
As we set off, we encounter a pedlar, who appears to have seen something disturbing on his way here. He doesn't appear keen to loiter outside, so rather than interrogating him, we just take a look at what he's selling. We can't afford everything of potential use, and settle for a length of rope, a sprig of garlic and a phial of holy water.
There are three possible routes to choose from: a lich-way that passes several burial mounds, a cart-track that skirts a reputedly haunted castle, and a path through the misty hollows. Let's try the cart-track: people might be wrong about the castle. It turns out that the track also passes the local gibbet, and the moon comes out from behind the clouds at just the right moment to give us a good view of the decaying cadaver.
Faint sounds like the clash of steel emanate from the castle ruin. I suppose we'd better investigate in case there's some useful or essential item to be acquired there. The sounds turn out to be caused by a couple of duelling knights, and the old-fashioned nature of their armour causes me to suspect that we may be witnessing the continuation of a centuries-old feud. One of the Dragon Warriors scenarios used the 'he's a ghost and doesn't know it' twist a good half-decade before this book came out (and TFoF itself was around for several years before that film came out).
The text points out hints that the knights have been fighting for a long time, but in such a manner as to suggest that I'm not supposed to have guessed just how long that could be. While they take a breather (if they don't realise they're long-dead, they won't be aware that they no longer need air), we speak to them, and the antiquated dialect in which they speak further reinforces my suspicions. They are Oben and Herab, former friends and defenders of the castle. During an engagement with the Witch Lord's troops, Oben led a charge against the Witch Lord, believing that their only hope lay in eliminating the enemy leader. He was sorcerously baffled into leading his men away to battle an imaginary foe, and with its defences divided, the castle fell. Herab blames Oben for the defeat, and despite being so evenly matched that neither can prevail against the other, they're prepared to fight on until only one of them remains. Or until the end of the world, whichever comes first. We help them to realise that they both perished in the battle that led to their falling out, and they fade into nothingness.
A shaft of moonlight illuminates an arch in the castle wall, so we take a look inside it, finding a jewelled breastplate inside. It provides some protection in battle, but reduces its wearer's Speed. Might come in handy for the Wizard.
We reach the manse without further incident, and the text indulges in a little hyperbole, describing the journey there as 'as harrowing a night as any you can remember'. The unwitting spectres weren't that scary, and besides, I'd still have wound up at this section if I'd ignored the castle altogether, in which case the only noteworthy incident on the way here would have been seeing the cadaver on the gallows. It'd be a pretty pathetic party of adventurers that counted seeing an inactive corpse as the most horrifying encounter of their lives.
Anyway, there's a shadow-filled trench around the manse. Hovering marble tiles, somewhat fuzzy with mould, provide a way across, unless we'd rather climb into the dry moat. Let's take a chance with the 'stepping stones', eh? It turns out that some of them are a bit uneven, but roping the party together is all it takes to ensure that no missteps have adverse consequences.
The door is unexpectedly sturdy, as are the bars on all the windows, and that trench makes it impossible to get a decent run-up for trying to charge anything down. Maybe the Wizard's Pass Through Rock spell will get him inside so he can unlock the door. Yep, that worked.
The entrance hall is in a pretty grim state, and the portraits on the walls indicate Dugald to be the nastiest-looking of a long line of persons of villainous appearance. Time to get exploring. First we check out the cellar, which is full of bottles of vintage wine. The Dwarf takes one for later, but we're not so stupid as to have a dedicated boozing session at this point in time. There's also a catacomb entrance down here, so we should probably have checked the upper levels of the manse before coming down here, but it's too late for that now.
It gets dark enough that we need a torch if the human characters are to go any further. There's one in a bracket on the wall, but at this point the encumbrance rules kick in, and someone's going to have to drop something to make room for it. The wine is that bit too obvious a candidate for discarding, so I'll have the Wizard ditch the breastplate.
The tunnel leads to a subterranean lake, with a rowboat conveniently tied up at the water's edge. The Dwarf risks tasting the water, which doesn't do him any good. Then we start to row across the lake, which contains a small island with what looks like a pagan shrine on it. Pillars carved to resemble shackled humans support a marble dome, and there's an altar stone with something on it. We should probably investigate.
The item on the altar turns out to be a weathered stone coffin. A quartet of undead brides pops up from behind it to discourage us from investigating any closer. They don't succeed: each member of the party manages to hit one opponent in the first round of the fight, and the Ladies in Dead are all so flimsy that a single blow is enough to deal with any of them.
Rather unpleasantly, the coffin is full of blood. There's a bronze key next to it, which we have to take with us, so as we need to part with another item, we might as well dilute the blood with the holy water and see if that makes things uncomfortable for the coffin's owner. I have to record a code-word for doing this, and the code-word reminds me of a Sherlock Holmes short story. The story involved a coffin, so it might be what prompted Mr. Morris to choose that word, but it's equally possible that this is a reference to something else, with which I'm not familiar.
We continue across the lake to a pebbled shore. Exploring the cave beyond, we find another sturdy door, bound in bronze. Muffled sobs come from behind it. Will that key fit? Probably, but before we can try it, five white bats swoop down to attack the party. Unexpectedly, the Wizard is the only hero to score a blow in the first round of combat. That evens up the numbers, the bats being as puny as the undead brides. Only the one attacking the Elf manages to wound him, and the Elf is made of tougher stuff than bats or undead brides, so he can fight on. Next round, the Barbarian misses again (despite having by far the best chance to hit), but everyone else splats a bat. The surviving bat fails to inflict any damage, and it's third time lucky for the Barbarian.
The key does fit the lock, and the door makes a very peculiar noise as it is opened (I don't think 'gravid' means what Mr. Morris thinks it means). Behind it is a cell, containing a young girl who provides a little more autobiographical detail than is strictly necessary as she confirms that she's the one we're looking for. She explains how she was captured (and if this were to be filmed, it would take a mighty inept director not to make the flashback seriously creepy), and we take her to the boat, through the catacombs and cellar, and up into the entrance hall. Someone's waiting for us there.
It's Grim Dugald, who's described in a rather florid manner (which, for me, raises the question of whether or not a hanged man would actually be able to howl). We offer him the garlic, and while he might not actually be a vampire ('the realm of the supernatural spurns such glib classifications'), he certainly doesn't like it very much. A code-word check implies that tipping the holy water into the coffin has had an effect on him too, but he's still a formidable opponent. Then again, it is three against one (there not being enough room for all four to attack).
The Barbarian and the Dwarf both hit Dugald. The Wizard opts to use his Fire of Wrath spell, which can seek out its target, no matter where he, she or it might be. It doesn't have a particularly difficult job finding Dugald, but as the spell that inflicts most damage, it's still the best choice, even if the 'seeker' aspect goes to waste. Dugald lunges at the Barbarian, but the garlic penalty just causes him to miss. Next round the Barbarian and Dwarf's blows are on target, and the Wizard summons a Genie to punch Dugald in the face. The Elf continues to stand on the sidelines, unable to get involved because of the battle order and the unsuitability for combat of his spells. This time Dugald does manage to injure the Barbarian, but retaliation is swift. The Dwarf also hits again, and the Wizard, noting that his last damage-dealing spell isn't always effective, pulls his dagger and delivers the coup de grace with it.
Dugald may be dead, but he soon starts to get better. Lacking anything suitable for permanently killing him (should have bought the oak staff instead of the rope, and taken our chances on the stepping stones), we can only flee. We haven't got far before the sound of a hunting-horn fills the air, and phantom hounds begin baying at our heels. The hunt soon catches up to us, and... The book doesn't go into detail, but it's fairly clear that things do not end well for the party and Perdita.
Mr. Morris has definitely written better gamebooks. Which is not to say that this one is particularly bad, but it's nothing special, either.