Monday, November 30, 2015

Strange Stars A-To-Z: "R" Is For Robots

Robots. Mechanical women and men have been a staple of science fiction from Karel Capek's play R.U.R., where the term "robot" was introduced. (Capek credited his brother with coining robota as play on the term for serf or corvee labor.)

Soon enough there was Maria of Metropolis, a machine woman with the powers of illusion and mesmerism:

Then there's some of my favorite 1960s space toys, the Zeroids:

And soon enough, these cute poker-playing drones from Silent Running appear on the scene:

So where might one find robots among the Strange Stars? First of all, when I use robots in the Strange Stars universe, they are a lesser kind of intelligent mecanical life form. Some robots may be full sophonts with unique personalities, deep individuation, and complex behavioral repertoires. Others have more limited intelligences conforming to one of several generic personality templates; these are designed for specific (if broad) productive roles in society. Still others lack all but the most rudimentary intelligence, and are designed for very specific menial roles.

Robots are non-self-replicating, and their intelligence (however individuated) is an emergent property of their immediate physical media (e.g., the result of a functioning positronic brain). Unlike moravecs, robots aren't quasi-immortal life forms passed down from the copied mind of a biologic, a Jupiter brain, or some other transcorporeal intelligence. True to Karel Capek's original vision, most robots in the Strange Stars setting are intended for labor - usually in its most tiresome and repetitive forms, including household services, guarding facilities, industrial production, or mining.

Robots are owned; they're tools for getting jobs done.

Unfortunately, they all have failure modes, and some rebel.


Quick and Dirty Robot Rules

Robots for Strange Stars can be built using Fate Accelerated as a framework. Our assumptions with this design are that most robots are human-sized or smaller. 

ASPECTS: All robots have at least two Aspects, an Assignment and a Failure Mode
  • Assignment represents the robot's current or ideal-typical function. Examples include: 
    • Sturdy mining robot
    • 12-eyed sentry robot
    • Idle household servant
    • Faithful but lonely agricultural drone 
  • Failure Mode is just what it sounds like; it represents the most likely to cause this robot to malfunction, cease to operate, or rebel. This aspect is often not obvious to casual observers, although characters with engineering, science, or hacking abilities may find ways to Create and Advantage and figure this out. Exmples include:
    • Not properly programmed for the job
    • Ethical protocols altered
    • Lonely and resentful
    • Out of spare parts
SKILLS: Robots have six basic skills. Bush league robots will have a +1 in one skill, and a zero in all the rest. Middling models will have +2 in one or two skills, a +1 in another, and zeroes in the rest. Advanced robots will have one skill at +3, two at +2, two at +1, and one at zero.
  • Tend: This skill represents the robot's ability to dig, gather, and forage, as well as maintain and repair simple machines (moisture 'vaperators, for example). Agricultural drones lead with this skill; so do mining robots, and robots responsible for routine repairs.
  • Build: Robots designed for construction, assembly, and complex engineering tasks have this skill.  Industrial robots are good at this. Robots with this skill are also good at a range of physical tasks including moving heavy objects and climbing. Build can be used to defend against physical attacks. 
  • Guard: This represents a robot's ability to attack and defend against other machines and biologics. Sentry robots are good at this; people wishing to deploy a cheap, obedient military force often go this route. Robots with a skill above zero are familiar with a range of weaponry. 
  • Scan: Notice for robots; this skill represents a robot's basic abilities to scan and interpret its surroundings. This skill includes standard biologic senses such as hearing and seeing, and more rarely includes chemosensory apparatus. Most robots are able to percieve a broader range of sound frequencies and electromagnetic radiation than biologics. If build by a culture that uses the Metascape, the robot will generally have access to the Metascape as an additional "virtual" sense. 
  • Solve: The robot's skill with abstract thinking and problem-solving. This skill is the robotic equivalent of Academics and Science.
  • Serve: The robot's facility in interacting with infosophonts, moravecs, and biologics. This skill is the robotic equivalent of  Empathy, Rapport, and Will. It is generally the lead skill for robots designed as personal servants, interpreters, and protocol droids.
STUNTS: A robot whose highest skill is +2 may have one stunt; a robot whose highest skill is +3 may have two stunts. Here are just a few stunts a robot might possess:
  • Danger, Will Robinson!: The robot has developed particularly keen insights into sophont motivations and behaviors. Take +2 to Serve skill to anticipate who presents the greatest danger to someone who you are programmed to protect.
  • Kawaii: Your physical form is small, or otherwise percieved as "cute" by most biomorphs. You trigger their protective/parenting instincts. Take +2 to Serve to persuade biologics that you are harmless or worthy of protection.
  • In Their Best Interests: You can persuade other robots that you have the best understanding of how to serve a sophont master. Take +2 to Serve skill to make another robot obey you in performing some action.
  • Infiltrate: Because you were programmed for stealth operations, you take +2 when using your Guard skill to move into or through an area without being detected by sophonts.
  • Impersonate: You have learned how to imitate moravecs and infosophonts inhabiting machine bodies. Take +2 to your Serve skill to persuade others that you are really a moravec or an infosophont.
  • Personal Force Field: A robot with a force field takes +2 to its Build skill to defend against ranged attacks.
  • Mass Wins Out: Because you are solidly built, take +2 to Build to intimidate an sophont in a social contest.
  • Mesmerism: Your programming has given you unusual persuasive capacities. Maybe its your sleek plasteel exterior; maybe you have learned The Voice. Spend 1 FP to compel a group of sophont Extras to follow a one sentence command.
  • Metajammer: Robots with this stunt can interfere with the local operation of the Metascape. They take +2 to their Scan skill to increase the difficulty that others face in accessing the local Metascape. 
  • Operate Vehicle: Robots with this stunt may use the Tend skill to pilot vehicles  including spacecraft. Because hyperspace nodes have psi-sensitive components, however, bad things often happen when robots pilot ships through hyperspace nodes.
  • Protocol Droid: Due to its special programming, the robot takes +2 to its Serve skill when attempting to create a favorable first impression with a sophont. 

  • A robot whose highest skill is +1 has one or two stress boxes and is taken out once these boxes are filled.
  • A robot whose highest skill is +2 has two OR three stress boxes, AND can also take a Mild Consequence before being taken out.
  • A robot whose highest skills is +2 has three stress boxes and can take a Mild and Moderate Consequence, OR has three stress boxes and can take a Mild, Moderate, and Severe Consequence.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Strange Stars Debut At U-Con

The Strange Stars Fate Rule Book debuted this past weekend at U-Con in Ypslanti, Michigan. The copy above isn't the forthcoming print edition from RPGNow, but rather one I made so that I had a table copy with which to GM the game. The print verson will be perfect bound rather than spiral coil!

I made color copies of the Strange Stars Game Setting Book, and copies of the character generation and clade templates chapters from the Strange Stars Fate Rule Book. That way, every player had access to both the visual references and setting background from the setting book, and the tools they needed to create characters on the fly!

Strange Stars offers players a lot of choices when it comes to creating characters. Each of the six players chose a different clade (essentially a subspecies of humanity, an alien species, or an artificial intelligence) from among the 25 clades in the template chapter in the Strange Stars Fate Rule Book. Each of the players chose a new clade template different from those selected by past players in my games.

Here's what they created:
  • My friend Brett created a Magus. This fortune-telling clade has a lot in common with the Technmages of Babylon-5. Technomages are one of my favorite features of the B-5 setting, and it was nice to see one come into play in this game.
  • Veteran Tekumel GM Krista created a Deva, the winged, spacefaring humanoids resemble angels. They travel the universe looking for things to help repair the damaged Jupiter Brains that make up the planets in their solar system. Krista's Tekumel games are famous for her engaging portrayals of Tekumel's weird non-human species. She did a wonderful job portraying the Deva as a particularly God-crazed clade!
  • One of the hard science fiction fans at the table created a Wanderer. Members of this clade are asteroid-sized Minds downloaded into humanoid construct bodies. The player of this particular Wanderer decided that his Trouble aspect was that the source Mind had been damaged. He wasn't sure any more whether he still IS all that he used to be. The Wanderer was on a journey of self-discovery and repair.
  • Another hard SF fan chose to create a Kosmonik. These are one of the more alien humanoid clades. Kosmoniks live their entire lives in space. They don't have faces any more. They have prehensile feet. We're not exactly sure what's under that suit with a face plate that they wear at all times. They are good engineers and pilots, but are very superstitious: each Kosmonik has its own taboo, and these often relate to living in space.
  • A young woman whose second game ever was this one chose to play a Phantasist. They are very human-seeming sky-city dwelling pharmoneurochemists who specialize in synthesizing compounds that create specific dream states for their clients. Her specialty was nightmares.
  • The final player chose to play a green-hued Smaragdine woman. His character was a member of the Pharesmid Crime Syndicate. All Pharesmid's are physical clones or mind-copies of the syndicate's founder. This character soon ran into Pharesmid adversaries during the course of the story.
A lot of times, Strange Stars players decide to play a group of pirates. This group decided to be more like the crew of the Firefly: a group travelling between worlds and trying to make things a bit better. They succeeded in not playing anti-heroes or "space assholes" (i.e., the equivalent murderhobes in space games like Traveller)! This quirky group tried to make things better! Whether they actually succeeded... well, they certainly made certain things in their sector more complicated!

It was a fun game!

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Strange Stars: The Quigley Table

Yesterday, I said I'd write a 1D6-1D6 Table featuring Eric Quigley's cover image for the core Strange Stars products. Imagine these folks are PCs or NPCs. The table below gives you some options for fleshing them out a bit.

As a point of reference, I'll refer to the guy on the left who appears to be of African descent as L, the Moravec in the middle as M, and the green Smaragdine female on the right as R. As another point of reference, negative numerical results correspond to more contemporary themes in SF; the 0 case and positive numbers represent more longstanding SF themes.

The Quigley Table for Strange Stars

Roll 1D6-1D6 and consult the corresponding result below.
  • -5: One of the figures has a cortex  Metascape bomb, a devastating digital weapon with the potential to wipe out the local noosphere.
  • -4: The crashed spacecraft in the background used to be alive; it had issues.
  • -3: The Moravec carries (or IS) the consciousness of the crashed spacecraft.
  • -2: R is a mind-copy of the criminal mastermind Uln Pharesm, founder of the Pharesmid Crime Syndicate. All Pharesmids are mind-copies or bio-clones of the founder. Her tattoos are minimalist, and take the form of yellowish pigmented zones under her eyes.
  • -1: The armsman L is an Aurogov cultist. He spends every free moment, when not in physical training or active combat in the LZ, using the Aurogov's self improvement software for a relentless series of self-audits and critiques. At least then, he's quiet and not actively prosyletizing his companions.
  • 0: L prefers to be called Fury. He's never without that cigar you see him chomping. It stunk up the whole ship; maybe the smoke got into a critical system and that's why it crashed. 
  • +1: M is a robot. Somehow, M subverted its ethical protocols. Especially the one about not harming humans or allowing them to come to harm.
  • +2: The Trio are bounty hunters. They are looking for YOU and your companions. You may not even be sure why.
  • +3: The crashed ship was stolen.
  • +4: L is a Space Marine. Got that? S-P-A-C-E M-A-R-I-N-E. For hire, of course. He was also the pilot and is pretty pleased that he executed a landing from which all three could walk away.
  • +5: R is an assassin; those yellow patches under her eyes should have been your first clue.

Strange Stars A-To-Z: "Q" Is For Quigley

That Strange Stars book cover! There has been such a buzz about Eric Quigley's great cover illustration! For many SF gamers, the art signals that the Strange Stars is a spiritual successor to TSR's classic SF RPG Star Frontiers, whose cover also has three figures in the foreground and a burning spacecraft behind them.

True confessions time: I only acquired a copy of Star Frontiers a year ago at Goodman Games booth at U-Con; my early SF game inspirations were Traveller (I bought the Little Black Box before I bought White Box D&D) and Metamorphosis Alpha, and the wargames Alpha Omega and StarForce: Alpha Centauri. More recent gaming inspirations for me have been all about the Fate system and include +Chris Birch's amazing Starblazer Adventures+Brad Murray's brilliant-and-lean Diaspora (a major inspiration for the world generation rules in the Strange Stars Fate Rulebook), and +Sarah Newton's Stapledonian SF masterpiece Mindjammer.

I know classic SF was an influence on Strange Stars setting designer +trey causey, but truth to tell he hasn't hidden his more contemporary SF references either, which include many authors associated with the New Space Opera. We outline a lot of those influences in the "Adventures and Campaigns" chapter of the Strange Stars Fate Rule Book.

Come back tomorrow for a 1D6-1D6 Table based on the Strange Stars cover, showing off both classic and contemporary SF references built into Strange Stars!

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Strange Stars A-To-Z: "P" Is For Pirate

Doctor Who "Sleep No More"

Did you see last night's episode? There was a funny quip by the Doctor that you don't really add anything by putting the word "space" in front of words like "restaurant." It's not a space restaurant, just a restaurant. Clara's rejoinder is "What about spacesuit? And space pirate?"

That shuts the Doctor up for a second. And next thing the Doctor and Clara know they're being accused of being space pirates.

Most of the Strange Stars Fate games I have GMed have included space pirates. In three cases, the players decided to BE the pirates. This works very well with on-the-fly style games that come together at conventions.

Space battles are rare in the Strange Stars setting (hyperspace-capable starships use very old, very difficult to replace and repair technology), but space piracy isn't. Boarding actions are common, as are hijackings (either at a starport or in deep space), false flag "rescue" operations, and raids on planets and space stations. Extortion/protection rackets targeting traffick on secondary and tertiary hyperspace routes are another way that piracy occurs. Many Space Haulers quit while they're ahead and give up the goods at the first hail from a pirate.

There are distinct tiers to the pirate enterprise. The top players are the dreaded, cyborged-up, ruthless Zao Corsairs. They are the Strange Stars' answer to Firefly's Reavers. But don't say you're a Zao Corsair unless you really are: the Zao take a dim view of wannabees who dilute their brand.

Another bad news group that frequently resorts to piracy is the inhuman Ssraad. While the three warring clades of these reptillian space demons are as likely to prey on each other as on any unfortunates whose path they happen to cross, there is no doubt that the Ssraad are beginning to range farther and farther from home.

Then there is everyone else. Part-time Space Haulers, belters, smugglers, or mercenaries. Mutineers with nowhere else to go. All pirates great and small. They're all bad news.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Strange Stars Fate Game at U-Con

If you're curious about the Strange Stars setting, I'll be running a session this coming Friday, November 20, from 3-7 PM, at U-Con in Ypslanti, Michigan. My game is crosslisted with the Game with the Creator (this is not a religious event, I assure you) and OSR tracks.

I'll be running my game using the Fate Core ruleset for Strange Stars that has just been published by the Hydra Collective.  There is still at least one open seat, so if someone will be at the con and is curious about the game or about the Strange Stars setting created by Trey Causey, pick up an event ticket or stop by to say hello!

Since the Strange Stars Fate Rule Book was just published this week (you can get it here), who knows? We might even have a player at the table with the rules! That's an exciting thought!

Rest assured though that if you sit down to play, we'll have everything you need to create a character on the fly and get in the game!

Friday, November 13, 2015

Strange Stars A-To-Z: "O" = OUT NOW!!!

I'm very pleased to announce that the Strange Stars Fate Edition is now for sale at RPGNow and DriveThruRPG.  The adaptation of the Strange Stars setting to the Fate system has been a very fun project, about a year and a half in the making!

I am very appreciative of Trey Causey for inviting me to adapt his Strange Stars setting for Fate Core, and how cool is it to have the book published by the Hydra Cooperative, no less!

So if you like Fate and SF, well, it's time to MAKE THINGS STRANGE!

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Strange Stars A-To-Z: "N" Is For Node


Many people know about the New Weird: people like China Mieville, Jeff VanderMeer, and K.J. Bishop to name a few. But the weird in SF isn't a new thing, and M. John Harrison didn't invent it back in the 80s either. It goes back to the 30s and the weird tale, and even further back to the late 19th Century supernatural tales (read Bierce lately? the weather is perfect for it now!) and the scientific romance.

Charles L. Harness's 1968 SF novel, The Ring of Ritornel, also very much written in this longstanding SF tradition that taps into the weird, and one of the central concepts that ties in well to the Strange Stars setting is the concept of the Node. In Strange Stars, the existing hyperspace network is an artificial construct of the ancients. Some parts of it continue to work as originally constructed; others are quiescent and/or forgotten.

Systems are linked to the hyperspace network via local system nodes. These are fixed jump points that link to a specific system or systems. The architecture of the network of hyperspace nodes was similar enough to the system of clusters in the Diaspora RPG that I used the Diaspora SRD to build systtem and cluster creation rules for the Fate edition of Strange Stars. 

There is some weirdness to nodes as they exist in Strange Stars.  The biggest one is that these jump points are psi-active. Someone with psionic abilities like the Voidgliders can discover unmapped or quiescent nodes. People with knowledge of psi-cyphers can activate a node for a jump, or even turn one on/off.

But things could get even weirder. Unlike the hyperspace nodes in Strange Stars, the node found in The Ring of Ritornel, is an interdimensional rift. It's a productive rift which generates new particles leading to hydrogen gas clouds (and eventually new stars and galaxies). The node is an object of scientific study, with a nearby space station that needs to be periodically evacuated due to space quakes emerging from the node. If you thought of these space quakes as massive clashing gravity waves, you'd have an idea of how I'd describe them in a game.

Harness' node also has wildlife, such as the winged space-spiders known as Krith, and smaller fry ursecta that feed on any kind of normal space energies (beam weapons, nuclear drives, etc,) used near a node. This makes the node an extremely dangerous place in which space travellers have to rely on harpoons and melee weapons for defense, as well as ancient slug thrower weapons.

People who pass into Harness' node physically are changed; they come back with bodies made of different matter, and develop strange psi/energy powers. Being stuck inside a node is a pain. Imagine floating without sensation for an eternity in a void. One might go insane. Or become a god with an energy shielded antimatter body upon return to normal space. (Note to self: Some of Harness' SF jargon such as "passivated antimatter" was pretty amusing and must be appropriated for a game.)

Some sequences in The Ring of Ritornel made me wonder if Harness' node was an inspiration for the Negative Zone in Captain Marvel. The Negative Zone was a strange space dimension where Rick Jones was frequently imprisoned as a result of his planar-timeshare with Mar-vell. I've never met two guys in comics who deserved to be together as much as Rick and Mar-vell, but those Nega-Bands always got in the way.

So there are a lot of ways to weird-up the hyperspace nodes in Strange Stars. Here are a few; in fact we have an Alean D12's worth. May the blind goddess of free will protect you from Ritornel's cyclic determinism:
  1. The node bleeds energy from space vessels, shields, and weapons. You need to enter the node using chemical rockets.
  2. The node is malfunctioning. It leads Nowhere. Or Knowhere.
  3. The node is psi-active but has been corrupted in some way. It only responds to psi-communications using the ancient and terrible thought structures of the Zurr.
  4. The node is psi-active. In fact, it confers psi-abilities on people who didn't have them before. People are superstitious about this node, but it attracts many pilgrims.
  5. The node produces space quakes. Gravitational waves have broken up most planets in the system, so that the planetary system orbiting the star is just a series of concentric rings. The system is a Mecca for space miners but it is very dangerous to prospect here because of the quakes.
  6. The node is a drive-drainer. Ships emerging from the node are vulnerable to ambush because their shields, drives, and energy weapons aren't working.
  7. There is a research station near the node. Its goal is to breed new nodes through an experimental process called node mitosis. The system has drawn spy-scientists representing different Strange Stars factions eager to steal the secrets of node mitosis.
  8. Ship systems randomly fail near the node - not all the time, but often enough that the node is surrounded by a ship's graveyard which is periodically trawled by salvagers.
  9. Node diving is a popular sport in this system. It's also an insane sport. Try it if you like. Don a spacesuit, connect suit-to-ship by means of a physical tether, and reel yourself into the node. Some people come back changed. Some people never come back.
  10. The node plays an important role in the mating rituals of the Voidgliders. The system derives a steady income from tourists who come to see the elaborate mating dances in which couples, triples, and quintets dive about and sometimes into the node.
  11. The node is an important religious and meeting site for various clans of Kosmoniks. If you need to find a Kosmonik this is the place to come. Of course, they're a superstitious bunch, so depending on what you do and say, and when and how you approach them, they may view you as a god or a demon.
  12. This node is a major safari site. The Krith are about the tamest thing to come out of the node. Come here to hunt space leviathans, krakens, and other megafauna. Watch out for the single huge tentacle that periodically lashes out of the node, wraps itself around a ship, and crushes the vessel - or even worse, pulls it somewhere else.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Strange Stars A-To-Z: "M" Is For Minga

Image by Ricken-Art

The Minga are submissive, beautiful humanoids enslaved by slimy alien catfishoids. The Slavers keep only small quantities of Minga available for sale at any given time, and most sales occur in the Vokun Empire and lawless regions of the Strange Stars such as the Zuran Expanse. Both the Alliance and the Intrumentality of Aom take a dim view of slavery, so few Minga are sold or even seen in those regions of space. A few have been seen among the Star Folk, but with their shapeshifting abilities, who even knows if these are "real" Minga?

No Minga has ever run away from their master; neither have their been any records of Minga participating in the slave revolts that periodically convulse isolated Vokun orbitals and their more sparsely settled far colonies. Indeed, they seem to have a moderating influence on even the most perverse and cruel of masters.

Player characters might encounter Minga in a few different contexts, including as a:
  • Personal attendant of a Vokun Lord
  • Companion of a young, ambitious, and well-connected Vokun administrator (probably on loan from a Vokun elder)
  • Cabin-Mate of the Capatin of a long-distance trade vessel (perhaps acquired in a game of chance, perhaps acquired by raiding a Slaver slip)
  • Erotic performer among the pleasure domes of Erato (although perhaps that Minga is really a bioroid), or in the Snake Palaces of Fortuna IV, the Gambler's Paradise
  • Assistant to a Phantastist dream-drug merchant or Psychotech mind-healer 
  • Negotiator or representive of a very wealthy and reclusive master
  • Welcome Guest on a Kosmonik ship
  • Captive of Algosian torture cultists
While the Minga are very compliant and submissive, they are also quite curious. Minga will seek out the company of long-lived and star-spanning clades including WanderersDeva, and Deodands, although they will be discrete in making contact. Minga enjoy hearing stories of farflung worlds and cultures - and especially enjoy learning about clades, cultures, and worlds that have grown in wisdom and transcended violence. 

And more than a few have persuaded their Vokun masters to take a holiday on Yantra.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Strange Stars A-To-Z: "L" Is For Lekku'lek_thrall

Of course we're cheating a bit with this one. Lekku are the so-called fleshy "head-tails" found in Twi'leks and Togruta species of the Star Wars universe. They are highly sensitive to touch, containing unprotected brain tissue. Lekku are the seat of some motor functions and repressed memories. Since the Twi'lek's frequently apply tattoos and glitter to their lekku, and they are highly sensitive to touch, it is reasonable to assume that they are also part of sexual display and an erogenous zone.

Any human-derived clade might have lekku as part of the extensive body modification that humans have undergone as they colonized other systems. As well as the common hairless and fleshy lekku, depending on the specific integument of the clade, there might be hirsute or even scaly or warty varieties lekku with all kinds of interesting textures and fur patterns, including stripes, spots, and colors.

Here are a few other ways to use lekku in the Strange Stars setting:
  • Minga pleasure slaves might have these structures for an additional element of body-exoticism. Perhaps they have other functions of which their masters are unaware, such as secretory cells that produce microquantities of substances that increase the target's susceptability to suggestion. 
  • Some infiltration and shock troops among the Sisterhood of Morrgna might sport lekku that are all muscle: these head-tails allow for deadly whip strikes.
  • Lekku would look very handsome on the green-skinned Smaragdine! As a criminally-inclined psi-sensitive species, the additional brain tissue could also allow tricksters among their kind to develop greater psychic potency and/or more specialized psionic abilities.
  • The Phantastists could readily create special gene mods for clients to promote lekku growth. The additional brain tissue could increase the client's receptivity to the dream-drugs that are the Phantastists' core business.
  • Vokun elders might develop these structures for additional fat and memory storage. The additional brain tissue may be where grudge-memories get deposited, although it is probably also the site of some of the runaway hormonal changes associated with their girthy senesence.