Wednesday, January 28, 2015

The Light Side of Deadly Force

I have a confession to make: I liked the Klingons before it was cool. Long before they were remade into a proud misunderstood warrior race I rooted for them. They were great villains as they had no scruples, blinding ambition and plainly liked their work on a certain level. Then The Next Generation re-imagined them and they were positively grim all the time. It gets boring after a while. It's the same story everywhere. Ka D'Argo is n ray of sunshine on Farscape. The Narn on Babylon 5 are almost uniformly badasses and grim. It's become an industry-wide standard

(Read this For a really fun look at TOS Klingons I suggest you get hold of The Final Reflection and How Much for Just the Planet? by the late great John M. Ford

Most proud warrior races we meet in SF range from humorless and stiff necked to as much fun as a tax audit combined with root canal. Why? As I was putting together some background for a game I decided to make my required proud warrior race a bunch of jovial optimists.

I have some reasons to support this. People with a positive outlook are more likely to spot opportunities (or are luckier if you buy into luck). Optimism and positive thinking result in shorter healing and recovery times in humans at least. I think optimists are just easier to get to follow you in a suicidal attack or similar maneuver. 

Athletes practice something called positive visualization. They picture themselves succeeding at a task. Certainly that could apply to a warrior. That act alone screams optimism. If all things are equal between two fighters: arms, ability and training but one is basically a pessimist and the other an optimist who would you bet on in a fight?

Having a pleasant disposition also makes people less defensive. You might like that if you're going to beat the snot out of them later.

So when my players encounter my proud warrior race they will find them cheerful to a fault. Infuriatingly cheerful. That's easier to achieve than it sounds (think about it.) So yes my badasses are going to be genial right up to when they knock your head off your shoulders or blast your ship to bits. Why not? They love their jobs (up until they lose). After you beat them they might even laugh it off and have a drink with you. 

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Science Fiction With a Chewy Center

I have enjoyed SF in my time from every end of the Moh's Scale. If I had to name a preference I have a slight shying away from super hard SF. But that because some authors in my opinion spend too much time on the intricacies of the science they've written about. I like explosions better. Having said that I doubt I have the talent and knowledge to write a halfway decent hard SF story and I respect these authors immensely even if they are occassionally not my cup of tea.

But I do know a little science (in spite of the handicap of a liberal arts education). A story composed of pure handwavium is often dissatisfying to me. About the only exception to this is the Doctor Who series. Karen Gillian and Jenna Louise Coleman will excuse a lot of sins by themselves but the writing is awesome as well. I would shy away from running a Doctor Who roleplaying session though in spite of loving the series.

The reason is when technology can do darn near anything it's hard to create a good adventure (for me at least). You run the risk of railroading players on one hand or (worse) their getting hold of that magic tech and completely screwing up your universe.

So while I like handwavium and am sure we will create things in the future that look like handwavium today I think the magic tech should still have some bugs. It makes for interesting stories. Consistency would be nice too. If you have a handheld energy weapon that can vaporize a boulder fine. But if in the next breath you say the character's personal communicator is running out of juice I will cry bullshit, because that energy weapon must have energy storage up the wazoo.

Similarly if you have a miraculous device that bends the laws of nature, making it work perfectly under all conditions is a little greedy. So the Star Trek transporter doesn't work when the shields are up (in the original series anyway.) In Traveller we have the 100 diameter limit for jump drives (which lets us have exciting chases). Having a limit for a device and then talking your way out of it is lazy writing and lazy gm-ing. You're not being fair to your readers or players (it is also SOP for any of the Trek series after TOS.)

Engineering also has lots of ideas you can use for details. Maybe the blaster I design has radiator fins around the barrel to help with heat build up or a coolant tank under the barrel? Maybe your grav drive operates by thrusting against the mass of a planet and the farther away you are the more power it requires. Some attention to real world gadgets will make your magi-tech more believable.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

A Traveller Wish List:.. Equipment

My first go to game is Classic Traveller. While CT was mainly inspired by pulp sf it also certainly has trappings of space opera and more modern hard sf writers like Niven and Pournelle. The equipment lists for Traveller are a good solid inventory but there were a couple of things that I feel should be included because they are cool or just a great way of saying 'far future' to people. Since we don't expect a reissue of CT anytime soon here's my .02 credits.

1) Energy blade- no not light sabers (tm). Energy blades appeared some time before Star Wars. They were a staple of Mobile Suit Gundam. I don't need to be able to stop bullets with my blade. In a pinch a humble heat axe will do. Fusion plants already contain plasma to initiate a fusion reaction, making it into a (relatively) cooler blade should be doable before tech level G.

2) A 9mm handgun- check my earlier posts for these. Sometimes you want to have a gun with a little more punch than a body pistol but more concealable than a a Magnum revolver or autopistol.

3) Food pills- great stuff for escape and survival kits provided they lick that problem with the blueberry pies for dessert. Tang would be neat also. Whatever happened to Tang?

4) Flight pack- Grav belts are the gold standard but you might not always have a TL 13 world handy. A rocket pack or even back pack helicopter would be fun. If Traveller tech has fifty kilo missiles accelerating at several gee for 10-30 minutes it can certainly lift me for a few minutes.

5) Neural whip- Traveller needs more non-lethal weapons. A neural whip harkens back to Isaac Asimov's Foundation stories. A stun beam that just nocks you out is not a deterrent to a psycho. Searing pain makes rushing you less attractive. Optionally the whip could be extendable at the push of a button. Note that a bullwhip in itself is a nasty weapon that can also trip, entangle and cut with its tip.

6) Hand cannon- for when subtlety is not an option and you only have one hand free.  Surely some firearms beside a shotgun do more than 3d.

There are my quibbles. Certainly nothing there is too hard to stat. I'd like to hear what you'd like added to CT

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Garden Is Danger Spelled Sideways

I was reading a post from Gerry Miller about how he was statting writing up the Solomani Rim and using UWPs from the classic supplement. One problem was a slew of Garden World that were also Barren (no people, no boats, no planes no motorcars.) To me this is no problem. The UWP is a starting point for a planet. There is a lot it doesn't cover and if that isn't by design it should have been.

An otherwise lovely planet might have atmospheric taint. Taint can cover a lot, from chemical, biological or radiological contamination. A nuked planet might have plenty of prime real estate but moving in is not advised unless you want to glow in the dark. Similarly, super viruses and bacteria might taint the air, incurable, fatal, and contagious.

A planet without a taint may still have an ecosystem that's hell on grav modules. Our world has plenty of examples of hard to kill off venomous pests (we keep them in a place called Australia.) True your bear and lion analogues will fall prey to the intrepid Scout with the laser rifle. But what about fly analogues, say, bearing disease? You may not always have a flyswatter nearby and what is the required Dex for it? Of course you could fill the air with insecticide but then you might wind up with a tainted atmosphere, brining us back to step one.

Lions and bears are bad enough but a world where the predators use psionic assault really opens up new vistas of terror.

Aside from the autotrophs and heterotrophs a planet's place in the planetary system may not be ideal. Red dwarfs may account for a number of habitable worlds. But that doesn't mean you'd want to live there. Most likely such stars will have a garden planet orbiting close. Aside from having air you can breathe such a planet will not have a lot going for it. It will probably be tidally locked restricting usable land to a thin belt between the day and night sides. You'll have gloomy skies, nearly constant winds and storms as air circulates between the light and dark sides. You primary might also be old and crotchety and show you the love with frequent bursts of radiation and EMPs.

On more Earthlike worlds you may just be looking at planets that are too hot or cold to be comfortable or habitable. Though excessive ultraviolet and solar storms are still possibilities. Atmospheric storms are no joke either. Your planet may even be going through a massive climate change. Prehistoric humans were nearly wiped out by one such upheaval.

Let's talk tectonics! Is your planet stable? Excessive earthquakes or volcanoes popping may make your would be settlers bail for an L-5 colony. Just add an oversized moon or have the planet orbit a gas giant. Besides earthquakes you could look at floods. Add a high oxygen content to a planet and you could have fires as well.

Hydrographics are a tricky subject. Ice caps are considered part of hydrographics (this is how an airless rock can have a hydrographic rating.) Maybe that 80% water covered planet actually is covered with glaciers a mile thick? What if most of the land on a world is marsh and swamp with no solid ground for buildings?

A planet may be inhabited but rated Barren. Perhaps it contains a population of semi-sentients that aren't considered sophonts just yet? A Scout base might be a good indication of such a population. The Scouts are observing them cautiously from an orbital station. Colonization is prohibited.

Ancient artifacts and bases will also lead to a planet being taken off the real estate listings. While some situations will warrant a full interdiction some will be hushed up and other reasons manufactured to delay colonization to keep such bases a secret. An interdiction zone is fine if you have the ships to back it up. A government with few ships or surrounded by more powerful neighbors will go for secrecy.

A mundane reason for listing a planet as Barren is a transient population, one without industry to support itself and no formal government. A planet given over to quarantine medical patients, a nature preserve for vacationers, a research facility or a holding area for prisoners are possibilities.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Theory and Practice Response

So a few responses to my last post prompted me to clarify some comments I made.

I never read in any posts that narrativist games were relatively new or that narrativist gms had to tell A STORY. Those were the impressions I was left with after reading a number of posts and I cannot recall the exact posts or what comments gave me that feeling. It was my opinion and not based on any bloggers' posts.

I'm also not against narrativist games. I think narrativist is a term better used for gameplay. Any game can be run as narrativist. I think it's a cool approach and I'll play in it.

What I was railing about was gms (and players) who try to shoehorn their players into a story that is not engaging others or inclusive. True narrativist gameplay comes about when everyone collaborates on a story as Chris Kubasik pointed out to me (thanks Chris and thanks Jeffro for reposting my blog and still circling me after a long dry spell.)

Narrativist practices are as old as RPGs in my opinion. We are talking old school. Is it narrativist to fudge some rolls and avoid a total party kill to keep a campaign going? Whenever a gm rolled for a random encounter and then said "Flumph? Screw that! I'm substituting ogres!" to keep the story moving or inject some excitement, that was narrative. Of course some gms just went with ogres to be bastards.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Theory and Practice

There's are a lot of posts regarding narrativist games. I browsed them and came away with the feeling that narrativist games appeared out of nowhere in the last few years and were a movement away from simulationist or 'gamer' games. I exaggerate but you get the idea. It's bullshit frankly. I am an old school gamer but let me tell you I wasn't a roleplayer until I started to spin a story.

You don't need rules or mechanics to give your game a narrativist spin. Stories grow out of the interaction of players and referee and their actions and outcomes. One of the best examples of this I ever saw was in an issue of The Dragon where the author generated a character while using results to create a compelling backstory with more hooks than Pinhead the Cenobite on a tear (The Strategy of Survival, Dragon #18).

Setting out to tell a story (whether you are the referee or a player) is a mug's game. Maybe the story you want to tell doesn't interest anyone else ('Mime is an epic tale telling how I seized the throne of the Galactic Empire!') Being as inclusive as you can helps but believe me, you always get that one player who marches to his own drum ('You'll make me a grand duke? I still don't want to help you conquer the galaxy. I want to loot it!') Stories happen naturally enough. You just need to keep an eye out for them and give them some loving and attention.

Every time a player wants to take an action and the referee says, 'Tell me how you'll do it.' the player is offered an opportunity to tell a story. Some systems like Atomic Sock Monkey's PDQ have mechanics to reward good roleplaying (or strategy or whatever you want to call it to keep the simulationists happy).

In my experience storytelling was lightning in a bottle. It arose of its own accord. It's very hard for a referee to run characters through a story because as I said their players will almost certainly have their own plans. Like it or not the players have an effect on the game world, and they should. The moment you start running a game that setting you worked on becomes a collaborative effort. IMO that's doing it right. If you are a diehard storyteller then your choice is either railroad the players into your plot or let them be spectators as the story unfolds. I had a referee take the latter approach with his Star Wars game. We weren't the heroes because we didn't have a movie about us. It wore thin after a while. I mean we had a whole fucking galaxy to romp around in. Let us free a planet or blow one up. Who said Luke or Vader ever had to deal with it? Figure about ten worlds in the SW galaxy were wiped out by novas and asteroid impacts every year alone.

Some games take the point of view that the characters are the be all and end all. Everything revolves around them and their story, assuming they found common ground ("Help me conquer the galaxy and you can loot whoever opposes me after my fleet softens them up.") I think this approach can be taken too far. Some things are always beyond your control. There are other people in the world executing their own plans. You are never the only story (the other stories are just happening offstage for the most part.)

The point I want to make is any game can tell a story. Mechanics are irrelevant to the stories being told. Having a game fall into a certain category is a convenient label that gives an idea of its primary focus. It isn't a cage.

Finally if you want to tell your own story, one that you feel strongly about; that's called writing. Try it.