Friday 28 April 2017

The Second Swordsman - 'The Jackson Three'

This week it's time for another of Malcolm Garcia's Second Swordsman posts. Enjoy!

The Second Swordsman – 'The Jackson Three'

By Malcolm Garcia

So far I’ve attempted to complete ten FIGHTING FANTASY adventures by unfailingly choosing the second option. But I’ve noticed that something has been amiss. It’s not that I’ve yet to be successful in reaching section 400 (I’m accustomed to that), or that I’ve died within a few paragraphs of starting (that’s only happened a couple of times), or even that I’ve not managed to fight any gruesome creatures (I’ve done that a few times too). No. What’s been wrong is that of all my adventures, five have been solo efforts by Ian Livingstone, but only one – The Citadel of Chaos – has been the work of the co-founder of the FIGHTING FANTASY series, Steve Jackson.

To redress the balance I embarked upon using the Second Swordsman process to tackle three of Steve Jackson’s adventures. (No, it’s not the Sorcery! series, yet.) Interestingly, none of these is set in the familiar territory of Titan. Starship Traveller has YOU in a Captain Kirk-esque role, trying to guide your spaceship and crew back to Earth after being pulled through a black hole. House of Hell has YOU attempting to survive being captured by a group of devil worshippers in the world’s worst haunted house. And in Appointment with F.E.A.R. YOU are the resident superhero of Titan City who is trying to serve truth and justice, whilst also trying to uncover just enough clues to disrupt a meeting of super-villains.

Refreshingly, choosing every second option did not lead to a sudden and inglorious death in any of these three adventures. Despite acting in a gung-ho manner in Starship, I survived for a surprisingly long time. I destroyed two other spaceships (using a process much more complicated than that in Seas of Blood, but for no gain), killed local fauna for food, drew my blasters on alien species, and beat up guards. This foolhardy approach did, however, leave my own spaceship only one laser blast away from destruction. It was good having several crew members join me in my attempts at hostile negotiations and I never lost a single red-shirted one of them; until towards the end when several of them lost all hope of rescue and committed suicide. And then I went into another black hole and everyone died.

Fighting was not quite so successful in House. When following the process I failed to find a weapon for a long time and lost three rounds in unarmed combat against the appropriately named Invisible Enemy. I did manage to find a knife just in time to fight a Ghoul in the kitchen. But by this point I was only one FEAR point away from being scared to death and, even though I beat the menace without losing a single STAMINA point, I made such a racket that I was captured by the inhabitants of the house and placed in a cell to await a horrible, and unspecified, end. I thought the addition of the FEAR statistic was interesting, as I had to rely less on my LUCK (which I only had to test once), but it did provide an immediate penalty to any wrong turn in a way that other FIGHTING FANTASY books don’t.

In Appointment I fought only one character, a pickpocket, and this was in a city teeming with super-villains! I’ll admit right now that, even with all of the punishing names of characters and places, I did not enjoy playing Appointment. While I survived a few days (helped by being able to replenish six STAMINA points every night), and knew what I ultimately needed to do (unlike in Demons of the Deep), I found the adventure to be very disjointed. Each day I would be given the choice of visiting several different places, almost on a whim, with no real sense that I was gradually getting closer to my goal. The process in Midnight Rogue was better with all the locations being presented up front and then YOU choose the order in which to investigate them. I was also unsure about the purpose of the HERO points. In House, when your FEAR score reaches its maximum you die. But in Appointment there didn’t seem to be a penalty for losing HERO points or a benefit to be gained from accumulating them. There was also an unusual scene in Appointment where I faced off against a super-villain who was about to destroy a nuclear reactor. My initial attack against him was rebuffed and I then fled the scene, but nothing happened to the nuclear reactor! And my last gripe with Appointment was that the Energy Blast skill I chose was worse than useless – I used it three times and it failed twice, the second time resulting in my own death.

The only good thing about Appointment was that choosing the second option every time did not have me ignoring everything. The usual options were to go to one place or another. This meant I was able to stop a plane hijacking and rescue some swimmers from a frozen pool. But while not ignoring things meant I learned a lot about the plans of other criminals, I was never able to actually use this knowledge.

The situation was different in Starship where, even though choosing every second option let me survive for a long time, I fell into a cycle of ignoring most opportunities – I orbited a lot of planets, but then I ignored most of those with intelligent life. I only beamed down a few times, and when I did get to the surface I always seemed to be in a hurry to get back into space. The result was that I never really learned anything about the galaxy I’d found myself in, or how to get back to Earth. I even ignored the one opportunity to repair my ship, and this was after I’d been pummeled in the aforementioned space battles, as well as by a storm of meteors.

In House, even though I ignored a multitude of places to explore - for old times’ sake I would have loved to check out the Balthus room – it probably had the Ganjees! - I didn’t ignore absolutely everything. But this meant I gathered FEAR points way too quickly to have a good chance of finding the golden path through the labyrinth. One area in which House certainly shone was atmosphere. As soon as you start reading you get the feeling that coming here was a bad idea – in other FIGHTING FANTASY adventures your character usually knows what they’re getting themselves into. There was a growing sense of dread as I waited for the adventure to turn from me being a house guest of some local aristocrat to fighting for my life as a prisoner of some fiends. This wasn’t lightened by the interesting choose-your-own-banquet sequence and it’s no wonder that House was rated in the top ten FIGHTING FANTASY adventures in a fan poll several years ago.

So, although attempting ‘The Jackson Three’ using the Second Swordsman process didn’t see me slain by an ogre or fail to collect an important artefact upon which the fate of the world rested, I still fell short of reaching section 400 (or 340 and 440 in Starship and Appointment respectively). Next time I’ll grab my trusty sword and shield and seek out monsters, magic, and expanding mushrooms back on Titan.

Thank you, as always, to Malcolm, for his latest Second Swordsman blog post. If you have any suggestions for items for the official Fighting Fantasy blog don't forget to get in touch via

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