#SciFiFriday – Rediscovering @GerryAndersonTV Space: 1999 and thoughts of #TravellerRPG, #CepheusEngine, & other #TTRPG systems

This past Christmas, I gifted myself the new Moonbase Alpha: Technical Operations Manual (Post Breakaway Revised Edition) by Chris Thompson and Andrew Clements with illustrations by Chris Thompson. This nice coffee table book is published by Anderson Entertainment and is an “in-universe” book based on the 1970’s TV series Space: 1999.

I was but a wee lad, a bit less than 10 years old when Space: 1999 burst onto my TV screen (and it was a small screen, still black & white). Space: 1999 was cool—cool spaceships (Eagles forever!), cool uniforms, and cool science (not that it all made sense to young me). I took in the first season and remember being absolutely frightened out of my skin at the episode “Dragon’s Domain.”

Fan created trailer for “Dragon’s Domain”

I also remember being so confused at the second season of Space: 1999 with shapeshifting aliens and…well, better to forget that season.

So I did. Ever since then Space: 1999—Season 1 at least—continued to exist somewhere in my headspace. It helped that I had a few Space: 1999 toys like a die-cast Eagle and several models. In more recent years I “rediscovered” Space: 1999 and added UFO to the lore as well as the graphic novels. The RockyMountainNavy Boys helped me find new plastic models and kept my memories alive.

UFO Intro

Breaking Down the Breakaway Manual

It’s bigger on the inside (whoops, wrong British TV show…)

Moonbase Alpha: Technical Operations Manual is a 272-page book formatted in a 9.5″x12″ hardcover. The cover illustration is a faintly lined Eagle Transporter that I wish was a bit easier to see. Inside, the Manual is organized into seven major sections (chapters):

  1. History and External Layout – I finally have a good description of of what my MPC Moonbase Alpha plastic model kit depicts
  2. Internal Layout – Covered in 73 pages (~25% of the Manual) this is a great mix of set photos and illustrations; many details I never noticed in the series
  3. Nuclear Waste – At first I was like, “huh?” but after reading I better understand why this essential story element gets the attention it does
  4. The Eagle Transporter – In many ways I love the Eagle Transporter over Star Wars vehicles and this chapter reminds me why (it also gives me details to help me paint up my other MPC model of the Eagle Transporter)
  5. Supplementary Craft – Much more here than I remembered; give me the Hawk Mk IX for the win!
  6. Uniforms & Equipment – What good sci-fi fan of the 1970’s didn’t have a jacket that looked a bit like one from Moonbase Alpha?
  7. Current Command Roster – Only later did I learn about how the production company, ITV, used international stars; I always though that Moonbase Alpha was simply “international” much like Star Trek was.

There are also two major Addendums covering “Alien Technology” and “Emergency Evacuation Operation Exodus.” Buried within individual chapters are other addendum boxes of relevant subjects.

[Warning – Spoilers Ahead] Sometime in the past decade I became aware of the connection between the TV universe of UFO and Space: 1999. I was really excited to see some connections in the Technical Operations Manual. What I appreciate the most about the connections is the secrecy; there are little references to UFO in the Manual like “the Straker Doctrine” but as a whole UFO is treated as, well, a secret. There are other nods too but I’ll leave those for you to discover on your own.

Generally speaking, my personal experience with “in-universe” background books based on pop culture intellectual property (IP) is mixed. In order to enjoy many IP-based productions I have to really, and I mean really, suspend my disbelief. Books like Star Wars: The Essential Guide to Warfare (Jason Fry, Ballantine Books, 2012), which as a military veteran and wargamer I should have wholeheartedly embraced instead helped me realize that I am a science fiction fan that hems more towards “gritty” or “hard” sci-fi rather than “space fantasy” like Star Wars. All of which is a round-about way of saying the Moonbase Alpha: Technical Operations Manual is much more “believable”—and enjoyable—than I expected.

Roleplaying Space: 1999

As I also play science fiction roleplaying games (RPG), “in-universe” books like this Technical Operations Manual serve as a great source of gaming inspiration. I have played the Traveller RPG (Marc Miller, Game Designers’ Workshop, 1977) since 1979 and science fiction RPGs are definitely my thing. As I look across my science fiction RPG collection, there are several different game systems that are candidates for use in a Space: 1999 RPG. Generally speaking, I look at each set of rules from the perspective of character generation, technology, and narrative support (story generation) when looking at how they might be used to create a Space: 1999 game.

Characters – When creating a character, most systems I am familiar with use careers. Moonbase Alpha is staffed by departments which might be a good starting point. The Manual tell us the different compartments are Command, Main Mission, Services, Flight, Technical, Medical, Science, and Security (pp 209-210). We also can see in the series the Space Commission (Politician?). If we expand our “canon” to include the 2012 Archaia Entertainment graphic novel Space 1999: Aftershock and Awe we also find other “careers” like the United Nations Coastguard using Eagle Transporters.

Courtesy goodreads.com

Technology – Space: 1999 is a near (alternate) future heavily grounded in technology we would recognize as our own. The major handwaves I see are nuclear fusion rocket engines, artificial gravity, and a hyper-light drive.

Narrative Support (Story Generation) – Although Space: 1999 the TV series was of the “adventure of the week” kind, different episodes covered many different genres and adventure types. A Space: 1999 RPG needs to be able to handle a wide range of story lines, from military to exploration to horror and more.

Cepheus Engine (Samardan Press, Zozer Games, Stellagama Publishing, 2016+)

The easiest approach to making a Space: 1999 setting might be to go to a near-cousin setting. Orbital 2100 by Paul Elliott from Zozer Games is a sublight, near future setting using the Cepheus Engine rules. Of course, Cepheus Engine itself comes in a few flavors (“Standard,” Light, and Quantum) but using the latest Cepheus Deluxe version as a starting point seems like a good place to jump from. Cepheus Deluxe has the advantage of being the rules set I am most familiar with, seeing how it traces it’s lineage all the way back to my first role roleplaying game, Traveller by Marc Milller from Game Designers’ Workshop (1977) which I first found in 1979.

Characters – No single rules set has the right combination of careers to represent Moonbase Alpha staff, but by synthesizing careers from Cepheus Deluxe, The Clement Sector Third Edition, and Hostile a fairly representative collection of careers and skill could be assembled.

Technology – Using Cepheus Deluxe, the “average” Tech Level (TL) is 8 to 9. To create the spacecraft of Space: 1999 will likely be a kludge of Cepheus Deluxe and Orbital: 2100 rules for sublight craft.

Narrative Support (Story Generation)Cepheus Deluxe does not focus on a single genre of science fiction so it should be flexible enough to cover a diverse set of adventures.

Star Trek The Roleplaying Game (FASA, 1983)

Going way back in my collection, I have the first edition FASA Star Trek Roleplaying Game (FASA, 1983). Seeing how the characters in Star Trek are all academy grads (or at least Starfleet personnel) the similarities to the Space Commission Moonbase Alpha arrangements jump out.

Characters/TechnologyStar Trek assumes the characters are in the service after attending the academy and served prior terms to gain experience and rank. The various Departments in Star Trek map directly to Moonbase Alpha Departments though the skills will be different because of the different technology assumptions.

Narrative Support (Story Generation) – Like Space: 1999, episodes of Star Trek (The Original Series) were episodic. The game system is capable of handling most any genre, but is highly dependent on Game Master preparations.

The Babylon Project (Chameleon Eclectic, 1997)

Long forgotten, The Babylon Project (Chameleon Eclectic, 1997) is in many ways similar to Space: 1999. Overtly, both focus on characters on a “station” or “base.”

CharactersThe Babylon Project uses a concept-driven character generation system. Using the roster in the Manual, it’s possible to map most any character in terms of the Attributes/Skill/Characteristics which can be a good example of how to make a Moonbase Alpha character.

Technology/Narrative Support (Story Generation) – Technology takes a backseat in The Babylon Project. Instead, story comes to the front. Much like Babylon 5 was one of the first TV series to do a story arc, The Babylon Project gives advice on how to do the same for your adventures.

FATE Core (Evil Hat Publishing, 2013)

Another rules set that is a candidate for Space: 1999 is FATE Core from Evil Hat Productions (2013). FATE Core claims the game, “works best with any premise where the characters are proactive, capable people leading dramatic lives” (emphasis in original). Character generation in FATE Core is not a lifepath or point buy system, but rather “concept” driven which I find a bit harder to imagine. The core mechanic, using FATE dice, is also more suited to “pulp” gaming than gritty or hard sci-fi. Technology is what you make of it.

GENESYS (Fantasy Flight Games, 2017)

A more recent game system that might be useful is Genesys: Core Rulebook from Fantasy Flight Games (2017). Genesys powers FFG’s Star Wars Roleplaying Games series.

Characters – Character generation is a form of point-buy built around archetypes. The generic career list would have to be tailored, but there are many examples in the various Star Wars Roleplaying Game books to draw inspiration from.

Technology – Technology is again what you make of it. Unlike Cepheus Deluxe which tends to portray technology in “harder” sci-fi terms, in Genesys technology is there to aid the narrative.

Narrative Support (Story Generation)Genesys is a highly narrative game system that again is suitable for many different genres of play.

The Expanse Roleplaying Game (Green Ronin Publishing, 2019)

With some work, Green Ronin’s The Expanse Roleplaying Game (2019) may also be adapted.

Characters – The Professions list of The Expanse Roleplaying Game is not that far removed from Space: 1999.

Technology – Technology-wise the two settings are not all that far apart.

Narrative Support (Story Generation)Green Ronin’s Adventure Game Engine (AGE) system uses a three different encounter types—Action, Exploration, and Social—for games that in some ways is very suitable for a Space: 1999 setting.

CORTEX Prime (Fandom Tabletop, 2021)

Another “generic” system that may prove useful is the CORTEX: Game Handbook (Fandom Tabletop, 2021). CORTEX comes in several flavors and different versions have powered the Serenity Role Playing Game (2005), Battlestar Galactica Role Playing Game (2007), Smallville Roleplaying Game (2010), Marvel Heroic Roleplaying Game (2012), and Firefly Role-Playing Game (2014). The CORTEX Prime System described in the CORTEX: Game Handbook is highly modular and tailorable to genre and setting.

Characters – CORTEX Prime characters come with three Distinctions (Background, Personality, Role) and then a “Power Set.” Looking across the options, I feel a Power Set combining the Classic Attributes (Agility, Alertness, Intelligence, Strength, Vitality, Willpower) with “Roles” based on Department assignments may be a good starting point.

Technology – There are plenty of examples of how to define a piece of technology in the other CORTEX rule books.

Narrative Support (Story Generation) – The different flavors of CORTEX can support different genres of adventure; CORTEX Prime attempts to synthesize those different play types under one rules set.

Which one should I work on first?

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Dull Claws in Game of the Week – Talon 2nd Printing (@GMTGames, 2017).

Courtesy GMT Games

The current Game of the Week is Talon 2nd Printing (GMT Games, 2017). This game is highly rated on BoardGameGeek scoring a solid 7.7 with nearly 400 ratings. It is also ranked as the 167th War game on the site. For myself, I find Talon mechanically strong but the lack of deep theme makes it less interesting for me to play. In other words, the lack of a strong theme in Talon fails to draw me deeper into the game.

All things considered, I can see that I have become pickier over the years when it comes to space battle games. I first started out with Star Fleet Battles. Beyond the fact it is closely related to the Star Trek IP, the real “theme” in SFB is taken from the ever-famous quote from the series, “Scotty, I need more power!” In SFB everything is about Energy Allocation. This theme carries over to the new generation game, Federation Commander.

Over the years, I tried other tactical starship combat games. I like Full Thrust (Jon Tuffley at Ground Zero Games) which is a generic set of rules. To be honest, I actually like two implementations of Full Thrust, those being the the version in The Earthforce Sourcebook for The Babylon Project RPG, and Power Projection: Fleet, a set of rules set in the Traveller RPG universe. Both of these I like because the game rules implement a version of the given setting that seems thematically appropriate. I also have played around with Starmada: The Admiralty Edition, another generic set of rules that one can use to make their own setting. I find the included setting boring, and have never found a another setting that grabbed my attention. The RockyMountainNavy Boys and I play the Star Wars: X-Wing Miniatures Game but I see it as an (expensive) manual video game.

Courtesy BGG.com

From a game mechanics standpoint, Talon corrects many issues I have with older games. It does not implement vector movement (though I happen to love vector-movement games) and instead goes for a more cinematic approach. It still has power considerations, but the use of the Power Curve makes it much easier to manage and avoids “accountants in space.” But as much as I love the game, I just cannot get into the setting. Ships move no more than a speed of 6 each turn, and combat is at ranges of 4 hexes or less. I just don’t get that grandiose feeling of giant starship battles in space. In part this may also be driven by the limited counter mix out of the box. The scenarios themselves also seem wrong, with major battles defending the Earth having only six units per side – a factor driven by the few counters included. When putting it all together I get a sense of cognitive dissonance; a game that works so well mechanically just seems wrong thematically.

GMT Games is offering Talon 1000on their P500 program. The draw for me is that it will include over 130 new ships. Given a greater fleet size, or at least a wider variety of ships, maybe the game will be more “thematically correct.” The danger, I fear, is that adding too many more ships will take the great mechanics of the game and overload it. This forces me to turn to the scenarios, and with 1000 new scenarios I would hope to find some interesting ones in there.

Talon, my Game of the Week, once again shows me how much I have changed as a gamer. I find it hard to enjoy a mechanically complex game like Star Fleet Battles, but need a good theme to keep my interest. Talon shows promise, but it has yet to meet its full potential.

My Babylon 5 RPG Universe

Babylon 5 is one of my guilty pleasures; a 1990’s sic-fi TV series that actually had a story beyond “the monster of the week.” When it first aired I was overseas a lot and really only got to watch it in reruns or later when it streamed online for a while.

In the world of roleplaying games, there have been a few publishers that handled the Babylon 5 license. In 1997, WireFrame Productions co-published The Babylon Project with Chameleon Eclectic. I reminisced about this game in January 2013 and, after rereading that post, find that my opinion has not changed.

In the early 20-oughts Mongoose Publishing picked up the license and produced a new rulebook based on D&D 3rd Edition. I never got the core rules, but over time have picked up many of the sourcebooks and supplements that Mongoose published to use as reference material for campaigns. I have guides to seasons 2-5 (The Coming of Shadows, The Point of No Return, No Surrender No Retreat, and Wheel of Fire). I also have sourcebooks for several major powers (Earth Alliance, Minbari , and Narn) as well as a campaign book for Earthforce. Other supplements include, The Rangers, Free Mars, and The Zocalo (galactic trade and black markets).

In 2008 Mongoose repackaged the Babylon 5 rules using their Traveller RPG license. In a post from May 2011 I was less-than-impressed with those rules, and that has not changed. But as a result of nearly 20 years of collecting, I have a pretty robust set of Babylon 5 RPG books. Enough that I could make a story arc (using The Babylon Project method) with details from the D20 sourcebooks and supplements. In February 2013 I even stat’ed up a character.

Add this one to the growing “Winter Wish List” of projects!

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….