Saturday, 20 July 2019

An Extremity of Anguish and Terror

Given that Fighting Fantasy's forays into science fiction had met with a mixed reception at best, it came as a bit of a surprise that Prey of the Hunter, the mini-adventure in issue 3 of Fighting Fantazine was SF-themed. Prey has little or no connection to any of the earlier SF adventures published under the FF banner, but that's just following the precedent set by pretty much every one of them that came out after Starship Traveller. I shudder to think of the work the creators of Stellar Adventures, the RPG based on science fictional Fighting Fantasy, must have had to do to fit everything into one coherent universe (or two, depending on how they categorise the worlds beyond the Seltsian Void).

Prey starts with a guide to the different alien species in its universe, followed by a brief history of the Earth Confederation. All very implausible, what with its commencing with the formation of an united Europe in 2027. It's more detailed than the backgrounds for some of the full-length gamebooks, and some online discussion prompted the revelation that author Kieran Coghlan was considering writing further adventures in the same setting, though nothing has come of that yet.

My first try at Prey (covered in a playthrough at a forum which is now so thoroughly deleted that not even the internet's greatest hunters could track down a copy) ended with my character being fatally shot. I could go into more detail, but the context involves an issue that often leads to vicious arguments in the real world (and worse online), and an outbreak of that kind of unpleasantness here would probably lead to another lengthy interruption in posting. At best.

Anyway, my character is the commander of an Earth Confederation squadron sent to apprehend a renegade Trawg. The Trawg are a warrior race, bound by a code of honour, formerly rulers of an Empire but now in decline. In the lost playthrough I compared them to Klingons, to which Kieran replied that they were more ripped off inspired by the eponymous alien from Predator.

As I was saying, my character commands a squadron. Well, used to: underling management hassles such as those that can be experienced when playing Starship Traveller are avoided by having Omoz the one-eyed Trawg massacre most of the troops under my command before the Background section, and kill off the rest within the first dozen paragraphs. He then cripples my fighter and, not having learned the obvious lesson from Red Dwarf's Gunmen of the Apocalypse, spares my life because he reckons it'll be more fun to let me flee to the nearby hive of scum and villainy that is the planet Karthran-6, give me a slight head start, and then hunt me down. If I can get off-world before he finds me, I get to live. If he catches me first, extreme and lethal unpleasantness will ensue.

The shot that ended my character's life last time wasn't an automatic kill - I'd just been brought down to next to no Stamina by a process of attrition. Consequently, I shall be allocating dice at character creation, in the hope of not being whittled down in a similar manner this time round. Thus, I get:
Skill 11
Stamina 18
Luck 10
There are other stats, but they both start at 0. Villainy tracks the extent to which I become morally compromised as I endeavour to survive and earn my fee off-world, and Trail indicates how easy I've been making it for Omoz to find and annihilate me.

My escape pod takes long enough to reach Karthran-6 that I can fit in a quick info-dump about the planet. Though technically in Confederation space, it's largely ignored by the authorities, crime having become rife after the virtual collapse of the local mining industry. Administrator Schnell tends to keep his head down in the hope of surviving to the end of his shift of duty, and is liable to be about as much help as a chocolate heat shield. And the pod crashes down.

As I emerge, a man complains that I've just destroyed his house. While the FF brand may require that rudeness not rise above PG-level, the invective used here is that bit too tame. Not quite as mediocre as the insults hurled in Deathmoor, but it's no 'Impudent peasant!' Still, upon recognising my uniform, the man panics and flees, so maybe he was just a bystander pretending to own the property in the hope of conning me out of some money.

The uniform seems to be deterring other witnesses of my arrival from getting involved. However, it does also make me rather conspicuous, which is not a good thing to be when I have a homicidal brute looking for me, so I decide to get rid of it. There's a handy incinerator close by, but I decide to see if anyone is in the market for a slightly crumpled and bloodstained Confederation uniform. Asking random passers-by will draw attention and not be very efficient, so I go looking for the sort of individual who habitually trades in items that fell off the back of an escape pod.

My enquiries lead me to a man with a ponytail, who claims to have been unsuccessfully trying to make a replica of just such an uniform for some time. This transaction nets me a point of Villainy, so he's probably not just a cosplayer with a perfectionist streak. A nearby Mercani trader offers to sell me a laser for most of the proceeds of the sale, but I'll risk hanging on to the money.

I could now try seeking Administrator Schnell's assistance, but that's liable to be a waste of time. The average deranged survivalist would think most gamebooks a bit harsh in their depiction of the reliability of the authorities. So I head to the spaceport to find out what it's going to cost me to get off-planet. A one-eyed Silazian directs me to a pilot, and as selling my uniform also netted me a couple of Trail points, I part with a little money to convince him that he ain't seen me, right?

After some haggling that's described in unnecessary detail, I book passage on the freighter Purple Lady for roughly four times the money I have on me, so I'm going to have to find some extra funds. As I head for the exit, a man with a laser tries to attract my attention. He may wish to rob me, he might be about to offer me some work, or he could even be a tourist seeking directions and (as so often happens) asking someone with practically zero local knowledge. I think I'll find out which it is.

No cause for alarm. He's just a trader, looking for someone to keep an eye out while he unloads some cargo. Without the owner's acquiescence. I accept the job, and after knocking out the pilot, he hands me the laser and asks me to stand guard. I could just take the laser and make myself scarce, but if I'm going to become a crook, I might as well be an honest one.

A security bot with a laser stomps towards my partner in crime, who appears oblivious. Is the man trusting me to shoot, or has he neglected to inform me that he has an artificial accomplice? I risk calling out rather than opening fire, and the text forces me to run off after doing so. Well, at least I gained a weapon in addition to the Villainy and Trail points.

Having blown my chance of joining the criminal underworld (though not as catastrophically as my last T&T character), I'm going to have to find work in the mines. They're still operational, just not very profitable, so the pay's going to be lousy. Especially as I have no papers, so the foreman can get away with paying me less than minimum wage. Still, if I can survive for a week, I'll have earned enough for my ticket out of here.

I am taught the basics of the job by an earthman named Finnegan, who does not wish to go into detail about how he wound up here. Not a problem, as I don't intend to stick around for long enough to exhaust all other topics of conversation.

Once my first shift is over, I need to find accommodation. I could try finding somewhere abandoned (and hope that no escape pods hit it), or I can rent somewhere - either a cheap place or somewhere with its own security force. The more I spend on somewhere to live, the longer it'll take to earn the money I need, and security guards are just going to be more victims for Omoz. I'll see how cheap cheap is.

Browsing is not permitted. Having checked out the cheap place, if I can afford it (and I can), I have to move in. On the plus side, food is included, and I have more chance of healing once the job (or life on Karthran-6 in general) starts taking its toll, but I'll need to work for that bit longer to get the cost of my ticket off-planet. Unless I can make some money on the side by acting in self-defence against muggers, or something like that.

Omoz doesn't track me down during the night, so on the next day I head back to the mine. I must choose whether to walk or go by public transport, and between not wanting to have to pay the fare and suspecting that the monorail is going to be about as safe as the one in North Haverbrook, I take to the streets. A random encounter ensues, and it's one that I remember from my previous attempt at the adventure. Well, partially remember: I recall that the old woman calling for help is trying to lure me into a trap, but I forget whether or not beating up the thugs she sets on any would-be hero brings any reward. There's a slim possibility that ignoring her will lead to an increase in Villainy, as my character doesn't share my memories of her perfidy, and I think my Skill should suffice against these petty criminals, so I'll still respond to the cries.

I do have the edge, though the dice aren't very nice to me, so I take some damage - most of it from the old woman, yet another eyepatch-wearer, who turns on me when I defeat her 'boys'. The money they have on them is too little to make any significant difference to how long it'll take for me to earn my fare, and section number recognition indicates to me that after the fight I wind up at the same section I'd have reached if I'd ignored the woman.

Proceeding to the mine, I encounter further randomness. On this occasion I wind up working alongside an unhealthily skinny miner, who tells me about the cult of Despair. A pretty nihilistic bunch, judging by his account, but their leader evidently has some kind of mind-controlling ability, as he was able to compel my co-worker and his friend Samuel to join the cult by just touching their faces. A head injury enabled the miner to regain his free will, but Samuel and the rest of the cultists are still wallowing in futility. I make a mental note to stay out of reach of anyone who tries, "I'd like to talk to you about the essential meaninglessness of existence and the need to abandon all hope," as a conversation-starter.

Nothing else of note happens at work, and at the end of the shift I collect my pay and trudge back home, another day older but slightly closer to having the wherewithal to depart Karthran-6. The rest of the day passes without incident, and the following morning I wake up, still not found by Omoz, and with most of the damage done by the attempted robbers healed.

Again I walk to work and along the way I pass a muscle-bound individual who is challenging bystanders to wrestle him, with a prize of just over a day's wages for anyone who overcomes him. A Mercani urges me to accept the challenge, and says he'll hold my stuff during the bout. I'm guessing that the Mercani is a sprinter himself, and intends to abscond with my belongings while I'm grappling with his associate. The adventure only gives me the choice between falling for the con and proceeding to work, which is probably for the best, as I might gain a point of Villainy if I were to suggest to the Mercani that he might do better making that offer to a certain one-eyed Trawg I know to be new in town...

Back to the mine and another roll of the die. And today's workplace incident is the one that got me killed before. No risk of it proving fatal today, but the bad decision I made last time would have had further adverse consequences if I hadn't been too dead for them to matter, so this time I will do the wise thing and not get involved. Except that that's not an option, so I have to opt for trying to de-escalate the situation. That turns out about as well as could be hoped for, but... Nope. No comment. Except to say that if I wanted to interact with a Troll, I'd replay City of Thieves or Deathtrap Dungeon.

Shift over, wages collected, home again, home again, jiggety-jig. The next day I'm back at full health, and there's still no sign of Omoz. Walk to work again, and this is a bit tiresome. I have to roll on the 'random encounter en route to the mine' table again. There are three incidents on there (with an alternate table for after I've been through all of the initial lot, but that's not relevant right now). Each incident may only be experienced once. If I roll up one with which I've already dealt, I have to reroll, and keep rerolling until I get something that's new to me. And by now there's only one left. But rather than saying something along the lines of, "If two of the boxes are already ticked, just tick the third one and go straight to the relevant section," the text would have me keep rolling until I get the number corresponding to whatever it is that has not yet happened to me.

Somewhat appropriately, all that pointless rolling leads to an encounter with a member of the cult of Despair. I don't discover that that's what he is until after I've chased off the skinheads who were beating him up, but it becomes obvious when, rather than thank me for my assistance, he says it was unnecessary as he was resigned to his fate. He then invites me to accompany him and learn the ways of not giving a **** about anything, ever. Though strongly tempted to quip, "I misgave at the office," I take the risk of accepting, in case there's any chance of breaking the leader's hold over his followers.

The man takes me to a subterranean chamber, in which a man in green robes is quite literally preaching to the converted about the purposelessness of all endeavour. Spotting that I'm a new face, he urges me to let him touch my forehead and teach me the futility of continuing to run. I say I don't see any point in going along with that. He insists, advancing on me as he does, so I try a little laying on of hands myself. That is, punching him in the face. This hurts me more than it does him, because he turns out to be some kind of android. Displeased at my actions, he orders his acolytes to attack, so I draw the laser gun and fire at him.

Resistance is not futile. I melt the metal misery, and the acolytes regain their senses. Ish. They're not that happy at realising their pursuit of hopelessness was in vain. Still, while they're reluctantly watching the lights flicker on at the ends of their personal tunnels, I search the place, finding a little money and a gas mask. People notice when I lead the sorry bunch of ex-Despairers out onto the streets, which increases my Trail score, but I think it was worth it.

And then I proceed to the mine as if nothing much has happened. It strikes me that, if the dice had fallen differently, I could have met with the cultists before having that chat with the miner who escaped from them. Had I not been warned in advance, I might have done things differently (though I'm pretty sure that the forehead-touching thing would have seemed suspicious even if I hadn't already heard about its effect). In any case, it is possible that I could have destroyed the Despairdroid and then, later the same day, have been told about the miner's experiences with the cult - to which I would have responded with a vaguely sceptical shrug, rather than replying, "Oh, yes, I had a run-in with them this morning. Funny thing: that leader was actually a robot. I fried his circuits and released everyone from his influence. You know, once you've finished here for the day, perhaps you should head round to your mate Samuel's old home, in case he's gone back there. You've already been through what he must be experiencing now, so you can probably help him readjust to life outside the cult."

Back at the rock face, Finnegan's tall tales (and amusing Godzilla in-joke) are interrupted by the shenanigans of a couple of stoned Silazians (and while I'm not a massive fan of the Peter Adamson artwork accompanying this adventure, I do like this section's illustration). Apparently the tunnel in which they're working has a leak of a gas that causes euphoria. And brain damage. I feel obligated to report this Health and Safety issue, and when the foreman shrugs it off by saying it's good for morale, I hint that I might have to tell the authorities. He sends a couple of Aquanarians (who are immune to the stuff) to plug the leak, and I find that none of the other miners appreciate my having made the job safer but less fun. Being such a spoilsport nets me another Trail point and a codeword that will take precedence over the 'random mining incident' table if I survive long enough to get to work tomorrow. (There are 6 outcomes on that table, so rolling on it won't become thoroughly unnecessary for a couple more days.)

While my goody-two-shoes activities have increased the likelihood of my being found by Omoz six-fold, there's still no sign of him as another day dawns. Do I take a chance on using the monorail, or proceed to the secondary 'random encounter en route to the mine' table? Walk again. And nothing untoward occurs, so it's time to face the consequences of my busybodying.

That's not so bad. Those Silazians resent having lost their workplace high, and hope that the endorphins released by bludgeoning me to death will prove an adequate substitute, at least for today. I take a few blows, but deal out twice as many, and the Silazians concede that mining without the gas is not as miserable an experience as being killed in self-defence by a whistleblower, so they break off the fight while they can still limp away. Word must get out that I'm not an easy target, as I now have to delete that codeword, and tomorrow I'll be back on the random incident table if I remain undetected by Omoz.

And Omoz is still combing the outskirts of Lisbon (or the Karthran-6 equivalent). Following another uneventful walk to work, I have to roll 4 times before getting a new result on the random table. And today I strike gold. Well, titanium. A rich lode of the stuff. My find gets me a bonus, and the rest of the day off work. And, frustratingly, I now have the money I need, but I'm forced to go back to my digs rather than heading straight for the spaceport, and the cost of the rent just brings me below the price of my ticket off-world, so it'll take another day's work before I can pay my way.

I narrowly succeed at the Trail roll (if it had been 'equal to or less than' rather than just 'less than', I would be toast), and head off to the mine one last time. On this occasion, a couple of knife-wielding Aquanarians make the mistake of attacking me. The fight nets me a little money, but also attracts a Trail point's worth of attention. If this encounter had happened yesterday, the money wouldn't matter: Omoz would have caught up with me, and one of us would be dead.

Again it takes a few rolls to get an encounter I have yet to experience. Well, no matter how things transpire, I won't need to faff about trying to get that last unrolled number on the morrow. Today one of the miners attempts to sell me a laser for a suspiciously low price. In fact, I could buy it and still have my fare off-world, even after another night's rent. But I already have a laser, and just in case the cheap one is liable to explode when fired, I'm not going to fork out for a spare.

Shift ends. I collect my wages, though I could get by without them. One last rent payment, though I shan't let on that I'm leaving tomorrow. A final Trail roll. Success. But I don't think this adventure is going to have a 'You escaped intact - well done!' ending. More likely, I'm heading for a showdown at the spaceport.

Things are much as they were before at the Purple Lady. I pay my way and am escorted to a cabin. The ship takes off. Still waiting for the other shoe to drop. It's going to happen in a new section, but Kieran has resisted the temptation to have 'Turn to 200' lead to the 'surprise' reappearance of Omoz.

Someone knocks on the door, and my character is not genre-savvy enough to twig that there's a climactic confrontation imminent. The sight of the fatally mutilated crew member in the corridor outside is a bit of a hint, though. Time to take the hunt to the hunter, as cowering in the cabin isn't likely to protect me.

Do I check out the cabin opposite, or head down the corridor? This is a particularly well-written sequence, with little incidental details enhancing the atmosphere. I'm a bit on edge myself.

The cabin door may be booby-trapped. Keep moving. Omoz emerges from the gloom up ahead and fires a flamethrower. Not lethal damage, but far from trivial. I run off, hoping to find somewhere that will put us on a more even footing. How about the canteen? In there I find a couple of the crew, so intent on their game of cards that they don't even react when I warn them that there's a killer on board. Yes, my character is apparently stupid enough to believe that. They're dead, you idiot, and probably rigged to explode if given a shake.

Looks like I'll have to go to the docking bay, then. Unsurprisingly, it contains lots of crates. Only one way in and out, other than the cargo doors, which are not exactly suitable for use while in space. Omoz advances on me, now preferring to use his claws rather than the flamethrower. I rather feebly protest that I wasn't on Karthran-6 by the time he caught up to me, so he ought to let me go. He claims a technical victory on the grounds that he boarded the ship before it took off, and points out that there are no officials to overrule his decision.

Omoz draws closer. I must fight or look for an alternate method of overpowering him. Maybe the lever for the cargo doors - even if I wind up spacing myself, taking him with me would constitute a partial victory. I'll give 'something else' a go anyway.

And there's a convenient harness just within reach. Omoz having come down with a bout of the same cluelessness that afflicted my character in the canteen, he doesn't pick up his pace as I strap myself in, and even slows down as I reach for the lever. And poor as the insult which followed my arrival on Karthran-6 was, it's positively Wildean by comparison with the 'witticism' I utter just before opening the doors and watching as the outrush of air takes Omoz with it.

After sealing the doors, I explore the ship, finding the crew's corpses posed in a variety of twisted dioramas. The Captain's 'horrible children' (his words, back when we were haggling over the price of passage off-world) are now horrible orphans. Still, the Purple Lady can be piloted by a single operator, so I'm able to take it to the closest Confederation garrison.

The text skips my arrival, arrest and interrogation, picking up again at the end of the military tribunal convened to pass judgement on my actions on Karthran-6. My Villainy is low enough that they decide the exceptional circumstances excused my more questionable decisions, and all charges are dismissed. I shall sleep well tonight.

While flawed in places, Prey is nowhere near the worst work of fiction inspired by Richard Connell's subgenre-defining The Most Dangerous Game (well, by some of its imitators - back when I first played this, Kieran had never even heard of Connell's short story. I wonder if he's read it in the intervening years.) Rated alongside Fighting Fantasy's other science fiction adventures, it fares a lot better. If Kieran ever does write anything else set in this universe (perhaps a spy-themed adventure involving the cold war between the Confederation and the Lyanians), I'd be interested to see how the place gets expanded and developed.

Saturday, 13 July 2019

Delirious Fancies Such as the Madman Fashions

Issue 3 of Flying Buffalo's magazine Sorcerer's Apprentice didn't contain a Tunnels & Trolls solo adventure, so the next one to be reprinted in the Adventurers Compendium is Michael Stackpole's Golden Dust, Red Death from issue 4. It involves Gull, the notorious City of Terrors, where I had one of my more rapid failures, and I wouldn't be surprised to find this adventure proving similarly lethal, given the nature of the exploits it concerns. The introduction indicates that my character wishes to become part of Gull's criminal fraternity, but lacks the right connections, and has consequently resorted to taking a job where being an unknown is not such a bad thing - smuggling drugs.

Let's take a look at this reprobate's stats:
Strength 11
Intelligence 10
Luck 13
Constitution 11
Dexterity 15
Charisma 10
Speed 13
Above average, for once. The rules recommend that if Luck is higher that Strength or Intelligence, the character should become a Rogue, but in solo play Rogues tend to get a rough deal, so I'm making him a Warrior. His starting gold isn't bad, either, so he starts out equipped with a sabre, a little armour, and a horned shield known as a Madu, which can be used offensively rather than just soaking up damage.

My services have been engaged by an individual named Dajal. All I have to do is take a boat through the harbour to a specific boathouse at nightfall. Oh, and drop off the three sacks of the magical narcotic Demregh-mno that are concealed within it. And that will net me enough cash to properly equip myself for further adventures, and potentially set me up with some decent contacts if I want to go in for a proper life of crime.

Well, it will if I complete my mission successfully. But as I enter the harbour, a patrol boat heads in my direction. Am I about to be stopped and searched, or are they on their way to deal with someone else? Alas, the Saving Roll I must make is just that bit too tough - I'd have passed if it were a lower level - so the boat makes for me. Lacking the wherewithal for a bribe, I must either jettison my cargo or attempt to talk my way out of trouble. Knowing the sort of unpleasantness that tends to be reserved for smugglers who drop their shipments at the first sign of a patrol boat (and being uncertain of what might happen if a substantial quantity of a magical drug should be dumped into the sea - we wouldn't want Gull to wind up attacked by giant mutant junkie cephalopods with laser breath), I opt to try and brazen it out.

It doesn't work. And Demregh-mno-smuggling carries the death sentence, so my hopes of getting shunted into some other solo to face justice look low. The captain of the patrol boat offers a slender chance, though: help them capture the dealer and I won't be executed on the spot. I'd rather not die if it could be avoided, so I agree to cooperate with the law.

There's something vaguely familiar about the captain. He hides in the boat while I sail to the boathouse to meet with my contact, the infamous Al-Dajjal (is this the same character mentioned in the introduction, only spelled differently, or was Mr Stackpole just woefully low on inspiration when it came to naming characters here?). As I enter the boathouse, I see that Al-Dajjal is accompanied by three men armed with crossbows.

Okay, time to take a chance. What if I almost recognised the captain because he's secretly my employer, and this is all a test of my loyalty? I decide to show Al-Dajjal the patrol boat captain concealed on board, but when I fling back the tarpaulin concealing him, he's not there. Somebody uses magic to blow open the boathouse doors. A hand emerges from the water, grabs my belt and yanks me overboard.

Before I can fight back against my assailant, I must make a Saving Roll on Constitution, and I roll poorly enough that I'd have failed even at the easiest level, so I almost drown. Further such Saving Rolls are required during the underwater battle, and between my already reduced Constitution and another appalling roll, I choke on water before my enemy gets a chance to land a blow on me.

Well, that was certainly an occasion on which crime didn't pay.

Saturday, 6 July 2019

Wherever You Go, Whatever Path You Take

Previously in Night of the Necromancer.

Following the incineration of my ghost, I find myself back at the Black Gate. A thunderous voice tells me that there are no second chances, and I find myself being drawn towards the Gate. Just as I'm about to pass into the Void beyond, a million lost souls cry out, begging for me to be released so that, as Champion of the Dead, I might avenge them. Am I right in thinking that some of those televised talent shows have a thing where a contestant can get poor marks from the panel of judges but be saved from elimination by a phone-in vote? If so, it's a bit like that. Only with more fighting undead monstrosities and less singing and dancing.

My randomly-generated stats are back at maximum, my Will has been increased again, and I'm back in the Inner Ward. Annoyingly, I'm not allowed to go back to the chapel where I re-died, so I must miss out on what I might have encountered there. If I want to check out the catacombs (which I do), my only option is to see if there's any truth to the rumour that there's a secret entrance to them in the well.

That's not the only thing said about the well. It is also claimed that, after my ancestor Agravain fatally wounded the monstrous Sourstone Worm, it slithered into the well to die, and the family had to call in a priestess to cast a cleansing spell on the waters. The illustration on the facing page makes it pretty obvious that that's not just a myth. And that it's a pity nobody thought to try removing the corpse back then.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Before I start to descend into the well, the text indicates that if I have my faithful hound with me, he'll have to stay up top. Which leads me to reflect that the text really ought to have said something about needing to part company with the dog if I were, for instance, to levitate away from an impending battle and descend on the far side of a gatehouse. Or possibly to have my spectral form immolated, then reconstituted in a slightly different location*.

Despite being able to levitate, I use the hand-and-footholds carved into the side of the well shaft, and descend to a natural cavern, which is littered with bones. Lots of bones, of an assortment of species. Human, canine, bovine, equine... serpentine. And it is the skull of the Giant Snake (or possibly Basilisk) formerly known as the Sourstone Worm that constitutes the head of the skeletal agglomeration that now attacks me.

While the Skeletal Serpent's Skill is slightly higher than mine, I hit it almost as often as it hits me. My opponent manages to make one use of its special attack, which turns out to be a bite that does double damage and taints my spirit with a Will-weakening corruption, but I use Luck every time I win a round, enhancing the damage I inflict sufficiently that I manage to win the fight. Perhaps a bit wasteful, but by now I don't think I have any chance of beating the book on this try, so burning Luck to delay my defeat gives me that bit more time in which to learn things that could help on future attempts. And if one of the things I learn turns out to be 'Don't waste Luck, as you'll need a ton of it for a later encounter', well, that's still more useful to know than 'Getting killed by a superior opponent makes you dead'.

So, the Worm has turned into a mass of no longer animated bones, and I enter the passageway leading out of the cavern. It does take me into the catacombs, and before long I reach a crossroads, from which I can see two doors, one straight ahead, the other to the left. Opting for a systematic approach, I start with the door down the left turning, and a rhyming inscription on it suggests that this is where I'll find the ghostly wizard mentioned by the gravedigger. Provided I can solve the riddle with which the verse concludes, that is, but it's not the books' most challenging puzzle.

As I expected, this is the tomb of deceased court wizard Aramanthus, whose spectre is glad to see mine, as the clumsy homunculus that was interred with him isn't a great conversationalist. As in my conversation with Yorrick, I only get to ask one question, so I decide to find out if he knows anything helpful about the evil infesting the castle. Beyond the fact that there's something afoot in the Keep, he has nothing useful to say.

The interruption to this conversation takes the form of a banshee wail. Before I leave, Aramanthus says to take Fizzgig the homunculus with me, as he may be of assistance. It turns out that Fizzgig has a repertoire of four magic spells (though only enough power to cast three of them before departing via a slightly incongruous Douglas Adams in-joke). One can be used to banish something undead, the others all restore attributes. Having lost almost half of my Stamina to the Skeletal Serpent, I anticipate needing one of the restorative ones before long. But I can take a bit more damage before I'm at existence-threatening levels, and I vaguely recall something liable to cause further Stamina loss not far from here, so I'll wait until the need for healing gets a little more serious before taking advantage of my new companion's capabilities.

Back to the crossroads, and on to the next door. This one turns out to have been ghost-proofed, and inflicts the 'further Stamina loss' I mentioned a paragraph ago. I'm not going to be able to get through it until I find a way to counteract the spells bound into it. Had to take that hit, though, as I won't be able to get back to the door after obtaining suitable protection unless I get the codeword acquired at the same time as I incur that damage.

Returning to the crossroads again, I take the turning I have yet to investigate. Sometimes in a place like this, one of the options is just bad news, other times it's advisable to check out everywhere, and I don't know which situation I'm in here, so the (probable) doomedness of my character makes this an ideal opportunity to try and find out.

My gamebook manager reveals that the only other time I got this far in this book I did explore the third turning, so I must have forgotten what happened back then. And I'm not going to find out now, because randomness determines what occurs, and today I roll a different number. Oh, that's not good. I encounter a cloaked figure with nothing but darkness beneath its hood. This Nightshade is intimidating enough to cost me a point of Will, and its stats and Stamina-draining abilities make this a fight that I have little chance of winning. Still, I see no reason why I shouldn't be able to use Fizzgig's 'Banish Spirit' spell here - the text definitely states that the Nightshade is undead, and doesn't say that it's immune to magic, so if Mr Green didn't intend the spell to be usable here, he should have made that clearer. The ambiguity regarding the usability of the spell also leaves me wondering if banishing the Nightshade denies me the Stamina bonus that can be gained by defeating it. Well, between the Will penalty, the tough fight and the need for clarification, I'm probably better off not coming this way on future attempts. Unless the other randomised outcome from taking this turning is very desirable, but I'm pretty sure that by the time he wrote this book, Jonathan Green had given up on that sort of unfairness.

And after all that unpleasantness, I just wind up back at the crossroads where I started, so I have no alternative but to return to the Inner Ward. From there I decide to head to the kitchens, where my character is inexplicably surprised to find preparations for a banquet in full swing. Was I not paying attention when the hermit told me about the feast, or when Captain Cador said that Chamberlain Unthank had decided not to cancel it even after news of my death reached the castle?

The description of Inglenook the Cook makes him sound more like the Gormenghast trilogy's Swelter than Gordon Ramsay. I didn't get on well with him while alive, and I doubt that my death will have made him any more sympathetic to me, so I turn invisible before entering. This enables me to see which underling is currently on the receiving end of the Cook's wrath, but not much else. If I'm to achieve anything here, I will need to reveal my presence. And that proves to be a bad idea after all: panic ensues, Inglenook summons guards, and I depart rather than get drawn into a fight with people who don't deserve to get killed.

On previous attempts at this book, going to the feast hall has always ended badly for me, and I won't survive another loss of existence this time round, so I think I'll try and find out a bit more about what's afoot in the gatehouse between here and the Keep.

There are no guards present, and the portcullis is up. Looks safe to me. I could try flying again, but I'll stay at ground level this time. I do not have the codeword for which I am asked, which means I suddenly find my way blocked by a fire-breathing mechanical behemoth that I somehow failed to spot. Another codeword check ensues, and again I have nothing relevant, leaving me with a choice between attacking this Golem, trying to dodge past it, turning invisible or taking to the air. I have a vague recollection of having been unable to inflict damage on this opponent the last time I reached this stage, and it wouldn't surprise me if this encounter makes use of Dead of Night's 'guardian against which neither of the special abilities listed will actually help' trick, so I try dodging. This requires a Skill roll, at which I succeed (just), so I make it to the door. Which turns out to be like the one I couldn't pass in the catacombs. Unable to get through it, I am forced to abandon my attempts at investigating and avenging my murder, and wind up having to haunt my old home for the rest of time. Mind you, given the hints that there's some major-league unpleasantness due to occur before the night is over, that might not actually take very long.

So, failed again. But I've learned a few things that should be helpful the next time I try this book, so it's been a more successful failure than a few I could mention.

*Other methods of being parted from your pet are also available.