Friday, 19 July 2013

In the Shadow of the Mushroom Cloud

The fourth Combat Command gamebook is set 'in the world of David Drake's Hammer's Slammers'. I've heard mention of the series somewhere before, but as far as I'm aware, I've never read anything by Mr. Drake. Still, I was even less familiar with the setting of the previous Combat Command book, and I wound up enjoying that one, so I'm approaching Todd Johnson's Slammers Down! with an open mind.

The prologue indicates that the series is about space-travelling mercenaries with anti-gravity tanks. I may be missing some nuances here, of course. This particular adventure is set in the aftermath of a pretty decisive victory against another mercenary unit, Jebbitt's Raiders. I'm not entirely comfortable with the politics underlying the conflict, but the Raiders' atrocities and casual use of nukes clearly show them to be the bad guys, even if the people who hired them do have some legitimate-seeming grievances.

The principal character in the adventure is Lieutenant Braddington "Bull" Bromley, who starts it locked in a makeshift cell for brawling with Lieutenant Peter Smyth (also present, but too unconscious to make any more trouble). Both are brought before Colonel Hammer earlier than expected because an emergency has arisen. One of the Slammers' transports has crashed, and some of the remaining Raiders are attacking the survivors while they're vulnerable. Bromley volunteers for the rescue mission before he can be ordered to lead it. Smyth tries to make out that he didn't volunteer too because it was so obvious that he would, it shouldn't have needed saying, which doesn't go down well with Hammer. Bromley gets the option of having Smyth removed from command, and reflects on how well they used to work together before falling out over a woman. Looks like set-up for a 'reconciled through adversity' plot to me, so Bromley declines the offer.

Troops for the rescue mission are in rather short supply, as most of them are already en route to the next planet that's engaged the Slammers' services. The majority of the men available are trainees, just to make things that bit trickier. Consequently, even though some haste is required, Bromley checks in at Operations before addressing his men - the better informed he is from the outset, the greater his chances of keeping things under control. He learns of three viable routes to the crash site, and gets hints that the crash may not have been an accident.

On the way to where the troops are mustering, Bromley encounters an old friend, who mentions conflicting reports from the downed men: some say they're being attacked by civilians, others claim it's the Raiders. The mission just gets better and better. Smyth recommends using coded communications, in case any of the enemy have scavenged equipment that would enable them to eavesdrop. Doing so might confuse the trainees, but I think it's worth the risk.

Nothing has been said to indicate than any of the possible routes are significantly better or worse than the others, but I avoid the most direct one as I've been advised to choose one the enemy won't expect. The text implies that this was a smart choice. The next decision to be made concerns troop formation, and I pick one that will allow reconnaissance along the way, though that does expose the recon vehicles to some risk if they should be detected. Still, with part of the route leading through forested areas, not scouting for possible ambushes would be risky too.

Some banter precedes the embarkation, and I'm a little surprised to find that the radio operator is female - that's a little more progressive than I'd expected, based on the preponderance of male troopers up until now. Things then get a bit military jargon-heavy, and Bromley backs Smyth up when one of the recon troops tries going over his head to circumvent orders he doesn't much like.

An ambush has been prepared, but the recon units provide sufficient warning that the shots fired fail to hit any of the tanks. A fight ensues, and while the outcome is never really in any doubt, some disgustingly lucky rolls by the enemy result in the destruction of three skimmer squads. The exchange of fire will have attracted attention, too. It would be possible to switch to a different route around here, but the option isn't even available, as Bromley recognises that the alternate path leads through far riskier territory. Nice to have a gamebook pointing out that the viewpoint character knows better than to take some foolhardy action, rather than suggesting it and then saying 'you know that that's a dumb thing to do, and bad stuff happens because you were stupid enough to try it' to any reader who chooses poorly on account of not knowing everything that their character does.

At this point I have the option of modifying the formation, so the main force can provide back-up to the recon units more quickly. Could be worth it, if any of the enemy tanks managed to communicate with other hostile units before getting blown apart. And, given that nothing bad happens on the next stage of the journey, I think it was the right choice.

Things don't go so well once the convoy hits the forest, largely because some of the bulky tanks do indeed hit it, colliding with trees and drawing unwelcome attention. Four Slammer tanks are destroyed before the last remaining enemy unit withdraws while it still can. As the troops continue to advance, a possible enemy sighting is reported. Best to assume that it is hostile - a false alarm should be less problematic than failure to heed an accurate warning.

Nope, the distraction provided by the decoy allows concealed enemies to spring an ambush. This is liable to be nasty. Well, thanks to lousy rolls on both sides, the Slammers only lose one infantry unit before the hostiles withdraw, but the enemy units don't even get their paintwork scratched.

The journey continues, and when the next attack comes, one of the enemy units is daft enough to mock Bromley over the radio, thereby giving away that they're monitoring communications. Time to switch to the backup code. Suddenly deprived of their insight into the Slammers' tactics, the ambushers prove totally ineffective, and are atomised without inflicting a single casualty.

Suddenly I get asked for a callsign that was either mentioned briefly a long while back or never actually given. That's a little unfair, but the actual choice offered in the text makes this more a case of working out the author's psychology here than blindly choosing from equally plausible options. I choose correctly (and the close proximity of the sections covering the different outcomes indicates that getting it wrong would have resulted in nothing more catastrophic than a facepalm, so this 'puzzle' is merely pointless rather than harsh).

There are two towns between here and the crash site. The first one turns out to have a couple of enemy infantry squads in it. They don't last long, but the book could do with being a bit clearer about whether or not the ambush means that they get first shot - it makes all the difference between Slammer casualties being 2 or 0. I'll go with the worse option.

For the next stage of the journey, the heavier units lead the way. There's yet another ambush, inflicting heavy casualties. More hostiles in the last town, who halve the Slammers' remaining units with lucky rolls. The town is levelled, but enough damage has been done to give me pretty poor chances of succeeding.

The next choice is problematic, as Smyth wants units that no longer exist to secure the wreck. If I had to still have skimmers at this point, the book should have been more specific about allocating damage. Still, nothing bad happens as a consequence of my insisting on using non-vaporised troops, and the anticipated climactic battle fails to occur. Jebbitt is captured and handed over to the local forces of law and order.

The coda reveals that the punch-up which preceded the adventure was actually the result of a misunderstanding, and then has some vaguely ominous dialogue that could be foreshadowing something in a Slammers novel set after the events of this gamebook. Then there are several appendices, which could have done with being mentioned earlier, as they could have helped with making sense of jargon, working out callsigns, and adapting strategy to the different regions. If I were ever to play this book again, knowing that stuff could significantly improve the experience. But I'm not sure I can be bothered to try and find out, especially as I did narrowly win.

The only reason I found the appendices is because I was looking for David Drake's afterword, which is prominently mentioned on the back cover (the victory section is not the final one, so the fact that there were pages after it didn't automatically indicate the presence of relevant material after the end of the gamebook). The afterword isn't what I expected, being mostly about Drake's experiences in Vietnam and his unhappiness about the insanity in which he was involved there. He also makes some rather gloomy predictions about future conflicts, and while his failure to anticipate the ending of the Cold War means that the locations he mentions are inappropriate, Gulf War reportage has shown that he was a lot more accurate in his speculation about the impact of the hostilities upon civilians is the affected regions.

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