Star Rovers, Encore
Well, here we are. Barring a response, or libel suit, from Mr. Stocken, this will most likely be my final Star Rovers article. (There’s a temptation to begin producing new material for a game out of print for almost 30 years, surely the ultimate in both retro-gaming and quixotic gestures, but I will finish Earth Delta before embarking on any other large undertaking. I will, I will, I will. (Beta 1 is in heavy, active, "I was editing it last night and will be playtesting it tonight" development. Really. This is not going to be one of those projects where I post annual messages declaring I’ll be getting back to work on it soon.))
Anyway, while the focus of the "Characters From A Thousand Games" section is supposed to be solely character creation, with other game systems looked at as needed, I’m going a bit beyond the scope with this look at the cosmology of Star Rovers, because a world in which more people know about hyperspace trenches and rainbow holes is a better world.
After the break, yadda yadda. There’s also a picture. You like pictures, right?
Space, But No Space Travel
"Stellazon" Space Pirates, Lizard Men, Death Stars… Why This Game Wasn’t a Smash Hit, I Will Never Understand
Chapter, or section, or something, 7 of "Star Rovers" is a colossal tease. You know? Like that one chick, she always wore these little miniskirts and would be all friendly to you, but you never actually got anywhere, but she never just turned you down and said "No"? No? Well, fine, you had more luck in High School than I did. Then I joined the SCA. Mmm…. armed women in bodices… wait, what was I talking about? Oh yeah, Chapter 7. (A quick digression (Hah!) on chapters in Star Rovers. The chapters are numbered in "computer style", or perhaps what the designers thought was "computer style", or, more likely, in the style of the chit-and-hexmap wargames of the era, thus, you have page 7.01, then 7.02, and so on. This is not particularly odd or noteworthy; what’s slightly annoying is that there’s no chapter titles or clear breaks. Things flow into each other and the relationship of the bits of information within a chapter is often unclear, and by "often unclear", I mean, "what the frak?". I’ve already discussed the long and arduous quest to find character skill listings after being introduced to the class names and functions. Chapter 7 begins with "Generating Star Clusters", proceeds cleanly and logically to individual star systems and planets, and then goes into rules for criminal trials. To be fair, this seems to follow after the rules for planetary governments, so there’s a chain of logic there, but it seems odd just the same.)
This Is Not Carl Sagan’s Cosmos
Well, perhaps it is, as he always struck me as a bit of a damn hippie and probably did some of that marry-gee-wanna. To put some things into perspective, at this point in Gaming History, Traveller was churning out worlds according to a series of mathematical formulas that produced results like "B-657-58A-B", and the scary thing is, give me ten minutes and I’ll make that into an interesting world to adventure in. Space Opera, which couldn’t decide if it wanted to be crunchy-hard SF or squishy woo-woo Space Fantasy, offered us 3-d spacemaps with trig functions to figure out the distance between them and an endless series of mostly uninhabitable worlds, because that was "realistic". In the very near future, Other Suns would have an even more boring system of generating worlds (and about 400 character races, most of which were designed to appeal to Furries), and FTL 2448 offered yet more lessons in detailed stellar physics. You might be seeing a pattern here. Much as the entire early wave of fantasy RPGs made some design choices purely because "That’s how D&D did it", most space-travel focused science fiction games offered a random star system generation system which was at least vaguely "scientific", because Traveller did, and many decided to trump Traveller by offering "realistic" probabilities for habitable worlds (based on, you know, all the habitable worlds which had been found in 1981), which meant a DM could wear out his dice hand before generating a random system which contained anything other than barren rocks.
I’d love to say Star Rovers completely upended this paradigm, but it was very much a product of its time…. sort of. It took the Traveller-esque concepts which most games tended to use and created something a bit unique and much more interesting. A design team which tosses out terms like "Ipsocracy" isn’t likely to be ignorant of basic science, but they also knew when science had to stop and sheer wacky gonzoness had to start. The universe implied by the star cluster generation rules would be a great one to explore, if only, you know, there were any rules for space travel in the game. No, I won’t let it drop. Yes, I’m bitter.
(It’s worth noting that the rules recommend beginning with a single planetary system at Tech Level "M" (no FTL drive) and then "expanding" into the "Star Roving ages" (Tech Level "N") after you’re comfortable with the rules. Presumably, the plan was to get "Module II" out the door before most players exhausted the possibilities of a single system. (Never mind there were no rules for in-system travel, either. ))
Star Rovers divides the universe into star clusters, which are hexagonal shaped regions of space. Yes, space is 2-D. It’s that way in Traveller. And why not? 3-D spacemaps are more "realistic", but applying the Pythagorean Theorem isn’t a fun way to spend game time and it’s very hard for humans to look at a 2-D map with 3-D coordinates and easily see borders and boundaries, and that’s what maps are good for. You need to know where the Empire ends and the Federation begins. You need contested regions of space to fight over, you need horrible voids that no ship can cross, you need easy trade routes and difficult ones.
Star Cluster maps are divided into 6 "subsectors", each containing 36 hexes, and a central hex, for a total of 217 1-parsec wide hexes. Each cluster (or sector) is determined to be either Imperial, Free, or Open, and this determines how many "elements" each subsectort contains (random roll, duh). "Elements", you ask? Yes, and here’s where things begin to spin weirdly…
An "element" is a star system, top… wait, let me do this right. STAR SYSTEM, TOPOGRAPHICAL OBSTACLE, or HYPERSPACE ENTRY POINT. To generate your star cluster, first, you determine the elements in a subsector, then you, and I am quoting the rules here, "(gather) as many 6 sided dice as you have on hand and (roll) them all at once". You then apply each die to the "SCM", or "Star Cluster Mapping Matrix", with the first die determining the type of element, the next one being used to determine a sub-type, and so on. Here, let me show you.
Ok, I rolled "3,2,2,5,1".
My first element is a "Topography Obstacle". Good. This is one of the bits of High Weirdness.
The roll of "2" tells me that it’s a Trench. This entry is marked with a "*", so I also check for system presence. The roll of "2" indicates no system.
At this point, you’re wondering, "Wait, what? A trench? In outer space?"
Oh my, yes.
Here’s the thing. The universe of Star Rovers is filled with "space topography". Apparently, hyperspace contains ridges which block travel in specific directions, forming "walls" in space, and two parallel ridges form a "trench". If there were space travel rules, one presumes, such obstacles force you to fly around them, or, in the case of a trench, through it. This can provide some interesting possibilities. A star system might be adjacent to another one in terms of hex position, but a "ridge" between them could cause travel to take 4 or 5 hexes, depending on direction. Since the blocks are one way, you could go from "A" to "B" in one hex of movement, but it might take 4 hexes to go from "B" to "A".
Space Is Warped, And So Am I
In addition to ridges, trenches, and pockets, there are also "Hyperspace entry points", which are "shortcuts" through hyperspace. Stargates, if you will, where you travel multiple hexes with a single "jaunt", to use a term mentioned several times in the rules but never, you know, actually explained. Warps can sometimes fold back on themselves, so that the entry and exit point are in the same system. Apparently you’re supposed to trick players into wasting fuel going into these things, or maybe there’s some random roll to be sucked into a warp point. I don’t know. Anyway, the descriptive text seems to imply that "warps" or "wormholes" are only found once you’re in hyperspace, so you dive into one hoping it will take you somewhere cool.
There’s also Black Holes and White Holes, which connect star clusters. Then there’s Legrangian Points, which form the "Sargasso Seas Of Space", which are also called "synchrondibulum" since you can reach any point in time and space from them, on the "rare occasions" that "escape is possible".
Then we start getting to the really good stuff. A Rift is a tear in time and space which leads to uncharted regions known as the "Cosmic Wastes" and to a Parallel Universe. (Does this mean the Cosmic Wastes are a parallel universe? Or that a rift leads to one or the other? Or what?) "Alternity Warps" are similar to Rifts, but lead to "a new Reality", which is different from a Parallel Universe how, exactly?
Godstars are sentient stars, which are treated, and I quote "in greater detail elsewhere in the rules" (No, they’re NOT!) and in the "Aliens and Artifacts" module — the first, last, and only mention of this "module", which might have been the name for Module II, or even a hypothetical third module.
I really need to wrap this up, so I’ll sort of blorp ahead and take a quick look at the star system generation rules, since, after all, most of your adventures will take place on planets. A good deal of it is boilerplate — roll for sun size and type (Green Stars, by the way, produce psychic powers — green dwarfs produce psychokinetics while main sequence green stars produce telepathy. I just thought you should know. Oh, creatures born under white giants are allergic to red, orange, or yellow stars, but not to green or blue stars.)
Really! It says that! Page 7.01! (I strongly suspect these are references to SF books I haven’t read.)
Anyway, planetary systems are generated by determining orbits, than rolling on a chart, with the results weighted towards rocky inner planets and gaseous or frozen outer planets, as we used to think star systems looked like. (We now know that most star systems are just plain weird and ours seems atypical.) For each system, there’s also a 1-in-36 chance (0 on 2d5) of having a "special planet", which ranges from a "space colony" or "scientific station" (not really sure why they’re special, it seems there’d be plenty of both in most systems) to Dyson Spheres, Ringworlds, Sentient Planet(!), Well World (never explained or defined, I guess if you haven’t read Jack Chalker, you’re SOL), and more. There’s something wonderfully charming about just randomly tossing a ringworld into a system. "Well, sure, it’s a massive construct of near-godlike beings with a suface area of 3 million earths, but this adventure takes place on the fourth planet in the system, which is a barren chunk of rock inhabited by space fungi and… hey! Stop flying to the ringworld! I haven’t finished mapping it yet!"
There’s lots of other little gems scattered through the otherwise relatively straightforward, if exhaustively random, rules. Racial types use the very broad categories noted in the first article, and there’s also a chance of "subdominant" races, which doesn’t mean they enjoy leather and bondage (although, who knows?). Just tossing some dice and assuming an Earthlike world oribiting a main sequence yellow star, I got "Mammalian" life with a tech level of "L" (basically, what everyone in 1981 thought we’d have by 2050 or so), with a different mammalian species as sub-dominant, but both species are equal. Fine, this is a world with badger-people and, oh, I dunno, giraffe-people, but they get along.
If you really want, you can map the planet down to the individual hexagon level. Obviously, you’d do this only if the players will be spending a lot of time on the planet. If, for example, they couldn’t get off it since there were no rules for spaceships. You know, if. For example.
And In Conclusion…
Well, that took a lot longer than I’d planned… I mean, this whole series, not just this little coda (though it, too, took longer than expected). What can I say? "Star Rovers" shares with the original Arduin books an incredible density of ideas, made possible by never actually explaining much of them in depth. Terms, words, locations, concepts are all flung onto the page and then never heard from again. You’re left to ponder the meaning, or make up your own. The rules were a spur to imagination, not a set of limits upon it. The nadir of roleplaying (in my opinion), the 1990s, was the age of the Metaplot, of deeply detailed settings that mapped out every square foot, and that reduced PCs to bit players who walked in the shadow of "canon" NPCs that got to have world changing adventures (in novels), while the DM was reduced to being an automaton who read from boxed text and didn’t dare let his players accomplish anything meaningful since it might mean the next supplement would be useless.
Coming up, when I get around to it… not sure. I’ve been looking at "Agone", a beautifully printed and illustrated book that may or may not have a cool game inside it, the original "Chivalry And Sorcery", though I’ll need new glasses to read it, or the ultra-obscure "Midnight At The Well Of Souls" RPG, one of the few games where you can play sentient asparagus and be one of the more normal characters.