Monday, 24 March 2008

#5 - Deathtrap Dungeon

I've always had fond memories of book #6, perhaps in a large degree because of the fact when I was in third form (aged 12) I received 17/20 (top mark in the class, by the way) for a short story I wrote which was largely a rewrite of the introduction to Deathtrap Dungeon. Or was it my rewrite of Forest Of Doom? Ah bugger. Anyway, the singular goal and incredibly varied situations made this book one to revisit over and over, perhaps then not entirely suited to a single attempt, as this blog is 'meant' to be...

I rolled some perfect luck and stamina, which was just as well, as I was entering the tournament with the fighting skills of an animate wet paper bag. It probably didn't help that according to the introduction, I spent the week or so before entering the dungeon in a state of Bacchanalian indulgence, and had to pass through Blacksand. I've been killed, or nearly, by both of those things so far in the series if I recall correctly.

So there's a dungeon, created as a tourism investment, no one's ever escaped, riches on offer etc etc. What I don't get is that everyone in town turns out to watch the bounty hunters enter the maze, while none to date have ever returned - it seems kind of boring, doesn't it? Annually turning out to watch a bunch of doomed delusionals wander into a cave? All the action happens on the inside, after all.

And what action - the titular Deathtrap Dungeon is chocked with danger, disaster awaits at almost every turn. One website I came across in my brief post-death (oops, gave away the ending there...) research stated there were something like 31 possible instantaneous ways to die - meaning every time you look up a new page/paragraph, there's literally a one-in-13 chance you're gonna die. I quickly realised the book contains so many random deaths for no apparent reason - "You turned left! Bad choice. You die," kind of things - I took a little liberty in re-choosing which direction in which to walk. Not something I've done at all so far, but Deathtrap Dungeon so lives up to its billing, it'd be impossible to review after one dip without doing so.

Anyway. Highlights? Okay, well, on entering, you come across six boxes, one for each of the competitors in this year's competition, including yourself. Your first decision pretty much is should you open the one with your name on it or not? The book makes it out to be pretty dramatic... till you realise there's no option to check out the boxes already opened, and whether footprints healthily led away from them.

Continuing my FF habit of eating/drinking pretty much anything I come across, I drank some water I found in a bamboo stick. It's not like I'm going to get the chance to do that in real life now is it? Without much subtlety, or planning, the book then checked whether I'd drunk the bamboo water on the very next page I turned to... see what I mean? Brutal.

At one point in the maze I was asked whether I wanted to pick up a goblet. Now, at this point in the series, there was no penalty for carrying insane loads of trinkets and shit. I can't remember if there ever was a limit, but it seems pretty silly to say no, doesn't it? Rarely will an item you're carrying ever be the death of you in FF.

Later in the book, I came within a stamina point of dying, during a fight, while abseiling from a giant Buddha-esque statue... a scene which contains one of the book's 50/50 death points, which nothing you've rolled or discovered can save you from. Annoying, cause you probably need one of those eye-gems to finish the book, given the level of detail the sequence entails, though I can't really recall.

I eventually died while hanging out and forming an 'alliance' with a fellow contestant. My death involved a pit I shouldn't have tried to jump, but a quick check of the alternative scenarios (as I explained above) showed that not even the 'right' decision or rolls could have saved me - another random sequence which may mirror the reality of the situation quite well (whatever reality there could be), but is a bitch for gameplay.

All in all, it didn't quite spark with me in the same way as I remembered it - perhaps then I was less put-off by instant deaths and less averse to 'reloads' from arbitrary save points (the last page number I could remember where I was alive!).

Perhaps Trial Of Champions, the sequel-in-spirit, will survive the past 15 years a bit better.

My copy is very much identical to the one pictured above, but with the Puffin branding. There were still only seven published at the time. I know this doesn't mean nothing to no one, but I'm totally looking forward to the day I get up to whichever one of mine it is that is the earliest with the super-flashy logo and stuff with Jackson and Livingstone's names, and the actual author acknowledged on page 185 or something.

Monday, 17 March 2008

#5 - City Of Thieves

After the outer space diversions of Starship Traveller, it's a relief to back on Allansian soil and carrying nought but a sword, some gold and the classic 10 evenly-portioned parcels of food. But that's not to say Fighting Fantasy's fifth book is a retread of the first three; not at all. Yeah, you're an adventurer in search of booty and whatnot... but City Of Thieves introduces us to the most notorious city in Allansia, Port Blacksand.

You're an adventurer/bounty hunter kind of guy who comes across a town being harassed by an evil wizard - the humorously titled Zanzar Bone. He sounds like some kind of glam rocker, what with that name and the Moon Dogs and Spirit Walkers he uses to terrorise the town. Your mission is to go to Port Blacksand, a proverbial wretched hive of scum and villiany which seems to do its best to keep good, law-abiding folk out, and find Nicodemus - a powerful wizard on the side of good.

The first thing I have to do to get into the city is to kill or bribe a guard. Hmm. Well, I rolled high skill and stamina scores, so there's no guessing which I did.

I turned left, and saw a locksmith. I figure I'll probably need a key of some sort during the adventure - why else would I notice a locksmith and not, say, a sign with a map, perhaps pointing out where all the bars, loos and powerful wizards are?

Then I'm suddenly hit by six arrows, courtesy of a terrible dice roll, and killed. Oh dear.

This wouldn't be much of an entry if that was where it ended, so I re-rolled my stats, and started again - this time I'm not as strong, so tried to talk my way in past the guard. I said I had some expensive chalices to sell - which I most certainly did not - and the guard said he wanted to see them. I told him they were cursed, and could only be examined by a mage - who knows, perhaps he'd tell me where Nicodemus lived - and that didn't work. Bribery did though.

I took a winding route throughout the city, and soon realised not to trust anyone, but interact with them anyway - you never know when a blessing could come in disguise, huh? Money came and went as I found it and lost it (most embarrassingly when I was outwitted by a trio of dwarfs), till eventually I came across a man on a bridge. The book told me I gave him two gold pieces in exchange for being told where Nicodemus lived; which I found rather amusing as I'd just lost all my money playing 'Don't Drop the Cannonball' with a man who looked like a Greek statue. Nicodemus lived right beneath the bridge anwyay, and I'm sure the text would have led me there eventually, so I hope that guy enjoyed his pretend, invisible money.

Nicodemus told me to do the job myself, and that before I met Zanzar Bowie I'd have to get a tattoo of a white unicorn inside a yellow sun - on my forehead. Damn hippie. He also said I'd need a silver arrow, a black pearl, some hag's hair and a lotus flower. Conveniently, I'd not come across any of these things, but soon would - it's like the city's collective consciousness knew to present me with these things after meeting Nicodemus, knowing I'd probably ignore them beforehand.

Well, you never throw anything away in Fighting Fantasy gamebooks, Collective Consciousness of Port Blacksand, so there.

Anyway. I eventually came across a pirate ship, which seemed too good an opportunity to pass up. I dealt to the crew like a ninja, and soon found myself back on dry land fighting a group of robbers, or as I was calling them by this point, average everyday Port Blacksanders. They almost killed me, as did some haunted plant which drove me down to a single point of stamina. I had no food either, having traded it all for a silver arrow.

So when a boy came up to me offering to sell me either plums or apples, I was ecstatic. He recommended the plums, and knowing this town pretty well by now I chose the apples, and they were a bit off, doing a single point of stamina damage. Problem: I only had one point left.

I was killed by an apple marginally past its use-by-date.

So as an introduction to Port Blacksand, an important locale in the Fighting Fantasy series, it does well. By the end I wasn't even trusting well-meaning young fruiterers, and was avoiding even the most minimally-threatening sounding encounters - I walked right past an inviting manhole cover, for crying out loud! The fact I passed perhaps the only manhole cover in the entire city (I'd been down a few streets by this stage, and I hadn't been told of any others) and didn't check it out speaks volumes. Jabba the Hutt would've loved it here, except for the fact I don't think I came across any women bar the old hag who picked my pocket. There was a sweet lute player though, who could've given the Mos Eisley cantina band some much-needed variation.

I'm not even sure why someone would bother helping the townsfolk of Silverton anyway - they seem a stupid bunch. In the introduction, a man rings a bell once, announcing nightfall, and immediately everyone outdoors starts panicking - as if nightfall has an exact moment, and isn't a gradual descending of the sun beyond the horizon and general darkening of the sky.

My copy's cover is the same as the one above, but without the mistakes in the rules that Wikipedia says it has - that part of their article isn't cited, should I change it? The rules in mine read perfectly fine.

So, once again I failed to even reach the primary villian, damnit. I recall these books being easier when I was younger - perhaps then I was a little more open to re-rolls and checking the consequences of a decision before making it!

0/5. I need some weighted dice.

Saturday, 8 March 2008

#4 - Starship Traveller

Boldly going where no previous Fighting Fantasy book had gone before, Steve Jackson wasted no time in blurring the line between fantasy and science fiction in setting the fourth installment not only in outer space, but another universe altogether.

You're the hapless captain of a starship named Traveller (if you want to be super-nerdy, you can pretend it's Voyager, though the book came a decade before) whose Scotty analogue has messed up and allowed the warp drives to malfunction. Traveller is speeding ever faster towards a black hole, and your Spock equivalent suggests using its gravitational pull to slow the ship down.

So far, so Star Trekkin'. ("Boldly going forward 'cause we can't find reverse... Still can't find reverse... Totally going forward and things are getting worse...")

Anyway, the otherwise logical plan didn't work (else there'd be no book) and you now have to get back to Earth - the problem being, you're in a different universe altogether.

I began with a pretty averagely-skilled crew, not bad, but the dice weren't overly generous. Something different about this particular book is the fact you have a crew to look after - it's not just you and your Tardis-like rucksack (and 10 proportionally-similar provisions, of course). Something else is that unlike in Star Trek, unless otherwise noted, all aliens have phasers set to kill (we'll never know if stormtroopers have the same policy, seeing as they never hit anything).

Another departure I found was that unlike previous books, rolling within your skill/luck often had a bad outcome, as opposed to the expected positive. My very own Dr McCoy saved an entire medieval planet from a deadly fever, rolled dice to prove his luck, and died. Another time I successfully rolled within my skill level to convince some prison guards I wasn't a proverbial Christian to be thrown to the lions for their entertainment - they didn't believe me and made me fight the 'Manslayer Robot' anyway.

What kind of messed-up alien society would build a robot specifically designed to kill a species from a different universe? It's as if they knew a species calling itself 'man' would arrive and, through a grave misunderstanding, be thrown to the mechanical lions.

Anwyay... soon after beginning my journey, I found myself at a blue planet, descended and found myself "in a wide street of some kind, which is completely deserted. Buildings, of sorts, line the street and behind you a large building stands at the end of the road. The buildings are strange structures. They are a multitude of shapes and sizes and all look incomplete."

In other words, I was on the main street of Tirau. (Cue a ba-da-bing drum roll of sorts for the Kiwis reading this...)

Okay, the planet I was on, I can't recall its name but it was a libertarian paradise (of which Tirau most certainly is not, and besides, 'libertarian paradise'? There's an oxymoron to dwell on...) with a history akin to that of an early, albeit interplanetary United States. Races from all different worlds had fled there to escape problems at home, and decided on their new planet there would be no laws, no rules and no hierarchy (obviously Id' stumbled across this planet in around their equivalent of the 1880, not 2008). They had 'guards' though, which intrigued... turns out, as anyone is allowed to rob/beat/kill anyone they like, what with no rules and all, those planning to rob/beat/kill you are at least courteous enough to dress up as guards - to warn passers-by to be 'on guard'.

Muahaha. Cheesy puns are awesome. I particularly like the fact I managed to find a planet called Malini, whose primary income was mining, in particular the mineral Malinite. Mining Malini for Malinite. (Almost makes you wish for less subtle naming conventions, such as the Mon Calamari. Yes, two different links, I'm trying to make a point here...)

I also came across a planet stuck in the middle ages, whose weather was controlled by an Oz-esque man-behind-the-curtain - in this case, a man-behind-the-computer.

Eventually my crew got tired of re-enacting Dr Who and Star Trek episodes, and decided to force the issue of getting home. I'd collected a bunch of possible locations-of, stardates-to-arrive-at and speeds-at-which-to-approach some black holes, and tried out one - we all died, but the text made clear we would never have known it, which was such a relief.

I never managed to finish this book as a youngster, and after tonight, I'm still zero/roll-a-six-sided-die-and-multiply-the-result-by-a-million. It's fiendishly difficult - at one point I found myself in a Warlock-esque maze whose structure seemed random and the only guide I had was always turning to pages whose numbers I didn't immediately recognise or that I hadn't read yet. The kicker was that when checking, out of morbid, un-sportsmanlike interest where a couple of the pages I hadn't chosen (honest!) led, they were to death. Random death. This, in a sequence which if you survive, provides you with (possibly) one of the details you need to get home. Grrr.

Anyway... the version I have of the book is similar to the one above, same artwork, but with the serrated green strip at the top, and without the big '4' at the bottom. Obviously, its not an original pressing, but inside it still only says there are five books - so it was early, but not early enough to have the original, soon-to-be-dropped presentation style. Unless they changed all the covers without updating the pressing info and whatnot, which is unlikely.

I imagine that thing on the cover is the Manslayer Robot. In my humble opinion, it's one of the few original designs which is scarier and more futuristic than the newer, 21st century reissue re-imaginings.

The Wikipedia article on Starship Traveller (which has both covers displayed) claims the book can be completed without ever having to roll any dice. I find this hard to believe - then again, I never got into any ship-to-ship combat, of which I was led to believe there would be plenty. I obviously went the wrong way - at one point, being down to a single stamina point.

The back cover of the book asks, "Will you be able to discover the way back to Earth from the alien peoples and planets you encounter, or will the starship be doomed to roam uncharted space forever?" It's a rhetorical question in the end, as once your crew get suitably annoyed at a lack of inter-dimensional-homeward-bound travel they force the Traveller into the nearest black hole regardless of your research. You will not be floating in space for longer than an hour, in your time, to be honest.

0 from 4. It would seem I'm not so sharp with the blaster or the sword nowadays.