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Hold still and don't fidget. See, Merlin (Yes, that Merlin), has cast a spell on you, modern day reader, that will transport your mind back in time to the days of King Arthur and his court. See, they weren't quite as competent as the legends portrayed and someone (you) needs to save their bacon. Merlin's too busy.
You, in the body of sturdy farmboy (or possibly farmgirl) Pip, go forth to defeat the evil wizard, dragon, black knight, what have you; armed only with your dice and your spells (in some books) and your talking sword; Excalibur Junior, "E.J", for short, and a lot of British humor.
A set of Choose Your Own Adventure type game books by J.H. Brennan, with eight books in the range:
- The Castle of Darkness (1984)
- The Den of Dragons (1984)
- The Gateway of Doom (1984)
- Voyage of Terror (1985)
- Kingdom of Horror (1985)
- Realm of Chaos (1986)
- Tomb of Nightmares (1986)
- Legion of the Dead (1987)
These books have the following tropes:
- AFGNCAAP: Pip's gender is carefully not given — Merlin's introduction calls him/her an "adopted child" of John the farmer, rather than "son" or "daughter", and of course the rest of the book is in Second Person Narration. Most obvious in the second book when the narrator is offering Pip some encouraging homilies, and one of them is "(S)he who hesitates is lost". Whenever Pip is illustrated it is only from the neck down.
- Always Accurate Attack: Many of Pip's spells, such as the Attacking Dart and Firefinger Bolt.
- Anachronism Stew: Clearly intentional and Played for Laughs as much as possible, as things like chocolate biscuits and Horlicks appear in the time of King Arthur.
- Anticlimax Boss
- In books 1 and 2 you have two Fireballs as part of your magic, each of which work on a roll of 6 or better and do 75 points of damage each. The main bosses for both books have 150 LIFE POINTS, and there are very few occasions outside of these boss battles where you will actually need to use a fireball, so unless you're unlucky the bosses could end up like this.
- The final boss in Legion of the Dead, the series' Grand Finale, is Merlin himself and the entire title Legion — and no fighting at all is involved, just one fairly easy to obtain item, and if you don't have it you don't even get killed, just teleported elsewhere.
- Anti-Frustration Features: Unlike Fighting Fantasy or Lone Wolf, the books allow a certain amount of fudging; you can roll for LIFE POINTS three times and keep the best result, and being killed rarely requires you to start over at the beginning (and you can usually ignore any already-killed enemies).
- Attack Backfire: In a gamebook from the saga, there's a sort of humanoid insect that you can fight. However, despite having only 25 health points, each of your attacks will give him more health. However, he'll let you go if you give him enough health points.
- Big Bad: Each book has at least one serving as the Final Boss, including the Wizard Ansalom, the Brass Dragon, the Black Knight, the Alligatoad, The Grunweazel Ghost (Do do do dooon), Grot the Lich and, finally Zombie Merlin.
- Bonus Boss: The Invisible Demon in the first book, the Tyrannosaurus Rex in the fourth, the Cherry Blossom Giant in the sixth.
- Cast From Hit Points: Pip's basic spells cost 3 LIFE POINTS; magic you can find in the adventure tends to take more.
- The Chief's Daughter: Sort of parodied: in one of the random events of The Voyage of Terror you stumble in a tribe of cannibals and must fight the chief's daughter in a duel. If you're killed you'll be eaten. If you're unconscious, she'll keep you as her pet. Even if you win, you'll have to run for your life.
- Comedic Sociopathy: A great deal of the injuries you sustain are presented as amusing, such as the double spear trap from Tomb of Nightmares that required you to tear the spears out of your stomach.
- Continuing Is Painful: Losing a fight against a vampire in Realm of Chaos requires you to deduct 15 LIFE POINTS from the total of your next incarnation.
- Covers Always Lie: These books are a lot less serious in tone than the covers would suggest.
- Cow Tools: The beginning of some books gave you a list of items to choose from. Said list would basically be a mixture of these and Chekhov's Gun, and the trick was figuring out which was which.
- Creepy Child: The daughters of the Ghost Grunweazel (Do do do doooon!) met in his lair.
- Critical Existence Failure: Averted — if you reach five hit points you fall unconscious (and are generally presumed dead unless the text says otherwise).
- Critical Encumbrance Failure: In the third book, Gateway of Doom, due to the title Gateway of the Ghastly Kingdom of the Dead being open the laws of Gravity have been affected. You roll two dice to find out your SPEED score, and you must deduct one point of SPEED for every item you pick up. If your SPEED score drops below half, you can only strike once for every two strikes your enemy gets.
- Death Is a Slap on The Wrist: The later books in particular (the boss fight in Voyage of Terror allowed you to return to two sections before the fight if you died, and the last two books allowed you to return to the section where you died).
- Doomy Dooms of Doom: Book 3, The Gateway of Doom.
- Dragon Rider: Pip gets to have a go in Legion of the Dead.
- Eldritch Abomination: The very first boss met in the last book. Also a sort of octopus-like monster met later in a ravine.
- Empathic Weapon: E.J. gives accuracy and attack bonuses. He's less useful against spiders, and if he's mad at you won't fight at all.
- Everything's Better with Chickens: The Savage Chickens in books 1 and 3. Subverted by book 4, where what appear to be chickens turn out to be weasels in disguise.
- Everything's Worse with Bears: The giant bear in the middle of a ruined shack for no reason in book 3, the invisible bear in book 5...
- Excalibur: A plot point in books 4 and 5 is the theft of Excalibur.
- Excalibur in the Stone: Averted. A lengthy paragraph in Voyage of Terror explicitly points out that the two swords are completely different.
- Experience Points: The rules regarding these were very hazy: you got one for "every battle or puzzle solved", but what defined these was never explained. In any event, you got one PERMANENT LIFE POINT for 20 experience points. The rules also say you can carry 10 PERMANENT LIFE POINTS to the next book, but you would need a very, very liberal definition of "puzzle" to get anywhere near that total.
- Fisher King: The victim of a curse in Legion of the Dead (see Mythology Gag).
- Fluffy the Terrible: Fred the demon in Kingdom of Horror.
- Full Boar Action: Despite his name, the Gunweazel Ghost (Do do do dooon!) looks like a boar man to you... if you have the Madman's helm equipped.
- Fun T-Shirt: E.J. also refuses to fight someone wearing his fan club T-shirt. She's not a club member, her sister is.
- Fun with Acronyms: Most of the spell names, including Pip's Outstanding Wallop (POW) and Pip's Incredibly Rapid Repeater (Pi R2)
- Game Over: When you die, you are sent to Section 14, which would make fun of you before telling you that, next time, you can skip the intro and ignore any enemies you killed (later books changed it so you had to fight them again, but they had half the LIFE POINTS they had previously). What is less nice is that some items and gold that were picked up by Pip will also be missing.
- Gameplay and Story Integration: When you fight the "ghost" of Ansalom in book three, after his defeat, you find a copy of your spellbook on him. This one also has Resurrection, which prevents death once if successful. He wasn't a ghost, he had succesfully cast Resurrection after you killed him, and then cast an Invisibility spell. But he's dead now.
- Guest Star Party Member: In The Voyage of Terror you can be helped on your quest by Jason, Herakles or Achille.
- He Knows About Timed Hits: Merlin breaks the fourth wall to give you the basic instructions, as do several other characters (if a character gives you an item that will stay with you even if you die, they will explicitly say that it stays with you in section 14).
- Hell: Where you begin in the final book.
- Hit Points: Called LIFE POINTS.
- I Don't Like the Sound of That Place: The Ghastly Kingdom of the Dead in book 3, the eponymous Kingdom of Horror in book 5.
- Infinity+1 Sword: Bizarre aversion. Excalibur is mentioned as being a +10 weapon, making it actually less powerful than the very basic magic Pip is equipped with for the first book.
- Intercontinuity Crossover: In book 4, Pip can meet with Long John Silver. No, really.
- Killer Rabbit: In book 2, a fluffy white rabbit can give Pip a tough fight. Certainly no relation at all with another incarnation of the Arthurian myth.
- King Arthur: Complete with spoofing by Second Person British Smartass.
- Kleptomaniac Hero: You can get a lot of gold in these games. Lampshaded when you have to fight your Evil Twin in one book and you can get out of it by offering your clone an extremely large bribe.
- Lost Forever: There's only one way to lose E.J. permanently: try to use him to clear away the black cobwebs in a cursed chest. This is in fact an error, presumably introduced by poor proofreading; the reference numbers to the correct and incorrect options seem to have been mixed up, and using E.J. here is in fact the right thing to do, meaning that E.J. cannot be Lost Forever.
- The Many Deaths of You: To the point that the last two books include a "Deathometer" to keep track of how many times you died.
- Medieval European Fantasy
- Medium Awareness: The characters are all aware that they are in a gamebook, and talk freely about dice, LIFE POINTS, and section numbers.
- Memetic Badass: Pip has definitely become this, in-universe, by the time of the final book.
- Mr. Exposition: Merlin.
- Mythology Gag: The Wizard Ansalom appears only in the first book as a boss but re-appears as a ghost in the third book and is often quoted in later episodes. In the last book you even find a castle under his curse... which disappears as soon as you mention that Ansalom is long dead.
- Nintendo Hard: Tomb of Nightmares, with its massive numbers of traps and powerful enemies and precious few opportunities for healing.
- No-Gear Level: The whole of book 4, Voyage of Terror.
- Non-Indicative Name: At no point in this series do you ever go on a quest for the Holy Grail.
- Nonstandard Game Over: All the deaths instruct you to turn to paragraph 14, but a few times the text tells you that your fate is so bad as to be worse than 14, so you may as well save yourself the trouble and go to 14, such as when you get stuck looking at the magic mirror in Gateway of Doom.
- Obvious Beta: Realm of Chaos features several paragraphs that don't link together properly, and several characters give you clues and instructions that never come into play (such as when you receive the Universal Key to unlock the chest containing the Mirror Shield, and then the Shield is just lying in a random cupboard). Furthermore, the curse on Camelot is originally blamed on the Wizard Kran. When you find him, he tells you it wasn't him and explains the rest of the plot to you. It is possible to go through the adventure without meeting Kran, and hence the story just becomes you stumbling around until you stop the curse by accident.
- Odd Name Out: King Blogwort's royal advisors in Kingdom of Horror: Tom, Dick, Harry and the Reverend Plantagenet O'Rourke.
- Off with His Head: It is possible to decapitate yourself with EJ if you fail a dice roll to remove a magical collar that is choking you to death in Legion of the Dead.
- Oh Crap: If you manage to stumble into the Vampire Crypt in Gateway of Doom...
- Old Save Bonus: Certain items and spells carried over to the next book; until book 4 Voyage of Terror, where you go into the mind of some random Greek kid instead. You go back to Pip in 5, but presumably Merlin hocked your stuff.
- Our Dragons Are Different: The Brass Dragon is the main villain to kill in book 2, and in book 5 you can summon Green Alchemic Dragons.
- Our Liches Are Different: Grot, the Big Bad in The Tomb of Nightmares is a lich.
- Our Vampires Are Different: The Poetic Fiend is a poet vampire who appears in every book and will usually help Pip... provided he compliments his poetry or else... There are also regular vampire enemies, and a vampire made out of gold, not to mention the dreaded Vampire Carrot.
- Painful Rhyme: Done In-Universe with every single one of the Poetic Fiend's appearances; Pip has to sit down to recover from how awful one piece of prose is. On one occasion where he composes a limerick that is actually passable, Pip reacts with surprise.
- Pit Trap: Gateway of Doom really went to town with these, including a room that consisted of about half a dozen unavoidable pit traps in a row.
- Portal Book: Via Merlin's Net Spell.
- Press X to Die: JH Brennan's gamebooks require you to always turn to paragraph 14 when you die. Resultantly there are several cases where you can kill yourself:
If the shock of this has killed you, turn to 14. If not, turn to 64.
- Rhymes on a Dime: The Poetic Fiend
- Running Gag: Several.
- Among them, Merlin's different houses, a new one in each book.
- Pip's different titles that he gets given: by the end he's known as "Pip the Wizard Basher, Dragon Slayer, Gateway Closer, Realm Saver, and Chaos Tamer", and is frequently referred to by his entire title in spite of the current circumstances.
- Also the one about the Ghost Grunweazel (Do do do dooon!) in The Realm Of Chaos.
- Sir Pelinore being mistaken for the Dreaded Black Knight of Avalon by Pip, which culminates in The Gateway of Doom, where the real Black Knight tries to pass himself off as Pelinore, only for it to fail as Pip's made the same mistake too many times before.
- Sadist Teacher: The Evil Math Teacher in book 3.
- The Scottish Trope: Played for laugh with the Ghost Grunweazel (Do do do Doooon!).
- Shock and Awe: Pip spends Kingdom of Horror with a metal bolt charged with electricity jammed through his/her neck as a result of Merlin's experiments, which can be used in battles.
- In book 5, if you find one of Merlin's old houses: he apparently keeps books "about some idiot named Fire*Wolf", another series that J.H. Brennan wrote.
- Likewise, in J.H. Brennan's gamebook Dracula's Castle, Dracula's library contains the complete series of Grail Quest ("a sign that Dracula is clearly dangerously insane").
- Spoiler Opening: The beginning of Voyage of Terror presents itself much like any other with Merlin casting the Net Spell, and at the beginning Pip is totally unaware that s/he isn't in Avalon, having to wander around until s/he discovers otherwise. Unfortunately the blurb on the inside front cover and back of the book make it clear that Merlin's magic has accidentally sent Pip back to Ancient Greece.
- Summon Everyman Hero: While Merlin doesn't summon the body of an everyman hero, he does summon their mind to inhabit Pip's body. Your mind.
- Super Drowning Skills: Pip can't swim, and this comes up several times in The Den of Dragons, where you essentially have to roll dice to see if you can learn to swim on the spot.
- Talking Weapon: Oh, and E.J. also speaks. He gets more talkative as the series progresses, and in later books gains the ability to read your thoughts.
- Too Awesome to Use: Enforced with the sunstone in Legion of the Dead. It can either give you a massive amount of PERMANENT LIFE POINTS or a massive amount of gold, but if you use it at any time apart from in the boss battle with Merlin and the Legion you can't win the game.
- Useless Useful Spell: In one of the earlier books you receive the spell PIP (Pip's Immunity to Poison). At one point you are presented with a poisoned meal, and given a subtle prompt to do "something" before eating. The page you turn to determines whether you live or die by a random roll, not even mentioning the spell; if you live, it's because you're immune to that particular poison. The spell doesn't affect it at all.
- Violation of Common Sense: Lampshaded thusly:
"If you're mad enough to try and make friends with the spider..."
- Weaksauce Weakness: Averted with the Golden Vampire in book 7: The cross does nothing but the Golden Garlic can hypnotize him.
- What Happened to the Mouse?: Towards the end of Voyage of Terror, a Sidetrack Bonus features a disembodied voice which informs you that it is the only person who can tell you where Excalibur is hidden. In the next book, Kingdom of Horror, you have to find Excalibur (following on from the end of Voyage), but the mysterious voice is never mentioned. From the same book, once you've made your way back to Camelot, Jason and the Argonauts are never mentioned again.
- The mysterious voice might well be that of the silver-skinned creature who sends you into the Fairy Kingdom in Kingdom of Horror.
- Your Head Asplode: Pip's head explodes in Realm of Chaos. This is accompanied by a full-page illustration of said explosion.
Now turn to 14.