Friday, 25 October 2013

It's Only at the Turning Point That You Find Out How You Fight

I remember nothing of the circumstances of my buying Peter Darvill-Evans' Portal of Evil, the next Fighting Fantasy gamebook to come out. As I was now 'properly' collecting the books again, it can't have been long after publication, but I don't know if I got it at the earliest opportunity, or at a more convenient moment. It was probably after school one day, but I can't be any more specific than that.

My first attempt was made without dice, and ended badly because I didn't have sufficient light sources when I tried going through the eponymous portal. Portal lacking the warped and morbid tone of Mr. Darvill-Evans' previous gamebook, it didn't fascinate me as much as BNC, and consequently got little attention from me once I'd fudged or cheated my way to the end. While PoE is still my least favourite of the author's FF books, nowadays that's more a consequence of the quality of the other two than a criticism of Portal, which I now recognise to have more merit than I perceived as a teenager.

There's a gold rush taking place to the west of the Cloudhigh Mountains, and the region is full of people seeking to make a fortune by fair means or foul. My character is looking for a job more fulfilling than just guarding caravans of ore, and thus doesn't care much about this. But then more interesting news comes my way: people are going missing, and strange beasts (stranger than usual for FF) are roaming the land. And the offer of my weight in gold as a reward for resolving whatever is afoot has a certain appeal, too. But am I up to the challenge?
Skill 8
Stamina 21
Luck 10
Probably not. Still, if I learn anything in the course of failing the adventure, it will at least have been a worthy attempt.

On my way to Kleinkastel, the town where mining magnate Gloten is seeking a champion, I notice a trail of fresh blood, and damage to surrounding vegetation which suggests that the wounded creature is very large. Following the trail, I reach a clearing containing a huge, wounded lizard and a female Elf. They ask me to help them (yes, the lizard too). Moments later, two soldiers burst into the clearing and charge at the lizard. Not wishing to be thought species-ist, I respond to the plea for aid and help the Elf defend her saurian companion. One of the soldiers attacks them, while I distract the other by hitting him with my sword until he runs away.

The other soldier also retreats, and, putting on my palaeontologist hat, I identify the lizard as a Spinosaurus, which ought really to be extinct. I ask the Elf where she found it, and the Spinosaurus replies. It claims that it was an Elf once, but got captured by Slave Warriors and forced through a Portal. Most captives became slaves themselves, but this one resisted, and consequently got transformed into a dinosaur instead. The ex-Elf mentions that Gartax may know more, and urges me to leave. I ask about Gartax, and learn that he's a former miner, genre-savvy enough to have evacuated his village before the Slave Warriors arrived, and now trying to organise armed resistance not far from here.

It's generally good to be well-informed, so I go looking for Gartax. After a while, I catch sight of a man being pursued by a massive flightless bird. Time to go to the rescue again, eh? Only, as I interpose myself between the bird and its apparent prey, the man puts his knife to my back, laughingly comments on my nobility, and orders me to surrender. Under the circumstances, I do so, and around a dozen of the man's associates emerge from hiding. My captor asks why I'm here, so I explain that I'm looking for Gartax. Dismissing Gartax and his followers as respectively a brigand and rabble, the man asks again what brings me here.

I suspect that this part of Portal was influenced by a scene from the Doctor Who story The Green Death. Having read the novelisation of TGD a good half-dozen years before the gamebook came out, even the first time I reached this point, I correctly guessed that my captor was Gartax himself, pretending to be a critic of the resistance leader in order to find out what I really thought of him. So I explained that I'd come to try and sort out the troubles in the region, and was seeking whatever relevant information Gartax had, and I do exactly the same now. The man admits to being Gartax, and is pleased to learn that something is being done.

Much of what he tells me just corroborates what I learned from the ex-Elf: people of various species are being transformed into Slave Warriors. In fact, by now the Slave Warriors' ranks have grown so much that Gartax and his followers have abandoned the plan to fight back, and just want to get away while they still can. I ask if there's anyone else around who could be of help, and Gartax mentions the Wizard of Lake Mlubz, who lives to the south.

We arrive at Gartax's camp, and I see that everyone is armed, though few show signs of any training as fighters. Gartax says he anticipates an attack before they can evacuate, and asks me to help defend the camp. By FF hero standards I may be pretty unimpressive, but I'm these people's best hope, so I agree. After giving some basic strategic tips, I get something to eat, and I'm just finishing the meal when the attack commences. I take up arms alongside Gartax's people, and get my first sighting of the Slave Warriors. Mindless drones, they're no better fighters than the people I'm helping, and my leadership proves decisive in the battle. There are many casualties on my side, but the Slave Warriors are massacred, and I never get so much as scratched.

Searching the bodies of the attackers, I find that each is wearing strange stone talisman. Trying an amulet on looks like a bad idea, but I take one with me in case the Wizard can learn anything from it. Before setting off in search of the lake, I see Gartax one final time, and to thank me for my assistance, he gives me several meals' worth of food.

Heading south, I soon come across a stream, which I follow. It leads me through a ravine, and the path goes past a cave mouth. Walking past has its hazards, but I'm not sure that trying to climb out of the ravine would go a whole lot better, so I take the risk. Luck is with me, and the cave's occupant fails to notice me as I sneak past.

Further on I see a jetty with two boats attached to it, and a hut nearby. Boating downstream would be quicker (and less arbitrarily lethal) than continuing on foot, so I knock on the hut door to ask about borrowing a boat. The occupant, a Dwarf with a parrot-like bird on his shoulder, agrees to let me have a boat in return for some food. I hand over a portion of Provisions, and while stuffing his face, the Dwarf tells me that he's been bothered by Slave Warriors and 'things that come up to the door of a night and talk with human voices - but they're not human'. He also advises me to take the punt rather than the skiff, as there's at least a chance that it won't break up when I reach the rapids.

For a while I drift down the stream. A splashing near the left bank catches my attention, and I risk investigating. It turns out that ignoring it, as I did the last time I got this far, was the right choice, as the source of the disturbance is an Elasmosaurus, which attempts to capsize my boat in the hope of getting to eat me. I try to stab it in the head while I have the chance, but my Skill isn't up to the task, and I end up in the water, and then in the belly of the beast. Not the most satisfying learning experience, but at least I know for future attempts at the book that it's not worth checking out that splashing.

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