Sunday, September 29, 2013

Real Men Use Kinetic Energy to Kill

Traveller has been referred to as hard sf which is interesting for a game with FTL, psionics and reactionless drives. I always thought the reason for that was in the nuances. For example instead of blasters or other rayguns the weapons consist mainly of slugthrowers. Yep, board a ship in Traveller and you're liable to get shotgunned or similarly riddled with bullets till the air pouring from your vacc suit makes you sound like an convulsing bagpipe player. The game's designer defends this concept very eloquently: a bullet is a simple and efficient way to kill a person and likely to be around for a long time.

Energy weapons make two appearances in Classic Traveller, the laser carbine and laser rifle and they are quite impressive and believable. An early laser carbine makes its appearance at TL 8 presumably for sniping or as an amped up targeting system. By TL 9 a culture has developed lasers as their battlefield weapons of choice and developed ablative armor to defend against them. Since laser weapons punch through cloth armor (the defense of choice at TL7-8) a TL 9 soldier tackling a slugthrower wielding warrior in ballistic cloth is at a distinct advantage (laser rifle vs. flak jacket at medium range 3+ to hit, automatic rifle vs. combat environment 8+ to hit.) I like to imagine shiny stormtroopers invading and zapping befuddled ground troops.

But at TL 10 something strange happens. For one thing the flak jackets and cloth armor of earlier tech levels becomes combat environment armor and more effective. More importantly reflec armor appears which works deliriously well against lasers and can be worn with other armors. Laser weapons are replaced by the advanced combat rifle (ACR.) The ACR firing discarding sabot rolls 5+ to hit a flak jacket or 7+ to hit shiny ablative while the stormtrooper's laser rifle must roll a 15+ to hit a trooper in reflec at medium range.

So our invading shiny legions run across a TL 10 culture they might view their slugthrowers with contempt and sneer at their humble bds, till they get holed by the ACR rounds and their laser beams are deflected by the reflec worn under the humble bds.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

More on Minicosms

For the record I got the idea for minicosms (see Space: 2099 post) from the game Diaspora and an article in White Dwarf (can't find the issue sorry) by Marcus Rowland. You should check out Diaspora and anything by Mr. Rowland. The Alderson Drive used in Jerry Pournelle's Co-Dominium series is somewhat similar.

The idea of minicosms is that a group of stars is very closed in jump space for various esoteric (handwaved) reasons that don't have much bearing on their real space locations. Alpha Centauri might be very close to a star in the galactic core for example but Earth might be nearly impossible to reach.

Minicosms take the form of polyhedra with their component stars scattered across their surface. The most common form is a dodecahedron (sphere really.) Other shapes exist and I'll work them out if this game has any legs (a tetrahedron or torus would be awesome!) Unlike Classic Traveller in which a jump drive was measured in parsecs of range a jump is referred to as a stage. Stars one hex away on a map may be thousands of light years apart (a few dozen commonly.) The stage refers to the number of hexes you move on the map, not your real space travels (a minor but important distinction.) A minicosm might be composed entirely of a giant blue star and the four or five stars that are its far companions. A speedy maneuver drive could get you to all of them in a few weeks or months but the gravitational and electromagnetic interactions could make jumps a higher stage than your drive can perform.

Minicosms have one or more gates to other minicosms. They can be one way. They are generally a stage 2 jump. Hit the right button in the right star system and bang you're someplace very different. Gates generally link stars of the same or similar type.

Jump drives use a lot of hydrogen (10% of ship's displacement per stage number.) During the jump you're venting the hydrogen continuously to keep a bubble of semi-normal space around your ship. Jump space energy wants to get at your ship and will break down any normal matter except hydrogen (which is as basic as you can get, one proton.) Using other elements as fuel will result in radiation that can harm your ship. So you try to keep your hydrogen pretty pure. Using tainted hydrogen can cause radiation damage or worse allow jump space into your ship. More on that later. At the very least radiation and energy surges could throw your jump off course.

A jump takes one week as in Classic Traveller. It takes that long for you to create a path in jump space and exit it carefully.  There are no (publicly known) forms of ftl communications other than taking a letter onboard a ship.

Next Up: The Toys.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Brother Alien

One of the tropes of many space opera settings (especially Traveller) is the scattering of primitive humans across the galaxy by an advanced alien race. Over the thousands of years in unusual environments some of these races may evolve strange abilities, morphologies and cultures. It worked for The Legion of Super Heroes. Battlestar Galactica did away with the alien travel agency entirely and simply assumed the humans somehow lost most of their technology after reaching Earth or wherever.

The benefits to using this trope is that you don't have to create an alien race from scratch (which is a lot of work) and you don't have to worry that your new race isn't weird enough.

After all they are human.

The problems with this approach is that you seldom get any clue why some advanced culture would take a bunch of cavemen (or Romans etc.) and plop them down on another planet let alone a whole bunch of planets. Some reasons:

1) Labor force- Humans are adaptable and show high initiative. On the other hand robots don't need life support, quarters, and toys. Also do you really want to teach a bunch of knuckle draggers how to operate your mining lasers?

2) Mercenaries- Some people feel humans have a talent for warfare. A race of advanced sissies might want us to fight their wars for them. This has the same drawbacks as reason 1 and giving the knuckle draggers actual weapons is even more dangerous.

3) Spare parts- This assumes the aliens seeded Earth with life and guided a lot of our evolution. They can use our blood, organs and such and want us for medical supplies. Or maybe it's merely one branch of humanity that developed spaceflight after being dumped somewhere. The drawbacks are less obvious but we're moving away from transplants now by developing stem cell therapy and we may be cloning transplant materials soon.

4) Artisans- Humans possess a skill or perspective the aliens liked. Maybe the galaxy is seeded with troupes of ballet dancers or impressionist painters or sculptors. You don't need to teach artists or entertainers your technology. When the alien patrons die off or leave the humans are left to develop technology all alone. Unless the aliens have them sculpting with mining lasers.

5) Pets/servants- Maybe having a human around the house was a status symbol (more points for a redhead which is why they're so rare here on Earth.) Maybe humans were a form of currency. They spread them thin to keep breeding populations low and avoid inflation.

6) Conservation- Humanity was nearly wiped out by geological disasters at least once. Maybe some kind aliens will transplant some of our brothers to other worlds to insure our survival.

7) It's an experiment- The aliens never went away. They are keeping a low profile and observing humanity in all its forms.

Comments are welcome.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Fermi Paradox and Roleplay

If I'm going to do my take on a Traveller setting I think I ought to ponder the Fermi Paradox. This basically asks, "Where the hell are all the <censored> the aliens?" In an ancient and vast universe where is all the intelligent life?

Most answers to this problem involve most of the aliens blowing themselves up before colonizing the galaxy. That's kind of a pessimistic view. It means that all these aliens managed to destroy themselves without ever managing to create at least one offworld colony to survive their equivalent of World War Three. It also means that our intrepid explorers will encounter many radioactive cinders with little of interest besides tech a few centuries out of date.

Perhaps instead races usually develop interstellar travel after they already reached some new level of intelligence (or even a new kind of existence.) Humanity might be one of those very rare precocious races to find their way into FTL and discover a universe full off ancient brooding ruins and younger pre-starflight cultures. If the ancients are around obviously they aren't interested in talking to the likes of us or exploring anymore (they already know where everything is.) They'd probably view attempts by us to contact them as we would a caveman entering our home and playing with our pc.

So the rare starflight capable younger unevolved races would have centuries or millennia of empire building before they too achieved this ascension and left our universe or turned inward (leaving all kinds of goodies for pcs to find.) Races building interstellar empires like us would be fairly rare and hundreds or thousands of light years apart (considering we've had radio for over a hundred years the minimum average distance must be over 100 light years.) At the very least empires would be months or years of travel apart even at FTL speed and have many minor races within them.

Sounds interesting.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Space 2099

Reimagining 70's SF tv series like Battlestar Gaactica has become popular lately. I was trying to rework Space: 1999 which much like Galactica started with a cool premise but took far too many liberties with physics (to quote Isaac Asimov, "Moons don't do that!) and had a few problems with execution.

Space 2099: mankind has moved out into the solar system with fusion drive ships. capturing asteroids and bringing them into Earth orbit for mining is a booming industry. Nevertheless Earth is facing stiff competition from miners in the Asteroid Belt and on Luna and negotiations for mining rights to the Jovian moons are breaking down. It is a tense situation and industrial sabotage and spying is rife.

Asteroid Base Alpha is one asteroid and rumored to be the site of a very rich strike. Without warning the base suddenly is closed to ships and a new commander is called in.

Arriving at the base the commander discovers the rumors are a cover for the high security. Scientists at the base may have discovered a faster than light drive. Such a drive would open up the universe to Earth and break the outer worlds' advantages.

The problem is the outer worlds are aware something is up and want the drive. The commander has to deal with spies and sabotage and in the end a group of attack ships closes in on Base Alpha to seize the research. In the course of the attack the prototype drive is triggered (the head scientist panicked.)

Base Alpha finds itself transported to a minicosm: a group of stars linked together closely in hyperspace. The cluster's hyper lanes are closed. Using an FTL drive there are only a few lanes into or out of the minicosm. Alpha's drive can be triggered again letting them explore the minicosm but they have to travel through it to find the hyper route out. So they do, hoping to find the route back to Earth. Alpha has to travel through as many minicosms as the story demands till they find their way back to Earth.

Basically some rare systems in each minicosm link it to other minicosms. Some of the links only work one way (like the first link in the Solar system to the first minicosm.) The clusters the base visits can be as close or from Earth as the story demands. Traveling between the minicosms is not as easy to predict as travel within the minicosm.

As for what they find in the galaxy...

Monday, September 9, 2013

Reinventing Traveller

I began reading some old school articles about Traveller. When I say Traveller, I refer to the bare bones 3 LBB set, better known as Classic Traveller or CT (here in New York CT has a much less flattering bit of slang associated with it so it's always going to be just Traveller.)

I used to love this game. I must have run a half dozen campaigns in it before immature schmuck that I was I decided I didn't like the armor affects hit chances mechanics and a few other trivial rules and got into FASA's Star Trek. Traveller kept bringing me back in, especially when they fooled with the combat system.

Now I'm older and (hopefully) wiser and have far too little time to read a 400+ page book to learn a new game and I broke out my LBBs, bought some new pdfs and started reading old articles.

One of the things I'd tweak if I get a chance to run another game is the travel system. As it stands you have to travel weeks and weeks to get beyond explored space wherever you are. Most campaigns won't last the three years it takes to cross say the Third Imperium. If you're dealing with Aslan, then they're pretty much going to be a fixture, period. Want to make a run into K'kree or Hiver space? Get ready to travel.

Yes I know that is the point in the game but long stretches of jumping and refueling will get tedious and eventually the players will get impatient and not want to check out all the interesting stuff you're setting up. They'll want to get the hell to the destination. Plus there's plenty of really wild stretches of space: nebulae, clusters etc that are very far away.

You could just up the range of the jump drive but that's way to easy for me. Instead I'd opt for the venerable space warp. Maybe there are a bunch of them strung across the galaxy. So each warp could cover an arbitrarily large distance. Outside the warp ships move according to classic j-drive rules (or stutter warp if you must.) So one session you're in a sector located in the halo stars. the next you're in a cluster with a dozen stars in each hex.

I'd add one more flavor of weird to this. Some space warps lead to closed clusters. Not only do the warps only work one way (with intermittent exit warps opening randomly) the subsector wraps around itself (at least in terms of jump space.) Jump off the edge and you'd find yourself entering the same subsector on the side. These clusters can develop all manner of weird cultures due to their isolation. Finding an exit can be an adventure in itself. Finally some space warps just appear out of nowhere leading to all sorts of possibilities.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Steampunk in Five Points

Continuing my gritty steampunk setting what are the themes/tropes/memes etc? I have points to make (Five Points ... manhattan get it? No? Then go watch Copper on BBC and get a DVD of Gangs of New York.)

Point 1 This steampunk is close to its roots - cyberpunk! You're either very rich and trying to get richer or very poor and looking to get very rich. Everyone is hungry. The street urchins want their next meal. The robber barons want bigger profits. Industry wants coal and steel. The army wants men.

Point 2 Life is cheap. Death is everywhere. Confederates and anarchist are alway attempting what today would be called terror attacks. There's someone looking to roll you on every corner and that's just everyday life! Let's not even get into the what the Astors or Vanderbilts will do if you mess with their bottom line. In addition most medicine is pretty primitive apart from prosthetics or mad science. they can't treat TB but they can keep your brain alive in a jar if you can pay or replace that lost arm with a brass one (chrome is cyberpunk, brass is steampunk.)

Point 3 Information Overload. Kinescopes hawk wares and show war scenes. Pneumatic tubes whisk mail everywhere. The city is a tangle of dangerous telegraph lines (see Point 2.) Newsies peddle papers on every corner and also pamphlets, brochures and flyers. Picture human and paper spam keeping you from thinking as you walk.

Point 4 Corruption. The bigger or more important an institution is the more evil it is. The corner pharmacist may be okay, patch you up and keep his mouth shut for a suitable wage. The young inventor with a small company will give you up to advance himself. The big companies regard everyone as a tool to be used as long as they're bringing in profits. The British Empire and most other governments ... you do the math.

Point 5 Technology increases at a frightful pace. The Civil War goes on. It started with cannons and muskets. Now heat rays steam powered battlesuits run wild. The Union blockade of the Confederacy is defeated by the rebels' submarines and airships. Every week brings new advances and a way to use them in a scam or crime.