Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Burnin' Down the House

I got the full-length version of House of Hell for Christmas 1984. The traditional stocking full of small-scale gifts was still a fixture, and the top item in each stocking was invariably a book - Mr. Men and the like in earlier years, but more substantial volumes as my sisters and I grew older. I had indicated a preference for House to be the stocking-topper that year, and it was, so I spent the time between when I woke up and when we were allowed to disturb the parents looking through the book.

Not that I hadn't read bits of it before. The temptation to peek at sections of one of the copies on the shelves in WHSmith had proved too strong (and I'd spoilered myself on the climactic twist as a consequence), but that was still my first opportunity to have a proper go at the book. No idea how I wound up failing, but the details that had been changed from the Warlock teaser ensured that it took me several tries to find out how to win the book.

House was one of the books that got singled out for attention when concerns were raised about the effect of gamebooks on children's minds. Not long after the first reports of the books' supposed harmful influence came out, my dad asked me a few questions to see whether or not there was any actual cause for concern. As I had no trouble distinguishing between fiction and reality, was not obsessed with the occult, had had no nightmares inspired by gamebooks, and wasn't self-harming (and wasn't a good enough liar to have deceived him if anything had been wrong on any of those fronts), he concluded that there was nothing to worry about, and didn't trouble me regarding gamebooks again.

My original copy was among the 50+ gamebooks I gave away or sold off in the nineties. The previous owner of the one I now own wrote on the Adventure Sheet and Evil Encounter Boxes in pencil, enabling me to deduce that he (or she) made the mistake of entering the Balthus Room, cheated on the torturer's test, and wound up heading down the false trail that includes witnessing the sacrifice in the cellar, ultimately getting captured.

Every FF adventure from this one onwards got a detailed write-up at the unofficial forum when I played it for my last 'books in order' marathon, and I'll be linking to those write-ups as I play the appropriate adventures here, in part to encourage myself to find new things to say about the books. The House write-up was originally in two parts, though they got slightly awkwardly combined here when I had to salvage the playthrough following the deletion of the iteration of the forum where I originally posted it.

The book makes the usual claim about being able to win even with weak initial rolls, but that's demonstrably untrue here (as is spelled out late on in the abovelinked playthrough). I was, therefore, going to fudge character creation to give myself a chance of making it to the final battle, but my rolls made that unnecessary, as I didn't get lower than 5 on any of them. So I'm a formidable
Skill: 11
Stamina: 23
Luck: 12
Fear: 12
As I have more than the minimum necessary Fear, I may do a little non-essential exploration, just to add a bit more variety.

So, the basic set-up is the same as in the teaser: lost in a storm, car in the ditch, seeking shelter and a phone in the only house nearby. But the first difference comes in before the end of the first section, as a light comes on at the side of the house, and I have the option of investigating. So I take a look, and find that the lit room is a kitchen. Two men, out of sight of the window, are mid-conversation, one expressing excitement at the possibility of being visited, the other expressing doubts about the whole affair. There's a clear threat behind the first man's response, and the second hastily reaffirms his commitment. The men then leave the kitchen, and I return to the front door and knock on it. The knocking is compulsory in this instance (though the bell-pull just rings a bell rather than activating a trap here).

Franklins opens the door (not that he's been named yet in the book), and after I explain the situation, he tells me I'm expected and leads me to a reception hall. To pass the time, I take a look at the pictures on the wall. The portrait of Lady Margaret of Danvers is particularly well-rendered: some pictures' eyes seem to follow you round the room, whereas this one's lips appear to move. And utter audible warnings about my host's murderous intent, with particular emphasis on shunning the white wine.

My initial encounter with the Earl of Drumer goes much the same way as it did in the teaser, though in deference to the picture's words I request a nice Chianti with the meal. There's a small but significant difference between the Warlock version of the Earl's tale and the one in the book: when he tells of the discovery of his sister's corpse in the woods, the body is described as having been 'dead' rather than 'naked'. And I have a first edition Puffin book, so this edit pre-dates the removal of the illustration of the human sacrifice that happened in response to complaints.

At the end of the meal I have fruit, coffee and brandy, avoiding the cheese as it's not good for me. Not that I'm lactose intolerant - it's just that the drugs do work, and I'd rather keep my wits about me tonight. Franklins shows me to the Erasmus room and (as I discover when I decide to go wandering around) locks me in. An attempt at breaking the door open just leaves me with a bruised shoulder, and as I try and make up my mind what to do next, I hear footsteps approaching. A key rattles in the lock, and I hide behind the door, watching as the hunchback from the cellar in the teaser brings a glass of some unspecified drink into the room. I pounce on him, and after a brief struggle, he pleads for mercy, so I ask him what's going on here. He is surprised at my question, and says a little about what's planned for tonight before belatedly realising that I'm not one of his Master's friends (so are they in the habit of roughing up the more menial members of the staff?). Before he can shuffle off to warn someone that he's revealed secrets to an outsider, I make a quick exit and lock him into the room.

Ignoring the lone door at the right end of the landing, I go left. The next door along has the name 'Azazel' on it, and leads into an antiquated-looking laboratory. There are times in gamebooks when characters have the option of taking a course of action that no remotely sane person would ever contemplate doing, and these actions sometimes prove beneficial (or even essential) rather than catastrophic. This is one such instance, as I drink the contents of one of the vials in a rack, and gain temporary invulnerability rather than poisoning myself (which would, admittedly, have happened if I'd picked the wrong vial).

I pass by the next couple of doors, which are labelled 'Mephisto' and 'Balthus'. There's nothing of use in either room, and there's a substantial gain in Fear to be found in one of them. No name adorns the next door I do open, which leads into a narrow passageway ending at a window, with a door set into the left wall. The door leads to the Diabolus room, another place best avoided unless you're trying to see how quickly you can get your character scared to death. The window is a different matter, though. Far too securely barred to be a means of escape, but it bears a cryptic message written in the condensation. It's never made clear who wrote it, or why, but given that I will need the information it provides, it must have some benign source.

Returning to the landing, I ignore the stairs down, and go through a second unmarked door, which leads to the storeroom where my character from the teaser found the knife. The knife is there again, and this time there's also some garlic. The liquid in the unlabelled bottle is a different colour this time round, but that doesn't make it any more appealing.

There's another door leading out of the storeroom, but I know that it can lead to a catastrophically false trail, and I'd rather not risk confirming that going through it is a guarantee of failure, so I return to the landing, passing by the third unmarked door, which leads nowhere good. Further on, the passage branches, and I take a chance on briefly deviating from the 'true' path. Moving down the side passage, I reach another two named rooms: Asmodeus and Eblis.

The former is locked, but has the key in the door, so I open it and enter a room lit by a single candle, with packing crates placed by the table on which it stands, to serve as crude seats. A moment later I discover that the room is being used as a cell, and its occupant also knows how to hide behind doors and ambush anyone who comes into the room. The accompanying illustration is a little odd, as the 'thick white hair' that is one of the man's primary distinguishing characteristics is far from prominent, and it looks as if my attacker has marbles spilling out of the neck of his robe. I fend my assailant off and point out that I'm not one of his captors. He doesn't believe me, so I ask how I can prove it, and he demands that I make the sign of the cross. I'm not a Roman Catholic, but I have seen Nuns on the Run, so I know the right order of the gestures, and do as requested.

At once the man apologises for having taken me for one of the Master's servants. I ask for his advice on how to defeat the Master, and he tells me that I'd need the Kris knife, which is hidden downstairs in a secret room that can only be opened with a password. He doesn't know the password, but mentions that Old Mordana knew it. This would not be particularly helpful information, as he adds that she died some time ago, but that message on the window mentioned Mordana, so I get the impression that I'm onto something here. The man then heads off to avenge himself on his captors however he can, and I return to the landing.

The next room along bears the name Tuttivillus, and is another deathtrap. If I hadn't eaten the drugged cheese in the teaser, the bedroom to which I would have been shown would have contained the dangers found within this one, which goes some way towards explaining why one of the available options in there is to go to bed. Here, it's a little incongruous, but it makes sense in your designated bedroom.

At the end of the landing are another three doors, one unmarked, the others with the names Belial and Abbadon. The latter name was mentioned in the message on the window, but the design of the book makes that room the last one I can visit on this level, and I happen to know that there's something worth having in one of the others, so I start by opening the unnamed door.

It leads to a bedroom, with a low fire in the grate, and a candle and a bed-time snack on the bedside table. I refrain from searching the room, as Steve Jackson couldn't resist the temptation to include some literal skeletons in the closet in the book. There's nothing wrong with the food on the table, though, and by eating it I regain the Stamina I lost charging the door out of the Erasmus room.

Restored to full health, I enter the Abbadon room. In the teaser, it was called the Lucretia room, and I had no reason to spend time in it. Here, I need to have a word with Mordana. The white-haired man was right about her being dead, but that doesn't stop her from glaring at me with pupil-less eyes and rebuking me for entering her bedchamber (though, unlike the portrait downstairs, she doesn't move her lips when speaking). She orders me to leave her to die in peace (evidently not having noticed that she did that earlier), but I have questions about the house that only she can answer. Outraged, she sets her hounds on me, but that invulnerability I gained lasts just long enough to keep the Great Danes from harming me before I put them down.

She is, understandably, still reluctant to answer my questions, but after I threaten her potted plants, she agrees to tell me what I want to know provided I know her name. It occurs to me-as-reader that there's a slight bug in the book here: a reference number was provided when I read the message on the window, and I need to turn to that number now to prove that I know Mordana's name. But I also heard that name from the white-haired man, so it would theoretically be possible for someone who spoke with him but didn't look at the window to guess that this is the Mordana he mentioned, and thus have the correct answer to the question, but not the accompanying number.

Though displeased enough to use unladylike language when I say her name, she is true to her word, so when I ask about secret rooms, she tells me where to find the hidden room I seek. The password has been changed recently, and she doesn't know the new one, but tells me that Shekou does know. That's as much as she can tell me, so I finally leave her alone and head downstairs.

Two doors flank the front door (which is only a way out insofar as the Fear gained by seeing what's on the other side of it may be enough to cause weak-hearted or overly curious characters to depart this life). I try one of the other doors, and it's locked. Ignoring the one opposite, I move down the hall to a junction, and take the turning on the same side as the door I just didn't try. Now I have three doors to choose from: one on each side, and one up ahead.

I enter a book-lined study, illuminated by a candle on an antique wooden desk. Also on the desk is a blank sheet of paper. Well, it starts out blank, but then the message 'Find Shekou' writes itself upon the paper in a childlike scrawl before fading as mysteriously as it appeared.

When visiting people, I like to look at the books on their shelves to see how much overlap there is between their literary tastes and mine. The books on display in this study don't appear to match up with what's on my bookshelves at all: no gamebooks, no SF, just lots about black magic and hypnotism. One of the former turns out to have been hollowed out, and contains a metal pentacle on a chain. According to the slip of paper with it, this is no mere fashion accessory for a Goth, but an artefact that gives its wielder power over devil worshippers. Not as useful as that might make it sound.

The study has a second door, which leads into a drawing-room that renders the layout of the ground floor nonsensical. The thing is, that drawing-room is the room I would have entered if I'd tried the door I ignored after descending the stairs. Which wouldn't be a problem if the book didn't state that the two doors in the drawing room are next to each other. The text doesn't say anything about the shape of the study, or the precise location of the door connecting it with the drawing-room, but the only way I can get close to making it all fit is as shown in this map (which only shows what my character has seen since coming down the stairs).

And that's stretching the definition of 'next to'.
Also, the stairs need to go somewhere in the long corridor.
Anyway, the drawing-room is very cosy, with a dying fire, comfy chairs, a decanter of brandy and a couple of potted plants. I help myself to some brandy, and then snoop at the letters stuffed behind the mantelpiece clock. As I take them, I find that one of the carvings laid into the mantelpiece moves, and behind it is a button. Before I can decide whether or not to press it, the fire comes back to life and two Fire Sprites leap out to confront me. Using brains rather than brawn, I manage to extinguish them at no personal risk.

Pressing the button activates a sliding panel in one of the corners of the room. Not sure which, but it can't be the one by the door (assuming my map is even close to accurate), as the panel doesn't actually lead anywhere, but just serves as bait to lure the unwary onto the trapdoor next to it. It works.

Like the trapdoor in the porch in the teaser, this one drops me onto a mound of hay in the cellar, and the hunchbacked servant (who must have been released from the Erasmus room by somebody) comes to investigate again. Having apparently forgotten that I hit him and locked him up, he gives me directions to the stairs up. I point out that we've met before, but he still doesn't remember the specifics of our earlier encounter, and introduces himself as Shekou. Knowing him to have the information I require, I ply him with brandy, then quiz him about the secret doors. He doesn't quite tell me what I need to know, but provides a big enough clue that I'll be able to pick the right password from the list at the appropriate moment.

Again realising that he's said too much, Shekou vanishes into his room, and I pop through the door on the other side of the passage, which leads to a dungeon containing four cells and three prisoners. One is inappropriately described as a 'young girl' (given that she turns out to be the district nurse scheduled for sacrifice, she must be a woman rather than a girl). The second is a tall man who wants me to help him commit suicide and deprive his captors of the pleasure of killing him (and I say more about that in my article in Fighting Fantazine 1, downloadable here).

The third prisoner is a balding man in a grey gown, and that raises an interesting question. The thing is, a different talking portrait to the one I encountered mentions a potential ally dressed in grey. And if I'd asked Shekou a different question back in the Erasmus room, he'd have referred to the white-haired man in the Asmodeus room as the Man in Grey. And that man did turn out to be on my side, but he wasn't really a lot of help. Whereas this man in grey not only mentions that I need the Kris knife, but also explains that I'd have to fight the Master in a red room, reminds me of the dining room's red wallpaper, warns me that the room will now be locked, and tells me that the key is hidden behind the mirror. So is the Man in Grey from upstairs just a red herring, and the one down here the true ally? Or did Steve not give too much thought to this man's dress, and inadvertently create some potential confusion here?

Returning to the corridor, and ignoring the next door along, I again reach the stairs up, and am again attacked by examples of the fictional breed of bat that actually likes dive-bombing people.

Not a very convincing portrayal.

However, this time I hide under the stairs, as that's where Mordana told me the secret room is. Checking the wall, I find a roughly door-shaped patch that sounds hollow when I knock on it, and speak the password. Considering the lengths to which Mr. Jackson went to ensure that Mordana's question could only be answered by someone who'd read the message on the window, it's a little odd that he didn't adopt similar measures here. As it is, he just provides four options, one of them the correct answer, thereby making it possible for readers who missed Shekou's clue to make a preposterously lucky guess.

I say the word, and the secret door opens (but not where I expected it to be), allowing me into the room to pick up the box that contains the Kris. Leaving the cellar, I find my way to the reception room with the mirror that doesn't reflect me. There is still a hidden compartment in the table, but this time it contains a golden key, and the chamber behind the mirror has two doors leading from it. One is locked, but the key from the table fits it. The room beyond is very dusty, with obvious footprints leading to the loose stone in the wall behind which a second key, this one bearing a number, has been hidden. There's no mention of any footprints leading away from the hidey-hole, but that oddity is probably an authorial oversight, as there's no 'so what happened to the person who made the prints?' Fear penalty.

Ignoring the other door behind the mirror, I step back into the reception room once the people who entered it have gone, and return to the hall. Either Steve Jackson is being peculiarly selective about which architectural details he mentions from this point onwards, or the interior of the house has actually changed: the cellar door is nowhere to be seen, and a whole hallway has likewise been misplaced, narrowing my options to two doors. One leads to the dead end that is the kitchen, but I know my way around the pre-endgame well enough to pick the dining room door instead. It's locked, but the key fits.

I ring for the butler (without the booby-trapped bell-pull outside the front door, the number of sections dedicated to getting paranoid about ringing this bell and searching for traps is frankly ludicrous) and have him fetch the Earl. Which is a little pointless, given the twist that's been added to the final fight. Given that anyone who wants to avoid spoilers should have bailed on this post a long while back, I don't have any qualms about revealing that Keyser Soze is Luke's father, calling from inside the house, and already dead. Or, more pertinently, that the butler did it. That is to say, the relationship between Franklins and the Earl is not so much 'Jeeves and Wooster' as 'disguised Demon and worshipper'.

The fight against the Master of the house is needlessly complicated by the terminology used. For the most part, Steve's been pretty good at distinguishing between Skill bonuses (cannot exceed Initial score) and Attack Strength bonuses (fully usable in battle). Here, he's forgotten. Or the bonus provided by the Kris is only partially usable unless the reader's character has lost 3 Skill points over the course of the adventure. Which I'm not sure is possible.

If I treat the bonus as applying to Attack Strength, I win the fight. If I go by the letter-of-the-law interpretation of the text, I still win, but I get a lot more cut-up in the process. Either way, my coup de grace sends the Demon flying into the chandelier, scattering lit candles and setting the curtains alight. While the Earl sobs over the corpse of his Master, I make a discreet exit, the nasty surprise behind the front door evidently having departed. By the time I reach the end of the drive, the whole ground floor is in flames.

My character views the fire with some satisfaction. I, personally, am troubled by three thoughts:
  1. If the prisoners in the cellar hadn't been killed by the time I confronted the principal villains, they're probably going to die in the fire, and it'll be my fault.
  2. If the fire attracts the authorities' attention, I'm going to have to answer a lot of awkward questions, and I don't think the truth is going to go down well.
  3. After all that, I'm no closer to getting my car fixed and making it to my urgent appointment than I was at the start of the adventure.

Monday, 29 October 2012

Any Port in a Storm

These days there's more than one company producing Tunnels & Trolls material. In most instances, this is quite legitimate (though anything from Outlaw Press should be avoided - there's a pretty thorough explanation why here), and I have a small selection of solo adventures from some of the non-Flying Buffalo publishers. These include the Halloween-themed Dark Harbour, written by Andy Holmes and produced by TavernMaster games, which I acquired from Mr. Holmes himself on eBay some years ago. It's a limited edition, on orange paper, signed and authenticated by the author.

The first time I played it, my character was killed by a half-man, half-fish monstrosity. Given my track record, I don't expect to do much better this time round, but let's have a look at the character who'll be facing the adventure's horrors. The dice make him ugly-but-otherwise-average, and as that's not likely to suffice, I make him a Dwarf, and suddenly he's more impressive (but even worse-looking).
Strength: 24
Intelligence: 11
Luck: 12
Constitution: 22
Dexterity: 10
Charisma: 5
Speed: 14
He can afford a warhammer, a helmet and a shield, which should enable him to contend with the piscine anthropmorph that ended my first try at the adventure.

Fleeing some sort of trouble with the Guild of Thieves in an unspecified city, I make a heroic leap from the harbour onto a departing ship, and learn that my meagre funds will only cover transport to its next port of call, the obscure hamlet of Horosk, arriving just in time for All Hallows' Eve. I turn out to be the only person disembarking there, and the ship makes a very prompt departure once I'm ashore. It's a stormy night, and the clock strikes midnight as I hurry towards the only building with a light in it.

One of the quirks of this adventure is the Trick or Treat table, on which it is periodically necessary to roll. Odd numbers have harmful outcomes, even numbers beneficial ones. I've just reached the first such roll, and got the not particularly helpful 'double the amount of gold you are carrying'. If I'm to take the intro literally, I spent the last of my money getting here, and twice nothing is nothing.

The building turns out to be the Harbour Master's quarters, and all the signs indicate that it's been abandoned for some time. A quick search turns up nothing of interest, so I head for the rear door. Behind it, a flight of stairs leads up. I ascend, and find the Harbour Master. Probably, though I will have difficulties confirming the man's profession, as his corpse is being devoured by a Ghoul. The Ghoul wants a bit of variety in its diet, and attacks me. One smack with the hammer is enough to transform the Ghoul into a smear on the wall.

The dead body may be that of another adventurer actually, judging by the loot lying around. His broadsword isn't as good a weapon as my hammer, but it's good to have a back-up, so I take it. The quirky iron key (shaped like a pumpkin - presumably just at the non-business end) is liable to come in handy somewhere. I shan't try the bottles of unidentified liquid just yet. Torches, twine and chalk are all handy adventuring tools.

Another door leads onwards. I have to roll on the Trick or Treat table again, and am guaranteed success at my next two rolls against attributes. Beyond the door is a Troll, who apologises for having turned up in the wrong solo and opens a trapdoor for me before exiting, possibly via the hole that just appeared in the fourth wall. I may, if I wish, follow him as he departs the adventure, thereby surviving and gaining a small experience bonus, but that would make for an unsatisfactory conclusion to this playthrough, so I risk investigating the trapdoor.

A ladder leads down a slimy shaft to a dark tunnel. This is where a former character met a fishy end, but encountering his killer is a consequence of a failed Luck roll, and I cannot fail the roll this time, so my dead hero shall not be avenged today. At the far end of the tunnel is another shaft with a ladder, leading up to a trapdoor that's bolted on this side and inscribed with a symbol that prevents it from being magically opened from above. It looks to me as though someone wants to keep something trapped on the other side. And the only option available here is to open the trapdoor and go through.

I find myself on the ground floor of the lighthouse. The trapdoor closes and will not open again. Might as well keep going up, I guess. No, that was a bad choice, as I am attacked by the seaweed-draped ghost of the Lighthouse Keeper. The fight is more drawn-out than most, but the outcome was never really in any doubt, with him scoring (on average) 15-16 higher than I did every round. The mysteries of Horosk remain largely unexplained, and my success rate at T&T hasn't got any better.

Friday, 26 October 2012

Who You Gonna Call?

Another of my whimsical eBay acquisitions today, and a bit of a departure from the norm, as it's an audio gamebook. Back in the mid-nineties, Sagard the Barbarian co-writer Flint Dille got TSR to bring out a series of gamebooks-on-CD: Terror T.R.A.X. Each track on the disc is equivalent to a separate section, and decisions are made by skipping to the appropriate track.

The basic premise is that there's a super secret branch of the American Police known as T.R.A.X. (short for Trace, Research, Analyze and eXterminate), which deals with any paranormal cases. The player is coordinator for a team of operatives - I listen to the recording of the 911 call, possibly consult with experts, and tell the field operatives what to do. Options are presented by the T.R.A.X. Interface Computer, which has the Shatneresque speech patterns of your average automated telephone system, and there's on-the-spot commentary from the men on the front line (and sometimes the 'computer' gives a more convincing performance than the human (or other non-mechanical) characters).

First in the series is Track of the Vampire, by Buzz Dixon and the aforementioned Dille, which opens with a cheesy intro to explain the concept, goes on to explain how to play the 'audio CD interactive game', and then instructs me to go to track 3 to start the adventure. I wonder what's on track 2. I may investigate later, but for now I'm going to get going with my mission.

Actually, track 3 is not the start of the adventure. I get congratulated for having figured out how to navigate to a specific track, redirected to track 5, and warned that I'll get suspended if I don't skip track 4. That would be a particularly rubbish way to fail, so I jump to track 5 and finally get to hear the call to which I'm supposed to be responding. From this point onwards I'll keep quiet about the track numbers (unless I do decide to see what's on 2 and 4 once the mission has been concluded).

A woman screams about being attacked. A man vith an accent like ze Count from Sesame Street calls her a liar and claims to have been lured to wherever the call is being made from. The woman shrieks that the man is a vampire, at which point the call becomes T.R.A.X. business. A struggle occurs, in the course of which a receptacle containing blood gets dropped, and frantic slurping noises ensue. It's all very loud and incoherent, and reminds me of the Gumby performance of The Cherry Orchard featured on several Monty Python albums. Oh, and it transpires that track 4 is for running a digital analysis on the recording, rather than the 'fired for not obeying simple instructions' ending one might have expected. Still, best to get someone on the way to the crime scene as quickly as possible.

An officer (who sounds as if he desperately wants to be 1970s Clint Eastwood) is sent to the apartment from which the call was made. He gets the male from the call at gunpoint, and the suspect throws a bottle at him and dives out of the window. The officer comments on how dumb the suspect must be, as they're twelve floors up. Well, someone's certainly dumb. A member of a team explicitly put together to deal with supernatural threats doesn't think the kind of villain he's going to be confronting might be able to survive that big a drop? Muttering macho absurdities, he makes his way across to the window and is surprised to find the leaper gone. Well, his words indicate surprise, even if the way he says them doesn't.

I have the officer search the apartment. He reports that it appears to have been made ready for a romantic evening, oh, and there's a dead woman on the couch. When prompted to check for fangs, he finds that she does have some, and with a screech, she attacks him. He fires eight bullets, manages to drive her off, and spouts some 'witticisms' that even Commando-era Arnie would have found too unfunny to utter.

Further investigation of the apartment turns up evidence that its occupant works for the Late Date Dating Service, and has seen a different man every night for some time. I wonder which meaning of 'late' is the more accurate. Researchers dig up a tacky and sleazy ad for the service (the most horrifying part of the disc yet), which indicates that they specialise in providing partners for late-night tête-à-têtes.

The officer finds a doctor's bag containing medical equipment and a number of bottles of blood. The plot coagulates. There's a 'return to' tag on the bag, so I send an officer to the hospital named. He arrives to find that there's been trouble there. Somebody broke into Intensive Care and stole a transplant kidney. From the patient into whom it had been transplanted. That's actually quite nasty.

The thief isn't likely to have loitered, so I have a check run on the hospital's records. That wasn't the first such theft. All stolen organs came from the same donor. Two further organs from that person have not yet been 'repossessed': the heart and a lung. It's hard to believe that nobody's noticed the common denominator to these incidents before now, but that doesn't stop this from being creepy and ominous.

The officer on-scene is sent to look around, in case the organ thief is still around. He maintains a running commentary, and is played by a better voice actor than the cretin at the apartment, which helps a lot in building atmosphere. When he starts commenting on the Health and Safety nightmare of the room he's in, which contains all kinds of flammable and hazardous chemicals, the computer tells him to restrict himself to relevant data. Either someone needs to program it with an understanding of Chekhov's pistol, or it already knows, and figures that the likelihood of a fire, spillage or other unpleasantness has just increased massively because the officer mentioned the danger.

A thin trail of blood leads to the morgue. The officer sounds nervous, and observes the lack of an attendant. He finds a mutilated body on one of the slabs, with the heart removed. The name on the tag is that of a convicted murderer who was executed by lethal injection and then sent to the hospital to have his organs harvested for transplanting (would they still be usable?). And the tag is attached to the toe of an artificial leg. In fact, three of the limbs are prosthetic, and the officer is troubled to find them still attached to the corpse.

The body opens its eyes and starts demanding something unspecified that belongs to it. The officer requests guidance and, as I've already had confirmation that bullets don't seem to do much, I advise him to use handcuffs instead. I just hope he has the sense to put them on the real arm. Alas, while he does, he attaches the other cuff not to some solid fixture, but to the prosthetic arm, which the corpse promptly rips off and uses to club the officer to death.

Evidently the computer has been taking action on other fronts, as it now connects me with an officer who's pursuing the man who signed the murderous corpse's death certificate, the groan-inducingly-named Dr. Haemos. The doctor is driving dangerously, and tries to elude the pursuing officer by entering a narrow alley. The officer wants to circle round to where he thinks the alley comes out, but I can't risk his being mistaken, and instruct him to maintain pursuit. Something unclear happens, and he dies. Game over.

Well, I rather botched that. Pity, as, after an unpromising start, it was developing into something interesting. The hospital sequence was particularly well done, and actually had me slightly on edge. Based on just this attempt, I'm not sure how (or if) the plot hangs together - the transition from the morgue to the car chase was pretty sloppy - but it looks as if it might well be worth replaying the adventure at some time to try and find out more.

By the way, track 2 is just a 'you should not be listening to this' message, a bit like the 'this is an unreachable section' sections that occasionally crop up in gamebooks for no good reason. Okay, so this one does serve to point out that the listener has failed to follow instructions, but anyone who hears it as a consequence of inability to skip tracks rather than just being curious is going to struggle with the whole adventure.

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Who Lives in a House Like This?

I was always planning to play the Warlock magazine teaser of House of Hell for this blog. Whereas Warlock's Caverns was just the first half or thereabouts of the book (or the book was the Warlock version with a load of stuff stuck on the end), the two variants of House are effectively separate adventures. Both with the same basic premise, and most of the encounters in the shorter one also appear in the full book, but a successful playthrough of the Warlock mini will be very different from a successful playthrough of the book. And with the Fear mechanism actively discouraging non-essential exploration, not to mention the number of false trails and dead ends in the 400-section version, there are over half a dozen locations common to both texts that are best avoided in the book, but can (or must) be visited in the mini.

I probably got issue 3 of Warlock on a Friday, as I remember playing the House teaser in my grandparents' front room. The Adventure Sheet shows signs of repeated use, with semi-erased records of early attempts largely obscured by the pencilled-in details of what was probably my last attempt at the adventure before today. Rather pretentiously, my note on which kind of wine to avoid refers to the offending vintage in French. I remember that on an early attempt, possibly even my first, I made it through to the end fight, but failed to acquire the only weapon that could harm the villain along the way.

This is the second FF adventure to move away from the standard fantasy setting. The first line of the Background section makes this clear, as I find myself behind the wheel of a large automobile on a classic dark and stormy night. This was almost certainly supposed to be a present-day setting, though nowadays it's slightly dated on account of making no mention of mobile phones or satnav, both of which would have to be made unavailable or non-functional for the set-up to be viable in the 21st century.

I'm in the middle of nowhere, and starting to suspect that the old man who gave me directions was either confused or a malicious prankster. Not that either of those possibilities would provide much of an explanation for why he suddenly shows up in the middle of the road ahead of me, causing me to swerve into a ditch, and then cannot be found when I get out of the car to see if I hit him. Unable to extricate the car from the ditch, I am pleased to see a light appear in a bedroom window a short distance away, and start heading towards the isolated house in the hope of being able to phone a garage. Steve Jackson then introduces a slight disconnect between reader and character by pointing out that I fail to notice the lack of a telephone line to the house. While I'm at this distance from gamebook-me, I should detail my stats.
Skill: 8 (reduced to 5 until I find a weapon)
Stamina: 22
Luck: 10
Fear: 11 (high enough that I can get away with exploring slightly more of the house than is absolutely necessary)
That low Skill may be the death of me, but it's not as catastrophic as it would be in the book.

I trudge up the steps to the front door, noting that that light has gone out, and reflecting that the residents are unlikely to be too happy about getting disturbed by a rain-drenched stranger in the middle of the night. Turning back is not an option, though, so I give the bell-pull a hefty tug. At once, a trapdoor beneath the doormat springs open, and I fall through. Clearly the homeowner really doesn't want to be bothered by trick-or-treaters or Jehovah's Witnesses.

There is a mound of hay below to break my fall, and I can see one regular door leading out of the cellar into which I have been dropped. Something approaches the door from the other side, and I look around for something to use as a weapon if needful. It's an optional Test your Luck to find anything useful, and I may need a lot of Luck later on, so I decide to just wait and see what's coming for me. It's a man, whom I initially take to be bent double, but subsequently realise to have a hunched back. I explain my plight, and he tells me to follow him. He mutters to himself along the way, rambling on about how the table has already been laid for a special guest, and the specially matured cheese has been requested. Then we reach a door, and before going through it, he gives me directions the rest of the way, as he's not allowed upstairs.

I follow the directions, and am a little perturbed to be harassed by a flock of bats just before I reach the staircase. The stairs lead into a hall, in which a number of animal heads have been mounted on the wall. More stairs lead up to a balcony, but I stay on the ground floor for now, looking at the animal heads. They're all from dangerous beasts - bear, wolf, tiger, serval (either the latter is labelled, or my character is a lot better at recognising African wild cats than I) - and I hear a disconcerting growling as I study them.

No moose, though

Then I hear footsteps, and creep upstairs. Popping through a random door, I find myself in a storeroom, and help myself to a knife from one of the shelves. I also find an unlabelled bottle of liquid, but decide against drinking it, and I also ignore the door at the back of the room, as I suspect that there may be something nasty behind it.

Returning to the landing, I am startled by a tall man in a dark suit, who grabs my collar and marches me down the stairs. He warns that if I've come to rob the house, I'll find more than I bargained for. Keeping quiet about the knife in my coat pocket, I explain what happened on the road nearby (and, you'd think. make some kind of pithy comment about the booby-trapped porch), and the man introduces himself as Franklins, personal valet to the Earl of Drumer, whom he then heads off to inform of my arrival.

I barely have time to take note of my surroundings before Franklins returns, opening the door for the Earl, who brushes aside my explanation of my plight and instructs his valet to have the cook prepare me a meal. We move to a drawing-room, Franklins brings a couple of glasses of sherry, and I relax a little, since this is my best chance of reducing the Fear I've been accumulating since the trapdoor opened beneath me. The Earl tells me that the storm has brought down the phone line, so I can't call a garage (not that any would send someone out to attend to my car at this time - presumably this adventure pre-dates the AA's 24-hour breakdown service), but I'm welcome to stay the night.

Franklins announces that dinner is served, and we move to the dining-room, which has one long table, red wallpaper, and a chandelier bristling with candles. All pretense of this being a civilised household is then dropped, as I am asked what wine I want without being informed of the nature of the imminent meal, potentially setting me up for a serious breach of etiquette. Even without the reminder on the Adventure Sheet, I'd remembered that this is one area in which the two versions of the adventure differ, so I opt for the white.

Soup is followed by a choice between duck and lamb. That's rather elaborate, even if (as the hunchback's words suggested) I was expected. I pick the fowl, and don't need to use dice to Test my Duck, which is fine. The Earl is also eating duck, and we chat about my driving mishap and the Earl's misfortunes, which I may cover in more detail in the blog entry for the book.

Franklins offers more drinks and nibbles. Coffee is part of all the choices, but brandy is optional, and I can have fruit or cheese. Not wanting the hunchback's efforts to have been in vain, I go for cheese. The conversation continues for a little while, and then I black out, coming round an unspecified length of time later to find myself bound hand and foot in an empty room. Just as I planned. Seriously. In this version of the adventure, the bedroom to which Franklins takes any undrugged player characters is one of the most dangerous places in the whole house, offering up 2-5 Fear points and a chance of Instant Death. The 2 Stamina I lose breaking the window and cutting my ropes on the broken glass are trivial by comparison.

The door is not locked, and I step through into a hall. A squeaking noise dissuades me from turning left (Steve couldn't think of a better way of compelling me to go right?), so I move towards the door at the end of the hallway. A ghostly woman in a tattered bridal dress appears in front of me, says we must talk, and tells me to go through the door. She glides through it, while I have to open it. Beyond is a bedroom, where the ghost explains that the house is ruled over by a Black Priest of the Night named Kelnor, who periodically sacrifices people to the Demons of Hellfire. Tonight's victim is to be a district nurse who was captured yesterday, but I'm probably not far down the list. Kelnor is vulnerable only to the Kris knife, but before the ghost can tell me where it is, she is savaged to nonexistence by two spectral Great Danes that I am unable to harm.

Heading back along the landing, I come to two doors. Many of the rooms in this house are named. Few, if any, of the names are common to both versions of the adventure. The two here bear the names Albemarle and Rousseau, which could refer to any of a number of people or places (though the latter is most likely a philosopher).

I enter the Rousseau room, which looks as if it doesn't get much use, as the furniture and boxes it contains are all covered with sheets. I'm not going to find anything of use here, but I can't leave just yet, so I pause to catch my breath. Somehow this short rest heals the gash on my wrist - but then, FF healing never did make a whole lot of sense. Suddenly one of the sheets in the room rises up into the air. I clutch at it, and break the thread being used to lift it up.

Almost as convincing as this haunting
Leaving before whoever was tugging on the thread progresses to more dangerous pranks, I ignore the stairs down, and turn left where the landing splits. This way only leads to the Lucretia room, which turns out to be a bedroom that contains a lot of potted plants. Also an old woman in the bed, whom I choose not to disturb. Not the obscure in-joke it could have been: the room I'm trying to find contains the encounter that's found in the Balthus room in the book, and Lucretia was the name of The Citadel of Chaos villain Balthus Dire's wife, so I thought maybe... But this is the counterpart of a different room, and I don't need to explore it here, so I shall avoid the Fear I'd pick up by troubling its occupant.

Back to the junction and right, then. Another two doors await me, one unmarked, the other identified as the Gordelia room. Doors with names on haven't been a lot of help this far, so I try the blank one, which leads into an unfurnished room with a small wooden box on the mantelpiece and strangely bulging curtains. Result! I go over to the box and pick it up, noting that something rattles inside it, but then a noise from the window compels me to investigate. There is something behind the curtain, which knocks me down as I approach, then steps out to attack. It's a Zombie, and it does a lot of damage in the fight. I doubt that I'd have survived if I didn't have that knife.

Rather tiresomely, what follows the fight is all predetermined by the author. I decide to leave without further ado. I discover that the door is now locked (and gain Fear for the discovery). It occurs to me to check the box on the mantelpiece, which contains two keys, one of which fits the lock on the door, while the other bears a number.

Continuing on my way, I reach another pair of doors, leading to the Astor room and the Master Suite. That's not good. Clearly the set-up differs from that in the book more than I remembered, because one useful (though not absolutely essential) item can be found in a room which provides a warning about one of these rooms, so I must have missed that.

I can no more unlearn that warning than I can forget the knowledge that heeding the warning actually leads to far greater danger than disregarding it. Thus, reflecting on some oft-cited barbed exchanges with Churchill, I enter the Astor room. This is another bedroom, but unoccupied, though I can hear music somewhere. As I check to see if there's anything nasty concealed here, I hear footsteps approaching. Someone turns the door-handle, then reconsiders and goes away.

I could do with a rest to restore some of the Stamina I lost to the Zombie. Not that I'll get one, as the bed is booby-trapped, and lying down on it causes it to snap up into the wall, hurling me through a concealed panel into a dark passageway. There's a light at the end of the tunnel, but that's not as encouraging as it may sound, as the source of the light is a large fire, surrounded by a large crowd of chanting men in goat's head masks. On the other side of the fire is an altar, with the previously mentioned district nurse on it, about to be sacrificed. Under the circumstances, the only thing I can do is wait until the mob are distracted by the climax of this vile ceremony, and then make a rush for the exit.

My Luck holds out, but I still don't get away. Eh? Hang on, the reference numbers are the wrong way round. It makes no sense that being Lucky would mean getting spotted and (unless you have the right item) killed while being Unlucky would result in escaping. Especially as having the object necessary for surviving being noticed leads to the same section as not being seen in the first place. I'll accept a legitimate failure (such as is likely to ensue, unless the dice favour me in the end fight like they did the Zombie in my last one - yes, I beat it in the end, but it won twice as many rounds as I did), but I'm not going to admit defeat in a situation where the only rational explanation is that the author and/or editor made a mistake.

The passage leads to a dark room with no obvious exits, but a button on one of the walls opens a sliding panel that leads into a hallway with two doors leading from it. One opens into a drawing-room containing a table, six chairs, and a wall-sized mirror that doesn't reflect me. When I try touching it, my hand goes straight through. Still, I want to check out this room properly before I emulate Alice, and doing so enables me to find a box in a hidden drawer in the table. Footsteps sound outside the door, so I grab the box and jump through the mirror.

On the other side is a small chamber with a door I cannot open. There are now people in the drawing-room, and while waiting for them to go away, I look in the box, which holds the Kris dagger the ghost said I would need. Once the coast is clear again, I go back through the drawing-room and try the other door, which is locked. Good thing I have a key.

The door leads into the dining-room, which looks much as it did before. Another encounter I've missed would have provided me with the news that Kelnor can only be defeated in a red room, but even without that knowledge, I still wind up choosing to confront the Earl here. I ring for the butler, and get him to summon the Earl, who is displeased at having been summoned at this hour. I tell him that I'm a lot more displeased at all that is going on in this house, and we fight. The dice are still on the side of my enemy. I don't even manage to hit the Earl once before he kills me.

He has a week in which to get the house restructured, and then I'll be back as a different stranded driver, and we shall see who prevails then.

Monday, 22 October 2012

Nor Am I Out of It

Flying Buffalo's range of Tunnels & Trolls solo adventures included a few Pocket Adventures: little A6 booklets with just 16 pages (including covers, introductory text and special rules) and around 60 sections. The three of them were included in one of the eBay job lots that filled in most of the gaps in my collection last decade.

Pocket Adventure 2, Abyss, is something of an oddity in that the character you play in it needs to have died in a previous adventure. Inspired by medieval Christian mythology and the underworld of ancient Greek legends, it revolves around an attempt to escape from hell and return to life. Theologically a little dubious, but it is only a game.

One thing I'm not short of is dead T&T characters. The only question is which of the seven who failed to survive their adventures is most worth trying to bring back. I've never actually played this adventure before, so I have no idea what challenges await, which stats are most likely to be tested. My character from Naked Doom has nothing worse than low average, so I'll give him a shot.
Str: 13 Int: 9 Lk: 11 Con: 9 Dex: 14 Cha: 13 Spd: 10
He is automatically equipped with the largest sword he can wield, which is a falchion.

I find myself beside an ancient battlefield. A leonine figure appears before me, states that I may regain my life and soul 'by braving the Abyss' and quotes Dryden at me to say it's not going to be easy. Then I am alone, standing on cobblestones. If I'm interpreting the text correctly, moving forward would take me onto the battlefield, which could mean having to fight revenant warriors, so I'll try heading sideways instead.

This takes me to an open courtyard containing a well that belches smoke and fog. Abbadon emerges from the well, and I must fight it or let it drag me down into the well. I suppose I shall have to fight. Combat is as swift and brutal as usual, and that's one character who's never coming back.

The 'total failure' section states that, while the character who's just been defeated is gone for good, I can still try others, and in the interests of making this blog post a little more substantial, I'll let my Dwarf from Buffalo Castle take the challenge.
Str: 12 Int: 9 Lk: 14 Con: 20 Dex: 9 Cha: 8 Spd: 10
His comparatively low Dexterity means that his weapon is a gladius, which isn't as effective as a falchion, so he'd better stay away from the courtyard.

One of the things about gamebooks is that it's sometimes harder than you might think to judge whether or not a particular course of action is advisable. Trying to prise out one of the cobblestones doesn't seem particularly smart to me, but maybe I'm looking at this the wrong way. Could they be good intentions given form? And if so, does that make digging one up more or less wise? Only one way to find out...

A small green spider bites my hand, causing my little finger to drop off. Not a great start. Especially as the attendant Dexterity loss means I can't handle the gladius any more. So am I now unarmed, or does it somehow get replaced with a slightly inferior short sabre, which is now the best weapon I can use?

I step forwards, and unexpectedly encounter a scantily-clad blonde who makes a pass at me. There's no way this can't be a trap, so I politely turn her down with extreme prejudice. Well, I try, but 'she' turns out to be a monstrous false prophet, and a more formidable fighter than Abbadon. Unsurprisingly, I do not survive the resultant battle.

I shan't bother with a third try.

Sunday, 21 October 2012

I Will Fear No Evil

This is not a gamebook playthrough. The next one of those should be up some time tomorrow.  This is an attempt to make sense of my position on an issue related to the next several planned entries. A position that may well attract criticism from several different sides. But I feel the need to say something about it, so here goes...

I don't celebrate Halloween. A couple of alarming experiences I had in the 1990s leave me convinced that there are, for want of a better term, harmful supernatural forces. Yes, a lot of myths, monsters and spooks are just made up. Yes, there are perfectly straightforward and rational explanations for many so-called paranormal phenomena. But the existence of fakes doesn't automatically mean that there's nothing genuine.

I recognise that most of what goes on in connection with Halloween is just fun and games for children, and any dangers encountered by trick-or-treaters are liable to come from human sources. The festivities strike me as something akin to cigarette advertising: not inherently harmful, and at times very entertaining, but with the potential to add allure to something best left alone.

I'm not campaigning to have it stopped. I'm not siding with the Mary Whitehouses, the Jack Chicks and the book-burners. Their kind of overreaction does more harm than good. And I won't be spending October 31st cowering in fear, or treating the day as anything out of the ordinary. My faith in God doesn't fluctuate depending on the date. I'm just explaining why I don't 'do' Halloween.

Having said that, I acknowledge its cultural impact. I understand that telling a story about something isn't necessarily promoting that thing. And I cannot deny that my gamebook collection includes quite a few horror-themed adventures. In fact, if I wish to continue going through Fighting Fantasy in publication order, I have no choice but to cover one of its most prominent examples of the genre next. So, with the zeitgeist taking its annual detour through the darker parts of the cultural landscape, I shall be focusing on thematically appropriate gamebooks for the rest of the month. Regardless of the tone, they still present evil as something to be resisted, not embraced, and I don't have any issues with that message.

Friday, 19 October 2012

All in a Sea of Wonders

J.H. Brennan's Horror Classic series has a title which is accurate yet potentially misleading: while the books are inspired by recognised classics of the horror genre (and at times indicate far greater familiarity with the source material than the majority of the derivative works on screen and stage), they also contain a great deal of the absurd and quirky humour that made me a big fan of Brennan's Grail Quest  books. It was the comical aspect that inspired me to get the books for myself (but I'll say more about that when I get to the second book in the series, as it was that one that led to my realisation that these books were a return to the inspired lunacy of Grail Quest, rather than the turgid complexity of Brennan's second gamebook series).

The series commences (if that's the right word, given that both books were published simultaneously) with Dracula's Castle, based on Bram Stoker's most famous novel. I don't remember much of previous attempts, but I definitely encountered the inconveniently situated cliff-drop once, and I don't believe I've ever made it further than the Deadly Boudoir, where three ladies of the bite present a formidable obstacle just before the climactic encounter.

I play Jonathan Harker, a solicitor's clerk sent from London to Transylvania to see a client who plans to move to England. However, I am not the ignorant and clueless Harker of the first four chapters of Dracula. Aware that playing a hapless and hopeless character isn't a whole lot of fun, Brennan has made this Harker a student of the arcane, adept at various methods of fighting evil, who not only recognises the signs that a vampire is preying on the locals, but has deduced that the culprit is none other than his client, and is determined to prevent the blood-sucking fiend from setting foot on British soil. Even if that means leaving several contracts unsigned. In game terms, he looks like this:
Life Points: 100 (the default starting score)
Speed: 1
Courage: 2 (together, these sub-par attributes mean he'll rarely get first strike in combat)
Strength: 4
Skill: 4 (but whenever he hits an opponent, he does a decent amount of damage)
Psi: 5 (and he can make good use of his special abilities)
Slightly above average, and on the whole I think the strengths should outweigh the weaknesses.

A stagecoach deposits me at the castle gates, and hurriedly departs. My vampire-killing paraphernalia has become lost luggage, so I carry only a flannel, toothbrush, quill and paper, and an autographed copy of the first Grail Quest book. Self-referential gags like the latter are not uncommon in Brennan's later works, though I don't think he ever went so far as to have a gamebook appear within its own pages.

I can advance, or go back the way I came. Does running away from the adventure ever work out well in gamebooks? There's certainly nothing worth having to be gained by trying here, so I head up the driveway. A side path leads east, and I check that out. Further paths branch off, and I soon reach a dead end. But I can roll to search for secret doors in every section (and have been doing so since I stepped through the gates), and here I get my first successful roll of the game, leading to the discovery that this dead end... has no hidden exits. Woo.

But as I trudge back to the last junction, I search again, get another good roll, and find a trapdoor leading into an underground passage. This eventually leads to an overhead trapdoor, and the realisation that the map I've been drawing has just become that bit less useful, as I don't know how the point at which I emerge connects to the path network. Still, there's no turning back, so I climb out, finding myself in a wax museum filled with depictions of gruesome deaths. A mad axewoman attacks me. I can either try to reason with her (that option leads straight to the 'you are dead' section) or fight. I fight, losing almost half my Life, and after defeating my opponent I examine the corpse. It transpires that my late assailant was not a mad old woman, but a mad young man disguised as an old woman. During the fight, the axe head was irreparably damaged when it hit some hard object (my head, suggests Brennan), so the only loot I get is a silver key.

Harker heals faster than a Kai with Healing (though, in view of the different starting scores, proportionally HC healing is not really any better), so if I can get some fruitless wandering in, I should be back in decent shape by the time I next get into trouble. I decide to search the museum before leaving, and the wax dummies seem to move when I'm not looking at them. Probably just an authorial attempt at scaring me away from the decent treasure hidden here. Yep, there's garlic hidden in the model decapitated hunchback's mouth. But now it's time to go, and I can go straight from here to the driveway, so the map is salvageable.

Further wandering takes me to a ruined belltower, which I recklessly investigate (yeah, I could just stroll up and down the path until I'm healed, but it'd be a bit cheaty). A sinister hooded figure stands atop the remnants of a ruined staircase and hurls himself at me. He misses. Dialogue reveals him to be a guest of Dracula's, hiding in the tower because he knows what generally happens to the Count's guests. He offers to accompany me, and I accept because I remember from past attempts at the book that this is another character from the Hammer Films section of Christopher Lee's IMDB entry, namely Rasputin, and at least in this book, having him as a companion means extra healing after every fight I survive.

The next fight isn't far off. In the Dracula family graveyard, to be precise. A Zombie attacks me, and the accompanying illustration indicates a breakdown of communications somewhere, because the description of the graveyard clearly states that there are no crosses, crucifixes or other religious symbols to be seen, but guess what shape the gravestone clearly visible behind the Zombie is. Atrocious rolls mean that the Zombie two-thirds kills me before I get rid of it, but it does at least fail to infect me with fungoid rot, a disease every bit as delightful as the name suggests. The Zombie also happens to be carrying a bottle of healing potion, which I pocket for an emergency before heading towards the nearby crypt.

Peering through the keyhole in the crypt door, I see an eye staring at me. That old gag again. It's probably a bad idea, but I open the door anyway. Steps lead down to a coffin-filled chamber, guarded by a live gargoyle. Okay, let's hope that there's nothing too important in here...

I take the north exit from the graveyard and find myself in the castle courtyard. A pale and beautiful young woman is wandering about here, and I opt to keep a low profile. This book may not mention Mina, but that doesn't mean Harker isn't already affianced, and I wouldn't want to risk discovering that Ms. Murray is the stereotypical jealous type. As the woman goes past, I spot the tell-tale translucency that shows her to be a ghost. Still, I doubt that, "She was dead," would be a particularly effective defence against accusations of talking to strange women.

West of the courtyard is a cluster of buildings bearing a sign warning that they're the last place I would want to enter. I put that theory to the test. A jovial chap in top hat, frock coat and green apron greets me by name, and tells me that his name is Unimportant. Samuel Unimportant. More commonly known as the Happy Undertaker. He invites me to join him and some friends for a drink.

Job satisfaction is usually a good thing.

I accept, and find that his friends are all a little on the deceased side. Some absurd banter leads to the revelation that Mr. Unimportant and his late friends constitute a political Party, and joining it could lead to assistance in my quest. But I would have to pass a test to prove my worthiness to join. I opt to face the challenge, which turns out to be a puzzle (the Happy Undertaker toys with a trepanning instrument and points out that, should I lack sufficient brains to solve the problem, he can always try a transplant!). It's variant on the 'Fox, goose and bag of beans' puzzle, with a twist that renders it impossible. A strange game. Declaring my inability to come up with an answer proves the correct answer, and after making the corpses applaud, Mr. Unimportant presents me with my membership card and lists the attendant perks, which include getting to reduce all vampire-inflicted damage by 2. Not a lot, but it all adds up. The Happy Undertaker then leads a rousing chorus of the Party Song, which goes about as well as you'd expect a sing-along to go when only two of the participants are alive, and one of them doesn't know the words. Time to explore somewhere less silly.

Steps lead east from the courtyard into the sunken garden. Which should perhaps be called the sinking garden, as a patch of quicksand has been left there to trap the unwary. Good thing Strength and Skill are among my higher stats, as they're the ones that determine whether I escape or sink. While dragging myself free, I find a golden key, and before departing I discover another hidden tunnel. Disappointingly, it just leads back to the Undertaker's.

Seeing no point in going through the rigmarole of applying for Party membership again, I return to the courtyard, a bad transition causing me to witness the aftermath of a fight I never had. I don't know whether the key lying on the ground should be considered spoils of battle, but I grab it anyway.

A gateway leads northwest to the stable yard. Either there's a typo in the description, or the exit to the orchard is via a wooden replica of one of a trio of mythical goddesses. Whatever the exit is, I take it, and am lured into an ambush by a vampire apple. It's not much of a fighter, but the just under 1/3 chance of inadvertently biting it and being fatally poisoned makes the fight that bit trickier. Luckily, I manage to kill the apple with one blow before it can get anywhere near my mouth. And the Rasputin-based healing I get after the battle brings me back to full health.

A message has been carved into the bark of the tree. Looks like mostly useful advice, including a recommendation to take a stake of applewood. I try to cut one from the tree, which objects and attempts to throttle me. And my woefully low Speed proves my undoing, as there is no way of rolling less than 1 on 1d6. So I don't exactly live apple-ly ever after.

Brennan's gamebooks are often stronger on entertainment value than playability. I'd rather that than the other way round, but it does sometimes make for perfunctory endings like the one above. Dracula's Castle is a fun gamebook (provided you have the right kind of sense of humour), but not one that's ever going to be particularly easy to win by the rules.

Monday, 15 October 2012

Snakes. Why Did It Have to Be Snakes?

The Seven Serpents was actually the first Sorcery! book I owned. I got it because I had some money burning a hole in my pocket, and the first book-selling shop on the way into town from school was Ballard's, which had a rather limited selection, TSS being the only book that appealed. The shopkeeper told me I'd need The Sorcery Spell Book as well if I wanted to play it properly. In fact, it was with TSS that the publishers started including the spell book at the back, so I had no need of the separate volume that owners of the pre-orange spine Shamutanti Hills and Kharé had had to buy in order to be able to play as a wizard, but as the shop didn't have any copies of TSSB in stock, I'm sure Mr. Ballard was genuinely trying to be helpful rather than just angling to sell me more stuff.

I soon realised that the book was part of an ongoing saga, hence my dropping hints that got me the first two volumes for Christmas or Birthday, but I didn't wait to get the start of the series before reading this one. Even bits I shouldn't have: the section explaining how to use the ring acquired in book 2 caught my eye at an early stage, and I didn't hesitate to look into the secrets it revealed at every opportunity during my readthrough. For this attempt I shan't be cheating in that manner, but I cannot unlearn those secrets, and as several of them warn against courses of action that would prove lethal in book 4, I shall act on that knowledge where necessary when I get that far.

This was also the first gamebook to get a substantial write-up when I played it at the unofficial FF forum. I don't yet know how much this blog entry will differ from what I wrote in 2009, but here I am aiming for greater accessibility (not everyone is as familiar with what goes on in the books as your average member of a forum dedicated to the series) and fewer obscure in-jokes. Valid criticisms are likely to recur, though I shall be writing them afresh here, and if they wind up phrased much the same way as they were first time round, that'll just indicate that I haven't much changed the way I say things since then.

As my original Sorcery! character died in the previous book, I shall have to create a new one. How this Analander managed to get to the far side of Kharé without acquiring any equipment or losing or gaining gold is a mystery, but somehow it's happened. And if I'm going to be picky about such things, one might wonder how someone with
Skill: 7
Stamina: 18
Luck: 9
managed to survive this far anyway.

I commence my crossing of the Baklands, a region of which my character knows little. Hearing the sounds of birds drawing nearer, I reassure myself that they can't be Xamen Birdmen this far from their territory. That's a bit optimistic, given that it was Xamen Birdmen that stole the crown I'm seeking to retrieve, and they went a lot further from home than here in order to do that. But I am correct. It's just four Nighthawks seeking to prey on me.

As is traditional, more than half of the spells I could cast here are tricks for the unwary: one only works indoors, one requires an item that even a veteran of books 1 & 2 has not yet had a chance to obtain, one creates quicksand, which isn't going to pose much of a threat to airborne opponents, and as Cybe discovered, another is effectively ignored by the birds. Leaving one that might work but costs 4 Stamina to cast, so if I get lucky, I'm better off just fighting.

I am not lucky, and lose slightly more Stamina than I would have casting the spell. But I do kill one of the Hawks, which is better than Steve Jackson though I'd do, as he has a Goldcrest Eagle (a particularly formidable variant of messenger pigeon) turn up, kill two of the Hawks, and scare off the other two. This assistance is not unwelcome, though the message the Eagle carries is far from good news. Basically, spies in the employ of the Archmage who stole the crown have learned of my quest, and have despatched the Seven Serpents (particularly ophidian variants of messenger pigeon) to warn him, so he can prepare a less-than-friendly welcome for me. If I could see my way to tracking down and killing the lot of them as I cross the Baklands, that should make the next book less difficult. The message also advises me to seek out Shadrack the Hermit, which I shall do even though I know him to be less well-informed than the message makes out.

I stop by a lone tree to eat Provisions, and the twigs reform into a creepy-looking face that gives me directions to Shadrack's. The way the message is phrased implies that this is not Shadrack remotely contacting me, though it subsequently becomes apparent that the tree did take on Shadrack's likeness while addressing me. Regardless, the advice given is accurate, and before long I'm enjoying the Hermit's hospitality. He is able to tell me the history and names of the Serpents, and that each has one particular vulnerability (though not what most of those vulnerabilities are), but not where to find them (which is only really an issue because that note said, 'naught moves through the Backlands (sic.) without his Knowledge', and it's a little disappointing that his knowledge of their movements boils down to, 'yeah, they're here somewhere').

The next morning I set off again, back to full Stamina and with a gift in my backpack. A gift which almost gets broken when I fall over as a result of being surprised by a Baddu-Beetle. This is a nasty fight, and unavoidable for anyone starting in this book, as the choice of spells to use here is again largely useless. If Steve Jackson had written a gamebook series entitled Cookery!, I'd expect to encounter situations like needing to peel potatoes, and having to choose from a list of implements that went: Sugar tongs, Tea strainer, Segway, Knife, Measuring jug.

Anyway, I attack the Beetle, and as soon as I hit it, it spits acid at me. Every time I wound the dratted thing, I risk taking damage (and, of course, I definitely take damage any time the Beetle wins a round). Use of Luck to double the damage I deal cuts down on the number of times I have to roll on the Beetle Payback Table, but there's no way of completely avoiding it, and I wind up getting half-blinded (though the book doesn't bother to specify precisely what effect losing the sight in one eye has on my stats). In the interests of verisimilitude, I'm writing the rest of this entry with a scarf wrapped around my head to cover my left eye.

After gathering up some dust I can use in a spell, I continue on my way until a couple of disembodied eyes appear in front of me. Considering my Beetle-inflicted injuries, that's just cruel. A skeletal figure takes shape, and beckons to me. I get closer in order to point out what I think of those who mock the afflicted, and now that I'm close enough to see properly, perceive that this looks a lot like the Deathwraith that would have given me a hard time if I'd lived long enough to encounter it in Kharé.

For once there's an opportunity to cast a useful spell, dispelling the illusion before me to reveal a balding prankster. The book is annoyingly unclear here: it provides the man's stats and gives me the option of killing him or sparing him, but doesn't specify whether or not I have to beat him half to death before letting him live, as with the Assassin in The Shamutanti Hills. As it says I 'may' fight, I'm interpreting that as meaning I don't have to, and as his Skill's only slightly less than mine, I'd rather avoid combat and skip straight to the intimidation.

The man gives me money, a throwing disc and a vial of powder I can use to cast a spell, and starts to tell me something about the Serpents before dying of fright. Suddenly it gets dark, and the Moon Serpent appears overhead. Again I get a chance to cast a spell worth casting, and while this one costs half my remaining Stamina, it's cheap considering that the alternative is fighting a Skill 13 opponent. Bizarrely, as the Serpent dies, it transforms into another spell component.

The next choice of directions is a bit odd, as it points out that going one way will, after several hours, lead to my spotting something that brings me to a halt. The book has 498 sections, so it's not as if shifting the 'several hours later you see something unexpected' to an interstitial paragraph would have resulted in a more awkward number. It's not even that remarkable a sight - just a bunch of caravans that turn out to belong to a clan of Black Elf traders. They're none too hospitable at first (to the extent of firing warning shots), but as soon as I offer to pay for a meal, I'm everybody's new best friend. The food includes an unpleasant yet Luck-replenishing cheese, which more than justifies the price.

After I've eaten, I entertain my hosts with a few Goblin jokes, as a result of which I get offered a special rate on any of their wares that I might wish to buy. Comedians must be in short supply in the Baklands, if the jokes in the book are the best entertainment the Elves have had in a long while. With the discount they offer, I'm able to get extra Provisions, a couple of spell components and a suit of chain mail and still have more than enough money left to rent a caravan for the night. I'm not back to full health yet, but I'm significantly less close to death than I was.

Setting off again in the morning, I encounter a fast-moving gnomelike creature that demands a gift. Knowing how this encounter can pan out, I hand over the powder the illusionist gave me. This so pleases the creature that it dispels its own illusory disguise, revealing itself to be a tall woman, who gives me a vial to use against the Sleepless Ram in Mampang, warns me that the Earth Serpent is close by (and lets me know its weakness), and hands over her walking stick, which is a spell component and also weakens Serpents.

Continuing on my way, I stop on a rocky outcrop to eat a meal, and afterwards I inadvertently kick a stone, which rolls a short distance before turning back and hitting my ankle. The top of the outcrop explodes, and rocks fall towards me, but slowly enough that I can cast the spell that turns one of my remaining gold pieces into a shield. This protects me from the shower of stone, but is less use against the grave-shaped pit that opens up beneath me. A heated rock emerges from the ground, and as I try to climb out of the pit, something bites me. Steve's gone back to the useless spell lists, so I have to try climbing out again. And this section is atrociously written, telling me that I have to roll against my Skill, and not specifying what happens if I fail the roll. As I remembered this shambles from the forum playthrough, I kept a finger by the page for the previous section and, for want of clearer directions, will treat a failed roll as leading to the 'stay in the pit' option. Stamina loss results, but I get to try again, and this time I succeed. (Incidentally, if Mr. Jackson disagrees with me regarding what happens as a result of failing that Skill roll, he is welcome to call round and write a correction into the book.)

Climbing out does not end my troubles. Cracks radiate out from the pit, a boulder fidgets, awaiting its cue to reenact its favourite scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark, and a small snake winds itself around my leg, preparing to bite me. I swat it to the ground, and it reveals itself to be the Earth Serpent. Hurriedly extracting the right item from my backpack, I cast the spell that enables me to blow the Serpent into the air, where, like Antaeus (I've done my research since 2009), it is unable to draw strength from the ground, so I can kill it.

With the Serpent dead, the terrain stops behaving so badly, and I carry on towards the next stage of my journey, the Forest of the Snatta. It's getting late by the time I reach the outskirts, so I make camp for the night, regaining some of the Stamina I lost against the Earth Serpent.

The next day I set off into the Forest, and the path splits. I take what turns out to be one of the less good routes, straying into Snattacat territory. Like the Cheshire Cat from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Snattacats can appear and disappear more or less at will. Unlike Carroll's feline, they're more interested in attacking adventurers than engaging in unhelpful banter.

Fleeing, I discover a hillock with a door set into it, and investigate. Beyond the door, a passage leads to a room where a spindly creature is talking to a Glass Orb. I announce my presence, and she introduces herself as Fenestra, an Elf Sorceress. I talk magic with her, and she agrees to a trade of spell components. She gets more out of it than I do, but as I'm certain to fail without the item I acquire from her, it's still a good deal.

As we're getting on so well, I mention my quest, and she reveals that she hates the Serpents because the Water Serpent killed her father. Consequently, she has been stockpiling oil (its principal weakness), and has trapped its associate the Sun Serpent in her Orb, hoping to use it as bait in a Water Serpent trap. One potential flaw in the plan is that the Sun Serpent's weakness is water, so the Serpent she seeks to lure here is pretty much the last one that'd be sent looking for Sunny Boy.

It'd be like sending this lot to rescue someone with a severe peanut allergy. 

Aware that once I leave the Forest I'll have to cross Lake Ilklala (and having learned from past attempts that this is my only opportunity to get the item essential for doing so), I ask for Fenestra's advice on how best to go about it. She sells me a whistle for summoning the ferrymaster, and then offers me a gift (one of the gift options being a whistle just like the one I just paid for). The medicinal potion could be handy, but I'll take the lucky charm instead.

Beyond Fenestra's home, the path splits again. The fork I take leads to an encounter with a Wild Bear, so I try out my newest spell component and do a Doctor Dolittle impersonation, in the hope that I can persuade this ursine obstacle that we don't have to fight. Alas, the Bear's conversational gambits go no further than, "I'm hungry. You look edible." So I use the staff I got earlier, and temporarily immobilise the Bear instead.

Continuing on my way, I reach the Lake and make camp for the night. In the morning I blow the whistle, and the ferryman asks me where I want to go. This is his 'little jest', as people only ever call him if they want to cross the lake. Maybe I should tell him about the Black Elves' love of stand-up comedy. He wants 4 gold pieces, which is more than I can afford, and Steve Jackson evidently disapproves of contemporary economic policy, as he doesn't give me the option of creating illusory wealth with which to pay. (Back when I was being attacked by a giant, acid-spitting beetle, then I could have created a mound of fake treasure, but here, where the spell could actually benefit me? Don't be silly.) Instead, I use the same spell I did on the Bear, and threaten to leave the ferryman frozen in place unless he takes me across the Lake free of charge. Not very nice, I know, but the only other viable option provided by the book was to repeatedly punch him in the face until he agreed to transport me gratis. Sometimes there are no good choices.

The ferryman disappears into the undergrowth to fetch his boat. I know from past attempts that, just after he vanished from sight, he was killed by the Air Serpent, which then inhabited his corpse, but even if I weren't aware of that, my suspicions would be raised by the surly attitude 'the ferryman' displays when he reappears. I wouldn't expect him to like me after what I did, but in view of the way I intimidated him, he wouldn't dare display the sort of rudeness with which I am greeted here. I refuse to take the oars when ordered to, and the ferryman shrivels like a balloon as the Serpent exits his cadaver. Remembering what Shadrack told me (and what happened every time I got this far through the book before today), I take a look at the ferryman's remains, find the Serpent's shed skin, and rip it apart, causing the Serpent's gaseous form to disperse.

Now I do have to row the boat myself, but out of necessity rather than at the behest of an enemy. Around half way across the Lake, I notice some intriguing bubbles, and take a closer look. My Luck suffices to keep me from being thrown overboard to my doom when the bubbles attack the boat from beneath, and after a moment of tension-building calm, the source of this aquatic strangeness reveals itself to be the Water Serpent. Not exactly the most unexpected twist, now is it? Slickly, I get out the bottle of oil from Fenestra and throw its contents all over the Serpent, which drops out of the confrontation.

Continuing to the far side of the Lake, I tie the boat up and start to head through the Vischlami Swamp. Hearing a group of creatures heading my way, I wait to see what's coming. It's a group of Marsh Goblins, and casting the spell that enables me to speak their language is more helpful here than in the encounter with the Bear. The Goblins explain that they're being chased by a Serpent. Fenestra gave them a scroll with a spell to use against it, but none of them can read it. They show it to me, and I promise to deal with the Serpent for them.

Soon afterwards I encounter the Serpent, and use the scroll I just picked up. The Serpent of Time finds its mode switched from fast forward to slo-mo, and I have no problem defeating it in battle. Well, it would have wounded me once, but for the debilitating effect of the Staff I carry.

The Vischlami is a lot less hassle to cross than Scorpion Swamp, and I'm soon at the foot of the Zanzunu Peaks. Time to pause and take stock. I killed the Moon, Earth, Air, Water and Time Serpents, and left the Sun Serpent trapped in Fenestra's Orb. That makes six. That wrong turning in the Forest denied me an encounter with the Fire Serpent, so I'll be playing book 4 on difficult mode. Mind you, I lacked the item to which that Serpent was vulnerable, so if I had met it, I might have ended up like Cybe (to whom I've already linked once on this page), in which case I'd still be playing The Crown of Kings on 'hard', but without the benefit of the items I've acquired in this book.

Inspired by having only slightly failed to get all the Serpents, I recover all lost Stamina (and Skill, if I had been missing any, but as I'm not, I'll take off the scarf instead). The Archmage's Fortress comes into view and, having little understanding of alternate timestreams in which I got killed at a funfair, I reflect that the most perilous stage of my quest lies ahead...

This is the only Sorcery! gamebook not to make it into the top 10 in Fighting Fantazine's gamebook poll. Well, one of them had to come last (out of the Sorcery! series, that is - it still beat over 50 of the regular FF books), but I don't think it's significantly worse than either of its predecessors. There's definitely room for improvement, but the same could be said for every other book in the series. For all its faults, it's a lot of fun, and never made me want to treat it like the Air Serpent's skin, and that alone raises it above a significant number of gamebooks.

Wait, Are You Trying to Tell Me Everybody's Dead?

A slight deviation from the standard pattern this week, as I'm playing the next Magnamund-based book today rather than returning to the world of Tunnels & Trolls. There should be a double dose of T&T over the course of the next couple of Mondays, though.

Memory suggests that I didn't acquire Flight from the Dark, the first Lone Wolf gamebook, on a schoolday. I vaguely recall reading some of the book in D'Ambrosio's café, not two minutes' walk from the Book Exchange where I purchased it, and my dad was definitely with me on that occasion, so it must have been a Saturday, half term, or a school holiday. Shockingly, I wrote on both copies of the Action Chart. The second one in blue biro.

If it wasn't my first attempt that ended with my being shredded by Doomwolves, it was certainly an early one. Actually, now I come to think about it, the time I got throttled by a Vordak probably came first. Regardless, this is one book that I've played a lot. At some point in the early-to-mid nineties, I decided to do the whole saga. (Well, books 1-12. At least some of the post-Magnakai ones were out by then, but I was satisfied with the original ending to the series and so avoided the follow-ups.) But I was going to do them 'properly', which meant that any time I failed, I went right back to book 1 and started over with a fresh character. I have no idea how many restarts that involved, but it was enough that I wound up creating a 'condensed' FftD to save me having to keep flicking through the book. Just a scratty bit of paper listing all the rolls, fights and attribute adjustments that occurred on my chosen path through the book. I still have it somewhere. If I knew where, there'd be a scan of it just under this paragraph.

In an alternate timestream where Banedon didn't get killed by trigger-happy idiots, the morning of the feast of Fehmarn sees Kai novice Silent Wolf in the forest outside the monastery, gathering firewood as punishment for not paying attention in class. He sees a flock of winged monstrosities swoop down to attack the monastery, rushes forwards to try and help fight off the invaders, fails to notice a particularly low branch on one of the trees, and knocks himself out. The fate of Magnamund is in this clumsy slacker's bark-stained hands. A quick summary of his stats and capabilities, and then I'll slip into the first person.
Combat Skill: 15
Endurance: 25
Kai Disciplines: Hunting, Sixth Sense, Healing, Mindshield, Weaponskill (Mace)
The weapon my character has been trained to use is randomly generated. I rolled one of the less useful ones. Indeed, it may be the worst one on the list. Axe is pretty rubbish, but it is at least useful for the first book, as an axe forms part of the default starting equipment (presumably I was carrying one to aid with the acquisition of firewood).

I come round hours later (let's assume that my Healing has taken care of the concussion, brain damage and other trivia liable to accompany any head wound serious enough to induce unconsciousness for that long) to find the monastery in ruins, with no survivors other than myself. As the situation becomes clear to me, I reach two conclusions:
  1. I should go to the capital city and warn the authorities that Sommerlund is under attack.
  2. 'Lone Wolf' is a much catchier name than 'Silent Wolf'.
Before setting off, I search the ruins of the monastery for useful items. There's a 10% chance of getting a mace, but I only find two Meals' worth of food. Which is really tiresome, as the whole point of picking Hunting as a Discipline is that in most situations it eliminates the need to carry food.

At least Sixth Sense works okay, alerting me to the fact that both of the paths available are being searched by some of the creatures that attacked the monastery, so I head off the beaten track and into the forest. The map indicates that I'm to the northwest of where I need to go, so south seems a wiser option than northeast. After narrowly avoiding being spotted by a Kraan (one of the winged beasts), I find another path, and go east, as I'm going to have to cross the river to the south at some point, and there's only one bridge marked on it.

Catching sight of a group of people in fine but tattered clothes, I deduce that they're refugees from some other atrocity, and greet them. Yes, they're from a northern port that has fallen to the invaders, and are delighted to see that rumours of the Kai's destruction are false. I choose not to disillusion them, and head on my way.

At another junction, my Sixth Sense presents me with a quandary. The route south is the quickest, but leads into a pitched battle. If it's the one I'm thinking of, I think I'd better avoid it. With a higher Combat Skill, or at least Weaponskill in sword (or even axe), I'd have a fair chance against the big lizard thing I'd have to fight, but I don't fancy this Lone Wolf's chances.

Going east leads to a track leading north and south. North is the wrong way, while south leads to a 'didn't think it through' section. There's a Meal check (eat a Meal, use Hunting, or lose 3 Endurance), followed by the realisation that the track bends east, and the option of turning back to the previous section. So if I didn't have Hunting, and were in a particularly silly mood, I could just repeatedly flick between those two sections, making my character march back and forth on a short stretch of path until he starved to death.

Following the path east leads to a crossroads. Going west leads to the section I've just complained about (so for a more interesting suicide, one could alternate between going north and going east before returning to the Meal check), and section number recognition tells me that south leads to the battle I've already tried evading once. North is still foolishness, so I either continue east or get railroaded into a fight.

East leads to another crossroads. But with a different section number to the south, so I'll risk it. And I see two legs sticking out from behind a boulder. A combination of footwear recognition skills and Sixth Sense tells me that the legs belong to a wounded soldier in the King's employ, so I risk going round the boulder for a shot at using Healing on him. He explains that a Kraan abducted him from the battle I'm trying to avoid.

Moving onwards, I hear the sounds of battle to the west. I also recognise the section number for 'ignore the noise and carry on south' as being the one for going east from the last crossroads, which suggests to me that either this is a very geographically sloppy region, or that's a catch-all 'blunder into a party of patrolling enemies and die' ending.

All right, Dever, you win. I'll go to your poxy battle and probably get killed there, because it still has better odds than the Instant Death I smell to the south and east. I was mildly disapproving of nineties-me for repeatedly fudging character generation, but now I'm getting the impression that it was something I needed to do to have any realistic chance of getting beyond book 1.

Yep, it's that battle all right. I see Prince Redshirt fighting the Gourgaz, and felled by an arrow. So do I charge into battle and almost certain death, or head into the forest and probable Instant Death by authorial disapproval? It'll have to be the marginally less doom-laden option. And the random number generator isn't as bloodthirsty as Mr. Dever, so I only lose half my Endurance against a foe whose attributes are both 5 higher than mine at the start of battle. Ha!

Healing restores 1 Endurance every time you turn to a combat-free section (making the path set-up to the north even more broken gameplay-wise, as a badly wounded character could have returned to full health just by running from one crossroads to another and back for a while), so I just need to try and stay out of trouble for the next dozen or so sections. Yeah, right.

The Prince is dying, but his troops distract the enemy forces long enough for him to get through his deathbed exposition. He urges me to warn the King about what's happening (I was already on my way to do that!), and tells me to take his horse. The journey probably takes fewer sections on horseback, which means less healing, but I don't really have any choice in the matter.

The horse takes me south at an impressive speed. I have to eat again along the way. Now, the books usually say when it is not possible to use Hunting as a substitute for a Meal, and it doesn't mention anything like that here. Besides, the implausibility of going rummaging through a backpack, extracting assorted comestibles and calmly muching on them while on a horse that's rapidly galloping along a twisted forest track leads me to the conclusion that I must stop to have the food, and if I've stopped, I'm able to identify some edible fungi or trap some nutritious wild animal or whatever else Hunting actually entails.

The signpost at the next junction has been vandalised, so I take what should be the right direction if I'm facing south. Soon afterwards, I spot five Doomwolves with Giak riders. One of them starts heading my way. Attacking when there are so many reinforcements within earshot looks pretty suicidal, so I try hiding. Luckily, I am not scented by the passing Doomwolf, and I pass up the opportunity to attack the remaining four, and just leave the path again. After a while it starts to get dark, and I must choose between pressing onwards and bearing left. No 'acknowledge that riding through thick forest in darkness is extremely dangerous, and take a break for the night' option, alas.

I do get to rest for the night a little later, but not before reaching a lake and riding around it after my Sixth Sense warns me not to trust the ferryman who offers to row me across. The next morning I wake to find that the invaders have reached the far side of the lake. A Kraan starts flying across and in my direction, so I don't loiter.

Apart from skirting a clearing that could facilitate an ambush, I do little of note until I sight the capital (incidentally returning to full health as I do so). The enemy are still approaching, though, and I have some way to go before I can complete my quest. There are three potential ways to cover the final stretch. One leads to Instant Death by Doomwolf, IIRC. One is an unknown quantity to me. The third is via the Graveyard of the Ancients. Just the sort of place to appeal to my teenage self's more morbid sensibilities, and still my preferred route in later years because by then I knew the best way through it. So why change the habit of a lifetime?

The horse won't go near the Graveyard, so I have to proceed on foot. As I carefully make my way through, the ground collapses under me, depositing me in a subterranean tomb. There's a tunnel leading out, just past a sarcophagus. In many gamebooks, searching for treasure would be the obvious choice, though the more cautious player might opt to just go. Here, I have the opportunity of consulting with my Sixth Sense before making a decision.

Can you guess what it advises?

The exit leads to a junction. Turning south leads me to a greenly-lit chamber containing a throne and a statue of a winged serpent. I think checking out the statue may actually be the best course of action here. Then again, maybe not, as a real Winged Serpent bursts out of the statue and attacks. Just how long has it been waiting for some hapless adventurer to come within range? However long, its patience was in vain, as I barely take a scratch in the course of hacking it apart.

Killing the Serpent inexplicably activates a secret door, and before long I find myself at a non-secret door with an ornate lock. Drat it, I missed the key, and as I don't have Mind Over Matter, I am in considerable danger of falling victim to a lethal booby trap. A 50% chance, in fact! But I get lucky and dodge the massive granite block that drops from above, and then I can climb through the hole said block left in the ceiling. Phew!

Hurriedly exiting the necropolis, I make my way across the last stretch of ground before the city defences. The guards are a much more perceptive bunch than the lot that killed Banedon on Magnamund-2, and recognise that I'm one of the good guys, rather than mistaking me for some undead revenant, so I get cheered on and offered a swig of grog instead of being shot dead. There's a slightly awkward moment when one of the officers asks when the rest of the Kai are going to turn up, but when I explain my mission, he summons two horses and accompanies me to the city.

Once within the city walls I have the option of abandoning the officer and trying to find the King under my own steam. I can't think of any particularly good reasons for not sticking with someone who knows the way and has some authority here, besides which I know that going solo can lead to some rooftop action that may (depending on how I roll) climax with a spectacular 'granite block by tomb exit' impersonation.

The option to strike out on my own is offered twice more, firstly when a scar-faced man in the robes of the King's court tells me to follow him, and then when Scarface opens up a secret passage and invites me into it. This is actually one of the all-too-infrequent instances where a fictional character with a scar isn't a villain, and as a result of trusting the man, I get to use some of the palace's en suite facilities to freshen up before meeting with the King.

The hostile army heading for the city has been noticed by now, so I need only inform the King that his son is dead, and that I'm the last of the Kai. Given that the Kai were pretty much the only people capable of dealing with the leader of the invading forces, this is not the most encouraging news he's heard all day. But all is not yet lost, as he knows of a rather handy sequel opportunity on the far side of the map...

Well, that was more flawed than I remembered it being. But not enough to merit the extensive rewrite that it got a few years back. Still, that's a topic for another blog entry.