Since a comment on an old article may be missed by both my fans, here’s a link to awesome Not Star Wars Really They’re Not Honest Mr. Lucas Don’t Sue Us minis for Star Rovers!
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.
Honestly, this is sort of being posted because I don’t like long stretches of “No posting”, not because I genuinely think it’s likely to be of interest to anyone. (Oh, BTW, the next stage of the Battlelords walkthrough is almost ready; I need to decide if I want to split it into three parts or charge ahead and finish it now.)
Anyway, work on Stellar Battles proceeds in fits and starts; I’m still having trouble finding the right tone for it, in terms of rules. On the one hand, I’ve really been wanting to do the Ultimate Kick Ass Space Opera Laser Sword Five Mile Long Starship Pew Pew Pew Lasers Barfights And Smugglers And Ancient Mystic Powers And Forgotten Alien Artifacts science fiction game for a long time. A very long time. As in, honestly, it was the very first thing I tried to design back when I was 14 and one way or another it’s been in the back of my mind for a while. I know I want race/class/level, because while I love freeform systems for a lot of reasons, I honestly find that I prefer RCL designs because they let me better define the core archetypes for a game while still (if using more modern variants, i.e, OGL-based) allowing for the kind of fine-tuned character control I like. I’m definitely not interested in doing a new game w/the 4e engine, not because I don’t like the system, but because I’d rather focus all my 4e efforts on Earth Delta.
This leaves me pulled in two directions.
One, go very much mid/late 1970s, esp. pulling from the “unofficial” stuff and the things Gary Gygax (sometimes with good reason, sometimes without) hated, and that’s Classes Galore… lots and lots of classes, most with some kind of simple “At this level, the blah can blah 1/day” powers to liven them up — see, well, classic Arduin, and no real skills/feats/goodies/ whatever, just boolean proficiencies or class specific powers laid out in varying levels of detail (ranging from simple notes bound to cause arguments to pages of niggling detail bound to cause arguments).
Two, give in to my passions and use a more “modern” system, either an OGL/Pathfinder variant or FantasyCraft, the latter being a system I really like for its plethora of crunchy bits and how it weds the kind of meta-gaming systems you normally find only in wussy free form commie hippie “story telling” games with the kind of hard tactical crunch I find endlessly appealing.
Three, screw it all, make up my own core rules that will draw from many strains of inspiration but not be particularly “plug and play” compatible with anything else. This is another thing I keep waffling over. I have argued, many many times, that the world doesn’t need one more way to kill an orc. And I stand by that. At the same time, I like creating systems for their own sake, knowing that they’re unnecessary and redundant. There’s a few mechanics I really like (non-Boolean success systems, for one) that aren’t a common part of the core D20 family. (By “non-Boolean”, I mean “multiple successes”, where how well you do matters. Hitting someone by 10 points does more damage than hitting him by 1 point. Tasks such as picking a lock require accumulating successes over time. The best known systems that use this mechanic, though, are dice pool systems which tend to fail in terms of granularity.)
Putting it more plainly, since I get no money, and very little in the way of fame or even feedback, for these kinds of projects, the only thing that drives me is passion, and if I don’t have passion for a particular style, it doesn’t get done. While I’m willing to play almost any game, except that which must not be named, when it comes to either running games or designing games, I like high granularity and high levels of mechanical character differentiation. That last one is important and it’s what tends to keep me out of the “Old School Renaissance” except as a source of
ideas I can rip off inspiration. (It also kept me very annoyed at 4e until the first wave of “Power” splatbooks and Dragon articles.) I don’t care if one 4th level Fighter is run as an axe-wielding illiterate barbarian and another 4th level Fighter is run as a gallant Knight — if, when the dice hit the table, they are mechanically identical, then, for me, the system doesn’t work. The more generic the mechanics, the less interest the game holds for me.
However, the title of this topic was “Hyperspace”, was it not? It was! I’ve been dancing around the system issue by focusing on the setting, which is going to be, like most of the settings I prefer, something mostly drawn in big, bold, colorful strokes with unending room for GM improvisation and expansion. However, it does need some “rules of physics”, both literally and figuratively, and if you’re doing a grand space opera setting, you need to set out how faster than light travel works, as this is going to shape the game universe more than any other decision. It will influence politics, economics, and character backgrounds in all sorts of ways. There is no disconnect between “swashbuckling action” and “world building” — if the universe in which you’re buckling your swash has no sense of verisimilitude to it, you are not Errol Flynn innnn spaaaaaaaace… you are a four year old running around a living room, waving a plastic sword and going “I’m a piwate!”.
Thus, the first draft of the hyperspace rules.
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?
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.
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…
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.
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!
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.