#Wargame #GameNight with #TheFiresofMidway (Clash of Arms, 2010)

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Courtesy BoardGameGeek

This week’s Game Night saw the RockyMountainNavy Boys and myself playing a 3-player scenarios of The Fires of Midway (Clash of Arms, 2010). The Fires of Midway (TFoM) is a card game of carrier battles in the Pacific during 1942. Although the featured game is the Battle of Midway, we played the Battle of Santa Cruz scenario.

 

Little RMN took the two American carriers, Enterprise and Hornet. The Japanese fleet command was divided with Middle RMN sailing carriers Shokaku and Zuikaku while I sailed light carriers Zuiho and Junyo.

TFoM starts with a both sides searching for the other. This is how the initial hand of Combat Cards is built and determines advantage – the first to find the third carrier gets the first VP. Advantage in turn drives the use of doctrine; the Confident side (leading VP) has to follow their Admiral’s Doctrine while the Desperate side (behind in VP) gets more Combat Cards and doesn’t have to follow doctrine.

At the end of the search phase the Japanese were Confident and the Americans Desperate. This means the US player could have 9 Combat Cards in his hand but the Japanese were limited to 7 – divided between the two players. This in turn meant Middle RMN had 4 cards while I only had three.

With the fleets located the battle switched into launching airstrikes. TFoM uses Action Cards to help determine the order with each carrier being dealt an Action Card. One turned face-up, the Confident player can “steal” one of the opponents cards and switch them. Each Action Card allows for one of three actions – launch full airstrike, launch a partial airstrike and make repairs, or repairs only. Cards earlier in the action order go first but don’t have as many actin points as later cards. This means earlier cards allow for the “first strike” but later cards might create “the heavy blow.” As luck would have it, my carriers drew Action slots 1 & 2, the Americans got 4 & 5, and Middle RMN with the heavy Japanese carriers drew 5 & 6.

Zuiho and Junyo both launches strikes. The American carriers tried to hide in an area of Low Clouds which adds range to strike movement. Even with the challenge, both strikes arrived over the American carriers in a Fueled status. In the resulting battles, the American CAP and Anti-Aircraft fire proved mostly effective and only a lone hit on Hornet resulted. The American airstrikes focused on the light carriers and damaged Junyo. The later Japanese strikes from the heavy carriers succeeded in hitting Hornet once more.

In the second turn, the carriers generally held range, but this time the Japanese heavies and the Americans had the top 4 slots of the Action Order. By the time the round was over, Junyo and Hornet were sunk. With that, the Americans withdrew and the Japanese side was the winner. Close to the historical result, but a bit of a let-down to play.

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A Kate torpedo plane seen dropping a torpedo (Courtesy maritimequest.com)

Lather, Rinse, Repeat

TFoM is a very formulaic game. Each carrier in the Action Order follows a strict turn sequence. In a two-player game this works just fine but in a three-player (or maybe four-player?) scenario there is lots of downtime for the third player. On the plus side, combat is very easy; first compare a pool of combat dice (highest SINGLE die wins) then roll for damage against a damage track found on different cards.

Our gameplay experience was a bit blah. I generally knew the rules but had not played in a while making the first round a bit slow as it was necessary to reference the rulebook several times. Play was faster on the second round, but the formulaic sequence of play made the game feel more like a checklist then a narrative experience. We finished the game but the RMN Boys are not anxious for a replay.

When I first started wargaming nearly 40 years ago I was in it for the simulation. I was unabashedly a simulationist – the more “real” the game was the more I liked it! Looking back, I now realize that the best games I ever played (i.e. the ones of remember) featured great narrative moments (like the one time in Star Fleet Battles I spectacularly lost the battle when I failed my High Energy Turn and tumbled my ship). These days, I seek a more narrative experience in the battle. I have really discovered this with the start of our family game nights; the RMN Boys and I connect better when a game builds a narrative and is not simply a simulation. This may be why games like Conflict of Heroes or Scythe or 1775 – Rebellion are landing on the game night table repeatedly; the gameplay itself builds an enjoyable narrative experience.

The Fires of Midway is not a bad game. Given the level of abstraction represented by the cards and simple map it can hardly be called simulatonist. But the formulaic gameplay makes finding the narrative experience difficult. Maybe if we play it with only two-players and are fully familiar with the rules we might find that narrative experience. Until then there are other games to play.

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Fangs Out!* #FirstImpressions of #Talon (@gmtgames)

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Courtesy BGG

Way back in the day I was a Star Fleet Battles (Amarillo Design Bureau/Task Force Games 1979+) player. My first game was the pocket edition in the half-size plastic baggie. In junior high and high school my friends and I obsessed with SFB. One of my friends designed the original TK5 destroyer. I even got into the strategic game, Federation Space (Task Force Games, 1981) that eventually evolved into Federation & Empire (Amarillo Design Bureau/Task Force Games 1986+). When I pack all my SFB stuff together it overflows a medium-cube moving box (that’s 3 cubic feet of stuff).

But time changes things. Whereas in my younger years I absolutely loved the excessive energy management required in SFB, and the long scenario play times, I gradually moved away from the game. I tried other games, like the FASA Star Trek: Starship Tactical Simulator (1983) or Agent of Gaming’s Babylon 5 Wars (1997). In the mid 2000’s, I tried to get into Federation Commander (Amarillo Design Bureau, 2005), the SFB successor, but it just didn’t click. Indeed, my game of choice for starship battles became Ground Zero Games’ Full Thrust (1992) or a derivative.

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Courtesy BGG

In 2017, GMT Games offered a reprint edition of Talon, originally published in 2015. My interest was peaked by a series of post in the Castiliahouse blog where they were playing Talon. So I pulled the trigger on the P500. The second edition game delivered not long ago.

Upon unboxing, the first thing that struck me was the large, coated counters and the wet-erase markers. You mean I am going to write on my counters? Then I started digging into the rulebook.

And I am in love.

The basic rulebook is a slim 16 pages. The game mechanics are very straight-forward and explained in just 9-pages of Basic Rules. What I love is that energy management still is important, but instead of allocating everything (aka SFB) or several things (FC), in Talon one chooses “power curves” which are in effect “presets” for Power/Speed/Turn Radius. As a general rule, as a ship’s speed increases, the Turn Radius likewise increases while Power decreases.

Simple…Fast…and Fun!

Moving away from the SFB Power Allocation sheet, or the FC Ship Status Display, to info on the counter also helps with the fun. This makes the game easy to teach, an important consideration these days as I my main gaming partners are the RockyMountainNavy Boys.

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Courtesy BGG

My plan is to get Talon to the table, probably in the next few weeks, using the Advanced Rules (just gotta have rule 15 THE BIG GUNS). I think the RMN Boys will like Talon; they like Star Wars: X-Wing Miniatures Game and I know this will be a step up in complexity, but not nearly as much as Federation Commander or (shudder) Star Fleet Battles. Maybe someday I will play those games with them, but I am not so sure it will ever really happen. My taste in gaming has changed in nearly 40 years (go figure). In my early days my craving for simulationism was fulfilled by games like Star Fleet Battles. These days a more player-friendly game, like Talon, is welcome on the gaming table.

*Fangs Out:  Aviator-speak for when a pilot is really hot for a dogfight.

#WargameWednesday – Need More Power, Scotty! (Federation Commander, Amarillo Design Bureau)

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Courtesy BoardGameGeek

Although I don’t talk about it here that much, the biggest wargame of my younger years was Star Fleet Battles (SFB). I started out with the original Task Force Games baggie and kept going through the Captain’s Edition. For the longest time, the Star Fleet Universe (SFU) was my version of Star Trek.

SFB is all about starship duels in the SFU. The core mechanic of gameplay is Energy Allocation; ships produce a finite amount of power and to do anything – from firing to movement to shields – takes power. Some people accuse SFB of being “accountants in space” because it all comes down to how much power a ship has and how it gets used. SFB also suffered from tremendous rules and errata bloat making critics call it “Advanced Squad Leader in Space.” None of this stopped my friends and I from getting EVERY SFB product produced. One of my friends had his ship design published. We even bought into the Starline 2400-line of miniatures and played giant battles on an old ping-pong table in my basement. SFB was THE wargame of our youth. We fully embraced the complex rules because they modeled so well the interaction between different ships with different capabilities and limitations. Though SFB we learned how to really analyze a system and make it work in our favor.

As the years passed we all went our separate ways. I faithfully carried my SFB collection in a giant tub container through college and 20 years of military moves. As the RockyMountainNavy Boys grew, I wanted to pull out SFB but was always hesitant because I know how complicated it is and how much dedication it takes to learn to play, much less become anything near proficient.

In the mid-2000’s Amarillo Design Bureau rolled out a companion version of SFB called Federation Commander (FC). As their own website says:

The game system is based on energy. You count how much energy your starship generates at the start of each turn, and pay for a “baseline speed”. The rest of your energy is spent during the turn to fire weapons, operate systems (tractor beams, transporters), to speed up, to slow down, or to reinforce your shields. During each of the eight impulses of each turn, ships move (up to four times at the highest speed) and you have the opportunity to fire weapons or operate systems.

Ships are presented in two scales; Fleet Scale is “half the size” of Squadron Scale and can be used to resolve larger battles in less time.

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Courtesy BGG

FC is a simplified, faster playing version of SFB. The core mechanic – energy allocation – remains but that energy allocation takes place throughout the turn vice a pre-plot for SFB. Each turn in FC is divided into 8 impulses vice 32 in SFB. These changes speed up the game considerably.

Speaking at breakfast last week, Little RMN was asking about different games and we got into discussing what I call “manual video games.” He asked about different starship combat games and I reminisced about SFB. He was interested, and asked to play. Instead of SFB we pulled out FC.

It was interesting.

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Courtesy BGG

We played a 2v2 ship battle of roughly equal point value. I still find the energy allocation mechanic to be very thematic. The RMN Boys are not big Trekkies so they don’t have the same appreciation of that aspect of the game. They found the interplay of movement-weapons-defenses interesting but lamented the SLOOOOOW pace of the game. The Impulse Movement steps are intended to avoid the IGOUGO problem of a ship dancing around an opponent without fear of harm. I embrace this design solution; the boys find it ponderous.

FC is a highly thematic and detailed approach to depicting starship combat in the Star Fleet Universe. I know it is not as detailed as SFB, but my boys will probably never learn that. We will play FC again when the mood strikes us; but that mood has to be a desire to deeply explore the interaction of different capabilities and design doctrines.

#RPGThursday Retrospective – Prime Directive 1st Edition (Task Force Games, 1993)

In terms of my RPG history, I now refer to the the time between Traveller:2000 and Prime Directive (1st Ed) as my “RPG Interregnum.” Although there were seven years between he publishing dates of the two products, the reality is that I didn’t buy PD1 earlier than the 1994-5 timeframe (and possibly even later) after an interval of at least eight years. PD1, along with Traveller 4 (T4) and The Babylon Project were to be my only 1990’s RPG purchases.

Prime Directive (1st Edition) was the first official RPG for the Star Fleet Universe (SFU). The SFU is not “true Star Trek” and instead focused around Task Force Games’ flagship Star Fleet Battles. This meant the SFU was much more militaristic than the “official” Star Trek setting. PD1 reflected this difference, but at the same time tried to bridge it with, IMHO, only limited success.

PD1 starts off with a short story. For those familiar with the SFB support zine, Captain’s Log, the style is familiar. The story itself is a hostage rescue mission and, honestly, is a bit cheesy in dialogue.

The rules start off with an introduction to the SFU, important background material and probably very confusing to mainstream Trekkies that came in looking for Kirk and the Enterprise.

Character generation is an 11-step process that starts out with selection of race and recording initial characteristics. Each character is then assigned to a Service Division and gains associated “basic” skills. To this point, I was comfortable because chargen was very Classic Traveller (CT)-like. The next steps reflect the military aspects of the setting, with Seniority and Professional/Heroic Reputation being determined. I found it interesting that the designers worried about the impact of Seniority and ranks, to the point they added a sidebar note:

A VERY IMPORTANT NOTE TO PLAYERS

Prime Directive is a Role-Playing Game set in a military situation, and as such, the concepts of rank and chain of command are important to establish the “feel” of the Star Fleet setting. However, something to remember is that YOU ARE PLAYING THIS GAME TO HAVE FUN! After a hard week of class or at the office, the last thing that someone wants during a game session is to be ordered around by his “Superior Officer”. The point of rank and chain of command is to structure the relationships and responsibilities of characters, not to give one player the right to control every  situation, responding to every argument with the stock phrase, “Hey, who has the highest Seniority Rating, anyway?” No player character will every bring another player character up on charges of insubordination. (Of course, mouthing off to superior Non-Player Characters, like the Briefing Officer or the Ship’s Captain, is another matter entirely.) – p. 25

At this point, the PCs are very “stock” and not very different from one another save for some Service Division skills. The players can now breathe life into their characters by purchasing skills. Once complete, the final step is to derive characteristics. To assist in understanding, a comprehensive example is provided.

The next section is the core mechanic discussion. A basic Skill Task in PD1 requires the player to roll a number of d6 equal to the average of their Skill + Characteristic. A natural roll of 6 is rerolled with the reroll -1 ADDED to the original 6. (I think this was the first time I ran into the concept of “exploding” die rolls.) Each die roll is compared to a series of “Tricodes” for the skill attempted, which in turn give a Success Level (SL). To assist in understanding, the following (not so short) example is given:

For example: Peltier is tracking renegades across a wilderness hillside. His tricode for Tracking is, after all mods, a 3/5/9. Peltier rolls 5 dice and gets the following numbers: 1, 2, 3, 6, 11. [My note – that last roll is only possible with an exploding die] His roll of 1 and 2 do not meet the tricode for Minimal Success, and if they had been the best he rolled, then he would of Botched the task, probably with disastrous results. His roll of 3, however, DOES meet the tricode for Minimal Success, so he escapes the horrors of Botching. If this had been the best Peltier had rolled, then he would know that the renegades HAD been by that spot, but he would have no idea how long ago it had been nor any idea of the direction in which they had continued. But, his roll of 6 meets the tricode for Moderate Success, so he finds out even more. If these had been his best rolls, then Peltier would know that the renegades passed this way within the last hour and they were headed up the slope. However, Peltier is an expert tracker, and so it comes as no surprise that even in these difficult circumstances he manages to completely succeed in this task. His roll of 11 is well over the tricode of 9 that he needs for Complete success. With this level, he also learns that only TWO of the renegades passed by here, and that one of them is slightly wounded. Knowing this, he can follow the pair up the hill or back to track to (hopefully) find the spot where the group broke up and start to trail the others. – p. 39

The next section, Actions and Initiative, goes hand-in-hand with the core mechanic. PD1 asks players to determine a Level of Action, which is a test that results in a SL determining WHAT the player can do. Once the LoA has been determined, player determine Initiative, or the WHEN of the action. Finally, players and the GM must figure out the “Time in Combat” (TIC) or “Time out of Combat” (TOC) which tells them HOW LONG the action took.

At this point, PD1 tries to be more dramatic. With a COMPLETE success for the Level of Action test, the players can make a Complex Action.  As defined by the rules, a complex action allows for more dramatic choices:

A Complex Action is just that, a complex series of actions that can be considered as several linked simple actions. A Complex Action is anything that can reasonably be summed up in a simple phrase like: “I run up to the Klingon and kick the disruptor out of his hand.” or “I activate the (already armed and sequenced) self-destruct module and run to the transporter pad.” or “I grab a new power pack from the satchel and slap it into my phaser as I turn to face the buckling door.” The pro forma limit is ‘I do something’ and then ‘I do something else’ (usually while someone else stands by, astonished that you could get away with all that before they could react). These two actions do NOT necessarily have to be directly related, as do those in Simple action, although they could be if you wished.

A Complex Action lets you grab the Ambassador’s daughter and swing from the chandelier, sweeping just beyond the reach of the Orion Pirates below, to the safety of the balcony beyond or make two attacks on an opponent before he can react at all! All in all, Complex Actions let you get away with murder, completely baffling those poor slobs who are slogging along at Minimal or Simple LoAs. – p. 42

Actions and Initiative ends with another important sidebar:

IMPORTANT NOTE TO BOTH THE GM AND PLAYERS: The spirit of the Action and Initiative rules in Prime Directive are not meant to be a meticulously detailed series of minutely considered “war game moves”. Rather, the designers hope that the players (and the GMs) will paint their actions with a wider, more colorful brush. Instead of thinking: “Hmm, could an Olympic athlete REALLY do all that in four seconds,” you should think “Have my favorite SF/Adventure movies ever had someone doing this?” – p. 45

Skill are very combat-focused, as expected in this very militaristic setting.  I find it interesting that Leadership skills include what is these days are commonly called “social combat” and that Discipline-related skills is where the psionic skills are collected. Overall, there are 11 Skill areas with 85 skills!

The combat section is complicated; so complicated that it actually has two examples and an alternative combat system over 27 pages. Part of the combat section bloat is that it also includes weapons (commonly found in other RPGs in an equipment or ironmongry section). At its heart, combat is broken down into four steps: Time, Position, Attack, and Defend. The first combat example, 5.2, is presented in a highly narrative manner with little reference to actual die rolls. The second example, 5.27, is presented as an Advanced Combat Example which replays the first example but with all the die rolls included. Finally, and most interesting to me, is rule 5.28 SIMPLIFIED COMBAT SYSTEM:

The combat system in Prime Directive is often both intense and complex. There are a great many things which the players can do, and the rules must account for all of these. Veteran players of RPGs will easily adapt to the system, while new players may find it hard to deal with all at once.

To make the entire game more accessible to new players, we have included a simplified system for combat. The entire rulebook is written for the more intense Veterans Combat System (a term you will not find anywhere in the rules except on this page). The ‘Simplified Combat System’ or SCS is contained entirely on this one page of the rules, and the designers have chosen not to clutter the game with hundreds of references (one in virtually every rule) defining how that rule would work if the Simplified Combat System was in force. It will be obvious, in each case, what to do. – p 93

Buried within the SCS is one of the few narrative play elements found in this entire rules set. Simplification #6: HEROIC DAMAGE SURVIVAL, allows the players to spend one point of Heroic Reputation to reduce the damage in a Lethal attack to one point less than it takes to kill them outright. So intense is combat that Healing gets it own section.

Advancement and Awards is another interesting section, where players are evaluated and reviewed. Buried within this section is one other narrative element which allows character to use a Heroic Reputation feat to convert an ordinary result into an Extraordinary Success. I also like the section on Wheedling for points.

The rules finish off with an Equipment sections more racial backgrounds and NPCs, and two adventures. There is also a SFB scenario that (amazingly) can be linked to an RPG session:

(SD1.47) LINK TO PRIME DIRECTIVE: Do not use the SFB boarding party system. Simply transport the Prime Team (SD1.49) to the derelict using transporters and conduct actions inside the derelict as per the Prime Directive game system. Each “action” in Prime Directive consumes two impulse(s) in Star Fleet Battles. This scenario cannot be played without Prime Directive. – p. 172

For the even more masochistic, a variant rule was given:

(SD1.62) Have the Prime Team play their battle in a separate room, with the Game Master advising each group when it can proceed to the next action/impulse (keeping the two groups at the same time-point, with the Prime Team moving first in each case). Because of the jamming, there is no communication between the two groups except notification that the “beacon” has been activated. – p. 172

What I Thought of It Then – Given I was a huge SFB player, I really wanted to play Prime Directive in the SFU. However, I remember finding character generation to be a real chore, and the limited scope of play (the military setting with characters in Star Fleet) seemed to reduce adventure options. Most importantly, I couldn’t wrap my head around the whole task resolution system of nD6 versus a Tricode. Finally, I totally missed the Simplified Combat System and instead tried to make sense out of the Veteran Combat System, even as I struggled with the core mechanic or how Levels of Action, Initiative, and Time interacted.

What I Think of It Now – These days I pay a lot more attention to the core mechanic and actually study them. Today I see, and understand, the PD1 task resolution system. I can see how the designers tried to make die rolls determine a Success Level. I now understand how Level of Action is the WHAT can be done, Initiative is WHEN the action happens, and Time is HOW LONG the action takes. With this understanding, I can better grasp the Veterans Combat System. At the same time, I now see (and prefer) the alternative Simplified Combat System.

That said, the Tricode approach is a hot mess. Each skill has a unique tricode demanding it be noted or easily referenced. This in turn demands a detailed character sheet clearly noting Characteristics and Skills and nD6 to roll and Tricodes. The GM needs easy access to the many Tricodes and numerous modifiers and…well, I think you get the point.

These days I also prefer to have more narrative elements in my RPG, and in that way PD1 is weak. While Level of Action determines WHAT can be done the player influence is subject to the whims of  die rolls (i.e. less player agency). Indeed, there are only a few areas where player agency is given any attention, and those usually revolve around a very limited use of the Heroic Reputation points. Heroic Reputation could of been PD1‘s game currency, but the designers don’t take the concept to the natural limits of that thought.

From an RPG-perspective, I give Prime Directive (1st Edition) Totally Subjective Game Rating (Scale of 1-5):

  • System Crunch = 4 (Crunchy, especially for combat)
  • Simulationist = 3 (Wants to be dramatic, but rules don’t often support)
  • Narrativism = 2 (Few rules support narrative play)

Prime Directive (1st Edition), Copyright (c) 1993, Task Force Games.

#RPGThursday Retrospective – Star Trek: The Roleplaying Game 1st Edition (FASA, 1983)

At the risk of making many enemies, I admit that I am not really a Star Trek fan. No, it’s not that I am a rabid Star Wars fan (especially in light of what Disney/JJ Abrams is doing to the franchise these days) but in my early wargaming days my view of Star Trek was shaped by a little wargame called Star Fleet Battles (SFB)

SFB takes place in what has eventually come to be known as the Star Fleet Universe. As noted on Wikipedia:

The Star Fleet Universe (SFU) is the variant of the Star Trek fictional universe detailed in the series of Star Fleet Battles games (board-, card-, and role-playing) from Amarillo Design Bureau Inc. and used as reference for the Starfleet Command series of computer games. Its source material stems from the original and animated series of Star Trek as well as from other “fan” sources, such as The Star Trek Star Fleet Technical Manual. In addition, it also includes a substantial number of new races and technologies, such as the Hydran Kingdom, the Inter-Stellar Concordium and the Andromedans.

Star Fleet Battles was based on the Star Trek universe as of 1979 and includes elements of Star Trek: The Original Series and Star Trek: The Animated Series. Federation elements were heavily based on concepts from The Star Trek Star Fleet Technical Manual. Unlike the mainstream Star Trek universe, Star Fleet Battles seems to consider some, but not all of The Animated Series, as being a canon material source, thus leading to the inclusion of aliens such as the Kzinti, which had originally been created for a non-Trek story series.

Since the first publication of the game, Star Fleet Battles and the Star Trek universe have diverged considerably as the authors of the game and those of the films and television series have basically ignored each other. The resulting divergent world of Star Fleet Battles is known as the “Star Fleet Universe”. – Star Fleet Universe Wikipedia

The SFU did not get a RPG until the publication of Prime Directive in 1993. But in 1982, FASA published Star Trek: The Roleplaying Game. The game release was at an interesting time in the history of Star Trek, coming a few years after the release of Star Trek: The Motion Picture and the same year as Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Although FASA has a license from Paramount, it appears that the studio pretty much left FASA on their own. As a result, the game designers were able to pick-and-choose what “canon” they wanted:

It was left to us to determine what was the “essential” STAR TREK material, leaving it to gamemasters and players to add whichever specialized material they preferred on their own. – Core Rulebook 2001A p. 126

In terms of game mechanics, ST:RPG was published by FASA only a year after their award-winning Behind Enemy Lines RPG. ST:RPG is another interesting game where the differences between an RPG and wargame get murky.

ST:RPG is composed of three major game systems; Character Generation (Chargen), Combat, and Starship Combat. The Core Mechanic rolls Percentile Die (2d10 read 10’s-1’s) compared to Attribute or Skill – roll under for success.

Character Generation and Advancement is very RPG-like. Chargen uses a career path system after generating Attributes (Strength, Endurance, Intelligence, Dexterity, Charisma, Luck, and Psionic Potential). Luck (LUC) is the most interesting because this attribute first introduced me to a more narrative way of playing RPG’s:

LUC saving rolls are used in this game when the gamester believes situations may be affected by pure chance and coincidence. The object of this game is not to kill off player characters, and setting up a total adversary relationship between players and the gamester limits the enjoyment of the game. Therefore, the gamemaster should use a LUC saving roll attempt at times to give a player a chance to bail himself out of a tricky situation. A saving roll of this type should always be given to a player character ( or a non-player character who is an established STAR TREK character) who is in imminent danger of death or other tragedy. Temper the use of saving rolls with common sense, but do use them when necessary. Sure, it hampers realism, but STAR TREK should reflect television realism, not reality. – Core Rulebook 2001A p. 12

ST:RPG includes rules for skill advancement. This was a whole new world to me; Classic Traveller is famous for NOT having a skill advancement system! Even so, the skill advancement system in ST:RPG is very simplistic:

Once play has begun, skill may increase with use. After each adventure scenario, or each major mission of a continuing campaign, the gamemaster should have each player who saw action make a saving roll against his character’s INT [Intelligence] score. If the roll is successful, the player may roll 1D10 and add the resulting number of hits to his skill level in any one skill he possesses that was used during the course of the adventure.

Gamemasters are encouraged to give a few bonus points (maximum of 3) in a skill to a player who pushes his skill to the limit in the course of an adventure (that is, makes a difficult saving roll), thus learning something in the process. Extra points should also be awarded to anyone who has the opportunity to closely observe someone of a higher skill level engaged in a skill-related activity of a more routine nature. To get this bonus, however, the person who is teaching (not the one receiving the extra skill points) must make a saving roll on his or her own INSTRUCTION skill. If the saving roll is failed, no skill is gained by watching. – Core Rulebook 2001A p. 38

As simple as skill advancement was, it was still a more narrative-flavor of RPG that was very new to me at that time.

As much as Chargen with LUC and skill advancement was moving towards a more narrative RPG experience, Combat was a firm step back into the realm of wargames. Indeed, in the Tactical Combat Notes section of the Designers Notes they unabashedly proclaim:

When trying to decide how to design this section, we remembered one old adage – when something works well, use it! And this is exactly what we did. We had been playing GRAV BALL (by FASA). We enjoyed the movement and action system. It worked well, giving the feel of simultaneous movement while retaining a simple system. Most si-move systems require paper plotting of moves in advance. While realistic results can be obtained, the system is slow and cumbersome….

Combat evolved from our working knowledge of almost every game published on tactical combat. From the action list and character system we had it was a simple matter (although lo-o-o-o-ng!) to develop this aspect. Again, we just”worked through” what really happens in a combat situation. We drew on our own and other’s experience (you should see the looks we got from neighbors) and worked out situations live. – Core Rulebook 2001A p. 128

As a result, the Combat system is (once again) a very wargame-like, skirmish-combat system using facing and Action Points on a gridded map for range and movement. When rereading the rulebook, I found it interesting that the Combat Examples (which is really just one example) starts on page 55 and ends on page 59! Admittedly, there are a few moments in the “wargame” example where role-playing is invoked, but it certainly is a rare exception and NOT the rule! Like this moment:

Wagner moves as shown, coming through the door (which opens automatically), stepping over the fallen Klarn, and moving towards the door. The gamemaster stops Wagner and requires a normal saving roll on DEX [Dexterity] be made to step over the fallen Klingon without tripping (since Wagner is moving fast under stress). Wagner’s DEX is 76 and he rolls a 31 – no problem! – Core Rulebook 2001A p. 57

The third game system is Starship Combat. Here is where the designers attempted to balance the need to role-play with a tactical wargame:

Where STAR TREK is different is in the approach to combat. A simple boardgame could have been used, but STAR TREK as developed here is intended as a role-playing experience. Unlike other tactical space combat systems, STAR TREK offers the opportunity to “role play” during ship combat as well as during ground or ship based adventures.

In the system presented here a number of players will interact, cooperating in an attempt to defeat an enemy ship (or a number of ships). The atmosphere of a game session then becomes much like that on a bridge of a starship, with each player having a responsibility to control one part of the ship’s functions.

To keep track of ship functions in play, each player uses a control sheet or panel. These players will communicate vital information back and forth during combat, using their panels to record the turn-by-turn changes in power levels, ship’s weaponry status, crew casualties, and more. – Core Rulebook 2001A p. 102

To assist in world building, rules for creatures/animals and world characteristics were also included. These systems are very Classic Traveller RPG-like in their mechanical approach and don’t stand out in any way to me.

What I Thought of It Then: As a Star Fleet Battles/Star Fleet Universe fan, the different canon of ST:RPG confused me. I remember always trying to “fit” ST:RPG into the SFU. I also remember our gaming group really trying to play the starship combat game (again, a need to make it more SFB-like). As an RPG, the game didn’t really attract our attention. We instead focused on the starship combat module. We played the wargame and not the RPG.

What I Think of it Now – Looking at FASA’s Star Trek: The Roleplaying Game today, I realize I missed a great opportunity in 1983 to play an RPG that was starting down the path towards a more narrative game. All the clues I needed were in the rules – I just had to read them and embrace the concepts. A good example of play is often helpful, and in ST:RPG there is a short example of play that unfortunately is buried just before the Designers Notes. It doesn’t even have its own header. When I read it now, I “see” the RPG game within ST:RPG. That said, the example also makes me cringe a bit at the “state of the RPG art” in 1983. References to pocket calculators and a very lopsided sharing of narrative were the norm:

GAMEMASTER: Your ship is two days out from Calvery IV, proceeding at Warp 3, on a routine call to deliver a Federation diplomatic pouch and other official greetings. Unexpectedly, your communications officer picks up a faint subspace signal from the direction of that system, calling for Federation assistance. The message is too faint to make out much else, and it is unlikely in this part of space that any other Federation vessel will intercept the signal.

CAPTAIN: Can the communications officer pick up anything else?

GAMEMASTER (to communications officer): Make a standard saving roll on Communications Procedures.

COMMUNICATIONS OFFICER (rolling): I made it! What do I hear?

GAMEMASTER: There’s lots of interference, but by switching antennas you get a bit more. The voice is male and human-sounding. You catch a reference to “the insect plague” and another to “Government House” being “besieged by the horde.” Abruptly, in mid-sentence, the message stops and you pick up no further transmission.

CAPTAIN: That sounds urgent! And we’re three days away at Warp 3! How far at Warp 6?

GAMEMASTER: Warp 3 is 27 times lightspeed and Warp 6 is 216 times lightspeed. That’s 8 times as fast.

CAPTAIN (consulting pocket calculator): That’s…nine hours or so. (To navigator and helmsman) All right Mr. Devareux, Mr. Wickes…increase our speed to Warp 6 on the same course. (Turning to communications officer) Mr. L’rann, send a message to Star Fleet Command detailing the situation and tell them we’re on our way.

GAMEMASTER: Just so you’ll know, it will take six days at this distance for a message to reach the nearest starbase.

CAPTAIN: So we’ll be on our own. Very well, The science officer will consult the library computer for information on the planet. Department heads will meet in the briefing room in thirty minutes for discussion.

SCIENCE OFFICER: Captain, a computer file search on insect life on Calvert IV might be appropriate…

CAPTAIN: So ordered, Commander Levine. (Dropping out of character) Everybody check with the gamemaster on your own departments. I’m going to grab a snack! – Core Rulebook 2001A p. 125

From an RPG-perspective, I give Star Trek: The Roleplaying Game Totally Subjective Game Rating (Scale of 1-5):

  • System Crunch = 2 (Simple Core Mechanic but mostly combat-focused)
  • Simulationist = 4 (“Wargame” combat systems)
  • Narrativism = 2 (LUC to overturn events)

#WargameWednesday Retrospective – My 1980’s Skirmish Wargames

As part of my RPG Retrospective, I looked at the game Commando by SPI published in 1979. I found it interesting that Commando is considered both a wargame and an RPG.

Looking through my collection, I found several other near-contemporary skirmish combat games from the early- to mid-1980’s. These games are Close Assault (Yaquinto, 1983), Firepower (Avalon Hill, 1984), and Ranger (Omega Games, 1984). Now Close Assault and Firepower are literally the same game just covering different time periods (World War II for Close Assault, post-1965 for Firepower). Ranger is more a simulation than a game; it plays like a tactical training aid for the military.

What I Thought About Them Back Then – Super-tactical, or skirmish-scale combat was not the preferred scale for my wargaming group. We were heavy into tactical battles, be it land (Panzer-series from Yaquinto), sea (Harpoon), air (the Battleline version of Dauntless), or space (Star Fleet Battles by Task Force Games). I had Close Assault/Firepower and later Ranger because we thought they could be used as an adjunct combat system for our Traveller RPG adventures. It never panned out that way though.

What I Think of Them Now – Each of these games still stand the test of time. Close Assault/Firepower are a bit more chart-heavy than more modern games, and the combat system still has a strong I-go/U-go feel to it, but it still feels like a good simulation (and fun wargame). Ranger is an interesting creation, and could serve as a great story/adventure engine for an RPG.

RPG Thursday – Wargaming Prime Directive RPG

Courtesy Starfleetgames

I have been a Star Fleet Battles (SFB) player since 1979. I am very well versed in the mythos of the Star Fleet Universe (SFU). For a while there I collected nearly ANYTHING SFU. That included the Prime Directive RPG.

Over the years, Prime Directive (PD) has been released in several versions.  The First Edition (1E) featured a “house” system that I am not all that familiar with. Amarillo Design Bureau (ADB) then jumped on the OGL-bandwagon and released Prime Directive d20 as well as a GURPS version (which I don’t have). More recently, a Modern d20 version has been released (PD20 Modern).

In 2011, ADB entered into an agreement with Mongoose Publishing. In addition to releasing a new version of A Call to Arms there is also talk of a Mongoose Traveller RPG version of Prime Directive.

Getting excited, I pulled out my old Prime Directive d20 and rolled up a character. IN doing so I realized something I had never noticed before; character feats directly translate to Star Fleet Battles effects.

Specifically, I am talking about the Naval Line Officer Class found in the Core Rulebook. A character in this class “progresses” through tours in Helm, Astrogation, and Gunnery (Weapons). Feats such as “Helmsmanship, Exceptional [General]” are earned. But what does that feat give you. What I never noticed before was the feat near-entirely describes what Star Fleet Battles rules apply or are modified!

Courtesy Starfleetgames

Lets take a look at the “Helmsmanship, Exceptional [General]” feat. The benefit reads “The specialist is so familiar with the ship that the ship’s turn mode is increased by one letter grade (B to A, etc). The ship has the Legendary Navigator’s ability with erratic manuevers and high energy turns. See rule (G22.8) for more translations of this Feat into Star Fleet Battles abilities.” (Prime Directive d20, Core Rulebook, p. 46) In only one other place do I find a similar rule, that being under the Pilot Class where a pilot with the “To the Max!” feat gains the Ace Pilot ability in SFB.

Maybe this is why I stayed away from PD for so long? What is admittedly a core character class is described in SFB terms? If you don’t play SFB you can’t benefit from the character feats? To be fair, in a few places the SFB ability is translated (loosely) into an abstract d20 space combat effect. Too few to be really useful. To further complicate matters, the flagship ADB product these days is Federation Commander, a streamlined version of SFB that doesn’t even use Legendary Officers.

All this has me worried about Traveller Prime Directive. Mongoose has a rather poor track record in my mind when translating franchises into Mongoose Traveller terms. I worry that the “source material” in this case may be too poor to begin with. I can only  hope; and withhold my dollars until I can be sure!