Monday, March 31, 2014

Serpent in Paradise

The official vokun assessment of Yantra was that it had little to offer the Empire. It's natives were primitive (at best they had mastered iron) and demonstrated a pervasive culture of nonviolence so ingrained that they were insuitable for military conscription. The ibglibdishpan analysts verified that there had once by an advanced civilization on Yantra: the environment had been finely tuned, nanotechnology (though dormant) still permeated the biosphere, and seemingly primitive stone structures (shrines, mostly, for the superstitious Yantrans) actually showed complex femto-level engineering.

Obviously, the primitives had no knowledge of these technologies, and there was no indication they ever did. The vokun are an incurious species. They assumed some great pre-Collapse civilization had left its mark and moved on. Yantra was only usefully as a pleasure world; it's mostly tropical clime and pliant, simpleminded, and exotically attractive populace provided an ideal place of relaxation for vokun nobility.

The ibglibdishpan were vexed by the anomalies. It only took a few in the continuing series of seemingly random network and equipment failures that have plagued the Imperial conquest of Yantra for them to deduce the truth. They were not at all surprised when vokun junior officers began to disappear or have unusal accidents--never frequently enough to arouse suspicion on the part of the vokun, but a detectable statistical signal, nonetheless. For reasons known only to them, the ibglibdishpan have kept their conclusions to themselves.

Sunday, March 30, 2014


Afronosky's Noah resembles the Biblical account of his life and exploits in a roughly analogous manner to how the original Clash of the Titans resemble the story of Perseus--and it's all the more gameable for it.

Like the Biblical narrative, the film takes place in a mythic Antediluvian past, though the film's is decidedly post-apocalyptic with barren landscapes thanks to rapaciousness of the descendants of Cain. All in that roughly made yet unusually modern-looking clothing seen in post-Apocalypse's from the Planet of the Apes TV show to Waterworld. Noah and his fellow descendants of Seth have been hunted and killed by bands of the more technologically advanced tribes of Cain. Noah is the last survivor, trust trying to hideout with his wife and kids, living a low-impact, vegetarian lifestyle.

Then the Creator decides he's had enough. He starts sending Noah prophetic dreams (Noah's gets a bit of help in interpreting these after (possibly) being slipped an entheogenic brew by his grand-dad, Methuselah). There's going be a world-killing flood, and he's got to build a boat.

Noah gets some help from the Watchers, imprisoned in giant, rocky forms, and a the last seed from the Garden of Eden, which grows an instant forest for lumber. Then the odd, not-quite-the-animals-we-know, start showing up in droves.

All does not go smooth though, as hordes of human refugees under the command of the warrior-king, Tubal-cain show up to try and storm the ark, and Noah's wifeless son begins to have second thoughts about this "only family left on earth" thing.

I won't spoil the ending, but I suspect you know how it turns out.

While a lot of this film is devoted to the sort of drama than Afronosky is typically known for, a lot of the elements the film adds to the tale seem like the sort of thing Jack Kirby would have done, even if they're not wrapped in typical Kirby presentation: fiery angels trapped in misshapen rock bodies, a post-Apocalyptic prehistory, zohar stones that provide light and fire.

If it's more your thing, there's also a graphic novel version.

Friday, March 28, 2014

First Strange Stars Art

As I've mentioned in comments, but I don't think I've explicitly said in a post, I'm putting together a book on my Strange Stars setting. This is the first (mostly) completed piece of artwork for it by the talented Waclaw Wysocki: This is Stella Starlight, captain of the Motherless Child, just one of many starship captains operating in the galaxy.

More to come.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Apotheosis Quest

Some adventurers are content to be earthly rulers, basking in the rewards of their past glories. But some yearn for a further challenge and the greatest of all rewards.

Like concentric spheres, the higher planes surround the Prime Material. Beyond them all is the Empyrean, where dwells the Increate Source. This supernal presence is said to bestow godhood on those who reach it.

Getting there is the hard part. The paths are hidden in the lower astral, where there are monsters, godlings, devils, and beings on the same quest to get in the way.

Andrew Ross MacLean

Beyond the astral are the ascending levels of the Outer Planes, iconic realms ruled by (or perhaps manifesting) gods. Each is a challenge, perhaps designed to cause seekers to falter and fail, and possibly even be cast into the Abyss for their audacity.

All of reality is a mega-dungeon that goes up.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Wednesday Comics: Juliet

Here's the next installment of  Jim Starlin's Metamorphosis Odyssey. The earlier posts in the series can be found here.

"Juliet (Metamorphosis Odyssey Chapter III)"
Epic Illustrated #1 (Spring 1980) Story & Art by James Starlin

Synopsis: In Kansas, a family listens to reports of an alien invasion on the radio. Russia and China have fallen. The island of Japan may have been sunk by the onslaught. In the U.S., officials debate the use of nuclear weapons against the threat. Everything else the nations of the Earth have tried has been to no avail.

Juliet walks out into yard. Her mother worries about her, most of all: she's only 15. Juliet's grandfather reminds them all of Pearl Harbor. He's confident the U.S. can win this one, too. Besides, the aliens won't want anything in Kansas.

As if to mock him, an alien vessel flies overhead and blows up the farmhouse. On Juliet survives.

The craft lands and two Zygotean mercenaries emerge. They were scouting for locations to land the fuel fleet. The see Juliet and move to kill her. Suddenly, one of the mercenaries is disintegrated.

The other mercenary is quick and wounds Aknaton, but it doesn't do him much good. He's disintegrated by the Osirosan's next blast.

Aknaton builds a pyramid around them with his power to fly them off Earth. He explains to Juliet who they are. She feels bad about leaving her people. Aknaton explains that they are all going to die anyway. Her death would mean nothing here, but she has gifts that can help him stop the spread of Zygoteism.

He assures her that Earth is dead, but there are different kinds of death: Slow death under Zygotean enslavement--or a quick death that takes foe as well as friend. A death brought about by the simultaneous detonation of all the Earth's nuclear weapons:

Things to Notice:
  • "Pulsar-sucking obstructionist!" is a alien insult.
Starlin's opening with Juliet's grand-father and parents conversing contrasts the pessimism of the seventies with the post-World War II optimism. The story comes down on the side of pessimism. The dialogue doesn't allow Juliet to say much in her own story, though.

Aknaton's confrontation with the Zygotean mercenary serves to show him as vulnerable--and fallible. This is important because the first chapter portrayed him in a very mythic way and in the second he's in the role a god. His mortal fallibility gives us a different lens through which to see his declarations about what needs to be done.

Aknaton's destruction of Earth (and the rationale he gives Juliet) shows just what sort of conditions he's willing to count as victory and foreshadows events to come.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Elemental Planes Addendum

I would say I forgot the quasi- and para-elementals in yesterday's post, but I really didn't. I've never felt those were as conceptually pure as the primary elementals and so not as rich for turning into whole planes. Do we really need a whole Plane of Ooze?

After thinking about it a bit, I do think there is a little bit to be said. I do like the idea of elemental mixing; I mean, that is the source of the Prime Material Plane, after all. I just don't think we need whole plans of them. Maybe they're just the phase boundaries between the elements? I suppose you could still call them "planes" if you wanted, but they would really be the overlap between planes.

In any case, I'm pretty sure this is what the area of  Quasi-Elemental Mineral looks like:

I'm not convinced that currently list of para-elementals is complete either. It would seem to me that the more watery side of a water/earth mixing might be silt or sediment rather than ooze. The airy end of the air/water boundary would be mist (perhaps freezing mist) rather than ice.

Oh, and in case you were wondering about the Positive and Negative Planes that finish out the Inner Planes, check out this post from exactly 3 years ago.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

The Finer Elements of Inner Planar Adventuring

It's not an uncommon complaint on the internet that the Elemental Planes are boring because they're featureless expanses of the same thingm, which is sort of like saying dungeons are boring because thy're just empty spaces underground, or wilderness adventures are dullsville because it's just a whole bunch of trees. Most environments are probably not in and of themselves terribly interesting. They're interesting because of (a) what you can put in them and (b) the additional challenges their nature presents to PCs. I would also say that the Elemental Planes can be an interesting cosmological element in a setting even if not viewed as a place to go adventuring, but it's "place for adventuring" I'm going to focus on here.

First off, the Elemental Planes as typically described are for the most part pretty hostile to human life. I don't think that's a bad thing, necessarily. High level adventurers have access to a lot of great technology (i.e. magic) to protect themselves. Guarding against equipment failure and avoiding changing conditions certainly creates a lot of tension in science fiction books and movies; there's no reason it can't be put to similar effect in gaming. It's resource management that's more than just counting.

Here are some brief ideas and inspirations for Elemental Plane adventures:

This one's probably the easiest, with flying creatures, cities on clouds and the like. I would draw some inspiration from sci-fi imaginings of life in the atmosphere of gas giants. The plane of air should only be featureless like space is featureless: there should be pieces of stuff falling/tumbling through it. There should be air-dwelling Portuguese man o' war type things and air-whales like living zeppelins that one can travel or even live on. Reliance on the strongest air streams for travel would ensure that there were certain air caravan routes.
Inspirations: the Cloud City of Bespin in The Empire Strikes Back, the Star Trek episode "The Cloud-Miners," The Mysterious Explorations of Jasper Morello, Castle in the Sky (1986), Last Exile.

Fire is like a really big star, though it's surface is much cool. There would be islands of rock (and by islands, I mean things bigger that continents) floating across it, or great metal craft drifting through it's smoke-choked corona. It would, of course, be populated (though perhaps not exclusively) by beings (jinn?) composed of Fire who did very similar stuff to Prime Material humans but were fiery while doing it.
Inspirations: Any Adventure Time episode dealing with the Fire Kingdom, the neutron star life of Forward's Dragon's Egg, parts of Sunshine (2007), Secrets of the Fire Sea by Stephen Hunt.

This plane is a huge sphere (or block or tesseract, or whatever) of rock, riddled with tunnels and chambers. In other words, it's a dungeon in three dimensions. It's sci-fi asteroid mining and molerat sapients, too.
Inspirations: Dig Dug, the Star Trek episode "Devil in the Dark," Derinkuyu.

Like Air, it's fairly easy to see what to put into the Plane of Water, but maybe difficult to see why you wouldn't just do that stuff on a Prime Material ocean. I would say it's like an extraterrestrial ocean planet: You can make it far more exotic than you would the oceans of your main campaign world. Societies would have vertical and horizontal borders. Different depth layers would be like different levels of a dungeon, except (depending on how science fictional you got) adventurers might need increasing pressure protection to descend to the next level.
Inspirations: Neptune's Brood by Charles Stross, The Abyss (1989), Finding Nemo, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Blue Submarine No. 6, Sub-Mariner, Aquaman, and Abe Sapien comics.

Friday, March 21, 2014


The Strange Stars Index is newly updated. Here's your chance to catch up on any posts you might have missed.

Have a good weekend.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

The Soft Conquest

The traffic in Minga slaves is illegal in many jurisdictions in the Strange Stars, but the owning a being of such a famous genotype--fragile, delicate and ephemeral as biosophonts generally are--is too much a status symbol for the wealthy in the Vokun Empire and other polities to ignore. What the Slavers who trade in them and the collectors who acquire them don't realize is that their slow dissemination across the galaxy and their meek servitude in places of wealth and power is all part of their plan. 

Appearance and Biology: Minga resemble the baseline human type, and are considered physically attractive by most of that clade. They are gracile of build and have pale skins, ranging from a pink-tinged porcelain to chalk white. Their hair and eyes are in a wide variety of pastel shades. They tend to have large, expressive eyes.

Psychology: For autonomous sophonts, Minga are very submissive and complaint beings. They do disagree from time to time, but always do so in an indirect way best calculated not to give offense. They are nonviolent, even against personal attack, but will defend themselves if absolutely necessary. They are incredibly intuitive beings who seem to anticipate (and then serve) the desires of those they spend any significant amount of time with. Most who try to read a Minga's expression will find exactly what they wish for; only the particularly empathetically adept will note that the Minga are in fact exceedingly hard to read and generally just reflect the wants and desires of others.

The Minga are exceptionally skilled at reading the microexpressions and kinesics of other humanoids. It may be this ability is enhanced by some level of psi empathy. In contrast, they have a fine degree of control of their own nonverbals. They are skilled at manipulation, both through voice, body language, and physical intimacy. This ability is likely pheromonally and psychically enhanced. 

Slavery & A Secret: Minga emerged from a world in the Coreward Reach. It's exact location is known only to the Slavers and their thralls. The Minga were immune to Slaver psionic control, but their allure to other humanoids was apparent, and so they were spared from destruction. Slaver's take away shipments of Minga youth (never too many, so as not to saturate the market). Though the Minga are relatively long-lived, the Slavers have certainly not bothered to introduce any of the anagathic therapies common to civilized worlds. The Minga elders seem to rule their society but meekly acquiesce to demands of the Slavers for more of their people.

The Minga don't enjoy subjugation or their world's occupation by the Slavers, but their ruling cultural belief is in nonviolence and the spiritual exploration of sensuality. The Slavers and their thralls opened the Minga's eyes to the deplorable and iniquitous state of the wider galaxy. It was decided they would use the Slavers as a conduit in their mission to convert all sophonts to their way. The Minga are patient; slowly each slave is bending their supposed master to their view of enlightenment.

Stats: Minga require a Charisma of at least 14. They natively have an ability that works like the psionic ability Empathy (though there's is not purely psionic). This only works on humanoids. Minga also have the ability exert effect similar to Charm Person on a humanoid who fails a Mental Effect save with whom they have had intimate or extended (over 48 hour) close contact.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Wednesday Comics: Za!

Here's the next installment of  Jim Starlin's Metamorphosis Odyssey. The earlier posts in the series can be found here.

"Za! Metamorphosis Odyssey Chapter II"
Epic Illustrated #1 (Spring 1980) Story & Art by James Starlin

Synopsis: Za is a bestial Tyjorian on an inhospitable world around Alpha Centauri. He's not like his fellows, and as his knowledge and self-awareness grows, he's becoming less like them all the time.

Tyjorians are the only life on their planet and so are cannibals. Only their rapid rate of reproduction keeps them from killing off their species. Their brutal lifestyle never forced them to develop civilization or even empathy.

Za was born different. The meat of his own kind sickened him, so he had to subsist on his world's strange blue crystals. After his mother died, Za never joined a band. He lived alone, making him a target for groups of other Tyjorians:

He had the strength of 10 Tyjorian males thanks to his diet of blue crystals. None could harm him, but he was still alone.

One day, he met a female and that changed. He felt an emotion unlike the fleeting mating instincts of his species. He brought her meat and protected her. Then one day he couldn't. She was killed while he was away. Feeling a sadness his kind was never made to feel, he climbed high into the mountains intending to end his life. Instead, he met someon--and found it's purpose.

Aknaton apologized, for he was the cause of Za's pain. He had bestowed knowledge and given the ability to understand speech. Aknaton needs a monster with a mind and a soul. There is a darkness spreading across the stars, and it cannot be defeated, only destroyed.

So the two jump on the back of a giant, insect-like creature and head out to their next destination: Earth.

Things to Notice:
  • Za looks a bit like a later Starlin creation, Skeeve.
The hints dropped in Chapter I about Aknaton's activities when he was away from Aknaton begin to pay off. The next few chapters will follow the same pattern of character introduction

The improbability of Tyjoria's ecology just serves to accentuate its a symbolic nature. Tyjoria is the hostile universe in microcosm; it's literally dog eat dog. Za isn't just an everyman, he's all humankind, self-aware and adrift in a savage world, wondering why he suffers and why the world is the way it is. Only love makes it bearable for him, but then he loses that, too. Just when he's about to end it all, God shows up.

Za is a bit like Job, but at least the god Za encounters apologizes (somewhat perfunctorily) for the sufferinghe has caused and gives a reason for it. Still, Aknaton doesn't explain a lot; Za is forced to take things on faith. Given the world he was living in, it's really no wonder Za grabs hold to what Aknaton offers, however vague it may be.

When he does, we see the emergence of another sort of narrative, though one influenced by Biblical ones: the fantasy quest. 

Monday, March 17, 2014

The Futures of Howard Chaykin

Howard Chaykin has worked with a number of science fiction properties in comics over the years: Star Wars, a graphic novel adaptation of Bester's The Stars My Destination, and a Watchmen-ized DC science fiction characters with Twilight. He's also done a few original science fiction charatcers:

The Hero: The tartan-wearing, outlawed lord of the planet Illium. The sort of guy willing to slap a Galactic Empress over a political disagreement.
Appearances: Weird Worlds #8-10 (1973), Ironwolf: Fires of Revolution (1992).
The Setting: The Empire Galactika in the 61st Century, a time of spaceships made out of anti-gravity wood, vampire legions, and swashbuckling. I talk about it more detail here.
The Look and Feel: probably Burroughs and Alex Raymond inspired. Futuristic guns and swords are in wide use. Most male characters dress a bit like Raymond characters, while the female ones seem to wear hippy or disco inspired outfits.

Cody Starbuck
The Hero: A space pirate. A guy who will charge a nobleman twice the ransom price to rescue his kidnapped bride-to-be then receive fellatio from the woman on the flight home.
Appearances: Star Reach #1,4 (1974, 1976), Cody Starbuck (1978), Heavy Metal (May-Sept., 1981).
The Setting: It seems to drift a little over time, but always a far future galactic society, where an empire has fallen to be replaced by feudalism. A corrupt future version of the Catholic Church is a frequent villain. The first story mentions wooden and crystalline spacecraft, but later stories show fairly standard sci-fi ships.

The Look and Feel: Initially this swashbuckling future is very Alex Raymond (probably by way of Al Williamson), but the later stories show the influence of Star Wars and probably other 70s science fiction film. The level of technology is increased in the later stories. Being in more adult publications, the series is more explicitly sexual.

Monark Starstalker
The Hero: A space vigilante, former rigger (a pilot with his nervous system linked to his ship), rebuilt by aliens and given a robot hawk that he's telepathically linked with. He's the sort of guy that's disliked by both sides in the war, but still manages to right wrongs and get the girl.
Appearance: Marvel Premiere #32 (1976).
The Setting: A space frontier in rebellion against the Federation that founded it. It has riggers that link with their ships and "terranizers" that are some sort of terraforming device.
The Look and Feel: It's sort of Western meets Science Fiction at a time of galactic civil war (a year before Star Wars and an over two decades before Firefly). The clothing and equipment is a bit like the Cody Starbuck stories this same year, but there aren't any swords.

Reuben Flagg
The Hero: An actor from Mars (who lost his job on Mark Thrust, Sexus Ranger to a CGI duplicate of himself) drafted into becoming a real-life lawman in Chicago. The sort of guy that likes to listen to jazz.
AppearanceAmerican Flagg! #1 (1983).
The Setting: A somewhat dystopian, very 80s 2031, where the U.S. government and most major corporations fled to Mars during a crisis in 1996. A media-saturated, corrupted, and violent former America is controlled by the new corporate-governmental entity known as the Plex. Many cities have become arcologies called Plexmalls.
The Look and Feel: A vague hint of the pulp era (zeppelins, stockings and garters), filtered through a whole lot of 80s. Consumerism, pervasive media with subliminal messages, a bit of Judge Dredd-ian urban dystopia. A talking cat.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Cold Eggs

Ksaa are an aggressive and expansionist species native to a system on the Rim in the Strange Stars.

Appearance and Biology: Ksaa are oviparous humanoids with some reptile-like characteristics. They have three sexes with a great deal of phenotypic difference between them. Females are large, aggressive (particularly after egglaying) and territorial; males are smaller, more brightly colored, and less intelligent. The neuter sex has pale white coloration and is more intelligent than the others. It is born from eggs incubated at a cooler temperature, hence the name khii gan, meaning "cold egg" literally, but also "eunuch." It is used figuratively to connote something like "cunning bastard."

Psychology: Ksaa society is formed around family groups of related females. They control territory that is administered by cold eggs born of their clutch or another clutch from the same mother. Cold eggs play games of political intrigue for greater wealth and position. They view themselves as superior to the rest of their species and believe their species to be superior to all others. Ksaa are not an organized threat, except in the occasional period where a cold egg manages to unite a significant number of the great families. These periods are generally short-lived, as treachery takes its toll.

Ksaa still retain the predatory instincts of their evolutionary ancestors. They greatly enjoy hunts and take pleasure in toying with prey (and enemies) before killing them.

Stats: Male ksaa are cannon-fodder soldiers little smarter than animals (AC 7, HD 1, AB +2, bite 1d4 or melee weapon), female ksaa are less likely to be encountered but are more formidable (AC 6, HD 2, AB +2, bite 1d4, tail slap 1d6 or weapon), cold egg ksaa can be built like PCs have have attributes in the same range.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

The Weird Adventure of the Anagrammist

I always enjoy hearing about (and sometimes playing in) other peoples Weird Adventures games. John Till has been blogging about a cool game he ran using Fate at Con of the North recently. Like Lester B. Portly, John has his own sort of interpretive spin, which I think is great.

Anyway, check out the set up here, and follow it up with part two and three.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Wednesday Comics: Metamorphosis Odyssey

Here's the first installment of a new Wednesday feature. Leaving Warlord behind, I'm branching out to other comics, starting with Jim Starlin's Metamorphosis Odyssey...

"Metamorphosis Odyssey: Aknaton"
Epic Illustrated #1 (Spring 1980) Story & Art by James Starlin

Synopsis: An alien in pseudo-Egyptian garb flies through space via power of a mystic chance on a disc. This is Aknaton, and his mind is consumed not by the wonders of the cosmos he travels through, but by the past.

He remembers his world of Orsiros, an ancient civilization mixing magic and science, now gone. He thinks of the friends and loved ones he lost including his beloved Nieth. All of them gone now. Only the hated Zygoteans remain.

Even the Orsirosans didn't know the origins of the Zygoteans. They knew well the Zygoteans war of conquest though, as they watched horror befall world after world. The Zygoteans invaded, enslaved the people, then stripped the world of resources, and left their slaves to die on the withered husk.

The Orsirosans watched but didn't act. War was unknown to them, and though centuries were as hours to them, they feared death. Still, they knew that the Zygoteans would one day come for them, and so they watched and learned, and made ready. When the Zygoteans finally attacked, they met stiff Orsirosan resistance. The confrontation lasted 500 years, but Orsiros stood.

The Elders of Orsiros knew their victory wouldn't last. They considered many strategies for overcoming the Zygoteans, but ultimately came to realize that the outcome was inevitable. And so, they fixed their minds on the idea that Orsiros should not die alone.

All their facility for magic and technology went into making the Horn of Infinity; the universe's last resort, the end of the Zygoteans. One of the elders was chosen to be the Horn's guardian: Aknaton. He was granted great powers by his fellows, and these he used to look into the future. He saw the Zygotean triumph, the destruction of his homeworld, the sounding of the Horn and vengeance--and his own death.

Aknaton hid the Horn on a barren world. Then he laid the foundation for what he knew must be. He visited Earth and place a racial memory in emerging humanity. He visited a lush world in the Crab Nebula and released life of his own creation. In Alpha Centauri, he instilled in cannibalistic brutes the capacity for empathy, and on a gelid world in Vega, he hide "a sword of icy fire."

When he was done, he returned to Orsiros to await the end. Though it took 100,000 years, it came. As the Zygoteans attacked, Aknaton said his good-byes. Then he stepped on his helodisc and left his doomed world.

He tried not to watch, but in the end, he couldn't resist. He turned at the precise moment to see Orsiros ripped apart. And then:

Things to Notice:
  • Aknaton has a pointy nose (and to a lesser extent, chin) that the other Orsirosans don't share. Maybe it's just Starlin deferentiating them, but I wonder...
  • The Zygoteans are never clearly seen, only their "thralls."
Metamorphosis Odyssey was serialized in Epic Illustrated, Marvel's answer to Heavy Metal, starting in it's first issue. Starlin had been working for DC just prior to this, but his return to Marvel (albeit in a creator owned environment) marked a return to the cosmic vistas and big themes of his work in Strange Tales and Captain Marvel. Starlin has said some things about the origins of this story, but I don't want to touch on them now as they might be a bit spoilery for what's to come.

The Orsiros clearly have an ancient Egypt vibe going on. Orsiros is derived from Osiris, the god of the afterlife. Orsiris was killed by his brother Set and then dismembered. Unlike Orsiros, Osiris gets reassembled and resurrected. The name Aknaton is reminiscent of Akhenaten, pharaoh of the 18th dynasty who forced the abandonment of Egyptian polytheism and the adoption of monotheism, in the form of the worship of Aten.

"Zygotean" is likely derived from zygote, the name for a cell formed by the union of a sperm and egg. The word is derived from a Greek term meaning "joined" or "yoked." Perhaps this choice of names represents the Zygoteans as a growing threat to the galaxy, its gestating doom?  

Monday, March 10, 2014

The Simple Art of Mystery

After this weekends Detectives & Daredevils game, I was talking with the game's creator and our GM, B. Portly, and the man from Kaijuville, Steve, about running mystery-based games. This is something I've put a bit of thought into as most of my Weird Adventures games are mysteries in one way or another. Here are some things I feel like help make a mystery genre game (as opposed to game that just happens to have mystery elements or a mystery setting) successful and enjoyable:

1. Get players' buy in. To create the feel of a specific genre, everybody needs to be on the same page about what you're doing--at least if it's going to be fun for all involved.
2. Plan, but leave some blank space. You need to know the "who," the cast of possible "whos," and at least have a good idea of the "why," if you're going to be able to effectively lay clues for the PCs to uncover. There needs to be some fuzzy areas though, as the player's are going to suggest interesting details either purposefully or through their actions during play. So long as you're not changing the fundamental facts of the mystery the PCs are trying to uncover, this only enhances things.
3. The PCs always find the important clue. This one is borrowed from Robin Laws' GUMSHOE, but it can be employed in any system. If the PCs look, there going to find the critical clues. If they don't look, be on the look out for alternate ways they can discover the information. There can always be some details players' might miss, but if it's really important, don't make it hard to get.
4. Repeated interviews yield new information. As Raymond Chandler pointed out in "The Simple Art of Murder," one of the "unrealistic" things about the murder mystery is that it features a close-knit group of people. Going back to those few NPCs with new questions will get new information, because they will have thought of things since last they were interviewed or new things will have occurred as the malefactor's "plot" precedes.
7. Keep things moving. To again quote Chandler's "The Simple Art of Murder": "When in doubt, have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand." If the PCs have hit a wall or their just not connecting the dots, they shouldn't flounder too long. Their investigative actions are going to make the villains react or (related individuals with something to hide), and the reaction will often be to try to kill the PCs or throw them off the trail. Maybe the villains don't come after the PCs, but after someone else they think might give the PCs information. Their actions shouldn't be random; they should make sense, but their exact timing can be when the game needs it.
8. Everybody has got secrets. Even when someone isn't the killer/primary criminal, they may have something to hide. Hints at these provide good red herrings and discovering them gives the PCs a feeling of accomplishment while they're slowly chipping away at the big case. Be careful not to let these overwhelm the main mystery or make them too hard to discover, lest the PCs spend too much time on a tangent.
9. It's not necessary to be Sherlock Holmes. In The Maltese Falcon, Sam Spade does very little investigation. He mostly reacts to people coming after him; he thinks on his feet, keeps the other guy talking so they give up a lot of information for relatively few questions, and uses violence judiciously.

That's what I've got. Anybody else got any pearls of wisdom from their gaming table?

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Mapping Hyperspace

Star charts of the Strange Stars exist, but they are not as usual for travelers as diagrams of the area hyperspace network. The travel distances through hyperspace have only a slight association with the distances in regular space and the spatial relationships of two systems matter not at all.

Above is a simple, 2D download of a hyperspace map of the primary member worlds of the Alliance. By convention, worlds are typically named for the primary habitation (either natural or artificial) rather than the star, though there are exceptions--Altair being one here. The connections between nodes are typically color coded, based on the baseline human visible spectrum. (Other colors or other sensory stimuli are employed by beings with differing visual discrimination.Some spacer cultures refer to the two ends of the travel time continuum as "hot" and "cold." ). For a given length, redder connections indicate faster travel times and bluer ones slower. Red connections, for example, typical denote average travel times between 18 and 90 ks, depending on length of the connection and other variables. Violet connections might take 7 Ms or more.

For comparison, the normal space distance between the primary of Smaragdoz (Lurline, a K0V star known in ancient records as Alsaphi) and Altair is approximately 5.54 parsecs, taking 18.09 years or 570,490 ks for light to travel between the two. The sublight trip from a habitation to the terminal station (typically located at the edge of systems) in many cases takes longer than traversing a red connection.

Smaragdoz's hyperspace node is unusual in that it has multiple connections. This does not require a separate gate for each connection; there are only two pairs of gates in this case. Connections are accessed on a rotating timetable. The delay in access is typically in the range of 1-1.5 ks before a new connection can safely begin to be used, however delays 2-3 times that are not unheard of. The connection timetable can be changed on the fly, but this is seldom done as periodicity in connection changes has been found to lead to shorter stabilization delays and fewer "dropouts" (requiring a hard reboot of the gate).

Friday, March 7, 2014

Making A Living in the Far Future

Helluva way to make a living.

The whole "post-scarcity" thing hasn't really panned out in the Strange Stars, and not everyone gets to do something glamorous like being a starship pilot or sim star. At  the same, in the most advanced societies a lot of people just aren't needed in the work force and live off social services, making a bit of money through social media or oddjobs. Here are a few interesting things those in the working world are doing:

Data Prospector: There's a lot of valuable infomation buried in the depths of a planetary or system noosphere. Data prospectors mine the infospace either for clients or as freelancers.

Lawyer: In most places, law is the province of low-sapience infomorphs, but some jurisdictions require a physical presence in court and juries often harbor unconscious biochauvinism, so biosophont attorneys still have a role.

News Contextualizer: Where most events are uploaded to the noosphere by citizens, the job of the news aggregrators is to deliver concise and contextualized news. They rely on contextualizers who are savvy at finding the "angle" or finding the stories to fill out an already established angle. Contextualizers work with stringers or news hunters who sift the raw social media for stories.

Pest Control Specialist: An interstellar society leads to the introduction of invasive alien species. Large-scale infestations call for a governmental response, but smaller ones lead to a call to a local private specialist.

Re-enactor: Re-enactors are a special breed of sim performer. They cater to a market for "historically accurate" simulated experiences. Re-enactors undergo memory (and sometimes bodily) modification based on extensive research of a specific era or individual to provide those experiences.

Scientist: Science is a different sort of endeavor in a civilization following in the footsteps of more advanced civilizations who long ago pushed knowledge as far as it would go with human-level intelligence and perceptions. Most modern scientists are more like archaeologists or historians: they sift the remnant noosphere and data storage of the ancients for lost experiments or not yet fully mined veins of inquiry. The best scientists spend as much time in the field as they do in laboratories.

Super-voter: In cyberdemocractic or demarchist polities, some voters are always going to make better decisions that others, so complicated algorithms will tend to weight their votes fractionally more. Political interest groups and parties track these super-voters and try to court them due to their influence. They're given consultant fees or even gifts, so long as there isn't a direct quid pro quo (buying their votes wouldn't be effective in the long term in any case, as biased "incorrect" decisions would soon make the infosophont vote tabulators decreased their votes' weighting.)

Surgeon: Surgery is actually preformed by bots that look something like giant, artificial Hydra with surgical tools attached to the end of their appendages, but nicer surgical centers employ friendly public faces to consult with patients or their love ones. Surgeons explain the procedure and make any last minute (minor) adjustments to the bots' programming.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Creature Commandos

Long before rpgs got to the idea of making World War II a "weird war" (here and here) comics books had stormed that beach. There were Pacific islands of dinosaurs, G.I. robots, and whole platoons of ghosts and undead. The weirdest of the weird warriors may be relative latecomers to the game: the Creature Commandos, whose adventures are now helpfully available in a collection.

When writing Weird War Tales in the late seventies, J.M. DeMatteis took an idea to editor Len Wein that Wein reportedly though was "so silly" that it would work. That idea was a special forces unit comprised of characters resembling the Universal Monsters.

It's 1942: American scientists are delving into psychological warfare. They devise a program to realize certain cross-cultural archetypes of fear in the flesh. Thus, Project M (for Monster) is born Warren Griffith, a sufferer from clinical lycanthropy, is turned into a werewolf for real. Looking to avoid jail time, Vincent Velcro allows himself to be injected with some vampire bat derived chemicals and becomes a vampire. Marine "Lucky" Taylor just had to step on a landmine to get patched up by military surgeons into sort of a Frankensteinian monster.

I imagine Project M spawned a number of Congressional hearings and lawsuits, by the seventies. In 1942, the brass is utterly disgusted by the Creature Commandos, but sends them against Nazi Germany, anyway--and that's only the beginning. They drop in on Dinosaur Island, fight super-strong children (products of Nazi experiments), tangle with Atlantean survivors, and tussle with Inferna, daughter of Hades and Persephone. Along the way they team up with G.I. Robot J.A.K.E. (two models), and get a female team mate: Dr. Myrra Rhodes, who has snakes for hair thanks to inhaling strange fumes.

So, yeah. A lot of gaming inspiration to be had.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Warlord Wednesday: A Chronology

One minor element I liked about Warlord as conceived and written by Grell was that it progressed somewhat close to real-time. Sure, in the timeless world of Skartaris characters didn't age, but time went by in the outside world. Here's a timeline of dates given directly or easily inferred from the series:

1926, prior to April 15: Travis Morgan is born. [Warlord #6 gives the date as April 15, 1977, and Morgan bemoans that it means he is 51.]

1943: Time displaced, Morgan, Shakira, and Krystovar visit the U.S.S. Eldridge during the Philadelphia Experiment. [Warlord #79. This could be an alternate past, as it is related to an alternate future.]

1959, after June 16: Jennifer is born to Rachel and Travis Morgan. [In Warlord #38, Jennifer says a man arrived on her 10th birthday to tell her that her father had died, so it must have been shortly after his crash on June 16, 1969.]

1967: After the death of his wife, Travis Morgan sends Jennifer to live with her aunt. [According to Warlord #38, Jennifer is 8 at the time.]

June 16, 1969: Morgan is shot down and crashes his plane in Skartaris. [Date given in First Issue Special #8.]

1973: Danny Maddox is thrown in the gulag. [According to Secret Origins #16.]

April 15-16, 1977: Morgan returns to the surface world and meets Mariah at Macchu Picchu. [Date given in Warlord #6.]

1980: Jennifer Morgan arrives in Skartaris. [In Warlord #38, Jennifer says that she was told her father was a traitor "3 years ago" which would be after the government discovers that he's still alive in Warlord #6.]

1989, after June: Morgan visits the surface world and winds up meeting Green Arrow in Seattle. [In Green Arrow (vol. 2) #28, Morgan comments his flight was "over 20 years ago" after seeing the date on a newspaper.]

2009: Morgan encounters Ned Hawkins, the self-styled Golden God, and several other arrivals from the surface world. [Warlord (vol. 4) #4. Morgan says he's 82 when McBane tells him the year is 2009. Either Morgan somehow knows it's prior to his birthday, or he's off by a year. McBane continues to repeat this number throughout the next few issues. Given the timelessness of Skartaris, it's unclear how much time passes between this issue and Morgan's death, but since there seems to be very little time for breaks in the action, it's likely 2009-2010. If we go be publication date, it's 2010.]

Danny Maddox (a post-Grell creation) poses a few problems for the "publication year approximates year of occurrence" of the Grell years. He is the same age as Morgan, but he's spent most of his life on the surface. But Maddox doesn't seem to be in his 60s when Mariah meets him in the Russian gulag. Given that the Soviet's aren't surprised the Mariah hasn't aged either, it seems like it's the early 80s at the latest. Maddox still doesn't appear to be in his fifties either, and it's hard to square with the rest of the saga, but it's the only real explanation.

I also didn't include the two alternate futures in the above timeline. Neither is specifically dated, and they're just two of an infinite number of possibilities, in any case.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Smoke and Mirrors

Yesterday's Weird Adventures game found Rue, Jacques, Rob, and the Professor still exploring Urst's mansion. The party got separated last time by the biggest of separations: the divide between life and death. The gents (on the side of the living) had left Rue's body on the table in the refectory and taken their explorations upstairs. Meanwhile, Rue's spirit had moved downstairs looking for them.

The guys found several bedrooms. One of them had a sleeping, cross-dressing ogre. The ogre, scandalized at their intrusion chased them away. They were only happy to leave. The next bedroom was part of a suite. In the sitting room beyond they encountered a couple that seemed to be formed from smoke. These ghosts or spirits attacked, and they sucked enough life from Professor Pao to knock him unconscious.

Rob and Jacques took shots at them. The bullets perhaps dissipated them a bit, but it was going to be a slow way to take them down. Noticing the glass doors opening on to a balcony, Jacques got the idea to open them, maybe letting a wind in to blow the spirits away. But he and Rob manage to avoid getting hit and make it out the door. The wind (at least them wind they've got) isn't enough to disperse them, but they notice the spirits seem to shy away from the unfiltered sunlight.

They get the idea to break the glass doors and use pieces to try to reflect sunlight onto them. This helps hem the spirits in, and Rob is able to make dash to grab a mirror off the wall. He's able to focus the sunlight more directly and burn holes in the ghosts, finally dissipating them.

All this time, Rue is following--haunting, maybe--the woman, Camilla that dealt her the card. Camilla isn't sympathetic and finally runs away from her. Rue also finds her body where the guys left it and sees a cat-headed man in a fez inspecting it. She stays hidden, waiting for him to go away.

Then, she sees something really weird: Pao's spirit dangling from the ceiling by his silver cord. It allows her to find the rest of her gang, including the unconscious Pao, whose spirit is drifting a bit, but still firmly in place. They manage to bring him around, and he fixes up his only Yianese herbal healing remedy.

Rob is occupied by a lockbox he found in an alcove behind the mirror. It's got gold coins on the inside. Rue begins formulating a plan to get her spirit back in her body, while Jacques decides to make torches.

It's getting dark all of a sudden.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Captains of the Strange Stars

Given the myriad of worlds and vessels, it's no surprise spacecraft commanders are a varied lot. Here are three examples of those who make their living in space:

Art by Yuan Cui
This is Rhona Tam, privateer and custom enforcement contractor. She has letters of marque from several habitats, but her customs duties are concentrated in the system of Circus. She commands the cutter, Moral Hazard, most often transponder identified as registered in Interzone. Tam is shown dressed in nanoarmored clothing in the dark colors and stylings common to the "serious" space mariners (and poseurs) of Interzone's low port. Her braids, however, suggest her origins in the nobility of Hy Brasil habitat. The rings in her hair are actually devices: a data buffer and vigilance control for her brain backup, and a smart multi-tool in sleep mode. Her belt pouches hold mission-useful equipment and her current favored blend of local recreational drug powders.

Art by Moebius

Garn Singh Hardraker, captain of the Brave Ulysses, is an explorer who has led numerous expeditions to open up trade beyond newly re-discovered hyperspace network nodes and participated in several minor trade wars. He is dressed here in the ornate style popular among independent habitats in Alliance Space, recalling the courtly dress of the Belle Époque of the High Lonesome Confederation. He wears his hair and mustache long and carries a ritual short sword, suggesting an affinity for the ancient memeplex, Bushisikhism. What appears to be an old fashion peg-leg is actually programmable matter, capable of transforming into a more functional prosthetic when needed.

Prudence Myung-sun-115 pilots a combat drone swarm based on the carrier Clown in the Moonlight. Vis already heightened bioroid nervous system has been grafted to cybernetic enhancements, allowing multitasking capability far beyond that of the baseline neuroform. Sensor data from the drones are fed directly into sensory processing areas of vis brain by the control helmet.