Monday, 27 October 2014

Bad Things Happened in Here

Way back at the start of the year I made quite a hash of playing Castle Death, the seventh of Joe Dever's Lone Wolf  gamebooks. In view of the nature of character development over the course of the series, and now that I've adopted a policy of establishing 'save points' between books, I shall be having another go at it before I proceed to the next one.

I don't think there was anything inherently wrong with the new equipment and Magnakai Discipline that I chose at the start of my previous attempt at the book, so I'll pick the same as before. Thus, I again commence the adventure with
Combat Skill: 17
Endurance: 25
Disciplines: Divination, Psi-screen, Weaponmastery (Sword, Bow, Dagger, Mace), Huntmastery
I explained the background to the adventure the last time I blogged about it. To recapitulate for anyone who'd rather not (re)read the earlier post just now: the second of the mystical McGuffins I require is located in the fortress of Kazan-Oud (aka Castle Death), which is surrounded by a magical shield in order to contain the evil that dwells within. I have been provided with a Power-key to enable me to pass through the shield, and a coracle to cross the lake containing the island on which the fortress is situated.

Learning from the previous Lone Wolf's mistakes, I head for the stone jetty. Lightning illuminates the fortress, the building's state of disrepair inspiring ominous and fanciful similes, and I become aware that the strong current in the water threatens to smash my tiny vessel into the jetty. I could grab for one of the slimy ropes that dangle from iron rings set into gargoyles' mouths, or abandon the coracle and make for the rocks jutting from the water to the west... Except that Divination tells me that neither ropes nor rocks are as they seem. Could those 'rocks' be the same 'boulders' that turned out to be part of the squidlike monstrosity that killed me last time? And the 'ropes' be tentacles, meaning that this gargantuan cephalopod just sits around hanging on to the iron rings all day on the off-chance that some adventurer might happen by, wanting to moor a vessel? A ludicrous concept, but sillier things have happened in gamebooks. Even non-comedy ones.

Comparing the original text to the Mongoose reissue, I see that there's more violence in the newer version. That is, whereas previously the boat was violently heading for a collision, nowadays it's violently heading for a violent collision. Well, that's a needlessly unnecessary gratuitous and superfluous edit that didn't need making.

Getting back to the plot, I now have the additional option of closing my eyes and praying for survival. Could be a 'you great twit, whatever made you think that would work?' Instant Death, but maybe the current isn't so dangerous after all, merely providing a perceived threat that scares the gullible into becoming squid-snacks. I'll take that chance - and it was the right choice, but not for the reasons I had in mind. The coracle is slammed against the jetty wall with destructive force, but the violence of the collision is so violently violent that I am flung from the shattering vessel onto solid ground, using my Kai stunt skills to avoid taking any damage from the impact. There's another less-than-ideal Mongoose edit here, replacing a nice bit of figurative language with a more prosaic description of my landing.

Two flights of steps lead from the jetty, one down to the beach I've been trying to avoid, the other up to a cave mouth. I don't get any of the hints that Pathsmanship would provide, so I remember my last failure at the book and go up. A hefty downpour commences as I ascend. Something in the cave smells bad, but I enter anyway. Perhaps not a good idea, as I wind up falling into a hole and getting knocked out, but if that's what it takes to avoid the leviathan on the beach, I'll accept it. The circumstances of the fall are a little mysterious, a new word choice in the Mongoose text potentially implying that the floor of the cave is somehow removed rather than just collapsing.

I regain consciousness atop a mound of rotting vegetation, with someone or something watching me and laughing at me through a grille. Oh, and I'm just about to get attacked by a giant monocular snake. Not the only oversized serpent in the book, which has led to mild confusion in the past. I don't have the Discipline of Animal Control, but I do still have my bow... and the arrows fell out of my quiver in the fall, so that's of no help to me right now. At least the Sommerswerd is still in my scabbard - until I draw it and start fighting the approaching ophidian. The Mongoose text here repeats the fact that I've lost my arrows (fair enough, as I wouldn't have known if I hadn't tried using the bow) and clarifies that the snake has two fangs (not as useful an edit, though I suppose the creature's below-average number of eyes could prompt speculation on other anatomical deviations from the norm).

On the far side of the chamber into which I fell, there's a small tunnel leading out. I can try to escape through it after four rounds of combat. Not sure I like the 'try' in there. By the end of round 4, there's a 70% chance of my killing the snake with one more blow (and reasonable odds of taking no damage in the process), and a 4% risk of mutually assured destruction. I've faced worse odds in books 2, 4 and 5 (and will face far worse in book 13, but that's a rant for another day), so I don't risk finding out what complications accompany making a break for the exit. As it turns out, I have to hit snakey twice more to kill it, but don't sustain lethal damage in the process. Mind you, I am in fairly poor shape by the end of the fight, and metaknowledge tells me that the healing potions I have on me aren't going to do me any good after this book, so I down one of them. Well, I do after dashing into the tunnel mouth, as the spectator starts firing bolts of destructive energy at me when the fight doesn't go as he/she/it wanted.

And the tunnel turns out not to be a tunnel, just an attached cave. Good thing I fought on rather than getting myself cornered in here. Especially as it contains a lot of massive eggs, neatly arranged on a bed of deceased adventurers' clothes and backpacks. I risk checking the packs for useful items, and find quite a bit of stuff. Some weapons I don't need, a blanket, a bottle of wine, another healing potion, and a couple of items of armour. Joe Dever may have encountered a few loophole-exploiting gamers in the decades between Beaver and Mongoose, as the more recent text spells out that Lone Wolf may not gain multiple bonuses by stacking helmets. The helmet here isn't as good as the one I'm already wearing, so I shall leave it, but the padded waistcoat may come in handy.

As I'm helping myself to things, I hear a hinge creak in the chamber where I fought the snake. I freeze, waiting for a new attack, and then I hear another noise. From behind me. The crack of a shell. There's a little reordering of sentences in the Mongoose text, and I don't think it's an improvement. Originally, the sequence went:
  1. Hear another sound.
  2. Note that it's behind you.
  3. Confirm that yes, that is one of the snake's eggs hatching.
Now it's:
  1. Hear the sound.
  2. Realize that it's an egg hatching.
  3. Oh, and yes, the eggs are still behind you. Just making that clear in case you were hoping that they might have snuck off somewhere else while you were distracted.
Both versions of the book imply that there are multiple hungry baby giant snakes emerging from the one egg, but have illustrations showing more than one egg hatching. While the newly-hatched brood have lower stats than the parent, a quirk of the Lone Wolf combat system means that I derive negligible benefit from the increased disparity in Combat Skill. I'm still significantly below full Endurance, so fighting them could get me killed. Rather than risk it, I hurl one of my Fireseeds into their midst. If I had the time, I'd try to come up with some 'Snakes on a Flame'-based witticism, but that creaking hinge has been followed by the clinking of weapons and armour, so I have a more pressing concern.

Unexpectedly, the next section has me searching for a concealed exit from the cave rather than confronting whoever came into the chamber. The Mongoose version also contains what looks like a spellchecker-induced error, mixing up 'effect' and 'affect'. I wish to effect an escape by smashing open the bricked-up trapdoor in the ceiling and climbing through. The armed and armoured figure(s) nearby may well want to affect my escape (probably to the extent that it doesn't even occur), but for some reason they choose not to interfere, even once I've broken through the bricks and am clambering up and not in a good position to defend myself.

I emerge into a dark and damp pillared hall, which contains a sarcophagus. More armour clanks in a tunnel to the right, and I'd feel more comfortable about the 'wait in ambush' option if the text were clearer about whether this sounds like one guard or many. Hiding behind a pillar may help clarify the issue, or it might just lead to a check on Invisibility, yet another of the Disciplines I do not yet have. I might as well try to find out.

Four armoured warriors - not human, judging by the length of their arms (and the fact that they have tails) - enter the hall. Not ambushing was a wise choice. Especially as I see their leader press a few buttons on the sarcophagus to open a secret door, through which they all depart. Once they've gone, I take a look at the sarcophagus myself. It's decorated with carvings of hybrids and even more bizarre creatures, and I am able to spot the outline of the concealed door. This is one instance where a Mongoose edit has improved the text, removing the implication that I didn't already know about the door (but not suggesting that I already did, so any reader turning to this section after having ambushed the warriors doesn't get confused by a reference to something they never saw happen).

The carvings include a snake that coils around three buttons. Divination provides no hints as to the correct sequence of button pushes, so either there's a clue somewhere that I failed to acquire, or this is a nastily arbitrary 'puzzle'. Still, having decided to try pressing buttons, I don't have the option of reconsidering once it becomes apparent that I can only make a blind guess. There are six possible sequences, so I roll a die to choose one, and wind up choosing 3-1-2. To my surprise, it works, opening the panel to reveal steps down to a door. I descend, and maybe that wasn't the right sequence after all, as a mildly awkward transition gets me trapped and gassed into unconsciousness. Well, I'm pretty sure there's no way of avoiding the trial I'm about to face, and this seems as good a way of getting to the bottleneck section as any.

I regain consciousness manacled to a wall in a large amphitheatre. Robed creatures glower at me. Close by is a pit, from which protrudes an iron pinnacle with a golden throne on it. A white-haired man sits on the throne, and floating above him are two crystals, one black, the other clear, with energy arcing between them. I recognise the clear one as the Lorestone I seek.

The man accuses me of having been sent to kill him, and the spectators address him as Lord Zahda and sentence me to 'the maze'. I am disarmed (but, oddly, not relieved of armour or the Power-Key that would enable at least one of the castle's denizens to breach the shield around the fortress), and experience the first, and mildest, incident of Joe Dever's punishing the player for having kept the same character since at least book 2 of the series: when one of Zahda's minions shows him the Sommerswerd, it emits a bolt of energy to fry the hand that wields it, and I get a punch in the face for finding this amusing.

Guards drag me away and push me into a pit. Out of the mist drifting overhead coalesces the shape of a skull with green eyes and a judge's wig. The skull speaks, telling me that if I escape from the maze, my life may be spared: otherwise, I will die. The maze entrance appears in the pit wall, and a crossbow bolt is fired at me to encourage me to go in. So I go in.

The mist up above gives off just enough light for me to be able to see the passage ahead of me. I advance to a circular vault, in which a sword lies on a stone block. Exits open to either side of me. The Discipline check here is slightly poorly worded, saying 'or' where 'and/or' would be more appropriate. Or do Divination and Psi-screen somehow cancel each other out, leaving me unable to sense what I could detect if I possessed just one of them? Rejecting that idea as just too silly, I learn from my Discipline(s) that the stone gives off magical emanations. Wary of a trap, I use the rope in my Backpack (evidently the minion of Zahda which took my weapons has never played Cluedo - pity I wasn't also carrying a candlestick or a spanner) to get the sword. It's just an ordinary weapon, but between the penalty for being unarmed and the bonus for having the right specialisation in Weaponskill, having the sword still significantly improves my chances in any fight I might get into down here.

This being a Joe Dever book, the exit to the left is probably the safer one to take. The passage soon turns a corner, and up ahead I see some large bubbles. A gust of wind blows them in my direction, so I draw the sword and puncture them before they can cause me any bother.

I did the obvious reference to The Prisoner last year, so here are some different hostile bubbles.

Somewhat bizarrely, the book describes the ease with which I slice through the bubbles with a comparison to 'scything cobwebs'. While, owing to the persistence of the spider that has taken up residence near my garden gate, I am familiar with clearing cobwebs out of the way, I have never felt the need to use a scythe to do the job. If anyone reading this has employed such an implement for that specific purpose, please comment on this post to let me know.

Up ahead is a pit, at least thirty feet across. As I wonder how I'm supposed to get to the other side, the bewigged skull appears again. The Mongoose text refers to the skull's return as 'unwelcome', but that seems a bit harsh, given that the skull provides a hint that there's an invisible path across the pit. Admittedly it does so in rhyme, which is a bit tiresome, but I still find doggerel preferable to being stuck. Again I get asked if I have 'Psi-screen or Divination', with no acknowledgement of the possibility that I might have both. And as the only other direction is for players who have neither of those Disciplines, that backs up my assumption of the implied 'and/' before the 'or'.

I can sense that there is indeed an invisible bridge, but not where it is. While searching for it, I hear something approaching, but cannot see what is coming. My hand finds the edge of the bridge, which feels like a plank, and is quite narrow, but then the footsteps stop, a whip cracks, and a wound appears on my hand. My attacker is no more visible than the bridge. I'm not sure that attempting to cross an unseen narrow bridge while being whipped by an invisible enemy is particularly wise, so I'd better fight. It's going to be a tough battle, but I'm armed, Huntmastery reduces the advantage provided by my foe's invisibility, and I still have my shield and helmet and the bonuses they provide. Quirkily, the odds would be slightly more favourable if I'd kept the blanket I found in the snake's nest, but even without bedclothes I have a decent chance of surviving.

My assailant becomes visible once I've killed him. At first glance he appears human, but a closer check reveals him to have a few feline characteristics, and scars suggesting that Zahda or one of his servants has been perpetrating Doctor Moreau-style atrocities. The whip my late opponent used remains unseen, but I can find a spear and a silent whistle on the body, both of which I take. Turning back to the pit, I find that the bridge has also become visible, so I cross it.

Zahda's voice sounds in my head, commending my bravery and wondering if I have brains to go with my brawn. I see a vision of him and the Lorestone I came here to acquire, and resolve to survive the maze and escape (why has it taken me this long to settle on such a goal?), then worry about what other dangers might be up ahead. I don't recall mood swings having been part of my character before now.

Continuing on my way, I reach a chamber that contains a bronze statue of a glum Zakhan. Judge Skull turns up again, and tells me in rhyme that I must answer the Zakhan's question correctly in order not to upset him. The statue then speaks, asking a riddle. It's a mathematical puzzle, and once I express it in algebraic terms, the answer becomes obvious. The Mongoose edition of the book repeats book 5's annoying gimmick of having the 'correct answer' section spell out that it is the section to which the reader should have been directed as a result of solving the puzzle. Apparently Joe Dever believed that his readers could figure out the answer to the riddle, but wasn't so convinced that they'd be able to infer from the phrase, 'In reply to your correct answer' that they had indeed got the question right.

A door opens, and I go through, descending a ramp to a new corridor. Slithering towards me is a giant worm (okay, so from a taxonomic perspective I was wrong about there being more than one 'oversized serpent' in the book, but it has been years since I last read the relevant encounters). Somehow I know to use the silent whistle here, and the worm turns out to really dislike ultrasonics. This is another place where the revised text is an improvement, toning down the sound's effect on the worm's nervous system from the implausible 'destroys' to the more reasonable 'wreaks havoc upon'.

In its writhings, the worm rears up into the overhead mist, which seems to be electrified. One fried worm later, the mist appears to have been shorted out, revealing a walkway and observation platform. I climb up onto it, as this is a good way of getting out of the maze. Possibly even the only one. The walkway is part of a whole network of suspended paths above the maze, and leads to a staircase that crosses the perimeter wall. An alarm sounds as I head for the exit, which leads to a junction.

There's a Pathsmanship check here, which makes me wary of automatically going left. In the absence of indications to the contrary, left does tend to be the better way to go in Lone Wolf books, but it may be that Pathsmanship would provide a hint that right is right on this occasion. Letting the existence of this Discipline check influence me is metagaming, but then, so is the whole 'go left' business. And it is, of course, possible that if I had Pathsmanship, I'd be advised to go left anyway. So that's what I do.

I reach the cells where the slaves are housed. The occupants hiss disdainfully as I pass by. At the end of the block is a cage containing a dirty and bloodstained man. Judging by the colour of his skin, hair and clothes, I may have been wrong in my previous post on this book when I said that there was no follow-up to Paido's revelation that his brother entered the fortress and was never seen again.

A key hangs on a peg close by, so I unlock the cage. The occupant is suffering from some disease, which has blinded him, and as I don't have Curing, I can't do anything about that. I can reassure him that I mean him no harm, though. He asks if the Elder Magi sent me, and since he wears the uniform of a Vakeros, I'm confident that even if he isn't Paido's brother, he'll still be on my side, so I answer truthfully and explain my mission.

He is Paido's brother Kasin, of course. He and I both know that he's not long for this world, as blindness is one of the symptoms of the terminal stage of the disease from which he suffers. It is not unreasonable that I should have this knowledge - I've had the basic Kai Discipline of Healing since the start of the series, and while its effectiveness has been diminished now that the advanced version is available, the medical knowledge it gave me should still be of some use. Anyway, Kasin tells me everything of use that he knows, which turns out to be quite a lot. Directions to Zahda's throne room, details of where to find a secret door into it, a warning to destroy the Doomstone to which the Lorestone has been linked, and the location of the boat in which Kasin came here.

I hear approaching guards, and absent myself before they arrive. The corridor leads to a staircase guarded by a Beastman, who soon ends up lying down on the job. I swap the spear for his dagger and descend the stairs. They lead to a hallway decorated with tapestries, statuettes, and a fountain. The tapestries are significant, as the secret door Kasin mentioned is behind one of them. The fountain turns out to be important too, as behind it is a guard with a crossbow. He steps out and tries to shoot me, and there's another Discipline check with an 'or' that should be 'and/or'. I have both relevant Disciplines, and with the help of one or other or both of them I evade the crossbow bolt with ease. The guard doesn't have time to reload or change weapons before I get to him, and only puts up slightly more of a fight than the one at the top of the stairs did. There's an odd Mongoose edit here, using the word 'belies' to express something totally unrelated to the actual meaning of the word.

More guards are coming, so I ignore the obvious exit and look behind the right tapestry for the secret door. This leads into a circular tunnel made of steel, and I hurry into it before the guards arrive. A little way along it I find a door set into one wall, and investigate. It leads into a steel-walled laboratory, containing all sorts of alchemical gubbins. This is also where the weapons confiscated from me have been stored, so I retrieve them. Also of note are a jar of a particularly powerful healing potion (which, in the Mongoose text, can only be consumed straight after combat, severely limiting its usefulness) and a Platinum Amulet which protects the wearer from high temperatures (but, IIRC, proves singularly useless for surviving the 'you dive into boiling water and die' Instant Death that may be encountered near the end of this book).

Returning to the tunnel, I continue along it. The temperature rises, but the Amulet protects me. There's another contentious 'or' for anyone who has the Discipline of Nexus - though, given that Nexus provides protection from extremes of temperature, it's possible that a player with Nexus wouldn't have bothered to take the Amulet. Not that having no need for an item would dissuade many gamebook players from taking it anyway, unless there was a limit on carrying capacity, and at this stage of the series only Weapons and Backpack items are subject to such a limit.

Anyway, the Amulet not only keeps me from being harmed, but also protects my clothing and equipment from the heat. Eventually the temperature drops again, and I reach an iron chamber. A spiral staircase leads up to a portal, which looks out onto the back of Zahda's throne, close to the levitating gems. It seems odd that this isn't better guarded. All right, there's the secret door, the heated tunnel, and the fact that the Doomstone is being used to booby-trap the Lorestone, but considering how paranoid Zahda was about assassins the last time I met him, an unsupervised portal to right behind where he generally sits still seems rather careless. Or is there more here than meets the eye? I have the option of looking more closely at the throne, so I'll check for other traps.

Nope, it turns out that the 'examine the throne' choice means 'wander out in front of the throne like a complete numpty so that Zahda can see and attack you'. Great. Maybe I'll get a chance to use that potion after all. The Sommerswerd deflects Zahda's initial attack, and its Combat Skill bonus brings me close enough to his level that I might just survive the subsequent fight. Still, I now wish I'd not put all my Combat Skill-enhancing items into storage at the start of the adventure. Though really I should be wishing the decision that got me into this mess in the first place had been better worded.

The first round of combat goes badly for me, but after that I get the upper hand, and by the end of the fight I'm only just below half of my maximum Endurance. Zahda falls into the pit around the throne, and (after downing that potion just to be on the safe side) I smash the Doomstone, causing molten lava to jet from the pit. Do I leave the way I came in or seek an alternate exit? Checking for something else, I find a symbol carved on the throne which activates an anti-gravity beam leading to surface level. I grab the Lorestone (which restores all my missing Endurance anyway), and step into the beam.

The fortress starts to collapse around me as I ascend, but the beam maintains its integrity until I arrive in a ruined temple near the castle keep gatehouse. Lightning lashes the disintegrating Kazan-Oud, and some way below, I see the lake. I'm pretty sure that diving in leads to the 'boiled alive' ending I mentioned before, so I head down some damaged stone steps to the jetty where Kasin concealed his boat.

Many of the fortress' residents are also trying to escape. I sustain no damage in the melee, but do lose my Backpack and everything in it (which is why I put so much into storage at the start of the adventure). The description of my triumphant arrival at the jetty is a little perturbing: the contrast between my appearance and that of Zahda's minions may be intended to evoke pulp tropes, but there's a nasty hint of white supremacism in there.

Let's just think about the Mongoose edit relating to that concentrated healing potion again. It established that the potion could only be used after a fight, so a badly wounded Lone Wolf would have been unable to take it before battling Zahda, when it might have come in handy. And a quick check of all possible courses of action that can be taken after finding the potion establishes that, what with the Lorestone-induced Endurance boost, there is no point between fighting Zahda and losing the Backpack (in which the potion must be carried) at which the healing provided by the potion would matter. So the edit has made the potion utterly unnecessary. Nice work, everyone concerned.

Getting back to the climax of the book, I make it to Kasin's boat and escape the doomed fortress. A hero's welcome awaits me outside the magical barrier, and a local dignitary indicates that he and I are related, and the Elder Magi have much to teach me regarding the next Lorestone I seek. Which will be covered in the next book in the series.

In case anyone else cares about the ongoing 'section 291' in-joke, in this book the relevant section describes one of the ways in which Lone Wolf can fail to save the life of Tavig, the viewpoint character of the mini-adventure accompanying the Mongoose edition of Castle Death.

Now I've beaten Castle Death again, I'm not sure what to make of it. It has some decent set pieces (one I missed on this occasion is the gruesome encounter with a brain-eating disembodied hand), but I'm not keen on the unavoidability of the 'captured and sent to the maze' sequence, and the compulsory Backpack loss at the end is just annoying.

As a Lone Wolf book, it lacks the scope of the rest of the series. Travel between locations has been a big part of every preceding adventure, and will be again in the rest of the series. This book just has the voyage to Herdos in the 'The story so far...' bit, and the lake crossings in sections 1 and 350. Everything else takes place in or just outside the one structure. The magical barrier around the fortress also diminishes the scale of the threat Lone Wolf is going up against. In the first five books the fates of whole countries hung in the balance. Book 6 played out against the backdrop of a war. And then this was 'find and kill the bad guy we trapped in here'. By the series' standards it's just small and petty. Still, this is (as far as I'm aware) a one-off aberration, and I'm through it now.

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