Friday, 26 October 2018

We're in Cities at Night and We Got Time on Our Hands

Back in the mid-1980s, when I would habitually look at random pages of gamebooks on store bookshelves, one series that frequently got me to sneak a peek but never grabbed me sufficiently that I chose to add any of it to my collection was Plot Your Own Horror Story. The variety of nasty endings appealed, but I was put off by the lack of stats and the fact that some of the decisions determined not what my character did but what happened next.

As far as I can tell, the series is not particularly well-regarded within gamebook fandom. The books skew towards the Schroedinger end of the spectrum, and the resultant lack of consistency can affect tone as well as plot. To be fair, I have also seen it argued that they should be considered a separate subgenre within interactive fiction, using the gamebook formula to create a crude simulacrum of cooperative storytelling rather than 'an adventure in which you are the hero'. The series title supports that reading, actually.

One quirk of the series is that each page mentions the number of the page from which you just came, which is something of a bonus for the sort of reader who likes to leave a finger marking the previous section in case they chose poorly, or for those who enjoy searching for gruesome death paragraphs and take an interest in the sequence of events leading up to them. This feature also makes it a good deal easier to confirm if you've made a mistake and turned to the wrong section, though it doesn't help much with trying to remember where you just were so you can figure out where you should have gone.

A while back, in the course of browsing for second-hand books, I found a copy of book 2 in the series, Hilary Milton's Nightmare Store, which jogged my memory. While some of the other titles in the series turned up all over the place, I only ever came across a brand-new copy of Store in a bookshop near the end of Tunbridge Wells High Street. And browsing through it for inventive demises had led me to an ending that created a more powerful sense of unease than I got from most of the horror stories I read when going through that phase of my teens.

I'm not going to describe it here, because those recollections led to my buying the book with a view to blogging about it here, and as I'm just about to embark on my first ever proper attempt at the book, I might end up reaching the ending in question. I hope to find a route through the book that doesn't end badly, but one other detail I remember clearly is that the choice that leads into that particular ending has no good outcomes, so if I do wind up at that particular 'doomed if you do, doomed if you don't' section, I'll pick the option that so troubled my younger self.

My character hails from a small town in Mississippi, but I'm currently visiting relatives in Atlanta. This goes well until the day when both my uncle and aunt have commitments in the evening. Rather than leave me (their) home alone, my uncle suggests that I spend the evening in Wallenberg's department store, and gives me a little money to buy something for myself and a gift for my little brother. The store seems to be bigger than all the shops in my home town combined, and after spending some time exploring it, I sit down on a recliner in the TV display area. Having worn myself out, I doze off, and nobody notices me at closing time (hey, it was the eighties).

Waking to find myself in a deserted store with minimal lighting, and checking my watch to find that it's a good three quarters of an hour after my uncle was due to collect me, I react in a commendably level-headed manner. First I head to the office, hoping to be able to phone my aunt from there, but it's empty and locked. The phones at the counters are all dead, which alarms me until I conclude that there must be a master switch that cuts them off when the building is (supposedly) empty of people. The front door is also locked, and when I attempt to push down on the locking bar, it causes an unpleasant buzzing noise. My worry that it could be part of some security set-up that'll give me an electric shock if I don't let go seems a little fanciful, but maybe there's a sub-clause to the right to bear arms concerning the right to fry intruders.

Remembering having seen a telephone booth on the second floor, I decide to look for that, which is when things start getting odd. The escalators have, understandably, been shut down for the night, but as I ascend one, it starts moving. In the opposite direction, of course. I increase my pace, since going the wrong way on an escalator isn't that tricky, and the escalator accelerates to match my new speed. Eventually I give up, and just let it carry me down. And when I get close to the bottom, it reverses direction and speeds up again.

Once I'm almost at the top, I take the chance of leaping up the remaining distance, doing so just before the escalator starts to descend again, so I make it to the second floor. Disconcerted by this experience, I get to make my first decision: try to find a fire exit and use that to get out, or just settle down somewhere comfy for the night.

Better to be proactive than passive, I think. Suspecting that the fire escape will be situated in the rear of the store, I head in that direction. This takes me through the women's clothing department, and I am startled to catch sight of a woman staring at me. My alarm fades as I realise that she's just a mannequin (though if I were a little more genre-savvy, I'd know better than to be reassured by that).

Continuing on my way, I bump into a mirror, and hear a noise I can't identify from the left. Moving right, I reach a point at which I can again head for the rear, and catch sight of a sign that I think indicates an emergency exit, though legibility is poor in these conditions. Opening the double doors beneath the sign, I find myself at the top of a flight of stairs. The doors slam shut, and cannot be opened from this side.

A faint light at the bottom of the stairs is all I have to guide me down. As I descend, I become aware that the steps are getting narrower, which strikes me as being poor design. And then I realise that they weren't built that way: one of the walls is moving, and if it continues to do so, I risk being crushed. I need to get off these stairs, and fast. I'm about a quarter of the way down, so turning round and heading back up should take less time than trying to get to the bottom - at least in a manner that won't break a limb or my neck.

Taking the stairs three at a time, I get to the door just as the moving wall makes contact with my shoulder, and the run-up gives me enough momentum to be able to burst through the doors. Phew! Nevertheless, there is something seriously amiss here. The misbehaving escalator was bad enough, but walls should definitely not move like that.

Now I get one of those controversial fourth wall-breaking moments, as I have to decide whether or not I make a new discovery. If I do, it's not likely to be anything good, but just continuing to seek an exit probably won't be significantly safer. Let's introduce an unexpected development!

And... I'm not back in the women's clothing department (yeah, I chose not to go with that gag). The doors have led me into an empty room, which smells of gas, and what meagre illumination it has is flickering. Also, the walls are shaking. Catching sight of another door, I pull down on the locking bar, and the door opens for just long enough to let me through.

I'm outside! Close to the parking lot. Which makes no sense, but we've not exactly been at home to Mr. Rationality since the escalator's shenanigans, so I'm not going to argue with a topographical absurdity that's enabled me to escape from the store. There's a telephone booth close by, so I call the relatives, and within an hour I'm back at their place.

In the morning there's a report on the radio concerning the collapse of a wall in Wallenberg's department store. That's pretty inconclusive. Preferable to a report about the discovery of my corpse under the collapsed wall, though.

So, I survived. As a venture into the mildly creepy and weird, that wasn't bad. Different decisions might have led to something more preposterous, or to a much nastier ending. Talking of which, I'm still not going to describe the ending that so perturbed teen-me, because I'm a little curious about the sharedness or otherwise of my experience. Is there anybody reading this who remembers playing Nightmare Store when they were younger? If so, was there any ending that particularly troubled you? And should the answer to that question also be yes, that leaves just one final question: what was that ending?

Friday, 19 October 2018

Unquiet Slumbers for the Sleepers in That Quiet Earth

My 'how I first got hold of the adventures' anecdotes hit a new low as I progress to the first mini-adventure from online FF mag Fighting Fantazine. Maybe if the forum where I learned that issue 1 was out hadn't been deleted some years back, I could give some kind of context, but as it is, all I can say is that I saw the announcement and downloaded the issue.

That defunct forum is also where I wrote up my first attempt at the adventure, 'zine editor Alexander Ballingall's Resurrection of the Dead, so I can't link to the write-up. I remember that, as my character started the adventure unarmed, I tried to acquire a weapon, which turned out to be a very effective means of remaining unarmed, getting penalised for my lack of eagerness to confront hordes of undead with my bare hands, and then being torn apart once the adventure forced me to seek out the army of the living dead and endeavour to slap them into submission. Mr Ballingall attempted to justify the Luck penalty with which I got slapped by saying that it was necessary to take away Luck early on so that the reader would appreciate getting a Luck bonus later on. With that kind of policy, it's a good thing that Fantazine contributors don't get paid for their articles.

I'm not sure how balanced the adventure is, so I shall take the risky step of accepting the dice as they fall during character generation. And promptly regret it, as I wind up with:
Skill 7 (currently reduced to 4 as I have no weapon)
Stamina 17
Luck 10
Well, I'm almost certainly doomed. At least the rules do indicate that the 'no weapon' penalty should be disregarded if I have to make a Skill roll: lacking an item designed for harming others does not lead to increased clumsiness or mental enfeeblement, no matter what the NRA might say.

I return to my home town of Bandur Green following a successful trading expedition, and am disappointed to find none of my friends in local hostelry The Frantic Rat. And I was all set to spend the evening telling them my new haggling anecdotes. Nobody's in when I try going to my friends' homes, either: some have even boarded up their doors and windows, and my good friend Karl (who would have loved to hear about how I got that trader to pay 7 gold pieces for goods worth only 6) appears to have abandoned the place entirely.

Eventually I bump into fellow merchant Forvin Louve, who invites me back to his home, but he's so busy talking about recent strange goings-on that I never get the opportunity to regale him with the tale of how I sold an alabaster polecat for almost one-and-a-half times what it cost me. Apparently there have been strange lights and 'odd things' glimpsed on the heath (plus some people have apparently seen haunting noises there, though that could just be sloppy sentence construction), a farmer went missing, as did most of the search party sent after him (the two exceptions having respectively been fatally mutilated and (in the case of Karl) gone mad). Oh, and there was a break-in at the Merchants' Guild just before all this started, but that's undoubtedly completely unrelated to everything else, correlation not equalling causation, and all that... Louve only really mentioned it on the off-chance that it might be helpful for me to learn that all these incidents of which I was unaware happened just after something else about which I knew nothing, even though they're surely not linked in any way...

The following morning I decide to do something about these peculiar happenings, since my skill in getting a good bargain is obviously just what's needed to sort out whatever menace proved more than a match for a group of twelve men. To start, I decide to see if the landlord at the Frantic Rat has heard any useful gossip. Or would like me to tell him about the profit I turned on a cask of Cragrock Cider. The tavern is pretty quiet at this early hour, and I'm surprised and a little concerned to find the text asking if I've gone looking for a blacksmith yet. I don't remember anything worthwhile having come from blacksmith-seeking on my previous attempt, so I hope this is a sneaky way of ascertaining whether or not I've actually wasted half the morning.

Barnock the barkeep is an old friend, so I start by asking what he knows about Karl's misadventures. Being such a good pal, he charges me money for the information, which is delivered in a syntax so changeable as to hint at multiple personality disorder. It turns out that the men who found Karl brought him to the pub, where he scared off half the clientele by babbling about the dead. Given the unfortunate man's constant harping about dead people, the local militia have formed the conclusion that Karl and the party he accompanied were attacked by Trolls. So the defenders of law and order in Bandur Green are the equivalent of the racist cretins who post comments on Yahoo! news.

Any other local news worth paying for? Not really, but I have to cough up to find out. Apart from things I've already learned from Louve, and gossip about which I don't care, all Barnock has to tell me is that someone attempted to defile the grave of local war hero Narron the Steady, and whoever perpetrated that break-in that has nothing to do with anything else seems not to have stolen anything.

Maybe the retired locals seated at a nearby table will have something useful to tell me. Nope, apart from reiterating a few things I already know, they just start arguing over minutiae, and I wind up getting hit in the face and losing a point of Luck (blasted sometime later Luck bonus - none of this misfortune would be happening if not for you). Well, visiting the pub has been a strong argument in favour of teetotalism.

Leaving the tavern, I'm presented with a variety of options (including going back into the Rat if I've already tried everything else, which raises questions about the structure of this adventure). Someone has set up a stall on the common, so I go there to see if that's where weapons can be acquired. No, it's a gambling booth run by a gypsy. The author should be commended for going against harmful stereotype, as there's no cheating going on here, but a gambling establishment (even on as small a scale as this one) that doesn't give 'the house' even a marginal advantage is not going to be economically viable. I win back almost as much as I paid out in the pub, and quit while I'm ahead.

Next I try checking out the cemetery. After the obligatory visit to my parents' grave, I am presented with several things to try. The site of the attempted defilement is an obvious choice, but I may be compelled to leave once I've been to it, so I'll try looking at headstones for comical epitaphs useful information first. I do not find anything I feel to be relevant, but the text goes into very specific detail about just one of these irrelevances, so I shall not be surprised if the late Cowyn Thrawn and his unexplained dispute with Narron turn out to have significance after all.

Now I head for the crypt mentioned by Barnock, finding that the stone urn at the foot of Narron's bier has been smashed. This is not massively informative in itself, but the crypt has a convenient back door, so I have a nose inside. Which leads to the discovery that this is one of those adventures where you have to visit lots of places but in the right order, as I have not yet had the opportunity to procure either of the items that could be of some use here. This is particularly tiresome as they seem to be all that might provide some protection against the Wight that is lurching towards me.

The subsequent encounter goes about as well as could be expected. By which I mean that the crypt gains a new occupant, who isn't actually a member of the family that owns it. Still, I'm rather too dead to care about any scandal that might ensue.

This attempt at Resurrection has been frustrating in a different way from the previous one, as I can see hints of what may be a decent mystery here - the 'unrelated' break-in, the destruction of the urn, the rift between Narron and Thrawn... But depending on how closely the reader has to stick to the 'correct' route through the adventure, finding out the truth that connects these disparate elements with the undead menace may involve a tedious process of trial and error to figure out the right order in which to visit places. One of the things I like about the Webs of Intrigue gamebooks is that clues generate leads, enabling the reader to make informed decisions about what to try following up next. Being able to infer that you should have gone someplace else first, but only on account of being asked if you've been there yet, or owing to an item check that's the first hint that the object in question is even available, as in this adventure, does not compare.

Oh, and not having the option to at least try and look into the break-in at the Merchants' Guild (or, if it does become possible at some stage, needing to jump through assorted yet-to-be-identified hoops before getting the option) is irritating. Less of an annoyance than arbitrary Luck penalties thrown in just to make the reader feel grateful when the author deigns to provide a crumb of bonus, but still bothersome.

The amount of experience I have of the different Fantazine mini-adventures is variable, to say the least, and I've only had one attempt at more than half of the rest of the run. Some of those attempts were far too brief for me to be able to fairly judge the quality of the mini-adventure in question, but I can say with some confidence that this is not the worst of them. Subsequent blog posts should help me ascertain which of the potential candidates is the worst, so I shan't start ranting about some of the less fun stuff to come just yet.

Wednesday, 17 October 2018

What's In a Name?

This is my 300th post here (though, for various reasons, not my 300th playthrough - that won't be for a while yet), and as my 100th and 200th posts weren't playthroughs, this won't be one either. Instead, I intend to spend a little while waffling on about the titles I give to my posts.

If the topic doesn't interest you, feel free to skip to below the asterisks near the bottom of the post, where I'm seeking input on a completely different matter. As far as I can remember, there's only ever been one comment on the title of a post, so they may be of negligible significance to most readers. Then again, stats have indicated that one of my playthroughs got a lot of additional traffic as a consequence of people googling the proverb I'd quoted in the title, so they do have some effect. And whether or not anyone else cares, they matter enough to me that I take time choosing them (possibly more time than it takes to play and write up some of the more lethal adventures), and some of the things I intend to say here have been cluttering my head for so long, it'll be a relief to finally get them out.

As you may well be aware, the titles are quotations. Mostly. There's the odd paraphrase (some intentional, others on account of the vagaries of memory), and very early on I did once slip into the mindset I had when posting Proteus reviews to a Yahoo! group, coming up with a vaguely pithy phrase of my own devising. Oh well, consistency is for sauces.

Quotations from what? Songs, popular idiom, TV shows, essays, poems, novels, proverbs, plays, computer games, films, historical figures, comics, short stories... Even a gamebook, on one occasion. Every so often I'd arbitrarily come up with a rule restricting the possible sources. Every time I've played a superhero-themed gamebook, the title has come from a comic. Not only do all my attempts at J.H. Brennan's Horror Classics take their titles from the book which inspired the gamebook, but they're quotations from the character I am playing in that specific playthrough. And as I quote Doctor Who so frequently, I made a point of not quoting it when writing up attempts at gamebooks based on the series.

While it might not be obvious in some instances, the title always has something to do with the content of the post. Sometimes the connection is blatant, sometimes there's a bit of lateral thinking involved, and on a good day I find something that works on more than one level. Here, for instance, the title obviously relates to my failure to avenge my fellow slaves, but the name of the song from which I took it (Johnny Cash's Hurt) is also relevant, as my character's death was caused by a Gauntlet of Pain. (And yes, I am aware that the song was a cover version, so NIN fans needn't feel obligated to correct me).

When I pick a title varies. Sometimes I have it in mind from the outset (which doesn't always work out: I didn't get anywhere near far enough through Creature of Havoc for my planned title to be relevant, so I found an alternative, and am saving the original idea for a more successful attempt). On other occasions I've wound up with a completed write-up that lacks a title, and had to delay posting it until I could find something apposite. Once I even forgot I had no title, and had to edit one in after posting. If you are able to correctly identify the post in question, you should probably find a more productive use of your time.

There has, to my memory, only been one title directly influenced by current events in the real world, and even that wasn't planned as such. After the death of David Bowie, I decided to listen to one of his albums as a tribute, and one of the lyrics I heard while doing so struck me as being as appropriate to the playthrough in progress as the title I had selected, so I changed to that one.

Incidentally, while most of the song lines used as titles can be found on albums that I own, there are a few that just lodged in my head on account of having been near-ubiquitous on radio at some point, and one or two others that I dug up online because some other factor had led me to believe that the singer might have come out with something vaguely fitting at some point. Any artist who's been quoted in more than one title is definitely represented in my music collection, but there are still a few groups who have a significant presence on my shelves, yet have not so far had their output mined for this blog. Their time will come. Probably.

I'm not sure that anything much has come of these reflections. Still, now I've raised the issue, if anybody wants to know the source of some particularly obscure quotation, or precisely how one of the more cryptic ones relates to the post to which it is attached, you're welcome to ask. And this post has been easy enough to write that it shouldn't hold up the next proper attempt at a gamebook.

* * *

Talking of which, the subject of my next playthrough will be the mini-adventure from issue 1 of Fighting Fantazine. Now, some readers may be aware that I am the author of one of the Fantazine mini-adventures, so there is a question regarding what I should do with my own handiwork. Several options suggest themselves:
  1. Just play it like any other gamebook. I've played gamebooks I know very well before, and the fact that my familiarity with this one comes in part from having created it shouldn't matter.
  2. Play it like any other gamebook, but add an 'author's commentary' explaining inspirations and other points of possible interest.
  3. Get a guest writer to play it.
  4. Use a guest writer for the playthrough and add my own author's commentary as in option 2.
If you have any opinion on the matter, or alternative options to add, or favour option 3 or 4 and wish to volunteer to be a guest writer, please comment here to let me know.

Friday, 12 October 2018

It's Time We Quit This Hoping and Expecting

In all probability I got Proteus issue 17, Ken Bulmer's Black Crag Castle, from the newsagents near my school. I remember reading part of it in one of the classrooms where we did French, and as the sequence I was reading occurs near the beginning of the adventure, I can't have spent much of the walk to school looking at the magazine. Then again, it was February, so I might have been prevented from reading en route by filthy weather.

I have already explained that the relatively short shelf life of the magazine motivated me to get the issues as they came out even when I wasn't particularly motivated to play the adventures, and that issue 16 was the last one to which I gave negligible attention at the time I bought it. It's possible that by the time this one came out I had already rekindled my interest in gamebooks by buying Midnight Rogue. Or it could be that the Proteus adventure helped get me out of the gamebook doldrums. Either way, I had a proper go at it, and subsequently took the time to figure out how to beat it. Which wasn't easy, as Mr. Bulmer proved quite devious in places.

Mechanically it's not that different from your average Proteus adventure. Most of what needs to be found along the way is information rather than items, and there's one 'hub' region that allows a little more freedom to explore than the majority of issues, but overall it follows familiar patterns structurally. The writing is another matter. It's a bit quirky (nowhere near as wacky as Grailquest, but doesn't take itself as seriously as the preceding adventures (with one exception)) and has, for want of a better word, attitude. I remember being a little surprised to read my character using a naughty word at the end of the brief introductory passage. Mild cussing, by today's standards, but my upbringing was such that 'd*mned' still constituted strong language in my eyes.

Such an utterance is understandable, given that the introduction has my character (in flashback) discovering my home village in ruins, my parents dead or dying, and the family's most precious possession stolen. All I know is that the perpetrator of these outrages is a pirate with one ear, and I intend to make him pay for his crimes, and to recover the Talisman he has taken, as the survivors of the massacre will have no hope for the future without its protection. Not that it did much to help them against the one-eared villain, but my character is too furious to make picky observations like that.

For a Proteus adventure I need to know more about my character than just 'too angry for quibbling'. I remember that there are a couple of nasty fights in this one, so I reserve the right to allocate dice if doing so would avert a 'fat chance' Dexterity and/or an unhealthily low Fate. And a minor tweak gives me:
Dexterity 12
Strength 21
Fate 11
That should give me a reasonable chance, as long as I don't forget anything important.

I have never visited the nearby town of Alfanzar because of what I've heard about it, but those same tales make it sound the sort of place that the pirate I seek might frequent, so now I go there. Finding a tavern named the Blue Anchor, I bide my time until a mob of pirates enters. Their leader, addressed by his companions as Panash, removes his hat to reveal that he has lost an ear. That'll be the man I want, then. But attacking him right now, while he's surrounded by comrades, would not be all that clever. Also rather less than smart is the sloppiness that has me learning Panash's name a second time while waiting for a more propitious moment to deal with him.

Eventually they leave the tavern, and I discreetly follow. While trailing them through the streets, I hear Panash mention the location that, for them, is home - the first of the nuggets of information that I must note down if I'm to have any chance of success. I also learn that I'm not as discreet as I think, as some of the pirates abruptly round on me and promptly render me unconscious.

I come round in the gutter outside the Blue Anchor, down two Fate points (an unavoidable loss). The tavern is closed, so I have to choose which way to head along the street. I'd forgotten about this choice - wonder if it's a fake one.

Proceeding to a jetty, I learn that Panash and crew have already set sail, and am advised to see Tiny Matison at the Boiled Lobster. The Boiled Lobster turns out to be another drinking establishment, and I arrive outside it just as a large man is sweeping out the debris from last night's festivities. A vigorous swipe with the broom leaves a mound of broken glass and other mess (including a dead ginger cat) piled around my feet, and the man responsible laughs at the sight. Again suppressing the urge to resort to violence, I ask to speak with Matison, and the man with the broom becomes enraged and attacks me.

This fight won't be to the death, but it could take a while, as my fists and Tiny's broom only do half the damage of most weapons. Fortunately for me, despite Tiny's size, he's not much of a fighter, and I pummel him into submission without incurring any damage myself. I demand information on Panash, and Tiny reveals that the one-eared pirate killed his cat because he can't abide them, and mentions the name of the villain's galley. That's as much as he can tell me, but there are two vital hints in there.

What I've found out isn't much to go on, and I've started to attract attention. Exactly how much attention only becomes apparent when an unseen assailant delivers a hefty blow to the back of my head, causing me to black out for a second time.

Regaining consciousness, I find myself chained up, in the company of several similarly immobilised and unhappy people, and subject to another two-point Fate penalty. Somewhat disgracefully, players are guaranteed to lose between a third and just over half of their Fate (depending on what was rolled during character creation) during the early stages of the adventure. And yes, there will be at least one unavoidable Fate roll with fatal consequences for failure.

A new arrival, wielding a whip, orders us onto a jetty, where we see the galley that is to be our new place of work, and most Proteus readers have the word 'coffle' added to their vocabulary. As we're being herded aboard, I get an opportunity to attack one of the crew, but there's no way anything good can come of doing so. Swallowing whatever remains of my pride, I go where I am directed, and am chained to an oar alongside a few other unfortunates. Following a brief tutorial on the basics of galley-rowing, the ship departs from Alfanzar, propelled by me and my fellow-slaves. Sneakily, there's an essential clue concealed within the description of my predicament, though at this stage of the adventure there's no indication that calculating how many oars the galley has is an essential step along the way to not getting sliced into little bits.

A quarter of the galley slaves die over the course of the next week. I should probably be thankful that there's no randomised chance of being among their number. As the galley heads for land in order to 'recruit' replacements, the somewhat deranged slave next to me on the oar reveals that he and another slave intend to make an escape bid tonight, and asks if I wish to join them. Their plan is too poorly-plotted to have much chance of succeeding, so I decline.

After the would-be escapees have failed and been fed to the sharks, I decide to start work on a properly organised escape plan, and begin discreetly recruiting reliable slaves and weakening chains. Our chance comes a week later. The ship passes by a rock inhabited by a trio of... well, they're subsequently revealed to be mermaids, but the initial description mentions no tails, leaving the impression that this is either a very select nudist colony or some uncharacteristically non-predatory Sirens. Anyway, while the crew are busy gawking at the preening beauties, my co-conspirators and I break the weakened chains and rush up to the deck.

A fight breaks out, and I seize a cutlass from a downed seaman. The Captain attacks me, and as I parry his initial blow, a conducted tingle indicates his blade to be Blessed - which may explain the high Dexterity. Not high enough, though: I take a few blows, but kill him, at which point the rest of his crew surrender. The other escaped slaves choose me as their new Captain, and I get one Fate point back, plus use of the late captain's Blessed sword.

Another of the slaves is dragged before me, and my comrades reveal that he tried to raise the alarm when we broke free. They want him made to walk the plank, but I decide there's been enough bloodshed for one day. Accepting my judgement, my new crew content themselves with a few kicks before herding the old crew down to the oars to take up our former posts. The liberated slaves decide to become pirates, and as that's not a career path that particularly appeals to me, I ask if they'd mind dropping me off at Panash's base of operations before they start plying their new trade. At this point, any reader who failed to make a note of the location mentioned by Panash just before the first knock-out is in trouble... unless their gaze strays to the section below, which has him naming the place, and thus makes cheating remarkably easy.

I remember the name anyway, so my allies take me there. During the voyage I recover all lost Strength and prepare some Rations. We pull into a cove during an ominous sunset, and the sight of the fortress overshadowing the island convinces the rest of the freed slaves to stick with their original plan. As I step ashore, Maltby, the collaborator I spared, expresses his gratitude by revealing that he once knew Panash, who revealed the location of the safe entrance to the castle while drunk one night. While telling me about this entrance, Maltby also mentions the name of the Necromancer who was the previous occupant of the fortress, which would be another essential datum if not for a bit of careless game design about which I'll say more later.

I head towards the castle, which is on the other side of a chasm spanned by a drawbridge. Ignoring the bridge, I turn to one side and keep walking until a clump of thorn bushes blocks the path. A quick search reveals the trapdoor under one of the bushes mentioned by Maltby, and I raise it, revealing a flight of steps. Lighting my lantern, I see a rusting handrail against the wall. The steps are so creepy that I lose the Fate point I only recently recovered.

Descending the steps, I see a green glow to the north. A dishevelled man carrying a skull approaches, and I greet him. He introduces himself as Amdi and seems unimpressed at the sight of me. Apparently everyone he's seen come through here, other than Panash, has met with a nasty end. It is possible (and advisable) to work out from his rambling account how long he's been working here, though that can easily be missed owing to the more obviously helpful revelation that Panash always heads east whenever entering the castle this way.

I go east, and the passage changes direction a few times, leading through a subterranean graveyard and down more steps. By the time I start heading up again, I'm confident that I'm past the chasm. I wind up in a tunnel heading west, and then see a side passage branching off. This is one of the areas where I could fail the adventure: somewhere in this warren of tunnels there are two facts I need to learn graffitied on the walls, and I don't remember the route that takes both in.

The side passage leads to a dead end, but then the wall rotates, and I find myself standing at a corner of a passage that glows purple. Heading south, I get into a fight with a giant spider with an alarmingly high Dexterity. It only wounds me once, though, and doesn't seem to be venomous. Continuing through the maze, I next encounter a Shambler, whatever that might be. Easier to defeat in battle, at least. And then, to my annoyance, I reach the chamber I know to be the way out of the maze. Well, I'm doomed. Still, might as well go as far as I can before my ignorance undoes me.

I've just entered a torchlit hall containing an imposing-looking black marble mausoleum. Set into its base are two doors, but of more concern right now is the giant snake's skeleton coiled around the plinth, as an eldritch glow has started to illuminate its eye sockets, and those bones are moving.

The Giant Skeleton Snake attacks me, of course, and I kill it with ease before turning my attention to the mausoleum. Beneath a sheet I find a set of scales and a sack of pebbles, and when I give a slight push to one of the pans on the scales, a panel in the plinth slides open to reveal an inscription. The writing outlines a simple mathematical puzzle for determining the correct number of pebbles to put in the right hand pan, thereby opening the doors.

Beyond the doors another flight of steps leads down, ending in a tunnel that heads north. When I descend, a huge block of basalt drops down, blocking off the way back. The tunnel leads to a flimsy brick wall, which I manage to break through on my second attempt. On the other side is a slope leading up, and I ascend for a while before realising that at times water flows down the slope. A lot of water, by the sound of it. Catching sight of a small opening in the ceiling, I make a leap for it, and succeed at the Fate roll required to catch the edge.

Once the water has thundered past, I decide to investigate the opening more carefully. It leads to a room containing the skeletal remains of a Warrior Woman. By her side is a sword with precious stones set into its hilt. Taking it, I discover that it has more powerful magic than the blade I took from the Captain, which will give me a bonus in combat. Saluting the spirit of the Warrior Woman, I receive a Strength boost that heals what damage I took fighting the Spider and breaking down that wall.

Returning to the slope, I continue up, eventually coming to a choice between a side passage and a ladder set into the wall. I don't remember which way I should go here, but I have a sneaking suspicion that one option is the way forward and the other is a detour that will provide another essential factoid. This sort of thing is the reason why it's worth carrying on even when failure is guaranteed: I now have a chance of establishing what I should do at this stage, reducing the risk of making a fatal error on my next attempt.

I ascend the ladder, and go through a trapdoor into a well-lit room with one exit. Probably the way I should have gone second, then. The exit leads to a location I remember well from previous attempts at the adventure: a hall decorated with the proceeds of innumerable pirate raids, from which lead another six doors, each one with an animal carved above it.

This is the hub I mentioned earlier. One of the doors leads on to the next stage of the adventure, one leads via a series of ultimately irrelevant choices to unavoidable death, and at least three of the others lead to areas in which something helpful but non-essential may be obtained. And there are assorted perils to be faced behind almost every door.

On this occasion I think I'll skip the optional doors I know to be of potential assistance, so I can cover them in a future playthrough. There's no point in trying the invariably lethal one, so that just leaves the one I'm not sure about and the eventual exit, and I'm not entirely sure which is which. I'll try the Lion door.

Behind it is a long hallway, its walls adorned with weapons and shields. Lion pelts are strewn on the floor, and as I advance along the hallway, I think I see one or two of them twitching. Nevertheless, I reach the doors at the far end without incident. The door I choose leads to a square chamber, but I only get a glimpse of it before something falls over my head and shoulders. This turns out to be another lion pelt, and its claws scratch me as I struggle free of it. Not wishing to loiter, I take the other exit from the chamber, which leads back into the Hall of Animals through a door that cannot be seen or opened from the other side. Well, that was fruitful.

The text says nothing about only being able to go through an animal door once, so I could try the Lion one again and see if the other exit from the hall leads to anything more useful or hazardous, but I think I'll try the Tiger door instead. The hallway beyond this one leads to a trophy cabinet, and the floor is decorated with tiger pelts. Three of them come to life, so I grab a spear from the wall and hurl it at the lead tiger as it bounds towards me. A successful Dexterity roll means that the spear kills that tiger, so I need only fight the other two. The rules governing fighting both simultaneously are a little less clear than they should be, but I definitely kill both tigers, and the only question is how much damage I take along the way. It's not likely to matter.

As I recover my breath, a red-faced individual enters the room and asks if I have the Captain's spyglass. When I indicate that I don't, he makes a snide comment and hurries off. I leave the scene of the fight, and another one-way door takes me to the Hall of Animals again. So I was right about the non-exit big cat door leading to nothing of note, and have now identified the unnecessary one. Time to try the Lion door again.

The alternate exit from the preliminary lion hallway takes me into another hall with lion pelts on the floor, though this time they completely cover it. And come to life as I approach the far door. A Fate roll determines whether or not I get to the door before the animated rugs get to me, and I fail this roll and am shredded.

Unless I am very much mistaken, the best case scenario requires the reader to score 8 or less on two dice to pass beyond this stage of the adventure. There are certainly worse odds to be had in some gamebooks, but that's still an unnecessarily high chance of getting killed.

Friday, 5 October 2018

Lucky, Lucky, Lucky

If you missed the start of my attempt at The Castle of Darkness, the first of J.H. Brennan's Grailquest gamebooks, you can find that here. Otherwise, or if you're happy to join the adventure in medias res with no explanation of what has gone before, read on.

Now that I have the Luckstone, I think I can risk checking the remaining two passages leading from this crossroads. I remember at least what can be found along one of them, and know that a dice roll determines whether or not I have a chance of surviving the trap that brings some reward, so being able to influence the outcome will decrease the risk. And it's quite possible that what I've forgotten in the opposite direction will also become less hazardous now that I can raise or lower the outcome of some or all rolls. Those ambiguities I brought up in the previous post are still a pain, though. In another encounter I remember, they could make a big difference.

Anyway, for now I think I'll see if I'm right about the traps I remember being to the east.

I'm wrong.

But what I discover along this passage does jog my memory. There's another door at the end of this corridor, but something has smashed through it, so it hangs from one hinge. According to the text, it's unclear whether the thing that broke the door was coming out or in. The positioning of the debris in the illustration suggests out, but that could be illustrator John Higgins exceeding the brief. Especially as I can hear something breathing in the darkened room beyond.

My torch does nothing to dispel the darkness. Something strange is afoot here. And, for the first time, I notice that this section includes one of the typographical errors that mar the early Grailquest books. Never having been so intimidated by the preternatural darkness as to want to turn back, I hadn't previously spotted that the wrong number has been given for the retreat option. Programming the content of the book into my gamebook manager tends to enhance my awareness of section numbers, though, so now I'm aware of the mistake, and giving it more attention that I did the arguably more serious incorrect section number that comes straight after the fight with the Skeleton that I avoided.

But I digress. I'm not afraid of the dark, even when it refuses to respond to illumination as it should (in gamebooks, at least: I'm pretty sure I'd be at least a little disconcerted to experience something like this in real life), so I advance past the remains of the door. The sound of breathing grows louder, I ask who's there, and silence falls. Followed by a tension-building section transition.

Something savages my ankle. Considering the boost to my Life that I received in the previous encounter, the damage done is nowhere near lethal, but it's not pleasant either. Fighting an opponent I cannot see carries a substantial penalty to rolls - even with the Luckstone, my chances of hitting are significantly diminished. I could try for a Friendly Reaction, but that's a situation in which the Luckstone ambiguities come into play. At the very least, the odds go up from 5 in 432 to 37 in 432, but if the modifier can be applied to single die rolls made on behalf of my attacker, they improve to 52 in 171. I think I'll try to avoid the question for now by seeing if one of my Firefinger lightning bolts will light up the room.

It works, enabling me to see that the anklebiter is a Leprechaun. Invoking a national stereotype in a manner that would be frowned upon these days, the book now gives me the option of offering to buy him a drink. If I don't do so, I'm probably going to have to fight, and most of the people who'd condemn me for exploiting the stereotype would consider killing the little feller at least as bad a course of action, so I'll take the non-violent route.

In another instance of authorial failure to consider all the routes by which the reader might come to a section, the darkness vanishes again, providing me with a second opportunity to discover that the occupant of the room is a Leprechaun. Disengaging his teeth from my ankle, the Leprechaun apologises for attacking me, saying that he thought I might have been a monster or the Wizard Ansalom. To make up for the damage done to my ankle, he hands over a leather purse before vanishing. Inside the purse I find some money, including a double-headed copper coin, and a scroll. Dice decide what I find on the scroll. And in a rather surreal editorial blunder, the list of sections corresponding to different rolls ends with the 'Go to 14' direction that's missing from one of the sections covering the consequences of knocking the wrong number of times on the Fiend's coffin.

Also on the blundering front, 1 is again included in the list of possible rolls. And while the Luckstone does make it possible to get a score of 1, the lack of options for -1, 0, and 13-15 makes it unlikely that the gemstone's possible effect was being taken into consideration. As I recall, the 1-2 option is the worst on the list, so the unlikelihood of getting it is less of an issue, but the inaccuracy still bugs me.

I score 10. So I could make it 7 or 13, but as there's no option for the latter, and I think I remember what's on the scroll when 7-8 gets rolled, I shan't modify the roll. Not that the 7-8 outcome is a bad one by any means - I'm just curious. And I get a Hypnotism spell, which, if cast successfully (and with the Luckstone I cannot fail) can enable me to avoid one opponent altogether.

There's nothing else of note here, so I must return to the crossroads of no pit traps. Unless my memory is even worse than I think, process of elimination means that the chamber I expected to find in the east must be to the west. I don't really have to go there, but I might as well.

Yes, this is what I expected. A circular chamber containing a statue of a Wizard (though I'd forgotten the odd detail that in one of the statue's hands is a sack from which protrudes a pig's head). As I step into the chamber, it rotates, blocking off the entrance. There's no other obvious exit, though I can see a wooden chest, a lever set into the floor, and an inscription on the statue's base. The inscription is a poem - not very good, but still better than the Fiend's work - which indicates that I will need to exercise my brain if I wish to get out of here, and points out that 'curiosity killed the cat'. The last two lines appear to be gibberish, but very basic codebreaking skills reveal them to be an explanation of how to escape. I remember that nothing good can come of pulling the lever, so my choice narrows down to following the encrypted directions straight off or checking out the chest.

I'll try the chest. Which turns out to be more dangerous than I'd thought. Thanks to the Luckstone the poison gas released when I lift the lid doesn't kill me (just), but I do lose half my Life. Checking the chest for a false bottom prompts another dice roll, and I find a hidden compartment containing some gold and a mouldy clove of garlic. Written on the true bottom of the chest is a piece of free verse,  declaring that the writer left in the chest something 'more precious than gold' for which I may find a use in a Guard Room on a northern corridor.

I think I'd have been better off leaving the chest and just claiming the Experience Point for decoding the inscription. Well, what's done is done, so I do the necessary to rotate the chamber back to its original position and return to the crossroads, though on this occasion not to the "No pit traps today, mum!" section.

Having already explored to the north and east, I now need to go back south. Which is not given as an option, but the Hints section did say to include section numbers on my map, and that I can return to anywhere that hasn't been blocked off, so I have no trouble heading back to the room before the hall with the dead Zombies in. Incidentally, I suspect that applying those hints may be the only way to make Brennan's Dracula's Castle playable, so I shall bear them in mind if I ever get around to replaying it again.

Anyway, back to that other room, which (you might recall) has a flight of steps leading up to a door that I have yet to check out. Well, actually it doesn't, because the top two thirds or so of the flight is an illusion, but the only way to get to where I need to go is to fall into this trap (a trick Brennan will reuse in an even more tiresome manner later in the series). And since there's more trouble to be had just after I fall, I shall try and heal first.

Sleep, and I dream again, this time of having to escape from a tower by climbing down the outside wall. The dice determine whether or not I fall, and an additional roll or rolls would determine the outcome of a fall, but I succeed at the first one, so I needn't worry about them. All right then, I'll use another dose of potion. And that almost restores me to full health, with a little help from my Luckstone.

Actually, I'm going to try a little online research. Back before the end of the paragraph... No definitive ruling, but I have found something approaching a consensus that the Luckstone bonus can be applied to single die rolls, but not to opponents' rolls. So I'll go with that unless anybody can point me to an authoritative source that says otherwise.

So, steps. Walk up, fall as soon as I tread on one that isn't there. The fall does a tiny amount of damage (would have been more but for the Luckstone), and causes my torch to go out, so I'm back in the dark. Still, the book elides the amount of faff actually involved in using a tinderbox, so I relight the torch without difficulty.

I tell a lie. The book just waits until the next section before telling me that relighting the torch is tricky and takes a while. Still, what matters is that I manage to light up my surroundings before the giant Spider in the pit reaches me. Welcome to the 'more trouble' I mentioned four paragraphs ago.

Upon seeing the Great Dane-sized arachnid creeping in my direction, I draw EJ, who shrieks upon seeing what I intend to wield him against. Perhaps I should try for a Friendly Reaction from the Spider instead. The text calls me a lunatic for even trying, and the dice do not produce the desired result, even with the Luckstone. Nothing for it but to fight, then. Predictably, the Spider is poisonous (sic.), but I won't be affected until the third time the Spider hits me, and with EJ's bonuses surprisingly unimpaired by his terror, plus the damage bonus provided by the Luckstone, I manage to render the Spider unconscious before it can launch its third attack on me.

The book assumes I killed the Spider, but even a non-lethal battle could have cost my opponent a few limbs, so the description of the aftermath can be made to fit. I shall now search the pit, as I was about to do before the no longer eight-legged pest so rudely interrupted me. And I find a Snake, with tell-tale skull and crossbones markings indicating that its bite is a one-way trip to section 14. The Luckstone gives me the first strike, and my attack roll is good enough to win the fight in one blow even before applying any bonus. Phew!

Search. A. Gain. And this time I find a secret door. The text acknowledges that it's hidden in 'an extremely sneaky place', though the profusion of nasty opponents in the pit should have been a hint that there was something of note down here. Now I just have to roll to determine whether or not I can open the thing. And I don't even need to use the Luckstone to succeed.

The two Guards on the other side of the door are taken by surprise, so I get first strike. It is theoretically possible to try bribing one or both of them, but there's no guarantee that the bribe will work, and even if I throw in that magical ring, I could only afford to have a go at paying off one of the Guards. In any case, the Guards' armour is no proof against the combination of EJ and the Luckstone.

Beyond the secret door is an anti-room (sic.), from which a corridor leads north. This part of the castle feels more lived-in than the areas through which I've been before now, so I should stay alert, and maybe not risk searching for any more secret doors unless it proves essential. After a while the corridor ends in a T-junction, and I have no idea which way I should go from here. In view of the writing in the chest with the gas, I need to head further north, but the options here (apart from looking for another secret door) are east and west.

I head east and reach a crossroads. Straight ahead a flight of steps leads down, and the passages north and south end in doors. However, the door to the south has a couple of guards in front of it, and while they haven't spotted me peeking round the corner, they cannot fail to notice if I go any further. Might as well simplify matters by drawing EJ and charging south. Surprise gives me the first strike, which is enough to lay out one of the Guards. The second takes a little longer to deal with, but fails to land a blow on me, and dies rather than just being knocked out.

The room they were guarding is packed with arcane clutter, and one of the few clear patches of floor has a circle drawn on it, inscribed with mystic sigils. I remember what happens to anyone fool enough to step into the circle, so I steer clear of that while searching for anything useful in the midst of the sorcerous gubbins. Perhaps unwisely, I use the Luckstone to influence the outcome of the roll that determines the outcome of my search, getting the least likely option, which turns out to be a crystal ball. This shows me a vision of Queen Guinevere in a dungeon, but provides no indication of the way to said dungeon, so I'm not really any better off as I leave the room.

North may well lead to my goal, so I'll check out the steps east first. They are less well-lit than this corridor, but I can see that they end at another door. The difference in lighting levels would probably make it easy for the Guard outside the door to spot me, were he not fast asleep. I decide to try and help myself to his keys, and roll such a good result that I couldn't fail even if I decided to use the Luckstone to make things harder for myself. Taking the keys, I unlock the door, which leads to a dungeon, though not the one I saw in the crystal ball. This one doubles as a torture chamber, but is not currently in use, so I make my departure before the Guard can wake and get any ideas.

Unless I want to return to the previous junction and see what's in the west, it's time to go north. I can't remember any other noteworthy encounters apart from the endgame and what directly precedes it, so I'm tempted just to try the north door. Okay, so I couldn't remember the Leprechaun until I saw the broken door, but still...

No dragging things out. North it is. The door opens onto what is obviously a Guard Room, with a variety of weapons in racks, plus the sort of furniture and other trappings you'd expect to find where mooks spend their off-duty hours. So how come there are no Guards in it?

Additional doors lead east and north, so I head for the east one. And a soft voice whispers the explanation of the room's apparent lack of occupants: I failed to spot the Vampire that Ansalom considers an adequate Guard-substitute. This is another opponent I could try bribing, but unless there's an absolute fortune that I missed to the west, the only way to have enough money to even attempt it would be to have provided the Fiend with a poem the size of The Canterbury Tales. Time for that past-its-prime garlic to demonstrate its worth. And it doesn't just repel the Vampire: it causes him to disintegrate, leaving only dust, grotty clothes, and a valuable but non-magical ring.

The east door leads only to an unoccupied dormitory. It makes sense for there to be one adjacent to the Guard Room (or would if regular Guards used it), but there's nothing of note to be found here. This nod to realism reminds me that a later Grailquest adventure is one of the few gamebooks to feature any kind of toilet facilities. Sewers crop up a good deal more frequently, now I come to think about it. Make of that what you will.

Better try the north door, then. A little ominously, it swings open of its own accord as I approach. Beyond it is a throne room, with a colour scheme that's heavy on maroon and black. On the throne sits the Wizard Ansalom, dressed in about as stereotypical an 'evil Sorcerer' costume as you can get, with two savage-looking black Hounds at his feet. He calls me a 'little person' and sets the Hounds on me. Bizarrely, they also can be bribed, though I'd have had to provide the Fiend with something on the scale of the collected sonnets of Shakespeare to afford their price. Time to show Ansalom what a real put-down looks like.

I knock one Hound out and kill the other. Ansalom either has quite the sense of fair play or is mighty slow to act when things don't go as he expected, as I have time to down a couple of doses of healing potion and make good all the damage I've taken since the stair that wasn't there. Then he gets angry at my having killed the Hounds, and the final battle is on. Could be quite nasty, too, as he has his own brand of Firefinger lightning bolt. Not 100% accurate, but there's a possibility that he could zap me to death with them. So I make use of the fireballs that Merlin gave me for just this sort of eventuality, and even though Ansalom manages to get me with two lightning bolts, I incinerate him in return.

A sound from behind the throne alerts me to the presence of a secret door, which opens onto a flight of steps leading down to the dungeon I glimpsed in the crystal ball. Mission accomplished.

The 'Pip Triumphant' section describes the return of Queen Guinevere to Camelot and the related honours given to me, as witnessed by a raven which is subsequently revealed to be a shape-shifted Merlin. Mean Jake apologises for the fight at the start of the book, asks if we can be friends, and then steals all the treasure I found after defeating Ansalom (which is more than enough money to bribe a dozen Hounds), just in case I was getting a little too hubristic. Merlin turns up, initially in raven form, and tells me off for thinking he's a blackbird (on the grounds that ravens are noble, whereas blackbirds are obsessed with people's noses) and for showing off to Mean Jake. Though he does then compliment me on a job well done, before telling me it's time for my consciousness to depart from Pip's body and return to my own time. At least until someone valiant and resourceful is needed to save the day again...

Well, that was fun. Flawed, but entertaining. And I shall be able to retain some of my acquisitions for the next adventure, even if the money has gone. It will be a while before I return to Grailquest, even if I manage not to go off-blog again in the interim, but I'm quite looking forward to it.