Thursday, 7 November 2013

A Furnace Where There Used to Be a Guy

Fangs of Fury, the last FF book by 'Luke Sharp', came out at the start of the summer holidays. Early on in the holidays, a group from my school was going to north Wales for a climbing holiday, and I was among the sixth formers who also went along (in theory to help keep control of the younger pupils, though the others turned out to be at least as immature as their juniors). I don't recall where or when I got a copy of Fangs, but I do know that I saved it for the coach journey to Wales, which means I almost certainly played it without dice. The fact that I won the adventure also suggests that I wasn't using dice - while the book is by no means unfair, I have yet to win it since I committed to playing by the rules. I'm pretty sure that the first time I did try it properly, I got fireballed out of existence by an insane Genie thanks to a couple of unlucky rolls.

My character is an ordinary soldier in the besieged Citadel of Zamarra. Nobody special, nobody of noble blood, just an average, everyday army grunt. I stress this because there was a fan theory some time back that all three of Mr. 'Sharp's Titan-based gamebooks (plus half a dozen other titles) all had the same hero, but I don't go along with the theory on the grounds that:
a) It contradicts numerous details from the actual books.
b) It's utterly ludicrous. Yes, I came up with equally ridiculous ideas as a teenager, but I grew out of them.

Anyway, just before the start of the adventure, the Captain of my troop asked for a volunteer, and I was impetuous enough to step forward. He takes me to see the King and the twelve Wizards of the Mage Order, and Astragal the Wizard explains the plot. We're under siege because the Dark Wizard Jaxartes wants to conquer south-western Khul, and the fact that the entire Mage Order is gathered here gives him an opportunity to wipe out all serious opposition to his plans. His minion Ostragoth the Grim has gathered together a vast army to attack Zamarra, and somebody has sabotaged the magical defences that would usually cause Dragon statues to breathe fire on any attacking forces, so only the citadel walls stand between us and complete destruction.

However, it's just possible that if some insignificant nobody of a soldier were to get out via a secret tunnel, they could reactivate the Stone Sentinels by thrusting a magical Torch into the flame at the core of the volcano known as the Fangs of Fury (yes, this book is worse on vulcanology than your average Hollywood blockbuster). Guess what I've volunteered for. And let's take a look at the volunteer's suitability for this vital and highly dangerous mission:
Skill 12
Stamina 22
Luck 9
And that's without fudging (otherwise Luck would be a little higher, Stamina correspondingly lower). In with a good chance as long as I can steer clear of Instant Deaths and random fatalities.

And get the job done within the time limit. This limit is not chronologically fixed, but based on how long it takes Ostragoth's forces to smash through all fourteen Citadel walls. You see, one of the Wizards, concerned that I might be the deserting kind (or even the traitor who put out the Sentinels' flames), has convinced the rest to have me fitted with a rather special bracelet. It cannot be removed until I've completed my mission, and if the Torch has not been lit by the time the innermost Citadel wall is breached, the bracelet will kill me. This detail convinced one of my fellow gamebook bloggers that the King and Mage Order are actually the villains of the book, even though it's clear that not all of them approve of this method of keeping me focused on the task in hand.

I am provided with some Black Cubes, each of which will temporarily fireproof me, and some nondescript armour that will make me look like an ordinary fighter rather than one of the troops from the Citadel. Then I'm taken to the secret tunnel. The Captain wishes me luck, and then orders me to succeed at my mission so as not to besmirch the honour of the regiment. The tunnel entrance is resealed behind me, and I fumble in the dark until I blunder into a mound of rubble where the roof has collapsed. There is a side tunnel, so I try taking that. Something bites my ankle in the darkness, but I don't drop down dead, so it can't be venomous.

I get indications that I'm heading towards the sea, and take a turning that ends in a wall of sand. The sand is surprisingly loose, and I'm able to dig up and drag myself out onto a beach. Ostragoth's fleet isn't far off (which provides some explanation for why the King and Mage Order didn't try using the tunnel themselves), and a nearby sergeant mistakes me for part of the army and orders me to help shift a bogged-down siege engine. Seeing little profit in facilitating the attacks that could bring about my death, I run off.

Losing any pursuers in the sand dunes, I come across a Great Orc who's burying something. He assumes that I'm spying on him, and attacks. Despite massively outclassing him, I take a couple of wounds in the fight. Still, I win in the end and, remembering from a previous attempt at the book that what he was burying really isn't worth the additional fighting that goes with acquiring it, I hurry away without further ado.

After a while I reach a stretch of beach that, judging by the spiked pits with dead Zamarran troops in, has been boobytrapped by the invaders. I get lucky and manage not to blunder into any of the unsprung traps. Once I'm away from that danger zone, I hide in some bushes, and after a bit, my bracelet glows to indicate the fall of a Citadel wall. A small boy approaches the bushes and says he'll tell the soldiers where I am unless I give him something. Reflecting that, while a clip round the ear might be considered 'something', it's unlikely to prove an effective bribe, I give the brat a coin, and he offers to show me an escape route in return for another four of them. I pay up, and he takes me to a cove where a small boat has been concealed. Pointing to a nearby island, the boy tells me of a ship that I can take from there to somewhere beyond enemy lines.

I'm about half way to the island when a tentacle flops over the side of the boat. In view of the flimsiness of the craft, I think it better not to get into a fight here if it can be avoided, and keep still in the hope that the owner of the tentacle will assume that the boat is just an unappetising bit of driftwood. The plan works, but takes long enough that another wall is breached before I am able to move on. The current has taken me off-course while I've been waiting, so I paddle hard to ensure that I come ashore in the right place.

Proceeding towards the harbour, I encounter fleeing crowds who warn me that Ostragoth's Press-Gang is here. Hurriedly diving through a nearby door, I come face to face with a group of sailors and men wearing Ostragoth's insignia, all of whom stare at me. Moments later I am clubbed unconscious.

Someone throws a bucketful of water over me, causing me to come round just as my bracelet lights up again. Good thing they didn't leave me to regain consciousness of my own accord, or I'd be closer to death than I realised. I'm in a ship's hold with around thirty other captives. The ship's Captain, escaped criminal Cory-Ander, announces that we're going to be part of Ostrogoth's fleet for the next 25 years, unless we die before our time is up. He then gets us to form into two groups, and the one I join is assigned to work up in the rigging. This turns out to have its good points, as I escape attention when Pirates attack the ship. After they loot it, they set it ablaze, so I dive into the sea and make it to a drifting raft just before a Slaughterer Shark takes an interest in the other swimming sailors.

Just after the next Citadel wall is breached, another sailor swims to the raft. I help him aboard, but he's a big guy, and the raft can only just bear the two of us. He decides that I'm unnecessary ballast and attempts to throw me off, but I outclass him so much, it's ludicrous, and within moments he's shark-food. Some time later, the raft reaches dry land, and I head for a nearby settlement.

The villagers are taking stacks of grain and rice to a central store. I sit and watch them for a while, regaining Stamina for resting. A little girl carries a bag of rice past, and the bag splits. I help her pick it up, as she says she's late for school. Once the sack has been refilled and handed in, the girl disappears into a nearby building, and I hear screams and the swish of a cane. I enter the building and find a teacher beating the girl for being late. There's also a stick-figure-based alphabet on the board at the front of the classroom, so I make some mental notes about how it works.

Back when I first played this adventure, I missed every opportunity to get the key to the alphabet, but the first time I came across a message in it, I was able to work out the meaning based on context, and noted down all the letters I'd identified, which made translation of subsequent messages a lot easier. That may have run contrary to the author's intentions, but if you don't want readers to crack your code unless they've been given the key, you should either explicitly forbid it or use something tougher than a basic substitution cypher.

When I attempt to explain the reason for the girl's tardiness, he tries using the cane on me. I use my sword on his cane, and rather more forcefully repeat myself, and he concedes that I make a valid argument against further chastisement. Then a trumpet sounds, and people hurry over to the west side of the village. I decide to check that the girl is all right, and when an elderly monk arrives to collect her from the school, she points me out to him, and he tells me to accompany him.

Back when I was being briefed on my mission, mention was made of the Wazarri, an obscure religious order that has some connection with the Fangs. They helped set the Sentinels up in the first place, so they could be of assistance in my quest. What are the chances of this monk belonging to the sect, eh? He does, of course, and he hopes that I'm the prophesied One. A rather odd Test ensues, in which I have to find my True Path and indicate the Awareness of my Being by throwing a die and moving on a kind of triangular game board painted on the floor. It turns out that I'm Level 6 (out of a possible 9).

Based on this, the monk teaches me the stick-figure alphabet (so was I not supposed to recognise its significance in the classroom, or are there ways of meeting him without going to the school?) and tells me the name of his religion. Apparently, doing so means that he'll die in a year and a day, but he reckons he's not much longer for this world anyway, and knowing the name-that-cannot-be-uttered (which should probably be referred to as the name-that-should-not-be-uttered, since he did just utter it, but will pay a terrible price for having done so) may help me out, and I'm the Torchbearer who may save his people from their oppressors. Interesting to see the slight uncertainty in that prophecy.

Following his directions, I leave the village, thereby evading the Nazgûl knock-offs patrolling the road that leads from it. From here I can either go along a road that might be the one depicted on the map at the front of the book, or I can enter a forest. I've been into the forest on previous attempts, so I know a lot of what to avoid in there, whereas the road is new to me. I'll stick with the familiar, as I would like to win the book if possible today.

The trail leading into the forest forks after a while. A stick-figure letter has been carved on a tree-stump, and the method I used to remember the alphabet this time works well enough that I can work out which direction the carving indicates without having to refer back to an illustration. There's another stick-figure at the next junction, and again I translate with ease. The path leads to a river valley containing a tall tree with a more detailed inscription, which prompts me to climb up. There are more of those flame-proofing Cubes on a platform at the top, and a creeper swing that enables me to get across the river.

Continuing through the forest, I encounter a two-headed fire-breathing Serpent. When I try to fight it, a second such Serpent drops down from a branch, carrying in its coils a Kragaar Warrior (any similarity to an alien species invented by Arnold Rimmer the year before this book came out is almost certainly coincidental), who attacks me with an axe and a flaming scimitar, and fails to land a single blow on me. The Serpents surround me with a wall of flames, so I use a Cube to help me get through unscathed.

Further on, the path skirts a smooth mound. I decide not to touch the mound in case it's alive, and carry on until I reach a dried-up river bed. This splits into three, and the turning I take soon gets overgrown. When I try to cut my way through the bush blocking my way, it screams and attacks me with thorny creepers. I prune it into submission, but can see more such bushes up ahead, and opt to turn back and try another way. Incidentally, the fifth Citadel wall must be remarkably sturdy, as it's been under attack since I was on the raft, but hasn't yet fallen.

After a while on my second choice of path, the vegetation thins out and I reach a river with water in. There's a bridge across it, which I remember to be booby-trapped, so I try wading, and ford the river without difficulty. On the other side, several figures are seated around a camp-fire, cooking something that smells good, but I ignore them in favour of investigating a fist-shaped flame over to my left. It blazes on a hill where a female knight is fighting a horde of Ostragoth's troops. I wade in, killing three Garks (why is it only ever the Skill 7 opponents that manage to hit me?), and find that the woman has slain more than twice as many opponents, so only the two of us still stand. Without speaking, she indicates that I should follow her. Not wishing to annoy someone who's obviously a much better fighter than I, I do so.

She leads me to a fortress surrounded by a ring of fire, with a squadron of Goblins and their Dark Elf leader outside the wall of flames. We move closer to the fire, and she is able to conjure an opening in the flames. We pass through, and a couple of Goblins notice and give chase. The opening closes up before they've made it through, and they die rather horribly.

There aren't many people left in the fort, which is is a pretty bad state. After consulting with my companion, a squire addresses me as the Torchbearer, and instructs me to follow him. He leads me to a chamber in which a wounded knight sits on a throne, vacant seats to either side of him. I realise that I'm supposed to pick a chair, and this is some kind of test. Reflecting on the hand at which faithful servants are often said to sit, I pick the appropriate chair, and it's the correct choice.

The squire shows me a map of a complex of caves, explaining that it shows the True Path to the Fangs of Fury. He recites an incantation that tells me to find the Key, heed the Warnings, carry the Blocks and place them correctly in order to open the door to Fury. I'm given food and allowed to rest, and then the woman who brought me here takes me back out through the wall of flames, pointing me towards a distant flat-topped mountain.

Climbing the mountain is hard work, as I've not acquired Elf-Flyer wings, whatever they are. Still, I eventually reach the top, where I find three holes leading into it, forming the points of an equilateral triangle, 100 paces to a side. I jump into one at random, landing in a torchlit chamber. There's a wooden plaque in it, with an inscription that I translate. Nothing that will help me pick the right exit, but it's useful to know for the endgame. Or would be if I didn't still remember that aspect of it from almost 25 years ago.

The exit I pick leads to a cave containing blocks of stone, each carved with a triangle and a number. There was a triangle shown in one of the caves on that map, so I may now have my bearings. Slipping one of the blocks into my backpack, I pick the exit that, if I've worked things out right, should lead me to blocks with crosses on. It does, so I take one of them as well. The fifth Citadel wall finally succumbs to the attacking armies. If wall six is equally tough, it might still be standing by the time I reach the end of the adventure.

From there I head to the cave with the crescent-marked blocks, and then as returning to cross-block cave would lead to the fall of the sixth wall, I detour through a cave shown to be empty on the map. But it's not completely empty: it has stick figures chalked on the wall. They spell out a variant on one of the most clichéd bits of graffiti ever to be spraypainted onto the side of a public building. I am not amused.

Still, from there I can get to the cave with the cube-marked blocks (judging by the map, it's actually a square, but given the significance of Cubes in this adventure, I'm prepared to accept it as a simplistic two-dimensional representation of the three-dimensional shape), thence to the one with blocks that have a circle on, and on to one of the caves containing blocks with a mushroom symbol (for some reason there appear to be two such caves, but as I can only carry up to six blocks and there are six different designs, the duplication cannot indicate that I need two mushroom blocks. Maybe it's just to confuse anyone who missed the map.

Anyway, I proceed to the cave where a key hangs on a cord. Next to it is the stick-figure inscription that told me so much on my first attempt at the book. Heeding the warning it provides, I acquire the key without setting off a trap, and another one appears in its place. Passing through the other mushroom block cave, I confirm that the blocks are identical to the other mushroom ones, and discover that the sixth Citadel wall must have been put up by a right bunch of cowboys, as it's already been breached.

The next cave I enter contains numerous phials. The last time I got this far, I opened one, and that was the end of my adventure. Unless there's a warning in one of the 'empty' caves I didn't visit, that's a hint of the unfairly lethal 'Luke Sharp' of Star Strider and Chasms of Malice. Still, it's not a mistake I shall repeat. As one of the caves I didn't check out is accessible from here, I take a look in it to see if it contains a warning - and narrowly avoid falling to my death when gaping holes open up in the floor, forcing me to jump towards an exit while carrying half a dozen big stone blocks. I've had enough of Mr. 'Sharp's games, so I return to phial cave, and proceed from there to the exit.

The exit is a large metal door with six holes in it, each one marked with a different block symbol (cube has now become box, which is a bit sloppy). As I have the set, I'm able to unlock the door by placing the blocks into the relevant holes. If I didn't, the seventh Citadel wall would turn out to be made of spit and tissue paper as I trudged back to phial cave to try and find the way to whichever blocks I was missing.

But I do have all six blocks, so the door opens, giving me my first view of the Fangs. Three paths lead into the volcano, and I go straight ahead. Further on, the passage splits again, and the turning I take leads to a small chamber containing what appears to be the corpse of one of Jaxartes' Mage Warriors. I don't take a closer look, as a chunk of the ceiling almost falls on me and, reluctant to push my Luck any further, I turn back and try the other way.

Descending a flight of steps, I encounter a not-so-dead Mage Warrior. As I don't have a Wand, he's my toughest opponent yet (in this adventure), but he only manages to injure me as often as the decidedly inferior Great Orc and first Gark that I fought earlier. The steps lead to a cavern containing a chasm spanned by a bridge, with seven openings in the far wall. Two monks appear and tell me that the number of White Cubes I have accumulated determines which of the exits I will be able to take. Having missed the instructions about White Cubes, I have to take the lowest one.

First I must cross the chasm. A dark figure with a flaming spear tells me that I must take the hardest path. Flames erupt from the chasm, and I have to use up almost half of my Black Cubes to avoid getting singed. Considering the low Stamina cost of getting burned here, if I encounter more harmful fires later on, and don't have enough Cubes to keep me intact, I will be very annoyed at having had to use so many to evade minor damage here.

Following a not-very-challenging fight against a couple of Flame Warriors, I find evidence that using those Cubes might not have been such a waste after all. There are gaps in the floor up ahead, and looking into the first one, I see a steep drop to an inferno, in which the remains of a Goblin are merrily blazing. To leap each gap requires a successful Stamina roll, and in my unburned condition I have no trouble getting across them all.

I proceed to a room that I think contains two charred corpses plus Jaxartes, though the wording of the descriptive text implies that he too is a burned cadaver. But even if he is, he still gloats at me and then vanishes. Which is mildly encouraging, when I think of the last time I was taunted by the Wizard who was the major villain of a Fighting Fantasy book.

Sheets of fire, more harmful than the ones I negated on the bridge (mild glower) force me to use up just over half of my remaining Cubes. The next turning I take is a bad choice, as it leads me to a chamber containing the corpses of many elderly monks, plus the smouldering remains of several Mage Warriors. A simian creature with a wand tells me that I'm trespassing in a sacred place, and shoots fireballs at me. Only one hits before I make it to an exit, but I could easily have wound up roasted there.

Again I chose poorly. The exit I chose leads to an encounter with Jaxartes and three Mage Warriors. The Warriors inexplicably melt, and Jaxartes is so annoyed that he magically causes the tunnel roof to collapse on me. This is like one of the arbitrary Instant Deaths that infest the later stages of Mr. 'Sharp's first two FF books - except that it's not an Instant Death. It can be fatal, but I get Lucky and only take severe damage.

Dragging myself out from under the rubble, I carry on to the heart of the volcano, only to find that the Flame has been extinguished. Jaxartes stands between two statues of warriors, gloats some more, makes himself bigger and starts hurling fireballs. A cube with 50 locks in it appears in front of me. Having deciphered that inscription (and still remembering the clue I translated on my first try, which told me the same thing), I know which lock to put the key from the caves in, but even if I didn't, the way this 'puzzle' is constructed means that no reader will ever try at least a couple of the wrong ones - there is no section 0, and nobody's going to have forgotten that section 1 is the start of the adventure.

Trying a wrong lock means being hit by one of Jaxartes' fireballs, and losing either a Black Cube or more Stamina than any previous Cube-consuming event in the Fangs. Not having to worry about the fireballs, I'm not too peeved, but the obligatory use of Cubes on lesser damage earlier on is still unfair.

Anyway, when I turn the key in the correct lock, it rekindles the Flame at the heart of the volcano. Jaxartes suddenly regrets having chosen to stand gloating on the exact spot where it used to be. I light the Torch, watch as Jaxartes is consumed by the Flame, and then pass out from the heat. While unconscious I dream of floating back through the tunnels, and when I come round, I'm elsewhere, being taken care of by a girl. She tells me that I'm in the Wazarri monastery, and shows me a crystal ball. In it, I see the Sentinels animating, and barbecuing Ostragoth's hordes. The girl tells me that the Wazarri will celebrate my deeds in ballads, and my bracelet drops off my wrist and turns into gem-studded gold.

Once I've recovered from my ordeal, I return to Zamarra, where the King promotes me to Commander-in-Chief of all the troops there. I have a momentary encounter with the Captain who was looking for a volunteer way back before the book began, just to underline the fact that I'm now his boss, and then I set off to find out what new responsibilities come with my increased rank.

Quite a satisfying ending, there. Initially I thought that devoting four sections to what happens once the right lock is selected was a bit excessive, but now I've read them, they help give an epic feel to the climax of the adventure. The book still suffers from many of the flaws of the author's earlier books, but they have been toned down enough that it's not unplayable or ridiculously unfair. I certainly don't think it's as bad as Marsten did. But he doesn't find Battleblade Warrior as objectionable as I do. Different players, different tastes.

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