Tuesday, April 30, 2013

The Best Laid Plans!

In last night's Pigboats game, the USS Pike received a radio transmission from Fremantle while off the eastern coast of Mindanao. It was of course, coded, but when the signals officer decoded it, it turns out that part of it was still encoded. He brought it to the Skipper, who immediately recognized it as an ULTRA message.

Now Ray Campbell, the Skipper, knew about ULTRA, and how it could come to him for decoding because of a scene we played out before the Pike had left Fremantle. OTOH, it turned out that the persona playing Ray had completely forgotten all about it. Entirely. Like wiping a whiteboard with Windex clean. A tabula rasa. So, of course, I had to explain that ULTRA was extremely secret information obtained from highly confidential and reliable sources - which is what sub skippers were told. in reality, it was from intercepted and decoded Japanese messages, but that didn't come out until after the war.

The ULTRA message turned out to be orders to intercept an IJN (Imperial Japanese Navy) task unit which included an aircraft carrier and a battleship along with unspecified other ships, in the Surigao Strait at approximately 22:15 the next evening, and sink or damage as many ships as he could.

Ray and Bob, the XO, laughed at this! With two torpedoes left in the forward tubes, and two loaded and one spare in the aft tubes, and all of them weak (but reliable) old Mark 10 steam torpedoes, they would make a pitiful showing against battleships and carriers! So, the started to get creative. First Ray asked if they had any non-torpedo warhead explosives aboard, but all they had was three pounds of plastique and a couple blasting caps. That wouldn't do much!

The rest of the night was a planning session between Ray and Bob, and I won't go into details. Ideas floated about - steal mines from the Japanese minefields and drag them behind the Pike to mine the strait. Drive the task force into the minefields. Capture fishing boats and load them with mines, then crash them into the big ships. Capture a patrol boat and do the same.We ended the session on our way to the Strait. Next week, the big bang!

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Lowell Was Right! - the Dinos of Venus

In Lowell Was Right!, Venus was explored and developed by the Martians. Using mostly trained Humans from Earth, along with a few Martians and Mars humans in exo-skeletons, the Martian Great Houses scoured Venus for resources to exploit. Oil, vegetation, and animals - and particularly various pharmaceutical plants which grew only in the equatorial jungles - were extracted and used all over the inner Solar system.

Among the Venusian animals used by the Martians and their Human slaves was a bright dinosaur of the bipedal carnivore type called Kraat by the Martians. They associated themselves gradually with the exploring bands, living on the edges of their settlements, where they could sometimes be seen aping what the Humans or Martians did. The bands thought their antics amusing, and they were very useful to the bands, being set to do simple and repetitive tasks. Unfortunately, no one realized just how bright they were.

These Kraat were learning from the Humans and Martians, and when the time was right, they rebelled simultaneously, all over Venus. Many exploration bands were wiped out. Others survived, but at the cost of living a feral existence in the jungles, while the Martians abandoned their programs of exploration. In time, most Humans retreated to the more temperate polar areas and highlands which the cold-blooded _Kraat_ disliked.

The Kraat have built up a civilization in the tropical lowlands of Venus, while the humans tend to stay in the highlands and polar areas. The Humans have degenerated technologically as the _Kraat_ advanced, so that both are roughly at a medieval technology. The Martians on Venus' surface have either left or died out, so that there are none left today.

The Kraat  - or Dinos as the Earth Humans call them - are  roughly Human-sized. Derived from dinosaurs similar to the Troodons, they are smaller and far stronger than Martians or Mars Humans, they eat mostly meat with their terrible sharp teeth. Their arms are short in proportion to  their legs and bodies, but not nearly to the extreme of Earth's T-Rex. They have two clawed fingers and a thumb pad - a ridge of muscle, skin, and callous along the bases of their palms - which gives them a strong and versatile grip.

Kraat have a long and narrow head, and a long, muscular neck. Their tails are short and thick, and help balance their heavy tops. Their legs are lithe and muscular, and bear three toes forward and one behind, like many birds. They are not great runners, but instead live in trees, being very adept and climbing and leaping. They stand fairly erect on their two legs, though not as straight as Humans or Martians, but are comfortable moving on all fours in the trees.

They have an excellent sense of smell, poor but binocular eyesight, and superb hearing. _Kraat_ use echolocation like bats to find their way in the dark and tangled jungles. They are very social creatures, and communicate vast distances  with their ultrasonic language.

Kraat are egg-layers, but they defend and tend their nests with a deep fanaticism. There is no real difference in size between males and females, though they are different in coloring, and they mix easily in work or hunting. Once every three Venus years or so the females go into estrus  - luckily for the _Kraal_ about a third of the females at a time - and wander out into the jungle, to be followed by males interested in them. There is a sort of trial wandering, and the last male standing gets to mate, whereupon  they return to their tree-village. Both parents guard and raise the clutch.

Clutchmates grow up together, and are the core of Kraat social structures. They form hunting parties and scouting groups, and work together very cooperatively. Other clutches associate on a secondary level, and still others on a tertiary level. Dominance within the clutch forms alphas and betas, and between clutches sorts out which clutches are in charge. These contest almost never involve bloodletting, instead focusing on tactical maneuvering in social ways.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Pigboats - "I'm Essentially Scum"

The Pike surfaced after sundown. The rain had softened into a falling mist. The Skipper ordered the sub to head for Cabo San Agustin, straight across the gulf from northwest to southeast. Mr. Rizzo was OOD as the XO headed for the Skipper's cabin to hand in his report. He looked ashen, colorless. He rapped on the doorframe. "Enter!" called out Roy Campbell. (What follows is verbatim)

He came in and handed over the report, tight-lipped. "I came to report our activity sir." Campbell: "Oh, right. You. What's got your panties tied in a bunch then? Seems like you caught plenty of pilots." Campbell pours himself a cup, black, and blows on it before taking a large gulp. Vaugirard thinks about fake Spanish and where it landed him. Campbell "pour yourself a cup and spill. Not the coffee."

Vaugirard "I screwed up" Campbell "How so?" "We got arraigned by a Japanese Corvette, and the plan I chose costed 3 lives" "And?" Vaugirard is so pale he's almost transparent. "I could have just let them bag us" "And what would that have accomplished?" Vaugirard "Those kids would still be alive" Campbell "Not likely."

Vaugirard "Oh come on, they're sons of bitches but they still capture prisoners! Especially me. They would have rubbed their hands" Campbell "Yes, and then they starve the POW's, beat them, and chop off their heads if they felt like it. The Japs treat prisoners like less than crap."

"Listen. I know what you're trying to do but that won't get the screams out of my head." "Nope it won't. But you can't let this haunt you." Vaugirard "I'm not sure I could watch anyone who was on the Pickerel straight in the eye" "Why not? afraid to see how much they still trust you?" "Trust me?" Campbell "Of course. You're their Officer." "I know I wouldn't trust myself"

Campbell "They trust me, even. And I'm essentially scum." Vaugirard "Well.. You got your success streak to your credit. You're no scum! You're untypical, sure - not scum" "Oh, no, I'm scum. A professional Gambler. But, here, I'm the Skipper, and I have to meet that expectation." "Oh don't worry. I'll do my part. I won't let anybody down. Until we're safe at dock." "Moping around won't help anyone then." Vaugirard "It's not about moping. It's about doing what is right." "Right." "Exactly." "Now, get back to work."

Vaugirard went to the forward torpedo room to check on the prisoner. On his way back, he ran into Johnston, who was on the Pickerel with him. "Hey, sir! Practicing your Spanish?" The XO blushed. "What do you mean?" "I can't believe how you kept them damn Japs at bay! That was smart thinking! I'll be telling my grandkids about how Mr. V saved us with hokey Spanish and a towering rage! I was about to pee my pants, sir! No lie!"

When he got to the bridge, the Skipper was scanning the horizon. Off the starboard bow, he caught a glimpse of smoke. (Yes, the skipper, not the Lookouts) "Smoke across the horizon! The ship is below the horizon! Bring us about to the south. Steer One Eight Oh, full speed." As they got closer, the quarry resolved into a single tanker of about 7000 tons escorted by a frigate, racing up and down beside the zigzagging tanker.

The Pike moved to the side and pulled the plug. The Skipper sighted in on the tanker. "Ready one through four. This is a shooting observation." "We have a solution, Skipper" said Vaugirard  He swung to the frigate, skipping on oblivious. "Fire one! Fire two! Fire three!" He swung back to the tanker. "Fire four!" "All fish running hot, straight, and normal!" BOOOM! The frigate was obliterated. "Now we have the tanker at our mercy!" KABOOOM! "The tanker is on fire, she's slowing down and listing to port! Bring our stern tubes to bear!" "Reversing course to Two Seven Oh, sir!" "Fire five!"

BAM! The middle of the tanker lifted up out of the water, her back broken. "That's all she wrote boys! Bring her up!"

 End of Session

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Lowell Was Right - Humans of Mars

Starting long before civilizations developed on Earth, and continuing into the early historical period, Martians raided the planet for human slaves. Humans were desired for their great strength and mobility, but the strength was soon lost as the Human children adapted to Martian or Mercurian gravity. Exercising maximized the potential, as Human musculature, skeletal structure, and ligament strength peaked much higher than Martian strength, even in those born on Mars, but the fast evolution always dissipated the potential after a few generations, so that the potential for greater strength was gone.

The raids continued long after a sufficient breeding stock was acquired on Mars and Mercury, in an effort to breed strength back into the species, but the resulting humans always eventually bred back to the same type, and the great strength was lost. After the Martian ecological crisis, when Mars withdrew her ships from spacefaring in order to conserve resources, the raids stopped, and evolution molded the Humans to a new form.

 Mars Humans are very tall and slender. Their chests and lungs are larger for efficiency in the thin air, and their eyes are larger and better adapted to dimmer light. Their hands are long, with thin, spidery fingers. Their noses are longer and arched, and their ears are larger and more mobile, able to turn and cup to catch sounds in the thin air of their new homes.

Humans have long ago won their freedom from the Martians, and now live side by side with them. Their societies mirror their Martian models - Human Houses with Human Families, Martian Houses with Human Families, and Human Houses with Martian Families all occur on both Mars and Mercury. Since Humans are not usually born in Quads, their group marriages are artificial - consisting of singletons and the occasional twins. Multiple births are held to be lucky, and are greatly desired. They occur more frequently than on Earth in certain families, as the genetic predisposition to multis is concentrated in a few "lucky" families.

Mars Humans cannot move unaided on Earth or Venus. The marvelous powered exoskeletons that allow Martians and Mars Humans to visit heavy planets are uncomfortable for long periods, and so  they avoid the "Bonecrushers", as they term Earth and Venus.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Lowell Was Right! - Martians

Martians in Lowell will be non-hominid, but humanoid in general form.  They are of the same taxonomic order as the armadillos, Cingulata, and share many traits with these Earth species. They are native to Mars, but have spread elsewhere in the Solar system, particularly to Mercury, where the gravity and air thickness is much like Mars.

Martians are larger than the earth animals they resemble, and are bipedal. The most striking difference from armadillos is the length of their limbs, which are as long as human limbs, which with their long bodies make them taller than humans. Like armadillos, they have a jointed leathery armor shell. There is a  Cap on their heads, a Cape round their shoulders, four or five Bands across their backs, a Skirt around their hips, and a set of small bands down their tail. Only the back is armored, with the front being covered by fur.

As Martians dye their fur and armor, it seldom shows, but armor runs from bone white to chocolate brown, while the fur ranges from off white to sand color. The fur is thick and warm, and well insulates the Martians from cold, though they have great trouble in heat. The four banded Martians are a distinct sub-species encountered only on Mars. Most Martians are of the five-banded variety.

Martian hands have three fingers, the middle one formed by the fusion of the middle and ring finger bones, and correspondingly longer and much thicker. The thumb is opposable, and thicker than the two side fingers, though not as thick as the middle finger. The feet have four toes, with the fifth toe being vestigial. Both fingers and toes have long, extremely strong digging claws. Martians generally lacquer and sharpen these implements, with more complex and precise painting signifying consequent social rank.

Martians give typically birth to four genetically identical children. These are smaller and more immature at birth than Human babies, and require a warm and comfortable den to survive. Primitive Martians carved these dens from the soil, while civilized Martians build them, furnishing them with every affordable luxury. The Martian children take somewhat longer to develop outside the womb than humans, but by six months are equivalent to a newborn Human.

This four-fold birth is central to the development of Martian culture. Martians ideally marry an entire brood of four to another brood of four, forming a very tight and strong family unit. This family unit is the basis of the Martian Houses, clans of strongly interconnected families. As Houses rise or fall in wealth and status, the families of the House prosper or decline in step. Dens are generally built by the House, not the family, and are available to all families. Most marriages are made by mothers confined for giving birth at the same time. Families have standing within the House, just as Houses have standing with other Houses, but the status of a Family is dependent on performance within the House.

Where the four-fold symmetry is broken by disease or death before marriage, families tend to unravel. Threesomes seek threesomes and pairs seek pairs, but often singletons of various families end up cobbling something together with pairs or triplet survivors. These catch-as-catch-can marriages are held to be extremely unlucky, and are low in status. If death occurs after marriage, however, there is no loss in status, and the surviving triplets remain mated with the relict quad.

Like Humans and armadillos, Martians are subject to Hansen's Disease - leprosy - and lepers are subject to social sanctions.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

The End of the Pickerel

Again, last night's Pigboats game was a classic. Last time, we had ended on a cliffhanger, where the XO, Lt. Bob Vaugirard, had just anchored the junk Pickerel off Punta Praet in a typhoon, when they sighted a Japanese navy (IJN) corvette coming towards them through the driving rain and swirling wind.

The XO grabbed two small, wiry, dark haired men and sent the rest below, including the aviators and Lt. jg Yoder, who was both tall and blond. He showed the men how to apply grease from the crankcase of the engine they had just broken up on their face, legs, and arms; to turn their fishbelly-white skin - an occupational hazard when subs are underwater all day and only surface at night - dark brown. They stripped off their uniforms, and stained and ripped their skivvies to look from a distance like the sort of clothes a set of down at the heels Filippino fishermen might wear.

By this time the corvette, which was moving slowly in the poor visibility near shore, had come close enough to make out some details. As Yoder swung through the hatch, the Japanese prisoner - who had been patiently sawing his ankle rope against a sharp rib down below - snapped his foot rope and started to dash uo on deck. Yoder grabbed a rope, and using his Rope skill brought him down with a loud crash. Yoder leapt on his back and hogtied him, then stuffed his mouth with a spare IJN uniform.

A Japanese sailor on the corvette shouted out in Japanese, but the crew shook their heads. He tossed over a line, miming the crew to catch it. The XO, not able to speak anything but English and his native Cajun Creole French, decided to pretend that he could speak Spanish. " PRONTO MATADOR OYA POYA ESTA MUY PEQUENA!" he shouted angrily, using the skill Adapt, and his Trait Big Fat Mouth. He threw the rope back to the corvette.

The Japanese sailor points to the loom of Punta Praet, and mimed tossing the rope back again. Vaugirard did not understand, so he goes to the tiller and yells at his crew "MUĂ‘ECA CARAMBA HASTA SIEMPRE LA REVOLUCION!!". The IJN sailor yelled something at the corvette's bridge in Japanese, whereupon the XO hurled a basket at the corvette and made shooing gestures. "GAUCHO VOLARE HO HO!!" he shouted ay the corvette's bridge. The sailor raied his hands in surrender and walked back towards the bridge. The corvette turned and started away quickly, as a machine gunner opened up  with a long trailing burst into the Pickerel's hull. Three of the rescued fliers were killed, and one flier and one crewman were injured.

The sea poured in though the gaping holes the machine gun had opened in the junk's sides. The XO dashed below, as he and Yoder stuffed sailcloth into the holes to try and stem the horrendous leaks, while one seaman worked the hand pumps, and another gave the wounded first aid. They got the leaking barely under control - the pump had to be manned continuously, but it was no longer gaining on them. Yoder noticed the XO's strange reactions, and realized he had lost his battle with the stress, staring off and talking to himself - he failed his stress roll - and suggested the XO might like to help the two good swimmers fother the hull with a sail. He did so, and it kept the XO busy, but didn't improve the leaks much.

Meanwhile the Pike reached the rendezvous point and the Pickerel wasn't there. They tried listening, and Lt. jg O'Grady heard the sounds of twin screws at very low revolutions - a navy boat moving slowly towards them. He warned the Skipper, who held the Pike right where it was. The boat moved slowly over them, without hearing a thing - sonar being useless in the downpour. They tried getting up very close to the cape, but there was no sign of the Pickerel.

Finally, the Skipper and Mr. O'Grady poured over the charts, and using Research and Analyze, they realized that with the nasty wind and the currents, the Pickerel probably never made it past Punta Praet. They headed back on the surface towards Punta Praet, O'Grady lsitened to the Spanish language propaganda broadcasts, and heard that IJN planes had sunk a submarine in the Gulf of Davao today. "Hey Skipper! They think we're sunk - or at least they brag about it!"

Eventually, they reached Punta Praet and took the remaining crew and fliers aboard. The Pickerel sank within ten minutes of the pumps not being manned. The Skipper looked the XO over as he climbed aboard, then told him to get a shower and he's be waiting for his report in an hour.

End of Session.


Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Under Pressure

So in last night's Pigboats game, Lt. Vaugirard and Lt. jg Yoder and five men had left the Pike, and were using the captured sailing junk they had christened the Pickerel to pick up ditched American plane crews - and a captured Japanese fighter pilot as well. The Pike was forced under by Zeros, but they ignored the Pickerel. The Zeros were replaced by a floatplane which looped and stooged around, keeping the Pike underwater. Finally, from the direction of Davao came two corvettes.

The Pike was trying to get to the rendezvous south of Talikud Island, which was due west, but turned south to present her smallest profile to the corvettes. Even so, they got enough of a return to chase down into the Pike's general area. The Skipper did not want to delay things any more than necessary - he wanted to get to that rendezvous! He ordered silent running, and depth to 150 feet. The Signals Officer, Lt. jg  O'Grady detected a thermocline at 230 feet. Unfortunately, the Pike's test depth was 250 feet. Since there were fifty feet between the keel and the tops of the periscope shears, They would have to go to at least 285 feet to get under the thermocline. The Skipper ordered them down to 300.

"The Engineers build in a safety margin" said the Skipper. "We'll be fine!" Then Lt. jg Rizzo dashed in from the back of the boat, his pants soaked to the knee. "We blew out the packing in the port shaft. Windy (Mr. Windham, the Engineer) is trying to re-pack it, but we're taking on a lot of water aft!" Ensign Bollings, taking over for Mister Yoder as the Diving officer, set the rear planes on full rise, but the weight of water aft kept increasing, and they couldn't use the pumps while running silent.

The Skipper sent all non-essential men forward, but that too was soon useless. Mr. O'Grady suggested a bucket chain from aft to forward. This was also implemented. He then went back to the hydrophones. The continuous pinging of the corvettes above him had stopped. He couldn't hear their engines. All he could hear, at every point of the compass, was a soft roar. "It sounds like there are ships everywhere around us!" he said to  Bollings. "That's weird! Wouldn't they run into each other up there?" It was a puzzler all right. The creaks and groans as the pressure hull was compressed made it hard to think. He listened again... What would make that kind of noise, all around, everywhere at once? He had it!

"Skipper! I figured out the puzzle!It's a monsoon up there! It's pouring out, and those covettes are deaf - and probably mostly blind too!" reported O'Grady. "Are you sure? Could they hear the pumps?" asked the Skipper. "They can't hear a thing, sir! Neither can I!" replied O'Grady. The Skipper turned to the others in the conning tower."Let's get out of here! Rise to 230 feet and head  due west. Secure from silent running! Get those pumps online!" With the pressure lessened and the pumps working, the leak in the port shaft was soon sealed.

Meanwhile, on the Pickerel, the clouds gathered and the sky darkened. As they were approaching Punta Praet, the southern cape of Mawes Island, beyond which was Talikud, the clouds opened up with a crash. The battened sails slammed and rattled against the masts as the wind swirled and capered. The men lowered sail, and the Pickerel began drifting. The wind was from the southeast, so they were slowly being pressed  northwest, up against Punta Praet.

Mr. Vaugirard, the XO, ordered a sea anchor be built of spars and canvas, and that helped slow the boat, but the leeway was inexorable. The XO ordered Johnston to the bow with a lead line, to test the water's depth, and the other four crew below, to start converting the useless gasoline engine into an anchor which might *hold* the boat. When Johnston began ticking off the rapidly shelving bottom, the four sailors brought up the engine, wrapped in a line.

Just then, Yoder heard diesels from the southwest, the direction of the wind. He called out, and Vaugirard turned to see the shadowy form of a Japanese corvette take shape in the murk. "Shit!" he said.

Session over!


Tuesday, April 2, 2013

It's Raining Planes!

Last night (Monday), our In Harm's Way: Pigboats session finally reached the special mission stage. The Pike was in Davao Gulf at sunrise, on Lifeguard station, with a prize - a sailing junk captured from the Japanese. The skipper figured to use the junk to help pick up airmen from the waters. The junk was given over to the XO, Lt. Vaugirard, along with Lt. jg Yoder and a five man crew. Both Vaugirard and Yoder were experts at small boat, and could conn the vessel under sail. There was a gasoline engine, small, ancient, and rusted, but no gasoline. They renamed the prize Pickerel, to go with Pike.

The carrier planes flew in from the southwest, and would return from the north, directly over the Pike. The Skipper sent the Pickerel north and west of the Pike, and had them place identification cloths on their deck, identical to those on the Pike. All was ready before the carrier planes returned.

Now rather than set this all up beforehand, or totally wing it, I set up an ad-hoc tool. Roll d100 - on a 20 or less, there would be a plane needing to ditch. If yes, roll a d6 for the number of planes. Pilots trying to ditch make an IQ check. On a failure, they ditch near the Pike, on a success, they ditch near the Pickerel. Make a StarPool Pilot check with a skill level of +2, vs a TN of 9. On 3 successes, the plane lands perfectly, all crew uninjured. On 2 successes, the landing was complicated - roll 1d20 for each crewman vs a TN of 13 - failure means an injury. on 1 success, the ditch was rough! Roll 1d20 for each crewman vs a TN of 9 - failure means an injury. On no successes, the plane crashed - flipping over or cartwheeling - with no survivors.

I had set up the raid itself beforehand - surprise was total, and opposition from the air was late, with the planes exiting in four groups - a group of Dauntless dive bombers, a group of Curtiss Helldivers, a group of Avenger torpeckers, and a group of Grumman Wildcats holding back the Zeroes, Oscars and Tonys from the bombers. This last group would be dogfighting in a snarl as it came over.

The first flight came over - the Dauntlesses - and the flaw in my plan became apparent. Statistically, the dice should cause planes from maybe one of the flights to ditch. No, of course not! Planes came down from every single flight! One Dauntless. Three Helldivers. Six Avengers, One Wildcat, and one Zero! And the pilot check rolls! Out of 28 crew in those planes, twelve lived. Finally, the Pike was chased down by Zeros, while the Pickerel sailed into the west to the rendezvous. The dice are laughing at me. Rolling on the table laughing their butts off. 

Monday, April 1, 2013

Post Partum Repression.

OK! Post-Volant release post! I am finally out from the release responsibilities for Volant. This is typical - I  am going crazy sending out comp copies to playtesters and reviewers, making up a web page, promoting the game, making banner ads and trying like hell - and failing - to get anyone to notice the game. Never mind *selling* the game. You can only sell a game to someone who knows the game exists. *That* is the great struggle! Every time, I try and I fail.

Back to the Salt Mines...