Every Week It's Wibbley-Wobbley Timey-Wimey Pookie-Reviewery...

Friday, 19 February 2010

Roleplaying Upwards & Outwards in 1974 (Just Not Down).

If I have a complaint about the Old School Renaissance, it is that it tends towards the referential, that it often refers back to the Dungeons & Dragons of any when from 1974 to 1981, re-iterating what messers Arneson and Gygax did in yet another “Edition Zero” RPG. This is not to deny that many of the titles published under the Old School banner are really very good, many more deserving of our attention than the mainstream Dungeons & Dragons titles being published. My complaint though, is addressed in X-plorers: The role playing adventures of Galactic Troubleshooters! Published by Grey Area Games, the conceit underpinning this RPG is one big “What If?” That is, what if the creators of the first RPG, back in 1974, drew upon the Science Fiction of Heinlein, Asimov, Niven, and Anderson rather than the fantasy of Tolkien, Vance, Leiber, et al, to create their groundbreaking game of the imagination? The result is a Science Fiction game published years before TSR thought of doing one with the publication of Star Frontiers in 1982, and while Metamorphosis Alpha and Gamma World were earlier, in hindsight theirs is the Science Fantasy genre, not Science Fiction.

The setting for X-plorers is the year 2222 A.D. Earth along with the terraformed worlds of Mars and Venus are governed by the U.C.N. or United Corporate Nations. Far beyond the Solar System lies the Reaches, a dense star cluster home to numerous habitable worlds ripe for colonisation by the U.C.N., by the various corporations that make up the U.C.N., or by a myriad of political or religious groups. With opportunities for exploitation comes also opportunity aplenty for corruption, and the U.C.N.P. or United Corporate Nations Police can only do so much. In to this situation come the Troubleshooters (or player characters), employed by the U.C.N. or other organisation to undertake all manner of jobs, from cargo runs and anti-piracy patrols to exploration and investigations. This is about as detailed as the setting for the game gets, providing more theme than detail.

Characters in X-plorers are all assumed to be Human – the one thing that the game lacks is rules for creating player character aliens – and are created by rolling three six-sided dice for four attributes: Agility, Intelligence, Physique, and Presence. This can be done in any order and provides a modifier that ranges from -2 to +2 applied to the appropriate Skill Throws and Saving Throws as necessary. The Agility modifier is also used in ranged combat and the Physique modifier is used in melee combat, while the Intelligence modifier is used with nearly every skill bar the Agility modifier. Of the four attributes, Presence will probably be used the least, primarily because social interaction is not addressed in the rules.

Unsurprisingly, X-plorers is a Class and Level system, though it only comes with four classes, these being Scientist, Soldier, Scout, and Technician. While there is no difference between the classes in terms of Hit Dice, Base Hit Bonuses, and Saving Throws – their being the same at each level for all four Classes – what separate each Class from another are its skills. The Scientist knows Computers, Medicine, Science, and Sociology; the Scout knows Pilot, Security, Sleight of Hand, and Stealth; and the Technician knows Computers, Mechanics, Pilot, and Robotics. The Soldier class is slightly different in that he knows Demolition and Survival, he also knows Martial Arts, which improves his damage in hand-to-hand combat, and Weapons Specialist, which increases his Base Hit Bonus.

The skills work in a fashion similar to Saving Throws or this case, Skill Throws, all done with the traditional twenty-sided die. At each level a class provides Skill Throw target for each skill, which will fall as a character rises in level. Roll against the Skill Throw target with modifiers from the appropriate attribute. For example, the Intelligence modifier is used for Computers and Security and the Agility modifier for Sleight of Hand.

The system so far is clean and easy, the lack of alien player character races keeping the game balanced, while in keeping Hit Dice, Base Hit Bonuses, and Saving Throws the same between the classes also helps maintain this balance. The effect of this is to make X-plorers a very skills focused game, already pushing it away from the focus on abilities to be found in early Dungeons & Dragons. It does allow multi-classing though, enabling characters to cross train and so gain the skills that their primary class lacks. This is an expensive option though.

Anyway, a typical character looks like Greg below. He has signed on as a Troubleshooter to get some experience beyond the confines of the laboratory and the computer room. How he passed the physicals is anybody’s guess, but the mental aptitude tests were a whiz! While his theoretical knowledge will stand in good stead, his lack of practical skills might not ingratiate him with his team mates. With just 100 Credits to his name, he is going to be light on equipment.

Gregor “Greg” Ward
Level 1 Scientist
Male, 26, 1.65 m, 75 kg
Agl 12 (+0 Saves); Int 18 (+2 Saves);
Phy 5 (-1 Saves; To Hit/Dmg melee/unarmed; hp); Pre 13 (+1 Saves)
BHB: -1; Saving Throw: 15+; Hit Points: 4; Armour Class: 10
Class Abilities (+2 to all skills for Int)
Computers: 13+; Medicine: 15+; Science:  13+; Sociology: 16+

As is traditional, each character receives 3d6 worth of Credits to spend on equipment. Most of it is built into toolkits, such as Base Camp Kit or Sensor/Survey Kit. The equipment chapter includes robots, each being simply defined by Armour Class, Hit Points, Saving Throw, Movement, and the number of programs it can run. These programs simulate Class skills and enable a robot to fulfil a position not held by a character or to back another character up. Any player looking to use his robot as some kind of combat machine will be disappointed. Robots in X-plorers are under a “First Directive” that prevents them from doing harm to humans while always aiding humans.

Of course, most characters are going to want arms and armour, but it is expensive given how little starting money a character begins with. Weaponry does not get any more advanced than Lasers (so non-lethal weapons, which is a pity), and they are as deadly as they are expensive, the latter fact at odds with the suggestion that the most commonly carried weapon by Troubleshooter teams is the laser pistol, which costs 600 Credits! Even an Automatic Pistol costs 200 Credits!! What this means is that the Troubleshooters are going to undertaking their first assignments armed with Dungeons & Dragons weapons. I thought the point of X-plorers was that it was not doing Dungeons & Dragons?

Combat is as easy as the rest of the game, but it is deadly for the player characters. The loss of Hit Points for an NPC or a creature means its death, whereas a Troubleshooter has to roll on a Critical Table that can result in no effect, an adrenaline surge, or being knocked unconscious at best, or a fatal wound or instant death at worst.

Starships and starship combat is built around character roles aboard ship. Scientists are good navigators; Scouts make good pilots; Technicians good pilots or engineers; and Soldiers gunners. Starship combat is a matter attempting to gain the range upon an opponent or to escape his range with each round broken down into four phases. In the Navigation Phase, the navigator makes a Computer Skill Throw to either determine the range of all nearby ships so granting a +1 bonus to all subsequent rolls in the round or to plot a multi vector to act against one or more ships – attacking or escaping. A successful Mechanics Skill Throw in the Engineering Phase will repair the ship, enhance its shields and Armour Class, or boot the engines for another +1 bonus for the pilot. Similarly, a successful Pilot Skill Throw will enhance the ship’s shields and Armour Class through evasive manoeuvres, increase the range between other ships, or gain a better attack position on the enemy and grant a +1 bonus to the gunner. No surprises for what the gunner is rolling for in his phase... Just as with ground combat, fights between starships is deadly, but the rules do keep everyone involved and the likelihood is that any fight will be a fraught affair.

For the GM, X-plorers provides some advice on running the game – if you think about it, probably more than would have appeared if the game had been published in 1974 – and a guide to creating interesting NPCs as well as all manner of strange alien critters, the latter supported with all manner of weird and wonderful beasties. The advice on creating planets and sentient alien species is arguably a little light, suggesting that the GM opt for what is playable. Lastly, there is a set of readymade Troubleshooters to get a game going, plus a little secret about the background.

The rulebook is rounded out with the scenario, “Cleopatra Station.” Designed for a single session it has the Troubleshooters employed to determine why contact has been lost with Cleopatra Station, a small wheel space station orbiting Phobos, Mars’ moon, aboard which Ra-Industries operates a research lab. The scenario partly solves the problem of starting equipment discussed earlier by having the team's employer assign them environment suits and laser pistols, and certainly this is the model that I would use if running the game - have the equipment on loan, but the characters be responsible for it.

Primarily, this adventure echoes the feel of films Alien and Aliens – the obvious nod being that one of the NPCs is named Ripley – with the characters having to fight off strange beasts as they progress through the station. Secondarily, the adventure actually echoes another scenario, “Death Station,” one half of Traveller Double Adventure 3: Death Station/The Argon Gambit, in which the player characters must board a silent laboratory ship (which just happens to be wheel shaped). While “Cleopatra Station” is far from being a sophisticated affair, being more of a “dungeon bash” in space, it serves well as an introductory scenario.

At just sixty pages, X-plorers is a relatively slim rulebook. The black and white interior is for the most part clean and tidy, with a variety of illustrations, some good, others a little too scratchy. Some of this artwork suffers from having too grey a background, often a problem with inexperienced publishers. The best of this artwork though, echoes the style of Classic Traveller.

Barring the range of sample critters, X-plorers takes its cue from the aforementioned Traveller in not being Pulp Sci-Fi in tone. Although its Science Fiction is dry in tone, it is not hard Science Fiction, nor is it Imperial in flavour, as is that of Traveller or Rogue Games’ Thousand Suns, or post-Imperial, as is in VSCA Publishing’s Diaspora. This is not say that X-plorers could not be run in any one of these flavours and that is one of the game’s strengths – the GM is free to use its rules to make the game his own. Another is its simplicity of rules, which are undeniably easy to pick up and play or run, while one more is its fundamental yet pleasing shift from an emphasis on abilities and powers to skills, that is, from what a character can do to what he knows and what he can do.

If there is a real problem with the game, it is that as written it does not equip the characters with the gear that they need. Others might gripe at its lack of non-human character races and the lack of rules for creating alien races and alien worlds, but with the latter, the author’s aim is to grant the GM the freedom to use his imagination to create his own. And that is the point of the game, because in going back to 1974 and re-imagining roleplaying anew in an entirely different genre, X-plorers: The role playing adventures of Galactic Troubleshooters! gives us a charmingly simple approach to playing Science Fiction once again.