FF4: Starship Traveller

Gaetano Abbondanza
Lafe Travis Fredbjornson (edited to remove massive spoilers)
Per Jorner
Demian Katz
Frank La Terra
Simon Osborne
Bryan Spargo
Steven Taylor


[Gaetano Abbondanza]

The first time I read Starship Traveller, I thoroughly enjoyed it. I enjoyed the special rules for single, multiple, and space battles. I enjoyed having to decide which of my crew members to beam down with me and which to use in combats. So, as a first time player, I give it high marks.

As far as replayability, it doesn't fare so well. I don't know why Steve Jackson chose to make this a shorter book. If anything, it could have been longer.

A lot of the hard core Fighting Fantasy Fans have trashed this book, which I think is quite unfair. I think that this reflects their preference for the fantasy genre over the Sci-Fi. I try and judge each book individually, and I found it quite good. I wasn't impressed with the illustrations, but I did like the cover, which in Demian's view didn't quite seem to fit; however I thought it was quite surreal and did portray the arena battle perfectly.

A number of people have commented that it is possible to finish the book in very little time and without rolling the dice once. Yes, this is theoretically possible, but only if you fly through space without bothering to visit any planets or explore anywhere, which most people won't do until they have played several times.


[Lafe Travis Fredbjornson]

With this Fighting Fantasy adventure I suspect Steve Jackson was inspired by the Traveller role playing game, which was fairly popular in 1983. This adventure has the feel of "Lost in Space" and "Star Trek". This is definitely not one of my favourite Fighting Fantasy books, and I suspect many others feel likewise. For one, it's in a different genre from the previous books. It diverged from the fantasy setting to a science fiction one. But other science fiction Fighting Fantasy books, like "Space Assassin" are engaging, and have more of an exciting plot leading up to a final confrontation.

Like the Traveller role playing game, Starship Traveller is told in a dull scientific manner. You often face the same choice of whether to beam down to a planet or to continue onwards. The passages had little characterization of the crew members, something which made Star Trek so successful.

The artwork was also dull. Its simplicity may have been aiming for a futuristic look, but it only detracted from the excitement. The adventure introduced a new set of complicated rules. On the adventure sheet, you now had to keep ability scores for seven crew members, and scores for your Starships weapons and shields.

There are also rules for three different types of combat. If you engage in any of those combats, you need to make a note of where you are in the book, because you must go the end of the book and consult the appropriate rules.

There are only 340 references in this adventure instead of the 400 in the others. (#13 Freeway Fighter has less too.) Though it doesn't make the adventure any easier to solve. Starship Traveller is very difficult to solve. It states: "It is unlikely that you will find your way back to Earth on your first adventure." How very true if you're playing this adventure for the first time; or even after many tries. You are not given any hints what choices you should be making, so it's easy make the wrong ones and suffer horrible deaths, or have you missing the opportunities to collect what you need to complete the adventure.

Rating: 3 out of 10


[Per Jorner]

I've never really liked this one, and not just because I prefer fantasy to science fiction. Examining the book now it's not difficult to understand why. The premise has you hopping from one planet to the next, beaming down, finding yourself in some situation and doing something, then abruptly leaving. Exciting? Not quite.

Few of the planets are actually that original or interesting. Your own actions most often involve stumbling blindly into some kind of trouble and then getting out of it, leaving you with little or no sense of accomplishment. The latter is compounded by the fact that there are extremely few connections between planets. While it makes sense that you don't pick up the purple key on planet X and use it to unlock the chest on planet Y, a recurring context or theme other than "disjointed pulp sf incidents" might have helped. Most planets only take one or two visits before you have them figured out, but unless you make flow charts and keep notes you'll likely find yourself visiting the same planets over and over again. Instead of controlling one faceless adventurer, you now control an entire faceless crew, which seems like something of a missed opportunity for flavour (moreover you have to determine stats for all of them, though of course you can always put off rolling for any stat until you must use it). Combat is rare and virtually always means you're doing something wrong.

The way you finish the game is reminiscent of Warlock of Firetop Mountain. Anyone can get to the end without any problems - just don't set foot on any of the planets! However, once you get there, you need to combine the correct numeric references to win. I must admit that in your first few games, acquiring any time or space coordinate may well feel like an accomplishment, unless you're cynical enough to be sceptical of that which is lightly won. Eventually you will realize that a failed attempt leaves you with little information as to what went wrong. You could try to stick to one of the coordinates hoping it's the right one, but that could also prevent you from finding the correct one down another path. In all there are "only" eight different combinations of coordinates, but that still means quite a lot of games to find and combine all of them. And once you do win, it just feels kind of arbitrary - after all, you're likely to have done it all in previous games except for visiting the final paragraph.

Next let me complain about the art. It does absolutely nothing to add any atmosphere to the proceedings, mostly depicting nondescript landscapes, nondescript spaceships, nondescript people in space suits doing nondescript things, and occasionally a grumpy alien or two. The filler art is actually far more appealing in its simplicity than the full-page illustrations! Steve Jackson's minimal descriptions really needed the art to back them up, and it doesn't.

Add to all this a stupid puzzle and we have a loser. The best you can do is pretend you're piloting the starship Voyager (appropriately enough, in a Star Trek rip-off) and see how fast you can kill off Janeway. I'll be staying clear of the other sf books in the series.

Rating: 2/10


[Demian Katz]

Plot Summary: Your spacecraft has been pulled through a black hole into a parallel universe, and you must somehow find your way back home.

This book is something of a milestone in the series -- the first to try a genre other than fantasy. It is not widely considered to be a great success, however; even the author admitted to being a bit disappointed with it, if only because of its brevity. This brevity actually confuses me, as a random-encounter-filled space adventure seems like just about the easiest sort of gamebook to pad out to full length. In any case, despite its problems, it does have some nice features, but I have to agree that it's pretty disappointing overall.

The major problem is that this is a fun gamebook to play, but a frustrating one to win. The first time you play, it's really entertaining to create a whole ship's crew and have fun with the Star Trek formula that the book plays with. The dilemma of figuring out which crew members to take with you to a given planet is a nice touch ("Do I risk my science officer or just bring a bunch of expendable security guards?"), and the whole feel of the book is refreshingly different. The problem is that after a few tries at exploring the universe, it becomes obvious that winning requires a lot of tedious work.

This is actually a problem with the entire Fighting Fantasy series so far -- winning requires an extraordinary amount of effort in mapping and dying and starting over, which means that by the time you're getting close to victory, you've really sort of lost track of the story, its immersiveness destroyed by constant interruptions to sketch maps and take notes. The ultimate victory doesn't come from being heroic and solving puzzles, it instead comes from figuring out how the author's mind works and deconstructing the book. There's really no way that the characters in these books could ever be successful; victory only comes from knowledge that the player has which the character could never learn. This makes the whole experience rather hollow, and Starship Traveller made me more painfully aware of this problem than previous books.

In any case, winning this book is much the same as winning Warlock of Firetop Mountain -- you need to collect a bunch of numbers and then do some math on them to find the right place to go, and somewhere along the way there's a gratuitous maze. For me, this structure was okay once, but it's more frustrating the second time around. It doesn't help that the numbers you need to collect are harder to find than the keys in Warlock or that once you find a number, there's no indication in the text that you may need it later, so first-time readers may fail even if they have followed the right path. Speaking of the right path, I do find it interesting that, unless I am mistaken, you can win this book without touching the dice once.

One last complaint -- this book seems to have utterly failed to inspire any decent artwork. The interior illustrations are unengaging, the British cover is technically good but seems to me a strange and unrepresentative scene to portray, and the American cover is just awful. This book is unique enough to be memorable on its own, but good artwork might have made me enjoy it a little bit more. Ultimately, this is a better adventure for a casual reader who wants to play Star Trek for a couple hours than it is for a serious gamebook reader who wants a satisfying thrill of victory.


[Frank La Terra]

I hated this book as a kid, and apparently most other people did as well. Upon rereading it recently however, it isn't as bad as I remember. In fact it's quite enjoyable. Still, it's no classic by any stretch. The game mechanics really fell apart in this one, with way, WAY too many stats having to be rolled, and heaps of addition rules like phaser combat and space ship combat that are hardly ever used. Still, the storyline is quite fun, and the different planets you encounter are enjoyable enough. If you like Star Trek, definitely check this one out, otherwise it's a take it or leave it title. One bonus with this book is it seems to exist in every second hand bookshop on the planet, so it's easy to find.
Gameplay: 1
Story: 2.5


[Simon Osborne]

Firstly, the art. I have no idea what was going on there at all. Peter Andrew Jones is a respected British illustrator, specialising in Sci-fi and fantasy. I agree that the cover depicts a rather uninspiring event in the book, and the interior b+w illustrations are well below par. In his defence, it was PAJ that worked on the UK re-releases of the Lone Wolf books, and since 1990 his cover illustrations of Lone Wolf books 1 - 20 have been the only ones available. And they're pretty good indeed, usually rather dark. What interests me is that he "majored" in sci-fi illustrations, and for years was best-known for that genre. I own a copy of the book Solar Wind, which is a portfolio of his early work (1974-1980), and the majority of his illustrations are sci-fi: spaceships, alien planets and civilisations. With this in mind, it would seem only natural that Steve Jackson should approach Peter to illustrate a book about spaceships and alien planets and civilisations. But it really doesn't work, and the illustrations seems sketchy and incomplete. Perhaps Jackson's art briefs didn't "connect" with Jones' creativity - whatever the reason, the art for this book really is better left forgotten. But DO check out Jones' more recent work, it is much more atmospheric and accomplished.

I must say that the cover art for the US version really is horrible. Yuk!

The extra rules are a nice touch, but rather pointless. For instance, the introduction of ship combat is very clever, and would be reprised in later books such as Seas of Blood and Sky Lord. But here, it feels rather like a tacked-on afterthought. There's only about 2 potential ship combats in the entire book, I think. And Demian is correct in his appraisal of the bonus characters; after the first time through they become more of an annoyance. After all, how often during the adventure do you get to ask the opinion of these crew members? Compare and contrast with Kirk or Picard from the Star Trek series', on which Starship Traveller is undoubtedly based. (I know ST pre-dated ST:TNG by three years; you get my point! :p) And for those of you who don't believe that Starship Traveller was based on the sci-fi Messiah's greatest hour, just look at the initials: ST!

Nor is this book easy to win. While Warlock, Citadel and Forest ALL required items to be carried in order to complete the game, mapping these wasn't too difficult. Having produced the map of ST for the AFF.com site, believe me, it's a real swine to chart! And yet who would have thought outer space would be so *linear*!! There isn't enough plot, not enough encounters in the book. I heard somewhere that this was because Jackson got bored halfway through writing it. If this is true, it really, really shows! (And perhaps this lack of enthusiasm was passed on to Peter Andrew Jones in the art brief.) The requisite numbers that you need to find are very well hidden away. Perhaps this was to make the game more enjoyable; I always felt it made the game unplayable. It wasn't until I sat down to create the map that I could say with certainty that I knew the correct way through the book. In some books, like Creature of Havoc, this level of difficulty is a motivating factor because of the material. In ST, you just feel that you're going through the motions. Nothing really gels; the text, the illustrations, the plot, the gameplay.

Not being much of a fan of Star Trek, I always felt that maybe the homage passed me by, but would be more of interest to die-hard fans with bumper stickers that say thing like "I Brake For Tribbles" and other such hilarity. It would now seem that I was wrong, and few - if any - enjoy reading this book. A real shame, because the material could have been presented in a much more appealing way. I can't think of any really stand-out encounters in the book either, which is a bad sign.

All in all, a bit of a stinker, this one, and quite possibly the worst FF book of all time (IMHO). At least Jackson went on to write some much better gamebooks after this (Sorcery!, Creature of Havoc, Appointment with F.E.A.R.)


[Bryan Spargo]

In the original Puffin/Penguin publications this was the fourth gamebook in the Fighting Fantasy series and co-creator Steve Jackson showed that he wasn't content in simply keeping the series in the typical D&D fantasy adventure genre. The science-fiction tale "Starship Traveller" moved the action into the reaches of space in a Star Trek-esque story, where the reader is simply trying to learn the correct coordinates to navigate his lost ship back home.

While Jackson must be commended for attempting such a change-of-pace story for a fantasy gamebook series, "Starship Traveller" lacks any of the excitement and intrigue that was generated in the prior three books in the series.

With the story pretty much consisting of beaming down to a succession of planets (3/4 of which are unnecessary to visit in order to successfully complete the book), the action quickly becomes tedious, and boredom begins to set in after visiting the first couple of planets. After a short time, it becomes extremely difficult to care whether or not you actually do solve the adventure. The correct path to complete the adventure consists of roughly 40 or so passages, which is WAY too short - there being only 340 total passages, rather than the normal 400, may contribute to the story's shortness.

"Starship Traveller" would eventually lead the way for a handful of later science-fiction entries in the Fighting Fantasy series, all of which had numerous deficiencies. Maybe those later books would have turned out better had "Traveller" been a more engaging read.

Overall grade: 4.5 (out of 10)


[Steven Taylor]

On the whole, it has to be said Fighting Fantasy and science fiction did not make good partners in the series. Whether it is just bad writing in the books, or the fact that sci-fi just does not work in general that made them bad, is debatable. Whatever the case, you are unlikely to ever see any sci-fi books in people's favorite lists.

However, there are three sci-fi adventures which do rise above the mediocrity that curses all sci-fis, and they are Starship Traveller, Rebel Planet and Robot Commando. For now, I will only deal with Starship Traveller.

Starship Traveller puts you in the roll of Captain of the starship Traveller (hence the name). An overdrive malfunction has locked the warp engines of the ship on a constant ten percent velocity gain. In an attempt to slow the ship down, you decide to swing the ship through the gravitational pull of a black hole. Marvelous plan, poor execution. The gravitational pull of the black hole sucks you in, transporting you to another dimension. Now, as captain, you must find a way to get back to your own dimension or forever roam uncharted space.

The basic premise of the book is this: travel from planet to planet, beam down, meet aliens, get information, beam up and go to the next planet. Ok, it doesn't sound very interesting, but somehow it is. The aliens are all very different and Steve Jackson has created interesting and amusing worlds to visit. He has also added many alternative tasks to test your logical thinking.

The major difference between this adventure and the rest is that this time you are not the only character with statistics. Major characters on your ship also require rolling up, and they also play a major roll in events to come. It may seem strange at first, but you get used to it after a while. This system works for this book, but I always preferred one character.

I must admit, when I first got this book I thought it was brilliant, and would have rated in the top ten in the series. It was great fun flying about the galaxy meeting aliens for the first few times. However, the longer I owned the book, the more obvious its shortcomings became. Firstly, although the planets are fun to visit at first, but after a few reads, some become irritating and lack of action is rather disappointing. In the first few reads you think "wow, what's going to happen here", but after that it becomes "oh, not these guys again".

Other aspects that disappoint is the phaser combat is limited to stunning or killing your opponent with one shot, Luck is missing, the book is only 340 paragraphs long and you can complete the adventure without rolling a single die. I may be focusing on the negatives a bit too much here, so don't get me wrong, I still enjoy the book, it just loses some of its magic after a couple of reads.

So my assessment comes to this: On the first few reads, this book would score for me a mighty 9.2/10.  It's clever, intriguing and a fun read. After a number of reads, this book gets repetitive and limited (but still better than most sci-fi's in the series), so now I would give it around 7.8/10.

Rating: 7.8/10