Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Retrospective: Star Probe

Because of the world-historical success and influence of Dungeons & Dragons, it's very easy to forget that, from the very start, TSR published other games – and not just other roleplaying games. One of the less well known ones is 1975's Star Probe by John M. Snider and illustrated by his brother, Paul G. Snider. 

Snider, you may recall, was a player in Dave Arneson's Blackmoor campaign. A game of space exploration, Star Probe arose out of a science fiction wargames campaign conducted within the auspices of the Midwest Military Simulations Society. Though only 36 pages in length, its rules cover a wide range of topics, from starship outfitting to hyperspace jumps to battles and more. Given its scope, the rules are reasonably complete, though Snider repeatedly indicates that they can and should be altered or augmented to cover unexpected situations. In this respect, Star Probe is very much in keeping with the general philosophy of games from this era.

Play is based around the assumption that each player controls a starship from a particular planet traveling throughout the galaxy exploring new star systems, with an eye toward colonizing their worlds. Of course, many worlds are already inhabited, which can complicate the goal of acquiring data about these new worlds. In extreme cases, the inhabitants may take umbrage at the presence of a players' survey or first-in teams and attack, thereby delaying or even preventing learning anything useful about the star system in question. Victory in the game is based on the player who can bring the most "megarons" of data back to their home base before the conclusion of the game's time limit. A basic game is supposed to last five years, with each turn representing a single month, but the rulebook notes that this length of time can be expanded or contracted, depending on the desires of the players.

Star Probe plays a bit like a game of competitive Star Trek, with each player in command of his own personal Enterprise. Players must not only compete against one another, but must also marshal their resources so as to acquire the most data before they return home for re-supply. Once home, their actions are subject to a Board of Review that decides whether or not they are fit to engage in exploration again or whether they should be beached, resulting in certain penalties to further activity. The game's mechanics are filled with trade-offs, as players must weigh certain costs against unknown rewards, as the nature of star systems is randomly generated, using several tables.

Star Probe includes at least one genuine innovation that makes it stand out from both its contemporaries and many of its successors. Included with the game is a map that shows the locations of over 2000 star systems. That's an impressively large number in itself, but even more impressive is that these systems are placed in three dimensions. Each system has a notation indicating whether it is located above, on, or below the galactic plane. That's something that Traveller, produced two years later, did not do and that is still uncommon in science fiction games of any kind.

In his "forward" [sic] to the game, Gary Gygax includes a couple of comments about it that are of interest. First, he notes that Star Probe is the first in a trilogy of games that build upon one another. The second game in the trilogy, Star Empires, was eventually published (and shall form the subject of next week's Retrospective post), while the third, so far as I am aware, was never made. More fascinating still is Gygax's mention of 
"one lost vessel from an avian race having had the misfortune of somehow arriving at the world "Blackmoor" (and promptly losing all to an angry wizard whom they foolishly disturbed)!

For years, I'd heard stories that Blackmoor's planet was included on the maps of Snider's science fiction games, but this is the first time I'd found any evidence that these tales contained a kernel of truth. This makes me wonder about the connection, if any, between Snider's early sci-fi wargames campaigns and Blackmoor's Temple of the Frog and City of the Gods, both of which show evidence of SF high technology. In any case, it's further food for thought on the topic of genre bending within the early hobby, a perennial matter of discussion on this blog.


  1. Interesting... an RPG where player characters are not necessarily on the same side, or even acting in the same place & roughly at the same time. Apart from In A Wicked Age, I can't think of any modern games that try this.

  2. " ...stories that Blackmoor's planet was included on the maps of Snider's science fiction games ..."

    Good to see I stand on the shoulders of giants. I included my fantasy/D&D campaign world in my Traveller setting. No cross-over between the two yet, but gives me justification for the occasional ray gun or robot in the first, and slugmen in space for the second.

  3. Huh, never saw that Gygax quote before. Inspiration/origin for teh aaracockra, maybe?

    Loved Star Probe and its Star Empires sequel back in the day. These days I'd probably use some edition of Starfire for Empires-style gaming, but its hard to think of a good substitute for Star Probe. Maybe Reviresco's Starship rules, but they're as OOP as Probe is.

  4. I’ll be interested in your commentary on Star Empires next time around. I managed to replace my (sold off) original copies of both Probe and Empires at the Gencon auction a few years ago. I feel like Star Probe could actually be played as is, but Star Empires was on the high edge of what could do without a computer and would have benefited from some additional abstraction...