Sunday, March 31, 2024

Visceral Action

So I was playtesting my Amazing Adventures-powered version of a Star Frontiers-like game last night, and I discovered a few things. I call it a "-like" game now since I am diverging away from many of the broken things in the Star Frontiers system. It is becoming more of my own science-fiction game that stands on its own.

Our Star Frontiers campaign was set in that universe back then, but it diverged widely from the old canon. Our game had elements from Space Opera and Traveller, with Space Opera being the most significant influence. In the OSR, there is this mythical, almost romanticized "the way we used to play it" thing with fantasy.

We had that thing going on, but for sci-fi. We played a 30-year campaign set in a generic sci-fi universe with only a loose tie to the Star Frontiers universe, with most of the universe being ours. Star Frontiers only existed as the glue; it could have been any universe. We had a lot of space races, fully fleshed out like Saurian races, Canines, Felines, and others in our universe with home worlds and politics that created conflict and intrigue. We had more enemies than just the Sathar.

I was working on my reinterpretation of early 80s sci-fi role-playing last night, using the SIEGE Engine and AA as my base system. Then I realized how horrible Star Frontiers' personal defenses and armor were. You had to pick an attack type and defend against that with a suit, and then stack a field with a powerpack on top of that to protect against the other type of attack. Then, it was a battle of attrition as you and your enemies wore down defenses to get at the meaty insides. And you could set lasers to burn an entire power clip, so you could just alpha attack with 20d10 with a laser pistol.

We never played it that way. We assumed defenses would be good against all types of attacks and used an armor system that protects against all kinds of damage. This was when I realized diverging from my source material would give me a game that was better than a straight conversion and better fit our "way we used to play it" feeling back in the day.

So, goodbye, Star Frontiers, and the d100 system. And hello to early 1980s sci-fi role-playing, like the OSFR or Old Sci-Fi Renaissance. This has to be d20 and based on a B/X scale since maximum compatibility is a design goal. It also answers, "What if TSR kept d20 as a house system?"

Amazing Adventures is a base since it covers modern games and gunplay. It gives me the SIEGE Engine as an all-in-one, best-in-the-OSR resolution system that stays out of the way and gives me all the rules I need without all the heavy rules scaffolding to drag around like a B/X or homebrew system, and without the rules weight of a system like GURPS.

So I was balancing armor versus weapon attacks last night and shifting more towards the system presented in Star Siege, where you get an AC bonus for armor plus a DR value that reduces damage. And I got rid of the "protects against X but not Y" plague of the guessing game in sci-fi roleplaying where designers get too pedantic and create defenses for one class of weapons but not another - and this is a plague on sci-fi games. Designers get stupid and think like 21st-century people, when if I were in the future, I would say, yeah, give me some laser protection in my ballistic bodysuit, please.

The people who live in a universe like this would create armor that protected against many attacks, probably not the best of each, but enough to be useful against energy and projectile weapons. This is like people in the Renaissance trying to design a modern combat system and making armor that protected against pistols but not rifles because, you know, they were different! And let's make the shotgun vest that only protects against that type of attack.

My new OSFR system has become much cleaner, and the combat is faster. Equipping characters became as easy as a B/X game. Why wear light armor? Well, my undercover space cops need to look like they are dressing normally so they take the best civilian protection they can get without looking suspicious. If they need heavier, they can break out the tactical vests in the trunk of their hovercar. Otherwise, you fight with what you got and hope your DEX modifier to AC makes a difference - and take cover when you can!

Since I am also binge-watching Miami Vice, the idea of star cops fighting evil alien infiltrators and their plans to overthrow society from within appeals to me, especially with that 1980s influence. My star cops will mostly have civilian protection and smaller handguns and go undercover to bust the subversive alien bad guys and their nefarious plots.

But what I came away with during my gunfight testing was a sense of visceral action in an OSR game that I did not know it had or I assumed it didn't. AA has a critical hit and recoil system that reminds me of the original Top Secret game. For every shot (with specific weapons), you accumulate a recoil penalty that adds to your target's AC. I had a thug with a handgun (like your typical 9mm, ROF 3, recoil 3) fighting a space cop with a laser pistol (ROF 2, no recoil). Now, that recoil penalty rolls over to the next turn unless you spend a turn pausing fire and resetting your aim. The rules say cumulative penalty, but I rule it rolls over like the original Top Secret game.

Critical hits in AA explode, which means you get an extra exploding d6 die of damage to every critical hit, and every critical hit automatically hits—regardless of armor. So I had the thug blasting away at my star cop, and both sides to cover, which meant their ACs were up in the 16 to 18 range, and the thug's recoil meant he was spraying shots and hoping for crits. Sometimes, he would reset his recoil or take his chances and aim - firing at the end of the turn at a +2. He did get hits in, and both of them were wearing light protective civilian armor, so his d10 damage would put some hurt in on my agent. Considering my agent had 10 hp, and the thug was 6, the agent won most of the time.

But there was a moment there. One turn, my agent rolled a crit, blowing the thug away with a 15-damage shot. I rolled a hit location on one of my hit location dice and got a right arm. B/X and OSR rules typically don't have hit locations or critical effect charts (Rolemaster being the best known). So I was sitting there with an overwhelming result of overkill damage. What do I do with that?

This is where the OSR shines.

The referee decides what happens - not a chart, hit location result, or detailed set of rules for overkill. You don't need any of it. Your mind is much more imaginative than any "overly detailed set of rules" could ever provide you.

Just trust it.

Make up what happens.

Even a hit that takes away a few hit points could force a save to drop a weapon or knock someone from cover. A lot can happen in combat, and a game master's ability to "make -ish up" when damage occurs is the art of being a great game master. Hit point damage is not just hit point damage. A near miss can spray bits of concrete in your face, forcing you to deal with a turn of blindness. A non-lethal hit to the leg could knock you off balance. Hit point damage "opens the door" to many referee-inspired rulings.

This is the art of game mastering.

If you refuse to embrace it and just be like a DVD player for your group, you suck as a game master, you are not playing the game, and the players don't need you - they could handle all this themselves. They frankly don't need you. This is sort of the feeling that 5E pushes the "DM as a DVD player," and it sucks the life out of the game.

5E denies the role of the game master and forces him "not" to play. A 5E DM is the referee in a Magic The Gathering tournament, making rulings on cards and situations with the official rulebook. They do not get to play. And it sucks. The most significant difference between the OSR and 5E is the role of the referee during play, and this situation with my test combats perfectly highlights it.

The thug's arm was vaporized, flew apart into many chunks of flaming meat and bone, and was set on fire. He ran screaming into the street behind the planter he was behind and collapsed. A game like GURPS or Rolemaster does not have that result for an overkill damage roll, but I made it up.

And the ruling stands.

That is what happened.

I am the referee, and this is how I get to play, too.

He took 15 points of damage and only had 6 hit points. And I know in AA, death immediately happens at -10, and he was technically at -9 - so he could be alive for one turn until the fire damage gets him. It is a minor point that a quick-thinking player could take advantage of. They could save him if they put him out and stabilize him. If he recovers, he will have a cyber arm and scars all over his body, but that is the breaks of fighting star cops armed with laser pistols.

Like in Miami Vice, he may show up in a later season looking for revenge, with those cool scars, cyber arm, and a dozen levels under his belt as he worked hard to become the campaign's next major villain hiding in the shadows.

As a referee, I get to do that too.

That doesn't happen in 5E, GURPS, Rolemaster, or many other games. You are either constrained by the referee's role or by the overly detailed rules that limit your imagination.

And this certainly doesn't happen in Star Frontiers, Traveller, or Space Opera unless the referee has this old-school mindset. Today's players are too limited by the rules, and they can "see" what I am describing. They play classic games like they would play 5E and wonder what the big deal is. The referee, being trained in 5E, shrugs and says at least 5E has more rules to adjudicate. The entire point of the game is missed because the training and art of playing the game are entirely wrong.

These moments only happen in an OSR game.

With an OSR mindset.

And it happens because the referee is allowed to play.

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