Monday, 22 February 2016

He Might Be Dead, He Might Be Not

A while back I mentioned my first passing encounter with the Virtual Reality Adventure gamebooks. Dave Morris' Necklace of Skulls was definitely one of the ones that turned up in the charity shop where I found them, as it was the one that most strongly tempted me to end the 'no gamebooks' phase through which I was going at the time. I didn't give in to the temptation, though, so I only acquired the book several years later, during a brief visit to Manchester. There was (maybe still is) a big subterranean second-hand bookshop not far from the bottom of the hill on which the train station stands, and while I was passing a little spare time in there, a copy of Necklace caught my eye, and I bought it. I had a go at the book on the journey home, my character dying by a process of attrition of Life Points, ultimately expiring from injuries sustained in the course of a rather brutal ball game.

My character in this book is one of the Maya people, named Evening Star. I think this time I'll try one of the pre-generated ones, and I'm going for the Mystic, who has a range of skills that cover a lot of bases. There are still some deficiencies that could cause me problems, but short of cheating and creating a character who massively exceeds the set number of skills, there's nothing I can do to remedy that. Anyway, time to get on with the adventure.

After a troubling dream concerning my brother, Morning Star, I consult the local soothsayer, who interprets the dream as a reminder that I must carry out my brother's duties while he is away on ambassadorial duties (though he admits that his 'prophecies' are based more on observation and inference than any supernatural insight). My concerns persist, the unusually strong bond I have with my brother convincing me that the dream signifies some ill which has befallen him. It thus comes as no great surprise when I hear that one member of Morning Star's expedition has returned, bearing bad news.

I hurry to the meeting being held by the Council of Nobles. Though I am not a member, the guards let me in on account of my being related to Morning Star. I arrive just in time to hear the returned warrior tell of how the Great City to which they had travelled had been ransacked by an army of werewolves. Morning Star led his expedition into the desert from which the werewolves had come, and they had eventually found a seemingly derelict palace. Informed in a dream that the palace was the dwelling of a sorcerer named Necklace of Skulls, Morning Star entered it to try and learn if Necklace of Skulls had sent the werewolves. He never emerged. After waiting for eight days, the rest of the expedition decided to come back here to report what they knew, but only the one now speaking survived the desert crossing.

The King announces that Morning Star must be assumed dead. I decide not to take it for granted. Of course, the only way of finding out for sure would be to cross the desert, find the palace, and check with Necklace of Skulls. Which isn't going to be easy. But family is family...

I meet with the clan Matriarch to seek permission to go off in search of my brother, speaking of my duty to rescue or avenge him. She asks about my duty to the rest of the clan, and I'm not sure that either of the answers I may give are particularly satisfactory, so I say nothing. A nothing that turns out to be over 50 words long, which suggests that politics might be the ideal arena for me. The Matriarch notes that I am as impetuous as my late father and my possibly late brother: a heroic characteristic, but one that could drastically curb my life expectancy.

Resignedly, she grants permission and hands me a letter to take to a distant cousin named Midnight Bloom in the coastal town of Balak. Midnight Bloom, being involved in coastal trade, will be able to arrange a sea crossing to Tahil, the port closest to the desert.

Now authorised to go on this quest, I head to the market to equip myself for it. The rugs on which the traders display their wares are colour coded to indicate the type of goods they sell. I'd better make a note of what each colour signifies, in case there's a test later on. Owing to the lateness of the hour, many traders have already finished for the day, but my funds will only just cover all the potentially useful items still available. Do I buy the lot and hope not to incur any further expense before I get fresh funds, or do without an item or two so as to have a little currency left? And if the latter, what not to buy? Two of the items on the list aren't as obviously useful as the rest, but gamebooks being gamebooks, it could turn out that I'll need chilli peppers and dye more than, say, a rope. Actually, the Skill of Agility (which I have) might substitute for a rope (at least as a climbing aid, though less so if I need to tie something or someone up), so I'll go with that: buy the waterskin, the firebrand, the dye and the peppers, and leave myself a few cacao to cover unexpected financial demands.

I set off before sunrise the following day, adding to my possessions a parcel of maize cakes prepared by my aunts. The soothsayer turns up to wish me well and give me a jade bead, which can be used as currency if I decide to try travelling through the underworld on my way to Necklace of Skulls. That's a little annoying, as there's a limit to how many items I can carry, and the bead (which I have to take) pushes me over it. Besides, having had my second attempt at this book end quite rapidly as a consequence of attempting the underworld path, I wasn't planning on going that way again. I suppose I'll have to leave the dye.

As I set off, I point out to the soothsayer that his interpretation of my dream turns out not to have been that accurate (and by now I seem to have come to the conclusion that Morning Star is dead after all). He replies that the world isn't as simple as 'right' and 'wrong'. Is that just spin, or a hint that the reality in which this adventure is set is on the malleable side? Either way, I need to get going, so I leave the city, wondering if I'll ever see it again.

The causeway to Yashuna (a town on the way to Balak) passes fields and orchards. The sight of the peasant workers labouring amidst the cotton plants makes my character feel thirsty (oh, the hardship!), and I reach up to help myself to a papaya from an overhanging tree. I happen to grab one that has a tarantula on it, but my Wilderness Lore skill enables me to avoid any unpleasantness. From the spider, at least. But my actions have attracted the attention of an elderly peasant, who seems displeased. Etiquette is one of the Skills I lack, but running away is probably a more serious gaffe than anything I could say in my ignorance, so I wait to see what the man has to say.

Recognising that I'm one of the nobility, the peasant has to guard his words. He offers to sell me a papaya, halving the price when I complain about the tree being 'infested with poisonous spiders'. Still no sale, because I'd have to add the papaya to my inventory, which would mean discarding another item, and I doubt that lack of a papaya is likely to guarantee my failure at a later stage of the adventure.

Continuing on my way, I see a group of children taking an interest in a plum tree, though they show more caution than I did when approaching the fruit. I could give them my maize cakes, but they seem to know what they're doing, so I might learn something by watching them. And that's pretty much a non-encounter.

The next day, I reach Yashuna. There's a market on, but surprisingly few customers at it. My inventory is still full, but I'll check the stalls just in case there's anything that looks more worth having than one of the items I carry. I see a couple of things that could be of use in certain circumstances, and note that the items this place has in common with the other market are cheaper, but make no purchases.

A fisherman complains about finding no buyers, and I point out that his wares are past their prime. Offended, he tries to sell me a lobster pot. He also complains about not having had any decent bread for days, so I could try to see if he has anything good to trade for the maize cakes. Only a parcel of salt, but I could easily name a couple of gamebooks with authorial input from Dave Morris in which salt is a handy thing to have at one point, so I agree.

Now I head north, partly because that's the way to Balak, and partly out of curiosity: most of the locals appear to be heading that way, and I wonder what the big attraction is. They're gathering at the sacred well of Yashuna, a vast sinkhole that apparently leads to the underworld, in preparation for a sacrifice that they hope will placate the rain god. I don't have the item that would enable me to join the young couple who are to have the honour of throwing themselves into the well, so I hurry on to the north, in no mood to see anyone embrace death. That jade bead can almost certainly be dispensed with now.

I reach Balak without further incident, and seek out Midnight Bloom. She's due to sail to Tahil in a week, and agrees to take me with her. If I'd sustained any injuries along the way, they would heal during the week I spend waiting for the ship to be made ready. This is also where I get my first codeword, an unfamiliar term which a quick google reveals to be the word for a Mayan causeway like the ones on which I came here.

We set sail on a rather poetically described morning, and it's a smooth journey until evening, at which point a storm sends us way off course. We wind up close to the 'fabled' Isle of the Iguana (and right now it would probably be very handy to know the relevant fables with which my character is familiar). The ship is damaged, so we need to land to make repairs, and I get another codeword. Another Mayan term for a road, as it turns out.

On the island we meet an old man, wearing the tattered remnants of clothing that denotes someone wealthy and important. He introduces himself as the wizard Jade Thunder, who overcame his arch-rival here, but has been stranded ever since, as his wand was sealed behind a barrier of flame by his dying opponent. He shows me where it is: a beach that shows signs of the fallout from the wizards' magical battle, where twisted trees bear grim-faced coconuts that stare at the multicoloured sands. There are two Skills and an item that could be used to recover the wand, and I have none of them, so I must either walk through the green wall of fire or decline to assist Jade Thunder. Dare I risk it? The assistance of a powerful wizard could come in handy.

I walk through the fire, and my Skill of Charms significantly reduces the damage I suffer. Jade Thunder eagerly seizes the wand, and I have a section transition in which to wonder if I've just aided an evil wizard. Apparently not. He just creates a magical path across the sea (which only he can use), and advises me to sail south to the mainland, where the giant who's buried up to his neck will grant me one wish if I tell him how many stars there are, as he's been trying to count them since the dawn of time. Jade Thunder does also let me know the answer, and when I return to see how the repairs to the ship are going, I find that we now have a much more sturdy vessel with enchanted sails.

When I ask Midnight Bloom about the possibility of making a detour to the south, she agrees because of the business opportunities it would provide. She doesn't want to hang around for long, though, so I'll have to find the giant quite quickly. Which automatically happens in the next section. The subsequent encounter has a touch of humour (now he knows the right number, the giant is left with the perhaps tougher question of why he felt the need to count the stars in the first place), but I do get my wish. Within certain limits - I can get health, wealth or advice. Advice is probably the best thing to get here. Or maybe not, as the giant advises me to buy a waterskin. Done it already. He also tells me to invest in a sword or a knife, explains the best strategy for using such a weapon against the four-headed serpent that dwells in the desert, and reveals how killing it rather than simply avoiding it could help me against Necklace of Skulls. I ask how to kill Necklace of Skulls, and he tells me that being greater than my enemy will be more of a triumph than mere revenge would. Thanks, I think.

Before extricating himself from the sand and strolling off into the sea, the giant coughs up my brother's skull, explaining that its proper place is with me, and he's just acting as the instrument of destiny to ensure that I get it. Well, I guess that definitively answers the question of whether or not Morning Star is dead. And as I gave the letter to Midnight Bloom, I can take the skull without having to discard another item.

I rejoin Midnight Bloom, and we travel on to Tahil. The harbour is crowded with refugees, and no sooner have we pulled in at the quay than an arrogant nobleman commandeers the ship. I'm not pleased about that (and I imagine Midnight Bloom is even less so), but I have none of the Skills that could be used to make him change his mind. So I don't like it, but I'll have to go along with it.

The last town between Tahil and the desert is Shakalla. It takes me weeks to get there, but Wilderness Lore enables me to complete the journey without weakening. I arrive around midday, finding that the remaining inhabitants are sheltering from the sun's heat. A dog lies in the shade cast by a shop's awning. Hope this shop sells knives... It does. I discard that bead to make space for one. Now, if Wilderness Lore acts as a substitute for a waterskin in the desert (as it has between Tahil and Shakalla), it might be an idea to ditch the water in favour of a blanket. If it only reduces dehydration-based damage... Maybe the firebrand will suffice against any cold I encounter. And I'm going to need an inventory slot for once I've dealt with the serpent. Okay, hang onto the water, and by the time I've encountered the serpent, I should know whether or not I need it. If I do, I'll just have to hope that I won't need the knife again.

The west exit from the town is a tunnel through the surrounding wall. Graffiti depicts a man with scorpion-like claws and tail, and a four-headed dragon (the serpent, depicted with a bit of poetic license?). There are guards at the end of the tunnel, surprised to see someone coming through the Gate of Exiles. Wonder if they'll let me through if I have to come back this way after dealing with Necklace of Skulls.

Emerging from the tunnel, I stare across the desert. A very short path leads to a boulder. I ask the guards about it, and they explain that it's for protection against the dust demons, which stir up whirlwinds and set them on desert travellers. They can only travel in straight lines, though, so a single boulder in line with the tunnel mouth is enough to keep the demons from devastating Shakalla.

Wilderness Lore helps me work out the best times for travel and shelter, and provides me with a means for conserving water. Its effectiveness is limited, though, and I eventually use up the water (looking on the bright side, I can keep the knife). Cliffs rise up, enclosing me until I find a point where I can scale them. Not long after I reach the top, I see half a dozen whirlwinds converging on me. I don't have either of the Skills I could use here, so I need to work out which of the two unpromising options left to me is more likely to let me use the knowledge gained from those guards. Will 'stand ready to fight' give me a chance to leap aside at the right moment? Can I pick a tangent with which none of the whirlwinds' paths will intersect if I turn and flee? I risk the latter, and realise the clue I'd missed: clifftops are very handy for dealing with attackers that can't turn aside. As the dust demons plunge over the edge, I cannot resist an anachronistic, "Beep beep!"

Either there's more than one route through the desert in this book, or I've found one of the 'glitches' to which Dave Morris referred when I thought I'd be playing this book 2 years ago: just a few sections after being told that I'd emptied my waterskin and had to throw it away, guess what I'm being asked if I have? (Incidentally, apologies for taking so much longer than planned to get to this playthrough, Dave.)

Recognising signs of dehydration, I realise that I'm going to have to try and get water from a desert plant. There are three different varieties in sight, but Wilderness Lore saves me from having to guess (and my readers from having to endure a cheesy Blind Date parody as I list the candidates). I still lose 1 Life, as the one plant that can help can only do so much, but I got off lightly (and possibly avoided some potentially life-threatening hallucinations).

By now I can't be far from the palace where my brother met his end. Pressing on, I crest a dune to see a warrior confronting the four-headed serpent. I know better than to sneak past while they're distracting each other, and the only way of joining in runs contrary to the giant's advice, so I'm afraid I shall have to watch the warrior get shredded before demonstrating to his torch-bearer the correct strategy for fighting the serpent.

The warrior isn't completely clueless, but he's not smart enough, and loses his head just before he can strike a killing blow. I charge down the dune, and the serpent emits four snarls. For a while I dodge out of the way of its attacks, and eventually it loses its temper and just charges at me headslong, providing the perfect opportunity for me to strike at its weak spot with my knife. In this instance, one head is better than four.

A drop of the creature's blood congeals into a sphere, much like a rubber ball, which I take. The dead warrior's servant pleads with me to restore his master to life, but that is beyond my capabilities. He accompanies me away from the corpses, and after almost a day he asks if he is to be my servant now. I tell him he's a free man, and he says that if he'd known that, he'd have taken his late master's waterskin. Another waterskin check follows, and again Wilderness Lore reduces the damage I take. Even so, I'm down to half my Life, and anticipating an ending similar to that of my first try at the book.

At last we reach the palace. Double doors open to admit me, and we are confronted by a large group of vaguely canine-seeming men with stone axes, who warn me that I won't get to see their master unless I spend five nights with his courtiers. I ask about my brother, and they suggest that I might meet him in a while. The servant is then dragged off to a nearby group of buildings, and the chief courtier tells me that I must choose a route to their compound.

Four archways lead to the next courtyard. One leads (via steps designed to prevent a running jump) to a pit of smoking coals. The next is the mouth of a tunnel blocked by a confused mess of wooden beams, some of which are holding up the walls. I'd need to remove some beams to get through, but taking the wrong one is liable to cause a cave-in. Sort of Extreme Jenga. The third opens onto a vault containing no obstacles, but with inscriptions denoting calamity and catastrophe on the lintels. Psychological warfare, or warning signs? The last one is guarded by the chief courtier's 'second cousin twice removed', an ill-tempered albino hound.

I have to find out what the catch is with the third one. After a couple of steps, the lintel overhead creaks, and dust falls from the roof. I have both of the Skills that could help here, though, and with the help of Charms I make it through the vault without having anything fall on me. The courtiers are displeased, and one of them makes the mistake of looking into the vault, which promptly collapses on him.

The courtyard I am in now leads to a massive gateway constructed from human bones. The chief courtier tells me I'll wind up part of it before long. Closer to me are five windowless buildings, which the chief courtier identifies as the Five Houses of Destiny. If I survive a night in each of them, the gate will open and I will get my audience with Necklace of Skulls.

The first of these is the House of Fire, which contains a channel full of smouldering charcoal, lined with stones that glow with heat. A night spent in its stifling heat further depletes my Life Points. In the morning I notice a lump of charcoal that must have fallen from the channel, and spot that one of the stones (no longer red hot, but still warm) is loose. It's not clear whether these constitute one item or two: if the latter, I risk dropping the knife in order to take the stone, otherwise I'll have both.

Next is the House of Bats. Vampire Bats, predictably. I have no means of repelling them, and end the night in a slightly anaemic state. Not dead, though, so I get to spend the next night in the House of Knives, obsidian blades that come to life as the sun sets. Crouching in a corner, I use the stone from the House of Fire to shield myself from the knives' attacks. Over the course of the night, the stone gets chipped away to nothing, but it keeps me from taking any damage, much to the disgust of the courtiers.

The House of Cold follows. At last that firebrand proves to have been worth getting. The heat it gives off, and the natural resilience that comes with Wilderness Lore, enable me to get through another night without further loss of Life. However, increasingly peeved at my continued survival, the chief courtier declares the use of items to be cheating, and confiscates my travelling pack for the duration of my stay in the final House.

This is the House of Gloom, which contains the graves of the courtiers' ancestors. I am provided with a short candle. As long as it remains alight, the ancestors' ghosts will leave me alone. A candle that size could last for up to an hour - but an inconvenient draught blows it out even sooner, ending my run of unscathed nights. Even so, I survive, earning the respect of the courtiers and the chance to meet Necklace of Skulls.

Beyond the gate is an avenue, with a black pyramid at the far end. The courtiers climb steps to the tops of the side walls, and I realise that this avenue is designed like the arena in which my people's sacred ball game is played. From inside the shrine atop the pyramid, Necklace of Skulls announces that it is time for the game to start. He also tells me that my brother played it before me, and lost, so his life was forfeit.

Two shadows gain substance. They are to be my opponents. As two against one would be unfair, my brother's ghost is summoned to play alongside me, and I get a codeword that isn't a Mayan thoroughfare.

The ghost has to shield his eyes against the sun, which puts us at an immediate disadvantage, as players are only allowed to hit the ball with wrists, elbows and knees. Points are scored by hitting scoring zones on the walls, and instantaneous victory can be achieved by getting the ball through one of the vertical hoops on the walls. And the game is also a contact sport, with bone-breaking tackles permitted. As I recall, the shadowy origins of my opponents don't keep them from hitting hard.

Game on. We have the first serve. One of the shadow men charges at me, and I dodge, my Agility keeping me from losing half my remaining Life to what would be a foul under normal rules. My brother's inability to use both arms keeps him from getting the ball to me, and team shadow score their first point. Now they have the serve, and I risk trying to tackle their attacker. It hurts me more than him, and but for Agility, I'd be dead. The shadows get two points this time. The target score is seven.

Our serve again. I have to take a long shot. It scores us two points, but gives the shadows possession. They manage to get the ball through a hoop. We lose. Necklace of Skulls atomises my partner, and howls with fury. The courtiers transform into wild dogs, and flee. Necklace of Skulls absorbs the shadows back into himself, and the shrine splits to reveal my nemesis: a grey-skinned humanoid twice the height of a normal man, with too many joints in his limbs, wearing a robe of flayed human skin. Round his neck hangs the accessory after which he is named, the skulls still blood-spattered, and with eyes still in the sockets.

This is the first chance I've had all book to use Targeting and my blowgun. It's not likely to work, but the only alternative is melee, and I'm on my last Life Point. I get him between the eyes with a dart: a mortal wound against a normal opponent, but only painful to him. He retaliates with a blast of fire, and while it only grazes me, that's still enough to end my life.

Oh, well, I lasted slightly longer than on my previous best try. Next time it might be worth customising a character. Wilderness Lore is too good to do without, but none of the sample characters has it alongside Spells, which seemed to be a viable option much more often than any of the other Skills I lacked (and most of the ones I had).


  1. A great write-up, Ed. I always enjoy them, but especially when you're playing one of my own books. (I like to think that's not a symptom of narcissistic personality disorder so much as the natural curiosity of an author to see how one's work is seen by others.)

    That waterskin point isn't in fact a glitch. There's a whole other route to the western desert via... Well, maybe I shouldn't give any spoilers. More of a mythic journey, let's say. I'm not saying there aren't other glitches, mind you - each time I revisit those old flowcharts I'll usually find one or two lurking there.

  2. I don't see why you can't buy more than one waterskin before venturing into the desert. Anyway, if you had remembered that virtue is its own reward (especially when dealing with stone giants), then you would have achieved a victory there, although not the best one.

    I sometimes forego the giant's best reward just to give a bigger challenge (like playing book 2 with no skills at all), but other times I try to get the most emphatic victory possible. It shows the strength of the Virtual Reality books that I play them (or some of them, at least) many more times than most other series.