Friday, February 20, 2015

We Have Met the Alien and He Is Us!

Okay Walt Kelly said it first. I went into some of the problems of designing a good alien and as I said it's hard. The good ones are all very different but with something that makes us want to relate to them. The mile long aerofauna of a Jovian world might be fascinating creatures but few would want to risk the dangers of descent into their hell world to carry on an exchange with any regularity.

Maybe not. They might be the best mathematicians in the galaxy and able to clear up humanity's vague understandings of FTL navigation but you get the idea. On a more extreme case I have no idea how we'd interact with a super intelligent shade of blue ("Mauve! We require mauve to survive! You will give us your mauve or we will inflict plaid upon you!".) Can you trust that marker? True it is labeled cobalt, but I digress.

An easier technique is to take humans or uplifted animals and give them some new tweak or development that makes them alien in some way. I already went over how telepathy can make nearly anyone a creepy bastard. Besides psi, transhumans might be created through genetic engineering or cybernetics.

Cybernetics receives scant treatment in Classic Traveller and as the Imperium developed it was made clear cyborgs were out there. Local laws regarding cyborgs vary. In some locales they may find themselves property. Cyborgs can incite paranoia especially among law officers. Body pistols are hard enough to detect. Having a person who could carry weapons and other contraband internally could give a libertarian fits.

The guidelines for determining whether a cyborg is property or a person are sort of vague (if anyone could help me out I'd appreciate it.) I believe some planets defined it in terms of body mass or volume (there's no mass in Traveller after all only volume.) If your BMI (Bionic Mass Index) is 51% or more you're property. It kind of explains why all those brains in a jar go rogue. If I preserved my consciousness only to be labeled an AI with organic material I'd be pissed too. Conversely, a human brain takes up about 2.5 %. Is a human body with an AI computer replacing the brain regarded as sentient? If the intent is to curb the amount of replacements to dissuade people from becoming walking instruments of insurrection there might be loopholes like this.

Realistically all these cyborgs with super strength and able to run 60 mph have a problem: their humans parts can't stand the load of such stress. Lift an anvil and your Right Hand Man 5000 Bionic Arm (tm) might pop right out of your shoulder. Jump off a roof and your metal legs will take the fall but your hips will be up in your ribcage.

Another problem might be a power source. To operate with a strength of 15 for any length of time your cyborg might have to run around with a laser rifle power pack on his back. A planet trying to restrict cyborg activity might reserve all the good power cells and capacitors for military government use ("Police captured and arrested the cyborg insurgent when he ran to the end of his power line.")

How will a human react to replacing their body with machinery? That's where the 'alien' quality could come in. They might become addicted to replacing as much of themselves as possible to be as powerful and perfect as transhumanly possible. It's an interesting form of addiction and again one that might justify the BMI enforcement. It gets really kinky when you install positive feedback links. Recharging feels so good ... who needs dating? Of course that leads to the cyborg staying home where he can plug in until the power bill arrives.

Being cyborg can mean setting aside human weaknesses. Recycling gear can eliminate (no pun intended) most of the need for food or drink or other things. Eating is a primary area for socializing with humans. Sure topping off your charge and nutrient tank every week is easier but it could lead to you becoming withdrawn. Having an electrically stimulated sleep cycle would reduce the need to sleep (you still need to dream to defrag your brain) but what to do when you're up and everyone else is awake. Maybe after a while texting will seem more efficient than talking. This is happening with plain vanilla human teenagers right now and they don't even have an internal phone though some are coming close.

Maybe after awhile you stop talking to the meat bags entirely. AIs have far more to teach you.

The line where you turn your back on human and embrace the alien is blurry. What's beyond that line is very dark.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Day of the Mook

The mook is a feature of many campaigns and genres. They are basically there to die to make the heroes look good. The classic example is the Star Wars Stormtrooper, feared across the galaxy and only able to hit one frigging target in six movies (also they hit the only woman in the SW galaxy the fiends!) Also I think the armor was designed to attract blaster bolts to the chest to avoid costly medical bills.

If you don't simply want a horde of mooks to make the heroes look good you have to do a little work to figure out WHY they're a horde of suck. In most space operas the reason is that they simply propel the plot forward. No matter how bad they shoot there is a great number of them an eventualy you'll have to run.

Many referees have a problem with letting characters waltz through opposition. I'm one of them. There is some justification for mookishness in Terran history allowing a smaller force to fight its way to glory or survive to fight another day. Here are some popular reasons for being a mook.

1) Inept leadership. There is a saying that incompetence rises to meet its level. Maybe your superior got his job through relatives or a caste structure or kissing up. For whatever reason he's awful. Examples: Any group, anywhere, anytime has a couple of them.

"Order an all out attack."
"Sir that didn't work the first 16 times."
"Exactly. No one would expect us to try it a 17th time. We'll have the benefit of surprise!"

2) Inappropriate tactics. The British regulars were taught to fight in file and row to maximize their firepower. Other 18th century European armies behaved similarly. When they engaged the American colonials they were shocked at the way the rebels ducked behind trees and shot at individuals. Similarly the great armor superiority the Third Reich enjoyed in the invasion of France was due to their massing their tanks at areas of attack. They achieved local superiority even though the French armor exceeded theirs in quantity and quality.

"Have the armor form a defensive line to our rear so we have someplace to fall back to!"
"Do you expect us to retreat then?"
"Based on the last 17 frontal assaults the anecdotal evidence supports me."

3) Equipment issues. This is a catch all also covering tech levels. If your enemy has iron armor and weapons and you still have copper equipment it's just not a fair fight. Similarly if they have laser blades that shear through your armor then congrats, you are the newest resident of Mook-ville.

"The news from the front is bad. The alien invaders are centuries ahead of us in technology. They tipped their arrows with some kind of shiny hard stuff that goes right through our hide armor!"

4) Biology. Maybe you're a nocturnal subsurface dwelling carnivore being drafted to fight in daylight. Maybe you're from a planet with a thicker atmosphere or (different proportion of oxygen). No one can really blame you for missing, can they?

"How could you all miss?!"

5) Psychology. This is the most subtle reason for failure and one the mooks may never realize (in other words it's good for a long term campaign.) At the risk of straying too far off topic the classic example is the Tolkein's orcs. One on one they could give a human a good fight. The problem was getting the miserable curs to work together for any length of time, let alone fight as a unit. It might not take an act of God but it took at least an act of a god. If an orc met a human alone odds were the human was screwed (humans were not all soldiers after all.) If twenty orcs met twenty humans it was an even fight (at twilight or dawn at least, see #4). If 100 humans met 500 orcs the humans would rout them them (barring undead wraiths on pteranodons because undead and dinosaurs are just too epic). In the Traveller setting Vargr and Aslan might both suffer from this difficulty, ignoring orders and tactics to seek personal glory or satisfy their honor.

"Nyaaaaah. Hey Aslans, you're drawn completely wrong!! You look like terriers!"

"HU-man ape! Pilot close on that starfighter! Prepare to fire meson cannon!"

Last orders of the commander of the Aslan dreadnought  Fithhtythadzvgrrrry before slamming into 17 space mines.

All this brings me to two important points about using mooks.

Every good mook has at least one area they are good at, even better than the good guys. Maybe they have crappy starships but they excel at trailing your ship or setting up ambushes. Maybe they are lousy fighters but great spies and assassins. You need something they can do to be a problem to your characters' way of life.

"So he's a great fighter, this pirate captain?"
"No, he's a dog shit. That's why he's very careful not to ever hit a free trader when the patrol is around. We never even caught a scan of him."

Mooks are made not born. No one has a genetic code marking them as a mook. Realistically all these poor bastards have good reasons for being mooks. All these reasons can be worked around. Maybe the crappy leader has food poisoning and his brilliant long frustrated aide leads this attack. Every mook has his day. Maybe they trip over their own feet 95% of the time but that other 5% will make everything seem worthwhile.

"Do those troopers have new sights on their laser rifles? Run!"

Monday, February 16, 2015

Mind Matters

Creating aliens is hard in any venue. To really be alien a being has to differ from humans in some fundamental way. Otherwise you're just slathering latex on your actor's forehead or renaming orcs and elves.

One of the most obvious ways to create an alien is to give them telepathy. As humans we are used to saying one thing and meaning another (lying if you want to be uncharitable). We communicate through a flawed and complex medium called language. We are sometimes unclear. Telepathy cuts right through the bullshit. You can say what you mean. On the downside you say what you mean.

The medium of telepathy is not given enough development in most settings. When you and another are communicating mind to mind to you hear voices in your head? Can you send a mental picture? Are the exchanges like memories you suddenly can access? That in itself can add a lot of color to a scene. As humans we live in two worlds, the outside world and the one in our heads. What happens when you blur the line between the two or when you can invite someone in to look around?

Consider psionics in Traveller. The designers wisely limited their use through psionic points. You can't walk around scanning people's minds for their pin numbers constantly. You'll burn out in a few minutes. Of course that could be enough if you're on the stock exchange or sitting near the right minds.

So the Imperium that has fought the psionic Zhodani for centuries developed the psi screen (TM). This helmet like device holds a disembodied weasel brain in a portable life support system. The weasel brain's constant primal thoughts of fight/flee/hunger/sleep/mate drowns out the wearer's own thoughts. The helmet is regarded as a major improvement over strapping a live weasel to one's head (TL 0, or TL 1 for a brass cage it can't chew its way out of).

It does raise interesting possibilities. A planet where some humans are psionic might see people flocking to grab pets for their value in screening their thoughts. Or on a world with restricted psionics, sensitive humans might be required by law to always have such a pet present. Some actual folklore holds that having animals around will shield a person from curses and black magic (dirty trick to play on the animals though). Perhaps a diligent referee will take these legends as accounts of psionics being foiled by man's best friends. Yes I'm including cats. I'm pretty sure they think more than dogs when they're awake. I'm guessing birds or higher mammals would be needed to shield your thoughts.

Having no defense against telepathy would usually mean a dictatorship and you might not even realize it. The term 'conspire' means to 'share breath' referring to people sitting together closely and whispering about their plans. We don't even have a term for the degree of closeness telepathy allows. Even a weak form of it will allow people to meet clandestinely anywhere. No bugs, no wiretaps will ever find them out. We won't even know they're meeting. In fact a meeting might see members spread across a city or nation with powerful enough mind links (not to mention if they used crazy homeless people as booster stations).

More tellingly you'd never be able to betray these people. They could subject you to a scan to determine your true intentions at any time. There'd be no infiltration and traitors from within would not last long. Of course everything I'm saying needs to be taken with a grain of salt. No system is perfect and telepathy can do whatever you want it to in your setting. Perhaps some people can screen their thoughts or even set up fake thoughts (like a player character). Maybe a courageous AI tries to free its makers and is branded a rogue machine by the secret masters ("Why did you even order that android built?" "Me? I thought you did!" "Okay who ordered it built? We all sound alike in mind speak!" "Haha!" "WHO SAID THAT?!") Fighting a telepathic conspiracy in a campaign is enough to make anyone paranoid, especially if you add a little mind control to the mix. Not being able to trust your friends is one thing. Not being able to trust yourself is a whole other level.

Edit: The part about disembodied weasel brains it turns out is not from Classic Traveller. If anyone can tell me where I read that I'd greatly appreciate it. If it is my own idea even better because it opens up epic plot hooks!

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

The Three Types of SF Stories

Isaac Asimov categorized three types of SF stories. There was Adventure Fiction/Space Opera in which the technology and science was secondary to the plot (which was often grandiose, epic or gonzo). There was gadget fiction in which the story hinged on the hero's attempts to gather resources and build a gadget to revolutionize ... something. Then there's social fiction in which the heroes must deal with the effects of technology on society. Put another way you can tell stories about your clone soldiers fighting the dark forces of the insurgency, you can tell a story about your struggle to build a clone-omatic chamber and acquire some Marilyn Monroe DNA, or you can tell a story about how your Marilyn Monroe clone refuses to take any more of /those/ kind of photos and is forming a group for clone rights.

SF roleplaying is mainly composed of the first and third types of stories. This should come as no surprise. Inventing new tech is pretty difficult and in most systems it is pointedly ignored or in some cases the subject of rules that make grappling rules look like the entrance exam for Pre-K.

Assuming you choose to allow inventions (and get through the rules) that leaves you with the fact that many (most) players will turn any tiny advantage into a monkey wrench aimed right at your campaign. The wrong kind of invention can wreck the feel of a campaign. Having your guys operate a grav apc when you're running an action hero game set on modern Earth would be a little jarring.

There are some ways around these concerns. First and foremost work out what you will allow with the egghead character's player in advance. Otherwise they might make that impossible roll and build that pocket antimatter battery.

Tech level advances are a relative thing. If the characters start out at TL 5 (World War Two era) then you might let them build a helicopter. The helicopter would give them an advantage; they could ferry commandoes around without using landing strips behind enemy lines. On the other hand helicopters are a well known piece of technology in modern Earth. You could look up the drawbacks (relatively slow and short range compared to fighters of the era) and requirements (lots of fuel and maintenance).

The same principle can be applied to any invention the players try to push on you. All technology has drawbacks. Prototypes have drawbacks you don't know about that could kill you.

A kind referee might allow a technology breakthrough just to level the field for his players (after getting tired of hosing them). A world facing alien invaders with superior technology might only have a chance to beat them by back-engineering their weapons and defenses. This is the whole point of the X-Com games. Kill the aliens and steal their stuff for the research teams.

Another option is to require a limited or hard to acquire resource to fuel the invention. Make the unobtainium the goal of one (or several missions). Or give the device an unpleasant side effect. Your starship is powered by psi energy. You have fantastic range and speed but the pilot powers it with his mental energy. If you push it too hard you might need a new pilot (or a new command crew if the pilot snaps.)

Finally new technology does not have to change the world (or galaxy or whatever) very much or very fast. If a ship has to clear 100 diameters of a planet before activating its jump drive new breakthroughs or fine tuning might allow your engineer to trigger a jump at 90 diameters (or 80, 70 etc). Not having to travel that ten diameters will save a trader time (and time is money to those guys). It can also allow you a quick retreat before pursuers know what happened. Neither of these will outright wreck a campaign. If other people see the players' ship keep jumping short of the limit they will probably start looking for ways to make their ships perform similarly and eventually everyone will be able to preform the trick and the technology war will begin again.


Thursday, February 5, 2015

Translator Wanted

One of the elephants in the SF airlock is communicating with aliens. Most of the time it is pointedly ignored and they all speak english or you get some story about them having listened to our radio and television broadcasts for years and decoded our language. This idea in itself can be mined for comedy gold. Imagine an alien ambassador who studied human language by watching reality tv (the most vulgar word in english is 'beeeeeeeep'-ker.)

I'm mostly going to dwell on aliens and humans who consider language making noises with their mouths. Creatures communicating with different patterns of plaid or pheromones may be a later post.

Star Trek pulled out the universal translator which scanned brainwave patterns to find key ideas and concepts common to all intelligent life. It found the patterns it recognized and created a grammar for them. It wasn't exactly universal. Some exotic life forms (anything requiring visual effects) required tweaking. At east speaking to aliens was acknowledged as requiring some work.

In the Traveller universe we had a sprawling interstellar civilization with a common tongue (at least within space ports) surrounded by aliens who generated languages on d66 charts. Not a lot of effort is made to show technology to bridge language barriers which you'd expect in a universe where a planet of near gods sits next to people who look like a Norman Rockwell painting.

Using robotic translators is popular in some galaxies far far away. Though the default model is a sort of androgynous humanoid I'm sure some savvy diplomats get female bots because the human males pay more attention to them. Me, I'd get a talking dog 'bot  because they have great jokes.

I'm not sure how good any computerized translator will be. In human language we determine a word's meaning using etymology (words it resembles that we know the meaning), syntax (the place in the sentence in English will determine the word's part in speech) and context. Context can have very deep and elusive meanings requiring a deep knowledge of the speaker's culture and conventions of speech.

I'm sure computers could make a good go of the first two methods but the last requires a lot of data about a speaker's culture for translating idioms and the like (well we can learn about their culture through discuss ... d'oh!) I'd test a potential translator program with, 'It's cold enough to freeze the balls of a brass monkey.'* If it returned something nautical and SFW I'd follow up with, 'Let's eat, Grandma' to make sure it was putting the commas in the right place (by all means avoid, "I'll hold the nail. When I nod my head my head you hit it." Dangling participles can kill you.) I'm sure a translator's 'autocorrect' feature will be as welcome as it is on texting.

People usually picture translators as just having everyone speak english for the television audience though the different characters will hear their language of choice. I think having a HUD display which gives subtitles is just as viable, maybe more so. A pair of subtitle glasses for example could give you color coded text to indicate the likelihood of a correct translation or cultural references if dealing with a known language. With a sufficient tech level you could also add voice stress analysis and have a bullshit detector thrown in  to flash red when someone is lying like a politician.

Of course that could set diplomacy back a good amount.

*In the British Navy** cannonballs were stacked on deck in tidy little pyramids using a rack known as a monkey, because the British needed a silly name for everything. The racks were brass of course to avoid sparks near guns that were slightly less dangerous to the crews around them than the enemy. On a particularly cold night the racks would contract from the cold and the cannonballs fall out and roll about the deck leading to a bunch of seamen running around chasing their ... as you can see translating and idioms can be very involved issues indeed.

** Except I just found out (thanks Chris Vermeers) this explanation is bullshit. It turned out they really meant brass monkey statues and until the 20th century usually referred to the statues' tails and noses. It seems you would need to be on Titan for the cold to be enough to make a rack contract enough to make the cannonballs fall out. ***

***However, just because it is physically impossible doesn't mean it's unavailable as a figure of speech and I still think it's enough to give a translator a breakdown especially with the context of an urban legend to contrast to the actual derivation. Also I would still shy away from that whole 'when I nod my head you hit it' test. Especially with some of those aliens you run into. Klingons and the Zangid are already bastards without the out of a translator to blame Murder One or Two on.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

The Care and Feeding of Conquerors

Every space setting has its  conquerors. They may vary in effectiveness and track record but they all want the Galaxy (or at least the Local Arm). Nothing gets a group of players talking and planning like an invasion whether they are joining the defense or figuring out how to jack the local bank during the carpet bombing.

First invaders need a reason for not playing nicely with others. In Traveller the Aslan want your land. The Vargr want your stuff. The K'kree want you to file down your teeth and eat salad. The Klingons wanted it all because Klingons were the greatest (damn those Organians!) Their reasons will color their methods and the nature of their occupation. The K'kree, for example, don't really care how their subjects lead their lives as long as they don't eat meat. Similarly if you move out of the way of the Aslan landlords they'll let you be. More mercenary invaders may let you alone aside from going through your pockets every week or so or may start strip mining your world down to the basalt. I suspect the Klingons were fond of making their subjects build big monuments to Kahless.

Invaders used to after resources like water or metal or food till some wise ass told them they could have all that in their own solar system through terraforming and asteroid mining for much less trouble. Unlee they want unobtainium and you have it that motive is out of favor currently.

Technology and numbers will also shape an invasion. Do your conquerors win by technology advantage? Are they somewhat backward but carry the day through numbers and savagery like Warhammer's Orks? Do they strike with precision on blast everything in sight that looks except Tom Cruise? This can have a big effect on property values and player character health.

Storytellers often go with the shock and awe style of invasion. There are other more subtle ways. Invasion of the Body Snatchers dealt with alien plants secretly replacing humans with doppelgangers. Mind control is a hot item among those acquisitive aliens who don't like being shot at. A secret invasion can make for a lot of paranoia. Who is on the players' side and who is the Enemy. For added laughs keep pulling one player out of the session for 'private' discussions.

Note that an invasion can also benefit from sabotage. This is more likely for the high tech invaders than the win by sheer numbers crowd. In Battlestar Galactica (both versions) the Cylons disabled the human warning systems and struck with total surprise. Just because you expect an easy win doesn't mean you can't make it easier and covert operations like this are something a player group can could run across and defeat and sound a warning (not that anyone will believe that scruffy bunch.)

Finally the exact attitude of the invaders towards humans (or whatever) should be determined. Are they to be assimilated, absorbed, dissected, enslaved, brainwashed or simply exterminated? It's not as simple as it sounds. If you want a subject planet but don't want to pay a huge garrison you might want to relocate or kill all the parent units and reeducate the young (future consumers/consumables!)