Monday, November 30, 2020

Star Trek Ranger: Prime Time

Player Characters: The Crew of the USS Ranger, Federation scout ship:
Aaron as Lt.(jg.) Cayson Randolph
Andrea as Capt. Ada Greer
Dennis, as Lt. Osvaldo Marquez, Medical Officer
Paul as Cmdr. D.K. Mohan, Chief Helmsman

Synposis: Ranger is on a cultural exchange mission to Viden, an advanced world who has given up space travel for television. When the crew intervenes in the apprehension of a sitcom who tries to escape his contract, they find themselves the unwilling subjects of a reality show.

Commentary: This adventure was based on IDW's Star Trek: Year Four #4 written by David Tischman. It's a humorous story in the comic in the manner of the TOS episode "A Piece of the Action," though its plot bears some resemblance to "Bread and Circuses" in it's satire of the television industry. The player's certainly took to it in the way it was intended.

Sunday, November 29, 2020

The Three Planeteers

In my short Thanksgiving travels, I managed to complete the audiobook of Edmond Hamilton's The Three Planeteers, originally published in the January 1940 issue of Startling Stories. Other than providing the inspiration for the name, Dumas' novel has little bearing on Hamilton's work.

In a future (Sometime in the 28th Century, I believe. An exact date isn't given.) where humanity has settled all the worlds in the solar system and gradually adapted to them. The fascist dictatorship of Haskell Trask has spread from Saturn and its moons, to all the outer planets, forming the League of Cold Worlds, which now menaces the Alliance of the inner worlds.

The titular trio are the most famous outlaws in the solar system: John Thorne of Earth, Sual Av of Venus, and Gunner Welk of Mercury. It turns out they aren't really outlaws at all, but special agents for the Alliance, pretending to be criminals so the Alliance has plausible deniability regarding their actions against the League. 

With war looming, the only hope of the Alliance to defeat the massive League war fleet is an experimental new weapon which requires the ultra-rare substance radite to work. Good news is there sufficient radite on the trans-Plutonian world of Erebus. Bad news is no one has ever returned from Erebus alive. Well, no one except, it's rumored, a former renegade turned space pirate. Said pirate is now dead, but his daughter reigns as pirate queen in the Asteroid Belt.

Besides the classic space war plotline, Hamilton gives a lot of space opera color: "joy-vibration" addicts, hunters in the fungal forests of Saturn, and the deadly secret of Erebus. It could be easily shorn of some it's old-fashionedness and moved outside of the solar system. Pieces would be easy to drop into Star Wars or any other space opera game.

Friday, November 27, 2020

Go to Very Distant Lands

Art by Steve Ellis

 Adventure Time ended its original run in 2018, but there's a now series of single episode stories on HBOMax. Watching those reminded me how a lot of rpgers were excited about Adventure Time, at least in its early seasons. It's sort of gonzo, post-apocalyptic setting seemed very much cut from the same cloth as a lot of rpg worldbuilding.

No official AT rpg has ever appeared in English, and in the end the show is a kid's cartoon, perhaps more character driven, than exploration based, but I think it would be pretty easy to derive inspiration from the form of AT's Land of Ooo, as opposed to exact content. In other words, if you wanted a D&D campaign for adults to do D&D stuff that was just in some ways reminiscent of Ooo, this is how I would go about it. (If this thread gets comments someone will no doubt mention the Far Away Lands rpg. Let me preempt that by saying that it has slightly different goals. It's more doing an AT but not AT rpg. I'm thinking of "if you want D&D to have more of a resemblance to AT" without going full cartoon.)

So this is what I think:
  • Make the setting more expressly post-apocalyptic. Not in the usual Tolkienian way that D&D usually is, but in the Gamma World way.
  • Avoid the standard versions of standard monsters. You can use names like "dragon" if you want, but avoid the standard fantasy dragons of D&D. Ok, maybe goblins or giants can stay, but no orcs. My suggestion: borrow a lot of monsters and races from Gamma World, and lean heavy on the AD&D Fiend Folio derived monsters.
  • Elementals are important, but maybe not the standard Greek ones. They seem to be part of a fundamental magic structure of the universe, but Fire, Water, yada yada may not be where it's at. Luckily, D&D gives us para- and quasi- elementals that are weirder.
  • Don't be afraid of the player's getting ahold of more advanced tech, but not weapons so much. Let them freely pick up a bit of the 20th or 21st Century here and there, but don't make weapons or combat related. Let them find record players (or ipods), or gameboys and the like.
  • Mutagens and weirdness. While AT doesn't dwell on it, it has decree of weirdness and even body horror that seems drawn from the most fevered of post-apocalyptic or atomic war fiction. The zones of Roadside Picnic have more in common with it that you might think.
  • Negotiation is always an option. Very few creatures should be attack on sight sorts. Most of them have got the same sort of troubles and aspirations as the adventures, just a different point of view.
  • Don't be afraid of humor. The first edition of Gamma World embraced the silliness of its premise and with something like this, you should too.

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Wild Wild West Revisited Wednesday

Instead of watching some parade on Thanksgiving, you can sit back and read the installments you've missed of "Revisiting the Wild Wild West" a rewatch and commentary on selected episodes by Jim "Flashback Universe" Shelley and myself.

Monday, November 23, 2020

Weird Revisited: Dead Stars & Outer Monstrosities

 The release of the pdf of the William Hope Hodgson-inspired rpg Grey Seas Are Dreaming of My Death last week, brought to mind this post from last year...

Art from the Oldstyle Tales Press edition
As we understand the word," said the old Doctor. "Though, mind you, there may be a third factor. But, in my heart, I believe that it is a matter of chemistry; Conditions and a suitable medium; but given the Conditions, the Brute is so almighty that it will seize upon anything through which to manifest itself. It is a Force generated by Conditions; but nevertheless this does not bring us one iota nearer to its explanation, any more than to the explanation of Electricity or Fire. They are, all three, of the Outer Forces—Monsters of the Void.... 
- William Hope Hodgson, "The Derelict"

Spelljammer has never really felt like it was about exploration to me. There's nothing wrong with that, but plenty of science fiction literature paints space as a place for confronting the unknown. This is really a perfect fit for Spelljammer where its pre-modern, "magical" spacecraft put the stars within reach but not the science to understand any of it. Not that there is necessarily science as we know it to understand, in any case.

I think I would look to the horror/adventure stories of William Hope Hodgson, specifically his nautical yarns like The Boats of the Glen Carrig, "The Voice in the Night," "A Tropical Horror," and "Demons of the Sea." A little pseudo-science borrowed from his Carnacki stories could only help.

The characters are competent space-hands, perhaps mildly colorful rogues like Howard's Wild Bill Clanton or just working stiffs like the crew of the Nostromo in Alien, not bold explorers or science fantasy swashbucklers. Their jobs involving them going through places that are not (usually) inhabited by hostile species of space orcs or the like, but are instead fundamentally almost wild, always strange. Weird danger can rear it's head at any time, and your vessel is just another ship that disappeared in the Void.

Weird phenomena should be encountered as frequently as monsters, I think. Monsters, when they do show up should be unfamiliar, and probably not seen enough to become mundane.

Beyond the stories of Hodgson and Alien, other potential sources of inspiration could be the comic series Outer Darkness, the science fiction stories of Clark Ashton Smith, Poe's Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, and of course, Moby Dick

Thursday, November 19, 2020

Some Thoughts on Science Fiction Settings

Thinking about science fiction settings in rpgs (and in film and television which I think is the biggest influence on rpg sci-fi settings) I think that two important factors are scale and frame. Scale is the size of the setting, not necessarily in absolute terms (though maybe), in narrative terms. Frame is a descriptor or genre of the typical types of stories the setting supports. The two factors are not independent or exclusive.

Here are the frames I have thought of with a media representative. There are likely more that slipped my mind:
  • Crime/Hard-boiled Mystery (Outland) - Hard people doing hard space
  • Exploration, Pulp (John Carter) - A stranger meets a strange land or lands
  • Exploration, Mystery/Horror (Alien) - we've found something anomalous and now it might kill us.
  • Exploration, Realistic  - (can't think of film here) - Alien planets are mostly inhospitable, talking to other species is hard!
  • Exotic Ports of Call (Star Trek) - every week another world, another adventure
  • Outpost (Babylon 5) - Everybody comes to Rick's
  • Pioneers (Earth 2) - A little bit of exploration, but mostly we're putting down roots
  • World-trotting (Star Wars) - Constant motion; as many exotic backdrops as possible
  • Galaxy Wrecking (Guardians of the Galaxy) - the universe is vast and wild
I am probably missing some very realistic genres or some "ten minutes into the future stuff"/mild cyberpunk stuff, but I'm thinking mainly here of science fiction settings that include space travel. Some of the categories are also broader than others, too. 

Why isn't Star Trek (for instance) Exploration, Pulp? Despite it's mission statement, the Enterprise mostly seems to go to places people have gone before. They do very little first contact. Their activities harken back to pulp stories about places that are known, but perhaps little understood. Exploration, Pulp in my formulation is really the descendant of the Lost World novel. 

Here are the Scales in order of increasing size:
  • Ship/Station
  • Planet/Megastructure
  • Orbital System (this could be either a group of moons or artificial satellites)
  • Solar System
  • Near/Few Star Systems
  • Several Star Systems
  • Many Star Systems/Galaxy
  • Galaxies+
There is sometimes the issue of "visible scale." A setting may technically have a large scale than what the characters typically interact with. In general, I think the commonly visible scale is most important for fit with frames.

The following frames seem to go best with smaller scales: Crime/Hard-boiled Mystery, Exploration Pulp, Exploration Mystery/Horror, Exploration Realistic, Outpost, and Pioneers.

These frames seem to me to go best with large scales: Exotic Ports of Call, World-trotting, and Galaxy Wrecking.

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

Wednesday Comics: Grant Morrison's Green Lantern

I don't think I've mentioned Grant Morrison's now two year-old and still going run on Green Lantern on this blog yet, so it's about time I did. For the short verison, if you aren't a fan of Morrison or particularly his "mad idea" neo-Silver Age approach to DC characters he has taken at least since All-Star Superman and possibly since JLA, then you probably won't like his run on Green Lantern.

If you do like some of those things....well, you might like it. 

I think for most people Hal Jordan Green Lantern might be a bit of a hard sell. I'm sure there are folks out their that love him (Geoff Johns writes for them, apparently), but I don't know anyone that views him as their favorite. Morrison's take gives him some characterization that he hasn't had before, but I'd hesitate to call it depth. He is stalwart, and cocky, and mostly unafraid. He is also not terrible success at much other than being good at facing down danger and being a hero.

That sort of character stuff mostly takes a back seat to gonzo sci-fi superheroics. Morrison's view of DC galactic and multi-dimensional society is incoherent in the sense that it's hard to discern much when it's coming at you out of a firehose. It's perhaps a bit like Guardians of the Galaxy, perhaps, in a "just go with it" sort of way, but it's also very DC Silver Age filtered through modern sensibilities. It's grounded with the often very police procedural approach taken to the Green Lanterns' job and the tribulations they face. Barely surviving an onslaught from an antimatter universe is followed by a day in court, where the perps play on the judge's sympathies. It even touches on police brutality early in the run, but wisely that's a bit a misdirection. The bubble Morrison is building would probably pop in the face of too much realism.

While the series doesn't lack for action, cleverness and problem solving are often the solution to the stories' central dilemmas, in Silver Age fashion. Liam Sharp's art certainly supports the action and the sometimes trippiness of the setting, but I occasionally sort of wish for someone a bit cleaner-lined to make some scenes a bit clearer and as a counterpoint to Morrison's flights of fancy rather than a henchman. José Luis García-López would have been great for this.

Anyway, it's not my favorite of Morrison's mainstream DC works, but it keeps me coming back. I'm also hoping (like with his Action Comics run) that it has some surprises at the end that make what came before seem even better. We'll see.

Monday, November 16, 2020

Cutting Through Evil-Doers in the Land of Azurth

 A Sunday of last week, our 5e Land of Azurth came continued with the group finishing our adaptation of the adventure "The Barber of the Silverymoon" by Jason Bradley Thompson. With the intelligence gleaned from the captive znarr, the group continued exploring the caves. They sound discovered the real Tom the Barber in an oubliette. He led them to a Mr. B. Zoar, the korred whose magic hair was the source of all this madness. The korred looked sort of like this guy:

With the source of the evil hair removed, the party went looking for the Znarr queen Zarvoola. They happened to rescue an old acquaintance of theirs, Calico Jack the Cat Man, along the way. 

They found Zarvoola surrounded by a horde of sycophant znarr. The well placed sleep spells cut down on the enemy forces and then they were really cut down by the arms of the fighters. Even the cleric got into the act with spells and mace.

In the end, Zarvoola's true identity as a hag was revealed, and what znarr were left beat a hasty retreat. The party assured all the prisoners were freed and left it in the hand's of the logical magical society to clean up the mess.

Friday, November 13, 2020

Forgotten Futures: Stanley Weinbaum


I've mentioned the science fiction of Stanley Weinbaum (1902-1935) on this blog before. I was pleased to discover that the free rpg for public domain setting, Forgotten Futures has a Weinbaum adaptation: Forgotten Futures XI: Planets of Peril. If nothing else the worldbook is great. 

You might want to check out the other Forgotten Futures rpgs are well.

Monday, November 9, 2020

Random Asteroids

Continuing my random old science fiction solar system generators here with one for the asteroid belt. The asteroids are much less specified than Mars or Venus in the fiction, but there are stories to draw on. The first thing to keep in mind is that asteroids in pulpish tales tend to be much closer together than in real life. Maybe not quite Empire Strikes Back asteroid field distance but close.

Basic Theme:
1  Gold in The Hills - The Belt is a rural backwater, but it draws prospectors and those who cater to them. Think boomtowns and eccentric mountain men spacers.
2  Islands in a Vast Sea - Strange societies, exotic ports of call. It's one part The Odyssey  and one part South Pacific adventures of  Voyage of the Scarlet Queen.
3  Lost Worlds - A more isolated version of the above. The Belt may even be mostly empty, but a few hidden worlds lurk there.
4  Place of Mystery - Mostly uninhabited now, but there are this wasn't always the case. There are tombs to rob, artifacts to loot.

Why is This Rock Different? (Note that the answer here will suggest things about other asteroids!) 
1  It's inhabited
2  It's a piece of some structure
3  It's actually a dwarf planetoid
4  It has an atmosphere and life despite it's small size

Who Are the Inhabitants?
1-2  Strange and varied beings, unknown elsewhere
3-4  The adventures, nonconformists, and/or criminals of other worlds
5-6  Native primitive human(oid)s--how they spread from rock to rock is a mystery

What Do Outsiders Do There?
1  Exploit Mineral Wealth
2  Exploit the Natives
3  Hiding Out
4  Homesteaders
5  Archeology/Exploration
6  Crashed/Maroon/Exiled

Selected Asteroid Belt Sources:
"Marooned off Vesta" Isaac Asimov
"Master of the Asteroid" Clark Ashton Smith 
The Twilight Zone "The Lonely" 
"Trail of the Astrogar" Henry Hasse 

Sunday, November 8, 2020

Weird Revisited: Encounters in A Martian Bar Before the Gunfight Started

Art by Jeff Call
01 A jovial human trader eager to unload a large, glowing jar containing squirming creatures he claims are Mercurian dayside salamanders.

02 A shaggy, spider-eyed Europan smuggler waits nervously for her contact.

03 Four pygmy-like “mushroom men," fungoid sophonts from the caverns of Vesta. They are deep in their reproductive cycle and close proximity gives a 10% chance per minute of exposure inhaling their spores.

04 A Venusian reptoid lowlander with jaundiced eyes from chronic hssoska abuse and an itchy trigger-claw.

05 Two scarred, old spacers in shabby flight suits.  They're of human stock mutated by exposure to unshielded, outlawed rocket drives.

07 A cloud of shimmering lights, strangely ignored by most patrons, dances around twin pale, green-skinned chaunteuses. It's  actually an energy being from the Transneptunian Beyond.

08 An aging, alcoholic former televideo star (and low level Imperial spy) with 1-2 hangers-ons.

09 A Venusian Wooly who just lost a Martian chess game to a young farm-hand who doesn't know any better.

10 A Martian Dune Walker shaman on his way to a ritual at a nearby Old Martian ruin, with a bag of 2d6 hallucinogenic, dried erg-beetles. He dreams of driving all off-worlders from Mars.

Friday, November 6, 2020

An "Old Solar System" of Your Own

The "Old Solar System" is a term that has been used to refer to the more romantic views of our planetary neighbors before space probes and better observations through a wet blanket of reality over the whole thing. 

Back in 2019, I wrote a series of posts with generators based ideas drawn from fiction of the era about the three most important worlds of the Old Solar System. Check them out and roll up your own version!




Tuesday, November 3, 2020

Tuesday Comics: Election Day Edition

On this election day, it seemed approporate to point out a couple of presidential election related collections:

Prez is the title of two DC Comics about teenage presidents. The first debuted in his own short-lived title written by Joe Simon and drawn by Jerry Grandenetti in 1973. The series is predicated on the notion of a Constitutional amendment lowering the age for eligibility for office (which may have been inspired by the 1968 film Wild in the Streets). The upshot is a teenager gets elected, and who better than a earnest and idealistic kid from Middle America whose mother even named him “Prez” ‘cause she thought he’d be President one day? 

Finally, because you (or somebody) demanded it, The Prez has been collected. This collection includes the four issues of The Prez's run, an unpublished story from Cancelled Comics Cavalcade #2, and a continuity-twisting tale from Supergirl #10. Neil Gaiman brought Prez out of comics limbo in Sandman #54 in 1993. This led a sort of follow-up in Vertigo Vision: Prez. Miller and Morrison also used the Prez in Dark Knight Strikes Again #2 and the Multiversity Guidebook. All of these deuterocanonical texts are included, as well.

Over at Marvel, a talking duck from parallel Earth ran for President in 1976. Steve Gerber and Gene Colan put Howard the Duck in the middle of the election when he became the candidate for the All-Night Party. Their slogan: "Get Down America!"

This lampooning of the American electoral process is collected in Howard the Duck: The Complete Collection vol. 1 along with a lot of other silliness.

Monday, November 2, 2020

Atomic Age Space Horror Inspirations

 In a recent post, I discussed what I saw as the possibilities of retro sci-fi horror of the gleaming rockets and stalwart spacemen variety, not the grubby, paycheck-seeking space jockey's popular in the Alien-inspired rpgs. I mentioned a few inspirations there, but I felt like a more extensive list was in order.


Weird Fantasy (1950)

Weird Science (1950)

Incredible Science Fiction (1955)

Some stories in later anthology series like Alien Worlds (1982), Mystery in Space (1980 revival), Time Warp (1979)


"In the Walls of Eryx" H.P. Lovecraft.

Leigh Brackett stories including "Shannach - The Last," "Purple Priestess Mad Moon," etc.

Ray Bradbury. Early short fiction, including "Death-by-Rain" and "The City."

CL Moore. Northwest Smith Stories

Clark Ashton Smith science fiction, including "The Immeasurable Horror," "Vulthoom," and "Vaults of Yoh-Vombis."

A.E. van Vogt. Voyage of the Space Beagle (1950). It's a fix-up of previously published short stories "Black Destroyer," "Discord in Scarlet" (both of which bear some resemblance to Alien; the first also likely inspired the Star Trek episode "Man Trap"), "War of Nerves", and "M33 in Andromeda."

Stanley Weinbaum solar system stories particularly "Parasite Planet," "The Lotus Eaters," "The Mad Moon," and "Planet of Doubt."

Film & TV:

The Angry Red Planet (1959)

It! The Terror from Beyond Space (1958)

Forbidden Planet (1956)

Planet of Vampires (Terrore nello spazio) (1965)

Outer Limits, select episodes

Star Trek, select episodes including "The Cage," "The Man Trap," "What Are Little Girls Made Of?" "Operation: Annihilate!" 

Twilight Zone, select episodes

Queen of Blood (1966)