Tuesday, 4 March 2014

There's Been Some Terrific Heat Here Recently

The Shadow of Shargan, published in issue 13 of Proteus, was Elizabeth Caldwell's sequel to Challenge of the Promethean Guild. That was a little surprising, considering the irrational hostility with which many readers responded to Challenge's SF trappings, not to mention the complete lack of continuity between Proteus adventures before this one.

I definitely got my copy on the way to school, as I remember being worried about what would happen if any of my classmates saw the illustration on page 28. While not the first picture of an underdressed female to appear in the magazine, this one showed significantly more flesh than the others, and was likely to elicit far more vulgar mockery than usual. My first attempt at the adventure was, consequently, conducted rather furtively. If I'd used dice, my character would almost certainly have died in an unnecessary fight against a tentacled monstrosity, but as it was, I got as far as the cave where assorted toxic gases doom anyone who lacks a certain item.

Back when I was reviewing the Proteus adventures for a Yahoo! group, it took me 46 attempts to succeed at this one. Even if I get the best possible stats and dig out my old map to eliminate the risk of taking a wrong turning, I'll have (at most) a 1 in 3 chance of getting as far as the endgame. Let's see how much more doomed character creation makes me...
Dexterity: 11
Strength: 16
Skill: 10
I allocated dice, as there are a couple of fights that make a high Dexterity essential.

Having recently qualified to train as a member of the fabled Promethean Guild, I am dragged away from my studies to be offered a mission. Recently the Sorcerer and scientist Shargan moved into the scientifically backward kingdom of Aarlach and, having harnessed the powers of a Fire Elemental, has established a base inside a dormant volcano. It's unclear what he's doing in there, but the Aarlachians fear that he's constructing some kind of super-weapon that could threaten the whole world. While the Guildmasters aren't convinced that the threat Shargan poses is that serious, living in a volcano is such an obvious sign of villainy that they acknowledge the need to do something about him. However, the King of Aarlach is unwilling to pay more than 50,000 gold pieces, which makes the job too cheap for any qualified Guild members, so as I'm the most promising trainee, I get first refusal. Predictably, I accept.

In the morning I set off to meet with Aarlachian envoy Kai-Tul, only to learn that he was murdered during the night. Still, he'd already made arrangements for the voyage to Aarlach, so I go to the boat that was to transport us and inform the Captain that he'll only have the one passenger, as it turns out. He suspects that Kai-Tul was killed by demons that serve Shargan, and this theory is strongly backed up by an attack on the ship by half a dozen such creatures a couple of days into the sea crossing. I fight one of them, the laser built into the hilt of my sword enabling me to win in half the time an ordinary combat would take, and run a second demon through without even having to use dice. The ship's crew have dealt with the others, and the remainder of the journey passes without incident.

Upon our arrival at the Aarlachian port of Isar, a fat, balding man introduces himself as Lai-Ti, an official who's been chosen to guide me to the volcano. I have no real grounds for suspecting him of being up to no good, so I get into his hover car, and he does nothing worse than bore me with inane small talk on the flight to Mount Villpus. He doesn't loiter once he's dropped me off, and I start to climb the mountain.

After a while I hear the beating of leathery wings, and prepare to defend myself against the Pterodactyl and rider that are heading for me. A laughing face appears in the sky to justify the cover illustration, and then the fight commences. Again the laser component of my laser sword saves me a couple of rounds' worth of combat, and the Pterodactyl's rider is no match for me once he's on the ground. The face in the sky disappears, and after catching my breath I find a cave leading into the mountain.

Activating my torch, I find myself in a passageway leading south to a T-junction. The air is hot and dry, but breathable. As I recall, I need to go east here. The passage leads to a chamber full of statues of people. On closer examination, they turn out not to be statues, but real humans who were petrified in an eruption. An earth tremor causes the one closest to me to topple over and shatter on the floor, and I spot a ring in among the fragments.

Putting the ring on would be a bad idea, but its effects are ill-suited for an adventure as lethal as this one. Wearing it results in a gradual, drawn-out and painful transformation, which eventually ends badly. But it's obvious that the change taking place is not a beneficial one pretty much from the outset, so most readers will only ever have one character try the ring on. And the likelihood of that character's surviving long enough to meet the fate linked above is very low indeed.

Incidentally, the words spoken by the black-clad man (who, as you may have guessed, is Shargan) in that fatal paragraph raise some questions. Kai-Tul said that Mount Villpus hadn't erupted in centuries. Shargan says that the ring was stolen from him. So either Shargan's been around for a very long time, and lived here before, or it wasn't an eruption that caused the petrification of the people in the chamber.

But I digress. Leaving the chamber, I find that the passage turns south, and before long I see a turning to the east. Investigating, I notice a significant increase in humidity, and eventually reach a cave in which water drips from the ceiling and drains away through a hole in the south wall. Assorted objects have been suspended from the cave roof with ropes, and there must be something odd about the water, as the droplets that have dripped onto these items have caused them to become encased in a stony veneer. There's a flower, a bird, a cat, a severed hand holding a key... All rather morbid and macabre. But keys in gamebooks are usually useful, and the one here is conspicuously devoid of the marble-like coating on the cave's other contents, so I decide to see if there's any way of extracting it from the hand it's in. This requires a Skill roll, at which I very narrowly succeed. Even so, I get splashed by a couple of drips, and my skin is bleached and withered where the water touched it.

Returning to the southward-leading passage, I keep going until I reach another side turning, this one heading west. As I recall, it leads to the most entertaining of this adventure's overly lethal bits - only a 50% chance of getting killed, and the text emphasises the threat posed by the advancing android enough that surviving feels like an achievement. But it's not an essential encounter, and while there are worse odds to be faced elsewhere, the likelihood of dying is still too high to justify taking the detour.

Continuing south, I reach an area with a lot of stalactites and stalagmites. A luminescent substance coats the walls, and if I were wearing that ring, the glow would trigger its effect. As it is, the only danger I face here comes from the local fauna: two creatures that are similar to spiders, but have shells and pincers like crabs. The laser in my sword eviscerates the first one, and a few blows with the pointy end take care of the second.

Proceeding further south, I reach a crossroads. I think I need to go west here, but I'm not sure whether or not it's advisable to go east first. Might as well try it, I guess. The turning east leads to a locked door and, oddly, I'm offered a choice between turning back and attempting to pick the lock. Okay, so maybe the key from the dripping water cave doesn't fit this lock, but there should be an option to try it and find out that it's not the right one - it's not hard to find a couple of sections that could be merged to free up a slot.

Anyway, I manage to pick the lock, and the door opens, leading into a cave that contains a bubbling pool of lava and several mounds of glowing rock. The fact that there was a locked door barring access to the cave suggests that there's something significant in here, so I look around. The door slams and locks, and I hear a laugh from the other side. A lava monster erupts from the pool, splashing me with molten rock (which does an implausibly small amount of damage), and I have to fight it. While I have the higher Dexterity, I get a lot of bad rolls. By the penultimate round of the battle, we're both down to our last 2 Strength points, and it's the monster that manages to strike the final blow.

Not a very satisfactory ending, but not the worst this adventure has to offer.

Sunday, 2 March 2014

Men Shall Die For This

My first noteworthy experience of Paul Mason's The Crimson Tide was coming across a second-hand copy in Archeron Books. It was during one of the periods when I was rather indifferent towards gamebooks, but, as on the occasion I first came across The Keep of the Lich-Lord, I looked through the book in some detail to see if anything in it grabbed me. I wound up not getting it, but the bad ending that explains the title of the book did stick in my memory. Which is why I've saved this reminiscence for now, even though there was also a copy of Tower of Destruction in the shop, and I gave that book an equally thorough scrutiny. At that time the content of Tower made no impression on me whatsoever, and I doubt that I'd even remember having looked at it if Tide hadn't got that one hook in.

In the end I did get Tide at the same time as Tower, as it was another of the batch of FF books that got me back into the range. The two copies I bought probably weren't the same ones I'd seen earlier, given that Archeron had an annoying habit of putting the prices of their second-hand books on massive labels (around a quarter of the size of the book cover), which were near-impossible to remove without making a mess of the cover. As I recall, the first time I played TCT, my character was sold into slavery and, following a failed escape attempt, got put into chains to make further bids for freedom impossible.

Character creation is handled differently from usual here, because at the start of the book my character is a child. Starting Skill and Stamina are consequently a lot lower than in your average FF book - a detail that might not have been taken into account when the editor chose to 'beef up' one opponent. That's less of an issue than it could be, as the enemy in question is not on the correct path through the book, but that little detail (and the identity of the person responsible for the monster's being so overpowered) didn't stop a number of reviewers from unjustly heaping opprobrium on Mr. Mason for the unbalanced encounter.

On account of the lower-than-usual starting scores, I shall definitely be allocating dice.
Skill: 5
Stamina: 6
Luck: 10
Ferocity: 4
The last, unique-to-this book stat is a consequence of the events that occur at the start of the adventure.

I'm a peasant, living on the island where most of the action in Black Vein Prophecy takes place, and unconcerned by the tales of civil war until a group of foreign mercenaries turns up at my home village. They take all our rice, and all the local women, and kill every man who tries to intervene. Including my father. Aware that there's nothing I can do to help right now, I memorise the appearance of their leader as best I can - a bestial mask hides his face - in the hope that I'll meet him again at a time when I have the advantage. My father's last words are an instruction to go to the Baochou Monastery, avenge him, and rescue my mother.

I find the stick that I carved to look like a sword, take a little food, and leave the village, accompanied by several other children. Initially we head for Yenshu, the town where the district magistrate holds his tribunal. I've never been there, but my cousin Quan, who's also part of the group, has, and thus knows the way. At the point where the path joins the main road, we find another village left in ruins by the mercenaries. Quan speculates that the mercenaries are from the uncivilized land of Hachiman.

We move onto the road, which is a lot less busy than usual. Quite possibly on account of the warrior riding straight towards us. The rest of the children flee into the nearby fields, while I set an ambush. It doesn't go well - for me, at least, though my companions benefit from the distraction I cause. After knocking me into a stupor, the warrior ties me up, steals my possessions, then takes me to a mine and sells me into slavery.

Knot-tying is obviously not one of the warrior's strongest skills, as I manage to slip my bonds just as he's leaving. I choose not to immediately attack my buyer, hoping to lull him into a false sense of security, but as that results in my spending the next year labouring in the mines, I think I may have been the one who got lulled.

One day my excavations break into a channel through which an underground stream is flowing. On the assumption that the stream will emerge from the ground at some point, I grab the food I've been hoarding and dive in. I'll never fully recover from the damage I take from being dashed against the channel walls by the current, but eventually I reach daylight, and crawl ashore at the first opportunity.

After days of travel, I catch sight of Traole, the provincial capital of the region. From a gameplay perspective, I also see a sign that suggests I've already strayed far enough from the optimal path to have no chance of success, so I might as well make this attempt at the book a learning experience. That sign suggests to me that entering the city would be a bad idea, but I may be making dodgy inferences from incomplete knowledge of the book, so I'll go in anyway and try to find out for sure one way or another.

The city is enormous, and I soon get lost. Given the time that has elapsed since the massacre that set me on this trail, I see little point in going through official channels, and even if the mercenaries responsible are still in this region, I'm in no fit state to take any of them on. Which only leaves the option of going to the temple, so I try that. There I hear a priest complaining about declining temple attendance, and blaming it on foreigners like the barbarians from Hachiman who were here recently and are now heading for the capital.

It's still too soon for me to seek out my enemies, so I choose not to follow them. Owing to the amount of stuff I didn't or couldn't do in Traole, I'm no closer to being certain that the city should be avoided, but I do at least know one thing not to bother trying again (and, what with the item and codeword checks that preceded hearing the priest, I am also aware of circumstances under which it might be worth going back to the temple).

For now, I head north to the mountains. A side turning attracts my attention - apparently for the first time, since I have no recollection of the encounter to which it leads. The path goes down to a valley with a stream in, and a creature, part-human, part-fish, emerges from the water to attack me. This is a Yuemo, distinguishable from your standard Fighting Fantasy Fish-Man by its having sharp fins rather than hands and a trident. It wouldn't pose much of a threat to your average FF hero, but I'm a child without a weapon, so my piscine opponent makes short work of me.