Sunday, November 18, 2018

A Space Odyssey (spoilers)

It's 1984.  You know what would be great?  Connecting Star Frontiers to a popular science fiction franchise.  This would bring attention to the game and drive its future success.  Let's see...FASA has the rights to Star Trek and The Last Starfighter.  The third film in the Star Wars trilogy was released in '83, so public interest will probably wane...  Perhaps it would be best to get in on the ground floor of an upcoming film and ride its coat tails.  How about Dune ?  It's set to be a merchandising bonanza.  Also, Herbert's series is specifically listed as suggested reading on the inside back cover of the Star Frontiers rules.  But wait... MGM is releasing a sequel to 2001.  Never mind that it's not really space opera.  Never mind that many of the game's target demographic had yet to be born when the original film was released.  Kubrick's cinematic masterpiece is timeless; surely it can be easily adapted into an engaging role playing experience.

Such may as well have been the thought processes of one or more persons at TSR.  Regardless, we have been gifted with 2001 A Space Odyssey – “A Special Star Frontiers® Adventure Module.”  The task of writing this special module fell to Frank Mentzer.

The module is presented in four chapters, roughly analogous to the segments of the film:  Dawn of Man, Lunar Excursion, Jupiter Mission, and Through the Star Gate.  The Introduction provides an overview of the module's narrative:
At critical points in Mankind's history, an alien device, a monolith, appears and provides a key to the future.  Through this adventure, the player characters are present each time a monolith appears.  In each case, whether or not Mankind successfully enters the future offered by the monolith depends on how the player characters react and how much they learn about themselves and their universe.
Obviously, the standard game setting is not used.  “If you put this adventure in your STAR FRONTIERS® game, place it back in time before humans contact the other races.”  However, the adventure can be modified for the other intelligent races of Star Frontiers.
For example, in a dralasite version of chapter one, the monolith might teach cooperation to primitive, independent dralasites.  In a Yazirian version, the monolith might instigate the custom of life-enemies.
We are informed, “This special STAR FRONTIERS® module requires both ALPHA DAWN and KNIGHT HAWKS box sets.”  In reality, the Knight Hawks set is only needed for the Piloting skill and to provide an assortment of counters.  “All spaceflight in this adventure takes place in chapters 2 – 4,” the Introduction states, “Those chapters explain when and how to handle the necessary spaceflight.”

North is to the right
In chapter one, player characters control man-apes in the African wilderness of four million years ago.  Each has the same ability scores.  Events occur in three phases:  Survival (2 game days), Changes (2 game days), and Conquest (3 – 5 game days).  During the Survival phase, the man-apes cope with carnivores and an enemy tribe while trying to obtain sufficient food and water for survival.  A day without water reduces Stamina by 1d10; a day without food reduces Stamina by 1d5.  In the Changes phase, the monolith appears.  On the second day, “each PC man-ape visiting the monolith gains one skill” determined on the Skill Chart (at left).  Man-apes can learn skills from one another.  Player characters achieve the goal of the Conquest phase “when (1) they have slain a carnivore, and (2) the enemy tribe has surrendered.”

Chapter two takes place in 1994 and we learn, “The mega-corporations (which will eventually evolve into Pan Galactic, of the normal STAR FRONTIERS® game setting) dominate the quality of life.”  Players create original characters that reside “on Station One, the largest of three orbital cities floating above the Earth.”  Unlike the usual character generation procedure, a player may allocate a total of twelve Skill Levels among up to five skills (“with a maximum of 5 in any one Skill”).  The Computer and Technician skills are required and “at least 2 of [the skills] must be from the character's PSA.”  Each player then distributes forty additional points among the character's abilities.  “Finally, each player should secretly choose a nationality:  American, Russian, Chinese, or Other.”  Players are informed, “there has been a standing reward of 1,000 CR for anyone able to produce an item created by an extra-terrestrial life form.”

The player characters are recruited by American authorities to locate a presumed extraterrestrial artifact on the moon.  There are nineteen magnetic anomalies on the Lunar map, one of which is randomly determined to be caused by the artifact.  (Although the module refers to squares on the Lunar map, the map itself displays hexes.)  Time is of the essence since the Chinese will arrive in sixty hours to perform their own explorations.  One player character is secretly approached by a Russian agent and another by a Chinese agent.  Respectively, the agents offer 50 credits “to openly claim [the anomaly] in the name of his country, instead of the U.S.A.”  Whether or not the characters accept this generous offer, several NPCs will be working for the Russians or Chinese.  Player characters – either individually or in teams – explore the various anomalies using provided equipment.  “After the large anomaly is pinpointed, all characters involved in the search are detained,” we learn, “The characters never learn the reason for the secrecy...”  Outside the presence of the player characters, “a group of experts and technicians excavate around [the monolith].”  Then the monolith “emits a series of five electronic shrieks.”  One wonders what the players could learn about themselves and their universe via this chapter.

The third chapter takes place on board the USS Discovery and each player controls one of the crew members from the film (Dave Bowman and Frank Poole).  If there are more than two players, one or more of the hibernating astronauts should be used (Kaminski, Hunter and Whitehead – I don't know where Whitehead came from, in the film it was Kimball).  Any additional characters should not be created randomly; we are instructed, “Design the characters to be useful.”

Two new skills are described:  Astronomy (“a new STAR FRONTIERS® technological skill”) and System Navigation (“a new spaceship skill for use with this module only”).  According to Knight Hawks, the Piloting skill can only be acquired by characters with six levels of Technician and two levels of Computer.  Yet this requirement is overlooked in 2001, William Hunter has Piloting 1 but only Technician 3.

As in the film, the HAL 9000 computer works to eliminate the crew and we are advised, “Play HAL very cleverly.”  The module supplies examples of what HAL can do against the characters.  Before HAL attacks, player characters can use a Psycho-Pathology subskill to have HAL “remain calm for another 1 – 6 hours.”  Ultimately, the player characters will have to disconnect HAL.  Afterwards, player characters will need to handle the shipboard tasks manually.  To this end, ship operations and equipment repair are described in thrilling detail.  There are five paragraphs explaining how doors work.  Eventually, the characters watch a briefing tape relating that a monolith was found in the crater Tycho (or “Substitute the name of the crater in which the monolith was found in your game”) thirteen months previously (even though chapter two took place in 1994 and the Discovery was launched on May 14, 2002).  At the conclusion of chapter three, the player characters encounter a giant monolith.  They have the choice of investigating the monolith (and proceeding to chapter four) or staying with the ship (and ending the adventure).

Most of the fourth chapter consists of the referee reading about a page of boxed text.  One of the passages is:
You are above a world of incredible size – much larger than Earth.  But there must be no atmosphere; all the surface details are clear, to the remote and flat horizon.  The surface is marked in huge patterns, probably miles across, of squares, triangles, polygons...and in them, here and there, gaping black shafts, much like the chasm from which you just emerged.
The sky is disturbing.  There are no stars, nor even the blackness of space, but only a milky whiteness.  But no; there are tiny black dots, here and there, scattered across the sky.  They seem oddly familiar – and then you realize that it looks like a photographic negative of the Milky Way.
Eventually, the characters arrive “in a place nearly identical to a hotel suite in the United States of America.”  The referee is instructed to provide “map E, the Hotel Suite Layout, to the players.”  Sadly, no such map is included with the module.  “The entire hotel suite is a creation of the mind of an alien being, created to reassure, but not deceive, the characters.”  Upon falling asleep, each character has a dream wherein he encounters “an alien being – a flickering flame of light, about 7 feet tall.”  Via an undescribed means of communication, the alien presents a range of five options:
  1. The character may return to the Dawn of Man, and help to teach the man-apes the basics of survival.
  2. The character may return to Earth's Moon, in the year 2015, to be rescued.
  3. The character may immediately return to the Discovery, to await rescue, but with no memory of the passage of the Star Gate.
  4. The character may become a higher form of life, an energy being, with no use or concern for material form.
  5. The character may go to an alien planet where another race faces a critical juncture, much live the Dawn of Man the crossroads of knowledge or extinction and help that race along the path to survival.
The module ends with another section of boxed text, the last line of which is:
And now it comes, and it is time to go; to take the final step on this greatest of all journeys; onward, to complete your Space Odyssey.
If you choose to lose your memory, can it really be a journey?

Sunday, November 4, 2018

Volturnus Apocrypha (spoilers)

Art by Larry Elmore

Almost half of the last page of Starspawn of Volturnus consists of “Theta Section: Suggested Additional Adventures.”  We are informed that, “There are many additional adventures which player characters could have on Volturnus at a later time in the referee's campaign.”

The first suggestion regards Sathar remaining on Volturnus after the retreat of their forces.  Of course, they cannot be allowed at remain at large.  “Who knows what evil plots they may be hatching?”  Player characters might have a difficult time against Sathar guerillas, especially since the Sathar have a familiarity with – and perhaps some degree of control over – various Volturnian fauna (such as quickdeaths, slithers, and cyboslugs).

The Star Devil is still at large and his organization is not yet extinct on Volturnus. (“There are undoubtedly a few of the pirates left...”)  I am not assuming the Star Devil's gender; the computer in Slave City One contains “a list of several planets on which he has operations.”

Another suggestion is...
Solving the mystery of Lizard Head rock.  This strange rock formation is shaped like a giant lizard's head.  The Eorna have always wondered about it, what it is, where it came from, who made it, etc.  They have heard that there are large numbers of Yernoids in that area, but have never investigated these reports.
Yernoids were introduced in Starspawn, inhabiting the same mound area as the Mechanons.  They “are man-sized bipedal dinosaurs which have developed a rudimentary intelligence, similar to an ape's.”  Their description in the Alien Creature Update File indicates they are “30% likely to be armed with clubs.”  The illustration shows a Yernoid brandishing a spear.  One might think that a tool using species would be an excellent prospect for the Eorna's evolution program.  Evidently, the Eorna do not think so.

The actual location of Lizard Head rock is not disclosed; however, a hex marked with an 'L' appears near the eastern edge of the Volturnus map (shown below).

Nestled in the Crystal Mountains just north of the Gas Mist Mountains, 'L' is within commuting distance to an “unusual rock formation.”  The line of mottled green hexes represents cliffs.  The reddish hexes are lava beds and the purple hexes are a techtonic (sic) area.

Last and probably least, we learn...
The Ul-Mor left the sea to live on the shore; they have legends of other peoples like themselves who did not.  There may be an entire race of sea-dwelling Ul-Mor who are as intelligent as their land living cousins.  They would be of enormous assistance in any deep sea mining operations...
Aside from the three Volturnus modules, TSR published one other book featuring that planet – Villains of Volturnus.  In 1982, TSR established its education department.  This department developed the Endless Quest™ series of gamebooks with branching-path plotlines.  Lake Geneva resident Jean Blashfield was education editor of this department and she wrote Villains of Volturnus, the eighth of the Endless Quest™ books and the first not written by Rose Estes.  The final pages of the book are advertisements for other Endless Quest™ books, the basic D&D set, and, naturally enough, Star Frontiers.

The second-person protagonist of Villains of Volturnus is Kyiki, child of the chief of the Universal Minerals company.  So as to accommodate reader identification, no gender is specified for Kyiki.  In Villains of Volturnus, travel to Volturnus from Kyiki's home world takes a matter of hours.  At the beginning of the book, Kyiki is aboard a Universal Minerals research vessel.  Also on board is Kyiki's tutor, a Vrusk named Jac (or perhaps someone impersonating Jac).  Unlike the with the modules, some information is known about Volturnus.  For instance, Kyiki has studied the Eorna:  “A few Eorna still live on Volturnus, but most were killed by the Sathar, enemy of all civilized planets.”  (No Eorna actually appear in the book.)

There are four groups of villains that can be encountered in the plot:  (1) pirates, (2) kidnappers, (3) surveyors, and (4) two Yazirians and a “large, fierce-looking human” in a skimmer.  The skimmer crew only appear to reunite Kyiki with Jac and, theoretically, they could be associated with any of the other three groups.  However, given that they leave Kyiki unguarded, it seems unlikely that they are with the kidnappers.

The research ship is evacuated not due to pirates but because it falls into the atmosphere of Volturnus.  Kyiki – with or without Jac – uses a Personal Safety Pod to reach the surface.  A hovercycle is stored in the pod.  If Jac and Kyiki ride the hovercycle, it is discovered that Jac is, in reality, a Dralasite using a holobelt to appear as Jac.  'Holobelt' is Blashfield's version of the Star Frontiers holo screen, even though the rules do not describe the holo screen control unit as a belt.  If Jac and Kyiki don't ride the hovercycle, then Jac is evidently not an imposter.

The so-called pirates live in a shanty town and their piracy consists of robbing a Universal Minerals cargo ship (once the ship lands and unloads the cargo).

The kidnappers reside in the remains of an underground Eorna city.  The kidnappers work for the Sathar, but the kidnapping endeavor is apparently something aside from their normal duties, whatever they may be.  The leader of the “kidnappers” is the aptly named Boss and only the Boss interacts directly with the Sathar.  One of his underlings claims, “Sometimes I swear he's a hologram and all we're seeing is lots of images of him!”  This suspicion is borne out when Kyiki discovers a holo disc of the Boss (or “holodisc” as Blashfield would have it).  Although the book does not suggest it, these facts are consistent with the Boss actually being a Sathar (or any number of Sathar).

The surveyors were employees of Universal Minerals who have decided to work for the Sathar.  The surveyors plan on advising the Sathar “to bring enough explosives to bring the desert down into these caves, so all they'll have to do is process the rubble.”

In one branch of the story, there is a time machine of unknown provenance.  (The Elmore illustration above depicts this time machine.)  Via the time machine, it is possible to enter into a narrative time loop.  Once in the time loop, it is possible to make a choice resulting in one of seven endpoints and there are two decision points that lead out of the loop.

Blashfield dutifully incorporates various Star Frontiers details in her book.  In terms of equipment, Kyiki has a vibroknife and a stunstick.  In terms of animals, Blashfield mentions lopers and rasties (and a quickdeath makes an appearance).  The alien fungus from Starspawn is also present in Villains of Volturnus.  Its hydrogen emitting properties are not addressed, but its quicksand consistency and nitrous oxide generation brings about one of the story's endings.  Blashfield even has a scene where the peculiar humor of Dralasites is addressed.

Through various choices, Kyiki can encounter the Ul-Mor, Edestekai, and Kurabanda.  While Blashfield presents the Ul-Mor and Edestekai much how they are described in the modules, the Kurabanda do not appear in their natural environment.  Instead, they are flunkies of the kidnappers and surveyors.  According to Planet of Mystery, Kurabanda resemble Tarsier monkeys.  The illustrations in Villains of Volturnus do a better job of conveying this than the illustrations in the modules.

Blashfield also provides some original details about Volturnus.  We learn that the Ul-Mor herd duck-like (but flightless) birds called kwidges.  Edestekai cultivate “morda and arbon” for food.  Other details approach the whimsical.  At one point, Kyiki has the option of riding “a giant leaf, perhaps three meters in diameter” as it is carried by the wind.  In a wooded area, Kyiki and Jac observe the following:
Before you is a patch a low-growing plants with large, dangling, blue crystals instead of flowers.  A small blue creature shaped like a box with legs trundles over to one of the plants and begins to nibble the crystal with a faint crunching sound.
Kyiki can also gain a pet named Pongo – “a green furry animal with skin-covered wings and a big mouth like a frog's.”

Sunday, October 21, 2018

The Volturnus Trilogy (part III) (spoilers)

In the second part of The Volturnus Adventure – Volturnus, Planet of Mystery – the player characters meet the Eorna, a “gentle race of intelligent dinosaurs” nearly destroyed by the Sathar during “the Day of Doom.”  The Eorna inform the characters that the Sathar left an artifact on Volturnus “that would summon a Sathar battle fleet if space travelling beings are detected within the Zebulon star system.”  The appearance of the “pirates” and the expeditions would likely have caused the artifact to activate.  “There is a chance, however, that the device has not yet sent for the battle fleet.”  The Eorna ask the party to go to the artifact and “attempt to prevent it from calling the Sathar fleet.”  Apparently, destruction of the artifact isn't a viable option.  This would make more sense if the artifact sent a regular signal and discontinuance of the signal would be enough to alert the Sathar.  Due to their diminishing numbers, the Eorna are reluctant to stop the artifact “because it is almost certain to have both internal and external defenses.”

The artifact is pyramidal in shape, having a base of 40m × 40m.  It is controlled by a disembodied Sathar brain floating in a flask.  The brain controls nine slavebots, “cybernetic combinations of living beings and machines.”  The module describes them thus:
As you look into this chamber, you see three horrid-looking Eorna who gaze at you blankly for a moment.  You immediately see that there are strange assemblies of wires protruding from their heads, and that their flesh has a strange discolored appearance.
This is a nice touch of the macabre.  Anyway, the party finds that the artifact has transmitted its alert and they can extract from the artifact computer the following information:
Transmission received.  Attack fleet heading Volturnus at full operational readiness.  Attack on planet will begin in two weeks standard time.  Initiate standard procedures.
The module has two possible endings, one if there is an intent to continue with the final module and another if the adventure concludes.  In either ending, the characters can use technology in the artifact to communicate instantaneously with Truane's Star.  If the next module will not be used, “the Truane's Star battle fleet can reach Volturnus in time to intercept the Sathar.”  The good guys win.  The end.  If the final module will be played, “The government of Truane's Star will promise to send warships as soon as possible, but doubt that any ships can arrive before the Sathar attack begins.”

Just as Volturnus, Planet of Mystery has two possible endings, Starspawn of Volturnus has two possible beginnings:  one if the previous module had been played and the other if Starspawn is to be played by itself.  When the second module is played in isolation, events of the first module are read to the players as background and the characters are supposed to have participated in those events.  When Starspawn is played in isolation, the player characters “have been recruited by the government of Truane's Star and sent to Volturnus as government agents [to] render any assistance possible” against the Sathar attack.  It is not discussed how the government learned of this information, but the characters “are met by a delegation of Eorna...”

So, the final Volturnus module deals with an impending Sathar invasion; the “pirate” plotline is abandoned.  The Eorna present their strategy of countering the Sathar attack to the party:
The plan is to unite the races of Volturnus in a common effort against the Sathar.  Although the races are suspicious of each other, it is possible that you, as impartial aliens, could overcome these suspicions and help them to fight the Sathar.
This sort of undertaking is sometimes known as Flash Gordon diplomacy.  There are four sections of the module in which the player characters interact with the Volturnus races, one section for each race.  The Ul-Mor, Kurabanda, and Edestekai were introduced in the two prior modules.  The Mechanons first appear in Starspawn.  These four sections “may be played in whatever order the party decides to attempt them.”

The Mechanons are advanced robots, “loosely classified as an intelligent race.”  Starspawn explains their origin:
The Mechanons evolved from Eorna robots.  A large number of robots, including robot brains, survived the first Sathar attack.  Some were linked to self-programming computers.  Without Eorna guidance, groups of these robot brain/computer teams began building new robots.  Improvements were added bit by bit, and eventually a group of self-programming super robots evolved.  Over a long period of time, and with more and more refinements, these became the Mechanons.
Having no knowledge of their true origins, the Mechanons “believe that a machine god ...created them to do its will.”  In another instance of robot vilification, the will of the machine god “is to exterminate biological life and replace it with Mechanons.”  The Intelligent Alien Update File for the Mechanons claims, “It is entirely possible that at some time in the future, the Mechanons could present a tremendous threat to the Frontier Worlds.”

The Mechanons reside within some “strange mounds in the southwest of the desert.”  The mounds also house the controls of an “automated system of planetary defenses.”  The Eorna think that activating what remains of the system may be useful against the Sathar attack (although the system didn't seem to be especially effective during the original Day of Doom).  The structure of the scenario suggests that the player characters will fight their way through much of the Mechanon complex before they have an audience with the Council of Mechanons.  “If the party makes reasonable arguments for joining the alliance,” we are told, “the Mechanons will reluctantly decide to help fight the Sathar.”

The Mechanons have three prisoners – one each of the Ul-Mor, Kurabanda, and Edestekai – who “find it almost impossible to get along together.”  However, the three prisoners “will have heard of the player characters (if the players have played in CRASH ON VOLTURNUS and VOLTURNUS, PLANET OF MYSTERY) and will be eager to help the player characters and themselves escape.”  This illustrates an important point, a party that has participated in the first two modules will have an advantage in that they are known to the three races they are trying to unite.  Even if Starspawn is played in isolation, escaping with the three prisoners should facilitate acceptance of the party by the various races.  The module does not address this.

Three “elite Mechanon guard robots” act as sentries for the Eorna Planetary Defense Control Room.  The room has additional defenses and traps which the Eorna neglect to describe or even mention to the party.  Most noteworthy is “an Eorna hypnosis machine” that causes characters who fail a Logic check to...
...see an illusion of deep space, with galaxies far off in the distance.  Lunging at them out of the void of space will be a horrible beast the size of a huge dragon.
Panic ensues.  I would think that an illusion of an empty room, being more plausible, might be more effective at protecting the contents of the room.

To convince the Ul-Mor into cooperating with the other races of Volturnus, the party must participate in “the Great Game.”  This is an important event among the Ul-Mor tribes:  “The winner of the game has the coming New Year named after him...”  The Great Game is somewhat like combative polo played on an obstacle course – complete with a sand shark.  About two-and-a-half pages of the thirty-two page module describe the rules of the Great Game and the inner cover is devoted to a map of the field on which the game is played.  A player character need not win for the Ul-Mor to join the alliance, but at least one member of the party must “stay mounted throughout the Great Game” to impress them enough to gain their military support.

To enlist the Kurabanda into the alliance, the player characters must retrieve a “Sacred Idol.”  Said idol was “stolen” by a giant Volturnian eagle (considered a demon by the Kurabanda) and taken “to the Demon's Temple in the forbidden area.”  The “forbidden area” is a huge crater and “the Demon's Temple” is a pinnacle in the center upon which the eagle nests.  The characters must climb the pinnacle because random explosions of hydrogen occur in the air over the crater.  The hydrogen is emitted by an alien fungus brought to Volturnus via the meteorite that caused the crater.

Edestekai society is heavily influenced by religion; interaction is governed by elaborate rituals and the leaders are priests.  The Edestekai god of justice is embodied by a quickdeath, a type of mutated feline.  In the first module, player characters were required to slay a quickdeath.  To convince the Edestekai to join the alliance, the party must capture a live quickdeath.  (The quickdeath kept by the temple has recently died.)  At one-and-a-half pages, the Edestekai section of the module is the briefest.

The penultimate section regards the much anticipated Battle of Volturnus, a diagram of which is presented above.  The Sathar land ground forces and they march toward the Eorna center of power.  “It is clear that if the Sathar penetrate the Eorna complex below Volkos,” the module says, “Volturnus is doomed.”  Why the Sathar do not employ any sort of air support is not explained.  (The defenders have air support in the form of Kurabanda hang gliders.)  Given that the defense factions muster at the Eorna city, they must have known ahead of time what the Sathar planned.

Inserting player characters into a large-scale battle in a meaningful way can be a difficult prospect; Starspawn does a decent job of accomplishing this.  There are four 'encounters' in the battle, each a distinct skirmish in which the characters participate and which have a cumulative effect on the overall battle.  Each encounter focuses on troops from one of the Volturnus races.  If a given race was not recruited by the player characters, then those forces are not available for the battle and the associated encounter is automatically lost.  Encounter 1 regards the Mechanons attempting to destroy a Sathar cannon.  In Encounter 2, Sathar attack the Edestekai with a couple of quickdeaths.  (Because of the religious significance the Edestekai attach to quickdeaths, they avoid attacking them and they “must make a special morale check.”)  In Encounter 3, the Sathar attack with “cybodragons” that occasionally require replacement power packs during the course of the battle.  Encounter 4 has the Ul-Mor attempting to charge Sathar lines.  The player characters have specific goals for each encounter.  A 'Fortunes of War' table is consulted after every encounter.  If “All the player characters are killed,” the table helpfully informs us, “Do not play any more encounters.”

A percentile roll determines whether the overall battle is won or lost.  For every Volturnus race at the battle, there is a 10% chance of victory.  Since the Eorna will necessarily be present, there is at least a 10% chance of winning.  For each successful encounter, the chances of winning increase by 10%.  This means there is a 90% chance of victory if all five races fight in the battle and all four encounters are successful.  Even if the Volturnus forces lose the battle, it is possible for the Eorna to hold out in their complex until the Truane's Star battle fleet arrives.

The final encounter is somewhat anticlimactic:  “This section contains no action encounters.”  The referee merely reads an epilogue.  The Truane's Star battle fleet finds “an ancient orbiter still revolving in a very wide orbit around Volturnus.”  The orbiter contains fifty thousand fertile Eorna eggs in cryogenic storage.  Thus, the Eorna race is saved.  These eggs are the titular Starspawn of Volturnus.  Admittedly, 'Starspawn' sounds neat, but the eggs have almost nothing to do with the module.  Something like Warlords of Volturnus would have been more apt.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

The Volturnus Trilogy (part II) (spoilers)

Art by Jim Burns

Lawrence Schick, in his Heroic Worlds, says the following about the second installment of the initial offering of three Star Frontiers adventure modules:
Scenario, sequel to “SF-0”: the adventurers, still marooned on Volturnus, must make their way across the planet to a forest.  Once there, the alien Kurabanda may be able to put them in touch with other offworlders who can rescue them.  Unfortunately, the offworlders turn out to be Sathar pirates.  Includes two new intelligent races and six new creatures.
This statement is wrong in several ways. The journey “across the planet” is only about a hundred miles.  The “other offworlders who can rescue them” are instead presented as “Demons from the Sky” who take prisoners.  In these circumstances, expectations of rescue might be optimistic.  In the previous post, I discussed how the so-called pirates do not conform to common definitions of pirates but since the module refers to them as pirates, I will give this a pass.  The pirates, however, are not Sathar nor are they associated with Sathar.  There are briefings for three intelligent races, not two.  Technically, one of the races, the Eorna, is briefly mentioned in the first module.  However, that first module admonishes the referee, “It is very important that no hint of the Eorna be given to the characters.”  The alien creature update file describes twelve new creatures, not six.  One can quibble that a couple of the “creatures” are plants, but there are certainly more than six non-plant creatures presented in the module.  On the other hand, the marooned part is totally accurate.  Schick should have merely summarized the back cover copy.

There is a half-page summary of the events of the prior adventure if the players did not participate in it.  Given that the first adventure is bundled with the Star Frontiers rules, there's no reason not to have played it.  Regardless, the Ul-Mor inform the party there are people like the player characters “living with the Kurabanda, a foolish tree-dwelling race.”  The presumption is that these others are survivors from the first expedition.  An Ul-Mor guide leads the characters part of the way to the Kurabanda, but they must travel the final leg of the journey themselves.  Upon reaching the bachanda tree forest, they find “a raging battle between ten of the Star Devil's men and the Kurabanda.”  The “pirates” will attack the player characters even if they don't come to the aid of Kurabanda.  When five pirates have died, the remainder will attempt to escape; they “will not allow themselves to be captured alive, as they know the Kurabanda would torture them to death.”  I suppose its possible for a pirate to be knocked out.

According to the briefing update, “A Kurabanda stands 1.2 meters tall and looks somewhat like a tarsier monkey.”  We learn that “Kurabanda are also natural practical jokers.”  A paragraph is spent describing four typical practical jokes:  The Fake Vine Joke, Snipe Hunting, The Fire Joke, and the Flea Joke.  After the battle, the characters are taken to the Kurabanda village and, eventually, presented to the chief.  Because the party (presumably) helped in the fight against the pirates, the chief “will be favorably impressed” but the players don't know this.  After conversing with the party, the actions of the chief depends upon the extent to which he trusts the characters.  Their are five possible reactions:  Complete trust, Partial trust, Insulted, Greatly insulted, and Distrusted.  The last two reactions result in the death of the characters.  With the most favorable reaction, the chief conveys information necessary for the continuation of the adventure.  With the partial trust reaction, the characters are given an opportunity to improve their standing.  If the chief is insulted, “he will offer the party many, many gifts of furs, arrows, and wives.”  These must be accepted or the characters will be killed.

Anyway, two members of the first expedition stayed with the Kurabanda (which is how the Kurabanda learned to converse in Pan Galactic).  The two explorers were taken by the space pirates and the Kurabanda can direct the player characters to a pirate outpost.  The party is expected to raid the outpost and defeat four Humans and two combat robots.  From the outpost computer, the player characters...
...can learn that the pirates have discovered rich deposits of vibrillium and tomarillium in the hills of Volturnus.  They have discovered an intelligent race, the Edestekai, living in the hills and have taken advantage of their religious beliefs to enslave them.  They accomplish this by capturing priests, planting radio receivers in their brains, and convincing them that the voices they then hear are the voices of the gods.  Of course, the voices are the pirates, telling them they must serve and obey the Star Devil and his men.
Also in the computer is information that the expedition members have been taken to the pirate mining town awesomely named Slave City One.  Other than information, the players can gain equipment from the outpost; they can also obtain a jetcopter.

In the middle of the module, a briefing update describes the enslaved race:
          The Edestekai are an intelligent race descended from Volturnian arthropods.  They are trilaterally symetrical,  That is, if their bodies were divided lengthwise into three equal parts, the parts would be mirror images of each other.
          The body of an Edestekai is shaped like a giant peanut with three bulbous lobes on top.  Three eyes are arranged in a circle around the narrowest part of the body, the midpoint or waist.  The eyes are arranged in such a way that the Edestekai have a 360 degree field of vision.
          Edestekai have three lower limbs arranged like a tripod.  The first and largest joint on each of these limbs is covered with a hard extension of shell and serves as a foot.  The limb continues to a second and third joints which are roughly analogous to a Human elbow and wrist.  Below the third joint are three tentacles which are used for grasping and manipulating objects.
          Underneath their bodies, Edestekai have a number of special thick cilia, or hair-like filaments.  These cilia are used as a base to support the body when the limbs are extended completely straight.  Except for their tentacles, cilia, and eyes, Edestekai bodies and limbs are encased in an exoskeleton made of chitin, a hard shell-like material.
          The mouth of an Edestekai is located near the base of the body and is hidden by the special cilia.  The Edestekai communicate by means of a language composed of shrieks, whistles, groans, and other sounds combined with clicks of the limbs and signs with the grasping tentacles.
It is assumed that the party will travel to Slave City One.  On the way, they encounter an air whale.  Part plant and part animal, an air whale generates hydrogen as a by-product of its diet (which includes “floating plankton”).  This hydrogen, “stored in hundreds of inner membrane sacs,” allows the air whale to float.  There are crystal-based life forms that live symbiotically with air whales.  “These crystals focus sunlight into a beam,” the description states, “much like a laser.”  The concept of air whales may be risible, but it has precedent in science fiction:  Quest of the Three Worlds by Cordwainer Smith, The Wind Whales of Ishmael by Philip José Farmer, and that one episode of Blackstar.

If the party attempts to attack Slave City One without assistance from the Edestekai, “they will probably be destroyed by superior numbers.”  So, once again, the player characters must gain the trust of alien beings.  According to the module, “a persistent party should be able to slowly convince the Edestekai priests using demonstrations of how radio works, perhaps even a demonstration of minor surgery.”  Apparently, this convincing must be accomplished without attracting the attention of the pirates.  The actual Star Devil is not encountered in the module but the Star Devil's personal quarters are described:
This lavishly furnished small one-room building contains a bed, bath, bar, holovision projector, several art objects (worth a total of 5,000 Credits), and numerous cheap books, mainly adventure novels.  There is a shield mounted over the bed with the Star Devil's personal insignia on it.
In the punishment/torture cells, player characters find the corpse of one of the original expedition members and strips of cloth with the name tag of another member.  If the party is victorious against the pirates, the referee is supposed to read the following description:
As you stand amid the ruins of Slave City One, you see in the distant desert a solitary figure surveying the wreckage of the pirate town.  This creature is a tall fur-covered animal with a large tail, large hind legs, and small forelimbs or arms.  The creature has a long, slender neck and a small head with large eyes.  In its arms, the creature is carrying the unconscious Lieutenant Colonel Louis V. Jameson.
Jameson was the leader of the first expedition and it was his name tag that was found in the cells.  Although the creature is in the “distant desert,”  the characters can recognize Jameson (and there's no indication that they have ever seen him previously) and can tell he is unconscious rather than dead.  The Edestekai explain “that this creature is one of the messengers of the gods” and they reside under ruins near the center of the southern edge of the planetary map.  “The purpose of this encounter,” the module states, “is to cause the party to go and explore the ruins in hopes of finding Jameson alive.”

The “messengers of the gods” are actually the Eorna, “a race of intelligent dinosaurs” nearly extinct due to the “Day of Death” inflicted by the Sathar.
          Less than 150 Eorna survived the Day of Death.  They soon realized they were doomed as a race, for they knew that their numbers were not large enough to provide a viable gene pool.  The survivors chose to dedicate what remained of their lives to the evolution of other intelligent races on Volturnus.  The Eorna hoped to prepare these races to meet and defeat the Sathar.
          The Eorna are using a subtle process of hypnotic indoctrination and DNA manipulation to accelerate the development of three races toward intelligence.  Most of the Eorna survivors have undergone cryogenic sleep, waiting to be awakened until they are needed to continue the project.  Despite the fact that most of their young are born physically or mentally deficient because of the limited gene pool, the Eorna continue to breed, relying upon the few normal children to help continue the project.
The underground complex of the Eorna is another sci-fi dungeon.  Within the complex is the Asylum Storeroom, a trapped location.  We read, “The player characters will not be able to detect the trap in this room.”  [original emphasis]  This trap is a “challenge to the ingenuity of the players.”  While “air is pumped out slowly from the room,” the characters can use the contents of the storeroom in an attempt to survive.  We are informed, “There are at least four ways the player characters can get out of the room alive.”  One way is to electrolyze water.  Another way is to create gunpowder from available chemicals.  Since this is a challenge of player ingenuity, the characters do not need to possess Demolition skills to employ gunpowder.  (“These are special conditions of this encounter and do not apply to other situations where gunpowder or other explosives may be used.”)  Evidently, for this to work, the players must know how to formulate gunpowder.

Once the characters have traversed five levels of the complex, they locate Jameson and the Eorna “attempt to make friendly contact.”  An exposition dump follows.  There is one more section to the Planet of Mystery module, but I associate it thematically with the final module and feel it is best discussed in conjunction with that module.

Sunday, October 7, 2018

The Volturnus Trilogy (part I) (spoilers)

Venus (Source: NASA/JPL/USGS)

The introductory adventure module included with the Star Frontiers boxed set was Crash on Volturnus, having a designation of “SF 0.”  The adventure continued with two additional modules – Volturnus, Planet of Mystery (SF 1) and Starspawn of Volturnus (SF 2) – sold separately.  All three modules are credited to Mark Acres and Tom Moldvay.

According to the Player Character Background Report in the first module:
          The Zebulon star system was first investigated 20 years ago by an unmanned exploration probe launched by Truane's Star.  This probe indicated that Volturnus was the only inhabitable planet in the Zebulon system.  It also indicated that great mineral wealth might exist on the planet in the form of molybdenum, tungsten, gold, and other heavy metals.  Truane's Star soon made a legal claim to the ownership of Volturnus, and completed exploration of a star route to the Zebulon system one year ago.
          The first manned expedition to Volturnus from Truane's Star was launched nine months ago.  The four member team of specialists was instructed to set up an outpost, gather data on the possible colonization and mining of Volturnus, and report back.
          After passing into the star system, the starship carrying the specialists was never heard from again...
          Truane's Star has found itself short of personnel and funds due to colonial troubles and associated police action on Cygnus Omicrom IX recently.  They have hired you, a team of unknown adventurers, to mount a relief expedition to Volturnus.  Your mission is to explore Volturnus, gathering as much information as possible about mineral deposits, life on the planet, and other items of interest to future colonists.  You are also to find and rescue the members of the original exploratory mission if possible.
          The government has provided you with a minimal amount of equipment, and transportation to Volturnus aboard the starliner Serena Dawn.  After dropping you on Volturnus, the Serena Dawn will return in three months to transport you (and, with luck, the original exploration team) back to Truane's Star.
Although the player characters would not realistically know this, game statistics for the members of the original expedition are provided.  Intended only for referees, the Star Frontiers™ System Brief for Zebulon indicates that Volturnus is named “after the Greek god of the southwest wind.”  This is interesting in that Earth is not part of the Star Frontiers setting.  Perhaps we are supposed to adopt a belief in Hodgkin's Law of Parallel Planetary Development.  (Also, one of the locations on Volturnus is Crystal Stonehenge; described as “resembling Stonehenge on Terra...”)

While on the Serena Dawn, weapons and power packs belonging to the player characters are secured in the ship's weapons locker.  Heavy gear has been placed in the cargo hold; player characters are allowed to retain only “non-weapon tool kits.”  Anyway, when the ship enters the Zebulon system, pirates hijack the Serena Dawn.  At least the module refers to the hijackers as pirates.  I assume that pirates are interested in capturing and/or looting vessels; these pirates don't seem to have studied the job description.  They wind up destroying the Serena Dawn and, although they post guards at the cargo bays, they don't actually seem to take anything.

Additionally, I wonder why pirates would establish a base in the Zebulon system which is five light years away from the nearest system with any sort of starship traffic.  The second module establishes that the “pirates” oversee an illicit mining operation on Volturnus.  (It also establishes that the pirates work for the “Star Devil.”)  I can understand destroying the Serena Dawn to keep the mining operation from being discovered, but it isn't piracy.  Dragon #98 (June 1985) has an article which presents an “unofficial” background for Volturnus, providing a plausible explanation for the pirates as well as the identity of the Star Devil.

The player characters don't learn about the hijacking via the alarm system or an intercom announcement.  Instead, they “hear the sound of scuffling outside [their] cabin.”  There are five random encounters which take place in order.  They are random in regard to when they take place.  On each turn, there is a 10% chance of the next sequential encounter occurring.  The fifth encounter is actually an event:  “The ship begins to vibrate badly.”  The is the cue to evacuate the ship.  Meanwhile, the player characters have some amount of agency and move about the area of the ship represented on the Starship Bridge Area Map.  (The bridge, incidentally, is in two separate sections.)  One possible course of action is for the player characters to go to the cargo bays.  Aside from their equipment, player characters can find things like a “Holographic fireworks projector,” “Yazirian punching bags,” “Packets of dehydrated food,” etc.  Some of these items could be of use to enterprising players.  However, why a ship transporting an exploratory expedition would have cargo like “Large machine gears” and “High fashion Human dresses” is not apparent.

Eventually, it is assumed that the player characters will board a lifeboat and venture to Volturnus.  Unfortunately, as indicated in the module's title, the player characters crash on the surface of the planet.  With the lifeboat on fire, “The characters have enough time to remove the survival packs...but no other equipment can be removed.”  On the other side of the Starship Bridge Area Map, there is a colorful planetary map of Volturnus representing an area “about the size of the state of Colorado.”  The lifeboat crashes in a desert in the southwest quadrant of the map.
          A dashed line circles the lifeboat crashsite.  This is the movement limit for CRASH ON VOLTURNUS.  It is important the characters do not pass this line, especially if you plan to play the sequel to CRASH ON VOLTURNUS.  If the characters reach this line, turn immediately to planned encounter 3 (the Ul-Mor).  In addition, if the characters begin to die of thirst or starve, turn immediately to planned encounter 3.
The Ul-Mor resemble octopuses.  In addition to eight limbs (each ending “in five small tentacles useful for grasping and manipulation”)...
          The Ul-Mor also have a ninth limb, a tentacle about 30 centimeters long.  This tentacle is an extension of the spinal cord.  The end contains a hard cartilage point encasing a series of nerve endings.  The Ul-Mor can insert the tip of this tentacle into the fatty tissue surrounding the spinal cord of other creatures, achieving a nerve link which allows them to communicate directly with the creature's mind.  The Ul-Mor use this tentacle so effectively they can achieve a direct mind-link with any being.
Before meeting the Ul-Mor, there are various encounters the player characters can have in the desert, both random and planned.  The five random encounters are:  (1) Burrower Snake, (2) Sand Storm, (3) Funnel Worm, (4) Sand Shark, and (5) Lopers.  Often used by Ul-Mor as mounts, lopers “are two-legged reptiles the size of horses.”  The “Lopers” encounter is what I call a “bear cub” moment.  In D&D module B3, Palace of the Silver Princess, the adventurers can come across a bear cub that “appears to have been abandoned by its mother.”  Player characters can choose to adopt the cub – a type of role-playing opportunity not typically afforded in a dungeon crawl.  In the “Lopers” encounter, the Volturnus castaways find “a dead female loper that has just given birth to two babies.”  Adopting the baby lopers can result in a pay-off when the player characters eventually meet the Ul-Mor – “if the characters have the baby lopers with them, the tallest Ul-Mor will ceremoniously drop his weapons and raise four of his tentacles.”  I suppose this is a good thing.

It behooves the player characters to cultivate the good will of the Ul-Mor; the rest of the module depends upon it.  The Ul-Mor can provide food and water to the player characters only if they agree to join the Ul-Mor tribe.  Assuming they agree, the Ul-Mor will lead the characters to the Place of the True Warriors where the initiation ritual can occur.  Evidently, the safest route to this place is through the Forbidden Caverns.  In the caverns, the characters become separated from the Ul-Mor and must make their way through the science fiction equivalent of a dungeon.  This is the most detailed portion of the module.

The actual initiation (and culmination of the module) is called the Ritual of the Quickdeath wherein the player characters must fight the eponymous quickdeath, “a tiger-sized creature covered with some sort of reflective armor.”  It is “the ultimate land carnivore” and has the capability to “fling a poisonous dart” from its tail.  According to the Alien Creatures Update File, “The Sathar used an advanced form of DNA manipulation to create these hideous beasts from a common type of housecat found throughout the universe.”

Monday, September 24, 2018

Adventuring in Star Frontiers

The Star Frontiers Basic Game Rules booklet includes a glossary that provides a definition of role-playing game:  “A game that allows players to act out the exiting adventures of their characters, without being restricted by rules that limit what they do.”  I might be inclined to change the second part to “...without restrictive rules” or perhaps even “...where imagination is at least as important as the rules.”  Regardless, the term “reader” is also defined by the glossary:
A person who reads a programed adventure to the players as they play, rather than playing a character himself.  The reader is replaced by a referee in the Expanded Game.
In the two adventures detailed in the Basic Game Rules, the player characters are troubleshooters working for the Pan-Galactic Corporation (“The oldest and largest interstellar company” and “one of the most powerful organizations in the Frontier”).  The reader “controls the opponents the other players meet and reads the adventure to them.”  By default, the player characters are armed with “fully loaded” laser pistols.  In the first adventure, each player character also has a standard equipment pack that includes a doze grenade because...well, just because, OK?

At the start of the first adventure, “PAN-GALACTIC SECURITY BREACH,” the reader informs the players that their characters have been assigned to investigate 'raiders' of Pan-Galactic's research centers.  The reader then presents three options, each of which leads to different events and further options, much in the vein of a Choose Your Own Adventure® book.  An option is not necessarily a choice, but could be the result of an event beyond the control of the characters.  A diagram of the events and their connections is presented below.
The early portion of the adventure does not allow for meaningful variation; all paths lead to event #8.  Ultimately, the adventure results in one of three concluding events.  Each of these conclusions leads to the same endpoint – the player characters listen to a message that establishes that raiders are employed by the evil Sathar.
Then it describes the raiders' next mission.  They are to fly to a top secret military asteroid where research is underway on a special weapon that can reduce entire populations to mass hysteria.  They are to meet other agents who have already infiltrated the base and steal the device.
Obviously, this could be the basis of a further adventure, but one which the reader must develop.  The first adventure is replayable; different characters could be used and different options may be pursued.  Another variant allows characters to equip different weapons by allocating a number of points (e.g., needler = 4 points, gyrojet = 6 points, etc.).  There is also a competitive variant where some players control the troubleshooters and other players control the raiders.

In contrast to the first adventure's network of options and events, the second adventure is a simple situation.  In “ALIEN CREATURE ON THE LOOSE,” the player characters must stop an alien creature – a hydra – rampaging through Port Loren.  For purposes of replayability, there are rules that allow a reader to create a different alien creature (although it is still called a hydra).
To find its DEX/RS, roll d100, find the result on the ABILITY SCORE TABLE and add 5.  The creature gets 30 Stamina points and one attack per player character.  The person controlling the hydra then gets to select its movement speed, attacks, defenses, up to three special abilities, and its goal.
There are four possible attacks:  Acid Spray, Darts, Sonic Beam, or Gas Cloud.  There are four possible defenses:  Layer of Insulation (immune to needlers), Protective Shell (immune to gyrojets), Reflective Hide (immune to lasers), or Regenerates (“Reduces damage from each attack by 5 points”).  There are five possible goals:  “Eat enough to lay eggs,” “Find someone,” “Build a nest,” “Destroy the town,” or “Destroy all skimmers.”  (According to the glossary, a skimmer is “a five passenger vehicle that floats on a cushion of air” and it “can be rented for 10 Cr per day.”)  Special abilities are not chosen; the instructions say to “Roll 1d10 three times; roll again if ability repeats.”  The various special abilities are:
  • Smashes Through Walls (Walls do not impair creature movement; destruction of walls results in rubble that causes characters to stop their movement before crossing)
  • Shakes Ground (Characters limited to half movement)
  • Teleport (Up to eight spaces every three turns)
  • Spins Web (Can permanently block a square or detain a character for two turns)
  • Doze Gas (“Same as doze grenade...”)
  • Grows Stronger (“Gains 10 Stamina points if hit by a weapon it is immune to; if hydra has no immunity, it gains 20 points by damaging a monorail station”)
  • Grows New Attack (“Gains one attack if hit by a weapon it is immune to; if creature has no immunity it gains one attack when hit by a skimmer”)
  • Takes Extra Damage (When hit by a chosen weapon type other than that which the creature is immune, takes two points of additional damage; if no immunity, “takes 10 points of damage from each skimmer accident”)
  • Loses 1 Attack (when creature suffers at least fifteen points of damage from a single attack)
  • Changes 1 Ability (“...after being hit by a weapon it is immune to, the creature can change its attack, its defense, or one special ability...if it has no immunity, this happens when it damages a monorail terminal”)
The Basic Game Rules also provide a “step-by-step method” for “making up your own adventures.”  These adventures pit one team of player characters against another.  The six steps are:  Purpose (“pick a story outline to be the basis for your adventure”), Teams (“how many characters each team will have and what sort of equipment they own”), How To Win (“Set goals for each team”), Set-Up (“Choose the pieces and map you will use”), How To Play (“create any special rules needed”), and Rewards (“player characters can be rewarded for their actions”).  Pertinent advice is dispensed:
Notice that reader also can have characters run into events and obstacles as well as opponents.  Anything you can imagine can happen during a STAR FRONTIERS adventure.
There are suggested adventures that involve player characters stopping...
  1. the carrier of a “strange alien disease” that causes victims to become “violent and destructive.” 
  2. an “ancient alien artifact” that has taken over a Pan-Galactic base.
  3. an assassin at a “special meeting of delegates from the United Planetary Federation Council on Frontier Law and Peace.”
  4. an “abandoned alien city-ship...on a collision course with a colonized planet.”
Included in the Expanded Game Rules is a two page section on how to create an adventure.  Six steps are listed that differ from those in the Basic Game Rules.
  1. Choosing a theme or basic story and the goal of the adventure.
  2. Selecting the settings where the story takes place;
  3. Designing the events that lead to the goal, and the obstacles that must be overcome to reach the goal;
  4. Creating the non-player characters and creatures that the characters will meet, and deciding how they will affect play;
  5. Writing any special rules that are needed for unusual events;
  6. Writing a final outline of the adventure to guide the referee through the action.
The “final outline” is also called a script:
When you have decided the order of the events, you should write all the information you need to play in a script that shows when things should happen.  It is best to write down everything you need to know about each event so that you do not forget to give players important clues that will affect their decisions.  Number each event, so that you will know its order.  You can put the number of the event on a map so you can see where the event is to take place.  Each written event should include the following information:
  1. A description of what the characters can see.
  2. A description of what happens when characters enter the setting, including NPC and creature reactions.
  3. Ability scores for any NPCs or creatures that will be encountered in the area.
  4. Any special rules for the event.
  5. Random event probabilities.
  6. Notes about what the characters can discover from the event.
  7. Notes on what should happen if the characters succeed, if they fail, or take some other course of action.
Read your script several times, putting yourself in the position of a player trying to move through the adventure.  Make different choices to see whether you accounted for the most likely possibilities.  Make sure your challenges are not too easy or too difficult.  Players should need to use reason and judgment to overcome the challenges.  However, you cannot think of everything before the game, so try to be flexible and make sure each event challenges the players.
Suggested themes for simple adventures include:  “Explore a New World,” “Obtain Information,” “Retrieve a Stolen Item,” “Catch Criminals,” “Rescue Someone,” and “Mad Scientist.”

There is a one page sample adventure wherein player characters are supposed to find a ship “believed to have crashed” as well as “rescue any survivors and find out why... [it] crashed.”  At the crash site, the player characters can rescue a “small Yazirian child.”  They may also discover evidence “that a bomb was planted in the cargo.”  Again, this can be the springboard for another adventure.

We are informed that, “A guide map typically has a scale of 1 to 20 km per hex or square.”  The scale for the above map (from the sample adventure) is not disclosed.

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.