Tuesday, October 30, 2012

#12 - "Space Assassin", by Andrew Chapman (1985)

Back in spaaaaaace! "Space Assassin" tells you everything you need to know right there in the title, which is a quality I very much admire about this book and the Fighting Fantasy series taken as a whole. It's even better when the cover literally depicts what the title describes as well. Scorpion Swamp, for instance, was a disappointment in that the cover failed to show one or more scorpions in a swamp, regardless of the fact the book was simply teeming with scorpions. These aren't books for adults - not real, grown-up ones - and ambiguity is intolerable. You cannot name a Fighting Fantasy book something like "Glimpses of the Nearest Tide: A Novel" and have the cover be e.g. a fountain pen lying next to a rose, or a silhouette of a guy experiencing loneliness, or a double-exposure of some tree branches and a fox's face, or whatever the fuck else they put on the front of dumbass proper literature that people respect, no! That will not play. This is not literature - the cover and the title need to tell you a lot, almost everything, so much that you can just about  throw the book away at once. And it needs to pop.

(I challenge serious literature to try this approach, by the way - e.g. I want to see an edition of Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian retitled as "Bad Cowboys", with depicted on the cover, some bad cowboys throwing donkeys off the side of a mountain. And sorry if that was a spoiler for anyone who hasn't read it.)

Now this is a pretty cool cover and no-one will disagree that it definitely pops but I think it is only showing a couple of Space Mallcops instead of a Space Assassin so I guess that's a 1 out of 2, which is just 50%. My favourite thing about this picture though is that the mallcops have a game of some kind of space football up on the big screens, having worked in similar environments in the past I can tell you this is exactly what really happens. They are supposed to be watching out for intruders at the T-junction but they have the footie on instead. If you examine the image closely you can see that the football is all spikey which probably means this future is pretty dystopian, maaaaan.

This book was written by an Australian, Andrew Chapman, interestingly he wrote the first draft after reading Warlock and after a few years in publication limbo it was picked up for the Fighting Fantasy series, though that was not his original intention. The book was born from the fertile desperation that only working a soul-crushing public service job can bring - he relates it all over at his blog.


So yeah, Andrew wrote the earlier drafts of this book after reading his little brother's copy of Warlock, before any other books in the series had been published. Interestingly, he hit upon a similar premise and structure as the second book in the series, Citadel of Chaos, still yet to published. Presumably this is a natural place for your mind to go as you sit on a treasure chest, wiping snotty tears from your chin - why couldn't this just be about killing the Warlock? So this is basically another case of get in the castle, murder the wizard, only it's in spaaaaaaaaace, and therefore rather than a buff sorcerer your target for space assassination is "Cyrus, the tyrannical ruling scientist of Od (your local sector)".

I just whipped him up a business card right quick at like bidnizcardz.com or wherever.

He has been causing bad trouble all up in your planet by various methods that lean pretty heavily on robots and "evil creatures almost certainly of mutant origin", henceforth referred to only as "mutants".  Kidnapping citizens for experimental surgery is, we are told, his "most usual crime".

This is just a thing that most everyone has resigned themselves to, but then word reaches the unspecified bigwigs of your nameless planet that his next crime will be at the less usual end of the spectrum: "he intends to use your entire world for one gruesome biological experiment in which he will cover the surface of the planet in radioactive isotopes while showering deadly viruses on all living creatures".

Let me say that as an experimental method this is unforgivably imprecise - I don't know what conclusions Dr. Cyrus believes he will be able to draw from this. Anyway the folks in charge decide that the best way to head this off is to have Cyrus assassinated, which is where YOU come in, in your capacity as a Space Assassin. 

So! While we don't know much about your home planet we can conclude it's the sort of backwater where this type of experiment can go ahead without anyone beyond the resident yokels being overmuch concerned - this is reinforced by the fact that the "planetary Assassin's Guild" is a rinky-dink outfit that provides the sole hope for the planet's survival with 1d6 credits and tells him to make sure he stays in budget and, for fuck's sake, hang on to the goddamn receipts.

Rolling Up My Dude

SKILL - 10
LUCK - 7

Okay rolls. Because we're in a high-tech yet dystopian future there are some more attributes to determine (and you get "pep pills" to restore your STAMINA instead of my beloved PROVISIONS).

ARMOUR comes into play during firefights, if you get hit you roll two dice vs. ARMOUR and if you roll lower than your armour, the damage is prevented. ARMOUR is like LUCK in that it decreases by one point any time you Test it.


A lowish roll, but hey, you only need armour if you gonna get hit right? I resolved not to get hit. Next up I needed to determine my equipment. You get 1d6 space credits to invest in weapons and other equipment. You can buy extra points of armour and neato gravity bombs and assault blasters and whatnot.


...however if you roll a snake's wink like Yours Truly all you can afford is the electric lash, described as - "a small hand-gun which projects an electric pulse"

Pew! Pew!

There's a few explanations I can imagine that would justify this randomly crappy budget in story terms:
1) The electric lash is the best technology available in your shitty backwater planet.
2) No-one in charge really believes the rumours about Cyrus' evil science experiment but they hired a local night-club bouncer just to appease the paranoid fringe within the electorate. "Quick mate put on this here Space Assassin armour" they hiss as you are hastily stripped of your yellowing wife-beater. The cardboard box labelled "REAL Space Assassin Armour!" is hastily kicked under a desk.
3) Planet Dumb-Dumb is more or less okay with the radioactive virus shower thing.

"Caint harm us none mo then sixty gennerations of inbreedin', right bro?"
"Thess right, bro."

Actually on reflection, none of these theories exclude each other, so I have chosen to believe all of them.

The Adventure

Okay so what you got here is not a morbidly obese ghetto blaster but in fact the mighty starship Vandervecken:

Aye, she looks a fat turd of a shippe, but she cuts through spaaaaaace like a razor!
YOU, the Space Assassin, start your quest by canvassing "the local star systems" in search of your quarry, eventually catching up with this shambling bubo of a craft in "a relatively isolated system" (does nobody ever name anywhere in this damn galaxy?) That all happens in a sentence shorter than the preceding one. You notice that the Vandervecken is taking on supplies so you stow away on the supply shuttle, and, nearing the mother ship, sneak out the back and EVA your way over to a non-descript iris airlock in the Vandervecken's hull.

You find yourself on the wrong side of an impassable security door with maintenance hatches to the right and left (T-junction alert!). Both are labelled "CAUTION". Better funded space assassins can try blowing up the door with a gravity bomb, but not I. You also have the option to sift through "a small pile of what seems to be organic refuse".

Inviting, I thought to myself, but I don't wanna go back to punching drunk space-bikies at the roadhouse - this is my big chance to make good as a Spaaaaaace Assassin. I gotta be 100% focused on the mission. Reluctantly, I turned aside from the pile of shit on the floor,  and popped open the right-hand maintenance hatch.

Clambering down the maintenance shaft you stop and listen at the hatches you pass, which is an under-utilised idea in the series - adding a bit of flavour to the direction-choosing is always a good idea. I bypassed the first side-hatch which had a creepy gurgling noise audible from the other side, but took the second one which was quiet but "rather warm". Hope this doesn't lead to some elaborate and needlessly dangerous apparatus for venting waste gases, I thought. They're kind of a big deal in dystopian futures. But I needn't have feared, the hatch just lead to moderately warm room, from where I could spy upon some space aliens - two Fossniks, disarmingly described as follows:

Seated, reading from electronic resource sheets, are two rodent-like Fossniks, their white lab coats and tiny pince-nez betray them as being technical types.

Here's what they look like after you kill them.
The book also calls them "hench-beings" which is an adorable noun. You don't have to murder them though, you have the option also of buggering off or "threatening" them which is what I decided to do. I jumped out and waved my teensy electric lash around, they were like "what is that, keep your hand still" and then they were like "woah hang on it's a electric lash!" and then they dropped to their knees and begged for mercy.

"Where's Cyrus!" I barked.
"I dunno, man, sorry man!" pleaded one Fossnik, "we only work in this one lab, he could be anywhere on the ship though."
"Yeah have you seen the size of this fukken place," said the second, "there's one room wit' a whole dang old forest in it and there's a lost tribe in it and giant scorpions flyin' around in it."
"Oh yeah and they got that canyon with the lake with all the Loch Ness monsters and whatnot," Fossnik #1 chimed in enthusiastically.
"What?! What?!" I bellowed, forgetting the need for stealth in my confusion.
"It's a science experiment!", they said, nodding gleefully. "Dr. Cyrus has a very inquisitive mind".
"He basically never comes to see us though," said the first, remorsefully, "I've been waiting three months to report that we completed our assigned tasks and scientifically determined that when you stab a dog in the liver, it dies."
"Well, usually," said the second. "It's statistically significant anyway."
"Shut up!" I howled, hoping very much that I sounded like someone who needs to be taken seriously.

Then I forced them to strip and tied them up. HOLD ON A MINUTE WHAT DID I JUST DO. No, there it is in the book - "You force them to strip and tie them up." - the option said I could threaten the funny rat-men, now I got them stripping at (admittedly tiny) gunpoint? I am uncomfortable with treating the rat-men in this degrading way, it is not what I had in mind at all! Yet here my Space Assassin is, wishing there were more Fossnicks to "threaten" so he could stack them in a Abu Ghraib style pyramid of hench-beings.

This moment serves to illustrate a basic issue of agency in Fighting Fantasy, YOU are not in fact the hero, YOU are just one tiny Eddie Murphy inside the hero's giant Eddie Murphy head, tipping his impulses one way or t'other at certain opportune moments, but otherwise just along for the ride, one tiny Eddie Murphy among so many others. It is a matter than I have given some philosophical consideration.

This giant Eddie Murphy head car is being driven by Eddie Murphy, whose own head is in turn full of tiny Eddie Murphies each representing one of his foibles, quirks and desires.
And that's how you end up with two nude, terrified rat-men quivering on the floor before you.

Anyway. "While they are stripping", you notice that they each have an electronic key-card around their neck so you pilfer one of those and swipe yourself through to the next corridor, leaving the disgraced and violated Fossnicks to recover from their trauma as best they may. I elected to duck into a cafeteria along the way - "once again everything is decorated in an alien style designed to make human behaviour difficult" - how lamentably chauvinist! I'm sure the decor is in fact designed to make alien behaviour extremely comfortable and easy - update your perspective, buddy, you are like a cat complaining that the car windscreen doesn't have a cat-flap. Anyway the protagonist follows up this unreconstructed blunder by mouthing off to himself about the stinky foreign muck that those aliens eat before happily stumbling upon some muesli bars. And of course they have those miraculous healing powers beloved of ill-fated heroes everywhere, result! Next time someone burns a hole through my torso with a high-powered laser I shall remember to gnaw on them bad boys.

Exiting the break room, I continued down the corridor.

Failure, and Death

So, the method by which I died.... is pretty crazy. Let me tell you about it.

At the end of the corridor is a T-junction and standing there is a GUARD ROBOT "with a pair of electric lashes protruding from its chest" like murderous little zappy nipples. You have an option to "bluff the robot".

"What's up," said the ROBOT.
"Say, ah, I'm, ah, inspecting IDs," said I. "You a robot though, you don't need no ID. I'm a let you just cool out for now. Okay seeya."
"Hold up my mans," that crafty ROBOT interrupted, "let me get at the base, they might coulda forgot and tell me about clearance for inbred-looking-ass hayseed mah'fukking denim-overalls-havin' ID inspectors creepin' up on my T-junction with they dick-fronts poking out they flyyyyyyyyyyyy... oversight like stands to be noted, you would agree."
"Well sure if you wanna waste they time you go right on aheed," I said sounding super pissy and not really nervous, (cos' I was pretty much nailing this bluff).
A long pause, punctuated only by the screech of a 14.4k modem negotiating a connection.
"This ID thing is a problem though," I volunteered, "lotta the aliens gettin' sloppy with they IDs, got 'em all dog-eared and what-not. Even some of the proper folks, too. Dirty thumbprints on the face part of the ID and that. Photo peeling up at the corner and what have you. HQ is havin' a fit, man, they pissed. Sent me down to bust some heads, tell y'all to get right with your IDs, straighten out them shits, yew know."
Another pause.

The ROBOT opened fire and zapped one point of my armour off.

There's no illustration of the crappy shooty-nippled robot that I fought, so here's a sick drawing of a way cooler robot from some much cooler part of the starship. 
It is a kind of a main theme of this book actually, that ROBOTS are not easily bluffed. It's something Andrew Chapman wants his readers to "take home" from the experience, as they say. Reader beware! You cannot take these ROBOTS for the okey-doke. So this shrewd little guy got the drop on me and for what felt like hours we traded needle-thin rays of lukewarm electrical energy until, suffering an ultimate reverse in its moment of triumph, the GUARD ROBOT collapsed in a pachinko-like clatter.

So whut wuz thet somnbitch guardin' anyhoo, my character thought. Set into the floor beneath its smouldering wreck was a safe with a three button combination lock - red button, blue button, green button. Now, I know a little bit about security because I used to live in a building where any attentive intruder could figure out the door code because microbes from a hundred greasy fingertips had grown into ring-shaped colonies around the only numbers on the keypad that ever got pressed. So I know that a safe with a three button lock is pretty fukken easy to crack. I felt pretty suspicious about this safe, and I kind of wanted to leave it alone - the protagonist however, is enraptured the moment he notices the shiny buttons, and he simple must press them, even as I, tiny Eddie Murphy (i.e. the reader), pound my fists ineffectually against the inside curve of his cranium. If you know about the safe there is no option but to meddle with it.

Red button.
Oh, that was okay! Alright how about the blue butto--

As you depress the button, your world falls apart in a soundless explosion - you never see what the safe had hidden. You have failed. 

If an idiot dies in an explosion, and his ears are the first things that blow up, did it really make a sound?
Apparently not.

Notable Encounters

Actually no, pardon me but I'm going to talk a bit more about how I died though.

Alright, so:

  • There is a safe set in the floor operated by three buttons.
  • Pressing them in the wrong order blows up the safe.
  • The safe actually only contains the bomb that blows it up (confirmed by cheating - if you guess the combo you can waltz off with the bomb and use it to blow up a door or a baddy or something)
  • The safe is set into the floor in the middle of a goddamn corridor where any little rat-scientist or whatever can step on the buttons while rushing towards the superbly ergonomic dining area.
  • This is in a spaceship that's in space, by the way. 
So I think the GUARD ROBOT was mainly there to prevent people from stepping on the trap buttons on the floor and blowing themselves up and potentially breaching the ship's hull? WHAT KIND OF FUKKEN SPACESHIP ARE YOU RUNNING, CYRUS-THE-SCIENTUSS.

Okay, then:

Notable Encounters

I didn't get very far but there is a great jumble of fun stuff in this book. The massive on-ship wilderness zone I referred to in the dialogue with the Fossnicks is really in the book and all of the stuff mentioned in said dialogue is also really in the book:

From left to right - towering cliffs (note also the lake full of Nessies), tribe of lozenge-shaped Stone Age aliens, flying scorpion soaring over plains that stretch to the horizon - all aboard ship. NOT. EVEN. JOKING. 
Maybe it's a holodeck or something, I dunno, I didn't get that far. This barely scratches the surface of weirdo encounters on the Vandervecken though. The author seems to have had a fun time dreaming them up, and there's a distinct tongue-in-cheek absurdity to many encounters that is so patently deliberate and knowing that it rather cocks up the usual blend of genuine fondness and mean-spirited literalism in which I normally discuss these things - because Andrew Chapman is very much in on the joke

Another of Dr. Cyrus' experiments (possibly the control condition for the planetary radiation/virus bombardment)
My favourite moment of deliberate humour in Space Assassin - that I've noticed while skimming at least - comes during another attempt to bluff another GUARD ROBOT. You have the option of talking, attacking, or trying to sneak past - talking nets the following:

'I say...' you say, to attract its attention. Before you can finish however, the robot spins, aims and fires - the blast smashes into the tunnel behind you and showers the area with molten metal. You will have to fight it. Turn to 228

Having our Space Assassin launch his bad idea for a conversation with the stereotypically upper crust "I say!" is a stroke of comedic genius, it cracked me up.


And reprising his award-winning role from Starship Traveller, here we have the "No Skeletons, Dummy, It's Sci-Fi" SKELETON:

I don't think there will ever be any SKELETONS in any of the science-fiction books. Maybe for the sci-fi books I should try counting laser swords instead or something instead, I dunno. Jury's out on that one.

Final Thoughts

I think I like this book, from as much as I've read of it at least. Andrew Chapman brings a comedic and slightly lunatic tone to the book that is amusing without throwing things outside the narrative world, if that makes sense.

The prose is pretty good and quite evocative...  except when suddenly it isn't, occasionally lapsing into inexcusable briskness. I'm gonna go ahead and call it for the whole series right now - Space Assassin has to the flattest, most unrewarding, paragraph 400 in all of Fighting Fantasy, perhaps even in all of numbered-paragraph literature:

You drag the unconscious Cyrus from the Waldo. Your mission is a complete success. Congratulations.

Andrew Chapman has gone on the record as apologising "now and forever" for this ending, which I feel is completely appropriate and should probably also be followed up with a small compensatory payment to all readers. It's odd to consider that it was also he who penned my favourite paragraph 400, which is at the end of book 16, Seas of Blood - but we'll get to that in about eight months.

I actually reeled backwards in my chair  when I opened this page as the memories of a cascade of recurring childhood nightmares starring this loathsome hench-being flooded back to me. 

Monday, August 27, 2012

Oh shit!

Ian Livingstone just hit me and his other 6,008 followers up on Twitter to mention that it is the exact 30th anniversary of Fighting Fantasy 4 minutes ago.

Well it is just about the 30th anniversary of the most recent post on this blogg too and I suppose I ought to have got it together to do my next post for the anniversary but I am like a thoughtless husband to Ian Livingstone and Steve Jackson (UK) and I forgot all about it, I'm basically pulling a cuppla daisies out the lawn and pretending its a bouquet (i.e. in the metaphor this refers to the current stream-of-consciousness post whereas a completed write-up of Space Assassin would be a fine bouquet full of roses and avoiding lilies and other plants that speak ill in the "language of flowers")

Chunks of prose are scattered about on Google's servers somewhere waiting for me stick 'em together - suppose I better put some time into that then! To tide over the most avid among you here's a scan of a bookmark that fell out of a well-thumbed copy of Star Strider, I think it's Zanbar Bone fan fiction.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

#11 - "Talisman of Death", by Jamie Thomson and Mark Smith (1984)

Death popped a wheelie on his horse and then did a mean jump in the air. Fire was shooting out of the horse's back feet and then some lightning zapped down. It was pretty close to Death but he didn't even care. He had a magic crystal ball that if anyone looked into it they would see their own skull, and he held it out in case anyone was looking. Just then, smoke come out the horse's nose and Death lifted up his sword-stick and he yelled "U GUNNA DIE" at everyone. That's when everyone knew that it was time, time for:


Thank you, thank you. Talisman is the second book in the series to be written by someone other than Ian/Steve, and happily we've gotten past that thing where the author is allowed to be another guy but only if he's still called Steve Jackson. Behind the typewriter this time we have a couple of knuckleheads called Jamie and Mark and they do a splendid job, shoulder-to-shoulder at the typewriter there. As I understand it, these fellows were employees of Games Workshop, and one day Ian pulled them out of the meeting room where they were composing crossword clues for White Dwarf magazine and said, "you're writing a game-book now, this is more important". And so they got to it.

You probably already picked up on this, but Talisman of Death is not a fish-out-of-water comedy in which Death is transported to modern-day New York City and is forced to make the best of it. There are no bemused interactions with wiley taxi drivers who have seen it all before, no hot-dog vendors hollering, "Say pal, ain't you Death? Hey errybody, we got Death ovah heyah!" - there are no misunderstandings that result in someone telling Death to "get a room". There is nothing of the sort!  We are back in the genre of high fantasy, sword and actual sorcery. However, our new authors brought with them a new setting, the world of Orb rather than the now-familiar land of Allansia that Ian Livingstone has been stitching together over the course of half a dozen books. It's the same kind of place, but it has its own feel.


For instance, Orb has gods. Maybe Allansia also has gods - if so, we have heard little from them. In Talisman, though, gods play a big role from the get-go. They are basically the assholes who get you into this mess. The protagonist wakes up lying on a green couch, which with suspicious rapidity he deduces is in the uppermost tower of a great white castle that hovers suspended in an "ocean blue canopy of a sky in which there is no sun", rather than e.g. some girl's apartment. (I liked the author's poetical description of the place but I'd have had the protagonist wander around a while looking for somewhere to piss before revealing all this stuff). Our hero gapes in bafflement at his surrounds and his Robin Hood type clothes, then realises to his amazement that he has a sword and can use it with skill and power (well, fairly limited skill and power if you happen to roll a 1 actually). Yes, it turns out I psyched everyone out one paragraph ago because this is a fish-out-of-water comedy after all, but the water is the normal world! And the fish? The fish is YOU! A talking song-bird succinctly explains that you have been transported from Earth to Orb to act as "the Champion of Fate", because "you are more likely to succeed than any other on Earth".

More likely than this guy, though?

Let me say at this point, I usually despise this plot device in fantasy. Average guy gets plucked from our mundane sphere to save some fantasy land in the moment of its direst peril? Pah! I've been known to throw a book out the window in disgust. In this case, though, it proves tolerable, as our hero just thinks "oh hey, i can sword-fight now" and then gets on with it. There are none of the usual tiresome doubts, no staggering about clutching one's head hollering "OH, IS IT REAL", no Mary Sue nonsense whereby some banal real-world trait such as, say, mild proficiency in Excel '97, somehow transfers to a unique power or some incredible aptitude in magic. He doesn't teach anyone English slang, nor how to skateboard, nor what French kissing is. So: allowable. You can forget about the protagonist's earthly origins for most of the book, which is just as I like it.

The bird leads you to a large circular room, the floor of which forms a great map of Orb. Waiting within are the two gods who have shanghaied you - they don't trouble to introduce themselves, but later it becomes apparent that they are Fate and Time (many of Orb's gods seem to be named quite prosaically). Time, who has the disconcerting habit of continually transforming from a baby into an old man and back, sells you some rubbish about cosmic balance and impending chaos and then begs off that it's not his job to fix it, you gotta do it. He doesn't tell you what you actually need to do though, and then he heavily implies that he already knows whether you'll succeed or not, but refuses to say any more. In short, you're given a bunch of "mysterious ways" clap-trap that ought to make any right-thinking mortal resentful. Fate - who is an eyeless woman in a Hypercolor robe -  then chimes in to say that you'd better not fail in the task which they haven't bothered to specify, while stroking your cheek inappropriately. As managers and motivators, clearly these guys suck.

Before you can voice any objections, you have a Wile E. Coyote moment as you realise the map on the floor beneath you is in fact a satellite's view of the actual land below, and you tumble down towards a great rift in the earth.

As the world of Orb rises up to engulf you, the awesomeness of what is happening overwhelms you and you lose consciousness.

Rolling Up My Dude

LUCK - 8

I know envious minds out there have been just waiting for me to roll SKILL 7. After all, my average SKILL for the first 10 books has been a hefty 10.7 - or, if you exclude the crew of Starship Traveller - an astonishing 11.2222222222222 recurring. That is to say, I've been a tinny bastard, and I don't doubt many a reader has been awaiting my comeuppance. Today, it seems, is the day.

Talisman sees the welcome return of 10 x PROVISIONS - I was dismayed in House when even a tasty meal of roast duck didn't restore so much as a single STAMINA.

It's just empty calories.
You also have some kind of light source, though it's not clear what exactly. On page 7 you are told that you have "fire flares to combat the dark terrors of Orb". Great! That sounds cool. Shame it's never mentioned again. And the writer of page 7 was apparently not in communication with page 15's author, who informs us that:

To explore the network of caves and tunnels and to combat the terrors of the night, you are also equipped with five torches. To light them you have flint and tinder - guard them with your life!

Both these guys were in the doghouse with the team that wrote the rest of the book, since you don't ever explore a network of caves and tunnels and no opportunity to use torches, flint and tinder, nor the intriguing "fire flares", is ever given.

The Adventure

You awaken from your awesomeness-induced coma in a great underground vault, the howls of some unseen throng echoing around you, and getting louder. You can attempt to scarper or stand there staring at your hands like a numptie, either way you will quickly and inevitably encounter this merry crew.
An honest-to-goodness party of adventurers!
This is a well balanced party, we got a tank, a shooty lady, a cleric for heals, and a gentleman who found a mumu and one of those racist rubber masks they sell in Japanese novelty stores - ohwaitthat'saWIZARD. (The cheap and shoddy joke that preceded this sentence was brought to you by my childhood vexation that the WIZARD was not wearing a pointy hat and lacked stars upon his robe. And for some reason, the Wizard somehow seems to be one of those drawings where the artist accidentally draws three arms, even though he really has just the two. Am I going to shut up about the funny-looking Wizard? Let's find out).

This lot are presently fleeing from the terrors of the underworld but they're so bemused to find you wandering around like someone lost in an airport that they stop in their tracks. "Who are you and what are you doing here in the Rift, the spawning place of all evil?", asks the Shieldmaiden. Oh, the spawning place of all evil, is it? Yeah, nice one, "Fate". Nice one, "Time". Cheers. Thanks for the ride, fuckers.

In a nod to their boss, Jamie and Mark give you the option to attack the Shieldmaiden upon the instant, however I decided to just 'fess up that I was from another world. "I guess that might sound exotic," I said, "but it's just Earth".
 "It is the truth, and spoken from a true heart", says the Cleric after zapping me with Detect Bullshit.
"Word up", quoth I.

The intrepid party finds themselves in a bind as they have no means to escape the dungeon - yes let's call it a dungeon - except for the Wizard's last Teleport spell, which can only transport a single person.
"Have you considered barricading yourself in a room and lying down for 8 hours?" I ask.
"Why ever would we do that?" says the Paladin.
I only shrug. The Cleric then launches into all the exposition which the gods Fate and Time neglected (which is very much the purpose of priests I suppose). He explains that the party of four are the last survivors of an expedition into the Rift to snatch up the Talisman of Death, a ruby skull medallion made by followers of the god Death, which, "when the time is right", allows Death to physically enter the world of Orb and terminate all life, forever (I believe that is the exact moment depicted on the cover).

With a remarkable lack of consultation the party all agree that their best bet is to hand the Talisman over to me and teleport me out of the dungeon before they all die nobly in a doomed last stand. "[The Talisman] cannot be destroyed , but if you take it to your world, it will be beyond the reach of the claw of the Fleshless King." I note the assumption that I have any idea at all how to get back to Earth and keep my mouth shut. He hands me ten bucks and suggests heading west to the city of learning, Greyguilds-on-the-Moor. Finally, a hundred DARK ELVES and CAVE TROLLS enter stage left and the guy in the mask zaps me out of there.

So suddenly I'm outside the dungeon standing in the sunlight. "Huh, I guess he really was a Wizard", I think to myself. At this point I make the mistake of assuming that I have been teleported up from like Level 50 of the dungeon or something like that. I'm thinking that the Rift was the kind of dungeon where Level 1 is just mushrooms and kestrels and you spend days walking down stairs before seeing such as a CAVE TROLL.

The KESTREL is a ferocious bird that inhabits Level 1 of many dungeons.
So as I said, I'm assuming that I'm now about a vertical mile distant from the evil horde and decide to just walk westwards across open ground rather than moving under cover of the woods' edge. Unfortunately it seems I was only teleported a few hundred meters, because soon afterwards I notice two groups in pursuit, a rabble of about twenty ORCS and a similar number of DARK ELVES. The book gives options to approach either group, but no enticement to do anything so silly - both predictably result in death (in the case of the ORCS, you are bull-rushed into a chasm that the text only mentions at the very moment you bail into it - both you and the orcish captain unwittingly take a dive so I suppose it was an unprepossessing sort of chasm).

It ain't like the Grand Canyon or nothing.

But of course I know that I'm SKILL 7 and therefore I suck, so I just run and then keep running. Eventually the DARK ELVES and the ORCS converge and they have a brawl. "Trouble in paradise, dickheads?" I yell back at them as the the Elves zap up the Orcs with purple lightning and whatnot. Then I caper into "a verdant valley, deep in ferns".

Failure, and Death

What, already? Yes, already.

That verdant valley is deep in ferns and also semi-deep in water - I find a bubbling spring and decide to take a drink. I also resolve not to drink too fast in case I get stitch! I just did heaps of running. There isn't an option for this but I did think about it because I'm an amazing role-player.

I kneel at the waterside next to a willow tree and suddenly start feeling sleepy. I shake off the drowsiness with a successful Test Your Luck and look up to notice that the willow tree is glaring at me from its trunk with cartoony green eyes. It is in fact a WILLOW WEIRD, an angry tree that casts Sleep spells on people and then thrashes them to death with its branches. Even if you're still awake it will nevertheless have a go and thus I was cast into combat.


Regardless of the impressive STAMINA score you only have to hit the thing four times before it gives up - but I only managed two hits before spilling my innards across its roots like an amateur gardener.

Talisman has an unusual feature in that if you die at certain points, Time will wind himself backwards and resurrect you at an earlier point in the storyline. More specifically, as your ghost approaches the Valley of Death "an ethereal wind gets up and your soul is wafted away". Those two divine scoundrels give you 15 STAMINA points back and drop you off at a save-game checkpoint, such as the moment you leave Greyguilds-on-the-Moor (you need to make it through a couple of pretty tough combats to reach that point so having the option to skip them is rather nice). Plainly Jamie and Mark understood the frustration of replaying from scratch - of course there's a pre-existing, popular and highly successful solution to this problem: cheating. But it's nice to have the author's blessing for a change.

However! No such service is rendered if you get beaten to death by the first tree you meet - presumably Fate and Time just get on the phone to Van Damme's agent like they should've in the first place.

Fate. Time. I have a method for dealing with trees.

Notable Encounters

So, that's a shame eh? Particularly since this book has a lot of fun stuff in it. If you can get to Greyguilds-on-the-Moor, the Talisman of Death is nicked by a bunch of tough dames and you get to wander folornly around the city reflecting on how you screwed up and wondering why the adventure is still going. This passage of play has a heap of fun encounters, for instance, the VIVISECT:

She's a lady!
A scholar in Greyguilds called "Moreau" (that went over my head as a kid) offers you gold to have a play-fight with the VIVISECT, of course should the fateful moment come that you cry uncle, Moreau's tranquilizer fails to work and it turns into a death match. "Sorry!" says Moreau - it's just a silly fuckaround encounter that accompanies this splendid illustration.

Another superb beast is the GRENDEL - unfortunately not depicted - but expertly described in the searing prose which follows:

You wade carefully into the scum-covered pond (context - it's in a scum-covered pond) and hold your hand out to the old woman. There is a sudden churning in the water and slimy tentacles slither around your thighs. The old woman's head rears up at you, revealing a huge horny beak where her chest should have been, above a bloated body, sprouting six tentacles. You must fight the GRENDEL.

So the GRENDEL is a giant carnivorous pond squid that has somehow evolved an old lady's head to lure prey like an anglerfish - plainly it subsists on a diet of Boy Scouts and other do-gooders. Such improbable bio-mimicry is not unusual in fantasy roleplaying - nevertheless it never fails to galvanise my interest. GRENDEL fan-art is now being eagerly accepted!

But look though, there's just a bunch of good stuff. But what about this:

Okay so this is such a great encounter. You meet a TRICERATOPS, and you have to fight it for three rounds, and then a TYRANNOSAURUS shows up and attacks the TRICERATOPS. And so the two greatest "name" dinosaurs in all pre-history, Yin and Yang of the Cretaceous, the iconic herbivore and carnivore, clash like wild freight-trains together in the ultimate in mortal kombat! This is the image that all children have in mind when you say or repeatedly whisper the word: dinosaur. Plus usually there's a volcano in the background. Anyway you Test Your Luck and if you're unlucky the TYRANNOSAURUS beats the TRICERATOPS and you have to fight it as well. On the other hand if the TRICERATOPS wins it staggers off for a lie-down and you can proceed without further saurian harassment.

I should mention also that the lead-in to this fight is that you're flying around on the back of a GRIFFIN and a goddman PTERANODON knocks you off. I mean this is just wonderful stuff. And it all happens about twenty minutes walk outside of Greyguilds-on-the-Moor, a major fucking city by the way. These are the times that I look to the sky and yell: "I! Love! Fantaseeeeeeeeeeee!"

Digression - co-author Jamie Thomson is listed on Titannica as also having worked on an unpublished Fighting Fantasy called "DINOSAURS OF DEATH", for which on strength of the title alone I would trade all the tomes of Alexandria's lost Library.

Yes, so I am inspired to launch an official count of the number of times a TYRANNOSAURUS fights a TRICERATOPS in the Fighting Fantasy series. We now stand at:


If we make it to TWO, I'll be ecstatic.


First of all, there's Death, who might be trying to fake us out with his slippers and alligator tooth necklace, but don't trip, he's a SKELETON. He's only on the cover but that still counts. Then there's the ENVOY OF DEATH. Even after the Talisman is taken from you by worshippers of yet another god (I think she's called "Flowers" or something like that), minions of Death keep homing in and pestering you. The Envoy is one such, he has an glamour upon him that makes him seem to be a fine gentleman but when he wants to talk turkey he suddenly is a SKELETON.

"I am the envoy of Death; I have come for the Talisman" he says in a voice of doom.
Doom, though!
He does SKILL damage as well as STAMINA when he hits by the way. He's a tough hombre!

I like how the artist has used technique to draw the viewer's focus towards the SKELETONS.
Then there's these lads! I counted them as 4 since it was unclear if the fifth is merely a pile of inert bones or in fact a bona fide undead SKELETON who has fallen, Urkel-like, and cannot get up. In fact there are "4 + x" SKELETONS, where x is undetermined but is probably a lot - I left x out 'cos it screws up my stats. Let me explain - there's actually a Temple of Death in Greyguilds-on-the-Moor and like many urban churches you can wander in and take a look around, it's surprisingly mainstream. You may find yourself in a necromancer's parlour with  "walls of pale bamboo" and after you annoy the fellow by destroying his WINGED SKULL (not counted), he starts animating SKELETONS out of the walls, which are in fact fashioned from "the bones of [his] victims", which makes more sense than the Thai restaurant vibe you were picking up earlier. You are given no option but to scarper before his grim work is done, hence the final number of SKELETONS remains unknown to us, the reading public. 

Final Thoughts

Well I didn't get to play through much, but Talisman was one of the few FF books I owned as a kid and I played it a hundred times back then. Reviewing it today I feel it holds up well. The world of Orb feels much richer than Allansia - more authentic, if it makes sense to use that term in a high fantasy context? - and as it turns out, long before Talisman came along the authors had fleshed it out over the course of a long running Dungeons and Dragons campaign. So the setting feels lived in, and the characters and institutions of the world have a sense of depth behind them that surpasses their fleeting function in the game-book itself. Some of the characters were originally developed by players in the tabletop campaign that Mark Smith ran, others were no doubt well-worn NPCs. Some of them, notably the superbly annoying TYUTCHEV and CASSANDRA, were carried over another game-book project by the authors, the Way of the Tiger series (the protagonist is a ninja - so is there is NINJA vs. DINOSAUR action in these books??? I've never read them).

On the real tip, though: fuck these guys.
Glancing at the book for fairness, I see a couple of unavoidable SKILL 12 fights - somewhat mitigated by the availability of multiple SKILL boosting items. Of course it still says that your SKILL can never exceed your Initial score in the starting rules, but it also said that crap about fire flares, so probably just nobody bothered to edit it (though I play these books without cheating, I ignore that particular rule as a mistake). 

In conclusion, Talisman of Death is pretty good, and it sits at the top of my list so far, lounging there even, on a comfortably fat, mattress-like margin.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Still breathing!

What's up scallywags!

I thought I'd drop a note to say that I am back working on the blog again and maybe Talisman isn't too far off.

In the meantime I suggest having a gander here:
...which is somewhat like this blog, but with greater moral courage.


Friday, April 20, 2012


Hello friends,

I probably would've wrapped up Talisman of Death by now already because, spoiler alert: I rolled SKILL 7 and got my arse killed by a TREE (!) so I have piss all to write about.

However about three weeks ago I started work on a story and I'm not really allowing myself to write anything else until I complete it. I won't call it a hiatus since, well, there's more or less always a hiatus after every post. So actually this is just normal. I shouldn't comment on it - I'm going to come back and delete this later.

Anyway, the man Stuart Lloyd over at Lloyd of Gamebooks is doing a month of interviews that encompasses almost everybody who's ever poked three fingers into a copy of Warlock and metaphorically got one stuck - which includes Yours Truly. I have done my best to answer his questions with an honest heart. 

Thank you, as ever, for your attention and your patience.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

#10 - "House of Hell", by Steve Jackson (1984)

House of Hell, like Caverns, was first published as a shortened version in Warlock magazine - I have never in my life seen a copy of Warlock magazine, and I find myself greatly intrigued as to the content. Plainly it featured mini-adventures, and I also know of the bloodless bestiary entries that were later compiled into Out of the Pit - but that's not yet enough for a whole magazine. What else was in there? No doubt I'm wide of the mark, but I like to imagine it something like an activity book, with Fighting Fantasy themed word searches, colouring pages, letters to the editor requesting more barbarians with smaller loincloths, and so on.

Can you spot six differences in these two pictures?
So yeah, Warlock magazine - I have a slight notion to work up a fake issue, if I ever run out of books to write about - but given that these posts are being published at a rate slightly slower than the books themselves, I won't spend too much time dreaming up crossword clues today. House then. It's notable for being the only FF book set in today's Earth (well, 1984's Earth to be more precise). It's also notable in that I'd never played it before - it was never available at my local library, merely because, I suppose, it's a story about Satanism and human sacrifice intended for children (well, more young adults and hatchling nerds with tremendously advanced reading ages I suppose). I vividly remember reading a letter to the TV Guide in the late 1980s in which the correspondent complained that He-Man and the Masters of the Universe was teaching children that Hell's host could be defeated by swords and laser guns instead of the one and only infallible method - the direct intercession of Christ Jesus, LORD.

Has it really taken me two years to drop a reference to He-Man in this blog?
What kind of thirty-something man-baby am I?

What our correspondent would have made of House of Hell I can only speculate. Assuming they survived the initial paroxysms of outrage, they would've had to go out and find a magazine that was about books instead of TV so they could write a letter to it. Books Guide, I guess? The Book of Books? Books' Book? What a crazy idea! Let's forget it.  

Meanwhile it seems that the publishers of the U.S. release of House didn't want an fundamentalist book-burning backlash to generate huge free publicity and drive their sales up to record levels, so they re-titled the book as House of Hades, "Hades" of course being a ersatz underworld that the Ancient Greeks imagined contained the souls of those who, in life, had been poor conversationalists. Still a watered-down version of Hell, but it was a safe bet that the average book-burner wouldn't have heard of it.

Then, to make them seem even less threatening, they put all the Satanic cultists
in a
Citadel of Chaos style conga line on the staircase.


The set-up is pretty concise. You're driving your car down a back-woods lane through torrential rain at night, desperate to make "an appointment" somewhere the next day (this appointment is mentioned several times throughout the book but never specified - so let us say that you're getting your thighs lipo-suctioned by a disgraced, toothless old surgeon who lives in a shack). You end up lost on a side road after taking directions from a leering, white-haired old man - then suddenly you hit a pedestrian and swerve off the road! But where's the body?!?!? And then OMG you realise it was the same guy who gave you directions!?!?!?! You get really scared/confused. And later on he shows up again, this time hanging from a tree branch (but only if you happen to glance out of a particular window of the house).

What a day!
The only way this could be more thoroughly embedded in the well-worn ruts of horror cinema is if the old man had given you some kind of cryptic warning as well. Then your car won't start, naturally enough - you spy a light in the window of a creepy old house and decide to head up there to try to telephone a mechanic. Somewhat awkwardly, the book points out that you don't notice that there isn't a telephone wire running to the house - a fact that does not trouble you - because you didn't notice it - but probably would have if you did. You don't really get the impression that the place is of Hell/Hades straight away though.

Kind of a fixer-upper I suppose. The area looks better than it did on the cover mind you.
Not trying to be racist, but that green guy, with the horns? In MY neighborhood? 
So that's the Background in the book. But what about the background to the book? For the first time, and probably the last time, it is worth discussing the social context in which the book was written. Around 1984, the Western world was freshly launched into a long phase of mass hysteria surrounding Satanism and "Satanic ritual abuse" which, like the mullet, blasted all the way through into the early '90s. The McMartin investigation and trial was getting publicity and was no doubt observed with bemusement from across the Atlantic by Messrs Jackson and Livingstone in their own capacity as occultist role-playing warlocks.

Elfstar takes a prestige class.
The McMartin trial including allegations of flying molesters, hot air balloon rides and a subterranean dungeon beneath the pre-school (quite DnD, really). One of the children being interviewed implicated Chuck Norris, but somehow that didn't make it into the case for the prosecution. It was all based on now-discredited psychoanalytic techniques, dodgy interview practices, and old-fashioned sensationalist hysteria. In short, it was a disgraceful perversion of justice (with a coda here in NZ in the form of the Christchurch Civic Creche case, for which a man was sent down 7 years).

That's easy to say now, but at the time there were large sections of the population who genuinely believed that hidden cults were among us, their members would sneak out in the woods to sacrifice babies and such, telling their wives that it was poker night or whatever, and discreetly run their blood-stained cassocks through the washing machine in some private moment afterwards. If I recall correctly, I kind of believed this myself, or at least feared it. (Like many thoughtful children, I reached the conclusion that the Satanists were all in America and tentatively allowed myself to relax - after all, I had UFO abductions to worry about, and I had to stay focused).

Rolling Up My Dude

SKILL -12 (yay!)
LUCK - 7 (yah boo sucks)
FEAR - 8

FEAR is a new mechanic introduced to this game in order to measure how A-FEARED you are. It represents the maximum amount of spooky surprises your poor watering eyes can behold before you declare "ooh-er" and collapse to the floor with your plucky little blood-pump burst asunder. (Apparently this can really happen by the way - I checked).

Let's talk about that SKILL 12 though. That is perfection in combat. Being a law-abiding citizen of 1980s society I am probably unaware that I have natural fighting abilities equivalent to a PIT FRIEND (i.e. a Tyrannosaurus with gladiator training) - I have no idea that I am a festering boil of fluid violence merely waiting for the right crisis to erupt into action. For this reason, I have neglected to bring a broadsword with me, and must start with a -3 penalty to SKILL until I am able to arm myself.

Gimme a letter-opener and I'm a put this clown in the ground.

No PROVISIONS either, by the way - not so much as a stale muesli bar in the glove-box of my car.

The Adventure

You begin on the doorstep of the house, with separate options for knocking on the door vs. ringing the door-bell, or alternatively you can creep around the side of the house and peep through the window like a goddamn pervert. I used my incredible role-playing abilities to rule that last one out, since it only really makes sense if you already know you're going into a House of Hell and not just a normal house. Choosing between knocking on the door or ringing the bell makes no difference whatsoever (much as in life), you just get an extra paragraph to read. This is the first of many "non-choices" that crop up in the book, where you are given options that have no material impact on play. I have mixed feelings about them, they sometimes feel like craftily devised red herrings, and sometimes they add character, but looking at it cynically, they might well be there to bulk out the book-length version. As I recall, non-choices are found much more commonly in the inferior Choose Your Own Adventure series.

House of "Danger"? Oh really? How utterly timid.
And what is that, an exploding building with money flying out of it, even as alarmed MAN-APES
spill, in disarray, to the street? And all this great jumble being devoured by a giant Venus fly-trap? 
What am I supposed to just "suspend disbelief"?
So, regardless of your method of hailing those within, the butler will show up and lead you to a sitting room while he heads off to fetch the late Peter Cushing. There are three paintings in this room you can look at and of course they are all haunted. These haunted paintings are actually have pretty chilled out personalities though and will whisper useful advice to you even as their images gyrate uncannily before your tear-filled, disbelieving eyes. You still gotta add a FEAR point if you examine one though, what with the blasphemous warping of natural law and so on.

You are also given the option of searching for a telephone, despite the fact that the book already told you that you didn't notice that there was no wire running to the house. While it's true that I'm an amazingly skilled role-player, I couldn't just un-know that I hadn't noticed the lack of a wire, so how could I ever bring myself to search for a phone that I wasn't yet aware could never be there? Instead I dashed over the to exit in a sudden panic and got joy-buzzed by the door handle for 2 STAMINA damage. At last Peter Cushing showed up to interrupt my whimpering.

You CANNOT shake a man's hand while keeping your left hand in your pocket, Peter Cushing.
That's officially a Dudes' Mutiny right there.
The lord of the manor's dramatic entry is described thus: "The tall man you met earlier walks in, opening the door for another tall man dressed in a purple-smoking jacket." - okay not one of Steve's finest moments behind the typewriter there. He sits you down by the fire and drinks brandy with you while the butler goes off to cook up a mean feed. With only one tall man remaining in the room, you feel less confused. But somehow you blow your opportunity to ask about his electrified trap doorknobs and ghost paintings. He explains that their phone line is down (LIAR) and you are welcome to stay the night and get a lift into town in the morning. If a ghost painting hadn't already told me he was a baddie I would've probably said he's alright.

So, this first part of the book then becomes an elaborate battle of wits in which you are offered food and drink and must carefully select only those items which have not been poisoned. Your hosts are nefarious but also absurdly circumspect in that they have only poisoned a few particular foodstuffs. For example the white wine has been spiked with aspirin (?) that makes you pass out (???) whereas the red wine is just some real tasty wine. (The nice ghost lady in one of the paintings tipped me off regarding this). If you make it through the whole meal without being drugged you are given a bed for the night and actually just fall asleep anyway.  Unbelievably, a HUNCHBACK will then sneak into your room and optimistically leave yet another poisoned drink on your night-stand as you slumber. Shit, team - next time just get Jeeves to poison whatever I choose before he brings it into the room. Sorry, I mean "Franklins" (against all good judgment, the butler has not been named "Jeeves").

Even better, skip all the bullshit and just start wrestling me
The "boss battle" of the dinner scene is the dessert, where you are given the following options:
  • Fruit, coffee, and brandy?
  • Cheese, coffee, and brandy?
  • Just cheese and coffee?
I guess these are the exact choices that Franklins the Butler gives you? He gets mad if you say "just brandy". Anyway, clearly the choice is whether to avoid the brandy or avoid the cheese. I had some vague idea that cheese would be difficult to drug or poison - I mean, would you paint it on with a brush or what? - but clearly Steve Jackson did not share this intuition since I woke up in a bedroom with a headache and my wrists and ankles bound together.

On the other hand, if you somehow manage to consume both the white wine and the cheese you end will end up at the book's strangest ending, paragraph 172 (actually this is only possible if you raid a larder later in the book). I will quote it verbatim here, but I have altered the punctuation to give a sense as to how I would have an actor read this in my stage adaptation of House of Hell:

Caution... should have over-ruled, your appetite. 
FOR IN THE House of Drumer... cheese, and white wine... are-not-recommended...? 
...for the simple reason...? 
...that anyone who eats: CHEESE 

- or drinks...

...SHALL PAY, (the penalty).
???...they are poisoned...??? 


(This is right next to paragraph 171, another ending in which you are killed by a haunted bed. The competition was fairly stiff.)

Busting out of the bedroom was a simple matter of smashing the glass window to cut the ropes that bound me and then waltzing out the unlocked door. I found myself alone on the second storey landing - but what next?

Context was soon delivered by the apparition of a young woman in a ragged wedding dress. She appeared before me on the landing and, although kind of a hottie, her uncanny materialisation was sufficient to garner a FEAR point nevertheless.

A g-g-g-ghost!

Fortunately for my FEAR score, she didn't follow up by saying "woooooo" or "u gunna die" or anything like that, in fact her manner was more consistent with a stressed out supermarket worker who's finally managed to find her supervisor and report that somebody laid a turd in the cosmetics aisle and she can't find the emergency procedures manual (I've seen this happen).

'Oh thank God I have found you in time!' she says. 'I must talk to you immediately! Come, let us go into this room.'

She leads you into a well-appointed bedroom and demonstrates that when it comes to plot exposition, the dead can give the dying a run for their money. She explains that Peter Cushing is in fact a "Black Priest of the Night" and that she "would guess that you are to be sacrificed to the Demons of Hellfire". Without any pause to allow this to sink in, she continues. She tells you that the district nurse has been captured by the Master's cult and is due to be sacrificed tonight, and yesterday it was a guy who knocked on the door to see if Franklins wanted to switch power company.

"I cannot allow this devilry to continue!" she exclaims (yeah she actually says this, italics and all) "except for when it happens to real estate agents like on last Thursday".
"But you're just a GHOST," I point out. She ignores me and continues ranting. Incorporeal flecks of spittle fly from her lip and pass harmlessly through my skin.

She explains further that I need to find the Kris knife - a souvenir that the infernal Lord of the Manor bought while holidaying in Bali, but which ironically is also his only weakness. Like the Lizard King, he keeps the one weapon capable of harming him lying around at home somewhere.

Franklins: "Woah, sweet Kris knife! How the shit did you get this back through Customs bro?"
As is traditional she is fatally interrupted before she can impart the final, key information - the location of the Kris knife. Less traditionally, this is because she is devoured by spectral Great Danes.

Ree hee hee hee hee!
After that the ghost dogs vanish and nothing else of interest happens.  You shrug, but at least you know now what the macguffin is and can commit to some Bizarre Search Behaviour. Wandering about the house, it quickly becomes apparent that all the rooms have ominous, diabolical-sounding names such as AsmodeusAzazel and Shaitan. Early on though I did also find the Erasmus room, no doubt named for the renowned Dutch scholar and early proponent of religious toleration, Desiderius Erasmus Roterodamus.

AKA "The Prince of the Humanists"
This tricked me into briefly adopting a rule of thumb whereby I would only enter rooms named for humanist royalty, rather than, say, Mammon, the demonic personification of the Third Deadly Sin, Greed. Unfortunately, Erasmus was locked, and the only other room I could find that remotely met the criteria was Balthus, named for Balthus Dire, the end-boss of Citadel of Chaos (an evil sorcerer sure, but not actually a demon as far as I know).

The Balthus room contains little save a small box on a mantlepiece, and a window with drawn curtains and a suspicious humanoid bulge behind them - I gave it a poke and oh nooooooooooooooooooooo...

"Shock lines" are used throughout House of Hell's illustrations to represent HOLY SHIT ARGH FUCK.
In this case I gained 2 FEAR points.
A ZOMBIE was just hanging out there. I think this is another, more oblique reference to Citadel since, believe it or not, in the boss fight with Balthus Dire you have the option to hide behind the curtains, whereupon you will be killed. Anyway, despite being super-scared I used my karate to disassemble the ZOMBIE (still at SKILL 9 on account of not having found a knitting needle yet). Amusingly, if you leave the curtains alone the ZOMBIE will remain motionless behind them until you leave the room, it makes for a lonesome image.  The box on the mantlepiece, if you're wondering, contains a key! Which unlocks the door that you just went through.

On the basis of this experience, I concluded that plainly the room names were not going to be helpful and besides, all the rooms would most likely be full of penalties and doom. I was in Steve Jackson's world, and his is a world of pain. It's a world where the casual player is punished - as usual, I wasn't troubling to make a map - I mean it's just a HOUSE, right, who needs a map? - and between maplessness and the vanilla descriptions of landings and corridors, rather rapidly I lost my bearings and found myself outside a room called Shaitan when I expected to be back at Azazel.

Shaitan turned out to be pretty fancy room that at first appeared deserted, however upon entering, it transpired there was a dude sitting in a high-backed chair facing away from the door. The door clicked shut behind me and he announced himself in an eerie voice:

"So! Our visitor is inquisitive, eh? Or are you trying to leave the house? Perhaps our hospitality is not to your liking. Maybe you would like to see some more - shall we say - amusements?"

Pathetically, this tepid threat was enough to gain me a FEAR point. The gentleman stirs himself from his armchair and, smirking, invites you to present yourself for his inspection.

"Good evening, dear boy! Or perhaps I  should say BAD evening... for YOU! 
Oh tee hee hee hee hee!"
From his fruity manner, black cape and widow's peak it seemed transparent that this fellow was in fact a VAMPIRE. The other thing that tipped me off was that I had recently found some garlic in a kind of upstairs pantry, along with a carving knife (+3 SKILL points, thank you!) and an "unlabelled bottle of white liquid" that I resisted the inevitable impulse to quaff. (The white liquid turns out to be more poisoned white wine - and this the 1981 kill-you-dead vintage rather than the 1977 just-knock-you-out tipple. Here Steve Jackson has also revealed his own vintage as a beer-swilling macho man, happily unaware that white wine - as opposed to, say, Twink - is not physically white in colour).

But yes anyway, finding garlic in a Fighting Fantasy gamebook is sort of like finding a Chekhov's Gun in a Chekhov play - you know that before the end of the story, someone will be waving it hysterically at a VAMPIRE. That someone was me, and just as well, since your only other option is to be psychically dominated and have your blood munched. I edged around the room to one of the other exits while the VAMPIRE went through the motions of thrashing about and hissing and peeping at me from under the crook of his arm. Born unlucky, I first opened a door that had two ZOMBIES eagerly listening at the keyhole, they tumbled into the room like unruly schoolboys and I was forced to contend with them, even as I continued to waggle my string of garlic towards Mr. VAMPIRE any time he appeared to be gaining some self-respect. Thanks to my recently found carving knife, my SKILL was pumped to its Tyrannosaurus apogee of 12, thus disassembling the ZOMBIES was not a matter of any great complexity. At last I flung the garlic at my foe and dove through the other door, a matronly "oooooh!" of dismay resounding behind me.

That second door led into a cupboard, but happily there was a secret exit at the back, already standing wide open. I paused to consider that perhaps I had previous been through other cupboards with wide open secret doors at the back, and merely mistaken them for normal corridors? I couldn't know. No time for further hesitation though, I had found my way into a hidden section of the mansion, and its foul secrets would no doubt soon roll over and expose their bellies to me like an affectionate but loathsomely diseased house-cat. Unfortunately I almost immediately blundered through a false mirror and back into the main section of the house. Soon afterwards I found myself before a locked door, which needed a numbered key to open. I had no such key, and I know an end-game door when I see one. I had no doubt that, having failed to open this door, my fate would soon follow.

Failure, and Death

Across the hall from that locked door is the kitchen. If you get to the kitchen, you are doomed. Here I list all the possible outcomes once you enter that accursed yet surprisingly tidy place.

1) You grab a ring of keys lying on the cooktop, realise belatedly that the cooktop was switched on, drop the red-hot keys with a shriek and a clatter, four cultists wearing goat heads rush into the room and take you to the dungeon. Presumably you are later sacrificed in some awful riteWhich dickhead was cooking their keys though.

2) You go into the crockery cupboard and see a GHOUL, it's so scary that you just immediately die. (FEAR maximum exceeded)

The GHOUL ostentatiously displays her diamond engagement ring.

3) You enter the cupboard and see a GHOUL, you put a dot in your pants but otherwise survive the big spooky surprise. The GHOUL then punches you so hard that you die. (GHOUL defeats you in a straight fight).

4) You and the GHOUL tussle, you take a few slaps but you're tougher than that, you can take some knocks.  But next thing, your arms and legs start to feel so heavy, and: oops, I got paralysed. The GHOUL devours you at her leisure as you hiss your last few breaths through clenched teeth, eyeballs rolling frantically, a prisoner in your own delicious body. (Get hit by the GHOUL four times.)

5) You effortlessly defeat the GHOUL because you have SKILL 12, and the world of martial arts knows no equal with a rolling pin, chair leg or ornamental letter-opener. The deactivated GHOUL collapses into a stack of pots and pans, creating an almighty crash of metal on metal. Four burly cultists, wearing goat-heads, burst in to investigate. Despite the fact that you are a veritable god of combat, you stay your deadly arm and allow them to take you to hell-jail. For some reason. Later on they kill you I guess.

And that last one - the most drawn out and frustrating of the smorgasbord of failures - is what happened to me. The unwinnable kitchen is almost intolerable to my sensibilities, so I'll add one more option, this one is more of a philosophical possibility:

The Sixth Option

6) You refuse to make a decision, and so remain in the kitchen indefinitely. You wait until morning, watching good, clean, daylight pour through the windows. At length, a man wearing a goat-head arrives, bearing a stack of dirty breakfast dishes. He looks to you. You cannot interpret the slack, idiot expression of a decapitated goat. Tentatively, you reach for the tap, and run some water in the kitchen sink. The man places his stack of dishes on the counter beside you and steps back. You squeeze some detergent into the sink, then pause. You meet his gaze, and begin, slowly, to wash the dishes, brush scraping against the dregs of porridge which some fuckin' genius has allowed to dry solid against the bowl. That shit is like cement now. You look down at your work, but the touch of the man's goaty dead regard still pimples your skin. He waits, and watches as you dry each bowl and lay them in a neat stack on the floor next to the cupboard that has a GHOUL in it. At last, the man nods his goat-head once, and leaves.

This arrangement continues as it has begun; three meals a day, plus Devonshire tea on Sunday afternoons. You survive on the food-scraps - for Lord Peter Cushing does not eat his crusts - and the mistaken idea that you're supposed to be there. Between meals, you lean against the table and try to remember the lyrics to Nik Kershaw songs. They are maddeningly cryptic. Sometimes you watch the keys glowing dull red on the stove. Will someone come and fetch their ring of keys? No-one does. Weeks pass this way, and after a short and awkward courtship, you find yourself in an abusive relationship with Franklins. It drags on, jagged with passion and hurt - for months, years. Decades. You keep going back to him, even though he treats you wrong. Also because you are unable to leave the kitchen.

One day - and it seems no special day - the goat-headed man comes in carrying dirty dishes, just as he always does. He is stooped with age, and moves gingerly, his feet now scuff the ground when he walks. He lays the dishes on the counter, looks down. A human form is crumpled on the kitchen floor, hair grey, skin tinged to blue. The goat-headed man will be doing his own dishes this day. Your adventure ends here.

401 You cannot interpret the slack, idiot expression of a decapitated goat.


These two fun-lovers are playing dress-ups inside a cupboard, in one of the House of Hell's interminable sequence of "well-appointed bedrooms". Sure enough, should you open the cupboard door they will spring out and excitedly demand your autograph. Both have STAMINA 6, but while one has SKILL 7, the guy with the hat has just SKILL 6. I suggest that he is subject to a -1 penalty because his pants will be looped around his bony ankles in approximately one second. If a SKELETON simply must wear pants, suspenders are indeed the way to go.

One of the finest and most accurate depictions of SKELETONS in the wild. 
 As clearly encoded in the shock lines above, you will gain 2 FEAR points if you encounter them: 1 for the surprise, 2 for the gangster hat. 

Final Thoughts

A few things struck me as notable about House. The horror theme is fresh for the series, though not particular fresh for, you know, "horror" - it's mainly well-worn and semi-fruity Hammer Horror tropes, a grab-bag of chain-clanking revenants, Elizabethan gentlemen with they heads tucked under they arms and whatnot - but scary enough if you're a kid I guess (perhaps even traumatic?) The prose could do a better job of selling the shocks, it's kind of like "you see a ZOMBIE coming to get you, he got a SKILL 6" most of the time.

The FEAR system is a fun innovation, though it has its anomalies. For instance, finding unexpected corpses seems to consistently give you 3 FEAR points, whereas blasphemously re-animated corpses that shamble towards you with murderous intent will net you just 2 (and sometimes not even that).

Discovering the remains of this unfortunate goof will elicit a
 whopping 3 FEAR points, as opposed to e.g. gales of laughter.
Similarly, failure to relax and drink a brandy when you meet Peter Cushing will get you a FEAR point, whereas witnessing a GHOST lady being devoured by the spectral emanations of DEAD GREAT DANES provokes no more than a lazy shrug from your amygdala.

House also contains a surprising amount of dialogue and character interaction - far, far more than any other book thus far - though I didn't experience that much of it in my play-through. But apart from meeting the lord and his butler, there are many denizens of the house you can converse with - cultists, ghosts, prisoners, torturers, a HUNCHBACK, some old lady in a bed. There seem to be many cases where you have to decide whether you can bluff your way through an encounter, or conversely whether you can trust a stranger. I usually enjoy these angles in game-books (this is Steve, so, you now how it runs - plenty of false-faced betrayals). Another point, compared to the other books it seems to have very few items, I only picked up the garlic, a knife and a "joke" key in my play through.

It is super hard - but for good reasons, it seems to be a well-crafted challenge, rather than being peppered with arbitrarily tough combats. I could imagine myself trying another couple of play-throughs to puzzle it out some more - but then again... I still have fifty more books to go.