Today, to mark the first anniversary of The Second Swordsman, Malcolm presents his 14th post, which is intriguingly entitled...
The Second Swordsman - In Safe Hands?
By Malcolm Garcia
While several of the FIGHTING FANTASY adventures I have recently attempted have had an oppressive atmosphere, namely House of Hell, Phantoms of Fear and Spellbreaker, few authors create an unremitting sense of despair as well as Stephen Hand. All of his three books are based in the northwestern part of the Old World, a continent I hadn’t visited since an earlier attempt at using the Second Swordsman process on a trio of adventures by Jonathan Green. And in each of Hand’s books a feeling of dread pervades the somewhat-medieval world that YOU move through in your quests.
In Legend of the Shadow Warriors YOU are an army veteran who, somewhat skeptically, accepts the task of investigating claims of shadowy riders terrorizing the village of Karnstein, deep in the mountains of the Witchtooth Line. In Moonrunner YOU are a bounty hunter who is hunting (or should that be, is being hunted by) the evil war criminal Karam Gruul through the city of Blackhaven, a place that somehow makes Port Blacksand seem like a nice spot to retire to. And in Dead of Night (co-authored with Jim Bambra) YOU are a Demon-Stalker who is being plotted against by your old adversary, the Demon Lord Myurr, who is out for revenge after YOU have foiled too many of his horrid schemes. [These three titles were also all illustrated by Martin McKenna - Ed.]
While sticking with choosing every second option didn’t have me ignoring huge amounts of things in these books (as it has previously done so), it did mean I did some pretty stupid stuff, sometimes with significant consequences.
In Legend of the Shadow Warriors I started off promisingly enough when using the Second Swordsman process. Although I had a purse of gold I chose not to try and supplement it through gambling – while this worked in Legend of Zagor it failed to gain me any money in both Seas of Blood and Bloodbones. At the markets in Royal Lendle I bought every second item, including metal rot, a chameleon cloak, and a mirror (which would have been handy against the Mountain Basilisk in my previous adventure in Night Dragon). Although what I could get was limited by my budget, I generally enjoyed this process more than looking for individual objects in cupboards and under rocks. My first major NPC encounter was with Gallantaria’s chief tax collector, who I unsuccessfully tried to bribe and who then put me in jail for the, surely near-irrelevant in Titan, crime of unpaid taxes.
Luckily my quest did not end there (unlike when I was imprisoned in both Bloodbonesand Black Vein Prophecy) and I managed to escape after fighting the jailer (although I was somewhat blasé about the fact that I’d added murder to my previous charge of tax evasion). As I made to leave through one of the city gates I was again confronted by the tax collector. With a poor starting LUCK score I was unlucky and put in a better-guarded jail. My adventure thus ended without even leaving Royal Lendle.
I started Moonrunner with similar SKILL, STAMINA and LUCK scores to those in Legend. As an experienced bounty hunter YOU are able to choose several special skills at the beginning – I selected every second one, of course. The book started ominously with the man I had been talking to in the background section being killed by a throwing dagger. Thanks to my recently acquired lock picking skill I obtained some gold pieces and potentially useful paperwork from his office. My searching of the room was interrupted by some guards, but I was able to use another of my skills to confuse them and escape – thus avoiding having another adventure end in my imprisonment.
As my exploration of Blackhaven got under way, by choosing every second option I then callously decided not to give a beggar a single gold piece (even though I could easily afford to) and then not to pursue her killer, the fantastically named ‘The Shocker’. Instead I headed for the local asylum and, after turning down an offer of a drink from the deputy director (being keen to avoid what happened when I did that in House of Hell) I gained some information about Gruul from one of the inmates. But then I got locked up, again! I escaped only after fighting a Frankenstein-esque creature and headed for another potentially useful source of information, but he turned out to be dead too. In my search of his room I gained some more gold and paperwork, but this time the letter was from Gruul himself, and it had been laced with mocking words and a poison which killed me instantly.
As with Moonrunner, at the start of Dead of Night YOU can choose three skills that YOU have learned during your life as a Demon-Stalker. As the Second Swordsman I chose every second one and also picked up some gold, holy water and an ominous vision of my parents and Myurr. Because YOU are an adventurer who can stray close to the dark side, there is also a personal EVIL score for YOU to keep track of.
I began by arriving in my home village of Crowford after ignoring a mocking skeleton and went to visit the local priest. He told me my parents were dead, but that their graves have been taken over by demons. Although I could sense the demonic presence I chose not to confront the blight and thus earned my first EVIL point for being generally unhelpful. My next destination was that of a seer who conducted a summoning to help me in my quest; but the demon that was summoned killed her and I had my first fight on my hands.
After slaying the demon I left the seer’s cottage, which was now in flames, and chose to also ignore a group of peasants and an opportunity to pray. When I arrived in the next village I chose not to use one of my skills and narrowly escaped a swinging blade trap. Luckily I was rescued by the locals who told me of the onslaught their village was under from a swarm of Moon Demons. Rather than staying and helping the villagers – as any proper Demon-Stalker would – choosing the second option had me again being unhelpful and I abandoned them to their fate and walked outside, only to slip in the mud and be torn to shreds by the swarm.
Compared to other FIGHTING FANTASY books, while this trio by Hand had plenty of atmosphere, there was not much actual fighting. In my short-lived adventure in Legend I managed to only have one fight and, although I was unarmed (having been relieved of my sword when taken into custody), I defeated the SKILL 8 STAMINA 7 Jailer without losing a single round. I also had only one fight in Moonrunner, but this was a tough one against the SKILL 11 STAMINA 14 Kauderwelsch Monster. I was down to seven STAMINA when this battle was mercifully brought to an early conclusion by a riot of asylum inmates. For consistency I also only had one fight in Dead, against the summoned SKILL 8 STAMINA 8 Spirit Demon, which I killed after losing two rounds of combat, but which robbed me of a potentially useful ally.
In the end it was stupid decisions that brought about my failure in using the Second Swordsman process in Legend, Moonrunner, and Dead. A puddle of mud, a piece of paper, and not paying my taxes proved too much for a seasoned adventurer like me to overcome. If there were any FIGHTING FANTASY adventures where I could have used a ‘Hand’ to save the Old World from unspeakable evil, these three books would have been them.
Congratulations to Malcolm on a year's worth of Second Swordsman posts. But there are plenty more Fighting Fantasy adventures still to go, so which will he be tackling next month?