I'm pretty much out of even vaguely interesting anecdotes about how I came into possession of Tunnels & Trolls solos. As with pretty much every subsequent adventure, I got Michael A. Stackpole's Red Circle on eBay, and the only remotely noteworthy fact about that is that it was the very last official T&T solo to be added to my collection. I was glad to finally track down a copy in late 2009, not only because it completed the series, but also because it was a particularly troublesome title to search for - do you have any idea how many non-gamebook-related results a search for 'red circle' produces? And fine-tuning the search was fiddly because of the number of ways in which the name of the system can be rendered: Tunnels and Trolls, Tunnels & Trolls, T&T...
It's a little odd that after spending so long trying to get hold of the adventure, I never got around to playing it in the intervening years. Perhaps because, as Mr. Spock once put it, 'having is not so pleasing a thing after all as wanting'. But it's next in sequence, and claims to be playable with characters of any level, so now is the time that I shall actually have a go at it. Maybe I'll even find out why the circle on the front cover is blue.
The rules say nothing about magic users not being allowed, but there's nothing to indicate that the text allows for spell usage either, so I create a warrior. A Dwarf warrior, because the poor-to-average in everything but Charisma character initially rolled up would be even more doomed than usual for T&T.
Between that Luck and that Dexterity, he's probably still toast (especially when his low starting funds also limit the number of weapons available), but at least like that there's no possibility of doing negative damage in battle.
At the stat of the adventure I'm travelling along a caravan route, despite the rumours that it's the hunting ground for a group of raiders known as the Red Circle. Fortunately for me, the Red Circle seem less interested in lone travellers than in actual caravans. Which isn't such good luck for the people in the caravan I've been following, as they've been slaughtered and robbed. I search the remains for survivors, and find one man still alive. Not for long, though, and he's one of the attackers. Before expiring, he defiantly tells me that the killing will continue as long as Baron Valdemar attempts to take over their lands. The situation just got a lot more complicated.
I don't know a lot about the Baron, beyond the fact that he's arrogant and not that wealthy. None of the options open to me here are all that appealing: searching for the raiders and making enquiries about the Baron both look like excellent ways to wind up attracting the attention of hostile individuals with sharp implements, while reporting the fate of the caravan could lead to inaccurate accusations of complicity in the attack, or at least accusations of cowardice. Still, the latter does look the least suicidal option, so I head back to the last village I passed through.
Unexpectedly, I am commended for letting the authorities know about the attack. They conclude that the next caravan will need more guards, and I get a hefty Experience bonus for assisting them towards this discovery. I have the option of quitting the adventure now, while I'm ahead, but that would make for a rather weak ending, so I'll head on to where the caravan was supposed to be going, and let them know that it's been indefinitely delayed.
At the intended destination, Valdemarton, I steer clear of the Baron's castle and make for one of the local establishments. The Dusty Rose Tavern has the more interesting name, so I pick that rather than the Inn. Customers include a couple of the Baron's men and a prospector. Definitely not asking about the Baron. I mention the fate of the caravan instead, and most of the people in the Tavern are surprised. Not the Baron's men, though. They stumble up to me, obviously having had rather too much to drink, and accuse me of looting the caravan. The taller of the two reaches for his dagger, while the other one shoves me. I hit him with a tankard, dodge the other guard's inept attack, and slam his head into the bar.
Applause from the doorway draws my attention to another man in the Baron's colours. To my surprise, he's not being sarcastic: he saw that their attack was unprovoked, and is impressed that I managed to protect myself with non-lethal force. He introduces himself as Valdemar's nephew Vlad, and offers to take me to meet his uncle. This isn't the sort of offer that can be politely turned down, so I accept as cheerfully as I can feign.
The Baron is shaven-headed, and has an attractive woman attached to his throne with a flimsy-looking silver chain. According to the text, it's connected to a collar, but the front cover illustration has it end in a band around her wrist. The Baron asks me what I know about Dhesiri (the answer being 'so little, I wouldn't even know there was an 'h' in the word unless he aspirated it'), and is so bored at my lack of knowledge of the topic that he drops me through a trapdoor. I land remarkably well, what little armour I could afford taking the brunt of what little damage the fall causes, and make my way out of the sewers into which I was dumped.
One of the locals sees me emerging and, not being overly fond of the Baron himself, invites me to his home. On the way there he explains that the Baron is deliberately provoking the Red Circle because he believes them to have a lot of treasure, and hopes that their attacks will get them killed and allow him to claim their loot.
Riders appear atop a hill not far off. Festus, my new friend, suspects that they're after him or me - or both of us. He gives me the option of hiding in his root cellar, but I can't imagine that working out, so I choose to fight alongside him. These guards are better fighters than the drunkards in the Tavern, and I don't last long enough to find out how Festus fares.
A predictable failure, but I lasted longer than I expected. There's a good deal more to the plot than was suggested by the blurb, and illustrations I couldn't help but notice make it clearer that there's at least one whole plot strand I never got anywhere near. I also like that the morality of the set-up is greyer than usual for gamebooks. Definitely worth a replay at some point, as I'd like to find out more about what is going on here.