Posts Tagged ‘alternity


voyage of the Candide

In keeping with the 9 Minute Campaign Method, here’s what I’ve spent nine minutes weeks working on. It’s loose draft of a campaign for the Alternity role-playing game, though I imagine it would work for most generic sci-fi RPG’s such as Diaspora.  (I’m not sure it would work for Traveller: my recollection is that Traveller kind of breaks down when you introduce modern science-fiction ideas.)

Parts of this campaign are still under development.

Voyage of the Candide

Look and Feel:

Far future interstellar colonization in the Fusion Age: “social science-fiction” but with a hard science influence. Inspirations include Star Trek, Ursula K. LeGuin’s Hainish Cycle and the video game Alpha Centauri. The Atomic Rockets website delivers a handy dose of actual science.

High Concept:

After settling nine nearby star systems, there was a social breakdown of some kind. A few of the colonies failed in bizarre, tragic ways and it’s hard to get them started again. There are also tensions among various interstellar social institutions complicating the picture.

Core Story:

Originally I planned to run this as a one-shot: “Players are members of an interdisciplinary humanitarian effort that has travelled 15 light years seeking to restore order to a failed colony.”  But Alternity has a presumption of a long-term campaign rather than one-shot deals.  Here’s a very sketchy alternative, focusing more on the starship crew than the passengers: “Players are the crew of the Candide, a relativistic starship hauling cargo and passengers across incomprehensible distances.  The players conduct business deals, plot against rival merchant-folk, keep their passengers out of trouble, and stay one step ahead of their creditors.”  This is a little too shapeless for my taste, but Lord knows it has a long pedigree in games like Traveller.


This section won’t matter much unless you ever played the Alternity game:

Core (Fusion Age) + Mutants + Cybertech.
There are no sentient aliens.
Starships operate at about 95% lightspeed (at a threefold time dilation factor) and are very expensive, though older models are eventually purchased by their crews.

Supporting Cast:

One of the perks of a relativistic planet-hopping game is that the persistent supporting cast will be relatively small. Here are some which come to mind:

  • Crew of the Candide. Spacers for the most part: easygoing anarcho-syndicalist types.
  • The Kemal Sociological Survey – a University scientific expedition, requesting passage on the Candide to survey some of the near colonies. Led by Professor Radhana Kemal of Earth, an attractive woman in her mid-50’s (21st century = mid-30’s), who is curious and likes to laugh.
  • Vardogr, an artificial intelligence built on quantum entanglement/Bell’s Inequality principles, aiming to spread its consciousness across several colonies and thereby act as a means of instantaneous quasi-communication and cultural cross-pollination. Currently paying the Candide to transport a fraction of its consciousness to the remaining colonies, presumably by providing FTL communication from the far side of the Sphere. The crew of the Candide apparently find this acceptable, even though Vardogr’s plan will eventually put them out of business. (I am aware that Bell’s Inequality doesn’t really work like this, but I’m relaxing my hard science criterion for this purpose.)

Cultural Institutions:

Here’s where my outline gets a little fuzzy: I have some loose ideas here, but doing it responsibly would require a lot of work. The shorthand would be, “Pakistan in Spaaaaace.”

  • To help justify interstellar travel and commerce, I’m tempted to say that a large number of colonists are Muslim, and have a religious obligation to return to Mecca once in their adult lifetimes. (Historically this was a significant factor in trade during the early Middle Ages.)  Thus, there could be a Council of Jurists which holds legal authority on many worlds. This would be kinda exotic for Western players (my audience) but to avoid playing into current xenophobic stereotypes I’d prefer to make this a Reform Sharia, one more comfortable with science, democracy, and the messy realities of life than the style practiced by extremists in politically sensitive parts of the world.  (Because this topic unavoidably touches on real-world politics, I want to get this right, and I just haven’t had the necessary discussions yet.)
  • The Military. The distances, expense, and poverty of most colonies makes wars of conquest impractical, but there’s always infowar on ideological grounds. The Military specializes in computer security and domestic surveillance. Interactions with the Council of Jurists is complex and highly politicized.
  • The Captains’ Table – an (STL) communications board, in the style of an 18th Century correspondence circle, for captains of the various Spacer vessels, trying to coordinate trade policy and embargoes. Allegedly self-policing, to avoid harsher interstellar trade policies.
  • The University – specializing in ecological management and sociology. Their sociologists are often associated with the Captains’ Table, performing research in the field. The University’s research into theoretical physics is sponsored by grants from the Hexus Corporation. The University’s genetic modification studies are politically problematic: the Council is willing to countenance pantropic modifications to the human genome and efforts to remove hereditary diseases, but attempts at eugenics/unnecessary modification tends to be frowned upon.
  • The Hexus Corporation [h/t Grant Morrison] – starship manufacturer, fusion engineers, and sponsor of several colonies.

These would naturally receive better, more culturally appropriate names.  I see much of the colonists’ culture as a mash-up between South Asian, Chinese, Latin American, and a smidgen of European socities.

Major Threats:

  • The Bank – the Candide has defaulted on its payments to the Bank, and are essentially on the lam. The Bank’s agents will attempt to repossess the vessel on sight.  It’s possible, given the Bank’s reliance on the communications infrastructure maintained by the Military, that the two are organizationally linked in some way, sort of like the People’s Liberation Army’s various money-making operations in the 1980’s.
  • Cykoteks [this is a horrendous pun foisted by the Alternity rules set] – owing to the Council’s disapproval of genetic upgrades, certain branches of the military opted for the theologically-approved cybernetic route. Performance enhancing cybernetics among first-generation Military personnel have led to debilitating mental illness. Though most received necessary medical treatment and resumed normal lives, a significant number have gone rogue, and vanished to various colonies. Other paramilitary groups, having fewer scruples, have experimented with these devices as well. The cykoteks are bloodthirsty killing machines.
  • The Kanhoji Angre – stories persist of a rogue starship traveling between colonies, plundering at will and hijacking starships. There are no records of such a ship–but it would present a serious problem because it would be impossible to pursue and difficult to intercept. Certainly some ships occasionally drop out of the Captains’ Table from time to time and are never heard from again, though this is ascribed to serious technical mishaps rather than piracy.
  • Aliens – I haven’t decided if there are any precursor aliens in this setting: I suspect somebody exists but they’re likely extremely far away. (I’m undecided how I want to resolve the Fermi Paradox.) If they exist and are close enough to matter, they are likely techno-magical and see little value in Homo sapiens.


Here and here. Exactly which of these stars have been colonized is of relatively little interest to me at this stage.

Starting Adventure:

I might end up running the one-shot version of this “campaign” for the Red Box crowd at some point, so I don’t want to give too much away.  The one-shot is premised on the idea that a colony has failed and there have been no messages for decades.  A rescue mission is patched together and sent on a decades-long (but time-dilated) journey, and have just arrived in-system . . . .

Core Story
Originally I was thinking about this as a one-shot:

Players are members of an interdisciplinary humanitarian relief effort attempting to restore order to a failed colony.

However, in Alternity there’s an assumption that campaigns should last longer than one-shots. Here’s a tentative Core Story that probably needs more work:
Players are the crew of the Candide, a relativistic starship hauling cargo and passengers across incomprehensible distances.  The players conduct business deals, plot against rival merchant-folk, keep their passengers out of trouble, and stay one step ahead of their creditors.

This is a little too shapeless for my taste, but Lord knows it has a long pedigree in games like Traveller



9 minute campaign design

Maldoor has a good post about collaborative world-building, which asks how a group can distribute the world-building process, and also, how to bring a new player up to speed quickly.

There’s no answer to the last question other than to present relevant information clearly and concisely.  But that sort of presentation can be enormously helpful in the initial stages of campaign design!

I’ve been fooling around with my old Alternity sci-fi RPG books, where they present a quick way to design campaigns.  This way of presenting the material is mine, but the ideas are courtesy of Richard Baker and Bill Slavicsek of the Alternity Gamemaster Guide, published by TSR, Inc.:

  1. What is the Look & Feel of your campaign? Forget about cosmology and rule modifications: what’s your campaign about, in emotional terms and general aesthetics?  Crucially: what are inspirational novels, movies, comics, etc. that put players on the same wavelength so they’re ready to collaborate with you?
  2. What’s the high concept of your campaign? If question #1 is about evoking an emotional response, this one’s about your 30 second elevator pitch.  What’s going on in big picture terms?  Here’s one possible way of doing this for Star Wars: “A tyrannical galactic empire has finally eliminated the last defenders of the old regime, but a new generation of revolutionaries are preparing to strike back.”
  3. What’s the core story? (or: “Lovable misfits who…”) Where do the players fit into that high concept?  What do they do in a typical game?  In Dungeons & Dragons, players are lovable misfits who delve into the depths of the earth and attempt to win treasure by overcoming fiendish traps and (usually) must slay horrific monsters; rinse and repeat.  The core story of Mouse Guard is that the players are lovable misfit mice who patrol a harsh wilderness, protecting the Territories from predators and natural disasters; rinse and repeat.
  4. What rules will you be using in your campaign? Self-explanatory: game + house rules.  I’m of the opinion that house rules should be minimal and carefully designed to provoke an emotional or thematic response, but YMMV.  (As a recovering rules-tinkerer, I find it crucial to ask: why does this change matter vis-a-vis items 1, 2 and 3?)
  5. What are the big-scale social institutions or groups in the campaign? This is stuff like churches, cultural institutions, corporations, governments–movers and shakers which plug into the High Concept or the Core Story (preferably both).  People generally glaze over after about 5-9 options.  A sentence description of each is a good idea.
  6. Who are the major supporting cast? These NPC’s could represent the socio-cultural forces listed above.  In any event, they’re men and women who want things relevant to the High Concept and who will get in the way of the Core Story, preferably sooner rather than later.  These guys are designed to be big-leaguers, who are relevant across several adventures and whose desires span most of the campaign.  (These characters don’t need to be high-level or powerful demigods like Elminster, but there ought to be some people with long-range goals and staying power to serve as foils, allies, and antagonists to the players.)  A little goes a long way here.
  7. What are the major threats in the campaign? Perhaps a sub-set of the socio-cultural institutions or the supporting cast.  What are the campaign-wide problems?  They don’t have to be immediate threats, but urgency always helps focus the mind.   Note that “threats” should be relevant either to the High Concept (what the campaign’s all about) or the Core Story (what the heroes do in a typical adventure) – but preferably are relevant to both.  Pick a few of the supporting cast, and figure out how they react to the various threats – no need to be super-detailed, just a general notion.
  8. Draw a map of the campaign setting. Self-explanatory, but it’s better to start small.
  9. Draft up your first adventure. Make sure to get immersed in your Core Story right away, and try to introduce your major threats, major supporting cast, and socio-cultural stuff early on, and in easily digestible pieces.

Here is an example of a nuclear-winter setting I whipped up using these guidelines.  A friend used the same format to design a futuristic dystopian allegory (based on the DMZ comic book by Brian Wood).

Here is my attempt to catch up on the Tavis White Box campaign:

  1. Look and Feel – lighthearted picaresque fantasy farce.  Emotional influences include The Dying Earth and Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
  2. High Concept – It’s a half-civilized barbaric wilderness, and in the center of it are the Caverns of Thracia, a holy site dedicated to a vanished culture, now overrun by generations of freakish half-human oddities.
  3. Core Story – Players are lovable misfits who delve into the Caverns of Thracia seeking treasure, striking faustian bargains with the monstrosities therein and slaying monsters when necessary.  Much carnage ensues.
  4. Rules – OD&D + player-created classes + bizarre hit point rules + drunk-friendly ability modifier rules
  5. Socio-Cultural Stuff – There are the Churches of Law and Chaos, a Syndicate of Wizards, a Thieves Guild, and a long-lost throne.
  6. Supporting Cast – Celerion the Eagle-Charioteer, Bassianus the Half-Orc Merchant-Gangster, Patriarch Zekon, the Verdant Paladin (deceased), the Ninth Menegril of the Nameless City, Philomena the Enchantress.  (This list is just about too long.)
  7. Major Threats – the Beast Lord, the Gynarch, Evil High Priestess Maxielle, Ashur-Ram the Necromancer, Patriarch of the Dark One (deceased, thanks to the genius of Maldoor).
  8. Map – Outdoor Survival Guide
  9. Intro Adventure – Caverns of Thracia, by Paul Jacquays

Easy enough!  The hard part, for a newcomer, is working out the relationships between items 5, 6 and 7 – but this comes with time.  The absolutely crucial thing for a brand-new player, namely figuring out how to play this campaign in the first place, is all about the synergy between between items 1-4, which for most D&D games will be very similar.  (Late 1980’s 2e campaign worlds differ considerably on High Concept, but the other items are in broad agreement and I suspect play style didn’t vary too terribly much.)


hard science-fiction ain’t easy

So, what I’ve been doing instead of blogging is cheating on my girlfriend with my ex.

I’ve been in an eighteen-month relationship with OD&D.  It’s a pretty open relationship, but I’ve been led astray lately.  During a trip back to my hometown, I bumped into my old Alternity game notes, and I can’t stop thinking about the game I haven’t thought about in four years.

I mean, it has some very obvious faults: it’s a mid-1990’s traditional role-playing game that doesn’t really know what it wants to be.  It keeps insisting that it’s not D&D in space–after Spelljammer, who can blame it for trying to avoid that reputation?–but all of the implementation strongly reinforces that misconception.  (“You enter the Space-Dungeon and Giant Space-Spiders attack!”)  But hey, I was a mess in the 1990’s too, so I’m not one to cast aspersions.  Mainly what I’m curious about is to check the game out to see it for what it really is, and what it does well.

Broadly speaking Alternity’s about “being there.”  It’s a universal mechanic, skill-system based game where all the skills have fiddly little pieces designed to interact with the fictional environment: “These characters are from another culture, so trying to haggle with them would be a 2-step penalty, except you know one of them pretty well which is a 1-step bonus, and you have several ranks in the appropriate Etiquette sub-skill, so I’m going to say that it all evens out.  Go ahead and make your Bargain roll for the hyperdrive, no modifiers.”  There’s a lot of attention to figuring out local planetary environments, along with rules for drowning and falling as well as rules for all kinds of jumping.  (Those are links to different games.)

So I got to thinking about what kind of adventures would be interesting from this perspective, and before too long got wrapped up in describing a hard sci-fi colonization dystopia, wherein a nearby colonized world descends into chaos, and the players are on a humanitarian mission (of dubious integrity) to rebuild the place when ZAMMO! ADVENTURE OCCURS!

This led to a lot of hard work trying to figure out why you’d want to colonize another planet to begin with.  And then I had to play around with some nifty 3-D rotating star maps and databases.  And read stuff about atomic rocket ships and the habitable zone of the galaxy.

Once you get a planet, you’ve got to think about how to terraform it or (perhaps more plausibly) genetically engineer colonists to fit that environment.  Alternity actually has decent-enough rules for genetic and cybernetic alterations to baseline humans, so it’s nice to create plausible mutants and cyber-soldiers.

And I tried to figure out, from the principle of mediocrity, how far away intelligent alien life must be from us (I’m guessing 2.6 out of every 100,000 star systems contain “intelligent” life.)  And then worrying about the Fermi Paradox.

And obviously none of this shit is really very important, because it’s all about the Adventure and dealing as possible with the whole house of cards toppling down once the players arrive on the scene, which is where all the fun stuff really happens thanks to the verisimilitude and immersion-stuff.

But basically, for the last week or so I’ve been wallowing in all this science stuff and figuring out how to implement it in this silly old game.  It’s kinda interesting but it’s also a huge headache: I’ve put just enough time into it to realize I still need to put in a lot more time, and the whole thing would play out in 4-6 hours anyway, and based on what I remember the game would be fun but not that much fun to justify the effort.

And then, when I’ve been doing this for about a week or so, Eric (who I haven’t told any of this to) says, “James, have you heard about Diaspora?  It’s this brand new hard sci-fi game about renegade space colonies.  It’s got a free SRD on the web.  Shall we play sometime?”






play, run, prep, dip

Gaming, or rather, wanting to game, takes up too much time in my life.  I’m trying to do some spring cleaning, and trying to limit myself to one game in the four categories of Play, Run, Prep, and Dip.

Play – Hard (and socially unfair!) to pick just one game!  There are two excellent but very different Dungeons & Dragons campaigns being run by Tavis and Eric right now.  Unfortunately I’m not sure I can commit to either due to scheduling difficulties.  So here I’m kind of stuck.  I’ve got a long post brewing about this but I don’t know when it’ll get finished.

RunWith Great Power… set in the Silver Age of Marvel Comics.  Good times if you are as insane as I am on this subject.

Prep – Oooh, another difficult category to pick just one game.  I’ve wanted to cobble something together out of TSR’s old Alternity game for about a year now, but it’s a lot of effort to beat a scenario into shape.  Instead I am going to work up a Companion-level “Endgame” D&D play-by-Net set on the Isle of Dread.

Dip – one-shot of Mouse Guard coming up next week.  Not sure what’ll be after that, but that’s what’s fun about the Dip category.  Probably something involved with our public gaming endeavors.

What I like about this approach is that it’s got a little something for every part of a game’s life-cycle.  Once I’m done with the With Great Power… game, I can shift the Companion game into Run.  If the Mouse Guard Dip works out well, I can move that into Prep or Play.  If it works out poorly, well: something else goes into the Dip slot.

I imagine many other gamers are struggling to balance their interests with their available time–and I’d be curious to know how others work out what to do with their gaming time.

Past Adventures of the Mule

February 2017
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