Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Science Fiction Hobby Games: A First Survey

We just purchased a copy of Neal Tringham's Science Fiction Hobby Games: A First Survey, which is out in print, Kindle, and iBook formats. The print version comes in the 6" x 9" format found in many indie game books, but it is a whopping 352 pages long!

Neal Tringham authored the RPG entries for John Clute's magisterial Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, a resource which you can access from the right sidebar on the FATE SF blog. A number of the entries from the Encyclopedia were revised for publication in this book. But there are also many new entries, including quite recent RPGs such as Ashen StarsCthulhutech, and Eclipse Phase, and Etherscope.

I would say that the First Survey is just that - a first survey - rather than a comprehensive encyclopedia of SF RPGs. For example, the FASA Trek game is represented, but not the more recent LUG and Decipher Star Trek games. Diaspora isn't listed, but you'll find information on two other SF FATE classics: Starblazer Adventures and Mindjammer. I am a bit surprised to see some supers games here, but genre boundaries are porous after all!

There is also a shorter section on SF wargames.

We may have more to say once we have had time to digest the book a bit!

Friday, July 26, 2013

Approaching Earthport

"Alpha Ralpha Boulevard" by Chris Wayan (1997)

Cordwainer Smith is a posthumous Guest of Honor at Diversicon 21 at next weekend in the Twin Cities, MN. I'll be on two panels about Smith at the con, as well as running a Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space RPG game scenario called: "The Time Lords and the Lords of the Instrumentality."

Should be fun.

Over the last year, I have been reading a lot of Smith - slowly but surely. His work is weird, elusive, and evocative. I've now read all of Smith's "Instrumentality of Mankind" short stories using the two Baen collections. The two collections have some 800+ pages of short stories set in this rather loosely constructed future history sequence.

And tonight, I am starting Smith's Instrumentality novel, Norstrilia, which is another 250 pages in the second book of the Baen collection.

My goal is to finish Norstrilia in the next week.

Looking forward to the con!

Monday, July 22, 2013

The Imperial Sibyls

Art by Juan Ochoa

The star-prophetesses known as the Sibyls have been active throughout the galaxy since ancient times. The Sibyls have played an important role in many civilizations as prophets and advisers to sovereigns. The leaders of each of the successive states leading to the Empire - the Star League, the Instrumentality, the Vorpal Core, the Lesser and Greater Arrays, The Commonality, and the various Comet Nations - have benefited from the prophesies of the Sibyls. At least when they have listened, interpreted, and acted-on the Sibyls' prophesies wisely.

A Sibyl's powers of prophesy come at a great cost. All Sibyls have been extensively modified. This starts with the Mind Hatch at the crown of their shaved heads. The Mind Hatch opens onto a brain that integrates both alien tissue and machine parts with the Sibyl's native brain structure.

The Sibyl's modified brain includes an Oracle Core which is nearly indestructible. The Oracle Core processes and records the Sibyl's supersensory data, and serves as a back-up recording of their raw experience and prophesies which can be retrieved from the Sibyl's body upon their death. There is of course a black market in Oracle Cores; the possession of such items outside the ranks of the Sibyline orders in considered a capital offense by most governments.

A Sibyl's head is surrounded by a Psi-Orrery, a nimbus of advanced psi-sensors and quantum potentiometers. These devices help the Sibyls to plug into galactic-level psychic currents and tap the Probabilities. This is the material basis for the Sibyl's prophetic powers. The designs of the Avatar of Paradox, the AI pilots who can navigate the whorls and eddies of hyperspace with ease, appear to emulate these Sibylline abilities, albeit within the more narrow context of solving complex navigational problems in hyperspace.

Sibyls prefer to live in communities of their kind. The largest number of Sibyls within imperial space is on the Red Moon, which orbits the chtonic machine world of the Eagle King on Altair IV. Some 500 Sibyls reside there. The world is invisible in normal space, as it orbits Altair IV from the 10th or highest enumeration of hyperspace.

The distant coreward homeworld of the Ketherines is the first and longest extant community of the Sibylline Order. It is also one of the four Galactic Cardinal Points. The Ketherine world is called Red Shell; it is a bulwark against the expansion of the galactic Anti-Consciousness, the entity lurking in the depths of the Galactic Core. Some Nexialists conjecture that the root of Sibylline prophetic power is their ability to channel raw sensory data from Probabilities collapsing into the Anti-Consciousness.

The Sibylines' only response to this speculation was Prophesy:

Beyond Measure,
Above the Crown of
Time and Space Itself
Unceasing, Faithful
A Font of Insight
A Well Reversed
Upon Itself



Imperial Sibyl

  • High Concept: Star-prophetess from the Red Moon
  • Trouble: Mind Hatch hides a treasure
  • Aspect: Adviser to the Imperial Sovereign
  • Aspect: Crowned by a Psi-Orrery
  • Aspect: Alien flesh and machines
  • Careful: +3
  • Clever: +2
  • Flashy: +2
  • Forceful: +0
  • Quick: +1
  • Sneaky: +1
  • The Gift of Prophesy: +2 to Flashy Approach to pronounce a prophesy based on one of the Probabilities: what may or might happen, what has happened, what will happen, etc.
  • Oracle Core: A Sibyl has perfect recall of her supersensory perceptions and oracular prophesies.
  • Psychic Currents: +2 to Careful Approach to tap into the galactic-level psychic currents (the thoughts of godlike entities, Jupiter Brains, etc.).

Friday, July 19, 2013

Race, Racism and Gaming Content - The Big Picture

There has been a debate raging on G+ and some gaming sites about racism in gaming. The debate was provoked by the observation that Pathfinder's world setting substitutes humanoid monsters of various kinds (gorillas, gnolls, etc.) for at least some of the humans in its faux African continent. The discussion also pointed out that the faux Africa in the Pathfinder setting is not based very much at all on real cultures of medieval Africa.

Unlike, let's say, the Spears of the Dawn RPG, in which the cultures developed for the game can be said to be based on and traceable to real world historical groups in Africa. Needless to say - but I will - the cultures in SOTD are not evil groups. Like real cultures, they contain a mix of the good and the bad.

So why can't we see more of that?

We have a hobby full of racist cliches, so perhaps we shouldn't be surprised when that erupts - as I have seen happen many times at conventions and in public game spaces - into out-of-character, racist speech. So why can't we talk about the products that contain, support, and sustain those cliches?

One poster described Pathfinder's approach as "ethically problematic." Kind of clunky language. Others have taken the position that criticism of such cliched and racist content is in fact censorship, or worse still "intolerance", both of which should be opposed.

It's interesting that both sides of this debate are using the language of ethics. 

The term has undergone something of a renaissance in contemporary philosophy, particularly since the end of the Soviet Union. Ethics as it is used today is an ideology of the liberal democratic state. It is concerned with matters of law and aesthetics. It is not really concerned with constructing alternative social arrangements. It is about containing grievances and debate about what is actually possible to a very narrow space and a very narrow range of options.

When we are talking about racism, we are really talking about a lot more than shitty art. Racism has been one of the foundations ensuring the stability of the capitalist world economy for more than 500 years. While abstract economic theories have argued for a couple centuries that "pure capitalism" (whatever that might mean) doesn't entail racism, every place on earth where capitalism has taken root (which is pretty much the entire planet) has produced racist social structures, ideologies, representations (including art), and political practices - all resulting in negative outcomes for people not of European descent.

Just ask the Aztecs, Mayans, and Incas. Or, a bit closer to home for me, the Dakota and Ojibwe peoples.

The only times these racist practices and representations have been rolled back is when there have been vigorous, broad social movements demanding that these practices change. Sorry if not everyone is ready for that kind of free speech. But you'd better get ready for more of it. The old world is dying and the new world is struggling to be born.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Entity 2374 Designated "Plasmate"

"Conversion of St. Paul on the way to Damascus"

What is the nature and substance of Entity 2374, also designated "Plasmate"? Across the worlds of our star-spanning, ever-glorious Empire (never may it end), thousands of scholarly treatises have been written, countless debates have raged, and numerous colloquies have been convened to explore and settle the issues surrounding this particularly elusive and enigmatic species-being.

In the Pre-Diasporic Era, Entity 2374 was first known as Logos: the living, self aware Word. In the Early Diasporic Era, the same entity would have been classified as an infomorph. What we can say in these advanced times is that the terms are nearly interchangeable for describing the form this entity takes, but clearly nearly all informed individuals would agree that "informorph" does not adequately capture the substance of the thing.

The term Plasmate is always used in reference to an encounter with an informorph that conveys a religious revelation - an in-rushing epiphany of Real data. It is often described as an incoming beam of light or a transmission.

Alif Lam Mim.

To receive such a text is a disturbance. It unsettles the mind. Those who receive such revelations may spend years - even the entire remainder of their lives - trying to make sense of the experience.

Non-humans have reported similar encounters. Even androids and robots have encountered Entity 2374. This should not be surprising to citizens of the Empire. After all, the android What She Said is one of the Imperial Sybils. She has been known to sit and prophesy for days on end.

This post is a playful tribute to Philip K. Dick, who invented the term Plasmate, and who spent the last decade of his life trying to explain his "pink light" experience. Consult his works VALIS, The Divine Invasion, and the Exegesis for more on this concept.


The Plasmate
Informorph or Logos

  • High Concept: Self-aware divine text
  • Trouble: Chaos dataflow
  • Aspect: Outside time and space
  • Aspect: At home in a scroll
  • Aspect: Better in a brain
  • Careful: +0
  • Clever: +2
  • Flashy: +3
  • Forceful: +2
  • Quick: +1
  • Sneaky: +1
  • Homoplasmate: The Plasmate may embody itself in the mind of an organism or machine. The recipient acquires the Trouble Aspect of the Plasmate, but may also acquire one or more new positive Aspects related to religious insights, as well as greater cosmic awareness in the form of a new Stunt.
  • Insight: Because time is an illusion, the Plasmate can transmit visions of the future to someone who receives the entity into their mind (becoming a Homoplasmate), or who reads a text embodying the Plasmate.
  • Sleep in Scroll: Because time is an illusion, a Plasmate may hide indefinitely in a text such as a scroll or data crystal.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

The 'Zotl

The 'Zotl is a common threat-being that can be found lurking amid the ruins on many proscribed dead worlds. They are robots. Or rather they are cyborgs to be exact: the 'Zotl's brains contain small arrays of plastinated neural circuits derived from canids and humans. These tiny circuits make them deadly.

The 'Zotl are most frequently found on worlds that Omega House has placed under Imperial Quarantine. Typical reasons for quarantining dead worlds in the Empire are because someone has discovered a very serious threat hidden among the ruins - or found an unbelievably valuable asset that they want to extract at a later date.

The most popular theory is that the 'Zotl are deployed during Omega House evacuations. Intelligence suggests they are built by a team of renegade Star Surgeons, and engineers from the Rossum Interface, a group that enjoys a special manufacturing retainer with Omega House.

The 'Zotl's software uses a variant of the standard R.U.R. operating system, optimized for long periods of time alone, in low-power states, and off-network. Once they detect an intruder, the 'Zotl will project a series of powerful auditory and visual hallucinations, typically of a human in distress. Once an intruder is sufficiently close to the 'Zotl, it strikes with its telescoping tailclaw, and entraps the victim in an Anti-Life Field.

It is said that the affects of the Anti-Life Field are similar to drowning.

After taking-out its victim, the 'Zotl gains the ability to project hallucinations of the victim's voice and appearance, potentially snaring additional victims.


The 'Zotl
Psionic trap-cyborg

  • High Concept: Ruin-stalking cyborg predator
  • Trouble: Limited by its treads 
  • Aspect: Lurks close to what it guards
  • Aspect: Psionically active
  • Aspect: Anti-Life Field tailclaw
  • Careful: +3
  • Clever: +1
  • Flashy: 0
  • Forceful: +2
  • Quick: +1
  • Sneaky: +2
  • Anti-Life Field: +2 to Forceful Attack on an opponent who is Grappled (see Tailclaw Stunt, below) 
  • Cry Wolf: Once per session, project the auditory and visual hallucination illusion of a person crying for help 
  • Psionic Scenthound: +2 to Create Advantage by sensing approaching prey's psionic scent (doesn't work against pure robot/android creatures)
  • Tailclaw: When a Forceful Attack with the tailclaw Succeeds with Style, an opponent has the Aspect Grappled until that opponent Succeeds with Style on an Overcome Obstacle action to escape the Tailclaw's grip.

Monday, July 15, 2013

The Arrival Of Nova Praxis

The Anubian Ambassador and The Box

When I arrived home at lunchtime today to feed the Anubian Ambassador, there was a mail van parked in front of the house. As I was parking, Tattooed Loveboy the Mailman was getting out of the van with a big box. I followed him to the house, and witnessed his at least 2-3' dead drop of the box onto our concrete stoop.

Fortunately, it came well packed - a box within a box, with the inner box nested all around with peanuts. Not the kind of peanuts that the Anubian Ambassador likes, but you can't please everyone. It arrived undamaged.

What was in the box? The beautiful print edition of Nova Praxis, +Mike McConnell's FATE-based RPG of transhuman SF. I can't wait to spend some time reading through it. One thing that I am VERY pleased about is that the font size is just right to be readable for those, let's just say, of the Whitebox generation!

Here's the cover:

As you can see below, the Anubian Ambassador is already using her light-manipulation powers to assemble zones for a combat scenario. We both want to play.

Screens Up!

FATE Ringworld! I am thinking about running this at Con of the North in 2014! For system, I would use either Starblazer Adventures or FAE.

You are looking at the GM side of the GM screen for Starblazer Adventures. On G+, someone recently posted their GM table arrangement for FATE Core, which included a GM screen, NPCs on large index cards, and an RPG manual from another Chaosium boxed set from the same era, the 1980s.

This led one person to speculate that the GM must be old school, and that they thought GM screens were unnecessary for FATE. To be clear, at least one FATE RPG has a GM screen: the massive Starblazer Adventures RPG. The screen has most or all of the tables likely to be used in play, as well as the sequences for person-to-person and starship combat. It is a quite useful screen, with incredible full color art from the Starblazer Adventures comic on the player-facing side.

That being said, I almost never use GM screens in the "upright" (i.e., standing) position. I keep them folded-up and at my side as a ready reference. I don't like barriers that block my line of sight or that of the players, and FATE games tend to involve a lot of reach and toss actions with Fate Points.

If some FATE gamers express discomfort with a GM screen this may reflect the traditional symbolic role of those screens: they are the primary symbol of GM authority in RPGs.  "The GM is god." The underpinnings of the world which the PCs experience is hidden behind the screen. "Don't look behind the screen", to paraphrase the Wizard of Oz. Moving forward almost 40 years, FATE strives for an affect that is aptly expressed as "the table decides" and "the table builds the world". I think this language was introduced to FATE by Diaspora, but it is certainly a sentiment that has been deepened and reinforced by FATE Core.

As someone who played Whitebox D&D and Blackbox LBB Traveller, I do not recall using screens for either of these games. They may have been available, but my friends and I certainly didn't use GM screens until 1st Edition AD&D was published. So arguably, a screen isn't even necessary for old school RPG play. As far as I am concerned, it is a matter of preference and organizational approach used by the GM.

Screens are a tool.  Some GMs use screens to:
  • Assert a degree of authorial control and authority at the table. And mystery/mystique. You have to have a bit of that magic air to GM. Few GMs are purely a facilitator
  • Hide things: notes, maps, and possibly dice rolls. 
  • Stage things (such as miniatures or other props) until they are needed.
  • Manage the operational complexity of rules/mechanics (and there is significant variance in level of complexity among the different implementations of FATE). 
Of course, there are other approaches to managing operational complexity of rules and mechanics. For example, Diaspora uses cheat sheets for mechanically involved sequences such as person-to-person combat, platoon combat, space combat and social combat. So, sheet rather than screen. Diaspora also encourages the use of a "caller" (as opposed to GM) to manage these particular rules operations.

In summary, I think people shouldn't read too much into the use or non-use of a GM screen. It's a tool, and each GM puts different tools in their toolbox according to their specific style and needs.

Friday, July 12, 2013

The Nebbishter Glee

The Nebbishter Glee

Also known as Space Goblins, the Nebbishter Glee are a waist-high semi-intelligent demonic species that have infested a number of worlds, habitats, and orbitals both inside and beyond the Empire. Reportedly introduced into Imperial space by certain unscrupulous Gene Masters, the Nebbishter Glee are frequently used as estate guardians by the wealthy and unwary. Their DNA is an ever-shifting melange of canine, feline, ape, and utterly otherworldly alien stock.

Unfortunately, the Nebbishter have a tendency to... replicate in large numbers if unchecked. These diminished but still dangerous replicates are known as Epigones.  Fortunately the production of Epigones can be stayed with a number of Nexialist formulae and psychic sutras. These need to be recast daily. Otherwise, estates and other enclosed habitats will quickly become overrun by their numbers. Once free of the bonds of servitude, the Nebbishter Glee will mass replicate and attack everyone and everything in sight.

The Nebbishter Glee have a second use: they are a devastating weapon in siege warfare. The rocky hide of these demons makes them ideal for use in planetary bombardment. Several thousand may be fired at a planet from orbit. Invariably 66.6% will survive reentry and planetary impact undamaged - and ready for action. After a quick round of replication, a swarm of Nebbishter primaries and their Epigones will wreak indiscriminate havoc on all available targets.

The militarization of this species of demon has been banned by the Imperial Sovereign. But their use by privateers, star criminals, and extortionists of all kinds continues. Usually planets that have been infested by such attacks need to be sterilized using planet-cracking weapons.

Even more disturbing are reports of a new species variant that has recently appeared in the Empire. An Omega House expedition to a ringworld in the Shore Archipelago discovered a much more intelligent and psionically active subspecies of the Nebbishter Glee. Some of this stock escaped captivity and have begun organizing bands of their semi-intelligent peers in a series of well-coordinated rebellions in disparate sectors of the Empire.

In a typical act of Omega House public diplomacy, word has gone out that Omega House "has the means and the will to contain and extinguish this outbreak." There are reports in several sectors that Omega House has increased their hiring of mercenary forces, scaling up their military assets toward this end.  


The Nebbishter Glee
Space Goblins

  • High Concept: Waist-high semi-intelligent demons
  • Trouble: Vulnerable to psionic and magical attacks
  • Aspect: Guardians of limited loyalty
  • Aspect: A propensity to replicate
  • Aspect: Cat-ape-dog-demon hybrids
  • Careful: +1
  • Clever: 0
  • Flashy: +1
  • Forceful: +2
  • Quick: +2
  • Sneaky: +3
  • Easy to Overlook: Take a +2 to Sneaky Approach to be mistaken for statuary.
  • Remix: Once per session, an unwarded Nebbishter Glee may sample the DNA of another living creature and produce a new Nebbishter strain (not an Epigone) with a unique Aspect and Stunt.
  • Replicate Epigone: Once per session, an unwarded Nebbishter Glee can produce an Epigone; this is a mook (see stats below). 
  • Tough Little Critter: Once per session, a Nebbishter becomes immune to a Forceful attack that would otherwise damage it (i.e., projectiles, a fall, fire).

Epigone (Minion)
A big bite, A short reach
  • Skilled +2 at: Biting, Sneaking
  • Bad -2 at: Fighting magical/psionic attacks
  • Stress: 2

Thursday, July 4, 2013

The Worm Prelates

The Anubian Ambassador

Last night, as I was admiring the lovely FATE Core print edition, the Anubian Ambassador became very animated. She isn't a book collector, so much as a book navigator and interpolator, a skilled navigator of the Ways Between The Book Obelisks.

But something on p. 214 got her attention. Her full attention: nose twitching and growling, followed by an utterance: "Rrrrwurm Prrrrelates!"

She nosed at the illustration on p. 214, and began to tell the story of these terrible creatures.

The Worm Prelates

A species or a disease? It matters not. Once infection has occurred, the resulting species-being becomes a Worm Prelate: an infectious, malevolent hierarch of any one of a number of the Great Galactic Faiths.

Many are no doubt familiar with the transformative affects of certain religious epiphanies. Either reading and grasping the meaning of a horrible and forgotten text, or direct illumination by an otherworldly qlippothic entity can result in hideous physical and mental transfigurations of the subject.

Less recognized is the fact that religious hypocrisy - as embodied in the attitudes and behaviors of worldly clergy and in the high-handed hierarchical and authoritarian practices of any number of the Great Galactic Faiths - can produce the same effects.

The most common teratological effect is an explosive proliferation of wormlike evaginations from many different body orifices including the eyes, ears, and mouth. Because the disease transforms the sensory and communicative organs, Imperial physicians often refer to this disease as the "See No Evil" syndrome. In spite of the disease's name, a Worm Prelate's sensory and communicative organs continue to work, even as their appearance is transformed.

Those most likely to become infected are hierarchs who ignore or cover up a range of abuses perpetrated by clergy, as well as those who take advantage of their status and privileged access to institutional resources to live a life of leisure while the common folk suffer. The "See No Evil" disease is most common on worlds where empaths constitute 5% or more of the general population. Clerical pogroms against psions, empaths, and witches are particularly common on such worlds, especially on planets under the sway of hierarchs of the Great Galactic Faiths.

The infection can be hidden for a little while. When a cleric becomes infected, they frequently go into seclusion. This absence is justified though a range of plausible excuses, such as "His Holiness Is On Retreat". Sooner or later, however, the infection runs wild, and the hierarch loses the ability to conceal the malady. They end up as a shambling mass of worms. When that Omega point is reached, the Inquisition is forced to turn on itself.


Worm Prelate
Worm-infested hierarchs

  • High Concept: Hypocrisy in human form
  • Trouble: Vulnerable to empaths and psions
  • Aspect: "See No Evil" is a disease
  • Aspect: Infection must be hidden
  • Aspect: Worms that speak, hear,and see
  • Careful: +2
  • Clever: +2
  • Flashy: 0
  • Forceful: +1
  • Quick: +1
  • Sneaky: +3
  • Cunning as Serpents: +2 to Clever Approach to use Church resources and positional power to Create an Advantage.
  • Take to the Catacombs: +2 to Sneaky Approach to hide from adversaries in a secret sanctuary within or below a temple or church.
  • Worm's Touch: +2 to Forceful Approach when Attacking an opponent in the same zone with a mass of terrible worms. This is the equivalent to a bite attack, since the worms are on the prelate's head.

Monday, July 1, 2013

I'm NOT Waiting For My Copies to Arrive!


Well, maybe I am, but we all have to do things besides wait, wait wait!

Like creating the Devilpede, for example. The banner above is an artist's rendering of an ancient central american centipede monster. It was originally found here:

Photo copyright 2013 John Everett Till

Centipedes are hideous and creepy. And beautiful. They're the lions of the arthropod 'verse. Perfect FATE SF material.

So we present the Devilpede, another FAE creature for the FATE Bestiary.

Lurkers in ducts, ladderworks, and the tight spaces between stacked cargo containers, Devilpedes slither and squirm through narrow, easily forgotten spaces in the depths of ships, stations, and settlements. These two-tailed horrors are all too often discovered just moments too late, in the brief seconds before a skeleton crew, recon, or rescue party succumbs to their wholesale predation.

It is unknown how Devilpedes get on ships, although their below-deck lairs are often scattered with broken shards of neo-ceramic material. Are their larvae carried aboard ships and habitats by humans? If so, why?

Most vessels and installations within the Empire have standing orders to kill these creatures on-sight. Some have displayed an uncanny intelligence in evading their hunters, and it is suspected they are distant relatives of the Trelebs, who hate them as much as humans do.

Turn on the lights in a cargo bay or disused section below decks and you may find one just sitting there waiting for you to come along. They are well-armored and move very quickly. And once they are of human size or greater, these creatures rarely turn and run. Instead, they will charge right towards you.

Even worse, Devilpedes are mildly telepathic, and are able to play-on and amplify common human fears of the darkness and of slithery multi-legged creatures. The closest Devilpede may be the one right behind you.


Two-tailed giant centipede (inimical)

  • High Concept: Armored lurkers with a hundred legs
  • Trouble: They freeze for a second when the lights come on
  • Aspect: Two tails and twice the trouble
  • Aspect: Did you see that thing move?
  • Aspect: Play on your fears
  • Careful: +2
  • Clever: +2
  • Flashy: 0
  • Forceful: +4
  • Quick: +3
  • Sneaky: +3
  • Amplify Fears - Take a +2 to Sneaky Approach to attempt to harm an adversary or prey by preying on their fears.
  • Split in Two - Once per session, a Devilpede may split itself into two of its kind.
  • Quick Getaway - Take a +2 to Quick Approach to make a quick getaway from an adversary.