Wednesday, 17 February 2016

I Didn't Wanna Be This Late

When describing how I first acquired a copy of Spellbreaker, I mentioned that I bought another FF book at the same time. That book was Deathmoor, Robin Waterfield's fourth and final contribution to the series. While its 'rescue the Princess' plot was never going to win many prizes for originality, the relatively small stakes involved made it look like a refreshing change from the likes of 'save the world again', 'save the world yet again', 'save the world once more' and 'look, stop me if you've heard this one before, but the world needs saving, and you appear to be the best candidate for the job'. Plus, the fact that the quest had already been given to someone else looked as if it could be an inventive twist. Okay, those of you who know Deathmoor can stop laughing now.

My first attempt at the book proved one of my more rapid failures: having slightly skim-read the Background section, I'd failed to pick up on the indication that taking matters into my own hands the wrong way would result in the decapitation of the Princess. In view of discoveries made on a subsequent attempt at the book, the potentially world-threatening implications (sigh!) of acceding to the kidnappers' demands could be seen as making her death a better outcome than most. But that would have been scant consolation to her or her parents, not to mention making for even more unimpressive an adventure than the one that is to be had by making the right decisions.

So, a Princess has been kidnapped. More specifically, Princess Telessa of Arion, who may be related to the hero of one of Robin Waterfield's previous FF books, and has the same name as the sword wielded by the hero of another. Upon learning of what had happened, her parents summoned an assortment of adventurers. Regrettably, I was overseas (in the islands where a couple of non-Waterfield-authored books were set) at the time, and a less-than-smooth crossing delayed my arrival long enough for the increasingly desperate King to award the quest to the unscrupulous adventurer Fang-zen of Jitar, with whom I have evidently had the odd run-in before now.

Apparently Fang-zen was the best available candidate at the time. He's not as good as I am (one of the book's neater gimmicks ensures this), but could still have reasonably impressive stats, as mine are:
Skill 11
Stamina 16
Luck 11
I would have allocated dice, but that's how they fell in any case.

Still, the relative competence of our characters is irrelevant right now, as Fang-zen has the King's letter to the kidnappers, and without that, I can do nothing to help Telessa. Depressed, I wind up in a seedy dockside bar, overhearing fragmentary dialogue, some of which will turn out to be relevant to the adventure.

Seeking a better seat, I spot several other adventurers, most of them drowning their sorrows after losing out to Fang-zen. He’s there too, celebrating having got the quest, so I quietly intimidate one of his cronies into vacating a chair. Catching sight of me, Fang-zen taunts me with sub-playground insults, and my attempts at witty riposte are equally pathetic. It’s almost painful to read such appalling dialogue, and there’s really no reason why the mockery needs to be so feeble. I know the book was brought out by a children’s publisher, but so was Talisman of Death, which includes some serious rudeness without stooping to ‘adult’ language (if you own a copy, see section 11 for a particularly blistering example).

Fang-zen is thin-skinned enough that even my insipid invective is enough to provoke him. I then challenge him to a game of pinfinger, which he accepts. Once we get started, I try to psych him out by looking him in the eye rather than concentrating on the blade that I’m rapidly jabbing into the gaps between my splayed fingers. I only just make the Skill roll that determines the outcome of the game, but ‘only just’ is good enough, and I remain uninjured while Fang-zen blunders and stabs himself in the hand. I ask for my winnings, and he admits to having no money. There’s not much behaviour that could offend his associates, but failing to cover a bet will do it, and the only way he can avoid a serious beating from his friends is to give me the King’s letter.

Now that the quest is mine, I head for the exit, the impressed crowd parting to let me through. The barman beckons to me, and I go to see what he has to say, thereby hearing the important bit of his parting words to the man with whom he had been conversing. He demands compensation for the damage done to his tabletop by our game, and I tell him he can stick his furniture bill up his nose (or some equally unimpressive put-down).

There are other useful or essential items to be found in Arion, but staying any longer automatically means seeking out another pub on the grounds that 'you may as well carry on drinking, now that you've started!' Makes a bit of a change from the warnings to drink responsibly that appear on almost everything alcohol-related these days.

There are two more establishments nearby, 'The Bushel' and 'Elfbane Bar', and if I don't go to the right one, I'll miss out on something important. The last time I wrote up an attempt at this book, I chose poorly, but didn’t leave myself or other readers any clues as to where I should have gone. Mind you, that is in keeping with the tone of this part of Deathmoor, which instructs anyone who didn’t get the letter to give up, thereby denying them the opportunity to use their sure-to-fail character to explore and get some hints of what to do and what not to do during future attempts at the book.

The pub I choose this time has an entry fee. I don't remember having to pay last time, so either my memory's letting me down, or I'm on the right track today. I pay up and go in, and yes, this is where I need to be. Among the patrons of this bar are a couple of dodgy characters out on the town with their girlfriends and half-troll bodyguards, and clearly displeased that the City Guard have some questions for them. The one called Oiram states that they're plumbers, not criminals, and his associate Igiul (read their names backwards for a pointless in-joke) backs him up, and states that they can't be anything to do with the murder under investigation, as they've been here all night.

Not yet having killed anyone in this adventure, I'm confident that the murder is nothing to do with me, so I ask one of the guards what's afoot. He explains that a business rival of the 'plumbers' was fatally trampled by a horse, and the only clue to the identity of whoever was responsible for the trampling is part of a torn handkerchief in the dead man's hand. I must now suggest the name of a suspect, regardless of whether or not I have the faintest idea of who could be to blame. The book provides half a dozen names from which to pick, the red herrings including the name of the bar across the road, a planet from a 1960's Doctor Who story, and Dangermouse's assistant.

Now, while there is a torn hanky to be seen in one of the illustrations in this book, it's not at all obvious that that's what the item depicted is. Consequently, the clue's really only likely to be of any use to a reader who learned of the crime on a previous attempt at the book, and is on the look-out for anything that might be the remnants of a handkerchief. The first time I got this far, I was only able to point the guard to the right person because, having had to piece the character's name together from two separate snatches of overheard dialogue, I figured there must be a reason it was only possible to find out the man’s name in that manner.

The man I name is known to the City Guard, and often does work for the ‘plumbers’, so the guard thinks I may be on to something (which makes me wonder why the guards never thought to suspect him on their own). The guard tells me to come to his office tomorrow to see if my tip has led to an arrest.

After that I can go to the other pub (wonder if that’s still an option for anyone who accused it of being the killer) or call it a night. Might as well check it out. I don’t think there’s anything vital to be gained there, but there is something potentially useful.

Some geese fly overhead as I approach the bar. Not an incidental detail I remember leading to anything, but I’m mentioning it in case that overheard-in-bits name isn’t the only not-so-throw-away trivia in the book. The landlord of this other place is a taciturn chap, not even speaking as he uses a broom to expel an old woman who enters seeking buyers for her ‘lucky heather’. As I recall, the best way of getting good fortune at this juncture is to ignore the woman and make use of the tavern’s gambling facilities. Yes, I automatically win here, and need only use a die to determine how much money I gain. Not enough to be in danger of having any thugs come after me in search of a handout, on this occasion.

Returning to my boat, I settle down for the night, but have my rest disturbed by a couple of visitors. Back before the start of this adventure, when I was overseas, I was diving for pearls, and I got one before receiving the message that my services were required here. Only it turns out that that pearl was sacred to the Pelagines, an amphibious species native to that part of the world, and a couple of them have swum after me to retrieve it and poke a number of holes in me with their tridents. Their scaly hides reduce the damage I can inflict while defending myself from them, but I still prevail.

In the morning I call in at the guardsman's office, and he tells me that the resident torturer elicited a confession from the man I suggested might have committed that murder, so I can have a reward: gold, a shield, or a Truthstone. I choose the Truthstone, which can be used to compel one intelligent being to tell the truth. And the guards chose to use a torturer rather than a Truthstone to get that confession because...? I'd love it if, the next time Fighting Fantazine features a mini-adventure set on this continent, one of the illustrations could include a tattered 'Free the Arion Three' poster pinned up somewhere in the background.

Next I head to the market, where I spend around three quarters of my money (the text advises me to retain a bit) on items that may be useful or just random clutter. Then I stroll down to the docks for a good gossip. It's almost time for the fishermen to set sail, but I can ask them one question before they leave. Most of the questions I have the option of asking seem tangential to my mission at best, so I go with the one that could be relevant: do they know anything about the kidnapping? Heck, asking some random stranger appeared to work out for that guard last night, so...

One of the fishermen advises me to see Baron den Snau (whose name I also overheard at the first pub last night), as he tends to be involved in any evil shenanigans afoot in this part of the world. I wonder if that includes the murder I helped 'solve'. Regardless, I obtain directions to the Baron's mansion, and then wait until near sundown before heading off to see if he is able to shed any light on the matter. Along the way I encounter a pack of Gutterlags, scavengers that usually seek their food in the town's sewers, but which aren't averse to attacking live prey if they outnumber it sufficiently. The ratio of Gutterlags to adventurers-en-route-to-the-Baron's is more than enough to embolden them, but I manage not to take lethal damage while changing the ratio in my favour.

The mansion has a high wall around it. Trying to sneak in may be unwise: villains with poor security systems tend not to last long enough to gain the sort of notoriety that the Baron has. Instead, I go straight to the front gate. The porter, who may be an Orc, asks if I have an appointment. Rather than risk getting caught in a lie, I offer him gold to let me in, and he accepts. Given the way things were priced at the market, and the warning not to spend everything, it is unlikely that a player would not have the amount specified for the bribe, but it is still possible, so the lack of any 'if you don't have that much money' option is a bit careless.

Now I'm in the grounds, sneaking is probably not so inadvisable, so I take a side path rather than heading straight for the front door. It leads to a shrubbery that appears to be occupied by something large, so I change my mind and backtrack. For once I manage not to attract any attention while doing so, and get to enter the mansion unnoticed. Nevertheless, the Baron is there, waiting for me on a flight of stairs. Maybe the gatekeeper somehow alerted him to my arrival.

The Baron asks what I want, and my reply suggests that the dialogue in the opening sequence of The Prisoner (original version, not the regrettable remake) is such a powerful meme that it can even influence people in realities where the show was never broadcast. On a reckless whim, I charge up the stairs at the Baron, and a lucky roll ensures that I leap over the booby-trapped step. Having expected to see me fall victim to the trap I inadvertently avoided, the Baron has done nothing to protect himself, and I wind up accidentally headbutting him in the stomach. He leaps to the floor below, drawing a sword, and I do likewise.

This fight is what killed me on my previous attempt at Deathmoor: the Baron's sword is poisoned, and if he hits me twice, I'm doomed. Despite having a higher Skill than last time, I cannot bank on a more favourable outcome, as the Baron's Skill is identical to that of the Pelagine that inflicted two wounds on me yesterday. Nor does my already having hurt him slightly help, as the Stamina loss he suffered is too low to reduce the number of rounds I must win to defeat him. Still, I do better in this fight, mortally wounding him before he can land a single blow.

I could leave without interrogating the dying Baron, but that would render this whole excursion a waste of time. Still, I'm not sure that this is the best occasion on which to use the Truthstone. Kicking the Baron's sword out of reach, I ask him what he knows about the kidnapping, and he admits to having arranged it for Arachnos, who now holds the Princess beneath Deathmoor. The Baron adds that he's glad to have told me this, because he's certain that going there will get me killed. Then, just in case he's wrong, he uses his dying breath to summon a big flock of giant vampire bats.

Recognising that this is one fight I'm not likely to win, I beat a hurried retreat. The gate is locked, but the porter isn't yet aware that he's joining the ranks of the unemployed, and while he dawdles over letting me out, he does so merely because I appear to be in a hurry.

As I head away, I reflect on the Baron's revelations. I know of Arachnos. The text makes out that he's smarter than most villains, but it doesn't really take a Moriarty to come up with a plan of action like his, which pretty much boils down to:
  1. Carry out evil money-making scheme.
  2. Use money to fund new evil money-making scheme.
  3. Repeat steps 1 & 2 until WORLD DOMINATION!!!!!
Still, I've achieved all that I can in Arion, so it's time to take the King's letter west until I am contacted by Arachnos' agents. And this seems like a good point at which to pause the narrative and conclude this post. If things go well enough (or badly enough, in-game), I might be able to post the next instalment before the end of the week. If not, I will at least try to get it done this month.

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