Issue #38, March 2018
ISSN 2206-4907 (Online)
The Great Space Operas
Interview with Terry K. Amthor … FATE Red Planet … Deserted ships for Star Frontiers … Spacemaster/Rolemaster Campaign … Star Trek, Spacemaster, Star Wars, Traveller, Star Wars Force and Destiny, Starfinder, and Hyperlanes Reviewed … Annihilation Movie Review
Table of Contents
RPG Review is a quarterly online magazine which will be available in print version at some stage. Maybe a ten year anniversary? All material remains copyright to the authors except for the reprinting as noted in the first sentence. Contact the author for the relevant license that they wish to apply. Various trademarks and images have been used in this magazine of review and criticism. Use of trademarks etc are for fair use and review purposes and are not a challenge to trademarks or copyrights. This includes Star Trek RPG by FASA, Spacemaster, Rolemaster, and MERP by Iron Crown Enterprises (and probably Tolkien Estate *cough*), Star Wars by West End Games and Fantasy Flight, Traveller by Mongoose, Starfinder by Piazo, Star Frontiers by TSR, Hyperlanes by Scrivened and others. Annihiliation distributed by Paramount. Cover image of Robot Bird by James Gleeson. Shadow World image from ICE and map selection from Middle Earth. Map of East Asia by ASDFGHJ on Wikimedia Commons.
The space opera is one of the great epics in fiction and of course in RPG gaming. The vast expanses of space are enticing and the prospect of travelling in great vessels between the stars to exotic and alien locales suites the inner explorer that we, as a species, seem to have carried as a genetic and mimetic heritage. In science fiction literature, we are very familiar with classic space operas such as the Foundation series by Issac Asimov, and the the Lensman series by E.E. "Doc" Smith. Yet even with the term itself was first coined - way back in 1941 in the fanzine-journal Le Zombie by Bob Tucker, the space opera was described in reference to soap operas as a "hacky, grinding, stinking, outworn, spaceship yarn". And much of the criticism is indeed justified. Because as long as there is tale of epic voyages they are told from a particular perspective, which not surprisingly fits the culture and the norms of the authors. So often the protagonists of the space opera are clean-cut male humans of a paler skin tone using the English language. The humanoid bug-eyed aliens are a threatening Other, designed to be conquered or beaten into submission. It is, to use a popular music phrase, it is the use of "rough justice" to "get the girl .. kill the baddies and save the entire planet" (Pop Will Eat Itself, 1992). The use of lyrical content of the Western genre is deliberately chosen. Genre boundaries are fluid and the influence of the Westen on Space Opera is well recognised, none more obviously than Star Wars from the 1970s, but also with Firefly from the 2000s.
This is also the case in roleplaying games. This particular issue of RPG Review is dedicated to the great space operas, and despite the name one may be surprised to see that the namesake itself, FGU's Space Opera (1980), does not feature in the page count (it did, however, receive a review in Issue 16, June 2012). Instead we do have the battle of several giants in terms of reviews that haven't been published in RPG Review ; FASA's Star Trek (1983), ICE's Spacemaster (1988), WEG's Star Wars (1996), Mongoose's Traveller (2008), FF's Star Wars Force and Destiny (2013), Piazo's Starfinder (2017), and Scrivened's Hyperlanes (2017). It is hoped that one can see that this represents a rather wide selection, but in style and across the hobby's history, of various RPGs that broadly fall into the "space opera" category.
In addition to these we have an interview with Terry K. Amthor, most famous for his work on Shadow World, Rolemaster, and Spacemaster. Originally his interview was going to be in the last issue of RPG Review on world building. It was also appropriate that he featured in this issue. Appropriately, there is also a story outline using a number of products that he was responsible for. In addition there is our regular gaming 'blogs, however this issue is narrowed down to only include featuring MegaTraveller (very appropriate) due to space considerations, pun not intended; you will note that this an extremely text-heavy issue.
As an extended set campaign 'blog with additional elaborations, Simon Stainsby provides an excellent overview of idealised space opera with FATE Red Planet game notes. Plus there is a classic trope of the deserted space ship by Thomas Verrault, followed by some practical examples for Star Frontiers. The issue concludes with Andrew Moshos' regular movie review, and this time with Annihilation.
There was a justified reaction against the space opera in the 1980s and 1990s and beyond. Science fiction became very interested in what was on Earth, rather than in the far reaches and what was involved in the transformation of humans. Cyberpunk, biopunk, dilapidation - all seem to put the space opera aside for a while. But, as mentioned, genre boundaries are fluid. Iain M. Banks made this obviously so but taken the various aspects of justified of cultural criticism of the space opera and incorporating all this with the exploratory and very high technology motif in The Culture series - which is certainly worthy of an RPG campaign which curiously has remained absent.
On this note we may conclude - that there is not any genre out there (no, not even romances and especially not romances) that are innately trash, but rather it is specific elements. The fiction writer and the game designer alike should delve into genres and find out what is downright implausible, hackneyed, and infantile, and fix them. The genres themselves - well, the often appeal to a universal dream that is part of species: explore strange new worlds, and boldly go.
Lev Lafayette, firstname.lastname@example.org
Without a doubt the single most important item of news for the RPG Review Cooperative since the last journal issue is our second publication, "The Tinker's Toolkit", by Karl Brown, is a D&D 5th edition race design system based on a mathematical analysis of canon races. It makes use of the race and feat traits in the PHB, DMG, EEPC, VGM, and the TP , reverse engineers them, and creates a copy of the system Wizards of the Coast (WOTC) uses in-house to create PC races. In addition the Tinker's toolkit provides 37 new races using this system from Awakened Black Bears to Worgs.
For a mere $4 USD this 72p supplement is available at the following URL:
Of course, our previous publication, Papers & Paychecks, is still available as well. Remember that all proceeds from Papers & Paychecks go the non-profit RPG Review Cooperative, Inc.
In addition we're contribution to the 200 Word RPG Challenge, building up for a RuneQuest Con DownUnder later in the year, preparing joint activities with Arcancon early next year. All of this, of course, is in addition to our usual gaming activities and movie nights. It is fair to say that we’re a pretty busy Cooperative.
Letters: Lachlan Smith Memorial Wing
That's a beautiful tribute to Lachlan. Over the last few years, I had the pleasure of catching-up with Lachlan (often lunch prior to a movie or a cuppa post movie; usually both). The thing is, we always got around to talking about our current RPGs and favourite characters, and he loved to talk about what he was doing with 7th Sea or some high concept science-fiction character he'd crafted. Lachlan was a storyteller, and he loved to experiment for the sake of a good yarn. The breadth of material...
Damien Wise, Melbourne, Australia
by Andrew Daborn
Megatraveller: Pirates of Drinax
By Andrew Daborn
"My name is William Kidd, as I sailed, as I sailed
My name is William Kidd, as I sailed
My name is William Kidd, God's laws I did forbid
And most wickedly I did, as I sailed, as I sailed…"
The Skopa harboured for the week in the Floating Palace of Drinax while the Lady Anja, Lord Piotr, Jacob & Vinnyy contemplated their next moves.
Lady Anja persuaded Prince Harrick to take up the mantle of High Psychopomp of Clarke. Messers Jacob & Vinny acquired a selection of 'soft-kill' munitions from Rancharo. Lord Piotr and Grigor (a gentleman's 'gentleman') have completed their recruitment for the Skopa's crew. Grigor will continue to manage the businesses affairs from Drinax. The hold of the harrier is full of two huge bugblatter beasts and their handler, evidently armed with a towel. King Oleb has decreed that Lord Wrax, Commander of the Star Guard and Lady Hil will accompany Prince Harrick to his coronation on Clarke in the Star Guard's flagship 'Patience Lumumba'
Chieftain Galx has donated six of her fiercest war-boyz to accompany the Skopa as a marine detachment.
After some deliberation and a fair amount of shopping a plan was formed. The Skopa's course is now set for Clarke, with the Patience Lumumba for the festivities, followed by Oghma and Borite. She will then track the pirate Ferrik Redthane down in that hive of scum and villiany, the Theeve system, deliver the beasts and collect her bounty!
Following intel that Regent Stoylis of Byrni, Lord Commander of the Antispin Star Guard wishes to join the rebirth of the Glorious Sindal Empire the crew of The Skopa plan to travel to the Byrni system afterwards to convince him of King Oleb’s wisdom and benevolence! No mean feat.
"Give me some time to blow the man down.
I’m a deepwater sailor just come from Hong Kong.
Give me way, hey, blow the man down.
If you give me some whiskey I’ll sing you a song.
Give me some time to blow the man down."
- Penny & Sheldon's Shanty
Well stocked, and with a boisterous cargo keen to get to the Theeve system our heroes jump to Clarke along side Prince Harrick's coronation flotilla. Clarke is gay with monochrome bunting and yards of drab trellises. Bunches of grey balloons cheerfully adorn the cyclopean mausoleums and the faces of The Saved within easy reach have been respectfully dusted. The ceremony is majestic and High Psychopomp Harrick is welcomed by his flock with raptures. His inaugural address seems to trail off towards the end with some daddy issues evident but is also well received. Lord Piotr has a brief word with Lord Wrax to convince him that a reasonably large contingent of guards should be left to ensure Harrick doesn't get any ideas that are too exciting before his next 'tune-up' at Tech World.
The after parties are an opportunity to glad-hand Clarke and Drinax business people. Sal Dancet, a smuggler from Vinnyy's past makes an appearance and does them a favour with a helpful shipment of 'tractor parts' with which to outfit the ship's armory.
A random conversation with a party-goer leads to a rumour of an underground psionic institute on Blue, much to Jacob's joy. Jacob immediately begins purchasing data on Blue to begin investigating these rumours.
Lady Anja makes good use of the festivities and networks both Drinax and Clarke nobles for trade deals.
A slightly longer than average jump to the Borite system is the most exciting thing that occurs here. The crew spy on an incoming far trader ship, thoughts of piracy, 'safe passage tax' and trade in their minds. Eventually, presuming it was a random encounter, the mighty commerce raider completes it's refueling and prepares for a leap of faith...
092-095:1117 A fuel depot.
After a nail biting jump the harrier arrives a few thousand km from a large hydrogen dump - a forest of balloons of gas, secured with nets and ropes, enough to fuel a small armada. The crew run the fuel through the processor to purify it and finish their last minute maintenance. Piotr runs last minute rifle drills with the marines. Jacob continues his research into Blue's secret history. Final preparations are made and the jump to Theeve initiates...
"Oh South Australia is me home
Heave away! Heave away!
South Australia is me home
An' we're bound for South Australia.
Heave away, heave away
Oh heave away, you rolling king,
We're bound for South Australia!" - Traditional
Port Blacksand! Pirate capital! Never was there such a pit of good customer service and reliable policing...
On landing the crew are met by a Widow who as Vinniy finds out, is not available. Over enthusiastic ground crew begin offloading the blood-blatter beasts too early causing some chaos. Quick-thinking from Jacob and be-towled crew manage to fumble both hulks back into their containers.
Jacob, with First Officer Elie and Engineer Katya, arrange for mechanics from the famous Kallos Shipyard, to get a quote on The Skopa's J-Drive and weapon systems tomorrow. Additionally the find out where the local antiquities dealers hall is, attempting to trace the Sindalian treasures stolen from Clarke by the pirates.
His Lordship and Her Ladyship decide to dine out at The Rose Pavilion, the swankiest of restaurants. They invite Kasiyl with them, after a swift bout of shopping, and bribes in hand manage to find a table. Knowing that it is the wait staff who actually have a grasp of what's going on the nobles bung a few servers and find out that Admiral Darokyn is due to attend for a late dinner at midnight, and for a few more creds might have a free table adjacent. With a few hours to kill before dessert, Anya and Pytor investigate Jacob's lead in the dealer's hall, tracking some newly sold Sindalian treasures to a salvage hauler berthed in the Skull's up-port.
Vinniy and Kyrrsh don't waste their time and, after losing the juggalo-marines, swiftly become drinking buddies. Kyrrsh states he knows a guy who might be able to locate Mira Silverhand, and the two end up doing shots in the back-room of a less than hygienic tattoo parlour. Kyrrsh's buddy, Pal, takes their money and, after an agonizing wait, informs them that Mira has recently arrived in Port Blacksand. he can give them the rough location in the port's sprawling scrap-heap/slum.
Pyotr, Kasiyl and Anya return to the restaurant and subtly catch the eye of Admiral Darokyn. After much talk and booze they gain the trust of the Admiral and are truthful about their motivations for arriving on Theeve. Impressed by such honesty, and gold braid, Admiral Darokyn indicates that he would not mourn long if the dread pirate Redthane was never seen again, but suggests that a brief cooling off period of a year or so before The Skopa return to Theeve. After all, there are those here who might miss him somewhat more.
Armed with all this information the officers of the Skopa convene on Space-Hangouts. Pyotr proposes that Mira be apprehended and interrogated to give up the location of her commander and the codes to her ship, the salvage hauler Mercifuge!
Boney was a warrior,
Wey, hay, yah
A warrior, a tarrier,
- Traditional Short-Haul Shantie
102:117 Theeve - later that same night...
Armed with Mira Silverhand's location Vinniy and Jacob put together a boarding party: Kyrrsh, Kasiyl and Second Officer Chiara. The five head to the scrapheaps, gathering intel on Mira's crew and scouting out the area before the assault. Once Kasiyl broke the team into the wrecked Fat Trader, Jacob led the attack down a cramped hall into a hail of gunfire! Surprise and chemical weapons won the day as the team rushed the pirates, slaughtering Mira's guards leaving her to threaten their mutual destruction. Succinct negotiating convinced Mira to work with our heroes to secure Captain Redthayne's safety - at least for now.
Mira will give the crew a location. It is up to the to determine their approach. Time is against them, Redthayne will likely jump away if he suspects something but the shipyards of Theeve are a perfect place to repair their harrier. Mira does have another ship, the Mercifuge.
Update: The Travellers now have six ships under their command. The Mercifuge has been renamed the Anatoli Brugoski. Their current missions are as follows.
The Skopa (Скопа); Harrier - gunboat being repaired at Salif
George Gamow - rented out to technology company from Drinax working in Torpol
The Potemenkin plus Eisentsein boat - base yacht - (Drinax to Pourne to Clarke to Drinax)
The Flaming Lambourghini, plus boat Slippery Nipple - acquired yacht ship (Drinax and Torpol)
Kirov Ushakov - 300 tonne salvage hauler with guns (Khusai and Asim to Drinax to Pourne)
Bugorski - Far Trader going to Blue for psionic institute
with Terry K. Amthor
We originally planned to have this interview with Terry K. Amthor for the last issue of RPG Review, dedicated to gods, religion, and worlds. However, the scope of Terry’s writing means that he is also an appropriate subject for this issue.
Terry is an American game designer and author, most famously for developing the fantasy and science fiction setting, Shadow World, originally for Rolemaster, writing the original regional modules, The Iron Wind, The Cloudlords of Tanara, and wider-campaign packs such as the Shadow World Master Atlas, Shadow World: Emer the Great Continent, Eidolon: City in the Sky, but also as the co-author of the Spacemaster RPG.
Terry made a number of significant contributions to the Rolemaster and Spacemaster systems, as a co-author of Spell Law and of Spacemaster 1st and second editions, as well as writing scenarios for the latter (Action on Akaisha Outstation, Lost Telepaths). In addition, Terry made significant contributions to ICE's Middle Earth setting, including the rare and acclaimed Court of Ardor in Southern Middle-earth, and the solo adventure A Spy in Isengard. In addition, Terry was the author of Thief's Challenge II: Beacon Point for AD&D, and as a founder of Metropolis Inc, and co-author of the English language edition of the religious-horror game, Kult.
Welcome to RPG Review, Terry!
Thanks for inviting me!
Our first question is how we usually begin these interviews; how did you first get involved in RPGs? As a founding member of Iron Crown Enterprises, could you elaborate on what it was like in those early
days with that company?
Actually I got invited to join Pete Fenlon's RPG game at the University of VA by a friend when I was a freshman in college back in 1976. I'd read LotR several times, but to be honest, I thought the game sounded kind of silly. But as soon as I started playing I was hooked. Back then it was basically D&D with a few modifications. I think Coleman had begun working on the attack tables and Pete on criticals. We were basically playtesting.
ICE was founded in 1980, with basically one full-time employee; the rest of us had day jobs. After we came out with Arms Law and Iron Wind, though more people came on full time.
Some of your earliest publications were for the Loremaster series (The Iron Wind, Cloudlords of Tanara), which would provide the foundations for Shadow World. Was there a clear idea of that the Loremaster series would develop into Shadow World? How did Shadow World develop in your own mind?
Absolutely not. The first few modules were designed to be kind of generic so a GM could plug them in anywhere. It was several years later that the ICE hive-mind decided that Rolemaster needed a world environment. Shadow World did emerge from those first modules though. I was fortunate enough to be assigned to design the world, so I started with a map including the Loremaster locations.
At the same time ICE had the license for Middle Earth, and you were responsible of The Court of Ardor, and then many other of the supplements. Was there ever consideration of linking Middle-Earth with Shadow World? One cannot help but notice tucked away on Peter C. Fenlon's Middle Earth map there is a bay that contains an island called "Mur Fostisyr" - which of course is the name of the islands from "The Iron Wind". Were these meant to a crossover? A gateway perhaps?
No we never considered linking them. I think putting the Mur Fostisyr on the giant continent map was a little joke on Pete's part, but that is just my opinion. And 'Court of Ardor' was kind of an aberration. ICE never did a module outside of known ME after that.
There were Middle Earth modules outside known space after Ardor; Shadow in the South..
Wow I have no memory of 'Shadow in the South' and I was still at ICE at the time. I wonder what was going on. I had handed over most production duties, and even some Art Direction so I could focus on Shadow World, but it is weird that I don’t have any recollection. Oh well!
On a related matter, how sort of influence did the Middle Earth pantheon have on Shadow World? It would seem that the polytheistic Lords of Orhan are similar to the Valar (that is, more visceral and domain-specific rater than abstract and universal), where as the Unlife is more closely associated with forces such as Morgoth. Also,
what about the Gods of Charon? Many of them seem more ambiguous in their moral content.
Well, the Lords of Orhan are also very similar to the Greco-Roman god pantheon. I wanted the ultimate evil on SW to be amorphous. not some single being. The Dark Gods are (relatively) more of an annoyance. But obviously ME was a big influence, with elves and trolls, etc.
Following the matter of crossovers, Shadow World has a decidedly science fiction element to it as well. It is explicitly described as being "on the threshold of a radically different universe... just outside of a gateway to a plane of existence which has physical laws we cannot begin to understand". Shadow World atlas' provide scientific deliberations on the planet's place within the solar system, and geological effects that caused the formation of particular continents and island groups. How important are such aspects to world design? How
would you compare this to deliberately mythic approaches, such as Greg Stafford's Glorantha?
I admit I am not familiar with Glorantha. And while it does have SF elements (the planet is located inside the Space Master universe, and Space Master characters are spying on it), I think that SW is mainly fantasy. Or you can always use the Clarke Law: "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."
On this matter, could you elaborate a bit on the design of Spacemaster, and in particular the setting? In general it has a feudal political structure with various houses in competition, along with a capitalistic economic system. This is very similar to other science fiction games of the period (e.g., Traveller, Space Opera, Star Wars). Was there much consideration of alternative political-economies? How was the technological level selected?
Kevin Barrett mailed us a proposal for SF weapons tables based on Arms Law. Coleman and I loved it and it kind of blew up. That was a very fun project. And as far as the setting... Kevin and I were fans of Dune, and I think we were hoping to get that license. When that didn't happen, we built our own feudal space empire. I never read Traveller game books, but I was familiar with CJ Cherryh and loved her books that tied a feudalistic space with some fantasy planets.
Could you elaborate on your feelings on working on Kult and the differences in morality between that game system and Shadow World? The standard characters in Kult are far from heroic. Also, the fundamental premise of Kult is that madness is a path to seeing reality "as it truly is", which of course is not a feature of many traditional RPGs.
Kult was a trip, and to be honest I had trouble getting into that space. Everything is an illusion, and people around you are actually these creatures. There's some other SF that does this I think. It's very dark, even darker than CoC. ICE refused to do it. It was an interesting project though.
The publication of Kult of course co-incided with the founding of Metropolis in 1992 and your departure from Iron Crown Enterprises, but also with the establishment of Eidolon Studio for Shadow World material. Can you elaborate on the publishing relationship you have with the 21st century version of the company?
My departure from the old ICE was very amicable. I wanted to move to the 'big city.'
As for the 21st century, I assume you mean with the new ICE? We have an excellent relationship. It is currently operated by a few people in the UK. I am the only remaining member of the old ICE associated with the current ICE. Basically I write SW for them. There is talk of a new SPAM edition. The Manager/Editor of ICE and I am in constant contact.
A couple of more personal questions: In 1994, you wrote an article for White Wolf magazine, "Queer as a Three-Sided Die", which is now a regular panel at GenCon. Could you comment on how you perceive the treatment of gay people in RPGs has changed over the decades? Also, on a completely different tangent, you're a graduate in architectural, with a particular focus on architectural history. Has that had much influence on the your art direction in RPGs?
Well I think we were invisible back then. That article was partly me coming out (aside from my friends at ICE). Before then I knew only one other gay guy in the industry, who was also closeted. I think things have changed tremendously. I mean there is a panel! I'd be flattered if it was named after my article. I might be going to GenCon this year...
As far as my degree, I'm sure it has had a tremendous effect. My degree was in design, but yes I took several classes in Greek and Egyptian Architecture, as well as Mayan and Aztec cultures and architecture. They definitely influenced me.
Finally, what's planned for the coming year in Shadow World, or other RPG publications from you?
We have ambitious plans for three SW books this year. I also hope to work on my novel sequel. Fingers crossed!