House of Hell

“Oh come on, I have to die of fright soon.”

House of Hell by Steve Jackson

Cover: Ian Miller

Illustrations: Tim Sell

The house is bigger on the inside.

I love this cover. Trust Ian Miller to get the job done.

So when there’s a satanic panic going on, what’s the first thing an author of fantasy gamebooks would do? If you said “write a book about satanic cults and demons” then you win a prize (prize not actually real). If you said “write a book about satanic cults and demons and make it ridiculously hard” then you’ve read this book. It’s supposed to be rather hard. It’s also supposed to be scary, but it looks like it’s more Hammer Horror than anything actually creepy. But we shall see…

This book is being turned into a film. I think of all the books a present day horror story is the easiest to do. Of course, thanks to the wonders of technology it’s going to be an interactive film when released in plastic circle format. Of course there’s sod all information around about it other than a supposed release date of sometime in 2013. So I guess there’s no point in holding my breath.

Oh, yes: It’s set in the early 1980’s. This explains the whole running around for a phone thing. Well, times-a-wasting and I’ve been loaned an original copy with the positively scandalous missing illustration, so I suppose I should get on with being killed repeatedly.

Statistics

Skill: 11 (minus 3 at the start for having no weapon)
Stamina: 17
Luck: 9

Fear: 10 (1d6+6 and it’s a maximum: Fear starts at zero, every time something scary happens this goes up, and if it reaches the Fear score, I die. Oh goody)

Equipment: Fucking NOTHING. Except probably clothes, you know? I suppose I was too stupid to grab a tyre iron.

Onward to Adventure!

It’s a dark and stormy night, and driving through the driving rain is driving me to the edge of my patience. This side road was supposed to be a shortcut, or a way back to the main highway, or something. The old man who gave me the directions said so. Speaking of that white-haired old man, he suddenly looms into view in front of the car. I swerve and go into a ditch. For fuck’s sake. I get out, bumping and banging as I do so, and go to check to see that I didn’t kill him. But there’s no sign of the old git. My car is hopelessly trapped, and I ran someone over so hard he disintegrated. All this in the name of making sure I get to that terribly urgent appointment in the morning. In fact, now that I think about it, my car is hopelessly trapped and also broken down and it’s twenty miles to the nearest village. Oh and it’s about midnight, too. But wait, a light nearby! A house! Maybe I can call someone from there!

At least there's no evil green demon gardeners, right?

When does knocking on the door of a house like this on a stormy night ever go badly for anyone?

I stumble up the driveway, paying more attention to the way I’ll get there than the place I’m going. Like with the car, really. Once on the doorstep I note there’s a knocker and a bell pull. I decide to go for the bell-pull, fumble for it, and finally get a hold of it. For my trouble I’m rewarded with a cheery tinkling of bells, which seems a lot less ominous than I expected. Then the door is opened by someone who, judging from the clothes, could only be the butler. He seems a bit indignant, and I don’t really blame him.

“Excuse me,” he says. “Why are you filming me?”

“I’m terribly sorry,” I say, “I accidentally glued the camera to my face and can’t even turn it off now. I have an appointment first thing in the morning to get it removed and I was on my way there but my car broke down and ended up in a ditch and frankly, I need to use your phone to call someone to haul it out and fix it.”

The butler stares at me for a moment before answering.

“Come in, the Master is expecting you.”

“Is he usually referred to as the Master?” I ask with a chuckle. The butler just stares at me like I’m mad. That might be fair, considering my stylish accessory.

I’m shown to the reception hall where I browse some paintings while waiting for the owner of the house to make an appearance. It’s all very opulent and fancy. I eye one of the paintings, a young woman who lived in the 19th Century. Then the painting warns me that I’m in danger, and that the white wine isn’t very good, and tells me to perhaps consider getting the hell out of here. I am a bit frightened by this.

One! One one! Ah ah ah!

One! One fear point! Ah ah ah!

But I’m also really not keen to trudge through the rain to my car and try to haul it out of a ditch by myself, so I wait around to meet the owner of the house. I’m offered dinner, which I accept, and get to hear that the estate has fallen on hard times after the Earl’s sister died at the age of 32. That’s a funny coincidence, because the painting I had a hallucination over was of someone who died at 32. After dinner – let me tell you, it’s kind of awkward eating with a video camera glued to your face – I get given a room for the night. Except it’s not going to do much good if I can’t sleep because I need to go to the bathroom…

…Oh good the door is locked. From the outside. I am more than a little uneasy about this, and decide to turn the lights off and sit in the dark. After a little while the door opens and a hunchbacked man comes in with a glass of what looks like water. I duck out of the room and lock the door, and set off to explore this creepy house. I am promptly met by a ghost.

Not really that scary, really.

Two! Two fear points! Ah ah ah!

The ghost is another woman, and she leads me into a bedroom which is labelled the Apollyon room, and tells me that the house is run by a cult, they abducted the district nurse, I look like an idiot with a camera stuck to my face, there’s demons, I need a magic knife, and also the ghost hounds are coming so that’s that for the run-down on this madhouse. She gets mauled by ghostly dogs, and I can do nothing but leave. I walk along the landing and try the door to the Azazel room. It’s some sort of retro laboratory, and inside is a whole load of antique apparatus. I dig through a drawer and find a letter opener that will make a passable weapon, and then nearly get caught by some people who have a discussion outside the door and leave. They might come back so I get the hell out of there. I decide to hole up in the Mephisto room. It’s not very nice, with a broken window and some rope on the floor. I take the rope, because I’ve played enough text adventures to know not to leave rope lying around, and then hit up the next room along the landing, which is called the Balthus room. It’s nice enough in there, but there’s obviously someone behind the curtains. Try as I might, I can’t just pay no attention to them. I go over and throw open the left one, and nothing is there. Then a zombie jumps out from behind the other curtain.

Zombies attack! Run!

Four! Four fear points! Ah ah ah!

Okay now I know I’m not seeing things, because the zombie kind of hurt me. I get out of that room and then try the next door. It opens into a short corridor with a lone door marked Diabolus. Yeah that can’t be too bad, right? I go in and sit down for a few minutes to catch my breath. Then a headless ghost comes through the wall and scares me badly.

This is the evil version of Duckula.

Six ! Six fear points! Ah ah ah! (I’m sure you can all figure this one out yourselves)

I get out of there and check the window at the end of the passage. It’s only got condensation on it in one part, and there’s a message written on it in the condensation. For some reason I, having just met a bunch of ghosts and zombies, find this strange. I memorise it and then get out of there. At the stairs I find another door and go in, only to find a store room. I notice some garlic and grab it, on the basis that there’s bound to be a vampire around here somewhere. I hope they show up on video cameras. Then I wander around the landing some more until I find the Abaddon room. This is the room the mysterious message on the window mentioned, so I go in. There are a lot of plants in there, and also an old woman in bed. I decide to wake her up, despite knowing she’s probably a witch. Or a zombie. Or a zombie witch. Well she’s dead but talking to me, so zombie witch it is.

Count von Count, a pipe organ, and bricks with numbers on them. All fairly standard for Sesame Street.

Eight! Eight fear points! Ah ah ah!

I press her for information and she summons a couple of dogs, which I kill. Then I ask again but she says she will only answer my question if I know her name – thankfully that window told me. I get some information abut a secret door and then leave, making for the stairs down. I find only one place to go: The study. It’s not too bad in there. I steal some brandy and then rifle through some letters. Then I poke around at a secret panel in the fireplace and find a hidden button… and also get attacked by fire imps. I guess when you hang with hellfire demons fire imps are easy to hire for fireplace security. Fortunately I am quick thinking, and while they laugh at the camera stuck to my face, I awkwardly upend a plant pot over them and the soil extinguishes their flames.

Feeling a bit better about things, I press the button on the fireplace. A secret panel in the wall slides open. I go over to have a look and find it’s really just a fake. The real secret is the trapdoor I’m standing on.

Berk! Feed me!

Nine! Nine fear points! Ah ah ah!

Ow. I pick myself up, and curse a bit because the fall didn’t dislodge the camera. I suppose it’s a good thing since it might have taken half my face with it, and then I’d have to take up residence in this grotty old mansion and terrorise visitors. Then the hunchback from upstairs comes in. I say hello, and offer him a drink from my purloined hip flask. He then gets drunk rather quickly and tells me that the secret password to the secret room of secrets is an anagram of the name of the house. Then he staggers off. I decide to look around the cellar, and behind one of the doors I find a prison. One of the prisoners tells me I need to get the hell out of dodge and find the kris knife but also that I have to fight the evil master of the house in a red room.

“Oh for pity’s sake. Is there a red room around here, or do I have to find some paint?”

“No, the dining room is red. But I suppose if you can’t find the key to the dining room you’ll need a couple of cans of red paint and a good roller.”

Right, off to find another key and just in case, some cans of brilliant red, and a paint roller. I leave the prison area and head for the stairs, under which the secret door will be located. They’re in a small chamber. A small chamber which happens to be inhabited by bats, which scare me…

You always know how much of a thing there is when he's around.

Ten! Ten fear points! Ah ah ah!

…to death! As I lie there dying from a heart attack I consider that not only is the satanic cult hiding out in this house going to continue their evil ways unchecked, they’re probably also going to make a lot of money off this footage. The bastards!

Wrapup

Dying of fright in this book is more difficult than I expected. But the fear mechanic does make the book scary, just like the Messenger of DEATH in Temple of Terror. But overall it’s pretty much like I expected: A Hammer Horror film. Some people think it’s more puzzle than book (or game) but I think the exploring aspect was really interesting. Of course I gave myself a save point because I suspected I’d hit the path to the kitchen, which has been covered in much detail on other blogs as a total party kill. Even if the party consists of…

One! One one! Ah ah ah!

One! One adventurer! Ah ah ah!

There’s something to be said for the book never mucking around. But unfortunately one of the pictures was considered to be a bit much and got pulled after the first printing:

Apparently they kill a new goat each time for that fresh feel.

Blood, knives, and nudity. Everything kids want in a book.

I think it’s the blood, actually. Wait… Oh god… the Children’s Television Workshop is going to kill me.

My favourite line in the book: “Your daring rescue is commendable for its bravery, but unbelievably stupid.” – Yeah? Well that’s the way we do things in adventurer town!

Suspension of Disbelief Shattered: There’s a bit where, after exploring the upstairs, you can be scared out of your wits by something and decide to go to bed. Yes, that’s certainly what I’d do on finding out that ghastly horrors are real.

Ridiculous Battle: The imaginatively-named Hell Demon (you knew there would be a demon, right?), at Skill 14 Stamina 12. Though you can’t even get into the battle without the kris knife, which gives a bonus of 6 to Skill – and most people take that to mean a bonus to attack strength, which seems reasonable.

Victory: The demon goes down, one of the evil minions is sad, the house catches on fire, you escape, the end. Oh and all the prisoners die. Ooops.

What Was I Thinking? Looking through all the rooms was probably a silly idea, since it was obvious the outcome would be an ever-increasing tally of fear points.

Blood of the Zombies

“A pulley? Where the hell was a pulley?”

Blood of the Zombies by Ian Livingstone

Well, isn’t this a treat? To celebrate 30 years of Fighting Fantasy, Ian Livingstone wrote a new book. Sadly Steve Jackson wasn’t involved, but Livingstone is going to try and drag him back to the big flowchart for the 40th anniversary of everyone’s favourite (shut up, Lone Wolf fans, let us have our moment) single player RPG series.

The plot is… uh… I’ve been kidnapped and thrown in the dungeon of a Romanian castle while on a tour of Europe looking for evidence that any mythical creatures are real (mythology being my field of study, according to the intro). I don’t know more than that. The plot is revealed slowly through the course of the book. So I have NO IDEA what is going on.

Zombies vs. door: The door always loses in the end.

Now this is exciting! Also terrifying. Where is my shotgun? Aaaaah!

Actually, now that I think about it… there might just possibly be some zombies involved.

Statistics

Skill: No skill score?!?!
Stamina: 16 (screw you, dice)
Luck: No luck score?!?!

The book is streamlined to make it more exciting for the modern reader. Fie on that, I prefer rolling dice and adding a skill score. Hmph. There’s one boon here: Stamina has no maximum. You can scoff all the food in the castle to become indestructible. Yes!

Equipment: I start with nothing. I have my fists, which deal 1d6-3 damage.

From the adventure sheet it appears I will be able to find med-kits, grenades, dollars (unified world currency of fictional books, sort of like the gold piece), and ammunition (unlimited once you have some).

Combat is handled by rolling for damage and that many zombies die. Then I take 1 damage for each surviving zombie (so I’m going to die). This is apparently a first-person shooter in book form. There’s even a space on the adventure sheet for a frag count.

Onward to Adventure!

So, I’m locked up in a cell, and chained to the wall. Not ideal, but whatever. I’m sure it’s all a misunderstanding, and eventually I’ll be set free by whoever owns this castle. It’s nice to see old traditions of brutal feudal rule carried on in this modern era, but I’m sure it’s not good for tourism. It’s also probably not so good for maintaining European Union membership. Otto, the rather nasty jailer, told me I’m in Goraya Castle, owned by one Gingrich Yurr. I’m sure things will be sorted out soon enough. Any minute now…

Any hour now…

Any day now…

Okay, enough waiting. Five days of cold stew has hinted that I’m not the victim of a misunderstanding, so I kick the crap out of Otto and free myself. I introduce him to the other side of the jailer/prisoner equation, and then go and loot the room he lives in. All I find is a pocket knife, some money, and some string. Also a bag that has some junk which I tip out, but I keep the accordion magazine since it might come in handy if I need to bribe an accordion player. On my way out of the dungeon I also find a key with a number stamped in it. As I stow it in my pocket I am suddenly overcome with an urge to hoard anything with a three-digit number on it.

The dungeon exits into a storeroom where I bribe some workers for information (the pay is good, the perks are lousy, and they never get time off). It turns out Gingrich Yurr is turning people into zombies with some diabolical concoction. It only works on people who are physically weak, which explains the starvation. Stopping this insane plan for world domination via zombie apocalypse would require killing all the zombies and… yeah, I’m the only thing standing between a crazed necrophiliac and the rest of the human race. Great.

These clowns also charge me for any supplies. I get some gloves, a hacksaw, and a pulley. I have no idea what good any of this stuff will be, but I feel a compulsion to hoard random items all of a sudden. I wander off, turning left without thinking about it and finding a laundry room, which has a change of clothes and also a baseball bat. Plus two zombies in a cupboard guarding some bullets. On the way back I find a narrow passageway, which leads to an old workshop full of zombies.

A small horde of zombies attacking the reader because this is what zombies do.

These books really make you appreciate black and white art. There should be an exhibition.

I kill them and then find my way into a coal store, and suddenly feel a compulsion to dig through the coal. This turns up a grappling hook and rope. I continue onward, and find a boiler room. Some zombies fall out of a vent in the ceiling and I kill them too, and make off with a crowbar. Back in the main corridor I kill some zombies, one of which is holding a pistol. A nearby crate reveals a couple of grenades. Right, all set except for a shotgun and chainsaw. Emboldened by my arsenal, I open a nearby manhole and despite the stench, climb down into the sewer. It’s mainly stinky… well, stinky and full of giant mutant zombie rats. I decide the prudent course of action is to lob a grenade at them, and then realise that throwing a grenade in a sewer is going to result in a short, sharp shower of shit.

Yuck.

I continue through the sewer and out again, and eventually I find a room which contains a whole lot of gaming paraphernalia, including a collection of books with garish green spines and titles like The Warlock of Firetop Mountain. I grab the last nine and continue onwards, raiding libraries, killing zombie drummers, finding machine guns, generally looting and pillaging, and all the while trying to think up good one-liners. Eventually I realise that even though I can’t think of any the castle is full of zombies. Anything I do say will only be heard by me so it doesn’t matter how crap my puns are.

I end up in a clock tower. It’s a nice enough view, and the clock seems to be defunct so I’m not going to be deafened by the bell any time soon. But the dynamite-toting zombie on the stairs might be a problem. I’m not entirely sure how this particular zombie understands concepts like lighting a fuse, but it certainly doesn’t understand that when using dynamite as a weapon, one has to throw it. I shoot the zombie and then leap away from the explosion. The clock tower remains standing, but the stairs are gone. I will have to rappel down the outside. On the roof of the castle I get to see Gingrich Yurr drive into his garage, and I leap through a skylight onto a bed before I’m seen. It’s quite a nice bedroom with en-suite, apart from the garish yellow decoration everywhere. Thankfully some zombies come in and I splatter their blood around to make the place look a little more interesting. On my way out of the bedroom I meet Boris the storeroom worker, who unfortunately gets killed by the zombies he’s running from. I continue to explore, finding the diary of the castle cook/intern/damsel in distress, who is apparently called Amy. Judging from the ranting she’s had a fun time, slowly going mad from the realisation that she’s an intern cook in a castle full of mad scientists and zombies. Also, she knows how to work the lift. That’s handy. I head for the basement to look from her. I know she’s still alive because there’s no final entry that frantically mentions zombies about to break through the door before being cut off in mid-sentence.

In the basement I’m attacked by a group of zombies led by a zombified Boris – I knew I forgot to do something upstairs – and then I find a freezer room. Inside is a zombie woman with a chainsaw, who I kill. This, I feel, is a turning point in my zombie slaying quest, since now I have a shotgun and a chainsaw, and thus am invincible. I pass through the basement and into the north wing of the castle, only to see a young woman run by and lock herself behind a door. I’m the lucky bitch who gets to fight the horde of zombies that was chasing her. Zombies killed, I proceed into the room.

Attractive young blonde woman, holding revolver, looking panicked. Because of Zombies. Or maybe Jehova's Witnesses.

Don’t worry pretty young intern, I’m here to save you!

Amy is having a bad day, but seems to be cheered up no end by the sight of me, which suggests that she’s got a thing for badass zombie-killing women. Of which there’s exactly one in the world. HAH. We decide to check out the private study behind the office, and I spend some time gawping at the pictures of mythological beasts on the walls, until Amy clips me around the ears and tells me to get on with searching. The laptop has some information about a secret exit from the castle, while the phone… well, all I can do is call the extension for Yurr’s private quarters. He’s not very happy. Apparently he’s sending someone to kill us. Amy panics a bit, but I’m not worried.

“One zombie? How bad can one zombie be?”

Suddenly a loud smashing noise can be heard from the office outside. We run from the study and find that the one zombie is a two-metre tall gorilla mutant zombie.

Zombie Kong goes down in a hail of bullets, which just goes to show you shouldn’t mix genres like that. I then hustle Amy to the secret exit and let her out, and then go back inside to finish off the last of the zombies. I find a telescope and use it to scope out the zombies outside. There’s also a Browning machine gun mounted on the balcony opposite. Also on the balcony opposite is Gingrich Yurr, who injects himself with a syringe full of blood and then drinks some more blood out of a wine glass. Mixing genres is going to be very bad for his health. Of course, turning himself into a zombie is probably also bad for his health. I run back through the basement, and see through some doors the mad scientists Yurr hired having an argument. I feel unable to just gun them down, due to some kind of crisis of conscience. I bluff them instead, using a lab coat I found in the castle. Scientists gone, I destroy the laboratory, wipe out some more zombies, and then head up a fire escape to the roof. The only way onward is to use a pulley to get across a cable to the balcony with the heavy machine gun. Thankfully I really do have a steel pulley. Yes. Absolutely knew that would be useful later. I zip over, grab hold of the Browning and turn the zombies in the courtyard to mincemeat. Unfortunately there’s waves of them. Also a couple of the scientists from downstairs have become zombies, and they’re now attacking me with axes. This is insane.

Wait, no… Being shot at with a rocket launcher… That’s insane. I’m amazed Zombie Yurr is smart enough to know what it is, aim it, and fire it. I am forced to leap to safety. I charge into the other wing of the castle, find a shotgun, and charge back out only to find another horde of zombies which I kill. Then Yurr tries to run me over in his car. Except he can’t remember how to change gears. I take the time to draw a bead on him and as he gets the car started, I put a bullet in his head. He spins out of control and cause a huge explosion, which is fine by me. I walk off, my job done.

…and then he attacks me. God damn it, I forgot this is a zombie movie! I fend off Zombie Yurr, kick the zombie some more, and then shoot him. A lot. Then I go and get into the van nearby, counting down from five… I start the engine on one, and on zero a zombie lands on the roof and leans down in front of the windscreen. I shoot it through the roof and then jump out and shoot it some more. Then I drive out of the castle courtyard. I’ve had enough zombies for one day.

I pick up Amy on the way to the village, and we drive down to report the fun times in castle Goraya. The police are, for some reason, not receptive to our tales of zombie infestations, and tell us to go and spend the night in the local inn while they check out the castle tomorrow. While the night is pleasant, the morning brings a zombie horde. I probably should have locked the gates of the castle after I left…

Wrapup

I missed 22 zombies. So everyone dies, zombie apocalypse, end of the human race, all that sort of thing. But the correct ending suggests that there might have been some zombies hiding in a skip and implies the reader talks themselves out of the possibility – Sequel hook! Hopefully a sequel with a skill score…

Some people complained about the body count thing, but having to kill all the zombies is an open invitation to look behind every door, squeeze into every filthy hole, and generally explore like mad. Unfortunately rolling a single damage die is a pain, since you can get unlucky more than once and take some scathing injuries from even small groups of zombies. Thus weapons with positive modifiers and multiple dice are the point where things start to get easier.

Sadly a few bad damage rolls means certain doom. This book is hard. Really hard. It’s all down to getting lucky with the dice (and the absence of Luck and Skill means a 50-50 chance for risky situations). I gave myself three extra lives and only just made it through the book… and then I was still a handful of zombies short.

It’s still a fun book to read. There’s a lot to be said for trying to get an FPS and a zombie film into a gamebook and to some extent succeeding, as well as making it atmospheric enough that it’s a fun read. But the book is very linear, with the only branching section that doesn’t lead to a dead-end causing failure since you miss an item. Amazingly I went the right way every time.

Yes, I really did find a room with a collection of Fighting Fantasy books inside. There wasn’t a copy of this book where you could read through it and find a copy of this book and… I’ll just stop there, shall I? Gingrich Yurr’s office also has a postcard with “Happy 30th Zagor” on the back, which is probably a double reference.

Suspension of Disbelief Shattered: When I was told “But even though these are the evil scientists responsible for creating Yurr’s Zombies, you know you can’t just run in and shoot them.” – Fuck that!

Ridiculous Battle: Tough choice here, but I’d have to say the fight with Zombie Kong, where you have to deal 20 damage in one round to kill him, or he gets to deal 6 in return. And then you try again. At best you’ve got a 25.9% chance of winning in a given round.

Victory: You wake up the next morning, after a restless night worrying that you missed some of the zombies. Maybe they were hiding in that skip in the courtyard? The local police don’t care. Investigating the events at the castle might be bad for tourism. Amy goes back to New York, you do extraordinarily well at university, and that’s it.

What Was I Thinking? In my first attempt I yelled out for the jailer and got severely injured as a result. So I started again. The fact is there’s no room for mistakes in this book, since the combats are so lethal.

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