Saturday, 1 December 2012

#4: Starship Traveller


STARSHIP TRAVELLER

Steve Jackson

Reviewed by Mark Lain

Steve Jackson was always the innovator out of him and Ian Livingstone. Livingstone liked to develop Titan (well, Allansia) whilst Jackson liked to expand the possibilities of FF and experiment with it. The first Sci-Fi entry into the FF cannon would inevitably come from Steve and it came very early on (number 4 in the original series.)

Sci-Fi and FF have often been said to make awkward bed-fellows but it has to be said that very few Sci-Fi FFs ever saw the light of day – there were at most only nine and that is assuming you view the superhero one (Appointment With F.E.A.R) as Sci-Fi – so it’s hard to fairly judge their success or failure. The fact that no more were released after number 33 (Sky Lord) suggests that the FF production team and/or Puffin certainly viewed them as a non-starter and it doesn’t help that the Sci-Fi FFs were book-ended with two of the worst FF books ever (Starship Traveller and Sky Lord) as that has hardly helped their image. Granted, most of the Sci-Fi FFs were poor or pretty lacklustre (only Robot Commando and Rebel Planet were genuinely good) but we don’t have much material to go on.

Sadly, Starship Traveller was the first truely bad FF as it was the first one that’s bad points wildly outweighed any good points it may have had... and it has many bad points:
  • ·         The sheer amount of time it takes to roll-up all the extra characters and ship stats would suggest that all these will have some pivotal role to play. This is not the case. The extra crew are just there to die instead of you and I count only two ship-to-ship combats. This is very frustrating and is actually a complete waste of the player’s time.
  • ·        The plethora of extra rules (hand-to-hand combat, phaser combat, ship-to-ship combat) seem like they will add extra layers to playability and options. This is not the case. Phaser combat is boring, hand-to-hand combat is just FF combat, and ship-to-ship combat is practically non-existant (see above.) A wasted opportunity that makes it hardly worth reading all the extra pages that explain all these useless rules.
  • ·         The art is two-dimensional and lifeless. Much of it is just line drawings with no background to immerse you in what you are seeing. Medieval set FFs are easy to imagine in your mind’s eye as they are close to what we see of our own history, Sci-Fi is not and needs visualising properly. If this is Space, the illustrations really convince you that staying on Earth is much more exciting.
  • ·         It is possible to complete the book without touching the dice once. This is just lame – where is the element of chance that dice-rolling creates? Or, did Steve deliberately eschew dice-rolling because he knew you would be sick of rolling dice and had thrown them away in frustration once you’d wasted half an hour creating all your crew and ship?
  • ·         Worst of all, it comes across very clearly that even Steve got bored with this one (he has suggested this in interviews) and that he rushed to finish it. He couldn’t even be bothered to name all the planets! It also doesn’t take long to reach the end and win, or reach the end and find you have the wrong co-ordinates. On that note, it took me many attempts to beat this book and I thought it was really hard until I mapped it and saw how obvious the true path actually is!

Listing the book’s good points is a far shorter job and is much harder in that it is so hard to find any of any real note. Yes, it is basically Star Trek crossed with the popular Traveller RPG so it gets credit for being savvy enough to jump on the bandwagon of popular culture at the time. It was a brave effort in that it was the first attempt to transplant FF’s very Middle Ages-era-centric game mechanics, but the total lack of any effort to exploit the futuristically-appropriate extra rules kills that one dead. There’s a certain amount of curiosity employed when you first start planet-jumping but this is marred by most of the planets being boring with very little to do or discover and it wears-off when you realise how soon you will reach the far side of this particular universe.

The only neutral aspect of this gamebook is the plot. It does not suffer from the blind illogicality or ludicrous convolutions of some FF plots and it isn’t totally one-note like some others. Your ship is sucked through a black hole into an alien galaxy and you have to find the correct co-ordinates to get back out the other end and home again. Bizarrely, some planets hide items or information that you need to use on later planets. This is hard to accept unless they are all some sort of United States Of Planets. It stretches the point too much but you can see that it tries to make its galaxy into a conventional dungeon-trawl where you need something from earlier on to get through something later on, which may have been done to make it more applicable to the FF conventions.

It is hard to be positive about ST and it did not set a good standard for Sci-FI FF. The subsequent one (Space Assassin) is famously just as dire, the next two were novelties (Freeway Fighter ie Mad Max, and Rings Of Kether ie Philip Marlowe in Space), followed by a superhero effort that I can take or leave (Appointment With F.E.A.R.) Not until number 18 (Rebel Planet) would Sci-Fi FF find its feet in terms of all-round quality. It’s interesting to note that the absolute worst Sci-Fi FFs (Starship Traveller, Space Assassin, Sky Lord) all begin with the letter ‘S’ and that the best ones (Robot Commando, Rebel Planet) begin with ‘R’. Spend your time looking for coincidences rather than wasting it playing this gamebook – it’s much more fun!

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