Thursday, May 30, 2013

Jack Vance Died

Sadly, Jack Vance died Sunday evening (at age 96). Weirdly, I was just referencing him yesterday in the comments to our discussion this week on the subject of Counterspells. I guess the fact that the entire essence of the D&D spell system sprang from his literary imagination -- which most of us hardcore types call "Vancian" for shorthand -- means that we'll always be in his debt, and he'll be close in our minds. And of course that was one of his very smallest gifts. A titan of the pulp fantasy era has finally passed.

Monday, May 27, 2013

On Counterspells

I wanted to possibly have a separate discussion thread just on the issue of "counter-spells". If you read the last post on the history of the dispel magic spell, you'll see that the phrase "counter" was always lurking kind of cryptically in the text for every edition of the spell, until it blossomed into its own full-blown mechanic in 3E (i.e., ready an action, give up your normal attack, name a specific enemy in sight, and possibly interrupt that enemy if they happen to cast a spell). I didn't expect to deal with that in my OED house rules, but in my last session of module D1, it came up partly by accident, as Paul found that particular word lingering in my Book of Spells text (copied from the 3E SRD as a source). We rolled dice to see if that was allowed and it came up "no". But what should I do going forward? Mostly I have to say that I'm rather offended by the prospect of breaking the standard action cycle with "interrupting" behavior, although on the other hand that leaves no way to prevent being devastated by an enemy's fireball, for example.

I considered making a poll for this question, but the field is so completely wide-open to interpreting the classic D&D editions' text that I don't think I can exhaust all the possibilities. Some ideas that come to mind include:
  1. Ready an action to interrupt other casters (as in 3E).
  2. Cast a dispel, all enemy spells that round are ruined as they occur.
  3. Cast a dispel on an area, it lingers until a spell is cast there, ruining it (note that duration in several editions is "permanent").
  4. Dispels can be used spontaneously whenever an enemy casts a spell (no readying).
  5. Spells are declared pre-initiative, allowing anyone to react to enemy declarations with "I dispel/counter!"
  6. No counterspells (it's just a stylistic flourish for standard dispels).
  7. Other stuff??
What's your preferred interpretation?

Saturday, May 25, 2013

SciFi Saturday – Forging Frigates

As I move towards finally putting together my miniatures for the Star Frontiers: Knight Hawks game, one thing I wasn't happy about was simply the small number of ships including: for example just a single Frigate (which I personally dual-use as Destroyers) in each box. This doesn't quite sync up with the scenarios provided with the game, which commonly have 2 or 4 frigate/destroyers on each side. So I decided the only thing to do was to make rubber molds from the original miniatures, cast a bunch of copies myself, and then I could have a nice-sized armada on each side to play with (as well as keep the official minis in their original condition).

Although I've done this before, it certainly helps that my live-in partner Isabelle has an MFA in sculpture, so she can give me tips and advice and pretty much any tool or material from her studio for me to play around with. The really funny thing is that she's borderline traumatized over mold-making from her academic program (high stress and giant molds that likely break a months-long sculpture!), whereas for me these little jobs are a delightful break, and each step is doable in about 20 minutes or so (although there's about 20 steps in my checklist now). Here's a few photos from the weekend that I cast the frigate copies:

First, the very start of making the mold for the Sathar Frigate. I make a little box out of posterboard (cut to save as much material as possible): half of it gets filled with play-dough, and the original mini gets embedded in that. A good pour-hole/sprue is definitely the most important part of the process (I would improve on what's shown below for another attempt). I pour in rubber compound over this and let it set for the night; then I flip it, dig out the play-dough, and set in rubber to the other half over another night.

By Sunday, I've got three molds ready to go (one Sathar frigate, one UPF frigate, and one for the bases they get mounted on). Below, we're about to get ready with a block of metal in the ladle. (Note to self: in the future don't keep molds waiting on the stove, you don't want them heating up unnecessarily.)

Melting the metal on the stovetop.

Here I am midway through the casting process, with one UPF frigate already cast and new ones just coming out of the molds. It was around this time that Isabelle came home from her studio, with me bent over the table and metal bubbling on the stove, to which she expounded something like, "My god, you've turned our kitchen into a foundry!" (which was delivered with more delighted glee than you might expect).

One funny thing is that what's classically my favorite spaceship design -- the Sathar vessels like the frigate here -- turned out to be a total nightmare to cast and get out the mold. Those spindly little engine and neck struts would inevitably break off when I tried to take them out, snap off the sprue, and straighten them. I think I probably cast at least a dozen Sathar frigates, but most of them got broken and dumped back in ol' the melting pot. (Again, I'm pretty sure a change to the pour-hole design would help this a lot.) At the end of the day, this was my production line. Probably more on this later if anyone's interested:

Monday, May 20, 2013

Spells Through the Ages – Dispel Magic

I haven't done a historical look at Dispel Magic? Really? Okay, let me remedy that...

Chainmail -- As is often the case for the most archetypal D&D effects, dispel magic wasn't actually a distinct spell in the Chainmail Fantasy rules; it was an intrinsic special ability for wizards:
The stronger magician can successfully cast a counter-spell with a two dice score of 7 or better, while a weaker magician needs a score of 8, 9, 10 or 11, depending on his relative strength. A counter-spell fully occupies a magician's powers. [CM p. 31]
As you can see, the exact phrasing here is "counter-spell". You'll find that this phrase lurks mysteriously in the underbrush of most editions' text, finally blossoming into a major rule mechanic in 3E. Presumably the last line is what we now might call a "full action". Other than that, it's open to interpretation whether the ability can be used on an "interrupting" basis against a spell as it is cast; personally, I never intuited that usage, as it would necessitate a change in the turn cycle to adjudicate.

Original D&D -- Like several other important, at-will intrinsic wizard abilities from Chainmail, this anti-magic effect became an individual 3rd-level spell in D&D Vol-1 (c.f. fireball and lightning bolt):
Dispell Magic: Unless countered, this spell will be effective in dispelling enchantments of most kinds (referee's option), except those on magical items and the like. This is modified by the following formula. The success of a Dispell Magic spell is a ratio of the dispeller over the original spell caster, so if a 5th level Magic-User attempts to dispell the spell of a 10th level Magic-User there is a 50% chance of success. Duration: 1 turn. Range: 12". [Vol-1, p. 25]
Note the spelling ("Dispell" with two "l"'s). Here the dispel(l) itself is what may be possibly "countered", but this clearly seems to be in reference to the percent-chance of its functioning, based on possibly confronting a higher-level magic-user. A clarification is noted, in that it doesn't effect any magic items.

Advanced D&D, 1E -- In the Player's Handbook we get the customary (dictionary) spelling, and more extensive details:
Dispel Magic... Explanation/Description: When a [magic-user] casts this spell, it neutralizes or negates the magic it comes in contact with as follows: A dispel magic will not affect a specially enchanted item such as a scroll, magic ring, wand, rod, staff, miscellaneous magic item, magic weapon, magic shield, or magic armor. It will destroy magic potions (they are treated as 12th level for purposes of this spell), remove spells cast upon persons or objects, or counter the casting of spells in the area of effect. The base chance for success of a dispel magic spell is 50%. For every level of experience of the character casting the dispel magic above that of the creature whose magic is to be dispelled (or above the efficiency level of the object from, which the magic is issuing), the base chance increases by 5%, so that if there are 10 levels of difference, there is a 100% chance. For every level below the experience/efficiency level of the creature/object, the base chance is reduced by 2%. Note that this spell can be very effective when used upon charmed and similarly beguiled creatures. It is automatic in negating the spell caster’s own magic. [PHB, p. 47]
Most of this text is in regard to the altered chance of the spell functioning (with asymmetric modifiers for higher vs. lower level opposition). A note that it automatically works on the caster's own spells is well-received. The other piece of fine print is in the third clause of what it will affect: "counter the casting of spells in the area of effect", which if read closely, based on the gerund "casting", seems to imply present-progressive interrupting-style effect. However, no more is said on the usage or turn-cycle in this regard, so perhaps it's just a stylistic flourish.

And one other new wrinkle is that dispel magic is allowed above to permanently destroy magic potions, but not other magic items (a one-off detail that a DM may or may not remember). However, the errata-style text in the DMG then further opens up the effect to any magic items, if only a single round (this having the scent of some argumentative player creation that wormed its way into the rulebook):
Dispel Magic: If this spell is cast upon a magic item it most certainly will have the effect of causing it to be non-operational for 1 round thereafter if the item does not make a saving throw - if the item is not in the possession of any creature, then the item gets no saving throw, and it is nonoperational for 1 round. Note that artifacts and relics are NOT subject to this effect. Any dispel magic spell must be cast directly at the object, not anything or anyone else, to be so effective. [DMG, p. 41]

Advanced D&D, 2E -- Of course in 2E, the text expands further to 6 paragraphs:
Dispel Magic... When a wizard casts this spell, it has a chance to neutralize or negate magic it comes in contact with, as follows:

First, it removes spells and spell-like effects (including device effects and innate abilities) from creatures or objects. Second, it disrupts the casting or use of these in the area of effect at the instant the dispel is cast. Third, it destroys magical potions (which are treated as 12th level for purposes of this spell).

Each effect or potion in the spell's area is checked to determine if it is dispelled. The caster can always dispel his own magic; otherwise, the chance to dispel depends on the difference in level between the magical effect and the caster. The base chance is 50% (11 or higher on 1d20 to dispel). If the caster is of higher level than the creator of the effect to be dispelled, the difference is subtracted from the number needed on 1d20 to dispel (making it more likely that the dispel succeeds); if the caster is of lower level, the difference is added to the number needed on 1d20 to dispel (making it less likely that the dispel succeeds). A roll of 20 always succeeds and a roll of 1 always fails. Thus, if a caster is 10 levels higher, only a roll of 1 prevents the effect from being dispelled.

A dispel magic spell does not affect a specially enchanted item, such as a magical scroll, ring, wand, rod, staff, miscellaneous item, weapon, shield, or armor, unless it is cast directly upon the item. This renders the item nonoperational for 1d4 rounds. An item possessed and carried by a creature gains the creature's saving throw against this effect; otherwise, it is automatically rendered nonoperational. An interdimensional interface (such as a bag of holding) rendered nonoperational would be temporarily closed. Note that an item's physical properties are unchanged: A nonoperational magical sword is still a sword.

Artifacts and relics are not subject to this spell; however, some of their spell-like effects may be, at the DM's option.

Note that this spell can be very effective when used upon charmed and similarly beguiled creatures. Certain spells or effects cannot be dispelled; these are listed in the spell descriptions.
[2E PHB, Appendix 3]
What the 2E text is mostly doing is to rephrase the 1st Edition text, and also to fold in the "temporarily shut off magic items" secret rule that was in the 1E DMG. In fact, it doubles down on it, increasing the 1-round duration to 1d4 rounds here. It also does streamline the caster-level check, making it a symmetric +/-5% difference for either higher or lower levels, and thus adjudicating it on a d20.

The other thing it does is to make more explicit the interrupting counter-spell feature, i.e., "Second, it disrupts the casting or use of these in the area of effect at the instant the dispel is cast." But it still leaves several questions unanswered: Do you cast it and shut down all new magic for a round? Do you "ready" to interrupt, or spontaneously on the fly? Does this presume advance spell declaration and allow for someone to jump in with a declared counter-dispel?

D&D, 3rd Edition -- Now in 3E, the dispel magic text becomes, what, 15 paragraphs long? (But that's not all: see more below):
Dispel Magic... The character can use dispel magic to end ongoing spells that have been cast on a creature or object, to temporarily suppress the magical abilities of a magic item, to end ongoing spells (or at least their effects) within an area, or to counter another spellcaster’s spell. A dispelled spell ends as if its duration had expired. Some spells, as detailed in their descriptions, can’t be defeated by dispel magic. Dispel magic can dispel (but not counter) the ongoing effects of supernatural abilities as well as spells. Dispel magic affects spell-like effects just as it affects spells.

Note: The effects of spells with instantaneous duration can’t be dispelled, because the magic effect is already over before the dispel magic can take effect.

The character choose to use dispel magic in one of three ways: a targeted dispel, an area dispel, or a counterspell:

Targeted Dispel: One object, creature, or spell is the target of the spell. The character makes a dispel check against the spell or against each ongoing spell currently in effect on the object or creature. A dispel check is 1d20 +1 per caster level (maximum +10) against a DC of 11 + the spell’s caster level.

If the spellcaster targets an object or creature who is the effect of an ongoing spell (such as a monster summoned by monster summoning), she makes a dispel check to end the spell that conjured the object or creature.

If the object that the character targets is a magic item, the character makes a dispel check against the item’s caster level. If the character succeeds, all the item’s magical properties are suppressed for 1d4 rounds, after which the item recovers on its own. A suppressed item becomes nonmagical for the duration of the effect. An interdimensional interface is temporarily closed. Remember that a magic item’s physical properties are unchanged. Artifacts and creatures of demigod or higher status are unaffected by mortal magic such as this.

The character automatically succeeds at the dispel check against any spell that the character cast.
Area Dispel: The spell affects everything within a 30-foot radius.

For each creature who is the target of one or more spells, the character makes a dispel check against the spell with the highest caster level. If that fails, the character makes dispel checks against progressively weaker spells until the character dispels one spell (which discharges the dispel so far as that target is concerned) or fail all the character's checks. The creature’s magic items are not affected.

For each object that is the target of one or more spells, the character makes dispel checks as with creatures. Magic items are not affected by area dispels.

For each ongoing area or effect spell centered within the dispel magic’s area, the character makes a dispel check to dispel the spell.

For each ongoing spell whose area overlaps that of the dispel, the character makes a dispel check to end the effect, but only within the area of the dispel magic.

If an object or creature who is the effect of an ongoing spell, such as a monster summoned by monster summoning, is in the area, the character makes a dispel check to end the spell that conjured the object or creature (returning it whence it came) in addition to attempting to dispel spells targeting the creature or object.

The character may choose to automatically succeed at dispel checks against any spell that the character cast.
Counterspell: The spell targets a spellcaster and is cast as a counterspell. Unlike a true counterspell, however, dispel magic may not work. The character must make a dispel check to counter the other spellcaster’s spell. [3.0 SRD]

Now, I think that's pretty much the same as the 2E spell; it's mostly just that the 3 sub-effects each got their own section with a thoroughly re-stated version of the effect (thus almost tripling the paragraph count). But at the very end we get to that tricky "counter-spell" implication which has been nagging us all along; be careful what you wish for, because this became its own separate mechanic, with full details in one subsection of the Magic chapter, weighing in at another 7 paragraphs just for that part.
Counterspells: It is possible to cast any spell as a counterspell. By doing so, the character is using the spell's energy to disrupt the casting of the same spell by another character. Counterspelling works even if one spell is divine and the other arcane.

How Counterspells Work: To use a counterspell, the character must select an opponent as the target of the counterspell. The character does this by choosing the ready action. In doing so, the character elects to wait to complete his or her action until the character's opponent tries to cast a spell. (The character may still move at normal speed, since ready is a standard action.)

If the target of the character's counterspell tries to cast a spell, the character makes a Spellcraft check (DC 15 + the spell's level). This check is a free action. If the check succeeds, the character correctly identifies the opponent's spell and can attempt to counter it. (If the check fails, the character can't do either of these things.)

To complete the action, the character must cast the correct spell. As a general rule, a spell can only counter itself. If the character is able to cast the same spell and has it prepared (if the character prepares spells), the character casts it, altering it slightly to create a counterspell effect. If the target is within range, both spells automatically negate each other with no other results.

Counterspelling Metamagic Spells: Metamagic feats are not taken into account when determining whether a spell can be countered.

Specific Exceptions: Some spells specifically counter each other, especially when they have diametrically opposed effects.

Dispel Magic as a Counterspell: The character can use dispel magic to counterspell another spellcaster, and the character doesn't need to identify the spell he or she is casting. However, dispel magic doesn't always work as a counterspell.
[3.0 SRD]

In summary: The caster must "ready" an action to counter-spell, naming one specific enemy as a target, sacrificing any action in exchange for the opportunity to counter the enemy in the event they cast during the round. This counter is automatic if the same or antithesis spell is used against it (i.e., haste vs. slow), or at the usual check if dispel magic is used. In practice, I found this minimally useful given the rules bloat -- occasionally it would be a good idea if there was just one obviously powerful enemy caster, and the party caster didn't have much to do other than try and shut them down. It would be a marginally more useful mechanic if the counter-speller didn't have to identify one particular enemy character in advance.

Moldvay Basic D&D -- Looking at the Basic D&D line, dispel magic does not get detailed in Holmes Basic D&D (although it appears in a table listing 3rd-level spells, "to give some idea of the range of magical possibilities"). Moldvay Basic does present the details, as 1 of just 3 such spells given in case higher-level NPCs are desired by the DM. It says this:
Dispel Magic: Range 120', Duration: permanent. This spell will remove spell effects anywhere within an area 20'×20'×20', and may be cast up to 120' away from the caster.  It will not affect magic items, but will remove any spell effect created by a magic-user, elf, or cleric of an equal or lower level than the spell caster. It may fail to remove magical effects from a higher level caster. This chance is 5% per level of difference between the spell casters. EXAMPLE: A 5th level elf trying to dispel magic cast by a 7th level elf would have a 10% chance of failure. [Moldvay Basic, p. B18]
So that's based on the OD&D text, but the phrasing is pretty much totally rewritten. Given that, it's simple, short, clear, cohesive, and easy to remember. Once again Moldvay waves the flag of victory on the issue.

Commentary -- At it's core, dispel magic can be a pretty simple piece of game magic: it's a spell-be-gone effect. The complications are primarily side issues. First, the implied possibility of an interrupting "counter-spell" comes more and more into focus across editions 0, 1, 2, and 3. Second, the possibility of temporarily shutting down magic items gets mixed in there with 1E, and maintained and extended in 2E and 3E. On the other hand, Moldvay simply eliminates both these side issues, and therefore has a body of text about 5% as long as 3E for the effort.

The other thing that varies is the exact chance of succeeding or failing with a dispel magic, which is actually never exactly the same between any two editions of D&D you can pick. (Note in particular the novelty of OD&D, where you're supposed to divide the dispeller's level by the original magic-user's, generating oddball percentages and likely requiring a calculator; e.g. 5th vs. 7th level is 71.4285...% to succeed.) To highlight this I present the chart below:

Edition Dispel Check Rule 10th vs. 5th 10th vs. 10th 5th vs. 10th
CM 2d6, need 7, +1/rank higher 58%* 58%* 8%*
OD&D Ratio of dispeller to original caster 100% 100% 50%
1E 50%, +5%/higher, -2%/lower 75% 50% 40%
2E 50%, +5%/higher, -5%/lower 75% 50% 25%
3E 50%, +5%/higher (max 10), -5%/lower 75% 50% 25%
Moldvay 100%, -5%/lower 100% 100% 75%

(* Estimate equating 5th level to the lowest type, and 10th level as the highest type described.)

Which of these bases is best? You could go in a couple directions with that. Perhaps equal-level wizards trading a spell for a spell should automatically succeed and be balanced in that regard (i.e., 100% at equal levels); and given the two options, the Moldvay mechanic is so much simpler it's the clear choice. On the other hand, I do like the interactivity of opposed caster-level checks (i.e., 50% at equal levels), which is what I currently have in place in my Book of Spells and seems to work quite well in my recent games. So I'll probably stick with that.

That said, the side-complications of possibly affecting magic items, et. al., that got mixed into the Advanced line seems like a really bad case of rules-bloat. Give me the brevity, memorability, and playability of Moldvay any day over that stuff. What say you?

Saturday, May 18, 2013

SciFi Saturday – Ship Index Cards

For my Star Frontiers: Knight Hawks games, I've recently switched from keeping ship records on the Boardgame Ship Rosters included with the game (4-ships each on a letter-sized page) to using 3×5" index cards for each individual ship. Here are some of the advantages:
  1. Not locked in sets to specific scenarios (easier to re-use).
  2. Can be pre-filled with printable stats (no more handwriting).
  3. Full text is informative to new players (not abbreviated).
  4. Good for ad-hoc point-buy games (more on this later).

Below you'll see an image of the digital index card rosters I made, based on the original Boardgame Ship Roster format. Click here for a PDF version (including both blank cards, plus a page prefilled with each ship type in the basic game). Click here for an ODS spreadsheet (so you can copy, modify, and fill out your own stats).

With the PDF document linked above, you can print & cut out as many of each ship type as you expect to use in any game (I recommend stiff cover stock paper). Note that so far only Basic Game stats are included, but the cards are suitable for abbreviated Advanced Game stats, as well. Write game modifications in pencil so you can erase & re-use the cards. “Ship Name” can be an actual name, or just a letter identifying the counter or miniature in use. “Weapons” and “Defenses” with limited usage should be entered on the right-hand side of the card; use tally marks to track ammunition as it's used up. “Damage” is only for damaged systems in the Advanced game; hull point reductions are tracked near the top of the card. 

Notes on specific ship types: Fighters are tracked in squadrons of 3 ships on a single card (note slots for HP1, HP2, HP3 for the 3 separate fighters); for simplicity, we assume here that a triad all moves and attacks in tandem. Assault Scouts are presented with 25 hp, as per our analysis and house rules (link). Light Cruiser stats are included, although not in the basic game of the boxed set (link). Battleship entries include the individual ship names, since only three are said to exist in the official campaign setting.

One last thing: I also shrank the Basic Game Combat Table onto an index card. Print out a page of these, and then you can basically run the entire game from your stack of index cards. Click here for a PDF version.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Encumbrance in ACKS

Did you know that the Adventurer Conqueror King System (by Alexander Macris, with Tavis Allison and Greg Tito) uses simplified encumbrance in stone units, as seen here at the Hotspot? Yes, and you should too. :-)

Monday, May 13, 2013

On Turning Undead

Now, since I don't play with clerics in my own D&D games, I don't interact very much with the Turning Undead ability any more. But it did come up in my friend Paul's "Back to Basics" D&D game a few weeks ago.

In the classic texts, Turn Undead is usually silent on the duration of its effect. It pops up in Original D&D Vol-1 for the first time without any text at all -- there's just a table at the end of the combat & spells rosters titled, "Clerics versus Undead Monsters" (it doesn't even specify when or how often clerics can use this). To my mind, the implication is simply that undead "run offstage" and everyone can forget about them at that point.

Now, the interpretation that Paul used in his game -- that was novel for me -- was that the cleric in question has to continue presenting his holy symbol and chanting in order to sustain the "turn" effect. So it's a bit like someone holding a vampire at bay, just out of reach, with a cross -- the cleric can't take other actions or spells or else the turning effect ends and the undead possibly come back. To me, this was surprising, as I'd think the effect effect was like casting a fear spell -- the power hits the undead and they're stricken, so then you can go on with other stuff like other PCs.

Interestingly there's no comment on this or any duration for the effect in OD&D, AD&D, Holmes or Moldvay Basic, Allston Rules Cyclopedia, etc. The AD&D DMG does say that when evil clerics use the power to control undead, they "serve for a full 24 hour period" (DMG p. 66). There's also a Skip Williams Sage Advice column (seemingly meant as cross-edition information) that asserted the effect lasted for the same time: "Q: What happens when a cleric turns undead? Does the turning have a duration? A: The undead run away from the cleric for one turn, then avoid the cleric for a full day, unless the cleric attacks them." (Dragon #134, p. 36). If that's the case, then it seems unlikely that a cleric is chanting all day to maintain the effect.

So I'm wondering what you think. Do clerics have to keep up the holy symbol to sustain a turn effect (kind of like keeping Dracula at bay)? Or does the effect hit the undead once and allow the cleric to do something else (more like an Exorcist drive-it-out for good)? And does the 24-hour duration sound right, or is there any book that says differently?

Edit: Sir Gawain in the comments points out that AD&D does include an explicit duration:  "not less than 3 nor more than 12 rounds, moving at full speed for the duration if at all possible. The turned undead will be able to come back again, but they are subject to further turning by the cleric". [DMG p. 76]

Saturday, May 11, 2013

SciFi Saturday – Sizing Miniatures

The Star Frontiers: Knight Hawks game was provided with a fairly limited selection of spaceship miniatures in its accessory boxed sets. Below, I wanted to compare the relative sizes and usage of those miniatures:

Now, the identifiers you see above are not the same as those given in the miniature boxes themselves (as per the photo on the bottom of each box). The smallest UPF ship is called a "Frigate" there, and the mid-sized the "Destroyer"; the smallest Sathar ship is denoted "Frigate", and the biggest the "Heavy Cruiser". However, those are problematic designations for a number of reasons: For the UPF, the Frigate and Destroyer should be practically the same size, whereas the mid-sized miniature is over twice as large as the small one (and notably, almost exactly as large as the enemy's light cruiser). For the Sathar, the most common ship used should be a Destroyer (entirely missing, per the boxes), and the Heavy Cruiser shouldn't be larger than the UPF Battleship -- as is clearly the case for the minatures above.

What I'm finding to be more useful is a somewhat flexible classification of those minatures: The smaller ones can be used for anything in the Destroyer class, including Frigates as needed (which were in fact called destroyer escorts by the U.S. in WWII). The mid-sized ones can be used for anything in the Cruiser class, either Light or Heavy as needed. The largest miniature should be reserved for the top-level Battleships, of course (and for the Sathar, possibly some new type or the HS20+ Juggernaut from Dragon #91). These flexible classifications are illustrated in the photo above.

So much for that. But if we also wish to analyze miniature sizes to the sources in the rulebooks (for example, to interpolate gaps for other miniatures or the like), then we get in something of a conundrum, because the progression of ship sizes is different in every place we might think to look. In the schematic on Campaign Book p. 6-7, the relationship between hull size and ship length is precisely linear (every ship there is depicted exactly 2 boxes long per hull size). In the Campaign Book p. 11, the increase in length is a bit greater than linear. For the official miniatures here, the increase in length is significantly less than linear. So basically each of the sources is incommensurable (especially trying to synch up Campaign Book p. 11 to the official miniatures). Possibly more on this later.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Star Frontiers Character Sheets

As a follow-up to my Monday post, I figured it might be interesting to present the pre-generated Star Frontiers characters that I offered in the game. I think they're pretty good examples of what fairly advanced characters look like there -- specifically, at the 200 XP level, likely with one key skill maxed out (6th level), and a good array of secondary skills, boosted abilities and racial powers, as well as equipment. Closely based on the original character sheet, they look like this:

Get the 8-pack pregen character file by clicking here for a PDF copy. Also, you can get a blank version as an ODS spreadsheet by clicking here. Among the niceties of this for filling out PCs: (1) It's easy to fill out & distribute copies in spreadsheet form, (2) Drop the correct number in the top-right cell and it automatically fills in racial name, abilities, and move scores, and (3) The encumbrance on the back side is automatically tallied and reduces the movement on the front side as necessary. It made filling out a whole series of premade PCs a whole lot easier for this game.

Monday, May 6, 2013

HelgaCon VI - Asteroid 0x57

For the final session of HelgaCon VI (about a month ago now), in the Sunday morning-to-afternoon slot, I ran a game of classic Star Frontiers. As you may have seen from my Saturday posts thus far this year, I'm on a bit of a kick for the Star Frontiers: Knight Hawks spaceship combat game (some 30 years late) -- so to complement that, I figured I'd run a session of the original man-to-man roleplaying game (i.e., Alpha Dawn as it got called in later years).

Abstract of the adventure that people signed up for -- "The planet of Qutera is an up-and-coming world at the edge of Frontier space, populated by miners and new settlers bringing creature comforts from more civilized worlds. But now, a recently-spotted asteroid is poised to bring doom upon the world in mere days. Can the local outpost of Star Law agents do anything about it?"

For this adventure I had 8 pre-generated Star Law characters designed to showcase most of the parts of the classic RPG system of which I've always been fond. They were fairly high level (each maxed out at 6th level in a key skill), displayed all the different races (2 of each race), almost all the skills (everyone had their key skill plus one ranged and one weapons skill of various types), a good array of starting equipment (various weapons, protective skeinsuits, powerclips, technical kits, and flavorful miscellany). These would be the top-notch Star Law agents on this frontier world who would have 3 tense days available to save it from the mystery asteroid on a direct collision course.

In some ways, this adventure was pretty frustrating and I feel badly about that. An initial problem is that I only had 4 people signing up for it, so they were lower in numbers and lacking some key skills that I would have expected (no one took the Medical, Robotics, or Psycho-social experts, for example). See last year's Hall of the Fire Giant King for the effects of having a party outnumbered for the expected scenario.

The other problem is that it was a detective-investigation heavy game, and the players simply weren't picking up on the clues or leads that I was planting in places. Now, I went in knowing that this is a common problem with "mystery" games, and I had planted multiple different paths that might lead to the culminating source of the threat (actually, there was more than one way they could possibly deflect it; although there weren't any spaceships or weapons systems that could directly fend it off in time). I was even mentally prepping myself for a "be flexible, any reasonable new approaches should be rewarded" mindset. But the session still came up basically dry on the action front, and at the end it turned unexpectedly, darkly philosophical. Probably the low number of players also contributed to this (fewer ideas being bounced around), but nonetheless -- I'm seriously on the brink of swearing off any more mystery-clue-investigation games again in my life.

A brief recap of the action:
  • Agents first fly by aircar to the Red Badger Mining Company HQ in the capital city where they're based. Agents enter the large, mirrored-glass building and are confronted by security bots who say the HQ is closed and that they will be removed by force. Violence erupts and agents successfully render the bots nonfunctional. Agents find one person in the building, Vice President Salenni Gold who is emptying his office. The VP apologizes for faulty security protocol and offers assistance. Agents ask about space-mining equipment or large explosives that could break up Asteroid 0x57; the VP says they don't do space mining and don't have that quantity of explosives. Agents leave.
  • Agents fly to the residence of Minta Toliver, a professor at the local university who several years ago first reported on an alien ruin containing carvings seeming to depict worldwide ruin around the current date. Minta is a very old human female who takes some time getting to the door in her walker, but then invites them in to answer questions. Their questions mostly come up empty, since the specific threat wasn't clear in the carvings, according to Toliver. She offers to give them a copy of her academic paper (for which she walks into the next room and takes several minutes to output on a dot-matrix printer, to great general amusement). Agents thank her and leave.
  • Agents return back to the deserted Red Badger HQ and break in via a back door, search the President's offices for any useful papers on space mining, and attempt to hack into the company computer system for info. Unfortunately, even though the Computer specialist is the maximum 6th level, the roll for this fails and they are irretrievably locked out of the system.
  • Agents seem to be coming up empty, so they proceed to the local spaceport to use their dedicated shuttle to rendezvous with the asteroid itself. As they prepare to board, part of a desperate crowd at the external fence breaks through and runs toward the shuttle, but a well-placed doze grenade and a 1% roll for intimidation successfully convince them to retreat.
  • Agents launch into space and a half-day later, they rendezvous with the asteroid and find an artificial installation on the dark side. They enter and engage in a zero-g battle with a pair of deadly alien combat robots, and turning their lasers to maximum power, end up victorious. The computer specialist tries to hack into the computer system to redirect the ion drives mounted on the installation, but is unable to do so. She then tries to access information from the system, and gets several points of data on the installation's construction, but again fails on at least one key piece of information.
  • Agents return to orbit around Qutera. Given that there is one Hull Size 20 mining starship, the PGS Tamayo, loading up equipment for the Red Badger Company to evacuate, they come up with the idea of possibly stasis-freezing some fraction of the population and putting them in the exposed-to-space storage hold. They contact the Captain of the ship and ask for his assistance, to which he replies that he must take orders from the Corporate President. Clearly somewhat frustrated, agents threaten a martial takeover of the ship, to which the Captain says they will defend themselves and cuts off communication. Agents direct staff at the spaceport to commence freezing civilians, proceed to fly their shuttle to the mining ship, hack their way in through an external hatch, and invade the bridge. Shots are fired and another successful intimidation roll causes the Captain and his armed lieutenants to surrender.
  • The ship is filled with as many frozen civilians as possible (10,000 of a planetary 50,000) and takes off for an interstellar jump. Agents remain in-system on their shuttle to watch as the asteroid completes its plunge through the atmosphere, wiping out all remaining life on the planet. Several days later, UPF military starships arrive to pick up the agents, at which point they file their official report.
The last bit of the Star Law agents actually invading the mining ship by force was unexpected, and I had to wing that whole scene by memory and improvisation (the possibility of mass stasis fields and borrowing the ship from the company was in my notes, but the whole name/layout/security/captain/personnel/armaments were being made on the fly). In some sense, it seemed appropriate for the frustrated agents to say "fuck it" at the end and engage in some boot-down-the-door shoot-em-up with the last person who wouldn't cooperate with them, and it did give them at least a partial victory in saving some of the population of the planet.

This latter part is where it got, as I said, surprisingly dark in the game session. There was a fairly long conversation about whether it would be a better service to inform the planet that a small fraction would have to be evacuated, versus actually lying and saying that some UPF ships would deflect the asteroid, so as to prevent panicked acts of violence. Similarly, there was some question about whether it was actually feasible to let a subset of the population to the spaceport freezing facilities without causing a mad crush and overwhelming it. One of our players is a real-world manager with the Red Cross and has some personal experience with situations like that, so I felt like I couldn't contradict his concerns there. Then the fact that the agents committed to staying in-system and witnessing the final death-plunge of the asteroid to make the most complete report they could was both appropriate and quite chilling, I thought. I suppose I shouldn't be completely surprised that this is a possible outcome, when I sent up such a doomsday scenario in the first place -- and likewise I should be immensely thankful that our RPG hobby, with its emergent and participatory play style, manages to "accidentally" spawn a real and essential discussion of philosophical and ethical issues. That's probably not something you get from a lot of other pastimes.

Am I just hopeless for the mystery-detective-investigation play style? Do you avoid them like I think I might have to in the future? Is Star Frontiers even playable under the Star Law/security theme as laid out in the original rulebooks?

Saturday, May 4, 2013

SciFi Saturday – Frigate Modification

Among the official miniatures for the Star Frontiers: Knight Hawks game, the Frigate is supposed to be the most-used ship in the UPF Spacefleet. One problem with the official miniature is that the sculpture presents just a single engine, whereas the campaign book in the boxed set states that it should have three engines (see CB p. 11, 23, etc.). Yes, I'm a bit anal for things like this, but there's no reason we can't have some fun with it. What I decided to do was to split the difference and modify the UPF frigate so that it has at least two engines (doing this synchs it with the Sathar frigate mini, gives a bit more visual interest, and has other advantages as well).

So, I grabbed one of the separate engine pieces that come for the battleship miniature and made a two-piece rubber mold so I could cast some extra engines parts:

This is my kitchen work area with three engines cast and another one cooling in the mold:

The original engine piece from the box, and four shiny new engines hot off the stove:

Cutting off the one original engine from the official mini and prepping the two new ones:

All done, looks pretty nifty I think!