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Saturday 17 February 2024

1984: Rhand: Morningstar Missions

1974 is an important year for the gaming hobby. It is the year that Dungeons & Dragons was introduced, the original RPG from which all other RPGs would ultimately be derived and the original RPG from which so many computer games would draw for their inspiration. It is fitting that the current owner of the game, Wizards of the Coast, released the new version, Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition, in the year of the game’s fortieth anniversary. To celebrate this, Reviews from R’lyeh will be running a series of reviews from the hobby’s anniversary years, thus there will be reviews from 1974, from 1984, from 1994, and from 2004—the thirtieth, twentieth, and tenth anniversaries of the titles. These will be retrospectives, in each case an opportunity to re-appraise interesting titles and true classics decades on from the year of their original release.


Five hundred years ago, Rhand was a rich, verdant colony with vast forests that supported agriculture and attracted tourism. Technologically advanced, easy travel was facilitated by four satellites which operated a world-spanning teleport network. Then the Spectrals came. The faceless, jet black invaders from deep space launched attacks that shattered the climate, smashed the teleport network, and unleashed bioagents which drove many of humanity on the planet into barbarism. Five centuries later, Rhand’s climate is dominated by advancing ice and devastating storms and tornadoes. The only habitable part of the planet is the equator, populated by a thousand kingdoms and city states, competing for resources as the war against the Spectrals and other monsters continues as their societies face further collapse. The only hope lies in Orca, the last remnant of the government from before the Spectral attack, dedicated to recovering and protecting what knowledge it can, conducting operations against the Spectrals, and preventing the total collapse of society into barbarism and anarchy. Orca fields a range of military and auxiliary units, the elite of which are named after mythical beasts like the Dragons and the Targa. Where Targa units specialise in hand-to-hand combat and heavy assault missions, Dragon units specialise in commando missions and strategic planning. In addition to its dedicated forces, Orca has one other advantage—it can anyone anywhere on Rhand. It has access to Morningstar, the surviving satellite that had been part of the teleportation network. The magic of the Morningstar is accessed via an Encoder. Activate this and anyone also wearing a Thrall, a chain worn on the wrist, will be teleported to the desired destination. However, being the only surviving satellite remaining in the network means that Morningstar does not cover all of the planet all of the time. Depending upon Morningstar’s orbital position and the intended destination, an Orca team can be out of contact with the Morningstar network for as short as a few hours and as long as two weeks!

This is the set-up for Rhand: Morningstar Missions. Published in 1984, it was the first roleplaying game to be designed and released by Leading Edge Games, which would later be known for the Phoenix Command combat system and the Aliens Adventure Game as well as a number of other licensed roleplaying games. Indeed, the mechanics for Rhand: Morningstar Missions were a precursor for Phoenix Command, just as its setting would be revisited in Living Steel. Set not long after the attack by the Spectrals, this was a prequel to Rhand: Morningstar Missions, and it would not be until the release of Rhand 2349, a supplement for Living Steel, that the world itself would get more detailed attention. At its heart, Rhand: Morningstar Missions is a post-apocalyptic setting with magic and medieval-style combat on a post-technological world. It is a roleplaying game of special forces-style military missions in which the Player Characters—as members of Orca—have access to a device which can get them anywhere, a la Fringeworthy from Tri Tac Games, Wraith Recon from Mongoose Publishing, and of course, Star Gate: SG1.

A Player Character in Rhand: Morningstar Missions is defined by his characteristics, skills, equipment, and various derived factors. The primary characteristics are Strength, Intelligence, Will, Health, and Agility, typically ranging in value between three and eighteen, although they can go higher. The secondary characteristics are Charisma, Motivation, Size, and Telepathic Sensitivity. The primary characteristics are purchased from a randomly determined pool of points and the secondary characteristics are all rolled randomly individually. This requires referencing a number of tables at the back of the book. Base skill levels are determined randomly. Skills are rated between one and twenty, with eight being a Professional level and fifteen World Class. They are categorised into Class 1 General Skills that all characters possess, and then Class 2 General Skills and Class 3 General Skills, plus Specialist Skills. The Magic, Medicine, and Science skills fall into the latter category, as does Special Fighting Forms, themed around the four elements, which greatly enhance a Player Character’s Combat and Martial Arts skills. A Player Character only begins play with levels in Class 1 General Skills, but can dedicate training time between missions to improve already known skills and learn new ones. This is limited by his rank in the Orca organisation and only by increasing his rank can he gain the opportunity to learn or improve Specialist Skills. This also takes him out of play as it requires dedicated learning time. Training grants a player Training Rolls. Each one is made against his character’s Learning Roll and if successful, grants him a Learning Point which can be assigned to a specific skill. When the number of Learning Points in a skill exceeds the threshold, its Skill Level increases. So, to become a Professional in a skill, Skill Level 7, a Player Character needs to accumulate eighty-eight Learning Points, and to be considered World Class or Skill Level 15, he needs six-hundred-and-seventy-four-Learning-Points!

A beginning Player Character only has the Skill Levels in the Class 1 General Skills at start of play. Effectively, he is a recruit, waiting to go on his first mission.

Name: Robert

Strength 13
Intelligence 13
Will 10
Health 12
Agility 13

Charisma 15
Motivation 17
Size 11
Telepathic Sensitivity 14

Combat Value: 15
Combat Speed: 1+
Knockout Value: 15
Learning Roll: 84
Magic Learning Roll: 14

Skill Factor: 16
Base Action Time: .8
Damage Bonus: 1.0

Balance and Footwork – LP 0 Level 3
Bard – LP 0 Level 4
Combat – LP 0 Level 3
Diplomacy – LP 0 Level 2
Fall Recovery – LP 0 Level 3
First Aid – LP 0 Level 2
Horsemanship – LP 0 Level 2
Martial Arts – LP 0 Level 2

EQUIPMENT (Encumbrance: 37.7):
Studded leather, round shield, light spear, dagger, broadsword, mess kit, personal hygiene kit

Dagger – Weapon Speed: 2.8 Weapon Class: +2 Impact: (3) +2 (Slashing), (3) (Stabbing); Attack Level: 5 (Slashing/Stabbing) Weapon Actions: 2.24
Spear – Weapon Speed: 2.1 Weapon Class: -2 (Stabbing) Impact: (5) (Stabbing); Attack Level: 1 (Stabbing) Weapon Actions: 1.68
Broadsword – Weapon Speed: 2.2 Weapon Class: 0 (Slashing), -1 (Stabbing) Impact: (6) +2 (Slashing), (3) (Stabbing); Attack Level: 3 (Slashing), 2 (Stabbing) Weapon Actions: 1.76
Round Shield – Shield Speed: 1.1; Shield Actions: 0.88

Mechanically, Rhand: Morningstar Missions is intended to be played out on a two-foot wide hex grid and uses a percentile resolution mechanic and what it calls the ‘Action/Reaction Table’. To undertake an action, the Game Master refers to the skill being used and determines the Base Odds for the skill being used. This is multiplied by the Player Character’s Skill Level to get the percentage chance of success. It is that simple, but as written it does not look that simple and from the exceedingly concise options listed under each skill it does not look that simple. So, it takes a lengthy example of play for the Game Master to even understand the basics, and even after that, she may be floundering.
For example, Robert wants to perform a song to bolster the mood of his fellow Men-at arms in his unit. The Base Odds are determined as follows: 5 for composition of average melodies and written material and ability as a scribe and 10 for the ability to evoke emotion in the audience. This gives a total of 15, which is multiplied by Robert’s Skill Level of 4 in Bard to give a total chance of 60%.
If the ‘Action/Reaction Table’ of Rhand: Morningstar Missions attempts to be simple, its combat rules attempt to be complex. It details some thirty weapons from a range of cultures, divided into four damage types—Cutting, Stabbing, Flange, and Blunt—and further categorised as either One Handed, Two Handed, or Blunt Impact. Combat is intended to be played out on a grid of two-foot-wide hexes with Combat Speed indicating the number of hexes or changes of direction a combatant can move in a single phase. The number of Weapon Actions spent on an attack can alter the amount of damage inflicted, so that a Short Stroke inflicts half damage, but only takes a single Weapon Action, whereas two Weapon Action s are a Normal Stroke for normal damage, and three Weapon Actions a Long Stroke for double damage. A single Weapon Action is enough to parry and the use of shields have their own number of Actions. The issue with this is if a Player Character has a number of Weapon Actions less than two, he cannot do more than the one Action per combat round and he cannot do more than a Short Stroke. However, a single Weapon Action can be carried over from one round to the next, giving a Player Character more options in the next round rather than the current one.

The Odds of Hitting, of successfully attacking an opponent are based on the defender’s Parry Type and Combat Skill, and the attacker’s Attack Level. The Parry Type is either Partial Parry, meaning that the defender makes fewer parries than the number of attacks by the attacker, or Total Parry, meaning that the defender makes a number of parries equal to, or greater than the number of attacks by the attacker. The Game Master then refers to the appropriate ‘Odds of Hitting’ table for the Parry Type and the number of parries versus attacks to determine the chance of a successful attack by cross-referencing the attacker’s Attack Level versus the defender’s Combat Skill. If the attack is successful, the table for the damage type of the weapon and the blow, either Cutting, Stabbing, Flange, or Blunt, to determine hit Location and Physical Damage inflicted. This generates the Impact Damage of the attack, which is cross-referenced with the Armour Class value of any armour worn to find the actual Physical Damage suffered. Inflict enough damage and blows can disable a limb or knock out an opponent.
For example, Robert, our sample Player Character, is facing a brigand, who is armed with a spear and a shield versus Robert’s broadsword and shield. Robert has charged the brigand and saved a Weapon Action so that he has two Weapon Actions to use on a Normal Stroke. The brigand has done the same, but will use both to parry Robert’s slashing attack. This is a Full Parry, equal to one attack versus two parries. Comparing Robert’s Attack Level for his broadsword of 3 versus the brigand’s Combat Skill of 2 gives Robert’s player a 33% chance of successfully hitting. Fortunately for Robert, his player rolls 18 and Robert’s slashing blow gets past the brigand’s parry attempts. Robert rolls 8 for the Impact Damage—the maximum damage possible and this is cross-referenced with the Armour Class value for the brigand’s leather armour on the Cutting Damage table. It is a blow to the brigand’s abdomen and since the brigand’s leather armour is classed as light, he suffers 5 points of Physical Damage. There is a chance that the blow will knock the brigand out, but since it is less than the brigand’s Knockout Value, it is only 10%. The Game Master rolls 03% and Robert is lucky! The brigand collapses with a grunt. The fight continues, but Robert probably has the group’s first prisoner.
The combat rules also cover dodging, archery, mounted combat, and the special fighting forms available as Specialist Skills. Including the healing rules, the rules for combat run to some twenty or so pages versus the three dedicated to explaining the ‘Action/Reaction Table’—and the latter includes all of the Base Odds factors per skill. The upshot is that the combat mechanics for Rhand: Morningstar Missions are far better explained with a ready clarity that the skill resolution mechanic is not afforded.

Magic in Rhand: Morningstar Missions has seven Subjects—Earth, Fire, Air, and Water, as well as Mental Magic, Body Magic, and Astral Projection. Earth, Fire, Air, and Water are Elemental magics, but are not as specialised as Mental Magic, Body Magic, and Astral Projection and have a greater number of spells each. Each Subject is a Specialist Skill in its own right. The total number of Learning Points a Player Characters has in seven Subjects determines his Magical Skill Level, which determines range for a spell. The target of a spell receives the Resist Roll to withstand the magical effects of a spell. This is determined by comparing the Magical Skill Level of the target with the Magical Skill Level of the caster. Should a target have no Magical Skill Level, then he has a much lower chance of resisting a spell. The amount of points a Player Character has to spend on spells within a Subject is equal to the number of Leaning Points he has in the associated skill, but expressed as Magical Force. Each spell has a cost in Magic Force to cast. Casting magic takes concentration and should a mage be distracted, there is a chance of his failing to cast the spell and suffer Psychic Damage. Rhand: Morningstar Missions includes a wide range of spells, but there are some oddities, such as Create Fire and Thicken Water being under the Earth spells, Raging Waters under the Fire spells, and so on.

At a Skill Level of 6 and beyond a Mage can gain attributes such as Magic Sense and Weatherwise, mainly protective, but permanent abilities. Mage can also make enchanted items, and there are also optional rules for resisted spells bouncing back, joining specialised magical groups, and spells being enacted in ascending order of Magical Force invested in them. Overall, the magic rules are decent enough and there are plenty of spells to choose from. Their use is not quite as well explained as combat is, but still better than that given for the ‘Action/Reaction Table’. The main issue with magic in Rhand: Morningstar Missions is its inaccessibility at the start of play, along with the Class 2 General Skills and the Class 3 General Skills, meaning that beginning Player Characters are mechanically very similar.

Rhand: Morningstar Missions also includes rules for physical phenomena such as terrain and travel, complete with generation tables, sight and sound detection, spreading and flowing fluids, fires, explosions, breaking down doors and walls, explosions, earthquakes, and mob actions and riots. Optional rules allow for glancing blows, aiming blows, cutting through shields and parries, collisions and tackles, and more. Much of these serve to make combat in Rhand: Morningstar Missions more dynamic, but it comes at the cost of further complexity.

Mission types in Rhand: Morningstar Missions include Guard, Escort, Assault, Rescue, Holding Action, Defence, and Special Action Squads. The latter are actually held within the magic of Morningstar, ready to be teleported to a location at a moment’s notice. In general, the type of mission will be determined by the Risk Level that the players and their characters want to face. The Risk Level will determine the random encounter odds and the combined value of the Player Characters Combat Values the level of any potential opposition. Three sample missions are provided, ranging from Risk Level 1 to Risk Level 10. These are decent outlines for what are straightforward military missions—actually too straightforward military missions since there is no real plot to any one of the three—and require development upon the part of the Game Master. Descriptions of various creatures are given, including several types of Spectral, as well as their subject races that they brought with them when they attacked. The book comes to a close with a topographical map of the planet Rhand, which actually is not that detailed or useful, followed by the roleplaying game’s various tables.

Physically, Rhand: Morningstar Missions is a surprisingly short book—barely a hundred pages long. But being printed on sturdy thick paper with heavy card inserts combined with being spiral bound gives it a surprising heft. Bar the map, the book is completely devoid of illustrations, which gives it a bland look. This is actually offset by the large margins, typically used—as was the case with future titles from Leading Edge Games—for in-game quotes, some of them quite humorous. The writing is not too bad, mainly suffering from a lack of clearer explanation when it counts, but there are plenty of explanations that do go some way to offset this. As well as being able to lie flat on the table and fold over, what 
the format of Rhand: Morningstar Missions does remind you of, though, is a technical manual for a computer or a major piece of machinery? Could it be that designer Barry Nakazono, an actual rocket scientist, decided upon the format he knew best for the books that Leading Edge Games published?

In many ways, Rhand: Morningstar Missions is a complex roleplaying game, but not as complex as the roleplaying games that Leading Edge Games would later publish, most notably Phoenix Command, Living Steel, and the Aliens Adventure Game. Combat is complex, but at least it benefits from a clearer explanation than that given the ‘Action/Reaction Table’ and its associated resolution mechanic. The real problems with Rhand: Morningstar Missions start with the uninteresting and similar starting Player Characters which are given no capacity for differentiation until a long way into the play of the game and they have progressed up a Rank or two within Orca. Then there is the setting. Rhand and Orca are severely underdeveloped such that neither is given enough description for them to come alive and for a group to want to play within the setting. The set-up to Rhand: Morningstar Missions is a fun concept, of being able to hop back and forth across the planet because of the ‘magic’ of the past, performing missions to hold back alien invaders and recover or prevent knowledge from being lost. Yet there is not enough of the past in the setting to know what it is that the Orca is attempting to save or protect and knowing that would have given the Game Master hooks and motives to pull the players and their characters into the setting. So, if the Game Master and her players can get past the complexity, what they will find Rhand: Morningstar Missions offers in terms of what they play and what they roleplay to be underwhelming, if not outright disappointing. Rhand: Morningstar Missions presents a potentially interesting setting and campaign set-up, but ultimately undoes itself by failing to develop either beyond their core concepts.

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