Monday, 30 September 2013

Some Things You're Not Supposed to Get Used to

I completely missed the publication of the Virtual Reality Adventures series. Partly because the books came out during the period when I'd stopped getting gamebooks, and partly because I was studying in Germany during that period, so whatever presence the VRAs had in bookshops had no opportunity to register with me. I first became aware of the series a couple of years later, when I was back in Swansea. Some of the books turned up in a charity shop on St. Helen's Road - one of the four or five near the junction with Brynymor Road. They caught my attention, at least partly because I recognised the names Dave Morris and Mark Smith on the spines, and I took a look at them, but I was still in my off-gamebooks phase, and novelty value didn't have as much weight as nostalgia, so the books went back on the shelf, and before long they'd been sold.

One of the books I didn't buy at that time was the second one in the series, Dave Morris'  Down Among the Dead Men. A while later, I came across another copy of it while browsing in the second-hand bookshop up the hill from the coach station in Birmingham. By then I'd read a different book from the series during one of my short-lived re-engagements with the genre, so there was a bit more of a draw, but I still wound up reshelving the book before resuming my journey. When I properly got back into gamebooks and decided to add VRA to my collection, I wound up getting DAtDM on eBay.

The only thing I can remember from my first attempt at it is the quandary I experienced when my character, lacking the Folklore skill, was unable to pick up on certain hints that were blatantly obvious to me, the reader. So should I play the part and expose my character to a threat of which I was all too aware, improve my chances of succeeding by evading the danger my character knew nothing about, or come up with a weak rationalisation to enable my character to do the right thing for the wrong reason? As I recall, I went off to do something else while mulling over the question, and never actually got back to that try at the book.

In the past I've always gone for one of the pre-generated characters provided in the book when attempting a VRA, but since Mr. Morris has stated that it should be possible to win his books with any combination of skills, I'll try creating my own character for once. That means picking four Skills from the list and equipping myself with whatever equipment is required for the use of those skills. The equipment thing is a bit odd, given that my character will be starting out as a slave on a pirate ship - what sort of pirate captain is going to allow his slaves to own any or all of the following: sword, pistol, magic wand, magic amulet? I'm tempted to create just so well-equipped a slave, but even if it is possible to win with as unbalanced a set of Skills as would be required, I'd need to know the book a lot better than I do to have any chance of finding the path that would take me to victory. So I'll go for the more practical-looking set-up of:
Wilderness Lore
No doubt it is my Cunning that has enabled me to acquire and retain 10 doubloons despite my circumstances.

I've been an unwilling member of Skarvench's crew for around two years, ever since he attacked the ship on which I was travelling and shot me in the head. Nursed back to health by the ship's carpenter, I was pressed into service, and have been having a pretty miserable time ever since. Things change when Skarvench decides to destroy a defenceless ship full of monks, and the carpenter defies him and is murdered for doing so. I vocalise my intent to make the captain pay for his crimes a little more loudly than is wise, but am only overheard by a few sailors who share my loathing of the pirate, and let me in on their plans to jump ship tonight. Considering how far from land we are, it's probably a suicidal endeavour, but still preferable to remaining part of the crew, so I agree to join the would-be escapees.

To improve our chances, I take the risk of sneaking into a part of the ship where I'll have a chance to pilfer some supplies. This involves creeping past Skarvench's cabin, and I overhear him revealing his most audacious plan yet to his cronies: Queen Titania of Glorianne will soon be touring the colonies, and he intends to capture and ransom her. Idle boasting not being one of the captain's vices, I must assume that he has some plan for dealing with the various different protectors the Queen has, but if I loiter in the hope of getting a clue about that, I'm likely to have to skip getting supplies, and I need to survive before I can start thinking about thwarting his plans, so I carry on to the sailmaster's cabin. Which turns out not to be as unoccupied as I'd expected. But the occupant is only the ship's mascot, a monkey named Mister Chatter, and despite the name, I don't expect him to tell anyone what I'm up to.

Not that monkeys are incapable of giving the game away.

There's a list of potentially useful items in the cabin, and I can take two of them. Seafaring will probably enable me to navigate by the stars, so I'll leave the lodestone. Practical uses for a monkey are too limited to justify taking Mister Chatter. The toolkit could prove essential for keeping the boat we steal seaworthy, so I'll definitely take that. Charts might be as redundant as the lodestone, but if I'm wrong about that, things are unlikely to go well for us, so I think I'd better take them instead of the crucifix.

I rejoin my co-conspirators - Grimes, Oakley and Blutz - and we lower the jollyboat, board it and row away. And it turns out that Seafaring is an adequate substitute for the charts after all, so maybe I should have taken the crucifix. Or Bardsmanship the monkey (apologies to everyone who's not going to get that in-joke). I consider the different routes we can take from here: one is quick but through stormy seas, the next is safer but might take so long that the food runs out, and the last one involves visiting lots of islands and potentially encountering regrettable stereotypes. I'll risk the third one.

As we start our voyage west through the Smoking Islands, Oakley reveals what he knows of them. The most distant has friendly natives, the one before it is reputed to be the home of a demon, to the east of that one is the volcano you'd expect to find somewhere in a region with 'Smoking' in its name, and closest to us is Red Skull Island, which is too far from the main shipping lanes for the natives to have had much contact with 'civilized' man. If I had Folklore, I could add to Oakley's information, but as I don't, I'll just have to wonder whether Red Skull Island is home to cannibals or a giant orang-utan.

Wilderness Lore keeps me from taking damage from the heat while we make our way to the islands, and it's not too long before we catch sight of Red Skull island. Oakley now tells us that the inhabitants are cannibals, but we're already thirsty enough that I'm prepared to risk a brief stop there. We find a secluded beach, but as I don't have the Agility to climb the cliffs to the coconut trees we can see up on top, and the longer we loiter, the greater the risk of being found by the locals, the only palatable thing we can get is a couple of crabs - barely enough to feed even one of us. The brief character descriptions of my fellow escapees provided earlier indicated that Oakley could potentially be a threat to my authority, and implied that I'd need to assert myself to keep him from causing trouble, so I risk eating the crabs myself. This does not go down well with the others (no pun intended).

We return to the boat and go further, and Seafaring limits the damage I take from the ongoing hardships. When we reach the volcanic island, the others are reluctant to put to shore, but Wilderness Lore tells me that the volcano has been quiet for a long time, so the island should be as safe as houses. Okay, so there were houses in Pompeii, but...

I risk making a stop to check out the vegetation that indicated the lack of recent eruptions, and we gather two days' worth of edible foliage. Our departure is delayed by the discovery that Skarvench's ship is approaching. I doubt that he's followed us specifically, which means that this island probably plays a part in his plan, so I decide to spy on the men he sends ashore. He accompanies the party, and they start digging up some treasure. Under current circumstances, an attack would almost certainly get us killed, so I just keep watching. It can be inferred from the options here that if I'd brought the monkey, he would now attract unwelcome attention.

Oakley thinks it odd that Skarvench should be exhuming money right now, and expresses a wish to be close enough to overhear what the pirate and his subordinates are saying. Cunning should help me to sneak up on them... Nope, it's Wilderness Lore that saves me from treading on a twig and alerting the pirates to my proximity. Thus I learn that the loot that's being exhumed is to pay for a new ship, and as a bribe for the Queen's wizard, Mirabilis. The revelation of this treachery does not prompt me to make a suicidal attack.

We stay on the island for a week before the volcano's rumblings suggest that it might be wise to move on. The supplies we gathered help sustain us on the way to the next island (and if things had gone very differently, we could have eaten the monkey!). Grimoire Island looks remarkably well-cultivated, and I decide to investigate despite the rumours of its being home to a demon.

Blutz notices a tower, while Wilderness Lore enables me to spot that the carefully tended plants are all poisonous, so I warn my companions against eating. Somehow I get the impression that visitors are not entirely welcome. Nevertheless, we press on towards the tower, and Grimes speculates that the marble from which it is constructed (with a few none-too-cheery carvings by the entrance) was brought here, not quarried locally. A woman acknowledges that he's right, introduces herself as Ejada, and then says that as payment for coming here, one of us must let her sacrifice his soul to her mother, the earth goddess. Oakley makes a futile attack on her, and she says we must choose by dawn.

The jollyboat has been immobilised by the woman's magic, and I doubt that building a raft will make escape any easier. Hiding looks pretty futile, so I'm going to confront Ejada at dawn and see if we can find the non-sacrificial way out of this situation. It's not a viable option, but I do wonder if she would accept the soul of a monkey. It appears not: the options are to run, fight, offer her 25% of the soul of each of us, or use Spells if that's one of my Skills. Fighting didn't help Oakley, but maybe I can come up with a better strategy than 'charge at her brandishing a rock'. My Brawling Skill leads to my making some fairly un-PC threats, and she defies me to hit her as hard as I can. Other modes of attack are also open to me, and I reckon a bodyslam might wind her enough to prevent her retaliating with magic, so I attempt to pick her up - in a non-romantic sense. Ejada puts up a struggle, but I manage to lift her from the ground, and discover that she has roots! Uprooted, she weakens, and offers all her treasure in return for putting her back down. Not convinced that she'll keep her word once able to draw power from the earth again, I stow her on a convenient cornice while we loot the tower, finding a wand, a healing potion, a ship in a bottle (could be useful if it's anything like the one from Mr. Morris' The Eye of the Dragon) and a black kite.

The boat springs leaks as we voyage onwards, and the tool kit is of no assistance. Everyone on the boat becomes irritable, and we use up the last of our food supplies before reaching the final island. Grimes reminds me that the people here are said to be hospitable, and my character cynically wonders if they'll welcome a bunch of castaways as cheerfully as they do the fully manned, heavily armed and cargo-laden vessels that have spread the tales of their friendliness. I decide to give them a chance to prove their reputation, and a spear-carrying party approaches. Remembering a couple of SF wars that started because humans assumed hostile intent where there was none, I try talking rather than preemptively attacking. The natives bring us some fruit (which some might still interpret as a hostile move, but the mangoes haven't been sharpened, so I think we're all right) and repair our boat.

The chief indicates to us that a long while passes between visits from large vessels, so we might be stuck here for a while if we wait for someone to pick us up. If we'd rather move on, he could have us escorted to a major shipping lane (in return for a suitable gift), or we can just set off on our own. I don't think that wand will do me any good, as I don't have Spells, but would it satisfy the chief? Yes, it does. In fact, any of Ejada's treasures bar the potion would do, but I think the others are more likely to be worth holding on to.

After a few more days we sight and are accepted on board the Gloriannic ship Jewel of Heaven. In conversation with the Captain, I mention the Queen's impending tour, and he's alarmed to hear talk of such a well-kept secret. Hurriedly pointing out that it's nowhere near as well-kept as it should be, considering how I learned it, I gain an ally in my quest to thwart Skarvench.

By the time the Jewel docks at Leshand, I've regained what health I lost during the less pleasant parts of our voyage. And the adventure comes to an abrupt end as my companions refuse to have anything more to do with me, as I'm not a good enough man. Sure, I helped them find food on an island they wouldn't have dared to visit but for my knowledge, I saved them from poisoning on another island, and fought a powerful Enchantress rather than sacrifice anyone's soul, but all of that pales into insignificance by comparison with my having eaten two small crabs. So much for needing to exert my authority.

Well, despite that disappointing ending, Down Among the Dead Men has done a lot to dispel the bad impression made by the first VRA. I'd be feeling a lot more positive about the series if I weren't already familiar with the next title - but that's a rant for another day.

Yes, this post should really have gone up last Friday, but life is full of things. Still, if my next attempt at an adventure goes as well as most of my Tunnels & Trolls escapades have gone, I should be able to get that entry out of the way very quickly and be back on schedule by the end of the week.


  1. Down Amongst the Dead Men is actually solvable with no skills whatsoever, athough you do need to lose a hand.

    1. That was my first thought when reading about the way Mr Jolley chose his character. I really like Down Among the Dead Men, but I think it might be a little too forgiving of bad decisions, especially where finding a ship for the endgame is concerned.

      Still, the atmosphere more than makes up for it. The only seafaring adventure that comes close in my opinion is Over the Blood Dark Sea, a very different style of gamebook.