Thursday, January 31, 2019

An Unkindness of Ghosts

I'm a bit more than a third of the way through Rivers Solomon's An Unkindness of Ghosts, which isn't a horror story but instead a generation ship novel. I don't normally post a review until I have finished a book, but as someone who is a fan of generation ship stories, this one is doing something new.

New is a matter of some significance in generation ship narratives. The most prevalent themes in the fiction have been a ship that is lost, off course, or otherwise breaking down. Kim Stanley Robinson's Aurora is a terrifyingly grim late exploration of the theme, wedding hard SF considerations and social SF themes smoothly - and depressingly. If Aurora's central argument is that crewed interstellar exploration is a Bad Idea, he sold me on that idea.

What Rivers Solomon does is even more interesting. Her generation ship has a racial hierarchy similar to the Jim Crow South. Resource scarcity is experienced according to the color line, with brutal consequences like heat reductions on the lower decks that lead to malnutrition and gangrene. One of the first scenes in the book involves an amputation.

The ship has physical problems as well, and no one on the lower decks seems to know where it is going. A third of the way into the novel, it seems more likely than not that the ship's engineering/physical problems are really social problems. Time will tell, but I don't see how we avoid that. 

I said at the beginning of the review that A River of Ghosts wasn't a horror story - but it is if you consider racism a horror.

Saturday, January 19, 2019

Ball Lightning

I just finished Cixin Liu's Ball Lightning this morning; it was a fairly quick read, since I had just started the novel a week ago. While the book is in some ways a prequel to Remembrance of Earth's Past (i.e., The Three-Body Problem trilogy), featuring the first appearance of both the aliens and the physicist Ding Yi from the trilogy, the book's primary focus is on the scientific investigation of ball lightning, a poorly understood phenomenon.

Scientific research quickly morphs into weapons research. The physics in the novel uses and extends perhaps the most exotic hypothesis regarding the nature of ball lightning, the soliton hypothesis (shades of the physics in Liu's Death's End), and the experimenters have more than one brush with the uncanny as they explore the implications and applications of ball lightning. 

Now, I am wondering how long I'll have to wait to read another of Liu's novels in translation?

Sunday, September 9, 2018

Tabletop Tesseract 2

Yesterday, Saturday Night Space Opera presented Tabletop Tesseract 2 at the Source, the only exclusively SF focused gaming con in the Twin Cities, Minnesota (and maybe the state, and maybe the Midwest)! From 10:15 AM-10 PM, we offered 18 games (16 RPGs and 2 board games) run by 10 different GMs. I haven't seen a head-count of participants, but attendance grew steadily through the day!  Almost all the event organizing was the work of one person, Jay Mac Bride! This was a huge amount of work for one person. Jay did everything with grace and style.

I ran "A Cloaked Ship is No Small Flavor" a post-Dominion War Klingon bird-of-prey heist game (so to speak) using Modiphius' Star Trek Adventures RPG. The crew of the Intrepid-class USS John Brown was tasked with liberating a bird-of-prey from a Tholian Web. This was a covert operation, one provoked by the brief Klingon war against the Federation during the Dominion War. In the postwar environment, the Federation is understandably less interested in begging the Klingons for favors when they need a cloaked ship. The players enjoyed themselves, and did some clever things to advance the mission. They were successful.

I was also able to play in a couple of great games.

Numenéra has become my current obsession, and after a couple of weeks of reading the Numenéra 1st edition book, getting the new slipcase edition of Numenéra Discovery/Destiny (essentially 2e), and securing a copy of the Numenéra deluxe boxed set, I was ready to play the game!  Fortunately, our Saturday Night Space Opera group has about four GMs with Cypher System experience, and I'd say that Cypher is probably the most frequently GMed system at our monthly events.  

Jenifer Doll ably ran a great Numenéra 2e game; I really admire her mastery of the system, the preparation she does to ensure a smooth game, and the small touches like the SFnal fantasy coins she uses for XP.  Jenifer really rolled with the punches as players did unpredictable things, or got distracted - or maybe our PCs got distracted... 

I played Heliára, a Cutured Nano who Possesses a Shard of the Sun. I really liked playing her.  She reminded me a bit of Kyra, the female iconic cleric from Pathfinder.  I've always liked that character.

But all of the pregens were memorable and came to life as played at the table: the bardish Marduk, played by Patrick (who actually sang a bunch while in character!); Tars, the tankish Glave played by Jay; and Spraunk, played by Ben. Spraunk belonged to one of the new Destiny classes that specialized in cannibalizing old cyphers and numenera to build new cyphers.

I also had my first opportunity to play Ben Robbins' Kingdom RPG, which is a neat storygame that focuses on exploring what happens when a specific situation occurs in a "kingdom": anything from a nation-state to a starship, in the case of Patrick Shifano's scenario based on "Tambu", an SF novel by Robert Lynn Asprin. We played the crew of a starship in a space empire that rules through the tributary mode of production. The situation that we faced was a distress call from a ship troubled by the breakout of a bioweapon. I played Shipcat (see the paper miniature at the top of the post. Shipcat was also the captain of the ship, although he spent a lot of time prowling in the ducts and vents.

Patrick had great paper minis for use as primary and secondary characters, and had a very nice set of handouts prepared for the game. He did a great job of preparing a situation to explore in advance of our game. One issue with some storygames like Fiasco and Microscope (Ben's earlier game) is that aspects of the setting and situation to be explored can get pretty random, fanciful, and silly when a group of players has to create the entire set-up at the beginning of the game. Patrick very effectively gave us an initial situation with which to work, and that contributed to a satisfying game.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, we had 16 RPGs, and of those RPGs, there were a total of 10 systems used. Only two of the ten systems (Stay Frosty and Mutant Crawl Classics) have any degree of family resemblance to traditional Dungeons & Dragons, yet all the games were quite accessible to new players. I think this gives the lie to the idea that the d20 system as represented by D&D and Pathfinder has a special place as a universal or uniquely accessible system.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Dinosaurs On A Spaceship: Part YOU

I had a full table for my Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space RPG event at Saturday Night Space Opera last night!  I had seven players, so a big table. For Jessie (farthest left), who played Nefertiti, this was her first time playing an RPG, ever. She did a great job playing the character we remember so well from the 11th Doctor episode, "Dinosaurs on a Spaceship." Another really memorable performance was that of Alex, the player on the right holding up his character sheet. He stole the show playing K-9.

It has been about 2010 since I last ran this RPG. I reread the rules over the course of last week, and I believe I ran the rules fairly close to as-written. Players learned them quickly, which was great, and a couple really became skilled in using Story Points to create interesting story details, mitigate bad rolls, and boost their levels of success with actions. People also appreciated the action sequence in DWAITAS -  actions take place in the order of Talking -> Moving ->Do Something -> Fight. That is a really effective mechanic for creating a Doctor Who feel at the table.

I know what I could have done better as a GM: MORE DINOSAURS! The PCs had an initial fight with a T-Rex, dealt it a couple fatal wounds, and then administered first aid. That was very Doctor Who! But the players' feedback was that they would have liked even more dinosaur action. They did find some of the other adversaries on the ship, the Cybermen, pretty scary and compelling. So that was good.

My question, maybe frustration, with the system is with the number of Story Points that characters start with in the game. One of the players, Patrick (furthest on the right) stayed after the game to talk with me a bit about DWAITAS Story Point mechanics (as well as Elysium Flare and Diaspora), and that was helpful. He is a storygamer, by which I mean he takes mechanics seriously, as one should.

Patrick suggested reducing the number of Story Points that players start with, in order to see if that increases narrative tension and the possibility of failure. Today, I checked both the DWAITAS GM book, and the core book for Rocket Age, which uses the same system.  The DWAITAS GM book provides little guidance on Story Points and perceived challenge, and Rocket Age uses the same parameters for Story Points as DWAITAS, so no help there. 

I may run this scenario again in the near future, add a whole lot more challenges and adversaries, and see if that makes a difference.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Join Us for Jurassic July!

I'll be running one of the two scenarios for Jurassic July, our next Saturday Night Space Opera event. The games are this Saturday, July 14, starting at 6 PM at Source Comics and Games in Roseville, MN.

My game is called "Dinosaurs on a Spaceship, Part YOU":

Dinosaurs on a Spaceship was one of the best Series 7 Doctor Who episodes. The Doctor and several companions jumped onto the Silurian ark with the Tardis, and saved the ark and its dinosaurs from both the missiles of the Indian Space Agency, and from a particularly disreputable salvager and his sarcastic robots.Then the Doctor left the scene.

Now the ark needs YOU! Jump into the sequel, as an expedition from Earth seeks to wrest control of the Silurian space ark from unknown invaders!

Game System: Doctor Who RPG by Cubicle 7
GM: John Everett Till

The other game is "Skull Island: A Three-Hour Tour":

You and your veteran team are handed an easy assignment from your boss in the Estate: Penetrate a quarantined bubble of reality drifting near the Shoals of Earth. Ignore any reports you may have heard about the hazards of Skull Island, giant monsters fighting for dominance, weird Fay creatures singing to moths in caves, or fire-breathing three-headed dragons. Pack your hiking boots and a spare pair of socks, because it's going to be a working vacation!
Game System: The STRANGE by Monte Cook Games
GM: Matt Towle

I hope to see some of you there!

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Elysium Flare

Everyone knows that the Elysium Flare is Archon's gamma ray burst. Everyone is waiting for it. It's the moment when everyone lost to a hegemon or a horror comes back. The best of us contrive to accelerate the event. The worst among us dawdle and distract, or seek to interfere with the great work of immanence and precipitation.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Coronal Mass Ejection


Coronal Mass Ejection (Enchantment/Necromancy, Cost, Per Scenario): One of the most potent subterfuge/obfuscatory formulae, Coronal Mass Ejection is a Flashy casting that generates an anogenic solar response. Upon a +2 effort, a sun releases a coronal mass ejection that reaches a planetary target up to one Astronomical Unit (AU) in distance; each additional +1 effort extends the range of the ejection by 1 AU.

Casting this formula requires a considerable sacrifice: the caster takes a Severe Consequence, which may manifest as radiation burns, psychological harm, or other disturbances, such as spontaneous mutations.

The coronal mass ejection permanently takes out any planetary and orbital communication and computational systems unless they were purpose built to resist such stellar events. Hardened systems will still be taken out for at least one scene.

There is a further potential consequence of casting this formula. It often increases entropy in the star that is the target of the casting.

Roll 1dF:
  • A positive face indicates no effect beyond the coronal mass ejection;
  • A blank face indicates that the star enters a period of instability, with frequent subsequent coronal mass ejections; 
  • A negative face indicates that the star enters a terminal, often explosive phase.