Tuesday, 27 August 2013

I Must Fight This Sickness, Find a Cure.

My more successful attempt at the Lone Wolf gamebooks has reached the last book I failed on the blog, Shadow on the Sand. There are basically two viable routes through the first half of the book (with some degree of freedom of movement on both), and I think that my veteran of four books is in good enough shape to try the one I avoided last time.

Before I restart the adventure, I should pick my next bonus Discipline and see if there's anything worth taking from the additional equipment offered to me at the start. I remember from past goes at the book that in the second half there's some desert travel, so I suspect that Tracking will be of more use to me than Camouflage. As for equipment, I shall leave behind the hourglass I grabbed for fun in the previous adventure, thereby freeing up space in my backpack for another healing potion. In view of the trials ahead, there may be times when conventional Healing isn't fast enough to give me a fighting chance.

A quick reminder of the set-up for anyone unfamiliar with the book who hasn't recently read my failed try at it: I'm being sent to Vassagonia to sign a peace treaty in the hope of at least delaying the outbreak of war. Things go according to plan until about half way through section 1, at which point I discover that the new ruler of Vassagonia (or Zakhan) does not share his predecessor's desire for peace, and wants me taken prisoner upon arrival. Heavily outnumbered by the armed warriors who make up my reception committee, I head back towards the galley that brought me here. An enemy horseman blocks my way, so I dive from the quay into the sea, and swim underwater to make it harder for Vassagonian envoy Maouk and his soldiers to see which way I go.

A hostile form of jellyfish known as a Bloodlug takes an interest in me, but Animal Kinship comes in useful for the first time in a long while, enabling me to give the Bloodlug a sudden craving for calamari. Bad news for the closest squid, but it enables me to avoid having to fight while holding my breath, which can get awkward.

Surfacing beside a skiff that screens me from my pursuers, I use Mind Over Matter to create a distraction, psychokinetically toppling a large urn some distance away. This enables me to get back onto dry land unnoticed, and I'm only a short distance from the entrance to a warren of alleys by the time someone finally spots me. Fleeing, I reach a courtyard with multiple exits, and Tracking comes in handy sooner than expected, indicating that one exit leads to a dead end, and narrowing the choice to a gate and an archway. The arch is more exposed, so the gate will be better if it's not locked. But that's a big if, so I go for the arch.

It leads to a market, where business is going on as usual - except that everyone wears a black sash in honour of the late Zakhan. A stall sells sashes, and I buy one, since the old Zakhan seemed to be a comparatively reasonable chap, and not wearing a sash would make me conspicuous and more likely to get caught. A notice about the change of ruler has been attached to a tavern wall, and I risk loitering to see what it says. Just a floridly-worded announcement that the old Zakhan is dead, and Kimah has been chosen to succeed him. A nearby commotion indicates that my pursuers have reached the market and, as is traditional for chase sequences that pass through a market, knocked over a stall. The vendor objects to their clumsiness, and is decapitated. Time I was moving on.

Hurrying down the alley, I reach a plaza, and decide that I need to get off the streets as, even with the sash, my pale skin and green cloak make me a little conspicuous. There's an annoying edit in the Mongoose Publishing reissue of the book, with the observation that my appearance makes me 'stand out like a sore thumb'. The expression is 'stick out like a sore thumb'. I learned of its appropriateness after badly hurting one of my thumbs some years ago: the pain is exacerbated by any bending of the thumb, so the sufferer tends to keep the thumb straight whenever possible, as a result of which it sticks out - more in the 'protruding' sense of the term than the 'being conspicuous' sense, but the expression ignores the difference for the sake of wordplay. So Mr. Dever was just wrong in his choice of verb (unless he moves in social circles where people are ostracised for having hurt their thumbs, in which case I retract the objection and instead recommend that he get to know some nicer people).

Two buildings catch my attention: a tavern with the all-too-appropriate name 'The Hunted Lord' and a house with a wooden fish hanging above the door. Having Healing enables me to recognise the fish as the insignia of the peaceful monastic order known as the Redeemers (I made a bit of a faux pas with some of them in the previous adventure, so there ought really to be some recognition of the possibility that a player character without Healing (should such a beast even exist) who made it through book four might still recognise the sign). The local branch is sure to offer shelter, but I might get them into lethal trouble for harbouring a fugitive. My sash should keep my very presence in the tavern from causing a pursuer-attracting furore, but the stallholder incident makes it clear that bystanders could get killed if they get in the warriors' way, so whichever way I go, I risk endangering people who mean me no harm.

There's more chance of getting something useful from the Redeemers. And, being a silent order, at least they won't provoke excessive retribution by grumbling about the soldiers. I enter their hall, and a black-robed man approaches. Some of Maouk's men enter the plaza and, noting my agitation, the man points out the cellar door. In the cellar I find a tinderbox, a rope that doesn't appear to take up as much backpack space as the one I have on me, and an iron grille in the floor that, from the smell (and based on what I remember of the book) leads into the sewers. If I want to avoid being captured, that's where I'll have to go: I can already hear the soldiers searching upstairs.

It doesn't take them long to figure out where I've gone, and they smash in the trapdoor, causing the grille to fall down and injure my shoulder. At the bottom of the convenient ladder leading down from the cellar is a three-way intersection of sewer tunnels. Tracking tells me that one leads to the coast, one below the city, and one to the aqueduct, and I'm pretty sure that I'm not getting out of the city in this half of the book whatever I do, so I might as well take the most direct route.

I'm briefly delayed when my foot gets stuck in what turns out to be a human rib cage, but I remain ahead of my pursuers for long enough to reach another junction. Continuing in the same direction, I pass through a thick cloud of flies and find a ladder leading back above ground. While I'm not sure how it would happen, I know that I'd wind up captured if I were to return to the streets at this point, so I keep going. Distracted by the insects crawling on my skin, I trip over and fall face-first into the waters of the sewer. Surfacing and making for the nearest walkway, I find that one of my arms has gone numb.

Somehow, despite the fact that Healing restored the Endurance I lost when the grille hit me, and a section in book 2 made it clear that the Discipline can cause wounds to close up, bacteria in the water have infected my injured shoulder, causing me to contract Limbdeath, a disease that will cause my arm to turn gangrenous unless the wound is treated with the herb Oede within twenty-four hours. Thinking it unlikely that I'll find much Oede down here (and aware that I've found the only way to avoid being taken prisoner by Maouk), I start looking for a way out of the sewers.

Well, I would start, but to help pad the sections out to a round number, the mechanical consequences of the disease (a Combat Skill penalty, and no using a shield while afflicted) are held back until the next section. But now I can seek an exit from the sewers. There's one not far off, though it has its own hazards: up ahead is a mud geyser that has been harnessed to provide central heating for the dwellings above, with two chimneys channeling steam up to the houses. These chimneys obviously lead out of the sewers, but if I should slip while climbing up, the boiling mud below will kill me much more quickly than the infected arm could.

Resignedly following the unwritten (at the time this book came out) rule to always go left, I disturb a nest of Steamspiders. With only one good arm, I cannot fight, and must endure the biting, which turns out not to be so bad: a random number determines how much damage I take climbing past the nest, and a quick check of the Combat Results Table reveals that if I'd fought and got that number in the first round of combat, I'd have lost the same amount of Endurance anyway, and might well have taken more damage in subsequent rounds.

Further up, the chimney bends, so I'm crawling rather than climbing. The fact that this section can be reached on Limbdeath-free routes through the book results in a significant omission here: one paragraph states that I no longer care about the treaty, and my only concern is to get out of here and back home. Not so bothered about finding a cure to the disease that could cost me my arm or my life, then?

I soon find a vent in the ceiling, through which I clamber. It leads (in a convenient but logical development) to the public baths, and the short-sighted attendant has a keen enough sense of smell that he lets me through without noticing that I'm not local. Diving into the perfumed waters fully clothed, I wash away the stench of the sewers, and then turn my attention to a jar of purple oil at the side of the pool. Healing tells me that the oil is a balm, which would be useful to know if that very Discipline hadn't just restored my last lost Endurance point anyway. The book offers readers who didn't pick Healing a choice between trying to drink the oil and rubbing it on their skin (as well as just leaving it alone), and a quick peek at the relevant section confirms that Mr. Dever understands that certain medications are for external application only - a minor detail that I find amusing because I know that the Fighting Fantasy book I'll be playing next for this blog is a lot more careless about such matters.

After drying off in a heated antechamber, I mingle with the other patrons and learn that the new Zakhan is not a popular choice. I could take my towel with me when I leave, but I'd have to sacrifice two backpack items to make room for it, and that's rather too high a price to pay for the sake of a Douglas Adams in-joke.

Not far from the Bath Hall is a the Square of the Dead, where the heads of criminals are impaled on metal spikes. In a nasty twist, the crew of the galley that brought me here have been added to the collection. I hurry away, and when I pause at a junction, I spot a sign indicating that the shop across the way is a herbalist's. I pop in to ask if they have any Oede in stock, and the proprietress tells me that it's far too rare and expensive for anyone but the Imperial Apothecary in the Zakhan's palace to have any. She can offer me a few palliatives, but they're not sufficiently better than the potions I already carry to be worth the expense. More helpfully, she mentions that the guards on the north gate of the palace take bribes, and lets me out via the side door.

Presumably it's that choice of exit that enables me to avoid the encounter with Maouk that awaits any player who makes it this far without contracting Limbdeath. It's a little bit contrived that Lone Wolf either gets imprisoned in the palace or has to go there for the Oede, but that only becomes apparent after repeated play (or if some spoilsport like me points it out), so as a means of ensuring that the hero winds up where the author wants him, it's better than some I've encountered.

The alley eventually brings me to the Tomb of the Princesses, and there's a page-long digression about the story behind the tomb, involving a particularly infamous Zakhan who had his two daughters executed for trying to prevent the massacre of the slaves who built the grand Palace, and subsequently went insane. I'm pretty sure that at this stage in the series, these 'tourist guide' moments are just ostentatious world-building rather than set-up for a trivia quiz, though the book does introduce the gimmick of having to solve a puzzle to find out which section to turn to next later on.

Not far from the tomb is the palace, and from here I can see the north gate (less heavily guarded than usual because so many of the Zakhan's troops are searching the city for me) and a portcullis blocking an entrance in the west wall. Remembering the herbalist's words, I make for the gate, which opens to let in a horseman who throws the guards a scroll as he passes them. If I'd chosen Camouflage instead of Tracking, I could probably get in while the guards are distracted by the scroll, but as it is, I'll have to use bribery. I approach the guards, claiming to be a merchant petitioning to have a confiscated cargo returned to me, and they demand two items from my Backpack in return for letting me through. I'd rather hoped they'd want money - the stuff in my Backpack could be of use later on. Time for a change of plan, then.

More riders are admitted to the palace, each being let in upon presentation of a scroll. I decide to ambush one and impersonate him. A poor roll has me botch the ambush, so I have to fight the courier, and incur a temporary Combat Skill penalty. What with the Sommerswerd, my Combat Skill-enhancing Disciplines, and the helmet I picked up in book 3, I still win before the penalty has time to wear off. Taking the man's robe and his scroll, I return to the palace and the guards let me in.

Concealing myself in the palace gardens (and, judging by the lack of text forbidding me from using Hunting here, identifying some edible plants on which I can snack), I identify two entrances to the palace, and both Sixth Sense and Tracking tell me that the route to the Imperial Apothecary leads through the Zakhan's trophy hall. The door is bolted on the inside, but a window has been left open, so I'm able to get in and sneak as far as a junction. Both passages leading on end at doors, with convenient engraved signs identifying them: one shows a mortar and pestle, the other a book. I'm tempted to check out the wrong door for curiosity's sake, but I suspect that Joe Dever is not as generous as Graeme Davis when it comes to ignoring blatantly obvious visual clues.

The door to the Apothecary isn't locked, which surprises me until I find out why a lock isn't needed: there's an Elix on guard. A small group of these predatory felines provides one of the many ways of losing the last three accompanying Rangers in book 4, but this is the first time that this particular version of Lone Wolf has encountered one. Lack of experience in dealing with the species is not a significant obstacle to killing the one here. On a chain around its neck is a Gold Key which provides access to the locked strongroom where the Oede is stored. There's enough to cure the Limbdeath and still have a bit left over for a healing surge, should I need one. To free up Backpack space for it, I down one of the potions I've been carrying around, restoring what little Endurance I lost to the Elix. Healing would probably have done the job by the time I next get into a fight anyway, but I had to discard something, and at least I'll be at full strength if there's a surprise attack I've forgotten.

A second door leads out of the Apothecary, and that key fits the lock, so I go through. Behind it is a narrow staircase, which leads to a not-concealed-well-enough door, and the key unlocks that one as well. The door leads to the arboretum, where I find and ignore a random Quarterstaff. In the Mongoose text, there's also a clunky parenthesis pointing out that if I've just come from a combination lock puzzle, this section is the correct one. Was that really necessary?

I continue on my way, eventually reaching the top of a staircase down to a large room, where I see a sight so horrifying that I need to turn to a whole new section to find out what it is. In the hall below is the Zakhan, holding a black metal orb that I will have cause to regret not having pilfered from him in four-and-a-half books' time, but it is his guest who merits the new section: one of the Darklords of Helgedad, the generic-but-near-invulnerable villains responsible for the destruction of the Kai monastery back in book 1. He demands that the Zakhan fulfil his half of their bargain and hand over Lone Wolf in return for the Orb of Death. Hurriedly changing the subject so as to avoid having to admit that I'm not quite as captured as might have been implied, the Zakhan demands to know why the Darklord's servants are digging around in the Tomb of the Majhan, burial place of the Zakhans of antiquity. The Darklord explains that one of the treasures in the Tomb is the Book of the Magnakai, the manual which, in my hands, could lead to the creation of a new Kai order and, in the fulness of time, a threat to the very existence of the Darklords. Not to mention giving Joe Dever an excuse to produce at least seven more books in this series. Possibly even as many as twenty-seven, given a sufficiently obsessed fanbase.

And that's where the first half of the book ends. Shadow on the Sand consists of two 200-section mini-adventures, and I've reached the conclusion of the first one. Given that the title page of the first edition explicitly states, 'Containing two Lone Wolf adventures', and the rules say that 'You may choose one bonus Kai Discipline to add to your Action Chart for every Lone Wolf adventure you have successfully completed,' I could now, on a technicality, acquire Camouflage and complete the set. I mean, if whoever came up with that gimmick has the gall to suggest that 50 extra sections and an intermission legitimise calling the book two adventures and putting up the cover price (at least for the initial print run), I should be able to exploit a loophole in the wording to gain what would at best be a very minor advantage in the second half of the book adventure, right?

I had planned to cover both 'adventures' from Shadow on the Sand in one entry, but what with still having to go into town with blog entries on a memory stick as my home internet connection has yet to be restored to functionality, I'm going to take advantage of the spurious split and conclude this entry here. In roughly a fortnight I'll play through the second half of the book, which does not have the sub-title Shadow Harder, but might have done if it had been written 5 years later than it was.

1 comment:

  1. The correct section confirmation comes from Project Aon. There are some sections where it is useful, so for consistency, they mark all of them. However, Project Aon uses an unobtrusive footnote, rather than a statement in the main text, which I think is superior.

    It's a shame that Mongoose didn't copy all the other corrections from the Project Aon editions.