Tag Archives: 1982

Droids

Look Sir! Droids!

Another Ancient Game You Probably Saw Advertised In The Dragon

But Which I Somehow Acquired. No Idea When Or How.

With This Exciting Action Scene On The Cover, How Could Customers Resist?

With This Exciting Action Scene On The Cover, How Could Customers Resist?

It is a little-known fact that FASA’s famous “BattleTech” game was originally released as “Battledroids“, until they got a letter from a certain director reading, in part, “Yousa be a violatin mesa’s trademark on droidsa! Yousa be changin thats quick or bombad lawyers gonna sue you maxibig!” The company assumed the odd phrasing was legalese and did not realize they were privy to a glimpse into the dark future of what was currently a beloved movie franchise, so “Battledroids” became “BattleTech”, and the rest is history.

The game I am discussing, called simply “Droids”, was published two years earlier (in 1982) and never attracted Mr. Lucas’ wrath, as far as I know. Really, the entire preceding paragraph is mostly irrelevant, I just wanted to a)verify that I did, indeed, remember seeing a game called “Battledroids” at the Compleat Strategist in NYC way back when, and, b)Get in some decades-late digs at Jar Jar. (But does Rogue One look awesome, or what? Anyway…)

“What Mission? What Are You Babbling About?”

The basic premise of Droids is that the PCs are droids, a naming convention to be adopted by White Wolf a decade or so later. There are no humans, animals, or other life forms to interact with. It’s droids all the way down.

“I’m Only A Droid, I’m Not Much Good At Telling Stories”

Droids May Be The First Sci-Fi Work To Predict The "Selfie"

Droids May Be The First Sci-Fi Work To Predict The “Selfie”

In the very earliest days of RPGs, the first 2-3 years of their existence, there was a point where the line between “skirmish wargame” and “RPG” was much blurrier than it is now. We, as humans, like to fit things in boxes, to categorize, define, name, and limit, enabling us to mentally manipulate complex clouds of concepts as if they had a single handle we could grab onto. “En Garde” by Game Designer’s Workshop (I think they went on to do some kind of space game) was one example. TSR’s “Warriors Of Mars” was another.

Droids, nearly a decade after D&D’s release, and marketed as an RPG, has some aspects of this. Despite it requiring a Referee and including a “Sample of Play” in typical style, the book consists almost entirely of rules for combat and for creating droids to engage in combat. There’s about a page of material suggesting there might be organized Droid societies, but it’s very sparse. The game provides content for the very core of RPGs: Go somewhere, kill things, take their stuff, but is sparse on the “kill things”. There’s three generic sample NPC droids, and two more in the scenario provided (“raid the abandoned army base”). The “stuff” includes a small list of items not available at character creation, from vacuum cleaner attachments to movie projectors, but it is diverse enough to offer some inspiration for additional goodies.

A post-human world inhabited entirely by abandoned artificial intelligences is a fine setting for adventure, but all the work in bringing this to life, including any mechanics for anything other than combat, would be to the referee.

So What’s In The Book?

A lot of charts, tables, and descriptions of various weapons, power plants, mobility mechanisms, and armor, along with rules for using all of these things, a short scenario, and an appendix with summarized charts.

Look, it’s 1982! This is pretty much what you got!

Also contained: A layout completely reminiscent of Traveller. I’d say they borrowed the same Adobe templates, but this is 1982, and “Adobe templates” back then meant “plans for building homes in the southwest”.

Let’s Get On With It

There’s not any kind of list of archetypes or “typical” droids, or a real sense of what you’re going to do besides “explore ruins, scavenge parts”. The advice on building a droid actually steers you away from archetypes, encouraging you to build well-balanced units. Not bad advice, at all, but RPGs tend to work best when there’s a team of characters with mixed strengths and weaknesses. More relevant for this article, I need an idea, stat.

Somewhere in flipping through it, I saw there were options for gasbags. The idea of a blimpdroid appeals to me greatly. Perhaps it was created originally as a silent spy, able to drift into enemy territory with a minimal signature. It should have some self-defense capacity to take out attackers, and ideally a backup ground-based movement system. In the campaign setting, it would work as a scout/spy, locating places to forage, relying on better armed- and armored- allies to do most of the killing once it brought back the intelligence, but not helpless in a fight.

Can I build it? Let’s see.

I have 20 CP to start with. CP are “Construction Points”, of course. Seriously, you need to be told that? Wow, my imaginary readers are dim.

“PC” is the measure of whether I continue to internalize my oppression by using the human supremacist term “droid”, or if I refer to myself as a post-organic ferro-American. Or, it’s “Power Consumption”, the measure of how much power each of my components eats. Well, why can’t it be both, huh? Don’t force me into your binary categories!

“BP”, or “Bulk Points”, sort of combine hit points and volume on a unit-by-unit basis.

Based on the character sheet provided, I’m going to need a spreadsheet to keep track of things. Damn, it’s been a while since I fired up Excel for RPG purposes. Getting a bit giddy, here.

Transport

The first thing I’m asked to spend CP on is transport. There’s a lot of choices, but keeping with my character concept, I’m starting with “Propelled Balloon”. The rules are fairly detailed, including time to inflate or deflate and how far you can fall while it fills. (800 meters, so, it’s pretty much useless if you fall from anything smaller than the Empire State Building.) I’m also taking wheels for my ground transport.

Note that each transport unit can support 100 BP, and different types of transport units can’t be combined. So, if I go over 100 BP, I will need more wheels and balloons.

Manipulation

Not the ability to bribe, blackmail, or intimidate, but rather, arms. There’s only three: Repair, Maintenance, and Lifting. Not sure what the future looks like in terms of BP, PC, CP, etcP, so for now, I’m going for a single Maintenance arm, which can do a little repair and a little lifting.

(You may notice the system does not assume a humanoid default. The droids produced by this game will resemble real-world robots much more than space opera ones. You can probably build a humanoid, but it’s not a baseline and there’s no indication non-humanoid droids suffer any notable disadvantage in terms of interacting with the world.)

I… Have… The… POWER!

OK, right era, wrong genre.

Power units have a negative PC… in essence, they reduce your total power consumption by a certain amount. Power plants are the best (most expensive) and can be overloaded at a risk of explosion. Solar cells are tempting, but I plan to operate at night. (I could combine them with a rechargeable battery, I suppose…) Nah. Going with standard power cells.

Power can be allocated to units on as-needed basis. Assuming I may need to move and pick things up at the same time, I will need 4 units of power, minimum. So that’s 4 cells, which will cost me 4 points. Hmm. Let’s kick that up to 7, to allow for what I suspect weapons and sensors will cost. Or, for 5, I could get a power plant. Hm. Power cells are 4 BP each, while a plant is 9, total. This means, in theory, I can lose a few cells and still have some operating power, but a plant is putting all my eggs in one fusion-powered basket. Hm. Let’s go for plant. If I have CP left over, I might get a cell or a battery for backup.

Coin Detected In Pocket

Or, sensors. For vision, I am going with the most expensive, the tri-camera, which also gives me ranger-like tracking capability. It fits my character concept.

CP are starting to get low. I will skimp on the other sensors, going for the most basic sound and communications gear.

Module DR-1: Kill All Humans

Modules are basically programs. You buy an interface, which, I think, determines how many module you can load at once? Or something? The combat modules are insanely expensive — 10 CP for the lowest-level one. The others ain’t much better. I’ll just pick up an M1 Interface for now, in the hopes of finding a data module later on.

Phased Plasma Rifle In The 40 Watt Range

It Costs How Much?

How About A Pointed Stick?

Seriously, the cheapest weapon is 4 CP. I’ve got like 2.1 left. Time to make some adjustments.

Let’s drop the wheels and go for legs. That frees up just enough CP for an energy cannon and a single 10-shot power pack. Hey, that’s 10 times more attacks than a first level magic user gets!

Other Accessories Sold Seperately

I can’t afford armor, ECM gear, or a spotlight. Sigh.

The Naming Of Names

Well, what should I call it? The game explicitly offers an eclectic naming scheme, noting a droid could be named anything from a string of letters and numbers to a computer or industrial themed name. While it’s a year or two late, relative to the publication date, I will go with LASERBEAK for my character.

LASERBEAK’s greatest weakness, mechanically, is its lack of armor. The guidelines caution against this, but something’s got to give. Hopefully, it can stay out of danger until it can scavenge some. It also has only enough power for 10 shots; an additional power supply is needed.

Here’s the final character summary. It seems appropriate I mostly just needed to copy over part of my Excel sheet…

LASERBEAK. It Seems Appropriate This Game's Character Sheet Is An Excel Screenshot

LASERBEAK. It Seems Appropriate This Game’s Character Sheet Is An Excel Screenshot

Other Thoughts

  • I can’t find any limits on attaching new units. There’s rules on how long it will take, based on bulk, but apparently you can stick anything on you that you wish, limited by bulk relative to your movement capacity.
  • There’s rules for robots, which are non-self-aware machines. They are otherwise like droids.
  • There are also some rules for “experimental” devices which have assorted amusing defects.
  • I would have included rules for droids themselves to have various flaws (especially lingering psychological quirks from their programming), in order to gain bonus CP. The 20 points at chargen is very limiting. Of course, I started off with an expensive concept. Downgrading my camera would have given me enough CP for armor.
  • You’ll note there are no attributes, per se. “Strength” is determined by how much your manipulators can lift, in BP. Beyond that, there’s nothing. All droids are equally agile, intelligent, or charismatic. Constitution? You either have power enough to move, or, you don’t.
  • Indicating the era, the communication options are limited to, in essence, voice. There’s radio and light (blinking lights, which, in the rules, goes v…e…r…y s…l…o…w…l…y), but these just transmit your “voice”. No wifi. While it makes sense a post-apocalyptic setting doesn’t have a lot of internet, you can imagine that some intact buildings would still have an intranet, and any droid civilization would be strongly interconnected.
  • Likewise, no viruses or malware to infect you.
  • While the lack of more cyberpunky tropes is not surprising — Neuromancer is two years in the future! — what does surprise me is the lack of melee weapons! It’s a post apocalyptic wasteland where the droids must survive as best they can… no chainsaws? No tasers, even? Perhaps they were planned for the promised, but never materialized (as far as I know) supplements.
  • As is typical of the era and the design, the low-illustration, high-density text conceals many rules and asides that would, in later years, be more clearly called out. Several paragraphs of this bemoaning the lack of thus-and-such rule, with must sarcasm, had to be culled as I stumbled over a good-enough mention of the “missing” information buried in the tenth sentence of a 20 sentence block of text.
  • Overall, the writing is clean, functional, and clear. It’s not plagued by typos, spelling, and grammatical errors.

That last item sort of sums up my thoughts on the game, and perhaps why it did not ignite any kind of spark that I know of. “Functional” is the watchword of Droids. It offers some tools for a unique (at the time) setting, a post-human post-apocalypse, but does very little to inspire. The text describing the various options is perfectly adequate, and that’s it. The art is decent, but it’s all static images of various droids with no background or action going on. The sample of play consists of Player One and Player Two talking to Referee and… looking at things. Shining lights. Examining a hole in a fence. Yay.

So, that’s Droids. Tune in next time, when I look at… I have no idea. I’ll poke around the bookcases until something catches my eye.

For More Reading…

If you like the idea of AIs in a post-apocalyptic (but not post-human) world, you might enjoy this….

Alma Mater, Sophomore Year

Alma Mater, Sophomore Year

The Return of Biff Muntz

As you may recall, far longer ago than I’d like, I posted Part I of this review and walkthrough,  in which I began generating a character for the RPG “Alma Mater”, published in 1982 by Oracle Games, and best known for its Erol Otus art and serious political incorrectness. Today, we continue with the process of character generation. I had just named my character Biff Muntz, and we were about to see if he had any skills with which he could pay the bills… or, being a bully, get the money to pay the bills from someone else.

As a “Tough”, Biff begins with Dirty Fighting, Driving, Drinking or Drug Use, Intimidation, and any one other skill. Well, first, we’ll go with “Drinking”. Skills in Alma Mater come in levels, and if you have a skill, you start at Level 1 (all other skills begin at level 0). For each level in Drinking, Biff can add (or, optionally, subtract) 1 from his Con when drinking. This also gives me a chance to spike someone’s drink without them knowing about it (a bonus of +1 against their Intelligence, so, 1d10+1 against my target’s Int. Hopefully, Cheerleaders have a low Int.) The more drunk I get, the more my skill in drinking increases; this is one reason to use the skill to lower your effective Con… it makes you get drunk faster and thus get more SP to drink.

There’s a lot of good options for other skills, many of which fit with Biff’s personality: Brewing (to make your own hooch), Illegal Economics (buying and selling illegal items), Coolness (to not show fear), Crudeness (as exemplified by the late, great, John Belushi in Animal House, this is the ability to be so disgusting people are actually revulsed… you know, a College version of AM would be pretty easy to create, especially one which focused on the classic “boobs and beers” films of the late 1970s/early 1980s. Revenge Of The Nerds: The RPG!. But I digress.), Lying, Weapons Knowledge, Forgery… this is a great skill list! But I get to pick one, and only one… hmm…

It’s interesting. Since most of your skills are pre-selected, this choice really matters; it’s one of the most defining elements of your character. To drift even more off-topic for a moment, I believe that whatever aspects of your character really matter ought to have mechanical representation. There’s some who say this is the antithesis of role playing; I disagree completely. If your character is shy, or flirtatious, or drinks heavily, or likes to ride motorcycles, or whatever, there ought to be a codified representation of it in the rules set. So, with that in mind, and looking at the skills, I think Biff is going to pick Coolness for his free skill. Why? Because the higher your Coolness, the better you are at picking up girls. At Level 2 Coolness, for example, you don’t need to roll to ask someone for a date. Biff is starting at level 1, of course, so he’ll need to roll his Courage (CR) to ask a chick out. His CR is 9 and he’ll get a +1 from this skill.

Learning new skills is hard. First, you can only have a maximum of 8 skills. Second, you can’t just gain skills through play, though you can improve them. You only get to check for new skills each September, and you need to roll against your LD (Learning Drive), of which Biff has virtually none. So, barring exceptional luck, Biff will just get better at what he already knows, which is pretty realistic. Biff is likely to end his life as a meth addict living in a trailer park, trying to avoid paying child support and watching the nerds he beat up become internet millionaires. Sucks to be you, Biff.

Rules For School

Now, if someone were to make a game on this theme today, it would be some weird Forgey thing with two-inch wide margins on half-size paper, and all the rules would be things like “Contrast your Angst to the opponent’s Pathos and then write a poem that doesn’t rhyme to describe your feelings and everyone involved reaches a consensus evaluation based on how many Trauma points you wagered in the Drama.” Let’s just say… Alma Mater isn’t like that. It’s a true old school game, and, contrary to what the revisionists would like to claim, that means rules. Oodles of rules. And charts. And tables. And, let me just say this… they are wonderful.

Here, for example, is the table of modifiers for dating:

The chart of dating modifiers for Alma Mater

If I'd hard this in High School, it would have been very useful.

You see all those numbers? You get to cross-index everything and work out all the details. The letters on the top, by the way, mean “Dance”, “Flirt”, “Date Request”, “Date Success”, “Seduction”, and “Love”.  Of course, you need to track things like successful or unsuccessful Flirt attempts, and your chances of going steady (which means you don’t need to roll to request a date, but you do need to roll for date success), are based on tracking a large assortment of modifiers, including your successful dates.

Seduction can’t even be attempted unless you roll against CR-1 (Coolness helps here, heh heh), and s the chance is your (INT+APP)/2, minus the target’s WP if they’re “passively resisting”.  Attempting to seduce a character who is “actively resisting”, the rules helpfully remind us, is also known as “rape”. (If both characters are willing, no seduction roll is needed, but both must roll against CR-1.)

There’s oodles of other rules, too. Rules for throwing a party, rules for drugs… hell, for those interested, here’s what drugs were going for in 1982. (Because I was a total nerd in High School, and still am, I can’t vouch for the quality of research of these rules.).

The Cost Of Illegal Drugs In 1982

If you somehow got here while googling for useful information on the cost of illegal drugs in 1982, I feel sorry for you.

It’s a bit of a nostalgia trip, in a way… no meth, no crack, and PCP was still being used by some people. (That was the terror drug of our era, and, like most such things, the problem was pretty much self-correcting; any drug horrible enough that it might actually be as scary as the usual suspects claim will quickly eliminate its users from the gene pool, which also eliminates the pushers. Much like a virus, if it’s too deadly, it eliminates itself. The biggest risk is all the stupid kids who, knowing adults lie about marijuana, assume they are also lying about the things that really can fuck you up for life, or just end your life.)

The rules, charts, and tables just go on and on, and it would be impossible for me to point out every cool thing there is, from an extensive weapons list that provides modifiers for everything from erasers to meathooks to blowtorches(!?), to the random items you could find on people you beat up (divided by class, so you could roll on the Brain Equipment Chart to see what you took from the local nerd, and so on), to the many fine illustrations, such as this one, for combat:

Chick fight!

This Is What Illustrates "Combat" in Alma Mater. Elmore, Eat Your Heart Out.

Now, that’s an illustration! I’d post the one that accompanies the “Dating” rules, but there are kids reading this blog! (Well, not really. There’s no one reading this blog, but, among my imaginary readers are imaginary kids.)

And In Conclusion…

Well, that’s sort of it, really. The bulk of the game is post char-gen, as it really should be. There’s only a handful of real decision points, again typical of the 1970s and early 1980s. For the most part, your character tended to evolve solely after play, with games like Traveller or Chivalry&Sorcery being notable exceptions. Many games, such as Metamorphosis Alpha, had only one or two decision points to make; everything else was either mandated or random. I think that’s it’s indicative of the time that we’d say “I’m going to roll up a dwarf fighter”, even though we mostly couldn’t control what we got; basically, without rules to let us decide what to play, we either cheated outright or we just kept rolling up one character after another until we got what we wanted.

Sadly, there are no rules for playing RPGs within Alma Mater; the possibility of infinite recursion would have been wonderful.

Alma Mater

Alma Mater

A Review And Walkthrough

Alma Mater is one of the better known obscure role playing games of the early 1980s, and once you’re done parsing that, we can move on. Ready? Good. Published in 1982 by Oracle Games Ltd,  it focused on playing characters in High School. Not mutants, ninjas, aliens, or elves, just boring mundane high school kids… so it was like real life for most of the target audience, except with rules that were explicitly spelled out and clear. Hey, it works for me!

In an era where even a hint of political incorrectness in an RPG will get someone writing an outraged editorial and spark a 500+ page thread on RPG.net (49.9% of the posters will be shrill, self-righteous, holier-than-thou liberals desperately trying to show off their broad-minded commitment to tolerance and diversity by racing to see who can put more people they disagree with on ignore lists (or just get them banned), and 49.9% will be right-wing trolls or apologists who will insist that America is completely free of racism, classism, sexism, and every other -ism, except for violent hate crimes against Christians such as saying “Happy Holidays”, which is just how the Holocaust started, and 0.2% will be people trying to rationally begin with a basic ethical framework and then use that to judge the issue in question, good luck to them),  it’s hard to imagine the kind of era that permitted Alma Mater to even be published. It is filled with offensive stereotypes, art that is basically demeaning to everyone, and an utter lack of apologetic or “kids, don’t try this at home” introductions to any section that deals with anything anyone might find disturbing. To be fair, the authors call this out up-front, and,  perhaps anticipating the growing death of the sense of humor in America, state outright that the game is satirical in nature. (As opposed to the modern invention, the after-the-fact “I was just kidding” excuse so beloved of pundits and politicians today.)

Really, you pretty much just need to look at the cover to know exactly what you’re getting into — in the game, and in this review. If you go beyond this point, you have only yourself, or perhaps Google, to blame.

Cover of Alma Mater RPG

The Cover. You Know What You're Getting Now.

By the way, in 1982, Michael Jackson did not look anything like the guy buying the drugs.

So, having shown you the cover, let’s move on to the article proper, shall we?

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