Rpg Scene: White Star’s Stripped Down Space Dungeons

Monday , 9, November 2015 3 Comments

This game has been the talk of the town this past year with a great many people lighting up Google+ with comment and fanfare about it. It’s a relatively big deal as far as the rpg scene is concerned, however… I have to say up front that I am not in the target audience of this game. It’s a matter of taste, really, but I think that space themed role-playing demands an entirely different engine than some sort of obvious D&D clone. I’m the sort of person that just loves how both Star Frontiers and Gamma World ended up going their own way, with rules systems crafted to the requirements of their theme. I know we didn’t really know any better back in those dark times before GURPS was even a thing. But you know, if I’ve rounded up a group of people to play a space game, it’s because we’re all in the mood for something different than all those fantasy games we’ve all worn out over the years.

But that’s not the only barrier in the way of me getting into this game. I am a die hard B/X fan that will only grudgingly transition to the Adventurer Conqueror King System. Yeah… ACKS is not only that well designed, it not only solves that many problems that emerge in actual play, and it not only has the best megadungeon on the market, but players simply eat it up. Alexander Macris’s ACKS is not just how I get my domain endgame rules sorted out and rules for miniatures battles into a classic D&D type setting, it’s how I meet the diverse elements of modern gamerdom half way so that everyone can get what they want out of a campaign.

And while I have many friends that play AD&D that I can more or less get along with, I have to say… these games derived from original D&D really do blow my mind. You know, it’s my edition that’s supposed to be an elegant weapon for a more civilized age. But here are all these retrograde throwbacks playing something that looks like D&D but which has attribute bonuses that range from -1 to +1. It’s crazy, too. Only certain classes even get the benefit of these bonuses. You reroll your hit points each time you level, but only take the new result if it is greater than what you had before. And weapon damages and hit dice are all in terms of the d6; there’s hardly a weird polyhedral die in sight with this game. This isn’t right…! That’s not D&D!!

Not that there aren’t things that don’t give me warm feelings here. High Charisma and Wisdom scores grant an XP bonus to characters regardless of their class selection. The equivalent to demi-human level limits are unapologetically in effect here with Alien Brutes capping out at level six, Alien Mystics capping out at level eight, and Robots capping out at level four. Human Aristocrats, Mercenaries, Pilots, and Star Knights all go up to level ten! And I have to say it’s uncanny, but the Gygax’s assumptions about the way that the default milieu of AD&D should work really do line up with what you see in Star Wars movies and Star Trek: The Next Generation. As much as malcontents tend to tear down this aspect of the the granddaddy of all fantasy games, it’s funny just how much this premise gets put to work out in the wilds.

Nevertheless, there are things about this game that drive me bonkers. You see, if I put Moldvay Basic or Labyrinth Lord or Adventurer Conqueror King on the table and tell people that that’s what we’re playing, everyone kind of gets that. Even if the way I run combat is off or if I mention that certain classes are out of play, people still know more or less what they’re getting into. But White Star is not like that. It imports the mind numbing ambivalence of Swords & Wizardry’s agnosticism towards ascending and descending armor class. The designer couldn’t be bothered to nail down precisely how attribute bonuses actually work, but leaves it to the game master to house rule it. Even the alignment spectrum is left undefined and even unnamed, with a generic “good” and “evil” being left as an exercise for the person that paid good money for this game book.

This sort of thing really makes my blood boil. It would take no less effort on the part of the designer to just pick something that seems to work in practice with a diverse range of gamers. With the game completely nailed down like that, I could just pick up and run “White Star” with a dozen arbitrary friction points out of the way. Sure, some of those choices may not work at my table. But you know, people can change things around if and when some aspect of the game doesn’t really suit them. But the White Star approach to “ungame” design means that everyone has to complete the design process just to get any game off the ground. That might have flown back in 1974, but there’s no excuse for this sort of thing today.

That’s not to say that this sort of looseness is never an effective design element. The Alien Brute is designed to be played as either an obvious Wookie knockoff or an obvious Klingon knockoff. The Alien Mystic can be played just as well as some sort of pointy-eared Vulcan-sue archetype– or it could be played as kind of a funny Jim Henson puppet. Leaving major setting related choices like this wide open like this is pretty useful, even if I’d rather have something new and different like Star Frontiers’s Yazirian or Gamma World’s mutant plants to try out. But to set up the game with some sort of “Schrodinger’s Rules” type mentality…? That’s just stupid. I should have a working game out of the box. The fact that individual referees are invariably going to make changes is not an excuse to skip over making sure that the default settings are going to end up working out of the box most people most of the time.

But there’s more than that going on with this game. The sort of things I typically expect a space rpg to address just aren’t even here at all. There is no world creation system. No system for making the game’s equivalent of a sector or a subsector. There’s no trade system. There’s no wonky psionics system beyond a minor reworking of a handful of tired old D&D spells. There’s no skill or proficiency system like you’d expect to be here, either. And while there is a spaceship design system and a space combat system, it really is just more D&D and not anything like a serious effort to make a standalone minigame. (Hint: initiative may not even make sense in the context of space combat movement.)

You know, as much as I relish digging into the way that different games tackle the different sub-games that were pioneered in classic Traveller, I admit that there really are a lot of referees that get lost in the extraneous complexity that those sorts of things bring to the table. People spend way more time playing with Traveller rather than actually running games… and while that is a feature for people that have a lot of spare time on their hands, it’s also indicative of a rather glaring design flaw.

Even in this glutted market, I think that there is a need for a more accessible, more playable space rpg. But I don’t think that ignoring all the things that are central to the genre in order to just do a dungeon crawl with Jedi and Klingons is really quite the answer. If that sort of idea for a game doesn’t make your head explode, then this might just be the perfect kernal for you to develop your own space rpg on top of. But beyond a very stripped down version of original D&D and a section on campaign types that looks like it was pulled straight out of the opening sections of GURPS Space, you’re just not going to get a lot of help here.

On the other hand, most role-players already know how to play this game. And it really does capture a synthesis of how most people expect science fiction to work based on the most popular movies and TV shows from the past forty years as opposed to a blend of Andre Norton, H. Beam Piper, and E. C. Tubb stories that nobody reads anymore. That’s an undeniable asset if getting a game session off the ground is your highest priority. But for my tastes, this is just way too generic for me to even want to get started with this.

  • Sky says:

    I remember getting Swords and Wizardry and reading through it the first time. I was happy with it then and I am not regretting the purchase. It was a little off-putting though, the section on AC. I would have preferred he just picked one. If you add up more and more big decisions like that you get to a point where you look back and realize you didn’t need to actually buy the game. I could just sit down with a notebook and go down the line. AC my way, skills and bonuses my way, level caps and classes my way, etc… That might be the purest expression of the OSR ethic but I am just a guy that wants to play some games. I buy the books so I don’t have to reinvent the wheel every time I start a campaign. There is already the expectation opening any gamebook that me or anyone is going to tweak things. In the end my Swords and Wizardry book isn’t as much a game as a framework for negotiations with my players. You guys want ascending or descending? You want elves to be able to switch classes as they sleep or do you want them like you already know them? You mad about the level cap on your dwarf, let’s talk about it. I ran some 5th edition recently and the best thing about it was everyone sitting down ready to play the same damn game. Oh well. I still prefer living in a universe with tons of retro clones in it so a tip of the hat to guys like Finch.

  • Astrosorceror says:

    I’d be interested in what people think needs to go into a starter SF box. The issue I see is the temptation to cram in too much: worlds, races, societies, devices, etc.

    Personally, I think the way to roll might be a system that lets the GM and players make what they want. And then can come the endless parade of supplements for worlds races, entire galaxies, etc.

    What do you all thin?

    • Jeffro says:

      The dead minimum is Characters & Combat. Worlds & Adventure are the next most important. Space combat and the trade system are the hardest to get into a playable format and are best ignored if they’re not actually going to add anything to the game.

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