Sunday, December 10, 2017

Saga of the Starnomads (Part I)

Art by Dive Billman

In Lords of Creation, Tom Moldvay offers seven settings.  One of these, Imperial Terra, is a space opera venue.  “Because of a series of man-made catastrophes,” states the description, “details of entire centuries of history have been lost, so it is impossible to date the Empire using 20th century time references.”  (Corvus Andromeda comes from Imperial Terra.)  The Rule Book has one-and-a-half pages dedicated to the details of Imperial Terra.  About one-quarter of a page is devoted to describing the Starnomads.  According to The Book of Foes, “A Starnomad is a member of a wandering futuristic culture that practices genetic selection of the fittest.”

Evidently, Moldvay put a great deal of thought into the Starnomads.  I think they're elitist jerks, but I'm just a mudhugger. To the premier issue of Heroes, Avalon Hill's magazine, Tom Moldvay contributed a Lords of Creation adventure, “Survival Run of the Starnomads.”  (However, the adventure refers to itself as “The STARNOMAD SURVIVAL MAZE.”)  In the 'Designer's Note' for the adventure, Moldvay explains, “In the summer of 1979, I designed a game system entitled 'Starnomads' for the amusement of my friends and myself.”  He further explains that the game system “was the grandfather of LORDS OF CREATION®.”

Along with the adventure, Moldvay provides an 'Historical Background' for the Starnomads, some of which is duplicative of the material in the Imperial Terra setting description.  The first part of this background follows.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

The Horn of Roland (spoilers)

Art by Dave Billman

As mentioned in a previous post, Tom Moldvay intended that The Horn of Roland be included in the Lords of Creation boxed set as an introductory adventure.  For whatever reason, The Horn of Roland was published as a separate item.  I examined Roland to see if it addressed perceived gaps in the Lords of Creation rules; alas, it did not.  Regardless, Roland offers a glimpse of how Moldvay intended Lords of Creation to be played.

In most role-playing games, player characters are part of the setting from the start.  In Lords of Creation, Moldvay stated that player characters “begin as 'ordinary' people; strange things start to happen to them; they undergo unusual adventures.”  They are introduced to parallel worlds, alternate dimensions, and pocket universes; they gain extraordinary abilities.  In short, the player characters transition from the mundane world to the “region of super-natural wonder” (to use Joseph Campbell's phrase).

The Horn of Roland is actually a sequence of six related scenarios – a short term campaign, in effect.  The first scenario is intended as a starting point for “newly-created” Lords of Creation characters.  It is a murder mystery.  Of course, there's nothing wrong with a murder mystery in the right context.  However, the cover of Lords of Creation depicts a man and a woman emerging from a portal connecting a fantasy realm to a science fiction realm.  The man has shuriken attached to his boots and the woman is zapping a dragon.  Maybe this seems like an interesting play experience or maybe it doesn't.  In any event, it sets expectations and these expectations do not include a murder mystery.  The mystery is described as “fairly complex” and the GM is encouraged “to force [the characters] to investigate all possibilities...”  (There are seven separate and detailed red herrings.)  A GM can effectively run the mystery thanks to the manner in which Roland presents it; however, the players (who may well have expected to fight robots and dragons) must cope with a convoluted mystery.  I mean, they didn't sign up to play Agatha Christie's Biddies & Belgians.  (That's a thing, right?)

The player characters are attending a gaming convention “in the fictitious town of New Bristol...”  The convention is hosted by the New Bristol Arms, owned by Tom Morgan (evidently an author avatar).  A businessman residing in the penthouse of the New Bristol Arms is murdered, but the police consider the death to be a suicide.  Morgan hires the player characters to investigate (with the consent of the police chief).  I think that Moldvay may have originally intended the mystery to take place in the thirties.  There's an NPC detective whose appearance is based on Humphrey Bogart.  There's an NPC gangster whose appearance is based on James Cagney.  There are German and Japanese agents vying for stolen technology.  Most tellingly, there is an elevator operator.  Moldvay even offers a special trivia quiz that “isn't part of the adventure and in no way affects the experience earned by the characters.”  (Question[s] #1:  Who wrote The Mousetrap?  What novelette is the play based on?  Name two other mystery plays by the same person.)

The players are given some hand-outs, such as the above map.  Unfortunately, there are complications.  On the map, #47, #74, and #95 each appear twice.  Locations #48, #75, #84, and #90 are absent.  (The duplicates of #47 and #74 might account for the missing #48 and #75, respectively.)  Finally, the key lists 101 locations, but the map includes location #102.  I think Moldvay wanted New Bristol to serve as a continuing base of operations for the player characters and a place to acquire equipment.  A venue less expansive than a town may have been more suitable for starting characters; a university, perhaps.

Anyway, during the course of the investigation, the player characters are plagued by a Phantom.  The players are not informed about the reasons for the antagonism of the Phantom until the last scenario.

The murder was committed by a local heiress possessed by the spirit of a witch.  (The victim was descended from the judge who sentenced the witch to death three hundred years ago.)  The mysterious “Cult of the Serpent” was responsible for summoning the witch's spirit and supplying a living vessel for it.  While investigating the seven red herrings, the player characters interact with a long list of townspeople, none of whom are associated with the cult.  If some of the NPCs were cult members, it would have provided players another means to get at the truth.

A non-player character tells the player characters where to go for the climax of the scenario and they get the privilege of watching said NPC conduct the denouement.  Not only must the player characters plod through a complex mystery, but they also get sidelined by an NPC at the end.  Well, the player characters see their Phantom board a “Ghostly Galleon.”  The aforementioned NPC offers them $100,000 to pursue the Phantom (even though he has no reason to do so – nothing suggests he was even aware of the Phantom prior to the end of the adventure).  The heiress, freed from possession, offers her 70-foot yacht.  This leads into the second scenario.  What if the player characters aren't interested in pursuing the Phantom?
     If the characters don't chase the Ghostly Galleon, there is no further adventure...Do your best to let the characters give chase voluntarily.  But if all else fails, the characters are surrounded by a bright yellow light...Each character will have a vision of his enivitable [sic] death at the hand of allies of the Phantom.  Every character who fails to make a Luck Roll feels an uncomfortable urge to chase the Ghostly Galleon.
Please have your tickets ready for the conductor.  Choo-choo!  (Also, how are player characters supposed to know who “allies of the Phantom” are in their visions?  Does the Phantom stand around gleefully rubbing his hands?  Does he give his ally a high five?)

As they pursue the Ghostly Galleon, the player characters have various encounters.  Eventually, in the Bermuda Triangle, “they sail through a swirling tunnel of light” into another dimension.  Then things start to get a little weird.  At night, the yacht is pursued by the Wild Hunt.  The players have no idea why.  Furthermore:
     The characters have to realize, as soon as possible, that they can't harm the hunter.  He is simply too powerful considering the characters' current level of experience.  The characters stand no chance in battle.  Their only hope is to flee as fast as possible.  If they don't flee quickly, the hunter has time to attack, and possibly kill, one or two characters chosen at random before the sun rises and he returns to the clouds.
Fortunately, the player characters meet up with the Flying Dutchman.  He gives them a statuette that keeps the Wild Hunt away, but it is only effective for a week.  The only permanent protection from the Wild Hunt is the eponymous Horn of Roland.  The Dutchman has recently seen it in a bone tower, on a nearby island.  The bone tower is the subject of the third scenario.

Moldvay contributed to The Isle of Dread and the island in The Horn of Roland is what would result if The Isle of Dread met Land of the Lost and they dropped acid.  Yes, there are dinosaurs.  Also on the island are relics of The First Ones, “a strange, unknown race that once inhabited the island.”

The player characters go to the bone tower and fight a wide variety of foes.  They also come across a couple of prisoners, one of whom is Cyrano de Bergerac.  Moldvay must have been a fan of the French duelist; not only was Cyrano featured in Moldvay's The Future King, he warrants a one-page appendix in The Horn of Roland.  Moldvay also modified a ballad from the play Cyrano de Bergerac for Cyrano to recite while he – not the player characters – defeats one of the bone tower guardians.

Even after obtaining the Horn of Roland that acts as permanent Wild Hunt repellent, the player characters have other adventures on the island.  Cyrano, on the other hand, leaves for the moon.  “The same method of travel won't work for the characters,” Moldvay informs us, “unless you want to create a short side trip adventure to the moon, returning the characters to the island after the side trip is over.”  Seriously, going to the moon with Cyrano de Bergerac should BE the adventure.  Aside from Cyrano's own work, inspiration for what might happen on the moon could be gleaned from:  Burroughs' The Moon Maid, Wells' The First Men in the Moon, Baron Munchausen, Kepler's Somnium, Lucian's True History, and The Great Moon Hoax of 1835.  There's even a trip to the moon in Orlando furioso.  (Perhaps the object of the quest should have been Astolfo's horn rather than Roland's.)

On the island, robots have “enslaved” humans.  This is automatically assumed to be a bad thing.  A revolt against the robots is the subject of the fifth scenario.  In order to successfully revolt, the humans need to be armed.  In the fourth scenario, the player characters gather the necessary weapons from the “Caves of Doom.”  Although they don't realize it, the player characters are required to obtain a magic sword – Lightbringer – from a “Bloodstone Cube” in the Caves of Doom.
     If the characters don't voluntarily travel to area D20, then touch the Bloodstone Cube, they feel an unexplained, irrestible [sic] urge to do so.  Give the players every chance to take their characters to D20 and touch the cube.  But if the characters try to leave the Caves of Doom without acquiring Lightbringer, they find it impossible to leave.  No matter which way they go, the path seems to wind around back to the entrance to D20.
The final scenario begins when – after the revolt – Phantoms attempt to steal the horn.  (Remember the Phantom from the first scenario?)  “In the struggle,” the scenario reads, “one of the Phantoms accidently loses a map that gives directions to the stronghold of the Phantoms.”  One might think that the Phantoms intentionally dropped the map to lead the player characters into a trap.  I mean, the Phantoms don't need a map; they can teleport and – even if they couldn't – they still manage to get back to the stronghold without the map.  Yet the map was lost accidentally and thus accurately indicates how to get to bad guy headquarters.

At the Shadow Stronghold, the player characters finally learn why they have been drawn into these scenarios.  The basis of The Horn of Roland is the animosity between the mythological Erebus and Prometheus.  Erebus has Prometheus chained in the Shadow Stronghold.  “Erebus, Lord of Shadows,” we read, “for reasons known only to himself, has decided that the characters are his enemies.”  Actually, although the players never learn this, Erebus wants to destroy every person who has the potential to become Lords of Creation (such as the player characters).  So, Erebus sent the Phantom(s) and (I guess) the Wild Hunt against the party.  Prometheus “has been helping the characters secretly throughout the adventure.”  The Lightbringer sword is the only thing that can break Prometheus' chains.  Once the player characters free Prometheus, Erebus appears and the two fight.  The player characters get to watch.  The scenario reads, “Prometheus asks the characters to keep out of the battle...”  Erebus necessarily loses.  I would have designed the adventure so that the party fights a group of Erebus' followers while Prometheus and Erebus fight on a different dimensional plane.  Also, what happens in the conflict of mortals would affect what happens in the conflict of immortals.  Then again, I'm used to dealing with players who actually like to have their characters engage in meaningful activity.

The Horn of Roland has aspects of a railroad and forces player characters into inactivity during what should be the most exciting parts of the adventure.  It also has a 'big picture' of which the players remain ignorant until the very end.  Players don't need to see the 'big picture' from the start of the adventure, but enough of it should be presented so that the players have an idea about what is going on and they can interact with the adventure appropriately.  For instance, if the players knew there was an extremely helpful magic sword in the Caves of Doom, then the characters would likely not need to be compelled to find it.  Moldvay has no problem with a mentor NPC giving directions to the player characters (e.g., the Flying Dutchman).  He also has no problem with player characters receiving “visions.”  Why not clue the PCs into the fact they are acting for the benefit of Prometheus (or an unnamed powerful being) who will help help them against their (mutual) enemies? 

* * *     * * *     * * *

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Combat in Lords of Creation

Art by Dave Billman

The combat section of the 64-page Lords of Creation Rule Book occupies approximately nine pages.  This includes about a page of weapon charts. 

The first event to transpire in a Lords of Creation combat turn is determination of initiative.  All participants determine individual initiative if “each side has only a few combatants.”  In situations where “there are many combatants, the individual with the best initiative bonus should roll for his entire side.”  Initiative is determined by rolling 1d10 and adding the character's initiative bonus.  Ties are re-rolled until the tie is broken.  With optional rules in effect (not to be confused with the additional combat rules), many weapons provide an additional initiative bonus.  For instance, polearms and whips give +4; slings and shotguns grant +1.

As mentioned in the last post, Lords of Creation characters have a 'Physical Score' which is the average of the Muscle, Speed, and Stamina ability scores.  An attack (either close combat or ranged combat) is successful if the attacker rolls his or her Physical Score or less on 1d20.  A character's skill level for the weapon used is added to the Score while the target's Armor Rating is subtracted from it (assuming the armor protects against the weapon used).  Leather armor or a bronze cuirass acts as Armor Rating 2; plastic plate armor or an energy shield acts as Armor Rating 7.  'Regular' armor protects against close combat weapons, 'ballistic' armor protects against close combat weapons as well as damage caused by firearms, and 'energy' armor acts as 'ballistic' armor as well as protects against energy weapons.  However, there are some weapons (such as x-ray lasers and neutron beamers) against which no normal armor protects.  Only magic armor protects against magical weapons.  Some weapons, such as tanglers and photon scramblers, allow a target to attempt a Luck roll.

According to the Close Combat Weapon Chart, an unarmed attack has no damage value.  This means that damage inflicted by an unarmed attack equals the attacker's Damage Bonus added to the attacker's Unarmed Combat skill.  (Skill level is always added to damage inflicted.)  The maximum number of skill levels a character can have with a given weapon is listed on the applicable weapon chart.  The number ranges from one to four.  The only exceptions are Rapier (5 levels maximum) and Unarmed Combat (6 levels maximum).

All attacks are declared before any are resolved.  This means when initiative is determined per side rather than per individual, “it's possible to waste attacks on a target that someone else has already defeated.”

“The Attack Concept” is defined by Moldvay:
     A single attack isn't one shot or one strike.  Instead, a single attack is the number of shots or strikes that could reasonably be made with the weapon in 6 seconds.  If the GM or players think of an attack as one shot or strike instead of an abstract attack, they may become confused when calculating reloading, ammunition expenditure, etc.
     All attacks have been precalculated to take into account the number of attacks that could reasonably be made with the weapon in 6 seconds, how serious the wounds from that weapon would be, play balance, and other similar factors.  Therefore, a pistol does more damage than a revolver, because a combatant can fire more shots in 6 seconds with a semi-automatic pistol than with a double-action revolver.  Even though the weapon might be firing several shots or hitting more than once, it is easier to regard the entire process as a single attack.
This concept of combat as an abstraction is reasonable; however, it fails to take into account that multiple attacks are possible in a six second game turn.  When a character's Physical Score exceeds twenty, the character gains additional attacks per turn.  With a Physical Score of 21-23, a character has two attacks with a base chance to hit of 11; with 39-41, two attacks at 17; etc.  A character can have, at most, thirteen attacks per turn (at a base chance of 20).  To achieve this, a character must have a Physical Score in excess of 900.  (For the purpose of illustration, Zeus has nine attacks with a base roll of 27.  Sinbad has two attacks at a base roll of 17.)  Whereas single-attack combatants can “waste attacks” as described above, combatants with multiple attacks “can switch extra attacks to other enemies within 10 feet of the original target.”

A character reduced to zero Life Points “will pass out.”  Characters reduced below zero Life Points will bleed to death without medical attention.  Characters can survive a number of negative Life Points equal to five of the character's Personal Force score.

In a single attack, an attacker may opt to divide damage “equally among additional targets within 10 feet of the main target.”  This decision must be made before attempting a single attack roll.  Depending upon varying armor ratings among the targets, some may be hit and some not.  If some targets are missed, damage that would have been applied to those targets is forfeit.  For example, if an attack is attempted against three targets and two are missed, the remaining target still only takes one-third damage.

An attack roll of 20 is an automatic miss.  An attack roll of 1 is an automatic hit.  Furthermore, the target is disarmed (“knocks the weapon out of the opponent's hands”).  “If the opponent is not of a type that could be disarmed,“ we are told, “the opponent takes double damage instead.”  In order to recover his or her weapon, a disarmed character must win initiative and “must spend an entire turn to pick up the weapon.”  Seemingly, when recovering his or her weapon, the disarmed character is subject to at least one attack of opportunity.

If optional rules are used, armor can adversely affect initiative and movement rate.  Also, a character can receive a bonus to his or her attack score by sacrificing a like amount of inflicted damage (up to five points).  Similarly, a character can increase his or her defense by reducing the amount of damage he or she can inflict that turn (again, up to five points).  A successful attack inflicts a minimum of one point of damage.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Characters in Lords of Creation

Art by Dave Billman

The first step in creating a Lords of Creation character is to record the player's name on the Character Record Sheet.  There is also space for the character's name.  Fortunately, it is explained, “If you don't yet have a name for your character, leave the character space blank.”

There are five basic abilities:
     MUSCLE is a measure of overall muscular ability and general physical strength...
     SPEED measures basic muscular coordination and manual dexterity...
     STAMINA is a measure of general health and physical well-being...
     MENTAL is a measure of the character's mental abilities including such things as intuition, logic, and will-power...
     LUCK is a measure of the character's chance of surviving accidents and other unusual circumstances.
The score for each basic ability is determined by rolling 2d10.  Each basic ability is associated with a “modifier” equal to the basic ability divided by ten (rounded up).  The modifier derived from Strength is Close Combat Damage Bonus; Speed, Initiative Bonus; and Stamina, Healing.  “Power Modification” – used in Mental Combat – is derived from Mental.  The Luck modifier added to five equals the character's Luck Roll – “a chance to let fortune come into play in the game.”

A character's Personal Force equals the total of his or her basic ability scores divided by ten.  Among other things, Personal Force “determines a character's experience level.”  Actual Experience Points are used to increase basic abilities; a certain amount of Experience Points increases a given ability by 1d6.  As basic ability scores increase, so does Personal Force.  Every ten points of Personal Force means a new “title” for the character.  (“Title” is the Lords of Creation equivalent of “level.”)  There are eleven titles, ranging from Neophyte to Lord of Creation.  The amount of experience needed to increase an ability by 1d6 increases as title improves.  For a Neophyte, the amount is ten points and for a Lord of Creation, two thousand points are required.  Each title confers a title ability.  We are informed, “Title abilities work only at the discretion of the GM.”  (original italics)

Player characters start as Neophytes having the title ability of Dimensional Sight, which is described as...
...the ability to see other-dimensional creatures that would otherwise be invisible.  Such creatures as ghosts, beings from elemental planes, sprites, etc., would only be visible to to characters having Dimensional Sight.  The ability is used as a vehicle for the GM to introduce creatures into a normal setting to create an atmosphere of eerie mystery.
Title abilities should not be confused with powers like Wizard and Telepath.  “At the start of the game no characters have special powers.”

All (human) Lords of Creation player characters begin with a movement rate of sixty feet per game turn.  (1 turn = 6 seconds)  The average of Muscle, Speed, and Stamina equals a character's Physical score, which is used in combat.  The equivalent of hit points in Lords of Creation are Life Points.  A character has a base number of Life Points equal to his or her Stamina score.  For every title attained (including Neophyte), 1d10 Life Points are added.  To put this in perspective, a knife inflicts 1-6 damage, a two-handed sword does 2-12, and a shotgun does 3-18.

A character starts with a number of skill levels equal to his or her Personal Force.  As alluded to previously, there are fifty-three combat skills and twenty non-combat skills, each with five levels of talent.  According to The Book of Foes, Davy Crockett has the following skills:  Knife – 3, Flintlock Rifle – 3, and Wilderness – 4.  (The first four levels of Wilderness are Survival, Trapping, Hunting, and Tracking.)

A starting character has an amount of money equal to $10 multiplied by d100.  Equipment may be purchased with these funds.  Player characters are assumed to start in the modern world and can therefore obtain items from the aptly named Modern Equipment List.  Lords of Creation also provides an Antique Equipment List and a Futuristic Equipment List.  Prices on the Futuristic List are given in credits (cr.), the future equivalent of “U.S. dollars of the 1980's.”  Prices on the Antique List are given in silver centums (SC).  Equal to a dollar, a silver centum coin is equivalent to 1/100th of a pound of silver.  Yet it is also explained:
     Currency values fluctuate throughout time and space.  Currencies are also called different names in different countries.  If the GM wants, he can devise tables to cover currency fluctuation, but it is seldom worth the effort.  The GM can also add more flavor to an adventure by using currency names special to the adventure (franc, deutchemark, peso, florin, drachma, bezant, etc.).  Such names add to the background of an adventure, but do not essentially change it.