Friday, 23 November 2012

Grey Day


I've been a fan of Doctor Who even longer than I have been a gamebook fan. Today being the 49th anniversary of the original broadcast of the very first episode, it seemed the obvious date on which to play one of the adventures in which these two obsessions intersect.

Despite there being at least two dozen DW gamebooks in existence, there are very few that are suitable for this blog. The recent Decide Your Destiny series is out because the books lack failure endings, and I'm not interested in writing up adventures that I cannot lose. As for the Find Your Fate books from the eighties, while they have plenty of potential for meeting a nasty end, most of them have overly narrow 'true paths'. Even the most railroady Fighting Fantasy gamebook offers more freedom of choice than these. The only real exception is such a bad book, I cannot bring myself to contemplate trying it again (and considering some of the clunkers I've already revisited here, that's saying something). Switchback, the solo adventure from the Time Lord RPG, is only a fragment, with less than 20 sections, and while I've been willing to post write-ups that are extremely short because I failed early, one that's going to be very brief even if I succeed has little appeal.

So that just leaves the books that FASA released to tie in with their Doctor Who RPG in the mid-1980s. The first of these is Doctor Who and the Rebel's Gamble, by William H. Keith, Jr. As I recall, I tracked down a copy in Ballard's several years after it came out. I shan't say how I failed it, because there's a strong probability that this attempt will end the same way: early on in the adventure, a lot hinges on one roll of the dice.

There seems to be a significant overlap between DW fandom and gamebook fandom, so before I get started on the actual playthrough, here's a brief digression about the continuity-mangling aspect of DWatRG. Apparently, the book was written for the 1975 TARDIS crew - the Fourth Doctor, Sarah Jane Smith and Harry Sullivan - but owing to a blunder somewhere along the line, the cover illustration featured the then-current line-up of the Sixth Doctor and Peri Brown. Allegedly, it was considered cheaper, easier, or in some other regard preferable to amend the text rather than the picture, so the Doctor became the Sixth, Sarah became Peri, and Harry... remained Harry, with no explanation of why he was suddenly back on the TARDIS. Not an ideal solution, and unless I'm forgetting some significant detail, a better one could easily have been found, but I'll say more on that topic later.

There's a brief teaser featuring psychiatrist (and US Civil War re-creationist) Dr. Carl Jenner and his patient, Everett Marshall. Marshall claims to have been transported to 1986 from the Battle of Gettysburg, which Jenner finds hard to believe until the two of them are sucked into a temporal eddy similar to the one that brought Marshall to the 20th century in the first place.

As the adventure proper commences, some gamebook idiosyncrasies become apparent. Section numbering starts at 100 rather than 1, and the narrative is in the first person and the past tense rather than the more common second person present. Oh, and in this series I play the part of the Doctor, rather than a companion like in all the others.

I'm not sure how detailed the rewrite to change the principal 'cast' was, but it's only been partially successful: while the Doctor's dialogue does a decent job of capturing Colin Baker's voice, the companion expressing concerns about having possibly wound up in the Jurassic 'with all those great, thundering dinosaurs' sounds far more like Sarah than Peri.

Anyway, I've come here (somewhere in North America, somewhen closer to the twentieth century than the Jurassic) to check up on a temporal anomaly that registered on the TARDIS' instruments. Something has travelled from one time to another in an unorthodox manner, possibly indicating a primitive attempt at time travel, which could potentially disrupt the timelines, bring about the destruction of Earth, and even make a mess of the entire universe. This obviously merits investigation. Or I could go fishing.

Business before pleasure. Rechecking the instruments narrows down the location to somewhere near Pennsylvania, within five years of 1860. The sound of horses nearby draws our attention to the nearby river, where dozens of grey-clad cavalrymen are pursuing a lone fugitive, whose clothes look like they used to be a business suit from a more modern era. I promptly intervene, managing to convince the soldiers that the man is an escaped patient of mine. They hand him over, warn us not to go near the Confederate camp after dark unless we want to be mistaken for spies like my 'patient' was, and then head back whence they came.

The man introduces himself as Dr. Jenner and explains (as far as he is able) how he comes to be in September 1862. He and his patient were separated while being whisked back in time, and he has no idea where Marshall is. This is a problem, as Marshall's brief sojourn in the twentieth century has provided him with knowledge that could enable him to alter the outcome of the Civil War, and a strong motive for doing so: his younger brother died at Gettysburg.

Still, Jenner has reasonable grounds for believing that Marshall might be close by, as this is one place and time where his anachronistic knowledge could massively change the course of history. Thanks to an unlikely sequence of events (reality doesn't need to be as plausible as fiction), a duplicate copy of General Lee's orders to his army has been used to wrap a small bundle of cigars that will get lost during the Confederate withdrawal from Fredericksburg tomorrow. In a few days it should be found by Union troops and passed on to General McClennan, bringing about a victory (of sorts) for the north at the Battle of Antietam and providing Lincoln with a politically advantageous moment for making the Emancipation Proclamation. If Marshall can find those cigars first, things are liable to turn out very differently.

We spend the night in the TARDIS and, once the troops have moved on, we start snooping around the sites where they'd camped, and Jenner spots someone he thinks might be Marshall. We take a closer look, and yes, that's our man. He's been here for a few months already, and has been promoted on account of the quality of his advice. Which means he's able to call on back-up, and get us all arrested on suspicion of being Yankee spies. Five men escort Jenner, Harry and me towards a shed, while Peri is taken off to the home of Confederate supporter Mrs Ramsey in Fredericksburg.

Reflecting on the low accuracy of the muskets being used at this time, I attempt an escape. This is where my first attempt at the book went awry, and the same has just happened again. To avoid getting shot, I need 7 or more on 2d6, and I only got 4. I manage to regenerate, and (despite not having a spare hand with which to technobafflegab myself) to stay as Colin Baker rather than becoming Sylvester McCoy.

The book then forces us to head into Fredericksburg in search of Peri rather than go back for a second attempt at keeping Marshall from finding the cigars. And the gamebook design here is as awkward as the plotting, as the section to which I must turn next depends on whether it's still the day on which we arrived or we spent the night in a shed. Er, neither.

Not that it makes any real difference. Either way, we hit a brief info-dump about Barbara Frietchie (and further authorial clumsiness: yesterday I knew enough about her to wonder if Marshall might be looking for her, today I need Jenner to explain why she's remotely significant) before getting pointed to Mrs Ramsey's place. Oh, and the Fourth Doctor's hat escaped the rewrites here.

Time to try something counter-intuitive, I think. You see, back when I first had a go at this book, I succeeded in regenerating as well. Went to Fredericksburg, rescued Peri, and then discovered that while I had been doing that, Marshall found the cigars and messed up history. But I have the option of keeping the Ramsey house under surveillance rather than just knocking on the door and demanding to see Peri, and if the book is broken enough, sitting around doing nothing for a while might provide an opportunity to go back and look for the cigars before it's too late.

It works! Well, at the very least, after wasting half the day staring at the house, I get the option of going to the fields where the Confederates had their camp. Along the way some bizarre dialogue implies that forcing one's way into another person's home was socially acceptable in the twentieth century, but let's not dwell on the sort of neighbourhood Mr. Keith Jr. grew up in, because Harry's just found the cigars. Not that Jenner couldn't have done so just as easily - indeed, I have yet to see any good reason why Harry's part in all this couldn't have been given to Jenner. Edit out his lines from the very first scenes, and give any exposition-prompting questions he might ask later to Peri or the Doctor, and there'd be no need for this awkward blend of eras.

Anyway, we take away the cigars and the document in which they're wrapped, intending to put them back once Marshall has given up his search, and then head back to Fredericksburg. Where I need to ask directions to the Ramsey residence again, because the structure of this book is a mess. The door is opened by an armed teenager. I try to persuade him to let me past, and he shoots me. Fortuitously, the bullet only goes through several vital organs, and misses the battle plans in my pocket. Regenerating again, and managing to defer the McGannification that ought to accompany it, I jump the TARDIS forward in time to shortly before the Union troops arrive.

While I'm replacing the package where it was dropped, Jenner wanders off to watch a real live Civil War skirmish. Twit! But the dice are kinder to him than they have been to me, and I get him back to the TARDIS unscathed. He speculates that Marshall's next best opportunity to change history would be to try and avert the death of 'Stonewall' Jackson at Chancellorsville in eight months' time. Nevertheless, I decide to go to the Battle of Antietam first, in case Marshall tries to see his younger self or his brother there.

We arrive some distance away from the actual fighting, and encounter General Lee. Both his hands are bandaged as a consequence of a recent accident, and I apply a little advanced medical knowledge to ease the pain, thereby gaining his favour. After a few pages of historical info-dumping, I get the opportunity to ask about Marshall, who has gone off to check up on 'relatives' at the Lower Bridge. A (rather awkwardly explained) roll of the dice enables me to persuade the General to permit us to seek Marshall out, but a run-in with Union soldiers prevents us from getting anywhere near him. Next stop, Chancellorsville.

The TARDIS' sensors can get a rough fix on the temporal distortion caused by Marshall's presence, but only to within a few hundred metres ('two or three times the length of an American football field', as the narration uncharacteristically expresses it). While searching for Marshall, we get captured by Confederates again. Not wanting to risk getting shot a third time, I make no resistance, and as luck would have it, we appear to have found the very troops that were responsible for the friendly fire incident that assisted Jackson towards a premature death. Marshall turns up, and now I have to take action, whatever the risk. Indeed, it's possible that my making a break for it is what causes the men to fire upon Jackson. At any rate, by the time the firing is over, I'm unhurt and Jackson's days are numbered.

Now I attempt to persuade Everett to abandon his quest, and the roll to determine what happens here is even more awkwardly described than the one at Antietam. Still, the double six I roll pretty much guarantees failure no matter how I interpret the jargon. Marshall runs off, and I risk getting Eccleston'd by chasing after him.

Marshall gets me at gunpoint and, not liking the look of the modifier on the roll to dodge, I try persuasion again. And the lists of roll modifiers get even more convoluted: roll two dice, add four, subtract my Charisma (9), subtract my Diplomacy Skill level (6), subtract two, add the roll of another two dice, and add ten. And I need a total of 0 or less to succeed. Which isn't actually possible using the stats provided in the book. So Marshall walks off. And I let him, rather than risk precipitating another shooting match. That's another enforced decision, by the way.

On to Gettysburg, then. But the Marshall effect has now developed into severe turbulence in the Time Vortex, and another bad roll reduces the TARDIS and its occupants to a cloud of subatomic particles.

Buried somewhere in the back of the book is a cop-out clause allowing me to go back to the start of the adventure and restart, but I shall disregard it. Like I said, this blog's not for unlosable books. Besides, I'm not sure I can face playing through the thing again.

It's still a lot better than that Find your Fate book, though.

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