Thursday, August 13, 2015

Sorcery! Attempt 1 - Book 1: The Shamutanti Hills

Regular visitors of the blog may have been expecting this post to tackle the sixth book in the Fighting Fantasy series, Deathtrap Dungeon.  That was my original plan, but somewhere along the way - around the time that I started doing the Exploring Titan posts - I decided that I was going to read the whole franchise in chronological order, by release date.  So it's time for a detour into the first, and probably greatest, Fighting Fantasy spin-off: the Sorcery! epic.

Written by Steve Jackson and illustrated by John Blanche, the Sorcery! series is one long adventure split over four books.  Whereas the regular FF books are all self-contained, in Sorcery! the story continues, and the same character is carried over from book to book.  These may be the first gamebooks that allowed this kind of character advancement; The Shamutanti Hills was released about half a year before Joe Dever's Lone Wolf series, which is the most famous example of it.

Character and plot advancement from book to book isn't the only innovation that this series presents, though.  For most authors that would be enough, but Steve Jackson is nothing if not an innovator.  Much like Jackson's last fantasy gamebook, The Citadel of Chaos, the reader may opt to play The Shamutanti Hills as a wizard.  The magic system used here is very different, though, and a whole lot more interesting.  In Citadel, the reader simply chose what spells he had memorised before the adventure started, and used them when the option was presented in the text.  Here, the spells are represented by three-letter codes, each of which is described in a separate book called The Sorcery Spell Book (later printings have the spell book as an appendix at the back of the actual gamebook).  You don't choose your spells beforehand, however; instead you must read and memorise the spells and their three-letter codes.  Once the adventure begins, you're not allowed to consult the spell book, and must try to remember what each code does when the option to cast spells comes up.  It's the most literal interpretation of Dungeons & Dragons style "spell memorisation" that I've ever seen, and it works very well in the Sorcery! series.  It had to, as it's pretty much the core element of the books; you can play as a straight warrior, but that's nowhere near as much fun.

While the mechanics are innovative, the plot is less so.  It's another "kill-the-evil-wizard" story, which has been the case for three of the six gamebooks I've played in this blog.  It's more of an observation than a complaint, to be honest; the novelties of the spell system and character advancement more than make up for the plot in this case.

At least this time around, the story is fleshed out in intriguing ways.  The protagonist's goal is to retrieve the Crown of Kings, which has been stolen by the evil Archmage of Mampang Fortress.  The Crown of Kings was discovered some time ago by a wise king known as Chalanna the Reformer.  With the power of the crown Chalanna transformed his kingdom of Femphrey into the largest empire around, but rather than become a conqueror he set up a system where the Crown of Kings would be passed from nation to nation, ensuring that each would establish prosperity in their turn.  (I'm not sure how this works, as I generally imagine that kingdoms establish their own prosperity to the detriment of their neighbours, but I'll go with it.  It's magic.)

The time came for the nation of Analand to take it's turn with the crown, and for a while it was prosperous.  But soon, on a starless night, Birdmen stole the crown and took it to the Archmage, whose goal was to unite the lawless land of Kakhabad as his own kingdom.  Kakhabad, known in some circles as "The Verminpit at World's End" was dangerous, but it's denizens were lawless and disorganised.  With the Crown of Kings in the hands of the Archmage, however, Kakhabad would be a grave threat.  And so the hero of the book has volunteered to venture into Kahabad and retrieve the crown.

There's plenty to sink your teeth into there, and I left out a lot of the finer details.  It's easily the most in-depth background that Fighting Fantasy has seen thus far.  I'm kind of dreading the Exploring Titan entry for this book, because it's going to be a mammoth one.

The first choice that the player must make is whether to play the "Simple Game" (and play as a warrior) or the "Advanced Game" (and play as a wizard).  I can appreciate that the option is there to ignore the spell system for this game, for players who just want to get in there and begin quickly.  But the spells are where most of the fun comes from.  One day I might try to finish this series as a warrior, just for the challenge, but for now I'll be playing as a wizard.

Skill, Stamina, and Luck work in much the same way as the regular Fighting Fantasy books.  The only difference is that the wizard, when rolling for Skill, adds 4 to his die roll instead of the usual 6.  Combat also works the same way, as does Testing Your Luck.

I've described the magic system above.  There are 48 spells in total, which makes memorising them all somewhat difficult.  Each spell drains Stamina points when cast, and some require special items.  If you try to cast a spell without the requisite item (or if you pick one of the fake codes that Jackson has cunningly strewn throughout the book) you will also be drained of Stamina.  Despite the large number of spells, there are only six that you really need to get through the adventure: ZAP (creates a lightning bolt); FOF (creates a force field); LAW (controls creatures); DUM (makes creatures clumsy); HOT (creates a fireball); and WAL (creates a magical wall).  As you can see, the codes hint at the effect of the spell, which makes things a bit easier.

In addition to the spells, the player can call on the goddess Libra once per adventure (meaning once per book).  Libra can do one of three things: restore Skill, Stamina and Luck to their initial totals; remove all curses or diseases; or help the player escape from some deadly situation.  I always forget about this, so this time I'm writing it down on my Adventure Sheet.

The hero begins with a sword, a backpack, a pouch containing 20 gold pieces, and two provisions.  Provisions in this series don't restore 4 Stamina points when eaten, as they do in most Fighting Fantasy books; instead you can only eat when the book allows it, and whatever Stamina boost you get varies.  If you don't eat for a day you will lose Stamina.  It's a bit more realistic this way, and it puts a stop to injured adventurers stuffing their faces with four provisions for a quick heal.

As I mentioned above, I opted to play as a wizard.  After rolling my scores, I was quite pleased with the result: Skill 10, Stamina 18, and Luck 7.  Skill is almost always the most important of the three scores, so I was happy to be starting with the highest score possible (remember that a wizard only adds 4 to the die roll).  Luck was a potential problem, but I wasn't overly worried; I was counting on the goddess Libra to get me out of any sticky situations.

Before I started on my mission, I did a thorough read-through of the Spell Book.  I've read it a number of times before, and most of the useful spells are still ingrained in my memory.  The only things that concerned me were the spells that require special items.  I can usually get the codes right, but remembering that I need a green wig to cast RAP (a language spell) is a bit harder.

(While I'm on the subject, why doesn't the hero of this book load up with all of those spell components before embarking on his quest?  It would make things a hell of a lot easier, but heroes in Fighting Fantasy are rarely equipped adequately at the outset.)


I began my adventure in an outpost town near the Shamutanti Wall, checking and rechecking my equipment.  After some brief farewells from the townsfolk, I walked to the Cantopani Gate, beyond which lie the Shamutanti Hills.  Before I could pass through the gate, I was met by a Sightmaster Warrior, a member of a group renowned for their powers of telescopic vision.  He gave me some brief advice about the journey ahead:
  • I should first take the path to the village of Cantopani, a small settlement of "traders".  The Sightmaster warned me that most of the inhabitants are rogues and thieves.
  • From there, I apparently have three routes to get to Birritanti, and then on to Kharé, a cityport on the Jabaji river.
  • Beyond Kharé are the Baklands, which are unknown.  It's said that day and night in the Baklands are controlled by supernatural forces.  He also told me that once I'm beyond Kharé, my progress will be watched.  (He didn't say who by, though one has to assume he means the Archmage.  I don't think the Sightmasters' telescopic vision extends that far.)
He didn't mention it, but after the Baklands, I'll have to infiltrate Mampang Fortress.  For reference, here's the map from the book:

For the moment, though, I didn't have to concern myself with most of what the Sightmaster Sergeant told me.  My immediate goal was to cross the Shamutanti Hills, and make it to Kharé, which sounded simple enough.  What could possibly go wrong?

I waved to the Sightmaster Sergeant, and walked through the open gate.  The path wound through wild scrubland for some time, until eventually it brought me to Cantopani village, a collection of rude clay huts.  A short, thick-set fellow stepped forth and demanded to know my business.  Not wishing to draw attention to myself, I asked for directions onwards to Kharé.  The greedy bugger wanted 2 gold pieces for his advice, and I grudgingly handed them over (leaving me with 18).  He told me that the low path passed through the Vale of the Elvin, mischievous and magical beings.  The high path up through the hills went by the Schanker Mines, and he laughingly warned me that if I chose this path I'd need to keep my head.  He told me that I should also stop in the village of Kristatanti for food and shelter, and also to beware the Black Lotus, with its deadly aroma.  There was a lot to take in here, but it all sounded like useful advice.  You know, unless he was lying.

Moving on, I decided to stop at the village inn.  There I bought a meal of bread and goat's cheese for 1 gold piece (leaving me with 17).  (The meal would have restored 2 Stamina points, had I lost any up to this point.)

I left the village, and soon came to a fork in the path.  But before I could choose which way to go, a wizened old man cried out to me from a tree-branch above.

He claimed that he had been travelling from the village of Dhumpus to the Outpost Settlement in Analand, before Elvins waylaid him and left him in the tree.  I helped him down, and he told me a rhyme that he thought might help me:

"See him though he sees you not;
The black-eyed creature creeps.
A guardian once, but now his lot;
The key to freedom keeps."

He wasn't able to tell me what the rhyme meant, but he did say that the Elvins are keen on finding the key in question.  (I've never noticed this little detail before.  I've always thought that this rhyme was just a generic warning about the boss monster at the end of this book, but now I'm not so sure.)  The old man also gave me a page from a Spell Book (page 102, and I'm noting that number down; I know how these things work).  The spell was incomplete, but appeared to be usefulfor repelling pests.  The old man bid me farewell, and I continued on.

I was about to, anyway, until I heard a buzzing from behind the tree.  It was being made by a beehive, which I could not resist attempting to cut it down.  I had to roll a die to determine how much damage I took from the bees: a result of 1-4 indicated damage equal to the result, and 5-6 meant that damage was avoided altogether.  I rolled a 6, and luckily avoided being stung.  With the hive cut down, I was able to collect some wax (handy for the RAZ spell, as I recall, which makes your sword razor-sharp) and enough honey for one meal.

Now it was truly time to move on, and I chose the high path (past the Schanker Mines, as I had previously been informed).  The afternoon wore on as I travelled through the hills, and I eventually came to a place where I could rest and eat provisions, but as I had already eaten that day I decided not to.  A few hours later night fell, and I made camp rather than travel in the darkness.

There was a chance that I would be attacked during the night, by one of three monsters: a Giant Bat, a Wolf Hound, or a Werewolf.  The die roll indicated that I had to fight a Wolf Hound (Skill 7, Stamina 6), which I killed without being injured.

(At this point, I was told to lose 3 Stamina points if I hadn't eaten anything the previous day.  I'd had some food in Cantopani, so I was all good.)

I continued on, and soon came to a clearing, with paths forking to the left and right.  Several poles were planted in the ground, and fixed to the tops of them were the severed heads of men, goblins and other creatures, all with their eyes and mouths sewn shut.  A large X carved into a tree was a warning to go no further, though it didn't really indicate which path was the dangerous one.  (Now I understand the warning of the fellow from Cantopani.  What a stunning wit.)

I chose the right-hand path, and after a few hours I found an open cave, with a number of Goblins moving in and out, carrying bowls full of rocks and ore.  I'd found the Schanker Mines that I had been told about.  Unable to curb my greed, I decided to slip inside and see what I could find.  I was able to pass by the Goblins with little trouble, and soon came to a T-junction, where I chose the left fork.

The tunnel ended at a stone door, which I opened.  Inside was an old, blind Goblin, who sniffed the air at my approach.  He said that I smelled strange, and was quick to tell me that I wasn't permitted there.

I wasn't particularly keen on fleeing from a blind Goblin, nor was I all that fussed about the moral implications of murdering the sod, so I attacked.  He fought back with a stone club (Skill 7, Stamina 6), and managed to hit me once before I won (reducing my Stamina to 16).  Despite his blindness, this guy was stronger than about 90% of the Goblins I've ever met in a gamebook, so I felt vindicated in giving him the chop.  Around his neck was a silver key, with the number 111 engraved upon it, and I pocketed this before moving on.

There was a door at the far end of the room, but when I opened it there was nothing but darkness beyond.  I could have used a spell to investigate, or simply walked blindly into the shadows , but I decided against either.  I suspected that something was up, so I decided to go back to the T-junction and take the other path.

This passage also ended at a doorway, and this one was locked.  I wasn't given the option of using my silver key, so instead I opted to cast the DOP spell, which unlocked the door at the cost of 2 Stamina (leaving me with 14).  Inside the room, an Ogre was feeding rocks into a sort of mechanical device for grinding rocks and producing gemstones.

The Ogre (Skill 8, Stamina 7) greeted me with hostility, and I was more than prepared to meet it in kind.  Once again I opted not to use my spells, and the Ogre wounded me twice (reducing me to 10 Stamina) before I could kill it.  I found two gemstones (each worth 10 gp), and hightailed it out of the mines.  I needed to Test My Luck to sneak outside without being detected, but I was successful (leaving me with a Luck of 6).

I continued down out of the hills and into some woods, and by late afternoon I came to the village of Kristatanti, where the local Hill Dwellers were puzzled by my foreign clothes.  I decided to find an alehouse to relax.  Once inside I paid 1 gold piece for an ale (leaving me with 16), and was given the option of sitting next to a wrinkled old man, or a sharp-faced youth. 

I chose to sit with the old man, figuring him to be less of a threat, and found him to be a pleasant companion.  He told me that there were two paths on from Kristatanti.  One led past the home of Alianna, and he warned me that I'd need my wits if I encountered her.  The other led up into the hills to the Lea-ki, the domain of the great ones.  He didn't elaborate further, but he did give me a Bomba fruit, which would double my gain in Stamina if I ate it with a regular meal.  All-in-all it was a fortuitous encounter, and I gained 2 Luck points (restoring me to my initial score of 7).

From the alehouse I went to the inn, where I paid 3 gp for a night's rest and 2 gp for a meal of Skunkbear stew (leaving me with 11 gp).  I also ate my Bomba fruit, and was able to restore 6 Stamina. I should have waited before I did this, though, because I also regained 5 Stamina for resting in the inn.  I would have been restored to my maximum Stamina even without the Bomba fruit, so I had wasted it.  (Again, at the end of the day, I would have been penalised 3 Stamina if I hadn't eaten anything.)

The next day I was given the choice of two paths out of the village, with nothing to differentiate them.  (The book literally says "Choose your path by turning either to 125 or 226".  This is pretty annoying, especially since the old man in the alehouse had given me some idea of where the paths led.  With no guidance available, I took a stab and chose 125, but I wasn't happy about it.)

Soon I came to a junction, with a signpost that indicated that the western path led to Alianna's house, and the straight path led to the village of Dhumpus.  Despite the old man's warning, I decided that I wanted to meet this Alianna.  The path led to a hut that looked rather inviting.  This would normally be a sign that something was amiss, but I ignored this incongruous pleasantness and went inside.  Much like the exterior, the inside of the hut was very neat and normal, with the exception of a pretty young lady being held in a cage.  She claimed to have been locked in there by mischievous Elvins, and asked me to release her.  Releasing pretty girls from cages is often reward enough in itself, but I decided to ask her what was in it for me.  She offered to help me with either my magic or my combat prowess, and I decided to go with my strengths and choose magic.  The cage was locked, of course.  I tried my silver key (done by subtracting 10 from the number engraved upon it, and turning to that paragraph), but it didn't work.  My trusty DOP spell did the trick, however, at the cost of 2 Stamina (leaving me with 16).

After I freed the woman, she gifted me with a vial of glue, a pair of nose plugs and four small pebbles.  (All of these are spell components, but I'll be buggered if I can remember what any of them do.)  She also gave me 7 gold pieces (raising my total to 18).  I was about to leave, but the woman stopped me with a hand on my shoulder, informing me that Alianna doesn't give up her possessions without a fight.  She cast a spell on a wooden chair, transforming it into a Wood Golem, and I was forced to do battle.

The Wood Golem (Skill 8, Stamina 6) hit me once (reducing me to 14), but I was able to smash it with my sword, and hurriedly flee the house in the direction of Dhumpus.

I came to the village in the late afternoon, and decided to make contact with the villagers before finding an inn.  As I approached, though, they got upset at the sight of my sword.  I decided against leaving my weapon, and moved on.  Further along there was a merchant's hut, where I could buy a sword, a skullcap, and three meals.  I bought the skullcap for 4 gold pieces (leaving me with 14), as I remembered it being needed for some sort of telepathy spell, and went to the inn.

The inn was charging 3 gold pieces for a meal and another 3 for a bed.  I could afford it, but I was starting to worry about how much money I might need in Kharé, so I left the inn to camp overnight in the wilderness.  I ate one of my provisions and settled down to sleep.  Again I had to roll to see if I was attacked during the night, but I had a +2 bonus to the roll because monsters are less likely to approach a camp.  Luckily I wasn't attacked, and awoke refreshed in the morning (the meal and the rest combined restored my Stamina to its maximum of 18).

Around mid-morning I came to another village, where the villagers scurried into their huts at the sight of me.

I knocked at the door of a hut, but there was no answer.  I was suspicious of the sickly appearance of the villagers, as well as their behavior, so I quickly left. 

Further on I stopped to rest within sight of another village, and was greeted by a small winged humanoid, about the size of my thumb.  I spoke to him and learned that he was a Minimite named Jann, and that he wanted to accompany me.  Seeing no reason to refuse the little fellow, I let him ride on my shoulder as I entered the village of Birritanti.

There was a lot of merriment in the village, and Jann explained to me that it was the Festival of the Young, a day when the children of the village are allowed to get away with whatever they want.  (It sounds nightmarish, but nowadays would just result in an entire day of kids playing their iPads.)  I decided to go to the tavern, where I met the bartender, Glandragor.  It was a waste of time, though, because I didn't want to pay for a drink, or a room at the inn.  Once again I slept under the stars, and ate the last of my provisions.

There were two paths onwards, and I chose the one leading downhill to the west.  Eventually Jann warned me to stop, as he was convinced that I was being watched.  Sure enough, a black-clad figure stepped out onto the path and barred my way.

I tried to talk to the Assassin, but he gripped his sword and stalked forward.  I was able to defeat him, and opted to spare his life once I had reduced him to less than 3 Stamina.  The assassin, named Flanker, was grateful for my mercy, and promised to remain my friend.  (Apparently he will help me in book 2To find out how, I have to turn to paragraph 79 when I start the next book.  I would have gained 2 Luck points for this encounter, but I was already at my maximum.)

I continued along the path, and was growing irritated with Jann (which is not at all out of character for me, to be honest).  I came across a small hut, where an old woman beckoned me to talk to her.  I went inside her hut, and she gave me a cup of tea before shuffling into the kitchen.  Jann voiced his suspicions, and I was given the option of switching my tea with hers.  I decided not to, and it turned out that I had chosen correctly.  After drinking her tea, the old woman acted as though she had poisoned herself, and she scurried off into the kitchen to drink the antidote before returning.  (I'm really not sure what she was trying to achieve here, it's quite a nonsensical plan she has.)

Upon returning the old woman asked me if I had ever met a certain old man. It turned out to be the same old man I had met early in my quest, the one who had given me a page from a spell book.  The old woman explained that she had caught the old man reading her spell book, and that he had torn the page out as he fled from her.  At this point she offered to get rid of Jann for me, and I discovered that his presence was impairing my ability to cast spells (this was news to me).  Of course I wanted him gone, so I asked her to cast the spell (I had to do a little math involving the number on the torn page I'd been given), and Jann was sent packing.

Later that day I came to Torrepani, the village of the Svinns, a race of Man-Orcs.  They seemed withdrawn and depressed, so I approached a group of them to find out what the problem was.  Apparently the chief's daughter had been kidnapped by a band of marauders and offered as sacrifice to a powerful cave demon.  I started boasting about my own prowess, and was all set to offer my services when they grabbed me by the shoulders and dragged me away.  I was locked in a hut, and with little else to do I decided to sleep.  I gained 2 Stamina from the rest, but lost 3 because I had not eaten the day before.  (Both of these penalties occur in the same paragraph, and it's not clear in what order they should be applied.  I went with the order they appear in the text, which meant that I gained 2 Stamina from the rest (which I didn't need, because I was already at maximum), then lost 3 due to hunger (leaving me with 15).  Them's the breaks, but I usually err on the side of literalism, even when it's to my detriment.)

Morning came, and I was taken to the chief of the Svinns, who gave me breakfast (restoring my Stamina to 17).  He said that I could name my reward if I succeeded in rescuing his daughter from the cave demon, but it was obvious that I had no choice in the matter.  I decided against a last-minute escape attempt, and allowed them to lower me into the cave.

Lighting my way with a torch provided by the Svinns, I exited the first cavern by the left tunnel, then turned left again at the next branch.  Fortune was with me, as I found the chief's daughter right away, and lifted her in my arms.  But as I turned to leave a roar stopped me, and I was confronted by a Manticore, the very cave demon I had been warned about.

The Manticore reared back to attack with its stinger, and I reacted by casting FOF (at the cost of 4 Stamina, leaving me with 13).  The stinger was blocked by my magical force field.  With the opportunity open for me to cast an offensive spell, I chose HOT, and my fireball slammed into its side (this cost me 4 more Stamina, leaving me with 9).  I could sense that I had chance to end this battle, and I cast WAL (reducing my Stamina to 5).  The magical wall fenced the Manticore in, and I fled from the cave before it could come after me.

I returned the chief's daughter to the Svinns, and they were overjoyed.  The local priest restored all of my stats to their initial values, and would have been able to remove any diseases or curses, if I had any.  He also had the power to dispell Jann the Minimite, but I had already done so earlier.  the chief gifted me with a pouch containing 10 gold pieces, as well as a large key which will supposedly allow me through Kharé's south gate in the next book.  In addition to that, I was given a bonus of +1 to my initial Luck for completing the book, raising my total from 7 to 8.  My journey through the Shamutanti Hills was over, and now Kharé awaited.

Well, that was quite easy, wasn't it?  It very well might be the easiest gamebook that Steve Jackson has ever written.  I don't mind that, particularly.  As the opening part of an epic, a relatively safe journey through the hills is a nice way to ease into it.  There's more than enough ball-tearing difficulty to come in the next three books.

I didn't have any difficulty with the spells, and I managed to procure a decent number of items needed for spellcasting.   I managed to get through without calling Libra for aid, which was unexpected.  Getting Flanker on my side should come in handy, even though I can't remember what help he offers in book 2.  I know I didn't find all of the best stuff, but I did okay.

Normally my next post would be my final thoughts on the book, followed by an Exploring Titan (in which I examine the development of the Fighting Fantasy setting).  I'm not doing those just yet.  To write those posts I need to dissect the book and read every paragraph, and I don't want to do that before I complete the whole Sorcery! epic.  I'd rather not spoil the secrets of the first book, because I have an insane plan: I'm going to return to the start of this book every time I die.

Yes, I'm treating the Sorcery! epic as one long gamebookIt's going to be a challenge, but I feel like it's the only true way to earn a legitimate victory over the series.  I haven't played books 2-4 in about a decade, and have only the vaguest memories of them.  What I do remember is that they're super-difficult, so I expect to be returning to The Shamutanti Hills with regularity.

It's going to be a short wait before I progress to Kharé - Cityport of Traps, though.  Next up in the release order is a bona fide classic, maybe the greatest Fighting Fantasy of all: Deathtrap Dungeon.