Sunday, February 21, 2010

Stranded on a Distant Star: morality, trust and diplomacy

One thing I really have been thinking about for Stranded is a way to pair these three things.

I don't like just pure roleplaying to determine trust. I know, I know, damnit. I just don't ok?

It feels a little too much like GM fiat.

"You were captured, your lives hang on your next few words, now dance little man, dance, convince the Gm to let your characters live!"

Is it fun? As someone who GMs all the time, I have to say yes. But I don't think its good game design either.

I also hate with a passion its hard to express the notion that you roll a d20, add a bonus, and live or die.

That d20 roll being a skill check somehow seeming way dumber than a save vs death.

So I'm thinking of using a trust meter. How well you get along with a faction being determined by how thoroughly you've screwed them over in the past.

I like this for a couple reasons. First, it rewards the genuinely nice players out there for being nice. Second, it allows the devious to bide their time, setting up a betrayal that the NPC will never see coming.

Think Arminius leading Varro into the Black Forest.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

If you've ever wondered what it's like inside my head...

I can't really be the only one who was secretly wishing for Christopher Walken to kill Martin Sheen in the last episode of the West Wing, can I?

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

[Stranded on a Distant Star]: That 70's show

Actually, we could say those 70's and 80's shows.

When talking about sci-fi I can get into there's a few broad eras of sci-fi:
  • 40's camp sci-fi serials of Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers
  • Sword and Planet novels (Burroughs' John Carter and Venus novels)
  • 50's and 60's serious sci-fi, of magazines like Galaxy Science Fiction and radio shows like X-Minus One (and Star Trek and the Twilight Zone, both of which ripped off X-Minus One to a degree that is not at all funny)
  • 70's and 80's space opera, which borrowed a bit from all these: Star Wars, Space: 1999, Battlestar Galactica, Buck Rogers in the 25th century, Black Hole
  • 80's sci-fi movies that aren't space operas: Terminator, Alien, Blade Runner
Now, those of you who are science fiction fans, will notice this list leaves out HUGE swaths of sci-fi, in fact, it probably leaves out 95% of all sci-fi in the world.

But this is the sci-fi that speaks to me, stories of high adventure set in a universe whose physical laws only apply when they're cool.

These are influences you will see, for better or worse, in Stranded on a Distant Star.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Stranded on a Distant Star: specialists

This ties into my earlier post on scavenging.

One thing I'd really like to accomplish in Stranded is have those "away team" specialists really shine.

I am not sure if I will succeed at this, but I'd love for Botanist or Archaeologist to be viable character specializations.

[Stranded on a Distant Star] 5 down...

Well, we picked up our 5th contributor today, which is pretty awesome, though we still have a long way to go to reach the goal.

If you're a regular reader of this blog and would like to get involved in helping me craft a new sci-fi RPG setting, don't hesitate to ask questions, or even, what the heck, just donate early and often! ;)

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Stranded on a Distant Star: alien graveyard

Chariots of the Gods is a book that had a huge influence on me as a young man. I remember watching the classing "In Search Of..." and hearing Leonard Nimoy's dulcet tones make the whole concept sound so ominous and mysterious.

The idea of aliens visiting ancient cultures is my own personal peanut butter-chocolate combination, since I love sci-fi and I love ancient history.

This idea has shown up in Prometheus Rising and Mecha Omega and it will show up in Stranded, at least in a way.

I'm not sure if I'll address whether ancient starships visited an ancient Earth but there will be ancient starships aplenty to explore and be killed by in Stranded.

The planet itself is a sort of interstellar sargasso sea, where starships have been crashing for centuries. Discovering the secrets of why ships malfunction near the planet, as well as cannibalizing countless alien starships for technology, will be critical challenges if players are to ever escape their prison.

Even communications are affected, which might actually be one of the first serious challenges. With no way of communicating with scouting parties, the entire settlement will be in much greater danger from the world's many hazards.

Spartacus: Blood and Sand is hilarious!

Ok, this show is really bad, and I wouldn't even post about it except for this disclaimer at the beginning:

Spartacus is a historical depiction of ancient Rome's society and culture.

The intensity of the sensuality, brutality and language is to suggest an authentic representation of that period.

First, an authentic depiction of Rome's society and culture? So, both Rome and Thrace were inhabited by gorgeous British underwear models?

Second, authentic brutality is not attempting to emulate "300" mkay? Slow motion fight scenes, lots and lots of freezing time in fight scenes, and computer generated blood that splashes the camera are NOT how it went down, I'm guessing (I wasn't there, to be fair).

Xena: Warrior Princess is a more gritty, realistic portrayal of ancient warfare than this show.

And really, that's fine. The only reason I felt the need to call this out was that hilarious disclaimer at the beginning, which might have been the best thing about the pilot.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Then there were three...

So hey, we just had our third contributor, thanks guys!

Stranded on a Distant Star: influences

A lot of folks (including my playtesters) hear the synopsis for "Stranded on a Distant Star" and think Aliens.

Now for people who KNOW me, I assumed this was because anyone who spends more than 10 minutes in my vicinity will realize I have an unhealthy obsess- um- deep, abiding love for that movie.

In fact, Aliens is a distant third influence on "Stranded". Number one would be Alpha Centauri, Sid Meier's classic strategy game about various factions who crash on an unexplored alien world. Huh, that does have a ring to it doesn't it?

Second influence would be "Enemy Mine", an absolute gem of a sci-fi movie about two alien pilots from opposite sides of an interstellar war who both crash on an unexplored planet and survive by working together.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Stranded on a Distant Star: character interaction

Along with scavenging, this is something I thought of very early for Stranded (character interaction is in the initial pitch).

There's been a lot of discussion of interaction skills (Diplomacy, Intimidate etc.) in d20 games of late, with many coming to outright loath these skills, while others merely see them as problematic.

For myself, I guess I'd take a middle view but it is something I want to take a hard look at in "stranded", since this is a game that's all about putting old animosities behind you and working with former enemies.

Like many problems I have with d20 skills, my main problem with interaction skills isn't that they supplement role-playing so much as their "all or nothing" nature.

All d20 skills work on a pass-fail basis. Pick the lock or stay outside. Sneak past the guard or get noticed.

One thing I'm looking at is a little more granularity. Instead of pass fail, you would have a range of options.

Stranded Logo

Some folks have asked for a "stranded" logo.

I've been asked about art as well, and its WAY too early to talk about that yet. I'm not sure the project will happen, or exactly what direction it will take.

I'm trying to think of it generally, since part of the whole point would be for the patrons to have a lot of input in the game. If I make up my mind on anything (including art style) before that, it would defeat the purpose.

But a logo, well that's different. I made it web-banner sized, and as always, in accordance with Chuck's Grand Unifying Field Theory of Logos/Cover Text, priorities 1-100 are MAKE IT READABLE AT THUMBNAIL SIZE.

To everyone making covers and logos out there, I think this is way more important than how it looks, which was barely squeaked out of my top 100, landing at position #101.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010


The widget thing seems to be broken in terms of reporting, at least for me. It shows no contributors, when in fact we have a few.

However, it seems to be working just fine in terms of the donations being credited to the project, so feel free to use it, it just seems wonky when reporting them in the widget itself (they were there earlier, now they seem gone for me).

Stranded on a Distant Star: scavenging

One of the challenges I'm going to face with Stranded is how to make scavenging meaningful in game.

This is a game where two very different cultures are both trying to repair a very complicated piece of machinery (a starship) and also keep their weapons in good repair.

They're also going to need to "scavenge" natural things like food and medicine.

Of course, no game should be totally ABOUT these things, but I like the idea that your "treasure" might be a stand of plants providing medicine your group desperately needs, or something to fix that broken rifle you've been packing around since the crash.

Something I like about this is that I might be able to use "away team" skills you don't normally see in a game. Being a botanist, who comes to understand the local flora and how it can be used to help the survivors, might actually be an interesting character to play.

I have some ideas for how this will work mechanically, at least ones that are percolating.

Monday, February 08, 2010

Stranded on a Distant Star

The Terran Insterstellar Marine Force is the toughest branch of the Unified Earth Military Command. In their storied 200 year history as the infantry arm of the Terran Expeditionary Fleet, the Leathernecks had battled the feral xenomorphs of Rigil Kentaurus, stormed the asteroid fortresses of the Void Pirates and eradicated an uprising of the savage native Vrish who threatened the Pleiades Colony. But they had never faced a foe like the Fyr'Toll

Background: It is the year 2268 and mankind is locked in a bitter war of extermination with the Fyr`Toll, a frightening, inhuman blend of man and machine. Their first attacks came without warning and decimated the most powerful nations on Earth. The United States of Africa, the Indian Conglomerate, the Pan-American League and the Asian Coalition all lie in ruins.

Earth refused to surrender and after a desperate first year of conflict, managed to match the Fyr`Toll’s technological advantages through a series of daring boarding actions, capturing and reverse engineering enemy vessels. Once parity was achieved however, the war seemed to drag on indefinitely and has just entered its 25th year.

On a deep-space survey mission thought to be far away from the front lines, the player characters served on the UASS Johannesburg, searching out resources vital to the war effort. It is then they run across a Fyr`Toll survey ship, the Kra`Tep. After a brief, vicious firefight, both vessels crash on an uncharted planet below.

Two enemies, stranded on one planet on the edge of space. Neither able to overcome the planet’s natural magnetic field to call for help and watching as a fast-growing jungle constantly threatens to overrun their ruined vessels, as predators kill their crew one by one.

After several firefights, their numbers dwindling, the captain of the Kra`Tep meets with the senior surviving officer of the Johannesburg and suggests the two sides join forces to get free of the deadly planet. When the pact is announced, approximately 25% of the humans and Fyr`Toll strike out on their own, unable to overcome the hatred each feels for the other.

These attack each other, the opposing side and even their fellows, all in an attempt to “convince” them that cooperation with their worst enemy is pointless at best, dangerous at worst.

A game of exploration: This is the campaign of “stranded on a different star”. A hostile alien world must be explored and possibly tamed, at first for simple survival but eventually with the monumental task of pooling resources for a return voyage.

A game of character interaction: But the planet isn’t the only challenge players in the game will face. Can they manage to hold their unstable coalition together and overcome the hatred bred by decades of war? Can they bring their dissidents back into the fold?

A game of discovery: And even when the planet has been explored, there are mysteries left to solve. What about the planet hinders technology? What secrets wait to be discovered in alien ruins? And how closely will each side honor their agreements? If a powerful alien weapon is discovered, will its secrets be shared or will the discovering side try to hide it for return to their side in the war above.

A game of community: Stranded on a Distant Star will be financed by the “ransom” system, where gamers interested in the game will finance it and guide its direction.

If the $1,500 donation threshold is achieved, patrons will gain access to a special discussion group, where they will see advance drafts of the game and comment on its direction. The game will be designed by veteran OGL designer Charles Rice and its mechanics will be 100% OGL, though the setting will remain the property of Vigilance Press/Charles Rice.

Once the game is completed, the game will be made available for free on RPGNow in PDF form. All contributors will be credited in the final PDF copy.

Contributors of $20 or more will receive a POD-print copy of the game.

About the author: Charles Rice is an Ennie-nominated writer with over 100 credits. His books currently in print include: Modern20, Supers20, Darwin’s World (True20 Edition) and the Two Worlds RPG, included in the collectors edition of the Two Worlds X-Box 360 game.

Sunday, February 07, 2010

BIG product announcement coming Monday

Not going to bother competing with the "big game", so just let me say that tomorrow I will be announcing the biggest product with my name on it since Modern20.

Saturday, February 06, 2010

Mass Effect 2: too video gamey (A look at modern design)

So, in the build-up to 4e, some of the most common complaints aimed at the game fell into two categories: either 4e was "video gamey" or it was "a wargame" or it was a "tactical board game" or even just "a board game".

In short, these folks couldn't agree on what it was, but they could agree on what it was NOT: a role-playing game.

In reading threads about Mass Effect 2, I have seen the complaint that it is not a role-playing game crop up with surprising regularity.

Of course, no one can say ME 2 is "video gamey" as an insult, nor could they really call it a board game. Neither of these work because the game is clearly a video game. It comes on a disc in a box and you install it on a PC or play it on a console.

Video game.

But when I look at Mass Effect 2's design decisions, and compare them to 4e, I see a lot of parallels, and both games are getting the same reaction from some fans.

Both games reduced resource management. In older editions of D&D, you had spell slots and abilities with very limited uses. As THE king of resource management, the D&D magic-user required a different skill set and really a different mentality than the other classes, especially at low levels, when unleashing that one Sleep spell you got for the day at just the right moment was as much art as science.

4e drastically reduced resource management and what resource management there was, all classes played the same way. Meaning a Fighter had different skills and played differently in some ways, but the resource management required to play a Fighter was the same as that required to play a mage.

Mass Effect had a lot of similarities. Adepts (the psionic characters of the universe) had to carefully choose when to unleash a devastating psychic ability, else they be caught with nothing but a lowly pistol to defend themselves with at a crucial time.

There was also omni-gel, a critical component for lock-picking, hacking and vehicle repair that you could only get by breaking down unwanted weapons and armor that were constantly cluttering your inventory.

I know there were times in Mass Effect where I agonized over breaking down a weapon early in the game because I needed the omni-gel. Late in the game my inventory was constantly full and I would sometimes spend 30 minutes breaking down items into omni-gel so I could pick up new items.

I was literally drowning in items (and omni-gel) but I kept making more because I had a finite amount of space. And boy, was it a lot of space.

In Mass Effect 2, inventory management is almost completely gone. You occasionally find a new weapon but most of the time you are improving the assault rifles for your entire squad, and this happens automatically.

Omni-gel? Gone. It still exists in the *fiction* (you hear some radio ads for omni-gel in the game) but as a vital resource players were hoarding at low levels, and swimming in at high levels? Totally gone.

Power recharge times were drastically reduced. Your Adept really can, in most cases, rely on just his powers.

And the claim? Not a RPG.

I think what we're seeing is that many players see resource management, even when it's a huge time-sink, even when it's a pain in the ass, as an essential part of RPG design.

And more and more designers are trying to eliminate these time-sinks and allow players to spend more time PLAYING, and less time staring at inventory screens (or sheets of paper).

Friday, February 05, 2010

It's a Hope Thing

So a friend of mine recently loaned me a collection of dystopian short stories because and I quote "you love the post apocalypse".

This is true but, as I related to her in our subsequent conversation, this is not the same thing.

Most dystopians take place after or during an apocalypse this is true, which makes it very hard to suss them out of the post-apocalypse genre.

But what I truly love about the post-apocalypse is not present in most dystopian literature: hope.

There is little of this to be found in, say 1984 or Children of Men, though the movie of both do add a glimmer of hope.

I have often compared the post-apocalypse to Europe's dark ages after the fall of Rome, in which technology literally took 1,000 years or so to regain its former level in many fields (especially architecture).

To continue that analogy, its more accurate to say I love the Renaissance than the Dark Ages.

In the Postman (the book- get that awful Costnerian tripe away from me) a lone rogue/entertainer/con man inadvertently sparks a rebellion through the simple act of delivering mail.

In Star Man's Son, a rejected scout and his mutated cat leave their tribe on a quest of exploration and wind up uniting several tribes together to face a larger threat.

In Showtime's amazing series Jeremiah, a pair of wanderers attempt to drag a powerful, reclusive group of survivors out of their bunkers to begin the task of aiding and rebuilding disparate groups.

In Fallout 3, Three Dog has taken to the airwaves to encourage his fellow man to "fight the good fight".

In the corner of Darwin's World that I got to develop, the Fertile Crescent, I was frequently told to make things more bleak. My original design docs had things on the verge of getting much better too quickly.

In short, what interests me is how things come back together.

About the only dystopian work I truly love is 12 Monkeys. The future is exceptionally bleak, with small groups of humans living underground to hide from a never-ending plague above. But a) there is hope and b) even in the glimpses of the dystopian future we see, Terry Gilliam makes the darkness so absurd its practically a black comedy.


I would also like to amend this post with a recommendation for Star Man's Son. This Andre Norton Post-Apocalypse book is out of print, but copies from the 60's and 80's are still available relatively inexpensively from Amazon.

It's a great post-apoc tale about the Arthurian-esque journey of a lone wanderer and his mutant, empathic mountain lion. Great stuff.

An update

Hey guys, just wanted to thank all the well-wishers. I got a few comments to yesterday's post, as well as more emails and they were all very much appreciated.

Just wanted to say, there was no actual danger of me seriously going off. Yesterday's post was actually prompted by our oh-so-lovely New England weather and a bit of tiredness.

I've been helping take care of my niece since my brother's passing, and that morning I had walked her to the bus stop at 6am, and the temps were around 20 degrees. After waiting in that for approximately 15-20 minutes, and watching the bus drive right by without even slowing down, because "no one is usually at that stop in the morning" (yes, this is what the driver said to me later) it occurred to me that my rage was way more murderous than the situation warranted.

Anyway, thanks again for the kind words and don't worry. Yesterday was just a crappy day but today has been better.

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Maybe I shouldn't be around people

So I make it a conscious point to almost never talk about "real life" here, because we all have just about as much "real life" as we can handle.

And I extra make a point to never talk about MY real life, because, like everyone else, 99.99% of my life is boring as shit and the rest is none of your damn business.

However, my big brother passed away before my eyes near the end of last month, and I have noticed that since that happened, I have been slower to respond to people and in many cases have been looking to pick fights.

So if you wrote to me and I was slow getting back, or if I was an obnoxious bastard when I did, I apologize.


Night Ride Part 1

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