Friday, 5 February 2021

All You’re Concerned With Is Revenge

It's time I had another go at Avenger!, the first of Mark Smith and Jamie Thomson's The Way of the Tiger gamebooks. Well, first published: as regards internal chronology the prequel, Ninja, comes first, but I don't own that one, and the series worked fine without it for decades (for values of 'fine' that include containing occasional bugs and lacking a proper conclusion), so Avenger! leads the way.

The only aspect of character creation into which I have any input is skill selection. I have four of a possible nine, and while Shurikenjitsu is mandatory, I get to choose the others. The discussion which followed my earlier attempt at Avenger! for this blog indicated that the ability to spit Poison Needles is pretty much essential, so I'll take that one. For the others, I'm sticking with Immunity to Poisons and Picking Locks, Detecting and Disarming Traps. I do remember that, at least in the second book, Arrow Cutting can be a literal life-saver, but I also recall the possibility of gaining a bonus skill in that book, so I won't worry about that until I actually reach the stage where I can progress to book two.

The early stages of this adventure are liable to follow much the same pattern as my previous try, so rather than repeat myself in detail, I intend to summarise all that happens as it did before. If you want more details, just follow the above link.

For a bit of fun, I'm going to try and make the summary a pastiche of the secret litany of the Ninja Grandmaster featured in the book. I wonder if I still have the version I wrote for the unfinished parody The Way of the Hedgehog, on which I wasted a fair bit of time back in the mid-eighties... 

My kicking is what brings down Gorobei.
My answers are correct.
My dream is precognitive.
My mission is given.
My journey is interrupted.
My Ogre foe dies, just.
My Fate roll leaves me unobserved.
My throw is ineffectual.
My block is unsuccessful.
My Endurance drops below zero.
My adventure was ended by the Buccaneer Captain's morning star.

I can't exactly say that the dice were not in my favour this time round, because I did get some good rolls. The only problem is that they were during the not-to-the-death opening combat and the irrelevant Fate check, and I wound up taking a lot of damage in the first couple of serious fights. Enough to kill me, in fact.

On the positive side, those fights did highlight some deficiencies in how my gamebook manager handles combat in The Way of the Tiger, so I have now fixed them, which should come in handy the next time I attempt this book.

That's two rapid failures in a row. My next playthrough will be my three-hundredth, so it's going to be another replay, and I need to choose from the shortlist nominated by Gloccus a shockingly long time ago. Over the weekend I shall take a look at them all, and decide which is most likely to provide a more substantial (and hopefully successful) entry.

Wednesday, 3 February 2021

Cold, Cold Heart

Just before I started covering the Fighting Fantazine mini-adventures here, I raised the question of what I should do when I got to issue 9, given that I am the author of the mini-adventure in it, Return to the Icefinger Mountains. The readers who expressed an opinion were in favour of my playing it like any other one, and adding an 'author's commentary' to provide (hopefully) interesting trivia about the writing process, inspirations, influences, and so on. So that's what I'm doing, using a different font for the commentary bits.

This is unlikely to be a particularly criticism-heavy playthrough, because when I wrote Return I tried to avoid the sort of things that I find annoying in gamebooks. It's been several years since I last played it, so I don't rule out the possibility that the odd detail might strike me as being less of a good idea than it seemed back when I was writing it, but a full-on rant is unlikely. For a review (not a playthrough) without authorial bias, you could always check out what Malthus Dire said about it, but he didn't hate it either, so there is a possibility that Return is, in fact, not that bad.

Return to the Icefinger Mountains started with an ending. I'd been playing a demo of a computer game, and a minor element of it fired my imagination, giving me an idea for an unsuccessful outcome to an adventure. I can't design computer games, but I had turned my hand to gamebook-writing in the past, so that seemed the obvious way to develop the idea.

An ending isn't much use in isolation, so I had to start thinking about what kind of set-up could lead to such an outcome, and before long I came to the conclusion that extreme cold would be an effective way of getting the doomed hero into the required state. Being familiar with Caverns of the Snow Witch, I realised that making cold a key element of the setting and/or the villain's powers would inevitably invite comparisons, and since there were some elements of Caverns that I liked, I figured that I might as well make this new adventure a sequel. That way, the similarities would come across as homage rather than rip-off.

Years passed between my coming up with the initial concept and the actual writing of the adventure. During the intervening time, I got into gamebook fandom, and became aware of a lot of the issues that people had with Caverns. Few FF readers would deny that there are certain elements of the book which, if you think about them, don't make a whole lot of sense. I could have chosen to just ignore the absurdities once I got going on the follow-up, but there was a temptation to try and explain away some of the illogical aspects.

Before now I've mentioned that, in addition to being a fan of gamebooks, I'm also a fan of Doctor Who. A lot of DW fan fiction (including some licenced tie-ins) has been written to try and explain away inconsistencies between stories, plug narrative gaps, and generally tie up loose ends from the TV series. Much of that specific type of fan fiction (including some licenced tie-ins) is dreadful. Much, but not all. And what tends to set the decent material apart from the rest is that it is focused on telling a good story, and treats the continuity-fixing as an incidental extra. Bearing this in mind, I chose to prioritise creating the best adventure I could. If the creation of new lore that could provide a rational explanation for some of Caverns' oddities helped with that goal, so much the better, but the important thing was to write an entertaining and challenging addition to the series. Or at least try to.

On with the playthrough. My character is not the hero of Caverns. Instead, he is a former slave of the Snow Witch, liberated when she was killed, but still bearing the mental scars of the period when he was forced to serve her. Thirty years on, the trauma has faded... at least until I have a nightmare, the first in over a decade. I don't remember much about it, but the Snow Witch was in it.

At some point I had developed a preference for gamebook plots that included a personal element. To me, 'former slave with psychological baggage' struck me as having more potential than 'itinerant adventurer who killed the Snow Witch and managed to survive her revenge'. Besides which, once I'd decided to acknowledge the 30th anniversary of the creation of Fighting Fantasy by setting Return three decades after Caverns, I needed a character who'd been young at the time of the original adventure.

There is a slight connection between the viewpoint characters in the two adventures, though. In Caverns, the only weapon effective against the Snow Witch is found in the kitchens following a fight with one of the staff. At the time the Snow Witch was first killed, the hero of Return had just been sent to work in the kitchens as the replacement of a worker 'killed in a brawl', and consequently had easy access to a knife when the slaves started to revolt. One combat, two people who benefited from it, without ever coming into contact with each other. And the plot makes sense regardless of whether or not the reader picks up on that connection.

Troubled, I seek out my old friend Reniso, another former slave, who tells me that he had a similar bad dream, and reveals that he'd always suspected that the Snow Witch might not be gone for good. For years he has been seeking to learn about the source of her power in the hope of being able to turn it against her. This is where one of my more substantial retcons comes in: previously, that source was identified as the Ice Demon which can be encountered in Caverns. Now, Reniso reveals that part of the assistance provided by the Demon consisted of giving the Snow Witch access to the secrets of an ancient civilisation, whose ruins lie beneath the Crystal Caves.

Alterations to established lore are more likely to be accepted if they expand on what is already known rather than just contradicting it. The details of when this lost civilisation existed are deliberately left vague, but a passing reference to a major cataclysm that's an acknowledged element of FF history tentatively dates it to a period of which little is known. Since the history laid out in Titan includes such a convenient era of ambiguity, why not make use of it?

Not long ago, Reniso made contact with a scholar in Salamonis who has been studying that lost civilisation. The scholar is now travelling here, and Reniso plans for the three of us to return to the Crystal Caves, seek out the lost city beneath them, and find a way to thwart the Snow Witch's return, or discover a weapon to use against her if it's too late for that. Before I return home, he warns me not to mention the planned expedition to anyone, as the Snow Witch's surviving followers have formed a cult, and would not hesitate to kill us if they knew of our intentions.

The following day, after putting my affairs in order, I return to Reniso's home, only to find that it has been vandalised and he has been murdered. Worse yet, the blood that has pooled at his feet has been used to spell out the words 'SHE WILL RETURN'.

That's where the 'Background' section ends, so I should generate some stats before I go any further. I shall be tailoring them: while a high Skill score is not as essential as in, say, the majority of Ian Livingstone's FF books, a rock bottom Skill would probably guarantee failure, and some readers have complained about the number of Test your Luck rolls in the adventure. I end up with:
Skill 10
Stamina 17
Luck 12
That should give me a reasonable chance of success on the correct route.

There are basically two different ways of winning this adventure. One path to success is in the style of most of Ian Livingstone's books, and is pretty much impossible without 12 Skill. The other is strongly influenced by the FF books of Paul Mason, and (as you may have deduced from my having chosen to max out Luck rather than Skill), that is the one I intend to go for. Apart from being easier if you know what to do, it also has what is generally considered the more satisfactory conclusion.

I can see that there is something in Reniso's mouth, but decide against taking a closer look. There is some information to be gained by doing so, but it's not essential, and not getting it enables me to avoid one Test your Luck, as I won't get blood on my shoes and potentially become a murder suspect.

Deciding to leave and try to find a way of avenging Reniso's murder, I open the door, and am startled to find an elderly man right outside, on the verge of knocking. He is just as surprised as I, and puzzled about who I could be, as I'm too young to be Reniso. Unsure of what to do, I stall by asking the stranger who he is, and he turns out to be the scholar from Salamonis, whose name is Denati. Deducing from the circumspect manner in which he describes the reason for his visit that he is aware of the need for security, and thus knows about the Snow Witch's followers, I indicate to him that I know what's afoot, and let him know what has happened to Reniso. After a little debate, we decide to go ahead with the expedition, and Denati gives me money to buy the equipment we will need.

In a departure from FF norms, the text lists everything purchased rather than allowing the reader to choose what to buy. This was a practical decision rather than a conscious subversion: the adventure was long enough without having to dedicate multiple sections to the consequences of failure to obtain necessary equipment at this stage, or the attempted use of whatever 'red herring' items I made available. 

Once I've made the requisite purchases, we head out of the village. The warden on the north gate is a bit of a bully, with whom I've had at least one run-in before now, but today he is content to merely delay us with a few unnecessary questions before allowing us to proceed. We make good progress, reaching the trading post at the foot of the Icefinger Mountains before sundown, and spend the night there, my nightmares causing me to disturb some of the others in the dormitory.

The following day we head up into the mountains until the sounds of many animals up ahead indicate the need for caution. We stop at a point overlooking a valley, through which a group of Toa-Suo and Snow Wolves are passing. Not wanting to waste any time, I head down into the valley as soon as they have passed, rather than waiting until they're out of sight, and one of them looks back at the wrong moment and catches sight of us. It attracts the attention of its companions, and they turn and race to the attack.

There are too many of them to fight, so we run. A Stamina roll determines how I fare, and oh dear, that's a lot of sixes. Even if I'd put the highest of my character creation rolls into Stamina, I'd still have failed. Our pursuers catch up to us, and we end up torn apart.

I do believe that's the earliest possible death in Return. Experiencing it was sheer bad luck - even with the lowest possible starting Stamina, I'd still have had a 50% chance of making it, but the dice just fell very badly for me. The 'advantage' of having written the adventure couldn't help me there.

Kieran Coghlan offered his playthrough of Return if I decided to get in a 'guest player' rather than attempt Return myself here. Since he got a good deal further through the adventure than I did, I've written an author's commentary to go with that as well.

Monday, 1 February 2021

Your Time Has Come to Shine

This is going to be my third attempt at Echoes of Lost Light, the mini-adventure contained in the Mongoose Publishing edition of Lone Wolf book 10, The Dungeons of Torgar. I'm trying it again in part because of a realisation I recently had: previously I avoided the combat towards which author August Hahn seemed to be trying to steer the reader at the start of the adventure, but that was probably a very silly thing to do. The Kai Discipline of Healing, which I have, only restores Endurance lost in battle, so why am I risking taking damage I can't fix just so as to avoid wounds that I can heal? Especially as it's possible that winning the fight could net me an item that will help avert - or at least reduce - unavoidable, Healing-proof Endurance loss later on.

My other reason for replaying Echoes again? The alternative is having another go at The Prisoners of Time, the eleventh LW book, which is a far more discouraging prospect.

So, to recap the premise for anyone who doesn't remember it and didn't click on either of the links to when I played Echoes before, Lone Wolf's plummet through an eldritch portal to another realm is interrupted by his arrival in a mystical simulation of Luomi, the city from which the Lorestone he's just recovered was plundered. Darklord sorcery has corrupted the Lorestone, and to cleanse it Lone Wolf must get his hands on the simulacrum of the Lorestone at the heart of the replica city. Just to complicate matters, the duplicate Luomi also contains copies of the invaders and defenders who inhabited the real city shortly before it fell, and is falling apart. If anyone or anything here kills Lone Wolf, or he falls into the void between the disintegrating chunks of the pseudo-city, he dies for real.

Engaging in-character mode, I start with the same choice as always: head for the ruined gatehouse and keep, where (Divination informs me) I will face an ambush, or follow the path to the left and risk falling into a booby trap that could do colossal amounts of damage. Time to find out who's lurking in the keep.

The ground on the way to the keep is so rough that I would lose 2 Endurance if not for having Huntmastery. Now, at the start of this adventure, using Divination was optional (just in case Lone Wolf felt like not receiving prior warning of hidden danger). I did use it even though I knew what it would reveal, because I couldn't remember if doing so opened up an otherwise inaccessible section number. It didn't: I just got sent back to the section with the first choice in. But as I step into the keep and the concealed horde of Drakkarim warriors attacks, the text indicates that if I hadn't used Divination, I'd be hit with a couple of penalties during the fight. It's almost as if the adventure is rewarding not taking unnecessary risks. That can't be right, can it?

One of the disadvantages I would have incurred by not using Divination would have been not getting to inflict any damage during the first round of the fight. That would have been quite annoying, as I strike a killing blow straight off. Evading this combat before now has indeed turned out to be rather less clever than I thought it was back when I did it.

The corpses of my erstwhile opponents dissipate into vapour, but my wounds remain. Except the Drakkarim didn't actually manage to lay a blade on me, so I guess the injuries they failed to inflict continue to not be there. Whatever. A shattered door leads onwards, and I glimpse something moving beyond it, but there's also a still-intact flight of stairs leading up to another floor. I smell smoke from upstairs, but Nexus should protect me from any toxic effects, and I don't want to risk missing the potentially useful whatchamacallit, so I head up rather than onwards.

That smell of smoke was something of a red herring. Upstairs I find only structural damage, corpses, and a semi-sapient siege weapon that leaps to the attack. It's a more powerful opponent than the Drakkarim, and manages to inflict a whole point of damage on me before I reduce it to its constituent parts.

Descending a ramp to a courtyard (and regaining that lost Endurance point), I reach the first gap between parts of the city. As happened when I first encountered such a gap on the other route, I am asked if I possess a certain item I lack. However, on this occasion, not having it causes me to become discouraged and incur a minor Combat Strength penalty until I next win a fight. Unless I flee the next foe I encounter, in which case I'm stuck with depleted stats until the end of the adventure. What the...?

Despite my discouragement, I sense that I can use the power of the Lorestone to get across the gap, assuming I have sufficient willpower, which is determined by a random number with a modifier for having the right Lore-Circle. I score highly enough not to need the bonus, and a bridge of light appears between here and the next part of the city. Aware that the bridge won't last long, I stop dilly-dallying and cross it.

It leads me to the Gate Ward, the part of Luomi where the bulk of their military forces were based. While there are signs of fighting, this part of the city is in better condition than the one in which I originally arrived. This is also where the path I'm taking rejoins the one I took before. I can go towards the sound of fighting or away from it, and while I don't think 'not approaching' is the same as 'running away from', I shall proceed to where the battle rages and hope to get shot of that Combat Skill penalty.

A couple of Luomi soldiers are massively outnumbered by a squad of Giaks, and one of them falls before I can intervene. I thin the enemy ranks with a few arrows (it still doesn't count as fleeing) before entering the fray. Even with the penalty, I have the most favourable Combat Ratio possible, and it turns out that I needn't have bothered with the arrows, as the fight wouldn't have lasted any longer if I'd taken the Giaks on at full strength. It would have ended a little sooner if I'd used all my arrows, but that would have been a waste (assuming there are any subsequent incidents where being able to fire an arrow could come in handy), as what little damage I take during the battle has already been healed by the time I've finished probing the dying soldier's mind to find out what needs doing with the hammer he passes on to me.

I get moving again, passing the aftermath of more battles, and here Nexus does protect me from some toxic fumes. Before long I reach another gap, and have to spend some Endurance to bridge this one. As on both previous tries, I have an assortment of items and capabilities that reduce the cost to just a couple of points, and I still haven't found the other object that could help even more.

Now my path diverges from the one I have taken before. My second bridge has taken me to what was a high-class region of the city (though careless apostrophe placement implies that Luomi's nobility consisted of just one individual). The buildings here are less damaged than elsewhere, but the inhabitants are just as dead. At my feet is the corpse of a woman who was well-off in life, and I see no indication of precisely what caused her death.

Moving on is probably the wiser option, but I have Psi-Screen, which should provide some protection from any mind-weapons in the vicinity, so I take a closer look at the cadaver. This reveals only that, despite having a severely sprained ankle, she was running when she died. Something must have really scared her. I could try using Divination to find out more, but this might be one of those rare occasions when it actually is better not to know.

Moving on, I do my best to keep out of sight even though the place seems deserted. At least, it does until I catch sight of a group of spectral figures. They appear to be the ghosts of Luomi nobles, and while they have yet to spot me, they are heading in my direction. Hiding in a house and doubling back both strike me as being ways I could let the disintegration of this chunk of the city catch up to me, so I'll try sneaking down an alley to the central courtyard.

The courtyard turns out to be where the majority of the dead are. Corpses from both sides litter the ground, and my attention is drawn to a misshapen body wearing a metal mask and clutching a metal rod which, judging by the state of the bodies nearby, must be a powerful weapon. I risk taking a closer look, in case the rod could be of use to me... or there's some way I can ensure that nobody gets the opportunity to use it against me.

Oh dear. The creature is wounded, not dead, and it causes the rod to emit a bolt of fire which I fail to completely dodge. Owing to the severity of the thing's injuries, I can flee before it summons up the strength to attack again, and I've already passed beyond the point where I would be penalised for running away, so it might be best to cut my losses. I know that further expenditure of Endurance will be necessary to create a bridge to the final section of the city, and if I get too badly fried fighting the wielder of the rod, I might end up with too little to be able to proceed.

I beat a hasty retreat, and hurry along the main street, occasionally popping out of sight of a wandering spirit. Seeing the death that has been wrought here leads me to the conclusion that the Darklords are bad people and must be fought - just in case my having opposed them and their followers for a good 80% of the series to date had somehow failed to make me aware of this.

My route takes me through a park, and the sight of a fountain makes me feel thirsty. In the hope that the unreal water in this unreal city will still be able to quench my thirst, I detour towards the fountain, but the sight of a few corpses in the water dissuades me from drinking.

The centrepiece of the fountain is a statue of a warrior. Something moves at the foot of the statue. A transparent creature, almost impossible to make out. It projects a fear-based psychic attack at me. I think I know what happened to the dead woman I found earlier. Psi-Screen prevents me from taking damage, and as I advance on the beast, it becomes visible. If Hammer films had ever made a movie in which Frankenstein created a big cat, the monster would have looked like this. The text states the feline construct to be undead, so the Sommerswerd should do double damage in the ensuing battle. Assuming that to be so, I quickly kill the Terrorgaunt, taking little damage in the process.

Leaving the park, I find myself at the next gap. The ground is already starting to crumble beneath my feet. To create another bridge, I must spend Endurance and add a random number, with a small bonus for having one of the Lore-Circles that I do have. Not wanting to make the mistake I did the last time I got this far, I spend enough Endurance to guarantee success even if the random number is 0. On this occasion I can afford it: even after the expenditure, I'm still above half my starting score. As it turns out, I got a 3, so that was slightly wasteful, but if I'd spent no Endurance, I'd be lost in the void again. As long as my Endurance doesn't get reduced to between zero and minus two before I next get to recover Endurance other than combat damage, it's an overpayment I can write off.

Did I mention that I'm training as an accountant?

So I create another bridge and set out across it. It starts to fade almost immediately, so I do a comedic run across it, climaxing with an awkward leap and faceplant on solid ground just as the bridge winks out of existence. A weird place for a slapstick interlude, but preferable to the 'funny foreigner' stuff in book 11.

Anyway, I've made it as far as the Trade Ward, where the Shrine containing the Lorestone is. Less positively, it's also where the bulk of the occupying army has made camp. Right in the marketplace that's on the direct route from here to the Shrine. And enemy troopers patrol the outer streets. So I either try skirting the marketplace and risk being mobbed by hundreds of Drakkarim if I get noticed, or take a more circuitous route but increase the likelihood of running into a patrol. If I'd travelled here via the route I took on my previous try, I could also return to the subterranean tunnels, but this time round I don't know about them, so they're not an option.

I have the Discipline of Invisibility, and at my level of expertise, I can mask my scent, move without making any noise, and make people think there's movement somewhere I'm not. If that's not enough to enable me to sneak around the outskirts of the marketplace, I don't know what is, and the longer route increases the risk of running out of time before the whole place dissolves. Skirting it is, then.

At first I travel on the rooftops (because that never ends badly), but I soon descend to ground level and make good use of the cover provided by shadows. There's just one place on the way to the Shrine where I risk running into a patrol, and randomness determines what happens when I cross it. Invisibility confers a hefty bonus, but there's still only a 70% chance of getting the most favourable outcome. I beat the target score even before adding the Invisibility modifier.

Nobody spots me, and I reach the hill on which the Shrine stands. However, something has melted the gate at the foot of the path leading up the hill, and there's just a void where the path should be. Somehow the only Lore-Circle I haven't completed could be of help here. Since I don't have it, I'll have to rely on Nexus. This turns out to mean believing so hard in my own invulnerability that not even the nothingness can harm me - and it works. Pity I didn't think of that when the void swallowed me up on previous playthroughs, eh?

Anyway, my self-belief sustains me all the way to the Shrine, but before I can claim the Lorestone, an end boss manifests itself. It's like an amalgam of all the most Darklordy aspects of the entire Darklord race, the embodiment of the dark power of the evil god they serve. And stat-wise, it wouldn't make it into the top 5 most dangerous opponents in the Magnakai saga. Even the Mongoose variants, some of whom have been made less OTT. Not a pushover, but still, as avatars of ultimate evil go, this is a bit feeble.

It's even less impressive when I pull out the Sommerswerd and atomise its weapon. It retaliates by knocking the sword out of my hand (losing an arm in the process), and as the maimed monstrosity lunges at me, I pull out that hammer. Turns out the Combat Skill bonus for using it in the Trade Ward isn't so underwhelming after all.

At the start of the last four Lone Wolf books, I always got to add a new weapon proficiency. Did I ever go for hammer? No. If I had done, I'd have killed the Darkshadow in the first round of combat, and taken no damage. But I just had to go for mace, then axe, followed by spear, and finally quarterstaff. And it cost me.

I didn't manage to defeat the Darkshadow.

Until the second round of combat. In which I also remained unscathed.

In your FACE, embodiment of evil!

Victory is mine, at last. I take the Lorestone just before the whole place turns to nothing, complete the 'end of book 10' level-up, and resume my plunge through the emptiness between realities.

Oh, grawlix! That means I've got no excuse to go on putting off replaying The Prisoners of Time any longer.