Friday, 28 July 2017

I Should Have Known Better But I Got What I Deserved

Earlier this month I mentioned a Knightmare reference a friend made in response to an illustration in an issue of Proteus, but I didn't quite tell the whole story. Back then I had to have the reference explained to me, because (for an assortment of uninteresting reasons) I almost never got to see the programme. Over the course of its run, the series had over 100 episodes, and I saw just two of them.

The fact that I never got into the TV series is one of the main reasons I didn't collect the related gamebook series back in the 1980s. I did have a look at the first one back when it was the only one, downstairs in Hatchard's bookshop (or possibly the other bookshop that occupied the same location at a different time), and discovered two other things which, at the time, constituted further strikes against the literary variant of Knightmare. Firstly, around 75% of the book was a novel, the gamebook taking up just the last 36 pages, and while I had nothing against novels (and owned and had read hundreds of the things by then), I found the hybrid nature of this book somehow off-putting. Secondly, the gamebook portion barely had a system. Stats-wise there was just the Life Force Status, and there was no need for dice or any other random element. To my teen self, that was a big deal, putting the book on a level with such 'lesser' gamebook series as Choose Your Own Adventure, Endless Quest and Zork. My teen self could be an idiot at times.

I might have reconsidered if Dave Morris' name had appeared on the cover rather than being hidden away on page 5, as I knew from Golden Dragon, Dragon Warriors and Blood Sword that he had good form. As it was, I didn't take any further interest in the series until more than a decade later, when I was getting back into gamebooks in a big way, scouring the shelves of charity shops for titles to restore or add to my collection. In the course of my searches I came across some of the later Knightmare books, which actually had the author's name on the spine, and decided not to be so picky this time round.

While I shall be focusing on the gamebook in this post, the novel deserves some attention too. It tells of how Treguard (the host of the TV series) reclaimed his ancestral home, stolen from his family by treacherous Normans and then taken over by a malign entity known as the Gruagach, along the way slaying a dragon, meeting the men who inspired the tales of Robin Hood, rescuing a jester (who, I gather, was a recurring character in the TV show) from a supernatural knight, and encountering a few of the threats and challenges faced by the show's contestants.

It's an entertaining tale, with some nice touches of verisimilitude (such as the difficulty of stringing a longbow at speed - which is quite a serious problem when a Dragon is manoeuvring to attack), and there are times when I find it hard to argue with Folly the jester's view that, "Life is a joke. It's just not a very good one." I found the very ending, which sort of leads into the TV series, to be the weakest aspect. The Gruagach used the castle to lure virtuous knights to their deaths and make the world a worse place, and Folly persuades Treguard to undo the harm done there by turning the castle into a place where the bravest and the best can prove themselves and take the place of the Gruagach's victims. Fine in theory, but as I understand it, the majority of teams participating in the show failed, so the redemptively repurposed castle still killed off far more heroes than it nurtured.

Anyway, time to see if the gamebook version adds to the fatalities or the victories. There's a short section outlining the rules, which mostly relate to Life Force Status, and a 10-point Adventurer's Code, providing handy hints about advisable courses of action. The 'if in doubt, go left' crowd aren't going to like this one...

I start by putting on the Helmet of Justice. In the TV show, this effectively blinded the wearer (to keep them from seeing their lack of surroundings, much of the environment being created via chroma key, and thus only visible on TV sets and monitor screens), but in the gamebook it has no such effect. I'm offered a choice of three levels of difficulty, which leaves me wondering whether the book contains multiple adventures or just one that can be entered at different points, so those who choose 'slightly difficult' get to skip the earlier encounters.

I feel I should go for 'difficult'. The Dungeon door leads to a chamber with one other exit, containing a Giant Scorpion. I try to dodge the Scorpion, in case there's something I might need in the chamber, but no, I should have just made a dash for the exit, and I get killed as a result of failing to do so. The Adventurer's Code had plenty to say about avoiding violence wherever possible, but nothing about prioritising flight over investigation. Oh well, at least I'll know about that next time.


  1. The adventure IS one that can be entered at different points, depending upon difficulty, but it is the harder versions that miss out the earlier, easier parts. If you want the longest possible adventure, then you should start from "A (slightly difficult)", although to be honest, it's not very interesting to play anyway. The good news is that the next book is much better and the two after that have their good points, too.

    In terms of the novel parts, I always preferred the first one, though.

    1. Interesting. I did think the transition to the Giant Scorpion was a bit abrupt. Is it any less so in the context of the easier adventure?

    2. Not really. The entire adventure consists of being transported between unrelated locations by portal or wellway and given a choice of how to deal with the encounter there, before being transported on to the next unrelated location, provided that you chose right. Usually, any wrong decision (trying to sneak when you should run, taking the wrong exit, answering a riddle wrongly, taking the wrong items from a clue room, using a spell at the wrong time) means instant failure, which I believe to be an accurate representation of gameplay on the TV show.

      The "one true path" is as narrow as any Ian Livingstone, but much easier to find due to the fact that you lose almost instantly whenever you stray from it. Paradoxically, the next book in the series is much more forgiving of mistakes and has many more viable routes to the endgame and ways of dealing with hostile encounters, but is also much more difficult (and rewarding) to complete.