Wednesday, 5 June 2013

The Ugliness We Show Instead

The two Clash of the Princes books were packaged together in a slipcase when they originally came out, so when I got The Warlock's Way, I also got partner tome The Warrior's Way. For reasons which elude me, CotP didn't get included with all the other FF gamebooks when I got rid of my original collection in the 1990s, so I still have the copies I bought back in 1986. I also still have the (by now somewhat tatty) slipcase, which would have been trickier to replace than the books if they had been included in the cull.

My friend Simon, who lived just a few minutes' walk from my home, and frequently walked to school with me, played The Warrior's Way the time we attempted the books in two-player mode on the way back from the school playing fields one afternoon. As we were walking along the street, we didn't use dice, and I suspect that there was a bit of turning back when encountering Instant Deaths, as both of us made it through to the endgame. But such cheating is of no help when one of the final challenges involves piecing together clues which may have been acquired along the way in order to work out which section to turn to. Simon didn't have all the clues, guessed wrongly and got eaten.

But today I'm the one playing The Warrior's Way. My character is, none too surprisingly, twin brother to Lothar, the Warlock-Prince. His name is Clovis and, as the title of his book suggests, he's a Warrior-Prince. Which means he can't use magic, but he might have a higher Skill score than his brother. And indeed he does - but only because I'm allocating the dice again. If I took them as they fall, he'd be a seriously doomed Skill 7, rather than:
Skill 12
Stamina 15
Luck 11
which is only moderately doomed. At least he's not likely to die the same way as my previous online Clovis. So what was this Clovis doing while Lothar was beating up Ogres, failing to paddle, consorting with possibly deceased Druids and magic carpeting through a Djinn's residence?

For the first day-and-a-bit, nothing much, but my journey becomes eventful more quickly than my brother's, as on the afternoon of the second day I come across a woman who's being menaced by three Kobolds. While I never really got into Dungeons and Dragons, I am aware that Kobolds are exceptionally underwhelming foes in D&D. That's not the case here. While FF Kobolds aren't major league monsters, they are at around the same level as Trolls or Ogres. Not too much of a threat to heroes with double-figure Skill scores, but potentially trouble to the likes of the Clovis I'd be if I hadn't allocated my dice.

I take a couple of wounds in the fight. Skill 7 Clovis would probably have died - I made a mental note of how each round would have turned out for him, and at the stage that the third Kobold died, Clovis the Inferior would have been wounded four times more, and two of the Kobolds would still be alive. But I'm not about to bother playing through the remaining 4+ rounds that he'd have had to fight.

The woman tells me that she's heading for an old monastery in order to get some Holy Water to heal her sick brother, and offers me money if I'll go with her to protect her. The money's unlikely to be a lot of use to me, as it's hard to avoid getting robbed in this book, but a combination of chivalry and the possibility of acquiring something less pilferable and more useful than cash while on this side quest convinces me to accompany her.

The monastery looks pretty abandoned and dilapidated. Neither the lady nor our horses will enter, but I can go in through the gaping gateway or a crack in the wall. The gateway leads into a courtyard containing damaged statues and a pool, with a chapel at the end. As I recall, the pool does not contain Holy Water, but could get me killed, so I head for the chapel. Remarkably, it's still in pristine condition, with a golden font of Holy Water next to a silver mirror on a stand. I grab the mirror, which reflects the two Gargoyles that are trying to sneak up on me, and fight my would-be ambushers. Stats-wise they're at least as dangerous as the Kobolds, but the dice don't favour them as much, so I take no damage in this fight.

After pocketing the mirror, I take the Holy Water, and the sound of gnashing teeth alerts me to the presence of something nasty on a chandelier. I don't loiter to find out its stats. Back outside I hand over the Holy Water, receiving 10 Gold Pieces in return, and we go our separate ways, the woman apparently assuming that nothing bad can happen to her on the return journey.

The next day I reach a junction, and turn east because I have no idea which way is better, or even if it matters in the long run. The path leads to a village, where people are throwing rocks and rotten fruit at an old woman in the stocks. Not wishing to give the impression that I only help the young and beautiful, I rescue the crone. She gives me a lucky rabbit's foot (and with Luck having a numerical value in most FF, I can ascertain its effectiveness without difficulty). Some hostile villagers attempt to waylay me on the way out, but I just ride straight through the mob.

After a few more uneventful days, I have my money and horse stolen by a strange mist. Gives a whole new meaning to not trusting the weather. Oh, and I've reached the decision that either has the section numbers the wrong way round or further illustrates the arbitrary and whimsical nature of life in Gundobad: the choice is between hills and forest, and whichever I choose, I'll have my next encounter in the other kind of terrain.

The previous Clovis died in the hills, as did one of his predecessors. My Luck is high enough that I have a fair chance of evading their fate, and I must admit to some curiosity about what lies beyond the potentially lethal stepping stones, so I choose the forest.

I make it to the cave, which contains a large pool with monoliths and broken stalagmites in it. There's a high ledge as well as the stepping stones, so I could avoid having to Test my Luck here. But given the random way in which death strikes in these books, it's quite possible that taking the ledge is automatically fatal rather than only lethal if I roll too high. Let's find out.

The ledge gives way beneath me, and I plummet into the pool. Swimming to the far side costs me a whole Stamina point, so that would have killed me if I'd been at death's door. As I'm not yet close enough to even see death's doormat, I'm largely untroubled. There are two possible ways on, and I go left. This leads to the top of a staircase, and part of the way down I see a door. Naturally I investigate. Behind the door is a chamber in which a Skeleton sits on a stool, clutching an ice-pick. I think I may have seen a glint in one of its eye sockets, but that pick could come in handy, as this book's odd enough that I might yet wind up having to fight an undead Trotsky.

Unexpectedly, the Skeleton does not attack me when I prise the pick from its cold dead hand. The Giant Spider I failed to notice on the ceiling does attack, but I squish it without difficulty. Returning to the stairs, I reach a peculiar room. The walls are made of ice, and the 'floor' consists of a series of columns of frozen earth, with gaping chasms between them. Frozen into one of the walls is a red-bearded warrior, and either the perspective in the illustration is seriously iffy or his warhammer is preposterously big.

Of course I use the ice-pick. Of course the frozen warrior comes to life and attacks me when I release him from the ice. He's the toughest opponent I've yet had to face in this adventure, but I do survive the fight, and claim the Hammer of Thunder. Did I just thaw Thor?

There's no other exit, so I head back upstairs and take the other passage. This meanders horizontally and vertically, eventually leading to a cavern with two exits. There's also a Snake in it, so I attack that. Or rather, I get close enough to it to find that it's a mining tool in the shape of a cobra, and add it to my equipment list.

Not as good as a Davy lamp

The text covering moving on says 'if you have not done so already' after listing the section number to which I should turn if I take one of the exits. Unless the authors are being sneaky, that indicates that there's no way out through there, but it probably leads to an encounter and/or treasure, and the other way out leads on from these caves. I'll risk metagaming and take the tunnel from which it appears possible or mandatory to return.

It leads to a cavern where two Dwarfs are arguing. One of them is a blue-bearded youngster, no more than 150 years old, while the older one's beard is white. They look at me, see the snake-shaped tool, and assume that I've come to steal the treasure about which they were arguing. Once I've defended myself from them (with unavoidable lethality), I find no sign of the aforementioned treasure, but do help myself to what little gold they have on them.

Returning to the chamber where I found the tool, I take the other exit. It slopes upwards, and after I've been ascending for a while, I catch sight of a large boulder rolling towards me. Hurriedly wedging the mining tool between the walls (I suspect that there's an Indiana Jones-related in-joke at play here), I manage to stop the boulder in its tracks, and clamber over it to continue upwards.

Further on I see sunlight shining down. It's coming out of a vertical flue, the top of which is hundreds of feet up (could the sunlight penetrate that far?). Even if interrupting the beam of light doesn't trigger a spike trap, I'm not too keen on the likely outcome of a slip while climbing all that way, so I carry on past the flue. Before long I see a wide fissure that spans the tunnel floor, and the tunnel on the far side looks structurally unsound. Not having a Witch's broomstick, I am forced to take a running jump to get across. Somehow this causes me to lose my backpack and Provisions, but I get an unusable Skill bonus for surviving.

The passage terminates in a dank, high-ceilinged room with rusted iron grates in all the walls. I have a vague memory that one of the grates leads to Instant Death, but no idea which. I pick the one with the least threatening-looking section number, and find a pair of snowshoes behind it. This discovery somehow persuades me to jump back across the fissure and climb the flue.

A little way up (but still high enough to make falling hazardous), I see green light shining from a hole in the wall. I remember this bit. I remember being in my form room at secondary school while reading it, and making the (as it turned out) inadvisable decision to poke around in it with my sword. Having learned better in the intervening years, I stick my arm into the hole instead. This means that I find an enormous emerald as well as disturbing the hole's occupant, a boneless oddity known as a Strangler. Despite my precarious situation, I take little damage in the course of killing the thing, and resume my climb with never a frown.

Eventually I come out onto a snowy mountainside. Green fields are visible a long way down, and I take the rightmost track. This leads me to a chained Pegasus, which begs me to do something about the cruel Giant who owns and mistreats him. I immediately found the Gundobad branch of the RSPCA, and head for the Giant's cave to remonstrate with him. When I get there, he's asleep, so I decide to look for the key to the chains. Not relishing the thought of trying to pick a pocket that may be big enough for me to fall into, I initially turn my attention to the table. Grasping the tablecloth with a view to climbing it disturbs a precariously balanced keg of wine, which falls on me and crushes me to death.

I can only conclude that the previous Kings managed to find all the easy-to-retrieve Sacred Gems. If past Trials of Kingship had as high a fatality rate as Clash of the Princes does, Ossil's line would have died out a long time ago.


  1. "If past Trials of Kingship had as high a fatality rate as Clash of the Princes does, Ossil's line would have died out a long time ago."

    These kind of incredibly dangerous methods of inititation seem to pop up a lot in gamebooks. You would think wizard school (or whatever) would be more economical with their training, if, at the end of years of instruction, they deliberately subjected their near graduates to trials that not just failed, but killed the vast majority.

  2. Yeah, maybe both princes would have made rotten kings, so they sent them off on a near suicidal quest, which they were dumb enough to accept. The previous king only had to beat his brother at a game of Monopoly.