Wednesday, November 9, 2011
Consequently, Pacesetter's products often had a "TSR-but-not" feel to them, whether that was intentional or not I cannot say. Regardless, Pacesetter's arrival on the RPG scene caused quite a splash, at least in my gaming group, where we gleefully picked up its products with an eye toward adding them to our repertoire of games. What we found is that Pacesetter games fell into two categories: fun-if-not-inspired and clever-but-half-baked. The first category included Chill and Timemaster, while the second category included Sandman and the topic of today's post, Star Ace.
By all rights, we should have loved Star Ace, which was a sci-fi goulash game whose setting seemed determined to answer the question of "what would happen if the Empire and the Federation came to blows?" Set in the 36th century (I believe -- the game's timeline is a little vague), Star Ace postulates two human-descended interstellar states at war with one another: the Empire and the Federal Alliance. The Empire is, as you'd expect, a vast feudal tyranny, while the Alliance is a beleaguered democracy. Player characters are assumed to be members of "Star Teams," which are quasi-independent special operations who travel about an area of space between the two rival states called "the Wilderness Region." There, Star Teams are expected to engage in covert action against the Empire on behalf of the Alliance. It's a decent enough set-up, if somewhat clichéd.
Star Ace uses the same Action Table system as Chill and other Pacesetter games of the period (which is the same system used in Goblinoid's new Rotworld, too). It's a serviceable enough system but nothing remarkable -- at least we didn't find it so back in the day. Character generation is a mixture random rolls (for ability scores) and choice (for skill and "order" selection). In the basic game, there are four races you can choose to play: humans, crystal clones (Vulcans, more or less), Kleibor (bear men), and Traka (a humanoid trickster species). Players also select an "order" for their character. Orders are occupational specialties within the Star Teams, each named after a suit of the card deck. Spades are weapons specialists, Hearts are tech specialists, Clubs are noetic (i.e. psychic) specialists, and Diamonds are jacks-of-all-trades (i.e. thieves/rogues). As characters gain experience, they gain access to more and higher-level skills appropriate to their order, as well as rank within the Star Team organization, with the pinnacle being (of course) the rank of Ace.
If what I've described above sounds a bit silly, that's because it is. One of the big difficulties Star Ace had was that its various elements didn't quite cohere into a whole. Individually, many of its ideas were quite workable, but, taken together, they felt disparate, like an overly chunky stew made from leftovers. This feeling wasn't helped by the fact that Star Ace's aliens were probably among the least imaginative I've seen in a SF RPG. They make the forehead people of Star Trek seem inspired by comparison. I'm pretty sure, though, that this was by design on Pacesetter's part. The game is quite explicit about the fact that it's intended to be a swashbuckling space opera game rather than a treatise on exobiology and theoretical physics. That's fair enough, but I think, as both Space Opera and Star Frontiers showed, it's possible to shamelessly rip-off literary and cinematic sci-fi with style, a feat Star Ace never quite managed. Still, I sometimes think that, with a little work, Star Ace could be salvaged into something more memorable and as fun to play as Chill was.