Starship Traveller

“Rocks? I win rocks?!”

Starship Traveller by Steve Jackson

Cover: Peter Andrew Jones

Illustrations: Peter Andrew Jones

"...it doesn't have a vulnerable spot!"

Gladiatorial combat is a common hazard of outer space.

This is the first science fiction themed Fighting Fantasy book, and also the first one I owned. I never finished it as it is hard, having two essential items to find and nothing to go on but trial and error. It’s also rather suspiciously similar to a certain television franchise, what with the multiple ship specialists, and phasers, and transporters, and so on. I suppose then it’s fair enough that the plot of this ended up in Star Trek: Voyager. Yes, the titular starship, Traveller, winds up in an alternate universe and the reader, being the captain, has to get the crew home.

The artwork is a little bit minimalist, but that’s okay. They were trying to get a different feel for this book, and it worked out well. The other important point is that there’s only 340 entries (plus three for combat rules). That is not many – the usual count is 400 – yet there’s a lot going on in this book, and it’s a shame there wasn’t more.

There’s a lot of stats to roll up. Player; ship; science, medical, engineering, and security officers; and of course two disposable bungling security guards (I’ll call them Steve and Ian, for reasons that may or may not be apparent). I best get to it, then.

Statistics

Captain (Me)
Skill: 10
Stamina: 16
Luck: 8

Science Officer (Professor Maximillian Ziegenhagen)
Skill: 8
Stamina: 21

Medical Officer (Dr. Natasha Natasha)
Skill: 11
Stamina: 22

Engineering Officer (James Miles Scott-O’Brien)
Skill: 11
Stamina: 19

Security Officer (Ms. Not Appearing In This Adventure)
Skill: 9
Stamina: 17

Guard 1 (Steve)
Skill: 7
Stamina: 14

Guard 2 (Ian)
Skill: 7
Stamina: 14

The dice just came up all ones for the security guards. I can’t imagine the odds.

The Traveller
Weapons Strength: 7 (oh no, it’s a research vessel)
Shields: 14 (A research vessel made out of cardboard!)

Equipment: A bloody great starship, assorted phasers, shuttles, and disposable crew members.

Special: The limits of medical science in the future have been reached, and thus only 2 points of stamina can be healed, and only when getting back from an alien planet, and only if the original medical officer is alive (if dead, you get one point instead). In other words: We’re all going to die!

Onward to Adventure!

Stardate: Who knows? I’m asleep in the captain’s chair when alarms go off and I’m told that the engines have possibly locked into acceleration mode, and maybe they’re going to overload, and there’s a smidgen of a possibility they might explode, and perhaps it will take longer to fix this than it takes for the ship to blow itself to smithereens, and there’s a teensy, tiny chance that we’re also flying straight for a black hole called the Seltsian Void. Science officer Ziegenhagen has a brilliant plan to fly as close as we can to the black hole to have it slow us down. Since I’m still groggy from my nap, I agree to this plan. Amazingly, it does work. The ship slows down… and then goes backwards… into the black hole. I shrug and hit the red alert button, figuring we might as well have the mood lighting if we’re all going to die. I fall asleep again as we get crushed by the black hole.

After surivving this, I bought a lottery ticket.

Scribble. The final frontier.

Against all expectations to the contrary I wake up, and find out that the Seltsian Void is an actual hole instead of a vast amount of matter squashed into a tiny amount of space. I pretend I passed out instead of dozing off. Really, this sort of thing happens to starship captains every week, why should I worry? The science officer says we’re now in a parallel universe, which just so happens to match his crackpot theories about dimensional warps that got him kicked out of Space University when he applied for funding to build a massive ship and fly it into a black hole. I eye him suspiciously. It’s funny how the scientist with the theory about dimensional warps would suggest flying dangerously close to a black hole when the engines lock up, and that they would lock up right when we’re near a black hole… I recall that time he claimed lobotomising the crew would be cheaper than building robots, and make a note in his personnel file.

The engineering officer, who insists in speaking in a faux Scottish accent, informs me that a couple of guards were keeping a still in the engine core, and it sprang a leak which caused the malfunction. Typical. After repairs have been made, we use our long range space scanners to look around. I decide to head to a barren and desolate star system, because as that’s the least logical place for help to be, we will probably find it on every planet there. The ship is not halfway to our destination when the engineering officer tells me, still refusing to stop doing that accent, that we’re running out of “dilibrium” crystals. Apparently they can be refined into nuclear fuel for our warp engines. I ask him what happened to our supply, and I’m told it was something to do with a couple of security guards, a bet, a forklift, and an airlock. I close my eyes and lean heavily on my hand. My quiet contemplation of the peaceful life farming small, furry, self-replicating blobs that I left behind to become a starship captain is interrupted be someone saying they’ve spotted some some asteroids.

Asteroid clusters in this universe certainly aren’t boring and tiresome expanses of space with some rocks vaguely grouped together at distances apart further than the naked eye can see. Asteroid clusters in this universe are basically big space blenders. Dilibrium prospecting in such an asteroid field is dangerous and potentially deadly work, so I order Steve the security guard to suit up, grab a jetpack, and get out there and find us some crystals. He might die, he might find some dilibrium, either way we’re ahead. If he dies we can just fly in, rotate the ship on the spot and shoot any asteroids that get too close into pieces. It turns out that there is no dilibrium to be had on the boring fringes of the asteroid cluster, and so Steve proceeds to the dangerous and chaotic centre. Surprisingly, our bungling security guard doesn’t die, and returns with enough crystals (in a space sack) to fuel the ship.

We journey onwards, and I amuse myself by making up stardates. On finding a nice blue-green planet, the Traveller is attacked by a tiny spaceship. A thrilling ship-to-ship battle ensues, with flashing lights, consoles exploding, and the ship listing violently as the enemy craft scores a hit, throwing everyone around. An effect ruined because while we all lean port, bungling security guard Ian leans starboard. Afterwards, I insist on going down there and having it out with whoever sent that woefully under-classed ship to attack us. All we find is a blasted landscape, and a river that gives strange readings on our handy portable magical analysing everything device. Before I can stop him, bungling security guard Ian drinks some of the water. The Science officer decides to grab some yellow powder too, and then we get out of there. I give the order to head for a double star system, and then there’s an emergency in the space canteen. It’s probably that fool security guard, who has no doubt ingested alien nanotechnology, or a crazy virus that takes people over, or something equally stupid. In space, no one can hear me scream “don’t drink the water!”

It's more exciting in the book.

I only just noticed the incredibly cheesy stars on their boots. Deary, deary me.

Naturally, I’m right about the whole crazy virus. It’s funny how this turns out. I order the raving madman sedated, and he manages to smack his co-worker Steve across the head in the resulting Three Stooges routine. Dr Natasha administers space antibiotics and this alien virus that conveniently can interact with human biology dies. Dr Natasha then recommends muzzling the security guards when they go down to alien planets. As I return to the bridge, I notice that the crew have made bingo cards which contain space exploration clichés. Trust the human race to turn exploring a new universe into cheap entertainment. I put some credits in the pool and get myself a bingo card anyway, telling myself that it’s good for morale. I notice that the card is unimaginatively titled “space bingo”.

We proceed to a double star system and make contact with the people there. They seem friendly enough, so I beam down to say hello, get knocked out, and then wake up to find they’re cloning me. It’s almost perfect, except the clone has an eye patch. I suppose she is a parallel universe copy of me, after all. I struggle to reach my bingo card, but can’t quite get it. Then Dilane, Extraterrestrial Communications Officer and Chief Deceptive Bitch, explains that the planet Macommon is being torn apart by the gravity of the twin suns and they have a year to find a way to escape. I cheerily ask them if they have a plan, and then the reason for the cloning becomes clear. I sigh and employ the only plan I can attempt. I concentrate on things that will give away that the clone is fake. Namely, I think hard about a horrible planet which no-one would visit, and how Steve and Ian are our star employees. When the clone says Macommon is as nice as that craphole in our home universe, someone gets suspicious and grills the doppelgänger, who gives the game away when asked who the most efficient, skilled, and generally not causing disasters members of the crew are. The crew boldly threaten to annihilate the planet unless I am set free. I wait with bated breath until the Macommons agree. This is one of those stupid plans, since people who have nothing to lose because they will be wiped out in a year’s time might opt for a quick and relatively painless death from above. On returning to the ship I ask the crew why they didn’t just beam me out of there. They sheepishly admit that the security guards had been playing with the transporters and the space electrician only just fixed them.

We arrive at a red planet, called Dar-Vil. On beaming down following a friendly invitation, the locals and my crew are amused to find I’ve been interwoven via a transporter accident with a Dar-Villian. Oh, bloody great. The science officer suggests we all go up to the ship, and once there comes up with a harebrained scheme involving finding my missing body. I point out that this isn’t, in fact, a mind swap, because I can hear the alien mind in my own. Alas, since the bingo card is on my actual body, I can’t check to see if being merged in a transporter accident is on there. The Dar-Villian commander proposes using transporters to disintegrate and reconstruct myself and the alien. The science officer agrees with that, but he would: this is the same clown who thought flying into a black hole would be a good idea. Unfortunately, no-one has a better plan and they all seem rather keen to smash me to atoms. So I am disintegrated, and by some amazing providence come out alive, whole, and most importantly, in my own body.

I order the ship to proceed to a spaceport which refuses to let us dock. I’m not taking that, and insist on having the Traveller repaired while the station commander splutters and wheezes. I recall that everyone else I passed in the corridors was similarly infected, and have a sudden and shocking realisation that I’ve probably just caught space plague. Amazingly, it’s only the security guards who get sick. Unfortunately, Dr. Natasha manages to find a cure.

Onwards, through the uncharted by us (as per Federation Directive 324/a/119/d/11 I am required to add “by us” to all statements about uncharted or undiscovered territories, galaxies, planets, asteroids, black holes, ribbons of transcendental energy that act as gateways to paradise universes, political alliances, and any other as-yet undetermined things that may be encountered by a member of the Federation for the first time) void! We find a mining colony, and are invited by someone to go down and check out their contests which serve as entertainment for the miners. I order my bungling security guards to beam down with me, and materialise in the office of the local greeter, who suddenly gets called away to “the arena” – I wonder what kind of entertainment they have on? Possibly some kind of sporting event. As we wait, a hovering robot comes in and asks us to go with it. I figure, why not? We are left in another waiting room. Space has a lot of waiting rooms. This is really what space exploration is about: waiting around, reading old magazines, staring at the chronometer on the wall and wondering what their time translates to in our time system, and generally being bored out of my skull. Some other strange aliens come in and ask us if we’re here to enter the “contests”. I explain that I’m not really the athletic type, and I tell them about the whole flying through a black hole thing, which they have a little trouble believing. I can’t imagine why. Eventually they find the alien who I talked to earlier, who suggests we should be given the “best seats in the house”. That sounds good to me… up until my landing party and I are shoved into a changing room and told to get ready. Oh dear. I’m not keen to play whatever weird alien sport they… hang on they gave me a weapon, so it’s more “fight” and “in gladiatorial combat”.

We are shoved out into the arena, and there I find an enormous and heavily armed robot. It stands there and does nothing. I poke it a bit with my electro-pike and it does not respond, the single dull red ball it uses for an eye bouncing backwards and forwards in the visual sensor field. I wonder what is going on. Then I notice it’s got a brand name on it. It’s a Manslayer 4000 model. I smirk at it and take a large step to the right, revealing the imbecilic security guards. The dull red eye pinging backwards and forwards across what should be the robot’s face lights up brightly, a rather dated synthesised voice booms out, “Targets acquired!” and it attacks the security guards while I cross off the “hopelessly literal robot” square on my bingo card.

I lean on my electro-pike and watch with amusement as Steve and Ian are minced by the robot. I eventually start to feel guilty and demolish the robot for them, because while I’m fairly certain the core officers will have a good laugh about this, the HR officer will have me reprimanded if we ever get back home. As a prize for defeating the savage robot, hauled all the way from the jungles of Killbots Inc, I win freedom and a big pile of the bizarre metal they mine here. Oh good, rocks. I ask for something useful, and get some galactic coordinates where there’s a black hole that could get my ship home.

Teleporting back up to the ship, I decide we should boldly go to a large, wheel shaped structure. It turns out that my hard-won rocks are considered valuable currency and I can pay the docking fee with them. I decide to go and chat with their dome-headed executive officer who, when I ask about the means to get home, turns out to be one of those telepathic aliens. Behind me, one of the away team shouts “Bingo!” and I have to make up a story about that being a traditional Earth phrase for expressing thanks, and certainly not a sign that we’ve turned their entire reality into an opportunity to amuse ourselves.

Back on board the starship, my crew start sulking about the fact we haven’t found a way home yet. I try to point out that there’s really a lot of space to explore, and we could look around a bit longer for suitable coordinates. They don’t think this is good enough, and insist that we try the coordinates we have. “But,” I say, “we have no idea these coordinates are right.” They insist, and with more suicides, so I give in to their demands. We plot our course for the black hole we need to travel through, and I ask the navigation officer if she’s sure of what she’s doing “Oh sure,” she says, “We just fly into the gravity well and everything will be okay.”

As she hits the button marked GO I just have time to say “What do you mean, well?” before the ship is stretched into an extremely thin, extremely long strand of tinfoil spaghetti, and then crushed into a tiny speck in the black hole.

Wrapup

The first thing to point out is, there’s hardly any need for combat. In fact, being a pacifist is usually safer: Phaser battles are one hit kill affairs and the aliens seldom set phasers to stun. Ship to ship combat is interesting, since the more you get hit, the more likely your ship will take more damage if hit again. The rules really make combat unpleasant and something to avoid. Thus it’s also less satisfying to play through, since there’s no good reason to get into a fight (and this is probably why it was so tiresome for me as a child). I suppose Deathtrap Dungeon will make up for the lack of combat in spades. There’s also no climactic final encounter, so it’s more

It’s also a bit annoying that there’s only one female crew member. In fact, unless it’s specified that it’s the Medical Officer being referred to, away teams are assumed to be all male. She also has a scripted death if she fails a skill check, though I suppose you can avoid that if you’re quick thinking. The Science Officer is there to solve almost all problems, and the Engineering Officer gets something to do once or twice. The Security Officer is completely redundant, and never turned up. None of the NPCs on the ship have names, which might be because readers are supposed to name them, like I did, or might be because it’s hard making up half a dozen names on the spot. Which I also experienced.

I honestly think it’s a good book, especially given the ambitious theme and plot. The fact that it’s entirely possible to miss out on the excitement is on one hand annoying given what line of books it’s from, on the other it’s nice to play a book where the plot really is exploration and meeting people, and the actual villains are often desperate or misguided. I think it could do with a sequel. Nowhere in the victory paragraph does it say that it’s the right universe, just one with a space station you recognise. The normal AstroNavy adventures of the crew in their home universe, or further parallel universe exploration? Anything would be welcome, so long as there’s more battles.

Suspension of Disbelief Shattered: Well if I wanted to be truthful, I’d say it was when the ship flew through a black hole, but I can forgive a lot of retro sci-fi imaginings. I’ll have to go with the fact that no-one in the book thinks to just go and round up some people with spaceships to save the population of Macommon.

Victory: You find out you’re in the “real” universe thanks to a handy deep space outpost right near the place where the ship gets back.

What Was I Thinking? I should have just let that robot kill the security guards. They had it coming.

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