Friday, 31 May 2013

Call This a Maze?! It's a Cheat!

Over ten years ago, either before I properly got back into gamebooks or while I was focused on rebuilding my FF collection, I popped into one of the charity shops on Chanterlands Avenue for a browse, and noticed a gamebook based on the computer game Lemmings. I may have given it a brief look, but I didn't buy it, despite having enjoyed the game on a housemate's computer the year after I graduated.

What little I remember about actually deciding to get the Lemmings Adventure Gamebooks some time later will be covered when I get around to the second book in the series (it's surprising how often I wound up getting book 2 of a series before book 1). But once I'd decided to give the series a try (in a fairly abstract sense, considering that I've not yet attempted to play either of them), I tracked down the first book, Nigel Gross and Jon Sutherland's The Genesis Quest, on eBay.

The premise is pretty straightforward. There are eight sub-quests, each to recover a piece of the broken medallion that, when repaired, will reunite the differing Lemming tribes. I start with 50 Lemmings of various types (picking them from a list) and attempt each sub-quest in turn. Some Lemmings will inevitably be lost along the way, but I get reinforcements every time I successfully complete a sub-quest. Failure is most likely (perhaps even always) going to result from not having enough Lemmings of the correct type. Bearing in mind that one of the co-authors went on to write Fantom Empires, which actively disincentivised the creation of balanced characters, it wouldn't surprise me to find that this book requires large groups of certain types of Lemming, and few or none of others, but time will tell.

The adventure starts with one of the most blatant examples of section number-padding I've ever seen, as section 1 basically says, 'this is the start of the adventure, now turn to the hub section to make an actual decision'. At the hub, I choose which zone to visit first (and, presuming success there, which to visit next and so on until I've beaten all eight or failed miserably). No idea whether or not there's an optimal order in which to visit them, so I'll start with the first one on the list: the Medieval Zone.

Time to pick my Lemmings. I'll take 10 Builders, 8 each of Miners, Ropers and Archers, 5 each of Throwers and Runners, and 2 each of Jumpers, Musicians and Bashers. The Herdsman arrives to bring them under control, and it's time to go. As the Medallion fragment is said to be in the dungeons of the castle on the other side of the forest, heading for the woods looks a smarter choice than heading for the hills.

After a while, there's a river up ahead, with a bridge across it. The Troll Bridge, to be precise, and the Troll may object to having a horde of Lemmings crossing it. Can my Builders create an alternate bridge? That's not an option. Instead, the party finds a shallow part of the stream and, having more than the required number of Ropers, they make it across with no casualties. I'm not sure what the Ropers did there, as the book doesn't go into any detail, but never mind.

The path through the forest forks. The Lemmings go right, then left at the next fork, then right again. The next choice is between south and west, which is something of an arbitrary change of terms, and the lack of compass directions prior to this section makes it impossible to make a reasoned decision. Try south. Thorn bushes flank the path so, to avoid casualties, the Lemmings turn back and reach a different clearing with exits south-west and south-east. South-west is mid-way between the last couple of directions. And leads to another left-or-right choice. Left, then right, and they're back at that clearing. South-east, then... and that goes back to the first one with compass-based directions. And the path keeps looping back to places I've already been, so I'm not going to bother listing directions any more. Just have to face the thorns next time I get back there, because nothing else seems to work. No danger from the thorns, as it turns out, but it just leads to another junction. I only recognise one of the section numbers, so I try the other... Out at last.

So they've reached the castle. It has a foul-smelling moat and a rotting drawbridge. This time the Builders are able to provide a safe way across the water. The Headman selects one of the piles of rubble in the courtyard and sends the Miners in. Soon there's a tunnel leading straight to the Medallion fragment. And the Dragon guarding it. Good thing I brought a couple of Musicians. They play so appallingly that the Dragon flees, unable to bear the noise. One fragment found, no Lemmings lost.

Back to the hub, and thence to the Shadow Zone. I have to trade in most of the original original Lemming squad, as Archers are the only Lemming type common to both zones. Thanks to the zone completion bonus, I can pick 10 Flame Throwers, 8 Parachutes and Climbers, 5 Attractors, Shimmiers, Glue Pourers, Fencers and Archers, and 4 Hoppers.

They have to go through another maze. Oh joy. This one changes its layout on a regular basis, and is extremely dark. Are we having fun yet? I'm not listing directions this time, because there's no point. After a while the Lemmings reach a blockage composed of combustible-looking rubble. Flame Thrower 1 gets rid of it, but is now out of fuel. Beyond it is more maze. Lots more headache-inducing blundering around ensues. For a while I try drawing a section number map, but even that is of little help.

It looked like this by the time I gave up on it.

Eventually I find the rubble that actually conceals the exit. There are flashing lights in the distance. Shadow Lemmings like the dark, so heading for the light seems unwise. But the other way leads to the edge of a presumably bottomless pit, so they have to approach the lights after all. And the lights turn out to be the eyes of a Shadow Monster.

On the combat that ensues, I get 8 points for unused Flame Throwers, 2½ points for my Archers, 0 points for Bombers because I was never given the option of taking Bombers into this zone, and 10 points for the others. Fractions round down, so I have a total of 20. I need to add this to the number rolled on one dice (sic.) and hope for a total above 10. Not tricky. The monster is defeated.

Steps lead down, but there's a barrel close by, so that should be investigated first. It has a tap on the side. Is the tap a trap? Well, I shan't be having the Lemmings turn it on, because I can work out what the partially legible sign on the side of the barrel says (highlight it to see what I think the missing letters are, if you're no good at this sort of puzzle): CAUTION INFLAMMABLE.

Down the stairs, then. And there's another distant light. The Lemmings don't approach that one, either. They reach another hole, and I'm asked if I have a Roper. Ropers aren't available in this zone, either. I was told I had to trade in the ones I had. Lacking what it is impossible for me to have, I must roll to see what happens. The Lemmings make it across safely. They're able to edge round the next couple of pits, prompting a pun that the authors admit is way too obscure - if anyone out here gets the reference to the 'Outline Test' and can explain, please do.

There's rubble on top of the Medallion fragment. I need a functioning Flame Thrower. Given that the rules for the fight didn't specify that Flame Throwers were using fuel (though I have no idea what they were doing if they weren't), and I could in any case have won the fight without counting the Flame Throwers among the combatants, plus the fact that I would rather punch myself in the head than replay this zone, I'm arguing that I do still have one.

And the text mockingly hints that I was more of a liability than a help to the Lemmings here. Right. That's it. I've endured slapdash maze design. I've put up with the text asking me for things the rules didn't permit me to have. But if the authors are going to insult me as well, I'm not prepared to waste any more time reading their rotten book.

Wednesday, 29 May 2013

It Really Tied the Room Together

Clash of the Princes, Fighting Fantasy's only 'two-player adventure', by Andrew Chapman and Martin Allen, came out during the summer holidays, and I remember nothing of the circumstances of my buying it. I do remember receiving a (severely wrongly addressed, and only delivered thanks to some impressive lateral thinking on the part of the postman) postcard from one of my gamebook-playing friends, in which he mentioned having got the books as well. Funnily enough, I'm not sure we ever played against each other.

It never occurred to me to try playing both books simultaneously, so I had to attempt one of them first, and I chose The Warlock's Way. Perhaps because part of its cover illustration was on the front of the slipcase, making it look as if it came first, or possibly just because I preferred the idea of playing the wizard character rather than the warrior. At that point in time I wasn't particularly interested in playing fairly, and I remember going back on one decision when it got me killed by a Nightmare.

In this adventure I play Lothar, one of the twin Princes of Gundobad. Following the ritual abdication of the old king (inconsistent capitalisation of titles is as in the book), my brother and I are both sent on the Trial of Kingship to get rid of the pair of us determine who is to ascend to the throne next. To demonstrate my worthiness to rule, I must find one of the missing gems from King Ossil the Harmful's crown. Before my brother does.

These books are harsh, so I'm allocating dice to slightly reduce the likelihood of my failing. This gives me the stats:
Skill 10
Stamina 15
Luck 9
Magic 20
Probably still not enough, what with the variety of arbitrary deaths, but at least this time round I might be able to avoid being robbed by Ogres, which happened during my last playthrough.

Two-player play is an interesting mix of competition and cooperation. Obviously there can't be two winners (and more often than not there aren't any), but this doesn't stop the brothers from getting on well with each other (for the most part - there are a couple of instances where Lothar can set up traps for his brother (but not, as far as I'm aware, the other way round)). Thus, in a two-player game, the parts where the players can interact tend to involve working together. Nevertheless, there are times when knowing what the other brother has done would inappropriately influence the decision-making process, so I won't be playing the books together like I did The City of Shadows.

So I say goodbye to my brother, arranging a rendezvous that will never take place, and have a couple of uneventful days' travel before encountering the Ogres who beat up and robbed the previous Lothar. Time to avenge his humiliation. For some reason the two of them constitute one opponent, who's barely tougher than the average lone Ogre. This is not a detail with which I am unhappy, as I only take a little damage in the fight, and half of that heals back anyway.

Continuing on my way (and not, as directed in the text, waiting for a cue from the other player for obvious reasons), I reach a shallow lake. Not far off are men with boats, and as I know that wading will get me killed, I approach the boatmen. They explain that this is the Lake of Death, which is full of invisible venomous fish, and they'll ferry me across for a fee. Sounds like a con (especially as the lake is fed by the River Scamder), but the bit about the fish is true. The rest of what they say is more open to interpretation, with a significant price rise occurring about half way across.

I think that, despite the 1 in 6 chance of failure, I'll use magic to get across. Not the least costly spell: one of my sisters once attempted this book and discovered that the Jump spell wouldn't take her character all the way across the lake. And there were some of those fish where she splashed down. The slightly more costly spell to walk on water, by contrast, has no more harmful consequences than getting my bootsoles wet.

Beyond the lake I enter a forest. Two paths, and I have a sneaking suspicion that an essential item can be acquired on one of them. I pick the wrong one, and reach a stone circle, with around a dozen robed men in it. Spying on them will get me killed. Approaching them might get me killed, unless I can remember the proper procedure. Let's see: reciprocate the gesture made by one of the men, respond in kind to his drawing a mystical symbol, reinforce the gender stereotypes of astral bodies, then burn the right plant - and I've picked up enough folklore to be able to guess which one I shouldn't cast into the flames. After that I must choose a goblet to drink from, and I don't think it matters too much which I pick. Silver gives me a vision of armed men on horseback driving the Druids into a blazing forest. Foretelling the future, or have I been chatting with ghosts, and just seen what happened to them?

Regardless, I go on once I come round. If I still had my horse, it would run away. I guess it got left on the other side of the lake. Heading into some hills, I find a magical staff in two parts in a crevasse. Quite a handy weapon, as it drains opponents' Skill whenever I hit them with it.

The route onwards crosses a steaming rock pool with stepping stones. From my last try I know that the stones are safe, so I use them. Well, 'safe' is relative: along the way I am attacked by a Volcano Salamander, but my new weapon ensures my victory, its Skill-depleting power enabling me to win a couple of rounds that would have gone less well against an undiminished Salamander.

Further on I see a white villa with spires, and decide to pay the owner a call. It's guarded by warthog-like creatures (depicted as bipeds, though the text doesn't specify this), who think that I'll make a good meal for their master. I hit them with my staff until they change their minds.

Inside the villa I find a number of people levitating in the lotus position. If I don't wake one of them up, I'll wind up inadvertently jostling and disturbing a random meditator. On my first attempt at this book, as I wasn't using dice, I picked the '3-4' option, on the grounds that, while it probably wouldn't be the best outcome, it was unlikely to be the worst. Sound reasoning: a punch in the mouth, while not pleasant, is preferable to 50/50 odds of being slain on the spot. But these days I know this part of the adventure well enough that I deliberately wake the one person who won't resent my action. She blesses me, restoring some of my Magic points. I think the use of the word 'restores' must mean that I can't exceed my Initial score here, even though the rules don't expressly forbid doing so (whereas they do clearly state that each of the other attributes cannot rise above what it was at the start).

In the next room a Djinn is entertaining his guests by releasing prisoners and then killing them before they can get out of the room. I know from my last go at the book that he has a higher Skill than I, and while a couple of lucky blows with the staff would have a levelling effect, there's no guarantee that I'll be able to hit him. Besides, I'm not sure I've ever actually tried the alternate course of action, which I know from reviews to lead to a pretty gonzo sequence. One that could arbitrarily end in death, but I've already failed this book by going the wrong way just after the lake, so I may as well use my doomed character to explore some of the outcomes here.

Also in the room is a rug, floating in the air, with assorted drinks standing on it. Leaping aboard (and doubtless spilling the drinks), I manage to bring the rug under my control and, grabbing a random prisoner, fly off. The Djinn hops onto another airborne floor-covering and gives chase. We fly through a window, startling several sylphs, and then through a doorway into a hall with décor indicating some rather dubious tastes on the part of the homeowner (as if the eating itinerant Princes and murdering prisoners for fun weren't proof enough already). The doorway with black velvet drapes looks like I could get entangled in it, or stuck in a queue for Alannah Myles' autograph, so I fly through an opening in the ceiling. This leads into a long corridor, and up ahead I see an open archway and a twist in the corridor. I try the arch, and enter a room containing the Djinn, who punches me in the head. Hurriedly I go through a door, rushing through an empty room into another corridor. This leads to a dead end with three exits (is it a dead end if there are exits?), and I recognise the section numbers for two of them. Glad I'm not trying to map this place. I try the number I haven't seen before, and get ambushed by a couple of guards. Unable to break free, I can only wait for the Djinn to catch up with me. The book is mercifully discreet about what happens next.

Well, if Gundobad's going to have another king, he won't be a wizard. But at least the next Lothar will know better than to fly through that particular window.

Monday, 27 May 2013

Like I Need a Hole in My Head

There wasn't much response when I brought up the possibility of replaying the early Lone Wolf gamebooks before progressing to the next sub-series. Still, the one person who did comment was in favour of the idea, so I'm at least going to give it a try.

I'd rather not replay a book I've already won when there are so many I have yet to beat (or even try) on this blog, and I'd prefer not to just resurrect a character who died. Given that I succeeded at the first book, and then carried my character from it over into book 2, where he met an early end, this could be problematic. But in this one instance there is a work-around, as I failed at the edited and expanded reissue of book 1, so I could have another go at that to kick off this second attempt at the series.

Not being keen on superfluous repetition, I won't go into much detail where this attempt closely parallels my previous one so if you haven't already read that playthrough, I recommend that you do so now. Anything I do differently, or which doesn't go the same way as before, will get covered, though.

So what are this version of Silent Wolf's stats?
Combat Skill: 14
Endurance: 26
Disciplines: Sixth Sense, Healing, Weaponskill (Spear), Mindshield and Tracking
Slightly weaker than before, but I am at least consistent in getting less-than-optimal weapon proficiencies.

So, as before I'm doing extra combat practice as punishment for not paying attention in class, and then the Monastery is attacked. This time round I won't bother taking the time to grab a weapon because I've already ranted about what happens if I do that. Kai Master Star Fire throws me his sword and draws the axe he keeps as a back-up weapon, then tells me to close the gates while he deals with the approaching Giaks. One of the Giaks decides that I look like easier prey, and charges at me. It takes me two rounds to puree him, and I don't take a scratch.

As before, I am sent to activate the beacon while enemy troops are airlifted into the monastery grounds. The berserk Giak who attacks me as I set off does some damage, so this time round I stop to look in the cupboard after being mind-probed by Judgmental Twit (or whatever that Kai's name was) - even if there's nothing in there, that's still an extra section's worth of Healing. I find chairs, tables and antique pewter plates, none of which are on the Weaponskills list, but then turn up a dagger and a rope. The dagger's no help, but that rope is going to come in useful later if I remember rightly.

The unnecessary-looking trip to my dormitory is another potential source of excess sections to help me with my Healing, but it could also lead to additional fights or getting fatally trapped, so I'm not going to risk it. Out into the training park, as before. Abysmal rolls very nearly cause me to lose the fight out there, but the imbalances of the Combat Results Table enable me to survive - just. For a while after that things go just the same as before, except that the weapon I grab from the armoury is a spear. And thus, I guess I give the Giaks' ladder a hefty kick, as poking it with a spear wouldn't achieve much.

Between the rage bonus and my now having the weapon I've been trained to use (plus a much better roll), I skewer the next Giaks I encounter before they've finished turning away from the bodies they were mutilating. Events then transpire much as they did before until I'm on my way across to the chapel, at which point I am reminded that, while I may have figured out how to get through the tombs under the Graveyard of the Ancients without needing Mind Over Matter, there are still situations in the book that make it worth having. As I didn't pick it, that Drakkar with the crossbow has a 50% chance of killing me. And the fact that this blog entry ends here should be a pretty big hint as to how I know just how fatal the sub-optimal outcome to that roll is.

Friday, 24 May 2013

Do Our Demons Come to Visit Us?

The only thing I remember about getting the first Robin of Sherwood gamebook, The King's Demon, by Graham Staplehurst (and, AIUI, an uncredited Paul Mason) is that I found it in a charity shop in Tunbridge Wells. I played it once, coming to a sticky end as a consequence of having picked up an item belonging to the main villain, which made my character vulnerable to a lethal magical attack.

The system seems a little complex. Not at Sagas of the Demonspawn levels, but there are ten attributes to keep track of, plus companions and wound locations, so it's more elaborate than many. Character generation involves allocating a random number of points among the attributes. I get 39 to add to the starting scores, ending up with:
Hand-to-hand Combat 9
Ranged Combat 9
Healing 6
Stealth 6
Riding 1
Disguise 7
Minstrelsy 4
Perception 6
Charm 4
Woodcraft 5
No idea how well-suited that is to the adventure, but the sample character in the rules section took a low score in Riding, which could be taken as indicating that there's at least one viable route through the book with no major equestrian challenges. Although it could be that the authors want to penalise anyone 'lazy' enough to copy the sample character (not that I have done a straight copy - only one other stat is identical).

I also have to choose three items from a list. For obvious reasons, I won't be taking the horse. Knowing what little I do about the villain, I think the silver crucifix might be useful. Rope is almost always handy. And a large cloak should go well with my comparatively high Disguise rating.

The last thing to take into account is Power of Light and Darkness (henceforth abbreviated to Power). It serves the function of a few different attributes I've encountered in different systems: my score at the end (assuming I win) is an indicator of how well I did, points can be used to help me evade unpleasantness, and they may also be docked for inappropriate behaviour, with failure automatic if my score ever drops to zero. Though I don't have to commit suicide if that happens - the powers that be just recast my character, as it were.

Anyway, on with the adventure. Marion has been to Nottingham, and returns with news of a visiting French nobleman, Sir Jean de Melusine. I recall a legend that the original matriarch of the de Melusine line was a demon in human form, and that King John is one of her descendants. Sir Jean is being appointed to the Royal Council, and I think it unlikely that the nepotism is the worst aspect of the situation.

Will Scarlet and Little John are keen to ambush de Melusine on his way to Nottingham, while Marion and Tuck advise caution. I'd rather be better informed before I take any action, and Marion offers to go back to town and see what further gossip she can pick up. I suggest she wait until morning, and accompany her to the town walls. Something seems to be afoot at the gates, and I opt to investigate. All I'm able to find out is that a load of soldiers are arguing about something. Marion returns quickly, and we head back to the forest.

She explains what she was able to find out. Sir Jean and his entourage arrived earlier than anticipated, and were displeased at not getting a formal reception. This was causing some brouhaha, and then Gisburne recognised Marion in the crowd, forcing her to take evasive action. At this point in her narrative, I'm asked if I have an item that wasn't on the list of starting equipment. No idea whether missing the encounter that would have led to my acquiring it is a good thing or bad.

We return to our camp without incident, and I decide to visit a few villages through which de Melusine might have passed on his way here, to see if they have any useful information on him. Fenigley's likely to have been on his route, and a tavern owner there owes me a favour, so I head there. Along the way I see someone in a tattered cloak, who's obviously fleeing from someone. Or something...

The stranger runs away from me, and I follow, almost running into a couple of men who've just caught the fugitive. They accuse her of being an egg-thief, and don't like the look of me, either. But are they villains, or just villeins? I try a bit of diplomacy. Name-dropping myself does the trick and, finding nothing to back up their suspicions about the woman, the men leave. Turning my attention to the woman, I see that she's passed out, so I use what natural lore I have to find something to revive her. She turns out to be the friend Marion was planning to meet in Nottingham earlier today, and explains that there are guards after her.

We don't loiter in the area, but our pace is moderate enough that she can explain why she's on the run while we're on the move. She was serving at the feast held in de Melusine's honour, and overheard Sir Jean expressing an interest in the Ram Day festival due to be celebrated in Haxhey some time soon. He then noticed her, and gave her an ominous look that convinced her it was time for a career change. Oh, and she did slightly snoop around in his room and pilfer an ivory disc with strange engravings on the way out. After handing me the disc, she scurries off to find her sister's home, and I go back to my initial plan of action.

An itinerant 'fire and brimstone' priest is ranting at the crowds in Fenigley, and mentions that tomorrow he'll be confronting 'the Devil's brood at Haxhey'. I pop into the inn, and learn that de Melusine and his men came through Fenigley but didn't stop. Nothing to find out about him here, then, but that second mention of Haxhey prompts me to head there next.

The villagers there are preparing for something, and while the general tone is jovial, one or two people appear perturbed, and a woman tries to hide her marked face from me. Catching sight of Father Cedric, an old friend, in the church, I speak with him, and he invites me to stay for the impending festivities: the Parade of the Lamb, the inter-village Hood Game, and the fire of banishing. I decide to invite the rest of the Merry Men here, too, in case Sir Jean and his men intend to gatecrash.

Before long I find their trail, and soon after that I find them looking for me. Not entirely sure how to interpret the instructions at the end of the section, though: I'm asked if Will Scarlet is with me now. As I was searching for the lot of them, he should be in their midst, so the answer would be yes. Unless the question's a poorly-phrased attempt to ascertain whether or not Scarlet was with me on my recent expedition, in which case it's no. Well, I'll assume that it means what it says, but bookmark the section with the question, so if taking the 'yes' option leads to something that doesn't follow on from what's been happening, I can switch to the other one. Not really cheating, because I'm trying to clarify an ambiguity, not give myself an out in case of fail section.

Scarlet urges me to ambush de Melusine on the way to Haxhey. Robin of Sherwood's take on the character always did have the natural restraint of a peeved Klingon. Frankly, I doubt that the gamebook allows for defeating the villain even before he can make a start on putting his evil scheme into action, so I veto the ambush.

Back at Haxhey I learn that Abbot Hugo has levied an extra tax on the villagers in connection with the festival. This may merit further investigation. Father Cedric is reluctant to take any action that might constitute opposing the Abbot, so I'll have to see if any of the villagers can tell me more. Spotting the woman with the bruised face again, I speak with her, and she reveals that the tax-collectors were to blame. She overheard them discussing their next ports of call, and suggests a good spot for intercepting them on their way back to the abbey. I could gain 1 Power at this point by giving her the crucifix, but I'm not sure that would be the best use I could make of it.

My companions accompany me on the way to setting this ambush, and along the way Herne makes an appearance to deliver cryptic advice: face the evil in the fire. Who holds the skull? (I'm guessing that 'Hamlet' isn't the right answer.) Where I see one, there will be two. But, reading between the lines, use of my sword and Power should be enough to defeat whatever it is that I'm to confront.

We only just have time to set up our ambush. My high Ranged Combat score enables me to get in a headshot on the lead tax collector (with the same roll, the sample character would only have got him in the leg). Taking the money is easy after that - perhaps too easy. But I narrowly fail the Perception roll to figure out what's not right here, so we just lug it back to Haxhey.

The headman is happy to have the money, and we make merry for a while. Then Father Cedric bursts in, sporting a scalp wound, and pleads for help. He indicates that he was assaulted by soldiers who wanted something from him (but doesn't indicate what that something is). They're searching his house, and I opt to tackle them in there - less chance of one getting away with the item in question.

A botched Stealth roll prevents us from taking them by surprise, and I have to fight them, though only one can get to me during the first three rounds. I badly wound his arm, then fell him with a blow to the head, which creates an opening for the second soldier to attack sooner than he would otherwise have been able, but that's not really grounds for complaint. Another arm wound, and then I strike a clumsy blow that does no damage but throws him off balance, sufficiently discombobulating him that even the lousy roll I make the next round is enough to put him out for the count. In fact, I'm going to have to give the blighter some Healing if I want to interrogate him. But I mess up that roll, as well, and the book makes the morbidly humorous observation that the man 'unhelpfully' dies on me.

Next morning Father Cedric gives me what the soldiers sought: the horn of Cernunnos. He urges me to take it to Hoden Hill in the evening. I could go off in search of de Melusine, but think it wiser to stay in the village. The Parade of the Lamb commences, and then semi-regular character Alison of Wickham turns up to let me know that her son and some of his friends have gone off to play a prank on Guy of Gisburne, and if they wind up in trouble or dead it'll be because I've been a bad influence on them. What's the betting that refusing to get sidetracked into abandoning Haxhey will mean a Power penalty?

I'll just have to bite that bullet. No penalty for having my priorities in order, but I do get the option of sending one of my companions to look for the brats before they can get into too much bother. Little John's level-headed enough not to wind up joining in with their shenanigans, so I send him.

A dark-robed figure interferes with the parade, snatching the lamb's leash from the girl who was leading it. Not one of de Melusine's men, but the ranting preacher who was in Fenigley yesterday. I let Tuck engage him in theological debate, and with back-up from Father Cedric, he convinces the priest to be on his way. I fail another Perception roll, and can only wonder what I've just managed not to spot. In character as well as out: as Robin I get the impression that I'm missing something important, but can't figure out what.

The Hood Game commences - well, it will as soon as the slacker with the Horn of Cernunnos remembers to blow it to start the proceedings. Oh, oops! The game's quite violent, and several competing villagers are soon too badly hurt to play on. If Little John were here, he'd be joining in, so maybe it's a good thing that I sent him off on that side quest. Not being much of a sports fan, I don't bother following the progress of the game. The other male Merry Men join the Haxhey team, though, and I reflect that the purpose of the whole silly game might be to get the men out of the way while preparations are made for the evening's celebrations.

In the end Calnestone wins the game, possibly because Little John wasn't playing. No big deal. I mean, it's not as if Haxhey was in the relegation zone (in case you were wondering, I've picked up some of the jargon from friends who are Hull FC supporters). The feasting commences, with a toast to the two men who died in the game. Slightly ominously, both were Boggans - sort of linesmen with extreme prejudice, who wore masks and distinctive costumes to indicate their function, and ought not to have been at any real risk of harm. I wonder if they still had the costumes when their bodies were discovered...

When the feast is over, it's time for everyone to head up the hill for the Fire of Banishment. Father Cedric is to leave last, which sounds like a recipe for trouble. Can I loiter to keep an eye on him, or does that Horn come with obligations that'll get in the way of doing so? No, I can hang around, but the rest of the Merry Men troop up the hill. Father Cedric seeks my aid in shifting the altar so he can get to some paraphernalia he requires, which turns out to be a costume for dressing up as some oversized figure with a ram's skull for a head. Don't think any of this is covered in The Book of Common Prayer.

Before I can broach the topic of syncretism, two of de Melusine's soldiers turn up in the doorway and start taunting me. I'm not going to be provoked into a rash attack. But they're not going to let us out. Not by the door, at least. But while the church lost its bell years ago, the rope is still there, so we could try a rooftop escape.

Father Cedric drops the skull, attracting unwelcome attention. And crossbow bolts. Outnumbered, I can do no more than hurry up the hill to warn the villagers. In fact, I only just reach them ahead of whoever has donned the ram-skulled costume, and I'm too fatigued to say anything helpful. He's less out of breath, and turns out to be preternaturally good at imitating Father Cedric's voice.

I confront him and, not having been given the opportunity to get rid of that wretched ivory disc, wind up immolated just like on my first attempt at the book. How very tiresome.

Wednesday, 22 May 2013

The Leaves That Are Green Turn to Brown

I don't really remember anything about getting issue 11 of Warlock magazine. My initial reaction to the mini-adventure, The Land of Changes, was somewhat mixed. On the one hand, it was Ruth Pracy's follow-up to The Floating City, which I still considered one of the best Warlock minis back then. On the other, it had the same intrusive D&D jargon that had helped sour me on Rogue Mage the previous issue. As I recall, my first attempt ended with my character dying for attempting to use a magical horn in a confrontation with opponents who turned out to have the ability to steal sound. It was at around that point that I started to go off Ms. Pracy's tendency to penalise readers for not knowing what hadn't been pointed out.

This is almost certainly going to be shorter than my previous playthrough, because I don't intend to repeat a 'mistake' I made in that one. Making the 'wrong' decision in the first section means missing out on something important, but some way into the adventure an opportunity is provided to go back in time and do things the way the author thinks they should have been done. This time round I'll just go along with Ms. Pracy's preferences from the outset, so as not to have to go through a great chunk of the adventure twice.

I don't remember any seriously problematic fights in this one, so I shall take the dice as they fall.
Skill 12
Stamina 19
Luck 9
Not bad. Certainly plausible for a character who survived The Floating City, which climaxes with a fight against a Skill 11 opponent.

Some time has passed since the events of City (which, for this character, did not end with falling into near-freezing water and dying), and I have grown tired of the land of Winter, and nostalgic about the life I once had in Summer. But going back there will require me to pass through the region of Autumn between these two lands. The cycle of nature requires there to be growth as well as death, so there are occasional bursts of, for want of a better word, Spring, and things can get pretty turbulent when the wind blows...

But I'm not going to get back to Summer by dwelling on the dangers of the journey ahead of me. In fact, I'm probably not going to get back to Summer at all, given what I'll experience along the way, but that's beside the point. I enter Autumn, and soon get the impression that I'm being watched. Proceeding with caution is not advisable in this instance, owing to authorial quirks. No, the best course of action is to march boldly into the trap.

So I step forwards, and find myself in a net, suspended fifteen feet above the ground. The Brownies who set it (the folkloric kind, not the sort my sisters used to be) rush out from hiding, and one of them cuts the rope holding me up. I fall to the ground, losing 2 Stamina, and getting a rather superfluous 'if you are still alive' condition on turning to the next section. I've only just started the adventure, and even with the worst dice imaginable, I'd still have at least 14 Stamina. And anyone who avoided this ambush and eventually got sent back through time to the net would have had any wounds acquired in the interim healed before being sent here, so either way, it's not remotely possible for the fall to prove fatal.

The Brownies want me to go with them, and as massacring them would be a bit of an overreaction, I do so. They lead me to their village and indicate that I should enter a hut, so I do so. It contains a repulsively dirty old woman seated next to a fire. She beckons me over with a glowing poker and, aware that refusing would end badly for me, I do so. She then asks me if I'm brave and, wanting a practical demonstration rather than a possibly inaccurate spoken answer, plucks a branding iron from the fire and applies the business end to my forehead. I manage not to flinch, and it doesn't hurt. Suddenly the woman is young and beautiful, and she explains that she's given me the Mark of True Sight. She also hands me a horn with which I can call for aid (assuming my opponents don't carry a universal mute button).

Thanking her (and suppressing any thoughts about how deranged this set-up is), I leave the hut, and the Brownies cheer upon seeing the mark on my forehead. Bet they'd love the tattoo sported by the hero of City of Thieves. A night of celebration follows, while a storm of seasons rages outside. The next morning I'm given a tour of the village, discovering that the cabbage patch has diamonds where more mundane gardens would have slug trails. The flowers whisper to me of Summer (literally, not metaphorically), prompting me to be on my way. Before I leave, the Brownies present me with some extra Provisions (including some garlic) and a knife.

On the way out of the village I spot a tree that looks like a human, and approach it. It starts to change shape, ultimately becoming a green-skinned woman, who kisses me. Becoming a tree-hugger is not an option here, so I continue on my way. Before long I reach a sunny glade containing a stone with a hole in it. This is a Self-Bored Stone, through which magical visions can be seen, so I put my eye to the hole and see strange figures riding antlered steeds across a stormy sky. Their leader blows a horn like the one I was given, and flies at me like a show-offy bit of FX from a 3D movie.

Returning to reality (or as close to it as is possible in this strange place), I become aware that the clearing is full of Gwyllion, evil female spirits. Somehow aware that my sword will have no effect on them (but, short of knowledge gained from previous deaths, not that the horn will be no good either), I draw the Brownies' knife, and the Gwyllion turn into a column of mist that streams away into the sky. The stone sings and impersonates a lighthouse, then disappears, leaving a jewelled crown in its place. I'm not so bemused as to ignore loot when it turns up, so I grab the crown and hasten on to whatever weirdness awaits next.

In another clearing I find a ruined tower. Taking a look inside, I am confronted by the dreaded (and inaccurately-depicted) Redcap, a rogue Brownie who gets his name from his habit of using the blood of his victims to dye his headgear. He attacks me and, for possibly the first time in all my attempts at this adventure, I actually experience the hole in the rules that I've been aware of since at least 2004. Redcap has 10 Stamina. According to Fighting Fantasy's rules governing combat, hitting an opponent costs them 2 Stamina (there are exceptions, but there's nothing to indicate that this fight is one of them). The text tells me where to turn if I survive six rounds of combat with Redcap, but gives no indication of what to do if I manage to kill him, even though I only need to hit him five times to do so. And on this occasion I managed it.

Well, I did survive those six rounds regardless, so I have to turn to the section indicated. There I must Test my Luck (and if I'm Unlucky, the late Redcap will skewer me with his pike) and, as I'm Lucky, I find myself involuntarily quoting scripture at Redcap (in a kind of anti-Tourette's Syndrome), at which point he screams and flees (even though I just killed him), leaving a tooth behind. I pocket the tooth and walk on.

Further on I catch sight of a spherical dwelling made from twigs and moss, and my True Sight convinces me to enter it. The inside is decorated with gold, jewels and tapestries, and the occupant is a beautiful woman, who embraces me and heals what little Stamina and Luck I've lost. To show my gratitude, I hand her the tooth, which turns out to be just what she always wanted, as it will protect its bearer from any weapon (a benefit that wouldn't have saved me from any Instant Deaths because reasons). In return, she offers to grant my greatest wish or my heart's desire. No, they're not the same thing. And if I pick the wrong one, I get a 'you survive, but you are NO HERO' ending, as Ms. Pracy has high and bizarre standards for adventurers.

I make the choice she wants, and am offered the opportunity of undertaking the most epic quest ever, to find the secret of the universe (not 42 in this instance) that lies beyond the mountains at the edge of the world, which none may scale because they're as high as the stars (I don't think that's a reference to drug use in Hollywood). She can help me by revealing 'the secret of a secret', but first I must swear to undertake the quest or die in the attempt (a vow that, should I hit a non-lethal obstacle, will prove very nearly as binding as the average New year's Resolution).

Agreeing to her terms, I receive a crystal orb ('the key') and a ball of yarn that will guide me forward if I use it wisely. The woman tells me that her name is Lina, and I should 'remember the letter' of it. As for her secret? It's that I should seek Gether, the holder of the secret. So her secret is basically the name of the man who knows the secret that will help me find the secret. What's the betting that that secret leads to an even secreter secret and so ad infinitum?

Randomly wandering on into the woods, I reach the Clearing of Exasperating Death (my name for the place). In the centre is a pillar of rock, with a different letter carved into each side: A, J, L and Z. Touch the wrong one, and I die. I know (because I have frequently ranted about it) that L for Lina is not the right letter. I can rule out the one I tried in the other playthrough, as that got me killed. So I'm down to a 50% chance of dismal failure. Maybe a careless typesetter omitted the word 'last' from Lina's advice about her name...

A bottomless pit opens up beneath me. As it's bottomless, I should at least have a chance of getting out the horn and blowing it while in perpetual free-fall (what would happen if I dropped something while at terminal velocity?), but that option's not open to me, so I guess I just keep falling until I die of dehydration. Plenty of time to rant about unfair puzzles as I go.

Monday, 20 May 2013

He's Waving Me Over So He Can Hit Me

From this point onwards, every account of how I came to own a Tunnels & Trolls solo adventure will effectively be repeating something I've said before. Ken St. Andre's Arena of Khazan was among those reissued by Corgi Books, and a fortnight ago I explained how I found all the Corgi editions I didn't already own (bar this one) in a discount bookshop on Tunbridge Wells High Street. I never gave Arena that much attention, being more interested in the adventure that accompanied it in the book. But I doubt that I'd have given it much of my time even if I'd acquired the Flying Buffalo edition on its own (rather than as part of a large lot on eBay, which is how I did eventually get it), because the plot is not one that appeals to me.

That plot, unless I'm missing something, boils down to:

  1. Enter arena.
  2. Fight opponent.
  3. If not killed, return to step 1 and repeat the process until able and willing to stop.
The 'able' in there is because it's necessary to win (or at least survive) a set number of fights in order to fulfil my gladiatorial contract/get freed from slavery/achieve whatever else it was that I got into this mess to do.

While the adventure is suitable for all character classes, the emphasis on fighting makes me think that a warrior would be the best choice. Not having any live ones, I need to roll up a fresh character, and the dice give me a character so obviously doomed that I have to make him a Dwarf just to give him a chance (Strength and Constitution are doubled for Dwarves). So here he is:
Strength 30
Intelligence 5
Luck 8
Constitution 14
Dexterity 13
Charisma 8
Speed 11
With that Luck there's a high probability that he's going to be starting out as a slave, so I shan't bother buying starting equipment until I know whether or not he actually gets any. Yep, a slave, and thus starting out with no possessions.

Still, some fighting slaves go on to do quite well for themselves.

The crowds won't be that entertained if the fight's too one-sided, so I've been provided with a broadsword and leather armour. The cost to be deducted from my winnings if I survive my first fight. Make it through three fights and I'm a free Dwarf.

So, with the Star Trek fight music running through my head, I march out into the arena, give a hearty yell of, "Moriarty salutes ants!" (my character not being particularly intelligent), and confront a randomly determined foe, who turns out to be... Another Dwarf. With better armour and a broadaxe, which is not necessarily better than the sword.

As opponents in the arena are individuals, I now have to roll up the other Dwarf's stats. He's smarter, luckier, healthier, faster and uglier than I, but only one of those is liable to make a difference in combat, and my being stronger and more agile should give me the edge. Nevertheless, bookies are giving 3:1 odds on me - not that it matters when I lack money with which to bet on myself.

Let battle commence. There are lots of options theoretically open to me, but actually ruled out on account of my knowing no magic and lacking a missile weapon. I could try studying my opponent's technique in the first round of battle, so as to try and formulate an effective strategy, but as my character has the intellect of plankton, I'm just going to hack at the Khazan Dwarf until one of us is dead or incapacitated.

Just to complicate matters, he's a berserker, and I need to make a Saving Roll each round to avoid taking damage regardless of the combat dice. I can make it on Dexterity rather than Luck, which should slightly improve my odds, but this complication means I have to take him down quickly.

In round 1 I hit him, but that armour of his absorbs most of the damage. I do make the saving roll, though. However, they get harder with each successive round. In the second round I do even less damage, but narrowly miss the roll. The rules don't specify whether or not my armour is any protection against that kind of damage. And this is something it would be useful to know, as it determines whether round 3 ends with me just wounded or actually dead. I'll go with the interpretation that doesn't end my adventure right here, but it'll take some spectacular rolling for me to get beyond round 4.

Well, I'm not killed. Unless I died in round 3 and didn't realise. But I have taken enough damage to incapacitate me, so now it's up to the crowd whether I'm spared to fight another day, or get a broadaxe in the face. The fight lasted long enough that I have a 50% chance of having been sufficiently entertaining to earn a reprieve...

They liked me. But I need to win fights, not just survive them. And with no money I can't afford any healing. But having me go into my next fight half-dead would be no fun, so the arena managers lend me money (at an exorbitant interest rate, of course) to pay for the healing. So now I have to pay off the debt (as well as winning three fights) before I get set free. And I'm no longer eligible for certain perks available to arena champions. Still, restored to full health, and with a massive debt to clear, I return to the arena to face...

Two Dwarves. Expletive deleted. The text recommends saving and reusing surviving opponents, so I'm up against my former nemesis and a friend. The friend is stronger than he is (but still weaker than I am), and more agile than either of us. Also quite staggeringly ugly. Against him on his own I might be in with a chance. Against the two of them together, I'm going to be paste. Even if I can figure out a way to avoid the Saving Roll damage. This time anyone who bets on me will get a 10:1 return on the amount wagered if I somehow defeat the Dwarven duo.

Just on the off-chance, I try studying their approach. The Dwarves appear to be charging at me, waving broadaxes, and unless I can fire off a spell or a ranged weapon, I'm going to have to fight back. Well, that tactical analysis was worth the effort, wasn't it?

I succeed at the round 1 saving roll. But the Dwarves do incapacitating damage on me anyway. Unimpressed at seeing me floored at such an early stage in the fight, the crowd indicate their disapproval, so my opponents chop me into little bits, and the Empire of Khazan says a sorrowful farewell to the 10,120 gold pieces I owed them.

I doubt that this is going to come as much of a surprise to any readers, but my appreciation of this adventure has not increased now I've had a proper go at it.

Friday, 17 May 2013

Somebody Set Up Us the Bomb

Robin Waterfield, author of Rebel Planet (and a few other FF books I have yet to reach on this blog) was also the co-writer of the rather more short-lived mystery-themed Webs of Intrigue gamebook series, alongside Wilfred Davies (who doesn't appear to have written any other gamebooks). I'll say something about how I got into the series when I cover the second book, as that was the one I first acquired. As for book 1, The Money Spider, I got it via Amazon almost a year after acquiring its follow-up.

Strangely, my memory places my first, brief, look through the book outdoors, near Hull Royal Infirmary. That's only a couple of minutes' walk from where I was living at the time, but I can't think why I'd have taken the book out with me. In any case, I made a start on the investigation, reached what appeared to be an internal continuity blunder, and went no further.

In this series I play a private detective, known to my associates as 'the troubleshooter', or T.S. There are no stats for my character, but there is an element of bookkeeping to play: in the course of my investigations, I will encounter numbered clues. There are, judging by the 'web' provided for keeping track of them, a total of 72 clues, though it's unlikely that more than 20 of them are actually relevant. The rest are red herrings, and if I find too many of them, I'm likely to get taken off the case for time-wasting. I may also find the investigation grinding to a halt if I fail to discover certain key clues within a time limit. Well, that's how it worked in the second book, and The Money Spider appears to run along similar lines.

Scotland Yard call me in to help with the case. Earlier in the day, a teenager told a police constable that there was a bomb at the Bank of England, and made himself scarce while the policeman was investigating. There was a bomb, set to go off around 50 minutes after the teenager approached the constable, though the Bomb Squad managed to neutralise it with more than half an hour to spare. Oddly, the bag containing the bomb also held an alarm clock, unconnected to the bomb, and set to go off 20 minutes before the bomb was due to explode. The perpetrators left no fingerprints.

The book came out in 1988, so it's a bit too late for this lot to be investigating it.

I'll start by trying to find out who had the opportunity to plant the bomb. The mysterious teenager obviously merits further investigation, but several eyewitness reports indicate that a Securicor van seemed in a hurry to get out of the area at around the time the alarm was raised, so I shall look into that first.

Someone took down the van's registration number, but when I try to trace it, my enquiries are blocked because my security clearance isn't high enough. Ominous. I have contacts in the security forces, so I'll see if any of them can get me some answers off the record. Indiscreet enquiries about what may be MI6 business are the sort of thing that could get me pulled from the case faster than you can say 'D-notice'.

My friend asks around, and is able to confirm that the van was on business unrelated to the bomb scare (clue 52). She also mentions that the Soviets have shown an interest in the incident, and may be willing to share any discoveries that they've made. So I contact a man in Brussels, who knows nothing about the bomb, but mentions that something has got the Swiss banks agitated of late. This is getting increasingly tenuous, but I look into it anyway, as the other options available are even more tangential.

It's a dead end. And quite possibly the point at which I abandoned my first go at the book, as I now have to choose whether to follow up the robbery in Hatton Garden (which has not been mentioned in any of the sections through which I've passed so far) or the missing bonds (about which I know equally nothing). A quick check of the map establishes that Hatton Garden is more than a kilometre to the west of the Bank of England, possibly that bit too far away for it to be plausible that the bomb was planted to distract attention from criminal activity there. Depends on the location, size and number of police stations in the area, and I don't relish the thought of trying to find out 25-year-old details of that kind of information. Not knowing where the missing bonds ought to be, I can't tell whether or not they're any more likely to have been more accessible to some criminal on account of the bomb scare, but since I have to look into one or other of these crimes, I'll pick the one about which I know less.

Well, it looks as if the bonds went missing from the bank, so there could be a connection. The book explains what bearer bonds are, and points out the difficulty that thieves would have claiming on them (not that that deterred a number of criminals on TV from stealing some) before suggesting that they may have just been lost. Treating the disappearance as a crime is going to be very time-consuming, but I'm willing to take a chance on its leading somewhere.

This is starting to look like something. The bonds definitely vanished on the day of the incident, and were in a time-locked safe that became accessible at the exact same time the teenager approached the policeman. Only four people had access to the safe during the time the bonds went missing... and one of them is a Swiss executive on secondment. She's from Untersee, and works for Hessemann and Pinelli, and at this stage there's nothing to indicate wrongdoing on her part, but I'm making a note of these names in case they should recur.

Investigating one of the other potential suspects automatically leads to asking about the other two, and turning up nothing suspicious (clue 8). And a passing comment reveals to me that the bank from which the bonds went missing was across the road from the Bank of England, which it might have been helpful to know earlier. Still, the structure of the gamebook at this stage seems significant - why one branch for Ms. Goch, and another that covers Mayers, Colby and Geary, if there's nothing afoot here?

Turning my attention to the missing bonds, I discover their value to be £8 million. £4.75 million's worth of them are related to the same £5 million loan, which apparently doesn't match standard banking practice: the bonds would normally be more widely distributed, to reduce the impact if the borrower should go bankrupt. And can you guess the nationality of the customer who took out that £5 million loan?

Actually, Harry Lime made some incorrect assertions, but the associations are strong anyway.

I'd have to tick off another clue if I'd looked into the other large loans partially represented by the missing bonds first, so that clue must be a 'wasted time chasing false leads' flag. But I didn't waste the time, so I don't have to mark off the clue. The Swiss loan has the kind of backing that should make it a safe one, though that may have been undermined by the 'eggs in one basket' approach that seems to have been taken with the bonds. More pertinently, it was made for the purpose of expanding the cheese industry in Untersee, and arrangements at the Swiss end were handled by Hessemann and Pinelli. Ominously, I now get asked if I have clue 8...

And Ms. Goch has done a runner. So if I'd only investigated her, things would have transpired differently, but as I also looked into everyone else who had access to the vault, she got wary. That doesn't make a whole lot of sense in plot terms, though from a gameplay perspective I guess I'm paying the price for wasting time on the others. Still, that may have doomed me to failure. But the undeniable evidence that she has at the very least failed to declare a conflict of interest, and her highly suspicious disappearance, give me clue 22.

Checking in with the police, I learn that an informant in a nightclub has reported a rumour that a lady banker was seen wearing overalls on the day of the bomb scare. I'm asked if I have a certain clue here, but as I don't, I can't tell whether or not having it would be a bad thing. Lacking it, I make enquiries and find the man who started the rumour. He tells me (in a somewhat idiosyncratic manner) that on the evening in question he saw a group of cleaners getting ready for work, and recognised one of them as Ms. Goch. He also remembers the name of the cleaning company, the not-at-all-suspicious-sounding Intercon.

Researching Intercon turns up the information that they're an international company, offering security services as well as cleaning, and with a policy of having directors occasionally masquerade as new workers in order to perform spot checks on the staff. One of their directors on the continent is Ms. Goch (clue 55 - the one I was asked about earlier). I'm then asked if I have clue 22, but that just leads to a progress check. Based on the number of clues I have, I get to choose another avenue to investigate. But I could be in trouble the next time I get sent to this section, unless at least two of the clues I find by then are relevant.

Taking a bit of a chance, I try to trace the alarm clock. The perpetrators are liable to have covered their tracks carefully when acquiring the bomb components, but maybe they were less cautious about getting the more innocuous part of the package. Ding! Identifying features were not removed, so I am able to contact the manufacturers and find out that it was part of a batch sold through Woolworth's (a genuine chain, rather than the 'serial numbers filed off' parody names used in Appointment with F.E.A.R., though the stores closed down a few years ago). Woolworth's indicate that the relevant batch was sent to East Anglia, which has eight of their stores, but it turns out that only the Harwich branch has already put the clocks on display.

Now I have a dilemma. If I want to be thorough, I should check that none of the other branches had one of the clocks stolen from stores. Make that check, and I might get another unhelpful clue number. But going straight to Harwich could mean missing a big lead if, unlikely as it seems, Ms. Goch's partners-in-crime were so stupid as to risk attracting unwanted attention by stealing the clock. Hoping they were smarter than that, I head for Harwich.

Well, first I have to decide whether to go myself or have the local police handle the investigation. Because having some big London detective demand that they devote time and resources to finding out who bought an alarm clock from Woolies is going to go down so well. I'm sure they'll look into it straight after they solve all the murders.

Harwich branch have only sold two of the clocks. I question the staff, and see indications that one of the shelf-stackers has something on her mind, but isn't willing to speak up. In the hope that she might open up in more informal surroundings, I take her out for lunch (it was definitely the right decision not to leave this to the police), and during the meal I make a casual observation about the local port, which jogs her memory: on the morning that the clock was sold, she was stacking shelves near the clocks and kitchenware, and saw 'a little roly-poly man' who looked like a long-distance lorry driver taking one of the clocks.

Checking records at the port, I find that ten lorries passed through it that morning: six from the Netherlands, three from Austria, and one from... let's just say that if the driver had cheese sandwiches, there were probably holes in the filling. I'm asked about another clue I lack, but given what I do know, it seems unlikely that not having the clue is a bad thing.

I ask about the lone lorry. Which was delivering cheeses to Croydon. Pursuing the lead to Croydon, I learn that the driver, Hans Ulrich, fit the shelf-stacker's description of the man who bought the clock. The distributors of the cheese reveal that it came from Untersee, as does Ulrich, who took a day off to go sight-seeing in London the day before the bomb scare. He's out on a job at the moment, but I think it's worth taking the time to try and track him down before he can emulate Ms. Goch.

He's due to arrive in Florence tomorrow. I'm delayed by a bomb scare at the airport, a flat tyre on the car taking me into town (combined with a flat spare), and the fact that nobody seems to have heard of the company to whom Ulrich is making a delivery, and by the time I find the place, he's been and gone. Now he's en route to Milan, so I try to catch him there. Upon arrival, I learn that he's changed his schedule and gone to Nice first. I'm going to need something to justify my expenses for this trip, so I continue the chase.

On the way to Nice I pass the site of a car accident, but as the authorities are already present, there's no need to stop. Once I hit town, I contact the police to let them know what I'm doing, and guess what! That crash that caught my attention...

Ulrich witnessed it, and is still at the station, giving his statement. Hands up if you thought he'd died in it, and I'd completely wasted my time. At my request, once the police have all the details of the accident, they ask him if he bought an alarm clock in England. Taken by surprise, he denies it, and when told that he was seen doing so, he acts suspiciously enough to convince the police that he's involved in something dodgy. A quick call to Scotland Yard, and he's under arrest on suspicion of involvement in the placement of the bomb (clue 5). Re-sult!

It's time for another progress check, but that's okay. The quality of my clues doesn't matter until I have at least seven, and right now I only have five. And the one I picked up on that little jaunt is definitely relevant. So, provided my next avenue of enquiry turns up at least one more key clue, I should make it through to the next phase of the investigation.

Time to track down that teenager. The report made by the policeman he approached gives a description of the youth, and the (probably false) name and (definitely false) employer he gave when asked. It also mentions that the policeman took him for one of the messengers used by Lloyd's and the Stock Exchange, so I decide to see if there's anything to that theory. I ask around at Lloyd's because of the connection with banking, and learn that they have one messenger who meets the description (clue 2). He has a strong alibi, but does mention a Stock Exchange messenger named Jerry who looks a lot like he does.

The set-up at the Stock Exchange is more convoluted, but a hunch based on the name given by the suspect narrows the field to just two young men: James Cherkhom and Gerald Cohen. So maybe going to Lloyd's wasn't a completely wasted effort, as Jerry is more likely to be Gerald than James. Mr. Cohen's employers confirm that he matches the description, and let me know that he's on holiday in Spain. A quick check proves that he flew out from Stansted, and is booked into a hotel in Barcelona. Time for another trip abroad.

By the time I arrive, Gerald and his brother have moved on, leaving no forwarding address. A porter thinks they were planning on hiring a car and driving to Alicante, and further enquiries prove this to be the case. There's a police helicopter heading there tomorrow, but I could potentially get there a good twelve hours faster if I hire a car. So I drive.

While taking a coffee break along the way I meet an old acquaintance, currently investigating Basque terrorists, and somebody slashes my tyres. The car's not roadworthy again until two hours after I was expecting to arrive in Alicante. Nevertheless, I don't rush once I'm back on the road: I'm tired, and an accident at high speed could end this investigation for good.

The Cohen brothers have moved on again by the time I arrive (but at least I do arrive), and are apparently mountaineering. By the end of the day I've managed to get to the national park near Alcoy where they're camping, but that's a pretty big place. The next day I set off into the mountains, accompanied by a park ranger. We get caught in a rock fall, and his leg is injured, possibly broken. The book will probably penalise me for leaving him and going off in search of help (I'd guess more rocks, a fatality, and a career-ending scandal), so I'll have to hope that the brothers I seek just happen to be chilling out in the village to which I take the injured ranger.

They are. In the very café where I go to phone for assistance. Gerald admits to having reported the bomb, and reveals that a German-sounding stranger gave him £20 to do so. The man (who might have been Swiss, surprise surprise) claimed to have spotted something suspicious, and to be unwilling to approach the police himself because it'd mean being asked lots of questions and missing out on sight-seeing time (clue 53). That wasn't as helpful as I'd hoped, but I do at least have a description of the man in question, so I might as well see if that leads anywhere.

Home Office information about potential candidates gives me a long list of possibles, but it gets narrowed down a lot once I restrict the scope to Swiss nationals (good thing I didn't start by looking for the teenager, which I'd been contemplating doing). Ignoring families, members of tourist parties and recently-arrived holders of resident's permits brings the list down to three names, and only one of them is anywhere near the age Gerald estimated the man to be: Dieter Francchi.

The porter of the hotel where Francchi stayed remembered him because he was a good tipper. Francchi matches the description Gerald gave, went out of the hotel almost an hour before Gerald went to the policeman, and unexpectedly cut short his visit the following day. He made two calls from the hotel, one local, the other to Basle. And he came from Untersee.

Travel times from Dover to the hotel indicate that he couldn't have stopped off anywhere to collect the bomb, and he's hardly likely to have carried it through Customs announcing, 'Nothing to declare!', so an accomplice must have handled that side of things. The text has me realising that there must be a conspiracy, Waterfield and Davies apparently having assumed that I wouldn't have found out anything else prior to this discovery.

Further research reveals that his route to England was more convoluted than necessary, and that for two days he was at a hotel in Amsterdam, at the same time as another Swiss resident, Peter Klaus. I'm asked if I have clue 32, which may mean that that name can turn up in connection with other enquiries. Not having that clue, I dig deeper, discovering that Francchi and Klaus had no public contact despite having travelled from Frankfurt to Amsterdam on the same train. And from Basle to Frankfurt on the same train before that. Klaus lives in Basle, but that's not where he originated. Yep, Untersee again (clue 33).

I think there's more to be lost than gained by chasing after other tourists: having over 12 clues at the progress check leads to the same section as having seven or more, but less than three key ones. And choosing not to look into tourists any longer leads to the progress check. But I have eight clues, and three of them are on the list, so it's time to move on to the next phase of the investigation.

This is tricky. Plenty of evidence points to Untersee, so I could go there. But I have the option of following more leads in London. I can still find another four clues without exceeding my limit, and the checklist of relevant numbers suggests that there's more worth finding out there. So I take a chance. But what to look into next? The explosive? The timer? The bag the bomb was in?

My sense of the absurd may yet cause me to fail here, because I'm researching the brown paper bag. It turns out to have been manufactured in Austria, though the factory mainly supplies them to Denmark and, of course, Switzerland. This particular model was only introduced four months ago, but there will already be plenty in circulation. No, they don't keep track of individual bags. I've found this much out without getting a clue number, so it's not too late to abandon this whimsical digression in favour of a more serious line of enquiry.

I contact the Swiss wholesalers who distribute the bags. They don't track individual bags, either, and now I've committed myself to this silliness, the book forces me to check with the Danish wholesalers as well. They are still using the previous model of bag, proving (as if I needed it) that this bag came from Switzerland. Now that that's been settled, I have to see what the forensics labs at Scotland Yard can tell me about the bag, because the authors figure that if I'm going to be thorough about this, I'm going to be really thorough. What are the odds that the lab workers find traces of Untersee cheese?

Many a true word etc. Spectro-analytical instruments detected a slight cheesy aroma on the outside of the bag (clue 48). No, they couldn't identify the cheese. And I'm back to the progress check.

I think I can risk one more investigation before heading to Untersee. The bomb timer may contain some signature, so I'll look into that. It turns out to have been designed for a parking meter, and manufactured in Liechtenstein. An attempt has been made to destroy the serial number, but the lab technicians were able to find it anyway. Records indicate where the timer was sold. Down where it's wetter, as it were (and that's not even close to being the most convoluted pun I've ever made).

The workshop that purchased the timer pronounced it as defective, and claimed to have discarded it. As it's not remotely defective, someone in the workshop must be involved. There are three possible candidates: family man Albert Schmidt, outspoken socialist Heinrich Popper, and good citizen Peter Klaus. Picking the right one is unlikely to be tricky at this stage.

Peter Klaus: qualified engineer, and former local councillor. After resigning from the council, he quit his job at the workshop and moved to Basle to become a travel guide. For obvious reasons, there was no sign of him in Basle during the three days before the bomb scare (clue 32).

Back to the progress check, and it's time to head out to Untersee (chief exports manganese, cheese and conspirators, though the encyclopædia entry doesn't mention the latter). Straight off, I get asked about clues 32 and 33. Having both, I draw conclusions about Francchi and Klaus' rôles in the plot, and the text has me decide to focus on Francchi first.

He's working on putting right the damage caused by an avalanche last year. A job that would provide access to, and expertise with, explosives. I'll try following the paper trail before I do anything else. Well, it wouldn't be difficult for someone to exaggerate the amounts of explosives they were using, and keep the excess for illegal projects (clue 13). But Francchi's bosses become uncooperative, and refer me to the Town Council when I ask to see more records. The Town Council are similarly unhelpful, but ploughing through the minutes of their meetings turns up the information that both Francchi and Klaus were on the Council back when plans for building a fall-out shelter were first approved.

What else can I unearth about Klaus, then? I head to Basle and, hoping that I've not come to his attention, hire him as a guide. He suggests a climbing holiday or a trip in a hot-air balloon, so maybe he does know I've been making enquiries about him. I've already been climbing once this adventure, and a ballooning 'accident' would be harder to contrive, so let's take to the skies.

The description of the trip takes an odd turn when it gets to the clouds: 'Somehow it reminds you of something you feel you once knew - those 'mountains' so tall and solid-looking, but in fact just mist.' But before long I focus on the job in hand, and try to engage Klaus in conversation. It goes nowhere productive, and then we hit turbulence, and the wind picks up. Klaus suggests landing as soon as possible, unless I want to risk going with the wind. Frankly, my dear...

The wind takes us past Untersee, and Klaus curses upon seeing the avalanche damage. I ask some leading questions, learning that the avalanche was 'the cause of all [their] troubles', and that while only two people died in it, 'the price was heavy'. He also mentions the possibility of subterranean damage caused by the weight of the debris.

We land in Italy, close to a chapel that Klaus knows. He gets angry upon finding the door locked, which has never happened before. After cutting through the chain, we go inside and find that a tent has been erected there. Klaus is puzzled, but I've seen this kind of thing before, and suggest that he check inside the tent for a chair. He finds two, both with handcuffs attached. Great! We've found a kidnappers' hideout, set up so as to give the victims no idea where they're being held. Probably due to be used very soon, so there's a distinct possibility that our arrival was noticed and is not welcome.

I get Klaus to help me set up a trap using the tent and some gas cylinders. Two armed men approach the chapel. Best not to act until we can get both... But the first one is suspicious, and opens fire, wounding Klaus. The two of them then run off. I make Klaus as comfortable as I can, and he mutters something about 'the spinner'. I head off in search of help, and meet two other people, a man and a boy. The boy saw the attack while looking for a lost sheep, and fetched the farmer, who notified the mountain rescue team and has brought a first-aid kit along.

Before long the team arrives. They strap Klaus to a stretcher and take him to a hospital, where he's found to have a cracked pelvis. He won't be going far for a while, then.

News of the incident precedes me back to Untersee, and the locals buy me drinks and ask me questions. Becoming aware that, while not drunk, I am getting a little incautious, I decide to nurse the next drink: stopping abruptly could raise suspicions. Too late - I've already said a bit too much, and that next drink is spiked. I'm vaguely aware of being put on a stretcher, and then nothing...

Until I come round inside the cabin of a motorboat in motion. The door is locked, the portholes have been hastily boarded over, and I'm in no fit state to exert myself. Eventually it stops, and at some point someone unlocks the door without my noticing. The boat is deserted, and tied up at a jetty. I risk going ashore. Still no signs of life. Whoever brought me here could be hiding in a nearby copse. Given the choice between crawling through the grass so as to reach the copse unobserved or returning to the boat, I pick the latter for personal reasons relating to a party I attended in 1990. Let's just say that the combination of spiked drinks and crawling around in the grass has unpleasant associations, and leave it there.

Back on the boat I arm myself with a bottle and wait. Eventually my abductors get fed up of hiding in the locked engine room, and head for the cabin. The door is too narrow for them to come in together. Decent bottles don't shatter when you use them to stun people. After tying them up, I manage to find out that I'm close to Lausanne (clue 68). The authorities may not be entirely convinced of the reliability of a drink-smelling foreigner with traces of some drug in his bloodstream, so I just take the boat back to Untersee and avoid making a fuss about this whole regrettable business.

Once I'm back there, I get asked if I have clue 3 and/or 68. Just the second of those, but evidently there are consequences still to come from my unplanned boat trip. Oh, I have the option of asking the locals if they know anyone with a boat, questionable morals, a sore head, and signs of having been tied up recently. Or I could recognise that pursuing such enquiries is liable to lead to more lethal interference - well, that or a misunderstanding involving a lady who charges for unusual shenanigans.

Instead, I look through back-copies of the local paper, finding an eighteen-month-old article on avalanche damage to the local caves. Francchi is quoted as saying that repair work would take eighteen months. Further reading turns up an article from six months ago, which announces the resignation of the entire finance committee, which included Ulrich, Goch, Francchi and Klaus. There is also mention of a Herr Spinne. The same issue mentions the retirement of Wolf Spinne, renowned for having aided refugees from the Nazis and worked with the Red Cross in Hungary. His 34-year-old son Wilhelm has taken over the family business. And one last article, from shortly after the avalanche, tells of research which has indicated that deep caves are good environments for producing specialist cheeses, but changes to the conditions may disrupt things for up to two years (clue 51).

Concluding that I need to investigate the avalanche damage, and aware that the locals aren't about to let me, I contrive a plan to sneak in from the far side. So I go climbing about, and lose track of the time appreciating the wonders of nature. Better to take an extra day over the investigation than mess about in the semi-darkness and risk injury or death.

The following day I try my hardest to avoid attracting attention. At one point, staying out of the way of others leads me to wind up waist-deep in a stream. The Choose Your Own Adventure book Mountain Survival taught me the importance of drying off, so I sneak into a barn that has the sun shining through a hatch in the roof. A couple of local dogs play with my clothes while they're drying, so they're a bit tatty by the time I put them back on (clue 35 - not really a clue, but evidently my sojourn in the barn could have repercussions).

In the end I reach the site where the work is being done just as the day's shift ends.I wait for everyone to leave, then wait a bit longer, then sneak in, heading straight for the cave. The walls are being strengthened, which makes sense in a fall-out shelter, but local stone is being used rather than concrete. Also, the air-conditioning set-up is outside, which is odd. And the passage forks. Have I come this far, only to wind up failing because I take the wrong turning?

The one I take leads to a cheesy-smelling chamber, its walls lined with racks, some holding cheeses, the others empty. At the far end are sealed, air-tight hydraulic doors. No way of getting through them. As I head back, I reflect that local stone would be appropriate for a cheese-processing plant, as it'd be what the bacteria are used to. And then I see a side turning I'd missed.

Of course I check it out. It leads to a chamber where the ceiling is being reinforced, and tunnels have been excavated. They are fitted with racks, lined with local stone. Tarpaulins cover cheese-making equipment, much of it damaged. It looks as if the avalanche destroyed the caves where Untersee cheese was matured, so the locals are secretly building new ones.

While investigating one of the tunnels, I hear footsteps, so I turn off my torch and hide. Lights go on in the chamber, and a quick glance enables me to spot Klaus, on crutches. He's accompanied by someone I can't see, but when he calls the man 'Dieter' I know it must be Francchi. They discuss the reinforcement work, and  Francchi mentions that getting funding to complete the job should be easier now that most of the bonds have been shredded.

I get asked if I have clue 35. In a truly glorious non-sequitur, my having had my clothes slightly torn by puppies apparently causes me to knock a stone with my foot, prompting a search of the chamber and tunnels. A breeze suggests that the tunnel I'm in is not a dead end, but I keep still lest I attract more and closer attention. Eventually the search dies down. I continue to lie low, and a while later the searchers actually leave, because nobody came out of hiding when they pretended to go, so that suggests that there was no intruder after all.

I can either investigate that breeze, or go back out the way I came in and check out the on-site huts. Unable to keep from noticing that the section number for going to the huts is the same one as for doing so before entering the cave, I consider two possibilities. 1) There's vital evidence in them, and I'm being given a second chance of getting it. 2) There's nothing but trouble to be had by approaching them, and this is a second opportunity to blunder into the trap. Given what I've learned in the caves, 2 seems more likely, so I go deeper into the tunnel, which ends at a crack in the wall, concealed from outside by a shrub. The conspirators might not know about this way in and out (clue 20).

I take my time returning from the mountains, and make it back to London without incident. While my findings are gone over to see if there's enough evidence to get the conspirators extradited, my lack of clue 39 prompts me to find out more about the enigmatic Herr Spinne. His surname means 'spider', but that's only really of significance in the context of the book title. More pertinently, 59-year-old shoemaker Wolf Spinne was part of a tour group that came to London shortly before the bomb incident. He split off from the touring party without notifying the authorities (hence his not turning up in the course of my earlier researches), and spent some days living extravagantly at one of the pricier hotels (on a shoemaker's income?). The suspicions raised by his extravagance become more substantial when his bill turns out to have been paid by a very respectable German bank because he had no credit cards.

The same bank also paid for his flight to London from Amsterdam. And his flight to Amsterdam from Frankfurt. And hire of the helicopter in which he visited Limburg. Also, despite arriving in Frankfurt just ten minutes before his flight was scheduled to leave, he had no problems with the standard formalities. He obviously has good connections (clue 50).

At the London branch of the bank in question, I get the run-around. Unimpressed, I barge into the manager's office and, when he blusters about client confidentiality, go over his head to the German directors to find out how happy they'd be about being implicated in an attempt to blow up the Bank of England. That gets results.

It turns out that Herr Spinne has a hundred thousand dollars in his account. At all times. Whenever anything is paid out of it, one of ten extremely wealthy people tops it back up. Four of these benefactors escaped from Nazi Germany via Switzerland, but there's nothing else that connects any of them. Beyond the 'being stinking rich' thing. It's an odd set-up, but there doesn't appear to be anything illegal about it. One of the other contributors to the account has been implicated in the murder of a Mafia boss, but the others are squeaky-clean.

The account is closed before I can pursue further lines of enquiry. Remembering the name of the one Englishman who paid money into it, I track him down, but he says little beyond praising Spinne as 'a great man' and 'a man of honour' who 'has done me a great service'.

I'm asked if I have clue 51. Yes, and this leads me to the conclusion that Spinne is a strange kind of philanthropist. The more I learn about him, the more convinced I become that he masterminded the whole scheme, and that I have no way of proving it. But what of the others involved? Four specific clues are required for a sufficiently compelling case against them. I have only three of them. Not good enough. They're going to get away with it.

Mind you, considering the way that bankers have been carrying on in recent years, it's hard to build up much resentment about a gang that conned one bank out of a few million in order to save an industry on which a whole Swiss canton depended, which was threatened because of a natural disaster rather than any human wrongdoing. The end doesn't justify the means, but the conspirators' actions may be a lesser evil than what would have happened otherwise.

Oh, and one of the essential clues I did have? 48. I may have failed, but my insistence on researching that paper bag was the right choice after all. And knowing that... no, it's not as good as victory. But I'd have thought less of the book if it made obsessively investigating a brown paper bag a bad thing.

Wednesday, 15 May 2013

I Will Let You Down

My after-school wanderings on the day that I acquired Trial of Champions, Ian Livingstone's sequel to Deathtrap Dungeon, took me as far as the High Street. I may have got the book before I got down there, though: I started reading it while walking along the street, and I was outside the (now closed and derelict) cinema when my character fell victim to the Mind Warp Beast, and I think it unlikely that I could have got that far into the book while covering just the distance from the book shop on the High Street.

One of the reasons ToC got written was because of the large number of fans who wrote in requesting or demanding a sequel to DD. It is, consequently, a little odd that this book has the viewpoint character forced to enter the redesigned Deathtrap Dungeon rather than going in willingly like so many of the readers wanted to. Nevertheless, at the start of the adventure I am a galley slave, recently captured by the less-than-charming Captain Bartella, and sold along with the other slaves (wonder how the galley's going to be powered once it leaves) to the equally charmless Lord Carnuss.

Carnuss is the younger brother of Baron Sukumvit, the designer and creator of Deathtrap Dungeon, and thinks that his elder sibling will be humiliated if one of the first adventurers to enter the new, tougher and deadlier, dungeon, makes it through alive. His reasoning is sound up to that point, but goes rather awry when it leads him to the conclusion that the best way to ensure that this humiliation occurs is to mistreat and abuse a few dozen slaves until all but one of them are dead, and send the survivor into the dungeon with the bare minimum of equipment, and no stronger motivation than 'if you don't die, I won't have you executed'.

Decent stats are essential if I'm to have even the slightest chance of success, so I'm swapping around my Skill die and one of the Stamina dice to make my character a not-necessarily-doomed
Skill 12
Stamina 19
Luck 11
Incidentally, this is the first of Mr. Livingstone's FF books not to include the claim that even characters with lousy initial rolls should have little difficulty succeeding provided they take the optimal path. It hasn't been true since at least the original Deathtrap Dungeon, but it's taken a while for the books to drop the pretense.

On the first morning of the elimination process, a guard brings food to the cell. The option of attacking him is given, but you'd have to be dumber than Lord Carnuss to think that anything good could come of doing so. Instead, I eat as hearty a meal as is possible under the circumstances, and proceed to the first challenge of the day, which involves running around a racetrack until one of us gets lapped or collapses. With the added complications that a small stretch of the track has been covered in hot coals, which the runners will have to jump over to avoid getting burned, and we've all been given backpacks full of rocks to wear. I suspect that the research for this book did not include trying on a rock-filled backpack to see how easy it is to run, let alone attempt a long jump, while wearing it.

Cross-country running was the aspect of school sports that I loathed least, so I wound up doing a fair bit of it. Aware of my limitations, I tended to focus on trying not to be last, rather than wearing myself out faster in a futile attempt to come first. A similar approach works well at this stage of the adventure. We run for twenty minutes before the northman in the lead decides to speed up, and as he comes close to overtaking us, we all break into a sprint. The hindmost runner, a Dwarf, collapses just as the northman draws level with him. Perhaps he was hoping on exploiting a technicality: the first to be lapped or collapse would be put to death, but the Dwarf managed to do both simultaneously. But he's in no fit state to quibble, and gets executed before he can start rules lawyering.

The next challenge is more problematic. I have to choose a weapon before being taken to face an opponent in the arena. If I go for sword and shield, I'll face a tough fight, in which losing even one round of combat leads to death. With trident and net, the risk of death is greatly reduced, but what happens is a lot more random, and I could wind up losing a shocking amount of Luck if I get a string of bad rolls. Well, losing Luck is potentially problematic, but death is fatal. I take my chances with trident and net, and a lucky roll enables me to ensnare and fell the Bonecrusher on the very first try.

By the end of the day, only two slaves remain in each cell. A jovial guard announces that only one of us is to come out in the morning, and my cellmate chooses to resolve the issue with a fight. Despite my superior Skill, he wounds me several times before I guarantee that my night's rest won't be interrupted by murderous attacks.

The following day starts with a test that involves alternately jumping over and ducking under rotating blades. Anyone with stats low enough to make this a serious challenge  is unlikely to have survived the preceding fight, but on at least one previous attempt at the book I've had a character wiped out at this stage by an unlucky roll. That won't happen today, as there's no way of getting above twelve on two six-sided dice.

Next up is something a good deal nastier. We're divided into two groups, and as part of the second group, I get to see the first lot experience the kind of 'fun' that awaits me. They are sent into an arena to fight to the death with spiked balls on chains. But blindfolded. The last man standing is a southerner, and then it's group two's turn to play this variant on 'murder in the dark'.

A cry of pain and a thud from up ahead indicate that someone's been eliminated. I move left, until the text decides that I change direction, after which I manage not to trip over a body I hadn't realised was on the ground in front of me. Up ahead, someone is whirling their ball and chain hard enough that I can hear it whooshing through the air. Not wishing to get into range, I step back, tripping over the body. Which is actually what I'd planned, as I know from past experience that the opponent up ahead will hear me stumble, approach, and also trip over, landing on top of me, after which the two of us just punch each other repeatedly until only one is fit to get up again, and that fight should be more straightforward than blundering around, unable to see. Indeed, I only take one wound in the course of the punch-up.

Back on my feet, I continue to blindly wander around until the only other survivor gets fed up of waiting and yells a challenge. The resultant combat doesn't last long, and I get a decent meal and a night's rest before confronting the southerner in a straight fight. He doesn't so much as scratch me, but as he dies, he urges me to avenge him and all the other slaves who died here.

I am restored to full health, chained up, and taken to Fang for the eponymous trial. There are four other entrants, and I get to go in second, after a doomed dwarf. Equipped only with a sword and a leather pouch (and presumably some clothing - it is indicated later on that the pouch is attached to my belt), I head down the tunnel until I see a door with 'Keep Out' written on it. The dwarf evidently heeded this warning, as something behind the door is making scratching and sniffing noises. I don't emulate my predecessor, as I know that the first of the many items I need in order to win is behind it. As is a flame-breathing Hellhound, which mildly singes me before I put it down and out. A quick search turns up a gold ring, which I put in the pouch before moving on.

Up ahead is a junction, and a rarity for a Livingstone-penned gamebook at this stage of his writing career: I will have the option of reconsidering and turning back if I don't like the look of the way ahead. I go the correct way, but if I'd not remembered the right direction, I would not have been doomed if I'd taken the wrong turning. And that's about the last bit of leniency that'll be shown to Livingstone's readers. Ever.

The tunnel leads to a pit, spanned by a rope bridge. Ignoring the sign that says 'Pay gold to cross', I go as far as the rope that dangles down into the pit, and then climb down it. Eventually I reach a ledge which leads to a cave mouth, and the cave's occupant tries to push me off the ledge. It fails, and I fight my assailant, a Strider (no relation to Aragorn). He wounds me once, and I kill him and take his bone medallion. There's nothing else of interest here, so I climb back up and continue on to the far side of the pit. Actually, the text indicates that the rope is right by the edge of the pit, but the earlier illustration showed the rope hanging from the middle of the bridge. Tut-tut.

The tunnel beyond the pit comes to a dead end, but I find the button that activates a secret door, and proceed. Before long I reach a door with a broom on it. Behind it is a room containing a crone, gleefully dumping vermin into a cauldron. I ask if she's got a Food Hygiene Certificate, and she sprinkles dust on the floor and vanishes. Two Vampire Bats attack, and while neither is particularly difficult to kill, the second does get to drain a few of my Stamina while I'm preoccupied with the first.

Searching the room, I find a phial of red dust and a wooden box with a carving depicting the dwarf who was first to enter the dungeon. This is not misleading packaging: the dwarf is trapped inside the box, and will remain that way unless I lift the lid, in which case I will take his place until such time as some other mug opens the box. Oddly enough, if I were to get myself trapped here and be Lucky enough to get set free, I'd still potentially be able to encounter the three contestants who follow me into the dungeon, so the only explanation for my getting out is that after I release the Dwarf, he comes back here (being let out results in transportation to another room) and reopens the box that swallowed him up the last time he looked inside it. Twit.

I'm not going to open the box, though, because that would at best result in my missing two vital items. Instead, I take the vial of dust and return to the corridor. Behind the next door, which has a dead bird nailed to it, I find a refrigerated room occupied by a Coldclaw. It wants to eat my innards, apparently 'as punishment for entering its lair', but I'm pretty sure that it just likes eating offal, and is spuriously using my 'trespassing' to justify an illicit snack.

I take a lot of damage in the fight. The room contains a sealed clay pot that has another gold ring in it, and has an exit that leads into the Coldclaw's cave. Also in the cave are a pair of boots which confer a Skill bonus on anyone who was idiot enough to attack the guard back at the start of the adventure (the resultant flogging is the only way to have lost Skill at this stage of the book, and the rules include the usual restriction on exceeding your Initial scores, so only those who got themselves flogged can benefit from this bonus), and a gold-painted skull with a detachable neurocranium. Taking the top off of this unleashes a Bone Devil, which has mental powers that don't work on me because of that medallion. The medallion doesn't protect me from its 'hitting me with a bony fist' powers, though, and by the end of the fight I'm down to my last 2 Stamina. Still, the Bone Devil also has a gold ring, and I need to collect the set, so I had no choice.

Returning to the tunnel, I continue to a junction, at which point I see a small person run away, and am compelled to pursue him. As a means of forcing the reader to go a certain way, 'you follow the strange figure' isn't actually a whole lot better than 'you take the turning because I say you do'. But it's preferable to 'you enter the room and trigger the trap because you opened the door', which crops up in at least two parts of this book.

The next door I see does not lead to either of those instances. It doesn't lead to anything good, either, so I ignore it. Further along the tunnel I find (well, fall over) a pile of rocks with a sword under it. It's the kind of sword that can harm beings which are only harmed by magical weapons (so I could have just said 'magic sword', except that up until now 'magic sword' has generally meant a Skill or Attack Strength bonus, and this one provides no bonus).

Further on I find a door that has been boarded up, so I prise off the boards and enter the room behind the door. It 'has not been entered for years', which is odd, as the key that can be acquired in here is essential for getting through to the end of the adventure, but it was only a year ago that someone beat the original Deathtrap Dungeon, so the key must have been hidden here before the radical redesign of the dungeon that introduced the door it unlocks. This is far more baffling than the riddle which must be solved to acquire the key (though my schoolfriend Nick, who went for every wrong answer suggested in the book before getting it right through process of elimination would disagree about how easy the riddle is).

Once I have the key, I go back to the tunnel. The next door does lead to one of those 'you opened it, you walk into the trap' situations, so I avoid it and carry on to the next junction. One door is visible, so I approach it and go through. This leads to the chamber of the Liche Queen, who offers me her gauntlet of pain. Well, 'offers' in the sense of threatening to kill me unless I put it on. So I accept the challenge, and succeed at the Skill roll to resist the effect (not a foregone conclusion this time, as it's on three dice). Alas, even beating the ordeal costs 3 Stamina points, and the lack of healing available between the Coldclaw's cave and here means that that's more Stamina than I have. Funnily enough (only I'm not laughing), the text does not say 'if you survive' or words to that effect after describing the Stamina loss, so apparently the Liche Queen watches me drop down dead, and approvingly throws me her gold ring.

So, after all that I wound up dying in exactly the same place as I did during my previous playthrough. But for a different reason. The other write-up also contains some quips, anecdotes and musings that I chose not to repeat here (one of which has acquired unpleasant associations in the light of some news that came out since I wrote it), so you may want to read it even though the plot is identical.