Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Retrospective: 2001: A Space Odyssey

I have decidedly mixed feelings about roleplaying games based on pre-existing properties. They have a long history in the hobby, with early examples appearing less than five years after the release of OD&D. The 1980s saw a huge uptick in the number of licensed RPGs, some of which I not only played and enjoyed but, even today, consider examples of excellent game design. Though I often think the best RPGs are inspired by rather than based on other media, I'm far from wholly opposed to the notion. My real concern is that, more often than not, licensed games are little more than unimaginative cash grabs.

That's not my criticism of the 1984 Star Frontiers adventure module, 2001: A Space Odyssey. Written by Frank Mentzer, it's got to be a serious contender for being one of the most bizarre RPG products ever published by TSR. I say that as an admirer of both Stanley Kubrick's 1968 science fiction film and Star Frontiers. I say "bizarre," because, for all its virtues as a RPG, Star Frontiers wasn't sold as a game of cerebral scientific speculation. I say "bizarre," because, for all its virtues as a film, 2001 doesn't lend itself to being the basis for an adventure scenario. That's not to say that I think it impossible to use Star Frontiers for something more than space operatic shoot 'em ups or that 2001 couldn't inspire a compelling -- and fun -- adventures, because I don't.

Unfortunately, this module adopted a kind of worst of both worlds approach that baffles me to this day. Rather than using Kubrick's film as a launching point for something original, 2001: A Space Odyssey is instead a rather uninspired recreation of the film using the Star Frontiers rules. So, the first "chapter" is called "the Dawn of Man" and puts the players in the roles of -- I kid you not -- primitive man-apes who must survive until the Monolith appears to induce the evolutionary changes that will allow them to defeat their enemies and begin their slow ascent to true sentience. There are also chapters devoted to the mission of the Discovery to Jupiter, including HAL 9000's attempt to murder the crew, as well as the passage through the "stargate" there -- that funky psychedelic part of the end of the movie.

In all of the cited examples, the final outcome of the chapter is nearly identical to that of the movie. Sure, if you're playing Frank Poole, you may survive to travel through the stargate while David Bowman is killed off by HAL, but that's about as big a change as you're likely to make. If you've seen the film, there's really no reason to play through this adventure. The only place where there's even a hint of a wider world is in Chapter Two, "Lunar Excursion," where the players take on the roles of astronauts scouring the Moon for the source of a strange magnetic anomaly (the Monolith) within 400 km of Moonbase Clavius. This is an event not seen in the movie but alluded to. As written, it's stated that the Chinese (for reasons never explained) are also looking for the anomaly and that it'd be somehow bad if they managed to find it. So, this part of the module is a race across the lunar surface, as the PCs check out various potential locations for the anomaly while the Chinese NPCs do the same under the control of the referee. If that sounds vaguely interesting, even tense, it isn't, since the module's text flat out states:
If they [i.e. the Chinese] reach the goal first, assume that they do not test it accurately and believe it to be a large (300-400 gamma) but not unnatural anomaly.
The module thus makes it impossible for the PCs to "lose" -- or for events to play out any differently than depicted in the movie.

Equally baffling is the loving detail provided on so many aspects of the adventure. There are lots of rules additions to Star Frontiers, including new skills and equipment. There are charts for the odds of successfully navigating lunar hazards, daily schedules of the Discovery crew's activities, and lengthy discussions of HAL's various malfunctions and how they might be addressed. Even more impressive are the maps, by Dave "Diesel" LaForce, of Discovery, maps that, as a teenager, I simply adored. There's an incredible earnestness to this adventure in terms of its presentation, as if everyone involved felt they needed to make a "serious" adventure scenario that did justice to the seriousness of the 1968 film. Alas, it resulted in one of the most boring and uninvolving modules I've ever purchased. To this day, I still wonder why it was ever made.


  1. My God ... it's full of railroad!

  2. Interesting reading. I have these myself and would welcome your thoughts on the sequel to this.

  3. Anyone know if Kubrick saw the game or maybe even played it? I heard a rumor long ago he was a wargaming fan. He even had Ian Watson from Games Workshop work on the screenplay for A.I. at on time.

  4. As soon as I saw the subject of this post, my first thought was "But the maps and schematics are so pretty!"

    The 2001 module is pretty stiff, but the 2010 module, while still a railroad, can be more of a nailbiter. The PCs can mess up and have the Discovery and Leonov burn up in Jupiter's atmosphere.

    I've had these modules since I bought them new, and I occasionally think about how to tweak them to make them more of an adventure than a movie studio theme park tour. Both modules provide some good material worth adapting...especially those pretty maps and ship schematics.

  5. I have to disagree. I loved 2001, and it's sequel 2010 when they came out and I still have fond memories of them. Perhaps that is because we used them so much as resource materials for adventures after playing through them straightly as written. In fact the primate prequel to the story was a lot of fun and a different, fresh experience. These modules are filled with great details to use Star Frontiers in a near future campaign.

  6. Absolutely agreed. I used both modules (including the additional rules, skills, equipment etc.) to run a very nice Hard Sci-fi campaign. I never liked Star Frontiers' focus on sentient alien species, and these modules showed that the game could support other types of science fiction.

  7. Frank Mentzer mentioned he interfaced with Stanley Kubrick when designing the 2001 module.

  8. Yeah, I found it boring and railroady. But I had a lot of fun going beyond the limits of The Dawn of Man scenario, to establish The Mighty Ape-man Empire! That was fun! =D

    Those charts and maps are really nice! If I was to run the game with the ship and crew, I would do a bait-and-switch, with aliens, a murderous crew-member. realistic nightmares during hibernation to trip-out the players, dead crew coming back as zombies, or the like. I would do that, as the only ones I know how would play this game, are also well aware of the movie.

  9. "he interfaced"

    What's that in normal speech? ;)

  10. Connected? ;)

  11. Bad, railroady scenario structure perhaps, but surely all those rules and blueprints provide a good foundation for creating your own Discovery-based campaign.

    I find it interesting that 2001 reflects a theme that I've noted in a lot of '60s media -- that China, rather than Soviet Russia, was the real long-term threat to the democratic West (the implication being that some sort of accommodation could eventually be reached with the more-or-less culturally European Russians, while the "inscrutable Asians" would eventually bury the West under a human tide).

    While the economic events of the last decade or so make such a view seem far more plausible, China was so backward at the time (and moving retrograde, via Mao's "Cultural Revolution") that it seemed a lot more science-fictiony. The most striking depiction of such thinking that I recall from the era was the low-budget feature "Project X", which could make an interesting Star Frontiers scenario in its own right.

  12. a teleological movie about evolution (aka dumb. aka Robert Ardrey and Dart's killer ape theory can suck it), and a teleological module? sounds about right.