Tuesday, 11 November 2014

An Unreality Which Calls for a Different Kind of Moral Code

In recognition of what today is, I'm altering my playthrough schedule to bring forward book 4 of Simon Farrell and Jon Sutherland's Real Life Gamebooks series, Through the Wire. For the most part, the RLG books were based around conflicts from world history, and many of them offered the reader the opportunity to choose sides. This book is, I believe, the first one that didn't, which is understandable in view of the subject matter: escape from a Nazi POW camp. Yes, I know that's World War Two, and this is the centenary of the First World War, but I'm not aware of any gamebooks with a WWI setting, so this is the most thematically appropriate one I have.

I got my copy of TtW from a local charity shop, and remember starting to look through it on my way home, and being surprised at the point in my character's life at which the narrative commenced. What I learned from that brief look at the book will influence my choices in character creation.

As with the other Farrell and Sutherland gamebook series I own, character creation involves a selection of skills and a number of points to allocate among them. 50 points again, but this time there are 7 different skills (though none of them cost double). No skill can be lower than 2, or higher than 12 (and unless the book sometimes applies modifiers to rolls, going above 12 would be wasteful anyway, since I can only fail a roll by exceeding the relevant skill score on two dice).
Pilot: 8
Agility: 8
Luck: 7
Persuasion: 9
Firearm: 6
Language: 7
Driving: 5
More balanced than the sample character shown in the book. Time will tell whether or not I have cause to regret not min-maxing my character more thoroughly.

In this adventure I am Alistair Thompson, a relatively recently-qualified Flight Officer in the RAF. It's September 1940, and I have a Luftwaffe air-raid to intercept. Yes, I have yet to become a POW, and it wouldn't entirely surprise me to find that there's a fair chance of my not surviving long enough to get captured. That's why I didn't take a lower Piloting score - I can potentially try and avoid stealing cars if I make it out of the camp (assuming I make it in there in the first place), but when I'm already airborne by section 1, not flying isn't an option.

I choose to target the bombers, inflicting engine damage on one of them in my first pass. Go for it again, or hope to have done enough, and pick a new target? I'll try to prang another kite... which decision leads slightly jarringly to the end of this phase of the engagement. The German planes are turning back, most of their bombs wasted at sea, and my squadron leader instructs us to 'escort them home'. I opt not to get too close to the retreating enemy, which takes me to a section that appears better suited to a version of me that took damage in battle: when several dozen more enemy fighters approach, I warn my leader that I may have a problem staying with the rest of my wing.

We're heavily outnumbered in this new fight, but I still manage to take out another Nazi plane before losing a wing. There's a mildly sloppy bit of design here: I'm at section 73, and the 'If you fail' direction for the Luck roll leads to 74. I make the roll, just, but can see that if I'd rolled slightly higher, that would have been the end of my adventure. As it is, I bail out and parachute into the sea. My kit includes a rubber dinghy, which I am somehow able to inflate while bobbing up and down in the water. Time passes, and I get picked up by a German patrol boat. For me, the war is at least on standby.

I am taken ashore at Calais and, upon seeing the number of ammunition crates carelessly strewn around, wish that a British bomber squadron could be attacking here. What, right now, when there's a good chance I'd perish in the conflagration? I'm taken for interrogation, where I am accused of shooting at a pilot who had bailed out. I deny the charge, and (as far as I can tell) manage to satisfy the man questioning me without giving away any information I ought not to let slip. He has me driven to Luftwaffe HQ, where I am locked into a cell for the night.

In the morning a guard who speaks no English brings me food and coffee. I try out my Language skills on him, and manage to ascertain that I'm to be taken to Stalag Luft 14. I'm then given the option of attacking him as he turns to leave, but I think it unlikely that this is a genuine chance to escape, so I make no trouble. A few minutes later I'm taken out to a truck, which is being used to transport another seven downed British airmen to the camp. Two nervous young soldiers with guns keep watch on us.

The truck heads inland, eventually stopping in a small wood to allow some of the guards to answer the call of nature. We get an opportunity to stretch our legs, and I could try sneaking away, but I'm reluctant to try anything liable to upset a nervous guard with a machine-gun. A couple of my fellow prisoners start brawling, and when the guards attempt to separate them, the others rush them. In the resultant fracas, three of the airmen are killed, and nobody gets away. Indeed, it appears that for one of the men who don't survive the fight, not even death counts as an escape, because six prisoners are herded back onto the truck. We get handcuffed to our seats for the rest of the journey, and locked up in local jails whenever the truck makes a stop for the night.

Eventually we get to our destination, and are handed over to the camp guards. After being processed into the camp, three of us seek out the Senior British Officer, Group Captain Evans. He notes down our details, assigns me to Hut 113, and advises me to get some rest. I do so, not wanting to get a reputation as the wrong kind of troublemaker.

The following morning I learn of the twice-daily head-counts, which are almost the only interaction that occurs between the Germans and the prisoners. Over breakfast I try to find out more about the camp's layout and routines. When I ask about the camp's location, one of the other prisoners asks if I'm planning on escaping, so I enquire about the Escape Committee. Not unreasonably, the man is unwilling to discuss such matters with a complete stranger.

Wandering around the huts, I spot a group of French prisoners loitering in a decidedly suspicious manner, but decide not to stick my nose into their business. Nothing significant happens for the rest of the day, but sirens wake me at around three in the morning. For a moment I think it's an air raid warning, but then another prisoner notes that somebody is trying to escape. I indulge my curiosity, and look through a window, spotting a man in civilian clothes heading this way at some speed. On instinct, I open the window to let him in. He's the unsuccessful would-be escapee, a Belgian POW, who managed to evade the searchlights well enough that his having taken refuge in Hut 113 didn't get noticed by the guards. My hutmates and I manage to smuggle him out to the morning head-count, at which he is able to rejoin his compatriots without any further bother.

Later that day, I get an introduction to the Escape Committee, my nocturnal assistance to the luckless Belgian having indicated me to be the right sort of chap. I get to choose the type of escape attempt in which I will be involved: tunnelling, over the wire, or bluffing my way out. I go for the middle option, not just because of the title of the book, but also because I'd probably need stronger language skills for the bluff route, and I'm not keen on the prospect of being buried alive if a tunnel should collapse.

Wire-based escapes are overseen by another Belgian, who has been responsible for an impressively high proportion of the successful escapes made since he came to the camp. The current plan involves cutting the wires a night in advance, and disguising the damage with fuse wire. I use Persuasion to get myself added to the group that will be breaking out soon, but don't attempt to become their leader. The only other Briton in the six-strong party takes that responsibility, setting the date three days from now, and insisting that we split up once we're out, to make it harder for the Germans to recapture us.

Nothing of note happens during the intervening time. One by one we squeeze through the gap in the fence. One of the Frenchmen in the party slips and falls, but my Luck holds, and the guards don't hear the sound. We hurry into the cover of the nearby forest, and then go our separate ways. The Belgian border is closer than the Swiss one, so as I'm not good with ground-based vehicles, I'll go for the shorter walk.

Emerging from the forest, I catch sight of a nearby village and a railway line. The faster I get away, the better, so I make for the train track, hoping to be able to grab a ride on a passing train. A Lucky jump gets me onto a box-car, though I hurt my arm and incur a penalty to Agility in the process of leaping aboard. That suggests that the consequences of failing the Luck roll would have been really bad.

After concealing myself, I fall asleep. When I wake, the train has stopped. Sneaking off, I soon find that I'm in France. Not quite what I'd planned, but under the circumstances, certainly preferable to, say, Berlin. Further along the track I can see a railway worker, and while there is a possibility that he might turn out to be a collaborator, I'm not likely to get much further on my own, so I risk approaching him.

He can tell from my uniform that I'm a British airman, and seems worried. A good sign, as someone who wanted to betray me to the Nazis would probably keep up a more welcoming facade. He lends me a less distinctive coat while leading me to meet someone who can help. This new contact, Pierre, is also a little troubled at the sight of me, but lets me in. He explains that he's helped a few escaped POWs back to England, but thinks that the Germans suspect his involvement, so the quicker I move on, the better. His daughter Madeleine will accompany me on the train journey to Arras, a mere hundred or so miles from the coast.

For the journey I am provided with a trench coat and, more worryingly, a pistol. Considering my below-average Firearms skill, I hope I won't have to use it. We reach the station and board the train without incident, and once we're on our way, I doze off again.

After a while I become aware of a conversation taking place close by, but pretend to still be asleep. I might overhear something important, and even if I don't, it means I won't risk blowing my cover with a botched Language roll. The speakers are Madeleine and a German who's trying to chat her up, though his intentions do not become clear until she's referred to me as her brother. She claims to be married, and expecting to meet her husband at the end of the line, and I continue to keep quiet. The German persists in making a pass, though, and now the text insists that I intervene. Given Jon Sutherland's co-authorship of the book, I'm not surprised to find myself being forced into a course of action. Still, there seems to have been a fair bit more freedom to choose than in some of Sutherland's work, and it is more reasonable that I should find myself compelled to act in this situation.

No Language roll required. A bit surprising, but given that I've already been through at least one unavoidable 'do or die' roll, I'm okay with not having to risk another 5-in-12 shot at failure. Madeleine introduces me to her new 'friend', I wonder out loud how her husband would react to this, rather awkwardly shoehorning in a reference to his being a man with some authority even under the occupation, and the German abruptly remembers some paperwork to which he must attend. I resolve to stay awake for the rest of the journey, and pretend to be married to Madeleine.

We reach Paris and change trains without any trouble, and Madeleine gets some rest on this leg of the journey. In the coat pocket I find some food and a letter addressed to me, asking me to take Madeleine with me when I cross to England, so she'll be safe even if Pierre does get arrested. I accept this mission, but won't let Madeleine know about it yet: she will probably be reluctant to abandon her father, and the easier it would be for her to get back to him, the greater the risk of her trying it.

At Arras we have to pass through a security check, and a man in civilian clothes takes an interest in us. This time there is a Language roll, and I fail it. Unable to understand what he's saying, I panic, shoving him over the barrier and sending one of the guards flying into the others with a blow to the chin. Grabbing Madeleine, I race through the brief opening I've created, and my Luck does not let me down: the guards take long enough to pick themselves up that we can vanish into the crowds in the nearby market before any shots can be fired. Phew!

We proceed to the contact address Pierre gave me, and are hidden in a loft while our new host, Monsieur Ebonar, awaits an opportunity to contact London and make arrangements for my channel crossing. Getting him alone for a moment, I show him Pierre's letter, and he reluctantly agrees to have Madeleine taken across as well.

Prior to the next stage of the journey, Ebonar gives me a sten gun, and Madeleine explains the weapon's primary idiosyncrasy to me. We get into a truck that heads for Hesdin, accompanied by a few resistance members, but catch sight of a vehicle coming our way. At this time of night we're not authorised to be travelling, so the driver stops and pretends to be dealing with engine problems while the rest of us hide in the bushes nearby. The other vehicle turns out to be transporting a whole platoon of German infantry, who get out when it stops. I decide to wait and see if the driver can successfully bluff them, rather than opening fire straight off. A good choice, as he is able to play on the Germans' contempt for French workmanship and convince them that he's only out this late because his truck broke down. One of the Germans shows off his technical skills and gets the engine working (easy when there's nothing actually wrong with it), and in exchange for a bottle of cognac, the officer in charge agrees to keep quiet about the driver's seemingly involuntary curfew-breaking.

We continue to the pick-up site, and wait for the plane that is coming for me. When it arrives, I tell Madeleine that this isn't going to be quite the goodbye-ee she was expecting, and while she initially protests, Ebonar and I are able to persuade her that she should accompany me. The flight back to England is uneventful, and cars are waiting to take me to London and Madeleine to the Free French HQ. I give her my address, so we can keep in touch.

Rather than being returned to my squadron, I'm taken to see a Major Dunbar, who works for the SOE. Given my recent experiences, he'd like to recruit me for covert operations in mainland Europe, and wants to send me and Madeleine back across to support the Maquis, assist further escaping POWs, and generally create bother for the Nazis. I accept, and while that marks the successful conclusion of my escape, it's also the start of a whole new adventure, which falls outside the scope of this book.

Well, I enjoyed that. The book has its flaws, such as the editing slip-ups I mentioned early on, but they're very minor issues. As it went on, I got drawn into it, and there was a definite sense of rising tension towards the end. I'd have no problem with playing it again - and I get the impression that there are more than enough alternate routes through the book to make doing so worthwhile. If the other RLGs I've not yet tried are up to the same standard, I shan't regret having collected the series.

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