Wednesday 9 August 2023

Starfaring, by Ken StAndre

 Starfaring, by Ken StAndre, Flying Buffalo, 1976.

"The universe is not only stranger than we imagine. It is stranger than we can imagine"  JBS Haldane

Ken StAndre..."Oh yeah?"

Ken StAndre not only holds the position of writing the world's second Fantasy Role Playing Game, he also wrote the world's second ever Science Fiction rpg. And this is it... the one and only Starfaring. A space odditity if ever there was one, but one definitely worth looking at.  

From the preface:  

"Flying Buffalo published Starfaring for me in August 1976. Only Metamorphosis Alpha by James Ward has an earlier copyright date for a science fiction rpg. Being second at things seems to be my fate in life. The two games have nothing in common, and I didn't know Metamorphosis Alpha even existed when I was creating my sci-fi game.  This game is early and crude and not much like anything else that has ever been published in roleplaying, but it is an rpg. I still think it has ideas that are light years ahead of any other sf rpg out there".  Ken St. Andre, 3/13/21

Starfaring, as Ken says in his blurb, is not like any rpg ever published. It was written at a time when the hobby was in it's infancy and the general format of what an rpg should look like, or even play like, had yet to settle. Ken was finding his way, just like all of the other early adopter/creators. And yet this is definitely, a Ken St Andre game. And that's not just because of the whacky artwork. Because he wasn't coming out of a wargaming or simulationist background, the point of this game isn't to create a realistic, hard sci-fi, but to have a bit of fun.

So, how is it different? Well, for a start, the Player 'Characters' are complete starships and crew and the player takes on the name 'Ship Master'. And here we come to one of the main differences between this game and other rpgs... the Ship Master plays alone with the GM (no, not Games Master... Galaxy Master). There may be other players in the game but they play singly and serially. Starships are designed very much like they are in Traveller and nearly all other sci fi games (except this came first). There are rules for bank loans, buying second hand ships. There are starships, warships, transports, scout ships etc and various types of drives and instrumentation. All you'd expect. Crew can be humans, androids, robots, androgenes (think emotionless Vulcan types) and my favourite: Shells. These are disembodied entities who occupy biological or mechanical shells just to get on better with everyone else. Even though your PC is actually a whole ship and crew, individual people also have characteristics such as Health, Physique, Psi-Rating and Mentality. There are a few special rules for androids and robots and suggestions for playing even more alien types. Space and individual combat are quite abstract and also obviously StAndrean... comparative rolls and doubles rolling over etc all very T&T. What is different, and quite detailed, is the hit location and effect table, which is much more fun (and exciting) than the equivalent in Traveller or Starships and Spacemen.  

There is a pretty detailed psionics system too with eight different psionic powers. These act much like spells in a fantasy game but potentially over vastly longer distances. This system is partially worked using percentages. Elsewhere the players use standard d6 and sometimes (and optionally) playing cards.  

There are following: random tables for star creation, planetary types and the life forms which the Ship's crew might come across. Within the book are suggestions of scenarios but a good deal of the adventuring will come from the use of the Space and Subspace hazard generation systems. These range from attacks by enemies (including the deadly 'Slish'), meteor strikes, wierd radiation or accidentally triggering a supernova... run away, run away!

All in all, referees and players would have quite a bit to do to make this into a game which was a true roleplaying game in our current sense of it. This rpg is more of a procedural random adventure for two. But there is a great deal of charm here and the more you read the book, the more you see what you could do with it.  

There is a pdf version available on drivethru. I printed mine and had it saddle-stitched into a booklet because I like having things on shelves, but for the little it costs, you should have a digital copy just for the history of the thing.

Thursday 6 July 2023

Melee and Wizard: RPG or not?

Steve Jackson's first version of what later became The Fantasy Trip were Micro Games numbers 3 and 6 published in 1977 and 1978 respectively. Both are boardgames based on hexes and are designed to be played independently or joined together. They were complemented by Micro Quests– programmed adventures much like those produced for Tunnels & Trolls. One other intention for these two games was possibly to be a replacement for existing combat and magic systems in your other frpg of choice. Bearing in mind that this was 1977 and there were only a handful roleplaying games out there at the time, this wasn't an entirely fanciful idea. There were quite a few such add-on or replacement products around at the time.  


...I'm not doing a review here, I'm asking a question: Would you consider Melee and Wizard together, a roleplaying game system or not?  

I mean at the time they came out.  

The 'Advanced' versions of both games, together with 'In The Labyrinth', were published in 1980 and are definitely an rpg, but can we count the micro games as such?  

I would say yes. Mainly because my friends and I did so for a while. But of course we had the benefit of having played OD&D, Traveller, Metamorphosis Alpha etc first so we could (and did) add in  missing rules to flesh out the bare bones of the combat and magic system as presented in the pair of games. We moved on to other games pretty quickly I have to say, but it was a whole lot of fun and gave rise to some very long gaming sessions indeed at the time (we played solidly for 48 hours once, fuelled by white rum and cold pizza... ah, those were the days!)  

Anyway, I'm rambling. So I've asked and answered my own question. What do you guys think?

Friday 23 June 2023

The new Talislanta.

  Talislanta has risen again.

We've discussed Talislanta and it's precursers and off-shoots before. I'd heard rumours about the relaunch but not looked into it until today. Boy have these guys gone for it! This is huge project and full credit to them for producing two versions: one with update original mechanics and one with 5e mechanics. They've been on this for two years and have exceeded their pledge goals. They must have been pretty worried for a couple of weeks during the OGL crisis though!  

I'm personally not diving in. Its too expensive for me and, as you know, I like the original versions of things (my collection of which I've nearly completed). But it does look great and show the gaming world that there's plenty of opportunity out there for these old games yet!


The Dragons of Underearth.

 Dragons of Underearth, 1981.

 Metagaming? Yes, but who on Earth were "Games Research Group Inc"?

Dragons of Underearth is an odd beast. Published by Metagaming but copyright Games Research Group. It is 100% compatible with (ok, almost identical to...) Melee and Wizard and yet the designer is credited as Keith Gross not Steve Jackson. Gross was a Metagaming staffer at the time who produced Ice War, Invasion of the Aireaters and Lords of Underearth.  

The game originally came in a box and is very hard to find. However, the booklet from the game, entitled Dragons of Underearth, Character Creation Module can still be found for sale on it's own (that's how I got mine) and there are probably pdf's or facsimiles of the gameboard and character counters out there somewhere.  

The obvious question is why did Metagaming bother to develop the game? They'd published the Advanced Melee and Wizard, together with In The Labyrinth, the year before and still sold the original microgames! The box blurb suggests that more of the system will be published but it wasn't to be. Part three of the system was provisionally titled Conquerors of Underearth but was never published. No doubt the reasons lie in Steve Jackson's departure from Metagaming. He and CEO, Howard Thompson didn't see eye to eye on how to develop the Fantasy Trip. According to Jackson, the thin magazine like production of the Advanced version wasn't at all how he had imagined the game. And according to Thompson, he wasn't happy because he'd never wanted a big all singing and dancing fantasy RPG in the first place. The excellent Narmer of the Dynasty Zero blog has shown me a letter written by Thompson to a fan at the time, explaining the situation as he saw it.

It turns out, that Games Research Group Inc. was another imprint belonging to Thompson although I don't know what, if anything was ever published under that name.

As it is, Dragons of Underearth is pieces of an RPG, a cut down version of the Advanced Melee and Wizard rules and bits of In The Labyrinth and a linked but stand alone wargame in the Lords of Underearth microgame.  

The front cover painting is stylish and I like it a lot (others don't), the counters and playing board are the same artwork as The Fantasy Trip. The graphic design and layout is, to my eyes, bloody awful. Tiny, hard to read print and poorly drafted rules. On the other hand ... it's Melee and Wizard plus a simple skill system, treasure and magic items.  

Has anyone ever tried to play it?

Monday 21 March 2022

A skill system for OD&D?

Many OD&D players and DMs like the fact there there isn't a full blown skill system in the game. Although such systems and mechanics developed in rpgs pretty quickly after OD&D's appearance, in games such as Traveller and Runequest. But TSR resisted the urge to add such things into D&D relying instead on the class system to provide the talents and skills available to the various professions and races. I, for one, am glad they did this. I find very few games have skill systems which really work seamlessly and all too easily clog up game play (or provide pedants and rules lawyers with ammunition to 'game' the system).

But, there are always those situations where the rules don't cover all of the possibilities and sometimes, the DM prefers a less dictatorial approach than simply ruling that this or that PC has or hasn't succeeded in, for instance, lighting a fire in a rainstorm. Most DMs eventually seem to have settled on 'The Ability Roll' as a method for judging such things. This most often takes the form of a 'roll under' your Str/Dex/Int or whatever using either 3d6 or 1d20 (both have advantages and disadvantages). In this mechanic, the DM judges which Ability Score is most appropriate to test for the task in hand, eg. Strength when testing if the PC manages to pull up his friend who is hanging over that precipice or Intelligence when trying to decode an ancient script. The problem with this is, that there is only one degree of difficulty, one target number the character must make. DMs can get round this by adding penalties or bonuses to rolls or target number, or by allowing more or fewer dice to be rolled etc. to simulate presumed levels of difficulty.

There is however, a pre-existing "skill vs difficulty level" system already at the core of the game. That is, the character class+level vs armour class to hit mechanism.

So, here is my (as yet un-tested) idea for using the to hit table as a skill resolution system for OD&D. It uses my philosophy of keeping the existing mechanics of OD&D to create new rules.

We use the OD&D Attack Matrix 1 and replace "Armor Class" with "Difficulty Level": 9 being relatively easy tasks and 2 being exceedingly difficult. You don't need to write out new tables, it's a concept shift only. "The 20 Sided Die Score to Hit by Level" becomes "D20 Score to succeed" and Bob's your uncle. But there's more. Unlike with the common "Make an Ability Check" hack, here, Ability Scores can make a real difference because the DM can add or subtract any bonuses and penalties the PC might have for high or low Ability scores. Here, you have two choices: you could use the -2 to +4 range given for Charisma and apply this to all of the PCs' Ability Scores or the more conservative -1 to +1 for above average (12) or below average (9)  Dexterity scores. So now if a task requires say, Strength, the player can use his Strength Abilty Score modifiers when he rolls vs Difficulty Level on our new Task Resolution table.

Furthermore, as the Attack Matrix is really three tables all in one, a DM could even judge that different classes might be better or less likely to be good at certain types of task by using a different one of the three matrices (Fighting-Man, Magic-User and Cleric). For example, a party must hastily erect a barricade before they are besieged by Orcs. The Fighter is best trained to organise this and so uses the Fighting-man Matrix. But later, our hero is required to write a letter to the Orc Prince asking for the return of prisoners. The DM might judge that his literacy skills might not be up to this, so he has to use the Magic-User Matrix to see if he is successful. Similarly, let's say a Magic-User is required to pull off some highly cerebral task. In this case the DM might consult the Fighting-Man Matrix because (as we are using a combat table) this might give an easier score to hit/succeed. Using this extra level of detail is really just replacing the different levels steps with a statement about the appropriateness of professional skills to the task in hand:

 °Skills very appropriate- use level advances like a Fighting man (steps of 3 levels),

 °Skills relatively appropriate, use the Cleric progression (steps of 4 levels), 

°Skills not at all appropriate: use the magic user level progression of steps of 5.

This is nowhere near as complicated as my poor prose might make it sound and you don't need to use all of it. Simply swapping out Armor Class for Difficulty Level and everyone uses the basic Fighters' Matrix would still work.

I'm sure I can't be the first to have done this, so if you use a better version of this idea, I'd love to hear it.