Wednesday, 16 October 2013

The Roar That None Can Ignore

After more than half a year of not bothering to get new Fighting Fantasy releases, I finally started again because the next book released, Armies of Death, was by Ian Livingstone, one of the founders of the series. And it was a sequel to Trial of Champions, which meant that it was a better fit for my 'the same hero in almost every adventure' concept than a lot of recent titles. The question of whether or not the book would be any good never occurred to me.

All right, it's not Ian's worst (though I'm surprised to see how many of his other books it beat in the Fighting Fantazine poll a couple of years back), and in at least one regard it's a distinct improvement on several of its predecessors (the curbing of Mr. Livingstone's tendency to have almost nothing happen on the false trails), but overall it's pretty mediocre. Still, it revived my interest in the range and caused my completist tendencies to flare up to the extent that I decided to collect all the Titan-based adventures (I still refused to get Sky Lord), so it's indirectly responsible for my having finally purchased Stealer and Daggers.

I don't remember how my first attempt at it ended, but as I made the wrong decision in section 1, and this is one of those books that start with an essentially blind choice that automatically dooms anyone who doesn't take the correct option, I certainly didn't win. On one occasion since resolving to play by the rules I've made it all the way to the final fight, but even if I'd won that combat, I'd still have lost overall: there's an unavoidable roll on the true path which gives only a 50% chance of getting an essential item, and I'd rolled badly back then.

On with the plot, such as it is. A Demon who's been out of action for a long while is back, and is currently raising up an army to wreak havoc. You may be experiencing a slight sensation of déjà vu right now, but it will soon pass. The thing is, in this adventure, rather than seeking a mystical McGuffin that will banish the Demon Agglax, I have to raise an army to pit against Agglax's troops (as well as seeking a mystical McGuffin that will banish him). And I'm in a position to at least try getting the army together because I'm rich and famous, having beaten the second Deathtrap Dungeon (in an alternate version of events to the one that occurred here). Rather implausibly, given my character's pedigree, character generation follows the basic rules, so it's possible that the hero who bested multiple double-figure Skill opponents in the dungeon will wind up with stats too low to get him through the qualifying stages. On this occasion, though, I got someone who could, with a bit of luck, have made it through Trial:
Skill 11
Stamina 20
Luck 10
Stats-wise, he also has a fair chance of winning this one. It's the random stuff and the arbitrary decisions towards the end that are more liable to doom him.

At the start of the adventure I'm down to my last 700 Gold Pieces, and have 220 troops, a mixture of Dwarfs, Elves, Knights and Warriors. In view of the special abilities of those in the first three categories, any non-specific casualties will be taken from the ranks of the latter.

The hostile army is gathering in the Forest of Fiends to the east, so that's the way we head. We haven't got far before a ship's Captain offers to take us up the River Kok to Zengis, most of the way to the Forest, for just 50 Gold Pieces. I take him up on his offer, as it's the only way of getting one of the many items I'll need before the end of the adventure. There's a gratuitous reference to Port Blacksand in the text before we set off, and once we're on our way, one of the troops spots a barrel floating our way. I let it drift past, my character wondering what it contains, though thanks to a previous attempt at the book, I know it to be nothing good.

Further along, we come under attack. A catapult at the river's edge launches a fireball at us, but misses, while a score of River Raiders paddle log canoes (which look a lot more like big planks of wood in the illustration) towards the ship. Another fireball comes our way and misses, but the cost in Luck is becoming tiresome. As the Raiders prepare to board, I choose to let them do so: the look of surprise on their faces when they realise they're outnumbered by more than 11 to 1 will be far more satisfying than just letting the Elves slaughter them with arrows. Besides, it's an opportunity to conscript the ones that don't throw themselves overboard the moment they become aware that we're not the easy prey they took us for. And to help myself to their leader's shield, which I'll need later on if I take the correct path.

Further up river we see a drifting log with a man lying face-down on it. While I don't think there's anything to be gained by trying to help him, I'm pretty sure that doing so isn't inherently dangerous, so I have a warrior swim over to him. The man turns out to be dead, with an Orc's knife in his stomach (I wonder what it is that makes Orcs' knives so distinct from other kinds of knife) and a key on a string around his neck. I tell the warrior to bring back the key, which turns out to have a number on it and yet (IIRC) isn't actually required later on in the book. Usable, yes, but as far as I know, there's nothing important or useful behind the door it unlocks. For an Ian Livingstone book, that's practically subversive.

A scruffy-looking man in furs attempt to attract my attention, and I have the Captain take the ship to him. A further nine men emerge from the bushes but make no hostile moves, and the one who was there first explains that they've heard of my quest and would like to join us, in return for a decent wage. Not having sufficient troops is one way of failing the book, so I hire them. Their leader introduces himself as Laas, and offers me a gift, which I accept. It's a Yeti tooth, which will apparently deter lycanthropes from attacking me.

By now it's getting late, so the Captain decides to drop anchor. I have everyone stay on the ship, as it should be easier to defend than a land-based camp. Naturally things don't prove that straightforward: waking for no obvious reason, I find that the lookout is missing, and then something is thrown at me. I dodge, and see that the projectile was a silver trident. Footprints (and the fact that our unwelcome visitor is clearly a good swimmer) suggest that my assailant was a Fish Man, and a quick check reveals that I disturbed him before he could cause any serious harm - even the lookout is only unconscious.

In the morning we set off again, and a pirate ship with a huge ramming-spike approaches. I order the Captain to take the ship to the north bank, disembark my troops to show the pirates what they're up against, and have the Elven Archers take aim at the crew of the approaching ship just in case the scurvy bunch don't take the hint. This display of strength achieves the desired aim, and the pirates don't do anything to us.

The rest of the journey to Zengis is uneventful, and I have the troops make camp outside the city while I go in there, ostensibly to seek more recruits, but in reality because there are around half a dozen essential items lying around in it. The first of which is a gold ring that I just happen to spot in the gutter. When I pick it up, a bald axeman claims that it belongs to him (which I find unlikely in view of the size of his fingers) and says he'll kill me if I don't give it to him. Aware that Agglax will kill me if I don't use the ring in the appropriate manner, I give the man a quick and lethal lesson in manners, and when a couple of guards head my way to suggest that I may have made my point too forcefully, I hurry away so as not to have to fight them as well.

Taking shelter in the nearest tavern, I find it to be occupied by an assortment of dodgy-looking characters. Interacting with the barman is one of the worst set pieces in the book, so I ignore him and sit down next to a drunken rogue. He's not very talkative until I suggest a bet, at which point things get a bit ridiculous. I pick two blobs of jam on the table (what sort of pubs did Ian Livingstone frequent to have gained the impression that spilt jam was something you'd expect to find in one?) and wager 50 Gold Pieces against the rogue's brooch that a fly will land on this blob before one lands on that blob. A single die roll determines who wins this bet, and today I get lucky, so I'm still in with a chance of succeeding at the book.

I then join a trio of vagabonds at a nearby table. They ask what I'm doing in Zengis, and I explain, so they offer me advice that will help defeat Agglax in return for a fairly hefty sum of money. As I recall, the way the book's written, it's technically possible to act on their advice even if I didn't get it, but given the evident intent that I should learn of the appropriate side quest by paying the vagabonds, I'll hand over the required sum. In return, I get shown the location of Agglax's army (wonder how these three know it) and told that the Oracle in the Starstone Caves knows how Agglax can be defeated, and might tell me if he's in a good mood.

Moving on from the tavern, I catch sight of a pet shop, and go inside because this is the Crazy World of Ian Livingstone, where having the right kind of animal on your shoulder can be as important as decent stats or a weapon that can harm your foe (I'd link to my post on Island of the Lizard King here, only I failed that book before reaching the point at which the parallels become apparent). While the window display shows only an empty birdcage, the shop itself is full of peculiar fauna. The owner asks if I want to buy a talking bird or something special. Not wishing to risk ending up in an uninspired rehash of the Dead Parrot sketch, I pick the latter option, and buy a Hopper. This is not a spherical orange creature with two horns and a disconcerting grin, but a bald, green-skinned miniature kangaroo called Roob, who talks, speaks Trollish, and can cast an invisibility spell on me if I remember the relevant incantation.

Further down the road is a pawnbroker's shop. The proprietress tells me that everything has a price on it, and the text specifies that each item bears a price-tag. This is a not entirely stupid idea, atrociously implemented. On the one hand, it is pretty absurd that so many artefacts in Titan (like that key, the ring and the brooch) should have numbers inscribed on them, and a price-tag is a decent reason to have a number marked on an object. But the fact that there is a good reason for these numbers means that they don't stand out like the incongruous inscriptions, and the average gamebook reader isn't just going to note down what they paid for anything picked up in the shop. Not even if the paragraph describing the purchase mentions the price-tags twice. So rather than the, 'Oh, that's what the price-tags were for! Neat!' reaction for which Mr. Livingstone was probably hoping, the standard reaction to first discovering that you were supposed to note down those details based on a very flimsy clue is a lot closer to,'**** it, I have the ****** thing, so why can't I just ******* use it?' followed by much leafing through the book to find the section based in the pawnbroker's and get a reminder of the cost of the item in question.

The next location to catch my attention is a barn in which a pie-eating competition is taking place. Participation is not essential for winning Armies (fans of being forced to eat something unpleasant will have to wait for Mr. Livingstone's next book), but it can have beneficial consequences. Or harmful ones, because you should have expected to find one of Agglax's minions as a spectator at a pie-eating contest, right? Well, I don't think I'll bother going in. And if any Doctor Who fans reading this know where to find convoluted speculation based on the fact that the contest involves eating a fish-and-custard pie, I'd appreciate it if they kept the details to themselves, thank you very much.

I then spot an alleyway with barrels in it. It's worth going into the alley, though the barrels are best avoided. (Two harmful barrel-related encounters in one book. Makes me wonder if Ian Livingstone had some traumatic childhood incident involving a barrel.) A couple of Sewer Goblins suicidally ambush me, and I investigate the sewer from which they emerged, as wandering around in sewers is one of those things that gamebook heroes just have to do from time to time. Down there I meet the local Sewer Goblin Exterminator, and in return for my letting him take the ears of the two who attacked me, so he can clam the bounty on them, I ask him for advice about the Starstone Caves. He tells me to seek a guide in Karn (doing so is another 'technically doable without having been explicitly told to, but the fact that you can be told implies that you're supposed to get the hint first' aspect of the book).

Returning to street level, I find a place where I can hire fighters, and pop in to check on the calibre of Max's Marauders. Max is a woman (dressed a lot more sensibly than a lot of female warriors in fantasy fiction), and her rates aren't cheap. I try haggling, and we have a brief bout of non-lethal combat, the outcome determining whether I get a reduced rate or Max gets to push the price up. We're evenly matched, Skill-wise, but I get in a lucky blow and save myself a hundred Gold.

By now it's getting late. An inn named Helen's House offers rooms at a cheap rate, so I go there. The owner (named Obigee, not Helen) looks a lot like late-1980s Ian Livingstone, and I wait patiently while the author shoehorns references to a bunch of his real-life friends into Obigee's reminiscences about sailing. Obigee then gives me a fancy sword he no longer needs (and which he owns because, well, you know, sailing, swordfighting, you know that whole connection there).

In the morning I set off again, managing to find the specific combination of turns while walking through the streets to encounter a Dwarf being throttled by a Shapechanger. Intervening, I take more damage than expected, considering the difference between our Skill scores, but I survive, and the Dwarf gives me a pill that restores as much Stamina as I lost in the fight. The dead Shapechanger has a gold seal (with a number on it) in a pocket, and I take that before leaving Zengis and rejoining my troops.

Karn and the Starstone Caves are to the south, and as the book's blurb is just making things up when it claims that, 'The longer you spend searching [...] the stronger [Agglax] will be', I have the army detour south. Around half my troops are temporarily incapacitated as a result of drinking from a poisoned watering-hole, and since waiting for them to recover would mean abandoning this sub-quest, I pick 15 of the still-healthy warriors to accompany me, presumably leaving the other 100+ healthy fighters to guard and tend the sick.

We encounter an old woman, who asks for money. The advice she gives is the sort of thing it would be plausible for an adventurer to do even without prior recommendation, so I don't feel the same obligation to pay that I did when meeting the vagabonds. Still, she doesn't want much, and is probably more deserving than some of the recipients of my cash, so I give her a coin anyway. She reads my palms, tells me that I'm 'an adventurer on a very important mission' (I'd kind of got that already) and warns me that I'll die if I don't drink the Water of the Gods. Leaving her behind, we press on and find a signpost pointing to Karn.

The 'different fictional location with the same name' gag never gets old, right?

Once there I check my companions into an inn and then go to the Blue Pig tavern to try and find a guide. The barman points me to a man named Thog, who asks where I want to go. I mention the Caves, and he asks if I'm 'another foolish person who wishes to see the Oracle'. There being no option to say that, while I do want to see the Oracle, I'm no fool, I have to accept the insult. Thog then explains that the Oracle is a recluse because he doesn't like people's vices, and lives in a trap-infested cave complex because he appreciates initiative, and anyone who manages to avoid getting killed on the way to see him has demonstrated initiative. Once I've paid the asking price for his services, Thog goes on to point out how to avoid all the traps, so it would appear that 'initiative' here means 'getting someone else to tell you what to do'. And the crowd who've turned a bit of advice from an unrelated gamebook into a philosophy for life will never win this book.

Thog is also a bore and a messy eater, so I'm quite glad when we finally reach the Caves. I enter, proceed to a junction, and take the non-lethal option. When confronted with a lock and a choice of keys, I pick the non-lethal option. At the next junction I go for the non-lethal option. This leads me to a fountain in the shape of Titan deity Libra, the water flowing from an urn she holds. In the illustration, the urn is upright and overflowing, rather than tipped and pouring as would be more conventional. Whether there's some symbolism to this, or just a miscommunication in the art brief (these things happen), I cannot tell. After drinking as directed, I keep going, ignoring the collection box with the 'Give Generously' sign, because it makes no difference whether or not I put money in, and I'm in no mood to sponsor homicidal misanthropy and greed any more than is strictly necessary. I enter a cave with three exits and choose the non-lethal option. That leads to another junction, where I do the same tedious thing I've had to do at almost every decision since entering the wretched caves, and find the light becoming purple. A chute dumps me into a pool of liquid, and my having drunk from the fountain saves me from the sixth variant of Instant Death that's to be had in here.

Since I've survived this far, the Oracle addresses me (through what strikes me as a very 'great and powerful Oz'-type set-up) and demands a certain item I bought from the pawnbroker (this is where having made a note of the price is essential). I put it on the ground for him, and he says he's very greedy and wants another specific object from the pawnbroker's (and again he won't accept it unless I wrote down how much it cost). A trivia question follows, and the Oracle throws dice to determine whether it will be something obvious or obscure. I get the easy question, and identify the goddess represented in the fountain. The Oracle then decides that he's not going to help anyone he can see, so I call upon Roob to turn me invisible. Now that I've passed 'the final test', the Oracle insists on having a brooch for his 98-year-old daughter, and when I give him the one I won from the rogue, he finally agrees to help me.

Despite having claimed to know everything, the Oracle has to ask me what I want. I explain that I want to defeat Agglax, and get told that I'll need to find the Crystal of Light and, once within range of Agglax, speak the incantation that activates its power. The Oracle tells me the incantation, but not where to find the Crystal, just in case I was finding the adventure that bit too easy.

A secret panel opens to indicate that it's time for me to leave, and I go. There's a piece of paper on the floor, and the message on it must be written in Trollish, as I can't make sense of it, but Roob translates and explains that the rules for avoiding traps are different on the way out. The exit is blocked by a snake-eating two-headed lizard, which I recognise as a Calacorm. The Calacorm insists that the appropriate paperwork is completed before I depart, and a seal is required for my exit permit. I use the one I got from the Shapechanger, and the Calacorm signs my name on the document (or I sign it, but when writing the relevant section, Ian Livingstone made a grammatical error of a type that cropped up a lot in The Dark Usurper).

Beyond the Calacorm is a junction, at which I go in the correct direction rather than the only potentially lethal one. Outside I am reunited with my companions, and as we start heading back towards the rest of the army, a group of Centaurs attacks us, so I have to use the mass battle rules that come with this book. For an adventure that involves controlling troops, Armies makes very little use of the rules governing fights between armies. Mind you, given the uninspired nature of those rules, it's no great loss. For all its flaws (and it has a lot of those), Usurper did at least have a better system for simulating large-scale battles (two, in fact, because the big fight in part 2 is handled nothing like the big fight in part 3). The Livingstone system is like a massively simplified version of the Lone Wolf combat rules, and it takes just two rolls for my warriors to massacre the Centaurs.

We rejoin the other troops, now fully recovered, and start going east again. It's unclear whether or not I still have Thog with me: the text didn't say he left after leading me to the Caves, but it didn't say that he stuck around either. Still, a quick look at paths not taken indicates that if I'd only paid Thog to guide us through the Forest of Fiends, I wouldn't have come to the section that's now asking me whether or not he's with me, which implies that if I hired him to take me to the Caves, he must still be around. So he can tell us how to avoid the Treemen.

As we trek through the forest, I catch sight of a box in a stagnant pond. I'm not making the mistake of fetching that again. Further on we reach a clearing that's strewn with bones, and contains a boulder caked with dried blood. We wait to see if anything interesting will happen, and a group of 15 Hobgoblins marches a couple of Dwarfs into the clearing to execute them. I lead 25 of my troops in an attack against them, leaving the rest behind because otherwise there'd be no fight, and again it takes just two rolls to slaughter the opposition. The Dwarfs join my army (the first time troop numbers have changed by anything other than a multiple of 5), and I claim a necklace and a banner from my fallen foes.

Further on, a path cuts across the track. I think this is where I need to take the correct turning to have a chance of getting the Crystal I need. We advance to a clearing in which a number of human skulls have been skewered on spears sticking out of the ground. I decide to take the troops around the edge, and get bitten by a snake. The damage isn't enough to kill me, though.

Suddenly we are ambushed by unseen assailants with blowpipes, and 14 of my cannon fodder warriors are killed. Taking 10 of the survivors with me, I charge at our attackers, who turn out to be dog-headed practitioners of anthropophagy known as Blogs. Ian Livingstone can't really be reprimanded for failing to anticipate the more common use of the word, which didn't get coined until 9-odd years after this book came out. Anyway, a Blog fires a dart at me, and that shield I acquired from the lead River Raider saves my life. I persist in my pursuit of the Blog, which flees up a tree. I climb up and capture it. Interrogation is tricky because of the language barrier, but I manage to get the Blog to lead me to a clearing containing a statue. The Blog then escapes, but this is where I needed to go. The statue is of a man, pointing with one finger, and with his other hand clenched into a fist. Inferring from a less-dirty-than-the-rest-of-the-statue band of stone on the pointing finger that the statue once wore a ring, I slip the ring I found in Zengis onto the finger, and the fist opens to reveal the Crystal of Light.

I rejoin my troops, and we carry on until the forest thins out. Up ahead is a chasm, so we start looking for a bridge. Before long we find one, guarded by five Knights. Three of them introduce themselves, as Ian Livingstone hasn't yet finished giving friends cameo appearances in his books, and the other two draw axes with which to wreck the bridge if they consider it necessary. The middle Knight explains that they are the guardians of the Twisted Bridge (which doesn't look remotely twisted in the picture), and I must answer a question in order to cross it. Nothing about my name, quest or favourite colour: instead it's a bit of FF trivia that isn't even revealed in this book (at least until the point at which the correct answer is confirmed to be the right one). To prove to the White Knights that I fight on the side of order, rather than pointing out that I'm leading an army against Agglax's forces of evil, I have to demonstrate that I've read the right page of Titan - The Fighting Fantasy World. Or make a lucky guess. Or have failed the book at this point before now, and be able to work out the correct answer by process of elimination.

Anyway, I answer the question more outrageous than anything even Joe Dever dared make pivotal, and the Knights decide that my cause must be worthy after all, so once they've let us cross the bridge, they join the army. We leave the forest (the lack of trees on this side of the chasm in the picture of the Knights and the bridge had made me think we were already out of it) and, as it's getting dark, make camp. It's a full moon, but I still have the Yeti tooth, so the predictable Werewolf attack is dealt with quickly, at the cost of only one guard's life.

The next day we head further east, and are sighted by a Dragon-riding Goblin. Later that day we see Chaos Warriors attacking a temple, and before we can intervene, Fire Imps swoop towards us. At last the Elven Archers actually get to shoot at something, and unless I'm unlucky enough to roll over 50 on two dice, none of the Imps will get anywhere near my men. None too surprisingly, I roll less than 'just over four times the maximum possible score', so most of the Imps don't even survive the first volley, and the few that do each take around a dozen arrows through the head in the second volley.

Agglax's troops advance on mine. A hunchbacked Gremlin emerges from their midst and performs a haka or an incantation or something along those lines, and is then trampled underfoot by the Chaos Warriors. I send my Knights against the Warriors, and the flaming swords wielded by the newest additions to my army make short work of the Chaotic mob. Emboldened, my army charges forward, and Agglax's troops part to reveal spear-throwing war machines. Amazingly, I only lose 17 men in two salvos, after which we're close enough for melee. The mass battle rules don't come into play here, but they're too rubbish for me to care much.

I kill a Troll, then an Orc, then get to take stock. Forty of my men are dead, impatient Orcs and Goblins behind the enemy front line are fighting each other, and closer by, two of my men are in trouble. I go to the aid of the one who's been flanked by Goblins, as I have a better chance of surviving that fight unscathed, and I want to save as much Stamina as I can for the fight that killed the last character of mine to make it this far. Another Goblin fires a crossbow at me, but Max pushes me out of the way and gets fatally hit by the bolt instead, despite the full body armour. No mention of her yelling, 'Noooooooooooooo!!!' as she made the dive, though.

After killing the Goblins, I note that the fighting is not going well for my side, and exploit the distractability of the enemy troops by taking the pouch with my remaining gold in (and at 237 coins, that's one hefty purse) and scattering its contents into their midst. As the Trolls and Goblins turn on each other for the money, I am able to break through their ranks and make it to Agglax, who's been watching from his Zombie-drawn sedan chair. I pull out the Crystal, and an Elite Fanatic leaps to the Demon's defence, yelling in broken English like a mook from a politically incorrect 'yellow peril' movie. In this version of the fight, I only take one wound before felling him.

Agglax flees, but his robes are ill-suited to the battlefield, and I catch up with him. Brandishing the Crystal, I speak the words taught me by the Oracle, and Agglax is banished to the Outer Planes. His remaining troops wipe themselves out, and I lead mine home in triumph, wondering how long it will be until a fresh threat arises to menace Allansia. (I make it about 10 books, though it could be argued that the villain in about 5 books' time is bad enough news to prove a global threat, even if the adventure itself is set on a different continent.)

Well, before I started I had little confidence of winning that one. My victory is made that bit sweeter by the knowledge that it's one less not-so-good book to have to replay at some point. Back at the start of this post I called it mediocre, and beating it has done nothing to change my opinion, for better or worse.

2 comments:

  1. Congratulation! Indeed, I wouldn't want either to be stuck doing this one multiple times.

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  2. "Another Goblin fires a crossbow at me, but Max pushes me out of the way and gets fatally hit by the bolt instead, despite the full body armour. No mention of her yelling, 'Noooooooooooooo!!!' as she made the dive, though."
    Actually I think you're meant to scream 'Noooooooooo!!!' after witnessing her sacrifice

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