Friday, 23 October 2015

Mind the Gap

The successful ending to the second of Ruth Pracy's Warlock magazine mini-adventures blatantly left things open for a follow-up. Having undertaken to find the secret that lies beyond the mountains surrounding the edge of the world, or die in the attempt, the hero learned of a route below the mountains...

And then Warlock got cancelled before the sequel could come out, which must have come as a disappointment to anyone who still cared about Ms. Pracy's ongoing saga. But only for a little under a year. Then rival magazine Proteus brought out In Search of the Lost Land, which (to anyone familiar with Warlock's Ruth Pracy adventures) was obviously the continuation of the series. I say continuation rather than conclusion, because while ISotLL does resolve the quest from the preceding adventure, it does also hint at a further sequel (though as far as I can tell, that never saw publication).

The introductory section mentions most of the relevant information from the Warlock adventures, though it does rather gloss over the climactic revelation, perhaps to try and conceal the strangeness of what has transpired since the preceding adventure. That is, despite the 'or else die in the attempt' aspect of the quest, and the revelation of the secret that would make it possible to actually undertake the quest, the viewpoint character has spent the intervening time amassing wealth, power and glory instead of doing anything remotely related to the quest.

So, what does this prize procrastinator look like stats-wise?
Wisdom: 3
Dexterity: 7
Strength: 23
The highest possible starting Wisdom, funnily enough. A rubbish Dexterity, but as I recall, that's not the automatic death sentence that it would be in a lot of gamebooks.

I start the adventure in the presence of Gether, Lord of the Lower Kingdom, and a good friend ever since he first told me the secret I've been ignoring for so long. He notices that I am troubled, and asks why. My response, while in keeping with certain authorial preoccupations indicated by earlier adventures, is a poor one: I'm bored of riches, fame and responsibility. Not feeling guilty about getting sidetracked by self-centred side quests. Not suffering some mystical punishment for having failed to make good on my vow. No, I'm just fed up with doing all this stuff I should never have been doing in the first place.

Gether advises me to go adventuring again, and suggests that I might like to seek the Sariram, three stones that are somehow connected to the might of his kingdom (not that the kingdom appears to be in any trouble or decline). As a bonus, they will be found in the presence of the key that holds the secret of the universe. You know, that thing I pledged to find or die trying. Yeah, I suppose I could have a go at that.

Anyway, I get together my sword and a few meals and nothing else, because it's not as if all that tiresome money I've accumulated could be used to buy any useful equipment, right? Then Gether leads me through dusty, winding tunnels to a rune-inscribed door, which he unlocks with a 'curious' key. The text doesn't go into any detail about what makes it so curious: for all I know, it could be made of cheese and shaped like a rugby ball. Gether tells me that a magical road lies beyond the door, and I step through into the darkness.

The passage leads me to a T-junction, and a patch of the wall lights up. A voice tells me that I must swear to pursue wisdom first of all on my quest. I do so, though considering my track record in such areas, I'm probably just as likely to prioritise games of FreeCell, attempts to remember the titles of every episode of seasons 1-10 of The Simpsons in order, and the identification and disposal of the tattiest of the socks I own. Regardless, the voice congratulates me, and I receive a silver-bound horn for blowing when needed.

I must now choose which way to go, and I don’t remember whether or not picking the wrong direction guarantees failure. I choose to go east, and a block of stone descends behind me to ensure that I don’t change my mind. After a while the passage turns south, and the air becomes unpleasant, writhing ‘like rank treacle’ (does treacle writhe when it goes rank, and if so, what led Ms. Pracy to discover that it does?), turning my lantern dim and muffling all sound.

Eventually I reach a stone door leading on, while an alternate route leads west. I go through the door into a chamber with a moister atmosphere. Faintly phosphorescent weeds grow here, dripping slime and emitting unpleasant smells when trodden on. Something glows greenly nearby, and I risk investigating. There’s a silver wristband in the weeds and, having found it, I have no choice but to put it on before continuing forwards.

Further on I see a turning west, and investigate. A door slams behind me, and I am attacked by Garm, one of the hounds of hell. Luckily for me, his Dexterity is no better than mine, and while the dice slightly favour him, my Strength is so much higher than his that I still win by a narrow margin. His corpse decays with alarming rapidity, and beyond it another door leads onwards.

After a while the passage turns north, but just beyond the turning is another passage leading to a dead end with a fissure in it (so not exactly a dead end, then). I avoid the fissure in case it leads to one of the more arbitrary Instant Deaths I remember from previous attempts, and just go north. Some time later I pass a door on the left, which I cannot open - probably a convergence with a path not taken. The walls of the passage beyond it are more rough-hewn, and have crystals sparkling in them, while the air becomes warmer.

Up ahead is a dead end, but a panel in the east wall slides open, closing again after I have stepped through it. The passage beyond turns south after a while, and the air becomes foul. This is starting to look (and smell) familiar, so it comes as no great surprise when I reach a stone door up ahead and a side passage west. This is actually a positive sign - when I reviewed the Proteus adventures more years ago than I care to recall, I did note that the correct path through this one includes looping round at one point. If I've looped round correctly, that would suggest that I need that wristband, but something else essential can only be found by going west here.

The door will not open this time (suggesting that my character hasn't figured out that I've gone full circle), so going west is the only option here. Before long the passage turns south, and a strange pattern in the rock of one wall catches my eye. It's just like the pattern on the wristband, so I press the wristband to the appropriate spot on the wall, and a secret door opens. Predictably, I step through, and the entrance seals behind me. Mist issues from the walls, enshrouding me, and unseen entities touch me, slipping a ruby ring on a leather thong around my neck. An intense sensation of sweetness overloads my senses (reminding me of the time in my schooldays that I consumed way too many Parma Violets in one go, with... interesting consequences).

When I come round, my mind is still a bit fuzzy, and I pass through an archway to the west. The passage leads through multicoloured mists, changing direction a few times and eventually bringing me up a slope to near the roof of a large, circular cave. And just as I start to become capable of making my own decisions again, the ground beneath me gives way, dropping me into the cave.

The fall does no damage. A passage leads west, but to the south is another opening, waist-height and shrouded with cobwebs. Above it is carved a rune signifying danger. Of course I investigate, and beyond the curtain of web I find... a small bird in a cage. It looks like the chick of some kind of bird of prey. I release it, and it hops onto my backpack.

Taking the passage west, I head down a slope that rapidly becomes very slippery, and soon lose my footing. I slide out of control down the rest of the tunnel, which ends some way above a fast-flowing river. Falling into the water extinguishes my lantern, and might do the same to my life, except that before I can drown, a huge bird of prey swoops down from the sky. In a display of remarkable cluelessness for a veteran adventurer, my character assumes that the bird is attacking, but of course she's rescuing me in return for my having freed her chick.

The bird carries me a great distance, then leaves me in a pretty inhospitable-looking region. I go west because the text tells me I do, and eventually I come to a vast ditch, spanned by a bridge, with a massive wall visible on the other side. Lacking any other option, I cross the bridge, and a beautiful (and, judging by the illustration, bizarrely-dressed) woman with a sword steps out from behind a parapet and asks what I’m doing crossing the Echoing Bridge so noisily. With some alarm, my character recognises her as Modgud, guardian of the gate to the kingdom of Hell. I have been brought, still living, to the realm of the dead.

Explaining my quest can’t get me into any more trouble than either of the alternatives (attacking her would probably not be clever even if I had a decent Dexterity, and I doubt that she’ll be convinced if I claim to have wound up here as a consequence of taking a wrong turning at Albuquerque (or words to that effect)), so I tell my tale (omitting the bit about having put the quest on hold for ages for no good reason). Modgud reflects that it’s not going to be easy for me to get to the Lost Land, not least because this place is as tricky to leave as the Hotel California, but then she figures out a route that the not-dead can take to get away from here. She also offers to swap her emerald ring for the ruby one I got in the mist, and I accept. I also receive a Wisdom bonus just for getting the option of trading jewellery with a deity.

Beyond the bridge, a path leads south towards a cliff wall. When I reach the cliff, I spot a cave entrance that is the only way forward. The only other exit from the cave is a granite chimney, and climbing it is a bothersome endeavour. I need to go up 50 yards, and must repeatedly roll a die to determine how I fare: on 4 or more I ascend 10 yards, but any time I roll lower, I slip back 5 yards and take Strength damage. Since the fight against Garm I’ve already consumed a few meals, but I have another before commencing the climb, so I start at full Strength – an average distribution of rolls is liable to cost me around three quarters of that before I reach the top.

I don’t get an average distribution of rolls. A literal reading of the rules for climbing would indicate that I sink 20 yards into the ground before I manage to ascend at all. Working on the assumption that it’s not actually possible to fall a greater distance than I’ve gone up (but still taking damage for every roll of 1-3), and taking advantage of the loophole in the rules that allows me to eat at any time when not in combat, I finally get to the top of that blasted chimney with no meals left and just 2 Strength remaining.

After catching my breath, I clamber through a less challenging opening and along a ledge. Some way below is a vast expanse of ice, leading up to a ravine, on the far side of which the land appears to be ablaze. I make my way along the ledge until I reach a point directly above the mist-filled ravine. This is Ginngungagap, the meeting point of shadow and substance, where worlds have their beginnings and ends. Stepping out into it seems an insane idea, but the alternative is turning back, which seems even more unwise in view of who wrote the adventure.

Nothing ventured, nothing gained: I step off the ledge. Rather than plummeting to my doom, I drift down onto an island in a moonlit lake. Pleasant scents fill the air, and somewhere a flute plays. I feel tired. In view of my low Strength, I risk resting. Somehow this causes me to walk to a cave, which leads to a hall containing a massive throne, a fire and a pile of weapons. Taking a closer look at the weapons, I find my attention drawn to a bow and arrows and a mace, and take the mace.

Three giantesses emerge from behind the throne, and one of them scowls down at me. I try defending myself with the mace, which gives me no bonus. Considering that the giantesses’ Dexterity is significantly higher than mine, and it’ll only take one blow to kill me anyway, I’m not expecting to survive – and I don’t. The fight takes significantly longer than I expected, and I do more damage to the giantesses than they do to me, but at the end of it I’m just as dead as I would have been if they’d swatted me in the first round.

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