Spellbreaker

“Of course I can’t die, I’m in a dungeon now.”

Spellbreaker by Jonathan Green

This is a late entry in the original series, and might be hard to find if it hadn’t been reprinted. This one introduces the country of Ruddlestone, on the continent known as the Old World. I know nary a thing about this setting or this book, and as such it’s all one big exciting mystery to me. What I do know is that the author wrote some notoriously difficult books. Oh well then, best get out the good dice…

Statistics

Skill: 10 (All right then…)
Stamina: 19 (Oh dear…)
Luck: 8 (Oh, for crying out loud!)

Faith: 1 (no dice, you just get one point)

Faith is “inherent goodness and your belief in the forces of order” – right, so if my usual approach to roleplaying is anything to go by, it should probably be in the negatives before I start. Apparently if it’s high enough I can repel demons and evil spirits and get extra blessings. Finding relics of good will increase it. So I guess tomb robbing and looting temples is okay then?

Equipment: Sword, backpack, lantern, tinderbox, 9 gold pieces (1d6 + 4). Only 5 provisions, though. Wait, where’s my armour? Ahhh! No armour! Oh, I see… the book proper assumes I have some armour. That was alarming.

Onward to Adventure!

As I am an adventurer turned pilgrim, logically this means I am making a pilgrimage. Well, right now I’m running for shelter through the dark and stormy night, the howls of wolves all around. I find respite in a copse, where a friendly traveller offers to share their campfire. I consider killing him and taking his stuff, but then I remember that pilgrims don’t do that. It turns out he knows the way to Rassin Abbey, so I suggest that we head for the abbey together. I figure I don’t have to outrun the wolves, just him. Well, it turns out that the wolves are the least of my worries, since this storm is apparently raining demons. As we reach the abbey I dash in the door and yell at the traveller to come inside. Later, the friendly stranger starts sneaking about, so I follow, figuring people who sneak around are up to no good (people who crash about kicking in doors and killing people are adventurers, and therefore okay). He murders someone behind a locked door, and by the time I get in there, followed by some monks, he’s downstairs. We follow, only to find him stealing a big black book, and vanishing, leaving behind a demon.

It’s spewing sulphur fumes, but I kill it with the usual display of swordplay. Then it turns out that the Black Grimoire that was stolen is the indestructible repository of the most terrible spells known to witchcraft. The thief is called Nazek, who was once a foundling left at the abbey. By the age of twelve he was toying with dark magics and generally being a little shit. Now, he should have been unable to get back in here, what with being some kind of warlock, but I technically invited him while the demons were trying to attack him on the doorstep. Oh no, I see where this is going… Not only have I let an evil practitioner of black magic steal the Big Book of Evil Witchcraft, he’s probably going to use it to bust something called the Infernal Beast out of the Casket of Shadows. There’s only one thing I hate more than being tricked, and that’s being tricked into helping someone release an infernal evil from the dawn of time, if only because I’m liable to get blamed for the inevitable reign of terror and destruction of civilization. I agree to find the little bastard and make him pay. “Good,” says the Prior, “because you only have four days to do it.”

“Four days?” I say. “Not a problem!” and with that urgent quest laid at my feet, I go back to bed.

The next morning I check out the library. Forewarned is forearmed, so a little bit of research should be as good as dual-wielding. Sadly, all I find is a book about famous priests and saints. More interestingly, the herb garden has three useful plants, of which they will let me take one, because my world-saving mission can’t possibly disrupt the garden too much. I opt for garlic, since if there’s no vampires, it’s still handy in cooking.

On my way out the door, blessed by the monks, a servant says my reputation has preceded me. His employer, Lady Attana of Ide, wishes to hire me for protection on the road to Hallow’s Well. My reputation has preceded me, but which reputation has she heard of? The one where I’m skilled with a sword, or the one where I’m skilled in the bedroom, or the new one where I’m skilled at letting evil warlocks steal ancient tomes of evil? What the hell, money is money. On the road we’re attacked by bandits, almost like clockwork. After the first brigand goes down, out comes someone wearing an iron mask and some iron gauntlets and a glowing sword. Okay, a tough fight… except then the bandits all run away after I stab him a couple of times. “Come back and fight!” I shout. “I want that magic sword!”

It turns out they made off with my new employer’s jewellery box, but she says if I ever find it I can keep the contents and just drop the box off. That’s… rather generous, if weird. At Hallow’s Well I accept the noblewoman’s offer of an all expenses paid night in a five star inn and win the storytelling contest, recounting the tale of that dashing and beautiful woman who killed the resurrected necromancer Razaak. They all agree it’s a really good tale, if completely unbelievable that anyone could actually survive such a quest. Later that night, my dreams are disturbed by the sign out the front of the inn reassuring me that it’s on my side. Thanks, sign, I’m sure you’ll be a valuable ally in a fight.

The next morning, my faith bolstered by the reassurances of a painted plank swinging in the breeze, I set off for the local healing well, to confront one of my oldest fears and the deadly nemesis of adventurers everywhere. I enter the chamber with trepidation, and silently breathe a sigh of relief. No stone-walled, pulley-bucketed pit of horror this well, just a spring flowing out of a boulder. The waters of this holy font turn out to be a supercharged healing potion, which is good because there’s absolutely nothing else going for me in this insane quest.

I then waste some time shopping in the local market, buying relics. I normally wouldn’t, but it seems carrying around a bagful of old junk of dubious provenance is the way to go in Ruddlestone these days. I also pick up a totally cool hunting falcon, and some more herbs. On my way out of the town I come across a plague-ridden man and help him on his way, oblivious to the risk to myself. Apparently his village was attacked by an evil Pied Piper. Then, I come across the evil piper himself! That’s awfully convenient, actually. He tries to set his pet rat on me, but I catch it and throw it down, and then crush it underfoot in a display of sadistic animal cruelty that I excuse by telling myself it was an evil rat of chaos. This makes the Plaguey Piper mad and the fight is on! Unfortunately, I find out afterwards that killing evil warlock plague pipers is a crime in Hallow’s Well. Bloody ungrateful town. I put up a good fight, but get dragged off to the local jail.

I’m thrown in a cell with the standard decrepit raving lunatic, who naturally has a key to the door. He’s cleverly figured out that a raving madman locked up in jail gets free food and a roof over his head, and thus is going to stay and keep the act up. On my way out, a pretty young woman who also happens to be an apprentice witch begs me to set her free. She’s seen the error of her wicked ways, and she shows her appreciation by giving me a jar of magic powder that will mess up her former mentor’s shape-shifting magic, just on the off chance I run into her. “Say, why don’t you come with me?” I suggest. “Fuck that,” she replies. “You’re an adventurer. You’ll drag me down the first dingy ruin you find and get me killed.”

I can’t argue with that, and so we part ways. I sneak out of the south gate. Alas, I can’t make it to the plague-ridden town of Aryll before night falls. I wander into the hills to look for a suitable campsite, and find a cave. The hypnotic power of the cave draws me close, and I notice a round door. This is too much like a dungeon to pass up, and I approach the door with excitement. Alas, it’s just an underground house, inhabited by a mole person. Who was expecting me. Apparently Talpas here is an expert at runes, and he offers to cast the runes for me. All right then. This turns out to be a really bad idea, since one of the stones comes up with the rune of Shekka, and he doesn’t even have that runestone. Oh dear, I broke his magic rocks. He’s still kind enough to give me some of his mole person food, which turns out to be a bag full of grubs and worms. They’re probably good for me, right?

At Aryll I offer to help out with their plague rat problem using the evil piper’s magic flute. The rats all line up and conga into the barn, which the villagers set on fire… while I’m inside. I couldn’t have thought of a better plan myself if I tried. After I leap from the hayloft and roll around on the ground to put the flames out, they mention there’s a dirty great plague monster under their hill. Normally I’d laugh at them for asking me to fight a plague monster and beat a quick path out of town, but since the plague monster is in a dungeon, I can’t wait to get down there and get infected with leprosy. First, a giant rat, riddled with disease. Easy! Then, some equally plaguey zombies. Ho hum. Then a room filled with maggots and a swarm of evil flies. No problem! Then it’s a crypt with a dozen zombies. Uh oh… No! Only one zombie is coming for me! I make quick work of it, and then take on the festering blob of slime and pus and fungus and mould and rotting flesh that was once a living human servant of the gods of evil. Let’s go, you disgusting blob of shit.

Normally this would be a dangerous fight, but I’m armed with the medieval equivalent of a Molotov cocktail: I throw my lantern at it and then fuck it right up while it’s lurching around screaming. That’s how adventurers get shit done: we do it in dungeons.

The people of Aryll are overjoyed that they managed to find an armed and dangerous lunatic, and so I’m loaded down with some gold and some food and also told where to find the local hero’s barrow, so I can nick his magic sword. Barrow… underground burial chamber… crypt… I’m going straight there. I gulp down the magical waters of healing I’m carrying to ward off the plague for good, and then trek to the barrow. Right in front of it is a circle of standing stones, which means druids.

Druids are usually okay, but these ones want me to undergo some tests before I can enter the barrow. Worse, they are obsessed with number puzzles. Bastards. I spend several hours doing magic squares with a stick on the ground before I am finally allowed into the tomb. I slay the undead tomb guardian, loot some sarcophagi, and finally find the central chamber… and the magic sword is gone. What. The. Fuck. I decide to take the magic shield, and then storm out of the barrow to give the head druid a piece of my mind, but they’ve all run away. Probably when they heard me coming, cursing as I came.

I head north-west into the forest, and am ambushed by bandits. A woman in the trees tells me to throw down my gold. I do so, with the intention of taking her hostage. This accomplished, I realise I may have a slight problem. There are quite a few other bandits. I manage to dispatch two using their leader as a shield, and then knock out another, and finally get down to fighting the rest in a more fair battle than I’d like. The leader, last to engage, offers up information on the person she works for… Who sounds suspiciously like the bandit I met at the start of my quest. I trek stealthily through the forest, and find the secret bandit camp, which is quite nifty, being in the ruins of a walled outpost. They have stables, and a small keep, and – I shudder – a well. I light a haycart on fire and run into the keep, kicking in a handy door and finding the clown who ran away from me outside Hallow’s Well. “I told you I’d have that sword!” I shout, and attack him. With the masked brigand dead, I notice that his sword is actually the mythical one that was missing from the barrow I was in earlier. I kick the corpse a bit to vent my frustration, look around for the box that noblewoman wanted returned, and get out of there.

At the town of Fenford, I chat to a local friar who tells me I’m going to have to go on a romp in the local swamp to find out how to reseal the casket if Nazek has opened it. I sigh and turn to the visiting witch hunter, who is more than a little obsessed. I figure teaming up with his band of witch-hunting lunatics is my best bet though, and agree to meet him after I’ve gone into the marshland. He gives me some shackles to use on any witches I find. Yeah, I’m sure they’ll agree to that. The marshland is a stinking, damp, foggy maze. I wish I had some means of finding my way properly, say… a magic ring that lets me always know where north is. One of those would be really useful right now. As it is, I blunder about until I find a toad person who probably knows the way out of here. It turns out he’s a herbalist, and will mix up a couple of potions for me. I opt for the one that will fireproof me, and the healing potion.

Then I take a trip to the tomb of Enthus the Martyr, who sealed up that casket full of demons all those centuries ago. It’s not a very exciting tomb, so I summon up the priest’s ghost, and he gives me the rundown on how to reseal the chest of demons. Of course, in the middle of this a revenant animates the bones of the priest, which livens things up a little. I’m not impressed though, since it’s just a skeleton with a fancy name. I grab the page from the Black Grimoire with the sealing spell while I’m there, and get ferried out of the marsh, finally setting foot on dry land near the village of Selwick.

Selwick is all shut up for the evening, but I find some hospitality at a farm. Unfortunately the farm has been cursed. I skewer an imp while the family explain to me that the local witch, Mistress Crowfoot, has cursed them. Oh, for pity’s sake. Fine. I go off to kill the witch. She’s one of those witches who doesn’t believe in subtlety, having a house on bird feet. Or rather, foot. Giant crow feet are too expensive in Ruddlestone, so she’s only got one. But it’s a pretty good bird-legged cottage, because it hops forward to attack me. I can see the tale of my exploits now: “…and so the valiant heroine, armed as she was with a magical sword and magical shield, didst go into battle against the hopping cottage. Verily, a mighty fray ensued, though afterwards she was a little hazy on how the single giant crow foot could even attack.”

Inside the most ridiculous house ever, the place is crawling with pets, which just fucking figures. I liberally throw around that magic powder and then shackle the witch. There, all done. Except I forgot to gag her, and so she orders her familiars to attack. At least the toad is rather easy to kill. I also have my falcon bring down her raven, and make a bad reference to a famous poem as it does so. I demand to know where to find the Black Grimoire, and then turn Mistress Crowfoot over to the authorities to stand trial.

I travel onward, wondering what stupidity will be at the next town. It turns out it’s a woman about to be burnt at the stake by a witch finder. According to an old woman, the so-called witch is innocent. I quickly drink my potion of fireproofing in case I’m going to have to, say, rescue someone from a fire. “Stop this madness!” I say. “Witch!” says the witch finder. I probably should have seen that one coming. I’m subsequently thrown in the pond and manage to stay underwater for the requisite three minutes. Then I have to haul a horseshoe out of a brazier. Good thing I drank that potion, then. The witch finder is, of course, possessed by a demon, so I take great pleasure in cutting it out of him. The villagers all look suitably embarrassed about the fact they nearly burned the town healer on the say-so of an eldritch fiend.

Onward, to Claybury. I find the paranoid witch hunter clubhouse, and get attacked by a demonic stalker that only I can see. The resistance – they are the sort of people who always have to be lashing out against oppressive authority figures even when they are the authority figures – then run off with me to the ruined monastery where the Ruddlestone witch convention is conducting the dark ritual to open the chest of demons. When we get there, sneaking into the crypt under the monastery, Nazek is reading from the book, with a horde of witches and devils straight out of a lurid woodcut chanting away. Time to carve a chunk out of this coven.

I battle my way across the chamber, only to get to the casket as Nazek completes his spell. A ginormous demon rises from the tiny box. I quickly rattle off the spell of locking, and the casket is sealed once more… with the huge demon still outside it. Well, shit. I draw my sword and leap into battle. Despite the demon being five metres tall and having the ability to hit me with its spiky tail, I cut it into pieces. “That,” I shout at Nazek, “is why you don’t carry out evil plans underground!” He responds by summoning a horde of spiders all over me, and they bite me repeatedly, and I die thinking it was a shame I didn’t have the ingredients for that poison cure.

Wrapup

A Skill 8 Stamina 9 demon with a special ability in paragraph 1. Bloody hell. The whole book is insanely difficult. About halfway through a third attempt I suddenly got incredibly bored, since the second try had ended with my death because I failed a die roll earlier in the book, and every time I was presented with a choice I was wondering what essential item I missed out on. In the end I decided that it might be easier to just cheat, and went for the victory that way, retconning in the falcon and the jail sequence since failing to kill the witch and her raven leads to instant death later. Of course, since I had no idea where two of the ingredients for the venom cure were, I couldn’t justify pretending I’d picked them up.

Faith points… bloody hell. You need to grab every one you can get and even then the whole book comes down to some die rolls. To get the super healing water you have to win a faith check, and to be certain of that you have to win a previous faith check, which at that point is a 50% chance (also a 50% chance of dying in the witch trial, so the odds of winning are down to 25% right there). To buy the falcon you need x gold, and tht means rolling high at the start of the book, since you need those relics. I grabbed everything I could and just scraped 13 faith points together – which is the amount you need to guarantee winning at the second to last paragraph in the book.

On the setting front, it’s a tour of part of Ruddlestone, probably the most credulously superstitious land in the Fighting Fantasy books. The country comes off as a very fun dark medieval setting, working in more than a couple of old legends (the Lambton Worm, the Pied Piper of Hamelin, and a nod to Baba Yaga were ones I found while trying to win the book). There’s also a horde of warrior-women at the end, which was good to see, since up until then the book had been full of damsels in distress and stereotypical witches everywhere. Exploring a new setting is fun, but I suppose it would be more fun if I had bought the book instead of raiding the library. Then I could have interspersed the attempts with other books and not gotten bored.

I did not take a single scratch doing that plague dungeon – both times. How ridiculously lucky is that?

Suspension of Disbelief Shattered: Why do the people of Hallow’s Well let a bunch of sadistic cultists wander around murdering people?

Ridiculous Battle: The Devilworm, where you have to fight for seven rounds at a penalty of -1 without being able to damage it, then fight it to the death at a pentalty of -2, and if you roll doubles you instantly die. Fuck. That. Thankfully, you don’t have to ever go there.

Victory: You stab Nazek, the skies which have been cloudy for a week clear, and the text says you imagine resting up for a few days, going back to the abbey, and then someone writing a book about it all.

What Was I Thinking? Trying to take the most direct route the first time I read thought the book. Of course it’s going to be convoluted, what would the point be otherwise?

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