Arcane Game Lore

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Writing Doldrums

plural noun: doldrums
a state or period of inactivity, stagnation, or depression.

This has been me and writing recently.  Okay, not the depression part, just the inactivity and stagnation.

The truth is that it’s really a time management issue.  I actually have lots of great ideas I want to write about, I just don’t seem to find the time to actually do the writing (hence this short, and later than usual, post today).  However, this should be changing.

Happy Camping ArcheryLast semester was pretty grueling but it’s now over and my next class doesn’t start until the second week in June.  And that class should be much easier with less writing as it is a web development class.  In the mean time, I have my mornings free so the time was I was doing class work can be devoted to writing.  Plus, during the first and last weeks of June, I’m chaperoning two youth campouts for my church.  The young women (my wife is one of the advisors for that group) are going on a 4 day camp at the beginning of the month, and the scouts (2 of my boys are working on their eagles) are going for a 3 day camp at the end of the month.  For the most part, I just need to be there, I’m not involved in conducting or running any activities soI’m planning on using that time to relax and get a bunch of writing done.

So look for more of my 3D printing articles as well as more of my “Designing Out Loud” series.  I’ve still got quite a number of models to describe (and I need to paint them as well) and have several thoughts stewing around in my head for my game design.  I just got a jump start in that area from Shane Winter who just sent me his home brew version of a revamped Star Frontiers rule set that he’s working on (which reminds me I need to send him my comments).

The other thing I’ll be working on is the sequel to my first book, Discovery.  This has been stewing around in my brain for a while and I need to get it out and on paper.  I might talk a little bit about some of the content here and there or I may not.  We’ll see what happens.

In any case, I’m looking forward to a summer of writing and more substantial blog posts starting with next week’s entry.

Hard sci-fi, realism, & consistency

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about what I like in my RPGs.  For those of you who have been reading my posts, it probably looks like I prefer science fiction to fantasy.  And it’s probably true, I definitely lean that direction and given my background (BS Physics, MS & PhD Astronomy, work as a software developer) it’s probably not surprising.  Now I love a good fantasy book, movie, or game just like the next guy.  In fact, the best game I ever played in was a fantasy game (although with some sci-fi overtones/backstory, but the game itself was wizards, warriors, priests, and rogues).  It’s just that science fiction is closer to my heart and is where I’m spending my limited free time right now.  So I’m going to be talking about science fiction in this post.

Hard vs Soft

When I first started thinking about the topic of “what I like” the hard vs. soft dichotomy was the first thing that came to mind.   When people talk about science fiction games, the topic of hard verses soft sci-fi often comes up and they like to classify the games as such.  I get the feeling that these definitions (or at least their interpretations) are very subjective as I have often seen different people describe the exact same system as both soft and hard sci-fi.  So I guess I’d better begin with what I mean

Hard science fiction

To me hard science fiction is more science than fiction.  It stays close to what we know about the laws of physics.  It doesn’t seem too far removed from our current day technology.  Sure there are things like faster than light (FTL) travel, laser guns, lots of spaceships, and possibly aliens, but mostly things are as we know it.

Soft science fiction

If I think of hard science fiction as more science than fiction, then I guess soft is more fiction than science.  Things like artificial gravity, “the force”, jumping halfway across a galaxy without batting an eye, and other such “magical” technologies.

And I guess that if that was the division, I’m probably in the hard sci-fi camp.  However, as I was thinking about it, I realized that wasn’t really what defines it for me.  Which brought me to thinking about


There is a sliding scale about how “realistic” a game or setting is.  There are personal tastes all along the spectrum.  For me this comes in two flavors.

The first type of realism kind of goes back to the hard sci-fi idea in that it asks, how realistic, or close to modern technology (or a reasonable extrapolation thereof) is the game/setting.  The closer it is, the more realistic.  And I definitely lean toward games that are more “realistic” in this sense.

The other kind of realism might be labeled simulationism for simulationist or something along those lines and refers to how realistically the rules simulate reality or represent how things would “really” work if you were to experience them in person.  This covers things like how long things take to accomplish, diversity/number of skills and how they apply, how deadly weapons are, encumbrance, etc.  At some level this is the crunchiness of the system but it’s possible for crunchy systems to be unrealistic (In which case, they’re just complicated as far as I’m concerned).  I’m definitely in favor of this type of realism as well.  And I’ll have to admit, I’ve never actually met a game that I feel was too crunchy.  But that may just be because of my math and science background and the calculations and such that typically accompany a crunchy system don’t bother me.

But as I reflected on this more I realized that really wasn’t what I was exactly trying to put my finger on either.  Which brought me to my final point:

Internal consistency

In the end, I think this is what I’m really looking for.  Does the game/setting make sense?  If you have a technology, have all the implications been explored?  If there are things you would expect to be possible because of a technology but you can’t do it, is there a good reason why?  If there are limitations, are they reasonable or just arbitrarily imposed because the designer didn’t want that to happen?

When it comes down to it I’m just a logically minded person and I think what I really look for is logical consistency.   For me that internal consistency and “making sense” trumps everything else.  I think my preferences for “hard” sci-fi and realism flow into that as the more things are on that side of the spectrum, the more likely they are to be consistent.

And that probably also why I like to tinker with my games and am starting to write my own.  I love Star Frontiers but anyone who’s spent any time in that game knows there are a few logic holes and things that just don’t make sense and weren’t completely thought out (not to mention orthogonal descriptions of some things in different places).  I think what I’m really trying to do is fix those issues.

What about you?  What do you look for in your games?  What do you like in your favorite games that attracts you to them?  Sound off in the comments below.

Running behind

In finishing up the second semester of my masters program, plus publishing issue 12 of the Frontier Explorer (you can get it here on the FE website or here on DriveThru RPG), my regular blog post kind of fell through the cracks.  And it’s been cloudy so no observing.  I hope to have another post up later in the week.

Until the regular post arrives, I recommend that you grab a copy of the new Frontier Explorer issue and enjoy the articles on mentalist and psionic creatures, equipment, and ideas of how to use these in your games.  Additionally there is a great little adventure and some optional rules in this issues related to ship construction and critical success and failures including an article I translated from the old German Drache magazine (published back in the 80′s).

On the topic of future posts, I’ve also thought about doing a post (or maybe more depending on the length) on the process of getting an issue of the Frontier Explorer out the door.  Let me know in the comments if that would be of interest to anyone.

A Possible Podcast

So it’s very early in the morning again as I’ve been up all night observing and doing homework for my Masters program.  Again I apologize for any incoherence due to lack of sleep.

Since I’m a little too tired to focus on one of the more complex topics I’ve been planning to blog about, I thought I’d ramble on a bit about a podcast I’m considering doing.  You, dear readers, can weigh in in the comment section to gives suggestions on what to change, what to keep, whether or not you think it’s a good idea or not.

Some History

I’ve been toying with the idea of resurrecting my old podcast, Whispers from the Void, that I started and did five episodes for back in the 2009-2010 time frame.  However, the reincarnation would be in a completely different format.

image of the SOFIA 747 flying with it's side door open to expose the 2.5 meter telescope housed within the aft fuselage.

NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory For Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA)

When I started that podcast, I was working full time in California at NASA Ames Research Center as the Information Systems Development Manager for the SOFIA mission, a 2.5m telescope in the back of a Boeing 747SP.  My family, however, was still in Utah where my wife is an astronomy professor.  So I’d fly out Monday morning and fly home Friday night.  In the weekday evenings, I had lots of spare time and so I started the podcast.  That particular living arrangement proved to be an untenable situation and I left the position at SOFIA to return to working on the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope, which I had been working on since 2003 and could work on from home.  Being back home killed my spare time and the podcast petered out.

But enough history.  Here are my thoughts for the new podcast.  I haven’t decided if I’ll keep the name or come up with something new.  In the intervening years, someone registered the Whispers from the Void .com domain while I wasn’t watching and started a horror comic by the looks of it.  So I probably want to come up with a new name.

The Concept

The basic idea is to make it a world building podcast.  And since I’m big into science fiction and am an astronomer, it will actually be designing an entire star sector system by system and planet by planet.  We would talk not only about the concepts but also about tools and resources that you could use to create your own worlds.

At the highest level, we’ll talk about stellar populations and how many of what types of stars you might find nearby.  We’ll dive into exotic systems like black holes, neutron stars, and white dwarfs.  We’ll cover different types of nebula and different types of stars, and talk about the impact all of these astronomical objects would have on life.

Planetary formation in the solar nebulaAt the middle level, the podcast would cover planetary system formation, what types of planets you might find in a system in where and how to build a believable (and potentially stable) planetary system.  We’ll also talk about things that might cause problems or at least interest for your systems such as comet and asteroid collisions, solar flares, wandering stars and planets, and anything else that might come up.

At the lower level, we’d focus on individual planets.  Here the discussion would cover planetary formation, geography, climate, weather, water, and whatever else we can think of related to the physicality of the planet.  The podcast would probably cover software you could use to design planet and/or make maps of them as well as software to make detailed maps of regions of the planet.  The focus would be on making the planet and it’s systems realistic and believable.

Finally, at the ground level, we’d design ecologies and cultures for each world.  This could range from life just starting out to large space-faring civilizations and anything in between.  Some of these episodes might be conducted using a world building game like Microscope (or others that I can remember the names of at the moment) to test out and see how they work.  These session may create kingdoms, democracies, histories, and notable people for the game world.

The Format

I’m a firm believer in shorter podcasts, so the goal would be to keep each episode to just a half hour.  Obviously, you can’t do much in such a short amount of time so each episode would focus on just a small aspect of the world being covered.  Most likely some of the world building will be done off-mike to prepare for a recording session or a longer session will be broken up into smaller segments.

My plan is to have myself plus two or three regular co-hosts on each show.  Additional guests will join us as they are available and interested.  That way you won’t be just listening to me attempting to spin moonbeams into ideas.  I think the creative process will go much better with more people involved and the resulting worlds will be much more interesting.

Eventually, I’d like to get this to the point of a weekly podcast.  Whether that means recording weekly, or recording longer sessions less often that are then broken up into smaller segments to be released weekly, I don’t know.  It will really depend on how things work out.

One thing that I’m trying to decide on is the scale of the first few episodes.  I’d like to rapidly move through all the detail levels to get a sampling of each one but I’m not sure if it should start at the sector level and drill down to a planet or start with a world and expand the horizons.  Given my personal interests and knowledge, I think I’d prefer to start large and zoom in but I think that starting with a world, drilling down to the ecology and history, and then zooming out to the planetary system and sector level would probably be of more general interest.

The Products

In addition to producing the podcasts themselves, the process will generate lots of notes and ideas for each world.  I’d like to take these and develop them beyond what is outlined in the podcast sessions and do full write-ups on the worlds, systems, and sector discussed.  I might use these as the setting for the game I’m “designing out loud” here on this blog or maybe just write them up and make them available on-line, probably as a pay what you want product on RPGNow.


So what do you think.  Is this a podcast that you would be interested in listening to?  Is it something you’d like to participate in and help create?  Do you have any ideas or thoughts on  how this might work out or how it might be a complete disaster?  Should I keep the Whispers from the Void name or come up with something new?  Any suggestions on a different name?  Feel free to leave your comments below and let me know your thoughts.

What’s New in Your World?

It’s 2:15 am and I’m up running a  telescope observing a potential transiting extrasolar planet. Actually I’m observing my second target of the night and the transit is supposedly starting even as I type this line.

I’ve been up since 4am yesterday and in the intervening 22 hours have written an 11-page paper for one of the classes I’m taking this semester for my MLIS program and a journal article review and responses to 3 other students’ reviews for my other class.  (yes my fingers are a little tired, as is the rest of me).  One of the reasons I’m observing is so that I could have the time to get my writing done.  I don’t think I’d be able to pull an all-nighter if I didn’t have the excuse of observing.

The other reason is because it’s fun and also so my wife (who the data is for) can get some sleep as she was up all night Saturday observing (it’s Monday in case you’re wondering, well, Tuesday actually).  So if this post is a little incoherent you know why.  But enough of this rambling introduction.

What’s New Under the Sun?

As I was sitting here observing, it got me thinking about the idea of cutting edge “science” in an RPG world.  This could apply to any game, whether it is a sci-fi game exploring new worlds, a fantasy game exploring the uncharted regions on the map or anything in between.

Hang on just a second, the set of images I was taking just finished and I have to go check the dome and start the next set.  Be right back …  Okay, we’re good.  The dome is clear of the telescope and we’re good for the next set of images.

Take what I’m doing right now.  I’m observing a star that has a 0.67 Jupiter mass planet orbiting it.  We observe the planet as it eclipses its host star.  When it does so, the planet blocks out a tiny fraction of the star’s light and we see the star dim slightly.  Like this:

a small black dot passes in front of the star causing the measured light to dim

Animation of extrasolar planet transiting its host start. Linked from

By measuring the amount of time the star is dimmed, the timing between dimmings, and the time it takes to go from undimmed to maximum dimming, we can determine things like the size of the planet, the size of its orbit and information on the size of the star.

And this is a completely new field of astronomy that I’ve watched develop.  When I started graduate school (the first time) in 1996, there were exactly 4 known extrasolar planets, three around a pulsar (discovery paper) and one around 51 Pegasi.  Today there are thousands known due to the Kepler mission but I remember when each new discovery was a big deal.

So that got me to thinking.  What would be cutting edge and newsworthy in my campaigns?  What type of research is being done that might show up in the news (or rumor mill in a fantasy game)?  These may have no impact at all on your game and may only be flavor text to add depth and vibrancy to your world or maybe they become a major plot hook.  It doesn’t matter.  Topics like this simply make your world more alive and dynamic.

Okay, time to go check the dome again.  Hang on … Okay, back and all is well.  Now where was I? Oh yeah…

In a Modern Setting

If you’re running a modern game, this is fairly easy as you can just pull real topics from the headlines and/or extrapolate from existing events to something new and unique for your game.  For example, using the idea of extrasolar planets, the goal right now is to find an earth sized planet, around a sun type star and lying in the habitable zone.  What in Star Trek I believe they called an M class planet.  This type of object is just on the edge of what we can detect with current technology so finding one is a big deal.  We’ve come close, but one hasn’t been found yet.  Maybe in your world one is found and there is a big hoopla in the news.

For a Fantasy World

In a fantasy world, you could have discoveries coming from a variety of directions.  Maybe some explorers just got back from an unexplored wilderness region with tale of new fantastic creatures or races or rivers lined with gold.  The map has been extended and there are wonders to behold.  Or maybe there has been some new spell discovered at the wizard’s college or a new potion successfully concocted by the King’s alchemist.

Although you want to be careful if your “science” and research introduce a new technology into your world.  As I wrote about in Technology Change In Your Campaign, you need to think about the implications.  If you don’t you may have unintended repercussions down the road.

It’s all Science (Fiction)

In a science fiction game, the answer to what’s the cutting edge could be all over the map depending on the setting.

Is faster than light travel slow and/or hard.  Maybe there’s been a breakthrough that cuts travel time in half or makes the calculations much simpler and faster.  Or maybe there’s been a breakthrough in hull material improving the strength of ships and allowing them to be built even bigger.  Or maybe the Empire actually completed a Death Star and the rebels didn’t blow it up.

Dome check time again.  You know the drill now.  You wait here and I’ll be back in just a moment.  It will only take half a minute … and I’m back.  Continuing on.

Or maybe it’s in the field of personal weapons and they’ve managed to pack the punch and accuracy of a laser rifle down into a pistol sized package.  For improved the range, or improved energy conversion so you do more damage for the same amount of power.

Or the advance is in computers, or medicine, or oceanography, or … well you get the idea.  There are lots of areas for “breakthroughs”.  And in truth these area apply to any genre of game.  And while most of my examples above are on the practical side, your “advances” could be more abstract and pure sciency.  And in those cases, you probably don’t need to worry too much about the consequences and implications.

So what’s new in your world?  Post your ideas and comments below.

A 16 inch geman equatorial mounted telescopeWhew! I finished before I had to take the telescope over the pier, also known as a meridian flip.  You can see the process on this Backyard Astronomy page.  The only real difference is that I’m moving that telescope pictured on the right instead of the little one on that website. This is a 16 inch reflector with the camera at the Cassigrain focus. It’s not the biggest telescope around but it’s big enough to try to run manually by yourself.  For scale, that cross beam between the telescope and the counterweight, is about 5.5 feet high.  With this telescope, it takes about 15 minutes to move over the pier, reset the electronics, find a star, reset the calibrations, and then get back on the target you’re observing.  Unfortunately, it’s not all automated.  The joys of a small university research telescope.



The Great Game of the Ul-Mor – Game Report

My kids have been playing through the Volturnus series of modules in Star Frontiers.  (Warning: Spoilers.  If you’ve never played these modules and think that you will some day, the following gives away part of the story.  But they’ve been published for 30+ years so you’ve probably already played them or at least read them if you’re interested.)  In the previous session they explored the sathar artifact as I mentioned in my post on the Sathar laser gun settings.  That session ended with this scene:

A drasasite in the foreground running from a pyramid/obelisk structure that is exploding in the background.

Destroying the Obelisk by Tom Verreault (jedion357)

The dralasite in the foreground is played by one of my 15-year-old twins and is the demolitions expert for the team.  He’s been itching to blow something up since they acquired a supply of explosives from one of the pirate compounds on the planet.  He rigged his entire supply to detonate the power generator in the artifact and hooked it up to a radio detonator.  Then they flew off about a kilometer, set their camera to maximum telephoto, and he started running as he pressed the trigger.  We wanted a great action shot.  Shout out to jedion357 for drawing the picture after I described the scene to him.  My kids thought it was great when they saw the picture.

In our last session they started out on the task of uniting the races of Volturnus to fight against the sathar invasion that they learned was on its way.  They decided to contact the races in the order that they first met them and thus started out to see the Ul-Mor, a race of desert dwelling, giant lizard riding, nomadic nonapods.

The Great Game

They arrived at the Ul-Mor camp just in time to watch the Great Game, an annual celebration and competition between the various tribes.  After presenting their case to the leaders of the tribes, it was decided that the Ul-mor, who looked down upon the other races of the planet, would agree to fight along side them if the PC’s participated in the game and didn’t make fools of themselves.  The requirement was that they attempt to play (i.e. not just hang back out of the game) and that at least one of the four of them managed to stay on their mount at the end of the game.

The Rules

The game itself is fairly straight forward.  Each participant is mounted.  You have to race to the other side of the field (about 0.5 km long and 0.25 km wide) round one of three stakes, and then pick up a large leather ball located in the middle of the field and get back to the stake on the side where you started.  Scattered throughout the field are various obstacles such as hedgehogs made of spears, sand traps, ponds, hills, and walls that affect movement.  In addition, there is a desert creature called a “sand shark” that is roaming the field trying to attack them.  There are a total of 20 players at the beginning of the game, four of which would be the PCs.

The only rules are:

  1. You must circle one of the far stakes before you can move the ball from its starting position.  (once it’s been moved anyone can touch it)
  2. You must have circled the far stakes at some point in order to win.
  3. You may only attack other riders in an attempt to dismount them.  Once dismounted you are out of the game and must proceed with alacrity to the sidelines.
  4. Spectators may not interfere with the game.  The only exception is if a dismounted player is attacked by the sand shark.  At that point the spectators may intervene to help the dismounted player.

The winner receives great honor and has the upcoming year named after them.

The players had the choice of either riding the giant lizard/dinosaur type creatures that the Ul-Mor were riding or riding a type of horse.  The horses were slower but could gallop for a few turns making them even faster than the lizards and were easier to control.  The gallop rules were that they could move at their gallop speed for a total of 3 turns after which the horses would be winded and could only move at just under half speed.  The four PC’s all opted to go with the horses as they felt that the probability of falling off the lizard mounts was just too great.


Unlike the Ul-Mor, who were all in the game for individual glory, the PC’s immediately decided to work as a team.  One of my twins (playing a yazirian) decided he would simply work to knock Ul-Mor riders off their mounts to thin out the opposing ranks.  He wouldn’t even try to get around the far stakes to start but would run interference.  The other three (ages 15, 10, & 8) would race as best they could with their slower mounts around the far stakes and try to knock Ul-Mor off when they could.  They all decided to save their galloping ability as a ace in the hole and only pull it out if needed to prevent an Ul-Mor win.

Amazingly, the PC’s won initiative and the right to decided which side moved first every single round of the game.  Even on the rounds when I was sure the Ul-mor would win.  There was a round I rolled a 10 (on a d10) giving the Ul-Mor their max initiative roll (a 15, they had a +5 initiative modifier).  But my kids, who had an IM of +7, rolled a 10 as well.  And on the round they rolled a 1, I rolled a 1 too.  The Ul-Mor couldn’t catch a break.  Thus the PCs were able to expertly control the pacing of the game.

The Results

For the very first round, they allowed the Ul-mor to move first with their faster mounts.  As the Ul-Mor raced ahead, the terrain caused a few bottlenecks that resulted in some skirmishes and two riders were knocked off their mounts.  Cheers and groans were heard from the tribes of the riders involved depending on whether their riders remained mounted or not.  The PC’s followed on with their slower horses.  On the next round the PC’s moved first.  The one twin moved to block and intercept one of the Ul-Mor and successfully knocked him off his mount.  The tribe the PC’s were representing (of which they were members of from their earlier adventures) cheered wildly.  The other three continued to race behind the other Ul-Mor as the gap between them widened.  Terrain bottlenecks again resulted in a few skirmishes and another Ul-Mor was knocked off its mount.  In the beginning the pride of the Ul-Mor didn’t let them recognize the strange creatures, riding slower mounts, as a threat and so they tended to ignore them is their race to round the far stakes.

A scene from the Great game with a character mounted and racing between the Ul-MorOn the next round the twin bent on unhorsing (un-lizarding?) the competition caught one more Ul-Mor and again successfully knocked him off his mount.  The other twin (our dralasite demolitionist) , racing straightforward down the center of the field was caught by the sand shark.  He was ready, however, and dropped an incendiary grenade right on top of it as he raced by.  The explosion and resulting flames brought cheers from the crowd and caused the sand shark to miss its attack.

At this point the racers were approaching a huge wall that stood between them and the three stakes at the far end of the field.  There were definite terrain bottlenecks here and the PC’s decided to let the Ul-Mor move first for the next few rounds as there was no way for them to catch them until they were headed back and they didn’t want to get mixed up in the ensuing melees that would inevitably occur.  The twin that was unhorsing Ul-Mor rode over to defend the ball and the sand shark continued to chase the other twin but with little effect other than to get poked by the dralasite’s spear.  As expected the Ul-Mor got into a bit of a shoving match trying to get through the bottlenecks and three more were knocked off their mounts this round.

The next round saw the remaining Ul-Mor rounding the stakes and getting caught up in more fights on their way back through the bottlenecks caused by the walls.  Four more riders were dismounted.  At this point there were only 7 Ul-Mor still mounted plus the PCs.  The three PC’s racing for the stakes were now just outside the bottlenecks and would pass through and around the stakes on the next turn.  The yazirian was now guarding the ball and the dralasite was still battling the sand shark as he raced down the field.

At this point the Ul-Mor realized that they were being had by these aliens and collectively decided to stop fighting among themselves until the ball had been grabbed.   The players moved first.  The vrusk (played by my 10 year old son) and the other dralasite (played by my 8 year old daughter, no humans in this group) rounded the stakes although my daughter’s character was rounding one farther from the current action.  The vrusk engaged with one of the Ul-mor, slowing him down but not knocking him off his mount.  Our other dralasite weaved in an out of the on-rushing Ul-Mor and made it just around the stakes.  The yazirian was riding back and forth near the ball waiting for the on-rushing Ul-Mor and the sand shark that was now chasing them back towards the ball.

The lead Ul-Mor decided to ignore the yazirian and make a play for the ball while the yazirian attempted to dismount him.  Both failed and started circling each other and the ball.  Several other Ul-mor arrived and began to watch the “dance” looking for an opportunity.

The next round turned out badly for the Ul-Mor.  The sand shark knock over one of the mounts of a rider waiting for an opportunity.  The Yazirian knocked the rider down that was attempting to get the ball and both the vrusk and our dralasite demolitionist came barreling into the fray and knocked two others off their mounts.  There were just 3 Ul-Mor left to face the PC’s.  The tribe the PC’s were representing were going wild, never had so many contestants from any tribe still been mounted this late in the game.  It was seriously looking like the PC’s would knock out all the Ul-Mor, and then just pick up the ball and trot back across the finish line.

However, on the next round the PCs suffered their first mishap.  A new Ul-Mor charged in to try to get the ball and a standoff between him and the yazirian a began, although this time the Ul-Mor wasn’t going for the ball, he was going for the PC to knock him off his mount.  The vrusk and dralasite each engaged the remaining two Ul-Mor with mixed results.  The vrusk was knocked off his horse by his opponent and the other four tribes erupted with and ear-splitting cheer.  The Ul-Mor facing the dralasite wasn’t so lucky and was knocked to the ground.

The next few seconds were probably the finest moment for the Ul-Mor as they managed to knock both the yazirian and the dralasite off their horses, again to deafening cheers from most of the crowd.  Our other dralasite, who had been rounding the far stake, finally arrived on the scene at this point and engaged the Ul-Mor near the ball.  She succeeded in knocking him down leaving just her and the lone remaining Ul-Mor. However, she was standing near the ball and the other Ul-mor was about ten meters away where he had just unhorsed the other dralasite.

Seizing the initiative, she managed to grab the ball and, urging her horse to a gallop, took off toward the finish line leaving the now slower lizard mount in the dust.  The sand shark, deprived of the mounted targets, went after the other dralasite slowly making his way off the field.  The dral was ready and waiting, however, and tossed a fragmentation grenade down the creatures mouth.  The resulting detonation showered sand shark steaks all over the desert floor.

Capitalizing on the speed of her galloping mount, the remaining dralasite crossed the finish line a few seconds later not only staying mounted through the game but winning it.

The Aftermath

While for the longest time it had looked like a rout, the Ul-Mor held on to the last moment but the PCs came away with the win.  During the ensuing celebration the PCs were introduced to many of the riders that they had played against and while disappointed in their loss, the riders exhibited no hard feelings but wanted to learn more about the strange members of their rival tribe.  As part of the celebration, the new year was named after the winning PC.  After that ceremony and the celebration had died down somewhat, the elders of the Ul-Mor tribes approached the PCs.

“You have shown great skill and valor in the Great Game.  Because of this, and because the ancestors, whose requests are not to be taken lightly, ask it, the Ul-Mor will fight with you alongside the silly Kurabanda and vain Edestekia against the evil sky worms when they come.  We will rally the tribes and meet you at the home of the ancestors.”

After the celebration was over, the PC’s said their goodbys, boarded their jetcopter and headed off to try to win the hearts of the Kurabanda.  But that’s another story.

April RPG Blog Carnival – The Combat Experience – Initiative

This month’s RPG Blog Carnival is on The Combat Experience and is being hosted by the RPG Alchemy blog.  As I was thinking about what to write I fell to musing on the use of initiative in RPG combat.

My primary gaming experience covers three games: RuneQuest, Star Frontiers, and Powers & Perils (did anyone besides me ever play that game?), two of which don’t use initiative and one does.  And of course, D&D uses it (at least so I’ve heard).

Lacking Initiative

The physical scientist in me likes the ideas behind the systems that don’t use initiative.  Combat order is determined simply by physical attributes.  How big are you? How fast are you? What is the reach of your weapon?  All these things are quantifiable and recorded on your characters sheet.

For example, in RuneQuest, the combat round is divided into 10 “strike ranks”.  Each character has a strike rank modifier based on their size (0-3) and their Dexterity (1-4) which gives their base melee strike rank.  Higher SIZ and DEX give lower values and a faster attack.  On top of this, you have a strike rank modifier for each weapon based on it’s reach, again in the range of 0-3.  Longer weapons like pikes and halberds have low strike rank modifiers (i.e. 0-1), while short weapons like short swords and daggers have higher ones.  This is added to your base melee strike rank to determine when you hit.

A combat round in these systems is then fairly straightforward.  The referee just counts off the strike ranks and you resolve your action on your given strike rank.  You know when it is each round and adjust your tactics accordingly.  Nice and simple and you figured it out when you added the weapon to your character sheet so you don’t have to add it up each time.  Once and done.

I’ve got Initiative

In systems that use initiative, you either roll once per turn or once per combat and can make either one roll for each side or one roll for each character.  It simply depends on the game system and how the referee wants to run it.  Typically these rolls are modified by some sort of bonus based on the characters’ ability scores, typically something like Dexterity, Agility, or Reaction Speed, depending on the system.  And for all I know some systems may even have modifiers for the weapons, I’ve just never encountered them in my limited experience.  Thus faster characters tend to get to go first.

In Star Frontiers the rule is to roll each round with a single roll for each side.  Plus each character has an initiative modifier (IM) which is based on their Reaction Speed and you add the highest IM for the side to its roll.  However, with small combats I’ll sometimes have each character roll their own initiative.

Again combat is fairly straightforward.  If there are just two initiative values, the side with the better one goes first.  If there are more than two, each goes in turn.  If there are a lot of values (say each character on each side rolled separately), then the referee simply calls out initiative scores instead of strike ranks (starting at the highest and working down) and each character or opponent resolves their actions at the appropriate point.

What’s the Point?

I believe the idea behind rolling for initiative is to simulate somewhat the random factors of combat.  Things such as morale, insight into the situation, reaction to activities by the other side, and pure dumb luck.  The modifier(s) based on the character’s abilities represent their innate ability to react to these situations.

As such, when rolling for initiative, I think the more granular the level of the rolls the better.    It makes more sense to me to roll once per round rather than once at the beginning of combat as the situation is fluid and can change and it is possible for a side that was “in control” of the situation (by having the higher initiative) to suddenly be caught flat-footed.  Allowing an initiative roll each round allows for this.  Rolling once at the beginning of combat doesn’t allow for such a momentum shift.

When feasible, I also feel it makes sense for each character to roll initiative individually as opposed to as a group.  And for the same reasons.  Each individual reacts differently to situations and individual rolls simulate this better.  Plus it allows the characteristics of each player to come more directly into play instead of everyone on the side getting the same bonus.  And this should be applied to the opponents as well.  Of course, this makes for a lot more bookkeeping and could slow down combat somewhat but it really shouldn’t be an issue if handled properly (and with a little practice).

What to do?

As I contemplate how best to include initiative in the game I’m designing, I’m torn between the two systems.  I like them both.  In the end I think I’ll steal a little bit from each system.  Have the initiative modifier based not only on the player’s or monster’s characteristics, but also on the weapon of choice, much like in RuneQuest.  However, I do like the idea of the randomness and so I’ll want to add in some sort of die roll. I think I’ll leave the granularity and frequency (once per combat, once per round, once per side, once per character) up to the referee based on the situation.

I think the real question is simply how big of a die.  A large die weights initiative to the random side while a small one places much more weight on the character’s abilities and weapons. With a small die, a character with great abilities and the right weapons will always trump someone with low enough scores regardless of the roll.  Maybe this is okay although not completely realistic (the underdog could sometimes get lucky).  With a large die, abilities become much less important.  Not as realistic but maybe okay as well in a game.

Right now I’m leaning toward a smaller die (something in the d4 to d6 range).  This is definitely something to be looked at in play-testing and simulation when I get to that point.

So what are your thoughts on initiative.  Like it? Love it? Hate it?  Meh?  Sound off in the comments below.


While there is probably a great post on environmental effects hiding somewhere behind that title, this unfortunately is not it.  The last week has been simply insane and I haven’t had time to get a post together for the blog.  Craziness included:

  • A cold/flu – something hit me early last week and still hasn’t completely gone away
  • My wife was out of town early last week.  She was back in D.C. reviewing NSF proposals and evaluating them to help determine who got funding and who didn’t.
  • Within 12 hours of her getting home I left for the rest of the week to attend the ACRL 2015 conference.  It was great but conferences are exhausting. I got back Saturday night.
  • On top of all that I have a major project in one of my classes for my Master’s program that is due tonight.  I was supposed to have another due yesterday but luckily that got postponed a week.  So any free time I’ve had at home or at the conference was spent working on the project.  It’s still not done but I should finish on time.

So the net result is no new game related post this week.  I should be back on schedule by next week.  And don’t forget to go register for the Frontier Net Con 2015 if you are interested in some Star Frontiers on-line gaming.

Best GM Ever – March RPG Blog Carnival

RPG Blog Carnival LogoThis month’s blog carnival is discussing the best GM ever.  When I read this month’s topic, I knew immediately who I would be talking about.  That was my GM from high school, John Scott Clegg.

At the time, Scott had been running games for around thirty years and regularly every Saturday in his house for at least a decade.  That was over 20 years ago and he still has his weekly game that I drop in on sometimes to say hi as I now live back near him.

I think one of the things that made Scott such a great GM was the depth of the gaming world.  It was one that he created, all starting with a map he drew in the 60′s while he was in junior high school.  He has grown and developed that world over the intervening decades with all the campaigns he has run in it.  There are very few places you can go that he doesn’t either already have mapped out or knows what will be happening when you arrive. I think the thing that I loved most about it was that it always made sense.  He had been running the world for so long that he had worked out all the inconsistencies.  The logic of the world held together very well.

Scott started role-playing with his school buddies long before even D&D was published with a small set of rules that took up 3 pages (front, back, and front of two pieces of paper).  They moved to D&D for a while and then on to RuneQuest when that came out.  By the time I was playing it, it was still based on RuneQuest (3rd ed.) but with a much expanded skill set and a couple of additional magic systems.  His game still lives on in that system today.

Scott was also fairly well connected to the gaming industry.  Those school buddies he ran games for, you might of heard of some of them.  They included Tracy Hickman and Sandy Peterson.  Scott helped Sandy write and play-test the original version of the Call of C’thulhu RPG and continued to write supplements and adventures for that game for years.  He even has a “Best Role-playing Game Supplement of the Year” award from Origins that he received in 1985, just a few years before I started playing with him.  It was for the Earth’s Dreamlands supplement for Call of C’thulhu.

Scott was also amazingly flexible in running the game.  He could manage the session regardless of who was there or how many people we had present on any given day.  Which was good.  He never turned anyone away that wanted to play.  He wanted to share the joy of role-playing with anyone and would integrate any new player immediately into the game.  The net result of this was that we occasionally had a very large group.  At one point we had 16 active players running 24 characters in the party.  That made for a fairly crowded session.  I think that the most amazing thing is that it all ran smoothly and I, at least, never felt left out or lost in the crowd.  It is as testament to his skill that he could keep it all running so well and everyone involved.

But most of all, in addition to being an amazing GM, Scott was (and is) a great friend.  I have fond memories of all the hours I spent at his house playing RuneQuest in his home-brewed world.  I can only hope that I can some day end up being half the GM he is.  He wins the Greatest GM Award hands down as far as I’m concerned.

Various News Items

A short post this week with just a couple of announcements related to my various gaming endeavors.

Frontier NetCon 2015

After putting out feelers on various social media outlets, I discovered that there was quite a bit of interest to have an on-line gaming con to get people together to play Star Frontiers.  We held one of these back in 2012 to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the game and had a decent turnout for the amount of advertising done.  We tried again in 2013 but it fizzled.  And I completely dropped the ball on trying to do one last year.  Let’s hope this year is better.  If we get a good turnout, I’d love to do this yearly.  In any case, jump on over to the con’s website:

Frontier NetCon 2015

and check it out.  The con is sponsored by this blog, the Star Frontiers Network, and the Frontier Explorer webzine.  Right now there is not much on the site as we’ve just opened registration.  If you’re interested in playing or, even better, running a game, jump on over and register.  And let others know about it as well.  The more we can get the word out, the better the turnout and the better the event.

Launching a Patreon Campaign

As you may or may not know, I run the two Star Frontiers fan magazines, the Frontier Explorer and Star Frontiersman.  While I love doing this and will continue to do so as long as I’m able, there is a considerable amount of work involved for myself and my fellow editors.  As such I’m launching a Patreon campaign for the magazines to help raise funds to help offset the costs involved and improve the production and quality of the magazines.  I’m not going to do a whole “sales pitch” here.  You can read the details on the Patreon page.  The bottom line is that while the magazines will always be free, by becoming a patron you can make a donation and say thanks for all the hard work.  If you like the magazines and want to support our work, consider becoming a patron.

image containing a collage of covers from the Star Frontiersman and Frontier Explorer magazines