Tuesday, April 03, 2012

[Gaming History] Starleader: Assault! and Publisher vs. Creator Squabbles

Gamers who have only experienced the "edition wars" of the modern era might believe that the story of how Paizo Publishing became successful as a role playing game company is a unique occurrence.  After all, it isn't every day that a major role playing game publisher decides to make some internal changes and those changes provide a perfect opportunity for a new game publisher to secure a market segment releasing a revised version of the older company's game.

In the case of Wizards of the Coast, their creation of the Open Gaming License, combined with their decision to abandon Dungeons & Dragons 3.5 in order to produce a 4th edition of the game, provided a perfect opportunity for Paizo Publishing to release the Pathfinder Role Playing Game.  Those who played 3.5 know that Pathfinder is an update of the earlier Wizards of the Coast game, that features various improvements based on playtesting, an update that was much demanded by fans who felt abandoned by Wizards of the Coast for a variety of reasons.  Not only was Paizo filled with talented game designers who understood the 3.5 edition of D&D, many of those same designers worked for Wizards at one time or another.  In fact, many of Wizards most talented former game designers worked on the Pathfinder game.  To state what happened in a very reductive manner (that isn't exactly true but is useful for illustrative purposes), Paizo effectively secured a market segment by releasing a product that a competitor had abandoned or improperly developed.

Paizo's rise as a major publisher in the industry is very interesting.  I'm a big fan of their products, I was a first wave "Superscriber" of their merchandise, and I am a fan of Wizards of the Coast's 4th edition game.  As a fan, I didn't pick sides in the fight.  Many did.  I am also a long time gamer who has been playing role playing games for over 20 years, and who has an obsessive desire to study the hobby and learn its history.

This is how I know that Paizo's story isn't as unique as one might think.  In fact, Paizo's rise to fame parallels nicely with the rise of a little game company called Steve Jackson Games.  Steve Jackson Games emerged out of the very successful gaming company Metagaming Concepts when game designer Steve Jackson left Metagaming to form his own company.  Steve Jackson had designed many of Metagaming's most popular games including Ogre, GEV, Melee, and Wizard.  The last two were part of a line of games that came to be called The Fantasy Trip.  Metagaming was a company that exploded to success through the publication of "microgames."  They built upon the success smartly using the microgame format to release modules of what was to become a full fledged role playing game -- The Fantasy Trip.  When Steve Jackson left the Metagaming in 1980, the company unraveled fairly quickly and closed their doors in April of 1982.  There is a lot to the story, and Shannon Appelcline does a good job of covering it in the book Designers and Dragons.  Needless to say, looking at Metagaming's history one can see that the brain drain of losing Jackson was a death knell for the company.  Lucky for Wizards, they seem to be able to recruit and rehire talented desingers.

Unlike Paizo's ability to modify D&D, Jackson wasn't able to take The Fantasy Trip with him when he created his own company.  He was able to take Ogre, GEV, and One-Page Bulge (three classic microgames) with him.  Instead, Steve Jackson eventually designed his own role playing game called GURPS.  Though one can clearly see that GURPS is a descendant of the old The Fantasy Trip rules.

Though Metagaming went out of business, they did release a number of excellent products for The Fantasy Trip.  It remains to this day a highly playable and entertaining role playing game.  If one owns the Melee, Wizard, Advanced Melee, Advanced Wizard, and In The Labyrinth rules, one has enough material to run fantasy role playing game campaigns forever.  All of these game products list Steve Jackson as their designer, and though Metagaming claimed ownership of the game it is interesting to note that the text is "copyright Steve Jackson" for Advanced Melee, Advanced Wizard, and In the Labyrinth.  It is also interesting to note that my 1981edition of Melee published after Steve Jackson's departure lists Guy W. McLimore Jr. and Howard Thompson as the designers with Metagaming holding the copyright.  One can see the acrimony between Steve Jackson and Metagaming publisher Howard Thompson in those copyright listings alone, but letters like this one to Andy Windes help reinforce the opinion.

In the post Jackson era, Metagaming released a new series of The Fantasy Trip related games including Lords of the Underearth, Dragons of the Underearth, and a science fiction adaptation of the rules called Starleader: Assault!  There was even a super hero version of the TFT rules slated for publication.

When Starleader: Assault! was published, it was clearly designed to be the first in a series of science fiction themed microgames that would evolve into a full role playing system based on a TFT foundation.  Like Melee before it, Starleader: Assault! provides players with an introductory combat system.  The statistics used in the game are clearly rooted in the earlier game's mechanics, but there are some distinct differences.  Differences that are strong enough that the William Barton's review of the game in The Space Gamer #61 states, "It is a combat module...what Melee was to TFT.  And that is where the resemblance almost ends."

Character creation in Starleader: Assault! is similar to TFT.  Players are given a certain number of points to divide between three statistics (IQ, Prowess, and Emotion) and each statistic must have a minimum score of 8.  Interestingly enough, two of the three statistics play little role in the game play of this "combat module."  Where IQ determines the number of skill points a player receives in TFT, it merely determines the tech level of weapons that can be used by a character in Starleader: Assault!  Emotion is of even less use in the game and is only used for an optional rule regarding panic checks.  One imagines that Emotion might be used as the basis for a psionics system, but no such system was ever designed.

Where TFT was built starting with the assumption of hand to hand combat being the most common form of engagement, Starleader: Assault! combat begins with targeting assisted missile weapons as the basis for combat.  In fact, Prowess -- which one might think determines a person's skill in combat -- isn't used to determine whether someone is hit with a missile weapon at all in the game.  Even though Prowess is described as "the physical capacity of a character, including agility, strength, dexterity and endurance," to hit roles with missile weapons are determined by rolling 4d6 and seeing if that roll is under a target number equal to or less than the weapon's "Density" + Target Size - Size of Obstacles between shooter and opponent.  Interestingly, this makes shooting anyone at all a very difficult task.

For example:  a TL 6 "Ghazi" has a Density of 8 and your average person has a size of 2.  This means that firing at an average sized opponent who is standing in the open requires a roll of 10 or less on 4d6 -- a less than 50% chance.  While it is true that this might be a fairly accurate portrayal of real life odds of shooting someone in a hectic situation, it makes for some frustrating combat rounds.  Weapon fire can be fairly lethal in Starleader: Assault!  The average hit -- assuming same TL for attacker and defender -- does 7 points of damage.  That pretty much means that even the stoutest fellow is down after a second shot.  Once again a decently realistic result, but not necessarily a good narrative one.

Melee combat in Starleader: Assault!?  Um... right...you'll need to own Melee and it uses a slightly different system.  It is definitely a game that says, "once you've got blasters, you don't need any stinkin' swords."

Funny thing is...I played a couple of battles portraying various assaults on the ship Trek Heaven.  Yes, you read that right, the Trek Heaven.  Get it.  Ugh.  Anyway, I played through a couple of battles and as a microgame of a shootout on a space ship, the game is pretty fun.  I don't know how it would do as the foundation for a full blown role playing game.  Even if one were to incorporate rules from TFT -- for which there are "conversion" rules -- it doesn't quite seem to work that way.  I don't know though, I might just try it out.  The skill system from TFT seems like it would overlap easily.  It's only the combat system that would require a little work.


Robert Saint John said...

S:A... such a mess, such a disappointment (at the time). So much in the game makes no sense, though it's possible it might have once the full planned SFRPG system came out. I actually have it sitting on my desk with the intention of making it more playable and expandable, and adding swashbuckling into it (I need my sinkin' swords!). I think S:A could be the basis of a nice little system for space opera and 15mm minis but, as it stands, "Martian Vanguard" in Interplay #4 was a more useful basis for SF-TFT.

Christian Lindke said...

Thanks for adding another magazine to the list of classic gaming magazines I need to buy! :-)

I'll have to track down a copy of that issue of Interplay. I have the Space Gamer issue with the TFT superhero rules.

I agree that S:A is a mess. It's got some cool ideas, but they seem divorced from anything else.

If you come out with some expanded rules, let me know. I'd be happy to share them.