Friday, 16 November 2012

Before the Deadly Fire of the Enemy

The second Combat Command gamebook is set In the World of Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers. I've actually read some Heinlein, though not the book which provides the setting for Mark Acres' Shines the Name. Still, I enjoyed such tales as The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag and All You Zombies (the latter of which must be one of the least suitable stories for adaptation into a gamebook ever), and I know a little about ST based on fan complaints about what the movie got wrong (apparently everything and a whole lot more besides).

The rules seem pretty much the same as in the first book. Now I'm vaguely used to them, the hefty info-dump is more bearable, and this time I noticed that the five combat values are Manpower, Ordnance, Attack Strength, Melee Strength, Stealth and Morale. The book also has an introduction by Gary Gygax, which explains how a gamebook (sorry, a 'Chosen Path' book) is different from a novel and a rôle-playing game or scenario, and goes on to claim that this one is 'a whole lot more than [...] other multiple-choice, branching-path game books'. There's more hyperbole, but if I focus on it much more, I may wind up abandoning the book before I even start playing it. Suffice to say that I am not impressed.

My viewpoint character is a Trooper named Julian, whose interior monologue is littered with chunks of awkward exposition, which so distracts him that he fails to notice when Bug warriors surround him, and only survives because another Trooper throws a bomb at them. A whole lot of blah follows, revealing that the book has started in the middle of a semi-botched mission to rescue someone, a Trooper with a personal grudge against Julian is misbehaving in order to try and make him look incompetent, and the order has just been given for a disorganised retreat. Paolo the troublemaker is down, time is running out, and Julian must choose between abandoning the pest and trying to rescue him, the latter either single-handed or with support.

Abandoning him probably means a Morale penalty. Asking for back-up when disobeying orders looks like a great way to get demoted and end the adventure. Reckless heroics, then. The resultant combat is a little one-sided, and not in my favour, but as long as I can survive two rounds (which I do), I can get away with it. My having saved Paolo's life hasn't made him any less hostile or insubordinate, and I suspect that the Power of Trope will interfere with any attempt at getting him court-martialed, so I suspect I'm going to have to test out the system's rules for unarmed combat on him and then, when that fails to change his attitude, wait for the inevitable Fire-Forged Friends moment.

Well, it turns out that Paolo and Julian beat each other to a pulp off-screen, so no dice are required for that exchange of opinions. Still, I very much doubt that that's the last time the two will clash.

Still, that tiresome plot thread goes on hold for now to make room for an almost-suicide mission, leading a squad of rookies in a raid on an alien R&D facility suspected to be a covert think-tank. The attack is carried out in broad daylight because the enemy won't be expecting that.

Military planning is clearly as well thought-out as ever.


A large crowd of Skinnies (for those unfamiliar with the setting 'Skinny' is the humans' name for this alien race) gathers to watch us land. I make the rookie error of not flamethrowering civilians, and find myself embroiled in combat against a crazed mob. And what a great fight this is going to be - allow me to summarise how it is to be conducted:

  1. Roll 2d6 for my attack. The number rolled is irrelevant, as enemy retaliation works exactly the same way regardless of whether I inflict maximum damage, miss altogether, or anything in between, and at the end of each round, Skinny reinforcements replace anyone I killed, so I can't even affect them by attrition.
  2. Roll 2d6 for the Skinnies' attack. If they get above 10, I die.
  3. Repeat until three rounds are over or terminal apathy has set in, whichever comes first.
I kept count of my kills just in case it turned out to matter subsequently and the text had neglected to state that I'd need to do so, but no, after the three rounds were up, one of the rookies set the surviving Skinnies alight, thereby dispersing the mob no matter how many remained. I think someone must have edited the book's introduction, so here's my guess as to what Mr. Gygax originally said, with the deleted words in italics:
The book you have is going to involve a whole lot more completely unnecessary dice-rolling than a novel - or even other multiple-choice, branching-path game books.
It's hard to take the next choice seriously because of the jargon involved. If this book ever bothered to explain the in-universe meaning of the term 'bounce', it must have been buried somewhere in one of the frontal lobe-mashing walls of text through which I've had to wade. As it is, I'm stuck with mental images of a military assault carried out with the aid of trampolines, large springs, or possibly Space Hoppers.

Regardless, bouncing would expose the Troops to danger from a Skinny air defense gun, so I advise against it. This leads to a Morale check and the extermination of the entire squad (yes, if I fail the roll we all die, but if I succeed at it we all die in a marginally less ignominious manner - I know both outcomes because I succeeded, and when I saw that the section to which I'd been directed was a fail ending, I checked the alternative in case it was just a number transposition error).

Well, I did not enjoy that book at all. It seems unclear about its target audience - there are great wodges of exposition for the benefit of anyone who hasn't read Starship Troopers, but a lot of the tactical decision-making seems to require understanding of information that may be in Heinlein's novel, but certainly doesn't appear to be anywhere sensible in Shines the Name. I just hope that this is the low point of the Combat Command series, because if the other books are similar (or even worse), I've got some serious opposite-of-fun coming up every few months.

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