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If you’ve never seen the components of a Blue Max game, it’s difficult to explain just how beautiful those plane counters are. Maybe just by saying each was produced first as a detailed full-size color painting, which was then shrunk down to fit a counter about an inch across.
The designer was a serious war gamer who had done lots of research into the various plane capabilities, and his game mechanics reflect that care.
I’ve been a fan of WWI air combat since discovering Richtofen’s War at about 18 years of age. I love Blue Max. And while I respect the designer’s observation that these planes could not change altitude enough to be reflected in the time scale of the game, I find fascinating that jockeying for altitude and losing it during maneuvers. I also admired the altitude abstraction of Frank Chadwick’s Sky Galleons of Mars game. So while on staff at GDW, I convinced Frank to let me marry those to Blue Max during a reprint.
Later, during my years at TSR, the Creative Services department (we designers, developers, and line managers) were allowed a 90-minute lunch, with 30 minutes paid, if we’d use it playing games. I brought in some 1:72 scale airplanes, mounted each on a “pick up stick” (remember those?), mounted that to an upright dowel, using a couple of checkers and a wing nut to allow the plane to bank and nose up or down (signalling climb or dive next turn), mounted the whole of that on a base about 3 inches across, and played on the mat from Milton Bradley’s Battle Masters.
The resulting 3D dogfighting was awesomely fun! I’m looking forward to a chance to reconstruct it all and play it with my teenage grandson.
I’m sort of stunned to realize my work on that 1992 edition was 25 years ago.
Condition: New in shrinkwrap
Tabletop game designers tend to pour their heart and soul into projects. And publishing companies tend to keep the rights to those projects. It’s the difference between “work for hire” and a novelist’s “advance on royalties.” I’m not sure why a salary doesn’t equate to an advance on royalties. But then, I’ve always sided with labor unions, which if I’d been born in the early 20th century instead of the middle would have gotten me labeled as a communist. By the time I came along, it merely implied you were affiliated with gangsters. In either case, “Blood and souls for my Lord Arioch!”
But to continue, Bughunters was my very first RPG project at TSR. I applied much of what I’d learned at GDW, including a foldout 3D star map in the back. And it plays on tropes represented in popular film and fiction at the time. But it’s meshed together with some inventiveness of my own, to fit an entire sci-fi campaign in a 128-page book.
The premise is that PCs are “Synners”—synthetic humans built from volunteered DNA, which donation scores the volunteer a cushy pension. Because they’re enhanced beyond human norms, they’re forbidden from setting foot on Earth (ala Blade Runner). Their job is to prepare habitable planets for human colonization, by clearing traps and monsters leftover from an interstellar war between two alien civilizations that managed mutual annihilation. And while participating in this hellish task, they have all their donor’s memories, including the day of DNA donation for a pension, so they also suffer a weird sort of displaced self-loathing. Add in a modular starship system, with deck plans, that involved choosing a command module size, marrying it to a cargo bay size, and tacking on an engine module size (small command module and small cargo with big thrusters is fast and nimble fighter ship; medium command module and huge cargo space with small to medium thrusters is a cargo hauler; etc.), and the result was a game I could feel proud of.
Two quick memories from that project:
- The editor was going to revise the mortar-fire rules to say the skill roll should be based on the higher of the forward observer’s rating and the firer’s rating, because why penalize the better PC? My first reaction was to just say, “Leave it alone. You simply don’t understand. Trust me. I’ve actually fired mortars during my National Guard days.” (Medics are invited to fire pretty much everything while attending a range in case of accident.) He got offended at my high-handedness, and I pretty much had to beg him to wait, and to listen to a careful explanation, delivered in a humble manner, in order to convey that it doesn’t matter how experienced one person is, if the other member of the fire team isn’t. (Now that I think about it, there’s a parallel in that story. But I certainly learned some humility and patience that day.)
- When the book was published, Steve Winter stopped by my office to say, “This is good. I’m impressed.” Steve had been one of the two TSR staff members I had gotten to know and respect before I hired on there, from meeting them at Gen Con parties each year. (The other was Doug Niles.) So such words coming from Steve were more encouraging to the “new guy” than he might know. Thanks, buddy!
I still love Bughunters. I’ve asked WotC about selling me the rights, to turn it into a D6xD6 RPG book. But they’re not interested in even discussing it. So it’s gathering dust with the other Amazing Engine titles while WotC pursues more high-ticket projects, ferreted away just in case they may someday want a weird little fairly hard sci-fi property influenced by Philip K. Dick’s paranoia.
Update: An old friend and GDW colleague pointed out that the Bughunters setting is now part of WotC’s d20 Future sourcebook. So I guess they did dust it off and use it. And I guess I just now gave them free advertising.
I’ve no idea if I’m credited, but if you click the linked title in the previous paragraph and happen to buy a copy, I’ll get a few cents kickback from Amazon. :-)
Condition: New in shrinkwrap