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group through at least some of the scenarios in them - and Dicing was a few years old, so a fair bit of its content was outdated.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.

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