Friday, 4 October 2013

This Could Lead to Excellence Or Serious Injury

Once I'd made up my mind not to buy Sky Lord back in the late 1980s, completism was no longer a motivating factor when new FF gamebooks were published. I took a look at Stealer of Souls, the first contribution to the range by the prolific Keith Martin, when it first came out (memory suggests that I did so in the recently-opened Hammicks bookshop close to the Five Ways), but there was nothing particularly outstanding about it. It didn't help that I confused the wizard Alsander with Astragal from the not-that-great Chasms of Malice, and the erroneously inferred connection with the earlier book did nothing to enhance Stealer's appeal.

My reasons for getting a copy several months later are, in hindsight, mildly embarrassing, but I'll say more about that in a subsequent blog post. Once I had bought it, I had a go at it without dice, succeeded, and largely lost interest in it. It turned out to be more challenging when I played it by the rules after getting back into FF, and I believe my first attempt with dice ended in my character's being suffocated by a Stone Shapeshifter. I may have legitimately won it once, but an ambiguous rule near the end made it unclear just who won the final battle. Owing to the deletion of the Unofficial FF Forum (and my failure to keep adequate back-ups), I'm not able to link to my playthrough of that questionable victory, so I'll just have to hope for a more decisive one here. And at least I can now make quips and in-jokes without feeling the urge to check and see if I'm repeating gags from the older write-up.
Edit: Having been better at creating back-ups than I'd thought, I was eventually able to recover a write-up of my possibly-successful attempt and post it here.

Of course, a decent character will be a help if I'm to have any hope of winning. While not as merciless towards the low in stats as many a Fighting Fantasy book, Stealer doesn't tend to come up in discussions of books that can be beaten even with minimal scores. Still, today I don't even need to allocate dice, as I get a highly satisfactory
Skill 12
Stamina 21
Luck 10
Still no guarantee of success, but I'd say I'm in with a fair chance.

A mage who's never been mentioned before this book offers me a quest: to rescue a different wizard who's never been mentioned before this book from the dungeons of a notorious evil wizard who's never been mentioned before this book. All right, there are always new characters in new gamebooks, but by now Titan is rather too well-established for it to be convincing that the previously unheard-of Mordraneth has achieved a near-Voldemortian level of infamy. The abducted Alsander had found out something about Mordraneth's schemings just before he got captured, and my mission is just to rescue him so his discoveries can be shared and acted upon. There will be no need for me to fight Mordraneth, as my employer's spies have ascertained that he isn't even in the same location as Alsander. But Mordraneth doesn't know that they know where Alsander's being held, so a decoy army is being sent to inconvenience him while I do the 'lone hero who might just succeed where a larger force would fail' thing at the Iron Crypts on the Isle of Despair.

On the way to the Isle, a gale blows up and a large bird attacks. Not a difficult fight for me, though a below-average character might have difficulties. The text implies that this is my character's first adventure, which is a little odd - wouldn't a veteran be better for a mission of this importance? The crew are impressed at my victory, and if I'd taken any damage during the fight, I'd get it healed now. The Captain points out that such birds are rare in these parts, and wonders if the attack was magically directed at me. One of the other sailors gives me a jar of insect repellent that may come in handy on the Isle.

There are no natural harbours there, so I have to use a rowing-boat for the last stage of the journey by sea. A large crab takes an interest in me, but I know that fighting isn't the best option, so I just row harder to outpace her. Once ashore, I am greeted by a Giant, and as he's not being aggressive, I reciprocate. He apologises for the misbehaviour of his pet, notes that it's going to rain, and offers food and shelter. I accept, and get given a large helping of fish stew. The Giant notes that the island is becoming increasingly evil, and gives me a scroll he found. Its contents are mildly cryptic, but its description of 'singing in the wind' as 'the harbinger of death' is a fairly clear warning.

After an uneventful night, I set off again, provided with extra Provisions by the Giant. Good thing, too, as the rain seeps into my backpack and spoils some of the food, but overall I'm still better off than I was. Still, this is an early manifestation of Mr. Martin's minor obsession with Provisions, which would go on to inspire additional rules in many of his later books.

I go north at a junction, and nothing happens until dusk, at which point I find a cave in which to spend the night, and get bitten by a centipede while checking to see if there's anything to be wary of in the cave. Next morning I encounter a talkative lizard, which asks if I'm lost. I chat to the lizard, which offers me a pearl if I'll kill the Giant Stormbirds that keep stealing its eggs. I point out that I've already killed one, and the lizard remarks that I shouldn't have much trouble dealing with the other, then. Fair point, well made.

Climbing up to the nest, I see eggs and gold, and am attacked by the mother Stormbird. Though defending her young, she's not as good a fighter as her mate, and this side quest is rapidly concluded. In addition to the gold that was in the nest, I get the promised pearl, plus a Silver Medallion purported to provide protection against evil, and a dose of a potion that will help me get back to the junction and on with the primary mission without further ado.

Towards night I am offered hospitality by a Tree Sprite, whom I subsequently catch trying to pilfer my treasure. In return for my not breaking his neck, he gives me some 'Luck powder' and leaves me alone for the rest of the night. Continuing on my way in the morning, I reach a crossroads. Two of the paths onwards have signs of a kind: a skull on a pole, and a pointed stick with bloodied feathers stuck on it.

Investigating the skull-marked path, I hear a laugh behind me, and turn to see that the skull is now facing the way I came. Very Scooby-Doo. Hurrying on, I reach woodlands, where that insect repellent comes in handy. Further on is a hut, with two Hobgoblins fighting outside it. I watch from concealment as one of them runs the other through, and the dying Hobgoblin manages to retaliate with a lethally accurate dagger-throw before expiring. Saved me a bit of bother.

Inside the hut is a man tied to a chair. He unsuccessfully attempts to gesture, and I approach with caution, spotting and avoiding a tripwire on the floor. The man explains that he's a herbalist who came here in search of plants with medicinal properties. He wants to do something to show his gratitude, but the Hobgoblins burned his herbs, so he has nothing to offer. I ask his opinion of that strange scroll, and he can make no sense of it, but advises me to get advice from Alkandi, shaman of the tribe to the south. As I set off that way, I spot some money that one of the dead Hobgoblins dropped. Odd that I didn't search the bodies before entering the hut, as looting the dead is de rigueur for most gamebook heroes.

Back at the crossroads I take the herbalist's advice, and soon encounter a couple of tribesmen. Giving a friendly greeting, I get escorted to their village, where I meet Alkandi, who can speak my language. After a meal, he asks if I'd like to do trade with his people, so I decide to see what he has to offer. Quite a bit, as it turns out, and I can't afford much unless I want to throw in that pearl - for rather less than its market value. Still, better to lose out slightly on the deal than wind up dead for want of an ebony key, or an ivory cat statuette, or a phial of oil... It's not always easy to tell what's going to be of use, but memories of past attempts indicate that at least two of those items could come in handy.

Following a restful night, I show Alkandi that scroll. He speaks of having sensed tormented souls trapped by something evil, and advises me to beware of singing voices. He also says not to follow the path north from the crossroads, as it leads to Hobgoblin territory. Somewhat redundant advice, but I'll take the Luck bonus that comes with it all the same.

Back at the crossroads I take the only remaining path, and after heading along that for a while, I see a building up ahead. I can remember some details of what can be found in there, but not all, so I'll risk the danger within on the off-chance that there's something useful to be had. Inside, I see a man chained next to an altar, and hurriedly attack him, because one of the things I haven't forgotten is that what I can see is an illusion, and any delay will allow the Dark Priest responsible to cast some harmful spell. My prompt action prevents him from doing me any harm, and as it's getting late, I decide to ignore the morbid paintings on the walls and spend the night here. There's a trapdoor in the floor, but once I've dumped the former occupant of the building on top of it, I needn't worry too much about anything nasty coming up through it. Unless Mr. Martin has read and been inspired by The House on the Borderland, which doesn't seem to be the case here.

I have bad dreams, but that medallion keeps me from being harmed by them, and implies that some of the threats I have yet to face will be illusory. In the morning I have the option of opening that trapdoor and seeing what's under it, but I don't think it's worth the risk. I could find a hidden way into the Iron Crypts, but it's also possible that I'd get to reenact my first failure at this book. Besides, the main entrance to the Crypts turns out to be only a short distance down the path.

Before long I encounter guards, but they're only Goblins, and don't put up much of a fight. I take their dice and wander around tunnels until I get into a fight with an Ogre. His last action is to trigger metal bars blocking off one of the exits from his cave. I take his belongings, which include a pewter tankard, and head through the other way out. It leads through a pool of water, and an albino aquatic Cave Snake attacks me while I'm wading through, but I kill that with little trouble.

Further on an unusual formation of stalagmites catches my eye. Upon closer examination, I can make out that there's a body under them - must have died some time ago. I take the time to chip it out, and find that it's probably the remains of an Elf. The only noteworthy item on the body is a white metal flask, which turns out to contain a healing potion.

Somewhat randomly, a flail-wielding Skeleton Man attacks, and a couple of unlucky rolls see me taking a bit of damage. When I smash my opponent, smoke issues from the skull, taking on the form of a rat and vanishing into the floor. I can expect a lot more of this weird stuff if I make it through to the final stages of the adventure. Moving on, I reach a junction, and go west. After a short time I hear singing, so I promptly turn round and go back east. Some warnings should not be ignored.

The passage east smells of death and leads to a darkened chamber. I have the option of turning back and going west, but it takes more than darkness to scare me off. Nor am I persuaded to turn back when another skeletal figure, this one with a big sword, advances on me. Despite being a better fighter than the previous one, it doesn't hit me as often. Steps lead down to another chamber, this one with a rather ugly face carved into one wall. My medallion lights up (it would do so even if I didn't have it, which is a bit sloppy) and the face opens its eyes and looks at me. Judging by the illustration, it's far too big for this to be the janitor peering through cut-out eyeholes, so I move along quickly.

Behind the next door I find, Orcs are drinking and gambling. Not recognising me as an intruder, they invite me to join them, and I accept. The mood changes when I get out that tankard, as one of the Orcs recognises it and, aware that its owner wouldn't have given it away, twigs that I must have killed him. So I have to kill them, too. I take their money, but don't add the rat pasties on which they were snacking to my Provisions.

There's one exit other than the door by which I came in. It opens onto a passage leading to a room containing a Troll, who puts up no better a fight than the Orcs did. His dying words imply that there's a password I'll need to know to get somewhere, but for obvious reasons I can't interrogate him for further details. Searching the room turns up some keys, and I discover that a fire has started in the Orcs' room and is spreading this way. Time to get a move on.

The other door is locked. None of the keys will unlock it. I try that ebony key. It vanishes! I start to suspect that the password the dying Troll mentioned is required for getting out of here. The smoke from that fire begins to dissolve the Troll's body. This is not good... In the nick of time I find a concealed exit. As I'm about to depart, a voice asks not to be left behind, and offers assistance. The smoke is getting too close for me to risk searching for the speaker - and what if this is another trick?

Stairs lead up from the exit I discovered. The book tells me I'll need a light source to go up them safely, but doesn't specify what would happen if I'd misplaced the lantern from my starting equipment and had no alternate illumination (assuming that that's possible - and if it isn't, why bother to mention the need for light at all?). Eventually I reach an overhead trapdoor, and sneak through into an Orc's bedroom, which is currently in use. Rather unpleasantly, the book has me kill him before he can wake up.

After taking a rope from his room, I leave by the only exit, and further wandering takes me to a larder, in which the only palatable thing is a jar of fruit preserve. My explorations next take me to a dead end, and while looking more closely I am attacked by a giant, eight-legged, acid-dribbling beetle, which the medallion reveals to be an illusion, thereby removing the need to quibble about excess limbs. The dead end is also an illusion, so I advance, and further wandering takes me to a chamber that's open to the outside world. It contains a Birdman, and when I talk to him, he reveals that his people are being driven away by the denizens of the Crypts, who have a prisoner of some importance on a lower level.

There are fungi growing in the next cavern I reach. They're not edible. Further on I see a badly-placed illusion of a wall: somewhere close by is another opening to the outside, and the nonexistent wall is no blockage to the sunlight shining through it. Stepping through, I find myself in a north-south tunnel, and am curious about the sounds of cawing and rending from the north. The source is not a Birdman shredding one of Mordraneth's minions, but a Razorbeak bird stripping a humanoid corpse of its flesh. Mistaking me for the next course, it attacks, and I spoil its appetite for good. A high ledge on a sheer rock wall is the only potential source of treasure here, and the rope is unhelpful without a grappling iron, so I can only head south.

That leads to an east-west junction, but more smoke fills the way east, so I head west. That passage soon turns south, and I see doors set into both walls.  The east door is very stiff, but that oil lubricates the lock and hinges, and I gain access to the room beyond, which contains only a few blocks of incense. The west door opens more easily, and I just manage to dodge the spear trap it activates. Sounds approach from the north, so I make myself scarce.

Again I get told I need a light source, and not what happens if I lack one. A door with a grille set into it catches my attention, and I check it out, spotting a couple of prisoners on the other side. The Troll's keys open the door, and I find that one prisoner is already dead, the other in bad shape. I give him some food, which makes his final moments more bearable, and he tells me about a secret door near the guard room and indicates a brick in the wall before dying. Behind the brick is a box containing a vial. The contents have dried out, but adding water to the residue creates a Healing Potion.

I then seek the secret door, which leads to the guard room and enables me to take the Orcs within by surprise, killing the first one before he can get up from his meal of roast Dwarf. The second one has time to fight back, but fares no better. Further on I encounter and defeat another Orc, but he calls to his master as the fight begins, so I can expect more trouble soon. Indeed, a door opens to reveal another Dark Priest, and I just manage to attack him before he can let off a spell. He's not a bad fighter, either, but not good enough to pose a real threat. For a moment the fact that I was told only Mordraneth could use magic here makes me wonder if that's who I just killed, but I conclude that it's much more likely that I was misinformed.

The Priest has a bracelet that I'm not so stupid as to try on, and the room from which he came radiates evil, so I don't loiter there. The other exit leads to a room containing some fine food, more than making up for the wounds inflicted by the Priest, and beyond that room I find a spartan bedchamber containing an incense burner and a barred trapdoor (and a bed, otherwise it wouldn't be a bedchamber). I can now burn some of that incense at any convenient moment, and it'll provide a little healing when I do.

After a rest that helps restore me to full health, I open that trapdoor and descend to a landing. Two doors lead on, and after a while I reach a room containing a young man who toys with a dagger and reproaches me for not knocking. One of the options here is to say that I'm a tradesman. I suspect that this is a dig at the gamebooks that have vendors of assorted tat inexplicably set up shop in inhospitable locations, but confirming this could lead to my incurring a penalty, so I claim to have been sent by the people upstairs. The man assumes that I'm a torturer, sent to extract information from a troublesome prisoner. Guessing that the prisoner in question might be Alsander, I make out that I wasn't given directions to the cell, and the man tells me which way to go and gives the name of (presumably) the jailer.

Following his directions means ignoring a door marked 'DANGER! KEEP OUT!', but it's just possible that the sign is accurate, so I try the door I was told to go through instead. It leads to a smoky chamber containing a fountain, with two exits. The door that doesn't lead to the presumed Jailer's room is barred and 'clearly' magically locked (I wonder what gives that away), so I have no choice but to call on Mehrabian, who isn't human. Can I maintain the imposture? Yes, I can, thereby discovering that my charmless companion is a half-Ogre. From his comments, the prisoner in question must be Alsander, so I wait for the Half-Ogre to bring me the wizard before revealing my true intentions. Once Mehrabian is dead, I unlock Alsander's chains, and the book tells me I must give him food or a healing potion. I still have Provisions to spare, but what if I'd had a tougher time getting this far and already used up all my healing?

Alsander reveals that Mordraneth is actually here, rather than where the decoy army has been sent. As twists go, it's not up to Tales of the Unexpected standards. Still, it means that I can get the glory of killing the big bad (or die trying). Alsander tells me of Mordraneth's plans to start conquering places with his Illusionary Army, and offers to teach me a few spells (with a throw-away explanation of how he managed to get around the 'only Mordraneth can use magic here' restrictions) before he teleports himself to the first planned target to help them prepare for the attack in case I fail.

I can learn three single-use spells, and select Speed, Dispel Fear and Restore Skill. Alsander then shows me a secret door leading to the lair of the Dark Elves who guard the teleport device that will take me to the Empire of Illusions. Mordraneth's lair. That done, he teleports off. I deal with the Dark Elves, help myself to their food supplies, and find the device that will take me to the final phase of the adventure.

I find myself in a shimmering circular chamber with three exits that won't keep still. I enter the yellow one, and find myself in mid-air, being attacked by an Eagle. I defeat this illusion, and a voice welcomes me and implies that I'll soon be dead. The corridor I'm now in gets black at one end, green at the other. Not having anything to declare, I head towards the green, and find that the passage goes on for ever. The voice returns, offering me a swifter death, and the tunnel fills with water. I drown.

It's not game over, though, as I get revived by a young man who introduces himself as Mordraneth's apprentice. He warns me that Mordraneth is mad, gives me a golden flask, and vanishes. I sample the contents of the flask, which turn out to be rancid vinegar. The voice gloats again, revealing that my 'rescuer' was Mordaneth, and he's toying with me because killing me would be so easy. Idiot.

The passage now leads to a sewer. Rats converge on me, so I get out that cat statue, which transforms into a spectral cat that scares them off. Random items unexpectedly proving useful is one of the more absurd staples of gamebooks, but in this realm of illusion, it kind of makes sense.

The passage forks, and I head for the rainbow-coloured light. There I sense goodness and encounter three shimmering beings, who claim not to have been corrupted by Mordraneth, and offer a blessing. I took the risk of accepting the last time I got this far, so I know that I can trust what I'm seeing and hearing here. Actually, I'm in good enough shape that much of the blessing is wasted on me, but the bonus I can use could make a significant difference later on.

I take the ochre exit, which proves a bad choice, as the walls start closing in, and I have to use the Speed spell to avoid a fatal bout of claustrophobia. My escape brings me to a cavern in which a narrow walkway leads between flaming chasms. A blood-dripping black skull flies at me, and I must fight it. Though it's the most formidable opponent I've yet faced this adventure, it does no more damage than the second Dark Priest.

Proceeding along a light, airy passage, I am almost swept away by a strong wind, but manage to drag myself onto a rocky plateau. My medallion dispels a Skeletal Illusion and runs out of power, so I have to fight the illusory winged jumping giant spider that I encounter next. It's not so tough, which makes it a little surprising that that's the final guard before Mordraneth's chamber. He's on a balcony, and has time to inconvenience me with a couple of spells while I'm ascending the stairs to get to him, but my superior Skill enables me to defeat him in combat, with no ambiguity this time. The souls he'd imprisoned are freed, and I can now head home. And, despite my hopes, probably into obscurity, because Mordraneth is no Zagor. But I won, and that's the important thing.

So, that's Stealer of Souls done. One of the less unfair books in the range, and while the marching along corridors gets a bit samey, and there are bits that haven't been thought through as much as they should have, it never made me want to throw things or shout, which puts it above a depressingly high number of other gamebooks.

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