Thursday, January 9, 2014

Interweb Buried Treasure Find – TSR 2001 A Space Odyssey RPG?!?

I have been pretty tied down before my preliminary exam on Thursday (today), but while web surfing to de-stress, I came across two TSR modules for Star Frontiers based on the movies 2001: A Space Odyssey and the sequel 2010. They are available at the Star Frontiers website in the Modules section. They are well made curios invaluable to any Kubrick film or Clarke scifi buffs, but gamers might balk due to their extreme faithfulness to the source materials.

Although I thought maybe the OSR hadn’t stumbled onto these retro goodies, a quick search for images resulted in reviews of them by Grognardia. Whereas James M didn’t see Star Frontiers as a good fit for the game and understandably dismissed the modules’ gaming usefulness due to their extreme railroady nature, I thought they were great resources for someone looking to run Star Frontiers as ‘harder’ scifi than the default setting, an aspect of the rules modifications they present which James also comments upon. More than that, as an inveterate OSR DIY guy, I think these railroads are ripe for Jacquaying and modding with switchbacks, loops, and alternate tracks.

How would I do that? One way to see 2001 is a space where extremely hard scifi (i.e. human technology like HAL and the Discovery) meets extremely soft ‘techno-magic’ (i.e. the monolith and starchild, and more if you’ve read the novel). Put in this way, adding in the goofy space opera of the original Star Frontiers is hardly a stretch, and so my first move would be to ignore the restrictions to human characters outlined in the modules. Next, since the modules and their source films and books take place over enormous spans of time, from the Dawn of Man to centuries in our future, a bit of Star Trek style time traveling from the Star Frontier’s timeline would be in order. Finally, as a DM I would be OK with PCs going off the rails of the film plot. I’ve always had the dream of running Lord of the Rings and letting the PCs try whatever they want to get the ring to Mordor, maybe allowing Gandalf all spells with the caveat that using any unlocks them for the forces of darkness as well. I’d try to do a similar balancing act with these modules. If possible, I’d run the modules without letting players know they are gaming 2001, but I’d also be open to players in the known who are happy to muck about in the setting.

Here’s an example of how I would Jacquay the first chapter, including some of the complications and reactions I would have anticipated:

The Dawn of Man – It is the default Star Frontiers future, and the PCs are contacted through an agent to make a delivery for a princely sum of money. The condition is that they ask no questions and do not pry into the unknown devices installed on their ship or the cargo it holds, and they must sign a Non Disclosure Agreement to that effect. The cargo is, of course, the moon and Earth monoliths, and the mission is to deliver them to our solar system at the dawn of mankind.

If the PCs do not have a ship suitable for transport, one is provided for them, and unbeknownst to them can both travel FTL and in time. Note that I am a big handwaiver with this type of lightspeed/parsecs speed vs time stuff, and as PCs should be ignorant of what is in store for them, I see no need to get into it. If the PCs have a suitable ship, they are asked to leave it with the agent for a day, after which it is fitted with the FTL and timejump devices and cargo is loaded.

Any attempt to tamper with the devices or pry into the cargo should be met with increasing warnings and danger. Players should first be told that the devices make no sense to even the most skilled mechanic or technician in the group, and both their function and purpose are a mystery. Attempting to open them should either not work (cutters can’t cut the material, there are no joints, etc), deliver warning shocks (small damage or unconsciousness) or worse (increasing damage, a warning message from the agent). If the players don’t seem to want to go along for the ride, tell them they are knocked out by some force, awaken unharmed in their ship but with a Breech of Contract notification informing of the legal repercussions if they disclose any details of the agreement they had made.

If the players do play ball, they are put in stasis until their ship reaches our moon in antediluvian times. When they awake, the shipboard AI informs them that their first mission is to bury the monolith on the lunar surface, so PCs will have to suit up and accomplish this. To throw players off, the GM may describe the lunar monolith as a translucent or transparent oblong filled with tiny crystalline circuit structures as in the novel instead of the ebon monolith from the film. As a red herring, the GM may want to add a subplot of lunar quicksand that sucks down either the ship or several PCs and complicates their task (see the Arthur Clarke story ‘A Fall of Moondust’ for inspiration).

The real action starts on earth, which the PCs may not recognize as such due the change in constellations over the millennia and the difference in Earth’s atmosphere and composition of continents. The ship AI can navigate around the system, but will curiously be unable to give time or coordinates in relation to the PC’s normal setting. The ship AI informs them they must plant the second oblong near a group of cave dwelling apemen, then observe and record its interactions with them for two weeks. It’s up to the players to plan – do they knock out the apemen with stunners, or try and sneak it in? (See Jack Kirby’s 2001 comic for inspiration.)

Once the device is set, it comes to life at night, blinking and flashing hypnotically, after which the entire tribe sleepwalks out to stand rapt before it. After the first night, players making a perception roll will notice the apemen are walking more upright and using sticks to knock down fruit instead of climbing to get food as they did the day before.

The GM can introduce several dilemmas here to challenge the PCs. First, a predator jaguar or tiger can threaten the apemen, or a rival tribe could show up and threaten their access to water or food. Have some apemen die or be injured in front of PCs to provoke a reaction. As the apemen are influenced by the alien device, have them become more aggressive and start using weapons such as sticks or bone clubs. Have a Cain-Abel style first murder occur before the PCs to show them that maybe the monolith’s influences are not entirely benign. If players decide to fire on the monolith or stop it, have any human character instantly devolved into an apeman and modify his stats as per the module (p. 4). Now the game can switch to a return to try and restore the timeline.

If the players allow the monolith’s function to proceed, after the two weeks they are placed back in stasis and wake up in orbit around Earth’s moon just before the discovery of the lunar monolith, with US and Soviet teams rushing to reach the object pinpointed by magnetic scans as in the crater Tycho. Their mission next is to stop the Soviet advance and surreptitiously assist the US team. Once again, throw dilemmas at the PCs, such as the hidden armaments of the US team and the unarmed Soviets. Make them question whether their mission is good or not, and make all humans speak Russian if they decide to stop the Americans. Have fun with the wonky paradoxes of time travel and going off the rails of an established property.

Anyway, with my prelim done expect a speed up of posts of the backlog of ideas I’ve had while grinding away at my thesis.

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