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.”

◇  ◇  ◇

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.

◇  ◇  ◇

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.”

◇  ◇  ◇ 

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.

 ◇  ◇  ◇


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

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Adversaries in Space Opera

Art by George Wilson
However much Mankind may come to an accomodation [sic] with many of diverse races it will encounter in universe, there will always be some so starkly 'alien' that no common ground will be found on which to build friendly relations.  Such races are the 'monsters' of the galaxy.
Space Opera presents three intelligent races to be used as opponents for humans and human-aligned races.  Unfortunately, we have not been graced with any Gene Day depictions of these entities.

First, the Bugs (no other name provided) are cribbed from Heinlein's Starship Troopers.  “The Bugs are not individuals,” we learn, “but rather are 'units' in a vast 'hive consciousness.'”  The rules describe Brain Bugs, Workers, and three grades of Warriors.
Highly sensitive psionic Adepts who are able to attune themselves (barely) to the thought frequencies of the Bugs have confirmed that the function of the 'Brain Bugs' is not to lead, but to maintain a psionic link, joining all members/ units in the 'Hive Mind.'  Only the 'Hive Mind' has awareness and intelligence.  Individual units have only instinct to guide them when not in contact with the Hive.  'Brains' act as communicators to express the will of the 'Hive Mind' and to supply the collective consciousness for evaluation and decision.
The psionic 'range' of a Brain Bug seems to be five hundred meters.  Brain Bugs have a 'Body Mass' of 100 kg while Workers and Warriors range from 350 to 700 kg.

Master of Orion was not released until 1993, so we cannot accuse Space Opera of taking “Klackons” from that game.  Space Opera Klackons “are amphibious, crab-like beings with heavily armoured shells and large pincer claws which can be used to manipulate objects or to tear food and enemies apart.”  Large pincer claws would not seem well suited for manufacturing and operating advanced technology, but I'm not going to argue.  “It is possible to conduct trade with Klackons,” the rules state, “using sign language and the pidgin evolved for spoken communication.”  However, Klackons do not exclude sentient beings from their diet and, on occasion, “the Klackon's hunger overcomes the desire to do business.”  We also learn that Klackons are obsessed with the number seven.  Males of the species average 175 kg while females average 125 kg.

Given that the novel is in the public domain, Space Opera unabashedly states that the Mertuns “may be regarded as similar to” the Martians from H. G. Wells' The War of the Worlds.  “The Mertuns are an octopoidal race from low gravity planets and...They also use heavy Tripod Walkers...”  We learn that they “are a totally unemotional race devoted to cold, hard logic.”  Lacking emotion, they are “not overly hostile...[but] neither are they are they a 'friendly' race.”  In terms of government, “Mertuns appear to have not set social organization, but it is a suspected that individual communities function on a pattern not dissimilar to 'Athenian Democracy.'”  Mertun 'Body Mass' ranges from 100 kg to 250 kg.  No mention is made of any susceptibility to common germs.

Section 17.0 is titled 'The Beasts' and is not quite two pages in length.  Understandably, Space Opera does not provide an extensive bestiary.  Instead, we are provided with a chart that provides details on eighteen animal classes.  Said classes are differentiated by approximate body mass.  Class 'O' represents the least massive type at 5 kg.  Mass increases as classes regress to the beginning of the alphabet (e.g., class 'N' is 10 kg, class 'M' is 15 kg, etc.).  This means that beyond class 'A' there are classes 'AA,' 'AAA,' and 'AAAA.'  Evidently, using 'P,' 'Q,' and 'R' was not an option; neither was having 'A' be the least massive class with mass increasing in ascending order.  Each class has a carrying capacity, damage factor, stamina factor, shock characteristic roll, hand-to-hand combat factor, and a range of natural weapon damage.

For unknown reasons, Space Opera spends a paragraph stating the obvious:
...Aquatic species will spend all their time in water (fish, whales, dolphins) and may be gravely threatened when thrown on land.  Amphibious creatures (even animals like otters and alligators) are capable of functioning on land or in the water.  Flyers are capable of flight and tend to be slow and clumsy on the ground.  Finally, there are some triphibians (ducks or geese) which can fly, move on land, or swim...However, large, heavy animals will rarely have any flight abilities.
So, “Aquatic species will spend all their time in water” and “Flyers are capable of flight.”  Good to know.

Additionally, “Animals, particularly carnivores, will have pelts, making it possible to go into the hunting and trapping business.”  Value of pelts is determined by the StarMaster.  An important note is provided:  “animals killed by energy weapon fire have a flat 75% chance of the pelt being ruined (100% with flamers, explosives, etc.)”

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Psionics in Space Opera

Art by Virgil Finlay

In Space Opera, the Law of Conservation of Energy applies to psionics.  For game purposes, this means that some applications of psionics are quite difficult  – if not impossible – without the aid of Psycho-Kinetic Crystals.  In explaining the origin of these crystals, the rules supply more background information about the default setting of Space Opera :
...ForeRunners had developed a very high level Science of Mind, and one of the outgrowths of that science was the Psycho-Kinetic Crystal.  The PK Crystal or StarStone was discovered in the last days of the ForeRunner civilizations, immediately before the Final War which tore the vast interstellar empires apart and brought destruction to scores of thousands of planets.  While the exact operation of the PK Crystal is not presently understood, it is believed to be able to tap the energy fields of a parallel, high-energy universe, perhaps those of tachyon HyperSpace itself.
In physical terms, a StarStone is described as “a luminescent disk about 40mm in diameter and 10mm thick in the center, tapering at the edge to about 1mm thickness.”  In other words, it “has a characteristic lens shape.”  StarStones are inert until “keyed to the mental patterns of any living, sentient creature” of psionic capability.  Once keyed, “the PK Crystal will become starkly antithetical to any other life form which handles it when not in contact with the owner, acting as the most virulent poison possible so long as it is in contact with the uninsulated flesh of the being handling it.”  Should a keyed StarStone be separated from its owner for two to twelve months, it it is possible that it can become keyed to someone else.  This possibility is based on the Psionics characteristic of the prior owner; the higher the characteristic, the less chance there is that the StarStone can be attuned to another.  (The chance is always less than 50%.)  If the previously owned StarStone cannot be so attuned, “it will sublimate away.”

A character with a Psionics characteristic of ten or less is “psionically 'inactive' or 'dead.'”  Such characters cannot “exercise psionic talents” and possess something of a resistance to the casual use of psionics.  Characters with a Psionics score of one “have the capacity for ShuttleThought, their minds thinking on several levels at once in such a fashion that any Telepath attempting to read them receives only a confusing blur of mental images.”

A character with a Psionics characteristic of more than ten is “psionically 'open'” and is an amenable subject for psionics.  Such characters can be 'awakened' to “be able to exercise mental powers.”  Active users of psionic powers are called Adepts.

We learn that, “No character will enter the game psionically 'awakened.'”  However, three paragraphs later, it is explained that some characters “will emerge in the game with active psionic talents.”  This represents one of the annoying things about Space Opera :  misleading phrasing which ought to have been corrected with rudimentary editing.  Anyway, there are three conditions which may cause 'awakening.'  First, when an 'open' character successfully resists a mental attack, there is a chance of 'awakening' based on his or her Psionics characteristic.  Second, if an 'open' character is “exposed to an unsensitized PK Crystal,” there is a possibility of 'awakening' (again derived from the Psionics characteristic).  Failure may subject the character to a coma-inducing shock.  Third, a character with a Psionics score of 18 or 19 may be 'contacted' during his or her pre-game career.  Once per year, there is a chance (ranging from 30% to 85%) of contact.  We are told, “The reason why he was contacted, the persons who contacted him, the motive for their training him mentally -- these and many other questions remain unanswered because none of those so contacted can or will divulge the information.”  Additionally:
'Contacted' Adepts receive a PK Crystal from their mysterious mentors, unlike lower level PC's.  Also, whenever they lose their PK Crystals, a replacement seems to arrive within a reasonably short period of time, again from the same mysterious source.  It is not known why such Adepts have been singled out for such treatment, but it is believed that they have some part to play in the working out of a great plan to restore the ForeRunner levels of civilization and culture.
There are five fields of Psionic ability:  (1) Telepathy, (2) Telekinesis, (3) Teleportation, (4) Clairvoyance, and (5) Telergy (sometimes misspelled 'Telurgy') & Self-Awareness. (Only characters with a Psionics score of 19 can acquire Telergy & Self-Awareness.)  Each field has various powers associated with it; some powers appear in more than one field.  Each power (also called 'talent') is assigned a level between one and ten.  For example, among the twenty-five powers of Telekinesis there are:  Manipulation (level 1), Levitate (level 3), Cryo PSI (level 5), and Psychic Force (level 7).

The number of fields (as well as the highest level of power within a field) that an Adept can learn is based upon the Adept's Psionic characteristic.  For instance, an Adept with a score of 11 is limited to one field with a maximum power level of one; a score of 18 permits three fields with a maximum power level of nine.  Adepts with a Psionics value of 19 can learn all fields to the highest level.  To determine which fields an Adept (with a Psionics score of less than 19) can learn, a d6 is rolled for each field (other than Telergy & Self-Awareness).  The fields having the higher results are the fields the Adept can learn.

“Upon 'psionic awakening,' an Adept acquires the first talent in the appropriate list of talents for his psionic field.”  Other powers/talents must be learned as if they were skills.  (Presumably, this learning is self-taught.)  All powers of a given level must be learned before powers of a subsequent level can be learned.  'Contacted' Adepts start the game with a number of talents equal to the number of career years since the year of contact.  A 'Contacted' Adept learns new powers more quickly than other Adepts because his prior “mental training has already opened up large sections of the mind, and he has been taught how to develop his mental powers more rapidly than other psionics.”

In the vein of StarStones and ShuttleThought, several powers are named by merging two words into one (such as, FarSee, PainStop, SaneMind, and NegaField).
Using psionic powers drains an Adept's Stamina.  A StarStone reduces Stamina cost (as well as enhancing the effects of some powers and permitting the use of others).  The Psychic Force power allows an Adept “to tap the vast Force which can be keyed by a PK Crystal.”  Each day, an Adept with Psychic Force has a chance to increase his or her Stamina (presumably temporarily).  “At level/10,” the rules state, “the stamina boost [of 200%] becomes permanent and need not be rolled.”  (Recall that only Adepts with a Psionics score of 19 can attain tenth level powers.)  'Living Matrix' is a tenth level power available in every psionic field except Telekinesis.
Only a PC who has lived an exemplary life can attain Oneness with the Force.  This PSI status is equivalent to the levels attained by the Lensmen like Kinneson, Worsel, Trigonsee, etc., in 'Doc' Smith's Second Stage Lensmen, and simply is beyond the capacity of personalities that are not so integrated that they become Champions of Civilization and all that it stands for.
A 'Living Matrix' Adept has a beneficial modifier for mental attacks, spends less stamina when performing a successful Mental Attack (or resists a Mental Attack), and can more easily overcome mental domination.  Also, a level ten Telepath has a chance “of momentarily attaining Third Stage development.”  This means the Adept “can exercise any psionic talent he possesses without a PK Crystal but as if he had a PK Crystal.”

With Precognition (a level 5 Clairvoyance power), “The Adept receives a foreshadowing of a scene yet to come, usually up to 24 hours in the future.”  The StarMaster must “commu-nicate by notes” to relay the details of the precognitive vision to the player.  There is a cost of fifty points of Stamina and the Adept must be successful with a Shock characteristic roll “or be rendered unconscious for 1d6 hours.”  The chance of an exact prophecy (presumably rolled by the StarMaster) “is 2% × Intuition plus 1% × Clairvoyance level of the Adept.”  So, an Adept with the maximum score for Intuition and the highest level of training would have a 48% chance.  With an Intuition of 10, the minimum chance would be 25%.  Assuming the Precognition roll is successful, “the StarMaster will be bound to arrange matters in the meantime so that events will occur as prophesied.”  the   The following Designer's Note is offered:
Trying with prophecy of future events can prove difficult unless the StarMaster is prepared to think ahead to later developments in the adventure scenario.  If the StarMaster prefers, he will present 2 to 5 possible alternatives, depending on the complexity of the developing situation.  Some of the details will be vague, but the effect will be to alert the players in general to the possibility that some potentially serious or momentous events are about to transpire, and they will be able to make some preparations to meet the challenge.  Also, if no exact prophecy occurs, a very vague and probably irrelevant 'vision' will occur, or else no precognition at all.  The talent is, after all, rather erratic and undependable.
The Telergy & Self-Awareness field (available only to characters with a Psionic value of 19) allows an Adept “to develop his mind and body to their maximum potentials so that he can become fully attuned to the life principle which is the Force.”  This means that the Adept's characteristics of Strength, Constitution, Agility, Dexterity, Intelligence, Intuition, Leadership, Bravery, Empathy, and Awareness (in that order) can each be increased to the maximum value of 19.  When this course is complete, the Adept's “telergic studies are now finished [and] he is transformed into Transhuman status if he is human or humanoid.”  Also, “All Telergic Adepts will automatically acquire certain powers at a given level of their development,” among which are Heal, PainStop, SensoryBlock, and Revivify.

By the time a Telergic Adept attains maximum Awareness he or she must decide upon a moral disposition.
As he progressed in his psionic development, he came to understand there are two sides of the Force [and]...he must choose to serve the Light or Dark side of the Force, becoming a Champion of the best that Civilization has to offer or a self-serving villain who seeks personal power and self-aggrandizement at the expense of other beings.  There are no other alternatives.  A plain choice between Good and Evil must be made and, once chosen, there is no turning back from the path selected.
Light side Adepts (“like the Jedi Knights of StarWars” [sic])...
...will have before them the task of enacting the roles of almost superhuman Champions of 'humanity' and Civilization...It might be that they are the remnants of a once great Brotherhood suppressed by unscrupulous men who would enslave all races under an iron dictatorship.  Thus they become heroic revolutionaries seeking to overthrow a tyrannical empire.  Whatever the situation, they are men who stand for the Right and Just.
Dark side Adepts (“like the Black Lensmen of the Lensman series or Darth Vader of StarWars” [sic])...
...have before them the task of enacting the roles of the Enemies of 'humanity' and Civilization.  They are the power-hungry, the Destroyers and would-be Dictators, Adepts who have turned the Force to the service of their own personal ambitions.  However, that should not be interpreted to mean that they are given to cruelty for its own sake.  Rather, they are merely 'expedient' in their approach to obstacles.  Those who get in their way are neutralized or disposed of in the most efficient manner available.
An Adept who chooses the Dark side loses 3d6 from his or her Empathy characteristic value and thereafter has a maximum of 11 Empathy.  Recall that Telergic Adepts would have elevated their Empathy score to 19, so a Dark side Adept is throwing all of that effort away.  Also, “Service of the Dark side of the Force prevents the Adept from performing any curative procedures on others...”  In other words, there is a definite downside to choosing the Dark side and no benefit.

Normally, the maximum Psionics characteristic score for player characters is 16.  This means that a significant portion of the psionics rules cannot be used.  The rules state that “those players who wish to use psionics prominantly [sic] in their campaign should” use an optional rule where a roll of 96 - 100 for Psionics allows the player to convert a portion of their career characteristic allocation points to modify the Psionics value.  Specifically, “the rate of ½ profession DM per 1 point added to the psionics roll” would apply.  Humans, feline avatars (i.e., the kitty people who are not technologically inclined), and transhumans (i.e., Vulcans) can add up to fifteen points; other races can add up to ten.  Since a Psionics score of 19 requires 115 points, only humans, feline avatars, and transhumans can possibly can attain that score – and only if they roll 100 for Psionics and add the maximum number of points.  Even if the psionics enabling optional rule is adopted, there is a less than 1% chance that a character can be capable of becoming a Telergic Adept.  Perhaps there could be a psionic career that permits a Psionics modifier, allowing more of an opportunity to access the more advanced psionic abilities.

So, the Light side/Dark side Adepts are limited to characters with a Psionics value of nineteen and the mysterious 'contact' society focuses on characters with a Psionics value of eighteen or nineteen.  Given the rather finite number of people with such a score and the apparent pervasiveness of the 'contact' organization, some amount of coincidence between that organization and the Light side/Dark side Adepts would seem likely.  The rules, however, do not suggest this.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Combat in Space Opera

Art by Joe Doolin

Given its association with the Space Marines miniatures rules, one might reasonably expect the Space Opera combat system to dispense with simplicity.  One's reasonable expectations would be correct.

The default duration of a combat turn is six seconds; however, depending upon circumstances, a combat turn can supposedly lasts for a minute, six minutes, or an hour.  (A Space Marines combat turn has a duration of twenty seconds.)  Here are the nine phases of the combat turn sequence:

In Phase I, both sides roll 2d6.  The side with the larger result decides whether to be Side A (the mover) or Side B (the counter-mover).  In a six second turn, “a running man covers about 30m.”  Actions other than basic movement are 'functions' which reduce the amount of time a character can spend in movement (and which would presumably reduce distance covered).  For example, a 90° - 180° turn causes one second to be lost.  “Leave/enter most vehicles (per man)” has a cost of three seconds.
Actual combat (firing, etc.) does not depend upon having time to perform the function.  Rather, movement depends upon one's having the time left to do so.  For instance, if a PC intends to fire his weapon in the turn coming up, he must allow -2 seconds from his movement time if he also plans to move.
The percentage chance for a character to successfully hit a target with direct fire is derived mainly upon the character's firing stance and the distance to the target.  Various modifiers may apply.  With regard to small arms, “Each level of expertise adds 2% to the probability of hitting a target...”  So, the difference between someone with rudimentary skill and an Olympic level marksman is 18%.  Physical characteristics do not affect the chance of success, only the chance of increasing one's expertise.

In a melee phase, “each combatant rolls 1d20 (random factor), to which various modifiers will be added.”  In case you didn't realize, 1d20 generates a random result.  Characters attack in descending initiative order.  Page 39 informs us that a character's hand-to-hand capability for “Unarmed Combat, Quarterstaff, Clubs, etc.” equals “expertise + 2/5 (Dex + Agil + Str + Con + IQ) +2.”  A character's race and whether or not he is an armsman adjusts capability.  For instance, a human armsman has 110% capability; a human who is not an armsman has 80%.  An ursoid armsman has 200% capability; a non-armsman has 150%.  Hand-to-hand capability is apparently not the same thing as hit probability.  “All melee weapons have a basic 35% hit probability.”  The attacker's expertise adds to this chance; the defender's expertise subtracts.

Humans and humanoids have sixteen hit locations.  Aiming at a particular location modifies the attack roll.  A random hit location is determined when a character succeeds with an attack that was not aimed.  Different locations offer different wound profiles.  Non-humanoids have their own hit locations.  Apparently, hit locations for “Silicates & Cold Planeters” are irrelevant.  Rather than just state this, the rules offer the following table:

In terms of armor, there are eleven categories of protective value, coded 'A' through 'K'.  'A' offers the most protection and 'K' the least.  There are three categories for any given type of armor:  one for melee damage, one for missile weapons and explosions, and one for energy weapons.  For example, chain mail is classified as H/H/I.  Every weapon has penetration values associated with the various armor categories.  Against 'J', the value of a hurled dagger has a value of 7.  This means a 7 or greater must be rolled on 1d10 in order for the target to be damaged.  We learn that, “When a living target is penetrated by a projectile, energy bolt, or melee weapon, wounds result.”

To determine the effect of a wound, 1d20 is rolled and the result is checked on a table according to hit location.  For humanoids, there are five 'levels' of wounds:  very light, light, moderate, serious, and critical.  (Non-humanoids have only light, serious, and critical wound levels.)  The wound roll may be modified by weapon type.  Brass knuckles cause a -3 modifier while a fusion machine gun applies a +5 modifier.  Anyway, a very light wound causes 1-3 points of damage.  A serious wound inflicts 9 - 13 points damage (or 8 - 13 depending on how one chooses to interpret the rules).  Aside from damage being applied to a character's Damage Factor, wounds can cause various effects:

Sunday, May 6, 2018

Characters in Space Opera (part II)

Art by George Wilson

Before continuing with the generation of the Astronaut we began in the last post, we may as well provide the character with a name.  In the grand tradition of Corvus Andromeda, I proffer Pavo Magellanic.

The 'Character Experience' section of the rules provides:
Without experience and expertise, the PC is totally unsuited to the demanding life of a Space Opera adventurer.  To acquire some experience and skill, the PC will enlist in a government or civilian service when he reaches the age of 18.
Unlike Traveller, “Initial enlistment in any of the services is automatic when a PC enters the game.”  However, an enlistment roll is still made.  Failure of the enlistment roll will inflict negative modifiers to promotion rolls during the character's career.  Among the service careers a character may engage upon are the StarForces – “the elite units of the StarFleet, Space Marines, and Special Services Commandos who guard the spacelanes from enemy attack, and who carry death and destruction to the enemy's home planets.”  Unfortunately, Pavo's Bravery score is less than the minimum required for StarFleet Astronauts.  It's just as well, they're a bunch of stuck-up elitists anyway.

Pavo must settle for the Merchant Marine, the enlistment roll for which is 10 or greater on 3d6.  Exceptional Personal Characteristics (which Pavo does not have) can modify the roll.  Regardless, Pavo succeeds.  Instead of rolling for re-enlistment, 1d20 is rolled to see how many two-year terms the character serves; the minimum number of terms is two, the maximum is fifteen.  A roll of 19 means Pavo has spent fourteen terms in the Merchant Marine and thus begins the game at the age of 46.  Per term of service, Merchant Marine Astronauts receive a promotion on a roll of ten or greater on 2d6.  Pavo manages to reach Rank Grade 3:  Chief Starshipman.

When a character is discharged from a career, 2d6 are rolled.  Pavo's discharge roll is 10, “meaning the PC resigned from the service of his last employer.”  An additional d6 is rolled.  A six “means that he's left his employer without proper notice and he has a -4 [dice modifier] when attempting to find a similar position.”  Pavo receives a severance of 23,520 credits and an annual pension of 9,408 credits.  Additionally, he has accumulated savings equal to:
(1% final year's salary) × (Intelligence) × (years of service)
which comes to 56488 credits.  Other benefits from the Merchant Marine include:  “Wristwatch; one complete Ship, Winter, and Summer Uniform; Side Arm; VibroBlade... Astronauts keep their Vacuum Suits and Astrogation Manuals.”

We learn that, “A new PC would be relatively incompetent and helpless in an advanced technological society if he did not have any specialized knowledge and skills to apply to the life of adventure he will undoubtedly lead.”  Also, “To reflect pre-service education and service training prior to a PC's entry into the game, he will be awarded a number of skill points or SP with which the player can make 'purchases' of desired skills.”  Pavo obtains skill points in three ways.  Every player character gets 6d6 skill points “which can be applied to the purchase of General Skills only.”  Astronauts also receive a number of skill points equal to the sum of “Constitution, Dexterity, Agility, 2× Intelligence, Leadership, Bravery, and GTA.”  Supposedly, “This yields a range of 7 - 133 SP.”  However, this is only true if Intelligence is not doubled.  Anyway, “Half of this number of SPs must be spent on astronautic and related skills (like flying), along with 5 SP × number of years of service before entry into the game.”  The results of the rolls and calculations follow.
     6d6 = 12 SP
     Constitution + Dexterity + Agility + Intelligence + Leadership + Bravery + GTA = 86 SP
     5 × 28 service years = 140 SP
So, 12 SP for General Skills, 183 SP for “astronautic and related skills,” and 43 SP for any skills.  Competence in a skill is measured in levels of expertise, each level costs a number of skill points.  Most skills have a “maximum expertise of level/5 to level/10.”  Space Opera does not provide any pre-generated characters, nor does it have a start-to-finish example of character creation.  Because of this, we have no guidelines as to expertise levels of a  competent beginning character.  Astronaut Skills include:  Shipboard Procedure & Operation, EVA, Advanced EVA, Orbital Pilot, Combat Orbital Pilot, Interplanetary Pilot, FTL Pilot, Astrogator, StarShip Battle, and Space Armament.  Related skills (among which we may presumably include prerequisites) include:  (Advanced) Mathematics, General Physics, Astronomy, Planetology, Nuclear Physics, Force-Field Physics, Mech Engineering, Electrical Engineering, Computer Engineering, Power Engineering, StarDrive Engineering, Mech Tech: Starship Machinery, Electronics Tech: Starship Systems, Electronics Tech: EVA Systems, Communications Tech: ECM, Communications Tech: Communications Systems, Communications Tech: Sub-Light Systems, Computer Tech: various, Power Tech: Nuclear Generation Systems, Power Tech: Anti-Matter Generation Systems, Power Tech: StarShip Power Systems, StarDrive Tech: all specializations, Chemistry, (Advanced) Metallurgy.  Because Pavo was in the Merchant Marine, the Merchant skill also counts as related.

There are a vast number of skills, but Space Opera offers no templates or packages.  Pavo's skill points can be distributed in the following manner.

Shipboard Procedure & Operation = 5
EVA = 5
Advanced EVA/2 × 2 SP = 4
Orbital Pilot/5 × 3 SP = 15
Combat Orbital Pilot/5 × 1 SP = 5
Interplanetary Pilot/10 × 3 SP = 30
FTL Pilot/4 × 5 SP = 20
Astrogator/3 × 3 SP = 9
StarShip Battle/3 × 2 SP = 6
Space Armament/3 × 2 SP = 6
Chemistry/4 × 2 SP = 8
(Advanced) Metallurgy/3 × 2 SP = 6
(Advanced) Mathematics/5 × 2 SP = 10
General Physics/6 × 1 SP = 6
Astronomy/5 × 3 SP = 15
Nuclear Physics/2 × 3 SP = 6
Force-Field Physics/1 × 4 SP = 4
Mech Engineering/1 × 2 SP = 2
Electrical Engineering/2 × 2 SP = 4
Computer Engineering/2 × 2 SP = 4
Mech Tech: Starship Machinery/3 × 1 SP = 3
Electronics Tech: Starship Systems/5 × 1 SP = 5
Electronics Tech: EVA Systems/5 × 1 SP = 5
Communications Tech: ECM/3 × 1 SP = 3
Communications Tech: Communications Systems/3 × 1 SP = 3
Communications Tech: Sub-Light Systems/3 × 1 SP = 3
Computer Tech: Civilian Programming/3 × 1 SP = 3
Computer Tech: Military Programming/3 × 1 SP = 3
Computer Tech: Scientific Programming/3 × 1 SP = 3
Computer Tech: Mk I - III/1 × 1 SP = 1
Computer Tech: Mk IV - V/1 × 1 SP = 1
Computer Tech: Mk VI/1 × 1 SP = 1
Computer Tech: Mk VII - VIII/1 × 1 SP = 1
Computer Tech: Mk IX - X/1 × 1 SP = 1
Computer Tech: MiniComputers/1 × 1 SP = 1
Power Tech: Nuclear Generation Systems/1 × 2 SP = 2
Power Tech: Anti-Matter Generation Systems/1 × 2 SP = 2
Power Tech: StarShip Power Systems/3 × 1 SP = 3
StarDrive Tech: Rocket & Reaction Engines/1 × 1 SP = 1
StarDrive Tech: Anti-Grav Systems/1 × 1 SP = 1
StarDrive Tech: SubLight Drive/1 × 1 SP = 1
StarDrive Tech: JumpDrive Engines/1 × 2 SP = 2
StarDrive Tech: HyperDrive Engines (to 10 LY)/1 × 1 SP = 1
StarDrive Tech: HyperDrive Engines (11 - 20 LY)/1 × 1 SP = 1
StarDrive Tech: HyperDrive Engines (21+ LY)/1 × 1 SP = 1
Merchant/1 × 5 SP = 5
VibroBlade/3 × 1 SP = 3
Unarmed Combat/2 × 2 SP = 4
Laser Weapon/2 × 2 SP = 4

I'm a fan of the Hero System, so I'm not discouraged by a reasonable amount of number crunching.  Character creation in Space Opera, however, is tedious.  The Hero System (or GURPS for that matter) allows a player to design a character via allocation of points.  In Space Opera, the design aspect of character generation is hampered due to dice rolling, but considerable allocation of points is still required.  Character creation in Traveller may not permit many choices, but at least the process is entertaining as you observe fate take its course.

Edited 5/20/18 to reflect changes in skill information

Sunday, April 29, 2018

Characters in Space Opera (part I)

Art by Allen Anderson

The best way to learn about characters in a given role-playing game is to generate a character.  As such, we shall endeavor to create a Space Opera character in this and subsequent posts.

The first step is to choose a class from among the following six:  Armsman, Tech, Research Scientist, Medical Scientist, Engineer Scientist, and Astronaut.  Let's go with Astronaut.

The next step is to determine personal characteristic scores.  The fourteen 'basic' characteristics are grouped into six sets:
  • Physique / Strength / Constitution
  • Agility / Dexterity
  • Empathy / Intelligence
  • Psionics / Intuition
  • Bravery / Leadership
  • General Technical Aptitude / Mechanical Aptitude / Electronics Aptitude
Scores range from 1 to 19, but scores are determined by rolling percentile dice.  Each characteristic 'set' has a column on a chart where the percentile roll result indicates a score.  For example, a roll of 50 for Psionics or Intuition means a score of 9; the same roll for Bravery or Leadership indicates a score of 13.  Our rolls are as follows:
  • Physique (27)/ Strength (28)/ Constitution (47)
  • Agility (38)/ Dexterity (55)
  • Empathy (27)/ Intelligence (47)
  • Psionics (49)/ Intuition (50)
  • Bravery (08)/ Leadership (78)
  • GTA (02)/ MechA (88)/ ElecA  (17)
Each class offers a number of points which can be used to modify the results for certain characteristics.  Astronauts have forty points that may be allocated among Constitution, Agility, Dexterity, Intelligence, Intuition, Bravery, Leadership, and General Technical Aptitude.  A careful distribution of points results in the following:
  • Physique (27 = 11)/ Strength (28 = 11)/ Constitution (47 = 13)
  • Agility (41 = 12)/ Dexterity (55 = 13)
  • Empathy (27 = 9)/ Intelligence (51 = 12)
  • Psionics (49 = 9)/ Intuition (51 = 10)
  • Bravery (8 = 4)/ Leadership (81 = 16)
  • GTA (26 = 9)/ MechA (88 = 17)/ ElecA (17 = 7)
Only 35 of the 40 points were allocated.  The five remaining points cannot raise the scores of any of the allowed characteristics any higher (except for Bravery).  Since the minimum Bravery for Armsmen and Astronauts is 11 (lower scores may be raised to 11), we need not spend points on that characteristic.  The rules establish that player characters “tend to possess 'superior' personal characteristics, compared to those of typical members of their race” and “rarely will they be truly deficient in any of their personal characteristics.”  Accordingly, the percentile roll results tend to provide higher rather than lower scores.  Echoing your humble host's feelings on the matter, Space Opera proclaims, “To inflict the usual 'averaged' characteristics upon PCs and the players running them is a failure to recognize that PCs are 'heroic' in not only their drive to reach goals that lesser men cannot hope to attain, but also their capacity to actually win through to those goals.”  For some characteristics, the baseline score indicates 'normal' ability.  For example, an Intelligence score of 01 “represents the equivalent of contemporary IQ 95 - 105.”

For the most part, the definitions of the personal characteristics are intuitive.  Empathy, however, is defined as “the unconscious and largely uncontrolled broadcast of a character's personality aura and its interaction on auras of those around him.”  We learn that a character with an Empathy score of 01 - 06 is “a man without a conscience in search of a personal, living 'god' to give his troubled life security and purpose, a sword looking for a strong hand to wield it.”  Say what?

The next step is to determine that nature of the character's home planet through a series of die rolls.  A result of 11 an a d20 tells us our Astronaut is “a native of a planet with a standard 'Terran' gravity field of 0.9 G to 1.1 G.”  This result allows a 50% chance of either +1 Strength or +1 Stamina.  The percentile roll result is 33 and I elect to have +1 Strength.  A result of 13 on another d20 indicates a planet with “an atmosphere of more or less Terran quality.”  Planetary Climate is determined with a percentile roll.  A result of 70 establishes our Astronaut's homeworld as Planetary Type 2: Terran Planet without Seasonality.
Assume hydrographic features cover 50% to 75% of the planetary surface.  The climate will vary considerably over the entire surface of the planet, but fixed and unchanging belts of climate occur.  Inhabitants will tend to pick the most favorable and comfortable zones to be settled, making forays into the hinterlands.  As water tends toward the 75% of surface area range, the equatorial and tropical regions develop dense jungle belts.  As the water tends toward 50% of surface area, the equatorial and tropical regions tend toward desert.
“Once the personal characteristics and the planet of birth have been determined for a PC,” section 2.3 explains, “the player will have to decide on the interstellar race to which his character belongs.”  To belong to a particular race, a character must conform to specified characteristic minima/maxima and come from an appropriate planetary type.  The default option, naturally, is human.  We learn that “Humanoids are representative of human races who evolved from the basic racial type during the long isolation of the Interregnum between ForeRunner Civilization and the rise of the current starcultures.”  Presumably, the ForeRunners are the Space Opera equivalent of the Ancients in Traveller.  Transhumans “seem to represent individual evolutionary mutations pointing toward a new stage of [human] racial development.”  There are, however, two Transhuman races, the members of which are Vulcans with the serial numbers filed off.

Most of the playable interstellar races – aside from humans – are anthropomorphic animals:  pithecine, canine, feline, ursoid, avian, and warm-blooded saurians.  The races are presented as types – there may be several (presumably interfertile) races of a given type in the setting galaxy.  For instance, among the feline races, there are the MekPurrs and the Avatars.  “The MekPurrs are the acknowledged masters of cybernetic engineering...” while the Avatars eschew “many of the trapping[s] of technological 'civilization' as decadent...”

Our Astronaut does not meet the requirements for any non-human race other than humanoids or Avians.  Really, who wants to be a humanoid or an Avian?

Height and Weight are derived from from a character's Physique score.  A chart is consulted based on gender and race.  A male human with a Physique of 11 is 180 cm tall and weighs 80 kg.  However, the +1 Strength bonus obtained earlier causes an increase of body mass by 5 - 10%.  A roll of 1d6 results in a 2, so there is an increase of 6%.  The modified weight is therefore 84.8 kg.

The formula for determining Carrying Capacity (CC) is:
( [Physique + Strength + Constitution] / 3) × body mass × racial factor
The CC racial factor for humans is 0.05.  As such, our Astronaut's Carrying Capacity is 51 kg.

Damage factors – representing a character's ability to withstand physical injury – can be calculated thus:
( [Physique + Strength + Constitution + mass] / 10) × racial factor
The DF racial factor for humans is 2.5, indicating a value of 30 for our Astronaut.

Stamina Factor is determined through the following:
(Strength + Constitution) × racial factor
The SF racial factor for humans is 3.0; therefore, the character's Stamina Factor is 75.

In the next post, the character will engage upon a career.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

The Complete Science Fiction Role Playing Game

Art by Bob Charrette

In 1980, Fantasy Games Unlimited published Space Opera.  According to the first paragraph of the rules, “The very title of this game suggests the type of adventures that should await the players – rip-roaring, excitement filled journeys across the void in the great of tradition of Doc Smith's Lensman series and the many other 'space opera' stories of SF.”  So, Space Opera was intended to compete against Traveller.  Interestingly, according to Lawrence Schick in his Heroic Worlds, Space Opera was “successful largely due to similarity to TRAVELLER.”  Certainly there are similarities, but in promoting its difference from Traveller, the game claimed to be “complete.”  By “complete”, the publisher intended “a game that would not need the usually innumerable supplements...”  Everything needed to play was included in the two volumes of rules (the first being 92 pages and the second, 90 pages).  Of course, this didn't preclude FGU from publishing supplements for Space Opera.  In any event, this completeness resulted “complex and detailed” rules according to Schick.  The Introduction admits, “Space Opera is not an easy game” and that “the sheer number of systems can be staggering.”  In an attempt to avoid discouraging potential players, the Introduction also states that “the individual systems are actually fairly simple and quite logical” and further claims that, “For the average campaign [some of] these systems can be ignored at no detriment to the game as a whole.”  Thus, the more complex rules “are supposedly included for the 'hard core' role player who demands such detail and accuracy...”

The cover depicted above is the last of three versions.  (All versions can be seen here.)  This third version (by Bob Charrette) is based upon the second version (by Gene Day).  With the third version we lost cleavage and a goofy-looking alien, but at least we gained a kitty person, a lizard person, and a robot.  Both versions feature something which is NOT a Wookiee posed against the backdrop of a small moon.  Wait...that's no moon.  To be fair, the game's Introduction claims it was partially inspired by “Star Wars from George Lucas.”  There's even a field of psionics called the Force, having both a light side and a dark side.

Space Opera was designed by Ed Simbalist of Chivalry & Sorcery fame, with contributions from Phil McGregor and Mark Ratner.  The setting of Space Opera was derived from Ratner's Space Marines miniatures game.  While there is a default setting – what the game calls a 'future history' – it is meant “as a model for the type of background that can be painted for a role-playing or Empire-level campaign.”  The Space Opera term for Game Master is StarMaster.  It is the StarMaster who designs the galaxy in which the characters have adventures.  StarMasters are assured that the default 'future history' is not the only way Space Opera can be played.  In fact, “Any version of 'future history' is equally acceptable.”

With regard to rolling dice, Space Opera offers some useful advice:
The goal is to keep the action moving.  Dice rolls which serve only to take the StarMaster or the players 'off the hook' by replacing good role-play with a mechanical toss of the 'idiot dice' will tend to slow down the tempo.  For suspense, roll the dice and build up the tension by a lot of talk while doing so.  When the very fate of a player is at stake, dice rolls are again useful to give a 'fair' probability that the character will survive or be successful.  (In the latter case, an arbitrary ruling or even a perfectly correct ruling of the StarMaster which brings a character to disaster, can often breed bad feelings.)  The dice can act as an insulator and keeps things a bit impersonal.
The game also explains the responsibilities of the StarMaster.  Notably...
He must be fair, interpreting the spirit rather than just the letter of the rules.  He must avoid personal involvement himself – a sometimes difficult thing to do because his role as the neutral opposition to the characters can occasionally bring out his own competitive spirit.  But he must suppress this because, as referee, he holds all of the cards and can subconsciously 'rig' events to suit himself if he is not careful.  Such neutrality is essential, for one of the tasks of the StarMaster is to act as a neutral go-between when characters secretly or individually act behind the backs of their comrades or set themselves up in opposition to the very Authorities in power – NPCs whom the StarMaster controls.
The character record sheet included with Space Opera is arguably the blandest character sheet ever published.

It doesn't even display the title of the game.  Conspicuously absent is a disclaimer granting permission to make copies for personal use only.  Given how unlikely it would be that anyone would pay money for this thing, such a disclaimer was apparently deemed unnecessary.  A bland character sheet is not necessarily a bad character sheet, but the organization of the Space Opera character record sheet leaves much to be desired.  There are fourteen Personal Characteristics, including three Aptitudes:  General Technical, Mechanical, and Electronics.  On the character sheet, these Personal Characteristics are interspersed with 'Secondary' Characteristics without rhyme or reason.  Furthermore, Space Opera is a skill-based game.  Some skill-based games have character sheets that list all (or most) of the game's skills.  This is fine and well if there are less than a hundred skills and they are presented in some sort of order.  Space Opera has over a hundred skills and they are listed on the character record sheet.  These skills are sorted into five types, but there is no alphabetization within a type.  Really, you're better off with a sheet of notebook paper.

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Not Quite Gamma World

Art by Martin King

In 1987, TSR published the board game GAMMARAUDERS, “a wahoo brawl of world conquest and spiffy weapons with fins!”  Inspired in part by the Gamma World franchise, GAMMARAUDERS takes place in the post-apocalyptic Gamma Age.  As the above quote suggests, the premise was not entirely serious.  In the game, players control giant, cybernetic animals called bioborgs.  The bioborgs fight one another as well as more conventional military forces (known as 'popcorn').  Cryptic Alliances are also part of the game; functioning as factions.  However, the GAMMARAUDERS Cryptic Alliances are not the same as those in Gamma World.  Included with the game was a twenty page booklet “of bioborg background, Cryptic Alliance news, and world history.”  It was an interesting decision to include twenty pages of unnecessary background details for a board game.  It's almost as if the publishers had additional plans for the setting.

Given the reasonable assumption that a significant amount of overlap exists between comic book readers and RPG enthusiasts, DC Comics published a few official Dungeons & Dragons titles in the late 80s.  Also published was a GAMMARAUDERS comic book, initially written by Peter Gillis.  How many comic books have been based on board games?  Anyway, the early issues included rules for The GAMMARAUDERS (Extremely Tiny) Roleplaying System authored by Zeb Cook (or, as he introduced himself, Major Zeb of the Gammarauders Science Patrol).  So, we have a role-playing system published in a comic book based on a board game partially inspired by a role-playing game.

Included in the first issue was an essay by Jim Ward explaining role-playing games.  The essay began:  “We at TSR freely admit we do not have all the answers on what role playing is or isn't.”  He also offered:  “Role Playing at its simplest is putting yourself in someone else's shoes.”  Naturally, Ward took the opportunity to plug various TSR games.  Cook also made an effort to “explain what roleplaying games are all about.”  In his words:  “It's simple – roleplaying games are make-believe.”  He continued, “The rules are supposed to tell you who shot whom and settle arguments and the like.”

The GAMMARAUDERS (Extremely Tiny) Roleplaying System (hereinafter GETRS) version of a Game Master is called the Boss in the first installment, but the Keeper thereafter.

Each Player Character is a bioborg handler with five abilities.
Abilities are the things that tell you what your Character is like.  Each ability is rated 1 to 6.  A 1 means you're just not very good in that area.  A 6 makes you about the best there is with that ability.
Science – “your understanding of things – well, scientific.”
Style – “your ability to make an impression on others, the way you want it to be made.”
Rumble – “your skill in a fight.”
Bod – “your muscles and size”
Control – “your ability to keep your cool commanding your bioborg in the heat of action.”

Roll 1d6 (ignoring rolls of 6) for each of five ability scores, assigning those scores as desired.

Each player chooses a Complex for his or her Character:
It can be anything you want.  Perhaps he can't abide the color red.  Maybe she is touchy about her height.  He can even loathe his own bioborg, forever envious of the fine creatures other handlers have.  Choose something you can have fun with.
Roll 1d6 to determine the severity of the Complex.  Finally, “Decide all the other stuff, like appearance, dress, accent, and anything else that seems interesting.”  (A handler's name and gender are decided upon before any other step.)

Player Characters “are assigned bioborgs according to the whim of the Keeper...”  Similar to abilities, bioborgs have “numerical stats.”

Bod – “measure of size and fighting ability.”  (Roll 1d6 and multiply by 10)
Brains – “general smarts of the bioborg...(roll 1 die and divide the result by 2, rounding fractions up).”
Control – “the bioborg's willpower to ignore the orders of its handler and even make him do things he doesn't want.”  (Roll 1d6)
Armament – the number of weapons the bioborg can have at one time.  (Bod / 10)
Power – “the number of pods the bioborg can eat without becoming seriously ill.  Pods are the all-important fuel source for the bioborg's weapons (and 'most everything else).”  (Roll 2d6)

Bioborgs also have Complexes.  “These are secretly decided by the Keeper.”

The Gamma Age is populated by “factoids” that look like CRT terminals with robotic feet.
They answer every question – completely and literally.  Never, never ask a factoid what's new.  It will follow you for the rest of your existence, displaying every new thing on its screen.  Attempts to find out where they come from have proven equally futile.  It is quite possible that factoids know everything in the universe.  The problem is finding the right questions to ask.
In game terms, “A factoid will be able to answer any question on a die roll of 1 - 5.”

GERTS uses “the scientific principle known as Fistsfulls of Dice.”  When a character “tries to do something difficult,” roll a number of dice equal to the appropriate ability.  If the result of at least one of the dice equals the ability score, the character succeeds.  Easier tasks increase the number of dice to be rolled; harder tasks reduce the number of dice.

With regard to fighting, “You can do just about anything reasonable (and some things unreasonable).”  However, “You can only do one basic thing (shoot, run, shoot and run, etc.) in a turn.”  Initiative is determined by rolling against Control.
The person who makes the most successful rolls (i.e. rolls his Control score) goes first and so on until everyone has a chance to act.  If no one rolls his score, the person who rolled the most dice goes first and so on.  If it is a tie, those characters do everything all at once.
A weapon inflicts damage according to the results of a number of dice indicated in the weapon's description.  For instance, a “Handy-Dandy Blaster Pistol” inflicts two dice of damage.
When punching, kicking, or otherwise using your body, you do 1 point of Bod damage for each successful die roll you make.  If your Bod is greater than your Rumble, you add one to this result.
When a character's Bod is reduced to zero, that character is “out of play (until the next Big Scene Change).”  (Cook neglected to discuss the topic of scene changes.)

To determine a handler's running speed (in yards) for any given span of thirty seconds, roll a number of dice equal to the handler's Bod score and multiply by ten.  “Bioborgs use the same method to determine how far they move, but multiply the result by 50.”

Handlers enter into Contracts.  Small Contracts have a value of 1 to 6, “good Contracts are 7 to 12, big Contracts are 13 to 18, and Whoppers are 19 or more.”  The value of a Contract is representative of “its difficulty or length of service.”  A handler must fulfill a contract before he or she can enter into a new Contract.  “The Keeper will have fun negotiating contracts with the players.”

If a handler purchases an item, his or her current Contract value is reduced by the item's cost.  When the value of a handler's Contract is reduced to zero, “he's broke (a common situation).”  (The aforementioned “Handy-Dandy Blaster Pistol” has a cost of 1 while “Laso-Binoculars” cost 2.) 

In GERTS, there are two types of equipment; handlers have Personal Equipment while bioborgs have Fittings.  “Both types of equipment are governed by one basic rule:  You have to make things up.”  Each bioborg Fitting is either a Weapon or Defense.

In creating a Fitting:
Give the item a great name by combining meaningless phrases to make something that sounds really powerful.  Choose one term from each of columns A and B, and combine these with the appropriate Weapon or Defense name.

Weapons are assigned “a number of dice of damage (from to 2 to 12)” and a range “from 0 (hand-to-hand) to 1000 yards.”  A defense “confers complete immunity to one type of weapon” and “reduces the damage done by other attacks by a set number of dice, from 1 to 6.”  Every Fitting has a Pod Use Number ranging from one to three.  Whenever a Fitting is used, roll dice equal to the Pod Use Number.  If the result of any of those dice equals the Pod Use Number, “one pod carried by bioborg has been drained of power.”  The cost of a Fitting “is equal to the number of dice of damage or protection plus one die roll.”

Art by Martin King