Saturday, 20 February 2016

Veiled by Mist and Water

This is the second part of my playthrough of Robin Waterfield's Deathmoor. Funnily enough, it starts with my turning to the exact same section to which I would have turned if I'd chosen to do things differently back in section 1. Context matters, though. If I'd set off to where I'm now heading before I took the various actions described in the previous instalment, Princess Telessa would have been killed, and her kidnapper Arachnos would thereby have got rid of the only bargaining tool he had in his plan to economically destabilise the kingdom of Arion, which would have been a pretty unsatisfactory outcome for all concerned. Leaving it until now ensures that someone will prove successful, but only time will tell whether that's me on my quest to save the Princess or Arachnos in his scheme to make money and cause chaos. Considering the difficulty level of the book, the odds favour Arachnos.

For three days I head away from the city, encountering nothing and nobody (and apparently not needing to eat anything, either), but occasionally getting the impression I'm being watched. Then a half-giant emerges from the shelter of a cluster of boulders, introducing himself as Otus. He gives me some of the Princess's hair to prove that he's with her captors, and I hand him the letter in which the King agrees to the ransom demands. Reading the letter, Otus comments that his master, Arachnos, will be pleased. I'm so glad I took the time to investigate the Baron den Snau, consequently getting savaged by Gutterlags, giving away almost half my remaining funds as a bribe, and risking an unpleasant death at least twice, in order to learn the identity of the villain whose name has just been given away by this hulking brute.

Otus tells me to wait here for a couple of days while he fetches the Princess. I don't, because that's how I failed my second attempt at this book: having got what he wants, Arachnos has the Princess returned in little bits. The section describing this outcome speaks disparagingly of any player stupid enough to trust a villain, but surely the real idiot in this situation is the King for signing over the output of his gold mines in perpetuity without specifying that it's 'subject to the safe return of Princess Telessa to her family' or words to that effect.

I wait for long enough to convince Otus that I'm doing as instructed, and then follow him. It soon becomes apparent that he's heading for Deathmoor (so that's the other bit of information I got from the Baron given away too). Formerly the site of an advanced civilisation, Deathmoor was transformed by a sorcerous battle into a mist-shrouded, monster-infested zone of unmappable incoherence and gratuitous Instant Deaths. So following Otus through there ought not to be too much bother, right?

A pheasant erupts from some tall grass nearby, distracting me from Otus, but drawing my attention to something that's heading my way at considerable speed. It's Fang-zen, preceded slightly by a spear, which I dodge. The book claims that he's after 'revenge for the theft of his quest', despite the fact that I acquired the quest from him quite legitimately. Bad loser! His Skill is specified as being 2 lower than mine, so regardless of my Initial rolls, the odds are in my favour, but not so much so as to make the fight a pushover. Except that, even though he has a higher Skill than any other opponent I've fought in this adventure, I don't lose a single round of combat against him. Mind you, considering his twisted view of things, I wouldn't put it past him to ignore the fact that I killed him, and carry on being a bane to decent, hard-working heroes long after he should have sunk into well-deserved obscurity.

On the body I find more gold than I wasted on that porter, a lamp, and some food. He'd be justified in accusing me of stealing that stuff. If he weren't dead. I then attempt to get back to following Otus, only to find no sign of his trail. Now I'll just have to trust to luck to help me find Arachnos' lair. Kicking the corpse a few times to express my annoyance, I note that it's starting to get dark, and decide to find somewhere to shelter for the night.

There's a village inventively named Outpost not far from here, so I decide to see if anyone there will offer me a roof over my head. Judging by the number of shutters that are slammed in my face, probably not. Still, there is a burned-out shell of a hut that might be better than nothing. Or maybe not, as it's still warm and smouldering. And there's fresh blood on the doorpost. This is now looking more like somewhere to investigate dark deeds than a place to stay, but that still means not leaving yet.

Inside, I sense that something evil has happened here. Well, I guess that means I can cross all the nice causes of house fires and bloodshed off my list of possible explanations for what has occurred. Something moves in a corner. I draw my sword just to be on the safe side, and ask, 'Who's there?' The thing in the corner whimpers, and the book gives me the option of lashing out with my sword. Personally, I've never found whimpering to be particularly threatening behaviour, so I curb the violent tendencies and take a closer look.

Huddled in the corner is a mortally wounded woman. Before expiring, she explains that Otus forced her to let him stay in her cottage the previous night, so once he'd turned in for the night, she set her house on fire and ran away. He escaped unharmed, pursued her to a stand of oak trees, and gave her a fatal beating. While doing this, he dropped something, and the woman, knowing a little magic (but evidently nothing that could protect her from Otus' attack) cast an invisibility spell on it. Once Otus left her for dead, she crawled back to Outpost to die in familiar (if charred) surroundings. With her last words she explains how to neutralise the spell, so I can find whatever it is that Otus lost. I hope it's something more useful than a used handkerchief.

After the woman passes on, I bury her and leave Outpost, making camp in the open air. I doze off, waking to find a timber wolf snacking on the food in my backpack. She attacks me, somehow managing to communicate the fact that this is for the sake of the starving cubs back in her den, and I don't think I can say anything more about this incident without winding up sounding like a Daily Mail reader, so I'll skip to morning, when I set off in search of Otus again.

Following what could be faint traces left by Otus, I make slow progress, but by mid-morning I've reached the stand of oaks where Otus attacked the woman. The item he dropped turns out to be a weird key, with a flat face that has a crescent moon and a number inscribed on it. It takes me a little over a day to continue to the outskirts of Deathmoor, so shouldn't Otus be on his way back to the rendezvous point by now? It's around noon on the day after the day after he said to wait for two days, so unless familiarity with the region enables him to cover the intervening terrain in just a few hours (and the fact that he had to find shelter for the night in Outpost suggests that it can't have been that quick), the only way he could get to the 'you gullible numpty!' ending on time would be if he'd already dismembered the Princess and set off to bring her to me.

Still, contemplating certain chronological anomalies isn't going to help me bring this adventure to a conclusion. My way is blocked by a fast-flowing river with scum and decaying fish floating on it. It's quite possible that the choice of whether to head upstream or downstream in search of a place where I can get across may determine whether or not I have the faintest chance of succeeding at this adventure. I think the last time I got this far, I went upstream and died in a corrosive cloud, so on this occasion I'll try downstream. The section for doing so has not yet been entered into my gamebook manager, confirming that that's not the way I went last time. So as long as there's nothing important between where I reached the river and the cloud, I'm on the right track.

As I head downstream, the river slows almost to walking pace. Thick gorse bushes line the path, making it narrow enough that when I run into a couple of patrolling Dark Elf/Orc crosses known as Blackhearts, they can only attack one at a time. Some kind of complication could arise any time I take a blow in the fight, but the one time a Blackheart does manage to wound me, I avoid getting knocked into the thorns or the river or whatever other misfortune could add worse than insult to injury.

One of the Blackhearts wears a medallion with a letter 'A' on it, which I put on between my shirt and armour: it may come in handy at some point, but openly displaying a 'Faithful Follower of Arachnos' badge is liable to make any non-evil inhabitants of the moor regard me with distrust or hostility. The other has a map showing the way to their encampment, which probably contains more Blackhearts, but might also have a partner to that moon key in it. Before heading off to investigate, I add the dead Blackhearts to the pollution in the river.

To my surprise, there are no other Blackhearts in the camp. Just food too repulsive to add to my Provisions and a piece of broken stone with the letter 'S' on it. I do hope this isn't going to turn into an episode of Countdown. Though if the Conundrum turns out to be HATEDROOM, I'll have no trouble solving it.

Returning to the river, I continue south. Something moves in the bushes, and when I involuntarily glance towards it, the Spit Viper expectorates a gobbet of acidic venom at my eyes. It mostly misses, and its Skill is low enough that the temporary Attack Strength penalty caused by the droplets that find their target doesn't keep me from winning the fight.

Further on the river becomes shallow enough to ford, but having already been exposed to one noxious fluid today, I'd rather not wade through that filth if it can be avoided, so I keep walking south. After a while, the river bends west, away from the path. Continuing along the path, I find a damaged milestone. What remains of it reads:
For some reason I'm not able to make a deduction as to the number of missing letters based on the size of the gap, and the book has me wondering if the damaged word could be 'Precious' or 'Poisonous'. Why stop there? How about 'Porous'? (Which would, admittedly, make for a seriously rubbish well). Given the prevalence in FF of sentient versions of normally inanimate objects, a 'Pugnacious' well wouldn't be out of the question ("You want water? You're gonna have to fight me for it!") 'Pusillanimous' is another (unlikely) option. As are 'Parsimonious', 'Perspicuous', 'Perspicacious', 'Polygamous' and (mildly less implausibly) 'Precipitous' and 'Pecunious'. Or maybe it was a reminder from the Guild of Moneylenders to 'Pay IOUs well'. 

More seriously, the book doesn't ask if I've previously come across a piece of stone with a letter on, and no types of stone have been mentioned to make it more obvious whether or not the bit I found in the camp could be from here. Occam's Razor suggests that that 'N' is supposed to be one of the missing letters, but would the extra ink necessary for specifying that both were marble (for instance) have bankrupted Puffin?

Close by, the continuation of the path has been wiped out by a severe landslide, causing it to end in a cliff edge. From the sound of it, the river carries on to a waterfall, so following that instead of the path probably won't help much either. Looks like I'll have to go back to the ford.

The foul water doesn't harm me. Nor does the Granochin which emerges from the deeper water alongside the ford to attack me. Even after fighting it (and studying the illustration), I'm not entirely sure what a Granochin is, but I'm fairly confident that the eyeball set into the tip of its tongue is a bad idea.

It’s getting dark. No matter what Otus’ travel time, by now he should be at the rendezvous point with the Princess’s remains, wondering why I’m not around to appreciate his master’s ‘joke’. Still, now that the passage of time has been rendered completely meaningless, I need have no qualms about making camp for the night.

In the morning I have a choice of directions. South should take me to where the river bends, and subsequently to the waterfall I heard. Before heading west, I’ll see if there’s anything of note to the north on this side of the river.

I pass through a valley, and get the patently erroneous impression that I’ve been here before. This déjà vu is combined with a feeling of dread at what lies ahead, and I’m not going to trust that any more than I do the sense of familiarity, so I keep going. Before long I start to notice bones scattered around the slopes. Mostly from animals, but some from humanoids. And to make it easier to figure out which bones come from which kind of creature, the skeletons start reassembling themselves. Wait, that’s not good!

There’s a ruined farmhouse at the end of the valley, but I don’t think it’ll offer much shelter from the gathering skeletal horde, even if I could successfully run the bony gauntlet. Better to wait and see if the skeletons want something other than my demise. The book suggests that I give them something, and lists an assortment of items, some of them more obviously daft than others. Will offering my sword be taken as indicating that I lack the sort of prejudice against the post-mortem community that is so widespread in this world? As it turns out, yes. Or, at least, it convinces the skeletons that I’m not the sort of person to perpetrate the kind of atrocity that’s responsible for their condition, so they stop moving and allow me to go back the way I came. As long as there’s nothing essential in the farmhouse, I’ve handled that about as well as can be expected. And I think the skeletons let me keep my sword. At any rate, there’s nothing about a Skill penalty for being unarmed.

My wanderings bring me to a well with a bench next to it. Stopping for a drink is probably a bad idea, and this doesn’t appear to be one of those wells you can climb down into to get treasure. There’d be more links here if I’d already played a couple of other gamebooks I own. Or taken a different route through The Forest of Doom at one point.

Passing by the well, I continue until I reach more of the cliff edge created by that landslide, which must have been a real doozy, as the direction from which I hear that waterfall indicates that I’m on the far side of it from where I was when I heard it yesterday. I stroll west along the cliff edge, and a bird of prey known as a Pterolin attacks me. It joins the ‘dies without inflicting a wound on me’ club.

One of the items I bought in Arion market was a rope. I can use it to climb down to the Pterolin’s nest in search of treasure. Like maybe the key I know to be somewhere in this book, because not having found it got me killed at least twice before now. The first thing I find when I reach the nest is a tunnel leading into the cliff behind it. A bit of a quandary, that. Do I enter the tunnel first and risk it leading me to somewhere that denies me the opportunity to search the nest, or do I look in the nest first and risk getting knocked to my death if something bursts from the tunnel to attack me like a rock-dwelling Granochin?

Nest first. No key, but I do find a whistle inscribed with a number and the words ‘Follow me’. Blowing it attracts the Pterolin’s larger and more aggressive mate. Do I take refuge in the tunnel (and hope there’s nothing in there) or fight in this somewhat precarious position? I risk fighting, and despite Mr. Waterfield’s attempts at making the encounter more intimidating with the colour text, the bigger, badder Pterolin causes me no more hassle than its deceased partner.

The fact that the section number for exploring the tunnel is the same as the number for fleeing into it makes me a little wary, but I check it out anyway. And find it blocked by the web of a Giant Spider. On one level, I like that so many of the opponents in this book aren’t beyond the capabilities of someone who rolled a rubbish Skill score. But when the text keeps trying to make out that a Skill 7 (or lower) opponent looks set to be more than a match for me, it starts getting a bit ridiculous. I’ve already double-checked the rules once to make sure I didn’t miss something about Skill being something other than the standard 1d6+6.

Cutting through the late Spider’s web somehow causes the roof to cave in behind me, so I was right about there being no turning back. The book explicitly tells me to cross off the rope I left dangling down to the ledge with the nest on, which backs up my theory that the skeletons let me retain my sword.

Further in is the only option. The tunnel becomes smaller, first forcing me to wriggle on my stomach, and then making it necessary to take off my backpack. Do I push it ahead of me, or drag it behind me? It shouldn’t be possible for anything to sneak up behind me, so I think the risk of losing everything else should be reduced if I drag the pack behind me.

Not having chosen the shield as my reward for facilitating the arrest of those 'plumbers', I get a fireball in the face. A relatively small one, that does significantly less than fatal damage, but still an unpleasant surprise. I hope to be able to make the wizard responsible regret his actions very soon.

The tunnel ends in a cavern containing a pool of lava, which occasionally spits fireballs in a random direction. Not a wizard, then. And I don't think I can fight lava (unless it forms into an anthropomorphic being - stranger things have happened in gamebooks). My priority is getting to the exit on the far side of the cavern before the heat and fumes overwhelm me. A slightly unconventional roll of the dice determines how this goes - as well as the total, I need to note the individual numbers rolled and the order in which they came. I do hope Mr. Waterfield hasn't been picking up bad habits from Luke Sharp.

There are two possible outcomes based on the total, one of them not insignificantly more likely than the other. My rolls fall within the less likely range, which may not be a bad thing, given that one of Mr. Waterfield's earlier books has just a 1 in 6 chance of acquiring one vital item.

It is a bad thing. A 'black out and topple into the lava'-level bad thing. A pity, because I was actually enjoying the book more than I'd expected to. Then again, I didn't get as far as the 'randomly pick a section number from these options' bit that soured me on the book on my third (and, to date, joint most successful) attempt at it, so maybe if I had got further, I'd have wound up in a mood to drop Deathmoor into a propinquitous well.

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