Star Rovers Part II: Character Building
(With a quick digession into game mechanics.)
Let’s jump into what these articles are all about — character creation, and discovering a game system by working through it. Much as with Space Opera, I’m turning back the clock to my earliest gaming days, forcing myself to take off misty glasses of vague recollection and confront the cold type burned into the dead trees, facing the rules as they were and judging them with the eye of a semi-competent semi-pro game designer and writer who has been gaming, now, for longer than I’d been alive at the time I originally played. Let us see… (at this point, the screen should get all wavy and fade out, but anyway…)
Some physicality. Star Rovers was a boxed game, as most were at the time, though the era of the single book, "You buy your own damn dice!" game was rapidly approaching — Villains and Vigilantes and Champions were already in the vanguard for that. I can’t find a price on the box, but that’s not atypical. I suspect it was 19.95 or so. For this presumed price, you get a rulebook of about 130 pages, held in a cheap plastic spine which could be unclipped to remove or add pages, three ring binder style. This design choice, tried again with the AD&D 2e Monster Manual, was intended to allow the addition of new "modules" as the game progressed — rules modules, not pre-fab adventures (and therein lies a tragic tale). The boxed game was "Module 1", of course. You also got maps. You got several pages of blueprints for the "Zirconium Zephyr", a generic PC-class starships, a large, scaled for 25mm figures (but not hexes or grids, despite the game relying on hexes for combat) map of "Moondog Maude’s Cantina", which included "Galactic Roulette" tables, spice racks (labeled "Salt, Pepper, Sulfur"), bathrooms for males, females, and "non-humanoids" (evidently, male, female, receiver, and nurturer Blagovaxians had to share), an out-of-order video booth (really, it says, "Out Of Order" on the map!), and many more wonderful things that tell you exactly what we of the 1980s thought the future — the kick-ass, galaxy-eating, lightsabre-fighting, totally heavy metal future — would be like. Sure, at this same time period, William Gibson was penning depressing novels about the grim dehumanization caused by technology (and we gamers would turn it into a genre where you played cyber-mercenaries who kicked 26 different kinds of ass with their built in penis mounted missile racks), but for us 16 year olds back in high school, it was all about the vrooosh (that’s a lightsaber sound effect) and the lasers (pew pew pew!). The only thing "grim" or "dark" about the future was the slavering alien hordes that would nom your face off if you didn’t shoot them first! Pew pew! Wait, where was I?
Read on to find out where I was!
Oh yeah. The contents of the box. You also got a map, to the same scale as Moondog Maudes, of the aforementioned Zirconium Zephyr. This meant you could have a big ol’ barfight in the Cantina, then run for the ship as the Imperial Dragonspawn Biomorph Whatevers were chasing you, then you could keep the fight going as they boarded the ship, then I guess you could fly off somewhere. I say "guess" because, remember how I said the game was released in "modules" and that future volumes would contain more rules? Well, wanna guess which rules weren’t in Module 1? The asteroid mining rules? No, they’re there. How about statistics for how copper weapons differ from bronze weapons? No, they’re there. A page or so rules for running trials? Nope, they’re there. What could be missing? What could be shunted to the drear pages of "Module 2", what secondary and trivial rules might there be?
How about…. space travel????
Yes, folks, all the rules for piloting, space travel, space fights, giant mutant space gophers (hey, that’s a good idea, got to write that one down), were not included. They’d be in Module 2. Which was, let me remind you all, never published. (And if anyone knows anyone involved in this project and they have any notes or other documents for what Module 2 would have been, please let them contact me!)
Nonetheless, we managed to play somehow. The box also contains some heavy cardstock rules reference sheets, a pile of photocopies of character sheets and blank starcluster maps (Oh, all the rules for randomly generating planetary systems and starclusters were there, just no rules for space travel!!!), and the timeline.
Oh. My. Dear. Cruel. And. Merciless. Gods. THE TIMELINE.
Does any browser still support the blink tag? This needs to be blinking.
I say, without fear of contradiction (mostly because being contradicted doesn’t scare me, it just pisses me off), that this timeline, a poster-sized piece of folded paper, is composed of 100% pure compressed awesome. Never before and never again has so much unadulterated cool been shoved into one simple piece of paper. The timeline reaches from Tech Level "A", the "Proto Social Age", where Power Source was "Muscle" and "Communication and Transport" consisted of "Grunts & Growls" and "Walking", all the way through endless epochs to "V", where the power source was "Entropy" and "Economic Org. & Occupations" are "Monitors Of The Starchildren". Along the way from stone knives to "Astral Combat", we learn that at Tech Level "L", the "Aquarian Age" (the tech level right after "K", the "Nuclear Age", aka 1981), we will live in "Orbital Ghettoes" and our religions will include "Scientosophy" and "Grokism". (At tech level "Q", religions include "Revival Of The Demonic Cults"). By tech level "R", government will be by "Universal Government Ipsocracies". (Ipsocracies? Is that a word? Yes, it is. It is a word (Ipsocracy) with only three Google hits, all referring to the work of deconstructionist founder Derrida. Whoa. Dude. Are you getting this? In 1981, the people who worked on this game — people who deserve far more that the obscurity to which they and this piece of pure wonder have been cast — tossed onto their Timeline Chart a term so astoundingly obscure that in the umpty-zillion petabytes of information indexed by Google, it appears only three times. In context, it seems the word was used correctly, too. I repeat: Whoa.) Anyway, that’s the timeline. I promised character creation, and we will be getting to it, soon.
But First, Some Rules
Layout and design when it comes to RPGs is very much more art than science. The problem is one which programmers often face, that of multiple dependence — You can’t talk about your Strength modifier to attack rolls if the reader doesn’t know about Strength, and you can’t talk about how a high Strength impacts attack rolls until the reader understands if a "+2" is good or bad. There’s always going to be something you’ll need to ask the reader to wait a bit on. Star Rovers leaps right into the core resolution mechanic, a tactic often used in modern games but less well known back then. Indeed, in many ways, Star Rover presaged a lot of trends from the later 1980s and even into the 1990s, while at the same time having an aesthetic and sense of style that is utterly and totally locked to the late 1970s. Anyway, Star Rovers used a Universal Chart system, years before TSR had a sudden obsession with rainbow colored tables (Marvel Superheroes, Gamma World, Indiana Jones, Conan, Star Frontiers (Zebulon’s Guide)). You added up all the positive factors on one axis, and the negative factors on another axis, and cross indexed. This gave you a "To Hit" number. You then rolled 4d5… wait, did I mention that Star Rovers used standard D6, but you read the 6 as 0, so it was a D5? Exactly what was gained, I’m not sure — 4-24 is precisely the same, mechanically, as 0-20. Maybe they wanted easy conversion to 20 sided dice? Maybe an original design was a D20 roll, and once all the charts and tables were written and printed they switched to a bell curve generated on 4d6 and didn’t want to change all the numbers? Who knows? Anyway, you got a "to hit" number. You rolled 4d5, and then you compared the number you rolled to the number you needed to roll on the CRC (Combat Results Chart, though it was used for everything, not just combat) and this gave you a letter code, from A to J, which determined how well you did.
It sounds clunkier than it played, especially given the other standards of the time, where you might have a system twice as complex as this just to resolve lockpicking, and a completely different system for gunfights, and yet another for knifefights, and so on. A single chart with one roll that determined both success and degree of success was pretty darn innovative and functional, and the universality of it was very nice. Really, a marginally competent DM could use the systems given for Firefights, Morale, Medical Skills, Intoxication, and more, and quickly figure out how to resolve almost any "Can I do this?" question which might have varying degrees of success. The numbers were a bit wonky in places, lending some credence to my idea it was designed for a flat probability and then hastily turned into a severe bell curve, but it worked. I won’t go into a lot of details on the combat and other systems, since they’re not part of this review, but I want to make a quick note on the internal layout and typography. The bulk of the text is in a proportional font, typeset, with decent enough layout for the era — remember, even something like Pagemaker was years in the future, and a 48K Apple II was the high end of personal computers. However, all of the charts and tables are computer printouts. I mean, they look like they were taken from literal computer printouts torn off a printer attached to someone’s college PDP-11 and then set into the page. They have all the signs of being produced by a low-quality daisy-wheel, including ragged and uneven "lines" formed by punctuation marks forced into a job they were never meant to do. (As a side note, the rules do not just use Random Capitals For Emphasis; they use ALL CAPS in many places, such as "The TARGET of a SHOOTER within 10% of the target’s ABSOLUTE MOVE Distance HAS INITIATIVE". You can almost hear the frustrated GM pounding on the table as he tries to get his dimwitted players to understand the rules. "Look, you idiots. I’m going to say this once more, so we can finish up the damn barfight and run for the ship! The TARGET, that this guy, here, with the knife, of a SHOOTER, that’s you, moron, you’ve got the gun, within 10% of the target’s ABSOLUTE MOVE DISTANCE, which he is, he’s like 1/2" from you and his move distance is 12, HAS INITIATIVE. He can stab you before you shoot him, do you get it now?"
Alright, this time, for sure! Character Creation!
Character Creation. Really.
Blah blah PCs and NPCs blah blah Aliens!
OK, there’s "24 types of aliens". You may foolishly think this means "Cat people, Dog people, Lizard people, Hamster people…", but you’d be wrong! The 24 types are listed way in the back, and are extremely broad categories. "Humanoid", for example, includes all basically human-seeming aliens, including those with exotic blood chemistry, i.e, Vulcans. All of your furries fall into "Mammalian". Weird-ass four-armed or green-skinned humanoids are "Spectroids". Reptile, plant, and fungus people fall into the "Class II Life Forms", and by the time you get to "Class IV Life Forms", you have "Ergoids" (energy beings) and "Lithoids" (beings based on lithium, iron, or copper… non-robotic metal men), and "Exotic", just in case you couldn’t fit your idea into the 23 previous categories, which includ viroids, bemoid, and ameboid, among others.
"Well, cool, I guess I’ll play a cat person, that’s a mammaloid! What do I do?"
And here, folks, is where the rules collapse again into a black hole (or, in this game, probably a Blue Hole or a Red Hole or something, though I’ll get to cosmology later, maybe). You see, one very key point to the rules is the Alien Variability Index, or AVI. This poorly-explained but often-recurring concept seems to be a rating of how species relate to each other in terms of their stats. OK, let me explain. One way to have a very strong or very weak race is to have "+3 to Strength". Star Rovers seems to want everyone to have the same range (3-18, basically, though it is actually 0-20) for stats, but also have a lot of aliens. So you have "AVI", which factors into the Universal Chart in several ways. Thus, humans have an AVI of "G" for Strength. A very strong race might have… uh… I have no idea, because nothing anywhere gives the scale, or gives stats for any sample races, or even gives human AVIs for anything other than Strength, Constitution, and Dexterity! You’re left on your own to decide if a diference of 2 or 3 AVI is trivial or astounding, and since the game avoids the "Human Standard" of "All humans have an AVI of "K" in all stats", or whatever, you can’t even reasonably decide what the human AVI might be for Rationality, Qualities, or Scruples. (Yes, those are stats.) It’s a great concept, again, something way ahead of its time, but it’s not developed or explained. And since it’s so important, either the GM makes up a bunch of rules for it, or he has only human PCs.
Well, fine, we’ll roll up a human. Foo.
You have 12 attributes, which…
Huh? Speak up there. You in the back… yes? Yes, that’s right. I said 12. You know, the number between 11 and 13? A dozen? Yes. 12. So you have 12 attributes, which..
No, none of them are calculated or derived or the like. You have 12 base attributes, and each is divided into 3 elements, so that…
Yes, 3 elements. So this is 36 attributes, really, except that sometimes you want just an element and sometimes the whole attribute, so, for game purposes, you’ve really got 48 attributes.
Oh, do stop weeping into your copy of "My Life With Master" and toss that "Sorceror" out the window. We mastered this when we were 16! The Forge cannot save you! Where is your Ron Edwards now?
You know, this deserves its own page.
Attributes. All 48 Of Them.
OK, here’s how it works. You’ve got 4 groups of attributes.. Physical, Mental, Emotional, and Social. Star Rovers notes that you need only the first group for a "Skirmish Wargame", adding the second group brings you into "Roleplaying", the third group allows for "Improvisational Theater" and adding in Social allows for "Simulation". Star Rovers laughs at your pretentious assumptions you don’t "need" attributes for character traits or roleplaying. Laughs long and hard, with insulting gestures! Fools! You foolish fools!
Seriously, folks, White Wolf and its "Humanity Score" is a decade in the future, and the pinnacle of mechanics-linked morality in this era was arguments over whether or not a paladin loses his paladinity if he humps a (willing) tavern wench. Again, Star Rovers really was ahead of its time in many ways. I won’t claim that no other game of the era had these mechanics, but it seems to be there was a density of innovation here, a confluence of ideas which didn’t become accepted or mainstream until much later. It’s like the Difference Engine of role playing games — it had all the parts of a much more modern game, but they existed in an incomplete state, never to be fully assembled or functional.
OK, the "gazillion attributes" thing, that was the other extreme, the last gasp of a trend from the 1970s.
So, four attribute groups, three attributes each. You roll 3d6 for each attribute and… no, you don’t. You start with a "1" in each attribute and then roll 1d5 and add it, which is exactly the same as rolling 3d6, except that we use D5. I have to give them some props here… having decided to use the "D5" concept, they do it consistently, not having half the rules be 1D6 and the other 1D5. If they need a 1-6 result, you roll 1d5+1. That’s just how we roll in Star Rovers!
Each D5 you roll for a given attribute determines the value of one element. This is why it’s so cool they included multicolored dice. Roll a brown die for the first attribute, a green for the second, a red for the third. There you go!
The attributes, with elements, are:
(Length, Build, Fitness)
(Memory, Logic, Curiosity)
(Fortitude, Will, Daring)
(Appearance, Eloquence, Magnetism)
(Health, Endurance, Vitality)
(Luck, Imagination, Awareness)
(Mercy, Amnesty, Tolerance)
(Loyalty, Beliefs, Honesty)
(Knack, Agility, Speed)
(Insight, Instinct, Synthesis)
(Outlook, Humor, Patience)
(Ambition, Pride, Selfness)
But wait, there’s more!
You don’t just roll a number for each element… each possible value, from 0 to 7 (there are modifiers to the 1d5 roll, which we will get to later), has a descriptive word! If your Amnesty is 3, you are Grudging; if your Luck is 2, you are Ill-Fated; if your Strength is 7, you are Heroic. I will not type in all the terms; just let it be said someone wore out their thesaurus on this chart.
OK, we’re actually at the point where I have to start rolling, and this is a good break. Tune in for Part III… whenever I get around to it.