Monday, October 31, 2005
It's Halloween! It's Halloween!
The moon is full and bright
And we shall see what can't be seen
On any other night:
Skeletons and ghosts and ghouls,
Grinning goblins fighting duels,
Werewolves rising from their tombs,
Witches on their magic brooms.
In masks and gowns
we haunt the street
And knock on doors
for trick or treat.
Tonight we are
the king and queen,
For oh tonight
Thursday, October 27, 2005
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.
Wednesday, October 26, 2005
Saturday, October 22, 2005
Rich Sample (an RPGnetter and one of my regular blog readers) requested a "Firefly-esque" game. Normally I like to honor requests. After all it's a compliment just to be asked to run something. But I felt that I was unqualified to run a Firefly game. I have yet to watch the entire series nor have I seen Serenity. If anyone wants me to surrender my geek card just let me know.
I tell you what: I'm really looking forward to running these games. I've never ran any of them before and not many people have played them. Okay, maybe a few people have played D&D at one time or another, but there's lots of gamers out there who have never been exposed to the original rules. And the prospect of making all the PCs just has my mojo up and running.
Friday, October 21, 2005
Unlike the first installment in this series (which will go to at least 3 parts, BTW), today I'll be writing about an old game product for which I have no firsthand knowledge. One of the perennial thread themes over at the RPGnet boards is "best genre supplements for [x]?" or something along those lines. My stock answers are Aaron Allston's Strike Force for supers (though I understand most of Allston's good stuff wound up in the 5th edition Champions sourcebook), Sorcerer & Sword by Ron Edwards for sword & sorcery games, and recently I have added S. John Ross's Risus Companion for comedy games (though it has great advice for non-comedic games as well). Anyway, one such thread led to the following comment from RPGnetter Calithena:
This is a useless recommendation, but a level or two down from S&S I also once enjoyed a book called The Quest, by David Emigh, from Icarus Press in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois.
Two things make this comment particularly interesting. First is the fact that Calithena is my kind of gamer. He's into crazy old school crap involving dungeons and orc-killing and whatnot. The Arduin module I'm currently running was written by him, and boy is it a doozy. Cal is one of the handful of people on RPGnet whose gaming advice is rock solid, at least for someone with my tastes. (While I'm dropping names, some other RPGnet old schoolers worth listening to include grubman, tetsujin26, Random Goblin, and Akrasia. Our patron saint is Old Geezer, who apparently played with both Arneson and Gygax back in the day. In addition to having similar playstyles as my own, all these fellows also strike me as just plain good people.)
The other interesting facet of Calithena's comment is the location of Icarus Press. In case you don't know, I live in Urbana, Illinois and work in Champaign. And some of the guys I boardgame with on Mondays have been gaming for a long time. As in a they-remember-when-D&D-was-a-new-kind-of-wargame long time. More importantly, they've been locals for just as long. Bruce and Al helped organize the original Winter War convention. Next February we'll be celebrating the 33rd annual Winter War.
Clearly I had an inside track on finding a copy of The Quest, if it was published out of Shampoo-Banana. Heck, I suppose you could even go so far as to call Bruce an 'industry insider' if you're fond of bandying about that phrase. At one point he was a partner in a small game company of his own. ("If you want to turn a big pile of money into a small pile of money, a game company is a good way to do it." --Bruce.) Bruce and his pals put out a strategic wargame called Babarian, Kingdom & Empire that received at least one good review long ago. I can't recall if I read the review in Dragon or the late, lamentable Stardate, but either way it sounded like a neat game. I have yet to play B,K&E but from my memories of that old review, Bruce's attempt to explain it to me, and this review from Web-Grognards, it sounds a lot like an ancients-era version of Empires of the Middle Ages, but with crunchier economics.
So after reading Calithena's comment I figure I ought to use my connections to try and track down a copy of The Quest, if I can. A brief series of e-mails with him indicated that he also needed a copy, as he no longer had the first one he purchased. The Monday night after our e-mail exchange I put the question to the grognards. Here's an exact transcript (or maybe not) of the conversation:
Me: I say old chaps, I wonder if I could bother you to help me in locating a volume of gaming lore issued many a year ago by a local publishing house known as Icarus something?
Bruce: -enthusastically raises his hand like a schoolboy needing to go to the bathroom-
Me: Yes, good sir?
Bruce: You're looking at one third of Icarus Games.
Turns out that Bruce and his two friends released both The Quest and Barbarian, Kingdom, and Empire. Isn't that a lovely coincidence? Here I have a net friend living in far off I-have-no-idea-where-istan who happens to love a small press rpg item published long ago by one of my regular gaming buddies!
But that's not the end of the story. According to Bruce the Icarus Games partnership was desolved many years ago and the stock (including some boxes full of copies of The Quest) was sold to wargame outfit Excalibre Games. This information led me to some googling, but a website for Excalibre was not to be found. Turns out that Excalibre is now an 'associate' of Decision Games, a well-established hex-and-chit company that is the current publisher of Strategy & Tactics. At first I thought that Excalilbre had also gone under and sold out, but now I suspect what really happened is that the guy behind Excalibre decided that he likes being a designer more than publishing. Anyway, the Excalbre Games section of the Decision website is chock full of cool looking stuff. It turns out that Excalibre must have also bought out the warehouse when MetaGaming went under, because the Excalibre page is chock full of microgames: Fury of the Norsemen, Fire When Ready, Rommel's Panzers, Stalins' Tanks, Dragons of the Underearth, Rivets, Trailblazer, and WarpWar! (Incidentally, I adore the cover art for Fury of the Norsemen and Dragons of the Underearth.) And microgames like these are about the size and complexity that allows me to wrap my mind around historical wargaming. (For a great look at other microgames from the same era, check out The Maverick's Classic Microgames Museum.) Excalibre also lists Aces High and American Aces from 3W and Wings from Excalibre's own imprint, three World War One airplane games. That's three more airplane games onto my mental wishlist, right behind Richthofen's War from AH, 1st edition Blue Max from GDW and the newish Wings of War cardgame.
This is a design guide book for the imaginative fantasy game referee. Using themes common to ancient myth, medieval romance and modern fantasy, this book guides the referee toward designing more exciting role playing scenarios. Each chapter includes a story illuminating the themes discussed in it. Usable with any role playing system, The Quest is a guide for the discerning referee.
But I do have some more information about the author, David Emigh. The Quest was not his only gaming credit. He wrote Tower Of Ulission and Sword of Hope, the first and second rounds of the D&D tournament for WInter War IV. These adventures were later published by Judge's Guild, the early 3rd party D&D powerhouse based out of nearby Decatur, Illinois. Hey! I own copies of both of those! They demonstrate two equally different and equally interesting approaches to adventure construction, though the execution of both ideas is rough. The Pen & Paper database lists Mr. Emigh as "Technical and General Advice and Assistance" for two landmark Traveller products, Mercenary and the 2nd edition of High Guard. The Traveller Bibliography further credits Mr. Emigh with an article entitled "Charged Particle Accelerator Weapons", published in the Journal of the Travellers' Aid Society, Issue No. 13. (Part of that article is quoted here.) The Traveller material was all published by Game Designers Workshop, out of nearby Bloomington, Illinois. Marc Miller, the Gygax of the Traveller world (which I mean as a compliment), still lives in Bloomington. He publishers Trav reprints as Far Future Enterprises and sells gobs of material on eBay under the name onlooker1. I've bought an item or two from Mr. Miller. Good guy.
This computer gaming page also mentions that Mr. Emigh contributed to an early PLATO-based D&D-esque computer game, called Oubliette. He wrote Varget, the "ancient" language spells were spoken in. PLATO was a computer system that was deeply embedded at the University of Illinois. Although clearly more than a decade behind the times, it was still in use when I came to the U in the fall of '91. One CompSci upperclassmen in my dorm had an "I Hate PLATO" sign up on his wall. I believe he had printed it out as part of a PLATO assignment. And though I can't confirm it as a fact, it may have been our David Emigh who wrote "As a Cherokee brought up in New Mexico I can think of NO Amerind that looks like the Uruk-hai." in response to some French asshole who thinks Peter Jackson's version of orcs were meant to look like members of the First Nations. I'll have to ask Bruce if he remembers Mr. Emigh as a New Mexican or Cherokee.
I hope this installment of Shadows of the Gaming Past helps you to understand why I am constantly obsessing over old game stuff. The early world of roleplaying was a tangled web of fascinating relationships and much of this world was centered right here in Midwest states: Wisconsin, Minnesota, Illinois. Before Calithena's remark a few weeks ago I didn't know David Emigh from Adam. Now it turns out that I was a fan of some of his work and didn't realize it. Furthermore, I game regularly with a couple old acquaintances of his. Life's funny, ain't it?
Thursday, October 20, 2005
Wednesday, October 19, 2005
Anyone have an opinion as to what I should review next for RPGnet? Here are some of the items I've had in mind to tackle:
Adventures in Fantasy: Dave Arneson's late 70s post-D&D fantasy rpg. I had boxed up my copy with the intent of sending it to The Museum of Role-Playing Games, but I think I'll review it first. Also, this game needs a Pen & Paper entry.
Fantasy Wargaming: subtitled "The Highest Level of All", this is one of the classically bad rpgs, but I think it has some virtues that need to be sung. Also absent from the Pen & Paper database.
Zombi: subtitled "The Earth won't hold the Dead", I tend to think of this one as "the other zombie rpg". I'm sure there are All Flesh Must Be Eaten fans who would be curious enough to read the review. The publisher, Crucible Design, also produced SpaceNinjaCyberCrisis XDO, which belongs on some list of best RPG names.
Risus and/or the Risus Companion: I am totally mutating into an S. John Ross fanboy and these two products are one of the big reasons why.
Do any of these trip anyone's trigger? Is there something else you'd like to see me review? I know that at least one or two people will read this entry, so please feel free to give me your opinions. And while you're doing that, answer me this: was the last post too long? I think I overdid that one.
Monday, October 17, 2005
In restrospect the early to middle nineties, the period correlating largely to my time at the University of Illinois, could be called my Crunchy Years. Role-playing wise I gamed the crap out of the HERO System, mostly in its Champions guise but also with an espionage, sci-fi, and fantasy outings. On the boardgaming front I did my level best to play Star Fleet Battles with at least basic proficiency. Heck, I even played in at least one SFB tournament at Winter War. (I remember being knocked out the running by my good friend Ray St. John. Later during the con we realized that Ray had been unintentionally allocating more energy than his engines produced.) I think it would be fair to say that HERO and SFB are among the crunchiest games in their respective fields. Although well-designed systems, I don't really have time any more for the level of tinkering those two games required. But I don't consider myself completely finished with either of these games. As I mentioned in an earlier post, the new Star Hero is supposed to be a great generic sci-fi campaign aid. The other genre sourcebooks in the fifth edition HERO line are also drawing praise, particularly Pulp Hero and the new Champions. In many ways people are talking up these books the same way that GURPS sourcebooks were hot in the 90s.
I still have a bit of a shine for SFB. The game may be too slow and crunchy for me, but I still love a lot of the ship designs and expanded setting material. I'd love to play out the desparate everyone vs. the Andromedans campaign, even if I would use Starmada instead of the SFB system. The appearance in the SFB universe of the Kzinti warms my heart. (And they share a border with the Klingons, allowing for the two warrior races to duke it out.) The emigration of the Tholian refugee fleet to our galaxy and the subsequent pursuit by the Seltorians are truly the stuff of grand space epics. The early Klingon and Starfleet ship designs directly inspire my on-again off-again Four Years War project.
But all this nifty SFB stuff is part and parcel of the mainstream SFB universe. What I really want to talk about here is something further off the beaten track. Turn the wayback machine to 1994, the only year I have attended Gencon. Although the gaming was sour (Several events filled or canceled and my first opponent at the Divine Right tournament was an ass. And worse yet, he was an ass who beat me.) I managed to have a lot of fun at the live auction, even if Frank Mentzer was full of himself. I also enjoyed viewing the wares in the exhibition hall. I remember two vendors in particular making a deep impression on me. The first one was a representative of Precendence Publishing, who tried really hard to convince me that Immortal: The Invisible War did not suck. I feel pretty confident that they were wrong(think Vampire heartbreaker plus Highlander ripoff minus anything cool about being a vampire or sword-swinging immortal), but if I find a copy in a dollar bin somewhere maybe I'll take another look at it. The other memorable vendor was a chap from Companion Games. Heck, that guy might have been the entire staff of Companion Games.
Back in '94 Companion Games had just published a batch of third party material for Star Fleet Battles, mostly taking the form of ship books for new races. Like the official SFB races, each book outlined one or more pieces of new technology that the species used in its ship designs. Although Companion designed their ships to be useable against standard SFB vessels, they also established their own setting for their creations. This setting was unfortunately named The Far Side. Had these guys never heard of the Gary Larson comic? Sheesh. To the right is what normal right-thinking Americans imagine when you mention The Far Side. Below is the Companion Games version.
This region of space is called The Far Side because it is on the opposite side of the galaxy from Federation/Klingon/etc space. In modern SFB parlance the Far Side might lie inside Lambda Octant. (Alpha Octant is the region of the Feds, et al. The lettering system goes clockwise around the galactic disk, so Alpha Octant is adjacent to Beta and Omega Octants.) One of the newer official SFB factions, the Xorkaelian Empire, could lurk just coreward of the Scorpeads. Here's a brief rundown of what I know about the elements from the Far Side map.
Argonian First Republic: The Argonians occupy a nebula on the Far Side and a nebula near the Romulan/Gorn/ISC border. The two nebulae were once linked via a wormhole, which has since collapsed, cutting the Argonian civilization in half. Argonian ships are radially symmetrical (Their cruisers look like flying Stars of David, just like the "Jews in Space" sequence at the end of Mel Brooks's History of the World, Part I.) and are equipped with a Strobe Device that can blind enemy sensors.
Vektrea: The only thing I know about this race is that some of them are space mercenaries.
Indirigan Space: I think the first Indirigan book is the one that I bought that day back in '94. Some of the Inidirigans abandoned their planets to take up life as roving space gypsies. They are organized into kinship groups that travel together in up to a dozen ships. One of their more interesting cultural facets is that they still practice marriage by capture. When two kinship groups meet they fight. The goal is to beam boarding parties to the enemy ships to kidnap brides. The Indirigans are basically humanoid, so you could inflict this scenario on Romulan or Federation ships if you like. Imagine trying to carry off an unwilling Klingon bride! The Indirigan section fo the Far Side is also called the Free Trade Zone because life back on the planets life is controlled by big business. The megacorps took over the Indirigan planets during the disruptions caused by the space migrations.
Plasma Occupied Territory: This is a mystery. What does "Plasma Occupied" mean? Thanks to the appearance of the Doomsday Machine and the giant space amoeba in original series Star Trek, SFB has a long tradition of giant space monsters. Maybe this region is full of ionic monsters or enigmatic energy beings.
Krebiz Capitalist Alliance: These guys are crab people with claw-shaped spaceships. The are behind the curve in defense technologies, so their ships use armor plating rather than shield generators. The Krebiz had a small colony in the Alpha Octant, but it was conquered by the Klingons and the colonial fleet was utterly destroyed. I think the Krebiz/Klingon conflict could be a great little wargame campaign.
Mechad Holdfast: I, for one, welcome our new robot overlords.
Tuforeous Dead Zone: I seem to recall that warp drive doesn't work in this region of space, but the little purple 'X' in the Zone indicates the presence of a pirate stronghold. Maybe they have access to some non-warp based FTL technology. (Like the apocryphal Romulan "star drive".)
All-in-all, the Far Side looks like an interesting place for adventure. Companion Games put out maybe a dozen or so SFB products detailing their Far Side creations. They then turned their attentions to the then-burgeoning collectible card game market. The Far Side setting material became the backbone of the Galactic Empires CCG. When the CCG market crashed Companion Games sold out or else transitioned into Component Game Systems, which has subsequently folded. Nowadays the Far Side SFB material is barely a fleeting memory. I can't help but think that the print runs on the books were pretty small. And who knows, maybe legal action from Task Force Games/Amarillo Design Bureau resulted in a large quantity of the stock being destroyed. I've heard rumours to the effect that the official SFB people weren't exactly pleased as punch to have competition. But then again, simple market forces and the realities of the hobby would dictate that you aren't going to get rich making unofficial supplements to a niche game like SFB. Especially when you consider that, in addition to lacking the blessing of the game's publisher, none of these races ever appeared on the TV show. Add in the fact that in the mid-nineties publishing a CCG looked like a license to print money and maybe Companion Games just switched their business model over to a more profitable venture.
I think my Indirigans book was among my SFB material that I sold as a lot many years ago. It would be cool to track down some of this stuff, but it's all deucedly hard to find on the internet. John H. Kim's Companion Games page provides a nice overview of the product line and a few SSDs. Maniacal SSD designer Donald "SmileyLich" Miller has some homebrew Far Side ships in his vast SFB fansite. But the only thing I've found for sale is from Noble Knight Games, which has the first Mechad book for fifteen bucks. That's more than I'm willing to spend, so I continue to scan eBay. Maybe someday I'll break down and buy some Galactic Empires cards just so I can see what some of these aliens look like. Until I can lay my hands on some of this stuff, the Far Side will linger in the back of my mind as one of those half-forgotten campaign settings that maybe deserved a better fate that it received. Or maybe nostalgia's rosy tints have put a false shine on the Far Side. I won't know until I see for myself.
Coming soon in Part 2: The Quest for Icarus
The good news is that I think Star Hero was the last item on my "need to start a sci-fi setting" list. The bad news is that once I have the book in my hands I will no longer have an excuse to not start work. Maybe I can hold out for Points in Space 2 from Cumberland Games?
My overall verdict: I ain't ready to buy a PPV, but I will tune in for the next episode.
Here's my one question for any TNA fans that might be reading this post: Is Abyss meant to be ripping off Kane, Mankind, or both? I couldn't tell.
Sunday, October 16, 2005
Friday, October 14, 2005
Thursday, October 13, 2005
DARTH VADER CARD GAME
Here's a "Star Wars" card game to play with your friends. But beware! Whoever loses will be left with Darth Vader!
1. Use a regular deck of 52 playing cards. The Ace of Spades is DARTH VADER. Remove the other 3 aces.
2. One player deals all 49 remaining cards among the players. (The deal will come out even only if there are 7 players. Otherwise, deal the cards around as far as they go.) One of the players has the Ace of Spades -- DARTH VADER! The object of the game is not to get caught with it. Here is how a player can hope to get rid of it:
3. Each player matches up any pairs in his hand and puts them face up on the table. He keeps the rest of his cards in his hand.
4. Play starts with the dealer and goes around to the left. Each player in turn picks a card from the hand of the player on his left. He may not see the card before he picks it.
5. If the card makes a pair with a card in the picker's hand, he puts the pair on the table. If it doesn't make a pair he has to keep the card in his hand.
6. The game keeps going until all players but one have no cards left. That players, of course, will have the Ace of Spades -- and end up in the clutches of Lord Darth Vader!!!
A pretty crude game, but this book is clearly aimed at the elementary school kids. I like how no one wins the game; one player is the loser. I can't recall playing a whole lot of games like that. Dingus by Cheapass-imitator Placebo Press and stacking/unstacking games like Jenga are the only ones that immediately spring to mind.
Wednesday, October 12, 2005
Tuesday, October 11, 2005
My Character is CoolTurns out I was one of the six fastest respondents and won myself a copy of Points in Space 1. Yippee!
His name is Endrin Greencloak and he's a half-elf druid with a level or two of rogue. Druid may be his training but rogue is his lifestyle of choice. Endrin is the product of a single night of passion between a naive elven minstrel and a wanton milk maid. He calls himself Greencloak because his green hooded cape (Greencape just doesn't sound romantic enough) is the only thing he has that belonged to his father, who was forced to leave it behind when the milk maid's father intruded upon a delicate scene. Endrin ended up inheriting all his mother's bad points and none of his father's good traits, so she shipped him off to druid school at the first opportunity. Now he fakes his way through the life of a wandering adventurer, getting by on his wits and as little work as possible. Endrin generally considers an adventure to be a success whenever he can score some treasure without casting any spells or whacking anything with his quarterstaff. To this end he surrounds himself with lunkheaded swordsmen and overly enthusiatic clerics. He is the Keeper of the One True False Orb of Jaramond, a duty he solemnly took upon himself when nobody else wanted the darn thing.
Friday, October 07, 2005
I don't know the scale of the above figure. But if it fits on my old BattleTech maps, then sign me up! (Have I mentioned recently that the larger scale of MechWarrior clickies is a freakin' tragedy?)
| You scored as Butt-Kicker. You like a streightforward combat character. After a long day at the office, you want to clobber foes and once more prove your superiority over all who would challenge you.|
Law's Game Style
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I need to research what ol' Winston was up to between the wars, to see if he could squeeze a Call of Cthulhu scenario into his busy schedule. I suppose that WWII might turn out a bit differently if Churchill was bugfuck insane for the duration.
Thursday, October 06, 2005
Wednesday, October 05, 2005
Doug, one of my D&D players, was kind enough to lend me his copy of Halo, but I haven't got a chance to play it much. And lately I haven't been able to play the wrestling game much either, because my daughter has become an avid spectator of my X-box play. And she is absolutely fascinated with Soul Calibur II. More specifically, she thinks Necrid is the coolest guy ever and insists I always play him. Why she likes this guy is completely baffling me. Just look at him:
Personally, I find the character design hopelessly derivative. He's basically the Hulk with a lightsabre, but with spikes on his body for extra kewlness. I have to choose team mode just to squeeze in a few rounds with other characters. And did I mention that a bunch of characters start the game as unlockables? Even worse, I have to play through some sort of crappy campaign mode to unlock them. Campaign mode for a fight game? Funk dat. I came to fight, not to chase some namby-pamby storyline.
A lot occurred to me the other day. Is there an official Dungeons & Dragons fighting game? Because there ought to be. Just put some Iconics and some featured creatures into game like Soul Calibur and I would play it. Put Mialee and a succubus in the promo screenshots and I bet you'll get a hojillion pre-sales.
|You scored as Hedonism. Your life is guided by the principles of Hedonism: You believe that pleasure is a great, or the greatest, good; and you try to enjoy life's pleasures as much as you can.|
"Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die!"
More info at Arocoun's Wikipedia User Page...
What philosophy do you follow? (v1.03)
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This is one of those tests that, while interesting, might yield different results depending on my mood. By the way, I was goaded into taking this test by RPGPundit.
Tuesday, October 04, 2005
Let's call the first one eclectic fantasy. 'Gonzo', 'over-the-top', and 'wahoo' might also fit as labels. Detractors might refer to this as the kitchen sink approach to fantasy. Adding in stuff just because you think it's cool is the order of the day. Mixing sci-fi and trad fantasy is perfectly acceptable in eclectic fantasy. Dave Hargrave's Arduin was a much-celebrated early entrant in this field, though it must be noted that Arneson's Blackmoor and Gygax's Greyhawk both had their share of robots and rayguns. Anybody who DM'ed AD&D during the first edition era probably remembers the rules in the Dungeon Master's Guide for crosspollinating Boot Hill and Gamma World with Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. Lords of Creation, World of Synnibarr, and Rifts tackle this style of play head-on. The 3.x versions of D&D can easily be pushed down this road, as the existence of lines like Iron Kingdoms and Eberron attests. It's clear to me that Exalted also fits into the eclectic mode, especially with the publication of the robot book. Two current favorites of mine in this category are Encounter Critical (which will get its own gameblog entry soon) and S. John Ross's superb Uresia setting.
The main thing that draws me to eclectic fantasy is the endless variety. The next adventure could take place on a spaceship, or another universe, or on the moon. The next foe could be cyberninjas or balrogs or time travelling Nazis. The PC party could be a pirate, a wizard, and a yeti. The treasure after the fight could be a supercomputer, a shiny sword, or the deed to the third layer of Hell. Eclectic fantasy adventures have an 'anything goes' spirit that really appeals to me. Perhaps it has something to do with the superhero comics I read as a kid. Throw in too many episodes of Doctor Who and that's a formula for an overstimulated imagination. To date almost all of my efforts in fantasy roleplaying have been eclectic to one degree or another. About the only clear exception was my one go at running Pendragon.
Pendragon is one of the shining examples of that other type of fantasy that seems incompatible with eclectic fantasy. I'll call this second variety deep fantasy, though some would call it generic fantasy or vanilla fantasy. The authors of QAGS dismiss deep fantasy as "you know, elves and shit", but I think it can be much more than that. By adopting a minimalist, traditionalist approach to the broad issues of setting the GM is free to examine other issues. I'm specifically thinking about things like setting and plot detail and the evocation of a consistent atmosphere. In addition to Pendragon, you can probably count MERP and Decipher's Lord of the Rings in this category. Nearly any version of D&D could be made to work as deep fantasy, even if that's not the way I normally see them played. For some deeper approaches to AD&D look to historico-fantastic material, such as the campaign setting splats for AD&D 2nd edition, or a mythological take like the excellent article "Believe it or not, Fantasy has reality" (Dragon #40, August 1980). I'd rank "Believe it or not, Fantasy has reality" as probably the second best article ever published in Dragon, right behind Bruce Seligman's "Gandalf Was Only A Fifth Level Magic-User".