#RPGThursday – Reflections on The Klingons (FASA, 1983)

Star Trek Adventures, the latest RPG version of Star Trek, is currently (as of this posting) up for pre-order from Modiphius Entertainment. I participated in part of the Living Beta playtest, and made comments herehere, here, and here. Truth be told, I never really warmed to the system, and after somehow being dropped then re-added to the playtest when I dropped again I didn’t make an issue of it and finish the playtest campaign.

A quick look at the products page for STA indicates that Modiphius is focusing on the Next Generation-era of Trek. I find this unfortunate; in the living playtest I choose the The Original Series-era because it is my personal favorite.

Why The Original Series? Well, first off, my Star Trek gateway was actually via the Star Fleet Battles wargame. My first Star Trek RPG was, coincidentally, Star Trek: The Roleplaying Game from FASA. Both of these games have a very different (non-canonical) take on the Star Trek universe. Of the two, I prefer to RPG in the FASA setting. That setting is embodied to me in one key supplement and one book.

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Personal Collection

The supplement is The Klingons (1st Edition, 1983) written by John M. Ford, Guy W. McLimore, Jr., Greg K Poehlein, and David F. Tepool. The Klingons supplement was published a year before Mr. Ford’s novel The Final Reflection (Star Trek Worlds Apart #1). The Final Reflection was the first “official” Star Trek novel to explain the Klingon Empire.

The early-mid 1980’s was an interesting time in the lore of Star Trek. The “canon” of the time consisted of The Original Series, The Animated Series, and the movies Star Trek: The Motion Picture and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. So when it came time for FASA to produce their Klingon sourcebook, they had a real challenge. As the Introduction from The Klingons says:

In the process of presenting interesting stories featuring Klingons, the series gave us only a few tantalizing looks at the culture and history behind the individual characters. In The Savage Curtain we meet Kahless the Unforgettable, the ancient Klingon who created his race’s traditions of treachery and tyranny, but we learn virtually nothing else of Klingon history. Klingon technology is revealed in bits and pieces in the series, but Klingon social customs remain a mystery.

To further confuse matters, STAR TREK: The Motion Picture introduces us to an entirely different breed of Klingon – less human in appearance and demeanor with even greater savagery in battle. It is a brief glimpse to be sure, before three D-7M battlecruisers are obliterated by V’Ger, but it opens a whole new chapter in the Klingon saga.

So what was FASA’s solution to this problem? Call in an old friend; in this case John M. Ford, former roommate and then-author:

When we discovered we were working on parallel projects, we couldn’t resist collaboration of sorts. Thus, the research on the Klingon Empire for his upcoming novel The Final Reflection (from Pocket Books) became the basis for the background material for this expansion set….The research-sharing went both ways on the project, with background data on the STAR TREK universe in The Final Reflection sometimes based on data presented in STAR TREK: The Roleplaying Game. In this way, the STAR TREK universe inhabited by game players and the novel’s characters remain consistent, and support each other in richness of detail. Thus, what you hold in your hands is not just a game supplement, but is also background on the Klingon Empire. With its detail and background supported by both the game framework and a major piece of professional STAR TREK fiction, it can lay claim to being an “official” look at the universe.

Within The Klingons and The Final Reflection there is a lot to unpack. From “the perpetual game” of society that all play to the “naked stars,” (“If there are gods they do not help, and justice belongs to the strong: but know that all things done before the naked stars are remembered”). One must understand kuve – servitor (not slave) – as well as tharavul (labotomized Vulcans made into living computers). This Klingon society is deep with meaning – and adventuring opportunity.

As the Star Trek universe developed, and especially in the Next Generation-series, the depiction of the Klingons changed (although Memory Alpha states Ronald D. Moore, eventually a producer for ST:TNG, claims The Final Reflection did influence him). What  I see is that instead of the Ford Klingons like Captain Kreen we get Worf – Space Samauri. When I look at the two settings…I only really see one choice.

It would be easy to get into a canon war at this point, but I look back on – and game by – the advice given in the Designers Notes to Star Trek: The Roleplaying Game:

…in the long run it will be the fans who decide what is and what is not STAR TREK for their campaigns. Feel free to change even basic assumptions if it suits you. Don’t be offended if we state something as “fact” that does not fit with your personal image. Simply run your campaign to suit what STAR TREK means to you. It’s your campaign, and we are by no means the final arbiters on such matters.

So with that thought, I say “no thank you” to Star Trek Adventures and look forward to welcoming back an old adventuring friend.

Kai FASA. Kai Ford.

#RPGThursday Retrospective: James Bond 007 (Victory Games, 1983)

James Bond 007: Role Playing in Her Majesty’s Secret Service was the 1983 winner of the HG Wells Best Roleplaying Rules award. In terms of my growth as a RPG player, James Bond 007 was another rules set that I struggled to understand at the time, but have come to deeply respect today.

Rereading the rules these days, I can clearly see where the Core Mechanic was discussed up front in the rulebook, in a section labeled “Game Concepts.” This section, approximately two double-column pages, succinctly and lays out the how the Primary Chance interacts with an Ease Factor to find a Success Chance. A d100 roll on the Quality Results Table gives an Excellent/Very Good/Good/Acceptable result.

The best part of the rulebook, something I thought back then and still do today, is the Example of Play. Laid out in two columns, the Example of Play narrates an iconic segment of the movie Goldfinger on one side and a corresponding RPG session on the other. Never before, and rarely since, had I seen an RPG example that came to life like this Example did. This is the Gold Standard (no pun intended) which every RPG should strive for.

 

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Courtesy IMDb.com

In terms of the Core Mechanic, at the time I got this game I had a hard time wrapping my head around the Ease Factor. As the rulebook states:

The central concept of the game is the Ease Factor – an element which must be thoroughly understood by both the players and the GM. It is a number, ranging from 1/2 to 10, which is used to measure the ease or difficulty of performing a task. The lower the Ease Factor, the harder the task, and the higher the Ease Factor, the easier the task is to accomplish; …. The GM may apply whatever positive or negative modifiers to the Ease Factor he feels are appropriate to the situation. (Basic Rulebook, p. 8)

Part of the reason this was hard for me to grasp is because the players needed a multiplication table to turn Primary Chance into Success Chance based on the Ease Factor. The multiplication table was even right on the character sheet!

 

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Courtesy RPG Geek

The math is what put me off, but looking at the system today I see this as the first Task Difficulty system I had really encountered. Not only did the Ease Factor portray difficulty, but the Quality Results Table gave a grade of result! This system was unlike the binary Pass/Fail I had encountered to date. This game was truly the first step toward Narrative Play that I experienced.

Another major difference was the character generation system. James Bond 007 used a Point Buy system. Up to this point, I was used to the Classic Traveller or even Behind Enemy Lines career/background generation process. Building my own character was very new to me!

Another difference that I again had difficulty understanding back then was the Damage system. Instead of hit points, when hit the player had to cross-index the Quality Rating of the hit with the Damage Class of the weapon. This revealed a Wound Level. This system is very cinematic which was another change from my usual simulationist games.

Yet another game sub-system that I have grown to respect over time is the Chase Sequence. This sub-game included bidding on maneuvers; the lower the Ease Factor the more advantage one had on initiative but the more dangerous the possible results. The system again created very cinematic results.

James Bond 007 also had a rules section for Interacting with NPCs. This section had rules for Persuasion, Seduction, and Torture. Today these interactions are called Social Combat. Although there was Social Combat in Classic Traveller, the concept was not as clearly delineated as it was here.

One of the more difficult chapters in the rules was Gambling and Casino Life. Absolutely essential to any good James Bond adventure, I had a hard time understanding the various tables of die roll results for the different card games. Today I look at these tables and admire how the designer translated the odds of success in a card game into die rolls on a table.

By far the most different chapter was Hero Points. Hero Points could be used to change the results. Taken along with the Quality Results Table, this was another step towards Narrative Play. Coming from a solid Traveller RPG background, this concept of Hero Points seemed near-heretical in the day. This was my first introduction to a game economy; the Luck mechanic in FASA’s Star Trek RPG was a step in this direction but now players and GMs had a currency (Hero Points) to trade in.

Another sea-change system for me was Experience Points. With this system, characters could grow and be promoted. Like FASA’s Star Trek RPG, this system was very dependent on the whims of the GM but at least there was a system (unlike Traveller).

What I Thought of It Then – Back in the day, the math of character generation and Success Chance determination turned me off to this game. My group also had a hard time understanding how Narrative Play and the Hero Point economy was supposed to work. We liked the game, but had a hard time breaking out of our (stubborn) Traveller RPG approach to gaming.

What I Think of It Now – James Bond 007 is a gem of a game. The Ease Factor system of portraying difficulty, the Quality Results and Hero Point economy make for a very cinematic RPG system that faithfully creates exciting adventures in the James Bond mythos. Although the game is dated, the system is one of my all-time favorites.

From an RPG-perspective, I give James Bond 007 Totally Subjective Game Rating (Scale of 1-5):

  • System Crunch = 3.5 (Does need a multiplication table)
  • Simulationist = 2 (More cinematic than strict realism)
  • Narrativism = 3 (Quality Results and Hero Points!)

 

RPG Thursday – A Retrospective Look at The Babylon Project

Courtesy RPG Geek

Not long ago, I was in a (sometimes) FLGS and saw a whole slew of Mongoose D20 Babylon 5 RPGbooks. Having seen this sit on the shelf for over a year, I approached the staff and was able to make a deal to get a nice discount on a bulk buy. All the books I purchased were source books covering races or campaigns; I don’t have the Mongoose Babylon 5 D20 rules nor do I want them given they were based on Dungeons & Dragon Third Edition. What I do have is Mongoose Traveller Universe of Babylon 5 and the much older Chameleon Eclectic Entertainment, Inc. The Babylon Project.

I actually didn’t remember much of The Babylon Project and never actually played it with a group.  I do remember thinking the combat system was “complicated.”  I recently took the time to reread the rules. In doing so, I now have to reconsider the game and give it more credit than I had previously.

In terms of production values, the book was ahead of its times. Full-color pages make it rich looking, even if some of the art is of marginal quality (a mix of photos from the series and artwork inspired by the same). Today people would scream for a low-ink version for print-at-home.

I remember not liking character generation. Of course, I had grown up on Classic Traveller  making many of the concepts in The Babylon Project seem foreign. Character generation in The Babylon Project uses a combination storytelling and point-buy approach and is done in three phases. In the first phase, the player uses storytelling aspects to create a character concept and basic history. This in turn leads to adjusting the 13 attributes that define your character. Attributes are rated 1-9 with each race having a typical attribute value. Players can adjust the typical attributes based on the concept and background but for every attribute raised another has to be lowered. The second phase – childhood – has the player answer another set of questions which guide picking Learned Skills and Characteristics (an early version of the Savage Worlds or Cortex System advantages/hindrances). This same process is repeated in a third phase – adulthood – which again gains Learned Skills and more (or changed) Characteristics. This system was very much NOT what I had grown up with in Traveller or my other RPGs of this time like FASA’s Star Trek: The Roleplaying Game or the first edition of Prime Directive. At the time, I think it was just too different for me to be comfortable; now I see it for what it is – a well thought out, guided, lifepath character generation system.

The adventure and campaign system focuses less on episodic events than on creation of a story arc. The Babylon Project certainly tries to match the grand, sweeping, epic feel of the series. The mechanic used is the Story Chart which the Gamemaster uses to loosely chart out the path of the campaign. The Story Chart uses four basic symbols to lay out an adventure:

  • Non-exclusive Chapters: Events which do not directly relate to other events in the story; can be worked into story almost any point to uncover key pieces of information, encounter non-critical NPCs, or experience important scenes.
  • Exclusive Chapters: Events which the characters must experience and can only happen once; these change the nature of the story and cannot be revisited or reversed.
  • Independent Chapters: Not critical to the overall puzzle, but may help.
  • Information: The flow between chapters that lead from one to another.

Like character generation, I think at the time I viewed this (again) as too different to understand. Today, I can see the designer’s intent and zeal to get closer to the grand, sweeping, epic feel of Babylon 5. Unfortunately, even today I don’t often see a similar approach in other games that could use it like Star Wars Saga Edition or even Battlestar Galactica.

The core Game Mechanic is actually very simple. Players compare Attribute+Skill and Specialty+/- Modifiers +/- a Random Modifier against a Task Difficulty set by the GM. To use the examples from the book:

Jessica is attempting to bypass the reactor control circuitry. The bypass isn’t particularly difficult, but Jessica is working by flashlight in zero-G. Dana specifies that Jessica will take the necessary time to make sure the job is done right. Taking all of those factors into consideration, the GM decides that the task is Difficult, which gives it a Difficulty Number of 11. Jessica’s Intelligence is 5; her skill in Engineering: Electrical is 3; and her Specialty in Electrical Applications adds another 2 – all totaling to an Ability of 10. Her GM decides that no additional penalties or bonuses apply. (The Babylon Project, p. 90)

The Random Modifier is created by taking two die (a green positive and red negative) and rolling. Look at the lowest number. That die is now the modifier – positive if the green die and negative if the red. This makes the Random Modified range from +5 to -5.  To continue using the example from the rule book:

Dana rolls the dice. Her Negative Die result is 5, with a Positive Die result of 2. Thus, her Random Modifier is +2. (The Babylon Project, p. 91)

The degree of success or failure is also a consideration. As the example continues:

Jessica’s Ability in her attempt to bypass the reactor control circuitry is 10. Adding the Random Modifier of +2 just rolled by Dana gets a total Result of 12. That’s 1 over the Difficulty of 11 set by the GM – a Marginal Success. The GM tells Dana that Jessica’s bypass has fixed the problem, but that it won’t hold up for long, and not at all if the reactor is run at over half its rated power output. Thus, her success in the task resolution fixes the problem, but the GM interprets its marginal nature as a limitation on engine power and fortitude. (The Babylon Project, p. 91)

Given my close acquaintance with Classic Traveller and the definite lack of a clearly defined task system – much less an emphasis on degrees of success – it is not surprising I didn’t immediately embrace the simple task mechanic in The Babylon Project.

Combat comes in two forms, Close and Ranged, and is played in phases of two-seconds each meaning the player character gets a single action. Players make an attacker roll versus a defender roll. An important combat consideration is aim point; there is a default aim point and if the attacker wants to (or must) aim elsewhere there is a modifier. The degree of success determines how close to the aim point the hit occurs and the level of damage. Combat then moves to Immediate Effects. This table determines if the hit results in immediate death, stun, or impairment. Given the Damage Ratings of the weapons and not-so-great armor this means combat in The Babylon Project is very dangerous! Once combat is over, then Final Effects are dealt with, to include the extent of injuries and wounds. Like all of The Babylon Project, there is a heavy emphasis on the storytelling effect of the injury. Again this is nothing like Classic Traveller yet today I can see the design effect the designer was reaching for – speedy combat using the simple core mechanic with detailed wounds and healing latter. I think the designer achieved what he was trying to do with combat.

The Babylon Project also uses Fortune Points, this games version of Bennies or Plot Points. Each player starts a session with five Fortune Points. Fortune Points can be used to improve a task roll, save  your life in combat, and attempt a task that the player normally could not attempt. This game mechanism is not found in Classic Traveller and a the time I think I saw it as too cinematic or “space opera” for my hard sci-fi taste. Today, I take for granted the use of Plot Points or Bennies or like mechanisms as a useful tool for players to exercise narrative control on the game instead of leaving it in the sole hands of the GM. I have also grown to appreciate the cinematic benefits of Plot Points as I have moved (a bit) away from hard sci-fi rules mechanics.

Courtesy RPG Geek

The last page of The Babylon Project rulebook is a one-page GM Reference Sheet. Literally everything needed to run the game is on this one page. Really…everything! How did they ever expect to sell a GM screen? In fact they did – it was one of the items I also picked up in my bulk buy – and used three panels. The left panel has Attributes and Skills (a useful reminder of the entire list available) as well as Martial Arts Maneuvers (rules added in the Earthforce Sourcebook supplement). The right panel is a Weapons and Armor table – again useful but not absolutely essential. The center panel is a colorful, slightly reformatted version of the original GM Reference Guide.

Courtesy RPG Geek

It would also be negligent of me not to mention that one of the reasons I originally got The Babylon Project was for the space combat system. Introduced in Earthforce Sourcebook, the space combat system was developed by Jon Tuffley and based on his successful Full Thrust miniatures system. This approach to incorporating popular, known, miniatures space combat rules and an RPG was later repeated by the Traveller community with the publication of Power Projection: Fleet.

Rereading The Babylon Project has opened my eyes to just how much of a gem this game really is. Compared to the more recent Mongoose Traveller Universe of Babylon 5, which I reviewed in 2011, the earlier The Babylon Project is more appropriate to the source and setting. Since the 1997 publication of the game, I have also matured as an RPG player and am more comfortable with the narrative/storytelling  and cinematic aspects of the rules. I can now see where The Babylon Project is much like the early Cortex System (Serenity and Battlestar Galactica RPGs) or Savage Worlds – game systems I really love and enjoy playing.  I think I will work on a story arc for The Babylon Project and see what happens….