Welcome to Paradise; Welcome to Hell

Philip Jose Farmer’s Riverworld series postulates the mass awakening of the entire deceased population of the Earth on a paradise planet where a single, massive river separates two shores bounded by impassable mountains. All of those who have died, from all throughout history, inexplicably find themselves once more “in the flesh” and placed within a garden where they do not require shelter and do not need to work for food or drink. Luxuries are provided for them. They are in perfect health and without any kind of physical or mental deformity. Mankind has entered paradise.

Nothing could be more like Hell.

The story centers around the historical figures of Richard Francis Burton and Samuel Clemens. Both men seek to solve the mystery of the Riverworld by reaching the headwaters of the river and confronting the unseen architects that reason, and a Mysterious Stranger, tells them must exist. Their search for purpose provides the framework around which the entire thematic structure of the series revolves.

Farmer wrote primarily in the 60s and 70s. His 1953 Hugo Award winning novella “The Lovers” is credited with breaking the unspoken taboo about depicting sex in science-fiction stories. Much of Farmer’s later work continues to explore sexual themes, though he shows an equal interest in theology. Both themes are heavily explored in the Riverworld series, but they are ancillary to Farmer’s primary drive to define the identity of the individual and discover his reason for being.

Burton can’t accept a world that presents no struggle to survive and forgives the sins of the previous life. He continually comes into contact with Hermann Goering, the Nazi war criminal. The harder Burton struggles against the unseen architects of paradise, the more Goering comes to accept their new life. Burton’s life only has meaning in the face of opposition, either real or imagined.

Clemens is opposed by King John, famous despotic monarch of England. Clemens struggles continually to find an existential meaning on Riverworld that eluded him on Earth. For Clemens, life has no purpose at all. He concludes that hedonism is the only valid pursuit but is unable to find fulfillment in any of the pleasures afforded him.

Farmer made no pretense that his works were anything other than an exploration of his own interests and his own frank opinion about them. Farmer went out of his way to challenge ideas for the sake of challenging them, particularly ideas of religion, social justice, and sexual behavior. Riverworld certainly makes bold and plain statements about society, including:

  • All religion is a human invention and should only be used for peaceful societal governance, for which it is actually the only suitable tool. There is no facet of life beyond the material.
  • Restrictions on human sexuality are a societal construct for the sole purpose of controlling the size of the population, and the only humane method of doing so.
  • Total racial, cultural, and sociological segregation allows like-minded people to live together peaceably, and this is the only way peace can be accomplished.
  • Life has no intrinsic meaning. Mankind cannot be at peace with himself, but can only achieve an acceptable state of discontent.

Significantly, Farmer’s ideas and observations continually challenge my own perceptions and opinions. In this Farmer accomplishes his stated goal for all of his writing, that of exploring transgressive ideas that stay with the reader. His logical constructions proceed virtually perfectly from his central humanistic and materialistic premise and his view of humanity in paradise aligns oddly with Reformed Protestant religion, though Farmer himself was an avowed atheist.

Steve Jackson Games licensed the setting for a 3rd edition GURPS sourcebook. The Sci-Fi Channel adapted the story as a television mini-series twice, neither of which attempts garnered enough attention to justify a series. None of the adaptations explored the issues that Farmer raised in the novels. There is also a PC game inspired by the series, but I’ve never played it.

Farmer’s work earned him a great deal of critical attention during his lifetime. Both Robert Heinlein and Isaac Asimov praised Farmer’s literary construction and speculative treatments, citing him as an important personal influence. Personally, I find Farmer’s prose to be merely adequate and his story construction borderline unreadable. I read all of the Riverworld material and watched both television productions, but I didn’t really enjoy any of it. The GURPS book on the other hand portrays a fascinating setting in meticulous detail; it will forever be a treasured part of my library.

***

Winston Crutchfield reads far more than is healthy, but is attempting to compensate by foisting his favorite books onto his rebellious teenagers. He’s always open to discussion about books and looking for reading suggestions. He can be found on the Christian Geek Central forums as “MindSpike” or on Goodreads under his own name.

RPG Review: Young Centurions

Visit a world of pulp action-adventure in the 1910s with the Young Centurions RPG from Evil Hat Productions. If you’re new to Fate or to the Spirit of the Century setting, this book belongs on your shelf. If you’re already familiar with either of those, take a minute to see if this book is going to add value to your collection before you jump on it.
In Young Centurions, you take on the role of a unique individual, born in the first minute of the first hour of the first day of the new century. You embody a Spirit of the age, an aspect of the new century that shapes your character with the positive energy of things to come. Shadows oppose you, those people born on the last minute of the last hour of the last day of the previous century, empowered by the energetic detritus of what has gone before. It’s not always easy to separate Spirit from Shadow in the confusion of the new century, even when it seems you’re all working toward the same goals. And oh yes, you’re all teenagers.
Young Centurions is the prelude to Evil Hat’s Spirit of the Century and Strange Tales of the Century, books that focus on adult characters of the 30s and 40s. Those books use the original Fate or Fate Core rules while Young Centurions uses the Fate Accelerated rules. Characters in Young Centurions tend to be less powerful, less capable, and more vulnerable than adult Centurions, both because the rules of the game provide fewer powers and because, well, you’re all teenagers.
That emphasis on the characters as teenagers dealing with unique teenage problems is one of the strongest aspects of the game. (Fate pun…) We’re not talking teen angst here; the responsibilities of teenagers involve personal and family matters far more often than issues of society.
Adult heroes make decisions that impact the world at large in ways that shape the events of society as a whole. Teen heroes make decisions that change their family dynamic and potentially jeopardize and hurt the people that matter most in their life.
The book does a lot of things right. It provides a set of character archetypes to use as a foundation, with aspect questions and stunt packages that quickly get players into the meat of the game. It explains the use of approaches with clarity and through the use of examples. It teases the flavor of the world with story snippets and plot hooks as a springboard for your game.
The GM chapter contains solid advice on gaming with teens as both players and characters, as well as tips on how to use the unique elements of the Young Centurions setting. The setting chapter gives us an intriguing glimpse of the world and just what role we’re going to play. Most important, the book makes me want to be a part of this universe.
Still, there are things that I wish Evil Hat would have done differently. I see no need to reprint the Fate Accelerated rules, not when they make the FAE book so readily and inexpensively available. Young Centurions does nothing to significantly change the rules; simply adding the setting-specific material would have been sufficient.
For all the intrigue generated by the setting teasers, the book leaves us completely cold when it comes to running the foundational elements of the background. The setting has no central conflict around which to build a campaign, though opposing agendas are implied between the Century Club and the Shadows.
The book leaves the GM with a great deal of work to do in order to construct a group template, including deciding the specifics of the supporting structure and writing up stats for the opposition. I wanted more details on the Century Club, Doctor Methuselah, and the Steel Don. I want to draw inspiration from that material for my stories; I don’t want to have to create everything from scratch.
I find only one critical fault with the book. Young Centurions games follow a story structure rather than a tactical structure, but the book provides no instruction on how to set up a game. This means you can’t simply stock a building with mooks and repeatedly kick down doors. You need to construct your game for narrative flow and problem solving. The Fate Core book includes a whole chapter on how to construct conflict scenes and tie them together. That instruction is absolutely essential to Young Centurions and its absence creates problems for GMs without a strong narrative background.
So I’m conflicted. I want to like this book. The premise appeals to me a great deal. It’s a fairly solid introduction to the world of Spirit of the Century. It’s self-contained, since it reprints Fate Acceleratedand does a pretty good job with the rules. It captures the flavor of teen adventure and preserves a spirit of optimism.
This is a setting for stories that I really want to read, but it’s also a game that I really don’t want to try to run. Story structure games put up a truckload of work for the GM and require a whole table of players that know how to effectively resolve conflict within a story structure. Spirit of the Century at least gives you the option to focus on the action scenes and talk through the rest without detracting from the game play.
At the end of the book, I find myself wanting more. I really think there should have been more background material and a chapter on game construction. At only 160 pages, there’s ample room to push the page count up to 198 and create a truly complete product. The price point is good, only $20 for a full-color hardcover – half that for the PDF.
It’s a great introduction to Fate and the to Spirit of the Century setting. By the same token, if you’ve already got Spirit of the Century or Strange Tales of the Century this book adds very little to either rules or setting. Even if you’ve already got the Fate rules in one form or another, this book adds some nice new mechanics and just barely enough flavor to make Young Centurions worth the purchase.
My copy came from the original Fate Core Kickstarter, though when Evil Hat’s Magic 8-Ball selected me as a Young Centurions reviewer they also provided a digital copy. They have also requested reviews of the two Young Centurions novels: Sally Slick and the Steel Syndicate, and Sally Slick and the Miniature Menace. I read Steel Syndicate back when it was first released and loved it; I’m looking forward to reading it again on my way to the Miniature Menace ARC. See you then!

***

Winston Crutchfield reads far more than is healthy, but is attempting to compensate by foisting his favorite books onto his rebellious teenagers. He’s always open to discussion about books and looking for reading suggestions. He can be found on the Christian Geek Central forums as “MindSpike” or on Goodreads under his own name.

Citizens Grok TANSTAAFL

RAHeinlein_autographing_Midamericon_ddb-371-14Robert A. Heinlein consistently tackled social themes through the framework of his speculative fiction in such a way as to force to reader to confront his own opinions on the subject at hand. Though Heinlein’s work is generally considered to be “hard” sci-fi instead of space opera, the author seldom delved into the fundamentals of the science or problem solving behind the technology of his stories. Instead, Heinlein tended to focus on the evolution of society, the individual’s role within society, and the responsibility of individuals towards their society. His protagonists are nearly always adventurers, philosophers, or engineers of some sort instead of natural or mathematical scientists of the kind favored by Asimov.

Three of Heinlein’s most famous works received Hugo awards (Stranger in a Strange Land, Starship Troopers, and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress) while the man himself was named the first Grand Master of the Science Fiction Writers of America in 1974.

DSCN2040Stranger in a Strange Land explores the life of Valentine Michael Smith who was raised on Mars, being the sole survivor of a human expedition to that planet. With Michael as his mouthpiece, Heinlein discusses human behavior, particularly in the realms of religion and sexuality. Organized religion has largely taken the place of nationalism within society; the Fosterite cult dominates all other religions and wields a great deal of economic and political power. When Michael establishes his own religion which teaches Martian psychokinetic abilities and philosophy. The novel affirms that an individual’s highest calling is to discover and rely on himself, a concept embodied in the Martian word “grok”, whose closest English translation is, “Thou art God.”

TanstaaflIf Stranger explores the conflict between spirituality and organized religion, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress sets out to explore the conflict between individual freedom and societal obligation. The story describes a Lunar colony that attempts to gain political autonomy from the Earth, and the way that political pressures shape society. Lunar society is founded on mutual self-reliance; individuals who do not contribute to society are ostracized and may even be killed if the society deems it necessary. The revolutionaries in the story adopt the acronym “TANSTAAFL” (There Ain’t No Such Thing As A Free Lunch) as their slogan. When the moon dust settles over the colony the revolutionaries are left to govern themselves, only to find the freedom they crave impossible to marry to societal rule of law.

Before his recognition for novels critical of social and religious movements, Heinlein came under fire from the sci-fi community for a little novel titled Starship Troopers. It was seen as supportive of military adventurism and glorifying racist attitudes. Hard on the heels of the Korean War and in the early years of the Vietnam War, Heinlein received many letters criticism him for writing the book and was surprised when it won the Hugo Award in 1960. The book deals primarily with issues of personal responsibility and societal responsibility, including long passages of classroom-style discourse that landed the book on the required reading list of the US military for many years. Although not the first story to include the idea, the work is primarily famous for its detailed treatment of soldiers wearing personal powered armor.

DSCN2045Unlike many of his peers, Heinlein predominantly held spiritual or pseudo-spiritual views rather than purely secular or humanistic ones. A firm believer in personal responsibility, Heinlein grounded his views in the utility of the person to society as a whole while also denouncing organized society as repressive of individual freedom, as in modern libertarianism. From a Christian perspective, Heinlein’s work is a provocative and well-reasoned examination of life in a society where God is either absent or irrelevant. At the same time, Heinlein seems to argue that spirituality is a necessary and vital element of human existence. Heinlein’s search for spirituality within oneself comes through most clearly in Stranger in a Strange Land, and even in that novel he seems to acknowledge that although the quest for spiritual enlightenment is predominantly internal, effective instruction in enlightenment must originate externally. As with his views on personal freedom and societal responsibility, it is a position that Heinlein explored throughout his body of work without ever coming to a satisfactory resolution.

CGC LogoHeinlein’s work needs to be read by individuals ready to think critically about their belief systems and look beyond the text to implications therein. This article and others like it may be found on the blog at Christian Geek Central. I give Heinlein’s work in general and these novels in particular a Quality score of 10/10 and a Relevance of 10/10.

Behind the Walls

behind the wallsJust to be clear…. This is supposed to be a prison game. Your characters are hardened convicts surviving in a self-contained and self-sustaining environment that happens to have been ideally placed to survive a 1951 nuclear apocalypse. But great pains have been taken to remove or de-emphasize those story elements that characterize not only stories about prisons, but the way prisons function in real life. To be specific, this setting does its level best to ignore or downplay: gang violence, prison rape, segregation, and racism (p. 2). These are the prime motivators of tension in this kind of setting, instead the text encourages themes exploring claustrophobia (p. 5) along with “institutionalism, culture, and aggression” (p. 23).

So what’s left? The text encourages characters to introduce tension in the form of gender identity and orientation, while in the same text block they state a desire to avoid the issues of sexual assault and homophobia (p. 2). I’m not sure how to do that. Tension in the setting is meant to primarily originate between players, and there is a system introduced for managing a set of secrets that players are to keep from each other. There is further tension between the primary gangs of the prison, though we are reminded that proper development of this tension isn’t supposed to be predominantly violent, but it is supposed to be aggressive. Again, I’m not sure how that works. There is also some tension between the guards and the inmates (your players are all inmates) that is meant to thematically reflect two political superpowers.

Observation 1 – the system for keeping and revealing secrets depends heavily on the players introducing tension within the party. That formula isn’t going to work for every gaming group; it certainly won’t work in my gaming group. Even without that requirement, the system is mechanically weak and relies more on improvisational storytelling than it does on game theory. Observation 2 – though stating a desire to remove certain tropes of the genre mentioned above (p. 2), the trope of guard corruption has been retained. NPC guards are exclusively described as “routine” (read “apathetic”), “hostile”, or “lazy” (p. 16-17). The warden is described as “tired” with aspects that depict callousness and greed (p. 35).

Verdict? This is a setting for a very specific group of gamers. I am not one of them; I have a few issues with the setting. The guards and the law enforcement structure are depicted as corrupt, brutal, and ineffective in contrast with a prison society that is trying to keep order. This inversion of both reality and storytelling convention offends me a great deal, but I’m willing to chalk that up to my personal experience as a former law enforcement professional (specifically, a prison guard). If I wanted to explore prison themes in a game at all, the mega-cities of Judge Dredd do an excellent job of developing those kinds of stories while still providing a broad scope of action.

My main criticism is that there is no tactical game here. This setting is all about interpersonal drama, and I have no interest in exploring the themes of gender identity, aggression without violence, or prison culture; these themes are also explored in artwork that is both suggestive (p. 36) and explicit (p. 20). The mechanical material is under-developed; I can’t even lift the mechanics of the setting out and use them in a different prison-themed game. Only gamers with a specific interest in the thematic material and who emphasize storytelling over game play will benefit from this book.

Atomic Robo the RPG

DSCN2170Atomic Robo premiered in 2007 as a six-issue mini-series, quickly gaining a cult following and branching out into the two ongoing titles “Atomic Robo” and “Atomic Robo: Real Science Adventures”. The story chronicles the adventures of Atomic Robo, a self-aware mechanical man created by Nikola Tesla. Each story arc focuses on a different era in the life of Robo, beginning in the 1920s and continuing to the near future. The stories imitate the pulp action novels of the 30s and 40s, with a healthy mix of Tom Swift in the recipe. Robo’s foundation, Tesladyne, employs “Action Scientists”, which pretty much sums up the book’s approach to storytelling. Recurring antagonists include Dr. Dinosaur (an intelligent deinonychus) and the ghost (phasically fluxed corporeal entity) of Thomas Edison. The creators premiered a free webcomic release for the entire series in January 2015 as a promotion for the tenth volume of the series, “Atomic Robo and the Ring of Fire.” The creators are currently running a Patreon campaign to continue support of the Atomic Robo comic.

Evil Hat Productions produced the stand-alone role-playing game in 2014 with the involvement of Atomic Robo creators Brian Clevinger and Scot Wegener. The system is based on their Fate Core product, but includes the full rule set in the Atomic Robo book. No additional books are needed.

DSCN2171High Concept: Atomic Robo and the Fate System should never be separated. The book series emphasizes fast action with improbable stunts, starkly astounding science, and zippy banter that proves inevitably ironic. The role-playing game uses Fate’s variable attributes and flexible stress track to force game structure to imitate art. Characters tag their aspects and spend fate points to influence the story and make themselves more successful. When it’s time to break out the action science techno-babble, the elaborate challenge system for Brainstorms enables players to break out the dice and gabble away with a reasonable chance of inducing a variable phase flux field in the transphasic modulator simply by reversing the polarity of the power coupling and aligning the rheostat 90 degrees to reality. And if that doesn’t work, a good, solid punch usually does the trick. This is the kind of thing at which Fate excels.

Trouble: As with all Fate games, Atomic Robo requires massive amounts of buy-in and creativity on the part of the players. On the spectrum of role-playing games, Pathfinder would be on one end as a technically detailed tactical tabletop simulator and Fate occupies the other end as an exercise in group storytelling. There is a limited amount of tactical gaming in the system, enough to satisfactorily handle a fight between Tesladyne action scientists and the men in black of Majestic 12. Atomic Robo as a game theme lends itself as much to wacky ideas and radical puzzle solving as it does to rock-em-sock-em … fight scenes. Fate is really a pretty good match for the setting.

DSCN2172Phase Trio: The production value of the book is phenomenal. It’s printed on high-quality, thick stock, glossy paper in full color with a satin matte cover finish that’s so smooth to the touch. It contains the entire rule set for the Fate System, so no extra investments are needed. Every section is fully illustrated using panels from the Atomic Robo comic with the characters appearing in bubbles as if they’re playing the game and voicing over the panels. It’s priced at $35, weighs in at 300+ pages, and is the same shelf dimensions as the graphic novels so that it looks really nice next to them on your bookcase. The PDF loads quickly without any heavy background graphics and sells for only $10 on DriveThruRPG. Plus, Evil Hat is a member of the Bits & Mortar movement, so if you buy the book from your friendly local gaming store the publisher will send you the PDF version for free. My one real complaint with the production value is that a book this size really should have been a hardcover volume.

Success With Style: If you’re a fan of Atomic Robo or pulp science adventure in general, this is a fantastic treatment of the genre. The book lends itself well to adventures in the style of Gil Gerard’s Buck Rogers, Tom Swift, or Doctor Who. If you have any kind of interest in this genre or in the Fate System at all, this book is a superior treatment of the system over the Fate Core book, though you may still benefit from the Fate Toolkit. Action role-players to arms!

Freeport: City of Adventure (Revised)

DSCN2098Freeport has been Green Ronin’s signature setting of pirate adventure and Cthulhoid madness since the early days of the d20 System boom. The setting launched with the ENnie award-winning adventure “Death in Freeport”, and has seen several other adventure modules as well as multiple setting expansions centered around the flagship title “Freeport: City of Adventure”. In 2006 the setting went “system agnostic” with the publication of the “Pirate’s Guide to Freeport” which contained no system stat blocks at all. This book was followed (slowly) by a series of “Freeport Companions” for different systems, all containing similar information tailored to different game systems. At this point, the line includes companion books for True 20, 3rd Era (d20 System), Savage Worlds, Pathfinder, and Fate.

In 2013, Green Ronin funded the production through Kickstarter of a single massive tome combining the Pirate’s Guide and the Companion material as well as a metric ton of new stuff produced just for the book. New monsters, new characters, and new adventures all drove the page count of this new volume to a whopping 544 pages, all of it written specifically for the Pathfinder system. The printed copy costs $74.99 if you can lift it. There are two PDF versions; the first is the whole book at $29.99 and the second is the player’s guide, lifting just the classes, gear, and spellcraft from the main book for 133 pages priced at $9.99. The big question is, “Is it worth it?”

DSCN2099If the premise of the setting appeals to you at all, the material is well-written with excellent graphic design. The book looks great. It includes rules for insanity and corruption that allow characters to sell a piece of their soul for increased power. All of the signature classes are revised to keep up with changes in the Pathfinder system, and the monsters are very evocative of the twin themes of pirate adventure and cultic horror. The adventure module is easy to follow and serves as an excellent introduction to the game. The stat blocks are easy to read, the classes are easy to understand, and the rules are all clear and concise. The technical writing on the book is exemplary in its expression of the setting and theme.

My one complaint is the setting material, which is presented in the same kind of dry, history textbook format that has dominated RPG design since the 80s. The city is divided into districts with details about the businesses and personalities dribbled in gazeteer style. The characters are all segregated into a single block of pages disconnected from the geographic locations they influence. It is mildly interesting reading if you’re researching in preparation for a game, but it doesn’t form any kind of coherent narrative at all. Even the historical summary at the beginning of the book is written as if it were an academic paper. At every point that the rules served to reinforce the themes of the book for me, the setting information did nothing to maintain it. As a GM resource, this is all-encompassing and complete. As player material, it’s really pretty dry.

DSCN2100So what do you do if you already have the previous books? (Not that I, um, know anyone like that…) Are the new monsters, characters, and adventures worth the hefty price tag? If you judge the book just on the new material, counting rules revisions as new material, maybe only 25% of the book cannot be found elsewhere. And of the revised material, much of it can be had from the player’s guide excerpt. This book replaces both the Pirate’s Guide and the Companion for Pathfinder, and includes quite a lot of material about the cults as well, without actually being a reprint of “Cults of Freeport”. The Pathfinder, True 20, or 3rd Era player will find much of interest in this volume. Unfortunately there is little to appeal to fans of Savage Worlds or Fate that cannot be had from other sources for a much lower price. For the completist, this volume is absolutely essential. For the casual fan, it’s more likely to be a PDF or player’s guide purchase.

Welcome to Freeport! Come for the pirates, stay for the cosmic horror!

Eagle Eyes

144754The concept of Roman Noir is not one that seems immediately natural to me, but this setting makes it quite convincing.

“Experience Roman noir firsthand in Eagle Eyes, the latest Fate World of Adventure from Pete Woodworth. Battle cynicism, corruption and murder in the shadow of the Coliseum. Play Eagles, the Senate’s private investigators, and use every means at your disposal to get at the truth behind everything from “ordinary” murders and robberies to high treason, noble intrigue, military coup attempts, and perhaps even the strange and terrible excesses of the Emperors.

Life is cheap and the dust of Rome soaks up a lot of blood, but the rewards for those that survive are beyond the dreams of lesser men.” (Publisher’s description.)

Battery PositiveThe book provides a decent overview of Roman life insofar as that information is useful to running a game and creating characters. The adventure builder is very nice for constructing a quick framework suited to impromptu noir tales, which typically take a good deal more effort. The flavored Fate Phase Trio provides excellent direction for the campaign as a whole and what the players want to get out of the game. Layout and readability is the high quality we’ve come to expect from Evil Hat.

Battery NegativeThis book attempts to center stories on the unraveling of conspiracies within the setting. Unfortunately, constructing a conspiracy or using it in a game as a current or impending issue is given no treatment; the conspiracy is simply described as stress track which the characters are attempting to take out in order to end the story – and few details are provided on just how that is accomplished. This book lacks either the focus of a directional campaign or the detail of a complete setting. Campaign advice may be summed up as “emulate this list of tv shows.”

Battery 3 barsThere are a few example adventures built using the generator, but they are only story seeds. Not bad, but I would have liked to seen them fleshed out. The art direction is heavily shaded and lacks detail. I suppose its evocative, but it’s not to my taste. Overall, I don’t think this book added anything to mechanics of the Fate system as far as using them in a noir or Roman setting, but I think it was more useful for running a Roman Noir campaign than simply reading the Wikipedia entries on the subject.

Now Available DTRPG

Cosmic Patrol

DSCN1997Cosmic Patrol from Catalyst Game Labs appealed to me the instant I saw the book. Such classic iconography with the rocket ship surrounded by orbiting bodies. A name so evocative of the pulp stories and radio serials that I love. Elegant graphic design in an attractive digest-sized hardcover. Wait. Digest size? I suppose that’s when I knew that something was about to go terribly wrong. After all, RPG books are supposed to be the full size of a 8.5×11 sheet of paper. It’s only reluctantly that Savage Worlds and Fate won me over to the 6×9 novel-sized format. Certainly Palladium’s decision to publish the new edition of Robotech: the Shadow Chronicles in manga-sized trade made the book completely undesirable from my point of view.

I was rushed, so I passed by the core book and grabbed the Quick-Start rules instead. Let’s take a look.

Create Your Character: (D10) The hardcover books are certainly very attractive leatherette numbers with nice quality paper stock inside. The graphic design is simple, though I don’t have a large sample size. It is formatted for easy reading and graphical elements are laid out intuitively. The iconography and language is very evocative of the genre.

DSCN1998Formulate Cues: (D8) It’s very clear from the outset that this is a story-based game rather than a number-cruncher. As such, the characters have very little definition in the form of game stats. They do get plenty of definition in the form of Cues, short phrases that define your character’s goals and motivations. These Cues are used to direct the action during the game. The minimal stat blocks are rated in values from D4 to D10 and are used in a combined dice roll. The whole system is very similar to the Cortex system from Margaret Weis Productions. It’s mathematically simplistic, and serves mainly to push the action in the direction of the Cues, Plot Points, and Narration.

Begin Narration: (D4) “Cosmic Patrol” does not require a gamemaster for play – instead the responsibilities of the Lead Narrator (LN) rotate from player to player throughout the game.” (From the rule book.) Immediate deduction for sloppy terminology; the grammatically correct word is “Game Master”. I’m not a fan of story stick games, but I’m not holding it against this one. Unfortunately, the turn structure is ambiguous, actions are resolved against a purely random die roll, and no effort is made to manage the Plot Point economy. As far as game mechanics go, this one lacks cohesive structure and would benefit from chucking it all in favor of pure narration.

Earn Plot Points: (D4) This is really where I think the whole thing falls apart. Every action in the game requires the expenditure of Plot Points, which are handed out to players within the game by other players and by the Lead Narrator. Each Lead Narrator takes a “scene” to perform their narration, but this hardly matters since story narration may be performed by any player in any scene. The whole idea is predicated on the “Yes, and…” methodology popular in improvisational acting. The experience is heavily dependent on the presence of a script and the willingness of players to act in concert with that script, despite rulebook claims to the contrary. There is so little in the way of mechanical structure or background elements that players are literally making everything up as they go along.

Achieve Story Objectives: FAILED. This game is going to go off the rails pretty quickly. There are literally no limits to what characters can do and no framework within which they must act. It’s not a game at all but a storytelling activity. As far as that goes, the stories are really pretty cool and the books are worth reading as improvisational scripts. This would make a neat exercise for amateur actors and acting students. Possibly it is ideally set up for LARPing, as the narrative sequence depends on the Plot Point economy. With the right group of people, this could be a blast; with the wrong one, it’s going to be an unmitigated disaster.

Now Available DTRPG

The Invention of Lying

l_1058017_8af16772Weren’t expecting this, were you? Based on the trailer, my impression of the movie was that it was going to be a lighthearted romp about people who misunderstand each other and then find each other emotionally, surrounded by a materially improbable setting. I expected the very embodiment of two words I have come to dread.

“Chick Flick”

Don’t wait for the part where I relent and say I was sadly mistaken. This is a chick flick. Snag a notepad and watch it anyway.

The materially improbable premise is that “people never evolved the need to lie.” The phrasing is important. Relationships between people are based on their potential for a positive genetic match in their children. Wedding vows consist of the words, “Do you promise to stay together as long as you want to and to protect your offspring?” A man on the street screams to nobody in particular, “Why are we wearing clothes and living on top of concrete? We’re just animals!”

In addition to lies, this world also lacks hyperbole, fiction, and religion. Marketing consists of a man on the tv asking people to drink Coke because it’s famous and you’re used to it. Entertainment consists solely of documentaries which are read verbatim from a script, there being no such thing as people who pretend to be other people (ie, actors). Religion is simply absent; medical professionals at a hospice are confident that after death is only oblivion.

The movie is mildly amusing. The humor is of the “scandalous” variety, where personal and intimate topics are discussed publicly and in detail without a trace of self-consciousness. Every conversation is one of full disclosure. The people in the movie have no sense of modesty or propriety, and accept both compliments and insults with the same equanimity. Businesses and products are labeled with stark honesty, such the “Place to Abandon Old and Unwanted Persons Hospice” or the “Convenient Place to Have Sex with a Near Stranger Motel.” My favorite is “Pepsi – For when you don’t have Coke.” It’s…. mildly amusing.

And then Mark (Ricky Gervais) learns how to lie.

Hijinks ensue for 15 minutes or so, after which Mark discovers that he can do something else that has been subtly lacking from the dialog. He can encourage people by telling them that life can and will get better, that they have a value not attached to their current economic or physical status. He tells a dying person that oblivion does not follow death, that instead we are reunited with our loved ones in a kind of paradise. It seems so natural from our position on the other side of the screen to offer encouragement and hope for eternity, but remember… as far as the movie is concerned, it’s a lie.

The lie goes global overnight.

In a world of perfect honesty, where people do not treat each other with disguised rancor or concealed hostility, where humanity is merely a civilized animal that seeks to pass on its genetic material, people suddenly discover that compared to the hope of eternity, the present world is meaningless. The world looks to Mark for more answers. He gives them in the form of 10 codified statements regarding life, the afterlife, and how to treat each other. There is additional nonsense here, but among Mark’s claims is that there is a man in the sky who makes all things happen both good and bad. And then something else interesting happens.

Humanity rejects the man in the sky as cruel and heartless, ultimately accepting that there is nothing they can do about him anyway so he should just be ignored. Things eventually return to a semblance of normalcy, with the addition that people now know about the man in the sky.

More chick flick stuff happens. I… wasn’t really paying attention. I was thinking through the ramifications of the premises and what it says about our world. The film is a fascinating study on the nature of humanity and what it could mean to live in a world without God. I found it particularly honest that even though all religions are essentially treated as deliberate falsehoods, the movie acknowledges that hope for eternity is an essential part of both the human condition and the ability to be truly happy. There is quite a bit here to discuss, and the movie isn’t nearly as offensive as I thought it was going to be.

CGC LogoThis review was originally written for the Christian Geek Central forums, so using their scoring system I give it a Relevancy score of 10 out of 10, and a Quality score of “Chick Flick”.

Forward the Foundation

"Isaac Asimov on Throne" by Rowena Morrill
“Isaac Asimov on Throne” by Rowena Morrill

Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series is most well known as the winner of the Hugo Award for “Best All-Time Series” in 1966, the only series to date to which the award has been given. Asimov himself assumed the award had been created to honor J.R.R. Tolkien and was surprised to receive it. The original short stories were published between 1942 and 1950 in the pages of Astounding Magazine. These were later collected, and additional material added to form the novels known as the Foundation Trilogy.

The impact of the Foundation stories has been felt in every form of series fiction written since its time, and most significantly in the fiction written for tabletop and electronic gaming. Until Foundation, attempts to build a cohesive mythology around an entirely fictional setting had been mostly accidental and abortive. It’s possible that Asimov’s work was taken more seriously than E.E. Smith’s Lensman series (with which it shares many similarities) due to Asimov’s emphasis on science and problem-solving rather than action, and his choice of humans as the protagonists instead of Smith’s Arisians. It also seems likely that Asimov’s writing was more approachable than Tolkien’s heavily literary style.

DSCN1965In Foundation, Asimov describes the formation and continuance of a great galactic civilization, as predicted by the discipline of psycho-history and safe-guarded by the twin Foundations. The stories are predicated on the continual development of humans along evolutionary and societal lines. The First Foundation is responsible for preserving the store of galactic knowledge and advancing civilization. The Second Foundation is responsible for locating persons with telepathic ability and ensuring their continued genetic advancement. This combination will eventually bring about a Golden Age of civilization.

Like many of his peers, Asimov was a devout humanist. He viewed religion as antithetical to reason, a harmful force impeding the moral and civilized progress of humanity. Asimov argued that a society based on reason would ultimately work for the betterment of all, that those who acted in accordance with rational thought would choose actions that served others rather than themselves. Asimov also argued that the majority of people chose to act according to their base desires rather than rationally.

Asimov’s viewpoint still reflects the dominant themes of modern science-fiction, that reason and religion are ultimately incompatible. It also holds that a majority of humanity is not rational, and therefore not moral. There is a logical fallacy in this thinking that equates rationality with morality, two separate modes of behavior. Ironically, Asimov acknowledges this fallacy, especially in the character of The Mule, and acknowledges without addressing the problem it poses to his arguments.

Asimov’s literary construction of the Galactic Empire has been continually emulated in the years since, and continues to form the pattern for series fiction that uses empire-style civilizations. Asimov’s characters are likeable and relatable, if not necessarily memorable or extraordinarily iconic. His heroes tend to be scientists and mathematicians, and they overcome difficulty based on their capacity for reason rather than physical prowess.

CGC LogoThe Foundation Trilogy is one of the most influential works of science-fiction ever written. This article and others like it may be found on the blog at Christian Geek Central. I give Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy a Quality score of 9/10 and a Relevance of 10/10.