Citadel of Chaos

“Oh shit, I forgot about the hydra!”

The Citadel of Chaos by Steve Jackson

Covers: Emmanuel, Ian Miller, Kevin Jenkins

Illustrations: Russ Nicholson

For some reason I always forget that this book is called THE Citadel of Chaos.

Emmanuel’s cover is a bit too minimalist for this series.

This is the second of the original line of books. It’s also the first one to introduce a magic system, where the player rolls a score and that’s how many spells they get. The plot is fairly lightweight, where the star pupil of the local good wizard is sent to kill an evil sorcerer before his army can be unleashed. But it does represent a quick shift from the wandering adventurer to the player having a mission that they’re sent on, rather than the devil-may-care pillaging of the first book in the series (which I will get to eventually).

The spells cover a broad range of tricks, from healing to burning things to cloning your enemy to levitating. It’s not a hugely balanced system like in the later Sorcery! series, but there’s no way to get them back once they’re used so there’s more planning involved.

Citadel of Chaos has a reputation as being the only book that is definitely possible to beat with the lowest scores. It’s also one I remember half the tricks to winning, so, I’ll put that to the test: Instead of being the star pupil of the Grand Wizard of Yore, I am in fact the bottom of the class.

Statistics

Skill: 7 (I’m going to die)
Stamina: 14 (I’m going to die)
Luck: 7 (I’m going to die)
Magic: 8 (I’m going to die)

Magic is 2d6 + 6, and determines how many spells the player gets (I’m going to die).

Equipment: Sword. Leather Armour. Backpack. Lantern. No provisions. No potion. No chance in hell.

Spells: ESP, Levitation, Luck, Shielding, Stamina x2, Weakness x2

Onward to Adventure!

I’ve not only failed my exams, but I’ve come bottom of the class. Verminthrax Moonchaser, Grand Wizard of Yore, has thus ordered me to complete a catchup assignment. If I succeed, I get to graduate wizard school. If I fail, I become the next story of the student who didn’t study hard enough. But that’s okay, how bad can the catchup assignment be?

Pretty bad: I have to kill Balthus Dire.

“It’s not that bad,” says one of the other students, “someone told me a few years back the bottom of the class was sent after Zharridan Marr.”

She isn’t really helping, since Marr and Dire basically to Evil Wizard School together. I grimly pack my meagre supplies and head off to court. It’s a long trek through a picturesque countryside that is teeming with happy people. Sometimes the folk working in the fields sing a happy song about how much they love living in Salamonis. This is the problem with a society of goodness and niceness: You can’t walk ten paces without someone bursting out of the undergrowth and rattling off some verses about how wonderful everything is. Even the washerwomen are singing about how much they like washing clothes, for pity’s sake. Every eligible young woman is followed by a trail of woodland animals, and there’s no dirt or grime anywhere.

At the court of Salamonis, in the city of Salamonis, I’m ushered in to greet King Salamon. Apparently the city was named for the first Salamon, and all the other kings have been naming themselves that ever since this place was founded. I wonder what happens if you get his name wrong. He probably does not like being called King Salmon.

“So, are you best mage the Wizard of Yore is currently teaching?” the King asks.

“Absolutely,” I lie, “I’m really good at this magic stuff.”

“Well, here’s a map to Craggen Rock. I’m sure with your extensive and vast magical powers you won’t be needing any assistance. What are magical swords and enchanted armour to a mighty sorceress?”

The king laughs heartily, and I wonder if maybe not lying to him would have been a better choice. I set off to the Citadel of Craggen Rock. Eventually I reach the foot of the peak and start up the climb to the fortress. Along the way I grab some grass and weeds because I have a cunning plan for when I get there… Assuming I don’t die from the walk up the hill first.

At the citadel, I lean on the gate and wheeze for a bit after climbing an entire mountain in a few hours, and then tell Dog-with-a-Gorilla-Head (he works with Gorilla-with-a-Dog-Head) that I’m a herbalist and wave about the weeds I grabbed. I then luckily guess the name of the guard I’m supposedly here to treat – how fortunate someone is sick – and they let me in.

“Thanks, Dog-with-a-Gorilla-Head,” I say.

“You’re welcome,” he replies, “and it’s Gorilla-with-a-Dog-Body.”

He has a point. Inside the gate, I decide that the best way to proceed is to sidle up to some of the locals and get some info. I head over to a fire and rudely sit down and demand to know how to get in to the tower, assuming that crass and rude is the way to go in a citadel of chaos. The assorted green and ugly monsters think I’m a bit thick, because the tower door is clearly visible over the courtyard, and kindly tell me the password. I then enquire about a potion they have in a box, and I am attacked for my troubles. That was not very nice of them. I kill the attackers and make off with their jar of ointment, key, and potion of magick. The ‘k’ on the end is to show that it’s extra magical.

Feeling like a proper adventurer now I have a potion, I wander over to two people talking. Or rather, arguing. It seems one is a merchant, and he claims the dagger he’s trying to sell is magical. I think I can help out. “I’m totally skilled with magic,” I say, “and that is definitely not magical.” This only enrages the merchant, who attacks both me and his customer. The customer dies, I take down the psychotic merchant, and I’m left with all their gold… and the dagger turns out to be magical after all. This is the sort of mistake that got me sent on this assassination mission to start with. Oh well. I’d feel embarrassed, but there’s no-one left alive to talk about it.

For some reason this cover was always hard to find.

Ian Miller is just great. You just wait ’til I get a copy of Phantoms of Fear.

Across the courtyard I go, at least until I’m accosted by a living whirlwind who thinks I look ugly. I tell her off, and she finds this amusing and insists on accompanying me. Thankfully her moods are as fickle as the breeze, and she twisters off to investigate something. At the door to the tower I give the rhino man the password, and I’m inside. At the far end of the entrance hall is a bell pull to summon the the butler. I demand to be shown to the reception room, and he points me down a hallway. This is proving to be all too easy. At the end of the hall I find a door, and barge in only to wake up a creature I don’t recognise. I recognise the axe it’s waving at me though. I kill it with ease, and steal its hairbrush.

I continue onward, and come across the tower library. I like libraries. I look up the combination to Balthus Dire’s study – some security door that is, if anyone can wander into the library and find out the combination – and find out he’s vulnerable to sunlight. Am I going to need to stop off at the kitchens and find some garlic? I tear out the page and make a hasty exit to look for the pantry. I don’t find it, but do come across the banquet hall. I proceed up the stairs at the far end, and try one of the three doors. Left is always my preference, and I find myself confronted with Lucretia Dire, who is about to incinerate me with her flame vision. I can’t say I blame her, since I just walked into her bedroom. I hastily offer her the hairbrush I took from the guard earlier, and she accepts it. I then swipe the golden fleece on the bed while she’s distracted trying out the magic hairbrush.

After walking around a pit trap that is rather obvious, and ascending a flight of stairs, I come to a room that is pitch black. That’s no big deal, until my lantern goes out when I step in. Then a ghostly face which calls itself one of the Ganjees starts making fun of me in such a creepy way it physically hurts. What to do? I offer them the jar of ointment I got from the corpses I left in the courtyard. The Ganjees let me go in exchange for it, which is a pretty good deal if you ask me, since I didn’t even know what the tub of gunk was for.

More infernal stairs! I’m quite exhausted with all the stair climbing, and wondering why I didn’t just levitate up the outside of the tower. I come to a landing and stagger through the door, only to find a pile of bodies. I’m thinking I might be in trouble, until a few snakes come slithering out. I feel quite smug about my snake-killing abilities, and draw my sword. Who cares about snakes? Snicker-snack, no heads, no problem. Suddenly they all rear up… and I see they share one tail. Hydras are not susceptible to beheading!

The best thing about hydras is the fun never has to end!

You have to hand it to Kevin Jenkins, for once a reprint has a cover better than the originals.

In sheer panic, I pull out the golden fleece, and try to disguise myself as a sheep. This works! The hydra is completely fooled! I saunter towards the door, trying to pretend this was my plan all along. Just as I’m about to leave, the hydra steals my sheep costume. I figure it’s so impressed it wants to borrow it. Higher up the citadel I climb, and I come to the combination locked door. I spin the dials and step through, only to have a trident come flying at me. I deflect it easily using my magic, and come face to face with Balthus Dire.

Hint: Go for the curtains.

Balthus Dire is not interested in buying cheap magical items! Balthus Dire seeks only conquest!

A battle of sorcery ensues, which is thrilling and exciting and really not just two spellcasters shouting the names of spells at each other. Finally, I manage to get to the windows and pull the curtains down. The evil sorcerer withers and dies before me. I decide to add arson to my list of crimes, and torch the study. With that, I step over to the window and levitate down from the tower. Mission accomplished.

As I float downwards, I contemplate all the things I’ve done: Impersonating a herbalist, three counts of murder, theft of assorted magical ointments and potions, fraudulent entry into dwelling, murder, theft of hairbrush, damaging library books, theft of golden fleece, murder, arson, flying in open air without a licence…

…It probably would have been easier to cheat on the exams. Oh well, at least I’m one of the good guys, right? I didn’t conduct any head-swapping experiments, or raze any villages, no matter how annoyingly cheerful everyone is. As I make my way back through the sunny farmlands full of singing peasants, I consider that maybe there’s a reason why evil wizards live so far from civilization.

Wrapup

Okay so how come I can’t just levitate up to the top of the tower, waste Dire by ripping down his curtains, and then levitate down again? Because the book would be boring, that’s why.

The adventure is probably very easy if you have a decent Skill score, and reasonably challenging with a skill of 7. The hard part is finding one of the two items that will get you past the Ganjees and making sure you have the combination to the door. The rest is a fun romp through the citadel. There’s so much variety that replaying isn’t that tedious the first few times. It feels like an old school dungeon crawl, with unrelated encounters jumbled together. Also, the path I took is very, very short (rolling the dice only happens in three places), so it seems replaying is desirable.

The Ganjees got me twice before I figured out that slaughtering the nice people in the courtyard was a guaranteed pass. Other than that, there’s more than one way through, providing you’re willing to rely on sheer luck to make it past that bloody hydra and packing enough Creature Copy spells.

Citadel of Chaos is, indeed, entirely winnable with the minimum stats. It just took 12 tries.

Suspension of Disbelief Shattered: The combination lock built to keep the monsters out of the study has one combination that’s never been changed, and it’s been written in an easily accessible book all these years.

Ridiculous Battle: There isn’t a mandatory one. Though Balthus Dire has high stats, you should really use magic to beat him. The hydra is possibly the most ridiculous opponent, since there’s only three options, two requiring dice rolls to use successfully, and one that you have to get lucky to have as an option.

Victory: You set the plans for invasion on fire, and then if you planned ahead, you get to levitate down out of the tower. If not, there’s the untold tale of escaping from the tower. Though how to get past the Ganjees going back the other way is beyond me.

What Was I Thinking? Trying this book with the minimum stats. It’s much less fun when you can’t just plough on ahead recklessly and throw spells around without a care.

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