Starfaring

“A science fiction game of interstellar exploration, growth and combat!”

Copyright 1976, Ken St. Andre and Flying Buffalo, Inc. Illustrated by E. Hogan.

A single 58 page booklet, 8 1/2" by 11", plastic spiral bound, with pink heavy paper covers.

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Starfaring does not take itself very seriously. It is copiously illustrated with cartoons by E. Hogan, and he portrays a funny universe where people are loose about sex and drugs and not terribly bright. Starships take varied forms: a giant hamburger, giant dowsing rods, flying saucers, enormous houseflies, and in one cartoon, "Hilda's Used Starships" offers a graffitti-covered U.S.S. Enterprise for sale: "...They only took it out once a week to explore strange new worlds..." While author Ken St. Andre claims to have been surprised when he first saw the art, the illustrations fit his light and breezy writing style well.

Starfaring was a strange offshoot to the development of RPGs. While one player took the role of referee (or "Galaxy Master" or "GM"), other players took an unconventional role of "Ship Masters" or "SM"s. Each player designed and played one starship and its crew. St. Andre listed three different scenarios to play. The first was the standard exploration scenario, where each player took her ship through a different Star Gate to explore what was on the other side, and bring that information back home. A second scenario had players racing to find the best world for their homeworld to colonize. The third scenario had players fighting galactic foes. From the way the game was written, however, it seemed best designed to play the first scenario, with one GM and one SM. Multiple players would have made the situation into several different games played simultaneously unless players went through the same Star Gate and played cooperatively.

The standard game was simple enough. Ship Masters built their starship, crew and equipped it. Their homeworld government gave them a loan to cover the cost of building and outfitting their ship, and SMs get ten trips into the unknown to repay their loan in installments. Their homeworld paid cash bonuses for discovering new habitable worlds, more Star Crystals, or heavy metal deposits that were the only things worth transporting by starship for trade. (Matter transmission works, but not for elements with higher atomic weights.) Thus, the actual nature of one's home society was almost irrelevant: one needed a homeworld only to figure out what they're looking for, and how much they'll pay for it.

 

Setting

It's fortunate that the game didn't need much background because it was very breezy. Humanity achieved starflight by the painful process of slower than light exploration. Luckily, they discovered a derelict alien ship around Barnard's Star which possessed FTL technology, courtesy of Star Crystals. Star Crystals came in three varieties: Brahma (energy sources), Shiva (energy modulators, powering energy weapons), and Vishnu (energy modulators, powering shields). After copying the FTL technology and abandoning Earth as too polluted, humanity exploded across the galaxy. Shortly after this, intelligent robots revolted and began to wipe humanity off world after world. Humans were saved by the gift of the drug LSDX-6000 from an alien race. LSDX-6000 gave humans psionic powers. Robots who were superior to humans in every physical way couldn't compete with a foe that could predict their every move and sabotage their machinery without even being present. Robots were wiped out, and humans were careful not to build so much intelligence into their replacements.

After defeating the robots, humans discovered how to open Star Gates, which permitted jumps across vast distances. With a developing shortage of both Star Crystals and habitable worlds in their cluster, planetary governments sponsoedr bold citizens to buy starships and explore what lay beyond the Star Gates, with an eye toward exploiting what was found there.

While Starfaring assumed the galaxy was dominated by humans (St. Andre said most aliens in this setting were not interested in starflight, or had not achieved it by the time humans came upon them), the game encouraged GMs and SMs to make up aliens and be as flexible as they want in crewing their ship. The rules mentioned humans, aliens, androids, robots, and shell people. Shell people, as in Anne McCaffery's The Ship Who Sang, were people who gave up their bodies and had their brains emplaced in small life-support modules. They could be implanted in starships or other mechanical bodies. The advantage was that shell people lived about ten times as long as they would have in a mortal body.

 

Building a Ship

Appropriate for the way it's set up, Starfaring described ship construction before talking about how to generate living beings. Ship construction was fairly simple. Start with one of four hull sizes, measured in "bions", a unit that describes how many humans could live comfortably in that space. Hull sizes were described as Small, Mod, Large, or Exorb. Second, outfit the warp engines. These operated in normal space at slower than light speeds (Warp 1 is .1 c, Warp 2 is .2 c, and so on, where c is the speed of light) and FTL in subspace (Warp 1 is 1 parsec a day, or about 1240 times c, Warp 2 is 2 parsecs a day, etc.). The Ship Master then purchased Star Crystals to power her vessel. Star Crystals were fuel; they got used up. Ship Masters installed their computers, either one master computer (slightly cheaper, but if damaged, it's curtains for the ship) or a set of individual computer functions. One could choose to have the computer essentially run the ship by itself, or Ship Masters could pay extra for human accessible instruments. All that remained was to find out how much the ship cost.

The rules advised GMs to be generous in ship construction, and sneaky during play. Ship Masters had to be explicit about what their ship was capable of, and any special features they wanted it to have. GMs were expected to make SM players work around the limitations of the ship they designed when they went exploring.

One would assume the equipment list for outfitting the ship would come next, but it was actually thirteen pages later. Equipment was vague: weapons were listed as "handguns," "rifles" "cannons," and "small arms and explosives." Some of the interesting equipment on the list included airbelts (a belt with a force field to let oxygen in, and keep harmful substances out), portable nuclear fusion reactors, and shipboard equipment such as psionic boosters, star finders, and subspace communicators. Drugs were rather unbalanced, including two that permanently boosted a being's capabilities, and an addictive recreational drug that may boost psi unpredictably.

 

Creating a Crew

Character creation was equally simple. Individuals had six characteristics, generated in three different ways.

Mentality was 3d6 x 10. The score is equivalent to our IQ score.
Psi was generated by 3d6.
Psi Use was generated by 1d6. This was the number of psi efforts one could make before needing to recover.
Psi Recovery was generated by 1d6. This was the number of days it took before psi could be used again.
Physique was generated by 3d6. It covered both physical strength and beauty.
Health was generated by 3d6. This was one's hit points.

There were some interesting features here. One was that physical strength and beauty was tied to a single characteristic. Second was that St. Andre said that Starfaring humans are slightly less intelligent than modern Americans. (We note that the average IQ score, by definition, is 100; Starfaring generates an average score of 105.) Third, St. Andre said that psi powers had been on the decline for a long time. While all humans possessed them, they lacked the psychic strength of their ancestors because of a built-up tolerance for LSDX-6000.

Robot characters, should somebody want one, had three scores: Mentality, Charge and Efficiency. Base Mentality was created by 3d6*50 (!), and the other two characteristics were both scored from 0 to 1.00. St. Andre recommended using a deck of playing cards with face cards equaling 10 to create these scores. The robot's effective Mentality was their base score multiplied by both Charge and Efficiency. Interestingly, this means they get dumber as they run down. Charge was spent on a per day basis; Efficiency appears to have no purpose beyond reducing Mentality.

GMs were on their own for creating aliens. St. Andre asked players to send interesting ones to him for a Starfaring newsletter.

Explanations for psionic powers appeared about a dozen pages later in the rules. St. Andre never said how character powers were selected, so we assumed any character could use any power, provided they had enough psychic strength to power the ability.

 

Battles in Space and Other Inconveniences

Of course, a science fiction game must have opponents. The robots may be defeated and gone, or maybe not; that's up to each GM. St. Andre gave Starfaring a basic octopoid Bug Eyed Monster, the Slish, an exception to the "alien races haven't developed space flight" maxim.

Starship combat was pretty simple. St. Andre pointed out that ship to ship combat was likely to occur at great distances. Even with weapons that travel at c, in the second or so it takes them to reach the enemy, the target will have moved a tremendous distance. This means that getting a hit is all but impossible unless you've got precognition. Luckily, humans do, and Slish don't. Mechanically, this was simulated by assuming an attack hit unless the defender succeeded with a saving throw. There was a forumla to calculate the saving throw target number, but it was vague. Must the defender beat the target number, or just equal it? Do the variables in the formula refer to the attacking ship's values (speed, gunners' mentality, gunners' psi) or defender's? While St. Andre showed a little bit of how his formula was derived, the inconsistent use of parentheses made it impossible to know which values multiplied and which are divided. Standard mathematical notation would have helped. Presumably, an attacker's high Mentality and Psi helped to predict where the target was, while greater speeds and distances makes it harder to predict where the defender will be. The Slish had a real disadvantage in combat because they had no Psi. This was offset by their bigger ships, their tendency to fly in groups, and their tactic of firing five shots for every combat round. How could the Slish fire at five times the human rate? We don't know.

If hit, the target's Vishnu system absorbed as much energy as possible. This was explained later in the book, in the Encounters section. The Vishnu crystal drained energy from the Brahma crystals; each point of Brahma drained negated one point of incoming energy, up to the maximum rating of the Vishnu crystal. Presumably, the Vishnu and Brahma crystals are both depleted by this amount permanently, although the rules don't say. If the attacker had more energy than the Vishnu crystal could block, the defender's ship was holed, and additional damage could result. For every 500 points of energy that got past the shields, one die was rolled to see which subsystem was damaged. A ship could get chewed up pretty badly if a shot got past their shields.

Combat wasn't all that happened to a ship. The chapter on Space Hazards had a random encounter table, but there wasn't much there. There was only a 1 in 36 chance of an encounter per turn--and St. Andre didn't define what a turn was! Encounters in normal space were fairly basic: Slish, radiation, meteors, malfunctions.

One interesting thing that could happen was that ships that dropped out of subspace near to unstable stars of spectral types O, B, and A could trigger a supernova—a fact humanity was unaware of. A shockwave of radiation swept the ship, which could kill a number of crew and reduce the Mentality of the survivors. Survivors may thus be too stunned to realize they need to escape to subspace before they're at front-row center for a supernova. A star that was driven to supernova in this fashion produced Star Crystals, a fact also unknown to humanity.

Subspace hazards were slightly more interesting. Debris were intelligent life in subspace that resemble rocks but have a suicidal ambition to become free hydrogen by smashing themselves into things, like starships. Kthulhus (sic) were the dominant life-form of subspace, and effectively suck the Mentality out of crew in their efforts to get rid of starships, which they find irritating. Starfaring also had Berserkers, robotic warships programmed to destroy all life, borrowed from Fred Saberhagen's books.

 

Creating the Universe

The book closed with random tables for generating star systems. St. Andre didn't use polyhedral dice, but recommended drawing from a deck of cards or using a randomizing function from a pocket calculator. Starfaring used three-dimensional space, with an X-Y-Z coordinate system to locate stars. There were no suggestions for how referees should map three-dimensional space on two-dimensional paper. Once stars were generated, planets were placed. The system for deciding how many planets was based on a mathematical formula taking into account how far the star is from the Star Gate (why?), and how many stars were in the system (single, binary, or trinary), but this information was found in the next section, creating life forms.

Life forms were generated on three tables: quality of life (which determines the presence/absence of life forms, and their rough technological level), life cycle base (carbon, methane, chlorine, silicon, robotic, ectoplasm, or pure energy; forget for the moment that a carbon-based life form might still be a methane breather); and the dominant life form shape (bacteria, amoeboid, insectoid, etc.). The book closed with a square root table to assist in calculating hypotenuses for determining distance in three-dimensional space. The back cover had an advertisement for Tunnels and Trolls, Flying Buffalo's successful fantasy RPG.

 

Summary

Starfaring's odd design put it in a sub-genre of RPGs, where players do not take the part of individual characters. Other than this, the main feature of this game was the funny cartoons, still amusing twenty-five years later. It's clear this game was a first draft, badly in need of editing. Some rules are explained or illustrated many pages after they were introduced, and some key game mechanics were not explained at all. There were no rules at all for what happened to crew members outside of their ship: no reaction tables for alien life, no rules for person to person combat, etc.

It's natural to compare Starfaring to Traveller, for they were released within a year of each other, and both covered galactic exploration. Traveller is gritty, trying to stay more or less within justifiable science, and permits a wide variety of adventures, even if there is a focus on trade or military situations. Starfaring was lighthearted and silly, with lots of hand waving for justification and few details, and almost completely dedicated to a single kind of exploration mission. However, the play of Starfaring is reminiscent of Traveller played solitaire: create a ship, go exploring a random section of space, and see if you can bring home enough money to avoid having the ship repossessed.

This game has little to offer besides being a rare curiosity for the collector. However, it may be worthwhile to note that it may have been the first traditional science fiction RPG with an "explore the wide universe" theme, beating Traveller to the punch by a year, and coming hard on the heels of Metamorphosis Alpha, copyrighted earlier the same year.

 

Personal Notes from the Curator

I bought this game as a cheap substitute for Traveller, and never played it. Rereading it for this review put it in a new light. I always used to think of this game as a Traveller knockoff, possibly because that's what I originally intended to use it for. But the play, such as it is, has a different focus than Traveller. Starfaring is probably closer at heart to the original Star Trek, where a ship populated by a few heroic officers and a faceless collection of minor characters explore distant and unknown reaches of the galaxy. It might make for an evening's diversion, but the amount of work required by a referee to make it playable, and the one player per referee nature of the game makes it an unlikely entertainment. I suspect very few people, even gamers who were in the hobby twenty-five years ago, have heard of this game. But it remains as an example of a very early RPG from the dawn of the hobby..

—RAD

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