Monday, 7 March 2016

I Wouldn't Make a Very Good Criminal, Would I?

The mini-adventure accompanying the ninth of Mongoose Publishing's flawed Lone Wolf reissues is The Guildmaster's Hammer, by Richard Ford. Probably the same Richard Ford who wrote The Tomb of the Majhan for the fifth reissue. I didn't particularly enjoy TTotM, but it's not the worst of the Mongoose minis I've read so far. In any case, Mr. Ford may have improved since his first mini-adventure, so I shall endeavour to keep an open mind as I attempt this newer one.

In it I play Sogh, a somewhat down-on-his-luck thief in the city of Tahou. That's not where I grew up, but for reasons the text doesn't even hint at, I had to move there from the city of my birth a few years back. Between my failure to pull off any really spectacular thefts and my fondness for booze and gambling, I'm rarely better off than the local beggars, but I'm reasonably content with my mediocre lot. At least until tonight, when I get a visit from Burten, a bodyguard to the Guildmaster of Thieves, who drags me off to see his boss.

Mongoose are certainly maintaining their less-than-high standard of quality control. Sogh is no fighter, and consequently has no Combat Skill, but he does have a Fortune score to indicate how good he is at standing up to life's vicissitudes. In addition, he has mastered one of three Thief Skills. His Action Chart, by contrast, has a box for Combat Skill, but none for Fortune, and four separate slots for Thief Skills.

This paragraph, while a good deal more basic than the Action Chart, is at least less inaccurate.
Fortune: 7
Endurance: 16
Thief Skill: Lockbreaker

Maghana, the Guildmaster of Thieves, brings up the topic of my gambling debts, which are massive enough that some of my creditors have decided to cut their losses and offer money in return for the termination of my existence. He then offers to clear all my debts on condition that I steal a certain item for him. I am less keen to take him up on his offer than you might expect, but that's because he wants me to rob the Guildmaster of Masons, and nobody who's tried that has succeeded, or even failed but got away unscathed. When I ask for time to think it over, Maghana tells me that if I don't accept, 'Burten here will sever your spine heart with his sword'. I wonder if that started out as a coherent threat and got mangled at the editing or printing stage, or if it was nonsense from the outset.

Refusal no longer being a viable option, I agree to take on the job, and Maghana explains that he wants the hammer that Guildmaster Jarford keeps in a chest at the foot of his bed. He also warns that, should I get captured, I must not mention the Thieves Guild (sic. - perhaps somebody stole the apostrophe) unless I want my head sawn off. Very slowly. I have until dawn to bring the hammer: otherwise, I get decapitated. Presumably at normal speed, or there's no incentive to button my lip if I do get caught.

Thinking over the mission, I conclude that to have any real chance of success, I will need a map of the Guildfort of Masons and some thieving equipment. While there is a perfectly good reason for attending to these requirements in the order listed, having the text force the decision on me is a reminder that I've already changed section twice without getting to make any choices.

At the Mapmakers' Guildhouse I reflect that Mapmaker Guildmaster Kraesus is known to be inordinately fond of card games, and an insomniac. Breaking in thus strikes me as less clever than offering to play a hand or two with Kraesus, but at least this time I get to choose between those options.

While the main adventure in this book does feature creatures that are referred to as 'reptilians' until their true name is revealed, the description of Kraesus' appearance as 'reptilian-like' is somewhat awkward. Especially as the creatures in question are not well-known in Tahou. Still, the important thing here is that Kraesus and I are known to each other, and he agrees to a game on condition that I stake my signet ring, a family heirloom. I agree so long as he wagers a map against it.

We are to play Taluka, a game in which a degree of low-key cheating is generally considered acceptable. Given my luck of late, I think I'd better honour this tradition in the observance (and hope that if my cheating is observed, it's not flagrant enough to provoke Kraesus). Not having chosen Pickpocket as my Thief Skill, I have to rely on luck anyway, and despite the odds being in my favour, the random number I get is just too high. No comment is made on my cheating, but Kraesus has the better hand, so I have to give him the ring. Well, I choose to consider it a loan, but I'll do my best to ensure that Kraesus never notices when I come back to collect it (and a few valuables to cover interest).

Not getting the map appears not to mean automatic failure. Or if it does, Mr. Ford is saving that revelation for later in the adventure, and I am liable to become very displeased when he finally points out that I was doomed from about half way through the preceding paragraph. For now, I must carry on, and hope to do better at getting my hands on a few thieving tools.

Not being able to afford the prices that Barto the Fence charges for thieves' hardware, I decide to break into his house and pilfer what I need. I could quibble about Fences generally being dealers in stolen goods rather than craftspersons specialising in the manufacture of tools for thieving, but instead I will pose this question: how would the Guild of Thieves rule if, assuming I were to succeed at my mission, I were to subsequently attempt to sell Barto any left-over thieving equipment, and he objected on the grounds that the stolen goods I'd be trying to flog to him had, in fact, been stolen from him?

Barto's home is said to be like a fortress, but presumably it's not quite as fortress-like as the Guildfort of Masons. Otherwise I might as well try cutting out the middleman and head straight for my actual objective. 
An armed sentry stands on guard out front, a bunch of keys dangling from his belt. Not being a Pickpocket, I am not affected by the flaw in the choices given here, but I’ll mention the problem anyway: there’s an option for ‘If you are a Pickpocket and you wish to attempt to steal the keys’, and one for ‘If you are not a Pickpocket’, and nothing else. What about any Pickpocket who, perhaps suspicious of such a blatant display, would rather not make a grab for the keys, eh?

Still, as I noted, not a quandary with which I need concern myself today. I just sneak round to the back of the house, where I get a chance to show off my skills as a Lockbreaker. And any Pickpocket who was forced to steal the keys but would rather not use them in case they set off a trap is out of luck, as the options are restricted much as they were at the front of the house. Perhaps I’m being paranoid, and there’s nothing wrong with the keys, but if the adventure’s not going to cater for readers who could take a certain course of action and choose not to, it should do away with the ‘and you wish to’ in the compulsory-if-possible options. Lockbreakers don’t get asked if they wish to pick the lock. Though that may be because anyone with neither keys nor the Skill of Lockbreaker still ends up trying to pick the lock, just with a chance of failure. Having the Skill, I automatically get in.

Creeping through the house, I reach a landing from which three doors lead. Each has an ornate lock. Lacking any hints as to what the designs signify, I try the one with a lock shaped like a bear’s head. It’s unlocked, and the room behind it contains a chest. I enter and pick the chest's lock, thereby discovering that the chest contains only a set of lockpicks. It then transpires that I was too stupid to close the door behind me, as I overhear some guards noticing that it’s open when it shouldn’t be. A handy window enables me to depart before any violence can ensue, but I won’t be getting a second shot at burgling Barto’s, so I’ve failed to acquire any of the things I reckoned I’d need for tonight’s main event.

Proceeding to the West District, I soon catch sight of the Guildfort, which shows no signs of activity at this time of night. A Catburglar would have little trouble getting in, and one of the burgling tools I missed on account of the blind choice with the locks at Barto's would substitute for the relevant Skill., but I'm a bit stuck. Lurking in the shadows, my character curses his bad luck, while I gripe about the arbitrary nature of the 'acquire equipment (or fail to do so)' phase of the adventure. Then I hear a horse-drawn cart approaching, and realise that someone is making a late-night delivery to the Guildfort. Is this my opportunity to get in?

For some reason, my chances of sneaking through the gate when it opens to admit the cart would be different if I were a Pickpocket, but as it is, a Fortune check determines how I fare here. This time I'm successful, and manage to get under the cart without attracting attention. I then keep pace with the cart as it goes through, managing to avoid any injury from the wheels (though one of the words in this section is less fortunate, and loses a letter). Beyond the gate, I dodge away into the shadows and quietly make my way to the entrance hall.

Having failed to acquire a map, I am now faced with another blind choice, and pick the small door leading east. The passage beyond is very dark, and I tiptoe quietly along until a sliver of moonlight through an arrow slit enables me to make out my surroundings. This is actually the Guildfort dormitory, and I am surrounded by sleeping Masons. Masons who apparently know how to breathe without making any noise whatsoever even while asleep, given that I haven't heard a sound from any of them.

Again being able to move quietly is assumed to be a subset of Pickpocket Skills, so Fortune determines whether or not I manage to keep from disturbing the silent sleepers. I make it again, and on my way back out of the dormitory, I help myself to something I spot glinting in the moonlight (that moon must be moving very quickly, to now shine on a part of the room that was pitch dark seconds ago). Back in the hall, I discover my new acquisition to be a half-used vial of Sleeping Draught. Not the variety usually encountered in Lone Wolf books, but there's nothing wrong with that - why shouldn't there be more than one kind of soporific agent in Magnamund?

How about the double doors leading north, then? They're locked, but any variant of Sogh can open them with ease (I'm starting to get the impression that Mr. Ford has some kind of issue with players who choose to become Lockbreakers). The passage beyond leads to the foot of a staircase, and as I start to ascend, I hear a troubled voice. Briefly I hesitate, but then it becomes apparent that I can hear the somniloquent utterances of someone in the throes of a nightmare.

Continuing up the stairs, I reach a mezzanine floor with a big bed on it. Thrashing about in that bed as he contends with the denizens of his bad dreams is none other than Guildmaster Jarford, and at the foot of the bed is the casket where Maghana said I'd find the hammer I must steal. Well, finding his room has turned out to be remarkably easy.

Unnervingly, Jarford's eyes are open and appear to be focused on me, though his other actions demonstrate him to still be asleep. I can hope that he remains unaware of me, or use that Sleeping Draught. Amazingly, this section allows for the possibility of having the Draught and choosing not to use it. I'm almost tempted to not administer the Draught. But only almost. Fortune again determines what happens here, and the random number I get is 0. Like aces in a deck of cards, 0 in Lone Wolf can be high or low, so that's either the best or the worst possible outcome. The rules for this mini-adventure twice stated that 0 was to be counted as zero, and there's been nothing since then to say that 0 should now be treated as ten, so I'm counting it as a success. If it's not, the text should have made it clear.

Jarford's sleep becomes a good deal less troubled when I give him the Draught. Once he's nice and tranquil, I get the casket open (again without any inconvenience for non-Lockbreakers) and take the eponymous Hammer. Noticing a window latched open in one of the walls, I am compelled to leave that way - evidently Mr. Ford hasn't yet finished penalising players who were so crass as to think that Lockbreaking might be a handy Skill to have in an adventure that involved breaking into a building to steal an item.

Okay, to be fair, choice of Thief Skill makes no difference here: I automatically get spotted in the course of my escape, the alarm is raised, and nobody involved in the production of this mini-adventure appears aware of the difference between 'peal' and 'peel'. I make it to the street unharmed, but the Guildfort's militia are already after me. Before long I hear snarls indicating that there are also hounds on my trail.

Yet again it's Fortune that determines how I fare, as I have neither the Skill nor the item that could be used here to abet my escape. It's a bit close, but luck is with me once more, and just as it seems certain that the dogs will catch me, I spot a warehouse door standing ajar, and manage to get through it and brace it with a convenient plank before any of the Masonic militia's mutts can get their jaws into me. There's nobody else in the warehouse, so I'm able to make my way to an exit on the far side while the dogs remain thwarted by the physics of a triangle.

Once I'm sure I've lost my pursuers, I stop to catch my breath. From here I can see the Parish of Thieves, but there's a decision-free section transition coming up, which either means section number padding or an impending twist. Or possibly a bit of both, because the next section is an item check. Not something I have, but I can't tell whether that's good or bad.

Not that good. As I approach the outskirts of the Parish of Thieves, I am spotted by a group of local militia. They order me to stop, and I flee into the warren of streets that is the Parish of Thieves. Carelessly, I take a turning into a dead end, finding my way blocked by a heavy wooden door. The text asks if I'm a Lockbreaker, and there's no 'and you want to try picking the lock', so either this is where the Skill gets useful or Mr. Ford is about to fully express his hostility towards the Lockbreaking fraternity.

He's not that cruel. I manage to get the door open in the nick of time, and after creeping through the house into which it leads, I am able to lose my pursuers and not my bearings. Returning to Maghana's hideout, I am taken through to the Guildmaster, who warns me that things will not go well for me if I have excuses in place of the Hammer. Burten very obviously hopes that I have failed, so he'll be allowed to knife me.

I hand over the Hammer and, after checking carefully to make sure it's the right one, Maghana tells me to sling my hook. No congratulations, no expression of gratitude, not even confirmation that he'll keep his side of the deal he forced on me. The triumphant conclusion of this mini-adventure has me slouching back to the pub, no doubt to start incurring fresh gambling debts.

So, like TTotM, a flawed but not completely awful adventure with a somewhat downbeat ending. A bit too insubstantial in places - given the way the Guildfort was described at the start, finding Jarford's room should have been a good deal more challenging. Maybe if there hadn't been so many sections that do nothing but lead to another section, the interior of the Guildfort could have been made more interesting. Of the 34 sections I read while playing the game, 13 end in a simple redirection to a new section: no choice, item check or random number check. Okay, so some of those instances will be reuniting divergent paths on the basic route through the book, but others are just section breaks for the sake of section breaks. I wonder whether they're an attempt at emulating Joe Dever's style or a sign that Mr. Ford was struggling to come up with even 100 sections' worth of burglarious action.

Fighting Fantasy's Midnight Rogue proved something of a disappointment to gamebook readers who wanted to play as a proper thief. While The Guildmaster's Hammer avoids the more preposterous of the FF book's flaws, I can't see it satisfying gamebook fandom's would-be-Garretts, either.

1 comment:

  1. I'm having trouble leaving my name to my comments, but its Aussiesmurf (Tim B.) here.

    You may be interested in a new blog I'm starting, called

    In summary, inspired by blogs such as yours, I'm attempting to play through the entire Way of the Tiger series, now that I have books 5 and 7.

    Keep up the good work!