Tuesday, 25 December 2018

Choose Your Future. Choose Life

This is a brief seasonal digression from my ongoing attempt at Night of the Necromancer. Earlier this year I picked up a copy of the last issue of 2000 AD published in 2011, having learned that it contained an in-joke-ridden interactive Judge Dredd comic strip entitled Choose Your Own Xmas, written by Al Ewing, with art by John Higgins. So far I've not had a go at it, as I was saving it for today.

In this adventure I play the part of Jackson Packard, a citizen of Mega-City One, alarmed to suddenly find myself hearing a voice, which tells me that this is the start of an adventure in which I am the hero, and the choices I make will determine whether I live or die. What kind of lunacy is this?

A co-worker recommends that I seek psychiatric assistance, but I'm not sure I can spare the time, as it's Xmas Eve and I still have gift shopping to do. Deciding to get my shopping done first, I proceed to the kitchenware section of Montgomery's store, where I pick out a las-knife for Aunt Flavia.

Suddenly my name is called by Judge Dredd, who seems under the impression that I've done something wrong, and threatens to shoot me. The mysterious voice offers a choice between running away (in spite of Dredd's warning) or surrendering (which the voice suggests is inadvisable). I opt for fleeing, and the crowds are too heavy for the Judge to risk opening fire, so I manage to escape for now. The toss of a coin determines what happens next, which turns out to be another challenge from Dredd. The same challenge, in fact, so either I've just slipped back in time or the same panel is being somewhat sloppily recycled. I run again, and this time the coin establishes that I dash across the road, straight into the path of a Judge on his bike. The collision proves fatal for me.

Well, that was short and not very informative. I'll play again, and this time I'll take a chance on consulting a shrink. Dr. Schrumpfenkopf thinks the voice's mention of panels and choices could be related to my job - if I were a game-show host. As I'm an auxiliary lab technician, that hypothesis isn't viable, so the doctor concludes that the voice must be a manifestation of suppressed guilt relating to past criminal choices. I protest that I'm a law-abiding citizen, but the doctor is convinced that I must be a lawbreaker, and announces his intention to call the Judges.

Desperately I cast my mind back to what happened at work earlier in the day, hoping that I might be able to recall something sufficiently traumatic to be a plausible explanation for the voice. And I remember a professor talking about parallel universes, and the fact that so far the only ones contacted have been radically different from this one, though according to some theories there should be a multitude that are almost identical to it. I didn't pay that much attention at the time, as I was thinking about what presents to buy. I was then further distracted when the cable I was connecting gave me a shock, which I opted not to report in case it meant having to redo the procedure we'd been carrying out.

Recounting this does not dissuade the shrink from calling the Judges, though they may be a little preoccupied by an (unrelated, according to the voice) explosion at Joe Dever Block. Dredd, alas, is not distracted, and investigates the doctor's call. He recognises me, and demands to know how I can be here, suggesting teleportation or cloning. I have no idea what he's going on about and, interpreting my confusion as an attempt at feigning insanity, has me taken away to the Psycho-Cubes until I can provide a sensible explanation for what's been going on. As I am unable to do so, my adventure ends there.

I'm having another go. Things would apparently have gone differently if I'd bought that knife before going to the psychiatrist, so this time I go to the shop and, when confronted by Dredd, I surrender. A child mockingly points out that the Judge before me is just a doll, and I realise that the real Dredd is nowhere to be seen. Something is definitely not right, so I proceed to Dr Schrumpenkopf's, where things initially proceed as before. However, when Dredd bursts in, I'm the one who makes the startled exclamation of recognition, whereas the Judge claims that we've never met.

Panel number recognition tells me that trying to explain what's going on will result in the same ending as on my second attempt, which leaves me with little choice but to use the knife and take the doctor hostage. Dredd hesitates, so I throw the psychiatrist at him and make a run for it. Surveillance picks me up on Hildick Boulevard, heading for Chalke Street, which seems to be geographically impossible - a mystery that Dredd adds to the one about my having already died twice tonight.

One of the other Judges can help with that. My colleague Steve Livingstone has explained about the accident, and... at this point the voice interrupts this unexplained vision of what's happening elsewhere, and tells me I must flee to the Cursed Earth, unless I think I might find some answers myself back at the lab.

I return to the lab, and find Dredd waiting for me. He seems unimpressed at my attempt to explain that the machine must be to blame, somehow causing every possible outcome of my different decisions to manifest in this reality rather than splitting off into parallel realities as normal. The voice gives me the option of going insane and killing the Judge, but I can tell that that's not going to work (part genre-savviness, part being unable to avoid seeing the image of my head being blown apart in the panel just after the one for choosing insanity), so I continue trying to convince him of what's happening.

Dredd is shaken, having possibly just experienced what would have happened if I'd made the other choice, but still insists on taking me in. The voice tells me I must escape, and as I've already seen the fatal outcome of trying to get away on foot, I choose to try hijacking a vehicle instead. This goes badly, leading to a collision with a chemical tanker, the resultant explosion seemingly the one the voice said was nothing to do with me.

Okay, one final try. It goes the same way as my previous one until the voice tells me to escape, at which point I reject the choice and proceed to the next panel as if reading a normal comic rather than a gamebook-style one. The voice protests, demanding that I pick one of the options offered, and adding what I think is the 'head blown apart' one if I insist on something else. I'm sticking with linear progression.

The voice suggests another alternative, and then decides to take me back to panel 1. Seeing me start to vanish, Dredd fires a high explosive round at the machine, interrupting the voice's desperate attempt at redirecting me to another panel. I reappear, freed of the burden of having to make decisions that determine how events transpire. And Dredd arrests me and sentences me to life imprisonment, because I chose not to report the accident in the lab, thereby allowing the interactive shenanigans that resulted in the deaths of over a thousand citizens.

No happy endings for me, then, but that doesn't come as a great surprise, given the setting. Choose Your Own Xmas works better as a Judge Dredd one-shot than a proper mini-gamebook, but as pastiches go, it's one of the better ones I've encountered.

Wednesday, 19 December 2018

Falling Into Action, the Moment Soon is Over

Continuing my latest attempt at the 64th Fighting Fantasy gamebook, Night of the Necromancer, I now find myself heading for my family home, Valsinore castle. The similarity to the name of Hamlet's home is not to be considered that relevant, as I have neither a brother to blame for my death nor a son to cause mayhem in the course of attempting to avenge it. At the time of posting this playthrough, I do not own a copy of the interactive version of Hamlet, but if I ever do get hold of one, I'll give it a go here.

Enough digressing: right now the gameplay's the thing. Arriving at the castle without further incident, I must now decide how to get in. I could try sneaking past the guards on the main gate with the help of my newly-discovered ability to turn invisible, or crawl through the culvert that carries away the castle's sewage, but first I mean to try and find out whether or not being a ghost confers upon me the power of flight.

My gamebook manager reveals the surprising fact that I've never tried this before. I'd assumed that my memories of the unpleasantness that can occur in the sewage culvert (which is not the sort of bother one might normally expect to encounter in such an environment) were a consequence of an unsuccessful attempt at redefining my relationship with the force of gravity, but it turns out that I didn't even attempt to learn to fly first. Maybe I erroneously assumed that the option was only open to characters that already possessed the ability. When playing a book for the blog, I always read the text that bit more carefully, so it could be that this time round I was paying enough attention to pick up on the lack of  'if you have the relevant ability' text.

Will and Luck determine whether or not I am able to float up into the air, and I succeed at both rolls. As I soar over the battlements, I look down upon the castle, and am perturbed to see that the Keep is in total darkness. Still, heading straight there to investigate would mean missing out on a lot of potential encounters in the Outer and Inner Wards of the castle, some of which may well be essential to success, so I descend on the inside of the wall I just crossed.

Back on home turf, I become aware of a sinister atmosphere overshadowing the place, and see a crowd of ethereal beings circling overhead. In the Outer Ward I have access to the smithy, the stables, the guard barracks, the battlements and the kennels. Having been advised to 'seek out the metal-worker', I make the smithy my first port of call.

My old friend Bertild the smith, one of the few non-evil eyepatch-wearers in fiction, is at work. I'm about to enter and greet her when I notice a line of salt that covers the threshold. Thinking it unlikely that Bertild has been having a lot of trouble with invading slugs and snails, I decide to try and get her attention rather than simply cross the barrier.

Rumours of my death have already reached the castle, as Bertild takes the sight of my spectral form as proof of what she's heard. My post-life state saddens her rather than scaring her, and she wipes away some of the salt to allow me in. I explain what happened to me, and Bertild vows to help avenge my death, which so inspires me that I get another point of Will and a Luck bonus.

I ask if there are any items in the castle that could be of use to me, and Bertild mentions the legendary Amethyst Blade said to be hidden somewhere in the castle. Though its life-draining properties may make it more of a force for Evil than Good. And it might not be possible for a disembodied spirit such as me to wield it. But apart from those minor details, it could be just what I need. There is also the automated suit of armour that Bertild spent the best part of a year building, but Chamberlain Unthank's dread knights confiscated it and locked it away in the Barbican just as she was getting ready to fix the last few bugs.

I would ask about the 'dread knights', but a noise from the forge gets our attention, and we see the flaming coal and clinker transform into two small humanoids that advance towards us. Bertild smashes one of them with her hammer, and my ghostly sword puts paid to the other. Nevertheless, it is now obvious that this place is no longer secure, so I leave before anything else can manifest.

On my first attempt at this book, one of my non-final deaths occurred because I visited a couple of other places within the Outer Ward in the wrong order. That is not a mistake I plan to repeat, so I now head for the kennels. This does cause most of the dogs to get scared and make a lot of noise, but my own hunting hound is delighted to see me despite my changed circumstances, and would probably be jumping all over me and licking me if I weren't so intangible. He accompanies me as I leave the kennels, and will harass any opponents I face (except for the incorporeal ones, whom he can't affect), subjecting them to an Attack Strength penalty. The encouragement provided by this faithful companion also provides a boost to my Will (and a Luck bonus I can't use).

Now I can proceed to the guard barracks. In there, I eventually make it to the Captain's quarters. Captain Cador senses my presence and draws a sword, the silvered sigils on the blade suggesting that this is a weapon that could harm me (and the memory of my first attempt at the book confirming that it can inflict lethal damage on my spectral form).

I attempt to calm him, and he says I look like a 'brave knight' he knows to be dead. For some reason I am puzzled at his knowledge, even though I've already been informed that rumours of my death are already spreading through the castle. Still, the book doesn't go as far as giving me the option of assuming that he's in league with the Death Acolyte and leaping to the attack. Instead, I just explain that I'm my ghost and ask for help. The Captain is not convinced that I'm not a supernatural doppelganger, and insists that I prove my identity by naming my dog. The one who's probably gazing adoringly at me while wagging his tail right now.

Having been to the kennels, I do know the dog's name (not that I should have needed to encounter him before I could remember it - a Temple of Terror-style name-drop in the introductory passage would have been fairer, especially as it mentioned that I was looking forward to seeing my 'faithful hound' again), so I am able to convince the Captain that I am who I claim to be. Good thing the dog isn't wearing a collar with a name tag on, or the Captain might have suspected that I read it there, and demanded some really obscure bit of trivia as evidence.

I explain that I'm here to avenge my murder, and the Captain reveals that he and his guards are no longer allowed beyond the Outer Ward, as Chamberlain Unthank gave the responsibility of patrolling the inner regions of the castle to a mysterious order of knights around a year ago. The Captain then asks how he can help, and I tell him that I need information. As I'm beginning to wonder if leaving Unthank in charge of running the place while I was away may have been a bad idea, I decide to try and find out what else he's been up to in my absence.

Firstly the Chamberlain banned everyone but himself from going into the Keep. Rumour had it that he was spending most of his time searching the castle archives for something, and then it got out that he was building some kind of machine. Then the thirteen knights turned up on a stereotypically dark and stormy night, claiming to be seeking shelter, and Unthank invited them in, banished the established guards to the Outer Ward, and set his enigmatic new buddies to guard the Barbican. There's something locked in there that he doesn't want anyone else to touch. It feels as if events have been building towards something, and all indications point to the climax occurring tonight.

Cador goes on to admit that he believes there to be evil afoot, and he regrets not having been strong enough to take action back when it started to brew. He adds that Unthank is going ahead with the celebratory feast in spite of the death of the person whose return it should be celebrating (and the Outer Ward guards are not invited), and casually mentions a numerical combination that he managed to find out. Having finally run out of revelations, he wishes me well and dismisses me.

Is it worth checking out the stables? I decide to chance it. The horses don't react to my presence a lot better than the dogs did. One of them is saddled, and after a moment I realise that it's the one I was riding before I was ambushed. This gets me wondering what has become of my corpse, which seems a bit random - given that the miserable nag threw me and ran off before I got murdered, its presence here merely indicates that it knew the way home unaided. I suppose its riderless arrival might have prompted people to send out a search party, but the leap from 'That's my horse!' to 'Where's my body?' is still not that obvious.

On a more serious note, an equine phantom materialises in the stable, and it's even more agitated than the live horses. This spectral stallion is blocking my exit, so in order to move on, I must either fight it or try to calm it. Despite the risk that it might inspire a really inadvisable crossover, I try my skill as a ghost horse whisperer. Exerting my Will, I successfully pacify the skittish spook. There's nothing else I can do here right now, but knowing the whereabouts of a steed I could ride in my incorporeal state may be useful at a later juncture.

I think I've achieved as much as is worth achieving in the Outer Ward, so it's time to proceed to the Inner, which means traversing the Barbican and probably encountering Unthank's ominous knights. That will have to wait for another blog entry, though, as I will be travelling away to spend Christmas with the family in less than 12 hours, and don't know how much access I'll have to the internet while I'm gone, so it makes sense to conclude this instalment of the playthrough here and post it now.

Saturday, 15 December 2018

Anything's Nothing - When You're Dead

Somewhat belatedly, I resume my attempt at Night of the Necromancer. Apologies for the delay: life is a bit busy and tough, and for some reason Night just doesn't grab me in the way that many gamebooks do. Usually such lack of engagement arises from some flaw in the book, but there's nothing significantly wrong with this one. Yes, there are minor errors here and there, and they annoy me that bit more because the book and I are not simpatico, but I've got on fine with some gamebooks that are more of a mess than this one.

Anyway, it's time I stopped grumbling and got on with the playthrough. If you haven't already read the first part, I would recommend that you do so now, so as to avoid confusion when I start talking about how many times I've been killed on this playthrough.

I find myself by a grey desolation of rock and sand, with storm clouds rumbling in a grey sky. I'm likely to wind up here several times, each successive visit netting me at least one new codeword and bringing me closer to ultimate failure (and further from the irritating typo in the final sentence of the section).

The Dead Winds bear me across the barren landscape towards a gate. Sensing it to be a point of no return, I try to fight their pull in an attempt to return to the land of the living and resume my investigation into the matter of who had me murdered and why. Thanks to the discouragement provided by the Ghoul King, my Will isn't quite strong enough, and I am drawn closer to the gate, at which point I am attacked by an incorporeal being with far too many mouths.

Some of my Stamina is restored for the fight against the Sin Eater. Exactly how much is unclear, as the amount is partially based on half of my Initial Stamina, and the book doesn't say whether halves round up or down. My Skill is lower than the Sin Eater's (that encounter with the Ghoul King just keeps taking its toll), so I lose the fight regardless of what my Stamina went up to.

The Sin Eater flings the savaged remnants of my spirit closer to the gate, and a figure resembling the classic Grim Reaper appears, proclaiming itself to be the Watcher at the Gate. The Watcher produces an hourglass, and is a little confused to see that there is still a significant amount of sand in the top bulb. Unsure why I'm here before my time, the Watcher asks me what I seek. 'Answers' is, alas, not on the list of options (nor is 'Motivation to keep reading', but that's my problem). I'm not going to deliberately choose badly just to hasten my failure, so I'll see if the Watcher considers 'Justice' valid grounds for sending me back. The Watcher asks what I mean by that, narrowing down the list to just two alternatives, and as 'Revenge' tends to be a villain thing, I go for 'A second chance'.

The Watcher finds this suggestion laughable. But, as Luck would have it, the amusement I have thus provided puts the Watcher in such a good mood that a stroke of the scythe sends me back to the mortal realm, albeit with a warning that we shall meet again. I find myself back on the beach, my randomly generated stats at full, and my Will increased. Neither the Hermit nor the Sea Demon are around, so I decide to head inland.

Before long I reach a crossroads. It's still a little early to be heading for home, and I'm not enough of a James Herbert fan to leap at the opportunity to visit the village of Sleath, so I decide to see how many of my kind are resident in the local graveyard. The place turns out to be pretty neglected and in poor condition, several tombs showing signs of having been broken into (or out of).

A few ghosts approach me, asking for help.They don't want to be here, but some malicious entity is preventing them from moving on to the land of the dead. In life, I would have had some degree of responsibility for the well-being of the locals. Even if my duty to the people in the region ended with my death (which is by no means guaranteed, given that on more than one occasion someone has been voted into political office despite having died before the election), my ghost may have an obligation as regards the needs of other ghosts in the area, so I agree to fight the fiend that holds them here (alliterative apparition that I am).

A tremor passes through the graveyard, and the ghosts vanish. A mound of coffin-containing earth rears up and takes on roughly humanoid semblance, and I draw my spectral sword and attack the Grave Golem. This could be my most perilous battle yet: while my opponent and I have equal Skill scores, something bad will happen if the Golem ever wins two consecutive Attack Rounds. As it turns out, the sentient cemetery only manages to land one blow on me all fight, so I don't fall victim to its malign power. The ghosts freed by the defeat of the Golem share their power with me before passing over, restoring the Stamina I lost in the fight and providing another boost to my Will.

From here I can only proceed to Sleath. As I approach the village, moaning voices and a phosphorescent mist herald an assault by a cloud of tormented faces, all with closed eyes. The evil afoot in the region is causing the villagers to have nightmares, and the conglomeration of their bad dreams has become another ethereal being. My Will is more than proof against its insanity-inducing onslaught, but the subsequent fight against the Phantasmagoria does not go as well as the battle in the graveyard. I still win, but take significantly more damage along the way, and the power I absorb from its dissipating essence is not sufficient to restore me to full health.

At this time of day the only part of the village showing any signs of activity is the Cockcrow Inn. There are several other places of potential interest, though: a neglected shrine constructed upon the tomb of some long-forgotten champion of Good, the tacky-looking tent housing itinerant fortune teller Madame Zelda, and the Burgomaster's house.

For starters I check out the tent, which has internal partitions. In the first section I find a circular table with a crystal ball on top. Moving through to the back, I find Madame Zelda herself, who appears to have turned in for the night without bothering to take off her veils or make-up. Her reaction to my presence suggests that she's like Whoopi Goldberg's character from Ghost: possessed of some psychic ability, but not aware of it, and relying on trickery to con her clients into accepting whatever vague prognostications she can think up. The text insinuates that there may be some connection between her and the Death Acolyte who killed me, on the grounds that he had an amethyst sphere and she owns a crystal ball, but that's mighty flimsy evidence, as I know that a crystal ball is one of the principal items of paraphernalia for the stereotypical fortune teller.

Even if Zelda is a charlatan, she may be capable of causing me harm, so I make no threatening moves. Once she's finished amazedly quoting that line from The Sixth Sense, she asks how she can help me. I explain my situation, and she takes me to the crystal ball. Gazing into it, she gives me a little ambiguous bunkum, and then some other entity actually starts to speak through her, telling me that the dead shall soon stalk the land, I must seek the metal-worker and the iron man, and I should be wary of the man who believes only in Good, but I may find salvation at the court of the Liche Queen.

The crystal ball turns black, the table begins to shake, and I get another warning that the Lord of Shadows is coming. Then the crystal ball explodes and Zelda comes back to herself, wondering what just happened. I refrain from explaining and make a quick departure, reflecting that her life is liable to become a lot more interesting from now on, assuming she survives whatever horrors the Lord of Shadows intends to visit upon the land.

Next I head for the shrine, only to find that it is protected by a spiritual barrier that causes me pain when I try to cross it. I endeavour to force my way through, but my Will isn't quite strong enough, so I have to abandon the attempt.

Oh well, time to see if they serve spirits at the inn. The door is closed, but my Poltergeist ability enables me to fling it open. As the patrons all turn to see who the new arrival is, it strikes me that, being a ghost, I may not be particularly welcome here. This realisation, combined with a couple of successful rolls, leads to my spontaneously manifesting the ability to turn invisible.

This is a good thing, as the occupants of the inn include Josef van Richten, the ghost hunter mentioned by the hermit, and eavesdropping on van Richten's conversation with his avaricious servant Streng enables me to ascertain that he is the kind of zealot who makes no distinction between benign and malign ghosts, so an encounter with him is not likely to go well.

As I recall, visiting the Burgomaster's house merely leads to an encounter with the resident ghosts, who look upon newly-arrived spectres in much the same way that a Daily Express-reading Brexiteer thinks of the non-British. There is little to be gained, and much to be lost, by meeting with them, so I shall leave them for van Richten to deal with, and move on from the village to the castle.

That seems an appropriate point at which to pause the narrative and post this entry, thereby reassuring any readers who might be concerned that the longer-than-usual gap between posts presages another hiatus of almost a year. I hope to update again before Christmas.

Friday, 30 November 2018

The Last Ten Seconds of Life

Jonathan Green's last Fighting Fantasy gamebook to date, Night of the Necromancer, was published between issues 2 and 3 of  Fighting Fantazine. As Wizard Books were still doing a poor job of getting their new FF releases onto the shelves of Hull's bookshops, I bought a copy online (and wound up getting a duplicate about 5 months later as part of a batch of gamebooks acquired in a special offer at another online bookseller's).

My character in Night is a veteran warrior, owner of a magic sword named Nightslayer, currently returning home after three years of fighting the forces of evil alongside the Knights of Telak. According to some discussions I've read, poor stats are not a guarantee of failure, so I won't bother allocating rolls this time round.
Skill: 7
Stamina: 20
Luck: 11
Combat could be a challenge, then. There's one other stat, Will, but that automatically starts at 6.

It is late, and as I ride past the stone circle known as the Nine Maidens, three hooded brigands emerge from hiding and charge at me, startling my horse, which throws me and bolts. As I prepare to defend myself, a fourth figure appears out of the shadows. His black robes, skull mask and amethyst globe mark him out as a Death Acolyte. I've encountered his kind while I was away with the Knights, and I'm pretty sure we weren't allies.

My assailants must have really rubbish Skill scores, as I have so little trouble fending them off, there's not even any need to roll dice. The Death Acolyte stays out of the melee, though, and casts a spell, blasting me with a bolt of energy that knocks me to the ground. Before the thugs can take advantage of my prone position, I get up again, ready to press my attack, at which point they turn pale and back off. Something near my feet seems to be distracting one of the rogues, so I risk a quick look down to see what's got his attention.

On the ground is a dead body with a smoking hole in its chest. It takes me a moment to notice the remarkable similarity between the corpse's face and the one I see whenever I look in a mirror. Then I get quite annoyed. It's not often that a gamebook kills my character before I even get to make a decision (though that does happen from time to time). At least on this occasion my death doesn't bring the adventure to an end. It just means that I'll be playing my character's ghost.

When I wrote up an attempt at Night at a no longer extant FF forum (in a series of posts that did not come back from the dead after the forum expired), for a joke I concluded the first post at the point where the Death Acolyte's spell slew my character, temporarily giving the impression that that was the end of the adventure rather than the beginning. By the time I posted the account of what happened between my first death and the second one, someone unfamiliar with the book had already made a post criticising the game design that permitted use of such a lethal attack on the player character in the opening encounter.

The ruffians are all terrified, though they manifest their fear in different ways, while the Death Acolyte begins another incantation. I turn my attention to him, and the book uses inappropriately loaded terminology to describe my options. This man's first spell murdered me, and now he's working on another, so choosing to attack him rather than ask questions isn't mercilessness, it's self-preservation.

He continues to work on his spell, and as his Skill is equal to mine, there's a definite risk that he might complete it. The dice fall in my favour, though, and after a couple of blows from my spectral sword, he decides to cut his losses and run, distracting me by hurling his sphere to the ground and dazzling me with the eldritch energies released when it shatters.

Having nothing better to do now that I'm a ghost, I decide to try and find out why I was murdered. There are several places where I could look for answers, but I feel drawn to two locations in my immediate vicinity: the stone circle and a burial mound. Walking over to the Nine Maidens, I see strange energies radiating into the sky, and hear women singing. As I approach the altar stone, the energies converge on me, allowing me to increase my Skill, Stamina and Will beyond my starting scores, and providing a Luck bonus I can't use.

Three of the stones retain the form of an archway, and I see a vortex beginning to appear within it. I'm not yet ready to head towards the light, so I leave the circle and head for the mound. This barrow is ancient, and sealed with a large stone. Sensing something unpleasant within, I attempt to move the stone. This requires me to roll against my Will and, when I succeed at that, also my Stamina (though the number of dice required for the second roll makes the outcome a foregone conclusion with a Stamina as high as mine). The stone moves, and I realise that I've just manifested my first ghostly talent, which the book designates as the Poltergeist ability. Encouraged by this, I enter the mound to find out who's he-ere.

In the burial chamber I find the decaying corpse of an ancient king, surrounded by mouldering and tarnished treasures. Scattered around the throne are what appear to be human bones, some of them looking alarmingly well-gnawed. The remnants of the dead king's eyelids flick open, and he momentarily takes me for another grave robber before recognising what I really am: 'a knight of the living dead'. Yeah. The sepulchral stand-up gloats that the Lord of Shadows is coming to reap a harvest of souls, and when I heckle him, he leaps to the attack.

This is a nasty fight: not only does the Ghoul King have a higher Skill than my enhanced score, but if he manages to wound me three times, I lose a Skill and he gains it. And the effect is cumulative. Some lucky rolls (each followed by a Lucky roll) enable me to win the fight at the cost of just 1 Skill and 8 Stamina, but the victory brings no reward other than the prolongation of my existence (if 'existence' is the right word).

Now I can resume my journey towards Valsinore Castle, my home, or seek the assistance of the Wisewoman of 1 Dunghill Mansions, Putney Wraith Wood, or head to the sea in search of the hermit monk who was living on the shore before I went away. It's too soon to be heading for home, and from previous attempts I recall that the Wisewoman demands too high a price for her help, so I proceed to the beach, wondering if my new-found ability will permit me to collect any pebbles.

To reach the cliffs I must cross the tumulus-dotted stretch of land known as the Barrowmoor, which has its own supernatural denizen. No, not the A'Wight. A legendary phantom hound known as the Barghest (which has featured in at least one other gamebook), its howl purported to presage a death, though it seems a bit slow off the mark tonight, as it only starts howling now. Perhaps wishing to erase all witness of its tardiness, the Barghest attacks me. This fight doesn't go as well as the last one, though we have equal Skill scores, but I do just win, and absorb a little of my slain foe's power, which restores a quarter of the Stamina I lost in the fight.

Nothing else troubles me on my way to the beach, and I soon find a cave with a driftwood fire in it. The hermit senses my presence and emerges, paling when he catches sight of me. Luckily, he remembers me from when I was alive, and is not put off by my ethereal status. For a hermit, he turns out to be quite well-informed about goings-on. There are strangers at the castle, people are being troubled by bad dreams, the Black Dog has been howling (though that may not be an issue any longer), and the Burgomaster of Sleath has summoned a ghost hunter.

I ask for more news of the castle, and the hermit tells me that villagers are no longer allowed in, but Bertild the Blacksmith occasionally comes out for supplies, and has given some indications of sinister shenanigans being afoot in there. Around a year ago, just after a stormy night, some mysterious knights with plain black heraldry turned up, and have been there ever since. They're only ever seen during the hours of darkness. On a more cheery note, there's a big banquet being held tonight in celebration of the return of the castle's owner... Oh. Awkward.

The uncomfortable silence is broken by the emergence of a monster from the sea. The hermit flees into his cave, leaving me to confront the Sea Demon. This is another opponent that outclasses me, and while I do manage to wound it once, it has little trouble shredding my spectral form.

That death isn't the end, either, but as it's been a week since my last post here, I shall treat it as an opportune moment at which to terminate this entry, and my character's restless spirit shall return from slightly further beyond the grave on another day.

Friday, 23 November 2018

Until the Latter Fire Shall Heat the Deep

2016 saw the launch of Choose the Future, a new series of Doctor Who gamebooks. Well, if you can call two books a series. If nothing else, it's as many as FASA managed 30 years previously. And the series differs from Decide Your Destiny, the DW gamebook series brought out in 2007 (and restarting its numbering in 2010 to tie in with the start of the Matt Smith era) in at least one significant regard (two if you count putting the author's name on the spine as well as the cover). These books do not restrict themselves to happy endings. So, today being the 55th anniversary of the broadcast of the first ever episode, I'm putting off the next FF playthrough for a week and covering the first CYF book, Jonathan Green's Night of the Kraken.

Choose the Future is also one of those rare gamebook series that use a third person narrative, so I'm not playing a part in the story, just influencing the course of events. The Doctor (the Peter Capaldi incarnation, at this juncture travelling solo) arrives in 18th century Cornwall, and judging by the question he directs at the TARDIS, he was expecting to arrive somewhere else. It's night, so there's potentially something ominous about the unlit state of the nearby lighthouse. A more immediate concern is the horseman who's riding straight at the Doctor, and while there's no obvious reason for the rider to want to suspend the Doctor from the unoccupied gallows nearby, it does add a rather grim tone to the atmosphere.

The Doctor stands his ground and calls out to the horseman, who turns out not to have noticed him in the darkness. Reining in his horse a short distance away, the rider seems reluctant to let the Doctor see him properly, menacing him with a flintlock and demanding to know who the Doctor is and how come there's suddenly an unfamiliar structure here. The Doctor is not intimidated, and attempts to find out more about the horseman, who lets slip that he has at least an inkling of the TARDIS' capabilities.

Assuming the Doctor to know a good deal more about what is afoot than he does, the man 'advises' him to leave and not come back. The Doctor is underwhelmed by the threat, and is making clear just how impressed he isn't when he becomes aware that there's something moving behind him. It's a decomposing corpse, with enough soil on it to suggest that it was buried until quite recently. The animated cadaver seizes the Doctor, who makes a snarky quip about the rider's friend-making skills. A blow to the head temporarily silences him.

Coming round in what appears to be a cellar, the Doctor notes that he's not badly hurt or tied up, and that a man with a cape and a ponytail is close by, facing the other way, so he doesn't yet know that the Doctor is conscious. Employing the 'special technique' endorsed by his second persona ("Keeping my eyes open and my mouth shut"), the Doctor watches the man, and is interested to see that he is tinkering with a few bits of alien technology. In a nicely geeky burst of continuity references, all the items have been manufactured by species seen to have visited Earth before this point in time (the 11th, 17th and 16th centuries respectively), so there is a slim possibility that the man is neither an alien nor a time traveller, but just a collector of curios. Now might be a good time for some questions.

The weapon the man points at the Doctor comes from outside DW continuity, and Google suggests that it could be an in-joke based on one of several properties. Paying little heed to the blaster, the Doctor works out that the man is attempting to construct a sonic beacon from the devices, and decides that finding out the man's aims is more important than getting a name or establishing where he acquired the xenotech.

Deciding that the Doctor's not-of-this-era knowledge may be of help, the man reveals himself to have come from the 52nd century. He's pursued a vortex-sensitive creature known as a Kraa'Kn here, hoping to capture its spawn and sell them to warmongers in his own time zone as shock troops. However, he underestimated the number of Kraa'Kn, and needs the beacon to lure them away from the nearby village.

Being one of the ruder incarnations, the Doctor insults the man (who gives his name as Ravenwood, but still gets saddled with the epithet 'Idiot') for endangering the locals in the pursuit of profit. Still, working with him to try and resolve the situation is probably wiser than leaving him to his own devices: operating independently, the two of them are more likely to inadvertently get in each other's way. The Doctor makes it clear that his assistance is for the sake of the innocent bystanders and for the Kraa'Kn, which didn't ask to be hunted down so that their progeny could be weaponised, and then constructs the beacon.

Ravenwood explains that he intended to lure the Kraa'Kn spawn to the lighthouse. There's a bit of a tonal mismatch with the section from which I've just come, as the Doctor is more critical of the Kraa'Kn here. Still, I've seen far worse in one of the Decide Your Destiny books: once your character has made the shocking discovery that there are giant alien crabs around, it shouldn't come as that much of a surprise to subsequently be told that huge crablike beings from another planet are in the vicinity, and the later revelation that big non-terrestrial crustaceans are present ought not to be so startling either.

As we head to the lighthouse (and the Doctor neglects to name-drop bowling partner Virginia Woolf), Ravenwood reveals that he's got some more alien tech with which he intends to turn the lighthouse into a weapon with which to destroy the Kraa'Kn (and any local marine life that doesn't get eaten by the spawn will become collateral calamari). Though the Doctor has weaponised a lighthouse himself before now, on this occasion he thinks there should be another way, and Ravenwood at least pretends to go along with this.

Hurriedly cobbling together another device, the Doctor comes up with an alternate plan that has just one flaw: it'd work best with three people. Ravenwood will activate the lash-up in the lighthouse, the Doctor has technical jiggery-pokery to do in the TARDIS, and someone needs to stash the beacon in the convenient wrecked ship on the beach. Somebody will have to double up, and while Ravenwood volunteers, I don't think he's trustworthy enough.

I was right about the untrustworthiness, but having the Doctor place the beacon didn't help. It attracts a number of tentacle-headed humanoids to the wreck, but as the Doctor is heading back to the TARDIS, Ravenwood opens fire on the wreck, incinerating it and its occupants. He shows no remorse when confronted about his actions afterwards, but mockingly suggests that he and the Doctor go into business as exterminators. Advising Ravenwood to make sure their paths never cross again, the Doctor returns to his TARDIS and leaves.

A downbeat ending, but not the worst fate the book has to offer: while I haven't had a proper look at all the endings, I did see one involving death by zombie horde. Thinking about it, I never encountered an explanation for that walking dead man on this attempt. There may be one on another route, though, so I shan't call it a plot hole yet.

I'm not sure whether to mark this as a success or not on the index. The Doctor survived, and the alien menace was removed, but is there better ending in which the villagers and the Kraa'Kn are saved? Or Ravenwood gets some kind of comeuppance, or becomes a better person? This time around I only got through about 10% of the book, so I shall have to replay it a few times (probably not on the blog) before I can judge it fairly.

Additional: I wrote this post in advance, and in the time that's passed since then, I've managed to fit in several more goes at the book. There is an explanation for the zombies, and while my second attempt ended the same way as the first, that just made it all the more satisfying when the Doctor was able to save the Kraa'Kn and thwart Ravenwood's attempt to capture them on my third try. Mind you, that ending could also have been improved on: the Doctor has stern words with Ravenwood about removing the alien tech he's left in the area, but Ravenwood just vanishes off to somewhere and somewhen else (on a preposterous but stylish cyborg horse with inbuilt Vortex manipulator), so the Doctor... stomps into the TARDIS and departs, leaving behind all the otherworldly gizmos he'd just been saying needed to be removed.

Now I'm being critical again, I'll also note that the more I play the book, the more I notice the little lapses in internal continuity, most often with the Doctor showing knowledge of things he's not learned (but would have found out if a different decision had been made previously). This kind of gamebook - narrative-based, with different threads branching off and reconverging - seems particularly prone to such errors. I appreciate that the bookkeeping necessary for keeping track of what's known on which paths can be tricky, and the sort of overcompensation that leads to repeatedly making the same discovery is no less annoying, but it still mars the book.

And then I remember the Make Your Own Adventure with Doctor Who book perpetrated by Michael Holt back in 1986, and concede that things could be far, far, far worse.

Friday, 16 November 2018

None of This is Real

The mini-adventure in the Mongoose Publishing edition of Lone Wolf book 10, The Dungeons of Torgar, August Hahn's Echoes of Lost Light, is unlike the previous Mongoose mini-adventures in a couple of significant ways. Firstly, it takes place after the main adventure, not before it (which is why I didn't play it before making any of my attempts at Dungeons). Secondly, rather than giving the spotlight to a character Lone Wolf meets (or at least has the potential to meet) during the main adventure, it's an additional incident in the life of Lone Wolf himself. Which may come as something of a surprise to those who know that Dungeons ends with Lone Wolf plummeting into a portal to another world (especially if they are also aware that book 11 starts with him coming out of the other end of the portal, which really doesn't seem to allow a lot of space for additional escapades).

As Echoes is being slotted in between two full gamebooks, it has some special rules, and I'm not sure I like the look of them. Any changes to inventory made over the course of the mini-adventure are automatically undone, but any loss of Combat Skill or Endurance will be carried over into book 11, which is already the harshest of the Magnakai books as regards combat. Also, even though Lone Wolf recovered a fifth Lorestone at the climax of Dungeons, the additional Discipline it should have bestowed doesn't get added until the start of book 11. And Mongoose's reputation for less than exemplary quality control is maintained by the way that the Action Chart only has slots for 4 Disciplines, though a veteran character would probably have started Dungeons with 7 of them.

Okay, the start of the mini-adventure gives a reason for the lack of new Discipline. Darklord magic has somehow tainted the Lorestone of Luomi, which is the one I caught just before being plunged into the void. In order to properly assimilate its power, I must purge it of the evil influence. Consequently, I wind up in the mystical equivalent of a 'holodeck malfunction' episode from one of the Star Trek spin-offs: isolated in a simulation of the ruined city of Luomi, I must recover the simulation of the Lorestone from the simulation of the Shrine that houses it while avoiding being killed (and, of course, that's actual-killed rather than simulated-killed) by the simulations of the forces which destroyed Luomi. This is going to be fun! (Simulated enthusiasm).

I stand before the ruins of the city's front gate (well, a mystical re-creation of them, but let's take the 'this isn't real' aspect as read from now on, or it'll take a lot longer to write the playthrough). The remnants of the gatehouse and keep are on my right, a cobbled trail leads left, and a wall of black-green fire blocks the way straight ahead. The list of choices I can make adds the apparently easily overlooked detail that the cobbled path is also on fire, and Divination lets me know that an ambush awaits in the gatehouse.

At my current ranking, Nexus should provide protection from fire and noxious gases, so I'll take the burning route. It turns out that Huntmastery is more useful than Nexus here, but as I have both, that doesn't really matter. And the cobbles aren't on fire after all (silly me, interpreting the phrase 'burning path' in that way), but I do have to skirt around fire and rubble to get to the cobbled route. I head towards a section of wall, and randomness occurs, with a modifier for anyone who has Pathmanship. I don't have that Discipline (nor Pathsmanship, which is what it's always been called before now), but get a high enough number for the superior outcome anyway.

Reaching the wall, I reflect on the doubtless horrific nature of the real-world equivalent of the battle that devastated this place. An item check follows, and as I didn't take the route through Dungeons that would have enabled me to get the object in question, I have no legitimate grounds for checking if there's a valid reason for the 'turn to 101 and then return to this page' instruction rather than just having 101 end by directing the reader to the same section that this paragraph does. I could just take a look, but that might result in spoilers, so I'll leave it for now.

I am heading for the poorer quarters of Luomi. These were, of course, not protected as well as the region inhabited by the nobility, and thus bore the brunt of the invasion, so the enemy forces are going to be more heavily concentrated here. And in case that's not enough to convince me to turn back and face what awaits in the ruined gatehouse (the text doesn't explicitly call me a coward for coming this way, but the subtext is there), the fighting that took place up ahead was so terrible that it broke the simulation, splitting ersatz-Luomi into chunks of land that float in a void like the freaky antepenultimate level of Tomb Raider II, and the distance between the edge of this fragment and the next is too great for me to jump across. So do I try to figure out a way of bridging the gap or trudge back for the fight that Mr. Hahn appears so keen for me to have?

There was a time limit implied back at the start of the adventure, and there's no guarantee that I'll find a more easily-traversed rift beyond the gatehouse, so I'll try to find my inner bridge, or whatever it takes to make a way across. And my facetious suggestion of what this decision would entail turns out to be pretty much what happens: I meditate and connect with the spirit of the Lorestone in order to try and conjure up a safe path. My suspicions regarding the possible lack of easy passage beyond the gatehouse are borne out by an 'if you went that way and couldn't get across' direction at the end of the section.

Randomness determines the success or failure of my efforts, but the odds are in my favour, and I get a bonus for having a certain Lore-Circle. There's still a chance it won't work, but the number I get is more than high enough. A bridge of solid light appears before me, and I hurry across it to the next fragment of Luomi before it fades.

This section of the city is occupied by phantasmal Drakkar warriors, and it's in my best interests to try and avoid them while making my way to the next region. It's random number time again, with less favourable odds, and I only have one of the two Disciplines that each provide a bonus. Nevertheless, I succeed in reaching an alley unobserved, and travel through it to one of the major streets. From here I can hear the sounds of fighting to the right, and decide to investigate. There could be allies to be had here, and if so, their unreality might mean that their near-inevitable deaths will weigh less heavily on my conscience.

In a courtyard I see two men in Luomi bronze fighting a squad of Giaks. Make that one man. Before he can join the mound of corpses on the ground, I fire a couple of arrows at the Giaks and then charge into battle. I take a little damage while slaughtering the brutes, but it's nothing that Healing can't fix. The last soldier is already mortally wounded, but passes me a Hammer and attempts to tell me what I must do with it. His words are too faint to be audible, and I have neither Curing nor a healing potion to strengthen him enough for a second shot at passing on the message. I do have Divination, though, which enables me to probe his mind as he expires, thereby learning that I need to take the Hammer to the Shrine for which I was heading anyway and activate the hidden catch on the Hammer's head. Looks like I might have just picked up an essential item.

The courtyard has two exits, but only one of them leads the way I'm going, and the sound of Drakkar hordes provides a strong disincentive to check out the other one for curiosity's sake. I discard my Magic Spear to make space for the Herald's Hammer, knowing that if I survive this fantasy, I will still have the Spear in reality. The Hammer comes with a Combat Skill bonus, though not high enough to make it worth using in place of the Sommerswerd. Still, the way the bonus increases with increased proximity to the Shrine does provide a rough gauge of how far through the adventure I must be. Right now I seem to be somewhere in the second quarter.

The city's defenders attempted to create a barricade of shields across the street along which I now walk. They failed, but the very fact that they tried suggests that the street leads to somewhere important. There's another misspelled Pathsmanship check, which borders on ironic, as Pathsmanship was the Discipline I intended to get from the Lorestone I'm re-seeking (and still do, for the sake of a Lore-Circle). No Rank check, though, so this can't be anything to do with the ambush-detecting capability that the Discipline provides to sufficiently experienced characters.

Hang on a minute. I've just realised that when playing Dungeons I repeated a mistake I made during an attempt at The Kingdoms of Terror back in the 1990s. Though with less serious consequences, as forgetting that I didn't have Pathsmanship merely resulted in a rant about the ambush-detecting working so poorly, rather than getting my character killed. As far as I can tell, things would have gone the same way in Dungeons (apart from the rant) if I hadn't made that error, so I don't think there's any need to replay it yet again. Still, that was careless of me.

Back at the adventure, the street brings me to a courtyard where more Luomi guardsmen made a last stand (and Healing finishes making good the damage from that fight). While the locals put up a good fight, they fell in the end, and the green mist that still wreathes their corpses may be what ended their attempts at defending the city. If I didn't have Nexus, it could potentially make things unpleasant for me as well. Since I do have the Discipline, I cross the courtyard without trouble.

Beyond it I find another gap in the simulation, this one significantly larger. Creating a bridge across it will cost me Endurance, but the Hammer, the Sommerswerd and the Lore-Circle that helped with the last bridge all reduce the damage I incur. There's also a mention of the previously mentioned item I don't have, which gives away what the object can do. A function it could have served equally well on the route through the gatehouse, so I guess the explanatory detour to 101 was justified after all.

Creating and crossing the second bridge of light, I reach the part of the city that once housed commoners and workers. It's now in ruins - so devastated, in fact, that the destruction has spilled over into the text, annihilating the second half of the word 'everywhere'. Or that could be sloppy proofreading.

Getting across here will not be easy, but I could choose to make it trickier by disregarding Divination. Treating that option with the disdain it warrants, I allow my enhanced sixth sense to lead me to a burning building in which a concealed metal hatchway went unnoticed by the invaders. It's locked, but the telekinetic side of Nexus enables me to open it, revealing a secret passage. The text has one last go at trying to convince me that I'd have more fun going via the blazing ruins currently being searched by enemies, but I fashion a makeshift torch from bits of the trashed contents of the house and head underground.

A ladder leads down to a curving passage. An echo behind me suggests the presence of a cavern, so I opt to check it out. No, that's not a cavern. Wherever the passage originally led in that direction is now on the other side of the gap I had to exert myself to bridge, so the tunnel just opens onto the void. I'd considered and rejected the possibility of that being the case on account of the echo, which implied the existence of something solid for the sound waves to bounce off. Any physicists want to explain how they could be reflected by nothingness, or do I have a legitimate grievance here?

The void also exerts some kind of pull, tearing the torch from my grasp. I attempt to flee, but this time the random factor does not work in my favour, and I am also sucked into oblivion. Well, that was a rubbish ending.

So, should I have another go at this before proceeding to book 11, or treat the whole thing as a hallucination induced by sensory deprivation while falling through the portal, and have Lone Wolf tumble straight from the final section of Dungeons into the next book as any pre-Mongoose reader of the series would have had to do?

Monday, 12 November 2018

A Last Farewell

I've just learned of the death of Carl Sargent, the third most prolific writer of Fighting Fantasy gamebooks, who contributed seven titles to the range under the nom de plume Keith Martin (and one as Ian Livingstone, inadvertently helping bring about the creation of one of my favourite memes some years later).

While not one of the most influential figures in the gamebook world, Mr. Sargent did contribute a variety of memorable settings, monsters and characters to FF, as well as some challenging puzzles and an assortment of inventively gruesome encounters and unsuccessful endings.

On a more personal level, he wrote one of my top 10 books in the series, and a couple of the batch that got me back into gamebooks in 2001, while another of his books helped inspire an incident in the mini-adventure I had published in Fighting Fantazine.

My condolences to his friends and family.

Sunday, 11 November 2018

Caught in the Struggle

Hard to believe that it's four years since I played Through the Wire, one of Simon Farrell and Jon Sutherland's Real Life Gamebooks, as a sort of tribute to those who gave their lives in the First World War. Back then I mentioned that I'd like to play the book again at some point, as it was an enjoyable read, and I gained the impression that there's more than one way to win. The centenary of the end of the war seems an appropriate occasion to have a second go.

As I'm hoping for a significantly different adventure second time round, I'm not going to be able to learn all that much from my first experience of the book, so character creation will involve some guesswork as to which skills to prioritise. Still, I think it unlikely that there's any way of avoiding the Luck roll which determines whether or not I survive the loss of my plane, so I'd better make sure I have a decent score for that. Persuasion and Language are also likely to be important on the path I'm contemplating. I won't bother with such a high Piloting score, as I'm not sure it actually played much of a part even in the aerial battle sequence at the start of the adventure, and if I'm careful and lucky, I should be able to avoid combat later on, so I think I can risk a low Firearm score.

So, here's what Flight Officer Alistair Thompson looks like in this version of reality.
Pilot: 5
Agility: 7
Luck: 9
Persuasion: 9
Firearm: 4
Language: 9
Driving: 7
Not the most plausible combination for a real RAF fighter pilot, but I'm hoping that that'll give me a decent chance of succeeding again.

Things commence with my squadron flying to intercept over a hundred enemy planes. I target the bombers, and it turns out that there is a Piloting roll here after all. I fail it (and would have needed a double-figure Piloting skill to succeed), and my plane takes damage. Bailing out in the midst of a firefight strikes me as unwise, so I'll hope that my Spitfire is still flightworthy. Yes, the plane still handles satisfactorily, and the Germans are breaking off their attack. I decide to try and encourage them on their way, and when a fresh flight of Messerschmidts joins the fray, one of them targets me. Another failed Piloting roll, and this time my plane has definitely had it, and I need to make a speedy exit.

Putting a couple of extra points into Luck turned out to be the right decision, as I narrowly make the roll, and parachute to, if not safety, at least not-deadness. I inflate my raft and get picked up by a German ship, and as taking suicidal risks is unlikely to make for a good adventure, things are likely to follow the same pattern as on my first go at the book until I get as far as the POW camp.

That's fractionally less true than I thought, as I forgot what I did before when falsely accused of firing on a pilot who'd bailed out, and fell back on name, rank and serial number. Still, the threat of being handed over to the Gestapo for interrogation promptly railroaded me back into giving an honest account of what transpired in the sky. Jon Sutherland strikes again. And being reminded of his tendency to not so subtly push the reader in his preferred direction at times causes me to raise an eyebrow at the line, 'You curse yourself for the mistake which has brought you here.' As far as I can tell, the only thing I could have done differently that would not have led me to this section would have been to crash and burn, or to leave the book on the shelf, which leads to the conclusion that my 'mistake' must consist of either being alive or reading Through the Wire. Not the most positive message to give the readers, whichever it may be.

As before, I don't join in with the doomed escape bid made by some of the other downed airmen with whom I am transported to Stalag Luft 14 (and again I am confronted with the puzzle of how the death of three out of eight POWs can leave six survivors). Once I've been issued with the essentials for life in the prison camp (blankets, washing equipment, fork, mess-tin and tobacco) and allocated a bunk in one of the huts, I take a brief look around before getting some rest.

The following morning I am introduced to what little routine there is in the camp, and over breakfast I learn more about the security. When asked by a fellow prisoner if I intend to escape, I evade the question by asking if there have been many successful escapes. Only about half a dozen, it seems, though the French prisoners are apparently attempting it all the time. Another false choice follows: I either ask about an Escape Committee or decide to try it alone, but asking gets me nowhere and sends me to the same section as opting to attempt a break-out single-handed.

Making as detailed a study of the perimeter as is permitted, I notice what could be a blind spot in the surveillance set-up. I could try sneaking out after dark to test my theory, but is it really likely that on my first day I could spot a weakness that prisoners and guards alike have consistently missed? In all probability I'm the one failing to spot something, and any investigation will only get me slung into the cooler and given closer scrutiny by the guards.

My wanderings bring me to a building outside which several French prisoners are loitering in a suspicious manner. I wander across to test my Language skills. One of the group tells me they're keeping an eye on the Goons and introduces himself as Eugene, the chief Goon-baiter, so I tell him that I'm currently chief Nothing, which amuses him. Catching sight of an Abwehr man approaching, I discreetly warn Eugene, who almost as discreetly signals to whoever is inside the hut. The activity taking place within is hurriedly concealed, and Eugene offers to introduce me to the Escape Committee in return for my assistance.

The Committee explain about the three basic means of escaping: Under (the ground by tunnel), Over (the wire) or Through (the main gate by trickery). My high Persuasion, Language and Luck make Through the most promising-looking approach, so I meet with John, the man in charge of organising distractions and bluffs. He's currently got one scheme brewing for an escape in the weekly rubbish van, and another that involves a fake uniform. I think I'll try disguising myself.

My first job is to obtain the badge from a guard's cap for John's team to copy. I arrange for a group of us to have an exercise session, in the course of which I need to 'accidentally' collide with a guard and knock his cap off. This requires an Agility roll, which I narrowly fail, hitting the guard in the face and earning myself a week's solitary confinement. My blunder doesn't seem to have wrecked the plan, though, and after I regain my liberty, I find that an attempt at sending two fake guards out is imminent. A successful Persuasion roll enables me to get selected as one of them, and I am fitted with a convincing-looking disguise by the group's tailor and forger.

A Dutch prisoner is to be my companion, and as my Language skill is better than his, I take the initiative at the gate. The guards on the gate are taken in by our fake uniforms and passes, and we get out without incident. Concealing the uniforms in a nearby forest, my fellow escapee and I split up, and I start heading for the Swiss border.

This takes me deeper into the forest, and after a while I find a clearing that contains a wooden cabin. Investigating seems unwise: the occupant must be aware of how close the POW camp is, so any stranger is liable to be regarded with suspicion. Passing by, I continue until a main road crosses my path. I'm more likely to be spotted on the road than off it, so I cross over and move away from the road.

It's starting to get light, and I can see a farm up ahead, so while the farmer is busy milking his cows, I sneak into a hayloft and hide there until the day is over, snatching what sleep I can. By now a search will be under way for the Dutchman and me, and farmland isn't going to provide much in the way of cover, so it might be better to return to the road, on which I can probably make quicker progress.

As I approach the road, thankful for the concealment provided by the trees, I see a lot of military traffic heading west. Noting that the trucks carry no personnel other than their drivers, I speculate that they may be heading for a depot, and risk jumping into one as it passes, concealing myself behind the ammunition boxes it carries.

The truck eventually stops, and the driver wanders off without checking his cargo. Emerging with caution, I find that I am in the goods yard of Ludwigshafen railway station. From here I could stow away on trains bound for France or Switzerland, and while France is closer, I went that way when I played the book before, so I need to go for the longer journey if I want to explore different possible outcomes.

I break into a boxcar on a Swiss-bound train, and doze off once the train is on its way. When I wake, the train is motionless, and I can hear Germans searching it. Time I was elsewhere. Alas, I am spotted leaving the train, and I don't think there's any point in trying to run for it, so surrender is the only option. Well, if nothing else, I've cost the enemy some time and manpower searching for me.

Transported back to the camp, I am informed that the decision has been made to relocate me to a new prison camp designed to hold disruptive types like me: Oflag IV C, better known as Colditz. And as that is outside the scope of the book, my adventure ends here.

Not the kind of outcome I'd hoped for, but a reminder that many of those who were captured during the war did not manage to get away. And then there were all those who didn't even survive, and whose deaths, many of them futile and unnecessary, are remembered today. As gamebook failures go, this has to be my most appropriate one.

Friday, 9 November 2018

A Hole Where the Moonlight Fell

For the most part I got on better with the mini-adventure in issue 2 of Fighting Fantazine, Andrew Wright's Shrine of the Salamander, than with the preceding one. I still poked fun at aspects of it in my original playthrough (and as that was deleted a good five years ago, I have no qualms about reusing the gags I still remember as appropriate here), but without malicious intent. The only element of the adventure I really disliked was the sequence of events culminating in the death of my character, and as I expect to encounter at least the start of that sequence again this time round, I shall save the details and the nature of my complaint until I get there.

My character is a priest, and consequently gets a lower Skill score than the average FF hero, so I will be allocating dice at character creation. The Skill I rolled up on my first attempt was so poor that I doubted my ability to survive a fight with a couple of Goblins, and resorted to pelting my unimposing opponents with sorcerously-generated explosives until they ceased to be a threat. Which was, admittedly, quite fun, but made it clear that I'd be in trouble if I ran into practically any other kind of monster.

Anyway, I'm supposed to be a veteran adventuring priest, so it makes sense that, rather than a Skill 5 bungler, I should be something like this:
Skill 10
Stamina 15
Luck 11
I'd actually have had a fairly respectable Skill even if I'd taken the dice as they fell, but I'd have been stuck with a mediocre Luck, so allocating was still probably the wise choice.

I have been called in to deal with the theft of the Idol of Verlang from the temple which housed it. All the evidence points to the Horntoads from the Croaking Caves in Daddu-Yaddu, just across the river - so much so, in fact, that I suggest that someone might be trying to frame them. High priest Gulanti has no doubt as to their guilt, though, reminding me of the increase in acts of piracy by the Horntoads since (rumour has it) a Salamander installed himself as their ruler. That's the kind of Salamander that comes from the Elemental Plane of Fire, rather than the real-life amphibian variety, in case you weren't clear on that.

Gulanti explains that, according to legend, the First-spawned of the Salamanders were made to assist in the creation of the Idol. His suggestion of the motive behind the theft is intriguing: there's quite a difference between 'believing the Idol to rightfully be the property of the Salamanders' and 'rightfully believing the Idol to be the property of the Salamanders', and the turn of phrase used either indicates Gulanti to have made a hash of his grammar or hints that the forge-priests of Verlang are the ones in the wrong, and the Salamanders have a legitimate claim. Still, this is a Fighting Fantazine mini-adventure, not one of those 'can you spot the six slips of the tongue that led the criminal to give himself away?' puzzles that used to be popular, so I shall have to risk life and limb to try and recover the Idol.

As a forge-priest myself, I have some magical ability, which turns out to be a stripped-down version of the Sorcery! spell book. It has the advantage of familiarity, but the lack of any new spells (especially ones of obvious use to smelters and metal-workers) is a bit of a missed opportunity. Think of the fun that could have been had if the 'fake' spell BAM (mentioned to mislead readers of The Shamutanti Hills) had turned out to be an incantation that would drop an anvil on the designated spot. Looking on the bright side, I'm a little better prepared than any wizard character at the start of the Sorcery! saga, as I get to start with one of the items required for casting certain spells. I go for the cloth skullcap that can help me read minds.

I am taken across the river in the Schoolfish, a coracle ferry (which comes as a surprise, as I didn't think coracles were big enough for a crew and passenger(s), but a quick check reveals that some varieties can get quite crowded). On the way, Captain Unanza tells me a bit about Daddu-Yaddu: in addition to the Croaking Caves, this region contains the Orc-controlled Crystal Mines, the potentially helpful Under-Temple of Throff and the hazardous Tunnels of Ooze.

No sooner have I been deposited on the shore than the boat departs again, as loitering here is apparently unsafe. As the Schoolfish pulls away, the Captain yells to me that if - sorry, when - I complete my mission, I should light a beacon atop the cliff. She also shouts a warning, but the wind keeps me from hearing more than, "Watch out for the grem-", and there's actually quite a variety of ways that last word could end, as I shall indicate with hyperlinked asterisks whenever there's potential of encountering something that starts with 'grem-'.

I perform a quick search of the beach, and am relieved to find it free of novice surfers*. Even better, I find some more spell components, all of which I add to my inventory: sand, stone dust, and three pebbles. Thus equipped, I find a path ascending the cliff, and climb up to the mine entrance. The Captain had mentioned that they're guarded by Dark Goblins, and I see a couple on duty. The prefix suggests that they might be different from your average Goblin, but even if it gives them an extra Skill point or two, they shouldn't be too hard to fight. Still, if they sound an alarm I could be in trouble, so I decide to try reading their minds to see if I can find a means of bluffing my way past them.

No passwords on their minds, alas, but I do learn the safe route through the mines. Also that they are bored, hungry, and afraid of the big Orc who is their boss. Well, I can make things more interesting for them, after which I doubt that they'll have much need for food, and they should have learned (however briefly) that there are scarier things than Orcs in the vicinity.

Looking at the other spell options provided, I see that if I'd chosen a Galehorn rather than the skullcap, I might be able to blow the guards off the cliff, but that safe path is probably worth more to me than being able to avoid combat. Oh, definitely: their being 'Dark' Goblins makes them no tougher or more competent than the ordinary variety, and even though they attack simultaneously (using a new variant on the 'fighting more than one opponent at the same time' rules) I have no trouble killing both.

Beyond the mine entrance are three tunnels, helpfully labelled. I shall leave 'Mines' until last. 'Boss' shouldn't be much of a problem, unless he's able to raise an alarm. In case that is so, I shall check out 'Gear' first, in the hope of finding some useful equipment. To my surprise, this leads not to a storeroom but to a cave which has been turned into a shop by an enterprising Svinn, who may have got his job through nominative determinism, as his name is Hagla. Now, Svinns are not necessarily evil, and the robe Hagla wears suggests to me that he might be a sorcerer himself, so I have a couple of valid reasons for checking out his wares rather than attacking.

He expresses his pleasure at having a customer in stronger language than is usual for FF, and apparently recognises me as a magic-user, as he draws my attention to the spell components he acquired from an Analander (in a manner that proves this Svinn, at least, to be a bit of a bad lot). If I'd gone to other places first, I might have some of the things he's prepared to buy. As it is, I can only spend some of what little cash I have on me, so I content myself with buying a rope and a knife. I could get an extra portion of Provisions or two, but I might need money elsewhere. Besides, a little wariness could be called for: who knows what sort of accompaniment* Svinns might have with their food?

Returning to the mine entrance, I now decide to investigate the Orc who so intimidated those Goblin guards. He lives in surprisingly opulent surroundings, with fur rugs on the floor and an assortment of hunting trophies mounted on the walls. Suspecting that I have come to steal his diamonds, he threatens me. I could cast a spell here, but a smack in the head with my warhammer should do the trick.

He's actually a Great Orc (and that 'Great' does come with enhanced stats), and arms himself with a scimitar and a whip, the latter potentially introducing complications. Indeed, a couple of rounds into the fight, he manages to entangle me in the whip, and the resultant Skill penalty indirectly leads to my taking a little damage. Not enough to keep me from killing him, though. A quick search of his chamber turns up some more money, a little food, some lumps of coal (Could these be his 'diamonds'? After all, both substances are composed of carbon...) and a stoppered jar made of crystal, which I could have sold to Hagla if I'd come this way first, but there's no going back, alas.

Well, not unless I want to leave this place altogether, and it's a bit soon for that. I proceed to the actual mines, and somehow the very act of my entering them triggers an alarm, causing a portcullis to drop down behind me. I could use magic to deal with the portcullis, but I'd rather make use of the secret I learned from the Goblins, so I head deeper into the mines.

Rapidly reaching a crossroads, I hear the sound of Goblins coming to investigate the alarm, and take the turning I know to be on the safe route. This leads to a rubble-strewn corner where I get more stone dust and pebbles. Further on I reach a junction at which a cave-in has killed some of the miners. One of the dead was a Giant (so either these are huge passages or he had a really miserable job even before the fatal accident), and as Giants' teeth have their uses in spellcasting, I take one of them before continuing on my way.

The 'safe route' turns out to be flawed, as it leads me to a chamber with pits and sinkholes in the floor, and while I manage to avoid falling into any of them, section number recognition tells me that continuing to follow the path indicated by what I learned from the Goblins would take me back where I've already been. I shall assume that this chamber is not where I should have gone and return to the previous junction to take the turning I previously spurned.

That might not be so clever, either, as it leads to a deserted part of the mines with rust-orange mould on the walls. Mould which appears a trifle more mobile than it has any right to be, and I don't loiter to see if it's just a trick of the light. If I keep going, I'll wind up north of sinkhole chamber (I'm not even trying to memorise these section numbers - they just stuck in my head when I typed them into the gamebook manager), so I'll chance that.

It takes me to a chamber where abandoned mining equipment is covered in sand. I take some more sand and go through the one exit that leads to somewhere I've not yet been. To a slightly odd place, in fact: one would expect the breeze to have erased the footprints in the dust. The turning from which the breeze issues could be an exit, but it's in entirely the wrong direction for the route in the Goblins' minds. Yes, I have already had to deviate from a literal reading of that route, but the path I've followed (minus the detour to the pitted cavern) could be considered a looser interpretation of it. So I'm treating the possible exit as a potential deathtrap and sticking with this take on the alleged safe path.

Doing so takes me to a cave strewn with boulders. Only they're not boulders, they're the well-camouflaged vermin known as Grannits, as I discover when one of them bites me. I smash a couple of them and continue on my way. And it's now looking as if that breezy tunnel was the way out after all, as continuing to follow the 'safe' path leads to a run-in with a venomous snake. I kill it, but its bite does more damage than the total I've taken over the course of the rest of the adventure. And to add insult to injury, not taking the turning that was contraindicated by that 'safe path' has led me in a great big circle. So unless the pursuing Goblins catch up with me at the exit (and only the exit), there's no actual way of running into them, and the whole implied chase is just a big con. My memories of this adventure would have been a good deal less favourable if I hadn't eliminated the portcullis and fled the mines straight off on my previous playthrough.

The quick way back to the exit would mean incurring another Grannit bite, so I go via the rubble corner, the dead Giant, the mould and the derelict mining equipment. The breezy passage leads to a chamber where a Rhino-Man watches over a group of slave miners... and three Dark Goblins stream in, intent on killing me. They are so getting a fistful of explosive pebbles thrown their way.

As it turns out, the best option once I've cast the spell is to pelt the Rhino-Man with the pebbles. Every one is on target, killing him before he can get near me, and the Dark Goblins are no match for me in combat. Once they're dead, I take the Rhino-Man's keys and free the slaves, so I've achieved something of merit today no matter how my primary mission goes.

As their liberator I get a hefty Luck bonus that would be useful if I'd used any Luck up until now (stop sniggering, Mr. Ballingall: having it go to waste is still nowhere near as annoying as being slapped with an arbitrary penalty), and the miners present me with some money, food and rope they'd managed to squirrel away while their oppressors were busy pretending to chase intruders or something. They then start making plans to free the slaves held in other parts of the mines, and I eat a meal to restore some of the Stamina I've lost in here before departing to resume my actual quest.

Back at the beach I find another three pebbles. Wonder how I missed them before. The money I've accumulated should be enough for the doubtless obligatory donation at the Under-Temple, so I decide to head there next, despite the possible risk posed by whatever arcane forces might be present in one or more of the cloths* it contains.

The Under-Temple is in a cave which has been fitted with a couple of massive doors. Annoyingly, one of the Sorcery! spells that the forge-priests neglected to acquire is the one that opens locks. I lack the items needed for casting two of the ones that I am given the option of casting right now, not that I'd be inclined to try either one if I did have the wherewithal: creating a strong breeze isn't likely to achieve much, and enhancing my strength to the point where I can smash the doors down is not likely to endear me to the priests. I may not want to find out what they're like when they get angry*...

That leaves mind-reading or knocking. The former will only be of use if there's someone behind the doors (or the doors themselves are sapient - there is precedent), and considering how useful the information I gained from reading the Goblins' minds wasn't, I'm not sure it'll be worth doing even if it does work. I just knock.

A bald priest with a beard and a crystal-topped staff opens the door just wide enough to tell me that the Under-Temple is closed and unbelievers are not allowed in. I hurriedly indicate my willingness to make a contribution towards the upkeep of the place, and he comes to the conclusion that letting me in would be an ecumenical matter rather than profanation.

Under-Priest Zhiamle (is he an Under-Priest because this is the Under-Temple, or does the title merely reflect his low rank?) welcomes me in once I've handed over an appropriate sum, and indicates that I can visit the Library of Throff or the Holy Pool. A bit of research strikes me as being potentially helpful, though it could also prove hazardous, depending on who published* the Library's contents.

On the way to the Library we pass a number of empty monastic cells, and Zhiamle explains that most of the priests are away helping with restoration work on another Temple, so only he and Kasmanti the Arch-Librarian remain here. Kasmanti has a longer beard than Zhiamle, and makes it clear from the outset that I'll have to pay for the information I seek. Money is not yet an issue, so I ask about Horntoads.

Kasmanti hands me an assortment of scrolls penned by an unspecified Grey Mage (which I believe to be an in-jokey reference to a member of FF fandom). The most noteworthy facts contained within concern the Horntoads' love of bees (as a snack) and the vicious nature of their tadpoles. As regards the directions for acting on the first of those details should I find a convenient source of bees, pedantry compels me to point out that you subtract 'from', not 'to'.

I still have plenty of money, so I also pay to look at the Library's singed copy of Incendiare the Pyromancer's definitive treatise on Salamanders. This mentions that Salamanders can be banished to the Elemental Plane where they originated by speaking their true names, and some irresponsible book-defacer has scrawled what they believe to be the name of the Salamander of the Croaking Caves at the bottom of the page. Useful if they're right, but this may be like one of those sneaky gamebooks where getting the item or datum required to defeat the villain isn't enough on its own, and some modification is necessary to make the game-winning McGuffin function properly.

Reading up on other local fauna risks derailing my running gag with facts, but I'll take that chance in case the information that can be gained is too useful to overlook. And it turns out that 'denizens' is being used to refer to noteworthy characters who have visited the region, most of whom can be encountered in one of the later Sorcery! books, though there is also a piece on a reclusive sage named Zared (possibly another FF fandom in-joke) who has taken up residence in the Tunnels of Ooze in order to research the people, lore and history of Daddu-Yaddu.

Having exhausted the relevant resources in the Library, I now proceed to check if the Holy Pool merits a visit. The pool itself is off-limits to the likes of me, but I can purchase a couple of Potions distilled from it, both of which could come in handy. Good thing I went to the Mines before I came to the Under-Temple (learning from past mistakes), as I'd have missed out on a lot of useful (or possibly vital) stuff if I'd come here with just my starting gold.

There's nothing else to do in the Under-Temple, so I return to the beach, where I discover another three pebbles. They join my inventory, though I am now starting to worry that there's some local resident with OCD who's getting increasingly fed up that every time they make sure there's just the right number of small stones on the shore, I come along and take the lot.

Back when Captain Unanza was telling me about the region, she advised me to stay away from the Tunnels of Ooze. Now I know they're the home of the person most likely to be able to tell me what is wrong with the Salamander's name I found in that book, I'm going to have to ignore the warning and explore the Tunnels as thoroughly as I can.

The Tunnels are damp, and probably submerged at high tide, as I find them occupied by a variety of marine creatures - crabs, starfish, mussels... Before long I reach a junction, and get to make a semi-informed choice about which way to go: the bone-strewn passage and the flooded one don't look that enticing anyway, but even if they didn't seem so unappealing, there's a humming noise coming from the other tunnel, and if that doesn't indicate the presence of some bees, I will be very surprised.

Yes, there's a beehive somewhat incongruously located in a crack in the ceiling, and I'm now glad that in the Mines I visited Hagla's stall before fighting the Great Orc, as that kept me from short-sightedly selling the stoppered jar that could be used for capturing some of the hive's occupants. Still, I have to climb up to the hive first, which requires a Skill roll. Having a rope gives me a bonus, but I roll well enough that I'd have succeeded anyway. Somehow I manage to dislodge the hive without getting stung, after which I descend and jam the jar into the opening in the hive. Annoyed bees fly into it, and I seal the jar and help myself to a meal's worth of honey before leaving the cave.

The exit leads to another fork in the tunnel. Again there are bones scattered in one passage, so it would appear that there's more than one way into the lair of whatever messy carnivore lives around here. Perhaps I should check it out after all, in case a messenger bearing some important message for Zared got waylaid.

For some reason, it is not until I reach a cavern littered with the bones of the dead that my character twigs that something unpleasant might be responsible for the deaths. Nevertheless, I draw my weapon in time to be ready for the attack of the killer, a large brute known as a Tarator. Unsure how I'd fare in a fight against it, I decide to make use of some of the sand I've harvested from the beach, transforming it into a pool of quicksand between the Tarator and me. The stupid creature blunders straight into it and rapidly sinks from sight, and my quick thinking earns me another superfluous Luck bonus. Searching the cavern, I find a few gold pieces and another Giant's tooth. On a less positive note, I also discover that my quicksand is blocking off one of the exits, and as there's no point in heading back to the beach just yet, I have to leave the way I came in. Still, the sage I seek isn't likely to have made his home in a cave that can only be accessed via a Tarator's lair, is he?

There's no point in going back to the cave with the wrecked beehive, either, so I head north when I get back to the fork. Shaking walls herald the arrival of a Baddu-Beetle, one of the more tiresome species found in the region, owing to its acid-spitting habits. Habits it manifests before I can take any action, but Luck is with me, and the caustic expectorate hits the wall. I don't have the option of using magic here, so I must either flee or try to crush the pest with my hammer, risking a retaliatory gobbet of corrosive sputum every time I hit the wretched thing.

It's probably not worth it, especially as there's a risk of getting my arm spat on and losing Skill as well as Stamina. I run. That also proves a risky course of action, as there's a sinkhole up ahead, and anyone running along the tunnel incurs a penalty to the Skill roll to avoid falling in. Not enough of a penalty that I do go over the edge, though.

As I'm catching my breath, things take a turn for the ludicrous. Down from above comes a malevolent jellyfish-like entity that I recognise to be a Skurasha. They're generally found working for Demon Princes, and even the text acknowledges that this one seems more than slightly out of place. If I fight it, I run a slight risk of falling into the sinkhole, but I'm not running away again if it can be avoided.

The 'fall in' outcome takes effect if I ever roll a double 1 while determining my Attack Strength. Over the course of the fight I get a statistically anomalous number of doubles (4 in 9 rounds), but never lower than a double 2, and in the end it's the Skurasha's body that goes down into the pit. I get a Luck bonus for defeating it (and this one I can use), and then get to choose between trying to climb up to the beach or squeezing through a crack in the wall. I've not found that sage yet, so it's too soon to leave.

Beyond the crack is the place where my previous attempt at this adventure ended. Three tunnels lead into this chamber, which has an intriguing-looking driftwood door on the far side. And a big patch of quicksand ideally positioned to catch out anyone who heads for that door (with no option of not making for it). As I recall, trying to use my rope to extricate myself leads to a Skill roll, which ought not to be too much of a problem on this occasion, but was a pretty hopeless prospect for my low-Skilled character last time. I do also have the option of using magic, but that's just Mr. Wright being mean. A choice of three spells is offered. One only works on living opponents, and is thus useless in this situation. The second doesn't work without the right item, which can only be acquired at character creation or if you have the money and foresight to get it at Hagla's, and I'm not sure what good it could do even if I were able to cast it. The third leads straight to Instant Death.

Still, my Skill should suffice to make the rope all I need - and it does. I lasso the door-handle and drag myself out. Beyond the door is the cavern described in what I read about Zared, but things are, of course, not that simple. The misanthropic so-and-so has only gone and created a Sand Golem to kill anyone who gets past his quicksand trap. I wonder if my quicksand-generating spell can be used to turn the Golem to goo.

No, I just create a patch of quicksand as normal, and the Golem absorbs it when wading through. Still, that's not as bad as it sounds, as this causes the Golem to become slower and more solid, reducing its Skill and negating its ability to reduce the damage it takes. A few smacks with the hammer turn it into a harmless assortment of splatters, so I can now try to track down the Sage and see what he can tell me about the Salamander.

I call for Zared, who emerges from behind a clump of giant mushrooms and thanks me for killing the Golem, which he claims to have created by accident. I'm prepared to believe him, as he's extremely hungry, and will info-dump for food. I hand over a meal and ask about the Salamander, and Zared slightly shamefacedly tells me that he summoned it to get help with identifying a mysterious trident that he'd excavated. Rather than do as requested, it stole the trident, which enabled it to break its mystical bonds and escape to the Croaking Caves to take up dominion over the Horntoads. Oh, and it turns out that the trident is possessed, so I'll have to destroy it after I deal with the Salamander. Not exactly the "No, the Salamander's name is actually Dey'volt," I was expecting, but good to know all the same.

Zared is still hungry, and is willing to trade items for more food. I hand over another meal in return for a spell component, and decide that it's time I was on my way. The only exit that doesn't lead through that quicksand patch is a hole in the cavern roof, but Zared shows me his secret rope ladder, thereby enabling me to avoid what could have been a tricky Skill roll.

Back to the beach, where I replenish my sand and create more work for the Secret Pebble-Placer of Daddu-Yaddu, and now it's time to move on from areas I vaguely remember from trying the adventure once over 5 years ago and enter the region I have never previously explored. Once I've consumed enough Provisions to bring me back up to full health, into the Croaking Caves I go.

The entrance is a foul-smelling, slimy cavern mouth. As I enter, a couple of Horntoad guards identify me as an intruder and charge to the attack. As they've already seen me, it may be a bit late to use the Potion of Transformation I got at the Holy Pool, and I think the bees should be saved for a larger group, so unless I want to try reading the minds of the guards who want to kill me, fighting would appear to be the only option.

Not the best decision I've ever made, as that's a pretty tough fight. But for the new variant of the 'fighting multiple opponents' rules, plus a few uses of Luck, I wouldn't have survived. As it is, I finish the fight with next to no Stamina left, and have to down the Potion of Healing I also bought from the Pool. One of the dead Horntoads is carrying enough cooked fish to constitute a portion of Provisions, which slightly improves my prospects, but it looks as if things are definitely getting tougher from now on.

Pressing on into the caves, I reach a junction, and take the turning east. This brings me to a pool of water, and as I stare into it, a scaly limb emerges. Could this be some kind of lizard*? Even if this is what I was warned of, curiosity outweighs caution, so I wait as a peculiar piscine anthropomorph in impractical swashbuckling dress drags itself out of the water and advances on me, rapier in hand.

A spot of mind-reading reveals this creature to have thought patterns too alien for me to be able to understand much. Still, I can ascertain that it's not evil, though it is somewhat arrogant and impetuous. Bearing these character flaws in mind, I try talking to the fishy fellow. He announces himself to be Merkurio the Swordfish, an emissary from Atlantis, who's getting fed up with waiting for an audience with the Salamander. No mention of the Salamander's name, though, and this could have been a nicely sneaky way to reveal it if the one I read in the Under-Temple library is wrong.

Merkurio declares himself to be 'the second greatest blade-master of all the oceans'. A minor grammatical error can make things a little confusing here: the omission of an inverted comma momentarily makes it look as if his subsequent claim is a statement of in-story fact by the author rather than an erroneous assumption on Merkurio's part. This would appear to be the 'deliberate plagiarism' from US Steve Jackson that Mr. Wright mentions in a footnote at the start of the adventure, as Merkurio can provide tuition in swordplay, much like Cyrano the Swordfish in Demons of the Deep (an encounter I didn't last long enough to reach when playing Demons here, though I did in my rather cursory write-up of an earlier playthrough at the FF forum).

So long as there's no sneaky twist on the Jackson encounter here, this should be an opportunity to improve my Skill, and that Horntoad guard fight has made it clear that an extra point or two would not go amiss, so I shall take advantage of Merkurio's mistake and pay for the training he offers. Besides, given what I learned from my mind-reading, I suspect that telling him he is mistaken will offend him, which could lead to a fight to the death against a potentially superior opponent.

Like Cyrano, Merkurio teaches by sparring with his pupils, and precedes the training bout by offering a drink of a restorative which guarantees that nobody will die in the fight (at least, not without unnecessary and irresponsible use of Luck). If I'd known this was coming up, I'd have saved my Potion of Healing (though I'd have had to consume Provisions in order to survive the Stamina cost of that mind-reading spell).

While Merkurio and I are evenly matched, Skill-wise, I prevail in the fight, which may be to my disadvantage: the Skill gain in Demons was higher for players who lost to Cyrano. And Merkurio may not take kindly to being beaten by a pupil... No, for all his arrogance, he's not a bad loser. Proclaiming himself 'a teacher of masters', Merkurio returns to his pool, and I get a Skill bonus I can use.

Returning to the junction, I go the other way, which leads to a large chamber containing a pool of muck in which hordes of Horntoads cavort and play. Now would probably be a good time to use that Potion of Transformation: fighting this many is sure to be suicidal, offering bees might get me fatally stampeded, creating quicksand strikes me as unlikely to help much against amphibians (unless Mr. Wright took inspiration from the infamous drowning fish-being who appeared in Doctor Who around a year and a half before Shrine was published), mind-reading seems unlikely to help much in this situation, and I still lack the component necessary for casting the other spell usable here. Yes, the Potion disguises me well enough that I can cross the cavern without incident, and I get a welcome Luck bonus for avoiding trouble.

As the effects of the Potion wear off, I reach a junction, with crude carvings at the different tunnel mouths providing the only hint of what may lie ahead. The flame symbol suggests the Salamander, so I'll avoid that for now in case something of use in the endgame can be found in any or all of the other passages. A circle within a circle might be a crude likeness of Horntoad-spawn, suggesting a potential run-in with the vicious tadpoles of which I read. Wavy lines must be something to do with water. No idea what the half-full semi-circle could indicate, though, so I shall investigate that way first.

As I move along the passage, an unpleasant smell hints at what awaits me: the local latrine. The stench alone costs me Stamina. If I could read what passes for writing among the Horntoads, it might be worth checking the place out for scurrilous graffiti that reveals the actual true name of the Salamander (even a barely literate species such as Horntoads will have some tearaways who enjoy decorating the walls with obscenities, libellous allegations and purported humour, right?), but since I can't, there's no point. Besides, back at the Holy Pool I was told that the Potion of Healing cured illness in addition to restoring Stamina. I doubt that that would have been mentioned if there were no possibility of contracting a nasty ailment somewhere in the adventure, and an insanitary locale like this seems a prime location for coming down with grot disease (as if anybody's going to get that in-joke) or the like, so I return to the junction at speed.

What about the water, then? None too surprisingly, that passage leads to the bank of a stream. Across the water I see a beach and a tunnel leading north, but before I can consider the options for getting across, I am unexpectedly ambushed and choked into unconsciousness.

I come round in a different cave, my hands tied and my belongings piled up close by. Also in the cave is a fire, and a roasting spit that looks as if it could bear the weight of a human. This is not promising. Nor is the fact that something large is advancing along the tunnel that leads into the cave. Can I grab the knife I bought from Hagla and cut my bonds before the chef arrives? To do so requires a Skill roll with a penalty, but I succeed, and am able to grab my warhammer in time to defend myself from the approaching would-be cook.

It's a Gremoll. One of the fan-created monsters that first appeared in Warlock magazine (as did the Skurasha, now I come to think of it, though not in the same issue). And while he might have been a serious threat if I'd been unable to free myself, Jamie Gremolliver isn't much to worry about for an armed and unbound adventurer of my capabilities.

Retrieving the rest of my belongings, I head down the tunnel, which leads to the beach I'd been wondering how to reach before I got added to the menu. Noises from the river remind me that Gremoll tend to live in small groups, so I hurry away via the passage to the north without even stopping to grab some sand or look for pebbles. This leads to another junction, and the markings on the tunnels here suggest that I was wrong about that flame symbol. The carving that looks like a frog with a crown is much more likely to indicate the way to the Salamander. The squirming lizard glyph is less straightforward, but the vertical bars could denote a dungeon, so for starters I shall see if there's any more liberating to be done.

Yes, that passage leads to some cells. There appears to be nobody on guard, but if the racket kicked up by the lone prisoner as soon as she catches sight of me is anything to go by, the gaoler may have snuck off for a bit of peace and quiet. The prisoner is a Black Elf in spiked armour, who demands that I let her out. Morality-wise, Black Elves are one of the less straightforward peoples on Titan. They're not inherently bad, but the only ones I can remember from earlier FF books were all in the employ of villains: one working in Balthus Dire's wine cellar, and a couple of guards in Mampang Fortress (not that I lived long enough to encounter them when playing that book here).

I don't have the option of asking how this Black Elf came to wind up in the cell, only of abandoning her to her fate (with no Luck penalty for heartlessness, judging by the section number) or using a spell to try and free her. It's not good to judge individuals based on the actions of others who share some genetic or chromosomal similarity, so I'll try to free her. I have plenty of pebbles, but I'm not sure I can be sure of only blowing the ****** door off, so I'll try using a Giant's tooth instead. This creates a Giant, who rips the door off the cell before vanishing.

The Black Elf emerges from the cell, thanks me, and then menaces me with her scimitar, demanding some proof of my trustworthiness. Charming! And where were your concerns about my morality back when you were yelling at me to break you out of prison, eh, young lady? Luckily, I am able to convince her that I mean her no harm, and she introduces herself as Verrema, a thief bold adventurer who was captured by the Horntoads. She offers to help me, and while I can see a potential issue with the rules for fighting alongside her, I will only go into detail if the problem arises.

Returning to the junction, I decide to investigate the passage with the sign of the squirming lizard. The temperature rises as we proceed along it, eventually reaching a cavern. Before we can enter it, a young Salamander emerges and attacks. Verrema is not impressed at my lack of stealth, but assists me in combat anyway. And straight off, I get the absurd situation implicit in the rules for being assisted by her in battle. I get an Attack Strength of 21, the young Salamander gets 18, and Verrema only manages 13. Which, the rules suggest, means that despite beating the Salamander, I have a 50% chance of being injured by it. As it transpires, Verrema is the one who gets wounded anyway, and for the rest of the fight we both beat the Salamander every Round. Still, with slightly less favourable rolls, I could theoretically have got the highest Attack Strength every round and still been killed by the Salamander. Which is daft. I hope I don't end up regretting having acquired this sidekick.

Proceeding into the cavern, we see numerous glowing egg sacs. Verrema identifies the place as a hatchery, and muses on whether or not it's worth inflicting a bit of carnage here: there won't be any treasure, but it would reduce the risk of being bothered by more young Salamanders. While she's thinking out loud, half a dozen hatchlings surround us, taking the choice out of our hands. Against multiple opponents we can take it in turns to fight, so I go with that option for simplicity's sake. Verrema is injured once by the second Salamander Eft she fights, but apart from that it's a pretty one-sided massacre. The eggs that have yet to hatch don't put up a fight at all. As long as we can deal with the parent, the people of Daddu-Yaddu won't have to worry about Salamanders any more. Unless Zared gets any more not-so-smart ideas...

We head back to the junction and take the final passage. Unsurprisingly, it leads to the shrine of the Horntoads' god, which is decorated with skulls and monstrous carvings. It also contains the stolen idol. Before I can recover it, the Salamander enters and (with slightly sloppy grammar) tells me of his plans to take the idol back to his home, where he thinks it belongs. Verrema is not pleased to see him, and when he announces that he plans to eat her, she threatens to force-feed him his own tail. Not impressed with the quality of their banter, I try using the name I read in the library, which turns out to be the right one after all. The Salamander is dragged through a portal back to his plane of origin, without any opportunity to grab the idol and take it with him, and the trident clatters to the floor.

Remembering what Zared told me, I prepare to defend myself, and when the trident goes for me, I am able to parry its initial attack. It is unclear whether or not Verrema participates in the subsequent fight, but I'm probably better off without her assistance. A couple of blows with my hammer break the enchantment (and probably also the trident), and that's mission accomplished. Except for the bit where I have to get back past the hordes of Horntoads, who may not be massively happy with me for having killed their ruler...

Or so it would be if I'd left Verrema in the cell. But while I've been fighting the trident, she's found a secret door, behind which a staircase leads all the way up to the top of the cliff. The snarky manner in which she informs me of her discovery is somewhat undercut by another authorial lapse in grammar, which has her briefly lapsing into a speech pattern that reminds me of the Gungans from the first Star Wars prequel.

We climb the stairs and light the beacon, and the text has the adventure end there, as we await the return of Captain Unanza and her coracle. But I think the person responsible for all this trouble still has some consequences to face, so I find the hole by which I exited Zared's cave, and drop all my unused pebbles into it. Then I climb down to the beach and write a message in the sand, explaining where the missing pebbles may be found. A little petty, perhaps, but whatever trouble may ensue is likely to be less unpleasant for the sage than what is likely to happen if Verrema ever finds out that he's the one who summoned the Salamander in the first place...

That was entertaining. It has a few issues (notably the 'safe route' through the mines that has to be ignored if you want to ever get out), but it's a definite improvement on the previous mini-adventure. The accompanying illustrations, by Brett Schofield, are impressive, too. I particularly like the stroppy-looking crab in the interstitial artwork. Maybe that's who kept putting the pebbles out - and always carrying them with the same pincer, judging by how much more well-developed the right one is compared to the left.