Saturday, 1 September 2012

Steve Jackson's "Sorcery!" - The Shamutanti Hills playthrough

Written by Steve Jackson, Artwork by John Blanche

If someone asked you to travel from your home in Analand across the land of Kakhabad, across the Shamutanti Hills and over the Baddu-Bak plains and the dreaded Forest of Snatta to get to the fortress of Mampang that lies in the peaks of High Xamen, and recover the Crown of Kings from the villainous Archmage of Mampang, you'd probably say "How did you come up with all those silly names?"

But that's what Steve Jackson did really well. That, and make up encounters with very strange people, in very odd locations, which were all very colourful and strange. In those early, slightly trippy days of Fighting Fantasy, Steve Jackson brought a lot of the weirder elements. Ian Livingstone brought the risk of being instant-killed by a horde of zombies. They complimented themselves perfectly, like Rob Grant and Doug Naylor did when writing Red Dwarf.

So when Steve Jackson wrote a series of four books, all of which continued on from each other to form one massive and epic adventure, it was a really neat twist. Like many of the early FF books, it had an experimental magic system, and artwork by the amazing John Blanche, whose unique flair gives this series a fantastic atmosphere. In fact, I like his artwork so much, it's pretty much all I've used in this post. Enjoy!

The storyline is simple enough - you need to cross from the borders of Analand to the port city of Khare. Later books in the series take you further in the journey, but for now, our focus is on crossing the Shamutanti Hills and getting to the city. I had a copy of this book as a kid, which I got at an indoor market in Blackpool one year. The eyes on the monster on the cover were covered over in black marker pen, possibly because his despairing expression scared a previous owner of the book. I do regard this as the better version of the cover, though, because the newer one has a rather grotesque dismembered body littering the floor by the manticore, it's not even a cartoonish body, it's simply too realistic and grotesque.

So let's get things underway. The book can be played in two 'modes', basic and advanced. If you choose basic, it works just like any other FF book, then you play as just a regular adventurer. If you go for the advanced mode, you take a slightly diminished skill score but have access to a variety of magic spells. The spells are listed in a separate section in the book, and all have a simple three-letter name like 'zap' or 'dim', which makes them easier to memorise - and memorise them you must, because you're not allowed to look at them once your adventure has begun!

And given that I have managed to win a grand total of zero Fighting Fantasy books so far in this blog, I am clearly ready to charge head-first into an advanced escapade!

My stats are very fortunate when starting out - a full 12 in luck, 20 in stamina and 10 in skill (the highest that you can have for a wizard-type character in this game). I also have 20 gold pieces, and only two meals which I can eat only when instructed.

The adventure begins as I stand at the gate from my homeland of Analand. I have to admit, any country that marks its borders by building a giant wall around it tends to be a little suspicious in my book, and I'm now starting to work on the theory that I'm not so much 'liberating' the crown as instead 'sneaking in and nicking it' or something similar. Nevertheless, a guard in a silly hat opens the gate and lets me out, telling me that he won't wish me a safe journey because I'm pretty much dead meat.

A short walk from the border gate, and I've found my way into a trader's village. Given that I have only twenty gold, I take the chance to buy a few useful items, but I'm unsure at this point what would count as useful. I know immediately that a lot of the objects listed are used in spells, because I remember them being mentioned in the spell section of the book. I play it a little conservatively and don't buy all the items I want right away. I end up with a bag of monster's teeth, and a bottle of Bilbury Juice. I remember that the teeth are useful in a few spells, but the juice's use eludes my memory. It does, however, refresh some stamina, so maybe I can use it as a quick energy drink.

I leave the village, and quickly encounter my first combat sequence of the game, in the guise of a pair of bandits who demand that I pass over my worldly goods (namely the bag of teeth and bottle of juice). They should be easy enough to dispatch by hand, but I'm keen to try out the magic system. I recognise one spell from the ones I'm allowed to choose, and select that one, which creates a force-field. The bandits hammer on the field for a while, before they get bored and go home.

Pressing on in my travels, I soon encounter an old man who seems to be stuck in a tree. He explains that he was chased up the tree by some elves, who stole all his belongings. I help him down, and he gives me a little riddle about a monster who protects a key. It's not very useful at this stage, only really telling me that the monster in the riddle may be a bit near-sighted, so I convince the old man to go home so that I can steal some honey from a nearby beehive. I manage to swipe the honey without being stung by the bees, which will serve as a spare meal. Lovely!

I press on until the sun is going down, whereupon I make camp for the night. I dine on honey that night, and fall asleep beneath the stars. During the night, I am woken by the sounds of elven creatures playing in the river, tormenting fish and the like. The book actually asks if I wish to call out to them. Knowing the way that elves are racially profiled in these books, this would count as suicidal, so I hide from them and am lucky enough to not be noticed. The next day, I continue my travels.

Crossing at a bridge, I push on through the undergrowth when something unusual happens. The flooring beneath me collapses, and I am about to fall into a trap... when the book gives me the option of NOT testing my luck. This is really odd. why would I choose not to test my luck? This makes me curious, I choose this option. Sure enough, I collapse into the pit trap, only to wake up being tied and bound by a group of headhunters. Not quite sure what the point of this was...

I try to blast them with a spell, only to be told that I have now learned that magic does not work when my hands are bound. This is a mistake I won't make again, I can attest to that. Meanwhile, the dark-skinned headhunters who wear animal skins and have bones through their noses start to gather around a large boiling pot filled with human bones and oh god this is so politically incorrect right now.

I'm unsure if now is a good time to pray to the goddess Libra to free me, or if I should sit tight and wait for the cannibals to start doing their impersonations of the crows from Disney's "Dumbo".  That's another point that I'd neglected to mention about this book - in desperate times, you can pray to your goddess for salvation. She can help free you if you're trapped, or you can ask her to restore your stats or cure you from a curse/poison, but you can only choose to invoke her once during the adventure.

It's a bit of a gamble, because I was hoping to save this for later, but I'm not really wanting to think about what might happen if we let this silly escapade go on any longer. My prayers are answered as clouds start to gather and rain pours down, extinguishing the cooking fire and sending the natives fleeing at this terrifying display of typical British weather. I toddle along on my merry way.

Before too long, I find my way to the entrance of a goblin's mine. Deciding to be especially greedy, I slip into the mine and poke around for a bit, until I find a processing room where the minerals are shoved through machinery by a large ogre, resulting in a few pretty gems coming out of the other end. The other end of the machine, that is. Not the ogre. We don't want to think about what comes out of the ogre's other end. Any way, I kill the ogre (with my sword this time, rather than risking a spell) and take the gems.

I head down from the hills and into a small village. Hitting the nearby inn to unwind, I decide to spend the evening chatting to an old man, because old men often have strange wisdom and are usually powerful wizards in disguise. It seems that this time it was just a local farmer, because he tells me a little bit of advice (informing me that there is a lady who lives in a cabin that I should probably avoid) and giving me an apple. I don't think it's a magic apple, but you never know!

The local inn rips me off for a full 5 gold pieces for a night's dinner and bed, but in exchange I do manage to get my stamina points up to their full level once again. The next day, I head across the hills and make route towards the unfortunately named village of Dhumpus. I feel sorry for anyone who ever has to admit that they're from a village called Dhumpus. The people of Dhumpus seem nervous, possibly because all the people from neighbouring villages make fun of their village's name, but also because I'm carrying a sword. So as to avoid a diplomatic incident with the noble village of Dhumpus, I leave my weapon to one side and chat with a few of the locals. Sadly, this all goes down badly when I say something insulting (possibly "So what's it like being from a village with a name that sounds like a genital disease?") and wind up being chased out of town. To make things a little more entertaining, I've managed to leave my sword in Dhumpus, meaning that my skill now has a -4 pentalty, bringing it to a mere rating of 6.

I make camp for the night, and the book asks me to roll to see if I am attacked by a random monster. Sure enough, during the night a wolf attacks me, and I have to cast a spell to fend it off (because with my skill of a mere 6, I'm liable to fall over and hit my head on a rock, resulting in instant death). I cast a spell which transforms me into a twelve-foot tall giant, which causes the wolf to flee in terror.

I don't want to use my remaining provisions, so when I'm told to eat, I don't. Instead I chug down the Bilbury Juice, as I still can't remember what spell it has any use with, and make my way into the next village. And here is where I display a total lack of any kind of common sense whatsoever. The villagers, many of whom are sickly and missing limbs, flee from the sight of me. Some of them lock themselves inside their houses. I decide that they must be hiding something, so try to make friends with a family that is cowering in terror. Only after shaking hands do they tell me that they have THE PLAGUE!! And although I thought it required a bit more than just a handshake to catch the plague, I'm also now infected. Joy of joys. Silly question, but if you're reading this, do you remember if Bilbury Juice was a cure for the plague?

It seems that the book was not satisfied to simply give me the plague, because it then decides to give me something even worse - a little pixie companion. Her name is Jaan, but I call her Navi. This charming little creature asks if it can accompany me along my journey, I decide to allow it in the hopes that I can feed her to a monster at some point. Navi goes on to tell me that the next village is quite large and populated with very annoying children who are running wild.

A little word about the kids in this village, and this is something that's quintessentially Steve Jackson - there is a local festival going on at the moment, a day during which children and adults swap roles. The kids, of course, take this a step too far and run riot. I initially thought of checking out one of the local sights, but decided not to risk it in case I run afoul of the Children Of The Corn. This little town offers a place to stay, but at a cost of 9 gold for bed and food - I opt to pay for this by handing over a gem, as I only have seven gold pieces left. I go to sleep, hoping that the children of the village won't decide to tie me up and feed me to a rancor overnight.

I wake the next morning, and I'm sure that Navi laughs at me while I spew up part of my lungs as the plague causes me to lose three stamina points. I hate this little pixie, and I'm sure that it is plotting my untimely demise. This suspicion is later confirmed to be correct. I pick a route to lead me to the next stop on my journey, and the pixie cheerfully advises that yes, this lovely and merry field full of sweet-smelling flowers is definitely the quickest route. So off I go, through a field full of black lotus flowers, on the advice of Jaan the Demented.

It's only by the time I start to see all the skeletons of previously-deceased adventurers that I realise that the pixie's plan has succeeded.  Sure enough, the scent of the flowers is poisonous, and I die there in the field. All I can hope is that I have the strength remaining in my body to grab Jaan and bite her little pixie head clean off. It's a fair death, because it gave me the choice of using a spell to determine if this route was indeed the best route. I was foolish enough to trust an evil, demented pixie who has no doubt lead many poor adventurers to her field of death over the years.

This is a fun adventure for sure, and definitely has that classic Fighting Fantasy feel that is so unique to its time. I'd forgotten how much fun this was, how unique it feels, and hopefully if you've not played this before you'll want to give it a shot!

16 comments:

  1. I love this set of books for all the reasons you've mentioned but always find them devilishly difficult. My set have been perched on my bedside table waiting for a reread for a while - might have to do that on the back of your excellent post.

    Jaan is a pain in more ways than you mention but I won't spoil the surprise...

    Lucky escape from the cannibals by the way!

    So are you going to replay this one until you succeed before entering the Cityport of Khare or starting the next book anyway?

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  2. This is really odd. why would I choose not to test my luck?
    Because the consequences of being Lucky are actually worse than the consequences of being Unlucky or not bothering to Test your Luck.

    Silly question, but if you're reading this, do you remember if Bilbury Juice was a cure for the plague?
    In conjunction with the correct spell, yes. And you ignored what would have turned out to be another opportunity to get cured.

    If you're planning on trying this book again any time soon, you'd better steer clear of my playthrough, as it's a bit spoilerish in places. Including revealing Jann's special secret annoying feature.

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  3. It's been a while since I played these, but as I recall you can't complete the final book unless you're in "advanced" mode -- because the ending relies on casting a certain spell -- so I wonder how that works if you've been playing in "basic" up until then? Do YOU wake up one morning as a wizard?

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    1. You can get an item in the last book which lets you emulate the wizard spell you need. It might be even better because it works reliably whereas if you don't know how to handle the spell, it has unpredictable effects.

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    2. The She-Satyrs have a bottle with a genie which they will only sell to a warrior.

      There is nothing you can't do as a warrior, though those two extra skill points are not nearly as powerful as spells can be. None of the gamebooks is quite so badly designed that choosing to be a warrior means they're impossible.

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  4. I love this book, as it is, for the most part, harmless (although still very challenging). You have a romp in the woods, learn about your spells and other game mechanics, and, at the end, kick a manticore's butt (although as a warrior this is tough and as wizard you need to be selective about what spells you choose) and save a damsel in distress in the process. You also get restored to full health, with no curses or diseases, plus full luck.

    The characters are also interesting - Gaza Moon, Glandragor, the assassin in the woods (although I thought assassins killed by murder, not duels!!), and many others.

    The whole "if you're unlucky or choose not to test your luck" encounter really grated with me, but nobody's perfect.

    Would love to know how skunkbear stew and hillfox broth with rice would taste.......

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  5. Would also love to know who locked Alianna in the cage and why (the book says she has a big kitchen - did she foul up her boyfriend's breakfast??). And she has the ability to curse you but can't open a freakin' lock?? Maybe she should go and teach some magic to the Analand wizards.

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  6. Hey, Shawn 1! If I remember correctly, the text states that those mischevious Elvins were the ones to lock Alianna in the cage.

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  7. Yes I remember that too but as a character I could please the elvins with a couple of spells. Then Alianna who lives in their 'hood suddenly gets locked in a cage?? This is a sorceress who can turn a chair into a wood golem. And how did the cage get there? The elvins?? It just didn't add up,

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  8. In the beginning if you avoid the village, you can investigate a cave and that traps you with your only chance being a spell , does anyone know the spell to escape?

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  9. @Anonymous:
    The spell is "POT". It's the initial letters you find through your journey through that cave.

    @all:
    How do you actually pass the field? I heard it's possible but still can't find a way to do it.

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    1. @Anonymous:
      Noseplugs allow you to pass unscathed and this way you can ditch Jann, as he's not immune to the cursed blooms

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    2. Where can you obtain the noseplugs? Finished part 1 four times now and never stumbled across them.
      Thank you very much!

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    3. Aliana can give them if you choose magic

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  10. Is it possible to kill the creature in the ancient mines ?
    Best resilt i had was running after hurling a fireball

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  11. Agreed, the Wizard re-issue cover is just too grisly. I know it's fantasy so it's not real, but it still makes for an uneasy image. And they let that though on a COVER yet banned that infamous 'tentacles coming out of the mouth' one from 'Beneath Nightmare Castle'?

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