Wednesday, 17 July 2013

The Ancient Empty Street's Too Dead For Dreaming

As I recall, Hatchards bookshop opened across the road from Tunbridge Wells train station (where the BBC Shop is these days, but larger) in early 1987. It may not have been on my very first visit there that I came across Peter Darvill-Evans' first FF book, Beneath Nightmare Castle, but it was certainly in that shop that I found it, flicked through, and came across the Instant Death where the luckless hero is staked to the ground by a tower, and the guards drop rocks from the top and place bets on who will be first to score a direct hit on the head. So I bought a copy.

Reading it on the way home, I got caught while searching the cellar, and met a gruesome fate. So I tried again and, upon discovering that I'd forgotten to bring my front door key with me, sort of completed the adventure (without dice) while sitting on the doorstep and waiting for another family member to get home and let me in. I say 'sort of' because I failed to realise that the trident head I'd acquired wasn't the whole of the weapon, in my ignorance passed an inventory check I should have failed, and avoided being beguiled into the trap that ought to have ended my adventure. And when subsequently catastrophically delayed by an illusion, I backtracked and picked the better option. Not one of my finer moments.

Still, the variety of horrific and gruesome incidents within the book appealed to me a lot, so I went on to play it properly, and enjoyed it enough that I often replayed it. I used it to test out my first ever gamebook combat manager (laboriously programmed on my original home computer, a Texas Instruments TI-99/4A). During my on-off relationship with gamebooks in the Nineties I reacquired it more than once, and it was part of the batch of FF books that got me back into the hobby for good.

My previous online attempt provided a reminder that, while there is a path through the book that gives a fair chance even to a character with low stats, a bad roll at the wrong time can ruin everything, so I may do a little fudging to improve my chances.
Skill 10
Stamina 14
Luck 12
Willpower 9
Yes, unwilling to risk being as Unlucky as I was a fortnight ago, I switched my best roll to Luck.

The adventure starts with me in a net. There I was, returning to the town of Neuburg, which I once helped defend from invaders, when a moment's inattention caused me to blunder into a trap. The Background section ends with me being rendered unconscious, and when I come round (with a headache described in one of the best metaphors in all FF), I've been tied up and blindfolded. After a while, a voice whispers to me that if I move a little, the speaker will be able to cut my bonds. It should come as no great surprise that I do as asked. The ropes around my wrists are cut, and by the time I've removed the blindfold and the ropes around my ankles, my rescuer has absented himself.

I don't loiter in the cellar where I was being held. My equipment has been stowed in the room at the top of the stairs, so I retrieve that. Peering through a slit in the wall, I discover that I'm in one of the guard towers by the East Gate, and the streets are a lot quieter than they should be at this sort of time. I also learn that I'm locked in, and that the door is too sturdy for me to break down. Still, by standing in the doorway, I can force my captors to fight me one at a time when they return, and individually they're rubbish fighters. Only one of the six of them manages to hit me at all.

Free at last, I make for a tavern of which I have good memories. Along the way I notice the locals barring and shuttering their windows as dusk falls. The tavern is closed, but banging on the door persuades the innkeeper to let me in. There are no other guests, so I make conversation with the innkeeper, asking what's afoot in Neuburg, and casually mentioning that little 'helping the Baron fight off barbarian invaders' incident. The innkeeper is sceptical until I show him the ring that the Margrave gave me to commemorate the battle. Then he explains that the Baron has changed since his last trip south, from which he returned with companions like the mob I fought my way through earlier, and that unidentified monstrosities roam the streets at night, killing any humans who don't stay indoors. I know that places where you had a good time in the past are never quite the same when you return years later, but this sounds a bit much.

Retiring to my room, I note that it would be easy to open the shutters and sneak out of the window. But this is one instance where it's definitely not wise to ignore the warnings not to wander the streets after dark, so I secure the shutters and go to bed. It's still dark when I wake from a bad dream and hear something making unpleasant noises outside. It takes a while to get back to sleep after that.

In the morning I head into town, and visit the Merchants' Quarter. There I decide to get some Provisions, and while queuing I sense that I'm being watched. A couple of robed warriors like the ones who captured me yesterday are staring at me, and while I'm distracted by their scrutiny, a starving girl attempts to steal my money. I roll well enough that there was no need to switch my best die to Luck at character creation after all. Oh, well, no harm done. Unless I subsequently die in battle.

Anyway, thwarted in her attempt at robbing me, the girl attacks me with a knife, then runs off. I won't give chase, as doing so leads to one of the nastiest incidents in the whole book, made all the worse by being a rare example of non-supernatural horror. Loathsome eldritch monsters are all in a day's work for your average gamebook hero, but having to use lethal force in self-defence against a mob of street children is just horrid.

So I get back to shopping and buy some pies. Then I catch sight of a bric-a-brac stall run by a Dwarf or Goblin. Those two swordsmen are still shadowing me and, noticing this, the stall-holder says he has an item that may help me deal with the unwelcome attention. I enter his shack, and he rummages around until he finds what looks like a garden fork without a handle. The asking price is most of my remaining money, but I know it to be a worthwhile investment. Once I've paid and have the thing in my hands, I become aware that it's the head of a weapon, and the stall-holder tells me that the complete weapon was devastatingly powerful against invading Southerners and their monstrous allies back in the olden days. Legend has it that the handle was swallowed up by the ground, along with the monsters.

I manage to elude my shadows on the way out of the Merchants' Quarter, and next head for the riverside area, which is the poorest part of town. A cart brings more of the robed warriors to the wharves, and I spy on them for a while. They bully assorted locals into loading crates onto a barge, but there's one crate that nobody will touch, no matter how vigorously the swordsmen wield their whips. Eventually the labourers run away and, after a brief conversation, the swordsmen depart, leaving the crate on the dockside.

Now I emerge from hiding and investigate the mysterious crate, which smells worse than the river, and has something scrabbling about inside it, but lacks air-holes. Whatever is inside won't be able to breathe. Or doesn't need to. I push it into the river, and get a Luck bonus for eliminating a collection of sorcerous abominations at no personal risk.

The innkeeper advised visiting a ruined temple and speaking to the oldest man in town, so I now head for the Temple Quarter. The temple I want is virtually derelict, and has an old man dozing in the doorway. Taking advantage of knowledge gained from past attempts, I spy on him too. This leads to my being attacked by a robed warrior and his pet, a hairless dog with a trumpet-shaped nose. They're no match for me.

Proceeding to the temple, I am greeted by the old man, who introduces himself as Huw. His voice is vaguely familiar. As a reward for killing the warrior and hound, he gives me a potion that will significantly boost my Skill for one fight, and as this book does away with the usual limitations on exceeding Initial Skill, that's something that could come in very handy.

Huw invites me in, and then puts a knife to my throat, explaining that he rescued me yesterday because he thinks that I may be the warrior foretold to challenge the evil in the town. If so, I will have a valuable treasure that links me to the town. I hand him the ring, and he gives me food, then lets me know some of what is going on. Basically, an ancient evil was trapped underground a long while ago, and this temple and Neuburg Keep were built over the entrances to the subterranean chambers. Now Xakhaz, the evil in question, is preparing to rise again, and the Baron seems to be under the influence of an unidentified wizard who serves Xakhaz. A week ago Huw's fellow priest Cernic went to the Keep, with a Talisman that can weaken Xakhaz and his minions, but nothing has been heard from him since.

At this point I am offered the option of undertaking an Ordeal, which promises certain benefits if I succeed. My chances of doing so are roughly equal to my chances of breaking down the door of the tower where I was imprisoned, so I decline. Huw then sends me on my way, with redundant or less-than-helpful advice about the parts of town I've already visited.

Only the Keep remains to visit. The locals who see me heading towards it clearly think I'm mad. Huw advised me to take a side path rather than head for the main gate, and I do so. I did on my first try, too, despite not having met Huw - there's just something about the path 'less traveled by' that automatically appeals. It leads me to an overgrown garden, and a choice of directions that can make things easier in the long run if I can remember which way to turn. And I get it wrong again. Ignoring the potentially sanity-shredding encounters that may be had on this fruitless path, I make for a tower.

It's dark inside. So dark that I am unable to see the creature which attacks me, but it growls loudly enough that I have little difficulty in keeping track of where it is, and defeat it with little difficulty. Letting some light in, I find that I've just killed an Ogre with a strangely oversized turban.  Nothing good will come of investigating the incongruous headgear, so I head up some stairs to a battered door, barred from the other side. Deducing that the Ogre was trying to break through it, I loudly announce that I've just killed the brute, and hear the sound of a barricade being moved out of the way.

A literally green-fingered Dwarf gardener thanks me for eliminating the obstacle that's kept him from doing his job of late. I tell him why I'm here, and he concludes that my story's too ridiculous to be a lie. Besides which, the situation is so bad that even if I am a villain, I can hardly make things worse. He invites me to rest here, and eat, if I have food - he's got none. I don't really need to eat, but he could do with a meal, so I let him have a pie. He offers advice, so I show him the three-pronged spear-head, which he thinks is the business end of the Trident of Skarlos. He then shows me a staircase leading down into the cellars, which would enable me to enter the Keep unnoticed (except by him, obviously).

I descend to a cold and dank passage, intermittently illuminated by shafts in the roof. Heading along it, I see a door that's been wedged shut, and pass it by. I took that side turning on my first try, and missed out on a shot at getting the trident handle. Besides which, as I'm playing by the rules this time, I could come to grief fighting the weird creature beyond the door.

The passage leads through a secret door into the wine cellar, and the text has me foolishly decide to sample the contents of a random barrel. I wind up getting the worst possible outcome: a bitter-tasting and mildly toxic liquid. Looking inside the barrel will only make things worse (someone misunderstood when they heard that a good brew should have a decent head on it, so the product of several decapitations has been added to the contents), but the alternative isn't a whole lot better - a second randomised drink. This one is at least a decent wine, but it makes me tipsy enough to confer a Skill penalty until I next eat. And it's a 'don't eat unless the text says you can' book.

Eight swordsmen enter and surround me. Not liking the odds (especially with my Shkill - hic - impaired), I surrender, and they take me to the Baron to be tried as a foreign spy. The Great Hall is a good deal less austere than it was on my previous visit, and I don't think the chained slave girls are a worthy addition. An enigmatic red-robed advisor whispers in the somewhat stoned-looking Baron's ear, and I decide to keep quiet about my history with this place. I am sentenced to imprisonment in the dungeons, and don't put up a fight because that's actually where I need to go next.

My lack of resistance makes me such a boring prisoner that the guards can't be bothered to confiscate anything before throwing me into the cell. I can eat there, so I do, and sober up. While extricating food from my backpack, I notice that the trident head has started faintly glowing. It gets brighter when I point it at the floor, so I prise up a few flagstones, eventually discovering a shaft leading further down. Crawling into it, I reach a passage with walls that glow orange. Three doors lead from it, and the trident head lights up a lot more when pointed at one of them, so I head for that door. It's locked, but I'm able to pick the lock (well, melt it) with the trident head.

Beyond the door, steps lead down. I head down them, and a voice demands that I state the name of the speaker's master. I name the villain of the piece, and the lights go on. Crystals set into the walls glow, illuminating the staircase, and allowing me to see the rather obviously booby-trapped step, which I avoid. At the bottom of the stairs is a chamber containing a sarcophagus. In the tomb is a skeleton, with a glowing metal rod lying on it. I take the rod, which is, of course, the trident handle. As I reattach the two parts, the skeleton animates, but a single touch with the trident causes the bones to fall apart and disintegrate. Mind you, against most opponents it 'only' gives me a Skill bonus and does double damage. Triple against non-humans.

Now I have the Trident, there's no need to investigate the other doors. I climb back up to the dungeon. Time passes, and eventually someone unlocks the door and asks who I am. I reply that I'm the foretold hero, come to cleanse the Keep of the evil infesting it and save the people of Neuburg from their enemies - no need to exaggerate. The man reveals the glowing Talisman he keeps concealed inside his tunic, lets me out, and introduces himself as Cernic, Huw's fellow priest. He gives me the Talisman, and is all set to scurry off, but I stop him and ask for the instruction manual. Somewhat reluctantly, he explains that the Talisman can be used to dazzle enemies, but must never be used in front of a mirror. He also tells me that the red-robed wizard exerting a malign influence on the Baron inhabits guarded chambers on the next level down, and the only way to reach Xakhaz is through the wizard's chambers. Then Cernic scarpers.

I soon find more stairs leading down, and descend to a corridor from which several flights of stairs lead up. There are double doors at both ends, one pair guarded, so I head for them. There's no way of getting to the guards unnoticed, so I go into surveillance mode again. After some time, the relief guards approach, but one of them is dawdling, so I ambush the fast mover before his companion can catch up. The second guard is a better fighter than the first, but the combined effects of the Trident and Talisman make him easy prey.

Disguising myself in one of the men's robes, I hide the bodies and approach the doors. Eager to go off-shift, the guards don't ask why there's only one of me, or how I got those blood-stained holes in my robe, but just head up one of the flights of stairs. I go through the doors into an anteroom with two further doors leading out of it. Voices come from behind one of them. If I go through it, I'll need to succeed at a Willpower roll to not wind up getting hypnotised and being absorbed by a chair that is not a chair. Yes, Mr. Darvill-Evans is a Doctor Who fan. A not necessarily fatal but still sub-optimal route through the encounter also features a paraphrase of a line from Mr. Tambourine Man, but between the risk involved and the fact that I'd have to kill an innocent in order to reach that section, I'd rather not go there.

The other door leads to a food storeroom, which has another exit leading straight to the wizard's chambers (I recognise the section number). I go through, and confront Xakhaz' minion in her lair. Yes, 'her'. Anyone familiar with the book will already know that the Baron is in the thrall of a female magic-user, but it's actually designed as a twist, with all prior references to the 'wizard' (bar one Instant Death) carefully worded to conceal her gender.

She's standing in front of a mirror, tinkering with a black box (not the flight recorder kind), and after introducing herself as Senyakhaz of Zagoula, draws my attention to the cobweb spanning the room, with a giant spider near the top. If it were real, she'd have kept quiet and let me walk into it (plus, I made the mistake of falling for her trick way back on the doorstep in 1987), so I march up to her as if the web weren't there. Which it isn't. She draws a knife, and I attack, not using the Talisman because I remember Cernic's warning. The Trident gives me enough assistance to deal with her anyway.

I now turn my attention to the box, which has a crude switch and the letters Z and X on it. I know that the mirror also functions as a magical portal, and this is the control box, and anyone who's been paying attention should be able to deduce the two destinations for which it can be set. Funnily enough, picking the wrong one doesn't automatically lead to failure, but there is only a 50% chance of being able to proceed to the right location afterwards (and one of the non-lose outcomes gets a bit timey-wimey, making it necessary to fight Senyakhaz again), so I'll go the right way straight off.

Passing through the mirror, I find myself in yet another subterranean chamber. An armoured warrior with a broadsword, radiating light through all the chinks in his armour, declares himself to be Skarlos, and warns me to leave. Noting the slight similarity of the name to 'Spartacus', I 'wittily' reply, "No, I'm Skarlos!" This so confuses the warrior that I'm able to get past him (or rather, it) without a fight.

The room beyond not-actually-Skarlos is filled with mounds of dismembered corpses. A voice taunts me, and I realise that I'm being addressed by the head that's balanced atop the biggest mound of body parts. Only its not just balanced there, it's attached. And that pile of assorted limbs is actually Xakhaz' new body. It starts scuttling towards me, and there's no avoiding this Willpower roll. I succeed, anyway and, having failed to acquire one of the two items that would (in combination) give me a chance to defeat Xakhaz without fighting him, I resort to downing the potion from Huw. Consequently, I'm fighting with an effective Skill of 16, and while the Talisman only reduces Xakhaz' Skill to 13, the Trident inflicts extra extra damage on the shambling heap that is my foe. So it's less 'epic desperate battle between outmatched hero and quasi-Lovecraftian horror', and more 'jab, jab, jab, parry, jab, jab, I win'.

Upon closer examination, I discover that Xakhaz' head (still mocking me even as I remove it from the rest of the body) is itself a patchwork job. Reducing it to its constituent parts shuts him up (but only because he no longer has a tongue with which to utter insults) and enables me to find the tiny metal box that is the immortal part of my enemy. I take it with me as I return to the mirror out of here.

Ascending from Senyakhaz' chambers to the main body of the Keep, I find that the Baron is back to his old self, ejecting the robed swordsmen and their soft cushions. I am richly rewarded, and Huw takes custody of the unkillable essence of Xakhaz to imprison it somewhere more secure. It's been a while since I won any FF here.

I enjoyed that. Again. Playing it safe meant that I missed a lot of the more warped stuff going on in the book, but there's plenty of inventive nastiness in there. And while the optimal path does give a fair chance even to below-average characters, there are plenty of other viable (though more hazardous) routes through the book, so first-timers still have a chance. Those alternate routes also give the book good replay value, and can make it a lot more challenging if that's how you like your gamebooks. It's not perfect (compulsory wine-tasting?), but I can see why I kept going back to it.

1 comment:

  1. I really like the atmosphere in this one; there's a palpable sense that things have gone very wrong in Neuburg. I don't think I've ever completed it though.