Monday, 26 June 2017

The Concentration of Force and the Development of Courage

This entry should please some of my readers, but it may also disappoint them a little. I'm back at the Mark Smith and Jamie Thomson subset of the 'shorter series' section of my gamebook collection, which means that I'm starting on The Way of the Tiger. However, I only have the original run, not the more recently published prequel or the long-awaited series finale. It's possible that I might have got my hands on the latter by the time I'm in a position to play it here, but I can make no guarantees.

I'll say something about my introduction to the series when I get to the book I encountered first. My earliest memory of Avenger!, the first book in the series, involves looking through a (most likely borrowed) copy during what was probably a private study session in room C at my school, just down or across the corridor (or both) from my form room. By this time Chris Pennington had drawn my attention to the fact that the same illustration appeared under every 'death' section in the TWotT books, and I was using that knowledge to help me find the grisliest endings. I also spent some time exploring different ways of handling a certain encounter to see if I could find a way of contradicting a reference back to it in the second book, but failed to find any loopholes.

Quite some time passed before I decided to collect the series myself (and that's a story for another blog post). When I did opt to get the set for the first time, I only managed to obtain half the series, but Avenger! was one of the books I did manage to track down. If I'd got the whole series I might have been more inclined to play Avenger! properly, or until I actually won it, but the incomplete set saw relatively little use until it became one of the casualties of the drastic downsizing of my gamebook collection in the early 1990s.

I did play Avenger! several times a decade or so later, after acquiring digital copies of the whole series from a site which had lots of gamebook scans. That was probably after I’d managed to get the whole series in paperback form - some of the physical books were in pretty shabby condition, and while my conscience didn't get on well with the thought of downloading unauthorised copies of books I didn't own, obtaining a digital back-up of a book I had on the shelf seemed fine. My attempts at that digital copy provide the one clear memory I have of playing and failing the book, a lethal bite from a serpent/human hybrid causing me to reflect that maybe I should have picked Immunity to Poisons as one of my Skills after all.

There's no random element to character generation, but, as indicated above, I must pick Skills. There are nine on the list, and I have just four of them, but Shurikenjitsu is selected by default, so I only get to pick three. I think, in honour of my only memorable deceased character, I should make Immunity to Poisons one of them. Picking Locks, Detecting and Disarming Traps (all one Skill) also looks useful, and I think I'll finish off with Climbing.

So, on the world of Orb, which has featured in a few gamebooks outside The Way of the Tiger series, the monks of the Temple of the Rock worship Kwon, a deity associated with helping others and unarmed combat. Brought here in infancy by a dying servant, my character has been raised by the monks and trained as a Ninja. The oldest of them became a father to me, and was murdered by Yaemon, a follower of Kwon's unsubtly named brother Vile, who impersonated a follower of Kwon in order to infiltrate the Temple and steal some scrolls that were stored there. I have vowed to avenge the murder, but there are other challenges I must face first.

One of the Grandmasters of the Five Winds has died, and a replacement must be chosen. I am one of the two most worthy candidates, and must prove myself more suitable than the other. My rival is Gorobei, who is older, heavier and stronger than I, and has already faced this trial once. We meet in the Temple, with assorted monks and locals spectating. The first stage of the challenge is unarmed combat. This being Gorobei's second try, it scarcely needs saying that the fight is not to the death (unlike the similar test that starts one of Jamie Thomson's other books).

The combat system in The Way of the Tiger is more complex than those of most other gamebook series, so I've had to dust off my coding skills in order to program my gamebook manager to handle the fights here. At the start of each round, I choose whether to try a punch, a kick or a throw, and my opponent's defence varies depending on the type of attack I'm making. Between the weight disparity and Gorobei's having oiled his muscles prior to the fight, attempting to throw him is likely to be pretty futile.

Thanks to the more detailed rules, I could give a literal blow-by-blow account of each fight, but that would make these write-ups take even longer than they already do.
Not to mention rendering them somewhat non-gripping.

So I will merely explain that I quickly find Gorobei to be worse at protecting himself from kicks than from punches, and exploit that weakness far more than I could ever get away with doing against a human or AI opponent. Despite some shockingly bad rolls that lead to my losing half my Endurance before I even manage to lay a foot on my opponent, I eventually kick Gorobei into unconsciousness, and hobble on to the second stage of the trial of worthiness.

Joining the remaining Grandmasters, I sit in silence and make no move for an hour. Then the Grandmaster of the Dawn asks me about my greatest desire and my greatest fear, conveniently making both of these queries multiple choice questions. I give the correct answers: that my desire for vengeance against Yaemon is even greater than my wish to serve Kwon, and I fear only failing in a mission. Which is pretty ironic in a series that makes winning so tricky and, for a couple of decades, didn't even have a successful outcome at the end of the final book.

Having passed the test, I am taught the secret litany of the Ninja Grandmaster, given an Opal Ring, and ordained as the new Grandmaster. Gorobei has recovered from his kicking sufficiently to applaud me along with all the others present, and I reflect that he will probably become a Grandmaster when if I die.

That night I have a vision in my sleep, finding myself first on a boat in the company of a man addressed by one of the sailors as Glaivas, and then walking towards a dark castle with three turrets. Despite the not entirely restful night, I wake back at full health. On my way to the Temple, I am informed that a ship is anchored offshore. A man rows to the beach, introduces himself as Glaivas (shouldn't I have recognised his face if my nocturnal vision was a glimpse of the future) and asks to speak to the Grandmaster of Grandmasters.

The Grandmaster of the Dawn tells Glaivas to speak freely, as there are no secrets on the island, and Glaivas snappily retorts that that's true now we've let Yaemon steal those scrolls. He goes on to explain that Yaemon has learned how to use an incantation in the Scrolls of Kettusin and, if he uses it in the right place at the right time (a planetary conjunction that happens once every 500 years, and is naturally imminent), Kwon will be imprisoned in Inferno, Orb's equivalent of hell, allowing Vile's followers to take over the world. Preventing Yaemon from achieving this is obviously far too great a challenge for just one man, so Glaivas wants one of us to help him.

I volunteer on the spot, and the Grandmaster of the Dawn renames me Avenger and agrees that I am the one who must undertake this quest. Glaivas gives me a map of the region to which we must travel, and I spend the rest of the day gathering together my Ninja equipment and meditating. We set sail in Glaivas' ship, the 'Aquamarin',on the evening tide.

For at least a couple of weeks the voyage is without incident, but then the ship encounters a vessel from Port o' Reavers, which it cannot outrun, so we have to contend with a boarding party, led by an Ogre that wields a spiked hammer. I attack the Ogre as it boards the Aquamarin, and while opening up with a kick doesn't enable me to send the brute straight overboard, it reveals my opponent's defence against kicks to be so poor that I don't bother trying out any other attacks. More favourable dice rolls enable me to kill the Ogre in just three rounds of battle, without taking any damage myself.

The rest of the Aquamarin's crew are not faring so well. Glaivas is a capable fighter, but is slowly being outnumbered. I deal with a couple more of the raiders without having to use the combat system, and decide to try and end things quickly by targeting the pirate Captain. I just hope the Skill of Acrobatics isn't a prerequisite for successfully jumping across to the other ship.

No, I make it across without any trouble, but must make a Fate Roll to learn whether or not I get spotted by a pirate. That's a straightforward roll of two dice, with the odds slightly favouring success right now. That may change later on, though, as Fate is an actual anthropomorphic deity on Orb, and if I do something to please or annoy her, I'll get a modifier to such rolls in future. On this occasion Fate does not smile on me, but then the one pirate who spots me leaping aboard decides not to raise the alarm, and as he sneaks up with murderous intent, I hear his earrings jangling, take him by surprise, and throw him overboard, subsequently proceeding to confront the Captain pretty much as I would have done if unnoticed. Given that outcome (all of which follows straight on from the Fate Roll with no further randomisation or any input from the reader), it seems to me that the pirate who saw me is the one who's in disfavour with Fate.

So far in this adventure I've not attempted a throw, so I'll try one against the Captain. This fight turns out to have a time limit, but it's not one about which I need to worry, as I succeed at the throw, and the Captain goes overboard, hitting his head on part of the ship and shattering his skull along the way. The remaining pirates turn on each other, seeking to become the new Captain, and I swim back to the Aquamarin, which makes a swift departure.

Nothing else troubles us for the rest of the voyage, and at last we reach locations depicted on the map at the front of the book. Glaivas tells me about the port of Doomover, to which we are headed. It's a big city, ruled by the Legion of the Sword of Doom. The order of the Scarlet Mantis, to which Yaemon belongs, has a temple there, and uses the symbol of a serpent twined round a cross.

Two ships from Doomover intercept us as we approach the port, and only let us through when Glaivas claims to be here to sell galley slaves. He drops me off at the wharf, throws me a bag of gold, and then prepares to head south to his home city of Tor to organise troops in case I fail in my mission.

Two exits lead from the harbour, an obsidian gate and a set of marble columns with a portico identifying them as the 'Portal of the Gods'. I try the portal, and a disembodied voice welcomes me to the Sanctuary and bids me to draw no swords. Things then get a bit weird, as a mounted knight ignores the 'no swords' rule and decapitates a priest who's trying to assist a wounded warrior, another priest upsets the horse, two more knights lead the first one away, and a self-proclaimed Seer claims to have predicted this and been ignored. He also names their god, enabling me to identify them as members of an order that capriciously does good deeds and opposes restrictive laws - something like a more anarchistic Amélie. The spelling of their deity's name varies at different points in the section, which may be an indication of the kind of whimsical frivolity in which they indulge, but is more likely to be just a typo.

If that really is a Seer, he may be able to give me a helpful warning, so I follow him. He enters a small, tidy chapel, and calls for his acolyte, who looks to be barely out of her teens. Drawing a sacrificial knife, the man tells me to lie down on what appears to be a tomb, next to a silver ewer. I doubt that this will be a lethal blood-letting, so I do as directed.

The Seer only takes half a pint of blood, and shows me a vision of Yaemon and Honoric, the Marshal of the Legion of the Sword of Doom, riding north from the city of Mortavalon, on their way to imprison a god and a goddess in Inferno. Glaivas being a follower of the All-Mother, I think I can guess the identity of the second of their intended victims...

I fall into a trance, and the next thing I know, I'm walking along the road to Mortavalon. Hope I didn't miss any important encounters in Doomover. Well, if this attempt at the book goes as badly as my every previous one, I can always try to find out next time.

As I continue along the road, I reach the edge of the Plain of Feet, on which several thousand of Honoric's troops are training for the war they intend to wage once Kwon is out of the way. I keep moving, and after a while, trees and vines start to predominate on the land by the road. For now I think I'll stick to the beaten track.

A night's sleep makes up the Endurance damage from the blood loss. The following afternoon I reach the encounter that ended one previous attempt at the book: a cobra-headed man, tethered to a wagon with a cage on it, is about to kill a small boy, while the men on the wagon are stupefied by fear. I attempt a kick, partly to save the boy, and partly to avenge the Avenger who died here. It's slightly disappointing that the only type of intervention possible is a kick, because striking the Cobra Man with a Cobra Strike punch would be so much more appropriate.

This time round I didn't need Immunity to Poisons (at least at this stage of the adventure), as my kick is on target, and the boy and I are both able to get out of range of the Cobra Man before he recovers. The men on the wagon tell me that they're taking the Cobra Man to Mortavalon zoo, having found him in a cave nearby. They think there may be treasure in the cave, too. The boy thanks me for rescuing him, and warns me not to shake hands with the young magician.

I should probably just keep going to Mortavalon, but now I'm curious about that cave. Investigating it results in my being trapped in a cage for several hours, after which a door in the cave wall opens onto an arena, and spear-toting guards 'encourage' me to go through, one of them telling me that whatever is about to happen in the arena will have only one survivor.

Spiked walls divide the arena into four sections, with a miniature castle in the middle. A moat surrounds the castle, and a trident-wielding Hobgoblin stands on it. Each of the four sections outside the moat is a different environment: grassland, swamp, ice and desert. I'm on a platform between grass and ice, and on a similar platform on the far side is a man in armour. On the platform between grass and swamp is a Dark Elf, and a young man in blue and gold robes (the magician mentioned by the boy, perchance?) is on the platform across from her. On the grassy plain are two lions, on the ice is a Snow Giant, a boat floats in the swamp, and a Cobra Man is in the desert region.

The platforms descend to ground level. The Dark Elf heads into the swamp, the armoured man into the desert, and the robed man does nothing. The 'two against one' thing with the lions looks less appealing than the lone Giant - besides which, the ice zone is closer to the probable magician, and the boy's warning might just give me a slight edge if I have to fight the young man.

Of course, the ice is slippery, and I have to make a Fate Roll as I launch a kick at the Snow Giant (which turns out to be more like a Yeti than your typical 'oversized humanoid' giant). This time I succeed, though my attack still proves unsuccessful. Mind you, the Snow Giant's retaliation is equally off target, despite having better odds. I'll try a throw instead. No Fate roll for that, but I still fail, and get a quarter of my Endurance gashed away by the Snow Giant's claws. There's no Fate roll to go with punching, either, and the Snow Giant's defence is less good against a fist in the face. Still, while I hit it a couple of times, it hits me more often and harder, eventually ripping my face off.

It'll be a while before The Way of the Tiger is featured here again, but in view of character and plot development over the course of the series, I might have another go at Avenger! before moving on to the second book. I may even try a few undocumented attempts in between, just to get a better idea of what I should be doing and what to avoid, so as to reduce the risk of the series stalling.

5 comments:

  1. As someone who started his blogging career with a playthrough of this series, I can say that skill selection is vital, with some being used WAAAAY more than others. I'll leave some spoiler space.....and then say what I consider to be the best skills.

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    Poison Needles is a must.
    Among the others, the best candidates are Immunity to Poisons, Arrow Cutting, Climbing and Locks / Traps.

    Acrobatics is mid-range.

    Feigning Death and Escapology hardly ever (I mean EVER) get used.

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  2. Interesting that you highlight Poison Needles. The only instances of using it that lodge in my memory are ones where it doesn't work (an Instant Death in Avenger! and during the confrontation with the enemy ninja in Assassin!), but as you've played the books a lot more often and (for the most part) more recently than I have, I'm sure your opinion on the importance of the Skill is better informed than mine.

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    1. I know the Insta-Death in Avenger of which you speak, and it is one of the most magnificently gory deaths in all of gamebooks.

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  3. You say that Poison Needles didn't work in book 2, but it probably saved your life (possibly only temporarily). In fact, it is IMPOSSIBLE to complete book 2 without at least one of Poison Needles or Arrow Cutting. That doesn't mean you have to choose one of them at character creation, though, as you may get a chance to learn one later.

    In the interests of possibly helping your undocumented attempts, I'll say that the arena is a lot of fun and there are plenty of tactics that do work, but it's not actually on the optimal path, at least if you intend to play the books as a series. It's a perfectly valid choice of route, but it does overall significantly reduce your chances of survival.

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    1. Interesting. All I remember of the incident is the ninja saying words to the effect of 'Duh! Of course I took Immunity to Poison as one of my Skills,' but I realise that use of the needle could affect the outcome of the encounter in more emergent ways.

      The value of Arrow Cutting is one thing I remember well from my experience of the second book.

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