Saturday, April 14, 2018

Mail Room: Starships and Spacemen 2e

If there is one thing I love about the old-school revolution it is projects like this. A B/X style throwback game covering a "classic Federation inspired" sort of roleplaying game using the well-known "old school dungeon" style rules? Yep, we got it in Starships and Spacemen.

This is something I honestly would expect to find in some small-town hobby shop in the 1970's where a group of local game writers get together and print something "inspired by" but ultimately totally different and cool. In fact, I do have a game like that lying around here just like this, a Trek inspired Basic D&D clone from the 70's much like this printed and distributed from what I know from somewhere from a group of fans in Texas.

This one comes from Goblinoid Games, the creators of Labyrinth Lord, and the S&S system is fully compatible with the LL rules and monsters. There is a larger Goblinoid Universe lurking here between Labyrinth Lord, Mutant Future, Starships and Spacemen, and other games in the series and if you collect them all you get this "more is better" thing going on in terms of content and system support.

But it Ain't Trek!

Well, D&D isn't the Lord of the Rings either. Nor does it have to be, because different is cool. Honestly, I don't really care, and as D&D proves the best games in the genre aren't the official ones either, they are inspired by, create new ideas from, and combine a bunch of influences together to create something entirely new. Space Opera, Star Frontiers, and a bunch of other classic sci-fi games come to mind.

S&S does a bunch of new things, it uses a typical Asimov-style star-federation as its base, introduces a bunch of crazy aliens to the mix like talking frogs and others, re-thinks gear and abilities in terms of adventures, and focuses the action on a sort of lower-level mission structure that I find really quite cool. The ships are just UFO-shaped without the extra flange and structure, and I find that a cool divergence. There is also a greater focus on classic psionics in characters, which I find is a cool new thing the game brings to "space navy sci-fi" sorts of games.

S&S is Trek as Firefly is Star Wars, in a way. A lot of this is really older-school sci-fi in my feeling, sort of a hearkening back to the original sources where Trek drew inspiration from as well, the HG Wells or Asimov-style Foundation series of "space navy" generic sci-fi. There are some items from other sci-fi stories in the mix, such as laser swords, AI controlled tanks, flame guns, force fields, androids, and robotic animals, so it is not trying to be a carbon copy. I wish it had more of these classic sci-fi items but the door has been opened for my imagination to include whatever I want - especially if I include other books from the Goblinoid Universe.

There is enough here to make me comfortable playing this as something new and not a carbon copy, and in my feelings this is really more of a 1970's sci-fi TV Show retro throwback game than it is anything else. I could include tips of the hat and inspired by things like Buck Rogers, Doctor Who, Battlestar Galactica, Star Wars, Dune, Foundation, Federation, Logan's Run, Alien, The Thing, Six-Million Dollar Man, Body Snatchers, Planet of the Apes, and feel right at home as the giant UFO-like space navy ship sets down and characters go on all sorts of zany and semi-serious 70's sci-fi adventures.

Actually, the Better Traveller Setup

A part of my brain tell me this is the Traveller I always wanted. Small ships with limited-size crews going out on blank hex-maps, mapping star systems, meeting the crazy-alien locals, getting into all sorts of trouble, having spaceship combats, landing on planets and exploring dangerous "dungeons" of lost civilizations, and really giving the player characters a lot of agency to set star-federation policy in the sector without having to worry about "command" back home dictating what they should do and say.

The players are free to setup alliances with whoever they find, to establish star-federation bases on the planets of races they meet, figure out dangerous space anomalies, shoot up space pirates, embark on mysteries that span multiple star systems, and have that sort of free-roaming plus "settling the wild west' sort of campaign that I always dreamed about with Traveller. But I never got to run.

If the players need backup? Head on back to the star-federation base on the edge of the map and get some other star-federation ships to come along for an epic fleet battle. After the evil space mongol fleet is pushed back from that corner of the map, it is back to the single ship adventures we love without escalating the entire campaign into a World War II naval simulator.

There is an enthusiasm here and an innocence that I feel just makes it work. You get serious games and serious properties, like Lord of the Rings, and all of a sudden doing the small and random things in that universe doesn't seem to fit. You just can't go out in LotR or Star Wars and say, "let's find a dungeon!" and be taken seriously. In D&D and "inspired by" B/X games like S&S? You can do that stuff because these games are in-fact derivative and inspired-by and there is a playful level of fun there that invites exploration and pushing the boundaries of what came before.

Simple Old-School Rules

The game works really well with the simple OSR dungeon-game style rules, like in some alternate universe gaming decided to stick with the Basic D&D paradigm and everything was developed for and compatible with that style of gameplay. You get more hit points and become a tougher hero, but so what? Only really that last shot that takes you down matters anyways, so everything else is a graze or a minor wound - and failing a saving throw versus a terrible effect is always the big threat.

Another note, the pre D&D 3 lower-scale damage and hit-point range is wonderful here. Newer editions of D&D always seem to ramp up the hit points and damage past level one, and this scaling I feel ruins the higher level game in most D&D games past 3rd edition. With a ramp-up in hit points comes multi-attacks or scaled damage that you see in modern games, and they never seem to get that original feeling right.

Yes, if my 5th level fighter or space adventurer has 30 hit points he will be able to take quite a few blows and crossbow hits - he is a hero after all! Early OSR games still get this right, and they don't need to scale damage or introduce multiple attacks just to balance things, and inevitably newer games introduce more difficult death and more abundant healing and I feel what was special about tabletop gaming is lost.

Choices matter. Character death isn't a video game respawn. You don't have 'healing surges' to get your MMO character back to 100% health for the next fight. You don't need a level 10 laser pistol that does 8d8 damage just to balance the out of control hit points. You don't need three 1d8 sword attacks per turn to keep your DPS rating on keel with the mages. High-level monsters don't need 300 to 1200 hit points to be terrifying. What's terrifying is all that math and repetitive multi-attack dice rolls over a four-hour combat with pages of rules reference to whittle that tangled-yarn junk-drawer rules mass of hit-points down to zero.

What's worse, if your hit point scaling past level one is out of control, the original polyhedral dice don't really matter that much any more. A 1d8 versus a 1d6 weapon against a 12 hit point monster? That means something. The same two weapons versus a 120 hit point monster? Not that much of a difference anymore since in scaled systems damage modifiers over multi-attacks primarily determine DPS. Getting a +5 damage and four attacks a turn? My DPS is about the same with a 1d8 sword as it is a 1d4 dagger, since the average roll difference is only 2 points per attack (30 vs. 38 per turn, with most of the damage coming from the fixed portion).

I feel OSR and B/X systems with one attack per turn, limited spells, limited healing, harsh death, risky saving throws, and the original hit-point scale do away with more of the problems of modern high-level games being unfun and taking forever to play, because the original hit-point range and balance is left intact. The original designers of D&D found a balance there that I feel we have forgotten with today's games, especially post D&D 3 games that have been going back and forth with new revisions to make high level "scaled" play fun again ever since the concept was introduced. In my feeling, there is no beating the B/X style originals that Gary G and company designed that way on purpose.

Innocence

If there was one thing I can say attracts me to this game is the feeling of simplistic innocence to it all. It is like if a bunch of kids got together in a basement and home-brewed their own Trek-plus whatever style adventures using the basic dungeon game rules they knew and loved, and had adventures all across the galaxy with something they came up with all by themselves. Maybe they had an android from Blade Runner join the crew at one point, or met a Wookie like creature in another adventure. Maybe they fought a race of space-orcs on another planet, or dealt with a a creature from The Blob movie attacking a space colony on another. What holds them together is a common feeling that this is "space navy adventures" but everything else is make it up as you go along, borrow it from other games and movies, and just have fun.

It Needs a No-Art PDF

The only flaw here is there is no no-art PDF for free download. There is a $7 PDF with artwork on the RPGNow/DrivethruRPG stores, so that is an option, but I would like a no-art PDF option as well.

The Goblinoid Universe

What gives this game value is the larger Goblinoid Universe, and then also the large scope of compatible pre D&D 3 products out there in the wild. I can pull in characters, gear, and monsters from Labyrinth Lord, Mutant Future, Realms of Crawling Chaos, and even Apes Victorious and have everything work together. I could take a party of Starships and Spacemen characters and run them through the old module B1 Keep on the Borderlands if I wished and have then have the players use their universal translator to work up a deal with the goblins to fight the orcs on level two. Everything will work with very little to no conversion.

Does that sound fun? You bet it does. And I don't have to learn a new rules set to do any of this, nor do I have to work out painful conversions or scale difficulty to a new rules system and number scale.

What I had works. What I have works. What I know is what I need to know. B/X compatible all the way.

Is it flashy or video game cool? No, and it doesn't need to be. It just needs to work, and then get out of the way for roleplaying and problem solving to take over. I want players to be focused on world and story challenges, not rules and character-build challenges. That to me is B/X OSR and why I love it.