Saturday, January 31, 2015

Strange Stars, Alien Humans

Saturn 3

The alien humans are not from our time; they are visitors from the far future. The last survivors of humanity on a rogue planet in The Degenerate Era, the alien humans have a vastly more diverse genome than the varied clades of modern starfaring humans. Their cells swarm with genetic prostheses. Their blood and other tissues teem with strange parasites, antique nanites, and cyber-amulets. Even a cursory scan reveals oddly-shaped alien organs with no discernible functions. Their tissues also evidence significant radiation damage.

Their kind fall within three basic phenotypes:
  • Pallids are hairless and display the traits of near albinism. With make-up they can easily pass for modern humans. Pallids are the alien humans most frequently encountered in modern times. They are diplomats, deal makers, and tech and gene traders. They have an abrasive, distant mien, which is interrupted every 25 hours by a period of intense, unpleasant, and demanding affect. During this period, Pallids are often driven to barter their unusual tech and exotic information in exchange for various forms of gratification. They strike hard, often unpleasant bargains. 
  • Grendellines have a leathery grey integument which protects against vacuum and hard radiation. The Grendellines' integument and implants convey a species of machine telepathy which permits them to pilot vessels by force of will, as well as remotely operate many individual machines and devices.
  • Insulae have jet black porcelain-hard skin optimized for absorbing and metabolizing the remaining ambient energies of the Degenerate Era. When the integument of an Insulae is damaged, it chips or cracks. Their wounds hiss, releasing a mildly radioactive organic spray into the environment. Their exterior is not readily penetrated by scanning technology. The Insulae communicate by means of Pallids known as Interlocutors. The role of the Insulae phenotype is unknown.


Alien Human
Pallid clade (neutral)

  • High Concept: Alien humans from the future
  • Trouble: The 25th hour
  • Aspect: Abrasive and distant
  • Aspect: Hard, unpleasant bargains
  • Aspect: Strange genetics, alien implants
  • Careful: +2
  • Clever: +3 
  • Flashy: +2
  • Forceful: +1
  • Quick: 0
  • Sneaky: +2
  • Cyber-Amulets [Two Spells] - Each time this Stunt is taken, a Pallid may select two spells from the Galactic Grimoire.  The Pallid uses these spells without any particular insight into the workings of magic. 
  • Drive a Hard Bargain - A Pallid takes +2 to their Careful Approach to gain insight into the kinds of information or tech for which an individual might trade dearly.
  • Interlocutor - A Pallid has the ability to communicate telepathically with members of the Insulae phenotype.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The Sword Of The Dawn

Cover art by Michael Whelan

That cover. Did anyone but me buy this edition? This is Vintage Science Fiction Month, so we're back with a third roleplaying-minded review of a pre-1979 SF classic - in this case, Michael Moorcock's third Hawkmoon novel, The Sword of the Dawn.  (Our first review, featuring Moorcock's second and third Kane of Old Mars novels is here; my second review focuses on Moorcock's second Hawkmoon novel, The Mad God's Amulet, and is here.)

This is the fifth Moorcock novel I have read in the last two months.

The Sword of the Dawn (1968) continues Hawkmoon's quest for the weapons necessary to defeat the Dark Empire of Granbretan. The adventure is driven by Hawkmoon's sense of unease and restlessness. Hawkmoon's beloved Yisselda and her father, Count Brass, are safe for the moment, hidden in a planar adjacency. But like Goethe's Faust, Hawkmoon has an urge to keep things moving.

He wants to stay ahead of the enemy, and prevent that enemy from threatening his loved ones. So Hawkmoon goes to the very heart of the Dark Empire, Londra, as his first stop. The traitor to Granbretan, the deadly dandy Huillam D'Averc, is Hawkmoon's companion on this journey.

Like The Mad God's Amulet, the second Hawkmoon novel, The Sword of the Dawn is all about collecting what John Clute in the Encyclopedia of Fantasy calls "plot coupons." In this case, Hawkmoon and D'Averc move across the fantastic landscape in search of a sword whose destiny is linked to yet another plot coupon: the Runestaff (which - perhaps it's no accident - is the title of the fourth novel in the series).

Our heroes arrive in Amarehk, the legendary continent to the west of Granbretan and the rest of Tragic Millennium Europa. They head south along a great river, toward the pirate city of Narleen on the continent's southern gulf coast.

This should sound familiar,

There are a few traces of New Orleans in some of the details. In particular, many dwellings in the city still have the classic cast iron decorative gates that one sees in the French Quarter. We don't get much sense of race in the city, although oddly enough the warriors summoned by the Sword of the Dawn are described as brown skinned. It would have been interesting to have seen the city developed in greater depth. I'd like to see whether some form of Voudoun persisted in the Tragic Millennium.

Narleen might make a good home base for a roleplaying campaign. There is conflict between the pirates, who have a walled enclave within the city, and the merchants that the pirates prey upon and extort. So we have the potential for river piracy outside the city, and political intrigue within it. There's the mystery of the blood drinking tentacular monsters that lurk within the Temple of Batach Gerandiun, where the Sword of the Dawn is enshrined. How did they get there? Why haven't they torn down the entire city, like their larger kindred on the plains? Then there are all the adventures that might occur among the other cities of the coast, which can be reached by sail from Narleen.

There has to be a lot more to explore in this setting. We haven't even gotten a good look at the technological marvels that must be scattered here and there among the ruins from the times before the Tragic Millennium.

One thing is for sure though: we don't get much sense of the natural climactic destruction that we now know is very sure to happen along the gulf coast in the time just before the Tragic Millennium. Our time. These aspects of climate change hadn't been figured out in 1968.

Rough Map of Amarehk from Chaosium's Hawkmoon

We know that Amarehk bore the brunt of the radiation from whatever brought on the Tragic Millennium. The gulf coastline has changed a bit - particularly in what is left of Texas. So for game's sake, I might play up the climate change even a bit more. Things don't have to get quite as bleak as in Paolo Bacigalupi's Shipbreaker, but a hint that there are drowned cities off the coast raises all sorts of possibilities.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Strange Stars Game Setting Book Is Out!

I am happy to share with the Fate community the news that Trey Causey's Strange Stars Game Setting Book is now available in print and PDF. If you like the DK Star Wars books, you will LOVE Strange Stars, because it has a similar design sensibility. It is art-driven world building, in which stunning images are used to bring to life and draw people in to a great new roleplaying setting!

Something old: Strange Stars draws on many themes from classic space opera RPGs and SF.

Something new: Strange Stars is equally informed by posthuman SF, but grounded in a setting that is accessible and coherent, and where choices still have consequences.

What's up next?

TWO game system books are coming out for Strange Stars: one for the superb old school SF RPG Stars Without Number, and one for my own favorite RPG, Fate Core.

In fact, I am putting the finishing touches on the text for the Strange Stars Fate System Edition book this week, and then it's off for editing and layout!

You can visit the blog From the Sorcerer's Skull for updates about the forthcoming products, and visit the Strange Stars Index to learn more about the setting.

So give the Strange Stars a look, and if you're in the Twin Cities, please come to Con of the North in February and play the game in Fate!

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Temporal Mirror

Temporal Mirror (Divination/Planar, Cost, Per Scene, Persistent, Requires one other Divination or Planar spell, Corrupting): One of the essential forensic castings, this Nexialist formula creates a shimmering mirror in front of the caster. The mirror does not reflect the present, but instead presents a temporally displaced view of the space.

The caster and anyone else present in the space at the time of casting will also be reflected in the mirror. Their appearance is shifted temporally to reflect their past or future mien. If the caster uses the formula to view the space in a time prior to or after the existence of the caster, only the space is visible.

The caster rolls WIS +2 vs. a difficulty based on the degree of temporal displacement to be bridged:

  •   0:Minutes
  • +1:Hours
  • +2:Days
  • +3:Weeks
  • +4:Months
  • +5:Years
  • +6:Centuries
Showing someone else a glimpse of their future is often Corrupting (few persons are truly prepared for such exposure), and given the circumstances often at least a Minor Infraction.

The name of this formula was suggested by Octavia Butler's short story "The Evening and the Morning and the Night", although the plot of that story has little to do with the spell itself.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Summon Paragon

Summon Paragon (Planar, Cost, Per Campaign, Permanent, Requires two other Planar spells): This casting summons a Paragon of the eternal struggle between Law and Chaos, a puissant warrior in the struggle that has wrecked countless worlds, and seldom resulted in a true Balance. The arrival of such a hero does not end a story as much as begin a new one: a vastly more complicated World-Skein will be woven (or unwoven) once a Paragon arrives.

The casting is always a collective project; a group is required for the summoning. The location of the ritual is always one surrounded by myth: the tomb of a great warrior-queen, the crashed space ark of ancient progenitors, a Nexus Point through which demons also pour.

Depending on the World-Skein and the Paragon desired, legendary artifacts, musical instruments, magical implements, or sacrifices may also be required for the summoning.

The Paragon summoned may be of a different species, gender, or culture than its summoners expect. Each expresses some essential and critical difference from those who have summoned the Paragon.

More rarely, but often enough, the power of the Paragon invests itself in part or all of the collectivity that summoned it. There may be no "body" for this kind of Paragon; instead a living Company becomes its own champion. This is the most durable kind of Paragon and can endure for centuries.

Many summoners assume that the Paragon will be their natural champion, without a need for the effort to persuade the Paragon that their cause is both just and desirable. Don't make that eternally recurrent mistake. Paragons have no natural affinity for their summoners. They often change side, develop their own allegiances, define their own Great Causes.

Make your case. Hope for the best. Roll 4DF WIS.*

This spell is of course inspired by Elric, Corum, Hawkmoon and others: the many Eternal Champions that Michael Moorcock has introduced us to over the decades!

*GMs will want to set a specific target based on the storyline and circumstances of their game.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Fate Of The Tragic Millennium

Frank Brunner's stunning cover

Maybe we're in it now. I've been reading a bit of Michael Moorcock recently. Really, it's the most I've read of Moorcock since my high school days, when I read just about everything I could get my hands on by him. Not the Cornelius stuff or the "straight" SF, mind you; what I read back in those days and am enjoying again are his swords and sorcery/planetary romance stories.

Currently, I am re-reading The Mad God's Amulet, which was the second Hawkmoon novel. I bought the first three of the Tor reprints of the series, read the first novel, the Jewel in the Skull maybe a year ago, and then let the series sit for a while. After polishing off the last of the Kane of Old Mars novels a week ago, I decided to dive-in and read this one. It's a fun romp through Western Asia and up into the former (waaay former) Soviet Union, and induces a bit of a frisson while browsing through my recently arrived copy of Chris Kutalik's Slavic pointcrawl, Slumbering Ursine Dunes. (And yes, it's no accident that they feel connected.)

Cover art by David Lewis Johnson

So what is Hawkmoon, or to put it more accurately, "The History of the Runestaff"? It's a sequence of Eternal Champion novels featuring Dorian Hawkmoon, a knight from the German statelet of Koln. Hawkmoon is one of the few warriors willing to stand up to the might and insanity of the Dark Empire of Granbretan.

Just as Melinbone's Bright Empire is a reflection of the British Empire, so too is the Dark Empire. But Granbretan is far more homicidal than Melinbone at its most warlike and decadent. The Melniboneans may have looked upon humans as being their inferiors, but at least they weren't exterminationist about it. Granbretan is more like Pan Tang: a twisted image of Melnibone, as dreamed up by its inferiors.

(At this point, it is probably worth pointing out that the History of the Runestaff was published around 1968 - at least the volume I'm reading now was. It was published at the height of a mad empire's overreach in Southeast Asia - a drama that same empire was to reproduce as farce in West and South Asia just a couple of decades later. Like that other empire, Granbretan embodies the march of Chaos. A chaos barely constrained within a framework of ostensible order. One wonders whether Moorcock had read Franz Neumann's seminal study of the Third Reich, Behemoth: The Structure and Practice of National Socialism: 1933-1944?)

The Dark Empire marches East. The nations of Tragic Millennium Europa (our far future, post-collapse) are falling one after another to the beast masked legions of Granbretan. Only Hawkmoon and a handful of others stand in their way. The world is a familiar one, but damaged, rendered weird. There are mutants, there is weird science, and there's magic. Many castles and palaces probably have laboratories beneath them - as well as dungeons. Tragic Millennium Europe is littered with ruins that have caches of inexplicable artifacts based on strange technologies.

(Monty Cook didn't invent this idea with Numenera; neither did Gene Wolfe with The Urth of the New Sun, nor Michael Moorcock. These are science fictional ideas that go way back, and they are recurrent.)

This setting is gameable. It has the makings of a points-of-light-getting-successively-extinguished kind of campaign. There are pockets of resistance to the Dark Empire. More than just Kamarg. These might be small states, or they might be resistance forces within the occupied cities of the Dark Empire.

There are probably other campaign models that I haven't even considered yet. But one thing I am convinced of is that this setting would work exceptionally well using Fate. Eternal Champions and their Companions are typically not 1st level types. They are most often experienced. The PCs need not be Hawkmoon or his Companions, but to truly have a Moorcockian feel, a campaign should really feature the PCs facing off against entire armed companies. With arcane swords, relic tech artifacts, and no doubt summoned allies.

Lucky Dice!

Hard to believe the world's first ever Saturday Night Space Opera was already two weeks ago at the Source Comics and Games in Roseville, Minnesota! Jay Mac Bride did all the hard work: making the space arrangements, building our custom blog, and designing the posters to promote the event. I had the easy part: just show up and play X-plorers, an excellent old school flavored d20 SF game.

And so we did! You can see all the details at the Exonauts! blog starting here and then here for even more pulse-pounding action!

But let me tell you about the magic that went into this session. First, the evening started with some pre-session chatting about old school SF games, and Savage Worlds, with three folks who had played in my Free RPG Day Cosmic Patrol session this past summer. It was great to see them!

As soon as they left, Jay and I were just sort of waiting... for maybe five minutes. Right before it was time for the game to start, I went back to the dice section at the Source and made a big financial and spiritual commitment. I bought a set of Gamescience "precision dice" (painted, of course). This was an act of faith that our players would show up.

Just as soon as I had made it back to the table and was in the process of sitting down - BAMF - three other players arrived. We dug in for a great night of space opera gaming.

True to the Gamescience advertising, my character did not die due to the use of inferior "tumbled" dice. He didn't die at all, in fact! I have had quite the lucky run so far playing Scientists in X-plorers!

No less importantly, these green gem dice summon players. How rad is that?!? Rad enough for another evening of X-plorers using Jay's Rad Astra space-setting!

Our next session of open Saturday Night Space Opera gaming is Saturday, February 7, from 6 PM to closing at the Source! See you there!

Friday, January 9, 2015

Torsos Of Mars

Ace edition covers by Dorian Vallejo (1991)

Welcome to the first FATE SF entry for Vintage Science Fiction Month!  The goal of Vintage Science Fiction Month is to encourage people to explore SF&F books and media published before 1979. My overall commitment for the month is to read Frank Herbert's Dune. This may actually take more than one month, given that I am also reading the work by Octavia Butler for the Second Foundation Reading Group, and Michelle Wallace's The New Jim Crow for the Empire Reading Group in January. But while we wait for the Guild Navigator to arrive and transport us to Dune, here's a little Vintage Science Fiction Month warmer-upper.

Back in December, I shared that I had just read one of Michael Moorcock's very early novels, The City of the Beast aka Warriors of Mars. The novel was originally published in 1965 as a planetary romance and an explicit Burroughs pastiche. The novel had two sequels, Lord of Spiders aka Blades of Mars, and Masters of the Pit aka Barbarians of Mars published that same year.

I finished the middle book of the trilogy (series name: Kane of Old Mars), just before or possibly just after New Year's Day, and started Barbarians right after New Year's. They were both fun reads, introducing new races and mysteries for Moorcock's protagonist and proto-Eternal Champion, Michael Kane.

Blades continues to explore the mysteries of the two ancient forerunner races who warred on ancient Mars. These two races, the benevolent Sheev and the allegedly malevolent Yaksha left caches of their their technological relics for the younger races to discover and experiment with at their peril. In Blades, our hero Michael Kane helps to ignite a revolution against a quasi-theocracy in one of the blue giant nations, and then discovers one of the ancient Yaksha's technology caches, He also faces an old enemy who has caused trouble in the past, and before our adventure is finished, befriends a masked-mercenary assassin in a Southern Martian city that is gearing up for war. Shades of the future masked warriors of Granbretan from the Hawkmoon novels? Maybe!

Barbarians of Mars introduces two new enemies - an ancient plague, and an irrational social order based on science and experimentation. Both the biological and social plagues have afflicted the same Southern Martian city-state, and Michael Kane and his blue giant ally go in search of a cure. Many adventures ensue.

This novel felt the most Moorcockian and least stilted of the three. It is still a planetary romance in the style of Burroughs. However a bit more of Moorcock's lefty skepticism and hostility to authority is starting to emerge.

The other thing that hit home in reading the trilogy was how much the dry humorous banter between the PCs characters reminds me of the dialogue in the final two M.A.R. Barker novels which I had just read a few weeks earlier. (We also see this kind of humor in Vance and Leiber, of course.)

Right after I finished Barbarians of Mars, I started re-reading the second Hawkmoon novel, The Mad God's Amulet (1968) in its recently republished Tor edition. With Titan seemingly picking up where Tor left off, I am about to read the three Erekose novels, and then settle-in to read the republished Corum novels which start coming out in the second quarter of 2015. So far, I am really enjoying getting re-acquainted with Michael Moorcock's Eternal Champion novels. I am also planning to pick up Michael Moorcock's autobiographical fantasy, The Whispering Swarm, which comes out next week!

We'll how far this dive into Moorcockiana goes!

There's A World Inside That Box!

The Anubian Ambassador with the "Leia Look"

The Anubian was a bit intrigued by this huge arrival. It's not as thick as one of the volumes of the  Guide to Glorantha, but it beats those volumes in other directions.

But she's wondering who's actually opened the cover. Because Doug Kovac's front endpapers, well, those are a marvel:

Inside the Warden's hull - FUDGE Die added for size comparison 

If you've ever heard the term "expressive totality", you're looking at one right there!