Sunday, December 28, 2014

Matter Over Mind

Magical weapons are a feature of many (if not all) roleplaying games. Lewis Carroll gave us the vorpal sword. Star wars gave us the light saber (if you don't think that thing is magical talk to a physicist!) SF games with a harder sort of science shy away from such things and compensate with more 'dakka' (though an SMG with a 100 round clip firing 10,000 rounds a minute has its own sort of magic.)

But getting back to the so-called magic weapons there are few hard facts given about how they work. Are they sharper, preternaturally lighter to wield or do they have AI (artifact intelligence) letting them compensate for ham fisted humans' lack of skill? I never really asked myself how it worked even when I was running a fantasy campaign, but I'm asking now.

In magic as in all things the simplest way of getting the results you want is usually the best. You could make a sword and enchant it plunging it into dragon's blood to make it supernaturally hard and sharp. But some say the hand wielding the weapon is more important than the weapon itself. Perhaps the best way to make a better sword is to make it get the best out of its wielder. If enchantments can make a warrior think friends are foes they can make him think he's a better warrior. Confidence, bravery, fighting spirit can make a warrior more effective.

So maybe just maybe that sword isn't a better sword; maybe it makes the user a better fighter, more focussed and assured which carries over to his fighting. His belief could be so strong enough to hurt creatures otherwise invulnerable (belief is a pretty strong factor in many settings.)

This approach can certainly be used in SF settings. Have your rifle or pistol inject measured doses of Combat or Slow drugs. If you want a less chemically friendly approach a weapon could use neural feedback to elevate the user's confidence and serotonin levels. At higher tech levels a weapon or device might use psionic means. This leads of course to the subject of abuse. It could be as simple as sending a jolt to the pleasure center of your brain every time you fire at something the sight tells you is an enemy.

If you have a weapon that can tell you you're great, it can also whisper in your ear (or whatever you hear with) about how great your cause is and how you should kill anyone opposing it. The more you use that weapon the more loyal you become. So maybe rebels, space pirates and assorted antisocial types should think twice before they loot that government armory.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Spontaneous Generation

The first science fiction roleplaying game is generally thought to be Metamorphosis Alpha, not Classic Traveller. MA was the first RPG I even bought. Comparing the two is interesting. Metamorphosis Alpha is clearly in the vein of D&D which is not surprising as they were produced by the same company. Also D&D was pretty much the only game in town, if you pardon the pun. The first law of success is to copy someone who is already successful. Unlike D&D MA had no experience system, levels or classes. Instead characters were differentiated by mutations mostly and to a lesser extent stuff they found.

Then Traveller came along. It definitively broke the D&D mold. Starships and Spacemen was published a year after Traveller and retained several D&D conventions such as classes and levels (which seemed to work pretty well.) But Classic Traveller avoided classes, levels. It also had no comprehensive experience system. Characters came to the game fully formed. In this the two games were similar.

From there on the two games were completely different in tone, setting and approach. Travellers were given a universe to move about in. MA characters were given a lost derelict generation ship to explore and live on for however long the ship's systems kept working. In Traveller the universe would keep on going, evolving, and changing. In MA the ship would eventually wind down. The shiny gear you'd find or loot would eventually run out too. Despite this Alpha had a surreal and positive tone (when a sentient bush with a laser rifle wasn't shooting at your feet and telling you to dance telepathically.)

One fact about Traveller blew my mind after dealing with laser swords and protein disruptors. Despite the high tech everywhere you generally used guns firing bullets that no one would have trouble finding in a chain store to day anywhere south of Maryland and west of Jersey. All the technology was pretty accessible to us TL 7 types.

Traveller had a more mature tone. It even gave you equations with square roots! It also clearly displayed its designers' wargaming roots (far more so than D&D in its finished form.) Looking at the core LBBs they almost seem like a collection of minigames: survival (in your career), trading, combat. Some people refer to Old School games as a collection of unrelated subsystems. To a degree this is true of CT. The beauty is in how minimal and engaging the rules are. You also have to give GDW points for using all d6's especially if you were a broke kid in the 70's and couldn't get to an FLGS.



Tuesday, December 2, 2014

STL: The Next Generation, and the Next, and the Next, and the Next ...

Like so many people I want to travel to the stars because there's probably all manner of interesting stuff out there. Unfortunately Einstein is a meany and slapped a speed limit on us. Newton killed the buzz long before that with his equal and opposite reactions. People are saying you'll have to go a ways in ruining Earth before colonizing Mars becomes attractive. Well traveling to another star within a human lifetime would take enough energy to terraform Mars.

For those who want those stars and want to follow science  slavishly (I like to call those kinds of people scientists) we have the generation ship.

Okay it won't get you to the stars but it will get your descendants to other stars and they might even resemble you. Yes, I know. Low berths. Low berths are for sissies and suspended animation might not be achievable. More importantly things could go wrong on a decades long voyage and you might want a few crew not kept in suspense (or kept in suspense if you get my drift). So even with cryonics you'd probably want a sizable fraction of your crew kept awake. Also having everyone in low passage is pretty boring.

Having your entire human population in cold sleep is known as a sleeper ship which is quite gauche unless you are a fleeing tyrant. But I'm off topic

So you can get to the stars with generation ships, crew/lackeys, and cold sleep. You just have to worry about things like the crew seizing control and waking up to a dictatorship. Why should they take orders from a corpsicle they carried for decades. See A Gift From Earth by Larry Niven.

Generation ships are big! They have to be because any trip they make is definitely one way. When they get to their destination the intent is to settle down, find a nice garden world or build orbital colonies. How people will react to the great outdoors after being raised in a closed environment I do not know. That might be a story in itself. The people in low berth want to settle Terra 4. The ones who've been awake and breeding all that time want to build an orbital palace. Drama.

One of the unsettling effects of generation ships is that people tend to forget they are on them. You think living over a Bussard ramscoop would be hard to ignore but maybe it's like people living next to train tracks.

Having your humans trade their silver pajamas for loincloths would probably be a bad thing. Your ship would need some sort of maintenance baring very good automated repair systems. If you had a computer that smart it'd probably be able to teach  people the skills they need to be productive again and also to put on some pants. But the regressed generation ship does have an unimpeachable pedigree (Universe by Robert A. Heinlein). Metamorphosis Alpha, by James Ward, was the first SF RPG.

Generation ships have appeared in Traveller. The Old and New Islands subsectors in the Reft Sector were first reached and colonized by generation ships. There are other instances of aliens in and out of canon using such STL ships to generate library entries. Usually these cultures are TL 8-9 and not advanced to realize that ship hulls are limited by computer size. Less facetiously a referee could rule that the hulls limits (originally by tech level in LBB2 and by computer in High Guard) apply to ships with maneuver drives and thrusters. Generation ships seem more akin to orbital colonies than boilerplate style Traveller ships and those don't even need a computer (JTAS 324).

Using a generation ship also brings up the possibility of your parent culture beating you to your destination. Consider that technology on your mother world will keep advancing. Terra attained Jump drives while the ESA colony mission plodded along. If it wasn't for Interstellar Wars 1 to N earth probably would have attempted to reach those colonists and rescue them. They just sort of forgot.

A lost or derelict generation ship would be a major find for any canny merchant or scientist. It might even contain examples of lost technology (Wifi ... how did we forget abut wifi? And these computers are TINY!) or kilotons of fuel and raw supplies.

A populated generation ship could mean new markets for the solar system it enters or invasion. They might want your verdant planet. What tech level did you say you were again?