Thursday, 12 December 2013

One Day Left Until Retirement

As I'm going through the Fighting Fantasy gamebooks in publication order, but stopped collecting the series in 1990, the snapshots of personal history associated with each book will be following a much less linear progression through my past from now on.

During the nine months or so before I moved to Hull, I was back in Tunbridge Wells. I'd got rid of the bulk of my FF collection, but from time to time I came across books in second-hand or charity shops, and at times I reacquired ones that had made an impression on me, and then the appeal faded and I took them to the second-hand bookshop next to the old cinema on Mount Pleasant Road to get credit for other books. Mostly Isaac Asimov, as I recall.

One day I popped into the British Heart Foundation shop further down Mount Pleasant Road (next to where Hatchards used to be), and came across a couple of FF books I'd never previously owned or played. Out of curiosity, I took one of them from the shelf and had a look through it for interesting bad endings. A couple of the sections I read were sufficiently appealing that I decided to get the book, though I even when I bought it, I decided that I was going to play it and then take it to the second-hand shop up the hill - the literary equivalent of a one-night stand, rather than the kind of long-term relationship I have with most books I get.

That book was The Keep of the Lich-Lord, by Dave Morris and Jamie Thomson. I played it, and my character died when ambushed by pirates for being loose-lipped about his mission. I had another go at it, and won. With a little irritation at the fact that for unspecified reasons the undead-destroying charm I'd learned couldn't be used in the (undead) main villain's throne room. I wouldn't have been so bothered if I'd been allowed to use it and got told 'it doesn't work here because of magical wards/he's too powerful to be affected/it'd be too anticlimactic/some other excuse', but it rankled to have avoided using it earlier in order to save it for the final confrontation, and then be unable to use it there without explanation. So the book went to the second-hand shop as per my original plan.

When I got back into gamebooks for good, a friend from my university days came across a few of the titles I'd had trouble tracking down, and bought them for me. Keep was one of them, so thanks, Wood.

My character in this adventure is a soldier, just coming to the end of his term of service as a mercenary in the Arrowhead Islands. Not very bright, either, judging by the number of times the book has 'you' display ignorance about basic folklore or a general inability to put two and two together. I'm choosing to interpret this cluelessness as characterisation rather than an indication of what the authors think of their readers, because otherwise I'd probably get quite cross with the book.

Anyway, I'm packing when a summons comes from way up the chain of command. They have one last mission for me. For centuries the troops have protected the people of the Varadian Alliance from the reavers of Blood Island (is that the same Blood Island where Lord Carnuss trains his slaves?), but their main stronghold between here and Blood Island, Bloodrise Keep on Stayng Island, has been taken over by hostile forces. Thanks to a message sent by carrier pigeon shortly before the Keep fell to the enemy, the perpetrator of this attack has been identified as Lord Mortis, a tyrant and necromancer who ruled Stayng up until his death a couple of centuries ago. The message also indicates that Mortis' troops are zombies, and mercifully avoids the sort of 'Aaargh They're killing me!' ending that often adds a dash of idiocy to written final messages from the doomed in fiction.

With most of the Alliance's military forces busy fighting reavers, I've been chosen to try and re-kill Mortis. If I succeed, all his undead minions should die too. And if I fail, well, that's one military pension less for the Alliance to worry about. I'm provided with passage to Stayng, a map of the island, and a ring that will allow me to contact the General in charge of this mission up to three times.

Keep is one of the rare later FF books that can be won even with poor stats (it's tricky, but doable), so on this occasion I shall take the dice as they fall.
Skill 8
Stamina 20
Luck 8
Resolve 6
In view of my low Skill, I shall have to skip some of the side quests. And I'll definitely have to undertake a couple of the others, since they're the best way of avoiding having to fight Mortis in all his double-figure-Skilled glory at the climax.

After a week's travel I arrive at Stayng's port, the past-its-prime Siltport (which the map informs me used to be called Speculara - I wonder if the name change was a consequence or a cause of the decline). Distance from the Keep has kept it from being seriously affected by the undead hordes so far, but lack of trade has virtually turned the place into a ghost town anyway.

I pop into an inn, named after one of Mr. Thomson's previous gamebooks in the first of too many clumsy in-jokes, to see what the local gossip is. Rumours of walking dead and hideous fates befalling those who go out at night have made it this far. I'm asked what brings me here, so I explain that I'm just passing through (leaving out the minor detail of my intending to kill Mortis along the way, as I don't fancy dying in that ambush again).

I leave Siltport by the main gate. One of the guards, speaking less quietly than he thinks, comments on the unlikelihood of my surviving, but I ignore him and head north, in the general direction of Mortis' tomb. The road leads me to the village of Menela, parts of which show signs of structural damage. One of the guards brusquely asks why I'm here, and rather than snootily tell him to mind his own business, I explain that I'm here to help. The guard makes a sarcastic response, but one of his fellows is less of an idiot, and decides to take me to someone in authority in case I'm genuine.

The village headman explains that lack of supplies has forced them to turn away refugees fleeing the undead, and the village itself has been targeted by a monster that lives in the hills. He offers me 50 Gold Pieces if I kill it. Aware that I won't get much help in finding Mortis' tomb without helping the villagers, I ask for more information on the beast, and get told that it's something like a giant furry toad with a tail that can smash walls (hence the state of some of the buildings). The local blacksmith offers to sharpen my sword in exchange for some food, and as being able to do extra damage in combat could wind up saving me more Stamina than the meals he wants would heal, I accept.

The creature is not difficult to find, as it has left quite a trail of destruction behind it. I attack, and a series of catastrophic rolls results in my defeat, my superior Skill and Stamina not proving sufficient to compensate for the disfavour of the dice. Well, that guard at Siltport has just won his bet.

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