Sunday, April 21, 2019

Assault on Starship Omicron (spoilers)

Art by Jeff Easley

In Heroic Worlds, Lawrence Schick declared, “There is no SFAC2.”  However, the Star Frontiers Referee's Screen is commonly considered to be the second Star Frontiers accessory.  In fairness to Schick, SFAC1 (Star Frontiers Official Character Record Sheets) and SFAC3 (Zebulon's Guide to Frontier Space) are clearly labeled as such; the code SFAC2 appears nowhere on the Referee's Screen product.

As is common, the screen itself is a tri-fold sheet of thick card stock.  As is also common, the screen displays a combination of art and charts/tables.  For the Star Frontiers Referee's Screen, the art is limited to the Jeff Easley cover – a portion of which is depicted above.  The cover helpfully informs, “This package includes a durable referee's screen with all charts needed to play STAR FRONTIERS™ adventures.”  This product pre-dates Zebulon's Guide to Frontier Space, so the rule changes introduced in that book are not addressed.  Otherwise, the information presented is fulsome.  Does the chart display “all charts needed” for play?  Well, not all tables from the rules are available but, technically, few tables are actually necessary to play the game.

As a game master, I have little use for screens.  I certainly understand their utility, but I would rather not have a barrier between me and the players.  As a player, I can benefit from information on the screen only if I'm sitting next to it; even then I would only be able to see one panel.  As a player, I prefer mood-setting art on a screen rather than charts and tables.  Obviously, the point of the charts and tables is to limit delays during the course of play.  Most information on a screen relates to combat since combat is the stage of play where delays are least tolerable.  The Star Frontiers screen includes the Skills Cost Table and the Robotic Design Cost Table; this sort of information is only needed during the game's downtime.  The following items are absent from the screen:  the Vehicle Control Table, the Rate of Fire Table, the Punching Table, details about structural damage, Grenade Bounce Diagrams, and the Avoidance Roll Table.  Any of these items presented on a screen would better serve a referee rather than “downtime” information.

In the Old School era, when Gamemaster's Screens were sold separately from a boxed set, they were commonly bundled with a small adventure.  The Star Frontiers Referee's Screen is no exception.  The cover continues to tell us about the product:
It also includes a mini-module, ASSAULT ON STARSHIP OMICRON, that can be used as a re-playable game.  The players must defend the starship from an attack by hostile aliens.
The concepts of “assault” and “attack” successfully convey the notion of hostility; referring to the aliens as “hostile” is somewhat superfluous.

The 'mini-module' was written by Old School stalwarts Mark Acres and Tom Moldvay.  Two distinct scenarios are provided:  “Sathar Attack” and “Rogue Robots.”  When the cover refers to the mini-module as a “re-playable game,” it is not an error.  In the 'How To Use This Module' section, we are informed:
Each scenario has been designed so that it can be used by a referee as part of a continuing campaign, or played and replayed on its own as a game.  Eight pre-rolled characters are provided.  When the scenarios are being replayed as a game, the pre-rolled characters should be used.  There should always be eight player characters at the beginning of each scenario; if there are fewer than eight players, some players should play more than one character.
In fact, using the mini-module as part of a campaign may not be desirable.  The referee is warned:
The combat in these scenarios is intense and deadly.  Players should not use their campaign characters unless the skills and equipment of the characters are equivalent to those of the characters included in the module.
Among the eight pre-generated characters, there are a pair of characters from each of the four player character races.  Each pair includes a male and female except for the Dralasites – their gender phase is not specified.  Generally speaking, the pre-generated characters are formidable.  The average number of skill levels among them is 8.375.  One of the characters possesses a Stamina of 85 and another has a Stamina of 75.  Write-ups for the pre-rolled characters take up one of the mini-module's eight pages.

'Assault on Starship Omicron' introduces a new alien species, the Zuraqqor.  They “are a race of intelligent, bipedal insects.”  We learn that the “Zuraqqor are technological experts” and they are allied with the diabolical Sathar.  Unfortunately, the module contains no illustration of a Zuraqqor.  The 'Alien Life Form Update File' for the Zuraqqor is a little more than one-half page.  A portion of the file is presented below for the reader's delectation.

The mini-module makes use of the Starship Bridge Area map from the Star Frontiers boxed set.  One of the booklet's pages is a Starship Upper Deck map meant to be used in conjunction with the Starship Bridge Area map; the hatches of both maps line up with each other.  (“An individual who opens a hatch on one map can move directly into the corresponding airlock on the other map.”)

According to the Introduction:
The starship Omicron, the pride of the Pan Galactic Corporation, disappeared years ago on its first voyage.  Recently the ship was found drifting in space, the passengers and crew killed by a strange and virulent disease.  The ship was decontaminated, refueled, and made ready for operations.  The PGC has hired eight adventurers to “babysit” the Omicron on her voyage back to a Corporation starport.  The ship is being navigated by her computers and robots and this promises to be an easy mission for the “babysitting” team.
Two pages are devoted to rules specific to the module (such as movement, life support, and ship locations).

In the “Sathar Attack” scenario, an invasion force boards the Omicron.  The force consists of “10 Sathar, eight Zuraqqor, two quickdeaths, and one cybodragon.”  The player characters are not alerted to this incursion until the Sathar open the “outer hull hatch.”  Evidently the Omicron has no escort and the Sathar can avoid the ship's sensors (assuming it has any).  As an option for the scenario, “a small sample of the disease spores...[are]...stored in the Medical Lab.”  Should combat occur in the Medical Lab, “there is an 80% chance that the vial containing the disease spores will be broken...”

In the “Rogue Robots” scenario, “the Zuraqqor have infiltrated a rogue robot onto the starship Omicron” somehow.  “The rogue robot has secretly reprogrammed all the other robots,” but not necessarily successfully.  Different types of robots have different percentage chances of genuinely being in the rogue robot's thrall.  The objective of the player characters is to determine which robot is the rogue and destroy it.

Sunday, April 7, 2019

More Concepts from Zebulon's Guide

Art by Ed Emshwiller

Not just a rules expansion, Zebulon's Guide to Frontier Space (hereinafter Zebulon) substantially modifies the Star Frontiers setting.  According to the provided timeline, Zebulon describes a time about one hundred years after the original of Star Frontiers milieu.  Various events transpired during the intervening century.  Most importantly, new sentient races were introduced to Frontier.

Ifshnits are, in effect, space dwarves.
Ifshnits are the major race in the Capella system.  They founded the Capellan Free Merchants and still control the organization.  Their strange, polite dickering is known and welcome on most planets.  Due to their origins, Ifshnits are fiercely independent...
They automatically possess one of the following skills:  Appraisal, Gemology, or Haggling.

Osakar are expert linguists and have a superb sense of smell.
The Osakar epidermis is made up of thousands of large, white, hard, plate-like cells that are shingled downward all over the body.  They resemble a huge, white plant more than any animal.
Because Osakar are the only sentient race to have “achieved perfect equality,” they have a “natural inclination toward individuality.”  Additionally, “All Osakar are fervently religious, but the religion itself is not as important as the fact that the Osakar believes in it.”

Humma bear a superficial similarity to kangaroos; they can leap up to twenty-five meters horizontally.  However, Humma tails are prehensile.
Humma are rude, crude, lewd, pushy, and arrogant.  The only races they enjoy working with are the Yazirians (Humma admire their battle rage) and Osakar (because no one likes them either).
Their “lack of smell and taste, combined with their tough digestive system, means they can eat almost anything that is vaguely edible.”

Mechanons are the sentient robots from Starspawn of Volturnus.  Since leaving Volturnus and colonizing the planet Mechano, their “aggressive tendency to dominate and destroy organic, intelligent life” has abated.  Nonetheless, “Some robopsychologists are beginning to suspect that two completely different Mechanon societies may be evolving:  one bent on peacefully coexisting with the other races, and another, smaller faction bent on destroying them.”  Perhaps because of this, Mechanons are relegated to non-player character status.

Another prominent event in the timeline was the spread and eradication of the Blue Plague.  First appearing on Starmist, the plague would eventually kill 17 million entities.  Presumably, victims included all of the (organic) sentient races.

Additionally, of the approximately four pages devoted to the timeline, the description of the Second Sathar War takes up slightly more than an entire page.

Aside from the timeline, there is a five page chapter about mega-corporations.  Seventeen mega-corps (including the Capellan Free Merchants) are described in capsule form.  Emphasis is placed on the phenomenon of “Corporate Wars.”  The stages of a corporate war are indicated by the acronym ICEWARS:  Interest conflict, Corporate espionage, Economic sanctions, Withdrawal, Armed conflict, Reinforcements, and Stabilization.”

Zebulon brings cloning technology into Star Frontiers.  For five thousand Credits a skin sample is placed into a body-gene box.  Being “part stasis field, part freeze field,” a b-g box “is a 20-cm cube made of federanium.”  We are told, “As long as the box remains closed, the sample remains fresh.”  I guess you could say that a sample in a b-g box is stayin' alive.  (Sorry, my inner demons forced me to make a Bee Gees joke.)  It costs ten thousand Credits per year to maintain and store a b-g box.  Once it is “positively established” that a sample donor has died, a clone can be generated at a cost of 75,000 Credits.  Proof of a person's demise requires “witnesses, a medical certificate of death, or the identifiable remains of the [person].”  However, to be eligible for cloning, the person must have “died an unusually early accidental death.”  Absent this restriction, “Most of the Frontier believes that...the clone merchants would overpopulate the systems in a matter of decades.”

Since this is science fiction, clones have the memories of their originals.
When a character has a sample taken, the referee must record all of the character's abilities, skills, and so forth.  This record is then the basis for the clone, if and when it is grown.  Any new abilities or skills developed after the sample is taken are not recorded, unless the character has another sample taken later (whereupon the original sample is destroyed).
It is not explained how an original's personality is linked to a skin sample.  The sample is destroyed when a clone is generated from it and – for undisclosed reasons – “Another sample cannot be taken for at least three months.”  Supposedly, when a clone is generated, it has the same physiological age as the original at the time the sample was taken.

If a clone learns that his original is still alive...
...he becomes obsessed with a desire to kill the original character and never stops trying until one or the other is dead. The next step, usually, is that the cloned character then becomes suicidal after realizing that he has killed himself.
Presumably, this also applies to female clones.  Given this behavior, it is understandable that, “If it is discovered that a clone exists while the original still lives, a general order to shoot on sight is immediately given.”  We also learn that, “Unfortunately this usually results in both the clone and the original being destroyed.”  Can't the original be put into protective custody?  If I realized that I was a clone and found out my original was still alive and knew that, as such, I would be destroyed, I would approach things differently.  I might toy with the idea of taking my original's place.  Quickly dismissing this notion as not being feasible, I would distance myself from my original identity in an effort to convince people that I'm not a clone.

Naturally, cloning presents a variety legal and ethical considerations.  Is a clone responsible for the actions of its original after the sample is taken?  Felons aren't allowed to maintain b-g boxes or be cloned, but does a clone inherit its original's debts and responsibilities?

We learn “there are always rumors of the 'filthy rich' who can buy their own clone banks and almost become immortal, but that is for NPC consideration only.”  How does that work?  Do these would-be immortals pretend to be their own offspring for purposes of inheritance?  How would their actual children feel about that?  In any event, a clone isn't really a continuation of the original.  The clone and the original “share a life” until the time of the sample; the original then has its own experiences and develops independently.

Cloning offers some adventure opportunities that Zebulon does not touch upon.  For instance, the clone of a player character would want to know how and why the original died.  Because of the cloning restrictions, the death couldn't be the result of natural causes.  Another opportunity would be for player characters to be clone hunters, tracking down and 'retiring' clones that are alive illegally.  Also, Sathar would certainly take advantage of cloning technology.  They could steal samples of important people, generate clones that are completely loyal to the Sathar cause, and replace the people with their clones.  Positions of great influence would be infiltrated by agents who could not be distinguished from the originals.