Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Starleader: Assault! and the downfall of Metagaming Concepts

It is my personal belief that Starleader: Assault! ultimately became Howard Thompson’s attempt to create a role-playing system of his own design that was to be “better” than Steve Jackson's The Fantasy Trip. I base this upon certain statements of Howard’s regarding TFT, coupled with his intense hatred of Steve Jackson. Rather than compete directly by releasing another fantasy system, Howard chose to set up a new game that had some basic connections with TFT (and, indeed, a minimal ability to transfer characters between systems) but was set in a different genre, that of ultra-futuristic sci-fi.

It has been stated that this game was “Melee in Space” - which is not an altogether bad comparison. It is true that the mechanics were somewhat different from TFT though as noted previous the systems were similar enough to be able to translate characters from one to the other. The main similarity in concept is this: just like Melee, this game was intended to be the man to man combat module for a larger role-playing system. Though only one other game was mentioned (“STARLEADER: WARPSHIPS”) it is likely that had events unfolded differently one would have seen micros covering many other aspects, such as starship combat, planetary exploration, and so forth. Likely even Starleader versions of TFT-style MicroQuests would have been written.

Unfortunately, the game was a complete flop, and in its failure very likely provided the added impetus to the decision to shut down Metagaming altogether. I say this because it seems clear that this was Howard’s “baby”, and that it was bad enough it was a flop, but more than that it failed to take away from the success of Steve Jackson’s TFT.

It seems likely that TFT was a mixed blessing in Howard’s eyes – from a business perspective it was a money-maker for Metagaming, but from a personal/ego perspective it had been designed by a man he hated and felt betrayed by. It is pretty clear that he wanted to take the Steve Jackson out of TFT altogether (the last edition of Melee, for example, omits any mention of SJ in the credits, and simply states Revised Edition Edited by Guy W. McLimore, Jr. and Howard Thompson.”) and seems to have been working towards a second edition of TFT that in all likelihood would have been a major rewrite of the system (if Dragons of Underearth was any indication) thus eliminating more or less all of SJ’s “DNA” from TFT. Had Starleader been a success, some of its rule mechanics like Action Points might well have made their way into a 2nd edition of TFT, and no doubt Howard would have felt quite smugly triumphant about the whole thing.

But that is not what happened. Starleader: Assault! was poorly received and did not sell well, so far as I can tell. Today it is more of a collector’s curiosity than a serious game, which is always unfortunate. And I really think that the failure of this game was at least the straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back, and led Howard to shut down Metagaming (in addition to possible financial issues, the fire that destroyed Martian Metals, who made miniatures for Metagaming products, and the general state of the U.S. economy at that time). True, I can never prove such an assertion. Other than a second hand quote to the effect that gaming was no longer fun for him, we have little direct insight into the mind of Howard Thompson. But based on what is known, his rivalry with Steve Jackson, the amount of effort spent on Starleader, and so forth, it is not an unlikely possibility at all.

But as sad as that is, it was made all the more tragic because this game need not have been a failure at all! In spite of the flaws that I will enumerate below, this game did have some good ideas and I think simply needed a few tweaks and some added material to be a success.

Starleader did have a couple of interesting innovations. The biggest change, as noted above, was eliminating movement allowance and going to an action point (AP) system (a concept also used in SNIPER by TSR/SPI) where each action (i.e. moving a hex, firing a weapon, etc.) has a point cost associated with it. This does not seem to have worked out very well, perhaps for the same reason that Steve Jackson dropped it from early drafts of GURPS - playtesters did not like keeping track of action point totals.[1] That said, it is not an altogether bad idea. Also worthy of honorable mention was the introduction of a “cover” statistic for furniture, etc. that was factored into the to-hit equation, making for a fairly elegant system for attack rolls. Pretty neat ideas, definitely worth their day in court.

All of this, though, failed to overcome the deep flaws in the game, as listed below:

1)             The weapons, armor, and gadget lists were atrocious. Not only were they difficult to read, it was not really clear what many of these things even were – for weapons in particular no explanations were given, apart from the table headings. The names were (apparently) those of manufacturers (i.e. Powzyd, Jaffna, Lugon, Ghazi, etc.) with only some brief and incomplete heading definitions and raw numbers. For example, there were stats called “Density of Fire” and “Punch” – while it can be figured out by delving into the rules that they referred to “Accuracy” and “Damage”, respectively, it was needlessly mystifying at first. There were also bizarre acronyms such as “Gad Sok”, “Tek Lev”, “Arm. Rate” which only served to further obfuscate matters. It was frustrating to have to learn a whole new vocabulary in order to play. Further, there were vast numbers of weapons, often with repeated names that were only differentiated by tech level or some other minor stat detail. I found this aspect very hard to get past, and consider it the number one serious flaw in the writing of this game.

2)             The glaring absence of any non-human adversaries was also likely a major strike against the game. Even Melee provided stats for both animals (such as wolves and bears) and fantastic creatures (giants, hobbits, etc.) Amazingly, Howard failed to include the one alien species he had already created - the Hymenoptera! One could envision many further evolutionary adaptations of that species to cope with technology (see, for example, the movie adaptation of Heinlein’s “Starship Troopers” - the specialized alien types were particularly interesting and well done). They would make a very interesting sci-fi foe, if done correctly. The addition of the “Bugs” alone, if done with reasonable skill, might well have saved this title. The aliens from Air Eaters could also have been considered, as they are fairly well detailed from the two games and Interplay articles on the subject. Robots of some sort might also have worked here as well. Lots of fertile ground left fallow!

3)                Expanded rules, to cover combat and terrain on a planet’s surface (rather than just in the confines of a starship), And the ability to play beyond the Starship “Trek Heaven” hull, whether through a section that details other ship hull designs or design tips, along with varying planetary surface terrain, would have made the game much more adaptable to a host of new scenarios. Lack of expandability was no doubt a factor in the poor reception this game received.

4)               Improved map would have been a must, as it is difficult to read, being comprised of various gray shaded hexagons. The counters, though uninspiring, are acceptable, hearkening back to the original Melee counters.

5)               It seems unlikely that the sequel/supplemental MicroGame was at all ready to be released, and may not have even been in rough draft form, which seems to have been a problem with Chitin:1. As with this latter game, SL:A would have been much better off with its support material not merely waiting in the wings as “vaporware” but actually at the printers and released a month or two after SL:A. At minimum, a role-playing and starship module would have been needed, though perhaps that was intended.

6)               Game scale. Given the nature of modern and futuristic weapons, relying on 1-1/3 meter hexes is a poor choice. SPI’s UNIVERSE game system used 5 meter hexes, which makes sense, especially since 5 meters is approximately the distance that a man can cover in the time it takes to unholster a pistol and bring it to bear (a.k.a. the “Tueller Drill”). While two scales were, in fact, put in the rules, with a suggestion for an outdoor long range scale using 20-meter hexes, no details on how this would be used were provided.

7)               More background material in general would have been helpful. While it was probably intended to introduce that sort of information in the Role Playing module for the game, something should have been here as well. By putting in a little more detail about the game universe that this game is supposed to be played in more interest could have been generated which would only have helped the success of this title.

8)               As written, Prowess and IQ are the most prominent stats, with Empathy playing only a very limited (indeed, it was only as an optional rule) role in panic checks. And the role played by IQ was nonsensical, in that a higher IQ allowed the use of higher tech weapons and gadgets. This is a bit silly, in that most weapons today, for example, do not require a high level understanding of the technology in order to use. AK-47’s, famously, can be used by illiterate and poorly trained Third World peasantry. It might make sense that someone with a lower IQ then the tech level might not be able to use the weapon/gadget to its fullest extent, but it shouldn’t preclude usage at all. In my view, each stat should be important, and the game expanded to provide some important use for all of them, to avoid the “dump stat” phenomena encountered in, for example, the Charisma stat for D&D.

9)               It also has to be wondered if the rules were, perhaps, too focused on a specific game universe as opposed to being more generic and flexible. For example, the Melee rules were quite generic and could be applied to any pre- (or very early) gunpowder era combat situation, either fantastic or historical, theoretically from the Stone Age to the Renaissance. Starleader, on the other hand, was focused on the “30th Century Space Era” and obviously had a specific game universe in mind, complete with its own narrow technologies, and so forth. Thus, you could only play “there” and not readily port stuff over into a game universe of your own design. It would be sort of like having the Melee rules work only for the world of Cidri and not really be more widely applicable. Perhaps making the equipment less specific and covering a wider range of tech levels (to include late 20th century “modern” gear) might have given more scope to the imagination and allowed greater flexible usage of the rules.

10)           Lack of artwork was unfortunate, though not a surprise as I recall Howard Thompson citing a survey they had done, and concluding that artwork was unwanted by players, thus keeping things at a bare bones minimum. It is, however, easy to go a little too bare bones, and for sci-fi (or fantasy) subjects in particular it would help allow visualization of this far future universe. Not essential, but helpful.

11)           And the description on the back of the box was just corny…

All of these problems were eminently correctable, however. Simple revisions for ease of understanding, and perhaps several more pages of added material could very well have salvaged this title, and maybe even forestalled Howard Thompson’s sad decision to close down Metagaming.

[1] See Space Gamer No. 76 “Designer’s Notes: Man to Man.” As an aside, I would also suggest that it would likely make solo adventures more difficult to play. The Melee system is fairly easy, but having to keep track of AP totals not only for your own figures but your enemies might have been a bit much.

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