Wednesday, 12 February 2014

Quite an Experience to Live in Fear, Isn't It?

Last month I pointed out that a case could be made for playing the mini-adventure from the eighth Mongoose Publishing Lone Wolf reissue before the seventh LW adventure, Castle Death. I went on to play Castle Death first anyway, but series of unwise decisions led to my rapidly failing it. So before I have a second try at it, I will have a go at that mini-adventure, Darren Pearce's Masquerade in Hikas.

While I haven't played this adventure before, I did take a very quick look at it back when I first got the book. Good thing too, as the one element I noticed was quite significant. The adventure was 150 sections long, and the final section ended with the direction 'Turn to 152'. A quick trip to and registration on the Mongoose website's forums put me in touch with a very helpful fan who had the corrected version of the book and made available a transcript of the missing sections. Owing to the deletion of the Mongoose Lone Wolf forums following the company's loss of the reprint licence, I can no longer identify the fan in question, but they have my thanks.

My character in Masquerade is Paido, the Vakeros (warrior-magician) who accompanies Lone Wolf during part of section 1 of Castle Death (and a lot more of the subsequent book). This pre-encountering-Lone Wolf adventure has me sent on a mission to investigate rumours that Darklord agents and assassins have infiltrated the city of Hikas. I'm sent off with sealed orders that I'm not supposed to open until I see Hikas.

Unusually for an adventure in this series, my stats are not randomly generated. I get to choose my Vakeros Skills, though. This is a bit of a convoluted process: while the rules start out by saying I just need to pick four Skills from a list of eight, it transpires that some of these Skills have subsets from which further selections must be made. In fact, the full list of Skills, sub-skills, paths and schools of magic runs to 12 pages.

Judging by a reference to the Elder Arts having been 'simplified' for the purposes of this adventure, I imagine that what we have here is a slimmed-down version of the rules for Vakeros characters in the Lone Wolf RPG. Possibly not slimmed down enough - I mean, is the adventure going to provide opportunities for everything on that list to come in handy? Looking closer, I see that a lot of them can or must be used in combat, and the adventure is sure to have fights in, so that covers using a significant proportion. On the other hand, do we really need that many variations on do extra damage/take less damage/add Combat Skill/decrease enemy Combat Skill?

Careless writing and/or editing makes some of these Skills look pretty rubbish. The description of Bleeding Wound is, I presume, missing an 'extra' - either that or it causes its user to do reduced damage almost 90% of the time. Lightning Riposte appears to work best in circumstances that can never happen. The use of positive and negative numbers in references to Endurance damage isn't consistent.

Okay, I'm picking Counterspell, Prophesy/Prophecy (both spellings are used), Sorcery and Battle Magics of the Vakeros (School of Kaenos). Only the last two of these have combat applications, but if the adventure's been competently put together (which is quite an if, based on Mongoose's track record), the other two should be of use at some point.

The adventure doesn't get off to the best of starts. The sealed envelope mentioned in 'The Story So Far...' has either metamorphosed into or been joined by a scroll (the text says I'm given 'a scroll and a message from [my] leaders', which could be taken as indicating them to be separate items, but I only read the scroll (at the appropriate time), so...). My highly confidential instructions are to go to the Gambit Inn and learn what I can about recent strange or unusual events. And this needed to be kept secret until just now because...? Having read them, I'm given the choice of hanging on to them or throwing them away. No mention of doing anything to ensure that nobody else can read them if I throw them away, so I retain them just in case disposing of them really does mean breaching data security in such a careless manner.

Following an info-dump that, among other things, reveals that even the slums of Hikas are beautiful (what?), I notice something glinting near a ruined farmhouse and pause for a snack. What is the point of including a Meal in the list of equipment at the start of the adventure if I'm compelled to consume it in the very first section? I mean, why not just omit all mention of the food and save a little ink, rather than make the reader note it on the Action Chart in order to delete it straight afterwards?

I choose to take a closer look at the farmhouse, finding a piece of broken glass. Other debris indicates that travellers have made camp in the ruins on their way to the city before now. Something makes a noise, and I investigate. A slate falls from the roof, shattering on the ground, and a large spider falls on me and bites me for negligible damage. I leave the ruins and proceed to the city.

While I'm queuing to enter Hikas, a boy with a jug offers everyone who's waiting a drink of fresh water from the city's aquifer, which restores the Endurance I lost to the spider bite. So unless that bite has some other significance later on, the whole tangent with the ruined farmhouse is completely superfluous. The guards on the gate aren't convinced that I'm a Vakeros until I show them my Blue Steel Sword, after which they warn me that there'll be trouble if I use it within the city.

Heading further in, I reach the market-place. Apart from the inevitable stalls, I also see the inn to which I'm supposed to be heading, and a stage on which fire-juggling acrobats are performing. I decide to have a look around the stalls and see if there's anything worth buying here, which somehow results in my winding up in a tent where a fakir is about to perform his famous 'saw a woman in half' trick. As the performance begins, I notice a shifty-looking character sneaking away, and interrupt Master Kodo to warn him that someone may have interfered with his props. He manages to make a joke out of my butting in, quipping that even if I want to be part of the act, I'm not pretty enough to replace his assistant, but is sufficiently convinced by my warning to double-check, and suddenly the show is off. As the crowd disperses, I am summoned 'backstage', where Kodo thanks me for preventing him from seriously injuring his daughter, and gives me a Medallion as a token of his gratitude.

I proceed to the inn, and the patrons momentarily fall silent in the traditional manner. Once the hubbub has resumed, I sign the register with a false name and pay for a few nights' stay. A hooded woman with piercing eyes is watching everyone, and when her gaze rests on me for a moment, I think I see a flash of recognition in her eyes. There's a bit of poor editing here, a rogue full stop awkwardly breaking a sentence. Into two parts and messing with its grammar.

I approach the bartender and chat with him, learning that several citizens of Hikas have been murdered at night in this part of the city. The book then forces me to order a meal and turn in for the night.

A few hours later, a muffled scream wakes me. Sneaking out to investigate, I find a guard who's been stabbed to death in an alley, and obviously not for the purpose of stealing his money. Lacking the Skill that would give me a shot at communicating with the dead man, and aware that searching the alley where the body lies is almost certain to result in false accusations, I decide to seek help. That's not so simple, as the alleys are something of a warren, but I decide to see if Mr. Pearce is going along with the trend, and thus take a left turn. This leads to my getting lost, but eventually finding my way back to the inn. Unhelpful, but I'm actually quite pleased that the trope has been averted for once.

A couple of the inn staff spot me arriving back and, none too surprisingly, I soon get a visit from half a dozen of the city guard who want me to assist them with their enquiries. Though their leader looks as if he hopes I'll resist arrest, so he can get violent. In the (probably vain) hope of clearing up the misunderstanding, I don't put up a fight. A strange dialogue ensues, the lead guard quietly acknowledging my innocence but making it clear that he means to see me punished anyway, and then he brutally clubs me unconscious.

When I come round, I am alarmed to see an undead Helghast before me. After a moment it changes its appearance, disguising itself as the murdered guard (wouldn't it make more sense for it to use the image of someone not known to have been murdered?). My possessions are confiscated and I'm thrown into a cell. Gradually the number of guards present dwindles, and when only two remain, they distract themselves with a game of dice. I am compelled to try and escape, and have one of the Skills that could be used here. Mind you, as it creates a large, glowing magical hand, I suspect that using it might just attract a little attention. But what's the alternative? Sitting and trying to come up with a plan until I doze off, as it turns out.

The hooded woman from the inn wakes me. She's knocked the guards out and tied them up, and addresses me by my real name when telling me there's no time for explanations. While I'm retrieving my belongings, she makes herself scarce. I'm given a choice between resuming my pursuit of the Helghast (can I resume something I hadn't yet started?) or seeking a way out of the cell block. Finding the killer should be my priority.

I go through the door by which the Helghast left, and enter a room containing three guards. But these aren't Hikasian guards, they're Drakkarim, servants of the Darklords. Which means I don't have to worry too much about using lethal force to defend myself from their attack. One of them has a Set of Keys, which I take, and I must then choose one of three doors.

I go north into a room containing an altar dedicated to Naar, this world's most evil deity. There are fresh bloodstains around it. A door leads west, but for some reason I go back south to choose a different exit from the room where I fought the Drakkarim. Will the west door lead to a room with an exit leading north, that I will similarly be prevented from trying? The room behind it is a laboratory, where chemicals bubble away in assorted vessels. A number of cells are set into the walls, all unoccupied, and there is a door leading north. I'm allowed to go through.

Perhaps I'd have been better off not doing so. The door leads to a room where the Helghast is waiting. It drops a portcullis and a solid barrier to block off the way I came in (wouldn't just one of them have sufficed?) and says that I'm to be a test subject in an experiment. It then dashes through a door in the north wall, and while I'm surveying my surroundings (why am I loitering instead of giving chase?) a panel in the north wall opens to disgorge a homicidal mutant. I cast a Force Blade spell, which almost kills the thing (only usable once in the course of the adventure, but the rules imply that some opponents might be unaffected, so saving it for the climax might be a waste, and this could be a bit of a tough fight otherwise), and then finish the creature off with my sword. The door through which the Helghast left isn't locked, so now I follow.

The next room is empty, and the door on the far side is sealed. A demonic face has been carved on the door, mouth agape, and a voice issues from it, instructing me to choose my fate. I risk putting my hand in the hole, and the mouth bites down, injecting something lethal into my bloodstream.

Or rather, my Prophetic power of Future Sight reveals to me that that would have happened if I'd put my hand in there, so I don't do that. Another Skill I won't be able to use again this adventure, but at least I'm still around to be unable to make further use of it. Searching the rest of the room, I find two discoloured patches of stone that might activate hidden doors. This time I'm stuck with the consequences of my choice...

I press one of the patches, and a sliding panel reveals a passage leading to a circular atrium. Stairs lead up to a locked door, but one of the keys I took opens that, and I return to the streets of Hikas, where hunger pangs do me more harm than the last two fights combined. My Prophetic power of Location Sight tells me that the Helghast is heading north, unaware of my escape (pretty rubbish experimental technique), and entering a district containing warehouses and a storage depot. A street leads that way, though taking it does increase the risk of my being spotted. Going through the alleys is probably safer but slower.

I take a chance on the direct route. Before long I see some patrolling guards with a dog on a leash, and try not to attract their attention. Fortunately for everyone concerned, I manage to slip past unnoticed - my character is less forgiving about the wrongful arrest thing than I, so a confrontation would probably have got quite violent.

I emerge (don't ask from what - either this would make more sense if I'd reached this point by an alternate route, or somebody doesn't know the meaning of the word) and spot the disguised Helghast approaching a warehouse. There's a guard on the gate, and further patrolling guards with attack dogs on a chain leash are approaching. Hoping that the ruined farmhouse incident wasn't some kind of foreshadowing, I decide to climb up to the warehouse's roof and see if I can get in that way.

What the text didn't warn me about that plan is that it would involve climbing onto the roof of a different warehouse with the assistance of a stack of crates, and then attempting to jump across the gap between buildings to reach the correct warehouse. A botched rooftop leap resulted in the death of a Lone Wolf the first time I played a Mongoose book on this blog, and on that occasion my chances of success were higher than they are here. My luck proves no better this time round, and hitting the pavement shatters an impressive number of my bones.

After that poor start, this was shaping up to be quite a decent adventure. In desperate need of decent editing, but that's the first Mongoose mini-adventure I've enjoyed in quite some time. Depending on what sort of mood I'm in, I might even give it another go between Lone Wolf books 7 and 8.

No comments:

Post a Comment