Sunday, September 9, 2018

Combat in Star Frontiers

Art by George Wilson

The Star Frontiers boxed set included a 16 page book of Basic Game Rules and a 60 page book of Expanded Game Rules.  The Basic Game Rules serve as introductory material, of course.  In presenting the setting, there are five paragraphs of “A Short History of Known Space” and a page with a short piece of fiction accompanied by five Jim Holloway illustrations.  There are the requisite instructions for using percentile dice and an explanation of role-playing games:
If the players cooperate and reach their goal, everyone wins.  A skilful player who uses the same character in several adventures will see that character rewarded, becoming richer, more powerful and able to handle more difficult missions.
One-and-a-half pages describe character creation for the basic game – no skills or alien abilities.  The actual section called Basic Rules covers the essentials of movement and combat with specific details regarding the 23" × 35" map of Port Loren.  We are informed that, in a six second game turn, a character can move and/or use a weapon.  Otherwise a character could reload or “stand and do nothing.”  (A later statement suggests that it is possible to both walk and reload on the same turn.)

Each character has an Initiative Modifier equal to one-tenth of his (or hers or its) Reaction Speed.  At the onset of every turn, both sides roll d10 to determine initiative.  For a given side, the Initiative Modifier of the character with the highest Reaction Speed is added to the result.  The combat sequence is straight-forward.  First, the side with initiative moves then attacks.  Afterward, the other side moves then attacks.  On a turn when the modified initiative rolls are tied, “the side with the highest single reaction speed moves and attacks first...However, damage caused by successful attacks does not take effect until after both sides have fired that turn...”  The fact that all characters on a given side move based on the speed of the fastest character is somewhat unrealistic, but realism must defer to practicality for ease of play.  In the Expanded Game Rules, characters can “roll their own initiative” and take actions in appropriate relation to one another.

The combat sequence for the Expanded Game Rules is somewhat more intricate:
So, the side without initiative actually moves first.  The logic of this escapes me.

When initiative roll results are tied in the Expanded Game Rules, “the side with the highest modifier has initiative.”  No provision is made for simultaneous damage effects.

In the Basic Game, an attack is successful if the result of d100 is equal to or less than the attacking character's Dexterity.  “A roll of 01 – 05 is always a hit,” we are told, “regardless of modifiers, if the target is visible and in range.”  In the Expanded Game, ranged attacks are successful on a roll of half of the character's Dexterity; melee attacks are successful on a roll of half of either Dexterity or Strength, whichever is greater.  Each level of a weapon skill adds 10% to the character's chance to hit with that type of weapon.  Also, with the Expanded Game a roll of 96 – 00 is an automatic miss.

A roll of 01 – 02 knocks the target character unconscious.  When using “a blunt weapon (including  bare hands),” a result of any multiple of ten (equal to or less than the chance to hit) also causes unconsciousness.  With the Martial Arts skill, the 01 – 02 chance is increased by 1% per level of skill.

Damage is subtracted from Stamina.  “A character whose Stamina has been reduced to 0 or less is dead,” according to the Expanded Game Rules, “but can be revived if his Stamina has not gone below –30.”  To be revived, the character's Stamina must be raised to higher than zero.  If the character has been dead for less than a minute and Stamina is not below –9, an application of Biocort can revive the character.  Staydose allows a character to remain alive for twenty hours (twenty-four in the Basic Game), so as to receive proper medical attention.  Otherwise, a body can be preserved for up to two hundred hours with a Freeze Field (assuming the device is activated within two minutes of death).  If a character suffers burn damage in excess of his (or hers or its) Stamina, “the character is completely incapacitated.”

Stamina may “heal naturally at a rate of 1 point for every 20 hours (i.e., a day in terms of Galactic Standard Time) that the character spends resting.”  A character can heal up to twenty points of Stamina per day while in a hospital at a cost of one credit per point plus fifty credits per day.

A reviewer in Dragon #65 expressed concerns about combat in the Basic Game:
...the weapons do a surprisingly small amount of damage, no more, than one or two dice. Figuring the average of 1d10 as 5.5 and the average stamina as 45, characters will have to be hit about four to eight times (depending on weapon strength) to be knocked unconscious – and this without benefit of defensive armor! Because of this relationship between weak weapons and strong characters, firefights can get a bit monotonous and drag on and on. Not only is this somewhat “unrealistic,” but it slows the game down precisely when it should be at its most fast-paced and exciting.
This concern is somewhat assuaged with the Expanded Game Rules:
Because of increased rates of fire and the opportunity to change energy settings on beam weapons, characters can do considerable damage with their weapons in the expanded game, putting excitement and a real sense of danger into combat situations. In addition to damage taken against stamina, some weapons can cause unconsciousness. To help the characters out in this suddenly more dangerous environment, there are several types of defensive suits and screens that can absorb damage from certain types of attacks.
A wide variety of of weapons are available.  The 'Beam Weapons' skill covers use of “elecrtostunners, heavy lasers, laser pistols, laser rifles, sonic devastators, sonic distruptors and sonic stunners.”  The 'Projectile Weapons' skill applies to “automatic pistols and rifles, bows, muskets, needler pistols and rifles, machine guns and recoilless rifles.”  However, gyrojet weapons have their own skill.

A sword inflicts 3d10 points of damage; an electric sword inflicts 4d10 and a sonic sword, 5d10.  Automatic pistols and rifles both do 1d10 (or 5d10 with a ten shot burst).  In the Expanded Game Rules, there are two types of defensive armor:  suits and powerscreens.  As an example, a skeinsuit absorbs “one-half of the damage caused by projectile and gyrojet weapons, fragmentation grenades, explosives and melee weapons.”  Once the suit absorbs fifty points of damage, it is no longer functional.  An inertia screen offers the same sort of protection at a cost of two Standard Energy Units per attack.  (A Power Beltpack has 50 SEU; a Power Backpack, 100.)

Instead of saving throws, the Expanded Game Rules offer 'avoidance rolls' by which a character may “avoid or reduce the effects of some weapons by leaping or twisting away from the attack, or by resisting its effects.”  For instance, by rolling Reaction Speed or less on d100, a character can reduce damage from a fragmentation grenade by half.  Such a character “must move 3 meters to get out of the blast area.”  A blast cannot be avoided if “the character has nowhere to move to...”  (Only one grenade may be avoided per turn.)  By rolling current Stamina or less, a character can completely ignore the effects of a doze grenade.  (Incidentally, a standard equipment pack includes one doze grenade.)

Sunday, September 2, 2018

Character Generation and Improvement in Star Frontiers

Art by George Wilson

Characters in Star Frontiers have four pairs of abilities:  Strength/Stamina, Dexterity/Reaction Speed, Intuition/Logic, and Personality/Leadership.  In creating an SF character, 1d100 is rolled for each pair.  Results are checked on the Ability Score Table; scores range from 30 to 70 in increments of 5.  It's not quite a symmetrical bell curve distribution; there is a 10% chance of obtaining a score of 30, a 20% chance of a score of 45, and a 5% chance of 70.

Aside from humans, there are three races to which a player character may belong:  Vrusk (“insect-like creatures with 10 limbs”), Yazirian (“ape-like humanoids able to glide short distances using lateral membranes”), and Dralasite (“amorphous creatures that can control and even alter the shape of their bodies”).  Even in a fictional galaxy, racism rears its ugly head.  Sometimes, Yazarians are derisively referred to as “monkeys.”  Vrusk are sometimes called “bugs” and Dralasites, “blobs.”  The discrimination which Dralasites suffer is hinted at in the illustration below.

Art by Jim Holloway
Ability scores are modified based upon the character's race.  For the non-human races, positive modifiers are balanced out with negative modifiers.  (As an example, Yazirians receive +5 to Dexterity/Reaction Speed and Intuition/Logic; they also receive –10 to Strength/Stamina.)  Human characters receive a bonus of +5 to a single ability (not both abilities in a pair).

In 2004, Wizards of the Coast published d20 Future as a supplement for its d20 Modern System.  Included in d20 Future are details about a variety of settings, among which is Star Law, which is derived from Star Frontiers.  We must consider the d20 Future information to be apocryphal since it does not jibe with the original Star Frontiers rules.  For instance, d20 Future indicates that Yazirians have ability modifiers of +2 Dexterity, –2 Intelligence, and –2 Charisma.  This ignores the negative modifier to Strength/Stamina and contradicts the positive modifier to Intuition/Logic.  The 'comprehension' and 'lie detection' abilities of the Vrusk and Dralasites (respectively) are ignored in d20 Future.  However, both races gain the 'darkvision' ability.

The Expanded Game Rules permit a player to transfer up to ten points from one attribute to its paired attribute.  So, you can increase Stamina by reducing Strength.  If attributes are paired because they are closely associated, it makes little sense that one could be improved at the expense of the other.  It would be far more believable if points could be transferred between unrelated attributes; focusing on one attribute might well cause a dissimilar attribute to atrophy.  Since ten points can be transferred, there can be a twenty point difference between two paired attributes.  Given that the basic range of possible attribute scores is forty (70 – 30 = 40), this means the range of difference between two paired attributes can be as much as 50% of the extent of possible ability.  This belies the notion of paired, associated attributes.

Character aptitude in Star Frontiers (at least in the Expanded Game) is skill-based.  Although not technically a step in the character creation process, skill selection is an important individuating factor among characters.  There are three Primary Skill Areas:  Military (with seven skills), Technological (with three skills), and Biosocial (with three skills).  Thirteen skills may not seem like much, but some skills are broken out into subskills.  As an example, 'Environmental' is one of the Biosocial skills and consists of nine subskills:  Analyzing Samples, Analyzing Ecosystems, Finding Directions, Survival, Making Tools/Weapons, Tracking, Stealth, Concealment, and Naming.  (Incidentally, the 'Naming' subskill gives naming rights to a character “when he discovers a new plant, animal, mountain range, etc.”).  Subskills have a “Success Rate” equal to a base percentage plus 10% for each skill level.  “At the start of the game,” the rules states, “each character must choose one Primary Skill Area as his career.”  Each starting character gets two skills at level one; at least one of the skills must be from the character's PSA.

The last step in creating a character per the Basic Game Rules is to name the character.  “If your character is an alien,” the rules suggest, “try to give it an alien-sounding name.”  Cultivated from various sources, here are examples of personal names for members of the three playable alien races.  For Yazirians, example names include Yalua, Manetoe, Geeko-sur-Mang, Bakchu, Eusyl, Viyizzi, Yoe, and Thu-Ju Kip.  Among Dralasite names, there are Dartha, Grod, Konchinho, Dromond, Diracman, and Drosophage.  (Eater of flies?)  Vrusk individuals have been named Gdtlask Gltak, Yttl, Itklikdil, C'hting, Dazzell, Maximillian Malagigg, Vuzzie'vaz, and – regrettably – Krakker Jakk.

The last step in generating an Expanded Game character is to determine the amount of starting Credits.  (A Basic Game character receives ten credits and a “Standard Equipment Pack.”)  Apparently, naming a character under the Expanded Game Rules is taken for granted.  Anyway, each character is entitled to a number of Credits equal to 250 added to the result of 1d100.  “The character can spend this money immediately on equipment,” we are told, “or save some of it until later in the game.”  A good flashlight has a cost of 5 Cr.  Depending upon the page consulted, a Standard Equipment Pack can cost either 150 Cr or 250 Cr.

“A character learns things and improves himself through his experience on adventures,” we are told.  Presumably, females – as well as hermaphroditic entities like Dralasites – are also capable of improvement.  Referees should award player characters “3 to 7 [experience points] each during an average evening of play.”  Each experience point (XP) spent on an ability increases the score by one (to a maximum score of 100).  Purchasing a new skill at level one has a cost of 6 XP (Military), 8 XP (Technological), or 10 XP (Biosocial).  Attaining higher levels of a skill has an ever increasing cost.  Reaching the highest level (sixth) of a Military skill would cost 126 XP.  The same level of a Technological skill would cost 168 XP and a Biosocial skill, 210 XP.  Costs are halved for skills within a character's Primary Skill Area.

Sunday, August 26, 2018

Join The Galactic Task Force...Or The Galactic Legions

With Dungeons & Dragons, TSR started and fomented the fantasy role-playing game phenomenon and during the early years of the hobby, it was the pre-eminent RPG publisher.  It was only natural that TSR would leverage its status to promote a science fiction / space adventure role-playing game.  TSR released its effort, Star Frontiers, in the summer of 1982.  After 1985, TSR published no more Star Frontiers supplements.  Granted, the game still has its fans, but its published lifespan was only 3½ years.  This is not a long-term success considering the amount of support TSR could employ (if only in terms of marketing and distribution).

William A. Barton (who would – among other accomplishments – co-author GURPS Space) wrote a review in The Space Gamer #60 wherein we learn the original name of Star Frontiers was to be Alien Worlds.  A hint of this is captured in the game's subtitle, “Exciting Adventure on Alien Worlds.”

Lawrence Schick in his Heroic Worlds states, “In 1982 TSR waded into the pool with Star Frontiers, a game that had unfortunately been crippled in development by too much committee design.”  Schick was one of the original designers (along with David “Zeb” Cook), so his insight is cogent.  Schick continues, “The systems were originally designed for players aged 14 and up, then heavily redesigned (without play-testing) for younger players, resulting in some very muddled rules.”  (Star Frontiers was marketed as a game for “ages 10 and up.”)  Schick does not list Star Frontiers among Heroic Worlds' Top Five Science Fiction: Space Adventure Systems recommendations.

Dragon #65 includes an article (“Blastoff!”) that offers a first look at Star Frontiers :
The STAR FRONTIERS™ game project was ambitious from the start. The problems that appear when designing three complete and detailed alien cultures, a huge frontier area, futuristic equipment and weapons, and the game rules that make all these elements work together, were impossible to predict and not easy to overcome. But the difficulties were resolved, and the result is a game that lets players enter a truly wide-open space society and explore, wander, fight, trade, or adventure through it in the best science-fiction tradition.
Article author Steve Winter was also credited as the editor of Star Frontiers and he provides more detail about the game's development:
          Design work on the game started in the summer of 1979.  Dave Cook and Lawrence Schick, full-time designers for TSR Hobbies, were assigned to the project.  Their goal was to create a wide-open science fiction role-playing game with a solid scientific base.  TSR wanted a game that would satisfy fans of hardcore science fiction, and still be easy to play.  Dave and Lawrence started by designing a character-generation system and simple rules for movement and combat.  Then they started playtesting, adding and revising.
          The game grew and changed for two years, until it was finally submitted for review in the summer of 1981.  During those two years, TSR Hobbies grew tremendously.  The company had discovered that its games appealed to a much broader audience than wargamers and fantasy fans alone.  D&D® and AD&D™ games, for instance, were selling to people who had never played a wargame or a role-playing game before.  In order to tap this huge market, TSR decided to restructure the STAR FRONTIERS game so it would appeal to people who had never seen this type of game.
          This decision meant most of the game needed to be rewritten and reorganized so persons with no gaming experience could buy it, take it home and play it without learning a lot of rules.  The number and types of dice in the game were changed, the maps and counters were added, and many realistic but complex rules were sacrificed for playability.  In general, there was an overall softening of the game’s “hard core.”
          In order to meet the game’s scheduled release date, this revision work was split up among different members of TSR’s product development staff.   The project was completed in time for its scheduled release at the GEN CON® XV game convention.
Making Star Frontiers an introductory game and crafting it for a younger audience was a sensible if not necessary choice; splitting up revision development and foregoing playtesting, less so.

Winter claims, “The rule book includes detailed guidelines for creating adventures, alien planets and the plants, animals, and intelligent creatures that live on them.”  However, this is not entirely true; no rules for creating alien planets were included.  Zeb Cook would eventually provide planet creation rules in the final issue of Arēs (Spring 1984).  Also missing from the initial set are “rules for spaceship design [and] combat.”  Winter admits that these things are a “very important aspect of science fiction.”  However, according to Winter, “We didn’t want to insert a weak set of starship rules, or raise the price of the first set by increasing the size of the rule book.”  This is eminently reasonable.  An in-game rationale is that “most starships in the Frontier are owned by large corporations, planetary governments or starship travel companies.”  Therefore, player characters will not own starships.  (A separate set of starship rules, Knight Hawks, was published in 1983.)

The setting of Star Frontiers is “a region of space called the Frontier Sector.”  (Perhaps the game should have been titled Star Frontier.)  According to the basic game rules, this sector is...“Near the center of a great spiral galaxy, where suns are much closer together than Earth's sun and its neighbors.”  According to Winter, the volume of the frontier is “1,500 cubic light-years [and] contains 38 star systems.”  Although Winter says “cubic,” the map of the frontier is 34 light years × 44 light years, which is 1,496 square light years.  The distances among the various populated systems (i.e., the “established travel routes”) suggest they are all on the same plane.  Therefore, the setting is effectively outer space in two dimensions.  Did TSR think that three dimensional space would be too difficult to represent for their target demographic?  This 'simplicity' of space is one of the problems I had with the setting.

Players could choose among four races for their characters, including “a Human race...not identical to the Humans of Earth, but they were not very different, either.”  Basic D&D allowed for four player character races, so a variety of four races for Star Frontiers is tenable.  Fortunately, the non-human races are neither anthropomorphic animals nor humans with merely cosmetic differences.  They are alien, but sufficiently compatible with one another.  Separate from the player races, the Sathar are “an evil race of worm-like aliens” about which very little is known.  We are told they “should be NPCs only.”  Yet, on the Racial Reaction Modifiers table, Sathar are listed as a player character race.

Given that the player races have fought a war against the Sathar in the Frontier, it seems unlikely that the United Planetary Federation would have left any systems in the sector unexplored.  However, Winter says, “Only 17 of [the 38] systems have been explored and colonized when the game starts.”  This is another of the problems I had with the setting.

It is unclear if the home systems of the player races are represented on the Frontier map.  I assumed as much because (1) each race exclusively controls at least one system near the edge of the map and (2) no “established travel routes”  are indicated that would lead to systems off of the map.  Assuming that the home systems are along the edges of the map, why would the races engage in exploration only toward one another and not in an omni-directional fashion?  This is yet another of my concerns.

“With the frontier as its background,” Winter tells us, “the action in a STAR FRONTIERS game focuses on exploring new worlds, discovering alien secrets or unearthing ancient cultures.”  Contrary to Winter's notion of “a truly wide-open space society,” the setting of Star Frontiers is constrained compared to the vast environments to be found in competing products like Traveller and Space Opera.  This is another deficiency of the game.

Instead of having an abbreviated frontier, perhaps interstellar travel could have been accomplished via star-gates linking systems to one another.  In this way, the physical position and proximity of star systems would be irrelevant, only relative positions within the star-gate 'network' would matter.  No star maps would be required and the extent of 'known space' could be limited or expanded as needed for any given campaign.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Dragons of Underearth

Art by Denis Loubet

The Fantasy Trip Kickstarter is in its final days.  For those of you who don't know, The Fantasy Trip is...well, let's let designer Steve Jackson (US) explain (from Heroic Worlds):
          The Fantasy Trip, or TFT for short, came into being in 1977, when I designed Melee for Metagaming.  Melee was intended to be a (relatively) realistic, but super-quick game, useable either as a combat system for fantasy RPGs or as a stand-alone game.  It used only two statistics: Strength and Dexterity.  Combats were quick and bloody, until you got about a dozen on each side; then they became slow and bloody.  But it was a simple and very playable system.
          While Melee was being designed, I toyed with a few spells, but did not include them in the final version.  However, by popular demand, they grew into a companion game, WizardWizard was actually the same game with one more stat (IQ) thrown in and magic rules instead of weapon combat.  Therefore, the two packages were totally compatible; a wizard could fight with, or against, a warrior.  These were the game's two “character classes.”
          Melee/Wizard became quite popular, due both to simplicity and to the very low cost (originally $2.95 for Melee, $3.95 for Wizard).  There was a great deal of demand for the “complete” role-playing system.  And, in 1979, after entirely too much time and work, The Fantasy Trip was released.
After TFT was published, Steve Jackson separated from Metagaming.  Jackson went on to establish his own game company.  Metagaming retained the rights to TFT, but Jackson further developed the concepts of TFT in forming the basis for GURPS.  Metagaming went out of business and TFT went out-of-print.  Now, however, Jackson has obtained the rights and is running the aforementioned Kickstarter campaign.

Metagaming published Dragons of Underearth before it closed its doors.  Dragons of Underearth is...well, let's let designer Keith Gross explain (from Interplay #8):
...DRAGONS OF UNDEREARTH has basically the same content as THE FANTASY TRIP in its full ITL [In the Labyrinth], ADVANCED MELEE & ADVANCED WIZARD form; the rules cover essentially all of the same subjects.  However, DRAGONS OF UNDEREARTH is much shorter (about 20 small pages) and much easier to learn and faster-playing.  It is slightly less realistic and leaves out some of the more esoteric weapons, spells, etc.  It does not have all the colorful descriptions and background information that ITL, ADVANCED MELEE, and ADVANCED WIZARD do, but many gamers do not need this.
The front of the box makes the declaration, “Compact Rules For Fantasy Role-Playing.”  The back of the box indicates:
DRAGONS OF UNDEREARTH gives you danger and glory in a complete, fantasy role-playing game where you are the hero.  UNDEREARTH simplifies play, giving you more time for action and surprise.  Included are character creation, magic, monsters and combat (introductory, intermediate & advanced versions for easy learning).  And, you don't need a game master or special dice.
Please note the claim of being “a complete, fantasy role-playing game.”  (The game also refers to itself as “a complete character role-playing system.”)  Yet, neither did Lawrence Schick include it in his Heroic Worlds, nor was it listed in The Adventurer's Handbook.  Perhaps Dragons of Underearth was considered too derivative of The Fantasy Trip.  However, the notion of publishing basic and advanced versions of the same game is hardly novel.

Keith Gross planned something called Conquerors of Underearth as a TFT adventure that would have “Adventurers entering a Goblin fortress and encountering organized military units, and as such often involves 10-20 or more fighters in a battle.” Given the number of participants, a battle in Conquerors could be “very slow and complicated.”  Gross fashioned a simpler version of TFT to make Conquerors more playable.  This simpler version became Dragons of Underearth, a distinct product.  Ironically, Conquerors of Underearth was never published.

Like TFT, players create characters in Dragons of Underearth by allocating points among three attributes:  Strength, Dexterity, and IQ.  Like TFT, IQ establishes how many talents a character may have and the variety of talents from which to choose.  Like TFT, talents such as Animal Handler, Physicker, and Theologian are listed.  Unlike TFT, only combat related talents are explained in Dragons of Underearth.  According to section 6.2, “Other talents are fully explained in the Magic Item Creation section of this module or in CONQUERORS OF UNDEREARTH.”  Also, per section 5.2, “Non-Combat spells are described in CONQUERORS OF UNDEREARTH™.”

If your product lists talents and spells, acknowledges that the talents and spells need description, and refers the reader to a separate product for those descriptions, your product fails to be “complete.”  If that separate product won't ever exist, insult is added to injury.  Ultimately, Dragons of Underearth only incorporates rules that relate to combat.

So, when can we consider a role-playing game to be complete?  Is The Future King complete?  That game does not allow for creation of original characters and there is only one adventure.  While Heroic Worlds does not mention Dragons of Underearth, it does list The Future King as a role-playing game.  Of course,  Heroic Worlds includes solo gamebooks as RPGs.

The rules for Dragons of Underearth are divided into two modules:  Character Generation (©1981) and Combat (©1982).  In addition to the obvious, the Character Generation module includes tables for armor, weapons, and monsters/beasts; rules for experience; and rules for creating original (combat) scenarios.  The Combat module has three tiers of rules:  introductory, intermediate, and advanced.  The introductory sections cover the basics (appropriately enough).  The intermediate sections bring into play ranged combat and (optionally) poison, creatures, and bare-handed attacks.  The advanced sections discuss spells and magic items.  Each tier has three scenarios incorporating the rules from their respective tiers (to facilitate learning).

The third advanced scenario is called 'Battle of the Chasm' in which two forces are positioned on either side of “a two-megahex wide pit.”  Only a narrow bridge crosses the chasm.  The 'Dark Power' force consists of six orc “swordsmen,” four orc archers, two trolls, and a greater demon.  Included among the 'Fellowship' force are two human fighters, a dwarf fighter, an elven archer, a wizard, and four halflings (one of which has a “Ring of Invisibility”).  This makes for an interesting situation; someone should write a book where this is a pivotal scene.  For dramatic tension, maybe the dwarf – no, one of the humans – wants the ring for himself.  Maybe the other human is really a prince or something.  Of course, no one wants to read about a Fellowship; that's too hokey.  They should be called the League of Murderhoboes or the Brotherhood of Death Dealers.

Why 'Dragons' of Underearth?  One dragon is featured in an intermediate scenario.  Perhaps someone at Metagaming hoped that the word 'Dragons' in the title would imply a likeness with Dungeons & Dragons.  Perhaps Metagaming had sitting around some Loubet art featuring a dragon.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

High Times on Hathor III (spoilers)

Art by Steve Crompton

In 1983, Fantasy Games Unlimited published Casino Galactica for use with Space Opera.  It is credited to “STEVEN B. TODD of Gnome Mountain Workshops.”  The title page explains that “Todd is in the process of forming a new publishing company called Gnome Mountain Workshops for the purpose of publishing Space Opera support material under license.”  Originally, Casino Galactica was supposed to be a Gnome Mountain Workshops publication; however, with regard to Todd, “the idea of having [FGU] publish one of his adventures to make the public aware of his style prompted Steve to change the nature of this submission to allow [FGU] to publish it.”  The reader is told to “Watch for other products by Steve from his own Gnome Mountain Workshops in the future.”  Alas, Casino Galactica is Todd's only RPG credit and no output from Gnome Mountain Workshops was forthcoming.

The Introduction refers to Casino Galactica as a “campaign pack” and “an adventure background” as opposed to “an adventure per se.”  The cover makes the claim:  “Adventure Setting & Scenarios.”  However it wants to refer to itself, Casino Galatica has twenty pages.  The Introduction is on page two and only one-quarter of a page of text appears on the last page.  Considering this – and given the amount of white space present on the other pages – Casino Galactica provides eighteen pages of material.  About six of pages consist of maps and the keys thereto.

'Casino Galactica' is the collective name for a posh resort situated in “the mountainous outback of Arcturus [IV].”  It was established “only a half-dozen years ago by an off-worlder named Cosmo Filroy, who had a lot of money and off-world financial backing.”  Filroy's “background is sketchy” and “he is involved in all sorts of legal and semi-legal activities.”

Approximately five pages – a significant portion of the book – are devoted to describing non-player characters associated with the casino.  Some are detailed fulsomely with an illustration, characteristics, skill ratings, and one or more paragraphs of information.  Some personalities are only supplied with characteristics and skill ratings.  Some entities are merely named; for instance, the security personnel encounter table lists eighteen people whose distinguishing features are left to the StarMaster.
Remember that all duties are by weekly rotation.  Do not put Mary Pale on garage beat one day and at Detention check the next, and someplace else the day after.  Be logical.
An 'act list for the lounge' is provided, indicating such worthies as Johnny Asteroid (comedian) and Tara McClendon (stripper).  Also described – in detail – are notable guests, such as Professor Fielding Price (depicted below), “the leading researcher in the field of temporal physics.”

Naturally, the casino offers gambling opportunities, including sports betting.  Grav-Ball, a game published by FASA the previous year, “is all the rage.”  Casino Galactica encourages the reader to purchase a copy of the game noting, “Besides being useful in this packet, it's a fun game, and simple.”  The local franchise, the Arcturus Blue Scourge, is party owned by Cosmo Filroy.  The team's schedule for the season (with the odds for each game) is listed on page 14.  The StarMaster is advised:
To give the season more flavor, throw in some sports flashes about the other teams, and how well they are doing.  Give the players something to think about, but don't try to steal them blind. Be very careful not to mislead them too much. Remember, they would, in reality, have stats and past histories on hand to check.  They would not be as much in the dark as they're going to be in the game.
Also at the casino is an experimental machine called the Subliminal Imagery Device that “introduces fantasy-oriented images into the mind of the sleeping subject, and makes he or she believe that they are experiencing some fantastic adventure or quest, in a pre-created world, but one which is influenced by the subject's own subconscious images.”  The cost of using the device is one thousand credits per day, “though a one month package is available for CR 25,000.”  How the subjects receive sustenance is not explained.  While the machine “is 99% safe...there have been no fatalities, but one person refused to come back to this world, the other was so real.”  The experimental nature of the S.I.D. is not disclosed to the public.  We read that:
The device has several pre-programmed adventure worlds, all fantasy oriented.  For playing out these 'adventures' use of any of several of the excellent FRP's available on the market is recommended.
So, you can role-play a character who is role-playing in turn – using a different game's rules.

The resort offers various other recreational pursuits, including skiing, shopping, hunting (local as well as imported animals), and two golf courses:  “a traditional Terran golf course and another more 'alien' built on the edge of a deep chasm.”  The alien course “is the utmost in challenges, and utilizes robotic caddies and air-sled carts.”  We are assured that, “So far the only casualties have been balls.”

The section of the book dedicated to scenarios is about 1⅓ pages, including illustrations.  However, the scenario descriptions build upon the background provided in the NPC details, especially with regard to how the NPCs relate to one another.  There are five scenarios presented and six Other Ideas.  (“Just expand on them a little, and presto! Adventures.”)

Birkett H. Crandall, the casino manager, “is a typical gangland hoodlum type.”  His illicit activities extend to “gunrunning, drug manufacture and marketing, corporate spying - even slavery.”  Crandall is involved with “drug growing and smuggling activities” on the planet Hathor III.  In one scenario, Paul LaClerc, assistant manager of the club and undercover IPA detective, hires the player characters “to bring back photographic evidence” of Crandall's felonious deeds on that planet.  Another scenario has Crandall blackmailing the United Federation of Planets with evidence that it was responsible for a political assassination.  The Bureau of State Security hires the PCs to retrieve the disk with this evidence.  In yet another scenario, the player characters work for Crandall to obtain “some experimental drugs that were confiscated by the authorities.” 

Jeff space!
Art by Steve Crompton

Sunday, August 5, 2018

Mustering Out On Mephistopheles (spoilers)

Map by Steve Crompton

Agents of Rebellion (1983) is a module written by Space Opera co-author Phil McGregor.  Technically, Agents of Rebellion presents itself as a “CSA Sector Adventure Scenario Pack.”  'CSA' is a reference to the Confederate Systems Alliance, subject of Star Sector Atlas 11, also written by McGregor.

The module is evidently intended for new characters given that the first sentence reads, “Your group of adventurers has mustered out on Mephistopheles hoping that, on such a large and (relatively) well off world, that they will be able to find suitable employment.”  It may not be the wisest option to muster out on (or even visit) planets named after infernal entities.  However, page 6 suggests that the player characters are originally from Mephistopheles:  “Since you have been away from home for an extended period...”

Regarding the player characters, we also learn that, “after several weeks of fruitless job hunting, their financial reserves are becoming quite strained and they realize that they must find work soon.”  Also, “For personal reasons, the party members do not wish to split up and they have so far resisted the individual temptations that have come their way.”  It would seem that – for purposes of the adventure – player character agency has been compromised; they find themselves on Mephistopheles and their “financial reserves” evaporate.  Actually, in the Introduction, McGregor claims, “Though it may seem that the adventures are unnecessarily prescriptive as to the course of action the PCs involved should take...there is absolutely no reason why [the StarMaster] cannot change details of the adventure to suit the needs of his campaign and his PCs.”  In any event, job interviews represent an important plot point in the early part of the adventure.

The subtitle of the module is C.S.A. Espionage Missions.  You see, Mephistopheles and other CSA worlds were conquered by the Korellian Empire over a century prior to the adventure.  (The Korellian Empire of the subject of Star Sector Atlas 12, also by McGregor.)  The player characters become part of the Underground Alliance (“a resistance movement”) and engage upon missions that act as a prelude to open rebellion against the Korellians.

First, at the suggestion of “One of the party (an NPC, presumably),” the player characters have lunch at “an English style pub.”  Just after lunch, before the party leaves the pub, explosions afflict the Korellian munitions factory across the street.  Suspecting sabotage, authorities seal off the area and the player characters learn that “a house-to-house sweep” is imminent and many people will be arrested.  Only those with “a justifiable reason to be in the area...may be let go eventually.”  Additionally, “even the innocent often disappear forever.”  Since a mid-day meal does not qualify as a justifiable reason, “This should make your PCs realize that they are obviously in a bad position.”  There is more than one way the player characters can attempt to avoid the sweep; one way is to travel through the sewers.  The map of the sewer system is presented above; the area represented is 800 meters wide.

According to an announcement the following day, the numerous suspects detained will be sacrificed on the occasion of the Kne'shin'wa festival the following week (a Korellian custom).  Meanwhile, the player characters continue with their job interviews.  Upon returning to their hotel rooms, they can attempt Intuition Characteristic Rolls to “get the feeling that something is wrong.”  If, as a result, they search their rooms, “they will realize that their belongings have been professionally looked through.”  We are then treated to this peculiar statement:  “Though nothing has been taken, there has been an obvious attempt to conceal the fact that any search has been made!”  How does that work?

The player characters collectively interview to become a group of troubleshooters for Alliance Starlines.  The company is a front for the Underground Alliance, although the player characters do not yet know this.  It is a bold decision for an organization to name a front organization after itself.  That evening, Alliance Starlines informs the player characters that they have been hired and a complementary bottle of champagne is delivered.  Get this:  “Of course, though the SM should give no hint of this, the champagne is not drugged, though the gas in the bubbles is narcotic!”  Seriously?  The gas formed by the champagne is narcotic but the champagne isn't drugged?  Just say the champagne is drugged and be done with it.  What if a player character does not drink the champagne (thus avoiding being exposed to the narcotic bubbles)?  In that case, “a waiter will...use a mini-dartgun with the same narcotic tipping the darts on him!”

The player characters wake up in an Underground Alliance hideout and are offered a mission.  Would you want to work for people who kidnapped you?  On the other hand, would you want to hire operatives who could so easily be neutralized?  Anyway, an Alliance member – a professor – was in the area of the munitions factory at the time of the explosions and was thus arrested.  Apparently, the authorities do not realize that the professor is affiliated with the Underground.  The mission of the player characters is to rescue the professor.  They can either (1) arrange for a mass breakout of the detainees while they are held at a colonial police facility or (2) rescue just the professor after the detainees have been transferred to St. Gervase Island, “the HQ of the Imperial Ground Forces on Mephistopheles,” where the sacrifices are to take place.  Regardless of the option they choose, the player characters have extensive leeway in planning the operation and they can call upon the resources of the Underground Alliance.  Actually, the mass breakout option turns out to be fruitless since the adventure requires that the professor be sent to the island.  The Alliance doesn't want the imperial forces to realize that the professor “is of any importance.”  As such, they can't be made aware that the professor has escaped.  How do they hope to accomplish this?  The Alliance has “a specially programmed clone which has been altered to resemble the Professor and will thus make the escape less likely to be detected.”  This sentence is the only information the module provides regarding the clone.  What, exactly, is supposed to happen?  Does the clone work with the player characters to infiltrate the island, take the place of the professor, and then die on his behalf?  Groups of detainees “are quartered in prefab hutments.”  What are the player characters supposed to do with the other detainees quartered with the professor, especially given that “the UA wants no discoverable traces” of the escape?

After the mission, “things are getting too hot” on Mephistopheles for the player characters; so the Alliance sends them to the planet Marduk for a mission.  The player characters are “being paid regularly by Alliance Starlines now,” meaning (I suppose) that the relationship between the PCs and the Alliance has been altered somehow.  The mission on Marduk is to infiltrate the Korellian Imperial StarBase and surreptitiously secure “important items of information from their data banks.”  Again, the player characters devise their own plans to accomplish this.  Evidently, regardless of the player characters' plans, the mission concludes with a “spectacular escape from the StarBase.”  (The Imperial security services “have no idea what [the PCs] did inside the base or even that [they] successfully penetrated it, but they are after” the player characters.)

The next mission involves the player characters taking the Imperial data off-planet.  The PCs must first travel 1200 km inland to a secret UA landing port.  In essence:
The UA will provide transport, but, unbeknownst to either the UA or the PCs, the driver (or one of the other bus crew) has had his cover blown to Imperial Security.  If (when) their vehicle is stopped by Imperial security forces, he will be recognized. This will mean that the PCs will be implicated as well, though there should be just enough bungling on the part of the Imperials to give smart PCs a chance to escape with the Imperials in hot pursuit.  If the roadblock was relatively near their destination or the PCs have been identified (they will be sooner or later), then a planetwide APB will be put out by them.  This will make it effectively impossible for them to carry on with overt operations using their own IDs.  They will, in future, have to confine themselves to covert operations, a much more dangerous way of life.
When the player characters leave Marduk, “a unit of Korellian naval vessels are close enough to attempt interception.”  We are told that the StarMaster “should ensure that whatever the damage the CSA ship takes it still manages to make it into hyperspace and that at least one of the [Korellian vessels] manage to follow.”  The player characters' ship crash lands on the rendezvous planet (although it is called a moon on page 25) and they use a gravsled to travel to “the secret transfer point.”  However, the gravsled has a fuel leak “which the PCs will not discover in time.”  The scenario then becomes an exercise in survival.
In any case, for some time before their fuel runs out, the PCs will have been picking up weak radio signals from elsewhere... They should figure out that this is their only realistic hope of survival.  Subtly encourage them to investigate if they don't show overt eagerness to investigate.
The radio signals emanate from the wreckage of a ForeRunner craft (although the PCs do not recognize it as ForeRunner technology).  They might find an artifact that “will be vital in later adventures in this series.”  Among the wreckage is a ForeRunner vehicle – the equivalent of a gravsled – which the player characters can use to reach the transfer point “near [an] abandoned mining camp.”  Apparently, at no time when the mining camp was active did anyone bother to investigate the radio signals.

A “cutter load of Korellian Marines” has also crash landed and they make “a forced march on to the mining camp.”  It is advised that the player characters do not encounter all of the marines at once.  Instead, “They should start off with a scouting unit of a few men who will proceed to call in reinforcements.”  If necessary, CSA troops can show up to save the characters.  (I guess the player characters were supposed to meet somebody at the transfer point; that somebody might as well be CSA troops.)

Agents of Rebellion has a number of plot holes, but at least there is plot to have holes in (as opposed to Martigan Belt).  At times, McGregor accommodates a broad range of player character behavior, yet at other times particular events are forced upon the PCs.  Yes, “unnecessarily prescriptive” dictates can be obviated by the StarMaster, but the usefulness of the module is inversely proportionate to the effort the StarMaster must put forth.

Sunday, July 22, 2018

An Adventure in the Asteroids ("spoilers")

Source: NASA

In previous posts, your humble host has examined various adventure modules.  Some were railroads, some were wonky, but they all conformed to the notion of an adventure – a plot advances and there is an eventual resolution.  The same cannot be said for Martigan Belt, a 1981 publication intended for use with Space Opera.  It is clearly marketed as an adventure; the cover caption is “An Adventure in the Asteroids.”  As such, it is not unfair to evaluate it in terms of the adventure it claims to be.

Martigan Belt describes the Martigan system, especially the colonized world of Martigan III.  There is no indication of how long Martigan III has been colonized, but the total planetary population is 50,000.  It is “a planet basically run by a few corporations,” four of which (perhaps all of them) are:  Xerxes (production of “Civilian and Military weapons, riot control equipment and devices for surveilance [sic]...”), Prometheus (production of “power-plants and petrochemicals”), Icarus (production of “ground and air transportation craft”), and Janus (involved with “mining, chemical extraction processes, and mineralogical exploration”).  Interestingly, outside of the cities and minor population centers, “there are loose nomad clan aggregates of 50-100 'persons' engaged in hunting and trapping.”

The Janus Mining Company has a mining vessel in the asteroid belt.  From this vessel, Janus receives a “coded message” somewhat garbled by static:

– – – – – – UNDER – – – – ACK – – – – ENS – – AIL– – – –THINK–WE– – – – – – P– –
CRY – – – LS– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –SABO – – GE – – – – – – – – –
– – – –

(This is the message as displayed in the teaser text.  The message as displayed in the body of the module is missing the 'P'.)  Was the message written rather than vocal?  If an encrypted, vocal message was garbled to any degree, it could not be successfully decrypted.  Also, “CRY” and “GE” would have to be phonetic expressions.  Were the crew of the mining vessel texting while “UNDER – – – – ACK”?  Is there an emoji for that?

Anyway, the companies listed above cooperate in recruiting troubleshooters (i.e., the player characters) so that they may “determine what has happened to the vessel and whether 'sabotage' was involved as the message seems to imply.”  Each character is employed by one or another of the companies and “Each company has secretly instructed its employees to attempt to gain as much as possible for their own company as possible, but to act in this fashion covertly.”  Presumably, this means “as much information for their own company as possible.”

So, there's the mystery of what happened to the mining vessel and there is the potential for conflict among the player characters due to loyalties to their respective employers.  This could be the basis of a viable adventure.  Unfortunately, Martigan Belt fails to provide any further information in this regard.  Seriously, the line that ends with “but to act in this fashion covertly” is the last time the module references any investigation of the circumstances.  On page two, the plot line is just dropped.  Did you think that the module would reveal what happened to the mining vessel?  Attack?  Sabotage?  What's up with the P– –CRY – – – LS?  Just because you paid money for “An Adventure in the Asteroids,” you think you're entitled to an actual adventure in the asteroids?  Ha, ha, ha!  You poor, dumb saps!  If you want to know what happened to the ship, you have to come up with your own answers!

Perhaps we're being too harsh?  Perhaps the author intended Martigan Belt to be something along the lines of a sourcebook, but the publisher packaged it as an adventure?  Nope.  In the Introduction, author Stephen Kingsley refers to it as “this adventure/scenario.”  Also from the Introduction:
...I might have forgotten or glossed over some things. For any such omission I do apologize.
Well, Kingsley, you forgot to include a complete adventure.  Apology accepted.  (Martigan Belt and one other Space Opera product seem to be Kingsley's only published RPG credits.)

Technically, since the adventure is absent, there can't be any spoilers; hence, the title to this post has spoilers in quotation marks.  Martigan Belt is like reading a murder mystery that stops before any suspects are introduced.  If the adventure is abandoned on page two, what appears on the other pages?  Actually, page two is the first page after the Table of Contacts and a map of the Procyon subsector.  This means less than a page is devoted to the pur-ported adventure.

One page is devoted to an unnecessary schematic of the Martigan system.  More than a page is taken up by details of the system's planets – such as the surface gravity of Martigan V (2.3745 G).  There's also a table of the “distance between planets of the Martigan system,” as though the planets were fixed in space and not in orbit about a sun.  For Martigan III, there's one page each for a survey evaluation form, a contacts service form, and an essentially useless military intelligence report.  There's a one page map of the capital city of Martigan III.  One page has a schematic of the vessel Janus allows the player characters to use.

Art by Gene Day

Almost five pages contain descriptions of the more interesting specimens of Martigan III's flora and fauna.  Many Gene Day illustrations are provided.  We have “An Adventure in the Asteroids” where nearly 25% of the page count is devoted to planetary encounters.  Among the plants there are Springpoints (“Large version of a 'venus flytrap' type of plant”) and Mindfuzz:
In Fall (Autumn season), the Mindfuzz releases pollen.  The pollen is an halucenogen [sic] (similar to LSD)...Killing the plant at this stage is too late as the pollen has already been released in the area.
So, Fall means Autumn season?  Good to know.  Animals described include the Davod (“A mollusc ambusher” which “has ten 'arms' of 10-20m in length”) and the Skanser (an arboreal animal that “will only attack when under the influence of Mindfuzz pollen”).  Separate from the planetary flora/fauna descriptions is the Slorte, “a previously unknown silicate lifeform inhabiting the asteroid belt of the Martigan system.”  The Slorte moves via “pseudopodia extenso-contraction” with the “Highest observed velocity [at] 36kph/22.36mph.”  Presumably, this observation occurred sometime after they were “previously unknown.”  The Slorte uses “'radio' to convey emotions such as hunger, etc., 'radio' also serves as 'radar' for sight.”

There are four “exceptional human NPCs,” each of which is described in a full-page character sheet.  There's nothing preventing the use of these characters as pre-gen player characters, but they are provided to round out they party in the event the players are not “able to assemble a complete team with all necessary types of specialists.”  Shoehorning exceptional NPCs into the party is an excellent way to let your players know you hate them.

Also provided is a modified table for mining asteroids.  New possible results include PK crystals (0.30%), an alien artifact (0.05%), and “dureum” (0.15%).
Dureum is a form of allotropic silver. It is an extremely dense silvery-gray metal. Due to its rarity and high value, the most common use of dureum is in the plating of archaic melee weapons for specialized use.
The most common use of a rare, valuable metal (5,000 credits per gram) is plating for archaic weapons.  OK.

An interesting concept the module presents is the “Arena of Justice.”  Laws on Martigan III are limited to those dealing “with theft and subsequent resale of stolen goods, killing a sentient being, and using force to impose one's will on another sentient being.”  Personal differences can be settled by duelling in the arena.  In fact, “Voluntary participation in the Arena of Justice is actively encouraged to allow dissatisfied citizens an outlet for their aggressions.”  Such volunteers receive a payment of one hundred credits.  Convicted criminals are sentenced to a “number of involuntary participations.”  Such penal participations are fought to the “first critical wound” but, presumably, death could easily result.  Arena combats have a live audience and “such combats are broadcast planetwide via telecommunications networks.”

Four “additional scenario ideas” are provided on the last page.  One of the ideas has a player character being “found guilty in the [accidental] death of a sentient being.”  The character is sentenced to six matches; in each match there is a 15% chance that the opponent will attempt to kill the character.  That's not much of a scenario; just an excuse for a series of combats.  Nonetheless, the Arena of Justice could have been the focus of the module rather than a non-existing adventure among the asteroids.  First, Arena of Justice has a better ring than Martigan Belt.  The popularity of the arena matches suggests advertising and gambling.  There might be fixed bouts.  Off-worlders might be lured to Martigan III, found guilty of trumped-up charges, and sentenced  to involuntary participations for the sake of ratings and advertising revenue.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

The Outworlds

Art by Jeff Dee

According to the Introduction of the Space Opera rules, “...we have been most fortunate in procuring several copies of the Interstellar Survey Service's Sector Star Atlases which are standard issue to all spacecraft entering given sectors of the galaxy.”  Actually, they're called Star Sector Atlases and are indicated as such in the product listings on the inside back cover.  Almost all of the Star Sector Atlases are numbered; for instance, the complete title of the first atlas is Star Sector Atlas 1:  The Terran Sector.  In Space Opera parlance, a sector represents a cubic volume of space 100-200 light years to a side.  The rules helpfully explain, “space is very definitely three dimensional...”  Very definitely.

The only unnumbered Star Sector Atlas is titled The Outworlds.  It is unnumbered because it “is not from the same game universe” as the default Space Opera setting.  However, even the numbered atlases can be inconsistent with one another since they are derived from different campaigns and thus reflect different interpretations of the setting.  In any event, The Outworlds sector “can be added on to an existing campaign, or be used as the starting point for a new one.”  Also, “The worlds and alien races in this sector can also be used on their own; simply ignore any references to other Outworlds.”

Supposedly, “The sector is 150 LY on a side.”  However, there are two planets that are 171 light years apart on the z-axis (or “the vertical dimension” as the rules state).  At least, that's what I gather from “–78 BISTHUM” and “+93 MANO.”  The Bisthum system is home to Outpost 8.  Outposts are defined as “Planets that are being investigated and prepared for colonization” and civilization is represented by “Generally an E StarPort, a few pre-fabricated huts, and a team of lonely researchers.”  The Mano system contains the planet Goshlookout where “semi-intelligent animals” plague the colonists.
     The first beasts were six legged dinosaur-like creatures who were heavily armored and armed.  Later types grew wings, prehensile trunks, shooting spines, and other deadly weapons.  The worst beast ability is the almost total resistance to poisons and biological weapons...Each beast will have one unusual ability, such as resistance to lasers or stunners.
The Outworlds was written by Stefan Jones, who has a variety of RPG credits that span decades, including Port o' Call.  Interestingly, his first writing credit was a (capsule) review of Space Opera in The Space Gamer #33 (November 1980).  (For Trillion Credit Squadron, he is listed as one of three people having “Useful Suggestions,” so I don't think that counts.)  Was he already working on The Outworlds (1981 copyright) when he submitted that review?  Jones also wrote the Space Opera adventures Vault of the Ni'er Queyon (1982) and
Operation Peregrine (1983).

In the atlas, information about each planet of interest is conveyed through two documents provided under the auspices of the United Federation of Planets.  (Really?  They couldn't go with the Federation of United Planets or the Combined Federation of Planets?)  The two documents are:  Form 217/DIS.8JE from the Department of Interstellar Survey and Form 550/CS.6MV from the Contacts Service.

Blank Survey Evaluation Form

Example Contacts Service Form:  Alkast

“Technological Level” appears at the top of the Contacts Service form, right next to the planet's name.  Whereas weapons and various items of equipment are assigned Tech Levels, what 'Tech Level' means with regard to a society is not expressly established.  Tech Levels range from one to ten but “Tech/7” is the standard level for galactic civilization.  Tech Levels correlate to “Type of Government.”  For instance, Anarchy results in a Tech Level range of 1 – 4; Representative Democracy offers 4 – 10.

Societal Strength also ranges from one to ten; a score of one “signifies a collapsing society” while ten “signifies a very strong society, highly resilient to sudden changes because of the sheer determination of the people and the social institutions to survive and adapt.”  Societal Strength is based on Social Organization.  A Caste Society has a 2  – 5 range; a Communist Society has a 1 – 7 range.

The Xeno-Acceptance Factor (shown as 'Xeno Acceptance Index' on the form) “is the percentage chance that a member of the culture will be prejudiced in his dealings with an 'alien' not demonstrably of his race and general cultural background and beliefs.”  Isn't that the opposite of acceptance?  Regardless, the lower the Societal Strength of a culture, the greater the chance of prejudice.

None of the Outworld planets have a listed Bureaucracy Level.  This is just as well since this concept is not defined in the rules.  Support Index refers to the portion “of the population which will support the present governmental system in a 'crunch'...”  Loyalty Index is the “chance that a given individual citizen will be loyal to the present system.”  Repression Index indicates the “percentage of the population 'repressed' by various discriminatory measures under the present social and/or political system.”  Corruption Index is the “chance that a given government official will accept a 'bribe' or 'gift' or 'token of appreciation'...”  Law Level ranges from one to twenty and is mainly concerned with weapon restrictions; the greater the level, the stronger the restrictions.

The Trade Acceptance Index is “the percentage chance that a trader will find a ready market for his goods on the planet.”  The rules inform us, “The index does not assure a sale, but it makes an attempt possible once per week that an offer comes up.”

Among the nine new alien races described in the The Outworlds there is what humans call the CULT; sometimes spelled with all capitals, sometime with only an initial capital.  An illustration of a CULT member is presented at the beginning of the post.
     The minds of the entire species are linked together by a sort of mechanical telepathy, using communicators implanted within the brain of each individual.  The CULT lives in space craft or on (or in) asteroid bases...They have five strong tentacles and a bulbous central body, all encased in a segmented exoskeleton... Cult walk on three of their tentacles at a time, leaving two free for manipulative functions.  The thick shell is usually light gray in color, the skin in [sic] dark red or purple.
     Behavior patterns of the Cult are very erratic...Trade missions sometimes dump valuable goods on the StarPort landing field and leave without collecting payment.  These abberations [sic] are thought to be due to malfunctions in the computer and communications equipment of the Cult mass-mind network.
Another Outworld race is referred to by humans as Greenstar Demons (or 'Green Star Demons' as the atlas also calls them).  How the Demons refer to themselves is unknown, as is their homeworld.  This race occasionally...
     ...raids the Outworlds and is believed to be the cause of many ship disappearances.  The Demons get their name from their bodily appearance, and from a mysterious force field they use that seals off systems they are raiding.  This force field has the side effect of causing the primary of the system to glow bright green...
     The Demons are xenophobic and highly intelligent monsters.  They take intelligent beings for use as food animals, slaves and other horrid purposes.  Demon ships shoot on sight, trying to disable and board any ship they come across.
Before leaving the Outworlds, we owe it to ourselves to address the spice mines of Kessex.  (That's Kessex – not Kessel – OK?  Call off the lawyers.)  In “deep underground spice caverns,” slaves gather fungoids.  “Luxury Goods (Spice Products)” are the major exports of Kessel Kessex; however, neither the value of such products nor their use is indicated.  Kessex is in the Rant system (the companion star is is Rave).  The only system within twelve parsecs is Kherm, containing the planet Agar.  The Lazkee Corporation 'owns' Agar, an ocean world where an “algae-like processed and converted into edible foodstuffs for shipment to other worlds.”  This is an important distinction; the market for inedible foodstuffs is negligible.

Sunday, July 1, 2018

Comic Book Creatures (The Planet Comics Edition)

Four years ago, your humble host presented two posts (here and here) describing beasts from public domain comic books.  Given the recent post on Adversaries in Space Opera, it's high time for another installment – one exclusive to creatures from science fiction.  To this end, all of the entries in this post are from Planet Comics, a Fiction House publication spanning the years 1940 to 1953.  Each issue contained various features with a roster of essentially interchangeable protagonists.  These heroes were manly men with nicknames like Buzz, Crash, and – for reasons perhaps best left unexplored – Spurt.

Planet Comics #8 (Spurt Hammond feature);
1940, Fiction House, Art by Henry Kiefer

Speaking of Spurt, the adventurer tied the depicted Troglosaurus (also called 'Troglo') to his rocket ship and flew it from its native Venus to Mars.  Such a trip suggests that the creature is especially hardy and rugged; a suggestion corroborated by the fact that “the rays don't even hurt it!”

On Venus, “tamed fighting troglosauri” live in a valley.  Normally docile enough to follow a person around “like a puppy,” they can become furious (perhaps as a result of being flown through outer space unprotected and being struck by rays).

◇  ◇  ◇


Planet Comics #29 (Mars feature);
1944, Fiction House, Art by Joe Doolin

On Pan, “a minor moon of Saturn,” the Blost are nearly extinct.  The Blost pictured is old and decrepit.  One can scarcely imagine how fearsome a youthful, robust Blost would be.

Even this specimen can be riled into violent action by the forceful application of an electric whip.  However, the Blost tend to have a poor opinion of those who would inflict pain upon them and may aggressively display their opinion if given the opportunity.

◇  ◇  ◇

Planet Comics #8 (Buzz Crandall feature);
1940, Fiction House, Art by Gene Fawcette (?)

In a story more reminiscent of a fever dream than a science fiction adventure, Buzz Crandall and Sandra West fly “in the remotest recesses of space and time.”  Somehow, “their space ship crashes through the walls of a crystal sphere...”  Sandra enters the Hall of the Elipticoon and faces “the giant time entity.”  Whatever its physiology may be, it has the “hum of a giant insect.”

The Elipticoon (at least this one) was destroyed when it attempted to consume the disembodied head of a “mad philosopher.”  But can a “giant time entity” ever really be destroyed?  If so, how?

◇  ◇  ◇

Mobile Fungus
Planet Comics #23 (Flint Baker feature);
1943, Fiction House, Art by Joe Doolin

On a “sinister little asteroid,” the mobile fungus lurks in a cave.  When visitors duck into the cave in an effort to escape the prevalent flying snakes, the “horrible phosphorescent mass rolls forward over ghastly remains” of its prior victims.

An effective way of deterring this thing is not yet known; even when pelted by rocks, it advances relentlessly.  Still, if you have enough time to throw rocks it, you likely have enough time to flee.

◇  ◇  ◇ 

Planet Comics #13 (Crash Parker feature);
1941, Fiction House, Art by Joe Doolin

The Kloccial, a “fiendish plant,” thrives in the twilight band of the planet Mercury.  It is evidently subterranean and sends tendrils above ground to grapple its prey.  On one occasion, Crash Parker inadvertently landed his rocket ship on top of one.  Of course, with a name like Crash, any landing that doesn't result in immolation is a good landing.

Coping with a Kloccial can be troublesome.  However, if you can manage to sever one of its tendrils, try blasting down the trunk of the tendril with a ray gun.  Acting as a conduit, the tendril carries the destructive energies to the heart of the Kloccial.

◇  ◇  ◇ 

 Vampire Birds
Planet Comics #12 (Crash Parker feature);
1941, Fiction House, Art by P. Rice & A. Cazeneuve

Crash Parker's adventures took him to various exotic locations, not the least of which is Uracius (or maybe Urania?), a “planet forbidden to Earth-men.”  True to his name, Crash wrecked his rocket ship there.  His excuse included the phrases “cosmic storm” and “vortex of the nebular maelstrom.”

In a cavern on that planet, Crash encountered the vampire birds, which possessed “heavy white fur and human-shaped talons!”  Apparently, “human-shaped talons” is supposed to mean “talons formed like human hands.”  Every vampire bird “has a queer crimson spot over the heart.”  It is this spot “through which the fiendish transfusions [of blood] take place.”

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Service Animals from Planetoid R
Planet Comics #61 (Lost World feature);
1949, Fiction House, Art by George Evans

These “fierce creatures” (affectionately called “hairy ones”) function as hunters and guides for “the blind mummy-men” of Planetoid R.  Their ability to burrow underground tunnels makes them particularly effective.

After the Voltamen conquered the Earth, they imported these “strange monsters” in their efforts to annihilate the last vestiges of human resistance.  These animals are very loyal to their mummy-men masters – a good reason not to antagonize the mummy-men.

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Planet Comics #23 (Star Pirate feature);
1943, Fiction House, Art by Joe Doolin

Star Pirate (known informally as 'Star') encountered this beast on Zev.  However, we should not assume that the Dasta is native to that planetoid.  The Dasta is described as “three tons of armor-plated brute” and, as is shown, Star exclaimed, “Ten ray-guns wouldn't stop him!”

Star managed to blind the beast with a cloak and leaped atop “the bellowing bulk of a live torpedo.”  Star then felled the Dasta by employing the “bulldogger's twist,” a little trick that Star somehow “learned from an Earthman castaway.”

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Planet Comics #27 (Star Pirate feature);
1943, Fiction House, Art by George Appel

Years before Heinlein scribed Stranger in a Strange Land, the writers of Planet Comics used the word 'Grok' to name a space creature.  This is another animal that Star Pirate improbably killed without recourse to weapons.

While cruising the space-ways, Star's craft was surrounded by “a queer radiation,” precipitating a “space storm.”  After being “sucked into the swirling center...[of] a twisting space-whirlwind,” Star was adrift for days when hunger prompted him to attack the “bird-beast.”  How Star expected to dine through his space helmet is not explained.

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In another instance of a creature's name later acquiring a curious meaning, the Dork was a giant reptile from Neptune.  The Toags, a race of reptilian humanoids, kept the “slavering monstrosity” in their dungeon for purposes of entertainment.

It's so huggable!

Planet Comics #24 (Reef Ryan feature);
1943, Fiction House, Art by George Tuska