Wednesday, 20 March 2013

Generating a Global Catastrophe Curve

The seventeenth Fighting Fantasy gamebook saw Steve Jackson extending the range's genre boundaries again, with the superhero-themed Appointment With F.E.A.R. No other books in the series followed his lead in this instance, though there have been a couple of mini-adventure sequels. It's also unconventional in that there are four completely different 'true paths' through the book, one for each of the superpowers that can be chosen at the start, so there's a sense in which this constitutes four gamebooks in one, though the four do criss-cross and overlap in a variety of ways.

For my last online playthrough I picked Super Strength, and a week ago I offered my readers the option of choosing which of the others to choose here. I got one vote for Psi-Powers, and one for Energy Blast or Psi-Powers, so the winner is Psi-Powers. Which happens to be the most dangerous power to take, from at least one perspective. The thing is, there are certain 'fail' endings that can only be reached if the reader has a certain power, and Psi-Powers gets more of those endings than any other power. I can think of at least four. By now I know the book well enough that I can avoid those endings, if need be by fleeing a confrontation I know I cannot survive, but a first-timer has significantly more chance of blundering into defeat just by not running away if they chose Psi-Powers rather than anything else.

My first attempt at the book came to an abrupt halt when I encountered one such ending, though that one was a Super Strength-specific death. I'll go into more detail about it later, as it's connected to an incident I must investigate on the Psi-Powers path in order to obtain an essential clue. I'm pretty sure I got the book on a Saturday, as I was at home in daylight when my character died, and on any other weekday it would have been getting dark by the time I got back from school, especially if I'd been into town to get the book first.

This is the first FF book to give 'you' a name, the vaguely unisex 'Jean Lafayette'. My character was the product of genetic surgery, though for amusingly Heisenbergian reasons, the mental powers I developed as a consequence of the experiments did not manifest until after the scientists had given up looking for anything unusual about me. I have an unremarkable job in an office, and a more unorthodox sideline in wearing shiny clothes and a mask and committing citizen's arrests, sometimes with the help of my mind-reading and -controlling abilities, but more usually with the maximum legally permissible amount of violence. The frequency with which I resort to fisticuffs has rather more to do with the relative uselessness of my special ability than my fighting prowess, as my stats are
Skill 8
Stamina 23
Luck 10
The high Stamina is quite useful, as using my powers takes its toll on my health. But getting punched in the face by villains on account of getting a lower Attack Strength does similar damage, so a higher Skill would have been helpful.

At the start of the adventure I already have two pieces of information to aid me in the fight against crime. Firstly, that Metroville villainess the Tiger Cat, who possesses the ability to disguise herself as an ordinary cat (the text says 'harmless', but I have friends who own cats, so I know the adjective to be inaccurate), is in town. Secondly, the address of wealthy murderer-for-kicks Daddy Rich, whose lawyers (boo!) recently helped him evade justice. Probably on some petty technicality like the inadmissibility of evidence gained by reading minds.

More vaguely, the criminal organisation F.E.A.R. (the Federation of Euro-American Rebels) will soon be holding a meeting in the area, as a prelude to some kind of nefarious naughtiness, and I need to find a way of gatecrashing it before they can get round to taking over the world. In some way the public sense that all is not well, and there's a distinct air of tension on Clark Street as I head to work.

Certain specific incidents catch my attention. A newspaper vendor yells near-incomprehensibly about a robbery. A police car races into Audubon Park, siren wailing. And pedestrians are arguing about a dog that has fouled the pavement. Now, that last one sounds like a case for - dramatic chord! - the Silver Crusader.

The Dog-Dirt Dilemma
You might think that this is a rather trivial business with which to be concerning myself. And you'd be right. But while there's certainly satirical mileage to be got out of a superhero who only deals with minor infractions,  my actions here are motivated more by gameplay than parodic intent. Hurriedly changing into my costume, I mentally suppress the hostility between the originators of the argument, and sense that the man who was remonstrating with the dog-owner is trying to conceal something from me. A gold watch and a pawnbroker's are the only clear images I get before he loses himself in the crowd, but he definitely didn't wamt me to know about that watch.

If I had a higher Skill, I'd probably go into the park next, as I remember that the crime that's been committed there turns out to have been Daddy Rich reoffending. As it is, I suspect that the damage I'd take subduing him and his mysteriously inferior bodyguards would get in the way of my more urgent investigations. Thus, I return to my civvies and proceed to the office.

The Car Crash Conundrum
I arrive late, fail to avoid attracting the attention of my boss, Jonah Whyte, and get subjected to a lengthy harangue. It only ends when a limousine goes out of control on the street outside, hitting a street-lamp and catching fire. Another quick costume change, and I arrive on the scene at about the same time as two ambulances and a fire engine. Sometimes my mind powers can influence the physical world, but not here, so I simply cooperate with the emergency services, dragging the passengers from the car as soon as the firemen have cut through the buckled door, and getting everyone out of range before the inevitable explosion. While it's a step up from defusing arguments about dog's mess, this is still pretty mundane as superheroics goes (though a similar crash provided part of the set-up for the reality-twisting opening to Grant Morrison's run on The Doom Patrol a few years after AWF came out).

The Experiment Emergency
The rest of the morning passes without incident, but while having lunch at a nearby diner, I overhear a group from the Biochemistry Department of the local university discussing the possibility that an explosion might result from an unwise procedure that someone in the department plans on carrying out.. Naturally I decide to look into this, and am not sidetracked by the cry of, 'Stop! Thief!' that I overhear on my way to the university.

Predictably, I arrive too late to prevent Professor Murdock from carrying out his experiment, getting there just as the reaction starts to go out of control. This is another situation where my powers are of no use, and the only remotely sensible-seeming option is to get a fire extinguisher. GCSE Chemistry doesn't provide me with enough knowledge to know whether or not that would just exacerbate the threat, but the alternatives are obviously unwise rather than just possibly inadvisable. Anyway, the monumental incompetence of whoever's responsible for Health and Safety here turns this latest attempt at saving the day into a farce. No extinguisher in the lab, so I have to search elsewhere. None in the hall, either. Eventually I find one in a room, race back to the lab, and find that it's a dud. So I dash downstairs, find another extinguisher, take the stairs two at a time on the way back up, and burst back into the lab, ready to save the day at last. Except that Professor Murdock's calculations turn out not to have been so widely off the mark after all, and the reaction has stabilised while I've been faffing around.

This fiasco has so tired or shaken me that I wind up not going back to the office. Not that dealing with that robbery would have been any more impressive an endeavour (see The Silver Crusader Alternastories issue 6, The Shoplifting Schoolboy). A quiet evening allows me to recover from my exertions, and reflect on whether or not I'm in the right business.

The Cat that Didn't Get the Cream
Next morning I set off to work early, and take the subway to improve my chances of punctuality. Like that'll work. Indeed, before the end of the journey, a fellow passenger bewails having fallen victim to a pickpocket. He'll have to wait, though, as my Crimewatch (a gadget that's used to alert me to emergencies) summons me to Cowfield Dairy. I hurry there, finding nothing obviously amiss because I've apparently forgotten my first clue of the game, and the tabby cat trying to get through the gate evokes sympathy rather than suspicion.

Convicted murderer (and apparent jailbreaker) 'Chainsaw' Bronski rounds the corner, prompting me into action. This stray kitty needs to get to an adoption centre fast. But as I draw near to the Cats' Home, the tabby undergoes a startling(ly predictable) transformation, and I'm into my first fight of the game, against the Tiger Cat. Power use is handled poorly here: I'm told that there's no time to concentrate, as she attacks immediately, but after subduing my opponent, I suddenly wind up reading her mind. Given the Stamina cost of using my power, it's possible that I could have won by the skin of my teeth and then dropped dead from the effort of picking up my foe's thoughts. As it turns out, the punch-up only cost me just over two thirds of my Stamina, so I can bear the cost of plucking a F.E.A.R.-related address from the feline criminal's mind.

While handing the Tiger Cat over to the Police, I learn that a little old lady has just brought in a piece of paper that identifies the 'calling-card' of the villainous Mantrapper. I can't even begin to imagine who wrote it, or why. Still, it provides me with another lead. Or a quandary - can I afford to follow it up at the appropriate time, given my clawed-up state?

It's a Self-Referential World After All
It starts to rain as I set off to the office again. This would be significant if I had a certain clue, but I don't, so that's one encounter I won't be having (see The Silver Crusader Alternastories issue 11, Smoke Gets in Your SDIs). Along the way, it occurs to me that I might be able to placate my boss by getting him a present, so I pop into Harrold's Department Store. I'm definitely in no state to take on the fiery foursome who'll soon be causing trouble upstairs, so I try the Book Department, and wind up buying a copy of some weird, gimmicky thing called The Warlock of Firetop Mountain. It doesn't help. I get the day off - without pay - and am threatened with unemployment if I don't get my act together. So I decide to spend the afternoon at Wisneyland amusement park.

Now here's an interesting yet trivial dilemma. This book includes Hero Points to keep track of the reader's performance. Capturing criminals and saving lives (as the Crusader) adds HPs, harming innocents, killing criminals and publicly messing up costs HPs. But they have no actual influence on the outcome of the adventure, merely adding to replayability by offering the possibility of triumphing more spectacularly than before. I know the book well enough to be aware that here I have the potential to achieve one of three things: capture a villain (and get Hero Points), perform a minor service to a member of the public (and get a Hero Point) or, out of costume, save someone's life (no Hero Points because I'm incognito). Technically, the last of those could be considered two things, as there are two separate instances in which I can keep Wisneyland's shoddy safety standards (or possibly sabotage by the villain with his hideout there) from resulting in someone's death, but I only mention that because I'm pedantic. More to the point, my Stamina's too low to make capturing not-the-Joker a viable option (but see The Silver Crusader Alternastories issue 14, Welcome to the House of Fun), narrowing the choice down to gaining a Hero Point by finding someone's lost property or gaining nothing by averting a needless fatality.

Like I said, Hero Points don't really matter. And self-preservation (in the interests of global preservation) will be keeping my score low anyway, so one Point more or less isn't worth making a fuss about. Plus, there's an element of uncertainty to the life-saving opportunities, so I'm going for the more unpredictable option. Well, one of them. Dodgems or Big Dipper? The Big Dipper's a bit obvious (and not as monstrously fun as this), so I'll go on the Dodgems. I trundle around for a bit, bumping into others, and then just as a head-on collision with another car seems imminent, a nearby knock causes a young boy to fall out of his bumper-car, landing right in front of me and my would-be collidee, who unhelpfully screams and takes her hands off the steering wheel, leaving me to try and avoid crushing the kid. I manage to swerve away in the nick of time. The other driver still hits the boy, but his injuries aren't fatal. Nevertheless, I've had enough 'amusement' for now.

Mantrap Mansion
It's still a little early to be heading home, so I wander into town to do some shopping. While dining at a pizza parlour on Banner Street, I spot retired millionaire Drew Swain emerging from a baker's. He freezes rather oddly, and is then obscured from sight by a blue van. When the van drives off, there's no sign of Swain. This, incidentally, is roughly where my first attempt at the book failed. Super Strength is packaged together with flight, so a player who selected that power has the option of pursuing the van (others have no chance of catching it up on foot). Only the villain behind Swain's disappearance has prepared for that contingency, and stopping the van and opening it up triggers a lethal booby-trap.

None of which matters today, as I've got Psi-Powers. First I enter the baker's to find out if anyone in there saw what happened while the van was in the way. The staff are only able to tell me that he bought wholemeal bread and custard tarts, but a quick burst of mind-reading reveals that the delivery boy works for F.E.A.R., and is thinking about the impending meeting on 209th Street. He runs away before I'm able to learn anything more, so I return to the scene of the crime, finding the very type of item mentioned in the piece of paper that old woman took to the Police station, which identifies this abduction as the handiwork of the Mantrapper.

Let's gloss over exactly how knowing who's responsible enables me to proceed directly to the abandoned warehouse where he's hiding out - Steve Jackson certainly did. Not having done much superheroish for a while, I climb onto the roof and then swing through a window, fortuitously putting both of the Mantrapper's henchmen out of action (one gets knocked into a self-locking cage, the other through a bannister and onto the next level down). That just leaves the Mantrapper himself to subdue, and I'm hoping for better rolls than I got against the Tiger Cat.

I don't get them. This book's pretty harsh on the combat front if you don't take Super Strength. The Mantrapper kills me. A few days later, the F.E.A.R. bosses get together in the pawnbroker's at the junction of 5th avenue and 209th Street, put their cunning plan into action, and destroy the city. I wonder if they were smart enough to leave before triggering the killer satellite.


  1. I'd just read minds all day and assassinate anyone involved in F.E.A.R., like that delivery boy. Anonymous Rifleman sounds good.

    1. Don't forget the Stamina cost for using the power. Even with the maximum possible Stamina, you could only read 11 minds without killing yourself. And going by what healing there is in the book, each day you'd only regain enough strength to read another 3 minds.

      I'm not sure how rigorously the Psi-Powers route was playtested.