Review by Martin Plowman
A while ago Games vs Play was lucky enough to receive a copy of Dean Moodie’s debut gamebook, Starship Deadfall. It should be noted that the review copy is part of a limited run edition of the book, which at this stage does not contain interior illustrations. We have taken this into consideration while writing our review.
Starship Deadfall is the new science fiction gamebook from Australian author Dean Moodie. The first volume in the forthcoming Bionic Agent series, in Starship Deadfall you choose from eight different missions set within the claustrophobic confines of the titular starship, and can play characters ranging from gung ho space marines, sneaky data thieves and virtually defenceless slaves.
With 1300 numbered sections (that’s 900 more paragraphs than Fighting Fantasy’s famous “paragraph 400”), to say that Starship Deadfall is an ambitious first gamebook would be an understatement. Fortunately it’s also great fun to read, though not without some kinks to iron out. Its epic scale could make it a daunting first gamebook for new readers of the format, though fans of British-style gamebooks and pen and paper roleplaying games will most likely love it.
Starship Deadfall is set in the Nuivairyiux Star System, a vast sector of known space that is enjoying a period of relative peace in the otherwise constant struggle between four rival factions: the militaristic Leading Weapon Syndicate (LWS), the techno-anarchic Space Designation Network (SDN), the galactic peace-keepers of the Confederacy (or Confeds); and the ominous sounding Xeno-Biological Research (XBR) group. In the book you can play characters from the LWS, SDN and Confederacy factions but not the XBR, who as it turn out are the owners of the slow-moving starship where the adventure takes place. You also have the option to play two Non-Faction Aligned (NFA) characters, but more on that later.
There are eight missions in total, two for each of the four playable factions. Most of the missions revolve around a secret XBR biological weapon being transported aboard the Starship Deadfall. Depending on which faction your choose, your character’s goal may be to steal this new weapon (LWS, SDN and one of the NFA missions), assassinate the chief scientist and destroy the starship (SDN), or help the XBR defend their ship against the other factions (Confeds). Alternatively, in one of the Confederacy missions you are tasked with apprehending a dangerous fugitive hiding inside the starship, while in the second of the NFA missions you are a slave whose only mission is to escape the starship in one piece.
Starship Deadfall uses a 6-sided dice system to resolve combat, which is the main game mechanic you’ll use in the book. Combat is split into close quarter (CQ) and ranged attacks (Ra). In both cases, your character’s CQ or Ra score is compared to your opponent’s score. Depending on whose score is higher, modifiers are added or subtracted to the hit value. Modifiers are also applied for skills, weapons and defense. This involves a series of straightforward but at times lengthy calculations to arrive at the final hit values that you and your opponent respectively need to roll below on a 1d6 to cause damage.
I thought the combat was weighted towards the difficult end, but is by no means impossible. There’s also a fair bit of tactical decision-making in the combat sequences, which means that instead of just crunching it out with the dice there are times when you can choose to shoot from under cover rather than attacking head on, or even let one of your team-mates go first (which is almost always a good option). I felt the inclusion of these tactical micro-decisions in the gamebook’s story-tree actually speeded up the story up and added to its realism.
There are also rules for fleeing from combat, unarmed combat, serious wounds and a Domination Table for calculating the effects of overwhelming attacks. In addition to the combat system, the book also contains rules for other game mechanics such as encumbrance, lingering effects, weapons and items, chance and passing time (this last mechanic has bearing on the urgency of your mission).
Overall, Starship Deadfall resembles more closely a solo roleplaying game (RPG) than the pared back game systems you typically find in most British-style gamebooks. For example, your character has a set of five statistics including Strength, Agility, Perception, Endurance and Resilience. The character sheet printed at the start of the book is nicely laid out and helps with the housekeeping aspects of the game system, but there are simply a lot of things for the reader to keep track of, from combat to permanent and lingering effects to the capabilities of weapons and bio-enhancements (and I forgot to mention the many specialized skills your character might have, from Enhanced Leap to Security Analyst).
While the book’s game system is well thought-out and will be fairly familiar to anyone who has played a tabletop RPG before, I do think that it would present some challenges for someone new to the gamebook format. My feeling is that the book would benefit from a streamlining of the game system. Although a quick-start option is offered, readers would eventually still need to get their heads around the rules to get the most enjoyment from the book. Don’t get me wrong – this is definitely a playable game system. But I have to imagine a gamebook noobie picking up the book and feeling faint when they realise there are over 60 pages of rules to cover before the actual adventure begins.
British-style gamebooks from the classic era of the ‘80s were rarely known for their storytelling flair or attention to detail. Series like Fighting Fantasy and Lone Wolf were written in short paragraphs that transmitted seemingly via telegraph a brief, diagrammatic description of your situation before bluntly asking what you wanted to do next. Gamebooks of that era relied more on their labyrinthine story-trees and often excellent pen-and-ink illustrations by artists such as Russ Nicholson, Martin McKenna, Bob Harvey and Geoff Senior to create a sense of place or atmosphere.
I was very pleased, then, to discover that this was not the case with Starship Deadfall. Overall the writing is of a very high standard – Moodie is trying to tell you a story as well as give you a set of choices to make. He does a great job describing the innards of the giant starship, which evoke the griminess and worn-down look of the Aliens universe, while the action sequences feel like something from a technothriller by Matthew Reilly or James Rollin. There’s even a decent amount of dialogue between you and other non-player characters, another stylistic rarity in the gamebook format.
But what I liked best about the writing was that the characters are not generically interchangeable with each other. Each mission feels different, and not just because your objectives have changed. Rather, each mission is written from a very different character’s perspective. A case in point is the vast difference between the Leading Weapons Syndicate (LWS) missions and the Non-Faction Aligned “Collector of Things” mission. In the LWS missions you’re a classic space marine, heavily armed and armoured, cocky as all hell and ready to pick a fight, while in the “Collector of Things” mission you are a recently escaped slave who begins the adventure wearing an insidious “labour bracelet” and possessing no other items whatsoever. The desperation your character feels as you try to find a way to remove the labour bracelet and then escape the starship is very finely rendered as the adventure unfolds.
Finally, the replayability of this gamebook is very high indeed. With eight different missions to choose from and 1300 numbered paragraphs, this is a book you could keep coming back to for many sessions. In fact it’s almost several gamebooks in one, and if it were picked up by a mainstream publisher (and I hope it is) a savvy editor could potentially spin it out into a successful series in its own right.
Starship Deadfall is a fantastic first gamebook from Dean Moodie. Fans of the more complex, RPG-inspired British-style gamebooks such as Lone Wolf, Way of the Tiger and Tunnels and Trolls will most likely love this book. The rules could do with some streamlining, but the writing in the story is top-notch. I hope to see the day that Starship Deadfall finds a mainstream publisher.
Games vs Play wishes to thank Dean Moodie for the review copy of the book. To buy your own copy of Starship Deadfall, go to the Bionic Agent website.
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