Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Retrospective: Starfaring

While Ken St. Andre is probably best known for having created Tunnels & Trolls, the second roleplaying game in history (or, around this blog, for co-creating Stormbringer, which I consider one of the best, if not the best, swords-and-sorcery RPGs ever written), he's also responsible for having created the second science fiction roleplaying game in history, Starfaring. Published in 1976, Starfaring beat Traveller to the market by a year and only missed being the first SF RPG of any sort by a few months (that honor instead going to Metamorphosis Alpha). In any case, Starfaring was the first RPG to deal with interstellar travel and exploration, being very much in the vein of the original Star Trek, even if its approach and tone are much more lighthearted.

Indeed, I suspect that, much like Tunnels & Trolls, Starfaring is regularly dismissed as being a "joke game," because it doesn't take itself too seriously. This is a game, after all, that begins by quoting J.B.S. Haldane's famous epigram about the universe being "stranger than we can imagine" and following it up with "Oh yeah?" And of course the game isn't helped by the fact that it is "outrageously illustrated" (according to the credits) by Ernest Hogan in a cartoonish and satirical style that reminds me of a drug and sex-fueled version of Tom Wham. St. Andre's own introduction admits that he "had no idea that my artist would have such a bizarre imagination," while also stating that "if you don't like the artwork, that's your problem." One's reaction to Starfaring is likely colored very strongly by one's reaction to its artwork, or at least one's ability to take the game on its own merits regardless of what one think about Hogan's illustrations.

I mentioned earlier that Starfaring is very much in the vein of Star Trek. It postulates a future some 600 years hence in which humanity has discovered interstellar travel and psi powers -- both due to alien technology, the latter having been actualized through the use of a drug called LSDX-6000 -- and is now traveling the galaxy in search of both habitable planets (Earth being polluted and overpopulated) and "star crystals" that are used to power high technology. As a game, Starfaring makes a number of assumptions that differ greatly from most other RPGs. First, the game seems intended to be played with just one GM (or Galaxy Master) and one player (or Ship Master) at a time. There could well be multiple Ship Masters in the same campaign, but the structure of the game itself strikes me as if it would be difficult for all of them to be playing the game at the same time. Second, a Ship Master, as his name suggests, portrays not a single character but the entire crew of a starship, from the captain on down to its most expendable security guard. It's an interesting approach and makes sense in context, but I imagine many gamers today would find it unsatisfying.

Character creation is, as is fitting for a game where a player portrays many characters, simple and straightforward. The default setting assumes that humans are the primary characters, but it's also possible to play androids, robots, aliens, and "shell people," which is to say, an intelligent being whose consciousness has become disembodied and is now contained within some type of technological device (Think "Spock's Brain," however painful that may be). Far more detail is given to ship design, since, in many respects, it's the player's ship that is the real character in Starfaring. In the game's setting, planetary governments dispense loans (at 20% interest -- this was published in the 1970s, after all) to parties interested in exploring space for fun and profit. Thus, a player can build as big and as expensive a ship (or as small and inexpensive) as he likes, but he is expected to pay off at least half the loan after 3 missions, funds being acquired from bounties offered for the discovery of habitable and/or useful worlds. If the loan can't be paid off in a timely fashion, the creditor seizes the ship and the player must start anew.

As you can see, Starfaring's basic setup is an odd mixture of roleplaying and (possibly competitive) simulation. It's a mixture I actually find rather intriguing, but then that's probably because I like the idea of players having to manage domains, armies, and organizations. Being such an early design, Starfaring would likely require a lot of referee adjudication and house ruling to fulfill its potential, but that's true of OD&D too, so I don't see it as a problem. Likewise, the game rules, though brief (under 60 pages) include lots of random tables for creating star systems, planets, and alien life forms. There are also discussions of starship combat, psi powers, equipment, hazards (both in normal space and "subspace"), so the referee has a lot of ideas to draw upon, even if the rules that accompany these discussions are often cursory almost to the point of non-existence.

I never owned or played Starfaring back in the day. In fact, I'd never even heard of it till it was long out of print and only recently managed to see a copy of it. One day, I'll try to hunt down a copy for myself, as I think it's in a style of RPG that hasn't gotten a lot of development over the years. Nowadays, I suspect some would call Starfaring an example of "troupe style play," but I'm not sure that describes it quite rightly. Starfaring actually strikes me as having a great deal in common with freeform wargames from the late 60s and early 70s, the kinds of games whose DNA mingled with that of miniatures wargaming to produce OD&D. Consequently, I think Starfaring represents a path not taken and one I'd like to explore more fully if I can ever snag a copy of the thing at a reasonable price. Certainly, by today's standards, it's a sketchy and whimsical little game, but it's also a very imaginative one whose basic structure is worthy of closer examination, appreciation, and perhaps emulation.

14 comments:

  1. I, too, dig on the road not taken in Starfaring even though I think the 1:1 player to PC correspondence is the secret of the hobby's appeal to most people.

    FYI, anyone wanting to see more illos can check out this old post of mine:

    http://jrients.blogspot.com/2007/07/tripping-through-galaxy.html

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  2. 'St. Andre's own introduction admits that he "had no idea that my artist would have such a bizarre imagination," while also stating that "if you don't like the artwork, that's your problem."'

    Pure awesome.

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  3. I never caught this one back in the day. In fact, I never even heard of it before now. I'll be doing my best to acquire a copy. It sounds rather good!

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  4. Jeff Rients, totally badass mutton-chop-wearin' robo-Camaro-drivin' badass that he is, gave me his copy. I dunno what's wrong with that boy.

    I have yet to play it, sadly. but it IS appealing, for the reasons that you (James) mentioned above. Oh, and, hey -- it has some totally rad advice on how to use a 1970s-vintage electronic calculator to generate random numbers!

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  5. I wonder if the quite-recent Star Thugs (http://www.rpg.net/reviews/archive/11/11015.phtml) is a love letter to Starfaring. On the surface it seems even closer to the original than, say, InSpectres is to Ghostbusters.

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  6. I got a copy from James Shipman's sadly appropriately named "Outlaw Press." I don't know if there's any way to get ahold of it in a way that doesn't line the pockets of evil, thieving bastards and rip off the actual author, but you might want to ping Ken St. Andre -- he's pretty easy to find on the Inter Nets, and maybe he can sell you one or a copy of one, directly. You never know.

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  7. Oh yeah, I have an original copy of this game!

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  8. Such a strange game. Bet it was a blast to playtest!

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  9. I had never even heard of Starfaring until today.

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  10. Anne McCaffrey's The Ship Who Sang (1969) is perhaps a more palatable role-model for the brain-in-a-jar-ships.

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  11. Pure awesome.

    Yes, Ken has a knack for that sometimes, doesn't he?

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  12. Oh, and, hey -- it has some totally rad advice on how to use a 1970s-vintage electronic calculator to generate random numbers!

    Indeed it does, which only adds to its charm, in my opinion.

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  13. I wonder if the quite-recent Star Thugs (http://www.rpg.net/reviews/archive/11/11015.phtml) is a love letter to Starfaring. On the surface it seems even closer to the original than, say, InSpectres is to Ghostbusters.

    I never heard of this game before. Interesting.

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  14. I don't know if there's any way to get ahold of it in a way that doesn't line the pockets of evil, thieving bastards and rip off the actual author, but you might want to ping Ken St. Andre -- he's pretty easy to find on the Inter Nets, and maybe he can sell you one or a copy of one, directly. You never know.

    True enough. I generally hate pestering folks for stuff like this, but it might be worth doing in this case.

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