Sunday, November 4, 2018

Volturnus Apocrypha (spoilers)

Art by Larry Elmore

Almost half of the last page of Starspawn of Volturnus consists of “Theta Section: Suggested Additional Adventures.”  We are informed that, “There are many additional adventures which player characters could have on Volturnus at a later time in the referee's campaign.”

The first suggestion regards Sathar remaining on Volturnus after the retreat of their forces.  Of course, they cannot be allowed at remain at large.  “Who knows what evil plots they may be hatching?”  Player characters might have a difficult time against Sathar guerillas, especially since the Sathar have a familiarity with – and perhaps some degree of control over – various Volturnian fauna (such as quickdeaths, slithers, and cyboslugs).

The Star Devil is still at large and his organization is not yet extinct on Volturnus. (“There are undoubtedly a few of the pirates left...”)  I am not assuming the Star Devil's gender; the computer in Slave City One contains “a list of several planets on which he has operations.”

Another suggestion is...
Solving the mystery of Lizard Head rock.  This strange rock formation is shaped like a giant lizard's head.  The Eorna have always wondered about it, what it is, where it came from, who made it, etc.  They have heard that there are large numbers of Yernoids in that area, but have never investigated these reports.
Yernoids were introduced in Starspawn, inhabiting the same mound area as the Mechanons.  They “are man-sized bipedal dinosaurs which have developed a rudimentary intelligence, similar to an ape's.”  Their description in the Alien Creature Update File indicates they are “30% likely to be armed with clubs.”  The illustration shows a Yernoid brandishing a spear.  One might think that a tool using species would be an excellent prospect for the Eorna's evolution program.  Evidently, the Eorna do not think so.

The actual location of Lizard Head rock is not disclosed; however, a hex marked with an 'L' appears near the eastern edge of the Volturnus map (shown below).


Nestled in the Crystal Mountains just north of the Gas Mist Mountains, 'L' is within commuting distance to an “unusual rock formation.”  The line of mottled green hexes represents cliffs.  The reddish hexes are lava beds and the purple hexes are a techtonic (sic) area.

Last and probably least, we learn...
The Ul-Mor left the sea to live on the shore; they have legends of other peoples like themselves who did not.  There may be an entire race of sea-dwelling Ul-Mor who are as intelligent as their land living cousins.  They would be of enormous assistance in any deep sea mining operations...
Aside from the three Volturnus modules, TSR published one other book featuring that planet – Villains of Volturnus.  In 1982, TSR established its education department.  This department developed the Endless Quest™ series of gamebooks with branching-path plotlines.  Lake Geneva resident Jean Blashfield was education editor of this department and she wrote Villains of Volturnus, the eighth of the Endless Quest™ books and the first not written by Rose Estes.  The final pages of the book are advertisements for other Endless Quest™ books, the basic D&D set, and, naturally enough, Star Frontiers.

The second-person protagonist of Villains of Volturnus is Kyiki, child of the chief of the Universal Minerals company.  So as to accommodate reader identification, no gender is specified for Kyiki.  In Villains of Volturnus, travel to Volturnus from Kyiki's home world takes a matter of hours.  At the beginning of the book, Kyiki is aboard a Universal Minerals research vessel.  Also on board is Kyiki's tutor, a Vrusk named Jac (or perhaps someone impersonating Jac).  Unlike the with the modules, some information is known about Volturnus.  For instance, Kyiki has studied the Eorna:  “A few Eorna still live on Volturnus, but most were killed by the Sathar, enemy of all civilized planets.”  (No Eorna actually appear in the book.)

There are four groups of villains that can be encountered in the plot:  (1) pirates, (2) kidnappers, (3) surveyors, and (4) two Yazirians and a “large, fierce-looking human” in a skimmer.  The skimmer crew only appear to reunite Kyiki with Jac and, theoretically, they could be associated with any of the other three groups.  However, given that they leave Kyiki unguarded, it seems unlikely that they are with the kidnappers.

The research ship is evacuated not due to pirates but because it falls into the atmosphere of Volturnus.  Kyiki – with or without Jac – uses a Personal Safety Pod to reach the surface.  A hovercycle is stored in the pod.  If Jac and Kyiki ride the hovercycle, it is discovered that Jac is, in reality, a Dralasite using a holobelt to appear as Jac.  'Holobelt' is Blashfield's version of the Star Frontiers holo screen, even though the rules do not describe the holo screen control unit as a belt.  If Jac and Kyiki don't ride the hovercycle, then Jac is evidently not an imposter.

The so-called pirates live in a shanty town and their piracy consists of robbing a Universal Minerals cargo ship (once the ship lands and unloads the cargo).

The kidnappers reside in the remains of an underground Eorna city.  The kidnappers work for the Sathar, but the kidnapping endeavor is apparently something aside from their normal duties, whatever they may be.  The leader of the “kidnappers” is the aptly named Boss and only the Boss interacts directly with the Sathar.  One of his underlings claims, “Sometimes I swear he's a hologram and all we're seeing is lots of images of him!”  This suspicion is borne out when Kyiki discovers a holo disc of the Boss (or “holodisc” as Blashfield would have it).  Although the book does not suggest it, these facts are consistent with the Boss actually being a Sathar (or any number of Sathar).

The surveyors were employees of Universal Minerals who have decided to work for the Sathar.  The surveyors plan on advising the Sathar “to bring enough explosives to bring the desert down into these caves, so all they'll have to do is process the rubble.”

In one branch of the story, there is a time machine of unknown provenance.  (The Elmore illustration above depicts this time machine.)  Via the time machine, it is possible to enter into a narrative time loop.  Once in the time loop, it is possible to make a choice resulting in one of seven endpoints and there are two decision points that lead out of the loop.

Blashfield dutifully incorporates various Star Frontiers details in her book.  In terms of equipment, Kyiki has a vibroknife and a stunstick.  In terms of animals, Blashfield mentions lopers and rasties (and a quickdeath makes an appearance).  The alien fungus from Starspawn is also present in Villains of Volturnus.  Its hydrogen emitting properties are not addressed, but its quicksand consistency and nitrous oxide generation brings about one of the story's endings.  Blashfield even has a scene where the peculiar humor of Dralasites is addressed.

Through various choices, Kyiki can encounter the Ul-Mor, Edestekai, and Kurabanda.  While Blashfield presents the Ul-Mor and Edestekai much how they are described in the modules, the Kurabanda do not appear in their natural environment.  Instead, they are flunkies of the kidnappers and surveyors.  According to Planet of Mystery, Kurabanda resemble Tarsier monkeys.  The illustrations in Villains of Volturnus do a better job of conveying this than the illustrations in the modules.

Blashfield also provides some original details about Volturnus.  We learn that the Ul-Mor herd duck-like (but flightless) birds called kwidges.  Edestekai cultivate “morda and arbon” for food.  Other details approach the whimsical.  At one point, Kyiki has the option of riding “a giant leaf, perhaps three meters in diameter” as it is carried by the wind.  In a wooded area, Kyiki and Jac observe the following:
Before you is a patch a low-growing plants with large, dangling, blue crystals instead of flowers.  A small blue creature shaped like a box with legs trundles over to one of the plants and begins to nibble the crystal with a faint crunching sound.
Kyiki can also gain a pet named Pongo – “a green furry animal with skin-covered wings and a big mouth like a frog's.”

Sunday, October 21, 2018

The Volturnus Trilogy (part III) (spoilers)



In the second part of The Volturnus Adventure – Volturnus, Planet of Mystery – the player characters meet the Eorna, a “gentle race of intelligent dinosaurs” nearly destroyed by the Sathar during “the Day of Doom.”  The Eorna inform the characters that the Sathar left an artifact on Volturnus “that would summon a Sathar battle fleet if space travelling beings are detected within the Zebulon star system.”  The appearance of the “pirates” and the expeditions would likely have caused the artifact to activate.  “There is a chance, however, that the device has not yet sent for the battle fleet.”  The Eorna ask the party to go to the artifact and “attempt to prevent it from calling the Sathar fleet.”  Apparently, destruction of the artifact isn't a viable option.  This would make more sense if the artifact sent a regular signal and discontinuance of the signal would be enough to alert the Sathar.  Due to their diminishing numbers, the Eorna are reluctant to stop the artifact “because it is almost certain to have both internal and external defenses.”

The artifact is pyramidal in shape, having a base of 40m × 40m.  It is controlled by a disembodied Sathar brain floating in a flask.  The brain controls nine slavebots, “cybernetic combinations of living beings and machines.”  The module describes them thus:
As you look into this chamber, you see three horrid-looking Eorna who gaze at you blankly for a moment.  You immediately see that there are strange assemblies of wires protruding from their heads, and that their flesh has a strange discolored appearance.
This is a nice touch of the macabre.  Anyway, the party finds that the artifact has transmitted its alert and they can extract from the artifact computer the following information:
Transmission received.  Attack fleet heading Volturnus at full operational readiness.  Attack on planet will begin in two weeks standard time.  Initiate standard procedures.
The module has two possible endings, one if there is an intent to continue with the final module and another if the adventure concludes.  In either ending, the characters can use technology in the artifact to communicate instantaneously with Truane's Star.  If the next module will not be used, “the Truane's Star battle fleet can reach Volturnus in time to intercept the Sathar.”  The good guys win.  The end.  If the final module will be played, “The government of Truane's Star will promise to send warships as soon as possible, but doubt that any ships can arrive before the Sathar attack begins.”

Just as Volturnus, Planet of Mystery has two possible endings, Starspawn of Volturnus has two possible beginnings:  one if the previous module had been played and the other if Starspawn is to be played by itself.  When the second module is played in isolation, events of the first module are read to the players as background and the characters are supposed to have participated in those events.  When Starspawn is played in isolation, the player characters “have been recruited by the government of Truane's Star and sent to Volturnus as government agents [to] render any assistance possible” against the Sathar attack.  It is not discussed how the government learned of this information, but the characters “are met by a delegation of Eorna...”

So, the final Volturnus module deals with an impending Sathar invasion; the “pirate” plotline is abandoned.  The Eorna present their strategy of countering the Sathar attack to the party:
The plan is to unite the races of Volturnus in a common effort against the Sathar.  Although the races are suspicious of each other, it is possible that you, as impartial aliens, could overcome these suspicions and help them to fight the Sathar.
This sort of undertaking is sometimes known as Flash Gordon diplomacy.  There are four sections of the module in which the player characters interact with the Volturnus races, one section for each race.  The Ul-Mor, Kurabanda, and Edestekai were introduced in the two prior modules.  The Mechanons first appear in Starspawn.  These four sections “may be played in whatever order the party decides to attempt them.”

The Mechanons are advanced robots, “loosely classified as an intelligent race.”  Starspawn explains their origin:
The Mechanons evolved from Eorna robots.  A large number of robots, including robot brains, survived the first Sathar attack.  Some were linked to self-programming computers.  Without Eorna guidance, groups of these robot brain/computer teams began building new robots.  Improvements were added bit by bit, and eventually a group of self-programming super robots evolved.  Over a long period of time, and with more and more refinements, these became the Mechanons.
Having no knowledge of their true origins, the Mechanons “believe that a machine god ...created them to do its will.”  In another instance of robot vilification, the will of the machine god “is to exterminate biological life and replace it with Mechanons.”  The Intelligent Alien Update File for the Mechanons claims, “It is entirely possible that at some time in the future, the Mechanons could present a tremendous threat to the Frontier Worlds.”

The Mechanons reside within some “strange mounds in the southwest of the desert.”  The mounds also house the controls of an “automated system of planetary defenses.”  The Eorna think that activating what remains of the system may be useful against the Sathar attack (although the system didn't seem to be especially effective during the original Day of Doom).  The structure of the scenario suggests that the player characters will fight their way through much of the Mechanon complex before they have an audience with the Council of Mechanons.  “If the party makes reasonable arguments for joining the alliance,” we are told, “the Mechanons will reluctantly decide to help fight the Sathar.”

The Mechanons have three prisoners – one each of the Ul-Mor, Kurabanda, and Edestekai – who “find it almost impossible to get along together.”  However, the three prisoners “will have heard of the player characters (if the players have played in CRASH ON VOLTURNUS and VOLTURNUS, PLANET OF MYSTERY) and will be eager to help the player characters and themselves escape.”  This illustrates an important point, a party that has participated in the first two modules will have an advantage in that they are known to the three races they are trying to unite.  Even if Starspawn is played in isolation, escaping with the three prisoners should facilitate acceptance of the party by the various races.  The module does not address this.

Three “elite Mechanon guard robots” act as sentries for the Eorna Planetary Defense Control Room.  The room has additional defenses and traps which the Eorna neglect to describe or even mention to the party.  Most noteworthy is “an Eorna hypnosis machine” that causes characters who fail a Logic check to...
...see an illusion of deep space, with galaxies far off in the distance.  Lunging at them out of the void of space will be a horrible beast the size of a huge dragon.
Panic ensues.  I would think that an illusion of an empty room, being more plausible, might be more effective at protecting the contents of the room.

To convince the Ul-Mor into cooperating with the other races of Volturnus, the party must participate in “the Great Game.”  This is an important event among the Ul-Mor tribes:  “The winner of the game has the coming New Year named after him...”  The Great Game is somewhat like combative polo played on an obstacle course – complete with a sand shark.  About two-and-a-half pages of the thirty-two page module describe the rules of the Great Game and the inner cover is devoted to a map of the field on which the game is played.  A player character need not win for the Ul-Mor to join the alliance, but at least one member of the party must “stay mounted throughout the Great Game” to impress them enough to gain their military support.

To enlist the Kurabanda into the alliance, the player characters must retrieve a “Sacred Idol.”  Said idol was “stolen” by a giant Volturnian eagle (considered a demon by the Kurabanda) and taken “to the Demon's Temple in the forbidden area.”  The “forbidden area” is a huge crater and “the Demon's Temple” is a pinnacle in the center upon which the eagle nests.  The characters must climb the pinnacle because random explosions of hydrogen occur in the air over the crater.  The hydrogen is emitted by an alien fungus brought to Volturnus via the meteorite that caused the crater.

Edestekai society is heavily influenced by religion; interaction is governed by elaborate rituals and the leaders are priests.  The Edestekai god of justice is embodied by a quickdeath, a type of mutated feline.  In the first module, player characters were required to slay a quickdeath.  To convince the Edestekai to join the alliance, the party must capture a live quickdeath.  (The quickdeath kept by the temple has recently died.)  At one-and-a-half pages, the Edestekai section of the module is the briefest.


The penultimate section regards the much anticipated Battle of Volturnus, a diagram of which is presented above.  The Sathar land ground forces and they march toward the Eorna center of power.  “It is clear that if the Sathar penetrate the Eorna complex below Volkos,” the module says, “Volturnus is doomed.”  Why the Sathar do not employ any sort of air support is not explained.  (The defenders have air support in the form of Kurabanda hang gliders.)  Given that the defense factions muster at the Eorna city, they must have known ahead of time what the Sathar planned.

Inserting player characters into a large-scale battle in a meaningful way can be a difficult prospect; Starspawn does a decent job of accomplishing this.  There are four 'encounters' in the battle, each a distinct skirmish in which the characters participate and which have a cumulative effect on the overall battle.  Each encounter focuses on troops from one of the Volturnus races.  If a given race was not recruited by the player characters, then those forces are not available for the battle and the associated encounter is automatically lost.  Encounter 1 regards the Mechanons attempting to destroy a Sathar cannon.  In Encounter 2, Sathar attack the Edestekai with a couple of quickdeaths.  (Because of the religious significance the Edestekai attach to quickdeaths, they avoid attacking them and they “must make a special morale check.”)  In Encounter 3, the Sathar attack with “cybodragons” that occasionally require replacement power packs during the course of the battle.  Encounter 4 has the Ul-Mor attempting to charge Sathar lines.  The player characters have specific goals for each encounter.  A 'Fortunes of War' table is consulted after every encounter.  If “All the player characters are killed,” the table helpfully informs us, “Do not play any more encounters.”

A percentile roll determines whether the overall battle is won or lost.  For every Volturnus race at the battle, there is a 10% chance of victory.  Since the Eorna will necessarily be present, there is at least a 10% chance of winning.  For each successful encounter, the chances of winning increase by 10%.  This means there is a 90% chance of victory if all five races fight in the battle and all four encounters are successful.  Even if the Volturnus forces lose the battle, it is possible for the Eorna to hold out in their complex until the Truane's Star battle fleet arrives.

The final encounter is somewhat anticlimactic:  “This section contains no action encounters.”  The referee merely reads an epilogue.  The Truane's Star battle fleet finds “an ancient orbiter still revolving in a very wide orbit around Volturnus.”  The orbiter contains fifty thousand fertile Eorna eggs in cryogenic storage.  Thus, the Eorna race is saved.  These eggs are the titular Starspawn of Volturnus.  Admittedly, 'Starspawn' sounds neat, but the eggs have almost nothing to do with the module.  Something like Warlords of Volturnus would have been more apt.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

The Volturnus Trilogy (part II) (spoilers)

Art by Jim Burns

Lawrence Schick, in his Heroic Worlds, says the following about the second installment of the initial offering of three Star Frontiers adventure modules:
Scenario, sequel to “SF-0”: the adventurers, still marooned on Volturnus, must make their way across the planet to a forest.  Once there, the alien Kurabanda may be able to put them in touch with other offworlders who can rescue them.  Unfortunately, the offworlders turn out to be Sathar pirates.  Includes two new intelligent races and six new creatures.
This statement is wrong in several ways. The journey “across the planet” is only about a hundred miles.  The “other offworlders who can rescue them” are instead presented as “Demons from the Sky” who take prisoners.  In these circumstances, expectations of rescue might be optimistic.  In the previous post, I discussed how the so-called pirates do not conform to common definitions of pirates but since the module refers to them as pirates, I will give this a pass.  The pirates, however, are not Sathar nor are they associated with Sathar.  There are briefings for three intelligent races, not two.  Technically, one of the races, the Eorna, is briefly mentioned in the first module.  However, that first module admonishes the referee, “It is very important that no hint of the Eorna be given to the characters.”  The alien creature update file describes twelve new creatures, not six.  One can quibble that a couple of the “creatures” are plants, but there are certainly more than six non-plant creatures presented in the module.  On the other hand, the marooned part is totally accurate.  Schick should have merely summarized the back cover copy.

There is a half-page summary of the events of the prior adventure if the players did not participate in it.  Given that the first adventure is bundled with the Star Frontiers rules, there's no reason not to have played it.  Regardless, the Ul-Mor inform the party there are people like the player characters “living with the Kurabanda, a foolish tree-dwelling race.”  The presumption is that these others are survivors from the first expedition.  An Ul-Mor guide leads the characters part of the way to the Kurabanda, but they must travel the final leg of the journey themselves.  Upon reaching the bachanda tree forest, they find “a raging battle between ten of the Star Devil's men and the Kurabanda.”  The “pirates” will attack the player characters even if they don't come to the aid of Kurabanda.  When five pirates have died, the remainder will attempt to escape; they “will not allow themselves to be captured alive, as they know the Kurabanda would torture them to death.”  I suppose its possible for a pirate to be knocked out.

According to the briefing update, “A Kurabanda stands 1.2 meters tall and looks somewhat like a tarsier monkey.”  We learn that “Kurabanda are also natural practical jokers.”  A paragraph is spent describing four typical practical jokes:  The Fake Vine Joke, Snipe Hunting, The Fire Joke, and the Flea Joke.  After the battle, the characters are taken to the Kurabanda village and, eventually, presented to the chief.  Because the party (presumably) helped in the fight against the pirates, the chief “will be favorably impressed” but the players don't know this.  After conversing with the party, the actions of the chief depends upon the extent to which he trusts the characters.  Their are five possible reactions:  Complete trust, Partial trust, Insulted, Greatly insulted, and Distrusted.  The last two reactions result in the death of the characters.  With the most favorable reaction, the chief conveys information necessary for the continuation of the adventure.  With the partial trust reaction, the characters are given an opportunity to improve their standing.  If the chief is insulted, “he will offer the party many, many gifts of furs, arrows, and wives.”  These must be accepted or the characters will be killed.

Anyway, two members of the first expedition stayed with the Kurabanda (which is how the Kurabanda learned to converse in Pan Galactic).  The two explorers were taken by the space pirates and the Kurabanda can direct the player characters to a pirate outpost.  The party is expected to raid the outpost and defeat four Humans and two combat robots.  From the outpost computer, the player characters...
...can learn that the pirates have discovered rich deposits of vibrillium and tomarillium in the hills of Volturnus.  They have discovered an intelligent race, the Edestekai, living in the hills and have taken advantage of their religious beliefs to enslave them.  They accomplish this by capturing priests, planting radio receivers in their brains, and convincing them that the voices they then hear are the voices of the gods.  Of course, the voices are the pirates, telling them they must serve and obey the Star Devil and his men.
Also in the computer is information that the expedition members have been taken to the pirate mining town awesomely named Slave City One.  Other than information, the players can gain equipment from the outpost; they can also obtain a jetcopter.

In the middle of the module, a briefing update describes the enslaved race:
          The Edestekai are an intelligent race descended from Volturnian arthropods.  They are trilaterally symetrical,  That is, if their bodies were divided lengthwise into three equal parts, the parts would be mirror images of each other.
          The body of an Edestekai is shaped like a giant peanut with three bulbous lobes on top.  Three eyes are arranged in a circle around the narrowest part of the body, the midpoint or waist.  The eyes are arranged in such a way that the Edestekai have a 360 degree field of vision.
          Edestekai have three lower limbs arranged like a tripod.  The first and largest joint on each of these limbs is covered with a hard extension of shell and serves as a foot.  The limb continues to a second and third joints which are roughly analogous to a Human elbow and wrist.  Below the third joint are three tentacles which are used for grasping and manipulating objects.
          Underneath their bodies, Edestekai have a number of special thick cilia, or hair-like filaments.  These cilia are used as a base to support the body when the limbs are extended completely straight.  Except for their tentacles, cilia, and eyes, Edestekai bodies and limbs are encased in an exoskeleton made of chitin, a hard shell-like material.
          The mouth of an Edestekai is located near the base of the body and is hidden by the special cilia.  The Edestekai communicate by means of a language composed of shrieks, whistles, groans, and other sounds combined with clicks of the limbs and signs with the grasping tentacles.
It is assumed that the party will travel to Slave City One.  On the way, they encounter an air whale.  Part plant and part animal, an air whale generates hydrogen as a by-product of its diet (which includes “floating plankton”).  This hydrogen, “stored in hundreds of inner membrane sacs,” allows the air whale to float.  There are crystal-based life forms that live symbiotically with air whales.  “These crystals focus sunlight into a beam,” the description states, “much like a laser.”  The concept of air whales may be risible, but it has precedent in science fiction:  Quest of the Three Worlds by Cordwainer Smith, The Wind Whales of Ishmael by Philip José Farmer, and that one episode of Blackstar.

If the party attempts to attack Slave City One without assistance from the Edestekai, “they will probably be destroyed by superior numbers.”  So, once again, the player characters must gain the trust of alien beings.  According to the module, “a persistent party should be able to slowly convince the Edestekai priests using demonstrations of how radio works, perhaps even a demonstration of minor surgery.”  Apparently, this convincing must be accomplished without attracting the attention of the pirates.  The actual Star Devil is not encountered in the module but the Star Devil's personal quarters are described:
This lavishly furnished small one-room building contains a bed, bath, bar, holovision projector, several art objects (worth a total of 5,000 Credits), and numerous cheap books, mainly adventure novels.  There is a shield mounted over the bed with the Star Devil's personal insignia on it.
In the punishment/torture cells, player characters find the corpse of one of the original expedition members and strips of cloth with the name tag of another member.  If the party is victorious against the pirates, the referee is supposed to read the following description:
As you stand amid the ruins of Slave City One, you see in the distant desert a solitary figure surveying the wreckage of the pirate town.  This creature is a tall fur-covered animal with a large tail, large hind legs, and small forelimbs or arms.  The creature has a long, slender neck and a small head with large eyes.  In its arms, the creature is carrying the unconscious Lieutenant Colonel Louis V. Jameson.
Jameson was the leader of the first expedition and it was his name tag that was found in the cells.  Although the creature is in the “distant desert,”  the characters can recognize Jameson (and there's no indication that they have ever seen him previously) and can tell he is unconscious rather than dead.  The Edestekai explain “that this creature is one of the messengers of the gods” and they reside under ruins near the center of the southern edge of the planetary map.  “The purpose of this encounter,” the module states, “is to cause the party to go and explore the ruins in hopes of finding Jameson alive.”

The “messengers of the gods” are actually the Eorna, “a race of intelligent dinosaurs” nearly extinct due to the “Day of Death” inflicted by the Sathar.
          Less than 150 Eorna survived the Day of Death.  They soon realized they were doomed as a race, for they knew that their numbers were not large enough to provide a viable gene pool.  The survivors chose to dedicate what remained of their lives to the evolution of other intelligent races on Volturnus.  The Eorna hoped to prepare these races to meet and defeat the Sathar.
          The Eorna are using a subtle process of hypnotic indoctrination and DNA manipulation to accelerate the development of three races toward intelligence.  Most of the Eorna survivors have undergone cryogenic sleep, waiting to be awakened until they are needed to continue the project.  Despite the fact that most of their young are born physically or mentally deficient because of the limited gene pool, the Eorna continue to breed, relying upon the few normal children to help continue the project.
The underground complex of the Eorna is another sci-fi dungeon.  Within the complex is the Asylum Storeroom, a trapped location.  We read, “The player characters will not be able to detect the trap in this room.”  [original emphasis]  This trap is a “challenge to the ingenuity of the players.”  While “air is pumped out slowly from the room,” the characters can use the contents of the storeroom in an attempt to survive.  We are informed, “There are at least four ways the player characters can get out of the room alive.”  One way is to electrolyze water.  Another way is to create gunpowder from available chemicals.  Since this is a challenge of player ingenuity, the characters do not need to possess Demolition skills to employ gunpowder.  (“These are special conditions of this encounter and do not apply to other situations where gunpowder or other explosives may be used.”)  Evidently, for this to work, the players must know how to formulate gunpowder.

Once the characters have traversed five levels of the complex, they locate Jameson and the Eorna “attempt to make friendly contact.”  An exposition dump follows.  There is one more section to the Planet of Mystery module, but I associate it thematically with the final module and feel it is best discussed in conjunction with that module.

Sunday, October 7, 2018

The Volturnus Trilogy (part I) (spoilers)

 
Venus (Source: NASA/JPL/USGS)

The introductory adventure module included with the Star Frontiers boxed set was Crash on Volturnus, having a designation of “SF 0.”  The adventure continued with two additional modules – Volturnus, Planet of Mystery (SF 1) and Starspawn of Volturnus (SF 2) – sold separately.  All three modules are credited to Mark Acres and Tom Moldvay.

According to the Player Character Background Report in the first module:
          The Zebulon star system was first investigated 20 years ago by an unmanned exploration probe launched by Truane's Star.  This probe indicated that Volturnus was the only inhabitable planet in the Zebulon system.  It also indicated that great mineral wealth might exist on the planet in the form of molybdenum, tungsten, gold, and other heavy metals.  Truane's Star soon made a legal claim to the ownership of Volturnus, and completed exploration of a star route to the Zebulon system one year ago.
          The first manned expedition to Volturnus from Truane's Star was launched nine months ago.  The four member team of specialists was instructed to set up an outpost, gather data on the possible colonization and mining of Volturnus, and report back.
          After passing into the star system, the starship carrying the specialists was never heard from again...
          Truane's Star has found itself short of personnel and funds due to colonial troubles and associated police action on Cygnus Omicrom IX recently.  They have hired you, a team of unknown adventurers, to mount a relief expedition to Volturnus.  Your mission is to explore Volturnus, gathering as much information as possible about mineral deposits, life on the planet, and other items of interest to future colonists.  You are also to find and rescue the members of the original exploratory mission if possible.
          The government has provided you with a minimal amount of equipment, and transportation to Volturnus aboard the starliner Serena Dawn.  After dropping you on Volturnus, the Serena Dawn will return in three months to transport you (and, with luck, the original exploration team) back to Truane's Star.
Although the player characters would not realistically know this, game statistics for the members of the original expedition are provided.  Intended only for referees, the Star Frontiers™ System Brief for Zebulon indicates that Volturnus is named “after the Greek god of the southwest wind.”  This is interesting in that Earth is not part of the Star Frontiers setting.  Perhaps we are supposed to adopt a belief in Hodgkin's Law of Parallel Planetary Development.  (Also, one of the locations on Volturnus is Crystal Stonehenge; described as “resembling Stonehenge on Terra...”)

While on the Serena Dawn, weapons and power packs belonging to the player characters are secured in the ship's weapons locker.  Heavy gear has been placed in the cargo hold; player characters are allowed to retain only “non-weapon tool kits.”  Anyway, when the ship enters the Zebulon system, pirates hijack the Serena Dawn.  At least the module refers to the hijackers as pirates.  I assume that pirates are interested in capturing and/or looting vessels; these pirates don't seem to have studied the job description.  They wind up destroying the Serena Dawn and, although they post guards at the cargo bays, they don't actually seem to take anything.

Additionally, I wonder why pirates would establish a base in the Zebulon system which is five light years away from the nearest system with any sort of starship traffic.  The second module establishes that the “pirates” oversee an illicit mining operation on Volturnus.  (It also establishes that the pirates work for the “Star Devil.”)  I can understand destroying the Serena Dawn to keep the mining operation from being discovered, but it isn't piracy.  Dragon #98 (June 1985) has an article which presents an “unofficial” background for Volturnus, providing a plausible explanation for the pirates as well as the identity of the Star Devil.

The player characters don't learn about the hijacking via the alarm system or an intercom announcement.  Instead, they “hear the sound of scuffling outside [their] cabin.”  There are five random encounters which take place in order.  They are random in regard to when they take place.  On each turn, there is a 10% chance of the next sequential encounter occurring.  The fifth encounter is actually an event:  “The ship begins to vibrate badly.”  The is the cue to evacuate the ship.  Meanwhile, the player characters have some amount of agency and move about the area of the ship represented on the Starship Bridge Area Map.  (The bridge, incidentally, is in two separate sections.)  One possible course of action is for the player characters to go to the cargo bays.  Aside from their equipment, player characters can find things like a “Holographic fireworks projector,” “Yazirian punching bags,” “Packets of dehydrated food,” etc.  Some of these items could be of use to enterprising players.  However, why a ship transporting an exploratory expedition would have cargo like “Large machine gears” and “High fashion Human dresses” is not apparent.

Eventually, it is assumed that the player characters will board a lifeboat and venture to Volturnus.  Unfortunately, as indicated in the module's title, the player characters crash on the surface of the planet.  With the lifeboat on fire, “The characters have enough time to remove the survival packs...but no other equipment can be removed.”  On the other side of the Starship Bridge Area Map, there is a colorful planetary map of Volturnus representing an area “about the size of the state of Colorado.”  The lifeboat crashes in a desert in the southwest quadrant of the map.
          A dashed line circles the lifeboat crashsite.  This is the movement limit for CRASH ON VOLTURNUS.  It is important the characters do not pass this line, especially if you plan to play the sequel to CRASH ON VOLTURNUS.  If the characters reach this line, turn immediately to planned encounter 3 (the Ul-Mor).  In addition, if the characters begin to die of thirst or starve, turn immediately to planned encounter 3.
The Ul-Mor resemble octopuses.  In addition to eight limbs (each ending “in five small tentacles useful for grasping and manipulation”)...
          The Ul-Mor also have a ninth limb, a tentacle about 30 centimeters long.  This tentacle is an extension of the spinal cord.  The end contains a hard cartilage point encasing a series of nerve endings.  The Ul-Mor can insert the tip of this tentacle into the fatty tissue surrounding the spinal cord of other creatures, achieving a nerve link which allows them to communicate directly with the creature's mind.  The Ul-Mor use this tentacle so effectively they can achieve a direct mind-link with any being.
Before meeting the Ul-Mor, there are various encounters the player characters can have in the desert, both random and planned.  The five random encounters are:  (1) Burrower Snake, (2) Sand Storm, (3) Funnel Worm, (4) Sand Shark, and (5) Lopers.  Often used by Ul-Mor as mounts, lopers “are two-legged reptiles the size of horses.”  The “Lopers” encounter is what I call a “bear cub” moment.  In D&D module B3, Palace of the Silver Princess, the adventurers can come across a bear cub that “appears to have been abandoned by its mother.”  Player characters can choose to adopt the cub – a type of role-playing opportunity not typically afforded in a dungeon crawl.  In the “Lopers” encounter, the Volturnus castaways find “a dead female loper that has just given birth to two babies.”  Adopting the baby lopers can result in a pay-off when the player characters eventually meet the Ul-Mor – “if the characters have the baby lopers with them, the tallest Ul-Mor will ceremoniously drop his weapons and raise four of his tentacles.”  I suppose this is a good thing.

It behooves the player characters to cultivate the good will of the Ul-Mor; the rest of the module depends upon it.  The Ul-Mor can provide food and water to the player characters only if they agree to join the Ul-Mor tribe.  Assuming they agree, the Ul-Mor will lead the characters to the Place of the True Warriors where the initiation ritual can occur.  Evidently, the safest route to this place is through the Forbidden Caverns.  In the caverns, the characters become separated from the Ul-Mor and must make their way through the science fiction equivalent of a dungeon.  This is the most detailed portion of the module.

The actual initiation (and culmination of the module) is called the Ritual of the Quickdeath wherein the player characters must fight the eponymous quickdeath, “a tiger-sized creature covered with some sort of reflective armor.”  It is “the ultimate land carnivore” and has the capability to “fling a poisonous dart” from its tail.  According to the Alien Creatures Update File, “The Sathar used an advanced form of DNA manipulation to create these hideous beasts from a common type of housecat found throughout the universe.”