Saturday, 23 November 2013

How Many Deaths Will It Take Till He Knows That Too Many People Have Died?

Today being the 50th anniversary of the broadcast of the very first episode of Doctor Who, it should come as no great surprise that I'm playing the second of the DW gamebooks released by FASA to tie in with their RPG, William H. Keith Jr.'s Doctor Who And the Vortex Crystal (the idiosyncratic capitalisation is as on the book cover). I acquired my copy the first time I went to Forever People, en route to an open day at Bristol University. The book occupied my attention for a fair bit of the return journey, and it didn't take me long to spot instances of authorial sloppiness.

The 'which Doctor does the book feature?' confusion of the previous book had been cleared up by the time this one came out, so the cover illustration depicts the Fourth Doctor and Sarah-Jane Smith. Twice, in fact - with a portrait of the two of them overshadowing a smaller picture of them both fleeing slightly misshapen Daleks (too streamlined and shuttlecock-y). Since I'm being pedantic, I might as well also point out that the Doctor is wearing the big coat and scarf he had in season 18, while the line-up of companions situates the adventure in the nebulous gap between seasons 12 and 13.

As in Rebel's Gamble, I play the part of the Doctor. Following a failed attempt to return to late 20th-century Earth (about which little is revealed beyond an incident with an Allosaurus), the TARDIS hit a disturbance in the Temporal Vortex, and I've traced the source of the disruption to the planet Gathwyr. It's a rocky, foggy place, and Sarah, Harry Sullivan and I haven't gone far before coming across a lot of dead soldiers, who've been killed with a weapon more advanced than any of their equipment. Something tells me that Mr. Keith was rather familiar with Genesis of the Daleks by the time he wrote this.

It seems fairly obvious that the men were killed attempting to get up a hill. I can either try and find out what was so interesting/lethal about the hill, or head back to the TARDIS, and as the latter course of action is sure to lead to some contrived obstacle, I pick exploration. Harry helps himself to a dead soldier's submachine gun, and I try to convince him to put it down. This takes three separate rolls, making the FASA system second only to Sagas of the Demonspawn in the 'needlessly convoluted rules' stakes.

I succeed at the Charisma Saving Roll, thereby gaining a bonus modifier to the third roll, but before getting to that roll I must establish the balance between Harry's stubbornness and my Negotiation/Diplomacy skill (or I could use Haggling, but I have a lower rating in that - and these are pre-determined stats, so it's not as if the author doesn't know that, making it a rather pointless choice). Alas, the dice put Harry into a particularly stubborn mood, so the third roll is a foregone conclusion - the odds of my getting less than zero when rolling two dice and subtracting two from the total are nonexistent. Oh, and after allowing me to choose which skill to use (not that it matters), the book then insists on using a number derived from Haggling for the target of the final roll. Anyway, Harry won't put down the gun.

From the top of the hill I can see a distant city and a paved road, with unidentifiable tracks in the gravel. I also get a sensation of being watched. Again ignoring an opportunity to find out how the TARDIS will be rendered inaccessible until the end of the adventure, I also pass up two completely different 'go somewhere so foggy you can't see anything' options, and just head straight for the city.

The sound of boots crunching in gravel, and voices in the mist, again lead me to consider the possibility that there may be people close by. Still not going back to the TARDIS. And suddenly we're surrounded by black-uniformed troopers who think we're rebels and arrest us for being in a restricted zone. Sarah and Harry are escorted away by soldiers named Yavvik and Garrol, and I get roughed up for speaking out of turn. Attempting to escape may get me killed, whereas going quietly should at least give me a chance of finding out where my companions have been taken, so I put up no resistance.

Along the way I learn that the city is named Tharesti, and am again given the chance to make a break for it. Still no. Inside Tharesti I am taken to the tallest building, the Tower of the Masters. My captor doesn't expect me to come out again. Soldiers hustle me into a lift, and I note that (strangely enough) I'm on Level 5. We descend to Level 2, and I'm thrown into a cell, where I uncharacteristically regret the impossibility of making a 'doomsday weapon' out of jelly babies.

If I'd been injured, I could recover here (though if I'd been killed and regenerated, any damage done there would persist, which suggests that I was wise not to try and get away from my captors). I come up with a risky plan for getting out of the cell, but the book won't tell me what it is unless I decide to go through with it, so I think I'll just wait and see what happens next.

52 minutes and 40 seconds later, two soldiers come to take me up a couple of levels. Probably for interrogation. Based on my hazy memories of the adventure, I'm pretty sure that even a successful escape just means I run around encountering padding until the shock encounter with the surprise enemies depicted on the cover, so to try and get the plot moving, I continue to offer no resistance.

One of the guards says how much he hates going to see... them, and the other tells him to shut up. I agree, having no great love for authors' use of vague terminology in order to defer the revelation of a 'twist' that was given away before the story even began. The lift reaches Level 5, and a bald man in a bloodstained apron approaches. I'm chained to a metal rack, and the bald torturer's boss, Lord Kolav, approaches for a gloat. He reveals that he's answerable to as yet unidentified Masters, and then commences the interrogation. I rather spoil his fun by being chatty and cooperative and not giving him any reason to use the torture device to which I'm attached. He has me subjected to the pain inducer a couple of times anyway, but by giving answers accurate enough to avoid triggering the lie detectors, I continue to deny him the resistance he wants to be able to break.

And then, finally, the Daleks intervene and say they want to take over. They quiz me about the Vortex Crystal, of which I've not previously heard, and once my ignorance on the topic has been confirmed, they huddle in the far side of the room for a not-as-discreet-as-they-hope discussion. The writing in this section is a definite improvement on much of what has gone before: 'As Daleks can whisper no more than they can carry on witty repartee, I was able to listen in.'

The Daleks' debate is (perhaps not intentionally) quite amusing. Whatever the situation regarding this Crystal is, it's serious enough that they need my help in dealing with it. And yet there's a petulant 'But I wanna exterminate him!' undertone running through the argument. Eventually they settle on seeking my assistance now and doing the exterminating later, and I am taken back to my cell while they fine-tune this plan.

In case I managed to get to this stage of the plot without being captured, the text introduces the cells on Level 2 all over again. This time round I fail to come up with an escape plan, not that I'd want to use it if I did: any situation bad enough that the Daleks need my help is probably something that I should do something about anyway, if only to minimise collateral damage. Back in the cell I recover from the torture (another good reason for not trying to escape), again reflect on my lack of weapon-making resources, and come up with another unspecified and unwanted escape plan.

Eventually two Daleks come to collect me, and the 'seeking help, not exterminating' business is rehashed for the benefit of readers who missed it the first time round. Tiresome, but partially redeemed by my snarky rejoinder to the second Dalek's insistence that I help them: 'What's the matter? Your castors need oiling?'

We descend from the lowest level of the Tower to the Daleks' spacecraft via a concealed lift shaft. There's an awkward non-explanation of why it's impossible to travel between levels on the ship without passing through the control room, some mildly amusing conjecture about Daleks' hostility arising in part from their lacking the ability to have a nice sit down, and, finally, some explaining.

The Daleks start by telling me something I already know: this planet is the source of an anomaly. But they know I already know that, because they've examined the device I cobbled together to try and pinpoint the precise location of the anomaly. And the fact that they've let me know that they know that I know what I know is telling, because their ability to monitor the Vortex could have given them an advantage in their day-to-day interaction with interfering Time Lords who pop up unexpectedly to foil their plans, but only as long as the Time Lords remained aware of it. And they must know the consequences of letting me know that they know that I know what I know, so they're prepared to give away that advantage in return for my assistance in dealing with the anomaly, which means that this must be a serious situation and I should stop going on about knowing about knowing before this becomes completely incomprehensible.

Further info-dumping is summarised, and augmented with a couple of gratuitous continuity references because this was written in the mid-1980s. Cutting out even more extraneous detail, the situation is this: the Daleks' Vortex Probe detected something extra-dimensional that's trying to suck the entire universe through the Gathwyr anomaly and into 'some kind of entropic whirlpool'. And even if the Daleks are already sufficiently demented to want to destroy the universe, they'd want to do it themselves, not have some extra-dimensional spoilsport beat them to it.

The anomaly is somewhere west of Tharesti. Search parties have been sent to try and locate it more precisely, but any that succeeded must have been drawn into the anomaly, as they never managed to report back. Either that, or the Daleks leading those search parties were the highly-strung kind who self-destruct the moment they realise they've done something wrong, and they exterminated themselves as punishment for not finding it. The Daleks talking to me now hope that I'll be more successful in the search.

They have Sarah and Harry as hostages, in case I'm still unwilling to help. I refuse to let any Daleks accompany me into the TARDIS, bending the truth to make out that it won't work with them on board. They agree to let me travel alone, since they can rely on my loyalty to my friends to keep me from just running off. Nevertheless, even as I'm being escorted from the ship, I find myself formulating plans to evade the accompanying Daleks, rescue Sarah and Harry, sabotage the Dalek ship, and then turn my attention to the anomaly. But that would mean breaking my word, and (given the unforgiving nature of the rules) probably result in my getting exterminated to Capaldi and beyond, so I'll deal with the large-scale threat as agreed, and worry about the Daleks' sudden yet inevitable betrayal later.

We get to the TARDIS without incident, and I am somewhat unfairly surprised when the Daleks let me enter it and depart without attempting to exterminate me. After musing on the kinds of wacky devastation that could be caused by trans-dimensional flows, I arrive in a mountain range about 80km west of Tharesti. If I'd taken a different path through the book, I might have already been here at one point, and for a change the text gives an 'if you have been here earlier' option to avoid unnecessary repetition.

More precisely, I'm in a valley, littered with the millennia-old debris which is all that remains of the successful Dalek search parties. That's a bit bad, given that the Daleks have only been on Gathwyr for a few months. And there's more not-so-great writing, as I find myself hurrying back to the TARDIS for fear that Dalek search patrols might spot me out here. Do the words 'uneasy alliance' not ring any bells, Mr. Keith?

Back in the TARDIS I discover that only a couple of seconds passed during the fifteen minutes I spent exploring the valley. Musing on what could warp time in such a manner, I get another continuity reference, and then have to make a roll to determine whether or not I figure out what's going on. The modifiers for the roll elicit further irritation. Since my first encounter with the Daleks (in this adventure), I've been intermittently told to note down letters signifying clues I'd picked up. I didn't mention it before now, because it was just a straightforward mechanism for keeping track of things. But I did note down which clues I got. What I did not note down was when I reacquired any clue, because why would I need to keep track of how many times I found out something I already knew? As it turns out, the answer is 'because you get bonus modifiers for having come across multiple variants of the same clue'. And why did the book not specify that I should make a note of these clues even if I had already made a note of them before? Well, I can think of a few answers to that question, but none of them are particularly complimentary about Mr. Keith or FASA, and I try to avoid being rude about actual people in this blog. Bad writing is a legitimate target, individuals less so.

I roll well enough to succeed even if I've forgotten any repeated clues (I know there was at least one because I remember not writing C again, but there may have been more). It turns out that the source of the anomaly is so tricky to find because it's temporally displaced, a whole 2½ seconds into the future. Fortunately, it's possible to make that temporal leap without drawing on the combined power of two spin-offs, and I arrive in a city made of crystal.

The closest structure appears to be a temple. I decide to look for an entrance less obvious than the front door, and soon find one. Locked, but nothing the sonic screwdriver can't handle. The building turns out to be dimensionally transcendental, containing a huge void surrounded by a balcony. Walkways extend to a central platform, which radiates light. The source of the light is a pillar of crystal, surrounded by worshippers, and seemingly alive. Recalling the story that was the source of the book's most recent continuity reference, I realise that I'm in the presence of another Kronovore (sic.).

The ceremony on the platform reaches a crescendo, I see a vision of human and Dalek vessels being aged to dust in the valley, and a powerful wind... does something to me, but I'm not sure what, because the book gives the wrong section number. A quick flick through the book reveals a couple of sections that could be the intended outcome, one 10 higher than the number I was given, the other 10 lower. Neither is a perfect fit, both are lethal. And by penalising sneaking in so harshly (the odds of not failing that Dexterity roll are only 1 in 6), the book has thrown away enough of my good will that I can't be bothered to make a more detailed check to see if there's a section that properly fits the situation and doesn't bring the adventure to an abrupt and unsatisfactory conclusion. I probably fell into the abyss, but what really ended this playthrough is the sloppy writing/editing/playtesting of the book (delete as applicable).

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