Stellar Warriors Update

Stellar Warriors Update

I’ve mentioned, several times, my desire to an over-the-top sci-fi game inspired by late 70s/early 80s tropes in both game design and science fiction (and by “science fiction”, I mean, the pulp space opera, movies, and TV shows of the era and earlier, not the actual quality SF that dealt with meaningful themes of the era. We’re talking sci-fi, not SF.) I’ve been waffling badly on this, with a lot of initial design steps petering out. Going to far in the purely old-school mechanics, limiting myself to things like AD&D 1e as the defining point, bored me as a designer… if I found AD&D too limiting as a player back then, why embrace those limits? My attempt to do it as a full-fledged Pathfinder game got a bit further, but I felt I was spending too much time mimicing Paizo’s style and dealing with an accumulated body of rules that all had to be edited to fit my desire, with the risk of losing compatibility with each edit and the problem of balancing my content with the rest of the game. Finally, when rereading my collection of Knights Of The Dinner Table, it suddenly hit me I was looking in the wrong place for system inspiration. I’ve often praised Hackmaster 4e as the kind of old-school game that captured the spirit of old-school as I remembered it. Even stripped of the purely parodic/silly elements, the core of the game embodies the attitude that spells “old school” to me, the kind of exuberant, unapologetic, energy and enthusiasm that the best old school books have, and it makes no bones about complex mechanics — it has them and loves them and expects you to be smart enough to decide which to use and which are too much bother, and as for game balance… whatever. Good enough is good enough.

So I realized I don’t want to write, per se, AD&D in Space, or Pathfinder in Space… I want to write Spacehack, or something close to it. I want to capture the kind of universe implied, but never clearly defined, in Star Rovers and the Arduin miniatures line.  I want to pull from the same kind of influences that produced Encounter Critical, but not as a parody. I also realized I want elements of the first edition of Warhammer 40K, before it started taking itself too seriously — space dwarves and space elves and space vampires. I want bounty hunters and space ninjas.  I want it all… and I want it wrapped in a system that’s actually playable and that satisfies the things I look for in a game, as a player and as a GM.

At this point in the very mercurial development process, it looks a lot like AD&D 1e after going through a radioactive blender. We’ve got descending armor class (-10 is better than 2, and a +2 bonus to your AC lowers your AC by 2), attack charts cross-indexing level and AC (what the hell’s a thayko, anyway?) using a roll-under D20 mechanic, roll-over saving throws, and a skill system shamelessly borrowed from Hackmaster (in terms of some mechanical ideas, no text is copied and the actual implementation differs in many ways, let’s be clear here).

Some of the mechanics are deliberately more obtuse, contradictory, or idiosyncratic than they need to be… that’s  a big part of the spirit of the era. Percentile systems, roll-under systems, roll-over systems… I’ve got ‘em all. My hope is that the different types of mechanics will be siloed enough that you won’t actually have trouble figuring out what to use in play or how to resolve any situation the rules don’t explicitly cover.

I’ve also finally got the tone right, the authorial voice. If anyone thought Earth Delta was written with a bit too much snark… well, I’ve got the ghost of Gary Gygax whispering in one ear, Gary at his most authoritative and belligerent, the early Gary of the AD&D 1e DMG and the fire-spewing editorials in The Dragon, and David Hargrave whispering in the other ear. (The fact my writing in no way compares to theirs in quality and imagination is best attributed to poor communication from the spirit world, and it should be considered no failure of their talents that I am a poor, poor, copy of the departed masters.)

Here’s a sample… this may end up highly changed as the editing process continues, and certainly the raw mechanics will be tweaked a lot, but I simply like the tone of it all:

If you roll a natural 20 (that is, the number “20” is the number showing. Does this really need to be explained to you?), you have scored a critical hit if the modified roll would have hit the target’s Armor Class (so if you needed a 24 to hit, and you had total bonuses of +5, so your modified roll was 25, then, this is a critical hit). If the modified roll would have missed (say, you needed a 30 to hit his AC), then a natural 20 is just a normal, run of the mill hit, and, by the way, if you’re missing when you roll a freakin’ 20, this means that the guy you’re fighting is way out of your league, or you’re a blind epileptic diplomat using a weapon you have no proficiency with, or both. Run, you idiot! Where was I?

Oh yeah, Critical Hits.

Your basic, run of the mill critical hit is a Grade A critical. For every 3 points by which your modified roll exceeds the number needed to hit, the critical improves one Grade, so if you needed a 15 to hit and your modified roll was a 26, you scored a Grade E critical! (There are some things which can reduce a critical grade; a critical reduced below Grade A is Grade 0 (that’s “Zero”, not “O”). Grade 0 criticals are kind of “Participation Ribbon” criticals. You showed up, so you get a token to soothe your fragile little ego. Anything reduced below Grade 0 isn’t even a critical, it’s just an average hit. Better luck next time.

The critical chart is nothing more than a shadow of an idea at this point; it’s going to be a bear to complete, because I ultimately want different weapon types to have different critical effects, ideally with Rolemaster-esque flavor text.

The biggest design issue I have now is that I want a fairly rich set of skills, proficiencies, and talents which players can choose as they level up, but I also want a strong class system, and deciding what kind of things should be class-specific and which should be accessible to anyone who wants to spend the Customization Points on them is not always self-evident.

I’m also trying to decide if I want racial level limits. Limiting classes and levels by race has a great ability to add flavor to a race and to avoid some kinds of munchkinism, but it can also be a real game-killer if the campaign goes on too long. Multiclassing is another issue I’m playing with; I’m likely to part with tradition and let humans multiclass.

As with all my projects, this may go on to semi-completion, or it may be abandoned from this moment forward.

2 thoughts on “Stellar Warriors Update

  1. VictorVonDave

    Cool, early 40k influence is always great. I never played, but the early imagery and fluff had me buying White Dwarf and Rogue Trader minis anyway. Just take a look on ebay and you’ll see the demand for squat minis is still crazily high (so much so that independent mini companies are making their own versions of them now).

    The critical system sounds sweet, especially if there’s a different table for the different weapon types. You could have some real crazy fun there – punching laser holes in people and reducing them to piles of radioactive ash.

    I’ve never really liked level limits as a balancer (the downside is usually avoided by retiring the character or getting everyone to start again), but that’s just me.

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  2. Lizard Post author

    Hence my ambivalence on racial level limits. They’re a poor balancer, because they tend to be ignored if the game lasts long enough for them to come into effect, and if the game DOESN’T last that long, they don’t balance at all — kind of like getting the GURPS “Short Lifespan” disad for a game at a convention that will only cover a few hours of in-game time. :)

    What they do accomplish is helping to make races more distinct and to make racial choice more meaningful, as well as adding some more implied flavor to the world. I’m still juggling a lot of ideas in my head on this, but it might work well just as boolean — a race can be a member of a given class, or not. No level limits. Another idea is an XP penalty: No level limits, no class limits, but if you’re of a race not physically or mentally suited to a class (Wookie Ninja!), you suffer an XP hit.

    Of course, sticking with rules I know are broken, but which were common design elements anyway during the era I’m focusing on, is part of the fun. :) Finding that balance point between “quirky” and “unplayable” is always tricky.

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