Monday, 28 March 2016

A Few of the Tales Were Exceedingly Picturesque

This is the third (and probably final) part of my playthrough of Magehunter. Anyone who hasn't read the earlier parts would be advised to do so before reading on, as this is not the most straightforward adventure ever to be published under the Fighting Fantasy banner.

Kallamehr is quite a metropolis, with all sorts of people in it, as well as a number of strange non-human creatures (I, the reader, recognise that many of these creatures are also people, but my character hasn't yet cottoned on to the existence of other sapient, intelligent species). There's some additional bookkeeping on the Adventure Sheet from now on, evidently to keep track of how long I've been here and how much attention I've attracted. Spending too much time seeking Mencius is likely to end badly (not that I've ever survived long enough to find out how), but I know from a combination of past attempts that not taking long enough is also inadvisable. The tricky part is going to be passing the required amount of time without getting killed. And finding an opportunity to swap bodies with Reinhardt again.

First I try using my limited language skills to find out if any other people with a complexion like mine have arrived in the city of late. A woman seems to get what I'm asking, and leads me to a district in which the only structures are tents. There's a big space in the middle of the area, in which a crowd is watching a performer on a stage. He wears heavy make-up, and is putting on a magic show. Well, doing tricks with silk scarves. My character thinks it could be Mencius, but even if previous attempts at the book hadn't left me with an inkling of what my nemesis is actually up to, I'm pretty sure I'd be sceptical about the idea of such a villain becoming an entertainer (and limiting himself to what could just be sleight of hand rather than using more impressive magic). Consequently, rather than trying to ambush him, I'll just follow him after the show ends.

He lives on the far side of the tent district, and I keep an eye on his footprints as I trail him. According to the Treatise, every 101st print left by a Mage is in the shape of a cat's paw rather than a foot. I see no pawprints along the way, so unless every single 101st print got obliterated before I could see it (unlikely but not impossible), this man is not a Mage. With my options now limited to ambushing him or giving up on this 'lead', I take note of the abysmal Skill score this body has, and leave the district.

A trip to the market wastes a little more time, and reveals to me that there's a slightly larger variety of items on sale here than in the previous town. Prices are largely consistent, but weapons and fancy clothing are cheaper here, while food and plain clothes cost more. I'm sure that that indicates something about the nature of supply and demand in the region.

I consider using Magehunting methods, but the only one open to me is the one that probably leads to the fight which ended my first attempt at the book. On reflection, that's more likely to have happened in Kallamehr than the other town: Kallamehr's bath-house was a visitable location in The Riddling Reaver, and I'm not even certain I went to the unnamed town the first time I played Magehunter. Thinking about the technique without trying it doesn't advance the clock, so I'm no better off for having looked into the possibilities.

Well, the only other thing I can do is seek a storyteller. For now I will not look for the one recommended by Al-Bakbuk, so I just wander around until I find one. This turns out to be a man in patchwork clothes, who tells the onlookers a fable that mocks judging by appearances. I give the man a coin and ask if he's seen any strangers, and he replies with a fable about greed. Indeed, I can't get him to say anything that isn't a fable of no obvious relevance to my situation, so I leave him to it.

Still, that has passed the time satisfactorily. As I contemplate my next course of action, Mencius finds me. He's come for a gloat, and, grinning all over my face, explains that his powers are much stronger in this world, so he has a gift to show how insignificant he considers me. My scalp prickles as he hands over a box, but I don't attempt to swap bodies, as I tried that the first time I reached this point in the adventure, and it did not end well for me.

The box contains my pistol, plus gunpowder and a lead bullet. Having delivered his insult, Mencius heads off again. Following him would be inadvisable at this stage, but now I have something with which to fire my silver bullet, it's okay for me to go looking for Al-Haddar. Well, okay-ish: I'm still stuck as Reinhardt, but I don't think there's anything I can do about that by now. I wish the book had said something about whether or not it was possible to just make use of equipment held by my companion (as long as we remained together), so I could have dispensed with that second body-swap. Next time round, I'll just have to assume I can somehow persuade or intimidate Reinhardt.

Al-Haddar is as hospitable as his brother, and tells me that his stories may help me in my quest, as they are all true, and the truth is a powerful thing. He throws a feast in my honour, but afterwards I discover that I'm in worse trouble that I'd realised. What the book says is slightly ambiguous, but I suspect that what it's supposed to mean is that I can only listen to the stories if I have a proper understanding of the language. Which is not unreasonable - I had been wondering how I was able to follow the other storyteller's fables so well with my limited grasp of the lingo - but almost certainly means that I've already completely failed the adventure, and all that remains to discover is how I wind up dying. Should have gone with my out-of-character knowledge back at the sorcerer's cave, rather than roleplaying.

Well, if my character's doomed, I might as well explore a false trail or two before the end. It'e either that or the bath-house bouncer again. There are two other named storytellers I can visit, and not having been given their names doesn't appear to be an obstacle to calling on them, so I'll try Al-Nashshar. Well, I try to try, but it turns out that I'm not the only person here not to have heard of him. Indeed, there doesn't seem to be a single person in Kallamehr who knows anything of his existence. My search takes me back to the market square, where I spend the last of Reinhardt's money on half a dozen more mirrors, to reduce whatever benefits Mencius might gain from looting my corpse.

That only leaves Al-Fakik to try visiting. He turns out to live in a rather shabby hut in the unsavoury part of the city that is the docks. He's also fat and scruffy, and demands two gold in return for a story. As I'm out of cash, and cannot truthfully claim to have been sent here by his brother, all I can do is leave again.

Time's up. I suddenly hear (but don't see) Mencius mocking me for being so conspicuous in my investigations. My sixth sense leads me to a run-down house close by, and my common sense doesn't kick in, as a result of which I wind up leaping through an open window rather than loading my pistol, laying down a circle of mirrors, or anything else that might actually help me in the impending confrontation. So Mencius transforms me into a rat.

I don't think this book deserves the poor reputation it has among gamebook fans. Nevertheless, it has its problems, and a bit more editorial attention (including asking for clarification in a few places) could have made a significant improvement.

Thursday, 24 March 2016

We Thought You Would Feel Happier as Yourself

This is the second part of my latest attempt at Fighting Fantasy gamebook 57, Magehunter. The plot's a little more convoluted than usual, so I would strongly recommend that if you haven't yet read the first part, you do so before reading any further in this post.

My companion and I walk along the riverbank for a while, and then Reinhardt stumbles. He blames the body he's occupying, and I refrain from pointing out that I managed not to fall over despite being stuck in an even more rubbish one. We take a short break, and then I experience a sudden bout of dizziness and a tingle in my scalp. I inadvertently make eye contact with my companion, and after a short bout of more extreme disorientation, I find myself in Mencius' body, staring at Reinhardt, and wishing I'd taken a bit more care when bandaging that bullet wound. Reinhardt is delighted to have returned to his own body (well, it is what he's used to, poor lad!), and I'm moderately pleased to find that I'm now:
Skill 5
Stamina 8
A point of Skill can be worth several Stamina, so I think I'm better off now that I was at the end of the previous instalment. Plus, now I have an inkling of the trick, I can initiate a body swap any time the top of my head starts to tingle. Better steer clear of the medicated shampoos for a bit.

Now he's his old self, Reinhardt has no interest in resting for any longer, and drags me to my feet. We resume our search for Mencius, and I try to figure out where in the world we could be, wishing I'd paid more attention to my geography lessons (a feat of roleplaying far more challenging than imagining myself to be a barbarian, a woman, or a four-armed alien gribbly).

Further along, we come across some clothes at the side of the river. Upon closer inspection, they turn out to be some of my undyed garb, now interestingly torn. The text describes the presence of the rips as a 'strange thing', which I find a little inappropriate. According to The Most Revered Treatise of MAGE HUNTING at the start of the book, a sorcerer's body will double in size when submerged in water (which makes it a much more effective test than the 'sink or float' idiocy that led to many deaths in the real world). I know that Mencius is a sorcerer, and his consciousness is occupying my body, so it makes perfect sense that, while in the river, he swelled up and damaged my clothes like Bruce Banner in a bad mood. A reader who fails to put together the clues might be baffled by the torn clothing, but my character, who is far more familiar with the different indications of Magery than I am, shouldn't find it strange.

I take the clothes with me as we carry on along the riverside. After a while we reach a path, and follow that instead. It leads to a walled town with towers that have onion-shaped structures at their tops - not an architectural style with which I am familiar. Nor do the curved swords wielded by the guards on the town gate look like any weapon I've seen before.

The guards seem not to think much of us, but they let us through the gate anyway. Inside the town, I am startled to see how much silk people are wearing - even the wealthiest people in my home region would struggle to afford such finery. It would be advisable to familiarise myself with the culture here before I do much more, as any social blunders made in the course of searching for Mencius could lead to serious trouble.

To start to learn about the ways of this place, I seek a local tavern. This is tricky, because they don't have signs indicating what they are like the ones in my home region, but drunkards here act like the drunkards I've seen in more familiar climes, so when I spot one staggering out of a building, I go in there. Yep, that's a pub all right. The seating arrangements, drinking vessels, and serving maids' costumes may be unlike what I'm used to, but people are being served alcoholic beverages and consuming them on the premises. And the clincher is that everyone falls silent when we enter. Only for a moment, though, and then the babble of numerous conversations resumes, albeit in a language I don't understand at all.

One of the locals is remarkably friendly, buying us drinks and teaching us a little of the local language. While the words he tells me don't include the phrase for, 'I require medical attention. Please direct me to the nearest competent medic,' showing him the bullet wound does the job well enough. The physician to whom my new friend takes me treats the wound with stinging herbs and applies a proper bandage, and his ministrations further improve my Skill, as well as bringing my Stamina up almost as high as Reinhardt's.

As we return to the street, my scalp prickles again. Do I want to do another body-swap with Reinhardt? As regards stats, it would be a foolish thing to do, but I need to think about equipment, too. My companion carries what little remains of my Magehunting equipment, as well as the only money we have. The book's been pretty clear on who carries what, but less so about how to change that without also changing the location of my consciousness. And what I've seen of Reinhardt's personality suggests that asking nicely won't do the trick. I wonder if showing that I can re-Mencius him (almost) at will might intimidate him into becoming more cooperative.

I give it a shot. Reinhardt is, unsurprisingly, displeased to be having another out-of-body-and-in-someone-else's experience, and says some rather unflattering things to me. Our new friend, aware neither of what's just happened nor of the meaning of the words being yelled by his freshly-healed acquaintance, is rather baffled at the outburst, but shrugs it off and takes us back to the tavern, where Reinhardt's mood improves. I guess he liked the drinks.

Until closing time, our drinking companion, who indicates his name to be Al-Bakbuk, continues to teach us how to communicate more effectively with him and his compatriots, and once we have to leave the hostelry, he invites us to stay at his home. We accept, and over the course of the next few days, I learn enough to be capable of at least basic communication. Throughout this time, my scalp remains untingled, doubtless to Reinhardt's distress.

When I'm ready to resume my search for Mencius, I decide to pay Al-Bakbuk back for his generosity, and give him some of the jewellery that this body is carrying. He is delighted with the gift, and reciprocates with an embroidered robe, which apparently identifies the wearer as a retired Vizier of the Caliph's court. The titles mean nothing to me, but I gather that this should cause people to treat me with respect. Al-Bakbuk also tells me that, should my search take me to Kallamehr, I should seek out his brother, a storyteller named Al-Haddar.

Anyone familiar with Paul Mason's earlier FF work should recognise that place name, and thus realise (if they hadn't already twigged) that their character is now on the standard FF world of Titan. The Arabian Nights-esque trappings of this region may jar a little, as they weren't prominent in Slaves of the Abyss (though the illustrations for the sections of The Riddling Reaver that take place in Kallamehr indicate that it was conceived as such a setting), but the fact that the place is now being viewed through the eyes of an outsider provides some justification for highlighting what was at most subtextual before.

I have no idea when I'll next get a chance to swap bodies, so I shall do some shopping while I'm the man with the money. The prices here are exorbitant, compared to what I'm used to (though some of them are quite reasonable by Titan standards), but running out of funds is probably going to be less disastrous than it would be to encounter Mencius while still under-equipped. In the Background section I was able to prevent Mencius from fleeing with a circle of mirrors. Not sure how many I'll need, but ten seems a reasonable number, and will only cost half of Reinhardt's money. A couple of portions of Provisions would also come in handy.

So, time to start searching for Mencius. Memory suggests that one of the Mage-detecting techniques available here leads to the bath-house where my first attempt at this book ended, and in this body I'd have very little chance of surviving the fight there. An alternative approach would require me to buy a dog and feed him on goat's meat for a week, and I doubt that my remaining funds will stretch to cover dog and food. Which leaves me with asking around. Not the most effective method, but I know the word for 'sorcerer', so at least I won't have to try to communicate my intent to the locals via mime.

My questions attract the attention of an old man with a beard, who leads me to a cave in a valley. The cave has an occupant: another old man, with one of the unusual cloth hats that seem quite fashionable around here. That's not Mencius, unless he's swapped bodies again. He invites me into the cave and asks how he can help, and I tell him I'm hunting a sorcerer. To my surprise, he tells me that he is a sorcerer. I could attack him, but it seems so unlikely that anyone would admit to such a thing so casually, I can't help but wonder if the language barrier is confusing issues. What if there's a word similar to the term for 'sorcerer' that means something more benign, and that's what this chap is?

He says something I don't understand, but it includes the word 'Mencius', so it's obvious that he knows something relevant. With considerable difficulty he communicates that he wants to teach me his language properly, by means of some kind of spell. This is where I may come to regret my commitment to playing in character: while I know that there's good magic as well as evil on Titan, the Magehunter only knows of the malign variety, and is hardly likely to let some stranger cast a spell on him. As best I can, I indicate my refusal, and my determination to find out where Mencius is. The old man is terrified, and indicates Kallamehr, to the south-west. In case I misunderstood his intent, and he's not actually a servant of evil, I thank him for his assistance, and he gives me a pentagonal gold coin (which the book oddly insists I list as a 'gold hex' on my Adventure Sheet).

Heading south-west, Reinhardt and I soon reach a road, and on it we encounter a quintet of merchants. Either they're not from around here, or there's a minor continuity issue at this point in the book, because I can't understand any of what they have to say. Regardless, they are just as hospitable as Al-Bakbuk, and we don't have to worry about food or shelter for the duration of the journey. We go our separate ways at the city gate, one of the merchants presenting me with a wineskin as a farewell gift.

This seems like a good point at which to pause the narrative again. I hope to take less time writing the next instalment, especially as I intend to attempt a rather different gamebook for this blog on the first of April, which isn't far off by now.

Monday, 14 March 2016

I Am He as You Are He as You Are Me

A little under a month ago I mentioned having acquired the gamebook I was then playing while browsing the local charity shops during my usual Christmas visit to Tunbridge Wells. A similar browsing expedition, made almost 3 weeks after the day I came across the selection of Fighting Fantasy books that got me back into collecting gamebooks, was rather more successful. In one of the more short-lived charity shops on Camden Road, I came across three FF books. One of them was a late printing of Starship Traveller, which I left on the shelf because the book had never been a personal favourite, it didn't look right with the dragon logo and green spine, and the price was 20% up on what I'd paid for each of the books I'd got earlier in the month. The other two books, though equally 'expensive', were new to me, and I decided I was willing to stretch to 30p each for the ones I'd never played before.

At the time, I had no idea what a bargain they were. I had yet to connect with gamebook fandom and learn that my new acquisitions were two of the rarest FF gamebooks around. One of them was Paul Mason's Magehunter (and, given that I've not gone into detail about this particular find before on this blog, it's not as if there are many candidates for the other). When I got back to the parental home, I made unsuccessful attempts at my new acquisitions (playing by the rules, or I would at least have got further, even if decisions made early on had already guaranteed my ultimate failure). As I recall, my first go at Magehunter ended when my search for the villain took me to a bath-house, and the bouncers took lethal umbrage at my using the wrong entrance.

My character is the eponymous Magehunter, dedicated to tracking down and bringing to justice those villains who use sorcery to abet them in their evil ways. Now, I acknowledge that in the real world a lot of innocent people were persecuted and killed by self-proclaimed witchfinders and their ilk. However, in the worlds in which this gamebook is set, evil mages are a reality, and the listed methods for identifying them are reliable, so it's a pretty egregious misreading of the text to complain (as some have done) about having to play the part of a delusional maniac who goes around killing people who've done nothing wrong. And I don't recall those who raised such objections being too bothered by the FF book that really was all about invading someone's home and killing them in response to ill-defined accusations of malicious magicking.

Anyway, armed with my knowledge of the best ways of identifying, tracking and overpowering a Mage, plus appropriate equipment, I am now on the trail of the villainous sorcerer Mencius. And what are my stats? Allocating dice may well be a good idea, but not for the usual reasons. Based on the numbers I get, I think I'd be best off with:
Skill 7
Stamina 17
Luck 11
Towards the end of the Puffin run of FF books, the proofreading got distinctly sloppy, as a result of which the book's Adventure Sheet has three boxes for my Skill and none for my Stamina or Luck. My previous online attempt at the book contains a number of deliberate mistakes inspired by this and other typographical blunders present in the text.

Incidentally, 'worlds' in the paragraph before last is not a typo or a deliberate mistake. My character lives on a world other than Titan. I'm not sure where it is, but it can't be the one we inhabit, either. If the existence of genuine evil wizards and reliable witchfinders isn't clue enough, there's also the fact that, despite the vaguely Germanic implications of the title of Margrave, red is the traditional colour of mourning in this culture. Or undyed clothing for non-relatives. Given that Mages gain power from wearing red, and lose it in clothes containing no dye, I'm a little curious as to the origins of these funerary traditions, but don't expect to come across any explanations. Oh, and judging by a simile used at one point, this is also a region that has bison.

Even before section 1, I succeed in capturing Mencius. He tries to levitate away, but I shoot him with a silver bullet before he can get more than a metre above the ground. Before setting off for the Margrave's castle, where Mencius can be held for trial and execution, I tie him up with a rope made from human hair to negate his sorcerous abilities (which doesn't stop him from smirking in an 'I did that!' manner when my horse stumbles and is lamed). Owing to my horse's accident, the journey takes significantly longer than I'd hoped, and to make things worse, when I reach the castle, I learn that the Margrave died during the night, and people are too busy with preparations for the funeral to worry much about Mencius. Even I am required to spend time assisting with the funeral rites rather than ensuring that the Mage is properly incarcerated. This is not going to end well, is it?

The funeral is followed by a meal in honour of the late Margrave, and I'm obliged to attend that as well. Two courses in, young Reinhardt, the Margrave's heir, leaves the dining hall, but I still have to stay. It's almost a relief when the floor starts to shake and chunks of ceiling rain down on the gathered mourners, as the situation is now bad enough that I can probably get away with heading for the dungeons before the cheese board is brought in.

As I hurry away, the tremors worsen, cracks opening in the floor. I reach the dungeon level, and see green smoke billowing from under one of the doors. Shouldn't be too hard to work out which cell Mencius occupies, then. When I get there, I see Mencius out of his bonds and uttering vile incantations, a spaced-out-looking Reinhardt holding the keys to Mencius' shackles, and a guard cowering uselessly in the corner. A rift opens in the ground, and Mencius and Reinhardt start moving towards it. I charge towards them, partly in the hope of disrupting Mencius' spell, but mainly because I know from past attempts at the book that any other course of action will rule out getting to the best ending.

Mencius, Reinhardt and I all wind up falling into the crack in the floor, which is no ordinary crack, as minutes pass with no end to the fall. Everything goes black, and then suddenly we're in daylight and standing on a mountain ledge. Well, two of us are on the ledge, but the other falls off and rolls down a slope into a river. A groan from the person up here with me gets my attention, and I turn to see Mencius in a heap on the ground, now bleeding and with grey in his hair. Taking a closer look at him while he's out of action, I discover that he has physically aged, and his bullet wound has reopened. I extract the bullet in case I wind up needing it again, and also retrieve my rope of human hair, which accompanied us here.

Wishing to follow proper procedure, I bandage the wound to increase the likelihood of Mencius surviving until he can be brought to trial. He comes round and, speaking in a baffled tone unlike his usual hostile gloating, expresses amazement that I look just like he does. Which is, of course, nonsense, as I can prove with a quick check in one of the mirrors I carry as part of my Magehunter's equipment. Except that I don't have the mirrors. Or any of my gear, beyond what I picked up since arriving on the ledge And I'm in mourning scarlet rather than my undyed garb. More than that, I'm in Reinhardt's body, not my own. And Mencius here isn't Mencius, but Reinhardt in Mencius' body. So it must have been Mencius that fell into the river, in my body. I hope he takes better care of it than he did his own.

Mind you, prematurely aged and wounded as Mencius' body is, it can hardly be in worse shape than Reinhardt's. Luck not being a physical attribute, my score for that is unchanged, but until I can relocate my consciousness in something better, I'm a rather pathetic:
Skill 4
Stamina 11
In this state, I'd be lucky to survive a fight with a Goblin, never mind a remotely competent opponent.

Paying a bit more attention to my surroundings, I become aware that I don't recognise any of the plants growing in the vicinity, and realise that I have no idea of where I am. Or when, for that matter - it was autumn back home, but this place is bright and sunny. Almost unbearably so.

Anyway, I'm not going to get back to my body or my home by just wishing hard, so I'd better try to find Mencius. Climbing the mountain strikes me as an unproductive course of action (my body didn't fall up). I could try one of the Mage-detecting techniques that don't require specialised equipment (preferably not the one that only works on the 13th day of the new moon, because who knows how far through the lunar cycle this place is), but following the river into which Mencius fell should work just as well. Possibly even more so, as the available techniques just point in the direction of the closest Mage, and given the speed of the river, there's no guarantee that Mencius is still closer than any local sorcerer.

I think I'll pause the narrative for now. It's been a week since my last playthrough went up, and I wouldn't want people to think this was going to be another months-long gap between posts.

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.

Wednesday, 2 March 2016

Time, Where Did You Go?

As I mentioned in the preamble to my playthrough of the fifth of Mark Smith and Jamie Thomson's Falcon books, I'm pretty sure that I bought At the End of Time, the last book in the series, before I got the preceding one. Only because I was able to find it first - I'd have preferred to get them in order (or simultaneously), but one of the local bookshops had AtEoT in stock, and none of them had the preceding book, so I bought the one I could, and either waited for the other to turn up or placed an order for it.

I'm not entirely sure how my first attempt at the book ended, but I do remember what must have been an early try if not the first, in which I failed to put together all the clues that had been provided, set off an alarm, and got torn apart by hostile lizard beings because I didn't have any explosives to use against the horde.

Having finally defeated recurring antagonist Agidy Yelov, I can now get back to the day-to-day routine of work as Chief of the Special Agent Section of TIME. Can, but won't, because Bloodhound, one of my agents and also a close friend, has gone missing, and I'd much rather try to find him than plough through status reports and other paperwork. I call in on Lord Jobanque, my superior, seeking authorisation to go off in search of Bloodhound, and am displeased to hear that, not only am I forbidden to take the mission, but nobody else is to be given it either.

It turns out that there's something odd about the timehole from which Bloodhound has not returned. The precise nature of its peculiarities has yet to be identified, but the top two theories regarding what happened when Bloodhound tried to travel to it are that he either got stuck forever in the void outside time and space or was simply atomised. Regardless, he is to be presumed dead, and the timehole is to be avoided.

So, do I defy orders and risk life and limb in a desperate bid to rescue my friend, or do I return to my desk and start reading reports? While the title of the book could refer to when I will finally clear the backlog of bumf, AtEoT was published a year too early to be hopping onto whatever 'interactive battles against red tape' bandwagon may have been spawned by Bureaucracy, and not even the worst of my days at the office have ever come close to becoming 'a vortex of unbelievable horror' as described on the back cover, so I'm going with the option that should make for the more eventful playthrough.

Abusing my authority, I have Falcon's Wing, my Time Machine, made ready, and travel to the vault where the Time Machines are stored. A security guard, obviously wishing that he'd chosen to take this particular day off work, sheepishly tells me that I'm not allowed in. I remind him just how massively I outrank him, and he backs down. Only briefly, and alarms soon start going off, but not in time to keep me from boarding a hovrail to the Time Machine bay.

Two Security Droids await me in the bay. Not relishing my prospects in a fight against them, even though they have been ordered to subdue rather than kill, I trust in the limitations of their AI and tell them to go to a storage area to apprehend the intruder responsible for the security alert. The Droids have orders to arrest me, but they also have to obey the orders of anyone of my security clearance or above, and as they haven't been explicitly told that I am the intruder, they can't tell that I'm lying. Instructing me to place myself under arrest and await their return, they glide away on their fools' errand, and I hurry into Falcon's Wing and pilot it into the timehole where Bloodhound vanished.

It soon becomes clear that there is something odd about the timehole. Instead of the usual grey void, I find myself passing through a stomach-churning mess of whirling colours like a washing machine full of Hawaiian shirts on the spin cycle. Only for a few seconds, which is a lot quicker than any normal trip through time, and then I arrive... somewhere. Shipboard computer CAIN is unable to identify where or when I've arrived, but can tell me that my readouts are only showing the date 99,999,999 AD because they don't have enough digits to show anything later than that. Worried about the premature ageing that can be caused by severe temporal displacement, I try to depart, but Falcon's Wing remains in its current spatio-temporal location.

I'd better explore my surroundings, then. I've arrived in a silty depression in the ground, and the only sign of life is an ancient-looking technologically advanced building in the distance. Gravity is close to Earth's, and the air is breathable but a little low on oxygen. I'll risk going out without my environment suit, but make a recce in the ship's flyer.

The view from above is not inspiring. Dusty plains, sluggish rivers, mountains rounded by aeons of erosion... and tracks in the dust! Catching sight of something moving along the track, I fly closer. It's a heavy-looking metal machine with a rotating turret on the top. There's something vaguely familiar about its appearance, but I decide not to hang around waiting for recognition to kick in. Mainly because the machine is shooting at me with a machine gun, and while such a weapon may be too primitive to pose a serious threat, opening fire like that does suggest that whoever is operating the machine isn't particularly friendly.

Flying on, I catch sight of an area that appears to be covered in camouflage netting. Then something shows up on my radar display, rapidly revealed to be a 21st century jet aircraft. It's armed with missiles, and marked with the letters USAF, which could be interpreted as signifying that I'm in trouble regardless of whether the pilot considers me friend or foe.

I land the flyer, hoping that the pilot of the jet might do likewise in order to find out who I am. Instead... well, at least I can recognise when someone's lining up a missile strike, and am able to get to a safe distance before General Norman Dummkopf up there blows the flier into its component parts.

Now on foot, I ascend a hillock, and hear machinery. Up this close, it's easier to figure out what that familiar-looking machine is. It's a Tiger tank, with SS markings, which is now pointing its main weapon at me. A couple more tanks join it. My blaster may be effective against tanks, but I'm not sure I can get all three before at least one of them lobs a shell in my general direction. Waiting to see what happens next looks like a suicidal option. That only leaves running back down the hillock.

At the bottom of the hillock, I look around. A tower, possibly the one I saw before, is some way away. A bit closer is some uneven, rocky ground. Rough enough to prove an obstacle to the tanks? Possibly, but where would I go from there, assuming the Nazis are prepared to leave me alone if I find cover. I'll try and make it to the tower.

I don't get anywhere helpful before a couple of the tanks reach the top of the hill and open fire with a barrage sufficiently widespread that I don't even get an Evasion Roll to try and avoid obliteration.