Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Kids! Say No to Drugs!

I'm back in SF territory today, as Andrew Chapman's second Fighting Fantasy book, The Rings of Kether, concerns the adventures of an Investigator from Federal Central (Vice) as he (this is one of the few FF gamebooks in which the viewpoint character is explicitly identified as being male) takes on the drug traffickers operating in the Aleph Cygni system.

It was not long before a family holiday when I originally acquired Rings. I vaguely recall being in my room at home while trying to make sense of the description of a hotel as 'a dive' (having only encountered the 'jump head-first into water' version of the word until then), but by the climax of my first attempt, in which I found out how ludicrously easy it is to remove the shielding on the reactor in the drug dealers' base and cause the whole place to explode, I was in our chalet at whichever Pontins camp we were visiting that year.

My current copy of the book is in good condition for ex-library stock, but a previous user has underlined the section number for what they considered the optimal choice at every point along their preferred route through the book. Even when there's no actual choice: sections ending in a straightforward 'turn to [number]' still have that number underlined. In the unlikely even that the guilty party is reading this, they may have a glower and a disapproving tut.

I contemplated fudging character creation again for this adventure, though it's not my character but my spacecraft that I'd be optimising, a low score in Shields almost invariably leading to a failure such as I experienced on my previous playthrough. In the end I opted to take the dice as they fell, winding up with:
Skill 8
Stamina 18
Luck 11
Weapons Strength 11
Shields 4
So I wound up with reasonable Shields, but a sub-par Skill. Probably not as harmful as the other way round.

The quantity of the illegal drug Satophil-d coming out of Aleph Cygni suggests that local law enforcement is corrupt, so I'm working undercover, pretending to be an ordinary trader. I arrive in the system and head for its one planet, Kether (the eponymous rings, in case anyone was wondering, are in the sense of drug rings rather than Saturn-esque). The customs officials at the starport are not interested in my cargo, but they do confiscate my spy ray, whatever that is. Seriously, it wasn't mentioned before now, this section provides no explanation of what it does or why I have it, and the fact that it doesn't cause the customs men to assume that I'm an undercover Investigator suggests that whatever law enforcement-related applications it may have are not immediately obvious.

I decide to have a look at the state of the local police, who are known as proctors. There's a nice touch in the writing here, travel by flying car being such an ordinary aspect of everyday life in this universe that my arriving on the roof is taken for granted, and it only becomes apparent owing to the mention that I have to descend to the 49th floor to get to the Vice department. The overweight man I meet there confidently informs me that there are no local drug rings - at most, a small-scale operation running on the moon.

Unconvinced, and pretty sure from past attempts that there's nothing worthwhile to be gained from visiting the moon, I have little choice but to check out some local bars in the hope of finding a lead. I make my way to a tacky, flashy, noisy, humans-only establishment that sounds like a horrendous place for a night out but is, for the purposes of my investigation, 'very promising'.

Mingling with the crowd, I encounter a navigator who grabs my neck and mutters, 'Beware.' Could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship. He mumbles a barely coherent monologue about the 'Tau Cygni threat', from which I can only make out that he thinks there's something afoot on the moon, and the obese woman playing cards nearby is involved. Still don't want to go to the moon, so I check out the card players. The woman in question has all the wit and charm of your stereotypical ladette, but clearly has considerable authority over the men with her. Attempting to join the game will demonstrate that I possess all the diplomatic skills of a dazed mollusc, so I discreetly shadow her afterwards, thereby discovering that she's in the interplanetary import/export trade, and has the charming name of Zera Gross.

Spying on her apartment is liable to lead to a variety of interesting internal injuries, so I decide to look Ms. Gross up in the local library, as Kether doesn't have any kind of fanciful global computer network that would make it possible to look up almost anything within seconds. Or maybe the spy ray was actually a dongle, and its confiscation leaves me bereft of web access. At least the bulk of the media at the library are electronic. News files on organised crime may well have been doctored, so I try looking for statistics too dull to be considered worth suppressing. As it turns out, it's what has been suppressed that catches my attention: there seem to be some significant omissions in air freight records.

Proceeding to the State Computer File Centre, I find that the data I want to follow up is restricted under the hundred-year rule. Oh, well - sometimes you have to break the law in order to enforce the law. Returning after closing time, I pull a Mission: Impossible routine to get inside, and find lots of gaps in the records. There's no convenient 'undelete' function, so if I'm to find out more, I need somebody to lean on.

I pay a house-call on one of the Air-traffic chiefs. As there are two, it's possible that one of them might be innocent, and if that is the case, I have fifty-fifty odds of having picked that one. Consequently, I start with a friendly approach. The moment I let him know what I am, he panics and babbles a confession of having covered up flights from the islands to the asteroids. He claims not to have a clue who was paying him to do this, so I decide to see if the Gene Hunt approach will jog his memory at all.

Bad idea. He points me towards asteroid C230, which I know from previous attempts to be unrelated to the drug smuggling. Fun though it could be to drop in on the alien mind parasite-worshipping cult that lives there, I think I'll stick to the main plot, and pursue further enquiries regarding those flights. Returning to the starport,  I bribe a pilot, who also tells me to check out C230. Looks like I'm going to have to chase that wild goose in order to get back on track.

Discreetly landing somewhere out of sight of the dock, I don a pressure suit and enter the asteroid via a vent. Marvellous! I'm a cliché! Drifting through ventilation shafts (cheapskate cultists have no artificial gravity), I find a room containing a flaming pedestal. Closer investigation causes a scaly-legged serpentine figure (wouldn't the legs make it more like a centipede than a serpent?) with a woman's face, steel fangs and leather wings to appear and seize me. So I interrogate it. In Yoda-esque language it tells me to look into the Customs officials. It does reflect rather poorly on my investigative skills that I wasn't able to think of that myself.

I've been a bit blasé about the one in the book, but strange creatures with women's faces can be quite horrific.

Returning to Kether to follow this latest lead, I decide that as intimidation and bribery both led me on a false trail, I should try spying on the Customs officials. Concealing myself in a locker, I am displeased to observe an armed security officer carrying out a locker inspection. Not a particularly thorough one, so I might get away with hiding behind a greatcoat (the odds of the pin-up in the locker concealing an escape tunnel are pretty low). The officer gets to the locker in which I'm hiding... and a friend of his points out that it's beer-o'clock. Phew!

Time passes. A pilot arrives with a tonne of boxes. A Customs man eagerly tells his colleagues that the Satophil-d has arrived. His subsequent dialogue with the pilot is delightful.
C: Anything to declare?
P: No. Of course not.
C: Very good. Passed inspection.
I burst out of the locker, blaster pointed at the pilot's head, and suggest that they might like to consider rewording that little exchange. The Customs officials direct me to the top floor of the Isosceles Tower, and the pilot mentions a communications satellite. From playing the book before, I know that going to the satellite will involve some Skill rolls, failing them could lead to my winding up drifting in space, and the optimal outcome of the visit would be learning that it's transmitting to the Isosceles Tower. So I think I'll cut out the middlesatellite, and head straight over to the Tower to see what their angle is.

The top floor turns out to be the office of Zera Gross' import/export company. Considering that I've known about them since day one, the fact that it's taken all this effort just for me to find their office suggests gross incompetence on my part. Especially as the office has been abandoned in a hurry, with document files and magnetic tape strewn all over the place (how retro). In fact, there are still two thugs shredding and incinerating in one of the rooms. A firefight ensues, in the course of which I deal substantially more damage than I take.

Helping myself to the automatic blaster wielded by the man who hit me, I discover that it does more damage than a normal blaster. Should that not have been mentioned back when I was being shot with it? Or did the thug somehow manage to convert the extra damage into a Skill bonus (his Skill was significantly higher than his buddy's). Musing on the oddities of Mr. Chapman's approach to weapon characteristics, I open another door, and a bureaucrat swings a paperweight at my head. I dodge it and apply a little excessive force, and he shows me the 'destroy this message' message giving the coordinates of the island to which the company is relocating.

I head out there and find two conventional entrances, one freight door, and an antigrav dray. And the underliner who had this book before me apparently never realised what fun could be had by driving the dray through the freight doors. The guards on the other side of the doors are prepared for uninvited guests, but not for an HGV in the sternum. The room with the squashed guards in also contains the body of a man who's been savaged by a savage beast or Kether's equivalent of Jack Bauer. He has some of the pills that serve as Provision-substitutes in this adventure (rather inappropriately named Pep Pills), so I take them from him and heal the damage I took back at the office.

Moving on, I encounter a robot that asks me a bizarre riddle. By now I know the answer, but I have not the faintest idea why it's correct. Still, there's another situation in the book where the text explicitly states that I make a completely random guess that just happens to be the correct password, so I don't think exploiting metaknowledge to arbitrarily come up with the appropriate response necessarily constitutes cheating here.

Beyond the robot I reach a junction that (as far as I can tell) serves only to help pad out the adventure to 400 sections. I soon reach a room that contains Zera Gross, a robot secretary, and no antlers to help distinguish when she's not dictating. Still, she manages to clarify the issue in time that the robot doesn't end up transcribing the subsequent exchange, which is something along the lines of, 'Zap! Missed, stupid narc! Pow! Aargh!' and more in that vein, eventually followed by the heavy breathing of a badly wounded Investigator, the death rattle of an extremely fat criminal, and the crackle of a blazing office.

Restoring myself to full health with a couple more pills, I make my way to the command room and manage to find out the location of the asteroid where they make the drugs. I return to my ship and fly up there, finding it protected by a minefield. Blowing it up will damage my shields, but a bad roll while trying to manoeuvre through it would harm me more, if I remember rightly. Nevertheless, I trust to the dice.

The asteroid also has phaser batteries, and while my ship's Smart Missiles can take out some of them, I still have to do a little fighting. This is where that Shields score makes all the difference, and the one I rolled today is high enough to get me past the asteroid's defences intact. Entering via an emergency airlock, I encounter a hostile arrangement of cubes, which is only slightly more of a threat than the Borg were by the end of Voyager's run.

Further on, I reach a cavern containing metallic spheres with handles and bulbous creatures with tentacles. My sub-par Skill causes me to blunder into a couple of the creatures, which have fang-filled maws with which they snap at anything that troubles them. The damage is easily healed, though.

Beyond the cavern is a laboratory suitable for manufacturing Satophil-d. I wreck equipment for a while, then spot two exits, and go through one of them. It leads to a room with gravity, where a narrow bridge spans a deep pit. The bridge is guarded by a trinocular triped with three arms and three weapons, which I discover to be an Arcturian Vanque when I start shooting at it. We both have pretty lousy aim, but I manage to hit the Vanque more often than it does me.

A junction leads me to a peculiar cubic room with red doors in all the walls and black buttons on the doors. If I'd taken Zera on with the noble art of fisticuffs and survived, I'd have learned the right thing to do here. Provided I recognised that there was a little concussion-induced unnecessary repetition in there. Of course, I went for the firefight instead, so avoiding all the traps between here and the climactic confrontation would require me to invoke metaknowledge.

Avoiding all the traps, I make it to the sumptuous living quarters of Ms. Gross' associate, 'Blaster' Babbet. Two of him greet me, and they misuse a line from Blade Runner as a threat. Refusing to be taken in by the trick, I attack the real Babbet, and am displeased to discover that the final fight is a punch-up, in which Babbet has the edge. If the book had the standard rules for using Luck in battle, I might have just managed to win, but it doesn't, so I wind up beaten to a pulp.

1 comment:

  1. This was one of the last FF books that I attempted, which was strange, because as a child I actually preferred the Sci-Fi books. There must have been something about it which put me off, but it turned out to be one of the most interesting and replayable books, due to the many different possible routes to the end.

    It's a shame you didn't get to show us the car chase, but it just adds more options for an eventual replay.

    Incidentally, any good search engine would tell you that Antares is the brightest star in the constellation Scorpio (as seen from Earth, anyway), which captures objects with gravity, rather than pincers.