Friday, 26 February 2016

This Place Is Neither Safe Nor Sound

Back when I played the tenth official Tunnels & Trolls solo adventure, Sorcerer Solitaire, I mentioned that a revised version of the adventure had appeared in the 24th and final volume of the series. While the original was written by Walker Vaning, the rewrite is attributed to James L. Walker, and dedicated to the original author. I think it’s time to see how the two versions compare. Mind you, given that the original version is one of the very few T&T solos that I survived, I can’t help but wonder if the reason it got a revised edition was to make it more lethal...

Looking at the introduction to the New Edition, I see that it could be treated as a follow-up to When the Cat’s Away, the first adventure in the book that contains it. In WtCA, I played an apprentice wizard, while the viewpoint character in SS(NE) has just completed an apprenticeship, and is about to be sent on a Quest to mark their ascension to journeyman mage status. All right, so the apprentice was training under Servald, and had a none-too-friendly relationship with him, while the journeyman’s Master is referred to as the Aged One, and they’re on more friendly terms. Nothing that can’t be explained away, though: there were indications that the decidedly antagonistic relationship between the apprentice and Servald’s pet ferrid had improved by the end of WtCA, which could be enough to help Master and apprentice start getting on better. And maybe the apprentice discovered that ‘the Aged One’ is how the ferrid thinks of its master (the creature does have some telepathic ability), and decided to start using it as a nickname for the Wizard.

Anyway, I’m playing as the same character because I need to level someone up sooner or later, and this is the only experienced character I have who fits the background at all well. The Aged One explains my Quest: Vaning Manor has been abandoned for 50 years. Not long after it was constructed, a strange malaise killed the last Lord Vaning, his wife, and their servants. More recently, Princess Nanus disappeared in the vicinity of the Manor, and the Aged One suspects that whatever evil infested the Manor is growing in strength. I must find out what is going on there, take what steps I can to stop it, and if possible rescue the Princess.

Kessel Joris, a local hunter, takes me close to the Manor, but will go no further because of the place’s reputation. It is at least as unpleasant a night as the one on which the original Sorcerer Solitaire was set. I make my way to the front door, which is secured by a padlock. This time I don’t even get to choose whether or not to cast Knock Knock, though I do get to choose whether or not I want to enter the Manor after being forced to spend Strength to open the door.

No point in loitering outside. The door still creaks, and slams behind me, the foyer has the same number and kind of exits as before, and there is again a glowing skull on a pedestal. I decide to investigate the skull, and that’s where things start to get different. In the old adventure, the skull’s effect was largely benign. Here it’s painful and random, and shatters the skull rather than charring it. When the agony ends, I discover that I’ve gained fangs and a prehensile tail. This significantly diminishes my Charisma, but I do gain a bite attack and the ability to (rather clumsily) carry more stuff.

As I head for an exit, the text rather casually reveals that the skull was made of crystal. I’m not going to leave this room by the exit I chose when playing the original version of the adventure. If the encounters to be had through that door are largely unchanged, I’m just going to wind up briefly rehashing what I wrote last time, and then dying because this character doesn’t have the stats to make an Oh Go Away spell work on the soulsucker. Going left may well get me killed anyway, but at least I’ll be dying in new circumstances.

I step onto a particularly rotten patch of floor, and fall through into the basement. Dust and debris break my fall, keeping me from taking any damage, but there’s no immediate way of getting back up. There is a passage leading away, though. It’s poorly lit, but I can make out what could be rats scurrying away, and bones on the floor. Possibly human bones. It gets cold and dark, and something approaches with a growl. It’s not very clear from the text, but I think a Will-o-wisp spell won’t work here, though I could try the significantly more costly Oh There It Is to see if there’s anything invisible or concealed down here.

I can’t afford to expend that much Strength. Rummaging around in the near-dark is probably not a good idea, so I’ll risk approaching whatever is growling. As I get closer, I become aware of an unpleasant smell, which I suddenly recognise as the stink of a Troll. For some reason I’m only allowed to cast defensive spells at this point, and as the rules have never categorised spells beyond specifying what level they are, an element of subjectivity creeps in. A sneaky peek at the Magic Matrix  (which has been added for the New Edition) reveals that, in Mr. Walker’s eyes, Oh Go Away (which can scare away opponents) is not a defensive spell, but Vorpal Blade (which temporarily increases the damage done by edged weapons) is. I briefly thought the 50-foot range of OGA might be the reason for its unavailability here, but the paragraph states that I am ‘only a few feet’ from the Troll, so this is just a disagreement over how defensive ‘make the monster not want to attack me’ is compared to ‘increase the effectiveness of daggers’.

As I get even closer, I am horrified by what I see. No, not the Troll that practically blocks the passage: repeated use of ‘it’s’ where the text should say ‘its’. A quick comparison with the original version reveals that this encounter was there before, but the error has been specially introduced for the New Edition. Still, it is only bad grammar, and thus not as bad as some of the blunders I’ve seen in certain other reissued gamebooks.

A Troll like that is unlikely to be affected by OGA, or killed by my one blasting spell (Take That, You Fiend), and a physical assault would have no chance. Can I outwit the brute instead of outfighting it? Alas, my Charisma is too low for the Troll to consider it worthwhile listening to me, though he doesn’t consider me too ugly to eat.

The Troll attacks, and things get a bit messy. In terms of game mechanics, rather than regarding my fate (well, probably both, actually). The rules state that OGA can only be cast before the target’s stats are revealed, so now the text has given the Troll’s Monster Rating, it should be too late to cast the spell. But the Magic Matrix says that now I can cast it. Not that it’ll work, as my reduced Charisma brings the total of my relevant stats to just below what they’d need to be to affect the Troll. Literally one point short of target. Still, as I intended to cast it back when I should have been allowed to, I’m going to turn to the relevant section anyway. An unsuccessful OGA spell causes the target to focus more intently on the caster, so I may as well find out if my failure would have got me killed any more severely than I’m going to be anyway.

It turns out that the author hadn’t forgotten the limitations on casting the spell. The option for casting it even after seeing the Troll’s stats was to reflect an aspect of the creature’s psychology: this Troll is a bully and a coward, as a result of which the effectiveness of the spell is doubled. So I guess that, rather than failing by the narrowest possible margin, I actually succeed quite decisively, causing the Troll to scream loudly and run away, whimpering and blubbering about the nasty human that won’t let him eat it. I’d better not get cocky, though. That spell had a not insignificant Strength cost, so until I can get some good rest, I’m in a pretty flimsy condition.

In fact, the section to which I am directed as a consequence of not dying in the fight tells me I’ve killed the Troll, so I guess I scared it so much, its heart stopped. Comparing the texts, I see that in the original version the Troll did just run away if OGA was used effectively against it, but it dropped its treasure as it did so. But it wasn’t such a coward in the first version, so I’d probably be dead by now if I were playing the earlier account of the encounter. Oh, and that treasure’s become decidedly unimpressive: an assortment of copper coins and a piece of quartz, with a combined value of almost half a gold piece (compared to over 200GP worth of rubies and a couple of magical items in the unrevised version).

The passage becomes quiet, and I see moss on the walls. I have the option of resting for long enough to restore all the Strength I’ve spent casting spells. Doing so may result in my being attacked by slow-moving but exceedingly lethal Killer Moss, but that’s a risk I’m willing to take.

A Saving Roll on Luck determines whether or not my rest is undisturbed. Either there’s a typo in the text, or Mr. Walker is bending the rules (and it is another quirk unique to the New Edition – I checked), because the target number is 10 lower than it should be for the lowest level of Saving Roll. What I roll is high enough to succeed either way, so it’s not that big a deal. Though I guess if the newer text is pioneering the Level 0 Saving Roll, I’d get no Experience for it. I’ll go with the ‘typo’ interpretation and treat the roll as Level 1, unless I get evidence to the contrary later on.

Walking on for as long as I rested, I encounter no unpleasantness, and if I hadn’t already returned to full Strength, I’d gain half as much (rounded down) for the quiet walk as I did for the rest. Then I reach a room hewn from the rock, with water dripping from the ceiling, and phosphorescent fungi providing enough illumination that if I’d found any items between my fall and my encountering the Troll, I could find out what they were.

Another Saving Roll, this one by the rules. I narrowly fail it. The lights fail. Yes, even though they’re fungi. And if I had a torch or a tinderbox or tried casting Will-o-Wisp, that wouldn’t help. I sense something evil. Is it the soulsucker I encountered on my previous attempt at the book? If so, I doubt that that, too, has become a coward, so I won’t waste Strength on another Oh Go Away. Not that conserving Strength is likely to achieve more than making my death take slightly longer (or marginally reducing the degree of overkill).

Anyway, I flail around in the darkness, trying to find an exit. No joy. The sense of evil grows stronger. I get the option to reconsider using magic. That makes me suspicious, reminding me of a prank in another gamebook that provided an opportunity to waste a spell against a nonexistent threat. So I’m still casting nothing, which means drawing my staff and preparing to fight off the unseen opponent that I hope isn’t really there. The text tells me what a twit I’m being, which just strengthens my suspicions. Yet another Saving Roll ensues. I fail that one less narrowly.

I was wrong about the imaginary nature of the threat. A tentacle wraps around me, draining my will-to-live. This version of the adventure is a little more discreet about my demise than the original, but leaves me just as dead.

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