Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Spruiking - Flogging - Plugging

Spruiking AKA Flogging AKA Plugging is a distasteful act performed by publishers of small press games. It's distasteful because it's obviously self-interested, and the motive behind the spruik is pecuniary. When the exact same thing is done by a fan, it's much less distasteful, because though the spruik may be self-interested - after all, the more copies of Game X out there, the wider the potential player pool - it isn't pecuniary - the benefit is non-monetary.

I hate spruiking my games. Really, really hate it. On the other hand, I'm not stupid. I know this is the only way I have of putting the name out there, letting people know that the game exists, and is potentially worth looking at. Banner ads on fora are pretty much useless. Gamers have learned to ignore them, and/or they are blocked by software. Reviews are only useful if the gamer looks at the list of reviews AND the gamer knows the game exists. Spruiking is for name recognition. Letting gamers know there is a game called "X" out there is half the battle.

So I spruik. I try my best to make it the least-objectionable spruik that I can - sort of like murdering people in the most painless way, I suppose - to salve my concience. I only spruik if the original poster (OP) is looking for something like what I am spruiking. I try to recommend other games by other designers that I like that also meet the OP's criteria. I delete the spruik if the OP does not like it, or has obviously read the thread up to that point and didn't mention it. Sometimes I yank the spruik too fast - occasionally the OP or another poster actually requests that I give some links after the spruik has been yanked. If someone actually asks, I happy to talk about it.

Sometimes, if the OP is just too vague, I don't spruik. Sometimes this is intentional - the OP is asking for very general info. Other times the OP was just too confusing or incoherent, and I ask for clarification before I spruik.

Sometimes I yank a spruik because someone even HINTS that it is objectionable, even if it's just a follow on poster in the thread. I'm REALLY sensitive about it, because I feel horribly guilty whenever I do it, and it is very, very easy for me to believe I have offended someone by spruiking.

I call this "Stealth Marketing" in self mockery, and it's a major cause of my utter anonymity as a designer after almost a decade of publishing. Most other publishers have no problem spruiking away, in any thread, whether or not it's in the least germaine, but for me, each and every time I do it, no matter how warranted, I feel another bleeding slice of my soul shrivel up and die.


Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The Setting of In The Beginning

One of the things I have been thinking of is a sharp bifurcation of space travel. If you have to get there fast, a fusion torch ship is the way to go. Military, fast freight, and wealthy passengers all would use a torch ship. On the other hand, there's stuff moving in the system that doesn't have to get there fast at all - slow freight, bulk cargo, and steerage passengers - which could use some combination of electrothermal water jets, ion engines, or solar sails. Many of these slow ships could use robotics, and passengers travelling in cold sleep with slowed down metabolisms.

Mercury has two resources, abundant sun and metals. There would be power stations in orbit, and teleoperated/robotic mining on the surface, with the operators on the power stations.

Venus is settled by aerostat cities which are locked into the level of Earth pressure - currently 50 km up. They are basically huge ceramic balloons riding in the sweet spot of the Venusian atmosphere. They are also sowing the seeds of tehir own obsolescense - they are seeding the atmosphere with tailored bacteria which is slowly fixing carbon, sulphur, and nitrogen into the surface, and liberating oxygen and water. This is thinning the atmosphere while making it more earthlike. The dead bacteria will also eventually build up a biotic soil. It's a project hundreds of years in duration, but someday, the people of the aerostats look forward to their descendants living on a cooler, life-rich surface.

Earth orbit is crowded and busy. Billions on Earth and tens of millions on habitats and orbitals and the lunar sub-surface. Earth is in a warmer, wetter climate phase, and abundant power from fusion and solar power satellites means it's getting warmer as well as richer. Population has stabilized after the Birthright Bounty became widespread - by giving up one's right to reproduce, one can buy a fairly comfortable lifestyle with no need to work. Otherwise, each person is allowed to reproduce himself or herself, and some are allotted more - the birthrights of those on the Bounty - for special merit. So Earth rides in the center of a web of trade and information, supported beyond its own means by the civilization of the entire system. Besides, Earth has a beanstalk, and even though it's down at the bottom of a gravity well, it's easy to climb out.

Mars is mostly orbitals. Only science teams are allowed on planet, as the discovery of native Martian life - bacteria and other primitive creatures - put an end to plans for development. Only a few hundred people live on the surface, but hundreds of thousands more live in orbit. Mars orbit is the gateway to the outer system, and the center of its own web of trade.

The Belt is well settled - particularly the dwarf planet Ceres, with its utter overflowing abundance of water. Mining concerns in the rest of the Belt sling their semi-processed ore to Ceres via robotic slow freight, where it is refined, alloyed, and manufactured into everything the system needs. Many rocks have been settled, particularly mined out rocks, and more manufacturing takes place on them and in their neighborhoods.

Jupiter's moons have also been settled - at least the ones outside the lethal band of Jovian radiation. The Jovian settlements are younger than those around Mars or on Venus, though older than those further out, so the societies are an interesting mix of frontier and civilization. One of the biggest assets the moons have is lying on the edge of huge gravity well, which is used for slingshotting and braking, so slow freight is faster and cheaper here than elsewhere in the system.

The moons of Saturn are more recently settled, and smaller than the Jovians, but Titan is a fascinating world, and the rings are just gorgeous, making for a surprising amount of tourism despite the high price tag. The cultures are much more frontier than on the Jovians, though some luxury hotels in orbit are as civilized as it can get.

Past Saturn, settlement thins way out. There are probably more people in the Kuiper Belt beyond Pluto than there are around Uranus and Neptune. This is the real frontier. Past Saturn, most anything goes.


Monday, March 28, 2011

In The Beginning, and Deadly Mermaids

I have decided to provisionally name the project I have been calling the "Pre-Cluster" as "StarCluster 3: In The Beginning". I like that name - it's got a good ring to it. I'm setting it in 2240 AD, about ten years before the problem that led to the Diaspora was detected.

I started my In Harm's Way: Napoleonic Naval game on IRC last week. This is my Sunday Morning group. Last week's game was a meet and greet thing. This week we really began play in earnest. The day began on Lieutenant Alex Sinclaire's cutter, the Imp, in Bridgetown harbor, Barbados. The Imp had been caught in a hurricane near the Bahamas along with her sister ship the Afrit, and had come in last week late. The Afrit never showed at all. Alex had anchored the Imp at a Bahamian cay and performed some immediate repairs, enough to get the Imp to Bridgetown, but the Imp looked haggard, and the rigging was spliced like crazy, so it needed some permanent fixing.

Alex got line and paint from the Navy Yard at Bridgetown, but the paint was thinned with oil and the line was mostly old and used, hidden under new rope on the surface. Alex' Bos'n's Mate, Grim, noticed it and brought the gray old hemp and paint to his attention. Alex realized the yard had jobbed him, selling off the new stuff for a hefty profit to merchants on the black market. He detailed Grim, Midshipman Bobby, and Marine John Kent (All PCs, along with Alex) along with half a dozen seamen to make things right. As this was an entirely extra-legal proposition, he phrased his orders in hints - if you should chance to walk through the Navy Yard tonight, you might want to pick up a few odds and ends, and you might as well bring this rot back, so they won't be inconvenienced by an inventory discrepancy. Oh! And should any guards there happen to have an accident while drunk, it wouldn't be any skin off his nose, etc. - and a nod's as good as wink.

Midshipman Bobby took the cutter that night with the crew, and they rowed over the harbor to somewhere near the Navy Yard pier. She - Midshipman Bobby is a 16 year old girl masquerading as a 16 year old boy, BTW - ordered Grim and Kent, who were good swimmers, to swim in and take care of the guards quietly, and she and the boat would come in in ten minutes. Kent and Grim swam up silently - Grim underwater and Kent using a quiet breaststroke - and got under the pier. overhead they heard two guards chatting, Jack and Will. Jack and Will had heard some soft splashing and were thinking there might be turtles, and as turtles were delicious, they were hoping to catch one. They were bored, but talked about a "soft retirement" indicating they were in on the black market dealings.

Grim swam to where he heard Wills voice coming from and spotted him, leaning on a bollard at the side of the pier. Unfortunately, Will spotted Grim at the same time. He also failed his intelligence check miserably and shouted for Jack to come and see a mermaid under the pier. Jack, of course, came runnign up to the edge to see for himself. At this point, Grim leapt up and, grabbing Jack's ankles, yanked him into the water. Kent climbed up on the other side of the pier, coverd by Jack's splashing and yelling. Will tossed Jack a line and was hauling him up when Kent hit Will on the temple with the flat of his hatchet from behind. Unfortunately, it was just a grazing blow. Grim climbed up as he turned back to see who struck him, and got Will in a choke hold from behind until he collapsed, unconcious.

Meanwhile, Poor Jack was drowning, splashing and calling for help, then gurgling and falling silent. Kent dove in with a line and started to tie it around Jack's waist when Grim threw a heavy lignum vitae block at Jack, hitting him on the head and pushing him under. Kent was aghast, but Jack was surely dead. He climbed back onto the pier as Grim cut the line holding Jack by the waist to the bollard, tied another heavy block to it, and tossed it into the harbor. "Captain said to leave no witnesses." said Grim. He pointed to Will and said. "Alls he saw was a mermaid. Mermaids pull sailors in an' drown 'em. Happens all the time."

By now, the boat was coming in with Midshipman Bobby and the other sailors. They tied up and started unloading the old crap they had been foisted. Bobby asked Grim and Kent for a report, Grim said "That one there is unconcious and didn't see nothin' but the other fella drowned, accident like." Kent said nothing, white faced and staring. Bobby got them going, switched the rotten stuff for good stores, added in an extra crate of muskets for good measure, and then poured rum all over sleeping Will, leaving the bottle in his hands as they left.

Obviously, Grim had misinterpreted his Captain's hints as license to murder. The question is what will come out? How wil lthey all handle it? Kent is scared, Bobby is suspicious, there's a body tied to a heavy block in the harbor, an extra case of muskets is missing, Will saw a mermaid and there is at least a bruise on his temple. Will they be found out? Things await next week to be resolved.

I love it when the PCs create their own problems! :D


Friday, March 25, 2011

Playing a Playtest For Once

I played in a playtest of Tim Kirk's Derelict Delvers last night, and had a great time! DD is a sort of SF play on dungeon crawling, pretending to be an old SF game with several edition - thie is Edition Delta, BTW - and a magazine called the Delver. Kind of an Encouter Critical thing, without actually attempting to really convince you. The system is not old school though. Tim tried that, and stalled for a long time on it. Then he chucked that approach entirely and went with a much more modern approach, and the results will speak for themselves - it was definitely the way to go!

Chargen was by layered templates, like Tools of Ignorance. Select a species, and that gives you a stat template. Select a profession for a skill template. Then grab a gear package, and you are good to go. Then you select Traits - kind of midway between SC 3's Personality Traits and FATE's Aspects. They are worded like Aspects - "Shot a Gnat Through a Keyhole" or "Sermon From Heaven, Haymaker From Hell" were two of mine - but they work more like Personality Traits, giving you a bonus die to roll when invoked, and only invokable if they fit the situation. There was some confusion over how many you get, but that is the kind of thing you catch in playtesting. You can put Traits on yourself or on your Gear, as you choose. We all spent more time on Traits than the rest of Chargen put together.

You are all agents of ARCHIVE, which is an acronym for a commercial organization that trains and preps you to explore artifacts of the Ancients, those various species that conquered the galaxy long ago, but are now gone. Now you explore strange structures and bizarre spacehips, kill things, and take their stuff back to ARCHIVE to earn rewards.

Resolution was by rolling d210+Stat+Skill, roll over TN. If you invoke a Trait, you can roll an extra die, but only the top 2 count. You drop the lowest die roll. Very very simple, very straightforward. The game feel was pulpy but serious, without that over the top feel some pulp games have. DD plays it's pulp straight, and I really prefer that.

In the game we ended up on a huge spaceship - about 5km by 5 km - which had burst at high speed into the system, heading directly for an orbital habitat with hundreds of thousands of sapients. When I say "on a spaceship", I mean literally on it, standing on the skin, and cutting into it with a mining tool. We are trying to wrest control of the thing from whatever is piloting it now, so that we will miss the habitat. So, next week we will see what we will see!


Wednesday, March 23, 2011

And Now For Something We Hope You Really Like!

I've decided. After Outremer, I will be working on the following, more or less simultaneously:

The Pre-Cluster

This is a setting for StarCluster 3, our solar system before anyone knew of the coming catastrophe, and before any slowboats were sent towards the Cluster. There is an extrasolar colony around Alpha Centauri, and ships heading to a couple of other places, but they will be totally peripheral to the setting, about as important as "What's Happening Today in Antarctica!" is among most people today. Fusion drive is available, but not Matter/Anti-Matter. Antimatter can be produced, but can't be safely handled before the slowboats get to the Cluster, set up colonies, and begin to research gravitics.

So, many of the worlds of the Solar System will be settled to varying degrees, and travel between them will be by constant thrust fractional G fusion torch drive ships. The first generation of uplifts will be available, as well as primitive robots, a few of which will be sapient, though no one knows why. The system will be under the overall authority of the UN, though nation states will still be very important. Politics will roil beneath the skim ice of a public accord. Sapient slavery will be a hot topic of debate, though nothing will be decided. Different people will have different ideas on the status of Uplifts and sapient robots, and some ugly things will be done.

Res Publica

I think I will finally get to work with Bill Corrie of Hinterwelt on this project. Res Publica is an historical game set in the later Roman republic. It will probably be using a custom system - right now I'm thinking a d20 dice pool, with Skill+1 dice, using the highest and adding stat for resolution, and using the lowest for hit placement in combat. I'm thinking of maybe adding the opponent's skill-1 to that number too - which may work out nicely to simulate the fact that a good hit would depend on the opening you are given, and skilled oppenents give you less of a chance to nail a vital area. Damage would be margin of success plus a modifier for the weapon, applied to the area hit.


Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Humanity, Speciesization, and Sexual Selection in Space

Yep! I'm talking rampant transhumanism again. There are a lot of games out there that assume or promote Transhumanism. Like all "*isms", it creates "*ists" - thanks, Brad! - meaning it becomes a philosphical/political/religious party in effect, with consequent followers, ideology, and ideologues. I have no problem with basic Transhuman concepts - that technology will enable modification of humans into many, many different shapes and forms, and even formats - as machine intelligences are no longer a biological format at all.

As a writer of SF RPGs, it is not only probably practical - far more so than FTL travel, for example - but it makes for engaging RPG play. I have built many a campaign on the meaning of the word "human" in one way or another; robot characters, designer species, radically morphed bodies, etcetera - are they human? Should they be treated as humans legally? Morally? Ethically? Is slavery of another species wrong? What is slavery when applied to non-baseline humans? How will people treat radical morphs? Lots of great RPG fodder there!

So does that make me a Transhumanist? No. That is an ideological position, and like all ideologues, Transhumanist ideologues assume that everyone is really like them. They assume that given the choice, the bulk of humanity would choose radical physical change. I disagree with that position. I think that given the choice, the vast majority of humans will opt to be smarter, fitter, and sexier humans. Only a small percentage will opt for radical physical change, especially radical *visible* change.

Why? Basic human wiring. Most humans prefer the company of people pretty much like themselves. They may find other shapes interesting, even pretty, but not mate-material, and mating is a basic human condition. Look at how long it took us to even consider people of other races of humans as mate-material! People who diverge too much from the standard human plan would be a different species, and different species are not for mating - for perpetuating the line, for having children. First of all, they may be too far from the norm to produce viable offspring. Second, any such offspring would of necessity be like both parents, and thus consided a freak from both sides. Sexual selection would push towards the mean, to the human baseline and away from the edges.

On the other side of the question, even that small proportion of humanity that would love to take radicallly different forms could not possibly agree on a single form. Each would be sexually isolated from the others as well as from baseline humanity, and they woudl be in far smaller numbers. The proportion of neophiles to neophobes in humanity is very small, and while anyone who would want to radically change away from the humaniform plan would by definition be a neophile, not all neophiles would want to change this way.

I would expect any human society capable of Transhuman transfiguaration to be structured as a huge clump of baseline humans, with that baseline significantly higher than our current baseline, with a smaller envelope of somewhat different - but not too different - almost baselines. Outside that there would be a fringe of radical neo-morphs, mostly singles and one-offs, and finally small clumps of successful designs who had enough "subscribers" to make a viable population, mostly those designed for colonizing worlds not viable - either economically or physically - for terraforming.

As for changing to other formats, I don't really think that's viable. I think Machine Intelligences will be designed as MIs, whether robotic or discorporate, not humans who were scanned and "uploaded". Scanning on a level sufficient to reconstitute a whole persona would of necessity be totally destructive and probably, by the nature of being machines, not really very human at the end of it all. Voluntarily choosing to be discorporated and reconstituted in another form requires one to effectively be suicidal, with no guarantee that the other form is really a continuation in any way of what is really you. It is effectively death and a possible afterlife, and thus a matter of religion, not science.


Thursday, March 17, 2011

Set the Way Back Machine for 1985, Sherman!

I am a Neophile. I like new things, new approaches, new concepts, new methods.

I am a Traditional RPG designer. I prefer working within the traditional paradigms of RPG design.

How do I reconcile this?

There is a definite tendancy for folks to equate Traditional design with "more of the same" - using only what has been done before, going back to the way it has always been done, looking only to the past for inspiration. Set the Way Back Machine for 1985, Sherman! This is a wrong way of looking at it. Setting the Way Back Machine to pre-2000 will always return a Traditional RPG, but not all Traditional RPGs are a result of Sherman's and Peabody's forays. It's like saying all members of the Cosa Nostra are Italian, so all Italians are members of the Cosa Nostra. There is a confusion of cause and effect at work which is insidious.

Traditional design is based upon several core concepts. If these concepts are held to, the result will be a Traditional design, no matter whether the means by which they are accomplished have been done before. Think about it - there would be no innovation, ever, otherwise! Some RPGs are extremely innovative - The original D&D of course, but also Traveller, Ars Magica, and Pendragon. They all worked within the Trad envelope, and stretched that envelope greatly with their innovations. Traditional Core Concepts are:

  • The players act upon the setting only through the medium of their characters. Characters are the player interface to work in the setting.

  • There is a Game Master who controls all non-player characters and the inanimate aspects of the setting through some combination of Fiat, Random Chance, and/or straight Comparison.

  • The characters can affect the setting - it is not static, but responds to the player characters' efforts once play begins.

  • The Game Master may modify the rules for various reasons - to better reflect the setting, to better reflect the particular gaming desires of the group, to cover cases where the rules are unclear or lacking, and the like.
If the game works within the parameters of these Core Concepts, it's a Traditional design. Anything else may be changed.

This leaves a huge amount of room for a designer to tinker, and that area has not nearly been exploited to the maximum.

Now there are roleplaying games which are not Traditional designs, and that's cool. I have no problem with that - in fact I regularly read non-Traditional games for inspiration on different ways to approach my own Traditional goals. And though I don't personally have "story" as a goal, one can certainly have story as a goal with a completely Traditional design. That has been done since the beginning of RPGs, whether or not the game is designed with that as a goal, because that's what some groups want.

As a designer of Traditional RPGs, I want to push that envelope. I want to trample the notion that one cannot innovate within the Traditional paradigm into the dust. I want to challenge and overthrow the notion that traditional means hopping into the Way Back Machine with Peabody and Sherman.


Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Recent Doings

I'm back from vacation, and back to work on Outremer. Albert Bailey is now working with me on the game, and he suggested a Dervish Path of Power based on traditional Sufi miracles, which looks very cool. He has also taken charge of the Islam religion section, making a bunch of excellent improvements. Playtesting will resume next weekend!

Also, my Sunday IRC game finished its StarCluster 3 campaign with a bang. We are moving to In Harm's Way: Napoleonic Naval in a continuation of the on-going game we have been playing. This game started in the game year 1795. Four years later, we are at the year 1800. Last year, 1799, the group managed to stop the plan to stop the plan to name Napoleon as the Mahdi with some intense on-land espionage and on-sea combat, and as a result, Arty has been promoted to Master and Commander, and has been given command of a flotilla of tiny ships in the Caribbean - captained by the PCs - and ordered to halt piracy and French privateering in the Caribbean. This campaign is starting up next week.

We also met with Rich Rogers - AKA Orklord - his wife Kerry, and son Donovan for dinner at T-Rex in Orlando. This is a restaurant by the same gang that brought us Rainforest Cafe, only this time featuring dinosaurs. Donovan judged it a big hit! Kerry and I discovered we share a very rare food allergy, and Rich and I talked baseball and games, both true loves for us, and all had a great time! Rich runs the Cannon Puncture podcast, and I did an interview with him for it over Skype, my first foray into podcasts, the week before we went down to Florida. They were in town to catch a Yankees game, but I forgive Rich. :D


Tuesday, March 1, 2011

More on mapping tools into the character level

I'm here in Orlando Florida, visiting my son Klaxon. So far we are having a lot of fun - went to the Kennedy Space Center yesterday, and we'll be taking in a couple of spring training games and meeting up with orklord next week.

Some time ago, I posted that IMO, a key to good traditional design is making all the player operated in-game tools map to something about the character. This is why one doesn't lose immersion while rolling to hit. In the game world, that roll is the character using a weapon. You can project that to less concrete examples - in many of my games, Personality Traits are part of the character - If a character is using his Hotheaded 2 Trait, he's losing his temper in a profitable way. Similarly if he has the Edge Night 1, he has special training or other experience using the cover of night to his benefit.

It seems to me at least that when there is no such mapping, the use of a player tool becomes jarring, because it has no equivalent mapped ability in the game world - the player must handle it at the player level rather than the character level. Where there is no tool too use, this is not a problem, as in many games where social interaction is done without any mechanic. Since no tool is used, the player stays at character level, engaging directly with the game world.

Just interesting stuff, I think!