Continuing to find inspiration from urban horror/fantasy, in this episode we look at The Stranger Times and Children of the Stones
In this episode, we continue looking for inspiration from urban horror/fantasy.
C.K. McDonnell joins the book club to talk about his career and his series of novels set in Manchester, The Stranger Times, about a newspaper covering the supernatural. There are three books in the series, with another coming in a couple of months, and a podcast that supports the novels.
Another repeat! This the next in the ongoing campaign to remaster the files from the early GROGPODs. Some of the early ones are difficult to hear, so this has been equalised. It does result in some strange gaps and distortions, but nothing too distracting I hope. The roll of dice are missing from here because I got complaints about it hurting peoples’ heads.
The GROGNARD Files reached out to Simon Boucher, Star Frontiers fan, to share his experiences of playing the game for research for the GROGPOD episode. They’re interesting, so I will share them here.
In the early eighties my friends and I used to frequent our local hobby shop to coo over various Grenadier, Ral Partha and Citadel miniatures we could not afford.
We had been introduced to RPGs by one of our Maths teachers at school, who had caught one of my older brother’s friends sneaking looks at The Warlock of Firetop Mountain during one of her classes. She asked if he and others would be interested in playing D&D.
There and then, our teenage obsession began. An after-school club in one of the classrooms was formed. I think it was basic D&D but I can’t be sure as none of us owned the rule-books.
I first saw Star Frontiers in 1983, in the hobby shop, resplendent in its purple boxed set with that striking, imagination-inspiring Larry Elmore painting.
Where had the ship gone down and why?
What was that cool ape-looking thing with the strange wing-like appendages? How did that woman’s hair look so perfect after a crash landing?
What did “Alpha Dawn” mean?
Some of these questions were to be answered.
I dimly remember seeing adverts for the game in various Marvel comics I used to buy at the time, including the one with the sarcastic reference to Traveller. I loved science fiction and it was rare to see an actual RPG anywhere near where I lived so I snapped it up pretty much immediately.
A DAWN …
The boxed set was incredibly exciting to me at the time. Maps! Counters! My own dice to colour in with a crayon! Basic and Expanded rules! Reading through it with my cousin at the time we quickly took stock of the basic rules and played the initial on-rails starter mini-scenarios, which were almost the same as the Fighting Fantasy books that we loved. Some people mock this introduction to the game, but I think as inexperienced players it rather helped us. The expanded rules helped us to ground it further. To my 13-year-old self it seemed like the designers had included rules for most situations you might encounter: ability checks, combat, movement (including vehicles, the implementation of which were rather clunky), robotics, computers (the approach to which hasn’t dated well), creature development (some of which are clearly more influenced by fantasy than sci-fi tropes) and skills development.
Star Frontiers as a setting is an odd mix of space opera, Westerns, and often weird pulp sci-fi elements. Some of the early Volturnus and Sundown on Starmist adventure modules lean into this aspect, with aliens such as the sentient octopus-like Ulnor and insectoid bipedal Heliopes, and of course the main antagonists, the evil, warlike giant-worms the Sathar.
To me these are homages to the Golden Age of sci-fi.
LOVIN’ THE ALIEN
The Player Character aliens seemed especially alien: the tall, clannish ape-like warrior. Yazirians, the rubbery, blobby good-humoured philosopher Dralasites and the order seeking, business-like insectile Vrusks.
All had their own specific abilities. The “Humans”are essentially vanilla and less fun to play. It’s far more interesting to play a Yazirian that can work themselves up into a Battle Rage and glide between short distances or a plasticine-like Dralasite that can grow extra arms and legs.
My friends and I all loved Star Wars, Buck Rogers, Battlestar Galactica and Star Trek, but Star Frontiers didn’t feel like it was trying to be any of those. It felt like its own thing. Something that you could build yourself without contradicting an established universe like licensed properties.
The Frontier setting, whilst not expansive, gave you just enough information about the spiral galaxy and different words within it that you could develop them with a little invention. Adventure modules set in specific systems later helped to further flesh out the universe.
RULES OF THE UNIVERSE
Star Frontiers isn’t a complex ruleset. Character generation is based on rolling paired abilities against a table giving you a range between 30 and 70 (some are modified by species). Actions are resolved with a percentile system with modifiers determined either by the Referee, your abilities, skills or predefined tables.
Some of these can be opposed rolls against another’s abilities, and whilst it has skills areas you can develop those outside of your Primary Skill Area.
I have read that the original game was called “Alien Worlds” (which stayed in the tag line) and was “crunchier”, but was not considered accessible enough for a game that was primarily aimed at a teen audience. So there, Traveller.
Zebulon’s Guide to Frontier Space (only one volume out of a proposed three was published) essentially overhauled the rules so that outcome of any actions was resolved by consulting a colour coded table a la Marvel Superheroes (and others) much to the chagrin of many.
It also introduced a different approach to ‘player classes’ but many chose not to adopt these newer rules and simply used the new playable alien species, additional skills, weapons and equipment. There were also arguments that it messed with the Frontier timeline as previously established, but we adopted it.
And what about spaceships?
Knighthawks (1983) was a box-set (no, I don’t know why they called it that either) designed by Douglas Niles (Dragonlance and Cult of The Reptile God) . It seemed to many, including reviewers, that a space RPG without spaceships was a glaring omission. The starship rules seemed slightly more complex as it was played out on a hex map much like a board/wargame. Not really a problem for us because, we’d previously honed our skills with games like Car Wars. The rules also included ship design and spacefaring skills. With the first Knighthawks module players actually got to inherit their own starship. With a stupid name. Gullwind? Really, Doug?
Later Knighthawks modules expanded the storyline of the Frontier and the infiltrations and assaults of the Sathar with three connected modules. We played them all.
Were some of the scenarios on rails? Did they have box text for you to read to the players? Yes, and yes.
I became more confident andI found I didn’t need them. I wasn’t afraid to go off the rails once I knew the core adventure.
And if this all sounds like I was more of the “referee” than a player it’s because I was. We didn’t have a Prime Directive but if you bought the game, you ran it for our group. I ran Star Frontiers and my brother bought and ran Call of Cthulhu, because he’d read more Lovecraft than the rest of us.
Does Star Frontiers stand up beside other older games? Possibly not. It hasn’t had the longevity of Traveller certainly, but it does still have a dedicated player base who still produce fanzines. Star Frontiersman and Frontier Explorer, the first of which is still being produced.
I am really happy to be able to own and read the rules and modules again in print without trawling eBay. Nostalgia aside, I still think it’s a really fun game with an interesting setting, some of the modules are well written aand structured and stand up well even by modern RPG standards. I don’t have a local gaming group, so I haven’t played the game since back in the day, but it was definitely one of my teenage group’s gateways to exploring the wider world of RPGs in the 80s.
I still love the game today. One of these days I’ll summon up the courage to referee it online.
The early episodes are steadily being remastered with an extra segment reflecting on the episode eight years on.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. This is a remastered version of episode 2 (part 1) with some additional edits and the levels balanced and an extra segment reflecting on the episode eight years later.
Open Box – reliving the memories of playing the game for the first time and the faltering start.
Judge Blythy Rules! – The Armchair Adventurers’ Resident Rules Lawyer discusses the finer points of the rules and style of play. We also speculate on what horrors have faced British Prime Ministers.
White Dwarf – @dailydwarf talks about his early experiences of playing Call of Cthulhu and selects his favourite item from the pages from the halcyon days of the UK’s best gaming magazine.
An invitation to listeners to contribute their stories of playing Call of Cthulhu in the early days.
Look out for a Micro Grog Pod coming soon featuring a list of our favourite CoC supplements and a current online pricing guide.
Star Frontiers returns. This time we are looking for adventure!
Still Dirk. Star Frontiers returns. This time we are looking at the adventures that were created for the game. Dark Side of the Moon and Face of the Enemy were very sophisticated modules produced by TSR.
Wayne Peters joins us to talk about Space 1999 and add it to the every-expanding Appendix G.
If you have been paying attention you’ll know that my gaming has taken a thematic thread this year. I have been playing games that use the concept of the multiverse as a setting. This was not planned, I just fell into it backwards like Dr Strange, but without the eye-popping special FX.
There’s no better metaphor the gaming multiverse than virtual GROGMEET.
This is an online convention that we organise every April. This time, there were forty different pocket universes being discovered by over a hundred registered players, who participating from the comfort of their own homes, exploring new worlds, with new people.
Visiting a million-spheres, near to your kettle while sitting in your favourite chair.
The breadth of games on offer is always astonishing. This year in particular included an impressive menu that embraced the traditional to the indy and everything in-between. Since it first begun back in 2017, it has launched many online gaming groups. It remains an encouraging environment to start online GMing as well as introducing different people to … different people.
PLAY IS THE THING
“You’re playing in all of the sessions?” is the puzzled exclamation I usually hear at various points over the virtual GROGMEET weekend. People can’t understand why would sign-up from Thursday to Sunday. I block out the entire weekend and treat it like I have left the house to go to a convention. There’s a sign put on the door that says that I’m ‘in’, but I’m not ‘in’ in – for all intents and purposes I’m in another place, anywhere in the multiverse.
This play report is in the 1d6 format, five highlights and a fumble.
The weekend kicked off with the usual Thursday night quiz which was the rematch of the pub quiz from the Moorcock/ Tolkien weekender. Players were invited to choose their side to pit Moorcock knowledge against Tolkien knowledge. Really, you needed to know both to win, as there was twenty-five questions on each. If you want to decide if you are Moorcock or Tolkien, follow the links to test yourself at home.
The first of two games I played using Chaosium’s Stormbringer rules was a Hawkmoon game. Someone had breached that most sacred of trust; stealing the very thoughts of the immortal King-Emperor Huron of the Granbretan Empire. The player characters ‘get to the ornithopter’ in an investigation to undercover the conspiracy. The scenario had a fittingly sinister atmosphere which was very evocative of Londra under the Empire.
Designs supplied by @tomtremendously
In the late-night slot (11.00pm – 3.00am) on Saturday night, I was in the Young Kingdoms waiting in Dhakos Harbour as an emissary from Pan Tang delivered gifts to secure an alliance with Jarkor. The player characters were nobles of the court responding to steady corruption of chaos that follows. Beware Pantangians bearing gifts. This was Stormbringer 5th edition rules, a first for me, and it creates characters that are more powerful than the 1st-3rd. It was quite refreshing to be competent, not that it helped against the machinations of Jagreen Lern.
Adventuring across the multiverse was not constrained to Moorcock.
Following the last month’s Book Club I have continued to study the Planescape output from TSR in the early 90s. I was told that players tend to stick in the central city of Sigil rather than taking a tour of the planes.
The Great Modron March addresses this by having episodic adventures that follow the the strange clockwork Modrons parading from Mechanus across Outer Planes of the Great Wheel and the gate-towns of the Outlands. They have started their march 150 years too soon. The campaign is made up of eleven wonderfully inventive scenarios, it was a pity that I could only do three of them.
The joy of running games over consecutive nights is the camaraderie it creates among the players. The characters can experience a range of highs and lows over the nine hours of play. The little characterful events that make a game interesting can be called back as they are still fresh in the memory. The exotic sausage shop of Automata was never far away, for example.
When the group finished on the Sunday night, there was a real sense that they would continue adventuring together, following the Modrons on their journey, because they had formed such a strong in-game companionship. Great. Same again next year? Maybe.
3. CALL OF CTHULHU
For the first time in a long time, I’ve not got a regular game of Call of Cthulhu on the go.
A Saturday afternoon session seemed a perfect chance to stay connected to what remains my favourite game. Why is it my favourite? I love the versatility of the setting for creating mood and engaging situations.
Of Sorrow and Clay is a mystery set in the 1920s Appalachian mountains. The Keeper piled on the atmosphere as we explored the disappearance of our Pa who had gone mad in the woods. Despite some discord technical issues, I’d say that this is one of the best Call of Cthulhu sessions that I’ve played in a long time: beautifully constructed, well developed player characters, and an extraordinarily creepy revelation. Highly recommended.
4. DARK CONSPIRACY
Since virtual GROGMEET started back in 2017, its primary aim has been to introduce people to online gaming by providing a supportive place for people to try out new ideas and run games online for the first time. It was great to play with Lee Williams, running his first online game and first convention game.
Ever since I have known Lee I have been interested in his fandom of Dark Conspiracy, GDW’s setting of near future horror. He did a hack using Liminal, as he is a fan of the setting, but not the rules. The post-economic-crash setting is right up my street. We went up a street and ended up in a sinkhole. There were encounters with giant grubs and a weird bunker. We believed we were in a kind of Narnia, but with Abi Titmus standing in for Mr Tumnus in our imaginations. It was a game from the nineties after all.
5. FANZINE BOOKCLUB
The Book Club remains the highlight of my month, so it was good to get an extra in for the virtual GROGMEET weekend. It was a fanzine special looking at two British ‘zines from April 1986. Dead Elf by Andrew Fisher and Runestone by Bill Lucas and our very own Nick Edwards. We were joined by Nick (Quasits and Quasars) and Justin (Drune Kroll), editors from back in the day, who were able to support the discussion with some insider knowledge.
This was a period of the the wild west of FRP zine publishing in the UK, partly driven by cheaper off-set litho printing and the publicity from Imagine magazine’s coverage. The print runs for these zines was very small, most of them given away in exchange for other ‘zines. They were talking to each other: kicking against Games Workshop and TSR for most of the time and rehashing the ‘roll’ gamer and ‘role-gamer’ arguments.
A fascinating discussion and a real step back in time. We are going to do some more ‘zines in future meetings. Dagon is coming soon.
6. There has to be a fumble. We rolled on the table and … a cock-up with the world clock, due to British Summer Time, meant that the interview with Jon Cohen has been postponed. You can find the details here.
virtual GROGMEET is a highlight of the year. This year was no exception. Thanks to GMs who hosted games and the players who brought them to life. Play is the thing.