Thursday, October 27, 2005

Shadows of the Gaming Past, part 3

Do Androids Dream of Vaporware?

Back when I was a kid Dragon magazine was my lifeline to the gaming community. Sure, I managed to get to a few conventions. Bloomington, Illinois was host to Frontier Wars (it would be almost two decades before I realized this con was named after the Frontier Wars from Traveller) and Spring Offensive played in Peoria. But Dragon was the only thing I could count on for regular contact with the rest of the hobby. I purchased the first Dragon magazine I ever encountered, issue #69, from January 1983. I'm not sure if I even paged through the thing before I got it. It had orcs, skeletons and a hot sorceress on the cover, what more did I need to know?

Nowadays you hear a lot of folks on messageboards bemoaning their isolation. "I can't find a gaming group." "Everybody here only plays D&D." "Now that I'm sixteen mom makes me change my own diapers." What a bunch of wussies. I founded my first gaming group in fourth grade, armed with nothing but a D&D Basic set and unbridled enthusiasm. If you can't get two or three people to try gaming with you, that's not necessarily a fault of the system or the hobby. Try getting a personality. Back in my youth the D&D group in Flanagan, Illinois was a handful of snotnosed kids who taught themselves all the tough lessons of gaming. Hell, I still remember the glorious moment at my folks' kitchen table when we realized that sleep allowed for no saving throw, allowing Gopher to claim the treasue for himself.

Although we were never the kind of players to willy-nilly adapt ever variant we found in a Dragon article, we did take the new stuff appearing in its pages very seriously. Without an internet or a friendly local game store or any adult mentors, our formative years of roleplaying were shaped by Dragon first and foremost. This Dragon-induced myopia left us with strange notions such as TSR being the only serious company that made real roleplaying games. It took us years to get over that nonsense. Bewteen the lot of us we collected nearly ever game TSR made in the early-to-mid eighties: D&D, AD&D, Gamma World, Boot Hill, Dawn Patrol, Gangbusters, Star Frontiers, Conan, and Marvel Superheroes. We eventually branched out, but mainly from lack of new games to buy from TSR! It took some solid licenses (Star Trek, James Bond 007, Ghostbusters, MERP) to get us out of that rut. One interesting footnote here is that our first semi-successful campaign with a non-TSR product was running Call of Cthulhu. I didn't know Howard Phillips Lovecraft from the man in the moon until I read the Dragon review for CoC. I may never have gotten into Lovecraft if not for that review.

Given our relationship with TSR and Dragon back in those days, you can imagine my game group's exitement when a new TSR roleplaying game is announced in the pages of Dragon. The announcement came in the form of a two page article in the ARES section of issue #99, July 1985. For those of you who don't know, in 1984 or so TSR bought out wargame veteran SPI. (For gaming icon Greg Costikyan's bitter look back at this event click here.) One of SPI's publications was a sci-fi gaming mag called ARES. Rather than continue to publish ARES as a separate magazine, the secret chiefs of TSR decided to rework the brand as a special sci-fi/superheroes section of Dragon. I don't know much about the pre-Dragon version of ARES, as I've never read an issue. Back issues go for a pretty penny on eBay nowadays.

So anyways, the article that caught my eye back in '85 was "Psybots and Battle Mechs" by Michael Breault. The Pen & Paper database indicates that Mr. Breault has almost no creative credits, but he edited a large number of TSR products over the years. Mr. Breault's article outlined a forthcoming rpg entitled Proton Fire (or, as TSR liked to put things in those days, PROTON FIRE™). They managed to squeeze in four different robot illustrations on those two pages. I've posted my favorite of the four on the right. Robo-babe, ahoy!

Proton Fire, as Mr. Breault explains, was to be a new science fiction title. The setting is the Matri system, which was colonized centuries in the past by humans via a slower-than-light colony ship. Since then the Matri system has apparently been cut off from the rest of humanity. Most of the humans in the Matri system are under the dystopian thumb of the Corporation, headed by the cybernetically immortal Quintad and ruthlessly enforced by their robo-goons, the Eliminators. The PCs are agents of the University, which obtained independance from the Corporation when a great plague disrupted business as usual by killing off 90% of the population of the system. (Aside: Why do plagues in rpg settings always have ludicrously high kill rates? You only need 10% fatalities to kick a society in the jimmy. Fer cryin' out loud, the Black Death killed a third of Europe at most.) PCs can be full flesh humans, cyborgs, or psybots. About psybots:

Psybots are the final step in robot evolution. Their minds are every bit as flexible and inquisitive as those of humans, yet they lack the empathy and insight of humans. Psybots also have feelings and experience pain much like humans.
To this day I'm puzzled as to why psybots have feelings yet lack empathy. That sounds really weird, like all psybots are programmed to be sociopaths. And why would anyone rig up a robot to be receptive to pain? But the biggest mystery about the psybots was their name. Do they have psionic powers? The article doesn't say.

Non-cyborg humans working for the University are issued gaint robot battlesuits. I can only assume that the designers envisioned very few adventures involving a lot of infiltration and stealth. The article spends a couple of paragraphs describing how cyborgs and psybots would have lotsa of options regarding the design of their robo-bodies. That was probably the part that most interested me. Mention was made of lotsa sci-fi equipment and a starting adventure in which the PCs seek out the Glory, the original colonization ship that brought humanity to the Matri system.

In retrospect the basic premise of the game seems sound even if a bit ham-handed: you are super-powered robotic college kids sticking it to the Man ...in space! That looks like a reasonable product to attempt to sell the a D&D teenager during the Reagan 80's. Still, "Psybots and Battle Mechs" left at least two important questions unanswered. First, why set this sci-fi game in a single system? One of the perennial complaints lodged against TSR's Star Frontiers (their space opera game) is that the setting is too small, and "the Frontier" has a couple dozen star systems. Traveller, the undisputed king of science fiction roleplaying games, has over 200 worlds in the Spinward Marches setting, which is itself just one sector in "Charted Space". Yet even Charted Space can seem pretty small and crowded compared to the galaxy-spanning settings of the Star Wars and Star Trek universes. In an era where kids imagined zooming spaceships visiting a thousand worlds of adventure, Proton Fire offered us a single solar system. WtF?

But maybe the designers of the game did intend for Proton Fire to have a larger scope than just one system. The Proton Fire marketing blurb from the "Coming Attractions" department of that same issue of Dragon says:
Outer space, undersea, airless mons, turbulent atmospheres of strange gas giant planets, alien landscapes under far stars... explore the galaxy and discover strange new worlds as a giant robotic psybot, cyborg, or (if you insist) even a human being.

That sounds like a star-spanning game to me. Not that I'm inclined to trust marketing blurbs.

The second unanswered question is why a new sci-fi game at all? Star Frontiers, while never crushing Traveller underfoot, seemed like a reaonably popular game. It was at least in the middle of the pack based upon the volume of supplementary material produced for it. And splitting your fans between two different-but-similar products seems like a pretty easy way to lose money pushing new products out the door. Other examples of this marketing insanity include Avalon Hill releasing 3rd edition RuneQuest at the same time as Powers & Perils, FGU trying to simultaneously sell Chivalry & Sorcerery and Swordquest, and the fifty-settings-supported-at-the-same-time 2nd edition AD&D fiasco. And let's not forget the daddy of them all: AD&D and Basic/Expert D&D. That never led to any confusion or frustration. Doubling down may work in blackjack, but I can't recommend it in rpg publishing.

Still, I remember wanting to get a copy of this Proton Fire game. It was the lure of crunchy robot-building rules, I think. I was almost a decade away from reading Mekton Zeta and BattleTech wouldn't appear on the radar until October of '85. My first BattleTech experience occured at the same Frontier War gaming convention where I bought my Call of Cthulhu boxed set. That was my first con, my first go at playing in an AD&D tournament, and my first time playing D&D with adults. And I think BattleTech and CoC were my first non-TSR gaming purchases. Going strictly by publishing dates it's possible that I already owned James Bond 007 and Dave had his copy of MERP, but I don't think so. Either way, that first con was a hell of a turning point in my evolution as a game geek.

Back to Proton Fire. As I indicated earlier the setting seemed limited in scoped, but the possibility of building your own robot or cyborg PC outweighed any other considerations. Alas, it was not meant to be. Two months after Michael Breault heralded the coming of Proton Fire, Dragon #101 pulled the plug with the following announcement:
COMING RETRACTIONS. . .

In DRAGON® Magazine #99, we proudly announced the impending release of the PROTON FIRE™ Robot Role-Playing Game, both in this column and with an article in the ARES™ Section.

Well, it didn’t happen, folks. The truth is that after the original information was prepared and printed, we decided there wasn't a big market for a stand-alone robot game—so instead, we're re-packaging it as a STAR FRONTIERS® game accessory. That way, your STAR FRONTIERS game will be enhanced with new options, and the fascinating works of PROTON FIRE will expand the Frontier Universe!

Watch this space for news as it develops!

That actually sounded promising. The Matri system may have been insufficient on its own merits, but as an expansion to the Star Frontiers setting it had legs. Imagine a first contact mission in which PCs from a Star Frontiers campaign discover the lost human colony and become entangled in the University's guerilla war. The first volume of Zebulon's Guide to Frontier Space came out in '85, so at the time I thought maybe the robot rules would be printed in a later volume. Maybe they would be published alongside or integrated with the battlesuit rules that had already been promised to appear in a later volume of Zebulon's Guide. But this line of thinking quickly dead ends. No other volumes of Zebulon's Guides ever materialized. Volume one of the series was the last Star Frontiers product released by TSR.

But the story doesn't end there. It is received wisdom in the Star Frontiers internet community that robot and cyborg rules were written for Star Frontiers, and that they were in fact published, just not as a Star Frontiers product. According to reports, these rules were published in the 3rd edition Gamma World module Epsilon Cyborgs. On the face of it, publishing rules for one game in a supplement for another game seems nonsensical. But in this case the idea is not absurd. Gamma World 3rd edition was part of what I call the Color Chart Revolution at TSR. Back in 1984 the so-called Game Wizards made a big splash with their Marvel SuperHeroes rpg. One of the unique features of MSH was it's four color universal resolution chart. Someone at TSR decided that this chart was the Next Big Thing, so for the next few years all their non-D&D rpgs joined in the Revolution. The first licensed Conan rpg (1986) used a color chart similar to the Marvel system. Gamma World was retooled to use a color chart in 1986. And Zebulon's Guide gave the same treatment to Star Frontiers. For all intents and purposes it was the 3rd edition rules for Star Frontiers (the first two editions where substantially the same). The color charts turned out not to be a guarantee of success. Gamma World and Marvel SuperHeroes flourished while Conan and the new Star Frontiers floundered.

So although the mid-80's roleplaying games from TSR weren't as compatible with each other as say GURPS, Chaosium's BRP engine, or even the Palladium MegaVerse, they shared a common core mechanic. So let's assume that there was at least a partially completed rough draft of Proton Fire already written when "Psybots and Battle Mechs" was published. When the game is cancelled someone at TSR decides to salvage that material as a Star Frontiers project. I think the "Coming Retractions" announcement could support this hypothesis. When Star Frontiers goes belly up, it was decided to re-recycle this material for a Gamma World module about cyborgs. That's quite a voyage for this manuscript to take, but it's not the craziest thing TSR ever did.

Given my obvious fascination with the Proton Fire story, you may be surprised when I tell you that I don't own a copy of Epsilon Cyborgs. Well, I don't need too. The enthusiasts over at StarFrontiers.com have excerpted the cyborg rules. I can't say I'm impressed. Mr. Breault promised that "You design every detail of your character: the size and shape of the body, the number and types of limb" and the "Coming Attractions" blurb also makes this point. But the Epsilon rules are just a bunch of percentile charts you roll on to produce a grab-bag of results. That doesn't sound much like designing every detail. Even back in 1985 many people generally understood the difference between random character generation and generation by design. Champions had already gone through 3 editions by then. So maybe Proton Fire would have disappointed me had it been released all those years ago.

Of course the scenario I've outlined may be wrong. The Epsilon Cyborgs rules may have nothing to do with Proton Fire. Perhaps the Proton Fire manuscript never saw the light of day or perhaps Mr. Breault's announcement was premature and serious work had not even begun on the game back in July 1985. But there is another, more intriguing possibility. Veteran RPGnet reviewer Dan Davenport stated on one occasion that the Proton Fire material was reworked into Nuts & Voltz, a little robot rpg published in issue #10 of White Wolf magazine. Since I consider Mr. Davenport a credible source I tracked down a copy White Wolf #10. I couldn't find a date of publication inside the magazine, but the back cover is an ad for MegaTraveller, published in 1987. Nuts & Voltz approaches character generation via a bunch of percentile charts in much the same way as Epsilon Cyborgs. But it's clear that the Epsilon Cyborgs rules and Nuts & Voltz are not the same material re-hashed in two different venues. Or if they are, one or both documents went through serious revisions prior to publication.

Accepting both documents as descendants of Proton Fire creates an interesting question of authorship. Nuts & Voltz was written by Merle and Jackie Rasmussen, the couple behind the original version of Top Secret, TSR's espionage game. But according to Lawrence Schick's Heroic Worlds (the definitive pre-internet reference to roleplaying games), Epsilon Cyborgs is credited to Kim Eastland, who also has the design credit for Zebulon's Guide to Frontier Space. None of these names matches the credit given in the "Coming Attractions" blurb though. According to that, Proton Fire was to be written by Bruce Nesmith. Mr. Nesmith is also given credit in Zebulon's Guide, for "Special Contributions".

I'll probably never know the whole story behind what exactly happened regarding the sudden announcement and retraction of Proton Fire and any legacy it left. Is there a print-out of some crunchy, build-your-own robot rules yellowing in the back of some former TSR employee's filing cabinet? Or did "Psybots and Battle Mechs" simply over-hype the robot construction rules? Are Epsilon Cyborgs and/or Nuts & Volts true reflections of the original Proton Fire concept? Given the state of chargen systems in other early 80's TSR games my guess, for what it is worth, is that one or both of them are children of that lost Matri colony. Either way, there's enough information in Mr. Breault's article to serve as the seed for an adventure. If you run an exploration based sci-fi campaign, it might be worth checking out.