Friday, 1 November 2013

One Who, On a Lonely Road, Doth Walk in Fear and Dread

Like the last two of the Sagas of the Demonspawn and the first of the Cretan Chronicles, I got Ian and Clive Bailey's Forbidden Gateway gamebooks in a January sale at Chiesman's. It must have been January, as I remember reading some of the first book, Where the Shadows Stalk, for the first time while waiting for the pantomime I was reluctantly attending to start. I didn't use dice, and failed at what I think is the one point in the book where it's possible to fail just by making the wrong decision - taking a wrong turning, winding up at a dead end, and getting smothered by the more-gruesome-than-it-sounds wind beast.

Back when I first designed my gamebook manager, FG was one of the first systems I adapted it to play, and I made attempt after attempt until I finally beat both of the books. While not overly unfair, these are tough if you play them by the rules. Once (and only once) I got the maximum possible stats at character creation. That character was one of the quickest to die. Indeed, it's not possible to die earlier in the adventure than he did - only the fact that that wasn't the only time I failed in that manner makes him 'one of' the quickest.

More recently I ran both books for a group of people at rpg.net. They failed the first one 8 times, and the number would almost certainly have been a lot higher if I hadn't been using 'save points' that spared them the need to replay a lot of the early encounters.

Let's see how well I fare this time. First up, character creation:
Strength 7
Stamina 14
Mentality 5
Endurance 10
Dexterity 5
Utterly, utterly doomed.

The adventure starts when I receive a letter from my old friend Charles Petrie-Smith, telling me that strange things are afoot in the Welsh village where he lives. After an earthquake, a local eccentric was found suffering from strange burns, and raved about things in the mines before dying. Other locals have contracted a disease that causes a mysterious fungus to consume their bodies, and an unnaturally wind-resistant mist threatens to cut the whole area off. Petrie-Smith believes that dark forces have been awakened by the tremor, and seeks my help in dealing with them.

I get the steam train (it's a non-contemporary setting, though that becomes a lot more obvious in book 2) to Corris, the nearest station to the afflicted village of Bryn Coedwig, and get a lift some of the rest of the way on a farmer's cart. Once our paths diverge, I take a path that runs along a steep ledge at one side of a valley, and catch sight of a wall of fog up ahead.

Entering the fog, I find it a little more substantial than usual, and perceive coloured lights in it. Just walking on is hard work, leaving me sweaty and short of breath, and a sudden pounding noise that fills my head threatens to disorientate me and cause me to fall over the edge. Indeed, I do fall over the edge, and make a desperate grab at some dangling vegetation. Rolling better than I did when playing with maximum stats that one time, I manage to hang on, and to drag myself back onto the path, worn out but still alive.

Continuing on my way, I emerge from the fog bank to find that, judging by the height of the moon, more time passed than I was aware of. Exactly how much time is impossible to ascertain, as my watch has stopped. The road ahead runs between hedgerows, and as I continue towards the village, I start to get the impression that someone or something is keeping pace with me on the other side of the hedge to my left. Usually I'm not a fan of 'fake' choices in gamebooks, but I think the one here is justified. In view of the nightmarish quality of the situation, it seems quite appropriate that the same thing happens no matter what I decide to do.

With my knobkerrie (a type of club, of African origin, which implies interesting things about my background) I prod at the hedge, trying not to sound scared as I ask if there's anyone there. In answer, a figure bursts through the hedge. Though roughly humanoid, it's made of plant matter, and as it stands before me, the roots and shoots that comprise its face reshape themselves into a likeness of my own appearance. With a cry of, 'I am you!' it lunges at me, twig-fingers closing around my neck.

My sub-par stats are actually beneficial in some ways at this point. The changeling attacking me has modeled itself on me so precisely that it shares my mediocre Dexterity, and is no stronger than I, so I'm able to break free without too much difficulty. I drop my knobkerrie in the struggle, though, so I have only my fists as weapons in the fight that follows. Considering how inept we both are as fighters, the brawl is over surprisingly quickly, a couple of particularly lucky rolls enabling me to do double damage twice. I'm barely injured by the time my attacker is compost, and within moments only the weals on my neck remain to prove that I didn't imagine the whole encounter.

The rest of the journey is uneventful, and at the Petrie-Smith residence I am welcomed in by Charles' daughter Lucy, who explains that her father is in bed with a fever. She's not surprised to hear of what I experienced on my way there, and after I've had something to eat, she shows me to her father's study, where a camp bed has been set up for me. Before turning in, I do a little snooping around, because I'm not expecting this character to survive the night, so I'll look through the journal on Petrie-Smith's desk while I can.

It was written in the 1880s by George Hindlett, an engineer at the local quarry and mine. Much of its content is unremarkable, but the last half-dozen entries, written in much shakier handwriting than the rest of the book, are more obviously relevant to the current situation. They start with an account of an earthquake on the 23rd of March 1884. Two days later, Hindlett was able to check the mines, finding them largely undamaged, but a sensation of being watched by an unknown horror kept him from checking out the new lode. By the next day, inexplicable mechanical failures were occurring, and those who tried to leave the village found themselves back there, unable to explain what had happened. The day after that, tentacled monstrosities showed themselves, mind-controlling the miners and quarrymen and turning them into a mob that almost killed the diarist. After further such horrors (including 'nocturnal visitations by snuffling things'), Hindlett resolved to take a load of dynamite into the mine and seal the new lode. That's the final entry, so clearly he never made it back, but from the fact that Bryn Coedwig hasn't been a Lovecraftian hellhole for the past few decades, it's also evident that he had some degree of success.

With my bedtime reading done, I turn in for what will be an eventful night. As I sleep, I dream of being on a grassy plain, surrounded by mist. An old man with a spear stands beside me, and some other consciousness overwrites the contents of my mind with an irresistible compulsion to follow him into the mist. He leads me to the foot of an ancient oak tree in a ruined village and introduces himself as Myriddin, who has slept beneath the Welsh hills for centuries, awaiting this time of need, and now chooses me as his champion. He has brought me to the border between life and death, sleep and waking, to face the Wild Hunt. If I prevail, he will enable me to call on the Hunt for assistance. If I fail... well, it won't be pleasant.

Instructing me to wait beneath the oak, Myriddin hands me his spear and prepares to leave. Before he goes, I ask him about the 'great evil' he mentioned, and he tells me that an evil which serves the Outer Darkness has been entombed beneath the valley since the dawn of time, and now seeks to break out. Not very informative, really. He advises me to guard the spear, as its spirit blade is the only thing I have that can harm the dead, and then leaves.

Strange lights and an oddly mobile shadow appear in the remains of a mill. I stay where I was told to wait, and don't investigate. The mill starts to shake, and shingles from the roof fly at me, but I stand my ground, and they fall short. The lights go out, and a bolt of lightning strikes a ruined building, setting it ablaze. I shelter from the storm under the tree - after all, that worked for Homer Simpson, didn't it? The burning ruin appears unaffected by the fire. As I watch, intrigued, lightning strikes again.

D'oh!

A falling branch hits me, but the damage isn't lethal. The fire in the ruins has disappeared, but now cold blue flames spring from the head of the spear and burn down the haft to my hands. I grit my teeth against the pain and endure the additional damage, as the consequences of abandoning the spear are almost certain to prove fatal for this character.

An unnatural wind springs up, and I hear the sound of horses' hooves. A group of faintly luminescent dead men ride deceased horses into the village, accompanied by a pack of unliving hounds. I brandish the spear at them, and they halt. Their leader, dismounting with the sort of difficulty you'd expect to be experienced by someone whose sinews are decaying, identifies himself, assumes that I am to be their prey tonight, and sets two of his hunters on me. Their weapons do both physical and psychological damage (Stamina and Endurance), and while I manage to strike one blow against a hunter, they hit me enough times to shred my already fragile sanity.

I wake up in a strange room. Getting up, I look out of the window and see a sign that tells me that I am now a resident of a 'Home for the Deluded'. But the book does not concern itself with whatever horrors confronted asylum inmates in the 1920s or 1930s, so that's the end of this adventure. Considering the variety of hideous fates that can be met in these books, I got off pretty lightly. Probably a lot more so than the inhabitants of Bryn Coedwig.

Both Forbidden Gateway books are very tough, this one probably more so than the other, but given the genre, it's not entirely unjustified. A fairly ordinary man should have a tough time when pitted against otherworldly monstrosities from prehistory. Besides, I could name a lot of other gamebooks that are far more unfair than this one.

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