The Cold Stars Shone in Mockery

November 7, 2016
Kapcon registration has gone live, so I will do another post on progress with the Colossus of Atlantis meagagme soon. In the meantime, here are my musings on running a SF campaign next year, based on an email I sent out to my current play group.
Feedback I have on what my players want in an SF game:
  • the current campaign’s episodic/story arc structure seems to work well
  • party should have access to a ship, not be stuck on a station or planet
  • a mix of aliens is okay
  • posthuman/transhuman elements are worth a look.

I was recommended to watch Dark Matter (party wakes up on a spaceship with no memories, the ship has a cargo of weapons and some locked doors) and the Expanse (for a greater dose of realism in space). My recommended reading to my players was Altered Carbon (FTL is only possible via uploaded minds, central protagonist is an Envoy, a type of troubleshooter trained to use whatever tools are available to solve problems). Other media recommendations are most welcome. The title of the post is from a line in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. My current go to place for insight on spaceships and SF tropes is the Atomic Rockets website.

jeffbrown_cover

Art from Starvation Cheap by Sine Nomine Publishing

System

Past feedback was that some of my players would prefer not to use a D100 system in the next campaign (so that rules out Eclipse Phase, River of Heaven, Revolution D100 or M-Space). One issue identified was never actually feeling like your characters were competent, or not being able to judge your relative competency against opponents, which was really brought home by watching how an 80% Endurance skill meant next to nothing if the blow taking you down was a critical hit (you had to both roll a critical yourself, and have it exceed your foe’s roll, so that 80% baseline skill might only end up with a 3% chance of success). I have also found a few elements of the RQ6/Mythras system to be fiddly (adjusting skill chance by dividing/multiplying skill level, a lot of die rolls lead to boring outcomes, and choosing combat effects after the skill roll is made is an immersion crushing waste of time). I do have some ideas to retool D100, but that would take some work.
I have backed, but not yet received a few SF kickstarters, which might arrive early next year:
  • Bulldogs! (Fate based courier missions/salvage teams)
  • Mindjammer (Traveller based agents for the Culture-like Commonality in a universe where thousands of years of STL colonisation happened, and FTL is only a few centuries old)
  • Coriolis (Firefly meets Arabian nights, with mysticism in the dark voids of space)
  • SF ports of Blades in the Dark (Apocalypse World derived system that is probably the most mind bending system I have read in the last year or two)
I have a few other SF games lying around, mostly in PDF format:
  • Firefly (Cortex+ dice pool system)
  • Edge of Empire (Star Wars dice pool system)
  • Stars Without Number (old D&D in space)
  • Strontium Dog (Traveller, focus on mutations and bounty hunting)
  • Nova Praxis (Fate)
  • Cepheus (OSR Traveller clone)
  • Fading Suns (D20 decadent nobles in a declining empire)
  • Rocket Age (retro 30s pulp)
  • Eldritch Skies (Savage Worlds, near future with Cthulhu)
  • Numenera (Cypher D20 system)
  • Night Witches (okay its a WWII game powered by the Apoclaypse, but on reading it I thought its completely adaptable to a SF game where everyone is a fighter pilot on the losing side of the Great Patriotic Space War)
The problem with nearly every SF game that tries to handle transhumanism, is that there is lots of paperwork when shifting bodies, and its pointless to spend character generation resources on physical attributes, when you can buy better in-game. As such I don’t think any first generation lineage game engine can cut it. Eclipse Phase is weirdly over complicated for what it tries to do. Zak Sabbath had a simpler OSR take on this issue.
I lean towards something more descriptive, like Cortex+ or Fate, but that means buying into the abstractness of plot point meta currency systems, and being in tune with not trying to track every last plasma round and credit chip. The alternative is to drop the mind uploading/body hopping aspects of transhumanism. If I did that, then I might build the combat engine around fighting to the point where the PCs combat armour is knocked out, rather than fighting to the point where carbonised brains splatter the bulkheads. At which point why not go full Mecha?
None of the Apocalypse World hacks for SF look like a finished product to me.
So far I am not sold on any particular game engine – more suggestions are welcome. Systems I have not looked at much include:
  • Ashen Stars (Gumshoe variant, good for investigations)
  • Fragged Empire (creatures created by humans after humanity’s fall)
  • Polaris (a French game, looks blue)
  • Corvus Belli Infinity (a 2d20 roll under Target Number game , so I have some familiarity with that from Conan, and its going to be used for the John Carter of Mars game as well).
I am not fond of the level of detail and 3d6 systems used in GURPS/HERO systems. After playing Dragon Age and D20, I am not fond of hit point bloat systems, so while I could retool Fantasy Age into “Space Age”, that would take some work. I don’t see any ports of 13th Age into an SF setting yet either.
Do you have a system recommendation, or preference for one of the above game systems?
The Cold Stars Setting
I am thinking of mixing the following:
  • Earth colonised by aliens, like the British Raj, there has been some uplift, but much of the alien ways remain incomprehensible
  • At least one group of aliens has mucked around with humans and enabled psionic powers (its a way to establish character exceptionalism), and the concept of a psionic gestalt could provide another reason for why the PCs are in a party together
  • Several powerful alien races, and an ongoing cold war, and humans can be clients to various alien patrons, so there is background tension, espionage, boundaries that are forbidden to cross, Casablanca zones, and no one wants a war to break out with dinosaur killer level kinetic weapons
  • FTL: entry into FTL space is easy, the hard part is getting out again – you need to home in on a beacon signal or specific type of variable star signature, before the heat build up inside your ship kills you.
  • The characters are specialists in dealing with colony worlds where the beacons go dark, so they have a good ship and a job that gets them into trouble. They also have a license that keeps all of their high tech equipment functional, but if they go dark themselves, then it all stops working four weeks later when it realises it has not received the latest security update.
A Future History
The Tough Guide to the Known Galaxy has future history as a colonisation-empire-collapse pattern, although it assumes that human beings will be doing the colonising. TvTropes also has a standard future history, similar to the above and a standard Sci-Fi setting. The “Consensus Cosmogony” (to use Donald A. Wollheim’s phrase) is as follows:
  1. Exploration and colonisation of the Solar System
  2. World War III
  3. Interstellar exploration and colonisation
  4. First contact with aliens
  5. The cycle of empires
  6. The final empire
  7. Humanity’s final fate (these days its likely to be some kind of singularity ascendance, in the old days it was white togas and flared shoulders for everybody).
The key insight here, is that most visions of the future recycle the past. Not every SF work follows this pattern. In Andre Norton’s “Star Guard“, humans are only allowed off Earth to act as mercenaries for other aliens, and this occurs in quite a few other series, such as Jerry Purnelle’s “Janissaries” books. In The Course of Empire, by Eric Flint and K. D. Wentworth, humans are sepoy soldiers for aliens who have conquered Earth. Which is getting closer to what I want for a setting I think.
The Raj Pattern
The Raj Pattern for Sci-fi could be summarised as:
  1. Present day – human princes feud among themselves, while in the background the planet begins to burn from climate change
  2. First contact – aliens become involved in trade with Earth, and by “divide and rule” tactics quickly establish permanent outposts
  3. Alien influence grows as governments outsource their core functions in exchange for trinkets and longevity
  4. Alien influence consolidated in corporate governance that effectively controls all taxation on most of Earth
  5. Human rebellion/mutiny against their alien corporate overlords is quashed
  6. The real alien government turns up and implements direct rule, while still trying to help the poor primitive apes to ascend the ladder of civilisation
  7. The Great Big Space War – humans have a choice, help their alien overlords, passive resistance, or active rebellion.
  8. Independence?
In terms of how it relates to PCs, its the value/loyalty choice in step seven. At any other point of the cycle prior to that, the smart money is on the aliens.
I am thinking that a lifepath character generation system makes some sense, if it gets player engagement with the setting. Traveller used to have as a feature death in character generation. In a Transhuman setting, you could have a conflict that causes players to roll 1d10 to see how many times their character was KIA and restored from backup.
Espionage
I found a few blog posts on espionage in SF. Sadly the series does not seem to have been concluded. Its key points:
  • spy stories are about tension, in particular, they are about middle class apprehensions, the current threats to personal comfort
  • part of the tension comes from familiarity with the world – and SF worlds will inherently be unfamiliar (even if they do adopt the Consensus Cosmogony)
  • there are two strategies for coping with this:
    • stress glamorous, exotic locales, so in SF, ham up the alien and the weird
    • focus on quotidian elements, so in SF, keep it human and current tech
  • using technological Macguffins leads you into Technothriller territory (which tend to be more black/white morality than the grey quotidian novels which draw on the threat of betrayal to ramp up tension)
  • in speculative fiction, “while the underlying themes may get representation in the narrative’s plot, it is harder to overlay those themes onto our real world because their relationship to our world is more oblique”
I did a search for Cold War rpgs a while back, and found a few – most of which had an occult focus with the Cthulhu Mythos or similar. I suspect its harder to do the betrayal theme in a long running campaign with the 4-6 players you usually have in a tabletop campaign. If a Firefly game can be summarised as “get a job, stay flying”, then an espionage focused Cold Stars game could be described as “find a secret, stay alive”.
Cold Wars
Being old enough to remember watching the Berlin Wall come down, just in time for my end of year Political Science exam on the Cold War, I can remember the fear of nuclear war. Its abated today, and shifted to the rogue state. So in an rpg reflecting modern fears, its not so much the alien invasion, its the one shot dinosaur killer strike from a splinter faction or rogue captain with a ship and an FTL drive (which is the key problem with reactionless drives, every merchant captain controls a world killer).
A thought a had a while back, to represent this tension, is to just ask the players if the world ends in fire at the end of every game session., if any of the players says ‘yes”, then the campaign is over. Time to move on to a post-apocalyptic game?
Technology in the Future
Currently on Earth, technological change is increasing at an exponential rate. It is increasingly difficult, even for experts, to remain on top of this change. This makes SF games date quickly. It also means that any single person trying to figure out how people will behave and what physical items will look like in the future has some problems. I have a few present-day topics that I want to explore:
  • social inequality
  • automation
  • 3-D printing
  • the shared economy
Social Inequality
One reason to have aliens in the setting is to create an “upper class” that human characters can never truly be part of. I have a couple of different ideas for implementing this mechanically in the game. One is to have the players roll dice to see which one of them has a privileged background. That character starts with property and cash. All the other characters start in debt. Another is to invert the benefit table from Traveller, with each term of service prior to start of play leading your character ever deeper into debt.
Automation
The future of warfare is likely to involve human-machine teams, where the sharp end of conflict is conducted at machine speeds. Human decisions remain important for starting and ending conflicts, and for resolving complex situations not anticipated by software. In space warfare, I simply don’t see any reason why humans would be climbing into turrets to shoot at piloted fighter craft in line-of-sight ranges. Machines will do that job better than we can. The important human decision is around hiding, running away, starting the fight, or trying to surrender before the ship explodes. In other fields, I think close quarters urban fighting is likely to remain a human skill set, but everyone will be using drones to make their perception checks, and calling in precise-strikes from networked assets.
One idea I had for implementing automation in combat is to make the PCs make a survival check in each round of combat. The PC with the worst roll takes one point of damage per combat round, e.g. in round three they take three points of damage. If you can’t win quickly and break the enemy’s lock on your location, you need to run before the rest of the drone swarm turns up. At any rate, I think SF games need to move beyond replicating World War II or Vietnam in space.
3-D Printing
I had this idea of disposable spaceships. Order it, a 3-D printer makes it, its engines are good for a few jumps, then you recycle it when you dock because that is cheaper than paying the docking fees for three days. Amusing, but I suspect players prefer a more permanent home. It would be a universe where you only own what you choose to carry. Escalated to a mass scale, it gets you lots of small starter colonies that no longer have functioning spaceships, and are always interested in imports of up to date printing templates and OEM printer gunk.
Shared Economy
This flows from automation, the current trends in copyright and licensing, and social inequality (I donate money to EFF.org to try and stop this from happening). While there will always be work for humans, the amount of work that will propel people into the property owning class will diminish. Everyone else will end up using major items on a time share basis, with no true ownership.
What the characters spend their time on is pretty important, as different games will vary the emphasis on:
  • trading, aka spreadsheets in space
  • movement between points in space, is it routine or risky
  • fine tuning gear, aka more spreadsheets in space
  • relationships between characters, love and hate in a tin can
  • character archetypes – broad roles and competencies
  • character skills – specific competencies, less niche protection
  • old school character attributes (strength, charisma etc)
  • character values – passions, drives, triggers.

I asked my players what they preferred to do in games. For the most part my campaigns have been old school (there have been dungeons, monsters and loot) with the addition of lots of social action with NPCs and grey morality – hopefully giving the players meaningful choices about who their friends and enemies are, and whether they are heroes or “the baddies”. I am still thinking a lot about what the core character activities in a Cold War in Space game should be.


How the Bundle of Holding is influencing my game design

March 3, 2015

I have a problem with the Bundle of Holding. I am buying new roleplaying games faster than I can read them. This is forcing me to curtail a slow reading of all the gaming goodness I am downloading off the internet. It also means that if a book I am reading is failing to catch my attention and set fire to my imagination, the temptation to close the file and pick another one is strong.

One of the things that is really striking, is that when a game uses something incredibly familiar, such as a task resolution system based on “Die Roll + Attribute + Skill”, then it really needs something in its theme, setting, or another mechanic that it incorporates in a novel way.  Of course, too much in the way of unfamiliar setting, character roles and mechanics makes me want to read something else as well. One of the game design books I read recently put it succinctly as “Same, but different”.

Today I thought roleplaying games are a bit like crimes. You need all three of:

  1. Motive – what exactly is the design intent for the player characters, mighty-thewed heroes or pluck investigators doomed to insanity? Its really nice to have something beyond “You all meet in a tavern, an old man approaches you…”  Yes, as GM I can establish a reason for the players to be together, but its good when the game is inherently designed to gel the party together, and keep them together long term.
  2. Method – what tools are the mechanics giving the players for interacting with the world? Fortune’s Fool used a Tarot deck to resolve all matters of chance and conflict in the game, and I loved how in character generation you could build a character who was lucky or really skilled in different ways.  The Edara: A Steampunk Renaissance game, used a”d12 + Attribute + Skill” and I could easily skip 90% of the mechanic rule chapters because I have seen it all before in a hundred different game systems.
  3. Opportunity – what does the setting let us do that we cannot already do elsewhere? Its really hard these days to try and find a genre that has not already been well covered in the last four decades of roleplaying game design. The market for genre mash-ups is also becoming pretty saturated (Zombies and Flavour of the Month, I am so over zombies). When people do come up with a really good new motive or method for roleplaying, you can see the subsequent spin-offs as its developed for expression in every conceivable gaming setting.

The sign of a good game is that you want to immediately use one of its motive, method, or opportunity design elements in a game you run in the future. The sign of a great game is that you don’t dare divorce any of these elements from the other for fear that the magic will fade away.

I am not sure how well my current roleplaying campaign manages “Same, but different”, although it is meeting the key litmus test of the players have fun, keep turning up, talk about the game between sessions, and are sad when they have to miss a session due to other commitments.

  1. Motive – the players are agents of Tarantium, members of a musketeer regiment used by the Imperial government for all those plausibly deniable missions. I avoided the constraints of a strictly military campaign (players having to obey orders from NPCs) by having most of their “episodes” involve away missions with vague orders and a lot of latitude for making their own decisions.
  2. Method – I used Runequest VI, because its a system I can intuitively design in without working too hard. Nothing too original in my adaptations, adding muskets to the standard Renaissance swords and armour, a mechanic similar to Call of Cthulhu’s sanity rules, and giving the players a range of social organisations to belong too for some roleplaying flavour and niche difference.
  3. Opportunity – I really wanted to run a setting with flying cities and a high magic feel, and I was dissatisfied with the published “flying fantasy” game books. I did all the background maths to make sure that the food and logistics/politics of the setting made sense (not that I would dare bore the players with crop yields and river boat cargo volumes). This meant I made a game based around “Go somewhere interesting, do something dangerous, go home and report, then take a month off to recover”.

My current roleplaying game design thoughts have been focused on a transhuman setting, where an alien Empire has colonised Earth in much the same way the United Kingdom established the Raj in India (one part commerce, two parts corruption, one part conflict, one part “oh fuck what we have gotten into now”).  While I have looked at some published settings, such as Eclipse Phase or GURPS Transhuman, the way they lock humanity into the Solar System is just a bit claustrophobic.  River of Heaven had some appeal as a d100 system based on a system very close to Runequest VI, but it was not quite transhuman enough for me, and it did not really explore the social and psychological effects of restricting travel to sub-light speeds (plus I wanted a FTL mechanic of some kind). As an aside, I think its rare for an “alien invasion” scenario to focus on the cultural impacts of the “out of context” problem, most books and visual media go for the plucky and violent humans versus the incredibly stupid aliens. Handling it the other way might be too uncomfortable a reminder of how “western civilisation” treated the rest of the world until very recently. Anhow, what I am thinking of involves:

  1. Motive – the aliens are paternalistic overlords of most, but not all of humanity. A key decision for the players, is whether or not they support the alien domination for the benefits it brings (climate control technology, immortality for talented people, peacekeeping forces, etc) or if they are supporters of the cause of human independence and freedom.  I would like to use the Icon system from 13th Age, so I would build a range of factions that support or oppose the Alien Empire, or which have a more ambivalent view (such as a smuggling syndicate). Each of the factions would have a use for agents willing to risk their current physical existence in exchange for material rewards or advancement of their personal passions, as well as providing a home base and resurrection point for when that TPK occurs on a suicide mission. The big background mystery plays off Drake’s Equation – humanity is surrounded by a sea of inhabitable worlds where pre-space flight civilisations have been destroyed, and the Alien Overlords are a little curious as to why Humanity was not treated the same way by the legendary “Bane Star”.
  2. Method – while I want to use the Runequest rules, a transhuman setting where bodies are replaceable and upgradeable means the value of the traditional fixed gaming characteristics (Strength, Dexterity, etc) is subverted. Who cares if you rolled a Strength of 5 on your birth body, when you can buy a Strength 18 off the rack? Runequest places more emphasis on key secondary attributes (Action Points, Strike Rank) and Skills (1-100% scale).  A key thing for quick play, would be an electronic character sheet in which you can change your body template and associated characteristics in two button pushes.  As well as having a full range of cybernetic and biological augmentations, I would want to rebuild the combat system to be fast and violent within the transhuman flavour of electronic warfare, high-tech weaponry, powered armour suits and energy shields. One such change would be eliminating Luck Points – essential in Runequest VI RAW because otherwise character’s die – its just not needed in a transhuman setting where players can restore their characters from their last backup, or a salvaged cortex stack.
  3. Opportunity – “Have disposable spaceship, will travel”. I am imagining a universe where a basic spaceship for six people costs about as much as a modern car does, can be fabricated within a day, and its cheaper to recycle it for parts and buy new, than to leave it parked in dock for a week. A spaceship will last less than a year before its engines burn out or it exhausts its fuel supplies. But in the mean time, it will cover 10 Light Years per week. Its a universe where almost anything can be fabricated in the “two credit” store in an hour, but if you want a signature weapon or suit of powered armour, then you carefully take your copyrighted blueprints to a master crafter and spend a few days making it out of premium materials. In a universe where you get a new body when your character is killed in combat, gear is even more disposable than ever before.  I also like having a modular ship design system, where the players choose from a limited set of customisation options and can build their spaceship in a few minutes.

…and that’s all I have time to write this week. Spending more time on SCA martial arts is changing my hobby-life balance around a bit, so the future holds significantly less time playing World of Warcraft for me than was the case for the last few months.