Friday, 22 November 2013

We'll End With a Whistle and End With a Bang

I don't remember the circumstances of my buying Stephen Hand's first Fighting Fantasy book, Dead of Night (co-written with Jim Bambra). My first attempt is a little clearer in memory - I'm pretty sure I didn't use dice, I know that I turned back to the previous section to avoid a couple of deaths, and I now realise that it was ignorance about the normal size of jewels that led to my making the correct choice first time at the climax.

This is another book in which my character has a specific identity. A renowned hunter and slayer of Demons, who joined the Templars as a child, shortly after my brother was killed by a Demon and a strange ghost made a brief appearance at his funeral. My track record includes thwarting more than one plot by the Demon Lord Myurr, one of Ishtra's peers, and one element of the plot of this book is Myurr's attempted revenge.

In addition to the usual attributes, I have three special Talents (chosen from a list of seven) and, should I misbehave too seriously along the way, I may also accumulate Evil points, which can render me susceptible to corrupting influences. This time round my stats are
Skill 10
Stamina 17
Luck 11
Potentially enough for a win (a low Luck has doomed me on at least two past attempts), so I'll risk doing without one of the Talents that can make the adventure a lot easier, namely Dark Veil. This would, when used, make me invisible to most evil creatures, but has the peculiar side effect of adding a point of Evil every time it's used on the grounds that 'veil' is an anagram of 'evil'. Thankfully, the book doesn't inflict a similar penalty every time I live (another such anagram) through a fight. Anyway, I'm not taking that one, but I will have the also very useful Holy Circle, Banish Undead and Speak Demon.

The previous owner of my copy of the book filled out the Adventure Sheet in biro, and cheated a bit, giving him-or-herself 50 Skill, 80 Stamina, 92 Luck and all seven Talents. In what's more likely to be a misunderstanding of the rules than a momentary burst of honesty, they also recorded an Evil score of 100.

But I digress. The adventure starts when I have a vision suggesting that Myurr has kidnapped my parents. This prompts me to head back to Crowford, the village where my parents live, to see if the vision is based on reality. As I approach it, I notice that the road passes under the remains of a criminal dangling from a gallows. Not something that will deter me from my path, especially as the detour involves an encounter with a scarecrow that's no Worzel Gummidge. The gibbet is in a pretty poor condition, and the skeleton inside the cage mocks me, but I just pass below, experiencing nothing worse than a creepy sensation.

The villagers flee from my approach, and the clichéd 'mother snatches up a child and bolts indoors' thing happens. I've had better welcomes. The parental home is deserted, so I decide to see what the local priest can tell me of recent developments. On my way to the church, I hear screams from the graveyard. Anson, the new priest, tells me that my parents were found dead in their home three days ago. Or it's just possible - based on the semi-skeletal nature of the corpses, the malevolent gleam in the bodies' eyes, and the way in which, as soon as they were buried, a strange blight tainted the land and that screaming began - that they were actually crude demonic replicas.

Dead... Blight demons. Dead... Blight Demons.

I head for the grave to investigate, and Anson gives me a shovel. Not that I need it, as the occupants of the grave burrow out and attack me. Hey, I'd have sent flowers if anyone had bothered to tell me about the funeral. But these are definitely not my parents, and a quick Banishment eliminates them and their pestilential aura. As the Demons dissolve, I notice a metal tube in the gunk. This turns out to contain a map, on which a cave by the Weddonbrige road has been marked. Beside the cave are written the words, 'Captives held here', which I suspect to mean 'Blatantly obvious trap' in some too-obscure-for-me-to-know Demonic dialect.

Leaving Crowford, I decide to call on my friend Sharleena the Seer, who lives in the area. I'm about to take the turning to her home when I hear a wagon approaching. As I recall, there's nothing worthwhile I can achieve by interacting with the wagon, so I press on to Sharleena's. She invites me in and says she's about to contact the spirits. I watch as she does so, and an antlered humanoid appears, announcing that Myurr has taken my parents to his tower in the Northlands. She asks for more precise directions, and a Demon appears. It is compelled to mention the Cragrock Peaks, but prevents further questioning by slitting Sharleena's throat. I could use Holy Circle to protect myself, but my friend deserves to be avenged, so I attack. Not a difficult fight, but the dying demon manages to set the house ablaze, so I have to leave quite promptly. At least the fire will make for a decent pyre, and keep looters from raiding the place.

A storm blows up as I resume my journey. At a crossroads I see pitchfork-wielding peasants lowering something into a freshly-dug hole, and stop to ask what's afoot. They explain that they're burying a scholar who committed suicide, and attempting to practise the appropriate rites to keep him from becoming undead. I agree to help, but it's already too late: part of the way through the ceremony, the coffin's now-vampiric occupant bursts out. Thinking quickly, I immobilise him with my cross, while one of the peasants stakes him.

The crowd disperses, and I take the Weddonbridge road. Let's see what this trap is, then. The cave isn't too hard to find, especially with the reddish glow inside it. The glow is emanated by a flying stone skull, which swoops to the attack. I dodge its eye-beams and smash it with my sword, and the consequent release of magical energies gives me another Talent (I pick Meditation). It also causes the cave to start collapsing, so I depart, wondering if every place I visit from now on is going to get destroyed before I leave.

Back on the road I reach a holy monument, and stop to test out my new Talent. Some force compels me to open a hidden compartment, in which I find a Holy Amulet that I take with me. After crossing the Way River, I reach Weddonbridge (so why isn't it called Waybridge?), where an atmosphere of evil startles my horse and causes it to bolt. There are two buildings close by, and this is one of the rare instances in the adventure where the Sense Demon Talent would do more than just indicate that the Demonic figure approaching is in fact a Demon. Almost every time I play this book, I pick the wrong building here, and for some reason knowing that doesn't seem to help. Only this time I second-guessed my second-guessing, and made the right decision. Well, as right as is possible here - I merely get jumped by a Moon Demon while entering the inn, rather than risk decapitation in a trap. And the villagers attack the Demon and cut it to bits, so only my dignity is harmed.

They explain that the village has been attacked by increasing numbers of Moon Demons of late, and they'll be evacuating in the morning. Assuming they can keep the inn Demon-free until morning. I choose to stay and help, and after posting guards on all the doors and windows, I head up to the loft to check on the integrity of the roof. Not good - indeed, it's already been breached. I use the Amulet I found to make the trapdoor down to the ground floor off-limits to the Demons, successfully fighting off the one Demon that tries to interfere.

I rejoin the villagers just before things get cinematic and Demons smash in all the doors and windows simultaneously. With Holy Circle I am able to establish a Demon-proof zone within the inn, and gather all the villagers into it. We wait for dawn, the Demons wait for my power to wane, and I win the waiting game, as the circle is still intact by the time daylight banishes the Demons.

Resuming my journey, I hear the sound of wings, and risk confronting whatever is approaching. It turns out to be a magical summonation, which grabs me and bears me off towards Colton-on-the-Marsh, and I sense that it was created by someone named Magrand. Attacking the thing that's holding me a hundred feet above the ground seems unwise, even if it is marshland below me, so I just wait for this trip to end. The creature drops me in a pool of quicksand, but I am able to extricate myself. Trails criss-cross the marsh, one leading to a derelict-looking mill, others heading for the nearby village, but before I can make any decisions, the village paths sink into the mud. Looks like someone in the mill wants a word with me, and after he's gone to this much effort, it would be churlish to refuse.

Zombies emerge from the marsh and converge on me, some cutting off the way to the sunken village paths, others barring the way to the mill. A quick Banishment gets rid of the undead obstacles ahead of me, and the other Zombies hold back, then sink back into the mire once I reach the mill. It has one door, which is a bit obvious, but the only other way in is a hole in the wall some way up, and climbing to it would require me to Test my Luck, costing me a point that could make the difference between survival and terminal sliming once I'm inside. So I go through the door. The handle grows a mouth and bites me.

Magrand the Necromancer is waiting for me inside the mill, and hurls a sphere of magical sludge at me. I dodge it, and don't give him a chance to conjure up another one. With him dead, the Zombies lurking in the marsh disintegrate. As does the mill (and I'm guessing there wasn't much left of the inn at Weddonbridge left by the time the Demons were dispelled, so my 'wreck everywhere you enter' aura seems intact). I'm able to grab a Luck-restoring potion before fleeing, and the inhabitants of the nearby village give me some money for ridding them of a troublesome neighbour and his eyesore of a residence.

Moving on, I reach a junction. Close by are a signpost and a shrine, and a quick Meditation heals my door-bite and gives me a vision: one of the names on the signpost drips blood, the drops forming the words 'Death-on-the-marsh'. Suspecting that there may be unfinished business relating to my most recent encounter, I head in the direction indicated, towards Stanford. Along the way I cross the River Merton, which fails to burble amusing non-sequiturs at me, and as night falls I catch sight of torchlight and hear guttural chanting from a nearby clearing. This merits investigation.

In the clearing I see a Moon Demon Mage, standing over an altar with unpleasant inscriptions, on top of which lies Magrand's corpse. Recognising that the Mage is attempting a Rite to raise Magrand from the dead as a fully sentient, Demonically-powered Abomination, I use Speak Demon to disrupt the ritual. This nets me a point of Evil, but utterly and irrevocably gets rid of the cadaver before it can rise. The Mage attacks, and I use my sword to disrupt its face. I also destroy the altar.

In the morning I reach Stanford, which is pretty quiet. A local farmer named Tom seeks my help: Skeleton Riders have been attacking and destroying farms in the area of late, and he fears that his will be the next target. Figuring that if the place is due to be razed to the ground anyway, I can't make things a whole lot worse by visiting, I accompany him to his home. There I meet his wife Gertrude and their daughter Kate, and work out a strategy for guarding the farmhouse. It has two doors to the outside, and four windows. I stand guard by one door, hanging my cross above the other, and set Tom, Gertrude and Kate to guard the windows furthest from me.

At midnight, eight Skeletons attack, the dice determining where each one tries to break in. The first bursts through the door with the cross on, and disintegrates. The second breaks the window Gertrude is guarding, and has its skull knocked clean off with a rolling-pin. So does the fourth, while the third is clambering in through the unguarded window. The fifth Skeleton repeats the error made by the first, while the sixth and seventh follow the third. Tom has to deal with the eighth while I hurry away from the door I was pointlessly guarding and Banish the trio that got into the house. Tom and Gertrude have taken some damage in the fight, but the family are all still alive, and there's still one window intact, so I'd call that a pretty successful night's work.

In the morning, Gertrude gives me some food to thank me for my assistance, and as I set off again, the farmhouse remains untroubled by meteorites, sinkholes, tornadoes or other potential means of destruction. A boatman offers to take me to Axmoor for 2 gold, and while that's not really on my way, it's a detour that could be worth making, so I pay up. Also on the barge are the owner's son Palinn and a strange old woman named Venghul. In the afternoon, Palinn falls overboard (unless someone knocked him into the water with a big fish), and I dive into the river to save him. This gets me my fare refunded, and Venghul offers to tell my fortune. She's not able to offer much advice, but does give me one hint that would be useful in the endgame if I hadn't hit on the right course of action straight off back in 1989.

Axmoor is in a pretty horrendous state when we get there, and just after I step ashore, tentacles erupt from the waters of the river. I fight them to buy the barge time to get away. My toughest fight yet this adventure, but I win, and my erstwhile companions are safe. Turning my attention to what remains of Axmoor, I find that much of the village has been demolished to make way for a monstrous organic edifice that spews noxious smoke into the air. To destroy this I'll have to get inside, and I ignore the obvious entrance in favour of a hole in the ground that may be the living building's sphincter. The less said about the next few minutes, the better (and if I'd been Unlucky, that would have been one of the worst possible ways of dying in a gamebook), but I make it into the building okay.

Taking a narrow and damp turning, I proceed to a dungeon where two Demonic Servants stand guard over dozens or prisoners. Attacking, I easily defeat the guards (assisted by the fact that a Demonic Servant is automatically destroyed if its opponent wins two consecutive rounds of combat - FF veterans are likely to understand if I call them the opposite of Razaak). However, while I can unlock the cells, I am unable to free the captives, who are held in place by the influence of the building, and will be fed into its furnaces unless I can destroy it.

Heading back along the corridor, I ignore steps leading to a hatch for the moment and proceed to a chamber that radiates heat and emits the sound of grinding bones. Inside is a massive heart, connected by vein-like pipes to a ramshackle-looking contraption. Operating the controls is another Demonic Servant, who doesn't last any longer than the last couple I encountered. Turning my attention to the control panel, I see three dials connected to tubes, which have been labelled in Demonic script. The wildly throbbing red tube reads 'FEED', the more gently pulsating blue one says 'DRAIN', and the unmoving green one is marked 'ADDITIVE'. I switch off the feed tube, the chamber starts acting like a Bond villain's base in the final reel of the movie, and something big and nasty-looking begins to emerge from a split in the wall. I don't loiter to find out what it is.

Now I ascend to that hatch, which opens into another corridor. At one end is a door, at the other an archway leading outside, and guarded by three Demonic Servants that appear to be in telepathic communion with Myurr. No point heading for the exit while this monstrosity is still operating anyway, so I try the door. This leads to the heart of the structure, where magically pacified prisoners are being marched into a furnace shaped like a sharp-toothed worm's mouth (not that I recall ever having seen a mouth on a worm). In the centre of the chamber is a Death-Stone, the 'seed' from which this Land-Blight has been grown. But before I destroy that, I need to take out the furnace. A Demonic Servant tries to get in my way, and actually does significant damage before I kill it. The others fail to react, awaiting instructions from their master, who must be busy with some other part of his plot for global conquest, so I hurl a vial of Holy Water into the furnace. The mouth explodes.

I approach the Death-Stone while the remaining Demonic Servants panic and yell that I'm here. Myurr is still on another line. The baleful aura of the Stone surrounds me, but I'm not Evil enough to fall under its spell. Still, I only know of one way to actually destroy the thing, and if I mess up, I'll be annihilated. Nevertheless, a Demon-Stalker's gotta do what a Demon-Stalker's gotta do. And if I use up all my remaining Holy Water in the process, then in combination with the Talents I have and the damage I've already done to the Land-Blight, I'd need to get 13 or above on two dice to fail. I pronounce the incantation and time and space ripple with the forces unleashed...

And just like that, the Land-Blight is gone, the surviving prisoners are free, and I've had my Skill and Luck enhanced by my contact with primal energies. And somehow Magic Circle kept me from gaining any more Evil.

Along the way to the next village, an Orcish wagon-driver tries and fails to run me over. The wagon moves too quickly for me to take any action against the driver, so I press on to the unexpectedly untroubled village of Dunningham. A hooded figure beckons me across, then drops the hood. I face a woman from the sixties Star Trek planet of incredibly unsubtle allegory, who has symbols on her hands that I recognise from Titan - the Fighting Fantasy World as showing her to be a devotee of this world's Trickster gods, who are neither good nor evil, but endeavour to maintain the balance between the two sides. And with one of the highest ranking Demons in all Titan gearing up to invading the world, I'm pretty sure that any balance-tipping she wishes to undertake will be in my favour, so I greet her. She dispels the illusion that hangs over Dunningham, revealing ruined buildings, scenes of devastation, and a wooden tower with a Sauron-like Eye atop it, somewhat anachronistically described as being 'like a searchlight'.

The woman has advice for me, but it will be a random mixture of truth and lies because that's the Trickster way. After advising me to destroy the tower and the Eye, she tells me a password to get into the tower, says which balance my destiny lies in, and instructs me to seek the pool. And then she's gone.

Hearing laughter, I decide to see if I can find an invader with a uniform in my size. Can I take on ten drunken Orcs? Let's give it a go. Well, four are too drunk to fight, and the others are slow enough that I can find shelter in a doorway, forcing them to attack one at a time. Two of them wound me, once each, but the outcome was a lot less doubtful than I initially thought it would be.

Continuing to the tower, I find one guard on the door. He asks for a password. I give the one I was told, and he lets me in, so I should ignore what the woman said about the balance. Beyond the door is a storeroom, where I find the sort of disguise I'd hoped to get by fighting inebriated Orcs - a full face helmet with a skeletal motif, and a cloak. I also find a Goblin on 'guard duty' in a barrel, who eats some mould and settles down to sleep. Sometimes gamebooks just get odd.

A ladder leads to the next level, where three Orcs are playing dice. On the way to the next ladder I step on a squeaky floorboard, but my disguise causes the Orcs to believe that I am a superior officer. One of them gives me a lantern to check on 'Old Beady' (I love that they have a disrespectful nickname for the Baleful Eye), and they pretend not to have just been gambling on duty while I ascend to the top of the tower. The Eye isn't as easily fooled, but when I smash the lantern over its lid, it burns well. So does the tower. That farmhouse surviving must have been a fluke.

The fire escape consists of a long rope attached to the roof. Amazingly, it doesn't burn while I'm climbing down. There are three places I can go from here. The pond is not the pool I seek (not dying that way again, thank you very much), so that leaves the Temple and the Courthouse. I try the former, using Speak Demon to negate the influence of the defiling graffiti, but the place has been ransacked. Must be the Courthouse, then. That too is ruined, but has a cellar down a flight of cobwebbed (and thus untrodden by Myurr's forces) steps.

I descend to a chamber containing a pool of water. At the pool's edge is a statue of a woman like the one who spoke to me, holding a functional set of brass scales. Voices overhead indicate that I was seen coming in here, and can expect company, so I tip the scales in a direction contrary to the one I was told. The pool glows, I am drawn into it, my Luck is restored to its new maximum, and I find myself on a barren plain.

A path leads into a dense forest. Without warning a large building appears in front of me, and a voice tells me to enter at my peril. I do enter, and a wind blows me through a hall into an insubstantial replica of my room at the Templar Citadel. Three doors with symbols on lead out of it, and based on my recollection of what can be acquired here, I manage to pick the one that doesn't send me back outside.

I enter a peculiar banqueting hall, that has no furniture, but the food, cutlery and dishes just float in the air. As does my genial host, who bids me eat and then introduces himself as one of the Netherworld Sorcerers, further servitors of the Tricksters. But here it is the Tricksters who have been tricked: Myurr has conned them into believing that the forces of Good are so strongly in the ascendant that in order to restore the balance, they must help him open a portal from the Demonic Plane to Titan. I've been invited here because the Sorcerers aren't sure what part I am to play in events. It's obviously important, given that Myurr will be using my parents' life-essence to open the portal...

Using Meditation, I contact higher powers, who reprimand the Sorcerer for being a gullible twit, and tell him to help me before it's too late. Embarrassed, the Sorcerer gives me the Sword of Demon-Slaying, which confers a poorly-explained bonus in fights against Demons, and offers to teleport me straight to Myurr's tower. I accept the offer, as it's about time I was starting to wind up this adventure.

Lightning crackles around the tower, which has live gargoyles on the walls and a nasty-looking sigil on the door. I erase it before entering, and find myself in a black corridor with monstrous portraits on the walls. It leads to a circular chamber, and I ignore the writing that starts to appear on the floor, as it's pretty much the opposite of a welcome mat. Three doors lead from the chamber. Clattering noises come from behind one, a metallic swishing from another, and no sound from the third.

I open the door with the clattering behind it. The source of the noise is an obscure musical instrument made from dragons' bones, known as a Demonic Pandemonium. It's playing a funeral march, and I can also hear a bell tolling. Listening to the music (it can't be any worse than the really experimental Philip Glass stuff a friend once inflicted on me), I find myself transported through time and space, becoming an insubstantial spectator at my brother's funeral. A mourner throws a stone at a raven, reminding me of folklore that says a raven can steal the soul of a person whose funeral it watches.

Feeling a compulsion to approach someone, I go up to the priest, who recognises me as both a Templar and an older version of the nearby child, and hands me a ring. I've just become the 'ghost' whose appearance preceded my being sent off to become a Templar. Wibbly-wobbly... And then I'm back in the Pandemonium room. It has no other way out, so I return to the circular chamber and try the silent door.

I enter a red room, and somehow know that I've just gone through a Door of Teleportation. There are exits to all cardinal points of the compass, and I think I can still remember the quickest route through this teleporting maze from when I mapped it a decade or so ago. Let's see... Orange room, yellow room, green room, spiral staircase. Yes!

I ascend for a long, long time. An animated Horned Skeleton with a gigantic axe blocks the way. It's immune to Banish, but not to being repeatedly hit with my sword. Once I've beaten it, it falls downstairs for ages. The stairs lead to a room full of candles. It also has a window, with a raven perched on the sill, and a mirror. Whispering voices, gradually increasing in volume, advise me to go through the window, to pass through the mirror, to snuff out the candles. The babble starts to become unbearable, and my brother's ghost appears and tells me which advice to follow. I take the right hint (not falling for that Instant Death again, either), and wind up in a chamber that contains my parents, three Netherworld Sorcerers who haven't yet got the memo about their being suckers, assorted paraphernalia, and Myurr himself.

The Demon gloats that I've taken his bait and entered his tower of my own free will, so he can now complete his portal-opening plan (so would he have been thwarted if one of his minions had killed me on the way here?). Apparently my soul is the final ingredient required for making the portal permanent. But he hasn't got it yet, and what with the unclear rules regarding the bonus from the Sword of Demon-Slaying, and the possibility of his prevailing in combat even if I can use the whole bonus, I'm going for the more straightforward solution. Concealed somewhere in this room is a magical gem that allows Myurr to stay outside the Demonic Plane. Destroy it, and he'll be banished.

Of course, Myurr has concealed the gem extremely well. It could be almost anywhere. It could be in the crystal ball, inside the pyramid of bones, embedded in the dagger, between the pages of the book, concealed in the chalice, or stuck under any one of a hundred candles. However I happen to know it's in the water barrel place that seemed so blatantly obvious to my seventeen-year-old self. As I head for it, Myurr realises that things aren't going as well as he'd hoped, and makes a last-ditch attempt to subvert me to his side. To resist, I must get above 1 (my Evil score) on two dice. That's the total score, not needing to get 2-6 on each one.

Unsurprisingly, I do not succumb to his power, and while he's waiting for me to acknowledge him as my new master, I smash the gem. It explodes, but the priest's ring and the Sword of Demon-Slaying both magically shield me from the blast. Myurr threatens revenge before being expelled from the world, the Sorcerers vanish, and I advise my parents to start running: given my track record, this tower's not going to last much longer, and we have a lot of stairs to descend.

That was fun. One of the fairer FF books from the second half of the run - the worst unavoidable opponent only has 8 Skill, and common sense or in-text clues aid with avoiding most of the Instant Deaths scattered around. There's also more than one way of making it to the end alive - I went for one of the more eventful routes, but there are alternatives, and interesting encounters that I missed on this playthrough.

I've mentioned the odd flaw here and there, and the book would be even better if they were fixed (sort out that Sword bonus and it might be worth having a go at the big fight in the endgame), but besides being playable, it also has a better-than-usual 'save the world' plot thanks to the personal element, plenty of entertaining set pieces, and a storyline that's clearly had some thought put into it, with seemingly incidental details paying off later on in the book. Back when I was originally collecting the books, this ranked among my favourites, and it still does today.

2 comments:

  1. I've always liked this one. The central horror theme isn't quite as well realised as it would be in Moonrunner and Legend of the Shadow Warriors but it's still an atmospheric journey and there are lots of fun scenes; I've always like the minigame with the farm under siege and the moon demon episode.

    As I recall there's a bit of a bug in the middle section when you're roaming around the villages so that you can keep returning to Axmoor again and again but a friend of mine had an even worse problem: his copy had about thirty pages missing with some earlier sections repeated in their place so he could never get past the Abomination.

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  2. Liked this playthrough a lot. It's a great book, I think I'll have to dig it out and enjoy it again.

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