Thursday, 28 June 2012

City of Thieves playthrough

Written by Ian Livingstone, Artwork by Iain McCaig

I was pretty lucky with City of Thieves today, because I rolled a 12 on my skill score. This luck seemed to filter through to most of the actual gameplay as well. Still not enough to actually win the game, though!

In City of Thieves, you are a hearty adventurer who wanders into the town of Silverton, which is beset by attacks from the villanous Zanzar Bone. The foul monster wants to claim a young maiden for his own (I'll resist the 'bone' comments), and when the village decided to resist, he has set his moon dogs to lay siege to the poor villagers. I don't know what a moon dog is, but I imagine that their theme tune would be sung by a 1960s David Bowie.

Before you know it, you've agreed to help out. It seems that the wize old sage Nicodemus knows exactly how to slay Zanzar Bone, so I'll need to talk with him. Unfortunately for all, Nicodemus lives in a wretched hive of scum and villainy, Port Blacksand - also known as the CITY OF THIEVES!!

My trouble began at the city gates, where one of the city's guards refused to let me into the city until I'd bribed him. Oh lovely, a corrupt law enforcement agency, I'm sure that won't come back and make trouble for me later in the adventure. Y'know, being a corrupt guardsman must be a very profitable job. I wonder how this conversation would have gone. "Listen, mister city guard, I'm not trying to get philosophical here, but if the city of thieves' own law enforcers are thieves, then who are the thieves? Think about it. Whoa, zen!"

Deciding that it'd be a good idea to head to the market district, I took a path leading through some narrow alleys, and was attacked by two thieves. Killing them gave me some more gold. Strangely enough, I found that it was my gold that went up and down most in this adventure. Killing thieves is a good source of income, it seems. I was able to get to the market square without too much trouble, where I seen a group of people pelting rotten fruit at some poor sod who was locked in some stocks. Oh how lovely. I wonder what the poor chap had really done - probably refused to take part in Monty Python's Life of Brian stoning scene.

Nobody is allowed to make any Monty Python
jokes until I blow this whistle.
An especially large, heavily muscled gentleman asked me to play ball with him. I'm fairly sure that the ball was a leaded weight, and it was actually an impressive feat of gladiatorial skill which set the body to its limits... but as far as I'm concerned, we were just playing volleyball, because I won with great ease and made some nice gold. Bidding my semi-naked friend a fond farewell, I went to a nearby stall and bought up everything they had for sale. I think I must have bought a larger backpack too, because I would soon be carrying a great number of items.

Stopping in at a local clairvoyant (who, in FF books, are legitimately able to see the future, and not simply hucksters skilled in cold reading like they are in real-life), I was told that it'd be useful to look under the nearby bridge for Nicodemus. Sure enough, when I got to the bridge, there he was - a gruff old wizard who told me to bugger off because he didn't want to help me.

After some arm-twisting, I convinced him to tell me what I needed to do in order to get the job done by myself. Namely, I needed to find a silver arrow in order to paralyze Zanzar Bone, then I needed to rub him with a lotion (I'll avoid any 'rubbing lotion on bone' comments) made from lotus flower, black pearls and hag's hair. Also, I needed to get a tattoo of a unicorn on my face. A tattoo... of a unicorn... on my face... Yeah, I strongly suspect that Nicodemus was just wanting to make sure I made a total fool of myself.

Taking my leave of the useless old fool, I went for a jaunt down Candle Street. Entering the first house I came to, I met a man who made a deal with me - swallow one of his pills of unlabeled medication. If it doesn't kill me, I win some gold. Did I mention that this book was made for kids? And this was years before Morpheus had offered people a choice between red and blue pills. No, this was just a madman who wanted me to swallow what could be poison - and I had no guarantee that they weren't ALL poison. Either way, I got lucky and didn't die. I pocketed 20 gold pieces and continued down the street, still utterly bewildered.

Along the way, I was almost hit by a falling plant pot that had tumbled from a nearby window. Curious, I went into the building. In there, I seen two old ladies who were dressed up like babies, who were fighting over toys. Why does this kind of weird stuff always happen in these books to me? And why do I have a creepy feeling that there's several websites online that're probably dedicated entirely to this sort of thing.... Anyway, they wanted a toy from me. Not feeling especially in the mood to cater to this kind of insanity, I gave them the iron spike that I'd bought from the market to play with.

Further along Candle Street, I found a group of little gnome-like creatures playing a game much like baseball. Given my high skill score, I decided to join in, hoping I'd get something useful. Sure enough, I hit a home run and was rewarded with; some gold coins, a potion, a little flute, some bananas, a stick of chalk and an eye patch. So in general, the contents of the city's gutters. Pah. What, was an empty tin can too good a prize to give away? I left the playing field in disgust. It was now my firm opinion that Candle Street is the Arkham Asylum of Port Blacksand, so I promised never to go back there again, and instead walked in the opposite direction as fast as I could.

The usual type of citizen in Port Blacksand
Eventually I stumbled across the harbour of this port town, in which was moored a pirate ship. I figured that this would be a good place to look for items, and so I carefully slipped on board. Several of the pirates were asleep, and so I carefully pickpocketed them. Sadly, my luck wasn't up to the challenge, and three of the pirates attacked me. I killed the lot, and found my first important item in the pirate's pockets - six black pearls.

Curious as to what might happen if I went into the other room of the ship, I found that someone had poured themselves a nice hot bath. The book gave me the option to hide around in here, for some reason. I did so, and soon enough a large naked man entered the room and got into the bath. I was then given the option to say 'ahem' to him loudly... I have no idea why I'd want to, but given that I'd already played volleyball with one semi-naked man and the only women I'd seen in this city so far had been mad old crones, I decided to take the gamble and do so. It seems this was the option to interrogate the man - he told me where I could get a silver arrow, from a local silversmith. Y'know, I may have been able to work that out on my own, it's one of those obvious kind of things.

On the way to the silversmith, though, I tried to help an injured boy who was lying sobbing in the road. Because I'm a good person. And of course, the injured boy was in fact a goblin thief who attacked me. I chopped him in two, and took his gold, some garlic, and some knuckle bones he happened to be carrying for some reason. The gold was immediately useful, as I came across a candlemaker's shop. I bought two scented candles, just in case they may be useful.

"Would you like to see a magic candle?" said the shopkeeper. I agreed. The shopkeeper then used a magic candle to hypnotize me, and proceeded to steal two items from my backpack. I decided that he could steal my bananas and eye patch. I'm sure they will serve him far better than they did me. I still had enough gold left over to buy a silver arrow in the silversmith's shop though - my second item! And it was so easy to obtain, I didn't need to kill any trolls or solve any puzzles, I just had to ask for it. Well, I suppose I had to encounter the naked pirate earlier... some mental images you just don't want to live with.

As I continued searching the streets, I was confronted by an escaped convict, who begged me to help him flee the city guards. He claimed that he had been robbed, and as such he was unable to pay his taxes. I would have probably helped him, but if the guards were to catch me,

I didn't have any papers to show that I had a right to be in this city. So I handed him over to the guards instead. Curiously, the guard told me the truth - that the man was an escaped MURDERER. For once, betraying a man in need of help was the right thing to do.

Is it surprising that Port Blacksand has a city garden? It surprised me. From everything that I'd seen before, I imagined that the city garden would consist entirely of different kinds of mud, possibly with thieves hiding under it. But no, it actually did have flowers. Real flowers. Including a lotus - my third item! I grabbed it, quite aware that the topiary animals would then immediately attack me. They actually did a bit of damage, so much so that I had to use one of my meals in order to recover some stamina.

I have a tattoo, and even I think he's an idiot.
I had only two things left to do - get into the sewers so that I could kill a hag and take some of its hair, and get a stupid tattoo on my face. Before I could do so, though, two of the city guards bumped into me in the middle of the street. They were orcs if I remember right, called Sourbelly and Fatnose (I wonder if that's Corporal Sourbelly, or Lieutenant, or maybe even Captain?) and were cruel and malicious bullies who terrorised the citizens of Port Blacksand. They tried to threaten me, but when they asked to see my ID, I had to tell them I didn't have any. I explained it to them very carefully and politely. With my sword.

Unfortunately, killing two of the guards wound up attracting all sorts of attention. Thankfully, one of the townspeople lead me to his cart, where he smuggled me out of the city beneath a bale of hey. By now, the city was in an uproar, and probably under martial law to boot. There was no way I could get back inside in order to get the hag's hair, or to get that stupid tattoo.

I actually breathed a sigh of relief here, because this would mean that my character wouldn't be stuck looking like some kind of social loser from the dregs of the Jeremy Kyle Show for the rest of his life. The book didn't give me the option of just drawing it on my face with the chalk I'd found, though (which is probably the least stupid option), and instead told me that I went back to Silverton in failure. The saddest part of this story is that I will never get to see a moon dog with my own eyes. I bet they're awesome. They probably poop stardust.

Now that I think about it, I think I see some disturbing undercurrents to Port Blacksand. As we've seen, the police are corrupt, violent crime lurks in the back streets, the masses are ready to turn to vigilantism, prisoners routinely escape from the prisons, many people are clearly criminally insane... At this moment, I thought of forgetting my  mission, leaving the salvation of Silverton to another wandering hero.

The city of Port Blacksand needed me. They needed a hero. They needed someone to strike fear into the superstitious hearts of the criminals. I would prowl the night. Blacksand would be my city now. I would be a hero - not the hero that Port Blacksand deserved, but the hero it needs. I would be that hero. So no, my adventure has not been a total waste. Not at all.

I still very much enjoy City of Thieves. This was the first FF gamebook set inside an urban environment, and it came off very well. In terms of writing, all they really had to do was change the tunnels to streets and rooms to shops, but in doing so the city comes off as feeling very vibrant and alive. There feels like there's a lot going on at all times, and it's still one of my favorite of the series.


  1. Beat me to it! Funnily enough I rolled SKILL 12 on my first attempt too, which also ended in failure. It's a lot of fun though. I did manage to get the Jeremy Kyle face, although it didn't really matter in the end, except that Zanbar Bone mocked me for it while he drained the life out of me...

    1. "Hah, I can't believe you got a tattoo on your face! What are you, some kind of nutcase? Do you just do anything that drunk old men claiming to be wizards tell you to do? Ah it doesn't matter - c'mere, lunchtime."

  2. I also love City of Thieves. If going to the shops was as interesting as it is in this book, I wouldn't have minded being dragged around the shops when I was a child.

    1. I must admit, I do love the 'random insanity' of early FF books. Two elderly women dressed as babies and fighting over toys? Sure, why not! Those random little crazy moments are just to priceless :)

  3. Just thought I should point out that Sourbelly and Fatnose are meant to be trolls.

  4. Still my favorite FF. The urban setting was a refreshing change - houses had their own internal exploring, you went on ships and in shops, taverns, etc.

    I loved the "Bays' Ball" pun.

    I played this with a "Forrest Gump" character (Skill 7, Stamina 14, Luck 7 - the lowest scores possible) and made it through until I met the unavoidable Moon Dogs who turned me into kibble. Their skill scores made it impossible to get past them. A "Joe Average" (Skill 10, Stamina 19, Luck 10 - the statistical average scores (rounded up)) has an excellent chance of survival.

    The artwork actually includes references to all three components. The Hag's hair, black pearls and lotus flower all can be seen in the art in the book. The other items (tattoo and arrow) need to be created on request and obviously cannot be shown.

    A very nice touch - reading and remembering the introduction that discusses the Spirit Stalkers helps you in the adventure.

    After I leave Port Blacksand though, the twist in the plot with the components, combined with Yaztromo's forgetting to have me take the Hammer of Stonebridge in "Temple of Terror" (plus he doesn't really remember you from Forest of Doom) makes me wonder if all elderly good wizards in Allansia hide their own Easter eggs.

    1. you can find a +1 and a +2 Attack Strength boosters so that even with Skill 7 you do have a chance against the moonies

  5. Yeah I noticed that with the Trolls-you called them Orcs. You also called a Troll in 'Forest Of Doom' another Ogre. Great musings about the book. Very funny. You never said you got the Hag's Hair, but you won't get into Zan BAR-not zar Bone's tower without one so you're effectively done. The biggest shock the book offers is near the start. Now baring in mind we're just introduced to the World of FF through 'Forest Of Doom' and maybe the first ever book, to have a Dwarfy yell at two dogs "Kill the firends of Nicodemus!" is a bloody shock indeed. Being familiar with Yaztromo and the Stonerbridge shorties, I figured they went togther like pee in a bush. Apparently not all the time then.

    Moon Dogs would never be called it again-whn one turned up in FF14, it was called a DEATH DOG (and in 'Out Of The Pit'). Love the way the continuity keeps up. And someone tell Jakcosn he can't use GORGON for a MEDUSA! A Grogon is a monstrous bull with metal-like skin and petrifying breath like the Cockatrice.

    'City' is the last book where low scores can get you relatively far, but you never said if you got the Hag's hair from the sewer (if you ever went down it) and actually what those sweet little Bays give you is very useful indeed-what you moaning about. You're lucky you've so many items that when people nick stuff you can afford to give rubbish away instead. Clearly this was before the authors wised up and added "takes any 2/3 VAULABLE items from your pack". Of course bananas ARE vital if you're (a) a monkey and (b) starving to death. But I never thought you were either. I think there IS a brass monkey charm in this, or on a door, or am I thinking of 'Talisman Of Death' where it grips your arm.

    This is a great book-well a ten year old's diary would be a great book following the pointless likes of 'Starsh*t Traveller' and I find it easy to get into any environment if the book is great, so I still don't get this constant "dungeon crawl" moan. I'm sure you're all too high on computer games and not talking about these books at all sometimes. 'Midnight Rogue' went even further than this book-really took you into Thief life, but traded in some of the cool fanatasy ebings and scenearios for it. Also 'Talisman Of Death' is very showy and detailed on city life, while also delivering moors, hills, forests, plains, mountains and a bit of tunnels. It's the best way, most varied. 'Dead Of Night' showed village life and farmers struggling far away from the safety and luxury of the towns and 'Master Of Chaos' showed other sides of town life. I think most of the FF books that succeeded-and most of them have-deliver what they should. When they don't take the pee or trade off on the odd useless being. And speaking of which Spirit Stalkers are nothing to me-just wannabee Wraiths or Wights. Every now and then they do use a creature that really is a waste of space-it just a lousy space-filler for a D&D Monster they're not allowed to use by copyright. Just Skeletons in cloak, but it's silver you need to kill things like Wights and Wraiths. But they hadn't got that yet. Fabulous book though.

  6. I like being in a city for a change, though of course Port Blacksand seems as dangerous and lawless as any dungeon. I'd probably put City of Thieves up there with the first two books. So Ian introduces a new wizard, Nicodemus(an actual Greek name, not made up like Yaztromo), though I believe his only other appearance was a brief one in Midnight Rogue. I didn't think Zanbar Bone was such a great villain, my main problem being that despite how hard he is to beat, he only seems to be a threat to one city. He doesn't have the depth of Zagor the Warlock or Balthus Dire.

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  9. I find it strange that some report the villain as Zanzar and others say it's Zanbar. The Wiki and the new Port of Peril Book say it's ZanBAR.