Tuesday, 31 May 2022

A Crazy Breed... Half in Love with Death

My first (and, until now, only) attempt at the mini-adventure in Fighting Fantazine issue 12, Ian Brocklehurst's Starhunt: Void Slavers, went almost as badly as my first go at Ascent of Darkness. I got through a few more sections, but that's largely because there are two 'Turn to' redirects before the first decision. Judging by the comments of some others who've endured Slavers, the fact that you have to read three sections before even getting to make a choice is a good indication of how the whole adventure pans out, linearity outweighing interactivity to the extent that some reviewers have questioned whether this even constitutes a gamebook.

I failed my previous attempt by ignoring my own advice. I've commented before on the futility of seeking help from the authorities in gamebooks, but in this one I started out by going to the police, and a corrupt officer drugged me and had me dumped somewhere with a lot of hungry rats. As with Ascent, at the time I played it I was focused on making sure I'd played every Fantazine mini-adventure at least once, and issue 13 was already out by the time I gave these a try, so I moved straight on to that after meeting my grisly end.

While I'm not going to deliberately fail this, I doubt that I'll fare particularly well at it either, and since it's quite plausible that I'll make another 'wrong' decision and run straight into an Instant Death at the next choice, I won't even bother generating my stats until/unless I reach a point at which I need to know one of them.

Before the adventure's prologue there's a little information on the setting, which doesn't even manage to get through the first paragraph without annoying me. I know that the misuse of 'sentient' to mean 'sapient' is by now so widespread that 'sentient' is probably going to change its meaning, 'sapient' will fall into disuse, and we'll be left with no word for what 'sentient' used to mean, but that doesn't mean I have to like it.

Anyway, it's the 37th century, and humanity has colonised a variety of planets and moons, but has yet to encounter any aliens that have a similar capacity for intelligence and stupidity. Some worlds are in the Federation TCA, some are independent but trade with the TCA, the people in the Outlying Territories largely keep to themselves, and the Void, despite having a name suggestive of emptiness and nothingness, is actually your standard hive of scum and villainy, only on a multiple-solar-system scale.

As for me, I own a spacecraft named the Starhunt (seemingly a bit ramshackle) and have a robot (for some reason called Kraven-8) for a travelling companion. The latter detail may be because I'm not a particularly likeable individual: when my estranged father unexpectedly contacts me, I'm so impatient and focused on old grudges, he barely has a chance to let me know that my sister has been kidnapped by slavers. I am, at least, quick to respond once I understand the situation, and within minutes I'm on my way to Aquatine, the world on which my sister's dance troupe was vacationing when the slavers conducted their raid.

Aquatine is, as the name suggests, largely covered by water (at least it didn't wind up called Oceany McOceanworld), and most of the people there (almost as many tourists as residents) can be found in floating cities. As I prepare to disembark, I set Kraven-8 the task of hacking into the local mainframe to find out what is known about slavers. We dock in bay 94 (I might need to remember that number in order to get back to my ship, even though I have an earpiece that keeps me in constant communication with my robot), and I arm myself with a blaster and knife before heading out of the Starhunt.

The bay contains a few freighters and a space-yacht named The Eye of Orion (who knows which details are set dressing and which might turn out to be significant). A mechanical customs officer makes me turn in my blaster for the duration of my stay, but allows me to retain the knife, albeit with a warning that the police carry blasters, and will shoot me if I try to do anything illegal with it. Asking how the police failed to prevent the slaver raid, I get told that I'd have to ask a police officer about that.

I proceed onto a busy street, and the text enigmatically tells me that the night sky is visible overhead owing to 'the unique nature of Aquatine's orbit'. Last time I checked (which was just after I wrote the previous sentence), it was possible to see the night sky on Earth, too. I check a map, and find out the location of the nearest police booth and monorail station. A friend of mine lives here, albeit in a different district, so I'll need to use public transport to call on them (despite all the info-dumping, I have no idea whether this friend is male or female yet).

At last I get to make a decision. But not much of one, considering what I learned on my previous attempt at this adventure. Do I go to the police booth and get murdered, or pop onto the monorail and visit my unidentified (and, as far as I can tell, uninformed of my presence here) friend?

On my way to the station I bump into a couple of women pushing a pram (is this relevant?). While I'm waiting on the platform, Kraven-8 contacts me and I get another decision-free section transition. The only information he's been able to get (my robot is apparently male - still not a clue about my friend) is a short list of names, one of which I recognise, as this particular slaver used to be a gun-runner. I tell Kraven-8 that I'm going to meet my friend (thereby discovering that it's a man, though his name remains undisclosed), and travel 17 stops and one section transition on the monorail.

The streets are not busy, though this part of the city would be crowded if it were night (so that orbit business means you can see the night sky during the day?). I head for my friend's workplace, 'Fishnet High' - a high class place, no really, high class - they don't have any of that. That is right out. Then I become aware that someone is sneaking up on me, but I need to turn to another section to find out who.

It's a deranged robot. Unlike the robotic customs officer, which was an I-Bot, this one is a ME-Bot - a distinction that may mean something to my character but, like my friend's name, remains a mystery to the plebs reading this adventure. And since I have to fight the mechanical maniac which has attacked me in a bid to disguise the lack of interactivity in this part of the text, I need to determine some stats. Personal ones, at least. My ship also has stats, but I won't bother with them unless I last long enough to use any of them.

Skill: 11
Stamina: 17
Luck: 12
Blaster Skill: 9
So if/when I fail, it's more likely to be the result of a wrong decision (on one of the rare occasions that I get the opportunity to choose anything) than a bad roll. Though, judging by one of the many complaints raised by one reviewer, it is possible to lose at the last minute thanks to a roll that has nothing to do with any of my stats because completely randomised failure is such fun.

Despite having a 4-point Skill advantage over the metallic madman, I still take a couple of wounds. Then I enter Fishnet High, paying little attention to the anti-grav pole dancers, and when a rollerblading waitress approaches me, I ask to see the manager. It turns out that his name is Arthur (and mine is apparently 'the captain of the Starhunt'). I explain what has brought me here, and Arthur tells me that the slavers, probably assisted by a crooked cop, got into the city via Under-Aqua. Arthur then speculates that the captives will be held in a safe base until the next Slave Mart, and I let him know about the names I've learned. To actually tell him them, I have to turn to another section.

Arthur then tells me potted biographies of the slavers, concluding that Rhea Mosa is probably the one behind the raid. I then ask him about Under-Aqua, and guess what? Time to turn to another section. That'll be the tenth one I turn to on this attempt at the adventure, and I've made one decision and had one gratuitous fight. This got labelled a bumper adventure because it has over 200 sections, but without all these unnecessary hops back and forth through the text, it'd be well below the norm.

Under-Aqua is the part of Aquatine the tourist guides don't like to mention. The homeless, the hunted, and assorted sewer monsters live down there. Arthur has heard that the Slavers gained acces to it via Gate 79, and will be meeting their crooked cop there to pay for services rendered. He advises me to head there at once while he contacts some of his shadier associates to find out anything else that might help me. Shockingly, I actually have the option of asking him something first.

I'm not sure I can handle the stress of making a decision right now, so I'm going to post what I've written so far, and continue this slog of an adventure another day.

Saturday, 30 April 2022

You May Find Yourself in Another Part of the World

I guess it's time I had another go at Lone Wolf book 11, The Prisoners of Time. My first attempt went about as well as could be expected, and owing to the extremely linear nature of the adventure, much of my replay is liable to go the same way, so I'll be brief about the bits that happen much as they did before. In the past, I've written such repeat performances in the style of a verse found in the gamebook I'm replaying, but if there's any attempted poetry in this book, I have yet to find it. Thus, making a tenuous connection with the word 'time' in the title, I shall use They Might Be Giants' song Older as the lyrical skeleton to be fleshed out with a summary of my actions where they barely differ from the previous account.

Right now I'm very glad I went to the effort of creating my gamebook manager, as it makes it a lot easier to skim through all the exposition and lack of interactivity.

I take 3 damage from the trip, and in the cairn I shelter,
The Yoacor transport me,
I meet with the Beholder.
He sends me on to Vhozada to liaise with Serocca.
Endurance drops to 12.

At this point I can briefly deviate from my previous course of action. Knowing that approaching the nearby monolith will trigger an alarm, and that there appears to be no benefit gained by doing so, I stay away from it. Continuing to follow the stream that led me here, I start to wonder if there's no intelligent life in the vicinity (even though the Beholder told me this is the home of 'one of great vision', and metallic pyramids tend not to be naturally occurring phenomena), but then I find some fields planted with orderly rows of fragrant yellow herbs.

I take a closer look at the herbs, but not having the Discipline of Curing leaves me unable to determine what effects sampling them might have, so I leave them alone. The section in which I examine them has been slightly edited in the Mongoose Publishing edition, probably in response to an oversensitive grammar checker making a fuss about a sentence that was perfectly legitimate anyway.

Following a path up a hill, I see that on the other side is a city inhabited by simian creatures. For some reason I regard this as the first sign of civilisation I've seen in this land, despite having just passed blatant evidence of agriculture. There's another unnecessary Mongoose edit here, changing 'who' to 'that'. Probably just more grammar checker nonsense, but given that this book's portrayal of the natives is problematic already, replacing a pronoun which implies personhood with one that can be used for things doesn't look good.  

I... reach the city.
The lo-cals manhandle me.

Serocca speaks of Destiny, and says the Chaos-Master
Is causing much destruction,
Then tells me where to go next.
I rest and heal and have to get rid of two Special Items
To make room for more tat.

I meet a doomed companion and travel by onipa
Until we reach a village
And stop for something to eat.
The local fortune teller offers to give me a reading.
She tells me I will dream.

Though the outcome of the fortune-telling is randomised, I got the same outcome as before, so I don't learn any new cryptic hints this time round. I hope I won't have to play this again, even if that would give me another chance to get a different vague info-dump, but I'm not optimistic. From the top...

We drive on and approach a bridge. I see it has been damaged.
We stop so we can fix it.
The Chaos-Spawn attack us.
I help until T'uk T'ron tells me that I should go now,
And then I run away.

I... spot Ironheart's men.
Will they... shoot at me again?

This time just I stealthily approach them before initiating telepathic contact with the receptive scout, and am thus able to hear that they're talking about me and my escort, wondering what's taking us so long to get here. I also see their sleeve-mounted crossbows, and reflect that it would be inadvisable to startle them (in a sentence that is actually improved in the Mongoose edit). This leads me to speculate on how this scene must have played out on my previous attempt.

Scout 1: Still no sign of this 'Lone Wolf' bloke we're supposed to be meeting?
Scout 2: Nope.
Scout 3: He should have been here hours ago.
Lone Wolf: Hello! I'm Lone Wolf. I believe you've been sent to meet me.
Scouts: AAAAAAH!!! Kill it!

The scouts determine who I am, and take me to their leader.
He waffles on for ages,
Then picks Odel to guide me,
And offers me the option to pick up some fresh equipment,
But this time I decline.

As a result of leaving immediately, I get an info-dump from Odel about the lichen that catches my attention. It's very toxic. I have the option of taking some with me, and decide to in case I get the chance to use it against an opponent. My more prompt departure also means that I don't encounter the attempted ambush by an Agtah, and we proceed straight to the burial grounds where the Lorestones arrived. Last time I played this book, enemies turned up and intervened before I could get the stones, but I got here more quickly on this occasion. You think that'll make a difference?

I solve the puzzle lock and get into the Grand Sepulchre.
My sword lights up the exit.
Odel gets killed just off-stage.
I step onto the roof and see the dragon helm-clad soldier
Who means to take the stones.

Firing an arrow didn't seem to help last time, so I think I'll just launch straight into an attack. Not that that's any better, actually. I hit the warrior, momentarily driving him away from the Lorestones, but when I approach them, they make me feel so good that I space out for a moment, during which time the warrior draws his curved sword, forces me away from the stones, drops them into his pouch, and presses his attack - with better stats than he had after I used the bow. For the first two rounds of the fight I get lousy numbers, taking 6 points of damage. Still, the Combat Ratio is such that in the third round I cannot fail to do enough damage to force him to retreat - and now I score a killing blow.

The railroad will not be thwarted, though. The warrior's death throes cause his hand to become entangled in the rope ladder attached to the saddle of the giant bird which bore him here, and the bird flies away, taking his corpse with it. Here we go again.

I attempt to cut loose the pouch in which he put the Lorestones,
But merely cut it open,
Causing one stone to fall out.
I descend to ground level to at least recover that one.
Two Agtah scouts attack.

They... die instantly.
The stone... now belongs to me.

The sword dropped by the warrior reveals the place he came from.
My way is blocked by monsters.
I choose to shelter elsewhere.
The puzzle lock on Baylon's Tomb still defies explanation,
But I still get it right.

There are actually two search options in the tomb, apparently mutually exclusive. The burial chamber yielded nothing on my previous attempt, so I'll check in case there's anything potentially useful inside the sarcophagus. Doing so highlights one significant difference between the Lone Wolf gamebooks and some other series: I pay scant regard to the body's 'mattress' of diamonds and gemstones, and dismiss the golden-bladed ceremonial sword at his side as being an impractical weapon. What does get my attention is the silver flask of wine, and as its contents smell good (the Mongoose edit stresses that it is surprising for wine that's been stowed in a tomb for years to smell so fresh), I risk a sip.

It's good stuff. I can take it with me and drink from it twice, restoring 4 Endurance points each time. The Mongoose text also has the test draught provide an Endurance boost - one I can't use, but if I'd somehow managed to take damage between recovering the Lorestone and getting here, that could be a life-saver.

Sounds of battle from outside prompt me to head to the roof and see what's going on.

Now Ironheart's army has arrived: they're slaying all the Agtah.
The Chaos-master turns up.
I very mildly wound him.
We fight: his stats are lower in the Mongoose Books edition.
Regardless, I still lose.

I think I may have to go all the way back to the beginning of the series and get myself a Lone Wolf with a higher starting Combat Skill. I know of an Instant Death that can be encountered quite early on in Flight from the Dark, so I can use that to dispose of any character who gets 17 or less, and maybe then the next time I reach this tiresome book it'll be with a Lone Wolf who actually has a chance of winning.

Wednesday, 27 April 2022

It's Way More Dangerous Than That

A longer-than-planned gap between posts here, at least in part because I've been busy playing gamebooks in a different context (about which I intend to say more at a later date). Still, my aim is to cover at least one gamebook a month here, so with the end of April not that far off, I'd better get a move on.

Next on my (provisional and flexible) list is Fortress of Assassins, the third of Dave Morris' Knightmare tie-in gamebooks. Like the previous two, the book is a combination of novelette and short gamebook, and before starting on this I read the story. Given that it has Treguard searching for Richard the Lionheart's heir, it doesn't take a particularly detailed knowledge of English history to figure out that his quest would not be successful. Knowing from the outset that the hero isn't going to succeed doesn't automatically make for a bad story, but it did mean that the question of how he would fail was prominent in my mind all the time, and I anticipated the twist some way ahead of its revelation. Mind you, I'm significantly older than the target readership, and cannot tell how unexpected it might have been for a reader in the age bracket for which Morris was writing.

More serious flaws are Treguard's failure to pick up on a blatant clue that one of the characters he enounters is not what he seems, and the contrived 'rocks fall, villains die' climax to the story. Nevertheless, it's quite an entertaining tale, and makes decent use of its historical backdrop to add some colour and low-key horror.

Still, this blog is about the gamebooks, so I should move on to that aspect of the book. While the story took Treguard further afield than the earlier ones, this is another exploration of the dungeons beneath Knightmare Castle. Prior to entering I can choose to learn a spell or take a slice of quiche to eat when low on health. Food is generally easier to find than magical knowledge, so on this occasion I will not give quiche a chance. I get to pick one of three different spells, and go for Rust, as I can think of a couple of ways in which it could come in handy.

A narrow passage leads me to a room with four exits, each marked with a different symbol. Comets are traditionally associated with ill fortune, so I'll avoid that one. The ringed planet is most likely Saturn, 'bringer of old age', which seems similarly unpromising. That leaves the sun and the moon, and the moon is linked with wisdom. Also madness, now I think about it, but the sun has its own fair share of negative associations (Icarus and Phaethon, for instance), so I'll stick with the lunar option.

Once I step through, a door decorated with runes bars the way back. I advance to a hearth where a woman is embroidering a cloak. Close by is a table on which I see an eye-patch, marked with a glyph signifying destructive power. Trying to steal the patch is liable to have dire consequences, and just walking past without saying anything would be rude, so I greet the woman.

She asks if I can help her solve a riddle. I've encountered some rather tricky riddles in Dave Morris gamebooks before now, but this is one I've seen before in a gamebook by associates of his, and I solved it straight off at the age of 14, so unless the author is being particularly devious and picky, I should be fine here. It really is that straightforward, and the woman rewards me with a ring of luck that I can use to automatically succeed at one die roll in this adventure.

Continuing on my way, I reach a room occupied by a group of Ogres, who were playing at dice but are now arguing about an alleged incident of cheating. Upon catching sight of me, they draw their weapons, one of them commenting that I'm probably a worse cheat than Scumbore. Neither fight nor flight is likely to help me much here, but diplomacy was one of the virtues recommended in the introduction, so I shall try talking.

Good choice. I reply that I'm nowhere near as big a cheat as Scumbore, and while that earns me his enmity, it also convinces the others that they were right to suspect him of dishonest play, and they turn on him. I make a discreet exit while he's too busy being beaten up to make good on his threat to pull my fingers off and stuff them up my nose.

Proceeding further, I encounter a man who appears to have had one of his hands cut off. Regrettably, he can handle a sword perfectly well with the remaining one, and attacks me without provocation, taking my Life Force down to Red. He then apologises, claiming to have mistaken me for someone else, but when (by authorial imposition) I express my annoyance at his careless action, he threatens my life and demands that I show him respect that he really hasn't earned. I leave by the exit he indicates before anything worse can happen.

Stairs descend to the second level. On the way down I reach a door set into the wall, and take a look behind it, hoping to find some healing. It contains a chest, but there's a pit in the way. The pit is five metres wide, and dropping a pebble into it indicates it to be deep enough to kill anyone who falls down it. With only a metre for a run-up, and the Helm of Justice adding weight, even a champion long-jumper might find that a challenge. My character might not be as deficient in athletic prowess as I, but I doubt that he's Olympic team material. Lacking the winged sandals that might be of assistance here, I decide not to risk it, and carry on down the stairs.

A man wearing rainbow robes and a golden diadem, wielding a wand of ice, waits at the bottom of the stairs. He suspects that I might be a disguised goblin, and threatens me. Lacking the spells and item that could be of use here, I can only run or protest that I'm at least as human as he. If I make a dash for the exit, he might hit me with a spell, so I'll try talking again, and hope he's not as quick to lash out as the last person I encountered.

He demands that I prove my humanity by solving a puzzle, and somehow I know his name to be Hordris without having been told it. A quick Google establishes that this is a character from the TV series, and thus would probably be familiar to any fan of the show reading the book. Possibly even familiar enough that they'd know the actual spelling of his name, which has a double 's' at the end according to around 93% of online sources.

The answer I give is apparently wrong, but Hordris considers my mistake understandable enough that, today being his Birthday, he is inclined to give me the benefit of the doubt, and allows me to pass unharmed. I suspect that I've just missed out on a plot token, and am consequently doomed anyway, but I can still potentially learn things that could be of use in subsequent attempts, so there's no point in giving up. Oh, and working backwards from the hint provided when Hordris told me I was wrong, I can see the logic, so I know which of the other possible answers must be correct for next time.

Exits lead east and west. I don't know if the first Knightmare book's advice on picking a direction when faced with a blind choice remains valid, but in the absence of any other hints, I might as well stick with it. The archway leads to a circular room in which a jester is practicing juggling. He hasn't noticed me, so there's a risk that by talking to him I might break his concentration, with potentially harmful consequences, but the doors leading onward have distinctive handles, so there could be a clue to be had in conversation. Couched in a riddle, no doubt, but that's still preferable to pure guesswork.

Though I do startle him, he's too relieved that I'm not a vampire to be cross with me. He asks if I feel like a sausage roll, and while I suspect that answering 'yes' will merely garner the response, "You don't look like one," the slim possibility of getting some food and thereby moving my Life Force Status one step away from 'hanging on by a thread' is not something I can afford to pass up.

Yep, saw that one coming. The jester thinks his joke a lot funnier than I do, but I force a laugh, as the only alternative is to be unnecessarily rude, and taking lethal damage from being clouted in the face with a juggling club by an offended jester would be a terrible way to go. He then asks me a riddle, and after much reflection I go with a not-great-but-possible-to-make-fit answer. It then transpires that the author has played a prank on me: though the text warned me to think carefully about my answer before turning to the next section, the answer I give is irrelevant, as the jester can't remember the right one. If there even is one - for all I know, Dave Morris might have just made up a riddle-esque question and not have given any thought to an actual answer.

It looks as if the food for thought that that riddle provided might be the only food to be had here. After enduring more puns and other banter, I make a discreet exit while the jester is looking for some puppets. And maybe I was wrong about having been pranked: I'd been focused on the riddle for so long, I'd forgotten about the different door handles, but now I get faced with the choice between them, I can see how the riddle could relate to the material from which one handle is made, and choose that one. No idea where I came across the bit of trivia crucial for making that connection, though.

Proceeding to a junction, I am compelled to take the turning which has at least a little illumination. It leads to the head of another flight of steps, and Treguard reveals that I need to find a key of luminous crystal on the lower level if I am to succeed at my quest.

At the bottom of the stairs I face another blind choice of exits, and continue to go with the recommendation from book 1. I then get asked if I want to open the door or try a different one. When a gamebook gives an option to reconsider, sometimes it's a chance to avoid a disastrous outcome, and sometimes it's an attempt at discouraging the reader from making the right decision, and trial and error is often the only way to determine which it is. I'm sticking with this door.

The tunnel beyond has an iron grille rather than a stone floor, and dropping a coin through one of the gaps indicates the drop beneath to be bottomless. As I advance towards the door at the end, I hear hoofbeats coming up behind me. It's time to use that Rust spell, and hope I have the sense and ability not to target the part of the grille that I'm standing on.

Such fine-tuning is apparently beyond me. My pursuer plummets into the void, but as I still don't have the winged sandals that were mentioned earlier, so do I. Still, I imagine the jester would have been impressed at my handling of the adventure. That was, in the end, a floorless performance.

Wednesday, 2 March 2022

When the Hurting Starts and When the Nightmares Begin

I remember very little of the mini-adventure in Fighting Fantazine 11, Stuart Lloyd's Ascent of Darkness. That is partly because my first attempt at it was a rapid failure - I only got to make one decision before my character died in combat. Or possibly three decisions, since a couple of elements of character creation involve choosing things. Nevertheless, I didn't get very far. Furthermore, for reasons which now elude me, at that time I was on a drive to have played every FF mini-adventure in Fantazine at least once, so rather than have another go at Ascent, I immediately moved on to the mini-adventure in the next issue, and until now I've had no motivation to go back to Ascent even without unplayed mini-adventures 'demanding' my attention.

Though this adventure is set on the FF world of Titan, it takes place more than 250 years before the main range adventures, and not long before the outbreak of a devastating war against the forces of Chaos, during which the city of Carsepolis was besieged and pretty much destroyed by armies of Orcs, Goblins, Dark Elves and Chaos-Spawn. In subsequent years the oft-visited hive of iniquity that is Port Blacksand was built on its ruins.

By a funny coincidence, my character comes from the similarly-named city of Caresepolis, the fate of which has never been covered in any FF reference works. Or maybe the author, playtester and editor all failed to spot the repeated misspelling of the name before issue 11 went to print, even though another contributor to the zine had already pointed out the correct spelling while proofreading a different article from the same issue.

At the start of the adventure, I am away from home (whichever way you spell it), endeavouring to help defend the town of Karnak Tor from the armies of Caarth (serpentine humanoids which have featured in a couple of earlier gamebooks, though when playing those books here I evaded the Caarth encounter in one and died too soon to meet any of them in the other) that keep invading from the nearby Desert of Skulls. This is not going brilliantly: in the course of repelling the attacks, more than two thirds of the troops who accompanied me have been killed, and the hostilities are not yet over.

Character creation is a little different from usual. Stats are generated within a narrower range than usual, and one of them will be increased by whichever of the three available Heroic Powers I choose. I'll roll first, and see what the unmodified stats are like before I choose which one to boost... Remembering how quickly I lost that first fight on my previous attempt, I think I'd better do what I can to improve my Skill. 
Skill: 10
Stamina: 17
Luck: 9
Heroic Power: Speed of Pangara
Heroic Flaw: Hubris
Picking the Heroic Flaw was easy, considering the arrogance my character displays in taking full credit for the Heroic Power, which most acquaintances believe to be a divine blessing.

Having learned to recognise the shape made in the sand by a concealed Caarth, I can see that there are a lot of them around an hour's march from Karnak Tor, but as they're very sluggish at night, it should be around eight hours before they actually attack. Time enough for a good rest for me and my men. Not that my night is particularly restful, as my sleep is troubled by foreboding and possibly prophetic or symbolic dreams in which I see my father floating in the air and get hit in the shoulder by an arrow. 

Waking to find that dawn is still a couple of hours off, I summon the troops, and we head out to take the battle to the enemy. If my Heroic Power were the cunning-based one, it might be worth taking the time to seek out the most advantageous position from which to attack, but I went for speed, so I order an immediate strike while the Caarth are still torpid from the nocturnal chill. Not that their condition gives them any penalty to Attack Strength or Skill, judging by the stats of the warrior I soon face.

During fights I also have the option of using Heroic Stunts - assorted manoeuvres that can inf;ict additional damage or Attack Strength penalties on my foe(s), though if they don't work, I take extra damage instead. My speed gives me improved odds when attempting a Flurry of Blows (which works best against multiple opponents, but is not ineffective when going one-on-one), and though my first couple of attempts at using Stunts prove unsuccessful, persistence pays off, and the Caarth dies in around half the time it would have taken me to kill it using just the regular combat rules.

Surveying the field of battle, I see Caarth reinforcements rising from the sand, threatening to overcome my troops by sheer force of numbers. However, potentially greater cause for concern is the robed Caarth who's wielding a staff with a crystal on the end, since the crystal is starting to glow in a way that hints at an imminent release of destructive magical energies. I charge to attack the probable Sorcerer, and another Caarth warrior attempts to intercept me.

Rather confusingly, this section goes on to outline the fight against the warrior, including directions to turn to one section if the Caarth is killed in no more than four rounds, another if it is still alive after four rounds, and yet another if it dies in four rounds. Either the first of those is supposed to be 'fewer than four rounds', or the third of those options is redundant, since the set 'four or fewer' includes 'four'. However, that's not my problem right now, as my Speed enables me to avoid that fight and spear the staff-wielding Caarth before it can unleash the powers it sought to use against my army.

A screech rings out, and the Caarth fall back, except for one particularly large warrior - around 3 metres tall -  who issues a challenge for one warrior to face it in single combat. I would expect my Hubris to compel me to accept, but the text makes no mention of that flaw, and allows me to choose whether to go one-on-one against the champion, throw my spear, or order the troops to charge. I'm going to play my character anyway, and not pass up this opportunity to display my prowess.

As I charge to the attack, the Caarth champion goes for a sneaky kick, and not even my Speed permits me to dodge. Lacking the strength-based Heroic Power, I get knocked down, taking minor damage before the fight begins. It turns out that the champion has his own Stunt, and while it's not as impressive as mine, the additional damage it does (in combination with some lucky rolls for Attack Strength) is enough to ensure that I don't survive the fight.

That's a pretty brutal adventure. From inadvertent glimpses of other sections I saw that the vast majority of opponents have double-figure Skill scores, and while the amended rules for character generation and the bonus to Attack Strength provided by equipment guarantee an effective minimum Skill of 10, damage taken in battle is likely to be high, and opportunities to recover Stamina appear to be scarcer than normal for FF.

The description of Ascent on the contents page suggests that battling the Caarth isn't even the primary focus of the adventure. The fact that after playing it twice I still haven't got beyond what would be the pre-opening credits sequence in a Bond film suggests that it might be a little unbalanced as regards playability. Not knowing what the actual plot involves also makes it harder for me to get invested in the adventure. For reasons I shall explain at a later date, I'm likely to be playing this again off-blog before the end of the year, and while I'm not dreading the prospect, I'm not particularly enthusiastic about it either.

Thursday, 10 February 2022

You Never Know What the Night It May Bring

Sorcerer's Apprentice was not the only magazine to print Tunnels & Trolls mini-adventures. The June/July 1982 edition of White Dwarf (published not long before a certain book was to change editor Ian Livingstone's life quite significantly) featured The Mad Dwarf by T&T veteran author Ken St Andre. 

This was more than a year before I encountered my first gamebook, so I was completely unaware of it back then. Still, in February 2007, a search for gamebooks and the like on eBay turned up a copy of the relevant issue, so I bought it. On the same day I also acquired a complete set of Dice Man, the gamebook/comic hybrid spun off from 2000 AD, which rather monopolised my attention when my purchases arrived, so beyond establishing that The Mad Dwarf appears to be the name of a tavern (which has some precedent in T&T) I never found out anything about what the adventure involves. It's about time I had a proper go at it.

The brief introductory section indicates that I'd be best off bringing a warrior into this adventure. While I do have a couple of warriors who survived earlier adventures, they're both a little short of cash, and a tavern-based adventure is liable to involve some expenditure, so I'll generate a new one and try to budget carefully when equipping him.

As rolled, my new character is on the low side of average - almost all 9s and 10s. If I make him a dwarf, he becomes somebody who might even survive an encounter or two, with:
Strength 20
Intelligence 10
Luck 9
Constitution 18
Dexterity 10
Charisma 8
Speed 7
Plus enough cash to equip him with clothes, boots, a backpack, some armour and a sabre (decent axes are expensive), and still leave a bit of money for drinks, fruit machines and the like.

The adventure starts with me being pursued through a snowstorm by a pack of dire wolves, weighed down by the 'treasure' in my backpack. (Eh? I've saved some money, but not that much.) I'm going numb from the cold, and the wolves are gaining on me, so it comes as something of a relief when I catch sight of a 'strangely built' building up ahead, with sooty smoke belching from the chimney.

I have the option of ignoring it, but I'm not massively keen to discover whether the wolves can kill me before hypothermia sets in, so I head for the door. As I draw closer, I see indications that the building is an inn, with just about enough paint left on the sign for me to be able to make out that it depicts an axe-toting dwarf sticking his tongue out. Lacking any ability to detect magic, I must either knock on the door or face the wolves. The fact that I was even asked about my sensitivity to magic raises some rather ominous questions, but I still don't fancy my chances against the pack, so I hammer on the door.

The door is about five feet high, which would be uncomfortably low if I'd generated a human or an elf, but the height modifier for dwarves puts the lintel around a foot above my head. In response to my knocking, another dwarf opens the door. This one wears a jewel-encrusted patch over one eye, and has a hunched back. He yells at me to either come in or go away, as it's cold outside and he thinks he can hear wolves. Suppressing the urge to respond with sarcasm, I step indoors.

The inn is spacious, but with what taller species would consider a low ceiling. The bar is stocked with a wide range of containers holding liquids, and on the wall above it is a pornographic painting of female elves, with several darts sticking out of it. I'd have to turn straight to another section if my character were an elf, perhaps to see whether or not this insult to my kindred provokes me to homicidal rage, but since I'm not an elf, I get to turn my attention to the fireplace. Hanging above the flames is a large iron kettle, giving off a smell that my character finds pleasant, though it would turn the stomachs of most non-dwarves. In the middle of the room are a crude table and benches, their height appropriate for the proprietor and me. No sign of any other patrons, perhaps because of the weather, or maybe for some more sinister reason.

Mine host informs me that a room for the night costs 10 gold pieces, food and drink not included.I can afford it, but in view of the lack of other customers, I'll risk trying to haggle. That requires me to make a Saving Roll on Charisma, and the odds are not in my favour. I do fail the roll, but that doesn't result in my being thrown out - just a hefty bill. I still have enough on me, which is a good thing, as the adventure doesn't seem to allow for the possibility of having insufficient funds. Quick check - no I did not miss any mention of needing at least X amount of gold to play.

After taking my money, the dwarf gets very chatty, and his questions about the contents of my backpack and the sort of adventuring I've been up to of late make me suspicious. I decide against having anything to eat or drink and, a little concerned about what may await me in my room, opt to continue warming myself by the fire. I'd like to remain on the alert for any suspicious moves, but that is in the author's hands.

The warmth of the fire induces a comfortable drowsiness. The proprietor of the inn drinks a lot, and becomes tipsy. He invites me to have a drink with him. This could be a trap, but refusing might provoke him to violence, so I'll accept and hope that my Constitution is high enough to protect me from any harmful additives there might be in the booze.

The drink costs my remaining money, and is the sort that initially tastes pretty bad, but seems to get better the more of it I consume. Matching me drink for drink, the dwarf then looks me in the eye (though if I'd been a human or an elf, he'd be focused on my navel) and asks if I want to play darts, see the dancing girls, or go to bed. The subjects of the lewd painting on the wall are dancing, which makes me wonder if showing an interest in the girls might lead to my becoming sorcerously imprisoned in the picture. I'm still a bit wary about the bedroom, so I'll risk darts - if nothing else, the game will at least provide a pretext for having something weapon-like to hand.

That turns out not to be such a good idea, as the painting is also the dartboard, scores varying according to which parts of the elves' anatomy are hit. Also, the game involves a stake of 100 gold pieces, which is a hundred more than I can afford. I back out, and resign myself to finding out what Procrustean peril may await me in my room.

The room is small, dominated by a bed which is simultaneously massive and just four feet long. The floor is covered with a bearskin, and there's just room for a small bedside table with a basin and a pitcher of water on it. It is at this point that my height becomes a plot point, and I'm two thirds of an inch too tall to be spared the Saving Roll on Intelligence that could determine my fate. Oh, and this is one of those annoying instances where the text gives options for 'higher than' and 'lower than', but not 'equal to'. The height generation algorithm ensures that I must fall into one of those categories, but a human character would have a slim chance of being exactly the height being asked about, so that's a bit careless.

The odds of my succeeding at this roll are not favourable, and what I get would have been a failure no matter how high my Intelligence. I remove my armour and lie down, and Mr. St. Andre really hasn't thought this height business through. A guillotine blade pops out of the footboard - which would take the soles off my feet, what with that slight overhang, but the text has it going through my legs and inflicting more than enough damage to kill me.

I was never going to be happy with an outcome like that, but the fact that (somewhat ironically) it's an awkward fit for my character makes it that bit more frustrating. If the owner of this place intended to rob me, he's going to be rather disappointed, as he already had all my money, but whatever annoyance my lack of funds may cause him, it's scant consolation for me.

Monday, 31 January 2022

Certain Local Cartographical Anomalies

It's about time I was concluding my attempt at The Den of Dragons, the second of J.H. Brennan's Grailquest gamebooks. Having spent most of the first part exploring a cursed village, I finished by exploring a ruined tower, in which I found a trapdoor. I tug on the attached iron ring, which comes off in my hand, but the trapdoor disintegrates, opening up the dark shaft beneath.

The book proceeds on the assumption that I was sensible enough to buy a torch and a means of lighting it. Not a problem on this occasion, as I did make the necessary purchases, but if I'd wasted my money on half a dozen sacks, a horn, and a dozen fish-hooks instead, there'd be no consequences to my lacking a light source, even though I need one to see the stone steps leading down into the darkness.

After a brief hesitation, I start to descend the stairs, losing my footing and tumbling to the bottom without taking any damage. A subterranean corridor leads further into the darkness, and I follow it, eventually emerging into a volcanic wasteland, with towering cliffs barring movement in all but two directions. This is where the advice found on one of the scrolls penned by warrior-monk Ethelbert can help with avoiding a lethal mistake, though it turns out to be vaguer than expected. I was warned to 'avoid the more obvious road', but it's not as if one route is clearly signposted while the other is more easily missed. There's a kind of gamebook-derived metaknowledge-based logic to it, as one of the paths leads in a direction less frequently offered in gamebooks than the other, but Brennan has included better clues in worse books.

Following my chosen path, I become aware of the reek of methane mingling with the sulphurous stench. The digression on Dragon biology way back in one of the introductory passages mentioned that Dragons' flame-breathing ability is fuelled by methane produced by rotting leaves in a secondary stomach, so the smell (and the lack of a redirection to section 14, the traditional destination of the Grailquest dead and doomed) indicates that I am indeed on the right track. The gaping cavern mouth up ahead is also a pretty obvious hint that I'm approaching Dragon Cavern.

Some mildly amusing waffle follows before I get to enter the cavern, stepping into a bone-strewn cave with three exits in the north wall. No map provided, so it might be advisable for me to draw one, and hope that this place isn't as geographically muddled as some gamebook locations.

I follow a winding passage to another cave, and unlike certain adventures, this book has me notice that it is occupied by potential enemies (in this instance half a dozen Rock Trolls) before going on to describe the place. There's another exit in the far wall, and the section number for it is the same as for one of the other exits from the first cave, which is topographically unlikely. I'm not wasting my Invisibility spell (and the high Life Point cost of casting it) here, and I doubt that introducing myself to the Trolls and asking them to let me through will go well, so I draw EJ and charge to the attack.

Taking the Trolls by surprise, I bisect one of them before they can react. The other five then strike at me with their swords, two missing altogether, the others failing to get through my armour. I slay another Troll in each of the next three rounds of battle, still taking no damage, but the last two Trolls are slightly more bother. Nevertheless, by the end of the fight there are five dead Trolls and one unconscious one, and I've taken just two points of damage.

Heading northwards along a well-travelled passage, I reach a large and foul-smelling cave, which contains a mound of dragon droppings and has three exits, one of them blocked by a large boulder. Section number recognition tells me that the passage west leads to the cave where I fought the Trolls, and if I manage to shift the boulder (or waste a fireball destroying it), I can go the same way I'd have gone if I'd taken the third exit from the first cave. That bit almost makes sense on the route I've taken to get here, though if I'd come straight from the entrance cave, going east would effectively take me west. This is proving about as mappable as the first ever gamebook I wrote, and I at least had the excuse of only being an 11-year-old amateur. 

I could take a closer look at the heap of manure, but I don't think this is one of the books in which doing so could prove helpful. Instead, I take the one exit that leads to a previously inaccessible section number. And this brings me to a different kind of section number recognition: unless I am very much mistaken, the cave outside which I now find myself contains only unavoidable limb loss and death. Still, there is a side turning I could take instead of dooming myself, so I think I'll try that.

After some time this passage brings me to a cavern with a couple of exits, containing three brass-bound chests and a small casket, all of which are guarded by a sword-wielding Minotaur. He tries to stop me from going any further, I attempt to intimidate him into letting me pass, and when I name-drop Merlin, the Minotaur asks if I could seek the wizard's help on his behalf. It turns out that the Minotaur finds having the head of a bull to be an impediment to his social life, so he'd prefer a human one.

We strike a deal. Tradition requires that the Minotaur fights anyone who tries to pass through his cave, but he'll make do with a wrestling match. If I win, I get to do a little looting and proceed to one of the exits. If he wins, I have to go to Merlin and ask him to fix the Minotaur's head.

This being a fist fight, I don't have as much of an advantage as when using EJ, but I can still utilise the Luckstone, which, in combination with a few lousy rolls on the part of the Minotaur, ensures that I prevail without taking any damage. Magical safeguards that the Minotaur had placed on his belongings mean that I can only look into two of the receptacles in the cave, and apparently make it necessary to choose both simultaneously. This could lead to frustration, as one of the chests contains another scroll from Ethelbert, this one in code (easily cracked), which reveals which of the other containers holds the only essential item - but since the reader has already made their choice by the time they get the opportunity to decipher the message, it's already too late to act on that knowledge. I'm okay, as I remembered where to get the key that I will need, but a first-time player who chose poorly might not find much consolation in getting a hint about what they should have chosen but didn't.

In addition to the two exits mentioned when I first reached this cave, I have a second chance of going into the cave of Instant Death. I think I'll pass on that one again, thank you very much. Instead I try another section number I think I recognise, and the passage leads me to a cavern that is lined with metal on all sides, with vast machines lined up against the north wall. Tinkering with the machinery are a dozen hunchbacked Dwarves with malevolent expressions on their faces.

The only worthwhile option here is to attack. They're a slow-moving bunch, which means that I manage to kill nine of them and knock the other three out before they get a chance to hit back. A bit one-sided, but when so many gamebooks border on unwinnable, I'm not so bothered at having the imbalance in my favour.

Now that the Dwarves are out of the way, I can take a look at the machine. A blue metal plate has been set into the floor next to three numbered levers, each of which can be pushed up or down. Above the levers a sign warns to place a key in the slot before activating the levers, and next to the sign is a slot big enough to take the key I got from the Minotaur.

The options for lever-pulling are slightly odd. I can push them all up, or all down, or go for a mixture of up and down, but in the latter instance it doesn't matter which lever is in which position, just whether there are more up than down or vice versa. That gives four possible set-ups (plus another four, all leading to death, for using the levers without first inserting the key). It would have been possible to offer a choice of four with just two levers (both up, both down, left up/right down and left down/right up), which seems more sensible to me than having up-down-up produce the exact same results as down-up-up and up-up-down. Then again, this is a Grailquest book, so looking for 'sensible' is about as worthwhile as making 'melodious' a priority when choosing a potato peeler.

Pulling the levers sends a dizzying vibration through my body. A spiral of light coils around me, and I lose consciousness, coming round at a crossroads. Oh, and this is the bit where some of the turnings lead to jarringly inappropriate sections. So incongruous that my teen self actually crossed out a couple of the section numbers and wrote other, less bewildering but more unhelpful numbers in their place. Twit. Good thing I found another copy of the book going cheap in a second-hand shop at a later date.

One of the section numbers my foolish younger self didn't excise is also the one to which a different setting of the levers would have sent me. I'm probably better off ignoring it, but I don't think curiosity will kill me in this instance, so I take the appropriate turning, finding myself in darkness, being attacked by something large and hairy with fangs and talons. The combination of my armour and my Luckstone (plus some straightforward good luck - my attack rolls included two double sixes) keep the fight from going badly for me.

When I kill my opponent, my surroundings light up, though the corpse remains shrouded in darkness. I'm in a chamber with just one exit, which contains a pile of straw, a feeding dish, and a magic wand attached to a nail on the west wall by a leather thong. I take the wand and leave, not returning to the crossroads, but finding myself where I'd have wound up if I'd taken the other turning not adjusted by the idiot I once was.

A tunnel leads me to a cavern shaped a bit like a funnel, and a whacking great boulder blocks the only way onwards. I can move it by rolling high enough, disintegrate it with a Fireball, or spend 25 Life Points to activate that wand, which will dissolve it. Carelessly, the text assumes that I have the wand, even though I could have got here without acquiring it. Proofreading and playtesting don't appear to have been among the publisher's priorities.

Anyway, with the help of the Luckstone I manage to shift the boulder without expending any resources. Beyond it, worn steps lead down, but before I can descend, a giant lizard of some kind slithers up them and attempts to ensnare me with its long tongue. Its initial attack fails, so I get to fight it, but it only needs to win a single round (by rolling 8 or above) to swallow me, with fatal results. I think the extra damage caused by a P.O.W. spell could make a crucial difference here. The casting roll is successful, I get first strike in the fight, and I do just enough damage that, with the accompaniment of the spell, I inflict lethal damage. If this were a podcast rather than a blog, you would just have heard some celebratory exclamations.

Winning the fight takes me to one of the more stochastic sections I could have reached from that crossroads. I step over the already decomposing corpse of the lizard and descend the steps to a constructed chamber. Another exit leads onwards, but of greater interest are the treasure chest and the scroll. I read the scroll first, and am unsurprised to find that it is another of Ethelbert's missives, this one explaining the traps and other perils associated with the chest in implausible detail. Still, forewarned is forearmed (and middlewarned is elbowed).

The scroll also states that the chest contains a magical Orb said to be the only means whereby an adventurer may survive what lies ahead (and that Ethelbert had his doubts about its being so essential, and thus chose not to take it himself). I don't even have the option of not trying to get the Orb for myself, and now turn my attention to the chest.

Ignoring the hasp (which contains a poisoned needle) and the cursed gem set into the lid, I use my battleaxe to smash open the chest. EJ sometimes objects to being used on inanimate objects, and I've had no other use for the back-up weapon all adventure, so I might as well use it now.

Inside the chest I find a mass of spiders' webs, which Ethelbert indicated to be impervious to anything but magical weapons or magical fire. A couple of the section numbers here are the wrong way round in the book, but back in the eighties I was sensible enough to correct those references. The axe won't do me any good here, and I'm not wasting a Fireball, so EJ will have to face his fears (it's not as though there are any actual spiders to go with the webs) and slice through them.

Now that the webs are gone, half a dozen shadowy shapes, each about the size of a hand, flutter out of the chest. Ethelbert warned that, while flimsy, these things can do a lot of damage, so I take a swipe at the closest one with EJ (and in doing so turn to the other inappropriate section reachable from that crossroads). The Luckstone makes it impossible not to inflict a killing blow with EJ every round, which could be considered something of a design flaw, but since a couple of sub-par rolls mean that I'd have lost 30 Life Points without it, I'm not complaining too hard.

Now only the Orb remains in the chest. Well, the Orb, the cushion on which it rests, and the brass plaque explaining that in the hands of a true Dragonmaster, it provides protection against all naturally occurring firebreathers. A non-Dragonmaster might derive similar benefits from the Orb, but the only way to find out is to try. Oh, and magical Dragons are immune to its effects, so it won't help against the Brass Dragon even if it does keep me safe from the rest.

Before I go any further, I cast the spell to activate my Fireballs, so they'll be available against whatever lies ahead. Then I head through the exit and down a tunnel that leads to yet another cavern. The smell of Dragon and the sound of fluttering wings indicate that this is where the Dragons have come to roost.

No turning back. I advance into a vast cavern which contains hundreds of Dragons. At its lowest point squats the Brass Dragon, beside a marble column with a red crystal on it. The Brass Dragon's eyes focus on me, and a voice speaks inside my head. For a moment I think that the Dragon must be telepathic, but the voice rapidly clarifies the situation. Speaking to me, mind to mind, is Ethelbert himself. The Brass Dragon has trapped his soul inside the crystal, and I must shatter it to free him... provided I can first kill the Brass Dragon. And get past the vast multitude of other Dragons surrounding me. Time to use the Orb. And the dice determine that it works, emitting a song which sends all the ordinary Dragons to sleep. So far so good. Now for the big bad.

This could be a tough fight. To improve my chances, I cast Pi R Squared, giving me two attacks to each one that the Dragon makes. I hurl a Fireball - and miss. The second Fireball hits it, though. The Dragon strikes me, doing a little damage. I draw EJ, and hit the Dragon twice, glad that I was able to get that bonus to damage against Dragons. The Dragon wounds me again. Since every third round, it breathes fire, doing extra damage if it hits, I cast P.I.L.L., which incapacitates the Dragon with laughter for a few rounds. Long enough, with my doubled speed, for me to stab it several more times, inflicting a killing blow before it gets a chance to try and burn me.

With the Brass Dragon dead, I can destroy the crystal and release Ethelbert. He properly introduces himself, admits that his services are no longer required here, and offers to show me the way out. Over the course of the next few days we head back to where I started. Well, back to the cow: having been taken to and from Merlin's Crystal Cave by magic, I don't know how to get there. So all we can do is wait for Merlin to notice that I'm back and the job is done.

This takes a while: it transpires that Merlin has resorted to alchemy to try and compensate for the cut in his pension, but it keeps going wrong and turning the lead into steamed pudding (which he doesn't even like). After the seventh failed attempt, Merlin loses his temper and, in a fit of pique, decides to put a blight on the Archbishop of Canterbury's kitchen garden, but while searching for the appropriate wand he finds his crystal ball, which shows him Pip, Ethelbert, the cow, and the severed head of the Brass Dragon, which significantly improves his mood.

A brief coda follows, in which Merlin speculates on the celebrations and rewards sure to follow the slaying of the Brass Dragon, and reminds me that the Gateway to the Ghastly Kingdom of the Dead is still open, and will need closing. But that is an adventure for another day. And indeed another book.

So, that was Grailquest book 2. Like the first book, it was humorous, occasionally harsh, somewhat unbalanced as regards gameplay, a bit sloppy in places, and fun. But more so. On every count. It's entertaining enough that I can forgive its shortcomings, but some of the later books are definitely broken in places. Nowhere near as badly as certain other gamebooks by J.H. Brennan, though. And the next one in the series ramps up the lunacy but, as I recall, has fewer bugs, so I'm quite looking forward to that.

Monday, 3 January 2022

There Is More Harm in the Village Than is Dreamt of

I bought the second of J.H. Brennan's Grailquest books, The Den of Dragons, at the same time as the first. As I recall, I had a quick flick through it in the shop (probably WHSmith), and came across an encounter with a familiar character (of which I'll say more if I reach it on this attempt), while my first attempt at it ended when an arbitrary dice roll determined that the place I was exploring caved in on me. I now know that particular location to be the transition between two different stages of the adventure, so I'm going to have to make the same roll when I play the book here - always assuming I survive long enough to do so.

Mind you, I don't think these books start getting absurdly lethal just yet, so I might make it through. Especially as I did win the first book, and am thus able to carry across certain items I acquired in it. Presumably when Mean Jake stole my belongings at the end, he concentrated on the money, overlooking some potentially more valuable items. But precisely what I still have is covered a couple of sections in, so I'm getting ahead of myself.

The background material is quite substantial, but the writing is entertaining enough that it doesn't drag in the way that some gamebook info-dumps do. Trimming it down substantially, the essentials are that Avalon has been suffering the ravages of a plague of Dragons, but the situation has worsened with the arrival of a Brass Dragon, purportedly from Hell, seemingly possessed of magical powers, and definitely causing death and destruction. King Arthur has made the situation Merlin's responsibility, and Merlin, alarmed at the prospect of having his pension docked, has again used a spell in the form of a book to transfer the reader's consciousness into the body of local hero Pip.

On this occasion the mission briefing is delivered in Merlin's crystal cave (the number and variety of Merlin's homes becomes a running gag across the series), which fits a very literal reading of its name. Practically everything here is crystal - the walls, the roof, the floor, the stalactites and stalagmites, the furnishings... Merlin explains that I'm here to kill the Brass Dragon, which actually comes from the Ghastly Kingdom of the Dead rather than Hell. The gateway to the Ghastly Kingdom of the Dead through which the Dragon entered this world will also need closing, but that's a matter for another book.

Despite the continuity between books, I need to roll my LIFE POINTS afresh. This time round I only start with 36 - still above average (and given the reroll option provided at character generation, I'd be doing pretty poorly not to get at least one above-average roll), but significantly lower than last time. 

Merlin gives me a reminder of the combat rules, and then fetches my sword, at which point the text asks if I've read the previous book in the series. I have, so Excalibur Junior and I recognise each other. I also get back my armour, and half a dozen of the items I acquired during my earlier adventure, most significantly the Luckstone that enables me to increase or decrease any of my dice rolls by 3 (and most insignificantly the Wizard Ansalom's crystal ball, which no longer works). The Firefinger lightning bolts I didn't use last time are also available...ish.

The thing is, this book introduces new rules covering the use of magic. I now know ten spells (many of them with mildly silly acronyms). Most can be cast up to three times over the course of an adventure, the majority cost 3 LIFE POINTS to cast, and all require me to roll 7 or above on two dice to work. I can't use any Firefingers until I have successfully cast the relevant spell (and I can only successfully cast it once per adventure), but when I do, I gain 10 new lightning bolts in addition to the ones left over from book 1.

Before I get started, I can also buy additional equipment. Merlin hands me a couple of magic dice that convert enthusiasm into gold, so I roll them and gain money that can be spent on items from a list. In later books the equivalent lists often include various bizarre artefacts, some of them potentially of use, others just quirky red herrings, but here there's nothing more unconventional than a lute or a dozen fish-hooks. Armour can be combined with what I already have, so I buy a couple more points of damage reduction (I didn't roll high enough for the good stuff), and with what's left I get a spare weapon, some food, some healing potions, a rope and climbing spikes, and some torches plus a tinderbox. Oh, and that lute: I don't recall a situation where I'm likely to need a musical instrument in this book, but it's better to be prepared, just in case. Except where it isn't, but that's a matter for a later book.

Merlin then hands me a copy he made of an ancient map showing the route to Dragon Cavern, and casts a spell to teleport me away. I find myself in a field, being nudged in the back by one of the cows owned by Pip's adoptive parents. Checking the map, I find that the only landmark shown on it is the cow. Also depicted are four winding paths, each leading to a different section number, with no hints about what might be found on any of them.

I try heading roughly north-north-east. This may be a good choice, as the path leads to a village. However, the village doesn't seem to get any closer as I walk towards it, and dice determine what happens next. With what I roll, the Luckstone means I can go for any of the possible outcomes, but that's not much help when I don't know whether I need a high number or a low one.

I risk going high, and a walking statue lumbers along the path towards me, clearly spoiling for a fight. This looks like the sort of combat for which a magic weapon is essential, so I draw EJ. A wise choice, though even he does reduced damage in this battle. Between the Stone Man's slightly poor odds of hitting, my armour, and the Luckstone, I manage to shatter him without taking any damage.

After taking a breather, I continue on my way, proceeding to the section I'd have reached if I hadn't modified that earlier roll. Up ahead is something like a heat haze - except that it's not that warm. And the edges are clearly defined, much like a doorway. So I step through it.

Abruptly I find myself standing in the village, close to its westernmost extremity, and due east of a peculiar garden containing stone plants and statues of monsters. Near the front of the book is a picture of the village, with section numbers on all the visitable locations within it, and a conspicuous lack of ways through the surrounding stockade.

Time to go exploring. I remember where the next stage of the route to Dragon Cavern can be found, but there are some helpful or amusing encounters to be had elsewhere in the village, and I think I know which of the cottages contains only an Instant Death, so I'll just look around for a while.

Just to my west is a cottage set into the stockade wall. I take a closer look at it, and oh, it's one of those cottages. Several of them are inhabited by the same type of creature, a bizarre green biped with purple teeth, which wields two daggers and has a pouch (prompting speculation that it might be a type of kangaroo, a magic platypus, or even an Australian cricketer in fancy dress). If I had food to spare, I could avoid a fight by giving the creature indigestion, but this thing isn't much of a threat. Indeed, one blow with EJ is enough to render the brute unconscious, so I take its daggers and the negligible amount of money in the pouch.

There's a long building to the north of the stone garden. It's a disused stable. Searching it, I find a horseshoe, and get reprimanded for wasting time.

My Luckstone should keep me safe from the worst of the danger in the stone garden, so I check that out next. It is a strange place - just like a real garden, except that all the vegetables are made of stone. And full of statues of monsters, one of which almost looks as if it's moving. There are also flowers made entirely from stone, and again I get the impression that that statue moved. With a shrug, I ignore it and pull up a stone cauliflower, finding that it even has roots of stone. And by now the statue is so blatantly moving that I can no longer fool myself about it. Also, I am finding it increasingly difficult to move, and belatedly realise that I am turning to stone. The dice determine what happens next, and but for the Luckstone, I would have wound up petrified. As it is, I manage to stumble backwards out of the garden, at which point I return to normal, and the monster statue becomes inert. That was close.

Due south of the garden is the cottage I think kills anyone who enters it. A little further south is another cottage set into the stockade wall, which contains another of those dagger-toting creatures. This one gets first strike, but fails to hit me, and in retaliation I kill it with one blow.

Further east, a slightly wobbly line of cottages runs north to south. I enter the northernmost one, which contains a man in black armour, who calls out a challenge to me. Remembering an encounter in the woods outside Ansalom's castle, I realise that this is not the dreaded Black Knight, but the friendly yet hapless King Pellinore, and greet him. He explains that, having failed to find the way out of the village, he's commandeered this cottage, and hands me a scroll that he found in the course of his explorations.

The scroll has been penned by a warrior-monk named Ethelbert, who was also on a quest to Dragon Cavern. It tells me which is the safe path through the volcanic wasteland leading to the Cavern, and warns that, while the Dragons congregate on the lower level, the upper levels house various perils of their own, including Trolls, Dwarves, a man with the head of a bull, and an extremely dangerous wailing spirit. That note about the path could help me avoid an Instant Death, so it's a good thing I didn't ignore Pellinore's cottage.

Proceeding to the next cottage, I find that it has a beneficial atmosphere, and if I'd lost any Life Points, it would restore them. I haven't wasted anything, though, as it will have the same effect on any subsequent visit. If I get into one of the more dangerous fights that can be found in the village (and survive), I shall pop back here rather than risk sleeping or use up any potions

The cottage below that one contains lots of plants in pots. Many of the plants are creepers, with a remarkable degree of mobility. They attempt to wrap around me, and again the Luckstone saves my life, enabling me to avoid having my sword arm immobilised, so I can hack my way to safety.

In the next cottage I find a pit trap, with poisoned spikes in the bottom. Thanks to the Luckstone I avoid landing on a spike, and the climbing equipment I bought from Merlin saves me from being trapped down here and starving to death.

A Wolf has made its lair in the next cottage down, and leaps to the attack when I open the door. I manage to render it unconscious, sustaining a couple of points of damage in the course of the fight, and discover that the cottage also contains a casket of 100 Gold Pieces, which I take before returning to the cottage with the healing properties.

The last cottage in this line is larger than the others, and has a Gnome out front. A live Gnome, rather than the ornamental kind. He offers to give me information on the route to Dragon Cavern or the way out of the village, at a randomly determined cost. As I know the answer to the former, and am aware that getting away from the village won't help me in my quest, I opt not to part with my money, and head across the village green to the church.

Dust and cobwebs show the church to be in a state of considerable neglect. It's not completely abandoned, though, as the organ suddenly plays what sounds like the opening to Beethoven's Fifth. Maniacal laughter rings out, and a figure in a cloak and a mask swings towards me on a rope, screaming that I should "Beware the Phantom of the Village Church!" before lunging at me with a sword. As in the previous fight, I take a small amount of damage before overcoming my opponent. There's not much in the way of loot here, though: only a ring on the Phantom's finger, which tingles when I put it on, and cannot be removed.

Following another visit to the healing cottage, I proceed to the Abbey that's just across the road from the church. It too is looking rather run-down, but it's definitely still in use, as a procession of six black-robed monks approaches. One carries a banner with a golden death's head on it, the next bears a censor (sic.) that gives off a foul-smelling smoke, and all chant an invitation to stay with them forever. The invitation does not appeal, and when the four who aren't carrying any paraphernalia rush to the attack, rather than fleeing, I try casting a P.A.N.I.C. spell, to enhance the effectiveness of my armour. It works, making it impossible for them to actually harm me, so all I need do is slice away at the martial Monks while they ineffectually punch at the wall of light that protects me.

It takes me twelve rounds of combat to defeat them (along the way accruing enough Experience Points for my first Permanent Life Point), after which I search the Abbey for treasure, finding another scroll penned by Ethelbert. This one reveals the location of the entrance to Dragon Cavern - of potential use to a first-time player (who hasn't already paid the Gnome), but rather scant pickings otherwise.

Again I nip over to the healing cottage, to restore the LIFE POINTS that casting that spell cost me, and then I proceed to the graveyard. Unsurprisingly, I find many graves and tombstones there. Also one open grave, from which emerges... a drunken Gravedigger. He's a chatty individual by the name of Cedric, who explains that Stonemarten Village has been cursed. A couple of cottages and most of the villagers were turned to stone, the local banker transformed into a Gnome, the Vicar became a Phantom, and 'a very strange class of person' started to move in (I wonder if he means the monks or the dagger-using green beasties). Just before passing out and rolling back into the grave, he says that Dragons laid the curse.

At the eastern end of the graveyard is a large crypt, built of pink marble, its door bearing a brass plaque inscribed with an atrocious poem. As if that wasn't hint enough, below the plaque is an iron plate identifying this as another Crypt of the Fiend. (Incidentally, this is the part of the book I looked at in the shop before making my purchase.)

Proceeding into the crypt, I find an ebony coffin on a dais inscribed with another dismal verse. On the coffin itself is another brass plaque, explaining that I must solve a riddle to awaken the Fiend. There's no way I could have got the right answer if I hadn't already known it, as it is one of the more infamous 'anti-jokes': What's the difference between a duck?

I give the correct answer (which had been featured in BBC children's programme Jigsaw a few years before this book was published, and I'd read it in a comic before that, so it wasn't that obscure), and the coffin opens. The Fiend congratulates me, extemporises an appalling poem about being asked that riddle by the Sphynx, and solicits my feedback on his new composition. Aware that flattery is the safest response, I compliment the Fiend on the mythological allusions, and he rewards me by handing over a silver snuffbox, explaining that the snuff within is made of ground mugwort blessed by a vicar of the Anglican Communion, and heals four dice worth of LIFE POINTS whenever taken (though it can only be used once per section). That should come in handy once I no longer have access to that cottage.

Close by is a large building, which turns out to be a musty-smelling grain store. I search it, and find a rat the size of an Irish wolfhound. I only take one point of damage in the course of killing it, but that's enough to infect me with plague, so I take a quick pinch of healing snuff to ensure my survival.

There are still a dozen cottages (not including the automatically lethal one), plus the well (which I will avoid because I remember what's in it) and the ruins housing the entrance to Dragon Cavern. I won't bother with the cottage that, as I recall, contains a load of poisoned food: there's no 'don't eat' option, and while the spell P.I.P. would give me immunity, I'd rather not risk the 1 in 12 chance (courtesy of the Luckstone) of its not working. There might be something worth having in one of the others, though, so I shall pay some more house calls, starting with the others set into the stockade wall.

Two of them contain more of the green creatures, which I kill with ease. The other has a back door, so I could use it if I wanted to try and escape from the village, but since I know that the place where I need to go is in the village, I see little point in emulating Patrick McGoohan on this occasion.

Well, that leaves a block of eight cottages. One has the section number to which every cottage containing one of the green monsters redirects, and two of the others must be the ones Cedric said were turned to stone, leaving five that could contain something useful. Or more deathtraps or dagger-toting greenies. I might as well find out.

The first one appears abandoned, but while checking, I find a knob that opens the door to a secret passage. Naturally I investigate, and it eventually leads me to a blank wall, with another concealed door in it. I'm about to step through when EJ speaks up, warning me that there's always something nasty at the end of a secret passage: "It's a sort of Law of Nature, like gravity or the way you always have bits left over if you take a clock to pieces and put it back together again."

Disregarding the warning, I advance into a vast subterranean cavern, illuminated by glowing crystals, and with crystal flowers, shrubs and mushrooms growing from the floor. Tiny winged creatures flutter around the crystal flora, and a tall humanoid with silver skin and golden eyes walks over to me. It tells me that mortals who come here often have to stay for ever (prompting an, "I told you!" from EJ), but as my heart is pure and my task is urgent, I may take what I seek and leave in peace.

Not sure what I'm supposed to be seeking here, I ask for further clarification, and the being explains that this is the entrance to the Kingdom of the Sidhe, where I may be fated to adventure at some point. For now, I may go no further. That doesn't help much, and on a whim I claim that my sword told me to come here. This prompts the creature to ask for EJ, who passes out from fear before he can blatantly contradict me. The figure then strokes the blade, increasing the damage EJ inflicts on dragons, and sends me back to the village with my now enhanced sword. That went rather well.

In the next cottage I find an Old Residenter (one of a group mentioned way back in the introductory passages, who predicted trouble in response to the August rains and assorted Omens). He tells me that if I want to find the Brass Dragon, I should be looking in Dragon Cavern rather than the village, but he won't tell me how to get there because it's an immoral place. Then he gives me a bowl of stew that would restore me to full health if I were missing any LIFE POINTS and cure the plague if I still had it. If I had bought some cooking utensils from Merlin, I could take another bowl with me for later. Still, that snuff should provide all the healing I need.

Skipping the cottage I know to contain another of the green creatures (okay, it'd be another Experience Point, but it's just more faff), I find one of the ones that was turned to solid stone. Then I find and kill a further green brute.

The next cottage inexplicably transports me out of the village. I trudge along an unending road until nightfall, make camp, wake to find it raining, and am suddenly and arbitrarily transported back into the village, without any chance to make a decision throughout the whole pointless experience.

The cottage after that has a back door, and even though it's a small distance from the stockade wall, section number recognition tells me that it would work just as well as an exit from the village as the other back door. There's still no point in using it. And that leaves just one more cottage, which must be the other stone one, so why bother checking? Time to head to the ruins and Dragon Cavern. Or death if I roll too badly for the Luckstone to swing things in my favour.

On this occasion I don't need the Luckstone to get the right number. But it's getting late, and this would be a good point at which to break the narrative. Comment if you'd noticed how close the end of the post was, and assumed that I got a lethal outcome.