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.