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).

Sunday, March 3, 2019

More Mental Powers in Star Frontiers

Art by Steve Ditko

In a comment for last week's post, Down Under reader Konsumterra referenced the Star Frontiers psionics rules as presented in Arēs magazine.  This week we discuss said rules.  Arēs Special Edition 2 was published in Spring 1984, more than a year before the release of Zebulon's Guide to Frontier Space.  By this time, Arēs was published by TSR but had not yet been reduced to a mere section of Dragon.

The two-and-one-half page article, “Frontiers of the Mind,” was written by Jon Mattson, an occasional contributor to Dragon magazine.  Mattson introduces a new ability score:
When characters are generated, each player must roll for an additional ability score, Psionic Ability (PSI), using the same die-rolling procedure as used for any other score.  There are no racial modifiers for this roll, although Human characters can add their 5-point bonus to this score, and it is not “paired” with any other ability.  In every other respect, PSI is treated as a normal attribute.
There is a Psionic Primary Skill Area with each psionic ability represented as a separate skill.  A character can have a maximum number of psionic skills “equal to his PSI score divided by 15 (rounding fractions to the nearest whole number).”  Characters can have expertise (i.e., above Level 4) in a maximum number of psionic skills “equal to their PSI score divided by 25 (dropping fractions).”  In terms of cost, psionic skills are more expensive than Biosocial skills.
As the table suggests,“the experience point cost is doubled for psionic skills when the Psionic PSA is not taken.”  Mattson states, “a character who has not chosen the Psionic PSA cannot learn any of the psionic skills unless his PSI score is 60 or higher.”  However, in the following paragraph he claims, “Characters who do not choose the Psionic PSA may not use any psionic abilities.”

Using a psionic ability requires the character to expend Psionic Energy Points (PEPs).  The number of PEPs a character has “is equal to the average of his PSI and (unwounded) STA scores.”  Recovery occurs “at a rate of 3 per hour of rest, or 1 per hour of activity.”  Successful use of psionic abilities requires concentration.  “Any violent shock,” we read, “has a chance of disrupting a psionic's concentration and ending a talent's use prematurely.”  The psionic can attempt to maintain concentration with a LOG ability check.

Like normal skills, psionic skills have a percentile success chance enhanced by the character's skill level.  Failure means “the character will only lose half as many PEPs as would have been expended had the ability been successfully used (round fractions up).”  Seven psionic skills are presented.
  • Clairvoyance:  The character can view “a person, place, or object” at a number of meters equal to ten multiplied by skill level.  At level four, the character can also hear the target.
  • Energy Manipulation:  “This ability allows the character to channel energy harmlessly away from his body.”  In game terms, this means a reduction in damage caused by “beam weapons” and “kinetic energy.”
  • Mind Contact:  The highest level of this skill represents telepathy.  Level three allows the character to create a psionic shield.  The first level of this ability merely “allows the psionic to Sense the presence of any life forms.”
  • Illusion Creation:  The character can cause a being to perceive an illusion with “visual, auditory, tactile, and olfactory components.”
  • Mind Control:  The “victim” can avoid the effects of control with an ability check based on “the average of his LOG and PER scores, with a penalty equal to twice the level of use of this talent.”
  • Telekinesis:  “This is the ability to move objects merely by thinking about it.”  The description references a table that is supposed to indicate modifiers based on mass; however, the actual table lists intervals of time.  The 'mass' table actually appears in the Teleportation description.
  • Teleportation:  The character can “instantly transport any spot of his choice within his line of sight.”  Contrary to the notion of “line of sight,” there are modifiers for teleporting to locations the character cannot see.
“The referee may of course create new psionic powers,” we are told, “but should in all cases use discretion when doing so.”  Also, “Having too many characters with psionic characters can throw a campaign out of balance completely.”

Mattson states:
The referee should determine how psionic skills are acquired by a character.  It may be necessary for someone to seek out a psionic mentor...or a psionic organization that will train him properly.  Either way, an interesting series of adventures could be set up in which adventuring groups hunt for such sources of information.
Does Mattson mean that beginning characters cannot possess psionic skills?  Perhaps he is referring to skills acquired after character generation (and/or improving beginning skills).

Sunday, February 24, 2019

Mental Powers in Star Frontiers

Art by Virgil Finlay

A seven-page section of Zebulon's Guide to Frontier Space is devoted to “the concept of mental powers, often referred to in other role-playing games as psionics.”  The Introduction to this section emphasizes the optional nature of these rules.  We are told that the referee need not “include these options in his game, and if he does omit them, it will not unbalance the rest of the system.”  This leads one to wonder if including the rules will unbalance the rest of the system.  In fact, three paragraphs later, we are warned that incorporating the rules “will...require more care in balancing the campaign.”  There is an option of limiting mental powers – the Guide refers to them as 'disciplines' – to non-player characters; either “to an NPC race or character type.”  Also, “In a future volume of Zebulon's Guide to Frontier Space, some creatures may even have the option to use a mental discipline for communications or attack.”  As indicated in the previous post, the publishing of further volumes was a forlorn hope.

There are two types of characters who can use disciplines:  Mentalists (characters belonging to the Mentalist profession as opposed to the other professions) and enlightened (characters belonging to one of the usual professions).

During character generation, a Mentalist's Logic ability score can be increased to “between 75 and 90” by decreasing other scores on a one-to-one basis.  First, Strength and/or Stamina can be reduced.  Once both of these abilities are decreased to a value of thirty, “then the points can be taken from any other ability.”  A beginning Mentalist receives three disciplines/levels plus an additional discipline/level for every five points of Logic over seventy.  So, a Mentalist with a Logic score of 84 has five disciplines/levels to allocate.  This could be five disciplines at one level each, five levels in one discipline, three levels in one discipline and two levels in another, or any other combination.  Just like skills, disciplines have levels and Mentalists can purchase new disciplines (or increase the level of an existing discipline) by spending experience points in accordance with the Skill Cost Table.  The referee determines how discipline improvements manifest; either training and/or practice is necessary (like skills) or the discipline/level “comes naturally” to the Mentalist.

Beginning characters have twenty experience points to buy skills.  Presumably, this also applies to Mentalists and, also presumably, they can use those experience points to acquire or improve both skills and disciplines.  Like other professions, Mentalists have a list of skills; however, the list for Mentalists is rather modest.  Also, while other professions can purchase skills outside their list at a non-professional skill cost (which is twice the normal cost), Mentalists can only acquire skills from their list and they must pay at the non-professional cost.  Characters must pay ten points to join a profession, whereupon they receive an automatic skill that allows them to improve appropriate attributes.  Apparently, Mentalists don't pay ten points and there is no equivalent automatic skill.  Although we are admonished that “disciplines should never be confused with skills,” the title of the section is “Mentalists: The Optional Skills and Profession.”  We are told, “A Mentalist has profession discipline costs and non profession discipline costs.”  This is confusing in that there are no non-profession disciplines for Mentalists.

A beginning, non-Mentalist character with a Logic score of 80 or greater can be enlightened.  Such a character has one discipline/level for every five points of Logic in excess of 75.  During play, should an enlightened character's Logic be improved to a new five-point 'mark', he or she obtains a new discipline/level; no training is required.  A discipline/level is retained if the character's Logic score is somehow reduced below the amount required to attain that discipline/level.  Enlightened characters may not use experience points for disciplines.

There are forty-one disciplines, twenty of which are asterisked.  Enlightened characters can only have asterisked disciplines and Mentalists can acquire/improve them at half cost.  An example of an asterisked discipline is Confusion, which can only be used (successfully) twice per day.  If the Confusion roll is successful, it affects one target.  One might think that a target's Intuition/Logic would increase or decrease the chance of success, but one would be wrong.  The actual effect is determined by rolling 1d10 and consulting the Confusion Table:
Another asterisked discipline is Density, through which the character can increase or decrease his or her “body density.”  Additional asterisked disciplines include Trance I and Trance II.  Trance I allows a character to lower his or her metabolism while Trance II permits an increase of metabolism.  Why have one discipline that both lowers and increases density, but then have different disciplines for raising and lowering metabolism?

There are three flavors of telepathy:  Aliens, Animals, and Characters.  The Animal and Character versions are asterisked, the Alien discipline is not.  The description for the Character discipline states, “This discipline allows a character to enter another intelligent being's mind only for the purpose of conversation.”  The Alien discipline states, “This discipline allows a character to enter an intelligent alien's mind only for the purpose of conversation.”  The distinction between intelligent being and intelligent alien is not readily apparent.  The description for Character discipline concludes, “This discipline only allows for telepathic contact with intelligent player or nonplayer characters (including cyborgs),” while the Alien discipline concludes:
If the alien is extremely evil, or has a mind that could be incomprehensible to the character attempting to reach it, the referee might decide that a logic check is in order before any communication is attempted. If the user fails the check, he may be disoriented, stunned, at the alien's mercy, or even mortally wounded, depending on the alien and the referee's discretion.
Among the other disciplines are various psionic staples:  Telekinesis, Teleportation, Clairvoyance, Pyrokinesis, etc.  However, there is no discipline relating to precognition.  There is a Timeread discipline that permits a character to look back in time in a given location and an Analysis II discipline that “allows a character to read psychic impressions left on an object by the last person who used it.”

Given that mental powers are optional for Star Frontiers, there is little effort made to integrate them into the setting.  There are no items of equipment that interact with disciplines.  We learn that the Mentalist profession “is not so much a religion as it is a dedication to a way of doing things” and “Mentalists almost always wear some type of distinctive uniform (usually light blue) or medallion to signify their profession.”  Yet the only described organization regarding Mentalists is Star Law Psi-Corp, “a branch of Star Law specifically created for Mentalists.”

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.”