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

Saturday, 25 June 2016

Pulp Space Wizardry

When you are at an international gaming convention and an Italian man comes barrelling at you in order to thrust a copy of his book into your hands in order to review it, then it would seem churlish not to review said book. The book in question is Dare the Stars! The Future as it Once Was, a Sci-Fi RPG based upon the Pulps of the 1930s and 1950s. Thus with Dare the Stars! we are firmly in the territory of Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon, et al. Published by Wild Boar Games, LLC, it is a retroclone based on the Old School Renaissance RPG, White Star: White Box Science Fiction Roleplaying published by Barrel Rider Games, which means that Dare the Stars! is not only compatible with White Star: White Box Science Fiction Roleplaying, it is also compatible with the recently released White Star Companion.

In presenting an Old School Renaissance take upon the all-action prewar and postwar Sci-Fi of the last century it provides six new Classes, rules for assistants and followers, Insights and Alien Powers, as well as a setting. In addition it also includes complete rules based on Swords & Wizardry so it can be played complete as is or expanded with other White Star compatible supplements. The six Classes are Adventurous Noble, Android, Brave Soldier, Clever Scientist, Daring Explorer, and Wise Spacer. Each Class has ten Levels and various more abilities. So the Adventurous Noble can persuade others to do his bidding with ‘Let’s Talk This Out’, inspire others with Initiative and To-Hit bonuses by leading the way ‘To the Breach’, and later gain a retinue of Brave Soldiers as bodyguards and normal humans as personal servants. The Android differs in that it is only an eight-Level Class rather than the standard ten Levels. Otherwise, the Android has high Intelligence, but low Charisma. Low-Level Androids cannot initiate combat, but every Android has ‘Keen Senses’, and is both a ‘Living Computer’ and a ‘Walking Cyclopedia’. The Brave Soldier is one of a ‘Band of Brothers’ and can organise allies to grant a To-Hit bonus, can use weapons of any type—including alien weapons, knows how to use ‘Camouflage’ to hide himself and others so that the negative To-Hit numbers for targeting with long range weapons are doubled, and as ‘War Driver’ is skilled enough to improve the Armour Class of any vehicle he drives. 

The Clever Scientist can use ‘Science!’ to repair tools, machinery, and the living as well as to build devices; temporarily fix things with ‘Jury Rig’; and as a ‘Gimmick’, disassemble two similar items of technology and reassemble them to create better, if irreplaceable prototype. For example, a Clever Scientist might redesign two pieces of armour as one to improve the new armour’s Armour Class or the wearer’s Saving Throw, or two weapons to improve the new design’s damage or rate of fire. The Daring Explorer can once per day withstand deadly damage with ‘Man of Steel’, reroll a single failed roll with ‘Hero’s Luck’, and with ‘Jack-of-all-Trades’, make a single roll with +4 bonus. He also has a ‘Signature Weapon’ that he can use faster than anyone else. The Wise Spacer is all about his prior experience, so can lend a ‘Helping Hand’ to grant another character a bonus to his roll, and once per day draw upon his ‘Secret Stash’ for that piece of equipment you really need in a tight situation and because we are all ‘Brothers and Sisters’, can persuade other not to attack him or even to become an ally. More importantly, a Wise Spacer trusts his instincts and can provide Insights into whatever situation he and his companions find themselves. The Wise Spacer has access to a wide range of these, for example, ‘As a Sibling to Me’ let's him persuade an NPC that they are friends, whilst ‘Find the Way’ means that he can always successfully plot a Jump between star systems. There are over twenty Insights given in Dare the Stars!, enabling a Wise Spacer to bring wisdom aplenty into the game as well as offering some fun roleplaying opportunities for his player. All that player has to do now is channel his inner Walter Houston.

In the basic version of Dare the Stars!, the RPG does not offer anything in the way of Race options, so effectively, a player cannot create a Alien character. As an option though, rules are provided to enable a player to create his own. Two methods are provided, one more complex than the other. The more complex method enables a player to create a variety of Races, for example, the Hawk-Men and the Lion-Men from Flash Gordon

The equipment list is kept relatively short, but covers most things that a Pulp Sci-Fi RPG will need. Of course it includes the Raygun, something that every good Earthman—and Earthwoman—will want to equip themselves with. It also includes the Atomic Grenade, which is of course ludicrous, but perfectly in keeping with the genre. This being a Sci-Fi RPG, Dare the Stars! gives various types of starship and vehicle, the latter including the aircar and the moon buggy, the former, this being is a Pulp Sci-Fi RPG, the atomic warship, the exploration rocket, and the gunship rocket. The various vehicles feel more workmanlike than exciting though, perhaps not helped by their bulky rather than sleek-looking appearance.

If there is a real issue with the spaceships in Dare the Stars! it is the inability of the player characters to get hold of, and crew, one. It would probably take ten player characters to roll enough starting credits to purchase their own ship and that is before they even think of purchasing their personal equipment. Really though, owning a spaceship in a Pulp Sci-Fi RPG should not be a matter of having enough money and Dare the Stars! needed to address this problem.

The combat rules covers the usual melee and missile combat common to all OSR retroclones, but it also details combat between vehicles and starships. These rules are compatible with White Star: White Box Science Fiction Roleplaying, so the spaceships and vehicles nicely integrate between the two systems. More interesting though are the rules for Followers and Assistants. These enable the player characters to hire anyone from an animal trainer or assassin to starship repairman or translator, or alternatively any of the Class-based Assistants. This is in addition to the Followers that every Class in Dare the Stars!—except the Android Class—gain as they go up in Level. Whilst a Follower is essentially a member of one of the RPG’s Classes, but of a lower Level, each type of Assistant is nicely described as what he can do and what equipment he has. These not only serve to provide the means to crew a player character spaceship, for example, they also provide a ready supply of NPCs.

The setting detailed in Dare the Stars! posits a galaxy populated by races seeded in the past by the mysterious Progenitors who have long since disappeared. Their interaction with the Space Shadows, spurred the Space Shadows to attack our galaxy just as humanity took its first footsteps beyond the Solar System. The resulting War of Shadows only ended when the Space Shadows mysteriously disappeared. Earth and the nations of the Solar System have since formed the Solar Compact to protect humanity’s colonial expansion against the predations of space pirates, the Aleph Theocracy, and the Empire of the Wolf. Various alien species, such as the (prairie) Dogs of Venus, the insectoid Moonfolk, and the blue-skinned, nomadic Truggen, all native to the setting, are also given as NPCs.

Beyond some decent advice for the GM, Dare the Stars! goes further in its appendices by detailing some of the alien races native to the RPG’s setting as playable Classes. They include the Kheethee Warrior, jolly if naive warrior reptiles allied with mankind; the four-armed, short tempered green Martian Brawler and the red Martian Nobles known for their psychic abilities and thus make use of the Alien Powers rules included in Dare the Stars!; and the cat-like Taucetian Rogue, forced to leave his homeworld. These nicely expand the options available to the player characters and showcase what can be done with RPG’s alien creation rules.

Now as much as Dare the Stars! presents the means to run a Pulp Sci-Fi game, it's content is let down in terms of its presentation. The fundamental problem is that it suffers from issues that plague too many first books from new publishers. It needs another edit. Another good edit. The problem is not necessarily the writing, which given that it is not in the author’s native tongue, is decent enough, but rather the inconsistent formatting and some of the phrasing. Worse though, it needs more development, first and foremost to make the RPG’s default background more coherent and accessible, but then to give reasons for the player characters to go adventuring. That and the means for the player characters to gain a spaceship and start adventuring. The last thing that Dare the Stars! is missing a bibliography, which is disappointing.

That said Dare the Stars! includes some a good range of artwork. Some of it nicely evokes the genre it is seeking to emulate, while other illustrations are quite creepy. Others though, are a bit bland and at best merely okay.

Where White Star: White Box Science Fiction Roleplaying very clearly drew upon Star Wars for its inspiration, Dare the Stars! draws from the very same source as did Stars Wars for its inspiration—the Pulp Sci-Fi stories of the thirties and fifties. Dare the Stars! provides the means to run an RPG game in that genre, not quite as effectively as it could, but the Classes it provides to that end are solid and the setting is not without potential, but the presentation and the lack of development undermines much of that designer’s efforts. At the moment, Dare the Stars! feels like a late draft. Neither unplayable or unuseable, Dare the Stars! The Future as it Once Was is just not quite as polished, quite as professional as the designer would have intended.