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.”


  1. Your timing is impeccable: I've been thinking about revising Moldvay's Volturnus modules for a little while now! Looking forward to the rest of the series.


  2. "They come runnin' just as fast as they can... Because every girl's crazy 'bout a Shard Grass man..."