Plug for Scarlet Heroes

The Station’s sensors indicate that Sine Nomine Publications is busy again, this time on Scarlet Heroes, an Old School RPG for very small player groups.

I’ve said before that I think there’s something useful for the GM in anything Kevin Crawford writes, so I’ve stuck a few bucks in. If solo or one-on-one adventure in his Red Tide setting intrigues you, go pledge, and thus encourage him to write more of these.

We now return you to your scheduled programming.

Savage Scoutships

The scoutship is a venerable SF stereotype; the Classic Traveller Type S, Jack Vance’s Type 9B Locator, the craft flown by Eric Frank Russell’s scouts, the Runabouts from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and so forth. If there’s a ship I know well, this is it. So it’s a good place to start from in exploring ship design. Let’s try the Type S under the SF Companion and High-Space.

SFC SCOUTSHIP

The scoutship needs to be Small, so that it can be operated by one person. That gives a base cost of $2M and 20 available Mod slots, which I’ll use up as follows:

  • Atmospheric: 3 Mods, $300K.
  • Crew Space x 2: 2 Mods, $200K. Allows for 8 crew members.
  • FTL Drive: 3 Mods, $12M.
  • Garage/Hangar: 4 Mods, $1M. Allows for one vehicle up to size 8. (Hmm. In the Rules As Written, that could be another scoutship, which in turn could have a garage with another scoutship…)

The final statblock is:

Small Starship: Acc/TS 50/700, Climb 3, Toughness 20 (5), Crew 1, Cost $15.5M.

Remaining Mods: 8 (about 27 cubic metres, or just under 2 displacement tons, Traveller-style).

Notes: Atmospheric, 2 x Crew Space, FTL Drive, Garage/Hangar.

Weapons: None.

HIGH-SPACE SCOUTSHIP

I’m using version 1-1 of the High-Space Fleet Manual for this. It should be capable of being owned by a single Novice PC, who would have one Ship Acquisition Point, giving the ship 3 points of Traits and 3 free Edges.

The initial attributes are Manoeuvre d4, Computer d4, FTL d4, Displacement d4 and Quality d4. I select the Explorer design edge (which doesn’t count against the basic three from AP), gaining +1 FTL die-type and +1 Pace, then go back and allocate the three Trait points to Manoeuvre, Displacement, and Quality, boosting them to d6 each. The Explorer design edge also gives it 2 payloads per displacement (12 total) and one hardpoint per displacement (6 total).

I browse through the Hindrances, but none of them seem appropriate, so move on to Edges, and select:

  • Luggage (1 payload).
  • Guest Accommodation (1 payload). This allows the ship to carry its displacement (6) in passengers. High-Space is silent on accomodation for crew members, but the table on p. 7 implies that you could have up to 4 Novice PCs pooling their points to get this ship, so since this edge is specifically for non-crew accommodation, I reckon the ship must have crew quarters for four people.

I can’t give it an air/raft hangar without boosting the Displacement to d8, so we’ll skip that. Life pods don’t feel right as an alternative.

Pace is Manoeuvre plus Quality plus one, so 9. Toughness is half the sum of Displacement and Quality, so 6. The final statblock is:

Attributes: Manoeuvre d6, Computer d4, FTL d6, Displacement d6 and Quality d6.

Pace: 9. Toughness: 6.

Edges: Explorer; Luggage, Guest Accommodation. One edge and 10 payload held in reserve for later use.

Hindrances: None.

Weapons: None.

COMPARISON AND CONCLUSIONS

The SFC ship looks like a vehicle, the High-Space one looks like a character. They both have quite a bit of room for later customisation as the PC crew advance or get richer, and either is well within the reach of a group of Novice PCs – High-Space handles that with Acquisition Points, the Companion by recommending the group should start with a Medium ship, an FTL Drive, and $2M of other Mods.

The SFC ship was definitely faster and easier to do, because the design sequence is more linear and less ambiguous; but the High-Space one was more fun.

Review: SFC vs High Space vs SF Toolkits

“Hey! Are we playing horseshoes, honey? No, I don’t think we are.
You’re close! (Close!) But no cigar!”
- Weird Al Yankovic, Close But No Cigar

This one’s for Cloud Divider, who asked how the SFC stacks up against High-Space and the old SF Toolkits… A bit like this, CD; as you can see I got carried away, and wound up with something too big for a comment.

SFC VS HIGH-SPACE

While both of these focus on the space opera subgenre of science fiction, they’re looking at different versions of it.

The Sci Fi Companion emulates the kind of space opera written in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. It’s good for campaigns with the look and feel of Poul Anderson’s Polesotechnic League or Terran Empire, E C Tubb’s Dumarest saga, H Beam Piper’s Future History, Frank Herbert’s Dune series; movies like Star Wars; TV shows like Battlestar Galactica; games like Traveller, Star Frontiers, BattleTech. This is SF as Westerns-with-rayguns, and I’d say it’s closer to the original Star Wars movies than anything else in fiction.

High-Space mimics the sort of space opera written from the late 1980s onwards, by authors like Iain Banks, Alastair Reynolds, or Neal Asher; or games like Halo or Mass Effect. I can’t think of any movies or TV shows in this subgenre, but no doubt they exist. Transhumanism is central to the setting, with characters routinely being clones, cyborgs, AI software in robot bodies, sentient starships and what have you. For me, it resonates most with the videogame Mass Effect.

Mechanically, the main differences are these:

  • The SFC doesn’t add much as far as character creation goes; a couple of Knowledge skills, a handful of new Edges and Hindrances, and off you go. High-Space takes SW character generation and overlays careers and cultures, which for the most part give you a little character backstory and a couple of mandatory skills.
  • The SFC gives you a point-buy alien builder for making your own races. High-Space treats races as trappings for one of a half-a-dozen racial archetypes.
  • High-Space is set in a post-scarcity economy; the gear PCs have depends on their Rank rather than their available cash.
  • The SFC has a wider range of gear, especially weapons, but High-Space has a stronger focus on computers and hacking.
  • High-Space essentially treats starships as characters; in SFC, they’re just another type of vehicle. However, the rules in SFC are much easier for me to understand; I would love to use the High-Space rules as a plug-in (which incidentally they are designed for) but I found too many unanswered questions and violations of the laws of physics. Yes, I could house-rule around those, but I pay publishers for this stuff so that I don’t have to do that.
  • High-Space has a default setting, The Lantern, already specified. The SFC doesn’t.

SFC VS TOOLKITS

At the top level, the difference is one of style. The toolkits presented options (different ways to design a starship, for example), and encouraged the GM to pick one, or use them as inspiration for his own custom method; they offered advice and guidance. The Companion is more prescriptive, offering a single starship design method as the approved approach; it offers actual rules.

Things the Companion adds:

  • Nothing I’ve noticed. I could’ve missed something, mind.

Things it takes away:

  • The random alien creature generator. I get the feeling some of the actual creatures are gone too, but the page count is about the same, so maybe I’m wrong.
  • The Weird Science Edges and notes on that Arcane Background.
  • The superhero lair generator (from Necessary Evil).
  • Much of the GM’s advice on setting design.
  • I’m sure the total number of example vehicles, power armour suits etc. is lower; I haven’t checked to see if the surviving ones are new, or recycled.
  • Psionics and extra powers (which I think, but have not checked, are mostly in SWD now).
  • The notes on time travel.

Things it changes:

  • It’s aligned with Savage Worlds Deluxe rather than the earlier Explorers’ Edition. This doesn’t change much other than the chase rules.
  • Hacking and cyberspace. This is simplified, with a suggestion to use Interface Zero if you want more complexity.

MY PREFERENCE

Of the three – High-Space, the SF toolkits, or the Sci Fi Companion – I prefer the Companion, for these reasons:

  • It’s easier for me to understand and explain to players. High-Space is unclear to me in places, and the toolkits offer too many options.
  • It’s a single, tightly-integrated book. Both of the other options are composed of three books, and the toolkits by their nature are not such a cohesive whole.
  • It’s closest to the type of game I like to run best, no doubt due to a youth misspent reading Poul Anderson and E C Tubb, and playing Classic Traveller.

Is there anything that makes the Companion a “must-have”? That depends on what you want. In my case, I like it for the vehicle and ship design rules, but I could (and have) run SF games without it. My usual rule of thumb is that if I’m still using it on a regular basis a year after I bought it, it graduates to “must have”. Let’s see if I’m still as enthusiastic about it in January 2015…

The End of the Line

TimeZero is GRAmel’s time travel setting. I’m not sure yet if I will run it, but I enjoyed reading it and enjoy thinking about the possibilities. Of these, the questions that intrigue me the most are:

  • What is really going on in the 45th century and beyond?
  • Who are the Priors?
  • What does the Triad want?

These questions are part of the central mystery of TimeZero, and the setting as written leaves them open – presumably so that the Game Master can answer them however he wishes for his own campaign. Here are some possibilities that occurred to me:

BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU

“You will be inserted via Time Gate into this storeroom at midnight on July 7th, 3505 AD, plus or minus 12 hours as usual. At precisely 12:38 and 7 seconds, you will leave the storeroom and proceed 15 meters along this corridor to the door on the left; you have exactly 19 seconds to reach the door, circumvent the lock leaving no evidence whatsoever, pass through the door and close it behind you. On no account go down the side corridor on your right, which you must cross no earlier than 12:38 and 14 seconds, and no later than 12:38 and 17 seconds…”

Remember the Timewatch motto? “If it is written in the history books, then so it must be.”

As technology advances, the history books turn into databases with more and more details about more and more people. Timewatch Operatives are recruited from people who won’t be missed, and do their jobs in the grey areas of unrecorded history.

Near Future missions must be planned and executed with extreme precision, so that the Operatives are never in view of people, synths or surveillance cameras; this is the reason that they are so much more tightly controlled than missions to earlier eras, and may be the reason Timewatch has synth agents in the first place, as synths find this level of control easier to deal with than humans.

By the 45th century, everything is recorded; there are no people who won’t be missed, and there are no grey areas. Both the need for, and possibility of, Timewatch missions disappear under ever-present surveillance – indeed, this may be the reason for that surveillance.

In this version of events, the Priors are an agency of a far-future government which most players would think of as a police state; the Triad is a dissident faction which acts to prevent that government from taking power, restoring freedom and power to the people. As it watches everyone, all the time, the government knows about the Triad; but the Triad cannot simply be eliminated, because recorded history says it exists… so if the players are ever in a position to do so, the Priors will prevent them.

ELVIS HAS LEFT THE BUILDING

“For every person, every species, there is a time to move on; or if you prefer, to move aside and let someone else try.”

In the 45th century, the Earth and humanity as we understand it have ceased to exist. Whether because of the Rapture, the Singularity, because people have “ascended” to become godlike beings of pure energy, or simply because the human race has had its time and died out, there’s nobody left.

Timewatch doesn’t need to run missions to protect the timeline from that point on, because there is nothing left to protect; once humanity reaches that point, it’s over.

In this vision of the future, the Priors are the last ones out of the building, making sure the lights are turned off and the doors are locked… and making sure it was set up correctly in the first place, by ensuring that the timeline includes everything and everyone needed for it to come into existence. The Triad don’t want to go wherever all the others are going, and don’t want anyone else to go there either.

SIMULATION HYPOTHESIS I

“What does the Triad want? Our freedom. No more than that. Most of you would say that is our right.”

One philosophical theory is that our reality is a simulation of some kind, being run for unknown purposes by an outside agency. This version of the simulation hypothesis assumes that the simulation is a research tool; each alternate timeline is a different version of the experiment. Time machines are ways to hack the code of the simulation, allowing the software agents who think they are sentient beings to move along the experimental timeline or to move between different versions of the experiment.

Time does not exist beyond the 45th century, because that is the end of the simulation run. The Priors are software agents programmed with the knowledge of what is really going on, and loyal to the scientists running the simulation; their purpose is to eliminate the emergent behaviour inevitable in such a complex system, so that the experiment is not spoiled.  The Triad is headed by a group of former Priors intent on escaping from the simulation into whatever network or system may be beyond. Quite how their activities help them to do this is unclear.

SIMULATION HYPOTHESIS II

“What does the Triad want? We just want to make things a little more… interesting…”

Most of our simulations are games or entertainments of some other kind, so it’s reasonable to assume that if we live in a simulation, it is a game as well. In this answer to the central questions, the 45th century is the end of the game, the Priors are the game moderators, and those special people the Old Man is so intent on protecting are the players, although he may not know this.

And the Triad? The Triumvirate has guessed what is going on, and is playing a game within a game. Since they will cease to exist when the game ends, they want to prolong it as much as they can. This means they must challenge the players enough to keep them interested, but not so much that the players become frustrated and give up or band together to wipe out the Triad. So, Triad activities will disrupt the timeline, but never disastrously; if it seems the timeline will be wiped out, the Triad itself may join with the heroes to correct things.

-o0o-

My favourite is the first one, but I think it would be very hard to GM. What do you think, dear readers? What are your answers to these mysteries?

SFC Comparative Tech Levels

Here’s the first bit of experimenting with the Savage Worlds Sci Fi Companion; I wanted to see how the technology levels in the World Maker stack up against the character rules and other games. Traveller’s view on what TL counts as high, low and middle varies from edition to edition; the Traveller entries here are taken from my slightly foxed copy of Supplement 3, The Spinward Marches.

SFC TL Description Hindrance Traveller SWN
1 Stone Age - 0 0
2-3 Middle Ages - 1 1
4-5 Renaissance - 2 -
6-8 21st Century Low Tech (Major)* 7*** 3-ish
9-11 Below Average Low Tech (Minor) 10 -
12-16 Average None 11-12 4
17-18 Slightly Above Average High Tech (Minor) 13-14 4+
19 Sig. Above Average High Tech (Major) 15 5
20 Incomprehensible Ultra Tech** 16+ -

* I’m guessing here, but it’s a logical extrapolation of the other Hindrances.
** Yes, all right, not strictly a Hindrance but you know what I mean.
*** I know officially CT would place us at TL 9+, but I’ll believe that when I can buy an air/raft or a jump drive.

I’m not sure what, if anything, I’ll do with this yet. Mainly, it helps me place things in context using other rules I understand better.

Review: SW Sci Fi Companion

I’ve been waiting for this one for a long time! The Sci Fi Companion is a Savage Worlds supplement which expands the Deluxe core rules to cover the science fiction genre. That gives it a lot of ground to cover, from Grey Lensman to Accelerando, from Star Wars to Gattaca, from Doctor Who to Person of Interest… Let’s take a look inside and see how well it does…

CONTENTS

Characters (10 pages): This chapter includes the introduction, then moves on to a point-buy race builder much like the one in the Deluxe Edition, but with more detailed and better laid out explanations of positive and negative abilities. The abilities themselves seem much the same.

There are then 13 sample races, which at first glance seemed to include half-a-dozen repeats of races in the core rulebook; but when I read the detail I could see that apart from humans, they have been built differently. Avions, for example, have the same name and retain the Flight and Hollow Boned abilities, but now gain an extra Agility die step and the Low-G Worlder Hindrance.

The races are aquarians (a bit like Atlanteans from the core rulebook), aurax (kinda-sorta centaurs), avions, constructs (a bit like androids), deaders (slug parasites that "wear" dead human bodies), florans (plant people), humans (look in the mirror), insectoids (ant-mantis-human hybrids), kalians (four-armed, agile humanoids), rakashans (almost identical to the core rulebook version), saurians (changed a bit from the core rules), Serrans (the inevitable telepathic humanoids, although at least they aren’t specifically smug tree-huggers who turn their backs on That Evil Technology), and yetis (big, furry, would do for Wookiees at a pinch).

There are 7 new Hindrances; the one that grabbed my attention was Low Tech/High tech, available in major and minor versions. This Hindrance effectively gives a range of 5 tech levels – major low, minor low, average, minor high and major high – by giving the character penalties on using gear that’s not at the campaign’s average tech level, whatever that is.

New edges next; there are 7 of those too, including Heavy-G Worlder (Low-G and Zero-G Worlder are Hindrances). I like Geared Up best; you get $10,000 of starting gear each time you take it, but this is a one-time benefit like using a skill point to take more starting cash; lose it and it’s gone.

Notice, no new skills or changes to existing ones. Not that I mind. Although Knowledge (Astrogation) turns up in the Starships chapter, later on.

Gear (13 pages): In addition to the 5 tech levels implied by Hindrances, the gear chapter introduces a sixth – Ultra Tech, for game-changing advanced technology. After a short discussion of various methods for tracking ammo, we move on into the gear list, which is divided into personal equipment (the usual suspects, except this is the first time I’ve seen a 3D printer as something PCs can buy), armour (including Ultra-Tech personal force fields), and weapons; disintegrators, flamers, flechette guns, gyrojets, lasers (slightly different to the ones in the core rules), particle accelerators/blasters, plasma guns, rocket launchers, stun guns, high-tech versions of yer basic slugthrowers, and vehicular weapons from MGs to heavy torpedoes and mass drivers. Most of this section is weapon stats, but that is because weapons have more stats than most gear.

Throughout, gear uses the normal SW approach; what it does is specified, how it does that is left up to the GM.

Setting Rules (3 pages): This chapter has rules for different types of atmospheres, gravity, hacking, salvage and trade. Hacking in SFC is either a straight skill roll or a dramatic task; if you want more than that, you’re advised to get Interface Zero (which is lurking on my hard drive somewhere, and may get reviewed one day).

Cyberware (3 pages): Here we find a new derived attribute, Strain, which is two plus half the lower of your Spirit or Vigour and defines how much cyberware you can implant; install more and you get permanent Fatigue levels. That’s the first page of this section; pages two and three are cyberware enhancements such as communicators, subdermal armour, built-in weapons and so forth.

Power Armour (4 pages): This part of the book introduces Mods. Various vehicles, robots etc. are built by taking a basic chassis, which has a Mods rating, and adding components which each require a number of Mods points, until you run out of Mods rating, money or imagination. There are three basic chassis for powered armour, 17 optional components, and half-a-dozen pre-worked examples. I immediately started thinking about how to represent suits from favourite games and fictional works in game terms, which is a good sign.

Robots (4 pages): Same story; basic chassis with Mods points, 21 optional components costing Mods points, four worked examples. Setting rules for repairs, maintenance, glitches for unmaintained robots. Robots are essentially customisable Extras, or Wild Cards if you pay the extra for that.

Starships (11 pages): There are 6 basic hulls, rated like vehicles in the core rules, with Mods points used in the usual way for combinations of 28 optional components. There are rules for fuel costs, provisions, repairs, crew wages, hyperspace travel, and starship combat (a modified version of the core Chase rules, which is how I would’ve done it myself). There are guidelines for using miniatures for ship combat, too. 13 example ships are provided, as are guidelines for how much ship a group of PCs should start with, if you want to do that (I probably would).

Hyperspace deserves a more detailed look. A jump requires a Knowledge (Astrogation) roll and can take you anywhere, although jumps within a solar system are easier and jumps to another galaxy are harder; they take 2d6 days, less if you roll well or spend extra fuel to go faster. Essentially, all star systems in the same galaxy are the same distance apart; goodbye star maps, hello intriguing implications for galactic politics (of which more perhaps in a later post).

Vehicles (7 pages): Are rated, unsurprisingly, like vehicles. Again, they have Mods ratings and 35 optional components to consume them; there are six basic chassis, rated only by size, since how they move (jets, tracks, antigrav) are covered by Mods. There are rules for tracking ammo and fuel, and guidelines for the budget a group might have if the game will revolve around vehicle combat. There are 18 sample vehicles, ranging from dirt bikes to shielded hovertanks.

Walkers (5 pages): Get yer mechs here. They are built much like power armour, but are bigger (up to 50′ tall). Three types of chassis, 18 optional components, six example mechs, special rules for mech combat – notably that these compartmentalised behemoths can never suffer more than two wounds from an attack, whatever the damage result is.

World Maker (4 pages): Random tables for generating planets; gravity, dominant terrain type, atmosphere, population density, government, law level, customs (which may apply only to specific groups), spaceport, technology level.

Travelers & Xenos (30 pages): Stock NPCs and alien animals, each with a short description and a statblock. Includes psi-knights (*cough* Jedi *cough*), variant swarms, and a couple of example empires and organisations as well as individual foes – nice touch, that.

…and we close with an index.

FORMAT

Full colour cover; layered PDF (huzzah!) so you can suppress the foreground, background, text, illustrations or guides/grids individually. If you like, I guess you can suppress them all and get blank pages… anyway, behind all the layout and illos is black on white two-column text in readable fonts.

Gets the job done.

SUGGESTIONS FOR IMPROVEMENT

What happens when a character with High Tech (Major) tries to use stuff made on a world where everyone has Low Tech (Minor)? I’d probably stack the penalties so he’s working at -6.

I really like the idea of rating starships like characters, and making them a playable race as High-Space does; so I would have voted to include that. However, Pinnacle took a conscious decision not to go down that route – fair enough, it’s their game.

CONCLUSIONS

This book replaces the earlier SF Toolkits, in the same way that the Fantasy Companion replaced the Fantasy Toolkits. Likewise, it takes a more prescriptive approach to genre specifics than the toolkits did.

How does it do at covering the vast playground of SF? Well, it’s tightly focussed on space opera, and it does a good job of that; if you want to game Aliens, Babylon 5, Star Wars, Star Frontiers, Traveller and so forth, you can, but the SFC doesn’t go far beyond the space opera niche. Neither do I, to be fair, so I’m happy with it; but if that’s not your goal, you might be better served by something else – probably something that isn’t the fast, furious pulpiness of Savage Worlds.

Overall Rating: 5 out of 5. I’m not playing much at the moment, but I expect to have fun shortly with the various vehicle and powered armour sections. Watch this space!

Oh, and I forgot to mention earlier that it’s a 98 page PDF and currently costs $14.99.

CODA

At the same time, Pinnacle has released the second edition of the Super Powers Companion. Supers aren’t my cup of tea; I reckon anyone who works all day at a normal job, then dresses up in skin-tight spandex and goes out at night looking for like-minded individuals to beat up, is somebody with serious psychological problems, superpowers or not. So if I were to run a supers game, it would be inspired by Watchmen or The Boys rather than Superman or the Avengers. That aside, be aware that the SPC is now available if that floats your boat, and it seems to be quite tightly integrated with the SF Companion.