Saturday, 25 April 2015

3 Models in Application

Building on my last gaming blog, about the three structures games, Mission, Epic and Chronicle, can adhere to, I've decided to apply the models to a single game to see what we get.

I've chosen to use Werewolf the Forsaken, which is my favourite 'New' World of Darkness game (at
about ten years old I'm not sure if its appropriate to keep the New part but it seems to have stuck). If you don't know it, think urban fantasy/horror with werewolves (Uratha in the game's lexicon) protecting their territory against rampaging spirits, a cult like group of 'pure' werewolves and other supernatural horrors. At the game's heart is the 'neighbourhood threat' style of gaming, you have a territory and you defend it. This creates a somewhat static set up, good for all three of the models.

So how do we get them to work with the game?

To begin with let's lay down the ground rules. The group are playing newly changed Uratha who are being given a neglected territory in the south of London. The territory is neglected because the pack that defended it disappeared and the other packs in the city had to take up the slack. Consequently the area has been less well defended than it should have been and unwelcome guests have moved in. The PCs are given a mentor and a 'Green Box', basically a lock up with some resources bound up in it; a small armory, some books about the territory and a chest full of things that could be maguffins.

This automatically suggests a mode of play, small adventures that allow the players, and their characters, to explore the territory and establish the locations and characters within it. Mission based play in other words. What makes it work is that there are shades of Chronicle play here, the adventures are connected and there's a common goal; to establish the condition of the domain. The distinction here though, is that there's no single enemy to work against, but a series of threats ranging from a serial killer urged by murder spirits, a market of spirits trading essence with each other and extending their reach into the real world and a mad cat spirit that's running wild.

With a couple of diversions for games down the road in the form of a brush with a pack of Pure that are hunting for a relic sword (which has ended up in the PC's lock up) and the growing realisation that behind the small threats is a much larger one; the Beshilu, a host of rat spirits who want to tear down the wall between the material and spiritual worlds and unleash an army of spirits onto the unsuspecting mortal populace some sort of world building gets done too. Using
appropriate foreshadowing and just dropping hints the rats can become an ongoing motif for the busyness of the city, the idea that there's no real peace just the illusion of it. This can also reinforce the idea that they're everywhere and aren't just a one off threat, even if it is something you need to balance carefully so that you don't get pushed into your big reveal too early.

The fly in the ointment is making sure that players can guide the game, which I hope would be possible by letting them decide which of the various plots around the territory to focus on (so basically coming up with enough one line plots that are easy to expand later on), as well as engaging with them as people. What they want as people being likely to coincide with what drives their characters, because that will always be more important; your buttkicker player will always enjoy combat, the method actor will always want to be true to her character and so on.

This also sets up the second arc, a more Chronicle based game where the PCs have to deal with the Beshilu permanently. At this point all the plots start to feed into the one goal, setting up the PCs to find and destroy the various nests, allies and other points of power and influence the Beshilu have set up in the domain. Eventually things need to come to a head and this would need to be quite a varied arc to keep things interesting, but keeping the focus on one enemy gives it a single identity which the first 'finding your feet' adventures lack. This is in many ways a simple reversal of the first set of plots; you're only tweaking the structure and its emphasis. It's the ongoing nature of the plot that makes it a Chronicle rather than just a bunch of interlinked Missions.

What you're doing of course is using a central spine and then putting adventures together that feed into it. The showdown under a cinema reveals the nest's plan to rip the spirit wall down on Wimbledon Common; a body the Uratha find after that fight reveals that the owner of a local casino is in the Beshilu's pocket; his safe reveals the main nest and the Rat King that controls the local host are hidden in the sewage works down by the Thames. You take disparate pieces and treat them like  a jigsaw puzzle, building up the picture until it is complete.

So these two arcs cover different structures, even if they are in many ways reflections of each other. They also build on each other, providing the players with the tools they need for each part. The contacts, allies and so on they establish on the first arc will inform the second.

Where then do we fit in the Epic? The game's tied to a specific location and the way the New World
of Darkness is set up is often not given to the running huge stories. Arguably the war with the Beshilu is pretty epic in scope and could even be split into a number of small arcs as the pack make progress. If we break away from the pre-existing plot and tie an epic plot to the Pure, who having got their magic sword are gunning to annihilate the Forsaken werewolves in London. Higher stakes, more dramatic gaming and a more epic set of things to play for. This is a general truism, if you want an Epic game, you almost always have to go large. To make it work here, let's take a step away from the relatively down to earth world of a group of werewolves fighting things on South London streets and assume that in order to conquer the city the Pure need something big and nasty out of the spirit world to bolster their efforts.

So the player characters get put to the forefront of the resistance, a springboard straight into the action, a quest to stop the Pure at any cost.  This issue here is finding a way not to just end up with a long slog through blood soaked combat after blood soaked combat as the PCs fight wave after wave of Fire Touched Demented Little Dupes. There are other angles to consider, the internal politics of the other packs, the spirit world aspects where the characters can go to thwart the Pure's attempts to get a powerful spirit on side and the quest can become quite diverse and work, as long as the PCs are kept in the middle of it. This might take them out of the city, it might even take them out of the country, allowing the GM to introduce travel plots or to entangle them in other cities' affairs (or in the politics of mages or vampires). As a result the game folds variation into its structure even when the quest is one that seems like a straight path.

Where it differs from the Chronicle is that you're dealing with one story, not using smaller narratives to build up a spine. Again, its a matter of focus, and arguably hair splitting, but it reflects the experience of gaming and of planning the game. If I'm planning an Epic then I'm starting with the big goal of 'the Pure try to bring a really big horrible spirit to earth to kill lots of other werewolves and take over the city' and treating that as my story. In a Chronicle, I'm setting my sights lower and breaking it into more moving parts, which includes places where the Pure can fail.

In closing, I hope this has demonstrated more of what I see in the three structures and how they are built, how they mutate, interchange and even nest within each other.

Friday, 24 April 2015

Review: Avengers Age of Ultron

Here be Spoilers. You have been warned.

The second Avengers film came out today and its something of a mixed bag, full of good and bad. It's also very much part of a larger picture that Marvel is building and that really shows, to the extent that without the films that have gone before it, the film loses something. The films are very much in 'building' mode, working towards the Infinity War films in the next few years, something that will throw anyone who has not been following Marvel pretty religiously and while it is nice to see the context of the Infinity Stones, for a casual fan it may be just that step beyond. Similarly the 'in the credits' sequence comes out of left field and will mean next to nothing to anyone who did not see Guardians of the Galaxy last year.

Returning to Age of Ultron, overall, the film is well choreographed, shot and written. The fight scenes are well put together and the Hulk/Iron Man combat is beautifully realised. Whedon pulls no punches in showing how much devastation the fight causes. Likewise Ultron is presented as a terrifying threat, the product of technology who will stop at nothing to achieve his goals. In many ways he's a villain who's grown more terrifying as science has progressed, no longer a simple robot with an agenda to wipe out organic life; now he reflects the connectivity of the world, underlining how difficult it is to be alone, to be a singular entity. The film makes  good use of this, housing him not only in the skull faced robotic forms but also detailing his activities on the internet as he tries to steal nuclear codes and locate the super metal Vibranium. This coincided with a nice piece of world building, setting up a link to the Black Panther film in 2018. Unfortunately Ultron also feels a little as if he's taken his playbook from the first film, and the beats of his plan seem to be very much the same as Loki's.

In fact a lot of the film's beats are familiar, something Marvel films have suffered from before: it is the acting and script, complete with Whedon's requisite puns and snark that bring it together and keep it moving.  There are some nice carry overs from the first film too, the joke about people playing computer games at work gets a new lease of life as does Tony's oh so humble statement about what he provides the team.

It is to the film's credit that it juggles so many characters and plot element, guiding them to what feels like a natural and kind cradle in Avengers and allowing each of them to have moments to shine. In all fairness I should mention that its very much focused on the characters who don't get their own films; Black Widow, Hulk and Hawkeye are at the heart of the film and in many ways define it, capturing the man versus monster theme and grounding the movie into a human space that stops it just being superheroes fighting big robots. The possibility of romance between Widow and Hulk, and the sheer ordinariness of Clint Barton's home life are great touches, reminding us of the other side of the superhero genre, the people inside the costumes.  These characters are also the most fully realised and well rounded, whilst some of the others don't feel quite so natural. In particular the heel turn on Tony Stark, recasting him from a millionaire playboy philanthropist to someone who runs around creating AIs to try and defend the Earth feels forced. I can see the roots of his motives but somehow the film didn't sell me his plan nearly as easily as I could buy Steve Rogers' opposition. Like many of Marvel's comics events it felt as if Stark had been tweaked a little to make him fit the plot, rather than being true to the character. One thing I did like, across the board, was the fact that the characters were shown saving people during the final battle and that civilian safety came so high on the agenda.

The addition of the Maximoff twins feels as if it was a missed opportunity and that the characters were simply pawns in the ongoing brouhaha between Marvel and Fox. Arguably they brought nothing that were particular to their own characters to the film and were simply there to move the plot along. Scarlet Witch could have been replaced by Moondragon, Mantis or any other Marvel mystic/psychic characters: cruelly it feels as if she was included to satisfy Whedon's yen for teen girl protagonists. Quicksilver feels even more superfluous, his role could have been filled by anyone, even an adaptoid robot or something else, and his death comes as a slap in the face for fans (though he could be resurrected over in Agents of SHIELD). Meanwhile the Vision really comes across as the film's breakout star in terms of  characters, though I'm at a loss as to how the Mind gem produces laser beams (comic book physics anyone?).  Of all the three new characters only he needed to be there, if only to recreate the father/son drama he and Ultron share in the comics. He's also the new addition who comes across as the strongest character, both twins being little more than ciphers.

Overall, a good film, but its flaws, in my opinion, are writ large. I hope that the upcoming Infinity War films will rewrite the studio's playbook and give us something new.

A Quote I Love

"Literature is luxury, fiction a necessity"

G.K. Chesterton

Wednesday, 15 April 2015

Gaming: A Question of Structure

Having done some dissection of various genres and game tropes, or at least run down the things I dislike, I’m turning nerdy (or should that be nerdier?) to look at campaign structure. This is a subject most gamers don't contemplate and, I sense, most of us don't want to consider. There is an allure to the ‘unplanned’ game, where playing is laid back and the whole thing fits together like clockwork. The reality is that structure is something that impacts on most of us, even if we don't acknowledge it.

Structure can take two forms, the first is simply deciding where and when adventures fall in your campaign, is that too easy for the middle of the game is that too difficult. One of my plots, an auction game where the player characters travel to a remote location and have to a) ascertain whether the item for sale is what they’re looking for and b) buy or steal it, all while staying on the right side of their paranoid host. So far so simple, but I’ve always felt that it’s a plot that needs to sit part way through the campaign, once the characters reputations have been established. As I’ve never had a game last long enough put the plot into motion, it remains unplayed.

The second relates to how you set out your adventures in totality, how you envisage the run of the campaign. Rather than being concerned with the narrative, it deals with way the skeleton of the whole piece is built and the experience that players undergo. Whilst there’s an argument that any campaign consists of sequential adventures, leading one from the other and increasing in difficulty as player characters gain experience points, this kind of structure deals with the way you put those together. This is what I’m really talking about here, and while I nod towards indie games that act as exemplars of each mode, my focus is really on traditional games, if only because I stopped collecting RPGs for the sake of it some time ago and I’m referring to what I have either read or played.

The first thing we should probably consider is how games are designed. Increasingly in the modern age, there is a strong element of intent within the design process, whether that’s embracing the Forge’s GNS theory or because the design is looking to invoke a genre, something that can include old school Dungeons and Dragons as easily as it does Noir, or Pulp. That’s partly what the Old School Revolution is about; capturing the atmosphere of the original fantasy games. Mechanically, this often means making sure that the rules will enable a style of play, so swashbuckling games support high octane, athletic fights, whilst horror games support the idea of diminishing sanity.

Increasingly games are designed with you play the game in mind. Fiasco is designed to excel at one shots for example, and many newer products on the market have a ‘pick up and play’ feel to them: Barbarians of Lemuria might not obviously be designed for short games, but the ease at which you can build characters certainly lends that element to it. Games like Shadowrun and SLA Industries fit this mode too, their central assumptions are keyed to missions that are done and dusted quickly, setting the player characters up for the next, possibly unconnected, encounter.

Hollow Earth Expedition, on the other hand, is set up for the long haul, even set somewhere that you can’t really dip in and out and which remains central to the game even if you’re playing adventures set on the surface world. This seems to be a feature of games that run on the Ubiquity system, of the three I’ve seen[1], only All For One: Regime Diabolique feels as if has a flexible structure. The others are pretty much slaved to depicting epic adventures that go all over the globe. Over at Pelgrane’s Gumshoe games Night’s Black Agents is not only designed to be played as a campaign, it operates in a rigid structure, as the characters climb the ‘conspyramid’ to find the vampires they’re fighting.

Between the two sits another structure, one that’s like a TV series, small adventures that grow into something more significant because there’s a continued focus on a particular story. Most World of Darkness games, with their focus on theme and mood, feel as if they’re designed for this: limited campaigns that don’t go on forever and ever but tell their specific story or arc and then move on to something else. The most iconic game for this kind of gaming though, is Primetime Adventures, which openly takes inspiration from serial television.

Each of these campaign designs has its advantages and its pitfalls. What I intend to do is pull them apart a bit and see how they work, what their advantages are and where pitfalls lie. It should be remember that different structures lend themselves to different kinds of narrative or play experience. What will work well with one game, won’t work with another.

Mission based games are largely stand alone, presenting an adventure as a single, solitary entity. In terms of other media, they’re like a cartoon show or a book of short stories, using a setting to give the players something to do often without being connected to other adventures. They can offer flexibility and allow players to explore the setting, and to contribute. Where they excel is in variety of subject matter and in spotlighting; the GM can shift the focus from one player to another, in much the same way as the media mentioned above.

The danger here is mission games can start to feel unfocused, as you slip from one subject to another. One week you raid a lab to retrieve samples, the next you’re hunting a serial killer. Once the adventure is over, then the PCs often never return. If they do, then it’s likely you’ve forgotten half the original adventure and are wondering what the fuss is about. Did we meet the one eyed man with the three faced, chain smoking cat before, or was it someone else? At the most extreme the game turns into a series of one shots with no common ground; it hangs in limbo, with nothing to make it compelling. Variety becomes both a blessing and a curse.

They also run the risk of becoming repetitive, especially if there’s scant attention paid to continuity or world building. This is because most games are based on action/adventure stories, even if they’re played out rather than written down. They reflect their genre by having a static internal structure that consists of a number of ‘moves’, investigation, discovery and combat, with little deviation from the formula. This is reflected in the way that players can only select from a limited number of actions, fight; talk, run, and steal. Whilst the plot moves towards a denouement, it behoves us to acknowledge that this is likely to be another, bigger fight before the player characters head home for tea and cheesy toasties.

The format was sold to me under the premise of its flexibility, the idea that it would fit around the busy jobs that some of the people I was gaming with at the time were doing. In fact, I don’t think it did anything of the sort, acting as a way to justify players not engaging or buying into the game. Keeping people motivated is a topic for another blog, but I feel that unless everyone is on board, mission based gaming starts to feel like a punishment for consistently turning up to play, whilst doing nothing involve people who don’t turn up regularly.

The Epic structure is perhaps best considered to be the novel of the RPG world, inherently long form and potentially complicated. It evokes the sort of epics that gaming companies have published in the past, books like the Rod of Seven Parts, The Enemy Within or the Masks of Nyarlethotep. These feed into the special place the campaign has in the gamers’ imagination, the game that takes you from a zero to a hero, a nothing to a Superman. They serve as something of a talisman, the multiyear game that goes on and on in an endless summer. It is also perhaps the most ‘natural’ feeling of the three models, because of this. Small wonder it is also the basis for a huge number of computer games as well, all capped off with duels to the death with dragons, demons, gods and other escapees from the cosmological petting zoo.

This kind of game tends to be the GM’s territory, rather than the players’. Many players expect and in some cases desire this sort of play experience: it either gives them something to kick against, creating an ‘enemy GM’ who must be defeated, or lets them forget about gaming while they aren’t doing it; knowing their role is to turn up and participate. So the GM can go to town, laying down plots, twists; surprises and so on until he or she is blue in the face, without too much interference.

This can really make the setting shine, letting its character take centre stage; you get the full sense of Warhammer’s Old World or the wilds of Faerun, or wherever you’re playing. It can also feel organic, because you are by necessity involved in your character’s life; there is no cut away or downtime between encounters. You get a warts and all experience, touching parts that you need not consider in a mission based structure, where how you pay for food or get laid may not feature. The long form nature of the structure gives the rarest of gifts, the chance to breathe and develop character; in contrast to the potential haste intrinsic to mission based play where you need to get things done both in and out of game.

The other advantage of Epic as a structure is that it’s often completely open. You can have a large spanning plot that takes characters from one place to another without the start/stop/start again that missions can develop: play is more open ended. Travel fits well into the evolving nature of this kind of structure.

The problem is that an epic campaign can become overwhelming; players can be blinded with too much detail. It can also start to feel as if you have little control over your character’s destiny, because the grand story takes precedence over everything else, or the GM stalls, waiting for the right moment. Which is great in the right circumstances, but if you’re losing interest in the grand plot you won’t really appreciate that you can’t unmask the King’s uncle’s plan to ensure the Queen remains barren because the moon isn’t in the eighth house of Aquarius with the moons at their fullest.

Finally, the ‘Chronicle’ lurks in a hazy ground between the two, taking the short form adventures mission based play focuses on and hitching it to the longer story epic campaign strives towards. Where it differs from the latter is that the arc will be more constrained. You aren’t going out to reclaim the seven mystic doodads that will keep the evil dragon empress contained in her volcano prison; you’re trying to clear your local neighbourhood of a series of threats. In the same way Mission based gaming works you’re dealing with the intimate, but there are connections between adventures. Clearing the neighbourhood of small monsters reveals a larger enemy lurking in the shadows, the strange sword you found in your den turns out to belong to a rival who will do anything to reclaim it. The plots connect, building a wider world. Add theme to the mix and you can develop something very close to what a TV season looks like, to the extent that I believe Primetime Adventures does exactly this.

For me this is the best way to play, the pace will be brisk and your adventures can be varied, but there’ll also be consistency and a reason to care about what the player characters are doing. There’s always a final objective to work towards, defeating the king vampire, getting rid of the alien incursion; or recovering the last pages of the Black Grimoire and its presented as being a feasible goal. With a good GM you’ll know what the end point is either before you start playing or in the first few weeks. After that, you have a focus on what’s going, with a few side trips that can bear fruit later. It also allows for ‘season’ play, keeping the same characters and setting but allowing both to develop as new threats become revealed. This also allows for GMs to lay games along a theme, exploring a particular idea.

The downside is that you do lose something from both the other modes of play. There’s no way you can have the flexibility, the ‘do anything’ of the mission because you have to make some sort of sense within your larger framework and there’s a natural loss of scope because you can’t have a never ending story. Again, the form’s constraints are going to limit what you can do.

In conclusion, the structure your campaign takes will always be subject to a number of factors, the genre you’re playing, player expectations and how much of a commitment you’re looking to make. You may find your game adopts all three structural forms over the course of its life, if it can, as it adapts to events in the real world, or you may find that you find your groove and stick with it. It’s an important thing to keep in mind, but not to be beholden to; don’t be afraid to experiment. Perhaps your Hollow Earth Expedition characters can play missions once they’re stuck in the inner earth’s steamy, night-less jungles; perhaps the Shadowrunners can be sent on a long campaign as they try to identify Aztechnology’s Directors; who’s to say, apart from you? The important thing is to decide what structure you want to play and then to make it work, rather than doing it half-heartedly, and to make allowances for the places where the mechanics don’t quite support what you’re doing. And above all, don’t get too hung up on it, and have fun.

[1]  Hollow Earth Expedition, Leagues of Adventure and All for One: Regime Diabolique

Friday, 10 April 2015

Gaming: Some Thoughts on Space Opera


The Fat Goose splashed down into real space, screens going black; systems cutting out as the engine cut out, drained from traversing the Pleat. Journeying across the Other Space was always hard on the old girl, Kira reflected, scrabbling under the desk for her rebreather.

It’ll be fine, the atmo will kick in any second, it always does, she thought. But she found the kit anyway, clutching it tight, ready to lift it to her face if something went wrong.

A second later the engine sputtered back into life and the screen in front of her flickered. Lines of numbers appeared as the computer rebooted, sending a blast of bhangra across the cabin. Quisp straightened, rabbit ears twitching atop her head as she took in the changes. Her soap, a Puerto dubbed Martian thing that Kira didn’t understand flickered back onto one of her screens and the Moreau squealed with delight, leaning forward to watch.

Hey, big foot. Are you helping me work out where we are or what?” Kira demanded, punching a button on her console. “Come on you piece of junk, tell me where we are.” It burbled as she called up diagnostic system. The jump should have worked fine, but sometimes the vagaries of passing through the other space left ships light years off course. She flicked on the comms, “Finn, Echo, you got anything for me?”

There was a crackle and two voices chimed in simultaneously, “Nothing strange to report Kira.”

Oi, it's Captain remember?” She snapped. Finn had come aboard at Alpha Point, a human with a penchant for guns. Kira was happy to let him run security as long as he did what he was told. One of his toy drones whirred into the cabin, span, splaying a red light grid across the walls to check for anything out of place, before it carried on its search.

She keyed the comms back on, “I take it we have no squatters from the Pleat, Finn?” The chances of picking up other space ghosts was slim, but, again, it happened. Especially on ships as old and cranky as the Goose.

Nah, nothin’. Looks like ye got away with it again, Kira.” He paused, “So where are we? I think the constellation on the right looks familiar.”

Yeah but you think your butt does too, and you’re not a contortionist.” She checked the screen, “We’re still checking but it looks like we’re back in Chain space.”

The Chain was a narrow band of space that sat between the two great powers. On the one side there was the Terran Republic, on the other Anasasi Empire. They had fought over the Chain for a century at least. Only bankruptcy on the one hand and God knew what on the other had forced an end to hostilities. All anyone knew was the fighting had stopped, and somehow the contested planets' governments  had taken the step of telling both powers they were not wanted. 

Even more amazingly, the interdict seemed to have stuck.  

Thank Terra for that. The Republic’s getting’ too hot, no wonder everyone’s leavin’.” He sounded distracted. “I swear gettin’ out was the best thing I did.”

You and me both, mate. How's the cargo?” They had picked up a psychic on ARES 5, a young boy desperate to get out before the Terran Republic found him, forced him to join the military. Being in possession of talent had become another way of ending up a soldier, after the requisite brain washing had taken place of course. Most of them were trying to get out, which meant there was a chance to earn a few coins if you were in the right place at the right time. 

Of course, Chain Space was filling up with refugees, political idealists, artists, smugglers and people who just didn't fancy living under the shadow of the autocrat's execution blade. They ended up in habs, on moons as well as planetside. Nobody wanted them, but where else were they going to go. The Long War had crushed the government, people had begged the army to take control. It was only afterwards that they'd expressed regret, when the junta turned on them and started up their 'humans first' dogma.  

Finn coughed, there was a loud swallow as he drank something. “He's sleepin' like a baby. Not a peep out of him since we popped in the white noise booth.”

Good, last thing we need is a cranky psychic on board. They're enough trouble as it is.” Kira tapped a few keys, squinting at the screen. “Keep him sedated until we touch rock okay?”

Sure, he'll be no bother.” Finn sniffed a little, as if she'd said something mortally offensive. “I just hope those Third Eye freaks were serious about payin' for warm bodies, y'know?”

From your lips to God's ears, mate.” She flicked another switch, sending a set of diagnostic systems to work checking the ship’s hull. Another switch activated the scanners, looking to pick up radio traffic. Ordinarily she wouldn’t bother but today, it felt like the location software was taking its sweet time.

Captain,” Quisp said, straightening in her seat. “I gots something.” She swiped it over to Kira's screens, the image of a single cylindrical object floating in the vacuum. “Spindle,” Quisp intoned.

Sweet,” Kira said, smoothing her hair back. “That'll make things easier. The Spindle was one of the Chain's central points for trade, gossip, and crime. Much as she hated to admit it, it was perfect for people like them. A minute later a glut of data pinged off the station's sensors. The spindle's image on the screen sprouted adverts, coloured by category. Most were blue, vanilla and sensible, but a few were pink, suggesting intimate services. Kira tapped a few keys, knowing that if she sifted deep enough there would be some sort of job opportunity.

As she did so, she flicked the comms on again. “Echo, are we going anywhere?”

There was a crackle and then, “We should be setting off in a moment, the old girl's just getting warm again. We'll need some new parts though, it looks like the capacitors need replacing.” The words echoed slightly, as if two voices were speaking, one an instant later slower than the other. She had earned her name because of that. She said she was ‘Nexim’, whatever the hell that was.

We should be able to get some parts from the Elephant Boys,” Kira said. “Just make sure we get there in one piece.” She signed off, frowning as something flashed up on the screen. A high priority message, encrypted out the wazoo.

She opened it, read it through, paling as she did. Words like 'psychic', 'abducted' and 'legitimate concerns' and 'measured reprisals' were all too evident and though she had expected something like it, well she'd dared to hope that they would be something the crew could worry about in a few months time. Space was big, even with the ability to travel through the Pleat. Instead, it looked like they might be running. “Quisp, what do you think of this?”

The Moreau scooted over, peering over her shoulder. “Wows, serious?”

Serious, in over our heads serious” Kira confirmed. 

"Crazy Terrans?" 

"That's how it looks." Kira tapped the screen, a seal with a double headed eagle gripping a pair of swords sat at the top of the memo. "Looks like we pissed off the Republic."

"Again," Quisp chimed. 

"Yes, again." Kira pulled a face, "You don't have to bring the Midas incident up every time we see the Terrans, Quisp."

"But it was funnies."

"No, it wasn't. Nothing where I end up wearing a bucket of fish and the Commander of Fort Churchill is sending out attack wings is funny, okay?" 

Quisp twitched her nose, "If you says so, but I likes it." She mimed having a bucket on her head, ears twitching. 

Kira froze as she something shifted on a screen, a ripple in the void, creating a gate into the Pleat.  The prow of a ship began to nose its way into real space. Red lights flashed, illuminating the Terran crest. This was no Fat Goose, this was a war ship, with back up generators to keep the thing moving once it was back in real space. Kira knew that once it was clear wings of fighters would launch, aiming to incapacitate the smaller ship. They weren't meant to be here, weren't meant to enter Chain space. The war ship broke free of the Pleat as another gate began to open.

Lights flickered on the ship's prow, flashing a message; surrender your cargo or prepare to be boarded.

There was a whine from the body of the ship as Finn activated the gun turrets.

Kira slapped the comms, "Finn don't, they're looking for an excuse."

"But Kira," he protested.

"Captain," she snapped back. "And do as you're bloody told."

Before he could respond, she cut the channel, and toggled it again to Echo's frequency.“We have to move,” she barked. “Get this big bucket moving Echo, we have to skedaddle.”

Okay, okay... okay, okay,” the Nexim woman said. There was a roar as the Fat Goose's engines kicked into life. “Where are we going, Captain?”

They began to move, the war ships starting to move away, falling into their wake. Kira hoped that they would have to take a moment to recover. Surely, even though they were designed to travel the Pleat, they couldn't kick straight into high gear as soon as they'd left it. That was one reason for the fighters.

The Fat Goose could outrun fighters. 

But they still needed a place to go, and a plan. More than anything they needed to buy some time. Kira ran through the list of all the people who owed them a favour; it was too short and nobody on it could help against this kind of problem. She flipped over onto the other list, which was rather longer and detailed who the Fat Goose's crew owed favours to. Again, there was a sizable number of people who were no use at all, but some of them looked likely, and some of them had a stronger interest in keeping them alive, than letting them die.  

"Quisp, plot the likely locations of Van Hrees, Cortez, the Red Legion and Shamar," she said. grabbing the controls. 

The Moreau's fingers flashed over her keyboard, watching the data with half an eye as she absorbed more of her soap opera. A moment later she slid a list over, with the information.

Kira glanced at it, grimaced. She grabbed the radio, “The Spindle, Echo; we're going to have to see the Slug.”


In the wake of my posts about Fantasy and Horror gaming, and as I'm apparently on a bit of a kick where the subject's concerned, my thoughts turned to SF games with the view to doing a similar exercise with those. The problem here is that I haven't really played much SF, a little bit of Dark Heresy (which only really led me to conclude it's Call of Cthulhu in space and that I prefer good old fashioned Lovecraft), some SLA Industries, and a few sessions of Serenity but not very much else. I've owned a lot of Space Opera RPGs and the quest to find something that I really, and which a) clicks with me and b) works for the players I know, has become something of a holy grail. Of the games I own, Eclipse Phase and Ashen Stars get close to what I want... but somehow they still don't feel quite right, for reasons I can't quite put my finger on, and I still dream about completing my 'perfect setting'.

I should probably note here that I have Rocket Age and Septimus to read in PDF but I’ve not really looked at them yet. Likewise I’m waiting to read Transhuman for Eclipse Phase before I make any decisions about it – 1000 character points are hard to assign, and is the main reason I haven't  run the game. I’m not going to comment on soft or hard SF, mostly because I don’t know enough science to comment on what is feasible and what should really be shuffled into the science fantasy camp (I usually know the latter when I see it, but there are places where the walls between genres grow thin).

I like Science Fiction a lot, despite my issues with finding an RPG to play it in. Some of my earliest memories are of shows like Ulysses 31, and Battle of the Planets, or a set of weird children’s novels about a society with lots of cloning (I think there was also a novel by the same author which featured a group of convicts who crash landed on a desolate planet on their way to a sort of space Alcatraz), and though I only remember the sketchiest of details I know I enjoyed them a lot. Heretically, Star Wars barely registered on my radar, I saw Return of the Jedi when it came out but the rest of the original trilogy passed me by: I saw A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back when I was at university, by which point I think I was too old to appreciate them fully. By that time I had lapped up Blade Runner, various incarnations of Star Trek, the original Battlestar Galactica, a lot of Babylon Five, the Pern novels, Dune, and a healthy chunk of Doctor Who, as well as a load of other things. These days I love books like Neptune's Brood or Mind Jammer, and I'm looking forward to Company Town when it comes out. I'm not so bothered by the likes of Star Trek these days, especially given the way that Paramount seem so intent on recreating the 1960s series on the big screen; it feels as if it's the SF of my parents' generation boiled down to a series of adventures largely run on handwaivium. It's the sort of thing Cyberpunk and the New Wave were reacting to, a sort of hang over from the Golden Age of SF with ripped space captains seducing buxom aliens. Even the updated series of Next Gen and Deep Space Nine have that classic feel to them, married to an allegiance that ‘science can fix everything’ that other series, more focused on human drama, eschewed. Gradually SF has slipped from military re-enactments to something on the greyer side of the tracks. Farscape, Firefly and Guardians of the Galaxy gave us crews of characters who were a bit dodgy to say the least, and which seem to have lasting appeal. Does that signify a sea change? I’m not sure.

Science Fiction is a weird genre at the moment, a bit of a hydra, as it tries to adapt to science that’s moving too fast to keep up with. For gaming it’s also difficult because where Fantasy and Horror have a shared lexicon SF doesn’t – concepts change their names as easily as the schematic here. There is no ‘elves, dwarves and dragons’ template to work to. As a result it’s hard to consider the genre has a whole. Transhumanism will have different tropes to space opera, which will have different signifiers to a ‘punk’ genre. Even in space opera there are differences. Is the game working to a Flash Gordon style or a Star Trek one, does it embrace the psychedelic madness of the 1970s or the black leather and blasters of the late 1990s? Most games seem to either default to space opera or to cyberpunk and to keep the tropes and tones of their work fairly vanilla. As is so common in games, the pursuit of profit is generally held to be the chief driver for adventure, giving an easy way to measure success, albeit a rather dull one.

I get the feeling that there’s not much else that can be done. In the real world, science and technology are moving too quickly to comprehend; science fiction writers are struggling to keep up with real world developments. let alone the rest of us. As a consequence novels are shifted either far into the future or back into the past. An example of this is Global Frequency, the Warren Ellis comic book series which featured futuristic phones that he’d researched with the help of the likes of Siemens and Nokia. Within five years of Global Frequency being published, the tech market had caught up, in fact by now they’ve surpassed the phones in the series by several iterations. Authors like Jaine Fenn have said they prefer to boot their work into the far future so they don’t have to deal with the upheaval of new technology, whilst others have said that they struggle to set anything after about 2050 because they assume humanity will have changed fundamentally, in the way that Eclipse Phase shows a diverse race that really doesn’t have a baseline anymore. This is something that affects all of us, at a time when most of us don’t really know how technology has transformed the likes of police work and can barely see how databases, MOOCs and the internet in general are changing other professions, most of us are trapped in the assumptions of the past. As a consequence we turn to the flesh, assuming people will endure when the machines have become dust. It’s less messy somehow to assume that your contact is human and you can see them face to face, rather than an AI half a light year away that operates remotely.

Bringing it back to gaming, I think a lot of the issues I have with these games mirror those that arise from the Fantasy for me. I suspect that there’s at least an element of ‘my loss’ and of overthinking on my part too. Races, society, technology and so on. That isn’t to say that they’re automatically the same, however. In places they’re almost identical but in others I think they’re quite different. I do think that a lot of alien races are ciphers, rendered down to one or two dimensions and cursed with monocultures, when humanity’s diversity is celebrated hugely. There’s also the ‘TV alien problem’, where extra-terrestrials come across as other nationalities with funny foreheads. Klingons started out as space communists who became space Vikings for TNG. Over in Babylon Five the Centauri were nearly painful caricatures of Europeans, albeit from the 18th Century, whilst the Minbari looked like cod Asians. Film isn’t exempt, the Empire in Star Wars was a version of the USSR as well as Lucas openly acknowledging the series’ pulp roots. The effect of this is to ground the aliens in stereotypes, that make them easy for player, readers and watchers to grasp, but also means they don’t really grow beyond that stereotype.

SF gaming, and particularly Space Opera gaming, has remained a weird thing that I've looked at and failed spectacularly to find a way into. I often don't find settings particularly inspiring, at a broad brush level, they are too perfect, and I enjoy reading about them only to find myself wondering where to slip in the pieces of plot. Aside from the fact Eve can't find a likable character race to play in Fading Suns, the only plot trigger I've ever thought of for the game has been the murder mystery in space, which is essentially Death on the Nile (in space). Whilst I had ideas for plots to spin off the initial plot, the rest of the setting seemed almost too perfect, even taking into account Symbiotes, political clashes between the various factions and the mysteries left behind by long dead races. Other SF games provoke similar feelings, I think that there are elements of the 'broad sweep' that the setting creators have to employ to get the atmosphere of their creation across being opposed by being able to zoom in and pick up on details. 

Similarly I feel that a lot of games don’t provide a clear purpose for players, relying on a sort of ‘oh um just do stuff’ premise, which is both charming and annoying. On the one hand it allows you to give the players their heads, so they can set the agenda, whilst on the other it’s bitty and makes it hard to know what to pitch. Again that lack of a baseline set of assumptions comes into play. Am I pitching a merchant marine game, or something more ambitious?

The shadow of anachronism seems to sneak over space opera too, acting as both an opportunity and as a crutch. A lot of games are obsessed with recreating the Medieval, Renaissance or Roman periods in space, falling back into that comfy quagmire of titles, fealty and divine right. I can see the appeal in some ways, you can interpret the dead of space as analogous to the wilderness, planets to points of light; even if it’s highly unlikely that human colonisation of space would resemble anything like it, even with the problems of communicating over vast distances. Sure, there’ll be some places where you get bolt holes of bandits, pirate ships, and illicit space stations, but the cost implications of running these things mean that in the end they’d either have to nest in among legitimate businesses or find a way to game the system subtly in order to keep the vacuum at bay (and if you can do that, why on earth would you turn to blaster and plasma blade piracy?) Like gangsters, crime would hide behind establishments, a moon with a casino city on its surface, just far enough out from the local populated planets to be considered ‘international waters’.

Feudalism is based on ‘some who fight, some who work, some who pray’; it's set up for a society of knights, labourers and priests. It is a system that depends on ignorance in order to prosper, so how far would we have to bump down the technological tree to make that vision of the universe work? I can buy planetary governors and the creep of military power, but that just makes an autocracy and conjures up images of El Presidente, not a medieval monarchy in space. Dictatorships are not necessarily feudal, after all. With computing and other advances in technology that is transforming our society, it suggests that a return to feudalism is unlikely and unnecessary unless you’re absolutely married to the idea. The only point at which it might be viable is if FTL or warp travel is cheap and readily available: you might get raiders dropping into real space and need some sort of rapid response force, but I’m not sure that really leans towards the institutions of feudalism as much as it does something like the Pony Express or a Gundam team.

There’s an oddness in regards to technology too, swinging from the highly complex to the brutally simple. Whilst there’s a sense that this can level the field, it also gets a bit strange; why would you carry a claymore into battle when your opponents are armed with lasers? Why charge in at all when you could sneak about in a chameleon suit? It is as if the way that technology will inevitably change the way we operate as a species is forgotten so that the satisfying thump of a melee weapon smacking against an opponent can be preserved. At the same time the extreme edges of tech are frequently dismissed unless they fall into the ‘they’re there and they get out of the way’ category. So things like robots remain either as slaves or would be conquerors, ideas like e-democracy languish in the dust, unused and unloved by the vast majority of gaming. Other areas of science are neglected completely or is considered impossible – where are the rooms of people who though suavely dressed are armed to the teeth because their weapons look like jewellery? Where are the local internets? Wouldn’t it be cool to arrive at a space station and have a load of data pinging on your holo display, to be able to sift through adverts until you find the rhino boys from Mama Go or the psychic ‘companion’ who’ll give you the experience of a life time… and that’s before you disembark? I have a sense sometimes that the hobby clings to simple things because you can only move as fast as your slowest player and that in SF terms that means a spaceship, some guns and a mystical quality like the Force. Basically Fantasy in the void…

There are always limits of course, depending on the flavour of the science fiction on offer. The Diaspora RPG openly states that the point at which AIs become functional, humans develop biomods and so on, is the point where the human race ceases to exist. Whilst I can see where the designers are coming from, is that really what we want? I can think of lots of interesting angles to explore in a world where you can swap your genes about at will or where the city has a computerised soul (for want of a better term). Transhuman games take the opposite view, allowing the human form to be malleable; memory to be moulded to the character’s design. They don’t reach the heights of Glass House or Iain M Banks’ work, there are not purple striped centaurs here, but they reject the primacy of baseline, unmodified, humanity.

Some games feature more than one type of trope of course, marrying bits of cyberpunk with transhumanism and low level space opera. Eclipse Phase, for instance, has elements of all three, and a healthy shot of horror to boot, even if travel about the solar system is slow, operating at only slightly faster rates than in real life (much faster to ‘far cast’ – beam yourself across the system to pick up a new body there). Ashen Stars includes cybernetics as a standard thing, even going so far as to have a cyborg ‘race’ that’s distinct from humans.

Again, I appreciate that this is about access; simplicity means people can get involved easily, take what they want and not have to worry about hard stuff. The fact that our concepts of science and technology have changed so much since the late 1970s when Traveller was first published is arguably no argument for people stopping enjoying the types of SF they do and there's a huge appeal to a lot of people in the basics, even if they don't work for me. What I'd like to see is the development of more daring settings though.