Wednesday, 14 August 2013

I Know Something About Opening Windows and Doors

While it took me some time to get around to buying Fighting Fantasy book 28, I was a lot quicker to get the next one, Graeme Davis' Midnight Rogue. Indeed, I owned that one for some time before borrowing the copy of book 28 that eventually motivated me to acquire my own. The fact that Rogue's protagonist was something of an anti-hero made me less concerned about the impracticability of fitting it into my 'one hero for all the adventures' folly, and I was a little intrigued by the idea of playing a thief in Port Blacksand.

I think I got my copy of Rogue from Hammick's bookshop, close to the Five Ways, and I know that I made a diceless start on it on my way home. Not being able to make notes proved a little awkward when I the section numbers I'd (seemingly unnecessarily) been instructed to note down turned out to be crucial for establishing where to turn when I acted on the clues provided in those sections. Since I had found all the necessary clues, I didn't consider it cheating to go back and remind myself of the relevant numbers, after which I went on with the adventure. At around the time that I reached the road on which I lived, I made a mistake and read the wrong section, thereby skipping several encounters, one of which provided an essential item, so I wound up dying for want of a magic sword.

Almost a decade and a half later, this was among the 16 FF gamebooks in a charity shop that got me back into the hobby. I bought it, two others of which I had fond memories, and four that I'd never played before, and enjoyed them so much that I went back and bought the rest the next day the shop was open.

My character is an apprentice in Port Blacksand's Thieves' Guild, and tonight will determine whether or not I get to become a full member. The test is pretty straightforward in principle: I have to steal something. A specific something, namely the jewel known as the Eye of the Basilisk, which was recently acquired by the merchant Brass, whose symbol is a coin. That's as much information as my character has, though obviously I know a lot more on account of having played the adventure before on several occasions.

I get to choose three Special Skills from a list of seven. Items which substitute for four of the Skills can be found in the course of the adventure, so if you choose the right three, you could potentially finish up with a complete set (though acquiring one of them is tricky and almost certainly more bother than it's worth). One of the Skill-substitutes shouldn't work in some of the situations where it can be used, and one of the non-substitutable Skills isn't all that useful, so to diminish the implausibility of this playthrough, I'm going for Climb, Pick Pocket and Spot Hidden. I also have the usual line-up of attributes, and the scores are:
Skill 11
Stamina 20
Luck 9
This is one of the comparatively few post-1986 FF books in which high stats aren't essential, but I can think of at least one unavoidable fight where I'm liable to be glad to have that Skill score.

Heading out onto the street, I start by snooping around in the area surrounding the Thieves' Guild buildings, known as the Noose. It's a good place to pick up gossip, and (for no good reason) the book won't allow me to come back here after going anywhere else, so unless I get the information available in the Noose now, I'll never get it.

First I visit the Rat and Ferret tavern, where I must pay one of my five gold pieces for a drink before I can join the men playing pin-finger at one of the tables. In case anyone reading this isn't familiar with the name of the game, that's basically a competitive variant of Bishop's 'knife trick' from Aliens.

Mind you, in the FF version, each player only risks injuring their own hand.

If I manage to avoid stabbing myself for a minute, I win ten gold pieces. If I mess up, I must hand over five. Which is problematic, as there's no way I can have more than four at this point (every other Noose-based encounter costs money rather than providing any), so if I go ahead with the game, it will be in the knowledge that I can't actually pay the price for failure. With a Skill of 11, there's not much chance of my losing, but an equally high score proved insufficient the last time I wrote up an attempt at this book.

This time round I succeed. Just. The men hand over the money, but know nothing of use to my mission, so I decide to try asking the landlord. Not that I need whatever information he can provide, but it's that bit more incident for this blog entry. He won't tell me what he knows about Brass unless I pay him, so I hand over a few gold pieces. It's enough to get him to tell me where Brass lives, and to remind me of the coin symbol. He then sticks a finger into my beer (evidently not having got his Food Hygiene Certificate) and uses the drink to sketch a symbol on the counter. For once I don't have the Secret Signs Skill, so it means nothing to me, and I'm unable to demonstrate my Guild connection. Consequently, the landlord remembers some washing-up that needs doing, and becomes too absorbed in the task to pay me any more attention.

Next I visit local clairvoyant Madame Star. In return for two gold pieces, she tells me that what I seek is hidden in a dark place, a place of death, and that I will have to look in a place of sleep and a place of work. Not very substantial, but without this 'clue' I won't be able to work out the section number to get to the right place because... I don't know. Maybe Mr. Davis thinks it's impossible to be a good thief without getting your fortune told. That could be why the hero of his mini-adventure wound up on trial at the start of it.

The only other thing I could do in the Noose is give some money to a beggar, and as he'd only give me a rope and grapnel that could be used in place of the Climb Skill, there's no point. Instead, I head for the Merchants' Guild, because with my Skill set, visiting the 'place of sleep' before the 'place of work' would ensure my failure.

The Merchants' Guild is across the Market Square from the Noose. As I make my way there, I notice movement among the trees in the middle of the square. Trees that Ian Livingstone never mentioned in City of Thieves, and which don't appear in his Market Mayhem, a game set in the Market Square, which appeared in issue 3 of Warlock (yes, there are trees, but not in the middle). I don't investigate because, even with 11 Skill, some fights just aren't worth getting into.

There's a guard by the front door, so I look for another way in. There's another door down an alley, so I check that out. It's not locked, and leads to a furnished room in which I can hear someone breathing. As I don't have the Hide Skill, I knock something over (wouldn't Sneak or Spot Hidden be more appropriate for managing not to cause this disturbance?), and wake the other person, who turns out to be a beggar who broke in to find somewhere comfy to spend the night. I reassure him that I'm not a guard, and he gives me the lock-picks he used to get in. These give me the Pick Lock Skill, without which I'd have no chance of winning.

Heading upstairs, I see two doors, both of them with plaques beside them. On one plaque is a coin, on the other a fish, and on the floor is the trigger mechanism for a trap, which I only notice because I have Spot Hidden. Avoiding setting off the trap, I try the door with the appropriate symbol on, which is locked. Good thing I have those lock-picks, as I'd be unable to get in without them.

The office contains a desk and chair, and there's an iron door set into the wall. That door is sucker-bait, but the desk contains a key with the letter 'L' on it, some more money, and two documents pertaining to Brass' recent purchase and refitting of a place called Barrow Hill. Can you guess where he's keeping the Eye? Well, Mr. Davis doesn't think that the information provided here is sufficient, so I'm going to have to break into Brass' house to learn what I just found out all over again.

As I'm heading for Brass' House (which I could do even if I hadn't been told its location by the landlord), I see two guards approaching. Still lacking the Hide Skill, I don't manage to evade their notice, so I decide to see if a handful of gold coins will cause their eyesight to retroactively deteriorate. The guards agree that they didn't see me, and resume their rounds while I continue towards my destination.

There are two houses at the corner I know to be the location of Brass' house, one with a coin carved into a doorpost, the other with a painting of an oar on a sign. At this point the book takes another turn for the ridiculous, as it's in my best interests to break into the wrong house first. So I pick the lock on the door of the house with the wrong symbol and step into a hall that has a black hooded cloak hanging on the coat-stand. Wearing this cloak is equivalent to having Hide (so it would have prevented me from blundering into the furniture in the Guild?). Also in the hall is a letter from Silas Whitebait to Captain Marlin, as a hint to anyone who's not here just for the cloak that this isn't where Brass lives.

Now that I have my reward for failing to act on information provided at the start of the adventure, I cross over to the correct house and pick the lock on that one. Ignoring the suit of armour in the hall, and the door to the servants' quarters, I creep up the stairs. There's a door on my left, and a landing with three doors leading from it to the right. To make things a bit more interesting, I head for the landing.

One of the doors opens, and a white-clad figure emerges and approaches. I keep still, and the somnambulist walks past me, then returns to his room. After giving him a bit of time to settle down, I listen at one of the other doors. The sound of snoring comes from behind it, so I enter the room and, lacking Sneak, tread on a creaky floorboard. The snoring stops, I freeze, and the cloak makes me sufficiently unnoticeable that Brass fails to realise I'm here, and soon drops off again.

I find more money in the clothes at the foot of the bed, and spot a key on a chain around Brass' neck. It has the letter 'R' on it. I use my Pick Pocket Skill to try and take the key, and have to make a Skill roll to succeed. Alas, I roll a double six - the only way I could fail - and wake Brass, who calls for help. I manage to flee without getting caught, but it makes no difference: the book won't allow me to travel to Barrow Hill unless I had my fortune told, ransacked Brass' desk at the Guild, and found the documents about Barrow Hill in the safe at Brass' house. I could have got into the safe with just the 'L' key and the lock-picks, but no, I just had to try and do things the hard way.

Well, I'll just have to save my gripes about how at Barrow Hill the book turns into a generic dungeon-crawl and rehashes chunks of Rogue Mage for the replay. Midnight Rogue is better in concept than realisation, and I'm no longer as keen on it as I was back in 2001. Indeed, only one of the books I reacquired on the day I came across the sixteen in the charity shop hasn't gone down in my estimation, and I now prefer several of the ones I left on the shelf and only came back for because I decided I might as well collect the set after all.

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