Wednesday, 30 October 2013

You Throw Away Your Only Chance to Be Here Today

It was in Hammicks bookshop, near the Five Ways, that I came across Keith Martin's second FF gamebook, Vault of the Vampire. I was quite a fan of Vampire stories in those days, and a quick look in the book revealed it to have elements which appealed to my juvenile fondness for femmes fatales, so I bought a copy as quickly as I could. For the first time in some while, I also resolved to play by the rules from the outset, so I didn't start the adventure until I was home and able to use dice. On my first try, I wound up killed by a skeletal annoyance known as a Minor Thassaloss, though even if I'd survived that fight, I'd already missed enough important stuff to guarantee failure.

Vault  was also the first gamebook I played as an adult. The day after I turned 18, I began keeping a diary (my Birthday's the 31st of December, and the beginning of a new year seemed a more sensible starting point than the very last day of one), which I've managed to keep going ever since, and the very first entry in that diary includes the detail: 'Did FF38 by candlelight - got killed by the ****** spectre.'

From a mechanical point of view, this book's pretty brutal, so I'm definitely allocating dice when I roll up my character. That way I get:
Skill 12
Stamina 17
Luck 10
Faith 6
Still no guarantee of success, but I'm in with a chance, which is more than I would be with any other distribution of those rolls.

I'm seeking my fortune, and have wound up in the village of Leverhelven, in the not-at-all-ominously-named region of Mortvania. The locals are predictably unfriendly, and the tavern doors are barred just after I enter. An old woman who's had a bit much to drink is more talkative than anyone else, and reveals that the Count has been responsible for the abduction and death of many locals. Just yesterday his headless horseman came for her grand-daughter Nastassia. The woman pleads with me to rescue the girl, and a man with one arm offers me his life savings if I do so - he'd try himself if he still had both arms.

Before I can accept the mission, matters are taken out of my hands. The barred door bursts open, and a spectral figure with no head beckons me towards the coach that's parked outside. I leave the tavern, but decide against entering the coach, instead asking the locals the best way to get to the Count's castle. They tell me to avoid the road used by the coach, and to take the trail through the Forest of Phantoms instead. The one-armed man gives me money for the ferry across the River Bloodsedge, and I set off.

After a little while someone fires an arrow to get my attention, and I also see a large bear approaching. I announce that I come in peace, which so startles the archer that she hits me with an arrow. She's very apologetic afterwards, though, and gives me some extra Provisions that more than make up for the damage done when she shot me. My new acquaintance is a Forest Ranger named Valderesse (I wonder if she loves to go a-wandering along the mountain track), and once she learns of my intent, she thoroughly approves, commenting on the evil of the Count and, by contrast, the goodness of the previous Count, Siegfried, late brother of the current one.

Valderesse leads me to the river, where a Gnome offers to take me across for a price, or let me rest in his hut. Rather forcefully reminding the Gnome that he owes her a favour, the Ranger 'persuades' him to drop the charge, and also advises against accepting his hospitality, suggesting that I'd be better off resting at the forester's hut further along. I get into the boat, and the Gnome uses magic to propel it across the river. Valderesse remains on the south bank, and waves to me as I continue on my way.

Some hours later I reach the forester's hut and, not having had any sleep during the night, I decide to take the Ranger's advice. I cough to wake its occupant, who welcomes me and offers food. He's no fan of the Count either, blaming him for the disappearance of most of the creatures of the forest, and when I mention my quest, the forester gives me a string of garlic cloves, which he insists that I wear around my neck. He also mentions a possible ally at the castle: his friend Lothar the Castellan.

Resuming my journey once I'm suitably rested, I finally reach the castle towards evening. Entering the courtyard via the inevitable creaky gates, I see several doors. The first one I try leads to a storeroom with some sacks of grain and a few rats in it. There's another door, and as I head for that, the rats take a sudden interest in me. There are too many to fight, so I hurry through the door and shut it behind me.

On the other side, spiral stairs lead up. As I approach them, two armed Zombies advance on me, but my Faith is strong enough to deter them from attacking, so I get up the stairs without a fight. They lead to a landing with one door, and when I try to go through it, the handle grabs my hand and the door tells me I'm not allowed through. I break the door open with the hilt of my sword, taking minor damage as the handle pokes me in the stomach. Further steps lead up into a bell tower, and I hear what sounds like bats. They get agitated when I ascend the tower, but I manage to drive them off.

The tower contains several bronze bells (not surprising, it being a bell tower) and one silver bell that gives off a faint bluish glow. I ring the silver bell, which makes no sound, but causes the ghost of the late Count Siegfried to appear. He urges me to cleanse this place and free the people from his brother and murderer Reiner, and tells me that his armour, shield and sword are all hidden somewhere in the castle. More helpfully, he also tells me about the less powerful magic sword that's hidden in a secret chamber under this tower. I follow his directions and find the sword, which gives no bonus but will enable me to harm creatures that can't be hurt with conventional weapons.

Back in the courtyard I no longer have the option of checking out all of the doors - not that there's anything worth having behind the ones that are now off-limits, but the restriction is a bit arbitrary. The main doors into the castle are still accessible, though, and that's really all that matters.

Those doors lead into a hall, decorated in red and black. Three doors lead on, and I start by going west, finding myself in an abandoned storage room full of lumber. I take the time to search it, and find a crystal vial with silver banding that's worth a bit of money. Returning to the hall, I go east, entering a corridor with a couple of doors leading off it before it bends south. The first door leads to a lounge, with three paintings hanging on one wall. They depict Count Reiner Heydrich, Katarina Heydrich, and... well, having met Siegfried's ghost, I can figure out that he was the subject of the picture, but it has been defaced. Angered at this, I leave the room and stomp down the passage to the next door.

Behind it is a laboratory. A small, green, winged creature with a sparkling wand sits on a shelf and, not wishing to learn the wand's capabilities the hard way, I politely greet the creature. Its words indicate to me that this place is used by an alchemist, who's currently in an adjoining room. I go through to see him, finding him to be an old man, obviously more interested in his work than visitors, and apparently unarmed. Attacking the seemingly defenceless in gamebooks is rarely a good idea, especially when Keith Martin is the author, so I just ask him about his work. He reveals himself to be Katarina's beautician, and is somewhat reticent about one of the treatments he uses, perhaps because Puffin Books couldn't agree on terms of payment for a product placement deal with Garnier. One detail that he does let slip is that, despite her youthful appearance, his employer is actually 76. Not having contracted any form of Lycanthropy (the book does dedicate a somewhat disproportionate number of sections to dealing with an affliction that's not easy to contract even if you try to get it), I have nothing to gain from further conversation, and exit through a door that leads to the southward stretch of the corridor.

There's another door facing that one, so I open it and find an obviously demented young man dressed in military garb. I say hello to him anyway, and learn that he's the Count's cousin Wilhelm. He babbles nonsense about a sword hidden in a book, and since he's in no state to appreciate any 'the pen is mightier'-based witticisms, I leave him to his ravings.

The door at the south end of the corridor leads to the lowest level of the castle's south-east tower. My Faith is strong enough to attract the attention of a Wraith, but not sufficiently so to keep it away from me, so I have to fight. I manage to kill it without taking any damage, which is a good thing, as this is one of the castle's denizens that has some Skill-draining capability.

Stairs lead up to  a barred door with glyphs on it. Something scratches on the other side, and there's an unpleasant smell in the air. Being an adventurer, I open the door rather than turning back. The room beyond is occupied by a huge and hungry Ghoul, which is also undeterred by my Faith. It manages to wound me a couple of times in the ensuing combat, which is rather too close for comfort - Mr. Martin's Ghouls need only strike three blows to paralyse their victims, rather than the four that are required in other gamebooks. Still, the increased narrowness of my escape from a particularly nasty ending doesn't make it any less of an escape.

More stairs lead to a moonlit chamber containing a sleeping woman bound to a chair with cobwebs. I sense both good and evil in this room, though I can't discern their precise sources. From past attempts at this adventure, I know that there are two ways of confronting the threat in this room. One will definitely result in my taking damage, while the other involves a Faith roll, the outcome of which would leave me either unscathed or doomed. All things considered, I'd rather take the definite hit than risk Instant Death, so I try the (sanitised) fairytale method, and kiss the woman. And I'd forgotten the slim possibility that doing that would trigger the same potentially lethal effect as taking the other approach. But that's what happens: the girl screams and, being a Baoban Sith (which seems to be some kind of Banshee), she can cause actual harm by screaming.

I succeeded at the not-that-important Faith roll to go all Counsellor Troi on the room's contents. I 'succeeded' at the better-to-fail Faith roll that made my kiss provoke the Baoban Sith into shrieking. But the do-or-die Faith roll that determined whether or not I was incapacitated by the scream? That one I fail, leaving me unable to defend myself while she gets out a dagger and guts me. Gamebook villains can get away with attacking those who can't fight back.

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