Wednesday, 14 June 2017

Some New Story, Delightsome and Delectable

The sixth and last of the Virtual Reality Adventures, and the fourth to be penned by Dave Morris, was also the VRA it took me longest to acquire. I eventually got it on eBay, though not before my saved search for it came up with dozens if not hundreds of false positives, more often than not romance novels. As gamebook titles go, Twist of Fate is probably the second most bothersome one I've ever had to seek online (though it was still pretty straightforward compared to this one).

At a later date, while visiting relatives in Swindon, I found a copy (cheaper than the one I'd bought, but with a slightly damaged cover) in an Oxfam shop, and got that one for a fellow gamebook collector. Alas, it seems to have subsequently been devoured in transit by some bibliophagous ghoul infesting the postal service.

I know I did have a go at the book shortly after the copy I retained arrived, but I have absolutely no recollection of what happened to my character beyond a vague impression that he didn't get very far. My lack of recall may be in part because the book draws on the tales of the Arabian Nights, as did The Demon's Claw, the third book of Dave Morris and Oliver Johnson's epic Blood Sword series, which I'd already played several times by the time I first read a VRA, so my memories of Twist might have blurred together with those of Claw.

I think I'll go with one of the pre-generated characters listed at the start of the book. It should be possible to successfully complete the adventure with any of them (so long as I make the right decisions), as this isn't one of Mark Smith's VRAs. After considering the options, I'm going with the Nomad, whose Skills are Agility, Folklore, Magic and Wilderness Lore.

The narrative begins with my character outside Baghdad on the last day of Ramadan. Quite a busy day, as it turns out: I find and tame a wild stallion, overhear the Grand Vizier Jafar plotting to overthrow the Caliph, and then get robbed of the horse and banished from the city by Jafar, and that's before I'm even out of the Prologue.

An encounter with a beggar costs me one gold dinar and prompts minor confusion over the rules: I also had to pay a dinar in the Prologue, but in this section the text explicitly reminds me to delete the coin from my Adventure Sheet, while there was no such direction in the Prologue. Does that mean the starting sum given with my character description is what I had left after the initial compulsory expenditure, or am I now 2 dinars down? Okay, it’s only one coin difference, but I’m probably going to need to make some purchases before long, and even one coin could make a potentially game-ending difference to what I buy.

Anyway, the beggar directs my attention to the starry sky overhead and makes a portentous observation about God guiding the worthy to a just reward. While I'm focusing on the stellar vista overhead, the beggar leaves. I attempt to catch up with him, but he loses me in a crowd which has gathered to listen to a storyteller. The tale being told ends, the crowd disperses, and a sailor emerges from a nearby astrologer's shop.

I decide to speak to the storyteller, who offers me wine, and I wind up telling him what has happened to me today. His interpretation of the beggar's words is that I should seek the nest of the fabled rokh, which lays eggs of pure diamond. That seems a bit of a leap to me - maybe I told my tale so well that he's trying to send me on a suicidal quest in order to keep me from stealing his audience.

Speaking of audiences, a new one is gathering, so I depart, and catch sight of the same sailor as before, now watching a street magician. Could just be a coincidence, but maybe we are fated to meet, in which case I would be advised to say hello before some adversity comes my way to force the encounter.

The sailor notes my less than cheery demeanour, and I find myself recounting the day's incidents again - at least as far as the encounter with the beggar, at which point the sailor interjects his theory as to what the beggar was saying: I should become a sailor myself, and let the stars guide me to my destiny. Not as implausible as the storyteller's theory, but still pretty tenuous.

I wander off, and consider the options open to me. I can try heading to the Caliph's palace to warn him of Jafar's treachery (does approaching the authorities ever work in gamebooks?), I can become a sailor after all, or I can join a merchant caravan. And that's it, so I might just as well seek my fortune at sea after all.

I get hired, but at a low wage, as Seafaring is not one of my Skills. To make things more interesting, I choose to enter the employ of a captain who is heading south in search of the fabled Scarlet Isle. We travel down river without incident for a week, and then one night, while we are moored midstream, I have trouble sleeping, and thus am the only one of the crew to notice a barque approaching. Notifying the captain wouldn't be very adventurous, so I wait and watch. As the barque draws closer, I see obvious signs of great wealth, and then catch sight of a woman in a curtained pavilion to the stern. Probably unwisely, I slip overboard and swim towards the barque, only now noticing the half-dozen guards playing dice on the foredeck, and hearing the woman sigh.

Also lacking the Skill of Streetwise, I miss out on some insight, and must choose whether to make myself known to the guards or surreptitiously approach the woman. Sneaking up on women is not a good thing to do, so I make my presence known, and the guards threaten to kill me. I doubt that my magic will help me to overcome so many, so I return to the ship I left, and the encounter ends unsatisfactorily, but at least not lethally.

The voyage continues, nothing else of interest happening until we dock at Suhar to bring aboard supplies. I get to visit the market, and my funds are more than one dinar too low for everything that could be useful, so I make do with a water bottle, a whistle and some gloves.

It would appear that this market can be visited as part of all the sea voyages on which I could have gone: as I return to the harbour, the book asks where I'm headed. In addition to the three destinations I was offered earlier, there's an option for 'if you cannot remember'. Does that indicate that my character could have lost his memory in some encounter I missed, or is it just indicative of an authorial lack of confidence in the reader's attention span?

Or could there be something more devious afoot here? Wild speculation: if what the reader encounters between Baghdad and Suhar varies depending on intended destination (which would be a bit Schroedingery, but excusable in view of the suggestion that fate or destiny or some such force may be intervening in my life), 'forgetting' might provide a means by which the hero could, say, gain the benefits of the incident which befalls a sailor bound for Egypt, and then change direction and head for the Indies. Then again, I may be massively overthinking things. And even if I am right, trying to cheat fate in this manner strikes me as a risky proposition, and I'd need to know the book far, far better than I do before trying it. So I'm still trying to find the Scarlet Isle.

Once we're under way again, I ask the Captain what cargo he seeks, and he tells me he's after ivory. Maybe the storyteller was right after all - he mentioned that the rokh preys on elephants, and ivory traditionally comes from elephants, so the logical inference is that the Scarlet Isle might house a rokh or two.

We have to reach it for that to matter, though, and after three days we are fog-bound and becalmed. My lack of Seafaring may cost me more than just a higher wage bracket. Do I risk using my Magic to summon a jinni? There seems little point in having a Skill if I never use it, so I hope my shipmates don't turn on me in superstitious panic.

Things turn out badly, but not quite as I'd expected. The crew are terrified at the sight of the jinni, but the captain is a brave man, and is all set to attack it when I intervene. Regrettably, while trying to defuse the situation, I make the mistake of referring to the jinni as an ogre, which the jinni takes about as well as a Welsh nationalist would respond to being referred to as an Englishman. Wilfully misinterpreting my instructions, the jinni propels the ship into the clouds, leaving us literally high and dry.

Upon closer inspection, we discover that the ship is not actually stranded on a cloud. That would be silly. It's stuck up a tree that grows out of the cloud. The captain plucks a violet bloom and hands it to me to confirm that the tree is real. One of the other sailors catches sight of a city further along the cloud, and since it's my fault that we're up here, I get sent to find out if the inhabitants can help us get back down to sea level.

Stepping overboard, I find the cloud to be as substantial as moss, and walk off. Only a short distance away, I hear the sound of a child crying. Could be a trap, but ignoring it would be unheroic, so I'll investigate anyway. Rounding a bank of cloud, I find a little girl, clutching a broken garland of flowers like the one the captain took from the tree. I'm about to give the girl my flower to help fix the garland when my Skill of Folklore reminds me of the tale of a sailor who survived being cast into the heavens on a waterspout because he had on him a magic flower which enabled him to walk on the clouds. If that is what's keeping me aloft, I should wait until I'm assured of a gentle descent before relinquishing it.

The girl stops crying and gives me a startlingly nasty scowl before running away. How odd. I usually get on terribly well with children. Well, there's not much I can do beyond resuming my walk to the city, which is made of precious metals and stones.

An arch leads me to a hall in which a gryphon is fighting a giant scorpion, both of them badly wounded. The gryphon asks me for a drop of blood to sustain it, and as a winged and sapient ally strikes me as being a good thing to have in the current situation, I grant its request. As expected, this costs me a Life Point, but it helps the gryphon to prevail in the fight. Then a giant black goat enters the hall, and the gryphon says it'll need to eat one of my eyes to get enough strength for this battle. What's the betting that, if I agree, the goat will be followed by an oversized carp, prompting the gryphon to request a bite or two of my spleen to sustain it? Or something along those lines.

Refusing to succumb to the sunk cost fallacy, I find myself running away from the city and back to the ship, where a typo has me pleonastically telling the crew what I say. Hope that was caught and fixed for the reissue. The captain is appalled (at the situation, not the misprint) and resolves to abandon ship, having the rigging spliced together into one long rope. In view of my culpability in the situation, I am selected to descend first and find out if the rope is long enough to get us safely down to sea level. It isn't, but the remaining drop is survivable, though it does cost me another Life Point and, at least temporarily, my consciousness.

I come round to find that I have been washed ashore on a beach. Barely lucid, I stumble along, catching sight of a palace. Beautiful people emerge and carry me to a bed, where I pass out again. When I regain my senses a second time, I find myself in the company of a group of sailors, who explain that they were shipwrecked and rescued by the servants of the wizard who lives here. The wizard even provided them with a new ship, though he asked them to delay leaving for a week, as he had foreseen my arrival and wanted them to take me with them.

My possessions (such as they are) are stacked neatly by the bed, and my Life Points are back at maximum. The sailors want to be on their way, but before leaving I'd like to see the wizard and thank him. Or try to find out what the catch is, because such generosity must have a hidden cost, right?

Maybe not. The wizard claims not to be the master of the palace, but its custodian, and reveals that he can't often see the future, but the complex weave of Fate's tapestry around me is at least partly visible to him. He sees injustice, sinister friends, unwitting foes, an ascent to the rokh's nest, an airborne ride on horseback, possibly robes of honour. To assist me, he hands over a pair of embroidered slippers that will make me weightless. He also avoids giving me his name, but there may be a good reason for that.

I rejoin the sailors and we depart, eventually reaching the port of Zeila, which the map in the front of the book reveals to be a significant distance to the east. The other sailors are keen to head back west and north to Basra, but my adventures are not yet over. There are traders close by, and while my funds won't stretch to much, I can afford a veil and a candle. Still having no real idea what will be useful and what is not, I get both.

I also get to experience the injustice of which the wizard spoke, as a barber falsely accuses me of being the man who stole a ruby from the palace treasury. As the captain of the palace guard faces execution if he fails to apprehend the thief by moonrise, the guards aren't too concerned about due process. The barber's pious refusal of a reward makes him the number one suspect on my list, but unless I can convince my captors of my innocence, I'm not likely to have much opportunity to find out if my suspicions are valid.

The Sultan has me thrown into an oubliette while he decides on my punishment, and the guards pilfer my remaining money (but nothing else) along the way. The oubliette is already in use, and the occupant, an old man with a mangy cat in his lap, doesn't seem very impressed by his new fellow prisoner. I talk to him anyway, protesting my innocence, and he tells me a little of the notorious thief known as the Shadow, who has several impressive thefts to his record, and intends to add the diamond egg of the rokh to the list of treasures he has pilfered.

My description of the old man's account as 'strange stories' offends him, and he draws my attention to the tail of his cat as proof of his veracity. Not wishing to have an enraged lunatic as my cellmate, I say that he's convinced me, but he can see that I'm trying to humour him, and tells me a pack of obvious lies to demonstrate the point he was trying to make: the cat's tail briefly grows in length every time the man states a falsehood.

The man then notices my magic slippers, and comments that they can't be ordinary footwear. There seems little point in trying to conceal the truth from him, so I agree, and then things fail to pan out as I had anticipated. Instead of borrowing the cat, using the slippers to get to the oubliette entrance, using my Magic to break the lock, and then reading political manifestos until the cat’s tail is long enough for the old man to climb up, I simply reveal the secret of the slippers and then take a nap, subsequently waking from a bad dream about impending live burial to find that the old man has taken the slippers and absconded with them, abandoning the cat. There’s probably not much chance of my being able to use her to convince the Sultan of my innocence, but such an obviously magical creature is still worth keeping. Provided I can get away alive.

The thieving, cat-neglecting wretch wasn't the only other person in here, and one of my remaining fellow-prisoners tells me that food is thrown down here once a day, at most, and the only way to get water is to lick moisture from the walls. As I still have my water bottle, I might be able to spare my tongue that particular unpleasantness for a day or two, but things are looking pretty grim.

A week later, a new prisoner is lowered in to join us. The guards gleefully tell us that we now have the honour to be sharing our imprisonment with the infamous Shadow, so I point out that their having captured the actual thief of the ruby proves that I'm innocent. They reply that I'm in jail, therefore I must be a criminal, and stroll off to check their cold cases for some other crime to pin on me.

The newcomer, a young man named Azenomei, with a scar on his nose, reveals that he's not actually the Shadow, but he thought I was, and got himself captured in order to gain access to me. I point out a few of the more glaring flaws in his plan, and he goes on to demonstrate that he's not completely stupid, though the guards must be, as he has a massive bunch of keys on him. There is still the little matter of the entrance's being twenty-odd feet overhead, but once Azenomei learns of the cat's unusual feature, he comes up with a plan.

We wait until dark, and then he starts whispering to the cat, presumably going straight to the climate change denial and prosperity teaching, as her tail stands bolt upright and grows all the way up to the grille covering the entrance. We climb up, unlock the grille, and escape, though I do delay briefly, maintaining my grip on the cat's tail so that, as it shrinks again, it lifts her to freedom as well.

Concealing ourselves among the sacks of grain on an ox-cart, we get out of the city without further unpleasantness, and Azenomei invites me to join him on his quest across the desert to rescue his sister from the bronze citadel in which a jinni has imprisoned her. The wizard didn't mention any daring rescue or distressed damsel, so I politely decline.

Heading away from the city, I find myself in mountainous territory. Food is scarce, and only my Wilderness Lore keeps me from losing Life Points. Even so, I am very grateful when I stumble upon a stone palace and am presented with a gargantuan repast by the servants of the three old men who live here. Not so grateful as to be entirely unsuspicious when the men cannot stop by long enough for me to thank them, as they 'have something to attend to'. Okay, so the wizard's generosity turned out to be genuine, but I think it unlikely that I should be so lucky twice over, so I sneak after the men to find out more about this important something.

Proceeding to a hall, the men sit down for a quiet smoke, and then start discussing my suitability as a sacrifice. they are confident that, in return for my life, their gods will grant them the power of flight, enabling them to ascend the Peak of Hara and rob the rokh's nest, the location of which one of them has marked on a map. Bandwagon-jumping scoundrels!

One of them advises that they go to check that I've succumbed to the drugged sherbet. Roguery is not one of my Skills, so I guess I'm not going to be able to feign unconsciousness until such time as I can turn the tables on them. Nor, it transpires, even to keep from knocking a shield off the wall and attracting their attention, though I'd have thought avoidance of clumsiness would come under Agility rather than Roguery.

The head sorcerer tells me I've been chosen for a glorious destiny. I'm not sure I agree with his definition of 'glorious', so I turn to flee, and the three of them summon up a cloud of noxious-looking green vapour that fumes its way towards me. At which point a rope drops from a balcony and Azenomei slides down it, acting like he's the hero of this tale, and throws me a vinegar-soaked piece of silk. While I'm wrapping the cloth around my face, he enters the cloud, clobbers one of the sorcerers, and steals their map, which he throws to me.

We make a rapid exit, and Azenomei again invites me to join his quest. I'm not sure why so capable a hero would have need of my assistance. Perhaps I could be of some help if I were the Shadow, but I'm not. Then again, if I do manage to rob the rokh's nest (which should be easier now I have the map), that would put me on a level with the Shadow, making me a worthy companion. I try to explain this to him, but he unexpectedly demonstrates himself to be a powerful sorcerer in his own right, and transforms me into a jackass before I can make my point.

Well, that suggests that he's up to no good, but I'm not exactly in a position to make good use of this knowledge any more.

*     *     *

In a little over a month, it will be five years since I started this blog. To mark the occasion (assuming there is sufficient interest), I will rip off emulate fellow gamebook blogger Aussiesmurf and offer my readers the opportunity to ask what they like, gamebook-related or not. So if there are any questions you'd like to put to me for my anniversary post, please submit them below.

2 comments:

  1. As before, Ed, your account seems far more thrilling than the book I remember writing :-)

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    1. Btw I'm relieved to be able to report, having just dug out the new edition and gone through it some consternation, that I did catch that say/saw misprint.

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