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The Robot as Animal

This article originally appeared in the November/December 2020 issue.

The 1980s were a heyday of complex role-playing game rules. More detail meant greater realism, and being highly realistic was good! Book 8: Robots, the last of the “Little Black Books”, was published in 1986 in the middle of this trend—and it shows. Building a one-ton automaton is more brain-wrenching than designing giant starships with either Book 2: Starships or Book 5: High Guard. Fortunately, Game Designers’ Workshop had already provided Referees with a much more streamlined and manageable design system—the animal creation rules in Book 3: Worlds and Adventures.

In several ways robots are like animals. They move. They act according to their (pre-programed) “instincts”. In a factory setting they might even be able to reproduce. The goal is to use the animal rules to focus on overall effect rather than the sordid details of construction, power consumption and hardware prices. If the mysterious Doctor Satan’s prototype soldier is trying to slaughter the adventurers who cares how much its vacuum tubes cost? The player-characters want to know what the darned thing can do to them.

Since robots are created entities, the Referee can skip all the random table rolling and pick attributes from the charts based on a particular model's intended function. Purpose determines its numbers, mass, its terrain type, means of locomotion and potential weapons. Unlike animals, most robots (with exceptions to be discussed in a moment) will be workaday laborers performing tasks they can do more safely and efficiently than humans. They will tend to ignore the PCs entirely unless the latter interfere with them or their duties or accidentally get in their way. That’s when the Attack, Flee and Speed rolls kick in. Such automatons are, for practical purposes, herbivores and gatherers or occasionally eaters. Their weapons will be the tools with which they are equipped—grippers, shovels, welding torches that might be the equivalent of claws, edged melee weapons or a laser carbine. Robots will also tend to be more durable than flesh and blood creatures because of their sheet metal or heavy plastic casings. They need not be heavily armored but a few more hits or some light armor might be appropriate.

If the Referee introduces robots with a security or military purpose, he’s entered new territory. Isaac Asimov’s famous Three Laws of Robotics are tossed out the airlock. These entities are functionally carnivores, most often killers. They may take the number of opponents into tactical consideration but cannot be intimidated. They aren’t averse to harming sentient beings, won’t obey PCs’ orders (and may balk at those of their handlers), and may not be overly concerned with self-preservation if their mission requires otherwise. They will be armored against the most common local weapon type but may be vulnerable to others. Their weapons can be almost anything. The “Rule of Cool” prevails, especially with robots based on movies and television shows. Why is the M3/B9 from the original Lost In Space, supposedly a glorified lunar rover, equipped with crushing pincers and an electric arc that should drain its undersized battery in 3 minutes or less? Why are Unga Khan’s tin-can-on-legs troopers (Undersea Kingdom) armed with separate rifles rather than having integrated ranged weapons? Why is the Maximilian security drone (The Black Hole) equipped with twin lawn mower blades in a setting where laser guns are standard? Because it is more intimidating, of course!

What about artificial intelligences? Such robots are essentially non-player characters. There are two simple ways of handling this. Method one is to create the animal template as usual, roll up an Intelligence characteristic, and pick out 2-4 level 1 or level 0 skills appropriate to the construct’s intended function. Non-security robots won’t tend to have combat skills at all but might have one at level 0 (most often Brawling). Method two is to roll up characteristics as usual, beef them up per concept if necessary, and pick the 2-4 skills. Artificial beings will tend to be stronger and/or tougher than biological characters but can’t heal damage and must be repaired by a qualified technician.

Sample robots:

Huey, Louie and Dewey (Silent Running)
maintenance/repair robots

Terrain: Indoor Technological
  Name Type Mass Hits Armor Wounds/Weapons Action
3 Maintenance Robot Grazer 25kg 14/7 none 6 hooves A5F2S1

Ubiquitous repair robots roam large starships and space stations in small groups (1D) seeking leaks, loose fastenings, and wear-and-tear damage. Slow, squat and relentless, they can be programmed and equipped to perform many types of jobs but can focus on only one task at a time

Maximilian (The Black Hole)
security drone

Terrain: Any Controlled-Access
  Name Type Mass Hits Armor Wounds/Weapons Action
1 Security Drone Flyer/Killer 400kg 36/18 Reflec 16 as sword A1F8S2

The mute, hovering henchbot ensures unswerving obedience to a mad starship captain but follows orders itself grudgingly and seems all too eager to harm even compliant prisoners. Its flawed programing gives it personality of a sort but its actual sentience is uncertain.

Robbie the Robot (Forbidden Planet)
household servant

Terrain: Indoor Technological
  Name Type Mass Hits Armor Wounds/Weapons Action
1 Household Servant AI 200kg 20/8 Jack 4 hands -
INT 9; Steward-1, Liaison-1, ATV-1, Pistol-0

This scientist’s mechanical butler and handyman makes life bearable at an isolated research station. It is capable of using human weapons to defend its inventor but will not attack sophonts.

Design examples:

Maintenance robots: The sample repair robots listed above are, in the movie that inspired the write-up, inoffensive fellows about size of a human child. They aren’t built for combat and possess no weapons except maybe their broad, stomping feet. And they work in small groups. The Referee decided that a small herd animal with hooves would be a reasonable biological equivalent. He selected mass 25kg from the animal size chart and rolled the rest of the stats normally. Attack 5 seems somewhat aggressive but that can be attributed to the robot’s slow reaction time. It can’t stop on a dime and might keep clomping forward before it realizes an adventurer is in its way.

Spy robot: The Imperial probe droid in The Empire Strikes Back is as big as a Volkswagen Beetle, automatically fires upon the first thing that moves near it (which could have been a snowshoe rabbit instead of a Rebel icon), and blows itself up at the first sign of opposition. So much for subtlety.

An effective surveillance droid needs to be stealthy, fast, and have keen senses. It isn’t supposed to fight but to sneak away undetected and escape with the data it has gathered. Since Traveller doesn’t have faster-than-light communications the robot needs an inconspicuous delivery and retrieval system that can bring it within tight-beam data transmission range of a scout vessel lurking at the edge of the solar system being examined. The whole assembly might be the size of an air/raft or fighter but the spy itself should be much smaller.

A standard Imperial 10-ton fighter already has a Model 1 computer, 1 ton of cargo space, and 6-G escape speed. Pilot it remotely, replace the weaponry with sensors and communications gear and the Referee already has his delivery and retrieval system. Now for the spy itself. Espionage is inherently predatory, so the robot is a carnivore. The Referee decides that gathering information unseen and fleeing if discovered sounds cat-like. The spy is a pouncer. He wants it to be able to explore building interiors as well as observe enemy bases and their activities from afar. It needs to be human-sized or smaller. Twenty-first century Earth audio-visual recording equipment has grown amazingly compact. If the robot isn’t built to physically carry away items such as documents it could be quite small, say 12-18kg -- the mass of a Terran lynx.

The Referee determines that the Lynxbot may need to incapacitate enemy personnel in order to achieve its ends. Most firearms are noisy and energy weapons have heavy power packs. Since it will be skulking around, the spy’s encounters will be at close and short range. Lynxbot is armed with an integrated, silenced snub pistol, six tranquilizer rounds. It is supposed to evade heavily armed and armored troops anyway.

Finally, the retrieval boat has 1 ton of robot berth space. That means it could blanket a continent with approximately 80 robot spies, each pursuing its solitary intelligence gathering. The Lynxbots need to physically rendezvous with the retrieval boat because transmitting data would reveal its existence and location, jeopardizing the overall mission. Spies unable to do so go into hiding and become dormant until the presence of another retrieval boat awakens them.

electronic spy

Terrain: Any
  Name Type Mass Hits Armor Wounds/Weapons Action
1 Intelligence Robot Pouncer 12kg 11/7 none Tranq as snub pistol AsFsS1