Sunday, May 13, 2012

Obscure Games - High Colonies

It's no Traveller cover, but it'll do.
In the late '80s, Star Frontiers and Traveller (well, MegaTraveller) were rather moribund, with Star Frontiers about to be turned into a completely different game because TSR were too much in love with the "black box" table system they'd been so successful with in Marvel Super Heroes, and not really finding a dedicated audience yet, and MegaTraveller being caught up in the metaplot crap that would ultimately kill it (and soon it would be replaced by Traveller: The New Era, which was neat, but pretty much destroyed the setting in order to move on). Other SF games existed, sure, like Space Opera or FTL: 2448, but none of them were very successful.

Into this situation, a few designers stepped up to try to make their mark. One of those designers was Eric Hotz, mostly known at the time for his excellent artwork illustrating the Hârn series of products. His entry took a little bit of a different direction than the previous SF games. Most such games had been designed as starfaring space operas, with FTL travel in almost every case. Eric Hotz decided that, with High Colonies, such interstellar action would not be necessary. After all, the Solar System is huge, and there's a lot that can be done within the bounds of the orbits of Pluto and Neptune (remember that Pluto hadn't yet been reclassified as a dwarf planet in 1988).

Background was important to the game, and takes up the first 48 of the 102 pages in the game book. Like many settings of the time, the fall of the Soviet Union was not an obvious event, and so we find entries discussing the USSR doing things in 2005. That's one of the potential pitfalls of near-future games, which I suppose is a characteristic of this one, even though the year of the setting is 2188. In the timeline, we learn that a group of aliens, the Chakon, have shown up in a generation ship (the setting does not have any FTL, as noted), and there is a hint that there might be other aliens hiding somewhere in the system. After the timeline (which includes an event that makes the Earth uninhabitable, leaving only the various colonies of the game title), there is a list of 165 colonies, including "every station mentioned in the text, and every colony with a population of 20,000 or more". There's a note that there are several hundred smaller stations scattered around the Solar System. Each listing includes the name (and the colonies are listed in alphabetical order, which is less useful than other arrangements might have been), location, general purpose of the colony, population capacity and actual population, and some short notes on features of interest, including the political factions (there are 9 main ones described, from the Band of Humanity and the Belt Miners' Association to the Solar Federation of Labour and the Pan-System Enterprise League) to which the colony subscribes, the type of government, and so on. A table at the beginning indicates the approximate size of orbital colonies designed for various levels of population (so that a colony designed for 2 million people might be around 1.3 miles in diameter and 6 miles long). The list of colonies runs from the last half of the second column of page 21 through all of page 39, including a few pieces of Hotz's excellent artwork. This is followed by more detailed descriptions of the political factions (called "Major Organizations") and some discussion of mercenaries in the setting, along with some sample mercenary companies.

Pages 93 through the end are taken up by a sample adventure ("Hard Times At Lyric 3"), while everything in between (the 44 pages from 49 to 92) are rules, equipment, and a page of Referee advice. Players can play human or Chakon characters. There are tables for generating a character's sex and birth place. Starting age is rolled on 1D6+19. Attributes are like D&D, but there is no Wisdom stat. Humans roll 2D6+6 for each of the five basic attributes, Chakon roll various dice and adds from 2D6+4 to 2D6+10, depending on the attribute. There are a couple of derived attributes, including Injury Points (the game's name for Hit Points), which are equal to Strength and Constitution added together (then location-based IPs are figured based on taking half of the total IP value and adding an amount from zero to 4, depending on the location). Skills are rated by skill levels, and a character starts with a number of skill points equal to all the stats added together, plus the age of the character, and multiplied by 6. The skill list is pretty much as you'd expect in a near-future SF game written in the late '80s. Referees then give the players whatever amount of money they think is appropriate, and the players choose equipment for their characters.

Combat is resolved using a dice pool system with a number of modifiers. Modifiers can be either to the number of dice in the pool, a single modifier, or a modifier to the number rolled on every die in the pool. Attacking totals are compared to defending totals, and a result determined. Hits are allocated on a hit location table, armor subtracts from damage in protected locations, and damage taken as expected. Melee combat is similar, but uses different modifiers and includes "Special Tactics", like aiming for a specific location or wrestling. Characters don't die until they lose 1.5 times their IPs. Then come the rules for healing and ship to ship combat.

Happily for old school gamers, there are a number of encounter tables in the game, for encounters in space (in deep space, on a trade route, rolled each day, or near a station, rolled each hour) or in/on a station (rolled every 10 minutes in an active station, or every hour in an abandoned station).

In addition to the Chakon, there are "Bio-Gens", who are genetically engineered humans of four varieties (Miners, Laborers, Soldiers, and Ram-Soldiers). Ram-Soldiers were designed by the Band of Humanity, a group of "racist Christian fundamentalists, extreme right-wingers, paranoid survivalists and the like", in 2164. The Soldiers were designed to fight the Ram-Soldiers in the Purge War. There is also a secret group of aliens, just as the timeline hinted, called the Selo-Esra. They are catlike and highly xenophobic, with advanced technology. Finally, there are rules for robotic characters, called Bots.

Weapons include a generic mix of conventional and energy weapons. There's a short list of generic SF equipment (including laptop computers, but no handhelds).

And that's it. Not a bad game, but nothing that really grabs you. The setting is interesting, but Solar System-only settings have been done better several times since, from GURPS Terradyne and Transhuman Space to Jovian Chronicles. The good news is that the rules are very lightweight, allowing a Referee and players to really grow them through rulings and house rules into something that is well-suited to the play style of the group. Still, chances are that there isn't a group out there that needs this, what with the availability of universal systems and better settings.

There's a poll over to the right. Vote! If you have any other suggestions, feel free to email me or comment.

13 comments:

  1. I recall seing an adventure for this in a game magazine way back when, I was a bit intrigueded by the background it was linked to but not compelled enough to seek out the game itself.

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    1. Probably Challenge magazine?

      Yeah, that's pretty much the situation I see with the game. It's interesting, but not interesting enough, and the game system has nothing particularly to recommend it, either.

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  2. I bought this game about 20 years ago. The setting intrigued me, but the system did not. I designed a campaign where the characters were agents of the last remaining United States: Kennedy Base on the moon and Aldrin in L5 orbit around the Earth. I used the High Colonies book for setting reference and D20 Future for the system.

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    1. That sounds interesting. There are any number of good systems that could be used in place of the one in High Colonies, of course, and D20 Future is as good as many of them.

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  3. I too really loved the background but used an entirely different system to game in the 'verse. As a concept its eminently portable

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    1. My fav game at the time was Traveller 2300 so I was using that system. My High Colonies port worked well with that background too, and the setup was for a balkanised system utilising space habs to house colonist populations in a system after it had been invaded by the Kafers. However after the Kafers had been forcibly ejected, Kafer rot had virtually destroyed the viability of the surface colony. The Space Habs were adopted to keep the possessions in the system and keep mining the valuable resources throughout the system (which was also a key stutter warp junctions so it had strategic value).

      I still have my HC book buried somewhere - it would be neat to have a pdf version

      The other RPG setting I really like and wanted to port into Traveller 2300 is 'Blue Planet'. I don't think I could do a whole campaign there but it certainly would be a hoot for an adventure or two. Kind a like a super up version of the old Traveller adventure 'Nomads of the World-Ocean' (which as also really cool)

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    2. Though I don't think that there is an official PDF release of High Colonies, I'm sure that someone must have an unofficial PDF that could be found with a Google search for something like "high colonies rpg pdf". I don't have much use for core rules in PDF, myself (adventures or monster books are another story), so I haven't looked.

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    4. Thanks, but I'm not really interested in pursuing this game at this time. I have plenty on my plate as it is (which, come to think of it, might make for good blogging here - maybe I should return to semi-regular posting).

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  4. Actually meant other SF RPG stuff but no problem

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  5. I've actually been messing about with it, making some changes to it, and using the Cepheus Engine to power it. I'm welding together aspects of High Colonies, Zozer Games' Orbital 2100, and some parts of the Mongoose reboot of 2300AD. We'll see what I actually get done with it.

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    1. That sounds interesting. So, are you taking the Earth-destroyed idea and going from there, or mixing the colonies with an Earth like that of 2300AD?

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