Monday, 28 October 2013

I Only Take the Best

I bought issue 11 of Proteus on my way to school, almost certainly from the newsagent's across and down the road from the school, as I was already on school grounds by the time I got half way through the 'Your Quest Begins...' section. It was the day of the week that my year at the school had Games, and I remember reaching the logic puzzle that must be solved to complete one of the sub-quests while making my way towards the playing fields.

Like the previous issue, this was written by Elizabeth Caldwell (with the assistance of R.B. Newton), but Challenge of the Promethean Guild is nothing like Triad. That much was obvious in one way from the cover illustration - more specifically, the gun wielded by the man depicted. Still, the SF aspects of the story are just trappings, little more significant than the mid-21st century setting of Shinderg's Tomb, and I remain baffled by the number of readers who wrote in to complain about the perceived genre shift. In fact, just to show how trivial the SF sheen is, once I get to the actual playthrough, I'll rewrite every intrusion of the futuristic in fantasy terms, and change the font colour to show that I've 'de-SFed' it.

I've specified that I'll do that in the playthrough because the only noteworthy variation in the rules for this adventure is the one SF element that does make a small but significant difference: the laser sword with which I am armed. While the name of the weapon may well make it sound like a renamed light sabre, it's nothing like that. If it took any inspiration from a film, the source is more likely to be the swords with guns built into their hilts from Krull. At the start of any fight, I fire the laser, after which it needs to recharge, so I turn the weapon around and start hitting my opponent with the pointy end. In game terms, it means that I do extra damage in the first round of combat (provided I hit my opponent).

The Promethean Guild is an organisation dedicated to the elimination of evil, though not above using questionable tactics to achieve its goals. Its members are among the best of the best, and the Guild has a rigorous selection process, starting with the challenge of finding out where the Testing Complex is located. I start the adventure knowing that, thanks to a cousin who sought Guild membership himself some time ago. And now I consider myself ready to face the Guild's tests. Knowing what some of the fights in this adventure are like, I shall be allocating dice when I roll to see whether I'm deluding myself or actually in with a chance.
Dexterity 11
Strength 14
Skill (yes, they went with a word used by FF) 10
Not beyond the bounds of possibility, but I could be in for a tough time.

Still, I think it worth trying. If I qualify, I'll be trained as an expert fighter and instructed in the arts of Magic and other arcane lore. Three other candidates also wait outside the door to the Complex: two men with assorted weapons, including crossbows, and a woman with an assortment of throwing knives and stiletto daggers. Suddenly a Shakla, a massive ursine beast, advances on us, and one of the men fires a couple of crossbow bolts at it, doing more to annoy the Shakla than harm it. It mauls him before the other candidates fell it with a combination of throwing knives and crossbow bolts.

Incidentally, the first man's attack on the Shakla forms the basis of the cover illustration, making me wonder if the picture pre-dated the text, or if cover artist Terry Oakes only had the 'Your Quest Begins...' passage to go on. I mean, 'redshirt (well, redcloak if you want to be precise about his garb) gets killed by monster you don't engage' is an even odder choice for cover image than other YQB-derived subjects like 'thug you defeat without even using dice' or 'being who gives you your quest and is never seen again'.

Anyway, the door opens, the other two go through, and I follow. There's no sign of them when I reach the room at the end of the corridor, though. Just a woman who takes down my details and tells me of the three trials I must face to prove myself worthy of Guild membership: to steal a certain valuable item, to find the parts of a key to let me out of a maze, and to locate and non-lethally wound an adversary (one of the other candidates) before they can do the same to me. Three doors lead on, each providing access to a different challenge, but there's nothing to indicate which is which.

As each trial is self-contained, the order in which I attempt them doesn't really matter, beyond the fact that on the latter two listed there's a possibility of failing thanks to just one or two unlucky rolls, so if I can get the first one first, this is liable to be a more substantial entry even if I don't win. Memory suggests going for the left-hand door first... and is mistaken, but never mind.

I head down a corridor lit by lanterns, and reach a room in which four objects are laid out on a table. The voice of the receptionist tells me that I may only take one item, that two of the artefacts are potentially helpful, while the other two are harmful, and that my objective here is to find and wound Feyh, the woman with the knives.

The first time I played this, I wasn't using dice, so it didn't matter so much when I chose the object that drained my Dexterity every so often, but if I'd been doing it by the rules, that would have guaranteed my doom. This time round, after rejecting that one and the almost-as-lethal one that drains Strength, I pick the lute, as that could enable me to bypass the nasty fight in which the other one I don't pick would help. Then I leave by the west door.

It leads me to a room containing a bizarre device with one human eye in it (you get bizarre devices in fantasy). With a flash of light, a reptilian humanoid appears and attacks. The moment I hit it, it vanishes again, and if I'd been wounded, I'd find myself unharmed. Arguably, not having taken any unreal damage, I should be unaware that the Reptile-Man was an illusion, which could make a difference to how I handle what happens next - the sudden appearance of two Reptile-Men. As it is, I guess that one is another illusion, and the other is real, and reflect that it won't go well for me if I target the fake one first. I'm not sure that as interesting a situation could arise from being unaware of the illusory nature of the first one I fought, and possibly under the misapprehension that a single blow is all it takes to destroy a Reptile-Man, but the set-up could have some potential. Not a big deal, though.

I choose my target and attack. It's the wrong one, and the genuine opponent gets in a couple of blows before I can turn to face it. That's the only damage it does inflict, though. Suspecting the eye in the machine to be responsible for the fight I've just had, I leave the room before any further unpleasantness can occur.

The corridor I'm now in goes north. A side passage east ends in a metal door that can't be opened, doubtless leading into the room I'd have entered if I'd taken the other exit from the one with the items. As I can't get through, I have to return to the corridor going north and keep going. At a T-junction I go west again. The passage changes direction several times, and I seem to hear footsteps following me. If I didn't know the only circumstance under which it's possible to encounter Feyh, the description might put me on edge a little, but my familiarity with the adventure robs the text of its potential paranoia-inducing qualities.

I reach a crossroads and go south. The passage is a dead end, but there's a hole in the wall, and symbols have been scratched into the stone by the hole. I check out the symbols, concluding that they refer to the stone three up. But three up from the hole, or from the symbols? Both stones are loose and slightly indented, and I really wish that there was an 'ignore this and go back north' option, because I know the consequences of getting this wrong, and am not 100% certain of which is the correct stone to press.

I try the one I think it is. It doesn't trigger any obvious trap, so I think it should now be safe to reach into the hole: if I'd gone wrong, I'm pretty sure that only a choice of unpleasant fates would remain. Yes, instead of getting my hand chopped off (as would have happened if I'd stuck it in without pressing a stone, or after pressing the wrong one), I am able to retrieve a diamond and a scroll identifying the diamond as payment for the regrettably-named Ah-Pukh. Yes, I know it's a variant of a name attributed (possibly in error) to a Mayan death god, but it's all too easy to distort into a vulgar nickname, as immature teenage boys were wont to do back then. Probably still are, for that matter.

Anyway, I take the diamond and go back to the crossroads. Avoiding north out of general contrariness, I find another turning south and more authorial trickery intended to make me think that Feyh could attack at any moment. Not going to happen. Further such mind games go on until I reach a dead end and have to turn back. North it is, then.

I enter a room with three occupants, though my attention is focused on one of them. A Dwarf, wearing next to nothing, with paint highlighting the skeleton beneath his skin, while his head has been squeezed into a human skull, his eyes glinting insanely through the sockets. Flanking him are two barbarian warriors, who attack me and are slain in turn. The Dwarf then introduces himself as Ah-Pukh, and says I must give him something if I want to leave the room alive. I hand over the diamond, and he causes two doors to open.

I go west again, and encounter a young man in a white tunic, the symbol of a chess piece embroidered on the front and back. He's waiting by a door, and explains that it will be necessary to solve the riddle of the Chess Master in order to proceed beyond the next room. The door opens, and a voice orders, 'Enter, Pawns!' I accompany the youth through the door, and we are confronted by a man in black armour, who asks a question that's fairly obviously based on the A=1, B=2 cypher that gamebooks helped burn into so many people's brains. I give the correct answer, and the armoured man pronounces me worthy to continue in the Game, then blasts my companion dead with a bolt of black lightning and disappears before I can avenge the lad. It occurs to me that the tunic might make a good disguise, so I put it on before leaving the room.

At the next junction I am compelled to go north, eventually reaching a room with a black and white chequered floor. People in tunics like the one I now wear, some black, some white, are standing in different squares, and on raised platforms to east and west are armoured figures: the one who set me the riddle, and one in similar but white armour. They direct the people on the board, playing chess with human pieces.

It's been done before.

I spot that the Black Queen is none other than Feyh, and decide to join the game - having had a demonstration of the Black Chess Master's powers, I daren't risk angering him by making an illegal move. The White Chess Master accepts my presence as one of his pieces, and I get instructed to move just like the rest. Before long I discover one deviation from standard chess rules: when a piece is moved onto a square occupied by a piece belonging to the opposing Chess Master, the people playing the pieces must fight, the outcome of that battle determining which piece remains on the board. Soon the White Chess Master uses me to try and take an opposing pawn, and I prevail.

Eventually the Black Chess Master moves his Queen onto my square, at which point she suddenly realises who I am. As we go for our weapons, he reminds us that this fight is only to first blood. In game terms, my Dexterity only gives me a small advantage, though the skimpiness of the costume Feyh is just about wearing in the accompanying illustration (the reason why a large number of second-hand copies of this issue are missing page 16) suggests that it shouldn't be that difficult to strike an unprotected part of her anatomy. Either way, I am the one who lands a blow first, so Feyh fails to qualify and I make it through to another trial.

How about the middle door, then? That leads to a crossroads, which I think means that this is the challenge I was originally after. If memory serves correctly, going east should prove it one way or the other - and not doom me if I'm mistaken. And I was right. It leads me to a room containing the chap in the picture next to this paragraph. He tells me that I must answer his riddle or fight him. I choose the riddle, partly because I know I can solve it again, partly because I'd rather not get into any unnecessary fights, and partly because the sheer incongruity of this encounter deserves to be properly shown off.

The muscle-bound, axe-wielding Giant smiles (and it's a happy smile, not a 'you are so going to fail this, and then I get to axe you in the face' smile), shows me his ruby-and-diamond earrings and tells me the price paid for them. Then he shows me a ruby-and-diamond necklace, and tells me what that cost. Next he tells me the combined value of his sapphire necklace and his ruby earrings. And finally he shows me a diamond-and-sapphire necklace and asks me what it's worth. Basic algebra makes it easy to calculate the individual price of each type of gem, after which it's just a matter of multiplying those costs by the number of each kind and adding them together. The Giant congratulates me, gives me the necklace (good thing it's not a ring, as that could be misinterpreted, and he's really not my type) and lets me leave.

After a while I see a side turning, and take it just for variety's sake. It leads to a small metal door. I squeeze through and find myself in a room filled with children's toys. The door by which I entered can't be opened from this side, so there's only one exit, but before leaving, I take a closer look at some of the toys. Two in particular catch my attention: a large box painted in red and gold, and a life-size model of a knight in red armour. While the odds of being killed by the poisoned needle-spitting jack-in-the-box are low, I'd still rather not take the risk, so I focus on the knight instead. He's clockwork, and when I wind him up, he challenges me to a test of fighting prowess. I accept, and manage to strike three blows against him before he can hit me more than once. As a reward for winning, he tells me to take the toy Golem that's on the floor close by, as it may be of great help. I do so, and leave the room.

Reluctant to head south, I notice that the door through which I just came pivots rather than being hinged as usual, and actually provides access to two separate rooms. Curious, I go through the half of the doorway that doesn't lead to the toy room. The door closes behind me, and a large, multi-limbed Golem with a different weapon at the end of each arm starts lumbering towards me. Realising that the toy I just got is an exact scale model of the advancing killer, I guess that it can be used for working sympathetic magic. The full-size Golem wounds me with a dart while I'm setting the toy up, but as soon as I destroy the toy, the real thing explodes. I take minor blast damage, but I'd have almost certainly have fared worse in a fight, as I'm pretty sure that the Golem has 12 Dexterity.

Moving on, I am compelled north at the next junction, and then hear the voice of the receptionist telling me that my objective here is to steal the blood-red Crystal of the Temple of Avoloch so that it can be returned to its rightful owners. The passage I'm in leads to a circular room with five other exits. In the middle of the room is a round table with six chairs around it and five objects on it: a dagger, a basket, a phial, a box, and a ruby that is the Crystal I seek. Suddenly I am paralysed, and through a haze I see five robed figures seated at the table. Each figure picks up one of the items and leaves through the nearest archway. The paralysis ceases, but somehow that haze has messed with my head to the extent that I can't remember who took the ruby, just convoluted stuff like 'the figure in the blue robes was sitting next but one to the figure that took the dagger, who was next to the one who took the box, who was next to the one wearing yellow'. Enough details are provided that it can eventually be deduced who took the Crystal, and while I can remember the correct answer, acting on that memory would feel like cheating, so I go to the effort of working everything out again. The answer was what I remembered it being.

Anyway, I follow the figure that took the Crystal, and eventually reach a room containing five alcoves. In each alcove is one of the figures, which turn out to be Zombies. Also in the room is a safe, into which the items from the table have been locked. While solving logic puzzles isn't generally associated with stealing, breaking into safes is a more burglarious course of action. Though I imagine that real-world safecracking doesn't often involve filling out a Magic Square, which is all I have to do to get into this one.

I could take more than just the Crystal if I wanted, but for every item I remove from the safe, I have to fight the Zombie that took it, and I'd rather not get into any more fights than are strictly necessary. A quick peek at the 'take other things' section confirms that I got the whole of the logic puzzle right, but I actually only take the Crystal and fight the one Zombie. And that successfully concludes the second trial.

Two down, one to go. The passage beyond the third door goes north, east, and north again. A side passage leads east, and I check it out because I have no great desire to fail this adventure on the final challenge. In the room at the end of the passage I find a metal star with hexagonal indentations set into all five points. This is the first part of the key I need. And, in a bout of authorial deviousness, if I want to find the second part, I have to ignore the exits north and south, and head back to the corridor along which I was originally walking.

It soon turns east, and I see a figure skulking in the shadows. This is one instance where 'shoot first, ask questions later' is the better option, so I fire the crossbow attached to my sword and wound the skeletal figure that was about to attack me. Finishing him off is easy. Bizarrely, the blood that dribbles from his mouth congeals into a hexagonal ruby, which I take before moving on.

I'm not sure which way to go at the next crossroads (though I feel confident about ruling out one option straight off). I try north, and it looks as if I've gone wrong. I mean, the room I've just reached is on the right track, but I think there should be another fight between the Skeleton Man and here to get the second hexagonal ruby. Bother.

Anyway, this room has two exits apart from the way I came in, and by the wall with no doorway in it is a slot machine (Fighting Fantasy has had coin-activated devices since at least City of Thieves, and there's a vending machine in the Tunnels and Trolls solo Dargon's Dungeon, so I see no need to fantasy-ify the one here). There are two coins next to it, so I put one in the slot. Randomness determines what the machine dispenses, and this time it's... a hexagonal ruby. Not that big a surprise, with 50-50 odds, but the last time I made a roll like this in an Elizabeth Caldwell-authored adventure, it didn't go so well.

The text explicitly forbids getting a second ruby out of the machine (technically, owing to the omission of a direction, it's not actually possible to get a ruby with the second coin even if you got something else first time round, but that does appear to be an error rather than authorial intent). With the second coin, I get... a silver dagger. Nice, but useless in this adventure.

As I prepare to leave the room, I am attacked by an automaton. It leaves me once I've inflicted a certain amount of damage on it, but brings me down to my last point of Strength in the process. Good thing I still have a couple of meals. Leaving by the north door, I eventually come to another room, in which a red-robed man sets me a puzzle involving the shifting of coins (in effect) between stacks to make every stack of equal value. Not very tricky, though in this instance there is also an interesting way of avoiding the consequences of getting it wrong. I do the puzzle anyway, and it doesn't take long to figure out that shifting one coin from the first stack and a slightly more valuable one from the second stack into the third one will achieve the desired result. The man congratulates me and vanishes, leaving another of those hexagonal rubies behind.

Two new doors open, and I go west. The passage turns north, then east, and a door seals off the way back. There's a hole in the ground, with a ladder leading down into it, which means that I've now reached the split-level maze where this challenge concludes. I shan't bother listing all the turns, ascents and descents I make. Let's just say that anyone who didn't enjoy The Warlock of Firetop Mountain's Maze of Zagor will absolutely hate this bit. I find four dead ends before reaching the exit, which is just another dead end for me, because even with the ruby that's waiting for me there, I can only fill four of the five indentations in the key, so there's no way out. Well, the Guild might eventually release me so as not to have a corpse stinking up their 'nice' maze, but I've failed to qualify, and will be evicted from the complex like Feyh.

On the bright side, as so many of the encounters in the first two challenges don't really matter, I'll be able to take different paths through them when I replay this adventure here, so at least some sameyness can be avoided when I write it up.

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