Saturday, August 29, 2015

Rocket Summer*

A little break from Saturday grant writing

It's been an unusual summer in many ways. My Muse hasn't entirely left me, but she's been recharging. The early summer was all about reading the planetary romance short stories of Leigh Brackett: 500 pages or more worth of stories, and well worth the time investment. The late summer has been all about rereading many early works of my favorite SF author, Samuel R. Delany. In the last two months, I read Nova and Babel-17 for the first time in 30+ years, reread the Einstein Intersection (which I first read about 8-10 years ago), and Fall of the Towers trilogy.

Many times in the past I tried to read the Fall of the Towers, but had never made any headway. This time I was able to get far enough into the first book for the entire trilogy to click. I read it in a week. My friend Bruce Baugh shared a wonderful insight into this trilogy, describing it as a Green Lantern Corps comic series in novel form. But less violent. I think the comparison is apt.

It is worth pointing out that this trilogy does have a rape scene which drives future elements of the story. In fact, one member of the Second Foundation reading group - one of the three or four other hardcore Delany fans I have met in Minnesota - stated that she had no interest in reading the book again because of a horrific scene that she still remembers. I think it has to be this one.

Like Octavia Butler, Delany does not shy away from depicting brutality; still I am glad that rape is not a recurrent theme or plot driver in most of his work.

It's also striking how fresh Delany's 1960s work feels upon (re)reading them today; they have aged very well.

Going forward into September, there are a few things I am reading. The Second Foundation will be discussing the works of Joan Slonczewski, so I am going to try to read at least one of her novels (either A Door Into Ocean or The Wall Around Eden). I've met Slonczewski; she's a biologist with the gift of bio-gab.) The Empire Reading Group will take on China Mieville's latest short story collection, Three Moments of an Explosion. This is an exciting and potentially dangerous moment for the latter group; we have been reading together for something like 12 years or so, but everything we have read heretofore has been non-fiction: books like Tony Negri's Empire (after which the group is named), radical and/or feminist science studies, feminist and LGBTQ theory, and history.

However I am also reading a few other things and have a bit more energy at the moment around those projects:

  • Rereading Samuel R. Delany's Tales of Neveryon
  • Cixin Liu's The Three-Body Problem
  • Greg Stafford and Jeff Richard's revised edition of King of Sartar
*Thanks to my friend Scott Martin for dropping this title in a thread in G+.

Stay tuned next week for an exciting new project here at FATE SF!

Friday, June 19, 2015

On Good Game Stores

Last week I returned to my home town of Rochester, New York for a few days. I haven't been back for five years, so I was curious about the state of the local game stores there. My old haunt from the '90s was Crazy Egor's Discount Game Warehouse. That was a game store comparable to the Source Comics and Games in the Twin Cities. It carried pretty much everything. Paul, the owner, and his staff loved games and gamers. It was a super friendly FLGS.

In the late '90s, Paul sold the store in Henrietta, and the new owners renamed it Millenium Games. The change was pretty remarkable during my visits in the mid to late 2000s. The new owners sold off a ton of vintage games for bargain basement prices. They began narrowing their selection considerably.

Every time I came in there the place felt odd - like the owners and staff saw the store as just business. There was a begrudging vibe. Asking if a new product had come into their store yet seemed like a weird, offputting question to the staff. They didn't seem to know the product lines and forthcoming products at all. They didn't seem to know that diehard gamers are all obsessives. So when I came to town, I visited there, but never got my hopes up too much that I would find something I'd like.

I was pretty disappointed this trip. While they had Night Witches on their new shelf (which my FLGS hasn't stocked yet), as well as OVA, that was pretty much it for non-Fate indie releases. Even less shelf space was devoted to RPGs than on my visit five years ago. Instead there was a big frisbee section in the store, a lot of board games, and a some comics. Fate books but no Fate dice.

We weren't exactly ignored during our visit but we weren't really greeted either - not to mention not being asked "anything you're looking for, chummer?"

But six or seven years ago a new game store opened in Rochester. It was a friend who collected records who clued me into its existence.  My friend Terry got a kick out of the name: Boldo's Armory. He's not a gamer but he could sense the gamer vibe just from the name.

Boldo's sells armor, RPGs, card games, and Warhammer stuff. A snug store right on Monroe Avenue (a neigborhood combining hip and grunge), Boldo's makes good use of modest space: games on the walls, game tables in the center of the space. Boldo's packs a lot in.

On prior visits I noticed that what they carried wasn't always the newest stuff, but you always got the sense that the people working there were gamers who cared about games. Their tagline is A Better Place For Games, and that really shows from their friendliness and willingness to engage (not stalk, not ignore) visitors.

Finally on this trip, Boldo's pulled ahead in terms of its RPG stock. Lots of vintage stuff still (I saw a copy of Star Frontiers there!) but also some new RPGs that have never hit the Source. I picked up Tremulus, a storytelling game of lovecraftian horror, during my quick visit to the store. If I had stayed longer, I would have purchased more. The owner was friendly, knowledgeable about games, and said he had read the Tremulus rules and thought the game was pretty interesting from a design standpoint.

I can't imagine I'll be getting back to Rochester any time soon, but the next time I do, I'll be heading straight for Boldo's Armory.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

The Works of Leigh Brackett

Gollancz cover illustration by Les Edwards

This afternoon, the Second Foundation Reading Group gathered to conclude its discussion of the works of Anne Leckie, and begin its discussion of the works of Leigh Brackett. Best known as the author of a screenplay for the Empire Strikes Back, which you can download here, Brackett in fact was the writer behind a number of classic Hollywood films such as the The Big Sleep, Rio Bravo, and The Long Goodbye.

I have read some of the Skaith novels in the past - one or two quite recently, thanks to Paizo's late, lamented Planet Stories imprint - and for this session I read two of the Eric John Stark novellas set on Mars: "Queen of the Martian Catacombs" and "Black Amazon of Mars". Both were quite good, with a strong classic planetary romance feel and some interesting female supporting characters and adversaries.

I am sure that Brackett's Mars was very much influenced by Edgar Rice Burroughs, with its city-states scattered among deserts and ruins, and exotic cultures that have seen better days. Oddly enough, the native peoples of Brackett's Mars have a lot of Irish names, and there are even Martians with red hair. "Red Planet, Red Hair" as one member of the reading group quipped!

But the differences go a little deeper than that. You won't see a spaceport on any maps of Barsoom, but you do find them on Stark's Mars and the other worlds in Brackett's solar system. Earth has commercial interests on Mercury, Venus, and Mars, and Leigh Brackett's most memorable character, Eric John Stark is in fact a human orphan who was raised by the non-human natives of Mercury. He was something of a feral child until discovered and "civilized" by an agent of Earth. Thereafter Stark has a series of adventures: some on his own, some as a not-always-willing agent of meddlesome Earth interests.

In the course of reading Brackett's Mars stories I discovered a few things that made me go hummm. There is a "Seven Kingdoms" on Brackett's Mars. There is an ice wall in the far north and a city just south of the Wall which guards the Gates of Death. Then there is Eric John Stark himself. In the Skaith novels, he is described as a wolf's head (meaning an outlaw), and of course today we know another Jon Stark, I mean Snow, who also has a wolf's head (the sign of his father's House, and the the decoration on the pommel of his sword). And there are great hounds on Skaith. So I wouldn't be surprised at all if Leigh Brackett was an influence on George R. R. Martin.

The next gathering of the Second Foundation is Sunday, August 9, from 2-4 PM at Merlin's Rest in Minneapolis. We're going to continue our discussion of the works of Leigh Brackett, and begin to discuss the 1960s SF of Samuel R. Delaney (my favorite SF author). I'll be reading more of Leigh Brackett's pulp SF work for that session, as well as her novel The Long Tomorrow which I have heard is very good.

Reading more Brackett will also be good preparation for Diversicon in late July, where Leigh Brackett will be one of our posthumous guests of honor along with Gene L. Coon and Sun Ra.  I plan to run a pulp SF RPG scenario there called Princesses of Mars; Or, the Search for Stark. All the PCs will be female characters, each with a connection to Stark. I'm working on some clever scene titles for the scenario, including:
  • A Game of Starks
  • Devils in the Dark
  • Mothership  
As far as Delaney, I may re-read Nova and Babel-17, as well as read The Fall of the Towers trilogy, which I have taken a couple of stabs at recently. All of this should make for great summer reading.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

"Engines Don't Give You Any Backchat"

I've been called a Stalinist many times in my life, but yesterday, was the first chance I've ever had to GM like one. It was fun. I ran a one-shot of +Jason Morningstar's Night Witches at the Fantasy Flight Games Event center. Night Witches is an Apocalypse World variant in which one plays WW II Soviet airwomen who flew nightime bombing raids against the German lines using modified cropdusters. That's right: it's a game pitting biplanes against flak guns and ME 109 fighters.

Folks have no doubt heard a lot about the game so I'll just say that the sequence of play alternates nightime bombing raids with daytime repair operations, NKVD interviews, and secret liaisons. The game can be quite lethal, which accurately simulates the WW II reality of the 588th Night Bomber Regiment. Over a single Duty Station and about 5 missions, we lost:
  • One pilot (the "extra" PC that I created) to the NKVD. who took her away on suspicion of promoting antisocialist ideas (she was a devout Orthodox Christian)
  • Lost two of the four planes in our Section to anti-aircraft fire and a crash (the airfield had a tilted statue of Lenin quite close to two criss-crossing airstrips
  • One pilot to enemy fire
The players had to fend off at least two other NKVD investigations. Thus the title quote, which came from our Section chief.

I purchased the Night Witches card set to use in the game. They are a real godsend for managing play. The deck has cards for: 
  • Positions in the aircraft (each plane has a Pilot and a Navigator, and the deck has four cards for each role, with each card also labelled as corresponding to one of four planes in a Section), 
  • Advances, which considerably speed up character generarion during one-shots
  • Medals that the PCs can earn through valiant deeds, and
  • Portraits of Soviet officers. All of these but one are female, which is great. I can't think of any RPG where I have had so many different and non-hypersexualized female images to choose from for PCs and NPCs. 

We enjoyed the session, and one of the players suggested we run a Night Witches campaign as part of our regular Thursday Night Group.  It's a good game for episodic play, which is how we'll probably do it.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

"What Is 'Library'?"

The second location that players visited in Friday night's Fate Strange Stars scenario at JonCon was the Library of Atoz-Theln, a library-world in the Zuran Expanse. As +trey causey's Strange Stars Game Setting Book relates, the Library was built before the Great Collapse. It has virtual records dating back to the era Archaic Oikumene - and even before that time. Not only does the Library contain virtual records; it also possesses physical records and artifacts from countless worlds. The Library therefore contains a vast store of otherwise lost knowledge.

The players in my "Rescue on Tenebrae" scenario had two reasons for going to the Library of Atoz-Theln.  Their ostensible purpose was to gain more information about their ultimate target, the world of Tenebrae.  However our ne'er-do-well Captain-and-Star-Lord's most important motivation for going there was to find a cache of ancient eight track tapes. Where else in the Strange Stars would one look for such antique and priceless cultural artifacts?

So they landed, under guidance from Library flight control. In my version of the Library, information is organized topographically, and one of the players declared the narrative detail that since the players did not pay special inducements, they had been assigned landing rights over the limnology section of the Library. I went with that.

The Library of Atoz-Theln has very strong Metascape virtualities, and almost as soon as their ship, the Kill-Wagon landed, the players found that they were on a lakeside beach. They felt lake breezes, even inside their ship as the Library's Metascape systems began to overwrite shipboard systems. The players exited the ship and heard the calls of shorebirds. They also spied an immense pterosaur soaring overhead. The Collections are eclectic. What can I say?

The players descended far below the surface of the world using high speed elevators accessible from the beach.  The found themselves in a corridor that was in fact a tube within a gigantic aquarium stocked with all sorts of aquatic life. If you have been to Biosphere 2 you've been in a miniature version of this.

Soon they encountered one of the numerous humanoid librarians dwelling within the Library. The player of the Star-Hawk-ey PC, who belonged to the bird-like Hyehoon clade, decided it would be fun to spend 1 FP and make a narrative declaration that the librarian recognized Gamorine, the party's Gamora-like character, as a wanted-on-all-worlds assassin. (I don't normally see PVP play in Fate games, but I went with it since it was an interesting complication. Really, I should have given a FP to Gamorine...).

The assassin teleported the librarian into one of the aquaria and let him drown.

Nasty stuff.

Next the players took a subterranean tubecar to one of the workshops where restorative work was being done on ancient artifacts. Eight tracks were stolen! The players were somewhat surprised that they were completely ignored by the librarian-restorationists in the workshops. Everyone was very focused on their own work. Kind of like the special neurological state of focus in Vernor Vinge's A Deepness in the Sky.

Finally, the players located a deep library section dedicated to the world of Tenebrae. This was a virtual reality as well. Things got creepy when the labyrinth's masked Skulkers appeared, and one took on the mien of Gamorine's father, Lord Death. Virtualities can be tricky that way, and sometimes a daughter can carry along a bit of her father without even realizing it...

Needless to say, the players soon high-tailed it out of that labyrinth and got back to their ship.

Next stop, the dead world of Tenebrae.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Hard Times On Desperation B

Friday night I ran my Strange Stars scenario "Rescue on Tenebrae." The action took place on three worlds in +trey causey's Strange Stars setting. All three worlds were in the Zuran Expanse, a lawless and isolated region of space with many mysteries. Today, I am going to share some setting material of my own for one of the systems in that sector, the home system of the Penitents.

So who are the Penitents? They are also often called by the derogatory term Deodands, as they are a people cursed with eternal recurrence for some long-forgotten crime. Indeed, loss of memory seems to be a key feature of the Penitents' peculiar purgatory, for every time one dies and is physically reborn in a new body, they have only vague memories of their previous life.

This often brings trouble. Forgotten enemies who remember you. Unpaid debts to others. Lost goods and resources due to murky memories.  It's hard to access your financial resources when you can't remember where your accounts are, let alone your passwords.

That's why almost all Penitents are reborn on their home orbital in abject poverty. It's why those orbitals are squalid, overcrowded, dangerous places filled with desperate poor people.

There's no racial conflicts at least. While there are "lefties" and "righties" among the Penitents (terms which are a constant source of confusion to visitors), this isn't a source of conflict. Everyone's chromatic chirality flips periodically between incarnations. There's no racism, just grinding poverty, an abundance of self-destructive behaviors, and for a determined few, a slow crawl to the top of the social heap.

If you step onto spacedock on Desperation B - one of numerous such stations in Penitent space - here are a few of the people you might meet.

Penitent Encounter Table

Roll 4DF and consult the corresponding result below:

  • -4: Metascape realtor: A respectable sleaze tries to sell you exclusive access to a less squalid virtual reality.
  • -3: Algosian procurer: A seductive alien seeks willing subjects to dominate, degrade, and torture. Non-Penitents are also welcome to apply.
  • -2: Aurogov labor recruiter: What's better than working for free in a cult sweatshop? Just download this self-help software and you will be motivated to improve yourself through hard work and all-but-voluntary labor.
  • -1: Flagellist: A Penitent or group of penitents seeks your help in doing themselves harm. Or giving them pleasure. Is there a difference? When you have lifetime after lifetime of misery, maybe it's all the same. 
  • 0: Alms, Please: You are approached by someone (or a group of someones) begging for alms, or offering a small service like a quick hull squeegee in exchange for a small amount of food, credit, or drugs.
  • +1: Something to Sell: Many who can afford to come to the Penitents' orbitals in search of sex, drugs, or something exotic and degrading. Penitents can often supply those things. 
  • +2: Swap Meet: Many Penitents have almost enough resources to get off world. Maybe one has leverage in the form of something to trade? Something weird and wonderful that you want. Odd little things have a way of showing up on the Penitents' stations... 
  • +3 Connections: Penitents can live a long time (do they even age?) and even when stuck in one place they can learn a lot of useful things. Like access codes for hyperspace nodes. Or the locations of star systems that are off the standard charts. Or how to reach the wealthy and well-protected Penitents.
  • +4: Moral debt swaps: There's no inheritance laws on the Penitents' orbitals, and the accumulation of wealth is usually limited to a single lifetime due to fuzzy memories - and a desire not to see others get ahead of you. But there are a few people who have worked out... complex quasi-financial instruments. Exchanges based on sin, obligation, and reciprocity. One of these speculators approaches you to make an impossible trade.   

Friday, April 24, 2015

Strange Stars Guardians

We've created seven PCs for our five players to choose from in tonight's Fate Strange Stars adventure, "Rescue on Tenebrae". A number are inspired directly by the Guardians of the Galaxy, but they are definitely interpretations that work within the Strange Stars setting. Any can be played as either male or female (and for a few gender may not even be relevant).

Here is our rogues' gallery:

  • Stakar Sokha, Hyehoon clade, a feathered humanoid xenoarchaeologist who has had some kind of encounter with an ancient, cruel Hawk God. Accused of Eden Seeker sympathies.
  • Pluvian, Silicate Moravec, a crystal-bodied artificial being that can project heat and cold energy beams, as well as sculpt the Metascape.
  • HV-27 (aka Heavy-27), a cloned heavy worlder used as a mining slave on Aygo. HV's the only slave to escape there, and HV's career as a gladiator and rebel is legendary. 
  • Free Radicoon, Musteloid clade, is an uplifted animal bred for animal companion therapy on a space asylum in the Keystone Quadrant. An ornery scientist and gun nut, Free Radicoon is wanted as an animal rights terrorist.
  • Gamorine, Smaragdine clade, from the lost colony of Smarag-dum. Gamorine is a green skinned assassin trained by Lord Death himself. Beware Gamorine's teleportation and Emerald Flying Daggers psi-attack!
  • Radion (Radiant Icon), exiled Star-Lord scion of the last living Radiant Lord (or so Radion's father claims). Radion has a divine aura, and the Radiant Lord gene markers to match. Radion pilots the Kill Wagon, a pocket warship that Free Radicoon hotwired and helped Radion steal from Father's fleet. 
  • Loki, Deodand clade, jet black on the right side, bone white on the left. Bad news on two feet, and newly reembodied after a disastrous Vokun expedition to Tenebrae, Loki's the key to everything. But Loki's memories have been altered.