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

Shark Week

fakeumentoryShark Week and GenCON 2014 all in one sitting. We’ve got some things to say about the fakeumentories on the Discovery Channel. Last year it was Megalodon, and this year it’s Shark of Darkness: Wrath of Submarine! We share our excitement over GenCON, dish out a new life lesson from the Disney-Pixar film Finding Nemo, and serve up a B-Movie Double Feature review. This time around: Sharktopus and Tw0-Headed Shark Attack. Both films get positive “Buy It” reviews. Finally, Isaiah talks about the book he read, “Armor of God” by Phil Elmore. It’s a great story about a real-life superhero. See you in the reaction chamber!

GenCON 2014

Shark of Darkness: Wrath of Submarine


John Wilkerson interviews Phil Elmore