[Let's Read] ARES Magazine


Ares Special Edition 2: Date unspecified

64 pages. So here they go again, filling up the magazine without a game as the centrepiece. The contents are pretty different though. While last time was all Conan, Arthur, Dunsany and the Universe system, this is about Traveller, Star Frontiers, and Gamma World. Less past, more future. Yet curiously at the same time, less hard science, more flights of fantasy. Funny how these things work, isn't it. I guess the past is fixed and quantifiable, but the future is still yet to be determined. Let's see how my brain will react to these bits of now static history.

Ares Log: Once again, nothing much to see here. A little bit of errata, and then once again elaborating on the issue's contents. The combination of outer and inner space. The more we understand our place in the universe, the better we understand ourselves and vice versa. Sounds mystical, but it's just basic logic really. These have definitely become less interesting since the changeover.

Letters: Two long and quite critical letters this month. The first, not too surprisingly given the size of it's fanbase, defends Return of the Jedi. Trying to treat blockbuster films as serious lore will almost always disappoint. Geeks seriously need to lighten up. It's just entertainment, except when it's high art, or about ethics in gaming, whichever is most convenient at the time.

More seriously, a letter reminding them that they inherited the Universe system from SPI and should be supporting it more in the magazine. The trouble with that is that they have a bunch of big centrepiece articles, but none of the smaller ones TSR prefers, and formatting around big articles is always a pain. If they got more reader submissions they might have kept it around, or maybe they're just saying that for appearances and they always intended to flip to mostly covering their own games.

Media: Last issue, we looked at the sordid business of creating novelisations of films. Here we look at the even more depressing business of making those glossy coffee table books full of photos about films and TV shows. Even cynical secondary market tie-ins like this somehow manage to attract a few idealists who just want to make the best damn coffee table book they possibly can, but they're outweighed by the flakes, grifters, and executive meddlers. This one is particularly bitter, as it seems entirely born out of personal experience by the writer. You work your ass off, get jerked around repeatedly, have your credit stolen, and at the end of it all, you don't even own your work, the company does. It's enough to put you off showbiz for life. Given the number of artists in multiple fields that spend a few years with a major company and then wind up going independent because of this kind of screwage, it's obvious that this is not a rare occurrence. Oh well, as long as it looks glamorous from the outside, there'll always be fresh meat for the content mills.

New Worlds: In contrast with last article, the hard science piece is cheerier than usual. Overviews of the six largest satellites in the solar system, Io, Europa, Ganymede, Callisto, Titan and Triton. Even back then, they were fully aware that all of them were distinct and interesting in their own ways, even if we now have more detail on what's going on on and underneath their surfaces. The frequency with which these frozen moons have liquid seas buried deep beneath the ice makes life elsewhere in the universe seem considerably more likely. (although it would be much harder to develop a spacefaring civilisation under those conditions) So the details here are accurate, but very incomplete, and even now, we still have a lot to discover about all these little places in our solar system. Let's hope we'll get to find them out within our lifetimes.

Tales of the Sky, Tales of the Land: Ha. The magazine decides to do a holodeck malfunction episode even before TNG came out. I'm sure there are other examples of the trope before this, but it happened so frequently there that it will now forever be associated with Star Trek. There is considerably less handwavium though, with the spaceship being a colony ship only flying between stars at .2c, gravity generated by rotation, and the malfunctioning simulation being composed of physical robots with rubber skins. The final result is pretty realistic too, as they eventually solve the problem and arrive at their destination, and then the story is told as a flashback while they live a simple agrarian life trying to gradually build up a civilisation on their new planet. Life goes on, and our work is never over, but big dramatic emergencies only come along occasionally. That won't change if we ever get colonies on other planets going. It'll be more long slow expansion and occasional collapses when unexpected things go wrong, no matter how advanced technology gets, because the universe is always going to be mind bogglingly huge compared to us and the things we can do. This story all seems completely plausible as hard sci-fi. I approve.

Home Sweet Home: Ahh, good old random generation tables. Now there's a TSR thing I've missed while doing this magazine. They cement that they're running things differently from SPI with a set of random star system generation tables, technically for Star Frontiers, but using entirely real world numbers, so they can be easily plugged into any sci-fi system. They say they're realistic, but really, they had so little data on other solar systems then, there's no way they stack up to current knowledge (which is still woefully incomplete outside large gas giants in nearby star systems. ) and are obviously skewed towards earthlike conditions, when in actuality, red dwarves outnumber everything else by orders of magnitude, and any planets orbiting them at inhabitable temperatures would rapidly lock tidally to the sun unless they had a decent sized moon to keep the day/night cycle going. But while I can pick holes in the science part pretty easily, it's still preferable to having nothing when your players jump to a random star system and you need to come up with something fast, so it still has plenty of use in actual play. Stick it in the bookmarks along with a bunch of others I've already covered so you don't waste tons of time faffing around mid-session trying to find it.

The Far Frontiers: From random setting add-ons to more specific Traveller worldbuilding. A big chunk of star systems towards the outer edge of the galaxy that have been cut off from civilisation for a few thousand years and developed their own little cultures. At a scale like this, precise geography is irrelevant, but we do get overviews of their history, cultures, and relationships with one-another. Even the small ones still comprise several planets, and have overall populations orders of magnitude above present day earth. Like our first articles on the planes, it's all a bit too abstract to adventure in yet. They definitely need some specific places and NPC's to make these worlds relatable.

Revised Psionics for Traveller Gaming: Just a few months ago, Dragon did a psionics special in issue 78. Despite delivering an impressive 8 articles on the theme, it looks like that wasn't all their submissions, as they have ones for several of their frequently covered sci-fi games here. First up, one for Traveller that's aimed at making it rare, weak and unpredictable. You have to get a good roll to have them at all, they're often hard to consciously control, and the effects are generally low key and plausibly deniable so as to not ruin the overall hard sci-fi feel of the setting. Like the glacially slow advancement and expensive FTL in the system, it's not the most immediately glamorous, but if it lets you run a long-term internally consistent campaign, then I guess that's better than designing purely for short term gratification. I can quite understand why they did it way, even if I don't find it particularly exciting reading.

It's all in your Mind: Unsurprisingly, Gamma World's approach to psionics is a lot more quirky and haphazard, representing them as just more mutations, rather than having any kind of school system or hierarchy of powers. But since gamma world is a much more gonzo setting, they're also much more overt and powerful as well. A surprising number of them are meta-effects that modify your own or other's powers, which will be very situational in applicability, especially since they're randomly gained, so the odds of getting really good synergies are not high. They also include a new monster that incorporates a bunch of these powers, the the goat-headed centaurs seen on the issue's cover. They take goat's pre-existing ability to climb the tiniest cracks and enhance it into outright air-walking, can consume virtually anything you throw at them, and are genius mechanics to boot. They definitely have the Jim Ward touch of twinkitude and would be very scary to fight if the GM used their powers intelligently. This all seems pretty fun to use, if not even slightly balanced mechanically. Oh well, it's not as if you were expecting to run a long term campaign anyway. Only Paranoia beats Gamma World for rapid character turnover due to frequent and ridiculous deaths. Roll up a new character and get back into the action.

Frontiers of the Mind: The RPG section concludes with a third article on psionics, this time for Star Frontiers. While the other two are adding to existing rules, there aren't any for this system, so the writer has to make them up wholecloth. The results are quite similar to the Traveller version, but slightly more powerful and reliable and much more compressed, as they're trying to accomplish more, but in a shorter word count. The powers are 7 of the usual suspects, clairvoyance, energy absorption, telepathy, mental illusions, mind control, telekinesis, and teleportation. It's a solid enough start that could do with being expanded upon. That's another definite change with the TSR years. The shorter articles they prefer means you're more likely to be left wanting more.

Latent Image: Our second bit of fiction is a lot more mystical. A photographer is trying to develop a formula that will take photos that project the subjects back in time, giving them flashbacks of what happened then. His methods are alchemical rather than scientific, and his results are interestingly haphazard, with the past and present throwing up parallels that may be dream or reality. So it's not particularly concerned with consistent worldbuilding, but does put a lot of effort into being cool and evocative. So it's entertaining reading, but sticks out here, and is another demonstration of how TSR cares a lot less about their settings than SPI did in this era. Don't overanalyse, just roll them bones and see what the fates deal up, that's the fun way to do it.

Miniatures: This column decides to focus on spaceships this month, giving us an equal share of generic ones from Superior Models, and licensed Star Trek ones by FASA. Shouldn't be too hard to combine them in your own games. Not much else to say here again, especially given the lack of detail in the photos making it hard to make my own judgement about their quality. Meh.

Games: Lee's Guide to Interstellar Adventure is a collection of 10 example worlds for the Traveller system, although it's not hard to convert to other sci-fi games as well. With plenty of adventure scenarios, not just dry data, it should provide plenty of sessions to a GM able to extrapolate and expand on it's plot hooks.

The Company War is a wargame based on C. J. Cherryh's Downbelow Station. It gets an in depth review that's mostly positive while also pointing out the flaws. It prioritises drama over realism, but can still get pretty long when you turn the complexity dials all the way and add more than 2 players. As long as it stays fun, that's not a problem though.

To Challenge Tomorrow is one of the first attempts at a generic RPG system that you can then add various setting supplements onto. It can't have done that well or I would have heard of it before. Like most of these early attempts, it seems very simulationist, so while you may get the flavor of different places, the mechanics won't back up the style of various genres, and the sample adventures get a fair bit of criticism for being too simple and lacking in detail. These days, you'd definitely be better off sticking with GURPS.

Books: Elephant Song by Barry Longyear is another story of a circus IIIINNN SPAAACE! (see issue 14). Unlike that, where the visiting new and strange worlds is the fun part, these guys are stranded on another planet, and the interest is in them learning to survive while trying to preserve their culture, so it's a more low-key and realistic affair, with plenty of research done on real life traveling performer culture. I think there's room for both ideas out there in the universe.

New America by Poul Anderson is a compilation of his short stories, most of them in the same setting and with connected plot lines. Since he was a featured artist in the magazine just last issue, they unsurprisingly get high praise. Popularity is about good networking as much as it is actual talent.

Film: Brainstorm is the kind of thoughtful, hard sci-fi film that takes a single new piece of technology and plays through it's ramifications on society. In this case the ability to record people's whole body sensory experiences and play them back to others. It gets a very good review indeed, with the writing, acting and cinematography all working well together. it's just a shame it won't have the pop culture longevity of more overtly flashy movies.

Testament also gets a good review for similar reasons. It self consciously adopts a feminine point of view to the aftermath of nuclear holocaust, as radiation sickness develops in a community and the fabric of everyday life gradually disintegrates. Like When the Wind Blows, which is similarly low-key and bleak from the same era, it shows how there's no real winners to nuclear war; even if one side technically survives, the fallout will screw everyone who survives for generations to come. Let's hope world leaders never forget that.

Ringshipper comes to an end just as it finishes what should be the prolog, when the captain realises the potential of what he's stumbled across. What would he have done with that potential if the series had continued? I have no clue, given how light on detail the whole thing's ben so far. Oh well, at least we didn't have a chance to get attached before being abruptly left hanging like we did with Wormy. So that leaves this just another tiny unresolved plot thread in the vastness of history. I wish reality had neat endings like good fiction does.

I thought last issue had completed the transition, but somehow, this one feels even more TSRish than before. I think it's the lack of a big centerpiece article, which even the last special issue had. Here, it's all small ones, some which are good, some which are bad, but none of which really have the comprehensiveness of their big boardgames and setting expansions. So I'm left feeling a little unsatisfied this time around. Oh well, just one more regular issue to go, and then it'll be time for another complete change of scenery. Let's see if the themes of that one are satisfying, and if they'll lay it to rest in a respectful way, or an abrupt and arbitrary one.