Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Their Death Will Be Mourned and Your Name Will Be Remembered

Jack Williamson, like Keith Laumer, is an author of whom I'd never even heard before coming across a Combat Command book set in a world created by him. Andrew Keith's The Legion at War uses the setting of Williamson's The Legion of Space series, and has an introduction by Mr. Williamson. Apart from giving a little background on the origins of the series, the introduction includes a tribute to the 1930s pulp magazines in which the Legion stories were originally serialised, and a defence of science fiction's literary merit.

The opening sections assume greater familiarity with the Legion books than the intro did, as the invading aliens are repeatedly compared to the Cometeers, evidently one of the major antagonists in the books. Still, apart from telling me that antagonists about whom I know next to nothing are almost as formidable as other antagonists about whom I know next to nothing, the start of the adventure does a decent job of setting the scene. Villainous aliens with an apostrophe in their name are starting to invade, they pretty thoroughly trashed the first human ships they fought, and they appear unaffected by some of the Legion's best weapons. Oh, and there's a bit of dodgy politicking afoot, with an Admiral getting ready to take the credit if the invaders are repulsed, but poised to exploit some regrettable family history of Ulnar's to make him the scapegoat if the aliens do any significant harm.

Before I start making decisions, I need to do some research. There are nine planets that could be targets for the invaders, and I need to try and figure out which is most likely to be targeted first, as well as helping organise the defence of the others in case I pick the wrong one. Given that the preliminary conflict took place in the general vicinity of S.C. 170, I think it makes sense to check up on there first.

And it turns out that I don't have as much time to check up on the various planets as had been implied. Having established that whatever human presence there was in the S.C. 170 region will almost certainly have been wiped out, I must either head there anyway to find out if the debris of the ships destroyed in the first engagement can tell me anything worth knowing, or pay the as yet unspecified price of taking more time to check data. I doubt that picking over the wreckage is the optimal choice, so I'd better find out the consequences of delay... A morale check, which I pass. But there will be a morale check each time I look into another planet, and a 1 in 6 chance of failing each check means that I should choose my planets carefully. Still, this section also provides a glimpse of Ulnar's musings, which include details of the highest priority planets - Thule, rumoured to be the aliens' next target, Baal, the most heavily populated planet, and Derron's World, which has the greatest mineral wealth.

Next I look up Thule. The aliens appeared to be heading that way, my second-in-command's sister lives there, and a quick review of troop deployment indicates this to be the worst-defended planet in the system. Looks like the place to go, and as checking out any other planet would mean another two morale checks (I can only take the fleet to whichever location I've just researched, so if I were to turn my attention to, say, Derron's World, I'd then have to scrutinise Thule again before I could go there - not a game-breaking flaw, but certainly tiresome), Ulnar shall head there without further ado.

Ominously, the flagship's Captain seems surprised at Ulnar's choice of destination. Should I have gone for somewhere closer? More strategically significant? I'm becoming increasingly displeased with the implied penalty for thoroughly researching all potential battlegrounds (okay, so it's theoretically possible that failing that morale roll would lead to Ulnar's delivering a big pep talk that fires up the troops so much, they get a hefty bonus in combat, but it's a lot more likely that the consequences will be negative, isn't it?).

Ships cannot be easily contacted while using geodyne drive, so there will be no updates on the situation during the (checks charts) 22-day journey to Thule. If I'd known that, I might have gone for somewhere closer just so as not to be incommunicado for such a long time. But there's only a passing reference to this pretty major issue in the 'Technology and Tactics of The Legion in Space' appendix (which I only found out about in any case because it's next to the Travel Time Chart - would it have killed someone at Ace Books to add a line in the rules section to say, 'Incidentally, there's a load of info you might find important at the back of the book, so maybe consider checking it out before you make any major decisions'?), and in any case, it just describes communication with ships in FTL as 'problematic' rather than indicating that this could mean being out of contact with everyone for almost a month.

Talking of things that are problematic, it would appear that that whole research tangent was supposed to be ignored anyway, as looking up details of planets caused me to miss the section in which news comes in of a surprise attack on Endymion. Thus, when we arrive at Thule, there's a load of stuff about findings made in the light of an incident I hadn't even heard had occurred. Basically, the aliens outnumber and outgun the human ships, they've been able to access data from the ships they defeated at S.C. 170 and learn a lot about the locations and capabilities of the human forces, and they're thoroughly generic bad guys with no apparent motivation beyond 'kill all humans'. I'm probably supposed to be shocked and appalled at how evil and merciless they are, but frankly the most horrifying thing to come out of the post-mortem on Endymion is the realisation that a book with such none-dimensional antagonists could get published in 1988.

The occupied worlds closest to Endymion are Baal and Ulnar 118. Baal was named as a probable target so, given the book's track record, I suspect that the next attack will be on Ulnar 118. Or Lochinvar, but that falls under the 'any other destination' option for where to take the squadron next, so I'll go for the planet that gets its own section. That's another 15 days without Facebook, but deciding to head there leads to the revelation that Vice-Admiral Ulnar reckons it's just the sort of place that the invaders might choose to consolidate their forces before striking at the Legion's main base. Just the sort of trivial detail you can see the author wouldn't think worth mentioning back when the reader was trying to make a strategic decision.

Upon arrival at Ulnar 118, I must choose between sending the squadron's destroyers to scout the system and just taking the squadron straight in. Split our forces and make it easier for the aliens to wipe us out in stages, or go for direct action and risk heading into a trap? Given the apparently overwhelming force of the enemy weapons, I'm not sure that having a few more ships in the fleet will make much difference when the time comes to get massacred confront the aliens, I'm going to hope that the book doesn't punish absolutely every sensible-based-on-what-little-info-has-been-provided decision, and have the destroyers carry out a recon probe.

Well, this time the data that's only provided after the decision has been made, when it's too late to make any use of it, is only stuff I'd been able to infer anyway. The outcome of the probe depends on how much time has elapsed, and I'm a couple of days over the shortest time bracket. Not sure whether or not that's a good thing, but it's unlikely to be as bad as the 'over 50 days' one.

Yep, the aliens are there. Over 70 ships, plus something big enough to invite comparisons with the Death Star, though there have been no survivors to report what it actually does. The destroyers are doomed, but does Ulnar just watch them get trashed or take the rest of the squadron in to make things slightly more challenging for the bad guys? How about warning HQ of the build-up of hostile forces less than a week's travel from their doorstep, eh?

I can't help but notice that the section number for leaving the destroyers to their fate is the same as the one for trying to help them and then attempting to withdraw once any survivors have rejoined the fleet, so unless Mr. Keith is being sneaky and has an 'if you did not try to get away immediately' in that section, it'll cost me nothing to do what I can to help. Not that there's going to be much I can do to assist 10 ships against the mere 15 from the alien fleet that are attacking them.

The first casualty is an alien vessel. Another from the fleet brings the attackers back up to 15, and they wipe out three destroyers. Another alien dies, and its replacement assists in the destruction of just over half the remaining destroyers. And then the rest of the destroyers go up in smoke, and the remainder of the squadron isn't even half way to the battle zone. I'd better retreat to improve my chances of letting Legion HQ know about the little surprise being prepared for them here.

Well, the section for retreating doesn't directly penalise trying to assist the doomed destroyers. It just ignores the possibility that I might have done so. Of the two potential set-ups it does acknowledge, the 'held back while the destroyers got trashed' variant is closer to the actual circumstances than 'the whole squadron got ambushed', so I'll go with that one. Which means a Morale check (9 or less on 2 dice) rather than a Stealth check (9 or less on 2 dice). I succeed, and am a little perturbed at the authorial decision to say 'when' rather than 'if' in regard to failing the roll.

Engaging stealth mode, the remainder of the squadron evades the aliens. If I were certain that we'd already fired off a warning to HQ, or could do so without breaching stealth mode, I'd probably risk sticking around here to see if we get a chance of checking out one of the alien ships we wrecked and discovering a convenient weakness. Given the way things are, I can't see victory being achievable without some kind of cop-out. But it may be that for inadequately specified reasons the only way I can let the rest of the Legion know about the aliens' use of Ulnar 118 as a staging point is in person.

Back at HQ I get asked if Endymion is the most recent planet to be attacked by the aliens. Probably, but that rather depends on whether the occupation of Ulnar 118 counts as an attack or not. I check both the sections linked from here to see if they clarify this point, and it looks as if the purpose of the question was to find out if the invasion of the planet Baal had yet taken place. Which it hadn't, for me, so now I get to learn that a small offshoot of the alien fleet, using markedly inferior tactics, wiped out the troops garrisoned there and proceeded to systematically eliminate all human presence on the planet. The text describes the attack as just a raid rather than an all-out onslaught as at Endymion, but I don't entirely see the distinction between the 'trash the defences, then kill all the humans' approach of the earlier attack and the more recent 'kill all the humans after trashing the defences' tactics.

Given the limitations on communications, it would be helpful to know when this attack occurred, as I'm now being asked if the aliens were most recently seen at Baal. If they attacked within the last six days, the answer is yes. Otherwise, the loss of Ulnar's destroyers at Ulnar 118 was more recent even though I played it out before learning of the attack on Baal. Again I sneak a look at more than one section for the purpose of more clearly defining insufficiently precise terms, and the fact that the 'aliens last seen at Baal' section just provides a clue pointing to Ulnar 118 suggests that the fall of Baal came first.

So, does Ulnar stick around here and wait for the aliens to attack, add some of the local garrison to my squadron and head back to Ulnar 118, or go somewhere else? Even if there's anything useful to be found on a planet he has yet to visit, at this late stage he's not likely to be able to get there and back in time for it to matter. I recognise the section number for Ulnar 118, so going out there would just mean the same ambush as before. Looks like the least bad option is to stay here a couple more days, after which a time limit will be passed and, presumably, the assault on the main Legion base will commence.

No, passing that time limit means that that troublesome Admiral mentioned early on turns up and puts Ulnar and his squadron on the reserve list. Ulnar spends the resultant period of enforced inactivity collating data on encounters with the aliens, highlighting anything that could hint at a weakness. The Admiral does his best to disregard all of this and keeps hassling Ulnar about paperwork. Back in section 1, another character described the Admiral as 'a good man'. If these are the qualities of a good man, I dread to think what a bad one is like.

At last the aliens attack. Ulnar remains on the bench, with a quarter of the fleet excluded from the impending battle because they're under his command, and the good Admiral chooses to disregard all available intel about the aliens. So does Ulnar obey orders (most likely dooming humanity), leave (probably shamefully dooming humanity) or defy the Admiral and launch an attack on the alien planetoid-ship that he has somehow figured out to be the only means by which the invaders can be defeated? Making one of the obviously bad decisions would at least enable me to reshelve the book, but then I might have to replay it at some point. Doing the Right Thing will make this drag out that bit longer, but does allow at least a slim possibility of being able to put the book behind me for good.

On the way to the battle, Ulnar runs multiple combat simulations, the outcomes of which are not covered in detail because I now have to select an attack formation, and how could I pick one if I already had an idea of the relative effectiveness of the different options? I'll pick the cone, since the diagram implies that that has lots of ships converging on one target, and I'm going to be concentrating my attack on the moon-sized mothership. Crazy, I know, but it may be interesting finding out how the book punishes this particular not-obviously-stupid choice.

Next I must choose whether to use conventional tactics or Stealth mode. Conventional got everyone killed at Baal. Stealth seemed to work okay on the retreat from Ulnar 118. And as Ulnar is already breaking the rules, adopting mildly dishonourable tactics (against enemies who don't seem to have much in the way of Articles of War) isn't likely to make things significantly worse for him.

The battle against the alien reserves guarding the mothership is going to be a bit complicated, what with alternating waves of human forces and a one-off set of reinforcements for the aliens after they take a yet-to-be-established number of casualties. Plus a whole load more if the battle lasts more than 30 rounds, which is the length of time it'll take the good Admiral and his fleet to get wiped out.

The first assault with battlecruisers destroys 7 enemy ships, but only around half of the human ships survive, and those alien reinforcements turn up just as the destroyers from the HQ garrison take over. I wonder what happens when they get wiped out (and it is 'when' - at current strength (and until almost half of their forces have been destroyed), the aliens eliminate a minimum of one ship every round). Do I just focus on battlecruisers from then on, or do the aliens get free attacks for every round in which the nonexistent destroyers are supposed to be fighting?

It doesn't matter. Before being destroyed, the remaining humans manage to decimate the alien reserves (that's the purist definition of the word, as in wiping out just a tenth of the fleet). The aliens go on to destroy the Admiral and his fleet, then go on to eradicate all humanity. Just to rub my nose in the defeat, Ulnar is blamed for it all, and humanity dies cursing his name.

Well, that was pretty dreadful. I've played worse, but I did have to keep reminding myself of that fact to motivate myself not to give up. It's possible that I might have to take a break from the blog while visiting family over Christmas and the new year, and in the state of mind that The Legion at War has left me in, I'm not particularly unhappy at the thought of a week or two without gamebooks.

No comments:

Post a Comment