Sunday, February 17, 2019

Zebulon's Guide to Frontier Space

Art by Ed Emshwiller

TSR offered three 'accessory' products for Star Frontiers.  The first such product was a book of official character record sheets; the second was a referee's screen.  Lastly, we have the subject of this post, Zebulon's Guide to Frontier Space (hereinafter Zebulon).  The conceit of Zebulon is that it is... encyclopedia compiled by the University of Zebulon documenting all the known flora, fauna, cultures, devices, and history of the Frontier in one place. The handy Ceretronix Pocket 1200 version quickly became a necessary piece of equipment in every pioneer's and spacer's kit.
Zebulon, of course, is one of the star systems in the Frontier (and doubtless named after Dave “Zeb” Cook).  Specifically, the Zebulon system contains Volturnus.  The university is based on Anker, another planet in the system.  According to the Zebulon timeline, Professor Alorne Zebulon discovered the Zebulon system 61 years prior to the establishment of the United Planetary Federation (and 66 years prior to the creation of Star Law).  Four years after discovering the Zebulon system, the professor established the University of Zebulon.  However, Crash on Volturnus states that, “The Zebulon star system was first investigated... by an unmanned exploration probe” and this “probe indicated that Volturnus was the only inhabitable planet in the Zebulon system.”  Also, Crash on Volturnus takes place within a year of the first manned expedition of that system – an expedition that did not include Professor Zebulon.  There is no attempt to reconcile these conflicting facts.  It's almost as if the Star Frontiers creative team did not anticipate that – 30-40 years in the future – people with nothing better to do would use a global communications system to nitpick the continuity of the game's milieu.

Despite the claim above, Zebulon documents neither flora nor fauna.  Zebulon has “Volume 1” as its subtitle, suggesting further volumes.  Perhaps flora and fauna would have been covered in one of these anticipated volumes.  However, published in 1985, Zebulon was one of TSR's last Star Frontiers products.  More than a mere accessory, Zebulon was hailed as a “major new rules expansion!” in the coming attractions of Dragon #102.  In effect, Zebulon was a new edition of the Star Frontiers rules.  Unfortunately, it was also Star Frontiers' swan song.

Zebulon offers a universal resolution system based on a table with nineteen columns.  Generally, each column represents a skill level; however, there are columns for both positive and negative extremes (above +10 and below -5 respectively).  There is also a “/0” column to the right of the “0” column. 

In the original rules, skills have a maximum of six levels.  With the Zebulon rules, the maximum level is eight.  Percentile dice are still rolled, but instead of percentile modifiers, there are “column shifts” on the table.  Each column represents a modifier difference of 10.  “For example, a + 20 bonus in the Alpha Dawn rules now becomes a + 2 column shift.”  Use of the table allows for degrees of success, each degree conforms to one of four colors.  In order of decreasing result, the colors are:  cobalt, blue, green, and yellow.

In terms of combat, damage is determined by the color result of a successful attack.  A cobalt success inflicts maximum damage.  Other possibilities include blue (¾ damage), green (½ damage), and yellow (¼ damage).  A character without training in a given weapon can attempt to use the weapon on the “0” column; positive modifiers cannot improve a roll to the right of the “/0” column.

The original rules offered a selection of thirteen skills (with associated subskills) among three Primary Skill Areas.  Zebulon treats each subskill as a distinct skill and adds many new skills so that over 120 skills are now available for characters.  In terms of character creation, a beginning character has twenty experience points “gleaned from years of study, practicing, apprenticeship, or whatever.”  These points are used to join a profession and acquire skills.

Professions are a new concept in Zebulon.  We learn that, “A character must belong to one of these professions and may not leave it at a later date.”  Each profession has a list of skills associated with it.  Entering a profession costs ten experience points and a character “must spend his remaining experience points on any of his profession's skills.”  Rather than having twenty experience points and necessarily spending ten of those to enter a profession, why not have characters join a profession at no cost and give them ten experience points to spend on profession skills? 

The main professions are:  Enforcer, Techex (“Technical Expert”), Scispec (“Science Specialist”), and Explorer.  A Mentalist profession is discussed separately in Zebulon.  The Spacer profession is “for campaigns using the Knight Hawks game rules.”  There is no other mention of the Spacer profession.  The spaceship skills are not defined in the Zebulon skill section and there is no discussion of how to conform the spaceship skills to the Zebulon paradigm.

Each profession has an automatic skill:  Enforcer - Endurance, Techex - Agility, Scipec - Intelligence, and Explorer - Charisma.  Each of these automatic 'skills' gives seven points to be allocated between a given ability pair:  Endurance (Strength/Stamina), Agility (Dexterity/Reaction Speed), Intelligence (Intuition/Logic), and Charisma (Personality/Leadership).

The cost of learning and improving skills is indicated on the Zebulon Skill Cost Table.  There is a column for skills within one's profession and a column for skills outside one's profession.  The first level of a profession skill costs one point, the second level costs an additional two points.  Each level after the second costs an additional two points.  Thereby, the eighth level of a professional skill has a cost of fourteen points.  The cost for non-professional skills is double that of professional skills.  Some skills do not have levels beyond the first; success is automatic if these skills are purchased.  Examples include 'Climbing' and 'Chef'.

Some skills appear on more than one profession list.  For instance, 'Body Speak' is both an Enforcer skill and an Explorer skill.  (Body Speak “allows a character to use exaggerated body movement as a form of communication with others possessing this skill.”)  Some skills aren't on any profession list, meaning that anyone who wants to learn or improve such a skill must use the non-profession cost progression.  Examples include 'Disguise' and 'Bluff'.  Some skills require continuous training; they must be re-purchased at first level every six months or the benefit they provide is lost.  Examples include 'Pumping Federanium' and 'Running'.  ('Pumping Federanium' allows a character to “carry [up] to one and one-half times his Strength score” in kilograms.  This is due to the character working out with federanium, “the densest element known.”  However, the drawback is that the character's physique is so developed he “may have trouble fitting into suits and equipment normally disguised [sic] for his race.”)

Sunday, February 3, 2019

The Warriors of White Light (spoilers)

Art by Jim Holloway

Included in the Knight Hawks boxed set is a 16-page module “designed to introduce players and referees to the spaceship rules in STAR FRONTIERS™ Knight Hawks game, and to show referees how the Knight Hawks rules can be combined with the original STAR FRONTIERS rules.”  Five scenarios are detailed.  According to to Beta Subsection 7, they “are designed to support rather than create, a campaign.”  Regardless, the module establishes the foundation of the campaign.  We are told, “the referee is encouraged to devise other encounters of his own to use between adventures.”

Player characters are supposed to be recruits in the Clarion Royal Marines.  Clarion – called Gollywog in Star Frontiers Expanded Rules – is in the eponymous White Light system.  Since the star's color is red-orange, the name 'White light' is hardly intuitive.  'Royal' implies royalty and – appropriately – Clarion is described as a “capitalist monarchy.”  The reigning king is Leotus XIX and we learn, “The Leotus line has held the throne for nearly 400 years.”  This suggests that the age of space exploration is at least four hundred years old.  (Humans are not native to the planet as we are told, “No native animal life has been discovered on Clarion.”)  Not everyone is happy with the monarchy; the Liberation Party holds twenty to thirty seats (out of one hundred) of Clarion's parliament.

Alpha Subsection 2 informs us that participating player characters “should already have a 1st level spaceship skill.”  Nine pre-generated characters are provided if “the players do not wish to roll up their own characters.”  Given that spaceship skills difficult to obtain and are not possessed by starting characters, the suggestion that players can roll up appropriate characters is somewhat disingenuous.  Unlike other Star Frontiers products, the White Light pre-generated characters are not supplied with names.  This is an interesting choice given that the module has a plethora of named non-player characters.  Your humble host's favorite is “Bluto Goorhud (Yazirian Male).”

In the 'campaign', the player characters are based on Clarion Station and assigned to the Osprey, one of three assault scouts in the Royal Marine fleet.  During the course of conversations with the other marines, the player characters are supposed to learn “a boarding party from the Assault Ship Osprey was ambushed by the crew of the freighter they were searching for contraband.”  This is the reason there were vacancies in the Royal Marines for the player characters to fill.  About the spaceport we learn:
A starship arrives at Clarion Station about once every 100 to 200 minutes.  Shuttles leave for the planet even more frequently.  This heavy traffic brings thousands of characters of all four races through the station, so huge crowds can be seen mingling about on the business deck at all hours.  The referee can stretch his imagination describing hundreds of beings going about their business with frantic haste.
Among the various recreational businesses on the station, there is the 'Dance and Dice'.  This establishment “is a favorite hangout for spacers of all types.”  Rules for dancing are not provided, but if player characters are inclined to gamble, the following table is presented.

There are rumors that the dice at the 'Dance and Dice' are not always honest.  The referee should feel free to alter any result he does not like.  Of course, the club keeps a number of 'Goons' on hand to reason with players who do not understand or appreciate such tactics.
Player characters function as a boarding party, checking ships for contraband.  The penalty for importing addictive drugs is “10 to 20 years in prison.”  For importing heavy weapons, the punishment is “Death by vacuum.”  Also listed among contraband is “Raw Uranjum,” which I presume is a typo for uranium, one of Clarion's natural resources.  Gamma Subsection 2 relates, “The characters should be allowed to search several ships that are carrying legal cargo before encountering the smugglers.”  The 'smugglers' are the focus of the first scenario; they are transporting “a variety of weapons...[which] are hidden inside robot bodies in the cargo hold.”  The weapons are intended for “Liberation Party rebels,” illustrating the extent of opposition to Clarion's aristocratic rulers.

In the second scenario, player characters board a freighter controlled by a cybot – “a cybernetic (partially organic) robot.”  Ideally, the characters should “subdue the 'cybot' and his robot minions while causing as little damage as possible.”  This scenario offers a bonanza of experience points.  In addition to the standard one to three point award, characters receive “3 bonus points for each robot that was deactivated without being destroyed.”  Also, they gain “10 points if the cybot was stopped by damage to its organic parts rather than to the robot body.”  This is in spite of the admonition in the Star Frontiers Expanded Rules, “The referee should never award more than 10 points for one adventure.”

In the next scenario, the Osprey attempts to save a freighter from the depredations of a pirate corvette.  Maybe the player characters are successful in this regard or maybe they're not.  Regardless, the pirates escape.  Eventually, “a wildcat miner operating in the asteroid belt” will inform the Royal Marines of the location of the pirate base.  As a result, the Marines mobilize against the pirate base and a battle in the (two-dimensional) asteroid belt ensues.

In the fourth scenario, the non-player character lieutenant in command of the Osprey is revealed to be a Sathar agent (which is another offence punishable by “Death by vacuum”).  The player characters are at a disadvantage as the lieutenant brings the Osprey alongside what turns out to be a Sathar freighter.  Should a player character look out a porthole, he or she can tell that the freighter is a “sinister object” if an Intuition check is successful.

By the time player characters participate in the fifth scenario, they “should be able to earn 15 or 20 experience points.”  This is because that scenario “is designed for characters with at least 2nd level spaceship skills.”  There is an assumption that player characters will spend their experience points on improving spaceship skills as opposed to improving other skills, acquiring new skills, or raising ability scores.  Incidentally, the final scenario is a battle against Sathar destroyers.

Sunday, January 20, 2019

Getting a Starship

Art by Vincent Di Fate

The Knight Hawks Campaign Book devotes eight pages to an 'Economic Activity in the Frontier' section.  It “details some of the ways characters can use ships to earn money, the dangers in their path and how they can get started.”

First, characters must obtain a ship.  Nearly half of the section is devoted to describing how a starship may be acquired.  In some games (e.g., Traveller) characters can gain a ship (or receive partial ownership of a ship) via character generation.  In some games (e.g., Hero System) characters can spend points to get a ship.  In other games (e.g., Fantasy Flight's Star Wars) the party just gets a ship.  The assumption in Knight Hawks is that player characters buy a ship with funds loaned from a bank.  All banks operate in the same way:
...all charge 4% interest compounded every 40 days.  This is about 23% per year.  This high interest rate is justified by the volatile economy in the Frontier and offset by the possibility of making a quick fortune.
Banks will grant loans equal to the value of collateral placed with the bank.  Absent collateral, characters will have to submit to an interview with a loan officer.  The referee and player role-play this interview.  “Loan interviews are good situations role playing,” we are told.  Not surprisingly, interacting with financial institutions is not listed as a role-playing enticement on the back of the box.  In the interview, the player presents a plan:  “how the loan will be invested, and how it will be repaid.”  Success of the loan application is determined by “a simple die roll.”  If the referee rolls one-half of the applicant's Personality score or less on 1d100, the bank extends the loan.  The roll may be modified up to ten-percent (favorably or unfavorably) “based on whether the character's plan has a good chance to succeed, the current economic conditions in the Frontier and the character's attitude and treatment of the loan officer during the interview.”

Don't bother trying to use Hypnosis (a Psycho-Social subskill) on the loan officer.  “Bank  loan officers are routinely monitored by computer,” the rules state, “so any attempt to hypnotize the loan officer will be noticed and the loan officer will be notified.”

A character's reputation determines the maximum amount of money a bank will loan.  Reputation is measured in “good deeds.”  Examples of such deeds include “capturing pirates, killing Sathar, [and] saving a child's life.”  These deeds must be publicized:  “a character who who performed heroic deeds in a remote corner of Frontier cannot expect the loan officer to know about them.”  With two good deeds, a character can obtain a loan of ten thousand Credits; with five good deeds, 100,000 Cr.  If, in addition to the five good deed minimum, a character “has performed a truly spectacular task, such as saving a city or colony at great risk to himself, [he] can apply for a loan of 500,000 Cr.”  A low-end starship can easily cost 500,000 Cr, so gaining a reputation sufficient for borrowing enough money to buy a ship is not easily accomplished.

For loan amounts in excess of ten thousand Credits (without collateral), banks require that the borrower undergo a surgical process to embed a tiny transmitter in the character's skeletal system.  This device is called a tracer implant.  Does the bank pay for the the tracer and the surgery?  Anyway, “The tracer emits a signal that identifies the character and the bank which loaned him the money.”  The signal “can be picked up by tracer scanners from a range of several meters.”  The scanners...
...are common in any populated area of the Frontier.  All banks and spaceports, and most stores, restaurants and other businesses have tracer scanners at their entrances.  They are standard equipment for police officers.
If a “character skips payments and does not respond to warnings,” scanners will active an alarm when they detect the character's tracer.  “Because banks offer large rewards for the capture of loan defaulters,” we learn, “police and independent loan agents will close in on the character immediately.”  We also learn that the implant is not easily removed:  “No reputable hospital or medical clinic will remove an implant unless the operation is authorized by the bank.”  This would seem to be a money-making opportunity for amoral characters with Medical Skill.

The section provides almost a page worth of alternative means of obtaining a ship should the players be “unable or reluctant to get a bank loan for a starship...”  The book explains, “These are ideas only, not rules.”

Government Subsidies:
“Basically,” according to page 42, “the government loans money to the characters (at a low rate of interest) so that they can purchase a starship that fits the government's specifications.”  Reasons a government may subsidize such a purchase might include “long passenger or freight lines to remote worlds, transport of dangerous materials or desperately needed high-overhead cargos, privateering, or a government courier service.”

Crime Organizations:
If characters have contacts with a large criminal organization, they might secure a loan at “very high interest (60 to 100 percent per year is not unusual).”  If the characters put themselves up as collateral and they default, “the criminals will track them down and either sell them selves or kill them and sell their body parts on the black market, using their brains to build cybernetic robots.”  In addition to the high interest, the organization might require co-operation in such things as “smuggling illegal cargos, helping fugitives escape the police, or using the characters' business as a legitimate front for criminal activity.”

Corporate Lease:
In this alternative, the ship is owned by a large corporation and the characters lease it.  “The characters usually have the option to buy the ship,” we are told, “applying their lease payments to the purchase.”

Joint Venture:
Essentially, characters “sell stock in their business.”  Characters “must deliver dividends to its shareholders” at regular intervals (“200 or 400 days are common”).

Used Ships:
Used ships can be purchased “for 40 to 80 percent of their new value.”  Of course, they “are prone to breakdowns and malfunctions” or even be partially inoperable.  Referees are encouraged “to let the life support or some other system break down right after the characters take possession of the ship, just to let them know what they can expect in the future.”

A corporation or research group may be willing to sign over a ship's title to characters who use the ship on an extremely dangerous and important mission.
Patron's Ships:
Characters can work as the crew of a ship belonging to someone else.  “Characters may even work for free,” we learn, “letting the ship owner keep their wages as a down payment against eventual purchase of the ship.”

Ships “found abandoned and adrift in open space is the property of whoever salvages it.”  Of course, you must already have a ship so as to reach a ship to be salvaged.

Any characters trying this should meet a lot of resistance, both from the ship's crew during the hijacking and from port authorities and the Star Law Rangers after the hijacking.
Deus ex Machina:
As a last resort, the referee can intervene in the players' behalf with some miraculous event ('Your rich great-aunt just died and left her mining ship to you.  After all, it is a family heirloom.').

Sunday, January 13, 2019

Spaceship Skills in Knight Hawks

Art by Julian Krupa

With the spaceship rules that Knight Hawks brought to Star Frontiers, it also introduced spaceship skills.  However, such skills are not available to beginning characters.  Each spaceship skill requires a combination at least six levels of one or more 'basic' Star Frontiers skills.  As discussed previously, such levels cost over a hundred points.  Also, with regard to improvement, “Spaceship skills are a lot more expensive...than skills from the STAR FRONTIERS game.”  The rules explain, “This reflects the high degree of training a character needs in order to understand and use complex spaceship systems.”  Jeff Rients rationalizes this by comparing the setting to the early days of the space program:
Only the best of the best of the best in various terrestrial professions have the chops to learn space skills.  Test pilots and aces are allowed near the controls of spacecraft.  No one else can cut it behind the wheel of these multi-zillion credit wonders of technology.  If you want to be trusted with the cannon on a spacecraft you need to prove that you've mastered smaller weapons.
I would have an easier time buying into this analogy if there weren't space pirates.  I mean, if people with spaceship skills are so valued, there's little reason for them to turn to piracy.  Also, I don't want my escapism tempered by rationalizations.  Beginning characters in other space opera games can pilot space ships, why should it be so difficult in Star Frontiers ?  On the other hand, beginning magic-users can't cast Fireball, so perhaps a reasonable argument could be made that beginning Star Frontiers characters need not have access to spaceship skills.

There is a way to acquire spaceship skills without accumulating vast amounts of experience.  By attending spacefleet academy, a character becomes “qualified at the 1st level of a spaceship weapons skill and 2nd level of piloting, astrogation or spaceship engineering skill.”  Students also receive any 'foundation' skills at whatever levels are needed.
Spacefleet officers receive their training at the Gollwin Academy, which is the fleet war college.  The academy is a huge group of space stations orbiting Morgaine's World.  It offers a two year program in the tactics and strategy of interstellar combat.  Its graduates assume the rank of Junior Lieutenants on Spacefleet vessels.
There are, however, requirements for entering the academy.
All cadets entering the academy must have scores of at least 50 in six of their eight abilities.  The character's Leadership score must be higher than 50.
Before entering the academy, a character is interviewed by the faculty.  The character is admitted if he or she passes a Personality check.  If the check is failed, “the character may apply again one year later.”  Once in the academy, the character chooses either piloting, astrogation, or spaceship engineering to study.  If the character fails a Logic check, he or she cannot attain that skill and must select one of the two remaining alternatives.  If a second Logic check is failed, then the character can try for the last skill area with a third check.  “If the third roll fails,” we learn, “the character has 'washed out' of the academy and will never be admitted again.” 

As one might expect, “Piloting skill allows a character to fly a spaceship.”  As foundation skills, piloting requires Computer 2 and Technician 6.  At first level of ability, only “system” ships can be flown.  Starting at second level, the character can pilot starships of increasing volumes of hull size.  At sixth level, a character can pilot “All starships.”  Piloting sub-skills include evasion, increase maneuver rating, and increase accuracy of forward firing weapons.

With the astrogation skill, a character “can make the complicated calculations required to take a starship on a safe course through the Void.”  ('The Void' is the Knight Hawks version of hyperspace.  “Time is very distorted in the Void,” the introduction explains, “and space does not seem to exist at all.”)  The foundation skill for astrogation is Computer 6.  Subsets include find location, pilot interstellar jumps, and chart new routes.  (“The UPF pays a standard bonus of 100,000 Cr for information on new travel routes.”).  We are told, “Normal plotting time for a jump is 10 hours for each light-year that will be jumped.”  If less time is spent preparing, the attempt “is called Risk Jumping, or 'smoking the jump.'”  Risk jumping is another astrogation subskill.  Included with the astrogation skill description is the Interstellar Distance Table.  Given the vertical separation and horizontal separation between two stars, the table provides the distance in light-years.  This reinforces the notion that space is a two dimensional plane.

“Spaceship engineers are trained in the construction, maintenance and repair of spaceships.”  Both Technician 4 and Robotics 2 are needed as foundation skills.  (So, spaceship engineering requires less technician competency than does piloting.)  Subskills include damage control and stress analysis.  Spaceship engineering also includes the subskill of ship design, having a success rate of 100%.  Skill level determines the types of ship a character is qualified to design.  At first level, the character can only design shuttles; at second level, “System ships of all types.”  Starting at third level, a character can design starships of increasing hull size.  One assumes the skill could also be used in conjunction with space stations.

There are two distinct gunnery skills, rocket weapons (requiring Projectile Weapons 4 and Gyrojet Weapons 2 as foundation skills) and Energy Weapons (requiring Beam Weapons 6).  As explained in the previous post, levels in gunnery skills improves accuracy with ship weapons.  Appropriately, one of the subskills is improve accuracy.  The other subskill is selective targeting.  At a -30% modifier, a gunner can hit a specific system of the target ship.  “If the shop misses,” the description indicates, “it is considered a clean miss and causes no damage.”