Sunday, March 24, 2019

Sundown on Starmist (spoilers)

Art by Clyde Caldwell

Sundown on Starmist, having the module code of SF3, is the fourth Star Frontiers adventure (given that the Volturnus trilogy was numbered SF0, SF1, and SF2).  Aside from working on other TSR products, writer Garry Spiegel did design work for Pacesetter.  Prior to providing a plot synopsis, the introductory material claims, “To obtain maximum play value and fun, try to follow this plot outline as closely as possible.”  Unfortunately, the plot is disjointed.  Sundown on Starmist suffers from poor editorial decisions (or perhaps editorial inattention).  My primary complaint is that much of the background information is unknown to the player characters and cannot be discovered.  However, let's start with the background information to which the players are exposed.  The first paragraph of the player character background report reads:
Maximillian Malligigg, a former second-master and navigator of a Vrusk freemerchant ship, has hired you for a private expedition to an uncharted planet he calls Starmist.  During his last voyage, Malligigg made an emergency landing on Starmist.  The planet was within the normal range of for all races.
Normal range of what for all races?  Is it no longer with the normal range?  Anyway, said ship was the VSS Centispeed (with VSS presumably meaning Vrusk Space Ship).  According to the front cover:
Something ancient and powerful is hidden inside the pyramid constructed by a primitive alien culture.  The crew of UPF Centispeed must discover what it is to save the planet.
The ship that Max and the player characters use to travel to Starmist is the VSS Last Legs (alternatively spelled Last Leggs).  Aside from Max, there are no crewmembers of the Centispeed in the adventure.  That's two mistakes in the module's cover description; not a good sign.

The surface of Starmist is frozen and uninhabitable; however, “Huge rifts formed in the surface, much like gigantic canyons, many of them miles deep.”  Eventually, “Water and atmosphere collected in the rifts and they slowly became habitable.”  When the Centispeed made an emergency landing in one of these rifts, the crew encountered “a predominantly nomadic culture” and Max came across a sample of processed metal beyond that culture's ability to create.  Given “an official expedition would be sent to Starmist soon following his captain's report to the authorities,” Max arranged for a private expedition so he could reach Starmist beforehand.  “If he could find evidence of a lost civilization, and perhaps locate some artifacts,” Max thought, “he could become a wealthy man” (or at least a wealthy Vrusk).  Max has retained the services of the player characters for an undisclosed amount. 

Although the module can be used in conjunction with Knight Hawks (according to page 21) and Max is said to be a navigator (and “he completed courses for a degree in science and astrophysics”), he possesses no Spaceship Skills.  “Maximillian's purpose is to aid you in running the adventure,” the referee is told, “He is ambitious and eager but neither brave nor smart.”

The sentient (but primitive) beings on Starmist are called Heliopes.  This suggests some affinity for sunlight, like maybe they're lethargic at night.  In this way, the phrase “Sundown on Starmist” would be meaningful.  This is not the case.  First, Heliopes are not associated with sunlight; no reason for their name is given.  Second, “Sundown” is the name of the sun.  Seriously, who names a sun “Sundown”?  The module's title makes no sense.  I mean, they could have called it The Secret of Starmist.

One might think that the blue cyclops on the cover represents a Heliope.  Maybe it's supposed to be a Heliope, but the pictured entity does not conform to how Heliopes are described in the text.  They have no hands, but instead possess “two pincers, slightly rigid, with a sharp nail along the edges.”  Their “feet are large, long, and splayed.”  They have mandibles and translucent skin.  Also missing from the tail are characteristic painted designs.

The image clearly depicts two moons; however, the text emphasizes, “The nights are very dark on Starmist because there is no moon and few close stars.”  Yet an interior illustration shows two moons.  Also, where did this non-Heliope obtain human skulls?

Part of the background that the players don't know about is that the Heliopes are not native to Starmist.  “They were slaves of a race called the Clikks, resembling the Vrusk,” we learn.  A Clikk exploration vessel in the Sundown system “had problems that required dumping any extra weight.”  Heliopes and various items of non-essential equipment were left on the planet, but not before the Heliopes were subjected to “a mindwipe that caused amnesia.”  This happened 600 years ago, but somehow the space-faring Clikk are unknown to the Frontier races.  In the centuries since they arrived on Starmist, the Heliopes have expanded “to nearly 200 tribes.”

So, Max and the player characters land and travel overland to the single Heliope village.  On the way, “nomad Heliopes...attack and village Heliopes...come to the rescue.”  When Max was on Starmist previously, he learned the Heliope language.  One can suppose that, having Max as a translator, the player characters can communicate with the Heliopes.  However, Heliopes and the PCs can communicate with one another when Max is not present.  The only exception to the ability to communicate happens in Village Encounter 11 for some reason.  Otherwise, we learn that “the Heliopes will be friendly and curious about [the player characters]; however, they shy away from Vrusks.”  Their attitude toward Vrusks might be explained by a racial memory of the Clikk slavers.  Yet if this is the case, why did they interact with Max?

The Heliopes developed a religion featuring Clikk relics.  Of course, the piece of metal Max found was left behind by the Clikk, but neither he nor the player characters ever learn about the Clikk or the history of the Heliopes.  The module relates that, “Massive tools and heavy structural members from the Clikk ship are corroded and broken from age and lack of proper maintenance.”  However, the Heliope aristocracy possess “sophisticated” weapons that are still functional after six centuries despite “lack of proper maintenance.”  Acquisition of ammunition does not seem to be problematic.  Also fully functional is the War Tank.

Three pages of text, a page of diagrams, and three tables are devoted to the War Tank and its weaponry.  “The tank is designed to be played with,” we read, “and the characters should be allowed to explore and experiment.”  One problem is that the tank is encased in a pyramid which happens to be “the holiest place of the Heliopes.”  The module explains that the “Heliopes will allow the PCs free range of the village but will fight anyone who approaches the pyramid, temple or river huts.”  Are the player characters supposed to decimate the Heliopes to get the tank?  One of the reasons the tank possesses religious significance is that its defense field produces intoxicating effects in Heliopes.  Another problem is that:
The tank is provided with a special security device to keep it out of enemy hands.  Once the tank is under power, the code must be entered daily from the captain's position; otherwise a self-destruct sequence is activated.
(Seemingly, having the defense field activated does not count as “under power.”)  Of course, the player characters don't know about the self-destruct sequence and – once the sequence is activated – it cannot be countered.  According to page 13, “The time required for self-destruct is up to [the referee] as the length play time will vary from game to game.”

At some point, the priests kidnap Max, requiring that the player characters invade the priests' river complex.  “Most important,” during the incursion, “the PCs must obtain one of the black and red rods which will give access to the tank.”  The next required encounter is an attack upon the village by Self Addressed Stamped Envelopes – no, wait – in Star Frontiers, S.A.S.E. means Sathar Attack Simulacra Exterior.  These should not be confused with Sathar Attack Simulacra Interior but, honestly, the differences between the two seem negligible.  According to page 7, the attacking 'robots' appear to be “four Heliopes who seem to be moving without quite touching the ground.”  However, according to page 24, both S.A.S.E. and S.A.S.I. have “secondary tentacles” (which implies the presence of primary tentacles).  Heliopes don't have tentacles.

The S.A.S.E. attack a second time once “PCs are familiar with the tank and begin to move around the village with it.”  After the second attack, “The PCs should follow the robots to the hidden base and bunker.”  Alternatively, “If the robots are destroyed, their signal beams will still operate and be traceable back to the base.”  So, there's a Sathar base:
During the day the players will see the hologram...The hologram projects an image of the bluff and rolling hills as well as the pond. At night the holograph is turned off and the PCs will be able to see the buildings by means of night vision or a light.
Apparently none of the Heliopes have ever seen the base at night.  The Sathar base serves three purposes:  (1) “a training base for [non-Sathar] espionage agents,” (2) “a heavy weapons bunker,” and (3) for “work on bio-genetic constructs.”  Somehow, “The Heliopes provided excellent cover for the Sathar operation.”  At the time of the adventure, the base is undergoing an evacuation:
A while ago the planet was discovered by the merchant ship carrying Maximillian Malligigg.  Alarmed, the Sathar decided to use the delay between the time they sent their official report and the resulting investigation to evacuate the base.  When the warships arrive and after evacuation is complete, the Sathar plan to destroy all lifeforms on Starmist.  The Sathar will let the PCs land since they plan mass destruction anyway, but they will shoot the PCs down if they try to leave.
The Sathar base has a weapon “capable of shooting down aircraft and/or spacecraft in orbit.”  Through the simple expedient of shooting down the original merchant ship, the Sathar could have obviated the need to evacuate their base and “destroy all lifeforms on Starmist.”  Also, just because “you plan mass destruction” at some point, people you allow to land aren't prevented from foiling your evil plans.

Upon infiltrating the Sathar base and reaching the power room, player characters – assuming they have appropriate skills – “will be able to determine that the [nuclear power] unit will explode in three hours.”  How or if the base personnel planned to survive is not disclosed.  Nonetheless, should the base commander perish the base will self-destruct in twelve hours (according to page 17) or merely one hour (according to page 20).

Sunday, March 3, 2019

More Mental Powers in Star Frontiers


Art by Steve Ditko

In a comment for last week's post, Down Under reader Konsumterra referenced the Star Frontiers psionics rules as presented in Arēs magazine.  This week we discuss said rules.  Arēs Special Edition 2 was published in Spring 1984, more than a year before the release of Zebulon's Guide to Frontier Space.  By this time, Arēs was published by TSR but had not yet been reduced to a mere section of Dragon.

The two-and-one-half page article, “Frontiers of the Mind,” was written by Jon Mattson, an occasional contributor to Dragon magazine.  Mattson introduces a new ability score:
When characters are generated, each player must roll for an additional ability score, Psionic Ability (PSI), using the same die-rolling procedure as used for any other score.  There are no racial modifiers for this roll, although Human characters can add their 5-point bonus to this score, and it is not “paired” with any other ability.  In every other respect, PSI is treated as a normal attribute.
There is a Psionic Primary Skill Area with each psionic ability represented as a separate skill.  A character can have a maximum number of psionic skills “equal to his PSI score divided by 15 (rounding fractions to the nearest whole number).”  Characters can have expertise (i.e., above Level 4) in a maximum number of psionic skills “equal to their PSI score divided by 25 (dropping fractions).”  In terms of cost, psionic skills are more expensive than Biosocial skills.
As the table suggests,“the experience point cost is doubled for psionic skills when the Psionic PSA is not taken.”  Mattson states, “a character who has not chosen the Psionic PSA cannot learn any of the psionic skills unless his PSI score is 60 or higher.”  However, in the following paragraph he claims, “Characters who do not choose the Psionic PSA may not use any psionic abilities.”

Using a psionic ability requires the character to expend Psionic Energy Points (PEPs).  The number of PEPs a character has “is equal to the average of his PSI and (unwounded) STA scores.”  Recovery occurs “at a rate of 3 per hour of rest, or 1 per hour of activity.”  Successful use of psionic abilities requires concentration.  “Any violent shock,” we read, “has a chance of disrupting a psionic's concentration and ending a talent's use prematurely.”  The psionic can attempt to maintain concentration with a LOG ability check.

Like normal skills, psionic skills have a percentile success chance enhanced by the character's skill level.  Failure means “the character will only lose half as many PEPs as would have been expended had the ability been successfully used (round fractions up).”  Seven psionic skills are presented.
  • Clairvoyance:  The character can view “a person, place, or object” at a number of meters equal to ten multiplied by skill level.  At level four, the character can also hear the target.
  • Energy Manipulation:  “This ability allows the character to channel energy harmlessly away from his body.”  In game terms, this means a reduction in damage caused by “beam weapons” and “kinetic energy.”
  • Mind Contact:  The highest level of this skill represents telepathy.  Level three allows the character to create a psionic shield.  The first level of this ability merely “allows the psionic to Sense the presence of any life forms.”
  • Illusion Creation:  The character can cause a being to perceive an illusion with “visual, auditory, tactile, and olfactory components.”
  • Mind Control:  The “victim” can avoid the effects of control with an ability check based on “the average of his LOG and PER scores, with a penalty equal to twice the level of use of this talent.”
  • Telekinesis:  “This is the ability to move objects merely by thinking about it.”  The description references a table that is supposed to indicate modifiers based on mass; however, the actual table lists intervals of time.  The 'mass' table actually appears in the Teleportation description.
  • Teleportation:  The character can “instantly transport himself...to any spot of his choice within his line of sight.”  Contrary to the notion of “line of sight,” there are modifiers for teleporting to locations the character cannot see.
“The referee may of course create new psionic powers,” we are told, “but should in all cases use discretion when doing so.”  Also, “Having too many characters with psionic characters can throw a campaign out of balance completely.”

Mattson states:
The referee should determine how psionic skills are acquired by a character.  It may be necessary for someone to seek out a psionic mentor...or a psionic organization that will train him properly.  Either way, an interesting series of adventures could be set up in which adventuring groups hunt for such sources of information.
Does Mattson mean that beginning characters cannot possess psionic skills?  Perhaps he is referring to skills acquired after character generation (and/or improving beginning skills).

Sunday, February 24, 2019

Mental Powers in Star Frontiers

Art by Virgil Finlay

A seven-page section of Zebulon's Guide to Frontier Space is devoted to “the concept of mental powers, often referred to in other role-playing games as psionics.”  The Introduction to this section emphasizes the optional nature of these rules.  We are told that the referee need not “include these options in his game, and if he does omit them, it will not unbalance the rest of the system.”  This leads one to wonder if including the rules will unbalance the rest of the system.  In fact, three paragraphs later, we are warned that incorporating the rules “will...require more care in balancing the campaign.”  There is an option of limiting mental powers – the Guide refers to them as 'disciplines' – to non-player characters; either “to an NPC race or character type.”  Also, “In a future volume of Zebulon's Guide to Frontier Space, some creatures may even have the option to use a mental discipline for communications or attack.”  As indicated in the previous post, the publishing of further volumes was a forlorn hope.

There are two types of characters who can use disciplines:  Mentalists (characters belonging to the Mentalist profession as opposed to the other professions) and enlightened (characters belonging to one of the usual professions).

During character generation, a Mentalist's Logic ability score can be increased to “between 75 and 90” by decreasing other scores on a one-to-one basis.  First, Strength and/or Stamina can be reduced.  Once both of these abilities are decreased to a value of thirty, “then the points can be taken from any other ability.”  A beginning Mentalist receives three disciplines/levels plus an additional discipline/level for every five points of Logic over seventy.  So, a Mentalist with a Logic score of 84 has five disciplines/levels to allocate.  This could be five disciplines at one level each, five levels in one discipline, three levels in one discipline and two levels in another, or any other combination.  Just like skills, disciplines have levels and Mentalists can purchase new disciplines (or increase the level of an existing discipline) by spending experience points in accordance with the Skill Cost Table.  The referee determines how discipline improvements manifest; either training and/or practice is necessary (like skills) or the discipline/level “comes naturally” to the Mentalist.

Beginning characters have twenty experience points to buy skills.  Presumably, this also applies to Mentalists and, also presumably, they can use those experience points to acquire or improve both skills and disciplines.  Like other professions, Mentalists have a list of skills; however, the list for Mentalists is rather modest.  Also, while other professions can purchase skills outside their list at a non-professional skill cost (which is twice the normal cost), Mentalists can only acquire skills from their list and they must pay at the non-professional cost.  Characters must pay ten points to join a profession, whereupon they receive an automatic skill that allows them to improve appropriate attributes.  Apparently, Mentalists don't pay ten points and there is no equivalent automatic skill.  Although we are admonished that “disciplines should never be confused with skills,” the title of the section is “Mentalists: The Optional Skills and Profession.”  We are told, “A Mentalist has profession discipline costs and non profession discipline costs.”  This is confusing in that there are no non-profession disciplines for Mentalists.

A beginning, non-Mentalist character with a Logic score of 80 or greater can be enlightened.  Such a character has one discipline/level for every five points of Logic in excess of 75.  During play, should an enlightened character's Logic be improved to a new five-point 'mark', he or she obtains a new discipline/level; no training is required.  A discipline/level is retained if the character's Logic score is somehow reduced below the amount required to attain that discipline/level.  Enlightened characters may not use experience points for disciplines.

There are forty-one disciplines, twenty of which are asterisked.  Enlightened characters can only have asterisked disciplines and Mentalists can acquire/improve them at half cost.  An example of an asterisked discipline is Confusion, which can only be used (successfully) twice per day.  If the Confusion roll is successful, it affects one target.  One might think that a target's Intuition/Logic would increase or decrease the chance of success, but one would be wrong.  The actual effect is determined by rolling 1d10 and consulting the Confusion Table:
Another asterisked discipline is Density, through which the character can increase or decrease his or her “body density.”  Additional asterisked disciplines include Trance I and Trance II.  Trance I allows a character to lower his or her metabolism while Trance II permits an increase of metabolism.  Why have one discipline that both lowers and increases density, but then have different disciplines for raising and lowering metabolism?

There are three flavors of telepathy:  Aliens, Animals, and Characters.  The Animal and Character versions are asterisked, the Alien discipline is not.  The description for the Character discipline states, “This discipline allows a character to enter another intelligent being's mind only for the purpose of conversation.”  The Alien discipline states, “This discipline allows a character to enter an intelligent alien's mind only for the purpose of conversation.”  The distinction between intelligent being and intelligent alien is not readily apparent.  The description for Character discipline concludes, “This discipline only allows for telepathic contact with intelligent player or nonplayer characters (including cyborgs),” while the Alien discipline concludes:
If the alien is extremely evil, or has a mind that could be incomprehensible to the character attempting to reach it, the referee might decide that a logic check is in order before any communication is attempted. If the user fails the check, he may be disoriented, stunned, at the alien's mercy, or even mortally wounded, depending on the alien and the referee's discretion.
Among the other disciplines are various psionic staples:  Telekinesis, Teleportation, Clairvoyance, Pyrokinesis, etc.  However, there is no discipline relating to precognition.  There is a Timeread discipline that permits a character to look back in time in a given location and an Analysis II discipline that “allows a character to read psychic impressions left on an object by the last person who used it.”

Given that mental powers are optional for Star Frontiers, there is little effort made to integrate them into the setting.  There are no items of equipment that interact with disciplines.  We learn that the Mentalist profession “is not so much a religion as it is a dedication to a way of doing things” and “Mentalists almost always wear some type of distinctive uniform (usually light blue) or medallion to signify their profession.”  Yet the only described organization regarding Mentalists is Star Law Psi-Corp, “a branch of Star Law specifically created for Mentalists.”

Sunday, February 17, 2019

Zebulon's Guide to Frontier Space

Art by Ed Emshwiller

TSR offered three 'accessory' products for Star Frontiers.  The first such product was a book of official character record sheets; the second was a referee's screen.  Lastly, we have the subject of this post, Zebulon's Guide to Frontier Space (hereinafter Zebulon).  The conceit of Zebulon is that it is...
...an encyclopedia compiled by the University of Zebulon documenting all the known flora, fauna, cultures, devices, and history of the Frontier in one place. The handy Ceretronix Pocket 1200 version quickly became a necessary piece of equipment in every pioneer's and spacer's kit.
Zebulon, of course, is one of the star systems in the Frontier (and doubtless named after Dave “Zeb” Cook).  Specifically, the Zebulon system contains Volturnus.  The university is based on Anker, another planet in the system.  According to the Zebulon timeline, Professor Alorne Zebulon discovered the Zebulon system 61 years prior to the establishment of the United Planetary Federation (and 66 years prior to the creation of Star Law).  Four years after discovering the Zebulon system, the professor established the University of Zebulon.  However, Crash on Volturnus states that, “The Zebulon star system was first investigated... by an unmanned exploration probe” and this “probe indicated that Volturnus was the only inhabitable planet in the Zebulon system.”  Also, Crash on Volturnus takes place within a year of the first manned expedition of that system – an expedition that did not include Professor Zebulon.  There is no attempt to reconcile these conflicting facts.  It's almost as if the Star Frontiers creative team did not anticipate that – 30-40 years in the future – people with nothing better to do would use a global communications system to nitpick the continuity of the game's milieu.

Despite the claim above, Zebulon documents neither flora nor fauna.  Zebulon has “Volume 1” as its subtitle, suggesting further volumes.  Perhaps flora and fauna would have been covered in one of these anticipated volumes.  However, published in 1985, Zebulon was one of TSR's last Star Frontiers products.  More than a mere accessory, Zebulon was hailed as a “major new rules expansion!” in the coming attractions of Dragon #102.  In effect, Zebulon was a new edition of the Star Frontiers rules.  Unfortunately, it was also Star Frontiers' swan song.

Zebulon offers a universal resolution system based on a table with nineteen columns.  Generally, each column represents a skill level; however, there are columns for both positive and negative extremes (above +10 and below -5 respectively).  There is also a “/0” column to the right of the “0” column. 


In the original rules, skills have a maximum of six levels.  With the Zebulon rules, the maximum level is eight.  Percentile dice are still rolled, but instead of percentile modifiers, there are “column shifts” on the table.  Each column represents a modifier difference of 10.  “For example, a + 20 bonus in the Alpha Dawn rules now becomes a + 2 column shift.”  Use of the table allows for degrees of success, each degree conforms to one of four colors.  In order of decreasing result, the colors are:  cobalt, blue, green, and yellow.

In terms of combat, damage is determined by the color result of a successful attack.  A cobalt success inflicts maximum damage.  Other possibilities include blue (¾ damage), green (½ damage), and yellow (¼ damage).  A character without training in a given weapon can attempt to use the weapon on the “0” column; positive modifiers cannot improve a roll to the right of the “/0” column.

The original rules offered a selection of thirteen skills (with associated subskills) among three Primary Skill Areas.  Zebulon treats each subskill as a distinct skill and adds many new skills so that over 120 skills are now available for characters.  In terms of character creation, a beginning character has twenty experience points “gleaned from years of study, practicing, apprenticeship, or whatever.”  These points are used to join a profession and acquire skills.

Professions are a new concept in Zebulon.  We learn that, “A character must belong to one of these professions and may not leave it at a later date.”  Each profession has a list of skills associated with it.  Entering a profession costs ten experience points and a character “must spend his remaining experience points on any of his profession's skills.”  Rather than having twenty experience points and necessarily spending ten of those to enter a profession, why not have characters join a profession at no cost and give them ten experience points to spend on profession skills? 

The main professions are:  Enforcer, Techex (“Technical Expert”), Scispec (“Science Specialist”), and Explorer.  A Mentalist profession is discussed separately in Zebulon.  The Spacer profession is “for campaigns using the Knight Hawks game rules.”  There is no other mention of the Spacer profession.  The spaceship skills are not defined in the Zebulon skill section and there is no discussion of how to conform the spaceship skills to the Zebulon paradigm.

Each profession has an automatic skill:  Enforcer - Endurance, Techex - Agility, Scipec - Intelligence, and Explorer - Charisma.  Each of these automatic 'skills' gives seven points to be allocated between a given ability pair:  Endurance (Strength/Stamina), Agility (Dexterity/Reaction Speed), Intelligence (Intuition/Logic), and Charisma (Personality/Leadership).

The cost of learning and improving skills is indicated on the Zebulon Skill Cost Table.  There is a column for skills within one's profession and a column for skills outside one's profession.  The first level of a profession skill costs one point, the second level costs an additional two points.  Each level after the second costs an additional two points.  Thereby, the eighth level of a professional skill has a cost of fourteen points.  The cost for non-professional skills is double that of professional skills.  Some skills do not have levels beyond the first; success is automatic if these skills are purchased.  Examples include 'Climbing' and 'Chef'.

Some skills appear on more than one profession list.  For instance, 'Body Speak' is both an Enforcer skill and an Explorer skill.  (Body Speak “allows a character to use exaggerated body movement as a form of communication with others possessing this skill.”)  Some skills aren't on any profession list, meaning that anyone who wants to learn or improve such a skill must use the non-profession cost progression.  Examples include 'Disguise' and 'Bluff'.  Some skills require continuous training; they must be re-purchased at first level every six months or the benefit they provide is lost.  Examples include 'Pumping Federanium' and 'Running'.  ('Pumping Federanium' allows a character to “carry [up] to one and one-half times his Strength score” in kilograms.  This is due to the character working out with federanium, “the densest element known.”  However, the drawback is that the character's physique is so developed he “may have trouble fitting into suits and equipment normally disguised [sic] for his race.”)