Monthly Archives: March 2012
First, you ought to read this brief piece of Joel Stein being a jackass. Heard this sentiment before? I bet you have.
Let me get one thing straight: I am not a YA author or fan, in particular. The science fiction and fantasy I write, I write for adults and, perhaps, mature teenagers. Weirdly enough, I usually don’t sympathize with the principal characters in YA fiction. I don’t recall a particular time where I was uncomfortable with myself or who I was (though I do recall plenty of people who had a problem with who I was who made things unpleasant, but I never considered that anything other than an external problem and I never adapted myself to them). I have always known, basically, where I wanted to go and more or less what I wanted to do. I had the misfortune of watching someone very, very close to me die very, very painfully throughout my entire teenage years, and this taught me a lot about what mattered. Other people’s opinions or the ridiculous insecurities of adolescence didn’t make the list.
Nevertheless, I appreciate what YA fiction can and has done, and not just for young adults. It distills very complicated, very adult problems into slick, fast-paced stories and, furthermore, gives your average teenager a voice in that problem. This is not only important for kids, but it makes a good lens for we adults to peer through from time to time. It makes us step back from ourselves, to try and remember a time when we weren’t so calcified into our lives. It makes us hope and believe in possibility in a way many of us don’t anymore. It kills cynicism in a way only the young truly can.
Furthermore, the sentiments of arrogant literati like Stein also encompass something else: the clear and emphatic disdain for that they choose not to deem ’literature’ but, instead, cast off as ‘mere genre fiction’. This is the bit that really gets me.
Look, you’re entitled to your taste. You don’t like one genre or the other, fine. But two rules:
- Just Because You Don’t Like It, Doesn’t Mean You Can Rip On It: I say this without irony: grow up. Are you actually incapable of appreciating something because it doesn’t appeal to you directly? Are you one of those immature jackholes who can’t admit a man is physically attractive because you’re afraid you might be considered gay? Is the reason you don’t and will not read YA fiction actually because you feel it adds nothing to the literary discussion, or is it, rather, because you are so pathetically insecure that the thought of another person witnessing you reading something intended for another age group give you the willies? Seriously, man, if the rest of us have to read Infinite Jest, you can man up and read some YA fiction just to see what the hype is about.
- Admit that Everything’s a Genre: That literary fiction you so adore? Guess what - it’s genre fiction. It has its set of tropes, standards, acceptable styles, target audience demographics, and the rest of it. Their readers focus on style and metaphor over plot and pacing. They forgive the occasional self-indulgent tangent or purple prose passage. Writers are pushing buttons in that genre the same as in every other one, so let’s get down off your high ‘literary’ horse and admit, once and for all, that literature is something much, much broader than what you perfer to define it as. Watchmen is literature. The Giver is literature. Neuromancer is literature.
I really don’t know how many times I need to say these things before they stick. You are all aware that some of the most pivotal and powerful stories of our history started out as simple adventure tales, right? Can’t you perhaps admit that The Hunger Games may be tapping into something important? Granted, I haven’t read it (and am not especially motivated to), but it isn’t because I think it’s bad or lacking (though it very well may be). It’s because I’ve got other things ahead of it in line, simple as. I’ll get to it when I get to it, but I’m not about to hold it against anyone who’s reading it now, no matter how old they are.
So, the other night I was at a party (for the release of Croak by Gina Damico) and I had a conversation with my friend, John Perich and various others about the portrayals of humanity in fantasy and science fiction stories and games. He brought up the whole trend that puts humans in the role of the ‘default’ race and that all other races (be they sci-fi aliens or the cohabitants of a fantasy world) have built-in qualities that define them somehow as ‘other.’ Dwarves are stubborn, Klingons are violent, elves are beautiful and noble, Vulcans are logical, etc, etc. Everybody’s got their schtick–everybody, that is, but humans.
The reason for this, as I pointed out in the aforementioned conversation, is that it is phenomenally difficult to portray alien species as anything other than slightly more specialized versions of human beings. This is because we have no other analog for intelligence or sentient beings and, even worse, have no way to think or conceive of things that are alien to our own way of understanding. Much as we might like to claim to ‘understand’ a dolphin, we do not and cannot. It’s thought process, no matter how advanced, is fundamentally alien to our own. Therefore, in order to get our head wrapped around it, we start with a human intelligence, remove some parts, add some other parts, and we get our dwarf or elf or Ferengi or whatever. Of course, such beings aren’t really alien in the same way that a 2010 Corolla isn’t a wholly alien object to a 2008 Corolla – same basic framework, but with a variety of cosmetic and minor functional differences. Even if we try really hard, the best we wind up with is a comparison between a Corolla and a Ford Mustang. If we really want to talk aliens, we’d need to find a way to compare the Corolla (us) with a blimp (them). Good luck.
Anyway, because humans are the default setting – where we begin, necessarily and ultimately, to paint our picture of alien life – efforts have been made across the specfic genres to give humans something special to make them unique. After all, if there’s nothing special about us, that means we aren’t awesome, and we’re obviously awesome, right? The trouble is, when everybody else is better at certain things than we are (Klingons are better warriors, Vulcans are better thinkers, Betazoids are better diplomants, Ferengi are better buisnessmen…), whatever are we better at than everyone else? Here are some of the more common theories:
The Human Spirit
Yeah, we haven’t got super strength or wings or ageless lifespans, but we’ve got spunk, dammit! Humans never give up. They are adaptable, optimistic, and have that special something that gives them the edge over the competition. They don’t believe in no-win scenarios, man!
In RPGs, this is often represented as some extra skills or a bump in versatility. Sometimes it shows up as a variety of bland special edges that give humans mild statistical advantages over their buddies. In general, this one always bothers me because it’s based off of the principle that humans don’t like to lose and adapt themselves so they don’t. This, however, is fairly common with all successful lifeforms, since you don’t survive in the big, bad world without some ability to Outlast/Outplay/Outwit.
Humans are always striving for more, see? They, above all things, desire power. Dangle a magic ring under their nose, and they grab it. They expand, like a virus, filling up their environment with all the stuff they accumulate and spread across the cosmos like a plague. They’re never satisfied.
This one isn’t bad, but it rather hamstrings the ability for humans to interact with other aliens, doesn’t it? Like, if none of them are as ambitious as us, then don’t they just kinda get pushed aside? In some settings, they do, actually (in my own setting of Alandar, in fact), but to rob all your aliens of the capacity to be equally ambitious makes it easy to either demonize or glorify humanity in a way that makes things unfair. In Avatar, for example, humanity’s ambition is demonized as destructive and cruel. In Star Trek, it’s glorified as the thing that makes us the leaders of the Federation. In both cases, we are seeing human uniqueness being used as a symbol for what the authors think of human behavior, rather than a realistic portrait of those cultural or physical qualities that make us distinct.
One of the other popular ones is to have humans be pervasive, hardy, and numerous. This is an easy trick – humans happen to be physically hardier than other species, or reproduce faster, or what-have-you. I use a version of this myself in The Rubric of All Things, in which humans are extremely tough and disease resistant (we do take our immune system for granted, don’t we?).
Of the three ideas, I prefer this one myself, since it’s the easiest and most plausible. I don’t think it needs to be pigeonholed into humans being ‘hardier’, per se, but if you are inventing aliens, you can pretty easily make them all so physically different that their uniqueness becomes clear. In order to do this, though, you’re going to have to think harder about how your aliens work. So, like, if humans are the only intelligent bipeds around, what does that mean for how all those aliens construct their buildings and castles and spaceships? Stuff is bound to get weird fast (which is how I like it).
So What if We Aren’t That Special…
Ultimately, however, all aliens are going to be versions of ourselves – distorted reflections, if you will – or otherwise will be the unknowable ‘other’. Middle ground is extremely difficult to establish (though I’m trying, believe me!), and is the subject for some really profound and interesting stories. Still using other species as metaphors for aspects of humanity has a long and colorful history, and I can see no good reason to stop, so long as it’s kept fresh.
Three years ago (or so) I ran a Star Trek RPG. I was feeling the Star Trek itch after seeing The Wrath of Khan again, and decided it would make a fun game. Boy howdy was I right.
The idea, you see, was to actually simulate our own television series. We had theme music. All players cast their characters. We covered every Star Trek episode trope I could think of. We had cliffhangers, two-parters, a pilot and a season finale. It was phenomenal, but not because of me, really. My players–typically stellar role-players, by the by–outdid themselves.
The theme of the series was a crew of Starfleet outcasts, has-beens, and misfits dispatched to run border patrol in a remote sector of the galaxy after the Dominion War. Their ship was a clunker pulled out of mothballs with a lot of technical glitches and a lot of character. They reported to an Admiral (played by a friend of mine who moved to LA and wanted to be involved, so he called in on speaker to send communiques from Starfleet or to confer over issues requiring higher approval). I envisioned this series as a kind of frontier western–the captain of the USS Lionheart was the only sheriff in a rowdy town, the admiral was the hangin’ judge, and the crew were the captain’s loyal deputies, trying to bring justice and order to a place that didn’t want it. Into that theme, my players inserted these characters:
Played by my friend, Chistine, Athelai was a Betazoid who had earned the Christopher Pike Medal of Honor during the Dominion War in an action that killed almost her entire crew but saved Earth from Breen attack. She also was captured by the Gem Hadar and used her telepathy to defeat the guards and stage one of the only prison breaks in the war. It also got her labelled a war criminal by her own people.
Dixie was tough, no-nonsense, tactically minded, and (ironically) really bad when considering other people’s emotions. She got put on the Lionheart because Starfleet couldn’t find anywhere else for her that wouldn’t piss somebody off. Her life was barren, empty, friendless…but it was eventually filled by her crew and her hard-nose exterior started to melt to show the emotionally traumatized woman within.
Altman, the first officer, played by my friend DJ, was a guy who had always played it safe and done the right thing. He spent his career pushing a desk in the logistical division, organizing supplies for the war effort. When the Dominion War broke out, he had the opportunity for a command post, but turned it down because his wife couldn’t take the stress. Years later, now divorced, Altman threw caution to the wind for the first time in his life and signed up for a risky assignment on the frontiers of the Federation. An old friend of the admiral, he had connections in starfleet that helped the crew on many occasions. Even still, he had trouble letting go of his cautious side.
He also sang opera.
Nolan is an inadvertent time-traveller. He was a contemporary of the Original Series who, due to a transporter accident, wound up decades into the future. He still serves in starfleet, but is a bit odd. In essence, this is the first time we’ve had a ‘geek’ on the starfleet crew. He was obsessed with pop culture, wore clever pins on his uniform (in violation of protocol–he was always getting in trouble) and make constant non-sequitur references to contemporary television and movies (which no one understood). He was played perfectly by my friend, Fisher, and was great comic relief in addition to serving as an excellent ops officer.
What to say about our ship’s doctor? Sloane, played by Meghan, was a half-Orion, half-human with a shady past and organized crime connections who, somehow, managed to make it through Starfleet Academy. She was cool, tough, smart, and played merry hell with fellow crewmembers hearts (notably John Dashell and Fanz Danter–two young men bucking for promotion played by Serpico and RJ). She was also dangerous and not shy about getting in a fight. This was made even more awesome by her Klingon nurse, Tu’kal, who was in a perpetual war against the greatest foe–Death itself. I really can’t explain how much fun Sloane was–her and Athelai really made the show…errr…game. We started plumbing her dark past and connections to the Orion Syndicate in the final few episodes, setting ourselves up for a second season that, sadly, never was to happen.
There was also Kuval, the brain-damaged Vulkan with mood swings, Rixx, the Andorian operations officer who treated everyone like her children, and so on and so forth. It was simply fantastic, and never has a game been more ‘cinematic’ for me. If they’d let me, I’d write this into an actual show any day of the week, and it would be awesome. I still think back on this game regularly, particularly as I look at what the franchise has become, and think “yeah, Star Trek: Lionheart would be every bit as a good a show as this stuff!”
Ah, well. Maybe someday we’ll get in that second season…
A real brief post today:
My friend, Gina Damico, has her debut novel dropping today in bookstores all over the US. It’s called Croak, and it’s a YA Fantasy about teenage grim reapers…and it’s funny. It sounds marvellous, and I’ll be buying my copy today. You should too, if you happen to like fantasy, humor, and snarky teenage protagonists.
You can learn more here, at Gina’s website.
Also: Congratulations Gina, and good luck!
I had a nightmare last night. Not a real, sit-up-in-bed-and-can’t-sleep-anymore type nightmare–I rarely have those anymore, and if I do they aren’t anything like this. It was, instead, one of those dreams that simulates a horror movie. I was staying in a hospital with two other people–an ex-student and a friend (but I can’t remember whom). It was night; we were alone. There was somebody stalking us.
At first we thought it a prank, but then we were wrong. The person we thought it was, well, they never really existed. This was something different…something wrong. It was coming for us, and it was going to get us, one by one. I found myself walking through a darkened surgical ward, hearing it whisper my name, and then it burst from a cabinet, black and smoky, glowing eyes.
I led with my knuckles. The dream ended with me digging my thumbs into its stupid eyes, swearing a blue streak.
My reaction to fear is, I think, sort of different than most. I feel fear, sure, but my instinct is almost always ‘attack’ rather than ‘run’. That pounding of the heart, the chills in my bones, the tremble in my hands–all of that gets focused into a sort of berzerk sort of rage that I direct at the object of my terror. I can control it, sure, but if you jump out from behind a bush as a joke, there’s a 50/50 chance I’ll slug you as hard as I can. Horror movies frustrate the hell out of me, primarily because all the people do the exact opposite thing that I’d do. They go all limp and start squealing or running or whatever–I gave that up a long time ago. If I see Freddy Kreuger, I’m going to go for his jugular and hope that glove of his doesn’t finish me off first. I’m not going to give him the time to deliver his pithy one-liner.
Fear is a terrific motivator. Not only can it change me–relatively peaceful, easy-going guy–into a norse berzerker, but it reduces otherwise intelligent people to drooling idiots, organized people into flighty bubble heads, and stupid people into superheroes. Panic is enormously powerful.
In Frontier: 2280, I’ve included a weapon called a ‘panic bomb’. I stole the idea from Heinlein’s Starship Troopers: it’s a weapon that looks like a bomb, sounds like a bomb, acts like a bomb, but isn’t actually a bomb. You toss it in a room and it starts hissing and beeping and a little LED counter starts down from 10; it might even announce that it is a bomb in a loud, scary voice. The idea of the weapon is a way to flush people out of cover without actually exposing them to anything harmful or, conversely, cause confusion and panic in the defenders. If you don’t think such a weapon would work, you’ve never been in a crowd of people who were frightened of something before. Us berzerkers start smashing things to stop the danger, the panicky ones start running amok, the squealers start yelling their heads off, causing more panic–things get ugly, and fast. All the rationality and higher thought that we, as a species, are so proud of goes straight out the window, and we become little better than stampeding cattle.
I’ve talked before about how the zombie apocalypse trope underwhelms me. I don’t see zombies as wiping out a huge number of people, all things considered. You know what would, though? The panic associated with the possibility of zombies attacking people and the dead rising from the grave. Can you imagine the looting? The violence? The chaos? All perpetrated, by the way, by humans against other humans. All those anti-zombie fanatics who actually have spent time thinking about ‘what they would do if the zombies come’ are going to be running amok, chainsaws in hand, trying to ‘survive’ when, in the end, they’ll mostly be hurting other people or getting hurt themselves. That’s the power of panic, you see–more potent and faster spreading than any disease you can name, and probably the cause of more deaths.
There’s a reason, after all, that it’s illegal to yell ‘fire’ in a movie theater without cause, and it isn’t just for the hell of it. People have died because of that, trampled beneath the sticky soles of a thousand other panicky movie goers who, for the love of God Almighty, do NOT want to burn alive.
Taken from Chapters 177-179 of the Book of Hann, the Verisi Standard Translation, in the 23rd year of Keeper Estherick II
So it came to pass that the Hann, God of Men, called Longstrider, came to lead mankind out of the Taqar and to the shores of the Sea. Long had been the journey from the Hearth, and the race of men had swelled to many multitudes. The young men had become grandfathers; ancestors of great families, accomplished in deed and bravery.
The land was as Hann had described it – lush and alive with fruits and game. The great beasts of the Taqar were behind them, as were the barbarous children of Melich and of Xarn. They pitched their tents, and a great cheer went up among the people. There was feasting and dancing. Hann’s great pavilion was at its center, and there the chiefs of men attended him and heeded his counsel. This continued for days.
Then came Ulor, the Lone Wanderer, Speaker of Truths, to the great camp. The faithless God, the cause of the Exile, was waiting for them here, in the promised land of Alandar. Though the sentinels of the camp challenged him, none could hinder his passage, for he was the blood of Ozdai, All-Father, and no mortal was his equal.
Hann welcomed his brother, as was fitting, but all knew that Ulor, the Thankless, held no love for his brother. They went outside the camp, and there strove with one another with word and body and art, for three days. The people dared not come close, for the skies cracked and thundered with their anger.
On the morning of the fourth day, Ulor was gone. Hann returned, weary from his struggle, seated upon Equ, the Father of Horses. When the people had gathered, he spoke to them.
“I must leave you now. A father must always know when to let his children earn their own place in this house. So I have led you out of suffering and hardship and into the sun, and now I leave you to make your own fortune. Remember my wisdom and my faith in you; be not greedy and selfish, but defend one another and love one another as I have loved you. Guard your souls from the predations of the world and the temptations of darkness. Seek not ease, but kinship. When you die, I shall come to guide your spirits home to the Hearth, where you shall sup with my Father. This I swear.”
“In time you shall fall upon one another with dagger and club. You shall spill the blood of your cousins and your sisters’ children. You shall take dominion of the world and squander it on yourself, for deep in your hearts Ulor has placed a dark seed – love of yourself. This I say will come to pass, and those who succumb to the dark whisperings of my brother I shall not guide to their reward. They shall be left to wander back alone and lost. This I swear.”
There was much weeping. Hann silenced them with a thunderclap, and spoke a final time.
“When, after the long age of struggle, you have once again united yourselves; when my children stand united against the lesser beings of the world and when you join again as one tribe under the wide sky, then I shall return to you. For at that time the goodness of your hearts will be smiled upon by my father, and the Exile will be at an end. Then we shall once again travel across the vast wastes of the Taqar, and brave the same dangers, and walk the same stony paths, but this time to return to the Hearth, and there dwell for all time.”
“This I swear.”
Having a very busy week; no time to put together a proper post. So, instead, I’m going to treat you to some ramblings.
Say you could freeze people in time; even yourself, if you like. What happens? See as all of our activities are accomplished in time, it is plausible to say that we (or whoever trapped in the bubble) could do nothing whatsoever while thus frozen. Nothing could be done to you, either, seeing as nothing is capable of changing without occupying some period of time. To borrow HG Wells’ term, you can’t have an ‘instanteneous cube’.
If you’ve ever been confused by the definition of time as the ‘fourth dimension’, this mental exercise I feel is a good way to wrap your head around it. You can’t lack ‘time’ anymore than you can truly lack width, depth, or height. To do so ‘breaks’ the world. It violates the rules of existence as we understand them.
Of course, the ‘as we understand them’ part is the real kicker. Maybe there is a way, somehow, to ‘delete’ some dimension of existence. We could become two-dimensional people, if you like. Even more interestingly, perhaps we could change these dimensions–create bubbles of slow-time, fold space to reduce distances, and so on. There is some evidence to suggest that such things become possible on the quantum level, and the dialation of time is widely supported as a result of travelling closer and closer to the speed of light. What we do with this, well, who knows?
All I know is that I could use a gadget that lets me do it. I could use an extra hour here or there, lately.
Science Fiction, by its nature, tends to travel some dark roads. None darker, I fear, than a single, disturbing question: Why Do We Matter?
Asimov put the issue in pretty stark terms during an interview with Bill Moyers on A World of Ideas in 1988. The exchange went like this:
Bill Moyers: “What do you see happening to the idea of dignity to human species if this population growth continues at its present rate?”
Isaac Asimov: “It’s going to destroy it all. I use what I call my bathroom metaphor. If two people live in an apartment, and there are two bathrooms, then both have what I call freedom of the bathroom, go to the bathroom any time you want, and stay as long as you want to for whatever you need. And this to my way is ideal. And everyone believes in the freedom of the bathroom. It should be right there in the Constitution. But if you have 20 people in the apartment and two bathrooms, no matter how much every person believes in freedom of the bathroom, there is no such thing. You have to set up, you have to set up times for each person, you have to bang at the door, aren’t you through yet, and so on. And in the same way, democracy cannot survive overpopulation. Human dignity cannot survive it. Convenience and decency cannot survive it. As you put more and more people onto the world, the value of life not only declines, but it disappears. It doesn’t matter if someone dies.”
As should be growing more and more evident the more you pay attention to the world, we have less and less ‘freedom of bathroom’ as time goes on. If you aren’t disturbed by this, you should be. If you hope there’s a way out of this without something terrible happening, you should be a fan of science fiction.
Let us be bluntly, terribly frank: if you or I or any other person on this planet were to die *right now* or, indeed, if any ten or twenty thousand of us were to die this very moment, the world would continue to roll along. In some cases there may be political implications, sure, or this or that company on the NYSE may trade up or down as a result. But, in the end, it won’t matter one bit. There are billions of us; a couple thousand barely makes a dent. Hell, a million won’t stop much. Ten million. Demographics may alter, but will the world be changed? Probably not. At least not in any substantive sense. If you think McDonalds will vanish because the population of Mississippi croaks overnight, think again. If you think Assad will cease to be ruler of Syria just because he kills 10,000 of his own people, you’re probably wrong (if he leaves/is deposed, it will be different reasons altogether).
Population pressure is a supremely terrifying reality, and it is growing. This isn’t the first time it’s done this, and thus far humanity has been ingenious enough to figure out a way out of it. When cities overgrew their capacity to provide food and water to their inhabitants, humanity developed aqueducts and sewer systems. When the prospect of employment or decent lives grew ever more improbable or impossible in this or that locale, humanity found other places to colonize. When food became scarce, humanity found ways to utilize food more wisely. But how much further can we push this?
The only sustainable way to escape this pressure cooker we call Earth without the deaths of untold hundreds of millions is to find somewhere else to go. Otherwise, the more of us there are, the less we matter. This isn’t a moral judgement , this isn’t apocalyptic doomsaying, this is math.
So, for God’s sake, fund NASA. Replace the Space Shuttle with something new and better. Get our butts to Mars. Build a colony on the Moon. Think it’s a waste of money? Well, I’m going to give you two choices: spend money to build new frontiers for humanity, or spend money to destroy our fellow humans when they come after our bathrooms. Your choice. I know what I’d prefer; I only wish more people preferred that.
It seems to me like much of the role-playing universe these days is gravitating between two poles. On the one hand, you have things like D&D and its relatives which follow the standard ‘kill things and take their stuff’ dynamic on one level or another, emphasizing the ‘G’ part of RPG far over the ‘RP’ part. I’ve complained about these games already at length. There are, however, the games on this spectrum that occupy the other extreme, emphasizing the ‘RP’ far and above over the ‘G’. In this we can probably include games like Fate, Hillfolk(which I had the fortune to help playtest recently with John Perich), and some others.
Now, by and large I prefer ‘RPgs’ over ‘rpGs’ (if you see what I did there). Story is of tantamount importance to me, and RPgs produce great stories. They deemphasize external things, like stats and equipment, and emphasize character and roleplaying. This is good, and I’ve explained my reasons why in various places on this blog (here, for instance). I also feel, however, that these games can become too extreme.
For instance, in Fate, there is no significant advantage granted someone with a weapon over someone without. Their reasoning is that it ultimately doesn’t matter–what should matter is the emotional content of the fight, the ‘riddle of steel’, essentially. While there is much to be said for emotional content and character building, to say ‘guns don’t matter’ is ridiculous. Of course being armed matters! What kind of crazy idea is it to have unarmed idiots charging battle tanks and punching them apart? Many are the RPG gurus running about who might say ‘but if your players think this is cool, what do you care?’
Well (and how can I put this delicately?), I care because the activity is objectively stupid.No, you may not punch that tank to death. You can maybe find an access panel in the back, pry it off, and pull out some key wires or tubes or something, but kung fu Vs tank is a losing prospect. In a game I run, I want rules to make it clear that such behavior doesn’t fly. Does this restrict player choice? Yes, it does. It forces players to come up with alternate solutions to their problems beyond saying ‘I defeat them with my (insert idiom here)!’
The Player is Always Right
This brings me to another problem that I have that I keep running into: there is a sentiment that is permeating role-playing from Vincent Baker called ‘Say Yes or Roll Dice’. The upshot of it is this: if nothing is at stake, the GM should say ‘yes’ to whatever it is the players want. If something isat stake, the GM should never say ‘no’, but rather ask them to roll the dice to see if they can do what they want.
First off, there is a lot of wisdom in this philosophy–more wisdom that foolishness by a mile. GMs are in the business of giving players what they want, on some level, and they should definitely say yes far, far more often than they say ‘no.’ There are, however, limits to this idea that are important and should be recognized. Coming back to the ‘punching tanks’ example I provide above, there are instances where ‘no’ is an appropriate response.
For instance, say I’m playing some kind of barbarian and I decide, suddenly, that I want to build a jetpack. Out of sticks. For no reason. The Baker philosophy would require that I set some absurdly high target number for their die roll, reducing their chances of success down to .01% or something, and then let them roll. This, I feel, is a charade. It is obvious to everyone, or should be, that Thag the Barbarian can’t build a jetpack; the player is being a jackass for even suggesting it. Rather than waste time parsing dice modifiers, the GM should just say ’that’s ridiculous–no’ and move on.
This can come up more often the more ‘realistic’ the game setting is. In Frontier: 2280, for instance, I’m running a fairly ‘hard sci-fi’ game, in which actual scientific concepts exist, matter, and are important to plot and gameplay. Characters can’t violate physics, because physics is a real thing and you don’t get to selectively interpret it. If someone asks me if they can dodge a bullet fired at close range, I can say ‘no, you can’t’. Do you know why? It’s because it’s physically impossible. Yes, I could set an absurdly high target number for them to roll, but why are we spending the time? I don’t want it to happen because it violates the environment of the game. I don’t want that environment violated just because you don’t want your character to be shot. Get shot; deal with this new obstacle and resolve it. That’s what the game’s about.
I feel that overindulging the Baker philosophy is going to allow players to have great choice, yes, but also fails to challenge them to work with what they are given. If you are an unarmed, normal human and being approached by tanks, there are a wide variety of innovative and interesting solutions to the problem I am totally willing to entertain–a huge number, really. There are, however, a narrow sliver of options I reserve the right to deny. This doesn’t hurt anybody; it safeguards the functional reality of the game. It also pushes you past the first idea to pop into your head; that first idea isn’t really your friend, anyway. Push past it to ideas 2, 3, or 4. You’ll come up with something more interesting, anyway.
Internal Vs External Conflict
As a final note, I’d like to react to a tendency among indie RPG enthusiasts to emphasize internal (or, as Robin Laws puts it, ‘dramatic’) conflict over external (or ‘procedural’) conflict. As a general rule, internal conflict is immensely important, often de-emphasized, and leads to fantastic storytelling. That does not, however, mean external conflict is somehow boring or uninteresting. Some of these games tend to sideline external conflicts, getting them over as quickly as possible, so we can get back to hashing out our relationships with the other characters.
Sorry, but when did RPGs become soap-operas? Has George RR Martin had such a monumental effect on the gaming Zeitgeist? Guys, fights, chases, traps, and puzzles are cool. They’re fun. They’re why we liked Fantasy and Science Fiction to begin with! There is a certain delight I get in a game at having a well-oiled, realistic, dramatic combat system. Almost every coolest RPG moment I’ve ever had as been in reference to an external conflict, rather than an internal one. I by no means wish to belittle the importance of internal struggle and character development–they are necessary for action to even work, as I’ve said before–but they don’t replace external conflict as a means to generate conflict, fun, and excitement. The two ought to work in tandem and, as it happens, the external stuff is the stuff that needs more rules associated with it, hence why most games have most of their rules in that vein.
Granted, there are fine games that do the soap opera thing (Hillfolk seems to be one of them, and I’d gladly play it again), but let’s all fess up and say we all love a good car chase or rooftop swordfight. We do, don’t we?
Anyway, this has already gotten longer than I intended for it to be. Suffice to say that I like my game with a good balance of crunchy bits (external conflicts, gear, game limitations) and fluffy flavoring (internal conflict, strong relationships, player freedom). Too much of one or the other and we’re playing less than what I’d consider to be a ‘perfect game’.
Just ran another mission of an RPG I wrote entitled ‘Frontier: 2280″ (which all my friends call ‘Battlelords”, but that’s a whole different game–one I played, liked, and then decided to completely depart from and make into my own paramilitary sci-fi adventure game). In this one, as in some of the past sessions, space combat has played an important role to the party’s survival. As with the rest of the game, however, I’ve tried to keep things as close to ‘real science’ as I can, and I’ve spent a good deal of time thinking about how space combat might work in the future and why. Here’s what I’ve come up with:
It is important that prospective space combat cadets push from their minds the flash and zoom of pulp sci-fi. Fighting in space doesn’t work that way. Indeed, it is actually quite boring for those people not crunching the math on incoming ordnance with white-knuckled urgency. If you’re lying in your accel couch after the maneuver alarm, nothing much is happening so far as you can tell. Watch a movie or something.
1: Space Combat Happens Over Long Distances
In the early years of ship-to-ship combat, the boarding action was generally considered the be-all and end-all of the space combat arena. This was the case because neither side really liked the idea of punching holes in things as expensive as spaceships and, furthermore, it is really, really hard to hit a moving spaceship with any kind of conventional weapon. It is akin to hitting a bullet with another, smaller bullet and, frankly, the difficulties involved made the whole affair impractical.
This, however, is no longer the case. As sensor systems improved and the guidance AIs on missile got better, the prospect of actually crippling or destroying an enemy vessel that was still >5000km away became more of a reality. Furthermore, given the efficacy of close-range laser attacks and the brutal finality of boarding actions, it became preferable to blow up the enemy when they were so far away you needn’t worry about debris from their exploding vessel putting holes in your own vessel or their last laser strafe cutting your fuel lines or some kind of last F-U virus being uploaded into your system and killing your computers dead.
Modern ship-to-ship combat has more in common with the largely mythical submarine duels of the 20th century Cold War than it does with the Milennium Falcon. Enemy vessels are barely and intermittently visible to sensor suites and advanced targeting systems are constantly calculating a likely intercept course for sophisticated missiles to fly out there and hunt down the enemy. All the while, one’s own vessel is hoping no missiles are coming in towards them or, if they are, they are picked up by tactical radars and targeted by point-defence laser systems before they get too close. Close-quarters combat is extremely rare unless the enemy is actively trying to capture and not destroy the enemy vessel in question. Sometimes they are so far away, one can’t ever be certain if they did, in fact, kill the enemy. All they know is that the ship has stopped popping up on their sensors.
2: Let Space Do the Killing For You
Fun Fact: the vacuum of space is the most hazardous environment known to mankind. Accordingly, space-based military technology has oriented itself towards creating circumstances wherein the vacuum of space is the thing doing all the killing–it does so for free and with a minimum of fuss. You really don’t need to blow up an enemy ship. All you need to do is kill their engines and then let the crew drift off into the void and starve–easy, see?
The vast majority of naval weapons are missiles. They run in a couple general types:
-Spikers are fragmentary explosives on a massive scale. Their purpose, quite simply, is to put holes in ships–lots and lots of holes in lots and lots of places and, if possible a really big hole somewhere. This often doesn’t result in explosive decompression (though it can), but more practically makes portions of a vessel unusable, causes them to leak fuel, and can make them much, much easier to spot on sensors.
-Rad-blasts are intense radiation munitions designed to cook the people inside ships until they are dead. These work best after a spiker has put lots of helpful holes in a vessels radiation-shielded hull. Volleys of missiles are often timed to have Spikers detonate immediately before Rads.
-Killers are direct-impact high-explosive munitions. They are designed to blow a ship into smithereens, and they do so quite well. The problem with them, however, is it is very difficult to score a direct hit on an enemy vessel at ranges of thousands of kilometers while both ships are moving at incredible rates of speed and, often, on conflicting courses with limited sensor information. In a practical sense, Killers are saved until it is clear that an enemy ship is crippled and spewing enough radiation to be easily found by the Killer’s pAI guidance system.
-Nukes are effectively useless in space combat. They do spill a good amount of radiation (though Rads kick out more), but their ‘explosive shockwave’ is dependent upon the presence of an atmosphere to be effective (you don’t get a shockwave if there is nothing to push). Nukes are used exclusively as orbital bombardment ordinance or as ship-to-ship weaponry for the desperate.
-EMPs are electromagnetic pulse weapons intended to disrupt or disable the electronic systems aboard a starship. They are very effective at doing this, but at the cost of making the other ship harder to detect for anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours as they get their systems back online. Also, they don’t kill ships or even people aboard them, so long as they still have operational generators. They are often used to precede boarding actions.
There are numerous other forms of ordnance, but those are the major ones.
It is important to remember the sheer number of ways space can kill ships. Only a few of these ways are ‘hot’ (hit by a Killer, Spike-rad combos, atmospheric re-entry, boarding action, short range laser-strafe). Most of them are ‘cold’, including starvation, dehydration, freezing, or asphyxiation. To affect these ‘victories’, the enemy need only disable the enemy vessel’s engines or power systems, for the most part, and let them drift into the Big Empty, never to be heard from again.
3: ‘Fighters’ are for Suicidal Nut-Jobs
The idea of a ‘fighter’ has been roundly abandoned by pretty much everybody by the 23rd century. The idea of a small, manoeuvrable vessel with good acceleration and high weapon payload exists, but those things are called ‘missiles’ and they are ‘manned’ by pAIs, not people. That way, when they don’t come back (and they don’t), you don’t care. You also don’t need to worry about things like inertial stress on the pilot or keeping life support active. It is cheaper, more efficient, and easier to just fire missiles that maintain fighters. Fighters still are very important in atmospheric roles, but not in space.
The notable exception to this is the HBV (Hostile Boarding Vehicle). These are basically assault boats used to board enemy vessels. They are only launched at short range when the odds of interception are very high (miss your intercept on an HBV and welcome to Cold Death) and they are also one-way trips, most of the time. Once attached, an HBV is not easily disengaged from this ship it’s boarding, and their boarding team needs to win the boarding action or wind up the prisoners of the enemy crew (or dead–there’s always that option). Ideally, HBVs are launched at crippled ships with disabled or non-existent point-defence systems, and they are usually launched in groups (why send one when you can send three?). ‘Ideal’ situations, of course, are not always possible. It is for this reason that marines are considered crazy.
4: Fuel = Life
Due to the likelihood of Cold Death in the Big Empty, power is of utmost importance. Everything a ship does takes power and, therefore, fuel to accomplish. Want to change course? Fuel is needed to power the reactors which power the engines. Want to operate your point-defences? Fuel is needed to power the reactors which power the lasers. Want to speed up or slow down? Fuel. This is the primary reason, by the way, that missiles are preferred over other weapons (railguns, lasers, wavecannons, plasma throwers, etc.) because, unlike all those other weapons, missiles require a minimum of power to fire and are every bit as effective.
Without fuel, a ship is as good as dead. It’s life support can’t function, it can’t stop, turn, or speed up, it can’t fight, it can’t even see. Again, this has a huge impact on space warfare. Fighters aren’t used in part since the power needed to retrieve them is power wasted. Ships focus on crippling and letting enemy ships drift since, usually, the power needed to kill them isn’t necessary and needlessly weakens yourself. Battle happens at extreme ranges since the power needed to outmaneuver and intercept a ship isn’t necessary and can be a disastrous waste of resources.
Most vessels operate a main fusion reactor with a number of auxiliary fission reactors in reserve. The fusion reactor eats He3 fuel at a relatively speedy rate, but is able to reliably power all systems at once. The fission reactors are much less powerful, but work through their fuel rods at a much slower rate. Some ships maintain a store of chemical boosters and emergency beacons that run on their own, self-contained power in case of emergency, but those aren’t going to push a ship anywhere quickly nor are they especially likely to save a ship that’s drifted too far out of course. They only really buy you time.
5: Sensors are Limited
Star Trek is a load of nonsense. Unless you’re within a hundred clicks of a ship (give or take a few), you can’t tell whether an enemy vessel is powering weapons or how many lifeforms are aboard or really much of anything, especially not if the other ship doesn’t want you to scan them…or it’s venting radiation or it’s in the middle of a dust cloud or there is unusual solar flare activity or any number of other environmental concerns that render even the most sophisticated sensor arrays pretty useless.
‘Sensors’ refer to a couple distinct systems: RADAR, radio and conventional telescopes, thermal detectors, spectographic scanners, and gravitic recorders. All of these things work at the speed of light (c) or slower, meaning a vessel that rests 7 light-seconds away, when scanned, will be delivered information 7-14 seconds old (7 to get there and in some cases 7 to get back) or even more. If you have a *really* good fix on another ship, you know its velocity, direction, acceleration, and, if you’re very lucky or very good, can make an accurate guess at its mass. Typically, all you get is a read on its drive signature–either ion trails being picked up, telling you more-or-less where the thing is headed, or the gravitic warping effect of a slip drive, telling you basically the same thing. By crunching a lot of math, you can make a fairly accurate guess as to the velocity of the thing and, eventually, take a guess at its *average* acceleration. By crunching even *more* math you can hazard a guess at how much power it has at its disposal, giving you an idea of its size or, at least, the size of its reactor. If in a fight with a ship, the only good way to know if you’ve damaged it is to notice erratic patterns in radiation spillage, drive streams, or maybe even register a large explosion (if you’re lucky). Clever tacticians, of course, learn how to fake these things pretty well, so crews learn to stay on their toes.
The best way to learn about another ship is to talk to it. Again, communications run at the speed of light, so there is usually a slight delay. All non-military vessels and most military vessels that aren’t on active duty broadcast a callsign unless they are up to no good, which tells anyone who’s listening the ship’s name, complement, mass, and intended destination. Thanks to pirates, a ship’s callsign can be assumed to be inaccurate to varying degrees, even though SPIT-NET considers this behaviour illegal. Still, talking with somebody can reveal a lot–if nothing else, you can see if what they say matches up with your sensor data and guess if they’re lying and maybe even postulate why.
The tactical fallout of all this is, essentially, that most ship-to-ship space battles end before one side knows what’s happening. Getting blindsided by a spike-rad combo before you have your point-defence system running at optimum is a regrettably common occurrence (and also a reason to have your point-defences *always* operating), as is finding yourself under attack from a ship you can’t even see. Space combat is a giant game of lethal hide-and-seek, and if you don’t know you’re playing, you are usually going to lose.
So, that’s the gist of it. I’ve been running it this way, and so far it has given way to white-knuckled suspense for the players aboard their little souped-up merchant vessel. They haven’t been hit by a missle yet, but it will happen. Then the fun will really start…