Sunday, October 17, 2010

#4 - "Starship Traveller" by Steve Jackson (1983)

This was actually the first Fighting Fantasy book I ever got, I might've been maybe 6 at the time. I vaguely remember my mother trying to read it to me before getting fed up with the dice rolls and letting me work it out for myself. (Pause a moment to consider this hinge in my life where I might instead have been given a tiny set of golf clubs or TOMY's "My First Cancer Research Laboratory" and sigh for what could have been). My memories on the matter are shaky but I'm pretty sure that despite numerous play-throughs my cheating little ass never won it, for reasons that will become apparent.


The cover depicts three stalwart crewmen from the Traveller locked in gladiatorial combat with a "Man-Slayer Robot", a scene from the book that I didn't experience on my play through. There are several details about this illustration that baffled me as a kid, and they yield no more readily to the bludgeoning of my adult mind. Take homeboy with with the blue cut-off top for example - his left arm's been amputated at the elbow. And it's not like the Man-Slayer chopped it off just now either, that there's a stump, cleanly healed. Weird detail. Or the third fellow, lying on the ground hugging Lt. Blue's trackie bottoms - his eyes are glowing red? -- yessir we definitely playing a sci-fi book this time out, 'cos that shit right there is some space-type shit.


Also in evidence here is the Illustrator's Bane, AKA the irrational fear of drawing feet.


Lt. Blue's left foot is obscured by an unnaturally thick cloud of space dust, while his right is, um, behind a spiky thing (what is that thing?) Warrant Officer Red-Eyes doesn't have any feet since his lower body is presumably stuffed into the same car-boot as homeboy's forearm. But the Grand Prize for Foot Avoidance has to go to the feller in red, whose legs seems to just be evaporating from the knees down.

But on the other hand, there's always the U.S. cover:


So crap, and yet, they have feet.


Background


In one of several departures from the standard format, this book doesn't have a Background section. But basically the concept of this book is that you are the captain of the Starship Enterprise, the pride of Starfleet -- uh, sorry I mean: the Starship Traveller, the pride of - erm - "AstroNavy". Yeah, this book wears its Star Trek influences very much on its sleeve and I don't doubt that Steve Jackson would've just gone whole hog and bootlegged it as a Star Trek adventure were it not for the fear of Gene Roddenberry’s legal hit squad.

A rare "posse shot" of Gene Roddenberry's lawyers

Rolling Up My Team


Steve Jackson got tinkering again and came up with a bunch of different rules for various science-fictiony scenarios such as have a spaceship fight or shooting lasers at HUMANOIDS. You have to roll up stats not only for yourself but also for your ship and several members of your crew, who can accompany you on missions and get themselves killed. Here's what I rolled:


The Starship Traveller
WEAPONS STRENGTH - 12
SHIELDS - 16


(This was irrelevant since I never got into any ship-to-ship combat).


Captain
SKILL 7
STAMINA 19
LUCK 12


Science Officer
SKILL 11
STAMINA 19


Medical Officer
SKILL 12
STAMINA 17


Engineering Officer
SKILL 9
STAMINA 20


Security Chief
SKILL 10
STAMINA 16


Guard 1
SKILL 9
STAMINA 20
 
Guard 2  
SKILL 12
STAMINA 21



First thing you notice about this crew is that everybody's more competent than the captain, kind of a space Dilbert scenario. I think of the Captain as just this Mr. Magoo-ass dude with a father-in-law high up in the admiralty at AstroNavy. “Guard 2” on the other hand is proof that sometimes, cream sinks to the bottom. Guard 2 spends most his work-day rushing about frantically opening doors and stacking up mattresses every time the Captain steps onto a stray roller-skate. He is like Hong Kong Phooey’s cat. “Long-suffering” doesn't begin to describe it for Guard 2.


The Adventure
The adventure begins with our Captain, the nonce, driving the starship into a black hole (or being “sucked through the appalling nightmare of the Seltsian Void”, if you prefer)


See the black hole? It's the black bit. Don't drive into that bit.
But, instead of being ripped apart by tidal forces in a rapidly cascading sequence of ever more delicate dismemberments, everyone just staggers from one side of the bridge to the other for a while before blacking out.


The crew awakens, with bleary eyes and thick tongues, to the sight of strange constellations glaring through the portholes. “WTF THIS SHIT IS NOT ON OUR SPACE MAPS” the Navigation Officer announces unconvincingly, and after some chin-stroking the Science Officer concludes that you must have wound up in a parallel universe... might as well take a gander at some solar systems nearby. There’s one straight ahead, one to the port, and one to the starboard – yes, despite the great three-dimensional void of trackless space, the Starship Traveller is in fact situated at one of the classic mainstays of Fighting Fantasy – a T-junction. Deciding between destinations - say, visiting a green star versus a blue star - is Starship's spin on the left-or-right, live-or-die direction-choosing action we expect from Fighting Fantasy. What's a little bit neat about Starship is that that each celestial encounter plays out as its own little self-contained challenge, rather like episodes of a TV show (albeit one that gets cancelled midway through the first season) - accordingly, I have written up my experience of the book as a phoney episode guide (just bear with me on this concept okay).


A word first on your over-arching mission in the book - during your journey you find yourself collecting factoids about black holes. Though I don't think anyone really announces it, the crew of the Traveller seem to have a common understanding that the first order of business is to find another likely looking black hole and steer down its throat. The victory paragraph can only be reached by adding two numbers, one representing a black hole location and the other representing the date you decide to fly through it (along the way you also pick up useless facts like the recommended speed of approach for the black hole just so Steve Jackson can make you feel like a tit for writing it down). So during your visits to alien cultures you are often given the chance to rummage among their astronomical charts for dubious black hole trivia.


"Starship Traveller" Episode Guide 


Episode 1 - "What Price, Freedom?"
First aired March 9, 1983
Synopsis: The Traveller away team visits a world without laws, whose citizens obey only their whims, and where all public decisions are made through slow and painfully won consensus. In the dramatic highlight of the episode, the team are attacked by some violence-loving locals and the Captain is nearly beaten to death before Guard 2 can subdue the attackers. Ultimately, the crew of Traveller depart with new knowledge of the strange new universe in which they find themselves (and facts about black holes).


Episode 2 - "Unquiet Spirits"
First aired March 16, 1983
Synopsis: The Traveller orbits a world in ruins. Exploring the surface, the away team experience alarming visions and seemingly spectral visitations and attacks. As a brief comic interlude in an otherwise dark episode, the Captain stumbles while backing away from the imagined shade of his disapproving father-in-law and gets his hand caught in a jam jar. Ultimately it is revealed that the world is still contaminated with a weaponized hallucinogen used in the last days of an apocalyptic war. But the jam jar turns out to be real. 


Episode 3 - "Live Long... and Despair"
First aired March 23, 1983
Synopsis: The away team beams down to Culematter, a dystopian world where the otherwise immortal inhabitants are subject to the depredations of quota-driven death squads called the "Population Controllers". The away team soon run afoul of Population Controllers and are taken to an extermination centre.


This handsome lad shows up for just long enough to explain the plot before Population Controllers burst into the room and ventilate his thorax. 
While trying to contact the ship, the Science Officer inadvertently discovers that the inhabitants of Culematter can be paralyzed by certain broadcast frequencies from his communicator, allowing the away team to make their escape. In a final twist that confused audiences, the Captain accidentally removes the head of a Culematter native while trying to steal its helmet, revealing nothing but a mass of wires and circuitry within.


Episode 4 - "Blame It On The Rain"
First aired March 30, 1983
Synopsis: The away team explores Cliba, a world suffering from endless rainstorms. The primitive people of Cliba worshop an entity they call "the Rain Lord" to whom they attribute the disastrous rains. Travelling to the Rain Lord's castle, the team discover not a god but an alien castaway from a more materially advanced culture who has used weather control technology to establish himself as a despot. However the dial on his weather machine has gone bung and it is now set to permanent torrential rain - the Traveller's Science Officer gives it a heavy slap and all is resolved.
Note: The explanation of the Rain Lord's weather control given in this episode provoked numerous letters of complaint to the TV Guide from meteorologists and other concerned parties.


Episode 5 - "Do We Not Die"
First aired April 6, 1983
Synopsis: Mysterious deaths occur on-ship following a visit to an crash-landed ship that was broadcasting a distress signal. The deaths are traced back to a contagious "poison" brought back with the away team and further deaths are averted through good quarantine practice. 


Episode 6 - "Free Parking"
First aired April 13, 1983
Synopsis: The Traveller is intercepted in deep space by a warship of the Ganzig Confederation, a reptilian species. Acquiescing without a fight, the Captain permits the Traveller to be escorted to a starbase. The Captain meets the Starbase Commander and they have a polite discussion, while the crew of Traveller take some time to relax. Meanwhile, through a porthole in the background of one scene, the Ganzig warship is shown leaving the starbase without further explanation. At the conclusion of the episode the Traveller continues on its way unchallenged.
Note: Known as "The Episode Where Nothing Happened", "Free Parking" is popularly thought to have prompted the sudden cancellation of the series which was enacted before any further episodes could be shown. However this network decision should be seen against a backdrop of lacklustre ratings that had been consistently falling since Starship Traveller's debut.


Failure and Death


Though Starship Traveller failed to attract a broad audience, there was a hardcore group of fans who were appalled by its abrupt termination and campaigned hard to have it put back on air. After more than a year of complaints and petitions, the network approved production of a single episode to resolve the show's dangling storyline. The producers hurriedly re-united those of the show's original scriptwriters not yet debilitated by alcohol poisoning, and pulled together a group of hastily cast stand-ins along with the few members of the original cast who were not already committed under contract for live appearances in chain restaurants. While many key members of the original production crew were able to return, one important element was missing - the model of the Starship Traveller itself, which had gone missing in the interim (the dark gray blanket that was dangled behind it to represent the interstellar void was still in storage, as were numerous Christmas tree ornaments). The ultimate fate of the original Traveller model remains a matter of some speculation and fake mock-ups are still known to appear for sale on e-Bay every couple of years or so, masquerading as the genuine article.


The original 1983 Starship Traveller


The hasty replacement used for new exterior shots in the '84 Christmas special, a bowl.
From this position of disadvantage and against an aggressive deadline, the producers' frantic labours to provide a satisfactory conclusion to the grossly truncated Traveller saga resulted in the now notorious "Starship Traveller 1984 Christmas Special".


Starship Traveller '84 Christmas Special 
First aired December 21, 1984
Synopsis: The episode opens at a Christmas dinner in the mess hall of the Traveller. The Captain - now plainly wearing a girdle beneath his uniform - proposes a toast to the diginity of the humankind as embodied by the Christmas spirit, and to absent friends - in the process briefing the audience on the various crew members who have been sold into slavery, died by standing too close to volcanoes et cetera in various adventures assumed to have happened since the last broadcast episode, "Free Parking".


The mood around the dinner table is glum as the parallel universe substitutes for turkey and glazed ham are convincing neither in appearance nor taste. Talk turns homesick, and as the space brandy flows, mutinous and dark. Guard 1 speaks first against their Captain, pointing at him with a hyperspace turkey drumstick, and soon other voices chime in on his many disastrous decisions and the toll these have taken in lives. Stammering, the Captain is only able to salvage the situation by announcing that he has determined the co-ordinates of a black hole that he is "99% sure" will transport the Traveller back to their home universe.
The remainder of the episode depicts the various moments of emotional conflict and closure as the crew conduct their preparations to travel through the black hole with a tenuous and brittle optimism, including a sub-plot in which Guard 2 attempts to puzzle through the Captain's astro-navigational calculations in a spreadsheet. Some of these scenes were passably well-written but audiences were confused by the many substitutions of new actors into old roles, as evidence by the title of one critic's review - "Who Are These People And Why Are They Kissing".




Ernest Borgnine Jr., who stood in for the iconic "Science Officer" character in the ill-received '84 Special, was given no lines and was not even listed in the credits. 


Tension ramps up as the command crew strap themselves into their seats on the bridge and commit the course into the heart of the black hole. Well wishes are murmured out like farewells as the whine of straining machinery increases to a shriek. Suddenly, Guard 2 bursts into the room, wild-eyed, and delivers the now famous line "Wait, there's been a mistake in the rounding", abruptly cut off by the sound of an explosion and fourteen seconds of dead air. Finally, the credits roll over footage of the remorseless void (i.e., a dark gray blanket) as a tinny, reverbed version of Bing Crosby's "I'll Be Home For Christmas" plays to fade.


The Starship Traveller 1984 Christmas Special is generally regarded to be the most depressing Christmas Special ever.


The SKELETON Report




So obviously there aren't any magically animated SKELETONS in space. Nor are there any barely obscured genitalia as per Forest of Doom (unless I was misidentifying the anatomy of various aliens). The only things I noticed that was worth counting were interpretive dancers.


There were 4 of those.
Final Thoughts


Starship Traveller really is an odd one out among the early Fighting Fantasy books. There were a few things I liked - the greater sense of interactions between characters - the fun ideas underlying some of the "episodes", and their comparative depth considered against the short encounters in the preceding three books - the fact that in several cases, when presented with a problem I could deduce the likely outcomes of my options based on logic and common sense and select accordingly (compare this with the baffling item-choices in Citadel - should I give the GANJEES a tub of ointment or a spider in a jar? What?) 

But the adventure felt a bit unsatisfactory overall, which mainly arises from the annoying victory conditions. My depiction of the "final episode" is not far off how it plays out in the book - after a while the crew will simply demand that you fly into a black hole, and if you refuse they begin committing suicide (!) - surely if the Bounty mutineers could tolerate life on Pitcairn Island, the crew of Traveller can stand having a whole new universe to explore? Coupled with that is the sheer difficulty of getting the numbers for the "good" black hole you have to fly through and then guessing the right combination of time and place out of the various possibilities - replays ad nauseum would be required to legitimately win this one I suspect. 

Anyway, I'll see you in a few weeks' time for the next exciting installment - City of Thieves - which, hearteningly, features a SKELETON right there on the cover.

Monday, August 9, 2010

#3 - "The Forest of Doom" by Ian Livingstone (1983)


Apologies all, a month of distractions of every stripe, personal and professional, has kept me secluded from the central business of my life, which I ASSURE YOU remains the hard-hitting analysis of Fighting Fantasy gamebooks, and the enumeration of Skeleton-men. Let us pray that my life can struggle on free from incident for another three years or so, and perhaps the Great Work can be accomplished.

I should begin by pointing out that as a youngster nothing got my blood up like this cover portrait, entitled SHAPE-CHANGER, Beckoning, Steps Over A Log. There is no more elegant nor effective way to convey that concept the French know as "malĂ©diction de la forĂȘt" - I really do hope that the original is hanging spotlighted on a huge white wall somewhere, observed by grand men in tuxedos as canapes are served. However, like most of the early titles in the series the cover art was changed a few times over the release history. In the case of "Forest", you have to assume that there were commercial considerations at play since all adjustments seem to have been to the worse.

For instance, the version below obviously takes the original as a jumping off point but alloys it with kind of an underground hip-hop vibe:

The Reptilian Shape-Changer rap (contains spoilers): "MC I-C-K-E the name, that's how it spelt -- I seen alla y'all staring at the pouch on my belt -- got a SKILL of 10, and STAMINA too -- draw your steel on me, y'all wind up in a stew -- seasoned with some mushrooms that I found on a logg -- don't act like we friends, mayne, 'cos you ain't my dogg -- disguised as a goblin wit' a handle round my neck -- I come real stealth and I come correct -- leave you wit' brown stains on your Fruits of the Loom -- 'cos you should'na oughta come to THA FOREST OF DOOM" 
In this case the new cover isn't really bad, it's just a bit unnecessary. But there's worse yet:

There's just so much DOOM in this picture!
I guess this is from an American release or something because I've never seen an FF gamebook that remotely resembles it. There's such on overabundance of absurd and doomful detail in this illustration that I could easily expend another thousand or more words on it, but, to keep things moving fluidly let me merely highlight a few details for the reader's edification.

As an artist, it's easy to become a victim of Too Many Good Ideas.

Background

From the introduction to "Forest" I inferred three notable innovations, departures from the preceding "Warlock" and "Citadel":


1) You don't have to assassinate a wizard.
2) You (the protagonist) can be charitably described as a socially maladjusted loner with a talent for violence, or less charitably, as a batshit-crazy psychotic who takes his coffee with milk and two lumps of SWORD-MURDER.
3) This time - you're in a forest.

Point 2 may raise some eyebrows given that this is supposed to be heroic fantasy, but I think the text bears it out. In the Background, we are told of your avoidance of company and how you have "always spurned the dullness of village life" (read: INABILITY TO CONNECT WITH OTHERS / DISDAIN FOR NORMS OF COMMUNAL LIVING), your dreams of troll-slaughter (read: HOMICIDAL IDEATION), and your loving fascination with your sword (read: CRAZY SWORD MURDERER).

"There's a full moon, and the light sparkles on the blade of your broadsword skewered into the ground by your side. You gaze at it, wondering when you will next have to wipe the blood of some vile creature from its sharp edge."

And then there's the fact that you're roaming about the wilderness, alone, just searching for things to kill, which sort of clinched it for me: Nutcase.

So one night a dwarf called "Bigleg" (no, really) bumbles into your campsite with a gutful of poisoned crossbow quarrels, and with his dying breath he begs you to carry on his quest to find "the hammer" and deliver it to the village of Stonebridge. This appeals to you as it promises violence, so you take up the mission without much reflection. In fact Bigleg's last words are fairly expansive as he also bequeaths you some money, recommends a place to go shopping for magic items, relives exciting moments from his recent past ("Ambush! Ambush! Aargh!"), badmouths "little people" (kind of rich coming from a dwarf) and finally hands over this map:

That's one shitty fuckin' map, Bigleg.

So sure enough section 1 kicks off as you arrive with your purse jangling at Yaztromo's Tower, which seems to have been architecturally inspired by a Hawkwind album cover. Yaztromo himself waddles down to the door and invites you up to shell out your dead dwarf's gold in exchange for enchanted curios. The protagonist is such a piece of work that he immediately considers whipping his sword out and running the old man through... since I try to stay in character, and my character was plainly psychotic, I drew my sword. Yaztromo warned me that he could "do magic" and so reluctantly I restrained the wholeseome and natural impulse towards wizard-murder and meekly truckled my way into the Forest of Doom gift-shop. 

(I didn't really believe our protagonist would've backed down, but I also didn't want to end the adventure prematurely. I took a peek later on and as I suspected, if you press the attack, Yaztromo PUTS YOU DOWN HARD. In fact he turns you into a frog. This definitely shows a lot of class on Yaztromo's part, along with a wry, "old school" sensibility. But fear not, and read on - my exceptional role-playing skills and commitment to the authenticity of the character would purchase my fate before "The Forest of Doom" was through)

Yaztromo has an inventory of about twenty magic items and you start with enough money to buy roughly half of them, so I picked up all the butch sounding ones ("Armband of Strength" yep - "Glove of Missile Dexterity" yes, please - "Potion of Stillness" and "Nose Filters", you can stay right there on the shelf). Yaztromo then politely inquires as to your business, leading to the embarrassing admission that you are looking for an unspecified "hammer" to take to "Gillibran", a character you know nothing about. This launches Yaztromo into a shaggy dog story explaining that the macguffin in question is a sacred war-hammer without which dwarven king Gillibran is "unable to arouse his people", because,  see, some other dwarven king sent an eagle to steal it and the eagle got the hammer and was flying back over Darkwood but then some "death-hawks" flew up and attacked the eagle so he dropped the hammer and then some goblins found it and... anyway it's a pretty dumb story and you have to wonder why Yaztromo knows the full sequence of events in all their silly detail. The upshot is that the handle got unscrewed from the head and the two parts of the hammer are lost somewhere in the forest, maybe in the possession of a couple of goblins... Yaztromo's intimate knowledge of the narrative suddenly evaporates at the point where he could've told you something useful. Too dim to be deterred by this news, our sociopathic hero wanders off into the trees, fondling the grip of his sword.

Rolling Up My Dude

Starting stats:
SKILL - 12
STAMINA - 15
LUCK - 11

Another good SKILL roll! Low STAMINA, but starting from this book, the restrictions about eating provisions are gone (i.e. only one meal at a time and only when explicitly told you can eat it), which makes STAMINA a deal less important.

The Healing Power of Food: By eating ten meals simultaneously you can recover utterly from the brink of death three times over. This is what 40 STAMINA points worth of hot dogs looks like.

The Adventure

Darkwood Forest turns out to be rather a lot like the dungeon from "Warlock" only with pathways instead of corridors - lots of random direction choosing. You wander from encounter to encounter and are occasionally asked if you possess one of Yaztromo's wares, in which case it will confer some fleeting advantage.  Structurally speaking, it is not a particularly interesting adventure as you really are just roaming around at random hoping to stumble across the two pieces of the warhammer - there's no sense of tracking, or looking for clues. So, I gadded about the forest for a time, out into the hills, back into the forest,  up a tree, down a well, etc - west, north, east, north, south, west - just blundering from fight to fight until I emerged blinking from the trees to this:


Stonebridge! At last! Now what was I supposed to be doing again?
My search methodology of crashing through the trees attacking anything that reminded me of my mother had the expected results, i.e. I had neither hammerhead nor handle. At this point, the protagonist of "Warlock" would probably have sat down and had a little weep, however in "Forest" you are instead given the chance to go back to the beginning - walking around the edge of the forest to return to Yaztromo's tower - i.e. paragraph 1, the start of the adventure. Once again you can, if you please, menace him with your sword, be warned off, and sit through his dubious tale about the hammer-thieving eagle. I went through this charade and bought out the remainder of his inventory before continuing into the forest, trying to choose new paths and avoid awkward deja vu. I confess that I had become pretty sick of "Forest of Doom" at this point, and so I had my eye out for a suitable demise for my disagreeable anti-hero - quite convinced, by this time, that he was merely an axe shy of "axe-wielding lunatic", and that it really would be best for all concerned if he were to end up face-down in the shade somewhere. I'll relate the results in a moment, but first, a few of my more notable encounters...

Monsters and Combat

There is a lot of combat in this book - especially since, even if a creature is not initially hostile, you're almost always given the option to just go ahead and attack it. And playing true to the character, that's exactly what I did. This led to a few entertaining situations, e.g. in the case of this GNOME...

Get your hand off it, GNOME.
...you first awaken him with "a gentle push" before being given the option of attacking him in a panic after he frowns at you. (Better yet, when you do so, he magicks your sword into a carrot - this was one of the forest's few denizens whose life I was unable to end, but I could at least petulantly throw my carrot at him).

Another wretch who got away was this CENTAUR. The text did a lot to talk up his fine qualities, describing him as both "noble" and "magnificent" and suggesting that I might like to ride on his back across the river.

This noble CENTAUR appears to be molded purely from magnificent  porridge and beard.
Naturally, I foamed at the mouth and charged him with sword aloft, prompting him to loose an arrow at me and then gallop away shouting "NEIGH NEIGH" in Belgian-accented English. "Maybe fighting the noble centaur is not such a good idea after all" the text chided, to which I responded: "Maybe you can ask a pigeon not to shit, but if you wanna be sureyou gotta press your finger on his bum" and left with my head held high in the ensuing silence.


Murder-inspired home invasion was another of my protagonist's vices. The image below shows what happens when you clamber uninvited through the window of an APE-MAN's treehouse just when he's running a bath.

APE-MAN draws aside the shower curtain and, OH MY GOOOOOOOD, it's the fright of his life!

Elsewhere, you can burst into a hut to find an old woman sitting in a chair reading a book. Once again you are invited to draw your sword and slay her...and even should you choose not to, here's what you're told:


The old woman throws back her head and roars with laughter as you start to make conversation. She is an evil woman. Lose 1 LUCK point and draw your sword.

You don't like the quiet ones. No sir. But the worst ones, the ones that really get to you, those are the ones who laugh. (And there I was thinking I was gonna to have to work to make the case for Fighting Fantasy protagonist as homicidal maniac).

A final honorable mention goes to these clueless BANDITS who wanted to mug me for "five objects from [my] backpack". Just any old "objects", huh? This is a gang with low aspirations - four rubber bands and last Sunday's "whoopsie" Y-fronts, coming right up.

"Might be rude to point this out, miss, but you got yourself one sorry-looking gang of peckerwoods. And if you'll pardon my saying so, they don't scare me a lick. So why ain't you just move along 'fore somebody decides to pluck that lil' hatchet out your dainty grip and put it to a finer purpose."
I killed them all and laughed.

Failure and... Death?

So, partway through my second meander through Darkwood Forest, I decided to jump into a dark tunnel that I found inside a hollow tree trunk (getting some mileage out of Yaztromo's "Rope of Climbing" in the process). Because, why not, that dang old hammerhead's just as likely to be down there as anywhere else.

What I found instead was a underground society of mute, wizened little men who grow green- and red-topped mushrooms.


In a twist ripped from today's headlines, it is revealed these fellows are all CLONES.
After decapitating one of the CLONES to the general indifference of its peers, I yelled at two of them to give me some green-topped mushrooms before realizing that they weren't going to respond, and  helping myself, ripped great fistfuls of green mushrooms from the floor, forcing them into my slavering mouth. Truly a defining moment - my thuggish protagonist bellowing impotently for these tiny emaciated men to bring him some mushrooms is, for me, one of the book's enduring images.

Wandering upstairs from the mushroom cavern bought me a brief encounter with some military-caste CLONES who presented little challenge. Waiting one landing up however, was the local swinging dick:

A FIRE-DEMON: That'd be gouts of white hot flame shooting from his nostrils, I suppose.
This balrog-wannabe may have worn out the artist's pencil with all that shading but he didn't wear out my god-given talent for slaughter as I put him down despite his SKILL of 10 and annoying extra rules about hitting you with a whip. I plucked his crown from his head as he crumbled to ashes beneath it and stood there toying with the thing as I contemplated a previously unnoticed "magnificent throne", flanked by two grovelling CLONES. Feigning nonchalance, the book then asks if you would like to maybe sit on the throne or, gee I dunno, put the crown on your head...?

So, duh, that's pretty obviously a big old TRAP, baited with the empty trappings of power. But, I had to ask myself - what would a murdering son-of-a-bitch really do in this situation? Answer - GO FOR THE GLORY. And so, humming  "Princes of the Universe" under my breath, I ascended the steps to the throne, sat down, and donned that fabulous crown.

Two things happen when you do this. One is that you suddenly have a telepathic link with the CLONE slaves and, in a surpassingly odd detail, they ask you what you would like them to do with the latest crop of red-topped mushrooms. The other thing that happens is that you turn into a FIRE DEMON (oops). In that instant, your adventure ends as you embark on a rewarding new career - supervisor at the mushroom farm. I can't help but feel that the crazy bastard would've been more satisfied with his crown and the eternal adulation of mindless thralls than whatever grudging thanks he might've received for retrieving the damn hammer, so I think of this ending as "the psychopath's 400".


Oh, and for what it's worth, let me point out that I had at least found the hammer handle by this point - one of the GOBLINS still had it on him, but he'd been gimped by a CAVE TROLL... can you guess how I got the handle back? That's right, I murdered them both.

An unconventional household.

The SKELETON Report


Another alarming result that throws into doubt everything I thought I knew about Ian Livingstone and his penchant for SKELETONS. Nonetheless, I still predict that when the full accounting is done, there will be an average of at least three or four SKELETONS per gamebook across the series.

Anyway, since the "Forest of Doom" SKELETON Report is another fizzler, I present instead:


The BARELY OBSCURED GENITALIA Report

And here's your host: Christopher Atkins' loin-cloth from the Columbia Pictures feature presentation "The Blue Lagoon"



Bear in mind that I am being pretty stringent in my criteria here - were I to count every goblin or other stock fantasy humanoid in this book depicted swanning about with a scandously short tunic somehow clinging to their bare and spindly thighs the tally would be considerably greater.

I counted the CENTAUR as one - you've met him already. Here are four more contenders, each quite grotesque in their own special way.




And finally, number 6 is my personal favourite, "The Strategically Placed Wave-Shaped Rock":

FISHMAN plays it coy.

Final Thoughts

In conclusion, I have to say that I didn't really like "Forest" very much. The setting felt bland and disjointed. The plot is sparse, and such story as there is makes little sense.  The items felt like a wasted opportunity - you are always asked "do you have item X", and never given any chance to try out different items (compare "Citadel" in which the fiendish Steve Jackson delighted in giving you opportunities to waste both your items and your spells). And when you arrive at Stonebridge without the hammer, while the option to go back to the beginning is welcome, it didn't really work since you can keep stumbling onto encounters that you've already experienced. All up, below par. I'm hoping for better in subsequent books.



And At Last, An Admission Of Guilt

Guess what - I'VE BEEN PLAYING COMBAT IN THESE BOOKS STRAIGHT-UP WRONG.  As pointed out by helpful reader uforesearcher, I've been rolling one die to determine Attack Strength instead of two. Basically this increases the random element in combat and means I shouldn't have skipped all the boring GOBLIN fights in "Warlock". I'd already played through "The Forest of Doom" by the time I was alerted to this error, so I guess I'll be playing the dang things properly starting from the next book, our first foray into sci-fi, the notoriously difficult "Starship Traveller"...

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Interim SKELETON Report

Hi,

Have finished "Forest of Doom" after two sittings (you won't believe the HILARIOUS ending! Let's just say that SHAPE-CHANGER on the cover knows "a thing or two" about "furniture"!) but I won't have an opportunity to write it up for a week or so... thus to keep things breathing, here's an extra special SKELETON REPORT.

Or perhaps I should say, "eXXXtra speXXXial"?

 No, that would be unseemly.

YouXXXrs faiXXXfully,

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXray

Thursday, June 17, 2010

#2 - "The Citadel of Chaos" - Steve Jackson (1983)



Much to my alarm, when I delved into my inherited wineboxes full of gamebooks I couldn't find a copy of "Citadel" so I actually went and bought a copy of the 2009 re-release from the Young Adults section of Whitcoulls, in amongst the "Goosebumps" and "Twilight" novels. I felt pretty awkward about this. I even had a story ready to go if the cashier queried my purchase - "The Citadel of Chaos" was to be a present for a fictive thirteen year-old cousin named Lucas, in hospital with a brittle-bone syndrome and an immediate need to be discouraged from further participation in high-risk activities such sports and rough-housing with boon companions. But I escaped unchallenged and Lucas has been stashed away to avert some other future stigma.

Astute readers will notice that I have nevertheless posted an image of the first-edition cover (lifted from here) since it is one of my favorites. The artist, soft-porn icon "Emanuelle", has not been heard from in the world of illustration since realizing this vision and retiring to loll about on a golden cumulus of achievement. On the other hand, back in 1983 when Steve Jackson viewed the first proofs of the cover he reportedly exclaimed "MOTHERFUCKER it is meant to be Citadel of CHAOS not Citadel of CONGA" and remained inconsolable for a number of minutes. Accordingly, in later editions the original art was replaced by a mess of opera-singing green spaghetti which can only be construed as a deliberate affront to Emanuelle. You can see it right here if you want (but I'd say that you don't, really).

Background

Once again you are sneaking into a wizard's house to stick his toothbrush up your bum, which I mean metaphorically, because literally, of course, you are there to murder him. However, in the first of several improvements over "Warlock" we have a bit of context to work with. Basically the nefarious Balthus Dire is squatting up there in his Citadel planning a massed monster invasion of the surrounding countryside and, in an effort to preserve his own repressive hegemony, the local strongman "good King Salamon" employs YOU to go put a hole in the dude's throat.

(That's it - not much of a story I suppose, but I felt like I could get behind it)


Rolling Up My Dude

Starting stats:
SKILL - 12 (another lucky roll for SKILL)
STAMINA - 19
LUCK - 7


In the first of Steve Jackson's many variations on the core rule-sets, in "Citadel" you are also a magician, and must therefore roll two dice and add six to find out how much spells you got.

I rolled a 14 for magic, and chose the following:

Creature Copy
Fire x2
Illusion x2
Levitation x3
Luck x2
Shield
Strength


The functions of these spells should be pretty obvious from their names, so I won't describe them. Besides which, none of them mattered since every time I actually cast a spell it was in response to some red herring designed purely to induce me to waste spells (well to be truthful, a Levitiation spell did save me from one particular trap that a less awesomely empowered mortal may have evaded instead by simply letting go of a rope).

It's worth noting that in the 2009 reprinting of the book, you are also given the option of choosing from three characters with prepared stats and their own names (e.g. Tybalt Spellcaster!) and back-stories (he is the youngest scion of the Spellcaster family, a long and noble line of business continuity managers!) This is presumably because intervening generations of children have been so ruined by techno music and Dragonball Z fight scenes that they are unable to display the recquisite grit and initiative to roll up their own character and choose a few spells in the dreadful foreknowledge that "Fucking" Steve Jackson is going to trick you into wasting them on bullshit.

("Tybalt Spellcaster" is an actual name from the book by the way. Didn't make that up.)


The Adventure

At the gates of the Citadel of Chaos you are greeted with a sight now justifiably renowned in all corners of the world:

These guys are the Kid'n'Play of Fighting Fantasy.

Reviewers sometimes cite APE-DOG and DOG-APE as evidence that Steve Jackson was basically just making up nonsense, but I feel their appearance is totally consistent with the notion of Balthus Dire as this over-resourced magical lunatic, tinkering with head swaps in the quest to create the ultimate war-beast (or possibly just facilitate the greatest expression of love between two creatures that has ever been conceived). It is certainly more interesting than encountering a couple of asleep goblins at the gate.

I was able to bullshit my way into the Citadel by whipping out some garden weeds and pretending to be a herbalist summoned to treat "Kylltrog" (which presumably I knew was a popular name for orcish babies about twenty years ago). Encouraged by this success, and despite my overwhelming combat skill, I adopted a policy of stealth and subterfuge, avoiding fights and generally wandering around trying to act as though I belonged. This policy wasn't 100% successful - at one point some unseen assailant shot an arrow in my leg before wandering off - but in the main it worked well. This is presumably because Balthus Dire has such an odd assortment of servants and allies that it is impossible to appear out of place among all the DOG-APES, RHINO-MAN guards, laundry GHOSTS, BLACK ELF sommaliers, "living whirlwind ladies", etc. The old principle applies - if you walk around purposefully holding a piece of paper, people will assume that you're supposed to be here. I guess Balthus Dire was relying on lack of local knowledge to catch out any ne'er-do-wells (which actually worked in my case).

Locals presumably know to step over the subterranean warty grey tentacles when strolling about the courtyard.


I bumbled into a couple of silly STAMINA penalties that are worth mentioning since either of these could kill you and probably have taken out a few players over the years. In one case I was trying to open a box and barked my shin on it (painful sure, but deadly?) Later I lost a STAMINA point because I got scared looking at a painting of Balthus Dire.

Oof, my STAMINA!

I should add that in the same gallery Balthus also has an "ape-bodies" version of this painting:

Classics never die.

Monsters and Combat


As mentioned above I tried to bullshit my way around combat, and against my expectations, I only had two fights in the whole adventure. The two battles have an ironic connection in fact. The first fight I picked was against this GOLEM, basically because I couldn't resist seeing what was inside those three boxes sitting on the pile of crap in the corner.

So, the GOLEM has his own little "Flintstones" coffee table and chair? That's an odd detail.


The GOLEM, at SKILL 8, was a low risk fight for a guy that still had SKILL 11. As for my prize - one of the boxes contained a key, which unlocked a second box, which also contained a key, that - you guessed it - unlocked the third box. The third box contained a jar with a man-faced spider in it, which naturally I took with me (perhaps elsewhere in the Citadel there is a spider-faced man?)


As it turned out, in that whole performance with the nuisance boxes (one of which I barked my shin on) I unlocked only my ultimate demise...

Failure and Death

So here's what happened with my second fight. It started with GANJEES:

GANJEES happened.

I first read Citadel of Chaos at a very young age and was for years afterwards was pretty convinced that there was a GANJEES Face living in the garage. Upon sight of this nasty old Ian McKellen face wafting towards you, the text states you "throw yourself on the ground" and "begin to feel very frightened" which I guess was enough to make a strong impression on me as a child. The other memorable characteristics of the GANJEES are that they cancel magic and can't be fought, basically if you don't have one of two items to get past them then "it's curtains for you" (which is what I was planning to say to Balthus Dire when I fought him but I didn't get to use that line in the end).

So, remembering that I needed an item I fished around in my backpack and produced the jar with the man-faced spider, whereupon the GANJEES exclaimed, "Racknee! You have returned!" and promptly popped the cap on that mess. Turns out the man-face spider and the GANJEES go back a ways - who knew. Racknee then "growls a little growl" (adorable) and we enter combat (a strange image considering that despite having a little old age pensioner face, Racknee is just normal spider size). By this point - only my second fight - my SKILL had been worn down to 9 through various mishaps, and Racknee got a good roll and damaged me in the first round. Since he was extremely venomous, that's all she wrote:


"Your last memory is its ugly little face biting into your neck"

How pleasant. Peeking ahead, had I survived the fight with Racknee I would have been offed by the GANJEES anyway - perished for want of a jar of ointment which the GANJEES would've accepted in trade for my life, for some purpose (rub it on their face, I guess?)

SKELETON Report



Yes I have skimmed "The Citadel of Chaos" fairly thoroughly and there are no SKELETONS. This is a troubling result that brings the whole need for a SKELETON Report into question. I'm hoping that my boy Ian will come through with some more boney action next time in "Forest of Doom". Dude is practically the patron saint of SKELETONS after all.

Final Thoughts

My trip through "Citadel of Chaos" felt like it was over pretty quickly - maybe because I accidentally chose one of the shorter routes to the GANJEES room, or perhaps because I'm benchmarking it against that awful maze in "Warlock". Lack of a labyrinth isn't the only improvement over "Warlock" though - compared to Firetop Mountain, the Citadel feels much more like a real place, with rooms and denizens that seem to have an everyday purpose - there's a wine cellar, a larder, a kitchen, a banquet hall, servants (usually monsters, but sometimes GHOSTS), bedrooms...
...even day care!

So, with a coherent environment, a sense of a greater (albeit hackneyed) story playing out, and a wider variety of interesting monsters and encounters, "Citadel" is a big step up from "Warlock". 

Also: WHEELIES
WHEELIES!