Sunday, November 18, 2018

A Space Odyssey (spoilers)

It's 1984.  You know what would be great?  Connecting Star Frontiers to a popular science fiction franchise.  This would bring attention to the game and drive its future success.  Let's see...FASA has the rights to Star Trek and The Last Starfighter.  The third film in the Star Wars trilogy was released in '83, so public interest will probably wane...  Perhaps it would be best to get in on the ground floor of an upcoming film and ride its coat tails.  How about Dune ?  It's set to be a merchandising bonanza.  Also, Herbert's series is specifically listed as suggested reading on the inside back cover of the Star Frontiers rules.  But wait... MGM is releasing a sequel to 2001.  Never mind that it's not really space opera.  Never mind that many of the game's target demographic had yet to be born when the original film was released.  Kubrick's cinematic masterpiece is timeless; surely it can be easily adapted into an engaging role playing experience.

Such may as well have been the thought processes of one or more persons at TSR.  Regardless, we have been gifted with 2001 A Space Odyssey – “A Special Star Frontiers® Adventure Module.”  The task of writing this special module fell to Frank Mentzer.

The module is presented in four chapters, roughly analogous to the segments of the film:  Dawn of Man, Lunar Excursion, Jupiter Mission, and Through the Star Gate.  The Introduction provides an overview of the module's narrative:
At critical points in Mankind's history, an alien device, a monolith, appears and provides a key to the future.  Through this adventure, the player characters are present each time a monolith appears.  In each case, whether or not Mankind successfully enters the future offered by the monolith depends on how the player characters react and how much they learn about themselves and their universe.
Obviously, the standard game setting is not used.  “If you put this adventure in your STAR FRONTIERS® game, place it back in time before humans contact the other races.”  However, the adventure can be modified for the other intelligent races of Star Frontiers.
For example, in a dralasite version of chapter one, the monolith might teach cooperation to primitive, independent dralasites.  In a Yazirian version, the monolith might instigate the custom of life-enemies.
We are informed, “This special STAR FRONTIERS® module requires both ALPHA DAWN and KNIGHT HAWKS box sets.”  In reality, the Knight Hawks set is only needed for the Piloting skill and to provide an assortment of counters.  “All spaceflight in this adventure takes place in chapters 2 – 4,” the Introduction states, “Those chapters explain when and how to handle the necessary spaceflight.”

North is to the right
In chapter one, player characters control man-apes in the African wilderness of four million years ago.  Each has the same ability scores.  Events occur in three phases:  Survival (2 game days), Changes (2 game days), and Conquest (3 – 5 game days).  During the Survival phase, the man-apes cope with carnivores and an enemy tribe while trying to obtain sufficient food and water for survival.  A day without water reduces Stamina by 1d10; a day without food reduces Stamina by 1d5.  In the Changes phase, the monolith appears.  On the second day, “each PC man-ape visiting the monolith gains one skill” determined on the Skill Chart (at left).  Man-apes can learn skills from one another.  Player characters achieve the goal of the Conquest phase “when (1) they have slain a carnivore, and (2) the enemy tribe has surrendered.”

Chapter two takes place in 1994 and we learn, “The mega-corporations (which will eventually evolve into Pan Galactic, of the normal STAR FRONTIERS® game setting) dominate the quality of life.”  Players create original characters that reside “on Station One, the largest of three orbital cities floating above the Earth.”  Unlike the usual character generation procedure, a player may allocate a total of twelve Skill Levels among up to five skills (“with a maximum of 5 in any one Skill”).  The Computer and Technician skills are required and “at least 2 of [the skills] must be from the character's PSA.”  Each player then distributes forty additional points among the character's abilities.  “Finally, each player should secretly choose a nationality:  American, Russian, Chinese, or Other.”  Players are informed, “there has been a standing reward of 1,000 CR for anyone able to produce an item created by an extra-terrestrial life form.”

The player characters are recruited by American authorities to locate a presumed extraterrestrial artifact on the moon.  There are nineteen magnetic anomalies on the Lunar map, one of which is randomly determined to be caused by the artifact.  (Although the module refers to squares on the Lunar map, the map itself displays hexes.)  Time is of the essence since the Chinese will arrive in sixty hours to perform their own explorations.  One player character is secretly approached by a Russian agent and another by a Chinese agent.  Respectively, the agents offer 50 credits “to openly claim [the anomaly] in the name of his country, instead of the U.S.A.”  Whether or not the characters accept this generous offer, several NPCs will be working for the Russians or Chinese.  Player characters – either individually or in teams – explore the various anomalies using provided equipment.  “After the large anomaly is pinpointed, all characters involved in the search are detained,” we learn, “The characters never learn the reason for the secrecy...”  Outside the presence of the player characters, “a group of experts and technicians excavate around [the monolith].”  Then the monolith “emits a series of five electronic shrieks.”  One wonders what the players could learn about themselves and their universe via this chapter.

The third chapter takes place on board the USS Discovery and each player controls one of the crew members from the film (Dave Bowman and Frank Poole).  If there are more than two players, one or more of the hibernating astronauts should be used (Kaminski, Hunter and Whitehead – I don't know where Whitehead came from, in the film it was Kimball).  Any additional characters should not be created randomly; we are instructed, “Design the characters to be useful.”

Two new skills are described:  Astronomy (“a new STAR FRONTIERS® technological skill”) and System Navigation (“a new spaceship skill for use with this module only”).  According to Knight Hawks, the Piloting skill can only be acquired by characters with six levels of Technician and two levels of Computer.  Yet this requirement is overlooked in 2001, William Hunter has Piloting 1 but only Technician 3.

As in the film, the HAL 9000 computer works to eliminate the crew and we are advised, “Play HAL very cleverly.”  The module supplies examples of what HAL can do against the characters.  Before HAL attacks, player characters can use a Psycho-Pathology subskill to have HAL “remain calm for another 1 – 6 hours.”  Ultimately, the player characters will have to disconnect HAL.  Afterwards, player characters will need to handle the shipboard tasks manually.  To this end, ship operations and equipment repair are described in thrilling detail.  There are five paragraphs explaining how doors work.  Eventually, the characters watch a briefing tape relating that a monolith was found in the crater Tycho (or “Substitute the name of the crater in which the monolith was found in your game”) thirteen months previously (even though chapter two took place in 1994 and the Discovery was launched on May 14, 2002).  At the conclusion of chapter three, the player characters encounter a giant monolith.  They have the choice of investigating the monolith (and proceeding to chapter four) or staying with the ship (and ending the adventure).

Most of the fourth chapter consists of the referee reading about a page of boxed text.  One of the passages is:
You are above a world of incredible size – much larger than Earth.  But there must be no atmosphere; all the surface details are clear, to the remote and flat horizon.  The surface is marked in huge patterns, probably miles across, of squares, triangles, polygons...and in them, here and there, gaping black shafts, much like the chasm from which you just emerged.
The sky is disturbing.  There are no stars, nor even the blackness of space, but only a milky whiteness.  But no; there are tiny black dots, here and there, scattered across the sky.  They seem oddly familiar – and then you realize that it looks like a photographic negative of the Milky Way.
Eventually, the characters arrive “in a place nearly identical to a hotel suite in the United States of America.”  The referee is instructed to provide “map E, the Hotel Suite Layout, to the players.”  Sadly, no such map is included with the module.  “The entire hotel suite is a creation of the mind of an alien being, created to reassure, but not deceive, the characters.”  Upon falling asleep, each character has a dream wherein he encounters “an alien being – a flickering flame of light, about 7 feet tall.”  Via an undescribed means of communication, the alien presents a range of five options:
  1. The character may return to the Dawn of Man, and help to teach the man-apes the basics of survival.
  2. The character may return to Earth's Moon, in the year 2015, to be rescued.
  3. The character may immediately return to the Discovery, to await rescue, but with no memory of the passage of the Star Gate.
  4. The character may become a higher form of life, an energy being, with no use or concern for material form.
  5. The character may go to an alien planet where another race faces a critical juncture, much live the Dawn of Man the crossroads of knowledge or extinction and help that race along the path to survival.
The module ends with another section of boxed text, the last line of which is:
And now it comes, and it is time to go; to take the final step on this greatest of all journeys; onward, to complete your Space Odyssey.
If you choose to lose your memory, can it really be a journey?

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.”