Category Archives: Science Fiction

Characters from and reviews of games which self-classify as “science fiction” meaning generally all the k00l p0w3rz are explained by technology no matter how unbelievable implausible poorly developed or self-contradictory. For reasons unknown to me “psionics” is classed as “science fiction” while “magic” is classed as fantasy. I obey this convention here.

Chi-Chian

Chi-Chian, Or, How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Roll Up A Communist Cockroach

Or Maybe Not, I Don’t Know Yet What I’m Going To Roll. Or Even If I Roll.

I don’t want to just do older games or D&D heartbreakers; I want to do any game I own and which might catch my eye. Chi-Chian is one of the games that originally inspired me to do this, way back when, because I knew I’d never play it; it’s only fitting I get around to it eventually, and eventually is now!

The campaign setting, according to the back of the book, is a New York City inhabited by six foot cockroaches, but it’s also set in 3049, so I assume there are some fictional elements added in to the mix, as well as the aforementioned gritty realism. Yes, I’ll be returning to this particular well a lot, folks. I never go for the hard jokes if I can go for the easy ones.

The setting is based on an animated web series and some comic books, neither of which I’ve heard of, by “Voltaire”, who is a modern gothy type and not an ancient philosopher. Knowing nothing but what’s in the book, I’m a good test subject for how well it works as a game in itself.

The first page features a summary of events, which involves skyscraper jumping as a hobby, sentient BioLogic clothing, giant worms that serve as subway trains (and the worm-wranglers that debrain them), lost blind sexbots, homicidal cousins (and the tentacle robots who serve them), and brain merges…. and it still makes more sense, and is better written, and more internally consistent, than Synnibarr.

It goes on for several more pages, in white text on black/grey photographic background. Why white text on black/grey photographic background? Because fuck you, that’s why, as they say on Fark. This book is the product of an artiste, and artistes do not care for your decadent capitalistic running dog bourgeoisie concepts like “legibility”. Actually, it’s pretty much readable, more so than a lot of White Wolf stuff, but there’s a range between “looks like it was Xeroxed in 1974″ and “looks like a MySpace page”, and it’s tilting a bit towards the latter.

Anyway… lessee… monks, dragon boats, wormtrains, caterpillar heads, giant samurai, Spirit World, Material World, neuronetic bra(?), waltzing with roaches, flip, flip, more stuff, flip, flip, a bit of fiction, flip, flip… we don’t get to the game until Page 19. I have a feeling I’m going to have to go back and read through the stuff I bleeped through eventually.

Writing for games is, or should be, the antithesis of writing fiction. Tell, don’t show. “Elves get +2 to Perception” is a lot better than three pages of a story about an elf listening for something. At the most, dress it up with “Elves are known for their keen senses, as they are master hunters. (+2 Perception)”.

Now, I get that Chi-Chian is a game set in a specific world, and, as such, introducing that world’s background and history is vital because, without it, you have no guidance as to how to apply the mechanics. Doing this is a delicate dance. You need to introduce the bare minimum of context on an as-needed basis, adding more when it becomes necessary, with dribbles and drabbles of flavor text and micro-fiction, ideally no more than 2-3 paragraphs in a sidebar, to set the mood. Page after page of background, especially background presented in a story fashion, instead of an encyclopedia fashion, is a huge barrier to anyone actually getting to the “play the game” part of things.

Sensei No More

The GM is called the Sensei. Sigh. Anyway, we still have PCs and NPCs, not “Heroic Protagonistic Archetypes” and “Secondary Metafictive Instruments” or some such twaddle. What is an RPG, blah blah, OK, some meat. We have Statistics, which mean what they do in every game, and Capabilities, which seem to incorporate powers, feats, skills, and so on. This isn’t bad; one word means “Shit everyone has some score in”, and one word means “Shit only some people have a score in/can do”. I can dig it.

Oh, cool! A white box, clearly set aside, that gives the framework for making a character. Pick a concept, spend Chi (character points), pick two Tragic Flaws, fill in all the roleplaying fluff (appearance, mannerisms). Good. We have a plan.

Concept. Uhm… uh… OK, this is the time where I go back and read the fluff again, isn’t it, so I can come up with a character who fits in the world… (Why don’t you just hum the Jeopardy theme to simulate the passage of time…)

You know what to do with little “More” type things now, don’t you? Good…

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The World Of Synnibarr

The World Of Synnibarr

World Of Synnibarr

First Edition Cover, Image From http://www.legrog.org/, because I’m too lazy to scan my own copy of the cover. Hope they don’t mind.

OK, first off, let me note I have a few weird psychological issues with the World of Synnibarr, because I bought my copy (the first edition of the game, with the lion man cover) at an SF con in the early 90s where I a)had a migraine, and b)had my girlfriend of the time decide to spend all her time traipsing around with other people. Yes, I still nurture my two-decade old psychological scars. I hold on to my trivial emotional traumas the way other people hold on to their grandmother’s good china. (If your china is made in New Jersey, why isn’t it new jersey? And how can you have eyeglasses made of plastic? Shouldn’t they be eyeplastics? And that airplane food…)

So. Synnibarr. I will attempt to put my personal issues behind me, and review this San-loss inducing book fairly. No, seriously. No matter what my weird cross-associations may be with things, this game is wonked. I’ve referred many times to things that teeter on the edge of awesome and awful… this doesn’t teeter. Hell, it didn’t even fall off. It never got out of the pit of Awful to begin with.

Or…. so it appears merely from flipping through it, then trying to reconcile what I’ve read with any notion of a sane and ordered universe, or at least, a universe which was not actively malign. I haven’t tried to make a character with it, yet. Let’s see how it goes. Who knows? It might be better than it seems. Odin knows, it couldn’t be worse.

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Cyborg Commando 2.0 MOAR CAPS

CYBORG COMMANDO

The Epic Saga Continues

CAPS STILL NOT OPTIONAL

Welcome back! I know, even for me, this was a long time between updates, but I’ve been:

Roll Activity
01-30 Ranting on the D&D Next boards
31-80 Ranting on the SWTOR boards
81-85 Actually playing SWTOR
86-90 Working on fiction for my writer’s club
91 Working on Stellar Warriors
92-95 Being distracted by funny cats on the Internet
96-00 Looking at porn Studying new coding techniques.

So, now that that’s been established… back to creating a CYBORG COMMANDO!

When we last left our intrepid CYBORG COMMANDO, he, or possibly she, was void and formless. I hoped to find some inspiration in the book for a character idea, but what I found was inspiration as to how not to write a core rulebook. The book is filled with endless details on how the cyborgs work, down to things like the precise angle of rotation of the neck and the alloy composition of various body parts and the fact your head is actually almost completely hollow and..

Oh, yeah. Your brain is in your chest. Your head… well…

The head of a CYBORG COMMANDO

You could smuggle drugs in there. Seriously.

Yeah. It’s kind of interesting that one of the leading forms of real-world nanotech now is “lab on a chip” technology, which puts all sorts of chemical analysis functionality onto a microchip, leading towards real-life tricorders. Back in the 1980s, of course, we thought you’d need to hollow out your head to do this sort of thing.

There’s a lot of really weird details in the rules, and it takes up a lot of the rules, except, it’s not really “rules”, is it? Most of this would be called “fluff”, and fluff can be good, but it’s not fluff that inspires you or gives you an idea what the world is like, it’s fluff that shows the writer probably got a degree in mechanical engineering and this is his first chance to use it. For example, we learn the Yield Strength of the frame of a CYBORG COMMANDO is 8,047 T/m2. I have no idea what that means. Is it useful in-game, in any way? No, because there’s no rules anywhere that turn “Yield Strength” into some kind of mechanic you can use to decide if your CYBORG COMMANDO is crushed by a truck or whatever. “Ten times stronger than steel!”, if technically imprecise, provides a reader with an idea, a mental image, a conception, of how tough a CYBORG COMMANDO is. “Yield strength”, for the bulk of readers, who presumably don’t know the “yield strength” of common items you find in your home and office, tells you nothing. Even in a freeform, GM-decides, make-shit-up kind of rules system (which CYBORG COMMANDO is and isn’t, and in all the worst ways), it’s a useless piece of information, because it doesn’t give the GM any assistance in making a ruling. The book is filled with stuff like this, page on page on page, and there aren’t many pages in total.

Sure, background is great, and having a little fluff to help define and ground the technology of the game is very useful — but you could cut the amount of text dedicated to this by, literally, 90%, and convey just as much useful, setting-defining, information. (Then there’s things that provide information not even used in the setting, like a page of math, detailed formulas, for hyperspace travel times, when there’s no space travel in the game. If there was a plan for future expansion with rules for space travel,  that’s where this should have gone.)

I still haven’t gone on to developing my character, have I? The above rant is a partial excuse for why it took so long to get to this point… trying to find something to hook into. Even games I’ve been unimpressed with, or which were mechanically very simple, gave me more ideas for “what kind of character can you be” than CYBORG COMMANDO does. I will be first in line to laugh at White Wolf’s purple prose, shallowly stereotyped splats, and labored emo first person narratives with light-gray text on slightly-less-light-gray backgrounds and moire pattern watermarks, but there’s no way that, by the time you’re ready to fill in the dots on your character sheet in a White Wolf game, you don’t have a lot of ideas for what kind of people exist in the game world, what you can be, what kind of k3wl p0w3rz… I mean, angst-filled personal dramas… you get based on what you pick, etc.  CYBORG COMMANDO gives you about as much inspiration as picking “Player A” or “Player B” in an 8-bit arcade game.

Even the skill list isn’t much of a help, as it’s written like a college course catalog… without any course descriptions.

Seriously.

The CYBORG COMMANDO skills list

"I'm going to major in Medieval English, and then join OWS."

However, this isn’t the worst thing. There are two worst things. Yes, two. Each is more worst than the other. That’s more worst than you’ll find at Octoberfest in Chicago. The two worst things about the skills are: First Worst, almost none of them are described. No, not even a single line of description — the rules helpfully explain there wasn’t room for such useless trivia as “What do the skills do”, we had to have space for the populations of dozens of cities (because it’s important to know that Caernarfon has 12,280 people, and that Cullera has 12,335), hyperspace travel formulas, and to tell you that the Xenoborgs lost 14 colonels in their invasion. You know, I gave Star Rovers a lot of good-natured ribbing over the fact there were no space travel rules, but even if I felt the rules they included instead were of secondary importance, they were at least rules. You could use them in a game. Should asteroid mining have been booted to make room for space travel? Sure, probably, but you wouldn’t stare at the asteroid mining rules in stark incomprehension and ask “Why is this even here at all? What purpose does it serve?” The other first-worst thing is that the skills are often referred to by number. How much information is gained by writing “attempts a skill check in the area of Physical Sciences (56o)”? The “560” doesn’t help you quickly find the non-existent skill description… it just wastes space.

(A few skills are described, mostly the “Psychogenic” and combat-related ones.)

Anyway, to acquire skills, I spend SP to purchase Fields, which are skills ending in multiples of 10, not Areas (which end in single digits) or Categories (ending in 00). This is the Basic game; you get more flexibility in the Advanced game, but I’m not going there unless someone pays me.

So, I have 30 Skill Points. That’s… uhm… not a lot. I mean, a whole lot of not a lot. How about 10 in 220, “Unarmed Combat”, which gives me 10 in “Occidental Combat” and “Oriental Combat”, the two Areas that are in that Field. (Somewhere, Steve Long is weeping.) That leaves me 20.

Well, 10 more in Personal Weapons. That makes me equally skilled with everything from 231 Ancient Bladed Melee Weapons (including agricultural tools) to 237 Artillery. (“Can you handle a howitzer?” “Why, sure, I used to cut down wheat with a sickle on my farm back home!”) (I should cut CYBORG COMMANDO some kind of break here, since this is “basic” character generation and many games have nothing but a “combat” stat, especially games of this era. But I’m just not in a forgiving mood right now.)

I’ll put 5 in Personal Arts 410, since that gives me access to 411 Error Avoidance, which covers “Karma & Fate” and “Serendipity”. And the last 5, I dump into 630 Criminal Activity, since almost everything under it seems vaguely useful… though with only 5 points, I’ll probably suck at it. Due to the lack of skill descriptions, it’s unclear if 634 Sex Related Crime covers “running a prostitution ring” or “committing sexual assault and getting away with it”. I guess that’s the sort of thing you need to argue with your GM about. OTOH, there’s no indication that CYBORG COMMANDOs are, ahem, “fully functional”, so it may be moot. A pity. Given the style of the the rest of the book, one might expect something like “The synthesteel duraplas pseudopenis of the CC unit is 19.8 cm in length and is covered with TextuWeave Quasiskin that transmits simulated neural responses at a rate of 10.94 megagigs per kilounit. It can be set to vibrate at 500 RPM.”

Yes, I went there. What, you expected class, decorum, or good taste? Did you read my Alma Mater review?

And so…. I’m done. My nameless CYBORG COMMANDO is ready to go kick some ass. Or get his ass kicked, since from what I can tell, I have a ten percent chance of hitting someone. No, wait…. after several minutes of studying the mind-numbingly confusing graphs, it seems I have a 27% chance of rolling 10 or less using the d10x system. Wow, that’s intuitive. (Also, raising my skill from 10 to 11 is meaningless, because you can’t roll an 11 on d10x. You have to raise it to 12 to see any gain.)

And in conclusion…  I’ve got to find something better for my next article. I have nearly 3000 game books in my collection. This can’t be hard. Synnibarr. Synnibarr should be fun. Unless someone wants to send me a copy of that game where you play flower penis vampires. That could also be fun.

Cyborg Commando

CYBORG COMMANDO

(All-Caps NOT OPTIONAL)

(Not Gary Gygax’s Finest Hour… Or  Week… Or Year…)

So, what happens to an iconic creator when, for various reasons, he can no longer work on the products that made him so iconic? Well, he can start a failed computer company, or a failed comic book company, or produce a failed roleplaying game. Given the nature of this site, I hope you don’t have to guess too hard what I’m about to cover. (Hint: Read the title. It’s in ALL CAPS!)

CYBORG COMMANDO (this is how it’s written throughout the rules, and that’s how I’m going to write it here) is about COMMANDOS that are CYBORGS. What does it profit a man to gain built in missile launchers if he loses his soul? How much of your humanity will you sacrifice, to save humanity? At what point are you more metal than man? Is humanity a thing of the flesh, or of the soul? Are you more inhuman than the monsters you were created to fight? These, and other questions, are totally not even remotely asked in this game. CYBORG COMMANDO is about kicking alien ass with your built in cyber powers, and there is nothing wrong with that premise… but, according to many reviews and writeups, there’s a hell of a lot wrong with the game as a game. Or… is there? (Probably.) I’m going to find out, and you’re going to join me for the trip. (Or you’ve already dismissed this page and are eagerly looking to see if there’s any updates on goatswithboats.com.)

Let’s move on…

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The History Of The Universe (Abridged)

So, off and on, I have been working on Stellar Warriors, which is turning into the mega space opera game I’ve had as a “thing to do” pretty much since I discovered gaming back in 1978. After toying with several systems, I’ve found the one I currently have passion for is Pathfinder (and 4e, though I’ve got Earth Delta to satisfy my itch for that), and as I started working, I also found I was “correcting” everything I thought was wrong with D20 that Pathfinder didn’t fix, and, sorry to all you rules-light folks out there, that tends to mean more detail and options, not less, though I’m also trying to apply what I’ve learned from 4e about which details are useful and which aren’t, and how to abstract things that need to be abstracted.

This post has no mechanics whatsoever, though. It’s the first pass at a general background and framework for the setting, and I’m presenting it here first because early drafts of things are often lost and forgotten in the age of digital clay, and, second, because I have the delusion that people are interested in how creators create; how they make decisions, what they were thinking, etc. So I figured I’d post the text as it currently appears in the draft I’m writing, but also include comments, explanations, etc, as to what my goals were and why I made some choices. Hopefully, it will be entertaining.

My comments are going to be in monospace font.

Here Beginneth The Text

Introduction

Providing setting information in a game is always complicated. On the one hand, the best part of being a game master is being a worldbuilder; it’s always more fun to build your own sandbox than to play in someone else’s. On the other hand, it is often necessary to have some idea where to start, as well as some kind of shared context or assumptions which can be used to frame new content or ideas.

Every choice made in rules design, from how lethal a weapon is to how faster than light travel works to how “mystic” powers, like Qa, function, contributes towards implying a setting. If there’s no FTL communication, a “galactic democracy” where people across the galaxy are up to the minute on the news and share a common culture becomes impossible. The captains of starships must have great leeway to decide how to enact general policies, as new orders can be months or years away. Worlds can diverge from “galactic culture” rapidly.

A set of rules for stellar generation that produce only one world in a thousand that’s easily habitable by humans implies a much different galaxy than one in which all but the most extreme worlds can be easily settled. A system of starship design that puts small starships into the price range of luxury yachts or private jets creates a different setting than one that makes the smallest FTL ship solely the province of governments or large corporations, and so forth.

While the “implied setting” sets borders on what kind of background is supported best by the rules, those borders are immensely broad. Hundreds or thousands of different settings can be built that all fit within what’s implied by this set of rules, and a thousand times as many can be built with only small fudging and pushing at the edges just a tad.

The setting here, the Eighth Interregnum, is one of many. It is designed to support a wide variety of playstyles and backdrops while still being a single universe. The vast bulk of it is left very deliberately undesigned and vague, with regions painted in only the broadest of strokes. It exists to help provide context for things like racial descriptions, background traits, and to create a sense of place, but it is not an exhaustively detailed setting and never will be. It uses common tropes and themes in order to set the boundary points of a framework that each GM is free to fill in as he sees fit, or to discard entirely. It can also serve as a sort of ablative skeleton, providing a structure to those parts of the universe the GM hasn’t detailed yet, to be removed as his world grows and replaces the default.

I am not a buyer, in general, of settings. I prefer games with strong genre flavor. I often buy games that combine system and setting, especially if the setting is so broad as to give me plenty of room to play, or if the setting more-or-less is the game. (Shadowrun, for example — it’s not like there’s a  “Cyberpunk And Magic” genre with many examples out there. It’s also easy with Shadowrun to lift nothing but the basic premise, races, mechanics, and fill in your own megacorps, nations, and so on without regard for the ‘official’ rules.) On the other hand, a lot of people like settings, or hints of settings, and I’ve found that writing rules completely without any reference to a world or a context is dull and uninspiring. Hints of how the rules interact with the world and the kinds of things one is likely to do with the rules brings them to life and inspires the GM. Overly-detailed encyclopedic settings where the rules are intimately tied to the setting, on the other hand, I find to be extremely useless. There’s a difference between “Here’s a magic system with some flavor text in the descriptions naming a few great wizards” and “Here’s a magic system whose entire balance and mechanics relies on the cosmology and calendar of this setting and which you can’t disconnect from it.”

Interregnum And Empire

It is commonly considered that the galaxy moves through cycles of Empire (when a single power or culture dominates at least 80% of the known galaxy) and Interregnum (when no power dominates more than 5%). Galactic historians debate tremendously on precise dates, boundaries, and so on, but there is a general consensus among all but a few fringe scholars that there have been eight such cycles since the collapse of the Progenitors.

This is one of those themes I always return to, time and again, mostly because it’s a rich source of background material when you need it, and it appeals to my general view of the universe. “The Eighth Interregnum” was a phrase I came up with when writing some of my earliest science fiction, back in my freshman year of college; you’d think, given that, it would be extensively detailed by now, but, in fact, it’s mostly some names and ideas I’ve occasionally re-used but never seriously developed. (I always find it hilarious when people think their “ideas”, undeveloped and unexplored, are valuable, and that doing the grunt work of “actually writing it all down” is something some other shmuck can do after he’s paid you a fortune for your “idea”. Please. This is also why no company is going to “steal your ideas” — the worth of an idea is nothing. It’s not worth stealing.)

The Progenitors

Before any of the known races existed in space, or possibly even evolved, there were the Progenitors. It is unknown what their physical form was; they are known only by the occasional artifacts found in the strangest and most obscure reaches of space, and no two of these artifacts seems designed for beings of the same body type, yet all are clearly from one culture, and, it is believed, that culture consisted of a single race, due to the lack of any evidence of multiple spacefaring societies prior to the Progenitors. It is widely speculated that when they arose, the very laws of the universe were different, and that they literally altered all reality on the most fundamental level to allow life as it is currently known to exist. Then they vanished. That was more than a billion years ago.

I don’t really have much more to say about this than what’s there; I don’t have a Secret Detailed Origin. I mostly wanted the ultimate macguffin in the background, primarily as a way of explaining a universe of mostly-compatible biochemistry and, perhaps more importantly, evolutionary cycles “synced up” so that nearly all intelligent races are within a million or so years of each other.

The Stargods

Sometime between the Progenitors and the Eight Empires, there was a period known as the Reign Of The Stargods. This time was marked by the existence of a dozen different species, which apparently rose to power roughly concurrently, and which then fell to a massive war of “all against all”. Their technology was beyond anything which the Eight Empires ever achieved, though it was still less than that of the Progenitors. Their battles scarred and shaped the universe, and their relics, though far more common than those of the Progenitors, are literally worth the price of a world. There are constant rumors that some of the Stargods may exist, hiding in folds of spacetime or (if you’re really paranoid) striding the galaxy posing as mere mortals, observing… or controlling…. the lesser species.

A somewhat more useful set of macguffins. I have a very strong “vision” for these guys — they are much akin to the Celestials from Jack Kirby’s Eternals, with a side order of Vorlons and Shadows. In some ways, they could be called the “Zeroeth Empire”.

Olympus

This is the best known artifact of the Stargods. “Olympus” is a very vague translation; the place has hundreds of names, all basically “the home of the gods” — Valhalla, the Shining City, the Watchtower. It is a structure the size of a large gas giant, made of glistening metal in a hundred colors, all strange tubes and odd shapes and immense blocky substructures. The outer surface defies all attempts to penetrate it with any sensors, and it radiates a constant heat of 74.23 degrees. Any craft, from the largest mega-battleships to the most intricate nanoprobes, vanishes instantly when it approaches within 0.67 light years. No energy is detected coming from Olympus, nor is there any energy emitted when the craft are destroyed, or teleported, or shifted to a parallel world, or warped to the dawn of time, or whatever happens to them. A few cultists believe they are transported inside to join the gods.

You see how the use of arbitrary and random “exact numbers” gives an aura of faux legitimacy to a thing? No, I have no idea what Olympus is for; it’s probably a base where some of them are sleeping, but it could just as easily be the Stargod version of a monthly storage rental.

During the time of the Fifth Empire, one particularly cunning local governor decided to take advantage of this, and began having all unwanted refuse and garbage hurled in the direction of Olympus, treating it as a galactic garbage disposal. Three weeks after he began this practice, he vanished utterly. So did the planet he governed. No one has tried to exploit the defenses of Olympus since then.

This is a bit of a reply to how PCs, in general, will take anything you create that is Cool and Mysterious and Awesome and turn it into some kind of tool they can use to get m0ar l00tz.

Rise And Fall

Technology tends to progress in a sort of bell curve. On most worlds, there is a long period of stagnation and slow change, followed by a time of extremely rapid development that can take a world from swords to spaceships in a few hundred years, followed by one of two things: Either the discovery of FTL travel (or being contacted by a race which already has it), or the rapid consumption of all in-system resources, followed by war and collapse.

Space Opera is anti-singularity. If you ever look at most “tech level” charts, including the one in Stellar Warriors, you’ll see that you have something like “Bronze Age”, “Iron Age”, “Renaissance”, and then 4 or 5 levels that span the 19th and 20th centuries (sometimes 4 or 5 just from WW2 to 2000), and then something like “Early Stellar” and “Advanced Stellar” that presume stagnation for hundreds of years. I figured I’d just lampshade the idea that once you hit FTL, you’ve maxed out the “big changes” and that most of what’s left is incremental, with truly revolutionary breakthroughs occurring at a much slower pace. It’s utterly unrealistic based on everything we know, but it’s necessary for the kind of setting this is.

The first world in a region to discover FTL has a huge edge; it will quickly contact and exploit nearby worlds, and then use these new resources to keep expanding. Because no message can travel faster than a starship, the instantaneous communication that is a precursor to rapid technological change stops; further, the vast array of resources to exploit once the stars are opened undermines the search for new technologies, as competition becomes more a matter of expanding and acquiring than of doing more and more with the same supplies. This creates the other side of the bell curve, another period of slow discoveries and refinements, with few revolutionary breakthroughs.

Eventually, one expanding culture reaches another, and then they may form trading alliances, or they may do battle, or both, in succession. Eventually, they merge into a single larger culture, by conquest or by trade, and then they expand until they meet another, and so on. Over hundreds or thousands of years, the galaxy becomes the province of an ever smaller number of ever larger nations, until one dominates.

Some folks (though, granted, not the kind of folks likely to be reading this site) would probably object that this is a particularly Western European Patriarchal Capitalistic Imperialistic view of the universe, and declaring it as a universal constant that occurs throughout time and space is narrow minded provincialism and that truly advanced races would live in peace and harmony and sharing. Some folks are idiots. Lizard says:”Those that beat their swords into plowshares shall do the plowing for those who do not.” Even if I’m wrong, it’s irrelevant — Cosmic Space Hippies are boring.

It is just as inevitable that it will collapse. This may take a long time, usually thousands of years, but it follows the pattern of the avalanche. Once the collapse begins, it accelerates, usually taking less than a century from the first real cracks in the Imperial structure until the galaxy is consumed in war. Worlds are blasted to the stone age, if they are not destroyed entirely. Trade, except between a few close worlds, sputters and dies. Knowledge is reduced to myth or lost forever. A small handful of systems retain their old technology, but they do so by huddling close and not venturing out. Fragments of the old form tiny stellar holdfasts of a dozen worlds or so, often locked into tense wars with their neighbors that flare from cold to hot at any moment. A thousand petty planetary leaders look at the galactic chaos and seem themselves or their world as the new Empire. And on the tens of thousands of worlds abandoned and destroyed, someone rediscovers pressing a stylus into clay to make words, someone works out the laws of gravity and inertia, someone learns to build rockets, and then it all starts again.

The Lost/Forgotten Homeworld Of Mankind is a trope I like; I also like the idea of a constant cycle of collapse and rediscovery, that since the universe is one which is inherently rational and understandable, advancement isn’t the result of a one in a billion Great Genius having a Vision, but is something that is inevitable anywhere you’ve got a mind to perceive reality and the means to manipulate it.

Eighth Interregnum

The Eighth Empire was immense, and immensely old. It had survived so long, weathering three great crisis (later called the False Collapses), that many had begun to call it the Last Empire. Quite a few historians became rich and famous authoring treatises on “The End Of Interregnum” and foreseeing a glorious future that would last until the heat death of the universe, and then beyond, because given enough time, the Empire would reach the same level as the Progenitors and rewrite the laws of nature.

First, I love pseudo-history. There’s nothing like reading a phrase like “the third war of the North” or “the era of the Shining Fortress” or the like, especially when it’s wrapped up in mention of how this fictional period in fictional history was given its name by fictional historians. Second, that’s a pretty explicit and unrepentant dig at the moron who wrote, following the collapse of the USSR, a best selling steaming pile of bantha poodoo called “The End Of History”, in which he prognosticated (that’s a big word; it means “made up some total horsecrap”) that “history” was now over because the last “great conflict” had been resolved. I’ve got some 1000+ corpses in downtown Manhattan who might have something to say on that, if, you know, corpses could talk.

Yeah, right. Pull the other one, it has space-bells on.

I’ve developed this weird habit of deliberately using the clumsy construction that is more found in mock pulp sci fi than in actual pulp sci fi, of sticking “space” in front of every word. Go figure.

The first came from the great spaces between galaxies, a region no species had managed to cross within the time of the Eight Empires. As they came from the void, ravening and terrifying, they became known as the Void Demons.

The second were born in the flare of a hundred novas. It’s believed they were using the stars as a kind of gateway between galaxies, or perhaps between realities, in the absence of any other explanation. Vaguely reptilian and masters of a kind of bio-technological fusion never seen before, they became known as the Star Dragons.

This is another bit of my past. Sometime in the early 1990s, I had made some notation on a timeline I was working on regarding the “war between the Void Demons and the Star Dragons”. I just liked the names. Again, this is more detail on them than has occurred before.(I’d toyed with “Stardrakes” in other parts of  my draft, but “Star Dragons” just sounds better to my ears.)

Both forces were advanced far beyond the Eighth Empire, so advanced some thought they might be the Stargods come again. Neither seemed to concern themselves with the existing Empire; they destroyed any ships that attacked them without effort or hesitation, but otherwise showed no sign they were even aware other beings existed. They would transform a planet into a factory for war machines with no reaction whatsoever to the people already on it, not even to conquer and enslave them. All that mattered to either side was destroying each other. By the time the war ended, which occurred when both sides had reached a position of stalemate that caused them to vanish as suddenly as they’d came, leaving only ruins and relics behind, the Empire had been rent into a thousand pieces, great lines of war and devastation criss-crossing the galactic structure. When the Void War (sometimes called the Demon/Dragon war), ended, a few optimists hoped this would be the Fourth False Crisis, and that the Empire could, after perhaps only one or two hundred years of disorganization, pull itself together.

Ah, there’s nothing like completely handwaving away any and all questions about motive or methods. Absolute, total, and unrepentant deus ex machina. The uber-powerful whatevers showed up and kicked you all to the cosmic curb. Buh-bye now!

But the important thing is, they left behind their toys. :) I really like space opera games where there are immensely powerful artifacts to quest after.

It didn’t happen. Once shown to be vulnerable, it lost a crucial amount of respect. All the petty enemies of the Empire who had never dared to strike against it or defy it were emboldened. Furthermore, it had lost much of its military and economic might in futile battles against the Demons and Dragons. (I wish I could have worked Dungeons in there. Oh well.) Many of those regions which maintained some kind of communication and control declared themselves independent, or claimed that they were the true heirs to the Empire, and they fell to battle against each other. Many parts of the galaxy simply drifted apart. Others were destroyed by raiders and pirates following rumors of a ruined Void Demon blackship, or a partially functioning Star Dragon planetary seeder.

I have only vague notions of what a “blackship” or a “planetary seeder” are.  But they sure sound cool!

And so, here we are.

Here Endeth The Text

Coming soon (since I’ve already written it and just need to paste it in): Several regions of space, defined by theme and function, and not by a catalog of the worlds they contain or the names of the local politicans.

 

EXTERMINATE!

The tagline of this site is “Old School Attitude, Modern Rules”. (Not, as some would have it, “Updates on a roll of 18+ on 2D10″) A big part of the feel of “Old School” is “Anything that’s cool is included”, and “cool” usually meant whatever was in the movies or at the top of the nerd reading list for that week. Dungeons & Dragons campaigns in the 1970s and 1980s were full of wookies and kzinti, phasers and lightsabers, aliens and predators, ninjas and more ninjas. A lot of that great and glorious wahooness has been lost in recent decades, or is brought back only so that it can be snickered at with a superior attitude and/or played purely for laughs (see the execrable “Castle Greyhawk” module published by TSR for AD&D 2e, as repugnant an attempt to piss on Gary’s legacy as I can imagine).

Me, I prefer unironic, unexamined, embrasure of the 14 year old within. Since Doctor Who hadn’t made it across the pond in most of the early era of D&D, or was sneered at by the kind of Very Serious Fans who might have heard of it (if they watched anything British, it would be Blake’s Seven), there was very little inclusion of Dr. Who material in things like Arduin or All The World’s Monsters. So, we set the gaming TARDIS to take the “That which is cool, rules” attitude of the 1970s and merge it, via a chronal transpacial rift in idea space, with the mechanics of the 2010s, and I present the first of several Daleks, statted for 4e. (There will be at least one solo “Dalek Commander”, and probably a non-elite, maybe two, but I wanted to get one mid-range “model” out first.)

Dalek

Rango As Post Apocalyptic Setting

So, the spousal unit and I just returned from Rango, a film where I greatly suspect a huge chunk of the script consisted of “Let Johnny Depp do something for 45 seconds, then go to next line.” While, obviously, I have great sympathy for any film in which the hero is reptilian and prone to fits of storytelling, I was generally very impressed overall by the humor, the animation, the amazing level of detail and texturing in the world, the voice acting, and the constant little nods to classic westerns and other films. As I watched it, though, it occurred to me that with very few changes, it could be a Gamma World or similar style post-apocalypse movie.

Warning!

HERE THERE BE SPOILERS!!!!

This article will discuss the film in significant detail and reveal many Cool Bits you might not want to see revealed. Be warned!

Heck, let’s just insert us a lil’ ol’ “Read More” kind of line, OK?

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Battlelords Of The Twenty-Third Century, Part 2

When last we left our intrepid would-be employee of some future Blackwater, he had just chosen his species — the Eridani, a race of Voldermort-looking dudes (again, in the interest of fairness, I want to stress that Battelords well predates Harry Potter and I’m just using the term because everyone knows what Lord Voldemort looks like… much in the same way that people tend to compare games to WoW even if the tropes WoW uses originated in Everquest or DikuMUD) who are basically Ronin….Innnnn….Spaaaaaaace, total stick-up-their-ass stoic warrior dudes who are loads of fun to play, especially if the party has some less straight laced types in it.

There’s three methods of rolling characters. Roll percentiles in order, then roll three more and replace any three with the new rolls; Roll ten times, discard the lowest 2, then assign them in the order you wish; and roll eight percentile dice five times and then choose which set you like, placing them in the stats in order. Number 2 is the “most popular”, and it’s also the easiest, so that’s what I’m going for.

Ten rolls:9,12,44,86,25,45,55,87,54,23.

As usual, my rolls suck. Obviously, we drop the 9 and the 12.

The eight attributes are:

Strength, Manual Dexterity, IQ, Agility, Constitution, Intuition, and Charisma

No, wait, that’s seven attributes.

OK, there’s an “Agression” score. Every other attribute has a table; Aggression doesn’t. It’s very easy to overlook. So, OK, 8.

It’s recommended that you roll on the “I Was Just Growing Up” and “Fickle Finger Of Fate” charts before assigning attributes, so let’s do that, shall we?

Past Is Prologue

“Life charts” or “Fate Charts” or “Backgrounds” or whatever were really, really, big in 1990s era games. They hardly originated there… I remember the first edition of Mekton had a “Lifepath” system that could get you spinning endlessly as you diced for the hair color of your sixteen siblings and whether or not you liked any of them, but the nineties were the golden age of finding out you were born on a farm and your older brother tried to kill you and you were kidnapped by gypsies and encountered a mentor who taught you how to ride a motorcycle and then your girlfriend was assassinated by space nazis and you worked on an ice planet in their broccoli mines and then, when you were twelve… so let’s see what we get here.

There’s two tables, Table 1 and Table 2. If you want to roll on Table 2, the “good” table, you must roll on Table 1. If you roll three times on Table 1, you can roll twice on Table 2. If you are married filing jointly, subtract the total of line 45 from…

I’ll just roll once on each.

Table 1: 40. I have hydrophobia. According to the table, “Your mother dropped you in water and you sunk”.

Table 2: 32. I was a famous cyball player (+2 charisma). Since we’re on a 1-100 scale, that’s not a whole hell of a lot.

I can also roll once or twice on the Fickle Finger of Fate table, plus an additional once on the Warrior Fortune table.

Fickle Finger Of Fate: 78. I was mugged while walking my pet, -200 credits. Boy, this is going to really look crappy on my performance review.

Warrior Table: 04. Hey, cool! Obtained training in swordsmanship at the famed Swintash school. +10 to hit with edged weapons! That actually fits my character. Go, me!

Time to assign stats. As an Eridani, I get a bunch of bonuses and only a few penalties, so let’s just work this out. I want to be a kick-ass sword wielder, so I figure we’ll start with the physical and go from there. My base numbers, again, are: 44,86,25,45,55,87,54,23

Strength: 87+10=97

Manual Dexterity: 45+5=50

IQ: 44+10=54

Agility: 55+20=75

Constitution: 86+5=91

Aggression: 54+15=69

Intuition: 25-5=20

Charisma: 23+2-10=15

So what’s all this mean? Well, there’s a lot of very AD&D 1st edition tables with “Minimum for an Orion” and “Maximum for a Ram Python” here, so I’ll check to make sure I’m not breaking any bounds. There’s also plenty of attribute-dependent things like encumbrance, etc. My strength of 97 gives me a +2 to damage, an “SB”… that’s skill bonus, for strength based skill checks, or +12, and I can dead lift 660… lbs, I assume. My 75 agility gives me a -2 Defensive Modifier (that’s added to my opponents roll, so it’s subtracted, which is a good thing, except, again, we’re on a percentile scale, so that -2 is going to be more an annoyance than a real benefit. “The enemy rolls a 98, plus his attack bonus of 47, so he hits you.” “Did you remember to take away 2?” “Yes.” “Oh, OK, then.”) I also have a +4 to my attack rolls with archaic hand held weapons, so I’m already at a +14 to hit. Sweet!

I just want to note the Constitution table has “System Shock” and “Resurrection Percentage” values.

Lastly, my Intuition of 20 makes me “Absolutely Clueless” and gives me a -20 to sight, hearing, and smell checks, and my Charisma of 15 means I am “Ugly as !%$&*”. No, really, that’s what it says — literally transcribed. Oh, and there’s a Henchman Loyalty Base. By the way, if Charisma is pure appearance, as would seem to be the case by the comments, why did being a professional Cyball player improve my Charisma, however slightly? Did we get free plastic surgery or something?

Secondary Statistics

This covers random other stuff. The first is Terrestrial Knowledge, which is the chance you’ll know anything about a particular planet. To determine it, you roll %ile dice and divide by 3. 17, divided by 3 is  5.6, and we round up to 6. I have a 6% chance to know anything, but since there’s 20 galaxies in this setting, I think that’s pretty good.

Military Leaderships: I add Intelligence, Aggression, and Intuitions, divide by 4, and round up: I end up with a 36.

Persuasion is Intelligence+Charisma, divided by 3. 23

Bargaining is Persuasion-15, or 8.

Given that there’s a bunch of skills later on, I have no clue why the “Secondary Statistics” are not just, you know, skills, or why Persuasion and Bargaining are broken out as they are. Anyway, there’s the numbers. I do get to add some racial bonuses, though, so my final Secondary Scores are:

Terrestrial Knowledge: 21

Military Leadership: 56

Persuasion: 18

Bargaining: 8

Frankly, I think any race of beings known throughout the galaxy twenty galaxies for being warrior-lunatics would have a huge bonus to “Persuasion”, but, then again, I got mugged while walking my pet. I don’t even know what kind of pet it was. Fooey.

Hey, there’s a Racial Preference chart!

Yeah. Getting a bit of déjà vu here….

ADDRacialPrefs
BattleLordsRacialPrefs

One of these things is not just like the other….

I now need to figure out my size class, which is based on my height and weight, so I have to go back to my racial description to see what dice I roll. I am 82 inches tall and weigh 280 lbs. This makes me size class 6. I have 10 Body Points, and can make 3 punches per turn.  My Social Status is content, which gives me a 25% bonus to starting money, which is determined by my race, which gives me 100 * 6d6, and I rolled a total of 25, so, 2500*1.25=3,125 galactic… whatever, minus 200 since I got mugged walking my pet. Yes, I’m still bitter about that. That leaves me 2925.

 

Skills to Pay The Bills

Everyone begins with 50 Proficiency Points, except I’m not Everyone, I’m an Eridani, so I begin with 40. I will be complaining to the Galactic Equal Opportunity Board forthwith. I get a few bonuses due to my race, as well — I get three levels in Archaic Hand Weapon, and Archaic Hand Weapon skills cost 1 point less. I can start with only three levels in any skill above and beyond my racial levels, so let’s see max out “Whack People With Sword”. Lessee, here’s the skill table and… my eyes! Sweet cold and merciless gods of space, my eyes!

I’m obviously spoiled by modern layouts. Wow. This is just one giant wall of numbers and symbols. Sure, it all makes sense eventually, but this is the kind of thing that tends to send folks running in terror.

BattleLordsSkillChart

There’s two full pages of this. Yeow! (Really, though, this is cleaner and more straightforward than many similar games of the era, and it’s probably better to have all the vital information in a chart, however abbreviated, than to have to flip across multiple pages to compare skills, but it’s still an overwhelming mass of numbers and symbols, hard to take in all at once.)

The most important number is “SC”, which is “Skill Cost”, which is “How much it costs to get a level in this skill”. Archaic Hand Weapon only costs 2 points per level, or one point ’cause I’m an Eridani and I rule, baby, but there’s a little squiggly symbol next to it which means “Does not give standard +10$ modifier”, see skill description to see how it is used.

I need to specify type of weapon… that’s easy, “Big Ass Sword”. Then I look at the Hand to Hand Combat Chart. If I add 3 levels (for a total cost of only 3 points), to my pre-existing 3, I will be at level 6, which gives me a +24 hit bonus and +2 damage and +1 to “number of attacks”. Add in my +10 from my race and my +4 from my Agility and I’m at +38, which seems pretty good without any knowledge of what the combat system is actually like. I also have a +2 damage from my Strength and a +2 from my skill level, so +4, which if most people have Body Points in the low double digit range, as seems to be the case, means I’m doing serious whackity with each hit. (A two-handed sword, which requires minimum strength of 70 to wield, does 2-12 points of damage and has a base 85% chance to hit, so my chance to hit is, I’m guessing, 85+38 minus some defensive whatever. 2-12+4 is pretty sweet damage, though. Maybe. Actually, I have no idea.

And I think I will stop here for the nonce… picking skills is the best part of games like this, so it deserves its own take. Then we ought to be done!

Battlelords Of The Twenty-Third Century

“Suddenly, five soldiers in heavy assault armor appeared out of nowhere!”

Battlelords Of The Twenty Third century is a game I remember seeing a lot in stores in the early 1990s, but I never picked it up. Recently, I was offered a chance to review the new (or possibly re-released, not 100% sure…) edition, and was given a free copy of the PDF in order to do so. Some bloggers whine and complain that they may have to disclose getting free laptops or vacations in return for reviews… I get a PDF. Go figure.

By the way, in case you’re wondering, the opening quote here is from the introductory game fiction. I do not like introductory game fiction. If I have to read a badly written short story to figure out what the game’s about, it’s a badly designed game. Fortunately, it seems the story is unnecessary to understand the game, a lesson White Wolf still really hasn’t learned. Unfortunately, while it isn’t necessary, it is badly written. The expository dialogue isn’t just ham handed… it’s “entire damn pig” handed. However, this is not a fiction review, it’s a game review, and, as usual, it’s not so much a “review” in the traditional sense as an “I make a character and I write down everything I do and everything I think along the way, as if anyone cares”. So let’s get on with it!

Who Do You Kill, What Stuff Do You Take?

All roleplaying games… well, all good roleplaying games… boil down to “Kill things and take their stuff.” Sometimes, the things you kill are your inner personal demons and the stuff you take is emotional maturity (it’s worth 500 gp to some vendors on the lower planes, by the way), but I think we can safely guess that a game called “Battlelords” is going to be a bit more… literal. (Which is a very, very, good thing.) From the introductory fiction, I learned that the main theme is that you’re going to be mercenaries for a megacorporation, blowing stuff up and risking constant death because there’s nothing good on television and while they’ve invented super-galactic-hyper-travel that allows the setting to cover 20 galaxies(!), they haven’t invented diet pills or Prozac. Really.

“With mixed emotions, the mercs called SSDC “Mother.” Mother offered people from the streets the chance to become something, to be more than fat, alcoholic, armchair quarterbacks whose lives suck so bad that they commit suicide in their early forties.”

The “something” they become is usually a charred corpse, but hey, it’s a living. Oh, wait, it’s not. It’s a dying. Anyway, let’s face it, by any kind of objective standard, virtually every PC in every game ever is basically a homicidal sociopath whose antics would make Stalin and Attila scratch their heads and say, “Dude, don’t you think you’re taking it a bit too far?”, so I’m not going to bitch too much about that.

Anyway… 20 galaxies? Really?

I can’t gripe too much about the general setting, though, since it hits a lot of my own personal favorite themes. Huge frackin’ galactic empires! Mysterious mysteries from the past! Super-psychic powers! Lost artifacts! You know, all the cool stuff. The writing could be a bit less clumsy, but its heart is in the right place (which, depending on species, might be the fourth leg).

By the way, you’ll be happy to know that the author takes time out to assure us that playing an RPG won’t make us believe we’re really a man eating squid. That is, a squid that eats humans, not a human who ordered “calimari” because he didn’t know it meant “squid”. I want to be clear here. The rules also tell us that there’s no devil worship involved. Yes, folks, in the 1990s, some game writers still felt obliged to tell their audience their games weren’t satanic. This tells you a lot more about game writers hoping against hope that people still believed RPGs were satanic, because that would be cool, than it does about the actual made-up scares of the time, which were more focused on Pokemon and games like “Doom”, which would turn everyone into psychopathic axe murders (but with guns, not axes), which is why, after an entire generation has grown up running demons through with chainsaws, violent crime keeps dropping despite harsh economic times that normally lead to an upswing in crime… but, please, Fox News, don’t let “facts” get in the way of your witch hunts… not that they ever have. Wait, where was I? Oh yeah. Battlelords.

Blah blah what is an RPG blah blah…

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Midnight At The Well Of Souls

Midnight At The Well Of Souls

Midnight at the well of souls

Many great science fiction novels and settings have been turned into RPGs, and also some not-so-great ones. This is not one of the not-great ones; that is, it’s one of the great ones. Unlike a lot of great science fiction books, movies, or TV shows, it’s also eminently gameable. The novels, five in the original series (which I’ve read several times) and a bunch more written more recently (which I have not read, but since they were published well after this game, they’re irrelevant, and irrelevance never forgets), take place on the Well World, a kind of cosmic lab where the creators of all life in the universe experimented with different species. Think of it as a biological Google Labs. Some things got out of beta and were published, and some things, well, can we say “Google Wave”, anyone? In any event, the world was divided into hexagons — yes, hexagons — each containing a unique biome and a sapient race, ranging from humans to centaurs to talking asparagus to incomprehensible energy beings, and they all shared the same world, and in some hexes tech worked and in others it didn’t, and in some magic — yes, magic — worked and in others it didn’t, and you can see how a setting like this, with hundreds of races, mixed tech and magic, and a legendary control center (the “Well of Souls”) to quest for would be a perfect RPG setting. However, I’m going to bet you haven’t heard of the RPG, and as far as I know it vanished rather quickly, leaving behind no supplements. Why? Was it a steaming pile of suck, deserving of a painful death, or was it just in the wrong place at the wrong time? We won’t know until we crack open the book and begin!

Quick! Hit “Read More”! We have to begin!

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