Tuesday, May 31, 2022

A Fiction Interlude: A Day in the Life in the Eternal Ocean

Below is a short story I wrote as a part of The Eternal Ocean setting. The goal of the story is to give the player a sense of what life is like on a Confederate space colony, the work, the culture, and then, the danger.

The story features a character, Teddy Lovelace, whose letters to home also appear in the setting book, and a clue about his fate during the disaster that destroyed the first colony on Rusalka.

He's intentionally a man of his era: a little dull, cautious, and a bit of a sad sack. Not to mention the kind of nice guy who desperately needs to hear Frank Zappa's "Broken Hearts are for Assholes", only that song is probably blocked on his colony.

I wanted to share it here as a change of pace from my usual content.

There is a little gore and oblique sexual references in this one, as fair warning.

A Day in the Life

Ted woke up as the lights slowly brightened in his room.  He reached across the bed to the empty space  beside him. He sighed sharply through his nose. He still hadn't gotten used to sleeping alone in bed alone. The time was visible on his ceiling 

"You woke me up two minutes early," he grunted at his apartment. It responded in a feminine mid-Atlantic:

"You have listed getting to work on time a high priority. You have struggled for five days to get out of the door at your designated leaving time. Waking you two minutes early will make your day run more smoothly and reduce stress. You have had eight hours and thirteen minutes of sleep. This time is within the Copernicus Healthy Living™ Program tolerances."

He grunted. The "™" wasn't read aloud, but the computer had a way of saying trademarked titles that made you hear it anyway.

"I'm considering changing my health program subscription."

"You are very grumpy this morning," his apartment replied. "You should not make subscription or purchase decisions until you have had breakfast and your shower."

Monday, May 30, 2022

Using Misinformation in Play

The Nostromo in Alien was originally
Imagined as an amphibious starship
called The Leviathan. Chris Foss'
Original design was a big inspiration
Over the last month I ran low fantasy gaming as a guest GM for Steven Smith's World of Wierth campaign. My adventure ended in tragedy with one PC grievously wounded in a submersible accident, then devoured by mutant sea creatures before his allies could rescue him. The other two died fighting Deep Ones in the sunken wreck of an ancient spaceship, The Leviathan.

While I run a very action heavy game, and one that can be quite lethal, what really makes my games special (in my opinion) is the way I handle NPC interactions.

I don't expect players to act in character or put on funny voices. But, I at least act out some of the dialogue myself (with voices) where it adds color and flavor. More importantly, I do so where it adds valuable nuance and complexity.

When the right amount of play acting is added to a game, it can be used to control the flow of information.

One of the ways I like to enrich games is to make sure that the Player Characters get information that isn't always correct, is partially correct, or misleading. Obviously, you never want to lie to Players about the world around them as perceived by the PC; that runs contrary to the best practices in the game. But you can include deceptive information by having helpful NPCs be ignorant or misinformed, or by having NPCs with hidden motives intentionally giving incomplete information. 

It reminds wary players stay on their toes and keep them thinking about what they and their characters are experiencing in ways that being too stingy with information -- or making any given NPC basically unhelpful -- cannot.

This past month I used this to great effect.

Friday, May 27, 2022

TPK in the Deep!

Left to right: Lieres, Goloxir, Aeneas:
Aeneas perished in last night's game

 Over the last month, I have been sitting at the helm of my friend Stephen's campaign world, Weirth, while he did some catching up on personal projects. It is the second time that I have created and run an adventure for his very detailed, and very weird setting.

I have to confess, it is very strange trying to capture the flavor and intent of another GM's world at times. Weirth is very different from the kind of game I like to run: it is a gritty, low-fantasy setting where the gods are silent, most knowledge is lost to the ages, and the people bound up in a mix of survival-mode desperation and elaborate tradition. Where the most magic most people encounter is the constant low-grade zombie apocalypse that is ongoing, but has been going on so long most people know how to handle it.

Compared to my bright, weird, high-tech, high-magic setting of Xen, or my noble-bright realm of divine heroism in Aldrune, Wierth requires a totally different mindset and design principles. Accordingly, I worry often about introducing elements that may foul up the setting. Especially once I add intrigue, politics, or intelligent beings to the mix.

Stephen is, of course, gracious. He seems to just like how much effort I put into creating adventures that feel like they fit in his world. In fact, he gave me the green light to create the introductory module for the upcoming published Wierth setting, The Queen of Decay, which I posted at the end of March on my itch page, and will soon be migrating to DTRPG.

I think he enjoys the effort I put into being an asset at his table. Including taking the roles of Mapper and Caller with deadly seriousness (even if I have to do both at once), and creating silly fan art of the campaign.

But last night I did something that surprised me, and that bothered me a little;

I killed everyone.

Sunday, May 22, 2022

Building a Science Fiction Setting that Lasts (pt.5)

When you have a good set of themes for a science fiction setting, they serve you as idea and content generators. Every theme can suggest a piece of technology, a dilemma, A villain, an alien, or a revelation that you can use to help you build your campaign. Over the next few articles, I will cover different ways you can use your themes to tease out content, and how that will make a richer, more unified setting.


Fantasy settings rely on magic, wonders, and monsters to create extraordinary circumstances. It is the things that don't belong in the everyday world that don't just make it Fantastical, but give the PCs something to focus on. In Fantasy, either problems are caused by the magic and monsters, or can only be solved with them.

And in fantasy, you can draw upon pre-existing myths and folklore, as well as a rich tradition of pulp tropes to come up with the contents of your setting.

Modern role-playing settings rely on factions, contacts, and conspiracies to create something extraordinary for the setting. A well written conspiracy, a couple of secret societies, or a criminal organization, combined with some well done NPCs are what makes a modern setting seem like something special and worth pursuing. And again, it is these groups and NPCs that the PCs must focus on as the problem and the solution.

In a Science Fiction setting we have neither the familiarity of a modern or pseudohistorical medieval setting to work with from the beginning. And, while a good science fiction story might include conspiracies and criminal organizations, they require a lot of context to be made useful or understandable.

In science fiction, advanced technology, strange planets, and alien races create the extraordinary circumstances that drives the player characters: aliens, strange worlds, or tech that either create problems, or are the only means of solving them. 

Because Science Fiction it doesn't have the context of the modern world or a historical period or mythological backdrop, that technology has to be custom designed by the game master.

I am going to cover the basics of the technology and how you can use themes to develop the technology in your setting below:

Wednesday, May 18, 2022

Building a Science Fiction Setting that Lasts (pt. 4)

Whether you have chosen a Thesis or not for your Science Fiction Setting, by now you have a sense of your Tone. Not only will it shape the in-game elements of NPCs, technology, etc., it will also dictate the way you plan and think of your game, and how you will present it to potential players. 

One of the ways you will do this is by choosing themes for your campaign that are congruent with your tone.

Themes in a TTRPG campaign are not really that different from themes in film or literature: they are ideas that appear over and over again in different forms throughout the story. They are ideas that will likely be expressible in one to five words. Often they will be tensions you can express as "A v. B."

Pulling Out Themes: Babylon 5

Cast of Babylon 5, Season 3
As an example, let's look at the themes of a personal favorite, Babylon 5:

  • Duty v. Conscience
  • Letting others solve your problems is dangerous
  • Religion can imprison or uplifts
  • Foresight is a terrible burden
  • Alcohol solves nothing
  • Safety v. Privacy

All of these come from the central thesis of the series, which is "Can we really know Peace?"

Each of these themes appear over and over again in different forms in some combination in most episodes. There is rarely an episode that doesn't explore at least two of these.

I will try to cover these, one in detail, the others briefly in a way that doesn't assume you know the series. There will be spoilers, but the show ran over 25 years ago, so I consider that fair game. 

Sunday, May 15, 2022

Building a Science Fiction Setting that Lasts (pt. 3)

One of the most critical components of any Science Fiction setting, whether it is in literature, film, video games, or ttrpgs, is the tone you choose to set with it. Tone is more than just the mood you try to set with the backdrop, it will tell us a lot about who the people in a science fiction setting are, and what kind of world they create

The technology that appears in your campaign will also need to reflect the tone. A Star Trek replicator that can all but end hunger would strip the need for money and that's the need to do dirty jobs that drove the characters in Firefly. Your choice of tone will help you decide what should be in a game, and what should not.

Tuesday, May 10, 2022

Building a Science Fiction Setting that Lasts pt. 2

Firstly, I am going to acknowledge a major source of inspiration for this series:

I have spent a lot of time looking at resources for developing science fiction worlds, and this video by Guy over at How To Be a Great GM is one of the best, most well thought-out presentations on the topic.

I am using this video as a jumping-off point for a lot of the articles to come.

I do think the video misses a couple of useful attributes of Science Fiction settings, and so I will be building a lot on top of its framework.

I am also drawing a lot on classes I took with Dr. Deborah Wills back in University, whose work on analyzing the structure and social context of Science Fiction helped bring Pulp and genre literature into Academic discourse as something that is both a legitimate art form, and that has important things to tell us about our culture.

And I will be including insights I've gained by paying particular attention to how certain science fiction TTRPGs present their settings.

With a liberal amount of reference to both popular literary science fiction books and TV sci-fi series, of course.

On Genres

As I am talking a great deal about Science Fiction, it pays to establish an important context of the genre as a whole.

Genres of literature art and media as we understand them now are relatively new construct. Before the 1950s most publicly available creative works for either considered "Art" or "Trash"; "Classical Music", "Traditional music", or "Popular Music" (said with disdainful undertone.) 

Wednesday, May 4, 2022

Building a Science Fiction Setting that Lasts (pt.1)

I am on a roll creatively with my Eternal Ocean & Wreck project! Aside from a character sheet and an editing pass, I feel like Wreck is in more or less its final form.

The real challenge right now is building the world of The Eternal Ocean in order to actually get interest in the game. A science fiction version of Cairn with deep sea diving and some submarines is all well and good, but it isn't all that helpful to play unless you have a world to work with. 

In a TTRPG the Campaign and the game world are inextricably linked. In a way, the World is the Campaign, especially if you are playing with multiple groups using strict time tracking, or playing an Open Table / West Marches game. Your decisions as a GM are going to be shaped by the internal logic of the world. When fantastical things like magic and monsters, aliens or super-technology appear, it is your understanding of that world and how it works as a player that will determine how you approach it, and will also determine how the GM resolves it.

Fantasy has a distinct edge in this arena: most fantasy worlds are a mish-mash of European folklore, romanticized Early Modern cultures, and 1960s pulp tropes. Thanks to Dungeons & Dragons, Fantasy in most parts of the world has a default set of assumptions. Japanese fantasy Anime, an American Fantasy Action RPG video game, and a French Fantasy Graphic Novel are all going to feel, to some degree, like a variation on Greyhawk.