Fisting Myself Isn’t As Fun As I Thought It Would Be

This article was previously published on Ferretbrain; due to the imminent closure of that site, I’m moving it over here so that it can remain available.

I’ve previously paid attention to Games Workshop/Black Library’s line of Path to Victory gamebooks, which I felt did a generally good job of evoking the Warhammer and Warhammer 40,000 settings despite having some issues with errata. Well, the third book in the line – Herald of Oblivion – is out, and gives YOU, the reader, the chance to play a Space Marine. Specifically, a member of Ferretbrain’s favourite ever Space Marine chapter, the Imperial Fists.

The book is written by Jonathan Green, the self-described “King of Steampunk” and a veteran gamebook author (having churned out most of the more recently published Fighting Fantasy books). The former aspect of his work makes me worry that I’ll be expected to play a Space Marine wearing a top hat and a monocle in clockwork power armour; the latter, though, is more promising, especially since he wrote Howl of the Werewolf which Dan and Kyra liked and is apparently fairly popular as far as gamebooks go. How will Green evoke the distinctive character of this Chapter? Will there be options like “Turn to paragraph 28 to put on the Pain Glove” or “Roll against Strength to not cry when the Sergeant brands your buttocks”? When playing the Deathwatch tabletop RPG is a perfectly viable option, how does the solo Fist experience compare to Fisting with friends? Let’s see.

Scenario

As mentioned, you play an Imperial Fist this time – specifically, a Fist called Brother Nabor, part of a team assigned to board the space hulk Herald of Oblivion, assess what filthy alien threats the twisted mass of space wreckage harbours, and exterminate them. You’re the new meat in Squad Scipio, with a lot to prove on this mission. When your ship is attacked by Dark Eldar raiders just as you are being teleported into the space hulk, the resultant transfer errors cause you to be separated from your colleagues, giving you plenty of chance to prove your worth as a member of the First Company as you try to ascertain their fate, complete your mission, and get back to your Chapter brothers.

In other words, the game dumps you in a dungeon in space and challenges you to escape with your life; not exactly a plot which screams ambition, but there you go.

System

It’s more or less as Hive of the Dead, complete with split between Basic and Advanced rules, except you can carry more stuff because you are a big tough Space Marine.

As written, the system writeup in Herald of Oblivion is riddled with errors – the explanation of how damage works is wrong, for instance, and the game never tells you what your armour save score is – which given that’s frigging Terminator armour is a fairly major omission. Luckily Games Workshop have rapidly produced some errata dealing with this stuff, but they really ought to be doing a better job of actually proofreading these things if they intend to make a series out of Path to Victory. (In particular, you’d think they’d at least get the rules writeup correct by this point.)

Gear

Terminator armour – check! Storm bolter – check! 4 clips of bolter ammo – check! Combat knife – check! POWER FIST – check!

I already love starting out as a Space Marine instead of an Imperial Guard grunt with amnesia.

First Run

As mentioned, paragraph 1 tosses me straight into the thick of the action – specifically, a malfunctioning teleportarium. Choosing to obey the advice of the Techmarine controlling the device and stand my ground rather than trying to get out of the deathtrap, I find myself projected into the Hulk and faced with, predictably, a band of Genestealers. Scoffing out the cowardly option to hang tight and hope they ignore me and the foolhardy option to enter close combat with the things, I open fire with my bolter… only to run into another bit of errata (the Advanced Rules section on the thing tells me to enter close combat immediately, despite having chosen to enter ranged combat – I decided to give myself one round of ranged combat before entering close quarters fighting). Combat, whilst very survivable thanks to my Terminator armour, still takes for-fucking-ever in this system (and it’s even worse in the advanced rules) – Black Library really do need to tweak the rules in this regard – but I do at least have the joy of cutting down a small horde of ‘stealers in what feels like a reasonably fraught battle.

The game then pits me with what actually seems like an interesting choice – do I try to track down my battle-brothers, who are presumably somewhere in the hulk, or do I look for the Genestealer Broodlord in order to neutralise the threat it poses? Given that my battle-brothers could be literally anywhere on the hulk and my auspexes don’t currently have the range to track them down, whereas the Broodlord is presumably somewhere nearby, and given that I am a SPESS MARIEN who’s meant to be all about facing down impossible odds for the Emperor, I decided to look for the Broodlord.

The flavour text reminds me for the second paragraph in a row that the segment of the hulk I am in appears to be of Imperial design, which feels vaguely patronising – a Son of Dorn ought to be able to remember details from one paragraph ago. Still, at least the game is beginning to offer me decent options relating to the use of my bolter – when you find the ‘stealer nest you have the option of letting rip at it full auto, consuming a whole clip of ammo but wiping them all out except the Broodlord, which I smush. All very well, I suppose, but the descriptions of the action seem a bit leaden and lifeless – it isn’t getting my blood pumping the way a good fight scene should. Also the game then rewards me with stacks of ammo and a wicked cool relic blade, plus two points of Purity. This is beginning to feel like a rather overgenerous dungeon crawl.

Things perk up a little once I get out of this section of the hulk and begin exploring the place. Green seems to have grabbed the idea that a space hulk is a bunch of heterogeneous wrecked starships mashed together by the forces of the Warp and run with it, cooking up a neat description of the interior of the hulk as a massive cavern in which every wall consists of mashed-together spaceships. Soon enough I come across the squad’s apothecary – dead, due to having teleported into a bulkhead – and it becomes clear that the squad are most likely scattered at random across the entire hulk. Oh well, mourn mourn praise Dorn now gimme the medkits, dead man. Right. On with the search – but not before using the Apothecary’s kit to recover his precious gene seeds.

I note the beginning of an apparent feedback loop – because I gained 2 Purity for smushing the Broodlord, I was able to automatically pass the test to work the geneseed collector properly (thanks to the Emperor or good ol’ Rogal Dorn giving me an astral thumbs-up, I guess), which meant I got even more bonus Purity for collecting the Apothecary’s soft bits. Over the course of the game Green uses this particular mechanic of his to the hilt: if your Purity is high enough, you can automatically pass a challenge which would otherwise be based on blind luck, including an extraordinary number of “make the wrong roll and you die” situations. The fact that Purity gains or losses can be linked to these situations sets up the feedback loop: if you are unlucky early in the game or even make a few suboptimal choices, you are drastically more likely to have catastrophic bad luck early on, whereas if you are lucky and make the right choices you are likely to have extraordinary good luck.

The game again gives me an interesting choice when I pick up the life signs of three of my colleagues and I have to choose which to go after – I pick the Librarian who elected to join our mission after getting a vision since he clearly is a far more significant character than my rather indescript fellows. As it turns out, the plot eventually requires me to go to all three of these, but it still matters which one you go to first because each one of the three areas you visit offers you some kit which has the potential to make the other two zones easier; on top of that, a few timed events are triggered by a system of code words associated with your progress through these zones, which help in reminding you that whilst you’re bodding around in the hulk your battle-brothers are fighting the Dark Eldar outside. (Exercise for the canon-astute: what could the Dark Eldar, the universe’s ultimate sadists, possibly be thinking trying to enslave Imperial Fists?)

As it turns out the best of these three modular parts of the game is the first one, despite the fact that at one point during it my armour is described as “Tactical Dreadnought armour”, which is odd because I’m fairly sure the game would have told me earlier if I were a dessicated corpse kept in a mockery of life within an ancient mechanical battle walker – more errata, I suppose. Still, what follows is a very well-realised slog through the inner bowels (literally) of a Tyranid hive ship – a tribute, perhaps, to the similar section in Ian Watson’s Fist-themed Space Marine – followed by a predictably mortally wounded Librarian offering me another chance to earn some Purity by grabbing his nads.

Having run into a few situations already where having Lightning Claws would be really helpful, I decide to look for Kael, the battle-brother who was packing them. (Neatly, the mission briefing lets you know who was carrying what gear, so the choice of who to go after in what order isn’t completely blind.) Brother Kael, it seems, has got lost in an abandoned Adeptus Mechanicus starship full of Orks. Not only are the Orks suitably Orky here – when you show up they are busy having a monster trukk rally, which is precisely as over the top and stupid as 40K Orks should be – but Green also allows the ordeal with the Orks to highlight my character’s distinctly Imperial Fist way of looking at the world and to fill out a bit of background. For instance, there’s a bit where, having lost consciousness, I have a dream of being on my homeworld, before my induction into the Fists, having a vision of a jetpacked Fist coming down from the sky to pluck me away and join the chapter, and when I run into Brother Kael being cut up by an Ork Painboy (their equivalent of doctors) the rage I feel is described as being “as hot as the agony of the Pain Glove”.

Justice done, I grab Kael’s goolies and head on to the next module. Which involves a fight against seven necron warriors who are too weak to reliably damage me but have too good saves for me to reliably damage, resulting in massive amounts of tedium. (Seriously, Black Library, change the system already.) You know what’s also tedious? Mazes of twisty passages, all alike – which is exactly what you find onboard the Necron tombship, a tedious network of snoozesome Necron fight after Necron fight. At some point you can get a map but it’s next to useless, not least because the room the boss is in is completely nondescript on it – and if you don’t go to an entirely different room before visiting the boss then you can’t possibly get out. At this point I start cheating because I’m damned if I’m going to fight this many Necrons who are barely capable of hurting me but who take absolutely ages to die and spend hours mapping this tedious starship of tedium and nigh-identical rooms and encounters.

Oh, and there’s a cheat in there where you can get effectively infinite Purity.

And there’s a bit where the game thinks you have been given a code number for the plasma bombs but you actually haven’t, and you have to guess what number was intended by using other numbers from the paragraph in question (it’s the number of shots the heavy flamer had, not “the type of explosive” the plasma bombs are).

Yeah. That bit could have been playtested more. And proofread more. Really even proofreading it once should have caught that.

Anyway, with all the squad dead except me I get a call from my Sergeant, warning me that he’s done for, the whole hulk is a trap, and I need to destroy it. The options given are to fire the engines, steering it into the local star, or to blow the warp drive causing it to fall into a gulf in the Warp. Given that opening gulfs to the Warp is something you don’t generally want to do in this universe I head for the engines, only to discover that the Dark Eldar have infiltrated the place. Perhaps they are the ones behind the trap! But why? Why would bondage elves from space want to entrap the Imperial Fists? It makes no sense!

But a usurper lord has set up his court in the shadow of the desecrated Imperial Eagle. Aboard his personal Raider transport, surrounded by his chattel-slaves and mercenaries is a sinisterly handsome, androgynous creature. His lithe, muscular form is clad in blood-dark robes and tight fitting armour […].

[…]

“You are a warrior, Space Marine,” the desport lord says, his voice dripping with malice. “Yield to me and I, Tenebrax Nox, Archon of the Kabal of Endless Night, promise that your death, when it comes, shall not be an ignoble one.”

Standing alone against the full might of the Archon’s depraved court of pain- and pleasure-seekers, what do you want to do?

I just don’t get it!

“See how easily the sons and daughters of Commoragh bring you to your knees, mon-keigh?” the sickening creature gloats, massaging his long-fingered hands together in lascivious glee.

[…]

“Archon Nox’s magisterial plan was to capture you and your brethren, that he might return to the Dark City with you as his slaves… and receive the adulation from his kin-clans that he is… deserving of.”

Oooh, right.

At this point the game would have ganked me if I didn’t have the right password. I did, but I needed to look up a paragraph number derived from a name associated with that password which I hadn’t been told to write down when I was told to write the password down.

Sigh.

So, I eventually beat the game but it was still profoundly irritating to have to do so much work in order to get around the runaway typos, missed-out instructions, and other issues. It’s a shame, because Green has clearly gone above and beyond the call of duty in crafting a really intricate internal codeword system for the gamebook, but at the same time this hard work is rather ruined by a sloppy proofreading and editing job. Black Library really need to get their act together in this respect, because just because a book is a print-on-demand piece doesn’t mean it doesn’t need a professional editing job, because if as a publisher you slap your logo on something with this shoddy level of proofreading it reflects badly on your professionalism. As it stands, if you want the authentic solo Imperial Fist experience you’d be better off wearing a skintight bodyglove and flogging yourself. It’d be just as canonical, and unlike trudging through that Necron maze at least some people would find that process enjoyable.

One thought on “Fisting Myself Isn’t As Fun As I Thought It Would Be

  1. Pingback: Kickstopper: The Archaeology of Firetop Mountain – Refereeing and Reflection

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