Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Sand Is Thicker Than Blood

The 22nd entry in the main range of Tunnels & Trolls solo adventures is Andrea Mills' Caravan to Tiern. I got my copy (along with four other solos) from an eBay seller in America. When they arrived, I had a flick through them all, but didn't properly attempt any of them.

According to the back cover, Caravan can be played by characters of any level, and is suitable for magic-users. Time to roll up a new character and see what the stats favour. The simulated dice produce a mostly decent character, but with a catastrophically poor Dexterity, so I'll make this character an Elf, thereby bringing that stat up to just sub-par. Constitution drops to a similar level, but Intelligence (already my highest stat) and Charisma get boosted as well.
Strength: 14
Intelligence: 23
Luck: 12
Constitution: 8
Dexterity: 8
Charisma: 20
Speed: 8
It is recommended that characters with a top score in Intelligence become wizards, and my Dexterity has gone up to the minimum requirement for being able to use magic, so I'll go with the recommendation.

At the start of the adventure I'm in the town of Esturiat, which is rather too peaceful for an adventurer to make a decent living. Overhearing talk of the wealth to be had in the city of Tiern, I decide to head out there and see if I can find someone rich who requires the services of a mildly clumsy wizard. The only problem is that between Esturiat and Tiern are the Great Plain of Bijouwar and the Shamishant pass, reputed to be impossible to cross alone. I have the option of trying to disprove such claims, but if I'm prepared to wait for a bit, I can get a job on a caravan that's heading that way. The clue is in the title, so I sign on to help protect the caravan on its journey.

The narrative jumps forward around a fortnight, by which time the caravan is well on its way, and I'm one of the guards. Whatever financial arrangement I reached with the owners of the caravan, it doesn't seem to have included any payment in advance, so I can't add to my pretty basic starting equipment. That's not so big a deal, though, especially not compared to what else the section goes on to say. I have become curious about the tent of the rich sheik who is travelling with the caravan, and one evening, when my shift of guard duty is over, I sneak off to have a nose around in his silk tent. The text says that I 'decide to investigate', but I'm of the opinion that a gamebook should leave the major decisions (like, you know, a most likely illegal and dangerous intrusion into the property of one of the people it's my responsibility to protect) to the reader.

As I approach the tent, the sheik emerges, followed by three veiled women. He pays me no attention, but one of the women winks at me and whispers instructions to meet her behind the tent in an hour. The most likely outcome of my doing as she says is trouble, but at least here I get to choose what to do, so I abandon the whole inadvisable 'snooping around' tangent and get some rest.

Not much rest, though. One of the other guards wakes me because he's ill and needs someone to cover his shift for him. But for the undeniably verdant hue of his complexion, I'd probably be a little suspicious of his illness, as it puts me on duty at the time a desert-dwelling miscreant decides to attack the caravan guard. My Luck isn't quite high enough to enable me to avoid the thief's ambush, which may be for the best. In what is either a mistake or a case of Schroedinger's Gamebook (and this section isn't mentioned in the errata at the Flying Buffalo website), failing to overhear the approaching thief results in my confronting a significantly less powerful opponent than if I'd succeeded in the Luck roll. I know this because the section telling me to make the roll went on to list the villain's stats rather than providing a separate section for success at the roll. I'm not sure why - the adventure has 316 sections, so it's not as if an extra one would have spoiled a nice round number.

Anyway, my being up against the less formidable version of my assailant makes the outcome of the imminent fight more uncertain. What is pretty much guaranteed (unless I fall victim to authorial treachery) is the death of my opponent. T&T's basic first-level blasting spell, Take That, You Fiend, automatically does damage equal to the caster's Intelligence, which is more than enough to shred my attacker's armour and roast him. What I don't yet know is whether or not I'll survive. While the damage I inflict should be guaranteed, my foe can still potentially harm me if the one blow he can get in with his great axe does more damage than my spell. Which it will on a roll of 11 or above on 5 dice. But he'll need 19 or more to get through my armour and do any further damage, and at least 23 to actually kill me. Against the tougher version of the character, while I'd still be sure of killing him (provided the author hasn't cheated to render TTYF ineffective in the fight), he'd only need 9 or above to get through my armour, and anything above 16 would kill me.

Time to consult the Magic Matrix and see if the spell works. It does. He rolls 18, just failing to get through my armour. The rest of the shift is uneventful, so within a quarter of an hour I've regained the Strength spent in casting the spell. The damage taken in the ambush will not heal so quickly, and first level wizards don't know healing magic, so unless I find something that can restore Constitution in the course of the adventure, I'm going to be in poor health for a long while yet. Still, I fried that bushwhacking brigand's face off, which is more than most of my T&T characters ever achieved.

The following day, one of the other guards tells me that he's just heard about the local equivalent of Brigadoon, which is due to make its once-every-three-centuries appearance not far from here today. There's time to take a look before the caravan sets off again, and he's going to investigate, and wants to know if I'd like to accompany him.

I need to stop being so suspicious of my fellow guards. Sure, it's a bit convenient that this massively infrequent occurrence should be taking place right now, but this is a gamebook, so such coincidences are far from uncommon. Let's go mystical village-hunting.

My colleague Marcus and I go trekking across the dunes for a short while, and then the air ahead of us shimmers and a village with many architectural peculiarities appears in front of us. Marcus reminds me that if I spend more than a couple of hours there, I'll be stuck in it when it vanishes again, and then starts exploring it. I also go into the village, and get an uncomfortably restrictive choice. Another aspect of the legend which Marcus mentioned to me is the presence of a magical item in the temple, and I must either look into that (which probably means trying to steal the Foot of Power) or go to the tavern. While not keen on the idea of trying to rob the temple, I suspect that visiting the tavern is liable to result in my staying in the village for too long on account of getting drunk or being arrested following a bar-room brawl or just losing track of the time while gambling or gossiping. Given the limited options, I'll see if it's possible to visit the temple without felonious intent.

Along the way I encounter a pickpocket, who divests me of half my gold. I had an odd number of coins, and as I think it unlikely that he slipped five silvers into my pocket, I'm rounding the sum lost down, since the text doesn't specify what to do in such a circumstance.

Proceeding on my way, I reach the temple, which is shaped like a foot, with doors in place of toes. A beige-robed priest comes out and asks if I've come to convert to the faith. It wouldn't be very smart to join a religion without knowing anything about it (beyond an obvious obsession with feet), so I just admit to being curious about the Foot of Power. The priest realises that I'm 'a visitor to Allivar, city of delays' (the 'delay' thing sounds a bit ominous to me), and takes me to a foot-shaped altar on which lies a necklace with a foot-shaped diamond on it. He tells me that their god deals with would-be Foot thieves, and as I never wanted to steal the thing in the first place, I don't put his claim to the test.

As I turn to leave, the priest insists on blessing me, which has the effect of increasing all my attributes. Outside, I realise that I'm running out of time, and hurry away from Allivar. In my haste, I bump into a woman who's carrying bread, causing her to drop it, but just dash on (with no option to stop and apologise or help pick up the bread - not that I'd have risked the delay anyway, but it makes the incident into a slightly quirky but irrelevant detail rather than a potential hazard). Marcus has also finished looking around the place, and we return to the caravan together.

Back at the caravan, Ali Cambrasna (whoever that is - could be the caravan owner, could be the sheik, could even be both) is interested to hear our tales of Allivar, and gives me a cash bonus that more than makes up for what the pickpocket took. If I survive to Tiern, I'll be able to afford a wizard's staff, assuming there's a shop trading in such artefacts there. But that could be quite an if, as Ali is so impressed with my apparent skill at finding things in the desert, he sends me to scout ahead for the last oasis before the mountains.

I've been on my way for around an hour when a sandstorm blows up. Not seeking shelter means making a Luck roll, and as I failed the last two Luck rolls I had to make, I'd rather not risk a hat trick, so I make use of what little cover is provided by a cactus. Something growls in the distance, and I am not exactly tempted to investigate. The growl is repeated, now closer, but the wind hasn't abated, and fleeing into a sandstorm is liable to be at least as bad for the health as confronting whatever is approaching.

Well, whatever it was, it didn't come close enough for me to find out. Eventually the storm subsides and, shaking off the sand that has accumulated about my person, I try to get my bearings. This Luck roll is not optional, and it goes no better than the last two. Unable to get my bearings, I wander around trying to find some trace of the oasis. For up to three days, though considering the state of my Constitution, I'll be surprised if I even make it to the end of the first of those days. I fail the first Constitution roll by a narrow enough margin that the damage taken is non-lethal, but it still further reduces my chances of succeeding at the second roll. None too surprisingly, I also fail that one, and wind up dying of dehydration.

Well, this adventure appears to be an improvement on some of the earlier ones as regards playability - I had a fair chance of succeeding at the Luck roll that sent me into the Constitution roll-based death spiral that did for me. On the downside, I'm not keen on being pushed into a dodgy characterisation without warning. I probably wouldn't have had a problem with it if the text had specifically stated that my character would have questionable ethics - before now I've played the part of an assassin, a pirate a thief, and even Count Dracula in gamebooks. But on those occasions I knew my character was going to be a bit of an anti-hero, so that was just an element of rôle-playing. It just jarred to have the text here assume that my not-specifically-identified-as-a-criminal character would default to thievery. Add in the occasional elision of significant details (I never did find out precisely who Ali was), and it's clear that the adventure, while nowhere near as unfair as many of the others, still has some problems.


  1. I hope this blog hasn't stopped! As a gamebook nut of the 80s, I've greatly enjoyed the archives, and have been checking daily for any update!


    1. It will resume, and I hope to have the next entry up before the end of the week. I've been away visiting family for Christmas and new year, so my access to computers has been limited. Now I'm back, and should be able to get on with FF book 44 this evening.