Monday, 3 June 2013

It's What's in the Dark

I hadn't planned on replaying Grey Star the Wizard quite so soon (all right, so just over 10 months after my original attempt might not seem all that soon, but I hadn't intended to go back to it until I'd blogged about the rest of my Proteus, Tunnels & Trolls and Lone Wolf collections, so it's over a year earlier than expected). But last Friday's blog entry was the first time since Grey Star that I actually gave up on a book rather than playing through until I properly failed or succeeded. And when I think of some of the gamebooks I have endured to the end (whether good or bad) in the intervening months, I must conclude that my ability to tolerate bad writing and shoddy gamebook design has increased since last July.

For all its flaws, I'm pretty sure that Grey Star isn't anywhere near as awful as the adventure I abandoned last week, so today I'm playing it again, and I shall stick with it until I fail (the likelihood of my surviving the fight against the Kleasá is so low, even if I get maximum stats, that there's really no point in adding 'or win'), so last Friday's monstrosity can stand alone beneath the bottom of the barrel.

So how does this Grey Star look?
Combat Skill: 12
Willpower: 21
Endurance: 23
Magical Powers: Sorcery, Enchantment, Alchemy, Prophecy, Psychomancy
Basically, Kleasá-fodder. Provided he lives long enough to reach that fight.

As on my previous try, I sail into the Port of Suhn under cover of darkness and sell my boat for less than it's worth. However, this time I wander around the streets for a bit before heading for the inn where I'll get arrested. In view of which book this is, I suppose I should take a left turn. This leads me into an alley containing rotting garbage and an open sewer. Somehow I doubt that I'll find the information I seek (or anything other than a foul smell and possibly a disease or two) here, so I return to the street.

I can at least browse around the market before I enter the inn. Despite the lateness of the hour, the stalls are doing a brisk trade, and I find an apothecary's stall, where I spend most of what I got for the boat. The most expensive single item I buy is one that will help me escape from my cell, and I also get a potion to increase Combat Skill in one fight (not enough of a bonus to make the blindest bit of difference against the Kleasá, but could be handy against a lesser opponent) and a seed that will substitute for one use of Willpower (a riskily imprecise rule there, especially in view of the 'multiply the damage you inflict by the number of Willpower points you spend' rule for combat: what's to prevent me from using the seed to cover a 20-point expenditure and potentially vaporising the Kleasá, or one-shotting the giant insect I'm supposed to flee after one round of battle towards the end of the book?).

I become aware that a weasel-faced man is following me and trying not to be noticed. I pretend not to have seen him, as acting suspiciously will only convince him that I'm up to no good, and I'd like to achieve more before my inevitable arrest if at all possible. It doesn't help: the next time I see him, he's pointing me out to a couple of Shadakine warriors. I try to lose myself in the crowd, but the author is determined to make me run, attracting even more attention, and the next thing I know, I'm at the wrong end of two loaded crossbows, facing a choice between surrender, effective suicide and almost certain death. Not that the options are phrased quite that way, but I've lost enough characters to crossbow bolts that I can infer the true meaning of the words.

My Staff and Backpack are confiscated (so I will again be unable to give the dying prisoner my healing potion) and I'm taken to face Mother Magri's Test of Truth. Having got this far without spending any Willpower, I'm able to resist the initial mind probe, and this time round I know not to be stingy with Willpower when using Sorcery on Magri's Kazim Stone. Either the following section is poorly written, or I somehow wind up using twice as much Willpower as I intended to (in which case success leaves me worse off than getting mildly brain-fried for not using enough). But there's no valid interpretation of the text that leaves me dead, so I just get taken to the dungeons.

Never having made it to the inn, I now meet my doomed friend-to-be Shan Li for the first time. As on my previous try at the book, we chat, I am unable to assist the third prisoner, and I semi-befriend Magri's novice Tanith. This time round, rather than waste the day thinking about escape and finally take action in the evening, I spend the day sleeping and then take action in the evening. Not much of a choice, really, but the rest did allow me to regain a little Willpower and Endurance, so not completely meaningless either.

Having made informed purchases at the market, I'm able to use Alchemy to brew up an acid that'll take out the lock this time round. There's still some acid left once the door is open, so I hang on to it for later. Now for a tricky decision. Left leads to the Darkling Room, where more psychic unpleasantness awaits. But does going right provide a way to avoid getting my brain mildly poached, or just a quick and painful death? Better the Darkling you know...

I take negligible damage during the ordeal, and then events take their course as before: I meet and join up with Tanith, and escape through the secret passage she opens. After narrowly avoiding discovery by a Shadakine chariot (and noting that the text refers to 'baited breath' - evidently when I dived into the undergrowth I wound up with a worm in my mouth or up my nose) I again encounter the authorial mishap of the miscounted Meals.

We visit the blinded sage again, and at least two of the complaints I raised at this stage of the adventure first time round are still valid. Then we reach the encounter that prompted me to quit the adventure last time, so I'm going to see if I can find a plan of action that won't be hampered by authorial thoughtlessness. Bad writing doesn't cease to be bad writing just because there's worse writing out there.

Trying not to get involved is unlikely to work. The illusion still looks like the best way to start interfering. After that I try an attack at long range... and the book then tells me that I decide this isn't a cost-effective tactic and forces me to join in the melee. I wind up in phase 2 of the stupid combat I'd hoped to avoid. Still not as annoying as last Friday's book.

The odds are unfavourable, and I'm not sure the wording of the description of the Combat Skill-enhancing potion allows for my using it here. Use of that seed is less restricted, though (and the sage gave me another four of the things), so I'll take a chance on enhancing damage. Not to the absurd extent I suggested when pointing out potential abuses, but even spending (or rather, using the seed to simulate spending) 5 Willpower makes me twice as likely to kill with one blow as to be killed with one blow.

And he's toast. The wagon the Shadakine were attacking contains a renowned herb warden, on a quest to find a tree that provides the only known cure for the Red Death (wonder if that's the same disease as in Poe's story). We may be indirectly responsible for the fight, as the Shadakine warriors were searching for fugitives. Still, our assistance is rewarded. The healing potion I'm given is more effective than any of the ones I'm already carrying, so I swig down one of the others to restore the Endurance I lost in the fight and make room in my backpack for the better one. I'm also offered more of those seeds, and find an inconsistency in the text: both previous times I got some of them, I was told that they didn't take up any space in my Backpack or Herb Pouch, but it seems that I'd need to make space for these ones.

For some unspecified reason Tanith's ability to persuade the local fauna to become lunch stops working, so over the course of the next couple of days I have to eat 2 Meals or lose 6 Endurance. I have one Meal on me, so you'd think that I could eat that one and just lose 3 Endurance for the missed one, but that doesn't appear to be an option.

That night I have bad dreams, and wake to see Tanith crouched over the dying campfire. Looks like the end may be nigh. She's speaking quietly to the fire, telling 'Mother' that she won't do something. Once I've dismissed the Norman Bates gags from my head, I recall that the evil old witch for whom she was working back in Suhn was addressed as Mother Magri. I'll be charitable and assume that Grey Star's inability to reach the logical conclusion (he thinks Tanith is just troubled by her conscience) is a consequence of still being a little befuddled from having woken up moments before.

I'd better investigate, in the hope that my character will cotton on to what's afoot in time to muster up what pitiful protection he can before things turn nasty. As I approach Tanith, she apologises, explaining that she couldn't resist. A psychic attack is launched at me through the fire, and Mother Magri's form fades (no, there's been no mention of its being there in the first place - well, maybe in a section through which I didn't pass, not that 'it's mentioned elsewhere' excuses the continuity hiccup here) to be replaced by an impenetrable darkness. With eyeslits and a gaping mouth.

Yes, it's the Kleasá, and it attacks me. I automatically lose Willpower and Endurance every round, though the Endurance loss would be reduced if I'd erected a shield with Sorcery back when I wasn't given the option. Seriously, I've gone back to the 'make camp' section and double-checked every section that can be passed through between it and this confrontation, and there's not a single mention of using Sorcery, but the section says 'if you have erected a magical shield', not 'if you erect a magical shield'. Sloppy wording, or am I supposed to have put the shield up more than two days ago?

All I have to do is survive four rounds of combat. Plus whatever unpleasantness occurs when the fourth round is up, but I'll worry about that if I get that far. The Kleasá has a 20% chance of killing me outright each round. And in any round where it doesn't get the automatic kill, the odds are overwhelmingly in favour of my losing at least a quarter of my Endurance. If I were to spend enough Willpower, I could have a 10-50% chance (depending on how much I paid) of shredding the Kleasá in one go, but the book doesn't recognise that possibility, so there's nothing to be gained by spending any more than the bare minimum here, and I might as well save the rest on the off-chance that I survive, as I'd need Willpower to help me deal with the other trials that await beyond this.

Well, if I'd done the 'spend 20 Willpower (or a seed)' trick, I'd have won the fight in the first round. But that wasn't an option, so I lost a third of my Endurance in round 1, two thirds of what remained in the second round, and slightly more than three thirds of the rest in round 3. With a less abysmal Combat Skill I might have made it through four rounds, but a sneak peek at what happens after the fourth round, plus a little number-crunching, leads me to the conclusion that a Grey Star with the maximum possible Combat Skill, plus that Combat Skill-boosting potion, plus that contentious shield of Sorcery, would have slightly better than 50/50 odds of surviving the fight. A high Endurance would also help, but even if the highest possible Endurance were added to the mix above, Grey Star would still have around a one in three chance of dying in the fight. Anyone with a Combat Skill under 15 is almost certainly doomed.

And anyone who makes it past the Kleasá still has to contend with the poisonous flying toads that kill Shan, and hordes of giant insects. Possibly also some encounters I've forgotten. This book is harsh. Harsh and riddled with flaws of varying degrees of annoyingness and seriousness. But if I had to choose between replaying it and retrying the book I ditched on Friday, I'd pick this one without hesitation.

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