Wednesday, 30 October 2013

You Throw Away Your Only Chance to Be Here Today

It was in Hammicks bookshop, near the Five Ways, that I came across Keith Martin's second FF gamebook, Vault of the Vampire. I was quite a fan of Vampire stories in those days, and a quick look in the book revealed it to have elements which appealed to my juvenile fondness for femmes fatales, so I bought a copy as quickly as I could. For the first time in some while, I also resolved to play by the rules from the outset, so I didn't start the adventure until I was home and able to use dice. On my first try, I wound up killed by a skeletal annoyance known as a Minor Thassaloss (which also defeated me the last time I wrote about playing this book), though even if I'd survived that fight, I'd already missed enough important stuff to guarantee failure.

Vault was also the first gamebook I played as an adult. The day after I turned 18, I began keeping a diary (my Birthday's the 31st of December, and the beginning of a new year seemed a more sensible starting point than the very last day of one), which I've managed to keep going ever since, and the very first entry in that diary includes the detail: 'Did FF38 by candlelight - got killed by the ****** spectre.'

From a mechanical point of view, this book's pretty brutal, so I'm definitely allocating dice when I roll up my character. That way I get:
Skill 12
Stamina 17
Luck 10
Faith 6
Still no guarantee of success, but I'm in with a chance, which is more than I would be with any other distribution of those rolls.

I'm seeking my fortune, and have wound up in the village of Leverhelven, in the not-at-all-ominously-named region of Mortvania. The locals are predictably unfriendly, and the tavern doors are barred just after I enter. An old woman who's had a bit much to drink is more talkative than anyone else, and reveals that the Count has been responsible for the abduction and death of many locals. Just yesterday his headless horseman came for her grand-daughter Nastassia. The woman pleads with me to rescue the girl, and a man with one arm offers me his life savings if I do so - he'd try himself if he still had both arms.

Before I can accept the mission, matters are taken out of my hands. The barred door bursts open, and a spectral figure with no head beckons me towards the coach that's parked outside. I leave the tavern, but decide against entering the coach, instead asking the locals the best way to get to the Count's castle. They tell me to avoid the road used by the coach, and to take the trail through the Forest of Phantoms instead. The one-armed man gives me money for the ferry across the River Bloodsedge, and I set off.

After a little while someone fires an arrow to get my attention, and I also see a large bear approaching. I announce that I come in peace, which so startles the archer that she hits me with an arrow. She's very apologetic afterwards, though, and gives me some extra Provisions that more than make up for the damage done when she shot me. My new acquaintance is a Forest Ranger named Valderesse (I wonder if she loves to go a-wandering along the mountain track), and once she learns of my intent, she thoroughly approves, commenting on the evil of the Count and, by contrast, the goodness of the previous Count, Siegfried, late brother of the current one.

Valderesse leads me to the river, where a Gnome offers to take me across for a price, or let me rest in his hut. Rather forcefully reminding the Gnome that he owes her a favour, the Ranger 'persuades' him to drop the charge, and also advises against accepting his hospitality, suggesting that I'd be better off resting at the forester's hut further along. I get into the boat, and the Gnome uses magic to propel it across the river. Valderesse remains on the south bank, and waves to me as I continue on my way.

Some hours later I reach the forester's hut and, not having had any sleep during the night, I decide to take the Ranger's advice. I cough to wake its occupant, who welcomes me and offers food. He's no fan of the Count either, blaming him for the disappearance of most of the creatures of the forest, and when I mention my quest, the forester gives me a string of garlic cloves, which he insists that I wear around my neck. He also mentions a possible ally at the castle: his friend Lothar the Castellan.

Resuming my journey once I'm suitably rested, I finally reach the castle towards evening. Entering the courtyard via the inevitable creaky gates, I see several doors. The first one I try leads to a storeroom with some sacks of grain and a few rats in it. There's another door, and as I head for that, the rats take a sudden interest in me. There are too many to fight, so I hurry through the door and shut it behind me.

On the other side, spiral stairs lead up. As I approach them, two armed Zombies advance on me, but my Faith is strong enough to deter them from attacking, so I get up the stairs without a fight. They lead to a landing with one door, and when I try to go through it, the handle grabs my hand and the door tells me I'm not allowed through. I break the door open with the hilt of my sword, taking minor damage as the handle pokes me in the stomach. Further steps lead up into a bell tower, and I hear what sounds like bats. They get agitated when I ascend the tower, but I manage to drive them off.

The tower contains several bronze bells (not surprising, it being a bell tower) and one silver bell that gives off a faint bluish glow. I ring the silver bell, which makes no sound, but causes the ghost of the late Count Siegfried to appear. He urges me to cleanse this place and free the people from his brother and murderer Reiner, and tells me that his armour, shield and sword are all hidden somewhere in the castle. More helpfully, he also tells me about the less powerful magic sword that's hidden in a secret chamber under this tower. I follow his directions and find the sword, which gives no bonus but will enable me to harm creatures that can't be hurt with conventional weapons.

Back in the courtyard I no longer have the option of checking out all of the doors - not that there's anything worth having behind the ones that are now off-limits, but the restriction is a bit arbitrary. The main doors into the castle are still accessible, though, and that's really all that matters.

Those doors lead into a hall, decorated in red and black. Three doors lead on, and I start by going west, finding myself in an abandoned storage room full of lumber. I take the time to search it, and find a crystal vial with silver banding that's worth a bit of money. Returning to the hall, I go east, entering a corridor with a couple of doors leading off it before it bends south. The first door leads to a lounge, with three paintings hanging on one wall. They depict Count Reiner Heydrich, Katarina Heydrich, and... well, having met Siegfried's ghost, I can figure out that he was the subject of the picture, but it has been defaced. Angered at this, I leave the room and stomp down the passage to the next door.

Behind it is a laboratory. A small, green, winged creature with a sparkling wand sits on a shelf and, not wishing to learn the wand's capabilities the hard way, I politely greet the creature. Its words indicate to me that this place is used by an alchemist, who's currently in an adjoining room. I go through to see him, finding him to be an old man, obviously more interested in his work than visitors, and apparently unarmed. Attacking the seemingly defenceless in gamebooks is rarely a good idea, especially when Keith Martin is the author, so I just ask him about his work. He reveals himself to be Katarina's beautician, and is somewhat reticent about one of the treatments he uses, perhaps because Puffin Books couldn't agree on terms of payment for a product placement deal with Garnier. One detail that he does let slip is that, despite her youthful appearance, his employer is actually 76. Not having contracted any form of Lycanthropy (the book does dedicate a somewhat disproportionate number of sections to dealing with an affliction that's not easy to contract even if you try to get it), I have nothing to gain from further conversation, and exit through a door that leads to the southward stretch of the corridor.

There's another door facing that one, so I open it and find an obviously demented young man dressed in military garb. I say hello to him anyway, and learn that he's the Count's cousin Wilhelm. He babbles nonsense about a sword hidden in a book, and since he's in no state to appreciate any 'the pen is mightier'-based witticisms, I leave him to his ravings.

The door at the south end of the corridor leads to the lowest level of the castle's south-east tower. My Faith is strong enough to attract the attention of a Wraith, but not sufficiently so to keep it away from me, so I have to fight. I manage to kill it without taking any damage, which is a good thing, as this is one of the castle's denizens that has some Skill-draining capability.

Stairs lead up to a barred door with glyphs on it. Something scratches on the other side, and there's an unpleasant smell in the air. Being an adventurer, I open the door rather than turning back. The room beyond is occupied by a huge and hungry Ghoul, which is also undeterred by my Faith. It manages to wound me a couple of times in the ensuing combat, which is rather too close for comfort - Mr. Martin's Ghouls need only strike three blows to paralyse their victims, rather than the four that are required in other gamebooks. Still, the increased narrowness of my escape from a particularly nasty ending doesn't make it any less of an escape.

More stairs lead to a moonlit chamber containing a sleeping woman bound to a chair with cobwebs. I sense both good and evil in this room, though I can't discern their precise sources. From past attempts at this adventure, I know that there are two ways of confronting the threat in this room. One will definitely result in my taking damage, while the other involves a Faith roll, the outcome of which would leave me either unscathed or doomed. All things considered, I'd rather take the definite hit than risk Instant Death, so I try the (sanitised) fairytale method, and kiss the woman. And I'd forgotten the slim possibility that doing that would trigger the same potentially lethal effect as taking the other approach. But that's what happens: the girl screams and, being a Baoban Sith (which seems to be some kind of Banshee), she can cause actual harm by screaming.

I succeeded at the not-that-important Faith roll to go all Counsellor Troi on the room's contents. I 'succeeded' at the better-to-fail Faith roll that made my kiss provoke the Baoban Sith into shrieking. But the do-or-die Faith roll that determined whether or not I was incapacitated by the scream? That one I fail, leaving me unable to defend myself while she gets out a dagger and guts me. Gamebook villains can get away with attacking those who can't fight back.

Monday, 28 October 2013

I Only Take the Best

I bought issue 11 of Proteus on my way to school, almost certainly from the newsagent's across and down the road from the school, as I was already on school grounds by the time I got half way through the 'Your Quest Begins...' section. It was the day of the week that my year at the school had Games, and I remember reaching the logic puzzle that must be solved to complete one of the sub-quests while making my way towards the playing fields.

Like the previous issue, this was written by Elizabeth Caldwell (with the assistance of R.B. Newton), but Challenge of the Promethean Guild is nothing like Triad. That much was obvious in one way from the cover illustration - more specifically, the gun wielded by the man depicted. Still, the SF aspects of the story are just trappings, little more significant than the mid-21st century setting of Shinderg's Tomb, and I remain baffled by the number of readers who wrote in to complain about the perceived genre shift. In fact, just to show how trivial the SF sheen is, once I get to the actual playthrough, I'll rewrite every intrusion of the futuristic in fantasy terms, and change the font colour to show that I've 'de-SFed' it.

I've specified that I'll do that in the playthrough because the only noteworthy variation in the rules for this adventure is the one SF element that does make a small but significant difference: the laser sword with which I am armed. While the name of the weapon may well make it sound like a renamed light sabre, it's nothing like that. If it took any inspiration from a film, the source is more likely to be the swords with guns built into their hilts from Krull. At the start of any fight, I fire the laser, after which it needs to recharge, so I turn the weapon around and start hitting my opponent with the pointy end. In game terms, it means that I do extra damage in the first round of combat (provided I hit my opponent).

The Promethean Guild is an organisation dedicated to the elimination of evil, though not above using questionable tactics to achieve its goals. Its members are among the best of the best, and the Guild has a rigorous selection process, starting with the challenge of finding out where the Testing Complex is located. I start the adventure knowing that, thanks to a cousin who sought Guild membership himself some time ago. And now I consider myself ready to face the Guild's tests. Knowing what some of the fights in this adventure are like, I shall be allocating dice when I roll to see whether I'm deluding myself or actually in with a chance.
Dexterity 11
Strength 14
Skill (yes, they went with a word used by FF) 10
Not beyond the bounds of possibility, but I could be in for a tough time.

Still, I think it worth trying. If I qualify, I'll be trained as an expert fighter and instructed in the arts of Magic and other arcane lore. Three other candidates also wait outside the door to the Complex: two men with assorted weapons, including crossbows, and a woman with an assortment of throwing knives and stiletto daggers. Suddenly a Shakla, a massive ursine beast, advances on us, and one of the men fires a couple of crossbow bolts at it, doing more to annoy the Shakla than harm it. It mauls him before the other candidates fell it with a combination of throwing knives and crossbow bolts.

Incidentally, the first man's attack on the Shakla forms the basis of the cover illustration, making me wonder if the picture pre-dated the text, or if cover artist Terry Oakes only had the 'Your Quest Begins...' passage to go on. I mean, 'redshirt (well, redcloak if you want to be precise about his garb) gets killed by monster you don't engage' is an even odder choice for cover image than other YQB-derived subjects like 'thug you defeat without even using dice' or 'being who gives you your quest and is never seen again'.

Anyway, the door opens, the other two go through, and I follow. There's no sign of them when I reach the room at the end of the corridor, though. Just a woman who takes down my details and tells me of the three trials I must face to prove myself worthy of Guild membership: to steal a certain valuable item, to find the parts of a key to let me out of a maze, and to locate and non-lethally wound an adversary (one of the other candidates) before they can do the same to me. Three doors lead on, each providing access to a different challenge, but there's nothing to indicate which is which.

As each trial is self-contained, the order in which I attempt them doesn't really matter, beyond the fact that on the latter two listed there's a possibility of failing thanks to just one or two unlucky rolls, so if I can get the first one first, this is liable to be a more substantial entry even if I don't win. Memory suggests going for the left-hand door first... and is mistaken, but never mind.

I head down a corridor lit by lanterns, and reach a room in which four objects are laid out on a table. The voice of the receptionist tells me that I may only take one item, that two of the artefacts are potentially helpful, while the other two are harmful, and that my objective here is to find and wound Feyh, the woman with the knives.

The first time I played this, I wasn't using dice, so it didn't matter so much when I chose the object that drained my Dexterity every so often, but if I'd been doing it by the rules, that would have guaranteed my doom. This time round, after rejecting that one and the almost-as-lethal one that drains Strength, I pick the lute, as that could enable me to bypass the nasty fight in which the other one I don't pick would help. Then I leave by the west door.

It leads me to a room containing a bizarre device with one human eye in it (you get bizarre devices in fantasy). With a flash of light, a reptilian humanoid appears and attacks. The moment I hit it, it vanishes again, and if I'd been wounded, I'd find myself unharmed. Arguably, not having taken any unreal damage, I should be unaware that the Reptile-Man was an illusion, which could make a difference to how I handle what happens next - the sudden appearance of two Reptile-Men. As it is, I guess that one is another illusion, and the other is real, and reflect that it won't go well for me if I target the fake one first. I'm not sure that as interesting a situation could arise from being unaware of the illusory nature of the first one I fought, and possibly under the misapprehension that a single blow is all it takes to destroy a Reptile-Man, but the set-up could have some potential. Not a big deal, though.

I choose my target and attack. It's the wrong one, and the genuine opponent gets in a couple of blows before I can turn to face it. That's the only damage it does inflict, though. Suspecting the eye in the machine to be responsible for the fight I've just had, I leave the room before any further unpleasantness can occur.

The corridor I'm now in goes north. A side passage east ends in a metal door that can't be opened, doubtless leading into the room I'd have entered if I'd taken the other exit from the one with the items. As I can't get through, I have to return to the corridor going north and keep going. At a T-junction I go west again. The passage changes direction several times, and I seem to hear footsteps following me. If I didn't know the only circumstance under which it's possible to encounter Feyh, the description might put me on edge a little, but my familiarity with the adventure robs the text of its potential paranoia-inducing qualities.

I reach a crossroads and go south. The passage is a dead end, but there's a hole in the wall, and symbols have been scratched into the stone by the hole. I check out the symbols, concluding that they refer to the stone three up. But three up from the hole, or from the symbols? Both stones are loose and slightly indented, and I really wish that there was an 'ignore this and go back north' option, because I know the consequences of getting this wrong, and am not 100% certain of which is the correct stone to press.

I try the one I think it is. It doesn't trigger any obvious trap, so I think it should now be safe to reach into the hole: if I'd gone wrong, I'm pretty sure that only a choice of unpleasant fates would remain. Yes, instead of getting my hand chopped off (as would have happened if I'd stuck it in without pressing a stone, or after pressing the wrong one), I am able to retrieve a diamond and a scroll identifying the diamond as payment for the regrettably-named Ah-Pukh. Yes, I know it's a variant of a name attributed (possibly in error) to a Mayan death god, but it's all too easy to distort into a vulgar nickname, as immature teenage boys were wont to do back then. Probably still are, for that matter.

Anyway, I take the diamond and go back to the crossroads. Avoiding north out of general contrariness, I find another turning south and more authorial trickery intended to make me think that Feyh could attack at any moment. Not going to happen. Further such mind games go on until I reach a dead end and have to turn back. North it is, then.

I enter a room with three occupants, though my attention is focused on one of them. A Dwarf, wearing next to nothing, with paint highlighting the skeleton beneath his skin, while his head has been squeezed into a human skull, his eyes glinting insanely through the sockets. Flanking him are two barbarian warriors, who attack me and are slain in turn. The Dwarf then introduces himself as Ah-Pukh, and says I must give him something if I want to leave the room alive. I hand over the diamond, and he causes two doors to open.

I go west again, and encounter a young man in a white tunic, the symbol of a chess piece embroidered on the front and back. He's waiting by a door, and explains that it will be necessary to solve the riddle of the Chess Master in order to proceed beyond the next room. The door opens, and a voice orders, 'Enter, Pawns!' I accompany the youth through the door, and we are confronted by a man in black armour, who asks a question that's fairly obviously based on the A=1, B=2 cypher that gamebooks helped burn into so many people's brains. I give the correct answer, and the armoured man pronounces me worthy to continue in the Game, then blasts my companion dead with a bolt of black lightning and disappears before I can avenge the lad. It occurs to me that the tunic might make a good disguise, so I put it on before leaving the room.

At the next junction I am compelled to go north, eventually reaching a room with a black and white chequered floor. People in tunics like the one I now wear, some black, some white, are standing in different squares, and on raised platforms to east and west are armoured figures: the one who set me the riddle, and one in similar but white armour. They direct the people on the board, playing chess with human pieces.

It's been done before.

I spot that the Black Queen is none other than Feyh, and decide to join the game - having had a demonstration of the Black Chess Master's powers, I daren't risk angering him by making an illegal move. The White Chess Master accepts my presence as one of his pieces, and I get instructed to move just like the rest. Before long I discover one deviation from standard chess rules: when a piece is moved onto a square occupied by a piece belonging to the opposing Chess Master, the people playing the pieces must fight, the outcome of that battle determining which piece remains on the board. Soon the White Chess Master uses me to try and take an opposing pawn, and I prevail.

Eventually the Black Chess Master moves his Queen onto my square, at which point she suddenly realises who I am. As we go for our weapons, he reminds us that this fight is only to first blood. In game terms, my Dexterity only gives me a small advantage, though the skimpiness of the costume Feyh is just about wearing in the accompanying illustration (the reason why a large number of second-hand copies of this issue are missing page 16) suggests that it shouldn't be that difficult to strike an unprotected part of her anatomy. Either way, I am the one who lands a blow first, so Feyh fails to qualify and I make it through to another trial.

How about the middle door, then? That leads to a crossroads, which I think means that this is the challenge I was originally after. If memory serves correctly, going east should prove it one way or the other - and not doom me if I'm mistaken. And I was right. It leads me to a room containing the chap in the picture next to this paragraph. He tells me that I must answer his riddle or fight him. I choose the riddle, partly because I know I can solve it again, partly because I'd rather not get into any unnecessary fights, and partly because the sheer incongruity of this encounter deserves to be properly shown off.

The muscle-bound, axe-wielding Giant smiles (and it's a happy smile, not a 'you are so going to fail this, and then I get to axe you in the face' smile), shows me his ruby-and-diamond earrings and tells me the price paid for them. Then he shows me a ruby-and-diamond necklace, and tells me what that cost. Next he tells me the combined value of his sapphire necklace and his ruby earrings. And finally he shows me a diamond-and-sapphire necklace and asks me what it's worth. Basic algebra makes it easy to calculate the individual price of each type of gem, after which it's just a matter of multiplying those costs by the number of each kind and adding them together. The Giant congratulates me, gives me the necklace (good thing it's not a ring, as that could be misinterpreted, and he's really not my type) and lets me leave.

After a while I see a side turning, and take it just for variety's sake. It leads to a small metal door. I squeeze through and find myself in a room filled with children's toys. The door by which I entered can't be opened from this side, so there's only one exit, but before leaving, I take a closer look at some of the toys. Two in particular catch my attention: a large box painted in red and gold, and a life-size model of a knight in red armour. While the odds of being killed by the poisoned needle-spitting jack-in-the-box are low, I'd still rather not take the risk, so I focus on the knight instead. He's clockwork, and when I wind him up, he challenges me to a test of fighting prowess. I accept, and manage to strike three blows against him before he can hit me more than once. As a reward for winning, he tells me to take the toy Golem that's on the floor close by, as it may be of great help. I do so, and leave the room.

Reluctant to head south, I notice that the door through which I just came pivots rather than being hinged as usual, and actually provides access to two separate rooms. Curious, I go through the half of the doorway that doesn't lead to the toy room. The door closes behind me, and a large, multi-limbed Golem with a different weapon at the end of each arm starts lumbering towards me. Realising that the toy I just got is an exact scale model of the advancing killer, I guess that it can be used for working sympathetic magic. The full-size Golem wounds me with a dart while I'm setting the toy up, but as soon as I destroy the toy, the real thing explodes. I take minor blast damage, but I'd have almost certainly have fared worse in a fight, as I'm pretty sure that the Golem has 12 Dexterity.

Moving on, I am compelled north at the next junction, and then hear the voice of the receptionist telling me that my objective here is to steal the blood-red Crystal of the Temple of Avoloch so that it can be returned to its rightful owners. The passage I'm in leads to a circular room with five other exits. In the middle of the room is a round table with six chairs around it and five objects on it: a dagger, a basket, a phial, a box, and a ruby that is the Crystal I seek. Suddenly I am paralysed, and through a haze I see five robed figures seated at the table. Each figure picks up one of the items and leaves through the nearest archway. The paralysis ceases, but somehow that haze has messed with my head to the extent that I can't remember who took the ruby, just convoluted stuff like 'the figure in the blue robes was sitting next but one to the figure that took the dagger, who was next to the one who took the box, who was next to the one wearing yellow'. Enough details are provided that it can eventually be deduced who took the Crystal, and while I can remember the correct answer, acting on that memory would feel like cheating, so I go to the effort of working everything out again. The answer was what I remembered it being.

Anyway, I follow the figure that took the Crystal, and eventually reach a room containing five alcoves. In each alcove is one of the figures, which turn out to be Zombies. Also in the room is a safe, into which the items from the table have been locked. While solving logic puzzles isn't generally associated with stealing, breaking into safes is a more burglarious course of action. Though I imagine that real-world safecracking doesn't often involve filling out a Magic Square, which is all I have to do to get into this one.

I could take more than just the Crystal if I wanted, but for every item I remove from the safe, I have to fight the Zombie that took it, and I'd rather not get into any more fights than are strictly necessary. A quick peek at the 'take other things' section confirms that I got the whole of the logic puzzle right, but I actually only take the Crystal and fight the one Zombie. And that successfully concludes the second trial.

Two down, one to go. The passage beyond the third door goes north, east, and north again. A side passage leads east, and I check it out because I have no great desire to fail this adventure on the final challenge. In the room at the end of the passage I find a metal star with hexagonal indentations set into all five points. This is the first part of the key I need. And, in a bout of authorial deviousness, if I want to find the second part, I have to ignore the exits north and south, and head back to the corridor along which I was originally walking.

It soon turns east, and I see a figure skulking in the shadows. This is one instance where 'shoot first, ask questions later' is the better option, so I fire the crossbow attached to my sword and wound the skeletal figure that was about to attack me. Finishing him off is easy. Bizarrely, the blood that dribbles from his mouth congeals into a hexagonal ruby, which I take before moving on.

I'm not sure which way to go at the next crossroads (though I feel confident about ruling out one option straight off). I try north, and it looks as if I've gone wrong. I mean, the room I've just reached is on the right track, but I think there should be another fight between the Skeleton Man and here to get the second hexagonal ruby. Bother.

Anyway, this room has two exits apart from the way I came in, and by the wall with no doorway in it is a slot machine (Fighting Fantasy has had coin-activated devices since at least City of Thieves, and there's a vending machine in the Tunnels and Trolls solo Dargon's Dungeon, so I see no need to fantasy-ify the one here). There are two coins next to it, so I put one in the slot. Randomness determines what the machine dispenses, and this time it's... a hexagonal ruby. Not that big a surprise, with 50-50 odds, but the last time I made a roll like this in an Elizabeth Caldwell-authored adventure, it didn't go so well.

The text explicitly forbids getting a second ruby out of the machine (technically, owing to the omission of a direction, it's not actually possible to get a ruby with the second coin even if you got something else first time round, but that does appear to be an error rather than authorial intent). With the second coin, I get... a silver dagger. Nice, but useless in this adventure.

As I prepare to leave the room, I am attacked by an automaton. It leaves me once I've inflicted a certain amount of damage on it, but brings me down to my last point of Strength in the process. Good thing I still have a couple of meals. Leaving by the north door, I eventually come to another room, in which a red-robed man sets me a puzzle involving the shifting of coins (in effect) between stacks to make every stack of equal value. Not very tricky, though in this instance there is also an interesting way of avoiding the consequences of getting it wrong. I do the puzzle anyway, and it doesn't take long to figure out that shifting one coin from the first stack and a slightly more valuable one from the second stack into the third one will achieve the desired result. The man congratulates me and vanishes, leaving another of those hexagonal rubies behind.

Two new doors open, and I go west. The passage turns north, then east, and a door seals off the way back. There's a hole in the ground, with a ladder leading down into it, which means that I've now reached the split-level maze where this challenge concludes. I shan't bother listing all the turns, ascents and descents I make. Let's just say that anyone who didn't enjoy The Warlock of Firetop Mountain's Maze of Zagor will absolutely hate this bit. I find four dead ends before reaching the exit, which is just another dead end for me, because even with the ruby that's waiting for me there, I can only fill four of the five indentations in the key, so there's no way out. Well, the Guild might eventually release me so as not to have a corpse stinking up their 'nice' maze, but I've failed to qualify, and will be evicted from the complex like Feyh.

On the bright side, as so many of the encounters in the first two challenges don't really matter, I'll be able to take different paths through them when I replay this adventure here, so at least some sameyness can be avoided when I write it up.

Saturday, 26 October 2013

You Might Say That We're the Next Endangered Species

Around a year ago I played the first of the CD-based Terror T.R.A.X. gamebooks by Flint Dille and Buzz Dixon. I acquired the second disc in the series, Track of the Werewolf, at the same time, and now seems as good a time as any to have a go at the adventure. Those are the only ones from the series that I own, and I'm not massively disappointed that I lack the others, though I must confess to mild curiosity as to just how bad the third in the series, Track of the Mummy is.

So I'm coordinating a special branch of the Police designed to deal with calls that have a supernatural element. The moon is full, and I've just been forwarded a call from someone with an outrrrageous French accent who claims to be a werewolf (though, as he uses the term loup-garou, the 911 operator who initially takes the call fails to pick up on this point, and amusingly spends about half the call addressing the caller as Mister Garou). The caller claims to have chained himself up so as to avert a destructive rampage, but now seems to think that the precautions he's taken are not adequate.

I despatch an officer to the bayou region, since that's where the call originated. The call is traced to a shack, and as the officer approaches, sounds are audible in the distance. The officer thinks the source is an animal, and draws his gun. To me it sounds a lot more like the caller making howling noises, but I can't be sure whether it's supposed to be recognisably him, or if it's just that the voice actor isn't good enough to conceal his identity. In any case, the officer enters the shack, and exclaims that it's a trap as a significantly more convincing chorus of growls and snarls fills the air.

While I don't think it's supposed to be funny, the bland tone with which the T.R.A.X. computer offers the options of 'leave shack' and 'fight werewolves' makes the situation seem more humorous than frightening. The officer tries using Mace (the tear gas version), and then runs when that doesn't work. Finding himself surrounded by a variety of lycanthropes, he seeks authorisation to open fire. The last time I played this, letting him shoot didn't help, so out of curiosity I'm going to see what happens if I don't give him permission. It doesn't go any better, though the computer reckons that the officer has only been kidnapped rather than killed or shredded.

It would appear that the computer's right: continuing to monitor the officer's radio leads to my overhearing a conversation between two of his captors, one of whom sounds disconcertingly like one of Marge Simpson's sisters. There's talk of their being after the Mayor, and of having to switch to plan B because there are so many guards on his house. Background noise includes gunshots, a helicopter, more snarling and growling, some kind of bell, and what could be cattle. The female voice orders that someone (possibly the officer) be dumped in the back seat because the trunk of the car is already in use. There's only one person on duty at the next place the female goes, and she warns her associates not to jump the gun. Several of the options offered at the end of this track seem a bit arbitrary, and I know one of the more sensible-looking ones to be a game-ender, so I try sending a second officer to the shack.

Oh, great, it's the Clint Eastwood-wannabe from the first disc. I have him search for signs of officer One (what, the writers couldn't even be bothered to come up with a name for him?), and he finds torn duct tape and indications that someone was dragged to a car and driven off. I'm then forced to have officer Two consult with the stupidly-named Doctor Vovo. T.R.A.X.'s resident expert on lycanthropy. The conversation that follows is painful to listen to, between officer Two's silly macho posturing and Vovo's anti-civilisation werewolf-hugging guilt trips. Not that things get any better when werewolves burst into Vovo's place and abduct him, and the officer's callous commentary on the attack adds a further layer of unpleasantness.

Tracking officer One's radio leads to the car in which it's been abandoned. A trail of blood leads officer Two to an office building. There's a light on in one office, so he checks it out and, after hearing dialogue that leads him to infer that officer One is in there and in trouble, he ignores instructions to wait for back-up, and bursts in, gunning down the werewolves and rescuing officer One. One states that the werewolves roughed him up, and weren't gentle about it. Perhaps fearful that he's in danger of being outclassed in the lousy lines department, Two quips that the werewolves are now 'hushed puppies'.

The largely unpromising list of venues to investigate in the light of overheard werewolf dialogue is repeated, and now includes the zoo. I'll pick that, on the off-chance that rescuing officer One is a prerequisite for success, and the unexplained addition to the list is indicative of my now being on the right track.

It turns out that the zoo is now on the list because there was a call from there - maybe something similar happened at all the other seemingly random locations, in which case there really should have been a brief explanation of that fact back when the options were listed. In any case, the caller at the zoo had some werewolves burst in on him while he was calling, and they insinuated that they were going to turn him into a werewolf as punishment for his crimes against their kind.

I send in the officers. They notice that the animals seem agitated, and Two suggests that it's because of One's appearance. One retorts that he's healing, which could be indicative of unusual recuperative powers possessed by T.R.A.X. operatives, a hint that he's been infected, or just more awful writing. The officers take cover as some werewolves pass, one of them apparently a recent convert, arguing over whether all humans are guilty, or only some. Officer Two wants to gun them down, while One thinks they have a hostage. I instruct them to continue eavesdropping.

There's something wrong here, though I can't tell whether it's just that the wrong track number was given for the 'keep listening' option, or if the design of the adventure really is so sloppy as to have 'attempt to monitor werewolf conversation while avoiding discovery' lead straight to a gunfight and the zookeeper (whose identification comes out of nowhere) getting eaten alive. A quick check of a few other tracks (combined with the growing suspicion that I'm supposed to be sympathising with officer Two's gung-ho 'caution is for wimps' attitude) suggests that it is just appalling design.

The officers are extracted, and the death of the zookeeper is glossed over in favour of listening to a new 911 call. This is from the fishing dock, where 'a bunch of weirdoes in wolf masks are messing around with my shrimp boats'. I have the officers taken there. A bit of overheard dialogue suggests an impending arson attack, but then the topic changes to complaints about the smell of fish and a vaguely Doctor Moreau-ish indication that someone is coordinating all of the werewolf activity.

With a sigh, I order the officers to take immediate action. Two taunts the werewolves, who open fire on him with what sounds like a machine-gun (a development that's either inspired, idiotic, or both), and the dock is set alight. Never mind, we have another caller on a different line.

Actually, monitoring of radio communications has picked up on what sounds like the start of an attack on the Mayor's mansion. Time to send in more officers. Or possibly the same ones, despite their currently being embroiled in a firefight at a blazing dock. A little banter with the guards on the gate keeps the officers distracted until werewolves parachute into the grounds from the helicopter I heard earlier and storm through the mansion. This provides Two with an excuse to smash through the gates in his car. One urges caution, as the Mayor's family have been taken hostage (despite less than 30 seconds having passed since the first werewolf paratroopers leapt from the helicopter), but the only choice here is whether to go in through the front door or use grappling hooks to sneak in upstairs at the back of the place.

The front door is too obvious, so I pick the slower option. Fortuitously, the officers get into the room where the hostages are being held, and their guards are outside the door. The werewolves soon come in, though (perhaps it was something to do with one of the Mayor's brats yelling, 'The window!'). Still, they're not expecting an armed response - to the extent that they can't even come up with any dialogue more snappy than 'Uh-oh!'. Not that Two's 'Suck silver, Fido!' is any better. At least this part of the mission doesn't turn into a fiasco.

No time to celebrate, though, as there's another call requiring a response. This one's from a medical research centre, and contains more unintentionally comical dialogue as the caller realises that what he thought was an escaped lab animal is actually an armed werewolf. Dialogue between the officers as they reach the crime scene strengthens my suspicion that One has contracted lycanthropy, as only he scents that the werewolves have left their mark there. Acting on a 'hunch', he leads Two to where the werewolves are active, and it sounds as if Doctor Vovo is the one giving the orders.

The werewolves turn on the officers, and One starts to transform, taking on the pack mentality as well as undergoing physical changes. Two seeks permission to exterminate him, and is then cut off. I have the option of restarting the whole mission or monitoring his radio. Not going back to the start, thank you very much. And considering that there have been no decisions since the successful rescue of the Mayor and family, either I've been on a 'fail' trail ever since One was taken, or there's some kind of twist coming up in the radio monitoring.

Vovo announces his intention to turn Two into a werewolf as well, then have his two tame operatives subvert the organisation from within. However, One's loyalty to T.R.A.X. overrides the pack instinct, and he turns on his fellow lycanthropes. Another shoot-out ensues, and Vovo tries to escape in his car, but the officers shoot out his tyres. And possibly his knees, too. The sun comes up, causing the werewolves to revert to human form, and only now do the officers realise that the head werewolf is Doctor Vovo. Was that supposed to come as a surprise? The voice was recognisable the moment I heard it.

After further execrable dialogue, Vovo transforms again, and gets shot dead. One works out that Vovo targeted the Mayor in the hope that doing so would break humanity's control of animals (there are not enough facepalms on the entire internet for that 'plan'), and arrangements are made for the capture and isolation of the leaderless werewolves. With the exception of One, who's proved his trustworthiness, and now gets some respect from Two on account of his increased aggressiveness. Exchanging unfunny banter, they set off in search of breakfast.

The disc ends with the T.R.A.X. computer voice advising me to put on disc 3 next. And getting impatient when I don't stop this disc. And then telling me to go out and buy Track of the Mummy if my failure to obey instructions is on account of not already having a copy. Even if it were in stock at local shops, and the shops were open at this hour, I wouldn't be rushing to do so.

While far from good, that's nowhere near the worst gamebook I've played. I might even give it another go some day, just to see if there is a way of avoiding having officer One get infected by the werewolves. And to find out if the werewolves' dialogue when Vovo is 'captured' actually works as the 'stupid minions inadvertently blow their leader's cover, forcing him to improvise and make it look like he's in trouble' scenario it actually is. But too much of Two's dialogue in a short time might lead to my using the CD as a frisbee, so it will be a while before I dare confront the true horrors of Terror T.R.A.X. - none of which are what the people responsible for the discs think will scare the listeners - again.

Friday, 25 October 2013

It's Only at the Turning Point That You Find Out How You Fight

I remember nothing of the circumstances of my buying Peter Darvill-Evans' Portal of Evil, the next Fighting Fantasy gamebook to come out. As I was now 'properly' collecting the books again, it can't have been long after publication, but I don't know if I got it at the earliest opportunity, or at a more convenient moment. It was probably after school one day, but I can't be any more specific than that.

My first attempt was made without dice, and ended badly because I didn't have sufficient light sources when I tried going through the eponymous portal. Portal lacking the warped and morbid tone of Mr. Darvill-Evans' previous gamebook, it didn't fascinate me as much as BNC, and consequently got little attention from me once I'd fudged or cheated my way to the end. While PoE is still my least favourite of the author's FF books, nowadays that's more a consequence of the quality of the other two than a criticism of Portal, which I now recognise to have more merit than I perceived as a teenager.

There's a gold rush taking place to the west of the Cloudhigh Mountains, and the region is full of people seeking to make a fortune by fair means or foul. My character is looking for a job more fulfilling than just guarding caravans of ore, and thus doesn't care much about this. But then more interesting news comes my way: people are going missing, and strange beasts (stranger than usual for FF) are roaming the land. And the offer of my weight in gold as a reward for resolving whatever is afoot has a certain appeal, too. But am I up to the challenge?
Skill 8
Stamina 21
Luck 10
Probably not. Still, if I learn anything in the course of failing the adventure, it will at least have been a worthy attempt.

On my way to Kleinkastel, the town where mining magnate Gloten is seeking a champion, I notice a trail of fresh blood, and damage to surrounding vegetation which suggests that the wounded creature is very large. Following the trail, I reach a clearing containing a huge, wounded lizard and a female Elf. They ask me to help them (yes, the lizard too). Moments later, two soldiers burst into the clearing and charge at the lizard. Not wishing to be thought species-ist, I respond to the plea for aid and help the Elf defend her saurian companion. One of the soldiers attacks them, while I distract the other by hitting him with my sword until he runs away.

The other soldier also retreats, and, putting on my palaeontologist hat, I identify the lizard as a Spinosaurus, which ought really to be extinct. I ask the Elf where she found it, and the Spinosaurus replies. It claims that it was an Elf once, but got captured by Slave Warriors and forced through a Portal. Most captives became slaves themselves, but this one resisted, and consequently got transformed into a dinosaur instead. The ex-Elf mentions that Gartax may know more, and urges me to leave. I ask about Gartax, and learn that he's a former miner, genre-savvy enough to have evacuated his village before the Slave Warriors arrived, and now trying to organise armed resistance not far from here.

It's generally good to be well-informed, so I go looking for Gartax. After a while, I catch sight of a man being pursued by a massive flightless bird. Time to go to the rescue again, eh? Only, as I interpose myself between the bird and its apparent prey, the man puts his knife to my back, laughingly comments on my nobility, and orders me to surrender. Under the circumstances, I do so, and around a dozen of the man's associates emerge from hiding. My captor asks why I'm here, so I explain that I'm looking for Gartax. Dismissing Gartax and his followers as respectively a brigand and rabble, the man asks again what brings me here.

I suspect that this part of Portal was influenced by a scene from the Doctor Who story The Green Death. Having read the novelisation of TGD a good half-dozen years before the gamebook came out, even the first time I reached this point, I correctly guessed that my captor was Gartax himself, pretending to be a critic of the resistance leader in order to find out what I really thought of him. So I explained that I'd come to try and sort out the troubles in the region, and was seeking whatever relevant information Gartax had, and I do exactly the same now. The man admits to being Gartax, and is pleased to learn that something is being done.

Much of what he tells me just corroborates what I learned from the ex-Elf: people of various species are being transformed into Slave Warriors. In fact, by now the Slave Warriors' ranks have grown so much that Gartax and his followers have abandoned the plan to fight back, and just want to get away while they still can. I ask if there's anyone else around who could be of help, and Gartax mentions the Wizard of Lake Mlubz, who lives to the south.

We arrive at Gartax's camp, and I see that everyone is armed, though few show signs of any training as fighters. Gartax says he anticipates an attack before they can evacuate, and asks me to help defend the camp. By FF hero standards I may be pretty unimpressive, but I'm these people's best hope, so I agree. After giving some basic strategic tips, I get something to eat, and I'm just finishing the meal when the attack commences. I take up arms alongside Gartax's people, and get my first sighting of the Slave Warriors. Mindless drones, they're no better fighters than the people I'm helping, and my leadership proves decisive in the battle. There are many casualties on my side, but the Slave Warriors are massacred, and I never get so much as scratched.

Searching the bodies of the attackers, I find that each is wearing a strange stone talisman. Trying an amulet on looks like a bad idea, but I take one with me in case the Wizard can learn anything from it. Before setting off in search of the lake, I see Gartax one final time, and to thank me for my assistance, he gives me several meals' worth of food.

Heading south, I soon come across a stream, which I follow. It leads me through a ravine, and the path goes past a cave mouth. Walking past has its hazards, but I'm not sure that trying to climb out of the ravine would go a whole lot better, so I take the risk. Luck is with me, and the cave's occupant fails to notice me as I sneak past.

Further on I see a jetty with two boats attached to it, and a hut nearby. Boating downstream would be quicker (and less arbitrarily lethal) than continuing on foot, so I knock on the hut door to ask about borrowing a boat. The occupant, a Dwarf with a parrot-like bird on his shoulder, agrees to let me have a boat in return for some food. I hand over a portion of Provisions, and while stuffing his face, the Dwarf tells me that he's been bothered by Slave Warriors and 'things that come up to the door of a night and talk with human voices - but they're not human'. He also advises me to take the punt rather than the skiff, as there's at least a chance that it won't break up when I reach the rapids.

For a while I drift down the stream. A splashing near the left bank catches my attention, and I risk investigating. It turns out that ignoring it, as I did the last time I got this far, was the right choice, as the source of the disturbance is an Elasmosaurus, which attempts to capsize my boat in the hope of getting to eat me. I try to stab it in the head while I have the chance, but my Skill isn't up to the task, and I end up in the water, and then in the belly of the beast. Not the most satisfying learning experience, but I got a bit further than in my previous playthrough of the book, and at least I know for future attempts at the book that it's not worth checking out that splashing.

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

It's Far From Being All Over

I've decided to take a veteran character into Lone Wolf  book 6. Owing to an insufficiency of save slots in the LW section of my gamebook manager (which I have since rectified), I couldn't revive the character who made it as far as book 5 before dying in the endgame, as he'd been overwritten by my character for the mediocre mini-adventure The Key to the Future. Thus, I had to go back to the start of the series again, but I instituted a policy of between-book 'save points', so any time I failed, I'd only have to go back to the start of the adventure in which my character died.

I see little point in doing fresh playthroughs of books I've already beaten here, so I'll just give a brief summary of points where I deviated significantly from the previously recorded account. In Flight from the Dark I got killed by the Gourgaz on the bridge, and had to start again. The second attempt went more like the one summarised at the start of my Fire on the Water replay, except that instead of fighting a Vordak I hid in a cave and then got given some fruit by a hermit in a treehouse.

In FotW I decided to have a go at the fight that becomes mandatory in the Mongoose Books reissue. So after fleeing Gorn Cove, I investigated the cries I heard, and found a man with a spear in his chest, next to a dead Knight of the White Mountain. Pulling the spear out revealed him to be a shape-changing Helghast, vulnerable only to magic weapons like the spear I'd just removed. To show its gratitude, the Helghast attacked and killed me. I went back to the start of the book for another try, and got killed by that blasted mast.

Restarting the book again, I had one of the more interesting random encounters during the initial sea voyage: an attack by Darklord agents, which I only just survived. But that happened before the 'nothing happens for a while, so if you have Healing, restore your Endurance to the starting score' bit, so the damage I took had no lasting adverse consequences. Deciding to risk another go at the fight with the Helghast, I got much better rolls, managing to kill the thing for good and keep the spear. Thus, when I entered the Tarnalin tunnel, I ignored the Noodnics and killed one of the Helghasts who were waiting to ambush me.

On the homeward sea voyage, when the death-hulks attacked, I jumped onto one of them and sliced up a lot of undead. The hulk turned out to be the base of operations for Vonotar the traitor, who was hurling magical fire at the fleet that was transporting me. At least until he noticed me, at which point he targeted me, thereby providing a reminder that the Sommerswerd absorbs magical attacks. Thwarted, he fled, the hulks went down, and I defeated Darklord Zagarna again.

The Caverns of Kalte went almost exactly as before, except that I didn't fall into the river. And the only noteworthy deviation from my previous successful attempt at The Chasm of Doom was being more friendly to the Redeemers at the ruins, and consequently getting given the flask of holy water they had with them. Not that I ever needed it.

So, time for another attempt at Shadow on the Sand. If it were Monday, I might have another go at the 'capture and escape' route through the first half of the adventure, but since this entry is already a couple of days overdue owing to real-world concerns taking up a lot of my time, I'm going to stick with the 'contract Limbdeath' path.

I should list this character's stats, which are a little better than those of the previous Lone Wolf to make it through the first four books.
Combat Skill: 16
Endurance: 23
Kai Disciplines: Camouflage, Hunting, Sixth Sense, Tracking, Healing, Weaponskill (Broadsword), Mindshield, Animal Kinship, Mind Over Matter
Once I knew I could avoid the 'die if you take any damage' fight in Kalte, Mindblast became a lower priority Discipline, so i was able to get Camouflage by Chasm. It made next to no difference.

Talking of 'next to no difference', the first half of the adventure goes much the same as it did last time, up until the point where I try to get into the Palace. As I do have Camouflage this time round, I'm able to sneak past the guards without having to waylay and impersonate a messenger. Once inside the Palace, I let my curiosity get the better of me at one point: I'm supposed to be looking for the Imperial Apothecary, and must choose between a door marked with the sign of a mortar and pestle, and a door marked with the sign of a book. So what is the penalty for not picking the blatantly obviously correct door? Not entirely surprisingly, the door with the book on it leads to the library, which is deserted and contains two potentially useful items that I can take before going out and trying the other door. So it's better not to make the sensible decision. I wonder if Joe Dever has ever considered going into politics.

After that, things go as they did before until the transition to the second part of the adventure. Here I adopt a different escape strategy from last time, as I know the only way of escape is via the Itikar pens, so there's no point in heading downwards when I'll only be driven to the roof sooner or later anyway. While hurrying up the first flight of stairs, I encounter a guard, who yells to his master. Now he's attracted attention, I can expect more guards to be heading this way, so I just barge him aside and keep going.

The stairs lead to a walkway with a parapet. Guards at a lower level fire crossbows at me, but after one bolt grazes me, I duck below parapet level and am screened from further shots. The door at the far end of the walkway is bolted, but I can open it with Mind Over Matter rather than having to stand up and make myself a target again. Once through the door I wind up on the same staircase I wound up ascending the last time I played this, again hiding from hunting troops in the shadow of a statue.

The Itikar heist goes just like before, as does the convenient rescue by Banedon when my Itikar is mortally wounded by the Vordak. The fighting aboard the skyship is concluded without any trouble, and this Lone Wolf is even better at holding his drink than the previous one to live this long. Incidentally, this stage of the journey includes section 291, so leaping in at this point wouldn't enable anyone to evade the puzzle that's coming up in a bit.

Once we land and head for Ikaresh, I ignore the cave we pass, and don't bother going into the tavern, since I now know that there's no need. Banedon and I acquire Tipasa's notes, I make sense of them, and we travel to the tomb where the dénouement is to take place. The prism I found in the Palace library works as well as the Kaltean Blue Stone Triangle for opening the door to the final chamber (and makes more sense, being a product of the culture that built the tomb), and again Darklord Haakon does the Bond villain chair swivel thing. This time, after I'm momentarily disarmed, I retrieve the Sommerswerd, in the process taking the same amount of damage I'd have incurred had I moved to the cover of another pillar. Haakon's psychic attack is still ineffective against my Mindshield, but I take some damage fighting his summonation. Still, once the fight is over, I raise the Sommerswerd, waiting for it to convert the sun's light into a bolt of energy that will atomise Haakon.

I'm in an underground chamber, and it's the middle of the night. Time for plan B, which involves hitting Haakon with the Sommerswerd as often as I can, and hoping to do lethal damage before he can carve me up with his flaming sword. The odds are not good, even with the bias in the Combat Results Table. By the end of the fifth round of battle, he's down to 2 Endurance, and I'm down to 1. Even the worst possible roll for the next round will deal lethal damage to him, but unless I get above 7 (on the equivalent of a 10-sided die (with 0 counting as 10)), I'll die as well.

I get 8. I hope that whoop didn't wake the neighbours. Haakon's body vanishes, I find the Book of the Magnakai, and by the time I get back to the skyship, Banedon has succeeded in rescuing Tipasa. The Mongoose text makes him a little more restrained in his response to my triumph, declaring that, 'The Kai shall be reborn,' where the original had him proclaiming their rebirth a fait accompli. Considering that it takes the next 7 books in the series for Lone Wolf to reach a point where it's possible to actually establish the new Kai Order, and some of those books are tough, neither version of Banedon's words is a certainty, but with my new save point policy established, I should prove him right sooner or later.

Saturday, 19 October 2013

A Localized Trauma in Reality

I would not describe myself as a comics fan. Anyone who could see the few hundred comics stacked under my gamebook bookshelves might be sceptical about this, but I mean it. I am something of a fan of several writers whose output includes a lot of comics, so I have a decent collection of comics by those writers, but I own them because of who wrote them rather than the medium in which they were published. I have never bought a comic just because it happened to be a comic, whereas there are gamebooks that I bought just because they were gamebooks.

One consequence of this is that a lot of the big name superheroes are distinctly underrepresented in my comic collection, and while my trivia-retentive memory contains a significant amount of information on some pretty obscure characters, I know little about many more mainstream ones.

There have been a number of gamebooks featuring established superheroes. An online discussion some years back indicated that a couple of them were pretty good, so I made a mental note of the titles, and at some point I came across a copy of one of them somewhere. The book in question is Allen Varney's Through Six Dimensions, featuring Doctor Strange. About whom I know next to nothing. Indeed, but for the fact that he was included in a series that also includes adventures for the likes of Spiderman, Captain America and one of the Fantastic Four, I'd have no idea that he was considered a significant character in superhero circles. Having acquired the book at a time when I was getting a lot of new-to-me gamebooks, I never got around to attempting it, so this will be the first time I give it a go.

The book includes a one-page background to the character: ex-surgeon turned sorcerer, with a Cato-esque (though probably less violent) manservant named Wong, a cloak of levitation and an amulet that probably has some connection with my abilities, though the book doesn't specify what it does. Stats are predetermined, and derived from TSR's Marvel Super Heroes RPG (though a comparison with the stats for Captain Britain in the MSH RPG ad on the back of Proteus 4 suggest that the system has been modified for the book). One problem I have noted with TSR-related gamebooks is the tendency to put stats on a removable card which can double as a bookmark, and then get separated from the book and lost or thrown out. Not that those aspects are intended (except for the bookmark one), but it seems to have happened a lot. Of the gamebooks I own that came with such a feature, Dimensions is the only one to still have the card - slightly torn and written on in pencil, but present none the less. Most of the stats are fixed, but there are two variable ones: Health (which is self-explanatory) and Karma (which can be used to improve my odds when making a roll, or converted into Health).

That's enough waffle. Time to get started on the adventure. I'm in my study, and only when Wong brings in my breakfast do I realise that I've been up all night. Once I've eaten, Wong is temporarily possessed by beings from another dimension, who have a warning for me. The warring inhabitants of a further two dimensions have come to an agreement that they won't fight in each other's home territories any more, so the conflict has been spilling over into - and devastating - neighbouring dimensions. It should come as no great surprise that Earth's dimension is about to become another front in the battle.

The entities leave Wong, who heads off to do the dishes, and returns shortly afterwards with the radio, which is broadcasting a news bulletin on the monsters that have started appearing in New York - the first incursion of the extra-dimensional hostiles into our reality. The manifestations are based in three locations, so I must choose where to go first: the Stock Exchange, a fancy-sounding Department Store, or the 'Hell's Kitchen' region of the waterfront. The latter sounds like the sort of place where the poor and desperate live, so I choose that - the residents of such areas have a hard enough life as it is.

I arrive to find a disc-shaped boat crewed by stick figures, shooting blue lightning at an aerodynamically impossible aircraft, which retaliates in kind. After levitating the human spectators out of harm's way, I create shields to protect the buildings. Taking sides in the fight looks like a bad idea, and trying to fight them both could be beyond my capabilities, so for now I'll focus on damage limitation. Eventually the aircraft wrecks the boat, and I get penalised for allowing some of the combatants to come to harm. An attempt at rescuing the survivors comes to nothing because they dissolve in the water. I knew the Hudson was polluted, but... For at least trying, I get no further deduction of Karma, but the section that tells me this leads to the same one that just ignoring the doomed sailors would have, so there's a little ethical inconsistency here.

A quick check to make sure there's nothing else to be done here leads to a rather pointless cameo appearance by Daredevil, after which I must choose another emergency to which to respond. The legalised villains of the Stock Exchange can wait for a bit longer while I resolve the crisis at the Department Store. It is, as I'd surmised, a shop for wealthy people, but today the display cases of jewellery have been vandalised, the bottles of perfume smashed and the designer clothes strewn across the floor. Slender, green-skinned humanoids in red clothes prowl around the aisles - I'd better deal with this lot before the Fashion Police intervene and need rescuing.

The aliens appear to be searching for something. I decide to look around: if I can find whatever they're after, I can decide whether I should be protecting it from them or giving it to them so they'll go away. On the second floor I find a similar, but pale-skinned, being hiding behind a cash register. A friendly approach may give me some insight into what's afoot. I manage to convince him that I'm not an enemy, and discover that he's opposing Kallesh Ghann, the tyrant whose recent increase in power is to blame for much of the current trouble. He has important information for his people's leader, Bel Auric, and thinks that if he doesn't deliver it, that could cost them the war. That knowledge might aid me in protecting this dimension, so I risk questioning him further rather than just sending him on his way.

It turns out that Ghann's more powerful on account of having acquired an artifact known as Sighald's Battery. The soldier stole a device that could neutralise the Battery, which is now hidden somewhere in the shop - the device he used to conceal it means that even he doesn't know where it is, so he can't be forced to reveal its whereabouts. I send him to deliver his message, while I try to find the neutralising device before the searchers can get hold of it.

A manager in an ill-fitting toupee starts pestering me for an explanation of what's happening to the store. His attitude implies that talking to him would be a waste of time, so I focus on the search. No joy, and the other aliens seem to have gone as well. I suppose I'd better head over to Wall Street, then.

Alien tanks and infantrymen are doing battle within the Stock Exchange. The insignia on the infantry's uniforms doesn't match that of the searchers in the shop, so it's probable that they're Auric's troops. Anything I can do to delay Ghann's victory will give me more time to take away the advantage the Battery gives him, besides which, the infantry appear unable to damage the tanks, so I think it might be worth helping out against the tanks.

I get a choice of spells to use. Owing to my lack of familiarity with Doctor Strange, I only know as much about each spell as its name tells me. The infantry's fireballs aren't harming the tanks, so Flames of the Faltine probably won't do any good. Bolts of Bedevilment may be equally ineffective. Crimson Bands of Cytorrak may immobilise the tanks, but I can't see how they'd prevent the tanks from firing. As I can sense the portals through which the combatants came here, I'm going to try Winds of Watoomb, and hope to blow the tanks back whence they came (in a non-explosive manner). It works. In fact, it sends both sides back to their respective homes. I repair the damage done by the fighting, because the public must be protected from knowledge of extra-dimensional phenomena, and a lack of debris and destruction will make it easier for the Men in Black (or Marvelverse equivalent) to explain away what happened here as a hallucination brought on by too much insider trading, or something.

From questions asked in the book, I know it to be possible to revisit locations I've already sorted out. I don't yet know whether or not it's worthwhile, but I'm prepared to face the consequences if it means another shot at finding what was hidden in the store. The place is still in a mess (so how come that didn't merit a cover-up?), and the neutraliser is still too well-hidden, or has already been found by Ghann's troops, or got swept up and thrown out in the early stages of the clean-up that's in progress. So that was a waste of time.

Unless I want to revisit Hell's Kitchen or the Stock Exchange, it's time to visit the home dimension of one or other of the sides in this fight. I'll try Auric's realm first, as I might be able to get advice, items or support to help me in the inevitable confrontation with Ghann. It's dark there, since Ghann stole their sun some time ago. Heading for one of the regions that still support life, I arrive at a market. The supervisor recognises that I'm not local, accuses me of being a spy, and threatens to call the authorities. It soon becomes apparent that he's hoping for a bribe, and an attempt at mesmerizing him into forgetting that he saw me just attracts more unwelcome attention, so I have to absent myself in a hurry.

Next I head to an odd igloo-like structure, which turns out to be an abandoned gladiatorial arena. The section describing it also reminds me which dimension I'm in and rehashes background information I've already been told. Much the same happens at the third and final noteworthy location there, which is a frozen waterfront. I think these places are supposed to have some correspondence with the incursion sites on Earth - waterfront and waterfront, Department Store and marketplace... it seems to me that an American football stadium would be a better match for the arena than the Stock Exchange, but there could be a political comment in there.

Voices and laughter drift across from what appears to be a bar, so I pop in there. Before going in I disguise myself as a local, but I still don't manage to stay out of trouble: a drunkard seeks my opinion on an unspecified issue, and takes offence at my response. I sorcerously pacify him, but another patron notices, and twigs that I'm a wizard. He doesn't raise the alarm, though: just tries to sell me a huggy-monkey that could be my familiar. Lacking local currency, I can't do that, but the monkey might come in handy, so I'll see if there's any legitimate way of rising some funds here. It proves surprisingly easy - I make a bet that I can do a double backflip onto the bar, and plenty of sailors take me up on the bet. Enough that even after I've paid for a round for everyone to defuse the hostile atmosphere following my success, I still have more than enough money for the monkey. No idea whether or not it'll do me any good, but it could be a game-changer.

Chat with the bartender provides me with no useful information, and as I'm not allowed to return to the marketplace (would the disguise not prevent me from being recognised as the 'spy' who caused the ruckus earlier?), I have no choice but to leave the dimension. Passing through the remains of the home dimension of the beings who contacted me at the start of the adventure, I spot predators that resemble sharks with legs, and hurriedly conceal myself. They appear to have dined well recently, though one of them is bleeding and limping. I risk taking a closer look, and see signs that a firearm inflicted the wound. Curious, I decide to see where the creatures are going.

Eventually they lead me to a box canyon, where I find the aftermath of a battle between some of Ghann's soldiers and a group of the legged sharks. One of the soldiers fled, wounded, so I try to track him down. He's in a cave, and one of the predators has just found him, but I drive it off and splint his broken leg. He reveals that his patrol was commanded by Ghann's son, who did not survive the attack. Sensing that he's not being entirely truthful, I use my amulet to compel him to tell the truth, and it transpires that he is Ghann's son, Sixtus.

I transport Sixtus and myself to his home dimension (passing through another devastated one along the way), and he directs me to his father's palace, where I meet Ghann. He's surrounded by a green aura, and the sound of screams sounds faintly in the air around him. He reluctantly admits that by restoring his son to him, I've put him in my debt, so he won't kill me, which he would be able to do thanks to the Battery. At this point I recall that the Battery is said to drain beings' life energy in order to empower its user, and conclude that the screaming is a byproduct of its use.

To discharge the debt, Ghann offers to grant me one favour, provided it's not too excessive. There's no chance of his calling off the war, and even if I can get him to leave the Earth alone, that's just shunting the problem off to other dimensions. Would he be fool enough to realise that releasing his slaves is liable to mean losing a lot of his power supply? It's worth a shot.

No, that doesn't work. He moves to attack me. But at least I've dodged the Karma penalty that would have come from directly attacking him. An item-check follows, and the only thing on the list that I have is the huggy-monkey. Does it do anything in this situation? Not unless you count 'being blown into tiny chunks' as doing something.

We fight, and my expertise compensates for the power disparity. A feint enables me to identify a silver band on his arm as his connection with the battery, and eventually I get an opening to rip it away from him. However, this does give him an opportunity to grab me by the throat and start throttling me, so I spend half my remaining Karma to improve my odds of breaking free. As it turns out, I rolled well enough that the expenditure wasn't necessary, but better to have spent the points and not needed them than vice versa. Not only do I break free, I somehow render him unconscious, at which point the guards who have been spectating decide that they want to change sides.

And that's the end of the adventure. Well, an end. Ghann is banished to the gaps between the dimensions, I put an end to the war, claim the Battery in order to destroy it, and once I've ascertained that Sixtus isn't anywhere near as bad as his father, put him in charge. But I get the impression that there are other ways of winning, that don't involve Sixtus. It might be worth having another go at the book at some time to find out.

Based on that one go at the book, I have no strong feelings about it. Not bad, but nothing special. Still, the possibility of there being multiple viable paths through it means that I might not yet be in a position to properly appreciate it - before now I've played a few gamebooks with hidden depths that can only be uncovered by playing more than once and following different routes, and it's just possible that this is another one. Or maybe I just have different tastes from the gamebook fan whose enthusiastic observations on Dimensions convinced me to give it a try. Still, even if the book isn't any better than my first impression suggests, it's still nowhere near the worst gamebook I've read. Not even the worst I've played this month.

Another try at it might also explain the title, now I come to think about it. My home dimension, the two warring dimensions, and the two ruined ones make five, so what's the sixth one?

Not, I suspect, the reader's own.

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

The Roar That None Can Ignore

After more than half a year of not bothering to get new Fighting Fantasy releases, I finally started again because the next book released, Armies of Death, was by Ian Livingstone, one of the founders of the series. And it was a sequel to Trial of Champions, which meant that it was a better fit for my 'the same hero in almost every adventure' concept than a lot of recent titles. The question of whether or not the book would be any good never occurred to me.

All right, it's not Ian's worst (though I'm surprised to see how many of his other books it beat in the Fighting Fantazine poll a couple of years back), and in at least one regard it's a distinct improvement on several of its predecessors (the curbing of Mr. Livingstone's tendency to have almost nothing happen on the false trails), but overall it's pretty mediocre. Still, it revived my interest in the range and caused my completist tendencies to flare up to the extent that I decided to collect all the Titan-based adventures (I still refused to get Sky Lord), so it's indirectly responsible for my having finally purchased Stealer and Daggers.

I don't remember how my first attempt at it ended, but as I made the wrong decision in section 1, and this is one of those books that start with an essentially blind choice that automatically dooms anyone who doesn't take the correct option, I certainly didn't win. On one occasion since resolving to play by the rules I've made it all the way to the final fight, but even if I'd won that combat, I'd still have lost overall: there's an unavoidable roll on the true path which gives only a 50% chance of getting an essential item, and I'd rolled badly back then. That roll also guaranteed the failure of my previous online attempt, though other factors brought about my character's death slightly sooner.

On with the plot, such as it is. A Demon who's been out of action for a long while is back, and is currently raising up an army to wreak havoc. You may be experiencing a slight sensation of déjà vu right now, but it will soon pass. The thing is, in this adventure, rather than seeking a mystical McGuffin that will banish the Demon Agglax, I have to raise an army to pit against Agglax's troops (as well as seeking a mystical McGuffin that will banish him). And I'm in a position to at least try getting the army together because I'm rich and famous, having beaten the second Deathtrap Dungeon (in an alternate version of events to the one that occurred here). Rather implausibly, given my character's pedigree, character generation follows the basic rules, so it's possible that the hero who bested multiple double-figure Skill opponents in the dungeon will wind up with stats too low to get him through the qualifying stages. On this occasion, though, I got someone who could, with a bit of luck, have made it through Trial:
Skill 11
Stamina 20
Luck 10
Stats-wise, he also has a fair chance of winning this one. It's the random stuff and the arbitrary decisions towards the end that are more liable to doom him.

At the start of the adventure I'm down to my last 700 Gold Pieces, and have 220 troops, a mixture of Dwarfs, Elves, Knights and Warriors. In view of the special abilities of those in the first three categories, any non-specific casualties will be taken from the ranks of the latter.

The hostile army is gathering in the Forest of Fiends to the east, so that's the way we head. We haven't got far before a ship's Captain offers to take us up the River Kok to Zengis, most of the way to the Forest, for just 50 Gold Pieces. I take him up on his offer, as it's the only way of getting one of the many items I'll need before the end of the adventure. There's a gratuitous reference to Port Blacksand in the text before we set off, and once we're on our way, one of the troops spots a barrel floating our way. I let it drift past, my character wondering what it contains, though thanks to a previous attempt at the book, I know it to be nothing good.

Further along, we come under attack. A catapult at the river's edge launches a fireball at us, but misses, while a score of River Raiders paddle log canoes (which look a lot more like big planks of wood in the illustration) towards the ship. Another fireball comes our way and misses, but the cost in Luck is becoming tiresome. As the Raiders prepare to board, I choose to let them do so: the look of surprise on their faces when they realise they're outnumbered by more than 11 to 1 will be far more satisfying than just letting the Elves slaughter them with arrows. Besides, it's an opportunity to conscript the ones that don't throw themselves overboard the moment they become aware that we're not the easy prey they took us for. And to help myself to their leader's shield, which I'll need later on if I take the correct path.

Further up river we see a drifting log with a man lying face-down on it. While I don't think there's anything to be gained by trying to help him, I'm pretty sure that doing so isn't inherently dangerous, so I have a warrior swim over to him. The man turns out to be dead, with an Orc's knife in his stomach (I wonder what it is that makes Orcs' knives so distinct from other kinds of knife) and a key on a string around his neck. I tell the warrior to bring back the key, which turns out to have a number on it and yet (IIRC) isn't actually required later on in the book. Usable, yes, but as far as I know, there's nothing important or useful behind the door it unlocks. For an Ian Livingstone book, that's practically subversive.

A scruffy-looking man in furs attempt to attract my attention, and I have the Captain take the ship to him. A further nine men emerge from the bushes but make no hostile moves, and the one who was there first explains that they've heard of my quest and would like to join us, in return for a decent wage. Not having sufficient troops is one way of failing the book, so I hire them. Their leader introduces himself as Laas, and offers me a gift, which I accept. It's a Yeti tooth, which will apparently deter lycanthropes from attacking me.

By now it's getting late, so the Captain decides to drop anchor. I have everyone stay on the ship, as it should be easier to defend than a land-based camp. Naturally things don't prove that straightforward: waking for no obvious reason, I find that the lookout is missing, and then something is thrown at me. I dodge, and see that the projectile was a silver trident. Footprints (and the fact that our unwelcome visitor is clearly a good swimmer) suggest that my assailant was a Fish Man, and a quick check reveals that I disturbed him before he could cause any serious harm - even the lookout is only unconscious.

In the morning we set off again, and a pirate ship with a huge ramming-spike approaches. I order the Captain to take the ship to the north bank, disembark my troops to show the pirates what they're up against, and have the Elven Archers take aim at the crew of the approaching ship just in case the scurvy bunch don't take the hint. This display of strength achieves the desired aim, and the pirates don't do anything to us.

The rest of the journey to Zengis is uneventful, and I have the troops make camp outside the city while I go in there, ostensibly to seek more recruits, but in reality because there are around half a dozen essential items lying around in it. The first of which is a gold ring that I just happen to spot in the gutter. When I pick it up, a bald axeman claims that it belongs to him (which I find unlikely in view of the size of his fingers) and says he'll kill me if I don't give it to him. Aware that Agglax will kill me if I don't use the ring in the appropriate manner, I give the man a quick and lethal lesson in manners, and when a couple of guards head my way to suggest that I may have made my point too forcefully, I hurry away so as not to have to fight them as well.

Taking shelter in the nearest tavern, I find it to be occupied by an assortment of dodgy-looking characters. Interacting with the barman is one of the worst set pieces in the book, so I ignore him and sit down next to a drunken rogue. He's not very talkative until I suggest a bet, at which point things get a bit ridiculous. I pick two blobs of jam on the table (what sort of pubs did Ian Livingstone frequent to have gained the impression that spilt jam was something you'd expect to find in one?) and wager 50 Gold Pieces against the rogue's brooch that a fly will land on this blob before one lands on that blob. A single die roll determines who wins this bet, and today I get lucky, so I'm still in with a chance of succeeding at the book.

I then join a trio of vagabonds at a nearby table. They ask what I'm doing in Zengis, and I explain, so they offer me advice that will help defeat Agglax in return for a fairly hefty sum of money. As I recall, the way the book's written, it's technically possible to act on their advice even if I didn't get it, but given the evident intent that I should learn of the appropriate side quest by paying the vagabonds, I'll hand over the required sum. In return, I get shown the location of Agglax's army (wonder how these three know it) and told that the Oracle in the Starstone Caves knows how Agglax can be defeated, and might tell me if he's in a good mood.

Moving on from the tavern, I catch sight of a pet shop, and go inside because this is the Crazy World of Ian Livingstone, where having the right kind of animal on your shoulder can be as important as decent stats or a weapon that can harm your foe (I'd link to my post on Island of the Lizard King here, only I failed that book before reaching the point at which the parallels become apparent). While the window display shows only an empty birdcage, the shop itself is full of peculiar fauna. The owner asks if I want to buy a talking bird or something special. Not wishing to risk ending up in an uninspired rehash of the Dead Parrot sketch, I pick the latter option, and buy a Hopper. This is not a spherical orange creature with two horns and a disconcerting grin, but a bald, green-skinned miniature kangaroo called Roob, who talks, speaks Trollish, and can cast an invisibility spell on me if I remember the relevant incantation.

Further down the road is a pawnbroker's shop. The proprietress tells me that everything has a price on it, and the text specifies that each item bears a price-tag. This is a not entirely stupid idea, atrociously implemented. On the one hand, it is pretty absurd that so many artefacts in Titan (like that key, the ring and the brooch) should have numbers inscribed on them, and a price-tag is a decent reason to have a number marked on an object. But the fact that there is a good reason for these numbers means that they don't stand out like the incongruous inscriptions, and the average gamebook reader isn't just going to note down what they paid for anything picked up in the shop. Not even if the paragraph describing the purchase mentions the price-tags twice. So rather than the, 'Oh, that's what the price-tags were for! Neat!' reaction for which Mr. Livingstone was probably hoping, the standard reaction to first discovering that you were supposed to note down those details based on a very flimsy clue is a lot closer to,'**** it, I have the ****** thing, so why can't I just ******* use it?' followed by much leafing through the book to find the section based in the pawnbroker's and get a reminder of the cost of the item in question.

The next location to catch my attention is a barn in which a pie-eating competition is taking place. Participation is not essential for winning Armies (fans of being forced to eat something unpleasant will have to wait for Mr. Livingstone's next book), but it can have beneficial consequences. Or harmful ones, because you should have expected to find one of Agglax's minions as a spectator at a pie-eating contest, right? Well, I don't think I'll bother going in. And if any Doctor Who fans reading this know where to find convoluted speculation based on the fact that the contest involves eating a fish-and-custard pie, I'd appreciate it if they kept the details to themselves, thank you very much.

I then spot an alleyway with barrels in it. It's worth going into the alley, though the barrels are best avoided. (Two harmful barrel-related encounters in one book. Makes me wonder if Ian Livingstone had some traumatic childhood incident involving a barrel.) A couple of Sewer Goblins suicidally ambush me, and I investigate the sewer from which they emerged, as wandering around in sewers is one of those things that gamebook heroes just have to do from time to time. Down there I meet the local Sewer Goblin Exterminator, and in return for my letting him take the ears of the two who attacked me, so he can claim the bounty on them, I ask him for advice about the Starstone Caves. He tells me to seek a guide in Karn (doing so is another 'technically doable without having been explicitly told to, but the fact that you can be told implies that you're supposed to get the hint first' aspect of the book).

Returning to street level, I find a place where I can hire fighters, and pop in to check on the calibre of Max's Marauders. Max is a woman (dressed a lot more sensibly than a lot of female warriors in fantasy fiction), and her rates aren't cheap. I try haggling, and we have a brief bout of non-lethal combat, the outcome determining whether I get a reduced rate or Max gets to push the price up. We're evenly matched, Skill-wise, but I get in a lucky blow and save myself a hundred Gold.

By now it's getting late. An inn named Helen's House offers rooms at a cheap rate, so I go there. The owner (named Obigee, not Helen) looks a lot like late-1980s Ian Livingstone, and I wait patiently while the author shoehorns references to a bunch of his real-life friends into Obigee's reminiscences about sailing. Obigee then gives me a fancy sword he no longer needs (and which he owns because, well, you know, sailing, swordfighting, you know that whole connection there).

In the morning I set off again, managing to find the specific combination of turns while walking through the streets to encounter a Dwarf being throttled by a Shapechanger. Intervening, I take more damage than expected, considering the difference between our Skill scores, but I survive, and the Dwarf gives me a pill that restores as much Stamina as I lost in the fight. The dead Shapechanger has a gold seal (with a number on it) in a pocket, and I take that before leaving Zengis and rejoining my troops.

Karn and the Starstone Caves are to the south, and as the book's blurb is just making things up when it claims that, 'The longer you spend searching [...] the stronger [Agglax] will be', I have the army detour south. Around half my troops are temporarily incapacitated as a result of drinking from a poisoned watering-hole, and since waiting for them to recover would mean abandoning this sub-quest, I pick 15 of the still-healthy warriors to accompany me, presumably leaving the other 100+ healthy fighters to guard and tend the sick.

We encounter an old woman, who asks for money. The advice she gives is the sort of thing it would be plausible for an adventurer to do even without prior recommendation, so I don't feel the same obligation to pay that I did when meeting the vagabonds. Still, she doesn't want much, and is probably more deserving than some of the recipients of my cash, so I give her a coin anyway. She reads my palms, tells me that I'm 'an adventurer on a very important mission' (I'd kind of got that already) and warns me that I'll die if I don't drink the Water of the Gods. Leaving her behind, we press on and find a signpost pointing to Karn.

The 'different fictional location with the same name' gag never gets old, right?

Once there I check my companions into an inn and then go to the Blue Pig tavern to try and find a guide. The barman points me to a man named Thog, who asks where I want to go. I mention the Caves, and he asks if I'm 'another foolish person who wishes to see the Oracle'. There being no option to say that, while I do want to see the Oracle, I'm no fool, I have to accept the insult. Thog then explains that the Oracle is a recluse because he doesn't like people's vices, and lives in a trap-infested cave complex because he appreciates initiative, and anyone who manages to avoid getting killed on the way to see him has demonstrated initiative. Once I've paid the asking price for his services, Thog goes on to point out how to avoid all the traps, so it would appear that 'initiative' here means 'getting someone else to tell you what to do'. And the crowd who've turned a bit of advice from an unrelated gamebook into a philosophy for life will never win this book.

Thog is also a bore and a messy eater, so I'm quite glad when we finally reach the Caves. I enter, proceed to a junction, and take the non-lethal option. When confronted with a lock and a choice of keys, I pick the non-lethal option. At the next junction I go for the non-lethal option. This leads me to a fountain in the shape of Titan deity Libra, the water flowing from an urn she holds. In the illustration, the urn is upright and overflowing, rather than tipped and pouring as would be more conventional. Whether there's some symbolism to this, or just a miscommunication in the art brief (these things happen), I cannot tell. After drinking as directed, I keep going, ignoring the collection box with the 'Give Generously' sign, because it makes no difference whether or not I put money in, and I'm in no mood to sponsor homicidal misanthropy and greed any more than is strictly necessary. I enter a cave with three exits and choose the non-lethal option. That leads to another junction, where I do the same tedious thing I've had to do at almost every decision since entering the wretched caves, and find the light becoming purple. A chute dumps me into a pool of liquid, and my having drunk from the fountain saves me from the sixth variant of Instant Death that's to be had in here.

Since I've survived this far, the Oracle addresses me (through what strikes me as a very 'great and powerful Oz'-type set-up) and demands a certain item I bought from the pawnbroker (this is where having made a note of the price is essential). I put it on the ground for him, and he says he's very greedy and wants another specific object from the pawnbroker's (and again he won't accept it unless I wrote down how much it cost). A trivia question follows, and the Oracle throws dice to determine whether it will be something obvious or obscure. I get the easy question, and identify the goddess represented in the fountain. The Oracle then decides that he's not going to help anyone he can see, so I call upon Roob to turn me invisible. Now that I've passed 'the final test', the Oracle insists on having a brooch for his 98-year-old daughter, and when I give him the one I won from the rogue, he finally agrees to help me.

Despite having claimed to know everything, the Oracle has to ask me what I want. I explain that I want to defeat Agglax, and get told that I'll need to find the Crystal of Light and, once within range of Agglax, speak the incantation that activates its power. The Oracle tells me the incantation, but not where to find the Crystal, just in case I was finding the adventure that bit too easy.

A secret panel opens to indicate that it's time for me to leave, and I go. There's a piece of paper on the floor, and the message on it must be written in Trollish, as I can't make sense of it, but Roob translates and explains that the rules for avoiding traps are different on the way out. The exit is blocked by a snake-eating two-headed lizard, which I recognise as a Calacorm. The Calacorm insists that the appropriate paperwork is completed before I depart, and a seal is required for my exit permit. I use the one I got from the Shapechanger, and the Calacorm signs my name on the document (or I sign it, but when writing the relevant section, Ian Livingstone made a grammatical error of a type that cropped up a lot in The Dark Usurper).

Beyond the Calacorm is a junction, at which I go in the correct direction rather than the only potentially lethal one. Outside I am reunited with my companions, and as we start heading back towards the rest of the army, a group of Centaurs attacks us, so I have to use the mass battle rules that come with this book. For an adventure that involves controlling troops, Armies makes very little use of the rules governing fights between armies. Mind you, given the uninspired nature of those rules, it's no great loss. For all its flaws (and it has a lot of those), Usurper did at least have a better system for simulating large-scale battles (two, in fact, because the big fight in part 2 is handled nothing like the big fight in part 3). The Livingstone system is like a massively simplified version of the Lone Wolf combat rules, and it takes just two rolls for my warriors to massacre the Centaurs.

We rejoin the other troops, now fully recovered, and start going east again. It's unclear whether or not I still have Thog with me: the text didn't say he left after leading me to the Caves, but it didn't say that he stuck around either. Still, a quick look at paths not taken indicates that if I'd only paid Thog to guide us through the Forest of Fiends, I wouldn't have come to the section that's now asking me whether or not he's with me, which implies that if I hired him to take me to the Caves, he must still be around. So he can tell us how to avoid the Treemen.

As we trek through the forest, I catch sight of a box in a stagnant pond. I'm not making the mistake of fetching that again. Further on we reach a clearing that's strewn with bones, and contains a boulder caked with dried blood. We wait to see if anything interesting will happen, and a group of 15 Hobgoblins marches a couple of Dwarfs into the clearing to execute them. I lead 25 of my troops in an attack against them, leaving the rest behind because otherwise there'd be no fight, and again it takes just two rolls to slaughter the opposition. The Dwarfs join my army (the first time troop numbers have changed by anything other than a multiple of 5), and I claim a necklace and a banner from my fallen foes.

Further on, a path cuts across the track. I think this is where I need to take the correct turning to have a chance of getting the Crystal I need. We advance to a clearing in which a number of human skulls have been skewered on spears sticking out of the ground. I decide to take the troops around the edge, and get bitten by a snake. The damage isn't enough to kill me, though.

Suddenly we are ambushed by unseen assailants with blowpipes, and 14 of my cannon fodder warriors are killed. Taking 10 of the survivors with me, I charge at our attackers, who turn out to be dog-headed practitioners of anthropophagy known as Blogs. Ian Livingstone can't really be reprimanded for failing to anticipate the more common use of the word, which didn't get coined until 9-odd years after this book came out. Anyway, a Blog fires a dart at me, and that shield I acquired from the lead River Raider saves my life. I persist in my pursuit of the Blog, which flees up a tree. I climb up and capture it. Interrogation is tricky because of the language barrier, but I manage to get the Blog to lead me to a clearing containing a statue. The Blog then escapes, but this is where I needed to go. The statue is of a man, pointing with one finger, and with his other hand clenched into a fist. Inferring from a less-dirty-than-the-rest-of-the-statue band of stone on the pointing finger that the statue once wore a ring, I slip the ring I found in Zengis onto the finger, and the fist opens to reveal the Crystal of Light.

I rejoin my troops, and we carry on until the forest thins out. Up ahead is a chasm, so we start looking for a bridge. Before long we find one, guarded by five Knights. Three of them introduce themselves, as Ian Livingstone hasn't yet finished giving friends cameo appearances in his books, and the other two draw axes with which to wreck the bridge if they consider it necessary. The middle Knight explains that they are the guardians of the Twisted Bridge (which doesn't look remotely twisted in the picture), and I must answer a question in order to cross it. Nothing about my name, quest or favourite colour: instead it's a bit of FF trivia that isn't even revealed in this book (at least until the point at which the correct answer is confirmed to be the right one). To prove to the White Knights that I fight on the side of order, rather than pointing out that I'm leading an army against Agglax's forces of evil, I have to demonstrate that I've read the right page of Titan - The Fighting Fantasy World. Or make a lucky guess. Or have failed the book at this point before now, and be able to work out the correct answer by process of elimination.

Anyway, I answer the question more outrageous than anything even Joe Dever dared make pivotal, and the Knights decide that my cause must be worthy after all, so once they've let us cross the bridge, they join the army. We leave the forest (the lack of trees on this side of the chasm in the picture of the Knights and the bridge had made me think we were already out of it) and, as it's getting dark, make camp. It's a full moon, but I still have the Yeti tooth, so the predictable Werewolf attack is dealt with quickly, at the cost of only one guard's life.

The next day we head further east, and are sighted by a Dragon-riding Goblin. Later that day we see Chaos Warriors attacking a temple, and before we can intervene, Fire Imps swoop towards us. At last the Elven Archers actually get to shoot at something, and unless I'm unlucky enough to roll over 50 on two dice, none of the Imps will get anywhere near my men. None too surprisingly, I roll less than 'just over four times the maximum possible score', so most of the Imps don't even survive the first volley, and the few that do each take around a dozen arrows through the head in the second volley.

Agglax's troops advance on mine. A hunchbacked Gremlin emerges from their midst and performs a haka or an incantation or something along those lines, and is then trampled underfoot by the Chaos Warriors. I send my Knights against the Warriors, and the flaming swords wielded by the newest additions to my army make short work of the Chaotic mob. Emboldened, my army charges forward, and Agglax's troops part to reveal spear-throwing war machines. Amazingly, I only lose 17 men in two salvos, after which we're close enough for melee. The mass battle rules don't come into play here, but they're too rubbish for me to care much.

I kill a Troll, then an Orc, then get to take stock. Forty of my men are dead, impatient Orcs and Goblins behind the enemy front line are fighting each other, and closer by, two of my men are in trouble. I go to the aid of the one who's been flanked by Goblins, as I have a better chance of surviving that fight unscathed, and I want to save as much Stamina as I can for the fight that killed the last character of mine to make it this far. Another Goblin fires a crossbow at me, but Max pushes me out of the way and gets fatally hit by the bolt instead, despite the full body armour. No mention of her yelling, 'Noooooooooooooo!!!' as she made the dive, though.

After killing the Goblins, I note that the fighting is not going well for my side, and exploit the distractability of the enemy troops by taking the pouch with my remaining gold in (and at 237 coins, that's one hefty purse) and scattering its contents into their midst. As the Trolls and Goblins turn on each other for the money, I am able to break through their ranks and make it to Agglax, who's been watching from his Zombie-drawn sedan chair. I pull out the Crystal, and an Elite Fanatic leaps to the Demon's defence, yelling in broken English like a mook from a politically incorrect 'yellow peril' movie. In this version of the fight, I only take one wound before felling him.

Agglax flees, but his robes are ill-suited to the battlefield, and I catch up with him. Brandishing the Crystal, I speak the words taught me by the Oracle, and Agglax is banished to the Outer Planes. His remaining troops wipe themselves out, and I lead mine home in triumph, wondering how long it will be until a fresh threat arises to menace Allansia. (I make it about 10 books, though it could be argued that the villain in about 5 books' time is bad enough news to prove a global threat, even if the adventure itself is set on a different continent.)

Well, before I started I had little confidence of winning that one. My victory is made that bit sweeter by the knowledge that it's one less not-so-good book to have to replay at some point. Back at the start of this post I called it mediocre, and beating it has done nothing to change my opinion, for better or worse.