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Item - Black Crag Castle

Series: Proteus — no. 17
Author: Bulmer, Ken
Illustrators: Blanchard, N. (cover)
Campbell, Paul (interior)
De Leuw, Dave (interior)
Dunn, Mark (interior)
Harrod, Gary (interior)
Hunter, Alan (interior)
Sell, Tim (interior)
Heller, Julek (poster)
Date: 1988
Ed's Thoughts: I retain fond memories of Ken Bulmer's first Proteus adventure, though I am well aware that it has its problems.

A letter in a subsequent issue was very complimentary about the front cover, on which the challenge 'Dare you enter Black Crag Castle?' stands out against N. Blanchard's moody illustration of the eponymous location. It's a pity the designers forgot to drop the question mark when they ditched the words 'Dare you enter' while reusing the text on the first page, though.

The plot appears simple enough at the outset. Returning to your home village after a spot of adventuring, you find that the place has been razed to the ground and your parents butchered. With his dying words, your father reveals that a pirate with one ear is to blame, and has stolen the family Talisman. You set off to track down the pirate and retrieve the Talisman. Complications soon arise, of course. The Fate/Fortune third attribute is back, but gets rapidly depleted owing to Mr. Bulmer's regrettable fondness of F/F penalties, most of them unavoidable. You may find yours halved or worse before you get to use it at all, yet the adventure contains several points at which an unsuccessful roll against it will get you dismembered, one of them unavoidable.

Another frustrating aspect of BCC is the amount of trivia you need to find out along the way. Only one item is absolutely essential for success, but you won't get anywhere near the endgame unless you track down various nuggets of information, many of which are 'hidden' in the text of the adventure. At its most ludicrous, this factoid-hunting requires you to combine a detail you might not have thought worth remembering with something you had no reason to figure out in the first place, thereby discovering a secret so insignificant that you wouldn't believe knowing it could be vital until you find yourself on the wrong end of several cutlasses.

There's also a point at which the most likely wrong answer will, coincidentally, lead you to the same section as the correct one. Oops. Despite these far-from-minor flaws, BCC is fun. Your character has a hint of panache, and a slight cynical edge that enriches the text. The adventure has a bit of a twist, too, and there's an entertainingly warped aspect to some of the encounters. You may come across a savage predator named Cecil, or briefly get distracted from imminent death by someone asking if you know where the Captain's spyglass is. And it's hard to hate an adventure in which you're told that the villain has "just discovered some hideous ancient secret which has quite taken his mind off pulling legs off things he doesn't like. My Aunt is quite upset." No penguins, but there is a big albatross.

The climactic encounter is quite tense, at least the first time you get to it. If the Dexterity 11 opponent and other potentially lethal incidents give you too much trouble, though, it dulls with repetition. Still, the ending is nice, when you finally reach it. BCC also seems more substantial than many other adventures. The fact that it has 250 sections undoubtedly contributes to this, but even so, the whole seems more than the sum of its paragraphs.

Apart from the problems mentioned above, what's wrong with BCC is inconsequential. You can learn the name of the one-eared pirate twice. Section 59 ignores the possibility that your Strength might be an even number, and not reducible to 11 in combat. For some reason the pirate's name is spelt backwards (more or less) in two of the clues you receive. In view of the circumstances, the word 'incontinently' may not be out of place in section 58, but 'form' should be 'from' regardless. There's a missing 'another' in section 181.

The artwork is generally good, with Tim Sell providing some nicely macabre filler art, while Gary Harrod and Paul Campbell's pictures bring many of the castle's monstrosities to life (or undeath), and Mark Dunn is most definitely back on form with his picture of Lady Pirates. Dave De Leuw's Snakeman would look better without that head of hair, though.

BCC's plot, sense of humour and slightly skewed nature more than compensate for its more exasperating aspects. Regrettably, it's one of the last Proteus adventures that were any good.

More reviews by Ed

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