Sunday, 27 August 2017

Too Much Stuff Going on or Not Enough

It's been a long time since I failed at The Green Hydra, the second book in Gary Gygax and Flint Dille's Sagard the Barbarian series. In view of the fact that the series includes some character progression, and there is an ongoing storyline (just about) in at least some of the books, I've decided to try and win Hydra before progressing to the third book. For the sake of the Experience and the items that can be carried across, I've also replayed the first book, but since I did almost the same as on my previous attempt, that doesn't merit its own post.

A couple of paragraphs, perhaps. Feel free to skip this and the next one if you don't care about the few ways in which my replay of The Ice Dragon differed from my initial attempt. When Glanda asked me to join her on her Ordeal, I declined, but then she accused me of not being a man and, what with my being a) part of a barbarian culture that cares a lot about such things, and b) a male teenager, I promptly agreed to accompany her in order to demonstrate my prowess, after which the encounter followed the same pattern as before.

At the end of the valley I checked out the cave, which led to a frozen waterfall that I opted not to descend. Then I checked out the portal, which led to an ancient tomb. Four ghostly warriors were in it, and when I attacked, I found that I couldn't harm them. They couldn't do anything to me, either, so I was able to get past them and reach a cavern illuminated by glowing moss and inhabited by a crowd of pale and spindly creatures that turned out to have been trapped there by their fear of the ghosts. Viewing me as their saviour, they rewarded me with some nutritional moss, a stuffed bat, and an assortment of tat that I abandoned as soon as I'd escorted them to the valley and shown them on their way. Then I went to the crevasse as before, and subsequent events transpired as on my previous attempt. Except that this time I was the one who delivered the coup de grace to the Ice Golem.

And so to The Green Hydra. Initially I do pretty much the same as on my previous attempt, so I shall summarise that part of the adventure in verse, emulating the structure of the not-that-great poem spoken during the dream sequence at the mysterious ruins. Inconsistent metre, weak rhymes and all. It's not the first time I've tried such a gimmick.

Sagard and some other tribesmen
Went south on a trading mission,
But met a group of Hukkas:
Most became carrion.

Among the Hukka corpses
He found a reptile Slith
And, departing in a canoe,
He soon again faced death.

He slew the Crocosaurus.
A woman healed his wounds.
Other Sliths tried to kill him
As he camped by a ruin.

He then dreamed of priestesses
Who chanted ancient hymns
That told of Sliths and undead
And evil in a tomb.

He breakfasted on Ambroth,
Which healed him again
And would do so a second time
If he were close to dying.

Proceeding to the city of Suthorp and the shop owned by Chaga the trader, I accept the price he offers. He then tells me that he has no gold coins, so I'll have to take payment in store credit. Looking around, I see that his prices are high, so I'd only be able to afford a leather jerkin and a few days' rations. Between them, they cost 80 gold, and somehow I expect to receive the balance in change despite Chaga's claiming to have no cash. I can object, though section number recognition tells me that doing so leads to the fight with his other patrons, or I can accept his terms and hope that this is some kind of test.

I'll avoid the fight. As a reward for having the wisdom to accept his offer, Chaga gives me an extra 30 of the gold pieces he doesn't have when handing me my change. Why does the book not have me questioning this? If he'd said something along the lines of,  "I don't have anywhere near that much money, so you'll have to take most of the payment in goods from the shop," there'd be no issue, but he quite clearly stated, "I have no gold coins," before going on to pay me 50 of them. I can think of a few governments that would view him as an ideal candidate for Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Still, I survived the visit to the shop, which is the main thing. I proceed to an inn for a drink, and am rather taken with a young woman I notice there, though she vanishes into the crowd before I can say anything to her. Stepping outside, I see an old man collapse, a Slith dagger in his back. Before dying he gives me a scroll, instructs me to deliver it to Ketza Kota, and pronounces a curse on me if I should fail. Then a Slith assassin demands the scroll. The book offers the choice of attempting a surprise attack or handing over the scroll with a view to ambushing the Slith to get it back. Rather confusingly, the 'surprise attack' option opens with my handing over the scroll to distract the Slith. I double-checked to make sure the section numbers weren't the wrong way round, but no, the option that isn't 'give the Slith the scroll' results in my giving the Slith the scroll. And then drawing my sword and determining who gets first strike, but still...

The Slith is a formidable opponent, but his proficiency decreases as he loses hit points, so in the first round I hit him with a couple of the daggers I took from the Sliths who attacked me at the temple, taking him down one level before he can even get a blow in. After that it doesn't take me long to gain the upper hand and ultimately prevail, but he still halves my hit points in the time it takes me to kill him.

My winning blow takes the Slith's head off. Disconcertingly, after rolling into the gutter, it threatens me for a bit, and only falls silent once it's  finished predicting my agonising death. For some reason I get two separate experience bonuses for my victory, too. A quick search of the corpse nets me some gold and a piece of paper with 'Ketza Kota' written on it.

A crowd is gathering, so I make my way to an inn and crash out until I've returned to full health. I then decide to see what's on the scroll, but there's no sign of it. Until I discover that it was underneath me in the bed. Unrolling it, I see that it shows a map of a maze-like structure, with annotations in an unfamiliar alphabet. Just a basic substitution cypher, and with a little help from the title of the adventure, I soon crack the code, discovering that some of the accompanying text is a letter to the mysterious Ketza Kota, who's apparently a High Priestess.

For a note that purports to have been written in haste, it's a bit verbose in places, but the mistakes towards the end of the first paragraph may be deliberate, put there to indicate that the writer of the letter got a bit sloppy while hurrying. Or they might just be typos. In any case, the bulk of the letter consists of instructions on how to kill the Green Hydra using resources available in its tomb and escape intact afterwards. And directions for the section to turn to if you've managed to make sense of the message.

Given that the section number was written as words and encoded, it's hardly likely to be a typo, but the transition is awkward enough to make me wonder. The map and accompanying letter made no mention of the location of the Tomb of the Green Hydra, and yet I suddenly find myself seeking a ship willing to take me to the Isle of Slith. It soon transpires that there's only one man who'd be willing to sail there: the untrustworthy Swarny Pate.

Pate's ship is in poor shape, and its captain isn't in much better a condition, even lacking an eyepatch to cover the gaping socket where his right eye should be. He also has a parrot/lizard hybrid sitting on his shoulder. The price he names is more than I have, but I agree to his terms, making a down payment I can afford, and promising to pay the balance when I'm back safely. There'd better be some decent loot in that tomb...

It would appear that Pate's crew have not been informed of the terms of our agreement - either that, or they think I'm naïve enough to be carrying the rest of my fare on me. Regardless, it's clear that if I drop my guard, they will attack me, so I do what I can to stay awake during the voyage. And the book either has the section numbers mixed up or is sacrificing realism in favour of playability: a character in poor health is more likely to struggle to remain on the alert, but the possibility of dozing off and having to fight off a couple of murderous sailors is only available to those who have more than half their hit points. I kill them quickly enough to dissuade their treacherous captain from joining in, but take a lot of damage along the way.

Pate warns me that if I kill him, I'll never find the island. I warn him that if he tries any funny business, he'll get to find out what it feels like to be inside a shark. We continue towards our destination, minus the bodyweight of my assailants, and I eat what would have been their lunch, regaining a fraction of the hit points I lost in the fight.

After some time we sight the Isle of Slith, an inhospitable-looking volcanic cone that slowly spews molten rock into the surrounding sea. The far side is a little less forbidding, with trees growing on it, and shows some signs of Slith habitation. Pate is able to manoeuvre through the mist and rocks and bring the ship into an inlet.

After dropping me off, Pate says he'll wait for me if I give him 50 gold pieces. For no remotely sensible reason, the text just carries on, revealing a few lines later that Pate sails away whether or not he was paid to hang around. Why not go 'If you are willing and able to pay, go to Section X. Otherwise, go to Section Y', or at least throw in a section break to conceal the captain's possible treachery? The adventure has 101 sections, so adding one or two wouldn't spoil a nice round number.

I proceed to the Slith habitations, which are either a village or a city, depending on which line of the paragraph I'm reading. Whatever Slithville may be, it's surrounded by dahlia fields. Judging by my subsequent encounter with a group of glazed-eyed, incoherently muttering individuals, the dahlias here are a source of some kind of narcotic.

The tomb is easy to identify, but guarded. Still, the guards don't pay a lot of attention to the robed individuals who transport dahlias into the building. Once I discover the pit where the Sliths dispose of their dead, it's easy enough to pilfer a robe from a corpse, and smearing my face and hands with ash helps conceal my human features. I then tag along behind a group of dahlia carriers as they file into the tomb, stopping at the first junction while they trudge further in.

It is at this point that a problem with the map becomes an issue. The locations mentioned in the letter are all marked, but the markings on two of them are identical, and since one of those two is the source of the arrows I'll need to use against the Hydra and the other is the Hydra's lair, visiting them the wrong way round would be inadvisable.

Reading the rules for exploring the tomb makes it possible to deduce which is which, as there are restrictions on movement that make it impossible to visit everywhere listed in the note in the right order unless the Arrow Chamber is the smaller of the two places it could be. There are 22 places in the tomb where something could happen, including the five locations marked on the scroll (all of them indicated by letters of the alphabet, from A to I, K to Q and S to X - I guess one of the authors really wasn't a fan of Dallas), and I'm not permitted to go to any of them more than once. I'm also advised to avoid crossing my own path, though doing so will be unavoidable if I want to follow up a bit of advice from the letter.

At the section explaining about exploration, I also see proof that this copy of the book was previously owned by a barbarian far more primitive and savage than Sagard: the brute drew on the map. In biro. Obscuring many of the letters identifying significant places. And unless they cheated, their scrawl doesn't even correspond to the route they took through the tomb. Mind you, even that pales by comparison with the abuses they perpetrated on the next book in the series, but that's a rant for another day.

I opt to follow that advice that will make it necessary to cross my own path, in part because it could lead to my getting hold of an impressive-sounding weapon, but also to find out how serious the consequences of crossing my tracks are.

The first noteworthy place I reach turns out to be rather unexciting, but informative. As I head to the Hall of Bones, I tread on a skull that someone must have dropped on their way there. This attracts no unwelcome attention, allowing me to continue on my way without incident. However, the directions mentioned now make it clear that the map has east at the top rather than north, which may be useful to know.

Unsurprisingly, the Hall of Bones is filled with the remains of the dead. Hearing approaching footsteps, I hide among the corpses while the patrolling Slith guards go past. Then there's another of those silly mid-section choices, giving me the option of leaving at once if I've changed my mind about searching the Hall. I wouldn't have backed out anyway, but the unavoidability of noticing the absence of combat details further down the page eliminates whatever tension could have been wrung from the possibility of being spotted by guards while searching. My search turns up a little Slith currency, and what I was hoping to find: a pouch of fire darts, each of which has a 75% chance of eliminating one opponent in a fight.

The layout of the tomb around here forces me to head back along a corridor I've already used, as a result of which four Elite Slith Guards surround me. I can use up to two fire darts in a round of combat, so I hurl a couple at the two most proficient of my opponents. Both darts are on target, and my odds of surviving have just significantly improved. The surviving Sliths both injure me, and I decide that they're dangerous enough to justify using more darts. That 1 in 4 chance of missing leaves the stronger of the two still standing, but now we're one on one, I'll risk a straight fight with him. He inflicts enough damage that the once-off mid-fight restoration to full health provided by the Ambroth kicks in, after which I kill him with very little bother. The Experience provided by the fight enables me to level up, and I may now cross my own path with impunity. Probably won't need to again, but at least I have the option.

In view of the fact that the path-crossing business only leads to trouble once, I may have to retract something I said earlier. The previous owner of the book might not have cheated after all. But they're still a book-defacing vandal and utter disgrace.

Back at the first junction, I ignore the path to the chamber at the centre of the tomb, as I've been given no reason to go there. Referring to the undefiled picture of the map back at the 'reading the scroll for the first time' section, I work out the optimal route to follow, which is a lot more circuitous than it would be if I could enter the Oil Chamber more than once. I also realise that in places, some of the walls on the 'Tomb Exploration' version of the map are obscured by the white space around the letters indicating significant places, creating the appearance of openings in a couple of places where there's no way through. Sloppy.

Proceeding east, I draw level with an opening to the south, and moaning noises from beyond that entrance attract my attention. A female Slith is chained to a stone table, and appears distressed at this state of affairs. The presence of something that growls nearby is doubtless a contributory factor to her unhappiness. This may well be a trap, but leaving her to whatever unpleasant fate approaches would be unheroic and possibly racist, and as regards restrictions on movement, going to her aid would just mean a minor detour, so I'm going to have to help.

As I enter the room, a hairy arm makes a grab for me, and randomness determines the outcome. I manage to dodge the arm, which belongs to a part-lizard, part-bear monster chained in the adjoining room. A room through which I shall have to pass on this detour. But first I must free the female Slith - and as soon as I break her chains, she metamorphoses into a demon and attacks me. Sigh.

I win the fight without too much bother, but now I'm going to have to go through the room with the other chained monster, and I already know that its chains don't restrict its movement that much. All right, you horrible hybrid, time to end your moreause existence. And the Berard turns out to be a sufficiently threatening opponent that I have little hope of winning a straight battle. A fire dart to the brute's face does the trick nicely, though.

The next place of significance I reach is just a junction. Growling sounds from the south indicate that the authors expected me to have ignored that trap - either that, or something weird is going on with the Berard's corpse. Best to just keep moving, especially as I hear more guards patrolling close by, so I head north, round a bend, and back south to another junction that merits a section of description. It's not that interesting, but does answer one question raised by the 'Tomb Exploration' map: there are four dead ends with the same letter at different spots around the tomb interior, and I had been wondering if they were sentry posts. Turns out that they're pits, and the text suggests that the one nearby might provide a means of escape. Why would I want to escape with my quest unfulfilled?

Proceeding north along another corridor, I am ambushed by two Slith Guards. The last of my fire darts takes care of one of them, but the other gives me a bit of bother. The leather jerkin I got at Chaga's is destroyed, and I eat the food I got there after the fight in order to improve the odds of my surviving whatever unpleasantness next comes my way.

As I head west, someone hisses to get my attention. A man, clearly not long for this world unless he gets help, has recognised me as a Rattikan, and asks for my assistance. He explains that he's a builder named Antoth, who was abandoned in the tomb by the architect some weeks ago, and says he can be my guide if I join him. The sound of Slith guards draws near, and the man urges me to join him in his hiding place. His knowledge of the tomb's secrets is just that bit too convenient for plausibility, and unless I've ditched my disguise without having been told that I did, his having spotted who I am is also highly suspicious. I reckon this is another trap, and make myself scarce.

Ignoring another of those pits, I draw near to the next of the locations mentioned in the letter. The Arrow Chamber has two guards, but for now my disguise has them convinced that I'm just a dahlia carrier. Well, that confirms that I'm still wearing it, and strengthens my conviction that Antoth was not to be trusted.

I enter the Chamber, which contains a small statue with a green gem for an eye. Another twenty gems are arranged on the floor before it, like an offering, and there are half a dozen arrows stacked in one corner of the room. Taking any of the gems is sure to provoke the guards to attack, but what will they do if I pick up the arrows? On this occasion there is a section break before I find out the consequences of taking anything, but it would be more effective as an anti-cheating mechanism if the new section were not on the facing page. I don't peek before taking just the arrows... and the guards take no action as I leave by the other exit from the Chamber.

On my way to the Oil Chamber (and disregarding another of those pits) I encounter a group of dahlia carriers, burdened with buckets of what must be dahlia oil. According to the letter, I need to dip the arrows in the oil, and doing so here will save me from having to enter the Chamber and possibly deal with guards. Unless there's some crucial additive introduced in there, but I doubt that that's the case, so I dip the arrows into a bucket. And as one of the dahlia carriers tears my disguise while attempting to get me to carry his bucket for him, I now need to avoid further encounters within the tomb wherever possible.

I flee the dahlia carriers, and after I've rounded a couple of corners the book has me grab a lamp and throw it behind me, starting a fire that will discourage pursuit (but also makes turning back impossible). Further along the blazing hall, I encounter four unhappy-looking Slith Priests, all clearly under the influence of the dahlia-derived soporific. One warns me that killing the Hydra will unleash a terror that will destroy everything on the island, and offers me a large ruby and safe passage to an escape route if I abandon my quest. I don't trust him, his warning, his ruby or his escape route, and hasten along the corridor.

The last of those pits is close by. Still not going to investigate. I think I can proceed directly to the Hydra Chamber from here: if I'm supposed to have to pass through area F first, the placement of the letter on the map is misleading. Looking at one of the other letters, that F could definitely be closer to the Chamber entrance, so I'm treating it as an optional detour and avoiding it.

Inside the Chamber is a seven-headed Hydra, which is just waking up. Each of my dahlia oil-dipped arrows has a 50% chance of killing one head outright (and either I've missed something or the authors are being careless again, because the text makes out that if I have arrows, I have seven of them). I fire my arrows, killing three heads. The Hydra rears up, and I see that it is chained - but then it spits on the chain, and its saliva evidently has corrosive properties, as the chain starts to melt.

I'd been saving that nutritional moss from the first book for an emergency, and I think the impending battle counts as one, so I eat while I can. A bit of a waste, but it improves my chances of survival. As does using the last of the daggers I took from the Sliths that attacked me in the ruins. They don't provide enough of an improvement, though. I don't even manage to kill one of the remaining heads before the four of them tear me apart.

Well, at least next time I try this book I'll know to ignore the chained Slith, and there may be a way to avoid the ambush that prompted me to use up my last fire darts. Whether or not that'll be enough to give me a chance in the fight against the Hydra remains to be seen, but it should help.

1 comment:

  1. It's a pity you failed at the final hurdle as the ending involves a massive continuity error if you take the path you took here - I'm sure that would have provoked a highly entertaining rant!