Friday, 20 July 2012

The Call of Xakhaz (Beneath Nightmare Castle playthough)

She's just a devil woman, with
evil claws for her hands...
It's good to be back on terra firma. Following a frankly embarrassing venture into space last time out, the prospect of being mutilated back on solid ground has never been quite so appealing. To that end, I present Beneath Nightmare Castle. #25 in the Puffin run and not published in either Wizard series, it is my second FF book to feature here devised by Peter Darvill-Evans, following the highly entertaining Portal of Evil. Published in 1987, the cover to your right was drawn by Terry Oaks whilst the interior illustrations are the children of Dave Carson. The rules are mostly standard FF with one vital addition; in Beneath Nightmare Castle you have a Willpower score. This is calculated in the same way as skill and luck and, like luck, I must subtract one from my total whenever I test my willpower. To quote the book, the higher my score, the 'more you can cope with pain, despair and unpleasant surprises.' Ooh, how delightful! What's more, if my Willpower ever drops below 6 and I subsequently fail a test of Willpower, I turn into a gibbering idiot and lose all grip of sanity, not to mention fail the adventure. At least you're still alive this way I guess! There are boxes for both Provisions and gold but I am informed I start with none of either, which means a high stamina roll could well be necessary...

It's a trap! And, like that mouse, I fall for it without
being given an option to not be so stupid.
Imagine my joy when I rolled only Stamina 17. Time for that word which has inadvertently become something of a catchphrase on here - Bugger. Skill 10 is not terrible but nothing to shout home about either, although Luck of 12 and Willpower of 11 do improve my mood slightly. Time for the background to my quest this time out. Before I do anything whatsoever, the book labels me a fool! Actually, I'll give you the opening paragraph of the introduction in full: 'Captured! Netted, strung up and helpless! You curse yourself for an inattentive fool.' (I assume it is supposed to say 'being an inattentive fool' but I can forgive a minor editing error) Apparently I had been trekking towards the town of Neuberg to meet my old pal Baron Tholdur, Mar-grave of Neuberg keep. We fought together in arms at the battle of Helm Hill y'see, defeating the Barbarian scum from the south. On a side note, there does seem to be an underlying theme within FF books where all Bandits/Barbarians that try and kill/rob you are either dark-skinned or from the south. What this says about social stereotypes in the 1980's, I'm not too sure, but it is an interesting point to take note of. Well, to me at least. To you, a far more interesting point of note is that those same Barbarians have captured me. The sly buggers used the old unfamiliar birdsong around a solitary tree to draw me in and due to failing to see a suspiciously overhanging branch, I found myself dangling upside down in a net suspended from said suspicious branch. For some reason, instead of gleefully treating me to the death of a thousand cuts, they simply knock me out. The introduction promptly comes to a close here. Unlike the epic back story of Sky Lord before it, Beneath Nightmare Castle's does not reveal much, yet I find myself perhaps as much drawn in by the lack of knowing what is going on than the full SP that Sky Lord gave me. Perhaps there's something to be said about being knocked out before going into an FF adventure...


I wake. By 'I', I mean Francis Wayland Thurston, which is my personal moniker this time around. If anyone gets my reasoning for this, give yourself a gold star! I don't normally quote the books that much in my playthroughs but the second line of the first entry is quite a wonderful fantasy metaphor: 'A particularly insistent Dwarf blacksmith seems to be using your head as an anvil.' I've got to remember that for the next excuse when I have a hangover! Apparently time passes and suddenly a voice whispers that it has a knife and will sever my bonds if I shuffle my way over to the source of the voice. Fortunately for Francis, the voice is good to its word and soon I am free! Well, of my bonds at least. Tearing my blindfold off, it becomes apparent that I'm in a cellar. Neglecting the opportunity to add to that Dwarven hangover, I escape up the stairs. In the stone room that follows, there are conveniently no guards to bring a swift halt to my escape. Even more conveniently my sword is lying on the floor. Francis deduces that he is in one of the towers of Neuberg's east gate. Interesting. To escape from the gatehouse I am faced with a refreshingly different kind of stat test; I must roll under my combined Skill and Stamina scores using eight dice in order to break down the door. To my immense frustration, I roll tantalisingly close to doing so; I actually roll 27, the exact total of my combined scores. I knew that low stamina score would prove my downfall! Thankfully, his inability to open a door does not spell the end of the adventure for Francis, at least not yet. As I am mentally preparing myself for another go, 6 of my southern captors return. Freedom is mine if I can best them all in combat, conveniently one at a time.

These would have proved a far more
formidable set of Southern Pansies to fight.
Well, fortunately these Southern Pansies are no match for Francis, who leaves all 6 dead in a whirlwind of exhibition swordplay. Entering the town, Francis recalls that the Southern (What is this obsession?!) Star tavern is a friendly place to go and rest up, so heads in that direction. The Innkeeper lets me in to his otherwise empty establishment, so it is not difficult to obtain a room for the night. David the innkeeper offers me some special Neuberg brandy when I mention Baron Tholdur, but before I can get royally pissed he asks for proof that I thought alongside the Baron at Helm Hill. Showing him my bling gold ring that the good Baron gifted to me. David tells me people are disappearing and that 'things' wander around outside at night. Wishing to remain alive, I take his advice to stay inside overnight and rest up for the morning. My sleep is not pleasant; I am awoken by the sound of some sort of creature just outside the window. I'm almost grateful that the book automatically assumes I do not want to go and investigate, a gruesome death is not what I'm after just yet!

You asked for heavenly assistance?....
In the morning Daisy (Who you ask? David's wife, silly!) brings me a tasty breakfast before I pay them both for their kind hospitality. Considering I was told I had no gold at the beginning, to not only afford the accommodation for the night AND have 5 gold pieces left after is slightly odd. David advised Francis to head towards the temple area of town, so seeing how nice he had been to me I decided his advice was as good as any a place to start. An old man sits by the temple entrance who tells me he is Huw, last priest of Oiden. I follow him inside and am ushered to sit down on a stool. Without warning, Huw puts a knife to my throat! It's another trap, and I fell for it again! Well, is it a trap though? Huw tells me that it was he who rescued me from the cellar back at the beginning of all this; I have to donate my golden ring to obtain Oiden's assistance in my quest. Perhaps more importantly, I have to donate the ring to avoid having my throat slashed by old Huw. Huw changes his tone the moment I hand the ring over; Now I am the champion of Neuberg, bestowed a total of 3 provisions to survive on and also privy to a little bit of knowledge as to what the fuck is actually happening here! It transpires old Huw is very old indeed, having actually helped to build the decrepit temple Francis is now standing in. Apparently many years ago in Neuberg there was a titanic struggle between the priests of Oiden and Xakhaz, the latter being the archmage of the despicable gods of Zagoula. Huw informs me that Xakhaz was never destroyed, only his earthly form. Xakhaz has returned and may now already possess material form once more! Gulp. Way to kill the mood, Huw. If I can recover the Talisman of Loth I can weaken all of Xakhaz's twisted minions, although it is currently and very predictably missing. Before I leave, Huw allows me to undertake a test of Oiden. This test involves being in Oiden's presence; precisely climbing a ghostly limbed tree for no apparent reason. The stat roll is similar to the one I faced earlier, only combining my Willpower and stamina scores this time around. I roll exactly 27 again, which this time is enough to succeed. The prize for this is quite nice indeed; My initial stamina and willpower can both increase by 1! Whilst this is not a massive boost to my stamina the addition to my Willpower I sense will be most useful indeed, so I thank Oiden and Huw before sodding off to actually do something meaningful to stop Xakhaz.

I may be a Tree now, but I'm the best darned Tree
in the land!
Francis decides there is not enough time to waste wandering around anymore of the town so heads off in the direction of Neuberg Keep. A side entrance to the Keep seems a more stealthy way of going about things than simply striding up to the main gate, so I divert to a path to the right. Sneaking through a door in the undergrowth, Francis finds his way into a kitchen garden. A bit of exploring through an overgrown path finds a statue of an Elven maiden. I move the statue's right arm based on the logic that moving a statue's arm shouldn't probably kill me and am rewarded when the statue pours green liquid from its urn into a basin at its feet. Francis decides to drink this liquid, as Elven maidens are usually helpful people. Unfortunately, this liquid is concentrated magical fertiliser and before I know it I have transformed into a lovely young Tree!

Well that was unexpected. What's nice is that I didn't strictly die; I merely became a feature in a garden for years to come. Trust me, that's alot more pleasant than many of the ways to go in this one! It must be said though that I'm rather gutted to go quite early on; I was really enjoying the slow build up to this one, with more of the plot becoming apparent as I went on. My brief yet enjoyable journey was as follows:

1-331-215-41-315-119-164-343-179-372-245-137-195-322-47-398-344-22-100-54-298-368-108-289-95-275-319-111-380.

Only 29 paragraphs then. Short but sweet. It did feel like the adventure was only really beginning, despite the fact that alot of stuff happened in that short space of time. After all, I had only just entered Neuberg Keep. Only one combat for me in this one, albeit against six opponents.

First Swordsman - Skill: 5 Stamina: 5
Second Swordsman - Skill: 6 Stamina: 4
Third Swordsman - Skill: 4 Stamina: 6
Fourth Swordsman - Skill: 5 Stamina: 5
Fifth Swordsman - Skill: 4 Stamina: 3
Sixth Swordsman - Skill: 4 Stamina: 8

As I said before, a bunch of pansies that lot were, no real challenge even if you had a weak initial skill roll. Of course, had I progressed further I would have faced far worse creatures and abominations than those. Anyway, I enjoyed this one enough to flick through to get a very good understanding of...




HOW MUCH FIGHT WAS IN THIS FANTASY?


Look everybody, Its Cthulhu!...

Not pleasant, agreed.
But too scary?!
Illustrations: There are some wonderfully macabre illustrations throughout Beneath Nightmare Castle. A group of Blood-Lurchers, whom I would have been sucked dry by had I left the inn at night, look wonderfully sinister with their various tentacles in their mouths flailing all over the place. There's a barrel filled with shrunken heads, the image showing their open eyes staring at you, which is somewhat off-putting. For an extra special treat this time round, I'm choosing to feature two illustrations here. On the left is actually an illustration that never made it into the published book; it was banned for being 'potentially too frightening'. Bollocks. On the right is Xakhaz, or rather, the combined mass of things that make him up. Notice the obsession with tentacled things in this FF; A wonderful nod to Lovecraftian literature. 8/10.

Monsters/other NPC encounters: Joy. That's the best way to describe the nest of horrors within this one. From those delightfully macabre Blood-Lurchers to groups of homicidal children hanging out in the marketplace, almost every encounter has an entertainingly refreshing feel to it, again with more than a few subtle references to the works of HP Lovecraft, which is no bad thing. Oh, that Woman on the cover. She's a tragic character should you ever encounter her. Saving her from her tragic fate is no easy task either. There is a nice variety of nasties here to please all of those with a fascination for the strange and deadly. 9/10.

Storyline/Plot: I liked the fact that so little was known from the introduction. Indeed, I didn't even know who the big bad was until I spoke to Huw. Although, is Xakhaz operating solely on his own without any assistance whatsoever?! I'm saying nothing here... I highly imagine more would have been slowly drip-fed (Ironic I know, seeing how it ended!) had I not become a Tree, but I was intriguied by what I had learnt. Traces of cult like behaviour were lying in the shadows it seems, and again a Lovecraftian influence to the plot appears to be present. That's not a complaint, this was going all nicely until the end. 7/10.

Difficulty: This is perhaps the one weak point of Beneath Nightmare Castle. It's not easy. In fact, it's fiendishly difficult to even escape from those Southerners at the very beginning. I just got lucky with my choices. If you don't accept the stranger (Huw)'s help, you die. If you stay to search the cellar, you die. If I attacked Huw when he had the knife to my throat, I would have died. If I ventured outside the inn at night, there was a high possibility that I would have had all the blood sucked out of me. Get the point? It's very difficult to get anywhere fast in this book, which is a crying shame as it's a highly entertaining ride. I get the feeling an immense sense of satisfaction and achievement is due to the person who survives this. 9/10.

Seal of Approval?: High difficulty level aside, Beneath Nightmare Castle is a real delight. The horror themes work really well, whilst some of the death scenes are simply a pleasure to read. Well, a pleasure to read if you're into that sense of the macabre, coupled with a sadistic love of twisted and inventive deaths. Yes, turning into a Tree counts as an inventive death. It's ridiculously obvious at this point as to whether that fluffy Seal is making a reappearance to this blog as my love for this FF is quite clear. Is it my favourite so far? That's a toughie. I loved Portal of Evil for different reasons; mainly involving Dinosaurs. So I can't decide. It doesn't matter. They're both written by Peter Darvill-Evans. Therefore it is safe to say he is my favourite FF author at the moment. It's been a pleasure, it really has.
Admit it. You've missed this face.
For those of you in search of something a bit different, Marsten's been taking a cruise on the Freeway whilst I've been taking up gardening in unexpected ways. The moral of this story is Never drink anything green; it might have unexpected after-effects. You might all note some flashy new links along the top of this blog; I've spent this week sprucing up the blog with some new pages to make it easier to access previous playthroughs and to also see what playthroughs may be coming up. Check them out, I like to feel that they've given a bit more polish to this place. 




NEXT TIME ON 

May Your Stamina Never Fail...


I decide it's time to take a break and relax for a bit, heading for a tavern to meet up with some old friends. Perhaps I should've picked a better place to go than Port Blacksand though, also known as the City of Thieves....


6 comments:

  1. Now that was a fun read! This is one of the books I remember most fondly from the days I used to play them constantly.
    Though I would say that "you curse yourself for an..." seems perfectly fine English to me. In fact as soon as you quoted that sentence it took me right back to the 90s. Ahh.

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  2. I like that the Willpower woks rather like the Sanity system in Call of Cthulhu. Maybe the writers knew about the Lovecraft influence ;)
    This one seems a lot of fun and I'm keen to try it. I'm working my way through Stormslayer right now - it's a very long book for only 400 segments, and has been excellent thus far!

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  3. This is one of my favourites and I loved the play through. You are right about how you ended being one of the more pleasant endings. It might actually rank 3rd after winning and delaying Xakhaz's return.

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  4. This has been a favourite of mine for a long time. Lots of delightfully gruesome and bizarre ways to go.

    One other variation from the standard ruleset that's worth noting for future attempts: the usual restriction on exceeding your Initial Skill does not apply. Considering some of the bonuses available (and some of the enemies clustered around the endgame), this can mean the difference between life and death.

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  5. Turning into a tree is certainly a peaceful way to go, agreed! I'm going to class it as a win based on the fact I wasn't cruelly mutilated! That thing about the initial Skill is interesting; I hadn't noticed that myself when reading through. It didn't affect my playthrough of course, I was far too useless to change my skill score. I can imagine that is a big help though, especially with Xakhaz (Just realised you could pronounce that Jackass, joke missed there, damn!) and his skill of 14...

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  6. You know, as soon as you mentioned the opening paragraph of the intro I realised that I still remember the text almost exactly! 'You curse yourself for an inattentive fool' always struck me as a rather antiquated way to write it, but I think it's probably a valid sentence, grammar-wise.

    Anyway, 'Nightmare' is one of the classic FF's to me because I had it as a kid, I picked it up at a school jumble sale or something and it had no cover on it. I played it through endlessly, and knew the layout of neuburg really well, but I never could get far into the keep itself. A wonderfully creepy book, and a great playthrough!

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