Wednesday, 7 August 2013

Looking for Something That Won't Be Found

Five months elapsed between the publication of Star Strider and the next Fighting Fantasy book, Robin Waterfield's Phantoms of Fear. There hadn't been a gap that long between FF gamebooks in years, and with no Warlock magazine to help sustain interest in the range, my attention drifted on to other things. I still played gamebooks, but my enthusiasm had diminished, and when Phantoms appeared in the bookshops, I didn't bother getting it.

Part of what put me off it was an element of the premise. I'd worked out a convoluted and contrived plotline whereby the same character could be the hero of almost every FF adventure, occasionally disregarding inconvenient details to help fit most of the plots into one overarching narrative. Even so, there were limits to how much I could ignore for the sake of this daft idea, and the fact that the viewpoint character in PoF was an Elf, not a human, was obviously going to get in the way of shoehorning the adventure into my epic folly.

Some months later I borrowed a copy of the book from a friend (the same one who lent me his The World of Lone Wolf books), had a diceless go at it, and enjoyed it enough to get a copy after all. There are two different ways of winning, one of which is actually quite easy if you're not using dice, so I made it to the end via that route. As I'm playing gamebooks properly here, I anticipate a more challenging time today.

So, my character is a Wood Elf, probably from the same tribe encountered by the hero of Masks of Mayhem shortly before he got unspecified. Having learned from both my parents, I'm a warrior and a shaman. I'm also a practitioner of the art of dream control. And thanks to past attempts at the book, I know that I'm nowhere near as competent as that description suggests. This particular version of the character has the stats:
Skill 12
Stamina 18
Luck 7
Power 11
That Power score is less impressive than it might look: the range of possible starting scores is 8-18. And it's an important attribute on either path to victory, so that may have already doomed me.

I wake from a dream in which I was explaining the plot of the adventure to the other inhabitants of the village. The Demon Prince Ishtra is creating a vast evil army beneath the forest, and I have been chosen to defeat this invulnerable villain. Reflecting on this, I decide to go back to sleep - not to try and forget about my quest, but in the hope of dreaming something useful.

In the new dream I walk through the forest until I reach a T-junction. A statue of a goddess releases the black dog it was holding (which runs down the track along which I came), and points down both the paths available to me. One path exudes a sense of health and well-being, the other leads to decaying vegetation and a foul-smelling pit. The statue drops the two identical copies of my sword that she's holding (no, they weren't there a moment ago, but this is a dream) and vanishes.

I take the non-festering route, and reach a ring of white elder trees. A voice tells me to remember this sacred spot, and I gain a little Power before waking. I now understand that I must seek out the blighted region within the physical forest, enter Ishtra's underground stronghold, and improvise a means of overcoming one of the most powerful evil beings in all Titan. After explaining my mission to the tribe (the book doesn't say whether or not it happens exactly as in the first dream), I collect my sword and backpack and set off, not bothering to pack Provisions because my character is woefully clueless about how rubbish he is at foraging for supplies.

Heading south (because I know from a previous attempt that north is no good), I am attacked by a Fog Devil that drifts in from Lake Nekros. Despite its insubstantiality, it's able to inflict a couple of wounds on me before I dissipate it. As I continue on my way, I start to wonder if this is the wrong direction too, and turn west. Observing uncharacteristic behaviour from the woodland creatures, I decide that it's time I looked for food supplies, and get lucky: not only am I left alone by potentially hostile fauna, but I even manage to find a decent number of Provisions. On at least one past attempt I've wound up having to fight something, and then acquiring less food than it would take to restore the Stamina lost in that battle.

Towards evening I'm forced to spend a point of Power driving off a swarm of hornets. Then I get ambushed by Pixies, who drop a sticky net on me and use magic dust to render me unconscious. I come round in the morning, soaking wet and still in the net, which is now suspended from a tree branch, and hanging over a pool into which the Pixies periodically dunk me for their own amusement. One of them explains that they serve the Riddling Reaver, minion of the neutral trickster gods. He doesn't want Evil to prevail, but he's not too keen on having Good triumph either. Still, if I can solve the Pixies' 'riddle', they'll let me go and provide some assistance. If I can't, it's game over.

Solving the not-really-a-riddle by counting the words in the Pixies' atrocious limerick, I am set free and get to pick one of a set of items. I choose a carved stag's antler because the text specifies how many branches it has, and items that have numbers associated with them are often important in gamebooks. I subsequently discover that the water has spoiled some of my Provisions, but I still have plenty left.

A little later I encounter an Arctolyce, a predatory wolf/bear hybrid, which purportedly has a particularly vicious bite, not that this one ever manages to get its teeth into me. Nothing else of note happens during the day, and I spend the night in a bone-strewn cave. Whatever makes its lair there doesn't trouble me, and I have a dream about bottomless pools of fire, water and wind (no, wind doesn't tend to form pools, but this is a dream).

In the morning I decide against exploring the tunnel at the back of the cave: while the potential harm found in there is easy to evade, I'm not aware of any benefits to be derived from going in there, so I might as well see if there's anything worth encountering on the outdoors route from here. No, nothing - it's just quicker. I reach the edges of the blighted part of the forest, which is more extensive than I'd expected, and stand my ground when something makes a loud noise. A blast of sorcerous wind knocks me over, but I'm not harmed because I wasn't breathing in at the time.

Continuing towards the despoiled region, I find an enchanted grove which still maintains some presence of Good here. There's a pool of water there, and I take a quick dip in it: on my previous online attempt I drank from it, but the benefit gained was negligible. Bathing proves a little better: I get a Luck bonus, and learn of a silly-sounding encounter that I missed (an Itching Powder Plant? Maybe that strange noise was caused by a Whoopee Cushion Tree!). Then I doze off, because obviously the thing to do when in close proximity to the lair of a foe that could crush me with no effort at all is to have a quick snooze. There's a 5 in 6 chance of getting something potentially vital here (and if the roll goes badly, I fail Marsten-style, but without that item I'd have to almost double my Power to be in with a chance). Nevertheless even if sleeping is probably the right thing to do here, it's still a pretty absurd course of action to be taking.

The fairy folk who tend the grove appear to me in a dream, teach me all sorts of gardening tips, and attempt to convince me to abandon my quest in favour of combating Evil by helping maintain this place. Their novel interpretation of 'Dig for Victory' fails to win me over, so the dream ends and the glade vanishes, leaving only a magical tree with one silver branch, which I take as a souvenir.

I advance into the warped part of the forest, and may no longer use magic.Not that I'd bothered with it before now, except for when the book made me do it to get rid of those hornets. Up ahead is a clearing, which I boldly cross, as a result of which I get attacked by a Slime Monster. To clarify, that's a monster that hoards slime, rather than one made of the stuff. Not difficult to kill.

Continuing on my way, I find and follow a trail. It leads to a fenced-off area full of holly bushes, and I crawl under the bushes to investigate. Up until now I've done a pretty good job of avoiding situations which reveal just how useless I am at woodland stuff, but here I get scratched and (non-lethally) poisoned by the holly, then ambushed and disarmed by the insane man who lives here.

Imagine this chap. But with a large and well cared-for axe.

He invites me back to his hut, where I introduce myself. If I had enough Power, he'd regain a little sanity at this point. Alas, I don't have nearly enough, so he bursts out laughing, and (assuming I wish to retain all my limbs) I have no choice but to grab back my sword while he's distracted with merriment. This leads to a fight, a trope-aware beam of sunlight forcing its way through the filthy window just to make the madman's axe gleam as he swings it at me. I win without much difficulty, but the likelihood of my finding the important item in the hut has just significantly dropped. A lucky roll enables me to discover the thing anyway: it's a glow-worm trapped in amber, and still glowing despite having been like that for millennia. And somebody's engraved a number on it.

That night I have bad dreams, culminating in one where I have to fight a tree. I lose. But dream combat tends not to be fatal, so I just wake up with less Power and a wounded neck. Resuming my trek towards Ishtra's domain, I spot a deer in a clearing, but that Shapechanger's already fooled me once, so I shan't fall for its tricks again. As I continue through the increasingly warped and deformed region, I become aware that I've been surrounded by half a dozen Dark Elves, who are now closing in on me. The text indicates that I hate their kind with a near-pathological intensity, but I know that even with 12 Skill, I wouldn't stand a chance against that many (I found that out the hard way on a previous attempt), so I try to break through their cordon before they get too close. That still means fighting them, but singly, so long as it never takes me more than four rounds to defeat one. Alas, the third one takes six rounds, so the fourth gets two free attacks on me, but the wording implies that the round-counting restarts at the commencement of each new fight, so there's still theoretically time to beat Dark Elf four before the fifth one catches up. Indeed, I have no trouble offing him once I'm able to give him my full attention, and the last two are no trouble at all. I think this is the furthest I've ever got through Phantoms by the rules.

Disguising myself as one of my attackers, I carry on to the pit, which is not as it appeared in the dream. In fact, Ishtra and his troops are occupying a complex of subterranean tunnels, the entrance flanked by two ivory pillars because allusions to Greek myth make perfect sense in a world that has no Greece. Once I'm inside, a new rule comes into play, allowing me to move from the real world to the dream world almost at will. If I were to enter the dream world, my physical form would continue to move through the real world in an invisible, somnambulatory state, so I'd be unaware of my surroundings, and go unnoticed by Ishtra's troops (provided I didn't walk into any of them). I'm going on about it in hypothetical terms because I'm on the item-hunting route, and the things I still need are all found in the physical realm, so I shan't be making much use of this aspect of the gamebook. If I had enough Power to make the alternate path viable (or if I'd failed to acquire the amber, and been forced to take the Power route as my one remaining slim chance of winning), spending time in the dream world would be more worthwhile - maybe even essential.

Before long I encounter a Crio-Sphinx at a junction. The Sphinx tells me which of the paths leading onwards would kill me, but I know that Sphinxes' words are never straightforward. I could evade the issue of trying to figure out what the Sphinx really means by slipping into the dream world, but I remember that the solution to the 'puzzle' is a matter of perspective, and take the turning that won't get a portcullis dropped on me.

I reach a cavern with several exits and a big pile of bones in it. For a while I just keep watch, seeing several Orcish patrols go through, and then I risk taking a closer look at the bones. They're the remnants of heroes of antiquity who fought Evil down here, and learning this is strangely encouraging.

More Orcs pass through the chamber, and I decide to explore one of the passages from which a patrol just came. I try the one north, and witness an altercation between an Ogre and a Troll who just bumped into each other. Their disagreement turns into a fight, and I watch to see what happens. The Troll wins and heads my way, still in a violent mood. He doesn't win his next fight.

Continuing to explore, I find an armoury with a quartz door. I remember the 'surprise' that's here, but not if there's anything in there that will justify getting attacked by the door. Best to check, just in case. While the Quartz Golem doesn't do much damage to me, it does slightly blunt my sword, and just turns back into an immovable door when defeated, so that was a waste of time.

Further on, I find the kitchen. The cook is in a bad mood because a Dark Elf foraging party is late (if it's the party I encountered, they're late in more than one sense of the word), and attacks me, meaning to add my corpse to the pot. Her cleaver's not much use against ingredients that can fight back. To make it look more like I belong here, I grab a tray of food and take it with me when I move on.

The exit leads to a dining hall where more Goblins than I can fight in one go are eating something vile. One of them demands to know what I'm doing here, so I pretend that I've just come to have my lunch. The pretence goes all right until I find a fingernail in the stew. Still attached to the finger. My character's a vegetarian, and can't stomach that, so I hurry out of the hall. After a little while I see a side turning, which the book compels me to ignore. There's a strong probability that something essential lies on the path that would have brought me here by the other route, but it's too late to do anything about that now. If I'm doomed, I'm doomed.

Next I encounter one of the more exasperating aspects of the book. It's a corridor with six doors leading off it, numbered with multiples of eleven from 11 to 66. If I want to open any doors, I must roll the dice, and keep rolling until I get a double. If it's a double one, I get to open door 11 by turning to section 11, and so on. Weird, and dream logic can't be invoked here as I'm awake. But what makes it that bit worse is that an essential item (on the item-gathering path) is behind one of the doors, while another leads to an Instant Death.

After several non-doubles (the amount of fruitless rolling that goes on here is another, lesser annoyance), I manage to open door 55. Not what I wanted, but it leads to a larder, where I can restore some lost Stamina. Trying again, I eventually hit the jackpot, opening the door that leads to the freezer. There I can take a lump of ice, making a mental note of the room number just because. It's possible that one of the other rooms also contains something beneficial, but I have what I need and would rather not risk inadvertently opening the failure room, so I move on.

At the next junction I hear cruel laughter drifting down one passage, and get a sensation of terrible doom from the other. A vague memory suggests that the doom may be what I need to check out. No, that's the beginning of the endgame, and here I am with only four of the six items I need. Well, what's done is done.

The passage leads to  cave filled with an oppressive aura of Evil. This immobilises me and drains away my Power, causing my lifeless body to drop to the ground. Unless I delay the inevitable by jumping to the dream world, which I do. There I come face to formless mass with Ishtra's lieutenant, Morpheus, source of all nightmares. I have to win at least one of three increasingly difficult dream combats to keep from being sent back to certain death in the cave.

I narrowly lose to the dream Harpy, but just manage to overcome the dream Clawbeast, so there seems little point in bothering to fight the dream Wraith. Then again, the number of dream combats I won may make a difference, so I play it out anyway. And lose very quickly. Still, I only needed to win one, so now I'm up against Morpheus himself, and this fight doesn't use the biased rules that every preceding dream combat did, but a minor variation on standard combat rules (substituting Power for Stamina). Oh, and that third fight was unnecessary

The fight lasts slightly longer than it would have if I hadn't blunted my sword (even though I'm not using a physical weapon), but I prevail, sparing Morpheus when he's down to his last couple of Power points, because killing the source of the dream I'm in is unlikely to do me a lot of good.

Not that it really matters, as I'm left with a choice between confronting Ishtra with less Power than I need, or fewer items than I require. Well, actually, if I try the Power option, having an insufficient score results in my being shunted to the item-based variant anyway. I must add up all the item-related numbers I have 'and turn to the paragraphs (sic.) whose number is the same as the total'. As I'm missing a couple of things, that paragraph makes no sense in context, so I must instead turn to the one in which Ishtra appears (taking the form of a bipedal crocodile with a goat's head) and atomises me with a fireball.

The inevitability of failure drains my enjoyment of playing a gamebook. From the moment I knew I'd missed something, this became less fun. But if I overlook my having been slightly soured on Phantoms for the last half dozen or so sections, I can see that it is one of the better Fighting Fantasy books published in 1987. When you consider the number of flaws and annoyances I've mentioned in this or the earlier playthrough, that's actually quite an indictment of around half the ones that came out that year.

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