Sunday, February 26, 2017

A Science Fiction Game of Interstellar Exploration, Growth, and Combat

Art by Ernest Hogan

Pre-dating Traveller by a year, Starfaring is often touted as the first published science-fiction role-playing game.  Starfaring was first printed in August 1976, while Metamorphosis Alpha was printed in July 1976.  According to my calendar, Starfaring was therefore second, but if we categorize Metamorphosis Alpha as 'science fantasy' then Starfaring would be the first science-fiction RPG.  In my opinion, Starfaring is no less 'science fantasy' than MA; however, I concede that Starfaring conforms to the space opera genre while MA does not.  Interestingly, just as Metamorphosis Alpha emphasizes that its rules “are only intended as guidelines,” Starfaring author Ken St. Andre states on the title page:
- - These rules are only a framework.
The game depends on the quality of your imagination
to fill in the details of life in
the starfaring society of 2700 A.D.
All of the provided visual details of Starfaring – the illustrations – are cartoons.  This creative decision doubtless influenced how Starfaring was received by gaming consumers.  The quality of the art is consistent with other RPG cartoons of the time period; unfortunately, so is the humor.  St. Andre stops short of apologizing for it in his Introduction:
          When designing this game, I had no idea that my artist would have such a bizarre imagination.  None of the artwork herein included is meant to be offensive to any ethnic group, but is merely an attempt to represent more than white American masculinity in what we hope is an amusing fashion.
I can forgive 'bizarre', but I am less tolerant of 'not especially funny'.  The cartoonist, Ernest Hogan, would go on to become the Father of Chicano Science Fiction.

Starfaring clearly embraces the 'storytelling' paradigm.  The Introduction begins:
          STARFARING is a game of interstellar exploration for two or more players who will interact verbally to imaginatively create their own universe while they are playing.  It is science-fiction storytelling in your own living room...[The game] can be what you, the players, are willing to make of it in terms of visualizing the society of the future.
The Starfaring equivalent of game master is called the Galaxy Master.  Rather than players adopting the roles of individual characters, each player is a Ship Master.  Specifically, a Ship Master... the person responsible for  decision making and the description of the ship actions during the game.  If it comes down to a question of individual actions either aboard ship, planetside, or in space, this player must carry the story line.  The Ship Master needs to be given a specific identity, whether it is a stay-at-home capitalist who hires all the help he needs, or whether it is the ship's actual human captain, or the shell person* linked to the computer to be the ship's brain.  The Ship Master can also be a Robotic, Android, or Alien intelligence, if that is what turns you on.

* According to the game's glossary, shell people are “Intelligences, both human and alien, consisting of a living brain, a minimal body, and a mechanical life support system.  They are self-contained in a metal shell (hence the name) for safety, and are often installed in starships, in effect becoming the ship itself, and thus giving inert metal life, intelligence, and personality...”

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Guest Post: Daniel Sell

My recent post on Fighting Fantasy was prompted by the role-playing game Troika!, which incorporates some Fighting Fantasy game mechanics.  However, Troika is not a retroclone.  It includes interesting rules for initiative.  Also, a d66 is used to determine a character's background.  (Optionally, a background may be chosen.)  Example backgrounds include 'Sorcerer of the Academy of Doors', 'Poorly Made Dwarf', and 'Sceptical Lammasu'.  An “artless edition” of Troika is available on a pay-what-you-want basis at RPGNow.

Anyway, I asked author Daniel Sell to write a guest post about Troika.  I suggested he might want to address the creative decisions he made regarding the game.  What follows is his submission:

Troika is the inevitable hospice of a tired mind. Exhausted from having to opine and comprehend, the mind rests in a comfortable bed in a room full of doors and corridors and trap doors and other doors but no windows. From the vantage point of the bed it watches orderlies come and go with food and care; it does not know where they come from, where they go to, why they never see the same one twice, how they got here and if they will ever leave. This creates a purple haze of confusion, lavender smelling, old and comfortable but bewildering at once.  On the edge of sleep it imagines what happens beyond the doors by running its day dreams together. That is Troika.

It was built as a strongly worded objection to the vogue of transparency and usefulness. It still holds immediacy, since anyone can play the game in a matter of hours if they want. They just need to go limp and enjoy a state of comfortable confusion. The book doesn’t need to tell people that it expects them to decide what is happening for themselves since it offers few answers and the answers present are contradictory.

Planescape was a hundred times better when I was a child who only owned a box set and no context or rules. A single book hinted at places just beyond the horizon, a teasing joy in incomplete knowledge. But then you get older and realise you can just get up and walk, read all the books and know all the secrets, only to learn that they were banal, soggy-minded. The illusion was better and more useful than the words on paper telling you exactly how Lawful Good these allegedly complex but somehow easily and briefly explained people and places are. Information kills knowledge.

Troika will never tell the truth. It will tell many truths, all of which are true and exist and invalidate everything else. If you can comprehend the structure of a fantastic universe while having no clue about the basic functioning of our own then there is nothing fantastic about it. So to create that same complexity of feeling without actually going to the trouble of reinventing reality you just induce the sensations associated with it. I want to look up at the imaginary stars with the same wonder as the real ones.

That being said, the book of Troika is limited. The current state is several steps from where it should be, but it’s following a pneumatic process. The next time the book emerges it will be larger, offering more truth than what is currently provided. Multiple books, the artefact must be large to strengthen the polite bewilderment, where a reader can wander in and out having not followed the same path twice. Except for the core of the thing it should be thick and sweet like treacle.

The game couldn’t afford to be as strange as it wants to be without that tiny solid core. However that core still plays into the lavender cloud by sweeping away the default dungeons and dragons and it’s N. People coming into contact with it might be familiar with its fighting fantasy routes, have shared my upbringing, and experience the feeling of having come home to find all the furniture rearranged; there is familiarity but mostly disquiet. For others they will be out on their ear experiencing a world that equally could have been if things were different. They can be as lost as their characters are.

I’m lost in explaining things. Troika is named for specific reasons, everything in it is considered and concrete. None of it will be explained for fear of ruining the tingly tension, the spark that Planescape stamped out. What we have is just the beginning of an outpouring. Whether it’s loved or hated, rich or poor, it will unravel to completion. I hope people like it, but it is what it is and there’s nothing you or I can do to change that.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Inspiration: Gloriana and the Gargoyles

Usually, the back of a game's packaging presents selling points for the game:  component descriptions, flavor text, endorsements, etc.  Cyborg, published in 1978 by Excalibre Games, has crudely drawn comic panels (shown above).  Still, these panels give the prospective purchaser a very good idea of what he (or she) is getting.  The setting is post-apocalyptic.  The king is dead and the favored heir is Gloriana, a garment-challenged princess.  She must travel to the Holy City for her coronation; however, the king's evil sister, Aemulatio, wants the throne for herself.  In order to reach the Holy City, Gloriana and her allies must avoid Aemulatio and her minions.

Cyborg has the subtitle “The Ultimate Adventure” and describes itself as “Game Class – Sci Fi Character to Character Adventure Wargame.”  Even if we define 'adventure' as “pursuing a goal while fighting things,” Cyborg falls somewhat short of 'ultimate'.  Also, while some of the units are individuals, most represent multiple entities; as such, the phrase 'character to character' does not seem entirely accurate.  The cover boasts that the game has a “new design style.”  Units are represented by counters and have movement factors; this is not new.  When one unit attacks another, a die is rolled and a combat results table is consulted; this is also not new.  Perhaps the design style is new in that it was rushed and evidently incomplete.

Among the possibilities that the CRT discloses, there is “Defender Slain, Remove Defender Unit from Board.”  There is also “Defender Eaten,” “Defender Melted,” and “Defender Disintegrated” – all of which are no different than “Defender Slain” in game terms.  Also listed among the results is “Defender Blasted, Unit Hit by Exploding Bullets and Is Removed from Board,” but the actual CRT never yields this result.  Roads are indicated on the board, but they have no effect upon movement.  Several rivers are displayed; however, all but one have no game effect.

Although post-apocalyptic, the setting includes magic.  For instance, The Guardians of the Holy City can cast spells; so can Aemulatio's necromancers, Nootrac and Kcud.  (Read backwards for alleged humor.)  Casting a spell entails selecting a target unit and rolling on the appropriate chart for a random spell result.  The Guardians might disintegrate a unit or teleport a unit to the snake pits of Lacnar.  The necromancers might gain control over a unit or cause it to be “fooled by illusions.”

We learn that killing Gloriana isn't enough for Aemulatio.  Ideally, Aemulatio wants to sacrifice Gloriana “into the the volcano of IMMOLARE” (shown below).  According to the rules, “The game ends when the Princess is sacrificed or safely reaches the Holy City.”  Yet, “Should the Princess be sacrificed, Aemulatio may begin casting spells every turn...”  I guess this starts on the first turn after the game ends.  One might think that the game would end if Gloriana otherwise dies or if Aemulatio perishes.  One would be wrong.  It is unclear why Gloriana's protectors would proceed once her coronation was no longer possible.  It is equally unclear why Aemulatio's followers would continue after her demise given their entire motivation was to place her on the throne.

The game's unidentified designer is a student of Latin.  Aemulatio means “rivalry” and immolare translates as “sacrifice.”  The 'Spells' section of the rules states, “To add quality to your spell we suggest you utter some Latin before rolling.”  It's nice that a dead language is remembered after the apocalypse.

Despite its mechanical failings, it is possible to appreciate Cyborg for its outlandishness.  It is not difficult to get a Thundarr the Barbarian vibe from the game, even though Cyborg pre-dates that series by two years.  With better art, well thought out rules, less Latin, and multiple scenarios, perhaps Cyborg wouldn't languish in obscurity.  Perhaps more than providing inspiration itself, Cyborg is instructive in how it incorporates inspiration.  Among Aemulatio's cohorts, there are Gargoyles.  According to the rules, “Once every half millenium (sic) the Gargoyles hatch” and they strive to “protect the secret of their breeding grounds...”  This derives undoubtedly from the 1972 made for TV movie, Gargoyles.  The premise of the film is that every five hundred or six hundred years, gargoyles appear and attempt to conquer the world of men.  Obviously, they have been unsuccessful so far.  Since the gargoyles' last appearance, humanity has dismissed their existence.  Humans have to counter the gargoyle threat before the gargoyles grow into an invincible force.  Indeed, a gargoyles-versus-humans tactical scenario might have made for a better game than Cyborg.

Scale?  There's no scale.  Scales are for snakes, not maps!