Thursday, February 26, 2015

Strange Stars At The Table!

At Con of the North this year, we had two Fate-based games set in Trey Causey's Strange Stars! The first game was an open registration event for all interested parties; the second was an off-the-books/on-demand two hour game which included people who couldn't get into the first session, as well as one player who wanted to continue playing the Kuath star soldier they created in the first game!

I ran the four hour session. We did on-the-fly character generation, using the Airrotten, a star system I had already developed using the Diaspora-inspired Strange Stars Worlds rules. Airrotten had already been the site of a playtest of the Strange Stars Factions rules. A newly rediscovered system, Airrotten had just been the scene of political infighting between local factions on two resource-poor worlds, and newly arrived contingents from several interstellar factions from the Strange Stars universe.

Airrotten had just been the scene of a space battle between the Vokun Empire and the Alliance. The Vokun fleet was in a shambles. The players decided that they wanted their characters to be rebellious crewmembers on one of the Vokun warships. Since the Vokun Empire is entirely dependent on its specialized servitor races, this looked a a lot of fun! So we went with it!

The players included a Voidglider (a race of star scouts who live in hard vacuum), a Kuath (essentially an adolescent human hepped up on combat drugs and encased in a suit of Cthuloid bioarmor), a Vokun-Yantran hybrid, and a bug-like Engineer. I know there was a fifth player but almost everyone took their character sheet with them - and the action was incredibly fact paced - so the fifth character's identity eludes me at the moment.

All the action took place on a Kuath Comfort Module - a euphemism for a troop carrier. Here is what this double wide, triple decker space trailer looked like:

The Comfort Module is atmosphere capable and can be repurposed if necessary as a kinetic kill weapon.Just have a chat with the vehicle's solicitous AI. At the front of the Comfort Module, there is a hangar bay for amphibious assault vehicles and fighter-subs of various kinds. In the center is a room labelled "SR" which has the aspect Mutiny-proof safe room. This is the armored back-up bridge where the Engineer PC was holed up at the start of the action!  A bit further back is the a spherical salt water temple to the Kuathi dragon mother deities (they're real folks).  Under that and further back there is an armory, as well as a massive engineering section.

The players had a lot to contend with, including a suicidal if solicitous AI, a Comfort Module in a state of orbital decay, a somewhat freethinking Voidglider scout, and a boarding action by an Alliance cruiser. The boarding action was quite dramatic and featured mano-a-mano combat between the Kuath soldier and a hulking armored cloned Thrax woman warrior from the Alliance ship!

I believe the Engineer went into pill bug mode and became a spherical projectile in this combat too!

It was a really fun game! Next time, we'll share some of the action from the two-hour off-the-books /on-demand Strange Stars game that Bob ran!

Thursday, February 12, 2015

On The Fly, But Not

Sure, it's only a two hour game tomorrow. But "The Condor Falls" is the one scenario I am running at Con of the North that is not "on the fly" - even though it does involve aircraft. We'll be test driving the Achtung! Cthulhu Fate Core edition for a game set during the Spanish Civil War.

When I say the game is not on the fly, I mean that I have done a fair amount of historical research (for me) in order to get sufficiently grounded in the conflict. We've read John Preston's The Spanish Civil War: Reaction, Repression, and Revenge. This is the definitive general history of the war. We also picked up a couple of books on the Condor Legion, Hitler's "volunteer" force in Spain, as well as Carlos Medina's text on the war (lots and lots of photos and maps of troop movements), and an Osprey on the Republican forces. I've had volume 1 of Peirats' definitive history of the CNT in the Spanish Revolution (the anarchists' preferred term for the social revolution that occurred in the Catalan region of the Republican zone) for a while.

I also downloaded the Smithsonian Folkways double album of the Songs of the Spanish Civil War.

The players will be members of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, one of the International Brigades that came to Spain to fight for the Spanish Republic. Some 2,800 men and women from the United States came to Spain to fight Franco's fascists and protect the democratic Republic. We owe them a great debt, as they had the courage and the foresight to try and stop evil while the leaders of the Western democracies stood silent and still.

Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives

My scenario is set late in the war, when things grew pretty desperate.  It hardly seems necessary to add to the horror of the war with supernatural elements.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Strange Stars Inspirations

By now everyone's heard the news: the setting book for Trey Causey's Strange Stars is out now in both print and PDF.  But there's more news! So read on!

This week, Chris Kutalik of the Hill Cantons published an in-depth interview with Trey about the development of the Strange Stars setting and the inspirations behind it. A few of those inspirations just jump out at you from the cover, but some are less apparent at first glance. If you are interested in contemporary science fiction, I encourage you to check out Chris's interview with Trey!

The Strange Stars setting is designed to be open enough so that GMs can work in their own inspirations, as well as compress or expand certain aspects of the setting and timeline to fit their own personal vision for the setting.

Since the summer of 2014, I have been writing the Strange Stars Fate Edition Rulebook, which will be out a bit later this year as one of two system rulebooks for Strange Stars. Trey is writing the other rulebook, which will be compatible with the phenomenal old school d20 SF RPG, Stars Without Number. 

My work on the project is based on a very close reading of Trey's Strange Stars blog posts, I learned about the setting as Trey revealed it post-by-post on his blog. Over the summer and fall, I have revisited the Strange Stars Index constantly, reading both the posts themselves, and the comments for additional details on the setting.  Finally, I have also been fortunate to have a lot of direct access to Trey to answer questions and make sure I am getting the details right.

I offered to work on this game because the setting resonated with me in many ways. It was close to the SF that inspires me. What are MY inspirations with Strange Stars? Here's a few:

  • Frank Herbert's Dune: I still remember how excited I was the Chrismas my parents gave me the original three Dune novels in a boxed set!  The excitement and the memory has stuck with me all these years, and I see Dune's influence on the Strange Stars setting. If you've read Dune you know that there's a setting glossary in the back of the book. It wasn't the first one in SF, but it is certainly one of the most memorable. Now, imagine that encyclopedia is a full color, well-illustrated guide to the universe. Do that, and you'll have a sense of what you are getting with Strange Stars. (Hint: there might even be an order like the Bene Gesserits.)
  • Cordwainer Smith: You may or may not have heard of Cordwainer Smith, who in his spare time wrote the classic handbook on psychological warfare. Smith's Instrumentality of Mankind science fiction stories were some of the first in SF to deal with what we now call transhumanism. He also created one of the first future histories in SF. It's probably no accident that there is also an Instrumentality in Strange Stars! While most of Smith's SF was written from the late 40s-the mid-70s, the majority of his SF is still in print. Baen SF has very affordable two book collection of his major works.
  • Alistair Reynolds and Iain M. Banks: These two authors have very different styles, but both Reynolds and Banks were key figures in what was dubbed "The New Space Opera" just a few years ago. I see Strange Stars as very much part of that new space opera, which not only deals with the traditional themes of interstellar travel and conflict, but also with the themes of transhumanism. 
  • Paul Zindell and Raymond Harris: Both these authors bring the weirdness to space opera. Weird as in really weird. In Zindell's Neverness, bored people genetically regress themselves into Neanderthals to see what it's like. That could totally happen in Strange Stars, where humanity has fragmented into many different subspecies that are collectively known as Clades. I've written before about Raymond Harris' Broken Worlds, which offers yet another kind of space operatic high weirdness and fragmentation. In both novels, humanity has been to the stars for a very long time. Humans have changed: in both obvious ways - and in subtle and dangerous ways - as humanity became isolated on the diverse worlds that they settled. Strange Stars has this same tension between isolation and discovery, raw difference and transhuman continuity.
There is a lot to explore with this setting. In my next post on the game, I'll be talking about the strange territory we took ourselves into during a recent playtest!

Monday, February 2, 2015

Saturday Night Space Opera

Our next session of Saturday Night Space Opera is set for this Saturday, February 7th, 6 PM-closing at Source Comics and Games in Roseville, MN. Jay Mac Bride will be GMing our second session of X-plorers, an extremely easy to learn old school flavored SF game.

This is as good a time as any to jump into the action and join the game!

Feel free to visit the Saturday Night Space Opera blog for more details, and to RSVP for the session (which is not necessary, but helps us with planning for the session).

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Penny Dreadful Tarot Deck

The Back of the Penny Dreadful Tarot Cards

They looked great on TV.

Right? I am always a sucker for cool tarot cards for use in RPGs.

Or maybe they just look better when used by Eva Green. In any case, the Penny Dreadful Tarot Cards are a standard 78 tarot card deck. No artist is credited with the design. There is one additional card with instructions for using the deck, and one card with the Showtime logo on both sides. The deck itself is $14.95. If you want to pay $49.95, you can get the cards with a wooden box, a velveteen bag, and an instruction booklet.

Here is a sample of what the cards look like:

The cards are simple line drawings, which really pop out on the TV screen. But the designs are much less striking off screen. The line detail on some of the minor arcana (like the King of Cups) is a bit too dense; it is hard to see all of the images clearly. The art on some of the major arcana, such as The Lovers (a signature image for the TV series) looks unfinished when you have it in your hand.

Then there is the question of whether the cards "look" very Victorian. I'd say not. The artist is no Beardsley here. And the trump for The Hermit... begs a historical question. The image's concept is great - a deep sea fish is a fresh and intriguing metaphor for The Hermit. But I doubt that the Victorians even knew these deep sea creatures existed.

The Chariot as depicted above is also a unique interpretation. Quite erotic in fact, which is fairly unusual for this card.

The cards from the show also lacked the unnecessary Penny Dreadful branding that has been placed on the top and bottom of the card backs in the version of the deck for sale to the public. I really wish they had left that detail out.  It reduced the deck's utility for gaming.

So are these cards gameable? You could use them in a Victorian game, particularly if 1) you were emphasizing erotic themes, and/or 2) your players like the show. For a horror-based Victorian RPG, I'll be holding on to my copy of George Highham's Wormweird Tarot. That dark and very unique deck was published by Eos as an unofficial companion for their Unhallowed Metropolis RPG in 2008. It would be nice to have a tailor-made deck for Cubicle 7's wonderful Victoriana RPG. It could be organized along the game's Moorcockian Law vs. Chaos cosmology, also incorporating some of the setting's class themes, beastmen, and steamtech.

I'd also love to see a Victorian and/or steampunk version of the Deck of Fate.

But in the meantime, we will always have the Ryder-Waite deck.