The Seven Serpents

Previously in this Adventure

“Oh right, the bird has a better invisibility spell than I do.”

The Seven Serpents by Steve Jackson

Covers: John Blanche, Mel Grant

Illustrations: John Blanche

Sun Serpent secret spoiler!

Mel Grant puts the band back together.

Now it gets interesting, because I only owned the first two books when I was young – the second hand bookstore I got Fighting Fantasy books from sold the last two before I got copies – and thus I have only read this one once before. Oh well, let’s have a try anyway.

The plot is not just for me to cross a dangerous wilderness, but the Archmage’s seven magical flying serpents are also out there for me to take down before they warn him I’m coming. The fourth book has extra options if you kill them all, letting you avoid any trouble from the fortress inhabitants. Er, I mean avoid extra trouble.

People keep making a joke about this book but I refuse to perpetuate such terrible puns. I have terrible puns of my own!

Statistics

Skill: 8
Stamina: 18
Luck: 13

Equipment: Sword, Extra Large Backpack, 5 Provisions, 22 Gold, Bag of Miscellaneous Teeth, Silver Key no. 111, Borrinskin Boots, Bomba Fruit, Ragnar’s Armband of Swordmastery, Gauntlets of Weaponry, Gold Locket (without picture), Lucky Talisman, Enchanted Compass (now useless), Bow, Silver Arrows (8), Tinderbox, Snake Bite Antidote, Silver Serpent Ring.

Spell Components: Flute, Goblin Teeth (4), Giant Teeth (1), Beeswax (infinite), Bone Bracelet, Green Wig, Gold-Backed Mirror.

Special: I can call on Libra again, who is apparently bound by some kind of rules about geography. I also have the power, thanks to my silver serpent ring, to command information from any Serpents (well, only those seven) I happen to meet.

Onward to Adventure!

I trudge across the Baklands. First up in this no-man’s land is the Baddu-Bak Plains, which is nothing more than a dry, desolate waste devoid of anything remotely interesting. The most dangerous feature is probably the mind-crushing boredom that awaits all who set foot in this land. But wait, a cry! What could it be? It’s some angry birds.

At least it's not harpies this time!

At least it’s not harpies this time!

The boredom has driven all knowledge of useful spells from my mind, so instead I draw my sword. I am incredibly lucky to only take one wound from the avian offensive before a magical eagle appears and mauls them. It’s carrying a message from home. The message says I have to find and kill seven magical serpents if I want to stand a chance, for they will tell the Archmage of Mampang I’m coming. Apparently a fortress of evil has no defences ready unless they know trouble is coming – though I’m not complaining! The note also says to find someone called Shadrack the Hermit, who apparently knows everything that’s going on in the Baklands. Given that he lives in this desolate and tedious place I’m guessing that’s not too hard.

The goldcrest eagle has turned invisible and left, so I’m on my own. I set off, and take some lunch under a dead tree. The tree forms a face out of its branches tells me to go east to meet Shadrack. What a helpful dead tree. I set off to Fishtail Rock and meet the old hermit, who gives me some of his food and tells me all about the Seven Serpents. Apparently they were magically created from the heads of a hydra slain by the Archmage and given the powers of the seven gods he worships. One for each element, one for the sun and moon, and of course a time serpent. Oh goody. Shadrack knows that the air serpent can leave its body for a few minutes as a cloud of gas, but the body is still vulnerable. The serpents apparently keep their own weaknesses as their closest secrets (who wouldn’t?), but my serpent ring might help me there.

The next morning I set off back to the main trail. Shadrack gives me a galehorn before I go, which might prove handy for casting spells. On the trail I encounter some centaurs…

They're kinda metal. Or punk, since this was written in the early 80's.

They’re kinda metal. Or punk, since this was written in the early 80’s.

I cut a deal with them: I’ll cast a luck spell on them if they drop me off somewhere helpful. I can’t actually cast that spell, because I’m lacking one vital spell component: it actually existing in the first place. But they don’t know that. They suggest I could visit a caravan heading to Kharé, or Manata the Snake Charmer. The latter sounds like he might have some good advice for dealing with magical serpents, so I get them to take me there. It turns out Manta lives in a pit and has quite a few scaly friends. The one thing he wants is my borrinskin boots, which is no big deal since I found them at the bottom of a mineshaft. He trades me knowledge of the whereabouts of one of the Seven Serpents, which his sisters – the snakes – have found out.

I trek across the wastes, keeping an eye out for ophidian opponents. Instead a skeletal figure materialises. It’s a deathwraith. Except this doesn’t seem like suitably deathwraithy place for it to be hanging out, so I try to dispell it. Bingo! There’s an illusionist behind it. He’s more than relieved that I offer him a chance at not being killed, and gives me all his gold, a chakram, and some yellow powder to snort for one of my spells. I ask him if he knows anything about the Seven Serpents and he says he does, then screams out in fright at something he sees over my shoulder and keels over, dead. Gosh, I wonder what he saw behind me?

That's no moon!

That’s no moon!

Yeah, it’s the Moon Serpent.

It snuffs out all the light and tries to attack me. First I compel it to tell me some information – four guards are at the gate to the Mampang Fortress – and then I waste it with a fireball. Sucker. It dies and shrivels up into a ball, leaving behind a crystal orb, which I pocket. With nothing left to do here, I set off to the northwest, and find a caravan of dark elves who fire a few arrows at me just for effect. I tell them I’m a trader and they let me peruse their crowded shop.

Best shop in Fighting Fantasy EVER! Well, other than Yaztromo's Emporium Of Single Use Magic Items.

Best shop in Fighting Fantasy EVER! Well, other than Yaztromo’s Emporium Of Single Use Magic Items.

So much to choose from, so little gold. I grab a brass pendulum, some chain mail, and some more provisions. Then I decide to leave, since I’m not keen to spend the night in a trade caravan that fires arrows at every lone traveller they meet.

I camp out on the plains and eat cheese sandwiches. In the morning I head off to the northeast and meet a tiny little dwarf thing that zooms about very quickly. As I wonder to myself if it’s friend or foe, it tells me that’s up to me! Oh good, a mind-reading gnome. It demands a gift, so I offer it some of my bottomless supply of beeswax. The gnome turns out to be a sorceress in disguise. Diatainta, aka The Sham, is overjoyed by my gift of what amounts to industrial cement made by bees, and tells me how to take out the nearby Earth Serpent (which is no surprise because it’s obvious it’s going to be more powerful on the ground than in the air), gives me a vial of vapour to take on something called The Sleepless Ram, and gives me her serpent staff, which is made of oak and therefore a Staff of Oak Sapling. Then she turns back into a gnome and speeds off over the horizon. I can’t say I am not relieved though. Gnomes are trouble, and they’re always out there. Waiting…

Gnomes: The hidden killer.

Gnomes: The hidden killer.

I travel north and scout ahead from the top of a hill. On the way down a chunk of rock that I knocked loose comes rolling back up and hits my ankle. Um, okay, not what I expected. The top of the hill exploding is something I expected even less. I create a magical shield and hold it over my head as I run…. right into a pit that opens before me. Then a rock rises from the ground and starts to heat up. What the hell?! I jump up to get out and something bites my hand. I have a feeling I know what that was! I try again, and get bitten again, but this time I make it out of the pit.

On the surface, the ground starts to split open around the pit. A boulder up the hill is wobbling, getting ready to roll down and crush me. On top of that, a tiny little snake is coiled about my leg and is about to bite me. I think I’ll got for the tiny snake. Or not so tiny – it splits open and giant brown serpent with wings emerges. Right, then. Time to put this galehorn to use: I cast the Huf spell, which blows it into the air where it turns into a tiny green snake again. I catch it and break its neck. Job completed, I set off again.

I trek onward towards the Forest of Snatta, and camp for the night on the outskirts of this mysterious forest. Apparently there are things called snattacats living here. I don’t know much about them other than their name. What could they be? In the morning I set off, eyes peeled for these cats, gathering all kinds of things in the forest. Stone dust, sand, pebbles, yellow feathers, nuts and berries, leaves…

Now I have UNLIMITED POWER!

Now I have UNLIMITED POWER!

It’s a good thing I brought that large backpack back in Khare. Further along the trail a red snake slithers across the path. I decide to follow it, on the basis that it’s probably evil and needs to be killed with extreme prejudice. In the undergrowth I find it climbing a tree. Then it bursts into flames.

Only you can prevent forest Fire Serpents!

Only you can prevent forest Fire Serpents!

Right, it’s the fire serpent. I climb into the tree to fight it, like an idiot, and it drops to the ground. I follow (which is totally not code for “fall down”, no, absolutely not), and when it bursts into flames I chuck a handful of sand over it to put the fire out, and then kill the serpent.

This serpent killing has been pretty easy so far.

I set off further into the forest and stop for a rest on a fallen tree. It’s quite peaceful here. Except for that odd noise I just heard. What could it be? It could be the invisible thing that just bit me. I make like a tree and get out of there, and come across a door in a small hill. I know what you’re thinking: I have an important mission and shouldn’t get side tracked by underground lairs. Unfortunately, it’s too late for that, because I’ve already gone inside!

At the end of the corridor I find an elven woman staring intently at a crystal ball. I’ve had a pretty even run with witches, enchantresses, and magically inclined women on this adventure so I see no reason to not be reasonable here. I step into the room and say hello.

Sevent Serpents: Puffin Edition

Fenestra does me a huge favour since who knows how bad the Sun Serpent would have been to fight?

The occupant of this cave is Fenestra, a sorceress who is pleased to meet someone else who knows magic. I trade her a pile of teeth for a pearl ring I may find useful later for turning invisible related purposes. She then slyly tells me she’s trapped the Sun Serpent as bait for the Water Serpent, who she wants to kill in revenge for murdering her father. She even has a large supply of oil which will break its watery form up, and gives me some just on the off chance I meet it. I then demand information from the Sun Serpent and it tells me to beware the breath of the mucalytics. Um, okay, I’ll watch out for them, whatever they are. Fenestra also tells me that she gave some marsh goblins a scroll with a magic chant that can deal with the Time Serpent, and I’ll have to find them to get it. She also offers to sell me a whistle that will summon the ferryman at Lake Ilklala. Then she gives me a potion that cures disease. Then I get given the kitchen sink too.

As I set off again I consider that I might actually make it through this after all. I set off into the woods, following a stream. Then I trip over something I can’t see. Then I can see it, and so I finally get to find out what a snattacat is. Here’s what it is: A tiger that turns invisible. Damn, I didn’t see that coming!

The invisible tiger, pictured in its natural habitat.

The invisible tiger, pictured in its natural habitat.

Thankfully I have some magic that will fix the Snattacat problem. I produce my crystal ball and cast a spell that will let me see them, and thus can avoid them with ease – they’re obviously not used to having their edge neutralized. I wander out of the forest and camp out near the shore of the lake.

In the morning I use the Magic Whistle of Ferryman Summoning and he wanders out of the undergrowth. It’s hard to tell though because he’s so grubby it looks like part of the undergrowth came with him. I pay the four gold pieces required to get across and he goes off to get his boat. He’s a lot more surly when he comes back, even expecting me to row the damn thing. I’m not taking that, he’s the ferryman not the boat hire man. I tell him to get stuffed. Then it turns out he was – by the Air Serpent!

I’m not entirely intimidated by an animated wisp of air, because I know it must have stowed its body here somewhere. It’s in the deflated ferryman’s disgusting and rat-dropping filled pocket. The Air Serpent freaks out and tries to cut a deal. I don’t accept that, and shred the snakeskin, killing it. Of course, now I have to row the damn boat myself. I set off on my lake crossing, resolving that if I get back to Analand I’ll be creating some kind of flying spell, or teleporting spell, or rowboat-auto-rowing spell. Anything to avoid this irritating task. Look at me, powerful sorceress, quest to save the world from the armies or evil, and I’m having to row my own damn boat.

As I row I notice there’s bubbling water up ahead. Goodness me, I wonder what could be causing that? I’m pretty sure I know what’s causing that and sigh as I head towards it. The thing, whatever could it be, tries to capsize my boat but fails to tip me into the water. Suddenly up from the lake rises – big surprise – the water serpent. I’m not very impressed and compel it to give me some advice. Then I throw some oil over it, breaking the watery form of the creature up into thousands of droplets. No problem. Time to get off this lake.

Eventually I reach the Vischlami Swamp. It’s a swamp, you know? Full of mud and slime and water. Also marsh goblins running away from what I find out, thanks to wearing a ridiculous green wig to cast the spell that lets me speak any language, is a magical serpent. They show me the magical scroll they were given and I memorize the chant and promise to take care of the winged serpent troubling them.

Wait a minute, there's no spell of Read Magic in my spellbook!

Wait a minute, there’s no spell of Read Magic in my spellbook!

As I head off in the direction they came from I hope like hell this works. The Serpent of Time is probably bad news. I run into it and find out it’s terrible news, since it can slow me down to a crawl. I compel it to advise me while I mutter the chant under my breath. The serpent slows down in mid air, its own powers turned against it! I kill it easily and then trudge out of the swamps and into the foothills of Low Xamen. I can see the Mampang Fortress on the skyline as the sun sets. Well, this last stage of my quest should be fun…

Wrapup

Well it’s a lot better than I remembered, though I question why the author even bothered putting a possible score of zero serpents at the end of the book since you have to kill at least two to make it through to the end (whatever justifications you hear for this, the real one is the obvious PEOPLE MIGHT SEE IT IN ADVANCE). The book is very linear, though there’s a nice touch in that for readers who chose to use magic there’s more than one way to approach dealing with the serpents.

Suspension of Disbelief Shattered: What kind of rowboat lets the rower see what is in front of them?

Ridiculous Battle: There are so many hard fights for the unprepared adventurer!

Moon Serpent: Skill 13 Stamina 10 (7/6 with fire)
Earth Serpent: sk 12 st 14
Fire Serpent: Sk 13 St 12
Air Serpent Sk 11 St 14 (You have to hit it twice in succession and that only deals 3 damage. The serpent only deals 1 damage, but for every successive round it wins the damage is doubled)
Water Serpent Sk10 St 11

Of course all of them can either be severely reduced in power or outright killed with no effort.

Victory: All stats restored, permanent bonus to maximum Skill of 2, permanent bonus to maximum Luck of 1, and a special stealth ability in the next book. Pretty good, that. Of course that’s for the perfect victory of all seven.

What Was I Thinking? If you tell some goblin jokes to the trade caravan everything becomes half price. Of course, I wouldn’t have been able to buy everything I wanted anyway since that option requires dropping some gold on a meal first.

You can see a summary of the running totals here.

Kharé – Cityport of Traps

Previously on this Adventure

“Coming up: one trip to a sewer…”

Kharé: Cityport of Traps by Steve Jackson

Covers: John Blanche, Mel Grant.

Illustrations: John Blanche

Will I meet the dreaded slime-eater? Find out in this post!

Will I meet the dreaded slime-eater? Find out in this post!

Kharé is some kind of evil city which happens to be built over the only crossing of the Jabaji River, so I have to go up and try to find my way through to the mysterious Baklands. Oh goody. Kharé is so full of criminals and lawless scum that it’s littered with traps and deadfalls to catch out unwary thieves and adventurers (there is a difference, but it’s a bit academic at this point). Why do I have to bother with this? I have to cross the city to recover the Crown of Kings, of course.

Oh and all my stats and items carry over from the first book so I have a lot of stuff. Also bonuses and things like that.

Statistics

Skill: 8
Stamina: 18
Luck: 13 (Yeah, really. I got a bonus at the end of the last book)

Equipment: Sword, Backpack, 13 Gold Bag of Miscellaneous Teeth, Silver Key no. 111, Borrinskin Boots, Bomba Fruit, Ragnar’s Armband of Swordmastery, Spare Sword, Kharé Gate Key no. 12.

Spell Components: Flute, Goblin Teeth (4), Giant Teeth (1), Beeswax (1).

Special: I can call on Libra again. I didn’t do it in the first book, but it doesn’t accumulate like other items. Dammit. I also have the ability to name-drop some guy called Vik in some situations in the city. Oh and I might bump into someone who is grateful I didn’t kill him…

Onward to Adventure!

So picturesque! Until you realise those birds flying overhead are vultures.

This is going to be so awesome!

Well, there’s Kharé down the hill. A dirty nasty dump full of evil people who would kill me for my bootlaces. Well, good thing I don’t have to… wait, I do have to go in there. Dammit. At least I have the key to the city. I unlock the door and head on in. No-one is around so I stride ahead, and promptly get grabbed and thrown in the jail cell by the gate. That was fast. Most adventurers get thrown into jail after a few hours in a city. In the cell there’s a one-handed sorcerer, who tells me that I will need a spell to get out of the North Gate into the Baklands.

Why am I always being thrown into jail in these books?

Awesomeness so far: -200

“Do you know this spell?” I ask.

“No, only the First Noble of Khare knows the entire spell. But worry not, brave adventurer, for I can tell you that lines of the spell are four in number and-”

“Are each known by a prominent citizen of Khare and thus I may be able to find the spell after all though it will be a difficult task to find them in this dangerous city?” I finish for him.

“How did you guess?”

“Just a feeling.” I say as I turn to the cell door and magic it open.

Outside the old man strides away up the road to the right, while I’m left trying to decide where to go. I decide to opt for left, and carry on up the road. Unfortunately there’s some guards coming the other way so I duck into the nearest hut. It’s an opium den. I try in vain to get some information out of the elves inside but all they can do is vaguely motion me further along the road. Okay, whatever. I carry on past a fountain and a horse and find myself in midget town, where I visit the local store. I buy some gauntlets, a vial of dust, and a honeycomb with enough beeswax to last me for the whole trip to Mampang. The gauntlets are magical combat aids, and the vial actually contains sand which might come in handy later if I need to conjure up some quicksand.

Further up the road I find a grotesque statue wearing a gold locket outside a hut. The hut looks interesting, so I check inside. It’s full of bones. Probably human bones. Oh, okay, this is turning out great. I search around and turn up 15 gold pieces and a bracelet of knucklebones, which I take. As I leave I notice the statue has turned around and it’s looking at me. That’s odd. I cast a spell that lets me control creatures, and order it to give me the golden locket it’s wearing. Inside is a sun jewel, which is handy for spell casting. If this is the best this city can throw at me I’m not too worried.

As I wander the streets looking for a sign that says “NORTH GATE SPELL LINE HOLDER THIS WAY” I come across the local fairground. It’s rather noisy, full of all kind of ne’er-do-wells. For example, that assassin who tried to kill me in the Shamutanti Hills. He happens to know where someone with one of the lines for the spell lives, and takes me there before disappearing into the crowds to no doubt shank someone and take their gold. Whatever. I knock on the door of the house and am greeted by Lortag the Elder, sage, schoolteacher, and spell-line-knower. He will tell me the line if I can decipher some runes for him. It’s a trivial task. I am rewarded with the spell line and a green wig, which is rather dusty but will do for spell casting.

Further up the road I stop to look at the magical fires created by someone calling himself the Firemaster. They are boring, but he suggests I take a look at the “special” fire inside his hut. It’s a fire with no heat and also it’s totally not burning the chest in the flames. The Firemaster is outside so I cast a spell that negates magic and steal the contents of the chest and then get out of there with a quick “well it’s very nice, but I already have so many magical fires at home…”

I wander the streets. It’s very odd how everyone happens to have spell components in their houses. Maybe they are bait for spellcasters? If they are, then the traps probably shouldn’t be ones circumvented by simple magic. Maybe they’re bait for people who want to sell spell components to spellcasters? As I ponder such conundrums, I find myself back at the fair. I try out a bizarre cabinet which has random prizes and luckily win a talisman that makes me even more lucky. Score.

Cabinet of STUFF!

The booby prize is a minimite.

A few turns in the road and I’m outside a chapel. I wander in and find I’m in the chapel of the god of malice, who probably lives in an evil chasm somewhere.

This religion's golden rule says something about burning people's houses down for fun.

This religion’s golden rule says something about burning people’s houses down for fun.

Slangg’s high priest will ask anyone a question and if they can answer it correctly then they are granted one wish. By the god of malice. Okay that’s certainly shady. But simple maths puzzles are no problem, and if the malicious one wants more followers then maybe he should set calculus problems instead. I get a line of the north gate spell for my feats of amazing mathematical skill and head out into the mean streets. Outside the temple it’s getting dark, so I ask for directions to the nearest inn. When I arrive at the Wayfarer’s Rest it turns out to be a rowdy tavern and inn on the waterfront.

The innkeeper subscribes to the "pile of drunkards" school of tavern organising.

The innkeeper subscribes to the “pile of drunkards” school of tavern organising.

Inside I bump in to the assassin Flanker as he’s on his way out the door with some other shady types. He’s won big at the gambling halls and he gives me some of the winnings. Clearly he’s also drunk, but free gold is free gold and I’ll not argue when the prices here are exorbitant. Four gold for a meal? With no vegetarian option? It better be good. I give it a try… It isn’t actually too bad, come to think about it. The meat is certainly tasty. I finish up, get good and drunk, and then pay for a room for the night, which sets me back another four gold pieces.

I wake up to this:

Obvious trick number 372: When it's pull or release, pull is obviously the one people will choose.

Of all the women to wake up in bed with after a night of hard drinking, Madame Guillotine is one of the least attractive options.

The innkeeper has rigged up a deathtrap while I slept. This really is ridiculous.

“So uh, you guillotine the guests and cook them?”

“Muahahaha! Yes!”

“So I ate human flesh last night?”

“Muahahaha! Yes!”

“It wasn’t that bad, actually.”

“Muahahaha! Yes!”

“Are the exorbitant prices are because you don’t get a lot of repeat customers?”

“Muahahaha! Ye- wait a minute, don’t be a smartarse.”

I quickly assess the pulley system and release the rope, which makes the guillotine blade rise up.

“Wouldn’t it be more efficient to just cut people’s throats while they sleep?”

“Muahahaha, yes,” says the innkeeper dejectedly as he wanders off, leaving me free to untie myself and get the hell out of there.

On the other side of the Jabaji river I find myself in a little community full of spindly people with their eyes closed. This is probably extremely magical stuff, so I’m keen to avoid an approaching gang of surly youths. I weave through some side streets and duck into a hut. It’s full of miscellaneous stuff, and occupied by a gnome who offers to barter with me. I figure that I can offload some of my junk for some new junk, and take a seat and start rummaging in my backpack. In fact, as I rummage around I cast a spell on my spare sword to make it look like a pile of gold, and offer to exchange it for two of his items. I take a large backpack which will let me hoard more spell components with ease, and also an Enchanted Compass of North Gate Spell Line Holder Finding, which seems like it might be kind of handy if I miss the last person with the line.

Back out on the mean streets I find a fork in the road. The right way leads a short distance to the Gambling Halls of Vlada, and the left seems to lead out of town. In the middle of the road is a large bronze statue with a bucket of gold coins at its feet. Hmmm. What’s the bet that if I take the gold it will come to life?

This is one of those obvious traps that people simply cannot resist because hey, fighting a giant bronze statue! Who doesn't want to do that?

This is one of those obvious traps that people simply cannot resist because hey, fighting a giant bronze statue! Who doesn’t want to do that?

Pretty good odds, as it turns out. I’m not taking any crap from a giant statue, and throw my vial of sand at its feet and turn the ground to mud. I decide to waste a gold coin in the gambling halls and then head back outside to find a market being set up. While I have immense self control over gambling, I have none when it comes to shops selling weapons and equipment, and I walk away with a bow and silver-tipped arrows, tinderbox, some anti venom, and a pile of provisions.

Further along the road I find a cemetery. There’s a crypt which apparently holds the remains of the Fifth Noble of Kharé. Maybe there’s a spell line scribed on the wall or something. However, in front of the door is a shimmering black circle on the ground. I’ve seen a few of these, and wonder what the hell it is. I cast the handy dandy threat assessment spell and it tells me to not risk jumping over the circle, and to make sure I’ve got some gear ready before going inside. Gosh, I wonder if I’ll need this bow and arrows I bought earlier in a crypt?

Inside I head downstairs and witness a ghostly white ghost rise up from the sarcophagus.

I'm like this with Jehovah's Witnesses.

I’m like this with Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Despite my cynicism I’m too scared to cast a spell, and instead resort to shooting arrows at the deathwraith. It goes down like a thing that falls down easily, and then another ghost comes out of the coffin. It’s the now un-cursed Fifth Noble of Kharé, and he gives me the third line of the spell and tells me to look for someone called The Sham in the Baklands. I thank him and head back up to daylight. I wander past a wishing well that babbles couplets at anyone passing, and give a gold piece to a blind old beggar. Immediately a pair of harpies fly down to attack him.

"If I had a gold piece for every time those harpies stole a gold piece from me then I'd... still have no gold? Um..."

“If I had a gold piece for every time those harpies stole a gold piece from me then I’d… still have no gold? Um…”

I use some magic to turn a coin into a shield and get stuck in with my sword. The beggar actually gets a lucky shot in on one of the monsters, and eventually we win. The blind man turns out to be the former Seventh Noble of Kharé, and he knows the last line I need. Or most of it. All he can remember is By Courga’s grace and someone’s pride” which is not really helpful. I can maybe find out who the missing person mentioned in the line is in the temple of Courga down the road. He gives me a silver ring that looks like a serpent to make up for not knowing the spell line.

The shrine of Courga is possibly the most ostentatious building in the history of gaudy architecture, but Courga is the god of pride, I suppose. I look around inside and notice a black circle woven into the carpet that seems to be a portal of some sort. I avoid it and then go up to the idol. It’s got some instructions for some kind of ritual involving kissing the statue. Ew. There’s probably no end to the germs on that thing, but I have no choice. I go through the ritual and ask the idol what the name of the god of pride is, get told it’s Fourga, and then I skip out to the North Gate. I trick the guard by speaking in their native tongue – they apparently think I’m from wherever that is and don’t realise I was casting a spell when I shoved the green wig on my head and babbled some magic words – and they let me up to the gate. All I have to do now is put the spell in the right order.

Oh, for pity’s sake. What the hell is the right order?

I figure the line with no numbers is last and put the rest in in the order I got them, and hope like hell I’m right as I say the spell. The gate opens! I give a quick prayer to Libra to heal me, and then set off into the Baklands…

Let's blow this popsicle stand!

Let’s blow this popsicle stand!

Wrapup

And so conclude my adventures in Khare, the only city in the world where the population heard about Port Blacksand and thought “We can do better than that!”

This is a lot easier than I remember, but then I kept getting shoved into a sewer when I was young. I always thought it was necessary for some reason. Ha ha, no sewer trip for me! This is a pretty good book for exploring a city, possibly better than City of Thieves for the non-linear nature and the multiple ways to backtrack. Kharé is perhaps better as a setting than Port Blacksand because there’s some slight background for the lawlessness and wicked ways of the citizenry, but Port Blacksand wins on style points, having more varied shops and some really crazy encounters. Kharé is more of a run-down dump though, without any real law and order so it feels like a chaotic city where everyone is out for themselves and struggling to get ahead. I think it’s great that there’s two settings that are on the surface the same but ultimately come across as so different. For both books the illustrations and writing work together to convey it.

Woe is me, I never got to show off the Vik “spell” – which goes to show that it’s more of a special option for warrior-types to get out of a jam that a wizard would cope with easily. I do mean easily: The spells are at their most useful in an environment where there’s locks and traps everywhere. There’s a lot of use for utility spells in this one, possibly more so than the first book. Well, I suppose I’ll be seeing how things go in the next adventure.

Suspension of Disbelief Shattered: Why do they have guards on the north gate in the first place? It’s a magically sealed gate with a ghost made out of sulphur trapped inside to attack anyone who tries to open it.

Ridiculous Battle: Nothing ridiculous in terms of sheer overpowered opponents, but more in fairness. It’s a toss up between two scenarios. The deathwraith is ridiculously dangerous: You either have to win a couple of attack rounds to get the option to pray to Libra to kill the monster, or you have to have the bow and silver arrows, which involved winning an attack round and then testing your skill each time to see if you can hit with an arrow. Cruel! It’s only Skill 9 and Stamina 8, but imagine being a wizard in that fight. I used luck in that particular battle, since a luck of 13 makes me guaranteed to get four damage on the first two hits. Remember that wizards have an initial Skill score between 5 and 10, so basically this is game over if you don’t have some good bonuses.

On the other hand, the beggar only gives you the line if you give him some gold and then kill the harpies before they kill him. This means that once again a wizard is in deep trouble, unless you’ve got a super-high luck score: casting the Dum spell is the best bet, it takes out one of the harpies and then you can decide the other doesn’t attack him. But it requires a luck test! If he dies, no north gate spell for you… unless you backtrack and let him magically come back to life through the miracle of gamebooks not dealing with loops very well.

Victory: You get to feel smugly satisfied that you didn’t get killed by a Sulphur Ghost. And then realise you’re only halfway through the books and you’re going to have to take out seven super-powered opponents before you’re at the fortress.

What Was I Thinking? Getting that compass from the gnome. It’s mostly for people who don’t know what to do to get to the end of the book safely. As in, if you get to the gate guards without the last line of the spell you just turn to the right page and there you go.

If you want you can read the running tally of ADVENTURE.

The adventure continues in The Seven Serpents.

The Shamutanti Hills

“What do you mean, go and save the gi- huh? Kill the cave demo- Wait, what’s that ho- oh shi-“

The Shamutanti Hills by Steve Jackson

Covers: John Blanche, Mel Grant.

Illustrations: John Blanche

Now that is a fantasy landscape. Get out of the way, Manticore, you're blocking the view!

Now that is a fantasy landscape. Get out of the way, Manticore, you’re blocking the view!

This is the first book in the epic saga by Steve Jackson which makes for a serious and hardcore adventure. The goal is to recover a magic crown that gives people who wear it leadership powers. The evil Archmage of Mampang is going to use it to unite the lawless land of Kakhabad and invade all the other kingdoms, who will be powerless to defeat an army of evil from the Verminpit at Earth End. This is a bit of an embarrassment for the people of Analand, whose ruler had the Crown of Kings at the time. The other good nations of the Old World were a bit pissed that the artefact they’d been passing around was stolen. Well, I guess someone better trek across Kakhabad and get it back…

Wait, hang on, there’s a gimmick isn’t there? Yes, in this one there is: Magic. None of that Citadel of Chaos stuff where there’s a bunch of spells and you use them up and it’s mostly an exercise in having the right one. Here, if you choose to play a wizard, you get to cast spells from a list and often there’s more than one right answer. They cost stamina so it’s easy to overreach and die later because you tripped on a rock or something. This is supposed to be the “advanced” game but I think the warrior option – standard Fighting Fantasy rules – is a lot harder since as a wizard you only need to fight a couple of opponents. Oh I guess if you roll low for Skill you’re dead meat: Wizards only get 1d6+4 so it is apparently possible to roll so low that you have to take a narrow path picking up combat aid items for the few times you have to fight.

All right, enough mucking about. Time to trek across an entire country, save the world, and get some neat souvenirs!

Statistics

Skill: 8 (aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah!)
Stamina: 18 (AAAAAAAAAAAAH!)
Luck: 12 (That’s more like it!)

Equipment: Sword, leather armour, backpack, 2 provisions, 20 gold.

Special: I can call on Libra, the goddess of justice, for aid. She can restore all my stats, cure curses and diseases, or help me escape from deadly peril. But I can only do so once between Analand and Kharé.

Oh, and if I don’t eat and sleep each day I suffer penalties. This is a serious adventure, people!

Onward to Adventure!

I stay up late the night before my journey, studying my spellbook. I’m not going to be allowed to take it, so of course I’m paranoid I’ll forget all the spells about thirty seconds after stepping through the Great Wall of Analand and into the Shamutanti Hills. I tried to convince the local wizards to give up their spell components for the cause but they refused, the selfish gits. “Sorry, we don’t have any goblin teeth to spare,” said one, trying to prevent me seeing past him into the room where I could hear a groaning goblin. I think he was hiding some pliers behind his back, too. Oh well. I eventually go to bed, but have nightmares about my magical powers being drained away and having to survive by the sword. In the morning I think that was a foolish dream. I’ll be fine, really. I pack my supplies and get ready to head out. On this mission I have got the backing of all of Analand. That means two cheese sandwiches, and 20 gold pieces. It’s sort of like they think I’m going on a field trip. In a way I am going on a field trip…. TO CERTAIN DOOM!

My, what big eyes you ha- Yeah, okay, that's a tired joke.

My, what big eyes you ha- Yeah, okay, that’s a tired joke.

The guards at the wall – they have magical vision, which seems kind of handy – tells me that the whole region I’m going into is a lawless and evil place, which seems a bit redundant. But he does manage to tell me that there’s three routes from the nearest village to Kharé, and from the city I get to travel across the Baklands, which is a place where the lawlessness of the land even extends to the cycle of day and night.

This is going to be awesome.

I set off, still wondering why no-one would give me more than a couple of meal’s worth of provisions, a measly 20 gold, and no armour. The populace of Analand must really trust in my skills. I wish I could. I soon come to the village of Cantopani, where someone asks me my business there. I tell him I’m a trader and I get pointed towards the local merchant. There’s some interesting stuff there. I buy a bag of teeth, a musical pipe, and a battle axe. The bag of teeth has some goblin and giant teeth, and with the musical pipe I’m kitted out for some handy spells now. The axe used to belong to someone called Glandragor and has a number carved into it, so maybe I’ll find him and give it back. What are the odds of that, though? Next to nothing, I’ll bet.

On my way out of the village some bandits attack me. Or they try to. I just whip out my new flute and pied piper them back to the village with a spell and then carry on my merry way until I reach the fork in the road outside the village. As I stand there dithering I realise there an old man in a tree, apparently placed there by some Elvins. I help him down and am given a page from a spellbook for my trouble. As he hobbles off I notice there’s a beehive in the tree. I’m feeling brave, so I climb up and grab it. The bees somehow fail to sting me, and I make off uphill with some honey and the beeswax. It’s a lovely walk in the hills, not nearly so dangerous as I expected. As the sun sets I make camp and go to sleep…

Night Creatures: Creatures of the Night.

Here come the niiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiight creaaaaaaaaaaaaaatures!

…and am rudely woken by a werewolf which I see off with a costly spell. Clearly Night Creatures are going to be an ongoing problem when camping out in the Shamutanti Hills. In the morning I trek onward only to find a crossroads with a lot of heads on poles, and a big X on a tree. There’s a path downhill to the left or uphill to the right. I suppose uphill is better since if I have to flee it will be easier to do so running downhill. This is called tactics. I travel upwards only to find a clearing full of goblins, who are hauling rocks out of a cave. I sneak into the mine to see what can be found. What can be found is an angry goblin. Who doesn’t respond well to lightning. I grab a silver key from the goblin and head onwards through another door, only to have the roof cave in. I run ahead and fall into a pit, but my magic saves me from hitting the ground. At the bottom of the pit I find some boots, which are always handy. There’s also a way out.

I wander down the hillside and eventually find a small village called Kristatanti. The local alehouse seems like a good stop after my adventures in the mines.

Trick question coming up!

Trick question coming up!

I buy a drink and the barkeep asks me where I’m from.

“I’m from Analand,” I reply.

“And what?” he says with a smirk, and everyone in the tavern laughs. I hate my country sometimes.

I do manage to get some information from a local about the way onward, as well as a magic fruit. Then I head off to the inn, which is exorbitantly expensive for an establishment in the hills of almost certain doom, but certainly provides a good night’s rest. The next day I have to pick my way onwards, and I head westward, eventually coming to a junction which will take me straight on to Dhumpus, or west to Alianna. I heard about her, and think paying a visit might be interesting.

Her cottage is very picturesque. I knock on the door and get no reply, so I go in and find she’s locked in a cage. Apparently the Elvins did this. I don’t really think too hard about why she had the cage in the first place, but magic the door open for her. She offers me a choice of magical items or an aid in combat. I opt for the latter and get something called Ragnar’s Armband of Swordmastery, which might come in handy if I ever have to get into a proper battle. Unfortunately Alianna is bonkers, and she turns a chair into a wood golem to attack me.

I see you wish to play musical chairs! I will oblige you! Ha ha!

I see you wish to play musical chairs! I will oblige you! Ha ha!

I respond by producing my flute and casting the Jig spell, making the golem dance to my tune instead of Alianna’s. With the chair monster occupied, I back out the door and head for the town of Dhumpus. Thanks to my buying everything I found on the way into the hills I’m too poor to stay at the inn, so I camp outside the village and then make my way onward at dawn. The next town is… well… they have a crow tied to an overhang and everyone looks like they’re about to drop dead. I think this place might not be the best to hang out in, so I hurry onward. Further on, in the late afternoon, I come across a large village. Plus some pixie thing which wants to have a chat. The creature is a minimite called Jann, who thinks I’m going to be pleased with his company.

For pity's sake, put some pants on.

For pity’s sake, put some pants on.

The village is called Birritanti, and is in the throes of one of those irritating festivals where the underdogs get to behave like idiots for a day. In this case it’s the local children. I decide to go and have a drink at… Glandragor’s Tavern. Hey, what are the odds of that? He’s rather pleased to get his old axe back, and gives me a free pass for the local attraction, the Crystal Waterfall. I also get a spare sword, a free mug of ale, and told to look up someone called Vik in Kharé, who is apparently an old friend of the Glangrador’s and has some influence in the city. Though from what I’ve heard how anyone can have influence in a city like Kharé is beyond me.

The waterfall is sort of like the local therapeutic spring, which doesn’t do me much good since I’m not in need of healing but at least I am getting to take my mind off the mission. Then I camp down outside the town, and in the morning move on westward. I’m immediately attacked by an assassin looking to practice his swordplay. Well, that’s fine, I want to practice my magic…

It's not really assassinating someone to kill random travellers and take their money, is it?!?!

It’s not really assassinating someone to kill random travellers and take their money, is it?!?!

…but it doesn’t work. Jann yells at me that minimites are protected by an aura of anti-magic. THE HELL? He didn’t mention that before now? I draw my sword for the first time on this journey and get to it. The black clad bandit assassin psychopath puts up a good fight but I get in a couple of blows and then he surrenders. He’s called Flanker and is a bit embarrassed by all this, and says that he will remain a friend to me when I get to Kharé. I suppose the more allies I have in that city, the better. Flanker disappears into the undergrowth and I carry on, asking Jann if all minimites are bastards or if he’s just special like that.

Further up the trail an old woman sitting outside her cottage calls me over. Now, I don’t know about you but this seems slightly suspicious to me. An old woman, living in the dangerous and lawless Shamutanti Hills, happens to live on the trail and wants to have a chat to any passing sword-wielding ne’er-do-well? Probably a witch or sorceress or enchantress or something like that. Which means she’s got magic stuff! She claims she’s lonely living in the hills and offers me some tea.

I totally don't see a problem here...

I totally don’t see a problem here…

She bustles back to the kitchen for the teapot and I glance down at the cups. If she’s a shady character she’s drugged my tea, but would also expect me to be suspicious and give me the safe cup because a shady person would assume everyone else is like them. But what if she’s expecting this and it’s the other way around? Argh, ouch, my brain hurts… Whatever, I’ll just drink the tea. It’s pretty good. Hers seems to be kind of bad because she’s shaking and becoming sleepy. Haha, hahahaha. HAH. She bustles off to the kitchen and drinks the antidote, and then asks if I’ve met an old man with a spellbook page. I have, in fact, and offer it to her. She’s ecstatic, and offers to cast the spell. It’s a pest removal spell and even works on minimites. Oh, yes bloody please! Goodbye, annoying little sprite, hello magic powers! Gaza Moon is a nice enough old bat when you get to know her, and when she’s not trying to poison you.

I carry on, free of the annoying Jann, and finally reach Torrepani, which is a village of orc people called the Svinn. They’re a bit gloomy due to some kind of ancient curse that says if the chieftain’s line ever ends their village will be destroyed, and the only heir has been taken away and chucked in a cave with a manticore. Which I’d heard from Glandragor, but it’s always good to get the news from the source. Then they realise I’m a badass adventurer and throw me in a locked hut. The next day they tell me I’m being thrown down a cave to rescue the comely lass who was kidnapped. I am so surprised by this I will probably die from being surprised and the doctors of Analand will have to make up a new listing in the Big Book of Ways Adventurers Can Die.

Once in the cave I go left and left again, and find the Svinn woman who was kidnapped. Okay, so far so simple. The hard part is the manticore just showed up.

"Can you add more gore, and a dismembered torso?" "I thought you'd never ask!"

“Can you add more gore, and a dismembered torso?” “I thought you’d never ask!”

I immediately cast a spell to slow it down to a more manageable pace, and then hurl a fireball at it. It’s not very happy, so I summon a magical wall and run out of there (so heroic!) dragging the girl with me. Back at Torrepani everyone is happy and I get given some gold and a key to the city of Kharé. I also get magically healed and sent on my way the next day with the feeling that I’ve probably had it easy so far…

Usually I get given gold for killing orcs.

Usually I get given gold for killing orcs.

Wrapup

Summary!

The trick in this book isn’t really a trick for the book so much as an accumulation of bonuses for the next book (and others if you’re kind of lucky). It’s a good read though, and the lightweight adventuring means it’s a walk in the park for the experienced reader, but it’s a whole lot fairer than some of the later books. The truth is I love this book for the way it’s just an exploration exercise. Sort of like an Elder Scrolls game but with that Fighting Fantasy style which seems quite unique these days.

Suspension of Disbelief Shattered: In a world of magic, why haven’t the wizards gone and stomped all the minimites into a smear on the pavement yet?

Ridiculous Battle: The manticore is Skill 12 Stamina 18, but of course only a warrior has to fight it (and can potentially have a pretty good set of bonuses to make this fair). A wizard can totally mess it up with magic… providing she’s got enough stamina to survive casting the spells.

Victory: Fully healed and cured of curses and diseases, 10 gold, a key to the city of Khare, and a one-point increase to the initial luck score. Oh, and if you still have Jann he gets banished. I hate minimites.

What Was I Thinking? FLAWLESS VICTORY! Well, almost. There’s an item that makes one of the later books a lot easier that I didn’t get. I suppose we’ll see how that turns out later…

Phantoms of Fear

“Six?!”

Phantoms of Fear by Robin Waterfield

Cover: Ian Miller

Illustrations: Ian Miller

Demonic snot probably means one needs a Blessed Hanky +1, +3 vs. Demons.

Morpheus, Lord of Demonic Snot.

So… I’m a Wood Elf, I’m a shaman, I’m a warrior, I’m the defender of the tribe, I’m going to have to go and fight the demon prince Ishtra, I’m dead meat.

This is sort of novel for a Fighting Fantasy book, since the scenario is usually that you’re human. Okay I suppose you can imagine yourself being a Dwarf or an Elf, but I don’t think there’s anything overtly saying so outside of that one book where you can play a Dwarf. Perhaps it’s more significant that there’s some character background to this one. “Your father was a warrior and your mother a shaman” isn’t much, but it suggests there’s some kind of world there. Pity I’m not as good as either of them at their respective (and clichéd) skills. But since multi-classing is always cool, I suppose I’ll accept this. I’m the Defender-Shaman of the Tribe, or Eldenurin. I think that’s a Wood Elf title that means “defender-shaman of the tribe”. Incidentally, this tribe of Wood Elves lives in something called Affen Forest, on Khul.

Oh and in this book the main character is vegetarian. So for once I don’t have to pretend I’m carrying around a pile of cheese sandwiches. No, in this book I forage for food on my travels, because Wood Elves have an uncanny knack for finding cheese sandwiches in the forest.

Statistics

Skill: 9
Stamina: 17
Luck: 10

Power: 14

Power is 2d6+6 and reflects my magical abilities and my ability to lay the smack down in the dream world. It can exceed the initial value, so that’s good then.

Spells: I get six spells, with names like Levitation, Fire, Illusion, Weaken, Finding, and Protection. Casting them eats a power point.

Equipment: Sword (it’s called Telessa, which adds to the flavour), Backpack, Water Flask, Potion of Stamina, Leather Armour. Wait, I’m a Wood Elf, uh-oh…

Yes, 28 posts in and it's the first barely clothed fantasy woman.

Do you have any idea how hard it is to find a picture of an elf without a bow?

Okay, so not really in these books (Lizard King aside, it barely happens), but it’s such a cliché it sprang to mind unbidden.

Onward to Adventure!

I wake up from a bad dream. The bad part was that it was a dream where I volunteered to go and fight Ishtra. Demon princes are not exactly easy to take down, and it’s not like I’m a super amazing warrior or anything. I try to go back to sleep but instead have a dream about a the forest, and blunder around the dream world into a stinking mire with a big pit of evil at the centre. In the morning I decide to go and find this blighted area of the forest and defeat Ishtra. Partly because a stinky demonic blight will mess up the forest, but mainly because I want the creepy dreams to stop.

I head north, and take a nap after lunch and dream of a gladiatorial arena, where two people are fighting in some sort of “trial” of “champions”. An evil lord is overseeing this battle, and plans to use the winner against his brother in some nefarious plan. This arena owning evil type sounds like a real bastard, and I hope I never have to meet him. Then my dream turns into a dragon and I wake up with a start, only to find that I’m being attacked by a bloodhawk, which messes me up. But I kill it and head further north. There’s not much food to be gathered, because the forest creatures are hoarding it all in anticipation of being invaded by the forces of darkness. Or possibly adventurer season. I try to find something to eat and have to kill a wolf that has the same idea. Since I was brought up learning how to do magic instead of learning the fine and ancient art of Putting Pointy Things in Squishy Things Using Twangy Things, I have to do this the hard way. But I get a huge pile of food for my trouble, some of which I promptly scoff down because I’m nearly dead, and then I trek onward, through boggy ground and out again into the calm chill of dusk. I decide to climb a tree to sleep, using the catlike grace and elegance that comes naturally to my peop-

Ouch.

A branch broke and I fell out of the tree. I decide to sleep in a hollow log instead, and get to dream about a monster in a blizzard. I kill it using my awesome power of dream combat, and then wake up to find I’ve been sleeping in the hollow log that belongs to a Weevil Man. Weevil Men are mutated and twisted people who attack everyone on sight because they figure they might as well get things over with. I suppose he’s not too fussed about the whole invading chaos thing, since being twisted and mutated by the forces of chaos can’t make his life any worse.

I trek through the day and eventually come to the top of a hill. It’s going to get dark soon so I take up residence in a cave, and have one of those prophetic dreams. This one is about some pools which presumably represent something magical. In the morning I notice a tiny tunnel at the back of the cave. I have an urgent and pressing mission to defeat Ishtra and save Affen Forest, but I can’t resist the lure of a good cave. I crawl through the tunnel, find a chamber with a skeleton and some creepy lichen, and then carry on until I end up on the other side of the hill, looking out over a lush field of green, to the vast patch of blighted forest. Suddenly, a terrible cry echoes around me. I run for cover and end up in a fight for my life with a forest beast that had the same idea. Afterwards, I try to see if I can spot what made that hideous call. Nothing is visible, but while I’m turning about on the spot on the hillside the blighted patch of forest tries to shoot evil magic at me. However the hell that works. I luckily avoid whatever ill fate was in store, and proceed under cover down into the forest. There’s a lovely glade there, and I take the opportunity to wash in a stream, and then take a nap. Some fairy folk turn up and ask me to join their gardening collective, but I turn them down because I suspect being addled out of my mind might not be helpful when the demonic forces of chaos come to burn this allotment to the ground. I awaken and find the grove gone, but a magic tree is still here. I assume this is some kind of magical aid for me, and I snap off a branch from this unique and wondrous example of nature’s wonder. It’s not like I can dig the tree up and carry it with me, so vandalising it is the only option.

As I venture into the blighted area of the forest, I realise the dark and evil forces at work prevent me from casting spell. Oh drat. Average at magic and sword-stabbing, and now I can only do the latter. Such is the price of versatility: There’s always some sod with a magic-dead area. I proceed into the blight, and try to avoid a patch of dead ground. Instead I’m attacked by bloated, sickened roots. I am not a very happy Wood Elf. I decide to avoid the rot, and come across a trail. At the end of the trail is a fence of holly bushes, which surrounds a hut. The hut is dirty and ramshackle, and also presumably the home of the ramshackle and dirty madman who attacks me with an axe. He nearly kills me, which just goes to show that crazed determination is an adequate substitute for calculated efficiency when it comes to hacking at people with weapons.

I search the hut and find a piece of amber with a glow-worm trapped inside, still giving off light after all this time, and then sleep. My dreams are basically a evil tree trying to kill me. It does so, but it’s only in my dreams so I just wake up feeling rather cross. I then set off into the forest, avoiding the obvious trick that is a single deer in a wasteland of evil, and then proceed into an area where the blight is giving way to pure chaos. And also Dark Elves. Dark Elves are bastards, plain and simple. I break away and run, fighting them on the move. Unfortunately my combat skills are not nearly good enough to kill them all before they can catch me.

"Grrr! I am angry because living underground sucks!"

Dark Elves in Fighting Fantasy are not barely covered sexy women, either. They’re also not very angsty. What they are is genocidal.

Wrapup

Yes, no scans of the illustrations for anything I saw in the book were around apart from that last one, which is one of the incidental pictures in the book. It seemed appropriate for the ending.

The atmosphere of the book is great. It’s a journey through the forest, with dreams as guidance each night, and then a slow creep through the blighted area, and finally (just after I died) you get to enter a place where the real and dream worlds overlap, and can flip between them in certain locations.

Woah.

The thing that really got me was, it’s a very engrossing story because the plot – basically, some evil stuff messes up the forest – is conveyed as being alarming and distressing. Normally I’d be annoyed by the book telling me how I feel about things, but in this book it’s not that invasive because playing a Wood Elf with the full gamut of in-tune-with-nature background means the protagonist supposed to be all miserable about the dismal decay and dire destruction.

Dream combat is unfair. Each attack round is a roll of two dice, and a roll of 2-7 means you lose 2 Power points, and 8-12 means the opponent loses 2 Power. So opponents have a higher chance of winning right away. I suppose it’s not meant to be easy. Speaking of the Power score, it also serves as a personal presence meter, which lets you befriend the crazy hermit who is a former adventurer from over the seas, who lost his mind after getting lost in something called The Maze of Zagor. (didn’t we all?), and get an ally for a brief section of the book. My Power score was a little bit too low for that, though.

Suspension of Disbelief Shattered: That a bunch of holly bushes can keep out the creeping darkness that is the blight of Ishtra.

Ridiculous Battle: That Dark Elf brawl. Six opponents, one at a time, but if you don’t kill each within four rounds another turns up and gets free hits until your first opponent is dead. At that point I had a Skill of 8 and so I wasn’t going to get far.

Victory: The assurance that the forces of Chaos will tear themselves apart as Chaos is wont to do without a powerful demonic influence maintaining their co-existence, a quick escape, and the knowledge that the forest will soon start to recover from the blight. There’s also an ending for beating Ishtra in the dream world, which I never found.

What Was I Thinking? Taking that nap in the clearing. Cute easter egg be damned, it cost me a point of Skill!

Scorpion Swamp

“Oh god this is way harder than I remember”

Scorpion Swamp by American Steve Jackson

This thing does not even look like a scorpion!

Well whatever that is, I suppose I’ll have to fight it. In the yellow void it calls home.

So, judging from the fact that everyone points it out, I’m going to assume not doing so will invoke a terrible demonic curse and/or result in my house being swallowed into the blazing depths of the earth, and I’ll instead play safe and tell you all that this was the first book in the series written by someone who wasn’t an author of The Warlock of Firetop Mountain. Of course, just to confuse everyone they found another person with the same name. American Steve Jackson is the one who founded Steve Jackson Games. He wrote this one, Demons of the Deep, and Robot Commando. They’re all pretty good, and I think they need to be reprinted.

Unfortunately the problem with Scorpion Swamp is that the art has never looked that good in any copy of the book I’ve seen. The art is obviously good, but the reproduction via printing is not that wonderful. So the pictures I’ve got are not amazing, being bad scans of badly printed art.

The book itself is really interesting, being one where there’s the ability to backtrack. You can walk backwards and forwards between locations. Stupendous! Also silly! On top of that there’s three different quests to choose from, all of which involve working for a wizard or merchant based wizard substitute. These wizards provide handy gems that contain single-use spells, so I’m going to get to throw some magic around. There are good spells, neutral spells, and evil spells. Hey there’s also three wizards at the start. I wonder what they’re like?

I remembered this book being pretty easy, so I gave myself a handicap and took the lowest stats. Then I died repeatedly… before getting into the bloody swamp. So, naturally, I gave up on that idea.

Statistics

Skill: 10
Stamina: 18
Luck: 11

Equipment: Sword, chainmail (score!), backpack, magic brass ring that lets me always know where north is and also grows warm when I meet someone evil (mental note: Don’t ever visit Port Blacksand).

Onward to Adventure!

Only an idiot would go into Scorpion Swamp, because it’s impossible to find your way out once you’re in there. So naturally as soon as I get a magic ring that lets me know which way is north I decide to rampage on into the swamp… like an idiot, because it’s also full of monsters. In fact, when I get to the town of Fenmarge and tell the occupants of the tavern that I’m going to explore the swamp, sort of like this:

“Ho there, good townsfolk! I am going to explore Scorpion Swamp! Ha ha ha!”

Everyone thinks I’m mad. They point out that there’s now a bunch of wizards living in the swamp, which only makes it seem more appealing to me. I am an adventurer, after all. However, someone tells me that I should get some assistance from one of the local wizard-type people in exchange for my service as a stabber of things. This seems like a good idea. I ask who these people are. There’s the good wizard Selator, the mysterious and comically named Poomchukker, and then there’s some guy called Grimslade who lives in a tower on the edge of town. Grimslade sounds cool so I’m going to go work for him.

Unfortunately, asking directions to Grimslade’s tower involves people running away from me or making signs to ward off evil. I’m sure that’s all a misunderstanding, really. So is the fact that my magic ring starts to get hot as I approach the tower. I walk up to the door, which flies open, revealing a man who is clearly an evil wizard. Skeletal, old, black robes with glowing sigils, what do I need this magic ring for? But hey, he’s probably loaded and so I might as well see how this pans out.

“So,” says Grimslade, “what makes you think you can survive the swamp?”

“I’m an adventurer, and the swamp is full of wizards, which means the odds are on my side. Killing wizards and taking their stuff is what adventurers do!”

Grimslade responds to what I now realise was a sort of threatening thing to say to a wizard who is clearly evil by bringing a statue of a Goblin to life and having it attack me. I clobber it with the furniture, which only annoys the wizard.

“You wrecked my parlour!” cries Grimslade, apparently forgetting something. I waste no time in reminding him….

“Well this battle was your bright idea,” I reply. He flies into a rage and attacks me, and I only just manage to kill the evil wizard. This really didn’t work out so well. I grab his magic sword and get out of there, because I’m fairly certain the stench of brimstone and increasing heat from the magic ring means some bad shit is about to go down. As soon as I get a short way from the tower it explodes, which happens much more often than you would think. Hmmm, who will I work for now? I guess if evil didn’t work out so well, It’ll have to be good. Some wandering around takes me to Selator’s house, where he informs me that he needs me to find a sample of the rarest plant in the world, which has been all but wiped out by evil wizards. He gives me my choice of six spell gems. I take five miscellaneous ones and one to heal me after my adventures killing Grimslade, and then set off to the swamp.

Scorpion Swamp is pretty much as expected in the swamp department, but I notice a distinct lack of scorpions. I wander around, and eventually come into a clearing with a little signpost that bears the number 17. Sitting off to one side is someone who, judging from all the spiders swarming about, has some kind of magical spider powers.

That is a pretty cool spiderweb throne he's sitting on. Pity I'm going to burn it.

Spider Wizard! Spider Wizard! Look out, here comes the Spider Wizard!

My ring suggests he’s evil, so I do what adventurers do best and attack. The Master of Spiders goes down easily, and then his eight-legged friends come after me. I grab his magical spider controlling amulet and the fail-safe sets his body on fire. Okay, whatever, I’m out of there.

I still haven’t seen any scorpions in this swamp. But I have found he most dangerous lawn in existence, and I don’t have any choice but to chop it up. Afterwards I head off east and meet some Swamp Orcs. They are, like most Orcs, violent and prone to attacking people they meet at the least provocation in order to steal their stuff. This is disgraceful behaviour that no civilized person would ever conte- oh, yeah. Aha. Right. As for the Swamp Orcs, I take an arrow to the sword arm, and decide that this impudence warrants killing them. Unfortunately they are uncivilized and all attack me at once. All three of them. I fight valiantly, and am near death when I somehow win. I am delirious with pain and thus can’t count the gold I loot from the Orcs. After using one of my spells to heal myself, I stagger off into what should really be called Scorpionless Swamp.

It’s not so bad in the quieter parts of the swamp. There’s pools of fresh water, lovely natural scenery, scorpions… Scorpions?! A horde of them! Argh! I leap over the horrible things and make a hasty exit from the clearing I was in. Right. So all the scorpions live in a single clearing. They probably do this to lull people into a false sense of security. I run away to the north, crossing the bridge over the Foulbrood River and then coming to a clearing with a huge tree which has a large nest atop it. It also has a huge eagle watching me. Oh dear. I cautiously back away until I’m out of sight of the bird, an turn around, relieved to be away from that impending death by comically oversized variant on a normal creature. My happy moment is ruined, because right behind me was an enormous scorpion, currently busy killing a Dwarf. I figure a giant scorpion is probably a bit easier than a giant airborne adversary, kill it, loot the dead Dwarf, and travel onward, only to meet someone who claims to be a ranger.

“You don’t have two swords,” I say.

“Don’t stereotype,” he replies. “Look, I’ll ask you if you serve good or evil, will that do?”

“Okay, fine: ‘I serve the forces of good’ now do you know where this magic plant of good magicness is?”

The ranger does not, but he directs me to the home of the Master of Gardens, who is relieved. He moved into this deadly swamp because he was continually being harassed by people looking to score some weed.

Look, it's just some guy. I don't know what else to say!

But he’s still not your average hortifuckingculturalist.

He tells me that I should backtrack a bit and then head east. Naturally his awesome magical control of plants doesn’t extend to opening a path through the undergrowth. I head back the way I came, and eventually meet a giant. He’s apparently upset because he lost his handkerchief but I can’t help him there. I manage to get past and then find myself in a clearing with some wolves. I chop the head off one and the body off the other and then find the bush Selator sent me out here for. I grab a sample of the plant and get out of there. Unfortunately my backtracking is stopped when I reach the clearing that the Master of Spiders lived in, because it’s still on fire. I am forced to try and find a new way out of the swamp.

I wander around for a bit and find a clearing which contains a unicorn. It’s been injured, and is also angry at me. Since I don’t want to incur the wrath of whatever folkloric curse will crash down on me for killing a unicorn, I leave, and come across some clown eating cheese in the swamp. According to the magic ring, he’s evil. So I kill him. You know, it would be clever to make a ring like this but have it misidentify some good people as evil. That would be funny. I continue onward, finding the river, following it west, and then back south and finding the clearing the unicorn was in. It’s gone now, so I’m free to pass through.

The next open space happens to have a bunch of trees wielding swords lying in wait for travellers. Where the hell do they get the swords? I could go back and ask the Master of Gardens, but that’s much to far to walk just to satisfy my curiosity about some plants. So I kill them. I then proceed southward, freezing a stream to get across, mutter “whatever” at the Master of Wolves, and finally leaving the swamp, heading back to Selator’s house to hand over the berry from the Antherica plant. My reward for all that danger-defying, death-dealing, daring-do is… a sandwich. What the hell? I clearly should have tried working for Poomchukker.

Wrapup

For crying out loud. Just getting to work for Grimslade is an exercise somewhat akin to fighting Balthus Dire. But worry not, fans of evil! I will return to this book at a later time to engage in foul deeds and wicked ways, since I skipped over the best parts of the book by doing the good quest.

This book looks easy but it’s not. Mainly because you have No Food. It’s quite scary in one of these books to have no provisions. And this isn’t Starship Traveller, where it’s possible to think quickly and get through the adventure without dying. No, this is a book where you get completely slaughtered every three locations. Which is fine! Really! But with a choice of only six spells, resources are tight.

For some reason some people don’t like this book. I think it’s because there’s a difference between a book with a clear quest and one with an open field of play that you just get to explore and see how well you can cope. It’s the Morrowind to other FF book’s Neverwinter Nights (I am slowly running out of gamebooks to die horribly in read, maybe I should review some computer games?). Exploration is the point of the missions, not a side effect of them. For some people that’s tedious. For me, it’s a nice change of pace.

Suspension of Disbelief Shattered: The sheer volume of people who hang out in the impenetrable, impassable, impossibly dangerous, inescapable swamp. How the hell does that thief spend his ill-gotten gains when he’s stuck in the swamp?

Ridiculous Battle: If you tell Grimslade about your magic ring he summons up a Demon which is Skill 16 Stamina 12. So far it’s the fourth most powerful enemy I’ve found in these books. It’s about six paragraphs in.

Victory: Okay so for completing the good mission I got “some healing potions and a hot meal” – What the hell, Selator? I just waded through the Scorpion Surprise Swamp and the best you can give me is some food? Okay sure so that probably healed me, but now how about, say, a bucket of spell gems? Healing potions are so cheap on Titan that every second adventurer has one in her backpack before she starts her quest.

What Was I Thinking? Trying to work for Grimslade. I tried FIVE TIMES. If you take too much damage fighting his Goblin Statue, there’s no way to get the job, because he just attacks you. Damn it.

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.

Temple of Terror

“It’s like a diabolically lethal episode of Sesame Street.”

Temple of Terror by Ian Livingstone

Well, this is embarrassing. It seems this one is a sequel to The Forest of Doom. So: I definitely got the dust of levitation, managed to get that casket open, killed the ghoul, and got the hammer to Stonebridge, where I’ve been resting up after my adventure in the National Park of Doom.

Plotwise: find some stuff and kill the villain. This is a generic adventure with some magic loaded in. Not the simple magic of Citadel of Chaos, but the more risky stamina bleeding type from the Sorcery books. About a third of the adventure is trekking through the desert to the site of the real action, too. Variety is the spice of life, folks. The lost city really doesn’t feel like a city, just some passageways to wander through.

Statistics

Skill: 10
Stamina: 20
Luck: 8

Equipment: Standard issue sword, backpack, leather armour, 10 provisions. But no potion. Who needs potions when you get magic? I suppose I also have that gaudy helmet from the end of Forest of Doom.

Onward to Adventure!

I’m resting up in Stonebridge after recovering the hammer of the Dwarves when Yaztromo comes bustling in to town and recounts a story about how some evil wizard is going to go and find some magical dragon artefacts, turn them into real dragons, and then some Dark Elves will give this evil wizard some ancient evil secrets and then… oh, right. Death, destruction, chaos, the usual. He asks for a volunteer to go out into the Desert of Skulls, find the lost city of Vatos, and take down this Malbordus character.

Killing wizards is what adventurers do best. “I’ll do it!” I boldy cry. Yaztromo answers with “Do I know you?”

I remember the time warping powers of Darkwood Forest and tell him it’s not important. He then leads me out of the village and back through the forest – such a novel experience to travel south through Darkwood – and eventually we get to his tower. He offers to teach me some magic, which sounds handy. I opt for Create Water, Fire, Open Door, and Read Symbols. All self-explanatory, and useful. I enquire about the handy magical items he usually sells, figuring a backpack full of magic items is always handy.

“Them? They’re cheap junk for rubes.”

Right…

I am promptly sent off towards the Catfish River, which I can follow to Port Blacksand and then catch a ship to the Desert of Skulls. Alternatively, I can take an overland hike. I figure a ride on a river barge will be relaxing, and pay for passage. Eventually Port Blacksand comes into view. Naturally, a band of ruffians tries to rob me within two seconds of my getting off the barge. They’re probably employed by the Port Blacksand Tourism Board. When your city has a reputation as the City of Thieves then you want to make sure people don’t go away saying, “no-one tried to rob me, what a rip-off!”

I find an inn called the Black Lobster, and arrange passage on a ship headed south. Since this is a drunken pirate tavern, it’s only a matter of time before I end up in a fight with someone, and I skewer him good and proper. The next day I skip down to the wharf, find the ship, and the captain tells me that I’ll have to help load the cannons in any battles, because one of the gunners was killed in a tavern brawl by some madwoman.

Right. Off to a good start, then.

Naturally the first ship we meet is a man-o-war, and the Belladonna is sunk quickly. I swim for the ship, hoping they aren’t the sort to execute pirates. It turns out to be a ship full of Dwarves, so I make with the fast talking and the name dropping and they offer to give me a ride to the desert. Things are looking up, since the alternative was swimming there. Unfortunately, the desert is exactly as advertised, and so I trudge along the coast gloomily wondering why all-powerful wizards can’t procure magical maps. Alas, my day at the beach is cut short due to some warnings marked out by shells, so I have to turn inland. I’m promptly beset by three enormous wasps. I trek onward, looting a corpse, and later trading a silver button I looted from the robbers in Port Blacksand for some water from a passing camel rider. I know, killing people for their buttons is wrong, but they probably stole those buttons from someone else in the first place. So, actually, I liberated the ill-gotten buttons from the evil thieves, who are in a way sort of like tax collectors. I’m practically a folk hero!

After the sandstorm that springs up as soon as I think how it could be so much worse and at least there’s no snowstorms like up in the Icefinger Mountains, I find a discarded bell. I’m an experienced adventurer so I don’t think twice about hoarding every stupid item I come across just in case they come in handy later. Onward, I find a tent staked out in the middle of nowhere. It turns out the occupant is a trader, and he sells me some interesting items, including a gristly bracelet of mermaid scales. I know it sounds wrong, but he assures me they were evil mermaids.

Following the advice of the trader I set off southward, and suddenly am beset by a sandworm. I’m overcome with a sense that this thing is very familiar, but I can’t quite place it. I kill it anyway. Onward, through the scorching desert I travel. Over dune and through… that gap between dunes, whatever it is… past the obviously poisoned oasis, ever closer to my goal. It’s not so bad out here, really. There’s monsters, sure, but the splendour of the stark environment is to be marvelled at. Take, for example, the interesting pile of rocks I found. Look at the interesting way they have tumbled together, and the way the sand has partly covered them. Look, if I move one you can see… me being stung by a scorpion.

I don’t like this desert any more. It’s a rubbish desert.

In the crevice I find a bag containing a glass ball, inside which a tiny sprite is trapped. I smash the ball, and the little sod throws some pixie dust at me and says I should make a headscarf out of the bag, since eventually I will die of sunstroke, and also that golden winged helmet looks ridiculous. It’s probably a good idea, and so I do. The desert heat is a bit much, after all. After some more walking through the endless sands, I come across a city half buried in the sand. Vatos! My Open Door spell makes quick work of the side door next to the half-buried gate, and I make for the nearest building. Inside, my adventurer instincts take over and I start looting everything in sight. I’m having a ball, because this is a lost city so I should be in the clear to do whatever I want. Thus, when I walk around the corner and am tapped on the shoulder, I’m quite shocked.

It’s not the Vatos Police, instead it’s an emaciated slime dripping thing which gurgles “DEATH” at me. Oh blast, it’s the Messenger of Death. This annoying creature is legendary, not only for it’s disgusting appearance, but also because it has a pathological need to play stupid games. “So,” it says breezily, “here’s the deal. I run around the city and scribe the letters of the word DEATH-” it reverts to the horrible gurgling for that word “-and then if you find them all, I get to kill you!” The Messenger of Death shoves a pencil and small card into my hand. It has the letters d, e, a, t, and h in bold print, and a checkbox under each one. “So, check off the letters so I know if you’ve seen them, okay? And remember: DEATH.” With that it runs off. I look down at the card and consider that maybe I should have told Yaztromo to do this quest himself. I sigh and continue into the city.

Further on I find a hidden door, and inside am attacked by a giant centipede, which is guarding a bucket hanging from the ceiling. Well, let me tell you, any bucket being guarded by a giant centipede is a bucket I want to look inside! It turns out it’s lucky I did, because one of the dragon artefacts is inside. Through the other door of the centipede bucket room I meet a giant floating spiky ball with a single eye. “You,” I say, “would look cooler with tentacle eyestalks.” This only serves to make it very angry, and it tries to mesmerise me. I respond by closing my eyes and stabbing wildly, taking it out in one hit. No problem. After wandering through some more passageways I find a ladder, and clamber up. In the room at the top is a gnome, who stares incredulously at me. “Are you wearing a bag on your head?” he asks. “It was hot outside,” I reply as I sheepishly take it off, replacing the helmet on my head. The gnome fills me in on the city. It seems the lost city is not so lost any more, and some of the passers-by who stop in the city for shelter stay. The high priestess sends out raiding parties to loot caravans for food. It all sounds a bit unstable to me, but I suppose it’s how things are here. The gnome asks me if I have a telescope, and I trade one I picked up somewhere for a look through his cache of flotsam. The gnome just so happens to have the crystal dragon, meaning I have three more to find.

I travel deeper into the maze under the city. After killing skeletons and raiding tombs, the corridor slopes downward into a chamber half filled with water. I figure there’s got to be something horrible in there, and wade in. Thankfully the tentacled thing runs away from my bracelet of mermaid scales, probably because anyone wearing something that evil is to be avoided if you live in the water. Further on, picking up the sliver dragon which was left lying around, I come across a phantom, who tries to murder me with its deadly gaze. Whatever. I just throw a button at it and it collapses into a pile of dust. The undead in this city are particularly flimsy. Further on I find a long display of tapestries, and I steal one with an impressive phoenix picture embroidered on it, because that’s what adventurers do. Then I go and look at a mural depicting orcs driving a horde of undead to destroy a massed army of humans and dwarves. It’s not bad, and the artist is still working on it. It’s part of the high Priestess’ Vatos Arts Festival. Win, or be sacrificed to the evil gods. I have finally found a group of people more foolhardy than adventuers. How the hell do they get past the sandworms to get here? Stab the things with their paintbrushes? Embroider them to death?

I wander past various torture chambers, riddle rooms, and boring nondescript passageways until I find myself in at a door with a donation box. Wondering what will happen, if anything, I drop a coin in. It causes a panel in the door to flip up, with the letter T scrawled on it. I wince in pain, because the messenger of death uses a really ugly font, and cross off the letter on the card. Inside the door it is pitch black, and so I can’t see the blade set at shin height.

After my adventure in the Corridor of Hidden Knives I come to a room strewn with garbage. It’s a bit disgusting, but I consider searching through it all. Unfortunately then a one-eyed mutant with a magic blasting rod comes in. “I’m collecting for charity,” I say, hoping it doesn’t notice the sword and armour and blood running down my leg. I frantically dig out that bell I found in the desert and ring it, as though I’m collecting for orphans. The sound causes the undead monstrosity agonising pain, which is good. But it drops the rod, which somehow causes the ceiling to lower. I grab the rod, open the door using a key I happen to be carrying, and saunter out, throwing the rod over my shoulder and listening with a wry smile to the crunch of the Night Horror being crushed.

I find myself in a room being used by a wood carver, who is working on a wall carving of the city being attacked by sandworms. I inspect it more closely, and find a secret panel containing yet another dragon statuette. One more to go. I carry on through the next door, and find myself in a room full of weapons and insane cultists. To be honest, I’m surprised it took this long. I make up some story about delivering a gift to the high priestess, and they buy it, but won’t let me wander around to find her. I hand over one of the now-useless keys made of valuable metals I already found the door for and make a hasty exit. After killing some stone hands stuck to the walls (i.e. I hit them until they stopped trying to hurt me), I reach a turning where to go straight on I have to pass under a shower of golden ran. This is possibly a bad joke, but I know the high priestess is in here somewhere and if I’m right the last dragon will be there too. I step through. Inside is a luxurious room, with wonderful works of art, and splendid furniture, and cushions everywhere, and an angry guard, who I kill. Feeling tired after murdering my way through the city, I decide to take a nap.

I’m woken by someone coming in to the room, and before I can explain – by which I mean, make up a story – he summons an air elemental. That’s not good. I notice the phoenix symbol on his hat and drag that tapestry out of my backpack, and at that he believes anything I say. Once he’s gone I turn to the door, and try to magic it open, only to find my ability to cast spells has been taken away by that shower of rain at the door. I’m forced to use my sword to smash the lock, and then I find myself in a short passage with two doors at the end, each with ancient runes inscribed in them. That would have been no problem if only I had the ability to cast spells. I go through the right hand door, and come to a room full of hieroglyphics. Wow, I bet they would have been interesting to read. What a shame I can’t cast that useful spell any more. My attention turns to the clay pots on the floor.

One pot has a copper ring, which may or may not come in handy. Another jar contains a monkey paw, which will no doubt be bad news, and the third contains… the letter E. It’s not that I have to mark the stupid letters off on the card, it’s that they magically hurt me when I see them. If the Messenger of Death picked a longer word, e.g. apostrophe, he’d be guaranteed to not have to turn up after a victim finds the last one. I carry on, and come into a room filled with treasure. Now this is what people get into the sword wielding maniac profession for. I grab myself the incredibly valuable golden skeleton statuette, then open a golden casket and find a note which says “The Messenger of Death awaits you.” This is confusing, because I’m not sure if this counts or not. It hasn’t seared me with supernatural power, and though I’ve just seen all the letters in the word “Death” all at once no slime drooling monster has turned up to kill me. I decide to get out of there in a hurry anyway.

I wander on, pillaging a fruit bowl, and find a pair of skeletons guarding an archway. Or, really, part skeletons. They only have skulls for heads. Skeletons are normally not a big deal, so I figure these half-skeletons will be even easier, since they can bleed. Through the archway I find Leesha, High Priestess of Vatos, who is being fanned by a servant. She snaps her fingers and the fan-wielding fiend attacks. Fan versus sword is not going to go down as the most heroic of battles, so I won’t go into too much detail. Suffice to say, I find it to be a breeze.

I decide to try stabbing Leesha with a sandworm tooth, for no good reason other than the thought pops into my head. She flees, since I have found her one weakness. I’m not sure that qualifies as a sorcerous weakness, considering sandworms are enormous and can kill hardened adventurers. It’s more like a general weakness everyone has. I pursue, pausing to poke at a statue of a dog. A golden dragon falls out, completing the set of evil artefacts. Poking at the fittings has never been so productive. I chase the evil priestess down another corridor, and come across a badly sunburnt dwarf, who is carrying a hammer. I stop and ask him what he’s doing here. Apparently he was sent by Yaztromo to deliver me a warhammer, since nothing else can smash the dragon artefacts. Always with the last minute advice, these wizards. “Hey, this hammer looks familiar,” I say. “Yes, it’s the hammer of Stonebridge,” he replies. “Try not to lose it.” With that he falls over dead. You know, any old warhammer would have been fine. I bet if he’d died in the desert I’d have had to go trekking around the dunes looking for the damn thing.

I run onward, and find myself in a room with a circular pit. I feel overwhelmed with the urge to smash some things with a hammer, and wallop the bone dragon into splinters. So far, so simple… Except Malbordus comes floating out of the pit. He’s not very happy that I beat him to the dragons. Unfortunately for him, the ring I hauled out of that urn turns out to block his baleful magic, and so it comes down to fight to the finish: evil sorcerer with a cursed sword against magicless woman with a warhammer and an ostentatious winged helmet. I prevail, and then smash the remaining dragons to pieces.

Victorious in my quest to slay the evil sorcerer, and destroy the evil artefacts, I wander out of the room and find my way up some stairs and outside. I’m in the middle of a temple full of evil fanatics, in a city full of evil raiders, in a desert full of giant sandworms. No giant eagles are forthcoming to snatch me from the battlements and take me home. I shrug, and head for some nearby steps to get down to ground level and find my way out of the city. Nothing in the job description says the adventure stops just because the villain is dead.

I’m just not sure how things will go in the desert now I can’t magically create water any more…

Wrapup

Livingstone is notorious for making his books require certain items to win, but here it’s not too bad. Five dragons, one telescope, and a hammer. Only the telescope isn’t clearly laid out at the start (I would assume that talking to the dwarf with the hammer is obvious). Most of the other items that make the book easy to solve are non-essential, so it’s entirely possible to get through it with minimal struggles – provided you have decent stats and make a few lucky dice rolls. Some of the spells are not essential either, and that makes the book really fun. Unfortunately the telescope being required does mean there’s only one way to get to the city. Miss any of the dragons, and the adventure ends just before the spot where the climactic battle would happen with you seeing Malbordus flying away on one of the ones you missed.

It’s a very lethal adventure. You need about twenty units of provisions to make it through, since you’re burning stamina for spells and there’s some mandatory combats and also mandatory heavy damage moments. But you only get the usual ten. This makes the book a much more worrying affair.

The Messenger of Death seems silly, but it makes every moment searching around the city ominous, since you have to find five items and poking into every nook and cranny is the way to do so. There’s also a double-cross where the last letter is hinted to be in a certain location by another character, and thus it’s possible to skip past that point, think one is safe, and walk right into it.

Suspension of Disbelief Shattered: When the text said I was sitting down to have a rest in the middle of the high priestesses chambers. No, that’s a bad idea. No. No, please don- oh well.

Ridiculous Battle: The sandworm. Higher stats than the main villain? It should have been sent after Malbordus instead of me.

Victory: You get to smash some more dragons, and then trek back out of the desert, while optimistically thinking Yaztromo will teach you some more spells. There is an assumption that the player looted the best stuff out of the not-so-lost city. The reality is it’s possible to walk out of there with nothing.

What Was I Thinking? Taking Create Water – it’s impossible to finish the book without getting something to trade for water anyway. I should have guessed that, but was overcome by a sense of immersion and wanted to be a real adventurer ready for anything the journey can throw at me.

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