Friday, 29 November 2013

Ye May as Well Ride Backward as Forward

I remember coming across copies of Ghost Knights of Camelot, the fourth Wizards, Warriors and You book, by David Anthony Kraft, on a stand near the top of the escalator in Boots. The same stand on which Deathtrap DungeonThe Crown of Kings and Seas of Blood were displayed when they came out. But the others were FF books, and I was collecting them, whereas I wasn't so fussed about WW&Y at that time. I flicked through a copy and read an Instant Death involving venomous spiders, but was not enticed to buy GKoC.

Getting back into gamebooks in 2001 led to my becoming involved in book-trading with other fans. In addition to my own want list, I mentally carried around the want lists of a couple of contacts in America, who could sometimes provide me with hard-to-get titles in return for the sort of books that I could find comparatively easily in second-hand shops. So when I popped into the Red Cross charity shop on Carr Lane and spotted a copy of Ghost Knights on one shelf, I bought it because I knew someone who wanted it and could furnish me with a book I wanted in exchange. But before sending it off, I did play it one or ten times, just to make sure there were no pages missing.

The adventure starts on a peaceful summer afternoon. The Warrior is having sparring practice with a junior knight, while the Wizard is having a nap. This snooze is disturbed by a prophetic dream about invading ghosts, and the Wizard has scarcely had time to warn King Henry about it before a mortally wounded scout arrives at the castle to report an encounter with the Ghost Knights of Camelot. They have announced their intent to conquer every kingdom in Europe, starting with King Henry's.

The King's initial response is not the smartest thing ever said by a monarch. In amazement he exclaims that Arthur's knights have been dead for over a hundred years. This might help anyone who wants to try and place these adventures into a more specific historical context - the fact that he didn't say 'hundreds of years' could be taken as meaning more than one century but less than two - but also suggests that he hasn't twigged that Ghost Knights are going to be the ghosts of knights who are already dead. The clue is in the title.

It will take time to mobilise the king's armies, so he sends the Wizard and the Warrior to try and deal with the Ghost Knights by themselves. It is at this point that I must choose which character I will play, and I'll stick with the 'Warrior in odd-numbered books, Wizard in even' policy I've been using, so that makes me the Wizard.

As we ride north, in the direction from which the dying scout came, farmers in their fields watch with dread, knowing that if we've been sent on a mission, there must be big trouble afoot. I reflect on the sort of power that would be required to summon up the spectres of Camelot's knights, and wonder what chance I have against the magic-user who controls the army of ghosts.

My musings are interrupted by the appearance on the horizon of a shimmering cloud that, as it draws closer becomes recognisable as a band of riders with glowing eyes and translucent skin. Their leader identifies himself as Sir Lancelot, and the Warrior impetuously rides to attack him. The Warrior's horse stumbles, throwing its rider, and leaving him vulnerable to Lancelot's attack.

I must cast a spell to help my companion. I'm not sure that Momentary Darkness will inconvenience ghosts, and as I recall, it was a backfiring Vision spell that led to that spider-based death, so I'll take a chance on Invisibility. It works, turning the Warrior invisible, which disconcerts Lancelot just long enough for the Warrior to be able to dodge his attack. Unhorsing Lancelot, the Warrior leaps into the spectral saddle and rides to attack the Ghost Knights. Two of them fall before Galahad has the bright idea of throwing a spear at the seemingly empty space on the horse's back. The Warrior is injured, and Mordred (should he even be with this bunch?) leaps in, intent on finishing the Warrior off.

At that point the spell wears off, and the look on the Warrior's face is fearsome enough to deter Mordred from attacking. Still, he's one wounded man against many ghosts, and can't last much longer. Then inspiration strikes: what I need to do is seek Merlin's advice, with the help of the Move Time Back spell. Okay, so the spell generally only takes me back up to an hour, but if I try really hard, I should be able to extend the effect by over a hundred years, right?

Well, that depends. I have previously mentioned the WW&Y books' use of wacky determinants, but this is the first playthrough in which I've encountered one. The success or failure of my spellcasting depends on what time it is. And I never expected the fact that I'm singing in a choir at a carol concert next month to be relevant to this blog, but it is. You see, I had to put this entry on hold mid-way through the previous paragraph in order to attend a rehearsal. Which means that, rather than reaching the 'If you are reading this book during the hours of...' bit shortly after six, I didn't get there until gone seven. So the spell works and I avoid some kind of bad ending.

Anyway, after a moment of panic when I think I might have gone back to before the dawn of time, I hear Merlin asking who's come to disturb him, and hurriedly explain the situation. He immediately concludes that Morgan le Fay is to blame for the Ghost Knights, and explains how she betrayed him. I may be able to defeat her, with his advice, but matters are complicated by what looks like a mild case of Schroedinger's Gamebook. Merlin's advice will vary depending on whether I think the Ghost Knights are genuinely the restless spirits of the Knights of the Round Table or just demon spirits disguised as the heroes of old. And by the look of it, the accuracy of whichever theory I favour will be randomly determined.

Would Arthur's Knights really serve Morgan, even after death? I'm going to conclude that the Ghost Knights are impostors, which means I have to flip a coin to find out if I'm right. Heads says I'm right, by the look of it. Returning to the Wizard's present day, I find myself and the Warrior still surrounded by the Ghost Knights, who advance on us until I cast Sorcerer's Sleep. This renders them (and the Warrior) unconscious for an unspecified length of time - long enough, at least, for me to dress the Warrior's wounds and get every sleeping knight, friend and foe alike, onto his own steed and start leading them to the only place where demons can be defeated - at least in this gamebook world - namely Stonehenge. But will it be long enough for me to get them there?

To find out, I must look out of the window. Well, I don't have to, as it was dark when I set off for choir practice, and I haven't taken so long writing this that the sun could have come up in the mean time. But that's what success hinges on at this point: is it day or is it night?

I think I've got the bad outcome, but it's not yet certain, as it takes the book more than one page to reveal how things turn out. As a means of heightening the suspense, it is not ineffective. Stonehenge is in sight, but the demon knights are beginning to stir and mutter. Can I get us all there before they properly come round? I turn to the relevant page.

Success. But not yet victory. I've got the knights to where they can be killed. They're starting to revert to their demonic form and break free from their bonds, so I have to cast Merlin's Fire in less time than it takes one of them to reach and horrifically mutilate me. Interestingly, the Book of Spells at the back of each WW&Y adventure I own (I've heard that some of the later books, which were only published in America, had a different spell set) indicates that despite the spell's name, Merlin himself might never have used it. Though he must at least be familiar with it, given that he advised me to cast it here.

No more digressing. It all comes down to another flip of a coin. Heads again. The book says to keep tossing the coin until I get tails, but then the 'turn to' directions are based on whether it came down tails first time or not, so does it really matter? If things go all Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead on me, it could take hours to get tails. Okay, so in the event it only takes one more flip, but still...

I was right about it not mattering whether I got tails on the second flip or not until the seventy-ninth one. Regardless, it means that the Warrior wasn't standing in quite the right place when I cast the spell, which, predictably, results in the demons not being burned out of existence but absorbing all my magical powers and becoming invulnerable to the Warrior's weapons. That's 'predictably' as in 'WHAT THE...?' It's possible that we also become unkillable, as the book describes our fate as being 'trapped forever' rather than 'killed', which would suggest that we spend all eternity locked in a futile and unending battle with the demons. Which is good news for all the kingdoms the 'Ghost Knights' will never get to conquer because they're too busy dismembering the Warrior and me for the umpteenth time, but still not the happiest of endings for us.

Absurd things happen in these books. Sometimes it's part of their charm. And sometimes it's just stupid and tiresome. I'd put the ending I just reached in the latter category.

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