Thursday, November 05, 2020

Quantum D&D

A funny thing happened to D&D in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s: it got popular.  It went from a game everyone learned from someone whose knowledge of the game could be traced back to Arneson or Gygax, to a game people were trying to learn how to play from the three different boxed sets released between ’77 and ’83.  And we got a lot wrong.


I fully and heartily mean to include myself among them.  I made all the classic blunders, from only giving EXP for kills and ignoring henchmen, to treating AD&D as a set of add-on rules for B/X.  And I fully blame the books we read.


Fantasy exploded as a genre in the late ‘60s and by the ‘70s was, with sci-fi, a sizeable portion of your local bookstore and frequently dominated the spin-racks of paperbacks you’d find in newspaper shops and drugstores at the time.  And between the heyday of reading for Gygax and Arneson and my personal Golden Age of sci-fi/fantasy, things had drifted.  A lot!


Here’s the thing: when I started playing D&D, the only author from Appendix N I’d read was Tolkien.  The authors who informed what fantasy was to me were C.S. Lewis and Tolkien, combined with a collection of Robin Hood stories, the Young Boy’s King Arthur, some historical fiction like Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Black Arrow, and a collection of fairy tales my grandmother owned that still had the creepy bits like Cinderalla’s sisters cutting off parts of their feet to try and get them to fit into the glass slipper. I’d read all the Greek and Norse mythology in my elementary school library.  I’d poured over the sections on knights, Vikings, Roman legions, and ancient Greece in the illustrated encyclopedias in my classrooms.  I’d seen a handful of Harryhausen flicks, the Rankin-Bass Hobbit and Return of the King, and I had the Marvel comic book versions of the movies Dragonslayer and Clash of the Titans (which I’d failed to see in the theater). 


And later reading didn’t help matters.  I read Dune and Le Guin’s Earthsea and a few of the Xanth books and Alan Dean Foster’s Spellsinger, as well as Kurtz’ Deryni novels, The Once and Future King, The Crystal Cave, and Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising series.  I read a handful of novels that modernized the legends of the ancient Celts.  Much of the ‘80s fantasy was of the epic quest sort, and fantasy authors openly wrestled with the fact that pretty much everything they were making (at the time) could be accused of being a pastiche of Tolkien.  Even the stuff that made some passing attempts to deconstruct the sub-genre of quest-fantasy, like Hambly’s Dragonsbane and McKinley’s The Hero and the Crown, didn’t deviate much from the formulae. 


And I did read some books that harkened back to the pulp traditions.  Brust’s stuff, for instance, was much more Leiber than Tolkien.  But the point stands; I was reading fantasy that fit poorly into D&D’s mold. 


It looked like it should fit great; pretty much all of it was some flavor of bildungsroman set to an epic backdrop of clashing kingdoms and fantastical monsters. 


But there was a lot missing.  For instance, nearly all the heroes in these stories were some flavor of reluctant; they didn’t choose a life of adventure, but got chosen.  Many were from our world and got tossed into the fantasy world.  Even the locals were not looking for wealth or power, or to topple the status quo, but rather to secure or restore the status quo threatened by a great evil.  It was all very World War II.


And these heroes didn’t hire help.  There were no trains of porters and native guides, no link-boys or stevedores.  They rarely even had bands like Robin Hood’s Merry Men.  It was usually the hero plus a handful of others facing all the evil in the world, and often in the final confrontation, the hero stood alone. 


So as much as I loved D&D, it also frustrated me. 


D&D wanted to give me The Tower of the Elephant; I wanted the adventures of Sir Gareth or Bilbo’s travels through Mirkwood.  D&D gave me Cudgel the Clever and Captain Kronos; I wanted Gandalf and Morgan la Fey and Circe.  I wanted an epic quest against the forces of evil; the closest D&D came to that was grubbing through the catacombs of the Temple of Elemental Evil. 


And I wasn’t alone in this, and that gave us first Dragonlance, and then the bizarre pseudo-adventures of DUNGEON magazine during the 2e era, and finally 4e, where D&D really was about combat just like everyone had accused it of being. 

Because if you stare at D&D hard enough, and play it enough and talk about it enough, you can warp it into something different.  Every new edition of every RPG likes to boast that many of their changes are just things people have houseruled for years. 


Unfortunately, it never did become the game I was looking for (which was probably Pendragon, but I was too cheap back then to find that out).  Which is mostly my fault; B/X just begged for the type of kit-bashing that could turn it into an epic quest game.  But back then, I barely understood what I had my hands on as it was.  Warping it to my own desires was beyond my (literally) elementary skills.


It took 3rd edition to make me realize that what I thought I wanted wasn’t what I really wanted.

UPDATE: Grognardia chases a different thought up the same tree.  Also: Monopoly is always right! ;)

Sunday, November 01, 2020

The Steel Remains is a Maybe Too Modern S&S Novel

 Just finished Richard K. Morgan’s The Steel Remains last night.  (And yes, that's an Amazon Associate link.  Troll's gotta eat!)  I enjoyed it and could hardly put it down while I was reading it.  That said, once I was done with the book, it left me with an odd, and not entirely pleasant, taste in my brain.


One reason I think I enjoyed it is because The Steel Remains wears its Sword & Sorcery love on its sleeve.  In the Acknowledgements (interestingly placed at the end of the book in an attempt, I suppose, to not encourage readers to prejudge) he thanks Moorcock, Karl Edward Wagner, and Poul Anderson.  While I would totally recommend this book to readers looking for S&S fiction written with a modern touch, the feel is more Glen Cook (especially his Instrumentalities of the Night series) and Steven Erikson’s Malazan books.


But having said that, let me throw in a HUGE caveat: the world-building in this book is pretty light and comes across as lazy compared to Cook and especially Erikson.  If you read for incredible world-building, the first book in the series is not for you.


But having said that, I’m not sure the world-building really was lazy.  I suspect the author just took the whole iceberg metaphor about world-building too much to heart.  For instance, there are, I think, three religions that play important roles in this novel.  One is a shamanic polytheism.  One is a noble-savage-esque Islam pastiche that’s had an opulent and decadent empire grow up around it. 


The third is a real mystery.  It might be a variation of the Islam pastiche, but they don’t use the same terms to describe it, so I don’t think it is.  It might also not actually be a religion, but more a moral philosophy along the lines of Confucianism.  About the only concrete thing we learn about it is that it considers homosexual sex to be a crime worthy of execution by days-long public torture.  And they have the civil authority to carry it out.


Now, that really is the only thing about it that matters to the main character (one of three) that comes from this culture.  So talking only about this aspect can be considered extremely efficient storytelling.  But I think fans of intricate worldbuilding can be excused for wondering if that’s all the author bothered to come up with.  I certainly wouldn’t have minded a little more seasoning along the lines of Lovecraft’s cabbages of Ulthar. 


All of the priest(ly) characters are raving assholes out of Hawthorne novels.  At least two are vicious moral monsters. 


And just to completely drive a certain sort of reader screaming for the hills, the worldbuilding we do get is almost entirely designed to alienate our three protagonists from the cultures in which they live.  None of them are the Portlandia reader-insert cat-savers that the main character from Leckie’s Ancillary novels is.  For instance, all three are unapologetic (if sometimes angsty) killers who’d be right at home in a Brust novel or one of Wagner’s Kane stories.  But two of them come across as the only people in the entire world who feel slavery is so morally repugnant they want nothing to do with it. 


The book is fairly unrelenting in its darkness.  Everyone is morally soiled; there is no virtue in poverty, and civilization and barbarism are just different sides of the same debased coin.  The only moment of moral purity is held up as an unattainable slap-in-the-face to showcase just how ugly this world is. 


And yeah, I couldn’t put it down.  Discovering, at the end, that this was the same author who did Altered Carbon made me more interested in checking that out.  If you’re longing for a raw and gritty novel about killers wading ankle-deep in blood through battlefields and back alleys because godlike beings are moving them around like pieces on a chess board, you should absolutely give this novel a look. 


Monday, October 26, 2020

Conan Casting

So Netflix is working on a Conan series, and there was apparently word of such a series being worked on previously that would follow the stories by Howard more faithfully than other attempts at putting the Cimmerian on the screen.  Screen Rant had a fun little video with some dream casting, but it was all about characters from the movies who never show up in the stories, folks like Thulsa Doom (who’s actually from the Kull stories) and Subatai. 


So let’s do this right.  Assuming this new show follows the stories far more closely, who should be cast in the various roles?  Here are some of my ideas:


Tower of the Elephant

We start with this story because it’s probably the most classic, and certainly one of the best of Howard’s Conan stories.  With the popularity of D&D, leading with what is among the most dungeon-rompy of Conan’s stories seems a no-brainer.  And as this is our opener, we’re going in with a bang, spending some money on the cast.

Conan - Karl Urban

I’ve loved him in everything I’ve seen him in.  Momoa wouldn’t be bad either; I liked him in the role, I just thought the writing was poor.

Taurus, "Prince of Thieves" - Dave Bautista

We need someone with both bulk and agility, who combines joviality with menace.  I can’t think of anyone better, but I also can’t shake the thought I’m forgetting someone here.

Yag-kosha - Tim Allen

This is a purely voiced role.  We need someone who can bring pathos to the alien’s words.  In the same way Bernard Hill, who usually plays more comedic roles, infused Theodan with pathos and gravitas, I think Tim Allen’s empathy and sense of timing would work really, really well in this challenging role.  Besides, I want to save Mark Hamill for something bigger later in the series. 😉

Yara - Ian McShane

He’s a big name right now, everyone knows and enjoys him, and he looks like an evil sorcerer to boot!


The God in the Bowl

And immediately we’re switching gears with a whodunnit.  This nicely shows the sort of range of Howard’s stories; Conan is a thief in both, burglarizing a wealthy residence, but the stories are very different in feel and tone.  We’re also teasing Stygia here good and early.

Magistrate Demetrio - Casper Van Dien

The role calls for a chisel-jawed man who is driven by duty but not blinded by it.

Prefect of Police Dionus - Richard Brake

Brake can play those roles where the character needs to get under your skin and be annoying, but you’ll still kinda root for the guy.


The Hall of the Dead 

Instead of Conan escaping at the end of this one, we simply segue right into Rogues with Murilo visiting him either at the end of this one or the beginning of the next one.

Nestor - David Wenham

He’s got the look and the action skills already.


Rogues in the House

Murilo - Michael Gough

Nabonidus - Ian McDiarmid

We need two actors who can chew the scenery and yet ooze corruption that can contrast with Conan’s simple barbaric nobility.  These old hands would be awesome together as foes forced into alliance. 

Thak - John Cena

We need someone who’s big and physical, with the wrestling skills of, well, a pro. 


Frost-giant's Daughter

While this one probably happens earlier in most chronologies, Conan is not at his most empathetic here.  He’s also a full-on reaver in this one, while he’s more the thief in all the other tales.

Atali - Sophia Jane Myles

I think she’s terribly underrated and would make an excellent ice princess.  Watching her slowly drive Conan to the boiling point only to have him ambushed by her brothers would be a lot of fun.

The Brothers - two stuntmen whose faces we rarely get to see on the screen would be good, but what would be really cool is getting Matt Easton and Lindybeige to play these guys.  ;D

Saturday, October 24, 2020

Dice, Mooks, and Consequences


So Jim Desborough posted a video lamenting the loss of DM mystery with rolls being made out in the open.  Of course he mentions not being able to fudge dice rolls for dramatic effect.  Which, naturally, brings to mind Dyson Logos’ frequent cri de cœur that, if you don’t like one or more (or all) of the possible results of a roll, why are you even touching the dice?


But I think we can take this a step further.  If you don’t like an array of potential results but still really, really want to roll dice, why not just change the array?  You want the fight to last no more than three rounds, but the dice dictate whether the orcs are all dead at the end of the fight or if they run away.  Or, maybe the orcs all die, but if the PCs didn’t reach a threshold of damage dealt, the ogre in the next room hears the commotion and sets an ambush.


I’ve never been a big fan of mook mechanics, failing to see the point in using valuable game time on a fight that is unlikely to result in any interesting consequences.  This is especially true in 5e where even the possibility of draining the PCs of limited resources is extremely remote. 


But if something interesting happens if the PCs don’t slay the mooks before a timer runs out, or slay them in the proper order, or slay them without using fire or something similar, or the mooks explode like piñatas of poisoned and serrated death, or explode like piñatas of gold and cool randomly determined magic items, now we’re talking about fun.    


And you can apply this all over the place!  Roll well and the merchant is successfully haggled to a lower price; roll poorly and the merchant is successfully haggled to a lower price and is so smitten by your haggling skills they propose marriage.  PCs can’t die, but instead we’ll roll on a nifty Table of Traumas & Scars that leave a map of their adventures literally carved into their flesh and psyches.  You roll well and fail to convince the king to give you his crown, but he’s amused by your attempt and appoints you Court Jester; or you roll poorly and fail to convince the king to give you his crown and he’s enraged by your attempt and orders that you be drawn and quartered.


We’re picking class and race before rolling stats and instead of 3d6 for your class’ prime stats you roll 1d4+14.  Or maybe we’re rolling first, but we roll 3d6 twice, 1d8+10 twice, and 1d4+14 twice.  If you’re playing with a de facto or de jure rule that no PC can have a negative sum of modifiers, you’re already playing with rules even more forgiving than these.

Friday, September 04, 2020

Melee Weapons of the FUTURE!

Coming up with hand-to-hand weapons for sci-fi games is fun.  You can really let your imagination run wild with options.  While what follows are not the craziest things in the world (nothing on the level of, say, the avern flower from Wolfe's The Shadow of the Torturer), they are both easy to imagine by the players (most can be represented by pictures of real weapons from museums to give the basic idea) and yet each has a nice little sci-fi or fantasy twist.  

These, of course, are for Machinations of the Space Princess, my current RPG fascination.  I tried to give every weapon its niche, so that any of them would make sense for the PCs or their foes to use.  

Deflection-dagger - powerful deflection field adds +1 to any Defend action.

One-handed, close-combat weapon.

Damage: 1d6 penetrating or slashing.

Cost: 8 GP

The deflection-dagger is a main gauche with a powerful deflection field in its hilt.  While it can be used to attack, its true utility is in its ability to ward against incoming attacks.  If you don’t use the deflection-dagger to make an attack in the same turn, you may add +1 to any Defend actions (so +2 if Defending with one action and +4 with two Defend actions).  

Gyro-stabilized Cutlass - adds +2 to the attack roll, but skilled warriors eschew the correction for greater damage potential.

One-handed, close-combat weapon.

Damage: d6 + bonus +2 on attack rolls.

Cost: 20 GP

The gyro-stabilized cutlass is a single-edged fighting blade crafted with the neophyte warrior in mind.  Internal stabilizers guide the wielder’s hand, keeping the edge aligned with the target and promoting proper follow-through on draw cuts.  

While the guidance of the cutlass is a boon to the inexperienced, it aggravates experienced warriors who find themselves fighting against the weapon to perform anything but the most generic attacks and parries.  Because of this, the gyro-stabilized cutlass cannot be used to perform any Combat skills.   

Grav-mace - for pounding through armour.

One-handed, close-combat weapon.

Damage: d8 Impact + 2 levels of Armour Defeating

Cost: 40 GP

The grav-mace uses gravitic pulse technology to deliver crushing blows on impact while allowing the wielder to recover quickly and prepare for their next strike.  It’s a favorite among boarding parties who are likely to face heavily armoured opponents but don’t have the room to wield two-handed weapons.  

Kālakūṭa Stiletto - a dagger fashioned from poison.

One-handed, close-combat weapon.

Damage: d8 + concealable + make a Toughness save every round or take an addition 1d4 damage until they succeed on a Toughness save.

Cost: 250 GP

The kālakūṭa stiletto is fashioned from a mysterious dark stone whose depths absorb all light, though the edges are translucent and smokey.  The stone is inimical to nearly all life and beings not immune to poison often take additional damage from any wound caused by such a blade.  Mere cuts can lead to death if the wounds are not swiftly treated.  

As the stiletto has no mechanical or technological components, isn’t made of any sort of normal metal or composite, and must be sheathed in lead to be carried safely, it is completely invisible to most scanner technology, and a carefully hidden kālakūṭa stiletto is nearly impossible to detect.  

Power Hammer - generates ball of energy to cause destructive harm to target. 

Two-handed close-combat weapon.

Damage: d12 energy + 1 level of Armour Defeating or d8 piercing + 2 levels of Armour Defeating

Cost: 280 GP

The power hammer resembles the ancient lucerne hammer.  The spikes on the top and back are fashioned of the same stuff the smallsword is, while the tines of the hammer head can encase itself in a destructive sphere of energy that’s released when it strikes a target.  The wielder must pick before swinging the weapon which they wish to hit with, and may only use one side per target per turn.  

The power hammer is considered the best weapon for cracking heavy armour.  When the wealthiest powers go to war, hulking juggernauts lay into each other with power hammers, battering each other back-and-forth across the battlefield.  

Rondel Dagger - diamond-bladed for punching through armour.

One-handed, close-combat weapon.

Damage: d6 penetrating + 4 levels of Armour Defeating 

Cost: 32 GP

The ultimate in piercing through armour, the triangular “blade” of the rondel dagger is fashioned from nanocomb-reinforced diamond.  Don’t actually try to cut anything with it, however; that “blade” is actually more of a spike, ultra-specialized in punching through resistance and getting at the soft, squishy body hidden inside armour.  The big round disks at either end of the grip protect the hand from sparks, jagged bits of shattered armour, or ablative defenses, while also giving you a good grip in case the dagger gets stuck.  

Scissor Katar - diamond-edged plus it opens up to do more damage!

One-handed, close-combat weapon.

Damage: d10 piercing/slicing + 1 level of Armour Defeating.

Cost: 45 GP

The scissor katar takes the reinforced diamond of the rondel, uses it for the edge of a broad blade, then adds a motorized scissor-action to open the blade up once it’s inside!  While nasty enough in the hands of most combatants, a skilled opponent can literally use the scissor katar to peel your armour right off you; when using the Armour Eater skill, the wielder of a scissor katar only suffers a -3 on their attack roll.  

The scissor katar continues to be favored by infantry and marine officers of the remnants of the Urlanth Matriarchy.

Shock-cestus - electrified gauntlet.

One-handed, close-combat weapon.

Damage: d6 volt + shocking (Toughness save or unable to act on your next turn.)

Cost: 3 GP

The shock-cestus is the calling card of the thug and slaver.  While its power cells and metal framework make it impossible to hide from scans or a professional search, it’s easy enough to veil by a cloak or coat.  In certain regions, thug and gang fashion is dominated by long, loose left sleeves designed to conceal a shock-cestus from casual glances.

Smallsword - favored by Urlanth nobility.  Can attack twice.  Also comes in a concealable cane version.

One-handed, close-combat weapon.

Damage: d8 + 1 levels of Armour Defeating + Double

Cost: 30 GP (80 GP for the sword cane version)

At first glance, the smallsword appears to be a rondel on steroids.  While the blade is the same shape, with its triangular cross-section and no real edge to speak of, it’s of completely different manufacture. The sandwich of memory-ceramics and harder alloys gives the smallsword impressive flexibility without sacrificing much of its penetrating power.  The blade can take a shocking amount of punishment, allowing it to parry attacks from even a sonnenbalger without snapping or melting.  The grip molds to the hand of the wielder, and the active balance gravitics in the pommel give unparalleled accuracy and speed in the hands of a skilled combatant.    

The smallsword is favored by Urlanth nobility and naval officers.  It is the default weapon for settling duels.  Note that while the prices listed represent the bare-bones options, few nobles can resist decorating their weapons in the latest styles.

The sword cane version of the smallsword is popular among well-to-do merchants and uppity middle-class sorts who might not be allowed to wear a sword everywhere they go, but feel the need for a solid self-defense option in a pinch.  Due to its lack of directly offensive tech housed in the weapon itself, a properly crafted sword cane can sneak past even alert security forces.  

Sonnenbalger - plasma-edged arming sword.

One-handed, close-combat weapon.

Damage: d10 heat

Cost: 20 GP

The ubiquitous sonnenbalger is the sidearm of choice among mercenaries and non-coms.  The sturdy weapon with its distinctive s-shaped handguard and heavy “fishtail” pommel is seen by many to be the badge of the “true” soldier, and so is affected by many who aspire to that status.

Such posers run the risk of setting their pants on fire.  The sonnenbalger projects a wave of superheated plasma along both edges of the blade, hot enough to burn through all but the heaviest armour.  The waves occasionally interrupt each other where they meet, making the sonnenbalger mediocre for thrusting.

Wailing Katana - edge shrouded in sonic wave that cuts finer than obsidian!

Two-handed, close-combat weapon.

Damage: d20

Cost: 300 GP

While there are many warrior and combat societies that swear by the deadliness of the wailing katana, there are just as many who will tell you that the weapon is over-hyped.  There are recorded instances of wailing katanas cutting off an arm or a leg from a juggernaut armour suit, but these are the acts of extremely skilled masters of the martial arts, and even they rarely get to do it twice if they’re not also heavily armoured themselves.

The cutting power of the wailing katana comes from the sonic wave it projects around its edge, allowing it to slice finer than even some monofilament weapons.  While the weapon's warbling moan isn’t so loud as to make stealth impossible, it does require an atmosphere to work properly, making the weapon useless in vacuum.  

Thursday, August 27, 2020

Caudle Paper for Machinations of the Space Princess and other RPGs

Over at his blog, the Alexandrian, Mr. Alexander has recently waxed philosophical about coinage in RPGs.  He opines that the sweet spot is three to four different currencies:

So why track three or four currencies instead of two or ten or forty? In my experience, that’s generally the sweet spot where you get the benefits of flavor and logistics before hitting diminishing returns. What you’re generally looking for is: A poor currencyOne or two currencies in the range of what the PCs typically useA rich currency denoting unusual wealth or powerWith those relative values, you’ve gained the bulk of the semantic/narrative meaning to be milked from currency. In D&D that’s copper, silver, gold, and platinum. In a campaign where the PCs are drug dealers, it’s the scale from garbage bags full of dirty $1 bills that need to be laundered to flashing Benjamins at the club.

Machinations of the Space Princess has but a single currency: the cleverly named grams, palladium (aka GP).  It is, of course, easy to divide such things into fractions of a gram, and Desborough mentions such divisions, as well as larger coins.

But there’s no romance in that.  So I’m adding two new common units of currency to my Machination’s campaigns. 

The first is a common psychoactive drug that simultaneously induces euphoria and sedation.  It’s commonly produced in thin, translucent, square paper-like sheets roughly 7 cm on a side (slightly smaller than a post-it note).  Because these squares are the color of cinnamon bark, it’s sometimes called cinnamon paper, but its proper name is caudle paper for its regenerative properties (aka, CP; see, I can play this game too! ;D ).  Nobody will be shocked to hear that the common price for CP is 100 sheets for a GP.

Smoking a CP will restore a single hit point.  No additional hit points can be regained this way within the same hour.  Hedge-witches and back-alley medics are rumored to have techniques to boost the restorative powers of a CP, but strange side-effects are common.  You can also find CP holders and pipes that claim to boost the effects of smoking CPs.  None of these claims have been verified, though they do make you look more elegant. 

Still need to figure out what my PPs are going to be…

Monday, August 24, 2020

The Implied Setting of Alpha Blue

By popular demand: an analysis of the implied setting for Alpha Blue.

Well, ok, Venger demanded it. 

Just remember, as you read this, that he literally asked for it.  In just about every sense of that phrase. 😉

Unlike Machinations of the Space Princess, Alpha Blue has a pretty thoroughly described setting: the mobile space station (wait, doesn’t that make it a ship?) Alpha Blue itself.  However, there are some comments about the larger universe I want to touch on, primarily as they differ from Machinations.  Largely because, in many ways, Alpha Blue is the anti-Machinations. 

For instance, where the universe of Machinations is ridiculously (and accurately) huge, the universe of Alpha Blue is fairly small.  Galaxies are treated as roughly analogous to continents.  On page 39 we’re told, “The vast majority of this universe has been explored - some of it quite thoroughly.”

This is reinforced by two other facts.  The first is that humans (and humans with face bumps) make up the vast majority of sentients in this universe.  Where Machinations looks very much like the cantina scene in the first Star Wars movie, Alpha Blue looks like everywhere else in the Star Wars universe: humans and human-like beings as far as the eye can see.  There are aliens, but they’re very much in the minority, and don’t come in nearly the variety or volume of aliens in Machinations. 

The second thing of note in this universe is that it is dominate by tyrannical jerks.  Again, in direct contrast to Machinations’ universe, where chaos is the norm and order is limited to (relatively) small pockets that wax in wane like mayflies against the backdrop of deep time on an astronomical scale, the Alpha Blue universe is gripped in the neurotic and up-tight control of a number of intergalactic factions.  Some are religious (the principle religion of the universe appears to be apocalyptic), others are simply autocratic.  There are mind-controlling Brain Bugs, cyborg legions chanting “Servitude or Death,” and the mega-corp conglomerate Micro McDonald Disney Walmart Cola “which owns approximately one-tenth of the known universe.”

This makes the Alpha Blue not-a-station (It moves around!  It’s a very big spaceship!) an oasis of chaos in an uptight, prune-faced, abusive universe.  Being a rare example of a place where people can let off steam, it’s metastasized into a carnival of prurient excess. 

So that’s what Venger has given us overtly or casually alluded to in the text.  I’m more interested in picking at what the rules tell us about this universe. 

First off, Venger’s original intention was not to provide rules for Alpha Blue.  Instead, it was supposed to be a system-neutral setting to drop into whatever sci-fi game you were playing.  About halfway through the project, Venger shifted gears on that and created a system to go with it.  His intention was to craft a character creation process that set the tone. 

I’m not going to comment on how well he accomplished his goal here.  I’m only after what the system he devised implies about the setting.

First of all, this is an insanely rules-lite system.  So rules-lite, your character doesn’t even have stats.

No, I’m serious, no stats.  Not even a sort of half-assed Skill, Stamina, and Luck thing you’d expect from a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure-with-a-Combat-System-Glued-On sort of thing we used to see all the time in the ‘70s. 

Your Alpha Blue character is defined more by what they know than who they are.  Normal human characters get to roll (or pick) two careers, which define their areas of expertise and knowledge.

Careers come in two flavors: Respectable and Scoundrel.  Already, the uptightness of this universe is making itself known.  The Respectable careers include: Scientist, Technician, Pilot, Explorer, Medic, Diplomat, Interior Designer, and Space Priest (aka Templar). 

The Scoundrel careers are: Bounty Hunter, Mercenary, Pirate, Gambler, Con Man, Assassin, Pimp, and Smuggler.  You potentially get more starting cash with each Scoundrel career, but you also have to roll on a table which dictates how much trouble you’re in with the law.    

You can forego one of your careers to pursue one of three other options.  These are playing a mutant, playing an alien, or having a “Special.”  The Specials are: psionics, being a Zedi Master of the Way, being a noble, or being insanely lucky. 

I find it interesting that these are mutually exclusive.  There’s a strong implication that psionics is weird, as rare as becoming a Master of the Way or being born a noble.  Also, that nobility is tied to neither of the other two.  The Federation might sound like Star Trek, but it operates more like Star Wars with its princesses, counts, and gran mofs. 

Or, instead of rolling once on the Special table, you can roll three times on the Mutation table and play a mutant.  Mutations include things like letting your spirit roam about, spying on people while you sleep, having brittle bones that doubles the damage you take, eidetic memory, sterility, recovering all hit points when you eat a brain, being invisible to machines and robots, being unable to digest solid food, and being able to magically enhance objects and people. 

And using the word “magically” is not me being snarky.  Venger uses the word a few times in the mutations table. 

Finally, if none of those options appeal, you can be an alien.

The alien options are, well, pretty out there.  While you’ve got your “Humanlike, but a strange color” there’s also a lot of stuff like “incorporeal, like a shadow,” “geometric shapes,” “flame,” “thought-form,” and “something totally bizarre that human beings can’t conceptualize.” 

While some of the aliens you can create might be the stuff of the Star Fleet Academy graduating class of 2265, honestly, this is more the stuff of a fever dream.  There’s no attempt to make these things make sense or suggest how a player might actually play “something totally bizarre that human beings can’t conceptualize.”

But we’re not done generating our alien yet, because you also get to roll on the alien’s size (from as small as a rat to as large as an elephant, plus the chance that size might change “depending on stress, food, sex, intoxication, etc.”).  And then you roll on the Alien Mannerisms, Customs, and Quirks table.  This gives us a range of results from the physical (“Molting, shedding, constantly peeling skin.”) to the moral (“The sacrifice of another cannot be greater than
one's own.”) to the social (“Carry their coffins around with them wherever
they go (usually by chains). 'If I didn't, where would you put my body when I die?'”) to the just plain quirky (“Intentionally mispronounces words that he finds distasteful.”)  There are options on this table that might also make your alien more physically distinctive, such as having eyes in the back of their head, extra appendages, or a protective shell. 

So you can totally roll up a gaseous alien the size of a dog who is certain “that even numbers are unlucky and will go out of their way to avoid them.”

And has a foot fetish (because of course there’s a table for fetishes you can roll on as well.)

This is one of the most fascinating aspects of the setting for Alpha Blue: that it’s a nonsensical dreamscape.  It’s not intended to make sense.  Try to understand this universe and it will break your brain.  There’s a strong implication that these horrible, uptight, controlling factions are correct and proper because if people had to deal with the reality of the universe in its raw form, they’d probably go mad. 

And there are little dribs and drabs of setting detail that reinforce this.  Remember those Templar space-priests I mentioned being an apocalyptic faith? 

Yet, all have agreed that this 23rd century represents the seventh age. Prophecies state the seventh age is when spiritual turbulence will split the universe into seven pieces and each shall, in its turn, be devoured by some nameless and all-powerful divinity from beyond the stars.

Throw in some direct references to Cthulhu and Co, and you end up with the Alpha Blue universe being the shiny Brave New World to 40k’s 1984. If you find yourself living in this universe, pray the sleeper never wakens. ;)

Friday, August 21, 2020

Implied Setting of Machinations of the Space Princess

Yeah, more about Machinations.  One of the things it does really, really well is implied setting.  There’s enough there to work with, but not so much there it’s going to feel like you’re guessing what the truth really is.

So, how does MotSP do implied setting?


Sometimes, it just out-and-out tells you.  There are a few short paragraphs about the fall of the Urlanth Matriarchy and the 99 space princesses battling for the throne.  The same page mentions mega-corps and guilds and criminal organizations rising to fill the void, while entire star systems go rogue or rebel.  It’s described as “a chaotic whirl of violence and opportunism.”

The next page mentions a few themes the game was designed around.  The first is that the universe is ridiculously huge.  Desborough throws around the numbers, and they’re the sort that make the mind of normal folk glaze over.  One death is a tragedy; a million is a statistic.  But the billions upon billions of stars, each with its attendant constellation of planets, moons, comets, meteors and what-not?  Even as statistics, they are too colossally huge to do anything useful with.  The universe isn’t infinite, but there’s room for just about anything you and the players want to stick in it.  Hell, our galaxy is probably big enough for that, with three-hundred billion stars in it, and there are another one-hundred-and-seventy billion galaxies that we’ve seen so far. 

In short, feeling crowded isn’t something the Machinations GM should feel.  You’ve got more than enough room to toss in everything, the kitchen sink, and whatever else the players come up with that might strike your fancy. 

This Machinations universe, like our own, isn’t just ridiculously big, it’s also ridiculously old at over 13 billion years.  Where Machinations might deviate from the real galaxy is in the amount of intelligent life.  Like the Star Wars universe, the universe of MotSP is teaming not just with life, but intelligent life, and this life isn’t so alien that the different species can’t communicate, trade, and come together in polyglot empires.  As Desborough says,

There is plenty of time and space for empires to rise and fall, for many different intelligent species to take their turn hauling ass out of the primordial muck and having a go at being interstellar traders and empire builders fora while and all without necessarily bumping into each other. The universe may be full of these kinds of goings on, but it’s also so massive as to allow for backwaters where primitive planets go unmolested and pocket empires of several stars cling on, thinking themselves to be masters of the universe.


There are also these little one or two sentence snippets at the bottom of every page.  These are things like:

The two-headed asp of Belton-3’s heads are actually antennae. Its brain is in the trunk. 

Evolution moves slower than technology. Get your instincts corrected surgically! 

Proot the Unkillable moves from planet to planet and slaughters their populations. 

Gamma ray bursts have increased on the fringes and seem to be coming inward. 

Far from any star the Dark Tower imprisons the ancient gods in a matrix of orgone. 

Xanak worker caste were biological robots, until some bastard uplifted them.

In short, a collection of local color, GM inspiration, and adventure hooks.  Nearly every page has one of these at the bottom.  Most of the topics referenced (like Proot the Unkillable) are never mentioned again.


But the technique I find most interesting is how the rules build the setting.  Unlike Yoon-suin, there are few random tables allowing you to build locations, organizations, or individuals.  But that doesn’t mean there isn’t implied setting.  There’s actually a TON of implied setting in the rules. 

The most obvious place is the race creation rules.  This is a universe full of varied life.  Sure, humanoid is the default, but it’s not the only option.  We’ve got rules for ammonia-based floating bags that live in the cloud layers of gas giants; rock-encrusted, radiation-loving boron-based lifeforms; poison-guzzling chemosynthetic races; beings of pure energy; steamy metal-oxide based life; petro-swilling methane-based life; and two versions of silicon-based life.  You can be a parasite that lives in other organisms, a cyborg, an AI, an emergency medical hologram, or even deceased!  Plus, we’ve got all the classics: cat-people, dog-people, plant-people, bat-people, insect-people, gestalt swarm people, psionic space elves, fungus-people, octopus-people, noble warrior races, resolute pacifist races, spiritually enlightened races, barbaric races, and pretty much all the other sci-fi clichés you can think of.  

And with space being so ridiculously, impossibly big, your wonderfully bizarre snowflake of a race might be from some distant corner of this, or some other, galaxy. 

Or even another universe altogether!

But it actually starts with the stats.

MotSP adds Comeliness to the traditional six.  Now, on the face of it, this is the last game that should use a Comeliness stat.  Especially when you look at the race-creation rules.  Combine the two, and what you end up with is a universe where an ammonia-based lifeform that looks like a giant jellyfish can appreciate the beauty of Monica Bellucci.  And a universe where plain ol’ human you can appreciate the ammonia-based lifeform that looks like a giant jellyfish’s version of Monica Bellucci.

This is a universe where potent enough beauty crosses not just cultural but species lines, where Captain Jack Harkness is seducing everything with a pulse (and some things without) as he hip-thrusts his way across the galaxy. 

In a game that encourages everyone at the table to go absolutely gonzo with creating new and bizarre alien races, you’d be completely justified in questioning the idea of a universally applicable Charisma stat.  Machinations of the Space Princess scoffs at your pedantry and doubles down with Comeliness. 

The most blatant bit of rules-describing-setting is force fields.  They come in two flavors.  One basically increases the difficulty of hitting you while the other absorbs a certain amount of damage per combat (recharging basically at the end of each fight).  In either case, they only work against ranged attacks and do nothing against melee attacks.  And they’re cheap!  You can get a +1 to your Ranged Defense (effectively your AC vs. ranged attacks) for a mere 5 gp.  Money well spent!  Especially since they never run out of charge or the like.  Your forcefield defense is good forever.

This, of course, is why swashbuckling about with swords (lazer or otherwise) makes sense in the MotSP universe.  You can plink a lot of shots at someone from a distance and have them deflected harmlessly away, but that won’t happen when you poke them with a sharpened stick.  Ranged weapons also potentially suffer running out of ammo/charge/whatevers.  How often you need to reload is based on a saving throw you roll for the weapon at the end of every fight.  


There aren’t as many as you’d think.  They’re all big.  The first is a d100 table the Psion class characters roll on to generate their witch mark, some strangeness caused by the character’s deviant genetics or possibly the source of their unusual powers.  Some are baleful, others beneficial.  (Shockingly, there’s no “overcharge” mechanic that forces Psions to roll again for pushing their powers too far.)  The results range from eh to potential coolness.  The results are things like:

Mushtool: You are infested with a psychicfungal symbiote which covers you in faintly glowing growths and tendrils. -1 Com. 

Inedible: You are poisonous, anything biting you or tasting your blood or flesh must make a Toughness Save or suffer d6 damage. If you’re already poisonous step up the damage by a dice type. 

The Fog: Your body surrounded you with a fine mist that obscures you from direct view.+1 Ranged Defence. 

For the Birds: Instead of hair you havefeathers like a bird. -1 Charisma. 

Omnomnom: You are covered in tiny mouths that chatter and whisper blasphemies, lies and the occasional hard truth. -2 Cha and Com.

There’s also a d100 table of cool adventure hooks happening on a planet:

The planet produces a unique mineral/resource/drug. 

The planet is a suspiciously calm and gentle utopia. What’s going on? 

Look out! Space locusts! 

A postphysical entity on the world demands sacrifices. 

The planet is only just making first contact with greater galactic society. Hijinx ensure. 

The space navy is in ‘town’ with thousands of astronauts and space marines on leave on the planet. 


And finally, there’s a random table for planets that’s very Star Wars, as it includes: Desert World, Plains World, City World, etc. 

There’s a bit more set-dressing stuff about star colors, asteroid belts, moons, etc.  Basically, these things exist, as you’d expect.

It’s kind of interesting how little Machinations does with random tables, considering how much use they get in Lamentations’ stuff.  So many of the ideas in the unweighted d100 tables are never going to be seen, and so much of it is pretty standard sci-fi TV show fare, the sort you’d expect from an episode of Star Trek or the ‘80’s Buck Rogers, that it just reinforces what’s already there. 


Instead, the real world-building is in the rules that are going to come up repeatedly.  And I could discuss more, especially all the broad range of stuff that falls under the Scholar skills which is likely to make characters with what amounts to post-graduate skills extremely rare in the game (and how many of those skills are one-upped by psionic powers). 

The fun thing is all the handles this gives you when designing your campaign.  You can easily narrow down the options for races; you can remove personal shields to make guns more potent; you can replace space ships with star gates without breaking a thing.

Though I’m not sure why you’d want to, honestly.  As is, Machinations gives you a great little set-up for classic rollicking space opera shenanigans.  Much better, I think, to do a Session Zero and pick out the themes your players are most interested in and design characters and adventures that focus on those.