Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Retrospective: Star Ace

Between 1984 and 1986, there was not one but two roleplaying game companies located in Walworth County, Wisconsin. The more famous of the two was, of course, TSR, publisher of Dungeons & Dragons, whose offices were in Lake Geneva. The other was Pacesetter, which operated out of nearby Delavan, a mere 12 miles away. Geographic proximity wasn't the only thing that united TSR and Pacesetter. Much of Pacesetter's staff consisted of once and future TSR employees and freelancers, such as Mark Acres, Troy Denning, Andria Hayday, Carl Smith, Garry Spiegle, Stephen D. Sullivan, and Michael Williams.

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.


  1. I agree that Star Ace was not a great game. I personally preferred Star Frontiers.

    Others can check out Star Ace as it is still sold by Ronin Arts

  2. I actually really like the Kleibor - psionic bipedal polar bears with mitten-like hands. But the others . . . eh, no one ever wanted to be a Crystal Clone or a Trakka. Or anything except an Ace. It was the old "everyone's PSA is Military" problem from Star Frontiers.

    But the real problem was everyone wanted to play Star Wars, and this was close but not close enough. The system wasn't anything great, either. But I have still have my copy!

  3. "Or anything except an Ace." Aargh. I meant "Spade."

  4. This game came out not long after the Dragon's Lair arcade game follow-up, Space Ace. Even now, the name of this game reminds too much of that game. Any Sci Fi game with "Ace" in the title is going to be percieved as silly. Is that maybe why they deemed to include daft elements?

  5. Speaking of Sci Fi RPGs. Would people recommend Star Frontiers or X-plorers for some fast fun?

  6. @Paul, definitely X-plorers.

    Star Ace seems interesting, I'm intrigued about the action tables...

  7. I never played Star Ace but I was always curious about it because of the fun cover art depicting a somewhat nerdy looking hero. That had me imagining it as a game of average space-citizens caught up in intergalactic intrigue... which apparently it wasn't.

  8. The most notable thing about Star Ace in my experience is that the illustrations from its "Aliens" supplement have somehow made into the realm of clipart, so I pretty regularly find those twenty-year old pictures of Bear-Men and Cat-People padding out the margins of small-press sci-fi games.

    Star Ace itself, I had but never played, never even had any desire to play it truthfully. In setting and system, even components, it all sort of felt like a generic stand-in for a full game.

  9. "what would happen if the Empire and the Federation came to blows?"

    You mean these were unnecessary?

    Star Wars vs Star Trek

    Star Wars vs Star Trek in Five Minutes

  10. I’m pretty sure “forehead people” is a TNG thing.

  11. To me, "Star Ace" is to "Chill" as "Star Frontiers" was to "AD&D."

    As a teenager in the mid-1980s, I really liked the old b-grade horror films that Elvira showed on TV, the best of which I later came to know as "Hammer Horror" films. For whatever reason, I liked them more than the "Friday the 13th" and "Nightmare on Elm Street" franchises that were so big at the time. As a result, I loved this game, which wasn't as tied to the 1930s or the Lovecraft mythos as was "Call of Cthulhu."

    But "Star Ace" and "Timemaster" seemed far less inspired (and inspiring) to me. "Timemmaster," like "Chill" I thought, filled an underserved genre niche at the time. But "Star Ace" was entering a market already well served by "Traveller" and "Space Opera" and "Star Frontiers" and FASA's "Star Trek" RPG, among many others.

  12. Funny how I "collected" so many of these games, and yet never really played most of them.

  13. Speaking of Sci Fi RPGs. Would people recommend Star Frontiers or X-plorers for some fast fun?

    They're both fun, but I'd say X-Plorers gets the edge because it's actually in print.

  14. I’m pretty sure “forehead people” is a TNG thing.

    You're correct. I probably should have qualified my comment further.