Friday, 28 June 2013

He Died So His Brothers Could Be Free

A couple of months ago I mentioned having got some gamebooks at a sale in Chiesmans, and said that I'd list the non-Sagas of the Demonspawn ones I acquired at that time when I got around to playing them for this blog. So now it's time for me to state that another of those gamebooks was Bloodfeud of Altheus, the first book in John Butterfield, David Honigmann and Philip Parker's Cretan Chronicles series. I remember reading some of it on the way home, and being mildly penalised for thinking my character might know something about the city of Acharnae. I also discovered that in Mythic Greece it can be unwise to try and prevent cruelty to animals.

My current copy is a later printing than the one I first got, and I'm pretty sure that in the intervening time the publishers had fixed the printer's error that missed out the bottom line of one section, including the number to which I should have turned next. The mistake was not as serious as it would be in most gamebooks, though, as I was able to identify the missing number by taking a hint.

'Taking a hint' is an oddity of the Cretan Chronicles series: sometimes the number at the top of a section is italicised, which means that the reader has the option of adding 20 to the section number and turning to that section to try and do something other than one of the listed options. Sometimes this has positive consequences (avoiding an ambush, for example), sometimes it leads to being reprimanded for inappropriate behaviour (such as the Acharnae incident alluded to above), on at least one occasion in the series it leads to death, and there are other incidents where not doing it guarantees an unpleasant demise. On occasion it's quite clever, but there are a lot of times when it just provides the authors with a pretext for insulting the reader. And while the Honour penalty for taking the hint that got me around the printer's error was pretty mild, it was still annoying to get told I was a coward as a consequence of being unable to read what wasn't in the book.

The series starts from the premise that Theseus got killed by the Minotaur, and it thus falls to his less famous younger brother Altheus to avenge his death, put an end to the Cretan demands for tribute, and take care of all the other heroic feats attributed to his late brother. There's an incongruous use of the word 'replied' at the start of the background section, implying that the text begins mid-conversation, though given the generally obnoxious behaviour of the Greek deities in these books, it wouldn't seem out of place for Hermes to have opened with, 'Theseus is dead,' rather than bringing it up after some unrecorded dialogue.

Stats are predetermined, the only variable in character creation being which member of the Greek pantheon I choose as a patron. I have to pick one from a list of six, and I've never seen any evidence that the classmate and fellow gamebook enthusiast who recommended selecting Poseidon was talking nonsense, so I'll go with that and hope not to spend the bulk of this adventure upside down.

Having been informed of my fraternal responsibility, I tell my mother, who agrees that I must undertake the quest that has been thrust upon me, and gives me a jewel she received from my father, which I can show him to prove that I'm his son. Not exactly a close family, then. She also sends me to the local High Priest, and it is at this point that I officially select my patron. The waterspout of the temple fountain turns into a face, which belittles me and says not to pester him unless I have sailing to do.

I set off for Athens, reaching a fork in the path and, referring to memories of past attempts and to the map at the start of the book, turn right. A wolf emerges from the bushes, providing me with my first opportunity to encounter combat, Cretan Chronicles-style. It's an easy fight, both because of the wolf's low stats and thanks to the brutal simplicity of the system. Combatants are either Healthy, Wounded, Seriously Wounded or Dead, and the Seriously Wounded incur a significant penalty on their combat rolls, which is liable to hasten their demise. I have the option of spending Honour to improve my chances of hitting or not being hit, but in a fight like this it really isn't necessary. Taking a hint afterwards enables me to skin the wolf and take its pelt, which serves as very crude armour, and also gives me an Honour bonus.

I carry on to the town of Epidaurus, finding the locals unhappy and unwelcoming. In a decidedly insalubrious inn I learn that bandits are terrorising the temple of Asclepius the healer. The old man who tells me this sarcastically suggests that, being a hero, I could deal with these villains, so I take the challenge. On the road to the temple I take a hint to evade an ambush. Making a surprise attack on the men hiding in the bushes is probably not honourable, so I challenge them to a fight. Combat being as brutal as it is, I get killed, but in each Cretan Chronicles book I do get one shot at being brought back to life - though its effectiveness varies depending on the circumstances of my death. In this instance it works, but I'm restored to life at a safe distance from my foes.

In fact, I'm now close to the River Cleonae, which is about as far beyond Epidaurus as that town was from where I started. The river has been swollen by the spring thaws. An old woman pleads with me to carry her across the river, for if she cannot get to the far side, she'll starve. Among the choices offered here is to attack her and 'beat stony-hearted Hunger to it'(!), but I knew better than to try something like that even on my first try at the book, before I found out that the crone is a disguised goddess putting me to the test. I start to carry her over, and part of the way across she reveals her true identity and commends me, so I'm now in Favour with her.

Continuing across the river, I hear the sort of splash that might be caused by a pebble falling into the water, and taking a hint confirms that I just dropped the jewel that's supposed to prove my identity, so I retrieve it before carrying on. After an uneventful night in an inn, I set off again in the morning. Again I get a choice of route onwards, and I opt to go via Corinth. Taking a hint here might allow me to get a lift on a passing cart, but it could just lead to accusations of being scared of the grazing sheep, so I shan't risk it.

In the market I get a couple of recommendations about the next stage of my journey, and decide to see if I can get a boat to Athens from Crommyon. A farmer offers to give me a lift in his cart, and I don't steal his cheese (why is that even an option?).

I'm Altheus, not Alan

When we go our separate ways, he gives me some cheese. Continuing into the town, I encounter panic-stricken crowds, fleeing from a formidable-looking sow. I stand and fight, and the sow is such a big target that I have no trouble hitting it even when Seriously Wounded. Victory is mine (just), and one of the locals rewards me with a spear that's much more useful than the club I've been wielding up until now. However, fighting the sow delayed me long enough that the ship to Athens has sailed by the time I reach the harbour, so in the morning I continue on foot.

At the next junction I choose to head for Pagae, as I'd rather not risk getting into trouble with the law in Megara. This turns out to be a poor choice, as the town is afflicted with plague. If I'd succeeded in liberating Asclepius' temple, his Favour would have equipped me to help out here, but as it is, I'd best not linger. That too is a bad choice, as Athena turns up and, displaying a quirky speech impediment, wepwimands me for my wefusal to assist the town that is under her pwotection. I am now in Disfavour with her, and have gained my first Shame point. If Shame ever exceeds Honour, I have to commit suicide, so things just got trickier.

There's a statue of Hecate at the next fork in the road, holding a headless puppy in one of her hands and a torch in another. Passing on the torch side, I carry on to Eleusis, where the annual festival of Demeter is in full swing. Passing through the crowds, I wind up close to the temple, and the high priestess picks me out and leads me up the steps. I've been mistaken for one of the local commoners, and am expected to perform the springtime rite of corn, water and flame. At least I'm not expected to play any Stravinsky.

I pick up the urn of water and extinguish the fire. The crowd applauds. Bizarrely, even though the section starts, 'Having extinguished the flame,' the choices of what to do with the corn seed include burning it in the fire I just put out. But I correctly surmise which part of the panto this is, and fling handfuls of the seed into the crowd, who eagerly scrabble to grab the seeds. Festivities then commence, and after a night of partying (which, for many, includes the euphemistic 'celebrations of the fertility goddess') I am presented with a gold brooch shaped like an ear of corn, indicating that I am in Favour with Demeter.

Continuing on my way, I reach another junction. Judging by the map, I should ignore the side track. Before long I reach Athens. Not knowing the way to my father's palace, I decide to risk asking for directions. As I recall, the old man is a prankster or a lunatic - either way, he'll take me to a pigsty and I'll lose Honour - so I approach the young nobleman. He claims to be a stranger himself, and taking a hint sends me back to the old man. Sigh. Oh, and I don't lose Honour, I gain Shame. For all the difference it makes.

Still, the swineherd knows the way, and leads me to what smells like the kitchen door. I knock, and am asked who I am. In view of the undignified nature of my arrival, I give a false name, and am mistaken for one of the extra staff chosen to help at the feast. I get told to clean mixing-bowls, which is demeaning, but not enough to affect Honour or Shame. The Shame penalty doesn't come until I wind up serving at the big feast, and being offered charity by my own father, King Aegeus. Just to cap the embarrassment, I knock over a goblet, and become the centre of attention. The king asks me my business and, taking a hint, I show him the jewel before stating my name.

He welcomes me and says I'll have to be his envoy to Crete, to let Minos know that the annual tribute must be changed to gold and silver rather than people. His general indicates that I should also look out for military information in case (as he obviously hopes) this leads to war. Aegeus summons me to follow him while he sorts out the paperwork, and I do so. Once we're on our own, he mentions that it would actually be quite convenient if I could just kill the Minotaur, and hoist white sails for the return journey to indicate success. Also, an army of Amazons is about to besiege Athens for some reason, so I'll have to help fight them off.

Taking a hint, I scout out the Amazon camp under cover of darkness. I enter an unoccupied tent, and then an Amazon comes in, saying something about the queen's leopardskin. She shuts up when she sees me, and I attack before she can start yelling. Despite having marginally better stats, she gets lousy rolls, and I Seriously Wound her without taking a scratch. She surrenders and, as dead opponents can't be questioned, and there's a Shame penalty for killing a foe who's submitted, I spare her.

When I demand to know the reason for their attack, she explains that it's for the sake of a hairpin. Seriously. This particular hairpin is made of gold, sacred to Hera, and of great symbolic significance, and it was taken by some of Aegeus' soldiers, and the Amazons are determined to get it back. The authors choose to signify this knowledge without giving the truth away to readers who didn't take the hint by having me grab a silver earring, which strikes me as being very inappropriate. I also take her spear (not as good as the one I got for killing the sow) and shield. Being an honourable opponent, she doesn't raise the alarm as I leave.

Back at the palace I reveal what I know, and then get some rest. In the morning I'm asked if I know why the Amazons are invading. Okay, so turning to the relevant section leads to my being asked if I have the earring (with a Shame penalty for anyone who doesn't), but any player who was willing to lie about knowing why the Amazons are here isn't likely to be reluctant to lie about having the earring, so that's a rubbish way of handling the anti-cheat mechanism.

And it's only now that I mention the hairpin to my father (so what was I telling him last night?). Not keen on this war, Aegeus agrees to return the hairpin in question, and sends me to take it to the Amazon queen. It turns out to be almost as big as a sword and, taking a hint, I carry it openly. Aware that slaying its bearer would desecrate the hairpin, the Amazons don't lay a spearhead on me, but guide me to the queen's tent. She agrees to take her army back home, warns that any further Athenian incursions will be met with lethal force, and tells me to seek a friend of hers when I get to Crete, giving me her brooch to identify me as an ally.

Back at the palace I announce my diplomatic triumph, and celebrations ensue. I get some sleep, and find myself elsewhere, being pursued through corridors and ultimately attacked by the Minotaur. It's just a dream, though possibly a prophetic one. Now I need to be on my way to the harbour for the voyage to Crete, so I don my armour, say my farewells, and get lost in Athens. Taking a hint, I find that this is one of the 'authors being tiresome' instances - rather than doing something intelligent to find the right way, I speculate on the reasons for that dream and earn Shame for doubting the god responsible.

I reach the harbour shortly before the ship has to depart. The young people being sent as tribute draw encouragement from my presence, though my seasickness probably dampens their spirits. Then a big sea serpent pops up. This is where it pays to be a friend of Poseidon. Getting him to intervene costs a little Honour, and he makes some more snarky comments, but the ship is unharmed and my reputation is restored. At least until a storm damages the ship and costs three of the crew their lives.

The ship puts in at the isle of Cythnos for repairs and fresh supplies. I accompany the captain ashore, and take a hint to rescue the documents I'm supposed to take to Minos from a bunch of scrolls the captain gives to an innkeeper. Given the hyperbole the book subsequently indulges in when telling of what would have happened if the documents were lost, it's a bit poor that I get no Honour bonus for averting catastrophe.

When the ship is ready, we set off again. The captain asks my advice regarding our next port of call. The map suggests that Melos is on a more direct route, and given that the alternative, Delos, is sacred to Apollo, and thus could provide many opportunities to earn his Disfavour, I pick Melos. There I earn Honour by not joining the crew in hunting a cow, since the cattle are bound to belong to some deity or other.

Next we head for Thera, island of the lame blacksmith god Hephaestus. I suffer from a fever during the voyage, and have freaky visions, but that's just padding. On Thera I see three people at the foot of a cliff: a woman on a golden throne, a spear-toting warrior and a blacksmith with a bad leg. The cliff starts to crumble, the people cry for help, I only have time to save one, and even if the book hadn't pointed out whose island this is, I'd have picked the lame man. He rewards me with a sword, shield and breastplate better than anything I've yet acquired, and all three get even better bonuses against divine or divinely built creatures.

Another storm brews up as we set off again, but as I've managed not to offend Poseidon, it quietens down again. I spend a point of Honour rather than risk coming across as arrogant. My humility is rewarded with just a regular gale, which does little worse than cause the loss of the gold and silver for Minos and send us way off course to Cythera, Aphrodite's island. There I see a boat with a woman in, being swept towards the rocks, and go to the rescue.

Should have taken the hint. Especially as I mentioned the negative buoyancy of armour earlier this month. I wind up the one being rescued, to my Shame. If Aphrodite were my patron, I think I'd now be headed for the section that has the illustration with the conveniently-located (for keeping this book vaguely PG) flower. As it is, the woman just flirts a little before vanishing, at which point Altheus realises what I'd already twigged about her true identity.

Wandering the island while the ship is repaired again, I encounter a ranting castaway. I don't attack, and he requests a gift, so I offer cheese. He babbles about life-giving ichor flowing from the feet of the divine, and runs off.

Eventually the ship is ready to leave again. On the way to Crete, the captain tells me of Talos, the bronze giant who patrols around Crete and attacks any who mean the island harm. Taking a hint leads to further authorial unpleasantness: rather than formulating a strategy for evading Talos, I get another Shame point and a description of the Cretan throne.

Closer to Crete I get a more fruitful hint-taking option, but we don't entirely evade Talos. Instead, I have to engage him in missile combat, which means I can't use the sword that would give me the extra bonus. At least the armour is still effective. There's no way I can hit Talos without spending Honour I can ill-afford, but I only need to survive five rounds until we're out of range. Correction: I can only hit Talos with the help of the rule that says rolling 11 or 12 means automatic success. I'd forgotten about that, but I remembered it when setting my gamebook manager up to handle Cretan Chronicles combat, so I managed to hit him with one harpoon against all expectation. Two of Talos' thrown rocks hit me, but Seriously Wounded isn't Dead, so I live on. And Talos trips over for a bit of slapstick humour. Well, that and to allow the authors to refer to his fallen form in the section describing the approach to Crete.

That's where book 1 ends. My arrival in Crete, the Minotaur, and other related shenanigans are saved for book 2 But if I stick with the planned schedule, I won't be getting to that for a long while yet. Still, at least I have a character to carry across when I do play it.

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