Thursday, July 29, 2010

Outremer: The Principality of Antioch

The Principality of Antioch is the crossroads of Northern Outremer. The Orontes River, which rises almost at the borders of Damascus in Homs, sweeps up from the south in a great hook past the city of Antioch, and on to the Mediterranean near St. Simeon. The great valley of the Orontes is a principal pathway between the coast and the interior, and the broad fertile valley feeds all of the Principality.

The coast, though, is where some great cities lie. The huge ports of Alexandrette, Laodicea, and Tortosa together balance the inland cities of Antioch, Apamea and Masyaf in the Orontes valley. Alexandrette is the greatest of these, and the port for Antioch. From Alexandrette, roads run to Armenia through Issus, through Atharib into Edessa, and through Artah into the great metropolis of Aleppo as well as to Antioch.

Tortosa in the south was once held by the Templars, but they sold it to complete their aquisition of Jaffa and the fortified towns nearby. As a consequence, it is well fortified, and able to be supplied by sea. Over the mountains from Tortosa is Masyaf, the old capital of the Assassins, given up when they moved into Homs upon Saladin's death. It is overlooked by a great castle as well. Two castles defend the great port of Laodicea. Founded by Seleucis I after the death of Alexander, the port flourished under the Greeks and Romans before falling to the Muslims. It was taken by Saladin briefly, but was quickly retaken by Richard I in the Third Crusade.

The principal agricultural product of the Principality is wheat, with fruit and vegetables also important. Unlike most of the region, rainfall supports fairly intensive cultivation without much irrigation. The Orontes is used for its valley, not its water, and is not navigable. The roads paralleling the river carry a huge amount of traffic. The caravan tolls for these roads and the harbor tariffs from the ports are rich plums for the state.

Antioch the city is situated where the Lake of Antioch empties into the Orontes. Like Laodicea and Apamea, it dates back to Hellenistic days, and retains much of that flavor. As the hub of trade in the area, it is a rich city, and the long line of Princes of Antioch have greatly beautified the city.

The Principality is generally rather hostile with Aleppo and Edessa, and favorable with Homs, it's major trading partner. Relations with the County of Tripoli have seesawed from hostility to friendship over the years, depending much upon the personal relations of the Prince and Count.


Wednesday, July 28, 2010

StarCluster 3 - PSI stuff

Last night I did some work with PSI. A couple Beta testers thought that unless you were making a PSI-oriented character - in which case you would want to push it high - PSI is a dump stat, so it's either high or zero. This is for a couple of reasons:

1: There are very few professions based on PSI. The only fairly widespread PSI skill is Transfer, the skill that enables Jump travel through the wormhole net, among other things.

2: There is no way to use PSI unskilled.

These two factors combined to severely limit the appeal of PSI for non-PSI-based characters.

Last night, I implemented a three step change:

1: I went through the professions and added appropriate PSI skills to a fair portion of them. For instance Detectives could use the PSI skills Interrogation and Telepathy, while doctors and such could certainly use the PSI skill Heal.

2: I cleared up the use of unskilled PSI. For some reason, despite the fact that other skills could be used unskilled, the testers assumed this didn't apply to PSI skills. The only difference really is that you need PSI to power PSI skills, so a character with PSI can use any PSI skill, whether skilled or not ,and a character without PSI cannot use any PSI skill, skilled or not. Unskilled PSI use is the same as unskilled use of any other skill otherwise. This has always been true, but it was not specifically stated in the rules, so now it is explicit.

3: I added Hunches. A character with PSI can use a LUCK point to get a Hunch about someone. To use a Hunch, the player needs to ask the GM (for NPCs) or other player (for PCs) a question concerning what that character is thinking or feeling about something specific. Since the player character used a LUCK point, the player is effectively paying for this information, so it needs an honest answer. For example:

Player: "What does Mr. Jones intend to do with us? I'm using a LUCK point here."
GM: "You have a Hunch he doesn't intend to leave any witnesses behind."


Player: "Why is Tabitha so vicious towards my character Roy? I'm going to use a Luck, Jean."
Other player: "You have a Hunch she's attracted to Roy, but doesn't want to be attracted to him because he can be such a jerk, so she takes it out of his hide."

What a Hunch does *not* do is tell a player which is the best option, or in any way make decisions for the player. Hunches do not work on things or places, just people.

I'm thinking these three points will make a small amount of PSI a useful option.


Monday, July 26, 2010

Interrupted Plans

We had a short quorum Saturday for the playtest, and the players decided they would rather not run the playtest, so I ran a session of 2 Fisted Tales. This is my go-to game for one-offs, as we have been running it as a serial without the cliffhanger ending. The same characters and background, 1928 New York, but a different plot each time. Last time we ended up in Shangri-La, but this time it centered around Manhattan.

I had absolutely nothing in my head, so I started off with one of the player characters - an ethnic (chinese) sidekick type - walking down the street, being suddenly confronted by a mob guy walking out from an alley. He said something, aimed a .38 at the PC, and fired, but the PC won the contest, using a kind of distance effect chi strike to make the gun go wild. The gangster tried again, but this time the PC made a fantastic roll, and the pistol went flying. A car started up the street, and the PC made an alert check and heard 2 tommy guns being cocked. He ran into the alley and Jackie-Channed his way up to a fire escape as the mobsters in the car unloaded a clip into the alley and took off, picking up the first mobster as they went.

The player couldn't remember what I had said as the mobster aimed, so the rest of teh PCs took him to Dr. Mesmer, a circus hypnotist, who was able to bring the memory to the surface. Since I had nothing at all planned, I let the PC say whatever he wanted. Turns out the Mobster said "This is from McMahon!", which led to the PC confessing he had been hired as a body guard for Mob Boss McMahon's wife, and had ended up sleeping with her.

Eventually, this led to a fight to the death in McMahon's zeppelin, which was picking up opium from a freighter and smuggling it into New York - remember opium was not illegal then, but evading customs duties was - and the group taking out McMahon, his crew, and members of a Chinese tong who were going partners with McMahon.

The game was awesome, but the reason it was awesome was that the players made it awesome. From the beginning, they were making stuff up and my job was making some sense of it all. The 2 Fisted Tales system also rocks on toast, which just made it all the better.

Sometimes the best plans are the ones that never happen.


Sunday, July 25, 2010

StarCluster 3 - Beta Feedback

If nothing else comes through, this beta release has been successful. I have been getting much feedback from all over on the game, all of it good. There's lots of changes to make, but I've already begun making these changes. People so far seem excited about the game, which is good, but the feedback is like gold - precious and beautiful! At this stage, criticism is what I want, so i can fix any problems. Already, though, I will have a much better game!

Now back to work!


Thursday, July 15, 2010

Is StarCluster Transhumanist?

Transhumanist is a label. Like all labels, it is an attempt to categorize a set by creating subsets and giving those subsets names. This is generally a good thing, so long as this isn't an attempt to pigeonhole. Pigeonholes are those physical dividers found in old desks, and thus a metaphor for exclusive categorization - you can't put a paper in more than one pigeonhole. The problem with thinking categorically happens when the categories become pigeonholes. Once this happens, the only way to sort within that pigeonhole is to subdivide it. By using non-exclusive set definitions, one can look for much more interesting categories, such as the intersection of the set of womwn who are also of the set red-headed, and also of the set green eyed; or the intersection of the sets novels, science fiction, and far future.

So - transhumanism is a philosphy which advocates improving the lot of humanity by changing humans on an individual level. Of course on an individual level what constitutes improvement is a question of personal taste. One consequence of this is a broadening of the meaning of the label "human" into what is not necessarily recognizably human any more. The problem with most games that are considered transhumanist is that the center is moved off of the recognizably human, and onto something which is difficult to conceptualize, and hard to relate to. This I believe is a mistake with games, and comes from over-zealous interest of those writing and designing these games in the seductive individual variance of transhumanism. There is no safe space, no anchor to our world which people can use to explore from.

In StarCluster 3, I have throughout insisted that the center of the game be on recognizably human characters. They think of themselves as human, they act in a very human way out of human impulses. This is not to say they are the *same* as we are - they are on average smarter, more fit, more resistant to disease, and far more long-lived - but they are the baseline, and if one walked down mainstreet at noon, so-one would bat an eyelash.

What accounts for this? I mean this is in the far future in an unbelieveably advanced technology. They can be whatever they want to be! How is this justified?

Mankind is a social animal. Human society has persistence and tradition, and it also has mating rituals. It can be thought of as a kind of social gravity - the more human you appear, the better your chances of mating successfully. The less human you appear, the further out from the center you are. Thus the fringes of humanity are home to clusters of strange quasi-human mini-cultures and drifting individuals of extreme variation, while in the center is the great globe of those indistinguishable from humans.

What about putting conciousness in a machine body, or other transhumanist concepts like serial-body immortality? This can be done, but changes of body incur losses. Nothing comes without a price. The further from your base state you move, the more you lose in skills and memories, and the best equipment and highest skilled practicioners can only mitigate that loss. Some find that cost acceptable, but most don't.

So if you want a character who is a human centaur, there are several ways to do it, but in being a human centaur, you are cast adrift from the center and slowly migrate out to the fringe. Your choice.

So, the center is fixed, but the fringes are nebulous, and the question of acceptablilty is a personal choice. If one player chooses some radical variation for her character, that is fine, but the center is there - easily comprehended, somewhat idealized, but still recognizably human. Most will choose that path, based on my experience in play for many years with StarCluster 2. Is it transhumanist? That's your call.


Tuesday, July 13, 2010

StarCluster 3 Beta Playtest

I got a big chunk of work done this weekend, and SC3E is almost ready for Beta playtest. It's fully playable now, it just needs some tweaking and a couple little additions. If anyone out there is interested in playtesting it, drop me a line here or at my email address, and we'll work it all out!


Monday, July 12, 2010

Playtesting Snafus

Ran the latest alpha version of StarCluster 3 on Saturday. Klaxon was up from Florida, and was absolutely stellar as an alien plant-lizard doctor. We were using the StarRisk mechanics and hit an unexpected snag. Attempting anything with a +1 or +2 skill was ridiculously difficult! This didn't happen last time!

Then it hit me - this mechanic was intitially tested with In Harm's Way: StarCluster characters, who not only have higher attributes, but have many more Edges due to their training. What was nicely difficult for them became all but impossible for civilians. I immediately reset the difficulties, and things went fine from that point on. Stupid problem, simple fix! With the IHW:SC characters, I was more worried about the high end getting crazy. The new difficulties will work for either game now - somewhat easier for IHW:SC characters, but much more possible for SC3 characters.

The players plans to play as a medical soap - a la Gray's Anatomy - hit the immovable rock of only having one female doctor, and no female mercs. They *really* should have thought that one out! I think they will shift it more towards MASH eventually, based on last night's session...


Sunday, July 11, 2010

Sample Ship from StarCluster 3E - Showboat

This is a sample ship from StarCluster 3, a showboat, bringing plays and performances to far-flung colonies and affiliates who would otherwise never see such. The crew are mostly also performers of one type or another, pulling double duty.

The ship has a Performance Hall, seating 160 with balconies, with a Prop Room, a 2 story Stage, 5 Dressing Rooms, lighting, and sound. There are also a small Shop with souveniers, a larger Store with more substantial items for sale, a Restaurant with seating for 50, and a big Nightclub seating 100.

The ship carries no armament except for 4 Drone Lures - slow missiles which mimic the sensor signature of the showboat. Shields and armor are minimal - this ship is not meant to stand and fight. The ship is, of course, ornate and showy without being particularly comfortable. This ship masses a touch more than a loaded 747, but being made of much lighter plasteel, it is considerably larger.

Here is the ship sheet for the showboat:


Friday, July 9, 2010

One Of These Days

This is a list of games I want to write - one of these days!

In Harm's Way: Pigboats

This is a WWII submareine game. In my opinion, a submarine crew is ideal for roleplaying in general, and the IHW mechanics in particular. I've been researching it for several years. I have a bunch of resources which will help me. I have an idea of how I want to model submarine movement. This one is extremely probable, maybe after Outremer is done.

In Harm's Way: Scum of the Earth

This is a Napoleonic Army game. As time goes on, this gets less and less likely. At one time this was a sure thing, but I may never actually do it. I think when Duty and Honor came out, my enthusiasm for the project took a nosedive.


Glorianna is a StarCluster game, set on an extremely high tech planet ruled by a cloned Queen. This has been in the works for years, and I have done a *lot* of background for it, even to running two campaigns on Glorianna, but my will to do it is slowly eroding away. I think I need an enthusiastic collaborator...

The Tools of Ignorance

My baseball game. I have some ideas on how to structure this. It will be a radical extension of what I am doing now - the players will create and run their own ball club, and there will be troupe play for example - into a new area. I have wanted to do this forever. The title may change, but currently I like it. The Tools of ignorance are a catcher's equipment, and the phrase is conciously ironic, as the catcher is usually the smartest guy on the team.


Wednesday, July 7, 2010

The Uses of Caricature

One of the most useful new concepts in IHW:SC and SC3 is Cultural Traits. Each world has its own culture, and each culture has traits. The culture from Rienhart's World might be Aggressive 2, Subtle 3, Arrogant 1, and Impatient 1. This group of traits, then, represents a caricature of a person from Rienhart's World. Individuals, of course, may vary widely from this caricature. They may in fact exhibit none of these traits, but on a bell curve, these traits stand out as most representative of this culture.

This gives the Player and GM both a baseline to construct a character, NPC or PC. Rather than working cold, one can take the baseline as the default, then decide if and how the individual deviates from it. It not only helps constructing the character's personality, but also gives an indication of how that character fits into that culture. Someone with slight variations should have little problems, but someone with large differences, especially oppositional differences, might be very out of place.

- clash

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

What is a Setting?

Like "System", Setting is a word which is used all over the place when people talk about RPGs, but is very nebulous, and means different things to different people. How designers approach settings varies widely, but tends to fall in the following categories, or to combine points from a couple of these categories.

The Implied Setting

This setting is never discussed in the game book, but the way the system is set up, a fairly coherent idea of what the designers were thinking comes through. The most famous example of an Implied Setting, of course, is any form of (A)D&D.

The way an Implied Setting works is by tailoring parts of the system to produce ranges of values which only make sense when you assume a certain type of setting. Details of sych implied settings are sparse to non-existent, and need to be created by the group, either in prep or in play.

The Semi-Implied Setting

With this type of setting, an Implied Setting is given some detail or structure by the use of organizations. These organizations can be anything, but are usually semi- or fully-governmental in structure. An example of this is the original Classic Traveller setting, where the Military, Scout Service, and X-Boat system gave a greater coherence to the general run of group-made Traveller universes than is a more pure Implied Setting.

The Bare Bones Setting

A Bare Bones Setting uses some device such as a combination of maps and/or stats to give a further level of detail and uniformity to group-created settings. Perhaps, though not always, one location is given a higher level of detail as an example for the group to follow in detailing the locations given.

Setting By Fiction

Sometimes a strong sense of particular setting can be created using fiction to illustrate particular concepts and setting details, rather than using expository text. White Wolf games such as Vampire are famous for this.

The Expository Setting

This is a technique whereby the designer uses exposition to detail the setting, laying out whatever level of detail is wanted by writing text to cover that detail. Harn is a particularly detailed setting using exposition to deliver information.

Setting by Assumption

In an Assumptive Setting, the designer makes no effort to give any detail to the setting, because the setting is so well-known. Many modern and historical games such as Wild West or Espionage games assume the Real World is the setting, and anything the group can find out from widely available data and personal knowledge is true.

Setting by Exception

This technique takes the basic form of an Assumptive Setting, with a heavily detailed exception - The Wild West with zombies, or the present world with hidden magic. This is a step towards the Alt Historical Setting, but assumes the exception is singular or hidden, and doesn't actually change history.

The Alt Historical Setting

This is a form of historical or modern game where one well-defined change in the history of the game world renders it very different from our own. What if the X had happened instead of Y? How would the world we know now change? In this type of setting, only the changes in the world are detailed, the rest being Assumptive.

There are more, but these various types show the range of techniques a designer can use to create a setting.


Friday, July 2, 2010


Provoked by a post by my friend Roger Calver over on the RPGSite.

What is a roleplaying game? This depends greatly on who you are asking. Some people want to limit the definition to only include games which include certain characteristics. This is a litmus test definition, or definition by edges. The problem with definition by edges is no matter where you put the fence, there will be something that ends up straddling it.

I prefer to define by center - i.e. X is a thing like this. Thus, the definition from center for an RPG would be something like "An RPG is a game where you play a role". I think the problem with this for some people is that it lets in a lot of things they'd prefer to keep out. Fences are for keeping what is inside in and what is outside out. Borders need policing. After all, something may be slipping inside that fence!

Humans are very territorial, or at least the cultures I am familiar with are. Sometimes this idea of territoriality gets sublimated into other things not associated with real estate, like intellectual and social turf. It always comes down in the end to fear. Fear that the Other will get inside that fence and destroy what is safe and ours, like a weasel in a henhouse.

So what's to prevent that weasel getting in without the fence? Nothing. Nothing at all. Weasels can come and go as they choose. I think there is more harm in marking and patrolling that ideological fence then there is of weasels raiding the henhouse. This harm comes from bitterness, anger, and divisiveness. Each time we make a fence, we subdivide our mental landscape until we are all kings of a quarter acre. We get niggly and mean-spirited, suspicious and paranoid. I tend not to like hanging out with folks like that, personally.

You would think that we tabletop RPGers would remember how we cut off those horrble computer RPGs from our communion - after all they were different! We showed them! It was like sawing a limb off a tree - but from the wrong side.


Thursday, July 1, 2010

StarCluster 3 - Demarcadia

Here is the setup for my group's next adventure in the Alpha Playtest:

Demarcadia is a large moon of a Jovian sized gas giant fairly close in to the primary. It very Earth-like, wet and lush with vegetation, with a singularly productive soil and good deposits of ore. It is tidally locked to the Gas Giant, but as the Jovian planet is itself in orbit about the primary, there is no un-uniform heating. It was and is a perfect planet for humans to settle.

It was slated to be a target for the slow boat Prometheus in the initial wave of settlement from Earth. When first contacted by outsiders, a couple hundred years later, there were no humans on the planet, but there were a half-dozen different animals who had been uplifted into several dozen species. They spoke an English-derived language, like the humans on the Prometheus, who practiced Early 20th century American cultural emulation, but the technology level necessary to uplift these species had not been maintained one the humans were gone. The animals had managed to maintain a steam-based technology (Tech Level 5) in one area of the main continetal mass.

When asked what happened to the humans, the animals shrugged and said that they died out after producing their various species. They did not permit archaeological digs to verify this, and did not go into detail as to exactly how the humans all happened to die. It is assumed that the human culture mistreated the uplifts, and they rose in rebellion, slaughtering the humans to a man. They remain skittish of humans to this day, limiting contact severely.

In the last three hundred years, the uplifts have developed and sustained a Tech Level 6 (Internal Combustion) culture of 2.5 billion, which has spread uniformly over the entire moon. There is a planet-wide semi-government with limited powers which maintains Affiliate status with the SaVaHuTa league, with representation based on the parent species (Chords) which is subdivided into representation based on uplift species (Strings), several of which are typically derived from the same parent species. There are no territorial nations, Chords and Stringe taking that niche in the culture. The various uplift species are therefore very intermixed.

There have been wars, both inter-Chord and extra-Chord, in the recent past. Philosphy, politics, and religion are all possible flash points which may touch one off. Very recently, requests for help were recieved from Demarcadia asking for help with an epidemic which seemed to be spreading. Several volunteer groups have responded, sending in teams of specialists to help out.