Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Retrospective: The Volturnus Trilogy

This week, I'm going to deviate from my usual practice of writing posts on each adventure module in a series, in part because I'm impatient and in part because I don't think it's fair to evaluate the 1982 Volturnus modules for TSR's Star Frontiers individually. Moreso than most modules in a series, Crash on Volturnus (by Mark Acres and Tom Moldvay, with Doug Niles), Volturnus, Planet of Mystery (Acres and Moldvay) and Starspawn of Volturnus (also Acres and Moldvay) don't stand up very well on their own. Taken together, they represent a single epic adventure that draws great inspiration from classic tales of pulp science fiction. To anyone familiar with Tom Moldvay's prior works, this should come as no surprise, as he clearly drank deeply from the well of pulp literature. It's precisely for this reason that I think the Volturnus trilogy has often been judge so harshly in some quarters. Acres and Moldvay weren't trying to present a plausible, hard SF scenario but rather a rollicking pulp romp -- and they succeeded brilliantly in my opinion.

The first module in the series, Crash on Volturnus, was included with the boxed set of Star Frontiers itself. I didn't post a cover image of it here, since it consisted of a two-sided map -- one a hex map of the titular planet and another the bridge of the Serena Dawn, a starliner on which the PCs are traveling to the newly-discovered world of Volturnus. The PCs are in the employ of a nearby planetary government to determine what happened to a prior expedition sent to the unexplored planet. Shortly after arriving in the Volturnus system, the starliner carrying the PCs is attacked by space pirates, forcing them to escape in a lifeboat and crash land on the planet below. They find the planet largely inhospitable, full of deadly creatures and hazardous terrain. Eventually, they make contact with intelligent beings -- the octopoid Ul-Mor -- who will aid them only if they complete a dangerous manhood ritual that will initiate them into their tribe.

The second module, Volturnus, Planet of Mystery, picks up where the previous one left off, with the PCs now members of the Ul-Mor tribe. The PCs learn from their hosts that others like themselves have been seen in the company of another intelligent race, a tree-dwelling one called the Kurabanda. The Ul-Mor guide the PCs to the Kurabanda lands and wish them luck in their quest. As they get closer, they discover a raging battle between the monkey-like Kurabanda and space pirates, perhaps the same space pirates who marooned them on this planet. If the PCs gain the Kurabandas trust, they learn that the prior expedition had been captured by the "demons from the sky" (i.e. space pirates) two weeks previously and were taken back to their base. A raid on the base reveals the existence of yet another intelligent race, the weird Edestekai, many of whom have been enslaved by the pirates as workers in their mines. In the process of rescuing the Edestekai, the PCs find the commander of the lost expedition, who was apparently saved by a "servant of the gods," according to the superstitious Edestekai. These servants live in an underground complex far away. Should the PCs investigate -- and why wouldn't they? -- they find a place with highly advanced technology, including robots. If successful, they learn that the place was built by one more intelligent species, the Eorna, who were the original inhabitants of Volturnus and are now nearly extinct. Unfortunately, their actions causes a signal to be transmitted that alerts the vilainous Sathar (who, it seems, warred with the Eorna in the past) of events on Volturnus, thereby setting up a final showdown in the next module.

That next module, Starspawn of Volturnus, concerns efforts by the PCs to unite the Ul-Mor, Kurabanda, and the Edestekai into an alliance to fight against the Sathar invasion fleet, which is determined to wipe out all intelligent life on Volturnus (Why? That's just what bad guys do). The PCs learn from some of the surviving Eorna that they raised these three races to sentience as a possible counter against the return of the Sathar. Unfortunately, the races proved mutually hostile to one another and slow to adopt the technology of their benefactors. Now that the Sathar are on their way -- far sooner than the Eorna expected -- Volturnus' doomsday is upon it. Each race has a test the PCs must undertake to win their assistance. Failure makes the final confrontation all the harder. Along the way, they also discover that some of the Eorna's robot servitors have attained sentience, too, and this fourth faction might also be swayed to fight against the Sathar.

What follows is a massive, multi-front melee brawl involving up to a dozen individuals and vehicles per side per combat. As you may recall, the Star Frontiers boxed set came with lots of cardboard counters and maps. Starspawn of Volturnus finally gives you the chance to not only use them (that was possible in prior modules, too), but to use a lot of them at once. It's hard to describe what joy this brought me as a younger person. Sure, "realists" can kvetch about the fact that there are so few units in each engagement and thus hardly reflective of a true planetary invasion, but I could have cared less. The battles were fun and they felt appropriately like snapshots in a much larger conflict.

Is the Volturnus trilogy silly? Perhaps -- but only if you're expecting something other than pulp sci-fi from these modules, which you shouldn't be. Star Frontiers was never a "serious" SF RPG, "serious" in this case meaning a deep and insightful exploration of, well, anything. It was, however, a very enjoyable game of space opera adventure that took a lot of cues from Saturday matinee serials of the '40s and '50s. That's not to say you couldn't do more with Star Frontiers than that, but I think it more than a little unfair to expect 2001: A Space Odyssey (insert obvious joke here) when the game wasn't written with "cerebral" SF in mind. Star Frontiers was inspired by the same books and movies as was Star Wars and ought to be judged on that basis rather than any other. To my mind, when Star Frontiers was good, it could be very good and the Volturnus trilogy is very good indeed.


  1. My biggest gripe with the Volturnus series was that my players really wanted to be in space. They wanted Star Wars and Star Trek, and they got Planet of Adventure. This isn't to say Planet of Adventure is bad, far from it, but they felt stuck on the planet and stuck resolving the adventure.

    Mind you I first ran these when I was in 5th grade, so allowing people to deviate from the plan wasn't in the cards. Needless to say all of our early SF games ground to a halt somewhere on Volturnus. It got better when we got Knight Hawks and the games started out in space.

  2. (insert obvious joke here)

    "Obvious joke" being the one about TSR's licensing setting up expectations, I assume?

    I have to admit - I never really "got" Volturnus when I got Star Frontiers as a kid. I think I got the boxed set when I was 8 (possibly 9) and my exposure to science fiction consisted of Star Wars, Star Trek, comic books, Isaac Asimov and anything else I could read at the local library -- which at the time definitely did NOT consist of the pulp sci-fi I've come to love over the years from folks like Leigh Brackett, C.L. Moore, Doc Smith and Jack Vance and others. Thankfully that's changed and I appreciate where Star Frontiers was coming from now, I think.

    Though I must admit - when I was younger we used it to create our own universe based on a mash-up of the science fiction we loved (mostly Star Wars and Star Trek, colored by Asimov's robots). That game remains on the list of fond memories from my personal Golden Age of Gaming, so Star Frontiers has always been on my list of favorite games, if only for nostalgia value for that particular campaign.

  3. (insert obvious joke here)

    It's that they actually released a "Star Frontiers: 2001 A Space Odyssey" module in 1984. (See near bottom here.)

  4. These were fun when we played them, but I think we skipped at least some of the multiple challenges and contacting of several races, in favor of skipping to the battle scenes. Doing the same thing over and over again was dull to our middle-school minds. Like others, what we really wanted in an SF game was spaceships and Star Wars, not Planet of Mystery.

    I've run Star Frontiers for my son and his buddies this summer, but this trilogy was not really in consideration for play.

  5. Ironically I just came across a pretty nice copy of the same map for SF0 Crash of Volturnus that you describe James. If anyone reads this and wants it, I'd be happy to send it to them for shipping cost only.

  6. All I have to say is "Starspawn of Volturnus" is just about the best name for anything I have ever heard.

  7. "It's that they actually released a "Star Frontiers: 2001 A Space Odyssey" module in 1984"

    Which consisted of a sheet of acid doses.

  8. You make this seem like a fun adventure, James. It would probably run well under Savage Worlds, and I'm half-tempted to see if I can track the adventures down and give it a go.

  9. I'm half-tempted to see if I can track the adventures down and give it a go.

    They, along with the whole of the TSR Star Frontiers run, are available as free, legal downloads at

  10. This comment has been removed by the author.

  11. How hard would it be to convert a Star Frontiers module for use with X- plorers?

  12. I liked the Volturnus modules, too, and I think Star Frontiers is the game in which I've used most published adventures. I remember little about GM'ing those but I think the characters managed to thwart the Sathar attack.

    I also liked the Mutiny on Eleanor Moraes and follow-ups, even though they, too, have the Sathar plot.

    I had an idea that I could try out Thousand Suns by GM'ing the Mutiny module - I made the ready-made PCs but I haven't yet found time to actually play the game.

  13. I've converted these to Star Wars and run SF-0 a couple of times - pulpy space fantasy is much more their vein than something as serious as even a Star Trek type game. I think they're a pretty good run for starting a Star Wars type campaign.

  14. The 2001 and 2010 modules for Star Frontiers were quite good actually. I ran a hard Sci-Fi campaign off those two.

  15. @quantumflux

    I just picked up a copy of this with no map! What's postage like to the UK?

  16. How hard would it be to convert a Star Frontiers module for use with X- plorers?

    Fairly easy, I expect. SF wasn't a very rules-heavy game, though its rules weren't much like D&D, so there'd be some conversion necessary. On the other hand, you could easily eyeball it and it'd work just fine.

  17. @Joe Nuttall

    Hey, glad this may find a home! Send me your address to noproblemo1 at mail dot com and I will respond with the cheapest shipping I can find to the UK.

    James, thanks for letting me borrow your blog to help Joe out (still can't believe you posted that just hours after I found that map).