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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Rebel Planet

“Oh great, it’s hunt the keys… in space!”

Rebel Planet by Robin Waterfield

Cover: Alan Craddock

Illustrations: Gary Mayes

Lizard man with sword. Did you think we'd get away from that in The Future? Hah!

I appear to have fallen through a wormhole into a fantasy universe.

Yes, the word planet in the title means the book is set in The Future and there is space travel and also that this is science fiction and I’m probably going to get killed by a robot.

This is a really good science fiction story, what with all the flavour and future technology and different human cultures that science fiction is supposed to be about. Oh sure, the technology is sometimes stunted in that old sci-fi way, but never so much so that it isn’t reasonable. The various planets are human colonies with different cultures, and the way the evil aliens fit in is interesting. I enjoyed it as a sci fi story. I also enjoyed it as a gamebook, except… well, you’ll see.

Okay, so, evil aliens: So by 2453 the planet, in fact all the planets humans colonized, have been conquered by some alien reptiles who are bastards. This is what happens when you give aliens the secret of space travel. After giving the human race an arse kicking that is more than a little embarrassing, they decided that this running a galactic empire thing was tricky, so they built a massive computer on their home planet. The Arcadians (they come in three varieties due to divergent evolution) decided to turn themselves into a group mind just so they could have an easier time running their empire. Yes, they are a bit stupid. But there’s a plan to free the human race from the yoke of the oppressor, and it’s an incredibly dangerous task.

Why yes, you’re right, the person being sent to do this seemingly impossible, certain death task is me. So basically the human race is screwed. But SAROS (Search And Research Of Space, they’ve had a bit of a shift in focus since we were conquered) has trained me up in martial arts and science, and has managed to whack an Arcadian over the head for a weapon, and they’re going to send me off undercover as a merchant, which is the only space travelling humans are allowed to do between our colony worlds. My mission is to blow up their computer.

Oh wait, no, that would be too easy! My mission is to find the rebel leaders who each have part of the code to the front door of the computer complex, and then get to Arcadion, and then blow up the computer. I guess if I don’t have all the pieces of the code when I get there, I get to sit down on the steps outside and have a bit of a cry or something.

Oh, and this was one of the Fighting Fantasy books which was turned into a computer game back in the distant past of the 1980s. It’s a bit different, having been turned into a text adventure instead of the slaughterfest these books usually are, but it sounds interesting enough.

48 kilobytes! 48!

Not pictured: Reel-to-reel version. Hey, and what’s with this “All-American” rubbish?

Statistics

Skill: 11 (haha!)
Stamina: 18 (whaaat?)
Luck: 12 (screw this secret mission, time to hit the casinos!)

Equipment: Laser sword, 2000 credits, anti-grav pack (it’s a backpack which is weightless).

Special: When I hit someone in unarmed combat, I have a 1 in 6 chance of killing them outright, because I am that much of a badass. Also I can only carry six other items. So I’m a poorly equipped badass.

Onward to Adventure!

Well, blue is a change from white.

Let me think… the only people who have spaceships are Arcadians, and me. So… no.

After an uneventful trip involving a lot of space chess – it’s like normal chess but the computer throws every third game so I don’t feel so bad – I arrive on Tropos, the planet otherwise known as retro world. For some reason the fashions of 21st Century Earth have become sort of a national dress here, so since the entire planet Earth turned into one big permanent retro costume party in the 1990’s, this means I’m moving through crowds of people dressed in fashion from the 20th century. But there’s no time for me to reflect on the sartorial history of Earth. First I have to find Bellatrix, rebel leader, who hangs out at a club called Fission Chips. Ugh, they kept all the old puns, too.

First things first, I have to go to the hostel for offworld humans to maintain my cover. The receptionist is unresponsive, possibly because Arcadians have no need nor desire to be respectful to us, so I go upstairs and find someone crying because he’s been made homeless by the Arcadians. They suspected him of being one of the rebels and naturally figured the best way to deal with this problem was to kill his family and burn his house down while leaving him free to go about his life. Then one of the guards downstairs comes running up to the dormitory floor and wants to slaughter us because the receptionist is dead, on the basis of some kind of ten-for-one deal they have going to make sure no-one tries anything funny. Well, I suppose this is what the super-secret rebel leaders gave me my laser sword for: Hilarity ensues. After I kill the guard, throw the other intended victim out the window to safety, and make my escape. Unfortunately I don’t have an address for this nightclub, so I wander about until I find a store and buy some gear. Rope, can of oil, klaxon. Thankfully the shopkeeper is an Arcadian so I don’t have to make any excuses to her. I then ask for directions, which she gives me in typical Southern Arcadian fashion – which means a cryptic statement that seems more than a little bizarre. But thankfully I figure out where to go with no trouble at all whatsoever.

At the Fission Chips, I am quietly told that I probably want to make a call from the visiphone booth. As I step inside I get gassed and dropped down a chute, because apparently the people in charge of the Tropos cell decided Get Smart! was the best bit of Earth nostalgia to base their secret rebellion tactics on. I wake up in the dark, being questioned by three people I can’t see. I manage to figure out that the woman in the group is indeed Bellatrix, and she tells me that the only information she has is that the Northern Arcadians, who are the warlike sub-species of our oppressors, have encoded part of the secret door code in a marching song. Apparently they think an acrostic poem is the height of clever encryption.

The next day I board my space ship and head for Radix, which is a decadent planet with slightly lower gravity, lots of robots, and I have no idea who my contact is or how to find them. Good thing the Arcadians on this world are as prone to lazing about as the humans, then. I make for a low-rent hotel and find out from the manager that the Arcadians aren’t so much slacking off on the oppression front as they are outsourcing it to robots – they have a machine that can destroy whole city blocks to deal with student protests. Oh, right. A giant death robot. Called the Street Fighter. Riiiight. I head to the university despite the risk of being attacked by a robot, and decide on a whim to check out the archaeology museum next door first. It’s not very exciting, apart from the shocking revelation that the original inhabitants of this planet were entirely wiped out by the human colonists before the Arcadians took over from the humans. So this whole situation is probably the universe handing down some karma on us. Okay then. The Arcadian on guard offers to show me around the basement archives, where I see a grenade which has been labelled as a religious artefact. In the fine traditions of my ancestors, I am overcome with desire for this destructive weapon. I could sneakily pocket it but instead, inspired by the destructive history of the human race I witnessed above, I decide to slice up the security guard so I can steal it. The human way is the violent way, after all. Then I get lost in a maze of passageways. But there’s stuff to loot, so that’s okay. What’s not okay is that there’s people chasing me. I dodge around the passageways stealing priceless artefacts and then finally find a hatch I can unlock with the keys I stole from the guard. Then it’s on to the university.

I wander about until a kindly student, seeing me feeling dejected because I’m all alone, asks me what’s wrong. I vaguely hint at needing to meet someone who is vaguely near the fringe of the vaguely revolutionary vaguely scene. She sends me to meet a Professor Zacharias, who is in a bit of a rush, so I attend his space history lecture. It’s more than a little boring, and I fall asleep in what I will insist later was a brilliant tactical move. I realise I’ll have to come back tomorrow and leave. On my way back to the seedy and cheap hotel I’m staying at, I run into the evil giant cylinder that’s going to try and collapse a building on top of me. Literally: It stomps the ground so that pieces of falling masonry come crashing down. I, however, have a grenade. One smithereened robot later, it’s back to the hotel for a good night’s sleep. The people of Radix can sleep easier… at least, until the Arcadians come up with a Street Fighter 2.

In the morning I head to the university, only to find that Zacharias has been arrested for being the head of the underground. Oh, dear. But maybe the clutter on his desk cunningly hides a clue? Or maybe I’m clutching at straws. But my straw clutching takes too long, and some Arcadians turn up and arrest me on the basis that anyone staring at a known rebel’s desk is also a rebel. As opposed to someone who considers disorganised clutter to be found art. Given a choice between death and no chance to continue my mission, and selling out the rebels on Radix and getting set free – oh how hopefully optimistic I must be to take that seriously – I decide that selling out the rebellion is the only option. Then the guards decide to be colossal wankers and give me a choice between a certain death door and a maybe death door.

“So, where are the two guards for the doors?” I ask.

“What guards for the doors?” replies the commandant.

“You know. One who tells the truth, and one who lies.”

“What?”

“Sorry, I must have been a bit confused for a moment,” I say. Which isn’t a lie, I genuinely thought there would be two guards and a logic puzzle for me. Oh well, left it is.

The left door leads to a darkened corridor, which leads to a door with a grille next to it. One of the Arcadians is on the other side and seems pleased to see me, presumably because they prefer to have an excuse for gladiatorial games, rather than just abducting people. I’m allowed to sleep and then in the morning the guard tells me how to beat one of the monsters, and gives me a new laser sword. I do my thing and then am allowed to leave, which goes to show that the Arcadians aren’t all bad. Just 99% bad.

I set off, with a spare anti-grav pack from my ship, but no equipment. Thankfully I still have my money. Halmuris turns out to be the worst dump of a planet I have ever seen. Well, okay, I’ve only ever seen Mercury and Venus before this trip, so this planet is probably a bit of an improvement. It’s covered in volcanoes, has massive and dangerous tides, and the only people here are Arcadians and researchers. I’m looking for an assistant at an agricultural research station. But of course the first thing I need is a sword, so I ask someone if they can help me get one. This is probably the silliest idea I’ve had on this whole mission. But the technician leads me to a black marketeer who sells me a new laser sword for a thousand credits. Then he has two of his thugs block the door and tells me to cut him in on whatever scheme he thinks I have going on.

“Sure,” I say, activating my new sword. “I can cut you in on the action,” and proceed to kill him. What kind of fool tries to menace a woman he’s just sold a laser sword to? Especially one as good at dicing people up as me. Unfortunately I’m so shit-hot at swordplay that I’ve started a fire, and have to run away from the scene of destruction. I only have time to grab a pair of wire cutters before leaving. I sneak up to the starport’s high-tech boundary barrier – a wire fence – hack it open, and then make for the research station.

One set of mountains, flipped for the other side.

Hey, I bet this planet is a nice holiday spot. Why are you looking at me like that?

I have to spend the night in a cave and then the next day try to find the research facility. Of course, seeing a rock buzzard with something shiny clutched in a vicious talon as it glides to its aerie sidetracks me. I climb up to kill it and then shove my hand in one of two conveniently dark and spooky holes in the rock to see what I can find. I come out with some kind of weird alien staff, some credits, and… no! Not a mind probe!

I return to the ground and continue onwards, taking a side path where I meet a shadow roving about on the ground with nothing visible to cast it. Then it turns into some kind of hazy form. It’s life, but not as we know it. I call it Lamont. Lamont wants something but can only speak in 1950’s sci-fi alien speak, but thankfully I know that quite well. I have a sneaking suspicion what he wants is the staff I hauled out of the crevice, which turns out to be an incredibly impractically-shaped battery. With Lamont’s power restored he can speak properly, and he offers me a favour. I ask for the name of the rebel leader, and Lamont tells me to look for someone called Dorado, gives me the secret password, and then vanishes away to his home in a galaxy, far, far away.

I press on to the agricultural research facility and head for the fields to find this Dorado person. Unfortunately a flyer spots me, and they start incinerating the genetically engineered super shrubs that are being created to terraform this planet. As I run for some rocks the flyer follows, but it crashes into the cliff face and thanks to my space helmet I am merely knocked unconscious thanks to the falling debris instead of being outright killed. I come around almost an hour later and have been found by the rebel leader for this planet.

That staff is not really keeping in character as an agricultural worker.

Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!

He tells me that the passcode for the computer facility is a palindrome, and gives me some gear, including a disguise so I can get back in to the starport (yeah, it’s a jumpsuit), and sends me on my way.

I decide to simply wire cutter my way back in, purely for amusement. Once there, I get ready for the last leg of my trip. Unfortunately my trip to Arcadion is not a simple cargo delivery. This time I’m delivering a passenger… no… it turns out there’s two of them. Crap. I set the ship in flight and settle down to an uneventful journey. At least, it should have been. Instead I have someone trying to break into my cabin. I throw the door open and find an Arcadian looking confused. I manage to get some information out of him: His name is Mucsa and his brain implant has started to fail, due to the amount of decision making he has to engage in in various administrative positions. This is slowly giving him back free will, but is causing terrible migraines and also wracking guilt. Before I can learn anything else, he’s taken away by the other Arcadian. Who is armed with a phaser. This is not typical at all. So I go and kick their door in and kill the armed one, and interrogate the other. I don’t learn much, but find out there’s an arsenal under the computer building and he also gives me the code.

Right then.

Arriving on Arcadion I head off on the pretence of doing some sightseeing. There’s actually a few humans around, who are clearly fanatically loyal to the Arcadians. The building housing Friend Computer is… well, it’s a building. There’s a keypad by the door, with two buttons. Arcadians, having only two fingers, think in binary. That must mean there’s little amusement to be had with an Arcadian pocket calculator. Inside, I quickly go to the armoury and grab a tube of some kind of explosive and a grenade.

Guard with gun gazing grimly.

I don’t remember this guard. I suppose the Arcadians are more organised in computer game world.

The grenade turns out to be useful for killing the patrol I meet when I come out. No problem there, now for Skynet. The computer turns out to be a bunch of sub-components linked together, which is not that thrilling. They don’t even have reel-to-reel tape spooling away. I separate the tube of explosive in to three parts, one for each of the largest units, and then get the hell out of there Outside I run into a platoon of Arcadians. They look a bit angry, right up until the sound of the explosion is heard. Then they just stand there. I walk up and give the on in the front a gentle push, and the whole group topple down like dominoes.

Well, here I am, at the centre of an evil galactic empire and in need of a quick trip home. I hope those loyalists aren’t pissed, because I’m going to need some help refuelling my ship.

Wrapup

Okay so that bit with the password to talk to the rebel leader on the third planet was horrible, since there’s no logical way to get it without deviating from a clearly defined mission. In the fantasy stories it’s more sensible to go clambering up hill and down dale to see what’s out there, but in this case it seems slightly unreasonable that the super agent on a mission to save humanity would deviate from their mission.

There’s a shock twist near the end of the book which you can, unfortunately, miss: The two passengers are not an implant failure case and a guard. They are someone who has developed a brain implant that works in Arcadians and humans, and their Arcadian test subject. The mission goes from important to vital, with failure not even remotely an option.

Oh and I just effectively committed genocide there when I won, since the Arcadians are totally dependent on the computer to function. So that’s two races of aliens the humans wiped out. I suppose this is the book with the highest overall body count for the reader.

Suspension of Disbelief Shattered: I need a weapon so my first idea is to go and ask some stranger. Yeah, that makes sense.

Ridiculous Battle: The Street Fighter (sk 9 st 16) seems reasonable, except each round it does more and more damage. Luckily there’s a way to outright thrash it, as well as a chance to figure out a way to reduce its Skill score. Otherwise, this book is rather kind.

Victory: Well, pretty much like I said: You run outside, there’s some Northern Arcadians, the computer is destroyed, you’ve reduced all Arcadians everywhere into vegetables. They were sort of evil thanks to their culture of ruthlessness, but this is a bit bleak, really. Good book, though.

What Was I Thinking? Um, pass? I don’t know if I did anything stupid or not. It’s a reasonably forgiving book, apart from that password thing and all the other 50-50 situations.

Space Assassin

“Oh right, I’ll just kick the octopus in the head or something.”

Space Assassin by Andrew Chapman

Cover: Christos Achilleos

Illustrations: Geoffrey Senior

The screaming dagger is a bit out of place on a sci fi cover.

The guards hastily switched the channel from a cooking programme. A dystopian cooking programme.

Space Assassin is another sci-fi book, this time it’s about… oh you can figure it out, I’m sure. The idea is to break into a starship – which is like a dungeon, really – and kill a scientist, who are sort of like the wizards of space. It’s very bizarre and also very fun. There’s not much more else to say about it, really. Time to roll some stats.

Oh, and this book contains the phrase “You fire at Cyrus’s Waldo.” I promise it’s less amusing than you think.

Statistics

Skill: 10 (woo!)
Stamina: 22 (yeah!)
Luck: 8 (argh!)

Armour: 11 (1d6+6 and every time I get shot I have to test it like luck to see if I get hurt or not)

Credits: 6

What’s this, money as a stat? Yes, you roll it up on one die (it’s really called “points” and doesn’t really represent money but whatever I’m abstracting it a bit) and then get to buy gear, which is a nice idea. I can buy things like an electric lash (which sounds like a fun toy), an assault blaster (which sounds good to me), grenades, extra armour, and gravity bombs. The latter being a small black hole that sucks in everything in a ten foot radius. Unfortunately those cost 3 credits each so I might have to go without the most amusing item in the book.

Equipment:Assault blaster, 3 grenades, 4 pep-pills (they restore 5 Stamina each and probably taste like cheese), sensomatic armoured pressure suit, and five empty spaces for things I find on the way.

Onward to Adventure!

Cyrus, colossal jerk and scientist-dictator of the local space sector, Od (we couldn’t afford a second ‘d’), has been completely messing up my home planet. Aside from the robots and mutants, he likes to abduct people and experiment on them. So naturally it’s the last straw when someone finds out about his latest space experiment: Raining viruses and radioactive waste down on our planet to see what happens. I think the hypothesis is that we will all die. In response to this, whoever is in charge of the planet has hired the Assassin’s Guild to stop him. They chose me to sneak on board his starship, the Vandervecken, and capture him. Wait, capture? I’m an assassin, not a kidnapper! What use are my high-tech weapons, fancy space armour, and mastery of twenty-seven alien martial arts? Absolutely none if I have to capture him. Damn it. Stupid guild. They still haven’t put the death-only clause in the space assassin’s space assassination contract.

I set out anyway, since turning down a job is probably not a good idea when I belong to a professional association crammed to the rim with people who consider any dispute to be best solved by sudden and surprising death. So I set out, travel around the sector for a while, and eventually find the Vandervecken taking on supplies. So I sneak on board the space delivery shuttle. It’s kind of cramped but I can always steal some of the space chocolate for later. Rather than sneak on board while the shuttle is being unloaded, I decide to opt for the totally unnecessary but thoroughly cool trick where I use the airlock to blast myself into space and skim along the side of the starship looking for a way in. Luckily I find a hatch. Good thing that panned out, and I didn’t end up gliding off into space.

Look, it's a spaceship, okay?

What is with evil spaceships and the pointless spiky bits? I bet they write angsty poetry and dye their hair black too.

Inside the hatch I loot a corpse that conveniently has some broken electronics on it. I don’t know why, but the first broken gadget you find on a mission always turns out to be useful. Then it’s onward into the ship. One dead guard robot later I have some vague information from a space prisoner, rob some rat people who are probably scientists, steal some food from a space kitchen, and then run into another robot, and find a gravity bomb. After that it’s off for a trip to a science lab! The laboratory I walked into has all manner of interesting – that is, completely horrifying – equipment, and also a cannister of nerve gas. Which I take, because I’m an assassin, not a goodwill ambassador for Od. Interplanetary warfare conventions do not apply to me. I also grab a large dead space crab, because if I lose my weapons I can always throw the crab at an enemy and in the confusion run up and space assassinate them. A space assassin is always prepared! To throw a crab in someone’s face!

As I travel further into the dark, dank, and deadly starship I come across a library of sorts, and have a quick look at a book about molluscs. I know from space assassin training that a mad scientist always has a giant squid stuffed into a space locker somewhere, and I have no doubt in my mind that I’ll find it by accident. Of course I should really stop opening all these side doors… Except when they say “CEPHALO SQUIRRELS: HANDLE WITH CARE” in which case I can’t help but check things out. The squirrels are terribly cute, with their six legs and black fur and screeching and carrying on. I try to get one out of their space cage but they all escape. The one I grab wants some food, so I grab some squirrel fruit out of a space crate and continue on my mission with a furry sidekick on my shoulder. How can I fail now?

That same gleeful overconfidence promptly saw me dropped onto a torus-shaped planetoid, thanks to my pressing all the buttons in sight on a door. I wind up on a plain, and decide to head north. Or where I think north is, anyway. I eventually find some pretty red shrubs… which explode when I brush against them. Okay, so the mad scientist has bred an explosive shrubbery. I walk around the least effective minefield in the history of sneaky munitions, and eventually find a chasm which I gingerly sneak into via some stairs, which nearly fall apart as I go down. Following the floor of the chasm east I come across a lake. You know what the best part of wearing a suit of space assassin space armour that also doubles as a space suit is? I can go space swimming in it!

The lake is calm and placid, and I’m not in any danger. So I decide to swim down to see what that glinting object down the bottom is. It’s a submarine. Of course. And the thing grabbing one of my legs is a giant octopus-type thing.

Try not to think too hard about what it's going to do with that tentacle.

Unfortunately I cannot wait 12 months for it to die of old age, since it’s trying to eat me.

Luckily for me I read that book on molluscs, and now have an edge in the martial arts battle that ensues. I am using an intricate and precise form learned through years of practice from an ancient master. The octopus is employing a traditional style called Grab a Second Limb and Wrench in Half. Somehow I win, and then use the submarine to get out of the lake via an underwater exit, and then end up on a pathway suspended above the alien world, which eventually takes me to a security room. I can tell because the space guards are watching what a broadcast of one of those zero-gravity spiky ball sports, and only security mooks would be watching sports when on duty. They look up and ask me who I am, and I respond by throwing a grenade into the room, splattering them across the walls.

Space assassins: Stealthy as FUCK.

After blasting the security guards to smithereens I steal all their cheese sandwiches from the break room and head onwards into the ship. The first thing I find is a pool full of octopus/human hybrids, who actually manage to hurt me before I dispatch them, and then I meet an alien who has a disintegrator, and wants to ask me a riddle. Thankfully I know the answer. On my way through I consider space assassinating the Zark to steal the disintegrator, but maybe that would be taking one too many chances. I pass through one of the three doors, and find a room full of gadgetry and fancy seats. I sit down and a simulation launches. I have to pilot a space tank and blow up another space tank. This isn’t exactly turning out to be the simple assassination mission I expected. However, my tank-battle skills are up to the task because as a space assassin I have to be ready for anything.

Wireframe tanks are the best tanks.

Just to be entirely clear here, you cannot drive to the volcano, okay?

Afterwards I am rewarded by being thrown towards a huge space monster, maw agape. It does not like the gravity bomb I throw at it. In fact, I bet it thought that gravity bomb really sucked. Further on I find the bridge, where the ship’s robot pilot asks me a bunch of questions about existentialism. I could just blast it into a pile of slag but I figure, how bad could it be? Not bad at all, as it turns out, and I get sent onwards. I pass through the astonishingly primitive mainframe computer and into an opulent room which contains a lot of nice furnishings, and also one mad scientist.

Cyrus is really not that cool. He doesn’t have any cybernetic eyes or limbs. He’s not confined to a wheelchair with many devices sustaining his withered husk of a body, seemingly helpless but deceptively so, the same technology keeping him alive also making him one of the most dangerous individuals in the galaxy when cornered. No, he’s just some old guy. This is a bit of a let-down. In fact, I’m left wondering what the hell motivated him to kidnap people for experiments and rain destruction down on our planet. Oh, right, he’s run off while I was standing there looking confused. I give chase, and eventually find a private shuttle bay, which will facilitate my escape. I also find the villain, inside some power armour and wielding an industrial laser. Of course, since he’s a scientist who spends all his time grafting tentacles to people and not a trained space assassin, he wasn’t smart enough to ambush me. I disable the exoskeleton easily and drag him out of it, giving him a good kicking in the process. Space mission space accomplished. Now all I have to do is get off this ship somehow…

Wrapup

This book is great, what with it being all mad fun in space and delightfully bonkers scenarios. Tank battles, alien worlds, martial arts fighting a squid, squirrels, it’s just completely mad and so much fun. There’s also a lot of ways to get through the book, various solutions to problems, and also a chance to overload the reactor of the ship and blow it to pieces. That counts as a failure, though, since the virus payload of the ship gets strewn through space.

The Vandervecken having an old mainframe is part of the joke in the book. I think there’s something to be said for an author who can guess that depictions of futuristic computers at the time would look woefully dated in the actual future.

The actual ending is, I think, the second most abrupt in the series, which is a bit unfortunate. Oh and at one point the book genders the protagonist as male. Damn, it was nearly perfect.

Suspension of Disbelief Shattered: I’m ninja fighting a octopoid the size of a house? Underwater? And it’s already grabbed me? And I haven’t had all the blood and bones wrung out of me yet? Uhuh, suuuure.

Ridiculous Battle: At one point there’s a six-armed insect with six different weapons, which is uses at random each round. The 6th is a disintegrator. Though the Skill score with each is progressively lower, there’s a 3% chance of instant death each attack round.

Victory: I hauled Cyrus out of his exoskeleton and then uh… won? I guess? It’s not the most evocative ending paragraph. Hey, there’s also the hilarious idea of triggering the self destruct on the ship…which is a failure even if you escape due to seeding the entire sector of Od with the deadly viruses. Which is a pity because having a second way to win would have been pretty cool.

What Was I Thinking? In future, when presented with a door that has two buttons, or levers, or whatever, and I’m given the option to manipulate either the left or right one, or both… Don’t pick both. Just go with left!

Scorpion Swamp

“Oh god this is way harder than I remember”

Scorpion Swamp by American Steve Jackson

This thing does not even look like a scorpion!

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

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

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

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

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

Statistics

Skill: 10
Stamina: 18
Luck: 11

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

Onward to Adventure!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You don’t have two swords,” I say.

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

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

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

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

But he’s still not your average hortifuckingculturalist.

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

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

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

Wrapup

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

City of Thieves

“It’s not a real fight with a lich without some Skeletons!”

City of Thieves by Ian Livingstone

This was the first one I actually read. I was nine years old, and this was the only Fighting Fantasy book in the school library – a Catholic school, no less. I suspect they didn’t read it first. The cover is splendid, cleverly juxtaposing the city with the reason for going there: Zanbar Bone.

The most badass skeleton ever, with a scythe.

Zanbar Bone is clearly a badass.

Zanbar Bone! What a cool villain! A skeleton with proper eyes, who carries a scythe around! Okay so he doesn’t have a scythe in the book, but that’s okay, I understood that covers were usually symbolic and not necessarily representative of the contents of a book. Zanbar Bone, aka The Night Prince, who has an evil tower and Moon Dogs, whatever they are, and also wants to abduct the mayor’s daughter for reasons unknown (and unstated). Zanbar Bone is a badass motherfucker, as will be revealed in due time. But the most important part is that there’s no good reason given for any of this – he’s just a skeleton with some cool powers. Who knows how he got them? He’s an enigma, which makes any villain 531% cooler.

The plot is something about going to a city full of thieves to find some wizard, who will sort out Zanbar Bone for the mayor of Silverton and end the reign of terror, which mainly involves Moon Dogs turning up at night and killing anyone in the streets. The wizard is Nicodemus, who turns up in a few books and gets name dropped in others. The titular city is Port Blacksand, which is probably the most-referenced location in all of the Fighting Fantasy books. Most of the important points surface here: Lord Azzur (another enigma), the Black Lobster inn, and the criminal nature of the city.

The city itself is a host of bizarre and strange urban encounters. However, since there’s plenty of shops, a few houses to intrude in (standard stuff in this city), and some suitably fitting locations like the sewers and the port, it feels like a bunch of related locations rather than a single place with a bunch of weird stuff crammed into it. That may be the nostalgia talking. I suppose we shall see.

This one goes out to my friend Kelly, who fixed me up with a copy of the book complete with cool original artwork.

Statistics

Skill: 8 (shiiiit)
Stamina: 21 (okay)
Luck: 10 (I suppose)

Equipment: Sword, backpack, leather armour, 30 gold, 10 Provisions, Potion of Fortune.

Onward to Adventure!

So, I’m a complete badass. I am officially a dragon slayer who lets nothing stand in her way, and everyone knows my name. This is good, because it means free rooms in inns and all the wenches I can eat. Life as a super famous adventurer is pretty great, except you have to watch out for wells. I’ve just had a nasty run-in with one, so it’s time to head back to what passes for civilization and rest up before my next daring quest. I come into Silverton and am rather put out to find everyone is not amazed to see me trek into town. In fact, everyone looks kind of dejected about life in general. I head towards the local inn. Before I get there there’s a flurried panic because the sun is setting.

The innkeeper makes a big show of ignoring me and bolting the door, and then opening it to the frantic cries of someone outside. I think this would be quite an impressive performance for tourists if this were All Hallow’s Eve, but it’s not. The latecomer introduces himself to me as Owen Carralif, buys me a huge dinner, and at this point I realise I’m probably going to get asked to do something ridiculously dangerous. But okay, first things first: Free food. After I’m done, he starts to provide the exposition. I mean, tell me what’s going on.

“So, stranger, our town is being attacked by Zanbar Bone-”

“Zanbar motherfucking Bone?”

Zanbar Bone appears out of nowhere to scythe you up!

Muahahahahahaha!

“Yes, so I was wondering if…”

“No, no fucking way,” I say. There’s some things even I won’t do. “I’m not going after him. He’s got Moon Dogs, whatever the hell they are, and also Spirit Stalkers, whatever the hell they are.”

“Well of course, it’s a bit difficult. I was actually going to ask you to go and find my old friend Nicodemus. He lives in Port Blacksand.”

“Port fucking Blacksand?!” I cry with dismay. Everyone knows that Port Blacksand is what happens when cities grow up on the wrong side of the tracks, fall in with a bad crowd, and then take up serial killing.

“It’s not that bad!” protests Carralif. “My second wife and I went there for our honeymoon.”

“Is she fucking dead? Or did you sell her into slavery?”

“Well okay she did get killed, yes.” Owen Carralif has the decency to look embarrassed for a moment. “But YOU are a bold adventurer, and according to what everyone says, ‘success is always assured on your quests’ so I think you’ll have no trouble.”

I hesitate to take this quest, since Port Blacksand is the only place on the planet where people are imprisoned for not being vicious murdering thieves. On the other hand, I’m an adventurer, which means by the standards of civilized society my skillset will fit right in there… so I might be okay. The mayor sees my hesitation and gives me an incredibly fancy sword as incentive. I give in and accept the mission.

“What does Zanbar Bone want, anyway?” I ask.

“My daughter.”

I am slightly confused by this. “What the hell does Zanbar Bone, a skeleton, want with your daughter?”

“No idea, but I’d really not rather hand her over.”

He has a point. I go to bed, and sleep poorly, because the moon dogs outside are making a racket. In the morning I set off, and tell myself every hour or so that Port Blacksand won’t be that bad. Fifty miles later, I arrive at Allansia’s second biggest tourist destination (“Visit Port Blacksand! See The Sights! Get Robbed Blind!”) and bluff my way past the guard on the gate by pretending I have some valuables to fence. That doesn’t really sound too different to most trips to a city after a jaunt in a dungeon, so it’s a lie that comes easily. Once inside, I notice that it’s a very quaint town, what with the piles of rotting garbage, ramshackle houses that loom over the streets, and also the fact that there’s a thousand ways to die horribly.

I set off down Market Street. After caves, tombs, dungeons, and sewers there’s nothing that attracts an adventurer like a marketplace. One of the first things that catches my eye is a tavern. I enter, and see a display of surly humanoids engaged in stereotypical tavern scene activity. You know, goblins arguing, dwarves playing dice, and some idiots sticking a knife between their splayed fingers as fast as possible. They challenge me to do it, and I manage with ease and get a magic bracelet that is supposed to kill insects. Okay, insects are annoying so that’s good. Further up the street some thieves try to rob me, and I kill them. It turns out they had more gold than I did, which makes me wonder if Port Blacksand is more a place where the criminally insane move to, rather than a city full of people in desperate poverty. Of course it doesn’t matter either way, because there’s no-one to implement any positive social changes and from what I’ve seen so far, progressive social policy here would be locking the gates and setting the whole damn city on fire.

At the entrance to the market people are pelting someone in a pillory with rotten fruit and eggs. According to the notice pinned up, he is apparently guilty of the crime of being a goody-two shoes. What a sucker, the one city in the world where it’s okay to rob and kill, and he doesn’t. Probably a tourist. Unlike me: I am actually there to conduct business and keep the local economy moving. I roam the market, buying important adventuring supplies like lanterns, meat hooks, and rope, and then head over to the Singing Bridge. This poetically named structure is called that because the wind whistles through all the skulls tied to it. I do not know whether to be appalled by the barbaric display, or cheered by seeing the local customs. There are some steps. I go down under the bridge and find a hut. A quick knock on the door produces someone who… well… I’m fairly certain he’s Nicodemus.

Look, I'll level with you: He looks like Gandalf, right down to making pictures with the smoke from his pipe.

“Hey Nicodemus, can I come in and take a load off my feet?” “You shall not pass!” “Jeez, okay, no need to be so dramatic.”

After the “who dares disturb Nicodemus” ranting subsides I lay out the situation for him. I tell him about how the Night Prince wants to have Owen Carralif’s daughter shipped off to his evil tower of evil, and how Moon Dogs are tearing up anyone who is outside after dark, and how Nicodemus’ help is required.

“Zanbar motherfucking Bone?!”

Zanbar Bone appears out of nowhere to scythe you up!

Muahahahahahaha!

“Yes, are you going to kill him or not?”

“Not, but here’s a shopping list of stuff you need to get to kill him yourself.”

With that Nicodemus slams his door in my face. I am left there holding a shopping list that flutters in the breeze, thinking, Oh great… now I have to kill Zanbar Bone.

Zanbar Bone appears out of nowhere to scythe you up!

Muahahahahahaha!

I head down Candle Street, and see a mysterious door at the end of the alleyway with skulls painted on it. Nothing says adventure like doors with skulls, so I barge on in. The occupant says he will let me take one of six pills, and if I die he gets all my stuff. If I live, he gives me 20 gold. Only one of the pills is lethal. Now, I know what you’re thinking, and you’d be right. I definitely tried this game out. I won, and walked away all the richer, and wondering why he didn’t make the odds a little more even. Candle Street comes to a dead end, and I climb over the wall, where I find some little creatures called Bay’s. Who are playing their favourite game. Bay’s Ball.

I ask to join in, and they happily let me try to hit a little ball with a stick. I manage to do it, winning the game for them. I am giving a whole host of gifts from the adoring fans, including magic items, bananas, and an eye patch. This isn’t bad for hitting a ball with a stick, but I decide to get back to shopping for ridiculous magic items, and head for Harbour Street. The harbour is a sight, with an honest-to-goodness pirate ship moored there. I clamber up a rope ladder and sneak below decks. I make off with some black pearls, ticking off one of the items on my shopping list, and then I get out of there. I wander the streets a bit further, finding a silversmith. My shopping list says I need a silver arrow, so I step inside. A silver arrow turns out to cost a whopping ten gold, which I suspect means there’s the equivalent of a hundred silver pieces in it. Though of course I don’t actually know what a silver coin looks like. I’ve just heard other adventurers talk about them. I take my arrow and head off outside, turning into Stable Street and finding a manhole. Manhole… sewer… tunnels underground… that means… a dungeon! I nip down there to explore right away. It’s dark. And smells bad. But there’s going to be things to kill and treasure to steal.

Instead there are rats, and also a hag. Thankfully one of the prizes won at Bay’s Ball is a potion that protects me from her vile sorcery, so I simply just hack some of her hair off, tick another item off my shopping list, and kick her into the sewage. I decide to get out of the sewer while the getting is good and proceed along the streets of Port Blacksand. At one point I catch someone manacled to an iron ball and turn him over to the guards. Apparently murder is a crime here, which means I’ve broken the law frequently. Never mind, what the guards don’t know won’t end up with me being hanged.

Further on I find the Public Gardens of Thieves, which somehow managed to turn a profit from an honesty box. Whatever, I go inside and find in the centre a plinth, holding a bowl, holding lotus flowers. Lotus flowers are one of the last items on my shopping list. There’s a sign saying “Do not pick the flowers” but there’s no-one watching besides some topiary, so I grab one… and the fucking shrubs attack me!

They were probably enchanted by a hedge wizard.

I prune the shrubbery and get out of there, and make my way along Mill Street. The guard are on patrol and I have no desire to meet them, so I duck down a lane and find a tattooist’s shop. I sigh and step inside to get the last item on the list.

“Greetings,” I say, trying to put a brave face on. “I would like a unicorn, surrounded by a yellow sun, tattooed on my forehead.”

The shop owner, one Jimmy Quicktint, bursts into laughter. “The old Zanbar Bone special, eh? You know why no-one has ever killed him yet?”

“Because no-one is stupid enough to get the tattoo.” I reply. “Can you make it temporary?”

I step out of the shop a little while later and walk back to Mill Street. I feel rather self conscious. In fact, with all the pointing and staring I quickly attract the attention of a couple of city guards. They are Trolls, and shake me down for all my gold and throw me out of the city. Well, at least I have everything I need, and look like an idiot. I can set off to battle Zanbar Bone. Along the way I make a bow, and it’s while I’m testing it I get a message from Nicodemus. Apparently I only need two of the three ingredients. I am not very happy about this, but I pick the hag hair and lotus flower, hoping I’m right.

I set of towards the tower of the Night Prince, passing through an ever more wasted and decayed landscape. His powers are so vile that the very land itself is sick. Eventually I reach the hill on which the tower stands. It is night, which means it’s time to try and break in. But first, I have to fight a couple of Moon Dogs. Moon Dogs are quite tough. I am forced to eat half my compliment of cheese sandwiches after killing them. I decide to be devious, and ring the doorbell. The servant who opens it is clearly undead, so I nail him to the wall with the silver arrow, and he disintegrates while screaming. I pry the arrow out and explore the entryway. There’s a couple of fine-looking shields hanging up, so I grab the one with a unicorn on it, and proceed up the tower.

I accidentally barge into a room with an attractive young woman who is also a vampire. Isn’t it always the way? I produce the garlic I picked up in the city, duck out the door and lock her in. Further up the tower I come across a white door, and a black door. I try the white door first and inside is a plain stone room with a Djartan sarcophagus inside. I figure I should check this out, and incinerate the inevitable Mummy with my lantern. In the bottom of the sarcophagus is a magic ring which lets me see through illusions. Gosh, it’s awfully lucky I came in here. It’s almost like I knew what I was looking for, isn’t it? I step outside and open the black door.

Inside is a nicely laid out room, which contains a black cat, and an open chest on a table. In the chest is a golden skull. But my newly found Ring of the Golden Eye tells me it’s all an illusion! Not only is the golden skull not there, the black cat is really a black-robed skeleton, wearing a golden skull. Zanbar Bone! Before I can grab my bow he plucks three teeth from his grinning visage and throws them down, and out of the ensuing cloud of smoke step…

Skeletons always appear holding swords.

FUCK YEAH SKELETONS!

“I thought they’d never turn up,” I say, and get down to the real business of adventuring: Making things dead. Again. They skeletons advance, in that strange, jerky motion that somehow seems more real than everything else around them while also being not quite as fluid as the movement of real people. I duel them one at a time, and finally when they’re done I have to deal with…

At this point it's a Luck test to nail him with the silver arrow. That's why I took that potion at the start.

Like I said: Legit gangster necromancer.

He walks forward, trying to touch me. I drop my sword, notch my arrow, and in an incredible display of luck over skill, shoot him through the heart. Right, it all comes down to this… I grind the compound of lotus petals and hag hair into his eyes… and he crumbled into dust. Victory! I grab my sword, pluck my silver arrow from the pile of Bone dust, and flee the tower, setting it on fire. I make my way to Silverton, where everyone is quite pleased that I succeeded in the quest to save the town. A huge feast is laid on, and I proceed to try and chat up the comely daughter of the mayor. Who just laughs at my ridiculous tattoo.

Possibly this quest was not, in fact, worth all that effort.

Wrapup

I got a Skill of 7 on my first try that got cut down to 6, and was blazing through the city until the Hag got me. Losing a single point of Skill can make things difficult. Yes, in the second playthrough I cheated with the bloody Moon Dogs, they’re ridiculous.

If Dungeons and Dragons standards are applied, Zanbar Bone is clearly a lich, since D&D says the arrogant bastards wear crowns and give themselves ridiculous titles. On top of that, he has almost every kind of classic undead in his tower (he’s missing some ghouls). However it doesn’t say he’s one in the book, so officially he’s just a unique undead wizard thing.

Suspension of Disbelief Shattered: The intro described me as a “swordsman” which I think is the only blatant slip-up I’ve found so far.

The best one is probably ringing the bell-pull at Zanbar Bone’s tower, pretending to be a lost traveller, and then you get the option to… simply go to sleep in the guest room! I find it hard to believe that after all that anyone would think spending the night is an option. Even worse, if you break or fight your way in, this is still an option.

Ridiculous Battle: The Moon Dogs. Skill 9, Stamina 10; then Skill 11, Stamina 9. Not actually winnable for an average character without loads of Luck being thrown away in the battle.

Victory: A huge feast, piles of unnamed gifts, a golden orb worth hundreds of gold pieces… and a lifetime of being laughed at for that ridiculous tattoo.

What Was I Thinking? I read this book about twenty times when I was nine. Subsequently I had a lot of trouble making mistakes, but the first time I went down a street where some dirty thieves peppered with arrows as I tried to escape, lost my sword, and subsequently was set up for inevitable failure…

Zanbar Bone appears out of nowhere to scythe you up!

Muahahahahahaha!

The Warlock of Firetop Mountain

“Oh my god I actually won!”

The Warlock of Firetop Mountain by Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone

Well, here it is. The first Fighting Fantasy book. If it wasn’t for this book people would still have to read boring Choose Your Own Adventure stories, which have no statistics, no thrilling battles, and most importantly, no killing wizards and taking their stuff.

I talked about the background to this one in the intro to the blog, so now I’m going to tell you all about the cover art, because I love the cover art to the original edition. Check it out:

Bonus content: The dirty secret is it was originally a wraparound cover.

A nice old man who you are going to rob and kill. Possibly not in that order.

See, the title should be up the top and instead is in the centre. This was bookstore blasphemy back then, since step shelves (ask your mother) rely on the title being at the top to promote the book. You know what? I think a big, fuck-off dragon is a better way to entice readers. Based on the end result, it must have worked. In fact I don’t even like reading this book if it isn’t the original cover, with the title in the middle. It feels dirty and wrong. The Warlock of Firetop Mountain is meant to have goofy title placement on the cover. That is part of the book for me. So, a well worn second hand copy it is.

So, it’s roughly the 30th anniversary of this classic – yes, it’s a classic – book being released (27th of august, actually. I’m woefully late). I’ve got a not-quite original copy (original art though). I’ve got two dice. I’ve got a pencil. I’ve got an eraser. It’s time to raid that mountain, find some keys, kill Zagor, and steal all his gold.

Statistics

Skill: 11 (Woo!)
Stamina: 15 (Um.)
Luck: 11 (Woo!)

Equipment: Sword, shield, leather armour, backpack, lantern, 10 provisions, potion of strength.

Provisions can only be eaten when the book tells me (and only one meal at a time, no scoffing five cheese sandwiches to gain back 20 Stamina), so I figure I’ll be taking that potion. In this story you can use it twice, something they downgraded in later books. The shield is on the first page but not on the equipment list. Screw it, I have a shield.

Onward to Adventure!

So, there’s this mountain. There’s a Warlock living under it. He’s got a lot of gold. Everyone knows Warlocks are evil, so no-one will mind if I go in there, kill the fucker, and take all his stuff. Well… he might mind, but I’m not giving him a say in the matter. According to the villagers of Anvil, the Warlock gets his powers from a deck of cards, or maybe a pair of gloves, but there’s certainly an underground river with a ferryman, and also some goblins and some worse monsters. Of course, none of them have been. For all they know, it could be a mountain full of dragons. But hah, there’s surely no dragons there, right? Dragons would be ravaging the countryside and burninating the peasants and their thatched-roof cottages. No, I have nothing to worry about on the dragon front. After a trek that takes a couple of days, I reach the mountain and step into the oppressive, dank gloom. What will I find inside?

The first thing I find is a T-junction. I am overcome with the feeling that this is going to be the start of a long, long relationship. I turn left, which is the correct way to go according to ancient adventuring lore. I immediately find a sentry, asleep at his post. I sneak by. Then I come to a door in the wall. There’s someone snoring inside, so I go in and steal whatever I can find. Unfortunately I wake up the Orc inside, and have to kill him. All I get for my trouble is a single gold coin and a mouse, which I release, since I don’t expect to find any elephants in here. Anyway, I think it’s a myth. Why would an elephant be allergic to mice?

I continue along the corridor, and barge into another room. There’s a box on a table. I lift it up, and crush the head of the snake lurking underneath with my fist. I get a numbered key for my trouble. Onward! Another door. This is getting a bit repetitive. From behind the door I can hear terrible singing. I open the door and shout “Keep it down, would you!” but the Orcs inside don’t think this is very funny, so I kill them too. There’s a box under the this table, so I open it up. Inside I a book, which contains the long and gruelling detail of the life’s work of one Farrigo Di Maggio. It’s a spell for annihilating evil dragons. Well, I’m sure I won’t need it here, but it might come in handy on my next adventure. I wander off and find a junction, and blunder onward into the lair of the Orc Chieftain. He’s cruelly flogging a servant for some mistake. Whatever, they’re both Orcs. I kill them. There’s a large wooden chest full of gold, a potion of invisibility, a black glove, and a poisoned dart which flies out to greet me.

I suppose I asked for that.

I continue onwards, freeing prisoners, looting armouries, and killing Goblins for their cheese. It’s all rather typical for an adventurer. Wind through tunnels, find nice room with statue which has large jewel for eye, take jewel, get attacked by statue… Another day at the dungeon. I carry on with my large, expensive shiny rock and also another numbered key. A further encounter rewards me with… a mallet and some wooden stakes. Oh good, vampires, then. Onward, into the perilous portrait gallery of certain doom. Laugh if you must, but one of the paintings of Zagor tries to kill me. I wave something from my backpack at the painting and the image of the Warlock withers and dies. Okay, that was easy. The next room I come to however has an even more devious trick: Magical rope that tries to strangle me. This is why you’re supposed to bring your own rope on adventures! What’s next, an accursed cruet set that tries to brick me up behind a wall?

As I ponder all the possible kinds of bizarre cured items in the dungeon, I come to the river. I ring the bell for the ferryman, and then he tells me the price has gone up. Lazy sod could have changed the sign. I pay him his three gold, and enjoy the ride over. On the other side I decide to go through the door immediately in front of me, and get knocked out for my trouble. I wake up in a room with four zombies armed with tools, and another long-dead victim of this door trick slumped in the corner opposite. One of them has a scythe, but that’s not very impressive as far as I’m concerned. I re-deaden them quickly and loot the corpse. The only thing of interest is a sword (which is enchanted and therefore makes me ridiculously deadly) and a silver crucifix. I’m starting to get a bit suspicious that there’s a vampire in this dungeon. On hearing a noise from the door to the north, I go through it to investigate and find a crypt, complete with altar and three coffins. So that vampire thing is more than a feeling… But I’ve got a magic sword, a brace of stakes, and a holy symbol. I’m a garlic clove away from being inducted into the vampire killing guild. I should be fine. Which is good, because a vampire just climbed out of a coffin.

“I say, I say, I say, how do you know vampires are vegetarians?” I ask.

“I don’t know, how do you know vampires are vegetarians?” says the vampire, falling prey to the oldest trick in the book.

“They don’t like stake!” I produce a stake and my mallet and proceed to back the vampire into a corner using approved vampire wrangling methods. Unfortunately I trip… But luckily for me the stake flies from my hand and pierces the vampires heart. Then as the corpse withers away a bat forces its way out of the vampire’s chest and flies off. Oh well, I’m sure that won’t be a problem. The vampires riches come to a pile of gold, a y-shaped stick, and a book. I’ve always wanted a y-shaped stick!

I leave the crypt by the west door, and continue west from the crossroads I reach. At the end of the passage I find the secret of dungeon construction: Enchanted tools that work on their own. This is amusing for a minute or two, but quickly becomes boring, so I return to the crossroads and head north, ducking through an opening and down some stairs into a room full of rotting corpses. I search them, kill the ghoul, loot the gold and map and holy water – which I stupidly drink – and then leave. Further on I get trapped by a portcullis and get the fun time of killing a troll after I try to find a way to open the gate again.

Stupid wandering monsters.

I roam through some corridors, eventually realising I’m in the Maze of Zagor mentioned on the map I found earlier. Great. I start making a map of my own, hoping that I can find my way out again afterwards and not get stuck underground forever dying of thirst like some damnfool wizard. Instead I blunder into a room which is currently full of minotaur. After I change reality so the room is full of dead minotaur, I loot the room of all gold coins and numbered keys, and then leave. In short order I find out that every dead end in this maze has a secret hidden button that teleports people to another place in the maze. And so begins my descent into madness, wandering through crossroads, turning left at t-junctions, returning to the same spot, running out of room in the middle of the map and having to start again at another place on the page, playing cards with Dwarves, returning to the same spot, going through secret doors that disappear after I pass through them, chatting with the Mazemaster, returning to the same spot, and finally coming into a big cavern with a dragon. It’s scaly, it’s red, it breathes fire, it’s only fifteen metres long, and I hope like hell that magic spell I found works.

Of course, to test it I have to fling rocks at the dragon and hope it breathes fire at me instead of just squashing me like a bug. It’s a bit stupid, and so it unleashes a gout of flame. I mutter the spell and, to my amazement, it works. The dragon is set on fire! I saunter out of the cavern feeling pretty good about myself. The way forward is a long, narrow corridor which ends at a door. I open it and find an old man fiddling with a deck of cards. Okay, so this is it. I jump into the room and he does some teleporting and then turns out to actually look a lot more dangerous because of course, the most annoying wizards use illusions.

Zagor, dual-weilding lightning bolts and with a funny thing on his robes.

Zagor has his sorcerous powers and ability to teleport. I have a y-shaped stick.

I sift through my backpack and am driven to tears on seeing my y-shaped stick is broken. No! I eat the cheese to help me feel better and try to find the broken part of the stick to fix it, pulling out various bits of dungeon flotsam as I go.

“What the hell are you doing?” shouts Zagor.

“Give me a minute,” I reply in a broken voice, and pull out the eye of the cyclops. Zagor seems a little scared by it. It starts to glow and then a beam of light shoots out of the jewel and Zagor is withered into a pile of slush. I don’t care. My poor y-shaped stick!

I notice there’s a door in the back of the room. I open it using some of the keys I have, and find a chest. It’s got three locks. I happen to have three keys. Are they the right keys? Hmmm… I try one, and it fits. The second fits too. I put the third key in the final lock and…

…the chest opens! Victory! A fortune in gold, and the warlock’s spell book! If only the y-shaped stick was here to see this.

Wrapup

This is only the second time I’ve ever read the book, too! I feel more than a little pleased, though the fact I started with a Skill of 11 and found a magic sword that put it up to 13 means this was a fringe case. In fact, I only ate six provisions, and never had to uncork my potion. So it’s not a hard book (not by a long shot in this series). Of course, the toughest mandatory opponent would be the Iron Cyclops, at Skill 10 Stamina 10, and that could be lethal to someone with low stats.

I should point out that the bit with the tripping and the staking is actually in the text. This book is actually a lot of fun, with silly encounters and odd items and a lot of forgiving situations – when you get Luck points back the book gives multiple points at a time.

Suspension of Disbelief Shattered: The dwarves playing cards in the maze. Why are they there? What do they eat? Where do they go to the bathroom?

Ridiculous Battle: Zagor, who at Skill 11 and Stamina 18 is the toughest opponent in the book. Except you can kill him with the gem, use a potion of invisibility to get a skill boost, or just get lucky and remember to burn his deck of cards, whittling him down to a rather weak Skill 7 Stamina 12. Since the dragon can be wiped out with a spell, the Iron Cyclops is the only mandatory battle I can think of where double-digit skill scores are involved.

Victory: Well, for starters, “At least a thousand gold pieces, jewellery, diamonds, rubies and pearls are in the chest.” Oh and you get the Warlock’s spell book, which contains all the secrets of the mountain, so you can walk right out of there with nary a trouble. The book hints that if this reward isn’t enough, the tome would let you keep the mountain for yourself. Not bad, huh?

What Was I Thinking? Nothing. Not a single mistake. A nearly perfect playthrough (wait until you see the sequel) marred only by getting damaged ten times and losing 12 gold while playing cards with the Dwarves. So for this instalment, I’m going to go with not taking better care of my beloved y-shaped stick.

Daggers of Darkness

“A horse dungeon? I suppose that makes a change.”

Daggers of Darkness by Luke Sharp

All I really know about this book is that the cover is bonkers. Check it out:

Bald man with eye patch, waving a spiky flail, while surfing on two sabre-tooth tigers, with pet falcon following behind. No, really.

What the hell is going on?!

Apparently I’m from the land of Kazan, and the evil vizier Chingiz is trying to seize power. This makes a nice change from all the destroying ancient cursed evil I’ve been doing. Oooh, there’s a map inside the front cover. I love maps – blame Tolkien – and this one has all sorts of cool place-names, like Hulugu and Yigenik. So this should be a thrilling old-school fantasy adventure as I try and… let me see… Oh, for crying out loud. I’m poisoned – AGAIN – and thus am on a timer. To be cured I have to hand this thing called a Death Spell Dagger (also known as a Dagger of Darkness, which is the only answer about the cover I managed to extract from the book) back to Chingiz before I die.

Oh, and that’s not the half of it. I’m one of the “Select” which means I was chosen to be a candidate for the throne, kicked out of Kazan at age nine to be an adventurer, and to claim the throne I have to go and raid some mazes, steal some medallions, and get to the throne. This explains why some vizier wants to have me killed. So this is one of those quests, then. Good thing I was hanging about just over the border in Gorak, I suppose. Also lucky that a handy wizard was on hand to stop the evil death spell killing me.

It’s all rather convenient, but I suppose there’s something to be said for not even pretending there’s a sensible plot behind all this. With that cover, no-one would believe it.

Statistics

Skill: 11
Stamina: 22
Luck: 10

Equipment: Sword, leather armour, backpack, 10 provisions, potion of fortune (oh, good, a potion), 6 gold (one of which can’t be used except in emergencies, so I know I’m getting captured at some point), Death Spell Dagger, and a small bag of almost worthless iron coins.

Onward to Adventure!

I trudge through the mountains. It’s cold enough that it’s starting to hurt. People could die up here. Like this person in front. Well, the cold didn’t get him… It was probably the dagger sticking out of his chest. Unless the weather has started carrying weapons, I’m probably going to have to watch out for more assassins. The body dissolves just as I get told the assassins headed off to the left. I grit my teeth and turn right, and then take another right hand fork. But to my dismay I hear the hoofbeats of approaching riders. Thinking quickly, I walk off the trail and hide behind a rock. Not quick thinking enough: There’s snow on the ground. Ooops.

I come out into the middle of the road and decide if I’m going to die, it will be on my terms.

“So I’m one of the Select, and this is totally not cool.”

“Why didn’t you say so?”

Yeah, okay, sure. There’s arseholes with magic daggers trying to kill me and these clowns expect a cheery “hi there!” to every pack of bastards I meet. Also, they set their falcon on me. In exchange I get a horse and escort to the first ridiculous test to see if I get to be Empress of Kazan. Of course, some Orcs attack in the middle of the night but that’s not a problem, really. Soon I’m at the main Yigenik settlement and eager to take the Test of the Yigenik.

The test is to run along a bed of hot coals while everyone in town tries to stab me.

These Yigenik are crazy. I accomplish this with relative ease, only getting stabbed three times and my boots merely scorched. Then they take me to the maze, which is made up of highly toxic thorn bushes and has three sabre-tooth tigers inside. I’m thinking I may be in for a poisonous time now, but then everyone is in an uproar because an Orc has managed to steal the medallion from inside. Someone shoots down the large bird it’s flying on, and I give chase through the streets, up a tower, through some Goblins with spears, onto a bridge… but I was too slow. Drat.

No point hanging around here, then. I head off downhill to the nearby forest. I stop for lunch, and get shot by an arrow. For fuck’s sake, what is with this country? It’s like I’m on one long journey through stab-happy-arrow-mad land. It turns out a band of women are angry I’m in their forest.

“You have trespassed in Owlshriek!”

Well that’s a cute name for a forest. Apparently the penalty for trespassing is to have to pick a test. Either chopping wood on a timer which kills me if I’m not lumberjack of the year material, or running away from the huntresses. Joining their sadistic and cruel society of women is not an option. Kind of disappointing, really, I think I’d fit right in. I opt for running away, since that’s pretty much what I want to do anyway. I manage to escape, and then meet a Troll. Now, elsewhere Trolls might be a problem, but in Kazan any being who can live up to the ridiculous and cruel tests the various regions have is considered a valued member of society. Oddly enough this equality results in Orcs, Goblins, Trolls, and whatever else being quite amiable compared to their counterparts everywhere else on the entire rest of the continent. This troll is one of the Vizier’s Troll Fighters, which means I’m going to have to use all my cunning to make sure I stay alive. Hah, but he’s a Troll, so all I have to do is explain how to read a map and he thinks I’m a great person to have around. His friends on the road don’t. I flee.

Further along my journey I’m passed by a rider, who demands to know who I am. Before I answer, I am surprised to see she’s armed with a Dagger of Darkness, and she sees my surprise, and rides off. I decide to head across the plains in case she comes back with any more psychopathic assassins. I happen across a group of riders, who are some of the locals. The tests of the Bogomil are horse related and stupid. But whatever, I get through them okay thanks to a lot of luck. Then they send me into a maze. Oh good, a dungeon. But not any dungeon. This is a dungeon full of horses and horse themed traps. Eat your heart out, Baron Sukumvit. I negotiate the maze and swap out the medallion for a bag of coins to stop the inevitable trap triggering. Victory!

I exit the maze and then set off cross country. In the morning a bird turns up and delivers a message from Astragal. Apparently all the medallions are claimed, and I have to head for Sharrabbas. Then it warns me that I have to go to… somewhere… and be sure to… someone called Vetch… and on no account do… something. Mental note: Birds make unreliable recording devices. I set off, taking the left hand path and after a short walk I’m faced with another fork in the trail. Never one to learn from mistakes, I decide the path down into a wooded vale is the best choice. It’s not so bad. There’s cart tracks, so I must be on the right road. There’s also fishing holes. You can tell because one of them has a fishing rod propped up beside it. I figure, what the hell, and try a spot of fishing. Fishing is a restful, peaceful exercise… but what I get is being dragged into the pool and attacked by a horrible water monster. I kill it and drag myself onto the shore, and then wonder why I want to rule this land anyway. It’s full of lunatics and monsters and cursed fishing poles. Perhaps things will look better in the morning.

In the morning I find that a pitched battle happened behind the rock I was sleeping next to. There’s a dead person who was presumably an adventurer – the backpack full of useless junk such as various teeth, keys with numbers stamped into them, sword hilts, and a broken chair is a big clue – and they have a note indicating there’s someone to meet in the city. I continue through the woods, and eventually arrive at a plain leading to the capital, and plod along with a cart. Soon we meet a pair of trolls collecting tolls. Toll Trolls – try saying that three times fast. I kill them for being bastards, and the cart driver helps me sneak into the city. Apparently any ruler is going to be better than Chingiz and his illegal toll trolls. I then decide to check out the local stores. They’re not very exciting. I do get to see a procession with Chingiz being carried aloft by bearers. Someone in the crowd points out for the benefit of a blind person someone called Vetch, standing next to someone else called Mandrake Wolfsbane. Right, I suppose I should follow him since he’s either some kind of werewolf hunter, and thus an adventurer who might help me, or a wizard, who I can kill and steal his stuff.

He turns out to be an over-dramatic locksmith. He’s also a friend of Astragal, and suggests I go and visit a local tavern. I leave the locksmith’s shop by the back door and wander around until a bird turns up and hops into an alley to deliver a message. This one writes it out in the dirt on the ground. Apparently there’s a wizard hanging out at that tavern sending smoke signals up the chimney. Much better than just being told “find that tavern” without any directions. At the Dragon’s Wing I get told the score by Mandrake and Astragal’s wizard cohort: There’s some dangerous secret entrances. There’s a bunch of necromancers. There’s Chingiz and his even more dangerous daughter Meghan-na-Durr. All the other Select are dead, so the only hope for the kingdom is… me.

Shaping up to be a fun time.

I pick a phial containing Potion of Secret Entrance Walking Throughness and they lead me to the castle. Inside, I’m faced with a large and also ominous door. The medallion I have opens it… but I need another for the next room. Since I don’t have a second medallion. I head through the door to the side where a magical voice tells me that I have to mix one of three bottles of vile stuff with the contents of some jars and hope it doesn’t kill me. Then I get to do it again. Let’s see… Eye of newt is always a winner, and 1000-fathom seawater is something I probably will survive. I put them in a cup and gulp it down… and somehow know I’m invulnerable to swords. This is working out okay! Now, how about dragon claw and volcano dust? The worst that can happen is I die, but I’m hoping for fire powers. I drink the resulting mess down and find that instead I have the power of persuasion. Oh well, still pretty good. The magic voice says I can go and sit on the throne now, so I leave the chamber to find it… and promptly get stabbed by a pair of assassins. But they used swords, so I’m not hurt in the least.

“Totally not going to work,” I say with a laugh. The assassins run away. I saunter off and find some orcs guarding a door. I persuade them that their purpose in life is to let me through the door. You know, these powers make adventuring much easier. I barge through the next door and find a necromancer. Not just any necromancer. This is Zizzadek, who has just killed a whole bunch of Mamliks, knights and trolls. He’s obviously enjoying his job here. He throws a fistfull of knives at me – I’m not immune to knives – and then turns into a dragon to attack me. I’m also not immune to dragons, but I pull through. I continue into the castle, and some gremlins try to stab me. Not a problem, they’re using swords! I talk the one survivor into giving me the key to the next door.

Inside I find Chingiz, lying in bed, and not very well. He can barely speak, and is trying to steady himself… so I stick the Dagger of Darkness that stabbed me in his hand, and he dies. That’s kind of hilarious, actually. I go into the next room, where sits the throne of Kazan. And also Meghan-na-Durr and four ogres. She tries to stab me with a dagger, so I duck out of her way and make for the throne. The dirty trick here is that the throne kills anyone who tries to attack anyone in the same room as it. I sit down and watch as My enemies are reduced to ashes. This throne is pretty cool.

Wrapup

Holy shit! I won one on the first try! I never thought I’d see the day I manage to win a Fighting Fantasy book without dying at least once.

The book is generous in restoring Stamina and Luck, which means reckless and foolish things are even more appealing. That means it’s more of a fun trip through a land of barbarian tribes with crazy trials. It’s like a fair version of Deathtrap Dungeon (which I will get to eventually). The poison gimmick is not a proper timer, instead only being added to after battles and other exertion. It’s thus a timer that you only have to add to if you’re stupid or unlucky. I like this idea, since it makes the game a lot more fair and becomes an exercise in making good choices. Common sense? In a gamebook? That’s a first!

I never did find out what the cover art is about. That will have to be a mystery for another day.

Suspension of Disbelief Shattered: The sheer number of times I got tied up. Even by a magic fishing pole. It’s kind of tedious, really. Maybe the author thought the other books didn’t have enough bondage scenarios.

Ridiculous Battle: Zizzadek, who is totally not fair. He throws an armload of daggers, then turns into a dragon. For reference, he’s almost as dangerous as the Warlock of Firetop Mountain himself, but without any clever tricks for the player to make the fight easier.

Victory: You get to be a benevolent ruler and set up an army to protect the people of the land, and ensure trade. I suppose a whole kingdom is a good reward, right?

What Was I Thinking? That fishing bit was so obviously a trap. I even thought “No, this is a trap,” and then went with my first instinct anyway. Because that’s how dead serious I am when it comes to these reviews. Besides, it was bound to be funny.

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.

Citadel of Chaos

“Oh shit, I forgot about the hydra!”

The Citadel of Chaos by Steve Jackson

Covers: Emmanuel, Ian Miller, Kevin Jenkins

Illustrations: Russ Nicholson

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

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

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

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

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

Statistics

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

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

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

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

Onward to Adventure!

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

Pretty bad: I have to kill Balthus Dire.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For some reason this cover was always hard to find.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hint: Go for the curtains.

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

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

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

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

Wrapup

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Temple of Terror

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

Temple of Terror by Ian Livingstone

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

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

Statistics

Skill: 10
Stamina: 20
Luck: 8

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

Onward to Adventure!

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

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

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

“Them? They’re cheap junk for rubes.”

Right…

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

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

Right. Off to a good start, then.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wrapup

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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