Thursday, 14 June 2012

Turn to 400

If the pace at which I'm posting entries is too slow for you (and let's face it, half a monkey with half a typewriter could give me a run for my money) then some dude called Murray is doing something similar, with somewhat of a headstart. Also, he's funnier. His blog can be found here: Also, he plugged my blog, which makes him a top man in my book.

Also, skeletons.

Sunday, 10 June 2012

Fighting Fantasy #4 - Starship Traveller

Title: Starship Traveller

Author: Steve Jackson

Illustrator: Peter Andrew Jones

Published: 1983

Level of previous knowledge: I remember the plot and the task of having to find certain co-ordinates/dates during the journey. I don’t remember any of the encounters along the way, or where any of the correct information might be found.

Plot summary: I’m the captain of a starship called Traveller, which is about to be sucked into a black hole and transported to a parallel universe. My task is simply (ha!) to find the way back to our own universe by visiting some alien planets and bothering their residents until they provide the information needed.

Rules: Lots of new stuff here. Firstly there are rules for ship-to-ship combat, which involves a series of tests (2D6 vs weapons strength or shields) and looks like it would be quite deadly. Then there’s phaser combat, which looks similar but even more deadly – one hit either stuns or kills the target. Hand-to-hand combat looks fairly normal except that there is no scope for using LUCK to increase or decrease damage. Speaking of LUCK, there are no rules for ‘Testing your LUCK’ as in other books. Combat is complicated by the fact that you are usually accompanied by two or three members of your starship crew, each of which have their own SKILL and STAMINA values, and fights independently.

Adventure Log:

Attempt #1

I won’t list the stats I rolled for all my staff, but suffice to say I wouldn’t want to spill my Security Officer’s pint…

So there we were, trekkin’ across the universe, when a great big black hole appeared out of nowhere and started sucking us in. My crew’s efforts to avoid this fate were unsuccessful and we were yanked violently through into a parallel universe.  My first thought was that we could be in an ‘alternate’ universe, and that I should try to find my evil twin, but sadly this opportunity never arose.

Approaching the nearest life-bearing planet, we decided to beam down right into the middle of the most heavily-populated city we could find. Crossing my fingers that there would be no accidents, I materialised on the planet’s surface with a few of my crew members, only to find that the middle of the most heavily populated city we could find was completely deserted. Entering the nearest building, we encountered a large group of aliens, but before we could open fire, one of them struck up a conversation with me and offered to show me round (fortunately my translator was programmed for whatever language the alien was speaking). Too polite to refuse, I opted for a general tour of the building,

As the alien showed me round the building I was struck by how ‘earthly’ everything seemed. He told me of their culture, and that they have no laws and no authority figures – everyone is free to do as they like. These people were obviously in need of a fascist dictator to help them through this difficult period. We then passed the ‘guard’ room, and he explained that guards do not guard things – they are basically violent psychopaths who attack people at random, but to give you a sporting chance they wear a guard’s uniform to warn you to be ‘on your guard’ when they’re around. Ahahaha. While I was mentally wrestling with the many logical gaps in his explanation, several of the psychopathic paragons of fairness crept up on us and attacked us from behind. A messy combat ensued but we were eventually victorious, courtesy mostly of my Security Officer’s l33t skillz.

My alien companion shrugged off the attack as if it were a perfectly normal occurrence. At this point I decided that this was a Stupid Planet and we should leave as soon as possible. I was reluctant to go, however, without first checking out the maps room. Unfortunately the only information found therein related to other planets in the same system, and there was nothing about any black holes. We then beamed up to the ship before the aliens decided that it might be a bit of a wheeze to remove our arms and legs and use us as bowling pins.

We headed to the next nearest planet, a large red one with signs of advanced civilisation. Beaming down, we once again found ourselves on a deserted street, but were soon greeted by an alien who materialised in front of us. We began to chat but one of my crew members was clearly bored by the conversation and shot the alien dead. He claimed that the alien was pointing a weapon at me – a detail which I had obviously missed. Confused, I had the alien beamed up to the ship for the Medical Officer to check over, but strangely the alien did not arrive.

We continued along the street, and suddenly I heard the sound of gunfire. Diving to the ground, I was baffled when my fellow crew members looked at me like I had showed up to a meeting of the Galactic Senate wearing a penguin costume. They were unhurt by the hail of bullets they were standing in, and I was either losing my marbles or something very odd was going on here.  Entering the nearest building, I fiddled around with a library computer for a bit in an attempt to find out why this was such a Stupid Planet. Fortunately one of my colleagues was doing something more useful by looking at astronomy files, and had found information regarding the location of a black hole. Noting down the sector number, we beamed back aboard the ship. Setting a course for a distant purple star, I was informed that the hallucinations were caused by a drug that had accidentally been released in the planet’s atmosphere, which probably explains why the inhabitants were conspicuous by their absence from the planet’s surface.

Beaming down on to another deserted street, I was told that the architecture was alien. Really? The street did not stay deserted for long, however; some kind of hover car was approaching. Then an insectoid alien called me over with some urgency to a small building, so I hustled over and followed him inside. He told me that the planet’s inhabitants are immortal, so PCs (Population Controllers) are employed to keep numbers under control (i.e. exterminate people for tiny infractions, or at random).  His timely intervention had saved me from an encounter with them; although temporarily, it transpired. Several PCs smashed through the door, ordered me outside and killed my alien companion with some kind of finger laser.

Co-operating with the PCs for the time being in the hope that they’d take me to meet someone of importance, I ended up in a queue in front of a doorway which looked suspiciously like the entrance to some kind of furnace. Fortunately at this point my Science Officer had a brainwave – he theorised that the aliens were in fact androids which could be affected by a jamming frequency. I like jamming too, so I set my communicator to the relevant frequency and all the aliens froze like statues. Escaping from our captors, we found our way to the transmission room with remarkable precision. A quick fiddle with the controls later and we were beamed back to our ship, along with a helmet I acquired from one of the aliens, which turned out to be some kind of cybernetic skill-enhancing thingy.

The next planet we came across exhibited signs of intelligent life, so we beamed down to the surface. This time we materialised not in a deserted street but outside a village, in front of some of the locals. Taking the diplomatic approach, I was able to persuade the spear-wielding aliens to take me to the village elder. He was a friendly enough chap, and told me that their race was being punished with bad weather by someone called the Rain Lord who was controlling the climate from a nearby castle. This was causing a certain amount of disease, so my Medical Officer prescribed some drugs for them, coming dangerously close to falling ill herself. We then agreed to go and talk to the Rain Lord on their behalf, mostly because I was curious about the idea of weather control. Approaching the castle in a friendly manner, we surrendered ourselves to the guards, who escorted us inside, leaving us with a small man who called himself Bran-Sel. It turned out that he did indeed possess equipment that could control the weather, but it had malfunctioned. I called my Science Officer in, and he was very quickly able to fix the problem, returning the weather to normal. The Rain Lord rewarded us with some information about the speed required to travel through a black hole. Hoping this would be useful, we beamed back aboard the ship.

Investigating another nearby planet, we found nothing but a small crashed aircraft, with no signs of life. Recalling the investigating crew members to the ship, I was soon counting myself fortunate not to be one of the landing party, as several of them dropped dead upon their return. I immediately ordered the landing party quarantined, but then several engineers also died suddenly. Fortunately my Science Officer had the common sense to suggest that we seal off the docking bay, and this halted the spread of the poison. My Medical Officer then came up with an antidote which worked successfully (at this point the successful SKILL check led to a failure, so I assumed this was an error and went to the other paragraph).

Wishing that we had some kind of planet-killing weapon on board, we left orbit and considered our next direction. A fast-moving ship came within range, and soon we made contact with the commander, a representative of the Imperial Ganzig Federation. I was apparently now his prisoner, and complied with his command to accompany him to a starbase. After some waiting it became clear that we had been cleared or forgotten about, so I decided to explore a bit. I approached a friendly-looking service robot and asked it to lead me to someone of authority, which it did without fuss. I found myself waiting awkwardly while a grossly large-headed alien had a brief nap and awoke to give me a stardate at which we should attempt to enter a black hole, but added that we’d have no way to tell which one. Hurrah? I wasn’t sure I trusted him anyway – he looked a bit suspicious.

Upon leaving the planet the book asked if I thought I had learned the time and space co-ordinates of the black hole that would take us home. I didn’t really have anything that looked like co-ordinates, but  I used the information I had to make a guess, and we headed into a black hole. Sadly we never emerged. Among other things I was told that maybe our speed was a problem, which irked me somewhat – I actually had some information about the speed at which we should have entered the black hole, but was never asked for it! Bah.

Conclusion: Failure. I can only assume that I was fed the wrong information. I knew I should never have trusted that big-headed alien.

Number of combats: 3

Attempt #2

Mediocre stats all round for the crew this time, except for my Science Officer who was very handy with a scalpel…

Sooo, sucked through black hole, etc etc. My first encounter was with a familiar-looking ship belonging to a commander of the Imperial Ganzig Confederation. Remembering that they had proved officious but harmless on our previous meeting, I decided to be as friendly as possible. My resolve was tested, however, when my brief hesitation was rewarded with a glancing shot which damaged my ship’s shields. Muttering under my breath, I allowed their officer to come aboard. I even took him to the computer room as he requested. He took this opportunity to insert something into the computer which read the memory and transmitted it back to the alien ship. Ahh, USB – truly a universal standard. My ship would now be at a disadvantage if It ever entered into combat with Ganzigites. By this point I was becoming rather annoyed, in quite an English way (“I’ll be writing a stern letter to the Confederation!”). Eventually I was allowed to meet with the High Commander, who was a friendly enough fellow, but provided me with no useful information (suggesting that I explore the galaxy for clues does not qualify as ‘useful’) and then fiddled with my ship’s computer to prevent me ever firing on Ganzigite ships at all, before sending me on my way. Stupid Ganzigites.

Heading to a dull blue planet, we beamed down on to a deserted street... uh-oh. A very familiar deserted street. I couldn’t remember learning anything here last time, so I thought I’d try some different options. Entering a nearby building, I was greeted by a very alien-looking alien, which bellowed at my approach. However he soon calmed down, we had a nice chat, and I was on my way again. Meeting the aliens in the main building at the end of the street, I declined the ‘general tour’ which resulted in an unseemly fracas last time, and headed straight for the travel and maps room, where once again we learned nothing of use. Returning to the Traveller, I left a note floating in space, just in front of the ship’s viewport, saying “Stupid Planet – do not visit” for the benefit of our future incarnations.

At this point we had the option to visit the red planet where I was fairly sure we found some information – as there was no alternative other than ignoring it and moving on I thought we might as well. We beaming down on to the deserted street, greeted the suddenly-appearing alien, killed the suddenly-appearing alien and continued on. This time ignoring the building where we found the (potentially faulty) information last time, we continued on to another, larger construction. Inside we found a strange, diseased-looking fellow with a VDU, who bravely helped us discover a Stardate at which a black hole would be open. Hopefully this nugget of information would not be bogus!
Back on the ship, we headed towards a small star cluster, but ended up in the midst of a meteor storm. Raising the ship’s shields, we made it through with only a scratch. The next crisis took the form of a freezer malfunction. Apparently the loss of one of our freezers had reduced us to 48 hours’ worth of supplies. If we had many freezers, why were we travelling in deep space with so few provisions and not particularly concerned? If we only had a couple of freezers, why did we only have a couple of freezers?  In space, no-one can hear you apply logic. My new mission was clear – find supplies for the crew by searching the galaxy for clues as to where information might be found that will lead us to people who will be able to give us the exact co-ordinates of the galaxy in which we will find a planet upon which we can build a civilisation that will evolve to the point that we can manufacture probes that will scour the universe for a book called ‘How to Cook For Humans’.

Alternatively, we could check that planet over there. No, not the blue one, it’s completely covered in water and we’d probably drown if we beamed down there. Ahahaha. Wouldn’t that be silly?

Beaming down on to the green planet with two officers, we found ourselves in a dense jungle. Something was crashing through the undergrowth towards us, so naturally we hid ourselves in the shadows. Unfortunately the shadows also contained a horrible beast, which promptly stomped on my Security Officer, crushing him to death. As I span around, another leg came down, there was the horrifying sound of a pair of glasses snapping, and my Science Officer joined his colleague in Flatsville. Slightly put out by this turn of events, I drew my phaser and aimed at the creature. It decided I didn’t look very tasty and wandered off. I took the opportunity to hack down some edible-looking plants to replenish supplies on the ship (let’s see… a few months worth of food for a crew of 500 or so… could be here a while…) However the plants took exception to this idea, and started to defend themselves. I stopped hacking at them to show them I meant no (further) harm, but this failed to placate them and they throttled the life out of me. Still, one less mouth to feed, eh?

Conclusion: Failure. Om nom nom.

Number of combats: 0

Attempt #3

Good stats for most of the crew, too. Let’s hope they get more of an outing this time…

Once again finding ourselves in an alien universe, we plotted a different course to last time, heading towards a nearby barren system. We had not travelled far, however, before my Engineering Officer informed me that our passage through the black hole had damaged our reactor, resulting in a serious fuel shortage (why this damage never occurred on previous attempts remains a mystery). In search of the precious ore I sensibly decided to investigate a nearby asteroid cluster. Some ore was present but it would require me to send one of my men out into the whirling mass with a jet pack. Not just any man, however – for some reason I was forced to send one of my officers.

My Science Officer kindly volunteered for the task, donned his jet pack and passed through the air lock. Making his way to one of the asteroids, he successfully managed to gather some ore and began to make his way back to the ship. My sense of triumph did not last long, however – a rapidly-moving asteroid appeared from nowhere and crashed into my hapless officer, destroying his suit and making a bit of a mess. One officer down, I did the only sensible thing and send my Security Officer out there. Despite the previous asteroid presumably still containing plenty of ore, we had a bad feeling about it (certain death tends to have this effect on people) and chose a different one. My officer landed successfully, but while collecting the ore another giant rock was just passing by and… wham! My Security Officer was vaporised. Contemplating a wonderful start to our voyage, I was now determined to persevere, and sent my reluctant Engineering Officer to make another attempt. Picking a different asteroid, he managed to harvest some ore, but not enough to refuel the ship. He moved on to the next, collected some more, headed back to the ship and… wham! He punched me on the back of the head as he re-entered the ship. Soon we were on our way again.

We approached a lifeless-looking planet and considered our options. Suddenly a small ship appeared and took a pot-shot at us. Attempts at communication failed and I was forced to issue the command to engage in battle. The enemy ship was a nimble opponent and we took some damage during the fight, but emerged triumphant. We then beamed down to the planet, which seemed as deserted as it first appeared. One of my crew members decided to drink the water, which I was dubious about but too late to prevent. We then decided that this was a Boring Planet and beamed back up to the ship.

Perhaps predictably, drinking the water had dangerous consequences. En route to our next destination, I was called to the canteen to deal with a disturbance. The drinker had gone slightly mental and attacked fellow crew members. After an almighty struggle we managed to sedate him and my Medical Officer came up with an effective cure. The crew member later woke up with a rotten headache and a faint uneasy feeling.

Heading for a nearby star, we entered the orbit of a planet containing intelligent life, and made contact with an extremely friendly alien who invited me to come down for a chat. I accepted the offer and upon arrival asked to be shown to the Department of Astronomy, agreeing to leave my weapon behind when requested. Unfortunately the friendly welcome ended there – a blow to the back of my head rendered my insensible long enough for the aliens to strap me into a large chair and begin the process of cloning me. Their plan was to use a replica of me to persuade my crew to abandon my ship to the aliens. Fortunately I was cunning enough to fix in my mind the concept that the replica would mention a certain planet, and not be able to lie when asked a question. The mention of the planet made my Science Officer suspicious, so when the replica gave the order, he responded by questioning it, and the plot was uncovered. Under threat of attack from my ship’s phasers, the aliens agreed to let me go – sadly with no useful information whatsoever.

Ignoring a familiar, useless planet nearby, we entered the orbit of another equally familiar, useless planet, leaving again as soon as the opportunity arose. Given the choice between a couple more familiar, useless destinations, I chose to investigate a familiar, useless grey planet and then de-investigate as soon as I could. Despite the prompt retreat from the infected place, I still managed to lose some engineering staff who investigated too enthusiastically. I ordered the docking bay sealed off and evacuated the air, which solved the problem and we were soon on our way again.

Finally offered the chance to visit somewhere new, we approached a blue planet and made contact with a member of its alien government. He invited me to beam down and chat, but I would have to come alone. I was highly suspicious of this, wondering what kind of bizarre experiment I would be forced to endure this time, but I wasn’t going to find the information I needed by turning down such invitations. Greeting the official in his office, I was soon offered food and drink, and was too polite to refuse. Of course, the food was drugged (a blow to the back of the head would have been more efficient, if less civilised) and I woke up in some kind of laboratory where I was unceremoniously shoved through a portal into another dimension. A dimension that seemed to contain nothing but a series of twisting pathways through empty space. After wandering aimlessly for some time, I was eventually offered the chance to step off the end of a dead end path into the void. I did so without a second thought (I was really bored by this point) and found myself back in the lab. The aliens were pleased with the success of their experiment, and furnished me with the location of a black hole which may be a portal back to my own universe. I then beamed back up to the ship before they developed an interest in human biology.

The next planet was volcanic and devoid of life, so naturally I decided it would be a grand idea to check it out in detail. We made our way to the place that was clearly most likely to provide us with information regarding our route home – the crater of a raging volcano. Disappointed that the stardate required was not inscribed on a nearby rock, we edged closer to the edge, peering down into the molten lava in search of clues. Briefly pondering a quick sacrifice to the god of Google Maps (Space Edition), I stealthily edged up behind my Security Officer. Unfortunately I tripped over a rock, had a small panic attack and decided to beam everyone back up to the ship.

The next point of interest was a spaceport where we prepared to dock for repairs. However, we received a confused message warning us not to dock. I decided to risk it as our shields were fairly damaged, and I was still in dire need of information. Upon docking we were able to get the ship repaired but were informed that we were exposed to an infection that was spreading throughout the spaceport. We hurriedly retreated to the ship, and fortunately none of the crew were affected. For a change.

We then approached a planet called Malini, which we were invited to visit by an alien who suggested that we may be interested in attending a sporting event known as the Contests. The co-ordinates he gave me were unclear, however, so I had to guess at a few of the numbers. We beamed down and I immediately suspected I had chosen wrongly when a siren sounded and armed aliens surrounded us on all sides. Remaining calm, I allowed us to be escorted to a detention room, where I attempted to persuade the supervisor of our plight. Despite putting forward what I believed a good case, he found my story highly implausible. We were then escorted to another room and I realised that we were to be entered into the Contests. Emerging into a large arena, we were forced to fight a heavily armed robot . None of us were unscathed but we emerged victorious. When we were congratulated by an official I merely had to mention our mission and he instantly agreed to help us – clearly something about my prowess in battle made me more convincing. He led us to his headquarters, where he gave us the details of a sector which contained what he believed to be the black hole we were looking for. Unfortunately this information was contradictory to that provided by the previous helpful aliens, which would leave me at best a 50/50 chance of success later on.

Returning to the ship, we plotted our next course. Ignoring a wheel-shaped structure that smelled distinctly of Ganzigite, we beamed down on to a lifeless-looking planet. My Engineering Officer took an interest in some nearby rocks while I had a brief look around and decided it was a Boring Planet. Upon trying to contact the ship, however, I discovered that my signal was being jammed by the magnetic rocks all around us. I was then helpfully informed that I had only beamed down to the surface with enough oxygen to survive for 20 minutes. At this point I succeeded at another SKILL roll only to be told that I couldn’t think of a solution to the problem and that our journey was over. Assuming this to be an error (this book seems to be riddled with them) I turned to the paragraph where I had the clever idea of heating up a couple of rocks with my phaser. Clearly this was some kind of code I was unaware of, as the crew aboard the ship immediately beamed us back to the Traveller.

Heading towards a nearby life-bearing planet, we were invited to visit by a bony alien called Luff. We materialised on some kind of island floating above the planet, where we saw a group of aliens and a couple of children. Unsure as to which of these aliens was Luff, I was bemused when one of the children took my hand and led me into a building. Here I was introduced to Luff, who himself was a child (you’d think I would have noticed that earlier). He explained that members of their race were born with high intelligence that deteriorated during their lifetime. Taking him up on his offer to help us find a way home, I was pleased when he gave us a date at which our universe would coincide with this one. In return I allowed him to have a look at our ship’s weapon systems. After all, he was only a kid – what danger could he cause us? After giving them a quick tour we were allowed to go on our way.

A hyperspace jump later and it was time to make a fateful decision. The information I had gathered regarding the black hole that would take us home consisted of a stardate and two possible sectors. Which was the correct one, if either? Which race of aliens did I trust the most – the ones who forced me to take part in a dangerous inter-dimensional experiment or the ones who put me into combat with a psychotic robot?

In the end I chose the former – they at least were intelligent enough to explore other dimensions, whereas the other race was a bunch of idiots whose man-slaying robot spectacularly failed to live up to its name. We set a course for the black hole and strapped ourselves in, losing consciousness as we were sucked into the void. Remarkably, my guess was correct and we woke to find ourselves back in our own universe. Whether we still had enough fuel to make it back to civilisation was left a mystery…

Conclusion: Success!


Writing: This book was a bit of an opportunity for the writer to really cut loose and be creative. After all, it’s set in another universe full of alien landscapes, fantastic creatures and bizarre societies. Sadly very little of this came through in the writing. Descriptions are hurried and you never spend long enough on any one planet to get a real feel for the societies in which you find yourself getting involved. Most planetary visits follow the same pattern – beam down, meet some aliens, get into some kind of trouble, escape from the trouble and possibly, incidentally discover one of the pieces of information you need to get home. It feels a bit like the writer has attempted to cram too many isolated stories (each of which is like an episode of Star Trek) into a puzzlingly shortened book, and ends up barely scratching the surface of each. There was potential here, but mostly unrealised.
Writing: 2/5

Artwork: Obviously they went for a simplistic, futuristic style here, but it doesn’t work well at all. The illustrations are very dull and fail to inspire any imaginings of alien worlds and an epic space journey. None of them are detailed enough to fill in the gaps left by the narrative, and a couple of them look like they could have been drawn by small children.
Artwork: 1/5

Design: During the adventure I found myself constantly frustrated that I couldn’t go back and check out X planet that was mentioned a few moments ago because I chose to do something else first. I understand that this book was written in a linear fashion so there would be no possibility of confusion, but I can’t help but feel that it would have worked a lot better with a ‘sandbox’ approach. You could jump from system to system and visit planets as you wished, but there would be a time limit (perhaps imposed by diminishing fuel/food) to prevent you from simply visiting every single planet. Unfortunately the way it was written means that a single wrong decision about which planet to aim for early on can guarantee that you’ll miss one which is essential to your success.

It’s also a bit of a shame that once you know which planets you need to visit, the journey is pathetically simple, ensuring there is no replay value whatsoever. In fact it’s possible to complete the entire adventure without rolling a single die, by ignoring all the planets except the important ones – which don’t require any combat, or tests of skill.
Design: 1/5

Fairness: There aren’t many combats in this book, and as die rolling is completely avoidable on the correct path (although unlikely on a first play through) it is possible to succeed regardless of your initial statistics. There are quite a few instant death paragraphs but I only saw one which was really unfair – the inter-dimensional maze you must negotiate before receiving a vital piece of information has two exits, one of which leads to instant death – and there’s no narrative reason to choose one over the other.
Fairness: 4/5

Cheating index: At this point I will admit to a minor infraction of the rules – when I realised that a certain direction had taken me towards a route I had explored on a previous attempt, I went back and took the other option. It must be said that the nature of the book encourages this kind of behaviour.  After the first few attempts it’s purely a case of re-visiting the same uninteresting encounters time and time again, in different combinations. I was lucky enough as it was – I passed at least two 50/50 decisions which could have led to failure.

1 Razaak

Average enemy stats

Successful path

Hand-to-hand combat: 1 encounter, SKILL 10, STAMINA 4

Ship-to-ship combat: 1 encounter, WEAPONS STENGTH 8, SHIELDS 7

Entire book

Hand-to-hand combat: 23 encounters, SKILL 7.7, STAMINA 9.1

Phaser combat: 14 encounters, SKILL 7.0

Ship-to-ship combat: 4 encounters, WEAPONS STRENGTH 8.3, SHIELDS 10.8

Instant death paragraphs: 13

Any player can win no matter how weak initial dice rolls –during the adventure die rolls can be avoided altogether if you know what you’re doing, TRUE

Final thoughts

A good premise let down by lazy writing and poor design. Success on the first attempt is extremely unlikely and subsequent playthroughs are repetitive and dull. This will take some beating in the ‘least favourite FF’ category…
Final score: 1/10