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Tag Archives: Sci Fi

Why I Will Never Get Caught Up

Hi, I’m the Fractalbat, and I’m a book-a-holic.

Hi Fractal.

The problem is that I don’t make enough time to read all the books, so I’m constantly backlogged. Or, as I like to think of it, never without something to read. Every now and then I promise myself that I won’t get any more books until I’ve checked off at least one or two that I already have.

But…

See, on Thursdays I go to SCA fight practice and I have a stretch of time between when I finish work and when practice starts. Enough that I’m at loose ends. Sometimes I take that time to try and put a dent in my backlog of books, but sometimes I just want to walk around and browse. Enter 2nd and Charles, a bookstore I’ve mentioned before.

Believe it or not I’m usually pretty good about browsing in bookstores, what with the cost of the printed word and all. However 2nd and Charles has one bookshelf in their sci-fi section devoted to old paperbacks, and they’re only a dollar each. It’s practically guilt-free book buying, and best of all these are not the kind of books you’ll find on the shelves at your local Half Price Books. No, these are things like old DAW paperbacks and issues of Starlog. Things that clearly came from somebody’s collection.

I like to keep a couple books in the car. I call them my “backup books” for when I get caught with time to kill and nothing to read, or I forget my book when I go to work. But if this keeps up I’m going to need a little bookshelf.

Hmm… Now there’s a thought. Instead of using cup-holders as a selling point, talk about how many paperbacks a car can hold. Maybe redesign the glove compartment. I mean, who actually keeps gloves in there anyway?

Books2ndCharlesSometimes they have good used gaming books too, though on this visit nothing caught my eye.

 
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Posted by on August 28, 2015 in Books and Comics

 

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Boldly Going

This past weekend a friend and I cracked open a game I haven’t played since the 1990’s, the Star Trek: Starship Tactical Combat Simulator by FASA.

This is the space combat game that FASA released to go with their Star Trek role playing game and it was a favorite of ours back in the 80’s and 90’s. The FASA Star Trek line was an excellent example of a licensed game. FASA never created a set of role playing rules that I cared for, but they excelled at world building and the Star Trek universe they created was a beautiful melange that combined the original series, the animated series, the movies, and most of the book timelines into a working whole. It was a more complete and solid continuity than what the shows actually provided.

And while I was not a fan of the RPG rules, the Combat Simulator played to FASA’s strengths. It’s a solid and versatile set of light wargaming rules that convey the feel of starships slugging it out in deep space. We found the rules far more accessible than the venerable Starfleet Battles, and for the time period the production values were excellent. The counters are on thick cardboard with full color illustrations. They are so nice that over the years I’ve used them for other space games.

This is a game I’ve been wanting to get back to the table for a while now and for our first combat I picked a battle between classic foes; two Starfleet Constitution class cruisers named Hawk and Broadsword and two Klingon D-7M Deathbringers named Blood Penguin and Wilhelm. We used a moderate sized map with several planets, asteroids, and moons to thread through and set up on the far sides. By random draw I took command of the Starfleet forces and my friend marshaled the Klingons.

Federation ships are tanks, less maneuverable and with fewer weapons, but those weapons are more powerful, have more complimentary firing arcs, and longer range. Klingon ships are faster and more maneuverable, with more weapons and a penchant for rear firing guns. While Starfleet would rather pound targets at range, Klingons prefer to over run their enemies and fire weapons where their targets have lower shields.

With this in mind my Constitution ships came out at a cautious pace hoping to get a long range alpha-strike in, while the Klingons came fast and dodged through the sensor shadows of the planets. This proved to be a tactical mistake on my part, as I severely underestimated how much distance a starship can cover. My slower speed also gave the Klingons a tactical advantage, letting them move after I’d moved my lumbering cruisers. Before I knew it, the D-7’s had overflown me and opened fire.

The Broadsword was lucky, taking evasive action and avoiding harm. Hawk was not so lucky. The Blood Penguin came in behind her and unleashed all her forward weapons at point-blank range. The Hawk barely survived, her hull savaged by the attack.

I realized I needed to up my game to have any chance of survival. Throwing caution to the wind I dumped my shield power into the engines, trying to match the D7’s. The Hawk surged across the sector, the Blood Penguin in pursuit and looking for the kill. Broadsword broke off from the Wilhelm and moved to provide long range support for the Hawk, while Wilhelm dodged behind a planet. Hawk turned to make a last stand, damaging the Blood Penguin, but the ruthless Klingon ship unloaded again. The Hawk exploded, however the Blood Penguin had miscalculated and was too close. The D7 was smashed by the explosion, barely surviving, but too weak to endure the Broadsword’s avenging salvo.

A running battle ensued as Broadsword and the more nimble Wilhelm danced for position. In the end Wilhelm was able to win position over Broadsword and deliver a killing blow, but again the captain had miscalculated and was too close. The combination of the Broadsword’s final attack and her death explosion was too much for the D7 and she also exploded.

It was a lot of fun to bring this game out of retirement and it was fun to see that even though the game is more fiddly than modern designs, it’s still a lot of fun. In fact I think it still fills its role well as something that can introduce players into more complex wargames.

I’m looking forward to bringing the Starship Tactical Combat Simulator out again soon, perhaps with another player or two. Maybe add some Romulans, pull out the cloaking device rules, or maybe write up rules for a Doomsday Machine.

 

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Various and Sundry

A few quick notes:

  • Sad news. The excellent Cincinnati gaming store Yottaquest, which I only recently discovered, has announced that they are closing at the end of the summer. Not for any financial reasons, but because the owners are moving on to do other things. I wish them well, but with sadness. Gaming stores of such quality have become all too rare.
  • I got a sweet deal on a copy of the now out-of-print game Starblazer Adventures. I’m a sucker for sci-fi games and I love the art style that I’ve seen on every sample of Starblazer Adventures. I’ve also been curious about the Fate system going all the way back to the early Fudge days, but have never gotten around to checking it out. Now I’m faced with a new problem; my bucket list of games is already too long and now Starblazer Adventures has blasted its way onto the list. This is made worse because Fate looks like it may be the system I’ve been looking for to run a playable Lensmen or Doctor Who game.
  • While going through some old boxes I found my boxed set of the original Twilight: 2000. I picked this up when it first came out, though we never got around to playing it. In recent years I’ve been thinking about getting together with some other Cold War raised Gen-Xers to play it, but not knowing where my books were kept it way in the back of my mind. Now that I’ve uncovered my books it’s moved from idle musing to something I could actually do. Clearly I need a bigger bucket.
  • Thanks to my library system I have been reading Flash Gordon on the Planet Mongo, the first volume of the complete Flash Gordon library. These are lovingly restored prints of the Sunday Flash Gordon comic strip by Alex Raymond. This book is fantastic and I have devoured it. Three volumes have been published with a fourth on the way and I’ve decided that they need to be added to my personal library. I highly recommend any fans of pulp sci-fi to seek these books out and pick them up.

 

photoImage from the West End Games Star Wars RPG.

 

 
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Posted by on June 30, 2015 in Cool Stuff, Gaming, Science Fiction

 

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Random Thoughts

My schedule continues to be bad for blogging, but has improved on other fronts.

Gaming: Our gaming group had a rare double-header, holding games two weekends in a row. Our GM is running a GURPS Supers/Horror game, where the adventures feel like a mix between Justice League and Hellboy, and set in 1960’s Florida. For this game I also get to run one of my long standing desires in supers gaming, a heroic duo. My friend and I created two brothers who were subjected to experiments by a mad scientist. This gave them the power to take on the abilities of different animals, much like DC’s Vixen or Animal Man, and like those characters they don’t change shape. However they do take on some physical characteristics as a special effect, such as growing feathers when channeling a bird, fur when channeling a canine, scales for fish, etc…

Their powers are activated or deactivated when the brothers touch, bringing in the inevitable Wonder Twins jokes. The two brothers are polar opposites on philosophy and argue incessantly, but are also protective of each other. Their code names are War and Peace and the animals they channel reflect their differing attitudes. War is a hot head and channels animals like wolf, kestrel, and shark. Peace is a pacifist (and a communist) and takes on animal powers like bloodhound, spider monkey, and dolphin. Their flexibility has made them very useful heroes and a lot of fun to play.

We’re looking forward to playing War and Peace again soon. Of course in a horror game there is the strong possibility of one of us dying. What will the other brother do if this happens?

Well… we did both take the Leatherworking skill…

Projects: My schedule has been bad for a number of things, but it has let me get started on a few projects. One of which is Car Wars related.

My love for Car Wars is well documented. I picked up a copy of the Classic Car Wars box set and a .PDF copy. One of the difficulties with the Car Wars arenas of old is that they came as folded maps and could be a bear to flatten out for game play. Using my PDF I’m printing an arena out in card stock and plan to assemble it on foam core, then play some games using the classic scale and rules. I want a fresh look at the old game to compare with 5th edition. I still have my classic Compendium, but the new box set takes the game back to a more basic form, before there was too much bloat in weapons and equipment. I’m quite pleased with the set and eager to try it out.

I’ve also finally started working on painting miniatures, something I haven’t done since my undergrad days. There are some miniatures I’ve been wanting to acquire and paint, but I know my limitations and I don’t want to invest the cash in something that might end up sitting in the closet undone for years. So I made a deal with myself; if I put a dent in some of the miniatures I already own I’ll go ahead and invest in the ones I want to work on.

To that end I’ve pulled out a couple boxes of Renegade Legion: Centurion anti-gravity tanks that I’ve had sitting in the closet for years. Centurion was another outstanding game from FASA that evokes the feeling of science fiction classics like Hammer’s Slammers. In my opinion it’s a far superior game to Battletech, with tighter and faster rules than it’s stompy-mecha big brother. Once I have enough tanks painted up I plan to pull the game out of mothballs and fire it up. It’s a good goal to work towards and I now have several Renegade medium APCs primed and waiting to go.

What about the miniatures that I want to acquire after I finish my tanks? For that I’ll be turning to the golden age Sci-Fi goodness that is War Rocket.

Adventure Seeds: One of the podcasts/blogs I follow is Skeptoid, a site where they take a critical look at various events and beliefs including cryptozolology, alternative medicine, and urban legends. Recently they ran an article entitled Lost Treasures of the 20th Century, and it’s full of great plot ideas for pulp adventures.

Some of the stories covered in the post are well known to me, such as the lost Nazi gold in Lake Toplitz and the lost Amber Room of the Russian empire (a subject worthy of its own post). Others I had never heard of, such as Yamashita’s Gold and the vanished crown jewels of Ireland. The post gives a nice short summary of these and other lost treasures, any of which would be a great candidate for writing an adventure.

Kung Fury!

Kung Fury is out! It’s free on YouTube in HD! Go! Go now!

Centurion1

Soon my plastic brethren! Soon we ride!

 

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Battle of the Bands

This is what happens when it’s late at night, I’ve been working on servers for eight hours, and I haven’t had enough caffeine.

I get this desire to run a game about inter-planetary war; one between people based on Boston album covers vs beings from Journey album covers. I see them doing battle over the landscape of an Asia album cover. Hey, it can’t be any stranger than the time Journey got their own Atari 2600 game.

But what system to run it with…

 
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Posted by on May 19, 2015 in Science Fiction, Weirdness

 

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Bugs Are Cool

Behold, the Cyphonia clavata, otherwise known as the ant-mimicking treehopper.

Which, incidentally, is awfully fun to say.

Photo by Nicolas Gompel, linked from Livescience.com

Photo by Nicolas Gompel, linked from Livescience.com

 

What you are seeing is an insect that has evolved to look like an ant walking backwards. The treehopper’s eyes can be seen on the left of the picture, so to a predator it looks like the advancing treehopper is a retreating ant.

Being a gamer and prone to grisly ideas, when I first saw the image I thought the treehopper would kill an ant and wear its corpse as a shell, much like the disguised Mi-Go in H.P. Lovecraft’s The Whisperer in Darkness, but the reality is even more cool. The treehopper has evolved so that the same mechanisms that grow its wings create this amazing piece of camouflage, allowing it to grow the helmet-like ant mask as part of its natural body.

Science fiction and fantasy games are full of insect-based life forms, such as the Thri-kreen of Dungeons & Dragons or the Vrusk of Star Frontiers. Imagine the discomfort your players will have when they encounter a friendly race of insect people who grow shells that make them look vaguely human. Beings who believe that wearing this grotesque parody of our species is a tribute to us, a sign of friendship.

Then as soon as the characters become comfortable with this bizarre practice, have them encounter one of these creatures whose carapace vaguely resembles someone they know. Someone they haven’t seen for a while.

 

 

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Game Idea From The Bad Astronomer!

I’ve been a fan of Phil Plait’s Bad Astronomy blog for a long time. It’s always full of cool science information and sometimes good articles on skepticism. Phil was even the president of the James Randi Educational Foundation for a while.

Today he posted a link to one of his other blogs. Unfortunately this one is behind a pay wall, but the title alone is enough to inspire gaming ideas.

What headline could be so evocative?

Ancient Radioactive Lunar Volcano!

 
 

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The Intergalactic Nemesis

“The year is 1933. Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Molly Sloan and her intrepid research assistant Timmy Mendez team up with a mysterious librarian from Flagstaff, Arizona, named Ben Wilcott. Together, they travel from Rumania to Scotland to the Alps to Tunis to the Robot Planet and finally to Imperial Zygon to defeat a terrible threat to the very future of humanity: an invading force of sludge-monsters from the planet Zygon!”

The Intergalactic Nemesis: Target Earth

Last night my kids and I enjoyed a unique stage show called, The Intergalactic Nemesis. The show is the live performance of a graphic novel done in the style of an old science fiction melodrama. It’s a fantastic blend of performance where all the aspects of the show are on stage for everyone to see.

At one end of the stage they have a live pianist who improvises the score for every show. The center stage is dominated by the folly artist and her table, giving the audience a rare glimpse at the art of producing sound effects as part of the performance. Above her is a large screen on which they project panels taken straight from the graphic novel, which are controlled by a board operator who is also on stage. She also handles organ music. Finally there are the three voice actors, up front with their microphones, each actor deftly handling a total of about 30 characters.

The story is something straight from a pulp novel, where Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers would feel right at home. There is murder, intrigue, a mind controlling master villain, alien invaders, a square jawed heroic librarian, a fresh faced kid from Texas, and a woman reporter with enough moxie to impress Lois Lane.

There is also humor. Lots of humor. The story has tongue in cheek without drifting into outright satire. This is a love note to pulp fiction, not a parody, and the enthusiasm the cast projects is contagious. An infection they enhance by encouraging audience participation. The audience is encouraged to cheer the heroes, boo the villains, and gasp in shock.

My children had a tendency to cheer for the villains. This should surprise no one.

The Intergalactic Nemesis is the brainchild of Ray Golgan and Jason Neulander, who came up with the idea back in 1996. The project evolved many times over the years and the current incarnation has been touring the world since 2010. In addition to their stage performance they have three dramas available on CD and two in graphic novel format with the third book slated to be released soon.

My kids and I immensely enjoyed the performance and I recommend you catch the show if they show up in your area. Information about the show, tour dates, and copies of their merchandise can be found on their website, The Intergalactic Nemesis. They even have a YouTube channel where you can watch their performances!

It is a joy to see people with a love for the genre who have found such a unique way to share it with audiences and I hope their schedule will bring them back to our area in the future.

 
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Posted by on February 11, 2015 in Books and Comics, Reviews, Science Fiction

 

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Reskinning Saltmarsh

Riffing on my review of The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh I got into a discussion on how this adventure would be easy to reskin for other genres. Without further ado, here are some of my ideas.

1. Call of Cthulhu – This one is simple, as the setup for Saltmarsh is practically a 20’s pulp adventure already. The smugglers are gangsters running alcohol who have hired a down-and-out stage magician to rig up the hauntings that keep people away. The alchemist’s hidden lab remains practically unchanged, with the addition of a mythos tome. Otherwise the mansion remains mostly the same.

But since this is Call of Cthulhu we need to add some hooks. Something is wrong with the hooch being brought in by the smugglers. Some people who drink in the speakeasies supplied by the gang seem to go mad and even experience physical mutations. The gangsters captured a few of the worst cases, fitted them with cement overshoes, and sent them to sleep with the fishes. Unfortunately those individuals came back to shore. The gangsters now have them locked in the zombie room.

The rum is being stored in a cave underneath the alchemist’s lab. Magics from his experiments have seeped down into the cavern and infected the alcohol, which has begun mutating certain sensitive individuals into Deep Ones.

The sea elf prisoner on the ship is replaced with a deep one hybrid who has a psychic connection with sea life. The ringleader of the smugglers forces the hybrid to use his powers to allow them to avoid coast guard patrols.

2. Sci-Fi – This one is for Stars Without Number or Traveler fans. The mansion is a derelict research station in deep orbit that was once the property of a private research firm. Rumors say that the crew was killed when something they were working on got loose; a biological weapon, a killer robot, or out of control nano-technology. A former employee for the company claims to have discovered a shutdown code in the now defunct company’s files and is looking for a crew to salvage the stations data core. There are megacorporations who will pay good money for any files remaining in the station’s data core.

Unknown to the players, the threat was neutralized long ago and the station is now being used as a base for space pirates. The alchemist’s lab can be the station’s dormant AI, or a locked down cryo-statsis unit storing inert genetically engineered monsters. This could lead to an unstable alliance between the party and the pirates should the insane AI or the inert creatures be unleashed.

If you are playing Star Frontiers the sea elf prisoner should become a Sathar, alive but in stasis. A live Sathar would be worth more than the entire station and all its contents, if the players can get it to the right person.

3. Cyberpunk – The mansion is turned into a data vault that once belonged to a criminal syndicate. The mob was broken up decades ago but their intranet is still running, protected by an AI armed with high powered black ICE. Rumors on the dark web say that more than one decker has had their mind fried trying to run the node. However the party’s fixer has information of interest to the party. The old gang had blackmail material about one of the team’s powerful enemies. If that information still exists it would be in their old data vault and if the team could recover it, they’d have a powerful weapon against their enemies.

The vault was protected by a dangerous AI, but what they don’t know is that the AI was taken offline a few years ago by enterprising hackers. The vault now serves as a virtual information bazaar where world class deckers come to store and sell their illegally obtained files. Anyone who gets deep enough into the VR environment to discover this will find a very upset collection of capable deckers who will be quick to protect their secret.

Should the AI be brought back online it will determine that anyone it finds inside the data vault is an intruder and will unleash its countermeasures to eliminate them.

4. Pulp Adventure – Another relatively straight forward conversion, this time set during WWII. The mansion is a front for a Nazi spy ring. Or move it to the 60’s and use the KGB.

The hook for the players would be a series of sabotage incidents at factories in the region. Throw in the disappearance of an allied agent and the kidnapping of a senator’s son or daughter (to replace the sea elf) and you’ll have ample reason for agents to investigate the mansion.

It’s likely this will end up being a straight forward raid by the agents on the spy’s lair. For an added twist, as the battle plays out, have something get loose from the alchemist’s lab. Perfect for swerving the adventure from conventional secret agents into Delta Green territory.

5. Role Reversal – The characters are the ones charged with keeping the Sinister Secret, be it a speakeasy or an OSS base in occupied Europe. Let the players come up with ways to perpetuate the scary rumors that keep curious people away. Make them try to spot enemy agents or federal officers and find ways to throw them off the track.

Or the group of meddling kids and their dog.

They may also have to deal with anything they find still hidden in the basement chambers. Or which comes crawling up out of the sea, answering the call of something inside the mansion.

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Do you have any classic modules you’ve reskinned for other games? Any more ideas for Saltmarsh? I’d love to hear about them.

SinisterSaltmarsh

 
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Posted by on February 10, 2015 in Cyberpunk, Fantasy, Gaming, Horror, Science Fiction

 

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Found: One Space Probe, Never Used

Ten years ago the European Space Agency sent a probe to Mars called the Beagle II.

The probe reached the red planet, the lander was sent down, everything looked good, but then… nothing. No signal was received from the Beagle II and its fate was a mystery.

That is, until now.

The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, equipped with the HiRISE camera, has located the lost probe. It turns out that the Beagle II landed safely, but its solar panels didn’t deploy. Denied power, the probe never woke up. It will remain there, sleeping on the martian landscape, its mission unfulfilled.

From a real world perspective it’s disappointing that the Beagle II was never able to perform its mission. However being able to shoot a space probe across the gulf of space and land it intact on another planet is no small accomplishment. That the probe did arrive safely is still a tremendous feat. You can read more about it at Phil Plait’s blog, Bad Astronomy.

From a gamer’s perspective, this is an adventure waiting to happen. Give the probe an A.I. and a small battery, just enough to preserve its most basic functions. Then you have a space probe on the sands of Mars that lays dead but dreaming. Over the years the A.I. slowly slips into madness and the nature of its mission warps. Only he imperative to complete its task remains intact.

The adventure begins when the characters are contacted about a group of missing colonists.

For a twist, inform the players that the lost colony’s spaceship has been detected blasting off. It’s on course for Earth.

 
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Posted by on January 17, 2015 in Cool Stuff, Gaming, Science Fiction

 

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