Actuaries in Outer Space

Holy smokes! Three months since the last post – not a record, but pretty bad. I now deploy some chaff in the form of excuses – tons of work to do around (inside and outside) the house, a one-year old puppy (we were just in the backyard – he was doing donuts around me like a maniac) and – and here’s more of a reason than an excuse – I was doing research for the blog. This is the first of three posts I was researching – and the first for which I finished my research – so stay tuned.

Who is Manning Draco?

I would have asked that question myself a couple months back. I was goofing off on the Internet Archive, doing some random searches for star names, and up popped a story about an outer space investigator for an insurance company. The first thing that struck me was a sense of deja vu – I knew I hadn’t read the story, but it was dang familiar. Turns out, I’d recently read another story by Kendell Foster Crossen which was written in a very similar manner to the Manning Draco tales.

After finishing the story, I went searching for more. The stories were humorous and creative – and the “world building” was wonderful. If you’re doing some light space opera or pulp sci-fi, you probably can’t do worse than read these stories for ideas. I knew I could get a fun blog our of the stories, so I started taking notes … and then it hit me. Some of the notes I was taking could really ruin the stories for first time readers. With that in mind, know that though I’ve tried to suppress spoilers, they probably have krept in just the same.

The Stories

Manning Draco was introduced by Crossen in “The Merakian Miracle” in Thrilling Wonder Stories Vol. 39 No. 1 published in 1951.This story was apparently popular, because it is followed by “The Regal Rigelian”, “The Polluxian Pretender” and the “Caphian Caper” in 1952, “Whistle Stop in Space”, “Mission to Mizar” in 1953 and “The Agile Algolian” in 1954.

The Setting

Manning Draco is a 35-year old man living in Nuyork on Earth in the 35th century. He is good-looking, quick-thinking, positively addicted to the ladies and makes a living as an insurance investigator for The Greater Solarian Insurance Company, Monopolated. Greater Solarian is run by J. Barnaby Cruikshank, age 41, who inherited a small insurance company from his father and turned it into a galactic monopoly. This isn’t too strange a thing – the Galactic Federation has more monopolies than competition.

All would be well for J. Barnaby (who is played by Lee J Cobb in my mind) if it weren’t for a galaxy full of people trying to cheat his company out of trillions of credits. The two worst offenders, early on, are two of his own insurance salesmen, the Rigelian Dzanku Dzanku, and his Terran sidekick Sam Warren. Rigelians come from a culture of corruption, and Sam is a perfect toady. The two give Manning plenty of trouble, but he has an ace in the hole. Manning Draco is the only human to have ever developed a secondary mind shield. In a universe of psionic species, it has saved his life more than once.

The Federation has 107 members. It is governed by a president and an assembly called the Assembly of the Stars. The Federation’s capital is Rigil Kentaurus. The dominant political party is the Republicrats (kind of like in the USA). The members of the Federation are not often on good terms – the Capellans hate the Polluxians, the Procyonese hate the Acturusians, the Vegans hate the Achernarians, etc.

The Federation Bureau of Investigation gets a mention, and appears to be as iffy as our own FBI. The Galactic Police wear black uniforms and are armed with large-barrelled guns from which fire force nets. The Federation Patrol wear yellow uniforms.

The first planetary union was founded at the end of the Seven Hundred Years War. The Festival of Planets, celebrating the foundation of the Federation, is held from the first Friday in May to the following Sunday.

The Technology

Spaceships run on magnidrive, which puts Starfleet’s warp drive to shame. Manning’s ship, the Alpha Actuary, can get from Earth to Rigil Kentaurus in about 10 minutes, and intergalactic travel is not unknown – Greater Solarian has some interests in Andromeda. Most of the trappings of pulp sci-fi are present – televisors, ray guns of various sorts, etc. The key thing to remember is that these stories are not hard sci-fi – the tech doesn’t really matter – it’s more window dressing.

Hypno-perfumes were banned in 2963.

Sub-atomic guns can bring down anything up to a Marfakian lair lizard, which weighs up to 70 tons.

A Guide to the Galaxy

If there are going to be spoilers in this post, this is where they’ll be.

Part of the fun of Manning Draco is the world-building (or more properly galaxy-building). When Manning gets an assignment, he listens to an encyclotape to learn a few things about the place he is visiting. The stories include footnotes to better explain off-hand references – it’s like the things were designed for gamers!

Achernar: The Achernarians are evolved from bees, and inherited their tempers. They are 2 feet long and have six appendages. The two front appendages have double-thumbed hands, while the others are used for walking upright. The drones are the politicians on Achernar. They have wings, but they are not strong enough to fly. Their eyes are weak, so most need glasses. Achernarians are very intelligent, but physically weak. They are always irritable. The Federation’s fiercest citizens, their soldiers wear atomic-powered armor and are nearly invincible in them. 

Acrux: Acrux and its satellites (the Acruxian Axis) have long opposed the Federation. Acruxians are related to the Rigelians. They stand 7 feet tall and are incredibly strong. They have cylindrical bodies on three sturdy legs, dark grey skin, red, round, knob-like heads perfectly smooth except for a mouth opening and inverted ears covered by fine, sensitive hairs. They have four tentacles, two at waist level and two at shoulder level, and two eye stalks. Acruxians have booming voices and difficulty pronouncing the letter ‘r’. Acruxians are expert lock-pickers. They attempt assassination at the smallest slight – failure means the gods do not wish them success, so they do not try again. They consider material goods more important than people, so harming their goods is the worst insult you can offer an Acruxian. Notable is the Acruxian leeba highball cocktail. Acruxian pets are basically living balloons – go read the stories to get the full picure.

Al Na’ir: This system produces a cool, green wine.

Al Suhail IV: The dominant race evolved from an animal similar to the Terran mouse. They have eight-fingered hands, and are, indeed, quite mousy in temperament.

Aldebaran III: The inhabitants are humanoid and very much like humans, but with silky blonde fur on their heads instead of hair. They have husky, sensual voices. Aldebaranians have natural telepathic shields. They are masters of seduction. Evolved from fruit bats, they are still exclusively fruit-eaters. They are often attracted to humans, and Terran-Aldebaranian marriages often work very well.

Aldebaran IV: The inhabitants of this planet are very similar to those of its sister planet … and I can say no more. 

Alnilam: Alnilam fire-ice is part Alnilam frozen rum, part pineapple-lime ice, and part pure explosion.

Alpha Centauri: The Alpha Centaurans are actual centaurs.

Alpha Cygni: A planet of this star has professional mind-probers.

Alphard VI: This is the only inhabited planet among ten in the system. It is a Class C planet, despite having a civilization which rates Class B because the Alphardians are incurably eccentric. The planet is almost a twin to Earth in terms of gravity, atmospheric pressure, size and shape. It has seven moons which are so close to be always visible, six of the seven revolve around the seventh so rapidly that they make people dizzy. Alphardians are evolved from the order scolopendromorpha, subclass epimorpha – i.e. centipedes. From the eaist down they are 6 foot long russet-brown centipedes. From the waist up they are extremely attractive humanoids. Their empire is in the 2000th year of the Ix Dynasty. The Emperor Romixon is the son of Dumixon. The City of Ix holds the Royal Alphardian Library.

Alpheratz: Populated by giants.

Andromeda Galaxy: At one point we meet Captain mmemmo of this galaxy, trying to recruit young men for the Pleasure Camps of Andromeda. Andromeda is a matriarchal galaxy, and they rely on slaves for their entertainment. mmemmo is humanoid, with metallic skin, a perfectly round head with a small, mouth-like opening (like a speaker on a robot) and above it a larger oval opening with an electric eye. 

Arcturus: Mention is made of the pleasure islands of Arcturus.

Algol: I can’t say much about the Algolians here – you need to read the stories. Under the Treaty of 3106, Terrans were forbidden from visiting Algol.

Atik: The dullest planet in the galaxy. They reproduce by fission, and thus their dullness is attributed by some to the fact that they have never discovered the joy of sex.

Canopus I: Mention is made of the City of Sentiment. Canopusia is their capital city. Canopusians have body and head as one piece, like an inverted gourd. They have two stubby legs, two tentacles placed midway on their body, a bud-like mouth, two eyes similar in shape to a human’s and a third eye on a thin, flexible 3-inch long stalk. There are two circular rows of stiff hairs on their heads – the outer row is hearing hairs, the inner row olfactory in nature. They stand 3 feet tall, and have lemon yellow skin.  

Caph: This system has two planets in the same orbit. They are Class G planets. Both planets exist in a time fracture. One year in the galaxy is 20 years on Caph II, while one year on Caph II is 5,200 years on Caph I. Caph II has a light side and dark side – the dark side is warmer than it should be due to volcanic activity, while the light side is uniformly 75-degrees F. The planet has no moon. Caph II has blue sands, towering purple trees and pink water that tastes faintly like champagne. The dominant species, evolved from bats, live in the dark side. They are humanoids with small faces, pointed noses, tiny eyes, huge ears, light brown hair on their faces and especially long webbed fingers. They stand about 5 feet tall. The main city is Optville, and I won’t say more to avoid spoilers, other than that the Caphians are non-telepaths with naturally impenetrable mind shields.

Castor: Castorian rummy is played with three decks of 95 cards each – seven suits of 13 cards and four super-jokers – orbit, comet, asteroid and nova. Each player gets 39 cards and plays three games simultaneously.

Deneb XIV: An outlaw planet. The Denebians are bird creatures, about three feet long, two feet tall, with wings evolved into arms with three-fingered hands. They have long beaks with double rows of teeth and brown and white feathers with a black stripe across the eyes. They are thieves and murderers.

Denebola: The dominant species is evolved from the ass (i.e. donkey).

Ganymede: Mention is made of a Ganymedian dancing girl.

Hamal: Hamal is home to Sin City, which has an area called the Twilight Zone.

Kholem: A planet in the Coma-Virgo Galaxy. The Kholemite met by Draco is roughly humanoid, with light purple skin. Its hands have five fingers and two thumbs. Its head is pyramidal, with slanted eyes, a v-shaped mouth and no apparent nose or ears. Kholemites can survive in the vacuum of space. They have no sexes or reproduction, but are actually the children of a species called the Dreaming Old Ones. These creatures project geometric shapes which turn into Kholemites – who are all geomatric in nature, but might be different shapes and colors. They have eidetic memories.

Kochab: Kochabian sex dervishes are mentioned. Kochabians have six arms.

Martians: The personal secretary of J. Barnaby Cruikshank is a Martian by the name of Lhano Xano. She has red head-fur, copper skin and three eyes. Most Martians are exceedingly thin, but Lhano has a bit of figure, and Manning spends a few stories trying to win her affection. Martians stand around 7 feet in height. They speak with a slight lisp. They are not known for their sense of humor, but they do have love poetry. Manning has a collection of tsigra art from the Zylka period. Martians are telepathic.

Merak II: This planet has recently been opened up to galactic trade. The natives call themselves Deetahs. They are not humanoid, but rather have globular bodies with no necks or heads. Their mouths, noses, eyes and ears appear as needed on the surface of their bodies. They usually have two arms and two legs, but they can change that as well, and they can stretch up to 20 feet. Deetahs can stand from 3 to 8 feet tall and live as long as 400 years. They have high-pitched voices. I’d say more, but I’d be giving too much away. They are culturally and socially Class D. The planet has a population of 75 million. Its capital city is Tor-Melpar. The architecture is all spherical lines. Charted 362 years ago by Galactic Commander Daniel Horlan, it has 0.9 Earth mass, 0.976 Earth volume, 0.97 Earth gravity, is 6900 miles in diameter and has a day that lasts 25 hours and 6 minutes.

Mizar I: A binary system. The only inhabited planet is Mizar I, but the other planets are rich in mineral wealth. The dominant species is Class B, but technologically behind the Federation. They dwell entirely underwater in cities protected by synthetic bubbles with fresh air extracted from the water. They coralscape their cities, and have extensive algae farms; whales are used as dairy livestock. The Mizarians evolved from the platypus, and it shows. They stand 6′ tall, lay eggs and have retained their poisonous heel spurs. They are cryptesthesists – they can predict a creature’s next action, but are not telepathic. Mizar is an empire ruled by His Royal Mostness Emperor Alis Volat. The planet has a small island holding a spaceport for visitors. 

Muphrid VIII: A Class A planet with a humanoid population, the Greater Solarian has only recently opened a branch office here. The Muphridians look almost completely human save for their head of feathers – steel gray and blue. Their minds cannot be read by telepaths. They evolved from parameciums, and thus reproduce by fission.

Pluto: This planet has a metal termite. It is a blind, subterranean insect, about 10 feet long and weighing 3,000 pounds. It devours ore and excretes pure metal, so it’s valuable to Terran mining companies.

Polaris: Produces spiced wines.

Pollux I: A Class D planet, and thus not a member of the Federation. There are only 25 families on the planet, each with one billion members. The planet’s environment is similar to Earth in the Jurassic period. The dominant species evolved from crocodiles, and look like bipedal crocodile with shorter snouts than their predecessors. They wear Earth-style clothing. Aatobi Uu, most beautiful Emperor of Pollux, wears a toga and crown. The first two letters of a name are silent, and denote only social position. Uuville, the capital, has a small spaceport. The Polluxians do not travel in space, and relatively few Federation ships come to call due to their troublesome laws. Pteradactyls are used as riding beasts. The local liquor, dtssea, tastes like fermented swamp water. Polluxians are oviparous; the females lay self-fertilizing eggs, and begin having children as soon as they mature. The planet has 1.2 Earth mass, 1.17 Earth volume, 1.02 Earth gravity, is 7200 miles in diameter and has a day that lasts 27 hours and 5 minutes.

Praesepe I: Manning tried a cocktail on this planet that caused him to lose his voice for two days.

Procyon: Procyon suede is mentioned.

Rasalague: These people are 4 feet tall and formed like perfect human women. They have light blue hair, golden tanned skin and bright orange eyes. They wear a long white scarf that hangs between their breasts to their waist, a jeweled thong around their waist, and from that another white scarf. The rest I’ll keep secret, other than that they are natural telekinetics.

Regulus II: A recent admission to the Federation, its joining was viciously opposed by the Achernatian planets. The planet’s surface appears to be uninhabited; the dominant species is evolved from the star-nosed mole, and thus lives entirely underground. Their spaceport features one above-ground building – the residence of the Terran ambassador, who seems to despise the Regulusians. Zeloha is the planet’s capital. Regulusians stand as tall as humans. They have long tails covered with silky hair. Their hands resemble paws. They have long noses tipped with 22 light pink tendrils; a Regulusian’s nose blushes when they are embarassed. They are psionically sensitive, but not telepathic, and have natural barriers to telepathic reading. Because they are insectivores, they are hated by the Achernarians, who are evolved from bees. There has never been a murder in the history of Regulus II.

Rigel IV: The Rigelians get a bit of attention due to the prominance of Dzanku Dzanku in the stories. Rigelians are as tall as humans, but weigh about 1 ton. They have square torsos, legs like tree trunks, six tentacles projecting from their upper bodies, and small, expressionless faces topped by three eyestalks. You can only trust a Rigelian if they swear on their gambler’s oath.

Rigil Kentaurus: This system has two inhabited planets. The natives were moved by the Federation, who completely took over the system. One planet is the seat of government, while the other produces all the energy and industrial needs of its sister. Rigil Kentaurus I is entirely covered with buildings and parks. There are elaborate defense installations on Rigil Kentaurus II.

Sabik II: The Sabikians are 4 feet tall. Their bodies are slender and round from top to bottom. The upper half of their bodies are covered with straight platinum hair – it grows from the top of the head and falls downward like a mop. A pair of tentacles pokes from under this hair, and their two feet are like flippers. Sabikians have loud, deep, bass voices and malevolent minds. They are sightless, and thus rely on echolocation. Their anti-social nature means that patrol ships always accompany Federation merchantmen that trade at Sabik II. The Sabikians produce prohna, an alcohol distilled from the wild proh. It is green, with amber streaks, pale smoke curling from the top of the tall glass in which it is usually served. It burns the throar terribly.

Sirius III: Sirians marry in threes.

Spica: Wild love fruit from Spica is mentioned, as are Spican termites.

Upper Seginus: The people here are not remotely humanoid.

Vega: Vegans have skin the color of old jade. They have chlorophyll in their systems. High caste Vegans wear woven plastic suits. The planet is notable for its pastry.

Venus: Mention is made of the Venusian tree dragon.

Lots of detail for a few short stories folks, and ripe for a fun sci-fi campaign. I especially like the mix of detail and ambiguity – the detail is great for a quick game, but the ambiguities leave tons of room for devising your own material.

I’ll be back soon with some thoughts on Space Angel and Rocky Jones, Space Ranger.

Looking Back – Space Princess

Do you know I’ve been doing this blogging / game writing nonsense for about 10 years? Wow. That was never the intent. In fact, there was no intent – just me goofing around. I certainly never intended to write and publish books when I started.

So here I am, all these years into whatever the heck I’m doing, and I figure maybe it would be fun to look back. Today, I decided to jot down a few thoughts about an early publication of mine, and probably a mostly forgotten one, called Tales of the Space Princess.

Space Princess started out as my response on a message board thread that asked why science-fiction rpg’s had not become as popular as fantasy rpg’s, specifically Dungeons & Dragons. I don’t remember the other responses to the thread, but they were all genre-specific. My theory was that it had nothing to do with sci-fi vs. fantasy. D&D worked because it was a game above all else. Players controlled characters who wandered around a maze in search of treasure. Monsters and traps hindered them. Simple. Anything could be grafted onto D&D, and with each fun thing you added to the mix, D&D became itself more popular. It just so happened that the game was born out of a fantasy supplement to a medieval wargame.

The problem with early sci-fi games, I figured, was that they set out to replicate sci-fi movies and stories. RPG’s aren’t very good at that. Stories have plots, with characters under the writer’s control. They have pre-determined outcomes, which is anathema to games. Checkers works because you don’t know who will win – black or red. Dungeons & Dragons, early on, was the same way. If the characters died delving for treasure, you made new characters. Their death didn’t disrupt a plot – the characters were not central to a story, they were just “avatars” of the players. As a game, this works beautifully. In a novel, it would suck.

I went on to surmise that a sci-fi D&D could have been as popular as the fantasy D&D with the same focus on being a game that borrowed the trappings of science fiction. I took Star Wars as an example. In Star Wars, Luke, Ben, Chewie, Threepio and Artoo venture into the Death Star to rescue Princess Leia from Darth Vader. If we make this more generic, we get a party of adventurers go into a space fortress to rescue the space princess from the dark lord.

Of course, this got my brain popping, so I decided to actually write the game I was describing. I had published a few NODs and Pars Fortuna (more on that in another post), so I figured why not try something else new. I didn’t exactly base the rules entirely on the SRD because I wanted to try some new things. The characters, for example, didn’t have levels. You could start them out as novices, veterans or old-timers – their skills improved with age, but they got fewer luck points to get you through scrapes. This was designed to deal with the fact that, in the source material, you had young Luke Skywalker, old Ben Kenobi and Han Solo somewhere in the middle. How do you make a game work so that different “levels” of characters could adventure together? I had a similar challenge in Mystery Men – the Superman/Batman conundrum. Did my idea work? I decided to use “luck” as a balancing mechanism. Did it work? Heck – that’s for others to decide.

Beyond the rules, I tried to pack the game with all sorts of sci-fi stuff just the way D&D packed in the fantasy tropes. The playable species included humans, of course … which included anything that was basically humanoid and didn’t have special powers … androids and gynoids and “aliens”. The alien species had rules to allow all sorts of alien species to be created, either in imitation of species from existing sci-fi properties – such as vulcan and wookies – or something completely invented by the player.

The classes in the game are psychic, scientist, scoundrel, space ranger and star warrior. Looking through the book for the first time in years, I realize that I had forgotten about my sample characters in the game – Athena Laserwolf, the human star warrior (and an obvious homage to Morgan Ironwolf), Scrimshaw McGurk, the human scoundrel, and Zazzix, the alien psychic. The original art in the project was done by Jason Sholtis, and it was fantastic. It’s fun to rediscover things you wrote long enough ago to have forgotten!

For monsters, I tried to hit the highlights of sci-fi. Space brothers from UFOlogy rub shoulders with the ro-man from Robot Monster and martians from Santa Claus Conquers the Martians. The olvugai from Pars Fortuna made it into the game – I love sticking things from one of my games into others, to keep them all in the same “universe” – as did H.G. Well’s martians as zarks, the vulcans and klingons as red and blue voltans and the vampire from TV’s Buck Rogers made it in as the space vampire. I stuck girallons in the game because they were inspired by the white apes of Burrough’s Mars, and flail snails because I love flail snails. The point was to mix and match all sorts of nonsense to build gonzo space fortresses (i.e. dungeons), and that was what I did. I also included a way to build random (or non-random) alien animals.

I kept the equipment pretty simple, with some basic gear like weapons and spaceships, and then super-science gear – essentially the same as magic items.

Gameplay was designed to be divided into two phases. The first was the exploration of the space fortress to find and rescue the “space princess”, which can be an actual captive princess or a captive prince, or super weapon, or space station plans, or whatever you want it to be. The second phase is where the adventurers escape in their spaceship. They need a few turns before they can jump into hyperspace, and in the meantime have to battle some enemy fighters, a la Star Wars. Just as old D&D didn’t really deal with life outside of dungeon delving and stronghold-building, Space Princess kept it simple.

Space Princess … it originated in a message board discussion, turned into a chance to try new things in a game, It was a fun little experiment for a new author. Looking through the game, I’m actually pretty impressed with how much stuff I packed into a 44 page game! I guess maybe I should pull Tales of the Space Princess back out and give it another go. My daughter had a blast testing it when she was 14, and I think we have the old character sheets tucked away somewhere …

The World of Star Command

There are many sci-fi properties one can use as a basis for a role-playing game campaign – Star Trek and Star Wars, of course, but also Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers and Alien . Filmation (who did a great a Flash Gordon cartoon back in the day) did two great Saturday morning live-action sci-fi shows in the 1970’s – Space Academy and Jason of Star Command that would make for a great campaign setting.

Let’s explore these overlooked shows …

[Note – when I started writing this post, it was a short piece about the shows and how they could be used for a campaign. It sorta grew way out of proportion to what I originally intended … ]

Space Academy

Space Academy was produced in 1977 and ran from September to December of that year. Sci-fi legend Jonathan Harris (“oh the pain, the pain”) portrayed Commander Isaac Gampu, the head of Space Academy. His students were divided into three exploration teams, Blue, Gold and Red, the blue team being the team that starred in the series.

Blue Team consists of Captain Chris Gentry (Ric Carrott), Cadet Laura Gentry (Pamelyn Ferdin), Cadet Adrian Pryce-Jones (Maggie Cooper), Lieutenant Paul Jerome (Ty Henderson) and Cadet Tee Gar Soom (Brian Tochi), as well as a younger boy named Loki, an alien raised by energy beings and possessing the ability to teleport and see beyond the visible spectrum.

We do know that the Red Team leader is Matt Prentiss, but we know nothing else about the red and yellow teams. This means that either of these teams could be made up of a party of PC’s, their low introductory levels reflecting the fact that they have not graduated from the academy yet.

Space Academy introduces some of the technology of the setting, such as the Seekers – space shuttles used for exploration – and the robot Peepo (technically a self-determining Type-A manu-droid). We also learn that Earth fought in three star wars, including the Vegan War. While Earth and Vega are no longer at war, the Denebians are a hostile species, who defend their space with hostile drones.

Jason of Star Command

In 1978, Filmation created Jason of Star Command using the same sets, props and costumes as were used on Space Academy. Jason of Star Command is set on the same mobile asteroid base as Space Academy – it is housed elsewhere in the complex – and uses Seekers as well as Starfires to explore space. Peepo the robot shows up on both series. During the first season, Star Command’s commander is Commander Carnavin (James Doohan), with blue-skinned Commander Stone (John Russell) taking over in season two when Doohan had to leave the show to appear in Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

Other members of Star Command include Captain Nicole Davidoff (Susan Pratt) and science officer Professor E. J. Parsafoot, who appears to be second-in-command of Star Command/Space Academy. Jason is a sort of Han Solo-esque freelancer for Star Command, rather than an officer. Commander Stone and Captain Davidoff might be the only actual officers of the organization that we see. This actually opens opportunities for introducing into the campaign new characters from outside the organization with different motives/goals than Star Command.

Since Jason of Star Command was more action-oriented than Space Academy, it needed a good antagonist for the heroes, and got one in the form of Dragos (Sid Haig), former Prime Minister of Klavu, and now would-be conqueror of space. Dragos is a cyborg who commands the Dragonship, another mobile asteroid. His minions appear to come from numerous alien species, most of them short and hairy.

What We Know (or Can Guess)

FYI – I do not have the cool boxed set of JoSC DVD’s that includes scripts and a booklet, so this is all guess work from watching the episodes. I probably have tons wrong, and some things I invented to make the campaign more complete.

Space Academy is set sometime after Star Year 3732, which is when the academy was founded. We have no idea how long ago this was, but I’m going to set the campaign in SY 3777, since the TV show was made in ’77. The events of Jason of Star Command are set at least a year later – Cadet Peepo is now part of Star Command, and Matt Prentiss, who we first see as a S.A. cadet is revealed to be a lieutenant in Star Command and to have been missing for almost a year. Since Jason was made in ’78 and ’79, we’ll place our campaign in 3780.

At one point, Commander Gampu uses his old spacesuit, which has a U.S. flag patch on the arm. Since Gampu is 300 years old, we can surmise that the U.S.A. still exists well into the future. There are also references made to the Fourth of July and the Boy Scouts.

Cadet Peepo

Earth and its colonies, and possibly other worlds, are members of a Federation. The Space Academy is funded by the Federation – and some of its leaders are worried that they are spending too much money!

Star Command appears to be the primary military arm of the Federation. Their large starships – and perhaps most large starships – are built on asteroids. These vessels are enormous, possibly carrying up to 10,000 people. These vessels have numerous biodomes for growing plants and towers armed with spin-lasers. They also possess tractor beams. One ship carries the Space Academy, where students from many worlds learn to cope with the unknown by embarking on missions. We meet one other ship during the Space Academy series, called Hope, that was constructed more than a millennia ago – I would guess approximately 1,550 years ago. Many Space Academy cadets go on to serve with Star Command.

Uniforms

The most common form of uniform in the series seem to be the ones worn by the cadets, crew and commanders – a sort of loose tunic with an undershirt. The undershirts are different colors. On Space Academy, they designate the team to which the cadets are assigned, and the cadets wear a SA patch on their right arm. I’m not sure what the shirt colors designate on Star Command, but at one point they mention a “yellow sector” on Space Academy.

Some crewmen wear jumpsuits instead of the common uniform. These are simple jumpsuits with SA patches.

Capt. Davidoff wears an orange and brown field uniform that looks like it is designed for ease of movement. Star Command operatives could wear this on missions.

Prof. Parsifoot wears what could be described as a utility jacket over a turtleneck sweater.

Commander Stone wears a different uniform than Commander’s Gampu and Carnavin, but Captain Kirk got two types of uniforms, so why can’t the commanders have some different options.

The only hint of rank insignia are the bars worn on Capt. Davidoff’s shoulders. They appear to be the same gold color as the emblem she wears, which might be the symbol of Star Command. The ranks we know from the show are lieutenant, captain and commander. If we use a semi-naval rank structure like Star Trek, we could fill in ensign before lieutenant and assume that there is an admiralty beyond the commander rank.

Spaceships

Seekers, also called “star seekers”, are space shuttles capable of faster-than-light travel (star speed). They are armed with spin-lasers and presser beams, and have force field shields. The front of the vessel was re-used from the Ark II (see below), which in my little mind links the two series. The interior is divided into the main cockpit, an engine room and an airlock.

Starfires are spaceships used by Star Command. The interior looks an awful lot like the interior of a Seeker. Starfires have a small module, called a mini-cat, attached to the front. The mini-cat is maneuverable and can hold up to two people. They are much faster than seekers. They are equipped with spin-lasers and stun rays.

Motherships (I needed a name, and I dig this one) are constructed on asteroids. They have massive engines and apparently can achieve light speed (apparently they can barely achieve “9275 light speed”, and only hold it for a short time), since they travel between stars. Space Academy is commanded first by Commander Isaac Gampu and later by Commander Carnavin. An earlier ship of similar design was called Hope, and was commanded by Commander Rampo.

Motherships have the following features:

  • Myotron lasers (located in towers)
  • Tractor beams
  • Energy screens
  • Biodomes, where food can be grown
  • Power stations (one is called Power Station Alpha)
  • Seekers (at least five), starfires (at least three) and fighter drones (at least six, maybe eight)

It is worth noting that the myotron lasers cannot fire through the energy screens when they are turned to maximum. Space Academy’s energy screens were able to withstand a laser barage from six red dragons for several minutes.

Dragos’ Dragonship is also constructed on an asteroid. All of the creatures on Dragos’ ship are energy creatures created by Dragos and commanded by him.

Dragos’ Emblem

The Dragonship has the following features:

  • Torpedo lasers (no, I don’t know what that means)
  • Neutron jammer, capable of disabling spaceships
  • Teleportation rays
  • Tractor rays
  • Dungeons
  • Energy creatures and energy clones – created by Dragos and controlled by the medallion he wears
  • Warp dragons can be released by the second Dragonship
  • Self-destruct capability (oops!)

The Dragonship can launch drone fighters called red dragons. Red dragons operate in squadrons of three; there are at least four or five red dragon squadrons.

Dragos’ second ship (used in the second season of the show) is called the Dragonstar, and though it looks different than the Dragonship, it seems to have the same capabilities and a very similar interior. The Dragonstar does have one bonus item – an anti-matter ray!

The Space Flyer makes one appearance, and gives one an idea about what private spaceships might look like. It’s a bit smaller than the Starfire, and probably seats more than one person, with room for a rather large piece of cargo – the stargate.

Equipment and Materials

Beam-rays are rifle-like weapons used by Dragos’ forces. They have a stun setting, and presumably more deadly effects.

Colinears are the personal communicators used by SA and SC.

Cryotron: An experimental freeze ray. It successfully froze things, but unfortunately those things later exploded.

Energy Rod: This device is used by the energy clone of Commander Carnavin created by Dragos and by the “rag mops” aboard the Dragonship. It is a 2.5-ft. long rod topped by a box. It can paralyze people and put them to sleep, and disrupt electronic devices.

Hand Laser: These devices are powerful lasers. Although they are not used for violence in the series, they surely could be.

Life Sensor: A handheld device that can detect the presence of life nearby.

Life-Support Bracelets generate a personal force field for exploring in hostile environments. This is clearly an adaptation of the life-support belts for the animated Star Trek series done by Filmation.

Mineral Extractor: A device approximately 3.5 feet tall and a foot in diameter that can extract and process minerals.

Technite is a form of explosive.

Thought-Converter: The experimental thought converter allows for communication between species. It has been tested between humans and chimpanzees.

W1K1 – or “Wiki” – is  small robot designed by Prof. Parsifoot and used by Jason that can produce all sort of effects. It can walk, fly and levitate, break orbit on a planetoid and fly through space, generate lasers and survive a laser attack from a spaceship. Whether W1K1 is standard equipment for Star Command operatives or just something special for Jason, I do not know, but it’s pretty impressive.

Zolium: An energy-producing mineral, and thus probably radioactive. In large quantities it disrupts electronics, such as the life-support bracelets, though in small quantities it powers them.

Species

We see several species and sub-species in the series that could be used for PCs.

Humans: As is often the case, humans are the most common species – maybe because human actors and extras are the easiest to use in a series?

Mutants: Some of the humans that appear in the series have what could be described as augmented powers. We can describe them as mutants. These augmented abilities range from psionic powers (telepathy, teleportation, E.S.P.) to super strength to longevity – Commander Gampu is 300 years old.

Arcturons: We dont’ know for sure the real name of the creatures, and since they were all revealed to be energy creatures, they may not even exist. But they may be Arcturons from Arcturus. On the plus side – they’re super cool – like evil wookies – and would make great brute opponents. They have long, stringy hair that looks reddish to me (but be warned – I’m color blind). They shamble when they walk, and they growl and grunt rather than speak.

Brotean: Although they do not mention the name of Commander Stone’s species, they do reveal that they are descended from the ancient Tantalusians. Since one of Tantalus’ sons was Broteus, I decided to call them Broteans. The Broteans were driven from their home planet by Dragos. They have blue skin and can put people to sleep for a short time (max. 5 minutes) by touching two fingers to their forehead and saying “rest”. Presumably, this is a psionic ability.

Capellos: Samantha (Tamara Dobson), who we meet in season 2 has no memory of who she is or where she comes from, but at one point claims to be a Capello. The Capellos are a people who live by the lakes of their planet. Whatever species she is, she is extremely strong and has some psionic ability – telepathy, though not as strong as that shown by the brother and sister in Space Academy, and the ability to communicate with animals. By the name, one might expect the Capellos to come from Capella.

Cyclopean Apes: These creatures guard a planetoid used as a weapon platform by Dragos to attack Space Academy with a giant freeze ray. The leader of the cyclopean apes is Tehor. Their planetoid contains mud mines. They also appear working for Queen Vanessa, and working on the Dragonstar.

Dalians: The Dalians come from the arid planet of Dalius. Many among them are wanderers and loners, eschewing the company of others. Given the character of their planet, it is likely that the Dalians primarily live as herders. Dramon is relatively unfamiliar with the high technology of Space Academy, so it is probable that Dalius is not an advanced planet.

Energy Vapors: These alien creature might not be sentient. They appear as clouds of vapor that give off a green light. They absorb energy, feeding on suns and spaceships.

Hornhead: The hornhead is a large quadroped that looks something like a long-legged reptilian rhinoceros.

Jotun: We don’t have a name for Loki’s species, so I figured I’d go with this. They are humanoid and possessed of impressive abilties, including clairvoyance and teleportation. A person called Kane claimed to be a member of the same species, and he was capable of becoming invisible and metamorphing into other creatures.

Keshians: The natives of cold, barren Kesh stand approximately 3 feet tall. They are usually wrapped in hooded robes to keep out the cold of their world. They appear to dwell mostly underground, and probably live off of lichens. Queen Vanessa (Julie Newmar) rules Kesh, but is clearly not a native of the planet – she was probably placed on the throne by Dragos.

Klavuan: The Klavuans come from a world once ruled by a royal family. The royals were deposed by their prime minister, Dragos, who went on to become a mad cyborg bent on cosmic conquest. I have a theory that his allies Queen Medusa and Queen Vanessa were Klavuan commoners he raised to power when he conquered Klavu.

Lightning Tongue: These large insect creatures have a lashing tongue that gives off an electric burst when it strikes objects.

Rocks of Janus: In Space Academy, the students encounter two sentient space rocks that look like comets. They control electro-magnetism, and use it electromagnetic pulses to move and communicate through robots and computers. They can fire bolts of electromagnetism to pull, push and damage objects. They can also generate force fields to protect themselves.

Star Monster: This monster appears on the planetoid of the cyclopean apes. It is larger than a human being, and has a mouth full of sharp teeth.

Vegans: Vegans are humanoid aliens with a technological level equal to the Federation. Their touch can temporarily paralyze other creatures.

Warp Dragons: Warp dragons can warp into our dimension from their home dimension. They are larger than seekers and starfires, can survive in space and feed on energy. Stun rays are useless against them.

 

Astrography

Like so many sci-fi shows from the past, there is some confusion in SA/JoSC between galaxies, solar systems, planets, etc. There are numerous ion storms, galactic typhoons and exploding planets, so the show is not what you would call “hard sci-fi”. That being said, we can suss out a bit of the setting’s astrography from the shows.

Sol: Characters in Space Academy seem to think that Lt. Jerome’s coming from an Earth colony is significant, which suggests that most of the human characters come from Earth rather than Earth’s colonies. We also learn that life on the colonies is more rugged than on Earth. Even with FTL travel, Earth’s colonies are probably in orbit of stars relatively near the Sun, like Alpha Centauri. Martian folk songs are mentioned, meaning that there are people on Mars, and have been there long enough to develop a distinct folk culture.

Alderan: A planet located near the Alderan Triangle, where numerous ships have been lost over the millennia. Alderan orbits HD 139664 (57 LY).

Alopek: Alopek is a planet with a new colony. It is supplied energy from asteroid BX-3. Alopek orbits Alrakis (89 LY).

Alturis: Alturis is an agricultural asteroid heated by a giant space mirror located on an asteroid called Specular. It is commanded by Professor Bolt. It orbits Xi Aquilae (51 LY).

Arcos: Arcos is a planet that orbits Kappa Ceti (30 LY). It is ruled by Queen Medusa.

Arcturon/Arcturus: Arcturon is a planet orbiting Arcturus (37 LY). It is known for its diamonds, and might be the home of the “rag mop” creatures who serve Dragos.

Capella: Capella (43 LY) is the home star of the Capellos, who live by lakes. Samantha could be a Capellos – she says so in one episode, but may have been lying.

Dalius: Dalius is an arid, warm planet. The natives are humanoids possessed of terrific strength. One native, Dramon, is a wanderer, though this doesn’t mean the rest are. Dalius orbits 14 Herculis (42 LY).

Denebola: The Denebians are not a friendly species – they consider incursions into their space an act of war, and defend their space with drones. It is 36 LY from Sol.

Kesh: Kesh is a cold, barren world with two moons. It is ruled by Queen Vanessa, who is likely not native to the planet. Queen Vanessa is an ally of Dragos. She can create energy creatures and has a beam weapon that can disrupt passing ships. Kesh orbits Pollux (34 LY).

Klavu: Klavu was a monarchy, presumably with a parliament, before it was conquered by Dragos, the former prime minister.  He captured Princess Allegra, keeping her locked in his dungeon transmogrified into a weird monster. Klavu orbits HD 87883 (59 LY).

Kryton: Kryton is a world of peace, and was the stage for a combined invasion of Dragos and the Denebians. It orbits Innes’ Star (41 LY).

Leonais III: An Earth colony world located near the Alderan Triangle. The colony was probably founded in the 2270’s. It orbits Beta Circini (97 LY).

Lyra: Lyra is mentioned as a place that Commander Gampu does not think is the origin of Loki. Lyra is a constellation, so presumably this planet is located in that general direction from Earth. It orbits Gliese 758 (51 LY).

Milicetus: Milicetus is mentioned as being a colony. It orbits Caph (55 LY).

Nebula IV: A planet to which a mission was launched from Space Academy. It orbits the star Mu2 Octantis (140 LY).

Proteus IX-B: This mining asteroid is all that is left of a planet, known as the Phantom Planet. The planet supported a long-lost civilization, whose only remaining artifacts were golden egg-shaped nodules. When the asteroid exploded, the last remnants of the civilization were rescued by Space Academy. It orbits HD 201636 (160 LY).

Sirius: Sirius is mentioned as a place that Commander Gampu does not think is the origin of Loki. It is 9 light years from Sol.

Stygion: Stygion is a barren world orbiting Fomalhaut (25 LY). It held a stash of power artifacts which Dragos’ planned to use to conquer the universe. Star Command destroyed the planet before he could carry out his plan.

Tantalusia: The Tantalusians were an ancient civilization that recorded their wisdom on star discs, which look like black disks approximately 1.5-feet in diameter covered in crushed diamonds. They come from another dimension, sometimes called Limbo. Commander Stone’s species is descended from the Tantalusians.

Tarazed: Tarazed is a planet near Denebian space orbiting the star Megrez (80 LY).

Tarquabeta: Tarquabeta is mentioned as a planet around which Dragos’ Dragonship may have been orbiting after pirate Matt Daringstar kidnapped Prof. Parsifoot for Dragos. It orbits Chi Eridani (58 LY).

Vega: Earth and Vega waged a star war against one another 200 years ago. Many lives were lost and many ships destroyed. Vega and Earth are now at peace. Vega is 25 LY away from Sol.

Voton: A “Voton sector” is mentioned at one point as the location of the galactic typhoon. I’ve decided Voton orbits Merak, which is 80 LY away.

Zalon: Zalon is a planet that exploded in the first episode of Space Academy. It was here that Loki was discovered. Zalon orbited Phecda (83 LY).

Zira: A planet “beyond Sagittarius”. Since this is not technically possible, it probably orbits a star in that constellation. I’ve decided on HD 165185 (57 LY).

An Ark II Connection?

Ark II was another Filmation sci-fi series, and it really has nothing to do with SA/JoSC. Set on a post-apocalyptic Earth in the 25th century, it is about a group of young people in a mobile laboratory/library called Ark II trying to rekindle the civilizations destroyed by an ecological disaster on Earth. The Ark II is an absolutely awesome sci-fi vehicle, and the little runabout used on the show is pretty great as well. The Ark II crew has great uniforms, Biblical names (codenames in reference to the Ark?), and the series would make a great basis for a post-apocalyptic – but hopeful – setting.

Because it is set 1200 years before Space Academy, the series could certainly be set in SA’s past. Perhaps the surviving scientists that created Ark II were successful in their mission of resurrecting civilization, and eventually that civilization made its way into the stars. In any event, the Ark and runabout designs would work well in Star Command campaigns as land vehicles.

If we used Ark II in the setting, we would have a timeline as follows:

2174 – Captain Rampo born (SA)

2220’s – Spaceship Hope launched under the command of Captain Rampo (SA)

2350’s – Earth’s civilizations are set back by pollution and lack of resources (it was the 70’s folks – this was a pretty common theme at the time). (A2)

2400’sArk II travels a devastated Earth trying to resurrect its civilization. We know that previous to Earth’s ecological catastrophe that there were scientists who created a weird Limbo dimension by doing experiments with time, and apparently they were building spaceships and colonizing other worlds. (A2)

???? – Earth’s civilizations are reborn due to the work of the Arks and their crews. This seems to occur sometime between the 2400’s and 3400’s, which gives plenty of time to rebuild civilization and begin exploring space.

3470’s – Commander Isaac Gampu is born, apparently on the resurrected Earth (SA)

3570’s – Earth-Vegan War occurs (SA)

3732 – Space Academy founded (SA)

3777 – Events of Space Academy (SA)

3778 – Events of Jason of Star Command’s first season (JoSC)

3779 – Events of Jason of Star Command’s second season (JoSC)

The 90s Syndicate

It was 1987, and I was super excited in the cereal aisle at the grocery store. This was not uncommon in childhood, of course – it just took an awesome prize in a box of sugar goodness – but I was a teenager in ’87 and the excitement was due to an ad for something called Star Trek: The Next Generation on the back of a cereal box. This was my introduction to the show, and I remember telling my dad – the source of my Star Trek love – about how cool it looked, with a new ship, new crew … and that there was going to be a klingon on the Enterprise!

Back in the 80’s, syndicated TV was mostly the domain of game shows like Wheel of Fortune until Star Trek: The Next Generation showed up. I remember that it was a big story when The Next Generation managed to beat Wheel of Fortune’s ratings. Fast forward 30+ years, and though I’m sorry to say the show doesn’t do much for me these days, I am thankful for the syndicated TV goodness it helped spawn.

The syndicated shows of the 90’s almost never had as much budget as they needed, but they were all cool and creative. Because of the time in which they were made, they have a distinct look that I suspect really triggers good vibes for many Gen-X’ers.

Here are a few of my favorites – check them out if they’re new to you, or renew an old friendship if you remember them from way back when:

The Flash (1990-1991)

Not syndicated, but I sorta wish it had been after it was cancelled. We’ve been watching these lately, having scored a super cheap DVD set of the complete series at Zia Records, and I must say I’m enjoying them. The show was far from perfect, but it had some great moments and I genuinely like the people in it. The sad thing about Flash is that it only made it to TV because of the success of 1989’s Batman, and as a result ended up with a Danny Elfwood score and an awkward aesthetic borrowed from Batman and Dick Tracy. The style just seems out of place to me, and though it doesn’t ruin the shows, it doesn’t help them either. On the other hand, it’s full of absolutely beautiful mid-century cars, so that’s pretty cool. The Flash costume was a little jarring as well, but c’est la vie.

We were watching some of the new Flash episodes, but gradually got out of them when they did the stupid time travel bit for the umpteenth time. I really loved see Shipp reprise his role in the series, though.

Oh – and who doesn’t love Amanda Pays? So smart and cool – on Flash as well as Max Headroom. She did a fun guest appearance on Psych as a date for Corbin Bernsen’s character on the series, which is another family favorite.

I think my favorite Flash episode is “Beat the Clock”, which has a pre-What’s Love Got to Do With It Angela Bassett, and good performances by Ken Foree and Thomas Mikal Ford.

Highlander: The Series (1992-1997)

In my normal backwards way, I discovered this show way before I saw the movie … and if I’m honest, when I finally saw the movie I preferred Adrian Paul to Christopher Lambert as the immortal. I think it was that darn overcoat they had him wearing in the movie – looked like it belonged on Harpo Marx. I did enjoy introducing my daughter to the Kurgan, though, and then revealing he was the voice of Mr. Krabs.

Being a history-buff, I loved all the past lives of Duncan McLeod. I think I enjoyed the stuff set in the past more than that set in the modern day. I remember being super-jazzed to see Roland Gift from Fine Young Cannibals and Roger Daltry in some episodes. Highlander really had some legs, but I didn’t stick with it all the way to the end … by 1997 I was married and about a year away from having a kid, so life sort of got in the way. Still, the awesome opening will always stick with me. God bless Freddie Mercury!

Friday the 13th: The Series (1987-1990)

Okay – this series sort of screws up my premise that Next Generation led the way with cool syndicated shows, since it was also first-run syndication and showed up at about the same time. Oh well – it’s my story and I’m sticking to it, facts or no facts!

I don’t have a long-term relationship with the horror genre. I was never into the Friday the 13th movies, or really any contemporary horror movies in my youth. I didn’t grow up with that stuff, so all the blood and guts and shock horror really freaked me out. Classic Universal horror movies I could do … but Leatherface, Jason, Freddie, Michael Myers, flesh-eating zombies, etc. – no sir. Not my cup of tea.

That’s why I don’t know how I ended up watching Friday the 13th: The Series. It has almost nothing to do with the movies – I might remember there being some tiny thread connecting them, but I’m not sure. The premise – which would work beautifully for a horror RPG campaign, is as follows:

Lewis Vendredi made a deal with the devil to sell cursed antiques. But he broke the pact, and it cost him his soul. Now, his niece Micki, and her cousin Ryan have inherited the store… and with it, the curse. Now they must get everything back, and the real terror begins.

It now occurs to me why I started watching it – Louise Robey as Micki. She was pretty darn cute. Still, it was the show’s concept that got me to stick with the show. Each week, a new evil artifact was introduced and off the two leads went, trying to bring it back to the shop to end the curse. It was much more in the vein of Outer Limits than gory 80’s horror movies. I remember it fondly, and should really check back into it.

She-Wolf of London / Love & Curses (1990-1991)

Originally titled She Wolf of London, I caught one or two of the later episodes when it was renamed Love & Curses , and always wanted to see more. A bunch of them are posted on YouTube (how do they not get fined a billion bucks a year for aiding and abetting copyright violations?), but I’m happy to say I picked up the entire series on DVD last week for $12 – sweet price, even I end up not liking them much.

In this series, a woman named Randi Wallace (played by Kate Hodge) who travels to England to study the occult is attacked by a werewolf on the moors and becomes a lycanthrope. Her companion, Professor Ian Matheson (played by Neil Dickson), helps her deal with her curse while they run around encountering all sorts of supernatural evils and stuff. I love good, old fashioned episodic TV with fun characters.

Love & Curses could be a good set-up for a campaign as well, with one PC having a werewolf curse (or something similar) and the others having to survive dangerous adventures AND their dangerous friend.

And yeah, I had a thing for Kate Hodge as well …

So what 80’s/90’s syndicated stuff do you remember loving? Let me know in the comments – remember, sharing is caring!

For Your Viewing Pleasure

Hey folks! I missed the last couple weekends because, frankly, I’ve been busy as a one-armed paperhanger lately. I work in economic research in commercial real estate, so you can imagine that the business closures over the last few weeks have made for a very interesting (to use a very nice word) business environment. We don’t have much economic data to plow through yet, but I’ve been writing numerous articles for my people to help them better understand the situation. As a result, I needed a couple weekends away from  writing.

But now I’m back … with a pretty easy post to write. Today, I’m going to direct your attention to a few old shows I’ve found episodes of on Youtube. You might already have seen them, but they were new to me, and I found them fun. This isn’t a RPG post per se, but half the challenge in running RPGs is finding new sources of inspiration – hopefully this post will give you some ideas you can use, especially for modern games.

Sapphire & Steel

A British sci-fi show that ran from 1979-1982, I can only say that the vibe of the show is a little bit X-Files and a little bit Doctor Who … and that that description is completely worthless in describing this show. It’s really it’s own animal. The show stars David McCallum and Joanna Lumley, and the concept is sort of bizarre. They are agents, who might actually be personified elements, sent to contain weird distortions of time that are trying to force themselves into the normal time stream. I love that they are very circumspect, at least in the first series, of explaining just what the heck is going on, but the show is creepy and wonderful and McCallum and Lumley are excellent in it. I dug the show so much that I hit Zia Records and ordered the complete series. By the by – if you’re looking for cool stuff, sometimes pre-owned, I suggest Zia. I absolutely love going to their stores and browsing, but right now their online ordering is all I can do.

Zodiac

Another British show, Zodiac ran in 1974, and thankfully has nothing to do with the Zodiac Killer. This show stars Anouska Hempel as an astrologist who helps her paramour, a detective inspector played by Anton Rodgers, solve crimes. It’s not a bad mystery show, really, though it’s more in the vein of the shows, like Columbo, that showed you who the villain was at the beginning, rather than letting you figure it out along with the detective. I dig it because it comes from that mid- to late-70s period when things like UFO’s, astrology, psychic powers and big foot gained a weird legitimacy in popular culture – not as elements of speculation, but as things that were on the cusp of being made matters of fact. If you’re my age, you probably remember watching In Search Of, with Leonard Nimoy (I don’t mean watching the show WITH Leonard Nimoy, whic would have been great fun, but rather … oh never mind).  In Search Of was dedicated to pushing pseudo-science over the goal line into the realm of main steam science, and I really love that old vibe. Zodiac does the same, and I’ve had fun watching a few episodes.

Burke’s Law

A wonderfully weird show from 1963-1966. I’ve only seen the early episodes, which follow Captain Amos Burke (Gene Barry) of LAPD homocide and his lieutentant and sergeant solving murders. The twist is that Burke is a millionaire – I think he inherited it – who shows up at the crime scene in a chauffeur-driven silver Rolls Royce, and that the suspects are all pretty eccentric, not unlike the Emma Peel-era episodes of The Avengers. I also love that they re-use actors from episode to episode in different rolls, kind of like using a troupe of favorites. It’s a weird show filled with crazy characters, beautiful women and tangled cases that are fun to solve along with Burke. On a side note, one episode has Barbara Eden in essentially a genie costume showing off her belly button. Apparently just a few years later that was going to be a problem for prime time TV.

So there you go folks. If you were running low on things to watch, now you have some new old shows to check out. Up next, I present some stats on a few heroes of myth and legend – a little preview of my Gods & Heroes book. Have fun!

Back in My Day: HBO

Today I start a new series of reminisces about the times I grew up in. Because folks … they’re getting to be the “olden days”. There’s about as much time between now and those golden 1980’s in which I grew up as there was between the 1980’s and World War II when the ’80s were new. It’s a funny thing, the way things change slowly, gradually, so that you don’t even realize it until those changes pile up and you find yourself in a whole new world.

Our entry today is HBOThe Wonder of its Age (for boys who weren’t supposed to be watching it at our age!)

Before we get to HBO, though, I’d like to let folks know that Pen & Paper Baseball is now up for download on DriveThruRPG.com … and free to make up for the lack of Opening Day this year. It will stay free until the baseball season starts – so Play Ball!

Home Box Office! Movies at home … but newer than the movies of the week you got on normal TV … AND NO COMMERCIALS! You see, the awesome thing about cable TV was that since you had to pay for it, there were never going to be commercials! Can you believe it? Probably not, given how many damn commercials there are on cable TV now. That promise sure didn’t last very long.

Now, my family were never early adopters of new technologies. Be patient, let them produce better products at lower prices, and then jump in. I didn’t have HBO in my house as a kid, but my friend next door did. In fact, he was the only one of my circle who had it, so many an afternoon were spent at his house. He also had an Atari, so we’d waste some hours playing Pitfall and Pac-Man, and then catch a movie or two. Pretty sweet deal.

There are three movies in particular that I remember from those days, which I share with you now in no particular order …

1. Ice Pirates (1984)

This was one of those films we probably shouldn’t have been watching back then. I was 12 when it came out, so maybe 13 when it was on HBO. It stars Robert Urich, and the movie is about … well, ice pirates. Honestly, I don’t think I’ve seen it since I was a kid, so all I remember is that water is super valuable in the future, and there’s all this fighting over a big hunk of ice floating in space. Oh, and there was a joke about them being turned into eunuchs. Heck, it was mildly dirty and involved space ships, so it was a hit with my crowd. Honestly, I’m going to guess the movie is a LOT funnier when you’re 13 years old.

2. The Big Red One (1980)

Holy crap did we watch this movie a bunch. I was the World War II freak in my circle, and dragged the rest along with me into playing army. We all had plastic M-16s and grenades and would play war in the neighborhood like crazy. We even fought some kids who lived on the other side of the street once (and won!). They were led by another kid named Matt, and since he was big and we were as sensitive as you would expect as elementary school kids, he was known as Fat Matt. I was just Matt.

Anyhow, the movie follows the 1st Infantry Division in World War II, from North Africa, through Italy and into Germany. It stars Lee Marvin, who is just plain cool, and you even have some early post-Star Wars work by Mark Hammill. I don’t remember now, but I’m sure it freaked us out to see him be something other than Luke Skywalker.

Now, we dug the movie because it was a war movie, but also because it provided something that young fellas in those days were often in search of … bare boobs. Pre-internet, finding bare breasts was no easy task for a curious kid. In this movie, there is a split second – and I mean split second – of bare boobs that we could not believe we had seen when we first watched it. Super forbidden … and guaranteed to make the movie an instant classic for a bunch of 10 to 12 year old boys.

3. The Cannonball Run (1981)

Man, do I love this movie. Loved it when I was a kid, and I love it still. My daughter is a big fan as well. What more can you ask for in a film? Fast cars, beautiful women, Burt Reynolds, Dom Delouise, James Bond, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr and Jackie Chan! This was another movie that we knew we probably shouldn’t have been watching at our age, but there it was. I can still remember sitting in my friend’s living room, watching the movie while prepared to get scarce if his parents came home. I also remember us turning aerosol cans and lighters into makeshift flame throwers … God knows how we survived childhood. In our defense, we pretty quickly realized that playing was fire was a bad idea and cut it out. Even we weren’t that stupid. We did discover, though, that if you sprayed a fly with Lysol its wings would crystallize in mid-flight and it would fall from the sky.

So there’s a walk down memory lane from a kid who grew up in the 70’s and 80’s, and then grew up some more in the 90’s, and then had a kid and grew up a lot more in the 2000’s.

I’m getting back to watching Charlie’s Angels and making hopping John … and Emergency is on at 3! … but if you have some favorite HBO memories from back in the day, go ahead and share them in the comments, and stay safe out there Nodians!

Space Cowboy Diplomacy

Retief and the Aga Kagan by Jack Gaughan

When you’re a pop culture archaeologist – ignoring the new to dig through the old – you often have that moment when you discover something that’s been around for decades, and which many others probably already know about. Still, it’s new to you, and thus a fun revelation you want to share. And so I present my latest old discovery – Jame Retief.

I was thumbing through some old issues of Worlds of IF on Project Gutenberg, and came across a story titled “The Madman from Earth” by Keith Laumer and decided to give it a read. Boy, was it fun. Then I looked at Wikipedia, and thought, “Well, I guess I’m late to this party.”

Mr. Laumer was a former officer in the U.S. Air Force and a diplomat in the American foreign service. Both of these jobs contributed to his satirical take on the exploits of Jame Retief, a rebellious diplomat in the Corps Diplomatique Terrestrienne (CDT), an organizations of bureaucrats and lick-spittles doing everything in their power to sponge off the galactic taxpayer while doing as little work as possible. Puffed up, arrogant and duplicitous, one gets the idea that Laumer wasn’t a huge fan of the diplomats he worked with, and thus invented “regular fella” Jame Retief to settle the score in dozens of short stories and novellas written in the 1960s and 1970s.

Jame Retief is cut from the same cloth as many heroes from the period and from pulp literature. He’s got a powerful punch, an appreciation for the finer things in life (a stiff drink, cigar and beautiful woman topping his list) and a sense of right and wrong that often puts him at odds with the CDT, his bosses therein never quite understanding why he threatens his chances for promotion by constantly going off the diplomatic script.

I’ve had tremendous fun reading about the “new life and new civilizations” that Retief and the CDT interact with, from the insect-ish Groaci who serve as the CDT’s most common competitors in the galaxy (as the Russians were to the Americans in the Cold War) to the expansionist and lobster-like Soetti, the fabulous Yillians and the ray-like Jaq. All of them come combine elements of human culture and something wonderfully alien. Aliens and humans in these stories are not just carbon-copies of a mono-cultural ideal, but given some individuality. An individual alien might be a good Joe or a scum bag in a Retief story, and the hero takes them as he finds them.

His sketches of alien planets are full of inspiration for sci-fi game masters as well. From “Cultural Exchange” (1962), here’s a sketch of the farming planet Lovenbroy, which holds a Terrie (human) colony:

“We’ve got long seasons back home. Five of ’em. Our year’s about eighteen Terry months. Cold as hell in winter; eccentric orbit, you know. Blue-black sky, stars visible all day. We do mostly painting and sculpture in the winter. Then Spring; still plenty cold. Lots of skiing, bob-sledding, ice skating; and it’s the season for woodworkers. Our furniture—All local timbers too. Lots of metals in our soil and those sulphates give the woods some color, I’ll tell you. Then comes the Monsoon. Rain—it comes down in sheets. But the sun’s getting closer. Shines all the time. Ever seen it pouring rain in the sunshine? That’s the music-writing season. Then summer. Summer’s hot. We stay inside in the daytime and have beach parties all night. Lots of beach on Lovenbroy; we’re mostly islands. That’s the drama and symphony time. The theatres are set up on the sand, or anchored off-shore. You have the music and the surf and the bonfires and stars—we’re close to the center of a globular cluster, you know Autumn’s our harvest season. Most years we have just the ordinary crops. Fruit, grain, that kind of thing; getting it in doesn’t take long. We spend most of the time on architecture, getting new places ready for the winter or remodeling the older ones. We spend a lot of time in our houses. We like to have them comfortable. But this year’s different. This is Wine Year.”

 

Retief and a quornt by Gaughan

I like the way Laumer uses hints and glimmers to build his make-believe world. Things hang together just fine, but without much detail. Rather than spelling out the rules of his creation, you get glimpses. You’re never sure when it is set, but it follows a couple hundred years after a human government called the Concordiat that also featured in a series of stories he wrote about artificially intelligent war machines called Bolos. There is space travel, and it’s faster-than-light, but spaceships still have to follow real physical laws in terms of entering planetary orbit. There’s nothing like the Star Trek transporter, computers presumably exist, but humans and aliens take center stage, people still smoke (cigars, dope-sticks), drink and eat (lots of great descriptions of alien booze and food) and kill each other with power pistols and 2mm needlers.

Now, I like to put something gameable in these posts, and my first inclination was to do some Grit & Vigor stats for Retief and some of these gear in these stories, but then I changed my mind. Making up stats for somebody who is strong, tough, quick, smart, etc. is no big deal, after all. Instead, I got an idea for addressing a common problem in translating fantasy, sci-fi and adventure literature into gaming, namely – a lack of team work.

Some of the best loved characters in fiction are loners – James Bond and Conan come immediately to mind. They sometimes have assistants, and even team-ups, but these characters are often little more than NPC’s. The stories written for them work best with a single protagonist, so translating their adventures into RPG’s meant for a party of three to six characters can be difficult. Thus my latest notion, Group Solo Play.

Group Solo Play

“Well, now what do I do?”

In GSP, a party of players control the actions of one larger-than-life hero. Every player is given the same number of chips – say 10 to start. When the character is presented with a big decision – a plot point, one might say – those players who have an idea of what they want him to do put any number of chips down on the table. For each chip played, the player rolls one dice, totaling them, with the player with the highest total taking over the control of the character. Once a chip is put on the table, win or lose, it is lost. The player in control stays in control until a new “big decision” comes up, when a new bidding war begins. This leaves many players on the sidelines, watching the story unfold as an audience, but with the chance to take the reins when the current controlling player is messing everything up.

The use of the chips means that no one player gets to dominate forever. One person might win a few bidding wars early, but eventually they run low on chips and the other players are going to win control. Ultimately, everyone has to work together to get the character through the adventure successfully, and in doing so competitively maybe gets a chance to appreciate the different methods of their fellow players. When everyone has run out of chips, and if the adventure is still ongoing, just hand out another 10 chips to everyone and keep going until you achieve ultimate success or failure.

The key role here is played by the Game Master, who needs to decide when a bidding war is to take place – you don’t want too many, or too few – and who needs to create a story telling atmosphere to keep the non-controlling players interested in the game while they’re waiting for a chance to take control.

Dragon by Dragon – March 1982 (59)

Well, a day late and a dollar short, but late is better than not at all.

It was in March of 1982 that thousands of people all over the world were unwrapping Dragon #59, with that groovy cover by James Holloway.

So, here’s ten cool things about this issue:

1. The More Things Change …

In “Out on a Limb” we get two arguments/laments/complaints that will feature heavily in RPG discussions for … well, forever probably. First, on over powered PC’s

Ugh! And as if that weren’t enough, when I related this to a friend of mine, he merely sneered derisively and began telling me about what his 50th-level ranger (D:30, S:35) would do to such a wimp. I began to feel dizzy.

And

… I have found that evil characters not only have the most fun, but they add spice and intrigue to the campaign, which helps the other players enjoy it more.

Overpowered characters and evil characters. If you’re dealing with them in your own game, know that you’re not the first, won’t be the last and no, there’s no answer to your problem. Just roll with and try to have a good time.

2. Cantrips

Ah, the introduction of cantrips, or 0-level spells, to AD&D. Now, in 1982 they were something different than they would be later. The 0-level spells were really very simple and not powerful at all, unless somebody knew how to be creative with them. They let you add salt to food or shine up a shield. The bee cantrip was probably the closest you were going to get to an offensive spell, and it’s not detailed in this issue. Still, I remember as a wide-eyed kid thinking that cantrips, like everything else the brain trust at TSR did, were awesome.

3. Giants in the Earth

I always love this feature – stats for literary characters, which also served as a way of introducing little squirts like myself to fantasy literature. This issue has Poul Anderson’s Sir Roger De Tourneville (NG 10th level fighter), a 14th century English warrior who took over an alien spaceship that planned on conquering the Earth. I’ve never read The High Crusade, but I must say I’m intrigued.

It also has stats for L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt’s Harold Shea (CG 7th level fighter with special spell abilities). Depending on when you discovered fantasy literature, you might have heard that de Camp and Pratt were tantamount to devils for some of their pastiches of other authors’ works. Again, being an innocent at the time, I took such crimes for granted. Fortunately, I grew up, picked up some paper backs, and found I rather enjoyed some of their original works. Remember kids – don’t take anyone’s word for it when it comes to art – positive or negative – check it out and see what you think.

The article is rounded out with Alexei Panshin’s Anthony Villiers (NG 10th level ranger, 7th level thief) and Clifford D. Simak’s Mark Cornwall (LG 4th level fighter with full sage abilities) and Snively (LG 3rd level gnome fighter with special spell abilities).

Dig also the way things were defined back in the day. “X level something with special sauce”. I think they would have been better off statting up these characters as monsters – use class levels when you need a handy thumbnail sketch. If you have to color too far outside the lines, use freeform monster stats.

4. Gypsies

Even though by 1982 the game had been around for a while, there were still some archetypes left to explore. Gypsies have their place in fantasy stories for sure, but also in old school horror. What would Larry Talbot have done without them?

This article is pretty in-depth, and includes a gypsy fortune-telling chart, and a couple cool new spells. For the chart – read the magic. For one of the spells, look below:

The first is Summon Equine Beings, a “‘druid” spell which may be cast by nobles of third level (bard) or better, or by any of the magic viols. The spell is similar to call woodland beings but brings to the aid of the gypsies one type of the following equine or quasi-equine beings:

4-16 ponies, burros, or donkeys
4-16 horses or mules
4-8 centaurs
1-4 hippogriffs/pegasi/hippocampi
1-2 unicorns

The likelihood of attracting hippocampi is extremely rare, but if the spell is cast on the seashore or in a boat, they have as good a chance of being affected as any other equine being. The number of beings summoned is doubled when the spell is cast by the Great Viol of Pharaoh. All wild equine beings save at -5; domestic horses, mules, ponies, etc., at -4; warhorses and other trained steeds (pegasi, etc.) at -1. A paladin’s warhorse saves normally. Gypsies are always on good terms with any creatures summoned, so no loyalty check applies.

5. Monsters

This issue has Ed Greenwood’s bleeder, which looks like a beholder but has blood-sucking tentacles instead of eye stalks, Michael Parkinson’s Stymphalian birds and Roger Moore’s spriggan. I love spriggans, and have used Stymphalian birds in NOD, though not the version presented here.

6. Traveller

Full admission – never played it, but was always aware of it. I did mess around with character creation once, but that’s it. God knows that TRAVELLER has a big fan base out there, and this issue has two items for the game. The first are stats for a group of characters that appear in a short story in the magazine, “Skitterbuggers”. The second is a full fleshed out spaceport/adventure – “Exonidas Spaceport”. Now, not being a TRAVELLER aficionado, I can’t really review these items – but check them out if you love the system or just need some brain fuel for a sci-fi game. Heck, with all the Star Trek stuff I’ve been playing with lately, I’m sure I could make use of the space port plans if nothing else. The art is quite groovy as well.

7. Halflings

Dragon had a neat series of “Point of View” articles, which examined the different races (and I think maybe some monsters) in depth. Roger Moore writes here about the halflings. Now, of course, none of this has to be taken as gospel, but it’s surely one take on the subject, and useful for folks who were knew to fantasy gaming. It also includes a bunch of halfling deities which found their way into Legends & Lore. I can definitely remember when, as a kid, I did take this stuff for gospel … and loved it!

8. Poisons

Well, if you’ve decided to spice up a game with an evil PC, you’ll surely want some poison to play with. This issue has more poisons than you’ll know what to do with, and it’s a neat reminder of how the old game worked – everything hand-made, nothing standardized and simplified. Personally, I miss it … and don’t miss it. Depends. Here’s a sample poison:

GHOUL SWEAT: A scummy green gel, used like Chayapa. Smells like rotten meat. Its effect is to paralyze for 5-10 (d6 + 4) rounds. It acts immediately. Save for no effect, made at +1.

9. What’s New with Phil & Dixie

I mentioned Phil Foglio’s contribution to Star Trek fanzines a post or two ago, and now here he is as I was introduced to him, in Dragon. I always like the strip, and appreciated the humor … and yeah, had a total crush on Dixie.

Unfortunately, I can’t leave you with Wormy this time, because it didn’t appear. Drat the luck. All in all, a groovy issue with lots of good ideas.

Have fun boys and girls, and be kind to one another!

Buzzkill

A while back, I was playing around with creating YouTube playlists based on Saturday morning TV shows from different years. The one’s I managed to create – not an easy thing, since most of those classic shows are not remotely public domain – are live on the site. If you search for “SaturdayMorning1968” – or other years – you’ll probably find them.

In the process of making these lists, I came across a Canadian sci-fi show called Starlost. Given the audience for this blog, many of you have probably heard of this show and maybe even seen it. The episodes are on YouTube, and I must say that the one I watched I quite enjoyed. I watched episode 15, thus starting near the end of the series, but it wasn’t hard to figure out what was going on.

The show could be good inspiration for folks who run Metamorphosis Alpha, as it has a similar setting. Episode 15 involved a creature that I thought would work well as a monster for fantasy, post-apocalypse or sci-fi games, but I must issue a SPOILER ALERT here, since the creature and its stats give away the plot of the episode.

Scroll down past the episode link if you don’t care about spoilers, or better yet, watch the episode first and then check out the monster stats …

 

 

 

 

The episode involved  giant mutant bees that I thought would make a pretty good monster. Their Blood & Treasure stats are below:

Giant Mutant Bee
Type: Monster
Size: Medium
Hit Dice: 4
Armor Class: 14
Attack: Sting (1d4 + Poison III)
Movement: 30′ (Fly 80′)
Save: 15
Intelligence: High
Alignment: Lawful Neutral (with evil tendencies)
No. Appearing: 2d4
XP/CL: 1,200/6

Giant mutant bees are highly intelligent bees that measure up from 3 to 4 feet in length. They are very aggressive, wishing to expand their territory and domination over “lesser” species by any means possible.

A giant mutant queen bee is capable of controlling one humanoid creature at a time, communicating through something akin to radio waves and issuing orders to it in a subtle-enough way that the controlled creature does not recognize that it is being controlled. This domination has a range of 1 mile, but can be extended through the queen’s drones – thus up to 2 miles.

A giant mutant queen bee can control normal bees within 1 mile, sending swarms of them to harass and attack her enemies. She can read the thoughts of humanoid creatures within 3 miles.

Giant mutant bees enjoy a +3 bonus to save vs. poison, while the queens are immune to poison. Cold damage acts as a slow spell on giant mutant bees.

A giant mutant beehive consists of one queen and 2d4 drones.

Star Trek at Rules Lite Speed

Playing around on the Internet Archive recently, I came upon some old issues of Different Worlds magazine. This was a magazine I was unaware of in my youth, and I’ve enjoyed looking at another take on the RPG world in its infancy. One article in particular, “Kirk on Karit 2” by Emmet F. Milestone in issue No. 4 (1979) brought to my attention the first licensed Star Trek RPG, Star Trek – Adventure Gaming in the Final Frontier. I did a little hunting, and found a copy for sale, and I’m glad I did.

Written by Michael Scott in 1978 for Heritage Models to support their range of Star Trek miniatures, Star Trek (which is what I’ll call it from now on in this review to save time and space) is a dandy little game – very old school, very rules lite. In fact, some folks seem to think it a little too rules lite, but not me. I love discovering these little games from the hobby’s origins, because they remind you just how much you can do with a very light rules set.

Here are a few highlights –

The game is very focused on its mission, which is to simulate Star Trek landing parties – I think it does this pretty well. In fact, you could spin this thing into doing Star Trek dungeon crawls with very little trouble.

Being written in 1978, it is all original Trek, including the animated series, which I really dig. This means you get stats for creatures like the K’zin and Skorr.

The rules are really simple – in the basic and advanced versions – and meld pretty well with old school D&D. The six ability scores are Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Charisma, Luck and Mentality. Not too difficult to track those to D&D. Ability scores range from 3 to 18 (3d6). Characters get a modifier that is positive for every point a score is above 12 and a negative for every point a score is below 9. They also have a hand-to-hand combat value and equipment. In th basic game, you play one of the characters from actual Star Trek – Kirk, Spock, McCoy, etc. In the advanced game you can roll up a character yourself.

Sometimes hand-to-hand means butt-to-face

Combat is simple – roll 1d6 to attack, adding strength, dexterity and hand-to-hand bonus to determine total potential damage while the defender subtracts 1d6 plus luck and hand-to-hand modifiers. The resulting damage, if there is any left, is deducted from the defender’s constitution score. If damage equals more than half of the character’s remaining constitution, they are knocked out. Ranged combat is a little different, but just as simple – you have to roll below a number based on your dexterity score, with modifiers for a few common situations. Damage is based on the ranged weapon used.

The advanced game has more hand-to-hand weapons, which involve rolling more d6’s for the attack, and armor to reduce damage suffered.

Skill checks are a roll of 3d6 which must be less than or equal to whatever ability score makes the most sense. If Spock is trying to use his tri-corder to pick up signs of life, he makes a roll against his Mentality. Easy … but I would personally change it to a d20 roll rather than 3d6.

Psionic powers work basically the same way – roll under Mentality.

There is no experience point or leveling system in the game, but the author mentions that as characters succeed in adventures their hand-to-hand rating can improve or they can get bonuses to certain tasks. I like the idea of advancement being kind of arbitrary, though you would need a good Mission Master to keep things from getting out of hand.

The game has stats for all sorts of Star Trek monsters – again, a Trek dungeon would probably be lots of fun. Given that Kirk and Spock had to deal with ancient Rome, the Roaring ’20s and the Old West, a dungeon crawl would not be too outrageous … and nicknaming the hirelings “red shirts” would be entirely appropriate.

Spock: “I use my tricorder to scan for life forms on the other side of the door.”

MM: Rolling … “You detect no life forms.”

Kirk: “I bust open the door and somersault into the room.”

MM: The room contains four Klingon warriors – roll for initiative!

I really grok how simple this game is – you can pick it up and get going within minutes if you have players who understand the basics of role playing games and Star Trek. I especially love that it instantly lit a fire in me to play it and play with it – why not work up quick stats for Doctor Who characters and creatures, or Star Wars or Next Generation or whatever – it would be so easy!

If you get a chance, check it out. Expect simplicity, “rulings not rules” and lots of thinking on your feet, but also a game that you can get up and running quickly.

Also – check out that article I mentioned above – Emmet F. Milestone came up with a dandy little scheme for characters falling in love with one another – a must if Kirk is in your boarding party, though as Emmet often remarks, “Kirk has no luck in love, so his Luck modifier is never added in a Romance Roll”. I instantly want to use this in my next D&D dungeon crawl.

Heritage Star Trek miniatures – image found at Noble Knight Games