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 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.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Creating a Cyborg Commando (Part II)

In our previous post, we generated a CYBORG COMMANDO character via the 'basic' character creation rules.  In this post, we will examine the 'advanced' character creation rules.  Specifically, we will convert our basic character, Cappellan Jennings, to the advanced format.

Conversion begins with a character's skills.  In the basic procedure, skills are purchased at a 'field' level; however, in the advanced rules, skills become more granular.  Each field consists of a number of 'areas'.  For example, the Communications field includes the following four areas:  'Strategies', 'Tactics', 'Simple (non-electrical) Communications Devices', and 'Electrical Communications'.  In converting a basic character's skill field to areas:
Multiply the score in that field by 3.  Divide that number of points among the Areas in that Field.  You must place at least one point in each Area, for a resulting minimum score of 2 in each, counting the one you get free.
So, Jennings' score of 3 in Computer Sciences becomes 9 points to divide among the three areas of the field:  'Ancient Computers', 'Modern Operation and Software', and 'Modern Hardware'.  Allocated evenly (and given the 'free point' for each area) Jennings has a total score of 4 for each area.  Like the Computer Sciences field, Personal Arts has three areas ('Mental Arts', 'Physical Arts', and 'Error Avoidance') so the calculations are the same.

The Personal Movement field has six areas.  Nine, of course, does not go evenly into six.  After each area gets one point (as required), three points remain.  Three areas receive the minimal allocation ('Land-Based Special', 'Aerial (non-powered)', 'Extraterrestrial') and three areas each receive one of the extra points ('Land-Based Normal', 'Aquatic Unequiped', 'Aquatic Equipped').

The Personal Weapons field has seven areas.  In this case, five areas receive the minimal allocation ('Ancient Bladed Melee Weapons', 'Ancient Blunt Melee Weapons', 'Ancient Missile Weapons', 'Heavy and Special Weapons', 'Artillery') and two areas each receive one of the extra points ('Common Devices as Weapons', 'Modern Small Arms').

Psychogenics is actually two fields, one in the dynamic division and one in the static division.  For the basic character, I failed to make the distinction.  Now, let us decide upon Static Psychogenics, which has five areas.  As such, all areas receive two points except 'Sending (One-Way Telepathy)', which receives only one.

The advanced character creation rules do not reference the MadMac skills (either for original characters or basic conversions).  Presumably, the same procedure applies.  Since those fields have 10 'basic' points, 30 'advanced' points are to be distributed among the areas.  As indicated above, Communications has four areas.  Dividing the points as evenly as possible, two areas receive eight points ('Strategies', 'Tactics') and the other two, seven ('Simple', 'Electrical').

The two Energy Sciences areas ('Air, Light, & Sound' and 'Energy Sources') each receive 15 points.  The same goes for the two Law Enforcement areas ('Investigations' and 'Suspect & Prisoner Handling') as well as the two Unarmed Combat areas ('Occidental Style' and 'Oriental Style').  The Strategy & Tactics field has three areas ('Personal Tactics', 'Personal Strategy', and 'Military S&T'), each of which receive 10 points.

Once skills are converted, stats are adjusted.  On the Character Record sheet, for each stat, there are rows for Capacity, Integrity, and Recovery.  In general, 'basic' stat values are multiplied by three and the result allocated among the Capacity, Integrity, and Recovery for that stat.

Because Jennings has 24 (non-MadMac) skill areas (even though he would rather do without some of them), he must have a Mental Capacity score of 24.  This leaves 21 points to divide between Mental Integrity and Mental Recovery.  Let's say 11 points to Mental Integrity and 10 points to Mental Recovery.  For the Neural and Physical stats, Capacity, Integrity, and Recovery each receives 15 points.

Stat-derived calculations are next performed.  Psychlons equal Neural Capacity.  The table on page 14 of the CCF Manual incorrectly states “Skills = ⅓ Mental Capacity,” when it should read, “skill areas not to exceed Mental Capacity.”  'Train' equals 100 minus Mental Integrity in hours.  'Actions' and 'Speed' are both derived from Neural Capacity and fractional Speed values are permitted in the advanced rules.  'EP' means Endurance Points, “which measure the character's stamina, or 'staying power.'”  It is derived from Neural Integrity.  I would think that a disembodied brain need not be troubled by fatigue poisons, but apparently I would be wrong.  Rather than the “number of days the character can function before sleep is absolutely required,” the Rest score – derived from Neural Recovery – represents the amount of “EP per Travel Turn (2.4 hours) . . . recovered by sleeping.”  In the advanced character creation rules, “Heal” is not referenced.

The calculation of Integrity Points “= Physical Integrity × 3,” presumes the the Hit Location optional rule is in effect.
          Divide your total IPs by ten, and round down.  Write that result in each space except the one labeled “Body.”  Add all those figures, subtract the total from the original total IPs and write the remainder next to Body. . .

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Creating a Cyborg Commando (Part I)

My previously owned boxed set of CYB✪RG C✪MMAND✪™ contains a dozen or so copies of the character record sheet – waiting for an adventure that will never be.  Let us make use of one of these records in generating a character.

Step 1 is appropriately named “Start.”  This step is about describing “your character – the human, that is, not the combined human-machine (cyborg) he or she will become.”  We are informed that “the most important aspects of a character” are “Stats” and “Skills.”  However, Stats and Skills are not described until later steps.
          Other details will be left to your choice.  These include your character's physical appearance (height, weight, etc.), historical background (home, education, etc.), and basic psychological traits (outlook on life, likes & dislikes, and so forth).
In recording such “other details,” the character record directs us to “use other side.”

Step 2 is “Select Stats,” but a better description would be “Assign Stat Scores.”  There are three Stats:  Mental, Neural, and Physical.

Mental regards “intelligence in the abstract, and the amount of information that can be retained,” as well as “the speed at which information can be acquired (learned) and used (recalled), and the accuracy of such information . . . willpower . . . general mental stability, and the speed at which the mind can recover from psychological damage.”

Neural is defined as “physical agility and speed of action . . . accuracy in attacking . . . stamina (endurance), the ability to maintain control over one's body, and the speed at which physical control can be recovered after it is lost (when the character has been stunned, knocked out, or drugged).”

Physical means “brute strength . . . the amount of physical damage the body can withstand before becoming useless or destroyed, and the speed at which physical damage will heal itself or respond to medical treatment.”

A player allocates “Points” among Stats and Skills.  Said points are abbreviated as “SP” (“the S stands for both Stats and Skills”).  Each character has 60 SP; at least 20, but no more than 50, must be allocated to Stats.  An average adult has a value of 10 in each Stat, except men have a Physical Stat of 15 and women have a Neural Stat of 15.  Let's just allocate fifteen points to each Stat.

Step 3 is “Psychogenics,” the science of “the phenomena currently called ESP.”  The psychogenic score of a character is “measured in Psychons of power” and “is equal to the Neural Stat score.”

Step 4 is “Calculations,” and deals with some of the Stat-Based Data to be recorded on the character record sheet.  “Skills” refers to the “maximum number of Fields of skill” a character may have; it is equal to one-third of the Mental Stat.  “Train” refers to the number of “hours needed for education in any skill” per point; it is equal to “100 minus Mental score.”  Actions, Speed, and Rest each equal 1 for characters with a Neural score of less than twenty.  “Actions” has to do with combat activity.  “Speed” is the “maximum distance the character can move, measured in map hexes per time unit.”  What is the length of a hex or time unit?  The rules relate, “Don't worry about it now . . .”  “Rest” is the “number of days the character can function before sleep is absolutely required.”

Step 5 is “Select Skills.”  There are two Divisions of Skills:  Dynamic (which includes the categories of “Movement” and “Combat”) and Static (which includes the categories of “Arts & Language,” “Sciences,” and “Law”).  Among the five Categories there are twenty Fields.  A Skill's score is measured as Skill Rating (SR).  “Thanks to the intensive training before entering the CYBORG COMMANDO Force,” the rules state, a character “has a starting SR of 1 in every Field of knowledge, indicating a level of skill just above total ignorance.”  SP not spent on Stats are allocated among Skill Fields; each SR costs 1 SP.  Our character has 15 SP left and a maximum of five Fields, so we can assign 3 SP to each of five Fields:  Computer sciences, Personal arts, Personal movement, Personal weapons, and Psychogenics.

Step 6 involves “Other Details,” the nature of which were summarized in Step 1.  If “Other Details” are decided in Step 6, there's really no reason to have the Step 1 that is described.  Step 4 includes the statement, “Skills are determined in Step 4.”  It would seem that, at one point, Step 1 was “Select Stats,” therefore “Select Skills” would have been Step 4.  The “Start” Step 1 was probably added as an afterthought.

Step 7 is “The CC Body,” in which Physical Stat-Based Data is figured.  “The Physical Stat of the CC body equals [the character's] natural Physical score plus 100.”  “Integrity Points” (IP) are effectively hit points; a character has a number of IP equal to twice the Physical Stat score. “Damage” is the amount of damage the character can inflict without weapons; it equals Physical / 10.  “Heal” also equals Physical / 10; it represents the amount of damage a character can recover daily without medical aid.  However, “this applies to organic parts only . . . The CC body does not repair damage unaided.”  (I don't know why this data should be calculated from  the CC Physical value.)  “Heft” is the “amount of weight . . . that your character can Throw, Carry, or Lift.”  If the Metric system is employed, weight is represented in kilograms.  “Throw” equals the Physical Stat score, “Carry” is 10 × Physical, and “Lift” is 20 × Physical.

Step 8, the last step, is named “Meet MadMac.”  MadMac is an acronym for “Miniaturized Analog / Digital Macro-Algorithmic Computer.”  It is “a revolutionary type of computer that works with the organic brain, assisting it with the task of running the CC body.”  For purposes of character generation, the MadMac provides a SR of 10 to five Skill Fields:  “Strategy & Tactics,” “Unarmed Combat,” “Communications,” “Energy Sciences,” and “Law Enforcement.”

That's it for basic character creation; next time we'll tackle advanced character creation.

Both the Campaign Book and CCF Manual have the following statement on their respective title pages:  “Special Thanks to Jennings Cappellan of the Rare Earth Information Center.”  Jennings Cappellan is such an awesome name, I've decided to use a variation of it for the character.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Combat in Cyborg Commando

When making attack rolls or skill checks, CYBORG COMMANDO players roll two ten-sided dice.  However, instead of adding the results together or interpreting one result as 'tens' and the other 'units', the results are multiplied together.  This method is called the d10x system.  The CCF Manual lists various reasons why CYBORG COMMANDO employs the d10x system:
  • “Most people can multiply two single-digit numbers easily, and often with less trouble than adding two-digit numbers.
  • “The system produces results that still span the convenient 1-100 range...but with unusual frequencies of results.”
  • Regarding combat, “a single d10x roll determines the chance to hit and, in many cases, damage as well.”
  • Regarding improvement of skill scores, “minimal gains in low scores produce great leaps in the percentage chances of success, but improvements in high scores produce only small increases.”
For skill checks and stat checks, success is determined by rolling a certain number or less.  However, for combat, the opposite is true:  “An attack is a 'clean miss' if the result of the d10x roll is a given number or less.”

Page 9 informs us:
The average result of a normal d10x roll is 30¼.  The median result is 24; that is, you are equally likely to roll either 24 or more or 24 or less.  Exactly one fourth of all the possible results are odd numbers; three fourths are even numbers.
As previously noted, a Combat Turn (CT) represents 8.6 seconds and is divided into ten phases of 0.86 seconds each.  The ten phases are split into two cycles:  phases 1 - 5 in the first cycle and phases 6 - 10 in the second cycle.  A character can perform a number of actions in a cycle equal to the “first digit of the Neural Capacity score (or 1 if NC is 9 or less).”  At the beginning of every Combat Turn, players must announce what actions (such as attacks) they intend their characters to commit for both cycles.  This establishes when in the Combat Turn any given character will act because each phase is reserved for a particular type of action (most of which are attack options):
     Phases 1 & 6:  Zap Weapons
     Phases 2 & 7:  Fast Projectiles
     Phases 3 & 8:  Slow Projectiles
     Phases 4 & 9:  Lobbed Objects & Projected Substances
     Phases 5 & 10:  Physical & Sonic Attacks, plus all Miscellaneous
Miscellaneous actions include any activity other than an attack or movement.  Phases are resolved in order.  A character always has the option to forgo an announced action.  If an action announced for the first cycle is forgone, “you may revise your intentions for the second cycle.”

Movement need not be announced at the beginning of the Combat Turn and does not count against the number of actions permitted to a character.  If a character is not otherwise committing an action in a given phase, he (or she) may move two meters (or yards).  The maximum number of yards (or meters) a character may move (under his or her own power) during a Combat Turn is ten times the character's Speed value.  (Speed equals Neural Capacity divided by ten.)  This movement allowance is reduced by terrain modifiers as well as what attacks the character attempts in the Combat Turn.  For instance, “Each laser shot has a -1 movement penalty, and each grenade, a -2.”  If a character forgoes an attack in a Combat Turn, the movement penalty imposed by that attack no longer applies.

Starting characters have a Combat Rating (CR) of 10.  If an attack roll is equal to or less than the attacker's Combat Rating, the attack misses, “not hitting anything.”  Assuming the attack is not a clean miss, any modifiers are applied to the result.  “If that total equals or exceeds the Defense Value (DV) of the target,” the rules state, “you have successfully hit it.”  Every 'target' has five Defense Values, “one for each of the five basic attack forms.”  These attack forms are represented by the acronym LITES:  Laser, Impact, Thermal, Electro-magnetic, and Sonic.

Prediction Aiming Digitizer (PAD) programs allow Cyborg Commandos to improve their attack roll results by expending additional Power Units (PU).  “The amount of the...bonus is always equal to the amount of PU expended for it.”

“The amount of physical damage the character's body can sustain” is measured in Integrity Points (IP).  The damage inflicted by an attack “is either fixed or standard.”  Hand-held weapons inflict fixed damage (1 - 20 IPs depending upon the weapon).  Standard damage is equal to the original attack roll (with a possible modifier).  Lasers – for example – inflict standard damage.

The advanced combat rules include special effects (SFX).  Special Effects come into play if the attack roll was doubles (“that is, the same number on both dice”) and otherwise successful.  For Special Effects, 1d10 is rolled and a table is consulted.  The specific effect depends upon the target:  Normal Human, Cyborg Commando, or Alien.  Possible effects include:  “Flees in fear,” “Weapon destroyed,” and “Damage doubled.”

Sunday, August 27, 2017


Eighteen years from now, in the world of the CYB✪RG C✪MMAND✪™ science fiction role-playing game, aliens will invade the Earth.
          The entire invasion is controlled, directly or indirectly, by one “master race,” the existence of which is not initially known to Man.  Members of this race call themselves a term meaning “controllers of reality” in their own language, but to the commanders of the invasion force, they are simply “the Masters.”
          A Master is a wormlike creature with trilateral symmetry.  An adult's smooth tapering body is 61 cm (2') long, 15 cm (6") wide at its thickest (uppermost) point, and topped by a bulbous head about 31 cm (1') in diameter.  Three sucker-like mouths and three eyes are evenly spaced around the head, and eighteen small tentacles protrude from the body, again evenly spaced and symmetrically located.  The creature's body masses about 41 kg (90 pounds), and has a total volume of 27,000 cc (1,650 cubic inches).
However, the entities that player characters encounter are called Xenoborgs.  “The Xenoborgs as a race are pawns of the Masters,” the Campaign Book states, “though they are not aware of this.”  Xenoborgs have no organs; instead they consist entirely of “X-cells” – which are capable of independent movement.  Immature X-cells are lozenge-shaped and mature X-cells have five sides.  By configuring their X-cells in various ways, Xenoborgs have a “shape-alteration ability.”

The graphic at the beginning of this post is page 42 of the Cyborg Commando Campaign Book.  Figure five shows a tessellation of four-cell tetrads; such tessellations “form most of the Xenoborg's body.”  Figure six shows cell groups that “are created to perform specialized functions, including those carried out by the organs of terran life forms.”  So, an entire page (out of a book of 64 pages) is taken up by two figures that exist only convey the concept that X-cells can fit together in different ways.  How does this better the game?  Is this supposed to facilitate immersion?  Perhaps they should have included diagrams of common Xenoborg forms and weapons – things that player characters would actually observe in the game.  At least the book defines various types of organelles like vacuoles and ribosomes – you know, important information every campaign needs.

The Campaign Book states that Xenoborgs resemble “giant-sized version[s] of the microscopic dust mite commonly found in households.”  For purposes of invading Earth...
          Their forms had been selected, with careful consideration of Man's psychology, to resemble something feared by the entire race.  Some of the policy makers had favored the reptilian form, but that idea was discarded – primarily because the myths of Man indicated repeatedly that humans always defeated the dragons, and dinosaurs were laughable.  A demonic form was almost used, but finally voted down because of its utterly imaginary origins, and also due to the popularity of a role-playing game in which such beings were routinely encountered and destroyed.  No, a perversion of reality was considered best; a deadly extrapolation of a normal creature, known to peoples of all social, economic, and political climates.  The attacking troops were made to resemble insects – but larger, more horrible, and far more dangerous.
The smallest Xenoborgs are 4.5 meters (or yards) long and 3.1 yards (or meters) high and wide.  Xenoborgs increase in size as they increase in rank; 'colonel' Xenoborgs are 7.1 yards (or meters) long and 4.6 meters (or yards) wide and high.  The Xenoborg Emperor has a size of “about that of a large building, roughly 450,000 cubic feet.”  We are told that, “All X-cells not dedicated to specific functions take part in communications exchanges and interactions – thoughts which, though slower than human thoughts by an order of magnitude, are nevertheless just as effective and intelligent.”  Thus, larger Xenoborgs are more intelligent.

From page 36 of the Campaign Book we learn:
          Though the aliens do craft and use devices of various sorts, they do not rely primarily on inanimate objects as tools.  Instead, the create genetically engineered beings to perform various tasks, because life forms provide maximum diversity and adaptability.
Xenoborgs have power sources which are “part plant, part animal” and are “known by a name which translates best as 'Powwers.'”  Seriously?  “Translates best as” 'powers' with an extra 'w'?  In the words of the late General H. Norman Schwartzkopf, I call bovine scatology.  Are we supposed to stress the second syllable in order to distinguish it from the usual 'powers'?  I would accept something along the lines of 'Ergmod,' but 'Powwers' is just dumb.  “Similar in principle (though not in practice) to Earth's electric eel, a Powwer stores energy and releases it...[when] carefully stroked and prodded in a certain way...”  (ahem)

Teleborgs are another product of Xenoborg genetic engineering.   They...
          ...are multi-purpose creatures with many abilities.  Generally, they are the mounts on (and occasionally in) which Xenoborgs travel, not only on land, but also through water, air – and even space.  Teleborgs can thus be divided into four basic categories according to their use...
          Reproduction is accomplished by budding.  Weight at birth is about 50 kg (110 lb) within a volume of 57 liters (2 cubic feet), but the creature quickly grows to full size is sufficient nutrients are available.  That density, about 877 grams per liter (55 pounds per cubic foot), is maintained by all the specie of this race, whatever their eventual sizes and shapes...
Some Teleborgs can function as supply bases.

Lastly, there are Bugborgs (or 'buglies').  However, less than a paragraph is devoted to Bugborgs.  “They comprise the aliens' major response to the rise off the CC Force,” page 47 of the Campaign Book indicates, “arriving about 8-12 months after the invasion.”

Sunday, August 13, 2017

The State of the World in 2035

Trans-American Union CC Bases Map (South)

The Introduction to the CYB✪RG C✪MMAND✪™ Campaign Book explains, “This rules set demands your creativity.”  (It's a shame it didn't demand the creativity of the designers.)  Yet, “Fantasy is discouraged...”  For instance, “the speed of light is an absolute limit.”  (Except it isn't, as explained below.)
The emphasis throughout this game is on hard science.  The details of the future setting have been realistically extrapolated by logical means from the current (1980s) world.  With respect to the setting and the characters described in this game, every detail may someday become reality.  (original emphasis)
(Yes, the writers felt compelled to indicate the “current” decade.)  Of course, “hard science” extends to 'brain-in-a-jar' technology and “psychogenic” abilities like telepathy and psychokinesis.  Extraterrestrials and galactic travel, however, are “assumptions.”  Nonetheless, “such things are at least possible, even if not likely.”

Four pages of of the Campaign Book are devoted to “Q-Space Travel,” the method by which the extraterrestrial invaders reach Earth.  In the original Traveller – a game where player characters actually engage in interstellar voyages – the particulars of the jump drive are described within a single paragraph.  This is because such details are unnecessary to play the game.  The four-page “Q-Space” section includes a half-page appendix with “Formulae relevant to the discovery, description, and use of Quantum Space.”  Said appendix begins...
Warning:  The actual derivations of the formulae are not given here; after all, Man has not yet discovered them.  This section does, however, gives the tools that will be used in the forthcoming discovery.  Feel free to attempt the derivations if you are both mathematically creative and also quite familiar with tensor calculus.
Seriously, why even bother?

Back in the Introduction, we learn that, “The technological wonders of the Century Revolution eased but did not conquer cultural diseases.”  I am not at all certain what is meant by “cultural diseases,” but “the Century Revolution” sounds like it could be genuinely interesting.  Sadly, this sentence is the only reference to it I could find in the rules.

The Introduction in the CCF Manual lists three “discoveries” that have had an effect on civilization similar in magnitude to transistors and personal computers:
Superconductivity:  Finally made practical, this basic principle changes the nature and use of electricity itself, and thereby all electrical devices on Earth.
SINC [Sub-cranial Interface & Neural Converter]:  This device is a direct interface through which brains and computers can be directly connected.
Psychogenics:  This new science results from a hard, critical look at ESP and the occult.  The real and provable has been separated from the fantastic and imaginary.
Thirty pages of the 64 page Campaign Book regard global politics in 2035.  Seven of the thirty pages are full-page maps of various regions (such as the image above).  Sixteen of the thirty pages are nation-by-nation lists of Cyborg Commando facilities along with the specific territory, metro area, population (of the metro area), latitude, longitude, and any notes.  For example:

TA 04 C.5    Virginia    Richmond    494,375   37.34°N    77.27°W   Intl. HQ, U.S.A. 3 & Bermuda

There are also helpful footnotes, such as:  “Fifty percent or more of the Mazatlán metro area consists of specialized high-tech facilities with minimal resident personnel.”  Although population is diligently recorded for hundreds of cities, Game Masters are evidently supposed to “accurately calculate the population of any area...”  To this end, there is a two-page “Population” section.  This section includes five tables that provide data about, for instance, average annual growth rates.  Curiously, the “Population” section is immediately preceded by an exhortation for players to use the Metric system – “'ll love how simple it make things.”  This is strange in that simplicity does not seem to have been a design goal for this game.

Figuring population is not a final step.  The game begins after extraterrestrial invaders have decimated humanity.  As such, near the end of the Campaign Book, there is a two-page Depopulation Table.  In conjunction with some dice rolls, a Game Master can determine the post-invasion population of a given area.  This is important because population “has a direct effect on the available resources of food, water, and technology.”  Perhaps the authors were saving the formulae for these 'direct effects' for inclusion in the anticipated (but never published) second set of rules.

According to the Players' Adventure Notes:
The political geography of the world is quite as important as the physical in shaping the history of Man.  The boundaries and governments are thus major factors in the campaign game, and must be dealt with in due course – perhaps not in your early games, but certainly in the long run.
(Then why include all of this information in the initial set?)  In 2035, some nations have combined, yet several islands have become independent countries.  For instance, “many islands of the Mediterranean (including Corsica, Sardinia, and the Balearics, but not Sicily) joined to form Tyrrhenia.”  In any event, the world's nations are divided among “five large territorial blocs,” often referred to as “the Five.”  The five blocs are supposed to “regulate international dealings only.”  However,
The Five had commissioned the creation of a new international language called Terran, to be used for all international affairs (including world government).  A global standard in 2035, the language is a blend of English, Russian, Chinese, Spanish, French, and a smattering of other tongues.
Bloc governments “pay all the costs of basic education” (whatever 'basic education' is supposed to entail) as long as “The teaching and regular use of both the national language and the Terran (international) language was required, and a top priority.”  It's nice that the reader is reminded that Terran is the international language five entire sentences after first being told.  Unfortunately, no additional information is provided about this language.  What about the written form of Terran?  Is there any accommodation for Cyrillic script?  What system is used for conversion of Chinese:  Wade-Giles, pinyin, or – dare I hope – IPA?  How am I supposed to take this game seriously when it missed an opportunity to disgorge even more pedantic, useless details?

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Set 1: The Battle for Earth

Art by Dave Dorman


In the year 2035, Earth is attacked by aliens hostile Xenoborgs who selected our planet as the next addition to their galactic empire.  In mere days, man's conventional forces are destroyed, and the earth is overrun by alien troops.

Now, Earth's only hope lies with the CYBORG COMMANDO™Force (CCF) – a cadre of super-soldiers who are part human and part machine.  With their state-of-the-art defenses and built-in weaponry, the CCs may yet be a match for the invaders.  But time is running short!

With this game, you can be a member of the CYBORG COMMANDO Force and drive off the aliens.  This set includes everything you need to start the defense of Earth:

     A 48-page CCF Manual for players – with character skills, combat rules, and a technical section complete with diagrams of CC construction,

     A 64-page Campaign Book for the Game Master – including full details on the aliens and their invasion, the world political situation in the early 21st century, and an index of CC bases worldwide,

     A 16-page adventure booklet packed with beginning scenarios, and

     Two pre-inked dice.

The CYB✪RG C✪MMAND✪™ science fiction role-playing game was published thirty years ago, an era when “pre-inked” was a selling point for dice, not something taken for granted. Young people don't know how good they have it nowadays.  Back in the day, RPG box sets came with unembellished dice and a white crayon...and we were grateful.

Published by New Infinities Productions, at least three Cyborg Commando sets were contemplated; however, no sets other than “Set 1” were produced.  The reason is that the game isn't very good.  In his Heroic Worlds, Lawrence Schick is not complementary.  “The rules systems are eccentric,” he writes, “almost amateurish.”  Sub-par role-playing games are hardly unusual, yet Cyborg Commando is a special case – it is credited to Gary Gygax, Frank Mentzer, and Kim Mohan.  Given their prior contributions to the hobby, their target audience held expectations that the trio failed to achieve.

Ostentatious phrasing did not help matters.  For instance, page 41 of the CCF Manual defines 'light':
     This term here applies to the range of the to the electromagnetic spectrum from about 10¹⁶ to 10¹³ Hz, or wavelengths of 100 to 10 million Angstrom units (1 Å = 10⁻¹⁰ meter).  It includes ultraviolet (100 - 4,000 Å), visible (4,000 - 7,000 Å) and infrared light (7,000 - 10,000,000 Å).
With regard to the passage of time, a Combat Turn represents 8.6 seconds.  Each Combat Turn consists of ten phases of 0.86 seconds each.  Why not a phase of one second and a Combat Turn of ten seconds?  Because 8.6 seconds is “exactly 1/10,000 of a day.”  Now, doesn't that make for a better role-playing experience?  Except there are exactly 86,400 seconds in a day, not 86,000.  So much for “exactly.”

The “16-page adventure booklet” is truthfully sixteen pages.  Technically, the cover carries the title “GM's Adventure Notes” and is followed by eight pages of material (including the inside cover).  However, when the booklet is flipped over, the 'back' cover has the title “Players' Adventure Notes” and is followed by six pages.  While it is certainly an 'adventure' booklet, “packed with beginning adventures” is a misstatement.  The players' section provides setting information (“The infamous Berlin Wall was removed in 2003...”), playing tips, and lists of accessories and equipment.  The GM's section provides advice on running a game and creating adventures.  There are twenty scenario summaries and each summary consists of a couple of paragraphs.  The summaries are contained within two-and-a-half pages.  Even if we conflate 2½ pages of scenarios to 16, not all of the scenarios are of the beginning variety.  Eight scenarios are in the 'simple' category (i.e., they “have straight-forward goals and involve standard combat”), seven are 'tricky' (i.e., they “usually require clever and astute play if the dangers and traps are to be successfully avoided”), and five are 'tough' (i.e., they “involve very hazardous situations, and require astute play and imaginative solutions to problems”).

Ace Books published a trilogy of novels based on the Cyborg Commando setting and which were co-authored by Mohan.  In an attempt to gain an appreciation of the setting, I read the first book, Planet in Peril.  My analysis of this novel may be found here.

Included in my used copy of the Cyborg Commando RPG box set is an advertisement for Realms of Adventure (shown below) – New Infinities Productions' house organ that offered “...a wide variety of articles and adventures from authors all over the world.”  I am unable to find much information about this journal, but it seems at least two issues were published.

Also included in my copy of the game is a typewritten flyer for Rock-Con XIV (November 7 & 8, 1987).

Sunday, July 16, 2017

The Undercity

Art by Liz Danforth

As regular readers know, recent posts have been about Flying Buffalo's CityBook series of supplements.  Electronic versions of these books are now available at RPGNow for your gaming edification.  In this post, we look at the third CityBook.  Having the subtitle Deadly Nightside, the theme of CityBook III – as explained in the Introduction – “is a dark and dangerous excursion into the seedier section of fantasy cities.”  The term 'Nightside' is used as the actual name of a section of a hypothetical city rather than a generic term for an unsavory urban area.  Whereas the establishments in the previous installments were organized according to business type, entries in Nightside are organized in three layers:  Good, Bad, and Deadly.  This layer structure is “the rough order characters would be likely to encounter [the establishments].”  The Introduction continues:  “In short, unless you've got a very jaded gaming group, you're not likely to hit an opium den right off the bat.”  Yes, an opium den is described on pages 76 – 82.

Michael Stackpole was the sole editor of CityBook III and also provided two of the establishments.  One of these entries – The Undercity – is like a Beggars' Guild, but “definitely a different Beggars' Guild.”  The term 'Undercity' refers to beggar society as well the location where the beggars reside (also called “the Warrens” or “the Underrealm”).
     The City's current level is built upon a dozen previous cities – some old enough to be legendary, a couple more lurk beneath those.  The beggars, over the generations, have dug down, excavated and set up living quarters in buildings that once stood in sunlight but now dwell in everdark.  Most of them live in a level about four cities below the surface, and the sewers cut through levels 1 and 2, though never did hit any of the warrens.
(The sewers are described as a separate 'establishment'.)

The beggars are divided into six 'tribes':  FAKERS (“...normal children of beggar parents”), WARDREGS (“...warriors or adventurers who have suffered maiming injuries”), GUTTERKIN (“...the utterly desperate and destitute...[usually] old, drunk, or mad”), ILLKIN (“...people who have been maimed and disabled by disease and illness”), SPOILED (“...those who have been maimed by an accident, or on purpose, and can no longer function in society because of their injury”), and YSRAIGET (“...congenitally deformed beggars”).  Many of the Ysraiget are 'changelings' – malformed children of 'Upworld' parentage who have been switched with “normal beggar babies.”

The term 'Ysraiget' is derived from Ysrai, a god that the beggars worship.  “A full thousand years before history was recorded with any veracity, Ysrai's temples were swept from the earth...,” the book explains,“Ysrai is so thoroughly removed from the minds of men that his name is only known to a few practitioners of arcane and blasphemous rituals.”  On the lowest level of the Undercity, the beggars found a statue of Ysrai, “broken and scarred like themselves...”  Creating their own cosmology, “The beggars made this god their own.”  They also “tied the selection of their King to their patron deity.”

The current Beggar King is Myre.  According to his description:  “He was one of four beggars who met the prime requisite for candidacy; he was maimed in a manner similar to the injuries on Ysrai's statue.”  As King, Myre “has stressed the importance of gathering and sifting information.”
     Through a bizaare [sic] set-up, beggars all memorize and analyze (if mentally capable) all the news, rumors and actions in the City.  Stories pass through the Undercity and are relayed to the individuals who handle that information.  New beggars are trained and learn everything one of the older beggars knows so redundancy is built right into the system.  In fact, some of the most hideously deformed Ysraiget are so mentally gifted they can remember and recall centuries-old gossip as if they'd heard it the day before, and they'll link it with any cogent data gathered before or since.  Without benefit of books or scrolls, the beggars have the most complete history of the City and world in existence today!
Myre's part in the information network involves him spending “time in Domdaniel's Gate speaking with Tranq.”

Domdaniel's Gate is an establishment contributed to CityBook III by the designer formerly known as Paul Jaquays.  The current Domdaniel's Gate tavern is situated under the ruins of the original Domdaniel's Gate.  Thirty years ago, the original tavern was destroyed by...
...a time implosion, caused by the crash-landing of a time vehicle.  Its pilot, Tranq, a man from the far-flung future found himself stranded in the past; pieces of his time machine scattered across the near past and future like a debris trail from a sinking ship.
Tranq is the current proprietor of Domdaniel's Gate.  As a tavern, the “Gate” has a regular clientele of “undiscriminating local bullies, ruffians, thugs, and punks...”  Other than the tavern's bartender, Tranq's true nature is known only to Myre, the Beggar King.
     Myre discovered Tranq's secret as a child and would often help him find the missing pieces of the time machine.  When he became king, it only seemed natural to use Tranq's establishment as a formal link with the “normal” world.  Tranq often uses his futuristic technology to aid the beggars in whatever ways he can.
All of the alcohol that the tavern serves is acquired on the black market and is delivered via the Undercity.  Also, Tranq is the only non-beggar to have been instructed in the “beggar dialect.”

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Jacqueline the Ripper and the Warm-Hearted Game Master

Your humble host supposes that wizards can be rather creepy without much effort.  For example, let us look at the eponymous resident of Garsen's Tower.  Although a physical location, Garsen's Tower is described in the 'Chance Encounters' section of CityBook II.  This entry was authored by Rudy Kraft, a contributor to several old-school era products – mainly for Chaosium and Judges Guild.

Anyway, Garsen, a prominent wizard hundreds of years old, “first set eyes on the love of his life when she was only 11; he watched her grow up and, at the appropriate time, swept her off her feet and married her.”  Although Garsen “could extend his own life span,” his wife Orsinia died of old age.  Garsen believed “Orsinia would be reincarnated and somehow find her way to him...”  He opted to place himself in suspended animation until the reborn Orsinia would eventually arrive at his tower.

Centuries have passed since Garsen withdrew from consciousness.  During that time, “Garsen's magic weakened the underlying earth” and the island of Garsen's tower partially sank into City harbor.  ('City' tends to be capitalized in the CityBook supplements.)  “At low tide the island and a connecting causeway rise well out of the water,” the book relates, “at high tide all the causeway and much of the island are submerged.”  A map of the island is displayed above.  The reader may notice that “SCALE: one square = 5 feet.”  Unfortunately, no squares are presented with the map; however, it is elsewhere mentioned that the narrow side of Garsen's tower ('B' on the map) measures thirty feet.  The tower is surrounded by a marble wall.  We are told, “Time's ravages have reduced most of it to rubble although a few sections remain intact.”  Regardless, the gate ('A' on the map) still stands.  The numeral '6' next to the gate refers to the strength of the lock.  A '6' lock is excellent, the highest possible rating:  “Could require magic or a howitzer to open easily – unless you have the key!”  Should someone tamper with Garsen's gate, it will generate “a blast of deadly energy...”

Garsen also employs a dozen “Guard Demons” to watch over the island.  Even though they are called demons, they are not infernal, “they are unusual trans-dimensional beings.”  They are 4'6", 240 lbs., can regenerate, teleport, and “are extremely sticky.”  Additionally, the demons are “scrupulously protective of women because Garsen wanted to be certain Orsinia could return without difficulty.”

The island is described thus:
     Much of the island is covered with a variety of strange and bizarre plant growth such as Rigle tickweed, Xustin molds, and even a rare Vedrosian Polyp plant.  At the summit of the island stands a twisted Vorpid oak, remarkable for the number of Yellowheaded gulls that nest in its branches.  Once every five years the island is covered by a riot of flowering Yellow Dreedils.  The fruit of the Dreedil is said to be distasteful and mildly poisonous – in fact, it is a fist-sized morsel of wondrous utility.  The fruit cures disease and grants immunity to further infection for a full month.  The quint-annual fruit supply is meager, scarcely six dozen fruits, but properly harvested and preserved (an arduous task), the harvest represents considerable wealth.  As chance would have it, the presence and potency of the Yellow Dreedils has been long since forgotten, so now the fruit merely insures a healthy brood of gulls.
Nowadays, the island is “a trysting place for young lovers seeking to escape parental chaperones.”

The first scenario suggestion for this location is that a female player character “actually is the reincarnation of Orsinia.”  Garsen realizes this when he wakes and expects the character to stay with him.  “The character is faced with the quandary of remaining or trying to escape, perhaps bringing doom on her comrades,” we are told.  “Even if she does escape, Garsen will ever after seek her out.”  Just the sort of thing to bring women gamers into the hobby.

The second scenario suggestion involves the murder of several women on the island.  For undisclosed reasons, the player characters try “to track down the killer.”  Instead of 'Jack the Ripper', the killer is a 'Jacqueline the Ripper'.  Since the duties of Garsen's demons “are specifically to protect women from men,” the demons do not protect women from 'Jacqueline'.  In fact, the demons protect 'Jacqueline' from men.  Who is 'Jacqueline' and what are her motives?  This information is not disclosed.  Why would you expect details from a GM aid?

– – –     – – –     – – –

Another location described in the supplement is Cap'n Bill's Bait Shop.  Stuart Bute, the author, does not seem to have contributed to any other RPG publicationThe owner of a fishery bought a shack and installed “a disabled seaman known as Cap'n Bill to run the place as a bait shop” selling the refuse from the fishery.  Cap'n Bill has an endless supply of sea tales, any of which could lead to an adventure.  In fact, the sole scenario suggestion is based on Bill's knowledge of pirate booty.  The write up for Cap'n Bill's acknowledges that the bait shop “is not the most likely place for characters to go.”  As such, there should have been a scenario suggestion that leads the player characters to Cap'n Bill; for instance, there could be a MacGuffin among Bill's collection of scrimshaw.

An employee of the fishery, the charmingly named Guter Snype, brings a supply of fresh bait daily to Cap'n Bill.  He also cleans up the shack.  Guter is described as “Almost human.  Ht: 5'0".  Wt: 288 lbs.”  Additionally, “Guter is repulsive in thought, word, and deed...”  Not surprisingly, Bill and Guter “don't get along at all, and it's a strain for them to work together for just a few minutes every morning.”  The book explains that neither Bill nor Guter “is able to take the first step that would mark the beginning of a firm friendship...”  We are told “there's an adventure scenario possible here, for a warm-hearted Game Master, if there is such a thing.”

Really?  The evolution of a friendship between a crusty old sailor and a person whose defining characteristic is that he's repulsive?  That wouldn't make for the plot of a crappy, made-for-TV movie, much less the basis for an adventure scenario.  The nature of the relationship between two non-player characters is at the whim of the Game Master – warm-hearted or otherwise.  Only for the benefit of the players would such a thing be played out.  What sort of player would even care?  Perhaps it's not surprising that Stuart Bute has no other RPG credits beyond this CityBook.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Port o' Call

Art by Liz Danforth

Over a period of fifteen years (1982 - 1997), Flying Buffalo published seven installments of its CityBook line of system-neutral game supplements (or “a GM aid for ALL role-playing systems” as the books themselves state).  All of the books provide details about various urban establishments, including descriptions, maps, non-player characters, and scenario suggestions.  Each book after the first was presented as a themed collection.  For instance, CityBook II – published in 1984 – carries the subtitle Port o' Call and “focuses on places an adventurer is likely to find in the worlds' crossroads: port cities.”  The editors for this second volume were Liz Danforth and Michael Stackpole (or “Liz Dansforth and Micheal Stackpole” as they are credited for “Typoes”).

As demonstrated in a cover graphic (shown below), one of the selling points of the second CityBook is a conrtibution by Dave Arneson.  This is interesting in that the entry – “The Longtooth Lounge” – does not especially conform to the seaside theme the book proclaims.  However, the introduction to the 'Lodging and Entertainment' section jokingly states that “a number of horizon-expanding experiences are available” at the Lounge.

The Lounge offers “liquid refreshment as well as female companionship for its gentlemen clientele.”  Of course, port cities have such establishments, but there is nothing to indicate that the Longtooth Lounge isn't in a landlocked locale.  As the depiction above shows, there is “a large pair of sunken double doors” next to “a three-story tall tower.”  This is more subtle than a train entering a tunnel, but not by much.

As one might expect, the Longtooth Lounge is no ordinary brothel.  There are various aspects that make the Lounge an interesting adventure location – or a sit-com premise.  Foremost among these is Jeanie, “the most popular girl” in the establishment.  She “commands the highest prices and leaves even the most obnoxious customer satisfied.”  We learn, “This is because Jeanie gives the customer exactly what he wants, magically...”  You see, Jeanie is a genie.  Jeanie entered the world's oldest profession when the madame that owns the Longtooth Lounge made an off-hand comment while holding the locket that contains the genie.  Not realizing that the locket was associated with a genie, the madame said, “I wish that the Lounge had someone to help the girls with the guests...”  Nothing about the wish suggests that Jeanie assume the role herself, but assume it she did.  So, the brothel has a working girl who is a genie, but no one realizes she's a genie.  (The Lounge's bouncer may know the truth, but this is not made clear in the description.)  Jeanie, “like all genies, [is] likely to take any requests literally, [and] her power is often wielded rashly...”

Jeanie is also “Somewhat hard of hearing...” and “is surprised 5% of the time.”  Sometimes, Jeanie is 'surprised' by a customer and there is “a 75% probability that the assailant will be turned into something harmless and immobile – generally a plant.”  However, “the plants retain many of their human mental faculties.”  According to page 19, “The trouble with this automatic defense is that it seems to be permanent, and there is no way to restore any of the plants to their complete human form using normal magic.”  Jeanie places these plants in the Lounge's garden where they exist “with a nearly human awareness.”  Among the 'normal' plants in the garden, “there are domesticated triffids and Martian sand traps.”

Although there is nothing to suggest that the Lounge is in a port city, there are a few easy ways such a connection could have been established.  For instance, the tower could have been a former lighthouse or one of the working girls could have been a mermaid.  Due to the disappearance of Jeanie's 'victims', “The local authorities...seem to believe the [Lounge] is some kind of front for a slaving operation.”  The book's Introduction defines some nautical terms, including crimp:  “...someone who drugs and kidnaps lubbers to sell them to a captain who will attempt to turn them into sailors.”  The Longtooth Lounge could easily have had an actual 'crimping' sideline.

Among the other establishments listed in CityBook II, the good ship Golden Princess is described.  It is a contribution from Stephan Peregrine.  Within the seven pages devoted to the ship is the following gem:
     KyztprrThing.  Ht: variable.  Wt: 20 lbs.  Age: adult.  Fighting prowess: fair with what he uses in place of teeth.
     Unknown to virtually everyone aboard the Princess is Kyztprr.  During a violent storm off the accursed Isle of F'Tudd, Kyztprr was wave-tossed onto the ship and washed through a hatchway torn open by the typhoon.  Kyztprr made his way to the bilge where he hid safely, somewhat resembling a ballast stone.  For the most part, he is content to stay there, eating bilge worms and rats.  The diet is affecting his mind, driving him mad.  On nights when the evil stars rise, he has crawled forth in search of something besides rats to sate his hunger . . . .
Also included in the second CityBook is a 'notes' page, reproduced below for your non-commercial edification.  With the artwork and the large CITYBOOK™ NOTES title, not much space is reserved for actual notes. C'est la vie.  Your guess is as good as mine with regard to what that sign is supposed to show.

Art by Liz Danforth

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Taxidermy, Tarot, and Tattoos

Among the various categories detailed in Citybook I:  Butcher, Baker, Candlestick Maker, the vague grouping of 'Personal Services' offers some of the more interesting establishments.  As examples, consider the following three businesses.

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The entry for Professor Fyber's Taxidermy and Museum is credited to Steven S. Crompton, to whom we were introduced in the last post.  (The 'museum' section is displayed above.)
The Museum houses a collection of oddities that the Professor has stuffed over the years.  This includes a two-headed unicorn [Wouldn't that mean it has two horns?], a bison with wings [i.e., a 'flying buffalo'], a wolf with eight legs, and other freaks of nature.  One section also contains several heads which once belonged to famous bandits that were executed in the city (the only exceptions to Fyber's no-humans rule)...
Your humble host suspects Fyber's name was inspired by (the abominable) Dr. Phibes of motion picture infamy.  Yet, if so, Liz Danforth did not use Vincent Price as the model for Fyber's illustration.

Art by Liz Danforth
     Professor FyberHuman.  Ht: 6'3".  Wt: 210 lbs.  Age: 58.  Fighting prowess: very good rapier or saber; otherwise average.
     Professor Fyber is a dark, aristocratic man with a thin moustache.  His dress and voice bespeak a highly cultured man with a sense for the finer things in life.  He is a gourmet cook, a lover of good brandy, and very well-read.
     ...Fyber is a charming fellow and fairly formidable.  He is also a taxidermical genius and very popular with the City nobility to whom he provides trophies.  He zealously guards his secret formulas for preserving tissue, and is not above slaying an intruder who tries to steal them.  His major goal in his work is to preserve the semblance of life in as natural a manner as possible...
Of course, Fyber must obtain his specimens somehow.  The player characters may be retained to search out these strange creatures.  “The hunting expeditions can make a simple scenario for players,” Citybook informs us, “and good mileage can be gotten out of any of the Museum exhibits.”  One suggested scenario involves a vast treasure, the secret to which is contained within one of the bandit heads on display.  The player characters “must steal the head and find a way to revivify it in order to get the clue.”

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Thelesha Moonscry is a fortune-teller – or “seeress” – whose presence in Citybook is attributed to Larry DiTillio.  Given Liz Danforth's penchant for basing the appearance of Citybook personalities upon real-world celebrities, I am inclined to believe that Moonscry's depiction is inspired by Jane Seymour in her role as the fortune-telling Solitaire from Live and Let Die.

Art by Liz Danforth
     Thelesha MoonscryHalf-elf.  Ht: 5'9".  Wt: 130 lbs.  Age: 29.  Fighting ability: poor.  Magic ability: average; C5
     Thelesha has very pale skin, and long black hair with silver streaks in it.  Her left eye is sea-blue and her right eye is silvery-gray.  She is very beautiful and somewhat haunted.  Her typical attire is a sky blue robe adorned with a sigil showing silver moons and green oaks.
     Thelesha is not particularly cheerful.  She knows that she is fated to live without love, and uses her gift in memory of her teachers, an all but extinct sect called the MoonRiders.  She sometimes sees her talent as more of a curse than a gift, and may break off a reading if the omens she is scrying become too painful.  She rarely leaves her house and garden, and the MoonRider spirits watch over her there.
“C5” is Citybook code for communication magic.  I would have thought that divination would be part of clairvoyant magic (i.e, “C3”).  Regardless, Moonscry practices the following divinatory arts:  astrology, oneiromancy, pyromancy, hydroscopy, palmistry, cerescopy [sic], and cartomancy.  With regard to cartomancy, the Game Master is encouraged to “use a Tarot deck if you have one, improvising the meaning of the cards to fit the 'prediction' for the character.”  Otherwise, “You may use a regular card deck in this fashion:  Hearts indicate an emotional situation, Diamonds mean money, Spades mean competition, Clubs indicate magic [and] Face cards represent people.”

We are told that “Thelesha is about 90% accurate in all readings.”  As such, Game Masters are advised not to let Thelesha “be misused or over-used by the players.”  As a deterrent, “High prices should sufficiently limit the use of her powers!”  Also, readings need not be precise – “the more esoteric the symbolic answer, the more intriguing it will be to players.”

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Jock and Wilbur Sleaz are twin orcs who were raised by a kindly wizard who taught them how to make tattoos.  “(GM: if your system has no Orcs, or an Orc would not reasonably fit in your city, make Jock and Wilbur very ugly humans.)”  While Wilbur “quite frequently exhibits more of the standard Orcish traits,” we learn that “Jock is a very gentle soul” who gives money “to a local orphanage in order to give a few orphans the benefit of a better upbringing than he received.”  It seems to me that being raised by a kindly wizard who teaches them a trade is not so bad as an upbringing.

Anyway, the brothers employ their skills at a tattoo parlor of which they are the proprietors.  In addition to 'regular' tattoos, Jock (but not Wilbur) learned to create 'magical' tattoos (called “mattoos”).  By concentrating, the wearer of a mattoo can bring the mattoo into existence.
Once a mattoo comes to life, it will follow any command of the wearer (if it's a creature), or be employed in any manner the user wishes.  For each hour it exists, the wearer must pump strength into it, on an ever expanding scale.  The first hour costs 1 point; the second, 2; the third, 4; the fourth, 8; etc. (doubling each time).  Willing a mattoo to life for less than an hour costs 1.  The strength used returns at 1 point per full game turn.  (GM:  adjust to your game system.)
The price of a mattoo “starts at around 1000 gold pieces, rising with the complexity of the mattoo desired.”  Mattoos which are destroyed are no long usable, leave a scar, and cannot be replaced.

Jock himself has the maximum of five mattoos, created by the kindly wizard.  These mattoos are “two small dragons, a full-size flaming sword down his right leg, a waterfall on his chest (which can be used somewhat like a firehose), and a full-size rose on his left arm.”

A special mattoo is described:
Very simply, it is a “duckie”, a cute little representation of a duck.  Jock always recommends it because he likes duckies.  The duckie is like a normal mattoo – except that it always appears as a full-sized duck with full powers of speech, better than human intelligence, and a poisonous bite!  In addition, duckies have the power to deflect spells (set the level according to your game system); if a duckie is within a 5' radius of its wearer, it will partly protect its wearer by absorbing the spell.  Neither Jock nor Wilbur are aware of these powers – Jock just likes duckies!