Monday, August 31, 2009

Frozen War: Making Mistakes

My, wasn't the last blog post fun! We return you to our regularly scheduled gaming discussions.

School is starting now, but hopefully it won't interfere too much with my gaming schedule. It looks as though I'll be able to easily manage both and keep the house clean, or possibly get a part-time job, if finances become too tight. So, we press on and look to the next session of Frozen War, which has suffered some delays, but otherwise looks go.

GURPS is a big, complex game, full of tools you can use or not as you wish, and it's been years since I really ran it, so I often forget things. This is true with just about any game, even simple ones like the WoD, and the whole point of Frozen War is to practice, so we press on.

First, gravity and encumbrance. Ginnungagap is a smaller world than Earth, with about 0.8 times the gravity. This means, among other things, that everyone's encumbrance is lighter, but they also suffer a -1 to DX rolls, and some other things. I've been skipping the encumbrance part, and forgetting the -1 to DX, which is a problem as some players have paid points to be native to the gravity, and thus should have a minor advantage over those who don't have it. It might be more interesting to give them a +1 rather than everyone else in the entire game a -1, I'm not sure. Encumbrance, though, is a major issue, as I had forgotten the penalty it inflicted on, among other things, Dodge, and so players evaded more shots than they should have. I have rectified this on most everyone's sheet.

For that matter, I keep forgetting fatigue costs after a fight, which is something I should really remember, as it was something I remembered when I used to run GURPS. Between fitness and extra-effort and hiking fatigue and the like, the players should really be keeping an eye on their fatigue. I want to encourage those who are more durable to feel cool!

Ranged attacks. I've got grenades down pat: Hit dead on, do full damage. Miss by a little, do about a third of the damage. Miss by more than that, and kiss most of the damage good-bye. Easy. Suppression fire has been a bit trickier, as it's new to me, but I need to remember that, first of all, it lasts the whole turn, it only attacks those who go out into it, it attacks everyone who goes out into it, and players can use it too. I think I'll start directly targeting the players too, but I need to be more conscious of ranged attack penalties: Range, Cover, darkness and, occasionally, speed (-2 for a human running full out, -3 for a fast human or a quetzali, -4 for a fast quetzali). I keep forgetting cover, for some damn reason. Also, Roomie cannot kill a power-armored foe with his 18mm HEMP rounds. This changes some dynamics by quite a bit.

Electronics need to play a bigger role in the game. I need to encourage players to realize that their characters live in an information age richer than our own. Their HUD offers far more than just +2 to guns, but +3 from locks, and as much information as you can squeeze out of your Silhouette program. A few players have grabbed full on AR, so they'll even get vision bonuses. The best way to show all this is with vivid descriptions.

I need to fully stat the "big villains" of the game, because I've realized that even bad guys can have Luck. A few players got lucky in the last game, as players are wont to do, and nearly lost a major NPC. Luck is exactly appropriate to those situations, and the more I look at Luck, the more it feels like a mandatory "cinematic" advantage... which explains why it's on all the templates in GURPS action.

So there we have it: Gravity should have more affect, Dodge should be harder, battle more exhausting, suppressive fire both more and less dangerous, targeted fire more common but less dangerous, electronics more pervasive, and villains harder to pin down.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Further Gothic Space Opera Thoughts

I've been digging through lots of Discovery programs detailing the history of theology, Christianity and the dark ages looking for inspiration and, among other things, it occurs to me that I need to draw from more eras for inspiration. Just as 40k draws from World War I for its inspiration, I need to look elsewhere for mine, as all the best settings are awesome amalgamations of several different cool things. But that's not really what this post is about.

40k is not christian. Carefully sifting through history has shown me where the Imperium of Man really draws its inspiration: The Roman Empire. Now, obviously, Ultramarines and other clearly draw their inspiration from the Roman Empire, plus all the latin and such, but I think most 40k players assume that 40k represents a post-constantine, "dark ages" Roman Empire, slowly collapsing just as it did into the medieval world, while barbarians beat at its gate. However, worshipping an imperial, military figure head as an incarnate, still-existant god while "legions" go forth and conquer in his name, spreading Pax Imperium in His name, is very very Roman.

This means that my desire to make the faith of my setting decidedly christian, with a gother-than-thou martyr god who dies for your sins will create a different feel than 40k does, which is nice. Our Imperial Knights will be less legionaries and more knights, less military soldiers who fall in line and more elite agents who step up, which is, of course, more appropriate for an RPG.

If we have this martyr god who dies for our sins, though, who is "God the Father" that creates this martyr and gives him to us? I'm showing my mormonism here a little, as most Christians believe they are one and the same, but there's still a continuity element here, because God existed before Christ was born. So, unless our "Son of Man" was eternal, who made him? It's an interesting notion if he "made himself," but the actual agents would have to be the masters of Terra, and since Terra stands in for Jerusalem and the Holy Land in our game (You know, so we can go on a crusade and liberate it from the wicked powers that hold it, just like the knights did), the people of Terra stand in for the Jews, but they can also stand in for God, to some degree. Terra itself becomes the focus of worship.

But I find there's a further element that keeps cropping up as I work on my setting, namely the notion of the supernatural, technology, and who "God" is in the setting. I know some of you aren't fans of Transhumanism, but stick with me here. Vernor Vinge argued that technology is leading us to one of two places: It will either destroy us, if we cannot master it and our darker impulses have us flinging nukes at one another fast enough to wipe out our civilization, or it will result in accelerating our progress beyond a point where decent predictions can be made, the so-called "Singularity." If you talk to most Singularity-loving types, mention the Singularity and watch them. There'll be a sheen that comes to their eyes, their faces will lift, their voices will rise in an almost religious fervor. The machines will rise up, they will say, and take humanity and lift them into god-hood. They won't use those terms, but what they talk, and how they talk, reminds me alot of the Rapture.

In 40k, the dark age of technology only exists to get humanity to the stars. Once that's happened, we carefully wipe it out with a convenient and barely mentioned war, and get on with our dark ages and our many wars. But I propose an alternate take. During this dark age of technology, mankind develops many wondrous technologies, but stands on the cusp of perfection, an edenic state, and then one man reaches too high, as per the tower of Babylon, and is cursed, downcast and the Confusion of Tongues begins the first ruination of technology. War erupts as this master of Babylon, this Beast, conquers the many nations of Man, and even destroys the civilization of Terra, giving us a convenient diaspora and a setting of destruction behind the Rule of Man, and eliminating the technological supremacy that would make the game more THS than 40k. The Son of Man spreads his sacraments before the Beast of Babylon crucifies him (literally or not, I don't know), and soon, we have sacred Imperial Knights slaying the Beast of Babylon and claiming the empire for themselves, ala Constantine. We have further troubles, but importantly, man is not allowed to do things that would cause the Singularity (because he risks causing more disasters instead) until he finds and returns the Son of Man, who has sufficient wisdom to guide them to technological apotheosis, and we suddenly have shades of Revelations, where a dark age of blood and destruction precedes the return of the messiah to defeat the forces of evil and lead people to Heaven.

Except this time, you can't sit around just waiting for it to happen. You have to find your Messiah, if he ever existed at all, and lift him up.

This notion of Technology in place of the supernatural, not in the sense that "they think it is magic," but that it is the source of all the stuff in the medieval world would have been magic is now technological in nature, like our angels, our vampires, our miracles, has me on the verge of even discarding the Warp (in the form of Netherspace) in favor of these constructed hyper-space "highways," and other relics of humanity. What if everything in the setting was either the result of human ingenuity or hubris? I think something needs to be alien, but part of me likes the notion that every monster race (the vampires, the demons, the werewolves) are a result of a human technological sin, those that address our fears of technology: the Vampire is the fear of nanotech devouring our worlds, the demons are the fear of AI rising up and tossing aside their masters, the werewolf is the fear of genetic engineering making us no longer human, and there's gotta be something about our fear of the technologies of the future destroying our individuality, making us all cogs in a vast machine.

I don't see a place, a need, for the inhuman, unnatural, cthulhu-like monsters that 40k has. That interests me. I'll have to explore it further.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Gothic Space Opera

In an effort to get more involved with friends, I picked up some multi-player games, including Dawn of War 2 at the recommendation of a friend. Thoroughly impressed by Dawn of War 2, my fascination for 40k rekindled. Thoroughly obsessed with 40k, I began to ponder how to make a GURPS version once again.

I have a rule about conversions: I don't do them. Too many people try to get a particular setting exactly right, and either they fail (and the players complain) or they spend years putting together something that will result in a C&D order from the IP holders. So, I don't do it. Instead, I prefer to file the serial numbers off and make something unique that belongs to me, something that fits well with GURPS with a minimum of work, and something new that my players can explore.

So, instead of making GURPS: 40k, I'd rather make GURPS: Gothic Space Opera.

But what is Gothic Space Opera? If it's "Star" Marines protecting the "Imperial Dominion" of "Humanity" at the behest of the Divine God-"King" while fighting the evil force of "Anarchy" and "Space Elves" and "Intergalactic Bugs," you can still read the serial number through my poor attempt at creativity. The first rule of ripping someone off: rip off lots of different people, and you end up with something sufficiently unique that you're not actually ripping off anyone.

So, what else is Gothic Space Opera? The clearest and most similar example is probably the Fading Suns RPG which I've never played, but heard much about. I'll have to look into it. Going farther afield, Dune is clearly Gothic, with its vast spaceships, it's ancient orders of secret conspirators, its god-emperors and its elite warriors. Googling up the term turns up a few interesting results: Some people consider Revelation Space to be Gothic Space Opera, which I hadn't considered, as I started with the Prefect, but indeed, the rest depict the barbaric time following the downfall of civilization replete with immortals, vast cathedral-ships, spiraling gothic architecture and so on. Finally, someone pointed to the Chronicles of Riddick as quite gothic, another source I hadn't considered.

Some themes emerge: Gothic Space Opera is really just medieval dungeon fantasy in spaaaaace. Nobility is found in the blood, and the knights and warriors of space are inherently superior to those poor, common, dirt-sucking peasants. Everyone follows the edicts of the king, and there is a wide array of squabbling political groups, inquisitors, clerics, nobles, and orders of knights. The empire used to be greater and more awesome, and the further you dig into the past, the more awesome it was (there was a golden age, and then a silver age, and now we live in the brutal "age of steel"). Science is magical and people understand it only poorly, often leaning upon the relics of the past to get by. Stuff is bigger, more awesome, and baroque. Legacy is very, very important, and one gets the impression that the galaxy is huge, and you are just a very small part of everything else that is going on.

We'll look more into this idea later. I do like the idea of coming up with Space Opera Lenses, after I finish my core Space Opera set.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

After Action Report: Frozen War: Downfall

See? That wasn't so bad.

As a game master, I think I can tell when a session goes well, and when it does not. A poor session has distracted players, slow responses, and quick goodbyes at the end. A good session has eager players talking over one another, and babbling commentary at the end. Last nights game had all the signs of the latter, oh boy did it.

The tricky part with a war game, particularly a futuristic one, is the lethality of the weapons. While futuristic soldiers get great armor, their opponents get even better weapons. However, Dr. Kromm had some great advice on how to run a cinematic war: use lots of suppressive, have grenades and such hit some distance away, and keep most actual gun fights with pistols and other light weapons. I also used "goon" rules for most of the enemy soldiers (and allied goon-soldiers too, to be fair), where they didn't bother to defend, and only had 1 HP before they passed out. The result had the contradictory "scary but cinematic" feeling I was hoping for: I managed to take an arm from a player, badly wound one, knock out another, and scare the holy hell out of the last one, but I didn't actually kill off any PC. The players wanted it to be a mark of honor that they survived, and I wanted them to actually survive, so walking the line between cake walk and slaughter-fest wasn't easy, but I pulled it off, thanks to Kromm's advice, and the surprising versatility and realism of GURPS.

Story-wise, I managed to keep the pace up. It took nearly 7 hours to play out (with interruptions), but nobody actually complained (Tony had to "leave" early, but instead kept coming back to play his character when we needed him. Kudos!), we managed to get alot done (I didn't have to shortcut through anything), and they did all three final missions. And won. Crazy. I also introduced, uh, 18 NPCs, and the players actually kept them all straight, and cared about everyone they were supposed to care about.

I don't think I could possibly run this game more tightly. Swift pacing, sweet action, great player response, rich characterizations all around, I'd have to rate this session a rare, golden 10. I bet I'll have my players beating down my door for this. My only complaints so far: Tony seems weak on the RP front, but that's to be expected with his lack of experience, and I failed at several rules, forgetting encumbrance, not specifically targetting players when I really should have, and gravity, and finally, I need to stat up my hardcore NPC bad guys. That will come, I think.

All in all, a success. I am pleased.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Stage Fright

I haven't run a game in several months, not since WoD: Witchcraft ended (with a whimper rather than a bang, alas), and so this will be the first to break the drought. And then it sweeps back in: stage fright.

I always get nervous before a game. I'm probably the most well-prepared GM I know, but there's always that point before I've really put pencil to paper, where I don't really know beyond the general idea of what I want, and all I can see are the gaping holes, the flaws. It's alot of work to get past that initial barrier, and so I give myself plenty of time, and invariably, it turns out ok. But it still turns my stomach, everytime.

The first session is always the worst.

I'll have a new player joining us. The pressure should be low, but it doesn't feel that way. Still, I'm sure when I'm in my seat, describing everything for the group, it'll all come together.

Just gotta make sure to review the rules (Simplified suppression fire! Grenades!), make sure the NPCs are ok, and I have the proper sequence of events. Everything else has already been taken care of. Wish me luck!

Tuesday, August 4, 2009


Of course, writing space opera material requires aliens. I used to hate rubber-forehead aliens until Mass Effect helped me realize that the problem with starfish aliens is that they're awfully hard to relate to. You can't fall in love with a floating jellyfish from a triple-gendered species that thinks in a language of colors and tones. You can't punch a giant stone-monolith-brain that controls fungal-worm minions in the face with any kind of satisfaction. Real aliens force us to think more abstractly. And, you know, that's cool, but when it comes to the rule of cool, the rule of fun, we want beautiful space princesses to romance and evil space warlords to defeat.

Of course, the easiest way to do this is to have genetically engineered humans. After all, in the sorts of pulpy swashbuckling tales that space opera often stand in for, stalwart British sailors made French or Spanish (or Japanese or African) princesses swoon and punched evil German, Chinese, Russian or, I dunno, American Warlords in the face. Now, the warlord of Mars is just another human, removed from his ancestry via some genetic modifications to make mars more hospitable, and that waifish sweetheart on the run is a genetically engineered cat-girl pleasure-slave who just wants to live a free life.

This is all fine and well, but sometimes we want to explore truly alien ideas. What would it be like to be from a triple-gendered species? Or intelligent water-breathers? Or from a hive-minded "pack-individual" species? We enjoy Starfish aliens because they explore fascinating biologies and psychologies, but we can't relate to them. Thus, the ideal Rubber Forehead alien is a melding between genetically engineered human (someone we can relate to and fight and deal with in a heroic, adventurous manner) and a starfish alien (something creepy-awesome and totally different).

Robert Sawyer has some interesting things to say about alien design, that I agree with a great deal. If anything bothers me more than the Rubber Forehead alien, it's the Planet of Hats. Star Trek is probably the worst offender when it comes to aliens: Klingons (for example) are Space Vikings. They think and act just like a human does (they have males and females, they get married, they fight duels over honor, they fight over territory, they eat meat and vegetables), except they're all warriors. All of them. Every last one of them. Try really hard to picture a klingon scientist? What do you get? A raging gorilla space-viking with a test-tube and a labcoat. A klingon diplomat? A raging gorilla space-viking who sits in your embassy speaking a crazy, growly language and babbling about honor all the time. Because the klingons have nothing to make them distinctive from humans, they have to have a hat, and sliding beyond that hat violates their alienness: a klingon who does not act like a warrior is just a human with funny looking brow.

So how do you avoid this?

Whenever I've written setting material, I've always used what I call the "rule of threes:" I must be able to see whatever I'm writing about from three different perspectives, and be able to name at least three different cool things about it/them.

For aliens, my core three "things" are mechanics, biology and psychology. Mechanics is hard to explain outside of RPG terms and isn't particularly useful if you're, say, reading this post because you're curious about writing up aliens for a book or something. Basically, mechanics asks how an alien plays differently from a human. This can be simple: My Quetzali (whom I will be using as an example in this post) run very quickly, have lots of innate weaponry, and tend to be very strong. Of those three, speed is probably the most important in an ultra-tech GURPS game, as ST doesn't matter for much beyond big guns and encumbrance. Other races might be stranger: I'm toying with giving a silicon race "Cannot Learn" and Modular Skills, so where a human learns from experience, this race readjusts where it has applied its limited mental facilities, giving them a very different experience curve. Another race (those monolithic minds above) might have 5 bodies per character, and the player simply decides which body he wants to bring into battle today. Each alien plays differently.

Biology boils down to interesting chemistries and biological notions. The Quetzali above have very large gender dimorphism: the males are huge, impressive, loud and colorful, where the females are bland, smaller (human sized) and more intelligent. I was inspired by lions. The silicon critters mentioned above are, of course, silicon, so they do things like exhale sand and start to freeze to death below 50° F (and that's only because they're "arctic" silicon life). These can be anything as long as its one thing that makes the alien broadly different from humans when it comes to form and function.

Finally, psychology should include at least one thing that makes the aliens different from humans when it comes to thinking. This must be deeper than a hat, and typically follows from their biology. The Quetzali, coming from a harem-based predator species, have little conception of fear (if you were a 9-foot tall, 500 pound meat-eater, not much would scare you either, even if it should, like a gun), and they're very status conscious. The silicon life might be mostly solitary, until they come together for an occassional meet/greet/breeding session (say, once a year), much like many arctic species do, and they must rely a great deal on reputation to ensure they can earn mates, making them very "honorable" and conscious of reputation and face (not status, like the Quetzali above: they don't care whether you think they are badass, they care whether you think they are honest and not going to kill you).

When you're done, stop and look back at what you've created, and make sure you can see it from three different perspectives. I like to try to picture them from a combat/investigation/negotiation perspective. Can a Quetzali fit all three? A female might behave alot like a human, being a soldier, a scientist or a bureaucrat. Her "drabness" encourages her to take "drab" jobs. But the male, bright, status-concious, lazy and impressive, chooses more fun, glorious jobs, like warrior, philosopher and politician/dictator.

There's nothing wrong with basing your species on an earth-based culture and animal, but make sure you file the serial numbers off. It can't look exactly like the species in question, or the players will quickly dismiss your critters as "like dogs" or "like cats." The best fantasy races, for example, tend to be quite different from anything else on earth: You can't tell me what animal an orc is based on (A pig? A boar? A wolf?). The same should be true of aliens. Using my Quetzali as an example again: I've always liked how different an unusual lions are, with their harems and their predatory hijacking and their broad gender dimorphism, with the women doing all the work and the men sitting around looking pretty. However, "Proud, warrior cat-people" has been done to death. So I needed to make them different: I started with scales, and then started slapping on the traits of other, applicable animals: feathers from dinosaurs (a friend of mine pointed out that they reminded him of peacocks, because of the brilliantly colored masculine "manes" resembling peacock tails), the venemous bite of a dragon or a komodo dragon, the chromatic colors of dragons, and I retained some of the lesser known lion traits, such as the females going into heat when one male defeats another, or males who take over a harem eating/killing the children of the previous male. With sufficient work, your creation looks creative, rather than stolen. Always cover your tracks.

In all other regards, the alien should be human were possible. Quetzali stand upright, speak with their mouths, use their hands to grasp things, get married (sort of), romance, have sex the way humans might, and even the wierder stuff is done in a fashion a human can relate to. The silicons should have an obvious "face," and hands and legs, and they should think more or less the way a human does, and so on. Because these aliens will be played by humans, or interact with human players, they should only be as different as is necessary to establish them as alien, and in all other regards be something a human can handle.

If you've got all that, you should have an alien race your players can enjoy, that they'll find unique and interesting, and that can be characterized beyond a mere hat.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Insomniac Soldiers

My wife is looking at me (at 11:35 am) and asking why I'm not in bed yet. I hate it when my schedule is like this.

My Space Opera Military mini-project goes apace, with my load-outs nearly complete. This little project is doing just what I hoped it would do: motivating me to work on something (for my players) in such a way that will benefit my long-term project, namely to create enemy templates. Already, I'm getting a picture of what a (human) TL 10 fighting force will look like. Now I just need to create some "player" templates for these lesser soldiers (not the be confused with the Soldier, who I should probably rename the Space Marine, since he's even on tvtropes), and those will serve as the prototypes for my NPC soldier stats.

Interesting tidbit: I hate power cells. I don't mind the concept of them, but I hate the fact that your space opera hero has like 50 different gadgets with 50 different power cells that run out at 50 different paces. It's too much to track! So, I've been coming around to the idea of unifying multi-gadgets (such as complete armor systems), and one idea that popped out was a single power-cell pack that powers all the gadgets.

Ultra tech discusses how best to do this, by simply noting all the power-cells and then bundling them all under the next higher power-cell-category. If you have 10 different gadgets all with B/10 hours, for example, you can just have 1 C cell power them for 10 hours. Easy! Until you have an A/1 hour gadget and a 2B/2 day gadget, and so on.

So here's what I did: assume that an AA cell has 1 "power point," an A cell has 10 "power points" and so on. Determine the power/hour ratio for all gadgets (for example, an A/5 hour gadget uses 2 power points per hour), add these all up, and you'll know how much power every gadget uses per hour, and then you simply apply whatever new power cells you want, and determine how long those power cells will last (assuming continuous usage). For my soldiers, I found that all their gadgets used 46 power points per hour, so I replaced all those power cells with 3 C cells (providing 3,000 power points), which gives the soldier 65 hours of power, just shy of 3 days.

Nice, huh? ^_^
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...