Friday, 1 April 2016

The Bosses Are Using a Totally Rubbish Business Model

I can't remember whether or not I'd already heard about Alex Jenkins & Stephen Morrison's parody gamebook The Regional Accounts Director of Firetop Mountain by the time I came across a copy in the local library. Either way, I promptly borrowed it and took it home to play. My first attempt at the book slightly put me off it, as my character came to a sticky end as a result of my succeeding at a roll. I know there are a couple of gamebooks out there where failing a roll can be beneficial, but the writing here more strongly suggested that the section numbers at the end of the previous section were the wrong way round. Not having left any kind of bookmark in that section, I had no easy way of figuring out what I should have turned to, and just put the book down. Still, I wasn't so soured on the book as to pass up the opportunity to get a copy when one turned up cheap on eBay.

As can be inferred from the way my first go at the book ended, there are rules. With a hint of humour, but nothing to rival J.H. Brennan yet. All stats are determined by the roll of two dice, and I end up filling out my Adventure Curriculum Vitae with:
Aptitude 5
Endurance 3
Office Luck 8
I think my character might actually be inferior to the real me, which is something of an achievement. Quite possibly the only one I'll make in this playthrough.

While TRADoFM most closely apes Fighting Fantasy gamebooks (right down to the font used for the text), it differs from the majority of the FF range by not starting with a scene-setting 'Background'. Section 1 pretty much fulfils this function, and as it doesn't even end in a decision, just an instruction to turn to section 2, there's really no reason it couldn't have been separated off from the actual adventure as a 'Background'. It's not as if doing so would have adversely affected the number of sections - the adventure only has 279 in any case. (Pity they didn't add an unreachable section 192 in emulation of The Warlock of Firetop Mountain to make it a round 280.)

My character is an out-of-work temp, driven by desperation to seek out a certain temping agency in a particularly insalubrious part of the rather grim city I inhabit. They are pessimistic about my prospects, but when I indicate just how desperate I am, the office manager brings up the possibility of a data entry position that's about to become vacant. I accept, and he hands over details of the address of my incipient employer, Firetop Mountain plc. When I read out the name, a consultant shrieks and drops his phone into his gruel. Maybe he's a pedant, and can't bear the way they leave the initialism in lower case.

In the morning I trek for hours to reach my new workplace, a hideous concrete tower block. The top floors are architecturally incongruous, with an ornate design that appears to have been hewn from the living rock. Which is geologically absurd, but that's almost certainly intentional. Checking that I'm not early, I approach the door... which is where section 1 ends.

The building looms over me. The door looms over me. The buttons set into the wall loom over me. If the excessive degree of looming is to become a running gag rather than a one-off, I hope that at some point in the adventure I come across a device for weaving cloth. And someone who's come to collect an inheritance.

Anyway, there are two buttons on the wall next to the door, one marked 'RECEPTION', the other '240V'. The second one makes me think of electricity, and as I'd rather avoid having any shock-related penalties deplete my already abysmal stats, I avoid it and press the 'RECEPTION' one. The door clicks open and I enter the lobby. It's dimly lit, but the gloom doesn't loom. Perched behind a very high desk is an albino receptionist, glowing faintly. She doesn't loom, either (though I guess she is luminescing).

The receptionist brusquely orders me to sign in, handing down a leather-bound ledger and a quill pen in an inkpot. The plume doesn't loom. As I sign in, I observe the complete absence of other names in the book, though that may be because the pages are all so thickly coated in dried Tipp-Ex. Despite the receptionist's surliness, I try to be friendly - I may need to make a sudden exit, so it would be inadvisable to incur the wrath of the person best positioned to get in my way as I'm heading out. She's pleased to be treated as a person, and I gain an Office Luck bonus, which persists even after we run out of small talk and wind up smiling awkwardly at each other in silence.

Eventually the receptionist directs me to the waiting room, which contains wooden sofas and a framed motivational poster. Remembering that looking at pictures in gamebooks can be harmful to the health, and mindful that interesting items may be found down the back of a sofa, I opt to sit down. It's not that comfortable, but nothing bad happens.

A thin man with an orthopaedic shoe and a bloodshot eye comes in, introducing himself as Bernie Ditter. He asks me about my office experience, and ticks the paper on the wooden clipboard he holds as I answer his questions. He rubs the bloodshot eye as we talk, making it redder and redder, and when the interview is concluded and he leads me into an open-plan office, I observe that the paper on the clipboard is blank, apart from one tick in biro. That's actually a bit disturbing.

The office is full of booths, and the sound of typing fills the air. A tea lady pushes a wheeled urn around the room, and judging by the mention of 'sugary steam', it seems likely that the tea has been pre-sweetened. There's definitely something not right about this place. Ditter shows me to a booth and, with perturbing intensity, urges me not to leave the desk at any time, as the auditors are in. I ask where the toilets are, and Ditter claims that the staff tend not to use them. I notice, with some distaste, that the floor has a slight slope to it, leading to a gutter in the floor, and Ditter makes himself scarce while I'm distracted.

My chair is incredibly uncomfortable, but the set-up at the desk is familiar: the computer already switched on, a stack of papers, and a well-used manual for explaining office procedure to newcomers. Everything is ready for me to get to work, so the text asks how I intend to commence slacking. I shan't Google my own name - one time I did that in real life, I came across two separate mentions (both definitely about me rather than someone with the same name) relating to the issue of whether or not I was actually a fictional character. I doubt that anything like that will happen here, but peeking into the neighbouring booth strikes me as being a better potential source of useful information.

I stand up to peer over the dividing partition, and find myself face-to-face with the booth's occupant. He's not standing, though - he just has an abnormally long neck. His name is Jessie, and he reveals that he's unpopular with the Archive Department because he keeps giving the wrong references for filing. He's not a great conversationalist, and a die roll establishes that I'm no better in that regard. Having failed to engage Jessie's interest with talk of canals, I mention the uncomfortable chair, and he yells at me to shut up.

Getting to work, I become aware that the data I'm entering includes tax details of people I know. Other temps, whom I haven't seen in a long time. With horror, I realise... that my printer back at home is low on paper, so I sneak over to the photocopier and help myself to a ream. As I sit back down at my desk, the pain gets worse, so I take a proper look at the chair to see if I can figure out what's wrong with it.

There's a blade protruding from the back of the chair, which is a pretty egregious breach of Health and Safety guidelines. That gutter in the floor is nothing to do with poor sanitation: it's been collecting the trickle of blood from the wounds I've sustained while sitting down. I jump to my feet, and slip in my spilt blood. Abruptly, the lights and computers all go dark. I hear strange cries, running footsteps, and, oddly hoofbeats.

I must choose a direction in which to run. What with the FF influence here, I'll go with Ian Livingstone's favourite. Owing to my wounds, it turns out to be more of a hobble than a run, but I make it to a corridor lit by a flaming torch. Up ahead I see two doors with bolts, each etched with a rune: one denoting 'man', the other 'woman'. I go through the first of these doors, because if they're what I think they are, the other leads to forbidden territory, at least for the likes of me.

Yep, these are the toilets. There are no paper towels that I could use on my wound, and I can't get the rotary hand towel off the rollers, so I resort to barging into the cubicle to take the toilet roll. Regrettably, there's someone using the facilities, and he takes umbrage to my intrusion. While his current activity does restrict his mobility, he can still kick, so I'm into my first fight of the adventure. And it's one that I'm in with a chance of winning, as his stats are abysmal.

I do win. Just. As I am, rather impractically, stealing the man's trousers to use as a tourniquet, I hear a sound like grating stone, and turn to see what new threat is imminent. It appears to be Ditter, who hits me with his clipboard, causing me to fall down, banging my head on a basin as I do. In describing this, the authors use the word 'sink' more times and in more ways than strictly necessary. The bad writing must be deliberate, for humorous purposes, but it's a cheap joke, and not that funny.

I fall into a large body of water, which turns out to be in a massive toilet bowl. Not too large for me to be able to climb out, though. The soaking has put my mobile phone out of action, so I can't call for the police or medical assistance. Beyond the cubicle door I am surprised to see a row of tiny wash basins. My exploration of these somewhat bizarre toilet facilities is interrupted by a rhythmic booming from the adjacent room. Peering through the window in the door, I see the tea lady arriving in the Server Room, the place's function being indicated by a sign (and the significant quantity of computer hardware).

Given that the book's drawing out my character's realisation of just how weird things are at Firetop Mountain, it's a little surprising that the sign and the technological gubbins get my attention before the grey-skinned brute in chainmail standing on a desk. He's using a broom to prod at a blocked drain in the ceiling, and when the tea lady comments on the blackout, he explains that a clot in the pipeline is to blame, but the anti-coagulant should soon take effect.

The drain gurgles and deposits what I somehow recognise as day-old blood into a cauldron. The being with the broom plugs an ethernet cable into the cauldron. It suddenly dawns on me that this thing is a troll, and I think this is the point at which my first attempt at the adventure came to an end. Yes, it's a roll against Office Luck to see whether or not I can handle the shock, but according to the section numbers given, I have to score above my Office Luck to not black out. The section covering conversing with the receptionist implied that gaining Office Luck was a good thing, though, so this has to be an error. Or a deliberate mistake, but if so, there should be something to indicate that this is supposed to be a case of failure through authorial/editorial blunder. And on the subject of blunders, this is one of those instances where nobody has allowed for the possibility of rolling equal to, rather than above or below, the relevant score. Not that I do, thanks to the bonus I got in reception.

So, I rolled lower than my Office Luck. A quick flick through the book in search of another 'Test your Luck' situation reveals that the authors do consider rolling above the score to be the 'good' outcome, but another bonus glimpsed in passing also makes it clear that an increase in Office Luck is supposed to be a good thing. They haven't thought this through. Or one of the authors really resented the need to fail a Luck roll in Black Vein Prophecy, and opted to express their displeasure by wrecking the game system here. Either way, I am strongly tempted to go with the text as written, since that would give me an excuse to reshelve the book and... I was going to say 'get on with something more fun', but then I remembered what I'm supposed to be playing next. Nevertheless, this instance of authorial ineptitude/sabotage has again put me off TRADoFM, and my dislike of what's coming next is not intense enough to induce me to stick with the book, so my character passes out, and winds up in the dungeons.

I hesitate to use the term 'lazy writing', because even a bad book may well be the end product of considerable effort. Still, however much work Messrs. Jenkins and Morrison may have put into The Regional Accounts Director of Firetop Mountain, it wasn't enough. As a parody, it may be okay - I'd have to get through more of it to find out - but as a gamebook, it's a failure.

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