Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Starship Traveller: Final Thoughts


If my previous few entries seemed a bit lackluster, there's a reason for that.  There's no getting around it: this is not a good gamebook.  Everything about it, from the writing to the art to the design, comes across as half-baked, like a project that was never fully completed.  It was hard for me to summon up much enthusiasm for writing about it, let alone playing it, and I feel like that came through in my posts.  It's going to happen sometimes, I'm afraid.  I'm playing through the entire Fighting Fantasy series, and I can't like them all.

The thing is, it should have been good.  Steve Jackson is one of my very favourite gamebook designers, and I expect any work from him to be innovative, if nothing else.  I suppose it succeeds on that point, being the first sci-fi book in the series, but I would rate that as the book's only success.

Jackson is often quite terse when writing gamebooks.  I've always preferred Ian Livingstone's prose, while rating Jackson as the superior designer.  Jackson's gamebook writing (at least early on) is direct and to the point, without much time spent on extraneous details, but in his other works there's an excitable quality to it.  I always go back to The Warlock of Firetop Mountain, and the enthusiasm with which the hero reacts when finding a bottle of rum.  ("By golly, it is rum!")  There's nothing like that here.  The writing is detached and clinical throughout, lacking verve or excitement.  This could be a good fit for a sci-fi book of a certain type, but Starship Traveller is trying to do Star Trek, and if there's one thing that original Star Trek has it's heart.  It's not so big on clinical detachment.

The setting feels very disjointed, which is to be expected in a book that involves warping from planet to planet.  It would have been nice to get some more connections between the various worlds, though.  As it is there's a few encounters with the Ganzig Confederation, a race of star-faring lizard men, but otherwise the planets keep to themselves, and the book has little sense of cohesion.

That wouldn't be a problem if the individual planets were interesting in their own right, but too many of them have nothing to offer.  The ones that do feature intriguing scenarios are all too brief and simplistic.  The highlight for me was the jungle planet where you must hunt for game; it's deadly, and makes for some tense gameplay.  I didn't reach it in this play-through, and I'm not even sure that you can visit it and still win.

Speaking of winning, the book takes a long time to make it clear just what the reader needs to do.  The goal is laid out at the beginning: find a way home.  No guidance on how to do so is given, however, until the very end, when you are pressured by your mutinous crew into flying into a black hole.  An exceedingly lucky reader might have found the right coordinates on the first try, but it's all too possible for this to be the first time the reader learns that they need coordinates.  Jackson can often be frustratingly obtuse in his gamebooks, and that trait is on display here.

There are other frustrating moments, but the most egregious is the maze that the player must navigate when testing the dimensional portal.  As I mentioned a few posts ago, this is essential to completing the game.  The end of the maze has two dead ends, and you must choose which one to step off.  There's a fifty-fifty chance of instant death, with no clue at all which is the correct path.  This is exactly the sort of arbitrary nonsense that epitomises the worst that gamebooks have to offer.  Luckily the nature of this book makes it simple to skip planets and breeze through the book quickly to get back to this point, but it's still a terrible bit of design.

That's enough disparaging of Steve Jackson, though.  It's time to turn my attention to Peter Andrew Jones, who illustrated this book.  This is the guy who painted the cover to The Warlock of Firetop Mountain, so we know that he's a talented artist.  The quality here varies wildly, from stark and imaginative to amateurish and overly abstract.  I don't know the circumstances under which it was created, but I would be very surprised if this book wasn't illustrated under significant time constraints.

All in all, Starship Traveller never quite achieves what it sets out to do.  The setting is dry and disjointed, the scenarios are flat and lacking in meaningful choices, and it never gets even close to capturing the feel of its source material.  I doubt that Steve Jackson is ever going to write more gamebooks, so I feel safe in saying that this is the worst one he ever made.

Plus, it only has 340 entries.  What a rip-off!

Addendum - S.T.A.M.I.N.A. Rating

Story & Setting: There are a lot of interesting ideas here, and snapshots of settings, but none of them ever feel fully fleshed out, and the planets aren't really connected at all. The story of trying to find your way home is a solid one, but it the forced decision to fly down a black hole regardless of whether you've found the right coordinates is daft.  Rating: 2 out of 7.

Toughness: Kudos to Steve Jackson for writing another gamebook where high stats aren't required to win.  Even more kudos for including a path to victory that doesn't require a single die roll.  I have to ding it for the "void maze" section as well, where one of two indistinguishable choices results in death. Rating: 3 out of 7.

Aesthetics: The writing is sparse and unenthused, and the art is abstract and frequently difficult to make out. Rating: 2 out of 7.

Mechanics: Being able to control multiple crew members is a cool idea, as is the addition of ship-to-ship combat. None of it's all that well done though, and there are so many stats to roll that starting over feels like a bit of a chore. Rating 3 out of 7.

Innovation & Influence: It's the first sci-fi in the FF series, and maybe the first one overall.  It also does a lot of new things with the system, such as phaser battles, ship-to-ship combat, and multiple crew members. Even when he's writing a bad gamebook, Jackson has some interesting ideas going on. Rating: 6 out of 7.

NPCs & Monsters: Are there any to speak of?  There are various aliens and robots, but none of them leave an impression, and your crew members are complete ciphers.  Rating: 1 out of 7.

Amusement: I've tried to go through the entire FF series a few times, and I never look forward to Starship Traveller.  The only section I really enjoy is the deadly hunting expedition, but I rarely get to see it because it's outside of the best path through the book.  Rating: 2 out of 7.

No bonus point.  The totals above add up to 19, which doubled gives a S.T.A.M.I.N.A. Rating of 38. That feels a little high to me, but it's hard to tell without more books to measure it against.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Starship Traveller - Attempt 3

The time has come once again for me to try to beat Starship Traveller.  It's become a frustrating thorn in my side, the first gamebook in this blog that I haven't defeated on my first attempt.  I should be able to do it.  There are no unavoidable sections that require high stats; in fact you can get through the whole book without rolling a single dice.  I just need to remember the correct path, but something about the sci-fi books thwarts my memory, no matter how many times I've played through them.

My crew for this venture:

CAPTAIN:
SKILL: 7
STAMINA: 18
LUCK: 8

SCIENCE OFFICER:
SKILL: 11
STAMINA: 15

MEDICAL OFFICER:
SKILL: 7
STAMINA: 16

ENGINEERING OFFICER:
SKILL: 11
STAMINA: 24

SECURITY OFFICER:
SKILL: 7
STAMINA: 22

SECURITY GUARD 1:
SKILL:  12
STAMINA: 24

SECURITY GUARD 2:
SKILL: 7
STAMINA: 19

SHIP:
WEAPONS STRENGTH: 8
SHIELDS: 17

What a mixture of striking brilliance and staggering incompetence.  Looking at this makes me feel like there's something rotten at the core of the AstroNavy.  I bet the Captain comes from old money, and poor old Security Guard 1 is probably black, or a woman.  She'd probably be better of staying in the alternate universe.

THE ADVENTURE BEGINS:

Once again I began my perilous journey beyond the Seltsian Void.  I knew this book quite well by now, so I was able to skip a fair portion of it.  I buzzed past a number of planets which were of no help on previous attempts, until I reached the small grey planet with the crashed scout ship.

As you may recall from my last adventure, the planet had a poisonous atmosphere.  I still sent a recon crew to check it out, but when they returned and my crew member started to drop dead, I instantly sealed the docking bay and halted the spread of the poison.  This allowed me to resolve the situation without making a single die roll, and that's the way I like it.

We moved on to the planet Jolsen-3, where my last captain met his demise trying to find his way through a dimensional portal.  I beamed down to the planet once more, and was greeted by I-Abail.  This time I politely refused to eat (as I knew now that the food was drugged), and instead of taking me to the portal chamber against my will, I-Abail led me there as part of a tour and explained how the portal might help me to return to my own universe.  I accepted the alien's offer to test the portal and stepped through.

I'd mapped the strange other-dimensional maze beyond the portal during my last game, so I was able to get to the critical point quickly.  I was faced with two dead ends.  Stepping off one led to certain death, and the other to safety.  Last time I chose poorly, but this time, aided by prior experience, I made the right decision.  I emerged back in I-Abail's lab, where he and his people rushed forward to congratulate me.  The test had been a success, and I could have used the portal to take myself and my crew home.  The ship, however, was too large, and we would all be  stranded in space without it.  I-Abail had some good news though, as told me that a large portal would be opening soon near a black hole in Sector 159.

I returned to the ship, and we proceeded to a small yellow planet nearby.  The surface was hot and volcanic, and devoid of life, so I decided not to explore further.  It seemed unlikely that we would find useful information there.

We headed for a large grey planet, ignoring a space station along the way, as we were undamaged and had no need for repairs.  Once we were in orbit around the planet we were hailed by an alien who introduced himself as K'Tait of the Malini Mining Outpost.  He invited us to beam down and take part in the 'Contests', a series of sporting events, but I declined.  We had better things to do than waste our time on frivolous pursuits.  Besides, interference had garbled the coordinates he gave us, and I wasn't about to beam down without the correct numbers.

Nearby was a large wheel-shaped structure, but instead I decided to head for a small black planet.  The planet showed no signs of life, but I was beginning to feel guilty about our lack of exploration, so I decided to investigate.  I beamed down with my Science Officer and Engineering Officer.  We explored the barren surface for a while, until our air supply had almost run out, but when we tried to signal the ship we were horrified to discover that the magnetic rocks of the planet were jamming our signal.  My Science Officer had an idea, but I had to test his Skill with the dice to determine f it was a good one or not.  With his Skill of 11 I made the roll easily, and he suggested that we heat up some rocks with our phasers to get the ship's attention.  Eventually they beamed us back up, and we were on our way once more.

The next planet we enxountered was greeny-grey, and supported intelligent life.  We hailed the planet, and a local named Luff gave us permission to beam down, which I did with my Medical Officer and Science Officer.


We materialised on a vast floating platform that hovered above the land.  Three adults and a number of children were there, but before I could react one of the children ran forward and took my hand, pulling me in a direction away from the adults.  Against my better judgment, I decided that I would follow this child, and he led me into a nearby building where we met Luff.  Luff was also a child, and he explained that on their planet children were born with vast intelligence that deteriorated over time, and so the children ran the planet.  I explained the p;ight of my crew to Luff, and he offered to help.  I eagerly accepted the offer, and after consulting their computers Luff told me that our universe would intersect with his on Stardate 21.

Part of the deal for his aid was that I had to give Luff a tour of my ship.  I had no problem with this, as even if he were to use the knowledge for nefarious purposes it would all be happening in a universe that wasn't mine.  Either I would be safely in my own universe, or I would be trapped in this one, and in that case I would not care about my fate.  Luff toured the ship, taking extra interest in the Engineering Section, then beamed back to his own planet.

As we left the planet my crew became restless, and demanded to know what we would do next.  Armed with the information I had learned in our travels, I decided to use it to locate a black hole that I thought would return us home.  At this point I was instructed to subtract the time coordinates I had found (Stardate 21) from the location coordinates (Sector 159), which gave me a result of 138.  We flew the ship right down the throat of the black hole before us.  Would we make it home, or were we hurtling to our deaths?

We emerged from the black hole in another universe, and within a short time my communications officer spotted a familiar sight: sub-station Einstein!  Our mission had succeeded, and we were home.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Starship Traveller - Attempt 2

It's time once more for me to crack open Starship Traveller, and try my best to bring my crew home from beyond the Seltsian Void.  Last time I failed because I followed the rules more closely than I needed to.  This time I am armed with knowledge from my last attempt, and I know that I'll do better.

My stats:

CAPTAIN
SKILL: 12
STAMINA: 19
LUCK: 9

SCIENCE OFFICER
SKILL: 7
STAMINA: 21

MEDICAL OFFICER
SKILL: 10
STAMINA: 14

ENGINEERING OFFICER
SKILL: 7
STAMINA: 19

SECURITY OFFICER
SKILL: 9
STAMINA: 21

SECURITY GUARD 1
SKILL: 7
STAMINA: 21

SECURITY GUARD 2
SKILL: 7
STAMINA: 20

SHIP
WEAPONS STRENGTH: 10
SHIELDS: 15

This is an altogether less competent crew than I had last time, but I'm not particularly worried.  I know that there's a path through this book that requires no dice rolling whatsoever, and I'm determined to rediscover it.

I have a better idea of where not to go now that I've refamiliarised myself with the book.  After my ship got sucked through the Seltsian Void, and I determined to get my crew home, I followed the same path in the opening paragraph as before, pressing on towards a life-bearing system ahead.  I ignored a blue planet (the one with too much democracy), a red planet (the one with the LSD atmosphere), and a planet orbiting a purple star (the one where my previous crew got shoved into an oven by population control robots).  I was through the parts of the book I'd previously explored, and into new territory.

Pressing on, we found a medium-sized blue-green planet with several clusters of life.  I beamed down with my Science, Medical and Security Officers.  We materialised in the middle of a storm, with three aliens approaching.


Not wanting to appear too threatening, we waited for the aliens to come close, then told them of our mission using our translators.  The aliens agreed to take us to the village elder, and we followed them back to their village.  The elder was friendly enough, and I decided to question him about his knowledge of astronomy.  Perhaps he could provide some knowledge that would help us get home?  I should have realised that his people were far too primitive to be of help, as he had no idea what I was talking about.  We beamed back up to the Traveller and journeyed on toward a large red planet.

As we approached the red planet, a smaller, grey planet came into view, and I decided that we would investigate it.  Our scanners detected a crashed scout ship, and I sent a recon party to check it out, but there was nothing of interest inside.  The recon party returned and came to me to report, but no sooner had they begun when I received a distress signal from the loading bay.  Three crewmen involved with docking the recon plane had dropped dead!

I decided to put the recon party into quarantine, but after a medical exam they were declared to be fit and healthy.  Meanwhile, three more of my crew had died in the engineering section (luckily not my Engineering Officer, as I didn't roll a 2 or a 12 on two dice).  My Science Officer made a suggestion, and I had to roll equal to his Skill on two dice for it to be a useful one.  Given my Science Officer's Skill of 7 I wasn't confident, but I managed to make the roll, and he suggested that I seal off the docking bay.  This proved to be the correct move, as no more of my crew dropped dead.  With some investigation we discovered that the grey planet had a poisonous atmosphere which was carried back with the recon plane.  The recon party had been unaffected, as they were wearing protective suits.  I had the air in the docking bay evacuated, and the crisis was finally over.  Rest easy, anonymous dead crewmembers.

I now had the option of heading for the red planet, a blue planet, or a fast-moving spot that showed life-signs.  I went with the blue planet, and found that it was inhabited by a considerably developed society.  Trying various radio frequencies, we contacted the planet and received a reply from an alien called I-Abail, First Officer of the National Government of Jolsen 3.  He wanted me to beam down on my own, and how could I resist such a friendly, non-suspicious offer?

My dear old mammy

I appeared in I-Abail's office, which was highly advanced.  He had a floating desk and invisible chairs and everything.  The alien offered me food and drink, and I took it, which was a bad idea.  The food was drugged and I was knocked out and taken to the ominously named "portal lab".

In the lab was a door-frame, the portal for which the lab was named.  I-Abail explained that his people had developed a space-time portal between their dimension and mine, and that they wanted me to be the first person to test it out.  They didn't wait for my answer; I was pushed through the portal with no regard for my own well-being.  And he had seemed so polite!

Somebody's been reading Doctor Strange

I emerged in a strange black void, on a pathway made of non-material energy.  The pathway led to a series of criss-crossing turns and forks, and I followed the mostly at random.  Eventually I came to a place where the pathway ended, and with great trepidation I stepped off into blackness.  It was a bad decision, as I fell into blackness and was stranded in the limbo between universes forever.  My adventure ended there!

So, I had a more successful attempt this time around, but I fell afoul of the most heinous part of the book.  I know that I have to do that portal maze to get one of the coordinates I need to win, but it's a really unfair bit of design.  There are two places in the maze where the path ends and you have the option of stepping into space.  One leads to death, and the other leads to success, but there's no way of knowing which is which.  You just have to take a guess, and hope you picked the right one.  I didn't, so it's back to the beginning for me.  It's irritating, but at least now I know which is the correct choice.  That's what beating gamebooks is all about, really: trial and error.  See you next week, then, for Starship Traveller, attempt 3!