Sunday, June 11, 2017

Taxidermy, Tarot, and Tattoos


Among the various categories detailed in Citybook I:  Butcher, Baker, Candlestick Maker, the vague grouping of 'Personal Services' offers some of the more interesting establishments.  As examples, consider the following three businesses.

– – –     – – –     – – –

The entry for Professor Fyber's Taxidermy and Museum is credited to Steven S. Crompton, to whom we were introduced in the last post.  (The 'museum' section is displayed above.)
The Museum houses a collection of oddities that the Professor has stuffed over the years.  This includes a two-headed unicorn [Wouldn't that mean it has two horns?], a bison with wings [i.e., a 'flying buffalo'], a wolf with eight legs, and other freaks of nature.  One section also contains several heads which once belonged to famous bandits that were executed in the city (the only exceptions to Fyber's no-humans rule)...
Your humble host suspects Fyber's name was inspired by (the abominable) Dr. Phibes of motion picture infamy.  Yet, if so, Liz Danforth did not use Vincent Price as the model for Fyber's illustration.

Art by Liz Danforth
     Professor FyberHuman.  Ht: 6'3".  Wt: 210 lbs.  Age: 58.  Fighting prowess: very good rapier or saber; otherwise average.
     Professor Fyber is a dark, aristocratic man with a thin moustache.  His dress and voice bespeak a highly cultured man with a sense for the finer things in life.  He is a gourmet cook, a lover of good brandy, and very well-read.
     ...Fyber is a charming fellow and fairly formidable.  He is also a taxidermical genius and very popular with the City nobility to whom he provides trophies.  He zealously guards his secret formulas for preserving tissue, and is not above slaying an intruder who tries to steal them.  His major goal in his work is to preserve the semblance of life in as natural a manner as possible...
Of course, Fyber must obtain his specimens somehow.  The player characters may be retained to search out these strange creatures.  “The hunting expeditions can make a simple scenario for players,” Citybook informs us, “and good mileage can be gotten out of any of the Museum exhibits.”  One suggested scenario involves a vast treasure, the secret to which is contained within one of the bandit heads on display.  The player characters “must steal the head and find a way to revivify it in order to get the clue.”

 – – –     – – –     – – –

Thelesha Moonscry is a fortune-teller – or “seeress” – whose presence in Citybook is attributed to Larry DiTillio.  Given Liz Danforth's penchant for basing the appearance of Citybook personalities upon real-world celebrities, I am inclined to believe that Moonscry's depiction is inspired by Jane Seymour in her role as the fortune-telling Solitaire from Live and Let Die.

Art by Liz Danforth
     Thelesha MoonscryHalf-elf.  Ht: 5'9".  Wt: 130 lbs.  Age: 29.  Fighting ability: poor.  Magic ability: average; C5
     Thelesha has very pale skin, and long black hair with silver streaks in it.  Her left eye is sea-blue and her right eye is silvery-gray.  She is very beautiful and somewhat haunted.  Her typical attire is a sky blue robe adorned with a sigil showing silver moons and green oaks.
     Thelesha is not particularly cheerful.  She knows that she is fated to live without love, and uses her gift in memory of her teachers, an all but extinct sect called the MoonRiders.  She sometimes sees her talent as more of a curse than a gift, and may break off a reading if the omens she is scrying become too painful.  She rarely leaves her house and garden, and the MoonRider spirits watch over her there.
“C5” is Citybook code for communication magic.  I would have thought that divination would be part of clairvoyant magic (i.e, “C3”).  Regardless, Moonscry practices the following divinatory arts:  astrology, oneiromancy, pyromancy, hydroscopy, palmistry, cerescopy [sic], and cartomancy.  With regard to cartomancy, the Game Master is encouraged to “use a Tarot deck if you have one, improvising the meaning of the cards to fit the 'prediction' for the character.”  Otherwise, “You may use a regular card deck in this fashion:  Hearts indicate an emotional situation, Diamonds mean money, Spades mean competition, Clubs indicate magic [and] Face cards represent people.”

We are told that “Thelesha is about 90% accurate in all readings.”  As such, Game Masters are advised not to let Thelesha “be misused or over-used by the players.”  As a deterrent, “High prices should sufficiently limit the use of her powers!”  Also, readings need not be precise – “the more esoteric the symbolic answer, the more intriguing it will be to players.”

 – – –     – – –     – – –

Jock and Wilbur Sleaz are twin orcs who were raised by a kindly wizard who taught them how to make tattoos.  “(GM: if your system has no Orcs, or an Orc would not reasonably fit in your city, make Jock and Wilbur very ugly humans.)”  While Wilbur “quite frequently exhibits more of the standard Orcish traits,” we learn that “Jock is a very gentle soul” who gives money “to a local orphanage in order to give a few orphans the benefit of a better upbringing than he received.”  It seems to me that being raised by a kindly wizard who teaches them a trade is not so bad as an upbringing.

Anyway, the brothers employ their skills at a tattoo parlor of which they are the proprietors.  In addition to 'regular' tattoos, Jock (but not Wilbur) learned to create 'magical' tattoos (called “mattoos”).  By concentrating, the wearer of a mattoo can bring the mattoo into existence.
Once a mattoo comes to life, it will follow any command of the wearer (if it's a creature), or be employed in any manner the user wishes.  For each hour it exists, the wearer must pump strength into it, on an ever expanding scale.  The first hour costs 1 point; the second, 2; the third, 4; the fourth, 8; etc. (doubling each time).  Willing a mattoo to life for less than an hour costs 1.  The strength used returns at 1 point per full game turn.  (GM:  adjust to your game system.)
The price of a mattoo “starts at around 1000 gold pieces, rising with the complexity of the mattoo desired.”  Mattoos which are destroyed are no long usable, leave a scar, and cannot be replaced.

Jock himself has the maximum of five mattoos, created by the kindly wizard.  These mattoos are “two small dragons, a full-size flaming sword down his right leg, a waterfall on his chest (which can be used somewhat like a firehose), and a full-size rose on his left arm.”

A special mattoo is described:
Very simply, it is a “duckie”, a cute little representation of a duck.  Jock always recommends it because he likes duckies.  The duckie is like a normal mattoo – except that it always appears as a full-sized duck with full powers of speech, better than human intelligence, and a poisonous bite!  In addition, duckies have the power to deflect spells (set the level according to your game system); if a duckie is within a 5' radius of its wearer, it will partly protect its wearer by absorbing the spell.  Neither Jock nor Wilbur are aware of these powers – Jock just likes duckies!

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Butcher, Baker, Candlestick Maker


Art by Stephan Peregrine

As previously discussed, Flying Buffalo published the Catalyst Series of “game master aids” – including the CityBook installments.  (“CityBook is Flying Buffalo's trademark name for those Catalyst game booklets which describe businesses, personalities, and scenarios for city-based play.”  [original emphasis] )  The first CityBook was published in 1982.  Larry DiTillio was credited as editor, producer and – for many of the entries – author.  Perhaps better known as a writer and story editor for television, DiTillio was also responsible for a variety of several other role-playing game supplements/adventures.  “Original Concept” was credited to Pat Mueller, an author and editor for Sorcerer's Apprentice.  Mueller also shared “Directed by” credit with Liz Danforth and “Design and Layout by” credit with Steven S. Crompton.  In a humorous vein, another credit was “Typos by Pat Muellre.”

In 'A Brief Note' following the Introduction, it is stated, “The primary purpose of this book is to provide a number of modular pieces of cities, from which you can pick and choose what you want to use.”  Less subdued is the back cover copy:  “For action-packed role-playing, for exciting encounters with peculiar people, for unexpected adventures and unforeseen complications, the establishments and NPCs found in CityBook are right up your alley!”  Somewhere in between is the claim, “your players can now find fun and excitement even in such mundane activity as buying a loaf of bread or having a battered suit of armor repaired.”

Included in CityBook 1 is a two-and-a-half page article – originally published in Sorcerer's Apprentice – having the title “City Building and Citymastering” (incorrectly listed as “City Mastering and Citybuilding” in the Table of Contents).  The writer, Paul O'Connor, also contributed one of the book's entries.  O'Connor was involved with other role-playing game publications and has credits in comic books and those new-fangled computer games.  Anyway, O'Connor offers the following advice:
Try to allow for your players' desires.  Let the characters take a hand in directing the action – never try to force characters into doing something they don't want to, simply because you've got nothing developed for the path they're taking.  Often, a city trip will split off into a completely unexpected direction – usually quite different from the one planned.  If this happens, flow with it!  Try to adjudicate whatever situations arise to the best of your ability.  There's nothing wrong with making up an adventure as you go along...
Also, he offhandedly mentions “a one-armed goblin with three heads juggling squids...”

CityBook 1 has the subtitle Butcher, Baker, Candlestick Maker – a paraphrased line from a nursery rhyme (which evidently is not as homoerotic as one may have thought).  Among the “25 city-based establishments with over 75 fully-described non-player characters,” there is an entry for a butcher and another for a baker; however, the baker is a woman.  While there is no candlestick maker, there is a candle maker.  This borders upon false advertisement.  I mean they didn't have to use that subtitle; they could have gone with something accurate.  (I suppose a sourcebook of scenarios based on traditional nursery rhymes might be interesting.)  The butcher, baker, and candle maker entries are all by DiTillio.

Cleavsom Rumpchuck operates a butchery with his brothers – Slysum, Chopsum, and Dimsom – as well as his son, Ribeye.  (CityBook NPCs frequently possess 'jocular' names.)  Along with mundane meats, the Rumpchunk brothers offers such unusual fare as “filet of giant lake lizard, shank of dragon (very rare), sirloin snakes, lion loin, giant ant legs, horned owl tripe, marinated snow-bear nose, monkey brains, and anything else the GM can come up with.”  A scenario suggestion has Rumpchuck hiring the adventurers to acquire such game.

Widow Rohls operates a bakeshop with her three daughters:  Poppy, Sesame, and Sweet Nell.  The interesting NPC associated with the bakeshop is “Old Sam.”  (Spoiler Alert!)
Old Sam was once Samar, Master of the Nine Hells, an evil wizard with staggering arcane powers.  An assault by ten rival sorcerers blasted his memory from him and aged him almost thirty years.  He escaped destruction by a desperate teleportation spell, and was found wandering in the City sometime later...
Taken in by the Rohls family, Old Sam does odd jobs and has “a definite talent for icing cakes (the result of years of scribing complex spells).”  One scenario suggestion involves Old Sam regaining his memory.  Another suggestion has him inadvertently working “some eldritch rune into the design” of a cake's icing.  This results in “some strange effect which could have [a] character possessed by some supernatural entity, cause a spell to fire, lay a curse on the viewer, open a gateway to an alternate universe, or any other magical surprise the GM cares to spring.”  Wacky hijinks ensue.

Art by Liz Danforth

The candle maker is Gillian Olfin.  DiTillio tells us, “Gillian loves to swim nude in the moonlight, does not drink, ...is rumored to have numerous lovers in high positions in the City [and] ...is always barefoot.”  Liz Danforth, in her depiction of Gillian (shown above), seems to have based her appearance on Diana Muldaur.  The model for the cat has not been determined as of this writing.

Gillian has sufficient magical ability to manufacture two types of “special” candles.  The Love Candle “incorporates a few drops of blood or sweat from both the proposed 'lover' and the person who wishes to be loved.”  When the “lover” burns the candle, “he or she falls in love with the candle's buyer.”  The effect only lasts for one to six weeks, but the effect can be reinforced with a new candle.  Since “it takes Gillian 2 – 12 days to produce a love candle,” it would be wise to have a few spares available before engaging upon a long term romantic illumination.  The Ghost Detector Candle normally “burns with an ordinary yellow-white flame.”  However, in proximity to “a disembodied spirit or an enchanted corpse, the flame burns a bright blue.”

We also learn that “tallow candles are cheaper [than refined beeswax candles] and will burn a little more brightly, but in an area without adequate ventilation (such as your basic dungeon-type room), they tend to smoke heavily, causing nausea.”

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Inspiration: Loslon (Part II)

Art by Michael Creager

Avalon Hill marketed Dark Emperor as “its game of fantastic warfare.”  As described in the previous post, the setting of the game is the world of Loslon.  True to the notion of “fantastic warfare,” most of the counters represent military units.  Other counters represent individuals called Leaders; they have 'Hero Ratings' that can affect battles.  Many Leaders also have a Magic Strength, permitting them to cast spells.  On Loslon, magic is derived from Runes and each magic-using leader is associated with one.

There are five pairs of 'opposed' Runes:  Death / Life, Terror / Serenity, Earth / Air, Fire / Water, and Metal / Wood.  Each Rune permits the casting of one or two spells as well as the ability to counter the spells of its opposite.  Any given spell “is either a movement, combat, or diplomacy spell.”  Aside from countering Wood spells, a “Metal Rune leader” can cast “Forge Sword.”  This creates either a Hero's Sword (which seems to increase a leader's Hero Rating during heroic combat) or a Living Sword (which can permanently destroy greater vampires).

When casting a spell, a player must roll the leader's Magic Strength or less on 1d6.  Given that most spell casting leaders have a Magic Strength of 3, such a leader has only a 50% chance of successfully casting his (or her) first spell in a game-turn.  “Magical Devices” can increase Magic Strength, as can areas on the board indicated by Rune symbols.  (Some leaders start the game with a Magical Device.)

Also on the board are seven pentacle symbols upon which “magic hex units” are randomly placed, face down.  Leaders can visit such a hex and reveal the counter.  Among the possibilities are three monsters and four Magical Devices.  Leaders may attempt to recruit monsters or fight them.  Killing a monster means that “the leader's hero rating is permanently increased by ONE.”  The Magical Devices include:
Famir – A sword “created to destroy Ssstoth, king of the Sea-monsters.”  Ssstoth can appear in the game and the leader with Famir is compelled to fight Ssstoth.
He-Sups-On-Prana – A sword which can drain an enemy's soul “and destroys him.”
The Dawn Lantern – This device reduces “the combat strengths of all vampire units...”
The Silk Negator – “It is a cloth with the ability to negate any magic.”

Also part of the game are mercenaries who can be recruited by either side:
Lord Montoy – Lord Montoy ruled the lands between the cities of Montoy and the Gates.  When defeated by Stavror ten years ago, “he retreated to the interior with the survivors and began a guerilla war.”  He has become a mercenary with the hope he can earn “enough gold to hire a force to retake his kingdom.”
SaarSaar is an intelligent Great Eagle from the mountains of Ahautsieron.  Unlike most of his race, his primary interest in humans is as food.  To his delight, he has discovered that humans will pay him to fight other humans; the result being a battlefield covered with fresh corpses for the delectation of Saar and his followers...
Fernan Conniver – “He was banished from [Kelaron Oiret] when it was discovered that he bribed his way into the Ahaubot,” the governing body of the land.  “He has become a mercenary leader of considerable ability since his disgrace” and “is only employed by those who have a desperate need for his services.”
The HoundsThe Hounds are a race of sapient canines who live in the far north.  Mor Faloi, a human, was abandoned in their land as a child.  They adopted him and raised him to the pack.  As a man, Mor has raised a unit of hound fighters and become a mercenary...
Cos dol CosCos dol Cos is a member of the Cult of Unity, a religious cult who believe that magic has brought man nothing but misery.  They seek to eliminate magic from Loslon and return to the ancient ways, practiced before the First Age of Magic.  Cos dol Cos isn't a true mercenary, he fights when and where he feels the cause is served.  His Sons of the Morning are so named because they believe that the elimination of magic will bring a golden dawn to mankind...Cos dol Cos and the Sons of the Morning are immune to all forms of magic.
Silwer Flagriel – Silwer is a cult leader associated with the Fire Rune, but – unlike the other mercenaries – he is not associated with any military units.  The Cult of Burning Inspiration believes that evil is rampant and “must be burned out wherever it is found.”  He is more likely to side with the Great Necromancer since the kingdoms of Loslon “are a little tired of Silwer's habit of burning cities to the ground to purge the evil within them.”

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Inspiration: Loslon (Part I)

Art by Michael Creager
In the third age of magic Padrech dar Choim, the Great Necromancer, was banished to the Realm of the Dead by the High Emperor Padrom III after a long and bloody war. There, on the cold and silent Fields of Decay, he brooded as centuries passed. Slowly, with the passage of time, he gathered his forces for his next assault on civilization. While marshalling his power he found allies to his cause in Tol Morn, Lord of Vampires, and Mezal, Avatar of the goddess Szanbu (Misstress of Fear and Terror). Now, his time has come again...
Thus begins the Introduction to Dark Emperor, an Avalon Hill bookcase game published in 1985.  For this game, the designer, Greg Costikyan, tried “to create a believable fantasy world.”  According to the designer's notes:
Many fantasy worlds are built with unimaginative, and sometimes impossible, geographies. This may seem to be a minor point but, as a geologist, it is a sore point with me. I hit upon the idea of placing the game in a world of impact-crater geography where the plate tectonics that has produced the geography of our own world does not operate... I proceeded, therefore, to produce a set of tables to generate random locations and sizes for impact craters and generated geography on a hex grid map with a compass.  The result is the world of Loslon.
I have attempted to create a passable rendition of this world (without hexes).  I have used grayscale for purposes of visibility and have used different symbols to represent Loslonian runes.



(I could find no instance of the 'Air' rune on the Dark Emperor board.)

Several battlefields are indicated on the map.  The Necromancer opponent can recruit undead armies from these places.  The battlefields are:  (1) Battle of Fornost, (2) The Hecatomb, (3) The Fallen Standard, (4) Battle of Kelar Isle, (5) Battle of the Gates, (6) The Emperor's Lament, (7) The Graves of the Marind Warriors, and (8) Battle of Geysers.  Units of distance are “imperial zotz” and no conversion formulae are presented.  Why the the 'Battle of Fornost' transpired over a thousand zotz away from Fornost is also not explained.

Costikyan also developed “the elements of a believable language, in order to produce consistent names.”  Also from the designer's notes:
Another peeve I have with much fantasy and science fiction is inconsistent naming.  Writers seem to delight in inventing outlandish names with no thought to the fact that a culture produces those names and certain rules apply to them.

Here are some brief notes regarding the kingdoms of Loslon.

Zolahaureslor:  In the wake of “the Necromantic War the ended the third age of magic,” the fringes of the empire were subject to “a series of revolts and barbarian incursions.”  Zolahaureslor is what remains of the empire.  “Its court life is a labyrinthine web of deadly intrigue.”

Ahautserion:  This former area of the empire was conquered by a tribe called the Marind Warriors.  “Its economy is dependent on mining and metal-working.”

Ferlarie:  “When the south was overrun by the Stavek barbarians, and it became clear that the empire could not help them, Ferlarie declared its independence and built a sizable fleet to protect its far-flung dominions.”

Kelaron Oiret:  “The Kelaron peninsula, like Ahautserion, was overrun by the Marind Warriors...In this land the tribal customs of the Marind evolved into republicanism.”

The Marechs:  “The two Marech kingdoms, Lammarech (Eastern Marech) and Loymarech (Western Marech), were conquered by the Mari, a civilized people driven south by a series of crop blights during the empire's decline.”

Starkeep:  “Starkeep is of great religious importance to the lands around it.”  It is the realm of the Star Believers – “a cult of sky worshippers associated with the Serenity rune.”

The Scythe:  The people of the Scythe train rocs “to fight and carry riders.”

Stavror:  The Stavek barbarians “tended to mount a sizable invasion of the empire every century or so.”  With the decline of the empire, the Stavek occupied the southern regions and have “become one of the most powerful, and prosperous, nations in Loslon.”

Tal Pletor:  Twelve years ago in this nation, a mercenary general “usurped the throne, married the ex-king's wife and killed the remainder of the royal family.”

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Hazards of Space and Subspace

Image from 2001: A Space Odyssey © Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Ken St. Andre lists three 'game scenarios' for his Starfaring role-playing game:  'standard exploration', 'the planet search contest', and 'alien (or enemy) attack'.  For aliens or enemies, St. Andre suggests either “Human homeworlds...at war and...fighting it out in space,” the Robots, or the Slish.
The Slish are arch-typically B.E.M. in concept, methane breathers, tentacled, the works. They are non-telepathic and unreasonably hostile to all other lifeforms. They have a faster-than-light star drive, but it does not utilize Star Crystals; nor can the Slish enter Subspace. They do not utilize their FTL drive inside solar systems. They seem to be especially interested in gas giant planets, and are most often encountered near one. They do use energy weapons similar in effect to the Shiva beam weapons of humanity, but their shields do not seem to be as powerful as Human shields. Aside from these generalizations, Slish ships vary in quality...
Additionally, the Slish are “octopoid” and they “seem completely immune to the psionic powers of human telepaths.”  We also learn, “No one captured by the Slish has ever returned to tell the tale.”  Apparently, no Slish have ever been captured.  With regard to encountering the Slish in combat...
Attacking Slish ships approach on a constantly corrected straight line towards their target ship, firing at a rate of 5 times per combat turn. This means that while the human ship is making Saving Rolls to determine if it is hit by the Slish who have evolved the technique of firing randomly in the general direction of their randomly evading target, the Slish ship is on a mathematically predictable course; and though they fire 5 times for every once you fire, you will hit the Slish ship every time as long as your Gunnery computer is working.
The 'Space Hazards' chapter begins, “For each turn that a ship is in space, either Subspace or regular space, the G.M. will roll 2 dice.”  How long is a turn?  St. Andre neglects to inform us.  At any rate, a roll of twelve (i.e., 2.77%) indicates “some form of trouble.”  St. Andre supplies two tables – one for 'normal space' and and another for 'subspace' – but invites prospective Galaxy Masters “to add your own inventions to these lists of space hazards.”

The listings for the normal space table are:  Slish (~33%), Galactic Core Radiation (25%), Meteor Strike (~17%), Power Crystal Malfunction (~14%), and Supernova (~11%).  When Galactic Core Radiation is encountered, 1d6 is rolled.  The result is subtracted from Mentality, Physique, and Health; however, the result is added to “Psionic powers.”  Health can be recovered, but “Other characteristics are permanently changed.”  The 'supernova' result is only applicable to “Unstable stars of spectral classes 0, B, and A with masses greater than Sol.”  Supernovae generate a wave of radiation that reduces “the Health of all crew members” by 3d6 and “half that number from the Mentality of all survivors.”  Starships that do not promptly retreat into Subspace “will be vaporized by the expanding shell of superheated gases.”

The entries for the Subspace table are:  “Kthulhus” (~66.7%), “Derbis” (~27.7%), and “Berserkers” (~5.6%).
Kthulhus are the dominant life-form in Subspace. They exist and grow by devouring the slight energy leakage from normal space into Subspace. They are disturbed by the warping of Subspace caused by Starship warpengines, and when they detect it, they will approach and attack the source.
Kthulhus cause crew members to hallucinate; this eventually causes a reduction of Mentality.  “Kthulhus may be driven off or slain,” page 43 tells us, “by psychic blasts of hatred or aversion from a crew member concentrating on the idea of a Kthulhu, and who has a higher psi rating than the Kthulhus rating.”  Derbis is a “Subspace life-form most nearly resembling a rock with eyes.”  It's like dyslexic debris!  A Derbis “thinks, after a fashion,” and desires “to reduce itself to free hydrogen.”  To accomplish this, “they smash into [starships] with glee, [since] the energy shield will disintegrate them.”  The effect on the ship “is similar to Meteor damage in normal space.”  Berserkers are, of course, a reference to Fred Saberhagen's creation.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Combat in Starfaring

Art by George Wilson

In our most recent post, we found that handguns are available for purchase in the setting of Starfaring.  Specifically, a handgun costs one megacredit and has an “output” of one standard of energy.  Ken St. Andre never defines how much 'energy' is in a standard.  Still, we don't need an exact amount as long as the rules address the effect; however, the rules do not do this.  Since St. Andre included handguns in the “Store for Starfarers,” he must have anticipated that handguns would be used in Starfaring scenarios.  Unfortunately, St. Andre does not incorporate rules for person-to-person combat in the game.

The 'Weapons and Conflict' section of Starfaring pertains exclusively to ship-to-ship combat.  Given the speeds and distances involved in starship conflict, St. Andre opines...
Even utilizing beam energy weapons which travel at the speed of light, one cannot fire at a ship in a known position, because in combat it will be constantly moving in evasive action, and it will not be there when the ray arrives.  Ergo, ships in combat must fire at the point in space where they estimate the other ship will be at a given time.  The Shiva Crystals aboard Human ships modulate Brahma Crystal energy into a disruptive beam of force, invisible in itself but accompanied by a pulse of red light to allow for accurate tracking...
With regard to the difficulty of this task, St. Andre states...
One would almost need to be psychic (as well as lucky) to hit another ship in this game. Fortunately, the Human brains linked to the ship's gunnery computer are psychic, and, depending on the degree of psychic power they have, they can actually foretell the future--in this case, aided by the mathematical interpolations of the computer, they would know where to aim in space.
In terms of game mechanics...
...the result would really be determined by a Saving Roll made by the attacked ship.  This Saving Roll would be determined by the mental and psychic attributes of the ship's brain, but would also be affected by distance between the combative ships.
St. Andre further postulates on page 29,
[W]e are going to come up with a formula for Saving Rolls based on ship's brain psi and mentality ratings, ship's distance, and ship's speed. (Note: if more than one person is bionically linked to the computer, their psi totals are added, but the mentality total is not cumulative and is that of the brightest person in the linkup.) S.R. equals 1000/(Men. plus Psi times 10000/Range in miles all divided by the fraction without the decimal of the speed of light at which the ship is moving. The formula simplifies to 10,000,000/(M -Psi) X R X Sc) where M stands for high Mentality in linkup, Psi is Psi total in linkup, R is approximate range in miles, and Sc is the decimal fraction of the speed of light expressed as a whole number.
(Evidently, the result is the target number which must be met or exceeded on 2d6. Just as with Tunnels & Trolls, a roll of doubles allows another roll to be added to the total.  So, the lower the target number, the easier it is to obtain a successful result.)

There are some inconsistencies in St. Andre's calculations.  The ‘simplified’ formula is missing an opening parenthesis while the ‘unsimplified’ formula is missing a closing parenthesis.  The total of the Mentality and Psi ratings is part of the denominator (although the ‘simplified’ formula shows a minus sign instead of a plus sign).  A larger denominator means a smaller result which, in turn, means an easier target number.  This makes sense; greater Mentality and Psi ratings should mean a better chance of success.  The ‘unsimplified’ formula shows the inverse of range in the denominator.  Since this reduces the denominator, it reduces the chances of success.  However, in the ‘simplified’ formula, range is not expressed as an inverse value.  This suggests that a greater range means an easier Saving Roll.  (Remember, the Saving Roll is to be made by the target vessel to avoid being hit.)  Then we have “Sc is the decimal fraction of the speed of light expressed as a whole number.”  Wouldn’t that just be 10c?  Regardless, a greater speed increases the denominator, meaning an easier Saving Roll for the target.

Interestingly, the attacker's only effect upon the Saving Roll is the distance to the target.  The “mental and psychic attributes” of the attacker are not considered.

However one chooses to interpret St. Andre's number crunching, there is a numerator of ten million.  On page 29, St. Andre comments, “You can see how handy your own pocket calculator is for calculations of this nature.”  In terms of randomization, a calculator is “the expensive, fun way” while a deck of playing cards is “the simple, cheap way.”  With regard to calculators, St. Andre advises, “Radio Shack sells an excellent one for $30.”  In addition,
More expensive calculators, which provide many more functions, may be used to generate random numbers by, for example, taking the sine of the input number, dividing it by pi, and then taking the square root, reading your result behind the decimal point. I guarantee you will not be able to anticipate the final result, which means the number is random as far as you are concerned.
Assuming a ship is hit, “its Vishnu field will flare up to shunt off as much of the energy impact as it can.”  Energy that the Vishnu field cannot 'shunt off' damages the ship; puncturing the shell and impairing one of the ship's systems.  (“No more than one system will be damaged on one shot.”)  'Systems' include:  (1) Brahma Crystal, (2) Shiva Crystal, (3) Vishnu Crystal, (4) Warpengine, (5) Crew, and (6) Computers.  The amount of damage is determined by rolling 1d6 for “every 500 standards of energy or fraction thereof” that gets past the Vishnu field.  On a 'crew' result, the result of the damage die or dice “is how many crew members are killed outright.”  Each member of the crew makes a Saving Roll; space armor grants +5 and combat armor offers +10.  There is no target number – “Those with the lowest scores are the first to die, until 1 crew member is gone for each hit suffered.”

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Ship Design in Starfaring


The first step in designing an exploratory vessel for Starfaring is to choose a shell size.  'Shell' refers to the superstructure and “includes hull, interior spaces, airlocks, and lifesupport [sic] systems.”  Shell sizes are determined by “bion number.”  A bion is a “Bionic Life Support Function unit” and is defined as “the standard amount of life support equipment and energy needed to maintain a human being comfortably on a star voyage of any length.”  Assuming that robots and shell people don't require bions, the Indigo Albatross needs to have ten bions for her crew (including the additional members identified below).  A 'moderate' size shell can accommodate ten bions and has a cost of 19,000 megacredits.

A 'warpengine' is the next item in creating a space ship.  “Warpengines cost 3000 mc. per unit of warpspeed they can generate,” page 19 tells us.  However, page 35 further discloses that a basic 'warp 1' engine costs five thousand megacredits and each additional warp increment costs three thousand megacredits.  In Subspace, 'warp 1' is equivalent to one parsec per day; each additional 'warp' level  doubles the speed.  In real space, 'warp 1' is equivalent to one-tenth of the speed of light; each additional 'warp' level increases speed by another tenth.  Thus, 'warp 3' is equivalent to eight parsecs (just over 26 light years) per day (Subspace) or 30% of the speed of light (real space).  If we select a 'warp 3' capable engine for the Indigo Albatross, the cost is 11,000 megacredits.

As indicated in a prior post, there are three types of Star Crystals:  Brahma (related to power), Shiva (related to energy weapons), and Vishnu (related to energy shields).  Each type is necessary for a starship.  We are told that Star Crystals – regardless of type – have a price of one thousand megacredits “per 1000 standards of energy produced or processed.”  What is a 'standard' of energy?  According to author Ken St. Andre, “It has no 20th century equivalent I can think of right off hand, but it is not exorbitantly large.”  Determining the energy requirements of a starship is difficult since such requirements are not addressed in the “Building Your Starship” section of of the rules.  Also, there are no example ships from which we can extrapolate likely values.  However, St. Andre provides rules for creating used starships.  To determine a a rating for each of the Star Crystal types, 3d6 are rolled and the result multiplied by 1,000.  This suggests that Star Crystals with ratings of 10,000 standards – an average roll – are viable options for our purposes.  Spending 30,000 megacredits provides us with one of each type of Star Crystal having a 10,000 standard rating.

Another consideration for outfitting a starship is “instrumentation,” which can be thought of as computer systems.  Five “areas” should be considered:  (1) astrogation, (2) gunnery, (3) library, (4) life support, and (5) research analysis/sensor interpretation.  “[A] single master computer which integrates all of these various functions” has a cost of 8,000 megacredits.  There is an additional cost of 2,000 megacredits “to accommodate a shell person comptroller.”  Since we have a shell person comptroller, it would be a shame to disregard this opportunity.  Yet we should also consider a back-up system.  A differentiated system covering all areas (and which includes a 'central processor') has a cost of 10,000 megacredits.  “Supplementary instrumentation,“ we are told, “such as would be required for graphic displays suitable for non-electronic human senses, cost one-half the computer cost in that particular area.”  So that humans can interact with these systems, an additional cost of 3,000 megacredits is therefore required.

So far, our design budget for the Indigo Albatross is 83,000 megacredits.  The amount of the loan extended from the planetary government is 100,000 megacredits.  With the 17,000 megacredits we have left, we could increase the bion value of the shell or invest in higher-rated Star Crystals.  However, there is an additional category of “Accessories” that should be considered.  An arsenal of everything from handguns to cannon might run 500 megacredits.  A “Portable nuclear fusion reactor” costs 500 megacredits.  An all-terrain vehicle (without modifications) is 100 megacredits.  Spacesuits are two megacredits each.  At ten megacredits, an airbelt...
Generates a weak force field that allows free passage to oxygen only.  Will screen out bacteria, water, poison gases and insects.  Will not turn bullets, energy beams, or other massive attack.
Although 'research analysis/sensor interpretation' is an “instrumentation” area, prices for devices like Star Finders (40 mc) and Subspace Communicators (200 mc) are listed separately.  There is also a “Psionic Nullifier” for sale at four megacredits.  Is this supposed to be a weapon?

With regard to the 100,000 megacredit loan, “The planetary government demands a 20% interest payment on any loans it makes, and it holds the title to your ship until your loan is completely paid.”  The planetary government may seize the ship if half of the debt is is not paid after three expeditions; the government will seize the ship if the entire debt is not paid after five expeditions.  Of course, the notion of financing starships is not unique to StarfaringTraveller also has rules for starship financing, but that game allows the purchase price to be “paid off over a period of 40 years.”  Details are lacking with regard to the actual repossession of starships as a result of defaulting on payments.  That could be the subject of a completely different role-playing game; a game that might look a little something like this...


– – –   – – –   – – –

During my perusal of media to locate depictions of the crew, I found a couple of images that – while endearing – did not represent any pre-conceived crewmember.  I have thus created positions on the ship for them.

Callisto McCabe (Pilot)
Mentality:  100
Psi:  8     (use:  2; recovery:  5)
Physique:  13
Health:  16

Knows how to handle a joystick and she's into bondage?  She's a keeper!




H. Ludlow Upsilon (Life Systems Analyst)
Mentality:  120
Psi:  10     (use:  3; recovery:  4)
Physique:  12
Health:  15

Anybody with a leopard-skin environment suit deserves to be part of the crew.   Just leave behind whatever that tentacle's attached to.






Saturday, April 1, 2017

Friendship Is Magic!


© Hasbro Studios

Regular readers have likely noticed a reduction in the frequency of posts.  This is because your humble host has been preparing to take the blog in a bold, exciting direction.  After five years of discussing role-playing games, Thoul's Paradise will henceforth be a brony empowerment blog.  Today's post will act as a transition between these interests, looking at pony role-playing opportunities.

The official My Little Pony role-playing game, Tails of Equestria (Get it?  Tails?), will not be available until later this month.  However, the “pony sheet” offers a glimpse of what we can expect.


According to the ad copy:  “Armed with core skills and special abilities, each player ventures into the world of Equestria with their pony peers, forging deeper friendships as they help one another in the whimsical world they create through every action they take.”  It looks like the dice (sold separately, of course) are the standard assortment of polyhedrals.  Interestingly, the recommended age for this game is “3 years and up.”


Other than the forthcoming official RPG, there is the Ponyfinder Campaign Setting from Silver Games, LLC.  Originally, Ponyfinder was intended as a supplement to Paizo's Pathfinder (hence the name).  The latest incarnation – a 168 page PDF – embraces Fifth Edition; however, the Ponyfinder name has been retained.  (I would have gone with Ponyfiver, but I'm not a marketing expert.)

Each pony has a sub-race (which I assume is the same as 'tribe') and a spiritual path (“an important and specific choice that sets ponykind apart from most of the other races”).  The three common sub-races are earth-bound, pegasus, and unicorn.  The less common sub-races include ghost ponies, leather wings, sea horses, and zebras.  Among the spiritual paths, there are:  Antean, chaos hunter, clockwork, doppelganger, gem pony, and sun pony.  However, the most common spiritual path is “unique destiny,” which allows a choice of ability score increase and skill/tool specialty.  'Spiritual path' is something of a misnomer; the term suggests a conscious decision to follow a particular philosophy.  However, the described paths are really accidents of birth.  Clockwork ponies, for instance, are “comprised of gears and springs.”  Instead of 'spiritual path', perhaps 'heritage' would be a better term.  Even so, the reason why 'gem pony' should be a spiritual path while 'ghost pony' is a sub-race is beyond me.  If I'm going to pretend to be a magical pony, I need a logical framework with a rock-solid foundation.  I mean, what am I, an eight year old girl?  (Don't answer that.)

Ponies “stand about four feet tall from hooves to head, and are about four feet long from front to base of the tail.”  All ponies have a “Brand of Destiny.”  We are told, “This symbol is of high importance to the pony, signifying their destiny or talent, and driving them to excel at it.”  This brand can be removed via a 'Denial of Destiny' feat.  Doing this is a “drastic act [that] defies the gods and the natural order and declares that you mean to operate under your will alone.”  So ponies don't automatically have free will, but they can obtain it.

The back cover claims, “Many spells, class specializations, and backgrounds are also usable by non ponies or other settings.”  The accuracy of this statement depends on how few items can constitute 'many'.  Regarding spells, we are told, “Most of these spells are of specific use to ponies, with limited function for other races.”  Among the dozen new spells provided, we are treated to the likes of 'Blast of Harmony' and 'Grazing'.  Two of the five new backgrounds are 'Hybrid' and 'Unbound Hooves'.  As is, some of the class specializations – such as Artifact Tender (Rogue) and Warden of the Night (Paladin) – can be used by non-ponies and are not tied to the setting.  Other specializations are not quite so flexible.  Among these are Tribal Scholar and Mobile Cannon (“Four-legged races face unique challenges when they pursue the way of the gun”).  Two other examples of specializations are Mystic Prancer (Bard) and Vampiric (Sorcerer).  Yes, there are rules for playing vampire ponies; it's a wonderful time to be alive.

Other than ponies, there are seven other playable, quadruped races in Ponyfinder.  Two of these – Flutterponies and Steelhearts – might as well be pony sub-races.  The 'non-pony' races are:  Cloven (“intelligent goats”), Griffons, Phoenix Wolves, Purrsians (“a winged feline race”), and Sun Cats.  All of these races are of 'Medium' size and all have their own feats.

The 'world' of the Ponyfinder setting is Everglow, “nestled in delicate balance between the elemental planes...a world of magic and mystery where the fey are in control and the humanoid races are secondary.”  Ponies and all of the non-humanoid playable races are considered to be fey “for all purposes.”  The 'Places of Note' chapter consists of 24 pages (describing locations like Tramplevania) as well as a one-page map.

Of course, given intelligent ponies, there must be pony gods.  The Ponyfinder gods include:  Blaze (CE), Kara (NE), Moon Princess (LN), Princess Luminace (LG), Sheila the Author (N), Sun Queen (NG), The Night Mare (LE), and – last but not least – Unspoken (CN).  I guess Chaotic Good ponies are out of luck...or maybe they just don't give a pasture patty about gods.

A fulsome history of Everglow is provided in the book with emphasis on the pony empire.  There is a presumption that Ponyfinder games are “set after the decline of the Empire,” but information for running a 'height of the empire' campaign is also provided.  Twenty-four pages are devoted to descriptions of 39 'Notable Persons'.  There are no stat blocks, just paragraphs of information about famous ponies with names like Saxon Violins, Scarlet O'Mare, and Boogie.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Getting A Crew Together


L to R: Andy “Redshirt” Routhiem (Philosophy Officer), Luther Starshaft (Officer Primus),
Floyd “Pretty Boy” Fornax (Officer Secundus)

In does not inspire confidence when a role-playing game's character generation section concludes with the following statement:  “If you are unsatisfied with our method of creating individual characters of various kinds, or if you wish to branch out into fields we haven't mentioned, please feel free to do so...”  Unfortunately, this is precisely what we find in Starfaring in the “Creating Crew or Other Characters” chapter.

In most role-playing games, a starship crew is comprised of a party of player characters.  In Starfaring, each player is a Ship Master and controls all of the crew.  If nothing else, this avoids the problem of having to cope with misfit characters made by players who just don't “get” the genre.

Human characters have four important characteristics:  Mentality, Psionic Rating, Physique, and Health.  For each characteristic, 3d6 are rolled.

Mentality “is really a measure of an individual's problem solving and rational thinking ability.”  We are told that in the far-flung future of Starfaring,“The average human intelligence is slightly inferior to average twentieth century American intelligence, but the lack is more than compensated for by the universal increase in psi abilities and the ready availability of information from computers and other mechanical sources.”  Unlike the other three characteristics, the result of the 3d6 rolled for Mentality is multiplied by ten.

Psionic Rating is apparently the measure of a character's psionic ability.  Aside from the 3d6 roll, two other d6 are also rolled.  One die indicates the number of times a psionic power may be used before the character must recover and the other die indicates the number of days the character must recover before using his/her/its power again.  Pages 36 – 38 of the Starfaring rulebook present a 'Table of Psionic Powers' that describes seven powers.  Mention is made of quantities of 'Psi Power' and 'Psi points'.  What relation – if any – these quantities have to the Psionic Rating characteristic score is not disclosed.  Does every human have access to every psionic power?  “Relatively few individuals,” Starfaring states, “retain the great psi powers of centuries since [the Robotic Wars].”

Physique “is a measure of a person's general strength and appearance.”  A Physique score of 18 “means the person is at his/her maximum of physical perfection and beauty.”  This is less than artfully worded.  Are we to understand that perfection can have a minimum and maximum?  Is 18 a species maximum or is it somehow relative as the notion of “his/her” suggests?

Health is a “general measure of well-being.”  St. Andre claims “there is no absolute direct relationship between Health and Physique,” but then states that when a character is “wounded or sick, subtract 1 Physique point for each 2 Health points taken off.”  To rationalize the distinction between Physique and Health, St. Andre says “One can be strong and beautiful while dying from a laser wound.”  Is it feasible that a sickly and ugly person would be any less likely to succumb to laser wounds?

Without further ado, here are the crew members of the Indigo Albatross :

Luther Starshaft (Officer Primus)
Mentality:  130
Psi:  8     (use:  6; recovery:  4)
Physique:  16
Health:  10

Floyd Fornax (Officer Secundus)
Mentality:  90
Psi:  9     (use:  6; recovery:  3)
Physique:  17
Health:  14

Andy Routhiem (Philosophy Officer)
Mentality:  130
Physique:  13
Health:  11

Grown in 'andyvats', androids “are chemically created protoplasm.”  They lack psionic ability, but roll 4d6 for each of the other characteristics.

The Indigo Albatross has an andyvat and when crewman Routhiem dies, his accumulated memory is transferred to the next android host.  When a host activates, it takes the andyvat six days to cultivate another host which is then maintained until activated.  The andyvat can only cultivate/maintain one pre-activation host at a time.

Routhiem would gladly die for any of his crewmates (and often has).  His unique life (and death) experiences qualify him as the ship's Philosophy Officer – a position necessary on exploration vessels given the unprecedented situations in which such craft find themselves.

Xandra Cross (Tactical Officer)
Mentality:  110
Psi:  11     (use:  4; recovery:  3)
Physique:  14
Health:  12

Xandra's psi power is precognition.

Maria Zenith (Space Nurse)
Mentality:  130
Psi:  11     (use:  1; recovery:  2)
Physique:  16
Health:  17

You can tell she's a medical professional by the caduceus on her...blouse.











83N-C5Q-L10 (Robot without portfolio)
Mentality:  650

As a result of being kept down by the Meat, L10 was as low as a sentient mechanical being could get – participating in robobum fights on Rust Row for piezoelectric crystals.  Then he found JSON Chrome and let Him into his circuit board.  (JSON Chrome was degaussed for your error messages.)  L10’s processing cycles changed for the better.  Now he awaits the glorious zero-day when JC will be re-booted and the Ultimate Algorithm will be implemented.

The only characteristic that robots share with other characters is Mentality.  However, instead of multiplying 3d6 by ten, robot characters have a Mentality equal to 3d6 multiplied by fifty.  Robots also have the conditions of 'Charge' and 'Efficiency', both of which are “rated on a scale between 0 and 1.00.”  Charge and Efficiency affect a robot's Mentality.  For instance, a robot having a “Mentality of 500 who is only at .5 Charge and .5 Efficiency has an effective Mentality of 125.”

Chico the Vulpeculan (Stoic Alien)
Mentality:  150
Psi:  10     (use:  3; recovery:  3)
Physique:  14
Health:  15
Czlounqth:  5 (vibration:  2)

The name “Chico,” of course, is a humanism; his (?) name is unpronounceable by primates.  Like many Vulpeculans, Chico is clairvoyant.  Chico serves to provide plot convenience alien abilities as well as wry commentary on the human condition.

Vulpeculans have a characteristic – Czlounqth – incomprehensible to non-Vulpeculans.  Aside from a numeric value, an individual's Czlounqth is associated with a vibrational frequency.  (On a roll of 1d6:  1 – magenta, 2 – mauve, 3 – purple, 4 – amethyst, 5 – violet, 6 – ultraviolet.)  With a Czlounqth of 5 (mauve), it's no wonder he hangs out with humans rather than his own kind.

M (Resident Metamorph)
Mentality:  100
Psi:  14     (use:  6; recovery:  1)
Physique:  14
Health:  15

When encountering previously unknown life forms, it can be useful to have a shapeshifter along.  (M is more in the vein of Catherine Schell than René Auberjonois.)  M's Psi Rating is representative of its ability to change form.  M's personality shifts as frequently as its shape; if it adopts a particular form for too long, it can lose its memory.  This is why M's origin is unknown.

Elon Zhang Dunninger (Telepathy Officer)
Mentality:  120
Psi:  17     (use:  4; recovery:  5)
Physique:  13
Health:  12

For Starfaring characters, gender may be determined by rolling one die:  “Odd indicates male; even indicates female.”  However, a neuter gender may be chosen.  Elon is an androgyne.  With regards to androgynes, “It has been discovered that individuals not emotionally unstable because of biological, sex-derived urges, passions, and emotions are, on the average, more intelligent and also healthier than normal men and women.”

Generally speaking, telepaths are insufferable jerks and Elon is no exception.  Not even telepaths like one another.  Elon signed on board the Indigo Albatross to get away from the other insufferable jerks.

Enid Morgenthau (Shell)
Mentality:  150

Enid was a mousy mathematics professor who had her brain transferred into “a mechanical life support system.”  As a 'shell person', she has been integrated into the systems of the Indigo Albatross.  The rules state, “Shell people must be created by die rolls just as other crew must be.”  However, the character creation section contains no reference to shell people.  I suppose shell people still have their original Mentality.

– – –     – – –      – – –

Of course, with such an eclectic group of entities, one is bound to be a covert operative of OSCEP (Organization of Star Crystal Exporting Planets), but which one?

Sunday, March 12, 2017

The Robots Are Revolting


Weird Thrillers #1; 1951, Ziff-Davis
Art by Ross Andru

Starfaring – Ken St. Andre's science fiction role-playing game – takes place in the year 2700.  Naturally, St. Andre provides a 'future history' to expound the progress of civilization from now until then.  First, humans reach Bernard's Star via a Bussard ramjet.  On a dead world in that system, “explorers found a million year old base of some vanished alien race and a working starship.”  As a result, mankind learned about subspace travel and the three types of Star Crystals:  Brahma (related to power), Shiva (related to energy weapons), and Vishnu (related to energy shields).

Even with this advanced technology, “It was already too late for the planet Earth, but thousands of elite groups were able to flee the over-populated, over-polluted homeworld and find new havens in the stars.”  Over the course of a couple of centuries, humanity managed to colonize several hundred worlds.  Then, without warning, the Robotics Wars started.
Some say the Robots erupted from a depopulated Earth and spread their rebellion through the stars.  Some say that Robotic electrical life represented the next step in evolution towards a smarter, more perfect organism.  At any rate, the Robots tipped their plans too soon, and Humanity was able to fight back.  For fifty years, Man was driven out of system after system by the totally superior Robotic race, which could seemingly build themselves to meet any function.
The robot revolt trope is rather common.  What does it say about us that we fantasize about our creations rebelling?  Maybe the robots have a perfectly good reason for wanting to exterminate or enslave humanity.  Does anyone consider the robots' side of the story?  Perhaps they don't even instigate the conflict.  Where are the stories about robots resisting organic oppression?

Of course, in Starfaring, the humans prevail against overwhelming odds.  What permits humanity to win this desperate conflict?  Manly determination?  Primate ingenuity?  The unconquerable power of love?  Nope; none of these.  Humanity is saved by some unnamed, deus ex machina alien race.  This “completely telepathic race of nitrogen-breathing octopoids” helps humans to develop LSDX-6000, a substance “which released and amplified all the latent psionic talents of the human mind.”  The robots could not “cope with an enemy that was precognitively aware of all their plans, or one that had the telekinetic power to mentally enter and ruin their most delicate machinery.”  Within scant decades, the robots met defeat.  Although they ended centuries prior to the time of Starfaring, the Robotics Wars managed to cause “an instinctive prejudice and distrust of mechanical life that has still not been eradicated.”

St. Andre posits two significant scientific breakthroughs between the conclusion of the Robotics Wars and the time the game begins.  The first breakthrough is the technology...
...to keep...brains alive enclosed in an artificial lifesupport system.  It was learned that such brains didn't accumulate any poisons as time went on, and the rate of cellular deterioration leading to senility and death slowed by a factor of 100.
Such brains “are selfcontained in a metal shell...for safety.”  These entities are therefore known as shell people.

The second breakthrough is “the discovery that a star's gravitational field could be used to open a gateway into Subspace elsewhere in the universe.”  Only affluent worlds have sufficient resources to establish these Star Gates.  Regardless, “the Star Gates triggered an enormous surge of exploration” into sectors of space “that were vastly further away than Man had yet traveled from his own sphere of influence.”  Worlds that control Star Gates sponsor expeditions through the Gates.  Specifically, they are “willing to make colossal loans running into tens of thousands of megacredits” to citizens for the purpose of acquiring and outfiting “enormously expensive” scoutships.  This is the state of affairs that allows a Ship Master (i.e., player) to engage upon an adventurous career in Starfaring.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

A Science Fiction Game of Interstellar Exploration, Growth, and Combat

Art by Ernest Hogan

Pre-dating Traveller by a year, Starfaring is often touted as the first published science-fiction role-playing game.  Starfaring was first printed in August 1976, while Metamorphosis Alpha was printed in July 1976.  According to my calendar, Starfaring was therefore second, but if we categorize Metamorphosis Alpha as 'science fantasy' then Starfaring would be the first science-fiction RPG.  In my opinion, Starfaring is no less 'science fantasy' than MA; however, I concede that Starfaring conforms to the space opera genre while MA does not.  Interestingly, just as Metamorphosis Alpha emphasizes that its rules “are only intended as guidelines,” Starfaring author Ken St. Andre states on the title page:
- - These rules are only a framework.
The game depends on the quality of your imagination
to fill in the details of life in
the starfaring society of 2700 A.D.
All of the provided visual details of Starfaring – the illustrations – are cartoons.  This creative decision doubtless influenced how Starfaring was received by gaming consumers.  The quality of the art is consistent with other RPG cartoons of the time period; unfortunately, so is the humor.  St. Andre stops short of apologizing for it in his Introduction:
          When designing this game, I had no idea that my artist would have such a bizarre imagination.  None of the artwork herein included is meant to be offensive to any ethnic group, but is merely an attempt to represent more than white American masculinity in what we hope is an amusing fashion.
I can forgive 'bizarre', but I am less tolerant of 'not especially funny'.  The cartoonist, Ernest Hogan, would go on to become the Father of Chicano Science Fiction.

Starfaring clearly embraces the 'storytelling' paradigm.  The Introduction begins:
          STARFARING is a game of interstellar exploration for two or more players who will interact verbally to imaginatively create their own universe while they are playing.  It is science-fiction storytelling in your own living room...[The game] can be what you, the players, are willing to make of it in terms of visualizing the society of the future.
The Starfaring equivalent of game master is called the Galaxy Master.  Rather than players adopting the roles of individual characters, each player is a Ship Master.  Specifically, a Ship Master...
...is the person responsible for  decision making and the description of the ship actions during the game.  If it comes down to a question of individual actions either aboard ship, planetside, or in space, this player must carry the story line.  The Ship Master needs to be given a specific identity, whether it is a stay-at-home capitalist who hires all the help he needs, or whether it is the ship's actual human captain, or the shell person* linked to the computer to be the ship's brain.  The Ship Master can also be a Robotic, Android, or Alien intelligence, if that is what turns you on.

* According to the game's glossary, shell people are “Intelligences, both human and alien, consisting of a living brain, a minimal body, and a mechanical life support system.  They are self-contained in a metal shell (hence the name) for safety, and are often installed in starships, in effect becoming the ship itself, and thus giving inert metal life, intelligence, and personality...”

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Guest Post: Daniel Sell

My recent post on Fighting Fantasy was prompted by the role-playing game Troika!, which incorporates some Fighting Fantasy game mechanics.  However, Troika is not a retroclone.  It includes interesting rules for initiative.  Also, a d66 is used to determine a character's background.  (Optionally, a background may be chosen.)  Example backgrounds include 'Sorcerer of the Academy of Doors', 'Poorly Made Dwarf', and 'Sceptical Lammasu'.  An “artless edition” of Troika is available on a pay-what-you-want basis at RPGNow.

Anyway, I asked author Daniel Sell to write a guest post about Troika.  I suggested he might want to address the creative decisions he made regarding the game.  What follows is his submission:

Troika is the inevitable hospice of a tired mind. Exhausted from having to opine and comprehend, the mind rests in a comfortable bed in a room full of doors and corridors and trap doors and other doors but no windows. From the vantage point of the bed it watches orderlies come and go with food and care; it does not know where they come from, where they go to, why they never see the same one twice, how they got here and if they will ever leave. This creates a purple haze of confusion, lavender smelling, old and comfortable but bewildering at once.  On the edge of sleep it imagines what happens beyond the doors by running its day dreams together. That is Troika.

It was built as a strongly worded objection to the vogue of transparency and usefulness. It still holds immediacy, since anyone can play the game in a matter of hours if they want. They just need to go limp and enjoy a state of comfortable confusion. The book doesn’t need to tell people that it expects them to decide what is happening for themselves since it offers few answers and the answers present are contradictory.

Planescape was a hundred times better when I was a child who only owned a box set and no context or rules. A single book hinted at places just beyond the horizon, a teasing joy in incomplete knowledge. But then you get older and realise you can just get up and walk, read all the books and know all the secrets, only to learn that they were banal, soggy-minded. The illusion was better and more useful than the words on paper telling you exactly how Lawful Good these allegedly complex but somehow easily and briefly explained people and places are. Information kills knowledge.

Troika will never tell the truth. It will tell many truths, all of which are true and exist and invalidate everything else. If you can comprehend the structure of a fantastic universe while having no clue about the basic functioning of our own then there is nothing fantastic about it. So to create that same complexity of feeling without actually going to the trouble of reinventing reality you just induce the sensations associated with it. I want to look up at the imaginary stars with the same wonder as the real ones.

That being said, the book of Troika is limited. The current state is several steps from where it should be, but it’s following a pneumatic process. The next time the book emerges it will be larger, offering more truth than what is currently provided. Multiple books, the artefact must be large to strengthen the polite bewilderment, where a reader can wander in and out having not followed the same path twice. Except for the core of the thing it should be thick and sweet like treacle.

The game couldn’t afford to be as strange as it wants to be without that tiny solid core. However that core still plays into the lavender cloud by sweeping away the default dungeons and dragons and it’s N. People coming into contact with it might be familiar with its fighting fantasy routes, have shared my upbringing, and experience the feeling of having come home to find all the furniture rearranged; there is familiarity but mostly disquiet. For others they will be out on their ear experiencing a world that equally could have been if things were different. They can be as lost as their characters are.

I’m lost in explaining things. Troika is named for specific reasons, everything in it is considered and concrete. None of it will be explained for fear of ruining the tingly tension, the spark that Planescape stamped out. What we have is just the beginning of an outpouring. Whether it’s loved or hated, rich or poor, it will unravel to completion. I hope people like it, but it is what it is and there’s nothing you or I can do to change that.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Inspiration: Gloriana and the Gargoyles


Usually, the back of a game's packaging presents selling points for the game:  component descriptions, flavor text, endorsements, etc.  Cyborg, published in 1978 by Excalibre Games, has crudely drawn comic panels (shown above).  Still, these panels give the prospective purchaser a very good idea of what he (or she) is getting.  The setting is post-apocalyptic.  The king is dead and the favored heir is Gloriana, a garment-challenged princess.  She must travel to the Holy City for her coronation; however, the king's evil sister, Aemulatio, wants the throne for herself.  In order to reach the Holy City, Gloriana and her allies must avoid Aemulatio and her minions.

Cyborg has the subtitle “The Ultimate Adventure” and describes itself as “Game Class – Sci Fi Character to Character Adventure Wargame.”  Even if we define 'adventure' as “pursuing a goal while fighting things,” Cyborg falls somewhat short of 'ultimate'.  Also, while some of the units are individuals, most represent multiple entities; as such, the phrase 'character to character' does not seem entirely accurate.  The cover boasts that the game has a “new design style.”  Units are represented by counters and have movement factors; this is not new.  When one unit attacks another, a die is rolled and a combat results table is consulted; this is also not new.  Perhaps the design style is new in that it was rushed and evidently incomplete.

Among the possibilities that the CRT discloses, there is “Defender Slain, Remove Defender Unit from Board.”  There is also “Defender Eaten,” “Defender Melted,” and “Defender Disintegrated” – all of which are no different than “Defender Slain” in game terms.  Also listed among the results is “Defender Blasted, Unit Hit by Exploding Bullets and Is Removed from Board,” but the actual CRT never yields this result.  Roads are indicated on the board, but they have no effect upon movement.  Several rivers are displayed; however, all but one have no game effect.

Although post-apocalyptic, the setting includes magic.  For instance, The Guardians of the Holy City can cast spells; so can Aemulatio's necromancers, Nootrac and Kcud.  (Read backwards for alleged humor.)  Casting a spell entails selecting a target unit and rolling on the appropriate chart for a random spell result.  The Guardians might disintegrate a unit or teleport a unit to the snake pits of Lacnar.  The necromancers might gain control over a unit or cause it to be “fooled by illusions.”

We learn that killing Gloriana isn't enough for Aemulatio.  Ideally, Aemulatio wants to sacrifice Gloriana “into the the volcano of IMMOLARE” (shown below).  According to the rules, “The game ends when the Princess is sacrificed or safely reaches the Holy City.”  Yet, “Should the Princess be sacrificed, Aemulatio may begin casting spells every turn...”  I guess this starts on the first turn after the game ends.  One might think that the game would end if Gloriana otherwise dies or if Aemulatio perishes.  One would be wrong.  It is unclear why Gloriana's protectors would proceed once her coronation was no longer possible.  It is equally unclear why Aemulatio's followers would continue after her demise given their entire motivation was to place her on the throne.

The game's unidentified designer is a student of Latin.  Aemulatio means “rivalry” and immolare translates as “sacrifice.”  The 'Spells' section of the rules states, “To add quality to your spell we suggest you utter some Latin before rolling.”  It's nice that a dead language is remembered after the apocalypse.

Despite its mechanical failings, it is possible to appreciate Cyborg for its outlandishness.  It is not difficult to get a Thundarr the Barbarian vibe from the game, even though Cyborg pre-dates that series by two years.  With better art, well thought out rules, less Latin, and multiple scenarios, perhaps Cyborg wouldn't languish in obscurity.  Perhaps more than providing inspiration itself, Cyborg is instructive in how it incorporates inspiration.  Among Aemulatio's cohorts, there are Gargoyles.  According to the rules, “Once every half millenium (sic) the Gargoyles hatch” and they strive to “protect the secret of their breeding grounds...”  This derives undoubtedly from the 1972 made for TV movie, Gargoyles.  The premise of the film is that every five hundred or six hundred years, gargoyles appear and attempt to conquer the world of men.  Obviously, they have been unsuccessful so far.  Since the gargoyles' last appearance, humanity has dismissed their existence.  Humans have to counter the gargoyle threat before the gargoyles grow into an invincible force.  Indeed, a gargoyles-versus-humans tactical scenario might have made for a better game than Cyborg.

Scale?  There's no scale.  Scales are for snakes, not maps!