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.

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