Limited Access - Wellycon XI - Back 5th June 2018
SF and Fighting Fantasy never got on that well, some I'm sorry we’re about to start on a tour of a few of them from the 80s. Book 12 was the third of the series not written by Ian Livingstone or Steve Jackson, but that didn’t mean they weren’t keeping control on the mechanisms and stories written by others. Andrew Chapman had to rewrite his system to fit Fighting Fantasy, but managed to sneak in some new ideas suitable for a far future SF setting. The story is an assassination mission not much different from Citadel of Chaos - but does the SF setting and new author make this one worth looking at?
You are an assassin, chosen by the Assassin’s Guild to undertake a desperate mission to save your home planet! The crazed and tyrannical scientist Cyrus threatens to dose your planet with mutagens causing death and terrible mutations, and only you can stop him. Infiltrate his giant spaceship the Vandervecken, find the scientist and capture him before he can carry out his terrible plan.
You create your new character with some of the same statistics as in Book 1. Skill and Luck are rolled up on 1d6+6, and Stamina is rolled up on 2d6+12. Hand to hand combat requires you to add 2d6 to your Skill to compare with your enemy, the person with the lower score deducting 2 points from Stamina. You can Test your Luck to increase the damage you inflict or to reduce damage you take, but this reduces the Luck you are sure to need later.
Often you will get the chance to engage in ranged combat instead - in this case roll under your Skill to land a hit with your gun, which generally does either 2 points or 1d6 points of damage. You have an Armour rating of 1d6+6, which you test like luck, reducing your armour by one point every time you are shot at. If you roll equal to or under your armour then you take no damage when you are hit, otherwise you take the full hit.
Another innovation is in equipping - you roll one die and have than number of points to spend on weapons and armour. A simple handgun and grenades are 1 point each, the assault blaster and gravity bomb are 3 points each and each point additional point of armour is half a point. The game insists you buy at least one gun first, so with a roll of 1 you have no choice in equipment.
You start with 4 energy tablets which restore 5 points of stamina each. The maximum number of other items you can carry is five.
In a far future of space travel, lasers and blasters and robots and aliens you find yourself sneaking onboard a starship Vandervecken above your home planet in the sector of Od. I like to think this is linked to the world of Orb, but there are no indications that this world has any link to Earth, Titan or anywhere else.
Chris Achilleos drew the cover of two guards surprised while watching a game of zero-g football (which does come from the book). The interior images are by Geoffrey Senior. They are OK, though some are a bit too dark and detailed to see exactly what they are. There is one image used in a puzzle, where different numbers must be added together to reach the correct number to exit the room. There is also a simple 3d maze used in a battle game against an enemy tank, along with a Status and Score sheet. There are no other pictures that gives you clues on which option you should select or any other picture puzzles. The character sheet has been amended and includes boxes for Armour, Weapons and Energizer Tablets. There are five different small illustrations (vegetable creature, sun and planets, a close-up of eyes, a gun and tentacles) used within the text.
SPOILERS FROM HERE ON
First off, let’s praise the attempt at introducing new mechanisms. The combination of grenade, gun combat and melee combat works pretty well. Grenades are good for clearing out rooms with large numbers of weak enemies, but you only have a few unless you find more. Replacement guns are easier to find, and if you play a second time you will realise the assault blaster is not worth buying as you can quickly take one from a defeated foe. You now have armour and equipment points to make up for a bad Stamina roll (though Skill is still very important). With more consistent and better thought out encounters this would have been a better system. An option to balance melee and gun combat would also have been welcome.
In general though, the system makes most combats too easy, and even the final battle against Cyrus is only against a Skill 9 Stamina 12 enemy. While there is not much extra healing to be found, there is extra armour to be gained, each point giving you a chance of avoiding damage in gun combat. Because Chapman converted Space Assassin to Fighting Fantasy from his own system, Luck was very much an afterthought and is not an important statistic at all. I only made one check in my successful run through the book. There are some useful items to find and combine, some information to learn about the correct path and final foes, and ways of bypassing the trickiest encounters. The main design issue is that there is a path through this book that only takes 70 paragraphs. Some interesting sections are in wholly contained loops, while other chunks are dead ends, like the self-destruct sequence you can set off surprisingly early in the book. All this ties into the fact that the original manuscript was too short as submitted, and was then expanded rather than having been written as a whole. I like the fact that you are generally rewarded for talking to people, but there are still a number of unguessable deathtraps and unavoidable combats.
The story promises that you as a secret assassin would stealthily sneak through this giant spaceship, finding confirmation of Cyrus’ terrible biological experiments and capture him before he can destroy your world. If you squint, that’s basically true, but a lot more effort could have been put into enhancing the themes of the story and tidying up some of the inconsistencies of character and motivation. For a starter, you are an assassin from an Assassins’ Guild. The name is even in the title of the book. And yet you never get the option to simply kill Cyrus, but must capture him instead. The capture is also strange, seeing him more like a wizard or cult leader than a future scientist. His efforts to deflect your capture at this point are very obvious and cliched. You might assume that the weird creatures you meet have been created or mutated by Cyrus, but aside from the captured spider in the cryogenic pods you don’t meet many people affected by Cyrus. While most guards are loyal there are people who are happy to see you kill Cyrus or accept your mission in a blase fashion. There’s no real explanation of the planet you find yourself travelling across, accessed from in a pool of water. Someone with some more interest in the background could really have put together a more coherent story that raised the stakes and allowed you to feel empathy for the creatures of the Vandervecken. The setting is only rarely bizarrely or humourously interesting, despite the odd hints of ideas from British SF like 2000AD and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
It’s a shame, and a disappointment that good ideas in this book weren’t developed into a coherent story or a challenging game. Fighting Fantasy could have done worse than adopt the gun rules for the rest of their SF books, but instead they tended to revert to the simpler melee rules. As we shall see in other SF game books, finding the right tone for future settings seems to have been particularly difficult. Maybe you could just see this adventure as one of your easier tasks as a far future Space Assassin, but it’s simply not entertaining enough to be memorable.