Monday, November 22, 2010

Read on Kindle

I recently acquired a Kindle. As a side note, I love it. I'm a frequent traveler and for road warriors I think it is hard to beat. The ability to pack around a library in my hand is awesome. Moreover, the screen is actually great for reading, unlike most e-readers or computers.

Gamers might be interested to find out that the Kindle can display PDF files. I pulled S&W Core, S&W Whitebook, AD&D 1E and a few other PDFs onto the device and they displayed alright. More graphically intense files tend to have slow load times but it is tolerable. While it isn't ideal for rapidly paging through books, it is serviceable in a pinch, especially if you "tab out" the books first with bookmarks so you can quickly jump to key pages.

In any event, I am doing a lot of reading on the Kindle so I went ahead and had the Potion Shop hosted on the Kindle Store. If you have a Kindle this lets you pull down the blog in an easy to read format for a nominal fee every month. Note that I only get a small fraction, most of the subscription goes to Amazon and AT&T. I'm not doing this for the money; it is more as a convenience for any of my readers that may also appreciate being able to read blogs in Kindle format. I still do this primarily for me and as you may be used to, there may be gaps in posting. So don't be PO'd if you pay your $0.99 and I don't post every day!

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Rethinking Ability Score Generation

After some consideration of the TROLL charts and the probabilities involved, I realized that I lost the skewed bell curve with my above and below average charts.

Here's some new rules:
  • Standard/Average: Roll 3d6. Discard the highest and lowest. Retain the remaining die.
  • Below Average: Roll 4d6. Discard the highest and lowest. Retain the lowest of the 2d6 that remain.
  • Above Average: Roll 4d6. Discard the highest and lowest. Retain the highest of the 2d6 that remain. Boxcars = 7.
  • Way Above Average: Roll 5d6. Discard the highest and lowest. Retain the highest of the 3d6 that remain. Boxcars = 7, 666 = 8.
The "discard highest & lowest" rule preserves the bell curve effect. For example, here's "below average" (invert for above average):

Value% = % ≥Probability graph
1 13.194100.000

2 27.546 86.806

3 28.009 59.259

4 20.139 31.250

5 9.491 11.111

6 1.620 1.620

Average = 2.90046296296
Spread = 1.2329578139
Mean deviation = 0.997599451303

Compare that to the modifiers created by 4d6 drop the highest:

Probability distribution:

Value% = % ≥Probability graph
1 5.787100.000

2 29.707 94.213

3 37.577 64.506

4 21.219 26.929

5 5.324 5.710

6 0.386 0.386

Average = 2.9174382716
Spread = 0.990762073825
Mean deviation = 0.767008649596

The curves aren't identical but they preserve a similar average and a similar shape, specifically, the significant decrease in a likelihood of getting a "6."

We could create a smoother curve that closer approximates the 4d6 drop the lowest curve by doing something like "roll 6d6; drop the two highest and the two lowest; take the highest of the two that remain." However, I think you start to get into diminishing returns as far as time involved and perceived complexity. It will also increase player frustration to throw away their TWO highest rolls.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Alternate Character Statistic Generation

When I started out on Septimus I just adopted the traditional 3d6, 3-18 ability score regime we're all familiar with. However, I don't really care for it. It requires translation via a table to get ability score modifiers, it uses a totally unique dice mechanic separate from anything else in the game, and it has a lot of baggage. When someone sees that they've got a 7 for a stat they look sad. They may think they need 18s in their primary stats to succeed. While those aren't true in Septimus, it is a perception issue.

So, this is the variant system I'm toying with.

Roll 3d6. Drop the lowest and the highest. The remaining score is your ability score. Caveats:
  • If the attribute is your "prime" then roll 2d6 and pick the highest number. If you rolled boxcars, the score is 7!
    If the attribute is a double prime, then roll 3d6 and pick the highest number (i.e. drop nothing). Boxcars = 7, 666 = 8.
  • If the attribute is a "flaw" then roll 2d6 and pick the lowest remaining number. If you rolled snake eyes, the score is 0!
  • Any "4+MOD" factor in the old system (generating a range from 1 to 7) is simply "equal to your attribute."
  • Any "1+MOD" factor in the old system (generating a range from 0 to 4) is "equal to your attribute -3."
  • Improving attributes: Roll the exact same dice pool as used in character creation. If the result is greater than the current score, increase the current score by one.
The main downside of this system is that there is less granularity. Under the old system, it took three rolls before you'd go up a modifier. However, in play test, DW was actually quite unhappy about this; it felt like there was too little progress. Also, extreme results are slightly more likely. I think I'm willing to live with that however.

The upsides include:
  • No baggage.
  • Rapid stat generation; no need to cross reference a table to convert a 3-18 score to a modifier.
  • More noticeable effects at level-up/stat improvement time.
  • Commonality of mechanic.


What do these distributions look like (courtesy of troll)?


Old School, 3d6 convert to Modifier (1 = -3, 6 = +2):
Average = 3.5
Spread = 1.02288625775
Mean deviation = 0.861111111111

1 1.852100.000

2 14.352 98.148

3 33.796 83.796

4 33.796 50.000

5 14.352 16.204

6 1.852 1.852

New -- "Normal" (3d6 take the middle)
Average = 3.5
Spread = 1.37099585325
Mean deviation = 1.16666666667

Value% = % ≥Probability graph
1 7.407100.000

2 18.519 92.593

3 24.074 74.074

4 24.074 50.000

5 18.519 25.926

6 7.407 7.407

Distribution roughly appears like a bell curve, although it is really parabolic, without the aracteristic tapering at the ends. It is roughly equivalent, though; the odds of getting a 16-18 on 3d6 (the same as my "6" above) are about 5%. We're in the same ballpark above.


Old School: 4d6 drop the lowest (then convert to modifiers)
Value% = % ≥Probability graph
1 0.386100.000

2 5.324 99.614

3 21.219 94.290

4 37.577 73.071

5 29.707 35.494

6 5.787 5.787

Average = 4.0825617284
Spread = 0.990762073825
Mean deviation = 0.767008649596

The odds for a Prime are the same as my core mechanic, although obviously inverted for Flawed scores. That is, the mean increases by one (3.5 --> 4.5) and lower numbers become very unlikely.

Average = 4.47222222222
Spread = 1.40408355068
Mean deviation = 1.1975308642

Value% = % ≥Probability graph
1 2.778100.000

2 8.333 97.222

3 13.889 88.889

4 19.444 75.000

5 25.000 55.556

6 30.556 30.556

The chart doesn't reflect my "Boxcars = 7" rule, but Boxcars should occur 1/36 of the time (2.7%), and it would reduce the percentage of the time that you get a "6" as one six is a prereq for boxcars.


Old School: 5d6 drop the lowest two yields...

Probability distribution:

Value% = % ≥Probability graph
1 0.077100.000

2 1.878 99.923

3 12.037 98.045

4 33.449 86.008

5 41.165 52.559

6 11.394 11.394

Average = 4.47929526749
Spread = 0.916573125002
Mean deviation = 0.775236687698

And finally, for a so-called "Double Prime," you get this.

Average = 4.95833333333
Spread = 1.14387458844
Mean deviation = 0.901234567901

Value% = % ≥Probability graph
1 0.463100.000

2 3.241 99.537

3 8.796 96.296

4 17.130 87.500

5 28.241 70.370

6 42.130 42.130

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Septimus Test Drive

A few weeks ago before I left on the current business trip I actually ran a quick dry-run of Septimus, the code name for my homebrew system. It is nowhere near even a true "Alpha" run; it is definitely pre-Alpha. However, for me it was a major milestone to put many of these abstract thoughts on paper and roll dice with them.

Here's a quick run down on the key themes and core terminology that is emerging:

What is it: Septimus is a role playing game that focuses on exploration of archetypal themes in the context of a "generic fantasy" milleu. If using the "what if" terminology, you could say, "What if D&D was heavily influenced by gnostic thought?"

How are characters defined: Characters are defined by a series of archetypal roles and symbols. There are 10 attributes in three categories. Here is a brief overview of the character creation process.
  1. Select prime Element (Air/Water/Earth/Fire): Put one point into one of these four elements. The elements are stand-ins for player psychology and each element should appeal to a different type of player. It is very viable for one player to always pick the same element, and there is no need to "balance" a party by including all of the elements.
  2. Select prime Quality (Cardinal/Fixed/Mutable): Put one point into one of these four elements. DW suggests that I need to change the names of these, and I likely will, but for now I'm keeping the classic astrological names to keep them easy to remember. I am thinking of renaming them to figures from playing cards (Knight/King/Queen) but am leery of introducing gender-specific terms. These are the classic "roles" of an RPG party. You could relate them to offense, defense, and special teams. A balanced party should have one of each role. Luckily there are only three of them!
  3. Derive Astrological Sign. In astrology, element + quality = sign. For example, Leo is the sign of high-summer, a Fixed Fire sign. Signs are old and potent archetypes. If players want to select a sign first and then go back to derive the element/quality pairs, they can certainly do that.
  4. Derive Ruling and Detrimental Planets. Each sign is ruled by a planet, which exerts unusually strong influence. There is also a planet which is uncomfortable within each sign. Planets govern things such as skills (the arts) and other certain actions. They also govern Matter, Mind, and Spirit and the relations between them, which are important attributes.
  5. Select your Guide. All of the previous steps could be described as "nature." Your character may have been born under a certain set of stars, raised in a certain type of home, or otherwise shaped by powerful influences largely beyond their control. The Guide is the "nurture" part, often actively selected by the character. It may be a specialty, an object of worship, or an ideal.

    The Guide is another planet from the list of seven in a default setting. The planets are each associated with Classical deities so it may also be linked to those gods. For example, a player may select either Jupiter or Zeus as their Guide; either way they are equivalent, mechanically. In the future I may break this out more closely, and say that the particular aspect you identify with has additional mechanical effects (for example, "clerics" may focus on Zeus, "mages" on the planet Jupiter, and so on). You could easily have players start without a Guide and discover one through the course of play, for example, a spirit quest, meeting a hermit, or any other similar adventure.

    It is not necessary for a party to cover all of the planets although it would probably be helpful to cover a wide variety of them just to get access to a wider variety of skills and other perks. Most teams of three will tend to cover a majority of the planets without trying too hard even without coordinating their selections.
  6. Fill in Derived Matter/Mind/Spirit information: Each planet governs one of these elements. For example, Saturn is the dominance of Matter over Mind, thus you'd put a point into Matter if Saturn is either your Guide or Ruling planet. Thus you'll put two points on these attributes.
  7. Roll Dice to Generate Attribute Scores: You will now generate Attribute scores for Matter, Mind, and Spirit; Cardinal, Fixed, and Mutable; and Earth, Water, Air, and Fire. Roll 3d6 and total them to generate a score for each. For each point you've put into a category, add an extra die but total only the highest three. For example, if Earth is your Prime element, you'd roll 4d6 and take the highest three when generating your Earth score. Convert all ability scores to a modifier from -3 to +3 using the standard table. Optional: After rolling, reduce any score by -3 to add +2 to a "prime" score in the same category.
  8. Make all derived picks: Most of the Attributes have things associated with them that you can select in order to customize your character. Usually they are things like "pick 1+/-MOD" or "pick 4+/-MOD." Usually 1+/-MOD are more consequential and involved choices, so if you don't want to deal with them simply trade that attribute score down using the rules above. Some derived picks will be made for you; for example, each planet has skills associated with it, so your Ruling Planet and Guide will select two skills in each category for you.
  9. Finishing Touches: Select equipment, round out details, and tie up any odds and ends.
  • Difficulty: There are three packages for difficulty, Basic, Advanced, and Expert. Each generally is equivalent in power. Expert will give more choices and be more difficult to play effectively than Basic. This is a choice based on player skill level. New players should start with Basic and move up later if desired.
  • Primes & Flaws: You may designate any ability within a category as "Flawed." If you do so, you get one more point to spend in that category. For example, you could designate Water as "Flawed" and get two points to spend in Elements rather than one. Both could go into one element (for example, you could double tap Fire) or you can spread them out (Fire & Earth). Instead of rolling 3d6 to generate the Flawed score, roll 4d6 and total the three lowest dice. If an attribute is double tapped, then roll 5d6 and total the three highest. When trading down scores, you may subtract 3 from the Flaw and add +1 to each Prime if preferred.
It sounds complicated but really goes quite rapidly. There are relatively few choices that neatly funnel you into the next choice. You never have to choose from a list longer than around seven options and the derived attributes flow rapidly from a few initial choices.


In test I was pleased how archetypes flowed from initial choices. DW selected "water" as the element most aligned with her personality and play style, and then selected "cardinal" as she wanted an aggressive character that started things. We referenced a quick table and determined that the Cardinal Water sign is Cancer which is ruled by the Moon with Saturn in detriment. She then selected Mars as her Guide as she likes to smack stuff around.

This led to some derived skill specializations which we rapidly filled in on the character sheet (all the arts are arranged in rows by their ruling planet, so you just check off an entire row at a time). Her character was good at music, armament, and fighting due to Mars and Grammar, Hunting, and Shooting due to the Moon. She was deficient at Astronomy, Agriculture, and Riding which are the provenance of Saturn which as we recall is in Detriment in Cancer. She got +1 Matter and +1 Mind from her planets, making her a character well grounded in the physical and mental realms but perhaps less cognizant of spiritual or divine concerns.

So what did we have? Before making any fiddling choices, just focusing on the emergent core archetypes from the first few key selections, we had an introverted, energetic militant huntress. Reading articles on Cancer, Diana (of the Moon), and Mars would give lots of role playing ideas. These archetypes were supported by the mechanics of the game rather than just being a roleplaying label on paper only.

I think this also has a ton of potential for generating NPCs. You can either rapidly step through the process to rapidly generate archetypes, or if you have an archetype in mind already, start with the sign then work backwards. There is a rich tapestry of material associated with all of these elements so it is easy to find archetypal associations to explore.

What is the core mechanic: The core mechanic is a simple dice pool system based on D6s. Some sub systems utilize other mechanics but in general everything uses D6s.

  • Building Dice Pools: A general dice pool is constructed by adding +1 die for each relevant "prime" or specialty. For example, if our character above had to roll Earth + Cardinal, she'd get +1 die because Cardinal is prime but she does not have Earth prime. If an attribute is Flawed or a skill is a Detriment then subtract one from the Dice Pool. Dice Pools for core adventuring abilities like melee attacks are carefully controlled to keep them from getting out of control. The mechanic has diminishing returns built in to reduce the impact of "stacking" too many dice.
  • Reading Dice Pools: The highest die showing is normally the result of the dice pool. Each additional six adds one to the result (so boxcars = 7). Sometimes, the number of dice showing the number is relevant; for example, getting a pair of 5s would = 2.

They're called "Reserve Feats"

An interesting post over at Grognardia. James takes a brief segue into mechanics-land (something he doesn't do too often). I hadn't thought about 3.5 lately, but one of the later innovations that I actually really liked was Reserve Feats. If I played an AD&D or OD&D game with Vancian casting this is one thing I definitely think I would keep in.

A few ways you could handle it:
  • Each and every spell has a rider effect that kicks in if still memorized, either baneful or boonful. The downside to this is that you must individually balance each spell. It also gets to be a lot to keep track of at higher levels.
  • As above, but cap the number of active effects. This has fewer but still significant issues.
  • Introduce "reserve feats" a la 3.5. Basically, in 3.5, you could take feats that said things like, "Throw a mini-fireball, affects one creature, deals 1d6 damage per spell level of the highest Fire spell you have memorized." You could come up with a list of 7+/-2 Reserve Feats then let players select them. I would either allow a number of feats equal to MU Weapon Profs (so 1 at level 1, then another at level 7), or perhaps a number based on INT score + extra ones with weapon profs (to create growth with level). I'd also consider allowing players to "retrain" their Reserve feat every level up.
The advantage to this system is that it beefs up low level casters without unduly affecting higher level ones, is easy to run, and creates great "specialty" caster flavor. For example, you could actually make the schools of magic significant; someone with the Divination reserve feat would sure want to have a Divination spell memorized every day!

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Key Assumptions for a Spacefaring Game

I've been doing more brainstorming about a spacefaring game. These are some key assumptions I'd make about the setting in order to facilitate play.


ION DRIVES. The characters have access to highly efficient Ion Drive (or similar) technology allowing constant acceleration of typical spaceships from 0.1 to 1 G (or so). This makes interplanetary travel fairly rapid. For example, with constant acceleration at 1G, you can travel from Earth to Mars in a matter of days. This allows you to basically assume that players enter any tactical encounter with any reasonable relative velocity vector that they want. It could also be used in tactical encounters to generate very small thrust (say, 0.5 to 1 or even 1.5 Gs).

Reaction mass expended in an enhanced ion drive for interplanetary travel purposes is essentially negligible because we are assuming an incredibly efficient thruster (many orders of magnitude more powerful than exists today). The downside is that these drives require a lot of energy to function, from, say, a fusion reactor. Less powerful variants might be powered with fission or solar sources.

Here's a useful rule of thumb to calculate travel time: If you accelerate at A gravities to midpoint, then turnover and then decelerate at A gravities to your destination, elapsed time is approximately 4 SQRT (D/A) days, with D in astronomical units.

So to travel from Earth (1 AU) to Mars (1.5 AU) at constant acceleration of 1g, it would take: 4 * SqRt (0.5 / 1) = 2.8 days.

SOLAR SAIL. A less expensive (and lower energy) variant of the ion drive is mature solar sail technology. The advantage to this is that it is theoretically fast. It also requires very little energy and thus is probably less expensive. The downside is that it is not very maneuverable. This could be an option for players on a budget but it would prevent them from entering encounters with whatever velocity they want.

HOHMANN TRANSFERS: Interplanetary Travel without constant acceleration is done on Hohmann Transfers. Generally, for game play purposes, it is not necessary to understand how these work: it is a long time, and you can do it with limited thrust (generally two burns suffice; an initial and a final burn). Hohmann transfers are used for a few gameplay purposes:
  • Bulk cargo shipments from one orbit to another often use Hohmann transfers. For example, maybe the PCs get involved in an asteroid mining operation and need to get their bulk wares to somewhere else in the system inexpensively.
  • Sometimes a system might have a space station or other useful object on a Hohmann transfer orbit.
  • The PCs might be absurdly poor or limited on funds/local tech to old-school solid or chemical rocket technology.
  • Escape capsules might use Hohmann Transfer Orbits. This is a nice penalty for "death:" if you have to eject from your crippled spaceship, the escape pod has just enough thrust to put you into a transfer orbit. It basically means that the penalty for "death" is weeks or months of inactivity while you sit in your life raft and think about failure (or pay for a lift from an ion-drive equipped salvage ship).
You can estimate the time required for one relatively easily, however:

P^2 = A^3 (where P = time in years and A = distance in AUs)
Steps to solve (example is Earth to Mars):
  1. Add the distance of the first planet from the sun to the distance of the second planet from the sun (1 AU + ~1.5 AU)
  2. Find the semi-major axis of the transfer orbit by dividing this number in half. (2.5 AU / 2 = 1.25 AU)
  3. Solve the above equation. Use a calculator... (P = ~1.4 years)
  4. The equation gives you the time for a full orbit (i.e., Earth to Mars and back). Divide this by two to get the one way travel time. (0.7 years or around 8 months)

CHEMICAL DRIVES: Liquid and solid fuel rockets are still useful. They provide very high impulse. They are also cheap. This makes them great for tactical maneuvering on a "fighter" type spacecraft; generating 1G on an Ion Drive is not going to stack up favorably against a fighter maneuvering at 9Gs. Additionally, they are cheap and simple to operate.

The downside is that they require a lot of mass for fuel.


ION DRIVES. The Ion Drive can also be used for interstellar travel. In general, the amount of time it takes to get from one system to another with constant acceleration at >0.5G is the distance in light years plus one. So, to travel two parcsecs (about 6 LY) takes about 7 years with an ion drive. Mass consumption is significant at these distances and should probably be checked for each parsec of travel.

Over long journeys, relativistic effects can occur; for example, it traveling 3 LY (1 parsec), people on the planets age 5 years but those on the ship age only 4. if traveling 6 LY (2 parsecs), planet dwellers age 13 years and those on the ship experience only 13. The bottom line is that I don't expect PCs to travel this way most of the time, so it isn't a factor other than to understand abstractly; there may be "gypsies" that travel from system to system with ion drives at velocities which are high percentages of C that essentially accept that everything they once knew on a planet will be left behind.

SLEEPER SHIPS. Cryogenic technology allows passengers to be put into suspended animation. This allows a ship to burn up to a significant fraction of C (say, 0.05 to 0.1) but only twice (to accelerate then decelerate). Travel in this method takes decades or centuries to go even a few parsecs. The PCs might occasionally come across an old sleeper ship. Under very rare circumstances they might be forced to travel this way due to limited technology or funds. Travel in this manner might be a good way to basically start a new campaign.


There are three FTL technologies available for interstellar travel. Any or all of these may be unavailable in any given campaign. In particular, jump drives and warp drives work in a very similar manner and could easily be combined, i.e., there could be man-made wormholes. These technologies are useful within a globular cluster of systems or a spiral arm, about 20-30 parsecs in diameter.

JUMP DRIVES. Special jump drives allow travel between systems by exploiting "temporary" wormholes. The wormholes link nearby systems forming "space lanes." While temporary in astronomical terms, they generally remain stable for long durations in human terms. This allows the GM to add or remove space lanes occasionally. The wormhole is great because it allows travel that might normally be measured in parsecs to be completed in days. The downside is that both ends must be charted in order to safely jump. Additionally, these routes are predictable, which means that pirates and others often prey on them. Finally, the jump points are not always conveniently located.

More powerful jump drives allow longer jumps to occur, on the order of 1-9 parsecs. Regardless of the length of the jump, travel time is always the same (around a week). Ships in the wormhole cannot generally interact with anything outside the wormhole, and interactions within wormholes are very rare and unpredictable.

WARP DRIVE. This is based on the Alcubierre Drive. It works just like a wormhole except that the infrastructure to travel is man-made, not reliant on natural phenomena. Ships in warp drive cannot interact with the outside universe outside their warp bubbles.

HYPER DRIVES. Hyper drives allow a ship to "sidestep" into an alternative dimension (hyperspace) where travel at FTL speeds is possible. The advantage of hyperdrives is that unlike Jump or Warp drives, one can travel anywhere independently of Wormhole entrances or Warp Drive infrastructure. With a hyperdrive, it takes a number of days to travel somewhere equal to the number of lightyears + 1 (thus to go two parsecs takes a week). Hyper drive is popular with scouts and explorers (as well as pirates, recluses, or others who want to travel to obscure backwaters or avoid chokepoints and checkpoints). There are several downsides to hyperdrives:
  • Expense.
  • Fuel consumption; the vessel is constantly accelerating within the hyperspace bubble, requiring fuel expenditure.
  • Limited mass. There should be a non-linear energy cost to bring objects into hyperspace, preventing it from being useful for mass commerce.
  • Need for precise calculations. There is a significant chance, especially over longer jumps, that the ship will not end up exactly where intended. This effectively caps safe travel ranges at 1-9 parsecs per jump. The ship will likely need to drop out of hyperspace for navigational fixes on a regular basis.
  • Gravity Well sensitivity: Hyper Drives cannot be safely used close to stars or other major gravity wells. While some systems have Warp infrastructure or Wormholes at more convenient locations, a hyper-drive equipped vessel always needs to navigate to the outer edges of a system in order to safely jump. Of course, under extreme circumstances, a hyper jump can occur (for example, to escape), with unpredictable results...
  • Time. Hyperdrives can be faster for short trips of 1-2 parsecs, but anything longer is faster to do with a Jump or Warp drive.

The three technologies above are ideal for travelling distances of 1-9 parsecs at a go. They are good for traveling within one spiral arm or globular cluster of a galaxy. Travel across a galaxy requires movement rates in Kiloparsecs. Some obscure, rare, and expensive technology might allow such travel. As an example, the milky way is 30 kpc in diameter.

This technology should be rare and expensive with perhaps limited usage or requiring highly specialized ships. Alternatively, very rare natural phenomena such as the Deep Space Nine wormhole might allow such travel.


Travel between galaxies is exceedingly rare. Intergalactic travel should be a one-time event leading to dramatic changes in the campaign. Intergalactic travel is measured in megaparsecs. For example, the nearest other galaxy to the Milky Way, the Andromeda Galaxy, is 0.77 mega parsecs (770 kpc).


There are not many sentient alien life forms. The explored systems are decidedly humanocentric. As humanity has spread out, some humans have adapted to different local conditions, such as high or low gravity, but they are still decidedly homo sapiens. The exact reason for this is unknown.


The game occurs in a different "neighborhood" of the galaxy than Earth. Maybe it is a different spiral arm or globular cluster. In any event, due to the travel limitations described above, each globular cluster is fairly isolated with limited travel between them.

Alternatively, Earth has been destroyed by some cataclysmic disaster.

In any event, the theme should either be one of a fallen empire or of an isolated backwater sector.


Moore's Law states that computing power doubles every 18 months. Starting in the early 21st century, computing technology rapidly leveled off as in an S-curve. While it has advanced since that time, computing power is not exceedingly greater.

Additionally, there are strong taboos against various forms of artificial intelligence, especially AI for controlling weapons or other potentially lethal systems as well as any sort of interstellar FTL travel. Perhaps there is a history of Earth being destroyed by rogue Unmanned Systems. There is a chance that AI used for FTL travel pilotage will for some reason malfunction with potentially disastrous consequences.


There are a few ways to get stuff from the surface of a planet into orbit. They are limited. Generally, player spacecraft are not great at operating freely in an atmosphere or strong gravity well. The purpose of this is to keep the focus of action in space, not on planets. Travel to planetary surfaces should be the exception, not the rule.
  • Space Elevators: Very developed planets that regularly move large masses to orbit may have a space elevator established. This allows the PCs to pick up and drop off cargos from orbit.
  • Mass Drivers: Lower gravity planets may have large mass drivers to launch objects violently into orbit. While not good for fragile cargos, this method is highly efficient for bulk materials. A mass driver might even be able to place cargo into a Hohmann Transfer orbit.
  • Space Stations: Many planets may establish space stations as way points. For example, if traveling from a planet to its moon, it would make sense to have a station in Earth Orbit and another in Lunar orbit. Shuttles to and from the earth are designed to operate in atmosphere; those between the stations can be designed for pure vacuum operations; the final link to the lunar surface can be designed for lunar landing. If regular commerce occurs it is more viable to have a station, even a small one, and specialized rockets than to try and build a multipurpose space vehicle. Heck, even Earth today has a small manned station in low orbit.
  • Occasional orbital shuttles: The least populous and most backwards planets may just run an occasional shuttle to orbit. Cargoes might be launched with single-use rockets as needed.

In general, there are no faster than light communications. Interstellar FTL comms are limited to mail runs on FTL-drive equipped ships. Due to the prohibition on AI FTL drive operation, generally mail runs are carried on manned ships. This means that systems are relatively isolated from one another, making decisive local action important, and gives the PCs something important to do (carry mail and act as couriers). It also limits the scope/size of any sort of interstellar authority and forces decentralization.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010


I just had a lecture on human G-limits and some training. I'm not an aviator but I have flown in some high performance aircraft and pulled significant Gs. It isn't easy, and equipment/training helps.

Here's some rules of thumb for sustained Gs:

1-3 Gs: Generally no problem for people in average health
4-6 Gs: Gray out occurs. Untrained personnel or unprepared people can black out or suffer G-LOC.
7-9 Gs: Without G-training and equipment, blackout or G-LOC is likely. Even trained people will find this challenging.
10+ Gs: Generally leads to G-LOC

Partial G Suit: +1.5G
Full G Suit: Add +2.5G
Anti-G Straining: Add +3G
Adjusting seat tilt from 30 degrees to 65 degrees: +2G

Negative G is much harder to deal with; humans can handle about 1/2 that G-Load.

What this means for a Game?

As previously discussed, acceleration is the key thing for a space game that should determine scales, not velocity. Let's assume a system where 3 Gs = 1 square of movement, 6 is 2 squares, and so on. If you are accelerating at less than 3 Gs (say, a gentle 1G push) then you have a 2/6 chance of accelerating one square. A super-gentle 1/2 G push would be but a 1/6 chance.

If you assume a one minute turn, then 3G acceleration gets your velocity increased by about 1800 meters. Round it off to two clicks to make the math easy, or down to 1 click and use ~30 second turns instead of one minute turns.

With this sort of system, you'd be able to make a light burn to add 1 hex to your velocity, a moderate burn to add 2 hexes, and a strong burn to add 3. We could postulate some sort of enhancements to human physiology/g-suit technology that might make burns of10-12 G's possible that would allow adding 4 hexes to your velocity.

Alternatively, you can use an alternate G-scale (perhaps going in units of four or six instead of three). This would allow much higher velocities to be rapidly attained, and basically assume that a combination of properly reclined seats, improved G-suits, and perhaps sci-fi tech is in play to allow those greater accelerations. This would basically require hexes of 3 or 4 KM in size rather than 2 KM.

Modeling G-LOC

You could say that 1-3 Gs is no problem. Once you hit 4Gs, then you need to start making some sort of check or take damage. Bonuses to the check could be obtained from a hardy constitution/good health and high-G training (G-straining maneuvers). Moreover, appropriate equipment could give bonuses to the G's you can handle without trouble. For example, maybe having a G-Suit gives you another +3Gs of tolerance and having an acceleration couch designed for high G gives you another +3G. That would let a pilot of an optimized high-G spacecraft to pull up to 9Gs (3 hexes) without making a single check.

The G-LOC "damage" track might have three hits, or combined with some sort of "stunning" damage:
  • First Strike: Greyout. Minor impairment.
  • Second Strike: Blackout. Vision severely impaired. Other functions severely impaired.
  • Third Strike: G-LOC. You're out.
You could require folks to make one save for each category of acceleration they're exceeding their safe threshold by. So, say you are just an average Joe in a Space Civic. You have no G-protection devices. Your safe max G is 3. You initiate a maneuver that pumps you up to 9 Gs. You're going to go from just fine to "blackout" if you fail your tolerance checks. So, an experienced high-G pilot who knows how to G-strain and is in good shape might be able to take it, but the average Joe is going to be mighty close to passing out. Heck, even that simulation is pretty generous I think because most folks would actually pass out if rapidly accelerated to 9G with no protection.

Character Builder is Dead... Long live Character Builder!

I've got a DDI subscription which I got for a web based campaign that is stuttering off the runway. One of the tools I appreciated most is the Character Builder application. For those who are unfamiliar, it is a standalone little program WOTC put together which lets you easily and quickly build PCs. It actually works pretty well and is basically the only way short of reviewing the 4E Char Op boards to build a character in 4E. It honestly makes buying splat books irrelevant, which is nice.

Of course, I'm sure I'm not the only one that realized that you could get a short subscription, download Char Builder, and then cancel your DDI subscription. Every few months you could get a new subscription to download new updates. WOTC tried to crush this by limiting updates to a handful per month (so you can't spam it to a bunch of computers) and by scaling their pricing scheme to reward you for longer quarterly or annual subscriptions.

However, WOTC has announced an "upgrade," in that the old standalone character builder will now be dead. Instead, you get an internet based application. There are some actual improvements. However, I have mixed feelings about getting rid of the standalone application. I liked the utility of being able to build a character anywhere: on an airplane, while deployed, or just generally away from the internet. Now, you can only use DDI when there is internet handy. I suppose as wifi becomes more and more prevalent this is less of an issue but still, I don't love it.

From the business side, they now lock you into a continious subscription as you have no standalone option anymore. You can't pay for a one-month subscription to get the jewel in DDI's crown. You need to pay for an annual subscription to keep access to your character sheet.

I'm also concerned that they will freak out on me for sharing an account with Mrs. Nittany. If I'm traveling for work and log on from some random place and she logs on at home, will WOTC get upset at us? Who knows!

Anyways, we'll see. I'm not sure I love this new release. I think that WOTC should consider two tier pricing: a DM price that gives access to all content and a player price that just gives you the Compendium and Character Builder. I don't know if I'm willing to pay $60/year to play 4E D&D.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Space RPGS: Flight Models II

In my previous post I wrote about some considerations for spaceflight models, and identified the key variable as acceleration rather than velocity. I did some more thinking and research and came up with a few implementable options. Adding vectors is fun!

  • Ignore Momentum. I don't like this as it is totally unrealistic and makes a space RPG feel like any other wargame or token-based RPG.
  • Abstract Movement. You could go with a early CRPG style representation: one side lines up on the left side of the board, the other on the right, and they fight in a very abstract manner. You could have rules for maneuvering which could help for dodging attacks, or maybe range categories ("Close, Far, Disengaged...").
  • Track Each Vector's Values: You can track the speed associated with each vector for each token. For example, you could represent something's velocity as follows: "North 2, East 1, West 0, South 0." If the vehicle accelerated to the North 2 and West 1, then you'd modify the numbers to 3/0/0/0. Each turn the vessel moves in the appropriate number of squares. This works great for a small number of tokens. However, if you have multiple tokens it gets troublesome to keep track of as you basically need a separate worksheet for each vessel. Additionally, I think it is necessary to go for at least a hex based system to smooth things out. However, it is probably the easiest way to deal with 3-D movement. It is also easier to deal with higher speeds as you can just subtract X from everyone's speed in a certain direction without changing any of the relative velocities.
  • Use Two Tokens for Each Vessel: You can also use two tokens to represent velocity. In my previous example, you'd have one token representing where the ship is and a second representing where it is going, two squares to the North and one to the West. After acceleration, you'd move the second token one space to the East and one space to the North. Before moving the ship, drop a third token 3 squares to the north of the second one. The advantage of this system is that you can keep track of larger numbers of vessels with relatively little difficulty. The trouble is that you need multiple tokens/minis to run it all and as velocities get larger there is a greater chance for error to occur.
  • Trigonometry: You could use trigonometric functions to add vectors. I think this would likely require a table of look up values. It would allow you to play without minis, however.