Sunday, January 20, 2019

Getting a Starship

Art by Vincent Di Fate

The Knight Hawks Campaign Book devotes eight pages to an 'Economic Activity in the Frontier' section.  It “details some of the ways characters can use ships to earn money, the dangers in their path and how they can get started.”

First, characters must obtain a ship.  Nearly half of the section is devoted to describing how a starship may be acquired.  In some games (e.g., Traveller) characters can gain a ship (or receive partial ownership of a ship) via character generation.  In some games (e.g., Hero System) characters can spend points to get a ship.  In other games (e.g., Fantasy Flight's Star Wars) the party just gets a ship.  The assumption in Knight Hawks is that player characters buy a ship with funds loaned from a bank.  All banks operate in the same way:
...all charge 4% interest compounded every 40 days.  This is about 23% per year.  This high interest rate is justified by the volatile economy in the Frontier and offset by the possibility of making a quick fortune.
Banks will grant loans equal to the value of collateral placed with the bank.  Absent collateral, characters will have to submit to an interview with a loan officer.  The referee and player role-play this interview.  “Loan interviews are good situations role playing,” we are told.  Not surprisingly, interacting with financial institutions is not listed as a role-playing enticement on the back of the box.  In the interview, the player presents a plan:  “how the loan will be invested, and how it will be repaid.”  Success of the loan application is determined by “a simple die roll.”  If the referee rolls one-half of the applicant's Personality score or less on 1d100, the bank extends the loan.  The roll may be modified up to ten-percent (favorably or unfavorably) “based on whether the character's plan has a good chance to succeed, the current economic conditions in the Frontier and the character's attitude and treatment of the loan officer during the interview.”

Don't bother trying to use Hypnosis (a Psycho-Social subskill) on the loan officer.  “Bank  loan officers are routinely monitored by computer,” the rules state, “so any attempt to hypnotize the loan officer will be noticed and the loan officer will be notified.”

A character's reputation determines the maximum amount of money a bank will loan.  Reputation is measured in “good deeds.”  Examples of such deeds include “capturing pirates, killing Sathar, [and] saving a child's life.”  These deeds must be publicized:  “a character who who performed heroic deeds in a remote corner of Frontier cannot expect the loan officer to know about them.”  With two good deeds, a character can obtain a loan of ten thousand Credits; with five good deeds, 100,000 Cr.  If, in addition to the five good deed minimum, a character “has performed a truly spectacular task, such as saving a city or colony at great risk to himself, [he] can apply for a loan of 500,000 Cr.”  A low-end starship can easily cost 500,000 Cr, so gaining a reputation sufficient for borrowing enough money to buy a ship is not easily accomplished.

For loan amounts in excess of ten thousand Credits (without collateral), banks require that the borrower undergo a surgical process to embed a tiny transmitter in the character's skeletal system.  This device is called a tracer implant.  Does the bank pay for the the tracer and the surgery?  Anyway, “The tracer emits a signal that identifies the character and the bank which loaned him the money.”  The signal “can be picked up by tracer scanners from a range of several meters.”  The scanners...
...are common in any populated area of the Frontier.  All banks and spaceports, and most stores, restaurants and other businesses have tracer scanners at their entrances.  They are standard equipment for police officers.
If a “character skips payments and does not respond to warnings,” scanners will active an alarm when they detect the character's tracer.  “Because banks offer large rewards for the capture of loan defaulters,” we learn, “police and independent loan agents will close in on the character immediately.”  We also learn that the implant is not easily removed:  “No reputable hospital or medical clinic will remove an implant unless the operation is authorized by the bank.”  This would seem to be a money-making opportunity for amoral characters with Medical Skill.

The section provides almost a page worth of alternative means of obtaining a ship should the players be “unable or reluctant to get a bank loan for a starship...”  The book explains, “These are ideas only, not rules.”

Government Subsidies:
“Basically,” according to page 42, “the government loans money to the characters (at a low rate of interest) so that they can purchase a starship that fits the government's specifications.”  Reasons a government may subsidize such a purchase might include “long passenger or freight lines to remote worlds, transport of dangerous materials or desperately needed high-overhead cargos, privateering, or a government courier service.”

Crime Organizations:
If characters have contacts with a large criminal organization, they might secure a loan at “very high interest (60 to 100 percent per year is not unusual).”  If the characters put themselves up as collateral and they default, “the criminals will track them down and either sell them selves or kill them and sell their body parts on the black market, using their brains to build cybernetic robots.”  In addition to the high interest, the organization might require co-operation in such things as “smuggling illegal cargos, helping fugitives escape the police, or using the characters' business as a legitimate front for criminal activity.”

Corporate Lease:
In this alternative, the ship is owned by a large corporation and the characters lease it.  “The characters usually have the option to buy the ship,” we are told, “applying their lease payments to the purchase.”

Joint Venture:
Essentially, characters “sell stock in their business.”  Characters “must deliver dividends to its shareholders” at regular intervals (“200 or 400 days are common”).

Used Ships:
Used ships can be purchased “for 40 to 80 percent of their new value.”  Of course, they “are prone to breakdowns and malfunctions” or even be partially inoperable.  Referees are encouraged “to let the life support or some other system break down right after the characters take possession of the ship, just to let them know what they can expect in the future.”

A corporation or research group may be willing to sign over a ship's title to characters who use the ship on an extremely dangerous and important mission.
Patron's Ships:
Characters can work as the crew of a ship belonging to someone else.  “Characters may even work for free,” we learn, “letting the ship owner keep their wages as a down payment against eventual purchase of the ship.”

Ships “found abandoned and adrift in open space is the property of whoever salvages it.”  Of course, you must already have a ship so as to reach a ship to be salvaged.

Any characters trying this should meet a lot of resistance, both from the ship's crew during the hijacking and from port authorities and the Star Law Rangers after the hijacking.
Deus ex Machina:
As a last resort, the referee can intervene in the players' behalf with some miraculous event ('Your rich great-aunt just died and left her mining ship to you.  After all, it is a family heirloom.').

Sunday, January 13, 2019

Spaceship Skills in Knight Hawks

Art by Julian Krupa

With the spaceship rules that Knight Hawks brought to Star Frontiers, it also introduced spaceship skills.  However, such skills are not available to beginning characters.  Each spaceship skill requires a combination at least six levels of one or more 'basic' Star Frontiers skills.  As discussed previously, such levels cost over a hundred points.  Also, with regard to improvement, “Spaceship skills are a lot more expensive...than skills from the STAR FRONTIERS game.”  The rules explain, “This reflects the high degree of training a character needs in order to understand and use complex spaceship systems.”  Jeff Rients rationalizes this by comparing the setting to the early days of the space program:
Only the best of the best of the best in various terrestrial professions have the chops to learn space skills.  Test pilots and aces are allowed near the controls of spacecraft.  No one else can cut it behind the wheel of these multi-zillion credit wonders of technology.  If you want to be trusted with the cannon on a spacecraft you need to prove that you've mastered smaller weapons.
I would have an easier time buying into this analogy if there weren't space pirates.  I mean, if people with spaceship skills are so valued, there's little reason for them to turn to piracy.  Also, I don't want my escapism tempered by rationalizations.  Beginning characters in other space opera games can pilot space ships, why should it be so difficult in Star Frontiers ?  On the other hand, beginning magic-users can't cast Fireball, so perhaps a reasonable argument could be made that beginning Star Frontiers characters need not have access to spaceship skills.

There is a way to acquire spaceship skills without accumulating vast amounts of experience.  By attending spacefleet academy, a character becomes “qualified at the 1st level of a spaceship weapons skill and 2nd level of piloting, astrogation or spaceship engineering skill.”  Students also receive any 'foundation' skills at whatever levels are needed.
Spacefleet officers receive their training at the Gollwin Academy, which is the fleet war college.  The academy is a huge group of space stations orbiting Morgaine's World.  It offers a two year program in the tactics and strategy of interstellar combat.  Its graduates assume the rank of Junior Lieutenants on Spacefleet vessels.
There are, however, requirements for entering the academy.
All cadets entering the academy must have scores of at least 50 in six of their eight abilities.  The character's Leadership score must be higher than 50.
Before entering the academy, a character is interviewed by the faculty.  The character is admitted if he or she passes a Personality check.  If the check is failed, “the character may apply again one year later.”  Once in the academy, the character chooses either piloting, astrogation, or spaceship engineering to study.  If the character fails a Logic check, he or she cannot attain that skill and must select one of the two remaining alternatives.  If a second Logic check is failed, then the character can try for the last skill area with a third check.  “If the third roll fails,” we learn, “the character has 'washed out' of the academy and will never be admitted again.” 

As one might expect, “Piloting skill allows a character to fly a spaceship.”  As foundation skills, piloting requires Computer 2 and Technician 6.  At first level of ability, only “system” ships can be flown.  Starting at second level, the character can pilot starships of increasing volumes of hull size.  At sixth level, a character can pilot “All starships.”  Piloting sub-skills include evasion, increase maneuver rating, and increase accuracy of forward firing weapons.

With the astrogation skill, a character “can make the complicated calculations required to take a starship on a safe course through the Void.”  ('The Void' is the Knight Hawks version of hyperspace.  “Time is very distorted in the Void,” the introduction explains, “and space does not seem to exist at all.”)  The foundation skill for astrogation is Computer 6.  Subsets include find location, pilot interstellar jumps, and chart new routes.  (“The UPF pays a standard bonus of 100,000 Cr for information on new travel routes.”).  We are told, “Normal plotting time for a jump is 10 hours for each light-year that will be jumped.”  If less time is spent preparing, the attempt “is called Risk Jumping, or 'smoking the jump.'”  Risk jumping is another astrogation subskill.  Included with the astrogation skill description is the Interstellar Distance Table.  Given the vertical separation and horizontal separation between two stars, the table provides the distance in light-years.  This reinforces the notion that space is a two dimensional plane.

“Spaceship engineers are trained in the construction, maintenance and repair of spaceships.”  Both Technician 4 and Robotics 2 are needed as foundation skills.  (So, spaceship engineering requires less technician competency than does piloting.)  Subskills include damage control and stress analysis.  Spaceship engineering also includes the subskill of ship design, having a success rate of 100%.  Skill level determines the types of ship a character is qualified to design.  At first level, the character can only design shuttles; at second level, “System ships of all types.”  Starting at third level, a character can design starships of increasing hull size.  One assumes the skill could also be used in conjunction with space stations.

There are two distinct gunnery skills, rocket weapons (requiring Projectile Weapons 4 and Gyrojet Weapons 2 as foundation skills) and Energy Weapons (requiring Beam Weapons 6).  As explained in the previous post, levels in gunnery skills improves accuracy with ship weapons.  Appropriately, one of the subskills is improve accuracy.  The other subskill is selective targeting.  At a -30% modifier, a gunner can hit a specific system of the target ship.  “If the shop misses,” the description indicates, “it is considered a clean miss and causes no damage.”

Sunday, December 30, 2018

Don't Let A Dralasite Lick It...

Art by Vincent Di Fate

The admonition above is good advice generally.  Specifically, it relates to the stamp on a self-addressed envelope one should send to TSR regarding “comments and questions about the Knight Hawks Game.”  Said admonition appears on the inside front cover of the “16-page board game rules book” included in the Knight Hawks boxed set.  As the back of the box states, Knight Hawks is “Playable as an expansion to the STAR FRONTIERS™ ALPHA DAWN role playing game or as a separate boardgame.”  The board game rules are actually the starship combat rules for Star Frontiers.  These rules can be presented as a board game since they are largely distinct from the role-playing rules of Star Frontiers.  (The 64-page Knight Hawks Campaign Book includes approximately two pages of Special Combat Rules that supplement the 'board game' rules.)

The title page of the board games rules book reads, appropriately enough, “Basic and Advanced Boardgame Rules.”  However, the unillustrated cover reads UPF Tactical Operations Manual.  “UPF” means United Planetary Federation (which is completely different from the United Federation of Planets).  The military arm of the UPF is called Spacefleet (which is absolutely not Starfleet – Why would you even think that?).  The board game rules include four scenarios, two for the basic game and two for the advanced.  All of these scenarios represent incidents in the Second Sathar War.  (Given that Sathar are evil, worm-like aliens, it is to be expected that their ships have names like Carrion, Faminewind, Doomfist, and Venomous.)  Of course, “Players can make up an endless variety of scenarios on their own.”  Additionally, “Other conflicts (involving pirates, rebels, dictators or other interstellar ruffians) certainly are possible, and players are encouraged to experiment with new forces and situations.”

Included in the boxed set are 285 counters.  These are used to play out starship combat on a 22½” × 35” map sheet with a tessellation of hexes.  However, the inside back cover states, “Players interested in expanding their Knight Hawks games can use miniature metal spaceships instead of the cardboard counters included with the game.”  As one might expect, there's a plug for “TSR's STAR FRONTIERS Spaceship Miniatures, available where Knight Hawks is sold.”  With miniatures, players can forgo using a map.  If so,
Planets and moons can be cut out of cardboard and colored however the players like.  These planets can be cut to reflect their real size, unlike the counters in the game.  For example, the Earth would be 1.3 inches in diameter.  The moon would be .3 inches in diameter, 38 inches away from the Earth.
Of course, the Earth and moon are not part of the Star Frontiers setting and no comparable information for the planetary systems actually in the setting.  Regardless if a map is used, “space” is treated as if it is a flat plane, succumbing to the Khan Fallacy.  To be fair, according to the box cover, Knight Hawks is intended for “beginning to intermediate players, ages 10 and up” and a three-dimensional starship combat system would likely be too complex for the target demographic.

The basic game offers seven types of spaceships and also describes space stations.  Weapons systems are limited to lasers, rockets, and torpedoes (or “torpedos” as the rules sometimes spell it).  The described defensive systems are reflective hull (“mirror-like paint that...will often cause a laser beam to bounce off the ship...”), masking screen (“created when a ship releases a cloud of water vapor into space...”), and interceptor missiles (“small missiles that can be fired at incoming torpedoes, assault rockets and rocket battery barrages”).  Weapon type is indexed against defense type on a Combat Table to find the percentage chance of causing damage.  When a target vessel has more than one defensive system, “an attack's chance to hit is calculated against the most effective defense.”  If an attack is successful, damage dice are rolled and the result is subtracted from the target's hull points.  We are informed, “When all of the ship's hull points are gone, the ship is destroyed and the player removes it from the map.”

The advanced game introduces minelayers, light cruisers, and civilian craft.  Offensive capabilities include mines, proton beam batteries, electron beam batteries, disruptor beam cannon, and seeker missiles.  Screens are available as defensive systems in the advanced game.  A proton screen “is a field of charged particles which surrounds a ship,” an electron screen “is the opposite of a proton screen,” and a stasis screen is evidently some sort of field with an “electrical pulse.”  Each screen type happens to attract certain attack types.  A proton screen attracts electron beams, an electron screen attracts proton beams, and “a stasis screen allows missiles and rockets to home in with increased accuracy.”  When a ship with a given screen is attacked by that screen's 'nemesis' attack, the screen is used as the defense instead of the most effective defense the target may otherwise have.

Damage effects are more detailed in the advanced game.  In addition to the hull hits a weapon inflicts, the Damage Table is also consulted.  Some example results from the table include 'weapon hit' (a particular weapon system is destroyed), 'hull hit' (“double normal damage”), and 'navigation hit' (“loose maneuvering control”).  In the advanced game, crews can attempt repairs during combat.  (A combat turn lasts ten minutes and repairs may be attempted after every third turn.)  Each ship has a Damage Control Rating which can range from 30 to 200.  When attempting repairs, the Damage Control Rating is divided among damaged systems.  The amount allocated to a given system is the percentage chance that the system will be repaired.  Hull repairs can restore 1d10 hull points.

There is a section of the Knight Hawks Campaign Book titled The Second Sathar War.  This section offers “rules for a strategic level boardgame about the second Sathar attack on the Frontier.”  These rules employ the Frontier Deployment Map, an “abstract representation of the Frontier” (depicted below).

The rectangles are “transit boxes.”  For the most part, the number of transit boxes between star systems equals light years of distance as shown on Frontier map from the Expanded Rules.  However, Athor is eight light years from Araks even though there are only seven transit boxes between them on the Deployment Map.  Also, K'Tsa-Karis is five light years distant from K'aken-Kar, but only four transit boxes are shown on the Deployment Map.  Normally, ships can travel one transit box per day; however, by “risk-jumping,” they can travel up to three per day.  When a ship risk-jumps, there is a percentage chance it “will be lost for the duration of the war.”

When opposing forces are in the same system at the end of a day, there may be a battle.  Depending on the number of ships involved in a battle, different rules are suggested.  If there are more than fourteen ships, the basic rules are recommended.  When there are five to fourteen ships, the advanced rules with “no skill modifiers” are recommended.  With fewer than five ships, it is suggested that the advanced rules with “average NPC skills” be used.  Among the spaceship skills introduced in Knight Hawks, there are 'gunnery' skills that can improve chances for attack success.  Essentially, each level in a skill increases the chance for success by five percent.  However, when skills are applied to starship combat, the base chance for success is usually reduced between five and fifteen percent.  For example, against an electron screen, the base chance of success for an assault rocket is 60%; when gunnery skills are in play, the chance is 50%.

The strategic game includes rules for supply lines and enhanced repair.  There are optional rules for replacements (“available at the end of every 20 days”) and shatter drones (“A shatter drone is essentially a ship that has been turned into a huge bomb”).

Sunday, December 16, 2018

Odyssey Two Adventure (spoilers)

Of course, 2010: The Year We Made Contact, will never be evaluated on its own merits.  It is necessarily compared to its predecessor and Stanley Kubrick is a tough act to follow.  Naturally, we will examine Star Frontiers' 2010 Odyssey Two Adventure in light of its predecessor.  While the 2001 A Space Odyssey module had the novelty of man-apes, lunar antics, and a seven foot tall flame that asks characters if they want to “become a higher form of life,” the Odyssey Two module is relatively lackluster.

Written by Bruce Nesmith, who would become Creative Director at TSR, and Curtis Smith, who would later work for West End Games, Odyssey Two was published prior to the release of the film.  According to the back cover of the module:
          Seven-hundred million kilometers from Earth, an alien monolith glides above Jupiter.  Thousand-meter-long plumes of flame and sulfur shoot up from volcanoes on a nearby moon, but never touch or scar the slab.  Close by, the dark and lifeless spaceship Discovery tumbles end-over-end, abandoned since 2001.
          Now in 2010, your ship arrives to complete the Discovery's mission: solve the mysteries behind the monolith.  You must also determine what happened to the Discovery's commander, who disappeared into the monolith nine years ago.  Then, if its possible, you must repair the crippled Discovery and restart HAL, the super-computer that murdered most of the Discovery's crew.
          Unnoticed, the monolith stirs.  It, too, has a mission prepared millions of years ago – about to begin.
The module allows for exactly three player characters – pre-generated Americans accompanying a Russian mission to the Jovian system.  As such, the “your ship” mentioned in the second paragraph does not indicate possession.  The three player characters are Dr. Chandra (HAL's designer), Walter Curnow (“in charge of designing and building the spaceship Discovery II”), and Heywood Floyd (scientist from the first film and representative of the authority that modified HAL's programming – resulting in HAL's insanity).

The module provides less of a plot and more of a time table.  The players are deprived of any meaningful choices; if they wander “off-script,” the referee is instructed to herd them back into place.  In contrast to the previous module's four chapters, Odyssey Two has ten.  In the first chapter, the characters are briefed, tour the Russian ship Leonov, and spend two years hibernating.

In the second chapter, the Leonov aerobrakes by passing through Jupiter's atmosphere.  With successful skill rolls, the Americans can reduce the number of problems the Leonov encounters during the maneuver and car address those problems as they occur.  Each unresolved problem causes the Leonov to expend fuel.  This would seem to be important for Chapter 8 when the Leonov leaves the Jovian system.  However, ultimately, success in Chapter 8 does not depend upon the amount of fuel.  Perhaps in an earlier draft of the module it did.

In Chapter 3, the player characters salvage the Discovery.  It is by far the longest chapter in the module; eight pages out of thirty-two.  Given that four of the thirty-two pages comprise a pull-out with character stats, Chapter 3 represents almost 30% of the module.  The chapter provides details about the Discovery and describes the various tasks and skill rolls necessary to make the ship operational.  The most important part of the chapter is the reactivation of HAL.  The referee makes two skill rolls for Dr. Chandra so that the players don't know the results.  There is a 58% chance that either roll will fail, causing HAL to have faulty programming.  If this occurs, HAL eventually attempts to kill the player characters.

Whenever the player characters “do something directed toward the [Jovian] monolith” (such as approaching it with a pod), a roll is made on the 'Monolith Reactions' table.  There is a 30% chance of no reaction.  Two possibilities only seem applicable if one or more pods are near the monolith.  Another possibility is for “Dave Bowman in his new form, a star child,” to exit the monolith and head “straight for Earth at the speed of light.”  However, there is no way for the player characters to know this.  Why bother putting this information in the module?  Whether or not Bowman's exit is rolled as an event, Bowman appears in later scenes.

The Americans receive a warning, the source of which the referee chooses or randomly determines.  Regardless, the warning relates that the characters must depart the Jovian system in 2½ days.  The Russians, however, don't believe the Americans.  Any attempt to convince them fails.  Twelve hours after the warning, the monolith disappears; then, and only then, do the Russians believe.

The only way to escape the Jovian system in time is for the Russians and Americans to cooperate and link their two ships together.  (For our younger readers, this is what's known as heavy-handed Cold War allegory.)  Several skill rolls, player character and non-player character alike, establish how well the ships are linked.  This – and not the fuel of the Leonov – determines whether the escape is successful.  Also, with regard to the escape, HAL's cooperation is useful (but not strictly necessary) to fire the Discovery engines.  Ten minutes before the scheduled time, assuming HAL is activated (and whether or not his programming is faulty), HAL decides to forgo firing the engines.  The player characters must convince HAL to go along with the plan.  This would seem to be an important role-playing opportunity, except that if the player characters fail to persuade HAL, Bowman shows up after eight minutes and convinces HAL.  You know, star child ex machina.

Anyway, Jupiter becomes a miniature star.  Maybe the player characters survive and maybe they don't.  A message is broadcast warning against any landings on Europa.  Speaking of Europa, when the Leonov first reaches the Jovian system, it “detects strange readings” from that moon.  The type of reading is determined randomly; it is either magnetic, radio, or traces of chlorophyll.  The player characters can investigate or not; it doesn't really matter.  Information about investigating Europa is relegated to the last chapter, sort of like an appendix.  If they investigate, the player characters can opt for a manned expedition or a remote probe; it doesn't really matter.  The magnetic reading comes from a natural meteor.  The radio signals come from a crashed Japanese satellite.  With the chlorophyll option, there might be a monolith under the ice; it doesn't really matter.  Regardless of the type of reading – and regardless of expedition or probe – the player characters might see the movement of a “large gray-green mass.”  Depending on the paragraph, it could be “grey-green” and on page 30 it happens to be “gay-green” (not that there's anything wrong with that).  Just don't assume the sexual orientation of extraterrestrial life forms.

The 2001 module falsely claimed that Knight Hawks box set was required for play.  On the other hand, the Knight Hawks set is needed for Odyssey Two.  The Spaceship Engineering Skill is in play as is equipment described in Knight Hawks.  The 2001 module included the new skills of Astronomy and System Navigation.  Odyssey Two also includes Politics (“a new biosocial skill for this module only”):
This skill has two subskills: Empathy and Persuasion.  These subskills are exactly the same as the Psycho-Social subskills Empathy and Persuasion.  Politicians cannot use any other Psycho-social skill.
The only characters with Politics are Heywood Floyd and Colonel Tanya Kirbuk, captain of the Leonov.