Thursday, February 04, 2010

An RPG Ahead of Its Time -- Flash Gordon & the Warriors of Mongo



In the nascent days of role playing game yore -- 1977 to be exact -- Fantasy Games Unlimited published one of the first Science Fiction role playing games to hit the market with Flash Gordon & the Warriors of Mongo. The first two science fiction role playing games were TSR's Metamorphosis Alpha (1976) and Ken St. Andre's Starfaring (1976). Flash Gordon was one of a couple of games Fantasy Games Unlimited published that was co-written by Lin Carter -- yes that Lin Carter, the one who is responsible for most of Appendix N being in print -- with another being Royal Armies of the Hyborean Age.

Where Royal Armies was a set of miniature warfare rules set in the Hyborian Age, the Flash Gordon role playing game was an attempt to create an entirely self contained role playing game complete with campaign setting and campaign in one 48 page volume. That's quite a thing to attempt and I have been surprised at how well Flash Gordon accomplishes its goal -- especially given the low esteem in which the RPG.net review holds the game.

The book has its flaws, but it also has its brilliance. The flaws lie within the underlying rules for the conflict resolution system. The brilliance lies within the freeform campaign implementation system, a system remarkably similar to the Plot Point and Encounter Generation system mastered by Pinnacle Entertainment Group in their Savage Worlds series of games. More on this later. It's time to look at Flash Gordon & the Warriors of Mongo.

System Mechanics

In a brief note at the beginning of the book Lin Carter sets out his chief objective in the drafting of Flash Gordon. "My own personal debt to Alex Raymond, and my enduring fondness and admiration for Flash Gordon made this set of rules a labor of love. I was dead set against Scott's [Scott Bizar] first idea of doing a book of wargame rules and held out for adventure-scenarios, instead."

Carter wanted a game that was able to capture the excitement of the old Flash Gordon serial through the use of a collection of adventure-scenarios bound by a single rules set. Rules that were intended to "provide a simple and schematic system for recreating the adventures of Flash Gordon on the planet Mongo." With regard to their goals, Carter and Bizar both succeeded extremely well and failed monumentally.

The system is simple...and confusing...at the same time.

Characters roll three "average" dice for the following four statistics -- Physical Skill & Stamina, Combat Skill, Charisma/Attractiveness, and Scientific Aptitude. It's an interesting grouping of statistics that demonstrated FGU's willingness to look beyond the "obligatory 6" statistics created by TSR. The inclusion of Combat Skill as a rated statistic is in and of itself an interesting choice.

At no point is it explained what an "average" die is. Is an "average" die a typical six-sided die that you can find in almost every board game ever published, or is it one of those obscure and hard to find "averaging" mentioned in the Dungeon Master's Guide? The rules aren't clear regarding this, but the fact that "rolls of over 12 indicate an extremely high ability in the specific category" [emphasis mine] hints that it is the "averaging" die to which they are referring -- later difficulty numbers hint that it might be the regular dice that are used. Not that it matters much, as you will soon see.

After rolling statistics, players choose from one of the following roles -- Warrior, Leader, and the Scientist. This leads one to wonder which group Dale Arden fits, but that is another conversation entirely. The primary effect of choosing a particular roll is to add one point to the statistic most related to the profession.

These attributes are later used to determine success based on a very simple mechanic. Stat + d6 > TN. For example, if the players are in the Domain of the Cliff Dwellers it is possible that they will encounter the deadly Dactyl-Bats.



If the players decide that they want to fight off the Dactyl-Bats the success or failure of the action will "depend upon the military skill of the most skilled member of your group. Roll one die and add the result to your military skill. A final total of fourteen or greater is needed to drive off the Dactyl-Bats." Failure indicates the character is wounded and that the party must rest. It's a simple resolution, but one that lacks any significant cinematic quality. It feels awkward, and other mechanical resolutions in the game are similarly weak. Typical punishment for failure on an action is a loss of a certain number of turns. These turns are valuable as players need to recruit enough allies to defeat Ming before he has time to become powerful enough to squash any rebellion. While the statistics of the game are firmly rooted in roleplaying concepts, the resolution and consequence system still echoes board game resolutions. This is a weakness in this game, as is the inconsistency of resolution techniques. Fighting a Snow Dragon is resolved in a different manner than the encounter just discussed.

I imagine one could build a good game conflict resolution system built around the statistics highlighted in Flash Gordon, but this book lacks that system. I think it might be interesting to try to use a modified version of the Dragon Age pen and paper rpg system as a substitute for the mechanics in the Flash Gordon rpg. They are simple enough that it wouldn't require a lot of work. One could also use the OctaNe system if one wants to stick to the "narrative" feel that Bizar and Carter seem to have been attempting here. OctaNe succeeds where this game fails mechanically -- and OctaNe's system is ridiculously easy to learn and use.

Game Campaign System

This is where Flash Gordon really shines. The game's basic structure is that of a "recruitment" campaign where the players must journey from land to land -- based on how they are connected on an abstract schematic and not based on actual geography though the schematic takes those into account -- where they encounter various challenges and face various foes. For example, let's say our stalwart heroes find themselves in the Fiery Desert of Mongo. If they are mounted on Gryphs he journey will be easier than if they are not. It is possible, though not guaranteed, that the players will encounter Gundar's Gandits who will attempt to capture the players and sell them into slavery. The players may also encounter a Tropican Desert Patrol made up of troops loyal to Ming. The end goal of the area is for the group to recruit Gundar and his men, but that requires role playing and/or defeating the Tropican Desert Patrol. The description of the Desert and the possible encounters are abstract enough that they could easily inspire several sessions of roleplaying -- with a robust system like Savage Worlds -- all it lacks is a nice random encounter generator like the one found in The Day After Ragnarok to fill in the holes.

In essence, the Flash Gordon role playing game includes one or more major encounters for each geographical region of Mongo. As they players wander from place to place, they can/will face these challenges. What is inspired, and ahead of its time, about this structure is that the encounters are "story plot points" that must be achieved but can be achieved in the order of the player's choosing. There is room for exploration of the world at the same time that the players are succeeding at mandatory plot points. It is a narrative campaign without the railroading. Pinnacle Entertainment Group uses a similar structure in their Rippers, Slipstream, and Necessary Evil campaigns. It is a system that allows for narratively meaningful and fun play without the need for extraordinary planning on the part of the Game Master. All it lacks is a method, like the random encounter generator I mentioned above that is used by most plot point campaign systems, to fill in the scenes between the set pieces. Though it should be noted that there is sufficient information within the Flash Gordon rpg to easily construct a set of encounter generators with very little work.

Conclusion

Criticisms regarding the underlying conflict mechanical system, or lack thereof, are spot on when it comes to Flash Gordon. Character generation and conflict resolution lack any feeling of consequence or depth. BUT...If you want a campaign road map to use with another game system, preferably a fast-furious-and-fun one or a "narrativist" one, then this product is a deep resource. It will save you from having to read pages and pages of the old Alex Raymond strip in order to get an understanding of all of the minor details necessary for the creation of a campaign. You should certainly read the Alex Raymond strips, they are wonderful, but reading them should never be made to feel anything remotely like work. Bizar and Carter have done the work in presenting the campaign setting, all you have to do is adapt it to your favorite quick and dirty rpg mechanical set.
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