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Starchildren Part II

Starchildren, Part II

Sex, Drugs, And Rock & Rolling Dice

Except… I Think You Use Cards In This?

Wow, There Goes That Headline Right Down The Pipes

OK. As we saw in our previous episode, aliens who though the 1970s were actually cool came to Earth in the 2070s, only to find an oppressive police state, which they are now trying to take down via the power of rock! Having spent all of the prior article going over the background, it is now time to create a character.

Be Ye Human, Or Be Ye Bishounen Alien Rocker?

First, we must choose our species. Because the point of these articles is to explore game systems, I’m going to go with Starchild, as that will give me access to the k00l p0werz…. erm, I mean, let me experiment with the full mechanics. Yeah.

As a Starchild, I get three “Backgrounds” (Humans get four.) There’s no specific rule limiting backgrounds by race, but “Businessman” and “Cop”, for example, don’t seem very appropriate to an alien with two years experience on Earth.

In many similar systems, “Performer” would be a catch-all for any kind of creative type, but, fitting the genre, Starchildren gives us Drummer, Bassist, Keyboardist, and Frontman backgrounds, among others. I like “Drummer”, as they’re described as being surly and belligerent (no stereotyping here, no sir!). The Drummer’s skills include “Percussion”, “Bludgeon”, and “Intimidate”.

Q: What do you call someone who hangs around with musicians?
A: A Drummer

Fitting with that default personality, I pick “Badass” for my second background. It is recommended that Badasses also take “Scrapper” to provide the combat skills needed to back up the bluster, so I’ll go for that.

Each background has 5 skills, which are ranked with on at 9, two at 7, and two at 5. The mechanics that give meaning to these ranks are not yet specified. If you don’t want to take all five skills, you can trade them for “Edges”.

Lessee.

Badass: Endure, Guts, Impress, Intimidate, Negotiate
Drummer: Bludgeon, Endurance, Intimidate, Percussion, Repair (Instrument)
Scrapper: Bludgeon, Brawl, Dodge, Slash, Throw

“Endure” is evidently a synonym for “Endurance”, probably a holdover from an earlier rules edit.

You can burn off one of your skill picks to raise the rank of another skill. This can be done when there are duplicate skills, (Such as Bludgeon, for me), or if you just don’t particularly want a skill or your character concept requires a higher starting rank.

I am strongly tempted to leave “Percussion” as my lowest-ranked skill, as it creates a kind of interesting concept… the drummer who is, in fact, not really good at drumming, but who is kept around by the band because he is really good at hitting people… which, in the grim future of the 21st century, is pretty useful.

So let’s see…

Presenting Thrash Beatnik

I’ll start with Bludgeon from Drummer at 9, then drop Endurance 9 from Badass to raise it to 10 and then use the Bludgeon I get from Scrapper to raise it to 11, losing my 9 from there, as well. That’s the highest a starting skill can get. I’m going to track which skills come from which background. Hopefully, I get it all correct.

Bludgeon: Jack (11) (Scrapper 9, Drummer 9, Endurance (Badass) 9)
Intimidate: 7 (Badass)
Brawl: 7 (Scrapper)
Endurance: 7 (Drummer)
Guts: 7 (Badass)
Dodge: 7 (Scrapper)
Percussion: 7 (Drummer) (I ended up not being able to drop it to 5, but now I can’t remember why. But here it is.)
Slash: 5 (Scrapper)
Throw: 5 (Scrapper)
Impress: 5 (Badass)
Repair (Instrument): 5 (Drummer)

Unspent:
Intimidate 5 (Drummer)
Negotiate 5 (Badass)

I didn’t spend one of my possible “Intimidate” skills in the hope of getting an Edge. Likewise, I dropped off Negotiate. I figure my character… who I am starting to think of as “Thrash Beatnik”… uses “Intimidate” as “Negotiate”. This gives me two unspent ranks for “Edges”.

Q. What does a drummer use for birth control?
A: His personality

Attributes, or, I Got Jack

There are eight attributes, four mental and four physical. Each pair is keyed a suit from a set of playing cards.

  • Diamonds: Presence and Appearance
  • Hearts: Wit and Speed
  • Spades: Perception and Agility
  • Clubs: Will and Body

I can assign ranks from a pool of Jack, 10, 8, 7,7,7,6,5. These are ordered highest to lowest, so, in Starchildren, “I got Jack” is actually a good thing. Starchildren are +2 ranks to Presence and Appearance, but -2 to Body and Will. This runs contrary to my concept of Thrash as a brawler, but, everything is relative, I guess. For a starchild, he’s a fighter.

So, Body gets Jack (as it were), which is downgraded to 9.
I’ll put 10 in Agility.
8 goes to Presence, +2 for 10.
7 into Will, -2 for 5.
Another 7 into Speed.
My last 7 into Perception.
6 for Wit
5 for Appearance, +2 =7.

So I end up like:
Presence: 10
Wit: 6
Perception: 7
Will: 5
Appearance: 7
Speed: 7
Agility: 10
Body: 9

Secondary Attributes, Or, There’s No Kill Like Overkill!

Now, secondary attributes:
My Speed is 7, so, I have 3 Action Cards, and my Movement is 4 walking/8 running.
My Body is 9, so my Trauma Threshold is 15, my Injury Threshold is 19, my Blackout Threshold is 39, and my Overkill Threshold 53.

Any game which includes an “Overkill Threshold” gets bonus points from me.

Q. What’s the difference between a government bond and a drummer?
A. Government bonds eventually mature and earn money.

Edges: I simply skipped two skill to get Edges. I dropped 2 5-rank skills.

I can get Feared, which gives me 1 Advantage Card for tests of a skill selected from a short, logical list. I pick “Intimidate”. For my other 5-rank, I select “Street Contacts”.

I also pick the Disadvantage “Usual Suspects” for 7. I can put this 7 into a skill or buy an edge with it. I will use it to buy “Flex”, which is a “Mojo”, or alien talent. Flex governs abilities related to altering ones own body, which seems like a good thing for someone like Thrash to have, even if most Starchildren just use it to give themselves magenta hair and rainbow spiral eyes like they were Pottersues.

Rocking Out

That’s basically it for character generation. It is worth at least mentioning the mechanics, though. As noted, they rely on playing cards. Except that the Ace is the low card, and Kings and Queens are reversed. Jokers are the wild card, and get +2 to kill Batman.

Everyone starts with a Hand of 5 cards, except The Man, who gets 7.

And here’s where it kind of gets tricky. Skill and Attributes each have suits. So, let’s go back to Thrash. Thrash has Jack in Brawl (yeah, I’m never going to get tired of that joke). The character sheet shows that Brawl is a “Clubs” skill, but it’s governed by Agility, which is a “Spades” skill.

If the card played matches the Trump suit for an attribute or skill, the value is equal to the rank of that attribute or skill. If it doesn’t match, it’s a “null” suit, so the value is your rank -3.

Then, The Man draws a number of cards equal to the difficulty of the test. The Man decides how difficult the test is, running from 1-5. Hopefully, examples are given. The Man then plays one of the cards they drew against you. If your score beats the card they played, you succeed. The rules note that The Man is not obliged to play the highest card they drew; they might give you a break. This provides an element of “sanctioned” GM fudging into the game; how much this appeals to you depends on how you feel about the Player/GM relationship in general. (It occurs to me that the harder the test, the more leeway The Man has to cheat… for an easy test, they draw only one card and so must play it, good or bad.) Nonetheless, the default assumption underlying the mechanics is that most of the time, the dice… erm… cards will fall where they may.

There’s also special rules for “really easy” tests, where The Man draws only one card, and the value on that card is reduced.

The Man and the player reveal their cards concurrently. If the player fails their test, they can “burn” a card, which gives them the value of that card on its face, regardless of the suit.

I don’t know how well this works in actual play, but it sounds like a decent enough system.

Opposed tests require that The Man play a card from his hand, and in this case, the suit matters. The Man is basically playing a hand for an NPC… sorry, an MC. The Man can also burn a card, just as a PC can.

Then, there’s “Boosts” and “Crashes”, or what more mundane, less rockin’, systems might call “critical successes and failures”, based on the degree of difference between the player’s card and The Man’s.

And there’s Advantage Cards. Thrash’s “Feared” Edge gives him one Advantage card when Intimidating something. This is essentially an extra card drawn when using that particular skill. Likewise, “Difficulty” cards are Advantage Cards granted to an opponent, either The Man or a fellow PC.

Finally, there’s “The Twist”. Twists are a form of metagame mechanics, akin to “bennies”, “hero points”, “action dice”, etc., allowing the player to gain bonuses, draw a new card, and so on.

Glam-Rock Alien Elvis Has Left The Building

And, that’s it for chargen and something of the mechanics. While it’s definitely odd, it’s not bad… there are no blatantly broken mechanics[1], pages of grammar/spelling/punctuation errors, or eye-bleedingly self-indulgent page layouts, despite this being a setting that could justify them. Other than the initial three chapter slog through setting material, it doesn’t hit too many of my eye-roll triggers. The art is a bit crude, hearkening back to some of the classic work from This Guy I Know (I miss his stuff in modern games), but it’s an effort from a tiny independent company which was trying to put out a hardcover book about alien rock stars at the peak of the D20 boom. No budget for art is forgivable.

If I ever see this being run at GenCon, I’ll sign up for it.

[1]Caveat: I haven’t actually played the game, and the interactions of the various systems outline above do not lend themselves to intuitive analysis of the actual odds of success or failure in casual play.

Starchildren

Starchildren : Velvet Generation

In The Grim Darkness Of The Third Millennium There Is Only Rock!

And/Or Roll!

And Judging From A Random Illustration, Jobs At McDonalds. Grim, Tyrannical, Oppressive, McDonalds.

So, Nothing New, Then?
I Dunno. Maybe The Burgers Are Made From Orphans, Or Something.
Groovy!

Groovy!

We’re (that’s me and my helper cats, who, at the moment, are actually helping by virtue of not being here) taking a break from RPGs produced in the 1970s to look at a game produced in the early 2000s that uses the cultural tropes of the 1970s for a game set in the 2070s. Got it? Good. Now, does the chalice from the palace have the pellet with the poison? No, that’s the flagon with the dragon.

The commentary in the Acknowledgments page informs us that although the game contains references to sex, drugs, and rock&roll, “XIG Games does not officially endorse any such activities except under guidance of a competent professional”. Oh, and the game contains a subliminal message when played backwards. So you start with characters getting wiped in a TPK and end by rolling them up?

I’m going to take the tongue-in-cheekness of the Acknowledgments into account when reading.

It Was Thirty Years Ago Today About 70 Years From When This Was Published

The introduction informs us that the world was changed when the first Starchildren came to Earth in 2071, and that we will join the action in 2073. Not bad — there’s enough time for the setting to establish itself, but not a huge amount of history to learn or hard-coded backstory for the part of the timeline the PCs are a part of. The Ministry of Music has begun “a terrifying crackdown on illegal and subversive rock music”. Damn, Voldemort must be back in charge. We are also introduced to the “Blue Army”, a violent splinter faction of Starchildren, and “the Osterberg Institute”, the “paranoid and xenophobic” scientists whose paranoia and xenophobia is based on nothing more than the fact aliens have landed, disguised themselves as humans, and started a mass movement to undermine the government. What a flimsy pretext! What are you gonna do? Haters gonna’ hate.

Working For The Man

Actually, The Man does all the work. That’s this game’s version of the GM. By the 2000s, the 90s trend of coming up with funky names for common parts of RPGs was dying like disco (see, this is a game about music, so, I made a music reference), but, much like the old man in Monty Python And The Holy Grail, it wasn’t dead yet. NPCs are “The Man’s character”, or “MC”. At least PCs are still PCs.

And I Want To Be A Paperback Writer…

“Chapters Two through Four of this book help bring the setting to life, and are written from the points of view of people who lived through it.”

In other words, I’ve got to slog through three chapters of fiction before I get to start creating a character. #FML.

Do you people appreciate what I do for you? The sacrifices I make? I could be losing another game of Civ VI, but noooooo, I’m reading this. Feh.

Part I

Our game published in real 2003 about a fictional 2073  that is inspired by the culture of real 2073 begins with excerpts from a book written in fictional 2091 about fictional 2073. There will be a quiz later. I’m going to try to summarize so we can get to the core of creating a character while still having some context as to what I’m creating.

In the 2040s, psychologists and sociologists decided that rock & roll was dangerous and subversive. I guess Tipper Gore won in the long run. The 2040s were an era of depression following a long war, class conflict, and economic despair, where the masses were desperate for simple solutions and the promise of a coming utopia following the removal of negative influences and dangerous ideas. Hm. Sounds familiar.

In 2047, violence erupted at a Times Square protest, and music was blamed. Within two years, music became a “controlled substance” in most of the world. The motto of the time was “Don’t insulate, isolate!”, meaning, instead of just tuning out or walking away if you heard something you didn’t like, all “negative influence” needed to be purged. Hmm. So, Tipper Gore and today’s campus activists won. Damn. This is one hell of a dystopia, I tell you what.

Various international bodies eventually merged into the global International Culture Correction and Control, or ICCC. The Ministry of Music (MoM) became known to the rebels as “Mad Mother”.  All unapproved items (i.e., anything anyone would want) became illegal contraband. If Grampa didn’t remember to toss out his old Justin Bieber CDs, it was curtains for him.

The music industry was reduced to peddling “New music”: Muzak on steroids, or maybe on sleeping pills — utterly bland, featureless, drivel. Radio was even worse… aw… that’s cute. In 2003, people believe radio would still exist in 2073. Thus, an era began of bootleg music, exploiting the vast demand for which there was no longer any legal supply. Capitalism, people. Ka-ching!

(Oh, the most popular legal entertainment is pinball… without any of the fancier modern features. Also, badminton and bowling. Kill me now.)

The “Rock Resistance” began in 2070 in New York City, at first a disorganized rabble that was regularly beaten up by the cops. They inspired copycats, and the movement started to spread. “Luckily, the Rock Resistance soon became Velvet, thanks to the dazzling inspiration and leadership of the Starchildren.”

Part II

The next chapter is in the form of a recording made by an undercover member of the ministry of music, with only the target’s side of the conversation recorded. This creates the illusion they are describing the world’s setting to you, the reader. Again, I’m mostly going to try to summarize enough to put what follows in context.

A reminder: I write these things linearly and extemporaneously, page by page. So when I finally get to chargen, I may end up backtracking.

A sidebar notes that in 2073, using a BBS(!) or the “increasingly risky internet” is a bad way to share music. Tangible media includes a 2″ disk which can store several days worth of high quality data, a data chip “about the size of a quarter”, or good ol’ vinyl. The term “tape” is used to refer to any musical media whatsoever, although no one uses actual tape.

“Dives” are where illegal musicians perform; “Record managers” are basically pimps (so, nothing’s changed), bribing cops and arranging gigs. Many have other illegal interests on the side.

Lots of various drugs, color coded for your convenience: Whitepills, Graypills, Blackpills, Redpills, etc.

We then get about two pages of details about how Velvet is organized and maintained, using a kind of ad-hoc networks assembled via portable servers and routers, along with a lot of what old folks like me call “sneakernet”.

We are also introduced to the concept of “Blackholes”: Starchildren, or something like them, working for the Ministry. And, as noted earlier, the Blue Army, the violent splinter faction of Velvet.

Part III

In which we finally get some background on the Starchildren. Yay. This takes the form of an interview with “Stainless Pakistan”, set in 2078. Trying to distill out the key points.

  • They (Starchildren) don’t “really distinguish between the sexes”.
  • Sex and food, as humans understand them, are “really alien”. Good lord, don’t get them mixed up.
  • Sex is for fun, but not how they reproduce.
  • They can’t get humans pregnant, they use clouds of spores that look like floating glitter.
  • They learned about Elvis, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, etc., on their way to Earth.
  • They’d get away with their alien appearance by saying they were from France… I mean, “from somewhere else”.
  • They know little about their own homeworld; they were coming to Earth because it would be a better place.
  • They were really pissed when they arrived expecting the free-love 1970s and got the totalitarian 2070s. Like most immigrants, the reality of the promised land turned out to be far worse than the fantasy, but it was too late to pack up and go home.
  • No word on if the government of the time planned to build a wall and make the Starchildren pay for it.
  • They only live to about 40, and are impressed by humans’ long lifespans of 70+. This is a nice twist from the immortal aliens lamenting that humans come and go so quickly you can’t get to know them. It also reinforces the youth/rebellion nature of the setting.
  • Their “landing pods” decayed very rapidly in Earth’s atmosphere, rusting to junk in a few weeks.
  • Also, humans are physically stronger and have higher endurance. Again, a welcome change from the “better than you at everything” aliens that dominate the genre, and it’s good to see mechanics and backstory that reinforce the bishounen archetype that defines the particular musical genre that inspired the game. (Well, I’m assuming there will be mechanics. I will be… irked… if the rules do not match the setting. “Does what it says on the tin” is one of my cardinal rules of game design. If X is supposed to be good at Y, the game mechanics better make that happen.
  • There have been several references to “The Humanity Campaign”, which seems to be some sort of xenophobic genocide, but I haven’t seen it well defined yet… or I missed it on my first read. I’ll check back later.
  • The “Blackholes” were a clique aboard the ship; their parents had some disagreement with the parents of the Starchildren before Stainless Pakistan was born.

OK, the text gets more text-y at this point, and so will I.It all started in 1972, when radio and TV signals from Earth reached a world “billions of light years away” — they acknowledge the impossibility of this, but there’s no in-world explanation for the phenomenon. The transmissions lasted only five years… again, no explanation why… but transformed the alien world.

Enraptured by Earth music, they built a generation ship and set out for a fifty year journey. Those born on the ship would become the Starchildren, naturally.

They originally planned to arrive in a public display, but after seeing what Earth had become, made multiple clandestine landings in various wildnerness areas, then set out to the big cities, instruments in tow.

Their bodies are mostly human-seeming, but these are not their native species’ form… that is unknown, even to them. They have an unearthly mien to them, being pale, slightly blue, and unusually thin. They can also perform minor alterations to their form, to look more human, or to create cosmetic changes to skin tone, hair length and color, or fingernails. The very skilled can use this ability to heal wounds.There are no Starchild country musicians.

And so we get to Chapter 5… page 37 out of 124… before the chargen starts. I think we’ll do that in Part II.