Deathtrap Dungeon

“Oh god. I have no idea what to do next. I’m going to die.”

Deathtrap Dungeon by Ian Livingstone

Covers: Iain McCaig, Mel Grant

Illustrations: Iain McCaig

I realigned the cover since the scan was wonky.

Mel Grant’s cover is pretty good, really.

So, the plot of this book? There’s this town, and the local lord built a huge, trap-filled, monster infested, puzzle-riddled dungeon that no-one has ever come out of alive. Every year adventurers, being idiots, turn up and try to make it through for the prize of 10,000 gold pieces. The whole town throws a party to laugh at the morons. YOU are one of those idiots. YOU are dead meat.

It’s the most well known and possibly the most successful Fighting Fantasy book. There are two sequels. There was a computer game based on it, which was not very good and was probably one of the earliest sexist marketing campaigns in computer game history. A lot of the names in the book are stolen from Thailand. Author cameo. Etcetera. Almost everyone knows all this, and it’s not hard to find out if you read some of the other playthrough blogs. Actually, this book results in some of the funnier entries in the playthrough genre since it’s so colossally unfair but never pretended to be anything else. It’s actually fun because it totally lives up to expectations, and thus no-one can complain.

It’s one of the most mangled of the FF books in the public library so I suppose the kids still love the idea of being slaughtered in Baron Sukumvit’s evil labyrinth. So it’s time for me to roll some dice and take on the ultimate dungeon crawl…

Statistics

Skill: 12
Stamina: 18
Luck: 12

I might actually stand a chance!

Equipment: Sword, shield (bonus item!), leather armour, backpack, 10 provisions, potion of fortune, and a death wish.

Onward to Adventure!

So I’m chilling out in the wilderness, wandering around, and then I find a note nailed to a tree. It says that there’s a big dungeon and I can win a lot of gold if I survive it. This explains that nagging feeling I’ve been getting that I should be travelling north. Deathtrap Dungeon, being the most enormous and dangerous underground complex on the continent, exerts an adventurer attracting force that exceeds five hundred mega-dungeons. Even then, the reputation of this one is usually enough to make most adventurers successfully overcome the dungeon crawling urge. But I’ve got some moves. So I set off, heading to Port Blacksand, travelling north by ship, and then rafting up the river to the town of Fang. It’s not the 10,000 gold pieces, or the freedom of Chiang Mai province forever, but the fact that no-one has ever won the Trial of Champions that makes this venture so attractive to me.

I arrive in Fang three days before the dungeon is opened to adventurers. I register my entry in the competition and am given a violet scarf to signify that I’m a heroic adventurer prepared to risk it all for fame and wealth. Or possibly to show that I’m a dangerously suicidal lunatic. Either way, I get to drunkenly party like it’s the end times for a few days, and then I wake up with a hangover and the nagging feeling that I did something stupid. Someone promptly knocks on my door and reminds me what that stupid thing was.

I’m led down to the entrance to Deathtrap Dungeon, where I see the other contestants. There’s a knight in full plate mail, a couple of barbarians, an elven woman with more daggers than anyone could possibly need, and someone who is probably an assassin. I smile warmly at the elven woman. She smiles back, and then draws her finger across her throat and points at me. So we’re probably not teaming up in the dungeon, then.

Only an adventurer would be so stupid as to volunteer for this. So here I am.

Yeah. That’s not foreboding AT ALL.

We draw straws to see who goes in first. I’m going to be the fifth contestant to wander in to certain doom. Everyone is cheering. It’s probably too late to back out now, but the dungeon is compelling me to enter. I couldn’t walk away if I tried. I step inside the dank, rat and spider filled corridor. The dim light provided by glowing crystals in the roof is barely enough to see by. The first thing I find is a table with a box for each contestant. Inside are two gold coins and a note telling me that I’ll need to find special items to make it through alive. Just like every other dungeon, then. Ahead there’s the first of the inevitable T-junctions. There’s an arrow on the wall pointing west, and three sets of wet footprints heading that way. Someone went east. I decide that if three people went west, three people will have tripped traps and killed monsters. West it is.

I pass up the option to turn north, and walk around an iron bell which is probably a trap. Then the tunnel turns north again and I find a couple of hobgoblins fighting over a leather bag. I skewer one before they notice me, and kill the other. It turns out they were fighting over an earthenware jug of acid. I suppose that might be useful. Further on I find some suspicious looking wooden poles that stretch across the tunnel. It seems too obvious that they’re for crossing without touching the floor, so instead I step over each carefully and carry on. I continue following the footprints, considering they’re my best chance of not getting killed. Eventually I come into a room with a large idol. It’s six metres high, flanked by some stuffed flamingoes, and has huge emeralds for eyes. It’s probably going to be bad luck to take them, right? Well who cares, I want one.

Flamingoes of death!

This is obviously going to go well.

I clamber up and go to pry one out, but suddenly the birds come to life and attack me. Dammit. I kill them, and then grab the left eye of the idol. I decide against trying my luck with the other, and get out of there. Further up the hallway I find a door. Inside a voice demands I pay respect to Sukumvit. I call him names instead, figuring this the obvious answer is not likely to pay off here. I get a gold ring for my trouble.

After a shaft of light gives me a hint about diving into water when I walk through it, I find another door. Inside is a slimy room, and a pit of worms. There’s a nice looking dagger in there. The worms might be poisonous or acidic or bitey or vampiric. But that dagger has shiny stones set in the hilt, so I decide to give a go at reaching into the writhing, slimy morass and pulling out the blade. It’s pretty good. Stylish, gaudy, and of course pointy. I head for the door, feeling good about overcoming this challenge. Then a giant fly attacks me.

I kill the fly and continue down the corridor, wondering where the hell Sukumvit even got that thing. Eventually I come to a pit. There’s a rope dangling over it. I decide to jump over instead, because I’ve learned some tricks from this dungeon. I just make it, and continue onwards. I find another door in the wall. Okay, I know I have to find some stuff to make it out of here, so I don’t exactly have a choice about opening the door. But I don’t really want to. This is Deathtrap Dungeon, not Harmless Door Dungeon. I sigh and open the door.

Inside there are a lot of statues of knights and warriors – and I recognise one as a fellow contestant, so I know what’s going on here –
and a crazy old man. He must be crazy to live in here. I am given a choice of answering a question or being turned to stone. I figure, if I don’t try to answer it I’m getting turned to stone anyway. I get the question right and allowed to leave. Further on I find another door. This one has an X carved roughly into it. Damn. That can’t be good. Inside is a skeleton in a chair, holding some parchment.

Obvious trap is obvious.

“Hey there, would you like to read this parchment?” – Kids! Never accept parchment from skeletons!

I suspect that the skeleton will attack me if I grab the parchment. I may need to read the parchment, or it might be cursed. If the parchment contains vital information I’ll die later if I don’t read it. Or the parchment might be useless but ignoring it makes the skeleton attack me. It’s a whole network of hideously unfair choices. Whatever I do things will end up bad, but at least I know how to redeaden a skeleton. I grab the parchment and it stands up to attack me. After I smash it to bits I find the parchment recommends using a shield against a manticore. Well, at least I was right about that being useful. Well, useful to adventurers who didn’t bring a shield with them.

There’s a staircase leading down in the corner, so I head that way. I pass by some mushrooms, which are probably poisonous or carnivorous, and find some stairs up to a trap door. I leap through and kill a couple of goblins, making off with their collection of iron spikes. I then head off through the north door. Along the hallway I find a door with a hand nailed to it. That’s awfully charming. I go inside and find someone chained up. He’s apparently a failed contestant who was given a choice between life as a servant to the Trialmasters, or death as a corpse. He chose the former, but tried to escape and was captured, de-handed, and chained to the wall in this cell for a year. I set him fee and he tells me that all he knows is that I have to gather gems to win the Trial of Champions.

That was not very useful, so I leave the prisoner behind – presumably he can escape by backtracking, though he will probably die either way – and continue onwards, only to find a pipe in the wall. I shrug and crawl into it, finding a box. I extract myself and find a sapphire and an iron key inside the container. Further on I find two dead orcs. I steal a necklace of teeth that turns out to be an amulet of strength, and carry on. I find one of the barbarians. He says I can team up with him. I’m not complaining, since this dungeon can only get more difficult. But of course only one person can win this contest, so I’ll just have to stab Throm in the back later.

A generic barbarian, spiced up by having an eye patch.

I think there’s an 80’s metal cover that looks like this.

Further on we climb down a pit and find two books on a shelf on the wall. I open one and find a phial of liquid. I drink it, because that’s what adventurers do. It’s a trap-detecting potion, which is probably the most useful thing I could find in this dungeon. The other book falls apart as I open it, but I manage to read about a thing called a bloodbeast What are the odds this is a random find?

Further on a couple of cave trolls show up. Not a problem. The real problem is further down the hallway, where behind a door sits a dwarf. He’s a Trialmaster, and says this whole teaming up deal is against the rules. So I’m set some tests: Playing dice (easy), catching a cobra (easy), fighting a minotaur (easyish), and then fighting Throm (pretty easy too). No problem. Onward, and all that. I can hear a loud buzzing from the western fork in the tunnel, and since I’ve dealt with one giant insect today without too much trouble I think I can handle a second. Except there’s hundreds. All rather large, but fortunately behind a glass panel. Unfortunately there’s a crown in there, with a diamond set in it. I sigh, smash the glass, and grab a torch from the wall and try to fend off the insects. Thankfully I’m only severely bitten, not lethally. The insects stay behind because the torch-lit room is preferable to them, so I can sit down to eat cheese sandwiches while examining the crown… which is not gold, and the diamond is just glass… shit.

I trek onward, dejectedly rubbing my insect bites – at least, the ones I can reach – until I hear someone approaching. It turns out to be one of the servants of the trialmasters. I trade him one of my gold pieces for some information. I have no idea what someone spends money on in this dungeon, but apparently a secret compartment in a grotesque chair is worth knowing about. Eventually I find the chair and snaffle the potion hidden inside. It’s a Doppleganger Potion, which will let me pretend to be a different creature. That might be handy, I suppose.

Further on I find the tunnel sloping downwards into water. I swim through, soaking two of my sandwiches, and then carry on until I hear cries from a nearby cavern. I go to look and find the elven woman who was so very unfriendly to me at the entrance to the dungeon. She’s being crushed by a boa constrictor. I figure I should take the high road here, and lop the snake’s head off. Unfortunately I’m too late, and she dies. So I loot her corpse, taking two daggers, a mirror, and a charm. I also swipe her bread, which I munch as I carry on through the dungeon.

A grille in the floor looks suspiciously like it’s meant to be explored, so I open it up and reach in for the grappling hook I see inside. For my trouble I’m grabbed by a tentacle. It crushes my arm terribly before I can chop it away, but I had the presence of mind to not stick my sword arm in there so I’m not impaired too much. For my trouble, I get a brass bell and a grappling hook. Further on I find a room that contains a chest and some footprints in dust. The trap detection potion warns me the chest is trouble, so I avoid the trap inside, and find a pendant missing the stone that should be set in it. One of the contestants is still alive! I leave the room counting off the dead ones I’ve met. Who is left, the other barbarian, or the assassin?

Eventually I come to a huge cavern. It’s dominated by a golden idol, surrounded by a bunch of dancing midgets with huge noses. They’re troglodytes, and I need to get past them. I decide to try that potion I found. It works really well… just not for very long. The evil midgets spot me and I am forced to run. Over a bridge and up to a door, which I happen to have the key for. On the other side is an intersection, and to the north is someone calling out to me. It’s a man with a basket elevator.

“This is a trap, right?” I ask.

“No, no trap.” he says with a smile. Of course he might be lying. What choice do I have? I give him something I’ve been trekking through the dungeon with and get hauled up to the higher level. By a troll. She’s called Ivy and wants something too. I distract her by asking about a painting on the wall and then knock her out cold with a stool. A quick search of the room turns up a bone, which I decide to take. This turns out to be useful because there’s a couple of angry dogs just outside the room. Further on I find a large wall blocking the tunnel. There’s a door, of course, but there’s also a large and noisy monster on the other side. Now, I’ve got a grappling iron, but no rope. This is a problem. Oh well, I’ll pop through the door and kill whatever it is. I open the door…

What do they feed it for the rest of the year?

HOLY FUCKING SHIT!

…and shut it again, leaning against it in shock for a few moments. Right. I suppose I have to fight it. I open the door again and stride boldly into battle against the tyrannosaurus with gladiatorial training. At least it doesn’t have a trident and net. Of course, I kill it with ease… and more than a little luck. I’m an adventurer, this is what we do. I swig down my potion of fortune and search around, finding a magic shield under a trapdoor, and then leave by the double doors opposite the point where I entered the Pit Fiend’s Arena of Happiness. Further down the tunnel I find a red line on the floor and a sign that says “no weapons beyond this point”. I think this is bullshit and carry on, eventually finding a marble hallway full of tall pillars. Oh, and a ninja.

The shurkien he throws sails past me, because that potion of fortune worked out to make me the luckiest woman in the world for a moment. Then we square off. As far as I can tell, he’s the last competitor in the dungeon.

There's no background for this image (okay just a circle, but still).

I suppose he sneaked past the Pit Fiend. That’s practically cheating.

“I have to kill you to win!” he says coldly.

“Listen,” I say, “I just killed a tyrannosaurus rex in a gladiatorial arena. I’m not impressed by you.”

I kill the ninja. He’s not too hard to take down. I then eat my last cheese sandwich and loot the corpse of all healing items and also a diamond. All righty. What’s next? Well, the only way forward is down… a chute. This would be kind of funny if it tipped me into a pool of acid. Huh, I probably should have thought of that somewhere before halfway down… But it doesn’t happen. I land on a hard stone floor and stand up, dust myself off, and look around. Between me and the exit from this chamber is…

It's a bit like a frog but more angry, and less limbs.

Iain McCaig proves once again that a cover sells a book. I wanted this one SO BADLY when I was six.

One of those. It’s bulbous. It’s green. It’s spiky. It has horrible blisters that burst open while I’m watching to reveal eyes. I read all about it earlier. First things first, I chop off its tongue before it can drag me into the pool of acidic slime, Then I try to pierce its eyes. Two eyes, no problem. This is why a literate adventurer is a well-prepared adventurer. I carry on and find another room full of marble pillars. It’s also full of manticore, but I read that parchment and have a shiny new magical shield ready, and don’t get a face full of tail spikes. I somehow manage to kill the monster and then I’m faced with… Oh no, no way… a fucking GNOME?!

Skulls and batwings mean it's a serious door.

If this door was any more ominous then it would have a big neon sign saying THIS IS AN ONMINOUS DOOR.

“Greetings, I am Igbut!” he says. I start to giggle uncontrollably.

“Silence! No laughing at my name! I am the trialmaster for your final test. You need three gems to open the door. Do you have any gems?”

He rattles off three gems, and I have them all: Emerald, sapphire, diamond. So I start sticking them in the lock while the gnome squeaks about how no-one else ever found them all before.

ZAP

The lock shocks me when I get them wrong.

ZAP

Ouch.

ZAP

This is ridiculous. If I’d brought the pit fiend along instead of killing it I could have it try instead.

NO ZAP

Oh wow.

Igbut is kind of excited, and throws a glass globe containing poison gas at my feet. Dirty tricks from a gnome: Who would have thought it? I jump away and then follow Igbut through the door. At the end of the tunnel I can see daylight, but halfway I can see a gnome with a crossbow bolt through his head. His eagerness to escape led him into the final trap. When I walk out of the dungeon everyone cheers. I get given the chest full of gold. But the best part is that Baron Sukumvit looks quite surprised.

Wrapup

Hahaha! VICTORY! Okay, yes, I read all the other Fighting Fantasy blogs. Thus, my figuring out the right way through isn’t a particularly stunning achievement, and coupled with dice that love me it’s not that amazing. Except… I ended the book on a Stamina of 3, had no provisions left, and had drunk my potion of fortune. So this is one of those cases where yes, you best have the highest stats. The book is sneaky though and builds up to the more extreme encounters.

There’s a real sense of dread about halfway through where you realise shit just got real what with the deadly traps and the monsters and the fact that you have to find a particular group of items to win. Subsequently, the fight with the ninja was really tense. At that point I was back in a part of the book I knew about and was aware that within a few pages I’d either win or die. I felt like I had something to lose!

Well, after my stunning achievement here, I’m feeling good about the next book in my pile. Let’s see, it’s… Crypt of the Sorcerer. Oh shit.

Suspension of Disbelief Shattered: People actually enter this contest?! STAY THE FUCK OUT OF DEATHTRAP DUNGEON. I MEAN IT.

Ridiculous Battle: In close succession: Pit Fiend: Skill 12 Stamina 15. Ninja: Skill 11, Stamina 9. Bloodbeast: Skill 12, Stamina 10. Manticore: Skill 11, Stamina 11. You can avoid the Pit Fiend with the right items, and the Bloodbeast is a two round fight if you find the book, but all in all that is a cruel end of game sequence.

Victory: You get a laurel and proclaimed the Champion of Deathtrap Dungeon. Oh yeah and 10,000 gold pieces. Plus Baron Sukumvit looks shocked that you actually survived.

What Was I Thinking? Taking a right turn at the first junction gets you some rope, which makes a couple of later tasks a lot easier. I, of course, didn’t do that.

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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!

Island of the Lizard King

“So close!”

Island of the Lizard King by Ian Livingstone

With a title like that you know it’s going to be a dyed in the wool sword and sorcery story, don’t you? Check out the cover:

The Lizard King is a total badass and it's best not to try and sell him Amway.

Doesn’t he have an awesome crown? It’s pretty cool. Crown. Yes.

Yeah, epic. The new cover is nowhere near as cool. So, what’s the backstory to it?

This book contains an island, with a Lizard King on it. The island is called Fire Island because it has a volcano. Presumably there’s a sister city program going on with Firetop Mountain. The island was a penal colony founded by some prince on the mainland, who had the bright idea of attracting Lizard Men (I assume that because it was the 80’s this is the dated way of saying Lizard People) as immigrant workers from their home city of Silur Cha with very low wages. Princes are idiots, because anyone with an ounce of sense would have realised that there’s more vicious criminals in Allansia than good people. So he gave up on this penal colony idea… and stopped paying the guards, who promptly started to torture the prisoners. Because nothing says “hey, come and give us our back pay” like torturing criminals who are so unwanted that they were stuck on an island with carnivorous Lizard People.

The island also has a whole bunch of stereotypical indigenous people, which for some reason the Lizard King didn’t kidnap to work their… gold mine? This makes no fucking sense! What are the Lizard People going to spend all this gold on? I suppose first they need to build a ship and sail up to Port Blacksand, since that’s the only city where they’d even be welcome.

Okay, but then these books are never about making sense and more about an excuse to rampage through a setting and kill a lot of stuff. And there’s a lot of killing in this one. It’s quite hard! A double-digit Skill score is usually best.

Statistics

Skill: 11 (I did, in fact, re-roll after dying in the third paragraph)
Stamina: 22
Luck: 12

Look, there’s no bloody way I was going to get halfway through this book with a Skill of 9.

Equipment: Sword, leather armour, backpack, 10 provisions, potion of… Stamina, I think.

Onward to Adventure!

I feel like a holiday, and decide to head for Oyster Bay, which is on a peninsula that’s effectively cut off from the mainland by some huge cliffs. It’s supposed to be a peaceful and quiet place. Also, my old friend Mungo, a retired adventurer, lives there. Unfortunately, when I arrive there’s some bad news. Mungo lays out the problem for me.

“Fuckin’ Lizards came while we were out fishing and kidnapped a whole bunch of people to slave in their gold mine! I’m going to go fuck them up, because that’s what adventurers do!”

I figure I should join this quest. Mungo is as a brother to me. Also, there’s a probably a shitload of gold on that island. But it’s good to get an idea of the dangers.

“How bad is it out there?”

“Pretty fuckin’ bad. The Lizard King? He’s into voodoo and black magic and also likes to try and breed Super Lizard People. But that didn’t work and so now there’s hideous mutants everywhere! Also his magical potions got into the water and now there’s enormous carnivorous plants and hideous beasts!”

“So,” I say, “it’s no different to Port Blacksand, Darkwood Forest, the Icefinger Mountains, and in fact everywhere else on this continent?”

“Yeah, it’s going to be fuckin’ great!”

No problem then, time to set sail for the Island of the Lizard King and rescue a bunch of slaves, kill the reptilian overlords, and also make off with a shitload of gold. It is an uneventful trip, and when we arrive there’s a choice of climbing over some rocks to either the left or the right. I opt for right. We immediately find some pirates, burying a chest. It’s probably got gold in it, so we charge on in. I manage to kill two of them, and then turn only to witness Mungo being run through by the captain. That was quick.

I kill the pirate and then stand around watching Mungo die instead of letting him have a sandwich. I am a callous and miserly woman when it comes to food. I do bury him though, since there’s a shovel handy. The pirate chest contains… iron bars! Damn, that’s not gold. But maybe one of them will be useful. I make my way up a goat track and then camp for the night. In the morning I set off into the forest, cutting my way through the undergrowth and looking out for monsters. Instead of Lizard People I come across head-hunters. You can tell because they are wearing shrunken heads tied to their belts. They promptly start arguing about something. Head-hunters? Really?

“Um, is this serious?” I ask.

“Shut up,” says one of the head-hunters, “we have to decide who gets your head!”

“Wait a minute, you don’t have to conform to the narrow stereotypes of indigenous peoples imposed on you by-”

“Don’t mock our culture by implying it’s a mere regurgitation of colonial narratives designed to reinforce the superiority of Allansian society!”

“But…”

“Look,” says a different head-hunter, “you’re no doubt concerned about the cultural influence of your society on us, but I can assure you it’s an actual tradition we have dating back thousands of years, and it’s very important to us. But we really aren’t sure who should get to take your head.”

“You could… fight me one at a time?”

They look at me and then turn to each other, and a heated discussion takes place. Finally they agree and try to kill me. I kill them instead and set off into the jungle, collecting junk from the bleached bones of dead prisoner, and also meeting an escapee who trades me a map and a lockpick for some food. Clearly I should have brought more sandwiches with me.

I travel onward, fighting giant insects, finding glowing rocks, and finally running into a band of pygmies, armed with blowpipes. After my last encounter I am not so sure I want to reassure them that I do not hold any dated and anachronistic views about their culture. They seem to expect me to give them something. I feel incredibly embarrassed, but I give them an axe I found. To my dismay they think it’s a religious artefact. I leave and wind up in a swamp, where I run into a thing called a Marsh Hopper. These little shits are knowledgeable about the ways of the swamps they live in, but they also lead people into the liars of giant and terrible swamp creatures. I follow it warily for a short way and then cut and run, only to end up covered in leeches. I use up a cheese sandwich removing the leeches. Do not ask how, it is secret adventurer lore.

It's a big head with tentacles but not an octopus.

I did not meet this monster.

Onward, up a hill, and then down into the gorge beyond, and then along the gorge to the other end, and finding a note which mentions a hidden raft somewhere along a river. I travel further, finding a magic pouch that will hold everything I carry, and eventually reach the raft. The trip upriver is about as uneventful as being attacked by crocodiles and insane escaped prisoners can be, but eventually I reach the slave village by the mines and start killing Lizard People. Then I am drawn to the mines. The first thing to do is to turn left, and the second is to climb down a ladder. The third is to kill a Lizard Person and take their bucket of water. I continue onward and find some Dwarves singing while they toil under the cruel Lizard Person taskmaster. I leap out and cry,

“You know, singing while working in a mine is a stereotypical thing for Dwarves to do. Are you singing of your own free will or is the Lizard Pe-”

“Just kill the fucking Lizard, woman!” shouts one of the Dwarves. Ungrateful little sods. I do so anyway. Afterwards I disguise myself using the Lizard Person’s cloak and the Dwarves lead me to another group of prisoners, guarded by a pair of Orcs. The Dwarves soon make short work of them and my band of very angry Dwarves, Elves, and Humans go on to free the other slaves and then kill all the Lizard People guarding the encampment outside. Things are looking up, but we now have to take out the Lizard King and his small army of followers.

Also, according to an Elf, a super-bug called a gonchong is stuck to the Lizard King’s head and makes him invincible and able to telepathically command his army. For fuck’s sake, this quest! It’s okay though, all I have to do to find out how to defeat this incredibly powerful combination of psycho voodoo sorcerer Lizard King and psychic brain parasite invulnerability insect is to climb up the fucking volcano and find a shaman who lives up there and ask him nicely how to kill them both. You’d think the knowledge of how to kill the most dangerous bug in the known world would be distributed far and wide, but no.

Fuck!

I set off, telling my makeshift army to meet me at the old prison fort in two days time. Along the way I find some kind of message from the Shaman, telling me to wear a feather in my hair so he knows I’m friendly. What the hell? Couldn’t he just come and say “Hi there, here’s how to beat the gonchong, here’s another dozen cheese sandwiches and here’s also a magic sword of fucking up Lizard Kings”? Of course not.

It's like a snake but angrier.

I did not meet this monster either.

Eventually I reach the volcano, having found a dead seagull and tied one of the feathers into my hair. I sigh and start climbing up the mountain, and eventually find the Shaman, who is a walking cliché, but I’m too tired to point this out. Instead he sets me three tests, which I pass with ease. Then I get the dirt on how to kill Tyrannosaurus Rex. Apparently I have to sever the proboscis of the gonchong, after I kill the Lizard King, who can only be harmed by a fire sword, of which he has several, being compelled to collect them in the usual way that deals with evil entities for power work. Also, if I can find a monkey things will go much easier because all Lizard People are scared of them.

Okay. So. That’s a ridiculous set of things to do. I leave the Shaman and proceed towards the fort, running into a Mutant Lizard Person riding a Styracosaur. I kill the dinosaur and then kill the Lizard Person, and trek onwards, finding a monkey conveniently chained to a dead sailor. I don’t even know any more, this island either has it in for me or is giving me the keys to the city, so to speak. It’s almost like the island wants me to beat the Lizard King. If it expects me to hang around being some kin of guardian afterwards, it can guess again. I continue and eventually meet my ragtag army.

“Okay, so I guess we should attack the fort,” I say.

“Why are you carrying a monkey and wearing feathers tied into your hair?”

“Because the monkey is our secret weapon.” I reply, and order the attack before anyone can argue. The battle rages, I fight my way through a horde of monsters, and get inside the fort. Faced with two doors, I go through the one on my left and find a jail, with an old man inside.

“It’s okay, old man, you are rescued!” I’m feeling pretty good. I’m in the fort, rescuing people, everything is going according to… He grows spines, turns green, and attacks me. Shape Changer! That wasn’t part of the job description! Not fair! I kill the spiny green bastard and then carry on through the fort, killing and looting, and then make my way upstairs to the battlements. The Lizard King is there! So is his pet, a black lion.

Voltron style!

No, not like that. What do you think this is, Robot Commando?

I fight the black lion, and kill it, barely surviving. The Lizard King is a bit angry about that, since it’s kind of hard to get fancy big cats on an obscure volcanic island. He comes forward, about to attack me, but the monkey on my shoulder scares him. I leap to the attack and a furious battle ensues, with the reptilian tyrant urged on by the evil bug on his head. But alas, he gets a lucky shot in and I die. The Lizard King clearly chose his headgear well.

Wrapup

So, that one was going well until the lion. I had 1 stamina afterwards and then the Lizard King – with a skill of 6 – managed to hit me once. Other than the fact that it’s crushingly difficult to get through all the combats (double-digit Skill is a must and even then, it’s difficult), the book is winnable without having to find a list of items – the only thing you really need to stand a chance is the monkey and some dice that like you.

On top of the embarrassingly dated pygmies and head-hunters, there’s also the head-hunter village, which is an exercise in feeling like I fell into an H. Rider Haggard novel. I also left out the feral woman with a sabre-tooth tiger, the cave woman, and basically the only thing missing was more dinosaurs.

But as a story it’s pretty good, featuring a few NPCs, an environment that makes sense, and a plot that isn’t too epic while not being too low-key. There’s also clear goals from the start. So all in all, it’s an okay gamebook. Not brilliant, but not awful.

Suspension of Disbelief Shattered: Mungo, lying on the sand dying, no matter which way you go, cannot be saved by stuffing a pile of cheese sandwiches down his throat, or making him drink a potion.

Ridiculous Battle: So many! But probably the Lizard King’s pet lion. Skill 11 Stamina 11 isn’t that amazing, but the Lizard King (sk 12 st 15) can be whittled down to a Skill of 6. A fat lot of good that did me, though!

Victory: Nothing much, just a short description of the former slaves defeating the Lizard King’s army and a mention of Mungo, the worst sidekick ever.

What Was I Thinking? I didn’t actually do anything stupid. I used to own this book, so it was a bit hard to mess it up. But I’ll level with you: The first time I played this all those years ago, I made the mistake of eating everything the text let me try to eat. That was really stupid.

Blood of the Zombies

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

Blood of the Zombies by Ian Livingstone

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

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

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

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

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

Statistics

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

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

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

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

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

Onward to Adventure!

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

Any hour now…

Any day now…

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yuck.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wrapup

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Caverns of the Snow Witch

“Why is a bird-man as tough as a dragon?!”

Caverns of the Snow Witch by Ian Livingstone

So this is apparently a prequel to Forest of Doom. This is news to me because I never got remotely near the end of this book when I read it all those many years ago… and I wasn’t even doing the combat. It is very difficult.

It’s also the first time a Fighting Fantasy book has a female villain. Unfortunately she’s a rubbish villain who doesn’t have a name (Titan: The Fighting Fantasy World gave her the name Shareella after the fact) and doesn’t have Skill and Stamina scores – Though I suppose Zanbar Bone doesn’t have stats either, and he’s cool, right? Oh and the original cover barely features her:

Evil sorceress in crystal ball magically choking Orc servant to show how evil she is

Getting trapped in a crystal ball was all part of her plan. Her plan is stupid.

That is her big evil villain moment and she spends it in a crystal ball. Overall this is a book that should be super awesome but really is a let-down because the villain doesn’t do much and is foiled easily provided you’ve grabbed three items. I like villains, so I was a tad disappointed.

I suppose it’s obligatory to note that the book is an expanded version of a mini-adventure that was published in Warlock magazine. Also deserving of mention is that some of the interior illustrations ended up looking like wood cuts, which feel right for the setting. This book has a lot of style, even if it’s basically an exercise in dying over and over.

It’s no secret that the Snow Witch part is actually only about two-fifths of the book, the book as a whole consisting of finding the mission to kill the Snow Witch, finding and killing her, getting out of the caves, and then being cured of the Death Spell while going on a walking tour of northern Allansia. It’s kind of neat to get a prolonged trip that passes by or mentions so many locations. I suppose this is the first book in the series to conceptualise the world as a coherent whole.

Statistics

Skill: 11
Stamina: 22
Luck: 10

Equipment: Standard gear. Sword, leather armour, backpack, 10 provisions, potion of… um… Fortune.

Onward to Adventure!

I’m a caravan guard. Not the most glamorous of jobs, but it’s the closest thing to honest work for an adventurer. Unfortunately, this caravan has found the trade outpost in the Icefinger Mountains to be wrecked by some horrible monster. Ever the brave (foolhardy), enterprising (money-grubbing) and noble (callously mercenary) swordswoman, I refuse to hunt down the monster for anything less than 50 gold. After returning to the ruined outpost, I set off into the mountains. The snow is knee-deep, and I’m starting to think that I should have charged more for this monster hunt when I find a crevasse. There’s a bridge of ice over it. Going around would involve a lot more trudging through snow, so I cross the bridge… and promptly slip off and am saved only by landing on a ledge. I clamber out and consider that maybe being lazy is dangerous in these cold and treacherous lands.

I continue to climb up the mountain, only to be attacked by some wolves. Not just any wolves, but white ones with mad red eyes. I’m starting to think this is a bad mountain to be stranded in a snowstorm on. A good thing, then, that it’s not… oh damn. I make an igloo and wait out the storm. Afterwards I trek further up the mountain and find a hut, which I promptly loot of all stew, warhammers, and spears, and then leave. There’s some footprints leading up the trail, so I follow. What I find at the end of them is the owner of the hut, being mauled by a yeti. Like an idiot, I charge on in and somehow don’t get killed.

The trapper is dying, but he tells me that there’s this evil Snow Witch who wants to start a new ice age, and her caverns are totally full of precious stones. Then he dies. So at the foot of this mountain is a sure-fire 50 gold waiting for me. Further up the mountain is a cave network full of evil minions of evil and maybe some gems. I don’t know what an “ice age” is, but it sounds like it might be cold and right now I’m sick of the cold and don’t want it following me back to warmer climes. Plus, untold riches!

When it comes down to it, any excuse to run through a network of passages and kill everyone I meet will do.

I clamber up the mountain and find the glacier the Snow Witch has made her home in, and walk into the illusionary wall. Or try to. I just bounce off the ice. A few tries later I find my way in. You know, it’s one thing for the evil sorceress intent on freezing the world to hide the secret entrance like this, but for the local do-gooder to not properly mark the entrance for their own amusement? That’s just not okay.

For some reason that shall forever go unexplained by the ages, just inside is a T-junction. I turn right, and find a cavern with a bowl full of yellow liquid, sitting on a plinth. There’s a ladle nearby. I’m feeling kind of thirsty, so I gulp down a spoonful and am healed by it. I return to the main passage and come across an Elf. “Hi there, I’m here to join the Snow Witch’s minions,” I say, hoping to get past. The Elf looks at me incredulously and explains that no-one willingly does this, and the magical choke-the-disobedient-til-they-become-necromancy-fodder collar is the only reason he hasn’t run off down the mountain. I decide to start again.

“Right, did I say join? Totally not what I meant. I’m here to kill the Snow Witch and then steal all her stuff.”

“Good to hear, have my cloak for a disguise.”

It’s not usual for honesty to be the best policy when invading a tunnel network owned by an evil practitioner of magic. I continue onwards and come across a kitchen, where a Neanderthal is skinning a moose under the instructions of a Gnome. I should stealthily creepy by, but I hate Gnomes. I step in to tell the wicked servant of evil and also head chef to stop abrading the help, but before I can get a word out the Gnome starts shouting at me and then says I can have a stale cake. This is rather insulting (only the finest of cakes and pastries for me!), so I spring to the attack. The Neanderthal, unable to comprehend that I am his saviour against the oppressive forces of Gnomery, attacks me. Ungrateful lunk. I kill him, but the Gnome flees, calling for help. I decide that the prudent course of action is to hang around and search the kitchen which will soon be swarming with guards. It’s a well stocked kitchen. There’s a magic flute, a stick with indecipherable runes – nothing says important like a stick with strange scratchings on it – and a book called The Secrets of Toads. I try to open it and get stabbed by a poisoned needle on the clasp. Not one to be put off by a poisoned book, I open it and find it’s hollowed out and inside is a frog amulet. It looks kind of stylish so I put it on and find it’s an amulet of courage.

I continue onwards and find a cave full of robed worshippers in front of an impressive ice carving of a demon. I suppose this would be a bad place to start a fight, so I use my cloak to sneak through. Once I get past the temple I hear someone calling for help. I suppose I should check and see if that’s legit. It turns out to be a Dwarf trapped in a pit and trying to escape from people throwing boulders at him from somewhere above. I help him out and then he scarpers, but not before giving me a sling and some shot in exchange for a warhammer, and warning me about a rat. I guess if a rat is the best minion the Snow Witch has got then I’m not in too much trouble.

As I walk deeper into the mountain I find a large skull with a passage through its gaping mouth. This is kind of corny, to be honest, so I am standing there staring at it wondering why the hell anyone would do that when a man in robes that can only be wizardly comes out. He’s holding a crystal, which probably means he’s dangerous. He orders me to turn back. I figure, I’m an adventurer… he’s probably an evil wizard… time for some good, old-fashioned wizard-killing. He promptly turns into three. An Illusionist! The most annoying of all wizards! I suppose it could be worse though… He could be a Gnome as well.

I stab at the illusionary Illusionists until I get the right one but he isn’t affected. I then opt for the more direct course of action and smash the crystal. The annoying bastard runs off screaming, and a Genie appears.

“Infinite wishes,” I say.

“What? No, not that sort of Genie,” replies the figure floating in mid-air. “You have won: A one-time invisibility spell! Prize is non-transferable and not refundable for gold piece equivalent.” and with that, he vanishes. Oh well, it’ll do.

I pass through the skull mouth, deciding that the other two passages onward are probably boring. I continue onward until I come to a room with a Frost Giant inside, carrying a wooden chest. Now if I were, say, a barbarian, I’d charge in and attack the giant and win. But I’m an adventurer. It might seem like a semantic point, but the fact is I’m not a bloodthirsty combat specialist. I’m more an all-rounder with a propensity for violence. But I do have a sling and some shot, so I have a go at taking him down the old-fashioned way. Amazingly this works, and he goes down like a giant who just got killed by an iron ball smashing his temple in. The chest shatters, and there’s three rings inside. I try on the gold one, and find it protects me from the cold. The copper one will summon a warrior to aid me, and the silver one is evil and tries to kill me.

I walk further into the mountain and get the Genie to help me slip past a golem made out of quartz. That there was the first precious stone I have seen in the entire dungeon, and it was going to kill me. Further on I find a zombie quartermaster, and after killing… re-killing… un-undeadening… making it not stand up and walk around any more, I steal some stuff. There’s some garlic. Every adventurer knows that if you see garlic, you take it, because you’re going to need it. It’s a law of the universe. See garlic, meet vampire. I also grab some powdered Minotaur horn and some dragon eggs. I return to the last T-junction and go the other way, coming to a door, beyond which is a sarcophagus – See? – and a white rat. The rat starts to change shape, so I throw that powdered Minotaur horn over it to stop it, somehow knowing that this would work. Now, what could possibly be in that sarcophagus?

Well, it’s actually the Snow Witch. She has fangs.

Woman with fangs and bird hat. Looks angry. Possibly because someone made fun of her hat

Caverns of the Snow Vampire Sorceress Witch wouldn’t have been as catchy

Normally I’d be worried, but the fearsome magical might of the Snow Witch is not really concerning me. Who in the hell would let themselves be turned into a vampire knowing full well that it causes garlic and stakes to appear everywhere they go? I wave the garlic I found earlier at her, pull out the runed stake I got from the kitchen, and make a quip about vampires as I stake her.

This turned out to be an easy adventure. I head over to the chest of gold frozen into the wall and hack it out. Then it turns out the expensive looking statue on top of the coins is actually a trap, and it turns into a full-sized guardian thing and tries to kill me. This is slightly unfair, but I get a shitload of gold for my trouble. Then a couple of people run in. They are a Dwarf and an Elf. Oh, this should be good.

It turns out they’re really pleased I killed the Snow Witch, and want to help me escape – there’s a horde of Goblins outside wanting to kill me. Fortunately they know about a secret passage masked by an illusion. The Elf finds it by walking into walls repeatedly.

“I thought your people could detect fake walls, and other such feats of underground lore?” I ask the Dwarf.

“Oh, aye, but it’s funnier watching him walk into the walls.”

Eventually the Elf finds the illusionary wall and we leave, and they introduce themselves as Redswift and Stubb. After the inevitable T-junction we all come across two sets of footprints painted on the ground. I have a sneaking suspicion this is a dirty trap, and so tell everyone to walk between them. Further on we find a casket set into the wall. It’s probably also trapped, so I let someone else open it, and then score the magic boots of quiet walking inside. And so they naturally run away and leave me to fight the caveman who attacks us. But the joke is on them. They were caught by the BRAIN SLAYER. Which is a humanoid figure with an octopus for a head.

This is certainly not a mind flayer

Actually, I think this is a whole lot more disturbing than the D&D squidheads

“Say,” I ask it, “do you happen to have any cousins who… ah…”

“No, I am absolutely not related to anyone who might be sometimes called a ‘mind flayer’ and object strongly to such vile accusations.”

“Right, sorry,” I say. “So you can’t actually psionic blast me?”

“What is a psionic?”

“You have no idea how glad I am to hear that,” I reply, and proceed to whack the brain slayer with my sword until it dies. I then steal all its stuff. After the others have recovered we set off through some more tunnels, and eventually find a door with some parchment on it. I can’t read it, so I ask the Elf. Redswift reads it, then shreds the parchment, refusing to tell me what it said. Further on we come to a cavern which contains a crystal orb on a plinth of ice. The Snow Witch is inside it. Or at least, her head is. She cackles a bit, then decides she will think up some kind of stupid game to play against me. After I fight some zombies.

Zombies are a bit dull and stupid, so it’s not too much trouble. She then demands that we play a game involving me hiding one of the tiny metal discs I’ve found and her guessing the shape. Somehow I get lucky and she is blasted from existence, which just goes to show that making up silly deals is always a bad idea when you’re a powerful sorceress. A cave-in occurs, but I manage to escape from the Crystal Caverns, sidekicks in tow. Okay, this is looking good, right?

Since the trade caravan is probably long gone, we all decide to head south towards Stonebridge. We make good time, getting ferried over the River Kok, walking past Firetop Mountain, and getting attacked by a flock of Bird-men. For some reason, Bird-men are as hard to kill as dragons, so I die.

Wrapup

So on my first try, I died to a Goblin – the SHAME – and on my second I died to a mammoth in the second paragraph I reached. Third try the yeti got me. Then everything was going just fine until a Bird-man with a Skill of 12 turned up. This book is ridiculously difficult.

I cheated and gave away the warhammer before it got me stuck into a combat where I have to fight a ridiculous opponent – the Crystal Warrior – and you can only use the more effective Genie option if you don’t have it. After dying three times I figured the book owed me one.

So, how is it a prequel to Forest of Doom? When you reach Stonebridge, Stubb heads off to the forest with someone called Bigleg to recover the warhammer. The main character of that book is obviously not the main character of this one, but together Caverns of the Snow Witch, Forest of Doom, and Temple of Terror make up a loose trilogy.

Suspension of Disbelief Shattered: Why would anyone willingly turn themselves into a vampire? Why? I mean, sure, vampires are powerful in these books, but they also generate a magical vortex that draws in garlic and sharpened stakes.

Ridiculous Battle: The White Dragon, which is Skill 12 Stamina 14 and every round it gets a 1 in 3 chance of hitting your with its icy breath for 2 damage. That’s what the gold ring was for. The copper ring does let you call up a warrior, but considering the best random summon is Skill 9 Stamina 10 (surprisingly for an Ian Livingstone book, the barbarian is not the toughest), it’s not worth the trouble.

Victory: You watch the sun come up from the summit of Firetop Mountain and then set off to Stonebridge, to see how the quest for the warhammer went. We all know how well that turns out, don’t we?

What Was I Thinking? Trying this book with a Skill of 8 the first time. I got killed. A double digit skill score is required to actually win the book.

Freeway Fighter

“I don’t even have a pithy comment about the book.”

Freeway Fighter by Ian Livingstone

Freeway Fighter is one I approach with trepidation, since I could never get into it. It’s basically Mad Max, and thus is closely aligned with a genre that had never been generified out in the the way fantasy RPGs had made a good go – and that’s not much back then, but things are much better – of turning medieval society into a no-holds-barred anything-you-like-is-valid venue for people to jump in and have fun.

The other problem is I have no idea how to drive a car, and so I have no idea what I’m talking about.

The background for this particular apocalypse is that in 2022 a plague wipes out 85% of the world population in four days. No-one knows why, and no-one cares because they’re too busy trying to fight for survival as half the population that’s left flips the fuck out. More interesting is that there’s no world war, no evil genius, it just happened. The world was a utopia, with wars averted, hunger eradicated, increased access to travel allowing people to get along just fine, solar energy powering almost all homes and most industries, a three-day working week, the US using the metric system, and England was in the finals for the World Cup.

In the fine tradition of British science fiction, the more optimistic the future, the harsher the fall. I love British science fiction.

Statistics

Skill: 11 (badass)
Stamina: 27 (it’s 2d6 + 24 so this is a rubbish score)
Luck: 12 (hooray!)

Firepower: 12 (1d6+6, and averages out weapons and engine power – huh?)

Armour: Okay have to confess something: I threw out the character sheet for this book before I finished the writeup. It’s 2d6 + 24 and my score was high enough that I wasn’t too worried.

Equipment: Map, flashlight, compass, instant puncture repair device, tools, food, water, 10 medkits (they restore 4 Stamina each), revolver (I guess automatics are hard to find), unspecified bullets, and a knife. Oh yeah, and a leather jacket: what kind of apocalypse would this be if everyone didn’t have one of those?

I also have a (surprise!) Dodge Interceptor. It’s armed with machine guns, unlimited ammo (fuck yeah), 4 rockets (instant kill: double fuck yeah), 2 oil slicks, 3 spike droppers, and two spare wheels. Also has a CB radio, loudspeaker, various armour plating, bulletproof windows, and a pretty good stereo.

Special Rules: Hand-to-hand combat only does 1 damage due to it being a bare fisted punch, but brass knuckles increase that, and weapons deal damage as ruled. 6 damage knocks someone out, but if Stamina is low enough that it reaches zero, then I’m dead. Gun and vehicle combat is the same as usual, but 1d6 damage is dealt on a hit.

Onward to Adventure!

It’s one thing to live in a fortified settlement in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, it’s another to have to drive a few sacks of seeds to an oil refinery to swap it for 10,000 litres of petrol. The only reason I’m doing this is because no-one else will. After a few days, where the car is modified and I get in some practice at being cynical and world weary (not hard), I roll out the gate and blast along the highway. There’s a small town nearby, which I decide to explore. I’m in need of supplies already – I’m tired of all the music I brought with me. I run into someone headed to New Hope, who is grateful for the news that it’s not far. I get advised to avoid the garage on the way out of town, and then we part ways.

Out on the highway I run into the first heavily armed raider vehicle of the trip. I take them out with ease and then get a radio message – apparently one of the town leaders has been kidnapped by a gang of marauders. To make matters worse, I’m running out of fuel. I should have opted for a more economical vehicle. On top of that the highway is blocked by a mass of abandoned cars, so I have to go onto a side road.

Nothing is ever easy. There’s a partially-open drawbridge in the way. I think for a moment. Cop motor, a 440 cubic inch plant, cop tyres, cop suspension, cop shocks, it’s a model made before catalytic con… yeah, fuck it, I’ve always wanted to try this. I back up, and then drive at the bridge full-tilt. I make it over, avoid crashing into a truck at the bottom on the other side, and drive off. Further up the road, I see someone in a motorcycle helmet waving me down. I step out of the car to see what he wants, and I’m ambushed – via grenade. Since I’m the luckiest woman in the world, I escape this with only a scratch, and then shoot it out with the biker and their sidekick, killing them and taking their stuff.

I drive onwards, passing someone wearing a blue jumpsuit with the number 13 on the back, and some time later find my route blocked by more cars. Instead of just driving off I decide to loot the vehicles. I find a crowbar, and continue down the line of vehicles opening each boot in turn – and come up with a full can of petrol. Things are looking up! Well, except for the fact I have to use it almost right away. It’s like there’s some sort of law of the universe that says all petrol will be used as soon as it is found. Eventually the sun sets, and I decide to park off the road and sleep in the car. As I drift off to sleep I wonder if there’s any other bizarre natural laws no-one noticed before the plague because they never applied?

The next day I drive along, music blaring, but unbeknownst to me the road is mined. Well… I say unbeknownst, but when one goes off under the car I beknownst for sure. Thankfully, I can get out of there before whatever mine-happy hillbilly laid them can come and fire an anti-tank rocket at me. Further on I find a bunch of maniacs having crazy races. The prize is petrol, so I figure I might as well do this. I win, in spite of the fact that my infinite ammo feed is not allowed to be used – what kind of road warriors are these clowns if they won’t use machine guns in races? I speed further south, and find an overturned Dodge. I steal the one good spare wheel, then poke around inside it. Naturally, overturned cars make for good places for things like snakes to live, but I manage to inject myself with antivenom and then kill the damn thing. All for what? A plastic tube. Now, this might seem like a useless item, but in the post-apocalyptic wasteland being able to syphon petrol is pretty much the number one survival skill.

I drive onwards, fighting duels, killing people for their tyres, and generally having to be more and more violent because my journey has become a parable about the veneer of decent behaviour that society prefers being stripped away due to an extreme situation, and we’re all monsters underneath, and it only takes a little bit of disruption to turn people into violent lunatics. It’s like I’m living in one of those post-apocalyptic films that people used to watch before the collapse of society.

Further along on my trip I come across a burning car, with an armed woman standing nearby. Her name is Amber, and she’s from the San Anglo refinery. She was out on patrol to provide an escort but one of the numberless gangs in the desert destroyed her vehicle. It turns out the refinery is surrounded by the Doom Dogs, and they want to kill everyone for the petrol. Like I said, the world is basically a B-movie now. Amber has a plan to sneak into their camp and sabotage all their vehicles.

After much crawling through the dirt Amber starts fixing limpet mines to the vehicles. As we run away, they detonate… all but one. The villains pursue us in their remaining car, somehow knowing which way to go despite it being completely dark. I manage to reach my car, and take on their station wagon (which they no doubt borrowed from someone’s mother) until it rams my car and we’re stuck. A quick shootout later, and the leader of the gang steps out of the car to attack me – and I’m mysteriously out of bullets.

“Hey, hang on, wait… I challenge you to Thunderdome!”

“What the fuck is Thunderdome?” says the leader of the Doom Dogs, giving Amber time to clock him in the back of the head with a wrench.

So, Amber and I drive off to the refinery and I pick up the tanker. I assume it is weighed down with a shitload of armour plating, since bullet holes in the tank would be a bad thing. Unfortunately before I leave the crazed gang of post-apocalyptic maniacs (read: anyone who does not live behind a fortified wall) attack the refinery, blowing up the gates and charging in. I fuck their shit up because that’s how this goes. After the gang surrender and leave – what a bunch of flakes – I get to drive the tanker out of the refinery. Amber opts to stay behind, which means no gunner on the return trip.

An extremely quick day passes, and I then explore an abandoned motel, only to meet a lunatic throwing rats at me. Ouch, ow, rats are better projective weapons than I thought! I kill him and go back to the truck to sleep in the cab, since a motel full of rats is probably not the most super-great place to spend the night. The next day I drive on. I’m just thinking how lucky it is I haven’t been attacked by raiders because this truck is not very well armed. There’s just a turret-mounted machine-gun on the roof of the cab, and no way to deal with anyone attacking from behind. What kind of idiot built this thing? The next day a couple of biker bandits ride up alongside and shoot out the tyres with crossbows. This is ridiculous. I manage to get one but the other challenges me to a duel. I jump out with my gun drawn and shoot the fucker while he’s standing around trying to look tough. Duel? What kind of idiot challenges someone to a duel?

Only everyone in this stupid, plague-ravaged, god-forsaken desert.

I drive on, and eventually the walls of New Hope come into view. My smug sense of self-satisfaction is cancelled out by the fact I’m starting to shake and am feeling feverish. Oh, great, those rats had the plague. You know what? This was bound to happen. No adventure in a post apocalyptic desert ever ends well for the protagonist. I write a quick note about my having the plague, and telling the people of New Hope that they should spend some time figuring out how to make a vaccine for the plague, and also that they should really save some petrol for the round trip since there’s no gas stations in the desert. Then I stagger off into the desert to die. Because apparently the world had one last post apocalypse cliché for me. Damn.

Wrapup

The high Stamina scores make combat quite tiresome. In fact, this book is boring! It is so boring. Bored, bored, bored. All the interesting bits involve not being in the car. It’s really an exercise in making up vehicle mechanics for RPGs. That’s mildly interesting from a game design perspective, but it’s not really exciting. I just don’t think the post apocalyptic road warrior setting makes for a good gamebook.

There’s a line of books called Car Wars, based on the vehicle combat game published by Steve Jackson Games. I read the first two of those when I was 12, and they were a bit more interesting, particularly the second one. But then, they’re not post apocalyptic, just dystopian. In that setting, cars are powered by electricity, a development in response to the oil running out. Freeway Fighter just makes the player find cans of petrol every so often, or be stranded on the side of the road. It would be more interesting to have settlements to stop and explore, with a couple of different encounters that each provide the means to carry on.

One of the good things was the encounters were varied, including modern-day chariot gladiators and cowboys. The notion that half the survivors of the plague are cutting loose and taking the opportunity to revel in mayhem is sold much better with the characters clearly trying to live their own pseudo-historical thrillseeking fantasies.

Suspension of Disbelief Shattered: Where are the dead bodies? Why are there no skeletons lying in the streets? At one point the book suggests people dropped dead at the wheel of their cars causing accidents, so why aren’t there desiccated corpses in cars? It’s the cheeriest apocalypse ever. It’s more like the rapture happened.

Ridiculous Battle: The leader of the raiders is kind of tough and will kill you in three rounds. Under normal circumstances you have to put him down in six. There’s no climactic vehicle combat in the book. It felt like the entire premise was abandoned.

Victory: The actual final paragraph victory is a few short sentences congratulating the reader. More interestingly, it’s possible to get the plague from rats, and then break out just within sight of the walls, and thus the ending is abandoning the tanker within sight of the walls and walking off to die alone in the wilderness. That would be a more fitting paragraph 400 for this type of story (except there’s only 380 paragraphs).

What Was I Thinking? Not getting into the violent road race the first time through. It’s fairly obvious that violent variations on racing would be required parts of the plot.

Sword of the Samurai

“Oh come on, this isn’t even remotely fair!”

Sword of the Samurai by Jamie Thomson and Mark Smith

Sword of the Samurai is a rather self-explanatory title. Location: Hatchiman, on the continent of Khul, on the world of Titan. A country walled in by mountains and suspiciously similar to feudal Japan. It’s reasonably well done, though some of the Japanese terms are a bit off. But it’s definitely a fun tour through a different based-on-history fantasy setting.

Perhaps the best part is the extra skills, which provide a bit of replay value. It’s certainly interesting to have the chance to wield a bow. There’s also a sidekick in at least one path through the book, and there’s also allies for an arena battle at the end. All good fun, really. Plus: Decapitations!

Statistics

Skill: 10
Stamina: 22
Luck: 10
Honour: 3

Honour starts out at 3 and goes up and down depending on my actions. If it reaches zero, I turn to paragraph 99 where I kill myself. Okay, I can live with that.

I also get to pick one of the four skills: Archery (I’m not explaining that), fast draw (a free attack at the start of any combat), heroic leaping (leap normal-sized opponents in a single bound), and dual wielding (a free attack if I roll 9 or more). Yeah. That’s a tough one… I think I’ll go with dual wielding. What a stereotypical adventurer I am.

Equipment: Two swords (by default – if you don’t have the dual-wielding feat then the wakizashi is a spare); armour (proper armour, at last!); a backpack; provisions; and, get this, the book proper says I have a flag stuck to my back.

Onward to Adventure!

So, I’m a samurai. I’m sworn to serve Hasekawa, Shogun of Konichi, who rules all of Hachiman, and he wants me to go and find the daikatana called Singing Death, which has been stolen by Ikiru, Master of Shadows, owner of the Pit of Demons. Phew, that was a lot of exposition. Did I mention I’m a samurai? I have no choice in the matter: I can get eaten (BAD EATEN) by a bunch of oni or gut myself right now. But it’s okay, the sword’s secret will help me once I’ve got in my hands… except, if the Shogun tells me himself, the sword will vanish forever. Bloody hell.

Okay, discover the secret of Singing Death, get to the mountains where Ikiru lives, grab the sword, waste the sorcerer. No problem. I decide to head off for the Forest of Shadows, since for some inexplicable reason I have a bad feeling about The Spider Fens. It’s easy going riding through the lands of the shogun, with peasants bowing deferentially, much to my embarrassment. Eventually I am meandering through the lands of Lord Tsietsin and see a burning village. I decide I should probably see what’s going on. It turns out the local lord has… decided to have his samurai raze the village, which he owns, to the ground. How sensible. Okay then. Time to get out the swords and carve up some raiders.

One comes at me on a horse, and I cut him out of the saddle and take his head clean off. Then I challenge their leader to a duel. Three of the samurai step up to fight me, which is a funny definition of “duel their leader”. I dispatch them with a dazzling display of swordplay, and then the rest give up and flee. The village proposes I execute a wounded straggler, but I refuse. That would be dishonourable. The peasants, not understanding the complex network of social codes that bind samurai, merely think I’m part of an oppressive system of systemic oppression, where the privileged only look out for their own. They may be right. The wounded straggler, Moichi, swears to serve me, and I figure cannon fodder is good to have. We leave town, and he prattles on about his life history for hours. I consider lopping his head off, honour be damned.

Around a bend in the road is the castle of Lord Tsietsin. I figure that since I’m here, I might as well teach this impudent dog some manners. Or possibly I just want to put off this whole Pit of Demons business as long as possible. Thankfully Moichi knows the password. Inside, we find demons. Oh, great. I disguise myself in the armour of the unconscious guard, and we pretend to have a message. Then we take out the demons, and run around the palace completely lost. This brilliant plan is not turning out well at all. Not only are we completely lost in the bowels of a castle run by a traitor who is working with evil monsters, but the walls down here are made of stone so the quick solution isn’t an option. On the upside, Lord Tsietsin is lost too and we run into him. On the downside, he’s lost with his bodyguards. Bodyguards down, we give chase, and find our quarry about to flee down a trapdoor. One dead traitor later, I loot the chest conveniently located in the same room. A big pile of gold, some slightly better armour, and a magic arrow that is completely useless to me.

Down in the tunnel there is, naturally, a giant centipede. The horrendous insect makes quick work of the cannon fodder. At least it’s glowing, that makes it easier to hit. As I loot the cave, I wonder how Tsietsin was going to get past the centipede if he was such a pushover. Outside, I find the main road and head for the mountains. But before I get there, I have to pass through the Forest of Shadows. The forest is not so bad. Hardly even shadowy. Except for that big, dragon shaped shadow. Which is, naturally, being cast by a dragon.

“So,” I say, “You’re a dragon?”

“Well, yes, the whole giant flying snakey lizard thing is your first clue,” says the dragon as it forms a figure of eight in the air.

“I’m a samurai,” I say, gesturing to the laquered armour and twin swords, “and I’m on a mission through here, so uh… if you don’t let me past, I have to fight you.”

“Well, we only have to fight if you can’t guess the answer to two riddles. I’m just a guardian for this forest. No naturally occurring monsters, you know? So some deity thought I should guard it, to get a nice even spread of danger and peril through the land.”

“How thoughtful,” I reply. “I will have a go at your riddles, but I should warn you, I’ve heard that one about four, two, and three legs before.”

“Oh, uh, really? Hang on.”

The dragon spirals through the air, muttering to itself all the while as it tries to come up with a new riddle. All it can manage after being put on the spot so abruptly is that tired old chestnut about eggs, and then a meta-riddle. Big deal. It is enraged that I won the game despite its lack of preparedness, but decides to fork over a statuette of a dragon and give me a cryptic incantation. I press onward. Eventually I leave the forest and come to the Hagakure Bridge. As I step onto the stone span, the sky turns black and the river runs as blood, the surface covered in the floating limbs of damned souls. I take a step backwards, and everything is normal. Step on the bridge, nightmare world. Step off, normal world. This is kind of fun. I step on and off the bridge for a bit, toggling between the two worlds. My immense and mighty power of standing on a bridge knows no limits! Well, part from the undead samurai coming to attack me for playing around instead of being suitably awed. I duel the skeleton for a bit until I chop away one if its arms. Then it turns invisible which is clearly cheating. I get in a hit and it becomes visible again and calls up half a dozen skeletons. Oh, come on. I kill the skeletons, and the Skeleton Commander comes back for more. “Look,” I say, “this is just bullshit,” and take its head off. It is a hollow victory. Beheading a skeleton is just not as satisfying as cleaving the head from a living, bleeding foe. The body disintegrates, and as the nightmare world disappears for good I rummage in the remains of the super-skeleton and find an ivory horn. Gosh, I hope all these rare and valuable items will be of some use.

The next day I ascend a goat track that winds up the side of the mountains. Naturally nothing is ever easy: I am suddenly confronted by a dai-oni who goes by the name of Dai-Oni. He says that to get in to Ikiru’s Pit of Demons I have to beat him in the Tourney of the Planes. Oh, good, a glorified doorkeeper. I am promptly teleported into outer space, where eight doors lie in a circle around me. I don’t notice the doors, though, because I’m freaking out about the infinte vista above and below me. It’s like I’ve suddenly been shown the whole universe and my place in it. After a moment I regain my composure and reflect that my place in the universe is in the middle of a bunch of doors. Let’s see… I hop through the door that has “Elder Plains” written on it, and meet a sabre tooth tiger. One horn blast later, I have an angry cat on my side. A quick trip to a magic tower scores me the aid of some knights, then I travel elsewhere to get the aid of a Ki-Rin, and then yet another door gets me the aid of the same dragon that wanted to play riddles in the forest. I’m out of special items, so it’s time to duel, I suppose.

The door to the place of battle leads to an ancient arena full of ghosts. Dai-Oni the dai-oni has picked up some allies too. There’s a giant frog, a giant mantis, and a giant giant made of bronze and with glowing eyes that probably shoot bolts of fire or some other magical rubbish. It occurs to me that the crazy skeleton from the bridge might have been handy here. I have my pet cat kill the toad demon, and the dragon burns the mantis to the ground. I shake my head and offer a sympathetic word to Dai-Oni the dai-oni.

“They don’t make giant mantises like they used to.”

Meanwhile, the knights have taken down the giant. I’m one ally up in this, so I send the Ki-Rin after the greater demon. Instead of doing anything amazingly useful, the Ki-Rin just snatches my foe’s magic powers.

“What, is that it?” I ask.

“You must fight your foe honourably,” the divine messenger informs me.

“Fine. But I won’t like it.”

I duel the demon in a sulk, but it’s really not that difficult. After I’ve chopped off all his limbs, he is bound to provide me a boon, and as such turns over the secret of Singing Death most unwillingly. Thanks to the magic words the dragon told me, the avenging spirit that rises from the demon’s corpse gets destroyed without my having to do anything.

Well, that was easy. Wait, no… now I’m suddenly in the Pit of Demons. Ikiru is a fairly boring robed, hooded, wheezing evil wizard. I call the sword to me. It’s a pretty good magic sword. I get to slice and dice some shadowy demon things, and since it’s a rather excellent sword it absorbs the lightning that Ikiru tries to blast me with. This is rather trivial. When I finally engage him in combat, he goes down with a single lucky hit. I’m a bit stunned by this, and only snap out of it when the entire building starts falling down. This sword is a bit too good. I make tracks through a hole in the wall, and the demons outside are too busy freaking out about the collapsing building to care about me.

I make good time back to the capital, but am not feeling too happy about how this turned out. I hand over the sword with a “here, whatever.” I sulk through the banquet in my honour. Over the next few weeks I’m seen sitting alone, dejected. Some people occasionally claim to have heard me saying, “But I only got to hit him once!”

Wrapup

That was rather anti-climactic. If you have enough special items and do enough good deeds the book is a walkover after you reach the mountains. Well, okay, there’s two opponents with high skill scores, so I guess it’s not that easy. But then to get there you have to have a skill score in double figures, and it’s also probably best to pick the right special skill at the start. The book is also quite short, depending on which path you take.

There are all kinds of Japanese terms scattered through the text. Some of them are not quite accurate, for example “rokuro-kubi” is a misnomer, the detachable head monsters are supposed to be called nukekubi. Kappa, on the other hand, are named well enough and just slightly tweaked.

I got about 25 extra attacks in. It was a mostly pointless skill, since if I’d taken the jumping skill I’d have been able to avoid half the combats in the book where those attacks stopped me being slaughtered. The main reason it works out being remotely useful is that the enemies have enormous stamina totals, or you have to fight two or three opponents at once. This is not an easy book for combat! And yes, the book really does include beheadings and hewing of limbs. What kind of samurai story wouldn’t? The best losing paragraph is where you get caught in a trap and saw your own leg off. It’s good, gory fun and it’s a pity other books aren’t like this.

I narrowly avoided an evil well on the first attempt. If you are unlucky while frantically running around avoiding a horde of flying heads, you fall in. Wells will get you!

Suspension of Disbelief Shattered: When the picture for the first paragraph was of a male samurai. It could have been a picture of the gates of the city, or something equally scene setting, but no, it’s some guy on a horse. This is sort of a problem with a heavily gendered character role.

Ridiculous Battle: The horde of skeletons on the bridge. That one just never seemed to end. See the quote at the start of the article? I shouted that at the book.

Victory: A brief explanation of a collapsing castle and the triumphant return with the magic sword. These victory paragraphs should be longer.

What Was I Thinking? My first attempt involved a trip to the Spider Fens, where I was mauled continually and then died in an increasingly desperate attempt to save myself from drowning. There’s the easy way through, and there’s the very, very hard way.

Eye of the Dragon

“Find your own damn orcs to kill!”

Eye of the Dragon by Ian Livingstone

This one was originally a short adventure in the 1982 book Dicing with Dragons. The book itself was an introduction to role-playing games, so the adventure was really a sampling of the crazy excitement that you can get up to with some dice. I think there might be a need for explanatory materials like this today, since there’s still a general ignorance of what RPGs actually are.

I don’t know anything else about it, other than I’m playing a character who has a pathological urge to drink anything in a flask she sees, so I might as well get on with the dungeon exploring…

Statistics

Skill: 10
Stamina: 23
Luck: 11

Equipment: Er, I assume I have a sword, armour, and backpack, but it only mentions 10 provisions in the intro to the book. I get 10 gold and a fancy emerald in the background.

Onward to Adventure!

I find myself in Fang, down on my luck and in need of a change in fortunes rather fast. The Trial of Champions is happening next month, and I’m trying my best to fight the urge to enter. Contestants are given the run of the town for a month, but then I’ll get killed in the dungeon. I’m fighting the overwhelming magnetic pull of the dungeon, but it’s taking all my will. Unfortunately, with so many hired swords hanging around town for the suicidal adventurer championships, there’s not a lot of good, honest, murderous work to be had to distract me from certain doom.

I am sitting around in a tavern, pondering what to do, when a newcomer enters. I ask him what he’s been up to, and he introduces himself as Henry Delacor. He’s spent five years looking for a legendary statue of a dragon. A metre high, with gems for eyes, and wildly valuable. When he eventually found it, he saw the eyes were missing. If both eyes are not in the dragon, it is lethal to the touch. Thankfully, one of them was in the maze the dragon is hidden in. Unfortunately, he didn’t find the other. “I reckon I can find it,” I say speculatively. Delacor thinks this is an okay idea and will turn over his map and the eye to me on one condition: That I drink some slow-acting poison so I will be certain to return with the dragon within fourteen days for the antidote.

This sounds stupid, right? Well I’m an adventurer. Nothing is too stupid for me to try. I down the poison and set off immediately!

After a three-day trek to Darkwood Forest, and two days of roaming about looking for the woodcutter’s hut built over the entrance to the underground maze, I am finally set to go down there and kill some monsters. But the hut is deserted, so I quickly loot it of everything I can find. This comes to one axe head with a mysterious inscription. I figure there’s got to be an axe handle around somewhere, so I take it. Down in the dungeon, I take the first left turn I find, and run into a door. Inside, there is naught but a mirror. I have a look in it, and am wracked with pain. Oh, one of those mirrors. I smash it to pieces, take a shard as a memento of my heroic victory against a big sheet of reflective glass, and leave through the door opposite. I enter a room with a pool of water, that has some gold coins at the bottom. This is probably a trap, so I continue out the other side. Along the corridor from the obviously-a-trap room, I find a door with a window next to it. There’s a woman inside, busy with something. I knock, and get no response. I enter, and she turns around just as I notice she doesn’t so much have hair as a reptile house. I avoid looking at her, and hold up my piece of mirror. When the hissing stops, I kick over the newly-formed statue and then search the room, coming up with a skull necklace that causes me to hallucinate skeletal warriors. Nice toy, I suppose.

Further on I find a kitchen with some giant rats inside. The overwhelming sense of nostalgia for the early days of my adventuring career prompts me to walk in and slay them. A quick search of the kitchen turns up what looks like a potion. There’s only one way to find out. I sample it, and find some of the bites clearing up. It is a potion! My spirits lifted by the positive results of drinking whatever bottled liquid I come across, I search deeper into the dungeon. I come to a dead end with a door… and am trapped by a portcullis. I enter the room, and find a fancy marble floor with some foot marks inside a circle. An evil voice instructs me to step into the circle, and laughs evilly.

“No, evil laughing voice,” I say. “You show yourself first!”

The voice laughs again, painfully loud. I figure, what the hell. When I step into the circle I am suddenly rendered unconscious. I wake in a filthy cell. I scrabble in the dirt and find a trapdoor. I then search some more and find a gold nugget and a gold bracelet. The bracelet naturally turns out to be cursed as soon as I put it on. Feeling a bit put out, I drop through the trapdoor and find a torture chamber. I loot a chest and leave. Exploring up ahead, I turn a corner and find a fountain in the shape of a hideous crone. I’m thirsty enough not to care, and am rewarded by it being a magical healing crone fountain. Further on I find a chair carved to look like hundreds of skulls. I take a seat, only to find it is a magical healing skull throne. After those two encounters with rather ugly décor, I think nothing of opening a door with rodent skeletons nailed to it. Inside is a two-headed troll. Big deal. I kill them and steal all the things in their room, including a broken dagger. I walk onward, ever deeper into the bowels of the earth. Eventually I find an underground river, plunging into the depths, with a raft conveniently tied up on the shore. I don’t know if this is such a great idea. I backtrack and go along a different route. I eventually come to a door with a woman inside chanting a strange rhyme. I am agog with wonder over what hideous creature she will turn out to be, and step inside. The occupant is just a run-of-the mill witch.

“Hello,” I say, “I don’t suppose you have seen a large and valuable emerald lying around?”

I don’t get an answer, because a pair of vampire bats attack me. I dispatch them with ease, but then she unleashes her horde of rats. Amazingly, the cursed bracelet I’m wearing has the power to repel rats. The downside is she then turns her arms into snakes and attacks me. She gets a few good bites in, and I stagger back, poisoned. I fish out that potion of healing and drink it.

“You’re stopping to drink a potion in the middle of a fight?” the witch says incredulously.

“Of course,” I reply, running her through while she’s standing there looking surprised.

At that she turns into a mouse and runs away. Suddenly, the steam from the cauldron (of course there’s a cauldron, she’s a witch) starts to form the image of the crone, holding out the twin of the emerald eye I already have. I grab for it, and the cauldron explodes. Not my best moment.

The illusion of the witch reappears, and tells me her name is Vigdis. I tell her she’s one ugly old crone, and she thinks this is a compliment. Well, okay, flaunt what you’ve got. She tells me I can have whatever is in a box on her shelf, and I grab it and get out of there. For my trouble I’ve earned some gold, some garlic, and a key with a number stamped in it. As I proceed, I consider that it’s always good to have as many objects with numbers on as possible. At the end of the passage I find a door, and when I quietly open it, I see a gleaming object in the light of a lone candle. I swipe the pendant and put it on, and saunter off. Or I would, but the floor collapses and I plunge into a spider lair. After dispatching the spider, I search the room. I find a good many things, including numbered keys, broken daggers, holiday tree ornaments, and a sharpened stick which I can use to make anything I find look like a much better discovery than is at first apparent.

I clamber out of the spider pit, and continue up the hallway that was previously a dead end. From behind a door I hear cries for help. Inside, a lavishly appointed room has at the back an iron cage with a beautiful young woman locked inside. I decide to help. This can only end well, right? The door to the cage is unlocked, and given the size of her canines, it’s not surprising. I fish out my garlic and ward her off for a few moments. What would be really handy here is a silver dagger. Let’s take stock: Silver box, silver arrowhead, two pendants on silver chains, and some broken ordinary daggers. What the hell, the trusty blade will do the job, right? I make quick work of the vampiress, and then a bat flies out of the pile of dust. It is the spirit of the fiend! According to vampire lore, she will have a new form in two night’s time, and be out to get me. If I’m still down here she’ll have to take a number and get in line. I poke around in the dust and find an emerald pendant. It’s not the right emerald, but it’s still worth coming out of this vampire business with something.

Further on I find a room full of greenery. I enter, only to be attacked by a gremlin. After killing it – the hard way, there’s no handy skylight – I find a cupboard, which has a jar of green paste in it. I decide to eat some. It’s not tasty, but at the bottom of the jar is a key with a number on it. Further on I come to a grim archway with a pair of skeletons standing in alcoves. I know how this goes, and proceed to smash them to bits. One of them has a spiffy helmet, which I steal. It causes me a brief headache, but the snake head necklace I grabbed from the gorgon counters the curse. Further along from Skeleton Arch, I find a red door. Someone is chuckling inside, so I step in, and find the room is quite small. The voice says it belongs to a wizard trapped in another dimension. I proceed to tell him about my quest to find the golden dragon, starting with my trip to Fang, and continuing through all my adventures, ending with when I found the red door.

“..and then I thought, this door would be a lot better if it was painted black, so I came in here to suggest it.”

“I agree,” says the disembodied voice, and then makes a numbered key appear in thanks for the story. I travel onward, and come to a T-junction.

Most T-junctions offer no dilemma for me, but this one has some arrows chalked to the wall pointing right. This might be a trick, or maybe I’m meant to think it’s a trick and go in the other direction to my doom. But what if this is a trick to… You know what? I’ll just follow the arrows. I walk onward, and find another junction with more arrows leading off in one direction. The other is a room full of sand. There’s several objects sticking out, and a convenient shovel.

Hey, free shovel!

I go into the room to do some digging, but a giant sandworm springs from the ground. A voice in my head tells me to try out that crystal dagger I found, and with one stab the sandworm dissolves into sand. I proceed to dig for victory. I turn up a veritable treasure trove of junk, including a broken chair, a torn flag, a chest of gold, a tattered book, and a staff. I strike the staff on the ground and am knocked over. It’s a staff of thunder. The book has some rhymes in it. One of them encases me in iron bars. This seems to be a problem, but the green paste has also given me super strength, but only when trapped by iron bars.

I return to following the arrows, and eventually find a rope hanging through a hole in the ceiling. I give it a tug and a bell rings out. I can’t imagine that’s good, but try to climb through the hole anyway. Above I see a treasure trove of stolen goods… and also three Niblicks, who start to beat the snot out of me while I clamber up. What is with tiny people and being sadistic tricksters, thieves, and murderers? I do battle with this dungeon’s resident midgets, and then loot their loot. I grab yet another shield, and scoff some apples, a scroll with a spell for blasting holes in walls, and pick up a sword with a showy pommel stone.

The sword promptly tries to cut my throat! I stare down at it in shock, noting the name “Razaak” engraved in it. As I struggle to stop the blade, my cursed bracelet overcomes the power of the sword, much to my relief. I sit down and try to relax by appreciating a lovely painting of a dragon. The dragon comes to life and tries to attack me too! I slay the tiny painted dragon and decide it’s time to leave before the rest of the objects of art try to murder me. On the way back past the junctions I find some silver coins. These are not normally worth picking up, but I’m already carrying a broken chair, several kinds of dried leaves, and a shovel. What’s some small change?

Back on the path I come to a door where some people are eating loudly. I open the door, only to find some green and ugly creatures that are clearly orcs. Every adventurer has to kill some orcs at some point. I kill one, and in the middle of my battle with the second someone walks in and offers to help out for some gold. The orc and I stop and stare at this blatant money grubbing. “Look, I think I’ve got this one,” I say. The mercenary shrugs and walks out. The orc, infuriated at the interruption, smacks his skull open as he walks away. I use the opportunity to skewer the orc. Searching the disgusting mess the orcs lived in, I find a blue bottle. On opening a beturbaned man is suddenly floating in the air. He gives me a magical brooch, and disappears. I search the bodies and come up with a fish hook, bell, and some buttons. The quality of treasure in here varies wildly.

I carry on, finding a trail of blood. I follow it to a door, and enter to find a Dwarf chained to the wall. It turns out his name is Littlebig, and he’s been looking for the emerald eye as well, and has been tortured by someone called Sharcle for information. I figure teaming up might be a good idea. We proceed through the dungeon. As we walk, Littlebig tells me he’s actually named for his uncle Bigleg, who died a hero trying to save the town of Stonebridge. I listen to the rambling, and am nearly killed by a fireball from an evil wizard.

“Oh come on,” I say. “Why is it always fireballs?” and smack the staff of thunder on the ground, blasting the wizard to pieces. We carry on, and find a wizened old man. I try talking to him, but he ignores me. Okay, old man, I’m not playing along. We turn right, and come to a store room, which is full of maggot-ridden food. Further on the corridor becomes cold and dank, and a cyclops comes out of the mist armed with an axe. It’s not a very big cyclops, though, so I kill it with ease and Littlebig swipes the axe.

Just out of the mist is a door which says “Pia’s Potions” – a shop in a dungeon? I figure it’s worth checking out. The proprietress is an astonishingly beautiful woman, in her own clichéd harem pants and midriff baring top way. I wave some garlic at her just to be on the safe side, and then try the sample healing potion she’s offering. It turns out to work just fine,so I buy up some more potions and try to chat her up.

“I guess you should know, I’m really eighty,” she says.

“What?”

“I’m eighty, but the potions generally keep me looking younger.”

“I can live with that,” I say, truthfully. After all, it’s been how many years? Besides, she’s hot. “I can swing by after I sort out this whole dragon statue business and we can go get something to eat in Stonebridge.”

The Dwarf is not impressed with my picking up strange women in the dungeon. “Look, you have plenty of time to chat up pensioners later,” he drags me out of the room. “Dragon statue!” We walk on, with me speculating on what kind of music she likes and where she’d like to eat. “How would I know?! I’m a Dwarf, you’re human women!” Thankfully a skulking figure with a sack distracts me from planning a date. I give chase, and run into more black-robed dagger carrying people. I guess they’re thieves. The thing about thieves is, whatever they have on them is not theirs in the first place, so it’s okay to take it all from them. Of course you have to kill them first. They have some more fish hooks. I’m not sure what these fish hooks will be good for, but I suppose I can carry a lot of them. After all, these items have no appreciable weight and should not be considered for encumbrance unless hundreds are carried.

Further on Littlebig finds a secret door, which turns out to be a hidden area built by Dwarves to rest in. I guess they must come down here every few months and try to clear out whatever monsters have taken up residence. We devour all the food, and I find a map. Further on we find a body lying on the ground, which I loot of all its possessions, including a sword called Skullsplitter. This sounds like a rather useful sword, to be honest. Oh, look, there’s also, another potion! I throw it back in one go, and then start to convulse and cough up blood. Poisoned! I suppose that was going to happen sooner or later…

Wrapup

That’s what happens when you drink every vial of liquid you find.

This is the most fun dungeon crawl book I’ve read so far. The combat is easy enough and even some of the cursed items turn out okay. Some of the gimmicks are ones I recognise from earlier books, like the arrows on the wall, and the numbered keys. It was astonishingly easy apart from the unnecessary vampire encounter, but if I hadn’t died there were at least three difficult combats coming, one of which is against an opponent that deals twice the normal damage.

Having a sidekick to provide exposition is a nice touch, but a Skill of 8 makes him almost completely useless. Littlebig also serves to give a second chance for some of the dangers in the book, though

Suspension of Disbelief Shattered: A mercenary walks into my fight and asks me to pay him to help out? What? No, I don’t think so.

Ridiculous Battle: The Gigantus, which is a Skill 12 monster that deals 4 damage instead of 2 when it hits. Not even a remotely fair fight for the average adventurer. The dragon just outside the chamber with the objective is bigger and tougher, but you can walk right past it.

Victory: You leave the villain of the story bleeding to death, find out the poison was a lie, and party with the Dwarves in Stonebridge, and possibly some woman with a ridiculous taste in headgear. The statue is apparently worth around 335,000 gold pieces, making it the largest haul I’ve seen.

What Was I Thinking? Using magical items to deal with the evil wizard. Adventurers kill wizards! Kill the wizard, take their stuff, and I would have made it. That’s what I get for not sticking to the basics.

Starship Traveller

“Rocks? I win rocks?!”

Starship Traveller by Steve Jackson

Cover: Peter Andrew Jones

Illustrations: Peter Andrew Jones

"...it doesn't have a vulnerable spot!"

Gladiatorial combat is a common hazard of outer space.

This is the first science fiction themed Fighting Fantasy book, and also the first one I owned. I never finished it as it is hard, having two essential items to find and nothing to go on but trial and error. It’s also rather suspiciously similar to a certain television franchise, what with the multiple ship specialists, and phasers, and transporters, and so on. I suppose then it’s fair enough that the plot of this ended up in Star Trek: Voyager. Yes, the titular starship, Traveller, winds up in an alternate universe and the reader, being the captain, has to get the crew home.

The artwork is a little bit minimalist, but that’s okay. They were trying to get a different feel for this book, and it worked out well. The other important point is that there’s only 340 entries (plus three for combat rules). That is not many – the usual count is 400 – yet there’s a lot going on in this book, and it’s a shame there wasn’t more.

There’s a lot of stats to roll up. Player; ship; science, medical, engineering, and security officers; and of course two disposable bungling security guards (I’ll call them Steve and Ian, for reasons that may or may not be apparent). I best get to it, then.

Statistics

Captain (Me)
Skill: 10
Stamina: 16
Luck: 8

Science Officer (Professor Maximillian Ziegenhagen)
Skill: 8
Stamina: 21

Medical Officer (Dr. Natasha Natasha)
Skill: 11
Stamina: 22

Engineering Officer (James Miles Scott-O’Brien)
Skill: 11
Stamina: 19

Security Officer (Ms. Not Appearing In This Adventure)
Skill: 9
Stamina: 17

Guard 1 (Steve)
Skill: 7
Stamina: 14

Guard 2 (Ian)
Skill: 7
Stamina: 14

The dice just came up all ones for the security guards. I can’t imagine the odds.

The Traveller
Weapons Strength: 7 (oh no, it’s a research vessel)
Shields: 14 (A research vessel made out of cardboard!)

Equipment: A bloody great starship, assorted phasers, shuttles, and disposable crew members.

Special: The limits of medical science in the future have been reached, and thus only 2 points of stamina can be healed, and only when getting back from an alien planet, and only if the original medical officer is alive (if dead, you get one point instead). In other words: We’re all going to die!

Onward to Adventure!

Stardate: Who knows? I’m asleep in the captain’s chair when alarms go off and I’m told that the engines have possibly locked into acceleration mode, and maybe they’re going to overload, and there’s a smidgen of a possibility they might explode, and perhaps it will take longer to fix this than it takes for the ship to blow itself to smithereens, and there’s a teensy, tiny chance that we’re also flying straight for a black hole called the Seltsian Void. Science officer Ziegenhagen has a brilliant plan to fly as close as we can to the black hole to have it slow us down. Since I’m still groggy from my nap, I agree to this plan. Amazingly, it does work. The ship slows down… and then goes backwards… into the black hole. I shrug and hit the red alert button, figuring we might as well have the mood lighting if we’re all going to die. I fall asleep again as we get crushed by the black hole.

After surivving this, I bought a lottery ticket.

Scribble. The final frontier.

Against all expectations to the contrary I wake up, and find out that the Seltsian Void is an actual hole instead of a vast amount of matter squashed into a tiny amount of space. I pretend I passed out instead of dozing off. Really, this sort of thing happens to starship captains every week, why should I worry? The science officer says we’re now in a parallel universe, which just so happens to match his crackpot theories about dimensional warps that got him kicked out of Space University when he applied for funding to build a massive ship and fly it into a black hole. I eye him suspiciously. It’s funny how the scientist with the theory about dimensional warps would suggest flying dangerously close to a black hole when the engines lock up, and that they would lock up right when we’re near a black hole… I recall that time he claimed lobotomising the crew would be cheaper than building robots, and make a note in his personnel file.

The engineering officer, who insists in speaking in a faux Scottish accent, informs me that a couple of guards were keeping a still in the engine core, and it sprang a leak which caused the malfunction. Typical. After repairs have been made, we use our long range space scanners to look around. I decide to head to a barren and desolate star system, because as that’s the least logical place for help to be, we will probably find it on every planet there. The ship is not halfway to our destination when the engineering officer tells me, still refusing to stop doing that accent, that we’re running out of “dilibrium” crystals. Apparently they can be refined into nuclear fuel for our warp engines. I ask him what happened to our supply, and I’m told it was something to do with a couple of security guards, a bet, a forklift, and an airlock. I close my eyes and lean heavily on my hand. My quiet contemplation of the peaceful life farming small, furry, self-replicating blobs that I left behind to become a starship captain is interrupted be someone saying they’ve spotted some some asteroids.

Asteroid clusters in this universe certainly aren’t boring and tiresome expanses of space with some rocks vaguely grouped together at distances apart further than the naked eye can see. Asteroid clusters in this universe are basically big space blenders. Dilibrium prospecting in such an asteroid field is dangerous and potentially deadly work, so I order Steve the security guard to suit up, grab a jetpack, and get out there and find us some crystals. He might die, he might find some dilibrium, either way we’re ahead. If he dies we can just fly in, rotate the ship on the spot and shoot any asteroids that get too close into pieces. It turns out that there is no dilibrium to be had on the boring fringes of the asteroid cluster, and so Steve proceeds to the dangerous and chaotic centre. Surprisingly, our bungling security guard doesn’t die, and returns with enough crystals (in a space sack) to fuel the ship.

We journey onwards, and I amuse myself by making up stardates. On finding a nice blue-green planet, the Traveller is attacked by a tiny spaceship. A thrilling ship-to-ship battle ensues, with flashing lights, consoles exploding, and the ship listing violently as the enemy craft scores a hit, throwing everyone around. An effect ruined because while we all lean port, bungling security guard Ian leans starboard. Afterwards, I insist on going down there and having it out with whoever sent that woefully under-classed ship to attack us. All we find is a blasted landscape, and a river that gives strange readings on our handy portable magical analysing everything device. Before I can stop him, bungling security guard Ian drinks some of the water. The Science officer decides to grab some yellow powder too, and then we get out of there. I give the order to head for a double star system, and then there’s an emergency in the space canteen. It’s probably that fool security guard, who has no doubt ingested alien nanotechnology, or a crazy virus that takes people over, or something equally stupid. In space, no one can hear me scream “don’t drink the water!”

It's more exciting in the book.

I only just noticed the incredibly cheesy stars on their boots. Deary, deary me.

Naturally, I’m right about the whole crazy virus. It’s funny how this turns out. I order the raving madman sedated, and he manages to smack his co-worker Steve across the head in the resulting Three Stooges routine. Dr Natasha administers space antibiotics and this alien virus that conveniently can interact with human biology dies. Dr Natasha then recommends muzzling the security guards when they go down to alien planets. As I return to the bridge, I notice that the crew have made bingo cards which contain space exploration clichés. Trust the human race to turn exploring a new universe into cheap entertainment. I put some credits in the pool and get myself a bingo card anyway, telling myself that it’s good for morale. I notice that the card is unimaginatively titled “space bingo”.

We proceed to a double star system and make contact with the people there. They seem friendly enough, so I beam down to say hello, get knocked out, and then wake up to find they’re cloning me. It’s almost perfect, except the clone has an eye patch. I suppose she is a parallel universe copy of me, after all. I struggle to reach my bingo card, but can’t quite get it. Then Dilane, Extraterrestrial Communications Officer and Chief Deceptive Bitch, explains that the planet Macommon is being torn apart by the gravity of the twin suns and they have a year to find a way to escape. I cheerily ask them if they have a plan, and then the reason for the cloning becomes clear. I sigh and employ the only plan I can attempt. I concentrate on things that will give away that the clone is fake. Namely, I think hard about a horrible planet which no-one would visit, and how Steve and Ian are our star employees. When the clone says Macommon is as nice as that craphole in our home universe, someone gets suspicious and grills the doppelgänger, who gives the game away when asked who the most efficient, skilled, and generally not causing disasters members of the crew are. The crew boldly threaten to annihilate the planet unless I am set free. I wait with bated breath until the Macommons agree. This is one of those stupid plans, since people who have nothing to lose because they will be wiped out in a year’s time might opt for a quick and relatively painless death from above. On returning to the ship I ask the crew why they didn’t just beam me out of there. They sheepishly admit that the security guards had been playing with the transporters and the space electrician only just fixed them.

We arrive at a red planet, called Dar-Vil. On beaming down following a friendly invitation, the locals and my crew are amused to find I’ve been interwoven via a transporter accident with a Dar-Villian. Oh, bloody great. The science officer suggests we all go up to the ship, and once there comes up with a harebrained scheme involving finding my missing body. I point out that this isn’t, in fact, a mind swap, because I can hear the alien mind in my own. Alas, since the bingo card is on my actual body, I can’t check to see if being merged in a transporter accident is on there. The Dar-Villian commander proposes using transporters to disintegrate and reconstruct myself and the alien. The science officer agrees with that, but he would: this is the same clown who thought flying into a black hole would be a good idea. Unfortunately, no-one has a better plan and they all seem rather keen to smash me to atoms. So I am disintegrated, and by some amazing providence come out alive, whole, and most importantly, in my own body.

I order the ship to proceed to a spaceport which refuses to let us dock. I’m not taking that, and insist on having the Traveller repaired while the station commander splutters and wheezes. I recall that everyone else I passed in the corridors was similarly infected, and have a sudden and shocking realisation that I’ve probably just caught space plague. Amazingly, it’s only the security guards who get sick. Unfortunately, Dr. Natasha manages to find a cure.

Onwards, through the uncharted by us (as per Federation Directive 324/a/119/d/11 I am required to add “by us” to all statements about uncharted or undiscovered territories, galaxies, planets, asteroids, black holes, ribbons of transcendental energy that act as gateways to paradise universes, political alliances, and any other as-yet undetermined things that may be encountered by a member of the Federation for the first time) void! We find a mining colony, and are invited by someone to go down and check out their contests which serve as entertainment for the miners. I order my bungling security guards to beam down with me, and materialise in the office of the local greeter, who suddenly gets called away to “the arena” – I wonder what kind of entertainment they have on? Possibly some kind of sporting event. As we wait, a hovering robot comes in and asks us to go with it. I figure, why not? We are left in another waiting room. Space has a lot of waiting rooms. This is really what space exploration is about: waiting around, reading old magazines, staring at the chronometer on the wall and wondering what their time translates to in our time system, and generally being bored out of my skull. Some other strange aliens come in and ask us if we’re here to enter the “contests”. I explain that I’m not really the athletic type, and I tell them about the whole flying through a black hole thing, which they have a little trouble believing. I can’t imagine why. Eventually they find the alien who I talked to earlier, who suggests we should be given the “best seats in the house”. That sounds good to me… up until my landing party and I are shoved into a changing room and told to get ready. Oh dear. I’m not keen to play whatever weird alien sport they… hang on they gave me a weapon, so it’s more “fight” and “in gladiatorial combat”.

We are shoved out into the arena, and there I find an enormous and heavily armed robot. It stands there and does nothing. I poke it a bit with my electro-pike and it does not respond, the single dull red ball it uses for an eye bouncing backwards and forwards in the visual sensor field. I wonder what is going on. Then I notice it’s got a brand name on it. It’s a Manslayer 4000 model. I smirk at it and take a large step to the right, revealing the imbecilic security guards. The dull red eye pinging backwards and forwards across what should be the robot’s face lights up brightly, a rather dated synthesised voice booms out, “Targets acquired!” and it attacks the security guards while I cross off the “hopelessly literal robot” square on my bingo card.

I lean on my electro-pike and watch with amusement as Steve and Ian are minced by the robot. I eventually start to feel guilty and demolish the robot for them, because while I’m fairly certain the core officers will have a good laugh about this, the HR officer will have me reprimanded if we ever get back home. As a prize for defeating the savage robot, hauled all the way from the jungles of Killbots Inc, I win freedom and a big pile of the bizarre metal they mine here. Oh good, rocks. I ask for something useful, and get some galactic coordinates where there’s a black hole that could get my ship home.

Teleporting back up to the ship, I decide we should boldly go to a large, wheel shaped structure. It turns out that my hard-won rocks are considered valuable currency and I can pay the docking fee with them. I decide to go and chat with their dome-headed executive officer who, when I ask about the means to get home, turns out to be one of those telepathic aliens. Behind me, one of the away team shouts “Bingo!” and I have to make up a story about that being a traditional Earth phrase for expressing thanks, and certainly not a sign that we’ve turned their entire reality into an opportunity to amuse ourselves.

Back on board the starship, my crew start sulking about the fact we haven’t found a way home yet. I try to point out that there’s really a lot of space to explore, and we could look around a bit longer for suitable coordinates. They don’t think this is good enough, and insist that we try the coordinates we have. “But,” I say, “we have no idea these coordinates are right.” They insist, and with more suicides, so I give in to their demands. We plot our course for the black hole we need to travel through, and I ask the navigation officer if she’s sure of what she’s doing “Oh sure,” she says, “We just fly into the gravity well and everything will be okay.”

As she hits the button marked GO I just have time to say “What do you mean, well?” before the ship is stretched into an extremely thin, extremely long strand of tinfoil spaghetti, and then crushed into a tiny speck in the black hole.

Wrapup

The first thing to point out is, there’s hardly any need for combat. In fact, being a pacifist is usually safer: Phaser battles are one hit kill affairs and the aliens seldom set phasers to stun. Ship to ship combat is interesting, since the more you get hit, the more likely your ship will take more damage if hit again. The rules really make combat unpleasant and something to avoid. Thus it’s also less satisfying to play through, since there’s no good reason to get into a fight (and this is probably why it was so tiresome for me as a child). I suppose Deathtrap Dungeon will make up for the lack of combat in spades. There’s also no climactic final encounter, so it’s more

It’s also a bit annoying that there’s only one female crew member. In fact, unless it’s specified that it’s the Medical Officer being referred to, away teams are assumed to be all male. She also has a scripted death if she fails a skill check, though I suppose you can avoid that if you’re quick thinking. The Science Officer is there to solve almost all problems, and the Engineering Officer gets something to do once or twice. The Security Officer is completely redundant, and never turned up. None of the NPCs on the ship have names, which might be because readers are supposed to name them, like I did, or might be because it’s hard making up half a dozen names on the spot. Which I also experienced.

I honestly think it’s a good book, especially given the ambitious theme and plot. The fact that it’s entirely possible to miss out on the excitement is on one hand annoying given what line of books it’s from, on the other it’s nice to play a book where the plot really is exploration and meeting people, and the actual villains are often desperate or misguided. I think it could do with a sequel. Nowhere in the victory paragraph does it say that it’s the right universe, just one with a space station you recognise. The normal AstroNavy adventures of the crew in their home universe, or further parallel universe exploration? Anything would be welcome, so long as there’s more battles.

Suspension of Disbelief Shattered: Well if I wanted to be truthful, I’d say it was when the ship flew through a black hole, but I can forgive a lot of retro sci-fi imaginings. I’ll have to go with the fact that no-one in the book thinks to just go and round up some people with spaceships to save the population of Macommon.

Victory: You find out you’re in the “real” universe thanks to a handy deep space outpost right near the place where the ship gets back.

What Was I Thinking? I should have just let that robot kill the security guards. They had it coming.

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