Monday, 1 December 2014

I Don't Think Much of Your Hospitality

I have memories of reading some of The Jungle of Horrors, the eighth of Joe Dever's Lone Wolf books, at my grandparents' home, and vague impressions suggesting that that was during a school holiday rather than on a normal Friday. These recollections mainly focus on the voyage by river that can be taken during the book, and as I'm planning on taking that route again for this playthrough, I shan't say any more about those sequences until I reach them in this attempt at the book.

I also remember reading the final section, which enabled me to finally get the point of something I'd read in an unrelated gamebook some time before. That one was the first of the Zork gamebooks, a series which made so little an impact on me that I've never bothered trying to get my own copies. The one detail that did grab my attention was the anti-cheater ending: a check for an item not available in the book, which sent readers claiming to have the object in question to a fail ending where they were reprimanded for their misbehaviour. This reprimand included a comment along the lines of, 'You're probably the type of person that reads the last section first, too.' When I came across that section while flicking through the book (in a branch of WHSmith, as I recall), I couldn't see what was so bad about reading the ending ahead of time. But in Jungle, the final section makes the correct decision in the book's last choice obvious. Not that it would have been that tricky to work out even without advance knowledge of the ending, but the experience made me more wary of such looking ahead from then on.

Jungle was also the book in which I experienced one of the most frustrating failures of my early nineties 'play through the whole series in order, and go back to the start of book 1 after every defeat' folly. Partly because it was a rubbish ending – an optional detour serving no purpose but to provide the opportunity to get knocked into a ravine and die – but also because it happened so close to the start of the next term that I wasn't going to have time to get through the series before I had to travel back to Swansea. And as I was using public transport for the journey, and would be carrying all my luggage on my own, adding a dozen books (or even just eleven books and my rapid guide to the first one) to my case or rucksack did not appeal. So a whole term had to go by before I could get back to my attempt at the whole saga.

That's enough reminiscing for now. Time to get on with the adventure, which means deciding which new Discipline to add to the line-up, and picking extra equipment from whatever is offered. As I indicated the last time I was making such a decision, I'm picking my Disciplines with Lore-Circles in mind, and if I want to complete the Lore-Circle that provides the highest Combat Skill bonus before I reach the first 'Die, long-standing reader, die!' fight, I need to get either Psi-Surge or Nexus now, and the other of those two next. I remember some circumstances in which Nexus is important, but they're in the next book in the series, so this time I'll go for Psi-Surge.

I also get to select a new weapon proficiency. As I'm unlikely to wind up in a situation where I can use neither my bow nor the Sommerswerd (that was last book), it probably doesn't matter, so I'll choose Axe, in memory of Lone Wolf's first weapon. As for equipment selection, I'll get a new rope, a healing potion, a couple of extra Fireseeds, and a replacement quiver of arrows. I'll also retrieve a helping of the Combat Skill-enhancing Alether berries I put into storage at the Kai monastery. Not entirely sure how I manage to nip there and back when it's hundreds of miles away, but the rules say I can store excess gold there, and thanks to the money pouch provided at the equipment selection stage, I'm 16 coins above my limit. Besides, this book also introduces restrictions on the number of Special Items I can carry, and says anything above the limit must be stashed at the monastery. If I'm going all that way just to drop off some spare cash and assorted clutter, I can retrieve a bit of Alether, too, right?

Some significant things have happened between books. The Elder Magi taught me about a prophecy concerning the 'sons of the sun', two men born centuries apart, but both destined to seek the help of the Elder Magi in the course of a quest, and to oppose the forces of darkness at a time of great peril. The first, identified in the prophecy with a name meaning 'eagle', was Sun Eagle, the first Kai Grand Master. The name given to the second in the prophecy translates as 'wolf'. Wonder who that could be...

The location of the third Lorestone I seek has been discovered: the Temple of Ohrido, the Elder Magi's most sacred place of worship. Which is rather less accessible than the description might suggest: after a plague wiped out a load of the Elder Magi, they abandoned the Danarg, the region in which the temple was situated, and since then it's become a swamp-jungle inhabited by a variety of unpleasant creatures.

Oh, and the Darklord civil war that started after I killed their ruler back in book 5 has finally ended. Their new ruler, Gnaag, has united the other survivors of the conflict under his banner, and they are likely to start causing bother for the civilised world quite soon, so the sooner I complete my quest, the better.

On my journey to the Danarg, I am to be accompanied by Paido, the hero of the mini-adventure in the Mongoose edition of Jungle. He's the Vakeros (warrior-mage) who travelled with me in section 1 of the previous book. For a brief time we also have an even more illustrious escort, but news of an invasion by Zegron, Warlord of Xanar, forces him to return to his cousin, the Queen of this region, to help prepare for war. He provides us with a Pass that will guarantee the cooperation of any loyal subject of the realm, and 21st-century Joe Dever gives a vote of no confidence in his readers by adding a warning against throwing away the Pass. Okay, it's a Special Item, so I need to ditch something to make room for it, but is there really much risk of a player going, 'Well, the Pass would help keep me out of needless fights with soldiers, but then there's this key that I picked up several books ago that might somehow come in handy in the middle of the jungle, so I think I'd better just go with the collateral damage,'?

Paido and I must now decide whether to complete the next stage of our journey, oddly referred to in the book as 'the first leg', as if the days of travel that help pad section 1 out to 4-odd pages in length don't count. We can go by road or by barge, and I've generally picked the barge when playing this before, so I'll stick with what I know well. Our departing escort has paid our fares for us and arranged to have a private cabin made available. A pretty poor-quality cabin, as it turns out (and the revised text takes care to point out that the patches of mould on the walls are 'unsightly', lest any reader think them picturesque), but mixed in with the junk stored in it is a nutritious liqueur, which I add to my pack.

Paido and I go up on deck to get away from the unpleasant smell of the cabin. After a while, a storm threatens, and the Captain urges us to go back below. Reluctant to return to the cabin, Paido suggests we check out the barge's tap-room, and offers to buy me a pint, and I am directed to the same section to which I'd have turned if I'd chosen to head straight for the tap-room rather than checking out the cabin. I wonder if any reader who headed straight for the bar gets to find out what a dump the cabin is.

The tap-room is busy, and offers a choice of three ales. Paido chooses Ferina Nog, which I remember from my first attempt at the book as ranking slightly below the cheaper export lagers in terms of drinkability. I could go for Chai-cheer, which is more palatable, but my character developed a taste for Bor Brew a few books ago, so that's my choice. Upon hearing me place my order, many of the patrons express doubts about my sanity, and even the barman backs off quickly after setting the tankard in front of me. The Mongoose edit here is one of the better ones, doing away with the implication that I down the drink in one. Sensible, though that will make it that bit more embarrassing if I fail the sobriety roll.

I don't fail, and the others in the bar are impressed when I demonstrate the ability to hold my drink. There's a particularly clunky Mongoose edit here, spelling out the nature of my achievement in needless detail. Now that I've drunk without passing out, Paido tries his beer - and promptly spits it out as he finds out how bad it tastes. The man into whose helmet he spat it is unimpressed, and tips the spat-out Ferina Nog onto Paido's shoes. Paido goes for his sword. I'm tempted to sit back and see how Mr. Dever contrives a way to defuse the situation if I don't intervene to calm things down, but I step in anyway, just in case inaction leads to one of the series' more ridiculous Instant Deaths (though even getting randomly killed in a bar fight wouldn't be anywhere near the worst ending that the Lone Wolf books have to offer).

I point out to Paido that the man whose helmet he defiled wears the uniform of the troops garrisoned at our next port of call and, Pass or no Pass, starting a fight with one of their number is not going to do us any favours. He sees reason, apologises, and offers to buy the soldier a drink. This offer is accepted - provided the drink in question isn't Ferina Nog.

Over a round of Chai-cheer (oddly renamed Chai-caveat in the first edition) we become friends. The soldier, named Trost, is returning to the garrison after visiting his family. Silence falls as a fancily-dressed man steps into the centre of the tap-room, introducing himself as Count Conundrum. He intends to baffle everyone with puzzles, and is offering money to anyone who can solve the first one. 27 years ago this was the only one of his puzzles that I wasn't able to figure out. By now, I've worked out how to solve that one as well. Should have put more coins into storage at the monastery, as I have to take 15 Gold Crowns out of my pouch to make room for the 60 Lune (local currency, equivalent in value and size to 15 Crowns) I win from the increasingly disgruntled Count.

As has happened before, modern-day Joe Dever has unnecessarily edited each 'right answer' section to specify that it is the correct answer to the puzzle from section such-and-such. Each such section has my character showing off the reasoning that produced the correct answer anyway, so even in the unlikely event of a reader getting a wrong answer that happens to be the right answer to a different puzzle, the error would soon become apparent.

The barge makes a stop, and I go up on deck to watch the departing passengers. A man with a hat, dark clothes, a sword and a leather-bound book comes aboard. He attempts to probe my mind, but I'm experienced enough that my Psi-screen protects me. Going back below, I spot the sinister stranger in the tap-room. Trost recognises him as a wanted man, Kezoor the Necromancer, and offers a share of the reward money if I'll help capture him. Even with a three-way split, drastically rounding my share down, I'd still need over a dozen extra money pouches to carry the loot, but I'll help anyway because I don't like it when people try to snoop on my thoughts. Besides, I don't think there's any way of evading this fight.

I'm chosen to guard the way out while Paido and Trost apprehend the Necromancer. Guess how well this plan works. Hint: within seconds, Trost is covered in boils and writhing on the floor. Onlookers cheer as a sword fight breaks out between Paido and Kezoor, but they're less keen to be watching when the Necromancer summons a horde of big spiders. They converge on Paido, and if I were unwilling to fire my bow at this juncture, I'd now be turning to 291. I do fire, though, and despite having to wait for screaming passengers to stop interfering with my line of sight, my shot is on target. Not lethal, but Kezoor's not going to get much use out of that arm for a while.

The Necromancer summons more of those spiders, but Paido uses his battle magic to incinerate them, and the two of us converge on Kezoor. He's a competent swordsman, but no match for the two of us, and we barely take any damage in the fight. Paido decapitates the corpse to ensure that it won't rise up to avenge Kezoor's slaying, and we then turn our attention to Trost. Who is by now a charred corpse, covered in burned spiders. By this stage any Magnakai-era veterans of the rpg.net Lone Wolf playthrough must be kicking themselves - that's up to three new alcoholic beverages, three puzzles and one doomed companion that they missed by opting to walk rather than take the barge.

The barge Captain demands compensation for the damage done during the fight, so Paido tells him to take the cost of the repairs out of the reward money and give the rest to Trost's family. Once he knows who we were fighting, the Captain is less concerned about fixing the place up anyway, reasoning that charging people to see where the infamous Necromancer met his end is likely to be more profitable.

I turn my attention to the book Kezoor was reading. Divination tells me that it's not magically protected, but also warns that it contains details of vile acts and rituals. I don't think reading about such things will provide any assistance as regards preventing them, so I don't look inside.

The bodies are disposed of - Trosts's with honours, Kezoor's just weighted with bricks and dumped overboard - and the barge continues to its next stop, where a couple of farmers disembark, doubtless eager to gossip about the events that occurred on the journey. Nothing significant occurs on the last leg of the barge trip, and that Pass ensures our entry to the town of Tharro. There's no 'If you do not have the Pass' option in either version of the book, eighties Joe Dever having relied on his readers' common sense, while his older self has evidently assumed that nobody would disregard his warning (or deliberately defy him in protest at being treated like an idiot).

Three streets lead from the square beyond the town gate. I pick Globe Walk, which leads to a square in which a sign points down an alley. There's no mention of anything written on the sign, which makes me that bit more curious, so I head down the alley. It's lined with shops, most of them closed, but a mapmaker's is still open, so I go in. The proprietress greets me and shows off some of her handiwork. I ask about maps of the Danarg, and she starts to cry. She and her father were on an expedition into that very jungle when he was killed by a creature that lived there, and one of her hands was scarred in the fight. Her notes and equipment were lost, but she does recall seeing the Temple I seek from the top of a 'Scarlet Tor' situated on firm ground around thirty miles from the end of the track leading to the jungle.

Returning to Globe Walk, I continue north, presumably still accompanied by Paido, though he hasn't been mentioned for a while, and reach a quadrangle. An imposing building bears a flaming sword-shaped sign that reads 'Temple of the Sword', and beyond it a track leads to a watchtower. The Mongoose edit has fixed some bad grammar here, and also sorted the different options into a more sensible order. I don't have a map of Tharro (wherever you have to go to get one, it's obviously not the local mapmaker's) or Pathsmanship, so I miss out on some hints about the region, but that flaming sword reminds me of my own magical weapon, so I decide to check out the Temple.

An old man greets us and leads us to a refectory. A monk brings us bowls of stew, and at this point I must act on metaknowledge because Divination is slacking again. Between my memories of past attempts at the book and the fact that referring to The Magnamund Companion reveals the 'blessing' the monk said over the stew to be Giak for, 'Die in pain,' I think I'll abstain from eating.

The books are inconsistent regarding Lone Wolf's knowledge of the Giak tongue: I couldn't understand what was yelled by one of the Giaks attacking Banedon back in the first book, and obviously I'm not expected to have understood the 'blessing', or the text would have said something, but in book 2 I was able to understand the scroll carried by my would-be assassin, which was written in Giak. Obviously it's possible to know a written language without being able to understand the spoken version - otherwise deaf people couldn't learn to read - but given the potential advantages of being able to make sense of what enemy troops are saying, it's odd that I've apparently not bothered trying to learn spoken Giak.

While I've been waffling on about this minor annoyance, Paido has eaten his stew. There's no way of preventing him from doing so, as far as I can tell. The monks are perturbed at my refusal to eat, and fetch a black-robed monk who carries a black iron staff. He asks if Paido has eaten, and the monks state that he did and I didn't. A little belatedly, Divination kicks in and lets me know that I'm in the presence of great evil. I draw my bow, not because I'm expecting to achieve much with an arrow, but because doing so may allow me to finish healing the 'didn't eat' damage before the inevitable fight breaks out.

The black-robed monk orders the two others present to 'summon the brothers'. I manage to shoot one of them, but the other gets out of the refectory and slams the door behind him. I've finished healing by now, so I draw the Sommerswerd and attack. The monk parries my blow with his staff, and Paido cries out and collapses. While I'm distracted, the monk launches a psychic attack, but Psi-screen blocks it. He then drops his disguise, transforming into the hideous shape of a Helghast. And a remarkably powerful one, too: its Combat Skill is significantly higher than that of the Darklord I had to fight at the end of book 5. At least it's vulnerable to Psi-surge, and while using that Discipline costs me Endurance, the expense is justified by the extra damage I'll inflict (and the slightly reduced damage I'll take) as a result of using it. I'll further improve my odds by taking that Alether, as I'm pretty sure this is the toughest fight in the book.

Too tough for me on this occasion: a series of poor rolls meant that I wound up dying, and the Helghast narrowly survived. Still, it was just a string of low numbers that doomed me there, so I shouldn't have to redesign my character to have a chance of winning on a subsequent attempt (good thing too, as I'd have to replay at least the preceding book as well for any changes in Discipline selection to make enough of a difference).

Incidentally, as I've so often been critical of edits made for the Mongoose Books reissues, I think it only fair to point out that the section covering this fight contained a serious error in the first edition (referring to Combat Skill rather than Endurance when describing the effect of the Helghast's psychic attack if Lone Wolf lacks Psi-screen), which has been put right in the newer version.

Out of curiosity, I worked out what the outcome of the fatal fight would have been if I hadn't bothered with Psi-surge. I wouldn't have died so quickly, and based on what I rolled for the additional rounds, the Helghast would have died at the same time I did, but I still wouldn't have survived. Still, that dies make me wonder if it really is worth using Psi-surge after all in this instance. Food for thought when I replay the book.

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

The Vessel Grim and Daring

Roughly half way between the first place I lived after moving to Hull and the first place I worked after moving to Hull, there used to be a second-hand bookshop. It being so conveniently located, I visited it a lot. To the extent that within a couple of months I was offered a 'frequent customer' discount. I only ever recall seeing one gamebook in there, tucked away in the children's book section: a copy of Keith Martin's fifth Fighting Fantasy gamebook, Island of the Undead. On one occasion I had a look through it, but it failed to grab me, and languished unbought on the shelf for a long time. Possibly even until the shop closed. When I subsequently got back into collecting FF books, I regretted not having purchased it while I had the opportunity, but given my on-off relationship with gamebooks in that period, I doubt that I would have kept it all that time anyway.

In the summer of 2002, a little over eight months after I did get back into gamebooks for good, I made my first visit to America (in part to get hold of a copy of Sky Lord, though that was nowhere near my main concern). My flight was from one of the London airports, so I travelled down to Tunbridge Wells a day or two beforehand, as that was a more convenient base for travel to the airport. The day before I flew out, I went for a quick browse around the local second-hand and charity shops, and it was in the Oxfam bookshop that I found another copy of IotU, along with one other of the ten or so FF books I had yet to acquire. I bought both of them, and had a diceless go at Undead while trekking off to Tonbridge to visit the shops there (where I bought a copy of Daggers of Darkness - that was one of the most fruitful days of browsing since I found the batch of books that initially rekindled my interest). I failed as a result of attempting to climb the rigging of a ship during a storm - not the cleverest decision I've ever made in a gamebook. Probably not a decision my character should have had the option of taking, either, as in this book I play a member of a fishing community, who should be aware of the unwisdom of taking such risks.

Until recently, my people have had a mutually beneficial relationship with the wizards who were pursuing their researches into the magic of the elements on nearby Solani Island. We provided them with life's necessities, and also helped procure some of the ingredients required for their experiments, and they kept bad weather away from the region, enabling us to get more substantial and consistent catches of fish than the occupants of the fishing towns elsewhere along the coast. But recently we've had a few not-so-subtle indications that all is not well on the island. An unexpected storm, and a freak wave, both of which resulted in fatalities - the first such deaths around here in years - oh, and the minor matter of the corpse that was washed ashore and started wandering around killing goatherds until forcefully persuaded to stay dead.

A party of us decided to go to Solani and find out what's gone wrong. Another freak wave destroyed our ship during the crossing, killing almost all the crew. I get washed ashore on the island, my sword and shield lost in the wreck, but I still have my knife, and I used the good cling film to wrap my Provisions, so they're still fine. I also have the following stats (allocating dice, because it's another of those books):
Skill 12
Stamina 17
Luck 10
Presence 6
Not bad, though my character would be significantly worse off but for the extra stat. Still, the likelihood of my succeeding at this book is low, because, as with Mr. Martin's previous book, it is necessary to visit the right locations in the right order to be in with a chance, and I'm nowhere near having a clear idea of the right order. In one past attempt I got as far as the confrontation with the final enemy, but was doomed on account of lacking an essential item. Another time I didn't even get through the fight in section 1. The best I can hope for here is to learn a bit more about where to go second, third, maybe even fourth...

Back to the plot. I walk along the shore, seeking other survivors, but find only the corpse of the ship's navigator. In the illustration, he looks remarkably decomposed for someone who only died earlier today. Abruptly, the body reanimates and, upon seeing that I don't have my shield, attacks me, slurring incomprehensible gibberish about ethics in video game journalism. As I only have a knife with which to defend myself, the fight takes a long while, but I eventually manage to defeat the Sea Zombie, and find a spot of higher ground from which to survey the island. I see woodland, moorland, a hillock and a lighthouse, and choose to stick close to the shore in the hope of finding some less aggressive flotsam and jetsam.

After a while I catch sight of a wrecked rowing boat on some rocks just off-shore, and approach it in the hope of finding some supplies. I manage to reach the wreck without harming myself, and catch sight of a few potentially useful items on the sea bed. Diving for them is a bit of bother, especially on account of a typo in the section. I presume that 'roll your dice' is supposed to be 'roll four dice', as two would make this far too easy, whereas rolling all the dice I own (or even just all the six-sided dice on the desk in front of me) would pretty much guarantee failure.

I manage to retrieve a chest and a net, but don't have the endurance to acquire a bottle. As I'm resurfacing from my last dive, a Squirting Octopus squirts a mass of ink at me, and I get some of the stuff in my eyes. Temporarily partially blinded, I suffer an Attack Strength penalty in the ensuing fight, and don't get to use the net against the Octopus (and I think this is the only situation in which the net is of any use). Thanks to my high Skill, even the penalties for lacking a shield and having ink in my eyes don't reduce my advantage enough to allow the Octopus to do any damage, but things would have been dicier if I'd gone with an 'as-rolled' character.

Forcing open the chest, I find some money, a pot of glue, and a sword. The latter will speed up subsequent fights, but I'm not yet sure of the circumstances under which the rest of the chest's contents might come in handy. Nor do I know how or when I'd have benefited from being able to get that bottle, so I hope it's not part of a chain of acquisitions that would eventually bring me something essential.

So, where next? Based on memories of variable patchiness, I'm pretty sure that there are reasons for not yet going to the woods, the moor or the hillock, which only leaves the lighthouse at this stage. I have an impression that even there I'd need an item I don't yet own, but maybe it can be picked up along the way. The text does describe it as 'distant', so...

...so it's rather odd to be told that I 'soon' find myself at the foot of the lighthouse. Which is in darkness, and gives off the impression of something cold and evil lurking within. Close by is the wrecked ship where my first IotU character died. I don't remember finding anything of use on the deck, but that attempt at the book was a dozen years ago, so maybe I should double-check. I ought to be safe as long as I don't try climbing the rigging again.

There's an intact rowing boat close to the shore, which enables me to row out to the wreck. There are more options for exploration here than I'd remembered. Back in 2002 I must have decided to check out what looks like a body in the crow's nest before heading below decks or checking out the hold. This time I go below decks.

The seamen's mess appears to contain nothing of interest, but there are some other doors down here. One has a magical symbol on it, and should probably be avoided until I can find some kind of countermeasure. There's a pair of doors that might lead to the hold, but I'll leave them for the moment as well. That just leaves the cabin door with no distinctive features. This turns out to lead to the Captain's cabin, which is full of interesting-looking items. Plus the remains of the Captain, which have become a Greater Ghoul. I'm really glad I have a sword by now, as this is one fight that I need to finish quickly: Keith Martin's enhanced Ghouls are able to paralyse their victims more quickly than those in other FF books. Alas, even doing standard damage, I am not able to kill the Greater Ghoul before it gets in enough hits to immobilise me, after which I get eaten alive.

Well, I learned a little new stuff that time. Whether it will help me on future attempts at the book or just lead me down a false trail remains to be seen, but this playthrough has been more fruitful than some I could mention.

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

An Unreality Which Calls for a Different Kind of Moral Code

In recognition of what today is, I'm altering my playthrough schedule to bring forward book 4 of Simon Farrell and Jon Sutherland's Real Life Gamebooks series, Through the Wire. For the most part, the RLG books were based around conflicts from world history, and many of them offered the reader the opportunity to choose sides. This book is, I believe, the first one that didn't, which is understandable in view of the subject matter: escape from a Nazi POW camp. Yes, I know that's World War Two, and this is the centenary of the First World War, but I'm not aware of any gamebooks with a WWI setting, so this is the most thematically appropriate one I have.

I got my copy of TtW from a local charity shop, and remember starting to look through it on my way home, and being surprised at the point in my character's life at which the narrative commenced. What I learned from that brief look at the book will influence my choices in character creation.

As with the other Farrell and Sutherland gamebook series I own, character creation involves a selection of skills and a number of points to allocate among them. 50 points again, but this time there are 7 different skills (though none of them cost double). No skill can be lower than 2, or higher than 12 (and unless the book sometimes applies modifiers to rolls, going above 12 would be wasteful anyway, since I can only fail a roll by exceeding the relevant skill score on two dice).
Pilot: 8
Agility: 8
Luck: 7
Persuasion: 9
Firearm: 6
Language: 7
Driving: 5
More balanced than the sample character shown in the book. Time will tell whether or not I have cause to regret not min-maxing my character more thoroughly.

In this adventure I am Alistair Thompson, a relatively recently-qualified Flight Officer in the RAF. It's September 1940, and I have a Luftwaffe air-raid to intercept. Yes, I have yet to become a POW, and it wouldn't entirely surprise me to find that there's a fair chance of my not surviving long enough to get captured. That's why I didn't take a lower Piloting score - I can potentially try and avoid stealing cars if I make it out of the camp (assuming I make it in there in the first place), but when I'm already airborne by section 1, not flying isn't an option.

I choose to target the bombers, inflicting engine damage on one of them in my first pass. Go for it again, or hope to have done enough, and pick a new target? I'll try to prang another kite... which decision leads slightly jarringly to the end of this phase of the engagement. The German planes are turning back, most of their bombs wasted at sea, and my squadron leader instructs us to 'escort them home'. I opt not to get too close to the retreating enemy, which takes me to a section that appears better suited to a version of me that took damage in battle: when several dozen more enemy fighters approach, I warn my leader that I may have a problem staying with the rest of my wing.

We're heavily outnumbered in this new fight, but I still manage to take out another Nazi plane before losing a wing. There's a mildly sloppy bit of design here: I'm at section 73, and the 'If you fail' direction for the Luck roll leads to 74. I make the roll, just, but can see that if I'd rolled slightly higher, that would have been the end of my adventure. As it is, I bail out and parachute into the sea. My kit includes a rubber dinghy, which I am somehow able to inflate while bobbing up and down in the water. Time passes, and I get picked up by a German patrol boat. For me, the war is at least on standby.

I am taken ashore at Calais and, upon seeing the number of ammunition crates carelessly strewn around, wish that a British bomber squadron could be attacking here. What, right now, when there's a good chance I'd perish in the conflagration? I'm taken for interrogation, where I am accused of shooting at a pilot who had bailed out. I deny the charge, and (as far as I can tell) manage to satisfy the man questioning me without giving away any information I ought not to let slip. He has me driven to Luftwaffe HQ, where I am locked into a cell for the night.

In the morning a guard who speaks no English brings me food and coffee. I try out my Language skills on him, and manage to ascertain that I'm to be taken to Stalag Luft 14. I'm then given the option of attacking him as he turns to leave, but I think it unlikely that this is a genuine chance to escape, so I make no trouble. A few minutes later I'm taken out to a truck, which is being used to transport another seven downed British airmen to the camp. Two nervous young soldiers with guns keep watch on us.

The truck heads inland, eventually stopping in a small wood to allow some of the guards to answer the call of nature. We get an opportunity to stretch our legs, and I could try sneaking away, but I'm reluctant to try anything liable to upset a nervous guard with a machine-gun. A couple of my fellow prisoners start brawling, and when the guards attempt to separate them, the others rush them. In the resultant fracas, three of the airmen are killed, and nobody gets away. Indeed, it appears that for one of the men who don't survive the fight, not even death counts as an escape, because six prisoners are herded back onto the truck. We get handcuffed to our seats for the rest of the journey, and locked up in local jails whenever the truck makes a stop for the night.

Eventually we get to our destination, and are handed over to the camp guards. After being processed into the camp, three of us seek out the Senior British Officer, Group Captain Evans. He notes down our details, assigns me to Hut 113, and advises me to get some rest. I do so, not wanting to get a reputation as the wrong kind of troublemaker.

The following morning I learn of the twice-daily head-counts, which are almost the only interaction that occurs between the Germans and the prisoners. Over breakfast I try to find out more about the camp's layout and routines. When I ask about the camp's location, one of the other prisoners asks if I'm planning on escaping, so I enquire about the Escape Committee. Not unreasonably, the man is unwilling to discuss such matters with a complete stranger.

Wandering around the huts, I spot a group of French prisoners loitering in a decidedly suspicious manner, but decide not to stick my nose into their business. Nothing significant happens for the rest of the day, but sirens wake me at around three in the morning. For a moment I think it's an air raid warning, but then another prisoner notes that somebody is trying to escape. I indulge my curiosity, and look through a window, spotting a man in civilian clothes heading this way at some speed. On instinct, I open the window to let him in. He's the unsuccessful would-be escapee, a Belgian POW, who managed to evade the searchlights well enough that his having taken refuge in Hut 113 didn't get noticed by the guards. My hutmates and I manage to smuggle him out to the morning head-count, at which he is able to rejoin his compatriots without any further bother.

Later that day, I get an introduction to the Escape Committee, my nocturnal assistance to the luckless Belgian having indicated me to be the right sort of chap. I get to choose the type of escape attempt in which I will be involved: tunnelling, over the wire, or bluffing my way out. I go for the middle option, not just because of the title of the book, but also because I'd probably need stronger language skills for the bluff route, and I'm not keen on the prospect of being buried alive if a tunnel should collapse.

Wire-based escapes are overseen by another Belgian, who has been responsible for an impressively high proportion of the successful escapes made since he came to the camp. The current plan involves cutting the wires a night in advance, and disguising the damage with fuse wire. I use Persuasion to get myself added to the group that will be breaking out soon, but don't attempt to become their leader. The only other Briton in the six-strong party takes that responsibility, setting the date three days from now, and insisting that we split up once we're out, to make it harder for the Germans to recapture us.

Nothing of note happens during the intervening time. One by one we squeeze through the gap in the fence. One of the Frenchmen in the party slips and falls, but my Luck holds, and the guards don't hear the sound. We hurry into the cover of the nearby forest, and then go our separate ways. The Belgian border is closer than the Swiss one, so as I'm not good with ground-based vehicles, I'll go for the shorter walk.

Emerging from the forest, I catch sight of a nearby village and a railway line. The faster I get away, the better, so I make for the train track, hoping to be able to grab a ride on a passing train. A Lucky jump gets me onto a box-car, though I hurt my arm and incur a penalty to Agility in the process of leaping aboard. That suggests that the consequences of failing the Luck roll would have been really bad.

After concealing myself, I fall asleep. When I wake, the train has stopped. Sneaking off, I soon find that I'm in France. Not quite what I'd planned, but under the circumstances, certainly preferable to, say, Berlin. Further along the track I can see a railway worker, and while there is a possibility that he might turn out to be a collaborator, I'm not likely to get much further on my own, so I risk approaching him.

He can tell from my uniform that I'm a British airman, and seems worried. A good sign, as someone who wanted to betray me to the Nazis would probably keep up a more welcoming facade. He lends me a less distinctive coat while leading me to meet someone who can help. This new contact, Pierre, is also a little troubled at the sight of me, but lets me in. He explains that he's helped a few escaped POWs back to England, but thinks that the Germans suspect his involvement, so the quicker I move on, the better. His daughter Madeleine will accompany me on the train journey to Arras, a mere hundred or so miles from the coast.

For the journey I am provided with a trench coat and, more worryingly, a pistol. Considering my below-average Firearms skill, I hope I won't have to use it. We reach the station and board the train without incident, and once we're on our way, I doze off again.

After a while I become aware of a conversation taking place close by, but pretend to still be asleep. I might overhear something important, and even if I don't, it means I won't risk blowing my cover with a botched Language roll. The speakers are Madeleine and a German who's trying to chat her up, though his intentions do not become clear until she's referred to me as her brother. She claims to be married, and expecting to meet her husband at the end of the line, and I continue to keep quiet. The German persists in making a pass, though, and now the text insists that I intervene. Given Jon Sutherland's co-authorship of the book, I'm not surprised to find myself being forced into a course of action. Still, there seems to have been a fair bit more freedom to choose than in some of Sutherland's work, and it is more reasonable that I should find myself compelled to act in this situation.

No Language roll required. A bit surprising, but given that I've already been through at least one unavoidable 'do or die' roll, I'm okay with not having to risk another 5-in-12 shot at failure. Madeleine introduces me to her new 'friend', I wonder out loud how her husband would react to this, rather awkwardly shoehorning in a reference to his being a man with some authority even under the occupation, and the German abruptly remembers some paperwork to which he must attend. I resolve to stay awake for the rest of the journey, and pretend to be married to Madeleine.

We reach Paris and change trains without any trouble, and Madeleine gets some rest on this leg of the journey. In the coat pocket I find some food and a letter addressed to me, asking me to take Madeleine with me when I cross to England, so she'll be safe even if Pierre does get arrested. I accept this mission, but won't let Madeleine know about it yet: she will probably be reluctant to abandon her father, and the easier it would be for her to get back to him, the greater the risk of her trying it.

At Arras we have to pass through a security check, and a man in civilian clothes takes an interest in us. This time there is a Language roll, and I fail it. Unable to understand what he's saying, I panic, shoving him over the barrier and sending one of the guards flying into the others with a blow to the chin. Grabbing Madeleine, I race through the brief opening I've created, and my Luck does not let me down: the guards take long enough to pick themselves up that we can vanish into the crowds in the nearby market before any shots can be fired. Phew!

We proceed to the contact address Pierre gave me, and are hidden in a loft while our new host, Monsieur Ebonar, awaits an opportunity to contact London and make arrangements for my channel crossing. Getting him alone for a moment, I show him Pierre's letter, and he reluctantly agrees to have Madeleine taken across as well.

Prior to the next stage of the journey, Ebonar gives me a sten gun, and Madeleine explains the weapon's primary idiosyncrasy to me. We get into a truck that heads for Hesdin, accompanied by a few resistance members, but catch sight of a vehicle coming our way. At this time of night we're not authorised to be travelling, so the driver stops and pretends to be dealing with engine problems while the rest of us hide in the bushes nearby. The other vehicle turns out to be transporting a whole platoon of German infantry, who get out when it stops. I decide to wait and see if the driver can successfully bluff them, rather than opening fire straight off. A good choice, as he is able to play on the Germans' contempt for French workmanship and convince them that he's only out this late because his truck broke down. One of the Germans shows off his technical skills and gets the engine working (easy when there's nothing actually wrong with it), and in exchange for a bottle of cognac, the officer in charge agrees to keep quiet about the driver's seemingly involuntary curfew-breaking.

We continue to the pick-up site, and wait for the plane that is coming for me. When it arrives, I tell Madeleine that this isn't going to be quite the goodbye-ee she was expecting, and while she initially protests, Ebonar and I are able to persuade her that she should accompany me. The flight back to England is uneventful, and cars are waiting to take me to London and Madeleine to the Free French HQ. I give her my address, so we can keep in touch.

Rather than being returned to my squadron, I'm taken to see a Major Dunbar, who works for the SOE. Given my recent experiences, he'd like to recruit me for covert operations in mainland Europe, and wants to send me and Madeleine back across to support the Maquis, assist further escaping POWs, and generally create bother for the Nazis. I accept, and while that marks the successful conclusion of my escape, it's also the start of a whole new adventure, which falls outside the scope of this book.

Well, I enjoyed that. The book has its flaws, such as the editing slip-ups I mentioned early on, but they're very minor issues. As it went on, I got drawn into it, and there was a definite sense of rising tension towards the end. I'd have no problem with playing it again - and I get the impression that there are more than enough alternate routes through the book to make doing so worthwhile. If the other RLGs I've not yet tried are up to the same standard, I shan't regret having collected the series.

Monday, 3 November 2014

Freshly Squeezed

As I mentioned a while back, book 24 of Flying Buffalo's Tunnels & Trolls solo adventure range contains three separate adventures. The first one in the book, which is the only one to get its title on the front cover and spine, is Catherine DeMott's When the Cat's Away. Beyond the basic premise, I know nothing of what it involves, as I got distracted by one of the other adventures in the book.

This adventure is exclusively for low-level magic-users, so when I was preparing to start playing Red Circle and rolled up a character who could be a wizard, I saved that character for when I got around to playing Cat, and rolled up someone else to die in Circle. This is the character who's been on ice for almost a year.
Strength: 10
Intelligence: 13
Luck: 12
Constitution: 11
Dexterity: 12
Charisma: 10
Speed: 13
Despite having fractionally above-average stats, this character is actually a little underqualified - to fully fit the profile outlined on the back of the book, I'd need Strength, Luck and Dexterity to each be about 4 points higher, but the likelihood of ever rolling such a character (and still getting an Intelligence high enough to permit magic use) is negligible.

My character is apprenticed to Servald the wizard, and not exactly fond of him. Nor of his familiar, a blue-furred snake-lizard known as a ferrid. Servald has gone away to the Triennial Conjurer's Convention, leaving me and the ferrid behind. At the start of the adventure I'm mopping the floor, watched by the ferrid, but when the beast settles down for a nap, I decide to take advantage of this rare opportunity to snoop around the place. Almost certainly a very bad idea, but bad ideas are practically a T&T character's stock-in-trade.

There are three areas of Servald's house into which I've never been allowed: the secret room in the east, the study (which is kept locked) and the door from behind which strange noises come, down in the dungeon. I'll try the secret room, as it sounds like the option least likely to leave evidence of my misbehaviour.

Included in this book is an errata sheet for several of the later T&T solos. I don't know if it was part of the actual release, or inserted by a previous owner. Regardless, I'm glad it's there, as the section number given for the decision I just made is the wrong one, but with the errata I can get to where I need to go. The door to the secret room is behind a tapestry, and bears silver runes which I think say either 'Golden Dew Pool' or 'Go Back, You Fool'. Reassuring myself that the second interpretation need not be relevant, as Servald may have got the door cheap and been unable (or not bothered) to remove the irrelevant-in-this-context warning, I open the door to find out what's behind it.

The room beyond is circular, and has a strong magical aura. It has one other exit, with a curtain across it, and contains an ugly obsidian statue of a Dwarf, with a vial of orange(ish) liquid. The vial could be removed, so I try doing just that. The contents smell like the fruit that Servald sometimes has with breakfast. My character assumes that this is a secret stash of juice, and recklessly downs it, and the room seems to spin. A massive force presses down on me, making it hard to take a breath, and the Saving Roll required to break free is a tough one, so I'll at least need to throw a double to have any chance of success.

I fail, but the consequences are not immediately fatal. I just lose 3 points of Constitution, permanently. Does that mean that I just reduce my base and current Constitution by 3, or am I going to be stuck at 8 Constitution (or less) for the rest of this character's life, regardless of what stat boosts might come my way? I doubt that I'll last long enough to need a decisive ruling one way or the other.

I could get back to my mop now, but that would make for a pretty dull adventure. What's behind that curtain? Another circular room (does Ms. DeMott have some grudge against players who make maps?), which smells like the juice that what I just drank wasn't, and has a grapevine design on the floor. In the middle of the room is a ten-foot high crystal structure, containing something, but I can't make it out because the crystal is frosted. Also present is a pedestal with raised projections on it.

I look at the pedestal first, which is probably a very good thing. Each of the projections has an inscription by it, and I note that the words on there include 'mix', 'chop' and 'liquefy'. It looks to me as if the crystal structure might be a giant blender. Unless I want to try and test that theory with a closer inspection (quite possibly too close for comfort), I'm left only with a choice between pushing one of the projections or abandoning my investigation of this place.

Click! The projection I chose goes down. It won't come up again, so I try pressing on another, and the first one comes back up. Nothing else seems to happen. My character has apparently concluded that the crystal structure must be a sauna, and I'm offered the option of going into it. No, thank you. As I've already checked out the statue, the only remaining option is to get back to the mop. But I get a small Experience bonus for my negligible discoveries and absurd inference.

I'm still cleaning the floor when Servald gets back. He asks if anything noteworthy happened while he was away, and I say nothing about my little 'adventure'. The ferrid winks at me. Perhaps it's not so bad after all.

I'm accustomed to having T&T adventures end remarkably quickly, but that's usually because something fatal befell my character. Actually succeeding (for some values of 'succeed') after so few decisions and rolls is more unusual, and quite surprising in an adventure with over 250 sections. Presumably the study and dungeon door lead to more expansive encounters. I'll have to have another go at WtCA to find out, but I own enough other solos that I have yet to try even once that it'll be a while before I do attempt it again.

Friday, 31 October 2014

Grim, Ungainly, Ghastly, Gaunt, and Ominous

I received the fifth Wizards, Warriors and You book, Lynn Beach's The Haunted Castle of Ravencurse, as part of the same gift that included book three. While replaying it for this blog may revive old memories, at the moment I recall little beyond the basic premise and a couple of ways the adventure can end badly for the Wizard. Those deaths won't come into play here, as I'm playing the odd-numbered books as the Warrior - which does at least mean that this playthrough won't end with my character being turned into a zombie while hallucinating King Henry atop a giant blue butterfly. It makes more sense in context.

After the usual introduction, the book starts with the Wizard and Warrior at the foot of the cliff on which the eponymous castle stands. There's then a flashback to explain what has brought them here: all the wars in which King Henry's kingdom has been embroiled in recent years have depleted the royal coffers to a hazardous extent. Rather than raise taxes again, he wants to try and solve this economic crisis with the treasures of Ravencurse.

Around a century ago, the wealthy and evil Ravencurse line came to an abrupt end when Mad Morwenna, the head of the family, created a host of monsters that killed the family and most of their servants. The one survivor sought refuge with King Henry's ancestors, for whom he provided a partial map of the Castle of Ravencurse, with details of the treasures within and the horrors guarding them. So far, nobody has dared do anything with the map, but the Wizard and Warrior must now brave the castle's dangers for the sake of the loot it contains.

As I indicated a few paragraphs ago, I shall be choosing the rĂ´le of the Warrior here, so I must now choose three weapons to go with my sword. I pick the Battle-Axe, the Morning Star and the Dagger, as I have a vague impression that projectile weapons aren't good things to use here.

The map is pretty basic, but the guide to what may be found in the castle is a bit more detailed. We seek the Crimson Crown (which provides the wearer with more financial insight than a degree in Economics) and the Bottomless Basket, which provides unlimited wealth for the non-greedy (who would, by definition, be fine with more limited wealth, but magic and irony do often go together quite well). The monstrous guards include a Troll, a Cyclops, Zombies, a Spider of Doom, a Two-Headed Wolf and the Ghost of Mad Morwenna (which must have manifested mighty quickly - otherwise the only survivor of the massacre that ended her corporeal existence wouldn't know about it).

The cliff has finger- and toeholds etched into it, and as I have substantial mountaineering experience, I lead the way, with the Wizard roped to me. After a while we reach a ledge, and I spot a cave leading into the cliff. It could be a way into the castle, which would eliminate the need for further climbing. Or it might just be the Troll's lair, but I'm prepared to take that risk.

It is the Troll's lair. It has also been magic-proofed by Mad Morwenna, so the Wizard won't be of any assistance here. The Troll claims to be a master swordsman, and while the boast appears unlikely, I would be unwise to just assume that it's a lie. What is obvious is that the Troll is pretty slow-moving, so I decide to go for a rapid attack, using my lightest weapon - the Dagger. The resultant battle reveals the Troll to have been speaking the truth about his swordsmanship, but by dodging a lot and inflicting lots of small wounds, I madden him enough that his prowess is lost in the rage. Eventually he provides an opening for a coup de grace, which I take.

At the back of the cave are stairs leading up. They take us to the top of the cliff, but outside the castle. According to the map, there are two entrances. The front door is twice the height of a man, and has no handle on the outside, only a massive knocker and a sign insisting that guests be announced. The kitchen door is small and shadowy, and gives off an odour of decay. I seek the Wizard's opinion, but he's too busy sensing evil and guarding against malicious magic to make any decisions.

I pick the kitchen door just to save us the hassle of going back round to the front of the castle. It hasn't been used in a long while, and creaks 'like a thousand lost souls crying in the darkness'. The kitchen is dusty and cobwebbed, and has exits leading to the cellar (Crimson Crown and Zombies) and ballroom (Spider and Bottomless Basket).

I choose the cellar first. The Crown gives off a red glow that is the only illumination down there. The King of the Zombies approaches, a red-eyed raven on its shoulder. The raven screams, and the Zombie says that after three screams the poisoned-taloned raven will attack. I suggest that the Wizard Shift Shape into the form of a second raven and steal the Crown while I deal with King Zombie and the Ravencurse raven. He thinks that a bad idea, and advises using Invisibility to escape. We won't get the Crown by escaping, but being invisible might help me in the fight, so I agree to go with that spell. Our disappearance sufficiently disconcerts the Zombie that I can decapitate him, but the raven isn't so easily baffled. It swoops to the attack just as the spell wears off, and the poison puts an end to this fundraising endeavour.

Thursday, 30 October 2014

Fading Memories Blending Into Dull Tableaux

I'm not sure when I originally became aware that Puffin Books had marked the 10th anniversary of the publication of The Warlock of Firetop Mountain by getting Ian Livingstone to pen a sequel, the imaginatively titled Return to Firetop Mountain. During one of my nineties sojourns in Tunbridge Wells, I saw a copy of the book in (what was at one point called) Ottakar's bookshop, and had a quick look through it, noticing a disproportionately high number of the sections that featured the character of the Inquisitor, and gaining the impression that he played a much bigger part in the book than was actually the case. What I read did not engage my interest enough to make me want to get the book - especially not for full price.

Some years later, after I'd moved to Hull, it was one of my periodic excursions to Swansea that led to my original acquisition of a copy of Return. Not in Swansea itself, but between coaches on the journey back. As usual, I had taken advantage of the gap between connections to pop into the second-hand bookshop up the hill from the coach station, and found a Return there. I bought it, and started reading it in the queue to get on the coach. That must be the only occasion on which I played a gamebook without using dice and lost as a result of a failed roll: I had been keeping track of the various penalties inflicted on my character, and knew that if I had been using dice, my chances of succeeding would be somewhere between zero and five in twelve, depending on my Initial score. Regardless, the odds did not favour my dodging the net, so I concluded that if I were playing by the rules, I'd probably fail, went with that outcome, and wound up captured and tortured to death by a Goblin.

I didn't try the book again until I was home and had access to dice. And then I kept on trying to win it - always by the rules (but almost certainly allocating dice before long) - until I finally succeeded. After the first few attempts, I started working on a 'condensed' version of the book, like the one I'd done for the first Lone Wolf book back in the nineties. It gradually grew longer as I went along, rarely requiring correction, because wrong decisions were almost always obviously wrong a very short time after they were made. Eventually I succeeded, the book went to a charity shop, and my notes probably got binned, as I couldn't imagine ever needing a lengthy list of instructions for completing a gamebook I no longer owned. When I got back into gamebooks for good, I acquired a replacement copy of Return from a fellow fan at the official FF forum, in whatever form it existed at that time. Probably in exchange for something, but I can't remember what.

The book's Background section is a little awkward. It starts by going on about the tendency of evil wizards to use dark magics to enable them to return from the dead, and proceeds to the revelation that Zagor, the infamous Warlock of Firetop Mountain, has done just that. Ten years after his death, he's back, as a result of which the distinctive red vegetation that gave the mountain its name has turned black, livestock in the vicinity has been dying nastily, and people living in the region have been abducted during the night, for use as raw materials in the construction of a new body for Zagor. There's nothing particularly wrong with that, but then the focus shifts to the viewpoint of my character, one of Titan's many itinerant adventurers, who knows nothing of what Mr. Livingstone has just spent the past page-and-a-half explaining. My wanderings have brought me to the village of Anvil, located not far from the mountain. Observing that the locals are in 'wary of strangers' mode, I go to the tavern to find out what's alarmed them so, and get given a quick explanation of what the Background section has already revealed once.

Nobody from Anvil feels up to the challenge of trying to re-kill Zagor, but I offer to do so in return for a night's lodgings. And what sort of stats does the man who dares to confront the risen Warlock have? I will be allocating dice again, since without a double-figure Skill I'll have no chance.
Skill 12
Stamina 18
Luck 11
Not bad, but even if I can remember the correct path, there's no guarantee that I'll make it to the end. Or even to Firetop Mountain, for that matter.

In the morning, the tavern's barman, whose parents cruelly saddled him with the name 'Moose', advises me to seek the assistance of the grand wizard Yaztromo. As I set off, I wonder if it's worth trying to get help from the 'wise, good, powerful, philanthropic' wizard who has never refused to help anyone who sought his aid in opposing evil. Before I can resolve this knotty quandary, Moose catches up to me to say that a couple of Trackers eavesdropped on our conversation, and must be stopped before they can warn Zagor that I'm on his case. As far as I'm aware, nothing actually comes of their passing on the warning if I decide not to bother going after them, but I join Moose in the chase anyway, as they have something that's useful or essential on them.

Along the way I spot something shiny, and stop for a closer look. It's a shield, lying around for no good reason, so I pick it up before returning to the pursuit of the Trackers. After a bit, Moose indicates that I should stop running. Branches rustle nearby, and the Trackers give away their position by howling. One of them throws a dagger at me, but my new shield protects me, and I add the dagger to my inventory before charging in to battle. Moose and I kill a Tracker each, and help ourselves to the Z-embossed gold coins they have. I also take a couple more daggers, but don't touch the piece of paper that Moose finds in one Tracker's boot, as looking at it was what hit my original Return character with his first Skill penalty.

Moose returns to Anvil while I continue on my way, next encountering a man who leads a donkey that carries buckets of mushrooms. In appalling verse he introduces himself as Dungheap Dan, and when I attempt to speak to him, he gives me a mushroom, indicating in rhyme that it has medicinal properties. I proceed on my way before he can start on the limerick about the young lady from Kallamehr.

The path forks, and I am presented with a choice between seeking Yaztromo and heading straight to Firetop Mountain. Picking the non-suicidal option, I head south until distracted by a cry for help. Investigating, I find a honey-smeared man staked to the ground and being attacked by ants. I release him, and he gives me an unreliable Ring of Invisibility.

I keep going until dusk, and then take shelter in the cellar of a ruined hut. Before settling down for the night, I search the place, finding a numbered key in a clay pot, and a wooden brick and ball in a leather pouch that was inside a box. After an uneventful night I wake to the sound of footsteps overhead. Whoever is up there fails to notice the trapdoor down into the cellar, and I wait for them to get some way away before emerging and resuming my trek.

A reception committee awaits me at the Dwarven village of Stonebridge: the people of Anvil sent a messenger bird with news of my quest. It turns out that Yaztromo is not at home, having gone west to the town of Kaad to deal with an outbreak of plague, so transportation has been arranged. A Dwarf leads me to a boat on the Red River, crewed by nine men with silly fantasy-fied versions of real world names. Probably based on Livingstone's Ultra 30 Race Team, to whom the book is dedicated.

We set off down the river, and after a while we see a capsized boat with an Orc clinging to it. Suspecting a trap, we sail past, and the Orc hurls a throwing axe at us, fatally hitting one of the crew (and potentially revealing the identity of Ian's least favourite member of the Ultra 30 team).

A little later a dove flies down to the boat, bearing a message from Moose. Somehow Zagor has learned of my plan to defeat him, and even more somehow, Moose has learned of Zagor's plan to thwart my plan by sending a Doppelganger to Kaad to impersonate Yaztromo. The warning concludes by pointing out what I apparently already know: that Doppelgangers can easily be identified by their eye colour (a rule that Ian forgets or ignores the next time he features a Doppelganger in a gamebook).

The weather turns nasty, but as I didn't get half the crew massacred by Orcs, the boat makes it to the jetty near Kaad intact. I continue on foot, and just outside the town I am greeted by an uncharacteristically friendly Yaztromo with the wrong colour eyes. He tries to shake my hand, but I know that its touch will send me to another world, and attack. The subsequent fight is bothersome: neither the Doppelganger nor I can win except by rolling a double after inflicting a blow on the other combatant. I succeed at this in the fourth round of the battle, but on previous attempts it's taken a lot longer.

Proceeding into the town, I find the real Yaztromo, who explains that he's too busy dealing with the plague to accompany me. He can give me advice, though, and tells me that I'll need some Elementals. A quirk of the Raise Dead spell that Zagor used on himself requires him to secrete a number of numbered replica dragons' teeth made of gold, which can be used to summon Elementals, within his domain. Yaztromo also advises me to visit the local store, gives me some money to buy stuff, and provides directions to the home of Zoot Zimmer, who can provide rapid transportation to the mountain.

I head to the shop, finding a boy playing with wooden bricks outside it. The lad tells me that the proprietor isn't in, and if I want the brat to fetch him, I'll have to hand over a wooden brick. Lucky I found one in that cellar, eh? I provide the requisite bribe, and soon the shop is open. It contains an assortment of junk, everything priced at 2 Gold Pieces, and despite having at least 15 coins, I'm only allowed to buy five items. I get a pair of leather gloves, a magnifying glass, a mirror, a rope and a lantern.

My purchases made, I seek Zoot Zimmer, whose address is stated in the text, so readers wise to Ian Livingstone's tricks will make a note of the house number. Zimmer turns out to be a Half-Elf, and a deliverer of painfully clunky exposition. He offers me some herbal tea, which would restore a little Stamina if I'd lost any (one of the relatively few occasions in the book where any healing can be had), and then summons a Giant Eagle, on which the two of us ride off to Firetop Mountain. I don't think there's a single voyage by air in an Ian Livingstone gamebook that doesn't include an attack by some flying predator, but at least on this occasion it's possible to evade the monster, whatever it is. Once the skies are clear again, we resume our journey, and Zoot drops me off by the mountain, then flies off on the Eagle.

The appearance of the mountain is a little intimidating, and is described almost word for word as it was back in TWoFM. A little more variety would have been nice, even just finding a synonym for 'gargantuan'. For the next several paragraphs my 'in-character' perspective is going to be a bit different from normal: while this character has never been here before, most readers would be familiar with quite a bit of the area even on their first attempt at Return on account of having been through it back when they played the first FF book. As the nostalgia element is a significant aspect of RtFM, I'll be treating the revisited locations more as they would have appeared to FF veterans than as my new character would be perceiving them for the first time.

I enter the cave leading into the interior of the mountain and proceed to the first junction. I can't remember whether or not there's anything useful at the dead end to the east this time round, so I'll check that out first. The door to the room with the pit in has been boarded up, and on the ground nearby I find a bottle with something in it. I have to break the bottle to get it out, and it's a brass egg. Useless, as I recall.

Going back the way I came, and straight across at the junction, I pass the cobweb-festooned corpse of the Orc guard who was sleeping on duty back in The Warlock. The doors in the walls of the corridor leading north from his guard post have also been boarded up, and padlocked for good measure. The 'closed down' aesthetic is taken to new extremes on the westward branch of the next junction: the door to the Orc Chieftain's quarters has vanished altogether. The dead end that's taken its place is so unimpressive that I automatically head east to another junction.

Further to the east, Livingstone throws a bone to the readers wishing to revisit old encounters - the animated skeletons of the five squabbling Orcs from TWoFM are continuing their dispute, and can be killed all over again. I'll bypass the encounter this time round, as there's nothing to be gained from it but the possibility of flesh wounds. Well, there is also the case that once held the bow and silver-headed arrow known as The Giver of Sleep, but the weapon itself is long gone, and I see little point in risking Stamina loss for so little reward.

Instead I go north, up another corridor with three doors set into the wall. These doors haven't been barred, so I can investigate the rooms behind them. The first of these rooms, formerly used to imprison an unsuccessful adventurer, now contains only debris and a chain attached to the wall. Searching the clutter on the floor turns up a gold coin, a tin whistle and an onyx egg - nothing of any significance in this adventure. Pulling on the chain yields a better result, yanking a stone from the wall to reveal a hidden compartment. The hole is too small to admit my head, but I can fit an arm through. Fumbling around inside, I find some gelatinous gunk at the bottom, with a cylindrical canister buried in it. As I remove the canister, I observe that the glove on my hand is giving off wisps of smoke, indicating that the goo was acidic. Good thing I wasn't bare-handed (as was my character the first time I played this book - hello Skill penalty number two). The canister has a screw top, which I undo, and green vapour billows from inside. I hold my breath and wait for the gas to disperse, and then look inside the canister, which contains the first of the gold teeth I need.

The Wizard Books reprint of Return fixed a minor error here: originally, there was no number on this tooth, though Yaztromo said that the teeth would all have numbers on, and when the tooth is needed at the endgame, the text refers to the number 'on the tooth'. There is an inscription hinting at the type of Elemental that this tooth will summon, and the number relating to that kind of Elemental can be learned elsewhere in the adventure, so the omission doesn't render the book unplayable, but it has caused unnecessary confusion: I once had to refer to the Wizard edit to confirm to a fellow fan that the tooth in the canister was indeed the correct one, and there wasn't yet another numbered tooth hidden somewhere really obscure.

Leaving the room, I bypass the next door. The armoury was barely worth visiting back in TWoFM, and now it's worse, containing only a choice between Instant Death and a Skill penalty - the third one that helped doom my first RtFM character. The third door is another matter, though. It leads to a derelict torture chamber, with the skeleton of a long-dead victim on the rack. Observing a gold ring on one of the skeleton's fingers, I go across to add it to my inventory, and a snigger from up above alerts me to the fact that a weighted net is falling towards me. At full Skill I have no trouble dodging it, and I look up to see an annoyed Goblin peering through a hole in the ceiling.

The Goblin scurries away, and as there's a rope attached to the net, I can climb up and give chase. But first I take the ring, noting the number inscribed on it, and put it on. Once I have climbed up and squeezed through the hole, I find myself in a low-roofed room with one exit, and a sword hanging on the wall. Scratched on the hilt of the sword is the name of the infamous Chaos Champion who once owned the sword. The text points out how odd it is to find such a legendary weapon in a Goblin's home, but it's a little late for Ian to be trying to lampshade such absurdities. I take the sword and leave via the narrow tunnel.

After about twenty metres I find an iron spike that has been driven into the floor, and just beyond it is a steep drop. Ominous noises come from behind me, so I attach my rope to the spike and climb down the shaft ahead. Retrieving my rope, I light the lantern and ignore the chalk writing on one of the walls: quite apart from the probable lethality of the trap that reading it triggers, the whole scenario of the trap is one of the most 'What was the author thinking?' aspects of the entire book.

Another tunnel leads out of this room, passing through a candlelit room that's littered with skulls. As I head for the exit, the skulls animate and start shuffling towards me. I jump over them, narrowly succeeding at the Skill roll required, and don't hang around to see what they make of my prodigious leap. The passage beyond this room ends at an unlocked door, and I go through, closing the door behind me. Nothing was said about the skulls giving chase beyond the room, but even if they did, the need to turn the door handle pretty much guarantees that they won't get this far.

The room beyond the door contains an oak chair with figures carved on it, and has a trapdoor set into the floor. I'm pretty sure there's nothing worth having here, so I open the door in the opposite wall. It leads into a marble-floored room containing three statues of warriors suffering a painful death of some kind. The door slams behind me, and part of one of the walls begins to rise up, revealing a serpentine tail.

Yes, it is what the clues suggest.

I close my eyes and start rummaging through my backpack for that mirror (no idea why I couldn't get the mirror out while the wall was still too low for me to be in any danger of catching the Gorgon's eye). Then I hold the mirror up to try and reflect the Gorgon's gaze back at her. My Luck holds, and she petrifies herself. I don't think there's anything useful in the chamber from which the Gorgon came, but I'll just check... No, just a couple of clay pots that contain nothing helpful. But now I've come in here, I have to break at least one of them. I can only remember the contents of one pot, but I do recall that the item in question is only harmful if I try to take it. I smash the pot that rattles... and that's not what I was expecting. Still, now I can see the numbered silver ring, I remember what it does, and know that it too will do nothing bad if I just leave it in the remains of the pot.

There's another door from the room containing the Gorgon's victims (which is chained and padlocked, otherwise I wouldn't have hung around to risk getting stoned), so I force it open and head down the tunnel beyond. A little further on is a door in the wall, with a convenient barred window that allows me to look inside without attracting any attention. There's an Orc being served rat stew by a hunchbacked Dwarf. Now, I don't need to eat any Orc fleas (the consequences of looking at that chalk writing are messed up), but I believe that the crate under the dining table contains something useful or essential, so I enter anyway.

The Orc attacks, but doesn't last long. Despite already having two swords, I have to take the one the Orc used as well. Then the Dwarf attacks me, and fares no better than the Orc did. The crate contains a silver bell, which I need, and a load of rotting cabbage leaves, which are not required. Before returning to the tunnel I also check out the back room, where I find a lot of irrelevant items and a gold spoon. I can win the book without the spoon, but taking it won't hurt me, so I pocket it.

Further along the tunnel is another door, this one with no window. Sounds come from beyond it, suggesting that someone is in pain. I open the door, finding a man with bandaged eyes chained to a wall. The colour of his trousers, the familiarity of his voice, and the stilted nature of his begging not to be hurt again, all lead me to the conclusion that this is Zoot Zimmer. I greet him, but he doesn't recognise my voice, and refuses to trust me unless I can tell him where he lives. Good thing I added him to my address book (not that I'll be getting any further opportunities to visit).

Zoot explains how he wound up here: a Dragon attacked and blinded him on the return flight to Kaad, and the Eagle crashed. Patrolling Orcs found him and brought him here, to donate an arm to Zagor's new body. I'm not convinced that enough time has passed to allow all that to happen, but maybe I just did a really thorough job of checking the rotten cabbage leaves. Anyway, I break Zoot free, and lead him along the corridor. It ends at a stone wall, but footprints on the ground suggest that there's a secret door here.

Zoot shows off his heightened sense of touch, finding a loose stone with a handle behind it. He suspects a trap, and continues to search, finding a second handle behind another loose stone. Another of the gold teeth is in there, too. Warning me to stand back in case he's made a mistake, Zoot pulls the handle he thinks is the safe one. It opens the secret door. It also opens a trapdoor into a spiked pit just below Zoot. Given the nature of his dialogue up until now, he probably utters the Wilhelm Scream as he plunges to his death.

Jumping over the pit and through the secret door, which closes behind me, I find myself back in familiar-to-TWoFM-readers territory, beyond the portcullis at the end of the last corridor with three doors. The branch of this passage running west has caved in, so after a brief search in the vicinity of the portcullis, which turns up only a numbered bronze tooth, I head east.

Around a corner I find the 'Rest Ye Here Weary Traveller' bench, though only the first word on the sign is still legible. I think it's still safe to sit on, but as I'm already at full Stamina, there's no point in taking the time to double-check. There have been further cave-ins at the next two junctions, blocking off another turning west and the passage to the Iron Cyclops' room, but the tunnel that goes north is still intact.

Beyond the next door I find a room containing a human skeleton. It's probably supposed to be the remains of the Barbarian who could be encountered here in The Warlock, but he was armed with an axe, while this skeleton has a sword. Amusingly, the text asks if I need a sword - okay, I would have lost mine if I'd gone snooping around in the armoury, but as it is, I have my original sword, the Chaos Champion's sword, and the Orc's sword that the book made me pick up. I'd be running a little short if I needed to arm a string quartet, but for the purposes of this adventure I have more than enough swords. Also in the room is a wooden box, which once contained a mallet and several wooden stakes, but now holds only a ball of string. If I run into any Vampires, I'll just have to hope that I can distract them with a game of cat's cradle.

Continuing along the passage, I reach what used to be a rather fancy art gallery, but the decor has deteriorated (is 'fade' the right word to describe the time-induced change of colour experienced by white paint?) and the paintings are no longer on the walls. A Cave Troll art critic enters via the far door, and expresses his frustration at having missed the exhibition by attacking me. He has a few copper coins, a bulb of garlic (one of the more clever red herrings in the book, as garlic is usually a good thing to have), an earwig-shaped earring that I wouldn't try on even if I were the piercing type, and a piece of paper with the word 'Leg' written on it. My character surmises that the Troll was actually seeking a replacement limb for the Warlock, but even if I overlook the fact that in the climactic confrontation, Zagor has two legs (just like Terry Gilliam), the lack of specification has problematic potential - the recipient of any leg procured by the Troll could literally have ended up with two left feet.

In the pear-shaped room shortly before the river, I catch sight of a Troglodyte sleeping on a mound of rubble. Next to his head are a throwing dagger and a pouch, which I take. The dagger may not be necessary, as I still have the ones I took from the Tracker (and the fact that one of them was thrown at me suggests that they too are throwing daggers), but the pouch contains a piece of slate with the word 'arrow' scratched onto it, and not knowing that word would mean trouble later on. I suppose I could make a lucky guess, but I prefer to do things the proper way.

Continuing to the river bank, I ring for the ferryman, who demands two Gold Zagors for the crossing. His ten-years-back predecessor wanted three gold, so I guess inflation rates are non-existent down here. As is good service, actually: paying the required sum (even with Zagor-approved currency) led to one of my early attempts at the book ending badly. When I refuse to pay for his sudden but inevitable betrayal, he transforms into a Wererat, so either Zagor's not the only individual to have been brought back to life, or muroid lycanthropy is a perk or requirement for the Firetop Montain ferryman.

After killing the Wererat (and, as is traditional, finding a sum slightly lower than he charged on him), I get into the boat to cross the river. Part of the way across, the boat remembers that everything from the north bank onwards in TWoFM was written by Steve Jackson, so it insists on heading down river to the entrance to a whole new tunnel complex, thereby saving Ian Livingstone from having to figure out the way through the Maze of Zagor.

The cavern to which I am taken is filled with giant crystals (best ignored), and has two inland exits, one marked 'PITS', the other 'PUZZLES'. I take the latter option, partly to avoid a couple of unnecessary fights, and partly because some puns are below even me.

The tunnel leads to a cavern, its walls lined with crammed bookshelves. A black-robed Ian Livingstone look-alike (with a Fighting Fantasy logo belt buckle) introduces himself as the Inquisitor and says I must solve his puzzles to be allowed to go any further. Both puzzles are mathematical in nature, and no real challenge for me. My success not only permits me to go further, but also provides an opportunity to have a look at the Ianquisitor's library. The books I see include a couple of in-jokes: there's a copy of Casket of Souls and a tiny tome entitled Eye of the Dragon (which is a bit of an odd title, as it contains details of the dragon's teeth that I'm after). The book is written in minuscule print, and I'd be unable to read it without the magnifying glass I bought in Kaad. Several pages are missing, but I do at least learn the purpose of one of the teeth I've found.

The exit from the library leads via a sliding panel to a room which contains a breastplate on a table. I'm at full Skill, and Ian hasn't offered Attack Strength bonuses since about City of Thieves, so even if the breastplate isn't booby-trapped (which I think it probably is), putting it on is unlikely to help me at all.

Further along the passage is a door set into the wall. The sound of laughter comes from behind it. The handle will not turn, so I knock, and get asked the password. I try the word I got from the sleeping Troglodyte, which is correct. A second Troglodyte, flanked by Lizard Man guards, opens the door and says he wasn't aware that a human would be entering the sheep's eye eating competition. It's not something I'm massively keen on, but there's no way of winning this book without participating in the contest, and as it's only my character who'll be actually eating the eyeballs, I'm prepared to go along with it.

The other contestants are a Barbarian (no species mentioned, so presumably he's one of the humans the Troglodyte didn't think were playing), a neanderthal-looking caveman and a Troglodyte. The Barbarian offers a side bet on the contest, and I agree. He insists on only betting gold, so I put up the spoon as my stake. The outcome of the contest is entirely dice-dependent, making this one of the more frustrating aspects of the book. At least to get what I need, I only have to beat the Barbarian, not win outright. On this occasion I do actually beat every other contestant, though for a bit it looked as if the caveman might outdo me. The Barbarian comes last, and gives me a numbered dragon's tooth made of gold, which means more to me than the actual prize for winning the contest, a bronze bust of Zagor.

Returning to the corridor, I carry on to a junction. I'm pretty sure that going the wrong way here will doom me, but I can't remember which is the correct one. Well, I do know which one is most often the best option in a Livingstone gamebook, so I'll try that one. Yes, that's looking good. The passage leads past a door from behind which comes a sound like someone chopping wood. In fact it's the sound of a Chaos Warrior practicing swordplay on a wooden dummy. He appears to consider me a better practice opponent, and actually manages to wound me a couple of times before I conclude the bout.

The room contains an assortment of weapons and a box of clutter. From the weapons I take a whip (no option to take a sword, for once). The box contains a rat's skull, 3 Gold Pieces, 2 Silver Pieces, a horseshoe, a horn (all of which I have no choice but to take), one of the missing pages of Eye of the Dragon, a copper bracelet and a silver pendant. I get out the magnifying glass to read the page, which reveals what I need to know about the tooth I have yet to find. Well, what I need to know other than how to acquire it. I know the pendant to be dangerous (especially to anyone carrying garlic - very sneaky, Mr. Livingstone), and don't remember the bracelet serving any vital purpose, so I leave both alone and continue on my way.

Further on there's another door in the wall. I hear shuffling feet from behind it, and go through. It leads to a room in which a pock-marked, rag-wearing creature is carrying a dragon's skull to a crate. The deceased dragon appears to have undergone some dental work at a point prior to its demise, so I opt to take a closer look at it. The creature carrying it does not approve, and I must fight. Not a very skilled opponent, but it is a Plague Bearer, and I'm doomed if it wins even one round of battle. It doesn't even come close to harming me.

Disappointingly, the gold tooth in the skull's jaw has no inscription. Still, also in the room is a human skull being used as a candle-holder, with a detachable top, so I take a look inside. Another of the missing pages is in there, along with a small bone carving of a dragon's head. The page (which is significantly longer than the preceding one - 85 characters compared to just 51) explains the function of a third tooth, and the carving is an unusual lucky charm, designed to reward the fortunate and punish the 'worthless' individuals who are prone to misfortune. Kind of a cross between karma and Tory policy. My Luck is high enough that the charm restores the Stamina I lost to the Chaos Champion.

Back to the passage, and before long another door. This leads to a room with a sunken floor, in which massive worms slither over the carcass of a dead dog. Also down there is a fancy brass box, which I enter the pit to retrieve. The Sucker Worms aren't interested in the living, so I wait for an opportunity to grab the box without a fight. It contains only another missing page, this one exactly as long as the last one, which confirms what I had already inferred about the fourth tooth. If I wanted to take the box with me, I'd have to discard two items to make room for it. After all, a tin whistle and a rat skull take up so much backpack space.

Corridor, door. This leads to a dusty, cobwebbed room in which two skeletons face each other across a gaming table. The playing pieces are miniature dragons, one side gold, the other silver. Of course the skeletons animate and attack when I pick up one of the pieces. I don't fare so well in this fight, though I am still the survivor. The game pieces turn out to just be painted wood, and the only other items I find in the room are another gold coin and a glass ball filled with smoke. Smashing the ball merely releases the smoke, which makes me feel ill, but eating the mushroom that Dan gave me settles my stomach and heals a little of the damage I took in the fight.

The corridor leads to another junction. Should I go the same way as before, or try the other direction? I'll take a chance on Ian's favourite again... A wise choice. The tunnel leads to a door with assorted strange items nailed to it (small skulls, an ear, old coins, a copper triangle...). Behind the door a woman calls for more crushed maggots. Sounds unpromising, perhaps, but this is somewhere I need to visit. I step through into a lavishly furnished chamber in which a beautiful woman is grinding something up with mortar and pestle. A boy with a silver headband brings a bowl, presumably the requested maggots.

The ring I acquired in the torture chamber dispels the illusion. The woman is a hideous crone, her servant a crude hybrid of dog and human. A voice in my head urges me to ring the bell, so I pull out the one I got from the box of cabbage leaves and give it a good shake. The chime causes the witch to fall unconscious, and Jim-Jim the dog-headed mutant attacks me. I put him down, and don't try on his headband.

Searching the room, I find a metal panel set into the wall. Above it is a coin slot, and a sign warns that this only accepts silver. I drop in the silver coins I got from the Chaos Champion, unlocking the panel and finding the last of the teeth I require. The room only has the one door, so I head back to the last junction and take the other branch. A little way along that, I see a locked door set into the wall. In one of those ludicrous coincidences that occur in some gamebooks, the key I found in the cellar of that ruined hut fits the lock.

Beyond the door is a corridor with a Goblin in it. He sees me and reaches for a lever, but I interrupt him with the Troglodyte's throwing dagger. Retrieving the dagger, I continue along the corridor to a meeting room. Eight chairs surround a long table with coins scattered across it, and the walls are lined with shelves full of books, scrolls, maps and the like. An old man with a purple gown and headband enters, identifying me as an intruder, but reflecting that I may be of use to him if I'm intelligent enough. His challenge is a test of observation - to count up the coins on show. I add up the ones depicted in the accompanying illustration, getting the total right, and the man notes that I will make an excellent spy, once he's used his Mindbending abilities to secure my allegiance to Zagor. Not keen on such a change of profession, I use the whip I found earlier to incapacitate him. After pocketing the gold, I take a look at the contents of the shelves, eventually finding a scroll that explains how to use the teeth to summon the Elementals. I wonder why Yaztromo neglected to mention that little detail.

The exit from the Mindbender's room takes me to a hallway in which half a dozen mummies stand on pedestals. A clock chimes, causing the mummies to animate, and I try using the Ring of Invisibility, as my FF combat manager only has slots for five opponents, making fights against larger groups a bit of a hassle. The ring works for long enough that I can get through the door at the end of the hall.

In the antechamber beyond, I see an ornate door with a big 'Z' on it. A formidable-looking beast guards it, but the Chaos Warrior's sword from the Goblin torturer's room proves effective for bribing the brute to let me through. The door leads to a chamber in which a couple of Zagor's personal physicians, the Death Lords (how do I know what these people call themselves and do for a living?) are being brought a fresh body to plunder for transplantable bits. One of them spots me, and summons a couple of Goblin archers. I block the arrows with my shield, and fight the Goblins. The book recognises that the sword I used as a bribe might have been my only sword, and lists a Skill penalty for lacking such a weapon, but I still have a pair of the things. More than enough to make short work of the Goblins.

The Death Lords flee, but before giving chase I search the Goblins' quarters. I help myself to a wooden staff with a carved bone skull on it, and leave the bowls of soup (slightly put off by the claw that protrudes from one of them) and the wicker basket that could contain something nasty.

Now I follow the Death Lords, who are waiting for me in a marble-floored room. Standing on an inlaid golden crescent, and brandishing metal spheres, they mutter an incantation that opens up great rifts in the floor. I tap the floor with the staff I just acquired, and the floor becomes solid again. The Death Lords then throw the spheres at me. I imagine that Ian Livingstone was attempting to riff on the Phantasm films here, but that doesn't make the phrase 'razor-sharp spheres' any less ludicrous. What happens next is determined by the roll of a die, modified by how much armour I have. Which is only the shield. Looks like I should have taken that breastplate. And I don't think I ever even saw the helmet. With what I roll, I'd need all three items to evade the spheres. Since I only have one, I get a sphere in the arm (yeah, a helmet would have done a lot to help against that. The sphere causes me to lose consciousness, and I come round just in time for the operation in which my left arm is removed so that Zagor can use it.

It's frustrating to have failed after getting so far, but at least I have now been reminded of a mistake or two to avoid next time. And while RtFM isn't that great an anniversary celebration, there are Ian Livingstone books I'd less like to have to replay.