Monday, June 30, 2014

The Future of Superheroes

Most superheroes (and superhero rpgs) are set in the modern day. There's no reason superheroes have to be limited to that era, of course. At least as early as 1955, we got a glimpse of Brane Taylor, the Batman of the year 3000. Just a few years later, the preeminent group of future heroes made their debut: The Legion of Super-Heroes. These guys were big enough to get supplements of both editions of the Mayfair DC Heroes rpg: Legion of Super-Heroes vol. I and II and 2995: The Legion of Super-Heroes Sourcebook.

Marvel's answer to the Legion was the Guardians of the Galaxy. These guys were not the super-group of b-list characters about to get a movie; this was a group of freedom fighters against Badoon tyranny in the 31st century. They were (originally) mostly from the Sol System, leaving one to wonder how they were going to guard the whole galaxy. They got a series in the 90s, but then their name was given to another group. No rpg supplement for any Marvel game.

There are a number of future heroes in dystopian futures--enough that I think they are really a separate subgenre. Most of these are at Marvel and the lion's share are alternate timelines from the X-Men. Marvel did have a whole 2099 line that was slightly less dystopian than most X-Men futures.

A more science fictionish approach to the future supers is Image's Prophet. The story isn't particularly superheroic so far so maybe a superhero rpg wouldn't be the best system for it, but it is completely tied to the modern day Extreme comics universe and does feature future versions of Prophet, Diehard, Troll, and Bedrock.

Anyway, there's a lot of inspiration to be had in the above works, I think.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

What's that Aurogov Talking About?

Well, he may be filling that Wanderer avatar in on the fact that the Strange Stars Index has been updated. So, if you missed the posts about the amazon hive of the Sisterhood of Morrgna, some odd artifacts of the Strange Stars, the Radiant Polity, the ngghrya trackers, or the hwuru, you might want to check it out.

You can also find out about Wanderer remote avatars and Aurogov there, too.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Hall of Fame

Thanks to Jay at Exonauts! for pointing this out: Leigh Brackett got inducted into the Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame this year, along with the Frank Frazetta, Olaf Stapledon, Stanley Kubrick, and Hayao Miyazaki. Stellar company, indeed!

Thursday, June 26, 2014

In the Light

Art by Nico
The Radiant Polity directly ruled only a few worlds or habitats, but it claimed ultimate guardianship over the future of the entire human-descended tribe. Membership in the polity was ostensibly voluntary, yet each of its lords wielded absolute power, checked only by other lords. Their mantra was: "We civilize; we do not govern. We end war; we do not wage it. We guard; we do not control. Our thoughts look always to the future."

The civil servants of the Polity were it's most common face. Many were volunteers; others were drafted. They administered the noospheric fora (where members could petition the lords) and the Polity controlled hyperspace network, collected tolls, and handed out encryption keys for it's use to members. Through these measures the Polity effectively controlled interstellar trade and exerted soft power to shape planetary governments.

Not all it's power was soft. Polity membership made a sophont or a world subject to the justice of the Radiant Lords--justice meaning anything the lord in question felt would further the needs of the Polity and by extension humanity. They had a strict code and seldom acted rashly, as actions determined to be in error by review of their fellow lords carried harsh penalties, but they wielded great power and acted decisively--even brutally--when necessary. The lords all appeared baseline human, but their nervous systems were linked to their swift sophont ships, their brains modified with psybernetics (1), and their bodies enhanced. Each acted as a combination law enforcer, spy, advisor, and diplomat. When real war was needed, lords' code required they withdraw, and Hannibal Early was summoned.

In an effort to keep the peace, the Polity prohibited the export of irrational memeplexes such as religion between cultures. It was this prohibition that brought it into the conflict with the emerging Instrumentality of Aom and ultimately led to it's dissolution.

(1) It's believed that the psi-research NGO the Phaidros Group was involved with the Polity inception. If so, they abandoned it before it's final fall to begin their colony on Smaragdoz.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Wednesday Comics: What's Next?

Last week was the concluding chapter of Starlin's Metamorphosis Odyssey. A natural choice for my next comic to get into would be the Dreadstar graphic novel, but I thought I'd ask you guys.

Should I go on to that or to a different series? Something more purely fantasy or a more recent series?

Monday, June 23, 2014

The Sisters of War

The Sisterhood of Morrgna is a humanoid clade living on the border of the Zuran Expanse and the territory of the Alliance. The dark ages after the fall of the Radiant Polity fashioned their society into a machine for war and made its members famous throughout known space.

Appearance & Biology: As the name would imply, the entire Sisterhood is female (though excessive male hormones have led to some being androgenized). They are genetically derived from baseline humanity; all Sisters are cloned from less than a hundred genotypes, but they are further modified for certain caste functions. Most appear as roughly baseline humans, but their are hypertrophic muscled shock-troops, vacuum-adapted space-sisters, and ambigenitaled comfort sisters.

The most heavily modified Sisters are perhaps the queens (or "mothers"): macrocephalic beings, whose vast brains allow them to monitor every aspect of hive function.

Society: Only one Morrgna hive exists currently, a moon-sized artificial habitat with a single queen, but in previous times the Sisterhood was more expansionistic and sent out war wombs to generate hives on numerous worlds. Most of these were destroyed in conflict with other cultures; some fell to inter-clade strife.

Stats: The Morrgna Sisters have the same stats as baseline humans, though based on caste, their actual stats may vary wildly.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Free RPG Day is Over, but...

...There's still some free and low-dough cool stuff to be had. "Like what?" you ask. Well, there's Clatterdelve, a free old school mini-adventure from your friends at Hereticwerks. While you're there, check out the other free stuff in the widget on the right hand side.

When your done there, stroll over to Tim Shorts's Gothridge Manor Patreon page and pledge what you like to support his series of mini-adventures. If you don't already know Tim's work from The Manor 'zine, you should probably check that out, too.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Strange Stars Covered

Over the past few of months, I've teased with art from the upcoming Strange Stars Setting Book, which is going to be a full-color, fairly art heavy (for an indie product, certainly), systemless intro to the setting that I've been chronicling on the blog. It's companion, the system book, I may have only mentioned once. I've said it is planned to be art-free and "just the data"--but that doesn't stop it from having a cool cover. Or two:

The book is envisioned as flipbook style, like the old Ace Double novels. Lester B. Portly and I thought it would be cool to have both covers be homages (and it allowed us to use the same gorgeous cover illustration by Eric Quigley in two cool ways). On the left is the cover for the Stars Without Number compatible side and the right is the Fate Compatible side (written by that FATE SF guru John Till). Both books will feature pretty much the same stuff: the game translation of most of the species, factions, and places presented in the setting book.

Stay tuned for further updates. We're hopping to get both books to you in early Fall.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Hwuru Revue

Art by Waclaw Wysocki
Appearance & Biology: Hwuru are bipedal sophonts hailing from the Coreward Reach that bear some physical resemblance to Terran apes and sloths. They are shorter than humans but powerfully built with arms longer than their legs, and digits with claw-like structures (actually bony projections covered with horn) on their dorsal surface. They're covered with shaggy fur except on the anterior surface of their torsos, which are covered with leathery plates.

The hwuru evolved from arboreal insectivores. They have small, beak-like snouts (like the Terran echidna) and extendable tongues to aid in snatching up arthopods or their larvae in hard to reach places. Hwuru can’t swallow anything very large and must have bulkier foodstuffs made into a mash before they can consume it. Most hwuru have a mild dependence on chaoofsh a chemical attractant released by the trees native to their world. When off-world, they tend to wear a breathing apparatus to deliver this chemical.

Culture: On their native world, no hwuru have advanced beyond the Iron Age, and most live in tribal societies that use stone tools. Interaction with starfaring civilizations has afforded hwuru the chance to leave their planet, and they are sometimes found among the stars where their physical traits make them useful as hired muscle.

Stats: hwuru have a minimum strength of 12. There are no known psychics among them. Their bone claws do 1d4 damage. They all natively possess a background skill at climbing, for which they get a +1 due to their claws.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Wednesday Comics: Aftermath

Here's the final installment of Jim Starlin's Metamorphosis Odyssey. The earlier posts in the series can be found here.

"Aftermath (Metamorphosis Odyssey Chapter XIV)"
Epic Illustrated #9 (December 1981) Story & Art by James Starlin

Synopsis: Vanth awakens in a forest, surprised to find that he and Aknaton are alive. Aknaton explains he wrapped them in a mystic bubble that protected them and put them in suspended animation. His astral ego guided them to this world because he sensed Vanth's destiny lay here.

Vanth asks about the others. Aknaton explains that they still live, transformed into beings of pure energy. They are now gods; the Milky Way was sacrificed so that they might live.

It's all gone, and Vanth and Aknaton are in a different galaxy:

Vanth turns angrily on Aknaton. It's all gone--everyone--and they killed them. Aknaton prefers to think of it as sparing them from the Zygoteans. Vanth notes than Aknaton didn't hang around to see his handy work.

Aknaton replies that he had the power to save himself, so he did. He saved Vanth, too, because Vanth's work was not yet finished. His talents are needed:

Vanth doesn't like that:

Aknaton thanks him. He wanted Vanth to kill him. As he dies, he charges Vanth with a task. The people of this galaxy are at a moral crossroads: The can change their worlds into a paradise or spawn a new race of Zygoteans. Vanth must lead them down the right road. If he can't, the Infinity Horn still exists, and he knows where to find it. Vanth must be this galaxy's savior--or its destroyer.

Aknaton dies and Vanth is alone.

Things to Notice:
  • Vanth guns Aknaton down rather than using his sword, which would have had greater irony.
  • The stage is set for Dreadstar here, but with a backstory Dreadstar never really puts to full use.
So in the end, Vanth's story largely recapitulates Aknaton's. He's the last of his "people" (in this case, the entirety of the Milky Way), charged with doing something horrible if he can't set a wrong right. In a sense, his execution of Aknaton passes the burden along.

Starlin has said that Metamorphosis Odyssey was in a sense a meditation on the Vietnam War. All the characters have their own reasons for following Aknaton, the mad architect of the war (with a nose like a caricature of Richard Nixon). I think this on one hand sells the work short, while simultaneously attempting to give its fuzzy allegorical narrative an unearned resonance. It doesn't account for the role grief might play in Aknaton's actions or allow for the consideration he might have made the right choice. Also, it perhaps absolves the others of a bit of responsibility (as the story seems to, honestly) by implying they are dupes rather than the largely willing participants we see them to be.

Looking at it through the lens of Vietnam, what are we to make of the ending? Is it okay to wage a war of annihilation if it's in the name of moral correction? Who gives Vanth the right to make that sort of choice--other than Aknaton whose hands are dirty and whose judgement we must question?

Monday, June 16, 2014

Secret City

An email from a friend yesterday on everybody's favorite holiday destination of Zheleznorgorsk (it's flag is pictured above), reminded me that secret cities aren't just for hidden cultures in comic books.

Zheleznorgorsk used to be called Krasnoyarsk-26 (like all Soviet secret cities, it was designated by a post office box). This town made produced weapons-grade plutonium. All the Soviet "closed cities" were doing secret military (mostly nuclear) or space stuff. The cities didn't appear on maps and could only be accessed by special permit.

This sort of thing just didn't go on in the USSR; Oak Ridge TN was similar deal in the U.S. during the days of the Manhattan Project.

The gaming value of a secret society out to be obvious. Beyond the spy/espionage genre, what better place for a zombie outbreak to start or a legion of Soviet Man-Apes to be based? Of course, if none of that is fantastic enough for your setting, Brigadoon (or Gemelshausen)--or it's gore-splattered redneck counterpart--is just another sort of secret city

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Thinking About Rifts

Blame Blizack over at Dungeonskull Mountain. His posts about Rifts have got me thinking about how I would tweak the setting for a game. It's likely this madness will pass, but here are some of the things I've thought about:

Rifts and Zones
The areas of rifts in the fabric of reality shouldn't be just gateways to other dimensions or sources of magical energy. They ought to be really strange and dangerous; A lot like the zones in Roadside Picnic. The rifts would be alluring, though, as sources of high technology to reverse-engineered. A lot of advanced tech might have been acquired this way. There would also probably be a cargo cult element to many human societies.

Rifts was published in 1990 and in its DNA is material from 70s and 80s post-apocalyptic films and comics, 80s anime and manga, and the general genre zeitgeist of the age. It wouldn't change a lot, I guess, but it might be fun to assume an alternate history where our world of smartphones and mp3s never existed. It was the future of Neuromancer and Ghost in the Shell that led to the world of Rifts. And that future looks like the Logan's Run TV series and the Kamandi comic filtered through the tech and style of Akira, Appleseed and Walter Jon William's Hardwired.

Comic book
The kitchen sink-ness of Rifts and it's big action have a real comic book sensibility. Not in the sense of superheroes (not as traditionally considered) but in the way that every character is distinctive and has their own look and schtick--and maybe even G.I. Joe style codenames. No PC should be "just a merc"--or even "just a vagabond."

Friday, June 13, 2014

Inner Spaces

You can never have enough cross section maps. Here are a couple from Marvel's Micronauts:

The starship Endeavor:

And the robotic Bioship:

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Artifacts Amid the Strange Stars

Items rare and valuable--if they even exist:

gravid war womb: A central relic of the Sisterhood of Morrgna, these living nano-assembler/bio-computers are able to birth an entire Sisterhood hive, given enough substrate material and time. Though descriptions are likely unreliable, they are said to be spheroids of organic composition with a surface divided in hexagonal and pentagonal areas about 38 cm in diameter. No war womb has been deployed since the time of darkness following the Great Collapse, though barren husks have been found over the centuries.

Mnemosyne leaf: Certainly large leaves of the great choral trees of Dodona in the Coreward Reach are rich in their neurochemical memory, which includes thoughts gleaned from the minds of sophont visitors to Dodona then shared through the trees' songs. Ingesting a properly prepared leaf will allow a psi-sensitive individual to search and experience the tree's memory store. The leaves can also be prepared in a way that allows them to be smoked. The memories can be experienced this way by non-psis, but the visions are more haphazard and uncontrollable.

strangelet bullet: Despite it's name, this legendary planet-killer weapon is actually the payload for a missile warhead. Freed from their containment on impact, the strangelets will convert any ordinary matter it impacts into strange matter.

zurr mask: The appearance of the ancient and engimatic zurr is only known from their iconography, where they are always depicted in nonrepresentational masks. Items purported to be zurr masks or fragments of them show up in auctions or museums from time to time, but these to date are of disputed authenticity or definite forgeries. These archaeological treasures have a lurid reputation in the public imagination due to memes derived from popular horror sims over the last few of centuries. The stories say that each mask is actually the soul of the zurr who wore it.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Wednesday Comics: Doomsday!

Here's the next installment of  Jim Starlin's Metamorphosis Odyssey. The earlier posts in the series can be found here.

"Doomsday! (Metamorphosis Odyssey Chapter XIII)"
Epic Illustrated #9 (December 1981) Story & Art by James Starlin

Synopsis: Vanth and Aknaton are close to being overwhelmed by the onslaught of the Zygotean mercenaries. The Zygotean forces fight so fiercely because they know what is going to happen and they're trying to save their own lives.

Things look grim for our protagonists. Aknaton gets his forearm shot off. Still, they fight on, but the Zygotean mercs begin to flank them. Why don't the others blow the horn? They can't. Not until the forces are properly aligned. Soon now.

Within the skull building, the three approach the strange horn. As they take their places, Juliet asks if it's going to hurt. Za believes it probably will; change always does.

They blow into the three mouthpieces on the weird device. A force from a higher plane breaks into their lesser reality. Aknaton pulls Vanth to his side, and then, it all explodes:

The Milky Way touches the infinite and is destroyed. Only five beings survive. Three (Juliet, Za, and Whis'par) are beings of a new form, of pure energy. They linger for a moment in shock at their own birth, then they are off to begin a new world. The other two are Vanth and Aknaton.

They drift through space and time in a bubble of energy. They land on a planet named Caldor, 500,000 light-years from the Dark Sector--what was (a million years ago) the Milky Way.

Things to Notice:
  • Aknaton suggested before that he would die with the Milky Way. That does not appear to have happened.
  • Vanth's future is known to us thanks to the follow-up series Dreadstar, but we don't know what becomes of the transformed Za, Juliet, or Whis'par.
After all the chapters of build-up, Aknaton's grand plan goes off so easily, it almost seems a bit disappointing. Of course, Starlin's tale was perhaps never one about blowing up the galaxy but about how one decides and then convinces others to blow up the galaxy.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Hello, Hyehoon

Still recovering from the NTRPGCON, but hey: Why do you guys enjoy another cool piece of David Lewis Johnson Strange Stars art?

This is a hyehoon, an avioid humanoid species you may remember from this post. Or not.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

NTRPGCON After Report

The curtain falls on NTRPGCON today and it's all airports and getting ready for the work week. Though it lacks the scale, I think I enjoyed this convention better than my trip to GenCon a couple of years ago. Part of that was getting to meet (and consume alcohol with) blogger/Google+ compatriots like Chris Kutalik, Robert Parker, James Aulds, and Brad Ncube, and renew my acquaintance with Justin Davis. I also found that I am not wholly immune to the thrill of getting to meet the celebrity of luminaries of gaming history: it was a kick to listen to Jim Ward spin tales of the TSR of yore, and to hear Chris Holmes reminiscences about his father's gaming and writing.

Of course the gaming was great, too. I played in Tim Snider's SyFy channel creature feature-esque Cryptworld session, and got to try Jeff Dee's Bethorm (my first actual Tekumel game, despite years of loving the setting) with the author himself gm-ing.

All in all, it was a good reminder that G+ Hangout games are great, but there is something to be said about being present in the same

Friday, June 6, 2014

Gone to Texas

Not actually a hill giant, but Robert Parker
As Wikipedia will helpful tell you: "Gone to Texas (often abbreviated GTT), was a phrase used by Americans immigrating to Texas in the 19th century often to escape debt incurred during the Panic of 1819. Moving to Texas, which at the time was part of Mexico, was particularly popular among debtors from the South and West."

In this case, however, I'm just at the NTRPGCON with the likes of Justin "A Field Guide to Doomsday" Davis, Robert "Rogues and Reavers" Parker, Chris "The Hill Cantons" Kutalik and a bunch of other ne'er-do-wells.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Say What?

Art by David Lewis Johnson
While I've tried the render the names of the various species and cultures in the Strange Stars in the closest to a phonetic pronunciation in English as possible, while still being (relatively) elegant on the page. This still usually means a good deal of ambiguity.

To try to alleviate that, here's a pronunciation guide with the best IPA approximation and a plain language description:

djägga [d͡ʒɛɡɑ]: JEH-gah.
Dzrrn [d͡zr̩:n]: dz (as in adds) uhrn.
hyehoon [hjɛhu:n]: HYEH-hoon.
ksaa [ksɑ:]: ks (as in axe) ah.
kuznuh [kəznə]: KUHZ-nuh
ngghrya [ŋ̍ɡ͡ɣɾjɑ]: ng (as in sing)-gh (a sound not in English) ryah.
vokun [vokʊn]: vo-KUN (u as in put).
ssraad [ʂɹɑ:d]: shrahd.
yssgalahl [jiʂɡaɫaɬ]: Just call them "Slavers."
Zyanthian [zjænθiæn]: ZYAN-thee-an.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Wednesday Comics: Dreamsend

Here's the next installment of  Jim Starlin's Metamorphosis Odyssey. The earlier posts in the series can be found here.

"Dreamsend (Metamorphosis Odyssey Chapter XII)"
Epic Illustrated #8 (October 1981) Story & Art by James Starlin

Synopsis: The light cutter arrives at Dreamsend and finds Zygoteans already there. Aknaton and crew fight their way toward the temple built by the ancient (now disappeared) Kalloombrians. There the Infinity Horn is hidden inside.

A stairway opens in the floor at Aknaton's command, spiraling into black infinity. It's actually a multi-dimensional corridor leading to a plane where the Horn will work and also the conduit by which its power will be transmitted back.

On the other end of that corridor is...

With the Zygoteans on their heels, they make their way into the skull. Before them they find:

Juliet says she can't go through with it. She's only 15 and she doesn't want to die. She, Whis'par, and Za will survive to be the future of a new mankind. Vanth and Aknaton will not be a part of this new world. They will hold off the Zygoteans until the Horn is blown.

Aknaton asks Vanth why he didn't come in to see the Horn. Vanth says he realizes he didn't belong there--and neither did Aknaton. They are yesterday's mistakes; the other 3 are hope. Vanth summons his sword. The Zygoteans approach. Aknaton asks Vanth to stay close...

Things to Notice:
  • Vanth is still not completely convinced Aknaton's solution to the Zygotean menace was the only one.
  • Kalloombrians?
If there is a silver lining to Aknaton's plan (other than the obvious extinction of the Zygoteans) its that intelligent life in the Milky Way will live on through the three horn blowers. What that exactly means isn't clear.

Vanth believes (or at least hopes) they violence and killing won't be part of their new world. He doesn't have see the Horn they've come so far to find. Aknaton doesn't really express these same hopes; His revenge against the Zygoteans apparently just ends in his death, joining his extinct people at last,

Monday, June 2, 2014

The Gods Themselves

I've being thinking on the idea that all deities in fiction can be defined by two axes: Mythological-Literal and Transcendent-Physical. Mythological gods have origins and interactions that don't make sense in a literal sense; Think gods born from salt licks or jumping from their fathers' skulls. On the other end of the scale are literal beings whose origins are at least logical and generally pretty much biologically or technologically similar to other classes of lifeforms. Transcendent beings are bound by the usual limitations of single body, mind, and/or perspective, while physical beings certainly are.

The gods from the Greek or Norse mythology are typically mythological, but either physical or transcendent. (They tend to be physical seeming in the texts of the myths, but seem somewhat transcendent in terms their actual historical worship.) 

The Asgardians of Marvel Comics or Apollo of the Star Trek episode "Who Mourns for Adonis?" are mostly literal and mostly physical in portrayal. The Asgardians of the movie Thor and its sequel are entirely literal and physical.

AI masquerading as gods? Literal, transcendent or physical. 
The Endless from Sandman? Straddling the literal-mythologic border, transcendent. 
Kirby's New Gods? Slightly mythological, physical.

So there it is. There may be other factors I haven't thought of.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

A Place Called Darksun

Still thinking a bit about Dark Sun as a Western.  Here's the set of inspirations I would probably throw into that (which would work well for any relatively post-apocalyptic science fantasy Western):

The Gunslinger by Stephen King (less so the other Dark Tower books, though they're good too).
The Half-Made World and The Rise of Ransom City by Felix Gilman.
The Eric John Stark novels/novellas by Leigh Brackett.

Madame Tarantula

El Topo
The Road Warrior