Tuesday, 24 May 2016

You Can't Crown a Dead Prince

In what turned out to be the last days of the Puffin run of Fighting Fantasy books, Ian Livingstone attempted to grab the attention of a new generation of readers with a series of First Fighting Fantasy Adventures entitled The Adventures of Goldhawk. These were significantly shorter than standard FF books, and had a simplified version of the FF rule system (which was never that complicated anyway), larger pages, and full colour internal illustrations. The series made fewer concessions to its intended readership in one regard, though: most of the books had just as narrow a 'true path' as every gamebook Livingstone had written since Caverns of the Snow Witch.

Back in the days when I could afford to randomly browse for gamebooks on eBay, my searching once turned up a lot of the first two Goldhawk books for little enough that I decided to see what they were like. The first one so failed to impress me that I didn't even bother attempting the second one until my previous attempt at playing through the whole series of FF (including spin-offs) in order. My playthrough of the first book, Darkmoon's Curse, still exists, and can be read here.

The books are set in and around the Kingdom of Karazan, which has been at war with Orcs for two years. Their fortunes have taken a turn for the worse since the death in battle of their King. His crown (which he had with him despite its providing inadequate head protection, judging by the illustration of it towards the end of the book) was stolen, and is now in the possession of the chaos wizard Darkmoon. Then an assassin poisoned the heir to the throne, Prince Goldhawk, leaving him comatose. Goldhawk's Dwarf servant Orlando attempted to retrieve the crown, but was captured by Darkmoon, who transformed him into an animated tin pig before sending him back to Karazan empty-trottered. In these dire circumstances, court wizard Marris resorts to using a Time Gate to provide a replacement for the incapacitated Prince (who, despite the title of the series, never actually gets up to any adventuring).

In another time and place (supposedly here and now, though if that were true, this blog entry would be neither completed nor posted for reasons that are about to become apparent) I am reading a book about Karazan, only to get dragged through the Time Gate into Goldhawk's bedchamber and transformed into his exact likeness. This bothers me a lot less than it should, and I accept the role of Goldhawk-substitute and the mission to try and get back the crown without complaint. To aid me in this quest, Marris equips me with a suit of golden armour (not actual gold, I hope, since that would be appallingly heavy and provide mediocre protection in battle), 10 gold pieces, and Edge, the finest sword in the land (who is also animated, and warns me not to use him against any opponents without asking permission).

Before long I'm on my way, accompanied by Orlando, who soon starts bickering with Edge for no good reason. We reach a river, and Orlando mentions a nearby bridge, as he's not capable of swimming in his new form. The bridge turns out to be guarded by a man in spiked black armour (to which illustrator Russ Nicholson has added gold and blue ornamentation), who demands half my money in return for letting me cross. Instead, I ask Edge if he's willing to inflict some harm, and he agrees, so I'm into my first fight.

The combat system in these books is very basic. Characters have only one stat, namely Skill. Mine was automatically set at 8, while the Dark Knight's is just 7. To win a fight, all that is required is to roll equal to or above the opponent's Skill on two dice, and I get the first roll. Neither of us succeeds first time round, but the second roll for my character is high enough to kill the Knight, and I continue on my way, unperturbed at having just ended somebody's life. Sure, it's business as usual for your average FF hero, but I'd hope that most civilians from this day and age would be less blase about the whole thing.

After a while, the path splits. There's a handy signpost, which indicates that one turning leads to Longshadow Forest. The other sign merely says 'Vanish', and on my first attempt at this book, I made the mistake of thinking that that could be a warning of what would happen to anyone who went that way. As I'm reading the signs, a crow flies down and reveals itself to be a messenger from Marris, warning me that I shall have to acquire the Golden Hand wristlet from the Howling Tunnels before I confront Darkmoon.

I take the path to Vanish, which turns out to be a village full of unhappy and disgruntled people. One of the locals, who goes by the name of Sad Sam, explains that everyone's so miserable because they keep losing things. It's unclear whether the place got its name because of this, or the name was chosen for some other reason and mysteriously caused the locals to start misplacing their property. Regardless, Sam lists three items of his that have gone missing just today, and says that if I give him 4 gold pieces, I can have any of them that I manage to find. I take him up on his offer, thereby reaching what is presumably supposed to be a puzzle, though spotting the mislaid objects in the illustrations for this section is unlikely to prove much of a challenge to anyone who can see.

Leaving the village (which, regrettably, didn't work its malign magic on either of my tiresome sidekicks), I proceed to the forest. In a clearing we find a Gnome sitting on a large mushroom. He has a bird on his shoulder, though the book only points this out when Orlando sneezes (tin pigs apparently having very sensitive nasal passages in spite of their being composed of metal) and scares it off. The Gnome is displeased, and threatens to turn us into frogs, but when I tell him of my quest, he suddenly becomes friendly. That's a bit odd, as he reveals himself to be a wizard and a hermit, and as heroes on quests have a tendency to go pestering wizards for advice and assistance, you'd expect him to have the same sort of attitude towards them that most people have towards PPI reclaim cold callers.

Though no longer angry, the Gnome is still unhappy that his Firebird has been frightened away, as he's worried that some of the Orcs in the forest will kill and eat it. Trying to recover the bird is an optional side quest, but I'll do it anyway. We search for a while, eventually coming across a couple of Orcs, who have found the bird and are trying to shoot it out of the tree in which it's resting. We attack, and I kill one of the Orcs with ease. Orlando only manages to knock over the other, so I grab a branch and smack it in the head. Another 'spot what's hidden in the picture' puzzle ensues, and the Firebird is better concealed than any of Sad Sam's stuff. Still not hard to find, though, so I capture it and return it to its owner, who rewards me with a Ring of Lightning.

Continuing through the forest, we come across a bald-headed Axeman fighting a Treeman. Both ask us for help, but the Treeman's need appears greater, so I restrain the Axeman, who reveals himself to be in Darkmoon's service. The Treeman expresses his gratitude by giving me some magic sap, which boosts my Skill, and advises me to seek Lady Helena, who can provide directions to the Howling Tunnels. He can't remember whether she lives in Westwater or Eastwater, and wrongly guessing which it is led to my failing my previous online attempt at this adventure. I don't make the same mistake this time.

Arriving at the village, I am surrounded by cheering Elves, who take me to see Lady Helena. She's on a throne beneath a lemon tree, and both she and the lemons are smiling. When I explain my quest, she tells me the wrist on which I must wear the wristlet for it to work, provides me with some garlic, and gives me a Potion of Good Fortune. She then tells me that I must now go to a place too evil for her to name, though I can find the way there by counting the lemons on her tree. That shouldn't be tricky, though a previous owner of the book evidently found it challenging enough that they felt the need to write numbers on all the lemons in the illustration.

While the number of lemons makes clear the number of the section to which I must turn to get to this place of evil, there's no in-story connection between the number and the place. The number just inexplicably causes us to go to the other of the villages named by the Treeman. Using the A=1 code that crops up so often in gamebooks doesn't help, as the number of lemons corresponds to a letter that appears part of the way through both village names. And the description of our arrival there doesn't really allow for the possibility that saying the number caused us to be magically transported there. It just doesn't make any sense if you think about it.

In any case, we proceed to the other village, which has a sign warning that strangers are not welcome. Undeterred, I stride into it, noting that the villagers are all fearful. A bell tolls, and while you'd expect the locals to already know the significance of this warning sign, someone still bothers to point out that it's the time that 'the beast' feeds. The streets clear, apart from my small party, and a loud roar prompts me to draw Edge without even asking for permission. Orlando indicates an alley he thinks we should avoid, so I stride into it and encounter a gruesome, drooling, skull-headed monstrosity in chainmail. The Skullbeast attacks, but I kill it with my first blow.

Taking the money I find on the corpse, I return to the street. Before long I notice a shop filled with bric a brac, and enter in spite of the sign reading 'Closed'. A balding man with a frown introduces himself as Domehead, and tells me that the shop isn't open, and in any case, nothing is for sale, so I ask if he'd be interested in a trade. That piques his interest, and he asks what I have to trade.

This is where my first attempt at the book ended, because the only items I'm allowed to offer Domehead are ones that can be found in Vanish, which I hadn't visited, and there's no 'if you have neither' option. It wouldn't have been difficult to turn back a page and choose the non-trade option, but I was too annoyed at the book's poor design to continue with it at the time. This time round I have both tradable items, so I offer the one that duplicates an unhelpful item from one of Ian Livingstone's earlier gamebooks. In return, Domehead gives me a pair of Elven Boots, a Magic Staff, and some Blue Cheese.

He also loudly accuses me of stealing from him as soon as I leave the shop, as a result of which several armed guards (who didn't seem to be around back when the Skullbeast was making the streets unsafe for the citizens of this miserable dump) charge at me. I flee into another alley, and when I reach a junction, I pick the turning that leads to a dead end. Edge is keen to spill their blood, but one of them shoots me in the neck with a poisoned dart, causing me to black out.

I regain consciousness in a cell. Orlando is with me, but Edge is in the room on the other side of the door, making snarky observations about his inability to free us. However, Edge is the only item the guards bothered to take from me before throwing me into the cell, and the key to Sad Sam's front door (which is one of the other items I picked up in Vanish) conveniently fits the lock on this cell, so I have no trouble breaking out. We flee from the village before any further unpleasantness can befall us.

It's getting dark, and the only shelter in the area (other than in the grotty dump we've just escaped) is a ruined house. It's better than nothing, and once we've settled down there, I spend some time chatting about the region with my companions before dropping off. The sound of footsteps wakes me a few hours later, and I just have time to gather my wits before a Vampire enters the ruin. The first time I played this book until reaching an actual ending, this was where I failed, having gone the wrong way after the Treeman incident and thus not having received the Garlic from Lady Helena. This time round I'm able to repel the bloodsucking fiend, and while doing so I spot a trapdoor that I somehow failed to notice earlier.

We go through the trapdoor, and I bolt it behind us (good thing it wasn't bolted before I tried opening it). Down below is a dank and damp passageway, along which we head. After a while, we reach a door that has 'KEEP OUT' written on it, so naturally I open it. The room beyond has large spiders all over the floor (and, in the accompanying illustration, at least one wall and the ceiling). Also in the room is a leather pouch, on the end of a rope attached to the ceiling, and there's another door on the far side.

As this is an Ian Livingstone book, there's a strong probability that entering the room without possessing the correct item will prove lethal, but not acquiring whatever is in that pouch will guarantee failure in the long run. I enter the room, and when the spiders prove non-hostile, Orlando joins me. As soon as I take the pouch, the door slams shut and the walls begin closing in, but when I wedge the Magic Staff I got from Domehead between the walls, they stop. The exact same thing can happen in a Tunnels & Trolls solo (IIRC, Deathtrap Equalizer Dungeon), but the set-up is conventional enough that the two authors could easily have come up with it independently of each other.

The pouch contains three precious stones, all of them types that could be acquired in Deathtrap Dungeon, and two of them featuring in that book's endgame. I wonder if the third is the only one I'll need here. The door on the other side of the room is locked, and apparently not even Sad Sam's key will open it, but the door through which I entered can now be opened again, so I return to the passageway.

Further on, we reach another door. Looking through it, I see a large monster (identified by Orlando as a Bonecrusher) chained to a wall, and a wooden chest on the other side of the room. I head over to the chest, and encounter another example of authorial sloppiness: the text asks if I've drunk a Potion of Good Fortune. There is no way of getting here without encountering the Vampire. The Vampire kills any character who has no Garlic. In this book, Garlic can only be acquired from Lady Helena. Meeting Lady Helena automatically leads to being given a Potion of Good Fortune to drink. Therefore, reaching this stage of the book without having drunk the Potion is impossible, so there was no need for the question, and there's no need for the paragraphs covering not having drunk the Potion.

As a result of my having drunk the Potion, the Bonecrusher's chain is short enough that I have no trouble evading the creature on my way to the chest, which contains a map of the Howling Tunnels and a warning about where Troglodytes may be encountered. The map doesn't specify where the Tunnels are, though, and despite having been to the person the Treeman said would tell me the way to them, and having gone on to the place where she sent me, I still don't have any idea of their actual location.

We return to the passage, and it leads to a flight of steps. At the top of these is another trapdoor, which opens onto a nondescript plain. I wonder what purpose the tunnel served back when the house from which it led was intact. I also wonder if Ian Livingstone ever gave any thought to the matter, or if he just threw it in for the sake of having a secret(ish) passage.

Orlando complains of being cold and hungry, so we start looking for somewhere we can find food and shelter. Instead, we discover a large, beetle-like insect which intermittently sprays a toxic white substance on the ground. According to Orlando, it's a Litterbug, which makes me curious as to what sort of stuff people were dumping on the streets in Ian Livingstone's neighbourhood back when he wrote this.

A Centaur attacks the Litterbug with a spear and kills it. I greet the Centaur, who is friendly towards us. He doesn't know where the Howling Tunnels are, either, but he offers to take us to the village of the Big Blue Mice, who apparently know everything, and are sure to tell us in return for a gift. We accept the offer.

The Big Blue Mice are what the name suggests: bipedal mice roughly the size of humans, with blue fur, skin, and houses. I stroll into a smithy and ask the mouse at work there if he can direct us to the Howling Tunnels. He replies in a strange language, which is created in exactly the same way that I 'invented' an alien language back when I was about nine years old, so I'd say that this puzzle is pitched just right for the target readership. Translated, the mouse's words turn out to be telling me that I'll have to hand over some blue cheese if I want my question answered. Good thing that just such a foodstuff was another of the items I got from Domehead. And that I didn't give it to Orlando when he was whining about being hungry (a detail he seems to have forgotten by now).

In return for the cheese, the mouse tells me how to get to the Tunnels, and adds a warning about a Dragon which might be encountered in them. I thank him, and we set off as directed. After some time we reach mountainous terrain, and catch sight of the landmark indicated by the mouse. Behind it is a cave entrance, through which we go. The cave is lit by torches, and guarded by a Cave Troll, though the Troll is currently asleep. Again the book brings in superfluous paragraphs by asking if I've drunk the Potion of Good Fortune. You know, it would have been more interesting if I'd been given the Potion in a bottle and told that its effect would only be temporary. That could provide a minor quandary for repeat readers - the knowledge that there are at least two situations in which the Potion can be of use prompting a little reflection on when is the best time to take it. But no, we just get intermittent wastage of ink and paper on impossible situations.

We manage not to disturb the Troll. As we head further into the Tunnels, we hear what sounds like a shriek, and Edge insults Orlando because there's been no pointless squabbling in a while. The scream is repeated, and we hear running footsteps and hysterical laughter. It thus comes as a minor surprise that the next thing we encounter is the Dragon of which the mouse spoke. Despite the noises we've just heard, it's asleep, and it is thus a little odd that in order to get past it, I need a Potion of Invisibility. Conveniently, just such a Potion was the third thing I got back in Vanish, and there's enough of it for me to share with Orlando, so we can both pass through the cave without being spotted by the slumbering Dragon.

Up ahead, the tunnel splits. Symbols are carved on the walls of both passages that lead on, and one of those symbols was mentioned in connection with the Troglodytes that the note on the map warned me to avoid. The same two symbols turned up on a couple of doors in Temple of Terror, and the one that didn't lead to death in that book is the one that doesn't lead to the Troglodytes in this one.

I take the non-Troglodyte passage, which leads to a cavern containing a marble fountain in the shape of a nymph pouring water from an urn. The nymph is wearing a golden wristlet, and the text and illustration don't match well here: the wristlet is described as being 'in the shape of a hand', but looks like a straightforward band with a hand attached. Also in the cavern is the source of the screams: a Banshee. She is also depicted in a manner that doesn't entirely match the text, as green skin is not a common feature among old women.

The Banshee attacks. This is the toughest fight in the book, the Banshee having a Skill equal to mine, and I've never got beyond this point while playing by the rules. On this occasion, neither of us manages to land a blow for something like half a dozen rounds of combat, but eventually the Banshee wins a round, and that's all it takes to ensure that this is yet another unsuccessful attempt at the book.

1 comment:

  1. I'm sorry to see that this page hasn't been updated in a while. I've greatly enjoyed your playthroughs both here, and your contributions at rpg.net

    If it interests you (or your readers) my playthrough of the Way of the Tiger series (www.wayofthetigerblog.wordpress.com) is now complete and, because I do not lack for ambition, I am now attempting the epic Lone Wolf series! www.lonewolfsaga.wordpress.com. Feel free to check it out!

    Take care.

    ReplyDelete