Monday, August 14, 2017

Happy World Lizard Day!

Today is World Lizard Day! I love lizards! A whole gang of wild Mediterranean House Geckos lives on my garden and walls, as well as a couple of Stellagama dragons!

Also, Stellagama Publishing celebrates this day by providing two of its products, These Stars Are Ours! (home to the lizard-like Cicek) and Zeta & Tuko, at a 30% discount until August 16th, 2017!

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Borderlands Adventure 1: Wreck in the Ring

Stellagama Publishing is proud to present:

Borderlands Adventure 1: Wreck in the Ring

The interstellar transport Tallmadge's Splendor crashed on an asteroid moonlet of a remote gas giant in a barely-explored frontier system. Twenty-four years later, a belter hires some intrepid adventurers to help him salvage the wreck. Navigating and inspecting a dead ship – most of which is in hard vacuum – is not an easy job. Worse, the belter's team members have ulterior motives, and something is still alive aboard the doomed spacecraft.

Wreck in the Ring is an old-school deep space exploration adventure for 3-5 PCs, using the Cepheus Engine rules and fully compatible with any 2D6 OGL Sci-Fi game. The default setting is the Parvati system, on the very edge of Terran space, in the These Stars Are Ours! setting published by Stellagama Publishing. However, it will fit very easily into almost any interstellar sci-fi setting.

The PCs should have a variety of shipboard skills, whether they have their own ship or not. Mechanical, Engineering, and Zero-G skill will be most helpful for this job. 

Get it HERE!

Thursday, July 20, 2017

On Star Empires

So how does a Star Empire work? This question was recently asked in a Traveller-related Facebook group. For your reading pleasure, here is an edited version of my reply there.

The advantage of a hereditary ruling caste is relative stability. Sure, there are intrigues and some internecine warfare, but as a whole, the people (or aliens) who run the system have interests going many generations into the future and thus a stake in maintaining the status-quo. Plans are long-term and projects suffer from less interruptions. One stable form is the "Zaibatsu" type of system of a few large monopolist corporations run by great noble houses with hereditary managers and owners. This also stabilizes the economy as a great houses' business partners and rivals are the same families for decades or centuries - you can "pre-arrange" trade and agreements and keep surprises to a minimum.

The big disadvantage is that such a system places a ceiling to a commoner's progress in life and social station, no matter how talented or ambitious he is. When the system works well, it compensates by great house patronage of various artists and scientists, though this still offers less opportunities than a meritocracy. When it works badly, the system breeds incompetence and blocks innovation.

The most stable, but also most stagnant, system is one run by long-living nobles using anagathics to rule for centuries. Rulers plan for the very long term and act consistently for centuries, but also remain the same people with the same ideas and ways of thinking.

In These Stars Are Ours!, the Reticulan ("Grey Alien") Empire is such a polity. Nobles receive a special kind of longevity treatment which allows them to live for centuries - and in some cases almost a millennium. Competent commoners or those with psionic potential can rise to the Gentry - lesser nobility - but cannot go beyond it. The upper crust of Reticulan Imperial society is strictly hereditary and with life expectancies measured in centuries.

This system was stable for millennia. It brought the Reticulans to a stable, powerful empire with enormous TL13 wealth. The downside was that in recent centuries, the Empire ossified to such an extent that it blocked innovation and resisted change. For many commoners, this state of affairs was good - after all, thralls (such as the Terrans) bore the main brunt of fighting the Empire's enemies, while most Reticulans did not suffer from war or poverty and enjoyed an excellent quality of life. Many scientists and engineers, however, resented such a system in which their work and creativity were harshly restricted, and where the practically-immortal ruling caste was hostile to new ideas.

This gave birth to the Technocratic movement - an underground movement desiring a highly meritocratic society run by scientists, engineers, and mavericks based on competence and innovation. This ideology fermented in the shadows for centuries, but boiled into open rebellion when Terrans threw away the Imperial yoke. Now the Empire has to contend with the aggressive Terran upstarts (a republic - militaristic but quite meritocratic), as well as with the Technate created by the Technocratic Movement on Reticulan worlds conquered by the Terrans... And the constant threat of additional Technocratic revolts.

Still, the Empire remains strong and stable, even though it power waned to a certain degree after losing the War to the Terrans.

Also, when the type of Empire described above functions well, direct taxes are low. There is a certain indirect "tax" caused by Great House monopoly on certain staple good, as monopoly naturally inflates prices. However, as long as the system functions efficiently, such increased prices are still reasonable and profits allow the Great Houses to fund the functions of government out of their own pockets. Therefore, the average citizen can ignore politics for the most part - no need for any "civic virtue" or active participation in governance. The government runs itself, collects low taxes, and while certain staple goods are monopolized, many others enjoy free trade. So the citizen lives his own life and prospers, though he has no say whatsoever in the affairs of state.

When the system malfunctions, however - which is inevitable on the long run - things are much, much worse. Incompetent debutantes and playboys leaving the affairs of state to similarly incompetent toadies. High taxation to fund the good life and white-elephant projects of the Great Houses. Economy clogged by over-monopolization. In military affairs - an apathetic population lacking any desire to fight protected by unreliable huscarl mercenaries and Imperial forces led by inept nobles promoted to the top ranks by the virtue of high birth.

This is my take on Star Empires.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Even more musings on Traveller and CE skills

Back to my favorite subject!

In Classic Traveller and the Cepheus Engine, Skill-0 means basic training and literacy in the subject which is sufficient to perform some tasks but insufficient for gaining employment in the field. Skill-1 is employable and in CE can earn you very good pay in some cases.

My dear mother
For example, My mother knows how to check her e-mail, do basic Google searches, take pictures with her phone camera, type at a reasonable speed, and use KODI (and similar streaming services). However, she would be clueless in any further technical task, even installing updates on her Linux Lite machine or installing apps on her phone from Google Play. That would be Unskilled in CE terms.

The soon-to-be Mrs. Stellagama
My fiancee knows how to operate a computer, an Android phone, or an Android streamer, including updating, installing new apps, and even installing and configuring KODI extensions. She knows that the solution to 50% of basic computer problems is a restart and can also solve several other basic issues, both ones related to loose connectors and some software issues. She knows the basics of MSOFFICE use but not any more advanced tricks. That would be Skill-0 in CE terms.

Yours Truely
I have good knowledge of messing around with Windows and various Ubuntu distros, assembling a computer from parts I buy, advanced MSOFFICE functions, advanced Google search functions, and how to solve a wide range of software related issues (even a few hardware ones).  I can write simple but very readable and well-organized scripts in Python. I type at 50 or so words per minute. I use many of these skills as part of my job which combines translation, editing, content editing, and information services. That would be Skill-1 in CE terms.

This is one reason I like the Classic Traveller skill system. Skill levels are not an incremental increase in your roll bonus, but rather denote actual very different levels of skill and are quite "realistic". This is the difference between unskilled (untrained), having basic literacy in the area (Skill-0), having a baseline employable skill (Skill-1), being a lower-level certified professional (Skill-2), having a full-blown Profession (Skill-3) or being an expert (Skill-4+).

In medicine: Medicine-0 is first-aid/CPR training; Medicine-1 is a paramedic; Medicine-2 is a registered nurse (a certified professional) or a medical intern; Medicine-3 is a proper doctor (a Profession); experts have Medicine-4 or higher.

This also explains the CT training rules - which I intend to port into CE. At this scale of skills, the gradual accumulation of experience alone can rarely bring you from one level to another. You need both experience and study. You can teach yourself in some cases, but this requires dedication.

How many nurses (Medicine-2 and let's say DEX 8) gain the medical knowledge and proficiency of a surgeon (Medicine-3 and DEX 8) simply by working as a nurse for a decade or two? This requires deliberate training, as well as practice. It also takes time, and not everyone succeeds in this.

How many trained combat soldiers (Gun Combat-1) become designated sharpshooters (Gun Combat-2) or snipers (Gun Combat-3) after a tour of duty or even several tours of duty, simply by being soldiers and using their gun a lot? Again, this needs deliberate training (or at least self-training) and practice. Not everyone will be able to do so.

How many people belong to two Professions (say, Skill-3 in both Medicine and Engineering) at the same time? Some do, but this is uncommon.

Ellen Ripley. Badass with 5 skill points!
Many people will never be 'proper' high-level Professionals. Many sci-fi heroes are not "Professionals". Ellen Ripley, from Alien(s), would be (in CT) UPP 67C997 Merchant 4th Officer, 3 terms, age 30, Vacc Suit-2, Pilot-1, Navigation-1, Admin-1. In CE, she will also have several Skill-0's. Only 5 skill points, highest skill at 2. Enough for boundless sci-fi heroism and adventure!

This is not D&D. You don't go "zero to hero" in Traveller or CE. You are a skilled adult, sometimes a professional. But there is a sharp limit on what you can learn and on how far further experience and training can get you.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Holding These Stars Are Ours! in my own hands!

Nothing compared to the pride of holding your own printed book in your very own hands! Today, UPS brought me These Stars Are Ours! in all its glory! This fills me with motivation to accelerate my work on further products in this line!

It is a sensation like no other.

On to work!

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

First impressions from Mass Effect: Andromeda

I have finally begun playing Mass Effect: Andromeda. I am a dedicated fan of the original trilogy. I even wrote a blog post discussing the lessons a tabletop military sci-fi RPG referee can draw from the original Mass Effect. Thus, I came with much enthusiasm. Below are my first impressions from the first two and a half hours of the game, which I played last night.

Note that I began playing for the first time only after Bioware released Patch 1.08. I am told that the patches greatly improved the game. So this post refers to the latest (June 2017) patched version.

The game runs flawlessly on High settings on my mid-range rig - Intel Core i5-2400 CPU @ 3.10GHz, GeForce GTX 960, 12 GB RAM, Windows 7 Home Premium 64 bit, and running both Windows and the game from an SSD. It looks gorgeous and runs perfectly smoothly with good FPS and no graphical glitches so far.

My first impression is that Mass Effect: Andromeda is a flawed game, an unpolished gem if you wish. Its interface is cumbersome and sometimes counter-intuitive. Getting into the menus, for example, takes one keystroke. Getting out of them and into the game requires you to go through many, many screens. Or at least I did not find yet the quick shortcut key for leaving the menus. You cannot pause during cut-scenes, which are sometimes very long - though if I recall correctly, previous Mass Effect games had this issue as well. You can no longer control you squad-mates' power use, only direct them whom to attack; however, they seem to be very effective on their own (more on the combat AI later).

The greatest flaw, in my opinion, is that the plot exposition is very weak compared to Mass Effect 1. In the original Mass Effect, within the very first hours of the game, it introduces Saren. It made perfectly clear that he is a nefarious villain. He does despicable things to the colonists in Eden Prime and plots to blow up its starport. The first hour of game-play also introduces the Geth and the Reapers. Within an hour or two you know the main plot - Saren is trying to bring back a long-dead evil alien species called the Reapers using something called the Conduit, and as you saw on Eden Prime, that will be very, very bad. Therefore you have a clear motivation to pursue the plot and a strong villain established early on.

In Andromeda, on the other hand, you see some sort of alien villain whose underlings killed one of your crew-mates and beat up another one or two of them. He seems interested in the older alien technology present on Habitat 7, and that's it. It is unclear what is motivation is, what he is up to, or why you should oppose him; even the violence with his troops could be, as far as you could know in the first two and a half hours of game-play, a misunderstanding in first contact. Thus the plot starts off weak, with a weak villain. Your main motivation is exploring the galaxy to find a home for your people, but it is a much weaker motivation than pursuing Saren and his horrible plans.

The game shines, however, in exploration. I'd dare say that it does exploration better than any previous Mass Effect game. Much better. It engages your Sense of Wonder in one of the best ways I have seen in a computer game. You explore an alien world right off the bat. It is a wonderful world, full of beauty and mystery. Full of alien stuff. My favorite part so far was exploring a dead alien facility, which reminded me of the Derelict in the original Alien film, though (un)fortunately there was no Xenomorph here. The environment is incredibly detailed. It starts off linear but later allows much exploration off the beaten track. This Sense of Wonder kept me hooked into the game for two and a half hours straight, which is uncommon for me these days.

I love the Scanner. It really drives home the Exploration theme, reminding me of the Tricorders of Star Trek fame. You scan all kinds of stuff in the world and get an analysis of them. This analysis is far from generic, at least so far. Very enjoyable and thematically appropriate.

I also think that, while the game failed to introduce a strong villain, it introduced Ryder in a much better way than the original game introduced Shepard. Ryder has strong roots in the setting, hook and connections. She has family ties, a father and a twin brother on board the Hyperion. Her father is a very detailed character, up to and including superstitions such as a "Lucky Rock", which your scanner ironically presents as a simple chunk of granite. NPCs talk with familiarity about her father. She is part of a crew and of a family. Unlike this, Shepard's background came up very rarely, in one mission in the original game, a few conversation mentions, and a very few e-mails in subsequent games.

Combat is also very enjoyable, though the new cover system takes time to get used to. NPC AI - ally and enemy alike - is wonderful. Your squad-mates act very well in combat. Enemies flank you. This compensates for the fat that, as mentioned above, you have little control over your squad-mates.

All in all, mixed but enjoyable experience. I am definitely hooked to this game.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

ACKS monster: Half-Ghoul

% In Lair: 20%
Dungeon Enc: Cabal (1d8) / Lair (3d8)
Wildreness Enc: Cult (3d8) / Lair (3d8)
Alignment: Chaotic
Movement: 90' (30')
Armor class: 2
Hit Dice: 1*
Attacks: 3 (2 claws, bite) or by weapon
Damage: 1d3/1d3/1d3 or by weapon
Save: F1
Morale: +3
Treasure Type: D
XP: 13

Those touched by the dread Lady Beneath - the Chthonic goddess Kassogtha - slowly fall into her embrace of eternal life-in-death. Dark rituals slowly turn the devout cultist into a half-ghoul - disfigured and malicious, slowly rotting alive towards death and "rebirth" in undeath. The cultist appears disfigured with lesions and blisters on his face and body; his fingers are elongated to resemble claws and his teeth grow into fangs. Half-ghouls often disguise themselves as plague victims and wear long robes and hoods to obscure their true nature.

The half-ghoul is not undead (yet) and thus cannot be turned and is still vulnerable to sleep, charm, and hold spells, as well as poison. He is, however, immune to disease. Unlike a true ghoul, he cannot paralyze with his bite, but he can still deliver vicious bites and rend flesh with his claws. When a half-ghoul dies, he will rise as a true ghoul on the next dusk unless he is decapitated, a stake is driven into his heart, or the spell bless is cast upon his body.

Half-ghouls are fanatics of their cult and much more willing to die for their rotten goddess than regular ghouls are. Kassogtha's dark blessing also imbues them with strength and resilience beyond those they had as normal men before they entered her unholy embrace.