Sunday, July 22, 2018

An Adventure in the Asteroids ("spoilers")

Source: NASA

In previous posts, your humble host has examined various adventure modules.  Some were railroads, some were wonky, but they all conformed to the notion of an adventure – a plot advances and there is an eventual resolution.  The same cannot be said for Martigan Belt, a 1981 publication intended for use with Space Opera.  It is clearly marketed as an adventure; the cover caption is “An Adventure in the Asteroids.”  As such, it is not unfair to evaluate it in terms of the adventure it claims to be.

Martigan Belt describes the Martigan system, especially the colonized world of Martigan III.  There is no indication of how long Martigan III has been colonized, but the total planetary population is 50,000.  It is “a planet basically run by a few corporations,” four of which (perhaps all of them) are:  Xerxes (production of “Civilian and Military weapons, riot control equipment and devices for surveilance [sic]...”), Prometheus (production of “power-plants and petrochemicals”), Icarus (production of “ground and air transportation craft”), and Janus (involved with “mining, chemical extraction processes, and mineralogical exploration”).  Interestingly, outside of the cities and minor population centers, “there are loose nomad clan aggregates of 50-100 'persons' engaged in hunting and trapping.”

The Janus Mining Company has a mining vessel in the asteroid belt.  From this vessel, Janus receives a “coded message” somewhat garbled by static:

– – – – – – UNDER – – – – ACK – – – – ENS – – AIL– – – –THINK–WE– – – – – – P– –
CRY – – – LS– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –SABO – – GE – – – – – – – – –
– – – –

(This is the message as displayed in the teaser text.  The message as displayed in the body of the module is missing the 'P'.)  Was the message written rather than vocal?  If an encrypted, vocal message was garbled to any degree, it could not be successfully decrypted.  Also, “CRY” and “GE” would have to be phonetic expressions.  Were the crew of the mining vessel texting while “UNDER – – – – ACK”?  Is there an emoji for that?

Anyway, the companies listed above cooperate in recruiting troubleshooters (i.e., the player characters) so that they may “determine what has happened to the vessel and whether 'sabotage' was involved as the message seems to imply.”  Each character is employed by one or another of the companies and “Each company has secretly instructed its employees to attempt to gain as much as possible for their own company as possible, but to act in this fashion covertly.”  Presumably, this means “as much information for their own company as possible.”

So, there's the mystery of what happened to the mining vessel and there is the potential for conflict among the player characters due to loyalties to their respective employers.  This could be the basis of a viable adventure.  Unfortunately, Martigan Belt fails to provide any further information in this regard.  Seriously, the line that ends with “but to act in this fashion covertly” is the last time the module references any investigation of the circumstances.  On page two, the plot line is just dropped.  Did you think that the module would reveal what happened to the mining vessel?  Attack?  Sabotage?  What's up with the P– –CRY – – – LS?  Just because you paid money for “An Adventure in the Asteroids,” you think you're entitled to an actual adventure in the asteroids?  Ha, ha, ha!  You poor, dumb saps!  If you want to know what happened to the ship, you have to come up with your own answers!

Perhaps we're being too harsh?  Perhaps the author intended Martigan Belt to be something along the lines of a sourcebook, but the publisher packaged it as an adventure?  Nope.  In the Introduction, author Stephen Kingsley refers to it as “this adventure/scenario.”  Also from the Introduction:
...I might have forgotten or glossed over some things. For any such omission I do apologize.
Well, Kingsley, you forgot to include a complete adventure.  Apology accepted.  (Martigan Belt and one other Space Opera product seem to be Kingsley's only published RPG credits.)

Technically, since the adventure is absent, there can't be any spoilers; hence, the title to this post has spoilers in quotation marks.  Martigan Belt is like reading a murder mystery that stops before any suspects are introduced.  If the adventure is abandoned on page two, what appears on the other pages?  Actually, page two is the first page after the Table of Contacts and a map of the Procyon subsector.  This means less than a page is devoted to the pur-ported adventure.

One page is devoted to an unnecessary schematic of the Martigan system.  More than a page is taken up by details of the system's planets – such as the surface gravity of Martigan V (2.3745 G).  There's also a table of the “distance between planets of the Martigan system,” as though the planets were fixed in space and not in orbit about a sun.  For Martigan III, there's one page each for a survey evaluation form, a contacts service form, and an essentially useless military intelligence report.  There's a one page map of the capital city of Martigan III.  One page has a schematic of the vessel Janus allows the player characters to use.

Art by Gene Day

Almost five pages contain descriptions of the more interesting specimens of Martigan III's flora and fauna.  Many Gene Day illustrations are provided.  We have “An Adventure in the Asteroids” where nearly 25% of the page count is devoted to planetary encounters.  Among the plants there are Springpoints (“Large version of a 'venus flytrap' type of plant”) and Mindfuzz:
In Fall (Autumn season), the Mindfuzz releases pollen.  The pollen is an halucenogen [sic] (similar to LSD)...Killing the plant at this stage is too late as the pollen has already been released in the area.
So, Fall means Autumn season?  Good to know.  Animals described include the Davod (“A mollusc ambusher” which “has ten 'arms' of 10-20m in length”) and the Skanser (an arboreal animal that “will only attack when under the influence of Mindfuzz pollen”).  Separate from the planetary flora/fauna descriptions is the Slorte, “a previously unknown silicate lifeform inhabiting the asteroid belt of the Martigan system.”  The Slorte moves via “pseudopodia extenso-contraction” with the “Highest observed velocity [at] 36kph/22.36mph.”  Presumably, this observation occurred sometime after they were “previously unknown.”  The Slorte uses “'radio' to convey emotions such as hunger, etc., 'radio' also serves as 'radar' for sight.”

There are four “exceptional human NPCs,” each of which is described in a full-page character sheet.  There's nothing preventing the use of these characters as pre-gen player characters, but they are provided to round out they party in the event the players are not “able to assemble a complete team with all necessary types of specialists.”  Shoehorning exceptional NPCs into the party is an excellent way to let your players know you hate them.

Also provided is a modified table for mining asteroids.  New possible results include PK crystals (0.30%), an alien artifact (0.05%), and “dureum” (0.15%).
Dureum is a form of allotropic silver. It is an extremely dense silvery-gray metal. Due to its rarity and high value, the most common use of dureum is in the plating of archaic melee weapons for specialized use.
The most common use of a rare, valuable metal (5,000 credits per gram) is plating for archaic weapons.  OK.

An interesting concept the module presents is the “Arena of Justice.”  Laws on Martigan III are limited to those dealing “with theft and subsequent resale of stolen goods, killing a sentient being, and using force to impose one's will on another sentient being.”  Personal differences can be settled by duelling in the arena.  In fact, “Voluntary participation in the Arena of Justice is actively encouraged to allow dissatisfied citizens an outlet for their aggressions.”  Such volunteers receive a payment of one hundred credits.  Convicted criminals are sentenced to a “number of involuntary participations.”  Such penal participations are fought to the “first critical wound” but, presumably, death could easily result.  Arena combats have a live audience and “such combats are broadcast planetwide via telecommunications networks.”

Four “additional scenario ideas” are provided on the last page.  One of the ideas has a player character being “found guilty in the [accidental] death of a sentient being.”  The character is sentenced to six matches; in each match there is a 15% chance that the opponent will attempt to kill the character.  That's not much of a scenario; just an excuse for a series of combats.  Nonetheless, the Arena of Justice could have been the focus of the module rather than a non-existing adventure among the asteroids.  First, Arena of Justice has a better ring than Martigan Belt.  The popularity of the arena matches suggests advertising and gambling.  There might be fixed bouts.  Off-worlders might be lured to Martigan III, found guilty of trumped-up charges, and sentenced  to involuntary participations for the sake of ratings and advertising revenue.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

The Outworlds

Art by Jeff Dee

According to the Introduction of the Space Opera rules, “...we have been most fortunate in procuring several copies of the Interstellar Survey Service's Sector Star Atlases which are standard issue to all spacecraft entering given sectors of the galaxy.”  Actually, they're called Star Sector Atlases and are indicated as such in the product listings on the inside back cover.  Almost all of the Star Sector Atlases are numbered; for instance, the complete title of the first atlas is Star Sector Atlas 1:  The Terran Sector.  In Space Opera parlance, a sector represents a cubic volume of space 100-200 light years to a side.  The rules helpfully explain, “space is very definitely three dimensional...”  Very definitely.

The only unnumbered Star Sector Atlas is titled The Outworlds.  It is unnumbered because it “is not from the same game universe” as the default Space Opera setting.  However, even the numbered atlases can be inconsistent with one another since they are derived from different campaigns and thus reflect different interpretations of the setting.  In any event, The Outworlds sector “can be added on to an existing campaign, or be used as the starting point for a new one.”  Also, “The worlds and alien races in this sector can also be used on their own; simply ignore any references to other Outworlds.”

Supposedly, “The sector is 150 LY on a side.”  However, there are two planets that are 171 light years apart on the z-axis (or “the vertical dimension” as the rules state).  At least, that's what I gather from “–78 BISTHUM” and “+93 MANO.”  The Bisthum system is home to Outpost 8.  Outposts are defined as “Planets that are being investigated and prepared for colonization” and civilization is represented by “Generally an E StarPort, a few pre-fabricated huts, and a team of lonely researchers.”  The Mano system contains the planet Goshlookout where “semi-intelligent animals” plague the colonists.
     The first beasts were six legged dinosaur-like creatures who were heavily armored and armed.  Later types grew wings, prehensile trunks, shooting spines, and other deadly weapons.  The worst beast ability is the almost total resistance to poisons and biological weapons...Each beast will have one unusual ability, such as resistance to lasers or stunners.
The Outworlds was written by Stefan Jones, who has a variety of RPG credits that span decades, including Port o' Call.  Interestingly, his first writing credit was a (capsule) review of Space Opera in The Space Gamer #33 (November 1980).  (For Trillion Credit Squadron, he is listed as one of three people having “Useful Suggestions,” so I don't think that counts.)  Was he already working on The Outworlds (1981 copyright) when he submitted that review?  Jones also wrote the Space Opera adventures Vault of the Ni'er Queyon (1982) and
Operation Peregrine (1983).

In the atlas, information about each planet of interest is conveyed through two documents provided under the auspices of the United Federation of Planets.  (Really?  They couldn't go with the Federation of United Planets or the Combined Federation of Planets?)  The two documents are:  Form 217/DIS.8JE from the Department of Interstellar Survey and Form 550/CS.6MV from the Contacts Service.

Blank Survey Evaluation Form

Example Contacts Service Form:  Alkast

“Technological Level” appears at the top of the Contacts Service form, right next to the planet's name.  Whereas weapons and various items of equipment are assigned Tech Levels, what 'Tech Level' means with regard to a society is not expressly established.  Tech Levels range from one to ten but “Tech/7” is the standard level for galactic civilization.  Tech Levels correlate to “Type of Government.”  For instance, Anarchy results in a Tech Level range of 1 – 4; Representative Democracy offers 4 – 10.

Societal Strength also ranges from one to ten; a score of one “signifies a collapsing society” while ten “signifies a very strong society, highly resilient to sudden changes because of the sheer determination of the people and the social institutions to survive and adapt.”  Societal Strength is based on Social Organization.  A Caste Society has a 2  – 5 range; a Communist Society has a 1 – 7 range.

The Xeno-Acceptance Factor (shown as 'Xeno Acceptance Index' on the form) “is the percentage chance that a member of the culture will be prejudiced in his dealings with an 'alien' not demonstrably of his race and general cultural background and beliefs.”  Isn't that the opposite of acceptance?  Regardless, the lower the Societal Strength of a culture, the greater the chance of prejudice.

None of the Outworld planets have a listed Bureaucracy Level.  This is just as well since this concept is not defined in the rules.  Support Index refers to the portion “of the population which will support the present governmental system in a 'crunch'...”  Loyalty Index is the “chance that a given individual citizen will be loyal to the present system.”  Repression Index indicates the “percentage of the population 'repressed' by various discriminatory measures under the present social and/or political system.”  Corruption Index is the “chance that a given government official will accept a 'bribe' or 'gift' or 'token of appreciation'...”  Law Level ranges from one to twenty and is mainly concerned with weapon restrictions; the greater the level, the stronger the restrictions.

The Trade Acceptance Index is “the percentage chance that a trader will find a ready market for his goods on the planet.”  The rules inform us, “The index does not assure a sale, but it makes an attempt possible once per week that an offer comes up.”

Among the nine new alien races described in the The Outworlds there is what humans call the CULT; sometimes spelled with all capitals, sometime with only an initial capital.  An illustration of a CULT member is presented at the beginning of the post.
     The minds of the entire species are linked together by a sort of mechanical telepathy, using communicators implanted within the brain of each individual.  The CULT lives in space craft or on (or in) asteroid bases...They have five strong tentacles and a bulbous central body, all encased in a segmented exoskeleton... Cult walk on three of their tentacles at a time, leaving two free for manipulative functions.  The thick shell is usually light gray in color, the skin in [sic] dark red or purple.
     Behavior patterns of the Cult are very erratic...Trade missions sometimes dump valuable goods on the StarPort landing field and leave without collecting payment.  These abberations [sic] are thought to be due to malfunctions in the computer and communications equipment of the Cult mass-mind network.
Another Outworld race is referred to by humans as Greenstar Demons (or 'Green Star Demons' as the atlas also calls them).  How the Demons refer to themselves is unknown, as is their homeworld.  This race occasionally...
     ...raids the Outworlds and is believed to be the cause of many ship disappearances.  The Demons get their name from their bodily appearance, and from a mysterious force field they use that seals off systems they are raiding.  This force field has the side effect of causing the primary of the system to glow bright green...
     The Demons are xenophobic and highly intelligent monsters.  They take intelligent beings for use as food animals, slaves and other horrid purposes.  Demon ships shoot on sight, trying to disable and board any ship they come across.
Before leaving the Outworlds, we owe it to ourselves to address the spice mines of Kessex.  (That's Kessex – not Kessel – OK?  Call off the lawyers.)  In “deep underground spice caverns,” slaves gather fungoids.  “Luxury Goods (Spice Products)” are the major exports of Kessel Kessex; however, neither the value of such products nor their use is indicated.  Kessex is in the Rant system (the companion star is is Rave).  The only system within twelve parsecs is Kherm, containing the planet Agar.  The Lazkee Corporation 'owns' Agar, an ocean world where an “algae-like processed and converted into edible foodstuffs for shipment to other worlds.”  This is an important distinction; the market for inedible foodstuffs is negligible.

Sunday, July 1, 2018

Comic Book Creatures (The Planet Comics Edition)

Four years ago, your humble host presented two posts (here and here) describing beasts from public domain comic books.  Given the recent post on Adversaries in Space Opera, it's high time for another installment – one exclusive to creatures from science fiction.  To this end, all of the entries in this post are from Planet Comics, a Fiction House publication spanning the years 1940 to 1953.  Each issue contained various features with a roster of essentially interchangeable protagonists.  These heroes were manly men with nicknames like Buzz, Crash, and – for reasons perhaps best left unexplored – Spurt.

Planet Comics #8 (Spurt Hammond feature);
1940, Fiction House, Art by Henry Kiefer

Speaking of Spurt, the adventurer tied the depicted Troglosaurus (also called 'Troglo') to his rocket ship and flew it from its native Venus to Mars.  Such a trip suggests that the creature is especially hardy and rugged; a suggestion corroborated by the fact that “the rays don't even hurt it!”

On Venus, “tamed fighting troglosauri” live in a valley.  Normally docile enough to follow a person around “like a puppy,” they can become furious (perhaps as a result of being flown through outer space unprotected and being struck by rays).

◇  ◇  ◇


Planet Comics #29 (Mars feature);
1944, Fiction House, Art by Joe Doolin

On Pan, “a minor moon of Saturn,” the Blost are nearly extinct.  The Blost pictured is old and decrepit.  One can scarcely imagine how fearsome a youthful, robust Blost would be.

Even this specimen can be riled into violent action by the forceful application of an electric whip.  However, the Blost tend to have a poor opinion of those who would inflict pain upon them and may aggressively display their opinion if given the opportunity.

◇  ◇  ◇

Planet Comics #8 (Buzz Crandall feature);
1940, Fiction House, Art by Gene Fawcette (?)

In a story more reminiscent of a fever dream than a science fiction adventure, Buzz Crandall and Sandra West fly “in the remotest recesses of space and time.”  Somehow, “their space ship crashes through the walls of a crystal sphere...”  Sandra enters the Hall of the Elipticoon and faces “the giant time entity.”  Whatever its physiology may be, it has the “hum of a giant insect.”

The Elipticoon (at least this one) was destroyed when it attempted to consume the disembodied head of a “mad philosopher.”  But can a “giant time entity” ever really be destroyed?  If so, how?

◇  ◇  ◇

Mobile Fungus
Planet Comics #23 (Flint Baker feature);
1943, Fiction House, Art by Joe Doolin

On a “sinister little asteroid,” the mobile fungus lurks in a cave.  When visitors duck into the cave in an effort to escape the prevalent flying snakes, the “horrible phosphorescent mass rolls forward over ghastly remains” of its prior victims.

An effective way of deterring this thing is not yet known; even when pelted by rocks, it advances relentlessly.  Still, if you have enough time to throw rocks it, you likely have enough time to flee.

◇  ◇  ◇ 

Planet Comics #13 (Crash Parker feature);
1941, Fiction House, Art by Joe Doolin

The Kloccial, a “fiendish plant,” thrives in the twilight band of the planet Mercury.  It is evidently subterranean and sends tendrils above ground to grapple its prey.  On one occasion, Crash Parker inadvertently landed his rocket ship on top of one.  Of course, with a name like Crash, any landing that doesn't result in immolation is a good landing.

Coping with a Kloccial can be troublesome.  However, if you can manage to sever one of its tendrils, try blasting down the trunk of the tendril with a ray gun.  Acting as a conduit, the tendril carries the destructive energies to the heart of the Kloccial.

◇  ◇  ◇ 

 Vampire Birds
Planet Comics #12 (Crash Parker feature);
1941, Fiction House, Art by P. Rice & A. Cazeneuve

Crash Parker's adventures took him to various exotic locations, not the least of which is Uracius (or maybe Urania?), a “planet forbidden to Earth-men.”  True to his name, Crash wrecked his rocket ship there.  His excuse included the phrases “cosmic storm” and “vortex of the nebular maelstrom.”

In a cavern on that planet, Crash encountered the vampire birds, which possessed “heavy white fur and human-shaped talons!”  Apparently, “human-shaped talons” is supposed to mean “talons formed like human hands.”  Every vampire bird “has a queer crimson spot over the heart.”  It is this spot “through which the fiendish transfusions [of blood] take place.”

◇  ◇  ◇

Service Animals from Planetoid R
Planet Comics #61 (Lost World feature);
1949, Fiction House, Art by George Evans

These “fierce creatures” (affectionately called “hairy ones”) function as hunters and guides for “the blind mummy-men” of Planetoid R.  Their ability to burrow underground tunnels makes them particularly effective.

After the Voltamen conquered the Earth, they imported these “strange monsters” in their efforts to annihilate the last vestiges of human resistance.  These animals are very loyal to their mummy-men masters – a good reason not to antagonize the mummy-men.

◇  ◇  ◇

Planet Comics #23 (Star Pirate feature);
1943, Fiction House, Art by Joe Doolin

Star Pirate (known informally as 'Star') encountered this beast on Zev.  However, we should not assume that the Dasta is native to that planetoid.  The Dasta is described as “three tons of armor-plated brute” and, as is shown, Star exclaimed, “Ten ray-guns wouldn't stop him!”

Star managed to blind the beast with a cloak and leaped atop “the bellowing bulk of a live torpedo.”  Star then felled the Dasta by employing the “bulldogger's twist,” a little trick that Star somehow “learned from an Earthman castaway.”

◇  ◇  ◇ 

Planet Comics #27 (Star Pirate feature);
1943, Fiction House, Art by George Appel

Years before Heinlein scribed Stranger in a Strange Land, the writers of Planet Comics used the word 'Grok' to name a space creature.  This is another animal that Star Pirate improbably killed without recourse to weapons.

While cruising the space-ways, Star's craft was surrounded by “a queer radiation,” precipitating a “space storm.”  After being “sucked into the swirling center...[of] a twisting space-whirlwind,” Star was adrift for days when hunger prompted him to attack the “bird-beast.”  How Star expected to dine through his space helmet is not explained.

 ◇  ◇  ◇


In another instance of a creature's name later acquiring a curious meaning, the Dork was a giant reptile from Neptune.  The Toags, a race of reptilian humanoids, kept the “slavering monstrosity” in their dungeon for purposes of entertainment.

It's so huggable!

Planet Comics #24 (Reef Ryan feature);
1943, Fiction House, Art by George Tuska