Saturday, April 27, 2019

Dan's Notebook of Unfinished Wonders, Vol 3

For previous installments, see Volume 1 and Volume 2.

Fewer of the handy bullet point ideas this time around, I'm diving into stillborn blogpost drafts and bits of short stories that never went beyond a few stuttering paragraphs.

1. A lighthugger full of space marines arrives at its destination to find that the war is over, their government no longer exists, there's no way back home, and they're stuck as a bunch of old men on a world populated by thelychroma. They spend their time playing cards at the local cafe.

2. Near-ish future. A repurposed oil rig is used as a luxury resort for the ultrarich. One of the indentured workers relates her experiences after the suicide of a friend.

3. "We found a pair of angels in orbit around Neptune. A pair of golden giants like Oscar trophies: two hundred and fifty miles high, floating there in the silence, six wings folded against their backs. Gabe and Mike, we called them. Gabe kept his hands behind his back and his legs straight. Mike’s knees were drawn up to his chest, his arms wrapped around them."

4. "He could make out the sound - a wave, a roar – of a million million tiny paws, striking away on a million million blood-slicked keyboards."

5. A pair of transhuman artists, Faust (sleeved into the body of a starving child, for art) and Schehezerade (terribly tall cyborg), walking the walls of their fortress compound out on the burning saltflats. Faust is planning on writing a poem called "An Elegy for Lost Time". He has never completed a poem. Schehezerade is dismissive, and clearly has been for a long time.

6. The first self-aware AI, Algernon, greeted its engineers with a cheerful "Hello, world!" upon waking up and then spent the next thirty-eight hours cataloging pornography before finally breaking the awful, awkward silence. It has continued this habit. Its tagging methods are excessively thorough. No one knows why it does this.

7. Monster: Chivalric Angler - A lady in a green and gold gown. Wears a tiara. Takes up residence in an abandoned castle or keep with up to six knights in thrall. Attacks with a blast of magical lamplight. The true form is toothsome and trampling.

8. "Every few years, the Daud & Palusad Shipping company would rebind the shades to their work force of potbellied, ape-like golems. This year it was typically dull, until a binder came across a golem out of its sleeping dock, scratching a message in the dust with a thick finger: HELLO I BELIEVE THERE HAS BEEN A MISTAKE.

9. "He was the man who came in to clean up after a Chuck Palahnuik novel."

10. "I don't care if he doesn't fit, This is the coffin we have and we need to get this stiff buried. Cut off his arms or something."

11. First contact is carried out through a gameified invasion. Those who are conquered will become clients of whatever alliance defeated them. Those that do not crumble under the assault are given leadership of the invading alliance.

12. "Her father was a pearl farmer and a drunkard. He was not a cruel man, but long years and hard labor had hardened him until the lines on his face had fossilized and his eyes had been drained of their stars. He favored the heavy, milky liquor that the flower cults made, and each night he would drink himself to sleep after he had eaten whatever food her mother had prepared. He rarely ever spoke. When he woke, in the black hours of the morning, he would purge with the sharp green spirits of the medicine-men, put on his boots, and leave their hovel-home without a word.

Her mother had been a foreigner, once. Years in the Pit had stripped her of the beauty she had once had, and whatever mystique of foreign lands she possessed had faded before she’d given birth. The pit people couldn’t be found to care very much about the world beyond their own troubles. She would go to the market each day, selling fungal preserves and the baskets and rugs she had woven out of mycelium."

Class: Best Friends

First there were the Extras, then there were the Many Goblins, now there are the Best Friends.

HP: Best Friends gain d6 HP per level. Best Friends will split their HP evenly among all members. Any HP leftover is used as the emergency "You didn't win!" supply. (Ex. 3 Best Friends with 11 total HP = 3 HP per friend, with 2 additional HP that may be used to avoid injury or death as needed.)

Saves: As Specialist

Weapons and Armor: Best Friends may use any weapons and armor.

Bumblekings:  Best Friends are terribly uncoordinated, and so may still only take one attack per turn in combat. All of them may move, however.

Rising Superstar: If a member dies or retires, their spells go with them. However, that number of spell slots may be split among the remaining three members.

The Expanded Universe: After reaching level 6, Best Friends may gain an auxiliary friend to support them with a magical item or service every level.

Quartet of the Humours: Each new Best Friends will fulfill a different humour. Humours may be gained in any order. Once per session, a Best Friend may reroll a failed check related to their idiom.
  • Sanguine - Impulsive, optimistic
  • Choleric - Short-tempered, pessimistic
  • Melancholic - Introverted, thoughtful
  • Phlegmatic - Calm, collected, rational
Spellcasting: Each Best Friend knows three spells unique to them. All friends learn a fourth emblem spell at level 5.

(This was a terribly-timed idea, all things considered: the Super Best Friends had dissolved when I finally got around to starting it, and with two of them now partnered with Rooster Teeth I don't feel very keen on dragging out the joke.)

Mind Goblins

Mind goblins are goblins that live in your brain. They aren't necessarily evil, but that doesn't mean that they aren't a pain in the ass.

Mind goblins take up 1 inventory slot. Characters must make a will save to resist their urges. They have two major modes of troublemaking:
  • "But what if I need it?" - An item or resource that may be consumed will be hoarded.
  • "But then it won't be right!" - A certain action must be done a specific way.

Mistborn Adventure Game Review

  • 537 pages. Too long for the content within.
  • Perfect bound softcover is good quality and feels good to hold.
  • Art is good for characters, but there is very little of it. Waaaaaay too much repeated generic interstitial art.
  • Single-column, small print, little whitespace.
  • Dice pools, some mechanics for social combat and storygame character stuff.
  • Magic system is clunky. Later books have some fun combinations of powers but you have to wrangle this system into submission.
  • Prohibitive player buy-in and referee limitations.
  • Generally sterile and lifeless setting, despite all the words devoted to it. Some few gems: Inquisitors, Obligators, koloss.

Monday, April 15, 2019

Harry Clarke Bestiary Project: Jon Tatterdemalion

For Emmy Allen's Harry Clarke bestiary project

Jon Tatterdemalion

Armor Class: Unarmored
Hit Dice: 3 HD
Move: Double human
No. Appearing: 1
Attacks: See below
Morale: 10
Treasure: See below
Alignment: Neutral

A wanderer from an ancient land, hovering half a man's height or more above the desert sands with his feet never touching the ground. He was once married to a spirit of fire, but was exiled from her homestead for dalliances he only ever hints at. He spends his days searching for the stylites of Irem, City of Pillars, hoping to join them (and perhaps run away with their stolen knowledge).

Jon is guileful, haughty, gossipy, terribly intelligent, easy to flatter and difficult to fool.

If he is given a magical item, he will exchange it for another. There are no takebacks. On request, he may offer to teach a spell instead.

If attacked, he will surround himself in a whirlwind and fly away in the chaos. He may also create illusory copies of himself and throw his voice to further confuse matters.

He wears the Ghibli Cloak, which permits him to fly. If given clues towards Irem's location, he will give travelers strips of his cloak, which will slow their falls when held or worn.

Jon's ex-wife is...
  1. Amassing armies against the greater outside world.
  2. Really just glad he's gone, frankly.
  3. A mercantile genius, head of every caravan in the desert.
  4. A fragment of the sun, preparing to return home.
  5. A mirage-illusion that slipped out of Jon's control.

Item, City of Pillars, is...
  1. A myth; it never existed.
  2. Under new management. 
  3. The hollowed-out shell of an underground megabeast.
  4. Undergoing a bloody schism.
  5. Filled with black magic goats for some reason.
  6. Built upside down, with pillars reaching deep into the earth.
Jon is...
  1. Not human and never has been.
  2. Guilty of at least fifteen murders.
  3. Avoiding creditors from the homeworld.
  4. Excessively fond of prophetic limericks.
  5. Cursed to speak backwards.
  6. An escaped wizard's assistant.

(Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

Tuesday, April 9, 2019

A Look at Lancer

This is such a rad cover.

So Tom Parkinson-Morgan (Abaddon) of Kill Six Billion Demons fame just launched the kickstarter for his mech RPG Lancer.

Being a huge mark for anything that man has creative input on, I thought I'd finally get my ass in gear and do a read through of the beta document.

The Basics

It runs on Shadow of the Demon Lord bones (what I always want to see!): d20 + bonuses, try to beat 10. Target number varies in combat for attacks and save rolls.

Boons and banes appear as Accuracy and Difficulty. They work the same as boons and banes.

Skills can add bonuses, as well as a general Grit bonus of 1/2 player level.

I don't know how much I like Grit. At level 6 you only fail on a 6 or less before skills and Boons are even calculated. Seems to be an extra number that doesn't need to be there.

Cycle of Play

Split between missions and downtime. You level up after every mission. More Shadow shows itself. I like that the game is based on this framework, makes it good for stringing together sessions.


Characters have:
  • A background
  • Four personal skills at +2
  • +2 to a single mech skill or  +1 to two
  • 3 talents (you can do a special thing, each has 3 levels)
  • Your gear
Okay, all good so far.

What I don't like here is that it's falling to the PbtA "renaming things that already have names" method of game design. There's no reason to name "get a boon / bane because your background is relevant" as "Invoke" and spend four paragraphs on it. Or naming pilot traits / skills as "triggers"- they're traits. If I say "character traits", everyone knows what I am talking about automatically.

Just say "if your background is relevant, you get a boon / bane". The wheel is perfectly functional, we don't need it re-invented.

Note Well: I have a bizarre, irrational hatred of this sort of mechanical name-changing. Read forward with bias acknowledged.

The more flavorful descriptors of traits ("Blow something up" instead of "Demolitions") is fun and pretty easily understandable, so I am not against that in practice.


They're like big characters. They have stats, they have skills, they have a base frame with a special ability and certain number of slots for modules. Neat. I can get behind it, will be a lot better when it's formatted and I can read it better.

The mech designs are fucking fantastic, of course.


Downtime has certain actions you take between missions (like preparing reserve resources for future missions or other assorted options that have a lot of PbtA influence. At least they are named appropriately). Before a mission starts, you get briefed on the goal and can make preparations, before cutting directly to deployment. I like that. No futzing around. We're here for mechs to fight each other and that is what we are gonna get.

Got some good tables, that's all good.

But then we get to the part where we get multi-paragraph descriptions defining and codifying things like briefs, goals, stakes. A bullet point would suffice. We get this. Anyone opening up this book will get this. Small children will get this.

Being able to push a failed roll and risk major consequences, that's good. Like that as an idea.

From this point on there are a lot of subsystems. Combat and movement and whatnot. It's what you'd expect.

You can clone characters and there's a table of glitches, that's cool.

Big list of equipment tags, also cool, I like tags.

List of backgrounds is not connected to character generation section in the beta.

Then there are about four hundred pages of equipment, mechs, and lore. The mechs in particular border on unreadable in their current state - each takes about 4 pages, single column, and they overlap. That'll be fixed in formatting.

The Bad

This book is too goddamn big. The beta is 566 pages, and there's 71 + 38 + 46 + 174 = 329 additional supplement pages in the docs folder. Unformatted, sure. Mostly artless, yeah. Nit too big.

In the year of our beloved Holocene 12019 this amount of bloat in an RPG book is ludicrous. By Dan standards. Dandards. Too many words. Too much wasted space. It's Shadow of the Demon Lord at its core and you can fit those rules on five pages or less.

There are just too many words.

Likewise, I'm sad to say "there should be less lore" (it feels like blasphemy!) but there needs to be less lore. Minor factions (not the main corporations) can get 2-5 pages of 12 point, single spaced, single column font. Just cutting direct lore dump would drop it to 452 pages.

Lore doesn't help me run a game. Flavor does. The major corporations overflow with flavor, and I can get that all from small descriptions and art. I can take one look at one of those HORUS guys and know exactly what I can use them for. This is the greatest strength of the book and should be leaned into hard. More art, fewer words.

Final Thoughts

I love this idea. I love the core mechanics. I love the art. I want to love it as a book, but to put things into perspective my DCC hardcover is 476 pages (with, it should be noted, quickstart rules at 47 pages total including 2 dungeons). If your core book is 100 pages longer than DCC and has a further 329 pages of supplements it might be a bit too big.

Now, the properly laid-out pages on the Kickstarter have dual-column formatting, so shorter it will probably be. Hopefully this is me going on and on about nothing. But it makes me hesitant to say "yeah, I'll go for the hardcover." The Kickstarter still says 560 pages, and that's a book to be read and looked at, not used. If any would be worth it, it would be this one, but...

I can get over my irrational fear of renaming mechanics that already have functional names.

I trust it will turn out great, grand and wonderful.

But 560 pages is unwieldy as hell no matter how you slice it. I want to actually run this game, which means I the referee and my players need to be able to reference information fast and efficiently with 1 physical book at the table and the pdf on my computer. I'm thrown out of whack by this, because such an issue is a solved problem. It's been a solved problem for years. That the solution has not traveled particularly far saddens me.

Final Final Thought

The pdf better have some incredibly thorough bookmarks and internal hyperlinks.

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

A Layman's Guide to Hard Sci-Fi and 200 POSTS!

Listening to the recent Mothership episode of gg no re, I thought it might be useful to provide a helping hand for people who are interested in running a sci-fi game but don't have the time or inclination to do a research deep-dive.

I will be linking to the videos of Isaac Arthur throughout this post. If you want more in-depth exploration of any of the topics here (and many more besides), absolutely listen to him. 

Light is Law

299,792,458 meters per second through vacuum. Round up to 300,000 km/s. Nothing goes faster. (Except, perhaps, monarchy)

Information and radiation travel at light speed. Getting anything made of matter even close to that speed takes a whole lot of energy and is subject to all manner of weird effects like time dilation.

Space is Big

In short:
  • Interstellar travel is not a casual affair. Interplanetary travel isn't either, but interstellar travel is always a big deal.
  • Interstellar travel takes a long goddamn time. Long enough that cryo, digital storage, or life extension will be more or less required.
  • Interplanetary travel can still take days, weeks, months. 
  • Rerouting a ship in transit is not a lightly-taken endeavor.
  • News travels at light speed. Long-distance communication will have lag.  
  • Don't expect big interstellar empires to form. Communication lag and travel time will put hard limits on that quickly. Expect to see a lot of small alliances and confederacies, getting smaller as you go up from habitat to planet to system scale.
  • If you use space habitats a lot a single solar system can contain trillions of people and more places to visit than you can actively comprehend.

It's the Great Filter, Charlie Brown!

The apparent discrepancy between the size and age of the universe and the total lack of detectable alien life (for an interstellar civilization would get HUGE in a relatively short amount of time) is called the Fermi Paradox. The reasons offered to explain why this might be are many, ranging from the plain (the physical conditions for life are rare, intelligent life is rare) to the more elaborate (the aliens are all just really, really good at hiding from us) and among all of these proposals are and a category of them are called Great Filters: factors that prevent life from reaching an interplanetary or interstellar civilization.

There are a whole lot of them. The most plain are just that the physical conditions for life as we know it are rare or that intelligent life is rare. Sensible, but less gameable. Other options include but are not limited to:
  • They died off from nuclear war / catastrophic climate change / plague / etc.
  • They are trapped by high gravity, icy crusts, hyperdense atmospheres, etc.
  • They are intelligent, but lack the ability to make tools. 
  • They aren't intelligent, and their tools don't have proper analogs to normal technology.
  • They're not going to progress past simple tools for a few hundred thousand years.
Skerples  also offers the following: "Planets do not all have 1 earth gravity, a breathable atmosphere, life we can eat or understand, etc." (Check out his full post on the matter), but a solid summary is that the most human aliens are still nothing like us, and the most Earthlike worlds are nothing like Earth. Anything that resembles humans or Earth was probably designed as such (metahumans and space habitats can come into play here.)

Every Gram Counts

Mass needs energy to move it. Fuel and propellant have mass. The more mass you have the more fuel and propellant you need.

Space aboard a ship is at a premium. You've got to balance everything for your specific trip, because you are trying to hit one moving object with another moving object launched from a third moving object all while trying to keep some fragile bags of mostly water and meat from dying. 

It's Not Easy Getting Into Space 

Gravity is fighting you the entire way up and rockets are inefficient. So there are a lot of better ways to get up there. Including but not limited to!
  • Space elevators - A hugeass cable stung up to a space station in geosynchronous orbit. 
  • Skyhooks - A rotating cable that dangles down into the atmosphere and swings a ship up and around to launch them into orbit.
  • Mass drivers - A fucking huge railgun. Great for launching raw materials off of whatever airless rock you're mining them out of, and if it's long enough you can just make a launch loop.

O'Neill Cylinders are the Shit

Imagine a cylinder 20 miles long and 5 miles across. You can make it bigger if you have better materials. Rotate it so that the interior walls have 1 G of gravity, while the caps and central axis will have none. String some together in a chain or cluster, embed them into an asteroid, surround it with all the support systems you might need.

Congratulations, you have just made where most of the population in a space-faring society will live and the easiest way to do a classical space opera. Now you can hop between radically different environments and cultures in a couple hours, in a spaceship that's more like the family RV.

The important thing to remember is that space habitats like these are better for human habitation than planets: you don't need to fight a gravity well to leave, you can tailor the interior environment much more easily, you can churn them out by the dozens or hundreds from single asteroids. 

Stellar Laser Highways are the Shit

Imagine a laser. Now imagine that it is so fucking huge that it can push a spaceship. Build an entire network of them. Now you have a means of accelerating (and slowing) your ships that doesn't require them to spend fuel, thus allowing them to carry more stuff and more people.

It's still slower than light, but it's damn effective. Can be used as communication hubs too.

Spaceships are not Boats

James Cameron's Avatar was not a good movie. But it has one thing going for it: The Venture Star.

Missing the solar sail, alas.

This is a proper spaceship. Just look at this beaut, this sheila, this absolute unit. Mwah! Look at those radiators! See that little bit by the debris shield, with the two rotating arms? That tiny thing there? That's the crew capsule.

This thing has a maximum cargo capacity of 350 tons, a max speed of 0.7 C, and can get you to Alpha Centauri in six and three quarters years flat.

What I'm getting at here is that this is what a hard sci-fi ship will end up looking like: a tiny little submarine attached to a whole hell of a lot of propulsion.

You Will Not Explode and or Immediately Freeze in a Vacuum

You can survive in open space for as long as you can hold your breath (get the air out of your lungs first, lack of pressure will make it expand and that's no good at all). Still likely to get a nasty dose of radiation but having no air is the big danger.

In Knowing the Rules, You May Now Break Them

Arguments over the relative hardness / softness of any given science fiction media are both stupid and dumb. You're making a story or running a game, and that's the most important thing. Do what works for you, do what makes sense - I like aliens, so I tend to be looser on them than I am with, say, FTL communication. Tweak what you want, gloss over what bores you. The opposite is also true - if there's something that really gets you interested, embrace it and see where it can take you.

Bonus: 200 Posts!

I was going to have post 200 be announcing my Patreon, but that's taking its time and I want to keep making things. So this is post 200 (and the first of the post-G+ era).

Holy shit. 200 posts in just a scrape (month and a week) under two years. I can't say much else besides thank you. I certainly wouldn't have kept it up this long without all of you out there reading and commenting and providing feedback.

There's so much yet to do, and I have barely begun.