Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Planetary Terrain: Mountain

Mountain environments are often poor in resources for life, simply because fluids drain away downhill and erosion scours away the soil. At very high altitudes, even air is scarce! Mountains often support lots of “micro-ecologies” specialized for a particular altitude-GURPS Space, page 142
The era of fiction that inspired Star Wars mostly discussed mountains in terms of the conquest of nature: the attempts by many explorers to summit Mount Everest, for example.  These represent tales of man's conquest of nature.  But Star Wars also draws heavily from the mysticism of the East, especially from traditions that make their home in the Himalayas.  Mountains brim with mythology, representing the place where one can come closest to God, or the ultimate location one seeks in his quest.  Villainous mountain hide-aways, especially volcanic ones, also feature in the sorts of stories Star Wars draws inspiration from, which certainly inspired the final battle of the prequels on Mustafar (depicted above).

Monday, January 30, 2017

Planetary Terrain: Jungle

Yavin 4 
Jungle settings are lush, dominated by huge autotrophs (trees, on Earth). They support lots of life, but often that life has evolved an array of defenses. Jungles offer many specialized niches for life to exploit.-GURPS Space, page 142

Star Wars draws much of its inspiration from the pulp and swashbuckling era of fiction, and the earlty 20th century was crazy about jungles.  You can still see its legacy today in the ridiculous number of legacy gorilla characters in DC comics, many of which hail from this Tarzan-dominated era.  These stories featured a very cinematic take on the jungle, full of damsels trapped in quicksand, muscular jungle-men wrestling with tigers or anacondas, and primitive, spear-wielding tribesmen just waiting for a heroic explorer to either worship as a god or to devour in their pot.

Obviously, these stories had little bearing on reality, but the fascination with the jungle came from real events. Explorers did dive into the depths of African, Asian or American rain-forests to uncover to ruins of lost civilizations, sometimes even rewriting the history books as they did so, or contacting previously uncontacted people, entirely new cultures to explore, or discovered entirely new species (sometimes even fabled "cryptoid" species that had been dismissed as legend, like the saola), as well as coming to understand the importance these rare, dangerous and beautiful places have for the entire planet.  These stories represent the same sort of fervor and fascination many people have for sci-fi to this day: the chance to discover something new.  As such, the cinematic idea of jungles and science fiction suite one another very well.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Planetary Terrain: Island/Beach

Island/Beach environments are an interface between land and sea, and as such are especially suited for amphibious beings... Islands in particular can support isolated micro-ecologies where species evolve in unusual ways.-GURPS Space, Page 142
Star Wars borrows heavily from the pulp and swashbuckling stories of yesteryear, often adding sci-fi window dressing in the process.  In those older stories, islands represent an undiscovered, savage paradise.  Sometimes the stories feature "man against the world" survival stories, with castaways trying to survive, but often in such stories survival comes relatively easily (as opposed to survival stories from the arctic) and focus on interesting innovations and exploration of the islands.  Islands also feature strange cultures, dangerous cannibals, beautiful maidens and any number of exotic things to discover before packing up on your ship and sailing off.

Star Wars doesn't feature many true island planets (Ahch-To is probably the first to be featured in the actual films), likely because in the sort of story that featured islands, those islands were replaced with planets.  That is, in a story about  man who traveled to a beautiful paradise where he fell in love, then to a rugged desert island where he survived, to a volcanic island where he rescued his love, the space opera version would feature a beautiful paradise planet, then a desert planet and then a volcanic planet.  Instead, it might be better to think of "island planets" as oceanic planets, likely the homeworld of an aquatic or amphibious species, or islands are just one part of a larger planet that features other biomes.

When focusing on islands themselves, it's useful to think about what other biome might be on the island: a jungle island is very different from an arctic island.  In fact, it's so useful to think about islands this way that I won't.  This post will focus exclusively on islands qua islands, which means I'll focus exclusively on things unique to islands and on that specific water/land interface, as well as a general discussion of water in general.  Thus, while one might expect a discussion of islands as jungles, or islands as mountainous, I'll reserve those elements for their specific biomes.  So, for example, if you want to create a planet full of little arctic islands, I encourage you to open up my discussion of arctic terrain as well islands.

More importantly, this means that when I discuss islands, I am necessarily discussing small islands.  This is not to say that the British Isles or Greenland are unworthy of discussion, but there's no functional difference between being in a British forest and a German forest.  What we're worried about here is exclusively the interface between land and sea.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Planetary Terrain: Desert

Desert environments are any place where the necessary solvents or nutrients for life are scarce. There’s often plenty of energy, just no stuff to use. Deserts also tend to extremes of temperature. Life tends to be scarce, clustered around oases.  -GURPS Space 142
Star Wars is space opera, and like most space opera, it steals from other stories and set them in space.  The pulp stories borrowed by Star Wars featuring a desert come most often from an era fascinated by "Cowboys and Indians", "Arabian Nights" or the exploits of Egyptian Archaeologists.  Thus, stories set in a desert environment might feature hard survival of man against nature, but often features sudden, whooping raiders, bandits, ancient civilizations, exotic religions and strange ruins.  "Dune" also left an indelible mark on Star Wars, and so we might also see stories of how deserts make men hard, and how hard men conquer soft men, to themselves become the soft men of the oasis, as depicted in the poem "Ozymandias."

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Planetary Terrain: Arctic


Arctic environments are any place where the temperature hovers around  the low end possible for that type of life. For Earth life, it’s places where it’s often below freezing.
-GURPS Space, page 142
Star Wars is space opera, and space opera tends to steal the stories of its day.  The stories Star Wars most likes to steal come from the early pulp era, when fascination with arctic expeditions to the world's poles ran high.  Space opera stories set in arctic environments tend to borrow on themes of loneliness, isolation and man-against-nature survival found in the works of Jack London or in the harrowing accounts of the Shakelton expedition or other arctic survival tales.  Thus, the arctic is a world of struggle, tribulation and isolation, where people worry your tauntaun will freeze solid before you reach the first marker, or where you wander for days in empty wastes only to find a single outpost.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Planetary Environments: an Introduction

You know Star Wars happens in space not because it literally happens in space (I've only seen characters don space-suits and take a space walk in a few cases in the extended universe), but because it takes place on strange, alien worlds like Tatooine or Dagobah.  Star Wars has planets.  Psi-Wars, obviously, needs equally dramatic and interesting planets to remind players that the action is taking place in a crazy sci-fi galaxy.

Planets for a space opera setting like Star Wars require a specific approach, however.  We could dig out GURPS Space and use their planetary creation system, but that would give us detail we don't need (the orbital order of planets don't matter, nor do barren worlds that the PCs will never visit).  I'm not saying you can't use it, I'm saying our needs are different. In Star Wars, planets serve primarily as backdrops and, perhaps, challenges.  They largely fit the various terrain types offered by GURPS: Dagobah is a swamp world, Hoth is an arctic world, and Tatooine is a desert world.  All of them have breathable atmospheres and shirt-sleeve temperatures, even the volcanic planet of Mustafar.  In fact, the planets track so well with GURPS terrains and are so far removed from the GURPS Space mechanics that I would argue that we should replace the latter with the former.

It was raining that morning on (Planet) Mongo-Jerry Pournelle

Now, a lot of sci-fi fans hate the idea of a single-biome planet, and I see their point.  Setting aside the realism of a single-biome in a setting with force blades and hyperdrives, single biome planets tend to "shrink worlds down."  All of Dagobah is a single swamp, all of Hoth is a single glacier, and so on.  However, in practice, Star Wars tends to enjoy rather thoroughly detailed worlds: Tattooine has Mos Eisely, the vast wastes in which the Sarlacc can be found, the badlands where Tusken Raiders roam.  Naboo has the rich, verdant plains owned by the Naboo, and the swamps/jungles that the Jedi first crash-landed in, and the underwater civlization of the Gungans.  Star Wars actually has rather rich world-building because it tends to revisit the same worlds again and again, and sets so much of its action planetside (as opposed to Star Trek, which tends to keep most of its drama on their starships, to keep set-costs down).

Thus, in this series, I'm not going to discuss planets-as-biomes, but offer some ideas and rules for how terrains you might place on a planet.  After all, Iteration 5 is about generic setting building, about offering us the tools we need to quickly put together a new setting, and that includes conjuring planets from nothing.  If you wish to create a completely arctic world, feel free.  If you want to spend days working out an entire planet in excruciating detail, you're free to do that too.  I would suggest that you don't map worlds in full detail, because I honestly think most stories won't stay in one place long enough for it to matter.  I think it's enough to have 1-5 biomes, with 1-5 interesting landmarks/set pieces each, in the same way that you can get far with a culture by giving them a handful of interesting distancing mechanism.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

A plan for my Patrons, redux

One of my more valued readers criticized my recent post, and I think he had a top-notch point.  Why is my plan for my Patrons patron-only?  Wouldn't it make sense to tell everyone what the plan is, going forward?  That way you could judge for yourself whether I am worth your patronage?  What will you be getting for your money?

Originally, my intent with that post was to point out to my Patrons, the ones I already had, what my intent for the future was, because some people have given money already and that money's coming out of their wallets on February 1st, and I wanted them to know that they were getting something for their money. That said, I think he has a great point, let's do that.  Let's talk about what my plan is for my blog, for patron and non-patron alike, moving forward.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Plan for the Patrons

Are you one of my patrons?  If you are, there's a new post for you: the Plan for the Patrons.  In it, I discuss the plans for my Patron-only content in the coming month, as well as the direction that my blog is going.

If you're not, you can always join.  I'd be happy to have you.  Just $1 is enough to unlock all Patron-only posts I'll be putting up.

Support me on Patreon!

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Building the Diplomat and a Matter of Law

Everything I've done over the past few weeks has been building up to the diplomat.  Cultural distancing mechanisms provide more than just interesting flavor for new cultures, they also represent obstacles that the diplomat excels at overcoming.  She masters languages and traditions so as to present herself and her position in the best possible light when negotiating with a strange culture. She also understands organizations, in part because she belongs to one (a diplomatic corp), she represents another (typically her government) to another, more hostile organization.  She is a creature of law, negotiation and cultural niceties, the picture of elegance itself (er, after a manner of speaking).
Anakin Skywalker: So this is what you call a diplomatic mission?
Padmé Amidala: No, these are "Aggressive Negotiations"
Except we don't want to play that character, do we?  This is Star Wars, not Star Trek!  I'll take a look at the more honest assessment of a diplomat later when I do Heroes of the Galactic Frontier, but the point here is to have an awesome action character who happens to be a diplomat.  Leia blasted storm troopers and killed a mob boss while in her unmentionables, and Amidala took on monsters in a gladiatorial arena and retook her homeworld with an army of frog-people and a kid.  The "diplomats" of Star Wars aren't really diplomats in the classic sense.

Thus, we must pull the same trick that we did with the Officer: We must understand the rules for negotiation, to know what the Diplomat should be good at, and then find ways to make those same skills equally useful to an action scenario, thus building a diplomat who is actually realistically decent at negotiation, if a GM ever wanted to use it in his game, but then ensure that she's equally useful in a typical action scenario.  The Officer turns his strategic excellence into making master plans, foreseeing unexpected twists, and foiling distractions and ambushes.  We need to understand how being a good negotiator can be turned to your advantage in an action scenario.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Status as Pulling Rank

Social Engineering brought up some interesting points regarding Status that might be pertinent to Psi-Wars.  Action doesn't deal with status, but Action operates in a meritocratic world with a flat society, where major political figures might make a point of getting a photoshoot at McDonalds to show that they are "one of the people," while Star Wars features princesses, counts and knights.  We can make the case that Star Wars, itself, is largely meritocratic, but given the presence, already, of princesses and aristocracy in Psi-Wars, why not play out what it would look like?

My primary problem with Status in Psi-Wars is that I don't know what it would do.  Status, by itself, just sits there like a reaction modifier lump that often doesn't even act as a reaction modifier: a street punk might not care that you're a princess.  My solution thus far was to grant people a "Title" perk, which allowed them to gain a +1 from people who care about such things.

But if we want to embrace the full scope of status and what it offers, it might be worth thinking about what it offers and how we can represent that in Psi-Wars.  What I'd like to do is make it as "concrete" as Pulling Rank, making it a sort of a specific "Social Rank."  Let's see if that works!

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Designing Organizations

Building Organizations

The two books together give us plenty of ideas as to how we might build an organization.  We need to simplify, though.  In a Psi-Wars scenario, PCs are largely concerned about the following:
  • How much rank is there (How large is the organization?)
  • How much does it cost as a Patron or an Enemy?
  • How much BAD does it typically apply
  • What sort of minions will I face/can it supply me?
  • How much wealth does it have?
  • What is required to join?
  • What cool tricks will it teach me?
  • What sorts of benefits can it offer should I pull rank?
The first five all essentially boil down to the same thing: How big is the organization?  I'd like to combine BAD, contact skills, difficulty of getting in, difficulty of persuading people away, the cost of the Patron/Enemy and how many ranks you have all into one single thing.  If you know one, you know the rest.

Patron cost and rank already have an obvious relation.  If I leave the cost of rank at 5/level, then Rank 4 means something else in a 10 point organization than in a 30 point organization.  That means if the highest rank for one organization is rank 6, and for another is rank 10, we might expect both to command equal levels of power in their organizations.  That is, maximum rank is maximum rank and offers the same chance of success.  Page 6 of Social Engineering: Pulling Rank has a handy table for us.  A 10-point patron's rank 6 is roughly on par with a 20-point patron's rank 8, and a 30-point patron's rank 10. Action has the 15-point patron as its standard, judging from Pulling Rank difficulties.  This suggests that the Psi-Wars standard is a little larger than the Pulling Rank standard, but it will do.

What does size get you here?  Well, if we use "Complements of the Boss" then a "small" organization is worth +1 on complementary rolls, a standard organization is worth +2, and a large organization is worth +3.  Furthermore, when it comes to Muscle or Cavalry (page 19 of Pulling Rank), small organizations send 5 guys, medium 10, and large 15.  Maximum funding is also determined by organization size. Beyond that and it becomes mostly a matter of GM discretion.

How do be fold BAD into organization size?  Well, it becomes immediately obvious that this might not be the best idea.  The Nahudi warriors are likely a small organization full of skill-18 warriors, while the Empire is a vast organization full of skill-12 soldiers.  It does seem to make sense that different groups have different BAD levels, and things like loyalty, difficulties breaking in and minion strength might be tied together for ease of play, but that just means that organizations should simply have a "BAD" rating.

Pulling Rank ties maximum available wealth to Patron cost, as does Boardroom and Curia, and Boardroom and Curia ties BAD (at least for infiltration) to wealth level.  This might be a good indication of BAD.  We might expect Struggling Organizations to be BAD 0, Average to be BAD 2, Comfortable to be BAD 5 and Wealthy to be BAD 8, but obviously these can be shifted around (the Nehudi are probably not very wealthy, but have some fairly BAD warriors).

The rest of the elements that players care about from an organization largely come from what type of organization it is.  Boardroom and Curia has plenty, but we need to pare them down to size.  For that, I'd like to turn to GURPS Space.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Pulling Rank in Psi-Wars

The next step in looking at our Social Engineering rules is to take a deeper look at Organizations.  This would be the bit where I would first try to argue against Organizations, but I cannot. First, Pulling Rank is right there in GURPS Action.  It's a fundamental element of how Action plays (and, in fact, largely spawned later works on the topic).  I'd need a really good, Star Wars-backed reason to remove it, only Star Wars itself is largely about organizations.  One might describe Star Wars as a battle between the heroic Rebellion (an organization) and the sinister Empire (an organization) while plucky heroes seek the last remnants of the Jedi Order (an organization) for help.  Unlike your typical murder-hobo game, and rather like most modern action thrillers, the characters' actions largely take place in a larger context of a conflict between organizations, and often involves interacting with organizations (like the Hutt Cartel, or the Galactic Senate).

Thus, Psi-Wars is necessarily a game that features organizations as one of its foundations.  This is convenient for us, though, because you may have noticed that organizations serve as natural containers for things like martial arts, cultural distancing mechanisms. military doctrines, and opposing minions.  We might say things like "The empire fights differently than the rebel alliance,"  or "The Order of True Communion offers a different understanding of Communion than the Oracular Monks".  In all these cases, we were already talking about organizations.  Now, we can talk about them in more detail.

As I look into this in more detail, I'll be primarily using three books: GURPS Action 1, and its section on Pulling Rank, then GURPS Social Engineering: Pulling Rank, for an even deeper look at that, and then Boardroom and Curia, for a look at building organizations from the ground up.  Finally, I'll be using GURPS Space for some thoughts on what sorts of organizations to populate my setting with.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Building the Con Artist and the fine art of Forgery

I trust he needs no introduction
Lando Calrissian remains one of my favorite characters from Star Wars, not just because he was so stylish, but because of what he represented.  For the most part, the core invaded the rim, with great imperial vessels descending on backwater worlds, or the rebels bringing the politics of the core with them out to the desolate worlds of the rim.  But with Lando, the criminal sensibilities of the rim dived into the elegance of a core world.  He danced a delicate line between honest governance, real politick and rapscallionry and he made it look good.

The con-artist definitely fits Psi-Wars even better than Star Wars, though, because Psi-Wars is about Action, and Action needs a faceman.  Who better to be that than someone like Lando Calrissian?  But more than Lando, I want someone who not just defines elegance, but undermines it.  He's a confidence man, sure, but he's also a card-sharp, a gambler, and a forger.  He knows how to rub shoulders with the elegant, how to pretend to be like them, how to pawn off his forgeries as the real thing.  I want le Comte de St. Germain, or for those a little more up-to-date in their references, I want Neal Caffery. In spaaaaace.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

A Psi-Wars Cultural Checklist

The point of all of the previous posts in this mini-series is to give you ideas on what do for a new and unusual culture in your setting.  The point of an unusual culture in psi-wars is to remind the players that they're in an alien setting.  It should be filled with aliens clicking their prayer beads while chanting mantras in foreign languages, or a tattooed savage looking to trade exotic fire weasels for much needed survival supplies.  Star Wars is a very cosmopolitan setting, where aliens can be regularly found off-world, rubbing shoulders and mingling with one another, rather than the more segregated sci-fi settings, like Star Trek. Thus,we should be ready to conjure up a new alien culture at the drop of a hat.

But those cultures don't have the be terribly unusual.  In such a cosmopolitan setting, many cultures will have already rubbed their traditions off on each other.  In the real world, everyone from the US to Europe to Japan and China know who "Iron Man" is, and most of them at least know what Christmas is, even if they don't all celebrate it.  Girls wear skirts and high heels, men wear suits and ties, and everyone can wear a t-shirt and jeans.  We might expect something similar of our Psi-Wars cultures. Some cultures might remain distinct and unusual, but only so far as to give local flavor (the British have different accents and food than Americans, but they're not so alien that they inflict a cultural familiarity penalty).  For most "local color" like this, I recommend no more than about three distancing mechanisms.

However, some cultures remain extremely distinct.  Sometimes, these cultures represent entire cultural spheres.  The "Sinosphere," or the area around China, all use Chinese characters to some extent, and know works like the Romance of the Three Kingdoms or the works of Confucious.  They're well-versed in the ideas of Buddhism, at least, and often Confucianism or Daoism.  They tend to favor cuisine featuring rice and noodles and using chopsticks to eat.  They tend to share values too, to some extent.  Someone from Vietnam travelling to Korea will definitely have to deal with some local differences (the language, at least, will be different), but he'll still find things far more understandable than if he flies to Boston or Paris.  There might be a Cultural Familiarity penalty between the West and the Sinosphere, but not between two places within the Sinosphere or the West.  Likewise, Psi-Wars might have something similar, where you have a "galactic core" culture that's different from the culture of a particular galactic arm, like the difference in Star Wars between Imperial space and Hutt space.

Some cultures remain distinct and unusual within a given cultural sphere.  This might be the result of strength, or of colonization, but it could just be a distinct minority that clings carefully to its traditions.  Jews, throughout history, have often been this sort of culture, interfacing well with outside cultures, while remaining inscrutable to those outside cultures.  Such a culture might have a cultural familiarity penalty while its adherents have purchased Cultural Familiarity with the local dominant culture.

In the case of a genuinely distinct culture, one that inflicts a cultural familiarity penalty, I recommend at least 3 cultural differences, and at least one value that contrasts with the "Galactic Standard society" that explains the fundamental distinctness of the culture.  You can certainly do more than this, but be careful with going crazy, unless you and your players particularly enjoy deep cultural exploration or really exotic cultures. Whatever you design, you have to remember, maintain and run.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

The Philosophy (and Religion) of Psi-Wars

Philosophy is devoted to rational discourse, whereas mysticism tries to reach beyond the limits of reason to what cannot be said or even thought.
- Peter Adamson, the History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps
(Philosphy) particularly suits a martial-arts campaign in which the character knows combat skills with different (and even antagonistic) spiritual teachings; by adopting both schools' philosophical teachings, they may be combined without conflict.
-GURPS Compendium I
In Psi-Wars, I've chosen to use the Philosophy skill where I should probably use Theology. I've done this, first, as a legacy of GURPS 3e, where "Theology" has a Western connotation (Catholicism is studied with theology not philosophy), while "Philosophy" has an Eastern connotation (Buddhism is studied with philosophy not theology).  I suspect 4e would disagree and suggest that all religion is theology and rational discourse about the nature of reality is covered with philosophy.  Furthermore, Philosophy suggests a state of mind, which is more important to a game about psionic powers.  While Communion is definitely inspired by, and carries the trappings of, religion, it is in fact a highly psionic phenomenon, and understanding it carries the same sorts of approach that understanding natural philosophy might.  Which brings us to the blurry line between philosophy and theology, in that both traditions have defined a culture's worldview, often discussed the nature of God, ethics, morality, the meaning of existence, the immortality of souls, and so on.  Theology and philosophy often informed one another, and throughout much of history, except for artificial distinctions ("Philosophy is Greek, Theology is Islamic"), they represented a similar sort of body of knowledge.  Thus, for my purposes, I'm going to largely treat them as the same, but we must realize that they are not the same.  Philosophy arms its adherents with the logical skills necessary to pursue an argument to its natural conclusion, while theology concerns itself more with an understanding of a body of religious doctrines, texts and laws.

If we look at religion and philosophy both as a way of viewing the world, then we can see the common ground more clearly between the two, and we understand their place as a distancing mechanism.  We're describing through what lens a culture views the world, how they choose to describe it, and the points of agreement all in a culture have (and the fault lines of their most common arguments). Religion in particular is a major touchstone for a culture.  It contains all the rites and traditions associated with a culture: If people go to mass on Sundays and dress "their Sunday best" and attend the same weddings, they begin to form a community, a specific community that might not contain those who follow other beliefs.  A common refrain to describe this is "belonging before believing," an idea that people  join a community before they come to accept its deepest teachings.  Philosophy doesn't necessarily contain this sort of power, though some communities definitely rise up around philosophies (such as the Marxist commune or various attempts to create Libertarian communities).  Nonetheless, I'm going to attempt to discuss both at once.

I'm going to do this so that I can use the excellent GURPS Religion, which to this day remains one of my favorite books from the 3e days and is still very much relevant today.  We'll have a few troubles with it, namely that we're using a sci-fi setting which has some specific issues (though Religion does touch on those), that what we're describing isn't entirely religious in nature, and that GURPS Religion must necessarily be limited in scope, but I'll try to add what I've learned from my various forays into the world of Philosophy and Theology.

I'll tackle religious creation here the same way I did Social Engineering a few days back: the book itself is "good enough" without further commentary, but I'd like to post more than just "Here you go, use this book!"  So I'll walk through the Religion Creation Checklist with you, to give you an idea of what points to hit and what points you might skip, and where major questions might arise.

Monday, January 9, 2017

The Ways of Psi-Wars: Cultures and their values and literature

Most of the distancing mechanisms we've discussed have, ultimately, been very superficial:  how a culture dresses, how a culture plays, how a culture speaks.  When you peel back the surface, though, you'll start to see that all of these things are just expressions of what a culture values, which itself is often shaped by its experience with the world (though it often sees those experiences through the lens of its values, so this cuts both ways)

I began this series with language and I'm going to end with religion ("philosophy"), because, to me, these are the two ultimate expressions of culture.  Language describes not just how a culture speaks,but how it thinks and how it formulates what it thinks, how it expresses it.  Its religion enshrines what it believes, how it sees the world, and how it comes together as a community.

I want to restate, before I go any further, that the intent in Psi-Wars isn't an in-depth exploration of culture.  Psi-Wars is not Anthropologists In Spaaaace, but a crazy action game.  The intent here is to rapidly conjure up a sufficiently interesting species that someone could play them, or they could pose an interesting challenge to a group (for example, a diplomat who is trying to negotiate for an alliance against the Empire).  The point of values is to get at the heart of how a culture thinks, to make the rest of your design organic, but you can just as easily turn it the other way around.  If you have a street-savvy race with a weird dialect and a penchant for extremely colorful clothes, and someone decides they want to play as them, then it might be worth going back and pondering why the race thinks as it does.

It's also worth pointing out that Psi-Wars will feature a few major elements, like the Empire, the Alliance, and the remnants of whatever culture existed before the two fractured into their sprawling, galactic civil war.  Not every "alien culture" actually features aliens.  Our weird, distant culture is often human... though we need to be careful not to make them too weird!

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Mailanka Rants: It's okay to like bad movies

So, a friend recently linked me to this guy's channel on movie editing and criticism, and he gets into some pretty deep stuff, but the one that leapt out at me, that I felt demanded greater discussion, was this video.  The question he is asked is this:
Jurassic World: I liked the movie because it felt like a bad B-movie.  Do you think movies can be genuinely good because of their "badness"?
 To which Folding Thoughts stumbles a bit, because how can you call something good because of its badness?  Then he begins to discuss genre, but I think his initial confusion signaled something important: the questioner framed his question badly, and I think I know why.

The question isn't really "Can bad movies be good?"  but "Is it okay for me to like a critically panned movie?"

The answer is yes.  It's also not the point.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Blogging, One Year On

In retrospect (ha!) I really should have posted this last week, but I wanted to be close to one year on the nose as I could.

Last year, I committed to running one blog post per week for the rest of the year.  The result should be 52 blog posts,  The actual result is nearly 5 times that, though not all of that has been GURPS as promised.  Still, it seems I more than exceeded my goal.

My approach was to try to write about something that I felt would regularly generate content (that is, to have a framework) and to "write forward," to pad my post count by writing two or three posts in a row and arranging for their eventual release.  The result is that I always hit my deadline with loads of time to spare, so that pleases me.  It means this approach works.

What I didn't do is post about half the stuff I wanted to.  It's been all Psi-Wars all the time, and we're not even done yet!  People don't seem to mind, as my approach is multi-faceted, so even if you're tired of non-stop Star Wars, the specifics of a given post might still appeal.  It also showed me a lot about the work involved in writing up a particular setting the way I'd like to.  But it's also shown me just how much work you can get done once you commit to something.  I've generated some quality (by "my campaign notes" standards) material with a serious word-count associated with it.  I've also put my Nobilis campaign back on the map.  I think I'd like to continue this cycle of "4 posts a week for GURPS, one for some other campaign I want to get moving."  This year, I'd like to see if I can breath some life into an old Lady Blackbird project I had.

I think the blog has been modestly well received.  My blog is pretty high up on the front page of SJGames when it comes to view numbers, though not nearly close to the big two of Gaming Ballistic or Ravens'n'Pennies (and likely Dungeon Fantastic, though I don't think that has a thread on SJGames at all).  That suggests of "the other blogs" I'm doing pretty well. My views are fairly consistently neck-in-neck with the other big name to start this year, Let's GURPS (and the reason for our mutual success is likely similar: Consistent publication!).  For my personal views, I went from having a high of ~400-500 views a month to sometimes having 400-500 views a day.  I'm not sure if that comes from the quality of my material or from more extensive advertising on my part.

Or the part of others.  I've received some traffic from aggregation sites, Reddit, 4chan and RPG.net where people, not me, have plugged my sight.  I feel honored by that, I must admit.  I've also seen a few people start up new campaigns inspired by my work.  That's even greater praise for what I'm doing.  On the more critical side, I've had some complaints about my Psi-Wars material, but I think those criticisms have largely strengthened my work.  Early on, some people suggested I was brave for "showing how the sausage was made," but I think the result is more people figuring how to build their own campaigns, and my own work becoming better, so I feel it's been win win.

This year I released my first PDFs for Psi-Wars and I've been able to track their downloads.  I'm close to 75 downloads of the core PDF and nearly 200 downloads over all.  That says my material is definitely getting out there!

What's also surprised me is where my views have gone.  Early on, I would try to predict what would be a big hit, or I would be especially proud of a particular piece, only to have something I ripped out in an hour completely dwarf everything else I've written.  My general articles tend to be the biggest draws, but sometimes I feel like what works and doesn't is more determined by zeitgeist than anything I can do, or perhaps that I'm just a terrible judge of my own quality.  A selection of notably popular posts are:

  • Psi-Wars: Don't Convert; Create! which likely gained popularity due to being one of my first posts, but it's also a topic I see pop up in a few places, so people like to reference it.
  • The Riddle of Systems, a general gaming post that evidently spoke to a lot of people.
  • Rewriting Combat: Optional Rules likely earned a lot of views because it speaks very much to the sort of thing a lot of people need in their game.
  • Starfighter Tactics has had more than its fair share of views despite being something I tossed together larger as an after-thought because, I suspect, it addresses a hole in the GURPS system that a lot of people would like to see filled.
  • The Luke vs Vader Breakdown is fantastically popular, in my top ten of all time, despite being very specific.  Breakdowns seem evidently rather popular, and this one seems to touch one something a lot of people would like to see, and is also paired with a sense of nostalgia.
  • Rafari 2.1, one of my signature characters, is peculiarly popular.  Like, one of my top ten posts of all time.  He has no comments or +1s, just a ton of views, don't know what that's about.
  • Assassin 2.0, and Scavenger 2.0, both templates, are also peculiarly popular, in largely the same way.  Surprising, given how new they are, and their lack of artwork.  Perhaps people are using them for their characters?
  • Psi-Wars: Linguistics just came out and is already rocking nearly 400 views, which is shockingly quick growth.  As a fan of languages, that pleases me!
  • And last but definitely not least, the Psi-Wars Primer has not a single +1, but is the most viewed post of the year, and I regularly see traffic from it.  It's proven an ideal touch-stone for people who want to jump into Psi-Wars late in the game.  This is probably my favorite post, as it's the smartest one I think I could do.
If you have any thoughts on particularly beloved posts, dear reader, feel free to leave them in the comments below.

Going forward, I want to wrap up Psi-Wars (finally!).  I'm about half-way through Iteration 5, so I don't expect it to take more than another 4-6 weeks. After that, I'd like to jump into Iteration 6, which will be a concrete setting, ready for play.  I might go on to an Iteration 7, wherein I put together some adventures and run them as a final playtest.  I'd like to be finished by summer.

Expansion Plans and Justifications

My original plan was to write for a single year to practice self-discipline.  My original intent, after writing a year of GURPS material, which I would enjoy, I'd dive into something more difficult: Writing blog posts about programming.  I already have such a blog, and with the sort of time and effort I've put into Mailanka's Musing, I could write my own game or greatly expand my skillset, both of which have considerable economic rewards.  However, I've been impressed by the warmth of the response of the community and, in particular, the number of people who've said that my material is worth money.  If that's so, I can certainly justify continuing to write at the pace I am "for free."  And, in fact, if you're really willing to spend your pennies on me, there's some interesting things I can do, like commission artwork!  So, if you're interested in furthering my writing, then by all means, check out my fully operational patreon!

Next, after tackling not-Star-Wars with Psi-Wars, I'd like to tackle not-Star-Trek with Heroes of the Galactic Frontier, which is actually a project I've already put considerable work.  Where Psi-Wars has been the conversion of largely existing material to create a facsimile of another setting, Heroes of the Galactic Frontier will be about building new campaign frameworks and about using design elements to give us precisely the gameplay we want.  It also won't feature its own setting, but a more direct, toolkit approach for building your own setting (as a good Star Trek game needs to be able to conjure civilizations, space empires and planets whenever players go into a new star system and figure out what's there)

Finally, I'd like to expand my look at the community: I happen to believe that the average gamer is more creative, more innovative and more interesting than he realizes, and there are a few fellow gamers and creators I'd like to highlight with interviews.  I'd like to see if I can drop one interview a month, to introduce the larger gaming world to you, and to help particularly creative gamers get their message out.

So, here's to an interesting 2017!
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