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