Wednesday, 8 August 2012

Over the Absolute Event Horizon

Steve Jackson tried something new every time he wrote for the Fighting Fantasy series. This produced some great books when it worked well. But it also gave us Starship Traveller. A significant book, in that it paved the way for FF's other ventures into SF territory, not all of which were appalling, but a disappointing one in and of itself.

My first attempt was (yet again) on a borrowed copy, but the friend whose copy I played was not the same person who'd lent me at least the first two. My character wound up marching into the equivalent of a suicide booth, at least partly because I hadn't bothered to pay attention to the rules governing ship's crew. Second time round, by an incredible fluke, I found exactly (and only) the information required to successfully complete the book. It was some time before I discovered just how lucky I'd been.

Back when the book came out, it was Steve Jackson's take on Star Trek. These days it's a lot more reminiscent of the spin-off Voyager. Only with less interesting characters. Yes, I did mean 'less'. I said the book was disappointing.

In it I play the Captain of the eponymous Starship, but also have to manage the ship itself, its Science Officer, Medical Officer, Engineering Officer, Security Officer and two Security Guards. Which would mean quite a bit of character generation, but it is possible to successfully complete this adventure without ever using dice, so I shan't bother to roll anyone up unless I actually need to.

To distinguish this playthrough from the others out there, I shall be presenting it in the format of a series of excerpts from the AstroNavy (Jackson's joke, not mine) data files.

Seltsian Void: A known black hole. Less well-known is the fact that this is the kind of black hole that transports matter into an alternate universe rather than crushing it to a singularity. Disclaimer: transportation to other realities may be dependent on as yet undetermined factors. AstroNavy accepts no responsibility for any crushing that may occur as a result of attempting to travel through the Void.

Scribble, the final frontier.

Universe 'J': An alternate universe accessible via the Seltsian Void. No evidence of naturally occurring evil doubles of people from our own universe has yet been discovered there.

Ganzigites: A spacefaring reptilian species native to Universe 'J'. Highly suspicious of unrecognised vessels travelling through Ganzigite territory. Ganzigites fear and reverence eagles (the principal theories advanced regarding why they hold sacred a type of bird from a different universe are based upon parallel evolution, extra-dimensional travel in the distant past, and/or weird stuff just happening), and will not fire upon vessels known to be carrying live specimens. It's probably not a good idea to try and find out how they'd react to a stuffed one.

J209: Automated designation of an unnamed planet in Universe 'J'. Though heavily populated, the planet has no name owing to its political system, an extremist form of democracy in which no decision is implemented until 100% agreement has been reached.

Prax (aka Trax): A planet in Universe 'J'. Its atmosphere has been contaminated with a weaponised hallucinogen, as a result of which AAAGH! GIANT TURQUOISE SPIDERS IN PINK TAFFETA GOWNS! GET THEM OFF OF ME!

[Brief out-of-format interjection: the hallucinations in the book are a lot more mundane.]

Culematter: A severely overpopulated planet in Universe 'J', which employs capital punishment for all crimes as its primary means of population control.

Population Controllers (PCs): Android law enforcers and executioners found on Culematter. Fortuitously, the standard frequency for AstroNavy communicators interferes with PCs' systems, immobilising them as long as the channel remains open, so they should pose no threat to any remotely competent AstroNavy Officers.

[When encountering my away team, the PC commander says, 'You are strange and ugly. Where do you come from?' Not as catchy as Balthus Dire's, 'Impudent peasant!' but it merits more attention than it gets. Especially as it's an aesthetic judgement by an android. And I've been on the receiving end of worse chat-up lines.]

Cliba: A Tech Level 3 planet in Universe 'J'. Its cultural development has been affected by alien interference.

Bran-Sel (aka The Rain Lord): An interstellar trader who became stranded on the planet Cliba and used climate control technology to set himself up as a benevolent 'god'. The native Clibans came to fear him when his equipment malfunctioned, causing torrential rains that ruined several harvests. The fault was repaired and the weather returned to normal following intervention by the Science Officer of the Starship Traveller, but no action was taken against Bran-Sel himself by AstroNavy Officers.

[The overriding objective in this adventure is to find the location of a black hole through which travel back to the home universe is possible, and the time at which to enter it. As a result of repairing Bran-Sel's weather control set-up (good work by the Skill 11 SO), I received information on the optimum speed at which to fly into the black hole - data which is not required. This has led me to speculate that originally Starship Traveller was conceived as being longer (section-wise it is the shortest standard FF book), and finding the right speed formed a third component of the search. Why the book ended up the way it did, I have no idea, but based on what was published, I doubt that a more substantial ST would have been much of an improvement.]

J261: Automated designation of an uninhabited planet in Universe 'J'. Investigation by the Starship Traveller's recon plane led to the discovery of a crashed alien vessel, and an unidentified toxin that caused the deaths of several members of the docking crew.

[No Alien homage, despite the crashed ship broadcasting a strange signal from an inhospitable planet.]

Jolsen 3: An inhabited planet in Universe 'J'. Its inhabitants are technologically advanced, having developed space-time portal technology. However, there is no indication that jazz singers are of any great cultural significance there.

I-Abail: First Officer of the National Government of Jolsen-3. An unprincipled scientist who used the Captain of the Starship Traveller as a not entirely voluntary test subject for the prototype space-time portal developed by Jolsen-3 technicians.

J145: Automated designation of a planet in Universe 'J'. Probably uninhabited, but no proper examination was carried out owing to the intense volcanic activity taking place on the planet's surface.

Malini: An inhabited planet in Universe 'J', source of the valuable mineral Malinite. It periodically hosts 'sporting events' for the entertainment of the miners.

K'tait: A representative of the Malini Mining Outpost. Has the unpleasant habit of inviting off-worlders to visit the 'sporting events' without warning them that these events are gladiatorial combats, and visitors will be forcibly entered into the contests.

Manslayer Robot: A heavily armoured device used in gladiatorial combat on Malini. Responsible for the impressive scar gained by the Captain of the Starship Traveller while in Universe 'J'.

[I hope you're happy. I could easily have bypassed the planet without having to reach for the dice, but in the interests of entertaining my readership I got my Captain (Skill 7, Stamina 17), Security Officer (Skill 9, Stamina 20) and Security Guard 1 (Skill 9, Stamina 14) half-killed in the arena.]

J331: Automated designation of an uninhabited planet in Universe 'J'. Not properly explored because the Captain of the Traveller didn't want to push his luck after the hardships endured on Malini.

Terryal-6: An inhabited planet in Universe 'J'. Its inhabitants live in floating cities, leaving the planetary surface free for agriculture and industry. Ruled by the youngest members of its society, as Terryals are born with great intelligence, but become senile and incompetent as they age. Much like many Earth politicians, except for the bit where they start out intelligent.

Luff: Terryal leader at the time the Starship Traveller visited the planet. He has had access to Earth technology as a consequence of a trade of information carried out with the Captain of the Traveller.

Prime Directive: Never heard of it.

Sub-station Einstein: AstroNavy outpost contacted by the Starship Traveller following the vessel's successful return to this universe. Potential setting for a spin-off, but don't hold your breath.

[So that's that one done. Another victory, but the potential for a diceless victory means that, once you know which decisions are crucial, you can always win. Greater flexibility than some of Steve Jackson's other books means that different irrelevant encounters can be had on subsequent attempts, but for the most part the assorted mini-adventures that can be had just aren't interesting enough to justify replaying the book. The FF range would be worse off without the legacy of Starship Traveller, but the book itself is definitely one of the weaker entries.]

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