Thursday, 2 August 2012

Unplucked Gem?

Last decade, when I still had a proper job and a regular income, I would on occasion search for 'gamebook' on eBay and see if there was anything that caught my eye in there among the dozens of titles (mostly FF and LW) of which I already owned copies. This would sometimes lead to my placing a bid, and every now and then I'd win and add something obscure to my collection. Which goes some way towards explaining how come I have the bulk of the Combat Command series on my shelves.

For those not in the know, the Combat Command books proudly offer 'role-playing adventures in the worlds of your favorite authors'. A more accurate description for me, even before I delve into the books themselves, would be 'role-playing adventures in the worlds of several authors you've never heard of, one you know of but have no desire to read, and a couple who wrote one or two books you actually own'. Considering my favourite authors, a series that genuinely lived up to the claim on the back cover would be, er, interesting. I mean, a gamebook based on Dostoyevsky?

And a gamebook inspired by, say, Philip K. Dick's Martian Time-Slip would break people's heads. As for Borges-flavoured gamebookery, it's hard to improve upon Ts'ui PĂȘn's The Garden of Forking Paths, and if you were to insist on an existent book, Edward Packard's Hyperspace came out years before Combat Command was published.

But I digress. Back to 'role-playing adventures in the worlds of your favorite whatever authors the publishers could get the rights to'. Starting In the World of Piers Anthony's Bio of a Space Tyrant with Dana Kramer's Cut By Emerald. I have heard of Mr. Anthony, but so far my most significant encounter with any of his works was having several of them fall on me in a second-hand bookshop (alphabetical-by-author listing having put 'Anthony' precariously on the top shelf). The author's own description of the BoaST series in the introduction to this book does nothing to make me want to read his books, either. So this is likely to be fun.

Anyway, the set-up boils down to: Lieutenant Commander Emerald Sheller has 12 hours in which to manoeuvre a fleet of spacecraft through hazardous space in order to ambush another fleet, and I get to make the tactical decisions. The fact that the fleet is 24 strong at the start, but I win as long as at least 6 (including Emerald's ship) make it to the right place within the time limit, suggests that a high casualty rate is to be expected.

And after 9½ pages of set-up (not including the rules, battle maps and maybe-useful-maybe-misleading stuff about the fictional universe in which this is based), I get to make an actual decision. There's an unidentified ship close by (in space travel terms). Expend resources to investigate, or let it get closer and hope it's not a spy for the enemy? I remember something about lack of FTL communications, so even if they are villains, they're not going to be able to just warn the others, so waiting seems the best option. They head for the fleet, and I get the option of reconsidering. No, stick with the plan.

And it's a bad guy. Who thinks attacking is a smart idea when the odds are 24 against 1. The outcome is such a foregone conclusion that I don't even have to use dice, but there's an implication that the fleet has been delayed by this encounter. 10 hours to deadline, and now Emerald 'is sure that this isn't going to be a pleasure cruise'. It's taken her this long to realise that a mission which will qualify as a success if only 75% of her troops are wiped out might not be fun?

One of the more heavily armed ships develops a fault. Leave it to make repairs, and risk it missing out on the action, or decelerate the fleet until it's okay? It's only one ship, however good its armaments. A moderately lethal but punctual fleet is better than a devastating one that turns up too late. Bye-bye, Brooksville.

9 hours to go. A few ships have to go off to investigate a Mayday call. The amount of attention devoted to this suggests that it's a trap. And it is. Seven of my Marines versus twenty-one space pirates. Make that seventeen pirates. Well, fourteen. No, eleven. Seven. A lucky shot takes out one Marine. The survivors retaliate, and it's six against four. All but one of whom die in the next salvo. He chooses to go out fighting. And takes enough damage that he won't need a conventional coffin. A matchbox should do.

But the trap was only a diversion to keep my troops from noticing the real trap, and one ship goes up in smoke. That's the only victim those pirates get, though.

7 hours and counting. A spot of recon eats up another half hour, and reveals a good half-score of pirates not too far away. And just as hostilities are commencing, a Brooksville-shaped cavalry announces its presence by ventilating one of the larger enemy ships. Woo!

A tricky decision now, but only because it requires me to read the author's mind. If I were making all the decisions, the sensible choice would be to deploy part of the fleet to engage the remaining pirates, while the rest continues on the actual mission. Liable to have a high casualty rate, but I rarely lose sleep over causing the deaths of fictional characters. The problem is, I suspect that if I pick this option, the book will then tell me what I leave behind to fight, rather than allowing me to judge how much of my forces I can afford to commit to this battle. If the writer wanted me to go for something else, I may run into a section along the lines of, 'Durr! You leave two ships to fight the pirates, who laugh them into fragments and come after you, wiping out another 1d6 of your ships in the time it takes you to respond to this attack. Also, having to turn the fleet around and fight them off wastes time, so cross off 3 hours before you even play out this fight.' I've encountered such authorial player-sabotage before now, and while Dana Kramer might not be the type to indulge in it, I don't yet know that.

The text here includes a reminder of the unmanned drones that are Emerald's 'secret weapon', and the other not-obviously-stupid option is to use them and see what happens. I don't like the 'wait and see' aspect of that, but if this is the moment where Chekhov's Drones must be fired, failure to deploy them could well be a game-loser.

I'm going with fiction/gamebook-logic here. Drones. And following a brief perspective shift to the pirate commander, things get a bit confused. While 'the first volley goes to the drones', the pirate fleet 'will get to fire first'. I think the outcome is that the drones are destroyed, but take half the pirates with them, but once words stop meaning what they're supposed to mean, it's hard to be sure of anything.

Oh, it gets worse. The text explicitly stated that I deployed all my drones, and every drone is automatically destroyed when it attacks. But now, in the aftermath, I'm asked how many drones I have left. There was no 'you don't have to fire your drone just because it's out there' hint in the previous section, but now that it's too late to rethink my strategy, I get 'you could have held some back for later, you know'. Well, I'm now applying damage control. Because of the way the rules work, two of the drones were effectively redundant in that engagement. I rolled on the highest column of the damage table, and I would still have rolled on the highest column if I'd kept two drones on stand-by. So, just as the book is retroactively letting me know I didn't have to use them all, so I am retroactively holding back the drones that there was no point deploying. That unclarity should have been spotted and stamped upon during playtesting.

Half Emerald's time is up. The fleet is moving on (so the 'wait and see' element of that option has been overlooked), and the surviving pirates are giving chase. Not gaining on the fleet, though, so Emerald just keeps going. Until something unidentified turns up ahead of the fleet. Deal with the pursuing ships first, or just motor on? Drat it, 'not engage' turns out to mean 'waste half an hour hiding' rather than 'keep going'. Express yourself more clearly, Kramer.

No choice but to fight, then. Enemy numbers are up, so presumably attackers are coming from both sides, but there's nothing to indicate whether the losses previously inflicted by the drones should be deducted from the enemy line-up, or if they've been taken into account and more than compensated for by the new arrivals.

I think four of Emerald's ships are destroyed in the course of eliminating the pirates. I am certain that a lot could have been done to remove annoying ambiguities from this book. Especially as the re-use of text from an earlier passage now implies that yes, I was forced to use all my drones in the previous engagement, and that 'note how many you have left' instruction that followed it was a product of shoddy gamebook design. And if I didn't have the drones, I need to recalculate what happened in the fight I've just fought, because I was using the wrong damage table. It makes no difference to the outcome, as using the other table just means one pirate lasts an extra round, and fails to inflict any noteworthy damage before joining its allies in fragments.

Even if I go through the 'no drones left' iteration of the battle, I still get part of the re-used text. Is this guy a pirate commander or the Marshal of Atrios? However this hideous mess plays out, though, the salient points are: those four ships lost, one hour spent fighting, one hour spent fixing damage Emerald's ship sustained during the battle.

The fleet limps onwards, and encounters a vessel that's spying for the Soviets Saturnians. Diplomacy forbids destroying it, and it shadows the fleet for the next couple of hours. Someone with a spacesuit and a jetpack comes across to defect or infiltrate. Great. A moral dilemma. Sorry, rizhnaya, but there's no time to spare for a diplomatic incident, and besides, I find it hard to believe that your pursuers were quite such lousy shots that you made it here unscathed. Before she is returned to the other vessel, she manages to pass on a communicator to a traitor in Emerald's crew, who leaks some technical data before being detected and maimed. Strangely, this incident occurs without giving the reader the option of abandoning the mission and joining the glorious revolution.

A minefield takes out another two ships, just like that. Still fifteen left. But clearing the minefield takes 1½ hours. Less time than anticipated, but still enough to cause the fleet to miss the deadline.

Well, parts of the book were enjoyable, but in places there's a lack of clarity that gets really annoying, and it's obviously very unforgiving as regards the passage of time. Even if I'd avoided the two instances clearly flagged as wasted time, that 'repairs to Emerald's ship' sequence has a 1/3 chance of taking at least an extra hour, which would eat up the time saved by avoiding those mistakes. I shan't be in any great hurry to replay it.


  1. Queen of Stairs3 August 2012 at 01:18

    Now I really want to start writing a Fighting Fantasy version of the Crime and Punishment!

  2. That quote at the top was fake and original, right? Because if the rest of that gamebook exists, I want to read it.

    Incidentally, I tackled basically that same exact question in the short gamebook I'll be submitting for the Windhammer Prize. Keep an eye out for it ;)

    1. The question comes from The Brothers Karamazov, but the gamebook-style options following it were my own addition.

      Your Windhammer gamebook sounds intriguing.

  3. Nice review. Just wondering, do you have any of the Crossroads books and if so, do you intend to review them? As I understand it, they're the fantasy equivalents of these books, and fantasy gamebooks are generally better than their sci-fi counterparts (though there are a few sci-fi gems out there, like the Falcon! series and "Rebel Planet").

    1. I don't have any of those. Might keep an eye out for the series now, but I don't have so much disposable income these days.