Saturday, 24 August 2013

These Ponderous Aphorisms About Betrayal

I first encountered a Middle-earth Quest (sic.) gamebook during one of the periods when I'd gone off gamebooks. It was a copy of the second one (at least according to the list inside), Kevin Barrett and Saul Peters' Treason at Helm's Deep, and I found it in the branch of Scope near the BBC Centre. While I did pick it up and have a quick look at it, what I read did not inspire me to get back into gamebooks at the time, so I returned it to the shelf and left the shop.

A few years ago, someone at started a thread for group play of as much of the series as participants had, and I joined in. By then I'd regained my interest in gamebooks, so I joined in, and while the first couple were nothing spectacular, they were enjoyable enough that I made the occasional search for them on eBay, eventually succeeding in acquiring a copy of Treason. I've not yet attempted it on my own, and with my internet connection still down, I can't refer back to the thread mid-play to remind myself of little details like which of the three subterranean passages leads to Instant Death.

The sample character provided doesn't appeal to me that much, so I shall create my own. The system is a mixture of allocation and dice-rolling. The allocation refers to Skill bonuses: I have six points to use in six categories, and while I could allocate more than one point in a category, any to which I don't add at least one point get hit with a -2 penalty, so it makes sense to just make each one start out at +1. But they might yet change, as the dice determine my stats, and significantly high or low scores in any of them will mean applying a bonus or penalty to related Skills. The text implies that I can choose which roll goes on which stat. I get 5, 10 and 7 - not quite as good as the sample character's rolls, but I'm giving Intelligence precedence over Strength on account of one of the few parts of the adventure I remember, so I wind up with:
Strength 5
Agility 7
Intelligence 10
Endurance 30
Melee OB (Offensive Bonus) +1
Missile OB +1
DB (Defensive Bonus) 0
Running 0
General +1
Trickery +2
Perception +2
Magical +2
Yes, there are 8 Skills on that list. DB and Running are excluded from the bonus allocation process, and exempted from the 'no bonus' penalty.

My character is a young warrior, too inexperienced to accompany the troops who have gone off to battle, and thus kept back to help defend the garrison at Helm's Deep. While patrolling, I catch sight of Herulf, one of the commanders, covertly meeting with a man from Dunland, which is not on our side in the ongoing conflict. He hands over a scroll, and I am so indiscreet as to gasp loudly enough to attract the two men's attention, so they make themselves scarce.

Pursuing the Dunlending looks like the smartest option: nobody in authority is likely to believe any accusation I make without evidence, and confronting Herulf is not likely to go well for me if he is the traitor he appears. I'm not that impressed at the prose here: 'You must catch him, for surely he is a vile enemy.'

Hurrying down to ground level, I notice the absence of a guard who should be on duty, and a door that should be locked, but is ajar. Sneaking out through that door, I find Herulf's hooded lantern, now extinguished, and come to the conclusion that the Dunlending must have come, and now be going back, via some secret path. No Agility-based bonus would compensate for the poorness of my next roll, which has me lose my footing on the stairs and twist my ankle. The penalty incurred appears to be temporary, but could still mean the difference between success and defeat.

Unable to find any trace of the Dunlending (though somehow I'd be able to spot a clue if I had a higher Agility), I think hard and recall legends of secret tunnels with entrances at the top of the nearby cliff, so I hurry up the cliff path. After a bit, I notice someone up ahead, and try to sneak up on them. My wits keep me stealthy, and also help me to recognise that the figure is not the Dunlending, but a bear. I promptly freeze, and the bear wanders off.

Resuming my ascent, I seek signs of my quarry's passing, and pick up his trail 'again', the authors apparently having forgotten that I could have got this far without finding it before. It leads me to a rocky outcropping, and I disturb the hiding Dunlending, who breaks from cover and tries inexpertly to lose me. Not only does he fail, but he loses sight of me and, concluding that I can't see him, enters the secret passage, thereby giving away its location. I could now turn back and report my findings, but that wouldn't really help much, so I shall continue my pursuit.

Having complained about the writing earlier, I should commend a clever bit here. While I'm not enough of a Tolkien geek to recognise the terms 'Felaróf' and 'Meara', the context makes it clear that the reference is a Middle-Earth-themed variant of 'Is the Pope Catholic?' Neat.

Entering the passage, I head along until I reach a three-way junction. If I remember rightly, this is the point at which going the wrong way means a fatal cliff-drop. The tunnel I enter narrows, and makes an abrupt turn, and a failed Perception roll has me ambushed by some miscreant. That twisted ankle almost halves my chances of running away, so I suppose I'm going to have to fight. The Dunlending significantly outclasses me, and while I do manage to get in a couple of good blows along the way, I wind up knocked out.

Coming round some hours later, I find myself trussed up and being transported somewhere on a pony. The man with the map is nowhere to be seen, but has given me to a group of his compatriots. They meet a patrol of Uruk-Hai and, after a brief dispute over who gets custody of the prisoner, the Orcs slaughter the humans. They then take me and the corpses of my erstwhile captors with them, and I black out again when I realise why they want the bodies.

I regain consciousness on the approach to the Orcs' camp. Two of them carry me to a tent and throw me inside. The tent's occupant, a beautiful woman, gives them orders in Orcish, and they prop me on a chair. Capturing my attention with a glittering ring, she speaks in beguiling tones, urging me to tell her of what I have experienced today. I roll too badly for the Intelligence-derived bonus to make any difference, and obligingly tell her everything she wants to know about the garrison. Once I've finished betraying my allies, she takes away the ring, and I realise that she's rather more crone-like than she originally seemed, and that I've wound up giving my enemies at least as much assistance as Herulf did.

The two Orcs then take me to the cooking pits, and opt to use a language I can understand while telling their cook, Gaznag, that they want me cooked with the skin still on. Gaznag contemplates sampling the fresh ingredient he's just been brought, but then someone throws a rock at his head, and he takes his cleaver to remonstrate with the merry prankster in question. My bonds have loosened as a consequence of the rough handling I've received, and I am able to get loose and make a break for freedom. I'm able to recover most of my equipment, but not my shield. Still, what I do get back includes a couple of doses of a healing herb, one of which I take in order to restore myself to full health.

As I try to figure out where to go from here, I spot Gaznag, dead, with an arrow like my countrymen use sticking out of him. The archer responsible shows himself so that I can join him in hiding. He's Hermgamel, one of the survivors from the troops who went out before the adventure began, and he knows the way back to Helm's Deep. Before we set off back there, he offers me a sword or a shield, so I replace the item I lost.

My disappearance has been noticed, we are pursued, and Hermgamel gets a couple of arrows through the sternum. That twisted ankle doesn't hinder me from making a swift getaway, though, and I lose my pursuers. Back in Deeping Coomb, I must check the time elapsed, and am a little surprised to find that I'm not even close to having been away long enough for something calamitous to have happened back at home.

Continuing on my way, I catch sight of a few Orcish scouts indulging in a little recreational arson. One of them is a little slow in leaving the burning cottage, and his clothes catch light, much to the amusement of his companions. Well aware of my limitations as a fighter, I choose not to try attacking them while merriment has them off-guard, but hurry past.

It starts to rain as I draw near to my destination. A watchman sights me and summons the garrison commander, so I tell him why I left my post and what ensued, possibly eliding the whole 'ensorcelled into telling the enemy all our weaknesses' bit. Without proof of Herulf's willing treachery I cannot substantiate my claims, and the approach of enemy troops leaves no time for a more detailed investigation.

Preparations are made for a siege, and Theoden, Gimli and Legolas make cameo appearances. Actually, that's an overly glib mention of another neat authorial touch: I've never seen an Elf or a Dwarf before, and have to be told what the peculiar-looking beings who ride with the troops are. A nice reminder that non-human species aren't as mundane as fantasy fiction often makes them.

I am supplied with a bow and arrows, we prepare to face the enemy, and Saruman's armies approach. Battle commences, and Legolas gives me archery tips (have I mentioned that back in the 1990s I was taught archery by a man who's registered blind?), helping me fell an Orc with a scaling ladder. That is, the Orc I kill was carrying a ladder - I didn't fire one from my bow. That would be silly. An Orcish arrow (also not a ladder) hits me, but non-lethally.

A ladder (not an arrow) is placed against the wall close by, and I attempt to push it away before any attackers can get up it. Another arrow (I think the joke's outstayed its welcome by now) hits me, but I'm still alive. Not strong enough to shift the ladder, though, and I'm an easy target for the first Orc to scale it. His clumsy sword blow doesn't connect, but it does force me back, giving him time to get a more secure footing. I'm not expecting to win this fight, but I narrowly prevail, and have time to use the other dose of healing herb to bring myself back from the verge of collapse.

Things quieten down for a bit - until the Orcs breach the wall. While Gimli is hewing his way through the invading hordes, I spot an Orc trying to sneak up on him from behind, and attack it before it can surprise him. A lucky roll enables me to fell it with my second blow, and as I catch my breath, a flash of lightning shows someone who looks like Herulf ascending the cliff up which I followed the Dunlending earlier. I give chase and catch up with him, he provides the quasi-obligatory 'justification' for his treachery (revenge for the death of his father) and we do battle. He seriously outclasses me, to the extent that I pretty much need a double six to have any chance of winning. Unfortunately for me, I'm doomed if he gets anything above nine, and three rounds into the fight he gets eleven, skewering me on the spot.

I was rather enjoying that by the end. Not perfect, but a better book than I'd thought it, and it does a decent job of having the viewpoint character involved in a major event from The Lord of the Rings without overshadowing the book's heroes.

My home internet connection is still down, so I'm having to use public computers to update the blog, and not all of them can handle the blogger interface - this entry was ready yesterday afternoon, but I just couldn't post it. Monday is a Bank Holiday, so I'm unlikely to even be able to get to a public computer then. Nevertheless, I'll do what I can to keep updating as closely to the planned schedule as I can get.

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