Friday, October 24, 2014

A Short Break

As a note to my readers I will be taking next week, October 27th through 31st off. A little break from time to time is needed to help recharge the batteries.  Regular posts will resume the following week with a new Story Seed on the 3rd of November.

Story Seed - The Arc

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I had been following it for months.

Nearly fifteen feet of curved stronglass that stretched on forever it seemed.  The facility where it had started was a ruin, ravaged by the Iron Wind in some prior time, and worn and weathered down to a decaying and crumbling horror.

But the Arc was nearly untouched. Lines of some kind of energy conveying material embedded in its length gave of a weak glow, only barely visible during the day, but at night the Arc was like a glowing beam that lit the way to some long forgotten yesterday.

The hexagonal power distributors spaced evenly every fifty feet made me wonder what the purpose of the Arc had once been.  Those structures repelled all matter, but only the structures, I could touch the stronglass of the Arc immediately next to those things. I could not fathom the purpose, but I supposed that what lay at the other end of the Arc's long length might tell me.

For nearly a full year my journey has taken me far beyond the Beyond. I have seen cities woven from webs. I have fought creatures of living diamond. I have waded through purple sleep grass, and flown over a sea of acid. At last I stand near the end of my journey.

The Arc's terminus.

A towering structure of graceful curves, as though the Arc itself wound round the towers at the center to form a sinuous wall.  I have not seen another intelligent being in days, possibly weeks, and around this lone structure, standing at the shore of some undiscovered ocean, I see only birds, circling the tall towers where they appear to roost.

My heart is light as I once more put one foot before the other, with my goal now in sight I hope to soon learn the mystery of the Arc.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Back Issues #6 - That's No Moon

I like science fiction. I read a fair bit of it, I enjoy watching science fiction film and TV, and, when I can find them, I usually enjoy SF RPGs. I rarely run science fiction games however. I'm not wired for it as a GM/ST. I'm not in tune with high tech, and my brain rarely fires on the cylinders needed for a proper science fiction game. However the occasional idea does spring to mind...

Issue #6: That's No Moon.

I'm a big fan of megastructures and mega-engineering. That is, objects designed and built on a scale of thousands of kilometers. Dyson Spheres, Stellar Engines, Skyhooks, and Bernal Spheres are all examples. Another example is the Ringworld as described by author Larry Niven. People today know the concept from a little series of moderately video games called Halo.

These capture my imagination because they are, at this time, well beyond our capability to produce. While a Skyhook or Bernal Sphere could potentially be built in the near future it would involve a massive effort and dedication of resources, the likes of which we have yet seen. Not only do these structures represent a level of technological prowess that we simply do not possess at this time, they also represent feats of engineering who's scale is truly mind boggling. While one can easily envision a sphere large enough to surround the sun at the orbit of the Earth it is another matter to comprehend that the usable surface area of such a sphere would be 550 million times that of the Earth.

Similar to megastructures another aspect of science fiction that is well beyond our current technological level, and engineering ability, is faster than light travel, or FTL. Be it space folding, space warping, wormholes, hyperspace, or something else this technology is a staple in science fiction stories and RPGs. Sometimes this tech is built into the ships that use it. The Macross/SDF-1 had a spacefold engine, the ships in Star Wars slip into hyperspace easily, humans routinely create temporary wormholes in the Stargate franchise, and in Babylon 5 hyperspace is accessed through openings generated either by the largest capital ships or by gates that are the cornerstone of interstellar travel and commerce for smaller vessels.

Back when Pluto, poor little Pluto, got demoted to the status of Dwarf Planet I had spent a little while reading up on our former little planet. Poor little guy is out there all by himself (editor's note, this was written before some of the dwarf planets out in Pluto's neighborhood were proven) and now he's not even a planet. It's sad. Now every time I think of starting my own SF game I keep putting a jumpgate of some kind (the how it works is unimportant at this stage) out there with Pluto. I have for years, well before the demotion to Dwarf Planet status. Often said device was left by a prior civilization, or perhaps by one waiting and watching for Earth to mature. This idea is hardly new, the Monolith from 2001 was basically an gate/sentinel left behind to await mankind's contact.

The inspiration struck. 

I though to myself "What if Pluto WAS the jumpgate?" After pondering this I wondered how it was powered since solar energy would be minimal and nuclear fission or fusion would need fuel. I decided instead that Charon, Pluto's moon, was the gate itself. In my head the moon would more or less collapse into a wormhole when active, or maybe open up in some way to reveal a teleportal, or hyperspace entry; again the specifics were unimportant at this stage. With Charon (appropriately named) as the actual "gate mechanism, Pluto itself became the energy generator/provider. Still I was unhappy because either Pluto was piping hot with nuclear material, a massive chemical battery, or it was a huge fusion reactor with impossibly perfect insulation which prevented emissions that would have been detected in our studies of the dwarf planet. None of those ideas seemed plausible, nor did they appeal to me.

Then I thought, "What if Pluto was only part of the power system?"

Mercury is the smallest true planet and also closest to our sun. An ideal location to absorb a tremendous amount of free solar energy. So what, then, if Mercury was a solar energy absorber that somehow beamed/transmitted energy to a storage and conversion system that was Pluto. Pluto would then have all the energy it needed to provide the power for Charon to activate and facilitate FTL travel. It had a certain bizarre elegance to it. It also struck me as a solid foundation for an in game mystery, "Who created these devices on such awesome scale?"

Is it an original idea? Probably not in the long scale of it, but it is to my knowledge a novel application of previously tread on ideas. That's good enough for me.

What gets you thinking about science fiction games? What ideas do you have that could add to a potential science fiction setting or game?

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Story Seed - Exotic

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The translation was successful.
Tina and her team were back. 

She looked down at herself, thankful to see two arms, two legs.  The others did the same.

A small chime rang out, and the door to the translation chamber whooshed open. Jenkins peered in, looking owlish as he simply observed the team over the rims of his spectacles, perched at the end of his long pointed nose.  His thin hand darted to and fro across the notepad before him; though he did not look at it the notes were cleanly legible, and well organised.

Satisfied Tina finally rose from the cushion on the floor. "That was ..." she began, faltering almost immediately for lack of words to properly describe the experience.  The others echoed a similar level of awestricken inability to speak.

Jenkins nodded, more notes rising on the page. "Let's start at the beginning, shall we? What laws do you expect the recursion operated under?" His eyes darted between the people before him, golden brown rings seeking out answers.

"Exotic. That's certain." Toby said, rubbing his eyes with the palms of his hands.

Jenkins' left eye twitched, "Really?" A tinge of excitement colored his voice, "What was it?"

Tina answered immediately, "Fluidic. Some sort anyways. We were floating in some kind of semi-viscous ... something."

"We weren't humanoid either. Whatever creatures we became everything was different.  Orderly." Ken said, wringing his hands, "When we didn't start breaking the red things into blue things all hell broke loose."

Jenkins nodded thoughtfully, "Describe the red and blue things if you can." This started a prolonged argument about the complex shape of the objects and the work centric nature of the recursions inhabitants.

More questions followed; Jenkins was as thorough as he was apparently unflappable. After some time, and numerous pages of notes he finally seemed satisfied. "Unless you have anything more to detail, I believe I have everything I need for the initial analysis. I look forward to your field reports."

As her team broke out of the room and scattered Tina hung back with Jenkins, "What was that place? Where did you send us?"

Jenkins looked up from reviewing his notes, "Oh. Well, I believe, based on your descriptions, that the recursion was a living cell."  He said it so matter of factly that it took a moment to register for her. "In fact I think it is likely that you all took on the role of mitochondria. Truly a most fascinating experience I am sure. Curious that an entire recursion should take on such a structure, but who knows, perhaps even non-sapient life on this planet is capable of casting a shadow into the strange..."


Summary - An exploration team returns from a uniquely strange recursion, unsure of their experiences there, or the very nature of the world. 

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Nuts & Bolts #6 - Decisive Trundling

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Special dice rolls. From the 1-in-20 chance at a critical hit and critical failure, to more complicated mechanics like exploding dice, advantages and threats, and minor or major effects.  Nearly every RPG that uses dice has some kind of mechanic around special dice results. 

Whether the effect results in double damage, an increased effect, or simply managing a nigh impossible task the grandfather of special dice rolls, the natural 20, is a universal symbol of success.  Conversely the "1" is a universal failure, and often elicits groans from all involved, not just the player who rolled the die.

But what are the pros and cons of such mechanics?

Let's start with the most simple fact: critical hits are fun, and critical fails are often memorable, and almost always interesting. Nobody can argue those facts, and being that the point to the game is to have fun that's reason enough to retain these kinds of mechanics. A well timed 20 can boost moral, or swing the tide of an encounter for the PCs.  A 1 in the hands of the GM can likewise be cause for celebration, while in the hands of players the unfortunate incidents often become the stuff of legend.

Not all games use the venerable d20 for their base mechanic. The Stunt mechanic used by Dragon AGE, and discussed in a prior column, is one such mechanic.  The complex symbol based dice mechanic of Fantasy Flight's Star Wars games determines not only success and failure of an attempted task, but also Advantages and Threats that can further color the outcome of each roll.  This system could fuel a column of its own, but suffice to say that it leads to each roll having a strong narrative impact where failures can have a silver lining, and success can be tainted by unforeseen complications.

Somewhat more simply, White Wolf's games use dice pools and d10s, depending on the specific game 10s can count as multiple successes or follow the "exploding" rules where you count them as success and then re-roll the die (or add a new one). Ones acted as part of a critical fail mechanic, working against successes in one version, while in others they only activated when no successes were rolled on the dice. Mechanically exceptional numbers of successes improved the effects of the action undertaken, while "botches" worked much as other critical failures.

The flip side of all this however isn't always nice. Let's look at the impact on game and encounter balance.  While it could be said that the GM should not call from a roll if success (or failure for that matter) could impact the story, there are plenty of times when the dice need to be rolled, and sometimes those rolls can go awry. Under normal circumstances these kinds of rolls are bounded by chance; probability suggests that a 20 comes up as often as a 1 for instance, and that those rolls on a d20 only occur 10% of the time.

Of course these things come to the table and ... go right out the window.  Every gamer has stories of those times when die rolled multiple 1s in a row, or when a series of spectacular hits turned a climax into an anti-climax.  Things skew worse when dice rolls occur on both sides of the table and skew in opposite directions. A routine encounter becomes truly difficult, or a complete pushover.  These events are reasonably rare but they can screw things up for players and GMs alike.

All this also means that balanced game encounters don't always survive contact with special dice results. That's hard on GMs who have to either figure out how to not kill their players, or scramble to rescue a session from anti-climax.  Likewise it's hard on players at least half the time, bad dice rolling leading to character death or ignoble defeat is not terribly fun, and for some a combat that goes too easily by way of good dice rolling is often just as anti-climatic.

Referencing back to my second column and the one-sided dice rolling of the Cypher System, I feel that having such a mechanic can help to level off the swings of fortune and chaos, and keeps the special rules in the hands of players (where they are nearly always most interesting). Similarly mechanics where special results are either graded (e.g. ranging from very minor, to rather significant), and/or occur more frequently (possibly on every roll) will help to even out and level off the potential for extreme swings in luck.

Regardless of your preference for these mechanics, a degree of exceptional results can help to drive engagement of the players and instill excitement and uncertainty to dice rolling, all of which are good.  Something to keep in mind is the balance of that equation, and how good mechanics can go awry if poorly balanced. 

Monday, October 20, 2014

Story Seed - Plotting

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At'osi rang her finger around the rim of the glass as it floated before her.  She stared into the purple liquid and rang through what had been said, ignoring the holographic display to her right.  "How do you propose we execute this plan of yours? Humanity has not returned to the moon in some time."

Elm'on nodded, "That is true, but we need not travel to Earth's moon.  We will instead execute the plan from the prime world itself."

"What you propose would seem implausible Elm'on. Explain, and do not make me ask again for greater clarity," At'osi said sternly.  The woman was clearly not in a patient mood, but such was the prerogative of a member of the Karum in her rank.

"Et'ril has made breakthroughs. The gravity beam is nearly ready, and of sufficient strength to destabilize the moon's orbit.  We only required access to one of the inapposite gates and we can bring about the end of this wretched world and set Ruk free to surf the fractal waves once more!" Elm'on was very nearly breathing heavily; excitement flushed his face.

The room was silent for a minute save only Elm'on's excited breathing.  Finally At'osi dismissed the hologram and finished her drink in one hefty quaff.  "You," she said, "are a fool. Do you really think that Et'ril's equipment could possibly survive long enough on Earth to engineer the ends that you envision?" She shook her head and rose, "Such a plan ..." She shook her head again.  "It has already be weighed and found wanting, even before Et'ril's research was successful.

"That the Earth must die, is of no doubt, but success hinges on means more probable and methods more secure." She looked her subordinate in the eyes, "Find me another way."


Summary - The goals of the Karum are well known; freedom for Ruk by the means of Eath's destruction. But not all plans proposed are approved by those in control of the Karum.