Friday, March 29, 2013

Volant Released, and Other News

Volant is out the door! It's done! I heaved a vast sigh of relief at 3:00 this morning as I uploaded it to RPGNow. I have been working on this a long time. It's been a lot of hard work, and a lot of fun! Now I concentrate on Lowell Was Right, and bring along a new project. I always work on at least 2 projects at any given time. Sometimes I get stuck on something in one, and switching to the other allows me to keep writing. It also allow me to keep a tough release schedule going all by myself.

I'm starting to cook on Lowell. Deciding on Mercury as the first planet I develop allowed me to concentrate on getting that in shape for play, which will be of enormous help in fitting together the bits of the system. I find playing in a setting to be inspiration for learning what you need to cover with the system. And making a map of Mercury helped me to visualize it, and how it works!

Klaxon will be putting out LUITS! for beta playtest soon. He's just adding in some examples. If anyone is interested, let me know!


Wednesday, March 27, 2013

The Art of Indexing

Volant enters it final stage of (de)composition. I am currently working it over developing the index. I *could* just generate one, but indices really need intelligence and design. You need to prioritize what someone will be looking for, and ignore what the generated link actually says.

For example - I want to link the (made up) phrase "Creating  Surface Native Characters in Volant" into the index. By default it would be listed under C for 'creating', but no one is going to be searching for 'creating'. What they more likely will be looking for is 'chargen' or 'characters' or 'natives, surface'. I would then create an index link which would say something like "Chargen, surface native" and/or "Characters, surface native" and/or "Native, surface, creation of characters" - I say "and/or"  because it would be wise to place an obscure but likely-to-be-searched-for rule under more than one pertinent topic.

Indices take hard work, time, and understanding of the way people are likely to use the book to be properly functional. All my pdf indices are hyperlinked, as are my Tables of Contents, though pdfs are by default searchable anyway. People who prefer looking through indices will use the index, and those who prefer web-style searching will use the built-in Find function. However I also sell print books. A print version of a pdf cannot be hyperlinked, nor is there a Find function. That leaves the old fashioned Index with page references the only way to find anything.

Of course, there is a side benefit to creating a proper index. The index phrase "Chargen, surface native" would be right beside all other character generation information, and searching for one will uncover them all, even if you aren't looking for it, and that is always handy for developing ideas. "Hey! I forgot all about the people who live on the surface! That would be cool to explore!"

So I am manually combing through the book, looking for useful trigger phrases, and creating best-use index phrasing to optimize searching, both focused and serendipitous. I'm no S. John Ross on index creating - read Rembrandt or Shakespeare or Lennon or whatever great artist suits your fancy - but I do try. This will take a few days...


Monday, March 25, 2013

More on Lowell's Mercury

After discussing things with my co-designer Albert Bailey, I made some modifications to Mercury. The Sunward Oceans - now plural - circle the globe just sunward of the inhabited lands, and in places deeply penetrating them. These seas are hypersaline, and their sunward shores are indefinite, depending greatly on seasonal variables. It is impossible to sail completely around the globe on them, as there are places where connections do not exist, but these areas are comparatively narrow, and all rivers empty into them. (I had to move them Darkwards, otherwise because of their bright reflections, they would be distinctly visible from Earth by 1880.)

Humans are more tolerant of heat than Martians, and one will tend to find more Martians the further  one goes Darkward. Darkward of the normal 5 degree line of habitation, there are isolated areas where geothermal heat keeps areas clear of snow and ice throughout the "winter"; while there are also isolated areas Sunward of the Oceans where local conditions permit permanent habitations. There are also nomadic peoples - Human to sunward and Martian to Darkward - who subsist in seasonally available areas where permanent habitation is not possible.

Culturally, the Mercurians are wholly Martian, the Humans having been snatched up as slaves from Earth in our prehistory or early history, but who have long since gained their freedon, and are thoroughly integrated into the core Martian culture. Mercurians are organized into typical Martian-style "Houses". The so-called "Great Houses" are all headed by Martians - Great Houses are distinguished by being formed before the departure of colonists to Mercury - and the vastly more numerous "Lesser Houses" are those formed on Mercury, which may be either Martian or Human at the head. In any case, "Great" or "Lesser" does not refer to House wealth - many Lesser Houses are much richer than many Great Houses - but to House Tradition and Ancestry.The Heads of the Houses effectively rule Mercury, with an executive called the Greatest One, and called the "Doge" by earth humans, elected from within the Great Houses who judges all disputes between Houses and controls all off-world trade.

Mercurian Humans have strongly adapted to Mercury, as Martian Humans have to Mars. They are, like Martians and Martian Humans, tall and willowy, with greater chests and much higher lung capacity than Earth or Venusian Humans. They are recognizably human otherwise, and  able, with difficulty, to cross-breed. Mercurian Martians, on the other hand, are much like those on Mars, as the surface gravity and thin atmosphere are very much the same on both planets.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Lowell's Mercury

I'm going to use Mercury as a testbed for Lowell Was Right!. Mars and Venus would be too close to pulpy, because the underlying assumptions were those of late 19th century science, as most of the pulp authors were raised and educated under those assumptions. Mercury, however, was seldom discussed in Pulp fiction, so I think I am am safer in getting the feel right.

Lowell's Mercury will be tidally locked to the sun. This was the understood opinion until 1965, when radar returns indicated it had a 3:2 rotational resonance. Its orbit is extremely non-circular, giving it "seasons" with a perihelion summer and aphelion winter. We are assuming a standard oxy-nitrogen atmosphere generated by the life on the planet. In order to retain a significant atmosphere, Mercury would have to be denser than Mars, so a high proportion of metals to silicates and a large metallic core are reasonable.

The atmosphere mitigates both the extreme heat of the Sunward side and the extreme cold of the Darkward side, with strong air currents moving cold air from the Darkward side close over the surface to the Sunward side, with high hot currents moving hot air back to the dark. These winds would be constantly blowing from Darkward to Sunward, with no coriolis forces to twist them. They would also be very strong.

Water circulation would be meltwater from the glaciers and icecap on the dark side. These would accumulate in a bitterly salty sea on the Sunward side and evaporated into the hot atmosphere. The high, hot winds rushing Darkward would start to precipitate water out starting near the terminator as the air cooled.

A belt of land extending from about 15 degrees Sunward of the equator/terminator to about 5 degrees Darkward would be habitable, about 450-600 kilometers wide. Meltwater rivers would come down from Darkward and wind through the belt into the hot lands further Sunward,  where they would reach the bitter ocean, or evaporate.

Mercury was colonized long ago by the Martians, as the gravity was congenial. The higher plants and all animals on Mercury were brought by them either from Mars, or from Earth or Venus. The Martians on Mercury were left to their own devices when the Martians retreated to Mars during the Troubles, and are consequently far less hidebound than those on Mars. There are humans as well, all servants of the Martian Great Houses, or travelers from Earth.


Friday, March 15, 2013

It Was A Dark And Stormy Night...

... over the mountains of Borneo, and while it wasn't raining over the Makassar Strait, the clouds had solidly blocked the moon and stars. The only light was the fireworks from port as the Pike ran at flank speed north northeast up the strait. The Pike had Lifeguard duty for a carrier raid on Davao in the Philippines, and the sub was running out of time. They had a mere six hours in hand before they were scheduled to take part in the carrier raid.

The XO, Lt. Bob Vaugirard, was Officer of the Deck. They had cleared Balikpapan, the big Borneo oil port, an hour before. Now they could just barely make the Makassar run all the way on the surface, if they ran at their fastest speed and stayed on the surface an hour past dawn. The lightning flickered and crashed on Bob's left as he scanned the sea ahead and to each side. There was a cry from the port lookout. He thought he had seen smoke - three separate streams - in the last lightning flash.

The XO scanned the port horizon from the Cigarette Deck rail. Nothing. He climbed up to the lookout's perch - a small steel plate for the feet, and a steel hoop at chest height welded to the periscope shears, holding the lookouts aloft eight feet above the bridge deck  - as the lookout hung on off the side. There, in a jagged flash of lightning, the XO saw three towers of smoke as well.

Bob climbed down and looked at the charts. the chances were overwhelming that these were tankers loaded with sweet Borneo crude out of Balikpapan. The most likely route after transiting the strait was north to the Sulu Sea and on to Hong Kong, Manilla, or Japan. The Borneo crude was so sweet the Japs burned it straight from the ground without refining, so the other possibility was east to the Palaus and eventually Truk in the Carolines, Japan's main base, the Gibraltar of the Pacific.

He ordered the course altered from north northeast to due north, a route converging slightly with the convoy's route rather than paralleling it. As the convoy and sub neared, the lookout saw what might be the tall thin stacks of an older destroyer escorting them. The sub was also passing the convoy. Bob ordered the sub down to decks awash - a state where the decks were just at water level, with the waves breaking on the conning tower shearwater - slowing the speed from 19 to 14 knots, and reducing the silhouette of the sub to the size of a fishing boat.

The skipper had slept through the change in route, but came awake as the Pike slowed and wallowed through the lightly choppy seas. He came up on the bridge, and the XO outlined what he had seen and done. The skipper rapidly built a situational map in his head. They discussed various courses of action - the XO was nervous about missing the lifeguard appointment, and was trying to lose as little time as possible on this side excursion. The skipper was more sanguine, and brushed aside the XO's concerns. Those fat, sassy tankers guarded by a fast but lightly armed old destroyer were calling his name seductively.

The skipper decided. They would go in for the kill. They altered course again, to NNE, converging more sharply with the convoy yet. They rapidly neared. The Skipper decided he needed a better idea of the disposition of the convoy, so he went aloft himself, up to the port lookout station. The poor man once again dangled from the hoop, his toes on the platform, a line clipped to his harness his only margin of safety.

The skipper was a man of astonishing clarity of vision - skilled in interpreting the slightest hints of structure - and he rolled five successes, a masterwork. A big flash of lightning gave him a wealth of information. There were four big tankers in two columns, ranging from 7000 to 10000 tons, wallowing deep, and filled with sweet Borneo crude. Racing up the starboard side was the tall tacks of an older type destroyer. This was what he expected. What he did not expect was the presence of another, new type destroyer trailing the convoy, and two fast, well armed frigates - one leading the convoy and the other racing along the other side.

He called for another course change - hard to starboard. The Pike had almost run into a buzzsaw. The tempting convoy was too strongly protected. The Pike was an older sub, with only four torpedo tubes forward and two aft. The Skipper felt sure he could take care of one destroyer, and maybe another escort too, but two destroyers and two fast frigates were too much. The Pike ran to the east, now far behind schedule. Their six hours in hand had dwindled to a half hour, because they couldn't run the strait on the surface any more. They would have to dive early, going from 19 knots to two knots submerged, long before they got to the end of the strait.

Unlike the other encounters, which were randomly rolled, I sculpted this one to tempt the Pike away from its mission. The bad, intermittent visual conditions allowed me to very gradually ramp up their awareness of the danger. If the Skipper hadn't made a spectacular success in discerning the structure of the convoy, I might have sent the Pike to the bottom. The trap worked perfectly. The Pike is teetering on the edge of missing its rendezvous, and cannot allow any other distractions until their duty is performed. Even then they may not make it - the edge is that razor thin. The stakes are now very high indeed!

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Star Worm - Second Playtest

I ran Volant last night with the StarWorm resolution mechanics, and it went *much* better! The secret was keeping in mind Klaxon's advice to set the neutral position - that is the point where all dangers are bought off but no options purchased - at what the PC wanted to accomplish. This gave me a starting place for setting the stakes, so that dangers could be set lower and options higher.

For example, one of the Players might set his PC's expectations low in a fight against a dangerous beast - "I want to get a wound on the monster" - but another might set his PC's expectations higher - "I want to kill that thing". When you set the stakes for the first player character, the center is lower, so there would be more opportunity than danger, i.e. "You MIGHT get a serious Wound. You MIGHT get a light Wound. You MIGHT miss. You COULD give the monster another light Wound." Setting the stakes for the second player shifts the center upwards, i.e. "You MIGHT die. You MIGHT get a heavy Wound. You MIGHT get a serious Wound. You MIGHT get a light Wound." Notice that there are no Options, as he went for the best result as his default.

The other thing is to properly assess the risk. Perhaps the monster is very deadly - increase the dangers! Perhaps the jump is easy to make, but there are possibilities beyond mere success - decrease the danger but increase the opportunity! If it's too easy, and no real opportunity, don't bother rolling.

The players were mixed as to whether they *liked* it. The setting of stakes takes place on a meta-level, and slows down the action. This yanks some people out of immersion. They did like how it worked on a conflict resolution level though, as those are very difficult to run with most task oriented resolution mechanics. StarWorm handled them smoothly, and scaling appropriately was child's play. Several players remarked that the ideal solution would be to hybridize StarWorm with StarPool, as they both used the same dice and same TNs, using StarPool for task resolution (and keeping those deeply immersed players in immersion) while using StarWorm for conflict resolution. They all agreed it worked very well on either scale, even if they didn't particularly care for it - someone else might find it perfect. They felt the same way about StarKarma, the randomless resolution mechanic.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

The Hunter is Hunted

In Monday night's In Harm's Way: Pigboats game, the hunter became the hunted.

It was forty minutes to sundown, and the sun was over the tops of the mountains of Borneo as the USS Pike came up to periscope depth at the entrance to the Makassar Strait between Borneo and Celebes (Sulawesi). The Pike needed an early start to run the 300 mile strait in one night on the surface. The Skipper looked around with the 'scope, seeing nothing. The boat came up a bit further, just high enough for the SD radar mast to be exposed, thus exposing the periscope shears. Lt. jg O'Grady scanned the sky for planes with the radar. There was something - either very far out or a glitch of some sort. No way of telling, but no immediate threat.

The Skipper was about to order the boat surfaced, when O'Grady decided on a hydrophone sweep. Why? I don't know. That is not standard procedure. They were looking for planes - the skipper had already looked for ships in the vicinity, and it was clear. The player later said he had a feeling - the Pike had hit that convoy hard, and this was a logical route for an American sub, a perfect place for an ambush. There were the faint, whispery sounds of two screws, and the faint hum of vibrating wires in the water. No sound of engines.

"Sir! I think there's a sub out there! 30 degrees to port. Close!"

"Hold off on the surfacing! Can you get me a range?"

"It's real faint, sir. If I ping him, he'll know we see him."

"What can you do?"

"If we can wait a bit, I can get a new bearing for a parallax, and I know his speed. That should give me a good range."

Retry. "Sir? By the revs of his screws, he's making about three knots. That places him at about 1500 yards. I think he's waiting for us to cross his bows, sir. Give him a fifteen degree angle on the bow."

Skipper to XO: "Set me on that bearing. Our periscopes are nice and high - I should get a good look."


"OK! I see him! Bearing... Mark! Speed, three knots! Angle on the bow 15, Range one-five-oh-oh. Ready all tubes forward, but we'll use tubes one and three."

"Ready all tubes!"

"Shoot on my mark"

"Sir! His screws have stopped!"

"He's getting ready to fire! Replot! Speed zero! Fire One! Fire Three! Rudder hard a-port!"

"One and three away, sir! Both fish running hot, straight, and normal!"

Hydrophones: "Fish in the water! I hear two fish coming at us!"

Over the periscope, the skipper watches as both of the Pike's fish hit the submarine dead center, flinging the debris high and far. One of the Japanese torpedoes misses forward, evidently set for where they would have been if they continued straight. The other burrowed through the waves right at the Pike - aimed for where they might be if they slowed or turned.

"Luckily" said the skipper's player, using a LUCK point, "the torpedo's rudder sticks, and it turns past us."

The Japanese fish ran past the side of the sub. Everyone breathed a sigh of relief.

"Reload  tubes one and three, and prepare to surface!"

Sunday, March 3, 2013

StarWorm Playtest

We playtested the StarWorm mechanic last night with Volant, and it didn't go well. It wasn't because the mechanic didn't work, which was as expected, nor that the players didn't grok it, which surprised me. They had no problem handling it.. That all went fine. It went roughly because I was having a tough time setting the stakes properly. The key is, as we hashed out after the game, to make the neutral position - which is all dangers bought off, but no opportunities gained - what the PC wants to do. I kept setting the stakes wrong, with no good neutral stake in play. This made things awkward and difficult. It worked well the two times I set the stakes properly, but not when I didn't.

Other problems were as expected. The two most immersive players, who visualize everything in their heads, had some trouble backing to a slightly less immersive stance to handle the stake setting. Klax suggested it would play better with minis and a grid, which surprised me, but made sense. The shifting between task and conflict resolution, and the use of the stakes to avoid rolling for the opposition, all worked swimmingly.

We decided to try again next week. Hopefully, I can learn from my mistakes, and bring the awesome I know is in this mechanic!


Friday, March 1, 2013


Volant will be published this month. I got enough feedback from a few beta testers to go ahead with it. I just need to test the new resolution mechanic (StarWorm) and the trading minigame in-play.

Klaxon will release Look! Up In The Sky! very soon for Beta Testing. It needs more illos, but it's been awesome so far in Alpha Test. If you are interested, let me know.

I got some great responses to my posts about Lowell Was Right. I'm working on CharGen now, later on I'll be working on some setting. It's an odd duck, and probably will be a dismal financial sink, but I love the premise. The thing is, people keep thinking it's going to be Pulp, and it's not. Pulp SF comes from the same sources - nineteenth century scientific gestalt - but it will be treated as hard Science Fiction. Currently, I am working on Skill Trees - graphic representations of characters' professional templates and how they interrelate. Chargen will be by stacking templates, as it is in Volant.

After that? Maybe In Harm's Way: Tank! or In Harm's Way: Frozen Chosin, or maybe a Blood Games II game set in the Vietnam War. I have a lot of ideas...