Thursday, December 19, 2013

Buck Rogers: Countdown to Doomsday: 4

Zooming across the universe.

An interesting comment thread on my last post explored the physics associated with both zero-gravity combat and maneuvering in space when, presumably, humans have invented faster-than-light travel.

We sometimes forget the vast sizes involved when talking about "just" the solar system. Episodes of the Star Trek franchise and other shows will clearly show starships cruising through the solar system at non-warp speed and still able to clear the distance from Jupiter to Earth in a few minutes, when in reality, the two planets are about 391 million miles apart at their closest and would take just shy of 35 minutes to traverse even at light speed. The New Horizons probe made the trip in 13 months in 2007. The distance from the Earth to Mars ranges from 34 million miles to 250 million miles, yet we don't see a scene in Total Recall where Quaid has to wait a few months until the orbits better align. Everyone seems capable of jumping off to Mars on a whim.

Notice that this statement isn't followed by "it'll take him 17 months to get there."
It's easy to forget that travel in space is fundamentally different than travel on the surface of the planet. On the Earth, the tendency is for gravity and friction to bring everything to a stop. To keep your car moving on the highway, you have to invest constant energy (via the gas pedal), or the pull of gravity and the resistance of the air will cause you to coast to a halt. In space, the opposite is true. With no friction and no primary gravity source, a craft will travel at its acceleration speed indefinitely and actually requires an energy investment equal to the initial acceleration to stop. (Before you decide to post a comment that begins with the word "actually," consider that I'm speaking in generalities and you're about to be a pedantic pest.) Two ships that decide to slow down, hail each other, and engage in combat are being unconscionably irresponsible with fuel.

I can't wrap my mind around what kinds of technological improvements would have to happen to create a civilization in which ships zoom around casually from planet to asteroid to planet, often stopping to engage in space combat. If not some ability to "bend" space or create wormholes or whatever, such travel, it seems to me, would require three things:

  • An absurdly inexpensive and plentiful source of fuel, and a technology able to exploit that fuel
  • Technology that counters or alters gravity
  • Near-light-speed or faster-than-light-speed travel

All of these advancements are so far beyond current technologies that the physical consequences of them are essentially unimaginable. Hence, as Kenny points out in the thread, science fiction franchises that feature them get a free pass on physics. Why is fuel consumed every round instead of only during the initial thrust? Answer: the anti-gravity drive requires constant energy. Why are ships built with aerodynamic profiles when this makes no sense in space? Answer: such ships have to be capable of both atmospheric and space flight. How can ships communicate with their bases without the communications taking hours in between responses? Answer: the communications actually transmit in "sub-space," the same technology that makes rapid travel possible. I'm constantly reminded of a moment from the awesome film Thank You For Smoking:

  • Sam Seaborn: Sony has a futuristic sci-fi movie they're looking to make.
  • Harvey Dent: Cigarettes in space?
  • Sam Seaborn: It's the final frontier, Nick.
  • Harvey Dent: But wouldn't they blow up in an all-oxygen environment?
  • Sam Seaborn: ....Probably. But it's an easy fix. One line of dialogue. "Thank god we invented the, you know...whatever...device."

The interesting thing about Buck Rogers, though, is that it doesn't bother to tell you whatever was invented to accomplish all of this space travel--at least, not beyond a vague reference to "nuclear engines." I wonder if the tabletop RPG gets any more specific.

In my last post, I had just arrived at a RAM asteroid base, which was in chaos. Some genetically-modified creatures had somehow escaped their cages and were massacring the base personnel. An evacuation had been ordered. As I arrived, military personnel assumed my party was part of the base staff.

The base consisted of two enormous levels, which put to rest any idea that the game would feature uniform 16 x 16 levels like Pool of Radiance and Champions of Krynn. The coordinates ranged to 62 on the x-axis and 47 on the y-axis, though of course not all of the space was used. It took several hours to map.

My map of the first level.

Most of the squares were empty, but occasionally they served up a special encounter or role-playing option. Like other Gold Box games, the special encounters, in which you have some sort of choice, are quite frequent. On one screen, I'm asked whether I want to try to save some poisoned RAM workers or leave them to die. On another, I have the option to maintain my ruse or reveal myself as an infiltrator (necessary to explore the eastern half of the base). A third gives me the option to console a woman frantically searching for her children or to "remain silent."

One of the game's many role-playing choices.

While I like the options, they don't seem to matter all that much. For instance, in the shot above, if I choose to heal the workers, they die anyway. A couple of times, I've explored both options--just for proper documentation of the game--and I've found that they were illusory--Morton's forks that led to the same conclusions. Other things that seem like options lead inevitably to death if you choose "wrong."

If Buck Rogers doesn't do a great job in this area, it does at least have an interesting approach to story-telling. The game doesn't spoon-feed the player the relevant plot points; the player, rather, must figure out what's going on from scattered encounters and clues. In my explorations, I found a group of hiding children and agreed to escort them to their escape vessel. It transpired that the genetic abominations were freed when one of the kids tried to help some rabbits escape (we eventually saved the bunnies). The kids, impressed with my bravery and not terribly loyal to RAM, fed me several bits of intelligence, such as the password to the base's computers and the location of RAM's secret base on Mars.

The more important revelation is that RAM is building some kind of giant laser to use against NEO. The base held a miniature version of the laser, and some papers indicated that the research team building the real thing had moved to Gradivus Mons, the Mars base. I think maybe the trope of an evil empire using a giant space laser to commit acts of terrorism against a rebel alliance comes from some other franchise, but I can't put my finger on it right now.

The second level produced numerous combats with the gennies, one of which was capable of poisoning my characters. Just as in the D&D games, poisoning means instant "death" until cured by an antidote post-combat. My post-combat medical screens ended up getting a lot more complicated.

One of my less-successful combats with the genetically-engineered creatures.

Combat itself has become much more tactical, with more grenade options and enemies exhibiting strengths and weaknesses to particular weapons. This means that I have each character carrying several weapon types. I've decided to arm my warrior, Austin, with melee weapons primarily. He's deadly with his "Martian mono-sword."

As I explored the base, the AI from my ship, Scot.DOS, kept communicating with me about events on the base and helping me find key items.

In the 25th century, it's apparently impossible to deactivate a missing keycard.

Ultimately, I saw the children, their grandfather, and the rabbits safely to their escape ship and then left the base myself. Some papers in the base indicated that RAM had allied temporarily with a pirate named Talon to help defend the base. Unfortunately, Talon intercepted my ship as I left the asteroid.

There are some nice visuals in this game.

In yet another false choice, I had the option to surrender to Talon or fight his boarding party. I was victorious in the battle, but I was captured by Talon anyway. He was upset that I'd destroyed his "meal ticket" and planned to mitigate his losses by selling my party to RAM.

How did I realize that. Was it the jolly roger flags?

But calling himself a "friendly guy," he offered to fight one of us, hand-to-hand, for our freedom. I chose to fight, but the resulting battle was so one-sided that I can't imagine it's possible to win. Maybe if I'd grinded my characters up to the max level before entering the asteroid base or something. As it was, he absolutely took Austin apart and we ended up in the same place we would have ended up if I'd declined the battle in the first place.

Locked in my cell, I was unsuccessful with my rogue's "bypass security" and "open lock" skills, but I was surprised to be freed by none other than Buck Rogers himself. In the resulting journal entry, he indicates that he was investigating the pirate's association with RAM, and my party tells him "about the spy ship and everything [we] know about the Doomsday Device," prompting him to exclaim, "We must get back to Earth and warn NEO of this threat!" Until this journal entry, I didn't know we were calling it the "Doomsday Device," but I guess the title of the game is now clear.

The entire pirate ship episode was indicative of moments in a game that I can't stand: when you really want to return "home" but the game is prolonging you for an uncertain amount of time. It happens often, and it always annoys me even though I understand why it might be attractive to some players for the tension it creates. You think you're in charge of your navigation, able to return to the comfort of shops and training whenever you need to, and suddenly you're spun off into an unknown environment and you lose your tether back to your home base.

In my case, all of my characters were ready to level up and I was overloaded with equipment to sell. It really would have helped to train and increase everyone's "maneuver in zero-G" skill to improve my odds in combat, which had become increasingly more difficult. On the ship, I faced random and fixed battles with space pirates, most of whom threw grenades every round, some of them capable of stunning. Only Buck Rogers' presence in my party saved me from certain death. Armed with something called simply a "gun," he dished out more death than all of my party members with their laser pistols and rocket guns combined.

Note that Buck Rogers has this glass helmet around his head. Why don't any of my characters need that?

Even with Buck Rogers, though, I ended up dying in about 25% of the battles. There were certain paths that seemed deliberately designed to be impossible, though Buck warned me in such cases by noting that we were trying to keep a low profile.

The message you get when your entire party dies. Since Buck Rogers was in my party, I guess I just screwed up the entire Buck Rogers franchise.

The pirate ship consisted of 15 small levels with mostly nothing in them but random combats. I was a bit annoyed when I logged into the ship's computer and Theta Sigma, in whom I had channeled a ridiculous amount of points for "library search," failed at library search. Nonetheless, Buck Rogers again jumped in and saved the day, producing a journal entry that had maps of all the ship's levels, saving me from having to draw them all individually.

Buck also figured out the best place to set explosives to damage the ship enough that I could escape. I'm glad he came along.

In the armory, entered through the only successful use of a skill in the game so far, I found a mother lode of grenades and other weapons:

There was an option to try to attack Talon on the bridge and take over the ship, but Buck considered it "suicide," and the one time I tried it, he ditched my party, leading to a battle against a horde of enemies. Like the one-on-one combat with Talon, I can't imagine it's possible to win it, but then again I said that about the beholder battle in Curse of the Azure Bonds and had to eat crow later. Thus, I'll simply say that I'd be very interested in hearing from anyone who has ever won the bridge battle and, if so, exactly how.

It was, indeed, suicide. There are an equal number of enemies off-screen to my left and right.

The successful solution was to set off an explosion on the galley level and, while the ship was in confusion, invade the engineering level and win a very difficult combat against numerous pirates and robots that took me about six tries.

Art imitates life.

With the battle won, I smashed up the ship's controls and made my escape. On the way out, Scot.DOS told me that Talon had stolen some gennie eggs and taken them back to his secret base, and that an ex-crew member named "Garrity" on Pallas might know where the base is.

I returned to the Salvation base and got my commander's congratulations. Buck Rogers left my party. I healed, leveled up, and sold my excess equipment. At this point, I have (I think) three options for my next voyage: the RAM base on Mars, the "manufacturing base" in the "Venusian lowlands," and following up on the lead for the pirates' base. The latter seems the least of the priorities, but as we know, in RPGs you often do the least important things first in case you otherwise don't get to do them at all.

In my next post, I should be able to cover combat and equipment. I'm on vacation for three weeks starting today, so I hope I can pick up the posts over the holiday break.


  1. I wonder if you could, in the suicidal bridge fight, with the proper modding tools, add a beholder to your side and win?

    1. Science versus magic?

      The beholder attack isn't programmed in. You could PROBABLY simulate this in FRUA with a lot of hacking.

      Actually, though, I'd still bet on the pirates. Beholders have a lot of hitpoints and are immune to magic, but missile weapons are effective against them. The beholder can only kill 3 enemies a round, so I'd bet the pirates would eventually take it down.

      Someone DID use FRUA to run Tyranthraxus vs. Myrtani and his draconians from Champions of Krynn:

      Apparently the draconians win.

    2. Has any RPG attempted to simulate the clash of technology and fantasy this way? I don't mean games like Might & Magic that throw in some sci-fi material at the ends; I mean something like wizards vs. marines or dragons vs. the Air Force.

    3. Just one strategy game called Spellcross I think

    4. There have been games where characters can choose one or the other. I have not played Arcanum, but I know in that characters can be biased towards one or the other, i.e. gadgets or magic.

      In Wizardry 8, Gadgeteers use tools and are not dissimilar to Bards who play magical instruments, and again there are mages who have a mana-pile, but the stuff they do is effectively of the same kind as that of the other classes.

      Really, a lot of games do it, the powers are balanced and different in some effects but equal overall. A grenade might demand a fixed amount of carried resources, a fireball might require mana that charges overnight - they are both area-effect weapons with certain powers and limitations.

    5. Wouldn't the whole shadowrun universe be the obvious fit for the 'science vs magic' concept? You've got guns, dragons, wizards and cyberspace all mangled together.

    6. This was a common thing that Gary Gygax in the early days: One of the first articles in Dragon magazine (Ok, The Stratigic Review) was a battle report of part of a WWII German army that went through a mysterious myst and found itself fighting the forces of an evil fantasy warlord.

      He often ran cross-over scenarios, I've heard he was worried people would get bored with fantasy, thus tried to mix it up.

  2. Hmm...I'm surprised that you have such difficulty in combat, since you haven't even met the most dangerous foes yet (I think) - heavily armoured combat droids using heavy weapons with area effect.
    Make sure you use those grenades to good effect, and don't forget Rogues can use Mono Swords for backstabbing. With no opportunity attack rules setting up backstabs is easier than in the other GB games.

    I haven't heard of anyone beating Talon and his merry band. I judged it to be much harder than the Beholder Corps, even virtually impossible, due to them surrounding you and there being little possibility of exploiting the weak AI.

    1. Yeah, I just ran into one of those droids on an asteroid. Eight tries and he's beat me every time, but I've been close a few times.

  3. I'm interested to hear if you think Buck's presence to add to the game in a positive way, or if it's more a case of an NPC outshining the player's characters so much that it detracts from the experience?

    1. I liked it a lot, imagine Han Solo helping you out of a star wars jail.

    2. *Jail door opens*
      Han: Here! Grab a gun each! Let's g-
      *Han dies*
      Me: *I* shot first, sucker!

    3. Equlan, it was brief enough that it didn't matter all that much either way. If I'd gotten to the end of the game and Buck Rogers had never appeared, I probably would have complained about being baited-and-switched.

    4. Oh yeah, of course having him appear makes a lot of sense. I just got the impression that he tags along for quite a while and is very powerful. That's why I thought about it.

      As a comparison, in Jedi Knight 2: Jedi Outcast (if I recall correctly) Kyle Katarn (the player's character) is saved or assisted by Luke Skywalker on some space station. But they then travel separate paths through the station and only rarely fight in the same encounters, so Luke's presence doesn't become dominating.

      Sounds like this game handles it well too, but could have been an issue :)

    5. Ah ok, I was about to say, in D&D adding an NPC many levels above the party who walks around saving them would be referred to as adding a GMPC.

  4. Seems like the game does a good job of capturing the tropes that were so common in Buck Rogers-era sci-fi. For example, there was always a child side-kick wannabe who was inexplicably able to circumvent security systems, gain crucially valuable information, etc. and never get caught. Much like the children on the RAM base who somehow know passwords to the base's systems.

  5. In the Genesis version Buck has the best needle gun :)
    If one spaceship wanted to shoot another it would have to match its speed and be ahead of it,
    if you shoot a laser it would have to be ahead of someone doing the speed of light.

    1. I think it's clear that the space battles are supposed to take place at sub-light speeds in a kind-of dogfight scenario.

    2. Maybe your medic's skill rating was too low to successfully heal all the workers, or maybe it's just easier on the Genesis version.

  6. Ref acceleration and deceleration in space, a popular game on PLATO in the mid-70's was SPASIM (short for "Space Simulator"). It gave 3D directions in polar coordinates, and I think you could see the direction and distance to an enemy ship. The catch was that it took some massive calculation and timing to get to it, and by then it would likely have moved. Worse, our PLATO terminal was the first to connect through the ARPANet and a separate mainframe. As a result, we had a few seconds more lag than the people with direct connections. We died a lot.

    The issue was calculating the ship acceleration and deceleration quickly, but a programmer at UCSB came up with a solution. I'm a little hazy on the details after 35+ years, but it basically involved making two hyperspace jumps that resulted in you reaching the target. (Think of the target vector as the hypotenuse of a right triangle, and traveling along the other two edges.) He programmed that into an IMLAC minicomputer we had in the same room as the PLATO terminal, and it would come up with the two jumps (e.g. Warp 4 in this direction, then Warp 5 in this other direction). We would then drop space mines as our ship continued moving at Warp 5. If the other ship hadn't yet calculated its jumps, it was a sitting duck for the mines.

    The author was a PLATO sysop and able to remotely view our game. Once he saw we always made right-angle jumps, he asked about it and we admitted our hack. He added a spatial calculator into the game to put everyone on an equal basis, and we promptly started losing again.

  7. Regarding the 'Gun': If I recall correctly - because I did own the tabletop RPG at one point but it's long gone - Buck still carries his 20th century sidearm around. A .45 automatic, I think. Bullet-based projectile weapons have been phased out in the setting in favor of low-recoil options like lasers and 'rocket guns' (where the projectile provides its own propulsion after leaving the barrel) to facilitate zero-G combat.

    As I recall, Buck's gun did have very good stats but wasn't suitable for use in zero-G situations (due to recoil) or in oxygen-free environments.

    1. In one of the Honor Harrington books she 'surrenders' herself and her party to a gang of pirates who think they have disarmed their hostages after they surrender their laser pistols, etc.. Little do they know, Honor had an obsolete gunpowder pistol that they were not scanning for. She winds up killing the whole lot of them.

      The implausibility of her having the weapon is sort of hand-waved by her being a member of a futuristic SCA organization that specializes in 21st warfare and that gunpowder pistols are the official weapons used to settle duels, anything else being massive overkill.

    2. But... wouldn't firing a gunpower-propelled bullet in a vessel travelling at FTL speed in zero-G cause it to move... I dunno... very slowly?

    3. Shouldn't, so long as the gun with bullet-in-chamber was already traveling at those same FTL speeds before the trigger was pulled. If we're going to accept FTL speeds at all under the rules of physics as we understand them, then good ol relativity says it should still work as long as the bullet stays encapsuled in the FTL environment (say, remaining on the ship)

      We also know mathematically at least, that weirdness transpires when we start pushing that light speed boundary, so in truth we don't know what the heck would happen.

    4. Did Buck bring a backpack full of ammunition with him, too?

    5. Do you REALLY want to keep track of bullets in the same way that other Gold Box games make you keep track of arrows?

    6. You actually do have to keep track of bullets in this game.

    7. "Did he bring a backpack full of ammo?" - No. The RPG established that he'd arranged with a couple of armorers to make replacement ammunition for it, but away from the main NEO bases he'd have whatever he was carrying and that's it.

  8. Not sure if you noticed, when your characters names turn purple, they can level up. I thought it started in later gold box games, looks like it was here first :)


    1. I didn't know it was purple, but I did notice the color change.

  9. I ran a tabletop RPG campaign back in the day, it was a Buck Rogers/Flash Gordon kind of thing. Swords and laser pistols and spaceships with Cadillac tail fins and such. I got around the "space is so frickin' big" thing by setting the story in the moons around a gas giant that orbited within the habitable sweet spot from its star. Like Jupiter or Saturn, only where Earth is. Travel to the next planets in and out was possible, but not really practical.

    The nice thing was that it gave the players a believable and even plausible scenario. The moons were close enough to travel to in a couple days, but were far enough from each other so you still had the sense of being in SPAAAAAACE!

    Worked quite nicely, I wonder why more writers don't use that setting.

    1. Because the world is waiting for YOU to write them, mate.

      I personally think that works. So... Get on it!

    2. I concur. Your story seems to reconcile fact with fiction very well. I really get bored with people having a flippant idea about space. The Kubrick vesus Lucas interpretations are only the tip of the iceberg.

      On Buck. He does seem to be a plot device that shatters the illusion of player control. It is a pity this is not the Ultima universe, in which case whether to heal the poisoned crew would have been a real choice.

    3. Wasn't Firefly in such a setting? I don't remember any discussion of faster-than-light travel in that show, and I think the premise was that they were in a solar system in which the bodies were close enough together that it wasn't necessary.

      Of course, it's left unexplained how they GOT out there...

    4. Yes it was set in a similar place, but the planets an moons orbited around the system's sun. Official production notes said no FTL drive was available. The inhabitants got to the new solar system by traveling from Earth on generation ships.

  10. Addendum: there is a program called Gold Box Explorer you can download that lets you look at the monsters' pictures and, more interestingly, the maps *as they exist in the game's memory*. Apparently the Asteroid Base is 2 16x16 maps that are pieces stitched together; most likely some areas do double duty. (You can easily imagine the exit from a room being a teleporter that takes you to the other side, with some incremented variable being used to tell where you 'actuallly' are.)

  11. Long time lurker and have always found enjoyment every post.
    Thought this had to be shared here as soon as I saw it.

    Back to lurking. :)

  12. Its been a long time since I played this, but I recall there are a number of asteroids on the edge of the system map - you should check all of them out. I seem to recall that several of them have some completely optional areas to explore, with goods to find and, of course, more experience.

  13. Does Gold Box Companion work on Buck Rogers games?

  14. In a thoroughly unrelated piece of news: MobyGames is back!.

    1. And there was much rejoicing.

      Does Santa Claus really exist?

  15. In the Genesis port Buck would actively dodge outside the explosion radius for grenades. I'm pretty sure it's impossible to fail combat during this event. In fact, combat in general on console sounds much easier. I never lost a single combat (although I came limping out of a few).


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