Monday, 11 April 2016

Blood Is a Special Substance

Keith Martin's final Fighting Fantasy gamebook, Revenge of the Vampire (sequel to his second FF book, Vault of the Vampire), is like several previous FF books in that I came across a second-hand copy a while before getting back into gamebooks, looked at it in the shop, and was not inspired to buy at that time. This one I originally found in the long-since-closed Mind charity shop on Savile Street. I don't particularly regret having passed up the opportunity to get it at that point, because I've been rather lucky as regards RotV since then.

For starters, Revenge was the book I bought at the same time as Magehunter in a charity shop I only got to visit once before it went out of business. A while after that, a copy in significantly better condition turned up in the no-longer-extant Oxfam bookshop at the corner of South Street and Carr Lane. Though the price was almost five times that of the one I'd already bought, I was by then aware of the scarcity of the book, so I bought that one, too.

Before long, I parted with the more battered of those copies in a trade with another FF fan. Then, a little later, I bought yet another copy for less than half of what my first one had cost (though, bucking the trend, the place where I found that one wasn't a charity shop and hasn't since closed down - Hull still has its Central Library, even if its stock of books isn't what it was). That one I sold on eBay, with a very reasonable starting price, and it ended up going for about ten times the total amount I'd spent on copies of Revenge of the Vampire.

A little while after that, I became friends with another fan who didn't have Revenge in his collection, so when an eBay search turned up a copy with a decent Buy It Now price, I snapped it up on his behalf. By now I imagine that some of the readers are cursing my name for having got the book so often while they've never even seen one 'in the paper', so it's probably a good thing that my reminiscences about finding inexpensive copies of RotV end here.

One of those copies had a handwritten message on the first page, revealing the book to have originally been an engagement gift from fiancée to fiancé. Finding writing in an old gamebook is never a good thing, but that was a particularly sad instance. I have no idea what circumstances led to the book's winding up on sale where I found it, but I can't imagine them being anything cheery.

Some of the copies that passed through my hands were from different print runs, as a result of which I was able to discover that one of the book's many errors (it's probably the worst-afflicted of all the FF books hit by the decline in proofreading and playtesting towards the end of the run) was fixed for the second edition. Only one, though. Better than none, I guess, and it was one of the more serious mistakes, but it's odd that, as Puffin went to the effort of redoing the typesetting to correct that blunder, they left all the other flaws as they were.

My previous online playthrough of the book is another of the handful that were saved from e-blivion by the Wayback Machine. Not a particularly successful attempt, nor a very informative write-up, but it's here in case anyone thinks reading about my character's rapid and gruesome demise will improve their mood.

So, an unspecified number of years after a luckier or more valiant warrior than my last character in Vault succeeded in staking the eponymous Vampire, a completely new adventurer is in a tavern near the quiet town of Gummport, lamenting the lack of opportunities to be heroic. The landlord's son assists a blind man to a seat and, observing a couple of the more shifty patrons taking an interest in the new arrival, my character silently warns them off and joins the blind man.

 The man introduces himself as Henrik van der Termlen, a scholar on his way to meet an old friend named Sewarth at one of the local universities. I ask why he's travelling alone in this potentially hazardous region, and he tells me that a couple of nights ago his travelling companion Otto was poisoned by an enemy who means to keep Henrik from reaching his destination. Suppressing my suspicions that he might be a bit paranoid, I offer to accompany Henrik the rest of the way, and he accepts. It's getting late, so we head to our respective rooms for the night.

It would appear that Henrik is not an early riser. After breakfast I go to his room to wake him, and find that somebody has fatally stabbed him during the night. Backing away from the corpse, I stumble over a box jutting from under the bed, spilling its contents onto the floor. There's money in there (so the killing wasn't a robbery gone bad), and papers, which turn out to be copies of letters that Henrik (who, post-mortem, is intermittently referred to as 'Henrick' in one of the more trivial of the book's editing blunders) had sent to Sewarth. This correspondence indicates that Henrik had been on the trail of the Mortvanian Vampire Count Reiner Heydrich, who stored some of his essence in a magical container to ensure that he'd be able to come back if anyone managed to kill him, and wanted Sewarth to research the Soul Jewel used by Heydrich.

Having failed to protect Henrik, I resolve to take his notes to Sewarth in the hope that doing so will help bring about Heydrich's downfall. It would appear that I don't see myself as a prospective Vampire hunter, despite having been raring to go adventuring mere hours before. Maybe it's because of my stats - let's see what they are...
Skill 12
Stamina 16
Luck 11
Faith 6
Not that bad (though they'd have been less impressive if I hadn't allocated dice). There's also a non-randomised attribute to keep track of time wasted, progress made in interfering with Heydrich's plans, and so on. It's called Blood, and starts at 10, but it can go into negative figures if I make a real mess of things.

My first decision, which comes at the end of the Background rather than in section 1, is whether to take Henrik's money or just the papers. Being short of funds can lead to trouble in this adventure (not least because of one of the book's more infamous flaws), and if I leave the money, it'll just be pilfered by someone for less worthy reasons, so I take it. My hurried departure attracts no attention, and I'm soon on my way to Lake Libra, where the monastery in which Sewarth lives is situated.

There's not just the one monastery by the lake, though, and finding the correct one could take time. Or I could make a small donation to the coffers at the Hamaskian Monastery, and they'll tell me the right one. I take the latter option, and get directed to the Halls of the Stars, a monastery with a reputation for housing eccentrics who carry out particularly obscure studies. The young monk who opens the door when I knock seems reluctant to let me in, but when I speak of the papers that must be delivered to Sewarth, he fetches two senior monks.

The older of the two introduces himself as Endrell and his companion as Marcus, and explains that Sewarth is away, as is the fourth Elder, Sandar, but Sewarth should be back soon. He asks to see the papers, and I let him have a look. After a brief scrutiny of some papers, and a closer look at others, he says they don't mean much to him, and I'd be advised to wait for Sewarth. Marcus also wants to see the papers, but Endrell declines to show them to him, and I get the impression that there's something in them that he doesn't want the younger monk to see.

I am shown to a sparsely furnished room and given an unappetising meal. Sleep eludes me during the night, so I decide to do some investigating. A discreet visit to Endrell might help determine whether he has something to hide, or he harbours suspicions about Marcus. There's no reply when I knock at his door, but it's not locked, so I take a look inside and find the room unoccupied, the bed showing no signs of use. A quick search of the room turns up a wooden chest under the bed. It's locked, but not difficult to force open, and inside I find some books, including a heavily annotated copy of A History of Mortvania: Vol. 8. Endrell definitely knows more than he's letting on.

The sound of footsteps in the corridor outside keeps me from taking a closer look at what's been written in the book, and I decide that it's too soon for a confrontation, and risk hiding in the wardrobe. Luckily, I remember to hide the obvious traces of my intrusion before doing so, and Endrell fails to spot anything amiss when he returns to the room. Once he's asleep, I sneak back out, and decide to see if I can find out anything from Marcus.

When I knock on the door to Marcus' room, just across the corridor, I hear a bolt being drawn, and then the door is opened just wide enough for Marcus to see who I am. He looks frightened, but lets me in when I say that I'm concerned about Sewarth. Handling the subsequent conversation can be tricky, because it's one of the places where the book's anti-cheating mechanisms go too far. I'm all right, as I only need to be able to remember the number in the title of the book that caught my attention in Endrell's room to be able to talk about it, but the incidental detail I'd have had to memorise if Endrell had found me hiding is at least as obscure as a price tag.

According to Marcus, neither of the absent monks said anything to him about leaving - Endrell told him after they were gone. I mention the book I found, and Marcus reveals that Endrell often leaves his room at night, and he (Marcus) has spotted strange shapes flitting about after dark. He suggests checking out the library or Sewarth's room, and gives me directions to both.

I decide to start with Sewarth's room. The door is locked, but the lock is crude enough that I can pick it with my knife. Inside, I find that the furniture has been covered with drapes, and the bookcases and chests are padlocked. Not really the state in which I'd expect to find the room of someone whose return is imminent. I risk taking the time for a proper search. This costs me 1 Blood, and turns up almost nothing, but I do eventually find a hastily-scrawled note which indicates that Sewarth suspected the monastery had been infiltrated, and has concealed copies of his findings somewhere down below. Evidently everything else he's written has been removed and/or destroyed.

There are six doors in this wing of the monastery. I've been through three, and know where a fourth leads. However, from past attempts at the book, I also know that it'll be worth my while to check out one of the other doors before entering the library. Now, which one was it...? The one I try first, which is convenient. It contains a large number of ledgers and scrolls, one of which contains records of library usage, revealing that both Sewarth and Endrell have taken out lots of books on Mortvania and the undead recently. I also find a little money, which I pocket.

Time to have a look in the library. It has a domed balcony (and, of course, lots of shelves of books). I start to search - not sure what for, but I'm confident I'll know it when I see it. Or perhaps when I don't: several books in the library's small section on the undead are conspicuous by their absence. I ascend to the dome to contemplate this, and realise that the glass of the dome has been designed to magnify the view of the night sky. This makes it all the easier for me to spot the bat-like shape that flies in from the east and glides down to the ground by the west wing of the monastery. That merits further investigation.

Proceeding to the west wing, I find three doors: two leading north, the other south. One of the north doors is a waste of time (and Blood), while the other leads to the conclusion of the sequence set in the monastery. As I don't remember which is which, I'll risk trying the south one first. As I approach it, I hear a groaning noise, and then a terrified-looking monk bursts through the door and heads for the exit. The passage beyond the door leads to many monks' cells, some of them with doors gaping, and a trail of blood leads down it. I wouldn't be much of a hero if I didn't investigate, would I?

The trail leads to the corpse of a young monk. Hearing screams from further ahead, I rush on in the hope of saving whoever is in trouble, but by the time I reach the source, he's already been killed by an undead monstrosity in a habit, which promptly turns on me. I manage to kill it without taking any damage (good thing, too, as I might have caught something nasty if the Ghoul-Monk had got its dirty fingernails into me). There's one monk still alive, too traumatised to speak, but he points to the north. Regrettably, the tell-tale 'if you have not tried it already' that would have been appended to the dud north door if I'd been too chicken to follow the blood trail isn't present here, so I'm just going to have to rely on patchy memories and half-guess.

I'm right again. The door I pick leads to the kitchens, and there’s an open trapdoor in the floor, from which emanates a smell of decay. I descend the stone steps below, and encounter a potentially confusing ambiguity: the text asks if I’ve slain a monk. I know from past attempts at the book that the question is designed to ascertain whether or not I got into a fight with Endrell in his room, but it would not be completely unreasonable for a player to think that the question refers to the Ghoul-Monk (what with the ‘Monk’ in its designation) and miss out on a confrontation with Heydrich’s lackey.

Anyway, I have yet to slay a regular monk in this attempt at the book, so as I reach the lower level, I hear Endrell muttering to himself about how he'll have to leave and join his Master now that 'he' (presumably the Ghoul-Monk) has escaped and killed. He falls silent as he approaches the steps, and the book gets misleading. I have the choice of challenging him or attacking him, but from my first failed attempt at the book, I know that it's using the word 'challenge' to mean 'make up a weak excuse for being down here and let Endrell trick me into downing a poisoned nightcap', which must come as something of a disappointment to any reader who was hoping to interrogate the treacherous monk.

So I take the course of action that won't lead to my death, and pretty soon I have slain a monk after all. The corridor along which Endrell came leads to a maze of catacombs, and searching for Sewarth's hidden notes takes some time. When I do find them, they're something of a disappointment (though the scraps of knowledge they contain are worth as many Blood Points as I lost in the search). They tell me only that:
  1. Sewarth knew that one of his fellows had succumbed to Heydrich's influence, but not which one.
  2. Heydrich will be invulnerable as long as his Soul Gem remains hidden.
  3. Further information is in Sewarth's Codex, which he has hidden somewhere.
  4. Heydrich has made his home somewhere to the north-east (the map showing where is illegibly smudged).
My study of these notes is interrupted by a revelation concerning the bat-like shape that originally drew my attention to the west wing of the monastery: it's a huge vampire bat with horns, red eyes, and long claws, which is doing its best to swoop at me in the narrow passageway. I clip its wings.

Coming to the conclusion that I've found out everything useful I'm going to learn here, I get ready to leave. On the way out of the catacombs, I spot some money at the feet of one of the long-dead monks. Taking it will cost me a point of Faith, as that constitutes desecration, but not taking it could cost me more, as without it I don't have quite enough gold to get to one of the book's more serious bugs.

Back at ground level, I discover that the front doors to the monastery are now open, and there's a dead monk (possibly the one I saved from the Ghoul-Monk) in the doorway leading south. Horses whinny outside, and I rush out to see a caped figure climbing into a black coach with four black stallions. What with Heydrich's 'invulnerable until the Soul Gem is found' factor, attacking him isn't massively clever, but I try anyway. He grabs my sword by the blade and smacks me in the head with the pommel, but my reckless courage does restore the Faith I lost by tomb-robbing.

As I sprawl dazed on the ground, the coach departs, and now seems as good a time as any to utter the incantation 'End of part one' and pause the narrative. This is going to be a busy week, as I have to fill in for someone who's ill, so it may be a few days before the next instalment.


  1. Another excellent write-up Ed, very enjoyable. I gave my entire ff collection away recently (the first 40 books), feeling it was time for someone else to get as much out of them as I had, but I still look forward to your playthroughs. Always a boon and always very well-written. Cheers.

  2. Taken on its own, I liked this book, but I found the style to be quite jarring compared with Vault of the Vampire. It might just be because Reiner turned out not to be the real villain of Vault, but I never saw him having designs on world domination.

    Then again, reusing villains has at least as much justification as reusing heroes from book to book, so I shouldn't complain.