Sunday, 2 March 2014

Men Shall Die For This

My first noteworthy experience of Paul Mason's The Crimson Tide was coming across a second-hand copy in Archeron Books. It was during one of the periods when I was rather indifferent towards gamebooks, but, as on the occasion I first came across The Keep of the Lich-Lord, I looked through the book in some detail to see if anything in it grabbed me. I wound up not getting it, but the bad ending that explains the title of the book did stick in my memory. Which is why I've saved this reminiscence for now, even though there was also a copy of Tower of Destruction in the shop, and I gave that book an equally thorough scrutiny. At that time the content of Tower made no impression on me whatsoever, and I doubt that I'd even remember having looked at it if Tide hadn't got that one hook in.

In the end I did get Tide at the same time as Tower, as it was another of the batch of FF books that got me back into the range. The two copies I bought probably weren't the same ones I'd seen earlier, given that Archeron had an annoying habit of putting the prices of their second-hand books on massive labels (around a quarter of the size of the book cover), which were near-impossible to remove without making a mess of the cover. As I recall, the first time I played TCT, my character was sold into slavery and, following a failed escape attempt, got put into chains to make further bids for freedom impossible.

Character creation is handled differently from usual here, because at the start of the book my character is a child. Starting Skill and Stamina are consequently a lot lower than in your average FF book - a detail that might not have been taken into account when the editor chose to 'beef up' one opponent. That's less of an issue than it could be, as the enemy in question is not on the correct path through the book, but that little detail (and the identity of the person responsible for the monster's being so overpowered) didn't stop a number of reviewers from unjustly heaping opprobrium on Mr. Mason for the unbalanced encounter.

On account of the lower-than-usual starting scores, I shall definitely be allocating dice.
Skill: 5
Stamina: 6
Luck: 10
Ferocity: 4
The last, unique-to-this book stat is a consequence of the events that occur at the start of the adventure.

I'm a peasant, living on the island where most of the action in Black Vein Prophecy takes place, and unconcerned by the tales of civil war until a group of foreign mercenaries turns up at my home village. They take all our rice, and all the local women, and kill every man who tries to intervene. Including my father. Aware that there's nothing I can do to help right now, I memorise the appearance of their leader as best I can - a bestial mask hides his face - in the hope that I'll meet him again at a time when I have the advantage. My father's last words are an instruction to go to the Baochou Monastery, avenge him, and rescue my mother.

I find the stick that I carved to look like a sword, take a little food, and leave the village, accompanied by several other children. Initially we head for Yenshu, the town where the district magistrate holds his tribunal. I've never been there, but my cousin Quan, who's also part of the group, has, and thus knows the way. At the point where the path joins the main road, we find another village left in ruins by the mercenaries. Quan speculates that the mercenaries are from the uncivilized land of Hachiman.

We move onto the road, which is a lot less busy than usual. Quite possibly on account of the warrior riding straight towards us. The rest of the children flee into the nearby fields, while I set an ambush. It doesn't go well - for me, at least, though my companions benefit from the distraction I cause. After knocking me into a stupor, the warrior ties me up, steals my possessions, then takes me to a mine and sells me into slavery.

Knot-tying is obviously not one of the warrior's strongest skills, as I manage to slip my bonds just as he's leaving. I choose not to immediately attack my buyer, hoping to lull him into a false sense of security, but as that results in my spending the next year labouring in the mines, I think I may have been the one who got lulled.

One day my excavations break into a channel through which an underground stream is flowing. On the assumption that the stream will emerge from the ground at some point, I grab the food I've been hoarding and dive in. I'll never fully recover from the damage I take from being dashed against the channel walls by the current, but eventually I reach daylight, and crawl ashore at the first opportunity.

After days of travel, I catch sight of Traole, the provincial capital of the region. From a gameplay perspective, I also see a sign that suggests I've already strayed far enough from the optimal path to have no chance of success, so I might as well make this attempt at the book a learning experience. That sign suggests to me that entering the city would be a bad idea, but I may be making dodgy inferences from incomplete knowledge of the book, so I'll go in anyway and try to find out for sure one way or another.

The city is enormous, and I soon get lost. Given the time that has elapsed since the massacre that set me on this trail, I see little point in going through official channels, and even if the mercenaries responsible are still in this region, I'm in no fit state to take any of them on. Which only leaves the option of going to the temple, so I try that. There I hear a priest complaining about declining temple attendance, and blaming it on foreigners like the barbarians from Hachiman who were here recently and are now heading for the capital.

It's still too soon for me to seek out my enemies, so I choose not to follow them. Owing to the amount of stuff I didn't or couldn't do in Traole, I'm no closer to being certain that the city should be avoided, but I do at least know one thing not to bother trying again (and, what with the item and codeword checks that preceded hearing the priest, I am also aware of circumstances under which it might be worth going back to the temple).

For now, I head north to the mountains. A side turning attracts my attention - apparently for the first time, since I have no recollection of the encounter to which it leads. The path goes down to a valley with a stream in, and a creature, part-human, part-fish, emerges from the water to attack me. This is a Yuemo, distinguishable from your standard Fighting Fantasy Fish-Man by its having sharp fins rather than hands and a trident. It wouldn't pose much of a threat to your average FF hero, but I'm a child without a weapon, so my piscine opponent makes short work of me.


  1. Pity. There's loads to love about this book, tons of adventures to have even if, as you soon found out, one strays from the optimum route. The first few times I played this I just explored the landscape, not really focusing on completion; I'm pretty sure I ended up just being a monk more times than actually trying to "win" the book. Oh, and that fish-creature killed me more times than I care to recall!

  2. Nifty detail: "Baochou" means "revenge" in Mandarin.