Wednesday, 16 August 2017

Some Strange Scent of Death

When Wizard Books announced that their next previously unpublished Fighting Fantasy release would be Jonathan Green's Bloodbones, probably the best-known of the books that were in the pipeline at the time the Puffin range came to an end, fan response was mixed. In some quarters, the excitement of finally getting to see the long-lost book was overshadowed by memories of the extreme difficulty of Mr. Green's previous FF books, not to mention the disappointment that the Eye of the Dragon remix had been. And one particularly obnoxious fan was most displeased because he'd been writing his own (abysmal) gamebook called Bloodbones, and considered the title to be his property (never mind that the writer 'taking' the title was the man who'd come up with it in the first place). I endeavoured to keep an open mind about the book (and was highly amused at the outrage of that fan).

The book was slow in getting to Hull, so I'd already read a bit of feedback on it by the time copies finally appeared on the shelves of Brown's, and was expecting a pirate-themed gamebook much like Jonathan Green's previous FF books - a plot involving a returning evil, a pretty narrow 'true path', enough tough fights to doom any character who started with a Skill under 11, a hostile encounter in the very first section... An adventure I'd need to replay a lot before I could even start to figure out everything required for successful completion. Which is pretty much what I got.

My first attempt at the book ended when I discovered one of the ways to get knocked out and come round just in time to be sacrificed. My most successful attempt only got as far as a fight with a monstrous arachnid on a tropical island, and I wouldn't be surprised if that fight's not even half way through the book.

I t's around ten years since my character's father and brothers were killed in a pirate raid on my home village, an incident that was probably also to blame for the illness that subsequently killed my mother. At the time, I vowed to have my revenge on the captain of those pirates, a voodoo cultist named Cinnabar and nicknamed Bloodbones. Since then I've been working and travelling on ships, learning about Cinnabar and his crew, the Pirates of the Black Skull, and honing my skills to the point where I feel ready to track him down and make him pay for the death of my family.

Allocating dice to at least marginally reduce the likelihood of my dying before I can make any progress, I find that I have
Skill: 12
Stamina: 14
Luck: 8
That's not good. Maybe I'll wind up finding a new path to the first ending I reached.

Anyway, my travels have brought me to the insalubrious Port of Crabs. Rumour has it that the Pirates of the Black Skull have a secret base not far from here. I enter a tavern in the hope of finding a lead in my search for Cinnabar, but then the landlord points out one significant flaw in my plan: a bounty hunter by the name of Conyn killed him half a year ago. The body was lost at sea, and Cinnabar's second-in-command took his ship, the Virago, and sailed away to try and retrieve his remains.

As I'm heading out of the tavern, an elderly patron, somewhat the worse for drink, mutters about Cinnabar's death only being a temporary thing, and arranges a clandestine meeting with me. At the time specified, I head into an alley by the tavern, and find the old man badly beaten and semi-conscious, with three pirates standing over him. Their leader, who appears to be a Half-Ogre, makes a rubbish joke, and the other two advance on me. I stand my ground, taking just one wound in the course of defeating them. The Half-Ogre then attacks, and a lucky blow in the first round knocks me down, subjecting me to an Attack Strength penalty. The tide of battle turns in my favour after that, and I kill him without difficulty.

The old man is, of course, dying, but before expiring he manages to tell me that one of Cinnabar's crew recovered their captain's body, that he's currently neither rightly dead nor rightly alive, and they're planning to bring him back completely with black magic. Resolving to thwart their schemes, I start searching for clues to the whereabouts of the pirates' base.

As I recall, a lead may be found at the Gambling Pits. And also a chance to make some money and thus be able to buy more during the inevitable shopping excursion. The Pits are in the worst part of town, their doors guarded by two Trolls who warn me that fighting is prohibited. Three games in particular catch my eye, and I start by having a go on the Arrow of Providence. The outcome is completely random, with the odds not in my favour, and I lose my stake. Still, Luck is with me as I leave the table: the noise of the crowd does not drown out the words of a nautical rogue as he tells a fellow rapscallion that the Virago sets sail for Bone Island at midnight.

I proceed to Calabrius' Calculator, a machine that produces numerical sequences, with a cash prize for anyone who can figure out what comes next in the sequence. When I pay to have a go, the sequence displayed is very straightforward (and would be a whole lot more so in base 8), so I make a tidy profit there.

As I recall, the last game available is a con, and the Troll bouncers are quick to intervene if anyone attempts to remonstrate with the fraudster running it, so I give it a miss and head for the exit. While I'm pushing my way through the crowds, an old woman slips a sealed envelope into my hand. Checking the contents once I'm outside, I find a key and a message inviting me to meet 'A Friend' at the Silent Donkey inn if I want to defeat the Pirates of the Black Skull. I decide against heading to this rendezvous, as I know from a past failure that it's been arranged by some of Cinnabar's cronies who consider me a donkey in need of silencing.

Now I think it's time to head to the market. I'll start with the Bazaar, where the more outlandish goods are sold, because there's at least one essential item to be found there, and I'd rather make sure I can afford that before I start stocking up on Provisions and other less Instant Death-averting oddments. At a Talismonger's stall I buy a bracelet of shark's teeth, a lock of Elvin's hair that will improve my chances of successfully Testing my Luck, and a purportedly magical compass that I was too smart to be taken in by on every previous attempt at the book. Regrettably, I had to buy it to learn of its supposed properties, and now I know that it allegedly shows the way to large quantities of gold, I wouldn't much care for it even if I believed that it worked (which it most likely doesn't, given that the Talismonger was selling it rather than using it to track down unclaimed hoards).

Proceeding to the more conventional markets, I buy some Provisions and a rope. As I'm leaving, I catch sight of a man with one eye, a wooden leg, and clothing of the sort traditionally associated with buccaneers. He has a pet monkey (with a costume much like his own) rather than a parrot, but apart from that he's got 'Pirate' written all over him. Possibly literally, if his tattoos are not that imaginative. He indicates for me to follow him into an alley, and as my first failure at the book was a consequence of allowing him to lure me into a trap, I hurry away. Which may not have been the wisest course of action, as I have to note down a codeword. I think previously (except for that first time) I approached him but didn't let him distract me from the thugs sneaking up on me, which meant a fight and my getting to ensure that he wouldn't get to report back to the other Pirates of the Black Skull.

I spent too much. As I'm making my departure, I catch sight of a cartographer's store, and pop in to see if I can find out anything about Bone Island, but I don't have enough money to jog the proprietor's memory. Which almost certainly guarantees failure, but also ensures that I won't make that mistake again.

Is it time to stop searching for information? I'm pretty sure that two of the remaining investigatorial avenues open to me are just trouble and wasted time (I am having to keep track of the hours as they pass), and I'm not sure that the other one leads to anything essential. But maybe I should check. If I'm already doomed for want of information, I can't make things that much worse for myself even if the Temple Quarter is nothing but a wild goose chase.

Looks like it is a waste of time. After queuing for a while, I am told that the Overpriest is too busy to see me, though I am welcome to make a donation. I'm tempted to give the obstructive cleric a piece of my mind, but I don't want to get into a fight with the armed and armoured priests guarding the inner sanctum.

The street outside is crowded, and a few men in different religious outfits sit at the side of the road, offering the fruits of their wisdom in return for slightly more money than I have on me. I depart, a little surprised to have only wasted an hour here.

Now I will go looking for the pirates' base. Thanks to the time I've spent snooping around, night has fallen, which will give me some cover. My enemies likewise, of course... There's a codeword check, but not for the word I picked up when evading that pirate, so I have no idea what I'm missing out on here. Probably nothing good, given the codeword being asked about.

There's obviously a lead I missed somewhere, as I've never heard of one of the locations mentioned here, and don't have the concealed section number that would allow me to visit it. Well, I'll just have to give that place a miss. I decide to start with the ruined lighthouse to the south-east, and as I draw near to it, I catch sight of a flickering light close to the cliff edge beyond the ruin.

Investigating the light first, I discover a trio of miscreants using a lantern to lure a ship towards the rocks lining the coast along here. Taking advantage of these Wreckers' focus on their would-be victim, I draw my sword and attack before they're aware of my presence. They respond quickly once they know I'm there, but I only take one wound in the course of the fight. With the lantern extinguished, the ship changes course in the nick of time.

Searching the dead, I find some money and a Skeleton Key. I also catch sight of a cave mouth at the foot of the cliff, and climb down to investigate. My high Skill ensures a safe descent, and I see that a narrow ledge leads into the cave. Having come this far, I'm not about to turn back, and enter. The waters below the ledge churn, and two tentacles emerge and make for me. I hack them apart with ease, and their owner, a Giant Octopus, emerges from the water to attack me. It fares no better than the preliminary tentacle assault, and I'm soon able to search the cave undisturbed. No Pirates' lair here, though.

Climbing back up the cliff, I now turn my attention to the lighthouse. The door is locked, but the Skeleton Key opens it. Inside I find the Wreckers' den, which contains crude furniture, some food, and the remains of a letter that somebody did a substandard job of burning. Only a few lines of text are legible, but they happen to be the very part of the letter that the recipient was supposed to destroy, revealing the password to... somewhere.

There's also a trapdoor in the floor, but I don't open it. Which is bad news for the cat that one of the Wreckers imprisoned beneath it, but keeps me from further Stamina loss.

Convinced that the Pirates of the Black Skull do not have their base here, I head back to the Port of Crabs to choose somewhere else to search. But it's been a week since I last posted anything, so I'll save further investigation for a subsequent post. There should be less of a wait for that one, as I'm not expecting to get a whole lot further before my failure to obtain information from the cartographer brings the adventure to an end. Nevertheless, I shall play through to the inevitable failure. Starting tomorrow.

Wednesday, 9 August 2017

And Now You Would Never Know

Continuing my second attempt at the tenth Lone Wolf book, The Dungeons of Torgar, which commenced here, I prepare to meet Sebb Jarel, the partisan leader who should be able to show me a comparatively safe route to the fortress which holds the Lorestones I need in order to complete my ascension to the rank of Kai Grand Master. Stepping through the curtained arch, I enter a chamber in which five men sit eating and drinking around a fire. I ask for Jarel, and a mousy-looking individual introduces himself and asks how he can help. Now, while it is possible that such an unimpressive-looking person might still have what it takes to lead a band like this, Divination is telling me that mouse-face is lying. Moreover, it informs me that none of the other men around the fire is Jarel either. Furious at the deception, I spit into the fire and storm out of the cave.

Yes, Lone Wolf veterans, I know the consequences of that action.

My rapid departure takes the guards by surprise, and by the time they've gathered their wits sufficiently to raise the alarm, I'm already stealing a horse. A partisan horseman tries to block my way, but with one blow I unhorse him (and possibly also bisect him). Regrettably, I haven't got far before my horse catches a leg in a pothole, and while I am uninjured, my steed is crippled, forcing me to hurry into the forest on foot before the pursuing partisans can catch up.

I lose them without difficulty and resignedly conclude that I'll have to find my own way to Torgar. A sense of being watched by something hostile prompts me to keep moving, and Huntmastery enables me to find something suitable for breakfast as I make my way through the forest. At around dawn I approach a clearing that turns out to be occupied by a large black bear, and then the pack of Akataz of which Halgar warned me catches my scent and attacks. They're some kind of dog, in case anyone was wondering. If I had Animal Control, I could probably get the bear to join the fight on my side, but I don't, and I take a bit of a savaging before I'm able to draw a weapon. The Akataz are particularly susceptible to psychic attacks, so I'm able to get onto the best column of the Combat Results Table with just Mindblast. Even so, I don't fare as well random number-wise as I did against the partisan, and take almost as much damage again before disbanding the pack with extreme prejudice.

Moving on, I soon discover that those Akataz were just part of a larger pack, and the rest have now found my trail. If I had Pathsmanship, I wouldn't even leave a trail, but I didn't pick that Discipline at the start of the adventure, and now I'm going to pay for that choice. The first of the rest of the Akataz to reach me hurls itself in my direction, but I duck, and make a swift getaway before it can extricate itself from the undergrowth.

I maintain a good pace until I reach the place where a steep gorge cuts through the forest. The gorge is over a hundred feet deep, and has a turbulent-looking river at the bottom. Do I dive, or fight the approaching Akataz? Better to fight, I think. Good choice, as I win the fight without taking a scratch then find a trail which leads down to the water's edge. If I had Curing, I would know something about the type of bush that grows by the river, and probably be able to derive a medicinal benefit from them, but instead that makes a hat trick of checks on Disciplines I lack.

Partially submerged boulders provide stepping stones across the river, and I notice with some apprehension that the trees on the other side are shrouded in grey mist in spite of the warm, dry weather. Nevertheless, I cross over, feeling a chill as soon as I step onto the far bank, and realise that I have reached the notorious Isle of Ghosts. Only one man is on record as having been to it and returned still sane: the elusive Sebb Jarel. It's time to see if I can double that number.

A trail leads through the trees, and I follow it to the edge of a narrow chasm. The chasm floor is littered with bones, and caves in its walls give off a damp and unpleasant odour. I decide to risk attempting a leap across. A tangle of roots and trees on the far side could make achieving a good landing that bit trickier, but they're also something I could potentially snag with my Rope, so I tie a stick to the end for a crude grappling hook, make a few throws before it catches securely, and then jump.

Randomness determines what happens next, with 50/50 odds of each outcome. I get a high number (just), and am a little surprised to find that I make it across without any bother: as I recall, random number checks with no modifier tend to put the more favourable outcome with the lower scores (unless 0 is on its own, in which case that's probably an Instant Death).

Continuing on my way, I find traces of an ancient pavement, much of it buried under accumulated soil, and follow the path, occasionally passing the moss-covered remnants of dwellings dating back to a time before the trees claimed the island. In the afternoon I reach a clearing, in which stands an overgrown, mould-encrusted ziggurat. I might have mistaken it for a hill, but for the regular shape. And the fact that someone has been here recently, and hacked a path through the vegetation to reveal a pair of huge doors made of crystal. Divination picks up on an atmosphere of evil, and alerts me to the presence of other people close by. Sensing that they are up to no good, I use the undergrowth for cover as I circumvent the clearing.

Around the other side of the ziggurat, a dozen horses have been tethered to an obelisk, and two soldiers stand guard. Their uniforms and the horses' blankets bear an emblem of a gold portcullis on a black background. These men come from the region through which I travelled while seeking the first Lorestone, and I identify them as mercenaries from Amory, a town I was careful not to visit back in book 6. One of them starts to head in my direction, and while I can tell that he's just answering the call of nature, I nevertheless think it prudent to move away.

Rather less prudently, I return to the front of the ziggurat to investigate the entrance. Pausing to note the holes where explosives were used to get rid of centuries-old locks, I step into a chamber with many exits. A faint green glow and the sound of chanting emanate from one opening, so I check it out, descending a long staircase to a door, behind which I see something so alarming that I have to turn to a different section to find out what ominous sight confronts me.

Frankly, after that build-up, it's a bit of an anticlimax to learn that this chilling sight is just a temple, greenly lit by crystal columns, and a group of hooded men in glass masks standing around a marble block, chanting. Still, any long-standing readers who didn't pick up on the clues provided by the guards may get a bit of a thrill from the moment the men's leader removes his mask, revealing himself to be Roark, the murderous bully last seen fleeing when he proved unable to control the undead horde he'd raised to attack me.

As I watch, he calls out to the 'Lord of Pain' for guidance in these uncertain times and the destruction of his enemies, along the way mentioning his own name for the benefit of any readers who didn't play The Kingdoms of Terror. A mist forms around the marble block, seething with apparitions, and Roark's ritual climaxes with an incantation almost identical to the one he used to summon the undead.

Divination provides a pretext for a hefty info-dump about the history of this place. It was created by the Elder Magi to help them learn about nature, but the laboratory's custodians, the Patar, allowed the evil Cener druids to come in. The Druids summoned a Demonlord, who used the findings of the research carried out here to create the plague mentioned in the intro to book 8. The Cenerese and the Patar briefly rose to power in the region, but were overthrown by the vague-sounding Herbalish, and to atone for their misdeeds, the remaining Patar turned into the benevolent silent order of monks known as the Redeemers, with whom I've had dealings.

Meanwhile, back at the plot, a bunch of modern-day Cener druids, led by Roark, are here to summon the Demonlord Tagazin again. And I've been too busy experiencing exposition to intervene while it could make a difference. Oops. The mist coalesces into the form of a pale sabre-toothed jackal, who demands to know why he's been summoned, and then senses me. Oopser.

My Psi-Screen minimises the harm done by the psychic attack Tagazin sends my way, but then the Demonlord leaps down from the block and heads straight for me. I see no point in wasting an arrow on an enemy this powerful, and, since the book will force me to attack him with the Sommerswerd rather than seek a smarter means of dealing with him, gulp down some of those Alether berries in the moments before he smashes down the door and demands my surrender.

This fight is why Lone Wolf fans in the know tend not to flounce off when confronted with the fake Jarel: Tagazin's stats are higher than those of the Drakkar who ended my previous attempt at this book. On the plus side, I don't have to reduce his Endurance to zero in this fight, and I'm going into battle without having just lost almost a third of my Endurance to an equine crushing. And this is one fight where it's almost certainly better to use Psi-surge. Mindblast won't work here, and on most rows of the Combat Results Table, the Endurance cost of using the Discipline is equal to the reduction in combat damage produced by the Combat Skill bonus. My chances of survival are still far from good, but with a lot of luck, I might just survive.

I do not get that luck. I almost halve Tagazin's Endurance before he kills me, but a couple of very poor random numbers early on in the fight pretty much guaranteed my failure. Well, next time I shall take the easy route through the book, but I don't regret having tried it the hard way just this once.

Friday, 4 August 2017

Attractive to the Eye and Soothing to the Smell

It's time for me to have another go at Lone Wolf book 10, The Dungeons of Torgar. Since my first attempt at the book for the blog, everything I still had in storage down in Tunbridge Wells has come up to Hull, including the issue of GM containing the mini-adventure based on the Battle of Cetza sequence in Dungeons, so I've decided to play that separately, and take the other route this time round.

A word of thanks to Gloccus for drawing my attention to quotations from the Lone Wolf Club Newsletter reproduced at Project Aon which indicate that, despite what the rules in the books imply, it is possible to put Backpack Items into storage and retrieve them while acquiring fresh equipment at the start of a later adventure. Thus, I am adding both remaining helpings of the Combat Skill-enhancing Alether I bought back in book 6 to my Backpack straight off. Into storage go the Altar Cloth and flask of booze that I picked up in book 9. I'll keep the Rope and Meal, add a healing potion and another Meal, and replace the arrows I used up last adventure. New Discipline and weapon proficiency are what I picked on my previous attempt. A quick reread of enough of section 1 to remind myself how to salute, just in case my cover gets challenged, and I'm ready to go.

When I state my intention to seek out partisan leader Sebb Jarel, probably the only man who might know of a path to Torgar between the Hellswamp and the Isle of Ghosts, Prince Graygor gives me a signet ring that will identify me as an ally. The ring is a Special Item, but doesn't count towards the limit on carrying capacity, so I'm not annoyed at having to take it the way I was with the mandatory pick-ups that forced me to drop other items in book 8.

I set off towards Pirsi, where Jarel may be found, and after a while I notice the ruins of a watchtower. Seeing a wisp of smoke, and a saddled horse grazing close by, I conclude that there's someone around, and opt to investigate. Inside the tower, a man with red leather clothing and a Bullwhip is cooking a bird over an open fire. He offers to share it with me, and I accept.

Upon seeing my uniform, her introduces himself as Halgar of Pirsi, and asks where I'm headed. Sensing that he's honest, I explain that I seek Jarel, and my new Discipline of Invisibility enables me to mimic the local accent sufficiently convincingly that Halgar doesn't see through my disguise and mistake me for an enemy assassin (as happened on my first proper attempt at the book). He reveals that Sebb is his brother, gives me directions to the partisans' camp, and warns me to be on my guard against the pack of Akataz roaming the forest.

No harm befalls me as I ride into the forest, and before long I reach the remains of a long-abandoned mining settlement. Two trails lead on from here, but Halgar said to take the one that follows the stream, so I follow his directions. This trail eventually leads me to the mouth of a gorge (rather oddly, the book says 'by chance', as if I'd been randomly wandering and just happened upon the place, rather than following a path that led there), which is filled with colourful and strong-smelling flowers. If I didn't have Nexus, the scent would go to my head in a manner that probably isn't beneficial.

As I continue on my way, the sound of falling shale alerts me to the presence of someone at the top of the gorge, hiding behind a couple of boulders. I'm about to make a hurried departure when a voice greets me from above, asking what news I bring. I insist on seeing who is addressing me, and the man comes out from behind the boulders, signalling to the twenty or so other men Not Being Seen in the vicinity to emerge from hiding as well. They're partisans, and several of them have their bows pointed at me.

I tell of the progress being made by the Prince's army, and the partisan spokesman replies that the Prince wouldn't send a Pathfinder just to report that, so I explain that I have been sent to seek Sebb Jarel's assistance. A few of the partisans are sent to join me in the gorge, and my not having killed Halgar and taken his bullwhip averts a potentially lethal misunderstanding. I show the signet ring, and the partisan sergeant agrees to take me to Jarel, but insists on blindfolding me so I won't be able to give enemies directions to the camp if captured and tortured.

After a couple of hours, the blindfold is removed, and I see that the partisans' camp is situated at the foot of a mountain. A concealed cave mouth leads to a torchlit passage, which ends at a curtained archway with two guards. Once my purpose has been explained, the guards allow me past to meet Jarel.

I'll leave it there for now, as it's been a week since I last posted, and I don't want people to start thinking that this blog's going inactive again. Things are liable to be busy for the next few days, but I'll see what time I can grab to carry on with the book, and hope to be able to post the continuation before long.

Friday, 28 July 2017

I Should Have Known Better But I Got What I Deserved

Earlier this month I mentioned a Knightmare reference a friend made in response to an illustration in an issue of Proteus, but I didn't quite tell the whole story. Back then I had to have the reference explained to me, because (for an assortment of uninteresting reasons) I almost never got to see the programme. Over the course of its run, the series had over 100 episodes, and I saw just two of them.

The fact that I never got into the TV series is one of the main reasons I didn't collect the related gamebook series back in the 1980s. I did have a look at the first one back when it was the only one, downstairs in Hatchard's bookshop (or possibly the other bookshop that occupied the same location at a different time), and discovered two other things which, at the time, constituted further strikes against the literary variant of Knightmare. Firstly, around 75% of the book was a novel, the gamebook taking up just the last 36 pages, and while I had nothing against novels (and owned and had read hundreds of the things by then), I found the hybrid nature of this book somehow off-putting. Secondly, the gamebook portion barely had a system. Stats-wise there was just the Life Force Status, and there was no need for dice or any other random element. To my teen self, that was a big deal, putting the book on a level with such 'lesser' gamebook series as Choose Your Own Adventure, Endless Quest and Zork. My teen self could be an idiot at times.

I might have reconsidered if Dave Morris' name had appeared on the cover rather than being hidden away on page 5, as I knew from Golden Dragon, Dragon Warriors and Blood Sword that he had good form. As it was, I didn't take any further interest in the series until more than a decade later, when I was getting back into gamebooks in a big way, scouring the shelves of charity shops for titles to restore or add to my collection. In the course of my searches I came across some of the later Knightmare books, which actually had the author's name on the spine, and decided not to be so picky this time round.

While I shall be focusing on the gamebook in this post, the novel deserves some attention too. It tells of how Treguard (the host of the TV series) reclaimed his ancestral home, stolen from his family by treacherous Normans and then taken over by a malign entity known as the Gruagach, along the way slaying a dragon, meeting the men who inspired the tales of Robin Hood, rescuing a jester (who, I gather, was a recurring character in the TV show) from a supernatural knight, and encountering a few of the threats and challenges faced by the show's contestants.

It's an entertaining tale, with some nice touches of verisimilitude (such as the difficulty of stringing a longbow at speed - which is quite a serious problem when a Dragon is manoeuvring to attack), and there are times when I find it hard to argue with Folly the jester's view that, "Life is a joke. It's just not a very good one." I found the very ending, which sort of leads into the TV series, to be the weakest aspect. The Gruagach used the castle to lure virtuous knights to their deaths and make the world a worse place, and Folly persuades Treguard to undo the harm done there by turning the castle into a place where the bravest and the best can prove themselves and take the place of the Gruagach's victims. Fine in theory, but as I understand it, the majority of teams participating in the show failed, so the redemptively repurposed castle still killed off far more heroes than it nurtured.

Anyway, time to see if the gamebook version adds to the fatalities or the victories. There's a short section outlining the rules, which mostly relate to Life Force Status, and a 10-point Adventurer's Code, providing handy hints about advisable courses of action. The 'if in doubt, go left' crowd aren't going to like this one...

I start by putting on the Helmet of Justice. In the TV show, this effectively blinded the wearer (to keep them from seeing their lack of surroundings, much of the environment being created via chroma key, and thus only visible on TV sets and monitor screens), but in the gamebook it has no such effect. I'm offered a choice of three levels of difficulty, which leaves me wondering whether the book contains multiple adventures or just one that can be entered at different points, so those who choose 'slightly difficult' get to skip the earlier encounters.

I feel I should go for 'difficult'. The Dungeon door leads to a chamber with one other exit, containing a Giant Scorpion. I try to dodge the Scorpion, in case there's something I might need in the chamber, but no, I should have just made a dash for the exit, and I get killed as a result of failing to do so. The Adventurer's Code had plenty to say about avoiding violence wherever possible, but nothing about prioritising flight over investigation. Oh well, at least I'll know about that next time.

Sunday, 23 July 2017

Back to Where You've Never Been

When Wizard Books announced that their range of Fighting Fantasy reissues was to include a new gamebook, I had mixed feelings. An actual addition to the series was a great idea in principle, but my enthusiasm was tempered by the fact that the new book would be a) written by Ian Livingstone, whose last several FF books had been less than stellar, and b) an expansion of the uninspired Eye of the Dragon. Some of the comments I made online at the time survived the destruction of the forum hosting them as a result of being quoted elsewhere: "The question is, will the basic plot be retained but the old adventure be rewritten and improved, or will the original version simply be cut-and-pasted into the middle of something new? I really hope it's not the latter. A lump of coal remains a lump of coal, no matter how ornate the setting into which you put it."

Around half a year later I took a trip to Penzance for a few days to research the locale for a novel I was writing. There, while browsing in the shops that sold books, I came across the expanded Eye for the first time, and took a quick look inside. The section to which I turned was new material, but failed to grab me, at least partly on account of a jarring Americanism. Thus, I replaced the book on the shelf, continued to browse around town, and wound up buying a second-hand copy of Cryptonomicon to keep me occupied on the long coach journey back home. The new FF book didn't get to Hull until a while after that, but eventually it showed up in Brown's Books, and at some point after that I bought a copy. As I recall, my first attempt at this version of the adventure ended when I tried on a cursed helmet and didn't have the item that could negate its lethal effects.

To give Ian Livingstone his due, he did make some changes to the pre-existing material above and beyond renumbering the sections and changing the stats to the FF standards. He didn't change enough, but the alterations are significantly more substantial than the little that was done to the Caverns of the Snow Witch teaser when that was incorporated into the full book.

The set-up is much the same as in the original, though some details have been altered. While I'm still a down-on-my-luck adventurer, I don't eke out my living with bear-wrestling, and the tavern in which I'm lodging is the Blue Pig rather than the Black Swan. It's also located in the town of Fang, but I'm there a month too early to take a chance on the current iteration of Deathtrap Dungeon. The man who tells me of the solid gold dragon now has a name, Henry Delacor, and I find him a bit shifty and untrustworthy. Though not until after drinking the poison he proffers. The forest beneath which the dungeon complex lies is now identified as Darkwood, the setting of The Forest of Doom, which seems to have a busier underground than London, what with the fungus farm and Gremlin tunnels of Forest, the Dark Elf city where Temple of Terror's villain grew up, and now this place.

Owing to a nasty unavoidable fight that killed one of my more successful characters in this book, I'm allocating dice, which means I get:
Skill 12
Stamina 19
Luck 11
I'm not sure why an adventurer of this calibre is so poor (nor how, when I was struggling to earn the coppers required for food and lodging at the start of the Background, I can equip myself with 10 gold pieces and the standard 10 Provisions before setting off to the forest).

The journey to the hut containing the entrance is a little quicker than the one in the first version, and takes me past several familiar locations, providing Ian with an opportunity to reveal that Firetop Mountain has regained its distinctive colouration in the time that has passed since Return. The hut is in the same condition as the one in Dicing, right down to the probably irrelevant axe head that can be found in the clutter. However, when I descend the stairs, the optimal direction in which to head is not the one that's preferable in the previous variant. This book is less harsh than most of Livingstone's on the 'choosing directions' front: while some routes are more challenging than others, it'll take more than just turning left rather than right (or vice versa) at a junction to guarantee failure.

My preferred direction takes me to a door that blocks the way ahead. It's jammed shut, but I manage to barge it open without difficulty. The room beyond has one other exit, and is empty apart from a mirror on the wall. Looking into the mirror causes me pain, and I find myself unable to look away, but a blow from my sword shatters the glass and dispels the effect. Evidently Allansia doesn't share one of this world's superstitions, as I take a piece of the mirror with me as a lucky charm.

Beyond the exit is a passageway leading to a room containing a pool with several coins in it. I ignore the pool and head straight for the far door, which opens onto another passageway. The next door I see is set into a side wall rather than ahead of me, and has a window set into it, enabling me to see that the room beyond is occupied by a woman, who's facing away from me. I enter, try to get her attention, and realise that I should have been paying more attention, as I somehow failed to notice that her hair is a mass of snakes. Yes, it's another Medusa, but I have no trouble avoiding her lethal gaze, and that shard of mirrored glass gets her to reflect on the drawbacks of a petrifying stare. Searching the room, I find a silver necklace with a snake's skull on it, which I try on, and see a vision of two animated skeletons with swords. The vision fades before I can find out if they're Titan's equivalent of Trinny and Susannah, about to remonstrate with me for this questionable fashion choice.

Returning to the passageway, I walk on until I draw level with another door. This opens onto a small room containing only a single playing card: the Queen of Spades, who has an oddly wide grin. I pick the card up, and it jumps out of my hand. A flash of light dazzles me, and in place of the card I find an old woman dressed as the Queen of Spades, who gives me some money for my trouble and leaves the room. Somewhat puzzled as to the point of this incident, I resume my exploration.

A scratching sound comes from behind the next door. This does not discourage me from going through, and nor does the sight of the three Giant Rats scavenging in the trashed kitchen beyond. They're no match for me in a fight, and a search of the kitchen turns up only a bottle of unidentified liquid, which I sample. A sip heals the damage done by the mirror, and I put the unfinished bottle into my backpack, wondering how much Stamina the remaining liquid will heal, as the text gives no hint.

Continuing along the corridor, I see a 'formidable-looking iron door'. I doubt that it's as dangerous as some doors I could think of, so I open it, and... get attacked by a Goblin with two daggers. That's quite an anticlimax. I kill the Goblin with a lot less effort than the book suggests, and help myself to its chain-mail coat, which provides a Skill bonus that is of no use to me. Yet.

The next door blocks my way, and an iron gate drops down behind me to ensure that I go through. The room beyond is empty, but on its marble floor is a silver circle around a pair of golden footprints, and a sign on the wall requests that I stand on the footprints. Thunder rumbles in the room, and I hear evil laughter, so I wait to find out who or what is coming my way. The laughter becomes louder and causes me to become disorientated, the door slams shut, and I crawl to the footprints and stand on them. My surroundings start to spin, and I lose consciousness.

I regain consciousness in a small room with featureless walls, illuminated by a green-glowing crystal, and with reduced Skill and Stamina. Now I'm below my Initial score, I see no good reason not to take advantage of the bonus provided by that chain-mail. Rummaging around in the dirt on the floor, I find a bolt holding closed a trapdoor. Now I know there's an exit, I continue to search the room, finding a pouch that contains a gold bracelet and a gold nugget. I pocket the latter and put on the former, which turns out to be cursed, doing further Skill and Stamina damage. It won't come off, either.

The trapdoor leads into a disused torture chamber, its contents including an iron chest. Inside the chest are some money, a silver box (so far, so just like the iron chest in the disused torture chamber in the previous version) and a dagger with a crystal blade, all of which I take.

The text doesn't take into account the possibility that I might not have entered the torture chamber by the door in the wall, and automatically sends me in the direction I'd have been heading if I'd come the way I did when playing the Dicing variant. This leads to the bridge over the pit, and as my recent misadventures have left me in a state where I would benefit from a Skill bonus, I risk climbing down and confronting the Ghoul. This one has the ability to cause paralysis if it hits me often enough, and cannot be repelled with a cross (not that I have one with me this time round). Thanks to my diminished Skill, I take a couple of blows, but not enough to doom me. And in this version of the adventure, the shield doesn't provide a bonus. Great.

Beyond the pit is a junction, and I think I'm going to go the direction I didn't in Dicing. The passage turns a corner and passes a door, from behind which I hear a woman chanting a rhyme. I go through, and see a hideous crone stirring a cauldron. Not wishing to judge by appearances, I greet her, and two Vampire Bats attack me. Killing them is easy, but displeases the old woman, who opens a trapdoor and sets a horde of rats onto me. This reveals that cursed bracelet to possess some beneficial properties, as it repels the rats, which scurry back through the trapdoor.

Enraged, the Witch transforms her forearms into snakes and attacks me. She gets two attacks to my one, and the rules are annoyingly uninformative regarding what happens in the second round of combat: my Attack Roll is higher than her first, but lower than her second. So do we wound each other, or does her successful second attack negate mine? The next round makes the question irrelevant, as both of her attacks succeed, sending me off to a new instance of authorial sloppiness. Getting bitten a third time means that the snakes' venom starts to affect me, and I have to swig down the rest of that healing potion to save my life. And the witch apparently just stands back and watches as I rummage through my backpack for the bottle, uncork it, and gulp down its contents. The text says 'If you are bitten three times,' not 'If you win, but were bitten three or more times in the course of the fight,' and the section describing the outcome for anyone thrice-bitten who doesn't have the potion states that the Witch laughs as she watches the doomed adventurer's death throes, so she's definitely still alive while I heal myself. She just inexplicably does nothing about it, and continues to stand idly by as I take up my sword again and stab her with it.

She vanishes in a puff of smoke, yelling, "You missed!" When the smoke clears, I see a mouse on the floor (but not a ghost). It disappears into a hole in the wall, and the Witch's cauldron starts to boil over. Her image forms in the steam, laughing inaudibly at me, and reaches out a hand, on which is an eye-shaped emerald. This has to be a trap, but I reach out for the gem anyway. It's just an illusion, and while I'm grasping at nothing, the cauldron explodes, but I only take minor damage from shrapnel.

The Witch's image speaks to me, telling me that her name is Vigdis, claiming to be the most beautiful woman in the world, and asking for my opinion of her appearance. I tell her that even the Ghoul I fought down in the pit was better looking, and she thanks me for the compliment, telling me I can go, and take the wooden box on the corner shelf as a reward. The box contains garlic, money, a tooth and a bronze key with a number on it.

Further along the corridor I reach not a door but a cave entrance. The cave contains a sleeping Ogre, with a leather bag hanging on the chair in which the Ogre is slumped. I sneak in to take the bag, and though I carelessly step on a rat's skull, which cracks underfoot, Luck is with me, and the Ogre does not wake. The bag contains a dagger and a gold ring, which I put on my left thumb for reasons that may make sense to Ian Livingstone.

The corridor ends in a door, behind which is a poorly-illuminated room. Something sparkles on a shelf, so I check out the shiny. It's a crystal pendant on a chain, which I risk putting on. It feels warm and gives off a green glow, ad I have the option of removing it. If it were dangerous, I probably wouldn't be getting a chance to reconsider, so I leave it on, and it provides a Luck bonus and somehow communicates to me the fact that it will light up if somebody lies to me.

I leave the room, and the floor gives way beneath me, dropping me into a chute. I slide into another pit, this one containing a Giant Spider, which attacks me. I kill it and search the pit, finding a glass ball, a broken dagger, a numbered iron key, a stick sharpened at both ends, and a pouch containing a flower with a scent that restores a little Skill and Stamina. I climb out of the pit and, as with the torture chamber, the text has me 'return' to a corridor in which I've not been before.

I trudge on to the next door, which opens onto a room containing a stone table with two breastplates on it. No doubt one of them is beneficial, the other harmful: the exact same gimmick Livingstone used with helmets in The Warlock of Firetop Mountain, shields in City of Thieves (though at least in that instance a little logic could be used to figure out which was the safe one to take), suits of armour in Crypt of the Sorcerer... I'm still not back to peak performance, so I try one of them on, and it's the cursed one, leaving me even worse off. Stupid arbitrary choices.

Back to the corridor and along to the next door, from behind which come female cries for help. I go through into an ornately furnished room, with an incongruous iron cage containing a young woman. I go across to the cage, and find it to be unlocked. The woman shows her Vampire fangs and lunges at me. The garlic I acquired from Vigdis repels the Vampire for a moment, and... No, this time round I don't have a silver dagger. I have a wooden stick, sharpened at both ends, which should make an adequate stake, but there's no option to use that. Why provide the pointed stick if it can't be used against a Vampire? Unless there's an encounter I have yet to reach in which I'm attacked by someone armed with fresh fruit.

Anyway, I fight the Vampire, using a less-than-ideal weapon because I'm not allowed to use the one that would actually be effective here, and the Vampire kills me. Right now I'm actually okay with that, as it means I won't have to spend any more time with this dreadful book for a long, long while.

Wednesday, 19 July 2017

It's a Big Rock. I Can't Wait to Tell My Friends. They Don't Have a Rock This Big.

I recently got an alert from eBay regarding one of my saved searches. At first glance it appeared to be a false positive, as the Tunnels & Trolls Adventurers Compendium (sic.) was rather obviously not an issue of Sorcerer's Apprentice. However, on closer inspection, it turned out to be better, as the Compendium contains almost all of the mini-adventures featured in the magazine. And fixes at least some of the errors that crept into the original releases. So I got myself a copy of the Compendium, and now there's only one SA mini-adventure I still lack. I wonder why Wild Ride wasn't included.

The sections of the mini-adventures have been renumbered. This makes sense: back when they appeared in SA, in little blocks of however many sections could be fitted into the available gaps around the magazine, numbers like 38B (for the second section on page 38) were more useful than the straightforward linear progression found in most gamebooks, but now that the text is no longer all over the place, having the numbering jump straight from, say 21C to 28A is not that helpful.

I'm not entirely happy with Flying Buffalo's decision to mix all the adventures together, though I can see some sense to it: having the same section number appear 10 times in the same volume could easily lead to confusion, and there's a sense in which the risk of inadvertently glimpsing a spoiler is diminished by having each adventure's sections spread across 50 pages rather than just 5. The downside for me is that it adds complications to the process of entering the adventures into my gamebook manager. First World problems, I know.

The first Sorcerer's Apprentice mini-adventure was Michael Stackpole's Kingmaker, which appeared in issue 1. It appears suitable for the character who survived Hot Pursuit, both in terms of character design requirements and as regards narrative logic. Okay, so in view of my having failed to capture any of the Ranger spies, I can think of reasons other than just boredom for wanting to be somewhere other than the city of Gull. Nevertheless, it's appropriate that this adventure should start with my leaving the location of the same character's previous one.

After a few miles, I am ambushed and robbed of everything by a group of painted barbarians. They don't kill me in case I turn out to be the reincarnation of a former king of their tribe. Well, they don't kill me on the spot. Instead, they take me to a cave to endure a series of trials to prove my worthiness to rule them, which will probably kill me if I don't succeed. For every trial I do complete successfully, I will get a wooden token, which makes this seem like a cheap, potentially lethal solitaire version of The Crystal Maze.

Just inside the cave is a massive stone, with handholds worn into it by countless attempts at lifting it. My Strength is fractionally above average, but unless the Saving Roll to try and pick up the stone is only level 1, I'm going to need at least one double on the dice to have any chance at success. Do I risk it anyway? What if this is an intelligence test, to determine who's smart enough to recognise that the stone is just too big?

I give it a chance, and it's a level 2 roll. I fail it badly enough that the damage sustained in the attempt almost kills me. Not a good start.

Advancing into the cave, I see an Ogre with a club. The Ogre laughs upon spotting that I am unarmed. He's a bit of a slow mover, though, so I have a chance of dodging his club. That also requires a level 2 Saving Roll, only on Dexterity, which is slightly higher than my Strength, but still gives poor odds of success. Again I fall short of the target, so I have to fight the Ogre, and his first blow is powerful enough that I'd have been flattened even if I were at full strength.

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Time Is Getting Colder, And I'm Getting Older

It's five years since I started this blog. Over the course of that half-decade I've achieved rather less than I'd hoped to (both here and in the world outside), but that time hasn't been entirely fruitless, and considering some of what I've been through, it's a bit of an achievement just to still be here. In those five years I've played 246 different adventures (and replayed 11 of them). I've won just 61 (and 7 of those wins were replays), and 12 of the times I won, I was playing that gamebook for the first time.

Still, I don't want to spend too long going over statistics. I invited readers to ask me about (almost) anything for this anniversary post, so I shall turn my attention to the questions that were submitted.

Based upon the 'storytelling' component, what is your favourite gamebook?

I don't suppose I can count a continuing narrative spread across several volumes as one gamebook, can I? If so, the answer has to be Blood Sword. Though nowhere near the longest saga, I'd say that it's the most epic. The gradual raising of the stakes as the story progresses makes the 'save the world' business feel earned, the characters are more nuanced than just 'good' and 'evil', and I can still remember the thrill of suddenly realising what was going on in book 4 (being very vague about it because I intend to play the series here, eventually, and don't want to spoil the twist just yet).

If it has to be a single volume, I'll say Howl of the Werewolf, the third of the new Fighting Fantasy gamebooks published alongside the Wizard Books reissues. It has a quest with a more personal element than most, plenty of backstory to uncover, lots of optional sub-plots, some of which relate to the main story, while others just fit in with the theme and mood, and also contains one of the best set pieces in all gamebooks: a fight against a lycanthrope on top of a carriage careering out of control down a cliffside path. Fun!

Based on the 'gameplay' component, what is your favourite gamebook?

Spectral Stalkers, the 45th Fighting Fantasy gamebook. The random element of the travel between the worlds adds an element of variety and uncertainty that most gamebooks lose after the first few plays, and as there are no absolutely essential items other than the one you automatically acquire at the start of the adventure, being unable to choose to visit the place where you can obtain some useful object is not such a big deal. It's also one of the few FF books that can genuinely be won even with minimum stats, but has enough optional trouble that a powerful character can still get into a few scrapes along the way if the reader wants a bit of a challenge.

And while it's not actually a gameplay element, the 'Extinguisher' gag in the book is great.

Who is your favourite gamebook illustrator?

Russ Nicholson. His illustrations are evocative, grotesque (in the right way), and full of character. Orlando the annoying sidekick in The Adventures of Goldhawk would be practically unbearable if not for Nicholson's artwork.

What is your favourite 'instant death' paragraph?

How do I narrow it down to just one? 

I pretty much got hooked on gamebooks in the first place thanks to the 'paralysed and eaten alive by a Ghoul' ending in The Warlock of Firetop Mountain (Fighting Fantasy 1). The very fact that a book aimed at kids could have something that gruesome happen to the hero was just mindblowing, all the more so given the stronger-than-usual identification of the reader with the hero.

There's a section in Castle of Lost Souls (Golden Dragon 6) that, through the sheer quality of the writing, turns what could have been a generic 'petrified by Gorgon' ending into something greater. Many gamebooks contain rhymes and verses, but this, even if written as prose, is poetry.

Another example of outstanding writing in gamebooks is the 'entranced' ending in Trance (Starlight Adventures 6). Rereading it now, I'm startled at how short it is: the text only takes up about half a page, but it so effectively describes the drawn-out struggle and gradual failure to hang on to awareness and identity that, in my memory, it seems like a much more substantial passage.

Legion of the Dead (Grail Quest 8) has the comedic masterpiece that is the 'accidental self-decapitation while attempting to remove a cursed dog-collar' sequence. Technically this is more than just one paragraph, as a lot of the best material is in the build-up to the fatal roll, but even if the section describing the death were taken in isolation, talking sword EJ's awkward apology adds a nice touch of bathos to what must be the most joyously absurd bad ending ever. 

Talking of Instant Deaths that take up more than one paragraph, one of the few noteworthy aspects of the largely mediocre gamebook parody Night of a Thousand Boyfriends (Date with Destiny Adventure 1) comes to mind. Remember the endless loops in which you could get trapped in Creature of Havoc? (If not, this is the sort of thing I mean.) A similar dismal fate lies down one path in this book, only to make it far, far worse, you're stuck listening to your flatmate reading out her bad poetry. For ever.

Then there's The Plague Lords of Ruel (Lone Wolf 13), with its 10-40% chance of a climactic 'you save the world and a bridge falls on you'. No, wait, that one's rubbish. But I do like to rant about it.

If anyone has more questions, feel free to ask.