Tag Archives: classic

A Brief Digression: PrinceCon 3

PrinceCon 3 Handbook, Or, I Don’t Care What Howard Says

In The Old Days, They Handed Out Entire Variant Rules Systems At Cons

How Cool Is That?

My Arduin articles are evidently quite popular, possibly drawing up to a half-dozen views a month… a sixfold increase over my usual rate! As a consequence, someone decided to link me to a scan of a handout from PrinceCon 3. I’d never heard of PrinceCon, or this handbook, before.

It is, basically, a collection of variant rules for D&D, with a ton of new material interwoven with stuff more-or-less copied wholesale, and this being 1977, that meant someone typed this all up by hand. I got a 96 page booklet of Burgess Shale era RPG material that I not only hadn’t seen before, but that I never even knew existed to be seen! That’s worth more than all my advertising revenue from this site so far. Literally, I think I’ve made 0.75 cents in the past eight or nine years. BTW, my Paypal address is lizard@mrlizard.com, BTW. Just wanted to put that out there.

Unlike the Arduin stuff, I don’t have any personal experience with this to draw on… but it’s from “my time”, the time I started gaming, and it reflects and embodies so much of the nascent culture of the era, good, bad, awesome, and not-so-awesome. Let’s explore it together, shall we?

(This is all coming from a PDF scan. If anyone happens to have access to scans of, or even dead tree copies of, the books from the first two PrinceCons, I’d love to see them.)

What’s All This, Then?

From what I can gather from reading the text, when you showed up at PrinceCon 3, you got this book, and a character to go with it, for use at the con. That is just plain awesome. All I ever get at GenCon is a bag of dubious advertising material and some coupons for every booth I don’t go to. Why don’t they do things like this anymore? Just because there’s about 56,000 people going to each GenCon? Why should that stop anyone?

People in the 1970s thought D&D was satanic. Whatever gave them that idea?

People in the 1970s thought D&D was satanic. Whatever gave them that idea?

I’ve flipped (metaphorically, it’s a PDF, after all) through the book a bit, and it falls into an interesting place in my ongoing critique of Old School Revisionism. On the one hand, it’s a lot less gonzo than Arduin or Booty And The Beasts — no centaur psychics with insomnia, no galactic dragons. OTOH, it is full of new and variant rules, offering complexity and depth to the original D&D’s fairly spartan systems, many of which directly reference “Men&Magic”, the first of the three LBBs, in the context of “What’s wrong with them and how we’re going to fix them”. I point this out because of the more pernicious myths of Old School Revisionism is that people worshiped simple, elegant, design, and didn’t clutter their games up with lots of “systems” and “rules”. Bull-frackin-shit. The first thing just about everyone did was notice that D&D was a world-changing concept shackled to some pretty dubious mechanics, and set about fixing them, and this little pamphlet of wonders is proof. Sure, a lot of the mechanics are incredibly baroque… I am guessing the authors were majoring in math or science, not Literary Criticism (and thus went on to have good jobs, which might be why I haven’t heard of any of them in the gaming field… that’s where losers with English degrees, like me, end up)… but they’re typical of the time. I call this the Burgess Shale era of gaming because it was a time of great experimentation, of adaptive radiation, of endless possibilities because no one knew what work and what wouldn’t and there was no body of history and precedent to draw on. Much like the first few years of the comic book industry, or the earliest pulp days of science fiction, the tropes had yet to be codified.

What these are to evolution, so early gaming materials are to modern RPGs.

So let’s explore! (PS: If you’re not familiar with the art of Roy Troll, why not? What’s wrong with you?)

Oh, here’s how it worked:How it worked

Got all that? Good. Shades of KODT, with their ‘registered GMs’ and paid character transfers!

Your character was rolled up on a PDP-11, using the Cribbs system, and…

PDP-11. It was a kind of computer.

No, it didn’t run Windows.

Do try to pay attention, would you?

Cribbs system? Well, it was a system, invented by Mark Cribbs. One of the things you’ll note about a lot of the stuff from this era is that it was very personal — mechanics and rules were referred to by the person who created them.

Much like C&S, Cribbs wanted you to roll on a table to see if you could be non-human. That was a trope that (mostly) died pretty soon, as it was another form of “balance by rarity”, which lasted longer in gaming than it really should have.

I'm sure this makes sense on the fourth re-read.

I’m sure this makes sense on the fourth re-read.

They did address the problem of level caps… “pinning”… for non humans.

BTW, what your people call “attributes”, they called “requisites”. This can be pretty confusing when reading. They also noticed that the effect of attributes on gameplay was pretty limited, and rather than (as the Revisionists would have it) saying “Good, you should TELL the DM how you’re picking the lock, and not worry if you have 18 Dex or 3 Dex!”, they said, “Screw that!” and added in a lot of rules and charts to make virtually every number on the 3-18 scale matter.

What's Char Eff, You Ask? Foolish Mortal!

What’s Char Eff, You Ask? Foolish Mortal!

Char Eff is “Charisma Efficiency”, and it was used to determine your base chance of “Charismaing” someone into doing something. (Hmm, I could use that mechanic for all the Arduin stuff that gave you “+5 Charisma when lying”, and what-not.)

Next up, we have combat, which used a highly variant %age system where your chance to hit was expressed in formulae such as 100-5 x AC -4 x L. Actually, it makes sense, and the math works, but I’m 1000 words into this thing and barely on page 4 of the book, so either I start using less detail or this momentary digression will consume many weeks of my limited writing time.

I Don’t Care What Howard Says!

But I do need to share this excerpt, a small part of the several pages of combat rules:

Howard can just bite me!Indeed. I dearly wish “I don’t care what Howard says, —” to become a major meme in the RPG community. It’s only 38 years past its origin date. Why not?

Oh, and if you thought D&D 3.x/PF grappling rules were a little… odd…

This Is For You, Howard.

Wow, a use for a D12!

Then follows the “Mahler Wandering Monster Tables”. 50% chance of encountering an Alma.

The tables include an “Argus Sphere”, which I’m guessing is how Princetonians said “Beholder”.

In addition to being a leading composer of the early 20th century, Mahler also invented a point-based magic system, which is described herein. It actually made it a bit tougher to be a magic user, as spells typically took a full round to cast and then went off the next round, with rules for being damaged while casting and losing the spell in progress, based on the ratio of damage taken to your current hit points (meaning, you needed to recalculate each time you were hit, as the threshold would change), and the number of spell points you got back each day (after 12 hours of sleep — none of this wimpy eight hours crap!) was based on your intelligence and how much you’d used… so you if you shot your wad completely, you wouldn’t be fully recharged by the next day. A very ahead of its time system, frankly.

Next follows a list of spells, mostly verbatim from Greyhawk, with a few additions like “Snowball” (like Fireball, but it destroyed potions, not scrolls.)  Then, we get an extensive list of modification to spells, such as “Sleep now HAS a saving throw”, Pyrotechnics is non-magical and must be created from non-magical fire (but does it still cost spell point?), and “on page 17, cross out ‘machine gun’ and write in ‘pizza oven'”.

Haste &Slow are noted as “get[ting] a saving throw based on Strength”. I do not know what that means.

Contact Higher Planes is notable for the hand-written correction from “waisting spell points” to “wasting spell points”. Still higher editing standards than a lot of modern companies.

“Hide Intent” allows you to avoid the effects of “Detect Alignment”, et al, though I’d prefer “Hide In Tent”, which causes any wandering monsters to chew on your companions in camp, instead of you.

Spell Targeting. Tee Ay Arr Gee…

Hey, They Can’t All Be Good

What Do You Mean, “Can Even Some Of Them Be Good? For A Change?”

We then encounter the “Tihor Spell Targeting System”, which

Then, divide by the cube root of the targets height...

Then, divide by the cube root of the targets height…

Please remember your rules of operator precedence. “Plus after times, except when it rhymes.”

And the usual page or so of modifiers and special cases.

Here we have a grand battle between mages of all sorts. I like the evil dude with the skull staff fighting with the cleric over the poor shmuck on the ground.

Wizard War

Mahler also created a clerical magical system, presumably in-between symphonies. (Have I beaten that joke to death yet? Probably. Will I stop? Probably not.) It uses “prayer points”, and likewise has a few new spells and  lot of house-ruled old spells. A few highlights:

Bless: There are multiple levels of Bless, each with a roman numeral (Bless I, Bless II, etc.) and each adds a variable %age to melee ‘to hit’ scores and a value to melee damage.

De-Were: Turns “W level of werewolves”, where “W” is spell level x 2+1, unless married but filing separately, or in Alaska or Oregon.

Convert Sword: This does not turn your sword into a ploughshare… seriously, what the hell were you thinking? This is D&D, man! It does turn a good sword evil or an evil sword good, unless it’s one of the really cool swords.. you know, the kind you’d want to use this on. Then it doesn’t work.

The Tihor Saving Throw System

For When You’re Attacked By A Wild Tihor

These Headings Just Keep Getting Worse, Don’t They?

So, stop me if you’ve heard this one… all saves a reduced to three types, with a class-based bonus depending on your level. Yup, 23 years early, “Tihor” invented the 3.0 save system, more-or-less. There were “Bodily”, “Mental”, and “Spiritual” saves, using a roll-under percentile system.

Then follows some alternate thief tables, which supplement the percentile-based rules in Greyhawk with some additional rules based on rolling less than a given number on a D6. This is a good example of the other extreme of homebrew rules, very simple systems with a bare handful of modifiers. Of course, it’s then followed by a bunch of new rules for thieves backstabbing people while invisible. (Highly arbitrary levels of detail were another common feature of the era, esp. in a book like this, which collected systems written by various active creators with highly idiosyncratic ideas about what mattered. Hmm. Kind of like any given open source project, where the amount of attention and detail given to an area depends on what someone thinks is fun/interesting/challenging… so you get very robust APIs and well-tested code in one bit, and completely missing functionality in another, with documentation that ranges from “OCD to the max” to “This function does stuff”.

(The article on the “Samurai” class in an early issue of “The Dragon” had a word count almost equal to the entirety of Men&Magic.)

Curse You, Robert West!

(Whoever You Are)

Now, we proceed to the curse tables. 1-2 Damn, 3-4 Shit, 5-6 Fuck… no, sorry. These are curses put on your character, leading to curses by you towards the DM. The introduction merrily informs that Robert West’s mind is “so perverse” you don’t need to design your own curse system. My opinion? Pretty good, but not quite as over-the-top as I’d expect from an intro like that. Let’s take a gander, providing the farmer fails his spot check. And while our goose is cooking, we can look at the table.

  • Monsters from tables 1-12 (Roll a D12) attack by surprise. OK, that’s a nasty one… it means an even chance of a very high level monster appearing. It also gives another use for the poor, lonely, D12.
  • “Roll a D9+15 to get type of arena duel”. Huh? I read this one a few times, then it clicked: It’s a recursive table! Wanna bet Robert West was a CS major? The D9+15 is then read on the table as a roll of 16 to 24, which determines what kind of thing you fight in the arena!
  • When you cast spells from a scroll of spells, they backfire — if they’re not damage spells, take 6 HP/spell level. Owie.
  • “All cures on victims will become causes.” Great, now I want to save the flumphs, support kobold rights, and ban alchemical dumping in Blackmoor.
  • Luck become 3, -15% to saving throws. “Give other appropriate duds.” Like, what? Torn robes and faded capes?
  • Teleport 5,000 feet above ground; take 24d6 damage. Actually, in a prior Pathfinder game, one of the players teleported straight up as far as he could to get out of a dungeon. That was the last session of that particular game, though, so we never got to see him go splat.
  • Teleport to Mars. Fortunately, OD&D included Barsoom encounter tables.
  • Curse
  • Fighter have their sword change alignment; MUs lose their highest level spell; Clerics have cures become causes and vice-versa, except if they try to compensate for it, in which case, they don’t, and thieves lose a thief ability.
  • Character acquires a malodorous disease. I love the word malodorous. Don’t you?
  • “Normal Mahler poison, no saving throw.” Presumably, delivered via a Viennese pastry. (See, I told you I wasn’t going to let that joke drop.)
  • Character becomes the “monster” summoned by a random party (via monster summoning) to fight a battle. This was something that happened in a D&D game to one of the PCs a few years ago… not the result of this table, mind you, just an ingeniously sadistic DM.

This is a good place to stop, as the rules per se end here… the rest of the book is a huge list of magic items, mostly reprinting the D&D lists of the time, but with many new and interesting additions that deserve their own commentary, and don’t deserve the lame jokes I’m undoubtedly going to try to squeeze out of them. Hardly anything deserves my attempts at humor, come to think of it.


Arduin Grimoire, Part II

Arduin Grimoire, Part II

In Which We Actually Open The Book

Just reading the PC's names makes you want to play!

Just reading the PC’s names makes you want to play!

Sorry about the blurry edges; if you think I’m going to press my 37-year-old copy flat just to get a clean scan for the benefit of the three or four people who might read this, you’re nuts. Anyhoo, just look at the PC names of his campaign, and imagine all the cool shit they did, and remember this book was published in 1977, when D&D had only been out for about three years! That’s a LOT of amazing gaming crammed into a very short period of time! I am deeply, profoundly, bitterly envious of the people who got to sit at Dave’s table.

We start with “How To Play The Game”, which notes people are unsure about the “sequence of play” in a fantasy game, so “here is a rundown of most play situations”.

The next line? “Overland Travel”.

Dave goes on to explain that you travel an hour, roll for random encounters, Then follows a bunch of stuff about line of sight, distance to the encounter, chances of an encounter, if the encounter is close, what kind of close encounter it is (OK, I made up those last two), if the monster is frightened or not, if it’s charging, how to determine initiative, and so on. This includes numerous die tables, of the “1-2 this, 3-4 that” type. Oh, wait, did I say “tables”? Bwahahaha! No, the entire “sequence of play”, including odds of random encounters (with modifiers for terrain type and time of day), and all the other folderol I mentioned, are all in one immense paragraph.

I’m guessing the “uncertainty” over the “sequence of play” came from wargamers used to “Player 1 Movement Phase, Player 2 Prep Musket Phase, Player 1 Rally Phase, Player 2 Sneers At Player 1’s Incorrect Color Scheme For The Seventh Lancers Phase, Player 1 Shoves Incorrectly Painted Seventh Lancer Up Player 2’s Nose Phase”, and so on. It’s a sign of the times, of the gaming world in transition, from groups of fat neckbearded nerds arguing endlessly over the effects of wind on massed fire to groups of fat neckbearded nerds arguing endlessly over the effects of wind on massed fireballs. Those kinds of radical cultural changes can be shocking to the people living through them.

Following the rules for rolling random encounters come the rules for experience points, because, why not? In Arduin, you don’t get XP for gold. “It is the act of robbery, not the amount stolen, that gives the thief his experience.” says Dave, and I concur.

This table is, at least, a table. You get 400 XP for dying (and being resurrected), 375 for being the sole survivor of an expedition (oh, that couldn’t possibly go wrong!) or for retrieving the most powerful of artifacts, all the way down to 50 XP for figuring out traps and casting “lesser” spells such as “locks and winds”.

To put these numbers in perspective, here’s the XP chart… (Please note the ‘Saint’ class isn’t actually in this book. Or the Courtesan.

The "Slaver" class isn't in here, either.

The “Slaver” class isn’t in here, either.

Yes, levels went up to 105. I assume you figured out the “missing” levels by extrapolating from the points given.

I’m just gonna let that “levels go up to 105″ thing sink in. First, remember this was published only three years after D&D came out. Second, next time some wannabe “old school Renaissance” type who wasn’t even born when AD&D Second Edition was published tries to tell you that in the Old Days (which he wasn’t around for, but which he heard about from this guy who knows this guy…) it was all fantasy fucking Vietnam and scrabbling for copper pieces and PCs were weak and no one had cool powers and everything now is all WoWMMORPGVideoGameSuperMarioCrap, you just point him this way. I’ll straighten him out. (Or her. One mustn’t be sexist. There’s just as many women repeating tired platitudes they’ve picked up from online forums as there are men. )

Following is another page of XP charts, and then, the Character Limitation Chart. And, hey, y’know what? Posting small articles frequently is probably better than long articles never, so, smeg it, this goes up now.

Arduin Grimoire, Part I

Walking Through The Arduin Triology (And Maybe The Others)

Or, Why Didn’t I Think Of This Before?

Because I’m Extremely Dim, That’s Why!

So, I’ve raved on and on about the Arduin books, how much they meant to me in my formative years (just as your first porn exposure will probably influence your YouPorn searches for the rest of your life, Or So I’ve Heard), and while I’ve done extensive writing on the heavily Arduin-influenced Booty And The Beasts and the Necromican, I haven’t actually taken the path more traveled and looked at the actual books!

So, here you go.

As with most of my stuff, this is a mix of humor, personal commentary, analysis, and random ephemera, mixed with extemporanea and just a hint of nutmeg. Those looking to discern a hidden agenda in it (see the IMPORTANT WARNING in the Necromican article linked to above) are morons. Those looking to discern a distinctive and coherent point of view in it are holding me in far too much esteem. To quote myself:

(Some people might note I make snide comments about how supplements like Booty And The Beasts veered heavily into a “screw the players”, highly adversarial mode of play, and then note I make snide comments about how 4e goes out of its way to avoid those types of mechanics, and wonder what side I’m on. It’s easy. I’m on the side of “Lizard wants to make snide comments.”.)

So, bear that in mind.

I’ve started three paragraphs with “so”. Weird.


Arduin Grimoire

I first encountered hints of these works in the “Best Of The Dragon” that came out around 1979, in an advertisement. In those days, there was no Internet, and gaming news had to spread slowly, through messages pounded into the pulp of dead trees, and sometimes, we had to just carve them in the bark, instead. The ad showed lizard-people and insect people and others, all far more exotic and interesting that the relatively tame Tolkien-inspired characters of D&D, and the ad copy hinted at untold wonders and strangeness beyond words.

But I didn’t actually find the books until a year or so later, at the Compleat (sic) Strategist in New Jersey, back when there was one in New Jersey. And, yes, unlike most things in life, from the covers of lurid paperbacks to the description of the job you’re applying for, the actual thing did not disappoint. The three little books were so densely packed with ideas, reality warped around them. If I have to pick “The books that influenced my life”, it would be these. Well, and Lee/Kirby FF. Oh, and the LSH where they fight Computo. But mostly, Arduin.

And so, we journey now into strange new worlds.. but first…

A Tale Of Two Covers

I had managed to borrow a copy of the Arduin Grimoire for a day or two, several months before I got my hands on it. For a long time after that, I thought I might be suffering from mixed, false, memories, as there were things I recalled from my first reading that I never saw again. However, the truth has since come to light: There was a first printing, with a different cover and interior art. The first printing had art by “a talented young man named Erol Otus”. You, ahem, may have heard of him. The subsequent editions… did not, and his name was excised from the forward, as if sliced out with a mu-meson sword (yes, that’s in there somewhere, Book 3, I think… we’ll get to it.) I am sure there is a story there, but as Dave Hargrave is long dead, we probably won’t get to hear it, and besides, I don’t really want to know the grungy details of mid-70s internecine geek warfare. 

Two Covers, No Waiting

Two Covers, No Waiting


Now, without any disrespect for Mr. Otus, whom I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time praising, I still sort of prefer the one on the right. The exotic weapons and armor, the fine detail, the diversity of the PCs, the glowering demon over the door… words like “evocative” and “inspiring” come to mind. I want to create worlds, and write books, that give others the same feeling that picture gives me.OK, enough of the early stuff. Let’s turn the page…Later. Time to take my wife to the fabric store. But I wanted to post up something, since it’s been almost six weeks, which is long, even for me.

Star Rovers, Finale

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?


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Star Rovers, Part V

You Gotta Have…Wait, I Did That Bit Already

Alright! After a long trek through space corporations, exchange rates, equipment failure, bodily improvement, and mining, we are staring at the skill listing for the Spacer class. This gives us the attribute prerequisites, which helps me figure out what classes I qualify for before I pick one. It’s also illustrated by an attractive, eye-patched space pirate lady (I assume she’s a pirate ’cause of the eyepatch, it is a fundamental law of the universe that naval officers or guys who haul space-beans from one forgettable starport to another either don’t lose eyes in fights at Moondog Maude’s or else can afford prosthetics) with a wonderful 80’s style "do", and her somewhat more butch looking crewmate, and because I’ve spent way too much time on the Internet and I’m a dirty old man, I’m going to have to speculate on just what they do to celebrate a successful raid. But since there’s no space combat rules (bitter? Moi?), I might just assume they have to keep busy while waiting, during those long, cold, nights in space… yeah, I’ll be in my bunk.

Picture (and some text) after the break.


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Star Rovers, Part IV

Star Rovers Part IV

Well, this is the first time in the history of this blog anyone actually commented to say they were looking forward to/waiting for something, so I suppose it’s a good idea to actually write it. I also have a special treat for you… some scanned art from the game, so you can see a bit of what I’ve been talking about.

A minor digression, here — something you ought to be used to if you’ve been reading this blog, or, well, anything I write that’s longer than a Facebook status update. Comments help. A lot. There’s often a feeling of screaming into the wilderness, here. Any kind of feedback which isn’t coming from a spambot trying to sell fake watches or link you to malware sites encourages me to keep writing. My game collection is immense, and includes a lot of fairly rare old games and fairly obscure newer ones… if there’s a particular game you’d like to see me work through/review, let me know, and I’ll see if I have it. A lot of my "game design" time… well, OK, all of my "game design" time… these days is taken up with Earth Delta, but these types of articles occupy a different sphere, so I don’t feel I’m "getting distracted" if I work on them. (PS: Today I wrote the words "Earth Delta Beta 1" on my ever-growing rules document… it may be a bit before that’s actually posted, but it really is happening.)

Links are cool, too. You link to me, I link to you. Based on the overall readership of this thing, that’s a lot more benefit to me than to you. Hey, I’m honest, at least!

OK, enough of this stuff. On to the actual article.

Read more for amazing art, interesting classes, and maybe even a look at the equipment lists…


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Star Rovers, Part III

Star Rovers III

Well, this series has generated more comments than any other posting here (three! Three comments! Whoooo!), so here I am again, as my computer spends most of its processing power to churn through a few hundred thousand pieces of financial data to test out my code. I’ve been promising chargen for two long, digression-filled pieces now, and it’s time to deliver.

Click "More" to see me deliver.


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Star Rovers, Part II

Star Rovers Part II: Character Building

(With a quick digession into game mechanics.)

Right then.

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!


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Star Rovers

Star Rovers

Most of the articles in this series reference games I’ve never played, or played only occasionally. Some are extremely obscure. Well, this one is definitely obscure, but it’s a bit different, in that it’s a game I played quite a bit back in High School (Gill/St. Bernards, 1979-1983), namely, Star Rovers, published by Archive Miniatures in 1981, which was a very good year for gaming. I’d say it was roughly the peak of what I, personally, consider the "classic era" or the "Golden Age", based mostly on the premise that "The Golden Age of Science Fiction is 12" — that is, the defining moment of any genre is the era that it is discovered by the individual. But anyway…

Star Rovers embodies the spirt, essence, zeitgeist, whatever of what I think gaming, and especially science-fiction gaming, should be. It’s really Space Fantasy, not "Science Fiction" in any meaningful sense. It’s an insane hodgepodge of whatever random elements the writers thought were cool, pulling from pulp sci-fi of the 30s and the science fiction movies of the 1970s (especially "Star Wars", which of course itself pulled from those same pulp elements) as well as the vaguely inchoate common assumptions of the rapidly developing gamer subculture.

Setting? Oh, you silly, silly, man (or woman). This was the early 1980s! We didn’t need no steenkin’ setting! (We still don’t, if you ask me — not as part of the core rules.) What you needed was the idea of a setting, a sense of a setting, the echo and color and tone of a setting, but not any actual, definable, setting. So what does Star Rovers give us?

From "In The Beginning", on page 0.01. (Yes, 0.01. You got a problem with that?)

Billions of years in the primoridal future, beyond Infinity, the Universe collapsed into a Black Hole and ceased to exist. Time reversed its flow, and the stars burst forth from the Cosmic Nothing in a blaze of light. Cosmic wastes congealed into captive orbits in the outer darkness, forming planets, sometimes colliding with each other, shattering into rocks and asteroids and wandering comets.

As if on signal, at different times and places, floating synapses of energy crystallized into minute replicas of ancient suns, then into chains squeezed by the colloidal clay into the building blocks of Life. Carbon and Silicon proved to be the most prevalent molecular bases to evolve life from, but there were others, and sentient races evolved in a bewildering variety of forms. Sometims the path of Intelligence omitted many stages altogether, assuming bizarre shapes far removed from the normally travelled paths of natural selection. The Cosmic Computer catalogued nine billion different species of sentient life before the Universe collapsed and the stars winked out of existence.

(All random Capitalizations are As Found in the Original text.)

Don’t ask about the Cosmic Computer. It’s never mentioned again. But the mere fact it was mentioned automatically gives you some sense of what this game’s about, isn’t it? 

A paragraph or two later, in "Fragments of Imperial History", we learn that:

Then, the Biomorphs came. They grew from within, these Exploding Men, almost impossible to detect. They struck without warning, like a sudden earthquake or an epileptic seizure. They were a threat so dreadful that the Empire felt obliged to deny their very eixstence and the terrified people gave tacit approval to this conspiracy of silence. For the name itself, though seldom spoken, conjured Death and Oblivion, almost attracting attack with each utterance.

I didn’t leave out anything vital; "Biomorphs" aren’t defined or explained, either.

Skip ahead one more paragraph, and we get:

For Time has begun to run out. The Hurrakku — they who would gnaw their way through a starcluster and leave nothing in their wake — had already starswarmed. And even though they were still more than forty galaxies away, they were headed in the Empire’s direction.

But they were only the messengers of a great doom. What goaded the Hurrakku onward was the fear of impending annihilation. There loomed behind them an expanding, starless, blackness — A rift in the Space/Time fabric grown so large that it consumed the Past, the Present, and the Future. This was the Final Darkness that Would Cancel Everything!


But then we learn of the El’dar scrolls!

With great secrecy at first, and then more openly, the Empire began to field great numbers of intelligence gathering operations; then exploratory groups to search for the lost technology of the El’dar.Starknight enclaves planned and executed missions into unexplored territories to recover lost artifacts. The Rebel Axis also began receiving reports and dispatched probes of their own. So did the Dragonspawn. The Biomorph High Command had always been aware of the existence of the lost artifacts, even before the Empire, but had never succeeded in recovering any.

Thus it was that the Star Roving Ages began. As always, the enemies of the Hu-men, who sought only their destruction, followed in their wake. But the Hu-men no longer looked back in fear. Instead, they looked forward into the vastness of space with a renewed sense of wonder.

I’ve skipped a few paragraphs here and there, but nothing which would add more "context" or "meaning" or "definitions" or any other such wuss-like things. Hurrakku? Dragonspawn? "Starspawned"? Starknights? Rebel Axis? Some of these words show up again in the text, never explicitly called out or defined, others are never seen again. But you KNOW what this game is about! Giant alien…somethings… that chew through ENTIRE STARCLUSTERS! Biomorphs! Starknights! Ancient artifacts! Galactic secrets! Holes in TIME AND SPACE! Some sort of outer space dragon men, or something! Whatever! It’s cool! This game certainly isn’t about whipping out your HP Scientific Calculator that does RPN and trying to figure out the fuel requirements for the jump drive and if you’ll show a 15 credit profit on that load of dried beans you’re hauling from one planet to another. This game is about things that eat galaxies, man! Whatever they are! Didn’t you read it, dude? They, like, eat galaxies! Or they’re running from something that eats galaxies. Or… something. Whatever. Dragonspawn!!!!

Sorry. Lost myself there.

Anyway, that’s just the first two pages. We’ll get to character creation… sometime. I just had to post the introduction. Enjoy.

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