Friday, 7 June 2013

And Don't Breathe the Air

To my surprise, The Screaming Spectre, the second of Dave Morris' Heroquest books, doesn't follow on  from the first one as regards the narrative(s). All his Knightmare books, which used the same kind of story-plus-gamebook structure as the Heroquest ones, featured the character of Treguard in their stories, and in the Blood Sword series, which had a similar 'play up to four characters' set-up as the gamebook portion of the first Heroquest book, the separate volumes were all part of one ongoing narrative, so I'd imagined that this series would have a similar sense of continuity. The story in The Fellowship of Four even had what looked like a hook for a sequel, as the leader of the villains managed to escape, with obvious reasons to seek revenge. But Spectre focuses on a completely new set of characters, with one main hero, and the solo adventure is also for a lone adventurer. That's not necessarily a bad thing (indeed, since the first of Peter Jackson's The Hobbit movies came out, some might be glad not to see a 'vengeful Orc who had a hand cut off by one of the heroes' plot here), but it was unexpected.

The story is set at a College of magic. Archimage Magnus (my mind kept reading his title as 'Arch-image' rather than 'Archi-mage') is being haunted by the ghost of his mentor and predecessor Balthazar, and Osric, lowliest of the apprentices, has to save him. There are some interesting ideas in there, but the whole thing is a bit too obvious. Pretty much as soon as Magnus' expelled rival Fyral was mentioned, I guessed that the haunting was a sorcerous Scooby-Doo set-up. I'd hoped that the arrogant apprentice would at least turn out to be a red herring, but no, he was in on the plot. In fact, he turned out to be Fyral in the magical equivalent of a rubber mask, rather than just the accomplice I'd taken him for. So that was a surprise, though not a particularly impressive one.

One aspect I liked was that, while that meddling apprentice Osric was of some assistance at the climax, Magnus didn't need him to expose the whole deception. I also appreciated the prosaic nature of the clue that alerted the Archimage to the fakery. Other highlights include the story-within-the-story about Balthazar's once having tricked Death, and the sequence where Osric achieves three impossible things (albeit some time after breakfast). Still, as a whole, The Screaming Spectre is not one of Mr. Morris' best stories.

It's followed by a short Heroquest scenario for one player and a GM. It's a dungeon-based McGuffin-hunt, and, not being in a position to GM it, I can't say a lot about it. Nevertheless, I can't imagine anything from it sticking in the memory the way elements of the Morris co-authored scenarios for Dragon Warriors I read in the eighties have done.

And so on to the gamebook component, Beyond the World's Edge. My character is apprentice to the Archimage Theodosius. Theo has been taken prisoner while seeking the secret of eternal life in the Citadel of the Seven Statues, and wants me to use his magic carpet to rescue him. My stats are pre-determined, but I get to choose which three of the four Elemental categories my spells come from. I can also choose a Talisman to boost one stat, and it's up to me whether or not I take Theodosius' Lucky Bottle with me. I'll take spells of Earth, Air and Fire, improve my combat abilities with the Talisman of Bravery (though I was tempted by the Talisman of Festination just because of the name), and how could I not take the bottle?

Following Theodosius' instructions, I trek out to the Abyss at the edge of the map, and get the carpet to take me across. After some time I see lights glimmering far below me. Do I investigate? General consensus has it that the vapours down there cannot support life. But then, most people think that the Abyss has no far side, so I'm already operating on the basis of commonly held beliefs being inaccurate. There may be something useful (or essential) down there.

I investigate, finding a mist-shrouded city, which is still occupied. The mist is unpleasant, but doesn't seem to be lethal, so I go closer. One of the locals tells me that the city's called Nifelheim, which is not encouraging. Asking questions about Theodosius gets me pointed to the library, where I 'may find something' relevant. But now I am taking damage from the atmosphere, so I shan't loiter on the off-chance of learning a bit of vital information before I choke to death.

By the time I get away, I'm half way to being dead. At this rate I'll soon need to use my Heal Body spell. Resuming my eastward flight, I finally catch sight of the land beyond the Abyss. There's a jungle on it, spilling over the edge, and the sight of the damage wrought on the trailing vegetation by the Abyssal vapours makes me glad I didn't descend into the mist. Oh dear. The adventure's 148 sections long. There are two completely blank pages at the back of the book. I don't see how lack of space could be a reason for the lack of a section to cover reaching the far side of the abyss after having briefly dropped in on Nifelheim.

A giant bat with the face of a man flies towards me. Probably hostile, but I'll attempt to communicate with it rather than attacking just based on its appearance. It tells me that I'm prey, and thinks that I'm delusional for suggesting that there's any land on the far side of the Abyss. Not wanting to use up any of my magic at this early stage, I draw my dagger and discover that the creature is a Vespertile. I also discover that it's able to defeat me in combat, though I might have prevailed if I hadn't taken the vapours beforehand.

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