Wednesday, 22 May 2013

The Leaves That Are Green Turn to Brown

I don't really remember anything about getting issue 11 of Warlock magazine. My initial reaction to the mini-adventure, The Land of Changes, was somewhat mixed. On the one hand, it was Ruth Pracy's follow-up to The Floating City, which I still considered one of the best Warlock minis back then. On the other, it had the same intrusive D&D jargon that had helped sour me on Rogue Mage the previous issue. As I recall, my first attempt ended with my character dying for attempting to use a magical horn in a confrontation with opponents who turned out to have the ability to steal sound. It was at around that point that I started to go off Ms. Pracy's tendency to penalise readers for not knowing what hadn't been pointed out.

This is almost certainly going to be shorter than my previous playthrough, because I don't intend to repeat a 'mistake' I made in that one. Making the 'wrong' decision in the first section means missing out on something important, but some way into the adventure an opportunity is provided to go back in time and do things the way the author thinks they should have been done. This time round I'll just go along with Ms. Pracy's preferences from the outset, so as not to have to go through a great chunk of the adventure twice.

I don't remember any seriously problematic fights in this one, so I shall take the dice as they fall.
Skill 12
Stamina 19
Luck 9
Not bad. Certainly plausible for a character who survived The Floating City, which climaxes with a fight against a Skill 11 opponent.

Some time has passed since the events of City (which, for this character, did not end with falling into near-freezing water and dying), and I have grown tired of the land of Winter, and nostalgic about the life I once had in Summer. But going back there will require me to pass through the region of Autumn between these two lands. The cycle of nature requires there to be growth as well as death, so there are occasional bursts of, for want of a better word, Spring, and things can get pretty turbulent when the wind blows...

But I'm not going to get back to Summer by dwelling on the dangers of the journey ahead of me. In fact, I'm probably not going to get back to Summer at all, given what I'll experience along the way, but that's beside the point. I enter Autumn, and soon get the impression that I'm being watched. Proceeding with caution is not advisable in this instance, owing to authorial quirks. No, the best course of action is to march boldly into the trap.

So I step forwards, and find myself in a net, suspended fifteen feet above the ground. The Brownies who set it (the folkloric kind, not the sort my sisters used to be) rush out from hiding, and one of them cuts the rope holding me up. I fall to the ground, losing 2 Stamina, and getting a rather superfluous 'if you are still alive' condition on turning to the next section. I've only just started the adventure, and even with the worst dice imaginable, I'd still have at least 14 Stamina. And anyone who avoided this ambush and eventually got sent back through time to the net would have had any wounds acquired in the interim healed before being sent here, so either way, it's not remotely possible for the fall to prove fatal.

The Brownies want me to go with them, and as massacring them would be a bit of an overreaction, I do so. They lead me to their village and indicate that I should enter a hut, so I do so. It contains a repulsively dirty old woman seated next to a fire. She beckons me over with a glowing poker and, aware that refusing would end badly for me, I do so. She then asks me if I'm brave and, wanting a practical demonstration rather than a possibly inaccurate spoken answer, plucks a branding iron from the fire and applies the business end to my forehead. I manage not to flinch, and it doesn't hurt. Suddenly the woman is young and beautiful, and she explains that she's given me the Mark of True Sight. She also hands me a horn with which I can call for aid (assuming my opponents don't carry a universal mute button).

Thanking her (and suppressing any thoughts about how deranged this set-up is), I leave the hut, and the Brownies cheer upon seeing the mark on my forehead. Bet they'd love the tattoo sported by the hero of City of Thieves. A night of celebration follows, while a storm of seasons rages outside. The next morning I'm given a tour of the village, discovering that the cabbage patch has diamonds where more mundane gardens would have slug trails. The flowers whisper to me of Summer (literally, not metaphorically), prompting me to be on my way. Before I leave, the Brownies present me with some extra Provisions (including some garlic) and a knife.

On the way out of the village I spot a tree that looks like a human, and approach it. It starts to change shape, ultimately becoming a green-skinned woman, who kisses me. Becoming a tree-hugger is not an option here, so I continue on my way. Before long I reach a sunny glade containing a stone with a hole in it. This is a Self-Bored Stone, through which magical visions can be seen, so I put my eye to the hole and see strange figures riding antlered steeds across a stormy sky. Their leader blows a horn like the one I was given, and flies at me like a show-offy bit of FX from a 3D movie.

Returning to reality (or as close to it as is possible in this strange place), I become aware that the clearing is full of Gwyllion, evil female spirits. Somehow aware that my sword will have no effect on them (but, short of knowledge gained from previous deaths, not that the horn will be no good either), I draw the Brownies' knife, and the Gwyllion turn into a column of mist that streams away into the sky. The stone sings and impersonates a lighthouse, then disappears, leaving a jewelled crown in its place. I'm not so bemused as to ignore loot when it turns up, so I grab the crown and hasten on to whatever weirdness awaits next.

In another clearing I find a ruined tower. Taking a look inside, I am confronted by the dreaded (and inaccurately-depicted) Redcap, a rogue Brownie who gets his name from his habit of using the blood of his victims to dye his headgear. He attacks me and, for possibly the first time in all my attempts at this adventure, I actually experience the hole in the rules that I've been aware of since at least 2004. Redcap has 10 Stamina. According to Fighting Fantasy's rules governing combat, hitting an opponent costs them 2 Stamina (there are exceptions, but there's nothing to indicate that this fight is one of them). The text tells me where to turn if I survive six rounds of combat with Redcap, but gives no indication of what to do if I manage to kill him, even though I only need to hit him five times to do so. And on this occasion I managed it.

Well, I did survive those six rounds regardless, so I have to turn to the section indicated. There I must Test my Luck (and if I'm Unlucky, the late Redcap will skewer me with his pike) and, as I'm Lucky, I find myself involuntarily quoting scripture at Redcap (in a kind of anti-Tourette's Syndrome), at which point he screams and flees (even though I just killed him), leaving a tooth behind. I pocket the tooth and walk on.

Further on I catch sight of a spherical dwelling made from twigs and moss, and my True Sight convinces me to enter it. The inside is decorated with gold, jewels and tapestries, and the occupant is a beautiful woman, who embraces me and heals what little Stamina and Luck I've lost. To show my gratitude, I hand her the tooth, which turns out to be just what she always wanted, as it will protect its bearer from any weapon (a benefit that wouldn't have saved me from any Instant Deaths because reasons). In return, she offers to grant my greatest wish or my heart's desire. No, they're not the same thing. And if I pick the wrong one, I get a 'you survive, but you are NO HERO' ending, as Ms. Pracy has high and bizarre standards for adventurers.

I make the choice she wants, and am offered the opportunity of undertaking the most epic quest ever, to find the secret of the universe (not 42 in this instance) that lies beyond the mountains at the edge of the world, which none may scale because they're as high as the stars (I don't think that's a reference to drug use in Hollywood). She can help me by revealing 'the secret of a secret', but first I must swear to undertake the quest or die in the attempt (a vow that, should I hit a non-lethal obstacle, will prove very nearly as binding as the average New Year's Resolution).

Agreeing to her terms, I receive a crystal orb ('the key') and a ball of yarn that will guide me forward if I use it wisely. The woman tells me that her name is Lina, and I should 'remember the letter' of it. As for her secret? It's that I should seek Gether, the holder of the secret. So her secret is basically the name of the man who knows the secret that will help me find the secret. What's the betting that that secret leads to an even secreter secret and so ad infinitum?

Randomly wandering on into the woods, I reach the Clearing of Exasperating Death (my name for the place). In the centre is a pillar of rock, with a different letter carved into each side: A, J, L and Z. Touch the wrong one, and I die. I know (because I have frequently ranted about it) that L for Lina is not the right letter. I can rule out the one I tried in the other playthrough, as that got me killed. So I'm down to a 50% chance of dismal failure. Maybe a careless typesetter omitted the word 'last' from Lina's advice about her name...

A bottomless pit opens up beneath me. As it's bottomless, I should at least have a chance of getting out the horn and blowing it while in perpetual free-fall (what would happen if I dropped something while at terminal velocity?), but that option's not open to me, so I guess I just keep falling until I die of dehydration. Plenty of time to rant about unfair puzzles as I go.

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