Sunday, February 24, 2019

Mental Powers in Star Frontiers

Art by Virgil Finlay

A seven-page section of Zebulon's Guide to Frontier Space is devoted to “the concept of mental powers, often referred to in other role-playing games as psionics.”  The Introduction to this section emphasizes the optional nature of these rules.  We are told that the referee need not “include these options in his game, and if he does omit them, it will not unbalance the rest of the system.”  This leads one to wonder if including the rules will unbalance the rest of the system.  In fact, three paragraphs later, we are warned that incorporating the rules “will...require more care in balancing the campaign.”  There is an option of limiting mental powers – the Guide refers to them as 'disciplines' – to non-player characters; either “to an NPC race or character type.”  Also, “In a future volume of Zebulon's Guide to Frontier Space, some creatures may even have the option to use a mental discipline for communications or attack.”  As indicated in the previous post, the publishing of further volumes was a forlorn hope.

There are two types of characters who can use disciplines:  Mentalists (characters belonging to the Mentalist profession as opposed to the other professions) and enlightened (characters belonging to one of the usual professions).

During character generation, a Mentalist's Logic ability score can be increased to “between 75 and 90” by decreasing other scores on a one-to-one basis.  First, Strength and/or Stamina can be reduced.  Once both of these abilities are decreased to a value of thirty, “then the points can be taken from any other ability.”  A beginning Mentalist receives three disciplines/levels plus an additional discipline/level for every five points of Logic over seventy.  So, a Mentalist with a Logic score of 84 has five disciplines/levels to allocate.  This could be five disciplines at one level each, five levels in one discipline, three levels in one discipline and two levels in another, or any other combination.  Just like skills, disciplines have levels and Mentalists can purchase new disciplines (or increase the level of an existing discipline) by spending experience points in accordance with the Skill Cost Table.  The referee determines how discipline improvements manifest; either training and/or practice is necessary (like skills) or the discipline/level “comes naturally” to the Mentalist.

Beginning characters have twenty experience points to buy skills.  Presumably, this also applies to Mentalists and, also presumably, they can use those experience points to acquire or improve both skills and disciplines.  Like other professions, Mentalists have a list of skills; however, the list for Mentalists is rather modest.  Also, while other professions can purchase skills outside their list at a non-professional skill cost (which is twice the normal cost), Mentalists can only acquire skills from their list and they must pay at the non-professional cost.  Characters must pay ten points to join a profession, whereupon they receive an automatic skill that allows them to improve appropriate attributes.  Apparently, Mentalists don't pay ten points and there is no equivalent automatic skill.  Although we are admonished that “disciplines should never be confused with skills,” the title of the section is “Mentalists: The Optional Skills and Profession.”  We are told, “A Mentalist has profession discipline costs and non profession discipline costs.”  This is confusing in that there are no non-profession disciplines for Mentalists.

A beginning, non-Mentalist character with a Logic score of 80 or greater can be enlightened.  Such a character has one discipline/level for every five points of Logic in excess of 75.  During play, should an enlightened character's Logic be improved to a new five-point 'mark', he or she obtains a new discipline/level; no training is required.  A discipline/level is retained if the character's Logic score is somehow reduced below the amount required to attain that discipline/level.  Enlightened characters may not use experience points for disciplines.

There are forty-one disciplines, twenty of which are asterisked.  Enlightened characters can only have asterisked disciplines and Mentalists can acquire/improve them at half cost.  An example of an asterisked discipline is Confusion, which can only be used (successfully) twice per day.  If the Confusion roll is successful, it affects one target.  One might think that a target's Intuition/Logic would increase or decrease the chance of success, but one would be wrong.  The actual effect is determined by rolling 1d10 and consulting the Confusion Table:
Another asterisked discipline is Density, through which the character can increase or decrease his or her “body density.”  Additional asterisked disciplines include Trance I and Trance II.  Trance I allows a character to lower his or her metabolism while Trance II permits an increase of metabolism.  Why have one discipline that both lowers and increases density, but then have different disciplines for raising and lowering metabolism?

There are three flavors of telepathy:  Aliens, Animals, and Characters.  The Animal and Character versions are asterisked, the Alien discipline is not.  The description for the Character discipline states, “This discipline allows a character to enter another intelligent being's mind only for the purpose of conversation.”  The Alien discipline states, “This discipline allows a character to enter an intelligent alien's mind only for the purpose of conversation.”  The distinction between intelligent being and intelligent alien is not readily apparent.  The description for Character discipline concludes, “This discipline only allows for telepathic contact with intelligent player or nonplayer characters (including cyborgs),” while the Alien discipline concludes:
If the alien is extremely evil, or has a mind that could be incomprehensible to the character attempting to reach it, the referee might decide that a logic check is in order before any communication is attempted. If the user fails the check, he may be disoriented, stunned, at the alien's mercy, or even mortally wounded, depending on the alien and the referee's discretion.
Among the other disciplines are various psionic staples:  Telekinesis, Teleportation, Clairvoyance, Pyrokinesis, etc.  However, there is no discipline relating to precognition.  There is a Timeread discipline that permits a character to look back in time in a given location and an Analysis II discipline that “allows a character to read psychic impressions left on an object by the last person who used it.”

Given that mental powers are optional for Star Frontiers, there is little effort made to integrate them into the setting.  There are no items of equipment that interact with disciplines.  We learn that the Mentalist profession “is not so much a religion as it is a dedication to a way of doing things” and “Mentalists almost always wear some type of distinctive uniform (usually light blue) or medallion to signify their profession.”  Yet the only described organization regarding Mentalists is Star Law Psi-Corp, “a branch of Star Law specifically created for Mentalists.”

Sunday, February 17, 2019

Zebulon's Guide to Frontier Space

Art by Ed Emshwiller

TSR offered three 'accessory' products for Star Frontiers.  The first such product was a book of official character record sheets; the second was a referee's screen.  Lastly, we have the subject of this post, Zebulon's Guide to Frontier Space (hereinafter Zebulon).  The conceit of Zebulon is that it is... encyclopedia compiled by the University of Zebulon documenting all the known flora, fauna, cultures, devices, and history of the Frontier in one place. The handy Ceretronix Pocket 1200 version quickly became a necessary piece of equipment in every pioneer's and spacer's kit.
Zebulon, of course, is one of the star systems in the Frontier (and doubtless named after Dave “Zeb” Cook).  Specifically, the Zebulon system contains Volturnus.  The university is based on Anker, another planet in the system.  According to the Zebulon timeline, Professor Alorne Zebulon discovered the Zebulon system 61 years prior to the establishment of the United Planetary Federation (and 66 years prior to the creation of Star Law).  Four years after discovering the Zebulon system, the professor established the University of Zebulon.  However, Crash on Volturnus states that, “The Zebulon star system was first investigated... by an unmanned exploration probe” and this “probe indicated that Volturnus was the only inhabitable planet in the Zebulon system.”  Also, Crash on Volturnus takes place within a year of the first manned expedition of that system – an expedition that did not include Professor Zebulon.  There is no attempt to reconcile these conflicting facts.  It's almost as if the Star Frontiers creative team did not anticipate that – 30-40 years in the future – people with nothing better to do would use a global communications system to nitpick the continuity of the game's milieu.

Despite the claim above, Zebulon documents neither flora nor fauna.  Zebulon has “Volume 1” as its subtitle, suggesting further volumes.  Perhaps flora and fauna would have been covered in one of these anticipated volumes.  However, published in 1985, Zebulon was one of TSR's last Star Frontiers products.  More than a mere accessory, Zebulon was hailed as a “major new rules expansion!” in the coming attractions of Dragon #102.  In effect, Zebulon was a new edition of the Star Frontiers rules.  Unfortunately, it was also Star Frontiers' swan song.

Zebulon offers a universal resolution system based on a table with nineteen columns.  Generally, each column represents a skill level; however, there are columns for both positive and negative extremes (above +10 and below -5 respectively).  There is also a “/0” column to the right of the “0” column. 

In the original rules, skills have a maximum of six levels.  With the Zebulon rules, the maximum level is eight.  Percentile dice are still rolled, but instead of percentile modifiers, there are “column shifts” on the table.  Each column represents a modifier difference of 10.  “For example, a + 20 bonus in the Alpha Dawn rules now becomes a + 2 column shift.”  Use of the table allows for degrees of success, each degree conforms to one of four colors.  In order of decreasing result, the colors are:  cobalt, blue, green, and yellow.

In terms of combat, damage is determined by the color result of a successful attack.  A cobalt success inflicts maximum damage.  Other possibilities include blue (¾ damage), green (½ damage), and yellow (¼ damage).  A character without training in a given weapon can attempt to use the weapon on the “0” column; positive modifiers cannot improve a roll to the right of the “/0” column.

The original rules offered a selection of thirteen skills (with associated subskills) among three Primary Skill Areas.  Zebulon treats each subskill as a distinct skill and adds many new skills so that over 120 skills are now available for characters.  In terms of character creation, a beginning character has twenty experience points “gleaned from years of study, practicing, apprenticeship, or whatever.”  These points are used to join a profession and acquire skills.

Professions are a new concept in Zebulon.  We learn that, “A character must belong to one of these professions and may not leave it at a later date.”  Each profession has a list of skills associated with it.  Entering a profession costs ten experience points and a character “must spend his remaining experience points on any of his profession's skills.”  Rather than having twenty experience points and necessarily spending ten of those to enter a profession, why not have characters join a profession at no cost and give them ten experience points to spend on profession skills? 

The main professions are:  Enforcer, Techex (“Technical Expert”), Scispec (“Science Specialist”), and Explorer.  A Mentalist profession is discussed separately in Zebulon.  The Spacer profession is “for campaigns using the Knight Hawks game rules.”  There is no other mention of the Spacer profession.  The spaceship skills are not defined in the Zebulon skill section and there is no discussion of how to conform the spaceship skills to the Zebulon paradigm.

Each profession has an automatic skill:  Enforcer - Endurance, Techex - Agility, Scipec - Intelligence, and Explorer - Charisma.  Each of these automatic 'skills' gives seven points to be allocated between a given ability pair:  Endurance (Strength/Stamina), Agility (Dexterity/Reaction Speed), Intelligence (Intuition/Logic), and Charisma (Personality/Leadership).

The cost of learning and improving skills is indicated on the Zebulon Skill Cost Table.  There is a column for skills within one's profession and a column for skills outside one's profession.  The first level of a profession skill costs one point, the second level costs an additional two points.  Each level after the second costs an additional two points.  Thereby, the eighth level of a professional skill has a cost of fourteen points.  The cost for non-professional skills is double that of professional skills.  Some skills do not have levels beyond the first; success is automatic if these skills are purchased.  Examples include 'Climbing' and 'Chef'.

Some skills appear on more than one profession list.  For instance, 'Body Speak' is both an Enforcer skill and an Explorer skill.  (Body Speak “allows a character to use exaggerated body movement as a form of communication with others possessing this skill.”)  Some skills aren't on any profession list, meaning that anyone who wants to learn or improve such a skill must use the non-profession cost progression.  Examples include 'Disguise' and 'Bluff'.  Some skills require continuous training; they must be re-purchased at first level every six months or the benefit they provide is lost.  Examples include 'Pumping Federanium' and 'Running'.  ('Pumping Federanium' allows a character to “carry [up] to one and one-half times his Strength score” in kilograms.  This is due to the character working out with federanium, “the densest element known.”  However, the drawback is that the character's physique is so developed he “may have trouble fitting into suits and equipment normally disguised [sic] for his race.”)

Sunday, February 3, 2019

The Warriors of White Light (spoilers)

Art by Jim Holloway

Included in the Knight Hawks boxed set is a 16-page module “designed to introduce players and referees to the spaceship rules in STAR FRONTIERS™ Knight Hawks game, and to show referees how the Knight Hawks rules can be combined with the original STAR FRONTIERS rules.”  Five scenarios are detailed.  According to to Beta Subsection 7, they “are designed to support rather than create, a campaign.”  Regardless, the module establishes the foundation of the campaign.  We are told, “the referee is encouraged to devise other encounters of his own to use between adventures.”

Player characters are supposed to be recruits in the Clarion Royal Marines.  Clarion – called Gollywog in Star Frontiers Expanded Rules – is in the eponymous White Light system.  Since the star's color is red-orange, the name 'White light' is hardly intuitive.  'Royal' implies royalty and – appropriately – Clarion is described as a “capitalist monarchy.”  The reigning king is Leotus XIX and we learn, “The Leotus line has held the throne for nearly 400 years.”  This suggests that the age of space exploration is at least four hundred years old.  (Humans are not native to the planet as we are told, “No native animal life has been discovered on Clarion.”)  Not everyone is happy with the monarchy; the Liberation Party holds twenty to thirty seats (out of one hundred) of Clarion's parliament.

Alpha Subsection 2 informs us that participating player characters “should already have a 1st level spaceship skill.”  Nine pre-generated characters are provided if “the players do not wish to roll up their own characters.”  Given that spaceship skills difficult to obtain and are not possessed by starting characters, the suggestion that players can roll up appropriate characters is somewhat disingenuous.  Unlike other Star Frontiers products, the White Light pre-generated characters are not supplied with names.  This is an interesting choice given that the module has a plethora of named non-player characters.  Your humble host's favorite is “Bluto Goorhud (Yazirian Male).”

In the 'campaign', the player characters are based on Clarion Station and assigned to the Osprey, one of three assault scouts in the Royal Marine fleet.  During the course of conversations with the other marines, the player characters are supposed to learn “a boarding party from the Assault Ship Osprey was ambushed by the crew of the freighter they were searching for contraband.”  This is the reason there were vacancies in the Royal Marines for the player characters to fill.  About the spaceport we learn:
A starship arrives at Clarion Station about once every 100 to 200 minutes.  Shuttles leave for the planet even more frequently.  This heavy traffic brings thousands of characters of all four races through the station, so huge crowds can be seen mingling about on the business deck at all hours.  The referee can stretch his imagination describing hundreds of beings going about their business with frantic haste.
Among the various recreational businesses on the station, there is the 'Dance and Dice'.  This establishment “is a favorite hangout for spacers of all types.”  Rules for dancing are not provided, but if player characters are inclined to gamble, the following table is presented.

There are rumors that the dice at the 'Dance and Dice' are not always honest.  The referee should feel free to alter any result he does not like.  Of course, the club keeps a number of 'Goons' on hand to reason with players who do not understand or appreciate such tactics.
Player characters function as a boarding party, checking ships for contraband.  The penalty for importing addictive drugs is “10 to 20 years in prison.”  For importing heavy weapons, the punishment is “Death by vacuum.”  Also listed among contraband is “Raw Uranjum,” which I presume is a typo for uranium, one of Clarion's natural resources.  Gamma Subsection 2 relates, “The characters should be allowed to search several ships that are carrying legal cargo before encountering the smugglers.”  The 'smugglers' are the focus of the first scenario; they are transporting “a variety of weapons...[which] are hidden inside robot bodies in the cargo hold.”  The weapons are intended for “Liberation Party rebels,” illustrating the extent of opposition to Clarion's aristocratic rulers.

In the second scenario, player characters board a freighter controlled by a cybot – “a cybernetic (partially organic) robot.”  Ideally, the characters should “subdue the 'cybot' and his robot minions while causing as little damage as possible.”  This scenario offers a bonanza of experience points.  In addition to the standard one to three point award, characters receive “3 bonus points for each robot that was deactivated without being destroyed.”  Also, they gain “10 points if the cybot was stopped by damage to its organic parts rather than to the robot body.”  This is in spite of the admonition in the Star Frontiers Expanded Rules, “The referee should never award more than 10 points for one adventure.”

In the next scenario, the Osprey attempts to save a freighter from the depredations of a pirate corvette.  Maybe the player characters are successful in this regard or maybe they're not.  Regardless, the pirates escape.  Eventually, “a wildcat miner operating in the asteroid belt” will inform the Royal Marines of the location of the pirate base.  As a result, the Marines mobilize against the pirate base and a battle in the (two-dimensional) asteroid belt ensues.

In the fourth scenario, the non-player character lieutenant in command of the Osprey is revealed to be a Sathar agent (which is another offence punishable by “Death by vacuum”).  The player characters are at a disadvantage as the lieutenant brings the Osprey alongside what turns out to be a Sathar freighter.  Should a player character look out a porthole, he or she can tell that the freighter is a “sinister object” if an Intuition check is successful.

By the time player characters participate in the fifth scenario, they “should be able to earn 15 or 20 experience points.”  This is because that scenario “is designed for characters with at least 2nd level spaceship skills.”  There is an assumption that player characters will spend their experience points on improving spaceship skills as opposed to improving other skills, acquiring new skills, or raising ability scores.  Incidentally, the final scenario is a battle against Sathar destroyers.