Wednesday, 18 November 2015

How Can You Still Be Living?

A little while after I succeeded at Return to Firetop Mountain and gave my original copy to a charity shop, I was browsing in a different part of town and came across a copy of Legend of Zagor, the follow-up to both Return and Ian Livingstone's lavishly illustrated puzzle book Casket of Souls, in another charity shop. I bought it, and waited until I got home before playing it. As I recall, my first attempt ended when a fight against some Imps went badly for my character.

The map I drew back then supports this memory

The book didn't grab me enough to make me want to try it again at that time, but I had no good reason to get rid of it, and just shelved it somewhere. I still had it (though I don't think I'd yet found the motivation to attempt it again) by the time I came across the multitude of Fighting Fantasy books that properly got me back into gamebook collecting in yet another charity shop. That's why I said the FF books I already had at that time were mostly ones I'd reacquired - they included my original copy of Legend.

Unlike the previous two FF gamebooks to feature Zagor, this one takes place in the kingdom of Amarillia, the setting of Casket, which isn't even on Titan. It's five years or so since a powerful Demon came to Amarillia, raised up an army of Orcs, Zombies and the like, and came close to conquering the world before being banished into the eponymous Casket. Work has been ongoing to undo some of the destruction caused by the Demon and his followers, but now my character has been summoned by the king in order to deal with a new threat.

Ah yes, my character. In this book I get to play one of three of the four heroes of The Zagor Chronicles, (a not-that-great quartet of novels by Ian Livingstone and Carl Sargent) or a character with the same name and profession as the twit who put the Casket of Souls down somewhere slightly inconvenient and thereby botched the plan to prevent the Demon from reaching Amarillia in the first place. He takes the place of the fourth lead from Chronicles, possibly because someone at Puffin thought that while the average FF fan might have no trouble getting into the character of, say, a criminal, a non-human, an amnesiac, a war veteran with an unnatural form of PTSD, or even someone who actually managed to win Trial of Champions, they wouldn't be prepared to play a female. Which may even have been true for a subset of the readers, more's the pity.

Each of the available characters is generated in a slightly different way, and will end up with a lower Luck than they'd have had using the normal rules for character creation. Even the Dwarf with a 'native streak of good luck'. The first time I played the book, I opted to be Braxus, the utterly generic human warrior, but this time I think I'll play as Anvar the Barbarian (no relation to the previous victim of my killer in Kharé), who probably gets a better Stamina, definitely gets a less mediocre Luck, cannot be taken by surprise, and pays for these advantages by having almost no magical aptitude and a near inability to wear armour.

I'm allocating dice, and thanks to one aspect of the book, I shall be giving Luck precedence over Skill. Consequently I get:
Skill 9
Stamina 20
Luck 10
Not very promising, but I can't do a lot worse than on my previous online attempt.

The king has summoned me because he has been sorcerously contacted by a wizard from another world, whom FF veterans are likely to recognise as Yaztromo. Time is short, so naturally the wizard wastes some of it waffling on about things I already know and nattering about Titan like a blurb-writer for an Advanced Fighting Fantasy sourcebook. Still, eventually he gets around to mentioning a few relevant details. In effect, a flaw in the Casket of Souls snagged on a sequel hook from Return, as a result of which Zagor the Warlock has cheated death again, becoming part Demon in the process, and is now manifesting in Castle Argent, the former seat of power in Amarillia.

To make things a little easier for whichever Amarillian mug gets stuck with the task of cleaning up this crossovery mess, Yaztromo has transported into the castle a load of silver daggers and gold talismans that can be used to weaken Zagor. To make things a little more difficult for the intended recipient of this aid, they're all in booby-trapped chests. And to make things that bit trickier for the reader of the book, the rules governing opening the chests don't specify whether or not you still get the contents and attendant Luck bonus even if you spring the trap and take damage from it.

The wizard also tells me how to deal with Zagor's corpse so that the pest won't be able to come back from the dead ever again (or at least until someone decides to mark the 40th/50th/whatever anniversary of FF by scraping through the bottom of the barrel and towards the earth's core), and warns that the castle is being repopulated by assorted nasties, including one of the Demon's War Dragons, which has gone insane and learned magic and probably acquired go-faster stripes and extra spiky bits.

At this point the signal begins to break up. The wizard then demonstrates himself to be either a needlessly verbose idiot or a tiresome prankster, as he says there's something else he needs to tell me, but takes so long telling me he has something to tell me that the crystal through which his message is being conveyed explodes before he gets as far as telling me whatever it is that he was telling me he needed to tell me.

All the king's wizards and knights are too busy doing other saving-the-world-type stuff to do anything about what's going on in Castle Argent, so the king has arranged for a ship to transport me there to sort it all out. There's time to attend to some other business before we set sail, but I'm not sure there's a lot I want to do. I could try earning some extra money, but as I recall, doing so would put me at risk of having my pocket picked. Consulting a sage is another option, but what he has to say relates to using a magical item, and I'm not sure I'll be able to activate the thing in the first place. Still, I could try a bit of shopping. Rope generally has its uses, and a Potion of Fire Resistance is liable to come in handy against that Dragon. I might also get an empty bottle, as they're worth having here.

With my purchasing done, I board the ship. Its captain is a Centaur, with magic horseshoes that allow him to walk on water. He has quite a dry sense of humour, observing that we shouldn't have to worry about fog on the voyage, just icebergs and sea monsters. The trip is mostly uneventful, but as we approach the island on which Castle Argent is situated, it does become foggy. And I may have worse than inclement weather to contend with, but that's my decision. I can spend a point of Luck to ensure that the remainder of the journey is without incident, or I can maintain it at its Initial score for a little longer and hope to survive the fight that will ensue.

I'll risk the fight - and that Fog Wyvern has a higher Skill than I'd remembered. Oh, well, too late to back out now. And while the beast claws me down to my last point of Stamina, a series of phenomenally fluky rolls enables me to hack it to bits while hanging on to life by a thread. The ship's crew ply me with food and healing draughts to restore me to full health, while the captain notes that the Wyvern's body has been warped by magic.

Eventually we approach waters too shallow for the ship, so I am provided with a rowing boat to cover the final stretch of sea, and the Captain says he's going to sail on to the River Geld, but will return at the next new moon to collect me, if I've survived. I row ashore without encountering any further bother.

On both sides of the road leading to the castle are the ruins of buildings that fell to the Demon's armies. I risk checking the debris for items of value. On the east side the only thing of note I find is a small well, with no apparent means of drawing water from it. Remembering tales of a Well of Visions outside the castle, I flip a coin into this well, and the water seethes and churns before showing me the image of an old woman. A voice in my head tells me to beware 'the traitor-wizard Remstar', which is a little harsh, as I recall from Casket that Remstar was mind-controlled into assisting the Demon rather than collaborating of his own volition. Still, history is written by the survivors, and I imagine the Amarillians suffered enough as a consequence of what Remstar was compelled to do that his reputation's not going to recover any time soon.

The ruins on the other side of the road provide me with some more concrete treasure - a little gold, another bottle, another rope - but I'm not the only one searching them, and the Great Orcs I encounter attack me en masse. I manage to kill one of them, and I think this book's quirky rules for fighting opponents help me more than they hinder me, but in the end the surviving Great Orcs prevail. I think in future, unless I have a much better Skill, I shan't bother exploring the west ruins.

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