Sunday, November 5, 2017

The Ultimate Role-Playing Game . . .

Art by Dave Billman
a game of science, fantasy, science fiction and high adventure that explores the farthest reaches of your imagination!  Splendid adventures take place throughout time, space and other dimensions.
So reads the first portion of copy from the back of the Lords of Creation boxed set.  The first sentence of the Introduction further states, “LORDS OF CREATION is a role-playing game of science fantasy, fantasy, science fiction and high adventure...”  The difference is the mention of 'science fantasy'.  Lawrence Schick, in his 1991 Heroic Worlds, categorizes Lords of Creation as a Science Fantasy game – along with such games as Gamma World and Space: 1889.  The back-of-the-box copy continues:
LORDS OF CREATION allows unlimited voyages via your imagination through time and beyond worldly dimensions.  Journey into magical realms ruled by swords and sorcery . . . battle bizarre aliens and killer robots on mysterious planets in distant galaxies . . . venture into the worlds of mystery, horror and wonder hidden beneath the surface of the present everyday world.  Experience thrilling adventures as you become a valiant and courageous hero!
Lords of Creation, published by Avalon Hill in 1983, was written by Tom Moldvay.  Since this is Moldvay's birthday, it is appropriate to begin our exploration of the game.  Moldvay contributed an essay to Heroic Worlds explaining Lords of Creation.  Not surprisingly, Moldvay and his friends were enthralled by “Original D&D.”  According to Moldvay:
...we had played every twist and variation D&D could offer.  We wanted more.  We experimented with extra rules; we tried to expand to other genres.  After a while it became obvious you can only stretch the D&D rules so far before they snapped.  So I made up a set of rules to suit our needs.
Much like a universal system, Moldvay's rules had to accommodate the possibilities inherent in essentially every role-playing game genre.  Yet Moldvay did not offer Lords of Creation as a universal system; instead, he intended a genre-mixed campaign arc with a definite end game. 
          The idea was to have characters start in a familiar setting – that of our own time and place.  They would begin as “ordinary” people; strange things start to happen to them; they undergo unusual adventures.  Gradually, the characters find that there are realities other than their own.  The characters discover they have innate powers they could once only dream of.  As they gain experience their adventures become more bizarre.  They travel throughout time and to far-flung planets.  They burst the bounds of normal time and space and journey to otherworldly dimensions and universes with unique physical laws.
          The Lords of Creation who give the game its name are extremely powerful individuals who can build whole new worlds and design dimensions with differing physical laws.  Yet all of them were once “normal” people, like the player characters.  If a character survives long enough, he or she becomes one of the Lords of Creation and learns how to build new worlds.
Page 43 of the Rule Book states, “New GMs should first run the adventure included in this game, THE HORN OF ROLAND.”  Unfortunately, The Horn of Roland was sold as an “expansion module” and not included in the Lords of Creation boxed set.  While the Rule Book provides ample advice on creating adventures, Lords of Creation suffers from not providing an introductory adventure to enlighten the Game Master (and players) as to Moldvay's vision and how the characters fit into the super-setting.

The contents of the boxed set included a Rule Book and a Book of Foes – both 64-pages and both with paper covers.  Also included were 1d6, 1d10, and 1d20.  Contemporaneously with selling Lords of Creation, Avalon Hill was also selling James Bond 007.  The soft cover, 160-page James Bond Basic Rules sold at $9.95; the boxed set, which also included character sheets and dice, sold at $12.95.  Although The Horn of Roland has 52 pages and includes play aids in its boxed set, a different introductory adventure could have – and should have – been included with Lords of Creation.  In fact, the Rule Book could have been 48 pages and the campaign material otherwise in the Rule Book included in a 48 page Campaign Book with an introductory adventure.  A 48-page Rule Book, a 48-page Campaign Book, and a 64-page Book of Foes together equal the total page count of the James Bond Basic Rules; Lords of Creation could have been packaged similarly to James Bond 007.

Moldvay also stated in his Heroic Worlds essay, “Sources of inspiration can often reveal more about a game than a long explanation.”  In this regard, Modvay listed the main inspirations for the game:
(1) mythology, legends, and folklore in general;
(2) an unpublished novel [Moldvay] wrote entitled Tom of Bedlam;
(3) the science-fantasy works of Philip José Farmer (the “World of Tiers” and “Riverworld” series) and Roger Zelazny (the “Amber” series, Jack of Shadows, Lord of Light, etc.);
(4) Dr. Who, The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, and The Avengers;
(5) science-fiction stories and novels in general, especially the “classic” SF of 1946 to 1959; and
(6) supernatural horror stories, particularly the kind written for the famous Weird Tales magazine.
Sadly, this 'Appendix N' for Lords of Creation was not included with the game.  By the way, why list as inspiration an unpublished novel you wrote?  If you're trying to inform people, listing something that cannot be referenced is pointless.  Was there any external inspiration for the novel that did not also inspire the game?

Also on the back of the box are the following claims:
  • A combat system including 53 different types of weapons ranging from swords and spears to proton beamers and blasters.
  • More than 450 foes to challenge the most daring of role-players.
  • 100 different non-combat skills and 53 combat skills that characters can learn as they gain experience.
  • 60 different powers that characters can gradually gain.
These claims are essentially true.  There are 53 weapon types, each associated with a combat skill.  The Book of Foes details more than 450 foes if we break down the concept of 'foes' so that orc (average), orc (soldier), and orc (leader) count as three foes.  Also among the foes are famous individuals (such as Marco Polo) and deities (such as Freyja).  I am uncertain as to whether Marco Polo can reasonably be categorized as a foe.  Technically, there are twenty non-combat skills, but each skill has five levels and each level confers a different talent.  For instance, the five levels of 'bureaucracy' are:  Record Keeping, Record Tracking, Bribery, Infiltration, and Futuristic/Magical.  (Most skills have a Futuristic/Magical level.)  Finally, there are twelve power categories. Each category has five powers and these powers must be acquired in ascending order.  For instance, the five Sorcerer powers are (from least to most powerful):  True Sight, Fascination, Illusion, Enchanted Sleep, and Animation.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Exploits of the San Francisco Knights (spoilers)

Art by Diane Hamil

The back cover of San Francisco Knights, the first CYBORG COMMANDO™ game accessory, reads in part:
This module contains three separate adventures, all leading to the common goal of establishing a new CC base near Big Sur, California.  In Adventure #1, you ride shotgun up the Pacific Coast Highway, escorting a shipment of critical supplies to the new location.  Adventure #2 takes you to San Francisco to recover a lost comrade from amidst the ruins, the survivors, and the enemy.  Finally, in Adventure #3, you must obtain a supply of rare earth minerals needed to create a CYBORG COMMANDO™ character from a remote location in the Mojave Desert.  But the mine and processing plant are now threatened by an unexpected infestation of alien Xenoborgs!
When we last left our intrepid heroes, they had endured severe exposition and spent almost a week walking across one-and-a-half continents.  At the Primary base in Mazatlan, Mexico, they are greeted by the acting base commander, Captain Sanchez.  San Francisco Knights employs the convention of using boxed text to indicate sections that should be read aloud by the Game Master.  One such section is Sanchez' instructions to the player characters.  However, prior to this, we are treated to a description of Sanchez' office:  “a small room decorated with sequined sombreros...”  The only characterization afforded to a Mexican NPC is that his office has “sequined sombreros.”  Really?  Why not begin his soliloquy with, “¡ Hola, mis amigos! ”?  Why not have him whistle “La Cucaracha”?  This is from 1987, so I'm not calling it out for cultural insensitivity.  Instead, I'm calling it out for being astoundingly stupid.  If you want to assign a cultural identifier to Sanchez (and this does not seem to have been the original intent), put a Frida Kahlo print in his office or something.  ¡Dios mío!

Anyway, the action for the first adventure begins at the Malibu “home of movie star Cliff Hamlin.”  There are three supply trucks that the players must accompany and “run interference for.”  Before the convoy begins, a young man – disguised as an old drunk – steals one of the trucks.  Meanwhile, his six compatriots (or maybe only five compatriots – the text is inconsistent) fire rifles at any pursuers.  Are they stealing a truck because a bunch of orphans and wounded people are in desperate need of supplies?  Nope.  They just want a ride to Santa Maria and think that the best way to accomplish this is by attacking cyborgs.

In the second adventure, the player characters go into what's left of San Francisco to salvage equipment from the (now partially submerged) Cyborg Commando base.  More to the point, the player characters are supposed to retrieve an older-model Cyborg Commando with whom contact was lost at the time of the invasion.  Since every Cyborg Commando “is an expensive piece of equipment,” it makes sense that a tracking mechanism would be installed.  Of course, there is no tracking mechanism; such a thing would invalidate the purpose of the adventure.

The adventure is set-up as an urban, post-apocalyptic sandbox.  Various San Francisco locales are described in detail; so are several groups of survivors.  According to page 16:
Each survivor leader can direct the characters to two to four others, who may or may not have the information desired.  This gives the characters several options from which to choose, rather than forcing them along a particular path.  A diagram of the information network is given below.

Ultimately, the player characters find that the lost Cyborg Commando is following the orders of the last commander of San Francisco's Cyborg Commando base.  However, said commander has become unbalanced and has assumed the identity of the second Emperor Norton.  Artist Diane Hamil's depiction of Norton II takes up an entire page of the San Francisco Knights book.  No matter what, a battle must occur against Xenoborgs and a group of humans who have turned traitor.  In this battle, the found Cyborg Commando
loses his hands in an explosion.  These events are inviolable.  So, the adventure does not force the players “along a particular path,” but it does require a specific ending.

The third adventure transpires a month or so after the invasion.  A “mine and processing plant” for rare earth minerals remained functioning after the invasion.  Now, however, shipments have stopped and xenoborg activity is suspected.  Contrary to the back cover text, the xenoborgs are hardly “unexpected.”  So, the player characters must defeat the xenoborgs plaguing the facility.  The plot is straightforward and there are no instances of nonsense.  A significant amount of detail is spent on the conditions of towns and roadways between Big Sur and the facility.  Also, unnecessary detail is provided about extracting rare earth minerals from raw ore.  For instance, “During this process, soluble trivalent cerium is converted to insoluble tetravalent CeO₂.”  This information serves no purpose in the adventure.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Adventure #1: San Francisco Knights (spoilers)

Art by Bob Eggleton

Many campaigns begin with the expediency of murderhoboes meeting at a tavern.  Some campaigns – like the default Year of the Phoenix setting – require that an intricate backstory be presented before player characters actually have any agency.  The campaign presented in the first published adventure for CYBORG COMMANDO™ is among the latter type.

San Francisco Knights, released the same year as the CYBORG COMMANDO™ boxed set, is credited to Penny Petticord.  Known for being administrator for the RPGA network as well as editor for POLYHEDRON, Petticord has no other non-periodical credits in gaming.  The adventure was edited by Pamela O'Neill, co-author of the CYBORG COMMANDO™ tie-in novels.

The text begins with:  “This adventure is a work of fiction.”  Whew, what a relief!  I was concerned that details about cyborgs fighting extra-terrestrials in the year 2035 might somehow reflect reality.  Actually, there's some boxed text that dutifully lists the “names and locations [that] are real.”  (Just so you know, the Golden Gate Bridge is totally real.)

The GM's Adventure Notes from the boxed set suggests that starting adventures should feature the home town of the players.  “For impact and realism,” it reads, “bring the early action from the starting base into your home town.”  Also, “To practice the details of the game, run a few simple fights with aliens in your home town.”  San Francisco Knights, however, takes a different approach.

The adventure assumes that up to three of the player characters are assigned to the San Francisco CCF base.  The Campaign Book specifies that precisely three Cyborg Commandos are assigned to the base, so I guess it wouldn't be realistic to have a couple of additional player characters present.  (There is also a non-player, older model cyborg at the base.)  Six pre-generated characters are provided with the adventure, three of which represent the titular Knights. 

The GM is directed to read aloud the Players' Introduction – an entire page consisting of three columns of text.  This introduction begins:
          It all started three days ago, on January 11, 2035.  The sun rose over the famous San Francisco skyline as usual, bathing the still sleeping city in various shades of gold.
When your exposition explains that the “sun rose...as usual,” you may want to consider editing for brevity.  Anyway, the text accompanying the pre-gens states that January 11, 2035, was “two days ago” – not three.  Regardless, the player characters are briefed for a Priority One mission.  Specifically, the PCs are directed to go to Antarctica to investigate “a massive nuclear explosion,” possibly caused by a meteor.  (Antarctica is not listed among the “real” locations, so I suppose this must be a fictional Antarctica.)  We are told:
          The destruction of this Antarctica station has precipitated devastating weather patterns all over the globe as millions of tons of water vaporized by the explosion move with the air currents.  We expect the seas to rise, and tidal waves to hit all coastlines...
Inclement weather causes the player characters' jet to crash land somewhere in South America.  “By the next morning,” the players learn, “your underwater propulsion legs...brought you to the icy waters of the Antarctic.”  It is at this point where the San Francisco cyborgs team up with other player characters (if any).  The cyborgs recover videotapes from a Trans-American Union station that show “not a meteor, but rather a device of unfamiliar manufacture, hurtling though the atmosphere...”  The player characters then defeat “a huge, misshapen version of an insect,” bristling with weapons.  The cyborgs make their way toward the U.S., discovering that CCF bases on the way have been destroyed.  Eventually, they find an operational base “at Mazatlan, Mexico on the morning of January 17.”  Wait.  Wasn't January 11 just three (or two) days ago?  CYBORG COMMANDO™ doesn't seem to track the passage of time very well.

All of the preceding, from January 11 to January 17 (I guess), was backstory.  The players had no opportunity to engage with these events; they couldn't ask questions during the mission briefing, they couldn't fight the monster – nothing.  Why?  What's the point of this elaborate info dump?

Well, kids, it's like this.  The whole alien invasion scenario is the sine qua non of CYBORG COMMANDO™.  The player characters can't affect that.  However, instead of sending the PCs on an excursion to Antarctica without an iota of agency, I would have handled things differently.  Let's say the player characters are involved in excavating a CCF security bunker in the side of a mountain.  The Xenoborg attack causes a cave-in.  As the PCs extricate themselves, they find they are in a cat-and-mouse game of survival against the aliens in an underground network of tunnels.  In this way, the player characters are out of the big picture, but at least they get to do something of their own volition – namely, “a few simple fights with aliens” as recommended by the GM's Adventure Notes.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Inspiration: Strikeforce Morituri

Art by Brent Anderson

The premise of CYB✪RG C✪MMAND✪™ – heroic individuals undergoing a dangerous, experimental process in order to fight invading aliens – is good enough.  Unfortunately, the game does not implement this premise in an especially engaging way.  A better implementation of this premise can be found in the Strikeforce Morituri series published by Marvel Comics.

Created by Peter B. Gillis and Brent Anderson, Strikeforce Morituri began publication in 1986, the year prior to the release of CYBORG COMMANDO.  The story begins in 2072, four years after an extraterrestrial race, the “Horde,” began their depredations upon the Earth.  Human technology is no match for Horde technology.  Thus the Horde launch pillaging raids from their orbital base and several land bases without fear of reprisal.  The Horde have no interest in exterminating humanity or conquering the world, they just loot whatever civilizations they encounter.  Still, they have more personality than CYBORG COMMANDO's Xenoborgs.  The Horde use psychology against humans and Gillis does a good job of demonstrating their cruelty.

The Morituri represent the only hope humanity has against the Horde.  Only a select few are accepted to take the Morituri Process, which has two phases.  Phase one enhances the subject's physiology and grants increased strength so as to withstand the stress of the next phase.  Phase two imparts a super-power to a subject, the exact nature of which is impossible to predict.  Eventually, every Morituri subject will reject the enhancements with fatal results.  Hence the name “Morituri,” which comes from the Latin phrase nos morituri te salutamus (“we who are about to die salute you”); a phrase attributed to gladiators.  Whether or not any gladiator actually made that remark is immaterial to its relevance to our protagonists.  Ideal Morituri candidates are expected to live up to a year before the process kills them.  The “up to a year” lifespan is taken for granted, even though this assumption is made before any Morituri subject has survived for nearly that long.  It seems to be wishful thinking or perhaps we as readers are supposed to suspend disbelief in this regard.

The Morituri enjoy a celebrity status, which is as important (if not more so) than their actual military accomplishments.  In testament to this, the commander of the Morituri squad is not a Morituri herself, but had experience in the entertainment industry prior to the invasion.  This is the type of dramatic element of which CYBORG COMMANDO does not take advantage.

A game based on Strikeforce Morituri would seem to offer a richer experience than CYBORG COMMANDO's “setting.”  This is especially true in that there is little to distinguish CYBORG COMMANDO characters for one another while each Morituri subject has a different power.