Wednesday, 27 November 2013

The Moments That You and Your Own Worst Enemy Share

Thanks to my diary, I can state that I came across copies of Keith Martin's third Fighting Fantasy gamebook, Master of Chaos, in Hammicks' bookshop on the 21st of March 1990. I looked through a copy, decided it was worth buying when I had the money, and returned two days later to make the purchase. My first attempt was made without dice, and spread out over the course of a few days because I had a lot going on at that time. Later on I did try it by the rules, but gave up after repeatedly dying in a certain fight (which could have been avoided, or at least delayed until I was better equipped for it, but I hadn't yet realised that the book wasn't as straightforwardly linear as a lot of FF).

The Background section has certain similarities with that of Mr. Martin's first FF book, Stealer of Souls. I am a warrior, chosen by a group of wizards to go on a dangerous but important mission, which will take me across the sea and to the lair of an evil wizard. This one has stolen a powerful magical artefact (a Staff of Rulership, to be precise) rather than kidnapping another wizard, but that's a relatively trivial difference. More significant variations are present in the revelations about the villain, MoC making good use of the 'show not tell' approach. Before hearing anything about him, I see the dying Great Wizard who fell victim to one of his summonations. Two scryers were almost killed just probing for his name. And that name indicates him to be a once-notorious wizard who once formed an alliance with Dark Elves, was rather graphically killed and fed to the vultures three centuries ago, but has obviously got over that little setback. Rather more an effective an introduction than Stealer's 'everyone's heard of him and is scared of him (even though he's never been mentioned in the previous couple of dozen books set in this world)'.

There is one further difference, the most significant from a gameplay point of view. Not only would Shanzikuul, the wizard in question, be able to detect any wizards sent after him, but he's also going to be on the alert for any hero-types coming across from the continent where he just struck, so I need a convincing cover story. 'Helpfully', my employers have arranged for me to be press-ganged into service on the disreputable Captain Shagrot's ship, which is heading for where I need to go. Without his knowledge, so once the ship makes dock, I will have to escape and find some way of equipping myself before I can start seeking the ruined city of Kabesh where Shanzikuul has his base. But the wizards are confident that I'm up to the challenge. And their faith might not be misplaced, as I have:
Skill 11
Stamina 15
Luck 9
I did allocate dice when rolling up the character, but only to give myself a less mediocre Luck. Oh, and I get to pick three special Skills from a list of six, so I go for Blindsight, Animal Wisdom and Tracking.

The adventure picks up several days into the voyage. Life as a galley-slave is not good for the health, so I suffer a Stamina penalty straight off, and the first choice in the adventure is an ethical dilemma. The Second Mate, a particularly charmless Orc, is taking out his temper on the slave next to me, inflicting a pretty brutal beating. I'd prefer to intervene, but my Initial Stamina is so low that the damage I'd take could weaken me enough that I'd die during the 'regain strength and gather resources' phase of the adventure. With regret, I bite my lip and row on.

Eventually the Orc leaves. A conversation takes place on deck, but I didn't pick Acute Hearing, so I don't know what it involves. Another week passes, and my Stamina deteriorates further. The next time the Orc is in a foul mood, he picks on me. Fighting back would get me killed, so I endure it. By now I'm down to less than half my Initial Stamina.

The First Mate selects a couple of slaves for deck-cleaning duty, and I'm one of the ones picked. To discourage any thoughts of escape, I'm fitted with a ball and chain before going up. While I'm scrubbing the deck, a Kraken attacks the ship. The Captain defends himself from a tentacle with a cutlass and, hoping to keep the Kraken from messing up what I've just cleaned, I join the fight, using the ball on my chain as an improvised weapon, as the slaves aren't allowed sharp implements. Using such a crude weapon does bring a Skill penalty, but I'm a good enough fighter to win anyway.

Incidentally, this fight is a good illustration of how MoC handles the 'start in dire circumstances' set-up much better than some gamebooks. If I had taken enough damage to be in imminent danger of death, another character would have jumped in to finish the tentacle off before I could actually get killed. It's a tough book, but not unfairly harsh. Unlike the Tunnels & Trolls adventure Captif d'Yvoire, in which my character died before I even got to make a decision, MoC manages to give the reader a fair chance while still leaving the character in a pretty desperate situation.

But on this occasion I won. Grudgingly thanking me for helping fight off the monster, the Captain lets me have some grog, which restores a little of the Stamina I've lost. I'm also upgraded to 'trusty' slave, which means that I get treated slightly better, and don't take any further damage from my travelling conditions.

A few days later, the ship approaches its destination. A fellow trusty asks if I want in on his escape plan, and I join him. The crew drink a lot in celebration of having almost completed the voyage, and once they're all at least tipsy, we sneak over to one of the lifeboats. My Blindsight enables me to spot a crewman dozing in the boat, and we deepen his sleep (and intensify the headache he'll have when he comes round) before tipping him out, lowering the boat, and rowing ashore.

In the boat we find a little money and food, which we share. We also make a bit of money by selling the boat in Ashkyos, the city to which the ship was heading. I don't yet have enough for a sword, armour and other necessities, but it's a start. While in Ashkyos, I need to keep track of an additional stat: Notoriety. This goes up whenever I do something liable to attract attention, and if it gets too high, I'll have to leave town before the authorities show me how they deal with foreign troublemakers.

First I head for the warehouse district, where I see a merchant and two labourers pursuing a youth who has apparently robbed the merchant. I intervene, Tracking coming in handy when the thief ducks into an alley, and while I fail to apprehend the lad, I am able to retrieve the stolen goods. As a reward, the merchant gives me some money and offers to hire me - at a decent rate - to help unload a cargo of his that's due in tomorrow. I accept, and in addition to earning that bit more, I also food and a place to spend the night, all of which helps with returning to a decent state of health.

The following day, a shifty-looking character named Vesper asks if I'm interested in acting as a look-out while he does a 'little job' at a warehouse. Cultivating associates of a more dubious nature can be helpful, so I agree. Blindsight enables me to spot patrolling guards, so the 'job' goes well, and I receive a quantity of saffron as payment. Vesper also provides some local gossip: a Dark Elf has been seen making enquiries about travel to Rahasta, which is on the way to the ruins of Kabesh, and there's a Necromancer looking for hired labour in the Old Quarter.

I head to the market, where my ill-gotten gains fetch a good price, and find a man mistreating a mongoose because it won't do tricks for him. Animal Wisdom tells me that the mongoose is smarter than it seems, and I buy him from the man, who also gives me a whistle to call the mongoose if I ever risk letting him off the leash. Once the vendor has gone, the mongoose tells me he can talk (the text notes that this is rather stating the obvious) and introduces himself as Jesper. Perhaps not the best choice of name for the character, given that it's only one letter away from that of the burglar I befriended earlier - both names crop up in 'if you have met him, turn to...'-style directions at different times, and a reader who's only encountered one of the two might mistake the other's name for a misspelling of the one they know, and turn to the wrong section.

Jesper leads me around the market, and encourages me to buy a couple of odd-looking eggs from one stall. I take his advice, and we wind up sitting down close by for a long conversation. The crowds find this interesting enough that I get some Notoriety, but by the end of our chat, Jesper has managed to hatch the eggs with the warmth of his body, and onlookers start bidding for the hatchlings, so I make a decent profit on the purchase. He then suggests that we go to Entertainer's Square, where he could put on a show to earn me some more money, after which he'd like to leave me to my own devices while he pays a call on a certain female mongoose he knows.

By the time we reach the Square, he's having second thoughts about the 'performing animal' schtick, and by now I'm not so desperate for funds as to need him to demean himself in this manner, so I tell him he can go off and meet his lady friend. He agrees to rejoin me when I'm ready to leave town, and as he's leaving the Square, he bites a merchant, who chases after him. The merchant dropped some coins when he got bitten, so I pick them up, doubtless intending to return them if he should ask.

One of the main attractions in the Square is a gladiatorial ring, where people may fight a Half-Ogre for money. Competitors may borrow a sword and armour, so I decide it's worth a try. The fight is to the death, and my victory adds to my Notoriety (having the corrupt ruler of the city as a spectator certainly contributes to that), but I win additional funds, as well as the gratitude of an innkeeper whose son was killed by the Half-Ogre. He gives me a free meal, which restores much of the Stamina I lost in the fight.

It's about time I got kitted out. I gain further Notoriety for buying a sword and armour, but the items worth having in the other parts of Ashkyos must be fought for, and I'd rather be infamous than unarmed and unprotected in those fights. I also buy a backpack and a lantern, and get a free waterskin. At the travel shop I get a ticket for the riverboat to Rahasta, and I get some extra Provisions at a food shop.

Next I head for the docks - where I used to make the mistake of going first back in 1990. I see a brown-robed figure conducting some kind of financial transaction with a hunchbacked Dwarf, but choose not to stick my nose in. Continuing to explore, I bump into Captain Shagrot, whose anger at my having escaped overrides any residual gratitude for helping against the Kraken. Talking of which, the text here says the Captain has a wooden leg, but the illustration of the Kraken's attack shows a two-legged Captain swinging a scimitar. The same scimitar he's now unsheathing to use on me, in fact.

While not sufficiently fond of their Captain to help him in this fight, his crew fear him enough to ensure that I have no escape option. And a demented parakeet leaves its owner and gets in my face. Killing it allows the Captain to get in a couple of blows against me, but the Skill penalty for having the bird distracting me could be more harmful in the long run. As the dice fall, it would have made no difference, but I've had enough combats where I had the advantage go badly that I didn't want to take the risk.

The fight increases my Notoriety (though Shagrot's crew all cheer when I gut him), and turns out not to have been worth getting into after all: the scimitar is magical, and confers a Skill bonus - but only to characters with a Skill of 10 or less. Nice way of making things a bit fairer for characters with inferior stats, but losing half my Stamina for an unusable bonus is a bit of a pain.

Proceeding to the wretched hive of scum and villainy that is the Old Quarter, I see plenty of sights. Most significantly, at least in the short term, a runaway mule which is heading straight for me. Animal Wisdom enables me to calm it - just - and the owner gives me some money.

Three local establishments appear popular: the up-market Koyala's Bar, Kanstrin's Guursh Bar, and Stavian's Gambling Hall. Vesper mentioned Stavian's, but before going there I check out Kanstrin's. This turns out to be even swankier than Koyala's, despite the name (imagine if the Ritz were renamed Sammy's Meths Joint), and has a formidable-looking bouncer. He lets me in, for a price, and after feeling out of place for a while, I spot some people who are obviously up to no good dashing out of the kitchen.

I follow the ruffians, one of whom fires a blowpipe at me (but misses). Pursuing him up some stairs, I avoid a rather nasty trap thanks to Blindsight, and then fight him. He calls out to warn an associate before I kill him, and when I get through the door he was guarding, I see the other man holding a dagger to the throat of an unconscious Dark Elf. He tells me to stand back and let him escape, or he'll kill the Elf. While Dark Elves are generally bad guys, taking actions liable to lead to the murder of a defenceless one is a step too far for me, so I step away from the door. Using the Elf as a shield, the man backs through the exit - and trips over the body of his partner-in-crime, at which point he abandons his hostage and flees.

The Elf has regained consciousness (or was just shamming, in which case I imagine I'd have made him very angry if I'd risked his life by attacking the man), and expresses surprise at my having rescued him. He doesn't leap to the attack, so I reciprocate, and he shows himself to be an Elf of honour. When it becomes necessary, he will do his best to kill me, but he hopes to be able to discharge his debt of gratitude to me before then. As a small token of thanks he gives ma a Potion of Healing, and he also encourages me to take a bracelet belonging to one of his erstwhile captors - perhaps because it has magical properties, perhaps just so the book can keep track of our having reached a temporary accord. Before I go, he mentions the Necromancer of whom Vesper spoke, identifying him as an enemy of both of us, and advising me to accept his offer of employment so I can get close enough to have a stab at getting him out of the way before he can make serious trouble for us.

Acting on his suggestion, I go to Stavian's and, after buying some food to replenish lost Stamina, join the Gnomes I know to be the Necromancer's minions. We play dice for a bit, I win a little money, and then the Gnomes invite me to earn a little money by helping them procure 'research' materials for their master at the cemetery. I take the job, but only go along with the plan so far: once they ask me to remove a fresh corpse from a coffin, I quit and head out of the crypt. The Necromancer is waiting at the entrance and, furious to see me empty-handed, attacks. I'm a better fighter than he, and after dropping below half Stamina, he resorts to using magic to escape. The Gnomes flee, the militia approach, and I have to make myself scarce, along the way acquiring enough Notoriety that I shall have to depart the city in the morning.

In the mean time, I find a place to spend the night, but am troubled by bad dreams, and wake to find an iron ring on one of my fingers. It won't come off, either.

Once it's light, I blow the whistle, and Jesper rejoins me, excited about going on a trip. I can call in at a food store on the way to the river, and stock up on Provisions, but my Notoriety denies me the opportunity for further shopping. The rules governing essential meals aren't that great: not eating when instructed to results in the loss of 2 Stamina, but eating when not instructed to adds 4, so there's an obvious loophole that unscrupulous players could exploit.

The boat is pretty shabby - as is its Captain - but it takes us away from Ashkyos. On the second day of the trip up-river, the weather is miserable, so I stay in my cabin and doze. Some noise disturbs me, and I wake to see Jesper decapitating a River Python that slithered into the cabin. That'll do, mongoose.

On the third and final day of the voyage, the boat is attacked by pirates. I manage to dodge the bolt of flaming pitch that a ballista hurls at us: a fellow passenger is not so fortunate. As the pirate vessel gets within boarding range, I take advantage of a brief opportunity to go for their Captain. He doesn't put up much of a fight, and his men surrender when he dies. The riverboat's crew ply me with enough food to restore what Stamina I did lose in the fight, and they also give me a share of the pirates' plunder.

By the end of the day we reach Rahasta. Being close to the Chaos Wastes, the city has a large mutant population, which makes me wary. As it's late and I need rest, I go to the Scapegoat inn, where the hunchbacked landlord and his nine-tailed cat make me feel less than welcome. The Dark Elf is also present, and confirms that he's after the Staff as well. He advises me to leave Rahasta before the locals turn on me, but I know from one past failure that not getting some rest before I move on would prove fatal. Luckily for me, a former owner of Jesper's once saved one of the locals from a Troll, so the mongoose is able to arrange for me to stay at their home for the night.

In the morning I replenish my food supplies before setting off towards Kabesh. The journey takes two days, and the heat of the sun takes its toll on me, but I'm still in reasonably good shape when I reach an oasis where nomads are encamped. They offer me hospitality, and 'invite' me to meet their leader, Baalberith, Servant of the Lord of the Suns and the Ways. He explains that they're on a quest to recover a Sacred Sphere, and offers a reward if I should find it for them.

Baalberith recognises Jesper as an acquaintance of his father's, and they start chatting. It soon becomes apparent that my four-legged friend will be joining the nomads, but as some compensation for the loss of my companion, I get fresh supplies of food.

After a night's rest, I start exploring the ruins. First I investigate the ruined Senate House, finding a large Mutant Scorpion in the cellar. It's not as formidable a foe as it looks, and I soon dispose of it. The cellar also contains the Sphere the nomads seek, which is a pleasant surprise - while I remember which locations I must visit to be able to win the book, I'd forgotten what's where apart from those essentials. I take the Sphere to the nomads, who give me a rope and either a Magic Sword (which may not be any better for me than Shagrot's scimitar, though the wording of the description isn't as clear as it might be) or a Potion of Stamina. I choose the latter, as that will definitely work.

The next day I search the ruined houses to the west, where I find someone else who's come here to look for something. This one, Kanestin, is after a magical tome, and offers to give me information on the Chaos Pits where Shanzikuul has his lair if I find it for him. From past attempts at the book I know that Kanestin is a minor-league villain, so I don't take the deal.

I'm not sure there's much to be gained by visiting the other non-essential locations, so I now head for the Mausoleum. Opening its heavy doors costs me a little Stamina, and two animated Skeletons attack me. No sooner have I destroyed them than their owner appears. It's the Necromancer I fought in Ashkyos, who now offers me an alliance. I offer to smash his face in. Down here he's a more formidable opponent, but by getting in the first blow I keep him from launching a magical attack on me. A few rounds into the fight he rallies, bringing my Stamina perilously low, and then someone invisible joins the fight - on my side. Keith Martin's rules for battles with multiple fighters on one side are slightly different from those found in other FF books, and have one glaring omission: they state that only the combatant with the highest Attack Strength strikes a blow, but don't indicate what happens if the two on the same side get the same higher-than-their-opponent's Attack Strength. Which happens twice during the fight.

Regardless, the Necromancer loses, and my unseen helper reveals himself to be the Dark Elf, whose name I somehow now know to be Naas. He gives me a healing draught, tells me that he's discharged his debt, and says that it wouldn't be honourable for him to kill me just after I helped him defeat a great enemy (er, who helped whom?), so he won't kill me until next time. He then leaves by means of a variant on the so-called Indian rope trick, and I drink the potion from the nomads to restore the rest of the Stamina I'd lost in the fight.

The dead Necromancer has an Iron Key on him, as well as the book that Kanestin wants. I take it with me, not wanting to risk Kanestin getting his hands on it, and proceed to the warehouses. There, my lack of Acute Hearing enables a mutant to ambush me, and I'm half-throttled before I manage to kill it. Tracking enables me to find the trapdoor by which the mutant entered, and I descend stone steps into the Chaos Pits.

A passage leads to a circular ledge overlooking a cavern which contains a pit filled with elemental Chaos, a writhing mass straight out of the worst imaginings of Lovecraft and Giger, surrounded by further mutants. Steps lead down into it, but there are also two doors leading from the ledge I'm on. and a portcullis at the far side, so I don't descend.

The door to the right leads to a weapon store, guarded by a crazed-looking man with an unusual helmet. The design on the helmet is distracting enough to give the wearer's opponents a Skill penalty while fighting him, so I try to pull it from his head. I succeed, and sanity returns to the man, who thanks me before expiring. His last words lead me to a Magic Sword with a bonus I can actually use, so I ditch the scimitar in favour of the Moon Sword.

I then try the door opposite, which is ajar. Peering through, I see a Mutant ladling sludge from a vat into a bucket and taking it down to the pit to feed it to the monstrosity in there. During one previous attempt at this book I was reckless enough to try eating some of the sludge myself, as a result of which I know it to be unexpectedly nutritious (though not particularly tasty - the book semi-anachronistically compares the flavour to 'boiled cardboard laced with pine-needle pulp'). I even fill a waterskin with more of the stuff for later on.

Proceeding to the portcullis, I find it locked, but the Necromancer's key opens it. It also triggers a trap, releasing several venomous snakes, but I fight them off with ease. Some quite evocative prose adds a nightmarish tinge to my walk along a corridor, and then I run into Shanzikuul's best mutant, a hybrid that combines aspects of bear, crocodile and less easily identifiable species. It also has acidic slobber, and the picture in the book matches the description a lot better than the one on the cover. I also prefer internal artist David Gallagher's interpretation of the 'taloned, eight-fingered claws' to that of cover illustrator Les Edwards.

Anyway, I fight the Zoalinth, which doesn't fare very well against me, and strike the coup de grace while it's hawking phlegm in an attempt at a potentially lethal gob in my face. It's guarding a door, which leads to Shanzikuul's Great Hall. To my surprise, it contains a well-laden banqueting table, assorted works of art, and a fountain. At the far end is Shanzikuul, looking very young for somebody who was vulture droppings 300 years ago. He dismisses his two tiger-woman servants, reprimands me for being late, and invites me to have dinner with him while he outlines a proposal to me.

I warily accept the invitation, and am offered the post of his right-hand man. It's not remotely tempting, but now that I'm sitting next to Shanzikuul, I have a chance to grab the magic ring he's wearing, which could significantly improve my chances in the coming fight. I succeed in pulling it from his finger, and he backs away. If I take the time to put the ring on, I'll get the Skill bonus it would have given him, but he'll have a chance to use magic. Or I could just attack straight off - the fight would be tougher, but I wouldn't have to contend with my foe's conjurations. I risk the second plan, and the fight goes much better for me than expected. Soon Shanzikuul is on his last legs, and as he attempts to cast a spell, I strike a killing blow. I don't watch the unpleasantness that occurs after his death.

Somehow sensing that something is about to happen, I retrieve the Staff. No sooner have I done so than Naas turns up and attempts to make good on his promise to kill me and take the Staff. Despite having a lower Skill than Shanzikuul, he wins and draws a lot more rounds than the wizard. Nevertheless, my superior Skill prevails in the end. I hear hordes of mutants approaching and, spotting a gleam of magic in Shanzikuul's amulet, take a chance on its being able to teleport me away. I get lucky, and find myself back with the wizards who chose me for the mission. A celebration ensues, and I'm offered rewards that would probably take all the challenge out of adventuring. Not that it matters, as I won't get to use this character again. At least he gets a happy retirement rather than a hideous death.


  1. Wonderful playthrough; so good that I sat in bed reading it this morning instead of leaving early for work (my original plan)!

  2. Yes, perfect breakfast reading for me! Really nice write up. Not my favourite FF adventure for some reason (though who doesn't have a soft spot for Jesper?). Question: where do you think this adventure starts? At some point I assumed Pollua, after Stealer of Souls, and then forgot I assumed that and was surprised to discover that it isn't stated in the book at all.