Friday, 15 September 2017

We Know It Is There, Beneath the Surface

This is the second part of my third attempt at Lone Wolf book 10, The Dungeons of Torgar. Regular readers may be wondering what happened to the first part, so I shall explain. Back when I decided to have a go at the really tough route through the book for my second try, I knew that there was little chance of my succeeding, what with that whole 'really tough' thing. I also knew that the easiest route through the book starts in exactly the same way as the really tough one, and during the early stages of that second try I discovered that with the right Disciplines and decisions, there are no fights or incidents with randomised outcomes prior to the point at which the really tough route branches off from the easiest one. Therefore, I split my playthrough just before the branching point, so in the likely event of my failing the adventure, the first part of the playthrough could double as the first part of any subsequent attempt. I wasn't lying when I said I was breaking off the narrative at that point so as not to have a gap of over a week between posts - I just didn't mention that even if I'd had a less busy week and reached that point in just a day or two, I'd still have concluded the post there and started a fresh one for the pivotal decision.

Anyone unsure of the basic premise of the adventure can get the essentials from paragraphs 4, 6-8 and all but the last sentence of paragraph 9 of my first try at the book. The story so far on this latest attempt is, as explained above, here. And this is the continuation.

So, the partisans taking me to see Sebb Jarel, their leader, introduce me to an unprepossessing figure, and Divination tells me that I am being deceived. I comment that if this is Sebb Jarel, then I'm his brother Halgar. The real Jarel, who has been watching from the shadows, undetected by Divination, laughs and steps into the light, revealing himself to be the sort of person who'd have been played by Brian Blessed if this had been made into a film in the eighties. He sends his impersonator and the other men in the cave out to stand guard, and asks what I want of him. I explain, and he agrees to be my guide even though he knows it could cost him his life, as he can tell that I'm the protagonist only I have any real chance of defeating the Darklords.

Jarel tells the other partisans what they need to know about the mission he is undertaking, and in the morning we set off. Though we start on horseback, we have to go on foot once we reach Forest Taintor. Nothing of note happens until after nightfall, when Jarel takes first watch, and I am woken by the howl of a wolf. I stand back-to-back with Jarel as we prepare for the attack, and when the wolf breaks cover, I get to use my bow. Thanks to my Weaponmastery, even my getting a 0 on the random number generator only means getting the middling outcome, which is wounding the wolf but still having to fight. There'd be some consequence if the fight lasted more than four rounds, but it only takes me two to kill the wolf.

That consequence probably relates to a second wolf, which leaps to the attack, but gets lethally intercepted by Jarel. We hurriedly gather our belongings and move on before the scent of blood can attract further predators. By mid-morning we've reached the river that flows into the Hellswamp, and I get an info-dump about the smuggling that used to go on around here. Jarel gets a boat out of a hut that has seen better days, and we take it to the river. As he starts rowing, he makes a comment indicating that he used to be a smuggler. Over the course of the day, Jarel tells me a lot more, but I'm spared further detail.

At dusk we leave the water, and are beaching the boat when a Gorodon (whatever that might be) emerges from the surrounding vegetation and advances on us. Not having Animal Control, I am unable to persuade the creature (which turns out to be a large predatory reptile) to head off in search of prey that won't kill it. Incidentally, this is one of the rare occasions on which I actually prefer the illustration in the Mongoose edition.

Once the Gorodon is dead, Jarel cuts off its horns, claiming that potion-makers pay well for such things, and offers me one of them. That has regrettable echoes of appalling practises in the real world, even if I did only kill the beast in self-defence. Still, there's a slim possibility that trading in a horn might be the only way to get a potion that could help me through one of the ridiculously harsh fights in the next book, so I'll retain it on the off-chance, and if I only get money for the thing, I shall donate that to the MWF, or found the organisation if it doesn't yet exist.

We make camp in a convenient stone hut, which provides shelter from the rain that starts during the night. The rain persists into the following day, on which we reach the Hellswamp, in which our progress is slower. Despite the ominous name of the place, nothing of note happens until late in the evening, when we spot an island that might be a suitable place to rest for the night. Then randomness determines that the night is as uneventful as the day.

Some way into the next day we reach the confluence with the River Torg, which leads to Torgar. Around 10 miles up the Torg, the boat suddenly and unexpectedly becomes immovable, despite the lack of obvious obstacles on which we could have run aground. There's a Discipline check after the boat gets immobilised, and I meet the requirements. A quick peek at the rules reminds me that the relevant Discipline at the appropriate level provides warning of an imminent ambush. Pity it didn't kick in before we hit the trap, eh? And it transpires that the 'obstacle' is actually a group of submerged amphibians who've grabbed onto the underside of the boat. So the Discipline that was supposed to have alerted me to an impending ambush at 500 yards' range only kicked in when the attackers were less than a foot beneath me. That's rubbish!

What little advance warning I did get gives me a Combat Skill bonus when half a dozen Ciquali emerge from the water to attack, but I would have had the most favourable Combat Ratio achievable even without that bonus, so the Discipline's belated attempt to make itself look useful is a wasted effort. There's a time limit on the fight, but even with the worst numbers possible, I'm still certain to kill the Ciquali within the target number of rounds, so the only reason to actually play through the battle is to find out if I take any damage along the way. 5 points, as it turns out, and I fillet my attackers with a round to spare.

Some of my attackers, it turns out. Two of them dive out of range (and I'm a little alarmed to see the text describing our self-defence as 'murderous'). There's an unnecessary and clumsy change to the text in the Mongoose reissue here, splitting a perfectly decent descriptive sentence into two clunky ones in the manner of an author who places too much trust in their word processing software's grammar checker.

Being sore losers, the escaping Ciquali then ram a sharpened stake through the underside of the boat, and Jarel and I soon find ourselves swimming for the shore. I make it, but the Ciquali grab onto Jarel's cloak and drag him down to a watery grave. For fairness' sake I should note that the Mongoose edit has the better description here, but it's not as much better as the previous section was worse, so if this were a contest, the original text would be ahead on points.

The book has me spend an hour staring at the river, grief-stricken, before I resolve to get on with my quest, making the recovery of the stolen Lorestones the means by which I shall avenge the tragic death of Expendable Companion #97 (or thereabouts). I then spend eight days trudging along the riverbank towards Torgar, highlighting one of the flaws in the way the rules handle Endurance recovery: over the course of those eight days, my Kai Discipline of Healing restores only half as much Endurance as it did in the few minutes I spent swimming for my life and watching Jarel get killed. On the ninth day I finally emerge from the swamp, and promptly encounter another rules absurdity in the form of a Meal check: for over a week of plodding through mud and being pestered by insects, I had no need for food, but a few hours' walking on dry land and suddenly I have to eat. And that hunger-inducing morning provided as much Healing as the eight Meal-free days that preceded it.

I'm about to cross a bridge across a polluted-looking stream when I catch sight of some approaching horsemen. Yes, I do have Huntmastery at the level where I gain telescopic vision, so what does it tell me? That they are Talestrian cavalrymen (and the few moments it takes me to use my enhanced vision provide as much Healing as that 8-day slog). The Talestrians are on my side, but may be suspicious, so I'd better hope that I've correctly remembered the way they salute. Or I could hide under the bridge, but if they're on the way to Torgar I might be able to get a lift.

They are initially suspicious, but my cover story convinces them that I'm an ally, and they take me to see their commander. He is with the troops besieging Torgar, so I finally get to see the eponymous fortress, which stands on the far side of a ravine, accessible only via a lone causeway. As one of the cavalrymen leads me into their commander's tent, I am asked if I've been to Talestria in a previous book. I've played through all of them, so the answer must be yes, but I lose track... And a quick scan of blurbs reveals that Talestria was the setting of part of book 8. Don't say my face is familiar from wanted posters on account of what happened in the Temple of the Sword... No, the commander turns out to be Lord Adamas, the almost-companion who went off to fight Warlord Zegron's armies in section 1 of that book rather than risk getting sidekicked to death. Once we've brought each other up to date on developments, he observes that we have the same goal here, becoming significantly more verbose in the Mongoose edit.

A lengthier-than-necessary info-dump tells me that the Talestrian army has taken heavy losses while forcing a couple of Darklord armies to retreat to Torgar, but the fortress contains thousands of Talestrians who were captured during the initial invasion, and who could reinforce Adamas' troops if released. The Elder Magi have provided Adamas with a device that could breach the gates of Torgar, provided somebody can get close enough to use it.

We move closer to the gate. Adamas' troops have managed to erect a log wall on the causeway to provide some protection from enemy fire, but that still leaves almost 50 yards of exposed ground to cover before the device can be put into play. The device turns out to be an agglomeration of triangular crystals , with a protruding shard that serves as a 10-second fuse. Recognising that he and I are the only people present in good enough condition to have a chance of delivering the explosive, Adamas flips a coin and invites me to call. If Healing hadn't already restored me to full health I might have been tempted to try and use Divination just for the extra section's worth of Endurance recovery, but as there's no need to draw things out, I'll simply go for tails.

Tails it is. I hadn't consciously remembered that - just got lucky. Or unlucky, if the fact that Adamas has to take the risk significantly increases the chances of failure. Mongoose Adamas continues to say more than his original self as he prepares to run the gauntlet, and randomness determines what happens next... Boulders are hurled down, but Adamas dodges them, gets to the gate, and places and primes the explosive. His luck runs out on the return journey, though, as a rock fells him. I guess I'd better try and rescue him: having a named companion die at the wrong moment can be fatal for Lone Wolf. I get him to safety in the nick of time, and find myself musing on semantics: in the Mongoose edit I pull Adamas behind the rampart with 'barely' a second to spare rather than 'just' one second as in the first edition. That makes the escape marginally narrower, right?

Judging by the illustrations, the explosion blows a large triangular hole in the gate. Better attribute that to magic, as I'm pretty sure that in conventional explosions there's not that precise a correlation between the shape of the explosive and the destruction done. In any case, Adamas and I lead the troops through the hole, and soon battle rages around us.

Up ahead, a regiment of Drakkar troops presents a shield wall, in front of which are a couple of robed figures holding yellow globes. Divination informs me that the globes are a form of incendiary grenade, so I attempt to shoot one of them before the bearers can throw them at us. Thanks to my Weaponskill, I have decent odds of succeeding, but with the number I get, there's no need for a bonus. My arrow shatters one globe, and the resultant explosion causes the second bearer to drop the one he's carrying. The Drakkar troops who weren't immolated make a speedy retreat, and we advance. My companions join up with others from their regiment, and I continue on my own, reaching an open square containing a conical iron tower. Something here is vibrating intensely enough to make the very flagstones throb.

Proceeding into the tower, I have no trouble evading the hostile troops within until I reach a stairway lit by an orange glow from below. A random number check occurs, and I haven't yet completed the Lore-circle that would give me a bonus here. It's the same Lore-circle that would have helped in the lead-up to the pirate ambush in book 6, but I'm guessing that some other ability it confers is what matters here.

The lack of that bonus means I get the less favourable outcome, which is failing to evade a repulsive-looking Drakkar officer on his way up the stairs. He's not immune to Mindblast, so I decide to use that but not Psi-surge, which turns out to be the best choice: the fight would have gone on for longer if I'd used neither, but wouldn't have ended any more quickly if I'd used the more advanced Discipline, and the Endurance cost for using it would have left me significantly worse off.

Searching the body, I find a Black Key, a Dagger, and some money. It's in Kika, the currency used in Darklord territories, which continues the trend of having the coins' size directly proportional to the exchange rate with Gold Crowns. The original text is a little too uninformative about Kika, whereas the Mongoose text goes into slightly unnecessary detail about them. In any case, I top up my money pouch, and help myself to the key.

The stairs lead to a parapet overlooking a pit in which thousands of slaves toil. There's nothing I can do to help just yet, so I take the other exit, which leads to a locked door. Good thing I picked up that key, eh? It does fit the lock, and the door opens onto another passageway. Half way along it there's another door, with a barred window. I peer through and find myself staring into a cell containing Paido, the warrior-mage who accompanied me for most of book 8 and got taken prisoner at the end. The key to the cell hangs on a hook nearby, so I unlock the door, and Paido is delighted to see that the stories of my death in the Danarg were a lie.

I inform him of the quest that brings me here, and he tells me that he knows where the Lorestones are. We sneak along various passages to a chamber in which a squad of Death Knights guards a pair of huge iron doors at the top of a staircase. An alarm bell rings, and the Death Knights start to descend the stairs. Divination reveals that the alarm is nothing to do with Paido and me: Adamas and his troops have reached the tower entrance, and the Death Knights are being summoned to help repel them. That'll make the job harder for the Talestrians, but saves us from a fight where the odds would not be in our favour.

We wait until the Death Knights are out of the way, and then open the doors they were guarding. In the chamber beyond is a huge pit, surrounded by figures bizarrely clad in transparent robes and masks. Glowing crystal rods fire beams of light into the air, the beams converging above the centre of the pit, bathing the three Lorestones in green fire. Hearing the alarm and seeing Paido and me, the beings around the pit make a rapid exit. This is another scene for which I prefer the illustration in the Mongoose edition, though it's less accurate than the original.

The pit appears bottomless, and the Lorestones are out of reach, though they should be accessible from one of the rusting metal gantries that span the ceiling. Examination of the rods reveal them to be bombarding the Lorestones with negative energy in an attempt to destroy them. However, the beams are also keeping the Lorestones suspended above the pit, so breaking the rods would cause the Lorestones to fall in. After a little reflection, I come up with a cunning plan. If I climb onto the gantry closest to the Lorestones and cup my hands beneath the ball of fire, and Paido then starts smashing the rods, the Lorestones will drop into my hands rather than the pit when the beams cut out. What could possibly go wrong? (I ask this only because there's no way of avoiding what's about to happen, other than failing altogether.)

I get into position, the gantry shaking alarmingly as I inch along it, and Paido begins smashing the rods. Once half of them are broken, the glow of the Lorestones begins to show through the flames. One of the Lorestones drops into my hands, suffusing me with fresh enlightenment, but a harsh voice interrupts my jubilation. Darklord Gnaag stands in the archway through which the oddly-clad minions fled when Paido arrived, and gloats that he's about to do as he said he would at the end of the last book. He then raises a crystalline weapon and fires two bolts of energy at the gantry. The first of these blasts the remaining Lorestones out of the green fire, causing them to drop into the pit, and the second one snaps the gantry, as a result of which I also fall.

The pit turns out to be a portal leading to the Daziarn, another world that I once visited as a different character, but more recently turned into a penal colony for Magnamund's worst criminals. And even more recently utilised as a means of disposing of unwanted Kai Lords. Still, as passage through it is neither automatically lethal nor quite as one-way as is generally believed, Gnaag may have been a little premature in announcing my destruction. Time will tell.

And I never needed to memorise saluting technique after all. But I would have done if any of my attempts at this book had taken me through section 291 (yes, I'm still checking them), which is part of an alternate route to Jarel's camp.

Friday, 8 September 2017

This Is All Terribly Wrong

It's time to dip into another gamebook series that I, perhaps unwisely, acquired in full without taking the time to find out whether or not I actually like it. On this occasion it's the Car Wars Adventure Gamebooks, which took me around a decade to collect, so I had plenty of time in which to try one, and will only have myself to blame for any misery caused by playing the later ones, should the series prove not to my liking.

The first book is Battle Road, by Steve Jackson. The one who wrote Scorpion Swamp, not the author of House of Hell, in case you were wondering. It was the first of the series that I acquired, during a period when my saved searches on eBay were bearing little fruit, so I tried looking for 'gamebook', and in the midst of all the listings that duplicated books I owned, were not actually gamebooks, cost unreasonable amounts or just didn't appeal, I found this one. And during the time between my making the purchase and receiving the book, some other interest came to prominence for a while, and the book just went on the shelf. Well, its day has finally come.

The instructions open with the revelation that the Car Wars books are set in 2036, 50 years on from the date of publication. By now we're more than half way through those 50 years. I feel old.

No dice are involved in character generation. I have 5 personal stats, and 10 points to allocate to them, with a minimum requirement of 1 for each. While I could just go for straight 2s across the board, I'm going to try a little prioritising, and hope not to be seriously challenged on the characteristics for which I take a lower score. The title suggests an emphasis on combat and driving, so I'm going with:
Driving skill 3
Gunnery skill 3
Mechanic skill 2
Prestige 1
Wealth 1
I'm sure I'll find out whether or not that's a wise choice before long.

My character is a professional duellist, who has been summoned to the Republic of Texas by the Undersecretary of Energy for an important and secret mission. President Jordan and his daughter are being held prisoner in Oklahoma by the politically ambitious John Twoeagles, and even if Louisiana's People's Militia were powerful enough to take on the Oklahoman military and Twoeagles' own private army, the whole affair would become public knowledge, undermining Jordan's authority enough to potentially bring down his government. I'm not sufficiently clued-up on politics in the world of Car Wars to know whether or not that government is worth preserving, but thwarting Twoeagles is worth doing if for no other reason than that he intends to strengthen his position by forcing Angela Jordan to marry him. Ugh.

The wedding is scheduled to take place in exactly 24 hours, so I need to hit the road promptly. Mind you, I have been given a down payment on the reward for rescuing Angela, so it might be worth investing in some extra hardware for the car first. I make a stop at the local branch of Uncle Albert's Auto Stop and Gunnery Shop and invest in some Improved Body Armour, a couple of limpet mines and four grenades. That's one hour already gone, but as some of the upgrades I passed up would have at least doubled the wait, I'm guessing that time isn't that tight, so I'll also see what intel I can gather before setting off.

Being a member of the American Autoduel Association, I visit the local branch to ask about road conditions between here and Oklahoma. When asked about the purpose of my journey, I make up something about a routine courier job, as making a big deal about the confidential nature of my mission would only draw unwelcome attention. The report I receive warns of bad weather and possible flooding, a massive price hike on mechanic and recharge fees (owing to the scarcity of gasoline, cars are electric these days) in Waco, and a gang of murderous looters in the vicinity of a place called Ross. Waco and Ross are the first two locations marked on my route map, so if that information is going to be of any use, the journey is liable to be eventful from the outset.

It is, but the first trouble I encounter is not what I expected. It's hay. Numerous bales of the stuff scattered on the Highway, and their placement in the illustration suggests that they've been placed there with malicious intent rather than falling from a truck with an inadequately secured load. Whoever is responsible probably hopes I'll slow down or go off-road, so instead I'll see if I put enough points into Driving to enable me to weave around the obstacles without coming to grief. I did. Just enough, in fact, that I can't actually fail the roll.

Beyond the bales, I see their source: a farm truck on its side, with one front wheel blown away and the other still spinning. This strikes me as highly suspicious, and I opt to pass by without stopping or opening fire, just in case someone's booby-trapped the wreck.

After two hours' driving time I reach Waco. Not having sustained any damage on my way there, I have no need to stop for repairs, and just keep going. I could get an overpriced recharge, but there are apparently many cheaper truck stops between here and Dallas. One fewer than there should be, thanks to those looters, but many minus one still comes to significantly more than zero, so I should be okay.

A few miles further north I see a sign for the truck stop I know to have been destroyed by that gang. Another sign proclaims it to still be in business and offering free charge-ups, so either I was misinformed about everyone there having been killed or this is a trap. My mission is not to check the accuracy of AADA reports, so I ignore the turning.

Not long after I pass through Ross, the threatened rain starts to fall. So far it's not a problem, so I just turn on the wipers and headlights. An hour later I draw near to the town of Hillsboro, and encounter my first time check. That visit to Uncle Albert's has put me outside the earliest bracket, but I'm still comfortably short of the latest. Which turns out to be all the worse for me, as it means I arrive while the highway is barricaded for the annual April Fool Marathon. If I survive the mission, I shall be complaining to the AADA about their failure to mention this road closure.

The road circumventing the town is purportedly in an abysmal state - that's why the highway now runs through the town - so unless I want to risk driving on that mess or attempt to smash through the blockade, I'm going to have to wait for two hours. I don't suppose there are any recharge points this side of the barrier...? Apparently not. I'm not injured, so there's no point in going to the nearby ambulance, which only leaves working on my car or having a few drinks with the cops on the barricade. Have drink driving laws been abolished? The car doesn't need any work done on it, but I don't want to risk having my keys confiscated overnight, so I'm going to have to do a load of unnecessary tinkering under the bonnet. At least the rules don't allow for a critical bodge that could leave the car in a worse condition than it was when I got here.

At last the stupid race is over and I can drive into town and get a recharge. The garage is also the local AADA office, so I decide to see if they can tell me anything useful about potential delays or hazards. There's another bad weather warning, and mention of cycle gang trouble north of Dallas. Do I have to go through Dallas? The map implies that it's possible to travel via Forth Worth instead.

Resuming my journey, I reach a fork in the road, offering just the choice I was hoping for. The Fort Worth route is normally the slower one, but in view of the cycle gang report, I'll take it. No need to go looking for trouble when I can expect more than my fair share once I hit Oklahoma.

Nothing bad happens on my chosen route, and while I could stop off in the city, I'm not sure it's worth the delay. As I continue on my way, the radio gives notice of impending thunderstorms, and by the time the two branches of the highway merge again, there is a heavy downpour. There's a truck stop close by, but I don't want to risk being stuck the wrong side of the expected floods, so I drive on. There's a chance of going off the road, but again the combination of my Driving skill and the car's Handling Class is sufficient to guarantee a successful roll.

Up ahead, I see a tornado heading in my direction. I don't fancy my chances if I drive straight at it or turn around and head back the way I came, so I shall look for a temporary detour. There's a turning close by, and again the roll to avoid an accident is a foregone conclusion. A momentary cessation in the sound of the rain alerts me to the fact that I'm driving through an underpass, so I stop there until the tornado has passed. Then I resume my drive, and risk maintaining my usual speed in spite of the debris left by the storm. A good choice, as there are no modifiers to the inevitable rolls, which means I still can't fail them.

I do have to slow down when my way is blocked by an overturned tanker truck, though. Rolling down my window, I smell no fumes. Good news, but no reason to loiter, so I don't. As I approach the Oklahoma border, there's another time check, but this time I'm in the earliest bracket. Which is not as good as I'd hoped, as the bridge over the Red River is flooded, and closed until at least the end of the first time bracket.

I had been wondering how the book would handle the need for sleep. The enforced wait provides me with an opportunity to get some rest, and while I wind up snoozing until over an hour after the projected reopening time for the bridge, that does at least mean I'm in with a chance of getting under way as soon as I'm awake, and don't have to worry about dozing off at the wheel or being forced to take a nap break once I'm in Oklahoma.

At the border I'm stopped by a uniformed trooper, who wants to search the car. There are a lot of uniformed people here, in a variety of different uniforms. Is this connected with Twoeagles' plans, or is there some other trouble afoot? I could try offering a bribe and asking what's up, but that might just raise suspicions, so I think I'll keep quiet and be patient. I still have a little over 10 hours.

While the trooper looks through my supplies, I look around, noting that some of the uniforms being worn bear the Twoeagles insignia, and that the different uniformed groups don't appear to be that happy about each other's presence here. My armaments are too mundane to attract undue attention, but there's a Prestige roll before I can leave, and I fail it. Still, the only consequence is a slight delay while a few jobsworths in other uniforms perform the same checks as the first trooper.

As I drive on, I listen to the radio, hearing a news story about the impending nuptials and a warning of further bad weather. A flash of lightning alerts me to the approach of another storm. I keep going, and a little way beyond the town of Ardmore I see flares around an 18-wheeled van. An attempt at contacting the driver on my CB comes to nothing, so I just drive past.

Offered the option of pushing my speed up a little, I trust in the stats that have served me well so far, and they continue to suffice, so I make it to Oklahoma City without any unpleasant incidents. There I need to get another recharge, and while I'm doing that, I call a number I was given for getting info on the Twoeagles ranch. Ominously, nobody picks up.

The option of shopping for new equipment turns up nothing of interest, but checking out the store keeps me in town until the AADA office opens, so I get an update on the roads. More bad weather, a recommendation to take the Turner Turnpike to New Tulsa in order to avoid bandits, and a warning that the militia of several oil companies seem to be gearing up for something.

There's quite a hefty toll for using the Turnpike, but I can afford it, so I do. Route 66 may be more celebrated in song, but if its bandits delay me or do any significant damage to the car, I'm likely to get stuck listening to a particularly unpleasant rendition of Here Comes the Bride. On the Turnpike I get the choice of three speeds, and on this occasion I go for the middling option. That still means a Control Roll, but unmodified, so I stay safe. 5 hours to go.

There's another time check in New Tulsa, and I'm in the earlier bracket, so I can spend an hour or two seeking information or interesting armaments and still get back on the road with time to spare. The AADA advise against travelling on US 75, and as Uncle Albert's is closed on account of the ongoing bad weather, there's nothing else to keep me here. I might have acquired a helpful local contact if I'd risked some encounter on my way here, but as it is, I'm on my own.

And it appears that US 75 is the only route from here to Bartlesville, the closest town to Twoeagles' ranch. I guess my conflict avoidance strategy is about to stop being workable. Yep, some machine-gun-toting nut on a trike takes an interest in me. Time for some defensive driving. This time there's a modifier to the Control Roll, but I should be okay as long as I don't get a 6.

I get a 6. My car skids, flips, bounces, and finally explodes. If all the potential conflicts I avoided on the way to New Tulsa were as hazardous as this one, and that helpful contact I missed turns out to be an essential encounter, this book is going to be tough.

Friday, 1 September 2017

This Serious Moonlight

In 2004, while I was trying to come up with an entry for a gamebook 'teaser'-writing competition at the official Fighting Fantasy website, one of the ideas I considered revolved around being wounded by a werewolf and needing to find a way to keep from winding up as a werewolf yourself. In the event, I went with a different idea, but I still wanted to do something with the 'race against lycanthropy' concept (which had the working title Wolfsclaw). So I was a little disgruntled when, a couple of years later, Wizard Books announced that their next all-new FF book, Howl of the Werewolf, would have pretty much the same premise.

I didn't react like the tantrum-throwing fan whose dummy-spitting antics had so amused me when Bloodbones was scheduled for publication, though. I knew that I had no right to get proprietorial about the concept - I'd never even mentioned anything about Wolfsclaw at the FF website, so author Jonathan Green must have come up with the idea for Howl off his own bat. These things happen. Inspiration is no guarantee of uniqueness. Consequently, I didn't make a fuss in public, didn't privately resolve to boycott Howl or Wizard Books, just shelved my undeveloped plans for Wolfsclaw and got on with whatever other creative endeavours were at the forefront of my mind back then.

Time passed, Howl reached the shelves of Brown's bookshop, and when I bought and played the book, any remaining disappointment faded. Howl was a much better gamebook than Wolfsclaw would have been. My adventure was going to be dark and 'edgy'. Howl was fun. And, unlike Mr. Green's previous FF books, it was winnable. Not too easy, despite some fans' complaints, but it clearly gave the reader a fair chance, and didn't have the sort of narrow 'true path' that can get so tedious.

For convoluted reasons not worth going into, I reached the end of my second attempt at the book before finishing my first go at it. And because of a twist in the adventure, my first failure effectively occurred a long while before that attempt at the book ended. I defeated the main villain, but an unlucky roll during an earlier encounter had caused me to fall under the influence of a secondary villain, who was only too happy to step into the power vacuum I created in the climactic battle.

As with Stealer of Souls (at least prior to my playing it for this blog), I can't say for sure whether or not I've ever properly won Howl. When I had a go at it for the 'play all FF books in order' thread at the no longer extant unofficial forum, I got all the way to the last fight, and then hit an ambiguity in the rules governing it. According to one plausible interpretation of those rules, I won. According to the other viable way of reading them, my character died. A 'Schroedinger's werewolf' outcome, as it were. Will I achieve an undeniable victory at Howl here, as I did with Stealer? Time will tell.

Character generation is not quite as usual for FF, providing a narrower range of possible Skill scores and a lower starting Stamina. I'm going to take a bit of a chance, and take the dice as they fall, getting:
Skill 9
Stamina 20
Luck 12
Pretty good, all things considered. There's also a Change score, but that starts at 0.

Not entirely surprisingly, my character is an itinerant adventurer. Even less surprisingly, given the author, I start the adventure in a perilous situation. After setting off to the next village later than was wise, and taking an inadvisable short cut in the vain hope of making up for the initial error, I now find myself being pursued through a forest by a pack of wolves. Well, given the title, it was hardly likely that I'd start out confronting a menacing dray of squirrels, was it?

It becomes apparent that I am surrounded. The leader, a black-furred brute with a streak of grey, advances on me, and I steel myself for the inevitable attack. The beast leaps, and even though I have the higher Skill, I still lose the first two Attack Rounds. The fight lasts no longer, because I then get distracted by the other wolves, which have decided that they're not content just to sit and watch. A moment's inattention causes me to trip on a protruding root, which allows the black-and-grey wolf to bite me again. The premise of the adventure being what it is, there's no way of avoiding that bite, and it's only the not-quite-timely-enough intervention of a woodsman that keeps me from being further savaged as I black out from the pain and blood loss.

I wake from a vivid nightmare in the woodsman's home, my wounds cleaned and dressed. My rescuer introduces himself as Ulrich and tells me that there's something I must see. When fighting off my attacker, he severed a forepaw. That paw has since metamorphosed into something between wolf's paw and human hand, indicating to my character what I as reader have known had to be the case from the outset: the wolf that bit me was a Werewolf, and unless I can find a cure, I am doomed to become one as well. With this realisation comes the first increase in Change.

Ulrich advises me to throw the still transforming paw/hand into the fire, but I give it a close examination first, finding a signet ring with a crest depicting a wolf's head and full moon. That I retain as a possible clue to the human identity of my lycanthropic assailant, while doing as recommended with the hand that wore it.

One interesting thing that comes out of these playthroughs is that they prompt closer readings of the text than normal. Often, after my first attempt, I'll skim-read sections I've read before, or just rely on the summary I typed into my gamebook manager (and I must admit that there have been times when I wasn't paying that much attention even on the first read), but for blog posts I return to what the book actually says, which sometimes leads to my picking up on details that previously eluded my notice. This must be the first time I've actually reread the section following on from my burning the hand, as it contains foreshadowing that never really registered before. Now that I know what's coming in a bit, it seems pretty blatant, but a decade or so ago I was too busy rushing on to the next decision to spot the hints that Ulrich has something to hide.

As I bewail the fate that awaits me, Ulrich points out that there is still hope - for me. If I can find and kill the Werewolf that bit me, or eat a sprig of belladonna, I may be cured. Or I can seek the assistance of the wise woman known as Grandmother Zekova. I choose the latter option, and we trek through the forest for about an hour to get to her cottage.

Once Ulrich has explained the situation, Zekova says she can brew me a belladonna-based potion, and asks if she can bleed me first to enhance its effect. I agree, and lose enough blood to become quite light-headed (and drop to almost half my starting Stamina, too), but the potion does reduce my Change. Not to 0 - it's far too soon for that - but enough to ensure a favourable outcome at least at the start of the next bit of trouble to come my way.

A series of howls from outside indicates that the wolf pack has surrounded the cottage, and then somebody knocks on the door and, quoting a predictable fairy tale, demands entry. Zekova refuses, and the man outside becomes insistent, anger causing him to break into a howl. The wolves join in, and I feel a compulsion to do likewise, but my Change is low enough that I can resist.

The wolves then try to break in, and what follows is reminiscent of the occurrence at Stanford in Dead of Night. There are three potential points of entry: the door and two windows, and I decide who guards which entrance. The door being sturdy enough to repulse one attacker, I post Zekova by it, and Ulrich and I take the windows. Randomness determines the wolves' tactics, but as it turns out, each of the first three wolves tries a different way in. Despite having a Skill significantly lower than mine, the one that comes through the window I'm guarding manages to injure me. The next three wolves mimic their predecessors, except that the one that goes for me does no harm.

The last two wolves both go for the door, overcoming Zekova, so I hurry across to repulse them. The dice go back to showing a bias in favour of my opponents, and I wind up taking lethal damage. So, not only did I fail to obtain the hoped-for unambiguous victory, I actually died in the earliest potentially lethal encounter.