Two-Fisted Fantasy is a new series of gamebooks, established via a couple of successful Kickstarter campaigns, which combine old-school gamebook aesthetics with a somewhat novel system approach and a tongue-in-cheek attitude. Purportedly a reprint of a classic 1980s gamebook series by one “Herman S. Skull”; the illustrations are credited to S. Iacob (and I suspect S. Iacob is actually Herman Skull too).
The first book in the series is Star Bastards, which is actually two separate-but-related gamebook adventures between one cover. In one, you take on the role of Miroslaw Hermaszewski, the only Polish national to have ever gone into space – or rather, a weird alt-universe variant on him. See, in the timeline of Star Bastards, Miroslaw’s Soyuz 30 fell into a Farscape-esque wormhole, stranding him on the far side of the galaxy, where he took up a life of roguish adventure and scoundrelry.
Oh, and during his trip through the wormhole the bizarre cosmic forces stretched out his body, so he’s now nearly twice as tall as he used to be.
That’s right, in classic old-school RPG style, he’s a Ten Foot Pole.
Anyway, Miroslaw’s annoyed the authorities of the Conglomerate (“the Glom” for short), one of the major local space empires, so he’s decided to make a break for it to Kitalpha, a renegade world in neutral space where he’ll be safe. To get there, he’ll have to travel along Route 663 – formerly a bustling trade route, now a derelict string of run-down star systems rife with scum and villainy. Controlling Miroslaw, you must safely get him to Kitalpha before the Glom catch up to him.
In the other scenario in the book, you are Inspector Leo Canid, a cute doggy who is also a cop for the Glom. Your task: catch up to Miroslaw and arrest him! If you can bust a few extra crooks along the way, so much the better. The second scenario is, in other words, a process of playing along in the wake of someone else’s playthrough of the first book, to see the consequences left behind in Miroslaw’s wake.
As far as the system goes, player characters in Star Bastards have an “Expertise” stat, which determines how much of their personal reserves (based on an Energy stat for personal actions, or a Power stat if you’re having your starship do it) they can invest on a roll – you can’t put in more points than your current level of Expertise. Then you make a “Fists” roll – PCs, naturally, have 2 points of Fists. For each point of Fists you have, you roll a D6; the highest single result gets added to your Expertise to get your final total.
In an uncontested task, you just have to overcome a static difficulty number. When an NPC is involved, they won’t have general Expertise and don’t need to spend Energy – instead they have a set skill at a particular task, and maybe one or more points of Fists in it, and you need to beat their roll. In combat, NPCs go down when they take hits equal to their Health score, but PCs don’t have a Health stat – instead, when they take an injury in combat, their Expertise score goes down by 1, limiting the extent of the Energy they can use in subsequent rounds. (Unless, that is, you have the highly recommended True Grit ability, purchasable at character generations, which takes out this death spiral.) Instead, you get defeated in combat if you run out of Energy.
This is an interesting design for a gamebook system which, once you get your head around it, isn’t that much more complex than the Fighting Fantasy system but is much fairer (particularly since your baseline starting Expertise and Energy aren’t too shabby so even if you roll poorly on your 2D6 roll for build points, you can still have a shot at completing the book).
In particular, it means that combat is about budgeting. Unless you are very squeezed for Expertise (should have bought it up at character gen!), if you want to be sure of winning a particular space battle, hand-to-hand brawl, or gunfight you probably can just by spending big on the Energy – but that will deplete your reserves for the next fight. If you go along and belligerently fight everyone you may find yourself running low, but if you play cautiously and only take the fights that are truly necessary, you should have enough to get through. In other words, there’s actual judgement and gameplay here rather than sheer luck.
Further wrinkles include the use of co-pilots – you begin the game with one of your choice and there’s others you can recruit mid-play. Details of them and all the items you can acquire are provided in a handy card deck accessory, or if you don’t fancy acquiring that they’re all in an appendix at the back of the book (though in my copy at least the entry in the appendix doesn’t specify which co-pilots are ones you can start with and which can only be acquired through play – the latter two are Iysp Eeld and “Catte” Chakold, for reference.
As for the adventure itself, it’s a wildly irreverent space farce full of fun running gags. All of Miroslaw’s dialogue is presented in untranslated Polish, for instance, and there’s several bits where it takes a while for your universal translator to catch up and start properly translating alien languages. One of the co-pilots that Miroslaw can start with is Bones, an animated skeleton who loves gambling, and if a paragraph includes a reference to skeletons you can jump to a nearby paragraph to let Bones take the lead in a situation. There’s a ship of various mammalian types in a cast system, with cats at the top and rats at the bottom (Leo Canid naturally finds the cats put his hackles up), with a wickedly funny puzzle solution arrived at by adjusting the cat, owl, and weasel commanders’ various plans for retaking the ship accordingly. Leo has a “Collars” stat to track arrests made during the game, which so far as I can tell only has the effect of determining whether, should you catch Miroslaw, the Chief calls you a good dog or a bad dog.
In short, it’s a fun little diversion. Not too ambitious, but not too skinny either – it’s a 400 paragraph gamebook with effectively two 200-paragraph scenarios, and it’s got some replay value to see what happens if you take other approaches over the course of your adventures. (Starting with a different co-pilot may change a lot in particular.) In other words, it’s a perfectly sensible project to kick off a new endeavour with that doesn’t try to bite off more than it could chew.
The next volume in the Two-Fisted Fantasy series would be the full-bore tidal wave of absurdity which is The Sword of the Bastard Elf…