Sunday, July 7, 2019

The Laws of Time Travel

The Time Corps is not beholden to the dictates “of an outside government.”  However, the corps is subject “to the greatest force of all: Nature.”  With regard to Nature, Commander Watkins claims, “She binds us within the laws of the Continuum, and we must obey her to survive.”  As far as time travel is concerned, Nature enforces the four basic laws described below.

The Law of Identity:  A time traveler cannot co-exist in the same time and Parallel as his or her past self.  Any attempt to do so will cause the traveler to “suffer the dreaded 'loop trap.'”

For example, let's say you put on your best Castleton T-shirt and go back in time exactly 242 years prior to the publication of this post.  You observe the Battle of Hubbardton and return to the present.  You had such a good time, you decide to go back.  “Instantly upon arrival,” we learn, “you begin to relive your first trip.”  You have the same experience as you had before, making the same decisions, even to the extent of returning to the present and then going back to 1777.  This continues ad infinitum.  Technically, you don't realize you are in a time loop, so “you can never break the loop.”  However, “another time-traveler can pull you from this horror, provided he knows your location.”

The Timetricks supplement introduces a device called a 'Loop Trap Avoidance Field Generator' which allows an agent to circumvent this law to an extent.  With a looper (as it is called) a person may “jump into a Parallel at a time when he’s already there, and take any actions he wants, including talking to himself.”  With regard to a looper, “there is a 50% chance the thing will fail, which would involve the user in a loop trap.”

The example in the Travelers' Manual assumes the traveler goes back to the same time and place.  What if, after your Hubbardton expedition, you check out the re-capture of Fort Ticonderoga and inadvertently stay longer than you intended.  On July 7, are you automatically teleported to Vermont to relive that prior experience?  In another scenario, what if you wanted to hang out with Guillaume Coustou (the Younger) during the week prior to his death and you try to arrive in Paris while the Battle of Hubbardton is being fought?  Do you instead wind up in Vermont without any knowledge of your intent to visit Coustou?  So many questions...

The Law of Preservation:  'Nature' attempts to minimize the effects of changes to a timeline.
For instance, if Abraham Lincoln is killed while very young, someone else a lot like Lincoln may be born, elected President, even assassinated in 1865.  Unfortunately, the more severe the change, (or series of changes) the less likely the timeline is to recover.
This law addresses the grandfather paradox:  a traveler's “own actions will never result in his or her non-existence in the future.”  No matter hard you try, you cannot cause the death of one of your ancestors.  One supposes that, once your parent is conceived, it is possible for you to dispose of the appropriate grandfather.  Of course, “Nature does nothing to prevent another time-traveler from killing off your ancestors.”

The Law of the Time Barrier:  Not all points in the future are accessible.  The point at which no future travel is possible is the Time Barrier.  For Parallel T-0, the barrier is at A.D. 7192.  However, the barrier constantly moves forward.  “With every breath, every second, new time becomes a reality,” we read, “and the barrier advances.”  'Standard Dating System' (abbreviated SDS) refers to the passage of time as the T-0 Time Barrier moves forward.  As one spends time in the past, time continues to flow at Time Corps HQ.  One hour spent in the past of T-0 equates to the passage of one hour at Time Corps HQ.  However, the time flow may be faster or slower in other Parallels.  For instance, on Parallel R-17 . . .
. . . the rate of time flows considerably faster, agents on that Parallel experience or feel the passage of three hours, while only one SDS hour passes at Time Corps HQ.  Similarly, there are Parallels where time flows much more slowly than on T-0; on these Parallels, a full SDS day can elapse while you’re ordering a cup of coffee in a restaurant. [emphasis in original]
The Law of Death:  The death of a time-traveler cannot be prevented by traveling to the past and altering events.  “We do not know the reasons why,” the Travelers' Manual states, “we can only guess that it stems from the nature of time-travel itself.”

The Timetricks supplement posits an example.  Two agents, Jack and Flavius, travel back in time on a mission.  Upon reaching their destination, they find a note written by Jack.  According to the note, Flavius will be killed twelve hours hence.  After said death, Jack travels to two hours prior to the time he and Flavius arrive.  He then leaves the note.  “Standard Corps courtesy requires that when an agent dies,” we learn, “someone hop pastward to let him know his time is just about up.”  Upon learning of his impending and immutable demise, Flavius opts to “abort [his] mission and return to HQ, where [he] can enjoy certain special facilities until the hour of death arrives.”  It doesn't matter that Flavius avoids the time and place of his murder, it is ordained that he die.  Presumably, Jack could travel back and eliminate the person who kills Flavius before he kills Flavius, but it doesn't matter – Flavius is doomed.  We learn that:
Every Operations Division of the Corps maintains a small hospice facility for the care of agents who know they are about to die.   As a general rule, agents who report to the hospice facility may have their every whim granted.  Psychological counselling is also available for those whose expected life span is greater than a few hours.
Instead of utilizing the hospice facilities, an agent scheduled to die is permitted to enjoy “recreational” time travel.  This means an agent can take a one-way trip to the destination of his or her choice to live out the rest of his or her time.  He or she is “obligated to observe all normal mission precautions up to the time of his death.”  Otherwise, the agent is free to do anything he or she wants – “the Corps figures that at that point, you’ve earned about whatever you can get from this old Continuum.”

Now, if I was a Demorean, I would be inclined to leave notes for Time Corps agents indicating the ensuing demise of one or more of those agents.  Perhaps, when it is realized that the agent really isn't slated to die, the Time Corps can relay a countermanding note.  Yet, by then, the damage to morale would be done.  How could an agent be certain that any given death note – or countermanding note – is legitimate?

Sunday, June 30, 2019

Know Your Enemy

Every drama requires conflict and every role-playing game needs some sort of opponent for the player characters to confront.  In Timemaster, there are renegades – “veterans from the Time Wars who pirate their way through history to enjoy a long and pleasant life.”  More importantly, there is an alien race against which the Time Corps is at war.  In Back to the Future, a DeLorean is used for time travel.  In Timemaster, published a year before that movie was released, the bad guy aliens are called Demoreans.  Physically, Demoreans have four arms and their “skin is a kind of sickening orange color.”  The text indicates they are “runts,” but in illustrations they are shown to be the same size as humans.  (Maybe the depicted Time Corps agents are little?)

All Demoreans have the Paranormal Talent of Shape Shifting, meaning they can duplicate the appearance of “a conscious creature of human or greater intelligence.”  The victim must be kept alive in order to “act as a constant model.”  Demoreans typically keep the victim unconscious once they have assumed the victim's form.  If the victim wakes, “The Demorean must render the [victim] unconscious again within 12 hours or be forced into its natural form.”  A Demorean can only perform one Shape Shift before it has to rest for a period in its home Parallel (A-227) and time.  (Any Demorean is referred to as “it” because a Demorean “can be either male or female at will.”)

All Demoreans have telepathy which they can use to communicate with one another “over any distance in space.”  They also have the Paranormal Talent of Dimensional Travel.  This allows them “to travel through time and across the Parallels.”  They “can carry absolutely nothing with them when using this PT” and once a Demorean uses this talent to travel to another Parallel, its next use of Dimensional Travel must be to return to its home Parallel.  Aside from the above talents that all Demoreans possess, there are other talents any given Demorean may have.  For instance, Domination “allows a Demorean in human form to slowly obtain mental and psychological mastery over a human being.”  The aptly named Demoralize talent permits a Demorean to reduce a victim's Willpower, causing the victim to feel “mentally weakened and humiliated.”

The Demoreans “seek to change our history enough to bend our Parallel towards theirs, toward a destiny of their own choosing.”  The Travelers' Manual informs us that, “Presumably, they hope to control us, becoming rulers over all things in our universe.”  Presumably.  This means we don't necessarily know the motivations of the Demoreans.  Maybe, just maybe, the Demoreans are engaged in what they consider to be self-defense.  A glimpse into history might easily leave the impression that humans can be violent.  Who knows?  Perhaps humans from another Parallel attacked the Demoreans.  Perhaps they were attacked by renegades.  Contact with Demoreans is invariably hostile, so it's understandable that the Time Corps' knowledge of the Demoreans is limited.

Apparently, the Demoreans are obsessed with perfection.
Demoreans believe that everything that was, is and ever will be is part of what they call 'the Great Oneness.'  That's not so strange a belief.  The nasty side is this:  The Great Oneness is perfect, and anything that isn't perfect has to either be made perfect, so it's part of the Great Oneness, or destroyed, so it doesn't mess up the perfection of everything else.
Evidently, “The Demoreans' goal is to 'perfect' our Parallel – that means changing it until it's just like theirs, until our history matches theirs.”  The Demoreans attempt to alter history in order “to bring about large, monolithic, totalitarian states or empires, which they can then secretly control or manipulate.”  According to “intelligence reports and field experience,” the Demorean “strategic objectives” are currently:
  • Eradication of the Time Corps – There are three lines of attack:  direct, indirect, and attrition (i.e., “the overtaxing of Time Corps resources by a constant series of seemingly random penetrations...”)
  • Establishment of Totalitarian States – “The more regimented and totalitarian a society becomes, the easier it is for Demoreans to influence that society by controlling a few of its key individuals.”
  • Destruction of Cultural Achievements – “Demoreans perceive cultural achievements, particularly great art, music, and literature, as deadly threats.”
So, you have imperfect humanity which needs to be made perfect or destroyed.  Why bother with numerous, complex time-travel plots with uncertain effects when you can just go to the dawn of humanity and kill everybody?  This is hardly a novel concept.

One-time Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork assists with the annihilation of humanity.
If the Demoreans balk at genocide, they could set themselves up as gods over prehistoric humans and thereafter carefully control history.  However, given their obsession with perfection, if a Demorean plot fails, they don't try to salvage or reimplement the plot.  “Any plan that ultimately fails is judged imperfect,” we learn, “An imperfect plan should not be repeated.”  (emphasis in original)  Therefore – although not mentioned in the rules – it's possible the Demoreans tried genocide and prehistoric religion but the schemes didn't work out.

Since Demoreans are fixated on perfection, newborns “who are 'imperfect' by Demorean standards are 'assimilated.'”  We are told that “assimilated” is a euphemism for being “turned into food for the others.”  Assuming they avoid the fate of being comestible, Demoreans mature through seven stages of thirty years each:  Child, Nurturer, Laborer, Technician, Military Service, Minor Official, and Theocrat (Priest).  After three decades as a theocrat, each Demorean chooses from among three options:  it can become a time agent, it can enter the Law-Giver lottery, or it can be assimilated.  “Law-Giver” is the highest Demorean official; one lucky Demorean is randomly selected to be Law-Giver from those who enter the lottery.  All of the Demoreans not selected are assimilated.

The Timetricks supplement states “there are approximately 40 billion Demoreans on Parallel A-227” and “this number stays relatively stable.” It further says, “At any one time, one-seventh of this number, or about 5.7 billion, are in the seventh stage of Demorean existence, and hence potential time agents.”  Of this number, “60% voluntarily submit to assimilation” and 30% enter the Law-Giver lottery.  However, we are not informed as to how often this lottery occurs.  So, the remaining 10% (about 570 million) become time agents.  Yet for every field agent, “nine others are required to instruct, support, regulate, administrate, and report on that agent.”  So, “57 million are actually active field agents.”  At any given time (so to speak), half of the field agents are engaged in planning.  As a result, “the Demoreans have in the field, engaged in active operations, only about 29 million agents...”

Demoreans “don't believe in medicine.”  Should a Demorean agent be seriously wounded, it is by definition imperfect.  Such a Demorean is tortured to death, then used as food.  Some Demoreans have a sufficient sense of self-preservation that, when wounded, they “surrender and give information in exchange for medical care and life in a Time Corps cell.”  Even though most of the Time Corps' “knowledge of Demorean life comes from defectors,” we learn...
Time Corps Regulation 2 specifically states that Demoreans should be destroyed.  Of course, it is allowable to keep a Demorean alive in the field for a short time for purposes of gathering information.  Generally, such Demoreans should be destroyed once their usefulness to the mission has ended.
Given that Time Corps operatives are outnumbered almost a hundred to one by Demorean agents, the strategy of reacting to incursions and refusing to take prisoners is untenable.  Yet the rules don't acknowledge this.  Logically, the way to gain an advantage over the Demoreans is through their agents who surrender.  Not only do they reveal important information, the potential exists to brainwash indoctrinate them and have them work on behalf of the Time Corps.  They can possibly sow dissension among the ranks of the Demoreans by exploiting the sense of self-preservation they are known to have.  Perhaps they could even cause individuals to doubt the perfection of Demorean civilization.  Eventually, the Time Corps might be well served by kidnapping “imperfect” Demorean infants before they are processed as food.  These could then be instilled with the ideals of the free races and trained to infiltrate Demorean society.

Sunday, June 23, 2019

The Time Corps

TIMEMASTER™ takes place in the Continuum.  In fact, the Timemaster equivalent of a Game Master is the Continuum Master – otherwise called “CM.”  We learn that the Continuum is...
     ...something far greater than any planet, any galaxy, any place.  The Continuum is every place at all times.  Earth and her history are no more than a tiny strand, barely discernable amidst its greatness.
     A universe includes planets, stars, and galaxies – all that we can reach without time-travel.  But that universe also has a history, and when we add this fourth dimension, the universe becomes a Parallel.  A Parallel is only one universe and its history.  There are many Parallels, and all Parallels make up the Continuum.
Parallels are identified by a letter and number code. The Parallel to which the Time Corps belongs, for instance, is called T-0.  (Actually, there are at least two other Parallels with their own Time Corps, but the player characters are part of the T-0 Time Corps.)  There are four categories of Parallels (T = Twin Parallel to T-0; M = Moderately different from T-0; R = Radically different from T-0; A = Alien to T-0).

Some Parallels are closely related to one another; if a historical event is altered on one Parallel, the other Parallels may be affected.  We learn, “Parallels M-1 and M-6 have a close relationship to T-0, and must be protected to maintain the integrity of T-0.”  In Parallel M-1, “many of T-0 Earth’s favorite historical fictions (such as The Three Musketeers, The Last of the Mohicans, Ivanhoe) are in fact reality.”  In Parallel M-6, “the poetry of Homer is the basis of reality.” Does that mean the Greek gods are real in Parallel M-6?  Yes, it does.

In T-0, the first time-travel machine was successfully tested on May 11, 7051.  Thereafter,
     Each of the major galactic powers obtained these machines.  Unfortunately, the governments began to see time travel as a weapon.  With these new devices, they could attempt to “erase” important events in the past in order to destroy or dominate their neighbors.  In 7054, the Time Wars broke out, beginning almost 100 years of chaos.  Whole cultures were destroyed, and many of man's worlds were reduced to Stone Age technology.  Several alien allies suffered the same fate.  Finally, all those involved realized that the wars were intolerable.
The Time Wars concluded in 7154 when the three major powers (i.e., “the Empire, the Federated Alliance, and the Confederation of Non-Aligned Worlds”) signed the Temporal Treaty.  An addendum to the treaty established the Time Corps for the purpose of restoring the history of T-0 to how it was before the effects of the Time Wars.  However, the activities of renegades – veterans of the Time Wars – and aliens provide the Time Corps with an ongoing mission of preserving the Parallels.
     The governing body of the Time Corps, the Time Corps Council, consists of 100 members, 33 from each of the major galactic powers, plus a Chairman elected by the other 99 members.  The Council has complete authority over all Time Corps activities: it establishes all top level policies, it hires and fires, it promotes, orders or cancels missions, and generally disposes of the resources of the Corps.
There are various “advisory bodies” that support the Council.  These bodies employ about five thousand personnel.  Most of the day-to-day authority over the Time Corps is entrusted to the Committee of Seven; consisting of the Council Chairman and two Council members from each of the three major power delegations.

The Operations Branch of the Time Corps contains about three hundred thousand agents.  The exact number at any given point “may fluctuate by more than 10,000 . . . given deaths, retirement, and variable success at recruiting.”  For each agent, there are seven “active workers” in support roles.  As such,
     The total size of the Time Corps at any given moment is about 8 × 300,000, or 2,400,000 active personnel.  When you add a few miscellaneous political activities (and the agents to perform them) onto the periphery of the Corps’ concerns, the total grows to about 2.5 million.
The Operations branch includes several divisions.  Player Characters belong to the Earth Specialty Division, the largest division in the Operations Branch.  Other divisions include:  the Emniyet and Shamba Specialty Divisions (the homeworlds of two alien races from Star Ace ), the Minor Planetary Specialty Divisions (responsible “for the history of the 18,000 known worlds and their native races in the three partially explored galaxies”), the Magical Parallel Specialty Division (“These agents tend to devote most of their recreational or leave time to arcane, esoteric studies, and their conversation is often so bizarre that it would be severely disturbing to most other agents”), Offensive Operations Specialty Divisions, and the InterParallel Tactical Command for Temporal Realignment (“the most exclusive, elite force in the Time Corps”).  Other branches in the Time Corps include:  Intelligence, Historical Research, Research and Development, Quartermaster, and Administration.

Player characters are recruited from various points in history.  They may have “a date of birth in the  range from 3500 B.C. to 7171 A.D.” and “should be between the ages of 21 and 50.”  (“Younger characters have more flexibility in adventures, since agents cannot go on missions during their exact 'native time' – the time in which they lived before joining the Corps.”)  We are told, “If you really want to play a sword-swallowing dwarf or a florist from the Saharan desert, go right ahead.”  Yet the best characters “are interesting – but not bizarre – and typical of their time period.”

There are ten ranks that Time Corps agents can have.  In ascending order, they are:  Trainee, Probationer, Agent, Operative, Veteran, Lifer, Sentry, Time Guard, Protector, and Timemaster.  Each rank has ten grades, 0 - 9.  Player characters begin at Trainee/0.  With each successful mission, an agent's grade increases by one; after ten successful missions, an agent is promoted to the next rank.  However, “The highest standing in the Time Corps is Timemaster, grade 10,” suggesting that there are eleven grades in the Timemaster rank.  “Usually, agents retire from the field at that point, and become leaders . . . at headquarters.”  We learn that, “at Lifer rank and beyond, the Corps begins to offer a virtual Fountain of Youth.”

Finding appropriate recruits for the Time Corps can be difficult.  First,
     The potential recruit should possess either an outstanding attribute, or a combination of higher than average attributes, which would make him or her a valuable member of a mission team. Ideally, a recruit should be highly skilled at interpersonal relations and have the physical capability for intensive combat training; however, it is unusual to find such people.
Even so, “The potential recruit must be relatively insignificant to the history of his or her Parallel of origin.”  Player characters begin the game with two paranormal talents:  Paranormal Memory (“allows characters to remember what 'should' have happened”) and one other of their choice.  As a result, “Persons with no capacity for paranormal talents cannot be recruited.”  Also, “The potential recruit must be trustworthy.”

Beyond the factors listed above,
     The identity of the potential recruit must be established beyond any reasonable doubt. In practice, this means the potential recruit should be stunned and searched carefully for marks or scars, preferably by an agent with Disguise skill . . . In addition, the potential recruit should be probed telepathically at least twice.
During the recruitment pitch, “Any indication . . . that the potential recruit has strong emotional ties to people or places in his own time should result in immediate termination of recruitment, unless the potential recruit is about to die anyway.”  (emphasis in original)  Upon recruitment, the enlistee is taken to 7192 (the year player characters begin to work for the Corps) without any opportunity to inform friends and loved ones of his or her choice.  Once in 7192, the character travels in time only as a part of a mission.  “Trainees always get three days' leave after every mission,” but such leave may only be spent on Earth in 7192.

In this far-flung era, we learn that “the planetary population has been stabilized at only 2 billion.”  Aside from population control, there is “weather and climate control, world-wide police control, and uniform health and safety standards for resort areas; it's all about the same anywhere on the planet.”

Sunday, June 9, 2019

Adventures in the 4th Dimension

Art by Jim Holloway

TRAVEL to any place, any time, in this universe and beyond!

FIGHT in the midst of any battle, and change the outcome yourself!

SEE the greatest people in history. . . Caesar, Cleopatra, Leonardo — whomever you desire to meet!


So reads some of the copy on the bottom of the TIMEMASTER Role Playing Game boxed set.  Other copy includes a listing of contents:  “64-page TIMEMASTER™ Travelers’ Manual, 32-page Guide to the Continuum, 16-page exciting adventure, 140 colorful counters printed on both sides, 3 durable ten-sided dice, and 1 large, full-color map.”

Looking at the components in reverse order, the map is 20.5" × 27" and displays one-inch hexes.  One side is colored and the hexes are numbered.  This side is rather versatile; the scale is variable as are the features.  There are three keys that can be used:  an elevation key where the different colors indicate various elevations, a terrain key where colors indicate terrain features, and a second terrain key where the same colors indicate a different set of terrain features.  The other side is black and white and represents a location from the introductory adventure.  On this side, each hex represents five feet.

The dice are indeed durable and come in a patriotic assortment of red, white, and blue.

The counter sheet contains sixteen 'colorful' counters.  These are shown below.  The remaining 124 counters are colorful only in the sense that blue is a color.  The reverse side is printed in black and white.

With regard to the adventure, “exciting” is open to interpretation.  While the booklet is sixteen pages, four of them are devoted to describing the eight pre-generated characters.  Also, the last page is meant to be cut apart to represent trenches on the color map.  (The adventure, “Red Ace High,” takes place during World War I.)

Among other topics, the Guide to the Continuum devotes 3 – 4 pages to each of six settings:
  • Athens:  5th Century B.C.
  • Rome:  61 B.C. – 37 A.D.
  • Angevin England:  1154 – 1216
  • Tudor England:  1509 – 1603
  • Napoleonic France:  1804 – 1815
  • France, 1940 – 1944
The Travelers’ Manual contains ten chapters:
  • The Game (4 pages)
  • Welcome to the Corps (4 pages)
  • Characters (7 pages)
  • Basic Action (14 pages)
  • Heavy Weapons (6 pages)
  • Battles (4 pages)
  • Skills (10 pages)
  • Paranormal Talents (4 pages)
  • Tools of the Trade (2 pages)
  • The People You Meet (4 pages)
Pacesetter was established by TSR veterans in January 1984.  By the end of that year, Pacesetter had published Chill, Star Ace, and Timemaster ; three role-playing games that share a common system.  While the 'Original Design Concept' is credited to Gali Sanchez and Garry Spiegle, the 'Design' of Timemaster is attributed to Mark Acres; 'Additional Design and Development' is ascribed to Andria Hayday and Carl Smith.  In Space Gamer #75 (July/August 1985), Smith discussed some of the design philosophy behind Pacesetter's role-playing games:
     Our games are aimed at a wide audience.  Many roleplaying games either consciously or unconsciously parallel the demographics of D&D.  In addition to expanding our demographics, we wanted to include greater use of investigation and interaction in roleplaying, positive ethnic role models, and emphasize plot-oriented adventures.  We chose game themes which were fun and which filled market positions that were largely empty or at worst, inadequately filled.
     Pacesetter games emphasize using wits and not just brawn.  In fact, player characters who act rashly without thinking often run afoul of the law.  Too many games ignore skills and devices which prove useful in a gamer's hands such as impersonation, modelling, acting, and forgery.  Often games dwell on skills which are strictly male and combat-oriented.
Although aiming “at a wide audience” and having a professed desire to provide “positive ethnic role models,” all of the settings described in the Guide to the Continuum are nonetheless European.

Smith continued:
     Some Pacesetter systems appear too clean to the casual observer.  A game should have simple and elegant mechanics.  After all, more complex is not necessarily better.  Some gamers equate massive charts and tables with a detailed game system.  We achieve detail through multiple use of some charts and tables.  It is more difficult to design an economical game system which allows the referee to handle many situations with one set of mechanics than it is to design a score of different tables which handle as many different actions.  Games with too many tables often reflect that the designer did not work on the problem long enough to boil it down.
The fundamental mechanic for the Pacesetter system is a check.  “Checks are percent rolls that determine how an action turns out,” according to Chapter One of the Travelers’ Manual, “when the outcome is in doubt.”  A general check offers a binary outcome, either success or failure.  If the result of the roll is equal to or less than an established score, the character succeeds.  A specific check offers a range of success outcomes.  If the result of the roll is equal to or less than a target value, the amount of the difference is referenced on the Action Table is consulted.  There are five possible grades of success for combat checks and four possible levels with regard to skill or ability checks.  These 'grades' or 'levels' are identified by letter codes as shown below.

With regard to Timemaster, Smith stated:
     Timemaster is a different kind of roleplaying game appealing to the gamer who likes more reality with his particular fantasy.  In general, the player who enjoys historical fiction or wargames also enjoys TimemasterIt is a game of historical as well as speculative fiction aimed at a different segment of the science-fiction audience than Star Ace...
     In addition to the investigative parts of a Timemaster adventure, many scenarios include a mass combat where a player character can affect the outcome of a battle.  To facilitate mass battles, Timemaster counters [that do not represent individual characters] have movement and identification factors printed on them...
Each of the settings included in the Guide to the Continuum has a 'military summary' of mass combat rules.

Timemaster is currently a property of Goblinoid Games.  Hardcopy rules are available as a print-on-demand product and most of the original assortment of Timemaster publications are available in digital format.

Sunday, May 19, 2019

The (A)D&D Adventure That Michael Moorcock Wrote (Spoilers)

Map by Paul Ruiz

Published from 1983 to 1985, Imagine was TSR's official organ in the UK.  Issue #22 was a Michael Moorcock Special Feature including:  an interview with him, a short story by him (“1st UK magazine publication”), an AD&D adventure by him, and a three page publication history of the Eternal Champion by someone other than him.  In the interview, Moorcock tells us what he thinks about people who partake in role-playing games:
...I know a lot of people who are actively involved.  It's certainly very popular.  If you look back to the 20s and 30s, the people then were enjoying the popular magazines, they contained the same types of fantasies but they weren't so formalized.  It's also linked to the times we live in.  Large numbers of people feel disenfranchised, and if people haven't got any effect, or feel that they haven't got any effect in the real world, they go into religion – or perhaps role-playing games.  Both are substitutes for the person who feels that he has no effect on anything.
Perhaps writing Sword & Sorcery stories about an albino also counts as a substitute.

Anyway, the eight page adventure is written by Michael Moorcock and Michael Brunton.  So, it's a collaboration.  How much did Moorcock contribute?  In the interview, when Moorcock is asked if he will write for role-playing games, he replies, “I'll write the odd scenario, such as the outline I did for IMAGINE.”  So, Moorcock's contribution was limited to an outline.  The credits at the end of the adventure attribute “Inspiration” to Moorcock and “Perspiration” to Brunton.  Using the Edison criteria, I suppose Moorcock was responsible for ten percent of the adventure.

In the Table of Contents, the “mini-module” is called “The Iron Galleon.”  When the adventure is presented on page 25, it has the title “Earl Aubec and The Iron Galleon.”  The scenario turns out to be a “one-on-one adventure” where the player assumes the role of a Moorcock creation, Earl Aubec of Malador, previously appearing in a 1964 short story.  In AD&D terms, Aubec is a twelfth level fighter with a +3 two-handed sword.  Actually, there is provision for a second player character – Jhary-a-Conel, an incarnation of the Eternal Sidekick.  Jhary is a seventh level fighter who “can use magic items and scrolls as though a magic-user.”  He also has a flying cat, Whiskers, that “should be treated as a magic user's familiar.”  In the absence of a second player, Jhary can be used as a non-player character.

A half-page section, The World of the Young Kingdoms, is intended to be read by both the DM and player.  While the section briefly describes Moorcock's setting, mostly it reveals Aubec's history.  We learn:
At Kaneloon he fought and defeated creatures from his own imagination.  In rising above the darkness of his own mind Aubec won the right to go beyond the world's boundary and carve new lands from the Chaos-stuff that existed beyond.  Here too, he first encounters Myshella, the Dark Lady, and refuses the 'rights' that she offers him....
This is an impressive accomplishment for someone with a Wisdom of 9.  There is also a section of Dungeon Master's Notes.  The section begins with six paragraphs of background information.  There is also a sub-section about alignment in Moorcock's setting; mainly, “the classifications of 'Good' and 'Evil' have no real relevance.”  (Perhaps the adventure should have been presented in terms of BECMI rules instead of AD&D.)  Also, some Dungeon Master advice is presented regarding one-on-one play:
In a one player module it is always possible to 'kill off' the one and only character with ease.  The DM must resist the temptation to see the adventure as a personal confrontation, and his or her duty in that confrontation as 'getting' the player.  This doesn't mean that the player character should be given an easy ride, but the DM should remember that the character is supposed to be a hero and win through.... most of the time.
The adventure presents a couple of house rules:

Yielding to tradition, the scenario begins in a tavern.  While enjoying a repast, time seems to stand still except for Aubec and his cat.  “From the shadows” appears Myshella, the Sorceress of Kaneloon.  Aubec's nameless cats purrs, so we know the sorceress intends no harm towards Aubec.  (“Aubec's cat is not a familiar, but it is sensitive to danger.  The DM should make a point of mentioning (subtly) what the cat's reaction is to the various characters and situations in this module.”)  She reveals the premise of the adventure.  There's an Iron Galleon which “sails not only the seas of the Young Kingdoms, but the waters of other worlds as well.”  Somewhere, the Captain of the Iron Galleon acquired the Horn of Fate, “a treasure of incomparable power” capable of “bringing about the ruin of everything.”  Myshella wants Aubec to obtain the Horn and deliver it to her so she can send it “out of Aubec's world...”  Myshella provides some money so that Aubec can hire a ship to travel to a given location.  If Aubec does so, “Within five days [he] will meet the Iron Galleon.”  Myshella departs and time resumes.

“If Aubec decides not to obey Myshella's instructions” within two days, he is attacked by hirelings of an old enemy.  Such attacks will continue daily until Aubec (literally and figuratively) gets on board.  Before encountering the Iron Galleon, “The DM should use at least one” preceding encounter.  One such encounter is attack upon the ship by an ildriss (air grue).  The other possible encounter is an attack by “a Pan Tang slave raider looking for fresh victims.”  Regardless of which preceding encounters are employed, eventually the Iron Galleon collides with the ship Aubec is on and destroys it.  Aubec is supposed “to grab the anchor chain of the Iron Galleon as it passes, and climb up it to 'safety'.”

The captain of the Iron Galleon is Dyvim Ka'aand, “a Melnibonéan outcast, doomed to wander the seas between the worlds...”  In true Melnibonéan fashion,  “He maintains a pretense of bored, tolerant amusement towards the world, beneath which he is haughty, noble, sophisticated, and amoral.”  Dyvim Ka'aand is not given a character class; however...
Dyvim is the equivalent of a 12th level spell caster when casting his memorised spells.  Unlike normal magic users or illusionists, Dyvim does not have to 'memorise' other spells.  His spell grimoires and tomes contain details of spells that are functionally identical to all the magic user and illusionist spells of 6th level and below.  After studying these spells for a period of (4d4 ⨯ spell level) minutes, Dyvim Ka'aand is able to cast them.  There is also a 17% chance that Dyvim Ka'aand will be able to cast any spell from memory.  In this case, there is a 5% chance he will do so incorrectly and the casting will prove to be a waste of time.  However, there is a limit to Dyvim Ka'aand's spell casting capability.  He cannot cast more than 35 levels of spell in a single day – for example he can cast up to 2 ⨯ 1st, 1 ⨯ 2nd, 4 ⨯ 4th, and 3 ⨯ 5th levels.
The Iron Galleon is mapped out and each numbered location is described like a proper dungeon.  One location is the hold, containing “the Iron Galleon's collection of trinkets” from a plethora of worlds.  Such trinkets include:  “lengths of ship's timbers; oil barrels (for the lamps); mold-covered grain sacks; chests full of tea, raw cotton, white marble, pottery, and black powder (which is so damp as to be useless); wine amphorae; five life preservers marked HMS Graf Spee and perched on top of one heap is a what appears to be a giant, misshapen arrow – a Phoenix AIM 54A air-to-air missile, which is armed and ready for firing.”  (Elsewhere on the vessel is “the ejector seat from a Mig-31 Foxhound.”)  There are a few locations with 'monsters' (e.g., stirges and rust rats) but, mainly, the Iron Galleon serves as a venue for interacting with non-player characters.  Aside from Dyvim, other intelligent denizens of the ship include:

          Jeroaz :  A Dwarven jester with a +1 slapstick that causes extra damage because it “is tainted with unclean Chaos-stuff.”  (6th level assassin)
          Master Smiles :  “He is simply a dissolute sybarite who actively enjoys the life of contemplative cruelty and barbarity that he indulges in aboard the Iron Galleon.”  (5th level fighter)
          Kateriona van Hjeok :  Last survivor of a group of pirates who assaulted the Iron Galleon.  She has an “eye patch and steel prosthetic hand.”  (7th level fighter)
          Miriame :  A refugee from a slave galley, “Dyvim has amused himself by feeding her a powerful hallucinogenic drug which makes her totally compliant to his will – the withdrawal symptoms are extremely painful.” (non-classed)
          Windlos of Heuliss :  A “flying man” trapped on board the Iron Galleon.  (non-classed, but 7+1 Hit Dice)

The Horn of Fate – appearing to be a drinking horn – is in Dyvim's study.  Dyvim knows the Horn is special, but evidently does not realize its true nature.  What Aubec does to get the Horn is up to the player.  Aubec can attempt to recruit non-player characters as allies against Dyvim.  “Aubec need only obtain a positive reaction (DMG p63) to apparently enlist the aid of any of the NPCs.”  Aubec's cat is useful in determining which non-player characters are trustworthy.  Aubec and his allies can make use of “a small wooden sailing boat” on the Iron Galleon.  There is also a way to destroy to Iron Galleon.  If Aubec gets away without killing Dyvim, the Melnibonéan will send an invisible stalker against Aubec.  If Aubec does not repair to Kaneloon with alacrity, the DM may have Aubec attacked by his old enemy's hirelings “as an extra incentive to Kaneloon and safety with minimal delay.”

Sunday, May 12, 2019

Deck of Many Things

Art by Oswald Wirth

Nowadays you can just buy them but circa 1981, if you wanted a Deck of Many Things, you either had to cannibalize a standard poker deck (yawn) or make it from scratch.  One of your humble host's gaming buddies crafted an original deck, although I don't think we ever found an in-game use for it.  Still, such was the allure of this magic item, it captivated our imagination.

I never much cared for the name.  Deck of Many Things?  If Viking parliamentarians had cards similar to baseball players and you had a comprehensive set of those cards, you would have a Deck of Many Things.  Sure, I guess the full name is the Deck of Many Things Beneficial and Baneful, but no one ever uses the full name.  Why not the Deck of Benefit and Bane?  The Deck of Danger and Delight?  The Deck of Precipitous Fate?  “Many Things” implies a paucity of creativity.

The Deck of Many Things is first described in Greyhawk.  This version consists of eighteen cards, “One-half bring beneficial things, and one-half cause hurtful things.”  Actually, eight cards are beneficial and eight are hurtful, but there are also two jokers.  Each joker offers the choice of 25,000 experience points or the selection of two additional cards.  Arguably, the jokers are beneficial which would mean slightly less than half of the cards are hurtful.  Regardless, the (roughly) half-good / half-bad mix of cards is reflected in future iterations of the deck.  Aside from the jokers, the deck includes the face cards and aces of the standard suites; the red suites containing the beneficial cards and the black, hurtful.  The cards are not given fancy names like 'Comet' or 'Euryale', they are referenced only by their pedestrian poker designations.  Greyhawk informs us that a character “possessing such a deck may select cards from it four times (or more if jokers are drawn), and whatever is revealed by the card selected takes place.”  No announcement of intent is required – a card is drawn and the outcome occurs.

Once Greyhawk describes the effects of the individual cards, the book continues:
After each draw the card is returned to the pack and it is shuffled again before another draw is made. All four draws need not be made, but the moment the possessor of the deck states he has no intention of ever drawing further cards, or after the maximum number of draws in any event, it disappears.
Clearly, a deck has an individual possessor and – once the possessor concludes his draws – the deck goes away.  ('Disappear' does not mean that the deck becomes invisible.)  It seems wasteful that only one character can benefit/suffer from the deck before it leaves to wherever these decks go.  Since there is no stipulation that jokers aren't shuffled back into the deck, more and more cards can be drawn (at least until the possessor dies or is turned to stone).  Lastly, we are informed, “The referee may make up his own deck using the guidelines above.”  Said guidelines seemingly ensure a mix of beneficial and hurtful cards balanced in number and intensity.

The first edition Dungeon Masters Guide describes two varieties of decks, both of which are distinct from the Greyhawk deck.  One is a thirteen plaque economy deck (being 75% of all decks), the other is a deluxe deck (being the remaining 25% of all decks) with nine additional plaques.  Each plaque has a poker deck analog, but they also have individual names like 'Vizier' and 'Talons'.

Unlike the Greyhawk deck, for a drawn card to have an effect in the DMG versions, a character must announce beforehand the number of cards he or she intends to draw (up to a maximum of four).  Exactly how is a character supposed to know this condition?  Here's my take:  Decks are “usually...contained within a box or leather pouch.”  I would think that characters are incapable of withdrawing any plaques from their container unless and until they announce the number they intend to draw.  Instructions about this requirement can be inscribed on the container.

Instead of two jokers with an option of experience points or additional draws, there is one 'Jester' where the experience option is 10,000 points (as opposed to 25,000).  The second joker – called 'Fool' – appears in the deluxe deck; it causes a loss of ten thousand experience points and necessitates an additional draw beyond the number announced.  The Greyhawk version has a card (A♥) that grants 50,000 experience points and another (K♥) that provides a miscellaneous magic item.  In the DMG version, both effects are combined into the 'Sun' plaque.  The DMG 'Moon' gives the character 1 - 4 wishes while the Greyhawk version (Q♥) gives 1 – 3 wishes.  A Greyhawk drawer can receive a “map to richest treasure on any dungeon level” (A♦) while the DMG 'Key' offers “a treasure map plus 1 magic weapon.”  With the DMG 'Knight', a character gains “the service of a 4th level fighter” until death; the Greyhawk version (J♥) supplies a Superhero (i.e., 8th level fighter) with +3 armor, shield, and sword, but this service only lasts an hour.  A Greyhawk card (K♦) supplies a character with “5 – 30 pieces of jewelry immediately,” but the DMG 'Gem' offers a “choice of 20 jewelry or 50 gems.”  While the DMG 'Star' increases a character's “major ability” by two points, the Greyhawk card (J♦) adds one point to an ability of the character's choice.  While a Greyhawk card (K♣) takes away a character's most prized magic item, the DMG 'Talons' causes the loss of all magic items.  A Greyhawk card (Q♣) causes a character to be turned to stone (“no saving throw”), but the DMG 'Euryale' causes a “Minus 3 on all saving throws vs. petrification.”  Greyhawk cards without a direct DMG equivalent include one (Q♦) that provides a “Scroll of 7 Spells, no 1st-level spells on it” and another (J♠) where a “Monster from 5th-level Underworld Monster Table attacks by surprise.”

With regard to the staying power of the DMG decks we learn, “Upon drawing the last plaque possible, or immediately upon drawing the plaques in bold face (The Void, Donjon), the deck disappears.”  (bold and italics in original)  This is less explicit than the Greyhawk explanation.  Apparently, the same conditions apply, but there is no specific statement that only one character can use a given deck.  Dragon #148 (August 1989) includes a feature with the title “Luck of the Draw.”  In the guise of fiction, Robin Jenkins provides some information about how a Deck of Many Things works.  According to Jenkins' logic...
Once the number of cards to be drawn is announced, other characters may pull from the deck in place of the initial character, thereby assuming the number of pulls initially announced. Any character who announces his intention to pull a new number of cards from a deck “erases” any previous number announced, so long as that previous number of draws was not completed; this makes it possible for one deck to pass through many hands.
The third edition rules tend to dispel this notion. We read:
Cards must be drawn within 1 hour of each other, and a character can never again draw from this deck any more cards than she has announced. If the character does not willingly draw her allotted number (or if she is somehow prevented from doing so), the cards flip out of the deck on their own.
Yet nothing indicates that the deck “disappears” once a character finishes his or her draws.

When 'The Void' card from the DMG is drawn, “The character's body functions, and he or she speaks like an automaton, but the psyche is trapped in a prison somewhere – in an object on a far planet or plane, possibly in the possession of a demon.”  In Jenkins' paradigm, this means the victim's body can be led about to “check for pits, traps, that sort of thing!”  Third edition clarifies that the body functions “as though comatose.”  The 'Donjon' card from DMG “signifies imprisonment – either by spell or by some being/creature at your option.”  Jenkins presents an example where a character drawing 'Donjon' is imprisoned in Hades.  Whereas the DMG decks disappear upon 'Donjon' or 'The Void' being drawn, third edition includes the instruction “Draw no more cards” in the explanation for both cards

Other differences between first edition and third edition cards are as follows:
  • Euryale :   Instead of -3 on petrification saving throws, 3E inflicts -1 on all saving throws.
  • Gem :  Third edition specifies 25 items of jewelry instead of 20.  Also, each item of jewelry is worth 2,000 gp and each gem is worth 1,000 gp.
  • Idiot :  In first edition, 1d4 points of Intelligence are lost; in third edition, the loss is 1d4+1.
  • Key :  In third edition, the character gains “a major magic weapon” but no map.
  • Skull :  In first edition, “A minor Death appears.”  In third edition, “A dread wraith appears.”
  • Star :  First edition specifies the points go to the character's “major ability” (or, if such an addition would bring the score to 19, one or both points are applied to other abilities).  In third edition, any ability can be selected for the bonus.
  • Throne :  In first edition, the character gains a Charisma score of 18 and the “castle gained will be near to any stronghold already possessed.”  No Charisma is gained in third edition; the character receives “+6 bonus to Diplomacy checks.”  Additionally, “The castle gained appears in any open area she wishes.”
  • Vizier :  In third edition, the effect must be employed “within one year.” 
Also, the third edition Deck of Many Things is a minor artifact and the thirteen card economy version is not mentioned.

The number of cards in the deluxe deck suggests a correlation with the Major Arcana of the tarot; even some of the card names are the same – 'Sun', 'Moon', 'Star', and 'Fool'.  In fact, Dragon #77 (September 1983) contains an article describing a Tarot of Many Things.  Each of the seventy-eight cards has two effects, one if the card is drawn upright and another if drawn inverted.  Unlike the more prosaic Deck of Many Things, “No card can be received more than once by the same drawer.”  Also,
A person who wishes or is compelled to draw from the deck will be allowed to announce an intention of drawing one, two, three, or four cards; when the last member of the party who wishes to do so has drawn, or if one hour elapses without any draw, the deck will disappear – unless the party is on the plane of the Tarot's master deity, which is not the party's own home plane.
So, use of the Tarot is not limited to one character.  Third edition lists tarot equivalents for the twenty-two cards in the deck; however, only half of the Major Arcana are represented.  To be fair, the imagery of the Minor Arcana used is appropriate to the card effects.

The Pathfinder version of the Deck of Many Things naturally conforms to 3.5E; however, we are given information about destroying the artifact:
The item can be destroyed by losing it in a wager with a deity of law.  The deity must be unaware of the nature of the deck.
One might think that the deity would become suspicious (and thus 'aware' of the nature of the deck) after the first time this occurs.  Also, one might think a god could become quite upset if something just won in a wager ceases to exist.

In fifth edition, the Deck of Many Things is no longer an artifact, the thirteen card economy deck is reintroduced, and any correlation with the tarot is abandoned.  Card effects are generally the same as third edition, with differences indicated as follows:
  • Donjon :  It is specified that the character disappears and becomes “entombed in a state of suspended animation in an extradimensional sphere.”
  • Euryale :  A –2 penalty on saving throws is inflicted.
  • Key :  “The item is selected by the GM.”
  • Moon :  The character is “granted the ability to cast the wish spell 1d3 times.”
  • Skull :  Instead of a dread wraith, there is an Avatar of Death, which is similar to the first edition's minor Death.
  • Star :  “The score can exceed 20 but can’t exceed 24.”
  • Throne :  The character gains “proficiency in the Persuasion skill” and the proficiency bonus is doubled “on checks made with that skill.”  Also, “the keep is currently in the hands of monsters,” which must be cleared out before the character claims the keep.
  • Vizier :  In fifth edition, “the knowledge comes with the wisdom on how to apply it.”  (This is in contrast to first edition which says, “Whether the information gained can be successfully acted upon is another question entirely.”)
Another issue I have with the Deck of Many Things is how knowledge is imparted to the character in various circumstances.  For instance, with 'The Fates' card, “Reality’s fabric unravels and spins anew, allowing you to avoid or erase one event as if it never happened.” (5E)  How does the character know this?  When the character selects an event, what does he or she do to apply the effect of the card?  Instead of a deck being contained in a box or pouch, why not have it be part of a device with an animatronic fortune teller?  If you don't like an animatronic fortune teller you could have an imp, a talking magpie, or whatever suits your fancy.  The device could dispense physical objects like weapons and gems in the manner of a vending machine (or a slot machine).  Entities like fighters and death avatars can climb out of a small door in the side of the machine.  Cards that require an explanation (like 'The Fates') can be explained by the fortune teller (or whatever).

The next question is, who (or what) would bother to create a Deck of Many Things?  Jenkins postulates that “the powers of Neutrality are at the core of the deck’s power, and the enchantments of such decks come from the plane of Concordant Opposition...the gods of luck...seem likely to benefit from the dissemination of such items in this world.”  Well, if a wizard didn't do it, you might as well have gods do it.  But why would gods (of luck or otherwise) want to create and disseminate such items?  Jenkins writes, “The purpose behind the deck of many things is to encourage risk.”  I don't think the motives of gods would be known to mortals (or necessarily comprehensible by mortals).  I think that – to the gods – it's just a game.

Sunday, April 21, 2019

Assault on Starship Omicron (spoilers)

Art by Jeff Easley

In Heroic Worlds, Lawrence Schick declared, “There is no SFAC2.”  However, the Star Frontiers Referee's Screen is commonly considered to be the second Star Frontiers accessory.  In fairness to Schick, SFAC1 (Star Frontiers Official Character Record Sheets) and SFAC3 (Zebulon's Guide to Frontier Space) are clearly labeled as such; the code SFAC2 appears nowhere on the Referee's Screen product.

As is common, the screen itself is a tri-fold sheet of thick card stock.  As is also common, the screen displays a combination of art and charts/tables.  For the Star Frontiers Referee's Screen, the art is limited to the Jeff Easley cover – a portion of which is depicted above.  The cover helpfully informs, “This package includes a durable referee's screen with all charts needed to play STAR FRONTIERS™ adventures.”  This product pre-dates Zebulon's Guide to Frontier Space, so the rule changes introduced in that book are not addressed.  Otherwise, the information presented is fulsome.  Does the chart display “all charts needed” for play?  Well, not all tables from the rules are available but, technically, few tables are actually necessary to play the game.

As a game master, I have little use for screens.  I certainly understand their utility, but I would rather not have a barrier between me and the players.  As a player, I can benefit from information on the screen only if I'm sitting next to it; even then I would only be able to see one panel.  As a player, I prefer mood-setting art on a screen rather than charts and tables.  Obviously, the point of the charts and tables is to limit delays during the course of play.  Most information on a screen relates to combat since combat is the stage of play where delays are least tolerable.  The Star Frontiers screen includes the Skills Cost Table and the Robotic Design Cost Table; this sort of information is only needed during the game's downtime.  The following items are absent from the screen:  the Vehicle Control Table, the Rate of Fire Table, the Punching Table, details about structural damage, Grenade Bounce Diagrams, and the Avoidance Roll Table.  Any of these items presented on a screen would better serve a referee rather than “downtime” information.

In the Old School era, when Gamemaster's Screens were sold separately from a boxed set, they were commonly bundled with a small adventure.  The Star Frontiers Referee's Screen is no exception.  The cover continues to tell us about the product:
It also includes a mini-module, ASSAULT ON STARSHIP OMICRON, that can be used as a re-playable game.  The players must defend the starship from an attack by hostile aliens.
The concepts of “assault” and “attack” successfully convey the notion of hostility; referring to the aliens as “hostile” is somewhat superfluous.

The 'mini-module' was written by Old School stalwarts Mark Acres and Tom Moldvay.  Two distinct scenarios are provided:  “Sathar Attack” and “Rogue Robots.”  When the cover refers to the mini-module as a “re-playable game,” it is not an error.  In the 'How To Use This Module' section, we are informed:
Each scenario has been designed so that it can be used by a referee as part of a continuing campaign, or played and replayed on its own as a game.  Eight pre-rolled characters are provided.  When the scenarios are being replayed as a game, the pre-rolled characters should be used.  There should always be eight player characters at the beginning of each scenario; if there are fewer than eight players, some players should play more than one character.
In fact, using the mini-module as part of a campaign may not be desirable.  The referee is warned:
The combat in these scenarios is intense and deadly.  Players should not use their campaign characters unless the skills and equipment of the characters are equivalent to those of the characters included in the module.
Among the eight pre-generated characters, there are a pair of characters from each of the four player character races.  Each pair includes a male and female except for the Dralasites – their gender phase is not specified.  Generally speaking, the pre-generated characters are formidable.  The average number of skill levels among them is 8.375.  One of the characters possesses a Stamina of 85 and another has a Stamina of 75.  Write-ups for the pre-rolled characters take up one of the mini-module's eight pages.

'Assault on Starship Omicron' introduces a new alien species, the Zuraqqor.  They “are a race of intelligent, bipedal insects.”  We learn that the “Zuraqqor are technological experts” and they are allied with the diabolical Sathar.  Unfortunately, the module contains no illustration of a Zuraqqor.  The 'Alien Life Form Update File' for the Zuraqqor is a little more than one-half page.  A portion of the file is presented below for the reader's delectation.

The mini-module makes use of the Starship Bridge Area map from the Star Frontiers boxed set.  One of the booklet's pages is a Starship Upper Deck map meant to be used in conjunction with the Starship Bridge Area map; the hatches of both maps line up with each other.  (“An individual who opens a hatch on one map can move directly into the corresponding airlock on the other map.”)

According to the Introduction:
The starship Omicron, the pride of the Pan Galactic Corporation, disappeared years ago on its first voyage.  Recently the ship was found drifting in space, the passengers and crew killed by a strange and virulent disease.  The ship was decontaminated, refueled, and made ready for operations.  The PGC has hired eight adventurers to “babysit” the Omicron on her voyage back to a Corporation starport.  The ship is being navigated by her computers and robots and this promises to be an easy mission for the “babysitting” team.
Two pages are devoted to rules specific to the module (such as movement, life support, and ship locations).

In the “Sathar Attack” scenario, an invasion force boards the Omicron.  The force consists of “10 Sathar, eight Zuraqqor, two quickdeaths, and one cybodragon.”  The player characters are not alerted to this incursion until the Sathar open the “outer hull hatch.”  Evidently the Omicron has no escort and the Sathar can avoid the ship's sensors (assuming it has any).  As an option for the scenario, “a small sample of the disease spores...[are]...stored in the Medical Lab.”  Should combat occur in the Medical Lab, “there is an 80% chance that the vial containing the disease spores will be broken...”

In the “Rogue Robots” scenario, “the Zuraqqor have infiltrated a rogue robot onto the starship Omicron” somehow.  “The rogue robot has secretly reprogrammed all the other robots,” but not necessarily successfully.  Different types of robots have different percentage chances of genuinely being in the rogue robot's thrall.  The objective of the player characters is to determine which robot is the rogue and destroy it.

Sunday, April 7, 2019

More Concepts from Zebulon's Guide

Art by Ed Emshwiller

Not just a rules expansion, Zebulon's Guide to Frontier Space (hereinafter Zebulon) substantially modifies the Star Frontiers setting.  According to the provided timeline, Zebulon describes a time about one hundred years after the original of Star Frontiers milieu.  Various events transpired during the intervening century.  Most importantly, new sentient races were introduced to Frontier.

Ifshnits are, in effect, space dwarves.
Ifshnits are the major race in the Capella system.  They founded the Capellan Free Merchants and still control the organization.  Their strange, polite dickering is known and welcome on most planets.  Due to their origins, Ifshnits are fiercely independent...
They automatically possess one of the following skills:  Appraisal, Gemology, or Haggling.

Osakar are expert linguists and have a superb sense of smell.
The Osakar epidermis is made up of thousands of large, white, hard, plate-like cells that are shingled downward all over the body.  They resemble a huge, white plant more than any animal.
Because Osakar are the only sentient race to have “achieved perfect equality,” they have a “natural inclination toward individuality.”  Additionally, “All Osakar are fervently religious, but the religion itself is not as important as the fact that the Osakar believes in it.”

Humma bear a superficial similarity to kangaroos; they can leap up to twenty-five meters horizontally.  However, Humma tails are prehensile.
Humma are rude, crude, lewd, pushy, and arrogant.  The only races they enjoy working with are the Yazirians (Humma admire their battle rage) and Osakar (because no one likes them either).
Their “lack of smell and taste, combined with their tough digestive system, means they can eat almost anything that is vaguely edible.”

Mechanons are the sentient robots from Starspawn of Volturnus.  Since leaving Volturnus and colonizing the planet Mechano, their “aggressive tendency to dominate and destroy organic, intelligent life” has abated.  Nonetheless, “Some robopsychologists are beginning to suspect that two completely different Mechanon societies may be evolving:  one bent on peacefully coexisting with the other races, and another, smaller faction bent on destroying them.”  Perhaps because of this, Mechanons are relegated to non-player character status.

Another prominent event in the timeline was the spread and eradication of the Blue Plague.  First appearing on Starmist, the plague would eventually kill 17 million entities.  Presumably, victims included all of the (organic) sentient races.

Additionally, of the approximately four pages devoted to the timeline, the description of the Second Sathar War takes up slightly more than an entire page.

Aside from the timeline, there is a five page chapter about mega-corporations.  Seventeen mega-corps (including the Capellan Free Merchants) are described in capsule form.  Emphasis is placed on the phenomenon of “Corporate Wars.”  The stages of a corporate war are indicated by the acronym ICEWARS:  Interest conflict, Corporate espionage, Economic sanctions, Withdrawal, Armed conflict, Reinforcements, and Stabilization.”

Zebulon brings cloning technology into Star Frontiers.  For five thousand Credits a skin sample is placed into a body-gene box.  Being “part stasis field, part freeze field,” a b-g box “is a 20-cm cube made of federanium.”  We are told, “As long as the box remains closed, the sample remains fresh.”  I guess you could say that a sample in a b-g box is stayin' alive.  (Sorry, my inner demons forced me to make a Bee Gees joke.)  It costs ten thousand Credits per year to maintain and store a b-g box.  Once it is “positively established” that a sample donor has died, a clone can be generated at a cost of 75,000 Credits.  Proof of a person's demise requires “witnesses, a medical certificate of death, or the identifiable remains of the [person].”  However, to be eligible for cloning, the person must have “died an unusually early accidental death.”  Absent this restriction, “Most of the Frontier believes that...the clone merchants would overpopulate the systems in a matter of decades.”

Since this is science fiction, clones have the memories of their originals.
When a character has a sample taken, the referee must record all of the character's abilities, skills, and so forth.  This record is then the basis for the clone, if and when it is grown.  Any new abilities or skills developed after the sample is taken are not recorded, unless the character has another sample taken later (whereupon the original sample is destroyed).
It is not explained how an original's personality is linked to a skin sample.  The sample is destroyed when a clone is generated from it and – for undisclosed reasons – “Another sample cannot be taken for at least three months.”  Supposedly, when a clone is generated, it has the same physiological age as the original at the time the sample was taken.

If a clone learns that his original is still alive...
...he becomes obsessed with a desire to kill the original character and never stops trying until one or the other is dead. The next step, usually, is that the cloned character then becomes suicidal after realizing that he has killed himself.
Presumably, this also applies to female clones.  Given this behavior, it is understandable that, “If it is discovered that a clone exists while the original still lives, a general order to shoot on sight is immediately given.”  We also learn that, “Unfortunately this usually results in both the clone and the original being destroyed.”  Can't the original be put into protective custody?  If I realized that I was a clone and found out my original was still alive and knew that, as such, I would be destroyed, I would approach things differently.  I might toy with the idea of taking my original's place.  Quickly dismissing this notion as not being feasible, I would distance myself from my original identity in an effort to convince people that I'm not a clone.

Naturally, cloning presents a variety legal and ethical considerations.  Is a clone responsible for the actions of its original after the sample is taken?  Felons aren't allowed to maintain b-g boxes or be cloned, but does a clone inherit its original's debts and responsibilities?

We learn “there are always rumors of the 'filthy rich' who can buy their own clone banks and almost become immortal, but that is for NPC consideration only.”  How does that work?  Do these would-be immortals pretend to be their own offspring for purposes of inheritance?  How would their actual children feel about that?  In any event, a clone isn't really a continuation of the original.  The clone and the original “share a life” until the time of the sample; the original then has its own experiences and develops independently.

Cloning offers some adventure opportunities that Zebulon does not touch upon.  For instance, the clone of a player character would want to know how and why the original died.  Because of the cloning restrictions, the death couldn't be the result of natural causes.  Another opportunity would be for player characters to be clone hunters, tracking down and 'retiring' clones that are alive illegally.  Also, Sathar would certainly take advantage of cloning technology.  They could steal samples of important people, generate clones that are completely loyal to the Sathar cause, and replace the people with their clones.  Positions of great influence would be infiltrated by agents who could not be distinguished from the originals.

Sunday, March 24, 2019

Sundown on Starmist (spoilers)

Art by Clyde Caldwell

Sundown on Starmist, having the module code of SF3, is the fourth Star Frontiers adventure (given that the Volturnus trilogy was numbered SF0, SF1, and SF2).  Aside from working on other TSR products, writer Garry Spiegel did design work for Pacesetter.  Prior to providing a plot synopsis, the introductory material claims, “To obtain maximum play value and fun, try to follow this plot outline as closely as possible.”  Unfortunately, the plot is disjointed.  Sundown on Starmist suffers from poor editorial decisions (or perhaps editorial inattention).  My primary complaint is that much of the background information is unknown to the player characters and cannot be discovered.  However, let's start with the background information to which the players are exposed.  The first paragraph of the player character background report reads:
Maximillian Malligigg, a former second-master and navigator of a Vrusk freemerchant ship, has hired you for a private expedition to an uncharted planet he calls Starmist.  During his last voyage, Malligigg made an emergency landing on Starmist.  The planet was within the normal range of for all races.
Normal range of what for all races?  Is it no longer with the normal range?  Anyway, said ship was the VSS Centispeed (with VSS presumably meaning Vrusk Space Ship).  According to the front cover:
Something ancient and powerful is hidden inside the pyramid constructed by a primitive alien culture.  The crew of UPF Centispeed must discover what it is to save the planet.
The ship that Max and the player characters use to travel to Starmist is the VSS Last Legs (alternatively spelled Last Leggs).  Aside from Max, there are no crewmembers of the Centispeed in the adventure.  That's two mistakes in the module's cover description; not a good sign.

The surface of Starmist is frozen and uninhabitable; however, “Huge rifts formed in the surface, much like gigantic canyons, many of them miles deep.”  Eventually, “Water and atmosphere collected in the rifts and they slowly became habitable.”  When the Centispeed made an emergency landing in one of these rifts, the crew encountered “a predominantly nomadic culture” and Max came across a sample of processed metal beyond that culture's ability to create.  Given “an official expedition would be sent to Starmist soon following his captain's report to the authorities,” Max arranged for a private expedition so he could reach Starmist beforehand.  “If he could find evidence of a lost civilization, and perhaps locate some artifacts,” Max thought, “he could become a wealthy man” (or at least a wealthy Vrusk).  Max has retained the services of the player characters for an undisclosed amount. 

Although the module can be used in conjunction with Knight Hawks (according to page 21) and Max is said to be a navigator (and “he completed courses for a degree in science and astrophysics”), he possesses no Spaceship Skills.  “Maximillian's purpose is to aid you in running the adventure,” the referee is told, “He is ambitious and eager but neither brave nor smart.”

The sentient (but primitive) beings on Starmist are called Heliopes.  This suggests some affinity for sunlight, like maybe they're lethargic at night.  In this way, the phrase “Sundown on Starmist” would be meaningful.  This is not the case.  First, Heliopes are not associated with sunlight; no reason for their name is given.  Second, “Sundown” is the name of the sun.  Seriously, who names a sun “Sundown”?  The module's title makes no sense.  I mean, they could have called it The Secret of Starmist.

One might think that the blue cyclops on the cover represents a Heliope.  Maybe it's supposed to be a Heliope, but the pictured entity does not conform to how Heliopes are described in the text.  They have no hands, but instead possess “two pincers, slightly rigid, with a sharp nail along the edges.”  Their “feet are large, long, and splayed.”  They have mandibles and translucent skin.  Also missing from the tail are characteristic painted designs.

The image clearly depicts two moons; however, the text emphasizes, “The nights are very dark on Starmist because there is no moon and few close stars.”  Yet an interior illustration shows two moons.  Also, where did this non-Heliope obtain human skulls?

Part of the background that the players don't know about is that the Heliopes are not native to Starmist.  “They were slaves of a race called the Clikks, resembling the Vrusk,” we learn.  A Clikk exploration vessel in the Sundown system “had problems that required dumping any extra weight.”  Heliopes and various items of non-essential equipment were left on the planet, but not before the Heliopes were subjected to “a mindwipe that caused amnesia.”  This happened 600 years ago, but somehow the space-faring Clikk are unknown to the Frontier races.  In the centuries since they arrived on Starmist, the Heliopes have expanded “to nearly 200 tribes.”

So, Max and the player characters land and travel overland to the single Heliope village.  On the way, “nomad Heliopes...attack and village Heliopes...come to the rescue.”  When Max was on Starmist previously, he learned the Heliope language.  One can suppose that, having Max as a translator, the player characters can communicate with the Heliopes.  However, Heliopes and the PCs can communicate with one another when Max is not present.  The only exception to the ability to communicate happens in Village Encounter 11 for some reason.  Otherwise, we learn that “the Heliopes will be friendly and curious about [the player characters]; however, they shy away from Vrusks.”  Their attitude toward Vrusks might be explained by a racial memory of the Clikk slavers.  Yet if this is the case, why did they interact with Max?

The Heliopes developed a religion featuring Clikk relics.  Of course, the piece of metal Max found was left behind by the Clikk, but neither he nor the player characters ever learn about the Clikk or the history of the Heliopes.  The module relates that, “Massive tools and heavy structural members from the Clikk ship are corroded and broken from age and lack of proper maintenance.”  However, the Heliope aristocracy possess “sophisticated” weapons that are still functional after six centuries despite “lack of proper maintenance.”  Acquisition of ammunition does not seem to be problematic.  Also fully functional is the War Tank.

Three pages of text, a page of diagrams, and three tables are devoted to the War Tank and its weaponry.  “The tank is designed to be played with,” we read, “and the characters should be allowed to explore and experiment.”  One problem is that the tank is encased in a pyramid which happens to be “the holiest place of the Heliopes.”  The module explains that the “Heliopes will allow the PCs free range of the village but will fight anyone who approaches the pyramid, temple or river huts.”  Are the player characters supposed to decimate the Heliopes to get the tank?  One of the reasons the tank possesses religious significance is that its defense field produces intoxicating effects in Heliopes.  Another problem is that:
The tank is provided with a special security device to keep it out of enemy hands.  Once the tank is under power, the code must be entered daily from the captain's position; otherwise a self-destruct sequence is activated.
(Seemingly, having the defense field activated does not count as “under power.”)  Of course, the player characters don't know about the self-destruct sequence and – once the sequence is activated – it cannot be countered.  According to page 13, “The time required for self-destruct is up to [the referee] as the length play time will vary from game to game.”

At some point, the priests kidnap Max, requiring that the player characters invade the priests' river complex.  “Most important,” during the incursion, “the PCs must obtain one of the black and red rods which will give access to the tank.”  The next required encounter is an attack upon the village by Self Addressed Stamped Envelopes – no, wait – in Star Frontiers, S.A.S.E. means Sathar Attack Simulacra Exterior.  These should not be confused with Sathar Attack Simulacra Interior but, honestly, the differences between the two seem negligible.  According to page 7, the attacking 'robots' appear to be “four Heliopes who seem to be moving without quite touching the ground.”  However, according to page 24, both S.A.S.E. and S.A.S.I. have “secondary tentacles” (which implies the presence of primary tentacles).  Heliopes don't have tentacles.

The S.A.S.E. attack a second time once “PCs are familiar with the tank and begin to move around the village with it.”  After the second attack, “The PCs should follow the robots to the hidden base and bunker.”  Alternatively, “If the robots are destroyed, their signal beams will still operate and be traceable back to the base.”  So, there's a Sathar base:
During the day the players will see the hologram...The hologram projects an image of the bluff and rolling hills as well as the pond. At night the holograph is turned off and the PCs will be able to see the buildings by means of night vision or a light.
Apparently none of the Heliopes have ever seen the base at night.  The Sathar base serves three purposes:  (1) “a training base for [non-Sathar] espionage agents,” (2) “a heavy weapons bunker,” and (3) for “work on bio-genetic constructs.”  Somehow, “The Heliopes provided excellent cover for the Sathar operation.”  At the time of the adventure, the base is undergoing an evacuation:
A while ago the planet was discovered by the merchant ship carrying Maximillian Malligigg.  Alarmed, the Sathar decided to use the delay between the time they sent their official report and the resulting investigation to evacuate the base.  When the warships arrive and after evacuation is complete, the Sathar plan to destroy all lifeforms on Starmist.  The Sathar will let the PCs land since they plan mass destruction anyway, but they will shoot the PCs down if they try to leave.
The Sathar base has a weapon “capable of shooting down aircraft and/or spacecraft in orbit.”  Through the simple expedient of shooting down the original merchant ship, the Sathar could have obviated the need to evacuate their base and “destroy all lifeforms on Starmist.”  Also, just because “you plan mass destruction” at some point, people you allow to land aren't prevented from foiling your evil plans.

Upon infiltrating the Sathar base and reaching the power room, player characters – assuming they have appropriate skills – “will be able to determine that the [nuclear power] unit will explode in three hours.”  How or if the base personnel planned to survive is not disclosed.  Nonetheless, should the base commander perish the base will self-destruct in twelve hours (according to page 17) or merely one hour (according to page 20).