Friday, 5 October 2012

Go Take That California Trip

My journal indicates that on the 3rd of January this year, electricians fitted mains-powered smoke alarms in my flat, a plumber insulated the water pipe on the other side of the wall from where I'm sitting now, and I playtested my sequel to Caverns of the Snow Witch. By contrast, Highway Holocaust, the first of Joe Dever's Freeway Warrior series, states that that was the day on which terrorists detonated sixteen nuclear devices in North America, Europe and the USSR, fairly decisively trashing the northern hemisphere. This is definitely an instance in which I prefer reality to fiction.

FW didn't make much of an impression on me when it originally came out, in the late eighties. I was aware of the books, but Fighting Fantasy's Freeway Fighter had done little to endear post-apocalyptic road warrior shenanigans to me, there was no Warlock magazine to try and persuade me that the series was worthy of attention, and the quasi-real world setting didn't lend itself to the kind of imaginative deaths that would appeal to my macabre streak, so I gave them little attention.

In 2002, around a year after I'd started getting back into gamebooks, I got hold of the first book somewhere, and eventually I got the others. At some point I had a go at HH, perishing in an early shoot-out, and while I did make a start on adapting my gamebook manager to handle the series, the related bookkeeping killed whatever enthusiasm I had. I did participate in the group playthrough of the series at rpg.net, but it didn't inspire me to do anything with the books, so this will be my first proper effort at playing through the series.

The book is set in 2020, by which time the fallout, nuclear winter and Giant Radioactive Mutant Cockroaches have sufficiently abated that it's possible to go above ground without automatically being doomed. My character is Cal Phoenix, who survived the initial unpleasantness on account of having been visiting my uncle's mine at the time the bombs went off. After eight years tunnelling towards the surface and being homeschooled (mine-turned-fallout-shelterschooled?) by my aunt, and not quite a year back above ground, living with a small community of survivors and fighting off the occasional horde of lawless marauders, I look something like this:
Close Combat Skill: 18
Endurance: 26
Driving: 4
Shooting: 3
Field craft: 4
Stealth: 4
Perception: 4
Equipment consists of a torch (as I remember the rpg.net collective's character dying by falling into a hole in the dark), binoculars, one meal, a flexible saw, a hunting knife and a pistol.

'Pop' Ewell, leader of the community, has made contact with a colony in the west, and learned that Southern California is largely unaffected by the devastation. With a drought threatening food and water supplies, and criminal gangs threatening to mutilate us in a variety of ways so as to get what we do have, it's time to leave town, with the short-term goal of joining forces with this other colony, after which we'll all continue west until we reach California and whatever remains of civilisation.

In the midst of preparations for the departure, Jake Bannerman decides to head north to see if the guns stored in the basement of his brother's hardware store have gone unnoticed by looters. A little later he radios in to confirm that the guns are still there. Additionally, he's found a female teenager who survived the cataclysm and its aftermath. And his vehicle's slightly out of action, so could someone pop round to collect him, her and the weapons, please? I get sent, and have barely stepped out of the vehicle when some joker opts to greet me with a burst of machine-gun fire. I seem to recall that taking cover is not good for the health, and leap back into the car. The windshield takes the next blast, and then a leather-clad punk leaps into the passenger seat, and I'm into my first fight of the book. I win, but lose a third of my Endurance in the process.

His knife is no better than mine, but the encumbrance rules don't include a penalty for carrying a second close combat weapon, and arming the young lady may prove helpful, so I grab the weapon and dash towards the hardware store. Jake just has time to tell me that the punks are scouts for a Yankee gang intent on taking over the region, and they want the young woman, when somebody blows the back door open. The subsequent exchange of fire costs me half my remaining Endurance, but I am at least able to get up afterwards, which is more than can be said for my shotgun-toting ex-adversary. Or Jake, for that matter.

The teen warns me that the man I just killed has some equally unpleasant relatives, then grabs his shotgun and ammo, providing covering fire while I dash back to my car. She then joins me, and we drive off. Along the way, while I try to cope with the shock of what just happened, she introduces herself as Kate Norton and explains that our attackers were members of a gang known as 'the Lions'. Their leader, Mad Dog Michigan, was a member of the terrorist organisation that nuked the planet, and he intends to raid America's largest armoury, unite the gangs, and conquer the country. She was their prisoner, but escaped. Oh, and the man I shot was Mad Dog's brother, so I've just become especially unpopular with the Lions.

The community receive this news with mixed feelings. but the 'a vengeful biker gang will be heading this way soon' aspect prompts a rapid departure. Torching what we can't take with us, we set off, and I scout ahead as we approach the first town we'll be passing on the journey. Something doesn't feel right, and my binoculars enable me to spot indications that there's at least one biker in there. My report convinces the others to detour across the dried-up lake bed to the south-something (the text and the map disagree over whether it's south-east or south-west) of the town.

The crossing is uneventful, thanks to a lucky roll, and Freeway 35 comes into view. Close by is a ruined University campus, which should be a great place to find useful stuff or random death. Let's see which it is... When I announce my intention to explore, I get told that we need polythene sheeting. My search leads me to a room containing a crate and a reinforced steel door. The crate contains hundreds of plastic tubs, wrapped in polythene - hurrah! I (the reader) can make sense of the labels on the tubs, but was Cal paying attention during Aunt Betty-Ann's chemistry lessons? Yes, he knows the chemical symbol for salt when he sees it. Take some stocks, or check out the door first?

I risk further investigation. The door has a still-functional electronic lock, which can be activated by solving a mathematical puzzle. Implausible, but given some of the silliness indulged in by Mr. Dever in later adventures, I should be thankful that it's not a trivia quiz based on what happened earlier in the book. I do solve the puzzle, and gain access to the strongroom. Ignoring the mounds of paperwork and (in a neat subversion of gamebook norms) the samples of gold, silver, platinum and titanium, I contemplate which (if any) of the other items to take. More than one (or just the bulky one) and the encumbrance rules will deplete my Stealth. I go for the Altimeter because I cannot imagine the circumstance in which I'd need one, and thus gamebook psychology leads me to suspect that it will be important.

Back with the convoy I hand over the polythene and salt, and am compelled to retain a canister of the latter. Turns out I was wrong about the encumbrance penalty threshold (and I'm pleasantly surprised that my younger self designed the gamebook manager to automatically recalculate encumbrance after inventory adjustments).

We continue on our way until the need to cross a river forces us to choose a bridge. The first one I check out is no longer intact, but a wrecked bus nearby is of the same model as one of the convoy vehicles, so I take an encumbrance hit in order to load up on spare parts. I can only take two from a list of seven, so it's complete guesswork as to what might come in handy later on. Frustratngly, there's no option to leave the vehicle components with the convoy once I've rejoined them.

The other bridge is intact, but blocked by a manned barricade. The convoy's chief mechanic, 'Cutter' Jacks, has the inspired idea of adapting a length of crash barrier into a battering ram and mounting it on the bus, which smashes through the barricade, opening up the way for the rest of the convoy. Except that a whacking great chunk of wreckage comes flying through the air towards my car. I fail to react in time (of all the lousy times to get a 1), and Mad Dog Michigan is denied his revenge.

I was starting to get into that. Pity the book goes more than slightly overboard with the randomised lethality.

1 comment:

  1. I always put all the points into Stealth to offset the penalties from encumbrance. It seemed to me that failing the Stealth-based rolls was more likely to be lethal than the other types in the first book, anyway.

    I believe I then put two points in each of Driving and Perception for book 2 and then 1 Perception, 2 Shooting, 1 Field Craft in book 3 and 3 Stealth and 1 Driving in book 4, but I don't have my records to hand, so I can't be sure. The later books are certainly much more difficult without the extra points, but a complete run (going back to the beginning each time Cal dies) is certainly possible (and a lot easier than for the Lone Wolf books 1-20).

    The one thing that annoyed be about this book was that solving the puzzle in the university didn't really give any advantage, but a stat roll was necessary to find the salt. It would have been nice if spending time in the locked store gave Cal a chance to think about the chemical symbol for longer and get another chance at the test, for example.

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