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.