Wednesday, 9 October 2013

A Colourful Imagination and a Glib Tongue

One way or another (I'll say more about that in the final paragraph), I'm moving on to the second sub-series of the Lone Wolf gamebooks. As I'm trying to play the adventures in order of internal chronology, and the Mongoose Books mini-adventure accompanying book 6 sets up some of what happens in the main adventure, that means it's time for me to have a go at Joseph C. Williams' The Key to the Future.

In this adventure I play Gwynian the Sage, previously seen being cryptic and dispensing poetry in book 4. Astrology actually works in Magnamund, so unexpected developments in the constellation of the wolf have alerted me to the fact that Lone Wolf is embarking on a quest to find the mystical McGuffins that will enable him to start up a new Kai order and spin the series out to book 12. I must now present my findings to the Solain, a council of other prominent sages in the city of Varetta, and I'm guessing that there's more to come than just an official meeting, since the specific-to-this-adventure rules for character creation don't include such skills as Proper Procedure, Exploit Loophole and Call Quorum.

My character actually looks a good deal more like this -
Combat Skill: 15 (better than some iterations of Lone Wolf)
Endurance: 17
Sage Abilities: Divination, Solar Eclipse, Sight, Detection, Counter
The first of those should be self-explanatory, the second is rather vaguely worded but could possibly have Mindshield-esque aspects (unless it just make places darker), the third is remote viewing with a range of 129 feet (interesting number to choose), the fourth is what you'd expect, and the last one can negate hostile magic.

I'm kept waiting for almost an hour. It's an overcast day, which I find foreboding. The caption beneath the accompanying illustration indicates that the chamber-master adjusts his spectacles, but the man in the picture isn't wearing glasses. When I'm finally let in to announce what I've learned, Solain leader Austerion gets nitpicky, and after a while (and an unnecessary section break) he dismisses me while my request to assist Lone Wolf is debated. I could use Sight to spy on the discussion, but that would be rude, and liable to prejudice my case if they have some way of detecting it.

Not that it would have made much difference, as they vote 5-4 in favour of not getting involved, on the grounds that Lone Wolf is too inexperienced to be trusted with the Lorestone he seeks, besides which he's so competent and efficient that it wouldn't be safe to let him have it. While tempted to punch Austerion in the faces, I just leave, resolving to help Lone Wolf even without official approval.

That night I am visited by my friend Cyrilus, who advises me to take a look at the star associated with war and rebellion. It's brighter than it should be. I didn't pick the Ability of Portents, but based on its description and what I remember of the main adventure, I suspect that having it would enable me to perceive a reddish, shirt-like aura around Cyrilus' torso.

The two of us are members of a secret society of proactive pacifists, and we make arrangements for a meeting of the group, even if it does mean defying Austerion. At this meeting, Cyrilus delivers a hefty info-dump about why we should be helping Lone Wolf, and there's another superfluous section division. This adventure's 187 sections long - what is the point of creating excess sections if you're not even trying to make a round number?

Based on the plot of the main adventure dictates of the stars, I must not meet Lone Wolf again until I can give him the key he needs, but I make arrangements for one of our number to meet him and help him evade detection by Austerion, as I've somehow got it into my head that by 'abstaining from all involvement' the Solain leader meant 'actively opposing Lone Wolf in his quest'. Finding myself revealing more of my plans than intended, I start to suspect that someone is using Metaphysics on me, and use Solar Eclipse to find out what it actually does. It should enable me to metaphysically eclipse the star governing deceivers and trickery, and thereby see through any false pretenses present, but instead it just causes me pain because someone more powerful is using Solar Flare on the star. There is a traitor in our midst.

Nevertheless, I must go on with my plan, and I need two people to accompany me. Cyrilus volunteers, and I must choose the other. Despite there being ten people present, there are only three candidates, two of whom haven't been mentioned before. So what are the odds that the one who's already been named is the traitor? He's also the one with the most potentially useful skillset - an alchemist rather than a naturalist or a political scientist - which further increases my suspicions. But even if I'm right and the author is that unsubtle, that doesn't make the decision of whom to pick that much simpler: am I better off bringing him along, so I can keep an eye on him, or should I take someone loyal and wait for the traitor to come after me? The problem is, I cannot be sure that my character shares my suspicions, so the book might not allow me to carry out whatever plans I may make. Well, they do say 'Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer,' so I'll have Ferrel tag along, and if that results in my dying on account of his sudden yet inevitable betrayal, that'll just be another instance of shoddy mini-adventure design on the part of Mongoose.

Ferrel isn't expecting to be selected, and gets all modest and embarrassed. Or at least pretends to be. Once the meeting has been adjourned, I spend a while watching the night sky and reflecting that the Ability of Portents probably does a lot more than its description in the rules makes out, since there's little point in the book calling for a check on the ability to foretell the future of the person with you when you're on your own.

Next day I head for the East Gate and meet Cyrilus, who tells me that there's a shop nearby where I can buy stuff, as I'm apparently way too other-worldly to have realised that without prompting. Given that there's no mention of my other travelling companion, and the 'don't buy stuff' option implies leaving without him, I'd better see if the shop has more to offer than just the inevitable Meals and Laumspur potions. No potions, as it turns out, but items of potential use include a whistle, a waterproof canvas and an empty flask. And the shop name is a pun: as this place deals in high-quality merchandise, the sign indicates that it doesn't sell goods - it sells betters.

When I get back to the gate, Ferrel is there (and would be even if I'd picked someone else - now I half wish I'd gone for the political scientist, just so I could find out what pretext is used to have me take the companion Mr. Williams wants me to take rather than the one I chose). We set off, and along the way we pass through a village with a shrine in the middle. The shrine is closed, and randomness determines that I have no idea why. I could ask someone (and, very carelessly, the section for doing so is directly below the one that offers that option), and as there's little point in trying to avoid attracting attention when I have a spy for the bad guy riding alongside me, I do so.

It turns out that today is a holy day for the shrine-keepers, so they're performing a cleansing ritual. This denies me the opportunity of buying some of the Combat Skill-enhancing Alether berries that they usually sell, and Cyrilus disapproves of my plan to trespass in the garden, take some berries anyway, and leave a few coins in return (a plan the book has me come up with regardless of whether or not I have any money left - and it's definitely possible to spend everything in the Betters shop, even if you start with the maximum possible gold). Not wishing to give Ferrel an opportunity to pin a crime (however trivial) on me and thus get me discredited, I also disapprove of my plan.

We ride on until Ferrel forces a Meal check. While we're eating, Cyrilus talks of a recurring dream involving a shield, a wolf, a bridge and casks of alcohol. Portents gets checked again (as does Solar Flare), and the text can't make up its mind whether this is an optional Ability-use incident or a compulsory one - the choice is between 'if you have and want to use the Ability' and 'if you do not have either ability'. I have neither, so the lack of an 'or you do not want to use them' makes no difference to me, but this kind of carelessness is a bad thing even when I'm not personally affected by it.

Since I lack both relevant Abilities, Ferrel uses the dream interpretation skills that are so closely associated with alchemy to deduce that Lone Wolf will be staying at the Barrel Bridge Tavern in the town for which we are heading. Eat your heart out, Sigmund Freud. Cyrilus decides to stay there so he can help Lone Wolf make a new enemy meet Lone Wolf.

Towards the end of the day, we stop at the Halfway Inn, and the text again assumes that I still have money on me, so I've just double-checked the section set in the shop, and there is no instruction there to save some coins for later on. Just failure on the part of the author and editors to consider possible outcomes of the choices provided.

Ferrel and Cyrilus sit at a table, and I join them. A serving girl tells us the price of a room and food, and lets slip that the cooking's not that great. At last we get an acknowledgment that I might be out of funds (I'm not, but only because of a last-minute decision to get the flask instead of a tent). I decide not to bother paying for a helping of rabbit stew without so much rabbit in it, but cough up for the room.

The book has me decide not to loiter downstairs, because local gossip is liable to be inaccurate. It's cloudy, so I'm spared another implicit jibe for not having chosen Portents. In my sparsely-furnished room I must eat a Meal, Magnamund evidently not being like the gamebook worlds where you can get by on one meal a day, and try to forecast the weather. Still cloudy, and now drizzling, so I turn in. Judging by the question I'm asked here, it's a good thing I didn't try to get those berries, as doing so might (or would) have led to my being attacked by the villagers.

The next day we set off again. It's foggy, but Cyrilus doesn't mind, as he should get to meet his brother later today. We see a cemetery that will feature more prominently in the main adventure, and Ferrel goes in there to find something he can use in his alchemy. I am suddenly overwhelmed by nausea and dizziness, and Divination finally gets called on. Though only to make it slightly more obvious that this is where Lone Wolf will shortly be encountering some bother. It is the impendingness of that incident that is making me feel bad, so I want to move on, but Ferrel is still looking for grave fulgurite. I could use Detection to help him, but doing so may well put a weapon in my enemy's hands. Either that, or not using it will mean I'm forced to wait here until he finds what he's after, losing Endurance from the bad vibes, and he'll still get what he needs to increase his chances of knifing me in the back.

I insist on moving on, and he insists on staying to complete his search, but agrees to catch us up once he's found what he's after. And that's what happens. No damage taken, but I have a strong suspicion that his acquisition will make things unpleasant for me at a later stage.

We reach the Denka gate, where Cyrilus' brother works. While we don't see the brother, the family connection does enable Cyrilus to get our toll fees waived. He proves that he's related to him by mentioning his birthmark in so much detail that it's almost certain to be asked about at some later stage in the adventure. Said birthmark is apparently triangular, which makes me wonder if the brother's leg can be unlocked with the appropriate item.

We have to eat again, and as I'm out of food and can't afford the prices here, I shall be very cross if that expensive waterproof canvas never proves of any use. The text offers me a choice between asking the food-server about local news (what happened to not trusting gossip?) or just eating and leaving. As I can't eat, I suppose I'll have to chat. And doing so just nets me another continuity reference to the main adventure, and has me finishing my meal.

Deep breaths. Calm down. It's still not as bad as the Lemmings book.

Making a mental note to come back again some time and enjoy the cooking once more (if this was playtested, they did a poor job of it), I set off again, riding past the continuity reference. We reach our destination, and Ferrel pays the toll for each of us. Good to avoid another cash-based internal continuity snarl-up, but given that Joe Dever once had an undercover villain pay what Lone Wolf couldn't, I can't help but wonder if Mr. Williams is being 'clever' here.

We reach the Barrel Bridge Tavern, and Divination kicks in again. Regrettably, the Ability only seems to be there so the author can go, 'Did you see what I did there? This is where something BIG happened in the Lone Wolf adventure. Dig my continuity references, man!' While Cyrilus stays behind to await the encounter that will lead to his death, I set off in search of former Solain leader Simyn, who knows the location of the key I'm after. Ferrel is surprised that I'm getting on with my mission so quickly, and asks to accompany me. Perhaps worried that he may have been too subtle with his hints about Ferrel's duplicity, the author all but comes out and says, 'There's something very dodgy about this,' but still offers me the choice of letting the traitor tag along. Not this time.

When I refuse to let him accompany me, he confesses to having accepted a bribe from Austerion to spy on me, but says he's really on our side and spent all the money to help us get this far (a pretty stingy bribe if that's the case). He claims to be a big fan of Simyn, and just wants to meet him, but if I insist on going alone, he'll go back home like a good boy. If I had Solar Flare, I might get some hint of how sincere he is, but I don't, so I just reflect on how shocked, shocked I am to find that he's not entirely reliable, and get a second chance to let him come with me. The answer is still no.

Ferrel leaves in a bit of a huff, and I wait for a while before setting off, in theory to ensure that he won't follow me, but as there's nothing to prevent him from just hiding nearby and waiting as long as it takes, I see it as more of an authorial contrivance to ensure that he has time to perpetrate whatever new treachery he has in mind. Once I'm on my way, I start to worry about Cyrilus, left on his own, and then I get worried about myself, also alone, and then I see some shops still open and think about shopping instead. Between my lack of funds and the fact that I've already given Ferrel a head start, I don't stop to browse, but press on.

Along the way I encounter a mounted patrol, who ask what I'm up to, so I ask for directions to Simyn's, which should make me suspect number one with the local authorities if Ferrel's branched into assassination. And the fact that Simyn's front door is ajar lends weight to that suspicion. For propriety's sake, I choose to knock (the text is missing a 'the' in the option, causing a momentary lapse into the kind of vernacular used in early text-based computer games), and to my surprise, Simyn opens the door just as I'm raising my hand. He welcomes me in and offers me tea.

Dreams have indicated to him that I would be coming to ask about the key, and he tells me that it's 'in the lower right hand drawer of the High Sage's personal quarters' (so are the drawers built in to the room, or is the name of an item of furniture missing from that sentence?), and I'll need a key to get the key. He then warns me of the forces opposing Lone Wolf, which take on the form of a wolverine in his dreams (feral, perchance?), mentions a comet that will herald Lone Wolf's arrival, and suddenly senses the presence of a third person the dream didn't mention. Indeed, he seems under the impression that only Cyrilus and I came here. I say we were accompanied, but don't name the third man because that information might provide just enough warning to save his life, and obviously we can't be having that. Oh, and there's another proofreader's error here: 'did you tell Ferrel you did not want to meet Simyn with you?' Or maybe I'm not so keen on bringing myself along when I meet people.

When I finally name the unforeseen companion, Simyn makes the Ferrel/feral connection, casts a spell to keep us from being scried upon (a little late when he's already given away the location of the key) and warns me that I'm in danger. Too late: Ferrel enters, one hand hidden inside his cloak, and boasts about how he scry-proofed himself. I move to protect Simyn, and he warns me that Ferrel is hiding something in his cloak (really? And there I was thinking the hand shoved in there was just evidence of a Napoleon Complex), and I must stop him from using it. I get asked if I have the Ability of Detect, and as there's nothing of that name on the list, I'm going to assume that Mr. Williams means Detection, and couldn't be bothered to check what name he'd actually given the Ability when writing this paragraph.

Anyway, I try and use Detection, Ferrel tries to Counter it, a random number determines who succeeds, and with one outcome four times as likely as the other, I may be about to get very angry. I get the more likely result, which is the favourable one. Okay, no need for a rant there. Or only a minor one - if the other outcome is lethal, that's still twice as likely as the much-hated 1 in 10 chances of Instant Death in several of the Lone Wolf adventures. So I discover that Ferrel is holding a flask, and am able to dodge when he hurls it at me. Lightning erupts from it when it shatters (I bet that's what he wanted the fulgurite for) and, worried that he might have more such weapons on him, I shove Simyn out of the door and follow him.

Ferrel gives chase, wounding me with a Vassagonian scimitar, and he has a depressingly high Combat Skill and Endurance. The ensuing fight will only last two rounds before something intervenes, but I need to survive that long if I'm to find out whether that's a good interruption or a bad one. I do last long enough, and Simyn fireballs Ferrel. Nice. Would be nicer if the text didn't make assumptions: 'Ferrel's last attack has driven you to the ground.' Regardless of my Combat Skill, there's always a 1 in 10 chance of my taking no damage in a round of combat. Given the right combination of Abilities and numbers, it could be as much as 3 in 10. But apparently Ferrel would have knocked me down even if he hadn't managed to hit me.

Singed, in pain, and glaring murderously, Ferrel throws something else. I only take a grazing blow from the missile, which is still enough to render me unconscious thanks to the poisonous weed Ferrel took from the graveyard. Just before blacking out, I see him punch Simyn. When I come round, it's a day later, and Simyn has almost bled to death. But he managed to fireball Ferrel again, wounding him badly enough that he was unable to kill two incapacitated foes, yet still healthy enough to set off back to Varetta.

Since there was a Laumspur potion in my starting equipment, and that could conceivably bring me back to reasonable health, the author has me use it to stabilise Simyn. I might have chosen to do so anyway, but I'm not happy about being forced to keep myself, if not quite at death's door, at least within sight of death's doormat.

My horse is gone, of course, of course, and the first two locals I ask for help cry out for assistance, as a result of which I almost get arrested by a patrolman. When I tell him that an assassin tried to kill me and Simyn, and that the latter is in urgent need of help, he dashes off to investigate, ordering me to stay put. Naturally I don't, and at the nearest inn I am presented with a choice that's no choice. Not having enough money to buy a horse, I can either steal one or... Well, the text doesn't make it clear what the alternative is (and the way the book's laid out makes it easy to miss that there even is one, sticking the final option over the page), but I strongly suspect that it involves standing around like an idiot until that patrolman catches me, and missing my opportunity to help Lone Wolf while assisting the local militia with their enquiries.

So I have to steal a horse. That bit's easy, and I decide to ride without rest until I reach Varetta. Once I'm on my way, it occurs to me that I'd have to pay the toll to leave by the gate through which I entered. Lacking the money, and (surprisingly) not having the option of remembering the Gatekeeper's birthmark and trying a bluff, I have to take an alternate route that passes by another name-drop for the main adventure.

Having decided which way I will go to avoid the gate toll, I am now told that I need to try and find a route that will take me to Varetta without passing through the gate. The quality control on these mini-adventures is abysmal. Eventually I sight the main road and head for it - and suddenly I'm unsuccessfully trying to get into an inn. What about 'ride without rest'? Resuming my journey, I have to eat the food I don't have on me, and I'm sorely tempted to take advantage of the fact that the text neglects to mention the standard 3 Endurance penalty for missing a Meal. Hang on, it's not been forgotten, it's just in the next section for no rational reason.

I ride on to Varetta, where I am stopped by a guard. He's an old friend named Norlinar, and hasn't seen Ferrel (but there's more than one gate, so that doesn't mean the wretch isn't back). The guard has seen something of note, though: a warrant for my arrest. He can't get away with letting me through, but he does offer to arrange things so I have a chance of escaping.

There's even been a reward offered for my capture, so the other guards are a bit peeved not to have caught me. Still, I doubt that Norlinar will be getting the money, either, as he makes good on his word, and even compels me to punch him hard in the face to add verisimilitude to the tale of my escape. I ask him to get word to Algrun, my only friend on the Solain, and then make myself scarce.

Taking shelter in the observatory, I discover that the portent of which Simyn spoke is a comet. Well, that was so obvious from the way he described it that I never noticed his failure to use the word, and just called it what it had to be. But upon rereading, I can see that his words could also indicate a meteor, so this realisation isn't quite as absurd as I initially took it to be.

Guards burst in and drag me before the Solain. Austerion demands to know why I disobeyed his orders, and knows that I visited Simyn. So do I lie and say I didn't, obfuscate and make out that it was just a social call, or tell the truth? No doubt he's already heard from Ferrel, so I'll tell the truth: being caught in a deception will only weaken my case. He has me placed under house arrest, and indicates that steps have been taken to deal with Cyrilus. Considering what actually happens to Cyrilus in the main adventure, if his fate is in any way a consequence of Austerion's actions, that would mean that, rather than just being ignorant and pig-headed, the Solain leader is actually evil. I'm not sure which is more tiresome, actually. While being dragged away, I pointlessly continue to explain my actions, and a satisfyingly crispy-looking Ferrel gloats about my impending doom.

The source of this image has an amusingly appropriate title.

In my quarters, all my equipment confiscated, I fret about Cyrilus' fate, think vengeful thoughts about Ferrel, and then decide to do something productive. Solar Eclipse enables me to knock out the guard on my door, and I risk stopping to search him. Either he's unarmed or I'm too stupid to take his weapon, despite having been deprived of my own, because I only take his keys.

Proceeding to Austerion's tower, I find the door locked. Section numbers indicate that if I hadn't searched the guard, I'd be able to go back to him and fetch the keys without facing any complications, so there was little point in making that search optional. Heck, a randomised chance of being spotted when going back for them could have brought the section number count up to a nice round 190, and a penalty for not taking the opportunity when it first presented itself would not have been unreasonable.

Ascending the tower, I use Sight to establish that Austerion is asleep, and then enter his room. After sniggering to see that he uses a nightlight, I turn my attention to the desk, which is where Simyn would have told me the key was kept if this had been remotely competently proofread. Detection is again referred to as 'Detect' (there's a joke about atoms to be had in there), and I use it to find the key to the drawer with the crypt key in. It's under Austerion's pillow, and it looks as if I have a 1 in 10 chance of waking him when I take it. I get a better number, and take the key. Then I notice my confiscated equipment and reclaim that before leaving again.

Ferrel is waiting for me outside, having foretold my escape, and wanting to kill me in person. He spells out that Cyrilus' inevitable doom is a consequence of his counsel to Austerion, gloats about having destroyed every clue that could lead Lone Wolf to the location of the Lorestone he needs, and announces his intention to confront and thwart Lone Wolf. The comet lights up the sky, and while the locals are kicking up a fuss about it, I attack Ferrel. While weakened by his burns, he's still a formidable opponent, and the odds of my winning this fight are low. I don't quite survive. Though I might have if I'd bought more food rather than wasting money on could-be-useful items that turned out to be red herrings.

Well, that was down to Mongoose's usual standard. At least I'll have a good idea of what to avoid, should I ever bring myself to attempt it again.

Getting back to what I was saying at the start of this post: having failed book 5 during the climactic confrontation, I have no Lone Wolf to carry across into book 6. Given that it's the first of the Magnakai sequence, there's a partial reboot of the character anyway, so a freshly-generated one won't be missing out on Disciplines in the same way as someone starting any of books 2-5 from scratch. But it would mean not having any of the useful items that can be acquired in the first run of books, which include a number of enhancements to Combat Skill. So I'm undecided on whether to just start afresh, or try and get a Lone Wolf through books 1-5 intact. If I go for the latter, I won't be blogging about the early books again, as I already have more than one entry on each of them, but I would give a summary of anything noteworthy that happened during the replay. Anyone reading this who has a preference, please comment to let me know. I'm not saying that I'll definitely go with the majority vote on the issue, but I will at least take my readers' preferences into account when I make my decision.


  1. I'd love to see your character survive and keep on going, but what I'd do is just start over from book 5. I don't see why you would need to go back to the beginning every time. Of course, I can't stop you if that's what you really want to do!

  2. Both approaches have merit but if it were me, I'd go with retrying. Then again, if it were me I'd probably cheat on the fights and random deaths.

  3. I would reboot from book 5, as suggested above; but if you are not wanting to use 'saves' then either of the possibilities you mentioned will be cool.

  4. You could rewind to the Haakon fight where you made the wrong decision and choose a different option. Then if you get through to the end (if there is indeed any more left to do after that) carry the character over. If not, start again.