Tuesday, March 1, 2011

#5 - "City of Thieves" by Ian Livingstone (1983)

After the interstellar shenanigans of "Starship", book 5 of Fighting Fantasy lands us squarely back in both the fantasy land of Allansia and the ever-fashionable business of slaughtering wizards. In this case our target is grinning right there on the cover, thorny old Zanbar Bone, his tough-guy facade only slightly undermined by a Kermit ruff and kitten eyes.

Behind him is depicted the gates of Port Blacksand, the titular "City of Thieves", with the spiked head of thespian William Hartnell in the foreground as a grisly rebuke to those who would meddle in thiefly business.

"Forest of Doom" was notable as the first wilderness adventure in the series - City is the first to feature an urban environment and as we'll see it's a rather more interesting setting than Darkwood Forest. However, against expectations, Zanbar Bone doesn't actually reside in Port Blacksand, it's just a place we'll be stopping by to run a few errands on our way to the boss-battle at his lifestyle block some several kilometres upwind of the Outer Suburbs of Thieves. More on that to come.

William Hartnell in happier times - inset: doom.
As has become my habit, I present for your fleeting amusement the U.S. cover for City of Thieves:

Zanbar's monobrow is out of control.
Study it well.


Much as in Forest, in City our protagonist is a solitary swordsman who wanders about taking on contract killings and relieving harmless monsters of their dignity, treasure, and lives.  As the story begins he arrives in the prosperous merchant town of Silverton which has a small problem with "Moon Dogs" dropping by every evening to urinate on the legs of distracted businessmen, steal strings of sausages from the butcher, and (perhaps most importantly) devour any unfortunate person who forgets to lock their doors and latch their windows. It's no overstatement to say that Silverton's night life has suffered, with anyone caught in the pub after sundown stuck there all night while Moon Dogs sniff around the door (reminds me somewhat of clubbing in Tokyo).

There's a quiet dignity in the eyes of tag-team wrestlers "The Moondogs", Spike and Cujo.

Nightfall finds our hero in that very predicament,  locked in Silverton's "Old Toad" pub, thinking to himself about how famous he is as a monster-killer and feeling slightly miffed that none of the locals have "come over to hear tales of adventure". Shortly after your arrival the town mayor suddenly scrambles in through a cat flap, the seat of his pants comically chewed out by a Moon Dog, and buys you a roast goose for dinner.

Take a moment to consider - when's the last time you ate roast goose for free? Exactly. Soon enough, Mayor Owen is launching into his hard luck story - ten days ago, a couple of sketchy dudes rolled up on black horses with fiery red eyes and asked the mayor whether he'd object to his daughter attending a slumber party with Zanbar Bone - "no doubt you know that he is the Night Prince", Owen adds.

Zanbar Bone - he's kind of a big deal.
It is never made clear what Zanbar intends with the mayor's daughter but it is presumably some kind of  G-rated magical rite / midnight sacrifice type deal - the dude is a skeleton after all, it won't be anything raunchy. Nevertheless, Mayor Owen isn't having a bar of it and he sent the messengers packing - thereby drawing Zanbar's creepy old curse upon the town. The Moon Dogs showed up that very evening, and every night since, eating 23 hapless townsfolk over the course of ten nights (a period which the people of Silverton have apparently spent waiting for some hobo with a sword to show up).

Owen's plan is to send you to Port Blacksand to hit up his old pal Nicodemus, a "wise old wizard" who has apparently taken up residence in the notoriously unsavoury city precisely to avoid people asking favours e.g. could you please kill the Night Prince, Nicodemus. Owen pays you with 30 Gold Pieces and a shiny new sword, which, in an echo of that crazy son-of-a-bitch from Forest of Doom, you appear to fall immediately in love with ("You have never wanted something so badly in your life before" - yes that refers to the sword, not the roast goose nor indeed Mayor Owen Carralif, whom Ian Livingstone takes unusual pains to describe as fat, bald and sweaty). Then you have a kip and set off for Port Blacksand in the morning.

Despite the mayor's one-sided exposition and all the off-putting detail we are given about  his glistening pate, I will say this is easily the most evocative and entertaining of the Backgrounds I've read so far. I recall that the protagonist's night upstairs at the tavern, "more than once woken by the sniffing, scratching and howling of the roaming Moon Dogs outside" left quite an impression on me as a child. (This may be because there would often be dogs on our lawn at night, as my parents had a habit of throwing carrion out the window - not joking).

Rolling Up My Dude

SKILL - 12
LUCK - 7

Skill of twelve, again - I did mention I wasn't cheating right? I'm not cheating, really. Might be I'm just good at throwing dice. There aren't any variations on the rules in "City", although I noticed that healthful Provisions weren't mentioned in the instructions this time so I assumed I didn't have any (though later I had the option to swap "all my Provisions" for a silver arrow, and I was like "damn, I coulda been eating Provisions?")

The Adventure

The first of many fine, lovingly detailed illustrations in this book - note the artist's inclusion of a "background", basically a first for the series.

The adventure proper begins as you arrive at the gates of Port Blacksand and are offered this rather prissy challenge by an otherwise daunting guardsman:

Now imagine Queen Elizabeth II is saying these lines with her voice pitched up two octaves.
It's not clear how he knows you weren't invited but I guess that's his business. As this was written by Ian Living-"stone-them-to-death" you are of course given the option to immediately attack the guard - but since I more or less exhausted the possibilities of role-playing a psychopath in Forest of Doom I decided to follow my more natural inclination and bluff my way in. I have embellished the resulting dialogue but the gist of it is true to the original:

Me: (approaching the gate, sideways) "Yooooooooooooooooooooooo--"
Guard: "Who would enter Port Blacksand uninvited? State the nature of your business or go back the way you came!"
Me: "--ooooooooooooooo! My man!" (goes for high five, is left hanging, effortlessly turns it into a little point-and-shoot gesture) "Did you you say something about a invitation? Do I got the wrong town? This is Port Blacksand, yeah? AKA, the 'City of Thieves', am I wrong? Be real with me, brother. What do you think it says on my business card, I give ya one guess."
Guard: (grips pike uncertainly, looks about for his supervisor but does not see him) "Um..."
Me: "Here's a hint, it rhymes with 'fief'. Which means a tenure of land subject to feudal obligations; but, you knew that, right? Rhymes with 'fief', the word is.... thhhhhhhhhh--, thhhhhhhhhhh-- ief. Thief. The word is thief."
Me: "I am a thief."
Guard: "You're saying you're a thief."
Me: "That's correct."
Guard: "Have you ever stolen anything?"
Me: "Have I ever sto--? Have I ever--? What, did the Port Blacksand City Council change the name to 'The City of Wasting-My-Fucking-Time'? Come on, be real with me hombre. Have I ever stolen anything. Man, I stole stuff yesterday. My backpack is just full of uh, silver chalices, silver candlesticks, silver, ah, silver ashtrays, you name it. And all of that stuff is stolen, no doubt."
Guard: "Where'd you get 'em?"
Me: "Silverton, maaaaan! I tell you, they love silver in that place! They got silver doorknobs, silver letter-boxes, just, just all kinds of silver in that place, man! I even saw a dude with silver belt, man, holding up he silver drawers. Not even joking - I was going nuts, just stealing everything! You couldn't hold me back! I was thiefing the hell out of that place, son! Now listen, you just let me through and hip me to a good spot to unload all this silver and it might be that I got a 1 Gold Piece that I'm kind of sick of carrying 'round with me, you know...? "
Guard: "Hmph. Silver chalices, huh. Silver doorknobs. Let me see."
Me: "Oh, you want to see...? Well... about that." (sucks air through teeth) "The silver's all cursed. Yep, totally cursed. Really, really cursed. Probably need to have a wizard look at it first. No idea what might happen otherwise. Something pretty bad, probably." (frowns speculatively)
Guard: "Oh, cursed, he says, from a whole town made out of cursed silver, I suppose. Citizen - I believe you're lying."
Me: "Okay, maybe I am and maybe I ain't. But consider this - what is a liar... if not the Thief of Truth? I'm still a thief either way. Come on, bro. Be. Real. With. Me."
Guard: "Hmmm. Thief of truth, huh. I suppose you got a point there. Alright. Come on in."
Me: (executes a perfect Morris Day slide into Port Blacksand)

While not quite so long-winded, let me re-iterate that this is actually how the conversation plays out in the book - you pretend you have silver chalices to fence, the guard asks to see it and you are given the option of laying down a weak line about it being cursed, whereupon the skeptical guard decides you are  "just the same as all the rest inside this city" and admits you. Evidently Port Blacksand is such a bad place that it's actually Bizzarro-evil, with guards at the gate to let thieves and liars in, and turn honest folk away. Good is bad and bad is good, and citizens get put in the stocks for being "ye Goody-Two-Shoes"

That woman in the foreground with hands like Dolly Parton gives you an egg to throw, but she also picks your pocket. The thought of those ghastly talons sliding into one's purse is much worse than the fact of the theft.
What was his crime, politeness? Attempting legitimate commerce? How Port Blacksand manages to operate with such systematically inverted mores is a real question - how can a city that is literally of, by, and for thieves work as a going concern? Having said that, my theory of Port Blacksand as a Bizzarro town isn't wholly consistent with the facts - or perhaps the facts themselves are not consistent with each other. At one point a burglar fired a crossbow at me because he thought I was a guard, and in another sequence  guardsmen are chasing an escaped murderer. So evidently there is some kind of conventional law enforcement going on.

At any rate, as you wander the town in search of Nicodemus it rapidly becomes a real challenge to hang on to the 30 GP you got from Mayor Owen - I was almost killed within about 200m of the gate when a gang shot me full of arrows after I refused to hand over my purse. There are cutpurses, thugs and fraudsters a-plenty - e.g. a kid selling phoney magic potion from a barrel, or a goblin mugger posing as an injured child. Even if you avoid mishap, your funds tends to be frittered away in the shops, out of anxiety that one of the items on sale will prove necessary to win the game. Not to mention the shopkeepers who are also fraudsters and thugs, such as the chandler who will drug you and leave you kidney-free in an ice bath if you agree to take a look at the "special candles in the back room". Readers will no doubt be pleased but unsurprised to learn that most times when you enter a shop you're also given the option to attack the owner (hey, they're probably evil shop-keepers, right?)

Attack him! He's a MAN-ORC for crying out loud. Might as well just attack him. GO ON ATTACK HIM.  
And if theft and shopping somehow aren't sufficient to empty your purse, there's also street gambling. I lost 5 GP in a game of toss-the-cannonball, a contest of manhood to rival Top Gun's beach volleyball scene in its homo-eroticism.

That'd be me lying crumpled on the ground there then. Why wasn't I offered an option to attack this guy?
Much as in other books you are given the option of popping into all sorts of random places seemingly on a whim - I have fond memories of clambering down a well in Forest of Doom, like Ed Hillary said, "because it was there" - but in a city, the strangeness of this behaviour becomes truly stark. Here's a passage for example:

Most of the houses in the street are joined in a long terrace, but you see one on the left that stands alone and is set back. There appears to be a large wooden kennel outside the heavy oak front door. If you wish to approach the front door, turn to 64. If you wish to keep walking north, turn to 304.

So what's going on in the protagonist's mind here? "Man! All these joined-up houses. This street is boring.  Wait a second! That house stands alone! And it's set back! And there's a kennel, so I'll maybe get attacked by a DOG! I think this could be the house where I find Nicodemus!" - but seriously, why this house and not any of the others? I have decided to call this syndrome  "Bizarre Search Behaviour" (BSB) and I very much suspect I will be applying this term again in discussion of future books.

Regardless of which streets you choose to walk down and whether you perform indiscriminate home invasions along the way, the book eventually herds you to Nicodemus, who is living in a wooden hut, under a bridge, next to stinking, polluted river, with the words "KEEP OUT" painted on the front door (hardly auspicious). Nicodemus answers the door despite his apparent misanthropy, and although he says he lives "here under Singing Bridge in Port Blacksand to escape pleas for aid from people fallen on hard times", he still has love for his boy Owen Caraliff and agrees to help. (Quite what qualifies as "falling on hard times" in Nicodemus' opinion is unclear, given his own circumstances). Nicodemus doesn't much fancy going toe-to-boney-toe with Zanbar personally, so instead he explains to you how to kill Zanbar Bone yourself, illustrating the key points with his pipe smoke "in case you're a visual learner".

Nicodemus - "BLAZIN' THA CROP"

How to kill Zanbar Bone
Nicodemus, Wizard

1) Six to twelve hours before you kill Zanbar Bone, take a mortar and pestle and grind the following ingredients into a fine paste that can be stirred without clumping:
  • Black pearl
  • Lotus flower
  • Hair of a HAG
Keep aside in a sealed container.

2) Next, shoot Zanbar Bone in the heart with a silver arrow. This will paralyse him temporarily.

3) Once Zanbar Bone is adequately paralysed, take the paste you prepared earlier and rub it into his eyes, enough to cover each eye to about the depth of the first knuckle of your index finger.

4) You will definitely notice results within a few seconds.  If Zanbar Bone does not rapidly decompose into a small pile of dust, repeat steps 1-3 above.

Pro tips

  • Don't let Zanbar Bone touch you! You'll die.
  • Normal weapons do not harm Zanbar Bone!
  • Zanbar Bone has an entrancing stare! To ensure best results, you should not attempt to kill Zanbar Bone without first tattooing  a white unicorn in a yellow sun upon your forehead.

Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaand that last point is a definite "WAIT, WHAT" moment for me. You have to realize that by the end of Nicodemus' monologue, your half-day mission for 30 GP and a fancy sword has gone from:



Find Nicodemus. Then go hunt down a bunch of weird/expensive crap from various dangerous places. Attack a skeleton wizard and his allies on his home turf. Make a perfect shot to the heart with only once chance, against a guy who can kill you with a tap on the shoulder... and then walk around for the rest of your life with a fucking unicorn tattooed on your forehead. ONLY YOU CAN DO IT.

I should also mention that if you get far enough in the book (I didn't), Nicodemus will send you a note saying that he fucked up and you're only meant to use two of the three aforementioned ingredients to make Zanbar's eye-drops, and he can't remember which two. Meaning you have to guess. So take everything I just said about the mission and then add a random 2-out-of-3 chance of failure at the very last moment. In game design circles I believe this is called "a Dick Move".

Needless to say, if I had the option at this point I'd be going straight back to Silverton to re-negotiate the fine points of my deal with Mayor Lumpy, or more likely just slide some adoption pamphlets under his door and slink out of town. But since I'm a "hero", I persevere with this lunacy. Nicodemus off-handedly mentions that you can get all the ingredients you need in Port Blacksand "if you search hard enough [read: bizarrely enough]" which segues us nicely into the second part of the adventure, a scavenger hunt around Port Blacksand.

I was actually able to find all three of the black pearls, lotus flower and HAG's hair, but only because I vaguely remembered where to look from playing the game as a child. Bizarre Search Behaviour reaches a new high when you sneak onto a pirate ship at the docks and steal black pearls from the neck pouch of a sleeping sea dog. And then this apogee of BSB is massively exceeded about a street and a half later:

In the middle of the street you see a large manhole cover. If you wish to lift the manhole cover to see where it leads to, turn to 48. If you wish to keep walking walking east, turn to 205.

I just love the impulses that cross this guy's mind. If you go down the manhole, "you realise, much to your disgust, that you are standing in a sewer" (and what did you expect?). It's also the only sewer I'm aware of where someone is paid to go around mounting flaming brands on the walls for light, but anyway that's where you gotta go if you want to kill a HAG and chop her hair off.

Monsters and Combat

While Port Blacksand is quite an interesting setting the monsters you encounter are mainly the same stock models, GOBLINS, GIANT RATS and the such like, with fairly vanilla combat situations. The fight with the HAG is worth mentioning since she will cast an illusion on you so that you "think you are being burned alive with a crowd of skeletal faces looking on gleefully" which made me want to count SKELETONS but I don't know how many a "crowd" is or whether illusionary SKELETONS even qualify.

Probably the most intriguing monsters you face are the LEAF BEASTS who defend the Lotus Flower, which incidentally is the only anti-Zanbar ingredient that you'll find somewhere that a sane person would look for it - the public gardens.

What marvellously sculpted hedges! Why, they look like they could just leap right out and attack you!
Incidentally entry into the public gardens of Port Blacksand is via a gold coin donation in an honesty box (I know?!) - not exactly in keeping with the theme of the city, but the magically animated hedges that attempt to "crush and smother" you if you pick a flower are rather more in the spirit of the place.

While I'm on the topic of encounters I'd like to point out the single weirdest thing that can happen, should your Bizarre Search Behaviour lead you into a certain house on Candle Street...

You blunder in on two identical old ladies dressed in little girl's clothes arguing with knives over a wooden duck.
Probably my favourite thing in this or any book.

Okay maybe except for APE-DOG and DOG-APE.

Failure, And No More Christmas Cards From Mayor Owen Carralif

Your path through Port Blacksand will eventually lead to an unavoidable encounter with two TROLL guards which will result in either your death, or ejection from the city. I managed to not die, so, after being turfed out of the city I mentally ticked off the things I needed to kill Zanbar Bone and realized -- UH OH -- I forgot to get a unicorn tattooed on my face.

Regrets are funny things.
I suppose at this point you could ask someone to lend you a biro and a safety pin but unlike so many other lunatic notions, using his reflection in a puddle to work up a prison tattoo of a unicorn on his own face doesn't occur to the protagonist. So apparently you just walk back to Silverton and shrug your shoulders - and that's the end.

At least I survived.

The SKELETON report

At last!

City of Thieves actually presented me with a few theoretical challenges. First was the issue of whether to count Zanbar Bone, who is never actually referred to as a SKELETON in the text and while plainly constructed of human bones, has features such as eyeballs, scalp thorns and a Kermit ruff that are not considered typical features of SKELETONS generally. In the end I decided I would face all controversy and approbium, come what may, and include Zanbar in the count. His surname is "Bone", for fuck's sake.

The other three skeletons are these jokers, doing what they do best:

"The boys are back in town, the boys are back in town!"
If you make it to the boss-fight with Zanbar Bone he actually conjures them up by pulling out three of his teeth and throwing them on the floor, which for me raises the question of whether to count his other 29 teeth as SKELETONS in potentia. On reflection I thought this would look too much like I was juking the stats so I disregarded Zanbar's remaining teeth.

Finally, in the Background section, Mayor Owen describes Zanbar's two messengers as "skeletal" though apparently they are SPIRIT STALKERS. So I looked them up in my copy of Out of the Pit, the official Fighting Fantasy bestiary - it seems that while they are skinny, SPIRIT STALKERS still have some meat on them and are maybe more like ZOMBIE supermodels in appearance. So they don't count either.

Believe it or not I was given this as a wedding gift.
And check it out - there's your boy Zanbar Bone on the right side of the cover, standing on some other bloke's back. He's the Night Prince as I'm sure you know.

Final Thoughts

Judging from the number of Fighting Fantasy books released in 1983, Ian Livingstone must've written City of Thieves within a few weeks of Forest of Doom and yet, it is a far better book. I have very little hesitation in saying it's my favourite so far - apart from the urban setting, all the constant tricks and thievery create a compelling atmosphere of mistrust. It also features some of the best interior artwork of the early books.

It's pretty clear that the structure of the book is unfair but that's more or less par for the course and it's probably still easier than Starship. I suppose my main gripe is once again the random searching - this would actually be pretty easy to fix. Nicodemus could drop a few hints about where to look for the ingredients which would make it seem less insane to clamber into a sewer for no apparent reason - wouldn't have to give too much away, something about HAGS avoiding the daylight or whatever. Could even throw a roundabout red herring by suggesting that the player search taverns for the black pearls, "where sailors have been known to lose them at games of chance" - despite being a misdirection this would still make your solo raid on the pirate ship more understandable. JUST A THOUGHT IF YOU EVER DECIDE TO REWRITE A BOOK FROM THIRTY YEARS AGO TO INCORPORATE SUGGESTIONS FROM THE INTERNET, IAN.

Anyway thanks for reading (if you've made it this far) - I'll see if I can get through the next one a bit faster eh...


  1. Awesome read! Looking forward to your post on Deathtrap Dungeon...



  2. thanks for the encouragement

    "Deathtrap Dungeon" might be comparatively short because I died very quickly. Would you believe it, got caught in a deathtrap!

  3. These are extremely funny write-ups.

    Following your blog has prompted me to work my own way through the FF books, in order, no fudging, no fingers in the pages for quick take-backs of deadly decisions. I'm not producing anything nearly as funny on my own blog, but I do plan to list the fates of all my adventurers. Death by 1000 (well, about 60) books?