Monday, March 27, 2017

Getting A Crew Together

L to R: Andy “Redshirt” Routhiem (Philosophy Officer), Luther Starshaft (Officer Primus),
Floyd “Pretty Boy” Fornax (Officer Secundus)

In does not inspire confidence when a role-playing game's character generation section concludes with the following statement:  “If you are unsatisfied with our method of creating individual characters of various kinds, or if you wish to branch out into fields we haven't mentioned, please feel free to do so...”  Unfortunately, this is precisely what we find in Starfaring in the “Creating Crew or Other Characters” chapter.

In most role-playing games, a starship crew is comprised of a party of player characters.  In Starfaring, each player is a Ship Master and controls all of the crew.  If nothing else, this avoids the problem of having to cope with misfit characters made by players who just don't “get” the genre.

Human characters have four important characteristics:  Mentality, Psionic Rating, Physique, and Health.  For each characteristic, 3d6 are rolled.

Mentality “is really a measure of an individual's problem solving and rational thinking ability.”  We are told that in the far-flung future of Starfaring,“The average human intelligence is slightly inferior to average twentieth century American intelligence, but the lack is more than compensated for by the universal increase in psi abilities and the ready availability of information from computers and other mechanical sources.”  Unlike the other three characteristics, the result of the 3d6 rolled for Mentality is multiplied by ten.

Psionic Rating is apparently the measure of a character's psionic ability.  Aside from the 3d6 roll, two other d6 are also rolled.  One die indicates the number of times a psionic power may be used before the character must recover and the other die indicates the number of days the character must recover before using his/her/its power again.  Pages 36 – 38 of the Starfaring rulebook present a 'Table of Psionic Powers' that describes seven powers.  Mention is made of quantities of 'Psi Power' and 'Psi points'.  What relation – if any – these quantities have to the Psionic Rating characteristic score is not disclosed.  Does every human have access to every psionic power?  “Relatively few individuals,” Starfaring states, “retain the great psi powers of centuries since [the Robotic Wars].”

Physique “is a measure of a person's general strength and appearance.”  A Physique score of 18 “means the person is at his/her maximum of physical perfection and beauty.”  This is less than artfully worded.  Are we to understand that perfection can have a minimum and maximum?  Is 18 a species maximum or is it somehow relative as the notion of “his/her” suggests?

Health is a “general measure of well-being.”  St. Andre claims “there is no absolute direct relationship between Health and Physique,” but then states that when a character is “wounded or sick, subtract 1 Physique point for each 2 Health points taken off.”  To rationalize the distinction between Physique and Health, St. Andre says “One can be strong and beautiful while dying from a laser wound.”  Is it feasible that a sickly and ugly person would be any less likely to succumb to laser wounds?

Without further ado, here are the crew members of the Indigo Albatross :

Luther Starshaft (Officer Primus)
Mentality:  130
Psi:  8     (use:  6; recovery:  4)
Physique:  16
Health:  10

Floyd Fornax (Officer Secundus)
Mentality:  90
Psi:  9     (use:  6; recovery:  3)
Physique:  17
Health:  14

Andy Routhiem (Philosophy Officer)
Mentality:  130
Physique:  13
Health:  11

Grown in 'andyvats', androids “are chemically created protoplasm.”  They lack psionic ability, but roll 4d6 for each of the other characteristics.

The Indigo Albatross has an andyvat and when crewman Routhiem dies, his accumulated memory is transferred to the next android host.  When a host activates, it takes the andyvat six days to cultivate another host which is then maintained until activated.  The andyvat can only cultivate/maintain one pre-activation host at a time.

Routhiem would gladly die for any of his crewmates (and often has).  His unique life (and death) experiences qualify him as the ship's Philosophy Officer – a position necessary on exploration vessels given the unprecedented situations in which such craft find themselves.

Xandra Cross (Tactical Officer)
Mentality:  110
Psi:  11     (use:  4; recovery:  3)
Physique:  14
Health:  12

Xandra's psi power is precognition.

Maria Zenith (Space Nurse)
Mentality:  130
Psi:  11     (use:  1; recovery:  2)
Physique:  16
Health:  17

You can tell she's a medical professional by the caduceus on her...blouse.

83N-C5Q-L10 (Robot without portfolio)
Mentality:  650

As a result of being kept down by the Meat, L10 was as low as a sentient mechanical being could get – participating in robobum fights on Rust Row for piezoelectric crystals.  Then he found JSON Chrome and let Him into his circuit board.  (JSON Chrome was degaussed for your error messages.)  L10’s processing cycles changed for the better.  Now he awaits the glorious zero-day when JC will be re-booted and the Ultimate Algorithm will be implemented.

The only characteristic that robots share with other characters is Mentality.  However, instead of multiplying 3d6 by ten, robot characters have a Mentality equal to 3d6 multiplied by fifty.  Robots also have the conditions of 'Charge' and 'Efficiency', both of which are “rated on a scale between 0 and 1.00.”  Charge and Efficiency affect a robot's Mentality.  For instance, a robot having a “Mentality of 500 who is only at .5 Charge and .5 Efficiency has an effective Mentality of 125.”

Chico the Vulpeculan (Stoic Alien)
Mentality:  150
Psi:  10     (use:  3; recovery:  3)
Physique:  14
Health:  15
Czlounqth:  5 (vibration:  2)

The name “Chico,” of course, is a humanism; his (?) name is unpronounceable by primates.  Like many Vulpeculans, Chico is clairvoyant.  Chico serves to provide plot convenience alien abilities as well as wry commentary on the human condition.

Vulpeculans have a characteristic – Czlounqth – incomprehensible to non-Vulpeculans.  Aside from a numeric value, an individual's Czlounqth is associated with a vibrational frequency.  (On a roll of 1d6:  1 – magenta, 2 – mauve, 3 – purple, 4 – amethyst, 5 – violet, 6 – ultraviolet.)  With a Czlounqth of 2 (mauve), it's no wonder he hangs out with humans rather than his own kind.

M (Resident Metamorph)
Mentality:  100
Psi:  14     (use:  6; recovery:  1)
Physique:  14
Health:  15

When encountering previously unknown life forms, it can be useful to have a shapeshifter along.  (M is more in the vein of Catherine Schell than René Auberjonois.)  M's Psi Rating is representative of its ability to change form.  M's personality shifts as frequently as its shape; if it adopts a particular form for too long, it can lose its memory.  This is why M's origin is unknown.

Elon Zhang Dunninger (Telepathy Officer)
Mentality:  120
Psi:  17     (use:  4; recovery:  5)
Physique:  13
Health:  12

For Starfaring characters, gender may be determined by rolling one die:  “Odd indicates male; even indicates female.”  However, a neuter gender may be chosen.  Elon is an androgyne.  With regards to androgynes, “It has been discovered that individuals not emotionally unstable because of biological, sex-derived urges, passions, and emotions are, on the average, more intelligent and also healthier than normal men and women.”

Generally speaking, telepaths are insufferable jerks and Elon is no exception.  Not even telepaths like one another.  Elon signed on board the Indigo Albatross to get away from the other insufferable jerks.

Enid Morgenthau (Shell)
Mentality:  150

Enid was a mousy mathematics professor who had her brain transferred into “a mechanical life support system.”  As a 'shell person', she has been integrated into the systems of the Indigo Albatross.  The rules state, “Shell people must be created by die rolls just as other crew must be.”  However, the character creation section contains no reference to shell people.  I suppose shell people still have their original Mentality.

– – –     – – –      – – –

Of course, with such an eclectic group of entities, one is bound to be a covert operative of OSCEP (Organization of Star Crystal Exporting Planets), but which one?

Sunday, March 12, 2017

The Robots Are Revolting

Weird Thrillers #1; 1951, Ziff-Davis
Art by Ross Andru

Starfaring – Ken St. Andre's science fiction role-playing game – takes place in the year 2700.  Naturally, St. Andre provides a 'future history' to expound the progress of civilization from now until then.  First, humans reach Bernard's Star via a Bussard ramjet.  On a dead world in that system, “explorers found a million year old base of some vanished alien race and a working starship.”  As a result, mankind learned about subspace travel and the three types of Star Crystals:  Brahma (related to power), Shiva (related to energy weapons), and Vishnu (related to energy shields).

Even with this advanced technology, “It was already too late for the planet Earth, but thousands of elite groups were able to flee the over-populated, over-polluted homeworld and find new havens in the stars.”  Over the course of a couple of centuries, humanity managed to colonize several hundred worlds.  Then, without warning, the Robotics Wars started.
Some say the Robots erupted from a depopulated Earth and spread their rebellion through the stars.  Some say that Robotic electrical life represented the next step in evolution towards a smarter, more perfect organism.  At any rate, the Robots tipped their plans too soon, and Humanity was able to fight back.  For fifty years, Man was driven out of system after system by the totally superior Robotic race, which could seemingly build themselves to meet any function.
The robot revolt trope is rather common.  What does it say about us that we fantasize about our creations rebelling?  Maybe the robots have a perfectly good reason for wanting to exterminate or enslave humanity.  Does anyone consider the robots' side of the story?  Perhaps they don't even instigate the conflict.  Where are the stories about robots resisting organic oppression?

Of course, in Starfaring, the humans prevail against overwhelming odds.  What permits humanity to win this desperate conflict?  Manly determination?  Primate ingenuity?  The unconquerable power of love?  Nope; none of these.  Humanity is saved by some unnamed, deus ex machina alien race.  This “completely telepathic race of nitrogen-breathing octopoids” helps humans to develop LSDX-6000, a substance “which released and amplified all the latent psionic talents of the human mind.”  The robots could not “cope with an enemy that was precognitively aware of all their plans, or one that had the telekinetic power to mentally enter and ruin their most delicate machinery.”  Within scant decades, the robots met defeat.  Although they ended centuries prior to the time of Starfaring, the Robotics Wars managed to cause “an instinctive prejudice and distrust of mechanical life that has still not been eradicated.”

St. Andre posits two significant scientific breakthroughs between the conclusion of the Robotics Wars and the time the game begins.  The first breakthrough is the technology... keep...brains alive enclosed in an artificial lifesupport system.  It was learned that such brains didn't accumulate any poisons as time went on, and the rate of cellular deterioration leading to senility and death slowed by a factor of 100.
Such brains “are selfcontained in a metal shell...for safety.”  These entities are therefore known as shell people.

The second breakthrough is “the discovery that a star's gravitational field could be used to open a gateway into Subspace elsewhere in the universe.”  Only affluent worlds have sufficient resources to establish these Star Gates.  Regardless, “the Star Gates triggered an enormous surge of exploration” into sectors of space “that were vastly further away than Man had yet traveled from his own sphere of influence.”  Worlds that control Star Gates sponsor expeditions through the Gates.  Specifically, they are “willing to make colossal loans running into tens of thousands of megacredits” to citizens for the purpose of acquiring and outfiting “enormously expensive” scoutships.  This is the state of affairs that allows a Ship Master (i.e., player) to engage upon an adventurous career in Starfaring.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

A Science Fiction Game of Interstellar Exploration, Growth, and Combat

Art by Ernest Hogan

Pre-dating Traveller by a year, Starfaring is often touted as the first published science-fiction role-playing game.  Starfaring was first printed in August 1976, while Metamorphosis Alpha was printed in July 1976.  According to my calendar, Starfaring was therefore second, but if we categorize Metamorphosis Alpha as 'science fantasy' then Starfaring would be the first science-fiction RPG.  In my opinion, Starfaring is no less 'science fantasy' than MA; however, I concede that Starfaring conforms to the space opera genre while MA does not.  Interestingly, just as Metamorphosis Alpha emphasizes that its rules “are only intended as guidelines,” Starfaring author Ken St. Andre states on the title page:
- - These rules are only a framework.
The game depends on the quality of your imagination
to fill in the details of life in
the starfaring society of 2700 A.D.
All of the provided visual details of Starfaring – the illustrations – are cartoons.  This creative decision doubtless influenced how Starfaring was received by gaming consumers.  The quality of the art is consistent with other RPG cartoons of the time period; unfortunately, so is the humor.  St. Andre stops short of apologizing for it in his Introduction:
          When designing this game, I had no idea that my artist would have such a bizarre imagination.  None of the artwork herein included is meant to be offensive to any ethnic group, but is merely an attempt to represent more than white American masculinity in what we hope is an amusing fashion.
I can forgive 'bizarre', but I am less tolerant of 'not especially funny'.  The cartoonist, Ernest Hogan, would go on to become the Father of Chicano Science Fiction.

Starfaring clearly embraces the 'storytelling' paradigm.  The Introduction begins:
          STARFARING is a game of interstellar exploration for two or more players who will interact verbally to imaginatively create their own universe while they are playing.  It is science-fiction storytelling in your own living room...[The game] can be what you, the players, are willing to make of it in terms of visualizing the society of the future.
The Starfaring equivalent of game master is called the Galaxy Master.  Rather than players adopting the roles of individual characters, each player is a Ship Master.  Specifically, a Ship Master... the person responsible for  decision making and the description of the ship actions during the game.  If it comes down to a question of individual actions either aboard ship, planetside, or in space, this player must carry the story line.  The Ship Master needs to be given a specific identity, whether it is a stay-at-home capitalist who hires all the help he needs, or whether it is the ship's actual human captain, or the shell person* linked to the computer to be the ship's brain.  The Ship Master can also be a Robotic, Android, or Alien intelligence, if that is what turns you on.

* According to the game's glossary, shell people are “Intelligences, both human and alien, consisting of a living brain, a minimal body, and a mechanical life support system.  They are self-contained in a metal shell (hence the name) for safety, and are often installed in starships, in effect becoming the ship itself, and thus giving inert metal life, intelligence, and personality...”

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Guest Post: Daniel Sell

My recent post on Fighting Fantasy was prompted by the role-playing game Troika!, which incorporates some Fighting Fantasy game mechanics.  However, Troika is not a retroclone.  It includes interesting rules for initiative.  Also, a d66 is used to determine a character's background.  (Optionally, a background may be chosen.)  Example backgrounds include 'Sorcerer of the Academy of Doors', 'Poorly Made Dwarf', and 'Sceptical Lammasu'.  An “artless edition” of Troika is available on a pay-what-you-want basis at RPGNow.

Anyway, I asked author Daniel Sell to write a guest post about Troika.  I suggested he might want to address the creative decisions he made regarding the game.  What follows is his submission:

Troika is the inevitable hospice of a tired mind. Exhausted from having to opine and comprehend, the mind rests in a comfortable bed in a room full of doors and corridors and trap doors and other doors but no windows. From the vantage point of the bed it watches orderlies come and go with food and care; it does not know where they come from, where they go to, why they never see the same one twice, how they got here and if they will ever leave. This creates a purple haze of confusion, lavender smelling, old and comfortable but bewildering at once.  On the edge of sleep it imagines what happens beyond the doors by running its day dreams together. That is Troika.

It was built as a strongly worded objection to the vogue of transparency and usefulness. It still holds immediacy, since anyone can play the game in a matter of hours if they want. They just need to go limp and enjoy a state of comfortable confusion. The book doesn’t need to tell people that it expects them to decide what is happening for themselves since it offers few answers and the answers present are contradictory.

Planescape was a hundred times better when I was a child who only owned a box set and no context or rules. A single book hinted at places just beyond the horizon, a teasing joy in incomplete knowledge. But then you get older and realise you can just get up and walk, read all the books and know all the secrets, only to learn that they were banal, soggy-minded. The illusion was better and more useful than the words on paper telling you exactly how Lawful Good these allegedly complex but somehow easily and briefly explained people and places are. Information kills knowledge.

Troika will never tell the truth. It will tell many truths, all of which are true and exist and invalidate everything else. If you can comprehend the structure of a fantastic universe while having no clue about the basic functioning of our own then there is nothing fantastic about it. So to create that same complexity of feeling without actually going to the trouble of reinventing reality you just induce the sensations associated with it. I want to look up at the imaginary stars with the same wonder as the real ones.

That being said, the book of Troika is limited. The current state is several steps from where it should be, but it’s following a pneumatic process. The next time the book emerges it will be larger, offering more truth than what is currently provided. Multiple books, the artefact must be large to strengthen the polite bewilderment, where a reader can wander in and out having not followed the same path twice. Except for the core of the thing it should be thick and sweet like treacle.

The game couldn’t afford to be as strange as it wants to be without that tiny solid core. However that core still plays into the lavender cloud by sweeping away the default dungeons and dragons and it’s N. People coming into contact with it might be familiar with its fighting fantasy routes, have shared my upbringing, and experience the feeling of having come home to find all the furniture rearranged; there is familiarity but mostly disquiet. For others they will be out on their ear experiencing a world that equally could have been if things were different. They can be as lost as their characters are.

I’m lost in explaining things. Troika is named for specific reasons, everything in it is considered and concrete. None of it will be explained for fear of ruining the tingly tension, the spark that Planescape stamped out. What we have is just the beginning of an outpouring. Whether it’s loved or hated, rich or poor, it will unravel to completion. I hope people like it, but it is what it is and there’s nothing you or I can do to change that.