Wednesday, 15 January 2014

Perhaps Everyone Runs From the Taxman

In December 2001 I owned around half a dozen FF gamebooks (plus Clash of the Princes, stashed in a box somewhere at the parental home). They were mostly ones I'd owned before, never actually beaten by the rules, and had reacquired after finding them for next to nothing in charity shops, intending to try and achieve that elusive victory and then donate them back.

A few posts back I mentioned Wood Ingham, the friend from my university days who tracked down a copy of The Keep of the Lich-Lord for me during the later stages of my building up my Fighting Fantasy collection. He also, indirectly, played an important part in getting the collection going. As long as I've known Wood, he's been keen to share his interests, and my book, CD and comic collections would all be significantly smaller if not for his recommendations and gifts. So when someone gave him a few hundred issues of 2000 A.D. in 2001, he put the ones of which he already had copies into a box and mailed it to me. It was a big box, far to big to fit through the letterbox where I lived, so the postman took it to the depot and left me a note saying there was a parcel for me to collect.

The Saturday morning after I received the postman's note, I went to the depot to collect the parcel. The route from where I lived to the depot passed a charity shop, and I decided to pop in there for a browse along the way. On the bookshelves at the back of the shop, I found a sea of green. A whole row of books with spines in the colour that elicits a Pavlovian response from anyone who collected Fighting Fantasy books in the eighties or nineties.

11 years after completing the set, I still react whenever I spot that green in a bookshop.

Four of the FF books in the shop were ones I'd never owned before. I bought them, along with another three of which I had fond memories. The 2000 A.D.s didn't get much attention that weekend, as I had gamebooks to play. During my lunch break on the Monday, I trekked back to the shop and bought the nine FF books that were still there. I was back into FF all right.

The earliest of the new-to-me books in that collection was Legend of the Shadow Warriors, Stephen Hand's second contribution to the series. The first time I played it, my character died in the initial confrontation with the eponymous Warriors, as a result of standing and fighting when he should have retreated.

My character is a former war hero, who's spent the last five years as a straightforward adventurer. Back in familiar territory, and finding that I've largely been forgotten by the people I once helped defend, I visit a tavern to see if anyone there requires my services. Before long, a farmer named Mendokan comes up to me and explains that the people of Karnstein village need help, as they're being attacked. Not by Vampires, but by local bogeyman-equivalents the Shadow Warriors. I find this claim far-fetched, and I'm not the only one - Mendokan only sought me out because nobody else would take his appeal for aid seriously. Not much of a vote of confidence in my skills.

Does he have any grounds for treating me as a last resort? Probably not, since I shall be allocating dice for this adventure, as there's at least one nasty and unavoidable fight. Still, I can only work with the numbers I get, so there is a possibility of my having lousy stats even with a little tailoring of my character.
Skill 11
Stamina 17
Luck 10
A fairly respectable character, so I have a decent chance of surviving at least as far as the maze with the arbitrary Instant Death that's ended most of my more successful attempts at this book.

Unlike everyone else Mendokan approached, I decide to take the job, assuming that a bunch of brigands are using the standard Scooby-Doo set-up as cover for their crimes, and deciding that sorting them out will be a job worth doing. We arrange a rendezvous, and I'm about to start shopping for equipment when infamous gambler Bartolph approaches me and asks if I'm up for a wager. I decline because I know that I only have a limited amount of time in which to make my purchases, and I don't think the possibility of getting more money outweighs the reduction in opportunities to spend it.

There are two separate sections to the market, one selling basic equipment, the other offering more unusual items. For reasons that have never made much sense to me, food and mirrors are classified as unusual items here, while the ordinary, everyday stuff includes a substance that dissolves metal while not harming flesh. And manacles. I buy all of the things I've just mentioned, as well as a rope and grappling iron, and a lantern.

As I attempt to move on, I find my way blocked by half a dozen city guards. They are accompanied by Quinsberry Woad, tax collector, who informs me that I owe back taxes plus interest (adding up to more than twice the sum of what I had at the start of the adventure and what the people of Karnstein are prepared to pay for my services), and unless I pay up immediately, I am to be arrested. I push him into his guards, causing the lot of them to fall over (I think I just invented a fun new version of bowling), and leg it while the crowds are laughing.

More guards block my way up ahead, so I take an unorthodox short cut through a house, narrowly avoiding being hit by the full chamber pot that was precariously balanced atop the door. Maybe the old woman who lives in the house was expecting a visit from Woad. She calls for help, and I hurry through the other door from the room. This leads to the kitchen, in which a dog is sleeping, and I creep through to the back door. For some reason, while the woman's cries did not disturb the dog, the arrival of my pursuers does, so the guards find their way blocked by a cantankerous canine.

Continuing on my way, I see a tattooist's. I'm not about to go up against Zanbar Bone, so I don't need a tattoo, and stopping to get one while being hunted by guards is every bit as inadvisable as it sounds. Consequently, I hurry on, winding up at Ranter's Corner, a busy part of town where people may make speeches on any issue, and the crowds are free to heckle. There are guards present in case things should turn ugly, and while they're not yet aware that I'm a wanted man, it won't take long for them to find out, so I plunge into the crowd around a black-clad man who's agitating for another war. Despite the poor quality of his arguments, he does appear to be getting some support, so I provide a counterargument. Well, I hit him in the face. They do say that actions speak louder than words, and a practical demonstration of the consequences of violence may discourage the onlookers from seeking further conflict.

Four stooges in the audience accuse me of supporting the people who started the previous war, and start a brawl. It gets vicious with alarming rapidity, and looks like it could be more than the guards can handle. Feeling some responsibility for this, I attack the leader of the troublemakers, who's displaying an inordinate amount of brutality. He's not much of a foe for a trained fighter, though, and things quieten down once he's dead. An examination of the body shows the man to have been a servant of Chaos, who was using magic to influence the crowd. Thankful for my intervention, the guard marshal presents me with a Scroll of Civic Pardon, clearing my debt.

I continue towards the East Gate, spotting a rubbish cart. While I could hide in it to make my exit from the city unobserved, there's no need. Besides, it's so much more satisfying to march right up to Woad, who's waiting for me at the gate, shove the Scroll in his face and tell him what he can do with his tax bill. This book is definitely a fantasy.

At the arranged location I meet Mendokan and a couple of his friends, and we set off for Karnstein. The journey is uneventful until we reach the Magyaar Pass, where the narrow path runs between a sheer rock face and a deep ravine. It is here that the Shadow Warriors ride to meet us, and it rapidly becomes apparent that they're not Quinsberry Woad and a few of his guards in rubber masks. Mendokan and his companions are rapidly slain, and I try to flee before a similar fate can befall me. I make it to a stretch of path so narrow that the Shadow Warriors must ride in single file, but one of them is really keen to kill me, and has outpaced the rest, so I must fight him.

Each Shadow Warrior has his own unique gimmick, and on this occasion the one who catches up to me is the one with two swords. I'm quite glad that the rules have this extra weapon causing him to do double damage whenever he hits, rather than giving him two separate attacks, as the fight would be a good deal more fiddly if there were extra attacks to resolve. Besides, he only wins one round of combat, so the additional damage is trivial. Mind you, my victory is only temporary: the Warrior's body dissolves, and will re-form elsewhere, eager for a rematch.

The other Warriors are getting close, though, and I'd rather not take on the rest, so I try and jump across the ravine, only just succeeding at the Skill roll to make it across. The path on the far side of the ravine is too narrow for the Warriors' horses to be able to make a good landing if they were to leap over as well. Perhaps fearful of the impending dawn, the Warriors give up the chase - for now, at least. Still, we are sure to meet again (unless something fatal befalls me before then), and my character is almost looking forward to the encounter: having failed to protect Mendokan and his friends, I have a stain on my honour that can only be removed by destroying the Warriors.

Of course, to do that I must find a way of killing them that makes them stay dead. East of here is the home of a hermit who knows plenty of arcane lore, so I make a detour that way to see if he knows how to permanently kill a Shadow Warrior. The road passes a spring with waters that bestow beneficial effects, so I stop for a drink. Before I reach the water, a highwayman emerges from hiding, crossbow pointed at my heart. He claims to have killed the hermit, and demands my money. He's unlikely to be satisfied with what little gold I have left, and I missed the opportunity to get a shiny item that would turn him into a drooling imbecile, so I'm going to have to fight and hope that his aim's lousy.

It is (and the damage a hit would have done is significantly less than might be expected for a crossbow bolt in the heart). The highwayman's not that good at melee combat, either, and before long he's in no fit state to rob anyone else. I take what little food and money he has, drink from the spring (gaining some Stamina and Luck) and decide to see if he did manage to kill the hermit.

He didn't. Hammicus the hermit invites me in, provides a meal, and explains that the Shadow Warriors are the lieutenants of Voivod, a nasty piece of work who was imprisoned by a couple of personifications of the world over two millennia ago. His return is foretold in a book that Hammicus hasn't actually read, and it's pretty obvious that that return is imminent.

The exposition is interrupted when Hammicus' son knocks on the door and asks to come in. The son who died seven years ago. Parental devotion overriding common sense, the hermit heads for the door, and when I try and stop him from unbolting it, he attacks me. Undeterred, I restrain him until he sees sense, and whatever was outside departs. To thank me for saving his life, Hammicus tells me how to delay the return of a defeated Shadow Warrior by a century - they can't be fully destroyed as long as Voivod lives, but exiling them to limbo for a hundred years is better than nothing.

My visit to Hammicus has taken some time, so I decide to try heading for Karnstein as the crow flies rather thank taking the more roundabout route offered by the roads. This means that I'm crossing a field when the storm begins, and before I can decide whether to seek shelter or just press on, the ground starts to shake. This is not conventional seismic activity: ordinary earthquakes tend not to cause the ground to rear up and form into the semblance of a face.

I decide to investigate this peculiar phenomenon (heroism and common sense don't often mix particularly well), and the face spews several Crombane at me. These monstrosities are like giant flies, only flightless, with human heads and assorted body parts from random flora and fauna. There's no illustration to clarify exactly how the 'ill-advised collaboration between Frankenstein and Moreau' aesthetic creates the fly-like vibe, but whatever they look like, it can't be pretty. The Crombane also have corrosive saliva that would be a problem if I were wearing armour, but as I'm not, it's pretty irrelevant. In any case, I only take one wound all fight.

Proceeding to a nearby copse (though by now I'm probably drenched enough that taking cover will make little difference), I get herded by lightning bolts towards the monster at the heart of the copse, a malignant tree known as a Mahogadon. Not having purchased any Sleeping Draught in the market (I might have done if it were a Nitrazepam-based one, just for the opportunity to try and incapacitate the Mahogadon with Mogadon), I must fight this arboreal adversary. Despite being a better fighter than the Crombane, it fares no better against me than they did, and I'm soon on my way south again.

After a while I see another face in the scenery, this one formed by nearby reeds, but it's not as hostile as the one in the ground. It introduces itself as Jack-in-the-Green, makes a rather obvious reference to the Shadow Warriors and Voivod, and offers me a chance to prove myself worthy of being allowed to assist the Earth-mother. I accept, and am instructed to lay to rest 'the sleepers who should not be disturbed' at the nearby town of Hustings. And this is a problem that cannot be fixed with violence, for 'Evil must be left to consume itself'. Jack-in-the-Green also warns me that I will fail unless I find the man of numbers or his book.

Continuing on my way, I notice a column of earth that can only have been created with magic, topped by a tower of 'oozing, living sludge' (don't ask how I'm able to make that out when the column of earth is a hundred feet high and it's still a dark and stormy night). Something humanoid emerges from the bog near the road, and I've obviously not learned my lesson, as I approach the 'man' and am apparently surprised to find that the figure is not human (but it is hostile). In these conditions I can't see what my opponent is, but the text calls it a Haggwort, and I soon call it another dead assailant.

Lightning reveals the Haggwort (the plural and singular forms of the name are identical, like 'sheep' (though that and being in the countryside are about the only things sheep and Haggwort have in common)) to resemble pumpkin-headed scarecrows, and shows that many of them are converging on Hustings. One blocks the path and, remembering that violence is apparently not the answer here (as well as somehow being aware that damaging a Haggwort's head will cause it to explode), I leave the road rather than attack. This causes me to fall into a sinkhole, but I'm able to extricate myself with the rope and grapple.

The strange tower looks like the sort of place where I might find the way to deal with the Haggwort, so I go to the tower of earth. A door opens in the side, and half a dozen Haggwort emerge, taking me prisoner, dragging me up a spiral staircase, and snapping my sword just to prove that violence is not the answer here. They then sit me at a table with a stake and a plate of sludge on it, silently indicating that they want me to eat what's on the plate. I decline, as I prefer not to eat anything that's toxic or still alive, and the sludge is both. After a bit, it slithers away (the text indicates that it does so out of boredom rather than reluctance to be eaten, making me wonder if it has a similar outlook to The Restaurant at the End of the Universe's Dish of the Day), and my as yet unseen hostess reprimands me for refusing her hospitality.

Curtains rise to reveal an ancient-looking vampire-esque figure in a throne, next to what's either a living fireplace shaped like a Haggwort's head or the head of a giant Haggwort with a fire in its mouth. Either way, I'm not mad about the décor. The occupant of the throne introduces herself as Urtha, who used to be a vampire until some of the local peasants destroyed her with the stake on the table. She got better, and is now a Wamphyr, who expects to become queen when Voivod takes over. Urtha also shows off the iron wristband that enables her to control the Haggwort.

Figuring out that Urtha's a bit of a show-off (the business with the curtains was a dead giveaway), I challenge her to prove how tough she is by confronting me on her own, without Haggwort support. She relinquishes control over them and, evidently not being monarchists, they promptly bundle her into the fire, which consumes her in seconds. I pick up the iron band, and become aware that the fireplace has closed its mouth and eyes, and the whole tower is beginning to sink into the marsh, so I make a rapid exit.

The battle of Hustings hasn't gone so well for the townspeople, though the Haggwort have stopped attacking now they're free from Urtha's influence. Jack-in-the-Green manifests in the grass, pleased with my achievements, and I find myself transported west to Cauldon Ring, an ancient stone circle. There I encounter manifestations of a couple of the elemental gods, who present me with the Spear of Doom, a weapon they've created for use against Voivod, 'which gives death to the living, and life to the dead'. It has a limited number of charges, so I can't really use it as a replacement for the sword the Haggwort broke. Still, the penalty for being unarmed in this book is a lot lower than in many FF titles, so I'm not in dire need yet.

Transported back to near Hustings, I resume my trek until I reach a fork in the road. Some way ahead are the mountains of the Witchtooth Line, where every character I've had that survived this far has died, one way or another. But before I reach them, I come to the abandoned town of Cumbleside. Which isn't quite as abandoned as its reputation suggests, judging by the light burning in the highest window of a tower there. Reckless as ever, I investigate, finding the door locked. Beside it are a bell-pull and a brass plaque engraved with the words, 'Dr Kauderwelsch - Diseases of the Mind'.

Wondering if this doctor can do something about my unhealthy curiosity, I ring the bell. A young woman lets me in, and takes me to a cosy study, then fetches me some food and drink. I choose not to eat, and she seems surprised that I'm distrustful, what with my having such a marvellous brain. Not exactly the least suspicion-inducing compliment I've ever received. I try to change the subject, asking her about herself, and get a response that suggests she's a psychiatrist. When I demand a straight answer, she flees upstairs to her laboratory, which is furnished in the classical mad scientist style. Right down to the body stitched together from bits of corpses and crudely animated by unnatural means. Revealing herself to be Doktor Kauderwelsch herself, the woman sets the creature on me: though functional enough to fight, it still lacks one crucial organ (you shouldn't have much difficulty guessing which), and I've been chosen as the donor.

Even fighting bare-handed, I'm more than a match for the monster. Inevitably, the lab is set alight in the course of the fight, so I only have time to grab one item afterwards. While the ceramic mongoose paperweight stands out for being so quirkily specific, I think it unlikely that not having one will spell defeat, so I take the boring option and rearm myself with a sword that just happens to be lying around - possibly the former property of an involuntary contributor to the Doktor's failed experiment.

After spending the night in a sheltered glade, I change direction and head west towards the town of Shattuck. I've had numerous characters die in the tunnels beneath the Witchtooth Line (the only one who didn't find the arbitrary Instant Death in the dream maze wound up killed by some multi-limbed monstrosity), and it's occurred to me that I don't even know for sure that that's the way I ought to go, so this time I'm trying a different approach.

After a while I encounter a tribe of Orcs. Hiding in a cave is liable to take me to where I keep dying, so I try to outrun the Orcs instead. It doesn't work, and I wind up surrounded by Orcs with projectile weapons. Their leader tells me to surrender or die, so I pick the less lethal option. Uggamonggo, chief of the Orcs of the Black Scorpion, has me disarmed and tied to a pole for easy transportation. He wants to interrogate me, but not before resolving the dispute over whether his tribe or the Orcs of the Big Boulder are superior.

During what remains of the day, I'm carried part of the way across the mountains. When the Orcs make camp, I get offered a choice of chores. Cleaning boots sounds like the sort of task that could carry a humiliation-based Luck penalty, so I pick helping prepare supper. Still lacking any Sleeping Draught, I'm unable to drug the food. After the meal (about which, the less said, the better), I am manacled to a rack, as the Orc Shaman thinks I've been sent to spy on the tribe, so Uggamonggo wants to know my business. I can't see any good reason not to tell the truth, though I keep quiet about the Shadow Warriors in case the Orcs are as sceptical as I was prior to encountering the Warriors.

The moment I mention being a mercenary, Uggamonggo has me released and gives me some money, 'employing' me to assist in the forthcoming battle. Which turns out to be more forthcoming than he thought, as I've only just pocketed the gold when the Orcs of the Big Boulder launch a surprise attack. Forced or not, a contract is a contract, and even if I did try to escape, I doubt that the Orcs of the Big Boulder would respect my non-combatant status, so I fight. The rival Orc chief sets his champion on me, but I have little trouble defeating him, even though I'm bare-handed again.

Suspecting that Uggamonggo will insist on extending my contract if his tribe wins, and certain that the other tribe will kill me if they win, I decide that I've done enough to earn what I was paid, and make a strategic withdrawal. And this part of the book isn't as well-structured as it could be, as my escape attempt is semi-interrupted by the Orcs of the Big Boulder's launching the surprise attack that started the battle I was fleeing. I don't hang around to see if it happens again.

My flight brings me to the remains of Karnstein. Not only did I fail to protect Mendokan and his friends, I also arrived too late to save his home. A dying villager tells me that Voivod has gone to raise an army from the dead, and gives me a map. A slightly convoluted process of working out just how late I am ensues: I did seek the Hermit, but didn't visit the Burning Balrog Tavern, and I got captured by the Orcs of the Black Scorpion, which means that I have time to visit two of the locations on the map (which shows at least three places with ample corpse-raising potential).

Or rather, I would have time to visit two if I knew how to visit them, but for some reason, that's not something I'm able to do. This is doubtless a consequence of my having failed to meet the man of numbers as advised by Jack-in-the-Green, though it's far from clear why not having encountered him should prevent me from, for example, just following the road south-west until I reach Fenmar Graveyard. Maybe the encounter I missed would explain why having it is essential for moving on from Karnstein, but without that explanation, the book is effectively telling me 'You have failed in your mission because I say so'.

Not a very satisfactory ending. And if that wretched dream maze hadn't kept killing me in the past, it wouldn't have taken me this many attempts to realise that I've been going wrong at an earlier stage of the adventure. While I wouldn't call Shadow Warriors a bad gamebook, it remains my least favourite of Mr. Hand's FF books.

2 comments:

  1. What a pity! "The Legend of the Shadow Warriors" is not only my favorite of Stephen Hand's books, but my favorite Fighting Fantasy period! There are actually two routes which can be successfully taken, and you've been embarking on what is undoubtedly the more difficult one, primarily but not solely because of the dream maze. If you keep going that route you MUST pass throught the maze in order to win, so I can at least reassure you that your past attempts have not been wasted.

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  2. I've never managed to beat the book by the route you took here - like you I always die in that annoying maze or avoid it and end up without the right info. However the other route is a lot easier. Sometimes the shortest path is not the least arduous...

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