Sunday, 23 July 2017

Back to Where You've Never Been

When Wizard Books announced that their range of Fighting Fantasy reissues was to include a new gamebook, I had mixed feelings. An actual addition to the series was a great idea in principle, but my enthusiasm was tempered by the fact that the new book would be a) written by Ian Livingstone, whose last several FF books had been less than stellar, and b) an expansion of the uninspired Eye of the Dragon. Some of the comments I made online at the time survived the destruction of the forum hosting them as a result of being quoted elsewhere: "The question is, will the basic plot be retained but the old adventure be rewritten and improved, or will the original version simply be cut-and-pasted into the middle of something new? I really hope it's not the latter. A lump of coal remains a lump of coal, no matter how ornate the setting into which you put it."

Around half a year later I took a trip to Penzance for a few days to research the locale for a novel I was writing. There, while browsing in the shops that sold books, I came across the expanded Eye for the first time, and took a quick look inside. The section to which I turned was new material, but failed to grab me, at least partly on account of a jarring Americanism. Thus, I replaced the book on the shelf, continued to browse around town, and wound up buying a second-hand copy of Cryptonomicon to keep me occupied on the long coach journey back home. The new FF book didn't get to Hull until a while after that, but eventually it showed up in Brown's Books, and at some point after that I bought a copy. As I recall, my first attempt at this version of the adventure ended when I tried on a cursed helmet and didn't have the item that could negate its lethal effects.

To give Ian Livingstone his due, he did make some changes to the pre-existing material above and beyond renumbering the sections and changing the stats to the FF standards. He didn't change enough, but the alterations are significantly more substantial than the little that was done to the Caverns of the Snow Witch teaser when that was incorporated into the full book.

The set-up is much the same as in the original, though some details have been altered. While I'm still a down-on-my-luck adventurer, I don't eke out my living with bear-wrestling, and the tavern in which I'm lodging is the Blue Pig rather than the Black Swan. It's also located in the town of Fang, but I'm there a month too early to take a chance on the current iteration of Deathtrap Dungeon. The man who tells me of the solid gold dragon now has a name, Henry Delacor, and I find him a bit shifty and untrustworthy. Though not until after drinking the poison he proffers. The forest beneath which the dungeon complex lies is now identified as Darkwood, the setting of The Forest of Doom, which seems to have a busier underground than London, what with the fungus farm and Gremlin tunnels of Forest, the Dark Elf city where Temple of Terror's villain grew up, and now this place.

Owing to a nasty unavoidable fight that killed one of my more successful characters in this book, I'm allocating dice, which means I get:
Skill 12
Stamina 19
Luck 11
I'm not sure why an adventurer of this calibre is so poor (nor how, when I was struggling to earn the coppers required for food and lodging at the start of the Background, I can equip myself with 10 gold pieces and the standard 10 Provisions before setting off to the forest).

The journey to the hut containing the entrance is a little quicker than the one in the first version, and takes me past several familiar locations, providing Ian with an opportunity to reveal that Firetop Mountain has regained its distinctive colouration in the time that has passed since Return. The hut is in the same condition as the one in Dicing, right down to the probably irrelevant axe head that can be found in the clutter. However, when I descend the stairs, the optimal direction in which to head is not the one that's preferable in the previous variant. This book is less harsh than most of Livingstone's on the 'choosing directions' front: while some routes are more challenging than others, it'll take more than just turning left rather than right (or vice versa) at a junction to guarantee failure.

My preferred direction takes me to a door that blocks the way ahead. It's jammed shut, but I manage to barge it open without difficulty. The room beyond has one other exit, and is empty apart from a mirror on the wall. Looking into the mirror causes me pain, and I find myself unable to look away, but a blow from my sword shatters the glass and dispels the effect. Evidently Allansia doesn't share one of this world's superstitions, as I take a piece of the mirror with me as a lucky charm.

Beyond the exit is a passageway leading to a room containing a pool with several coins in it. I ignore the pool and head straight for the far door, which opens onto another passageway. The next door I see is set into a side wall rather than ahead of me, and has a window set into it, enabling me to see that the room beyond is occupied by a woman, who's facing away from me. I enter, try to get her attention, and realise that I should have been paying more attention, as I somehow failed to notice that her hair is a mass of snakes. Yes, it's another Medusa, but I have no trouble avoiding her lethal gaze, and that shard of mirrored glass gets her to reflect on the drawbacks of a petrifying stare. Searching the room, I find a silver necklace with a snake's skull on it, which I try on, and see a vision of two animated skeletons with swords. The vision fades before I can find out if they're Titan's equivalent of Trinny and Susannah, about to remonstrate with me for this questionable fashion choice.

Returning to the passageway, I walk on until I draw level with another door. This opens onto a small room containing only a single playing card: the Queen of Spades, who has an oddly wide grin. I pick the card up, and it jumps out of my hand. A flash of light dazzles me, and in place of the card I find an old woman dressed as the Queen of Spades, who gives me some money for my trouble and leaves the room. Somewhat puzzled as to the point of this incident, I resume my exploration.

A scratching sound comes from behind the next door. This does not discourage me from going through, and nor does the sight of the three Giant Rats scavenging in the trashed kitchen beyond. They're no match for me in a fight, and a search of the kitchen turns up only a bottle of unidentified liquid, which I sample. A sip heals the damage done by the mirror, and I put the unfinished bottle into my backpack, wondering how much Stamina the remaining liquid will heal, as the text gives no hint.

Continuing along the corridor, I see a 'formidable-looking iron door'. I doubt that it's as dangerous as some doors I could think of, so I open it, and... get attacked by a Goblin with two daggers. That's quite an anticlimax. I kill the Goblin with a lot less effort than the book suggests, and help myself to its chain-mail coat, which provides a Skill bonus that is of no use to me. Yet.

The next door blocks my way, and an iron gate drops down behind me to ensure that I go through. The room beyond is empty, but on its marble floor is a silver circle around a pair of golden footprints, and a sign on the wall requests that I stand on the footprints. Thunder rumbles in the room, and I hear evil laughter, so I wait to find out who or what is coming my way. The laughter becomes louder and causes me to become disorientated, the door slams shut, and I crawl to the footprints and stand on them. My surroundings start to spin, and I lose consciousness.

I regain consciousness in a small room with featureless walls, illuminated by a green-glowing crystal, and with reduced Skill and Stamina. Now I'm below my Initial score, I see no good reason not to take advantage of the bonus provided by that chain-mail. Rummaging around in the dirt on the floor, I find a bolt holding closed a trapdoor. Now I know there's an exit, I continue to search the room, finding a pouch that contains a gold bracelet and a gold nugget. I pocket the latter and put on the former, which turns out to be cursed, doing further Skill and Stamina damage. It won't come off, either.

The trapdoor leads into a disused torture chamber, its contents including an iron chest. Inside the chest are some money, a silver box (so far, so just like the iron chest in the disused torture chamber in the previous version) and a dagger with a crystal blade, all of which I take.

The text doesn't take into account the possibility that I might not have entered the torture chamber by the door in the wall, and automatically sends me in the direction I'd have been heading if I'd come the way I did when playing the Dicing variant. This leads to the bridge over the pit, and as my recent misadventures have left me in a state where I would benefit from a Skill bonus, I risk climbing down and confronting the Ghoul. This one has the ability to cause paralysis if it hits me often enough, and cannot be repelled with a cross (not that I have one with me this time round). Thanks to my diminished Skill, I take a couple of blows, but not enough to doom me. And in this version of the adventure, the shield doesn't provide a bonus. Great.

Beyond the pit is a junction, and I think I'm going to go the direction I didn't in Dicing. The passage turns a corner and passes a door, from behind which I hear a woman chanting a rhyme. I go through, and see a hideous crone stirring a cauldron. Not wishing to judge by appearances, I greet her, and two Vampire Bats attack me. Killing them is easy, but displeases the old woman, who opens a trapdoor and sets a horde of rats onto me. This reveals that cursed bracelet to possess some beneficial properties, as it repels the rats, which scurry back through the trapdoor.

Enraged, the Witch transforms her forearms into snakes and attacks me. She gets two attacks to my one, and the rules are annoyingly uninformative regarding what happens in the second round of combat: my Attack Roll is higher than her first, but lower than her second. So do we wound each other, or does her successful second attack negate mine? The next round makes the question irrelevant, as both of her attacks succeed, sending me off to a new instance of authorial sloppiness. Getting bitten a third time means that the snakes' venom starts to affect me, and I have to swig down the rest of that healing potion to save my life. And the witch apparently just stands back and watches as I rummage through my backpack for the bottle, uncork it, and gulp down its contents. The text says 'If you are bitten three times,' not 'If you win, but were bitten three or more times in the course of the fight,' and the section describing the outcome for anyone thrice-bitten who doesn't have the potion states that the Witch laughs as she watches the doomed adventurer's death throes, so she's definitely still alive while I heal myself. She just inexplicably does nothing about it, and continues to stand idly by as I take up my sword again and stab her with it.

She vanishes in a puff of smoke, yelling, "You missed!" When the smoke clears, I see a mouse on the floor (but not a ghost). It disappears into a hole in the wall, and the Witch's cauldron starts to boil over. Her image forms in the steam, laughing inaudibly at me, and reaches out a hand, on which is an eye-shaped emerald. This has to be a trap, but I reach out for the gem anyway. It's just an illusion, and while I'm grasping at nothing, the cauldron explodes, but I only take minor damage from shrapnel.

The Witch's image speaks to me, telling me that her name is Vigdis, claiming to be the most beautiful woman in the world, and asking for my opinion of her appearance. I tell her that even the Ghoul I fought down in the pit was better looking, and she thanks me for the compliment, telling me I can go, and take the wooden box on the corner shelf as a reward. The box contains garlic, money, a tooth and a bronze key with a number on it.

Further along the corridor I reach not a door but a cave entrance. The cave contains a sleeping Ogre, with a leather bag hanging on the chair in which the Ogre is slumped. I sneak in to take the bag, and though I carelessly step on a rat's skull, which cracks underfoot, Luck is with me, and the Ogre does not wake. The bag contains a dagger and a gold ring, which I put on my left thumb for reasons that may make sense to Ian Livingstone.

The corridor ends in a door, behind which is a poorly-illuminated room. Something sparkles on a shelf, so I check out the shiny. It's a crystal pendant on a chain, which I risk putting on. It feels warm and gives off a green glow, ad I have the option of removing it. If it were dangerous, I probably wouldn't be getting a chance to reconsider, so I leave it on, and it provides a Luck bonus and somehow communicates to me the fact that it will light up if somebody lies to me.

I leave the room, and the floor gives way beneath me, dropping me into a chute. I slide into another pit, this one containing a Giant Spider, which attacks me. I kill it and search the pit, finding a glass ball, a broken dagger, a numbered iron key, a stick sharpened at both ends, and a pouch containing a flower with a scent that restores a little Skill and Stamina. I climb out of the pit and, as with the torture chamber, the text has me 'return' to a corridor in which I've not been before.

I trudge on to the next door, which opens onto a room containing a stone table with two breastplates on it. No doubt one of them is beneficial, the other harmful: the exact same gimmick Livingstone used with helmets in The Warlock of Firetop Mountain, shields in City of Thieves (though at least in that instance a little logic could be used to figure out which was the safe one to take), suits of armour in Crypt of the Sorcerer... I'm still not back to peak performance, so I try one of them on, and it's the cursed one, leaving me even worse off. Stupid arbitrary choices.

Back to the corridor and along to the next door, from behind which come female cries for help. I go through into an ornately furnished room, with an incongruous iron cage containing a young woman. I go across to the cage, and find it to be unlocked. The woman shows her Vampire fangs and lunges at me. The garlic I acquired from Vigdis repels the Vampire for a moment, and... No, this time round I don't have a silver dagger. I have a wooden stick, sharpened at both ends, which should make an adequate stake, but there's no option to use that. Why provide the pointed stick if it can't be used against a Vampire? Unless there's an encounter I have yet to reach in which I'm attacked by someone armed with fresh fruit.

Anyway, I fight the Vampire, using a less-than-ideal weapon because I'm not allowed to use the one that would actually be effective here, and the Vampire kills me. Right now I'm actually okay with that, as it means I won't have to spend any more time with this dreadful book for a long, long while.

Wednesday, 19 July 2017

It's a Big Rock. I Can't Wait to Tell My Friends. They Don't Have a Rock This Big.

I recently got an alert from eBay regarding one of my saved searches. At first glance it appeared to be a false positive, as the Tunnels & Trolls Adventurers Compendium (sic.) was rather obviously not an issue of Sorcerer's Apprentice. However, on closer inspection, it turned out to be better, as the Compendium contains almost all of the mini-adventures featured in the magazine. And fixes at least some of the errors that crept into the original releases. So I got myself a copy of the Compendium, and now there's only one SA mini-adventure I still lack. I wonder why Wild Ride wasn't included.

The sections of the mini-adventures have been renumbered. This makes sense: back when they appeared in SA, in little blocks of however many sections could be fitted into the available gaps around the magazine, numbers like 38B (for the second section on page 38) were more useful than the straightforward linear progression found in most gamebooks, but now that the text is no longer all over the place, having the numbering jump straight from, say 21C to 28A is not that helpful.

I'm not entirely happy with Flying Buffalo's decision to mix all the adventures together, though I can see some sense to it: having the same section number appear 10 times in the same volume could easily lead to confusion, and there's a sense in which the risk of inadvertently glimpsing a spoiler is diminished by having each adventure's sections spread across 50 pages rather than just 5. The downside for me is that it adds complications to the process of entering the adventures into my gamebook manager. First World problems, I know.

The first Sorcerer's Apprentice mini-adventure was Michael Stackpole's Kingmaker, which appeared in issue 1. It appears suitable for the character who survived Hot Pursuit, both in terms of character design requirements and as regards narrative logic. Okay, so in view of my having failed to capture any of the Ranger spies, I can think of reasons other than just boredom for wanting to be somewhere other than the city of Gull. Nevertheless, it's appropriate that this adventure should start with my leaving the location of the same character's previous one.

After a few miles, I am ambushed and robbed of everything by a group of painted barbarians. They don't kill me in case I turn out to be the reincarnation of a former king of their tribe. Well, they don't kill me on the spot. Instead, they take me to a cave to endure a series of trials to prove my worthiness to rule them, which will probably kill me if I don't succeed. For every trial I do complete successfully, I will get a wooden token, which makes this seem like a cheap, potentially lethal solitaire version of The Crystal Maze.

Just inside the cave is a massive stone, with handholds worn into it by countless attempts at lifting it. My Strength is fractionally above average, but unless the Saving Roll to try and pick up the stone is only level 1, I'm going to need at least one double on the dice to have any chance at success. Do I risk it anyway? What if this is an intelligence test, to determine who's smart enough to recognise that the stone is just too big?

I give it a chance, and it's a level 2 roll. I fail it badly enough that the damage sustained in the attempt almost kills me. Not a good start.

Advancing into the cave, I see an Ogre with a club. The Ogre laughs upon spotting that I am unarmed. He's a bit of a slow mover, though, so I have a chance of dodging his club. That also requires a level 2 Saving Roll, only on Dexterity, which is slightly higher than my Strength, but still gives poor odds of success. Again I fall short of the target, so I have to fight the Ogre, and his first blow is powerful enough that I'd have been flattened even if I were at full strength.

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Time Is Getting Colder, And I'm Getting Older

It's five years since I started this blog. Over the course of that half-decade I've achieved rather less than I'd hoped to (both here and in the world outside), but that time hasn't been entirely fruitless, and considering some of what I've been through, it's a bit of an achievement just to still be here. In those five years I've played 246 different adventures (and replayed 11 of them). I've won just 61 (and 7 of those wins were replays), and 12 of the times I won, I was playing that gamebook for the first time.

Still, I don't want to spend too long going over statistics. I invited readers to ask me about (almost) anything for this anniversary post, so I shall turn my attention to the questions that were submitted.

Based upon the 'storytelling' component, what is your favourite gamebook?

I don't suppose I can count a continuing narrative spread across several volumes as one gamebook, can I? If so, the answer has to be Blood Sword. Though nowhere near the longest saga, I'd say that it's the most epic. The gradual raising of the stakes as the story progresses makes the 'save the world' business feel earned, the characters are more nuanced than just 'good' and 'evil', and I can still remember the thrill of suddenly realising what was going on in book 4 (being very vague about it because I intend to play the series here, eventually, and don't want to spoil the twist just yet).

If it has to be a single volume, I'll say Howl of the Werewolf, the third of the new Fighting Fantasy gamebooks published alongside the Wizard Books reissues. It has a quest with a more personal element than most, plenty of backstory to uncover, lots of optional sub-plots, some of which relate to the main story, while others just fit in with the theme and mood, and also contains one of the best set pieces in all gamebooks: a fight against a lycanthrope on top of a carriage careering out of control down a cliffside path. Fun!

Based on the 'gameplay' component, what is your favourite gamebook?

Spectral Stalkers, the 45th Fighting Fantasy gamebook. The random element of the travel between the worlds adds an element of variety and uncertainty that most gamebooks lose after the first few plays, and as there are no absolutely essential items other than the one you automatically acquire at the start of the adventure, being unable to choose to visit the place where you can obtain some useful object is not such a big deal. It's also one of the few FF books that can genuinely be won even with minimum stats, but has enough optional trouble that a powerful character can still get into a few scrapes along the way if the reader wants a bit of a challenge.

And while it's not actually a gameplay element, the 'Extinguisher' gag in the book is great.

Who is your favourite gamebook illustrator?

Russ Nicholson. His illustrations are evocative, grotesque (in the right way), and full of character. Orlando the annoying sidekick in The Adventures of Goldhawk would be practically unbearable if not for Nicholson's artwork.

What is your favourite 'instant death' paragraph?

How do I narrow it down to just one? 

I pretty much got hooked on gamebooks in the first place thanks to the 'paralysed and eaten alive by a Ghoul' ending in The Warlock of Firetop Mountain (Fighting Fantasy 1). The very fact that a book aimed at kids could have something that gruesome happen to the hero was just mindblowing, all the more so given the stronger-than-usual identification of the reader with the hero.

There's a section in Castle of Lost Souls (Golden Dragon 6) that, through the sheer quality of the writing, turns what could have been a generic 'petrified by Gorgon' ending into something greater. Many gamebooks contain rhymes and verses, but this, even if written as prose, is poetry.

Another example of outstanding writing in gamebooks is the 'entranced' ending in Trance (Starlight Adventures 6). Rereading it now, I'm startled at how short it is: the text only takes up about half a page, but it so effectively describes the drawn-out struggle and gradual failure to hang on to awareness and identity that, in my memory, it seems like a much more substantial passage.

Legion of the Dead (Grail Quest 8) has the comedic masterpiece that is the 'accidental self-decapitation while attempting to remove a cursed dog-collar' sequence. Technically this is more than just one paragraph, as a lot of the best material is in the build-up to the fatal roll, but even if the section describing the death were taken in isolation, talking sword EJ's awkward apology adds a nice touch of bathos to what must be the most joyously absurd bad ending ever. 

Talking of Instant Deaths that take up more than one paragraph, one of the few noteworthy aspects of the largely mediocre gamebook parody Night of a Thousand Boyfriends (Date with Destiny Adventure 1) comes to mind. Remember the endless loops in which you could get trapped in Creature of Havoc? (If not, this is the sort of thing I mean.) A similar dismal fate lies down one path in this book, only to make it far, far worse, you're stuck listening to your flatmate reading out her bad poetry. For ever.

Then there's The Plague Lords of Ruel (Lone Wolf 13), with its 10-40% chance of a climactic 'you save the world and a bridge falls on you'. No, wait, that one's rubbish. But I do like to rant about it.

If anyone has more questions, feel free to ask.

Sunday, 16 July 2017

A Petty, Prosaic Little World

For this entry I'm playing an adventure I hadn't been planning on playing for the blog. However, when I thought about it in the light of existing precedent, I couldn't see any good reason not to, and waiting any longer before doing so would make it a retrograde step, so here I go.

Not all that long before closing down, the Book Exchange from which I'd acquired several gamebooks previously, changed the manner in which they marked and priced their stock. Up until then, they'd written the price in the top left-hand corner of the cover, and put a big ink stamp on the first page (though they dispensed with the stamp in Flight from the Dark because of the frontispiece map). The changed policy left the front covers undefiled, and the ink stamp was changed to a more detailed one with smaller print, with a gap for adding the price in pen. My first encounter with the new approach was in a copy of Dicing with Dragons, 'an introduction to Role-Playing Games' penned by Ian Livingstone, which included a solo adventure to help illustrate some aspects of RPGs.

The chapters on RPGs were of little interest to me. I was already familiar with what they were and how they worked - earlier purchases from the shop had included the first few volumes of Dave Morris & Oliver Johnson's Dragon Warriors, and I'd already put the school RPG group through at least some of the scenarios in them - and Dicing was a few years old, so a fair bit of its content was outdated. But a 'new' gamebook by Ian Livingstone? That was not to be passed up.

So I bought the book, took it home, played the adventure, and discovered that Ian Livingstone had not yet been in his prime when he wrote Eye of the Dragon. Nowhere near, in fact. It used the Fantasy Quest system, which was designed especially for the book, and probably abandoned very soon afterwards for being a monstrous hybrid of FF and D&D with few of the good points of either. As for the actual adventure, it displays a fair few of the weaknesses of Livingstone's later books, but not many of his strengths.

My character is a down-on-his-luck adventurer, reduced to wrestling bears to make a living (it's a pity there's not more of that kind of quirkiness in the adventure), with the following stats, all rolled on 3 dice:
Combat Factor 11
Strength Factor 3
Fortune Factor 10
This man wrestles bears? It looks as if he'd struggle to overpower a determined gerbil.

My current 'home' is the attic of a tavern, which provides cheap accommodation for travellers and the hard-up. One night, the bed opposite mine is taken by a weary man who tells of having come close to losing his life on a quest for a great treasure. I ask to hear more about it, and he explains that for the past five years he's been seeking a golden dragon with jewelled eyes. Recently he discovered the subterranean complex in which the dragon is held, but when he found the dragon itself, he saw that its eyes were missing, and recalled having heard that touching the dragon would mean death unless it had both eyes. While searching for the eyes, he had a run-in with a massive two-headed troll, and decided the dragon wasn't worth risking his life for.

It is apparently worth risking someone else's life for, though. When I express an interest in carrying on the quest, the man agrees, but sets a couple of conditions. Firstly, if I get the dragon, I bring it back to him and we split the profits from its sale. Secondly, to ensure that I don't take the dragon and run, I have to drink a slow-acting poison to which he has the antidote. If I'm not back, with the dragon, in 14 days, I'll be dead. Rather than ask why he's even carrying around a slow-acting poison, or how I can trust him to give me the antidote and not simply let me die and claim the dragon for himself, I silently down the poison. The man then gives me a map showing the location of the woodcutter's hut that contains the entrance to the complex, along with the one emerald eye he did find, and I set off towards the forest in which the hut is located.

It takes five-and-a-bit days to reach the hut, which doesn't leave me much of a margin for error in my search for the missing eye. Before I go any further, I'm eating one of my rations, as the rules permit exceeding initial attributes by up to 2 (unless doing so would bring them above 18 - fat chance), and pushing my Strength Factor to the giddy heights of 5 might improve my life expectancy a little.

The hut is obviously long-abandoned. After finding the trapdoor that leads underground, I search the rubbish on the floor, finding an axe head with an inscription I cannot read. Not sure it does anything useful, but I take it anyway and descend the steps leading down from the trapdoor. They lead to a torchlit corridor and a choice of direction. I pick the one that is usually best in Ian Livingstone books, and the passage soon leads past a door, from behind which I hear the sound of humming.

Behind the door is an artist's studio, in which an old man is cheerily painting a picture of a wolf. I greet him and ask if he knows anything about the eye-shaped emerald, and he tries to sell me a painting of an owl. I don't think that'll be of any use to me, and I'm low on cash, so I politely decline and return to the corridor.

Not much further on I reach another door, a sign above it revealing it to be the abode of a Pawnbroker. While I could just about see an artist appreciating the isolation of this location, I really don't see how a trader can make any kind of living with such an obscure venue. I go through, and the proprietor displays a board listing the day's special offers, which include a Silver Cross, a Carved Wooden Duck and Pickled Pigs' tails. I buy the first of those and resume my exploration of the complex.

Close by is a booby-trap, which makes this an even worse location for a shop (and the lack of any kind of warning from the pawnbroker is pretty dismal customer service). My Fortune Factor is high enough that the arrow fired at me when I trigger the trap misses. The Fantasy Quest system differs from FF in that, barring in-text penalties, Fortune Factor only decreases in the event of an unsuccessful roll against it, and goes up when tested successfully.

I reach another junction, and go the same way as I did at the first. After a bit, I reach a door with a painting of the sun on it. I can think of two Livingstone adventures in which that symbol is not a good sign, but in case this is an exception, I'll check behind the door. It leads to a room containing white furniture and items, including a porcelain cat. As I recall, taking a closer look at the cat leads to weirdness and Strength Factor loss for no gain, so I leave the room.

Further along the passage is another door. This is starting to remind me of something else I bought from the Book Exchange: The Best of White Dwarf volume II, edited by none other than Ian Livingstone. This compilation included a multi-part article on dungeon design, which began with an example of what not to do, and the complex in which Eye is set increasingly reminds me of the 'boring dungeon' described there. Okay, what's behind this door? A disused torture chamber, containing assorted implements designed for inflicting pain, and an iron chest. I take a chance on opening the chest, and find it to contain some money, a silver box and a magic sword that does extra damage.

Back to the corridor I go, and carry on to a bridge over a pit. A rope ladder leads down into the pit, so I check to see if there's anything interesting at the bottom. There is, but it's a Ghoul. And possibly also an error, as I can repel the Ghoul by brandishing a wooden cross, but only have a silver one. So was there a wooden one I missed, or did Ian get the silver cross and the wooden duck mixed up in his memory? A cursory check through the book shows no instances where a wooden cross can be acquired, so I'm taking this as an authorial blunder and counting the silver one as what's required.

On my way back to the ladder I find a shield, which gives as much of a bonus to Combat Factor as I can use. I climb back up and cross the bridge, and beyond the pit I find another junction. That's more junctions than I was expecting to encounter, so either there's a dead end (with the emphasis on 'dead', most likely) that I've forgotten, or this adventure gives more scope for retracing footsteps than I'd thought. I might as well be consistent about direction.

The passage passes a fountain, and then a chair, both of which provide boosts to Strength Factor. Already being at my mediocre maximum, I derive no benefit, but at least I know that they're worth using if I should take this route again on any future attempt at this adventure.

I see another door, this one with an unspecified animal skeleton nailed to it. And behind this door is... the Troll who convinced my poisoner to change his career path. I think that, in spite of the likelihood of my getting killed here, I should fight the Troll, in case Ian was unable to resist the irony of having the very creature that put the man off his search was also the one guarding the item he sought. If the Troll does have the other eye and I don't get it, I'm dead anyway.

We both have the same Combat Factor, but the Troll has a higher Strength Factor and does more damage, so unless I get very lucky, this is where it ends.

I don't get even slightly lucky. One smack with the Troll's axe, and I'm puree. As I recall, the same fight killed me on my last attempt at the adventure. I think next time I'll try not to be quite so consistent.

Thursday, 13 July 2017

His Dreams of Power and Wealth

In a sense I have already explained how I got hold of my copy of Fighting Fantasy gamebook 59, Jonathan Green's Curse of the Mummy. Various earlier FF playthroughs here give all the information necessary for working it out, so I'm going to make a small contest out of it. The first person to go to the effort of deducing the circumstances under which I bought the book, and posting the correct answer here, will get to choose which gamebook I (re)play for my 300th playthrough.

My first attempt at the book was not particularly successful. At character generation I took the dice as they fell, getting a high Stamina but a poor Skill, as a result of which the unavoidable fight against the Giant Scorpion proved lethal. In subsequent attempts I've made more progress, but I think I'm still a long way from being able to win it.

And with the stats I just rolled up, victory becomes even more unlikely. Allocating dice makes for a slightly less mediocre character than taking them as they come, but I'm still not going to get far with just:

Skill 10
Stamina 17
Luck 10

The adventure also has a non-randomised stat. As a result of my history as an adventurer, I've been exposed to a wide range of toxins, and have built up more resistance than the average person has. Nevertheless, there's only so much that my system can handle, and as I'm going to be encountering an unusually high number of potentially lethal substances on this quest, I have a Poison score to keep track of just how much muck is contaminating my bloodstream. If it gets too high, that's game over.

Following a pirate attack on the ship on which I was travelling, I have wound up in the town of Rimon, at the wrong end of the Desert of Skulls, with only the clothes I wear, my sword, and a few coins. Having arrived just too late to get work and passage on a caravan heading north, I am seeking employment when I see a sign advertising for a warrior to undertake a hazardous mission. Asking around, I discover that Jerran Farr, the man who posted the ad, straddles the line between archaeologist and tomb-robber, and does not have a great reputation. Nevertheless, he's offering paid work, so I make my way to the drinking-house mentioned in the ad to meet with Farr.

Farr looks as if he's seen some trouble in his time. He tells me of the ancient desert kingdom of Djarat (essentially the FF version of ancient Egypt), and the tyrant Akharis, who ruled Djarat centuries ago, worshipped the evil goddess Sithera, and on his deathbed (at the tender age of 156) threatened to return and curse all the land. Akharis was purportedly buried with lots of treasure, inside a heavily booby-trapped tomb.

In an epic display of cluelessness, I ask Farr what any of this has to do with a dangerous mission for a warrior. He explains that, five days ago, a dying man staggered into his dig and told of having been part of an expedition that found an inscription revealing the location of Akharis' tomb. They had set off in search of the tomb, only to be ambushed by a group of men in red robes, who killed or captured the rest of the party. Farr identifies the attackers as members of the Cult of the Cobra, worshippers of Sithera and followers of Akharis, who have been seeking his tomb so that they can resurrect him, doom the world, and so on and so forth. He wants me to help him defeat the cultists and obtain Akharis' treasure, and I agree, of course.

We leave the drinking house to start preparing for the quest. Jonathan Green FF books traditionally throwing a hostile encounter into the very first section, we don't get far before a trio of red-robed villains surrounds us. They chose to waylay us in a narrow street, and while that makes it a lot easier for them to keep us from escaping, it also prevents them from ganging up on either of us. Their leader attacks me, and the one behind us takes on Jerran, but they're not great fighters, and we defeat them with ease. The third cultist runs off, and I remember from my first attempt at the book that giving chase will achieve nothing beyond getting me hurt and possibly killed by the fleeing cultist's delaying tactics.

Before we set off across the desert, we need to get equipment. Jerran gives me some extra money to spend in the market, so after getting some Provisions, a rope, a lantern, some spare oil and a telescope, I proceed to the section which sells more obscure goods, getting some oil of lotus, a quartz pyramid, and an alabaster scarab. My gamebook manager reveals that I've never gone for one of those items before, and it's one with a very useful effect. Well, even if the Scorpion gets me again, this attempt has been worth it just for revealing the capabilities of that artefact.

Jerran and I head into the desert, and he tells me of a Shaman who lives to the east and may be of some assistance. After two days we reach Jerran's camp, and that night we are attacked by a Giant Scorpion, which stings Jerran and then goes for me with its claws, and manages to kill me. If I'd been using the Wizard Books reissue of Curse, the fight would probably have gone better, as the Scorpion is one of the opponents which has had its Skill reduced to make the book slightly less harsh. Mind you, there's been some sloppiness in the editing - nothing as bad as the misplaced surrender option in the revised Spellbreaker, but a failure to acknowledge the creature's reduced Skill in the rest of the section means that one paragraph in the book can now only be reached by getting a score of 14 on two six-sided dice.

Well, I've now played the whole of the initial run of Fighting Fantasy, taking just under 5 years to do so, and only actually winning 16 of the main range (plus two of the Sorcery! series, two Warlock magazine adventures and one instalment of The Dark Usurper). It'll be a while before I start replaying the ones I failed, though, as the 21st-century revival has produced enough material to keep me occupied for a while longer.

Wednesday, 12 July 2017

Can't You Get Us Out of Here?

David Brunskill's Escape from Scarpathia, the adventure in issue 16 of Proteus, made little impression on me when I originally got it. This was during one of the periods when my enthusiasm for gamebooks was slightly waning, though issue 16 was the last one to get only cursory attention from me. I must have bought the magazine on a schoolday, as the one detail I can remember from then is that I was in the Careers Library when Ed Webb saw the illustration of the rock face (that is, a face made of rock, not just the side of a mountain) from section 74 and made a Knightmare reference.

It wasn't really until I reviewed the series for an online group that I properly got to grips with Escape and discovered what I'd been missing. From a gameplay perspective, it's not that different from any other Proteus adventure, but the story is another matter. Over the course of a successful attempt, there is actual character development for the viewpoint character: a process of maturation rather than a simple change of stats. This is one of the series' highlights, and easily my favourite of Mr. Brunskill's works.

As it's well over a decade since I last played the adventure, and I didn't retain any maps I might have made, I think it unlikely that I'll succeed on this attempt. Nevertheless, I shall give it a go, and with stats of
Dexterity: 11
Strength: 22
it's unlikely that the dice will contribute much to my failure.

My character is a generic adventurer, trekking through an unfamiliar jungle in search of quests that can bring me glory or reward. In a clearing I find a lavishly decorated temple, from which emerge powerful-looking but peaceful people. When I explain who I am and why I am here, their leader, Iquitos, tells me that they have no need for warriors like me, but offers hospitality, which I accept. In the course of our conversation, I learn of a cruel and warlike people inhabiting a nearby region, and try to find out as much as I can about them.

Though Iquitos finds the subject unpleasant, he tells me of Scarpathia, to the east. It is ruled by Margas, a man whose ambitions would make him a threat to civilised people if he had the leadership or magical skills to effectively direct his subjects. As it is, the Scarpathians are no more than an occasional nuisance. Iquitos advises me to head north when I leave in the morning, but I've already decided that Scarpathia merits further investigation. Even if Iquitos isn't concerned about Margas, there are probably others who'd be prepared to reward some valiant hero who dared to overthrow the tyrant, right...?

In the morning I set off and, almost without thinking about it, take the first turning to the east. Before long I reach a junction, and head south. The trail soon turns east again, and I am attacked by a beast with spikes on its head. Despite the formidable appearance, it's not much of an opponent, and I kill it with ease. The trail descends to a chasm, and I see a bridge overhead. If that's the bridge I vaguely remember from past attempts, I've already failed, but I might as well see how much I can find out about what to do (or what not to do) before my inevitable demise.

A bad night's sleep costs me a little Strength, but as I set off again in the morning, I catch sight of a castle in the distance. I head towards it, and suddenly encounter a blue-robed figure with a bronze mask. He states that he is Altrus, Spirit of the Mountains, and asks why a mere mortal such as I should be in such dangerous territory. I declare my intention to rid the world of Margas' evil, and Altrus approves, though he expresses doubt that I'm up to the challenge. Nevertheless, he offers to help by giving me the ability to cast three spells, and offers a list of four from which to choose. I pick Quench Fire, Breathe and Vanish (the latter providing temporary invisibility rather than the ability to make opponents disappear, in case anybody was wondering).

Once I've made my choice, Altrus removes his mask, and I am dazzled by the light that bursts from behind it. By the time my sight returns, he has gone, so I resume my journey to castle Scarpathia. An arrow almost hits me and, turning to face its source, I see an archer and two thugs with spiked clubs advancing on me. Sounds to my right and left indicate the presence of further hostiles, and I prepare for battle...

With the return of consciousness comes a great deal of pain, and the discovery that I am in a cell, my hands tied behind my back. The first time I reached this part of the adventure, I thought for a moment that I'd turned to the wrong section before realising that Mr. Brunskill had used the textual equivalent of a jump cut in place of the more traditional description of an unconsciousness-inducing blow to the head and fade to black. Rather a neat trick.

The cells to either side of me are also occupied. The prisoner on my left is still unconscious, the one to the right awake and terrified. He explains to me that the guards here like to bet on how long it will take their prisoners to die under torture. His babbling attracts the attention of the jailer, who waddles across to gleefully point out that I'm going to die first, and Finn (the scared man) will have to watch it happen before taking my place.

The Vanish spell requires only an incantation to cast, so having my hands bound won't prevent me from using it. The jailer is clearly a particularly slow-witted specimen: after unlocking the cell door and coming in to try and find out where I've gone, he stands gawping for long enough that I am able to pilfer his dagger, cut my bonds, and smack him in the head with a blunt instrument. Rather cruelly, I don't free Finn until I've retrieved my sword and shield and established that the third prisoner isn't going to wake up, ever. At least I don't make him wait until I've checked the cupboards by the exit door.

The first cupboard contains my backpack (empty, so I can't down a meal to put right some of the damage incurred during my capture) and an assortment of mediocre weapons. Finn helps himself to a sword. The second cupboard is booby-trapped, and I take a dagger to the arm as I open it. Inside it I find more weapons worse than my own, some cheap and tacky jewellery, and a gold ring with a diamond set into it, which goes straight into my pocket.

Finn and I head through the door and along the corridor beyond. At a four-way junction we are contemplating the best way to go when a couple of Guards approach from the north and attack us. This'll be where Finn dies, right? Oh yes. I kill my opponent with ease, and take out the second Guard as he extracts his sword from the mortally wounded Finn, but I'm back on my own again.

The Guards came from the north, so if they were patrolling, there might not be any more along for some time. If, on the other hand, they were coming from the guard room, there'll most likely be lots of them around. I go that way regardless, and reach an east-west junction with a door at the end of each passage. Going east should take me further into the castle, so west could be a dead end with something useful in it.

The room beyond the door is dark, and smells as if it hasn't been used in a long time. Undaunted, I enter, and after a moment the floor gives way beneath my feet. If I'd taken the route that crosses the chasm by bridge, I might have an item that would help here, but as it is, I plummet to my death.

* * *

There's just under a week until this blog is five years old. I have now received some questions for the Q&A session I'm having to mark the occasion, but there's still time for further submissions, so feel free to ask anything you want to know. Except maybe the one about how to get through Torrepani in The Shamutanti Hills, which has apparently led several Googlers here over the years.

Tuesday, 11 July 2017

I Think I Know Enough of Hate

In 2005 the Oxfam bookshop on the corner of South Street and Carr Lane closed down. This was predominantly a sad thing, as I'd made a fair few good purchases there, not least a copy of Revenge of the Vampire for under £2. Still, the actual day on which the shop closed was a good one for me. Customers were given the option of paying a (fairly low) set price to take away as many books as they could fit into one of the carrier bags provided. I took advantage of the deal, and my acquisitions included every gamebook in the shop. Most of those were duplicates, which I grabbed with a view to trading or eBaying, but there was one gamebook that was completely new to me. I knew nothing about it or SwordQuest, the series to which it belonged, but as adding it to the bag made no difference to the price, I got it anyway. If it turned out to be any good - result! And if not, all I'd have lost would be the time spent reading it.

Other books obtained that day had more immediate appeal, and when I did get around to looking inside Bill Fawcett's Quest for the DRAGON'S EYE, I was not inspired to give it much attention. It looked a lot like a Endless Quest book (a series about which I was never enthusiastic), with rules that bear more than a passing resemblance to those of Dungeons & Dragons. A cursory flick through the book failed to turn up any interesting-looking Instant Deaths (or, indeed, any deaths outside of combat and other forms of health loss), and I never worked up the motivation to actually play the adventure. Until now, and even today I'm not exactly excited about it.

A pre-generated character is provided at the end of the rules section. I could create my own instead, but since the likelihood of my rolling up a character as good or better is far from high, I'll just go with Ceddwein, Guardsman of Terverni (Cedd for short). The examples of play given in the rules do not fill me with confidence, as the author seems unable to keep track of the bonuses. The sample character's high Strength gives +1 to the damage he inflicts, and he inherits a magical longsword which gives another +1 to damage, but when he hits an Orc with the magic sword, he only adds 1 to the damage rolled.

The adventure has a prologue in which a villain summons a Demon, compels him to obey by revealing that he has stolen the Demon's soul stone, and orders him to revive the Temple of Dragons and conquer Terverni. The Demon senses weakness in his summoner, and secretly plots revenge. Slightly confusingly, while the adventure proper starts with a scene involving a Wizard and a Demon, this is not a direct continuation of the prologue: the Wizard Yirdahn is on the side of good, and is struggling to keep the Demon trapped in the pentagram in which it has manifested. Cedd is also present (this is one of those 'third person narrative' gamebooks), and when a couple of Imps start to spawn outside the pentagram, he rushes to attack one before it can interfere with Yirdahn's efforts to maintain the containment spell. Cedd's superior, Lord Durr (whose name has probably given him an undeserved reputation for being slow-witted), turns his attention to the other.

Well, that was lucky. I needed 14 or more on 3 dice for Cedd to score a hit, and I got exactly the required number straight off. The Imp had 6 Hit Points, and I got a 5 for damage. Add the +1 Strength bonus, and that's an immediate end to what could have been a very drawn-out and tedious fight. Indeed, the battle described in the next section bears little resemblance to the tale told by the dice, with several unsuccessful strikes preceding a changed strategy that allows for a killing blow. The Demon is trapped for now, the summoning of the Imps having distracted it enough for Yirdahn to seal the pentagram, and the Wizard is surprised that it made such a blunder. If the prologue hadn't revealed the Demon's hostility towards his summoner, I'd be suspecting a trap round about now.

The next section is more than a dozen pages long, and starts by telling of Cedd's history (trained as a thief, but wanted renown, so became a guard, and claims to have shady connections in order to explain how he gets his hands on the occasional item he steals in the line of duty) and Durr's reluctant betrothal to Yirdahn's daughter Valencia, a not-that-competent trainee sorceress with a personality I find deeply irritating. Then the narrative shifts to a meeting with the King. A soothsayer has discovered that the Demon can be banished if Yirdahn can get his hands on the soul stone, which is being kept in the Temple of Dragons. Between the cult of Dragon-worshipping lizardmen stirred up by the Demon, the desert surrounding the Temple, the imminent windy season, and the assorted monsters infesting the desert, fetching the stone will be a hazardous quest. But one that Durr finds preferable to marrying Valencia, so he volunteers to lead the first expedition to the Temple (the party consisting of Durr, Cedd, and eight not doubt thoroughly dispensable guards).

A tearful Valencia gives her beloved a brooch that she has enchanted, which will allow her to be with him even while they are apart, though she doesn't have a clue exactly how it will do so. I'm guessing that it's either going to provide unfunny comic relief or needlessly complicate an already perilous mission. Cedd rashly brags that he wouldn't let her boss him about, so Durr makes him wear the brooch to demonstrate his mastery of interaction with dangerously inept Witches.

A little over a week later, out heroes encounter a caravan of traders in the desert, and join forces for the night. While on guard duty, Cedd observes a man sneaking away from the camp and burying something. It turns out to be a chest full of gold and jewels, which he is tempted to take, but reburies owing to a combination of his burgeoning sense of duty and fear that the brooch will allow Valencia to find out what he's up to. At the end of his shift, he is led away by the caravan chief, who takes him to the caravan's Seer. She has a prophecy for the honest thief, and the business with the chest has identified Cedd as the man in question. The section finally ends with a roll against Intelligence to see if Cedd can make sense of the Seer's cryptic utterances about blue oceans and red clouds.

The roll produces a favourable outcome, but not the best one possible. Cedd sees a vision of a staircase of ice leading to a ruby, and a tornado of blue crystals rushes past him, quietly singing fragmentary hints of information, including 'blue for cold', 'red for freedom', and an instruction to 'look through the Dragon's eye'. The Seer 'clarifies' this by telling Cedd he must face the cold before the potion of heat will serve him best.

In the morning the caravan and the expedition go their separate ways, and lizardmen attack Durr and his men. Though the lizardman trying to kill Cedd is, statistically speaking, easier to hit than the Imp, this fight takes a lot longer to resolve, and Cedd takes a wound before eventually killing his foe. Then another lizardman sneaks up on him and knocks him out. The Seer didn't predict that, did she?

Cedd regains consciousness in a cage suspended from the ceiling of a torture chamber. Durr is in a similar cage, and the rest of the guards have presumably departed to Mungolia, the fabled last resting place of doomed gamebook companions. Retrieving the thieves' tools concealed within his shirt, Cedd gets to work on the padlock holding his cage shut, relieved that Durr is too unconscious to see him putting his criminal skills to use. Once the cage door is open, Cedd leaps to the floor, reflecting that he hasn't jumped this far since an incident in his former career when he rather urgently needed to get away from several of the City Guard. A successful Dexterity roll provides a safe landing, and Cedd whispers to Durr as loudly as he dares in order to wake him.

For some reason, when Durr asks how Cedd managed to get free, Cedd just tells him, despite having wanted to conceal his prowess as a thief mere minutes before. It soon becomes apparent that there are a few obstacles to rescuing Durr: the cage is too high for Cedd to jump up to it, the mechanism for lowering it needs at least two people to operate it, and one of Durr's legs is so broken, it looks like a semaphore 'K'. Durr orders Cedd to leave him there and complete the mission before trying to help him, and as Cedd retrieves his armour and weapons from where they have been dumped, Durr advises Cedd to take Durr's sword, as it is enchanted. Cedd also takes the brooch with him, which makes a lot of sense: Durr is vulnerable in pain, and the last thing he needs in such circumstances is the possibility of Valencia being able to bring her special brand of 'comfort' to him.

The passage leading from the torture chamber ends at a junction. Cedd is looking for the way out of the building, so I think the turning that leads to a door with a rack of spears next to it seems a more promising option than the one which loops back the way he came. The door begins to open, and the sunlight that streams through it suggests that it does lead outside, but now there's a lizardman guard in the way. Cedd waits for a bit and then, hoping that the heat might have caused the guard to doze off, attempts to sneak past. No, a second successful Dexterity roll reveals that he's sneaking up on the guard in order to launch a surprise attack. The element of surprise provides enough of a bonus to the attack roll that it's on target, and the damage rolled is lethal even before the bonuses for Cedd's Strength and the magic sword are applied. That's one lizardman who'll never sleep on duty again.

For once the section following the fight doesn't give a description of the battle. Instead, Cedd just emerges from the building into a city. There are other lizardmen around, but as they're also torpid in the noonday sun, he is able to avoid them with ease. Heading in the direction of the mountain on which the Temple is located, Cedd spots a train of wagons and, surmising that they are headed for the Temple, climbs into one of them.

It's full of dragon dung. The text points out that something has to be done to clear the stuff out of the city, but provides no convincing explanation of why the chosen course of action should be to cart it up a mountain rather than just dumping it in the desert. Unless it gets used in the Temple rites, which I'd rather not contemplate.

After a few hours (which doubtless feels like a much longer period to Cedd, perhaps prompting him to reflect on dung, eons, and Dragons) the wagon in which he is hiding draws near to the Temple, so Cedd extricates himself, scrubs himself down with sand to remove the worst of the filth, and sneaks into the Temple.

Inside are many disturbingly realistic statues of Dragons, and a carved frieze depicting the history of Dragonkind. A recent addition to the latter, created with less artistic ability than the rest, shows a Demon fighting and overcoming a Dragon. The statues all have gems for eyes, any one of which could be the soul stone, but with the help of one of the soothsayer's utterances, Cedd singles out a crude stone idol carved from the wall of the mountain.

To gain access to the idol, Cedd climbs onto a Dragon statue below it. Wrapped around the statue's neck is a rope, with a silver thread woven into it and runes inscribed upon it. Cedd removes the rope and uses it to help him climb up onto the idol. Another Dexterity roll ensues, but I'm more concerned about the possibility that the statue might actually be a real Dragon, petrified by a charm bound into the rope, and about to revive now that the rope has been removed.

The roll is a success, so Cedd is able to reach the idol's head and, with some effort, prise out the ruby eye. While working on this, he muses on the contrast between the rough, awkward handiwork of the idol and the remarkable verisimilitude of the statues. Once the stone is stashed in a belt pouch, Cedd clambers back down the idol, and is somewhat perturbed to find that the statue beneath it is no longer there. He doesn't come to the same conclusion that I did, though. Still, I'm now modifying my theory to fit with new evidence, as there's a woman in a silver gown lying on the floor and beginning to regain consciousness. Can Dragons in this fantasy world take on human form? That woman has to have been the statue until released by the removal of the rope, but the truth about her species remains to be established.

Cedd, being less genre-savvy than I, assumes that the woman is an escaped prisoner who just happened to black out in the vicinity of the mysteriously missing statue. He climbs down the rope and, hearing a door slam close by, assists the woman into concealment behind the idol. Which doesn't make sense as, last section, the idol was carved from the wall (so there shouldn't be a gap behind it) and ten feet above ground level (so even if there is a gap, it's not one into which one could easily usher a confused woman in clothing unsuitable for climbing).

An angry hiss indicates that the theft of the stone has been noticed. Cedd is musing on how much more difficult getting the gem to Yirdahn will be if he has to protect the woman on the return voyage, and then he spots a large door that was concealed by the idol, and decides to see if that leads anywhere helpful. It's locked, so out come the thieving tools again.

For no good reason, the section ends with a redirection to another section, which consists solely of a Dexterity check. There are no other sections leading to the one with the check, so this isn't a way of bringing together divergent paths through the book, and the adventure has 98 sections, so it's not even that throwing in this unnecessary transition was a means of reaching a nice round number. Why not just have the roll at the end of the section describing everything that's happened since the last roll?

The roll is successful, which comes as no great surprise - given Cedd's Dexterity, the likelihood of failing is under 10%. He picks the lock, opens the door, grabs a torch, takes the woman through the door, and shuts and bolts it behind him. The light of the torch doesn't show much, but does reveal that Cedd and the woman are at the top of a spiral staircase with a steep drop on each side and no handrail.

It would appear that Mr. Fawcett is none too clear on the difference between a bolt and a lock, as the sound of a key in the lock galvanises Cedd into action, and he hurries the woman down the stairs before any pursuers can come through. When he heads voices overhead, he extinguishes the torch in a convenient puddle, and can see the group of lizardmen assembled at the top of the stairs. Following a brief dispute, during which some of the lizardmen momentarily come to blows, the group goes back through the door and relocks it. Which means the stairs probably lead to something that scares the lizardmen more than the punishment for failing to recover the soul stone...

On the subject of scary, being an unspecified distance up a spiral staircase with no walls or rails, in pitch darkness... With no means of relighting the torch, Cedd resorts to using the brooch to see if Valencia can help. When he holds it in the manner previously indicated, a faint glow appears in the air, and Valencia's voice can be heard. Hurriedly glossing over the reasons why Durr is not present, Cedd explains the situation, and Valencia agrees to try and enchant a weapon to turn it into a source of illumination. Cedd draws his dagger, and Valencia mutters an incantation.

She bungles the spell, of course. Instead of causing the dagger to glow, and the light to go out when the blade is sheathed, she causes the sheath to light up (and go dark when the dagger is put back into it). Still, her blunder doesn't make things any more dangerous, and is even vaguely amusing, so I'm not going to make a fuss about it.

As Cedd and the woman resume their descent, it gets colder. A patch of ice on a step causes Cedd to slip, and he only just manages to grab onto the edge of the staircase as he topples over. It is at this point that he finally decides to speak to the woman, asking her help him back onto the steps. At his urging, she descends until she's roughly level with him, gets a secure foothold, leans over the edge to reach out to him, and grabs onto the rope he has wrapped around himself. Which turns out to be a really bad idea.

Cedd doesn't see exactly what happens, but as far as I can tell, touching the rope causes the woman to turn back into the Dragon, the resultant change in shape, size and strength causing her to inadvertently pull him away from the steps completely. He then falls, breaking the contact between her hands (claws?) and the rope, causing her to become the woman again. Unbeknownst to Cedd, they were actually close to the bottom of the staircase, so he only has a few feet to fall before hitting the ground, getting a painful bang on the head but not actually losing any Hit Points. The woman is also physically unharmed, but the experience has clearly been somewhat traumatic for her, as she flinches away when he tries to help her back onto her feet.

Close by is an open door, leading to a cavern with walls of ice. When Cedd steps through, his footsteps echo loudly, attracting the attention of the albino lizardmen that inhabit this place. Fighting is probably a bad idea, and sneaking seems unlikely to work, but with those echoes, and the fact that these lizardmen live in the dark and probably rely on hearing more than sight to find their way around, making lots of noise might just confuse them enough to facilitate an escape.

Yep, that worked. After a while, Cedd and the woman pass chambers carved from the walls. A quick look inside one reveals them to be tombs, which have been looted at some point in the past. The temperature continues to drop, and Cedd is surprised to see that the woman appears unaffected by the cold. He asks a few questions, but she seems to be suffering from memory loss, and can only tell him that her name is Endrien.

The sight of a tomb which has not been looted makes Cedd want to rob it. A spot of what looks like dried blood on the ground in front of the door suggests that there may be a nasty surprise lined up for would-be robbers, and I'm not sure how Endrien would react to a display of greed and criminality, so I determine that he decides against trying to break in.

Continuing through the cavern, Cedd sees another unopened tomb. Scratches around the lock suggest that somebody tried to break into the tom, and Cedd foolishly assumes that whoever made the attempt but failed was just really rubbish at picking locks. Again I deny him the opportunity to discover the real reason for the tomb's intact status.

Cedd and Endrien keep going, the cavern gets colder, and it looks as if one of those tombs might have contained an unidentified potion, as the text offers an opportunity to try it out and see what happens. Further on, Cedd sees a tomb that was almost robbed. Its door is open, its contents are intact, and the skeleton lying across the threshold with a spear through its rib cage indicates why the theft was not completed. Clutched in the skeleton's hands is a potion bottle, still sealed, and Cedd speculates that the thief thought drinking its contents would help him, but died too quickly to test that theory. Taking a potentially useful item from a deceased tomb robber is different from breaking into a tomb in search of valuables, so I let Cedd help himself to the bottle. He immediately downs the contents, and is restored to full health.

Beyond the last of the tombs, the cavern ends in a wall with a door set into it. Seeing no lock or handle, Cedd pushes on it, and it gradually opens. Beyond it is a balcony overlooking another cavern. Mounds of crystals are piled on the floor, being added to by glowing blue creatures that extract additional gems from the walls. Oh, and there's a whacking great ice Dragon in there, too, looking straight at the new arrivals. It commands Cedd and Endrien to come down and say hello, so they descend a flight of steps carved into the wall. Once they reach ground level, it breathes freezing cold air at them. Not having found and consumed the other potion, Cedd has no protection from the gelid blast, but a successful Constitution roll means he is merely gravely injured rather than killed outright.

The Dragon erroneously concludes that magic is the reason Cedd is still standing (even if he hadn't taken that healing potion, Cedd would only be even closer to death), and asks if Cedd wants its jewels, going on to say that it no longer has any treasure in any case - the crystals piled on the floor are just ice, collected because a Dragon has to have a hoard of something shiny and sparkly.

Cedd makes a hash of explaining himself to the Dragon (at one point he almost initiates a war between Terverni and the Dragon!), and only avoids a further attack by showing off the soul stone. The Dragon asks to touch the gem, and Endrien suddenly gets angry and warns it off. The Dragon suddenly realises that it knows her, and makes a comment that's obviously about her human form, though Cedd remains clueless and assumes it's a criticism of her dress.

Now that the balance of power has shifted, Cedd demands to know the way out, and the Dragon indicates a passage opening before warning that it might still decide to eat him (though Endrien is of the menu). In a moment of sloppy gamebook design, the text has Cedd reflect on the best way to use a potion he doesn't have and hasn't seen. Okay, I should have let him break into those tombs. But would it have killed the Seer to drop a hint about needing to rob the undisturbed dead?

Lacking the potion, Cedd must either attack the Dragon or head for the exit. Attacking looks more suicidal than leaving, so I pick the possibly survivable option. And Cedd somewhat makes up for his recent ineptitude by bluffing that, as a warm-blooded being, he'd only melt the Dragon's innards if it ate him. The Dragon accepts his argument, and bids Cedd and Endrien a friendly farewell.

Mr. Fawcett continues to assume that anyone who's got this far drank that other potion. It seems odd to be arguing that I should have failed the book by now, but if the plot requires that Cedd get the potion, the book ought not to offer such high odds of surviving the Dragon's breath unprotected. At full health, the likelihood of the pre-generated character not being killed by that attack is a fraction under 74%, so Cedd's having lived through it isn't exactly a statistical outlier. While I'm carping about errors, I'll also point out that the magical illumination is now said to be coming from the dagger.

As Cedd and Endrien move further away from the Dragon's cavern, their surroundings become less chilly. As do relations between the two characters, on an unspoken level. After a while, the passage leads to another huge chamber, in which icicles are dropping from the roof. Avoiding being hit on the way through takes another Dexterity roll, and my luck is still holding up. Even with a successful roll, Cedd stumbles at one point, but is pulled to safety by Endrien. He's surprised at her strength, but continues to fail to figure out what's been obvious to me since she first appeared.

A while later, frostbite kicks in (the potion must wear off), and my luck runs out. Despite succeeding at the Constitution roll that determines the severity of the damage sustained, I get the worst possible outcome on the actual damage roll, which is just enough to reduce Cedd's Hit Points to zero. As he expires, he sees a vision of the hideous fates awaiting his human friends and acquaintances, though as every potentially lethal situation from the lizardman attack onwards points to the same generic death section, no indication is given of what the future holds for Endrien.

Not a great gamebook, but not horrible. I must admit to some curiosity as to how certain elements of the plot will pan out. And it would be interesting to find out if anything in the story bears even the slightest resemblance to the events described on the back cover, which appears to be describing a different book altogether.

Friday, 7 July 2017

You Just Can't Get the Psychopaths These Days

Ghost Road, the fourth and final of Ian Livingstone's Adventures of Goldhawk, is the only book in the series I didn't buy online. I have already explained how I got the first couple of books in the series, and how unimpressed I was by the first one. However, I have not previously mentioned that I disliked it enough to write a negative review for an online gamebook group (which was subsequently modified and archived here). My review prompted some discussion, in the course of which someone pointed out that the last book in the series was by far the best. Thus, when I came across a cheap copy of Ghost Road in an Oxfam bookshop while visiting relatives in Swindon, I decided to give it a chance, and bought it.

I think I bought something else - not a gamebook - at the same time, and that got my attention afterwards, so I didn't get around to playing Ghost Road until I'd failed at the three preceding adventures during my playthrough of all Fighting Fantasy and spin-offs at a long-dead forum. It ended a losing streak that was about to hit double figures, and between the good mood engendered by my victory and the loss of my write-up when the forum hosting it went to section 404, I can't say off hand whether or not I agree that the book is significantly better than its predecessors. Not as harsh, obviously, but difficulty is only one element of a gamebook. In any case, this is a fresh opportunity to find out if I actually like the book at all.

If, on my previous adventure, I'd chosen the Tombstone Bell rather than the Flashbang Powder, and had survived the assorted perils that come after the Swamp Zombie encounter that did for me, following the successful conclusion of my quest I would have received a Crystal Ball and been told that I could find my destiny by breaking it. Following a night's rest, I decide that it's time, and drop the Crystal Ball on the floor. The gas contained within it takes on the form of an old man's face and, speaking in atrocious verse even by this series' standards, tells me that to avert disaster I must go to the Tower of Ghosts and prevent Princess Jet from marrying Darkmoon.

I take this information to Marris, who explains that Princess Jet is a demi-ghost who can only take on human form at the full moon, and speculates that Darkmoon must have met her in Ghost World after I turned him into a ghost. Excuse me, mister court wizard, but I did not turn Darkmoon into a ghost. I turned him into a mouse, and he then became a ghost because Ian Livingstone thinks children don't have the critical faculties to notice when a plot development makes zero sense. Feel free to blame me for not killing him when I had the opportunity (despite having had no qualms about taking the life of the Dark Knight earlier), but don't go accusing me of things I didn't do. Or I might find myself unexpectedly busy the next time you need someone to risk his life to save your neck.

Anyway, the full moon is imminent, so I need to find a way of eliminating the 'far worse even then Darkmoon' Princess before she can get married and... Well, given the mouse/ghost nonsense, who knows what non-sequiturial transmogrification might result from Jet's becoming a bride?

Marris says he'll take me to the start of the Ghost Road, which leads via the Rainbow Bridge to the Tower of Ghosts, and advises me to use a Trapping Mirror against the Princess. He doesn't give me such a Mirror, though, or even suggest how I might get hold of one, but i suppose I should be grateful that I've been briefed on what I need rather than having to rely on some random burst of inspiration.

We travel to the start of the road by Giant Eagle, accompanied by Orlando the Tin Pig and Edge the talking sword. They bicker along the way, and even the book starts making false assertions about me, making out that I enjoy their tedious shenanigans. We land on a grassy plain, and Marris indicates a strip of grass that's a little lighter than the surrounding vegetation. He warns me to return by dawn if I don't want to become a ghost myself, and sets off back to Karazan Castle.

As I step onto the discoloured grass, ethereal voices call my name and the sky turns red. It's almost atmospheric. After a few paces, the grass withers, revealing a cobbled road. A masked figure in a black cloak advances along it towards us and demands to know my identity and business. The book gives me the option of answering truthfully (except for the bit where I give the name of the comatose Prince I've been impersonating all series) or making up a name and claiming to be a wedding guest. I say that I'm the King of Karazan, and an enemy of the Princess, and the cloaked figure assumes that I'm joking, and am actually a bad lot by the name of Tinto.

The masked entity mistakes Edge for the legendary Sword of Serpents (and my sword has the sense to keep from complaining about the misidentification) and asks me to hand the weapon over. Thinking about Edge's interminable squabbling with Orlando, I'm tempted to do as requested, but can only choose between attacking the figure or claiming that I must keep the sword with me as it's a wedding present. Getting into a fight here, while not game-endingly bad, is not a good idea, so I say the sword is a gift for the nearly-weds. The being in the cloak expresses disappointment that I didn't bring him a present, too, and asks to see my invitation. I say that I've lost it, and he offers to sell me a replacement for half my gold. Yes, even supernatural villains' nuptials can attract scalpers. I hand over the money rather than risk a more physical form of scalping, and continue on my way.

A side turning catches my attention, and I head down it to a forest clearing. A grotesque man in black rags sits on a branch, surrounded by crows, and asks why I'm here. I observe that the vines hanging from the trees seem partly material and partly spectral, and grab a couple. This displeases the man, and his crows attack me, pecking away a point of Skill before I'm able to flee back to the main Ghost Road.

Ghostly voices threaten me with unpleasant fates as I continue along my way. At a crossroads we encounter a Gnome on a rock. He looks west, and smashing sounds are audible from the north. For no good reason I tell the Gnome that I'm going to the wedding, and he says nothing but somehow indicates that I should say more. As honesty worked well during my first encounter, I clarify that I intend to be the 'just cause or impediment', and the Gnome practically high-fives me. He explains that he's here to guide everyone who'll be fleeing the arrival of the Tower, and tells me a rhyme he was taught by local inventor Professor Graymane. It's prophetic in nature, and implies that I'll be able to find the Mirror I seek to the south of Misery. The Gnome also mentions counting the bite-marks on an Ogre's bone from the Ghoulfields, and suggests that the cause of the noises to the north may be a malfunctioning invention of the Professor's.

West is probably the way to the Tower, then, but resolving the situation in the north is the sort of tangential mission that could turn up something essential, so I make the detour. The path leads into another forested area, and I see that some of the trees have been uprooted. My companions get annoying again, and I press on until I get to the remains of a hut, erratically patrolled by the out-of-control mechanical humanoid that has wrought the damage.

As the Brass Man lurches towards me, I catch sight of what could be a control box set into its chest, and risk getting close enough to try and operate the levers. A Skill roll is required to find the off-switch, but the damage I took from the crows isn't quite enough to have reduced my mechanical aptitude to an unhelpful level. I deactivate the rampaging automaton, and extract the control box on the off-chance that it will be compatible with any other mechanical threats that might come my way.
Searching the wreckage of the hut, I find some money and a flask of Ghoulbane. Orlando makes a vaguely amusing faux pas regarding the relative edibility of humans and Tin Pigs, and we return to the crossroads and head west.

Before long we encounter several caravans of travellers heading our way. Russ Nicholson still hasn't got the memo about Karazan having no horses, as such creatures are depicted pulling the caravans. Even if one were to speculate that these people might have been drawn into this realm from another world, there's still the problem that Orlando's questions about the travellers don't include anything about the unknown (to him) beasts that draw the caravans and (knowing his timorous nature) how likely it is that they might feed on tin.

Bizarre aspects of this encounter:
  1. The book asks if I have blue ears.
  2. Mild sexual tension. Which is only odd because of the context. To my recollection, there's not been a hint of that in any preceding Fighting Fantasy adventure, and now here it is in one of the books specifically targeted at younger readers.
Regrettably stereotypical aspects of this encounter:
  1. The travellers try to sell me stuff. Not lucky heather or clothespegs, at least, but still...
Before moving along, I buy some clothes and a statue of a Night Elf. If I didn't have those vines, I might have gone for a Ghost Rope instead of the statue.

Further to the west, the road passes an odd-looking house surrounded by a wall. The gates are guarded by a Pixie who's playing with a clockwork soldier. He states that the house belongs to Professor Graymane, mentions that the Professor constructed the Ghost Tower's clockwork statues, and implies an interest in turning Orlando into scrap metal for the Professor to use. When I ask if the Professor is at home, the Pixie tells us to go away, so I decide to see if he's susceptible to bribery. He is, and will accept either 3 Gold Pieces or a bag of clothes. Now I remember that on my previous playthrough of this book I noted that I'd have been better off not buying the clothes, as they cost more than 3 Gold, but where was that memory when I was thinking 'I'm pretty sure there's an encounter where those clothes come in handy'?

I hand over the clothes, and the Pixie lets us in. The front door leads straight into a laboratory, in which the Professor is tinkering with another toy soldier. He's not happy at being interrupted, but when I express an interest in the work he did at the Ghost Tower, the focus of his annoyance changes, as Darkmoon never paid him for it. I mention that I'm planning to upset Darkmoon by thwarting his wedding plans, and the Professor starts talking about wanting money again. I distract him with the control box from the Brass Man, and in return for it he gives me a brass watch that slows down time, a bottle of Memory Juice, and a hint that name-dropping him should enable me to get a lift from one of his other inventions further down the road. He also tells me a little about the Trapping Mirror, explaining that Darkmoon had it buried in the Ghoulfields because he couldn't destroy it.

Leaving him to his work, I return to the road, and we head west again. It starts getting dark, and several metal pigs on wheels trundle our way, prompting another tedious spat between my companions. I tell the Roadhogs (sigh!) that the Professor sent me, and they carry us along the road at great speed. A ghost in a shroud attempts to intercept us, but we're moving too quickly for her.

At last we are dropped off on the outskirts of a village. A sign indicates that the place is called Misery, with a population of 32, all of whom are dead and far from pleased about it. The resident ghosts are all victims of Darkmoon, but they're too busy bewailing their lot to assist me in opposing him. Still, the bone mentioned by the Gnome is not hard to find. 

Somehow, paying attention to the bone allows me to discover that the wall at the end of a nearby alley is an illusion. I walk through it, finding myself on a road paved with tombstones. A pack of Ghouls approaches, and I throw the Ghoulbane in their faces. It weakens them, but some still attack. I manage to drive them off with Edge, but without the Skill bonus I got for having used the Ghoulbane, I'd now be on the menu.

The Ghouls were guarding a tomb. Looking inside, I find that either the Professor was misinformed or Darkmoon's idea of 'buried' is 'in plain sight on top of a stone coffin'. Regardless, I grab the Mirror and rush back to the Ghost Road.

The night is wearing on, the Tower must have appeared by now, and we're still not there. A flock of Vampire Bats swoops to the attack and, not possessing a Bat Lantern (I guess we missed an encounter with Commissioner Gordon), I must either attack or flee. This is the sort of situation where fighting is unlikely to help, so I run for it.

As I dash away, I notice another side-trail. Now, the text has only recently reminded me that time is running out, so when a diversion like this shows up, what do you think I should do? If you answered 'ignore the distraction and stay on the Ghost Road' (or words to that effect), you fail Basic Livingstone. I don't want to think about what the resits entail.

The side path leads to an encounter with notorious thief Razorhead, a club-wielding thug who can move at incredible speed because of the aerodynamic properties of his Mohican haircut. With the watch the Professor gave me I am able to match Razorhead's speed, and then the book makes me attempt to bribe him with the statue I bought from the travellers. This item terrifies him so much that he gives me all his money and departs. On the Ghost Road, everything is fine.

At last I sight the Tower. Assorted supernatural entities are still heading into it, suggesting that the ceremony has yet to commence. Orlando suggests we try and get a lift on the wagon which is coming up the road behind us, laden with gifts, some of them the sort of disgusting delicacy that would amuse the book's target audience. Judging by the mention of a headless horseman driving the wagon, even Ian Livingstone has forgotten about the 'no horses' thing by now.

As the wagon overtakes us, I leap onto the back of it and hang on. I then try to grab one of the wedding presents, but fail the Skill roll required, and lose my grip. We'll have to complete the journey on foot.

The Rainbow Bridge is guarded by a Ghost Giant who wears magical armour and wields a scythe. I don't like the idea of fighting him, so I seek an alternate approach, and the only thing that will work is to use a Ghost Vine. That immobilises the Giant, but I'm not able to retrieve the Vine. Good thing I got two of them, because I know I'll need one for the endgame.

Inside the Tower, I see a gathering of the undead and the monstrous, enjoying a banquet of repulsive dishes. A rat-faced usher, flanked by a pair of heavily armoured skeletons, asks to see my invitation. I hand it over, and rat-face asks for my gift. Regrettably, only one item will satisfy him, and that's the one I failed to grab while hanging on to the wagon. As I don't have it, he sets the skeletons on me, and this is one fight I have no chance of winning.

This is pretty much the only book in the series in which there's more than one viable route to success, so replaying it (a long way down the line) is not as unappealing a prospect as, for example, retracing my footsteps through The Demon Spider. Nevertheless, I'm not exactly enthusiastic about it.

Wednesday, 5 July 2017

Adventure of a New and Different Kind

Judging by the traces of glue on the spine, I most likely got my copy of Lone Wolf book 10, The Dungeons of Torgar, in Ballard's. The shop was mainly devoted to models and RPGs, and had only a small amount of shelf space devoted to gamebooks, so to get the most out of that limited space, the stock was mostly 'spine out' rather than 'face-on', and to cut down on unnecessary handling, price tags were placed on the spines. Those tags did, regrettably, tend to leave a sticky residue when removed. Still, having delayed my acquisition of the later books in the series, as explained here, I had to buy them where I could find them, and at least the labels could be taken off without tearing the covers.

I must have at least read through the book after getting it. While I have no clear memories of doing so, I know that when GM magazine adapted a sequence from Dungeons into a mini-adventure in connection with a competition, I played the magazine version and recognised an incident in it. The lack of more detailed memories, and the fact that much of the content was new to me when I came back to the book while playing through the whole series in the nineties, suggests that I only had one go at Dungeons when I bought it, though.

By now I know that there are essentially three different routes through Dungeons. Aussiesmurf has recently covered one of them in his Lone Wolf playthrough (and I know of another online attempt at the book that went the same way, though I shan't be linking to that one as it's in a part of the internet to which I hope never to return). For the sake of variety, I shall take a different one. Much as I'd like to cover the one that includes a not-so-fond reunion, it is only possible to get onto that particular path by making some sub-optimal decisions, and it includes a fight of similar difficulty to the one everyone hates in book 9, so I'm ruling it out. That leaves the path I took first time round.

So, at the end of the last book I learned that my enemy Darklord Gnaag had managed to get hold of the final three of the Lorestones that I need in order to become a Kai Grand Master, and intended to destroy them and me. Since then, the Elder Magi have learned that a soldier who escaped from the city-fortress of Torgar reported having seen the Lorestones brought into it. I must travel to Eru, the allied region closest to Torgar, and then Eruan ruler Prince Graygor will furnish some kind of assistance to help me get into the city-fortress, retrieve the Lorestones, level up and save the world.

Before I set off, I should sort out character progression from book 9. I get to add another Discipline, and with an eye on my next Lore-circle and a vague memory of something that happens near the end of the adventure, I pick Invisibility. While I've passed the point at which gaining weapon proficiencies particularly matters, I should take care of that as well, so I select Quarterstaff. I'm given some money to add to my bag, and get to select some new Backpack Items, as the rules still insist that only money, Weapons and Special Items may be carried across to later books. Bye-bye to the rope, meal, Altar Cloth and flask of slightly suspect alcohol, hello to a new rope, two fresh meals and a healing potion.

Since (as far as we know) Gnaag doesn't know that we know where the Lorestones are, my friend Banedon is disguising himself as me as he returns to my home province of Sommerlund, and I am disguising myself as a messenger for my journey west. The cover illustration to the Mongoose Books reissue of Dungeons suggests that I make the mistake of choosing a messenger disguise that looks exactly like my normal costume, but that's nowhere near the worst mistake Mongoose has made. Dare I hope that it's the worst one in this book?

I think section 1 of this adventure may contain more text than the entirety of some Tunnels & Trolls mini-adventures. Buried a couple of pages in is a description of the way Eruans salute, which I commit to memory to reduce the risk of blowing my cover with an incorrect salute at some later point in the adventure. Another detail that catches my attention is the off-hand revelation that one of the captured Lorestones was seized by the enemy two years ago. Conspiracy theorists could probably make a lot out of the fact that the Elder Magi never bothered to mention that fact to me.

The Prince gives me a new disguise, as there aren't many messengers from the Tahouese army in these parts, and being conspicuous even in a way that doesn't mark me out as a Kai is probably inadvisable. Thus, I now wear the costume of an Eruan Pathfinder, elite woodsmen (or scouts, depending on which version of the book you're reading) who operate in some of the more insalubrious parts of the region.

Anyway, once I get through all the waffle, I have a simple choice. Do I want to go to Torgar via the Hellswamp or the Moggador Forest? The first route would require me to track down partisan leader Sebb Jarel and persuade him to act as my guide, while the latter means assisting the Prince, his ally King Sarnac, and their armies as they fight to retake the border town of Cetza. I shall improve Sebb Jarel's chances of surviving to retirement age by leaving him well alone.

The journey to Cetza is uneventful, and for some reason the Mongoose text is less precise about the number of soldiers on our side than the original version. Scouts ascertain that the enemy forces have fortified their position and received reinforcements since their last battle, which is not great news. It's late in the day by the time the troops have all arrived, and the decision is made not to attack until morning. King Sarnac invites the Prince to make battle plans for tomorrow, and the Prince says I can come too, so I accompany him.

For a while the Prince and the King formulate strategies, and then the King points out that a lot of lives could be saved if we were better informed about the enemy reinforcements. And who happens to be in the tent with the King, standing incognito in the uniform of an expert scout? That would be me. (I now give an unreserved thumbs-up to the Mongoose edit I mentioned a few paragraphs back, as it properly sets up this awkward situation.) Well, if nothing else, this should be a good opportunity to test drive my newest Discipline, so I resolve the Prince's dilemma and maintain my cover by volunteering to investigate the enemy ranks. I am given yet another change of costume for more effective camouflage, and get told the password to give our sentries upon my return.

There's not a lot of cover, and I wind up in a rather unpleasant ditch that passes under a bridge. There are men on the bridge, speaking Giak with a fluency that identifies them as elite Drakkar Death-Knights. But even elites have their off-days, and one of them drops a spear, which lands close to me. The fumbling Drakkar descends the bank to retrieve his weapon, and I'm one Discipline short of the Lore-circle that would guarantee my escaping his notice, so randomness determines what happens next. Invisibility does give me a bonus, but that merely reduces the likelihood of an unfavourable outcome to 50%. And the number I get would be a resounding success anyway. The Death Knight fails to spot me, grabs the spear, and clambers back up to rejoin his doubtless sniggering comrades.

I wait for some time, and then continue along the ditch until I reach a spot from which I can spy on the enemy army. Once I've learned as much as I can, I return to my allies' camp. To my surprise, it is taken as read that I remember the password, and the possibility of a friendly fire-based fatality does not arise. The King and the Prince appreciate the information I relay to them, and I am allowed a good night's rest while they modify their battle-plans to take the new data into account.

At dawn we prepare for battle. I join the Prince at his command post, and he notes that while we have numerical superiority, our opponents have the better position. Nevertheless, it is time to fight. The leading troops take heavy damage from archers, and when the Prince sends in fresh troops to support them, a blast of electricity from a ruined temple indicates the presence of someone with sorcerous capabilities. I get a Discipline check, and could go with more than one option. Do I choose the one that enables me to detect magic users (subject to shielding), or the one that gives me telescopic vision? Both versions of the book list them in the same order, and I recall previous Mongoose edits rearranging the occasional poorly-structured selection, so that probably means the first one is better in this situation.

Yes, the magician responsible for the blast is not shielded from my Divination, and I point him out to the Prince, who has a telescope. The Prince's response is courageous but probably unwise, as he leaps onto his horse to lead a cavalry charge towards the ruins. I can only go with him or stay behind and watch, and I don't fancy my chances if the Prince's death prompts a rout, so I join the charge in the hope of averting catastrophe. Concealed enemy archers open fire, but neither the Prince nor I are among the casualties. Then an injured, riderless horse runs into mine, and I am knocked off and into the ditch. It's one of the rare occasions when Animal Control can make a difference, and not getting the bonus that would come from having it means I miss the target number on this randomised check. Mortally wounded, my horse falls on me, doing a substantial amount of damage.

It's not lethal, though. I manage to drag myself out from under the dead horse, and crawl along the ditch. Close by I see one of the Palace Guard, trapped under his own dead horse, and face down in the mud. He'll drown without assistance, so I pause to try and extricate him. This turns out not to be difficult, and the man gives me a medal he won in an earlier battle as an expression of his gratitude. (This, by the way, is the incident I remembered from my first read of the book.)

The soldier then hurries after the Prince and what remains of his entourage. I could try looking for a replacement horse, but my lack of Animal Control might make that an overly hazardous course of action, so I follow the man I rescued on foot. Up ahead, the Prince and his Palace Guard clash with Drakkar pikemen, and a few of them break through and make for the temple. The remaining Drakkarim close ranks, and two try to intercept me. A single blow with the Sommerswerd fells the pair of them. The Palace Guards who failed to break through but still survived also take fearsome casualties, and the Drakkarim break and run.

I hurry to the temple ruins and find that only the Prince and the enemy sorcerer still stand. The weapon that dealt electrical death lies on the ground, still sizzling with energy, as its owner struggles to retrieve it. I draw the Sommerswerd, the enemy soldier gashes open the Prince's leg, and a thrown sword distracts me for the second it takes him to recover his Powerstave and attack me with it.

One problem with having read but not played through this path is that enemy stats haven't always registered, and this is the first time I realise just how tough this guy is. He's immune to Mindblast but not Psi-surge, but would the increased damage dealt justify the Endurance expenditure of using my psychic attack? I decide that it's not, but keep a mental note of how different things would be if I did throw Psi-surge into the mix.

Well, thanks to a few abysmal random numbers that come up in the course of the fight, I don't survive. And I'd have hurt the Drakkar warrior a bit more by using Psi-surge, but he'd still have survived and I'd still have died.

So, in a few weeks I'm going to have to decide whether I take this path again and hope for much better numbers next time, or take the less lethal path that's already been covered at least twice on the internet.