Monday, September 24, 2018

Adventuring in Star Frontiers

The Star Frontiers Basic Game Rules booklet includes a glossary that provides a definition of role-playing game:  “A game that allows players to act out the exiting adventures of their characters, without being restricted by rules that limit what they do.”  I might be inclined to change the second part to “...without restrictive rules” or perhaps even “...where imagination is at least as important as the rules.”  Regardless, the term “reader” is also defined by the glossary:
A person who reads a programed adventure to the players as they play, rather than playing a character himself.  The reader is replaced by a referee in the Expanded Game.
In the two adventures detailed in the Basic Game Rules, the player characters are troubleshooters working for the Pan-Galactic Corporation (“The oldest and largest interstellar company” and “one of the most powerful organizations in the Frontier”).  The reader “controls the opponents the other players meet and reads the adventure to them.”  By default, the player characters are armed with “fully loaded” laser pistols.  In the first adventure, each player character also has a standard equipment pack that includes a doze grenade because...well, just because, OK?

At the start of the first adventure, “PAN-GALACTIC SECURITY BREACH,” the reader informs the players that their characters have been assigned to investigate 'raiders' of Pan-Galactic's research centers.  The reader then presents three options, each of which leads to different events and further options, much in the vein of a Choose Your Own Adventure® book.  An option is not necessarily a choice, but could be the result of an event beyond the control of the characters.  A diagram of the events and their connections is presented below.
The early portion of the adventure does not allow for meaningful variation; all paths lead to event #8.  Ultimately, the adventure results in one of three concluding events.  Each of these conclusions leads to the same endpoint – the player characters listen to a message that establishes that raiders are employed by the evil Sathar.
Then it describes the raiders' next mission.  They are to fly to a top secret military asteroid where research is underway on a special weapon that can reduce entire populations to mass hysteria.  They are to meet other agents who have already infiltrated the base and steal the device.
Obviously, this could be the basis of a further adventure, but one which the reader must develop.  The first adventure is replayable; different characters could be used and different options may be pursued.  Another variant allows characters to equip different weapons by allocating a number of points (e.g., needler = 4 points, gyrojet = 6 points, etc.).  There is also a competitive variant where some players control the troubleshooters and other players control the raiders.

In contrast to the first adventure's network of options and events, the second adventure is a simple situation.  In “ALIEN CREATURE ON THE LOOSE,” the player characters must stop an alien creature – a hydra – rampaging through Port Loren.  For purposes of replayability, there are rules that allow a reader to create a different alien creature (although it is still called a hydra).
To find its DEX/RS, roll d100, find the result on the ABILITY SCORE TABLE and add 5.  The creature gets 30 Stamina points and one attack per player character.  The person controlling the hydra then gets to select its movement speed, attacks, defenses, up to three special abilities, and its goal.
There are four possible attacks:  Acid Spray, Darts, Sonic Beam, or Gas Cloud.  There are four possible defenses:  Layer of Insulation (immune to needlers), Protective Shell (immune to gyrojets), Reflective Hide (immune to lasers), or Regenerates (“Reduces damage from each attack by 5 points”).  There are five possible goals:  “Eat enough to lay eggs,” “Find someone,” “Build a nest,” “Destroy the town,” or “Destroy all skimmers.”  (According to the glossary, a skimmer is “a five passenger vehicle that floats on a cushion of air” and it “can be rented for 10 Cr per day.”)  Special abilities are not chosen; the instructions say to “Roll 1d10 three times; roll again if ability repeats.”  The various special abilities are:
  • Smashes Through Walls (Walls do not impair creature movement; destruction of walls results in rubble that causes characters to stop their movement before crossing)
  • Shakes Ground (Characters limited to half movement)
  • Teleport (Up to eight spaces every three turns)
  • Spins Web (Can permanently block a square or detain a character for two turns)
  • Doze Gas (“Same as doze grenade...”)
  • Grows Stronger (“Gains 10 Stamina points if hit by a weapon it is immune to; if hydra has no immunity, it gains 20 points by damaging a monorail station”)
  • Grows New Attack (“Gains one attack if hit by a weapon it is immune to; if creature has no immunity it gains one attack when hit by a skimmer”)
  • Takes Extra Damage (When hit by a chosen weapon type other than that which the creature is immune, takes two points of additional damage; if no immunity, “takes 10 points of damage from each skimmer accident”)
  • Loses 1 Attack (when creature suffers at least fifteen points of damage from a single attack)
  • Changes 1 Ability (“...after being hit by a weapon it is immune to, the creature can change its attack, its defense, or one special ability...if it has no immunity, this happens when it damages a monorail terminal”)
The Basic Game Rules also provide a “step-by-step method” for “making up your own adventures.”  These adventures pit one team of player characters against another.  The six steps are:  Purpose (“pick a story outline to be the basis for your adventure”), Teams (“how many characters each team will have and what sort of equipment they own”), How To Win (“Set goals for each team”), Set-Up (“Choose the pieces and map you will use”), How To Play (“create any special rules needed”), and Rewards (“player characters can be rewarded for their actions”).  Pertinent advice is dispensed:
Notice that reader also can have characters run into events and obstacles as well as opponents.  Anything you can imagine can happen during a STAR FRONTIERS adventure.
There are suggested adventures that involve player characters stopping...
  1. the carrier of a “strange alien disease” that causes victims to become “violent and destructive.” 
  2. an “ancient alien artifact” that has taken over a Pan-Galactic base.
  3. an assassin at a “special meeting of delegates from the United Planetary Federation Council on Frontier Law and Peace.”
  4. an “abandoned alien city-ship...on a collision course with a colonized planet.”
Included in the Expanded Game Rules is a two page section on how to create an adventure.  Six steps are listed that differ from those in the Basic Game Rules.
  1. Choosing a theme or basic story and the goal of the adventure.
  2. Selecting the settings where the story takes place;
  3. Designing the events that lead to the goal, and the obstacles that must be overcome to reach the goal;
  4. Creating the non-player characters and creatures that the characters will meet, and deciding how they will affect play;
  5. Writing any special rules that are needed for unusual events;
  6. Writing a final outline of the adventure to guide the referee through the action.
The “final outline” is also called a script:
When you have decided the order of the events, you should write all the information you need to play in a script that shows when things should happen.  It is best to write down everything you need to know about each event so that you do not forget to give players important clues that will affect their decisions.  Number each event, so that you will know its order.  You can put the number of the event on a map so you can see where the event is to take place.  Each written event should include the following information:
  1. A description of what the characters can see.
  2. A description of what happens when characters enter the setting, including NPC and creature reactions.
  3. Ability scores for any NPCs or creatures that will be encountered in the area.
  4. Any special rules for the event.
  5. Random event probabilities.
  6. Notes about what the characters can discover from the event.
  7. Notes on what should happen if the characters succeed, if they fail, or take some other course of action.
Read your script several times, putting yourself in the position of a player trying to move through the adventure.  Make different choices to see whether you accounted for the most likely possibilities.  Make sure your challenges are not too easy or too difficult.  Players should need to use reason and judgment to overcome the challenges.  However, you cannot think of everything before the game, so try to be flexible and make sure each event challenges the players.
Suggested themes for simple adventures include:  “Explore a New World,” “Obtain Information,” “Retrieve a Stolen Item,” “Catch Criminals,” “Rescue Someone,” and “Mad Scientist.”

There is a one page sample adventure wherein player characters are supposed to find a ship “believed to have crashed” as well as “rescue any survivors and find out why... [it] crashed.”  At the crash site, the player characters can rescue a “small Yazirian child.”  They may also discover evidence “that a bomb was planted in the cargo.”  Again, this can be the springboard for another adventure.

We are informed that, “A guide map typically has a scale of 1 to 20 km per hex or square.”  The scale for the above map (from the sample adventure) is not disclosed.

Sunday, September 9, 2018

Combat in Star Frontiers

Art by George Wilson

The Star Frontiers boxed set included a 16 page book of Basic Game Rules and a 60 page book of Expanded Game Rules.  The Basic Game Rules serve as introductory material, of course.  In presenting the setting, there are five paragraphs of “A Short History of Known Space” and a page with a short piece of fiction accompanied by five Jim Holloway illustrations.  There are the requisite instructions for using percentile dice and an explanation of role-playing games:
If the players cooperate and reach their goal, everyone wins.  A skilful player who uses the same character in several adventures will see that character rewarded, becoming richer, more powerful and able to handle more difficult missions.
One-and-a-half pages describe character creation for the basic game – no skills or alien abilities.  The actual section called Basic Rules covers the essentials of movement and combat with specific details regarding the 23" × 35" map of Port Loren.  We are informed that, in a six second game turn, a character can move and/or use a weapon.  Otherwise a character could reload or “stand and do nothing.”  (A later statement suggests that it is possible to both walk and reload on the same turn.)

Each character has an Initiative Modifier equal to one-tenth of his (or hers or its) Reaction Speed.  At the onset of every turn, both sides roll d10 to determine initiative.  For a given side, the Initiative Modifier of the character with the highest Reaction Speed is added to the result.  The combat sequence is straight-forward.  First, the side with initiative moves then attacks.  Afterward, the other side moves then attacks.  On a turn when the modified initiative rolls are tied, “the side with the highest single reaction speed moves and attacks first...However, damage caused by successful attacks does not take effect until after both sides have fired that turn...”  The fact that all characters on a given side move based on the speed of the fastest character is somewhat unrealistic, but realism must defer to practicality for ease of play.  In the Expanded Game Rules, characters can “roll their own initiative” and take actions in appropriate relation to one another.

The combat sequence for the Expanded Game Rules is somewhat more intricate:
So, the side without initiative actually moves first.  The logic of this escapes me.

When initiative roll results are tied in the Expanded Game Rules, “the side with the highest modifier has initiative.”  No provision is made for simultaneous damage effects.

In the Basic Game, an attack is successful if the result of d100 is equal to or less than the attacking character's Dexterity.  “A roll of 01 – 05 is always a hit,” we are told, “regardless of modifiers, if the target is visible and in range.”  In the Expanded Game, ranged attacks are successful on a roll of half of the character's Dexterity; melee attacks are successful on a roll of half of either Dexterity or Strength, whichever is greater.  Each level of a weapon skill adds 10% to the character's chance to hit with that type of weapon.  Also, with the Expanded Game a roll of 96 – 00 is an automatic miss.

A roll of 01 – 02 knocks the target character unconscious.  When using “a blunt weapon (including  bare hands),” a result of any multiple of ten (equal to or less than the chance to hit) also causes unconsciousness.  With the Martial Arts skill, the 01 – 02 chance is increased by 1% per level of skill.

Damage is subtracted from Stamina.  “A character whose Stamina has been reduced to 0 or less is dead,” according to the Expanded Game Rules, “but can be revived if his Stamina has not gone below –30.”  To be revived, the character's Stamina must be raised to higher than zero.  If the character has been dead for less than a minute and Stamina is not below –9, an application of Biocort can revive the character.  Staydose allows a character to remain alive for twenty hours (twenty-four in the Basic Game), so as to receive proper medical attention.  Otherwise, a body can be preserved for up to two hundred hours with a Freeze Field (assuming the device is activated within two minutes of death).  If a character suffers burn damage in excess of his (or hers or its) Stamina, “the character is completely incapacitated.”

Stamina may “heal naturally at a rate of 1 point for every 20 hours (i.e., a day in terms of Galactic Standard Time) that the character spends resting.”  A character can heal up to twenty points of Stamina per day while in a hospital at a cost of one credit per point plus fifty credits per day.

A reviewer in Dragon #65 expressed concerns about combat in the Basic Game:
...the weapons do a surprisingly small amount of damage, no more, than one or two dice. Figuring the average of 1d10 as 5.5 and the average stamina as 45, characters will have to be hit about four to eight times (depending on weapon strength) to be knocked unconscious – and this without benefit of defensive armor! Because of this relationship between weak weapons and strong characters, firefights can get a bit monotonous and drag on and on. Not only is this somewhat “unrealistic,” but it slows the game down precisely when it should be at its most fast-paced and exciting.
This concern is somewhat assuaged with the Expanded Game Rules:
Because of increased rates of fire and the opportunity to change energy settings on beam weapons, characters can do considerable damage with their weapons in the expanded game, putting excitement and a real sense of danger into combat situations. In addition to damage taken against stamina, some weapons can cause unconsciousness. To help the characters out in this suddenly more dangerous environment, there are several types of defensive suits and screens that can absorb damage from certain types of attacks.
A wide variety of of weapons are available.  The 'Beam Weapons' skill covers use of “elecrtostunners, heavy lasers, laser pistols, laser rifles, sonic devastators, sonic distruptors and sonic stunners.”  The 'Projectile Weapons' skill applies to “automatic pistols and rifles, bows, muskets, needler pistols and rifles, machine guns and recoilless rifles.”  However, gyrojet weapons have their own skill.

A sword inflicts 3d10 points of damage; an electric sword inflicts 4d10 and a sonic sword, 5d10.  Automatic pistols and rifles both do 1d10 (or 5d10 with a ten shot burst).  In the Expanded Game Rules, there are two types of defensive armor:  suits and powerscreens.  As an example, a skeinsuit absorbs “one-half of the damage caused by projectile and gyrojet weapons, fragmentation grenades, explosives and melee weapons.”  Once the suit absorbs fifty points of damage, it is no longer functional.  An inertia screen offers the same sort of protection at a cost of two Standard Energy Units per attack.  (A Power Beltpack has 50 SEU; a Power Backpack, 100.)

Instead of saving throws, the Expanded Game Rules offer 'avoidance rolls' by which a character may “avoid or reduce the effects of some weapons by leaping or twisting away from the attack, or by resisting its effects.”  For instance, by rolling Reaction Speed or less on d100, a character can reduce damage from a fragmentation grenade by half.  Such a character “must move 3 meters to get out of the blast area.”  A blast cannot be avoided if “the character has nowhere to move to...”  (Only one grenade may be avoided per turn.)  By rolling current Stamina or less, a character can completely ignore the effects of a doze grenade.  (Incidentally, a standard equipment pack includes one doze grenade.)

Sunday, September 2, 2018

Character Generation and Improvement in Star Frontiers

Art by George Wilson

Characters in Star Frontiers have four pairs of abilities:  Strength/Stamina, Dexterity/Reaction Speed, Intuition/Logic, and Personality/Leadership.  In creating an SF character, 1d100 is rolled for each pair.  Results are checked on the Ability Score Table; scores range from 30 to 70 in increments of 5.  It's not quite a symmetrical bell curve distribution; there is a 10% chance of obtaining a score of 30, a 20% chance of a score of 45, and a 5% chance of 70.

Aside from humans, there are three races to which a player character may belong:  Vrusk (“insect-like creatures with 10 limbs”), Yazirian (“ape-like humanoids able to glide short distances using lateral membranes”), and Dralasite (“amorphous creatures that can control and even alter the shape of their bodies”).  Even in a fictional galaxy, racism rears its ugly head.  Sometimes, Yazarians are derisively referred to as “monkeys.”  Vrusk are sometimes called “bugs” and Dralasites, “blobs.”  The discrimination which Dralasites suffer is hinted at in the illustration below.

Art by Jim Holloway
Ability scores are modified based upon the character's race.  For the non-human races, positive modifiers are balanced out with negative modifiers.  (As an example, Yazirians receive +5 to Dexterity/Reaction Speed and Intuition/Logic; they also receive –10 to Strength/Stamina.)  Human characters receive a bonus of +5 to a single ability (not both abilities in a pair).

In 2004, Wizards of the Coast published d20 Future as a supplement for its d20 Modern System.  Included in d20 Future are details about a variety of settings, among which is Star Law, which is derived from Star Frontiers.  We must consider the d20 Future information to be apocryphal since it does not jibe with the original Star Frontiers rules.  For instance, d20 Future indicates that Yazirians have ability modifiers of +2 Dexterity, –2 Intelligence, and –2 Charisma.  This ignores the negative modifier to Strength/Stamina and contradicts the positive modifier to Intuition/Logic.  The 'comprehension' and 'lie detection' abilities of the Vrusk and Dralasites (respectively) are ignored in d20 Future.  However, both races gain the 'darkvision' ability.

The Expanded Game Rules permit a player to transfer up to ten points from one attribute to its paired attribute.  So, you can increase Stamina by reducing Strength.  If attributes are paired because they are closely associated, it makes little sense that one could be improved at the expense of the other.  It would be far more believable if points could be transferred between unrelated attributes; focusing on one attribute might well cause a dissimilar attribute to atrophy.  Since ten points can be transferred, there can be a twenty point difference between two paired attributes.  Given that the basic range of possible attribute scores is forty (70 – 30 = 40), this means the range of difference between two paired attributes can be as much as 50% of the extent of possible ability.  This belies the notion of paired, associated attributes.

Character aptitude in Star Frontiers (at least in the Expanded Game) is skill-based.  Although not technically a step in the character creation process, skill selection is an important individuating factor among characters.  There are three Primary Skill Areas:  Military (with seven skills), Technological (with three skills), and Biosocial (with three skills).  Thirteen skills may not seem like much, but some skills are broken out into subskills.  As an example, 'Environmental' is one of the Biosocial skills and consists of nine subskills:  Analyzing Samples, Analyzing Ecosystems, Finding Directions, Survival, Making Tools/Weapons, Tracking, Stealth, Concealment, and Naming.  (Incidentally, the 'Naming' subskill gives naming rights to a character “when he discovers a new plant, animal, mountain range, etc.”).  Subskills have a “Success Rate” equal to a base percentage plus 10% for each skill level.  “At the start of the game,” the rules states, “each character must choose one Primary Skill Area as his career.”  Each starting character gets two skills at level one; at least one of the skills must be from the character's PSA.

The last step in creating a character per the Basic Game Rules is to name the character.  “If your character is an alien,” the rules suggest, “try to give it an alien-sounding name.”  Cultivated from various sources, here are examples of personal names for members of the three playable alien races.  For Yazirians, example names include Yalua, Manetoe, Geeko-sur-Mang, Bakchu, Eusyl, Viyizzi, Yoe, and Thu-Ju Kip.  Among Dralasite names, there are Dartha, Grod, Konchinho, Dromond, Diracman, and Drosophage.  (Eater of flies?)  Vrusk individuals have been named Gdtlask Gltak, Yttl, Itklikdil, C'hting, Dazzell, Maximillian Malagigg, Vuzzie'vaz, and – regrettably – Krakker Jakk.

The last step in generating an Expanded Game character is to determine the amount of starting Credits.  (A Basic Game character receives ten credits and a “Standard Equipment Pack.”)  Apparently, naming a character under the Expanded Game Rules is taken for granted.  Anyway, each character is entitled to a number of Credits equal to 250 added to the result of 1d100.  “The character can spend this money immediately on equipment,” we are told, “or save some of it until later in the game.”  A good flashlight has a cost of 5 Cr.  Depending upon the page consulted, a Standard Equipment Pack can cost either 150 Cr or 250 Cr.

“A character learns things and improves himself through his experience on adventures,” we are told.  Presumably, females – as well as hermaphroditic entities like Dralasites – are also capable of improvement.  Referees should award player characters “3 to 7 [experience points] each during an average evening of play.”  Each experience point (XP) spent on an ability increases the score by one (to a maximum score of 100).  Purchasing a new skill at level one has a cost of 6 XP (Military), 8 XP (Technological), or 10 XP (Biosocial).  Attaining higher levels of a skill has an ever increasing cost.  Reaching the highest level (sixth) of a Military skill would cost 126 XP.  The same level of a Technological skill would cost 168 XP and a Biosocial skill, 210 XP.  Costs are halved for skills within a character's Primary Skill Area.