Showing posts with label Star Frontiers. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Star Frontiers. Show all posts

Monday, June 14, 2021

Science Phenomena to Pump Up Game Play


I am always a big fan of have realistic details of what is happening around my players to bring them into whatever world they are in. Each of these items are based on real world technologies and phenomena. 

Real lasers are silent unless they hit something. but the power supplies are not. They can sound like a hammer on a metal garbage can. This applies to medical lasers. Talk about making a trip to the auto-doc scary. 

Cutting and etching lasers are also loud, but more like a leaf blower because the beam is close to continuous. Again, it is the power supply and the drive required to move it around is making the sound. This also ties into fashion. Characters messing with realistic lasers should always have goggles. If the tech level is high enough protective contact lenses would work nicely, too. 

Sun Outages can drive plot points. When a satellite delivering information to a ground station passes in front of the sun the information gets garbled. The ground station loses it's connection because the sun is such a powerful source of radiation. In the real world this happens to cable TV satellites in the spring and fall. This is a consequence of their orbit's aligning Earth's tilt. For a week or so, the satellite's signal is garbled for about 10 minutes at a time. It can be described as sparkles, pixelated or fuzzy pictures, picture freezing, audio distortions, or even a total loss of the channel. 

Since these satellites are in high Earth orbit it only happens once a day. If the satellite was in a lower orbit, it would happen several times a day based on the period of the orbit. This is great for plots involving a bit of mystery on a semi-regular basis, say every 40 minutes but the duration would be much lower, like a few seconds. 

Vacuum cementing is another phenomena that can either stymie players or give them a power stunt. Two pieces of material will stick together in a hard vacuum as if welded or cemented together just by touching them together. This is a good way to force repairs using little used skills to free moving parts. Alternatively, it can be used to add protective surfaces to objects to prevent or repair damage with little or no skill and can use junk as a resource. Astronauts on the moon noticed this happened even to dust. 


By the way, lunar dust smells like spent gunpowder or cooked meat, which can be an interesting detail to freak out the players. Why this smell (and taste) occurs is mystery today. It is transient. Lunar dust doesn't smell like anything on Earth. It could be the release of charged particles or a quick, short term chemical reaction with water or oxygen. No one knows how or why it happens.  

I call another trick "Zinc-Clink". Zinc oxide sensors are used to measure the amount of oxygen around a sensor. If a sensor system gets some other material on it, say soot, it will believe there is no oxygen in the area and refuse to open the door. Again, players will have to resort to little used or differently used skills to fix the problem. Say Vacc-suit or electronics. It's a handy way to slow the action down or pump up the drama because a hatch or door is misbehaving. 

In space missions these zinc oxide sensors are used to detect damaging oxygen around the sensor, which is counter intuitive. Oxygen in space is bad for some equipment. 

I am also a fan of the idea of the Decadal Survey to land really sophisticated machinery in a small nook in the ship. In real life, the Decadal Survey is conducted once every 10 years and asks scientists to come up with very broad science questions to research. In ship terms, these research projects could place new sensors, small power supplies and/or radios which are separate from the ship's normal operations. Think of it as an emergency lifeline for strange happenings on the ship. The crew would be versed in maintenance functions, so the equipment which is somewhat a "black box" would understandable to the crew. 

One of the more interesting types of research could be atmospheric aerosol tracking, which could enable a ship to use an alternative method to track other ships. GRACE (Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment) was a mission to look for gravitational anomalies (dense, heavy items) on the Earth's surface. In a sci-fi setting, it could locate shipwrecks, crashes and other hidden items under the surface of a planet while also creating great maps. 

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Saving the Serena Dawn with Heavy Canon

 In the Star Frontiers System, canon says there is no artificial gravity. All deckplans are laid out in stacks of decks where the engines are down. When thrust is applied, the ship has gravity by virtue of thrust. 

Enter the Serena Dawn, the first ship the characters travel on in SF0 - Crash on Volturnus. Crash on Volturnus is a classic module with one canonical flaw. The deckplan requires artificial gravity. 

I used Inkscape to rough up a copy of the map. The light green areas are the bridge, purple are the engines. Early in the mission, the power goes dead, so you can't even say that having the engines pointing downwards out the bottom of this map helps. 

It's a pretty big flaw. Maybe... maybe not. I love the Serena Dawn and I have a simple solution to fix it within canon. 

I roughed out a side view of the ship. 

Obviously, this is just the regular map projected sideways. Even adding details like the higher roof on the storage bay (blue-gray), the computer room (yellowish-brown), projecting the life pod (yellow) and the engines (purple) don't help. 

Or does it? 

What if the Serena Dawn is a Tumbling Pigeon ship? It rotates to create artificial gravity. There is an issue with this. The ship is 38 meters wide by 14 meters tall by 62 meters long. And it's shaped like a brick. 

Buuuuuut. What if this is just one deck. We are told there are observation domes, rec rooms, 1st class and fuel someplace off the map. I didn't extend the map of this deck by enough to show all of this. It also creates a problem where there is no shuttle bay mention and the ship doesn't look aerodynamic enough to land. So how does this help? 

Behold, the whole of the Serena Dawn! 


Oh, that makes a difference! 

The Serena Dawn is a tether ship. In order to have gravity without power or thrust, the whole ship revolves. No power, no problem! So if the engines are on the bottom of each deck, how does it thrust? 

That tether is out of scale. By a lot. The indivual decks pull themselves up the tether to the center point, apply thrust in one direction and as the ship stops thrusting the decks lower themselves down each end of the tether. When they reach the end, they apply thrust sideways at either end to spin for gravity. 

One last problem to fix. How do the characters get off the ship and land on the planet? There are no shuttles and no capacity to land. Except one. Each side of the ship has a stack of decks. When they arrive at the planet, the bottom most deck is released. It's whipped away to the planet by the rotational speed being translated to a straight line by letting go of the tether. The engines point down to give some deceleration, but it would probably use screens to aerobrake. It would be hard on the screens, so I would think they would be one time use. 

The whole deck enters the atmosphere as a unit and serves as a base. Assuming the deck as lander can't get off the planet again, it has the yellow escape pods that can boost the characters back to orbit for pick up. Or an Assault Scout picks them up. Either way, the puzzle of the Serena Dawn has been solved, with heavy canon. 

Star Frontiers: Alpha Dawn Review

Title: Star Frontiers: Alpha Dawn
Author: TSR Staff
Year: 1982
Pages: Basic book, 20 pages. Expanded book, 64 pages. SF0, 32 pages.
Number of players: ???
Rating: ★★★

Star Frontiers could be called "TSR's game not based on D&D." Chances are this was one game you played when not playing D&D. If were a glutton for punishment, it could also be the game you played when not playing Traveller. 

The main problem with Star Frontiers is, it isn't D&D or Traveller. The secondary problem is, it isn't a tactical game or a board game either. Shockingly, it has elements of all 4 genres. 

Mind blow? 

Yeah. Me, too. 

This tiny box packs in all of the complexity of a multi-book game engine like Traveller or any edition of D&D squished into 116 pages. However, it isn't like either of those. It's system is 1d100 based. It has levels but only 1-6 and no classes. Plus aliens. Real aliens. 

Where Star Frontiers deviates from D&D the most and hugs Traveller the most is your characters are complex and fully formed from the get go. You are never a knock-kneed dude in robes hoping someone won't blast you into next year because you don't know anything. Like Traveller, you're marketable from day one. That's important later. 

With this first set, you have 4 playable races, Dralasites, Humans, Vrusk, and Yazirians and one NPC race called the Sathar. Each character has pairs of attributes: Strength and Stamina, Dexterity and Reaction Speed, Intuition and Logic, Personality and Leadership. These skills are "rockable" meaning you can steal a bit of Strength for Stamina, Dexterity for Reaction Speed and so on. You cannot swap Leadership for Strength. 

This game has no classes per se, it has 3 PSA skill groups named Military, Biosocial and Technological. Each character selects one skill from one group and a secondary skill from a second group. Due to this combining of two wildly different skill sets, no two characters are really the same. Another twist on the rules is they assume every character will use a weapon, even if unskilled in weapon use. Fire power is a great equalizer. 

"Level" is equally odd, there are 6 levels of skill for every skill and your character doesn't really have a level at all. "Level" is answering "What is the highest level skill you have?" A new character and an old one can basically stand shoulder to shoulder. 

This game game in a boxed set with 3 booklets, a two part map, counters and a cover/map for the module SF0. 

The first booklet is the 20 page basic game. It's a module in it's own right and teaches players how to play on the map with the counters. While it may seem like an underwhelming first game session, it is specifically designed to march the players through ever rule in the Expanded book. At least in short form. You can expect at least one person from the party to be able to shoot, throw a grenade, hack devices, drive an array of vehicles, do medicine, heal, etc. 

The expanded book does just that, expands on game play. The rules #1 oddity is the game is meant to be theater of the mind, which makes the map and counters rather secondary unless you want to make your own maps. Within the expanded rules is a monsters section, where a couple of typical alien creatures are given and rules to modify or create whole new monsters/aliens are nicely integrated with the character skills. This system is very cool and powerful. 

Rules for vehicles and robots are equally nicely spelled out and are designed to go hand and hand with your character's abilities as are tactics and movement. Even though you are limited to handful of skills, the system is really robust because there is usually more than one way to progress. 

For completeness, the module SF0 Crash on Volturnus continues the complexity and expands (then contracts) the world around the players. Once your players have gone through this module, they will clearly understand the concept of "Talk First/Shoot Second", a detail only hinted at in the Basic and Expanded rules. 

For 116 pages, the rules are tight and feel well planned. The presentation is wonderful, on par with anything at the time and perhaps taking a jump forward with the nice maps and counters. Oddly, space combat and ship construction were left out, probably due to space constraints.  

The game system is very inventive, but without continuing support from TSR there the game feels lacking in many regards. The specialty of this set of rules is the home brew campaign which is very doable, which is a good thing because that's all we got after the second boxed set. Back in the day, the two modules based on the films 2001 and 2010 felt odd and out of place in a space opera setting, but that should have been a clue as to how robust the system was when playing out home brew stuff. 

Many systems when view in hindsight have a dated feel where it is a product of it's own age. This set suffers this in spades. It's not like D&D or Traveller, where it was reimagined over and over again to keep up with the times. We are forever holding out for Han, Duke and 3rd Imperium that never came. There are no psionics, no Force, no magic, no sentient killer robots, no cybernetics or internet. Computers tend zig-zag from the mighty talking machines capable of full thought, but can't be removed from the 15 rooms they reside in which makes them ignore-able.   

Many times, I have totally ditched the background and acted out scenarios from the Stainless Steel Rat series, Star Wars and Aliens in this system. It actually gives a good accounting of itself. While I rated it three stars, remember this is three modern stars. As flawed as the support was, the rule still shines. 

Star Frontiers: Alpha Dawn
At DriveThruRPG
Star Frontiers: Alpha Dawn at DrivethruRPG

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Episode 002 - I Chose Poorly and De Ut Des

This episode has a format change base on feedback I've received. I have a new sponsor, Anchor.FM and the format now supports the concept of sponsors. I also have some new music so let's all give thanks to Kevin MacLeod at incompetech.com for the following tracks:

Evening Fall (Piano) and
Starry
Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0 License
http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/

In this episode, I reminisce about 4 games: D&D, Star Frontiers, Gemstone IV and Traveller.  I cover 35+ years of gaming experiences in one podcast. Part of the reason I have been offline for so long was a mash up of getting my lesson plans online for students, my classes at Buffalo State suddenly switching to an online format and the associate PITA from taking finals online.

I hope this format works better than Episode 001 and 000's. It was a pain to record, mostly owing to my new Podcat, Shinobu. She's cute even as she climbs the cables.

Now on to the episode!






Sunday, March 24, 2019

Title: Crash on Volturnus
Code: SF-0
Author: Mark Acres, Tom Moldvay with Doug Niles
Rule Set: Star Frontiers: Alpha Dawn
Year: 1982
Pages: 30
Number of characters: 4-8
Levels: 1
Rating: ★★★★★

Crash on Volturnus is one of my favorite modules. The player start of as passengers on the Sierra Dawn, where they first encounter trouble en route to Volturnus. After an epic battle and escape, players move on to phase two, an incredible hex crawl on the planet of Volturnus culminating in a final(?) battle with the pirate forces on the planet. Aided by the local inhabitants of the planet, surely the players will win the day.

This module was released with the Alpha Dawn rules set and to my knowledge, was not released independently of that set. I received my set of Alpha Dawn rules peice meal and ended up with two copies of the module. The whole boxed set includes giant maps and wonderful counters, which makes SF-0 a snap to play.

Crash on Volturnus is the first module in the series and was followed up by SF-1 and SF-2. The other SF series modules are unrelated, but are valuable as they are set up for characters to continue their adventures in new settings. The series was also brought back to life by the Endless Quest book Villains of Volturnus in 1983. It was published in relatively short time frame making the series rock solid in game play and feel.

Having played SF-0 several times, there are few game breakers built in to the scenario. First, when the escape pod crashes, the characters only have time to get the survival packs. Several of my players started out with standard equipment packs and used the coveralls as a makeshift backpack tied across their chests before seating themselves. Since the equipment was attached to them, I couldn't justify taking it. The players also started with 4 medical kits, which made them neigh unstoppable in combat. They kept pulling back to heal. Of course, these were the same players who tied their equipment to their chests. I kept running them against random encounters to try to eat up resources, but that was unfulfilling. Eventually, I figured I'd let them run in god-mode and kill everything and everyone. Many of the challenges they faced were thinking scenarios and not fighting scenarios, so it really didn't change the outcome. 

All and all, I found this one module to be the best of the best for Star Frontiers. What do you think? Let me know in the comments.

The whole shebang is available over on DriveThruRPG.

Alpha Dawn with SF-0
SF-1 Volturnus, Planet of Mystery
and SF-2 Starspawn of Volturnus