Thursday, February 11, 2016

Tomorrow's Fate Strange Stars Game

You start in a backwater star cluster connected to the iceworld Boreas. The star system’s name comes from its primary planet, Zolymayas. The system has that one inhabited planet; it’s a very hostile world with a crappy, third-rate starport. The planet is almost self-sustaining. Most technology here is late 19th Century, although as usual a few hoarders and exclusive enclaves have something better. Some places have electricity, and many have intact lead piping, but there’s no free Metascape access here.

You’re in a band. You came here for a gig at a spaceport dive called The Furry Octopus. All of 5 spacers showed up for that show. Nobody seemed very impressed. The space hauler who promised you a ride back to Boreas and out of this cluster took off early. So you’ve been stuck here a while. Turns out there’s less demand for cutting edge psychedelia than you were promised. Times are tough. You could really use a gig.

You’ll create characters using the Strange Stars Fate rules. Possible player character roles in the band include:
  • Promoter
  • Lead Singer
  • Musician(s) – feel free to invent an instrument
  • Groupie
  • Drug Supplier
  • Security/Roadies
  • Your own crazy ideas
You’ll also need a name for this band. You’ll have to duke that out at the table.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Strange Stars A-To-Z: "Z" Is For Zolymayas

Cluster Graphic by Lester J. Portly

Our final Strange Stars A-to-Z post is an open letter to you, dear reader. Strange Stars was built to be canon light. The Strange Stars Game Setting Book provides just enough detail for you to make the setting your own. The philosophy is that GMs are going to modify and fill out the setting anyway; our job is to create just enough to facilitate each GM's local ideation, creation, and iteration of the Strange Stars.

If you are a fan of the Diaspora RPG, you probably recognize the diagram at the top of the post as a part of a cluster of several star systems. While the Fate edition of Strange Stars is built for Fate Core, I used the Diaspora SRD to build out world generation and cluster design rules for the Strange Stars Fate Edition Rulebook. Each sphere represents a star system and its parameters for technology, Environment, and Resources. The Technology-Environment-Resources scales run from -4 to +4 as they do in Diaspora, but the details of scale are different in the Strange Stars. A tad bleaker, you might say!  The lines and curves linking the systems represent hyperspace nodes.  

Only one of the worlds up above is "official": the anchor world in the cluster is the ice-planet of Boreas, which is described in the Strange Stars Game Setting Book. Each of the other worlds in the cluster was created by me using the system and cluster generation rules in the Strange Stars Fate Edition Rulebook.

As for myself, I'll be using this particular patch of stars this coming Friday! The action will start in the Zolymayas system, which has one very hostile, industrializing world; a world that is almost self-sustaining. The kind of place that desperate people do desperate things to escape.

I hope you'll create your own worlds for Strange Stars! Make the Strange Stars yours!

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Jerry Cornelius Calling

I've been a Michael Moorcock fan since high school. Last year, I re-read the Hawkmoon cycle, as well as reading the Kane of Old Mars trilogy and the three books in the Eternal Champion series for the first time. I also started The Whispering Swarm, Moorcock's most recent autobiographical novel.

More on that in a minute.

Mind you, almost everything of Moorcock that I have read previously was part of the Eternal Champion continuity. I never read the Jerry Cornelius novels. Of course, I've had a copy of the fat orange paperback Jerry Cornelius omnibus for maybe 30 years, but I've never made any headway with it. With the first release in the Titan Books reprint of the Jerry Cornelius tetrology out this week, I decided to pick up a copy of The Final Programme and give it a go. I finished it three days after starting the book.

While the Eternal Champion novels have always been popular with fans, the Jerry Cornelius series has had a cult following of its own. While it is a bit challenging to describe Jerry Cornelius, rock and roll playboy assassin might work. The trappings of the 1960s, including drugs (particularly hallucinogens), rock and roll, and sexual experimentation, are all over this novel. Add science fiction staples from the pulps such as needle guns, the Hollow Earth, and fringe science. Then add Eastern mysticism.

Much of this might invite comparisons with Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land (1961). Heinlein's work is far more coherent, but Moorcock puts a great deal more on the table in terms of engagement with real-world sexuality.

For example, there's a lot of homosexuality in the novel, but not a trace of homophobia. That's very unusual for 1960s SF. The scenes in The Final Programme in which Cornelius hangs out in a London gay bar/pinball hall are very evocative; these must have been based on places where Moorcock was hanging out with friends.

As far as internal coherence goes, the sentence structure here is crisp. We're reading fine, brief Moorcockian sentences. Frequently, the banter between the characters provoked surprised laughter. There were also two amusing forays into Rabelasian lists; one was a list of types of party-goers; the other subject was academic/scientific specialties beginning with the letter "A".

But the novel's structure and plot: not so coherent. Figuring out what is really happening as this novel progresses from "Phase" to "Phase" (as the multi-chapter sections are called) is a puzzler. Part of this may be what Moorcock revealed about himself in The Whispering Swarm: he has periodic visions and hallucinations. He was also part of the drugs and rock and roll scene in the 1960s, so it's perhaps not surprising that the novel is an odd plot.

That being said, it's not difficult to see the lipstick traces between this work and several others, including William S. Burroughs' Naked Lunch (1959), Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson's Illuminatus Trilogy (1975+), and maybe also Grant Morrison's Invisibles (1994+).  The Jerry Cornelius character also inspired other peoples' creations such as Brian Talbot's Luther Arkwright (1978) and Grant Morrison's Gideon Stargrave (1978). The former was explicitly encouraged by Moorcock and even has its own RPG now; the latter led to accusations of plagarism.

One warning if you read the re-issue: John Clute delivers huge spoilers in his introductory essay. You might not want to read that until you finish the tetrology. It really kind of ruined the reading experience for me, and spoilers usually don't bother me.

I intend to soldier on through the rest of tetrology as Titan releases the rest of the reissues. In the meantime, it's time to start reading Titan's reissues of the Corum saga!

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Strange Stars A-To-Z: A Yantran Holiday

A Yantran Holiday: it has become a euphemism in the Vokun Empire for unforseen, improbable disaster. All too many Vokun lords have brought their entourages to Yantra for a holiday to dally with its beautiful and accomodating natives. More than a few of these pleasure trips have meet with sudden, inexplicable calamity.

Invariably, these disasters take the form of catastrophic technology failures. Anti-gravity or drive systems fail; Vokun rocket chairs suddenly plunge to earth; Metascape-based guidance systems become improbably unrealiable; life support systems spit out toxic goo.

More than one Ibglibdishpan mentat has calculated the odds. They have concluded that primitive and pleasantly lush Yantra is improbably dangerous - and especially so for parties accompanied by a Vokun lord.

So an experiment has begun.

The Vokun Empire has temporarily opened Yantra for holidays by sophonts from outside the Empire. A temporary Smaragdine art colony here. A space hauler shore leave there. A Hyehoon or Djagga-led eco-safari in the equatorial regions. Dilettantes from the Circus ringworld tour the natives' quaint stone shrines.

The Ibglibdishpan are watching and running the numbers.  

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Strange Stars A-to-Z: "X" is for Xe-Xem-Xir

Gender neutral pronouns such as xe, xem, and xir are used by some cultures in the Strange Stars setting. They're introduced on the Terminology page (p. 29) of Trey Causey's Strange Stars Game Setting Book. You'll find ones spelled similarly if you scroll down this post from the Gender Neutral Pronoun Blog.

I've never GMed a game in a setting where gender neutral pronouns (other than "they") were in regular use at the table, although in one Diaspora campaign a player introduced and used them from time to time.

Maybe I should use them in a game (1)... and maybe also reward proper usage (2). But I would never do this as a casual change in a game or campaign, or with stranger-players about whom I know nothing, or as a joke (3).

Here's my best guess at the proper usage for gender neutral pronouns in the Strange Stars setting, with setting-appropriate context:
  • Nominative/subject: "Xe was the first Hyehoon I saw with wings." 
  • Objective/object: "I beat xem within an inch of xir life" said the Hwuru thug.
  • Possessive determiner: "Xir spiracles sursurrate like shivers" said one Boma to another about a third.  
  • Possessive pronoun: "The pretty torture-slave is xirs" the Vokun said, pointing xir lips at the Algosian procurer.

(1) I would never use this with a open game table at a mainstream gaming convention. I've had players sit down to games and before they know anyone at the table make gay jokes or use language that I'd consider demeaning to women, LGBTQ folks, etc. I might use this with a group of players that I know well, ones who think linguistic experimentation is fun, and/or understand the value of gender neutral pronouns in the real world, and/or have an interest in exploring the implications of lingustic change in SFnal social systems. I might use gender neutral pronouns in an open game at Gaylaxicon 2016 or maybe at a WisCon.

(2) Possibly with a reward mechanism for proper usage. Maybe with Fate points, or maybe just as a Boost for proper usage in-character. I am not sure how this would affect the overall economy of the game, since Fate is so language-based. I wouldn't want it to be very gameable, just a reward for immersion.

(3) Pronouns are a life-and-death matter for some people, and may be seen as less important/non-negotiable/or a joke by others whose privilege (or ontological status or social position, if you prefer) allows them to play out their gender as if it were a natural category. Which it isn't. By extended metaphor and as Gang of Four taught us more than three decades ago, "Natural's Not In It" (see the video below). For some cisgender folks, gender-neutral pronouns may may be a way to emphasize or explore the alterity of a situation or setting. For some people who are trans, it may be a way to create safety at the game table. This is really one of those things that needs to be talked through carefully at the table.

The image at the top of the post is possibly the best cover ever for 
Samuel R. Delany's Babel-17.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Strange Stars A-To-Z: Woon Academies

"For Children The Gates Of Paradise" by William Blake

Woon, the homeworld of the caterpillaroid Bomoth. It has a reputation of being a closed world, but nothing could be further from the truth. It's true that few not-of-Woon have visited the vast fungal preserves below the planet's surface. Still fewer have witnessed and reported the legendary "butterfly women" said to covort among those dim caverns.

But the surface of Woon sees many visitors from elsewere among the Strange Stars. A few thousand attend the Woon Academies: various small institutions that share what the Bomoth know with off-worlders - often for a great price. All of these institutions have extrance examinations; the application fees are considerable, and examinations occur only on Woon.

Here are a few of the Woon Academies:
  • Attarus Academy is the most famous of the Bomoth schools. Here flock travelers from all regions of the Strange Stars to learn vocal and instrumental musical arts from Woon's Spiraculous Masters. A vast mountaintop castle with numerous dead-end tunnels, galleries, auditoria, and air shafts, the Attarus itself is an eerie musical instrument that resonates, whispers, and pipes strange songs into the mountain's winding passes and surrounding ravines and valleys. 
  • Dchided Towers spears the miasma clouds above a spore-covered dead sea. Its students are the most daring of Phantasists: experimental oneirochemists who use their own bodies to discover and test new cocktails of dream drugs harvested from the dead sea. It's said that the dead sea's spores are the sediment from vast subterranean fungal farms whose caverns collapsed thousands of years ago.
  • Cromlech is a series of ancient rock-domed complexes. Some are pressurized, others are open to the elements. The Cromlech admits only the very young among the Strange Stars' multitude of clades. That's because this academy teaches humanoid biologics how to listen to the alien languages of non-hominds, and to the spoken tongues of the wild moravecs, robots, and androids. Only juvenile biologics have neural networks sufficiently plastic to listen to and learn these languages.  
  • The Mujib Academy is the most secretive and exclusive of the major Woon Academies. The Mujib also exclusively admits biologics, although it only enrolls adults. Its exact purpose is unclear, but its entrance exam is a series of vocal auditions called "The Ordeal."    

Saturday, January 30, 2016

A Different Light

My fourth book for Vintage Science Fiction Month is Elizabeth A. Lynn's A Different Light. It was published in 1978, so Lynn's novel just squeeks in under the Little Red Reviewer's definition of "vintage" as 1979. I don't like to think of my senior year in high school as the threshold, but there you go.

A lot of important things happened in '79, including the Sandinista and Iranian Revolutions. That year was the beginning of the end of a revolutionary cycle: the great wave that began with the Great Spring Victory in Vietnam, and ended with the unfortunate stalemates of El Salvador and Guatemala.

In one sense it's easy to see Lynn's novel as part of that wave. It was a late '70s mainstream SF novel with perfectly "out" and untroubled LGBTQ individuals. Not to mention "polycules" all over the place!

Queer space!

Those weren't easy times to be "out" as an LGBTQ author or to write SF with "out" characters. After all these years, I still remember the derision that an Ares reviewer brought to the back cover blurb for Lynn's Watchtower: "An Adventure Story for Feminists and Humanists." I went right out and bought that book! No regrets!

So what was the back cover blurb for A Different Light?

"Jimson had twenty years to live. Or one."

Jimson is a young adult on a backwater world. He's a successful artist, rather than a farmboy, but one might think he's a bit of a whiney Luke. Jimson's unhappy because he feels stuck on the planet New Terrain. He has a genetic disease which is treatable there (and really on any civilized world or space station) but which will explode into uncontrollable mutations if he goes into the Hype (i.e., hyperspace).

So that's bad.

I actually had to check myself on the perception that he's whiney. That perception is a form of biological/health-based privilege. Ableism if you like. Jimson has a right to feel stuck and whiney.

And Jimson has another reason to be unhappy too. His first lover, Russell, took off a number of years ago for space.  Russell didn't stay in touch, either. Jimson has a double loss going on.

So of course, Jimson is going to go off into the Hype to look for Russell.

Jimson hangs out in a spaceport and soon meets Leiko, a female spacer who becomes his lover. He makes art and hangs out in a spacer bar. Jimson makes friends with a number of other spacers.

It's worth a short digression to point out that Lynn's spacers have a culture apart from others in society. They have their own social rules, such as no questions. Spacers offer information about themselves to others only after a greater sense of intimacy/affinity/trust has been established. So we have the social anonymity of the big city/port city; the social nexus for the emerence of LGBTQ cultures. Here you can see traces of the lineage that began with Samuel R. Delany's working-class spacer/outsiders - and presumed sexual outlaws (1) - from Babel-17 and Nova. This lineage passes through Lynn's work and eventually leads to the protagonists in Melissa Scott's novels.

Jimson and Russell reunite. They have an adventure together. Jimson, star captain Russell, and his two hired crew go off to plunder religious artifacts from a primitive planetbound tribe (2). They are classic space assholes worthy to be PCs in virtually any Traveller RPG campaign.

Other things happen.

Jimson's cancer mutates with a vengeance. There's no magic cure, but the novel has a very interesting, open ending.

Something important occurred to me after I finished reading the novel. Just a few years after the publication of A Different Light, I had a significant life-changing experience that gave me something in common with Jimson. I met my first lover, and all too soon, he simply went off into space too. The silence became unbearable. I felt alone for a very long time - for years, in fact.

Thank god for my comrades in the Central America solidarity movement of those days; only a few really knew how how to support a gay comrade in the early '80s, but they helped me live in different ways and experience things greater than myself; things worth living for.

They helped me see a different light.


(1) See the sexual outlaw aka gay ubermench in John Rechy's City of Night.  Delany more or less lived/endorsed the practice without embracing the ideology.

(2) I'm reasonably confident that Iain M. Banks lifted and twisted this scene Banks-style for Consider Phlebas.