Monday, 16 September 2013

Try Reading Books Instead of Burning Them

Last month I played through the first half of Lone Wolf book 5, Shadow on the Sand, which is divided into two mini-adventures for no good reason. Indeed, the first section of the second part of Shadow has my character emerging from the end-of-part-one musings prompted by the visiting Darklord Haakon's revelations, and becoming aware of having been spotted by two guards, who promptly loose a hound.

The dog goes for me, and I dodge the worst of its attack, causing it to overshoot and plummet to its death in the chamber below. The Mongoose edit introduces a grammatical error, and also makes the guards more passive: in the original text they're already charging to attack when Haakon notices me and yells, 'Kill him!' but the reissue has them do nothing until they get the command. I kill them, and shelter behind one of the bodies when the Darklord fires a bolt of energy at me. The corpse is vaporised by the blast, so I hurry away before he can fire again.

The Zakhan sounds the alarm and, presumably, finds some way of persuading Haakon not to kill him or take back the Orb of Death despite its now being clear that he lied about having me as a prisoner. Pity. But that's a regret for another day, as I have an escape to make right now. One of the possible escape routes leads upstairs, but going up increases the likelihood of my having to leap from a great height at some point, so I duck through an archway instead. This causes me to bump into a palace guard, knocking him over. He pulls out an axe and gashes me in the leg, and I retaliate with a finger-breaking blow before hobbling away and descending steps to the palace garden.

There's a locked door at the bottom of the stairs, and none of the keys I carry are made of the right metal to be the one needed here. The layout of this part of the palace is unclear: I must be outdoors, because guards on a bridge connecting the palace to a tower are aiming their crossbows at me, and I have the option of trying to climb over the door. Given that the only alternative is going back upstairs and onto the bridge and hoping that the guards don't manage to fire at me before I reach them, I think climbing is the less unwise choice. Though I might have reached a different conclusion if Mr. Dever had bothered to mention the long poisoned spikes protruding from the crossbar when presenting the choice. I should at least have been able to spot the spikes, even if the poison wasn't noticeable from ground level.

Things get a bit messy here. A random number (with modifier) determines the outcome of my attempt at climbing, and the original text carelessly gives options for getting 'below 4' and '5-9', with nothing to cover an adjusted total of exactly 4. The Mongoose edit eliminates this problem, but needlessly complicates matters by making a 0 on the random number generator equivalent to 10, rather than 0, and adjusting the ranges to '5 or lower' and '6 or higher'. Which means that a couple of numbers can mean the better outcome in one edition, but the worse in the other. Not a problem if you're only using one book, of course. My adjusted total is 4, so in this instance I'll go with the text that allows for the possibility of getting it.

Dodging the crossbow bolts, I make it into the garden, which offers two ways on. Tracking tells me that one leads to the arboretum, which I've already been through once, so I pick the other one, even though it's a flight of stairs heading back up. Some of Haakon's retinue approach, but I conceal myself in the shadow of a statue of the former Zakhan (no Camouflage check called for), thankful that he was not a skinny man. Authorial fiat compels me to keep ascending until I reach the roof and make my way to a bell-tower.

The tower turns out to be next to the Itikar pens, Itikars being a species of giant bird domesticated and used for transportation by the Vassagonians. Someone rides in on one even as I watch, and before long he has gone off to attend to his business, leaving his Itikar with a lone guard. Getting to the guard unnoticed could be tricky, but Mind Over Matter is still good for providing distractions (in this instance, telekinetically detaching the man's money pouch from his belt and causing his cash to spill out onto the floor). The Mongoose text gets rid of a potential continuity error here, incidentally cutting out one section transition, which isn't an issue in the current circumstances, but would mean slightly less Healing if I were at less than full Endurance right now.

A quick search of the body gets me the money he'd managed to retrieve and, probably more usefully, a Brass Whistle. With search parties approaching the pens, I hurry into the occupied pen. The Itikar initially reacts hostilely, but Animal Kinship comes in handy again (and, slightly surprisingly, using the Whistle is not an option here, so maybe it's for raising the alarm rather than commanding the Itikars). Soon I'm on the Itikar and flying it out of the pen, doing some damage to the approaching warriors in the process.

Before long I have airborne pursuers: not more Itikars, but Kraan, the same kind of creature as was used in the attack on the Kai monastery back at the start of the series. By now it's quite late in the day, and I think I might be able to lose the Kraan and their riders if I can keep ahead of them until it gets dark. The book suggests two places to which I could head, and advises consulting the map at the front before I choose. One of the places named is a lot closer than the other, and since I'm supposed to be drawing out the pursuit, I go for the more distant one.

A Kraan catches up, and its rider, an undead being known as a Vordak, attempts to psychically attack me, but my Mindshield keeps me from taking damage. It then leaps onto my Itikar and injures it, and while a couple of swipes with the Sommerswerd get rid of my unwanted passenger before it can kill my mount, the unfortunate creature isn't going to be airworthy for much longer.

Conveniently, a ship emerges from a nearby cloud (the ship is flying rather than the cloud being particularly low). On the ship is Banedon, the magician I befriended back in book 1. The Mongoose text here is grammatically sloppier than the original, but the directions at the end of the section remove a potentially problematic ambiguity (allowing for the possibility that I might somehow have lost the Pendant that Banedon gave me when we first met, so I only need to have owned the thing rather than have it on me to recognise my friend), so the edit isn't all bad. Before I can react to this new arrival, the Itikar dies, and I find myself plummeting towards the ground below in another of those tiresome unavoidable 1 in 10 chances of death. Today the random number generator produces a satisfactorily low number, and the sky-ship catches me in a net.

By the time the Dwarvish crew have hauled me aboard, some of the Kraan have caught up, and a couple of Haakon's troops have boarded. One is fighting a Dwarf, and winning, so I intervene. Not quickly enough to prevent him from throwing the Dwarf overboard, but he's dead before he can finish turning to face me. Despite the addition of a couple of unnecessary descriptors ('strangling' doesn't really need prefacing with 'brutally' to make it clear that what the warrior's doing isn't that friendly), the Mongoose text is an improvement on the original. In a cheesy Hollywood blockbuster-esque moment, it then transpires that the Dwarf caught his foot in the netting that saved me.

I then see that another boarder has speared Banedon in the arm, pinning him to the deck (and section number recognition tells me that this would have happened even if I hadn't taken the time to save the Dwarf). The fight against that one doesn't go as well, but there's no way I can lose (or even take long enough for some external factor to intervene), and the only reason to bother playing out the fight at all is to see how much Endurance I lose from the scratches and grazes my outmatched opponent inflicts on me while I'm eviscerating him. Another Kraan-rider fires a crossbow at me, and in the Mongoose text I am surely DOOMED because there is NO WAY that I could POSSIBLY protect myself from the bolt in time!!! but then Banedon throws up a magical shield to save me at the last second. The same events occur in the original version, but it doesn't milk the peril. Mind you, it would introduce me to Banedon all over again if I'd misplaced the Pendant, so again the edit does have some merit. Whereas the changes to the next section are just verbose.

I remove the spear from Banedon's arm and bind up his wound, and he makes a continuity error, talking as if we fought Kraan and Drakkar warriors the last time we met, when that encounter was actually with Goblin-equivalent Giaks. He takes the helm, and the section ends in a 'cheat' cliffhanger worthy of a Republic movie serial, as there's a loud explosion - which in the next section is revealed to be one of the Dwarves shooting a Kraan with a pistol. The noise scares off the other Kraan, and the fighting is over.

Except that one of the boarders sprawled across the deck is only feigning death, and suddenly leaps to his feet and flings an axe at me. Sixth Sense or Hunting enables me to anticipate the attack and dodge, and a gunshot to the chest sends the man overboard. Banedon then remembers that he has a big hole in one arm, and I use Healing to stabilise him until his own medics can tend to the wound (which would happen immediately if I didn't have Healing, so it's rather a redundant Discipline check - okay, so it means that any player who chose Healing gets to pass through an extra section, which technically means recovering another point of Endurance, but since that section has me focusing my powers of Healing on Banedon, it seems odd that I'd get to use them on myself at the same time).

While Banedon's receiving first aid, I tell him of my recent experiences, and he points out that we must prevent Haakon from destroying the Book of the Magnakai (the thought had occurred to me). He also explains that the Tomb containing the Book is exceptionally well-hidden, but that's not so bad, as he happens to know Tipasa, the one man who visited it and survived (and vowed not to go back there under any circumstances whatsoever, but the mini-adventure in which he resolved not to return hadn't been written when Joe Dever wrote this, so if anyone should be criticised here, it's the author of The Tomb of the Majhan).

Banedon pilots the ship in the right direction, while the Dwarves bring food that would restore Endurance if I hadn't just returned to full health through Healing (and that's with no Endurance gain for the 'Heal Banedon' section). They also offer ale, though the book warns me to be careful, as Bor-brew is potent stuff. I decide to try it anyway, and the book has me down half the tankard in one go, because obviously nobody who touches strong drink has ever hear of moderation. And as I determine the outcome of my quaffing, I'm at a disadvantage for not having got a better starting Endurance. Again the Mongoose text fixes the omission of a number from the list of possible outcomes, but this time (thanks to the 'better equipped to handle his drink on account of having played books 1-4' factor) I get the preferable outcome regardless of which book I'm using.

The Dwarves are impressed when I don't start picking fights, making professions of undying friendship, getting maudlin about all the travelling companions who didn't survive to the end of my adventures, or wearing a pointy hat and singing a song about Giaks. How impressed varies depending on which version of the book I'm reading, and how you parse Dwarvish use of the word 'giant'. They get chatty, and it's implied that they entered Banedon's employ after he used his magic to cheat at cards against their former Captain. Still, they enjoy adventuring, so they don't seem to mind the questionable ethics of their change of employment.

Eventually I go for a rest, fatigued enough that the Dwarvish proportions of the bunk don't prevent me from falling asleep almost instantaneously. When I wake, the sky-ship is waiting in the shadow of a mountain so that Kraan-riding enemy scouts won't spot us. As I've missed this book's potentially lethal souvenir (all right, there isn't one in every Lone Wolf adventure, but they do crop up reasonably frequently), we go undetected, and are able to resume our journey, eventually mooring not far from Ikaresh, Tipasa's home town. After disguising ourselves to look like locals, Banedon and I continue our journey on foot, not wanting to attract too much attention. The inhabitants seem to have become more jaded in the Mongoose edit: originally the arrival above the city of a flying ship would have been sure to get tongues wagging, but in the rewrite it only might do so.

On the way to Ikaresh we spot a cave, which I decide to check out. It is inhabited by a man who suffers from local leprosy-analogue vaxelus, and I give him the left-over Oede to cure him. In return, he tells us that the widow Soushilla will be able to direct us to Tipasa. He also gives me a Jewelled Mace, which, this being a gamebook, is liable to prove a more effective weapon in some circumstance than such an obviously ornamental artefact would ever be in the real world.

At Ikaresh we soon experience the local hospitality - and I'm not using the term sarcastically. A stranger invites us into his home, Sixth Sense confirms that he's not planning to kill or rob us, and after we've sampled the local wine, which tastes good and has medicinal effects, he tells us roughly where Tipasa lives, and asks us to remind him about a loan he'd like repaid. At least he doesn't try to get us to pay it.

Moving on, we reach a town square with a fancy signpost: a bronze eagle holding arrows in its beak. One of the paths leading from here goes to the district where we've been told Tipasa lives, but a depressing number of LW fans would refuse to go that way, even if they'd been given the directions I have, because it means turning right rather than left.

We pass a barracks with a dozing guard outside. In a nice bit of incidental detail, children are attempting to use his spear for a risky game of hoop-la. Close by is a tavern, which looks like a good place to get more precise directions. In a bit of dodgy racial stereotyping, Banedon warns me that these people are all light-fingered, so I should keep an eye on my money. We enter the tavern to find a wedding celebration in full swing, with the tearful, black-clad proprietress looking on. Could this be the widow named by the man in the cave? I ask her about Tipasa, and she gives an evasive answer, so Banedon gives her a coin. She refers to herself as Soushilla, and as I didn't mention that name, she probably is the person I'm after, but she wants more money, and a passing pickpocket has grabbed the rest of Banedon's money (oh, the hilarity!), so I have to cough up the rest in order to get Tipasa's address from her. She says he lives in the alley behind the market stables, so when I reach the market, we head for the stables, where Banedon bribes a small boy with an illusory ring to find out Tipasa's address.

Let me get this straight.. If I hadn't handed over that rare and valuable healing herb to a man who'd been exiled because of the disease he'd contracted, I wouldn't have got the lead that led to my friend's losing all his money and my handing over a not insignificant amount of my own cash in order to receive information that, if I act on it, leads to my getting told the same thing again free of charge on the authorial assumption that I didn't know it. So I'd have been better off hoarding the Oede and leaving the man in the cave to suffer and die alone (unless that mace turns out to be important). Or, having paid Soushilla's extortionate rates, I suppose I should have ignored the place she mentioned and headed for the previously unmentioned Carpet-weavers' Quarter. It's a good thing I'm getting back to Fighting Fantasy book 32 for my next blog post, because following this illogic with the insanity that is FF 33 would probably cause my head to explode.

Tipasa's wife greets Banedon and tells him that he was abducted by Haakon's men ten days ago. They didn't get his notes, though, and she retrieves them from their hiding place in the hope that they will help us find and rescue him. Banedon realises that he'll need to consult his star charts to make sense of the notes, and once it's light enough, we return to the sky-ship. Even back there, he can't figure them out, but when I take a look, I immediately realise that the coordinates of the Tomb are in a code that can be cracked by answering trivia questions based on the map at the front of the book. As with the combination lock puzzle I never encountered in the first half, the Mongoose text has a whacking great 'this is the correct section for the puzzle solution' interjection, just in case the reader is too thick to work out from context that it is indeed the right answer. Which would also make it much easier for anyone who couldn't be bothered to solve the puzzle (I don't say 'couldn't solve' because it'd only stump someone who couldn't read and count well enough to have got this far through the adventure) to cheat by flicking through the book until they saw the rather distinctive parenthesis interposed between section number and text.

The 'concealed' section number has nothing to do with the details of where the tomb is, and one of the locations from which a bearing is taken doesn't get named on the map, just to render the whole thing that bit more meaningless. But I'm past that bit now and, if all goes according to plan, will never have to bother with it again, so I'll quit grouching and get back to the plot.

Again we moor the ship somewhere it won't be noticed and cover the last stretch of the journey on foot. The Tomb is still being excavated, indicating that the Book of the Magnakai has yet to be found, and the presence of Haakon's Imperial Zlanbeast indicates that he's come here. While waiting for it to get dark enough that I can sneak across to the Tomb unnoticed, we make our plans: I get the book, Banedon tries not to bungle rescuing Tipasa as badly as he's messed up codebreaking, heeding his own advice and fighting since I rejoined him. Also, I need to eat again, and in the Mongoose text I'm unable to use Hunting to capture some edible critter.

Eventually night falls, and I sneak over to the Tomb. The main entrance is guarded by a Drakkar (the Mongoose text specifies that the man guarding the entrance is standing at the entrance - you know, from now on I'll just add an asterisk whenever the rewrite adds patronisingly redundant details), but Mind Over Matter is still good for causing distractions, so I'm soon inside the Tomb*.

Rather than faff about trying to detect and neutralise the traps with which the Tomb is filled, Haakon has simply sent Giak slaves ahead of him to trigger them, so I have little difficulty getting as far as the excavations have reached. A massive stone door blocks the way, but the Blue Stone Triangle I picked up in a completely different part of the world in book 3 opens it for reasons that make no sense at all. There are footprints in the dust that covers the floor of the chamber beyond, and I see a stone throne facing away from me. The throne rotates to reveal Haakon sitting in it, and I'm surprised to find him not stroking a white cat. He tells me I'm doomed* and fires a bolt of energy at me*. I deflect it with the Sommerswerd, but the blast knocks the weapon out of my hand.

The next blast destroys the pillar behind which I was hiding, but I leapt away in the nick of time, and only took minor damage from the shockwave. According to the Mongoose text, I can't retrieve the Sommerswerd until the book is over, but I know from past experience that another weapon I own can also harm the Darklord. With me exposed and vulnerable, Haakon now switches to a psychic attack, from which Mindshield protects me, then summons up a creature that's vulnerable to that Jewelled Mace and just stands and watches while I pulp it. Oh, and he has some kind of connection to it, so my killing it wounds him, making him drop the glowing stone he used to attack me back before he lost all his competence. Sixth Sense makes me aware that I could use its evil powers against him to banish him to another dimension, but doesn't warn me that he'll arbitrarily get to instakill me if I do anything else at all.

Well, that was a rubbish ending.

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