Thursday, November 17, 2011

Game Review: Buck Rogers XXVC (1990)

Now here's an oddity I have trouble believing even exists: for a whole generation, the primary form we even knew about Buck Rogers at all was as a roleplaying game, and one that was a edgy reimagining of a goofy pulp character...before that was even a thing! It even does that word-salad XXVC subname, before hip, marketable undertitles shortened to the point of meaninglessness became a trend. In short, Buck Rogers XXVC is a game that was ahead of its time (though behind ours).

Of all the gritty reboots of a previously goofy pulp character, Buck Rogers XXVC, a roleplaying game produced by TSR back in 1990, has a certain logic I agree with: many science-oriented pulp characters were created with the intention they would be "state of the art," written with the best scientific knowledge available. This is undercut somewhat by artists and writers resurrecting pulp heroes with nostalgic, kitsch 1920s imagery like zeppelins and fin-helmets.

Buck Rogers XXVC is about a polluted earth inhabited by gangs exploited by a villainous, arrogant Martian megacorporation. This isn't as crackpot as it sounds for two reasons.

First, Buck Rogers still has alien monsters, space battles and ruthless villains, but in the words of the game manual itself, "while the flavor is the same, the ingredients are different." The unusual monsters and aliens are now products of genetic engineering, Mars and Venus are terraformed worlds.

Heck, the main means of interstellar travel in this game are rockets. It brings to mind how undervalued Goddard's invention is in science fiction, as rockets are the one vehicle that in real life has actually taken mankind to the stars, yet they're the least seen in science fiction these days. Making rockets the means of transport in the game is nothing short of a stroke of genius because with one creative choice it encapsulates the entire spirit of the setting: rockets are simultaneously plausible hard science, yet also evoke retro, classic science fiction.

Second, Buck Rogers is no stranger to varying takes. What's amazing to me about Buck Rogers is this: every single adaptation and version of the character is wildly different. It's like the craziest game of telephone ever played. The only other property I can think of where absolutely everything changes with every single new "take" would have to be Final Fantasy.

Take a look at the Dynamite Entertainment Buck Rogers comic. I haven't read it yet, but they're wearing friggin' Tron outfits so how similar can it possibly be?

Contrast that with Flash Gordon. It's shocking how almost every single version and adaptation of Flash Gordon from the 1930s serial, to the Filmation animated series, to the 1980 movie, have basically the same story structure and opening with barely any variation: Flash Gordon is caught in a plane crash with Dale Arden onto Zarkov's property. Zarkov captures them for a rocket launch toward Mongo. They crash and encounter Ming the Merciless as prisoners, where Princess Aura falls for Flash and Flash is sent to a gladiatorial arena to die, etc.

Heck, Mongo even looks similar in most versions of Flash Gordon.

Contrast that to the varying versions of Buck Rogers, where the basic relationships and even the location, enemies and setting aren't even permanent. The pulp novel Buck Rogers was based on, and the initial run of the newspaper series, didn't even actually have space travel. Can you think of anything more fundamental to the perception of Buck Rogers than space travel?

The villains were the Airlords of Han, Mongols who destroyed white civilization with superior airplanes and zeppelins. Yes, that's right: the original comic strip and novel version of Buck Rogers were based around a futuristic Race War with whites against the Yellow Peril.

And shockingly, our hero wasn't even called Buck Rogers until the comic strip!

We could be here all day listing the different versions of Rogers but the point is this: Buck is so wildly divergent, beyond even the normal variability of long-lasting multimedia fictional characters, that if somebody wants to do a state of the art, scientifically accurate version...why not?

The Setting

The principal conflict in the game is between a conquered earth ruthlessly lorded over by a Martian evil corporation, RAM, who arrogantly view earth as a mudball only fit to be exploited for natural resources. In the minds of the Martian RAM executives, they're the only good thing that ever came out of the earth.

The guy who wrote the series bible was Transformers/GI Joe writer Flint Dille, and that is something of a surprise as he's a conservative. It's surprising to discover a setting created by a conservative would have the bad guy be an evil, powerful corporation. After all, wouldn't Buck Rogers and the rest saving the Earth from RAM's rapaciousness be nothing more than interference with free market forces?

Get a job, hippie!

One of the pirate bad guys has a rocketship named "The Free Enterprise."

The kind of science fiction conservatives like is Starship Troopers, Honor Herrington or Halo: reveling in militarism, with a monocultural society that is presented as morally superior to an enemy group that's a multicultural, visually diverse Federation. Along the way there's usually some metaphor about how appeasement never works and how it's always 1939 and every enemy are always, always the Nazis.

Another big theme of the Buck Rogers XXVC setting is genetic engineering, and how "Gennies," or genetically created people, are just as human as the rest of us but are treated as property. Sympathy for oppressed minority outsiders (who often stand in the way of good land with resources on them) is not exactly a theme one would expect from a conservative author, although Flint Dille only wrote the bible and the game was developed by other hands.

Thanks to Gennies, despite the setting being humans-only, the world is nonetheless filled with weird Star Wars cantina creatures.

My personal favorite Gennies in the setting are the Venusian lowlanders. On terraformed Venus, only the highlands are inhabitable to human-type life, yet a crucial cash crop can only grow in the lowlands. So humanoids were created to survive in that environment, Lowlanders, who look like the scarier brothers of the Creature from the Black Lagoon. The rub is, the highland Venusians are trying to terraform Venus…which threatens the entire existence of the Lowlanders. Despite their rebellion and the fact they look like scary monsters, the Lowlanders have a pretty sympathetic position.

Instead of stormtroopers, RAM use berserker, genetically engineered soldiers called Terrines, who look like the kangaroo supersoldiers from Tank Girl. In the minds of the Terrines, the highest form of life in the universe are Martian RAM corporate executives, with themselves as the second highest, and everybody else beneath them.

The canon characters

It's interesting to see what shape the traditional Buck Rogers characters take. Ardala Valdemar for instance, is a highly connected, high-status freelance Martian RAM agent who functions as a double-dealing information broker and espionage agent. In one of the sample adventures, she seduces the sample player character, slips them a drugged drink and makes off with a valuable information disk.

Killer Kane, though, is a heck of a lot more interesting: he was a former earth rocket jock who was a lover of Wilma Deering, who after being captured by RAM agreed to work for them so Wilma would be released. Along the way though, Kane's enormous ego got the best of him: he believes he's actually working for the betterment of Earth, which would be a lot better off with him as its RAM administrator…and there's the tremendous ego-wound of possibly being the second best pilot in the solar system to a fossil from the 20th Century, who also might take Kane's girlfriend, too.

"Doctor Huer" is a digital personality, a kind of artificially intelligent computer program.

There are no Tigermen, but Mars does have a nomadic cat-race who vaguely suggest the Martian Tigermen.

If there's any complaint, it is that NPC characters defining the setting are never used in the adventure supplements the game puts out. You never really interact with Ardala, Killer Kane, space pirate Black Barney (who is obviously this setting's scarred, sardonic answer to Boba Fett), but rather with no-name, who-cares characters like Carlton Turabian and RAM security chief Marcus Wolfe. Not getting a mission briefing or scientific pointers from Doctor Huer is especially inexcusable, since it's not like a computer program is ever going to overshadow the player characters – the whole point of the character is to give quest missions and provide exposition, after all.

The failure to use the signature characters gives the overwhelming feeling the Buck Rogers elements are awkwardly welded on a totally different setting.

Why does this game even exist?

Buck Rogers is an IP that is frankly, overvalued. If anything, the association with Buck Rogers might have damaged the future of Buck Rogers XXVC, because a lot of gamers avoided this game thinking it was "cheesy."

(See also: the Lone Ranger. Recently, Gore Verbinski refused to direct "The Lone Ranger" starring Jonny Depp as Tonto because Disney wouldn't cough up a $250 million budget. Now, what, I ask you, about the Lone Ranger could possibly make it cost $250 million, unless Depp and Verbinski were straight up skimming $150 million straight off the top? And can anyone imagine any possible scenario on this or any other planet where a Lone Ranger movie makes more than enough to recoup that Waterworld-level cost?)

If calling it "Buck Rogers" hurt the game, why call it that at all? It's not exactly like the character has a built-in fanbase the way Indiana Jones or the Marvel superheroes have. Buck Rogers is one of those characters, along with Paul Bunyan, where everybody's heard of him, but nobody really cares about him.

The reason this game exists at all is, it was created to be a borderline-illegal money pipeline out of TSR, Inc. into the pockets of its chairwoman. I'm actually not making this up.

It kills me to say that, because this was quite possibly my second or third RPG ever (after Top Secret and the Palladium Ninja Turtles game) and discovering its reason for existence was un-kosher business practices is like discovering the show Sesame Street was created to be a cover for a pedophile ring.

Rather, the game was created because the former president of TSR was Lorraine Williams, known as the woman who led a hostile takeover that kicked D&D creator Gary Gygax from his own company, for suing fans in the 1990s who created AD&D fan websites (giving TSR the name "They Sue Regularly"), and for her nickname among rpg fans, "the Wicked Witch of the Mid-West."

You see, Lorraine was the granddaughter of the rights-owner to Buck Rogers, and so she could allow TSR to pay for all the expenses while her own company received the profits. Lorraine essentially paid herself royalties based on 60% of the print run, despite the fact that by all reports the game didn't sell and unsold product was everywhere.

I'm not a finance attorney, but that doesn't sound entirely legal. 

How is it as a game?

It uses THAC0. Oh dear God, THAC0 – the most annoying calculation in RPG history. Old school gamers lock up with PTSD when it's mentioned, and it turned 2nd Edition into not so much something you play, so much as as something you survive.

As you might guess, Buck Rogers XXVC uses a variation on Second Edition AD&D for its "engine," and so it's a class and level based game with classes like Rocket-Jock, Rogue and Warrior. In yet another respect that makes it ahead of its time, anticipating the way, years later, the d20 engine would be appropriated for even wildly inappropriate high-tech genres. After all, if a game is barely functional, it is vastly improved by the addition of street slang and zombie apocalypses, right?

Buck Rogers XXVC game commits a faux pas common to early class and level games, one inexcusable for a game made at its late date: it makes necessary to group survival some un-fun to play support classes, Medic and Engineer. These classes are a great idea for everybody but the poor schlub player that actually has to suck it up and be the healer, that is. Yeah, that's exactly what I imagined myself as a buttkicking space hero: medic.

The big difference between the Buck Rogers game and AD&D is a surprisingly modern and progressive skill system using percentile dice. The relevant ability score is added (Dexterity of 17 adds +17%) and a chunk of points are given for class skills and outside of class skills.

Here comes the biggest hole in the entire system: there isn't really that much of a space combat system except for assigning statistics to vehicles.

There's a whole class based around skill with rocket piloting (Rocket Jock) but there's actually no bonus whatsoever in space combat for having high skill with piloting! There is no way to use pilot skill to coax speed or performance, no way to dogfight, no way to position oneself for a chance to hit, no way to perform evasive maneuvers.

Two ships with the same hit points, weaponry and dexterity bonus, but one with a 1st Level Rocketjock and the other with Buck Rogers, will have no discernable difference in combat statistics other than THAC0 for gunnery.

They mumble something about "special movement at the GM's discretion," an afterthought with no concrete functionality.

In the published adventures, the only times there are any actual rolls required for Piloting are for landings. Not even exciting landings, either, like gliding a crashing rocket safely…just regular, routine consequence-free landings, of the kind airline pilots make daily. In terms of drama and excitement this is somewhere up there with requiring skill checks for bathroom use.

The game lore makes a big deal out of Killer Kane and Buck Rogers' rivalry to determine who the best pilot in the solar system is, but considering piloting skills aren't a factor in ship-to-ship combat at all I have no idea how they could ever make that determination – or why it matters.

The damage done by futuristic weaponry in Buck Rogers XXVC is shockingly unimpressive. Laser guns deal 1d8 points of damage per successful shot. Considering that's the exact same damage as a sword in AD&D, and how lasers are just as subject to AC as swords are, and swords receive additional bonuses from high Strength and so on average do more damage than lasers...well, it's strangely pleasant to discover there really hasn't been much in the way of improvement in weaponry technology over the past 2,000 years.

(Didn't a Katana in 2nd Edition AD&D do something like 1d10 or 1d12 damage, depending on the sourcebook? A lot of games suffered from Katanaitis back in the day but this kicks it up a whole new level if the katana does the same or more damage than both a laser gun and a 1d10 monomolecular blade from 500 years in the future.)

That said, there are a few extremely cool parts of the system. The boxed set comes with a map of the Solar System, and it's an ACTIVE one. The orbits of the planets have ticks around them, with the position for January 2453 given, with each tick representing the planet's movement in a month. To determine where a planet might be at any given time, just advance (or subtract) its position by one tick for every month. So, if you want to know how far Mars and Earth are from each other in February 2454, just advance earth and Mars by 13 notches.


The system even comes with a transparent ruler you can put on the solar system map to measure how much fuel (measured in hit points) it takes to make a trip. As communications are far from instantaneous and happen at light speed, it can even tell how much delay there is between signals (it usually takes 13 minutes to send a message to Mars, which is 13 light-minutes away).

Overall though, the game has gaping flaws, though it is enough of a curiosity that I'd recommend it to the interested. I've never seen game art in my life where it's obvious the artist is just bored. Every problem I have with this game would probably be solved by a second edition – but considering the crazy reasons it existed at all, that's a guarantee to never, ever happen.

It will never be reprinted and so apart from secondhand on ebay it's impossible to obtain it legally. However, I would never, ever, ever, ever advise downloading it. Because that would be WRONG, you see…  :-)


Eduardo M. said...

i see Ardala's fashion sense hasn't changed that much since the 1980 tv series.

As for Lone Ranger, I heard a rumor the script involved werewolves. What that has to do with Lone Ranger, I have no idea.

Julian Perez said...

Doesn't he use silver bullets?

There could be an Indian angle (maybe the Werewolves are Indians), and maybe Tonto knows something about them, like in Whitley Striber's "The Wolfen" (back when he was a cool horror novelist instead of a full time crackpot UFO believer).

Whoa, man! Now that I give that some thought I wonder why I never thought of that before. If you're gonna have some crazy out-there element in Lone Ranger, werewolves are the only ones that fit if you look at all the pieces just right...

Anonymous said...

It might be true that the laser weapon does similar damage to an old fashioned sword, but that simply mimics the world we live in right now. If you let a trained swordsman get into striking distance, he can be more deadly than someone with a modern pistol. The main advantage of the pistol (firing bullets or lasers) is that it can hit the swordsman before he ever can use his sword. Now you could argue that laser weapons should be more powerful than pistols, but lets be honest, in Buck Rogers as well as most space operas, the energy bolt fired by a laser or blaster essentially is as deadly as a bullet (i.e., as deadly as the plot demands), and a blaster or laser is chosen for the rule of cool, not for any real reason.