Sunday, August 13, 2017

The State of the World in 2035

Trans-American Union CC Bases Map (South)

The Introduction to the CYB✪RG C✪MMAND✪™ Campaign Book explains, “This rules set demands your creativity.”  (It's a shame it didn't demand the creativity of the designers.)  Yet, “Fantasy is discouraged...”  For instance, “the speed of light is an absolute limit.”  (Except it isn't, as explained below.)
The emphasis throughout this game is on hard science.  The details of the future setting have been realistically extrapolated by logical means from the current (1980s) world.  With respect to the setting and the characters described in this game, every detail may someday become reality.  (original emphasis)
(Yes, the writers felt compelled to indicate the “current” decade.)  Of course, “hard science” extends to 'brain-in-a-jar' technology and “psychogenic” abilities like telepathy and psychokinesis.  Extraterrestrials and galactic travel, however, are “assumptions.”  Nonetheless, “such things are at least possible, even if not likely.”

Four pages of of the Campaign Book are devoted to “Q-Space Travel,” the method by which the extraterrestrial invaders reach Earth.  In the original Traveller – a game where player characters actually engage in interstellar voyages – the particulars of the jump drive are described within a single paragraph.  This is because such details are unnecessary to play the game.  The four-page “Q-Space” section includes a half-page appendix with “Formulae relevant to the discovery, description, and use of Quantum Space.”  Said appendix begins...
Warning:  The actual derivations of the formulae are not given here; after all, Man has not yet discovered them.  This section does, however, gives the tools that will be used in the forthcoming discovery.  Feel free to attempt the derivations if you are both mathematically creative and also quite familiar with tensor calculus.
Seriously, why even bother?

Back in the Introduction, we learn that, “The technological wonders of the Century Revolution eased but did not conquer cultural diseases.”  I am not at all certain what is meant by “cultural diseases,” but “the Century Revolution” sounds like it could be genuinely interesting.  Sadly, this sentence is the only reference to it I could find in the rules.

The Introduction in the CCF Manual lists three “discoveries” that have had an effect on civilization similar in magnitude to transistors and personal computers:
Superconductivity:  Finally made practical, this basic principle changes the nature and use of electricity itself, and thereby all electrical devices on Earth.
SINC [Sub-cranial Interface & Neural Converter]:  This device is a direct interface through which brains and computers can be directly connected.
Psychogenics:  This new science results from a hard, critical look at ESP and the occult.  The real and provable has been separated from the fantastic and imaginary.
Thirty pages of the 64 page Campaign Book regard global politics in 2035.  Seven of the thirty pages are full-page maps of various regions (such as the image above).  Sixteen of the thirty pages are nation-by-nation lists of Cyborg Commando facilities along with the specific territory, metro area, population (of the metro area), latitude, longitude, and any notes.  For example:

TA 04 C.5    Virginia    Richmond    494,375   37.34°N    77.27°W   Intl. HQ, U.S.A. 3 & Bermuda

There are also helpful footnotes, such as:  “Fifty percent or more of the Mazatlán metro area consists of specialized high-tech facilities with minimal resident personnel.”  Although population is diligently recorded for hundreds of cities, Game Masters are evidently supposed to “accurately calculate the population of any area...”  To this end, there is a two-page “Population” section.  This section includes five tables that provide data about, for instance, average annual growth rates.  Curiously, the “Population” section is immediately preceded by an exhortation for players to use the Metric system – “...you'll love how simple it make things.”  This is strange in that simplicity does not seem to have been a design goal for this game.

Figuring population is not a final step.  The game begins after extraterrestrial invaders have decimated humanity.  As such, near the end of the Campaign Book, there is a two-page Depopulation Table.  In conjunction with some dice rolls, a Game Master can determine the post-invasion population of a given area.  This is important because population “has a direct effect on the available resources of food, water, and technology.”  Perhaps the authors were saving the formulae for these 'direct effects' for inclusion in the anticipated (but never published) second set of rules.

According to the Players' Adventure Notes:
The political geography of the world is quite as important as the physical in shaping the history of Man.  The boundaries and governments are thus major factors in the campaign game, and must be dealt with in due course – perhaps not in your early games, but certainly in the long run.
(Then why include all of this information in the initial set?)  In 2035, some nations have combined, yet several islands have become independent countries.  For instance, “many islands of the Mediterranean (including Corsica, Sardinia, and the Balearics, but not Sicily) joined to form Tyrrhenia.”  In any event, the world's nations are divided among “five large territorial blocs,” often referred to as “the Five.”  The five blocs are supposed to “regulate international dealings only.”  However,
The Five had commissioned the creation of a new international language called Terran, to be used for all international affairs (including world government).  A global standard in 2035, the language is a blend of English, Russian, Chinese, Spanish, French, and a smattering of other tongues.
Bloc governments “pay all the costs of basic education” (whatever 'basic education' is supposed to entail) as long as “The teaching and regular use of both the national language and the Terran (international) language was required, and a top priority.”  It's nice that the reader is reminded that Terran is the international language five entire sentences after first being told.  Unfortunately, no additional information is provided about this language.  What about the written form of Terran?  Is there any accommodation for Cyrillic script?  What system is used for conversion of Chinese:  Wade-Giles, pinyin, or – dare I hope – IPA?  How am I supposed to take this game seriously when it missed an opportunity to disgorge even more pedantic, useless details?

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Set 1: The Battle for Earth

Art by Dave Dorman

INVASION!

In the year 2035, Earth is attacked – by aliens hostile Xenoborgs who selected our planet as the next addition to their galactic empire.  In mere days, man's conventional forces are destroyed, and the earth is overrun by alien troops.

Now, Earth's only hope lies with the CYBORG COMMANDO™Force (CCF) – a cadre of super-soldiers who are part human and part machine.  With their state-of-the-art defenses and built-in weaponry, the CCs may yet be a match for the invaders.  But time is running short!

With this game, you can be a member of the CYBORG COMMANDO Force and drive off the aliens.  This set includes everything you need to start the defense of Earth:

     A 48-page CCF Manual for players – with character skills, combat rules, and a technical section complete with diagrams of CC construction,

     A 64-page Campaign Book for the Game Master – including full details on the aliens and their invasion, the world political situation in the early 21st century, and an index of CC bases worldwide,

     A 16-page adventure booklet packed with beginning scenarios, and

     Two pre-inked dice.

The CYB✪RG C✪MMAND✪™ science fiction role-playing game was published thirty years ago, an era when “pre-inked” was a selling point for dice, not something taken for granted. Young people don't know how good they have it nowadays.  Back in the day, RPG box sets came with unembellished dice and a white crayon...and we were grateful.

Published by New Infinities Productions, at least three Cyborg Commando sets were contemplated; however, no sets other than “Set 1” were produced.  The reason is that the game isn't very good.  In his Heroic Worlds, Lawrence Schick is not complementary.  “The rules systems are eccentric,” he writes, “almost amateurish.”  Sub-par role-playing games are hardly unusual, yet Cyborg Commando is a special case – it is credited to Gary Gygax, Frank Mentzer, and Kim Mohan.  Given their prior contributions to the hobby, their target audience held expectations that the trio failed to achieve.

Ostentatious phrasing did not help matters.  For instance, page 41 of the CCF Manual defines 'light':
     This term here applies to the range of the to the electromagnetic spectrum from about 10¹⁶ to 10¹³ Hz, or wavelengths of 100 to 10 million Angstrom units (1 Å = 10⁻¹⁰ meter).  It includes ultraviolet (100 - 4,000 Å), visible (4,000 - 7,000 Å) and infrared light (7,000 - 10,000,000 Å).
With regard to the passage of time, a Combat Turn represents 8.6 seconds.  Each Combat Turn consists of ten phases of 0.86 seconds each.  Why not a phase of one second and a Combat Turn of ten seconds?  Because 8.6 seconds is “exactly 1/10,000 of a day.”  Now, doesn't that make for a better role-playing experience?  Except there are exactly 86,400 seconds in a day, not 86,000.  So much for “exactly.”

The “16-page adventure booklet” is truthfully sixteen pages.  Technically, the cover carries the title “GM's Adventure Notes” and is followed by eight pages of material (including the inside cover).  However, when the booklet is flipped over, the 'back' cover has the title “Players' Adventure Notes” and is followed by six pages.  While it is certainly an 'adventure' booklet, “packed with beginning adventures” is a misstatement.  The players' section provides setting information (“The infamous Berlin Wall was removed in 2003...”), playing tips, and lists of accessories and equipment.  The GM's section provides advice on running a game and creating adventures.  There are twenty scenario summaries and each summary consists of a couple of paragraphs.  The summaries are contained within two-and-a-half pages.  Even if we conflate 2½ pages of scenarios to 16, not all of the scenarios are of the beginning variety.  Eight scenarios are in the 'simple' category (i.e., they “have straight-forward goals and involve standard combat”), seven are 'tricky' (i.e., they “usually require clever and astute play if the dangers and traps are to be successfully avoided”), and five are 'tough' (i.e., they “involve very hazardous situations, and require astute play and imaginative solutions to problems”).

Ace Books published a trilogy of novels based on the Cyborg Commando setting and which were co-authored by Mohan.  In an attempt to gain an appreciation of the setting, I read the first book, Planet in Peril.  My analysis of this novel may be found here.

Included in my used copy of the Cyborg Commando RPG box set is an advertisement for Realms of Adventure (shown below) – New Infinities Productions' house organ that offered “...a wide variety of articles and adventures from authors all over the world.”  I am unable to find much information about this journal, but it seems at least two issues were published.


Also included in my copy of the game is a typewritten flyer for Rock-Con XIV (November 7 & 8, 1987).

Sunday, July 16, 2017

The Undercity

Art by Liz Danforth

As regular readers know, recent posts have been about Flying Buffalo's CityBook series of supplements.  Electronic versions of these books are now available at RPGNow for your gaming edification.  In this post, we look at the third CityBook.  Having the subtitle Deadly Nightside, the theme of CityBook III – as explained in the Introduction – “is a dark and dangerous excursion into the seedier section of fantasy cities.”  The term 'Nightside' is used as the actual name of a section of a hypothetical city rather than a generic term for an unsavory urban area.  Whereas the establishments in the previous installments were organized according to business type, entries in Nightside are organized in three layers:  Good, Bad, and Deadly.  This layer structure is “the rough order characters would be likely to encounter [the establishments].”  The Introduction continues:  “In short, unless you've got a very jaded gaming group, you're not likely to hit an opium den right off the bat.”  Yes, an opium den is described on pages 76 – 82.

Michael Stackpole was the sole editor of CityBook III and also provided two of the establishments.  One of these entries – The Undercity – is like a Beggars' Guild, but “definitely a different Beggars' Guild.”  The term 'Undercity' refers to beggar society as well the location where the beggars reside (also called “the Warrens” or “the Underrealm”).
     The City's current level is built upon a dozen previous cities – some old enough to be legendary, a couple more lurk beneath those.  The beggars, over the generations, have dug down, excavated and set up living quarters in buildings that once stood in sunlight but now dwell in everdark.  Most of them live in a level about four cities below the surface, and the sewers cut through levels 1 and 2, though never did hit any of the warrens.
(The sewers are described as a separate 'establishment'.)

The beggars are divided into six 'tribes':  FAKERS (“...normal children of beggar parents”), WARDREGS (“...warriors or adventurers who have suffered maiming injuries”), GUTTERKIN (“...the utterly desperate and destitute...[usually] old, drunk, or mad”), ILLKIN (“...people who have been maimed and disabled by disease and illness”), SPOILED (“...those who have been maimed by an accident, or on purpose, and can no longer function in society because of their injury”), and YSRAIGET (“...congenitally deformed beggars”).  Many of the Ysraiget are 'changelings' – malformed children of 'Upworld' parentage who have been switched with “normal beggar babies.”

The term 'Ysraiget' is derived from Ysrai, a god that the beggars worship.  “A full thousand years before history was recorded with any veracity, Ysrai's temples were swept from the earth...,” the book explains,“Ysrai is so thoroughly removed from the minds of men that his name is only known to a few practitioners of arcane and blasphemous rituals.”  On the lowest level of the Undercity, the beggars found a statue of Ysrai, “broken and scarred like themselves...”  Creating their own cosmology, “The beggars made this god their own.”  They also “tied the selection of their King to their patron deity.”

The current Beggar King is Myre.  According to his description:  “He was one of four beggars who met the prime requisite for candidacy; he was maimed in a manner similar to the injuries on Ysrai's statue.”  As King, Myre “has stressed the importance of gathering and sifting information.”
     Through a bizaare [sic] set-up, beggars all memorize and analyze (if mentally capable) all the news, rumors and actions in the City.  Stories pass through the Undercity and are relayed to the individuals who handle that information.  New beggars are trained and learn everything one of the older beggars knows so redundancy is built right into the system.  In fact, some of the most hideously deformed Ysraiget are so mentally gifted they can remember and recall centuries-old gossip as if they'd heard it the day before, and they'll link it with any cogent data gathered before or since.  Without benefit of books or scrolls, the beggars have the most complete history of the City and world in existence today!
Myre's part in the information network involves him spending “time in Domdaniel's Gate speaking with Tranq.”

Domdaniel's Gate is an establishment contributed to CityBook III by the designer formerly known as Paul Jaquays.  The current Domdaniel's Gate tavern is situated under the ruins of the original Domdaniel's Gate.  Thirty years ago, the original tavern was destroyed by...
...a time implosion, caused by the crash-landing of a time vehicle.  Its pilot, Tranq, a man from the far-flung future found himself stranded in the past; pieces of his time machine scattered across the near past and future like a debris trail from a sinking ship.
Tranq is the current proprietor of Domdaniel's Gate.  As a tavern, the “Gate” has a regular clientele of “undiscriminating local bullies, ruffians, thugs, and punks...”  Other than the tavern's bartender, Tranq's true nature is known only to Myre, the Beggar King.
     Myre discovered Tranq's secret as a child and would often help him find the missing pieces of the time machine.  When he became king, it only seemed natural to use Tranq's establishment as a formal link with the “normal” world.  Tranq often uses his futuristic technology to aid the beggars in whatever ways he can.
All of the alcohol that the tavern serves is acquired on the black market and is delivered via the Undercity.  Also, Tranq is the only non-beggar to have been instructed in the “beggar dialect.”

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Jacqueline the Ripper and the Warm-Hearted Game Master


Your humble host supposes that wizards can be rather creepy without much effort.  For example, let us look at the eponymous resident of Garsen's Tower.  Although a physical location, Garsen's Tower is described in the 'Chance Encounters' section of CityBook II.  This entry was authored by Rudy Kraft, a contributor to several old-school era products – mainly for Chaosium and Judges Guild.

Anyway, Garsen, a prominent wizard hundreds of years old, “first set eyes on the love of his life when she was only 11; he watched her grow up and, at the appropriate time, swept her off her feet and married her.”  Although Garsen “could extend his own life span,” his wife Orsinia died of old age.  Garsen believed “Orsinia would be reincarnated and somehow find her way to him...”  He opted to place himself in suspended animation until the reborn Orsinia would eventually arrive at his tower.

Centuries have passed since Garsen withdrew from consciousness.  During that time, “Garsen's magic weakened the underlying earth” and the island of Garsen's tower partially sank into City harbor.  ('City' tends to be capitalized in the CityBook supplements.)  “At low tide the island and a connecting causeway rise well out of the water,” the book relates, “at high tide all the causeway and much of the island are submerged.”  A map of the island is displayed above.  The reader may notice that “SCALE: one square = 5 feet.”  Unfortunately, no squares are presented with the map; however, it is elsewhere mentioned that the narrow side of Garsen's tower ('B' on the map) measures thirty feet.  The tower is surrounded by a marble wall.  We are told, “Time's ravages have reduced most of it to rubble although a few sections remain intact.”  Regardless, the gate ('A' on the map) still stands.  The numeral '6' next to the gate refers to the strength of the lock.  A '6' lock is excellent, the highest possible rating:  “Could require magic or a howitzer to open easily – unless you have the key!”  Should someone tamper with Garsen's gate, it will generate “a blast of deadly energy...”

Garsen also employs a dozen “Guard Demons” to watch over the island.  Even though they are called demons, they are not infernal, “they are unusual trans-dimensional beings.”  They are 4'6", 240 lbs., can regenerate, teleport, and “are extremely sticky.”  Additionally, the demons are “scrupulously protective of women because Garsen wanted to be certain Orsinia could return without difficulty.”

The island is described thus:
     Much of the island is covered with a variety of strange and bizarre plant growth such as Rigle tickweed, Xustin molds, and even a rare Vedrosian Polyp plant.  At the summit of the island stands a twisted Vorpid oak, remarkable for the number of Yellowheaded gulls that nest in its branches.  Once every five years the island is covered by a riot of flowering Yellow Dreedils.  The fruit of the Dreedil is said to be distasteful and mildly poisonous – in fact, it is a fist-sized morsel of wondrous utility.  The fruit cures disease and grants immunity to further infection for a full month.  The quint-annual fruit supply is meager, scarcely six dozen fruits, but properly harvested and preserved (an arduous task), the harvest represents considerable wealth.  As chance would have it, the presence and potency of the Yellow Dreedils has been long since forgotten, so now the fruit merely insures a healthy brood of gulls.
Nowadays, the island is “a trysting place for young lovers seeking to escape parental chaperones.”

The first scenario suggestion for this location is that a female player character “actually is the reincarnation of Orsinia.”  Garsen realizes this when he wakes and expects the character to stay with him.  “The character is faced with the quandary of remaining or trying to escape, perhaps bringing doom on her comrades,” we are told.  “Even if she does escape, Garsen will ever after seek her out.”  Just the sort of thing to bring women gamers into the hobby.

The second scenario suggestion involves the murder of several women on the island.  For undisclosed reasons, the player characters try “to track down the killer.”  Instead of 'Jack the Ripper', the killer is a 'Jacqueline the Ripper'.  Since the duties of Garsen's demons “are specifically to protect women from men,” the demons do not protect women from 'Jacqueline'.  In fact, the demons protect 'Jacqueline' from men.  Who is 'Jacqueline' and what are her motives?  This information is not disclosed.  Why would you expect details from a GM aid?

– – –     – – –     – – –

Another location described in the supplement is Cap'n Bill's Bait Shop.  Stuart Bute, the author, does not seem to have contributed to any other RPG publicationThe owner of a fishery bought a shack and installed “a disabled seaman known as Cap'n Bill to run the place as a bait shop” selling the refuse from the fishery.  Cap'n Bill has an endless supply of sea tales, any of which could lead to an adventure.  In fact, the sole scenario suggestion is based on Bill's knowledge of pirate booty.  The write up for Cap'n Bill's acknowledges that the bait shop “is not the most likely place for characters to go.”  As such, there should have been a scenario suggestion that leads the player characters to Cap'n Bill; for instance, there could be a MacGuffin among Bill's collection of scrimshaw.

An employee of the fishery, the charmingly named Guter Snype, brings a supply of fresh bait daily to Cap'n Bill.  He also cleans up the shack.  Guter is described as “Almost human.  Ht: 5'0".  Wt: 288 lbs.”  Additionally, “Guter is repulsive in thought, word, and deed...”  Not surprisingly, Bill and Guter “don't get along at all, and it's a strain for them to work together for just a few minutes every morning.”  The book explains that neither Bill nor Guter “is able to take the first step that would mark the beginning of a firm friendship...”  We are told “there's an adventure scenario possible here, for a warm-hearted Game Master, if there is such a thing.”

Really?  The evolution of a friendship between a crusty old sailor and a person whose defining characteristic is that he's repulsive?  That wouldn't make for the plot of a crappy, made-for-TV movie, much less the basis for an adventure scenario.  The nature of the relationship between two non-player characters is at the whim of the Game Master – warm-hearted or otherwise.  Only for the benefit of the players would such a thing be played out.  What sort of player would even care?  Perhaps it's not surprising that Stuart Bute has no other RPG credits beyond this CityBook.