Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Retrospective: Striker

Allow me to begin this week's retrospective by admitting, once more, that I'm not a wargamer and never have been, whether the wargame in question is hex-and-chit or miniatures-based. I've often wished I were. I've made many good faith efforts over the years to become one, but, no matter how hard I try, I can never quite do it. Sure, I can play the games; I can sometimes even do so tolerably well. Yet, I never quite acquire the right mindset to enjoy wargames as anything more than an intellectual exercise -- and I feel bad about that, as if I'm missing out on ever truly understanding the foundations of our hobby.

I bring this up, because, back in 1981, I was already playing GDW's science fiction RPG, Traveller, and loving it. Until a few years, it was my go-to sci-fi game and, even though I don't play it anymore, there's no question that it's shaped my understanding of what a SF RPG is and ought to be like no other. So, when GDW released Striker in that year, I was very keen to buy it and use it, even though it was quite explicitly a set of 15 mm miniatures rules rather than a "proper" supplement to Traveller.

For whatever reason, though, I could never find a copy of the boxed set in any of my local game stores and, in those days, if I couldn't find it in a store, I couldn't buy it. I did see a range of 15 mm miniatures intended for use with Striker and they contributed to my inexplicable lust for it. It'd be a couple of years before I'd actually see a copy of Striker, at a local games day, by which point my ardor had lessened considerably. That's probably just as well, since, as I discovered, Frank Chadwick's rules were dense and complicated, at least to my early teenage self. They took up three 48-page booklets, the first two of which described the basic and advanced rules, while the third presented design sequences for every sort of technology, along with extensive equipment lists.

To this day, I honestly can't tell you whether or not the rules for Striker are as complex in play as they seemed to me even after I got a chance to read them in depth. However, I can tell you that Striker exercised a baleful influence over Traveller as the '80s wore on. The design sequences, originally intended to aid in the creation of new units and equipment for use in miniatures battles, came to be used more broadly. By the time of Traveller's second edition -- the goofily named MegaTraveller -- these sequences were expanded and incorporated into the main game, thereby ensuring that MegaTraveller would be one of the most unnecessarily confusing and heavily erratafied RPGs I've ever owned. Likewise, many aspects of Striker's combat system were also incorporated into MegaTraveller, making it feel far less wild and woolly than the original version of the game I fell in love with in the early '80s.

I don't want to come down too hard on Striker. Firstly, I've never actually played it, even though I've read the rules. Secondly, like a lot of spin-off products from RPGs, Striker was intended as something to run in parallel to Traveller rather than something that would supplant it. Yet, supplant it Striker did, at least in part, because those design sequences, which gave referees and players alike the ability to design a wide variety of technology, were simply too appealing a toolbox not to be used. Traveller already had a lot gearheads among its fans, thanks to earlier supplements like High Guard, but Striker enabled them to become a prominent fixture of the game forever, the effects of which are still felt even today.

Another reason I don't want to criticize Striker unduly is because of a comment it includes on its credits page:
Although this game (as presented in Books 1, 2, and 3) envisions a referee or umpire to supervise play and resolve questions, the publisher is prepared to answer questions or inquiries on Striker provided a stamped, self-addressed envelope accompanies the request.
That's a pretty incredible thing to read, isn't it? Like Loren Wiseman's editorial from issue #2 of The Journal of the Travellers Aid Society, it suggests that GDW's designers only grudgingly felt it was their job to clarify rules rules, since this was properly the purview of one's referee. If that doesn't speak to the question of just how different the hobby was three decades ago, I don't know what does.

15 comments:

  1. I can understand you not having the "right mindset". I looked at quite a lot of wargames, too, but there was always something about the game's rules or philosophy that didn't really worked for me. True, there are some interesting games here and there, but nothing I'd play regularly.
    Guess we just have to be lucky to find the wargame intended for us. For me, it as Starmada XD

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  2. I bought Striker as soon as it came out, and a bunch of the 15mm miniatures for it, but never actually played it. I don't think I even made it all the way through the rules; it was just too bewilderingly complicated.

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  3. Actually the request for clarification with a SASE was fairly standard amongst the tabletop wargames industry at the time. It being in the nature of wargames to be particularly quarrelsome when it came to rules and "rule quibbles." Mostly, in recognition of the valuable time of the designers the questions were posed in a Y/N format, although there were some famous Names where you got pages of neatly-typed onionskin back for what you had originally thought was a simple query.

    As for Striker itself, I actually liked the combat system here better than the standard one for Traveller. I felt the increased lethality and simple damage resolution steps was more in keeping with modern weapon injuries than the more graduated response imposed by the standard rules.

    It was also the first product that gave you specific rules for actually designing vehicles - something that would be a standard in later Traveller products (and influence GURPS etc) - rather than just defining a vehicle. Quite a profound effect, and something which shaped a lot of the subsequent Third Imperium.

    My loss of the original box set when it was stolen is something I still feel bitter about to this day. Which is how much I liked the rules.

    As a set of tabletop wargame rules (waht it actually was), it was reasonably OK, but nothing particularly special - it's main claim to fame was the design sequences. It was also fairly Old School too, being focused mainly on the weapons, where most serious skirmish wargames rules of the time were either starting to focus much more on command and control issues (including morale and pinning effects of fire as well as the inevitable fog of war effects), or going much much simpler (ala Warhammer).

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  4. One of the things I liked about Striker was the system of orders. The way this worked made the game play more like a RPG than most miniatures games I'd played. It's as though you were playing multiple characters, some of which you didn't have complete control over. You could extend your control over the more recalcitrant characters by sending them orders, but orders take time to transmit, or by leading them directly with more confident characters. There's a vignette in the books which indicates how this works, by providing a short piece of fiction, then a description of how it plays out in the game, and finally a brief description of how the command system differs from games that provide more omnipresent control.

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  5. I'll point out that questions-via-SASE was not uncommon at that time in other rulesets. Some other examples:

    - Moldvay Basic D&D (p. B61, 1981)
    - Battlesystem Fantasy Combat Supplement (p. 1, 1985)
    - 2E Battlesystem Miniatures Rules (p. 5, 1989)
    - Star Frontiers rulebooks (inside cover of Alpha Dawn Basic, Alpha Dawn Advanced, Knight Hawks Tactical Operations -- "don't let a Dralasite lick it, though" -- 1982-3)

    (Note that the last three examples all had heavy involvement by Doug Niles, for what that's worth.)

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  6. Just to be clear: it's not the SASE part of what I quoted I found interesting. As you say, there were lots of games that included similar lines. What I found interesting is that the designer suggested not asking GDW directly, instead suggesting that the referee is the final authority for rules questions.

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  7. Frank Chadwick was at Celesticon this past fall, and one of his seminars was "30 years of Striker." The recording of this is at
    http://www.celesticon.com/seminars.php

    I've never played it, nor much of Traveller, but I loved a lot of GDW's other stuff, and I enjoyed his talk. Note that it's mostly directed at the wargame crowd, and talks a fair bit on technology.

    As I understand it, the orders element was meant to bring the wargame closer to an RPG.

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  8. I was another who, loving Traveller, looked high and low in the local shops for a copy of Striker... but never found one.
    Now that I've been getting into 15mm skirmish games(go Gruntz!)a bit my fever is back on to find a copy.
    Like Star Fleet Battles it's a game I've always wanted to try, despite have a bit of a reputation for being 'difficult'.

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  9. Like many GDW rules sets it had lots of errata and appeared to not seen mush actual playtest before being published. Talking to the GDWers back in the 90s I was surprised to find they never actually put any of their design formulas in a spread sheet to see if they worked.

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  10. I was utterly obsessed with obtaining Striker back in my Traveller hey-day, but never actually ended up getting it. In recent years, I was ultimately cheesed to get the complete Classic Traveller on CD from Marc Miller/FFE, which included Striker. But after reading through it, I was kind of relieved that I had never gotten it. It's not a bad game in and of itself, but my Traveller games certainly never suffered for not having the extra cruft.

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  11. James Maliszewski said: "What I found interesting is that the designer suggested not asking GDW directly, instead suggesting that the referee is the final authority for rules questions."

    Now I see... sorry for the misinterpretation.

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  12. I think you are being a bit unfair. Given the comms of that day (real snail mail) telling the ref to answer the question doesn't seem that odd to me. By default this is what all were really forced to do! As far as the rules, I again try to look at it in context of the time. Squad Leader was on the market with its "innovative" programmed approach. In the case of GDW they were still coming out of what we would now their DTP phase. Just look at their covers...they starting using more than one color! In terms of writing rules they still were very elementary with formatting. To me, this is why it is hard to read...too much dense text. But if you get past that, the rules are actually elegant given they let you play from clubs to lasers. The emphasis on command and control is a Frank Chadwick fetish and doesnt square well with the (then recent) Empire Strikes Back version of war. You are quite correct in that the construction section overshadowed all else but Striker is not a bad game, just poorly presented.

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  13. I gave it a pass at the time. Traveller had enough crunch for me without extra rules. Altho I'm always thrilled with more figures!

    Ah, Star Fleet Battles. Fun when it initially came out, this game went out of control with all the rules additions that kept getting cranked out. Still have my official loose-leaf binder with pages updated through whatever date I finally gave up on updating. Really, to me the game became a contest of which obscure or new rule you could whip out to the consternation of your less-prepared foe. Eh, I'd rather have fun.

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  14. I have to admit to loving all the complicated design sequences in Striker. I spent many, many hours designing vehicles, building units, etc. However, we only ever actually played it once, and it was a bizarre game. We played a game where we were a TL8 mercenary unit, and we were hired to guard a convoy of...something...for someone...(hey, it was a long time ago), on Harn. I remember having huge fun shelling a Thardic legion with cluster bombs. Good times.
    Ultimately, though, Striker was something my friends and I played with more than actually played.

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  15. I too acquired my copy of Striker by way of the GDW reprint series. I've designed a number of vehicles, but used few of them in games. I like taking real-world AFV stats and trying to replicate them with Striker rules. I've gotten more use out of the rules section "Integrating Striker with Traveller" because of the information on determining world defense budgets alongside Trillion Credit Squadron's naval budget rules.

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