Saturday, January 5, 2013

SciFi Saturday – 30 Years of Knight Hawks

The Star Frontiers science-fiction RPG was published in 1982, notably lacking any rules for spaceship travel or combat. The next year, amid eager anticipation (as I recall), TSR published the spaceship-combat supplement called Knight Hawks, designed by Douglas Niles (who also designed the D&D mass combat system of the era, Battlesystem). Therefore 2013 marks the 30th anniversary of the Star Frontiers: Knight Hawks game.

I played a lot of the Knight Hawks game, probably at least as much actual gameplay as any other RPG that I ever owned. One of the delightful aspects of the game is that it comes with two separate rulebooks: one, a 16-page "Tactical Operations Manual" which details a self-contained hex-based boardgame; and two, a 64-page "Campaign Book" on how spaceships integrate with the Star Frontiers RPG, designing and purchasing spaceships, useful campaign background, and a grand campaign of all-out war throughout the Frontier. It's a very nice package, and I used it both for RPG play and actually playing out the full "Second Sathar War" with a friend staying at my house for a week's time one summer. The boardgame is also very well suited for solitaire play and experimentation (except in rare circumstances, there's no hidden information), and so I used to do that quite a lot as teenager growing up in the backwoods of Maine.


Among my most indelible gaming memories is the day I got the Knight Hawks game and brought it back from the store, back when I was 12 years old. I'd excitedly been looking for such a product since the release of Star Frontiers -- it seemed like forever (at one point I almost picked up Traveller's Trillion Credit Squadron to fill the gap) -- but of course it was but a single year. I think I ripped off the box's shrink-wrapping in the back of my parents' car, and started eagerly reading. I got as far as the 3rd page of the boardgame rules, discussing movement, acceleration, and deceleration, when I read this:
TOP SPEED. Ships do not have a top speed. They can accelerate to any speed, but players may find that ships traveling very fast will be forced to leave the map.

Well, this just immediately blew my mind. I was accustomed to several different RPG vehicle combat systems, and of course the principal characteristic of vehicles in those system is their top speed, which I was expecting to see explained here. But here was something completely different, a brief rule inspired by actual physical phenomena, which completely upended how I saw the greater universe itself. I can vividly recall the moment that I can only describe as real, cosmic insight. I realized that not only would I have to play this particular game in an altogether different tactical fashion, but I also knew something more about the limitless space around me, and that it also made sense on a level deeper than I'd appreciated before.

Now, this fact (that a ship in space won't have any limit on how much it can accelerate, short of light-speed) may seem like a trivial observation when I make it today.  I'd like to say that my 12-year-old self should have known that, or been able to deduce it. But: (a) clearly, I didn't, (b) some other adults that I explain this to today are still initially stumped by it, and (c) it took an embarrassingly long time afterward before I also figured out that turning the nose of one's spaceship wouldn't have any effect on the direction that it was traveling (something that the Knight Hawks game does not correctly simulate).

Thus, I can't emphasize enough what a transformative moment that was for me, in that short little Knights Hawks boardgame book -- on the first day that I ripped it open, smelled the fresh printer's ink, and started reading it. I'd say the fact that it was a fun game was a minor, almost negligibly important virtue -- it also taught me real, usable facts about the world, and indeed, changed how I looked at the universe. In my view, that is the gold-standard for game design, and the best justification for gaming in the first place.

So: For the near future of 2013 I'll plan to write a regular "SciFi Saturday" post about some aspect or addition to the Star Frontiers: Knight Hawks game. I hope you'll climb into your spacesuit, strap on a pearl-handled laser pistol, and join me at the master control panel for at least part of it. Happy new year!

[Photo courtesy boardgamegeek.com]

13 comments:

  1. I loved this game (and Star Frontiers), but never played it nearly as often as I would have liked.

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  2. I played the living hell out of this game. I loved it.

    It was weird with SF coming out without space ship rules. They wanted us to play out planetary crash-landing stories and we really wanted to play Star Wars. KH let us play it, at least a bit.

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    1. I think a lot of us felt that way for the first year. In retrospect, having a separate dedicated game (by a different author) probably made for a better, more focused and polished product.

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  3. Similar memories. Thanks for sharing. Really brings back what it was like back in the day to acquire a new module or box of rules. That smell of printer's ink! The dread of waiting a whole year for the next supplement!

    We loved Star Frontiers. It replaced D&D for a while (maybe a year) as our favourite game.

    The Knight Hawks space war game and X10 Red Arrow, Black Shield have a similar theme, for me, from back in the day. And that is... I was far more interested in strategy games way back in the day, than any of my friends. Stratego, Chess, Risk. and then, in the mid 80s, TSR started producing all these war game supplements, with giant hex maps and stock paper chits.

    Because my young 12 year old, super energetic, strategy is cool persona, none of the players in my group really had a chance to win any of the war games.

    I learned a valuable lesson. It is okay to lose. It is okay to skip something because your friends are not as enthused about it as you are.

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    1. Yes to all that! Module X10 is another mind-blowing product for me. The number of people who can use it must be tremendously limited (need to know D&D, have high-level characters, enjoy wargaming, own all the X-modules, etc.). I actually never finished playing it, and it may be an itch that I'm stuck with permanently.

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  4. During the interregnum period between the publication of Star Frontiers and the Knighthawks game, one of my neighbors developed a pretty nifty spaceship combat rules set that we played the hell out of. When we finally got our hands on Knighthawks... well, it came up short on several fronts. In particular the spaceship customization options in KH seemed very limited by comparison.

    The biggest detractor for me, though, was the stinginess with the artificial gravity--as I recall, you could only achieve gravity while your ship was either accelerating or decelerating. The implications for my fantasies of simulating the action on the bridge of the Enterprise were demoralizing.

    Had Niles not mentioned gravity at all, I would probably have overlooked any other shortcomings. But that needless wet blanket just ruined it for me. The purple box quickly found a place deep in the closet beside all the board games I was no longer interested in playing and might very well still be there getting on 3 decades later.

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    1. I can respect that, but for me, the assumption of gravity only from acceleration was also mind-expanding for me. It wasn't what I expected, but it was based on real physics, so it was both challenging and educational. It's been glued in my head ever since when I think about space travel, and I think it's benefited me in that regard.

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    2. Good point. That little nugget of physics has been imprinted in my brain ever since that moment.

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  5. I never played Knight Hawks, but I've amassed a sizable collection of the minis for that game, including what I know know are the rare Privateers spaceships.

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    1. That's cool! I actually obtained the boxed miniatures some years ago, and I still haven't had the heart to open them. Recently I read that the cushioning inside reacts with the metal, and I may only have lead dust remaining at this point. :-)

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    2. Yeah, for some reason the compound used for the SF minis reacted with the foam, affecting many of these models with lead rot. You should check to see if your models are intact. If so, you should get them painted and on the table. :)

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  6. Are you still doing Book of War? I've sent you some messages at delta@oedgames.com. Just got my copy a little while back.

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    1. Yes! (Actually I just had new friends play last night.) I get backed up with email for months at a time, but I should be replying to you today. Glad you picked it up! :-)

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