Monday, 31 August 2020

So Quiet When There's No One About

27 years after Warlock magazine published prize-winning mini-adventure The Dervish Stone, author Paul Struth had a second mini-adventure, Queen of Shades, published in issue 7 of Fighting Fantazine. Based on my one attempt at it to date, Queen seems to be a distinct improvement on Stone, with no sign of the overly derivative set pieces or questionable morality of Struth's earlier work. I don't remember exactly how I failed it, but I'm pretty sure I was still some way off of figuring out how to resolve the primary conundrum confronting my associates and me.

My character is a Sightmaster, an individual with powers of telescopic vision. The Sightmasters first appeared back in The Shamutanti Hills, though they weren't covered in much detail - I'm not even sure whether being one is a matter of species, talent or training. Regardless, I grew up in Analand, but now I live in KharĂ©, and earn my living as a scout for a party of adventurers led by a sorcerer named Fox.

Fox's gang are antique dealers, of a sort. We find ancient items of interest in places such as neglected tombs and sell them to collectors who will prize and cherish and look after them. On a recent expedition to the long-abandoned tomb of Queen Iltikar on the island of Nilgiri we acquired an ornate hand mirror, untarnished despite having been buried in damp conditions for a couple of millennia. A successful mission, marred only by the fact that as we were returning home, one member of the party somehow managed to fall overboard and drown. Last night lethal misfortune befell a second colleague, a barbarian from Crolia, seemingly killed in a drunken brawl over a woman. Beset by a strangely intense sensation of unease, I'm beginning to wonder if that mirror might be cursed...

This is a type of story that seems to have been neglected by gamebooks. There have been cursed items before, but usually their effect has been a simple one-off attribute penalty. I've played a few adventures based on the premise of an ancient terror unleashed by tomb robbers, but they've gone for the approach of  'the fools who broke in are dead, but now innocent people are in danger, so we need YOU, Selfless McHeroicface, to put down this evil.' Golden Dragon's The Temple of Flame did have a bit where you could take a bit of loot from a grave, subsequently being confronted by the Revenant of the grave's occupant, come to ask for his property back try and make magical creepers sprout from your body and choke you, but that was just a minor tangent with no real connection to the main plot.

Anyway, I have digressed for long enough. Time to see what my stats are. I'll risk taking the dice as they fall.
Skill 8
Stamina 14
Luck 11
Not great, but I couldn't have made many improvements by allocating dice, so I'll just have to hope that a high Skill is not essential for successful completion of the adventure.

I wake to see two unfamiliar warrior women in my room, clearly intent on killing me. The accompanying illustration (by Alexander Ballingall) suggests poor communication between author and artist, which is a little alarming considering that Mr. Ballingall is also the editor of the 'zine. I'm in no mood to list all of the many ways in which the picture and text contradict each other, but the smirk on the face of the woman to my left really doesn't fit the 'no sign of emotion' described.

The women are clearly good fighters, disconcertingly silent as they advance on me, and clad in an archaic style of armour. They don't appear to be the type whose sense of honour dictates a fair fight, as they're giving me no opportunity to get my own weapon, a quarterstaff. A nearby window offers a chance of escape, but I'm on the second floor (and given the author's origins, I suspect that that's a British-style second floor, two up from ground level), so it's some way down.

Can I get any information out of them? It seems unlikely, but I'll give it a go anyway. I say something - the text doesn't specify what - but the women make no response to my words, and simply close in on me. I must either fight them bare-handed (and I doubt that I'd be much good against them even without the Attack Strength penalty for being unarmed) or flee. It's not every day that you get a legitimate opportunity to make use of the word 'autodefenestration', so I'll go with that.

I fall about six metres, but manage to sustain only minor damage. After a quick glance up at my window, three storeys above (wouldn't that be the third floor, even by British reckoning?), I look around the courtyard in which I have landed. Mist covers the ground, but abruptly coalesces into the forms of the two women. Well, if they're not going to play fair, I'm going to have to invoke a divine intervention. Having grown up in Analand, my character is a devotee of Libra, and now calls on her for assistance against these ethereal assassins.

A manifestation of Libra appears and my assailants vanish. However, this turns out to be just a temporary solution to my problem. Justice is Libra's realm, and she is not happy at having been invoked in an attempt to shield a thief from the consequences of his misdeeds. Indeed, she only responded because the lack of warning about the consequences of taking anything from Iltikar's tomb was itself somewhat unjust. If there'd been a sign reading, 'Grave robbers will be tracked down and killed by spectral Shield Maidens', I'd have been defenceless against the guardian shades. As I will be when they reappear tomorrow night, unless by then the mirror is back where we found it.

In the morning I meet with my surviving associates, Fox and Jardakka the Red-Eye. When I played KharĂ© - Cityport of Traps for this blog, I didn't get far enough to encounter the Red-Eyes, so I should probably explain a little about them in case any readers are unfamiliar with the species. Red-Eyes are Fighting Fantasy's equivalent of Cyclops from the X-Men. When they open their eyes, beams of fire shoot out. So they tend to walk around with their eyes closed, able to see faintly through their fireproof eyelids. And I work with one of them. She has a pet monkey, named Cheechak, who is probably also on Iltikar's guardians' hit list.

I explain what happened last night (along the way establishing that I went back to my room and retrieved my quarterstaff), and our deliberations are interrupted by the ogress who owns the tavern where we're meeting, come to see if any of us want to buy a meal at the special rate of exactly what it costs any other customer. I risk declining: if this is the only opportunity I get to eat all day, I'll face a Stamina penalty later on, but if I do eat now, I'll waste some of the attendant Stamina gain.

Fox then reveals that returning the mirror will be tricky, as he's already sold it. He claims not to have received payment yet, and Jardakka accuses him of having taken the money and kept it for himself. Sensing that she's about to lose her temper and start unleashing her fiery vision, Cheechak gets out of the way. I try to calm her down, since it will be harder to arrange a meeting with the purchaser if Fox has had his face burned off, and she sees reason (though somewhat blurrily, as her eyelids remain closed).

We then disagree on what to do next. I want to try and get the mirror back so we can return it, Jardakka wants to go shopping for something magical to destroy the shades so we get to keep at least some of the takings from the job, and Fox means to ask for advice from his friend Vik, who has dealt with Shield Maidens in the past. I'm not sure that the ones Vik confronted were spectral guardians, so I'm dubious about how much help he can be, and Libra made it pretty clear that the only way for me to regain her favour is to return the mirror, so even if we are able to track down an artefact capable of permanently destroying the supernatural killers before sundown, doing so would still leave me in a deity's bad books, which is not a good position in which to be. Consequently I insist on meeting the buyer of the mirror.

Jardakka and I proceed to the home of Shar-kali-Sharri, a merchant who made his fortune trading in Mutton Fish. The house is guarded by a couple of Soldier Mants (yet another FF take on human-sized sapient ant-based beings), currently being ordered about by a small winged humanoid, presumably the Minimite with whom Fox negotiated the sale. Indeed it is Enno the Minimite, an obnoxiously officious little so-and-so who harangues us for turning up without an appointment. I explain that we need to speak with his employer about the mirror, and he insists that we leave our weapons with the guards before entering. Thankfully he's not so much of a jobsworth as to try and make Jardakka remove her eyes, but I hand over my quarterstaff, and we are permitted to enter.

Enno has us wait in the great hall, and I admire the antiques on display. When he returns, he is accompanied by a part-human, part-snake creature known as a Serpentine, who asks why we wish to speak with her master. The text then asks what I intend to do here, and all the options offered are dubious, though one is less bad than the others. I don't wish to take the mirror by (potentially lethal) force, or to ascertain the location of the mirror with a view to stealing it again, which only leaves trying to scare the merchant into giving us the mirror back. While that is, in a sense, what I'm trying to do, it has the wrong emphasis, coming across more as attempted extortion than an urgent warning.

The Serpentine uses her hypnotic gaze to compel me to tell the truth (which I'd been intending to do anyway), and some of those present react very oddly. Jardakka is appalled to hear me reveal that we want to return the mirror whence it came before the curse upon it gets everyone here killed, and Enno takes this revelation as proof that we're up to no good. Even I am inexplicably appalled to hear myself saying what I'd intended to say. Still, the snake woman shows some sense: alarmed to hear that the mirror is cursed, she decides that she'd better tell Shar-kali-Sharri.

The merchant himself comes to deal with us, and I am surprised to find that he's a Cyclops. He's also a sceptic who places too little trust in the Serpentine's aptitude for extracting the truth from others, as he refuses to believe my warning, and says that if we want the mirror back, we'll have to pay 100 gold pieces more than he paid Fox for it. Jardakka is not happy to learn that she was right about the sorcerer's having lied to us about the money, and when Shar-kali-Sharri sees that our associate has not been entirely straight with us, he offers us 20 gold pieces each to leave him alone. I insist that we need to return the mirror to the tomb, and though his certainty wavers for a moment, he remains unconvinced, and tells us to come back when we have a serious offer for him.

As the Serpentine escorts us off the premises, I catch sight of the Cyclops' daughter, who appears to have been eavesdropping on our meeting, and has the mirror in her hand. I don't think attempting to take the mirror from her will end well (partly because the Serpentine is a lot closer to me than I am to the young Cyclops, partly because it's a little too early in the adventure to be succeeding just yet), so I leave the house as requested. At least I now know who actually has the mirror.

The Soldier Mants return my quarterstaff as I leave. Jardakka and I discuss our options. It looks as if we're going to have to resteal the mirror. Right now it's too early in the day to try anything, but we can at least snoop around and get a better idea of how we might break in. There are no obvious weaknesses in the security set-up, and we cut short our investigation of the quay behind the house when Enno comes out to speak with the official who monitors incoming cargo.

Again I pass up the opportunity to buy some food, and this time I am hit with a Stamina penalty for going hungry. The text didn't really make it clear how much time had passed. Seeking Fox seems like a waste of time: the Minimite's innate magic-negating ability will make it impossible for the sorcerer to assist us with any spells, and Jardakka might be distracted at an inopportune moment, given her anger at our associate's having lied to us about the money. I guess it's time we paid a second visit to the merchant's place, this time going incognito.

The main door is too well-guarded to serve our purposes, so we make for a side door leading into the garden. It is bolted from the inside, and breaking it down would make too much noise, but while I check it out, I notice someone watching from the shadows. My good eyesight enables me to tell that he's a priest of Slangg, this world's god of malice (and possibly also gameshows). The priest departs upon realising that I've spotted him, and I decide to wait and see if he was waiting for somebody to use the side door.

Sure enough, before long the door opens, and out steps someone dressed as a servant, but she looks enough like Shar-kali-Sharri's daughter that I decide to approach her rather than try and sneak in through the gate once she's gone - if she has the mirror on her, breaking into the house won't do us any good. She recognises me, and is obviously afraid. Threatening her seems like a bad idea - she might be up to something clandestine, but that doesn't mean she won't scream if she thinks her life is in danger. As it turns out, she screams anyway, and the priest and one of the Soldier Mants come running, so we have to flee.

On the waterfront we see that a galley is unloading cargo, which Worker Mants are transporting into the house, watched by Enno. Hoping that the young Cyclops left the mirror in her room after all, I decide to see if the galley captain is willing to accept a bribe to let us hide in an empty crate and have the Mants carry us into the house. The price he asks is steep but affordable, but after accepting the money, he betrays us to Enno, and the Soldier Mants deny the ethereal Shield Maidens two kills.

Well, all I learned from that attempt was not to try bribing the captain. I think I like the idea of this mini-adventure more than its execution. The initial encounter with the Serpentine seems particularly flawed, what with the sub-par selection of options and the inappropriate reactions of most of the characters. Nevertheless, a definite improvement on the author's previous work, and I'm more keen to give this another go than several of the earlier Fighting Fantazine mini-adventures I have yet to beat.