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 tomb, 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 off 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.

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