Friday, 5 February 2021

All You’re Concerned With Is Revenge

It's time I had another go at Avenger!, the first of Mark Smith and Jamie Thomson's The Way of the Tiger gamebooks. Well, first published: as regards internal chronology the prequel, Ninja, comes first, but I don't own that one, and the series worked fine without it for decades (for values of 'fine' that include containing occasional bugs and lacking a proper conclusion), so Avenger! leads the way.

The only aspect of character creation into which I have any input is skill selection. I have four of a possible nine, and while Shurikenjitsu is mandatory, I get to choose the others. The discussion which followed my earlier attempt at Avenger! for this blog indicated that the ability to spit Poison Needles is pretty much essential, so I'll take that one. For the others, I'm sticking with Immunity to Poisons and Picking Locks, Detecting and Disarming Traps. I do remember that, at least in the second book, Arrow Cutting can be a literal life-saver, but I also recall the possibility of gaining a bonus skill in that book, so I won't worry about that until I actually reach the stage where I can progress to book two.

The eraly stages of this adventure are liable to follow much the same pattern as my previous try, so rather than repeat myself in detail, I intend to summarise all that happens as it did before. If you want more details, just follow the above link.

For a bit of fun, I'm going to try and make the summary a pastiche of the secret litany of the Ninja Grandmaster featured in the book. I wonder if I still have the version I wrote for the unfinished parody The Way of the Hedgehog, on which I wasted a fair bit of time back in the mid-eighties... 

I AM NINJA.
My kicking is what brings down Gorobei.
My answers are correct.
My dream is precognitive.
My mission is given.
My journey is interrupted.
My Ogre foe dies, just.
My Fate roll leaves me unobserved.
My throw is ineffectual.
My block is unsuccessful.
My Endurance drops below zero.
My adventure was ended by the Buccaneer Captain's morning star.

I can't exactly say that the dice were not in my favour this time round, because I did get some good rolls. The only problem is that they were during the not-to-the-death opening combat and the irrelevant Fate check, and I wound up taking a lot of damage in the first couple of serious fights. Enough to kill me, in fact.

On the positive side, those fights did highlight some deficiencies in how my gamebook manager handles combat in The Way of the Tiger, so I have now fixed them, which should come in handy the next time I attempt this book.

That's two rapid failures in a row. My next playthrough will be my three-hundredth, so it's going to be another replay, and I need to choose from the shortlist nominated by Gloccus a shockingly long time ago. Over the weekend I shall take a look at them all, and decide which is most likely to provide a more substantial (and hopefully successful) entry.

Wednesday, 3 February 2021

Cold, Cold Heart

Just before I started covering the Fighting Fantazine mini-adventures here, I raised the question of what I should do when I got to issue 9, given that I am the author of the mini-adventure in it, Return to the Icefinger Mountains. The readers who expressed an opinion were in favour of my playing it like any other one, and adding an 'author's commentary' to provide (hopefully) interesting trivia about the writing process, inspirations, influences, and so on. So that's what I'm doing, using a different font for the commentary bits.

This is unlikely to be a particularly criticism-heavy playthrough, because when I wrote Return I tried to avoid the sort of things that I find annoying in gamebooks. It's been several years since I last played it, so I don't rule out the possibility that the odd detail might strike me as being less of a good idea than it seemed back when I was writing it, but a full-on rant is unlikely. For a review (not a playthrough) without authorial bias, you could always check out what Malthus Dire said about it, but he didn't hate it either, so there is a possibility that Return is, in fact, not that bad.

Return to the Icefinger Mountains started with an ending. I'd been playing a demo of a computer game, and a minor element of it fired my imagination, giving me an idea for an unsuccessful outcome to an adventure. I can't design computer games, but I had turned my hand to gamebook-writing in the past, so that seemed the obvious way to develop the idea.

An ending isn't much use in isolation, so I had to start thinking about what kind of set-up could lead to such an outcome, and before long I came to the conclusion that extreme cold would be an effective way of getting the doomed hero into the required state. Being familiar with Caverns of the Snow Witch, I realised that making cold a key element of the setting and/or the villain's powers would inevitably invite comparisons, and since there were some elements of Caverns that I liked, I figured that I might as well make this new adventure a sequel. That way, the similarities would come across as homage rather than rip-off.

Years passed between my coming up with the initial concept and the actual writing of the adventure. During the intervening time, I got into gamebook fandom, and became aware of a lot of the issues that people had with Caverns. Few FF readers would deny that there are certain elements of the book which, if you think about them, don't make a whole lot of sense. I could have chosen to just ignore the absurdities once I got going on the follow-up, but there was a temptation to try and explain away some of the illogical aspects.

Before now I've mentioned that, in addition to being a fan of gamebooks, I'm also a fan of Doctor Who. A lot of DW fan fiction (including some licenced tie-ins) has been written to try and explain away inconsistencies between stories, plug narrative gaps, and generally tie up loose ends from the TV series. Much of that specific type of fan fiction (including some licenced tie-ins) is dreadful. Much, but not all. And what tends to set the decent material apart from the rest is that it is focused on telling a good story, and treats the continuity-fixing as an incidental extra. Bearing this in mind, I chose to prioritise creating the best adventure I could. If the creation of new lore that could provide a rational explanation for some of Caverns' oddities helped with that goal, so much the better, but the important thing was to write an entertaining and challenging addition to the series. Or at least try to.

On with the playthrough. My character is not the hero of Caverns. Instead, he is a former slave of the Snow Witch, liberated when she was killed, but still bearing the mental scars of the period when he was forced to serve her. Thirty years on, the trauma has faded... at least until I have a nightmare, the first in over a decade. I don't remember much about it, but the Snow Witch was in it.

At some point I had developed a preference for gamebook plots that included a personal element. To me, 'former slave with psychological baggage' struck me as having more potential than 'itinerant adventurer who killed the Snow Witch and managed to survive her revenge'. Besides which, once I'd decided to acknowledge the 30th anniversary of the creation of Fighting Fantasy by setting Return three decades after Caverns, I needed a character who'd been young at the time of the original adventure.

There is a slight connection between the viewpoint characters in the two adventures, though. In Caverns, the only weapon effective against the Snow Witch is found in the kitchens following a fight with one of the staff. At the time the Snow Witch was first killed, the hero of Return had just been sent to work in the kitchens as the replacement of a worker 'killed in a brawl', and consequently had easy acces to a knife when the slaves started to revolt. One combat, two people who benefited from it, without ever coming into contact with each other. And the plot makes sense regardless of whether or not the reader picks up on that connection.

Troubled, I seek out my old friend Reniso, another former slave, who tells me that he had a similar bad dream, and reveals that he'd always suspected that the Snow Witch might not be gone for good. For years he has been seeking to learn about the source of her power in the hope of being able to turn it against her. This is where one of my more substantial retcons comes in: previously, that source was identified as the Ice Demon which can be encountered in Caverns. Now, Reniso reveals that part of the assistance provided by the Demon consisted of giving the Snow Witch access to the secrets of an ancient civilisation, whose ruins lie beneath the Crystal Caves.

Alterations to established lore are more likely to be accepted if they expand on what is already known rather than just contradicting it. The details of when this lost civilisation existed are deliberately left vague, but a passing reference to a major cataclysm that's an acknowledged element of FF history tentatively dates it to a period of which little is known. Since the history laid out in Titan includes such a convenient era of ambiguity, why not make use of it?

Not long ago, Reniso made contact with a scholar in Salamonis who has been studying that lost civilisation. The scholar is now travelling here, and Reniso plans for the three of us to return to the Crystal Caves, seek out the lost city beneath them, and find a way to thwart the Snow Witch's return, or discover a weapon to use against her if it's too late for that. Before I return home, he warns me not to mention the planned expedition to anyone, as the Snow Witch's surviving followers have formed a cult, and would not hesitate to kill us if they knew of our intentions.

The following day, after putting my affairs in order, I return to Reniso's home, only to find that it has been vandalised and he has been murdered. Worse yet, the blood that has pooled at his feet has been used to spell out the words 'SHE WILL RETURN'.

That's where the 'Background' section ends, so I should generate some stats before I go any further. I shall be tailoring them: while a high Skill score is not as essential as in, say, the majority of Ian Livingstone's FF books, a rock bottom Skill would probably guarantee failure, and some readers have complained about the number of Test your Luck rolls in the adventure. I end up with:
Skill 10
Stamina 17
Luck 12
That should give me a reasonable chance of success on the correct route.

There are basically two different ways of winning this adventure. One path to success is in the style of most of Ian Livingstone's books, and is pretty much impossible without 12 Skill. The other is strongly influenced by the FF books of Paul Mason, and (as you may have deduced from my having chosen to max out Luck rather than Skill), that is the one I intend to go for. Apart from being easier if you know what to do, it also has what is generally considered the more satisfactory conclusion.

I can see that there is something in Reniso's mouth, but decide against taking a closer look. There is some information to be gained by doing so, but it's not essential, and not getting it enables me to avoid one Test your Luck, as I won't get blood on my shoes and potentially become a murder suspect.

Deciding to leave and try to find a way of avenging Reniso's murder, I open the door, and am startled to find an elderly man right outside, on the verge of knocking. He is just as surprised as I, and puzzled about who I could be, as I'm too young to be Reniso. Unsure of what to do, I stall by asking the stranger who he is, and he turns out to be the scholar from Salamonis, whose name is Denati. Deducing from the circumspect manner in which he describes the reason for his visit that he is aware of the need for security, and thus knows about the Snow Witch's followers, I indicate to him that I know what's afoot, and let him know what has happened to Reniso. After a little debate, we decide to go ahead with the expedition, and Denati gives me money to buy the equipment we will need.

In a departure from FF norms, the text lists everything purchased rather than allowing the reader to choose what to buy. This was a practical decision rather than a conscious subversion: the adventure was long enough without having to dedicate multiple sections to the consequences of failure to obtain necessary equipment at this stage, or the attempted use of whatever 'red herring' items I made available. 

Once I've made the requisite purchases, we head out of the village. The warden on the north gate is a bit of a bully, with whom I've had at least one run-in before now, but today he is content to merely delay us with a few unnecessary questions before allowing us to proceed. We make good progress, reaching the trading post at the foot of the Icefinger Mountains before sundown, and spend the night there, my nightmares causing me to disturb some of the others in the dormitory.

The following day we head up into the mountains until the sounds of many animals up ahead indicate the need for caution. We stop at a point overlooking a valley, through which a group of Toa-Suo and Snow Wolves are passing. Not wanting to waste any time, I head down into the valley as soon as they have passed, rather than waiting until they're out of sight, and one of them looks back at the wrong moment and catches sight of us. It attracts the attention of its companions, and they turn and race to the attack.

There are too many of them to fight, so we run. A Stamina roll determines how I fare, and oh dear, that's a lot of sixes. Even if I'd put the highest of my character creation rolls into Stamina, I'd still have failed. Our pursuers catch up to us, and we end up torn apart.

I do believe that's the earliest possible death in Return. Experiencing it was sheer bad luck - even with the lowest possible starting Stamina, I'd still have had a 50% chance of making it, but the dice just fell very badly for me. The 'advantage' of having written the adventure couldn't help me there.

Kieran Coghlan offered his playthrough of Return if I decided to get in a 'guest player' rather than attempt Return myself here. Since he got a good deal further through the adventure than I did, I've written an author's commentary to go with that as well.

Monday, 1 February 2021

Your Time Has Come to Shine

This is going to be my third attempt at Echoes of Lost Light, the mini-adventure contained in the Mongoose Publishing edition of Lone Wolf book 10, The Dungeons of Torgar. I'm trying it again in part because of a realisation I recently had: previously I avoided the combat towards which author August Hahn seemed to be trying to steer the reader at the start of the adventure, but that was probably a very silly thing to do. The Kai Discipline of Healing, which I have, only restores Endurance lost in battle, so why am I risking taking damage I can't fix just so as to avoid wounds that I can heal? Especially as it's possible that winning the fight could net me an item that will help avert - or at least reduce - unavoidable, Healing-proof Endurance loss later on.

My other reason for replaying Echoes again? The alternative is having another go at The Prisoners of Time, the eleventh LW book, which is a far more discouraging prospect.

So, to recap the premise for anyone who doesn't remember it and didn't click on either of the links to when I played Echoes before, Lone Wolf's plummet through an eldritch portal to another realm is interrupted by his arrival in a mystical simulation of Luomi, the city from which the Lorestone he's just recovered was plundered. Darklord sorcery has corrupted the Lorestone, and to cleanse it Lone Wolf must get his hands on the simulacrum of the Lorestone at the heart of the replica city. Just to complicate matters, the duplicate Luomi also contains copies of the invaders and defenders who inhabited the real city shortly before it fell, and is falling apart. If anyone or anything here kills Lone Wolf, or he falls into the void between the disintegrating chunks of the pseudo-city, he dies for real.

Engaging in-character mode, I start with the same choice as always: head for the ruined gatehouse and keep, where (Divination informs me) I will face an ambush, or follow the path to the left and risk falling into a booby trap that could do colossal amounts of damage. Time to find out who's lurking in the keep.

The ground on the way to the keep is so rough that I would lose 2 Endurance if not for having Huntmastery. Now, at the start of this adventure, using Divination was optional (just in case Lone Wolf felt like not receiving prior warning of hidden danger). I did use it even though I knew what it would reveal, because I couldn't remember if doing so opened up an otherwise inaccessible section number. It didn't: I just got sent back to the section with the first choice in. But as I step into the keep and the concealed horde of Drakkarim warriors attacks, the text indicates that if I hadn't used Divination, I'd be hit with a couple of penalties during the fight. It's almost as if the adventure is rewarding not taking unnecessary risks. That can't be right, can it?

One of the disadvantages I would have incurred by not using Divination would have been not getting to inflict any damage during the first round of the fight. That would have been quite annoying, as I strike a killing blow straight off. Evading this combat before now has indeed turned out to be rather less clever than I thought it was back when I did it.

The corpses of my erstwhile opponents dissipate into vapour, but my wounds remain. Except the Drakkarim didn't actually manage to lay a blade on me, so I guess the injuries they failed to inflict continue to not be there. Whatever. A shattered door leads onwards, and I glimpse something moving beyond it, but there's also a still-intact flight of stairs leading up to another floor. I smell smoke from upstairs, but Nexus should protect me from any toxic effects, and I don't want to risk missing the potentially useful whatchamacallit, so I head up rather than onwards.

That smell of smoke was something of a red herring. Upstairs I find only structural damage, corpses, and a semi-sapient siege weapon that leaps to the attack. It's a more powerful opponent than the Drakkarim, and manages to inflict a whole point of damage on me before I reduce it to its constituent parts.

Descending a ramp to a courtyard (and regaining that lost Endurance point), I reach the first gap between parts of the city. As happened when I first encountered such a gap on the other route, I am asked if I possess a certain item I lack. However, on this occasion, not having it causes me to become discouraged and incur a minor Combat Strength penalty until I next win a fight. Unless I flee the next foe I encounter, in which case I'm stuck with depleted stats until the end of the adventure. What the...?

Despite my discouragement, I sense that I can use the power of the Lorestone to get across the gap, assuming I have sufficient willpower, which is determined by a random number with a modifier for having the right Lore-Circle. I score highly enough not to need the bonus, and a bridge of light appears between here and the next part of the city. Aware that the bridge won't last long, I stop dilly-dallying and cross it.

It leads me to the Gate Ward, the part of Luomi where the bulk of their military forces were based. While there are signs of fighting, this part of the city is in better condition than the one in which I originally arrived. This is also where the path I'm taking rejoins the one I took before. I can go towards the sound of fighting or away from it, and while I don't think 'not approaching' is the same as 'running away from', I shall proceed to where the battle rages and hope to get shot of that Combat Skill penalty.

A couple of Luomi soldiers are massively outnumbered by a squad of Giaks, and one of them falls before I can intervene. I thin the enemy ranks with a few arrows (it still doesn't count as fleeing) before entering the fray. Even with the penalty, I have the most favourable Combat Ratio possible, and it turns out that I needn't have bothered with the arrows, as the fight wouldn't have lasted any longer if I'd taken the Giaks on at full strength. It would have ended a little sooner if I'd used all my arrows, but that would have been a waste (assuming there are any subsequent incidents where being able to fire an arrow could come in handy), as what little damage I take during the battle has already been healed by the time I've finished probing the dying soldier's mind to find out what needs doing with the hammer he passes on to me.

I get moving again, passing the aftermath of more battles, and here Nexus does protect me from some toxic fumes. Before long I reach another gap, and have to spend some Endurance to bridge this one. As on both previous tries, I have an assortment of items and capabilities that reduce the cost to just a couple of points, and I still haven't found the other object that could help even more.

Now my path diverges from the one I have taken before. My second bridge has taken me to what was a high-class region of the city (though careless apostrophe placement implies that Luomi's nobility consisted of just one individual). The buildings here are less damaged than elsewhere, but the inhabitants are just as dead. At my feet is the corpse of a woman who was well-off in life, and I see no indication of precisely what caused her death.

Moving on is probably the wiser option, but I have Psi-Screen, which should provide some protection from any mind-weapons in the vicinity, so I take a closer look at the cadaver. This reveals only that, despite having a severely sprained ankle, she was running when she died. Something must have really scared her. I could try using Divination to find out more, but this might be one of those rare occasions when it actually is better not to know.

Moving on, I do my best to keep out of sight even though the place seems deserted. At least, it does until I catch sight of a group of spectral figures. They appear to be the ghosts of Luomi nobles, and while they have yet to spot me, they are heading in my direction. Hiding in a house and doubling back both strike me as being ways I could let the disintegration of this chunk of the city catch up to me, so I'll try sneaking down an alley to the central courtyard.

The courtyrd turns out to be where the majority of the dead are. Corpses from both sides litter the ground, and my attention is drawn to a misshapen body wearing a metal mask and clutching a metal rod which, judging by the state of the bodies nearby, must be a powerful weapon. I risk taking a closer look, in case the rod could be of use to me... or there's some way I can ensure that nobody gets the opportunity to use it against me.

Oh dear. The creature is wounded, not dead, and it causes the rod to emit a bolt of fire which I fail to completely dodge. Owing to the severity of the thing's injuries, I can flee before it summons up the strength to attack again, and I've already passed beyond the point where I would be penalised for running away, so it might be best to cut my losses. I know that further expenditure of Endurance will be necessary to create a bridge to the final section of the city, and if I get too badly fried fighting the wielder of the rod, I might end up with too little to be able to proceed.

I beat a hasty retreat, and hurry along the main street, occasionally popping out of sight of a wandering spirit. Seeing the death that has been wrought here leads me to the conclusion that the Darklords are bad people and must be fought - just in case my having opposed them and their followers for a good 80% of the series to date had somehow failed to make me aware of this.

My route takes me through a park, and the sight of a fountain makes me feel thirsty. In the hope that the unreal water in this unreal city will still be able to quench my thirst, I detour towards the fountain, but the sight of a few corpses in the water dissuades me from drinking.

The centrepiece of the fountain is a statue of a warrior. Something moves at the foot of the statue. A transparent creature, almost impossible to make out. It projects a fear-based psychic attack at me. I think I know what happened to the dead woman I found earlier. Psi-Screen prevents me from taking damage, and as I advance on the beast, it becomes visible. If Hammer films had ever made a movie in which Frankenstein created a big cat, the monster would have looked like this. The text states the feline construct to be undead, so the Sommerswerd should do double damage in the ensuing battle. Assuming that to be so, I quickly kill the Terrorgaunt, taking little damage in the process.

Leaving the park, I find myself at the next gap. The ground is already starting to crumble beneath my feet. To create another bridge, I must spend Endurance and add a random number, with a small bonus for having one of the Lore-Circles that I do have. Not wanting to make the mistake I did the last time I got this far, I spend enough Endurance to guarantee success even if the random number is 0. On this occasion I can afford it: even after the expenditure, I'm still above half my starting score. As it turns out, I got a 3, so that was slightly wasteful, but if I'd spent no Endurance, I'd be lost in the void again. As long as my Endurance doesn't get reduced to between zero and minus two before I next get to recover Endurance other than combat damage, it's an overpayment I can write off.

Did I mention that I'm training as an accountant?

So I create another bridge and set out across it. It starts to fade almost immediately, so I do a comedic run across it, climaxing with an awkward leap and faceplant on solid ground just as the bridge winks out of existence. A weird place for a slapstick interlude, but preferable to the 'funny foreigner' stuff in book 11.

Anyway, I've made it as far as the Trade Ward, where the Shrine containing the Lorestone is. Less positively, it's also where the bulk of the occupying army has made camp. Right in the marketplace that's on the direct route from here to the Shrine. And enemy troopers patrol the outer streets. So I either try skirting the marketplace and risk being mobbed by hundreds of Drakkarim if I get noticed, or take a more circuitous route but increase the likelihood of running into a patrol. If I'd travelled here via the route I took on my previous try, I could also return to the subterranean tunnels, but this time round I don't know about them, so they're not an option.

I have the Discipline of Invisibility, and at my level of expertise, I can mask my scent, move without making any noise, and make people think there's movement somewhere I'm not. If that's not enough to enable me to sneak around the outskirts of the marketplace, I don't know what is, and the longer route increases the risk of running out of time before the whole place dissolves. Skirting it is, then.

At first I travel on the rooftops (because that never ends badly), but I soon descend to ground level and make good use of the cover provided by shadows. There's just one place on the way to the Shrine where I risk running into a patrol, and randomness determines what happens when I cross it. Invisibility confers a hefty bonus, but there's still only a 70% chance of getting the most favourable outcome. I beat the target score even before adding the Invisibility modifier.

Nobody spots me, and I reach the hill on which the Shrine stands. However, something has melted the gate at the foot of the path leading up the hill, and there's just a void where the path should be. Somehow the only Lore-Circle I haven't completed could be of help here. Since I don't have it, I'll have to rely on Nexus. This turns out to mean believing so hard in my own invulnerability that not even the nothingness can harm me - and it works. Pity I didn't think of that when the void swallowed me up on previous playthroughs, eh?

Anyway, my self-belief sustains me all the way to the Shrine, but before I can claim the Lorestone, an end boss manifests itself. It's like an amalgam of all the most Darklordy aspects of the entire Darklord race, the embodiment of the dark power of the evil god they serve. And stat-wise, it wouldn't make it into the top 5 most dangerous opponents in the Magnakai saga. Even the Mongoose variants, some of whom have been made less OTT. Not a pushover, but still, as avatars of ultimate evil go, this is a bit feeble.

It's even less impressive when I pull out the Sommerswerd and atomise its weapon. It retaliates by knocking the sword out of my hand (losing an arm in the process), and as the maimed monstrosity lunges at me, I pull out that hammer. Turns out the Combat Skill bonus for using it in the Trade Ward isn't so underwhelming after all.

At the start of the last four Lone Wolf books, I always got to add a new weapon proficiency. Did I ever go for hammer? No. If I had done, I'd have killed the Darkshadow in the first round of combat, and taken no damage. But I just had to go for mace, then axe, followed by spear, and finally quarterstaff. And it cost me.

I didn't manage to defeat the Darkshadow.

Until the second round of combat. In which I also remained unscathed.

In your FACE, embodiment of evil!

Victory is mine, at last. I take the Lorestone just before the whole place turns to nothing, complete the 'end of book 10' level-up, and resume my plunge through the emptiness between realities.

Oh, grawlix! That means I've got no excuse to go on putting off replaying The Prisoners of Time any longer.

Thursday, 28 January 2021

Future Events Such As These

After my initial purchase of some of the pseudonymous Jak Shadow's F.E.A.R Adventures on eBay, I might not have bothered getting any of the rest of the series if not for a sale at Brown's Books (an event which has form for getting me to buy gamebooks I hadn't been intending to acquire). Not searching for a gamebook on eBay is easy, but ignoring one that's on the shelf in front of me when it's part of an incomplete set in my collection and significantly reduced proved more of a challenge. So I bought The Space Plague, played it once, failed almost immediately (as I recall), and shelved it, never to attempt it again. Until now...

The basic premise remains as ludicrous as ever: I'm a child, recruited into F.E.A.R., the top secret agency dedicated to protecting humanity from the evil schemes of time-travelling alien villain Triton, because Triton has already captured all the agents who realise what a stupid idea that is. The specific plot for this book is that in 600 years' time, humanity will establish a colony named Rosetta on a planet close to Triton's home world (stated to be 'halfway across the galaxy' and 'beyond the planet Jupiter', which is a bit like saying that somewhere is both 'thousands of miles from here' and 'further away than the bathroom'). In retaliation, Triton will bombard the colony with rockets carrying a disease (possibly harvested from ancient Egypt), in the hope that it will infect all humanity. I'd rant about future humanity's apparent inability to contain the outbreak, but recent events have demonstrated that element of the plot to be all too plausible.

After literally days of hard work, contemporary scientists have come up with a cure for the plague (okay, I can go back to mocking the book for its absurdity now), and I have been chosen to go forward in time six centuries and deliver the cure to Rosetta. A plane is being readied to take me to the European Spaceport in South America (the what where?) so I can hop onto a rocket that's about to make an emergency flight, then use the F.E.A.R. time machine to get to a space city that'll be in orbit in the early 27th century. I presume that some form of interstellar travel will follow, but my superiors have yet to brief me on that part of the journey. You know, like when you're about to take a holiday abroad, and everyone is so focused on telling you how to get past the front door of your home that they never mention how you're going to travel the rest of the way.

I get inoculated against the plague and proceed to the European Spaceport without incident. Before boarding the rocket I receive a test tube of the plague cure, a plastic card that doubles as future-passport and credit card, the chip locator that will enable me to banish Triton from that time when I locate him, and one other item of equipment. As in the likes of The Spy Master, I must choose from a list of three objects: this time the selection comprises a universal translator, an oxygen mask, and a pair of magnetic boots. I'm limited to just one of them because there's not room to take more - I mean, it's not as if I could, say, carry the translator while wearing the mask and boots, right?

I pick the translator and board the rocket. It takes off, and at the appropriate point I enter the time machine and am projected into the future. The area in which I arrive is not unpopulated, but everyone there is too busy following signs to Departures to notice me appearing out of nowhere. My reactions are a little odd: I casually note the presence of a levitating creature with eight eyes and an elephantine trunk, and a family of giant slugs, but am amazed when I look out of a window and discover that the space city is as big as a city. In space.

Aware that I need to find a way to travel to Rosetta, I stroll over to the nearby space map, which displays planets and space stations like a bus map shows stops. No need to worry that space travel involves more dimensions than driving along roads: I'm sure 'the furthest planet away from Earth that a colony can settle on' is too short a distance from here to be affected by such trivial matters. The map indicates that an extension of the Hammersmith & City line runs between Jupiter and Rosetta, but the service only runs once a month.

A scruffy-looking man joins me and 'casually' comments that Rosetta is out of bounds because of the plague. I failed The Emerald Pirate as a consequence of talking to someone who turned out to be one of Triton's agents, so rather than risk a similar occurrence, I opt not to get drawn into conversation, and head off to Galactic Departures, hoping I haven't just missed the Rosetta service.

The xenophobia kicks in when I reach Galactic Departures. There are lots of aliens there. One of them is the same species as Triton, and while the chip locator indicates that this one is a completely different individual, I still think that he could be one of Triton's agents. I notice other aliens looking in my direction: they could be working for him, too. And whoever (or whatever) is reading this blog right now - perhaps they're spying on me at Triton's behest! I'm onto you all, you treacherous BEMs! Ahahaha!

Rather than run and hide, I head for the ticket desk, but to get there I must pass through a security gate. The guard on it has two heads, one atop the other like the movie Zaphod Beeblebrox (though as this book and the film version of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy both came out in 2005, it's possible that 'Jak Shadow' had the idea independently). The guard singles me out from the other would-be passengers and starts to wave a wand around.

It is at this point that I make the mistake of trying to behave like a rational being. The book offers the choice of trying to hide the plague cure behind my back or leaving it in my pocket. Figuring that removing something from my pocket (and it's previously been established that I put the test tube into a top pocket of my jumpsuit, so there's no way of doing it discreetly) and making a blatant attempt at concealing it might look ever so slightly suspicious, I do nothing to attract attention, so the guard finds the cure and promptly has me arrested.

These books always wimp out of having anything bad happen to the viewpoint character, so as soon as I'm thrown into a cell, the time machine is activated to bring me back to the present day. And as the security guard and his colleagues didn't bother to confiscate the item they arrested me for carrying, there's nothing to stop me from jumping back into the time machine and having another go at taking the cure to Rosetta.

Well, nothing apart from the fact that I'd rather get on with washing the dishes than spend any more time reading this twaddle.

Saturday, 24 October 2020

It All Seems a Bit Unsatisfactory. But That's the Job All Over, Isn't It?

Now that my internet connection has been sorted out, it's time I was getting back to my latest attempt at Vengeance at Midnight, Alexander Ballingall's contribution to the ongoing adventures of superhero the Silver Crusader, the first part of which is here.

What We've Got Here Is Failure to Communicate
Since I had to come downtown to deal with Volt Head, I might as well make that the next area I investigate. A substantial descriptive paragraph lists a variety of locations contained within or bordering on the region, almost all of which appeared in Appointment with F.E.A.R. (and one of which is misspelled, unless Titan City contains two separate parks with very similar names - Audubon and Abudon).

The fact that I have the option of visiting a certain apartment if I have its number suggests that I'd have done better to go somewhere else and get a specific lead first. Still, even if I've already made enough errors to have no chance of winning the adventure, I can at least learn a few things that could help me on subsequent attempts before I fail.

Lady MacBeth told me that her criminal employer Janus wanted access to the secure network at telecommunications providers AB&C, so I'll go to their local headquarters and see if I can get any idea of what Janus intends to do with that access. Network maintenance seems the most sensible department to check out.

Frustratingly, the very actions that led me here also turn it into a dead end. A member of staff named Ben Seven tells me that network maintenance manager Betty Monarch unexpectedly failed to show today, and all attempts at contacting her have proved unsuccessful. Regrettably, there is no option for telling him, "That's because she's under arrest as part of a criminal conspiracy, so I need to find out what she's been up to here ASAP," so I just thank him for his unhelpful information and wander off.

Can I find out anything worth knowing from the head of the branch? No, Ivan Stephenson is similarly unhelpful (though the way he dismissed his PA before talking to me seemed a little suspicious). Customer support is even less help, sending me on a runaround reminiscent of the bureaucratic headache I experienced at the start of my year studying abroad (though at least here I'm only being sent from queue to queue, rather than to assorted offices in different parts of the city).

Incidentally, the section number for visiting customer support has been changed in the rewrite as a consequence of a bug fix. In the revised text it is possible to visit Officer Kawalski if you go to Police HQ after dealing with Volt Head.

Thankfully, although the section for coming to downtown stressed that I have limited time, there are no instructions to say I may not visit anywhere else here, so the unproductive visit to AB&C has merely proved annoying rather than preventing me from doing something worthwhile in the locality. Maybe I'll have more success at Radd Square.

The square has changed in recent years. The fountain that was its centrepiece has been removed (though not, it would seem, as a consequence of lawsuits arising from the incident that occurred there back in Appointment), and the surrounding buildings have changed from whatever they used to be (Steve Jackson never specified) to restaurants and boutiques. There's somewhere specific I could go if I'd found the right lead, and a codeword check indicates that another encounter I haven't had could have consequences here. So I can wait and see if anything happens, or go somewhere else.

I wait. After a quarter of an hour, my patience pays off, as I see a car (not unlike the Batmobile driven by Adam West) park nearby, in the process destroying the car that already occupied the parking space. A man, dressed in black and wearing a cape, emerges and dashes into the Owl and Weasel pub, located right next to a restaurant with a Port Blacksand-related in-joke for a name.

I follow the driver into the pub, and find the place already trashed, assorted patrons cowering under furniture as the man in the cape smashes his way towards a man in a business suit, who ineffectually attempts to impede his progress with tables. The black-clad individual demands that the man in the suit give him 'the code', and I intervene. 

As with Volt Head, all I can do is start swinging my fists about. However, on this occasion the text has me fight both combatants at the same time - apparently I'm not sure who the villain is here. Is it the costumed figure who's undeniably guilty of property damage, is using a device or ability to blow stuff up, and chose to initiate this fight in a public place with no concerns about the well-being of bystanders (let's call him Collateral Damage until I get an actual name), or is it the businessman? Okay, so things do get a bit confused by the way that, as soon as I start thumping Collateral Damage, the businessman apparently decides to attack me rather than him, but I could have targeted the businessman (whom I shall label Friendly Fire for the moment) from the outset, even though all I'd seen him do was get attacked and attempt to shield himself with inanimate objects.

In any case, I get to choose which man to attack and which to merely defend myself against, so I overpower Collateral Damage, at which point Friendly Fire stops attacking me, thanks me, and introduces himself. In the original version of the adventure, he turned out to be a character who'd previously appeared in Appointment, but the rewrite changes him to someone the Silver Crusader doesn't already know by sight. This is local business magnate Terry Stork, and Collateral Damage is a disgruntled ex-employee who started calling himself The Warlock after being fired for bullying his co-workers.

The Warlock is taken into custody, and I get myself another police contact I could visit at HQ if I hadn't already been there. Oh, and if I'd beaten Stork into unconsciousness before turning my attention to and subduing The Warlock, both men would have been arrested, and I'd have faced no repercussions. I don't know, maybe Stork's not very popular because his accountants are so good at helping him avoid paying taxes, or something...

Smash and Grapple
Before I leave downtown and tick off another section of the city, there's time to pop to Cottonworths, a department store which is faring rather better than the real-world chain of which its name is a parody. There I can check out the book and toy department, or investigate electronics and appliances. 

In previous adventures of the Silver Crusader, book departments have only provided FF in-jokes, but there may be something to be learned in the toy department. After all, there's obviously something afoot involving Teddy Bears - the one that caused the conflagration after I captured Volt Head is unlikely to be a one-off, given that I could have had a Teddy Bear analysed at Police HQ if I'd had one on me, and the between-paragraph illustrations include one of them. 

Electronics and appliances would probably not be worth visiting at this stage of the adventure - just before I was summoned to the computer store, there was a check to see if I'd already captured Volt Head, and the electronics department seems the most likely place to have potentially encountered him before he went to the Megabyte Modem. Of course, if I had apprehended Volt Head before the showdown at the computer store, he wouldn't have had the opportunity to upload the damage program. But I doubt that the adventure would make it that easy to thwart behind-the-scenes criminal mastermind Janus, and it may well only be possible to get the password during the hostage situation, so it's probably not worth heading here sooner on a subsequent attempt.

Anyway, I'm going to the toy department, and if I get the opportunity to go anywhere else in the shop afterwards, that'll be a bonus. While there I spot one of the gamebooks that might have been published if the Puffin Books FF range had gone on for more than 60 books, and I don't get to ask about Teddy Bears because I don't have one of the plot-significant ones on me.

I do at least have the option of proceeding to electronics and appliances to see if I'm right about there being nothing noteworthy going on there. Initially there's nothing going on, but I wait because the time limit in this adventure is largely conceptual, and thus am present when yellow-clad miscreant Da Femme smashes through a window (if the name is supposed to indicate that she's resorted to criminal means to try and bring down the patriarchy, a glass ceiling would have been a more appropriate point of entry). Yet again, my choice of superpower leaves me no option but to resort to fisticuffs, but since she had no qualms about indiscriminately showering shoppers with broken glass, my conscience isn't overly troubled. I take a little damage in the fight, and gain only Hero Points for her arrest.

Visiting downtown has enabled me to put a couple more minor league supervillains out of circulation, but brings me no closer to finding out what Janus is up to. By now I'm pretty much out of usable leads. I could try questioning Volt Head in prison (yes, he'll already be there), but I have a vague recollection of requiring appropriate authorisation (Titan City's bureaucracy is clearly more streamlined as regards locking felons up than allowing people to visit them), and I don't have that yet. It may be that I've already missed out on the opportunity to get such authorisation, but I'll try a few other locations anyway, in case one of them can somehow get me access.

X-Mentality 
I've not heard of two of the four other places I could go, so I'll wait and see if any leads relating to either of them come up. That just leaves the misspelled or confusingly named Abudon Park and Mutant Enclave. On the off-chance that Janus has been attempting to recruit some of the less law-abiding of the city's chromosomally different community, I head to the refuge on 12th Avenue, officially named the Bradourif Building, though the more intolerant of Titan City's citizens prefer to call it the 'Mutt Hut'.

Some of the patrons of the café in the reception area look askance at me as I enter. I decide to try and chat with somebody, and pick an elderly gentleman who's sitting alone. Initially he concentrates on his tea and scone, using some telekinetic or magnetic ability to pick up his butter knife, and once finished, he introduces himself as Max. After suggesting that I have a word with the Police, he hints that someone close to me is actually an enemy. The first time I had this encounter, I was concerned that it might be foreshadowing for the overused 'twist' of having the new romantic interest turn out to be the baddie, but the author has told me that he decided not to go with that cliché, so I don't know who Max means. Agent Blanc? Officer Kawalski? Gerry the Grass? Aunt Florence?

Heading upstairs, I check out the craft stores in the studio. I slightly offend the propietor of a leather goods stall by, as he sees it, assuming that he has criminal connections. Still, he goes on to mention something very vague about a mutant being up to something suspect, though he can't mention any specifics as he isn't interested in such things. As I don't have Psi-Powers, I don't have the option of violating his mental privacy to see if he knows more than he's letting on.

There's one other stall I can visit, at which scented soaps are sold. The woman running it dismisses the idea that any mutant could be involved in the conspiracy I'm investigating, but mentions that her flatmate works at Manny's Coffee Shop and suspects that criminals are using it to pass on messages. So now I have a reason to go there, and a codeword (two words, in fact, so maybe it should be called a code phrase) to help me investigate when I do go there.

While I'm in the building, I might as well try speaking with a counsellor. The receptionist (whose mutant ability gives a whole new meaning to the term 'speed typing') asks if I have an appointment. Not having learned the names of any counsellors, and lacking either of the super powers that could help me illicitly discover one, I must admit that I don't. There is a free slot in half an hour, though, so I wait for that.

Matthew Houghton, the counsellor I see, is a small blue furry creature with a red nose. My Luck isn't high enough for the mental disciplines I learned after encountering the Macro Brain to prevent Houghton from reading my mind and learning my real name. (Incidentally, that meeting with the Macro Brain must have been an undocumented incident, since in Appointment, having any power other than ETS meant that not fleeing such an encounter responding to another call and leaving others to deal with the Macro Brain would guarantee failure, and having ETS here leads to a different section.) When I make known my displeasure at Houghton's actions, he tries to make up for it by arranging a meeting with someone who could be of help to me. Tomorrow morning in the park, so now I have a valid reason for going there as well.

One and Sceptre
I've now been to enough locations to trigger another incident, so my Crimewatch summons me to Addison Square Gardens. Crowds are fleeing as I arrive, and I find the cause of the panic in the arena. A muscle-bound woman is firing destructive blasts from a sceptre, her attention focused on a man cowering beneath a table. My arrival briefly distracts her, prompting the man to try and make a break for it, and the woman's words when she spots his bid for freedom enable me to identify the two individuals.

Holding the sceptre is Veronica Daiichi, who was badly injured a couple of years when an experiment went wrong at the laboratory of Doctor Johan Brown, the man under the table. At the time there was speculation that, having been refused permission to test his new cosmetic product on humans, Brown had caused the 'accident' in order to make Daiichi his guinea pig. Clearly dissatisfied with the out-of-court settlement that seemingly closed the case, she is now seeking revenge. I'd sympathise, if she weren't endangering innocent people. And firing the sceptre at me.

Yet again, having Super Strength requires me to just fight, and this is a nasty combat. Though the sceptre wielded by Daiichi (and left out of the accompanying illustration) was described as 'long', being at close quarters and involved in a punch-up proves no obstacle to her firing it at me every round, with a 50% chance of doing 2 Stamina damage each time. Combined with the fact that Veronica has 17 Stamina, and will thus take at least 8 rounds to subdue (unless you have Luck to burn), this means a strong probability of taking substantial damage even if you never lose a round of combat. On this occasion, she manages to inflict enough extra damage to kill me.

Judging by my gamebook manager, that's not the first time I've died in this fight. Still, I think I must have already been low on Stamina the previous time I got this far, or I'd have made some kind of complaint about just how harsh and unbalanced the combat is. While I appreciate that circumstances must have been fairly desperate for Fantazine editor Alex to write and illustrate Vengeance in such a hurry, I think it would have been better to delay publication until it had at least been playtested thoroughly enough to highlight some of the more egregious flaws and fix them.

Monday, 28 September 2020

Really Can't Understand This Revenge Thing. Waste of Time and Effort, Right?

Vengeance at Midnight is the first Fighting Fantazine mini-adventure to be covered here that I've already played more than once. This is for a rather unconventional reason. I had a humorous column in Fantazine (described by one reviewer as 'unreadably smug') which picked up on peculiarities in the gamebooks and drew tenuously-related 'life lessons' from them, and after a while its brief expanded to cover some of the Fantazine mini-adventures. Finding something to say about nine of the first ten was no problem, but Vengeance proved trickier. It certainly had its odd aspects - and the more I played it, the more of them I found - but it took me a long time to find one about which I could even attempt to be funny. 

Author (and 'zine editor) Alexander Ballingall responded to my growing list of questions and complaints about Vengeance by admitting that it had been a little rushed, offering me a place on the playtesting team, and having a go at rewriting the mini-adventure to address at least some of the flaws I'd highlighted. Since he provided me with a copy of the rewrite, I shall be referring to that as well as the version that appeared in Fantazine 8 (much as many of my Lone Wolf playthroughs make use of both the original edition and the Mongoose Books reissue and comment on noteworthy differences between the two). As most people familiar with the adventure will only know the published version, it seems only right to cover that one, but I could be spared several massive headaches just by using the rewrite's rules on fighting multiple opponents (I'd say 'changes to the rules on fighting several opponents', except that that would imply that the original actually had any such rules rather than leaving the reader to guess which of the many existing variants should be used). 

Vengeance at Midnight follows on from the FF gamebook Appointment with F.E.A.R. and Warlock magazine's Deadline to Destruction, presenting new challenges for superhero the Silver Crusader. Things have been fairly quiet in Titan City since the events of Deadline (well, since an alternate chain of events in which I didn't get killed by super-villain The Fly) - a bit of bother with a contract killer, the odd petty criminal to apprehend - so my attendance record at work has improved, and I've got myself a girlfriend, Helen Gray. Recently, however, there have been rumours that a new super-villain is planning something big, and regular informant Gerry the Grass has notified me that something dodgy is to happen at the docks on Friday evening. 

Before I investigate, it's admin time. For my superpower I pick Super Strength, as the 13-point Skill score that comes with it will at least delay the death by Stamina attrition that brings most attempts at this adventure to an end. Taking my other stats as they come, I get: 
Stamina 20
Luck 10
Given what I know about this adventure, that Luck might be a bit low. Oh, and I start with 3 Hero Points, and something bad may happen if my score drops to 0. 

As usual for adventures as the Silver Crusader, I also start with a couple of possible leads. Let's see, Butterfingers Johnson, former associate of criminal mastermind The Dealer, is attempting to go straight, now works at a McWhimpy's burger bar, and is under FBI surveillance. And a team of CIA agents is in town, trying to track down the one F.E.A.R. agent who escaped justice following the successful conclusion of Appointment, who may be working to break the Titanium Cyborg out of jail. I imagine it's an authorial error that locates him in a prison that actually exists in the real world, rather than the jokey variant on the name that Steve Jackson used in Appointment

What's Up, Dock?
For a while I keep watch at the docks. Eventually a car and a truck arrive, and their six occupants start transferring the contents of a container into the truck. There is, alas, nothing worth having to be gained by waiting until they're done, trailing the truck to its destination, and then confronting them or calling the police, so I might as well just fly down and start punching faces. 

My surprise attack enables me to get in a few hard blows against random targets before the fight commences. There is a small risk of accidentally beating one or two people to death if the dice fall badly, but I don't kill anyone, so my Hero Point score remains stable. I take a few blows over the course of the fight, but after 14 rounds of combat I've subdued the first four thugs. 

In the original version, that wouldn't matter: there, the fight has to last 25 rounds (if you live that long - and a couple of those crooks have high enough Skill scores to make that unlikely unless yours is in double-figures) and, unless you get incredibly lucky, ends in a situation that may well be impossible based on what happened during those 25 rounds of fisticuffs. However, the rewrite acknowledges the problems with that set-up and almost fixes them. 

Almost. 

In the amended text, the fight now has two possible outcomes (other than my being bludgeoned to death if I'd chosen another power and rolled a low-to-average Skill): 'fail to overcome the first four criminals within 15 rounds' and 'defeat all six in less than 15 rounds'. Now, 'less than 15 rounds' has just ended, and Man with a Scarred Cheek and Buxom Woman are still standing, so I haven't met the second set of conditions, but it's still 'within 15 rounds', and Male with Earring has just joined Female Thug with Knife, Red-Haired Thug and Thug with Moustache in the heap of semi-conscious goons on the ground, ruling out the first set of conditions. Awkward. 

The situation is closer to the first option than the second, so I'll go with that. Thus, while I'm busy thumping Scarred Cheek, he and Buxom Woman sneak into the truck and drive away, leaving me fighting their four incapacitated cronies. Unless I want to sacrifice a Hero Point by murdering a defeated criminal (guess what - I don't), the combat is over. Super Strength comes packaged with the ability to fly through the air, potentially at great speed, so following the truck shouldn't be much of a challenge, but for some reason I just sit and wait for the police to collect the mooks I defeated instead. Maybe Titan City has a by-law forbidding the pursuit of escaping miscreants.

Out, Damned Plot
A night's rest restores me to full health, and in the morning I'm presented with a variety of options. Despite having played Vengeance so many times back in 2014, I still have no real idea of the optimal (or, for all I know, only workable) path, so I'll start by following up one of those leads, and visit McWhimpey's. There, as a consequence of my having captured some of the criminals last night, nothing of any significance happens. Except that for the first time I spot a typo which implies that several of the burger bar's customers are conjoined twins, but that's hardly pertinent to my investigation.   

Will that second lead prove any more helpful? I head to Police HQ to liaise with the head of that CIA team. Fortunately I'm able to find her (a numbering error gets in the way of visiting one of the other law enforcement officials readers might want to meet up with). Agent Angelica Blanc tells me that it appears the scheme afoot is actually to free Deadline's Big Bad, The Dynamo, otherwise known as Karl Marks (seriously?). His brother Dave is suspected to have become the super-villain Volt Head, who has similar powers to The Dynamo. 

If I'd already encountered and apprehended Volt Head, I could do something here, but as I haven't, I can't. However, I am able to follow up on last night's arrests by interrogating one of the four thugs. Lacking any clear indications of who will provide most information, I pick the man with the earring, as he was closest in fighting order to the two that got away. 

His cell appears to be empty. A random roll determines that I fail to spot something, so I decide to try someone else. The woman with the knife was next in the perceived hierarchy, and she is still present, so I have words with Betty Monarch, aka Lady MacBeth. She lets slip that the super-villain running things goes by the name 'Janus', and that Betty's part in the plan involved getting a job with AB&C and providing an associate with secure access to the network. Not much of a lead, but it's all I have... 

A Shocking Development
Before I can proceed to AB&C to look into what Betty has facilitated, my Crimewatch informs me that something is up at the Megabyte Modem, which is part of the Pear chain of computer shops. I hurry there, and find that the building has been surrounded by police officers, led by Officer Kawalski (the man rendered unvisitable by an error in the Fantazine text, though this has been put right in the rewrite). 

Kawalski tells me that a super-villain is holding several store employees and customers hostage, and attempts at communicating with him have so far proved unsuccessful. That's 'unsuccessful' as in 'dead cop sprawled on the sidewalk'. Through the windows I can make out a black-clad man wearing a helmet with two metal prongs, between which arcs of electricity surge. The depiction of him on the cover of the 'zine doesn't entirely match the description, adding a good deal of colour and making his 'black helmet' yellow or gold. Looks like there was a bit of a breakdown in communications between the author and the illustrator, which is a little alarming, as they're the same person. 

Anyway, this is Volt Head. Looks like I should have saved visiting Police HQ until later. Attempting to lure him outside risks endangering the onlookers, so I'll go into the shop. But stealthily: if Agent Blanc is right about his being The Dynamo's brother, he'll probably want revenge against me. Sneaking in unnoticed requires me to Test my Luck twice, but I succeed. Once inside, I see that Volt Head is a bit distracted, pacing up and down and dividing his attention between his watch and a computer terminal. I need to roll against my Skill on two dice twice to see if I remain unnoticed, but a Skill of 13 makes failure at those rolls impossible. 

Finding out what's happening on the computer which so interests Volt Head requires me to make myself more conspicuous, which means Testing my Luck a third time. Again I manage it, and one of the hostages distracts Volt Head with a rather theatrical groan. In the nick of time I spot that the computer has almost finished uploading a file called damage to the internet, and notice the scrap of paper on which the villain has noted down his password. The upload is complete before I can do anything to stop it, and some twit left audio notifications enabled, so the computer makes a noise, drawing Volt Head's attention from the Oscar-worthy performance on the shop floor. Catching sight of me, he seizes the shamming hostage to use as a human shield, and I manoeuvre so as to enable everyone else to get out. 

This is where things get nasty. If I had Psi-powers, ETS, or Energy Blast I could try and do something clever with that power. It might work, it might not. But as I chose Super Strength in order to reduce the risk of dying in a fight, I have no option but to attack Volt Head in spite of the danger this poses to his hostage. Every time I win an Attack Round, I have a 1 in 6 chance of inadvertently killing her, and unless I use Luck (a risky prospect with my score depleted by the preceding Tests), I need to win at least 7 rounds to overcome Volt Head. Worse yet, my attempts to avoid harming the hostage mean there's a 60% chance of only doing half damage any time I do hit Volt Head, so that 7 rounds could easily go up to double figures. 

As it turned out, I got pretty lucky. Or the hostage did, since she survived. The fight lasted 11 rounds, during which Volt Head injured me once, we had one stand-off, and I inflicted full damage slightly more often than was statistically likely. How's that for preventing a catharsis of spurious morality? (An overly obscure in-joke, but Alex started it.) 

Before I can try to find out more about what Volt Head was up to, a spontaneously combusting teddy bear sets the shop alight, and another unfailable-for-me Skill roll determines whether or not I escape the ensuing conflagration. Fleeing the blaze (in view of all the computers in there, perhaps I should call it a towering inferno), I need to pick somewhere else to investigate, and I've just become aware of an ambiguity in the rules. There are tick boxes to keep track of which locations I've already visited, since going to the same place twice is not permissible. The list includes 'Downtown', and the heap of smouldering rubble that used to be a computer shop was located downtown, so does having been forced to deal with an emergency there mean I now have to tick the box for it, or are the ticks only for voluntary visits? 

I'm not ticking the box yet. If this mandatory encounter was supposed to rule out subsequent visits to Downtown, the author should have made it clearer. If I hadn't been paying closer-than-usual attention to the text because I automatically tighten the focus when playing for the blog, I doubt that I'd even have picked up on the mention of where the shop is situated.

It's probable that I'm going to temporarily lose my internet connection in the near future, so I shall post this while I'm still able, and if necessary I'll type up my subsequent encounters in this adventure in a word processing package and upload them when the opportunity presents itself. That may be a little while, as the public computers I've used for updating this blog during previous losses of connectivity are currently not accessible, but I hope to have my next post up before the end of October.

Monday, 7 September 2020

A Farrago of Distortion

As I have mentioned before, some time ago I bought several independently published Tunnels & Trolls solo adventures on eBay. I have also previously pointed out that Outlaw Press publications should be avoided. However, back in 2006, when I made the abovementioned purchases, Outlaw's dubious practises had not yet come to light, so even if the eBay listings had mentioned the publisher (and I can no longer remember whether or not they did), the name would have raised no red flags. Thus, I did end up buying a few solos that had been released by Outlaw.

One of them was by James Shipman, the man behind Outlaw, and that one is so atrocious a mini-solo that even if the writing were the only problematic aspect (which it isn't), I wouldn't play it for this blog (or indeed under any other circumstances). A second definitely contains artwork that was used without the creators' permission, as one of the artists first became aware of the misappropriation of their work when I provided details of the adventure for a listing at gamebooks.org.

And then there's Jason Mills' Scandal in Stringwater. I purchased it from (and it was signed by) Mr Mills himself, so I know that at least the creator of the text received due payment for his handiwork. The reproduction of the cover illustration at artist Simon Lee Tranter's website gives no grounds for suspecting that the picture was not properly commissioned. The possibility remains that some or all of the other nine artists whose work appears inside Scandal were ripped off, but I have no actual evidence of any impropriety relating to this adventure, and I see no reason to penalise the author for having been published by someone who turned out to have a dodgy stance on other people's IP, so I'm going to play Scandal here.

We turn from real-world legal matters to fantasy world legal matters, as Scandal is a self-proclaimed solo courtroom adventure. It starts with my character waking from a drunken slumber, and suddenly realising that the heaviness of his limbs is not just a symptom of the hangover, but because he's in chains. Opening his eyes, he finds himself in a cell, furnished only with a bunk and a bucket. A sign attached to the bars indicates that the cell is in a prison with the sort of name that might be picked by someone who thinks 'correctional institution' sounds too harsh (the initials of which spell out a rude word), all shackles and bars are made of magic-resistant meteoric iron, and water is available on request, "much of it clean".

I think I'll create a new character for this adventure. Lawyers' fees can be quite high in Stringwater, and if I skimp on starting equipment on the grounds that I'm not going to be allowed to keep anything anyway, that will leave me with more funds, and thus a wider range of options. And this is one of the rare occasions on which I don't feel the need to make my character a non-human, as the stats generated produce a workable warrior.
Strength 15
Intelligence 7
Luck 12
Constitution 8
Dexterity 14
Charisma 10
Speed 12
Only two poor attributes there, and both are quite appropriate for the situation in which I find myself: stupid enough to go on the drinking binge that led to my incarceration, and not healthy enough to have a high tolerance for alcohol.

For a while I try to remember what I could have done to break the law, and then I have a visitor. Quisling, clerk of the Royal Court, arrives to inform me that my trial will take place tomorrow, and to present me with details of the available defence advocates. I may risk conducting my own defence, select an advocate from the list, or go with the court-appointed one.

There are seven advocates listed, priced (it would appear) according to their competence. Going with the court-appointed one would be a gamble: the fee is fixed, and the advocate randomly selected from the first six on the list, so I'm just as likely to get an excellent lawyer half-price as to wind up paying slightly more than double for the services of the worst of the lot. Additionally, I only have the option of changing advocate (finances permitting) if I don't go with the court-appointed one.

So, do I dispense with the services of a lawyer (inadvisable), go with one of the better ones for whose services I have enough money, take a chance on the court's choice, or pick the seventh lawyer, who, intriguingly, takes her payment in Charisma points rather than cash? I think I'll try Mello Mildman. He's reasonably competent, and seems too bland to have a Lionel Hutz/Judge Snyder-esque bad relationship with any of the Judges. And his fees are just low enough that I could change lawyers if things start going badly.

Quisling informs me of the charge, which is randomly determined. I get to choose whether or not I'm actually guilty of it (so a reader who would NEVER litter need not be forced to play a character who did), but the verdict may not reflect the truth. And I am accused of... arson. Not good, but could be worse - if I'd got one lower, it'd be animal molestation. As regards culpability, I'm going with innocent, and shall plead Not Guilty.

The Judge and prosecuting counsel are also randomly selected. At this point I make the appropriate rolls, but I won't find out who they signify until I'm in court. Judge 1, Prosecutor 6, whatever that means. Quisling reassures me that the death penalty is only rarely issued, and when it is, the disembowelling usually takes under an hour. How very encouraging...

During the intervening time I manage to remove a screw from the bucket in my cell. It's not much of a weapon or a lockpick, but marginally better than nothing. Night passes without incident, and after a disconcertingly hearty breakfast I am taken upstairs to the courtroom. My advocate offhandedly introduces himself and starts toying with a silver coin and intermittently sighing. Not the most promising of starts, but it's a little early to try anything extreme.

The judge arrives, and Quisling reads the charges. I am accused of burning down the King's storehouse of biscuits and confectionery. A detailed list of the cakes and biscuits destroyed or damaged follows, ending with the observations that nobody likes the coconut oblongs that were ruined, and that it has yet to be determined whether or not the fire led to the softening of a dozen crackers.

Judge Hans Wringynne, a hobbit barely visible beneath the judicial wig, expresses his disbelief that a person such as I could be responsible for so terrible a crime, and asks if I did it. My advocate seems too disinterested to warn me if the judge could be shamming benignity, but I'll ask him anyway (and yes, even players representing themselves have the option of consulting their lawyer). Mildman shrugs.

I plead not guilty. The Judge says that he is inclined to believe me, but the trial must nevertheless take place. Still, his attitude means that I gain a Trial Point, and the more of those I have, the more likely a favourable outcome.

Judge Wringynne calls for the King's Prosecutor to make the case against me. A cheery-looking middle-aged man stands, and announces himself as Albert Fettling. It would appear that he is a perceptive and fair-minded individual, as I gain a Trial Point for not having committed the crime (a quick glance at some of the other Prosecutors' introductory sections reveals a variatey of biases and prejudices that could favourably or adversely affect the Trial Point score).

Fettling calls for the first Exhibit, a large white amphora with the words 'FLAME OIL' glazed on it, the lid secured with a complex mesh of hooks and loops, and instructs me to open it. Given my advocate's attitude so far, there seems little point in seeking his advice, so I decide to make a show of not being able to undo the tangle that holds the lid in place. Regrettably, it is my Charisma which determines whether or not I get away with the sham, and I don't roll anywhere near highly enough to succeed. I lose 3 Trial Points (the score can go into negatives) for wasting the court's time.

Fettling then announces that three of these vessels were stored near the confectionery warehouse, but were not used, indicating that the person responsible for the fire was unable to open them. Nobody seems to take my evident ignorance of this fact as proof that I had nothing to do with the fire.

The next Exhibit is called for. It's a boot, very much like one from a pair I recently bought (not that I would have done at the price listed). Fettling instructs me to try it on, and my leg is unshackled to make this possible. This time I decide to see if Mildman is prepared to do anything to earn his fee. He shrugs and comments that the boot is probably mine. Thanks a lot, Mildman.

The Prosecutor explains that the boot was found at the scene of the crime, and I was wearing its partner when arrested. He concedes that there are many ways in which a drunkard could lose a boot, so this revelation only costs me one Trial Point, but Fettling then claims to have a witness, and goes on to note that the boot was wedged in a pile of chocolate cup-cakes, which were not burned but did get squashed. Fortunately for me, I'm not being tried by the Judge who loves chocolate cup-cakes.

The boot is taken away, and my leg is shackled again. Fettling's cheery mood fails to affect the Judge (though a different one might have been slightly swayed one way or another), and he calls the aforementioned witness, King's Own Confectioner Paddy d'Midriff, who claims to have provided an individual with a light shortly before the Confectionery Warehouse was set ablaze, and to have seen someone making a lopsided departure just afterwards. His testimony costs me 3 Trial Points, and another 2 when (following a failed Luck roll on my part) he explicitly identifies me as the individual to whom he gave a light. However, my advocate finally does something useful, getting d'Midriff to concede that the person seen fleeing the burning warehouse might not have been the same one who asked for a light. I recover a couple of Trial Points thanks to that admission.

The Judge dismisses d'Midriff, some kind of lucky break fails to occur, and it's time for the prosecution to sum up the case. Fettling rambles on vaguely for a little while, eventually recommending a guilty verdict. His laid-back summation works in my favour, and I gain a couple more Trial Points, but my score is still negative. Can my advocate swing the balance? More to the point, will he do so even if capable?

More intent on his coin than the proceedings, Mildman states that the first Exhibit can be dismissed, the second is irrelevant, and the witness was laughable, concluding that, "There's no case to answer really." That's either brilliant or appalling - and a roll of the die determines that it did more harm than good. The Judge sadly pronounces me Guilty, and asks if I have anything to say before sentence is passed. I could still try to escape, but given the toughness of the Saving Rolls I've had to make so far, my chances of success appear negligible, so I don't bother. Attempted flight will only make me seem more guilty.

I'm presented with a variety of comments I could make before sentence is pronounced, some of them appearing very unwise. I claim to have been framed, and a lucky roll has this weaken the Judge's resolve, adding one Trial Point, so I follow it up by claiming to have a family to support. This also works in my favour, bringing my Trial Point score to zero, so I think I'll quit while I'm not in the negatives.

Judge Wryngynne tells me that in Stringwater they make the punishment fit the crime, so I must work in the King's Confectionery Kitchen to make reparation for the destroyed comestibles. This could be bad news for my waistline, if not for the fact that my pleas to the judge have reduced the length of my sentence to 0 months. Not sure how that works, but I'll put it down to 'time served' and consider myself lucky to have avoided the Dexterity penalties that come with the weight gain.

To mark the conclusion of our (non-existent) working relationship, d'Midriff presents me with a goodie bag, which turns out to contain seven magic brandy-snaps, each of which can be eaten to restore 10 Constitution points or thrown to cause a fairly impressive explosion. If I were an arsonist, I could do some serious damage with them. And my experiences in Stringwater have left me more than half way towards levelling up. Next step, see what weapon and armour I can get with my remaining cash...

Well, that was entertaining. I think there should probably be a restriction on raising Trial Points above -1 if found Guilty. Still, that loophole and a minor typo are the only issues I have with the adventure, at least based on this playthrough. The variety of charges, Judges and Prosecutors should make it possible to replay Scandal in Stringwater several times and have very different experiences along the way, though the way in which they are determined makes a lot of what happens very random. I hope that, following the exposure of Outlaw's shady practises, Mr. Mills was able to get this republished by a reputable company, because it doesn't deserve to have become unavailable on account of James Shipman's wrongdoings.