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Saturday, 7 November 2015

Space Swords & Wizardry

The Old School Renaissance has always been about one thing—aping a version of Dungeons & Dragons from the days of yester yore. Whether Swords & Wizardry, Labyrinth Lord, or Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplaying, the focus has been on the Tolkienesque swords and sorcery of Dungeons & Dragons. There are of course exceptions, notably Backswords & Bucklers: Adventuring in Gloriana’s Britain and X-plorers: The role playing adventures of Galactic Troubleshooters! Science Fiction is also the genre of choice for the latest Old School Renaissance RPG. White Star: White Box Science Fiction Roleplaying from Barrel Rider Games is based on Swords & Wizardry for it mechanics and draws on the Space Opera sub-genre, as typified by Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe, John Carter of Mars, and Star Wars, for its inspiration. These though are not the only inspiration and given their presence, it should be easy enough for a Referee to do a number of different Science Fiction settings using these rules.

Swords & Wizardry employs four core classes and White Star does exactly the same. They are Aristocrat—Star Wars’ Leia Organa, Firefly’s Inarra Serra, Blake 7’s Roj Blake; Mercenary—Star Wars’ Bobba Fett, Firefly’s Zoe Washburne or Jayne Cobb, Blake 7’s Olog Gan; Pilot—Star Wars’ Han Solo, Firefly’s Wash, Blake 7’s Jenna Stannis; and Star Knight—Star Wars’ Luke Skywalker or Obi-Wan Kenobi, Firefly’s River Tam, and Blake 7’s Cally. Aristocrats are powerful speakers, capable of inspiring others to give To-Hit and Saving Throw bonuses, charming others as per Charm Person, and acquiring a retinue of assistants. Mercenaries get extra attacks against foes of 1 Hit Dice or less, whilst Pilots possess an Initiative bonus in space combat, assign bonuses to their ship’s statistics in combat, and once per day, can carry out a temporary repairs to their ships. Lastly, Star Knights can activate Meditations like Charm Person, Detect Life, and Dark Vision, and are renowned as Star Sword duellists.

Of the four core Classes, the Star Knight is the most obvious in its inspiration, their being cast as wandering protectors of the galaxy. Much like other retroclones, the Fighter-type Class, in the case of White Star, the Mercenary, is the least interesting and the least developed. A number of House Rules are given throughout the book, including Strength bonuses for combat and damage, Wisdom bonuses for the Star Knight’s Meditations, Dexterity bonuses for Armour Class, and so on. One possibility to address the weakness of the Mercenary Class would be to let it have the Strength bonus, but a better alternative might be to give it a simple bonus with a single selected weapon as a specialisation.

Besides the four core Classes, White Star includes three optional character races as Classes. These are the Alien Brute—Star Wars’ Chewbacca or Stargate SG-1’s Teal’c; Alien Mystics—Star Wars’ Yoda or Star Trek’s Spock; and Robot—Star Wars’ C-3PO and R2-D2 or Star Trek’s Data. The Alien Brute is a combat specialist like the Mercenary, but is better in hand-to-hand combat and has keen senses. Alien Mystics tend to be peaceful and introspective and can use Gifts such as Light, Phantasmal Force, and Alter Time, and also have keen senses. Lastly each Robot must be of a specific model, either Combat, Diplomacy, or Mechanical. This does mean that they replicate some of the abilities of White Star’s other Classes, for example, the Mechanical model of Robot can repair starships and vehicles and can assign bonuses to a starship’s statistics much like the Pilot Class.

Pooma Mupoo, Level 1 Star Lord
Str: 10 Int: 13 (+1) Wis: 17 (+2)
Con: 13 (+1) Dex: 15 (+1) Chr: 12
Hit Points: 7 Save: 15 (+2 vs. Meditations & Gifts)
Armour Class: 7 Ascending Armour Class: 12
Experience Bonus: +20%
Languages: 3
Equipment: Star Sword (+1), Light Armour, Energy Shield, 60 Cr

For the most part, running and playing White Star: White Box Science
Fiction Roleplaying is much like running and playing Swords & Wizardry or any other retroclone. The equipment list includes a mix of medieval and advanced devices and weaponry; there are rules for concealed and secret doors; experience Points are gained for uncovering treasure or advanced technology as well as defeating opponents and advancing the story of the current game; and whilst White Star uses a descending Armour Class mechanic, it also includes rules for ascending Armour Class as another house rule.

Although the list of advanced equipment pushes White Star into other Science Fiction sub-genres, most notably Cyberpunk with cyberware, but it includes a good mix of items that sort of get treated like ‘magic items’, rewards for the player characters to find. Fun items include a LASER Attraction Gauntlet for that Han Solo shot at Darth Vader deflection moment, Star Sword Gems because Star Wars: Force Unleashed is fun, Jet Boots, well, because, and Warp Gates, because only good things can come out of them… Now White Star is not a dark and gritty game, so there is no penalty for having cyberware fitted, though a house rule does suggest a limit on the number that can be fitted.

The biggest addition to White Star are the rules for starship combat. Starships themselves are simply defined by Armour Class, Hit Points, Shield Strength (which reduces damage). Movement, Targeting bonus, weaponry, and modifications. The rules are nicely kept simple and streamlined, much in keeping with the rules for standard melee and ranged combat. Characters are expected to work together to operate a starship in such circumstances and any Experience Points earned is divided between the party. Various starship types are included, ranging from ‘stunt’ fighters, light transports, and blockade runners up to dreadnoughts, gunships, and star cruisers.

As to be expected with a retroclone based on Swords & Wizardry, the Gifts and Meditations in White Star are essentially spells from Dungeons & Dragons and both work as per Vancian magic. That is, learn, cast, and then forget. Both lists of Gifts and Meditations are actually a mix of Magic-user and Cleric spells, so you have Charm Person and Heal Other included in the list of Meditations and Hold Person and Fly in the list of Gifts. This divide between Gifts and Meditations seems odd given the obvious inspiration for White Star, even arbitrary. Surely the Star Lord and the Alien Mystic should be able to learn both?

Of its alien species, White Star draws from Battlestar Galactica, Doctor Who, Firefly, Flash Gordon, Guardians of the Galaxy, Star Trek, and Star Wars for its inspiration. For the most part, the inspiration for its non-sentient species is less obvious, though Dune is one of the more obvious ones. Of course, a capable Referee could easily adapt any of the creatures or monsters that appear in other Swords & Wizardry compatible material. Overall, these inspirations are fun to spot, most being fairly obvious, like the Void Knight, the dark counterpart to the Star Knight Class.

One of the highlights in White Star: White Box Science Fiction Roleplaying is its discussion of campaigns and campaign types. It neatly dissects and summarises several different familiar Science Fiction and space opera campaign types. These include ‘Rebels Against the Regime’, ‘Explorers Amongst the Stars’, ‘Invasion!’, ‘Brothers in Arms’, and ‘Just Keep Flying’. So that list covers Star Wars, Firefly, Blake’s 7, Starship Troopers, Star Trek, and obviously, much, much more. These discussions are very nicely done, exploring each Class’ role in each campaign type in a very helpful fashion.

To get a  campaign started, White Star is rounded out with the ‘Interstellar Civil war’ campaign setting and a description of the Kelron Sector, a region isolated behind several asteroid belts.It is broadly drawn and described, leaving room for the Referee to develop more. To support the setting, ‘The Second Battle of Brinn’, an adventure for six to eight characters of First to Third Levels, takes the heroes to an asteroid mining station to retrieve some data. Although it does feel undeveloped in places, it is a reasonable introductory adventure that is really a dungeon in space in which the heroes must race to achieve their objective before the situation goes sour on them. 

If there is an issue with White Star, it is that there are not enough character classes. Notably, there is no scientific or technical classes, so it is not possible to create Spock, Scottie, McCoy, Avon, and so on. To an extent, the Pilot and Robot classes can cover elements of this, but it does not quite feel right. Similarly there is no equivalent of the Thief class, so it is not possible to create Vila, for example. The problem is that without these additional Classes, White Star cannot quite do the types of Science Fiction that it is clearly inspired by, which is a shame because there is a great deal to like about the RPG. In addition, it would have been nice if the house rules had included options for skill use and some rules and guidance for creating planets and solar systems rather than just leaving it up to the Referee.

Physically, White Star is nicely presented. The artwork looks good and much effort has gone into the book’s graphic design feel futuristic as per 1977. That said, another edit would not have gone amiss.

There is great deal to like about White Star: White Box Science Fiction Roleplaying, a game that  very obviously wears its influences on its sleeves. The rules are simple and the game has a clean, stripped back style that together nicely models those inspirations and their genres. The good news is that the designer has bowed to demands from his customers and thus has made ita available in print. That said, it is surprising that it has not yet appeared in its own ‘White Box’. It could do with a companion volume though as there is slightly too much missing for it really to be fully capable of doing its inspirations justice. Certainly if White Star included the two or three extra Classes  it so needs, it would realise its aim of being a superb Science Fiction retroclone. As it is, White Star: White Box Science Fiction Roleplaying is the charming, fun Space Opera RPG that we never had in 1977.