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!

Sunday, January 22, 2017

The Ideal Introduction to the Fast-Growing World of Role-Playing Games

Art by Duncan Smith

Steve Jackson – not to be confused with Steve Jackson – was co-author (with Ian Livingstone) of The Warlock of Firetop Mountain, the “solo gamebook” that launched the Fighting Fantasy line.  Among many other accomplishments, Jackson was responsible for Fighting Fantasy: The Introductory Role-Playing Game which incorporated the 'system' used in the Fighting Fantasy gamebooks.  (Henceforth in this post, FF shall refer to the Fighting Fantasy: The Introductory Roll-Playing Game  book.)

Penguin Books, through its Puffin imprint, published FF in 1984 as a 240 page paperback.  From an American perspective, it may seem unusual to publish RPG rules in a paperback format, but in Britain it made sense to produce the rules in the same format as the gamebooks.  Corgi did the same thing with their edition of Tunnels & Trolls in 1986.

Although 240 pages, the bulk of the book is devoted to two sample adventures.  The rules section only encompasses about 58 pages and the font size is generous.  Still, the book accomplishes its goal of presenting a set of introductory RPG rules.  FF is intended for younger players, but it does not state the age of its demographic target.  However, in the introduction, Jackson writes:
Many of these role-playing games, like Dungeons & Dragons, RuneQuest, Traveller and Warhammer, are quite complicated, and their manufacturers recommend them for twelve-year-olds and over.  They refer constantly to charts and tables in the rules and require a lot of book-keeping by the players.  But the spirit of role-playing games is not so much the tremendous detail and statistics they go into (although there are 'walking-encyclopedia' types who revel in the complications of such games).  For most players, the real fun comes from the adventure itself.
Jackson engages the reader in an informal tone and deftly explains the rules of the game and the function of the GamesMaster.  As we can see on the Adventure Sheet reproduced below, there are three 'characteristics'.

Skill (1d6 + 6):  “...indicates an adventurer's own skills in a variety of areas: swordsmanship and general fighting abilities; problem-solving; strength; intelligence; etc.”

Stamina (2d6 + 12):  “...represents fitness, will to survive, determination and general constitution.”  Should an adventurer's Stamina fall to zero, the adventurer dies.

Luck (1d6 + 6):  This score acts as a 'saving throw' in FF.  When a GamesMaster requires an adventurer to “test for Luck,” 2d6 are rolled.  If the result is equal to or less than the Luck value, the test is successful.  Regardless of the result, the Luck value is reduced by one; subsequent tests therefore become more difficult.

Combat occurs as a sequence of Attack Rounds.  In an Attack Round, each opponent rolls 2d6 and adds the result to his or her Skill value.  The total is the opponent's Attack Strength.  The Attack Strengths of opponents are compared; the opponent with the lower Attack Strength sustains a loss of two points of Stamina.  Attack Rounds repeat until combat concludes.  Upon sustaining a combat injury, an adventurer can test for Luck to reduce the amount of damage.  A successful test means a loss of only one point of Stamina, but a failed test means the adventurer loses three Stamina points.  When inflicting a combat injury, an adventurer can also test for Luck to cause more damage.  If successful, the adventurer causes four Stamina to be lost; however, if the test is not successful, the adventurer inflicts a loss of only one Stamina.

As presented, the rules in FF are limited, but the selling point is that it's an introductory system.  Also, as Jackson implied, the spirit of the game lies not in the rules but in the adventure itself – a sentiment that actually applies to all role-playing games.

Fighting Fantasy character sheet

Sunday, January 8, 2017

The Lantern in Combat



Domenico Angelo's The School of Fencing (1787) includes a section on how to confront an opponent who employs a “dark lanthorn” – a lantern with a panel that slides to block the light.  Evidently, footpads would equip themselves with a sword and lantern in order to commit their depredations.  According to Angelo, “there are severe punishments inflicted upon on those who are found sword in hand with a dark lanthorn...”  Reportedly, such a criminal would keep the lantern's panel closed, thereby maintaining darkness.  When the robber approached close enough to shine a beam of light into the victim's eyes, he would open the panel.  This would temporarily blind the victim, thereby facilitating the footpad's goal.

If such tactics were viable in the real world, why not apply them to dungeon delving?  Subterranean entities with sensitive eyesight might be particularly susceptible.  How would the mechanics work?  Perhaps, first of all, a successful 'attack' should be made on the part of the lantern wielder.

Starting with Moldvay's D&D and continuing with subsequent editions of 'basic', a 'Light' spell cast at a target's eyes would cause blindness for the duration of the spell (assuming the target fails a saving roll vs. Spells).  “In D&D BASIC rules,” the spell description states, “a blinded creature may not attack.”  This effect may be more severe than what a non-magical light would be expected to accomplish; yet it provides a precedent.  Edition 3.5 indicates that a “dazzled” character has an attack roll modifier (both melee and ranged) of -1.  Additionally, the Armor Class of a “blinded” character is detrimentally modified by 2 (and no Dexterity bonus is applied).  In fifth edition, attacks by a blind character “have disadvantage” while attacks against a blind character “have advantage.”  The fifth edition “condition” of blindness seems appropriate for our purpose.  But what about a saving throw?  For 'basic', like the 'Light' spell, a saving roll vs. Spells may be apt.  The 3.5E 'Sunburst' spell allows a Reflex save to avoid blindness whereas the same spell in 5E indicates a “Constitution saving throw.”  A blinded character is entitled to “another Constitution saving throw at the end of each of its turns” (to a maximum duration of 1 minute I suppose) in order to recover.  I am inclined to favor a Wisdom saving throw rather than Constitution, since Wisdom governs perception.

Depicted below is a lantern shield, a 'real world' weapon that incorporates a lantern for the purpose for blinding or dazzling an opponent.  It seems rather abundantly accessorized to be of much practical value, still they would not have been made if there was no demand for such things.  Seemingly, lantern shields were not intended for combat but rather intimidation.  Of course, in an elfgame, there is nothing to prevent a lantern shield from being a common piece of adventuring equipment.



Monday, January 2, 2017

First Fantasy


Tom Moldvay, in the introduction to his edition of Dungeons & Dragons, claims that “the game is most enjoyable when played by a group of four to eight people.”  Yet, with regard to number of players, the first little brown book states:  “At least one referee and from four to fifty players can be handled in any single campaign, but the referee to player ratio should be about 1:20 or thereabouts.”  This significant difference highlights an important distinction between new school and old school.  I have commented previously on this distinction.

Today, our concept of a role-playing game tends to correspond with the Moldvay paradigm – a gamemaster and five players (give or take a couple).  Each player controls a character and those characters comprise a more-or-less cohesive 'party'.  A campaign is focused on the party and is essentially is the 'story' of the party's adventures.

In 1977, Judges Guild published The First Fantasy Campaign, providing details about Dave Arneson's Blackmoor – the campaign from which Dungeons & Dragons developed.  At its height, Blackmoor accommodated dozens of players simultaneously; however, Arneson stated in a 1981 interview (published in the premier issue of Pegasus), “I usually prefer to run adventures with about four or five people.”  An old school campaign encompassed more than a single adventuring party; it was a shared environment.  Occasionally, some player characters would cooperate to loot a dungeon but at any given time, different player characters would be involved in various activities, sometimes at cross purposes.  Other early games, such as En Garde, exemplified this sort of 'shared environment' concept.

Today, we would call it a “sourcebook,” but in those bygone days The First Fantasy Campaign (hereinafter FFC) was considered a “playing aid.”  (The map shown above comes from this publication.)  The book enlightens us about what player characters did in the proto-D&D setting.  Blackmoor was a frontier region, uncivilized and essentially unexplored.  Aside from dungeon expeditions, player characters could explore wilderness areas, construct strongholds, and raise armies.  Dungeons & Dragons provides rules for these activities, but as the editions have progressed, less emphasis has been placed on such things.  Yet Blackmoor characters had even more concerns, not the least of which was spending the voluminous wealth taken from the dungeons.

In the introduction to FFC, Arneson writes, “Character motivation was solved by stating that you did not get Experience Points until the money had been spent on your area of interest.”  FFC details seven “interests.”  Motivation consists of the various scores a character has among these interests; the higher the score, the better the 'exchange rate' of gold-to-experience the character has.  For instance, a character with a SONG score of 70 gets experience equivalent to 70% of the amount of gold pieces spent on that interest.  A character's interest scores are determined based on class and/or dice results.  The seven interests are:

WINE – The character purchases a quantity of “Spirits with a relatively high Alcoholic content.”  The character imbibes “to the limits of his capacity.”  Upon recovery, the character continues to drink.  This process continues until the purchased amount beverages is consumed (or, I suppose, until cirrhosis fatally affects the character).  “Experience gained while drunk does not count but treasure does.”

WOMEN – “The player will immediately proceed to the local establishment and expend all funds desired on Room plus Extras at that place.  Slaves of the appropriate type (left to player) may also be purchased with the funds and utilized to fulfil this classification. These slaves may then be sold at reduced value...”  This is one of the dark spots of Blackmoor.  On page 5 of FFC, we learn that the annual upkeep of a “Red” female slave is 25 to 130 gold pieces; for a “White” female slave, upkeep is 35 to 250 gold pieces.

SONG – At “the local tavern,” the character pays for the exploits of other player characters.  “Damages assessed by the tavern owner count...”

WEALTH – “Merely the stockpiling of Gold, Silver and similar items of value by the player. If these items are stolen, the player loses full value immediately upon discovery and may lose levels as a result.”

FAME – “This is gained by straight combat with creatures and players in the game.”  I suppose the character doesn't actually need to be victorious; however, there must be one or more witnesses to the event.  Experience is not awarded until a celebration takes place at a tavern.  (The cost of the celebration may be paid by someone else.)

RELIGION – “Funds are given to the local Religious denomination...”

HOBBY – “This is a catch-all category left to the Judge to award details on to the players.”  A Magic-User, for example, could have Spell Research as a hobby.  Other possible hobbies include “the devising of better Torture machines, making Gold, the Building of Flying Machines, all up to the Judge to outline and define within the limits of his campaign.”  Other examples are studies of animals, learning written and spoken languages, and “Researching old books to find leads to ancient treasure or magical libraries.”  Arneson notes that a hobby could lead “to additional adventures as players would order special cargos [sic] from off the board and then have to go and guard them so that the cargo would reach their lodging and then the player would get the Experience Points.” (original emphasis)