Friday, 6 December 2013

You Can Learn How to Be You In Time

I wake up in a sarcophagus. Something - maybe a mechanism, maybe instinctive use of a power I am not aware I possess - propels the lid upwards, shattering it against the ceiling. Clambering out, I find myself in a treasure-filled tomb, with a dead man lying on the floor nearby. I think he may have been killed by falling chunks of sarcophagus lid. Paying little heed to the second sarcophagus in the chamber, I try and fail to make sense of the carvings on my own.

Something makes a noise. The body twitches. No, it's not coming back to life. There's something else alive in here, a silver-furred animal that had been concealed by the corpse. Keeping my distance from it, I turn my attention to the second sarcophagus. This, too, has a shattered lid, an inscription I cannot comprehend, and no corpse inside. Panic almost overwhelms me.

Suppressing the fear, I approach the dead man. The silver-furred animal is attached to his wrist by a leash. The gems stuffed into his pockets suggest that he was robbing my tomb, while the wound on his head indicates that someone cracked his skull from behind - I was not to blame after all. So where did the killer go?

I look at my own sarcophagus again, sensing a power I cannot release that is held within the carvings. Turning around, I see a vast crowd of people - a vision, possibly a memory...

I first came across Black Vein Prophecy, the second Fighting Fantasy gamebook by Paul Mason and Steven Williams, on the 20th of July 1990. I was in WHSmith's (which was still in the pedestrian precinct, where Waterstone's is now). There was something a little off-putting about the book, and had a thorough look through it, as I had done for Sky Lord. While my detailed scrutiny of the earlier book convinced me not to buy it, delving into this one rapidly aroused my curiosity, what with the complete lack of background information, the fact that the viewpoint character didn't seem to know who he was, and the significant-looking section that ended with a direction to turn to section 1. For some reason - possibly lack of funds - I didn't buy it then, but I commented in my diary that the book looked 'rather intriguing', and I definitely intended to get it and delve into its mysteries at some later date.

The man at the head of the people is about to say something when a tremor disrupts the vision, bringing me back to reality. Small bits of stone fall down onto me, the air pressure changes enough to make my ears pop, and cracks begin to appear in the floor. I suspect that someone in another chamber has misjudged the weight of an idol and put the wrong amount of sand into a pouch. Well, whatever the cause, it's time I was getting out of here.

The pressure becomes more bearable after I go through a small opening, but it has still discombobulated me enough that I blunder into something, which topples over. It appears to be a statue of a human, but when it falls over and smashes on the floor, a skull rolls from the rubble. Paying more attention to my surroundings, I see multiple rows of similar 'statues'. The destruction begins to spread to this chamber, but I pause for a closer look at the ranks of stone figures before me. One of them is larger than all the rest, and holds a shield and a nasty-looking sword. Initially it's crouching down, but as I watch, it stands and makes an exaggerated bow. Then it stops moving, and I give it a tentative prod. Well, it was tentative in my head, but in the book it's impatient. Regardless, it overbalances the 'statue', which is also hollow and contains a skeleton.

The pressure is increasing again, so I grab the sword and shield, and get a move on. Double doors at the end of the chamber lead out, and behind them the passage is blocked by a barrier of red wax. Was blocked, rather: someone has burned a hole big enough to let a person through. I hear sounds behind me, and look back to see clouds of dust, which clear to reveal that all the 'statues' have disintegrated. And yes, they did all have skeletons inside.

The pressure diminishes again beyond the seal. The room on the other side is in darkness, but a sudden flash of light shows me that the floor is pockmarked. As the glow fades, an acrid smell hits my nose. I hesitate, but not for long, as the pressure mounts once more. A second flash shows me an exit on the far side of the chamber, so I make a dash for it, trying not to trip in any of the little craters which dot the floor. At which point the first stage of BVP-style character generation occurs.

Luck: 7

For this book, that's a semi-positive sign, as the only way to win involves failing the very first Test your Luck, which I've just reached. As I recall, the point of this is to try and indicate that what appears to be misfortune can turn out to be a good thing in the end. In principle, I have no issue with the idea, but the implementation in the book is problematic. From a mechanical point of view, making the essential-to-fail Luck roll the very first one means that anyone who gets a 6 on the Luck-generating roll has no chance whatsoever. And even someone who gets the lowest possible starting Luck (like I did here) still only has a 5 in 12 chance of getting the required outcome. In addition, later on survival may depend on success at a Luck roll, so any character who has a realistic chance of failing the roll that must be failed is also liable to come to grief at the later roll.

As regards the story, not enough is done to make the consequences of successfully failing the roll seem like something bad until they are revealed to be advantageous. If I had a Skill or Stamina score at this stage of play, the 'Unlucky' outcome could be made to seem more problematic by having it cause Stamina loss or a Skill penalty, but nonexistent stats can't be depleted, so all that happens is the addition of another oddity to what is already a seriously strange situation.

All that would happen, I should say. Despite having the best possible odds of failing the roll, I succeeded, so I make it across the chamber without being affected by what causes the flashes of light and is to blame for the pitted state of the floor. That means I can't win, so I might as well use this character to explore some option I've left untried in the past.

Beyond the dark chamber is another breached wax seal, and passing through the hole brings the now predictable temporary relief from the pressure. The air in the next chamber isn't so musty, as a couple of lit torches with blue flames give off a mild scent. Stairs lead up at the far end, and I start to ascend. Then a familiar-sounding voice calls out, ordering me to wait. I turn, and see the torch flames merge into a sphere of light. The same voice tells me it is too soon, and implores me to remember all that the speaker taught me. Fat chance, when I can't even recall who that is, even if I do know that I know them somehow.

I don't know why I never bought a copy of BVP that summer. But I didn't, and then in autumn I went away to university. My priorities changed a lot during that first term, not least because it was then that I became a Christian. For a variety of reasons, my interest in gamebooks diminished, and I wound up selling off or giving away a lot of my collection over the course of the next half-dozen years. From time to time I'd get a burst of nostalgia, especially when coming across copies of books I'd once owned, but the books I'd never bought meant little to me, and I rapidly lost track of new releases.

Another pressure increase causes the stairs to crumble, and as I try to keep from falling down the slope of rubble that they have become, I find out a little more about my capabilities.

Stamina: 17

This roll I fail - just - and the mini-landslide takes me back into the chamber, causing minor bruising. The flames go out, and I clamber up the slope again. There's another of those wax seals at the top, and in the corridor beyond it I find a sword and a haversack containing food. I leave the sword, as I already have one, but take the pack of food.

Continuing along the corridor, I pass through another three seals, then see one more up ahead, with sunlight shining through the hole. Not before time, either, as the ceiling overhead is no longer as solid as it should be. Hoping not to find Death waiting for a game of chess on the other side (what are the chances of my character remembering the rules?), I dash towards the exit, thereby learning that bit more about myself.

Skill: 8 (Not too bad, considering that it's the roll of one die plus four rather than the traditional six).

Diving through the opening, I make it out of the tomb just before it collapses. Looking around, I find myself in a ruined city by the sea. Judging by the state of some of the buildings, magic was involved in whatever befell this place. From here I can see the city gates, so I make for them. On my way, I sense powerful energies, and get the impression that I'm not the only person here.

The gate was once blocked by a portcullis, but a hole has been blown in it. That doesn't mean there's a way through, though: as I approach the gate, a barrier of flame leaps up. I hear approaching hoofbeats, and the flames momentarily part to admit a man on horseback. The rider has purple blotches on his skin, and as I watch him head down one of the streets, I realise that he and his horse have been fused together. Curious, I follow, reaching an area where water intermittently spouts into the air. The hole from which it jets is of human manufacture, and a rope leads down into it, secured on a nearby grating.

A voice behind me comments that rats are always the last to leave a sinking ship. I turn to see the speaker: the fused horse and rider that led me here. It speaks again, the voice issuing from the horse's mouth as it asks why anyone would leave when there's so much room in which to play here. Then it gallops away, and I follow once more, catching up with it at a crossroads. It speaks again, its words removing any doubt that the earlier comment about rats was a reference to me. Then it seems to offer to take me out of the city, so I try to talk with it. Its words make little sense to me, though, and a vague memory of something unpleasant begins to stir in my mind.

In 1997 I moved to Hull to start a job, and used some of my spare time to familiarise myself with places where I could get books. One of the local establishments that sold new ones was Brown's Books, who had a sale not long after I first found them. Looking through the various reduced volumes, I came across a copy of Black Vein Prophecy, and remembered how intrigued I had been when looking through the book all those years ago. This was not the first time since drifting away from gamebooks that I'd come across a cheap one and decided to give it a go, nor was it the last such occasion before I finally got back into them for good. But it was the first time I bought a copy of BVP.

Moving closer to the creature reminds me that I know the magic that was used to combine horse and rider, and this recollection makes it possible for me to use the power of Mutation if I need it. Perhaps sensing this power within me, the horse-and-rider entity gallops away again, so I make for the sea wall. A number of war catapults are positioned next to it, and I wind up using one of them as a kind of ejector seat to get out of the city, having it fling me over the wall and into the sea. Another Luck roll determines how well this goes, and I manage to fail this one, but the damage done is just one Stamina point. But you have to lose a point of Luck every time you Test your Luck, regardless of outcome, so the probability of my failing when it's a matter of life or death rather than trivial damage has just significantly increased. I'm beginning to suspect that this book is as unplayable by the rules as Crypt of the Sorcerer and Chasms of Malice, though in terms of plot and quality of writing, it's a lot better than either of them.

A boat draws near, and I am dragged aboard by a woman, who is startled to find that I'm not the person she expected to find catapulting himself out of the city. She asks what happened to Thandile, and, assuming she means the man I found dead by my sarcophagus, I tell her about the body I found. For a moment she is clearly grief-stricken, but then she becomes businesslike and gets me to help her with the boat. The assistance she needs doesn't require any particular expertise, so I do all right, and after a while the woman, named as Velkos in the text despite not having given her name in any recorded dialogue, takes a nap. Some time later a strange sphere approaches the boat, and makes peculiar noises when I fend it off with a convenient length of wood.

Would a bargepole have made things easier for Patrick McGoohan?

Normally at this point I'd take a nap, as that leads to a Luck roll that, if successful, provides me with something that could be of use later on in the adventure. As I'm unlikely to last long enough for it to be a worthwhile acquisition, I'll try to stay awake and hang on to one of my few remaining points of Luck. Velkos wakes, so I chat with her to help keep myself awake. A bit of a tricky conversation, as she doesn't want to talk about herself, and I barely remember anything, but she does let on that she's been adventuring for some time, and gives me a lucky charm in the form of the claw of a Chestrap Beast that almost killed her once. It doesn't give me any Luck bonus, and didn't seem to give its former owner that much good fortune, so I have my doubts about its effectiveness.

We reach land, and Velkos leads me to a cave, where she discovers signs that enemies have been here. I decide not to go looking for trouble, so we head away, soon catching sight of a wood. Hearing horses approaching, we take cover, and watch as two armed men ride their horses into the trees. Velkos advises me to skirt the wood, but I am curious and, staying away from the main trail, sneak into the trees. Before long I catch sight of a man in armour, his helmet dented. He's blundering around, seemingly unable to see well, and I'm not too happy at only being able to choose between attacking him and evading him. I don't think ambushing a semi-incapacitated man is likely to do me many favours in the long term, so I let him stumble past.

Moving on, I come across the other armoured man, now identified by the text as a brigand, and obviously losing in combat against a skinny individual with neither armour nor weapons. In a voice more imposing than you'd expect from one with so slight a build, the little man identifies himself as Merzei, 'Defender of the People, Righter of Wrongs, and future Grand Councillor of these Isles.' Even if I didn't know from previous attempts at the book that he makes a good ally, I'd be reluctant to attack as proficient a fighter as he must be, so I just greet him. Well, I would if he'd let me speak, but he just yells the Titan equivalent of Marxist dogma at me for several minutes, pretty much declaring that my sort will be the first against the wall come the glorious revolution, and then heads off in search of other bystanders to harangue.

I also leave the woods. Velkos rejoins me and asks what happened, and I explain as best I can. We reach a hilly region, and Velkos shows me a cave reputed to contain a great treasure. I sense movement close by, and a moment later a pair of two-tailed simian creatures rush in our direction, followed by foreigners with whips and nets. The creatures make for the cave, seemingly unaware that more men with nets are on the cliff above the cave entrance. I attack the slavers, killing a couple of them, but more approach. The only alternative to getting hopelessly outnumbered is to flee into the cave, so I risk that, dodging a net on my way in. Velkos dashes down a tunnel, following the creatures, which I suddenly remember to be called Cressents.

The first time I played this book, I got into a particularly nasty fight while wandering the streets of the ruined city. Narrowly surviving, I subsequently climbed down the rope into the hole that intermittently spouted water, and poor timing led to my getting caught in one of the waves that created the spouts, consequently drowning. Subsequent failures included having my throat cut, getting executed in a case of mistaken identity, and being pushed off a cliff by Velkos. After five or six tries I still had no idea what I was supposed to be doing, and rather lost interest. The book went to a charity shop, and I went off gamebooks again for a while longer.

Velkos and the Cressents outpace me, and by the time I reach a fork in the tunnel, I have no idea which way they went. Smoke drifting after me suggests that the slavers are trying to gas us. I take the branch that heads up: if the smoke is heavier than air, I'll be safe, and if it's lighter, it might escape through cracks in the ceiling before it can affect me.

The tunnel leads to the treasure Velkos mentioned - a heap of gemstones, plus mounds of nuts, berries and leaves. Presumably the Cressents hoard food and shiny things. Regrettably, the smoke appears to be lighter than air, and billows after me, so now would not be a good time to loiter and grab some loot. I hurry away while I still can, encountering Velkos again. She leads me on, and advises me to ignore the side turning from which the shrieks of Cressent young can be heard.

Thandile's silver-furred pet didn't make it out of my tomb alive. This is not some Hollywood blockbuster where cute animals are guaranteed survival. I doubt that an attempted rescue of the Cressents will go well, and stick with Velkos. We emerge from the caves to find a fiery Elemental causing havoc and destruction. Velkos is incinerated, and I am attacked by a slave trader with an ominous-looking black sword. Luckily for me, he's not even as adequate a fighter as I am, and doesn't manage to hit me often enough for the sword to enslave me or poison me or suck out my soul or whatever it would do if it struck me a couple more times.

No, the poison does have an effect (and would do even if he'd never hit me, which is a bit rough), but I get away with only a mild Skill penalty. I rest to regain some strength, then continue on my way, reaching a more developed area. The fields show signs of neglect, and a couple of peasants in a muddy field call for help. If I'd failed that first Luck roll I might be in a position to offer assistance. As it is, trying would just lead to more bother than is worth experiencing.

Up ahead is a settlement. Black-dyed clothes bearing vaguely familiar emblems are strewn across the road. Searching for their owner, I find a helmeted man tied up in a patch of gorse, a scroll jammed into the mouth of the helmet. I suspect that this is some of Merzei's handiwork, and decide not to get involved.

Continuing on to the settlement, I find it to be in a pretty poor state. The adults are drunkards, and foul-mouthed children chase each other with wooden swords. The only shops I can see sell weapons. Travellers are huddled around a fire in the ruins of a cottage. I head for the local ale-house, finding the entrance-hall to be littered with heaps of dirty clothes, the floor wet. A youth offers to take and clean my clothes, and I only realise that he's a con artist when I step from the hall into the next room, where patrons' clothes are hung neatly on hooks. He's already run off, though, so I advance into the cloud of steam that fills the centre of the room - and fall into the pool of warm water that's giving off the steam.

The local ale-house is also a communal bath, full of people from a variety of regions. I talk to one of them, who mentions a war in the south, and brings up the rumour that one of Feior's men is coming to look for men to train the troops. He also indicates that he's a slave trader, and before I can comment, the door bursts open. In comes Merzei, who shouts abuse at the bathers, waving a scroll, and demanding to know if anyone here will join him and fight for justice. Despite the way our previous meeting went, I climb out and accept the challenge. He throws me a dagger as the angry bathers advance on us.

Of the four types of magic I have the option of using here, three remain unknown to me, and I remember things getting quite unpleasant the time I tried using Mutation here, so I'll see if a straight fight goes any better. Well, it pits me against two inferior opponents rather than a powerful hybrid, so I think that was the right choice. I still take a couple of wounds, but I'm sure a conjoined mass of undesirables would have done me more harm.

I then leave the ale-house, grabbing one of those bundles of dirty clothes on the way, as I'll need something to wear outside. One of the pockets contains what appears to be some kind of wind instrument on a string, which the text identifies as a Chang whistle.

Not far away is a black carriage, its driver sleeping on top. I move closer, spotting that all sorts of runes and emblems have been carved on it. The driver wakes and seems afraid of me. Hurriedly he opens the door, and a man steps out. The passenger heaps abuse on the driver for bothering him with a 'filthy peasant', threatens to attack me, and then breaks off, bows, and addresses me as 'Your Highness'. He introduces himself as Commander Tamroth, and asks some questions to try and establish what has left me in this state, and I improvise a tale of a bandit ambush. While not entirely convinced, he invites me into the carriage, and we depart.

I deflect Tamroth's further questions about the bandits until he changes the topic. Spreading a battle plan on the floor, he asks about strategy. If I answer, I'll reveal myself to be an impostor and come up against that potentially lethal Test your Luck, and right now I'd only have a 1 in 6 chance of surviving. It had been my intention to take that chance, but it's just occurred to me that I've never actually tried abandoning my pretense and making a break for it, and as I can't win anyway, I might as well see if that's a better way out of the situation. It is! I pull Tamroth's hood over his eyes (the illustration showed him to be bare-headed), grab the map, and leap out of the carriage, a convenient bush breaking my fall. Well, this book might not be quite so unfair after all - for years I was sure the only way to get the map was to survive Tamroth's attack. So this doomed attempt at the book has proved worthwhile.

Moving away before Tamroth can come after me, I reach the edge of a gorge. Men are abseiling down the cliff, and I decide to investigate. Watching from behind a tree stump, I see two men guarding the ropes. Then I spot that the stump is hollow, and the hole goes down into the ground, so I enter the tunnel. It leads to a cave where I disturb some birds, and the patterns formed by their beating wings trigger another memory, reminding me that I can use the power of Harmonization.

A few years after getting rid of my first BVP, I visited friends in Swansea for a few days. While they were at work one morning, I went for a wander around the local charity shops, and in one of the more out-of-the-way ones in Sketty (the same one where I would subsequently find a copy of the first Fatemaster book) I came across another Black Vein Prophecy. Remembering that I never had managed to complete it (but not recalling why I'd given up on it), I bought that copy. And I still had it when I properly got back into gamebooks in December 2001, so this is one of the few FF books I own that I've had for longer than 12 years.

The bandits I saw climbing down the ropes are also in the cave, entranced by the birds. Unwilling to kill defenceless men, even if they are bandits, I leave by a tunnel that leads to a candle-lit cave. An old man stands there, and he tells me that my name is Maior, and he is Credas. He says he can teach me to use my power, and suggests that together we can compel the bandits to leave the cave without anyone coming to harm. That seems like a good plan to me, so I assist him.

Once we're alone, Credas says I must complete a quest for him before he can help me. He wants me to go south to the Zushan Jungle and fetch the Sitting Prophet, and gives me a jar of orange syrup to sustain me in times of need. I leave via the tree stump exit and head south. After a day, I reach a river, which runs into the jungle, so I follow it in there. Before long the vegetation on the bank is so thick as to impede my way, but there's a boat moored nearby, so I 'borrow' that.

There's actually no need to be so coy about taking the boat, as I have to clean out the horrifically savaged remains of its owner before I can get into it. I then let the current take me, becoming a little nervous as I hear the sound of rapids up ahead. Not that I have any real reason to worry about the rapids, as I'm liable to be devoured by the mass of frenzied eels up ahead before I get to the white water. Or I would be if I didn't have the Chang whistle, which somehow pacifies the eels when I whirl it around my head on the string to produce a note.

Further on, the water becomes sluggish, and I reach a spot where I could potentially continue on foot. Mooring the boat to a tree-stump, I rest for a while, finding some edible fruit and a clay figurine. Taking some of the fruit to the boat, I find the mooring rope swarming with little red beetles. Disposing of them, I secure the boat somewhere safer and set off into the jungle. After a while, a vine sticks to me and yanks me off the ground. It's no vine, of course, but part of a Hac-quel-rat, which dribbles something toxic-looking down the vine towards me. I manage to break free and leap for a real vine - which can't support my weight, so I fall to the ground. Preferable to getting eaten, though.

I carry on into the jungle. A 'guard' such as the Hac-quel-rat may well be 'protecting' something important. But no, it was actually there to serve as a not-automatically-lethal warning that this is not the sort of place I should be exploring. I didn't get the message, and so I wind up getting lost and falling prey to one of the many hazards that infest the jungle.

At least I now know better than to go wandering off into the jungle there again. If I'd stayed in the boat, I'd only have wound up dead a short time later owing to my lack of a certain magical power, so that lethal detour didn't really cost me anything, just ensured that I won't make that mistake on a subsequent attempt and waste a character who might have a chance of winning.

A flawed book, for sure, but interesting, and I'll take that over a more playable but bland one any day.


  1. First, always happy to meet a fellow Christian, especially one interested in gamebooks who writes so well and entertainingly! Second, kudos for "The Prisoner" reference!

  2. Fantastic play through, Ed.

    Ed said: "After five or six tries I still had no idea what I was supposed to be doing, and rather lost interest."

    I've never been able to get past this feeling about this book. Yes, some ideas in it are good, and the writing is fine, but it all feels too random and weird for the sake of weird to me. I view it more as an interesting gamebook experiment by Paul Mason.

  3. Great post. I always look forward to your updates and this one has been a highlight. Black Vein Prophecy is massively entertaining, I still have fond memories of wandering around hopelessly until I somehow became leader of the bandits and died in some unspecified glory-hunting.

  4. This is definitely a book that benefits from the house rule that when asked to test your luck, you can instead choose to accept the consequences of being unlucky in order to preserve your LUCK score.

    After completing the book, it really does make much more sense in hindsight. Which could also be said about Slaves of the Abyss, although there are aspects of that one that still baffle me.