Showing posts with label 80s. Show all posts
Showing posts with label 80s. Show all posts

Thursday, July 22, 2021

This Old Dragon: Issue #125

Dragon Magazine #125
Been a bit since I did one of these I thought this might be a good time to pull this one out. 

Dragon #125 comes to us from a magical time in ancient history known as the Fall of 1987.  This issue is from September 1987 in particular.  I just met this girl from the dorm next door. She had already kicked everyone's ass in cards in her dorm and now she was over at mine to humiliate everyone here.  So yeah we quickly became friends, then best friends and sis years later we were dating and today is our 26th wedding anniversary.   So yeah, I look back at this time rather fondly. 

Dragon #125's special feature is Chivalry.  Not a bad choice with all the Arthurian movies I have been watching this month.  The cover art by Roger Raupp is a great portrayal of Arthur vs Modred. 

Letters include one to remind us the Wormy has appeared in 100 issues at this point. Sadly the end is near.   Also mentioned is Finieous Fingers which hadn't appeared in Dragon for a long time. There is also a letter about religion in D&D and the DragonRaid game gets mentioned. 

Nice ad for the Science Fiction Book Club.  This would have been around the time I joined for the second time and I see a number of books here I still have.  This was my transition phase of moving out of dark fantasy and into horror proper. 

Forum has the usual collection of deep cuts for the game.  One, in particular, discusses a letter from #121 about parthenogenesis in Amazons and delves into the details of the mating habits of harpies.  Is this Dragon Forum or Penthouse Forum?  Likely to have the same level of "Dear Editors, I could not believe this, but this really happened..."

The first true article comes up and it is a neat one.  Nigel D. Findley gives us The Ecology of the Greenhag.  The central idea revolves around the notion that all hag types are born of the mating of a Night Hag and various humanoid species.  It is a neat idea really.  I like that the Night Hag has a gestation period of 13 months. Greenhags likewise can give birth to an Annis after their "quite frequent" matings with ogres or hill giants. No indication on how the Sea Hags or other hags fit into this.

Ed Greenwood is up with a Realms article.  This was the start of the Golden Age of the Forgotten Realms.  The article, Woodlands of the Realms, covers magical and mundane trees and forests of the Forgotten Realms.  You have to give the guy credit, he came up with some good stuff even in the minutia such as this.  

Our special section of Chivalry begins next.

The Code of Chivalry by Mark Easterday gives us some knightly orders and what to do with them. There are benefits and drawbacks for PC Knights and even a simple system for honor.  It is nothing Earth-shattering, but it has appeal in it's simplicity. It is also something more people should be doing with knights, cavaliers, and paladins. 

Nice big ad for the Time-LIFE Mysteries of the Unkown series, now frustratingly incomplete at your local used book store. 

Time-LIFE Mysteries of the Unknown

Thomas M. Kane is next with Meanwhile Back at the Fief...  This one covers all the duties of a feudal lord. There are some details on day-to-day activities and tables of odd occurrences.  I seem to recall some similar rules in the D&D Companion set. These came after that so I wonder how they compare.  

Armies from the Ground Up by James A. Yates is next and deals with the hows and whys of raising an army in an AD&D game specifically.   Again, very useful to have. 

A "new" section that was going to be semi-regular is up, Lords & Legends.  I have no idea how much or for how long it continued. A quick Google search shows it came up at least one more time.  This is entering as bit of a "Dark" time for me and Dragon.  I was in college and any spare money went to food, school supplies, or...other school supplies.  It is "dark" in the sense that it is a period that is unknown to me.  I remember reading this issue back then, but my Dragon purchases would be only for special occasions like the October issues. 

For this Lords & Legends from Katharine Kerr we have three lords of the Age of Chivalry; Count William of Orange, Bertrand (nephew of William), and Count Rainouart of Tortelose.  All from the Chanson de Roland ("Song of Roland").

Our last article in this series is Glory, Danger, and Wounds by Garry Hamlin.  This article also draws on The Song of Roland for inspiration and deals with battle and honor for Cavaliers. Large battles and private duels are discussed.  More importantly how such battles and duels should and should not be used. 

The Best for the Best covers elite espionage agencies for Top Secret and is a rare non-Merle M. Rasmussen article. This one is from William Van Horn and it is more proper for the Top Secret S.I. game that Rasmussen did not develop. 

For our centerpiece, we get a new "mini" game from David "Zeb" Cook, Clay-O-Rama, a miniatures battle game where the playing pieces are made from clay or Play-doh. You get some friends, some dice, some pencils, and some modeling clay (Play-Doh is recommended) and you get started making your Claydonian to do battle. Make sure you leave some clay/playdoh aside for missiles  The rules are really simple, you move, you attack, you calculate damage. The whole thing takes up three page and a cover.  Pull it out of your magazine and you are good to go.  It does look like silly fun, to be honest. 

Clay-o-rama

Our fiction selection is by Lois Tilton titled The Passing of Kings.

Lee Ian Wurn is up with a rare post-Gary Greyhawk article. In the Bazaar of the Bizarre, we have the Magical Maps of Greyhawk.  We get magical maps that more or less are the magical GPSs of their day.  The article though gave me an idea.  What if there was a giant magical Bazaar, like what you find on Deva in the Myth Adventures books by Robert Lynn Asprin.  I could make each article a stall, like you find in those giant flea markets or the vendor's room at Gen Con.  And just to be that guy, the stalls have the same number of the magazine they appeared in.  This shop of magical maps is found in stall #125.

Jeff Grubb is up with Plane Speaking. This time featuring the Positive Quasi Elementals. There are only three, Radiance (Fire-Positive), Steam (Water-Positive), and Mineral (Earth-Positive). The Lightning (Air-Positive) appeared in the Monster Manual II.

The Game Wizards talks about the new Dragonlance Adventures hardcover.  This was a rather popular book with my small group in college. There were a lot of ideas I freely stole from it for my own games.  I also thought it was odd about the hard cap of 20 levels.  Now that is normal. 

A Second Look at Zebulon's Guide comes to us from Kim Eastland and covers all sorts of errata and clarifications.  I was out of Star Frontiers at this point having switched over to FASA Doctor Who and Star Trek. I have heard that Zebulon's Guide changed things but I will admit I do now know to what degree. 

Big ad for Mayfair's updated City-State of the Invincible Overlord

City-State of the Invincible Overlord

Role-Playing Reviews is next covering three fantasy adventures.  This is another one of the articles that would get WotC into trouble despite their good intentions.  The article is Copyrighted 1987 by Ken Rolston, which means he likely still held the reprint rights. The adventures in question are The Grey Knight for Pendragon, Phantom of the Northern Marches for MERP, and Treasure Hunt for AD&D.  We learn something we had suspected at this time, that the term "Module" was growing out of fashion. So for the adventures Rolston lets us know that the Grey Knight is one of the best he has seen, Treasure Hunt is a fantastic adventure for 0-level AD&D characters, and Phantom is wonderful.

The Role of Books covers some of the new releases for the last quarter of 1987.  There is the Orson Scott Card's Seventh Son, a couple from Harry Turtledove, and the debut (more or less) of Peter David who later go on to be one of America's most prolific authors.  

Jeff Grub's Marvel-Phile is up with some enemies for the Incredible Hulk; Abomination and Zzzax, and an ally, Doc Samson.  I was thinking about Abomination just the other day while trying to decide if I should include the Hulk movies in my Marvel re-watch that I might never get around to.

Gamer's Guide has the classified ads. I wonder how many of these places were still around. 

Convention Calendar covers the cons of Fall 1987.

Three pages of Snarf Quest, a page of DragonsMirth, and three of Wormy.

Some interesting bits to be sure, but nothing that jumps out to me to be used today.  The Greenhag stuff is fun, but I have taken my hags into a completely different direction really.  While everyone talks with glowing nostalgia for the Dragons prior to these (and I do as well) there is a lot between 1987 and 1997 that I never read and only have briefly glanced at.  So that might be my new sweet spot for The Old Dragon.

Saturday, July 3, 2021

Sword & Sorcery & Cinema: Excalibur (1981)

Excalibur (1981)
Let's be honest. Few tales grab the epic feel of Fantasy RPG as well as the tale of King Authur, and few retellings of King Arthur's tale are as epic as John Boorman's Excalibur

Excalibur (1981)

Ok. So it's not perfect in its retelling of King Authur's tale, nor is it a great representation of say Dark Ages, post-Roman-Britain arms, and armor.  But it is still a fun movie with some seriously epic scenes and moments.

First, let's take a moment to appreciate this cast;  Nigel Terry as King Arthur, Nicol Williamson as Merlin, Nicholas Clay as Lancelot, Cherie Lunghi as Guenevere, Helen Mirren as Morgana, Liam Neeson as Gawain, Gabriel Byrne as Uther Pendragon, Corin Redgrave as Gorlois, Duke of Cornwall, and Patrick Stewart as Leondegrance.  Seriously.  It would have been enough for me just to have Helen Mirren as Morgana. Everything else is just gravy. 

Rewatching it now, after a lifetime of reading and rereading various tales of King Authur, I am pleased with how well this one holds up.  I do recall there being a bit of gore, but it was more than even I remembered. 

Watching this now makes me want to do a "King Authur" film fest.  There are a few really great ones and a few terrible ones. But all the same, it would be fun.

The tale is largely what we all know, but that doesn't make it less fun.  On the contrary, it makes even more enjoyable at times because you are expecting certain things. 

I think Nicol Williamson might very well be one of the best cinematic Merlin's ever.  Not just in the look and manner, but pretty much everything he does. Equal parts wizard and fool. Perfect as the advisor to a King. 

Authur: No riddles Merlin, a simple "yes." That really frightens me. 

The exchange between Merlin and Morgana at Authur's and Guenevere's wedding imprinted so deep on my unconsciousness that I don't doubt that my fascination with pagan witches wasn't intensified 100 fold here. Also, my enduring love for Helen Mirren certainly began here.  

Helen Mirren
Can you really blame me?

Ultimately King Authur, like most Celtic stories, is a tragedy.  The betrayal of Lancelot, the birth of Modred, the Quest for the Grail. 

Merlin: A dream to some. A nightmare to others!

While the first half is much better than the latter half, the return of Lancelot to Authur's side is one of the great and saddest cinematic moments in Authur's tale. 

Yes.  An Authurian filmfest is in order.

Gaming Content

Again, are you serious? 

One of the best bits, for me, was the Charm of Making, spoken in old Irish (sorta).

Anál nathrach,
orth’ bháis's bethad,
do chél dénmha

or

Serpent's breath,
charm of death and life,
thy omen of making.

Great stuff really.

Friday, May 21, 2021

Mail Call: Holmes for the Weekend

Scratch a Holy Grail item or two off my list!  A couple of impulse purchases made this week were delivered together today.  Which means only one thing!  Holmes Basic this weekend!

Holmes and Holmage Boxed sets

So why do I need another Holmes Boxed Set? Well, I don't but this one is much nicer shape than my others and it had some surprises inside.

Holmes Boxed set

In addition to the chits, it had one of my Holy Grail items, a set of Dragon Dice "random number generators" with the card.  I have wanted one of these for years!  Yeah, it's damaged but that is fine with me. It honestly looks like one I had bought at White Oaks Mall in Springfield IL circa 1983.

like new adventures

It also included a copy of B2 Keep on the Borderlands (I have several, this is the first with the Wizard logo) and a much better copy of T1 than what I had.  But that is not all.

Dragon Dice!Gateway to Adventure!

I also got a copy of the Holmes Gateway to Adventure! Yeah, it is not much, but I didn't have a copy yet.

Gateway to Adventure!

Gateway to Adventure!

Gateway to Adventure!

Gateway to Adventure!

I love looking at this old collection of games and thinking back to that time.

This would have been a treat in and of itself.  But I also got some NEW dice to go with my old dice.

These are the Zucati "Holamge" dice sets.

Zucati Holmage Dice

Zucati Holmage Dice

Zucati Holmage Dice Boxed Set

Zucati Holmage Dice Boxed SetZucati Holmage Dice Boxed Set

Zucati Holmage Dice Boxed SetZucati Holmage Dice Boxed Set

In addition to dice and crayons, there are character sheets, maps, and an artist's spotlight!

The dice are great and compare well to the GaryCon dice I got a couple years back.

Zucati Holmage and GaryCon Dice

I even have my d12 from the era.  Sadly the only one I still have.

Zucati Holmage and GaryCon Dice

The d20 is numbered 1-20 rather than 0-9 twice, but the crayons can turn a normal d20 into a d% easy.

Comparing my Holmes sets I think I can keep two and sell off one.

Holmes Boxed Set

Holmes Boxed Set

Which is a good idea since I need to recoup some cash here.

The dice though now allow me to have a set with all my "Basic" sets.

Basic sets

My Moldvay Basic has the most complete set I can find of my original dice.  Holmes and Mentzer Basic get some uninked sets with a crayon.  My expert set came with orange dice originally. I traded them for something else and then got a set of blue Dragon Dice just like these for my Expert.  Oddly enough I do have that set of dice still.  They were always my goto set even in the AD&D 2nd Ed age.

Dragon Dice!

I think I can finally say that after all these years I have rebuilt my Basic D&D collection after it was lost so many decades ago.

The Holmes set also came with these dice.  They are all d8s but the numbering is strange to me.  No idea what they are for. I am sure some here knows.

Mystery d8s


Thursday, May 20, 2021

Review: Spelljammer, AD&D Adventures in Space

Cover of the Spelljammer book
Come back to me if you will to a time just right before the Internet.
(Ok, technically the roots of the Internet were here in ARPANet and what I was using BitNet at the time. But you know what I mean.)  

The time is 1989 and the game on my table is AD&D 2nd Edition.  Well, it is really Ravenloft, because, in college that was my setting of choice, AD&D just happens to be the system that ran underneath it all.  So a couple of points already.  I was playing AD&D 2nd Ed and really all I had the money for at the time was for one setting and that was Ravenloft.  There were a lot of great settings in the AD&D 2 days; Forgotten Realms loomed large and impressive, and maybe a little intimidating.  Greyhawk and Mystara only had some minor entries, much to my disappointment, Al-Qadim and Kara-Tur both looked like fun, and then we would also get Planescape. But there was one out that seemed so strange to me that I wanted to know more but yet could not bring myself to buy.  Until now. 

DriveThruRPGs Print on Demand has been a fantastic opportunity for those of us who want to go back and look at some of these other systems and games of our youth.  While I have relied mostly on the aftermarket to get myself up to speed on the Forgotten Realms (and enjoying it) I recently picked up the hardcover POD version of AD&D's Spelljammer.  And I am so happy I did.

Now don't get me wrong. I wanted to play SpellJammer back then.  We ever started a new campaign where all the characters were in a navy, so they all had 3 free levels in fighter, and then they were level 1 (or 4 for the fighters) in whatever other classes they were going to be.  Using the AD&D dual classing rules meant they could not act as fighters until later. But it boosted their HP.  They were going to spend some time at sea, but eventually, they were going to turn their ship into a SpellJamming one.  I named the ship "The Black Betty" after the Ram Jam song because every time I heard "Spelljammer" I thought "ram jam" and the Black Betty was a good name for a ship.  Sadly we never got very far. I was at University and my DM at the time was at a different school and the other players were also at yet another school. Meeting only over the summer was not helpful for a long-term campaign.

Fast forward to today.

Spelljammer: Adventures in Space

For this review, I am considering the Print on Demand hardcover and the PDFs from DriveThruRPG.  There may be things true of these versions that are not true for the original boxed set and things that might be the other way around.  I can't speak to the boxed set since I never owned it.  

Spelljammer is a whopping 278 pages.  Jeff Grubb is our primary author with art by Jeff Easley, Jim Holloway, Dave "Diesel" LaForce, and Roy Parker.  Easley is responsible for our cover, and indeed many of the covers from this time.  The interior art is Jim Holloway who really set the tone and feel for what I consider the 2nd Ed "style" of that time.  The interior is largely black and white with some color illustrations.  Mostly the pictures of ships, what were covers in the separate boxed set books, and some maps.  The scanned pages are not crisp, but they are easy to read.

The book is divided into two large sections that correspond to the two 96-page books that came in the boxed set, Lorebook of the Void and Concordance of Arcane Space.

Lorebook of the Void

We are introduced to how Spelljammer, AD&D in Space, came about.  We also now know that this was the first of new boxed set settings to come out for AD&D 2nd ed.  More would follow and make 2nd Ed more famous for their settings rather than their rules.  The goal for Spelljammer was overtly a simple one; AD&D in space, connect all the main AD&D worlds, and make them work together without changing what makes each one unique.

This section covers the basics of Spelljamming and operating a spelljamming helm.  We get a good overview of the types of spelljamming ships and that various races that can be found in Arcane Space.  We learn that gnomes and halflings for the most part avoid Arcane Space since they are too closely tied to their planets (makes sense) but Krynn's Tinker Gnomes are not so tied to their world in the same fashion so they are very much at home in Arcane Space. We even get a bit on goblinoids.  

The next third covers the various monsters and creatures you will find in AD&D 2nd Ed Monstrous Compendium format. We are given new details on the Beholders (they take the place of Daleks in Arcane Space) and the Neogi. Mind Flayers also get new treatments.  

The last thrid covers the three main AD&D game worlds, Krynn (Dragonlance), Oerth (World of Greyhawk), and Toril (Forgotten Realms).  The problems begin to show here since the cosmology of Krynn is tied very much to their gods.  This is not the fault of Spelljammer or Dragonlance, but rather one of trying to fit the divine into a scientific worldview.  I will admit I do like how the spheres are covered here.  It reminds me a little of how the solar system of Urt is covered in the D&D Immortals Set.  One could take that information and drop it rather cleanly into this book.  It was not done of course because at this time Urt/Mystara was considered part of D&D and not AD&D.  Even discussions online close to the time described AD&D as one universe, maybe even in the same galaxy, and D&D in a different universe altogether. 

Concordance of Arcane Space

The second major section of the book covers the rules part of Arcane Space.  The first chapter describes some basics of how Arcane Space and the Phlogiston work.  Chapter 2 covers some changes to the AD&D rules.  The first change, Lizard Men are now a playable race.  There are changes to some spells and how clerics can talk to their gods. We also get some new spells.  Chapter 3 covers the ships. How they are made, flown, and the capabilities (armor, weapons, storage) of examples.  Combat is covered in Chapter 4.  Ships are a lot like characters in they have an Armor Rating and Hull Points.  Damage by large ship weapons can deal hull damage and/or hit point damage. Chapter 5 covers celestial mechanics, or how systems are made. While in real-life astrophysics we know that forces like gravity will produce round (or oblate) planets and stars, there is a wide variety of things found even nearby to us.  Arcane Space should be just as diverse if not more so.  Oerth (Greyhawk) is a Geocentric system, Toril and Krynn are heliocentric. There are other systems that can be and should be, even stranger.  We learn that there is a flow to the Phlogiston and that some worlds might easy to travel to, but harder to travel away from.

We also have several appendices.  The first covers how magic spells and items work in space.  Appendix 2 covers travel times with Earth and the Solar System as an example along with Krynn, Toril, and Oerth.  Mystara/Urt can be substituted for Earth easy enough.  Flow can affect travel times.

The last section of the book are the color deck plans of various spelljamming ships. Maps and cut-out-and-fold ship minis. Best get the PDF along with the printed book so you can print these on your own.  A large black-hex map would work great for movement in space. 

Reading it today I can overlook some of the flaws that would have bothered me in 1990.  

Print on Demand Book

The Print on Demand book is hardcover, mostly black & white with some color art inside and color covers. It is a hefty volume on premium paper which makes it a little thicker than you expect a 278-page book to be.  It is very high quality. 

Covers of the Spelljammer bookCovers of the Spelljammer book


Interior of the Spelljammer book


Interior of the Spelljammer book

Interior of the Spelljammer book

Interior of the Spelljammer book

Interior of the Spelljammer book

Converting to 5e

In the first chapter of the first section, some advice is given about converting older AD&D monsters to use with Spelljammer since in theory every monster could be found somewhere.  The example given is the Grimlock from the Fiend Folio, a monster they describe as not likely to be updated to 2nd Edition.

Well. We know now the Grimlock. And updated to 3rd and beyond.   So there is no good reason to assume that Spelljammer will "Never" be updated.  In fact with D&D 5's desire to embrace the past and every world of D&D in their products it is reasonable we will see some Spelljammer at some point.  A spelljamming ship was already placed on a level in a 5th edition adventure. 

But converting to 5e based on the material in this book? Well really there are two main areas of focus; monsters and magic.  Many of the monsters have newer 5e writeups now, so this is less a question of conversion and more of replacement.  Magic, in particular spells, would need some more work but the guidelines are in place.  Similar spells should change in similar manners.  Combat can be swapped out for 5e combat, which not terribly different. So yes, if you are playing a 5e game then you can get a lot of use and play out of this book.

If you have ever been curious about Spelljammer but did not want to pay the aftermarket prices then the PDF is an absolute steal.  If you know about it and want to give it a go again (or for the first time) then the POD version is equally cost-effective.

Saturday, May 15, 2021

Review: Space Opera, 2nd Edition (1982)

Space Opera, 2nd Edition, 2nd cover
Space Opera has always been one of those games that I have wanted for years but never tried. Anytime I thought about the game it was usually out of print and the prices were a bit high.  Then I'd forget about it again.  Reading through all my old Dragons, especially in the 1980-1983 time frame, there was an ad for it every issue.

Since this is SciFi month I figure I should go back to this one.  Thankfully for me, it is now available as a PDF from DriveThruRPG.

Space Opera (1982)

Space Opera, 1st Edition, was released in 1980 which makes it one of the first competitions to the Classic Traveller RPG.  The 2nd Edition version, which is what DriveThruRPG has, was released in 1982.  I can't really speak to the differences.  According to a post over at Wayne Books, there are not really many differences between the 1st Ed "Blue" box vs. the 2nd Ed. "Black" box save for the art. 

There also seems to be a slight difference between the two black box 2nd edition covers.

Space Opera was written by Edward E. Simbalist, A. Mark Ratner, and Phil McGregor and published by Fantasy Games Unlimited. 

The PDF from DriveThruRPG is 200 pages split into to two volumes. There are two color pages of the box art and the rest is a very old-school style b/w text with some minimal art.   While this sounds like a drawback the game is very much a sandbox-style game. So the "Art" that would be here is from whatever your favorite sci-fi property is.  Space Opera tries to be all things to everyone and ... well we will see how well it does at this. The PDF is a scanned image, then OCR'ed.  There is no bookmarking.

Out of the box we learn that Space Opera is exactly that. A game to emulate your favorite Space Opera fiction.  This is not the hard science of Traveller or the weird science of Gamma World/Metamophasis Alpha.  This is Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica, Buck Rogers. I have heard it described as "not drama, but melodrama."

The sections are numbered like many old-school war games. 1.0 is "Space Opera" 1.1 is "Required Materials & Equipment" and so on. There are four major sections of Vol. 1, the player's book, 1. Space Opera, the introduction, 2. Character classes, 3. PC Career Experience and 4. PC Knowledge and Skills.  Vol. 2 is the "Star Master's" section.  Yes they are indeed called Star Masters.  Here we have sections 5 to 18. 5. General Equipment Lists, 6. Personal Weapons, 7. Heavy Weapons, 8. Ground Combat,  9. StarShips, 10. StarShip Combat, 11 StarShip Economics & Interstellar Comerce, 12. World Creation, 13. Cultural Contacts (aka Aliens), 14. Directory Design of Planets, 15. Habitable Planets, 16. NPC Races, 17. Beasts, and finally 18. Personal Living Expenses.

If it looks like the game is heavy on weapons and combat then yes, it is.  It is also so wonderful old school with bunches of different systems and sub systems. 

Instead of completely reviewing a 40+ year old game let through out some caveats and some points.

First, while this game was certainly an attractive alternative to Traveller at the time, we have many more games out now that do this all better and with clearer rules.

Second, if you are a fan of older games or a fan of Sci-Fi games then really is a must have for your collection.  The PDF is nice and cheap compare to the $100+ to $300 range I see copies go for online.  For $10.00 it is worth your while if you are curious about the game, the history of RPGs or Sci-Fi games.

Now some points. Or how to get the most out of the 10 bucks I just asked you to spend.

Section 1.2 covers units of measurement, all metric focused.  Many games do not have these, this is useful for anyone working in three-dimensions or needs a good idea what a cubic meter is.

Section 1.4 has good advice on dicing rolling in any game.  Don't roll unless the outcome is in question or it serves the drama. There are lots of time to roll the dice, it doesn't need to be done all the time. 

Section 2.0 covers classes. They boil down to Fighting, Tech, Science, Medical and Specialist.  We will see these in one form or another time and time again in nearly every other Sci-Fi RPG from Stars Without Number, The Expanse, to Starfinder and even Star Wars and Star Trek.

Section 2.2 is a nice overview and random tables of Planet of Birth.  They are all d20 rolls and should work with every other system out there. My back of the napkin math even tells me it would work great in such games like White Star.

Section 2.3 character races has great guidelines for just about every sci-fi race out there.  Humans, future humans, evolved apes, cats, dogs, bears, birds, lizards. All here. Again guidelines so cut and paste into what other Sci-Fi game you have going on. No giant insects though. 

Section 3.1 on covers some great guidelines on Mercenary service.  I can't vouch that the economics will transfer from game to game though. 

Section 4 has so many skills. I prefer a simpler skill system these days, but this would help you define some specialized ones. 

Section 4.10 has a lot of Psionic skills as well. Might work with Stars Without Number. This is also how you get "The Force" without pissing off Lucasfilm/Disney.

Also if your Sci-Fi RPG does not have at least one David Bowie tribute then you are doing it wrong.

David Bowie

Section 5. So. Much. Equipment!

Section 15. Great toolkit for habitable planets. 

Section 16. NPCs and sample Alien races.

I said above it tries to be everything to everyone. It does this by taking every sci-fi trope there is and giving it a home here.  Does it work?  Well...it ends up being very long, very complicated and somewhat unattractive, but I can't tell if I am judging it by today's standards, my standards for game design or the standards of the time.   This is a toolkit game with 1000s of options and you only need to choose the ones that work best for you.  

This is not the Granddaddy of Sci-Fi RPGs. That would be Traveller.  This is however the Great Uncle. He still has some good ideas and since he has no kids of his own he can spoil the grandkids as much as he likes. 

I am sure that there are groups out there still today that would LOVE this game.  Me I prefer something a little more streamlined.  That all being said, I am glad I bought the PDF of this as opposed to spending $100s on eBay for it.  

Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Review: Star Frontiers, Alpha Dawn and Knight Hawks

Star Frontiers, First Edition
Gamma World might have been TSR's first big entry into sci-fi gaming (Warriors of Mars and Metamorphasis Alpha non-withstanding), but it was not their biggest.  While I don't have any hard numbers in front of me, I am going to have to say that Star Frontiers edges out the later Alternity in terms of popularity.  It was certainly built at the height of TSR's fame with the first edition, simply Star Frontiers, published in 1982 with the new edition and trade-dress Star Frontiers: Alpha Dawn and Star Frontiers: Knight Hawks.

Certainly, in terms of fans, Star Frontiers has Alternity beat.  But more on that soon.

For this review, I am considering the PDFs and Print on Demand versions of both Star Frontiers: Alpha Dawn and Star Frontiers: Knight Hawks. I am also going to go with my recollections of playing the game when it first came out.

The Alpha Dawn book is designed by "TSR Staff Writers" but we know ow that a huge bulk of the work was done by David "Zeb" Cook and Lawrence Schick.  Knight Hawks was designed primarily by Douglas Niles.  The cover art in both cases was done by Larry Elmore with interior art by Elmore and Jim Holloway with contributions by Jeff Easley, Tim Truman, and even some Dave Trampier.  Keith Parkinson would go on to do some other covers in line as well.  

While originally boxed sets (gotta love the early 1980s for that!) the PDFs break all the components down into separate files. Handy when you go to print the counters or the maps.  The Print on Demand versions put all the files together into an attractive soft-cover book for each game.  The maps are published in the back, but you will want to print them out for use. 

Star Frontiers, Print on Demand

Both books are easy to read and really nice.  They have been some of my favorite Print on Demand purchases ever.

Let's look into both games.

Star Frontiers: Alpha Dawn
Star Frontiers: Alpha Dawn

Alpha Dawn is the original Star Frontiers game.  The box game with two books, a Basic and Expanded game rules, some maps, counters, and two 10-sided dice.  The rules indicate that one is "dark" and the other "light" to help when rolling percentages, but mine were red and blue.  Go figure.

The Basic Game is a 16-page book/pdf that gives you the very basics of character creation.  There are four stat pairs, Strength/Stamina, Dexterity/Reaction Speed, Intelligence/Logic, and Personality/Leadership.  These are scored on a 0 to 100 scale, but the PCs will fall between 30 and 70.  Higher is better. These can be adjusted by species and each individual score can also be changed or shifted. 

The four species are humans, the insect-like Vrusk, the morphic Dralasites, and the ape-like Yazirian. Each species of course has its own specialties and quirks.  I rather liked the Dralasites (whom I always pronounced as "Drasalites") because they seemed the oddest and they had a weird sense of humor. 

We are also introduced to the worm-like Sathar. These guys are the enemies of the UPF (United Planetary Federation) and are not player-characters. 

The basics of combat, movement, and some equipment are given.  There is enough here to keep you going for bit honestly, but certainly, you will want to do more.  We move on then to the Expanded rules.

The Expanded Rules cover the same ground but now we get more details on our four species and the Sathar.  Simple ability checks are covered, roll d% against an ability and match it or roll under.

Characters also have a wide variety of skills that can be suited to any species, though some are better than others, Vrusk for example are a logical race and gain a bonus for that.  Skills are attached to abilities so now you roll against an ability/skill to accomplish something.  Skills are broken down into broad categories or careers; Military, Tech, and Bio/Social. 

Movement is covered and I am happy to say that even in 1982 SF had the good sense to go metric here. 

There are two combat sections, personal and vehicle.  These are not starships, not yet anyway, and were a lot of hovercars and gyro-jet guns. 

There is a section on creatures and how to make creatures. I am afraid I took that section a little too close to heart and most of my SF games ended up being "D&D in Space" with the planets being used as large dungeons.

The background material in the Frontier Society though is great stuff. I immediately got a good just of what was going on here and what this part of the galaxy was like.  While Earth was never mentioned, you could almost imagine it was out there somewhere. Either as the center of UPF (Star Trek) or far away, waiting to be found (Battlestar Galactica).  

This book also includes the adventure SF-0: Crash on Volturnus.

When it comes to sci-fi some of the rules have not aged as well. Computers still feel very limited, but the idea that as we approach the speed of light we can enter The Void has its appeal.  

Star Frontiers: Knight Hawks
Star Frontiers: Knight Hawks

Ah. Now this game.  Star Frontiers was great, but this game felt like something different. Something "not D&D" to me.

In fact I have often wondered if Knight Hawks had not been a separate game in development by Douglas Niles that they later brought into the Star Frontiers line. I also think that TSR was also suffering a little bit of what I call "Traveller Envy" since this can be used as an expansion, a standalone RPG, and as a board game!

Like Alpha Dawn, this game is split into four sections.  There is a "Basic" game, and "Advanced" or "Expansion" rules (and the bulk of the book), an adventure, "The Warriors of White Light", and all the counters and maps.

As far as maps go, that hex map of empty space is still one of my favorites and fills me with anticipation of worlds to come. 

The PDF version splits all this into four files for ease of printing or reading.  The Print on Demand book is gorgeous really.  Yes...the art is still largely black and white and the maps and counters are pretty much useless save as references, but still. I flip through the book and I want to fire up the engines of my characters' stolen Corvette, the FTL Lightspeed Lucifer. Complete with the onboard computer they named Frodo.

The Basic rules cover things like ship movement, acceleration, and turning, along with ship-to-ship combat.  By itself, you have the rules for a good ship combat board game. It works fine as long as you don't mind keeping your frame of reference limited to two-dimensional space. 

The Expanded rules tie this all a little closer to the Alpha Dawn rules, but I still get the feeling that this may have started out as a different sort of game that was later brought into the fold of Star Frontiers.  

Ships are largely built and there is a character creation feel to this.  Their 80's roots are showing, no not like that, but in that, the best engines you can get for a starship are atomic fission.  Of course, no one just gets a starship, you have to buy it and that often means taking out a loan or doing a bunch of odd jobs to raise the credits. Often both.  I don't think I ever actually bought a ship. The Lucifer was stolen.

There is also quite a bit on the planets of the UPF, Frontier Space, and the worlds of the Sathar.  It really had kind of a "Wild West" meets the "Age of Sail" feel to it. 

The last part of the POD book is the adventure "The Warriors of White Light" with its various scenarios. 

Minus two d10s everything is here for an unlimited number of adventures in Frontier Space.  Rereading it now after so many years I can't help but dream up various new adventures. I also can't help to want to use the Sathar in some of my other Sci-fi games.  They have such untapped potential.

The price for these books is perfect.  Grab the PDF and POD combo.  Get some d10s, load your gyrojet gun and get ready to make the jump to the Void. There are new planets to discover!

Parts of Star Frontiers, in particular the species, would find new life in D20 Future, part of the D20 Modern line.

Both games are fun, but suffer from and/or benefit from the design principles of the time. Newer players might find some of the game elements dated. Older players of the games will find them nostalgic.  Personally reading through them now some 40 years after first reading them I get a lot more enjoyment from the rules.  Back then I was really too D&D focused to really enjoy what I had in front of me. Today, well I can't wait to stat up a character or two and a starship.

Star Frontiers on the Web

There are many places where Star Frontiers is alive and well. There used to be more, but my understanding is a predatory grab for the trademark by another RPG company caused Hasbro/WotC to exercise their legal rights and bring the game back in-house. While that did screw over the amazing work done by the fan sites, there are still many up and providing new material for the game.  

For these fans and sites, Star Frontiers never went away.

Tuesday, May 11, 2021

Classic Adventures Revisited: S3 Expedition to the Barrier Peaks

Cover to S3 Expedition to the Barrier Peaks
One of the first adventures I ever bought via mail-order was S3 The Expedition to the Barrier Peaks. I had already latched onto the idea that the S series of adventures were going to be mine to run in our extended group of players that crossed many DMs and groups.  I grabbed it without really knowing a lot about it.  I knew there was crashed spaceship central to the adventure and I knew that it was a larger adventure.  Since I was spending my limited paper route money on my new D&D addiction I had to make every dollar count.   S3 had two booklets, at 32 pages each, and color inserts. There were two covers with maps. So even my young mind all of this was more valuable than a simple adventure that only had half that material.

I got it in the mail one summer and took with me on a family trip to the fish fry my parents loved to go to every year.  It was hot, and July and all I wanted to do was sit in our van and read my adventure.  This was also the first time that I encountered what I would later call the "Gary Gygax" effect. This would be the "E.G.G." on the map of Level II.  I remember not liking it at the time because if this was a real spaceship then why was that there.  But more details on that later.

Sci-Fi gaming was not new to me. I had picked up Traveller and I knew about Gamma World. I also had learned that Gamma World and S3 had a shared parentage in Metamorphasis Alpha, though I will admit I wasn't 100% clear on what that meant at the time.   Without knowing much about the size of the Warden (MA) we always assumed this was the Warden.  Given the shape of the ship that landed on Greyhawk and it's size this was more obviously some sort of smaller scout ship with a prison or brig.  One thing everyone in my groups agreed on was this is how Mind Flayers came to Greyhawk.

S3 Expedition to the Barrier Peaks

For this review, I am considering my printed copy from 1982 or so (not my original sadly, lost that one years ago) and the PDF from DriveThruRPG.  This adventure was written by Gary Gygax himself and was the official Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Tournament scenario at Origins II in 1976.  The adventure was updated and published in 1980. Cover art and art book art by Erol Otus, interior art by Jeff Dee, David "Diesel" LaForce, Jim Roslof, David Sutherland III, Gregory Flemming, and Erol Otus.

The adventure comes in two 32-page black and white booklets. The first covers the adventure and the second covers all the weird animals, plants, and gadgets found on the ship.  There is also four pages in the center of book two with full-color art of the animals.  I have one copy where they are glossy and another where they are matte. I have no detail on what the differences mean.  

Glossy vs. Matte art in S3 Book 2

Book 1 covers the adventure.  The preface sets up what this adventure is about and gives some background on how this adventure came to be.  The rest sets up the adventure, placed in the Grandy Duchy of Geoff in the World of Greyhawk.   There is a bit of explaining the nature of this "dungeon," really a crashlanded ship, and how to read the maps. 

While one could call this a funhouse dungeon it is a bit different than the other Gygax funhouse, Tomb of Horrors.  There are a lot of new and weird monsters here and some older ones (like the Mind Flayer) that are given a new life so to speak.  What is most interesting to us, and to the players, were the new tech provided.  The tech items were designed not really to be functional, but to confuse the players as much as possible.  There really seemed to be a fear that D&D characters would run around with laser rifles.  Of course the design makes no sense from a human perspective, so we tried to figure out how they might been created.  One idea was that these make sense if you are a Mind Flayer. 

The adventure itself is a pure dungeon crawl into an unknown structure. 

Book 2 covers all the visual aids for this adventure.

The adventure is a must-have really to say you have had the complete D&D experience.  My oldest hated it though, saying he hates mixing sci-fi with his D&D.  My youngest loved and wanted lasers for everyone.

Classic Modules Today & Revisited

There are 5th edition updates via Classic Modules Today by Todd Bergman and the 5e Conversion by Michael "solomani" Mifsud. Each goes for $1.00.

Goodman Games also offers their massive Expedition to the Barrier Peaks, with introductions and background details from author Michael Curtis, Tony DiTerlizzi, Erol Otus (with some new art too!), and an interview with Diesel LaForce by Tim Wadzinski.

Two versions of the classic adventure are given to represent the seven different printings the adventure went through. These are covered on page 21 and largely deal with the various TSR logos used. Given this information, my copies seem to be later printings.  Corrections to errors found are presented in the 5th edition version of the adventure. 

In the last pages, Appendix G, covers the relationship between Metamophasis Alpha and Expedition to the Barrier Peaks.  IF they had included Gamma World then the trinity would be complete.  Goodman Games still publishes some material for Metamorphasis Alpha.

Goodman Games and TSR's respective Barrier Peaks adventures

The Warden Campaign

I can see an entire campaign built around this crashed spaceship and the mutants it has let loose in the area.  A great way to introduce the ideas of Gamma World or even Mutant Future or Mutant Crawl Classics to your game.  You can expand it with ideas from Mark Taormino's Secret Machines of the Star Spawn.  It could even lead to a Spelljamming campaign.

Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea

AS&SH already has things from the stars and even lost technology, so adding this adventure to it is not just a no-brainer, I have a hard time justifying why you shouldn't give it a try. 

BECMI/Mystara

While the Barrier Peaks is firmly rooted in the realm of Greyhawk, there is no reason why it can't be moved to Mystara.  There is already a solid history of magic and technology in Mystara. Not just from the Shadow Elves or Blackmoor, but also the curious connections between these two maps.

Here is Mystara's North and West hemisphere.


Here is Gamma World


Rotate the top map by about 45 degrees counter-clockwise and you get the map below.  No shock since both maps are based on North America.

What happened to cause the world of map 1 to become the world of map 2?

Maybe the reactor of the crashed spaceship went critical, blew up, shifted the world axis (something that did happen in Mystara), and created a bunch of weird mutants.  Unless of course the characters can go on an expedition to some mountains and stop it from happening.