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.

Friday, 13 November 2015

Not My Idea of a Swell Time

I acquired Stefan E. Jones' Dark Temple, the 23rd of Flying Buffalo's Tunnels & Trolls solo adventures, from the same eBay seller as I did the preceding adventure. Consequently, it got the same cursory level of attention from me as the rest of the bundle I purchased, so this will be the first time I have a proper go at it.

Somewhat surprisingly, given that this was published in 1991, the rules section includes a detailed explanation of how to play a gamebook, complete with 'sample' paragraphs to illustrate the sort of choices offered and the different ways in which dice can determine where to go. I suspect that these paragraphs have nothing to do with the actual adventure, but the one about winding up in a random location as a result of getting a bucket stuck on your head deserves to be part of the actual text of a gamebook somewhere. Probably a T&T one or something by J.H. Brennan, as most other gamebook series wouldn't tolerate such a silly situation.

Unless I get some very impressive rolls at character creation, I'm liable to be playing a non-human, as the blurb indicates that the adventure is for characters 'with adds of 10-75'. Which means that I'll need a combined Strength, Luck and Dexterity of at least 40 (probably more) to get into the low end of the recommended range. Yep, the character I just generated doesn't even come close, but make him a Dwarf and suddenly he's almost there.

Strength: 24
Intelligence: 12
Luck: 6
Constitution: 22
Dexterity: 9
Charisma: 9
Speed: 13

Just one point outside the range, then. Probably doomed, but that low Luck would be a liability in almost any adventure, so I might as well kill this character here as in any other solo. I don't get that much money, either, but enough for clothes, a sword, a helmet and a shield. I automatically get a bag of food, too, as this adventure could cover a substantial timespan, and there are at least some basic rules to deal with the need for food. Given my success rate at T&T adventures to date, I may well perish before I even have time to get a bit peckish, but at least the rules are there if I do last long enough to need them.

I'm on the road, passing through the remote province of Myre, and have found an inn to spend the night. It's a good thing I didn't spend all my money, as the text assumes that I have at least the price of a meal and drink. The silly names for the coins may just be a bit of local colour, but in case there's a trivia quiz later on, I'll make a note of the denominations of hekkats and kabbobs.

There are three places I could sit to eat: with a group of gamblers, among the crowd listening to the reminiscences of a one-legged mercenary, or alongside the taciturn trio in green. I suspect that the men in green are members of the cult referred to in the blurb, who doubtless meet in the temple mentioned in the title of the adventure, so they're probably best left alone. I wonder if the mercenary's tales will provide any handy hints for the adventure ahead. Probably not, as it turns out, though the one about the man with the diamond foot could be a sneaky reference to the preceding adventure (I've already linked to it once). When he concludes his account of his adventurers, I have to give him at least a kabbob, and in return he hands me a note to set up a clandestine meeting. I could ignore it, but avoiding plot hooks tends not to go well in gamebooks, so I'll go to the appointed place at the set time rather than wait to see what unpleasant means the book will have of forcing me into the adventure.

There's a rather messy continuity error here, as our meeting starts with the mercenary binding whatever wounds I sustained in the fight I just didn't have, and being desperate enough to pass his current mission on to me in spite of my having just tried to kill him (which, as you probably noticed, I didn't, unless he had a severe allergy to the metal from which the coin I gave him was made). This adventure has 413 sections, so it's not as if writing an extra one that had the quest-giving bit without the post-battle details would have spoiled a nice round number.

Still, the important point is that there's a quest. He's on a mission to stop the Followers of Krestok from acquiring a scroll that will give their deity great power. Or rather, I'm now on that mission, because he's attracted too much attention. He gives me a map to the temple (presumably where the scroll is held) and a strange triangular metal bar that's a key to the temple. The key is cursed, so if I refuse to accept the quest, or fail in it, I permanently lose 5 Charisma. Given that the consequence of failing an adventure is usually death, losing my good looks (well, average looks, but quite impressive for a Dwarf) seems pretty mild by comparison, but avoiding even a nonlethal failure would obviously be better if he's right about the adverse consequences of allowing the Followers to succeed.

There are two different routes to the temple, one across a chain of mountains, the other through a forest. Mountaineering is liable to involve some rolling against my Dexterity, which is not that great, so I'll take the forest path. I'm given the option of hiring a guide, but there's a random element involved in looking for one, and in any case, I doubt that I could afford anyone remotely competent.

In the morning I set off through the forest. After a while the path forks, and there's a little descriptive detail to make the choice slightly less blind. I take the turning that leads down to a patch of open ground. It turns out to be a swamp, and my character doesn't think to try turning back and taking the other path. On the first day of wading through the swamp, random happenstance causes me to lose my food bag, as a result of which my Strength is halved until I get fresh supplies. That's pretty catastrophic, as my Strength was practically all I had going for me.

The next day consists of more trudging through the swamp, followed by a random encounter. This turns out to be five soldiers from the King of Myre's army, who arbitrarily mistake me for a spy and attack. Being outnumbered and at half Strength, I get shredded on the spot. And even if I hadn't had that Strength penalty, I'd still have been dismembered. Regardless, between the overkill and the curse, I do not make a beautiful corpse.

Wednesday, 11 November 2015

Get Your Motor Runnin'

The back cover of The Omega Zone, the third of Joe Dever's Freeway Warrior books, states that 'each exciting episode can be played individually'. When I attempted the second book in the series without first having successfully completed book 1, I failed almost immediately (though, as I got to make one decision before expiring, still not quite as rapidly as I did a couple of other gamebooks), so I'm not sure that that claim has any more veracity to it than the variations on 'any player, no matter how weak on initial dice rolls, should be able to get through fairly easily' in Fighting Fantasy books 5-11. Still, I'll give Zone a shot anyway, and see if I can at least survive beyond the first random number.

Had I not been wiped out so rapidly (or, indeed, at all), my character, Cal Phoenix, would have succeeded in rescuing Kate Norton from the bikers who abducted her, and rejoined the convoy from Dallas Colony One in time to accompany them into a fort in El Paso, which was being held by World Defence League troops. And then Mad Dog Michigan, the terrorist whose brother I killed in self-defence early in book 1, would have turned up outside, accompanied by over a thousand armed rabble, and declared his intent to kill me and my little dog too everyone else in Fort Bliss because he has absolutely no concept of proportionate response.

Two weeks have passed since then, and Mad Dog's mob has been making repeated assaults on El Paso, but not getting through its defences. So far, so goodish, but things are due to change. The bad guys' radio security is still rubbish, as a result of which we've learned that there's a convoy of trucks on the way here, carrying enough explosives to blow the fort off the map, out of the atlas, and quite possibly away from the whole geography section of the library. I'd say 'into history', but according to the Dewey Decimal System, that's right next door to geography, so while it doesn't have quite the same ring to it, I'd estimate that Michigan intends to blow us into numismatics and sigillography.

Of course, for this plan to succeed, the explosives need to get as far as El Paso. If a small team of volunteers were to try sneaking out, intercepting the convoy, and detonating the explosives before they get that far... Well, it's highly unlikely that they'd survive, but it would at least temporarily save the rest of the colonists. So a trio of WDL troops assembles for Operation Certain Death, and as the viewpoint character, I volunteer to join them so they'll have a fourth for bridge along the way, or something.

I should generate a character, regardless of how short-lived I expect him to be.
Close Combat Skill: 12
Endurance: 27
Driving: 4
Shooting: 4
Field craft: 3
Stealth: 4
Perception: 4
If I'd survived books 1 and 2, I'd have extra points in all but the first two of those stats. Given the nature of the mission on which I'm about to embark, I'd probably push Stealth and Perception up to 6, and everything else to 5.

As usual in a Joe Dever gamebook, I have to select equipment at the start. I automatically get a knife, backpack, water bottle and medical supplies, to which I add a rope, a meal, a CB radio and a high explosive grenade. For my firearm I choose a pistol.

The plan is for us to sneak out at midnight, attempt to get through the enemy cordon undetected, cross the Rio Grande on the one remaining bridge across it, infiltrate Mad Dog's temporary base of operations in Ciudad Juarez, and use mines on the convoy as soon as it turns up. The explosion should cause sufficient consternation and brouhaha among the men besieging the fort that the colonists can break through them and resume their travels to the relatively undevastated haven that is Southern California. Any of the volunteer squad that don't get killed in the explosion or related reprisals will have until midday to get to the town of Deming to rendezvous with the colonists' convoy.

Kate will be driving my car in the convoy, so in the last few hours before I have to set off on my mission, I very thoroughly brief her on the roadster's quirks and idiosyncrasies. I'm pretty sure that that's the traditional thing for a teenage boy to do with a teenage girl when they both like each other a lot and may not ever see each other again, but then, I did spend most of my adolescence in a mine-turned-fallout shelter, being homeschooled by my aunt, so there may be the odd gap in my education.

The three WDL men and I then put on camouflage gear and do our best to soundproof our equipment. We'll be splitting into two pairs to reduce our noticeability, and have a choice of routes to the river. The more direct, and thus faster one, passes through more heavily occupied territory, and is thus liable to be more dangerous. The more roundabout route should be less risky, but will obviously take longer. I'm getting a slight sense of déjà vu here. Still, the likelihood of my being killed by a skier is pretty low this time round.

I opt for the slower, theoretically safer detour around the city. Marine Knott, my partner for this stage of the mission, accompanies me across the ramparts, and we start crawling towards what remains of Freeway 54. There's an elevated section still standing, known to be occupied by enemy snipers, so we need to get under that in order to be safe from their guns (and this is the less hazardous route?).

We make it to a ditch undetected, and Knott points out a trio of gunmen behind a nearby mound of rubble. In spite of the fact that visibility is poor enough for us not to have been noticed, I am somehow able to see that they're Detroit Lions, members of Mad Dog's original biker gang. Trying to cause a distraction risks alerting them to the fact that there's someone sneaking around here, so I'll take a detour from the initial detour instead.

Crawling along the ditch, we soon reach a collapsed drainage tunnel. No more cover to be had there, then. I climb out and make a dash for the freeway section. One of the men on it chooses this moment to sweep the ground with his torch, but my Stealth score is just high enough that I succeed at the roll to avoid getting noticed. I sustain minor damage in the process, but at least I don't get shot. Is my companion in any trouble? He is Knott. Come on, the pun was inevitable.

Ruined industrial buildings provide enough cover for us to continue to evade detection as we move further away, but then we reach an area where the biker clans have a command station, and need to make yet another detour. We end up cutting through the municipal park, and get caught in a truck's headlights. The driver doesn't seem to spot that we're not on his side, and just parks, then heads for a nearby building. Dare I risk snooping in the truck, or should we just keep moving? Death by inventory failure is less common in Joe Dever gamebooks than the likes of Fighting Fantasy, so I'll pass up the opportunity to pilfer anything of value that might be in the vehicle, and keep focused on the mission.

We head through what must once have been a prosperous part of town. It's all been looted by now. Up ahead, we see flickering lights, and hear drunken cheers and laughter. If we take enough diversions, we may end up heading in the right direction again. Indeed, that is precisely what happens. By the time we get to the Stanton Street Toll Bridge, Captain Frankland and Sergeant Haskell have already arrived and scouted out the bridge. It has four guards on it, but none on the service walkway beneath. I hope none of us suffer from vertigo.

We get most of the way across without incident, but then the captain spots a couple of sentries at the end of the walkway. They're facing away from us, but we need to deal with them quietly before they become aware of our presence. The random number selection that determines what happens next is unmodified by any of my Survival Skills, and weighted in favour of one outcome, so the fact that I get the less likely one strikes me as ominous. No cause for concern, though, as Frankland and Haskell creep up on the sentries, knife them and dispose of the bodies without any trouble. Makes me wonder what the alternative could have been. Possibly a chance for me to get my hands bloody - no doubt with another random number selection to see whether or not I could avoid attracting attention.

Nobody notices us as we infiltrate Ciudad Juarez, and we shelter in a burnt-out cafe near the dog racing track that Michigan and Mexican gang leader Santiago have chosen as their headquarters. While we wait, I have to eat, so I'm glad I brought that meal. And, while my backpack was nowhere near capacity anyway, eating does free up space for the contact mine that the captain gives me for the next phase of our mission.

It is unlikely that we'll be able to do anything to the convoy while it's on the move, so we're going to have to get into the race track and plant the mines on the trucks once they're in there. This does significantly decrease the likelihood of any of us getting out alive, but on the plus side, it'll eliminate the local enemy HQ, and while I'm sure Mad Dog has plot armour right up to the end fight of book 4, we may at least get Santiago and an assortment of anonymous thugs in the blast.

The captain points out that we should try and spot a suitable getaway vehicle before planting the mines, as the 5-minute timers won't leave us much opportunity for searching once they've been set. He then leads us through a warren of alleys to an unguarded entrance at the rear of the track We move closer to where the action is, and catch sight of Mad Dog. He is not a happy chappie, and a quick look at a timepiece indicates the reason for the yelling: the explosives are late.

Knott spots a truck that we could use to escape, and the captain tells him to discreetly get it ready for a quick departure. The marine hands over his mine to Haskell and sneaks over to the truck. Just after he slips aboard, a siren goes off, and there's a section transition to heighten the tension (incidentally, since the random number on the bridge, the text has passed through five sections without any decisions or randomised forks in the narrative).

In a not entirely unpredictable twist, the siren turns out not to be an alarm alerting the assembled gang members to the presence of an intruder in the truck, but a signal that the convoy of explosives has finally arrived. We watch as the explosive-laden trucks pull in and Michigan reprimands the drivers for their tardiness. He and his cronies eventually move away, possibly to revise the schedule for plan Blow Up Fort Bliss With Loads of Explosives to take into account the delay, and the sergeant hurries over to the rearmost two explosives trucks to plant the two mines he carries. That leaves the two frontmost explosives trucks for the captain and me, and I get to pick which one I attach my mine to. Well, I suppose a completely blind choice is still more interactive than no choice at all.

I go for the lead truck because I suspect authorial sneakiness will make the less prominent truck the more hazardous target. The area isn't completely deserted, so I have to wait for an opportunity to get to the trucks without being noticed, and when I finally manage to dash across the space separating me from the trucks, an oblivious Mexican blunders into my way mere feet from my goal. A combination of randomness, Stealth and Perception determines the outcome of our inevitable collision, and I avoid the worst option but fall short of the best one. We both fall to the ground, but I manage to get up first, and attack him with my knife. The fight is quite nasty, but at the end of it, I'm the one still standing.

After shoving the body under the truck, I plant the mine and, on the captain's signal, arm it. We then make a dash for the truck Knott has commandeered, and he starts the engine. Some of the clansmen in the area spot us running, and start yelling, distracting me from the tool locker on the ground just ahead of me. The roll to see what happens next is influenced by Stealth rather than Perception, which seems odd, but it makes no real difference, as leaving the mine on the truck has eliminated the encumbrance penalty to Stealth, so both scores are the same. And even if they were the higher scores that the hypothetical veteran of books 1-2 would have, the random number is too low to attain the desired target.

I am pleasantly surprised to find that the consequent stumble is not adventure-ending. I lose a little more Endurance, and my CB, half a dozen rounds of ammunition, and some medical supplies fall out of my backpack (good thing I had the pistol: if I'd gone for a rifle or shotgun, I'd now have a negative number of rounds), but the sergeant drags me to my feet and rushes me the rest of the way to the truck, where he and the captain manhandle me aboard. Knott aims the truck at the closest gate, and we are on our way. Woo!

The siren blares again, and this time it is an alarm. Shots are fired, so those of us not driving hit the deck. The gate is flimsy, and the truck easily smashes through it. I carry out a little first aid on myself, and then a few bikers give chase, so I draw my pistol. I'm not convinced that Joe Dever fully thought things through with regard to players who started with this book - but for a last-minute decision to go for a more stealthy weapon, I would now be aiming an empty shotgun at our pursuers.

Before I can open fire (or shout 'Bang!'), the mines go off. The shockwave from the explosion almost knocks the truck off the road, so I imagine those bikers aren't going to be bothering us any more. We hear shots from the far side of the river, and conclude that the colonists have commenced their bid for freedom.

We speed along the bumpy road. Something inside the truck has the captain and sergeant's attention, so I'm the only person to notice when five bikers appear on the road behind us. A different lot from our initial pursuers, or did being closer to the blast and on less robust vehicles prove less of an inconvenience than expected? The lead biker's pillion rider shoots at me, and I return fire. A quick peek reveals that there's no ammunition check for shotgun users, so if I'd chosen that weapon, I would now be firing imaginary ammo, and possibly blowing two men off the road with it.

Given the conditions, the difficulty of making the shot is not unduly harsh. I narrowly fail, and the return fire non-lethally injures me. My cry of pain alerts my fellow passengers to the situation, and while Frankland attends to my wound (do I get to apply the Endurance restoration provided by a Medi-kit when using the thing is compulsory?), Haskell fires my last bullet (or another nonexistent shotgun shell) at the lead biker, hitting him in the hand and causing him to swerve off the road and perish in an explosion. The other bikers continue to give chase, but don't get too close because they don't know that I'm out of ammo.

Knott draws our attention to the fact that we're approaching a town. Our initial wariness diminishes as it becomes clear that the place is long-abandoned, and the captain decides that this would be a good place to set an ambush for the other bikers. We cross a bridge before stopping, and Frankland orders us to spread out and take cover. Apparently all his military experience has done nothing to help him recognise when a gun is empty, as he doesn't provide me with any spare ammunition.

There's nothing that promising close by, cover-wise. I could hide behind a gas pump, or inside an industrial trash can. While I would hope that the pump is empty, if it's not, being close to it when it gets shot at will be very bad for the health, while getting into the can would severely limit my mobility. I'll risk the pump.

As the bikers cross the bridge, the captain gives the order to open fire. The other soldiers do, hitting the lead two bikers and sending the third one's bike out of control. The last one is unscathed, though, and drives straight at the pump behind which I'm hiding. At last the text acknowledges the possibility of my being out of bullets, and between my lack of ammo and my not having boosted my Perception to the levels I would have if I were carrying over a character from the start of the series, there's only one option open to me: to jump out of the way.

Stealth and randomness determine my fate, and this time I get a good number, diving to safety as the bike clips the edge of the pump and somersaults into the gas station wall. My useless pistol drawn, I approach the biker to see if he survived the crash, and find that he couldn't have, as he was already dead. It turns out that a ricochet killed him from behind, but the way his body slumped in death kept the bike upright and, coincidentally, pointed at me. I wonder if it would have equally coincidentally ended up aimed at me if I'd been in the trash can.

Annoyingly, I don't get to check any of the dead for bullets before we drive off again. The Captain joins Knott in the front of the truck, and Haskell settles down to rest as best he can. I follow his example, and end up wishing I'd brought a second meal rather than that grenade. Medi-kits cannot heal Endurance lost through lack of food, but I can at least use one to patch up as much injury-related damage as I sustain from the hunger penalty, leaving myself no closer to death than I already was.

After about an hour's sleep, I am woken by the truck's coming to a halt. Up ahead is a town in a narrow mountain pass, and Frankland anticipates trouble. Not having brought binoculars with me, I can't see much to clarify the situation, but an explanation is soon forthcoming. The town shows signs of being occupied by a biker clan, and a roadblock has been constructed across the entrance. If we want to make it to the rendezvous in Deming, we'll have to smash through the roadblock. The alternative is yet another detour, followed by trying to catch up with the colonists somewhere else along the way.

Frankland and Knott opt for the detour, while Haskell prefers to try and break through. While I could tie the vote if I wanted, the fact that the man who knows our vehicle best doesn't want to risk it against the roadblock suggests that doing so would be unwise. Besides, at least one (and arguably both) of my previous Freeway Warrior characters on this blog got killed in circumstances similar to what Haskell recommends, and I'd rather not risk having this Cal Phoenix go the same way.

Knott points out a cloud of dust which indicates that more of Michigan's goons are on our trail, so we get back into the truck and set off again. Our alternate route passes an adobe shack that turns out to have a few Mexican clansmen in it. They come out into the middle of the road and signal us to stop. Knott floors the accelerator, forcing them to dive out of the way, and they turn and open fire as we speed away. The random factor determines that I sustain minor damage banging my head as I duck.

Peering out again, I see the leader of the group behind us reaching for a walkie-talkie that he dropped while evading the truck. Having no ammunition, I can do nothing to prevent him from radioing ahead or calling for reinforcements or whatever it is he means to do.

Once we're out of rifle range, Knott stops the truck to let the captain check that Haskell and I are unharmed. Then we set off again. After a while we pass through another abandoned town. It starts to get hot. As we draw near to a third abandoned town, Knott notices that the fuel gauge is lower than it should be, and we stop at a derelict gas station. A quick inspection reveals bullet holes in the gas tank, and while Knott and Frankland go off in search of an unlooted fuel supply, Haskell tries to patch the holes. I stay to help him, because leaving him on his own is unlikely to be good for his life expectancy. Sure, I won't be able to shoot at any hostiles who come our way, but I can at least warn him or call for help or throw stones or something.

We plug the holes, and the other two find a couple of gallons of fuel in the station's storage tanks. It's not much, but might just be enough to get us to Lordsburg, where we could rejoin the colony. Somehow I doubt that doing so will be as easy as dealing with the consequences of the punctured fuel tank turned out to be.

I was right. We're driving through a canyon at around midday when the engine develops a fault, bringing us to a halt. The problem turns out to be a damaged electronic ignition unit, and Knott remembers having seen an identical component in the gas station where we dealt with the fuel problem. He didn't think to bring it, though (he'll never make a gamebook hero with that attitude), so it's going to take a trek under the noonday sun to fetch it and get the truck working again. Knott asks for someone to accompany him, and as it's just possible that if I'd helped with the search for fuel, we'd have that spare part with us, I think I'm going to have to be the one who goes with him.

During the walk, I need to use some of my water. Frankly, I'd have made a snarky comment if that hadn't been the case. Back at the town, we spot a couple of clan bikers studying our tyre tracks, and Knott says we have to keep them from reporting back to their fellows. Shooting would attract attention, so we need to use my knives, so I can actually do something useful. I choose to attack the one who's in the process of getting up: between my low Combat Skill and my depleted Endurance, the slight advantage liable to be provided by his being a little off-balance could well mean the difference between survival and a tragic end (seriously, it seems like every single death section I've inadvertently glimpsed while going through the book has a final paragraph that starts with 'Tragically').

I don't get the bonus I was hoping for. And he's a better fighter than the one who sliced away around half my Endurance back by the explosives truck. I'm not going to survive this fight unless I get very lucky. And luck is not with me. The biker's in pretty bad shape by the time he strikes the killing blow, so maybe Knott will survive the encounter and get back to the truck with the vital component. But for me, it's game over. Tragically.

Monday, 9 November 2015

Some That Seem Good Sometimes Proveth to Be Evil

My playthrough of Jonathan Green's Spellbreaker continues. If this is the first part of it you've seen, go here for the start, and just click 'Newer Post' for every subsequent instalment.

It's the last day before Shekka's Moon, the night on which Nazek will, if not stopped, be able to unlock the Casket of Shadows and free the Infernal Beast imprisoned within, so I have to get to Claybury today. It's north-west of Selwick, where I spent last night, but if I want to go by road (which appears the only option) I'll have to go north to the village of Tallow, and take the road west from there.

The walk to Tallow takes all morning, but is uneventful. As I arrive, I see nobody, but the sound of shouting draws me to the market-place, in which a young woman has been tied to a stake, while firewood has been heaped around her. A hooded figure addresses the crowd of onlookers, speaking of various portents and ill omens that have occurred of late, and the fact that one of the places he names is called Addersfield leads me to suspect that Mr. Green remembered a viewing of Witchsmeller Pursuivant from some point in the decade before he wrote the book.

The hooded man claims that the likes of the young woman at the stake are to blame for the poor harvests, bad weather, disease outbreaks and so on, and the crowd starts calling for her to be burned. A woman on the outskirts, who is not joining in with the mob, pleads with me to help her granddaughter, who is just a healer, falsely accused of witchcraft.

Remembering what happened when I previously got this far through the book, I swig down one of the potions Sam Boggart prepared for me yesterday, and then call out to the crowd, declaring the accused innocent of wrongdoing. The Inquisitor who was addressing the crowd promptly accuses me of being a witch as well, and I am seized, disarmed, and searched. Now, I have on me the Ilithorn Rose that convinced Karad the Witch-hunter of my good intentions, the Holy Amulet of Enthus the Martyr, and Deliverer, the blessed blade formerly wielded by Gwythain the Protector. Confronted with all this evidence that I'm on the side of what is good and just (let's overlook the fact that Deliverer was until recently in the hands of the master-brigand known only as the Mask, which isn't going to be common knowledge around here anyway), the villagers come to the conclusion that... I must be thrown into the local pond to see whether or not I float.

As I hit the bottom of the pond, I grab onto some weeds and hold my breath. The obvious way of determining whether or not I'm able to do so for the three minutes that will satisfy the villagers and Inquisitor (at least as far as this Ordeal is concerned) would be a roll against my Stamina. It is, thus, decidedly annoying that Mr. Green instead opted for a straight roll of the die, with a 50/50 chance of success (odds that were not improved on in the least when the book was supposedly made less unfair in the Wizard Books edit). And while I've made it through all of this book's previous rolls with similarly bad (or far worse) odds, this time the die fails to produce the required outcome, so I surface too soon and am pelted with assorted improvised weapons until dead.

Well, that was one of my two most successful attempts at the book (back in the 1990s I once made it past the pond, only to fail the last of the Inquisitor's trials on account of not having fireproofed myself beforehand, but as I lacked several other items likely to prove essential in the endgame, I'm not sure that having got a section or two further than on this occasion really makes that the greater success). If I ever get as far as replaying Spellbreaker for the blog, I will definitely be restarting from the point at which this specific post commences, because life is way too short for the multitude of attempts it's liable to take to get this far in a similar state of well-preparedness.

Saturday, 7 November 2015

Rather an Uncanny Place Altogether

Part 4 of my playthrough of Spellbreaker (click links for parts 1, 2 and 3 if you missed them or want to refresh your memory) commences with my character setting off along the path leading through the marsh known as Blackmire. I haven't got very far before I spot signs that the monster mentioned by the landlady of the Brindled Cat has been active recently. Either that or a murderer has chosen to dispose of their victim's body in the marsh, and is spectacularly rubbish at covering their traces. Worth investigating, in any case.

The trail of blood leads to a clearing littered with animal bones. A recently-killed ox is the source of the blood. Noticing ripples in the water close by, I optimistically tell myself that a fish or a swamp snake must be causing them, and then proof that I'm trying to delude myself erupts from the water and attacks. Despite allowing the Fen Beast to surprise me, I manage not to suffer any adverse consequences from the ambush, and the creature only gets in one lucky blow against me before I kill it.

It appears that I missed an opportunity to get hired as a monster-hunter by the farmers of Fenford. Well, unless they were offering something more valuable than hard cash for my services, I don't think that's likely to be too big a deal. Lacking any reason to take a memento of the fight, I leave the clearing, but as I do, I catch sight of mistletoe growing on a tree. Remembering what I saw in the puppet show, I use my Gold Sickle to cut a clump.

From here on, Fenford becomes effectively a maze. But one in which more than one essential item may be found, and retracing one's footsteps is unlikely to be an option, which makes it a much bigger pain than the Maze of Zagor. I go straight ahead when the path splits, which was probably not a good idea. I hope it wasn't a good idea, because a die roll determines where I end up next, and the book already has too many instances where pure chance establishes whether or not the reader will have a shot at success.

My wanderings lead me to a clearing where I find a fungus with the cheery name of Death's Shroud growing on a rotting log. I think that might come in handy, so I take some. Memories of a past failure deter me from taking one of the paths leading from this clearing. Having died the only time I got into the fight to which that trail leads, I cannot be certain that there's nothing good to be had as spoils of battle, but it's a nasty enough combat that I really hope it's avoidable on a viable path through the book.

The path left from here leads me to a random encounter, which on this occasion is a Giant Slug. Not a tricky opponent to deal with, and once it's out of the way, another roll of the die plots my path ahead. My roll takes me straight back to the random encounter table, where I am attacked by a quartet of Mudclaws so rubbish in battle that they only have a 1 in 1296 chance of ever inflicting a wound. None of them beat the odds.

Again the die determines where I go, and this time it's to a particularly boggy part of the marsh, where I risk drowning. Luck is with me this time, but another couple of rolls taking me there, and I could be in trouble. Then it's back to the die-determined direction, which takes me to an actual choice of path. I can see that going straight ahead would lead to the same tiresome roll, so I try going right, and find a medicinal toadstool knows as Malague.

Left means another roll, so I try going right again. Nope, that's the marshy bit that I was hoping not to come back to. It almost claims my life this time, but I narrowly make it through to the die roll, which takes me back to the branching path before last. This time I go left, and find myself following a stream into the heart of Blackmire. Which is actually where I need to end up, so I just hope that I've got everything else I need from this wretched bog.

The stream passes a hut of woven reeds, and while I'm looking at this dwelling, what looks like a distant relative of the Creature from the Black Lagoon approaches on a raft. It hasn't attacked yet, so I try greeting it. The creature introduces itself as Sam Boggart of the Fen Folk, and asks if I wish to avail myself of his services as a herbalist. I accept, and Sam gets out a book of potion recipes. There's only time for him to brew up two potions, but that's all right, as I only have enough herbs for two potions. A couple that I bought in the market, combined with the one I found in Gwythain's Barrow, make a mixture that provides protection from fire, while the three I found in Blackmire are essential components of a venom antidote.

Once Sam has concocted the potions, he gives me some roast duck and offers to show me to the tomb of Enthus the Martyr, on an island in the Miremere, the lake at the heart of the swamp. Enthus' name seems familiar from previous attempts at the book, so I accept, and Sam takes me by raft to the island. A little searching leads me to a granite door with no levers, and I push it open without difficulty. Spiral stairs lead down to a chamber containing a sarcophagus on which is a carved effigy of the priest it contains. Granite candlesticks flank the sarcophagus, holding candles that went out a long time ago. Inside the sarcophagus I find only Enthus' mortal remnants and priestly robes. If there's anything of use to be had here, I shall have to attempt to invoke Enthus' spirit for a blessing or advice. (Don't try this at home, kids. Or in any tombs, graveyards, crypts, careers libraries, or pretty much anywhere else, for that matter.)

Having used my Heal-All in order to not die, and not having purchased the vial of priest's blood from the relic stall because it seemed like a dodgy idea (and was outside my price range), I can only light the candles and pray. A difficult Faith roll follows, which could be made easier by burning a herb I didn't buy in the market. Still, I have 50/50 odds of succeeding even without that herb, so not getting that instead of the superfluous anti-contagion one isn't necessarily a catastrophic error... and I succeed. For the first time in all my attempts at the book (though it is only the second time I've made it to this tomb anyway).

Enthus' spirit appears, and reminds me about the plot I'm trying to avert. Thanks, but I did the recap by means of a link at the top of this post. Any chance you could tell me something actually helpful? Alas, while he's been wasting time blathering on about impending doom and disaster, a powerful evil spirit has managed to infiltrate the tomb, and animates Enthus' bones in order to attack me. This Revenant is more powerful than your average animated skeleton, and consequently manages to wound me once before I destroy it.

Enthus' spirit thanks me, and causes a secret compartment in the sarcophagus to open. This contains his Holy Amulet and a page he tore from the Black Grimoire, on which is written the spell he used to lock the casket in which he trapped the Infernal Beast. Could be useful to know, but would it not have made more sense to tear out the page with the Spell of Unlocking on? Just imagine the look on Nazek's face if he'd made all the other preparations for his abominable rite, and then at the last minute found out that the page he needed was missing, and he'd blown his once-in-37-years chance of achieving his goal. That would have been the most epic prank in all Titan's history, and Enthus passed up the opportunity. Some martyrs just have no sense of humour.

Well, it hasn't been an entirely unproductive visit, so I go back to Sam, who takes me across the Miremere again and gives me directions out of the marsh. I'm soon back on dry ground, and on the road to Selwick. It's getting dark, and a man on horseback approaches. As on the one previous occasion I made it through the marsh alive, I do not have the potion that would enable me to see through illusions, but the very fact that I'm given the option of using it here (provided I have it) is enough to raise suspicions. Besides which, I remember being killed by this entity on the aforementioned attempt at the book.

The 'man' offers to take me to Selwick on his horse, and warns against staying outdoors after nightfall. I politely decline his offer, and he and the horse transform into a more ominous-looking steed and rider. He tells me that I'll pay for my impudence, so either he automatically takes being turned down as a serious insult, or my character's idea of polite refusal is something along the lines of, "No, you ugly creep, I wouldn't get on your wretched, flea-bitten nag if it were the last horse in Ruddlestone. Your mother was a Molekin and your father smelt of Malague!"

The reason he killed me last time is that I didn't have Deliverer, and he's immune to nonmagical weapons. This time I am better equipped for the fight, and kill the Wraith Rider without any trouble. The rest of the journey to Selwick is uneventful, but by the time I get there, most of the residents have locked their doors and turned in for the night.

There is still a light in one house, on the outskirts, so I try knocking on the door to ask if I can spend the night there. The occupants welcome me in and give me food. It turns out that I'm their first visitor since Mistress Crowfoot (the witch mentioned by Tira) cursed them for refusing to sell her their best land. As Liam, my host, is detailing the misfortunes that have befallen him and his wife in recent days, a small, furry, horned humanoid emerges from the shadows and sours the contents of a bucket of milk. Liam identifies the creature as a Grimalkin, and it suddenly makes a leap for me. I dodge it, and it flees outdoors.

I give chase, and the Grimalkin bites the horse in the yard, causing it to kick out at me. Thanks to the loss of Luck I endured in boggy patches of Blackmire, I take a hoof in the chest, but the damage is not lethal. I pursue the Grimalkin into the stable and kill it there. Close to the spot where it made its last stand, a sigil has been inscribed on the floor, so I erase it and break the curse. Encouraged by my success, Liam urges me to bring Mistress Crowfoot to justice, and I agree to try.

Liam gives me directions to Paddock's Wood, where Mistress Crowfoot lives. Following his directions, I reach a clearing, and learn that the local witch has been taking inspiration from Baba Yaga, though with her own personal spin on things. Rather than a pair of chicken's legs, her cottage stands on one giant crow's foot. As I stare at the trapdoor that is the only entrance to the hut, the foot turns in my direction (is it possible for a limb without a face to face me?) and I wind up conducting the strangest fight I've had in a long while, against the taloned foot of a hopping cottage.

It is at least not a difficult fight, and I'm soon able to clamber up to the trapdoor. The interior of the cottage conforms to most of the stereotypes about witches' dwellings, but the owner is not immediately apparent. There are a number of smaller creatures in there, though: a bat, a cat, another Grimalkin, a rat, a raven and a toad. Alerted by the sound of my fighting her house's foot, Mistress Crowfoot has disguised herself as one of her familiars. I might be able to figure out which one is her from what could be a clue in the description of the denizens of the cottage, but there's no real need to work it out, as the typo that was fixed in the Wizard Books edition led to a section that reveals the nature of the witch's disguise, and I can still remember the answer from the first time I succeeded in escaping from prison in Hallow's Well, over a decade ago.

I sprinkle the powder Tira gave me on the appropriate creature, which changes into the witch. Before she can try any more trickery, I use the shackles Karad gave me to immobilise her. Most of the other creatures attack me, but none of them are any serious kind of threat, and I kill them without incurring any harm. Mistress Crowfoot says something to the last of her pets, which attempts to leave the cottage, but I set my falcon on it, and whatever message the witch intended to send goes undelivered.

I interrogate Mistress Crowfoot, who reveals when and where Nazek's coven will be meeting. Then I take her back to Selwick, where she is imprisoned. The locals hold a celebration, and I receive a Healing Salve as payment for my services. At last I get to turn in for the night, and that's where I shall be concluding this instalment of the adventure, as I know from my third ever attempt at the book (in which I never went through Blackmire) that there's a nasty bit of randomness coming up, and I want to establish another save point before I get there.

Wednesday, 4 November 2015

What Unspeakable Horror Lies Behind That Mask?

This is the third part of the Spellbreaker playthrough that started here and continued here. At this point my character is at a fork in the road. The map at the start of the adventure gives no indication that one route is any better than the other, but from previous attempts at the book I know I'm better off going north-west. This branch of the road leads into a forest, though not the same one in which Lady Attana's entourage and I were ambushed by brigands.

A short distance into the forest, I am ambushed by brigands. This group is led by a woman, who stands above me on a tree branch, and orders me to drop my weapon and throw her my gold. I decide to try and trick her, and am mildly disappointed to find that this doesn't involve hurling my money pouch with enough force to knock her off the branch. Rather more boringly, I feign surrender and just toss the cash on the ground, and when she leaps down to collect it, I grab my sword and rush her before any of her dozy associates can twig that I'm not as cowed as I appear to be.

I sustain a minor wound while taking the woman hostage. The others surround me, but are reluctant to press their attack while I have their leader, and I'm able to deal with two of them before she breaks away from me. I trip a third outlaw, who collides with one of his fellows, leaving the pair of them too dazed to fight, leaving just the leader and one of her men to deal with in straightforward combat. They're no match for me, and once I've killed the man and brought the woman near to death, she warns me that 'the Mask' will make sure I never leave the forest alive. Keen for a rematch (and a chance to get hold of the magic-looking sword he wielded), I demand to know more about the Mask, and the outlaw reveals that he's in charge of all the brigands in the area, and gives me directions to his camp. I spare her life, tie her up (presumably similarly immobilising the two who were only incapacitated) and, disguising myself in the robes of one of the outlaws who didn't survive the fight, head off to the camp.

As I head deeper into the trees, I hear an owl hoot. That's odd: it's still broad daylight. To be honest, the fact that, despite all I've done since leaving Talpas' residence, it's still only the middle of the day strikes me as being stranger than the possibility that an owl might be active before nightfall, but I must accept that this is one of those gamebooks in which time is extra-flexible.

Correctly suspecting that the hooting is part of the outlaws' security set-up I imitate an owl in response, and no harm befalls me as I continue on my way. Lucky for me that the correct response wasn't a different kind of bird call - if the Mask had thought to tell his men to cuckoo when they heard the hoot, I'd now be in a lot of bother.

I reach a clearing containing the ruins of some ancient outpost, in which the outlaws have made their camp. The walls that survive to this day might provide extra cover in the event of a large-scale assault on the Mask's base of operations, but they also enable me to stay hidden as I get closer. I climb up to the battlements and spy out the area. Stables, haycart, well, remnants of a keep, group of brigands sharpening their weapons. Maybe I should find some way of keeping that little mob occupied while I confront their boss. And while I'm sure the Ruddlestone Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals would object (should they exist), the proximity of that flammable hay to the stables is too tempting to pass up. Just as I reach the cart, a man emerges from the stables, but he fails to see through my disguise, so I wait until he's moved away, and then set light to the hay and make myself scarce. Before long the fire attracts the outlaws' attention, and while they're trying to fight it, I slip into the keep unnoticed.

Stairs lead up to two doors. I pick one more or less at random, and it opens into a room in which the Mask is at a table, counting money. He notices that I'm not one of his men, and draws his sword (which the illustration confirms to be the one that was stolen from Gwythain's body, as the word 'Deliverer' is inscribed on the blade). The fight is not difficult (regardless of whether I fight him at his original Skill or the slightly reduced one in the Wizard Books edit), and once it's over, I take Deliverer for myself. I also grab some of the money the Mask was counting, and find the box that had been stolen from Lady Attana. The key she gave me unlocks it, and the Elven prayer beads inside enhance my Faith.

Before leaving, I remove the Mask's mask. The face beneath is scarred and burned, the left side looking decidedly skeletal. While he won't be coordinating his subordinates' actions any more, the outlaws in the camp could still be a threat to me, so I leave the keep via the window, sustaining only minor damage from the drop. Then I retrace my steps to the road and ditch the disguise before continuing north-west. The text doesn't even mention the next junction, but as one of the turnings leads back towards Hallow's Well and I do only have a couple of days left to find and thwart Nazek, not getting the option to choose a direction is fair enough on this occasion.

After a couple of hours I reach the village of Fenford, and pop into the local tavern, the Brindled Cat. (Anyone unfamiliar with the term 'brindled' may be reassured to learn that it refers to the markings of the cat's fur, rather than describing some arcane form of animal cruelty.) On this occasion I do buy a drink, as I no longer need to be so frugal, and could do with the small Stamina bonus it provides. While at the bar, I chat with the landlady, who mentions a monster in the nearby marsh of Blackmire which has been causing trouble in the area. She also indicates that one of the other patrons is a Witch-hunter, and that the local holy man Friar Barnabas, also present, may be able to assist me in my quest.

I'm not sure if there's an optimal order for meeting with the others here, so I might be about to make a serious error. Still, even if I do mess up now, I will at least know to try something else next time. I start by approaching the Witch-hunter, and the text forces me into awkwardly ambiguous dialogue that leads the man to suspect that I might be a witch. I don't have anything that could back up his suspicions, though, and the Ilithorn Rose I have with me convinces him that we're both on the same side.

Introducing himself as Karad, he explains that he's assembling a resistance group to oppose Nazek's coven. He can't accompany me to Claybury, but invites me to meet with him there 'at the sign of the tower' tomorrow, and tells me the Resistance's password. He also gives me some Shackles that can prevent a witch from casting spells, then leaves to do some reconnaissance. I also have to leave now, so I hope there was nothing essential to be learned in conversation with anyone else in the tavern.

There are two ways I can go from here: along the road to Tallow, or on the path through Blackmire to Selwick. Many potentially useful herbs grow in Blackmire, and Tira, the erstwhile witch's apprentice I helped in Hallow's Well, mentioned Selwick when speaking of her former mistress, so the route through the marsh is going to be the better one, even if it is also the more hazardous option.

I've only made it to Blackmire on two or three of my previous attempts at this adventure, and at least one of those ended in there, so I'm definitely setting up another 'save point' before I go any further.

Monday, 2 November 2015

Something Ill-Defined and Impalpable

This is the second part of my attempt at Jonathan Green's Spellbreaker, which commenced here. I'm not going to recap what happened in the first part because that's what the link is for.

Hurrying away from Hallow's Well, I take the road south to Aryll, but only get about half way there before dusk falls. My search for somewhere safe to spend the night leads me to a small cave behind a clump of bushes. Unlike most caves, this one has a door. I'm about to knock on it when it is opened from within by an anthropomorphic mole. He invites me in, saying he was expecting me because he read of my coming in the runes.

My host, Talpas the Molekin, gives me some soup and offers to cast the runes to give me some indication of what the future holds. I take him up on his offer, and get told a lot of vague stuff hinting at things I already know. Slightly more helpfully, I also learn that I must visit a place of death and a place of worship. And then comes the 'That runestone isn't even part of the set!' bit, as the last of the stones turns out to bear the Witch Mark, Shekka's Rune. Talpas throws the offending stone into the fire, and I turn in for the night.

In the morning Talpas gives me some extra Provisions and I resume my walk to Aryll. My first sighting of the village is not encouraging: it's unnaturally quiet, the air is filled with bonfire smoke, and a woman carrying a massive pack yells at me to stay away because of the plague. I ignore the warning, because that plague is part of the reason I've come here.

Proceeding into the village, I see houses with red crosses painted on them, and realise that the bonfires are being used to dispose of the diseased dead. A couple of the corpse-burners take me to the village elders, and along the way I acquire a new attribute: Infection. Its function should be pretty obvious, and the consequences of having it get too high are liable to be fatal. A couple of the herbs I acquired along the way could be of help here, though it turns out that I can't use both to get double the effect. Maybe I should have bought that other Faith-boosting relic instead of the second of those herbs. Still, getting to reduce every Infection gain by 1 could mean the difference between survival and a painful demise, so I shouldn't complain too much. And I've avoided acquiring a couple of afflictions that would hasten the onset of illness, which is also good.

The elders have figured out that the plague is carried by rats, but they don't know how to get rid of the infestation. As I now have the Charmed Pipes that were used to draw the rats here, I can use them to lure the rats into an old barn on the outskirts of the village, which can be set alight once they're inside. Of course, I will also be inside the barn when the fires are lit, but I've only had one or two past characters fail to escape the flames, so I'm not too worried about the danger.

When I start playing, hundreds of rats, some of them as big as dogs, emerge from cellars and sewers and advance on me. I lead them to the barn and continue playing until the structure is properly ablaze. Pity I don't think to keep playing until I'm at the foot of the ladder leading to the hayloft, as I get bitten several times while dashing across to it. Still, I make it up the ladder without further trouble, and the barn waits until I've leapt out of it before collapsing.

The elders thank me for my assistance, and one of them comments that there is now some hope for the people of Aryn's Hill. Remembering that name from the story I heard at the Pilgrim's Rest, I ask about the canker from the legend. Tales tell that somewhere around here Gwythain the Protector fought a servant of the god of disease, who had been unleashing plagues of rats and flies upon the world. The villain's crypt is said to be inside the hill on which the village stands.

I decide to investigate the crypt, and the village Tanner leads me to the stone purported to mark the crypt's entrance. A recent cave-in has opened up a tunnel by the stone, so I light my lantern and head inside. A diseased rat at least 1½ metres in length attacks me, but is easily killed.

The tunnel leads to a pair of stone doors, above which is the cheery inscription "All Good souls, do not ye enter here." Two decaying corpses lie on the ground by the doors, but as I approach, the cadavers get up and start shambling towards me. My Faith is strong enough to deter them from attacking, and I get through the doors without encountering further contagion. Beyond is a large cavern, with a slime-covered floor that writhes with giant maggots.

Mind your step!

There's another stone door at the far side, but as I head for it, a swarm of massive Carrier Flies swoops towards me. I manage to fight them off for long enough to get through the door, which leads into the actual crypt.

The first thing I notice about the crypt is the smell, a stench of decomposition strong enough to inflict a Skill penalty as long as I'm in there. At the far end of the crypt is a sarcophagus, containing the Canker: formerly the servant of the dark gods told of in legend, but now a decaying, undead monstrosity barely recognisable as having once been human. Between it and me are more than a dozen Plague Zombies, though only (roll) two of them try to intercept me, and one of them is repelled by my Faith. Thanks to the Skill penalty and some bad rolls, I take a couple of wounds while putting down the one Zombie that actually attacks me.

As the Canker itself moves to the attack, I take the risk of throwing my lantern at it. The monstrosity catches light, but still attacks me. There's a time limit for completing the fight, but in this one I don't lose or draw any rounds, so I'm not even close to running out of time. Killing the Canker causes the remaining Plague Zombies to revert to inanimate corpses, and having flung my light source at the thing proves no obstacle to finding my way back out.

The people of Aryll celebrate upon seeing my return, and invite me to a banquet. I decline, citing the urgency of my quest, so they settle for giving me some food, money, a replacement lantern, and directions to the barrow in which Gwythain was laid to rest along with his magic sword Deliverer. It's guarded by a sect of druids who worship a benign deity.

While visiting the barrow will take me out of my way, I think there's an essential item in there, so I make the necessary detour. Along the way I develop plague symptoms, and am only spared the Canker's posthumous revenge by using the Heal-All I've been taking care not to use before now. This cures the disease and heals most of the damage I've taken since reaching Aryll.

My journey to the barrow takes me through a stone circle. As I'm crossing it, druids surround me and take me to their High Priest, who wears a mask made from a horse's skull. He demands to know why I'm here, so I explain that I wish to enter the barrow. The High Priest tells me I must prove my worthiness, and shows me the carvings on a small stone, challenging me to calculate the Equinox Stone's mystic number. The carvings depict an unfinished Magic Square, though (like the last time FF featured such a puzzle) it doesn't use the numbers 1-9. This puzzle might be considered slightly unfair, as there's nothing to indicate whether the 'correct' answer is the sum of the missing numbers, the total to which any line should add up when the square is complete, or the number by which the digits of a standard Magic Square have been multiplied to create this one. On the one previous occasion that I reached this stage of the adventure, I correctly guessed that it was the third of those possibilities, so I have no trouble getting it right again, but anyone who got themselves sacrificed (well, I'm guessing that that's what happens to anyone who doesn't give the desired answer) as a result of picking one of the other options would have valid grounds for complaint.

The High Priest then sees the Pilgrim's Staff and, rejoicing, grabs it from me. He plants it in the centre of a nearby grove, and it sprouts shoots, rapidly transforming into a bush with white flowers. Handing me one of the blooms, he explains that the staff was made of wood from the rare and sacred Ilithorn. Suppressing the urge to point out that he could have asked for the Staff rather than just snatching it away like that, I proceed to the barrow before he can take an interest in any of my other possessions.

A short distance into the barrow, there's a small hole in the ground. I have to Test my Luck to see if I notice it, which is annoying, as doing so costs me a point of Luck, and even if I were capable of failing the Skill roll that the Unlucky must make to keep from falling in, the damage incurred as a result would be negligible.

Further on is a circular chamber, with scenes from Gwythain's life depicted on the walls, and an axe-wielding undead Barrow Guard blocking the far exit. His axe does extra damage the one time he hits me, but not enough to seriously imperil me. Beyond the archway he guarded, there's an alcove in the tunnel wall, with a coffin in it. A sword is inscribed on the lid, so I open it in case Deliverer is here and the passage onwards is a trap. The coffin contains no sword, nor any corpse, but there is a Golden Sickle and a bunch of herbs in there, so I take them before continuing along the tunnel.

Eventually I reach the burial chamber, which has more biographical murals. On a plinth lies Gwythain's skeleton, wearing silver armour and a silver helmet, and clutching a shield with a golden lion motif. No sword. Someone's pilfered it. Probably the mask-wearing brigand with the magical-looking sword who attacked us on the way to Hallow's Well.

There's an inscription on the plinth, so I read that before I do anything else. It states that his 'weapons of truth shall serve the noble-hearted' (not that the brigand showed any signs of a noble heart), but requests that the armour be left intact. Does the shield count as armour? I'm sure the helmet does, and shall leave that alone, but I'll risk taking the shield, as there must surely be something of use in here. Yep, the shield provides bonuses to Skill and Faith. Better not push my luck, so I leave.

I reach the circular chamber just as the Barrow Guard is getting up again. Not an unexpected development - the sword-thief would have had to get past it as well, so if it were the sort to stay dead, I wouldn't have had any bother from it on the way in. Not that it's much bother now, as it's weaker than it was in the previous battle, and the Skill bonus from the shield allows me to exceed my Initial score.

There's no sign of the druids when I emerge. I decide against returning to Aryll, and head in the direction that should lead to the road west. Along the way I encounter a large Ogre carrying a dead deer. He decides that he'd rather eat human flesh than venison, and I give him a taste of cold steel instead. That spoils his appetite rather permanently, and I reach the road without further incident. Before long it forks, and I shall again pause my narrative and institute a save point, because I'm pretty sure that I'm almost at the point where my previous online attempt at this book came to a nasty end.