Wednesday, November 8, 2023

Retrospective: Bugs in the System

With all the talk of Star Frontiers in issue #9 of Polyhedron, I thought it might be worthwhile to look more closely at what might well be the best adventure ever published for that roleplaying game, Bugs in the System. Some of you may recall that, almost two years ago, I included Graeme Morris's 1985 effort in the list of My Top 9 non-D&D Adventures of All Time. While I still very much stand by that assessment, the module is not perfect – few things are – and I feel that a fuller examination of it lends itself to some interesting topics, both about the history of the hobby and the design of published adventure scenarios.

Bugs in the System is a product of TSR UK, the British division of TSR Hobbies, which closed its doors in 1986. During its brief existence, TSR UK distinguished itself by producing a number of well-regarded and highly imaginative game materials, some of which have long been among my favorites. Though I'm not quite certain I can put my finger on precisely what sets them apart from their American counterparts, there's no denying that there's something unique about even the worst of them. 

That's certainly true of Bugs in the System. Whereas the American Star Frontiers adventures, like the Volturnus Trilogy, draw their inspiration from the pulp sci-fi of the genre's Golden Age, Bugs in the System is a fair bit harder edged and "serious" in its approach to science fiction. By "serious," I mean only that Morris takes seriously Isaac Asimov's belief that science fiction isn't really science fiction if it lacks science. Most of what we reflexively call science fiction, especially in the realm of roleplaying games, doesn't include much in the way of genuine scientific speculation. It's mostly fantasy in space, which is absolutely fine in my opinion, but I still appreciate it when an author puts serious effort into incorporating science and scientific ideas into his story.  

Bugs in the System does just that and in a way that puts the lie to the notion that "real" science fiction can't still be adventuresome. The premise of the adventure is quite simple: the characters are tasked with the job of traveling to a biochemical extraction platform located in the upper atmosphere of a gas giant to determine the nature a disaster that cut it off from contact and, if possible, effect repairs and rescue any surviving members of its crew. It's a classic set-up for an adventure, since it provides the characters with just enough information to understand their ostensible mission and leaves just enough unknown that there's no doubt in the players' minds about the fact that unraveling a mystery is why their characters are truly traveling to the extraction platform.

As I noted, Morris is very committed to the adventure's scientific speculation. The nature of the disaster that struck the extraction platform is an unintelligent, microscopic organism that consists of patterns of electrical impulses. These patterns gather together simple compounds from the atmosphere of the gas giant to build up large biochemical molecules in which they "live." A mutated form of this lifeform has infected the extraction platform's circuitry, causing malfunctions and other anomalies – in short, a living computer virus. That may not seem like an original idea in 2023, but, nearly four decades ago, it was and I remember thinking how clever Morris was to have come up with it.

Of course, the fun of the adventure isn't simply in the high concept of its backstory. The fun comes from the characters wandering around the extraction platform, which is supported by bags of gas heated by nuclear reactors, looking for clues to what might have happened, as well as dealing with the malfunctions caused by the lifeform. Characters with technological skills, particularly computers and robotics, will have a lot to do. Morris put a lot of thought into how the lifeform operates within the computer systems and how the characters can combat it. There are even charts and diagrams, depicting the architecture of the platform's mainframe, programs, and terminals, intended both to visually represent the overall system but also to aid the characters as they attempt to track down and isolate the lifeform.

Overall, Bugs in the System is a thoughtful and challenging scenario, one that rewards characters who pay attention and carefully consider evidence. Even so, that strength is also something of a weakness, in that characters – and players – who are not as scientifically/technologically inclined might become a bit bored. Morris seems to recognize this, hence the inclusion of malfunctioning robots to fight, including one whose outward appearance hides its true nature (shades of Ash in Alien). I can't really fault him for this, since he needs to ensure the module holds appeal for a wider audience, but I found these obligatory combat-oriented threats somewhat jarring even at the time. They only appear more so today.

As I stated at the beginning of this post, I stand by my judgment that Bugs in the System is one of my favorite RPG adventures of all time. Its underlying idea is very solid and its implementation excellent. Graeme Morris put a lot of thought into it and it shows. The maps and diagrams (by Paul Ruiz) are clear and well-done, too, which only adds to the module's overall quality. It's just a pity that, likely as a concession to those who prefer their "science fiction" to be Star Wars rather than 2001, there are all these unnecessary shoot 'em ups sprinkled throughout. Them's the breaks, I guess.


  1. A real stand-out module for the game system, with a solid attempt at plausible (for the period) science throughout and a relative lack of the magic BS scifi stuff that readers/gamers have grown to accept without blinking. Think the convincing android was the major exception to that, although there are probably aspects of the gas giant environment that would set a proper astrophysicist's teeth on edge.

    Some interesting similarities between the "bugs" here and Traveller's sapient naturally-evolved microchips whose mutant descendants become the Virus of that timeline. The latter were criticized by many players as unbelievable, while in SF the "bugs" are rock-solid speculative biology compared to the utterly ludicrous biomes Volturnus had trained SF players to accept.

    1. I was also reminded of Virus. I wonder if there was any influence there?

      (I quite liked Virus, for what it's worth. A new conflict introduced into a somewhat stale setting, *and* a neat way to sidestep the "computers are unrealistic in Traveller" problem.)

    2. Can't say for influence, but the Virus leaves me a little conflicted even today. On the one hand, it's fine take on several classic scifi tropes (artificial intelligence overthrowing its creators, collapse and rebirth of interstellar civilization, leftover doomsday machines ala Berserkers) and did stir things up quite a bit. But they also came as an out-of-nowhere deus ex machina after years of the plodding Rebellion/Civil War meta-story, which had already turned the 3rd Imperium setting on its head and had some players heavily invested in whichever faction they most liked/disliked to take the throne of a battered empire. To have the whole thing end in a total collapse by publisher fiat was somehow even worse than starting it in the first place had been, and the time skip to the RCES/Vampire fleets era left existing campaigns with effectively no support whatsoever for years. It's not real surprising that the entire timeline is considered non-canonical now, especially after GURPS Traveller made a point of ignoring everything from Strephon's assassination forward and got praise (and sales) that GDW hadn't seen in years.

      Virus as a creeping, spreading mystery menace in an otherwise stable Third Imperium could have worked all right. As a forced (and deeply unsatisfying) ending to a war the GDW writers couldn't find a good exit from, not so much. The concept's okay, but it's tainted in player memory by associations with the Megatraveller and (even worse) Recovery storylines, neither of which worked out as well as hoped. They really should've gone with the "Dulinor dreamed everything while Strephon was taking a long shower" April Fool's Dallas parody ending when they had the chance. :)

  2. I remember buying this adventure when it came out and being impressed with the detail and plausibility. It runs nicely in a Traveler game which is my favored SF game. In fact, even though Traveler is a reputation for being a hard-sf ga e, it isn't, as there are few adventures for the game such as this one As you say, science is very much missing from our SF games and most Traveler plots read much more like bad episodic television scripts of the 80's or 90"s.

  3. “It's just a pity that, likely as a concession to those who prefer their "science fiction" to be Star Wars rather than 2001, there are all these unnecessary shoot 'em ups sprinkled throughout.”
    Well, this is just as true with the original Star Trek though, and I think that’s one thing that makes it much better than any of the other Star Trek shows that came after it. It’s an action-adventure show and that seems a good match for role-playing! The action may have been ‘unnecessary’ but it was still fun!

  4. GDW's Virus in Traveller was just lazy writing simple as.