Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Ooh, Suddenly You've Gone Too Far

The few memories I have in connection with getting issue 10 of Warlock suggest that I didn't get it on a Friday. Either that, or my grandparents were on holiday at the time. I bought it in town, possibly from the WHSmith's in the precinct (which has long since relocated), and started to look through it on the way back home. I distinctly recall being in Tandy for some reason while reading the article on the then forthcoming sequel to Deathtrap Dungeon.

As for the mini-adventure, Graeme Davis' Rogue Mage, my earliest memories of it are about things I disliked even before I tried playing it. The more obvious 'offence' was the dual-system aspect of it: the text included instructions for playing by D&D rules as well as the FF system, in a misguided attempt to appeal to 'serious gamers', so there was extra jargon accompanying every dice roll or stat adjustment. Further cause for complaint (at least in my eyes, at that time) became apparent when I indulged a habit I have since done my best to kick: Instant Death-hunting. I'm sure I can't be the only gamebook reader who's gone flicking through adventures in search of all the bad endings. Of which Rogue Mage has hardly any, instead relying for the most part on combat and other means of Stamina depletion to eliminate characters. I was not impressed, and took no great interest in the adventure. Indeed, it made so little an impression that when I came across the slightly revised version in The Fighting Fantasy 10th Anniversary Yearbook, I didn't even realise that it was an adventure I already owned.

My previous playthrough showed that, despite being short on sections describing ways in which my character could meet with an unpleasant fate, RM can still prove lethal, and in view of the challenges encountered in the later stages of the adventure, I think a spot of character-tailoring might not go amiss. Except that it turns out not to be necessary with:
Skill 12
Stamina 18
Luck 11
Still, it doesn't pay to take things for granted, so I shall learn from past experience, and take a Potion of Strength with me. This is one of those adventures where you can only eat when specifically told you may, so having Provisions is no guarantee of being able to heal when low on health.

My character is an adventurer who's fallen on hard times. And they look about to get a lot harder as, having been caught trying to steal food, I'm to be hanged (or, if the judge is feeling particularly lenient, just going to have one of my hands amputated). Except for the intervention of a member of the Guild of Magicians, who requests that the court hand me over to them. Pretty much everybody present (bar the wizard) thinks that I've just been handed down far worse a sentence than the court could ever pronounce, but in fact I've got something vaguely reprieve-shaped.

It turns out that my help is needed in disposing of Galthazzeth, a former member of the Guild. He got expelled around a century ago when his research into magical crossbreeding strayed too far into the realm of the Chaotic, and is now creating an army of monstrosities in order to have revenge on the Guild. None of the wizards sent to try and deal with him managed it, so the Guild decided to see if a straightforward adventurer could succeed where magicians failed. Or if I'm unwilling to take that risk, I could just donate my internal organs to science. Without any of the usual 'after I die' malarkey. Funnily enough, the text doesn't give this decision to the reader, but automatically has my character accept the mission.

Equipped with the usual sort of starting gear, I make my way to the not-so-abandoned mine that Galthazzeth is using for his base of operations. Just before I emerge from the surrounding forest, a Goblin guard emerges from the entrance and starts snacking on something. I surprise it, and get in a free hit before it can grab its spear. Not that it fares any better once it's able to fight back.

I take the Goblin's spear, dagger, and G-inscribed medallion, but leave behind the remnants of its meal, a human arm. Proceeding into the mine, I reach a crossroads and head west. Before long I reach a door, behind which I can hear Goblins speaking. I step through, and two of the brutes attack. A typo effectively reverses the meaning of the instructions given for fighting both simultaneously, saying that if I get a better Attack Strength than the one I'm not targeting, it is 'now wounded' rather than 'not wounded'. Context (and the fact that this is a common approach in FF) makes the actual meaning clear, but if not for the fact that it'd be pretty pathetic to wilfully misinterpret the text in order to cut short a fight against some of the feeblest opponents in the whole adventure, I can see how some might be tempted to exploit the loophole.

After killing the Goblins (in a manner in keeping with authorial intent), I help myself to their money, dice and iron pendants, then search the room, finding a carved depression the shape of one of those pendants. Pushing a pendant into the hollow activates a secret door, and I surprise the Goblin Shaman in the room beyond, who is munching on a human arm like the guard I killed earlier. I hack him to bits before he can use magic against me. He has a bit more money on him, as well as a flask of effervescing fish-scented blue liquid and a scroll that may enable me to cast a Firestorm spell.

The room has another exit, leading into a temple containing a jewel-eyed statue, a brazier, and assorted whips and knives. Removing the gems causes the brazier to flare up and mildly singe me, but the damage is a small price to pay, considering the value of the rubies. Hey, if I was desperate enough to go pilfering food before this adventure began, that means that money can help keep me out of trouble.

Having explored the whole of this section of the mine, I return to the crossroads and go east. This leads to a chamber that gives the place a little 'abandoned mine' ambiance, what with the rubble and broken cart and so on. In a less mine-like fashion, a door leads north, but maybe Galthazzeth or one of his minions installed it for some reason. It opens into an east-west passage, and since west probably connects with the route north from the crossroads, I go east.

Up ahead, the passage turns north, but there's another door just before the turning. This opens into a debris-filled storeroom, in which I find a shiny amulet. One of the reasons I don't go hunting for Instant Death sections any more is because of the spoiler factor: not only can reading them out of context give away certain traps and other surprises, but it can make some ways of dying conspicuous by their absence. Knowing that there's no section for being horribly poisoned, or killed by a cursed amulet, takes the risk out of sampling unidentified potions or picking up mysterious artefacts. Okay, so I haven't tasted the liquid yet, but that's because my attributes are still close to maximum, so any benefit would be largely wasted.

Anyway, I return to the corridor and follow it round the corner. There's another turning east, and a door to the north. East first, I think. I get ambushed by a Bandit who rapidly regrets choosing me as a would-be-victim. After helping myself to his weapons and food, I turn my attention to the door that the text neglected to mention before, and push the Bandit's corpse through ahead of me. A Giant Beetle pounces on it, and I pounce on the Beetle. Considering that my Skill is 3 points higher than the Beetle's, I take a staggering amount of damage in the fight. Still, I think by now my Stamina and Luck are depleted enough to make it worth sampling the fizzy fish-scented potion. Which restores almost all the Stamina I lost in that fight.

An opportunity to eat Provisions wouldn't go amiss, though. By now I've got seven portions, and it's going to be a bit frustrating if the adventure only allows me to use one or two of them. Still, on the subject of food (indirectly), I do find some more money on the remains of the Beetle's past victims.

Back to the last junction, and north to that door. Which is neither a door nor a jar, but an Imitator - a shape-changing entity that likes to disguise itself as doors so as to take adventurers by surprise. I get surprised, it gets killed, so who's laughing now? Mind you, what with the ambush and a couple more iffy rolls, by the end I'm battered enough to think it worth swigging back the rest of that potion, which restores me to full health.

Beyond the Imitator, the passage leads to a chamber filled with treasure. Except that that amulet dispels the illusion and allows me to see that there's actually a brightly-coloured snake pretending to be a mound of treasure in front of me. I attack, hoping for better rolls than in my last couple of fights, as there are some tedious rules governing constriction should I lose any rounds. No, never had to implement them. And there is a small amount of genuine treasure here: some more gems and a magic sword.

Returning to the previous junction, I take that west turning, which bends north sooner than expected. There's a door in the west wall, behind which is a passage that probably connects to the initial crossroads. I check, and find that I'm right, but I also discover another door, behind which lurk more Goblins. They don't lurk for long. The room also contains spears and a treasure chest. In the chest are some money, a Potion of Fortune (part of which I take straight away, as my Luck is a bit low) and a foul-smelling package that I leave alone in case it turns out to be Goblins' Provisions. Talking of which, this is one place where I can eat. Not that I need to now (and if I'd gone north at the start, I'd be getting this opportunity - possibly the only one in the entire adventure - after fighting just four opponents, none of them with a Skill high enough to be much of a threat).

There are still two passages leading north that I have yet to investigate. I start with the easternmost of them, which slopes upwards and eventually turns west. A glowing figure drifts towards me, and asks why I'm here. I tell the Ghost the truth, and it says that Galthazzeth killed its mortal form, so it wants him dead too. It tells me of the touchstone that is the source of the wizard's power, which is hidden in a maze and guarded by what the Antmen call The Thing Too Horrible To Mention.

Continuing along the passage, I reach a chamber with a spiral staircase leading down, and a door going north. Heading down the stairs, I go through a door into a room containing two Antmen. They weren't expecting me, and don't get to use their acid spray before I attack them. Once they're dead, I help myself to the gems they own, and swap the Goblin spear for a Beetle-carapace shield. A second door leads south, but that'll just take me back towards the entrance, so I climb the stairs again.

The door I previously ignored leads into Galthazzeth's workshop, which is full of worker Antmen and assorted Zombies, possibly the men the Magician's Guild sent here before me. As I have that scroll, the text compels me to try using it, and the outcome is thoroughly random. Also unfavourable, so I merely fry a few of my own synapses and attract Galthazzeth's attention. His minions start to close in on me, but I see that the Antmen are wary, and attack them before they can get organised. They don't last long.

Galthazzeth prepares to cast a spell, but I throw a dagger at him, wounding him and breaking his concentration. We fight, and eventually he manages to focus for long enough to be able to fire a bolt of energy at me. I dodge the worst of it, though, and fight on. As I'm about to strike a killing blow, he teleports a short distance away. Pausing only to gulp down a dose of my Potion of Strength, I give chase.

I almost catch up with him in a laboratory, but he sets his Clone Slime on me and limps off again. Clone Slime is a rubbish opponent. It has a low Skill, but after a few rounds of combat it spawns homunculi with even lower Skill scores, depleting its own Stamina to create them, and continuing to throw wave after wave of utterly inept fighters (seriously, at my Skill level they have zero odds of ever winning an Attack Round - the formless Slime would at least have a 1 in 1296 chance of doing some damage each round) at me until it exhausts itself. It's not even as if the later waves are any better fighters than the early ones - having the Slime learn as it goes along, making each successive batch of humanoids more of a threat, would add a slight edge to the battle, but as it is, this is just a drawn-out sequence of dice-rolling (well, button-clicking thanks to my Gamebook Manager) leading to a foregone conclusion.

When the Slime is finally dead I set the lab ablaze (I'm not sure it's possible to keep from setting light to a mad scientist's laboratory as his defeat approaches) and then run after Galthazzeth again. He's in a cavern divided in two by a shallow gorge, with a river flowing through it. There's a rope bridge across the gorge, and the wizard is, predictably, trying to cut the ropes. He's not quite quick enough. As he sees me coming across the bridge, he flees once more. But, as I said, he's not quite quick enough. Nor fit to put up any fight, so I conclude our battle from earlier.

One of the items he has on him is a scroll. Remembering that the Ghost said he'd have a map of the maze (and that the last time I played this, the scroll was that map), I take a look at it. Still a map. It enables me to navigate to the power source, but before I can do anything to it, I meet The Thing Too Horrible To Mention, a kind of tentacled Giant Slug-cross-Zaphod Beeblebrox. It wounds me a few times, but I kill it and take the touchstone.

Retracing my path through the maze is easy enough with the map, and I return to the Magicians' Guild to report my success. The wizard thanks me, and I'm unreasonably resentful about not getting any reward from him. Sure, I may not be able to 'eat, drink or spend pretty words', but thanks to those rules on consumption of Provisions, there's no way (except by cheating) that I can have polished off all the food he provided to aid me in my quest. And even if that gameplay bug didn't exist, leaving me out of food by now, and I'd somehow managed to miss every valuable item in Galthazzeth's domain, I still have both my right hand and my life, which is more than I could have hoped for if he hadn't picked me for the job. So the way the adventure ends with me cursing him and all his kind slightly sours the victory.

Rogue Mage is not as bad as I originally assumed it would be - indeed, it has many good points (such as the freedom of movement prior to encountering Galthazzeth, and a good reason for having my movements decided for me from then on). But there's still a fair bit wrong with it, even if its flaws aren't the things that put me off it back in 1986.

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