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Saturday 7 April 2018

Retrospective: 2001: A Space Odyssey

Perhaps the oddest licence to come out of E. Gary Gygax’s sojourn in Hollywood in the early 1980s was a pair of modules for Star Frontiers, TSR, Inc.’s Science Fiction roleplaying game of space opera and action-adventure. The licence was for one of the most revered Science Fiction films of all time and its sequel, the latter released in 1984, which probably explains why the licence was sought and won. The film was, of course, Stanley Kubrick’s highly regarded 2001: A Space Odyssey with the sequel being Peter Hyams’ 2010. As it is fifty years since the release of Kubrick’s classic, there is perhaps never a better time than now to review 2001: A Space Odyssey, ‘A Special Star Frontiers Adventure Module’.

Certainly, 2001: A Space Odyssey was special in terms of its support and production values. Not only does it include maps of the African Wilderness circa 4,000,000 B.C. and the Magnetic Anomaly Search Zone on the Lunar surface, but also a set of deckplans for the USS Discovery. The first of these on the inside of the module’s card cover, whilst the latter two are on the foldout poster map included with the module. The deckplans in particular are rather nicely done and do add atmosphere and verisimilitude to the 2001: A Space Odyssey scenario. In addition, the thirty-two page scenario is lavishly illustrated with black and white stills from the film, whilst the front cover is a full colour photograph, something that was rarely used by TSR, Inc. (Notable other uses include on the covers of the modules 2010 Odyssey Two and  CB1 Conan Unchained! and CB2 Conan Against Darkness, the pair of adventures written for use with Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, First Edition prior to the release of David Cook’s highly regarded Conan Role-Playing Game.)

If physically well done, what then of the actual content and adventure? Written by Frank Mentzer for use with the Alpha Dawn Expanded Game Rules and Knight Hawks Campaign Book for Star Frontiers, the adventure takes place across four chapters. As with the film, these are ‘Dawn of Man’, ‘Lunar Excursion’, ‘Jupiter Mission’, and ‘Through the Star Gate’. Of the four, only the third and fourth are directly connected in terms of what the players will roleplay. In ‘Dawn of Man’ they will play the Man-apes evolved into hunter-gathers by the Monolith; in ‘Lunar Excursion’ they are freelancers racing to find a magnetic anomaly on the Moon; and in ‘Jupiter Mission’ and ‘Through the Star Gate’, they are the crew of the Discovery, first finding out about and then coping with HAL’s perfidy before entering the Star Gate.

To reflect the film, the 2001: A Space Odyssey module strips out the pulp sensibilities of Star Frontiers to present a dry, technical adventure. So no Void or Faster Than Light travel, and of course, no aliens in the traditional sense. What it does add is two new skills and three subskills. These are Astronomy and its subskills Identify and Calculate, and System Navigation and its Plot Course subskill. They are of course only used in the third chapter, ‘Jupiter Mission’. That said, there are suggestions as to how the module might be used with the other races to be found in Star Frontiers. The default is of course, for the player characters to be human and the events of the module to take place in the United Planetary Federation’s distant past.

The scenario opens with ‘Dawn of Man’, which takes place on the plains of the African Wilderness circa 4,000,000 B.C. The players take the roles of Man-apes, not far from extinction who must spend much of their day foraging for food and water, as well as contending with rival bands of Man-apes and carnivorous beasts. One day something is different—a strange slab of black rock stands in the valley—and this drives the Man-apes to change, to use other means to improve their chances of survival. This includes throwing rocks, using bones as weapons, realising the benefits of a carnivorous diet, and so on. And that is that, really. ‘Dawn of Man’ really does not give a great deal for the players to do. There is no carry over from this chapter to subsequent chapters and this is very much a vignette which simulates the events of the film. The suggestion that it might be a vignette is compounded by how ‘Dawn of Man’ is played and that is essentially as a wargame, using counters on the Africa Wilderness map. What this means is that there really is very little roleplaying involved in this chapter.

The wargaming carries over into the second chapter, ‘Lunar Excursion’. Now in the film, Doctor Heywood Floyd travels from the Earth to the Moon, is briefed about a magnetic anomaly in the Tycho crater, and when he visits it, it is revealed to be another slab of rock, a Monolith which sends a signal towards Jupiter. Here the players get to create their own characters and then have them hired by the American Office at Clavius Moonbase. The existence of a large magnetic anomaly has been detected and the Americans want to hire the characters as search teams to pinpoint its location. There is opportunity for roleplaying here as some of the characters may be contacted by the Chinese to locate the anomaly for them rather than the Americans, but what the act plays out as is a race from one crater to the next, scanning each crater for the anomaly, the aim being to find it before anyone else and claim it for whichever country the character is allied with, secretly, or not. There are also NPCs involved in this race, but their inclusion is all but irrelevant, for “If they reach the goal first, assume that they do not test it accurately and believe it to be a large (300-400 gamma) but not unnatural anomaly.” Again, it is a case of the player character actions not really mattering, a problem exacerbated by the fact that the players do not get to see the anomaly or see it send the signal.

The third chapter, ‘Jupiter Mission’, switches from player created characters to pre-generated characters, the crew of the USS Discovery. Initially, this will be Dave Bowman and Frank Poole, but later on, they will be joined by Doctor Walter Kaminski, William Hunter, and Peter Whitehead. There are two issues with this. First, the first half of the chapter involves just Bowman and Poole, so if the module is being played by more players, they have nothing to do… Second, there is very little to distinguish one character from another and so they all feel a bit flat. Fortunately, the chapter is far more involving and far more challenging, because as everyone knows, the HAL 9000 computer which runs the Discovery will try to kill the crew. So not only do the characters have to contend with that, they also have to fix and cope with the consequences of whatever HAL tries to do to them. This is probably the best chapter in the module, as it comes with some good advice on what HAL might do and there is a chance here that the characters might fail… There several points in this chapter which are lifted verbatim from the film, but much like the rest of the scenario, there is little that the players can do to avoid them.

If the module has so far felt like it was on rails, then that feeling is confirmed in the fourth and final chapter, ‘Through the Star Gate’. Here the surviving characters get to decide whether they want to stay aboard the Discovery or go through the Star Gate—and that is about that…

Oddly, given the licence, 2001: A Space Odyssey appears to have been released with little fanfare or press coverage at the time. Further, the module appears not have been widely released—certainly this reviewer only obtained his copies direct from an ex-TSR (UK), Inc. employee.

2001: A Space Odyssey is not a good scenario for too many reasons. One issue is the shift in tone it represents from Star Frontiers, dry and technical, rather than the excitement of its usual space opera and action-adventure. 2001: A Space Odyssey is hard rather than pulp science fiction and whether is that is a good fit for every group is another matter and a lesser matter in comparison to the adventure’s other issues.

Obviously, the adventure involves very little in terms of player character agency and roleplaying. Indeed, the first and second chapters involve little to no roleplaying whatsoever and whatever the player characters do by the end of chapter, it has real no effect upon the outcome of the module’s story anyway. This is because it adheres too closely to the plot and outcome of the film, with no opportunity for alternative events or ‘what-ifs’ to be explored, leaving it to run on rails. Further,  if the players have seen the film—a high likelihood even at the time of the module’s release—there is little incentive for them to play the module. There is also only the one real opportunity—in ‘Lunar Excursion’—for players to create and roleplay their own characters, so there is no opportunity for character growth or change. Even when the players  are given characters from the film to play, that is, the crew of the Discovery, they are just numbers and there are no backgrounds to any of the five crew. In fairness, three of the crew do not appear in the film and the two that do, are fairly buttoned down characters. As presented here, the quintet has a cypher-like quality.

As a technical manual for the film, the 2001: A Space Odyssey module has the details and deckplans of the USS Discovery to recommend it. As a scenario, 2001: A Space Odyssey is constrained by the limits of the film which fundamentally do not translate into a good playing or a good roleplaying experience. Whether this is due to the constraints placed on the project by the licensor is a matter of conjecture, but the end result is a simulation rather than a real roleplaying adventure.

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