Friday, 30 August 2013

Days Like Crazy Paving

The last of Smith and Thomson's Falcon books that I got from the Book Exchange was the fourth in the series, Lost in Time. I remember little of my first attempt at it, beyond the fact that, owing to book 2's absence from the shop, I missed out on one of the potentially freaky aspects as I hadn't played through the events that my character remembers when sort-of returning to the planet Thrix. 'Sort of' because temporal shenanigans meant that, from the perspective of the entire universe except for Falcon, the original visit never happened, which makes the reunion with an old friend somewhat awkward, the friend never having experienced their previous meeting. Only I hadn't experienced it either, so the disconnect didn't jar the way it was supposed to. And history will sort of repeat itself here, as my attempt at book 2 on this blog ended far too quickly for the relevant meeting to have happened, so only readers of this blog who've read Mechanon themselves will remember dear old Carborundum.

Anyway, in a timestream where Falcon successfully returned cosmic supercriminal Baal to his prison, this triumph led to a promotion. So with vengeful traitor Agidy Yelov still at large, and a whole range of new responsibilities coming my way, naturally the next thing for me to do is attempt to travel into the future, since the last person to try it spent seventeen subjective days trapped in a void and took two months to recover from the trauma. The title of the book may be considered a subtle hint as to how well my voyage will go. And fans of J.H. Brennan's Grail Quest series may be amused to note that embarking on this quest takes me straight to section 14.

Still, this attempt to travel forwards in time at a speed greater than 3600 seconds per hour is not immediately fatal. In fact, I arrive in the year 4000, 965 years and 11 months after I set off an hour or so ago. Mission accomplished, now I can go home and do something more productive, right? Maybe not, as, while I'm geographically more or less where I was when I set off, TIME HQ seems to have slightly disappeared, and the storm raging overhead suggests that global weather control is having problems (possibly with Cybermen or Ice Warriors). My instructions were to return home as soon as shipboard computer CAIN establishes that I've reached the future, but I do have the option of hanging around for a bit to shop for a sports almanac or something. Disobeying orders is more of a book 6 sort of thing to do, so I hit the fast return switch, for all the good it'll do me.

After another hour or so, I arrive, and CAIN points out that we're not in Kansas the former Switzerland any more. Indeed, my time machine appears to have materialised inside a large stomach. There is an exit visible some way above, but CAIN is dubious about my chances of successfully piloting the ship's flyer through it, so I don my environment suit and go for a wander outside to check that there are no mynocks chewing on the ship's power cables. Randomly, I fail to trip over, and wander over to the stomach wall. Climbing to the exit is not going to be easy, but blasting footholds in the wall could lead to a deluge of alien Gaviscon, so I'll endeavour to ascend unassisted.

It's a tough climb, but I make it, and the view outside is quite impressive. I've actually just emerged from a fruit growing on a big tree, and can see only more oversized vegetation and correspondingly large insects. Well, either that or I've had some trouble with space pressure. Regrettably, the choices open to me do not include 'climb back down and try to travel to somewhere less weird', so, looking at what I can do, I take the marginally more sensible-looking option of tying myself to a giant coconut until sundown.

Once I can see the stars, I am able to work out that I don't have the faintest idea where I am. So I climb down the outside of the fruit and peel my way back to the ship (not that difficult with the blaster). Once CAIN can see the constellations, it calculates that I'm somewhere in the Andromeda galaxy, so maybe I should be wary of those giant insects. Further data processing narrows my location down to the planet Zorgon in the year 3747, which doesn't tell me much, as the data banks are a bit deficient in details about what will have happened many light years from home just over seven centuries after the last update.

I can now leave, but being in the future makes navigation a bit fuzzy, and the only destinations on which I can focus are a high-gravity planet and what could be Earth in the Dark Ages. Further cheery news is that I've already used almost half of my fuel, and unless I can make it back home in no more than five time-jumps, I'll be stranded off the shoulder of Orion or near the Tannhäuser Gate or wherever the last of those trips actually takes me.

Arriving on the Dark Ages-type world, I am informed by CAIN that this isn't Earth, but the computer has insufficient data to tell me where I am. Local flora and fauna are a lot like Earth species, though, and a nearby mediaeval-looking city looks pretty human-made. CAIN advises that if I'm going there, I should wear something less conspicuous than my environment suit, and the slightly quirky manner in which the recommendation is made has me worrying that that last trip may have activated a Genuine People Personality buried somewhere in its subroutines. Not knowing what's appropriate for wherever this is at whichever point in its history I am, I have the ship's molecular convertor dispense a suit of armour. Pretty generic, and also good if I should encounter a mob of LARPers.

With no reference points, the city's a little bewildering. Given a choice between two more or less arbitrary buildings, I pick the one displaying the ten-spoked wheel emblem I've seen on a couple of people. It turns out to be a tavern and, perhaps because of my psychic abilities, I'm able to understand the poem being recited by a man with formidable facial hair.

An altercation between a couple of patrons sends me flying into a nearby table, and the men seated at it draw rapiers to punish me for spilling their pints. A quick blast of mental energy fells one of them, probably inducing a worse hangover than the wasted beer would have given him, and his friends back off, worried that I might be able to kill them with my brain. Meanwhile, the man who knocked me over is about to slit the throat of the young woman with whom he was fighting (who's dressed as a page boy). Vague memories of the book suggest that I'm better off not interfering, but I can't ignore her mute appeal for help, and psychically clobber the man with the dagger. If this is where I'm pretty sure it is, that's not the first time I've taken a strictly unnecessary risk to prevent some stranger from undergoing an extreme tracheotomy in this city.

The girl I just saved invites me to her home, but I decline, since I'm pretty sure that that's how to end up having my own throat cut by Mark Smith's player character. Instead I head back to the ship, telling CAIN about an encounter I didn't actually have on this playthrough, getting a seriously snarky response, and entirely failing to comment on the fact that this whole stretch of the book is a crossover with Smith and Thomson's other major gamebook series.

My next time-jump takes me to Earth in 3034 AD, a day after the adventure began, though for a quarter of an hour a malfunction looks set to trap me in null-space. My return home is less triumphant than might be expected and, ominously, there's graffiti in the hovrail car I take home. Well, that's ominous to Falcon, but some might find more cause for concern in the reason why graffiti alarms our hero: 'Normally psychos are given new thought patterns before they can get so dangerous'. Yes, in Falcon's brave new world, those who don't conform can expect a brain-wipe long before they progress to such antisocial extremes as writing on walls. One of the slogans scrawled in the car suggests that the writer sees the Federation as more Blake's 7 than Star Trek, too.

On my way home I meet my friend and fellow TIME Agent Bloodhound, who's lost three fingers and developed a profound loathing of me since I chatted with him yesterday. Puzzled, I continue to my quarters, much to the surprise of Falcon, who's already home. No, that's not a mistake. I'm in a parallel universe, and Bloodhound's difficulties with touch-typing are the equivalent of a goatee or eyepatch.

Not-me Falcon and I both hurl bolts of psychic energy, which cancel each other out. We both switch to attempting to control our counterpart's mind, and are again stalemated. But that gives me the idea of throwing a chess set at Fauxcon. Who has the same idea, but isn't as close to the table. Still, a bad roll means that I fail to checkmate my opponent, and the next moment, we both have our blasters pointed at each other. I don't dodge, because so far this world's Falcon has thought of what I've thought of every time, so any shot fired will be aimed in anticipation of that dodge. Unless Falcon-2 thinks I'll dodge in anticipation of being anticipated, and thus fires randomly, because I'd see an aimed shot coming. Or deliberately shoots at somewhere other than where they were going to not shoot, because I wouldn't expect them to do what they were going to do if they knew that there was no point in doing what they were going to do because I was going to expect it. I think.

And while I'm trying to second-guess myself, the other Falcon gives me a faceful of superheated plasma. Crude, but admittedly more effective than my mental convolutions. For once it was better to shoot first and ask questions later.

Wednesday, 28 August 2013

I Do Not Think It Means What You Think It Means

I knew of Marc Gascoigne thanks to his editorial work on Warlock magazine, Fighting Fantasy monster guide Out of the Pit and Titan - the Fighting Fantasy World, but that wasn't the reason I wound up buying Battleblade Warrior, his one FF gamebook, significantly more quickly than two of the three that preceded it. Well, Titan probably was a factor in the decision, but because it had familiarised me with the scenario of Warrior, and a recognised set-up had more appeal than the previous book's 'save some place you never heard of from an unfamiliar villain and the horrors of multiplication'. Besides, I'm pretty sure that by the time Warrior came out, I had bought the books I'd been slow to acquire, so my completist tendencies would have kicked in when I saw that there was a new FF book.

I don't remember much about my first attempt, beyond the fact that I didn't use dice, and made it to the end, but failed for want of an essential item. Since reacquiring it (roughly half way through the year it took me to complete the set once I'd decided to get the lot), I've never got anywhere near that far, always getting into some fight that proved beyond my capabilities. Consequently I think it might be worth tailoring my character if the dice should show potential and sub-optimal distribution. Which they do, so a quick shuffle of the numbers gives me:
Skill 11
Stamina 16
Luck 9
I'll probably still fail, but at least it's less likely to be at the claws of that wretched Swamp Mutant.

The city of Vymorna has been besieged by Lizard Man armies for the past six years, and in this adventure I play a member of the Vymornan royal family. At the end of a hard day, the evening spent fire-fighting after a Lizard Man siege engine set the south tower alight, I sleep heavily and dream of an encounter with Telak, the local deity of Courage. He gives me a mission to seek a man named Laskar and travel to a distant mountain, where I may find a weapon that will turn the tide of battle in our favour. The background section skips the bit where I tell others of the dream and convince them that I've been selected for a vital quest and am not just seeking an excuse to desert, honest, mum, so the next thing I know, I'm preparing to set off.

Before I leave, the Queen shows me a small selection of items that may aid me in my quest, of which I may take only two because we wouldn't want to make saving the city too easy, now would we? I pick the bottle of liquid, as it'll provide an opportunity to poke fun at authors who don't know what a balm actually is (though this one does at least not bite), and the globe of petrified glow-worm fragments, which will make a convenient if implausible light source.

There are three possible ways of departing, and as I have vague recollections of an online discussion in which somebody asserted that one of them invariably leads to failure, I shall stick with the one I know to be workable. That is, sneaking out before dawn and trying to get through enemy lines without being spotted. This may sound like a bad idea, but I have a cloak. And on the far side of the city, several Vymornans have been persuaded to launch a suicidal attack against the Lizard Men to distract them.

I head through the trenches, picking directions more or less at random, because I don't think the decisions matter that much (in the sense that I'm fairly sure there are no lethal dead ends (literal or metaphorical) down here, rather than 'whatever I choose, I get forced to do the same thing' - the obnoxious railroading comes later). Hearing something approaching, I hide from what turns out to be a Lizard Man riding on a riding lizard.

The repetition of words may make that sound silly, but it's no stranger than this.

Passing signs of recent fighting, I head away from the river, and spot the same section number being used for more than one turning. It's not unreasonable that in this warren of trenches, multiple paths could lead to the same point, but after my previous online attempt at this adventure, I'm wary of choices that aren't really choices. And picking the section number that hasn't cropped up already leads me to a dead end, forcing me to turn back and go the way I was avoiding after all.

A Two-headed Lizard Man standing on the edge of the trench spots me and, not wanting to fight on such uneven terms, I grab his foot and pull him down to my level. Somehow he manages to land on his sword, dying in the process, so I don't have to fight at all. Some wooden steps take me up to ground level, and I catch sight of a catapult like the one responsible for the fire I had to help put out before the adventure started. Let's see how the Lizards like it when humans burn their stuff, eh? They don't, and I have to fight the catapult crew before I can set light to the catapult, but soon I have a merry blaze going.

Marching feet approach, so I hide behind some barrels. Hearing what sounds like an argument in the Lizard Man tongue, I sneak a look, and see a Lizard Man priest beating the mutant Lizard Man that had been transporting him in a chariot before it lost a wheel. The priest looks around for assistance and, not wishing to be mistaken for someone named Jack, I duck out of sight. Eventually the priest and mutant leave in search of a wheelwright or something, and I can move on.

As I draw near to the edge of the Lizard Men's camp, I spot the riding lizard pens and try to steal a ride. All's fair, right? A bell rings as I unhitch a lizard, but by the time any guard comes to investigate, I'm already speeding away. Still, that wasn't the only lizard in the enclosure, and I soon have half a dozen pursuers, who start to gain on me as time passes, getting close enough that they can start shooting at me with arrows. I head for a copse, and a man shoots my steed dead, though I survive the abrupt end to the ride unscathed. Yelling preposterously PG abuse at him (seriously, 'son of a bristle-beast'?), I head towards him, and he drags me into the copse, which the Lizard Men are strangely reluctant to enter. Maybe not so strangely - they might have scented the man's pet Sabre-toothed Tiger. The man shoots a couple of the Lizard men, and the Tiger scares the survivors' mounts away, at least for the time being.

Introductions follow, the man not turning out to be Laskar. Instead, he's the son of noted explorer Tadeus Lecarte. Never heard of him. Well, my character hasn't, but there is a paragraph on Tadeus in Titan, so I know of him. Lecarte junior is searching for his father (a pretty futile quest, given that the paragraph on Tadeus includes details of his death at the jaws of an undomesticated Sabre-tooth), but suggests that we head for the nearby town of Capra before more Lizard Men come after me. Then again, they might catch up before we get there, especially as only one of us has a mount (because some idiot shot mine), so it might be better to just stand and get massacred fight when the Lizard reinforcements arrive. Or we could set a trap using a 'fire-making substance' that a trader from Kallamehr sold him.

I go for the trap option, thereby discovering that the fire-making substance is from Sardath, which strains plausibility a little: this is roughly equivalent to being in 13th century Cardiff with a weapon manufactured in Inverness and bought from a passing cockney. Still, the Flashpowder blows apart the dozen Lizard Men who come back for me, so it seems a little picky to grumble about the unlikely route it took to get here.

We proceed to Capra, where I am besieged by locals wanting news of the situation in Vymorna. Eventually I'm allowed to get some rest, and in the morning I'm also provided with extra Provisions. Before I set off again, Lecarte suggests that I disguise myself as a non-human, but I've had enough friendly fire incidents to put me off the idea (one is plenty). He then offers me a souvenir from his wares, and I take a phial of purple liquid that might come in handy later on. Lecarte also advises me to seek out someone called White-Eye.

From here I can go north or east, and as I'm pretty sure that north leads to the incident that soured me on the book the last time I played it online, I go east. It gets misty, and the book gives me the option of changing my mind and going north, which strengthens my suspicion that the tracks are that way. East, if Mr. Gascoigne will let me. Yes, I may continue, but a peculiar howling noise prompts another 'are you sure you wouldn't rather change your mind?' option (though this one leads to a different number). E.A.S.T.

Further ahead, the ground is strewn with white stones and pebbles, which closer examination reveals to be bits of bone. Shapes form in the mist, and I hear more howling. Giving in to fear will not help, so I stand my ground. Ghostly warriors appear around me, locked in perpetual battle, and I invoke what little royal authority I have and tell them to go away. One of them tells me that they've been waiting for a command from a Vymornan captain for a long time, and they fade away before I can say, 'In that case, head back to Vymorna and get rid of the Lizard Men.'

The mist disperses, and the book tells me to eat a portion of Provisions. This is a bit annoying, as I'm already at full Stamina, so that's a bit of a waste, but as I can only eat when the text gives permission and it's taken this long to get to the first meal, I think it unlikely that there'll be enough subsequent opportunities for me to get through the remaining portions anyway.

Moving on, I reach rough ground, and find myself looking down into a depression containing a Triceratops. Wow! Not only have I evaded the railroady Orc funeral, I've also skipped the encounter with Katya the clueless (whose idea of stealth involves standing up and yelling) and the opportunity to get overpowered and left for dead by serpent people without Katya's assistance. Descending into the depression got me into a horrendous fight that brought my previous playthrough of Warrior to a not entirely unwelcome end (the stuff I missed by encountering the ghostly warriors had me hating the book so much I was half glad to be finished with it), so as I'm not so disgusted with the adventure today, I'll see if detouring around the depression works any better.

My detour leads through a clump of trees, which conceals a whacking great Tyrannosaurus Rex. Thinking quickly, I attempt to lure the T-Rex to the depression in the hope that it and the Triceratops will distract each other, and the plan works. The book provides stats for both dinosaurs, making it possible to play out their battle if any reader wants to see the outcome (odds are that Rex will win), but the 'multiple attacks' aspect on both sides of the fight means that my gamebook manager isn't set up to handle it, and I don't care enough to do it the old-fashioned way with dice.

Towards the end of the day I catch sight of a caravan, and approach it. An old man with milky-white eyes invites me in and, not entirely surprisingly, reveals himself to be White-Eye, the man Lecarte suggested I seek. He's a trader, and offers food and rest in return for autobiographical anecdotes. Seems a fair deal, so I tell him of my quest, and he says he knows something about Laskar, but wants to trade for the information. I offer him the phial of purple liquid, and sniffing it causes him to momentarily trip out (leading me to suspect, based on an incident from my schooldays, that it's a derivative of Parma Violets). He agrees to the deal, and warns me that Laskar's allegiances have changed, so I should be on the alert for treachery.

Continuing on my way the following day, I travel through thick jungle, having another meal enforced upon me, and getting reminded that I can't carry more than four portions of Provisions. So what was the point of the book providing extra food in Capra when there's no opportunity to eat before getting there? After a while, a panther and I startle each other, if I were drunk, I'd sober up (it's an Orc funeral thing), and the terrain becomes swampy. As I recall, I got shredded by the Swamp Mutant after trying to find solid ground on which to make camp, so I'll try pitching my tent here instead.

My gamebook manager indirectly confirms that that is not the option I took before. I still get attacked by the Swamp Mutant. This time round, my Skill may suffice to bring me through the fight, but this is just the sort of nonsense that marred my last online attempt at the book. Also, crocodiles and alligators are not the same thing, so claiming that the Mutant 'shares many of the crocodile's characteristics' and then going on to describe it as a biped with an 'alligator head' is just inviting mockery from biologists.

I win the fight, eventually doze off, and wake up face down in what must be more drowning-proof mud. The surrounding vegetation enables me to restock to my maximum complement of Provisions, which is good news, as I would now benefit from a meal. But I can't eat just yet, though I could climb a tree if I wanted. I do so, and see hills less than a day's walk ahead. Also two 'huge birds' which, in view of the cover illustration, are probably Pterodactyls with Lizard Men on them. Staying up the tree a while longer because I can, I spot some dangling vines, and decide to attempt a Tarzan impersonation. Doing so brings me to a concealed wooden platform up another tree, with a walkway leading from it. I could return to the ground, but now I'm curious.

Further on, a knotted rope dangles from higher up, and a rope bridge leads to another tree. I climb the rope, finding a 'man-sized bundle' wrapped in vegetation in a hollow in the branches. Is that 'man-sized' as in tissues, or literally as big as a man? If this is a jungle-themed variant on an Egyptian mummy, and it animates as mummies in gamebooks have a habit of doing, the resultant fight could include a 'roll X and fall to your death' rule like the one that did for me a week ago, so I shan't risk disturbing it.

Back down to the bridge, then. Which does not collapse as I suspected it might, but brings me to another platform, which provides access to several hollows in the tree. I look into one of them, discovering that it leads to a dwelling, furnished like a hut. The tip of a weapon touches my neck, and I duck and lash out, sending my would-be assailant over the edge of the platform. He's not alone, though, and my evading his companions somehow causes most of my equipment to vanish. There's just an arbitrary mention of grabbing my inexplicably empty rucksack, which I hadn't taken off or had taken from me, and making my escape on a liana. And then the text makes out that I gather fresh Provisions, tells me to delete everything but my rucksack, sword and knife (which means I don't have any food, or it should say not to delete the Provisions, or to bring the number I had back up to four or something along those lines) and goes on to mention the approach of something winged while I'm eating the food I no longer have. Did anybody edit this book?

The approaching creature is the Lizard Man-bearing Pterodactyl I suspected earlier, but it doesn't see me, so I'm able to proceed to the hills without further trouble. Then I'm confronted by a terrifying illusion that again illustrates Mr. Gascoigne's shaky grasp of taxonomy: the jungle tribes' panther god manifests as a giant tiger. This illusion could terrify me to death, but, regrettably, I survive to continue playing (actually, with this Skill and my current Stamina, dying here would be trickier than winning Crypt of the Sorcerer by the rules).

Crossing an escarpment, I meet Laskar, who makes out that he and I are on the same quest. As he knows where to go from here, and I don't, I have to go along with him for the moment, so I accompany him to his cave. He gives me some rabbit stew and tells me to get some rest. Food and sleep are both means of restoring lost Stamina in Fighting Fantasy books, but it would appear that Mr. Gascoigne failed to pick up on this detail while editing however many of the books he handled before writing this one, as I'm still not able to heal any of the damage taken fighting the Swamp Mutant.

During the night I briefly wake and see Laskar praying. In the morning he leads me to a ravine containing a ruined city, Kharnek, reputed to be the resting place of the Arm and Eyes of Telak. The Arm is a sword, and the Eyes are... something else. Also down there are assorted undead warriors, so Laskar won't be accompanying me on my search, but makes arrangements to ambush meet me in the temple on the far side of the ravine. He provides me with a lantern, fresh stocks of Provisions (when am I going to be allowed to eat some and get back to full Stamina, Mr. Gascoigne?) and a rope, and if I'd lost my sword in some doubtless poorly-written and illogical encounter, I'd get a replacement for that as well.

We descend to the ruins, Laskar points out the way to the part of the city most likely to contain what I seek, and then he starts his ascent. I can go where directed or wait for a bit. Considering what happened the last time I waited (up that tree), I don't loiter in case it leads to some stochastic loss of a limb. The passage Laskar indicated leads to a courtyard, from which I can move on in either of two directions. And if I pick the wrong one, I probably miss the vital item I failed to acquire first time around, and wind up eventually having to play this horrid book again.

I go left because I probably went right in 1988, winding up in what appears to be a temple to the sun goddess. Again there are two ways on, and I pick the door that's half off its hinges. I'm given the option of changing my mind upon seeing that beyond the door is a corridor, but proceed, and narrowly avoid falling into a pit that opens up in front of me. The more Mr. Gascoigne tries to convince me that maybe I should turn back and try the other way out, the more convinced I become that he's trying to divert me from the correct path, so rather than turn back, I attempt to leap over the hole.

I succeed, and continue down the passage to a hall where a Giant Slug is chewing on a curtain that covers an alcove. My sword does half damage to the Slug (which is unlike the Giant Slug listed in the Gascoigne-edited Out of the Pit in every significant respect), and the fight takes so long that by sheer law of averages I lose a couple of rounds despite having a much higher Skill than the Slug.

There are two alcoves, and I check the second one first. It contains only broken bits of wood, but something glints behind a crack in the wall. I reach in, and find the key to a z-shaped lock. And now the numbers for looking in the first alcove and leaving the hall have both changed, which is ominous. I try the other alcove, and my taking the key has summoned a second Slug, which I must fight. Is this one thinner-skinned than the first, or is the writer just assuming that I'll automatically apply reduced damage as in the previous fight? I do so anyway, not that it makes any difference to the outcome. And there's nothing of interest in the alcove.

Leaving the room, I head down a decidedly skew-whiff corridor to a T-junction, and try going right. This leads to a room that's been pretty thoroughly trashed, but does have one unopened chest in it. A chest with a z-shaped lock. Inside is a large diamond, which I pocket. There's no way on from here, so I turn back and go the other way, reaching a room where I may eat Provisions at long last.

Steps lead down to a room with another two exits, and something that upon closer examination turns out to be a fountain. Spouting blood rather than water, so I don't take a drink. The left exit leads up some steps to a door that I cannot open. But the long-dead Warrior-king on the other side succeeds where I failed, and I have another fight on my hands. Though I have the higher Skill, he gets the better rolls, so I wind up skewered on his javelin. At least I can reshelve the book now.

My condolences to Marsten, who's playing Battleblade Warrior next for his blog.

Tuesday, 27 August 2013

I Must Fight This Sickness, Find a Cure.

My more successful attempt at the Lone Wolf gamebooks has reached the last book I failed on the blog, Shadow on the Sand. There are basically two viable routes through the first half of the book (with some degree of freedom of movement on both), and I think that my veteran of four books is in good enough shape to try the one I avoided last time.

Before I restart the adventure, I should pick my next bonus Discipline and see if there's anything worth taking from the additional equipment offered to me at the start. I remember from past goes at the book that in the second half there's some desert travel, so I suspect that Tracking will be of more use to me than Camouflage. As for equipment, I shall leave behind the hourglass I grabbed for fun in the previous adventure, thereby freeing up space in my backpack for another healing potion. In view of the trials ahead, there may be times when conventional Healing isn't fast enough to give me a fighting chance.

A quick reminder of the set-up for anyone unfamiliar with the book who hasn't recently read my failed try at it: I'm being sent to Vassagonia to sign a peace treaty in the hope of at least delaying the outbreak of war. Things go according to plan until about half way through section 1, at which point I discover that the new ruler of Vassagonia (or Zakhan) does not share his predecessor's desire for peace, and wants me taken prisoner upon arrival. Heavily outnumbered by the armed warriors who make up my reception committee, I head back towards the galley that brought me here. An enemy horseman blocks my way, so I dive from the quay into the sea, and swim underwater to make it harder for Vassagonian envoy Maouk and his soldiers to see which way I go.

A hostile form of jellyfish known as a Bloodlug takes an interest in me, but Animal Kinship comes in useful for the first time in a long while, enabling me to give the Bloodlug a sudden craving for calamari. Bad news for the closest squid, but it enables me to avoid having to fight while holding my breath, which can get awkward.

Surfacing beside a skiff that screens me from my pursuers, I use Mind Over Matter to create a distraction, psychokinetically toppling a large urn some distance away. This enables me to get back onto dry land unnoticed, and I'm only a short distance from the entrance to a warren of alleys by the time someone finally spots me. Fleeing, I reach a courtyard with multiple exits, and Tracking comes in handy sooner than expected, indicating that one exit leads to a dead end, and narrowing the choice to a gate and an archway. The arch is more exposed, so the gate will be better if it's not locked. But that's a big if, so I go for the arch.

It leads to a market, where business is going on as usual - except that everyone wears a black sash in honour of the late Zakhan. A stall sells sashes, and I buy one, since the old Zakhan seemed to be a comparatively reasonable chap, and not wearing a sash would make me conspicuous and more likely to get caught. A notice about the change of ruler has been attached to a tavern wall, and I risk loitering to see what it says. Just a floridly-worded announcement that the old Zakhan is dead, and Kimah has been chosen to succeed him. A nearby commotion indicates that my pursuers have reached the market and, as is traditional for chase sequences that pass through a market, knocked over a stall. The vendor objects to their clumsiness, and is decapitated. Time I was moving on.

Hurrying down the alley, I reach a plaza, and decide that I need to get off the streets as, even with the sash, my pale skin and green cloak make me a little conspicuous. There's an annoying edit in the Mongoose Publishing reissue of the book, with the observation that my appearance makes me 'stand out like a sore thumb'. The expression is 'stick out like a sore thumb'. I learned of its appropriateness after badly hurting one of my thumbs some years ago: the pain is exacerbated by any bending of the thumb, so the sufferer tends to keep the thumb straight whenever possible, as a result of which it sticks out - more in the 'protruding' sense of the term than the 'being conspicuous' sense, but the expression ignores the difference for the sake of wordplay. So Mr. Dever was just wrong in his choice of verb (unless he moves in social circles where people are ostracised for having hurt their thumbs, in which case I retract the objection and instead recommend that he get to know some nicer people).

Two buildings catch my attention: a tavern with the all-too-appropriate name 'The Hunted Lord' and a house with a wooden fish hanging above the door. Having Healing enables me to recognise the fish as the insignia of the peaceful monastic order known as the Redeemers (I made a bit of a faux pas with some of them in the previous adventure, so there ought really to be some recognition of the possibility that a player character without Healing (should such a beast even exist) who made it through book four might still recognise the sign). The local branch is sure to offer shelter, but I might get them into lethal trouble for harbouring a fugitive. My sash should keep my very presence in the tavern from causing a pursuer-attracting furore, but the stallholder incident makes it clear that bystanders could get killed if they get in the warriors' way, so whichever way I go, I risk endangering people who mean me no harm.

There's more chance of getting something useful from the Redeemers. And, being a silent order, at least they won't provoke excessive retribution by grumbling about the soldiers. I enter their hall, and a black-robed man approaches. Some of Maouk's men enter the plaza and, noting my agitation, the man points out the cellar door. In the cellar I find a tinderbox, a rope that doesn't appear to take up as much backpack space as the one I have on me, and an iron grille in the floor that, from the smell (and based on what I remember of the book) leads into the sewers. If I want to avoid being captured, that's where I'll have to go: I can already hear the soldiers searching upstairs.

It doesn't take them long to figure out where I've gone, and they smash in the trapdoor, causing the grille to fall down and injure my shoulder. At the bottom of the convenient ladder leading down from the cellar is a three-way intersection of sewer tunnels. Tracking tells me that one leads to the coast, one below the city, and one to the aqueduct, and I'm pretty sure that I'm not getting out of the city in this half of the book whatever I do, so I might as well take the most direct route.

I'm briefly delayed when my foot gets stuck in what turns out to be a human rib cage, but I remain ahead of my pursuers for long enough to reach another junction. Continuing in the same direction, I pass through a thick cloud of flies and find a ladder leading back above ground. While I'm not sure how it would happen, I know that I'd wind up captured if I were to return to the streets at this point, so I keep going. Distracted by the insects crawling on my skin, I trip over and fall face-first into the waters of the sewer. Surfacing and making for the nearest walkway, I find that one of my arms has gone numb.

Somehow, despite the fact that Healing restored the Endurance I lost when the grille hit me, and a section in book 2 made it clear that the Discipline can cause wounds to close up, bacteria in the water have infected my injured shoulder, causing me to contract Limbdeath, a disease that will cause my arm to turn gangrenous unless the wound is treated with the herb Oede within twenty-four hours. Thinking it unlikely that I'll find much Oede down here (and aware that I've found the only way to avoid being taken prisoner by Maouk), I start looking for a way out of the sewers.

Well, I would start, but to help pad the sections out to a round number, the mechanical consequences of the disease (a Combat Skill penalty, and no using a shield while afflicted) are held back until the next section. But now I can seek an exit from the sewers. There's one not far off, though it has its own hazards: up ahead is a mud geyser that has been harnessed to provide central heating for the dwellings above, with two chimneys channeling steam up to the houses. These chimneys obviously lead out of the sewers, but if I should slip while climbing up, the boiling mud below will kill me much more quickly than the infected arm could.

Resignedly following the unwritten (at the time this book came out) rule to always go left, I disturb a nest of Steamspiders. With only one good arm, I cannot fight, and must endure the biting, which turns out not to be so bad: a random number determines how much damage I take climbing past the nest, and a quick check of the Combat Results Table reveals that if I'd fought and got that number in the first round of combat, I'd have lost the same amount of Endurance anyway, and might well have taken more damage in subsequent rounds.

Further up, the chimney bends, so I'm crawling rather than climbing. The fact that this section can be reached on Limbdeath-free routes through the book results in a significant omission here: one paragraph states that I no longer care about the treaty, and my only concern is to get out of here and back home. Not so bothered about finding a cure to the disease that could cost me my arm or my life, then?

I soon find a vent in the ceiling, through which I clamber. It leads (in a convenient but logical development) to the public baths, and the short-sighted attendant has a keen enough sense of smell that he lets me through without noticing that I'm not local. Diving into the perfumed waters fully clothed, I wash away the stench of the sewers, and then turn my attention to a jar of purple oil at the side of the pool. Healing tells me that the oil is a balm, which would be useful to know if that very Discipline hadn't just restored my last lost Endurance point anyway. The book offers readers who didn't pick Healing a choice between trying to drink the oil and rubbing it on their skin (as well as just leaving it alone), and a quick peek at the relevant section confirms that Mr. Dever understands that certain medications are for external application only - a minor detail that I find amusing because I know that the Fighting Fantasy book I'll be playing next for this blog is a lot more careless about such matters.

After drying off in a heated antechamber, I mingle with the other patrons and learn that the new Zakhan is not a popular choice. I could take my towel with me when I leave, but I'd have to sacrifice two backpack items to make room for it, and that's rather too high a price to pay for the sake of a Douglas Adams in-joke.

Not far from the Bath Hall is a the Square of the Dead, where the heads of criminals are impaled on metal spikes. In a nasty twist, the crew of the galley that brought me here have been added to the collection. I hurry away, and when I pause at a junction, I spot a sign indicating that the shop across the way is a herbalist's. I pop in to ask if they have any Oede in stock, and the proprietress tells me that it's far too rare and expensive for anyone but the Imperial Apothecary in the Zakhan's palace to have any. She can offer me a few palliatives, but they're not sufficiently better than the potions I already carry to be worth the expense. More helpfully, she mentions that the guards on the north gate of the palace take bribes, and lets me out via the side door.

Presumably it's that choice of exit that enables me to avoid the encounter with Maouk that awaits any player who makes it this far without contracting Limbdeath. It's a little bit contrived that Lone Wolf either gets imprisoned in the palace or has to go there for the Oede, but that only becomes apparent after repeated play (or if some spoilsport like me points it out), so as a means of ensuring that the hero winds up where the author wants him, it's better than some I've encountered.

The alley eventually brings me to the Tomb of the Princesses, and there's a page-long digression about the story behind the tomb, involving a particularly infamous Zakhan who had his two daughters executed for trying to prevent the massacre of the slaves who built the grand Palace, and subsequently went insane. I'm pretty sure that at this stage in the series, these 'tourist guide' moments are just ostentatious world-building rather than set-up for a trivia quiz, though the book does introduce the gimmick of having to solve a puzzle to find out which section to turn to next later on.

Not far from the tomb is the palace, and from here I can see the north gate (less heavily guarded than usual because so many of the Zakhan's troops are searching the city for me) and a portcullis blocking an entrance in the west wall. Remembering the herbalist's words, I make for the gate, which opens to let in a horseman who throws the guards a scroll as he passes them. If I'd chosen Camouflage instead of Tracking, I could probably get in while the guards are distracted by the scroll, but as it is, I'll have to use bribery. I approach the guards, claiming to be a merchant petitioning to have a confiscated cargo returned to me, and they demand two items from my Backpack in return for letting me through. I'd rather hoped they'd want money - the stuff in my Backpack could be of use later on. Time for a change of plan, then.

More riders are admitted to the palace, each being let in upon presentation of a scroll. I decide to ambush one and impersonate him. A poor roll has me botch the ambush, so I have to fight the courier, and incur a temporary Combat Skill penalty. What with the Sommerswerd, my Combat Skill-enhancing Disciplines, and the helmet I picked up in book 3, I still win before the penalty has time to wear off. Taking the man's robe and his scroll, I return to the palace and the guards let me in.

Concealing myself in the palace gardens (and, judging by the lack of text forbidding me from using Hunting here, identifying some edible plants on which I can snack), I identify two entrances to the palace, and both Sixth Sense and Tracking tell me that the route to the Imperial Apothecary leads through the Zakhan's trophy hall. The door is bolted on the inside, but a window has been left open, so I'm able to get in and sneak as far as a junction. Both passages leading on end at doors, with convenient engraved signs identifying them: one shows a mortar and pestle, the other a book. I'm tempted to check out the wrong door for curiosity's sake, but I suspect that Joe Dever is not as generous as Graeme Davis when it comes to ignoring blatantly obvious visual clues.

The door to the Apothecary isn't locked, which surprises me until I find out why a lock isn't needed: there's an Elix on guard. A small group of these predatory felines provides one of the many ways of losing the last three accompanying Rangers in book 4, but this is the first time that this particular version of Lone Wolf has encountered one. Lack of experience in dealing with the species is not a significant obstacle to killing the one here. On a chain around its neck is a Gold Key which provides access to the locked strongroom where the Oede is stored. There's enough to cure the Limbdeath and still have a bit left over for a healing surge, should I need one. To free up Backpack space for it, I down one of the potions I've been carrying around, restoring what little Endurance I lost to the Elix. Healing would probably have done the job by the time I next get into a fight anyway, but I had to discard something, and at least I'll be at full strength if there's a surprise attack I've forgotten.

A second door leads out of the Apothecary, and that key fits the lock, so I go through. Behind it is a narrow staircase, which leads to a not-concealed-well-enough door, and the key unlocks that one as well. The door leads to the arboretum, where I find and ignore a random Quarterstaff. In the Mongoose text, there's also a clunky parenthesis pointing out that if I've just come from a combination lock puzzle, this section is the correct one. Was that really necessary?

I continue on my way, eventually reaching the top of a staircase down to a large room, where I see a sight so horrifying that I need to turn to a whole new section to find out what it is. In the hall below is the Zakhan, holding a black metal orb that I will have cause to regret not having pilfered from him in four-and-a-half books' time, but it is his guest who merits the new section: one of the Darklords of Helgedad, the generic-but-near-invulnerable villains responsible for the destruction of the Kai monastery back in book 1. He demands that the Zakhan fulfil his half of their bargain and hand over Lone Wolf in return for the Orb of Death. Hurriedly changing the subject so as to avoid having to admit that I'm not quite as captured as might have been implied, the Zakhan demands to know why the Darklord's servants are digging around in the Tomb of the Majhan, burial place of the Zakhans of antiquity. The Darklord explains that one of the treasures in the Tomb is the Book of the Magnakai, the manual which, in my hands, could lead to the creation of a new Kai order and, in the fulness of time, a threat to the very existence of the Darklords. Not to mention giving Joe Dever an excuse to produce at least seven more books in this series. Possibly even as many as twenty-seven, given a sufficiently obsessed fanbase.

And that's where the first half of the book ends. Shadow on the Sand consists of two 200-section mini-adventures, and I've reached the conclusion of the first one. Given that the title page of the first edition explicitly states, 'Containing two Lone Wolf adventures', and the rules say that 'You may choose one bonus Kai Discipline to add to your Action Chart for every Lone Wolf adventure you have successfully completed,' I could now, on a technicality, acquire Camouflage and complete the set. I mean, if whoever came up with that gimmick has the gall to suggest that 50 extra sections and an intermission legitimise calling the book two adventures and putting up the cover price (at least for the initial print run), I should be able to exploit a loophole in the wording to gain what would at best be a very minor advantage in the second half of the book adventure, right?

I had planned to cover both 'adventures' from Shadow on the Sand in one entry, but what with still having to go into town with blog entries on a memory stick as my home internet connection has yet to be restored to functionality, I'm going to take advantage of the spurious split and conclude this entry here. In roughly a fortnight I'll play through the second half of the book, which does not have the sub-title Shadow Harder, but might have done if it had been written 5 years later than it was.

Saturday, 24 August 2013

These Ponderous Aphorisms About Betrayal

I first encountered a Middle-earth Quest (sic.) gamebook during one of the periods when I'd gone off gamebooks. It was a copy of the second one (at least according to the list inside), Kevin Barrett and Saul Peters' Treason at Helm's Deep, and I found it in the branch of Scope near the BBC Centre. While I did pick it up and have a quick look at it, what I read did not inspire me to get back into gamebooks at the time, so I returned it to the shelf and left the shop.

A few years ago, someone at started a thread for group play of as much of the series as participants had, and I joined in. By then I'd regained my interest in gamebooks, so I joined in, and while the first couple were nothing spectacular, they were enjoyable enough that I made the occasional search for them on eBay, eventually succeeding in acquiring a copy of Treason. I've not yet attempted it on my own, and with my internet connection still down, I can't refer back to the thread mid-play to remind myself of little details like which of the three subterranean passages leads to Instant Death.

The sample character provided doesn't appeal to me that much, so I shall create my own. The system is a mixture of allocation and dice-rolling. The allocation refers to Skill bonuses: I have six points to use in six categories, and while I could allocate more than one point in a category, any to which I don't add at least one point get hit with a -2 penalty, so it makes sense to just make each one start out at +1. But they might yet change, as the dice determine my stats, and significantly high or low scores in any of them will mean applying a bonus or penalty to related Skills. The text implies that I can choose which roll goes on which stat. I get 5, 10 and 7 - not quite as good as the sample character's rolls, but I'm giving Intelligence precedence over Strength on account of one of the few parts of the adventure I remember, so I wind up with:
Strength 5
Agility 7
Intelligence 10
Endurance 30
Melee OB (Offensive Bonus) +1
Missile OB +1
DB (Defensive Bonus) 0
Running 0
General +1
Trickery +2
Perception +2
Magical +2
Yes, there are 8 Skills on that list. DB and Running are excluded from the bonus allocation process, and exempted from the 'no bonus' penalty.

My character is a young warrior, too inexperienced to accompany the troops who have gone off to battle, and thus kept back to help defend the garrison at Helm's Deep. While patrolling, I catch sight of Herulf, one of the commanders, covertly meeting with a man from Dunland, which is not on our side in the ongoing conflict. He hands over a scroll, and I am so indiscreet as to gasp loudly enough to attract the two men's attention, so they make themselves scarce.

Pursuing the Dunlending looks like the smartest option: nobody in authority is likely to believe any accusation I make without evidence, and confronting Herulf is not likely to go well for me if he is the traitor he appears. I'm not that impressed at the prose here: 'You must catch him, for surely he is a vile enemy.'

Hurrying down to ground level, I notice the absence of a guard who should be on duty, and a door that should be locked, but is ajar. Sneaking out through that door, I find Herulf's hooded lantern, now extinguished, and come to the conclusion that the Dunlending must have come, and now be going back, via some secret path. No Agility-based bonus would compensate for the poorness of my next roll, which has me lose my footing on the stairs and twist my ankle. The penalty incurred appears to be temporary, but could still mean the difference between success and defeat.

Unable to find any trace of the Dunlending (though somehow I'd be able to spot a clue if I had a higher Agility), I think hard and recall legends of secret tunnels with entrances at the top of the nearby cliff, so I hurry up the cliff path. After a bit, I notice someone up ahead, and try to sneak up on them. My wits keep me stealthy, and also help me to recognise that the figure is not the Dunlending, but a bear. I promptly freeze, and the bear wanders off.

Resuming my ascent, I seek signs of my quarry's passing, and pick up his trail 'again', the authors apparently having forgotten that I could have got this far without finding it before. It leads me to a rocky outcropping, and I disturb the hiding Dunlending, who breaks from cover and tries inexpertly to lose me. Not only does he fail, but he loses sight of me and, concluding that I can't see him, enters the secret passage, thereby giving away its location. I could now turn back and report my findings, but that wouldn't really help much, so I shall continue my pursuit.

Having complained about the writing earlier, I should commend a clever bit here. While I'm not enough of a Tolkien geek to recognise the terms 'Felaróf' and 'Meara', the context makes it clear that the reference is a Middle-Earth-themed variant of 'Is the Pope Catholic?' Neat.

Entering the passage, I head along until I reach a three-way junction. If I remember rightly, this is the point at which going the wrong way means a fatal cliff-drop. The tunnel I enter narrows, and makes an abrupt turn, and a failed Perception roll has me ambushed by some miscreant. That twisted ankle almost halves my chances of running away, so I suppose I'm going to have to fight. The Dunlending significantly outclasses me, and while I do manage to get in a couple of good blows along the way, I wind up knocked out.

Coming round some hours later, I find myself trussed up and being transported somewhere on a pony. The man with the map is nowhere to be seen, but has given me to a group of his compatriots. They meet a patrol of Uruk-Hai and, after a brief dispute over who gets custody of the prisoner, the Orcs slaughter the humans. They then take me and the corpses of my erstwhile captors with them, and I black out again when I realise why they want the bodies.

I regain consciousness on the approach to the Orcs' camp. Two of them carry me to a tent and throw me inside. The tent's occupant, a beautiful woman, gives them orders in Orcish, and they prop me on a chair. Capturing my attention with a glittering ring, she speaks in beguiling tones, urging me to tell her of what I have experienced today. I roll too badly for the Intelligence-derived bonus to make any difference, and obligingly tell her everything she wants to know about the garrison. Once I've finished betraying my allies, she takes away the ring, and I realise that she's rather more crone-like than she originally seemed, and that I've wound up giving my enemies at least as much assistance as Herulf did.

The two Orcs then take me to the cooking pits, and opt to use a language I can understand while telling their cook, Gaznag, that they want me cooked with the skin still on. Gaznag contemplates sampling the fresh ingredient he's just been brought, but then someone throws a rock at his head, and he takes his cleaver to remonstrate with the merry prankster in question. My bonds have loosened as a consequence of the rough handling I've received, and I am able to get loose and make a break for freedom. I'm able to recover most of my equipment, but not my shield. Still, what I do get back includes a couple of doses of a healing herb, one of which I take in order to restore myself to full health.

As I try to figure out where to go from here, I spot Gaznag, dead, with an arrow like my countrymen use sticking out of him. The archer responsible shows himself so that I can join him in hiding. He's Hermgamel, one of the survivors from the troops who went out before the adventure began, and he knows the way back to Helm's Deep. Before we set off back there, he offers me a sword or a shield, so I replace the item I lost.

My disappearance has been noticed, we are pursued, and Hermgamel gets a couple of arrows through the sternum. That twisted ankle doesn't hinder me from making a swift getaway, though, and I lose my pursuers. Back in Deeping Coomb, I must check the time elapsed, and am a little surprised to find that I'm not even close to having been away long enough for something calamitous to have happened back at home.

Continuing on my way, I catch sight of a few Orcish scouts indulging in a little recreational arson. One of them is a little slow in leaving the burning cottage, and his clothes catch light, much to the amusement of his companions. Well aware of my limitations as a fighter, I choose not to try attacking them while merriment has them off-guard, but hurry past.

It starts to rain as I draw near to my destination. A watchman sights me and summons the garrison commander, so I tell him why I left my post and what ensued, possibly eliding the whole 'ensorcelled into telling the enemy all our weaknesses' bit. Without proof of Herulf's willing treachery I cannot substantiate my claims, and the approach of enemy troops leaves no time for a more detailed investigation.

Preparations are made for a siege, and Theoden, Gimli and Legolas make cameo appearances. Actually, that's an overly glib mention of another neat authorial touch: I've never seen an Elf or a Dwarf before, and have to be told what the peculiar-looking beings who ride with the troops are. A nice reminder that non-human species aren't as mundane as fantasy fiction often makes them.

I am supplied with a bow and arrows, we prepare to face the enemy, and Saruman's armies approach. Battle commences, and Legolas gives me archery tips (have I mentioned that back in the 1990s I was taught archery by a man who's registered blind?), helping me fell an Orc with a scaling ladder. That is, the Orc I kill was carrying a ladder - I didn't fire one from my bow. That would be silly. An Orcish arrow (also not a ladder) hits me, but non-lethally.

A ladder (not an arrow) is placed against the wall close by, and I attempt to push it away before any attackers can get up it. Another arrow (I think the joke's outstayed its welcome by now) hits me, but I'm still alive. Not strong enough to shift the ladder, though, and I'm an easy target for the first Orc to scale it. His clumsy sword blow doesn't connect, but it does force me back, giving him time to get a more secure footing. I'm not expecting to win this fight, but I narrowly prevail, and have time to use the other dose of healing herb to bring myself back from the verge of collapse.

Things quieten down for a bit - until the Orcs breach the wall. While Gimli is hewing his way through the invading hordes, I spot an Orc trying to sneak up on him from behind, and attack it before it can surprise him. A lucky roll enables me to fell it with my second blow, and as I catch my breath, a flash of lightning shows someone who looks like Herulf ascending the cliff up which I followed the Dunlending earlier. I give chase and catch up with him, he provides the quasi-obligatory 'justification' for his treachery (revenge for the death of his father) and we do battle. He seriously outclasses me, to the extent that I pretty much need a double six to have any chance of winning. Unfortunately for me, I'm doomed if he gets anything above nine, and three rounds into the fight he gets eleven, skewering me on the spot.

I was rather enjoying that by the end. Not perfect, but a better book than I'd thought it, and it does a decent job of having the viewpoint character involved in a major event from The Lord of the Rings without overshadowing the book's heroes.

My home internet connection is still down, so I'm having to use public computers to update the blog, and not all of them can handle the blogger interface - this entry was ready yesterday afternoon, but I just couldn't post it. Monday is a Bank Holiday, so I'm unlikely to even be able to get to a public computer then. Nevertheless, I'll do what I can to keep updating as closely to the planned schedule as I can get.

Thursday, 22 August 2013

Stuck in Some Kind of Cave

I was as unenthusiastic about Chasms of Malice, the second Fighting Fantasy book by 'Luke Sharp', as I had been about Phantoms of Fear, in part because the viewpoint character's background would again get in the way of incorporating the adventure into my 'the same hero in as many adventures as possible' nonsense. When I borrowed Phantoms, I simultaneously borrowed the same friend's copy of Chasms. Playing it without dice, and turning back whenever I encountered one of the many arbitrary deaths scattered throughout the book (I think the first one I found had me trying to climb a rope that turned out to be a tentacle belonging to a monster, which promptly ate me), I eventually got to the end and found it tolerable enough to get a copy and re-complete my collection when I decided to buy Phantoms.

I might have had a different opinion if I'd used dice, as this is one of the few FF books to rival Crypt of the Sorcerer in terms of excessive difficulty. However, Chasms' harshness lacks the stat-related side of Crypt's brutality: while the number of life-or-death arbitrary rolls pretty much guarantees failure to any player using dice in either book, if such rolls were removed, Crypt would still be nigh-on impossible to beat without the maximum possible stats, whereas Chasm would just turn into a slow, painful sequence of trying to learn the precise sequence of directions to follow in order to avoid the profusion of Instant Deaths towards the end of the game (assuming that the deplorable One-Strike Combat mechanism was thrown out along with all the other dice deaths). Thus, I will roll up a character for this book rather than defaulting to 12-24-12 as I did in Crypt.
Skill 8
Stamina 16
Luck 9
If attributes really made a difference, those would be a bit too low anyway, and allocating dice wouldn't make enough of a difference: I'd say that 10 is the minimum Skill required to have a decent chance stats-wise, so ordinary fights can be added to the list of ways I could fail this attempt.

All of the author's fantasy-themed FF books are set in the same region and feature the Wizard Astragal, who lacks even as superficial a personality as Ian Livingstone's wizards have. Chasms starts when the Regent of Gorak tasks Astragal with investigating a sudden outbreak of hostility and maliciousness within the kingdom. It turns out that way back in the past, Orghuz, brother to Gorak's founder Tancred, was taken over by an evil force and trapped in the Dark Chasms below the kingdom. Some villain has stolen the True Shield that kept Orghuz from returning, and if the Shield is destroyed, Orghuz henchbeings the Khuddam will be able to increase their numbers exponentially until they can take over the world. Only a direct descendant of Tancred would be able to defeat Orghuz, which is where my character comes in. One minute I'm third-assistant-rabbit-skinner in the palace kitchens, the next I'm being proclaimed blood heir to Tancred and told that only I can save the world. Astragal gives me the Shining Sword that can harm Orghuz in my hands teams me up with Tabasha the Bazouk, a cat with magical powers, and sends me into the eponymous Chasms.

It wasn't until I replayed this book after getting back into FF in 2001 that I realised that almost everything takes place underground. The setting is so much like a standard fantasy kingdom that it's easy to forget that the roads, taverns, prisons and training grounds are all beneath a ceiling of rock rather than out in the open. Anyway, I set off, and reach a cavern with three exits. Leaving via the narrow crack in the wall, I reach another cavern containing a stack of dried roots and a rabbit in a trap. I add the rabbit to my Provisions, and take some of the wood for Fuel (the rule specifying that cooking food makes it restore more Stamina being one of the book's worthwhile innovations.

After leaving the cavern, I hear a shriek and the sound of pursuit, and run until I reach a bridge across a chasm, guarded by a staff-wielding Dark Elf. Turning my back on the Elf to confront my pursuer (a harmless creature, possibly related to the Jib-Jib, though it's not named) would get me knocked out and taken prisoner, so I risk fighting. The Elf comments that I'll make a good slave for his lord once I'm wearing a collar, but he will be disappointed, as I roll a double 1 around ten rounds into the battle, which means I fall off the bridge and into the chasm.

Almost as quick a failure as on Crypt. In fact, I think I got through fewer sections of this one, but as the combat took longer than the single roll that brought my attempt at CotS to an end, this did take longer. Not as long as the last time I failed it online, though. Incidentally, the delay in posting this playthrough is because my internet connection is down rather than because of any aversion to playing the adventure (I'm posting this from a computer in the local library, and may have to do the same with tomorrow's entry). I've not exactly tried to hide the fact that I don't like Chasms very much, but I don't hate it enough to bring the blog to a halt.

Monday, 19 August 2013

I Assume We're Not Expected to Win

Corgi Books put Roy Cram's second Tunnels & Trolls solo adventure, Gamesmen of Kasar, in the same volume as his first one, so it was for the sake of Gamesmen that I wound up getting a duplicate copy of Mistywood back when I found all the 'two-in-one' T&T books I didn't already have in the discount bookshop. By an odd coincidence, I got a copy of the Flying Buffalo edition on eBay the day after I bought a replacement copy of the Corgi book, also on eBay, but from a different seller.

Gamesmen was one of the adventures that I gave more attention when I originally got the Corgi books, but I can't remember how my first attempt ended. The rules state that the emphasis is more on saving rolls than on combat, but what fighting there is will be hard, and equipment is unlikely to make much difference, so I shall need some good rolls to be in with any chance of winning.
Strength: 6
Intelligence: 11
Luck: 9
Constitution: 10
Dexterity: 15
Charisma: 9
Speed: 3
I'm doomed. Though, on account of a balancing mechanism applied to some saving rolls, my Intelligence and Constitution are liable to be the most problematic stats: for single-figure scores, I need only roll 5 or above on two dice, whereas for those in the 10-19 range I must get at least the difference between the attribute and 20.

Now I must choose a character class. Magic users are permitted, but may only use spells in certain circumstances (magnetic fields cause interference the rest of the time). With a Strength that low, I'd make a rubbish warrior, but Strength is also the resource on which wizards and rogues draw to cast their spells, so no matter what I pick, I'm going to be at a disadvantage. Well, with the implication that weapons and armour are going to be limited in their effectiveness, I suspect that the strengths of the warrior class will be diminished or eliminated, so I suppose I'll have to take a wizard.

For once it's worth establishing my character's height and weight as well. Weight, at least, since in the unlikely event of my surviving, I'll be rewarded with my own weight in gold. The rolls are towards the extreme ends of the bell curve, but at least I'm potentially profitably short and fat: 4'3" high, and 250 lbs.

Kasar is still under the rule of the same tyrant whose son picked a fight with the wrong person prior to Mistywood. Recently a strange caravan arrived there, and its owners bought a building and spent some time making alterations to it. Now the place is ready, and fortune-hunters can take up the challenge if they dare. So I might as well find out what fate befalls my new character in there.

Still, fools rush in, so I don't immediately take the challenge. This leads to my services being engaged by one of the Duke's men. None of the (few) survivors of the game have any recollection of what they experienced in there. If I can provide the Duke with details of what's actually going on inside the building, I'll be rewarded. The penalty for not accepting the mission is not spelt out, but as there's no option to decline, I can make a good guess. There are two ways suggested for going about this mission: to try and sneak in, or to play the game, but take notes. I'm already doing the latter for the purposes of this blog, so I might as well go with that.

Presenting myself as a contestant, I am taken to the Gamesman, an obese individual with no hair, painted fingernails (that is, he has no nails, but fake ones have been painted on the ends of his fingers) and a strange accent with drawn-out vowels. He summons a servant to take me to the Game chambers. I could try knocking the servant out and exploring on my own, but I doubt that I'd succeed: Rock-a-Bye is a third level spell, and my Strength is not conducive to hitting anyone hard enough to render him unconscious.

The servant leaves me in a room to await instructions, and a metal door bars the exit. A voice instructs me to remove all armour, weapons, and equipment other than non-magical clothing. If I survive, my property will be returned to me. It's going to be tricky to make notes if I can't retain a quill and paper, but I suspect that the consequences of disobeying will not be pleasant, so I ditch my dagger and what armour I had.

Another door opens, and the voice tells me to go through. Refusing would be pointless. I enter a room containing a slot machine, 12 unusual coins, and a suit of leather armour that fits me perfectly. The voice tells me that I must play the slot machine to escape from the room, so I put the first coin in and pull the lever.

I can guess what happens if I get the equivalent of three lemons.

The machine shows three keys, and dispenses a skeleton key. I try again, getting three coins, and the machine spits out some of the local currency. It'll only take the strangely-shaped ones, though, so I won't get any extra goes. The third coin gets me three bottles, and the machine disgorges a bottle of Dr. Bob's Marvellous Snake Oil Liniment and Healing Potion, which will restore all lost Constitution when drunk (though drinking more than one bottle a week brings on side-effects such as loss of life). My next two goes each produce more money, while my sixth try comes up three trolls. A door opens, and out comes a Troll. Not a particularly tough one, his Monster Rating being equivalent to the higher of my Strength and Dexterity. But Dexterity is my best stat, and I have no weapon (and judging by the text, attempting to retain the one I had at the start wouldn't have worked), so even this fight could prove lethal.

It does. My remains are subsequently reanimated, and the zombie that was me is shipped to a mine to dig for an extremely harmful substance until prolonged exposure to the radiation disintegrates it, but I'm too dead to have any view on this unplanned career change.

Friday, 16 August 2013

More Free From Peril Than the Envious Court?

Based on the streets along which I was walking during my first (and, until today, only) attempt at Virtual Reality Adventure 1, Mark Smith's Green Blood, I must have got the book somewhere in West Hull. Possibly in West Hull Books itself, though I have a feeling that the copy I remember seeing in there turned up after I'd already acquired the book. I can't remember how that attempt ended and, considering how much I wasn't enjoying it, it's possible that I just stopped reading once I got back home and could do something more entertaining.

As I explained the last time I played a VRA here, the system has no random element. I either pick one of the pre-generated characters from the front of the book or create one of my own by selecting four of the eleven available skills. After that, the decisions I make determine how whether or not I fail. Given that the part of the book I remember enduring involves surviving in the Forest of Arden, I think the Ranger looks like a good choice.

The prologue gives me a background that doesn't fit well with the character I've chosen (nor, for that matter, with several of the others I could have gone for). Orphaned at birth, raised by my sisters until I could train at the academy in Hegalopolis, forced onto the streets when the monasteries were dissolved, and now leaving the city in a thoroughly misanthropic state of mind, I'm not sure where the Ranger's vocation of protecting those 'forced to journey off the road' comes in. Regardless, I'm now on my way to the Forest of Arden (wonder if it's the same one that can be visited in Smith & Thomson's Challenge of the Magi) to seek the Tree of Knowledge, meet with the elves (even though nobody who does so ever lives to tell of doing so), become a hero, and make the world a better place for the humans I so loathe and despise.

After crossing the ruins of the wall that once marked the border between human and elven territory, I reach the town of Burg, my last opportunity to savour the human contact and creature comforts that so disgusted me as to prompt my quest. I wonder if one of the things I can't stand about people is the self-contradictory nature of so many of their attitudes.

It starts to rain. The interior of the inn is gloomy, so I wait for my eyes to adjust to the darkness. Someone tells me to stop skulking in the shadows, so I move closer to the fire. A black-clad man gives me the standard 'we don't like strangers' spiel and asks my business. As I have the Streetwise skill, I am able to gauge the crowd's mood, and decide to pretend to be an ornithologist seeking a (probably) fictitious species of bird. A woman with some grasp of wilderness lore engages me in conversation, while the man in black has a good long glower at me. I guess they have to make their own entertainment here.

The woman introduces herself as Elanor, a priestess of the All Mother, and says the man is the Moon Druid Valerian, who, out of envy of her rapport with the woodland creatures has allied himself with the deforestation-happy Westermen. I now have the option of expressing disapproval of the Westermen's plans or showing disdain for what Alan Partridge would call 'her blinkered view of the world'. Naturally I take her side, and after a brief environmentalist harangue she offers to take me to the Great Tree if I visit her bower. She warns me not to harm anything in the forest, gives me directions, and hands over a maple flute with which I can summon help at a time of need.

The next morning the innkeeper's daughter tells me that her father has gone missing in the forest, and I promise to try and find him or learn what has befallen him. Then I set off, catching sight of Elanor further along the road, but being unable to catch up with her no matter how I speed up. After a bit, I lose sight of her, and then I reach the forest. Following the directions I was given, I probably doom myself by holding on to a vine too tightly and inadvertently snapping it. Then I get lost, eventually reaching a clearing with two exits. I can pick an exit, despair of finding my way out, or definitely doom myself by scraping bark from a tree to mark my trail. Memory suggests that taking either path will lead me in circles, and giving in to despair is the only way to make any progress, but I'll risk wandering around for a bit first, in the hope that the book isn't quite as ridiculous as memory makes out.

The left path leads to a near-identical clearing (and a near-identical section), and I can't help but notice that the left path from here leads to the section I've just left. Okay, how about the right one? More of the same. Well, I suppose I'm going to have to despair. Not difficult in this book. And if I didn't have Wilderness Lore (which is true of three of the characters listed at the start), that would be the end of me, without even a chance to use that flute. But the Ranger does have the requisite skill, and thus manages to find a secret path by following 'miniature deer with heads like little hippopotamuses'.

After a while I catch sight of a stone tower, 'ominously' draped in shadows (it'd be odder if there were no shadows falling on it, what with the whole 'surrounded by trees' thing that comes with being in a forest). All of a sudden it's night, and the moonlight shows the tower to have a heavy lock on its door. A light gleams at the top of the tower, but I lack the skills that would enable me to investigate it, and must return to the path.

Without warning it's day again. A voice asks me if I'm lost, and the only creature present is an owl, though I didn't see its beak move. I admit to being lost, and the owl claims to have been enchanted by the Lady of Grey (how come it doesn't use her name?) to lead friends of the forest to her bower. Warily, I ask it to show me the way, and it leads me on a long journey: another night passes before I reach a part of the forest in which no two trees are of the same species. A beautiful young woman in grey greets me from a tree house, and the flute ensures a warm welcome.

Once I'm in the tree house, Elanor asks if I'm ready to be the forest's saviour. The book gives me the option of trying to rob her or demanding directions to the Tree of Knowledge as well as giving the obvious right answer, but I ignore the suicidal-looking choices. There's a test, of course, and I can see problems with both of the possible answers to her next question. Wanting to save the forest just because it's so pretty is a bit weak, but wishing to take the Tree of Knowledge's wisdom to the lands of men may appear a selfish motive. Nevertheless, I risk the latter, and get asked about ants. Wilderness Lore indicates that the obvious answer is the correct one, and is equally 'helpful' with the question about spiders.

Three days of training precede the next test, which is a question about whether to share the Tree's knowledge with humanity or keep it from untrustworthy mankind. The wrong answers to the ant and spider questions were based on ignorance, so helping people understand the balance of nature better should be a good thing, right? I just get asked another question: is slash-and-burn a good thing? And how about outsiders coming in and hunting? Unexpectedly, voicing disapproval of the latter causes me to fail the test. Elanor says she'll turn the birds and beasts against me, and I must leave within four days. It would be unwise to keep pestering her, so I'm going to have to 'follow [my] own destiny', whatever that means. Which turns out to be 'stay in the forest anyway until I find out that the elves have been genocided'. And for unspecified reasons I'm going to die as well.

Well, that's done nothing to make me doubt the commonly-held view (among gamebook fans familiar with the series, which is admittedly a pretty small subset of humanity) that Dave Morris' contributions to the Virtual Reality Adventures are the decent ones.

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

I Know Something About Opening Windows and Doors

While it took me some time to get around to buying Fighting Fantasy book 28, I was a lot quicker to get the next one, Graeme Davis' Midnight Rogue. Indeed, I owned that one for some time before borrowing the copy of book 28 that eventually motivated me to acquire my own. The fact that Rogue's protagonist was something of an anti-hero made me less concerned about the impracticability of fitting it into my 'one hero for all the adventures' folly, and I was a little intrigued by the idea of playing a thief in Port Blacksand.

I think I got my copy of Rogue from Hammick's bookshop, close to the Five Ways, and I know that I made a diceless start on it on my way home. Not being able to make notes proved a little awkward when I the section numbers I'd (seemingly unnecessarily) been instructed to note down turned out to be crucial for establishing where to turn when I acted on the clues provided in those sections. Since I had found all the necessary clues, I didn't consider it cheating to go back and remind myself of the relevant numbers, after which I went on with the adventure. At around the time that I reached the road on which I lived, I made a mistake and read the wrong section, thereby skipping several encounters, one of which provided an essential item, so I wound up dying for want of a magic sword.

Almost a decade and a half later, this was among the 16 FF gamebooks in a charity shop that got me back into the hobby. I bought it, two others of which I had fond memories, and four that I'd never played before, and enjoyed them so much that I went back and bought the rest the next day the shop was open.

My character is an apprentice in Port Blacksand's Thieves' Guild, and tonight will determine whether or not I get to become a full member. The test is pretty straightforward in principle: I have to steal something. A specific something, namely the jewel known as the Eye of the Basilisk, which was recently acquired by the merchant Brass, whose symbol is a coin. That's as much information as my character has, though obviously I know a lot more on account of having played the adventure before on several occasions.

I get to choose three Special Skills from a list of seven. Items which substitute for four of the Skills can be found in the course of the adventure, so if you choose the right three, you could potentially finish up with a complete set (though acquiring one of them is tricky and almost certainly more bother than it's worth). One of the Skill-substitutes shouldn't work in some of the situations where it can be used, and one of the non-substitutable Skills isn't all that useful, so to diminish the implausibility of this playthrough, I'm going for Climb, Pick Pocket and Spot Hidden. I also have the usual line-up of attributes, and the scores are:
Skill 11
Stamina 20
Luck 9
This is one of the comparatively few post-1986 FF books in which high stats aren't essential, but I can think of at least one unavoidable fight where I'm liable to be glad to have that Skill score.

Heading out onto the street, I start by snooping around in the area surrounding the Thieves' Guild buildings, known as the Noose. It's a good place to pick up gossip, and (for no good reason) the book won't allow me to come back here after going anywhere else, so unless I get the information available in the Noose now, I'll never get it.

First I visit the Rat and Ferret tavern, where I must pay one of my five gold pieces for a drink before I can join the men playing pin-finger at one of the tables. In case anyone reading this isn't familiar with the name of the game, that's basically a competitive variant of Bishop's 'knife trick' from Aliens.

Mind you, in the FF version, each player only risks injuring their own hand.

If I manage to avoid stabbing myself for a minute, I win ten gold pieces. If I mess up, I must hand over five. Which is problematic, as there's no way I can have more than four at this point (every other Noose-based encounter costs money rather than providing any), so if I go ahead with the game, it will be in the knowledge that I can't actually pay the price for failure. With a Skill of 11, there's not much chance of my losing, but an equally high score proved insufficient the last time I wrote up an attempt at this book.

This time round I succeed. Just. The men hand over the money, but know nothing of use to my mission, so I decide to try asking the landlord. Not that I need whatever information he can provide, but it's that bit more incident for this blog entry. He won't tell me what he knows about Brass unless I pay him, so I hand over a few gold pieces. It's enough to get him to tell me where Brass lives, and to remind me of the coin symbol. He then sticks a finger into my beer (evidently not having got his Food Hygiene Certificate) and uses the drink to sketch a symbol on the counter. For once I don't have the Secret Signs Skill, so it means nothing to me, and I'm unable to demonstrate my Guild connection. Consequently, the landlord remembers some washing-up that needs doing, and becomes too absorbed in the task to pay me any more attention.

Next I visit local clairvoyant Madame Star. In return for two gold pieces, she tells me that what I seek is hidden in a dark place, a place of death, and that I will have to look in a place of sleep and a place of work. Not very substantial, but without this 'clue' I won't be able to work out the section number to get to the right place because... I don't know. Maybe Mr. Davis thinks it's impossible to be a good thief without getting your fortune told. That could be why the hero of his mini-adventure wound up on trial at the start of it.

The only other thing I could do in the Noose is give some money to a beggar, and as he'd only give me a rope and grapnel that could be used in place of the Climb Skill, there's no point. Instead, I head for the Merchants' Guild, because with my Skill set, visiting the 'place of sleep' before the 'place of work' would ensure my failure.

The Merchants' Guild is across the Market Square from the Noose. As I make my way there, I notice movement among the trees in the middle of the square. Trees that Ian Livingstone never mentioned in City of Thieves, and which don't appear in his Market Mayhem, a game set in the Market Square, which appeared in issue 3 of Warlock (yes, there are trees, but not in the middle). I don't investigate because, even with 11 Skill, some fights just aren't worth getting into.

There's a guard by the front door, so I look for another way in. There's another door down an alley, so I check that out. It's not locked, and leads to a furnished room in which I can hear someone breathing. As I don't have the Hide Skill, I knock something over (wouldn't Sneak or Spot Hidden be more appropriate for managing not to cause this disturbance?), and wake the other person, who turns out to be a beggar who broke in to find somewhere comfy to spend the night. I reassure him that I'm not a guard, and he gives me the lock-picks he used to get in. These give me the Pick Lock Skill, without which I'd have no chance of winning.

Heading upstairs, I see two doors, both of them with plaques beside them. On one plaque is a coin, on the other a fish, and on the floor is the trigger mechanism for a trap, which I only notice because I have Spot Hidden. Avoiding setting off the trap, I try the door with the appropriate symbol on, which is locked. Good thing I have those lock-picks, as I'd be unable to get in without them.

The office contains a desk and chair, and there's an iron door set into the wall. That door is sucker-bait, but the desk contains a key with the letter 'L' on it, some more money, and two documents pertaining to Brass' recent purchase and refitting of a place called Barrow Hill. Can you guess where he's keeping the Eye? Well, Mr. Davis doesn't think that the information provided here is sufficient, so I'm going to have to break into Brass' house to learn what I just found out all over again.

As I'm heading for Brass' House (which I could do even if I hadn't been told its location by the landlord), I see two guards approaching. Still lacking the Hide Skill, I don't manage to evade their notice, so I decide to see if a handful of gold coins will cause their eyesight to retroactively deteriorate. The guards agree that they didn't see me, and resume their rounds while I continue towards my destination.

There are two houses at the corner I know to be the location of Brass' house, one with a coin carved into a doorpost, the other with a painting of an oar on a sign. At this point the book takes another turn for the ridiculous, as it's in my best interests to break into the wrong house first. So I pick the lock on the door of the house with the wrong symbol and step into a hall that has a black hooded cloak hanging on the coat-stand. Wearing this cloak is equivalent to having Hide (so it would have prevented me from blundering into the furniture in the Guild?). Also in the hall is a letter from Silas Whitebait to Captain Marlin, as a hint to anyone who's not here just for the cloak that this isn't where Brass lives.

Now that I have my reward for failing to act on information provided at the start of the adventure, I cross over to the correct house and pick the lock on that one. Ignoring the suit of armour in the hall, and the door to the servants' quarters, I creep up the stairs. There's a door on my left, and a landing with three doors leading from it to the right. To make things a bit more interesting, I head for the landing.

One of the doors opens, and a white-clad figure emerges and approaches. I keep still, and the somnambulist walks past me, then returns to his room. After giving him a bit of time to settle down, I listen at one of the other doors. The sound of snoring comes from behind it, so I enter the room and, lacking Sneak, tread on a creaky floorboard. The snoring stops, I freeze, and the cloak makes me sufficiently unnoticeable that Brass fails to realise I'm here, and soon drops off again.

I find more money in the clothes at the foot of the bed, and spot a key on a chain around Brass' neck. It has the letter 'R' on it. I use my Pick Pocket Skill to try and take the key, and have to make a Skill roll to succeed. Alas, I roll a double six - the only way I could fail - and wake Brass, who calls for help. I manage to flee without getting caught, but it makes no difference: the book won't allow me to travel to Barrow Hill unless I had my fortune told, ransacked Brass' desk at the Guild, and found the documents about Barrow Hill in the safe at Brass' house. I could have got into the safe with just the 'L' key and the lock-picks, but no, I just had to try and do things the hard way.

Well, I'll just have to save my gripes about how at Barrow Hill the book turns into a generic dungeon-crawl and rehashes chunks of Rogue Mage for the replay. Midnight Rogue is better in concept than realisation, and I'm no longer as keen on it as I was back in 2001. Indeed, only one of the books I reacquired on the day I came across the sixteen in the charity shop hasn't gone down in my estimation, and I now prefer several of the ones I left on the shelf and only came back for because I decided I might as well collect the set after all.

Monday, 12 August 2013

You Could Manage To Arrive Before the Nick of Time

I don't think I got Proteus issue 9, Lord of Chaos (by David Brunskill's new pseudonym, J.A. Collar), on the day it came out. I remember looking through it in the newsagent's near Boots and finding the logic puzzle that must be solved to get one of the essential items, but that newsagent wasn't on my route to school, and I definitely acquired my copy on the way to school. I was in or outside the music room when I got to the encounter with the witches in the mirror, and I gave the free gift (a miniature replica of issue 1) a little attention in room G, where I had French lessons. I know I didn't win my first attempt, as I missed at least two of the essential items (I was at home, in the kitchen, when I solved the mathematical puzzle that led to the first of them), but I can't recall whether or not I got far enough for the lack of those artefacts to doom me.

As usual, I'm an adventurer on the road in the search of quests. Towards the end of the day I catch sight of a walled city in the distance, and after a night of foreshadowy bad dreams I head towards the city. There are spikes on top of the wall, and one of the people tending the fields on the other side summons guards upon sighting me. After I explain my business, a ladder is provided, and I am escorted to the home of Glamarye, who appears to be the local sorceress. She explains that this place is Valantia, and its people really dislike violence, exiling anyone who perpetrates it to the harsh Kaercaradduc region in the north.

A recent attempted raid on Valantia led to the revelation that the arch-demon Uthergan is prophesied to rise from a nearby stone circle and lay waste to the region. It's a good deal more precise than your average prophecy, even giving a specific date and time. Namely, sunset today. So as I happened to be passing through the area and looking for work, the Valantians are willing to pay me well if I can track down the four symbols of power that will avert Uthergan's return, and thereby prevent the complete destruction of their city. There are enough real-world examples of people not bothering to take steps to avoid predictable and preventable disasters that I can't really call the Valantians' prior inaction unrealistic, but there are certainly problematic elements to their society.

Still, at least now they've decided to do something, they've employed a reasonably competent person to do the job, as I have:
Dexterity 11
Strength 20
There are no other stats this time.

Leaving Valantia, I reach a road. The direction I pick here will determine whether or not I have any chance of winning the adventure. I think west is the way to go, but it's been almost 10 years since I last played LoC, so I can't be certain that my memory is reliable here. Nevertheless, I trust it, and am right to do so, as I soon catch sight of a shack with an illegible sign on the door. Of course I investigate.

It's dark inside, but a man with a lamp suddenly appears, and is strangely amused when I tell him that I'm just passing through the region. He's a merchant, and while he doesn't have any of the items required for getting rid of Uthergan, I know from past attempts that that he is selling something that I'll need to use to get one of them, so I check out his wares. The only things that could be of interest are potions and scrolls, and for no obvious reason I'm only allowed to make one purchase.

After buying what I need (and experiencing the merchant's abysmal customer service skills), I return to the road and go back east. Yes, authorial sneakiness makes it necessary to retrace my steps less than half a dozen choices into the adventure. No wonder I failed the first time.

Before long the road turns north, and I encounter a lone Valantian who actually tried to find the artefacts himself. He's wounded and delirious, and has been unsuccessful, but deserves some commendation for at least making an effort. Before stumbling back towards his home, he mumbles fragmentary directions and drops a pouch of magic powder, which I take.

Further on I reach a junction, and follow the Valantian's advice, heading into the foothills of the Welsh-sounding Pen-Dinas and entering a cave. The passage soon forks, so I trust that the principles outlined by the bleeding man still apply, and the turning I take leads to a cave containing hundreds of gold pieces and an enthroned skeleton, which is wearing the golden breastplate that was the first symbol of power named by Glamarye. Two rather puny Ghouls attack me, and I barely take any damage in the course of dismembering them.

The breastplate is immovable, but a scroll clutched in the skeleton's hand tells (in rather clumsy verse) how to remove it. As I mentioned above, it's a mathematical puzzle, involving the numbers inscribed upon the breastplate, and shouldn't be beyond the capabilities of anyone who can subtract four-digit numbers from five-digit numbers. I have no problem with it, and soon the plate is in my hands and, judging by what the poem said, the spirit of the person whose skeleton was wearing the breastplate has finally been set free. I also help myself to a little of the money lying around.

There's only the one exit from the chamber, so I return to the junction and go the other way. Soon I reach another junction, and from this point onwards I don't have any recollection of correct directions. I try north, and find an exit from the caves. A sudden rockfall injures me, but I got off lightly: some of the stones that didn't hit are a lot bigger than I am.

After a couple of junctions I spot a bound and gagged man by the side of the road. I take a chance on releasing him, and he advises me to go back the way I came, so I do that. After some time I reach a swamp, and while slogging through that, I am attacked by a repulsive Marsh Monster. Even with the Dexterity penalty for the boggy ground, I outclass it, but a few bad rolls at the start of the fight cause me to take a significant amount of damage before rallying and defeating the creature.

Emerging from the marsh, I spot and investigate another hut. Opening the door triggers a booby-trap that gashes my shoulder, and the only thing of any potential value in here is a leather bag of berries. I try one, and it revitalises me, so I wind up eating the lot and exiting the hut in better condition than I was before I triggered the trap. The next hut I find contains nothing of value, and I take more damage when the floor gives way beneath me. This is getting tiresome.

At the next junction I am approached by a strange figure, who says nothing, but passes his hand in front of my face several times. Next thing I know, I'm some way up the north road from that junction. It's an interesting change from the usual 'authorial fiat has you decide not to take a certain turning' routine, but the lack of follow-up or explanation makes it just gratuitous random strangeness.

I reach a small village, and soon get the impression that I'm not welcome, though nobody is actively hostile. One man fails to notice me, being intent on trying to create a stone knife, so I offer him my own dagger. At first he doesn't understand my intent, and when he does twig, I find myself unable to answer his question as to what I want in return. He gives me a root that will enable me to fly when I bit it.

There's a harbour close by. Taking a look around, I realise that the figurehead on one of the boats is the statuette that's the second symbol of power. A plaque below it gives instructions on how to get the statuette, but I know from Glamarye's description that it's not that straightforward. Still, figuring out what does need doing is not the most challenging logic puzzle I've encountered in gamebooks, so I soon have the statuette.

As I'm heading out of the village, a nervous-looking man intercepts me and offers his services as an artificer. I accompany him back to his house, where he says he'll make me a key in return for some money. Sounds like a good deal, so I hand over the cash, and he carves several indentations into a block of stone, which he then hands to me. Not a conventional key, then.

But I've seen odder ones.

Leaving the village, I fall into a pit. Good thing I got that root, as without it I'd be unlikely to get out before the crossbow-toting brigands who dug it turn up. As it is, I narrowly escape and proceed to another junction. My wanderings eventually take me into a forest, where I find a rope ladder leading into a room that's been carved out of the tree. It contains a mirror and a bottle of black liquid, and there's a metal ring set into the floor. I drink from the bottle, and the mirror becomes a portal. Faces appear in it, demanding gold, so I hand over some money and get told where to find another of the items I seek, and how to acquire it. Moments later I find myself back at the foot of the tree, and set off again.

Following the directions I was given, I get attacked by a Stealthclamp (it's stealthy, and it clamps onto its victims' backs). Not a particularly tricky opponent, though the fact that I only do half damage means that the fight drags on a bit. Once I've killed it, I proceed to a chasm with a bridge across it. A man with a spear guards the way forward, and he wants a clutch of algethan berries for a toll. I ate the only berries I found, so I have to fight him. He's as good a fighter as I am, so I lose more Strength than eating the berries gave me. Still, my slightly higher Strength, and some lucky rolls, bring me through the fight, so I can cross the bridge.

Neither of the directions available at the next junction match the way I was told to go, but one is the direct opposite of it, so I try the other. The urn I seek is beside the path some way ahead, and by doing as I was advised, I am able to acquire it without breaking it.

It's getting late as I carry on, and before long I reach the stone circle of which I was told. I must have taken a wrong turning at some point between the village and the forest, as I only have three of the symbols of power. The sun drops beneath the horizon, Uthergan bursts from the barrow at the centre of the circle, and things get a bit unpleasant for me.

That wasn't quite as 'one true path'-y as I'd thought, but it's still rather too dependent upon purely random decisions. Mind you, it's by no means the worst offender in that regard, not even just in comparison with other Proteus adventures, and stats-wise it's reasonably fair. On the other hand, the plot's not particularly engaging, and the abovementioned gratuitous random strangeness is pretty much the only aspect of the adventure that's remotely innovatory. A middling adventure, all things considered. Unambitious, but inoffensive.