Sunday, April 8, 2018

Not Quite Gamma World

Art by Martin King

In 1987, TSR published the board game GAMMARAUDERS, “a wahoo brawl of world conquest and spiffy weapons with fins!”  Inspired in part by the Gamma World franchise, GAMMARAUDERS takes place in the post-apocalyptic Gamma Age.  As the above quote suggests, the premise was not entirely serious.  In the game, players control giant, cybernetic animals called bioborgs.  The bioborgs fight one another as well as more conventional military forces (known as 'popcorn').  Cryptic Alliances are also part of the game; functioning as factions.  However, the GAMMARAUDERS Cryptic Alliances are not the same as those in Gamma World.  Included with the game was a twenty page booklet “of bioborg background, Cryptic Alliance news, and world history.”  It was an interesting decision to include twenty pages of unnecessary background details for a board game.  It's almost as if the publishers had additional plans for the setting.

Given the reasonable assumption that a significant amount of overlap exists between comic book readers and RPG enthusiasts, DC Comics published a few official Dungeons & Dragons titles in the late 80s.  Also published was a GAMMARAUDERS comic book, initially written by Peter Gillis.  How many comic books have been based on board games?  Anyway, the early issues included rules for The GAMMARAUDERS (Extremely Tiny) Roleplaying System authored by Zeb Cook (or, as he introduced himself, Major Zeb of the Gammarauders Science Patrol).  So, we have a role-playing system published in a comic book based on a board game partially inspired by a role-playing game.

Included in the first issue was an essay by Jim Ward explaining role-playing games.  The essay began:  “We at TSR freely admit we do not have all the answers on what role playing is or isn't.”  He also offered:  “Role Playing at its simplest is putting yourself in someone else's shoes.”  Naturally, Ward took the opportunity to plug various TSR games.  Cook also made an effort to “explain what roleplaying games are all about.”  In his words:  “It's simple – roleplaying games are make-believe.”  He continued, “The rules are supposed to tell you who shot whom and settle arguments and the like.”

The GAMMARAUDERS (Extremely Tiny) Roleplaying System (hereinafter GETRS) version of a Game Master is called the Boss in the first installment, but the Keeper thereafter.

Each Player Character is a bioborg handler with five abilities.
Abilities are the things that tell you what your Character is like.  Each ability is rated 1 to 6.  A 1 means you're just not very good in that area.  A 6 makes you about the best there is with that ability.
Science – “your understanding of things – well, scientific.”
Style – “your ability to make an impression on others, the way you want it to be made.”
Rumble – “your skill in a fight.”
Bod – “your muscles and size”
Control – “your ability to keep your cool commanding your bioborg in the heat of action.”

Roll 1d6 (ignoring rolls of 6) for each of five ability scores, assigning those scores as desired.

Each player chooses a Complex for his or her Character:
It can be anything you want.  Perhaps he can't abide the color red.  Maybe she is touchy about her height.  He can even loathe his own bioborg, forever envious of the fine creatures other handlers have.  Choose something you can have fun with.
Roll 1d6 to determine the severity of the Complex.  Finally, “Decide all the other stuff, like appearance, dress, accent, and anything else that seems interesting.”  (A handler's name and gender are decided upon before any other step.)

Player Characters “are assigned bioborgs according to the whim of the Keeper...”  Similar to abilities, bioborgs have “numerical stats.”

Bod – “measure of size and fighting ability.”  (Roll 1d6 and multiply by 10)
Brains – “general smarts of the bioborg...(roll 1 die and divide the result by 2, rounding fractions up).”
Control – “the bioborg's willpower to ignore the orders of its handler and even make him do things he doesn't want.”  (Roll 1d6)
Armament – the number of weapons the bioborg can have at one time.  (Bod / 10)
Power – “the number of pods the bioborg can eat without becoming seriously ill.  Pods are the all-important fuel source for the bioborg's weapons (and 'most everything else).”  (Roll 2d6)

Bioborgs also have Complexes.  “These are secretly decided by the Keeper.”

The Gamma Age is populated by “factoids” that look like CRT terminals with robotic feet.
They answer every question – completely and literally.  Never, never ask a factoid what's new.  It will follow you for the rest of your existence, displaying every new thing on its screen.  Attempts to find out where they come from have proven equally futile.  It is quite possible that factoids know everything in the universe.  The problem is finding the right questions to ask.
In game terms, “A factoid will be able to answer any question on a die roll of 1 - 5.”

GERTS uses “the scientific principle known as Fistsfulls of Dice.”  When a character “tries to do something difficult,” roll a number of dice equal to the appropriate ability.  If the result of at least one of the dice equals the ability score, the character succeeds.  Easier tasks increase the number of dice to be rolled; harder tasks reduce the number of dice.

With regard to fighting, “You can do just about anything reasonable (and some things unreasonable).”  However, “You can only do one basic thing (shoot, run, shoot and run, etc.) in a turn.”  Initiative is determined by rolling against Control.
The person who makes the most successful rolls (i.e. rolls his Control score) goes first and so on until everyone has a chance to act.  If no one rolls his score, the person who rolled the most dice goes first and so on.  If it is a tie, those characters do everything all at once.
A weapon inflicts damage according to the results of a number of dice indicated in the weapon's description.  For instance, a “Handy-Dandy Blaster Pistol” inflicts two dice of damage.
When punching, kicking, or otherwise using your body, you do 1 point of Bod damage for each successful die roll you make.  If your Bod is greater than your Rumble, you add one to this result.
When a character's Bod is reduced to zero, that character is “out of play (until the next Big Scene Change).”  (Cook neglected to discuss the topic of scene changes.)

To determine a handler's running speed (in yards) for any given span of thirty seconds, roll a number of dice equal to the handler's Bod score and multiply by ten.  “Bioborgs use the same method to determine how far they move, but multiply the result by 50.”

Handlers enter into Contracts.  Small Contracts have a value of 1 to 6, “good Contracts are 7 to 12, big Contracts are 13 to 18, and Whoppers are 19 or more.”  The value of a Contract is representative of “its difficulty or length of service.”  A handler must fulfill a contract before he or she can enter into a new Contract.  “The Keeper will have fun negotiating contracts with the players.”

If a handler purchases an item, his or her current Contract value is reduced by the item's cost.  When the value of a handler's Contract is reduced to zero, “he's broke (a common situation).”  (The aforementioned “Handy-Dandy Blaster Pistol” has a cost of 1 while “Laso-Binoculars” cost 2.) 

In GERTS, there are two types of equipment; handlers have Personal Equipment while bioborgs have Fittings.  “Both types of equipment are governed by one basic rule:  You have to make things up.”  Each bioborg Fitting is either a Weapon or Defense.

In creating a Fitting:
Give the item a great name by combining meaningless phrases to make something that sounds really powerful.  Choose one term from each of columns A and B, and combine these with the appropriate Weapon or Defense name.

Weapons are assigned “a number of dice of damage (from to 2 to 12)” and a range “from 0 (hand-to-hand) to 1000 yards.”  A defense “confers complete immunity to one type of weapon” and “reduces the damage done by other attacks by a set number of dice, from 1 to 6.”  Every Fitting has a Pod Use Number ranging from one to three.  Whenever a Fitting is used, roll dice equal to the Pod Use Number.  If the result of any of those dice equals the Pod Use Number, “one pod carried by bioborg has been drained of power.”  The cost of a Fitting “is equal to the number of dice of damage or protection plus one die roll.”

Art by Martin King

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Fencing Styles in Dungeons & Dragons

Art by Virgil Finlay

In the early 90s, TSR published a series of “Historical Reference” sourcebooks for use with second edition D&D.  The fourth such sourcebook, A Mighty Fortress, presents a setting “drawn from European history comprising the 101 years from 1550 to 1650.”  Although the setting is self-contained, we are assured that “France, Spain, England, and the Holy Roman Empire could easily be transplanted into any setting, including Faerun and Oerth.”

Fortress describes two schools of fencing:  Spanish and Italian.

The Spanish style “can be learned as a weapon proficiency.”  It costs one slot but either rapier or saber proficiency must be purchased as a prerequisite.  “The Spanish school grants an AC benefit of +1...[and every] additional slot devoted to this proficiency increases the AC bonus by one.”  However, slots after the first can only be acquired once every three levels.  The AC bonus only applies when a character is using a rapier, saber, dagger, or is unarmed.  Like the Dexterity AC bonus, “If the character cannot move or see the attack coming, he does not get this benefit.”

The Italian style costs two weapon proficiency slots, and rapier proficiency is a prerequisite.  We learn...
...an Italian style swordsman cannot be attacked with a small- or medium-sized melee weapon if he has the initiative.  His opponent, regardless of his school, must win initiative in order to attack.
The Italian school also allows a character to parry attacks in a manner different from that detailed in the Player's Handbook.  After a character is hit, he may choose to parry by making an attack roll against his opponent; if successful, “the attack is parried and it has no effect.”  Every round, the character is entitled to one free parry.  Normal attacks can be “converted” to parries but such additional parries “must be declared before initiative is rolled.”
In order to parry, the character must have a dagger in his left hand or have some other sort of protection for the hand.  A leather glove, a cloak, or a floppy hat are the most common; a silk handkerchief is sufficient.
In 1986, Mayfair Games published a 'Role Aids' adventure called Beneath Two Suns.  This product is an “authorized and approved module” based on the Dray Prescot series of sword & planet novels.  By sheer coincidence, the Age of Dusk blog today posted a review of this adventure.  The superficial details I discuss here are largely distinct from the cogent Age of Dusk review, so your kind perusal of that review will not be a waste of your time (assuming you do not consider reading a review of a 32 year old RPG product to be a waste of time.  Then again, you wouldn't be here, would you?).

Beneath Two Suns takes place on the Antarean planet Kregen, specifically the city Zenicce (similar to Renaissance Venice).  In Zenicce, “bands of thugs and hoodlums” use Florentine fighting; hence, such rules are necessary.  Also, two of the provided pre-generated characters are trained in Florentine fighting.

Florentine fighting costs two weapon proficiency slots with rapier and dagger proficiencies as prerequisites.  Florentine fighting can only be used when armed with either (i.) a rapier and a dagger or (ii.) two daggers.  A character “using Florentine fighting is allowed twice as many attacks per round.”  However, unless a character using Florentine fighting has a Dexterity of at least 16, the character suffers “a -1 modifier on his to hit roll.”  Additionally, a character “engaged in Florentine fighting has his Armor Class increased by 1 (-1) against all close-in melee attacks,” but this modifier does not apply against attacks from the rear.

It is assumed that player characters participating in the adventure are not native to Kregen.  The adventure is intended for four to six characters of levels 6 - 8.  The “majority should be fighters” (but paladins are not allowed); however, we are advised to include “at least one magic-user of not higher than skill 6 and one cleric of skill 6 - 8 in the party.”  (“Skill” is Mayfair non-trademark-infringing-code for experience level.)  The Player Introduction implies that “smashing orcs” is “normal business” for the player characters prior to seeing the star Antares sparkle and being “mysteriously transported from Earth to [the] strange, wild planet called Kregen.”  This suggests there are orcs on Earth or – on a fantasy campaign world called Earth – the constellation Scorpio is visible.

The eight pre-generated characters are all from different time periods on Earth.  Some of these characters are Dray Prescot himself, a “Centurian” (sic), and a Victorian cutpurse named Careful Dodger.  Other characters have magical abilities; for instance, Lo Khan – a Mongol ranger – has the “Speak with Animals” spell available.  Evidently Greek, Tyresias Homer is a “Skill 8 Cleric” and is described as a “Healer.”  Additionally, Ramseus is a “Skill 6 Mage” who is a “Wise Man” of an unspecified time period and culture.

The Player Introduction also explains that – on Kergen – the player characters “are in slaves' chains and are dimly aware that [their] bodies have been functioning for several weeks without the benefit of [their] full consciousness...[and they] retain a dim memory of the past weeks and have learned something of [their] strange circumstances...”  This explains how the player characters have picked up something of “the universal language of Kregen.”  It does not explain how they can read a message in a bottle they find.  Perhaps the 'Read Languages' ability of the Victorian cutpurse (40%) comes into play here.

The player characters arrive on Kregen with “no items other than the clothes on their backs and the shoes on their feet.”  For the duration of the adventure, the belongings of the characters “are kept in 'limbo.'”  Given that first edition rules are in effect, the absence of material components and his spellbook would be especially problematic for Ramseus.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Omegakron (spoilers)

A post-apocalyptic Mod Squad

Art by Dave Billman



Have you ever wanted to use the history of your home town as the basis of a rollicking RPG adventure?  Neither have I.  Yet Tom Moldvay, not being me or you, took the idea and ran with it until he couldn't run any further.  Had Moldvay come from Chicago or San Antonio, this probably would not merit mention; however, he hailed from the Buckeye State... specifically Akron.  Lacking the élan of Cincinnati or the gravitas of Cleveland or even the je ne sais quoi of Toledo, Akron might not be the most marketable of Ohio's cities.  Maybe it was home town pride, maybe it came about because of a dare; regardless, the third (and last) of the Lords of Creation adventures features the (former) Rubber Capital of the World.  Toss in a dead abolitionist and – in Moldvay's estimation – you have suitable components for a commercially successful role-playing romp.

“Omegakron” refers to the greater Akron area two centuries after a world war using nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons.  The result is a combination of science and savagery populated by intelligent animals, street gangs, mutants, cyborgs, and androids.  The player characters can arrive at this future setting via the dimensional gate from the conclusion of The Yeti Sanction, but “the Game Master can choose any means he wishes...”  On page 3 we read, “The simplest method is to have the characters mysteriously appear in the city.”  The setting of Omegakron was “an obscure probability branch diverted from the main time-flow.”  Instead of leading to the Imperial Terra setting, the main-time flow 'now' leads to Omegakron due to a temporal shift.  “The characters entrance into Omegakron was a way of nature seeking to restore the proper time-flow.”  Of course, the player characters don't realize this at the start of the adventure; they just “mysteriously appear.”  However, before arriving, the player characters “see a vision of Prometheus” and receive a 31-line poetic message.  “Even if the characters have never before seen Prometheus, they will recognize him as friendly.”  Naturally, the “cryptic message...holds the key to the success of the adventure.”  The adventure consists of several missions.  “Each time the characters succeed at one of their ten missions, the old town bell will mysteriously ring.”

Omegakron is dedicated to three TSR alumni:  Mark Acres, Jim Ward, and Steve Sullivan.  Given the time travel aspects of Omegakron, Acres makes sense due to his association with TIMEMASTER.  Given the gonzo post-apocalyptic nature of Omegakron, Ward makes sense due to his association with Gamma World.

Various factions exist in the Omegakron area, some of which are races of intelligent, mutated animals.  There are anthropomorphic raccoons who ride semi-intelligent buffalo, anthropomorphic woodchucks who ride semi-intelligent wolves, and anthropomorphic squirrels who ride mutant rhinoceri.  Although not anthropomorphic, there are also intelligent tigers and bears.

Player's Aid #1 is “A Short History of Akron,” a pamphlet with eight pulse-pounding pages of canal building and rubber litigation.  This pamphlet “contains clues woven into the manuscript which will help the characters solve most of the mysteries in the vision of Prometheus.”  The player characters are meant to find this pamphlet early in the adventure; however, the location of the pamphlet is considered sacred to the intelligent animals.  When the intelligent animals catch the player characters violating their shrine, they give the characters three options.  The first option is to fight against a hundred animal warriors and undoubtedly die.  The second option is to submit to a trial in which “one character chosen at random will be killed.”  The third option is to endure an ordeal that will allow the characters to become tribal members, thereby absolving them of their trespass.

The ordeal consists of running along a path to the Cuyahoga River while avoiding booby-traps and fending off animal warriors.  In game terms, the ordeal “has been designed abstractly.”  This means the characters will have 41 - 60 chances for encounters in the course of the ordeal.  For each chance, 1d10 is rolled; a result of '1' indicates an encounter and a table is then consulted.  So, 1d10 is rolled up to sixty times.  The adventure even acknowledges that “it can become boring for the players to watch the GM roll dice.”  Why not just have 4 - 6 encounters?

One of the factions in Omegakron is Novos Akros.  It has a high level of technology, including longevity treatments and “a small intergalactic spaceport.”  Novos Akros has a small 'Manager' class that exerts Orwellian control over the 'Worker' class.
A 12-hour work day is still common in Novos Akros.  Education stops at age 12, when the youths join the labor pool. Workers are kept hopelessly in debt. Any rebellious attitude is immediately crushed.  Offenders are kept in a state of drugged obedience.
To maintain the sophisticated technology of Novos Akros, there are “about 1500 technicians on loan from Old Akron,” a democratically ruled faction established at the University of Akron.  Old Akron has a level of technology roughly equal to the late twentieth century.  For reasons not explained, Old Akron helps a tyrannical regime maintain a technology superior to that which Old Akron enjoys.

The Akros Rangers are the police force for Novos Akros.  Rangers are recruited from personnel not native to Novos Akros.  The player characters are enticed into Novos Akros so they can be drafted into the Rangers.
While drafting the characters might appear to be an underhanded trick at the time, it is actually a way of helping them succeed in their ultimate mission.  As Akros Rangers, they can go anywhere in Omegakron with reasonable safety.  Even the street gangs and intelligent animals hesitate to attack Akros Rangers...
Noted radical John Brown was once a resident of Akron.  This association is all Moldvay needs to bring John Brown's ghost into the adventure.  We learn from Moldvay's pamphlet that “John Brown was one of the world's foremost experts in appraising wool.”  However, he was financially ruined when people refused to buy his overpriced wool.  (If people don't pay the price you set, can you really be considered an expert at appraisal?)

Anyway, the player characters encounter the ghost of John Brown who wants to liberate the “wage slaves” of Novos Akros.  (“For the adventure to work best, it is suggested that the GM make sure the characters join the Akros Rangers before meeting John Brown.”)  The player characters can successfully foment a worker revolt in Novos Akros only if they steal a copy of the Bill of Rights from Old Akron.

By completing all of their missions, the player characters “opened the way” for the Time Adjustors, “a mysterious group of individuals who strive to maximize the time flow.”  (Maximizing the time flow entails the preservation of the branches of time “which lead to the most successful of all possible futures.”)  The Time Adjustors explain to the player characters about such concepts as time flow, temporal shift, and probability branches.  The Temporal Adjustors can recruit the player characters to seek out the reason for the temporal shift that redirected the main time flow toward Omegakron.  This would have lead to the fourth, unpublished Lords of Creation adventure, The Towers of Ilium.  Moldvay claims “the GM should be free to use his impression of the Time Adjustors” and thus provides little detail about them.

Art by Dave Billman

Sunday, March 11, 2018

The Book of Foes

Art by Dave Billman

Included in the Lords of Creation boxed set was The Book of Foes with 64 pages (including covers).  According to the book, 'foe' is a term of convenience for “any being who is not a character.”  This broad term includes animals, gods, extraterrestrial species, folklore races, legendary beings, historical persons, mythological monsters, and figments of Tom Moldvay's imagination.  Beings tied at having the least experience value are baboons, cobras, (average) goblins, (average) mandragoras, and wolves.  An entity named Romerac Elerion has the largest experience value.
Romerac Elerion (rom'-er-ac el-er'-e-on) seldom appears twice looking the same.  His favorite guises are a pot-bellied, balding man with a beard; a 7 foot tall gray-eyed blond man with a jagged lightning scar criss-crossing his body; a brown-haired, blue-eyed minstrel; a tawny-colored Feline; a dwarvish jester dressed in multi-colored rags; a small gray cat; and a 200 foot long Dragon.  Romerac is whimsical, but once his fancy is caught he follows the whimsey to the end with rock-hard purpose.  He has all skills and powers.
Experience value being “the maximum number of experience points the characters could receive for surviving a determined attack by that particular foe.”  Los has the next to greatest experience value while the number three position is occupied by Wayland who...
...looks like an ordinary human man but he is actually one of the most powerful Lords of Creation.  Wayland is the master technician.  He can build almost anything.  He specializes in fantastic creations and has built many of the powerful objects in the world.  He also takes contracts for constructing special “pocket universes”.  Wayland has all powers and skills.  He sometimes goes by the name of Welland or Wayland Smith.
One of the settings described in the Lords of Creation rule book is the Elder Lands, featuring fantasy versions of various cultures of the Bronze Age (more or less).  This allows Moldvay to include in The Book of Foes game stats for gods who didn't make the cut for Deities & Demigods.  Among these are the gods of the Scythian pantheon.
Moldvay's interpretation of mythology is not necessarily traditional.  Outside of the Elder Lands, for instance, Moldvay describes the Einherjar as “the most valiant Viking warriors raised from the dead (as biomechanical constructs)...”

Art by Dave Billman
The first two entries in The Book of Foes – Abiku and Acephali – often work in tandem with Kinnara for reasons not expressly stated.  Abiku are described as “three foot tall humanoids with gray mottled skin, long claws, and fangs.”
Acephali (ak-e-fal'-e) are six foot tall creatures with brown, barrel-shaped bodies.  They have three legs arranged like a tripod and two long tentacles instead of arms.  They have three eyes spaced out around their bodies for all-around vision.  Acephali can teleport through space, time, and other dimensions.  Wrapped in their tentacles, Acephali can carry six small individuals, three human-sized individuals, or one large individual.
Kinnara are described as “thin, 5 foot tall humanoids with oversized heads.”  They are telekinetic.

Art by Dave Billman
Psyschokillers (cue Talking Heads) are...
...clones of psychotic killers with a genetic disposition toward murder.  They are raised in an environment designed to foster paranoia then surgically altered to be more efficient killers.  Ownership of a Psychokiller is highly illegal.  A Psychokiller is an arch-assassin, never stopping until its victim is dead.  Psychokillers have the powers of Plasteel Body, Exoskeleton, Backup Metabolism, Physical Control and Energy Control.
It's “highly illegal” to own Psychokillers?  When you outlaw Psychokillers, only outlaws will have Psychokillers.  Is it only slightly illegal to make them?  How do Psychokillers feel about being owned?

Art by Dave Billman
Scavenger Wheels are animals that have a 4 foot wide, spherical body covered with tentacles between two 6 foot tall, wheel-like appendages.  They hunt by rolling over the ground (usually wind blown, though they can move laboriously to a hill top, using their tentacles, then rol down when they sight prey).  As they roll over prey, they scoop it into their mouths using their tentacles.
Art by Dave Billman
According to page 61, “Vorian Death Maggots are winged serpent-like creatures 10 feet long.”  The never-published fifth Lords of Creation adventure was to be titled Voria.  Doubtless, these venomous foes would have played some part.