Wednesday, 28 August 2013

I Do Not Think It Means What You Think It Means

I knew of Marc Gascoigne thanks to his editorial work on Warlock magazine, Fighting Fantasy monster guide Out of the Pit and Titan - the Fighting Fantasy World, but that wasn't the reason I wound up buying Battleblade Warrior, his one FF gamebook, significantly more quickly than two of the three that preceded it. Well, Titan probably was a factor in the decision, but because it had familiarised me with the scenario of Warrior, and a recognised set-up had more appeal than the previous book's 'save some place you never heard of from an unfamiliar villain and the horrors of multiplication'. Besides, I'm pretty sure that by the time Warrior came out, I had bought the books I'd been slow to acquire, so my completist tendencies would have kicked in when I saw that there was a new FF book.

I don't remember much about my first attempt, beyond the fact that I didn't use dice, and made it to the end, but failed for want of an essential item. Since reacquiring it (roughly half way through the year it took me to complete the set once I'd decided to get the lot), I've never got anywhere near that far, always getting into some fight that proved beyond my capabilities. Consequently I think it might be worth tailoring my character if the dice should show potential and sub-optimal distribution. Which they do, so a quick shuffle of the numbers gives me:
Skill 11
Stamina 16
Luck 9
I'll probably still fail, but at least it's less likely to be at the claws of that wretched Swamp Mutant.

The city of Vymorna has been besieged by Lizard Man armies for the past six years, and in this adventure I play a member of the Vymornan royal family. At the end of a hard day, the evening spent fire-fighting after a Lizard Man siege engine set the south tower alight, I sleep heavily and dream of an encounter with Telak, the local deity of Courage. He gives me a mission to seek a man named Laskar and travel to a distant mountain, where I may find a weapon that will turn the tide of battle in our favour. The background section skips the bit where I tell others of the dream and convince them that I've been selected for a vital quest and am not just seeking an excuse to desert, honest, mum, so the next thing I know, I'm preparing to set off.

Before I leave, the Queen shows me a small selection of items that may aid me in my quest, of which I may take only two because we wouldn't want to make saving the city too easy, now would we? I pick the bottle of liquid, as it'll provide an opportunity to poke fun at authors who don't know what a balm actually is (though this one does at least not bite), and the globe of petrified glow-worm fragments, which will make a convenient if implausible light source.

There are three possible ways of departing, and as I have vague recollections of an online discussion in which somebody asserted that one of them invariably leads to failure, I shall stick with the one I know to be workable. That is, sneaking out before dawn and trying to get through enemy lines without being spotted. This may sound like a bad idea, but I have a cloak. And on the far side of the city, several Vymornans have been persuaded to launch a suicidal attack against the Lizard Men to distract them.

I head through the trenches, picking directions more or less at random, because I don't think the decisions matter that much (in the sense that I'm fairly sure there are no lethal dead ends (literal or metaphorical) down here, rather than 'whatever I choose, I get forced to do the same thing' - the obnoxious railroading comes later). Hearing something approaching, I hide from what turns out to be a Lizard Man riding on a riding lizard.

The repetition of words may make that sound silly, but it's no stranger than this.

Passing signs of recent fighting, I head away from the river, and spot the same section number being used for more than one turning. It's not unreasonable that in this warren of trenches, multiple paths could lead to the same point, but after my previous online attempt at this adventure, I'm wary of choices that aren't really choices. And picking the section number that hasn't cropped up already leads me to a dead end, forcing me to turn back and go the way I was avoiding after all.

A Two-headed Lizard Man standing on the edge of the trench spots me and, not wanting to fight on such uneven terms, I grab his foot and pull him down to my level. Somehow he manages to land on his sword, dying in the process, so I don't have to fight at all. Some wooden steps take me up to ground level, and I catch sight of a catapult like the one responsible for the fire I had to help put out before the adventure started. Let's see how the Lizards like it when humans burn their stuff, eh? They don't, and I have to fight the catapult crew before I can set light to the catapult, but soon I have a merry blaze going.

Marching feet approach, so I hide behind some barrels. Hearing what sounds like an argument in the Lizard Man tongue, I sneak a look, and see a Lizard Man priest beating the mutant Lizard Man that had been transporting him in a chariot before it lost a wheel. The priest looks around for assistance and, not wishing to be mistaken for someone named Jack, I duck out of sight. Eventually the priest and mutant leave in search of a wheelwright or something, and I can move on.

As I draw near to the edge of the Lizard Men's camp, I spot the riding lizard pens and try to steal a ride. All's fair, right? A bell rings as I unhitch a lizard, but by the time any guard comes to investigate, I'm already speeding away. Still, that wasn't the only lizard in the enclosure, and I soon have half a dozen pursuers, who start to gain on me as time passes, getting close enough that they can start shooting at me with arrows. I head for a copse, and a man shoots my steed dead, though I survive the abrupt end to the ride unscathed. Yelling preposterously PG abuse at him (seriously, 'son of a bristle-beast'?), I head towards him, and he drags me into the copse, which the Lizard Men are strangely reluctant to enter. Maybe not so strangely - they might have scented the man's pet Sabre-toothed Tiger. The man shoots a couple of the Lizard men, and the Tiger scares the survivors' mounts away, at least for the time being.

Introductions follow, the man not turning out to be Laskar. Instead, he's the son of noted explorer Tadeus Lecarte. Never heard of him. Well, my character hasn't, but there is a paragraph on Tadeus in Titan, so I know of him. Lecarte junior is searching for his father (a pretty futile quest, given that the paragraph on Tadeus includes details of his death at the jaws of an undomesticated Sabre-tooth), but suggests that we head for the nearby town of Capra before more Lizard Men come after me. Then again, they might catch up before we get there, especially as only one of us has a mount (because some idiot shot mine), so it might be better to just stand and get massacred fight when the Lizard reinforcements arrive. Or we could set a trap using a 'fire-making substance' that a trader from Kallamehr sold him.

I go for the trap option, thereby discovering that the fire-making substance is from Sardath, which strains plausibility a little: this is roughly equivalent to being in 13th century Cardiff with a weapon manufactured in Inverness and bought from a passing cockney. Still, the Flashpowder blows apart the dozen Lizard Men who come back for me, so it seems a little picky to grumble about the unlikely route it took to get here.

We proceed to Capra, where I am besieged by locals wanting news of the situation in Vymorna. Eventually I'm allowed to get some rest, and in the morning I'm also provided with extra Provisions. Before I set off again, Lecarte suggests that I disguise myself as a non-human, but I've had enough friendly fire incidents to put me off the idea (one is plenty). He then offers me a souvenir from his wares, and I take a phial of purple liquid that might come in handy later on. Lecarte also advises me to seek out someone called White-Eye.

From here I can go north or east, and as I'm pretty sure that north leads to the incident that soured me on the book the last time I played it online, I go east. It gets misty, and the book gives me the option of changing my mind and going north, which strengthens my suspicion that the tracks are that way. East, if Mr. Gascoigne will let me. Yes, I may continue, but a peculiar howling noise prompts another 'are you sure you wouldn't rather change your mind?' option (though this one leads to a different number). E.A.S.T.

Further ahead, the ground is strewn with white stones and pebbles, which closer examination reveals to be bits of bone. Shapes form in the mist, and I hear more howling. Giving in to fear will not help, so I stand my ground. Ghostly warriors appear around me, locked in perpetual battle, and I invoke what little royal authority I have and tell them to go away. One of them tells me that they've been waiting for a command from a Vymornan captain for a long time, and they fade away before I can say, 'In that case, head back to Vymorna and get rid of the Lizard Men.'

The mist disperses, and the book tells me to eat a portion of Provisions. This is a bit annoying, as I'm already at full Stamina, so that's a bit of a waste, but as I can only eat when the text gives permission and it's taken this long to get to the first meal, I think it unlikely that there'll be enough subsequent opportunities for me to get through the remaining portions anyway.

Moving on, I reach rough ground, and find myself looking down into a depression containing a Triceratops. Wow! Not only have I evaded the railroady Orc funeral, I've also skipped the encounter with Katya the clueless (whose idea of stealth involves standing up and yelling) and the opportunity to get overpowered and left for dead by serpent people without Katya's assistance. Descending into the depression got me into a horrendous fight that brought my previous playthrough of Warrior to a not entirely unwelcome end (the stuff I missed by encountering the ghostly warriors had me hating the book so much I was half glad to be finished with it), so as I'm not so disgusted with the adventure today, I'll see if detouring around the depression works any better.

My detour leads through a clump of trees, which conceals a whacking great Tyrannosaurus Rex. Thinking quickly, I attempt to lure the T-Rex to the depression in the hope that it and the Triceratops will distract each other, and the plan works. The book provides stats for both dinosaurs, making it possible to play out their battle if any reader wants to see the outcome (odds are that Rex will win), but the 'multiple attacks' aspect on both sides of the fight means that my gamebook manager isn't set up to handle it, and I don't care enough to do it the old-fashioned way with dice.

Towards the end of the day I catch sight of a caravan, and approach it. An old man with milky-white eyes invites me in and, not entirely surprisingly, reveals himself to be White-Eye, the man Lecarte suggested I seek. He's a trader, and offers food and rest in return for autobiographical anecdotes. Seems a fair deal, so I tell him of my quest, and he says he knows something about Laskar, but wants to trade for the information. I offer him the phial of purple liquid, and sniffing it causes him to momentarily trip out (leading me to suspect, based on an incident from my schooldays, that it's a derivative of Parma Violets). He agrees to the deal, and warns me that Laskar's allegiances have changed, so I should be on the alert for treachery.

Continuing on my way the following day, I travel through thick jungle, having another meal enforced upon me, and getting reminded that I can't carry more than four portions of Provisions. So what was the point of the book providing extra food in Capra when there's no opportunity to eat before getting there? After a while, a panther and I startle each other, if I were drunk, I'd sober up (it's an Orc funeral thing), and the terrain becomes swampy. As I recall, I got shredded by the Swamp Mutant after trying to find solid ground on which to make camp, so I'll try pitching my tent here instead.

My gamebook manager indirectly confirms that that is not the option I took before. I still get attacked by the Swamp Mutant. This time round, my Skill may suffice to bring me through the fight, but this is just the sort of nonsense that marred my last online attempt at the book. Also, crocodiles and alligators are not the same thing, so claiming that the Mutant 'shares many of the crocodile's characteristics' and then going on to describe it as a biped with an 'alligator head' is just inviting mockery from biologists.

I win the fight, eventually doze off, and wake up face down in what must be more drowning-proof mud. The surrounding vegetation enables me to restock to my maximum complement of Provisions, which is good news, as I would now benefit from a meal. But I can't eat just yet, though I could climb a tree if I wanted. I do so, and see hills less than a day's walk ahead. Also two 'huge birds' which, in view of the cover illustration, are probably Pterodactyls with Lizard Men on them. Staying up the tree a while longer because I can, I spot some dangling vines, and decide to attempt a Tarzan impersonation. Doing so brings me to a concealed wooden platform up another tree, with a walkway leading from it. I could return to the ground, but now I'm curious.

Further on, a knotted rope dangles from higher up, and a rope bridge leads to another tree. I climb the rope, finding a 'man-sized bundle' wrapped in vegetation in a hollow in the branches. Is that 'man-sized' as in tissues, or literally as big as a man? If this is a jungle-themed variant on an Egyptian mummy, and it animates as mummies in gamebooks have a habit of doing, the resultant fight could include a 'roll X and fall to your death' rule like the one that did for me a week ago, so I shan't risk disturbing it.

Back down to the bridge, then. Which does not collapse as I suspected it might, but brings me to another platform, which provides access to several hollows in the tree. I look into one of them, discovering that it leads to a dwelling, furnished like a hut. The tip of a weapon touches my neck, and I duck and lash out, sending my would-be assailant over the edge of the platform. He's not alone, though, and my evading his companions somehow causes most of my equipment to vanish. There's just an arbitrary mention of grabbing my inexplicably empty rucksack, which I hadn't taken off or had taken from me, and making my escape on a liana. And then the text makes out that I gather fresh Provisions, tells me to delete everything but my rucksack, sword and knife (which means I don't have any food, or it should say not to delete the Provisions, or to bring the number I had back up to four or something along those lines) and goes on to mention the approach of something winged while I'm eating the food I no longer have. Did anybody edit this book?

The approaching creature is the Lizard Man-bearing Pterodactyl I suspected earlier, but it doesn't see me, so I'm able to proceed to the hills without further trouble. Then I'm confronted by a terrifying illusion that again illustrates Mr. Gascoigne's shaky grasp of taxonomy: the jungle tribes' panther god manifests as a giant tiger. This illusion could terrify me to death, but, regrettably, I survive to continue playing (actually, with this Skill and my current Stamina, dying here would be trickier than winning Crypt of the Sorcerer by the rules).

Crossing an escarpment, I meet Laskar, who makes out that he and I are on the same quest. As he knows where to go from here, and I don't, I have to go along with him for the moment, so I accompany him to his cave. He gives me some rabbit stew and tells me to get some rest. Food and sleep are both means of restoring lost Stamina in Fighting Fantasy books, but it would appear that Mr. Gascoigne failed to pick up on this detail while editing however many of the books he handled before writing this one, as I'm still not able to heal any of the damage taken fighting the Swamp Mutant.

During the night I briefly wake and see Laskar praying. In the morning he leads me to a ravine containing a ruined city, Kharnek, reputed to be the resting place of the Arm and Eyes of Telak. The Arm is a sword, and the Eyes are... something else. Also down there are assorted undead warriors, so Laskar won't be accompanying me on my search, but makes arrangements to ambush meet me in the temple on the far side of the ravine. He provides me with a lantern, fresh stocks of Provisions (when am I going to be allowed to eat some and get back to full Stamina, Mr. Gascoigne?) and a rope, and if I'd lost my sword in some doubtless poorly-written and illogical encounter, I'd get a replacement for that as well.

We descend to the ruins, Laskar points out the way to the part of the city most likely to contain what I seek, and then he starts his ascent. I can go where directed or wait for a bit. Considering what happened the last time I waited (up that tree), I don't loiter in case it leads to some stochastic loss of a limb. The passage Laskar indicated leads to a courtyard, from which I can move on in either of two directions. And if I pick the wrong one, I probably miss the vital item I failed to acquire first time around, and wind up eventually having to play this horrid book again.

I go left because I probably went right in 1988, winding up in what appears to be a temple to the sun goddess. Again there are two ways on, and I pick the door that's half off its hinges. I'm given the option of changing my mind upon seeing that beyond the door is a corridor, but proceed, and narrowly avoid falling into a pit that opens up in front of me. The more Mr. Gascoigne tries to convince me that maybe I should turn back and try the other way out, the more convinced I become that he's trying to divert me from the correct path, so rather than turn back, I attempt to leap over the hole.

I succeed, and continue down the passage to a hall where a Giant Slug is chewing on a curtain that covers an alcove. My sword does half damage to the Slug (which is unlike the Giant Slug listed in the Gascoigne-edited Out of the Pit in every significant respect), and the fight takes so long that by sheer law of averages I lose a couple of rounds despite having a much higher Skill than the Slug.

There are two alcoves, and I check the second one first. It contains only broken bits of wood, but something glints behind a crack in the wall. I reach in, and find the key to a z-shaped lock. And now the numbers for looking in the first alcove and leaving the hall have both changed, which is ominous. I try the other alcove, and my taking the key has summoned a second Slug, which I must fight. Is this one thinner-skinned than the first, or is the writer just assuming that I'll automatically apply reduced damage as in the previous fight? I do so anyway, not that it makes any difference to the outcome. And there's nothing of interest in the alcove.

Leaving the room, I head down a decidedly skew-whiff corridor to a T-junction, and try going right. This leads to a room that's been pretty thoroughly trashed, but does have one unopened chest in it. A chest with a z-shaped lock. Inside is a large diamond, which I pocket. There's no way on from here, so I turn back and go the other way, reaching a room where I may eat Provisions at long last.

Steps lead down to a room with another two exits, and something that upon closer examination turns out to be a fountain. Spouting blood rather than water, so I don't take a drink. The left exit leads up some steps to a door that I cannot open. But the long-dead Warrior-king on the other side succeeds where I failed, and I have another fight on my hands. Though I have the higher Skill, he gets the better rolls, so I wind up skewered on his javelin. At least I can reshelve the book now.

My condolences to Marsten, who's playing Battleblade Warrior next for his blog.


  1. This is one of the last few FF books I don't have. So which is the best between this one and Fire on the Water in the category "go get that magic sword or we're doomed"?

    1. Despite that pesky 1 in 10 chance of being squashed by the toppling mast, Fire on the Water is a lot fairer overall (even the less forgiving Mongoose edition), and has never made me want to hurl the book across the room, so it definitely beats Battleblade Warrior in my estimation.