Thursday, December 22, 2011

Indistinguishable from magic

Adam, Zak S. and Jeff R. have all been musing about magic lately. Sounds fun, so I'll chime in. Probably as a result of playing T&T, I tend to regard magic as a specialized form of psi power. (As you can imagine, I've never been a fan of the way D&D adds a separate (and IMO clunky) system for psionics.) This is more in keeping with Vance's idea of magic, too. I tend to imagine it being more like Norton's Witch World or Bradley's Darkover series, where magic ain't nothin' but psi misspelled.

(3rd edition hardback)

For a straight-up magic system my favorite is still the one from Ken St. Andre & Steve Perrin's Stormbringer. The system revolves around summoning and binding elementals and/or demons. In case you're wondering, the psi angle is that your mind is reaching out to another plane of existence and drawing those creatures to you. The cool thing about the system is that it's simple but very versatile. You do all the usual stupid wizard tricks, like cast a fireball (fire elemental) or make a flying carpet (demon of travel). And it naturally limits magic powers, since demons of combat can be very dangerous. If you pick up a magic sword in this game it could kill you.

In more general terms, I don't see why magic couldn't be done with straight psi powers. You could even use them to explain most superpowers. Super strength is just psychokinesis with no range, fireballs are just a special form of pyrokinesis, x-ray vision is a type of clairvoyance, etc. One thing that really got me thinking this way was Claude J. Pelletier's excellent article "Put Some Magic In It" which used the Mekton II psionic rules as a framework for a magic system. But why bother with separate rules? Why not just use the psionic rules to account for "spells"? There are a few things that standard psionic rules don't cover, like shapeshifting or breathing water, but it's easy to expand the rules to cover that stuff.

And really it just comes down to a matter of semantics.As Jeff R. showed, whether you want your Magic Missile to be a bolt of mind force or a spray of pixie dust is all up to you.

Friday, December 16, 2011

"That's no moon..."

Marc Miller's Traveller (1977) introduced a system for randomly generating space maps that has been widely imitated. One thing that is sometimes overlooked in these systems is the possibility of exotic interstellar phenomena. That's what makes David Cook's planet generation system for TSR's Star Frontiers (1982) so interesting. It appeared in Ares Magazine Special Edition #2 (1983) and when rolling up a system there was a 1% chance you'd roll on a "Special Feature Table" that covered unusual deep space objects.

Special Feature Table

Die Roll...Feature
01-03.....Alien artifact
04..........Alien lifeform
05-06....Artificial world
07.........Black hole
08-20...Dead star
21-22...Derelict spaceship
23-50...Dust cloud
51........Neutron star
72-80...Rogue planet
81-99...Supernova remnant
00........White hole

Most of those features should be self-explanatory. Dust clouds cover 1D10 cubic light-years and may interfere with communications, as might neutron stars, supernova remnants, et al. Artificial worlds can be anything from a hollow asteroid to a ringworld or Dyson sphere. You get the idea. So the nest time you're rolling up a space map throw in a few special features to spice things up.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

The History of FASA Trek

You probably already know the story of Guy W. McLimore, Greg Poehlein & David F. Tepool's Mekton supplement, Mekton Empire (1990). But there's an equally interesting tale behind their development of FASA's Star Trek RPG. A couple things really stand out to me. One is that they had to do a rush job on the project. That probably explains why the campaign advice was so sparse. Another is that they eventually split with FASA over the company's push to militarize the game. But I'll let McLimore tell the story in his own words.

1st edition cover

Star Trek: the Roleplaying Game

Guy McLimore, Greg Poehlein, and Dave Tepool were privileged to add their small part to the Star Trek legend as the authors of Star Trek: The Role Playing Game for FASA Corporation. As long time Trekfans, the trio is still very proud of the work they did on this project in its early days.

Guy, Greg, and Dave, operating at that time as Fantasimulations Associates, were assigned the Star Trek project by FASA after five other design teams had failed to turn in a manuscript that both FASA and Paramount Pictures would approve. FASA's license option was about to run out, and they needed to get a product into print almost immediately.

"We had only a few weeks to create character creation, character combat, and starship combat systems," remembers Guy. "When we made that deadline, FASA assigned us the entire project." It was to absorb almost all of their design efforts for the next several years. Guy, Greg, and Dave created the first edition of the basic ST:RPG rules, which debuted at a Trek convention in Omaha, Nebraska. The game was an immediate success, and soon became the second best selling RPG in history at the time (although well behind #1 - Advanced Dungeons and Dragons).

The first boxed set included both the role playing rules and a role playing style starship combat system that remains unique among game systems. Instead of a tactical board game, the role playing combat system offered players the chance to sit at "consoles" for the various bridge stations and perform their duties by allocating power to various systems, setting course, activating the shields, and firing weapons.

A series of expansion volumes soon followed, all written by Guy, Greg, and Dave, including The Klingons, The Romulans, and Trader Captains and Merchant Princes, which introduced non-military personnel as player characters for the first time. Most of the early adventure supplements were also written by one or more members of the trio. David created and later revised the Star Trek Tactical Ship Combat Simulator, which was eventually boxed as a separate component of the system and probably outsold even the role playing game because of its fast play mechanic and authenticity.

The main books of the system, including the Basic Game and the Klingons, Romulans, and Trader Captains supplements, entered a second edition, using the Fantasimulations Associates systems and text that was edited by John Wheeler. The second editions proved even more popular than the first.

FASA was already pursuing another success story in the form of Battletech. Future warfare was very popular, and FASA was in the forefront of the new gaming craze.

FASA's desire to stress the combat aspects of Star Trek led to disputes between them and the Fantasimulations Associates designers, who wanted to maintain the less-violent focus of the Star Trek TV series. This led to ST:RPG projects being assigned to other designers, and eventually to a payment dispute which ended the three Fantasimulations Associates designers' association with FASA and the Star Trek property.

The later ST:RPG works became very controversial in fandom because of their focus on military themes. Gene Roddenberry returned to active interest in licensing (during the initial planning of Star Trek: The Next Generation) and was reportedly unhappy with the change of approach to the game materials. A number of proposed FASA projects were turned down when submitted to Paramount for approval. One short-lived sourcebook was actually sent to press and distributed before Paramount had ruled on it. When it was turned down by the licensee, Paramount insisted that FASA withdraw the book from publication.

Eventually FASA's license to produce Star Trek materials was not renewed, and the game went out of print. Copies usually bring high prices from used game dealers. Paramount never again allowed a role playing game license to be sold for any Star Trek property, despite the interest of companies such as TSR, Mayfair Games, and Steve Jackson Games, until January 1998, when a license was granted to Last Unicorn Games.