Monday, December 29, 2014

Vintage SF Month Book Selected!

Source: Omni Magazine

The image above tells you what I plan to read for Vintage Science Fiction Month: Frank Herbert's Dune (1965). It almost feels like cheating to pick the most popular SF novel of all time. But the last time I read it was some 30+ years ago, so it will be fun to come back to it. The image below conveys how enthusiastic I am about this project:

We also have the Dune RPG as well as Jihad (a Dune-ish Burning Wheel supplement), so we may talk about them a bit next month too.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Vintage Science Fiction Month

From the excellent Battered, Tattered, Yellowed & Creased blog, I learned that January is Vintage Science Fiction Month. That's a month when you are encouraged to join others in reading SF&F written before 1979. You can check out all the details at the Little Red Reviewer blog, which hosts the not-a-challenge. Why participate? "Because vintage science fiction is where we came from" says the Little Red Reviewer. "Those novels and short stories are the steps we took to get to where we are now."

Sounds good to me. I already reviewed a couple of books that qualify earlier this year, such as this and this. I am reading another one right now.

So this should be fun! Stay tuned to find out what I plan to read.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Saturday Night Space Opera!

Jay Mac Bride of the EXONAUTS! and RAD ASTRA! blogs and I are starting something new: a regular space opera gaming event on the first Saturday night of the month! The easiest way to keep up with all the news is to follow our new blog, Saturday Night Space Opera!

The first session is this Saturday, January 3 from 6 PM until close (probably 9 PM) at Source Comics and Games in Roseville, MN.

First up, Jay is going to run a few sessions of a mini-campaign in his Rad Astra setting! His game uses the X-Plorers RPG, a first edition style SF RPG. It's super-easy to learn! I played in a session of it two years ago at Con of the North and it was a blast!

We'll be running a bunch of different systems here, and down the road, I plan to run the Fate edition of Trey Causey's Strange Stars setting (look for the setting book in the very near future), as well as Cosmic Patrol, and (once my copy of the deluxe edition arrives) Metamorphosis Alpha!

No system knowledge is necessary! In fact, we hope to grow this into a multiple tables, multiple games kind of event, but we're starting out with running one event at a time.

Post 500 - Adventures of the Ancient Star-Queens

The Star Queen Nebula

Today is the 500th post at FATE SF. So perhaps it's not inopportune that this morning, as I was awakening from a good night's sleep - the third night in a row - I had a great idea for a new Fate setting: Adventures of the Ancient Star-Queens.

Long before our storied Empire, ages before the rise and welcome fall of Earth's wanton Star League, the Star-Queens explored the galaxy. From jeweled worlds scattered among the stars, the ancient Star-Queens sent out their Emissaries to visit other worlds. Some Emissaries established settlements, while others simply explored or traded. Many helped worlds end age-old strife, establish a lasting peace, or solve seemingly intractable problems. 

Today, the Star-Queens and their Emissaries are best remembered in their epics and songs, still sung by their descendants on many worlds. Their traces can also be found in the gate-relics that once tied world-to-world, and by the rediscovery of their ancient star-vaults:  the time lost treasuries still found in these latter times. They were great when we were naught but the distant potentialities of their own far flung Outreach.  
-Saga of the Star Queens

The Setting: The game is set during humanity's ancient, first Diaspora. By unknown means, humans had been scattered among the stars long before the first generation ships set forth from Earth in the early days of the Star League. Many of these early societies were matriarchal, with communistic, socialist, or anarchistic leanings. A few -the Wolf-Queens - were authoritarian, mercenary, aggressive, or militaristic. In time, many of these worlds discovered how to visit other planets using gates, sorcery, or starships. The ancient Star-Queens sent out Emissaries to make contact with other peoples.

The Emissaries: Each group of Emissaries represents the Star-Queen of a particular world. Such teams are always led by a female, but typically include a mix of genders. Skill sets include diplomacy, trade, science, exploration/survival, and (an unfortunate reality) warriors. Many of the latter are warrior-scholars or poet-warriors (yes, the "bard" is a highly regarded archetype in this setting). Most Emissary groups also include a psion or sorcerer to open gateways between the worlds. As Emissaries have contacted other worlds, their teams grow to include beings of other species. (In fact, there is every reason to believe that some of the ancient Star-Queens were actually members of insect and reptilian species.)

Adventures: The emphasis is on exploration, discovery, diplomacy, and other forms of problem-solving, Empire-building isn't the norm among the Star-Queens, although there is some degree of competition among the Queens for fame and glory. Groups of Emissaries will be largely on their own. Back-up from the homeworld is infrequent, as operating gates requires significant expenditures of magical energy. Emissaries must act on their own, and are expected to uphold the largely altruistic values of their homeworld.

Inspirations: The biggest one for me is Catherine Asaro's Skolian Empire series. We know that the original Ruby Dynasty was a star empire led by matriarchal warrior queens. Unlike the Star-Queens described above, the queens of the ancient Ruby Dynasty were imperialistic and given to a great deal of internecine rivalry. They also kept male harems. Some of the males in the harems were masters of a glass bead game (although remarkably the author told me she wasn't familiar with Herman Hesse's novel). The game helps the queens anticipate the moves of their rivals, as well as simulate and extrapolate a range of cultural and political contingencies.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Kane of Old Mars

Last night I finished one of Michael Moorcock's early novels, his Burroughs pastiche City of the Beast, later re-published as Warriors of Mars. It is the first novel in his Kane of Old Mars trilogy, and a great example of the late/revived planetary romance genre. City of the Beast has many of the features of the planetary romance genre, particularly as influenced by A Princess of Mars and its many sequels:
  • An Earthman of military background transported to another world by unusual means
  • A world of decadent city-states in conflict
  • Barbarian tribes that cause trouble for the city-states
  • A world of swordplay and decisive action
  • Flying ships and other ancient high tech
  • Hints of highly advanced ancient races
  • Evidence of moderate religiosity among the varied races and peoples of the world
  • Things mistaken for gods, but no direct evidence that the gods exist
Moorcock later identified Kane as one of the exemplars of the Eternal Champion (other examples including John Daker/Erekose, Elric, Corum, and Hawkmoon). We don't see any evidence of greater cosmic forces (or planes) at work in the first novel, but if I had to peg Kane's alignment, I'd say he followed Law.

I can see traces of the later Moorcock in this novel. While some of the naming of races and people evokes Burroughs, there are names like the Argzoon (the race of Blue Giants on Mars) which would be right at home in an Elric novel. We also have a City of Thieves, which reminded me a bit of Nadsokor, the City of Beggars in the Young Kingdoms. 

I started Blades of Mars aka Lord of the Spiders, which is the second novel in the trilogy, last night. Hopefully the prose improves a bit as the series progresses. My biggest criticism of the first book is that while it operates in a genre that relies on Orientalism for its core affect, the setting is not quite "exotic" enough. 

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Playtesting Strange Stars

"Greetings from the Mighty and Benevolent Vokun Empire!" With these words booming planetside from an orbiting space fleet, we began our first playtest set in Trey Causey's Strange Stars universe. I'm 95% done with the Fate Strange Stars rules that will follow the release of the Strange Stars setting book. Tonight's playtest focused on testing and refining some factions rules I have created using the idea behind the so-called "Fate Fractal." Based on the notion that almost anything in a game can be represented similarly to a character, we have created rules for running the prominent factions of Strange Stars, as well as guidelines so that GMs can create new factions..

One of my goals with the Fate Strange Stars rules is to have factions be something that players can tap into as a resource. That's fairly straightforward. The thing I wanted to test was rules that enable the use of factions as a tool for the table to participate in environment creation and evolution in a manner similar to Microscope. Through a series of exchanges in which factions cooperate and compete, recent history can be developed by the players as the backdrop to a new roleplaying campaign.

What we played out in the session was the rediscovery of a long lost star system in the Zuran Expanse, a region of space sandwiched between several large interstellar polities. Players took on the roles of the Alliance (the closest thing to the United Federation of Planets in this setting), the Vokun Empire (a ruthless and decadent polity led by a species of feuding Harkonnen-like alien clan elders), the Instrumentality of Aom (an interstellar theocracy that uses peaceful conversion where possible), the Zao Corsairs (space pirates so ruthless and successful that many other space pirates pretend to be them), and the Airrotten Unified Assembly (the one party state ruling the system's two inhabited worlds).

The new arrivals knew that the Airrotten system had ruins dating back to the ancient Radiant Polity era. Since Radiant Polity tech was more advanced than the mainstream technology of the current era, this was the primary point of interest for a couple of the other factions. Creating the conditions for access to these caches of ancient tech was one goal of the new arrivals. Another was adroitly pursued by the Vokun player, who quickly saw the value in obtaining Airrotten war captives from the Zao Corsairs to use as genetic stock for new servitor species. (The Vokun Empire is a racially stratified polity in which subaltern species play specific socio-economic roles; the Vokun are pretty nasty folks to have as either overlords or neighbors.)

People played their factions well, getting into "character" as their faction very quickly. Since my factions system uses six custom Approaches rather than the more granular skill set in Fate Core, it was important to see the Approaches in action and learn whether they made sense to players. People thought they did. However, the four Actions need some examples for the factions level of play, especially in a factions sub-system that includes the potential for PVP play. (Note that if you are signed up for the Strange Stars game at Con of the North in February, we'll be doing traditional roleplaying with characters - NOT PVP gaming.)

The players had a lot of great ideas for how the factions system could be clarified and improved. We'll be implementing a number of those, including building-in mechanical rewards for inter-factional deal making and mutual assistance. One astute observation was that the Fate economy slowed down due to the lack of Compels. This was probably because the GM was playing one of the factions, and not paying sufficient attention to the Fate Point economy. That being said, one player asserted there was no need for a GM with this kind of set-up. A lot to consider there.

One positive outcome was how many Aspects were in play simultaneously at the table. I'm usually forgetting about scene Aspects entirely and not necessarily doing the best job of tracking the Aspects that players discover or create during the game.

What was different this time? I used Avery Dry Erase Flash Cards for each of the two Airrotten planets, as well as to write down individual aspects and place them on the table (in "orbit" around one planet or the other) as we played. That made a real difference and added a lot of color and texture to the story. One downside of the flash cards is that they tend to smear ink across the card rather than completely erase the ink. They are still a great resource and I am going to continue using them!

(The "encounter" side of the Jadepunk playmat is another option, but our very generous host usually places a couple bowls of snacks in the table's center, and the players have mugs with beverages - so not the ideal set-up for using a mat.)

What's next? Refining the factions rules a tad! The time has also come for a careful rereading of the Fate rules for Actions; I get confused by the difference between Create an Advantage and Overcome Actions. So it's back to the book for a refresher!

I'm looking forward to running the full Fate Strange Stars RPG at Con of the North, so if what you see here as piqued your interest - and you're in town - stop by and play in this session. In fact, I may use what developed in the factions play last night as the scenario seed for the roleplaying.

We'll also have some opportunities to offer demos of the game next year at The Source. Stay tuned for details!

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Cant Of The Limbo Of Literalistic Derision

Cant of the Limbo of Literalistic Derision (Abjuration, Cost, Per Scene, Persistent, Requires one other Ajuration spell): The ultimate counter-magical casting of the desperate, this formula evokes one of the garrulous and supernal Intelligences of Law. The caster rolls CHA +2 to summon this Mind. Once successfully cast, the distracting babble from this paragon of Law penetrates the minds of any living intelligent beings in the Scene, driving them to distraction with a barrage of rationalistic and subtly mocking quotidiana.

The affect of this disembodied otherworldly discourse is to raise the difficulty by +2 for any Create an Advantage or Overcome action requiring focus and concentration. The spell also blocks all other spellcasting actions (by any party, including the caster) for the remainder of the Scene. (Because of the latter restriction, this casting cannot be dispelled prior to the end of the Scene.)

Robots, androids, and other artificial intelligences are not affected by the Cant of the Limbo of Literalistic Derision.  Ignorance is bliss for those without imagination.

The name of this spell is inspired by a phrase in an essay by Clark Ashton Smith.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Sword Of The Underpeople

Sword of the Underpeople (Evocation/Necromancy, Cost, Per Scene, Persistent): This casting was developed by one of the innumerable subterranean and subaltern species that have dealt with undead infestations. A runeblade of bone, puissant against undead of all kinds, tears through the flesh of the caster's palm. The sword deals Weapon:2 in additional shifts of damage against undead creatures. It remains attached to their hand for an entire Scene or until dispelled by the caster.

The caster rolls CHA +2 to manifest the blade.

If the caster rolls a -3 on 4DF before Skills/Approaches are counted, the spell is successfully cast, but the sword remains extended for an entire Session, and cannot be dispelled before this time. (The sword can be physically removed using a bone saw, but this is messy and leaves a bleeding spur, for a Moderate Consequence.)

If the caster rolls a -4 before Skills/Approaches are counted, the same effects apply, but additionally the caster gains the Moderate Consequence of Rotting Flesh. This consequence promotes to Severe if an attempt is made to physically remove the sword using a bone saw.

The glowing arcane runes on this blade tell a story. They are invariably written in the most ancient written language associated with the caster's culture. Someone with the ability read the runes (such as a lich) will learn the caster's Trouble Aspect, and on a Success with Style, will learn additional secrets about the caster...

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Where Do YOU Gather Energy?

November was a low-output month on the blog. There were three factors playing into that:
  1. Investing more time in Fate of Tekumel, one of FATE SF's sister blogs. It's still a baby-blog, but it's moving. Six posts in November, whee...
  2. Some absolutely essential Tekumel travel, our second annual pilgrimage to U-Con in Ypsilanti. This is an outstanding convention with a superb Tekumel track that is an international draw. More on the con in the near future over at Fate of Tekumel! We also had a wonderful post-convention evening hangout in the bar with +Leonard Balsera of Fate Core fame, who was one of the Special Guests this year. It was a great way to unwind at the end of the con!
  3. A few days after the con I became extremely ill. Con crud? Perhaps. It was certainly a nasty cold, and one I am thankfully over.
So this is our first post for December. My energy is coming back. There will be more posts. 

And truth to tell, I have been a bit parsimonious with my posts, because we are also very close to Post 500 at FATE SF. Every post around that number should be meaty and substantive, no? 

Or celebratory.

So here's something I'm celebrating. Tonight my reading group got back together after a many month long hiatus. It felt good to get back together. It's a group that has been meeting several times per year for probably 14 years now. We formed to read Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri's Empire (2000), and since then we read both of Empire's sequels and mavny other books as well. 

Tonight we discussed a very short book called Comradely Greetings: The Prison Letters of Nadya and Slavoj. That's right, a short book of correspondence between Slavoj Zizek and Nadya Tolokonnivkona of the band Pussy Riot. It was a great discussion and a great reminder that it isn't the girth or heft of the book that matters, but whether the book provokes a stimulating discussion.

Where do you turn for creative and intellectual energy?