Goodbye, Ubaid

Ubaid a few weeks ago, helping me work

Fall is a rough time for cats in our household, making it hard to be properly thankful on Thanksgiving: Benjamin Black died on October 30, 2010; Eurekatous on November 8, 2011; Phantom on October 27, 2018. And now we had to say goodbye to Ubaid on Monday November 23, 2020, ten years almost to the day since he came to live with us.

Ubaid was born in California’s northernmost county, Del Norte, in 2003. He was found abandoned in Klamath after the December 2005 flood of the Klamath River forced the evacuation of the Redwood RV Park, along with many other cats and dogs left behind. Later that winter he was caught in an operation to spay and neuter feral animals, where he was marked by clipping the tip of his right ear (standard procedure to avoid recapturing an animal already neutered or spayed.)

There were no animal shelters in this poor rural county but a sweet local woman went in and spent weeks catching as many orphaned pets as she could, bringing them back to her ranch, and finding their owners or putting them up for adoption. Ubaid lived there until we saw his photo and read his story nearly five years later. The fact that he also had a bit of an old injury to his lower back, and his beautiful black fur, had made him hard to find a home for. We’re grateful he waited for us that long.

He arrived just before Thanksgiving 2010. We got him as a companion for Valentine after Benjamin died and Val was clearly lonely. The two became fast friends and until a couple of months ago when Ubaid got too sick, they played and slept together. I referred to them as the Taiji Two because they so often looked like a yin-yang symbol.

His fur was velvety soft. In fact, when he came to live with us he was called “Fuzzy” but we felt it didn’t fit him. Instead we renamed him for a character in one of Edmund’s games, Ubaid (the name means “faithful”) who was apparently the abandoned familiar of a sorcerer but claimed to really be an ancient god, diminished in the God Wars. That fit our new friend to a T!

He loved belly rubs, sleeping on the bed, standing above us and looking down, and hanging out with us. He loved to play with cat toys but you could tell he had been feral and had had to survive on his own: he hunted to kill, not to play with the prey. He would jump on that toy, wham! and hold it for keeps.

Back in early fall of 2017, he started being sick and was diagnosed with a thyroid condition. It was managed with medication, but that was the beginning of his decline. In early 2018 he also developed a cyst on his chest that started filling with fluid and choking him; the vet drained it but it kept refilling. It was too close to Ubaid’s jugular to safely operate so all we could do was keep having it drained. For a while, we had weekly visits and we really though it was the end. But gradually the cyst stopped filling.

Throughout all the health scares, Ubaid would rally and fiercely hold on to life. But this year, he started losing weight and even though we fed him anything he wanted whenever he wanted it, he kept wasting away. We kept an eye on him; as long as he was happy an engaging with the world around him, as long as his quality of life was good, we would do everything we could to keep him.

But on Monday morning it was different. His back legs could no longer support him but he still insisted on trying to jump up and down between the floor and his favourite chair. He couldn’t fully stand up, he was just skin and bones and we had been unable to stop the weight loss. He wasn’t going to get his strength back. We called our vet and were fortunate enough to get an appointment that same day. He fell to sleep for the last time as we were petting him.

We miss him so much.

Harlem Hunters

I was too tired to run the finale of City of Mist: Dead of Night yesterday so instead we created our group of hunters for Harlem Unbound: Monster of the Week Edition.

We had an extensive brainstorming session for our group concept, and settled on a small periodical/alternate weekly newspaper. The name of this paper have not been finalized yet but we had great suggestions to pick from. Our team of Hunters are not the owners but they are the heart and soul of the newspaper.

Blanchard

Using the Expert playbook, Blanchard is an aspiring playwright and novelist. He started his career as a black vaudeville actor on the Chitlin’ Circuit, where he was involved in a play derived from a heavily redacted version of The King in Yellow. This changed him in subtle ways, and he found himself driven to uncover the truth behind the supernatural which he now realizes is everywhere around him. He’s the archivist and a senior writer at the newspaper.

Starting moves:

  • Haven: Lore Library, Mystical Library, Protection Spells
  • I’ve Heard About This Sort of Thing
  • Often Right

Delia Ross

Based on the Spooky playbook, Delia is the up-and-coming society page editor and advice column writer. Her polished appearance hides another facet: she is the grand-daughter and apprentice to a successful if discreet conjure-woman (grandma has not yet been named). She doesn’t yet fully control her powers and as a result, struggles with side effects of occasional hallucinations, lust, and poor impulse control.

Starting moves:

  • The Sight
  • Hunches
  • The Big Whammy

Persephone Fox

Built on the Flake playbook, Persephone is a young conspiracy theorist who happens to be right more often that not. She is also Blanchard’s niece. Although few people take her seriously (aside from the other Hunters), Persephone sees all. and has a finely honed talent for investigation.

Starting moves:

  • Connect the Dots
  • See? It All Fits Together
  • Suspicious Mind

Whales

Based on the Hard Case playbook (2020 version), Whales is the workman of all odd jobs at the newspaper, a job he got thanks to Blanchard; before that he was a dockworker and day laborer. He served in France with the 369th Infantry “Harlem Hellfighters” and came back a changed man, now driven more by willpower than anger. If you need the printing press moved or the delivery truck loaded, Whales is your man.

Starting moves:

  • Hard Knocks: Street Fighter
  • Furnace
  • Unstoppable
  • Ascetic

As part of character creation, we created a relationship map between the Hunters using the ready-made backdrop included in Evil Hat Productions’ Roll20 modules for Monster of the Week.


Photo credits: Nathan Francis Mossell, c. 1882, University of Pennsylvania archives; James Van Der Zee, Strolling, 1925, Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York; unknown; and Laborer (Stevedore Longshoreman, Norfolk, Virginia), from the project The Negro in Virginia, Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Next: Harlem Unbound

My bi-weekly campaign Ariadne’s Spindle, which explores the universe of The Expanse using the Fate system, is going swimmingly. Dead of Night, my weekly series of City of Mist, is reaching the Season 1 finale after about 25 episodes and very satisfying gaming. So here I am, planning another limited series, which will be set in Darker Hue Studios’ Harlem Unbound.

Cover of Harlem Unbound

This award-winning book offers Lovecraftian mythos investigations amidst the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s-30s. I have the original edition, which was statted for both the GUMSHOE (Pelgrane Press) and Call of Cthulhu (Chaosium) systems. A second edition has just been released under the auspices of Chaosium, statted only for CoC but offering four new scenarios; the contents otherwise look substantially the same. I may eventually purchase the PDF version to get these scenarios when I have a bit of spare change; however, neither of these systems floats my boat as GM.

Instead, I decided to use Monster of the Week (Generic Games/Evil Hat Productions), a game Powered by the Apocalypse with which I am very comfortable: I playtested the Revised Edition, I wrote a scenario for the Tome of Mysteries supplement, and along with Sean Nittner and Fred Hicks, I put together the five adventure compilations on Roll20. It’s like taking off my steel-toed boots and getting into my slippers.

Continue reading “Next: Harlem Unbound”

More Roll20 tricks

I had never thought about using the Stylish app (an extension for Firefox, Chrome, etc., see the respective stores) to modify how Roll20 displays. It turns out that people have created many such stylesheets! I’ve just found two that are quite useful to me.

One lets you add rows to the map tab, i.e., the list of pages (maps) wraps instead of extending off to the right of the visible area:

Example of wrapping page list

.

Example of tightened sidebar list

The other creates tighter sidebar lists in the Art Library and Journal tabs:

The important thing to remember is that in all cases, the modifications will only be visible to the person using the stylesheet. So if you pick one of the many pretty themes, you’re the only one benefiting from it unless others in your group also add the Stylish extension and this specific stylesheet.

In some cases a stylesheet can interfere with a particular character sheet or API. In that case, it’s easy to disable the stylesheet in the app controls.

Stylesheet controls in browser

Fate and The Expanse on Roll20: Playmat

I just wanted to share what the playmat looks like right now.

Edit: To answer questions I received, the blank character card was made with the GNU Image Manipulation Program (GIMP) 2.10. The original dimensions are 1000×700 but I place the card at 50% size, 500×350, so it will look good even zoomed in. If you would like to use them, here is an archive with .xcf, .psd, and .png format files. The fonts used are Alenia by shanayastudio and Spotnik demo by Alexatype.

I place copies of the blank card on the Map & Background layer on Roll20. The character info is filled on the Objects & Tokens layer in Contrail font.

The Fate bookmark is available from Evil Hat Productions as a free download. And I discuss the aspect tokens in a how-to post on Evil Hat’s website here.

For more tips, including where I got the idea of the character cards from, see How to Run Fate Online.

Ariadne’s Spindle: The Truth Is Out There

We had our Session 0 for our Fate adaptation of The Expanse, leaving me with scribbled notes for adventure- and world-building.

Focus and Sub-Genre

Our strawpoll on themes and genre resulted in the following votes from four players:

Political intrigue: 3
Action and suspense: 2
Character drama: 2
Spaceship combat: 0
Mystery and investigation: 3
Horror: 0
Espionage: 3
Wacky hijinks and banter: 2

Setting Issues

At the moment I’m going with the following issues:

  • The Truth About Eros
  • The Churn Throws Unlikely People Together

Faces and Places

Some of the movers and shakers at the UN and their extended network will probably feature in the backdrop. We discussed the following characters from canon:

  • Sadavir Errinwright
  • Chrisjen Avasarala
  • Cotyar Ghazi
  • Arjun Rao

In addition, we have a new NPC, Thomas Marshall III, the CEO of Marshall LifeTech and father to one of the PCs. He moves in rarefied circles and has some pull with the UN.

Players also mentioned Tycho Station as a place they would like to check into, and Camina Drummer as someone to interact with.

Venus, with possibly old half-built orbital staging platforms meant for the abandoned cloud cities project.

The rings/gates have not yet made their appearance at the start of our campaign. (In other words, we’re aiming more for Outland than Stargate.)

The Main Cast

Our four main characters:

Thomas Marshall the Fourth

Tom is a young man of 22 and he’s the only son of Thomas Marshall the Third, the CEO of Marshall LifeTech, a big player in life support systems. Tom has a lot of crazy conspiracy theories and his father indulges his little “journalistic” endeavors, but Tom lacks experience with the hard edges of the real world. Tom has managed to convince his family to fund a “fact-finding expedition” to Venus to follow one of his many flaky theories, but Thomas Marshall III made sure to add one trusted member to the crew, a young diplomatic attaché called…

Gabriel-Adan Zhao Cantador

Sometimes familiarly called Gaz, Gabriel-Adan Zhao-Cantador is an independent consultant, formerly affiliated with the United Nations Diplomatic Service. Zhao-Cantador was raised in a family on Basic in one of the Earth-Moon LaGrange-4 point. During school, [TBD] inspired Zhao-Cantador to push for a space at the Lower University. Zhao-Cantador studied political science at university and then accepted a position at the United Nations Diplomatic Service before being seconded to the Diplomatic Intelligence Directorate for further training.

While posted as a legal attache at a small station in the Belt, Zhao-Cantador exceeded his authority in authorizing refugee visas for Belters in need of relocation to Earth-jurisdiction, setting them up on Basic Assistance without prior clearance. Had this been a matter of simple corruption, the right people would have been paid, and the situation would have been ignored.

It wasn’t.

As a result, Zhao-Cantador was summarily recalled to Earth, and placed on paid administrative leave. While awaiting disposition of his career, Zhao-Cantador was referred to a meeting with Thomas Marshall.

Keilana Kamealoha

A proficient if quirky xenobiochemist and the first (and possibly only) child born on Triton. Their parents were also xenobiochemists, sent to examine exoplanets with the big Triton arrays for signs of life. Extra mouths were unwanted so everyone was on some form of birth control, but mom and dad were on a timetable so they smuggled a fertilized embryo up with the rat and monkey embryos. Hilarity ensued. Born and raised Triton among a great community of science nerds.

Cécile Izakawa

Born on Eros, from a proletarian family. Her dad was a union representative on a drydock of Eros. Her mom worked menial jobs like cook, EVA suits repairs, whatever she could do to feed her kids.

Self-made woman who had to get her education through work and apprenticeship. She started working when she was 12 on small ships tasked to remove dangerous debris from stations vicinity. Tough jobs that involved EVA, piloting drones, heavy machinery. Later she got also involved in the commercial aspect of the trade: negotiating price of scrap or removal of hazardous material. When she reached her twenties, realizing that she’d be stuck in dead-end job if she didn’t switch career, Cécile got involved with smugglers and low grade criminals which opened her horizon to more profitable job opportunities. Now she wants to know the whole truth about Eros and everyone she lost there.

Cécile is a tall lanky woman. She sports very short hair usually by habit. It’s cleaner and you don’t get Belter lice this way.

The Expanse in Fate: Ship-Building

On with our adaptation of The Expanse to Fate! Along with character creation and ship combat, spaceship construction is one of the most important pieces in this system conversion. Compared to character creation, however, we don’t have as good an internal blueprint for how ships should be modeled in a role-playing game.

As I explained in my interlude, how detailed the ship rules should be in a specific campaign depends on how interested your group is in directly controlling ships and how often this element will show up in the story. At the most basic, ships may be a backdrop, important but more of a scenery aspect the way space stations or planet-side locations may be. At the other end of the spectrum, ship-to-ship combat may be a your characters’ bread and butter.

I gave my players a mini-survey to see where their interest lie: Political intrigue, Action and suspense, Character drama, Spaceship combat, Mystery and investigation; Horror, Espionage, or Other. The two options that go no votes were horror, which didn’t surpris me, and spaceship combat, which did. I had my answer: keep the spaceship combat rules light for my players, don’t burden them with detailed mechanics they’re not interested in using. (Good thing I asked first!)

Therefore, I will use the lightest version possible in my own campaign; in essence, I will treat the AGE System ship profiles as narrative descriptions. Does it say the ship has a med bay? OK, your PC gets a bonus for recovering from appropriate conditions such as Injured or Wounded. Does it have an advanced sensor package? You’ll see other ships coming a little earlier in the fiction.

However, I promised you a more detailed version and here it is. I largely based it on Tachyon Squadron and its supplement, the Spaceship Construction Toolkit, but I do follow The Expanse RPG as closely as I can, especially in the technology lingo.

Continue reading “The Expanse in Fate: Ship-Building”

The Expanse in Fate: Ships Happen (Interlude)

In case you’re wondering about the next installment in our series, I’ve been musing about ships and space combat. I have one way of doing things based on staying as close as possible to the write-ups in The Expanse RPG, and another based on the ship rules from Tachyon Squadron and its supplements.

It’s going to come down to what my players want for a series framework: if they’re going to go have a lot of ship-to-ship battles where their PCs are in charge of the action, then I want solid rules – meaning derived from Tachyon Squadron. But if they are going to be mostly bystanders like the captured crew of the Knight aboard the Donnager, then just lightly adapting the AGE System rules and using them in broad strokes suffices.

Both approaches can be used in parallel. I can write up both sets of rules and make them available for fellow fans; however, as GM I want to start with what’s immediately useful to me and will not confuse my players. That said, I promise you I will give you both, in time.

Finally, if you do not care about staying close to the published game The Expanse RPG but only about the books or television series (e.g., if you don’t already own the RPG nor plan to), and want a Fate solution, you might want to take a look at Evil Hat’s Fate Space Toolkit. It contains a handful of ready-to-go campaign settings and one of them, called Mass Drivers, would be a good fit for The Expanse and particularly for a Belter campaign If you’re starting from scratch, it’s an excellent choice.

That said, I love the amount of useful material in The Expanse RPG and its supplements so I will continue to use it a lot in my Fate version.

The Expanse in Fate: NPCs

Continuing from my previous post: let’s look at creating some GM characters. This is a spot where Fate really shines for me, making my life easy as the game moderator. You see, while it’s true of any role-playing game, Fate is one of the few that openly acknowledges that adversaries don’t need to be statted the same way as player characters. At all. They don’t even need to use the same skill list. For example, here is a way to make very minor antagonists, a.k.a. mooks:

  1. Make a list of what this mook is skilled at. They get a +2 to all rolls dealing with these things.
  2. Make a list of what this mook is bad at. They get a −2 to all rolls dealing with these things.
  3. Everything else gets a +0 when rolled.
  4. Give the mook an aspect or two to reinforce what they’re good and bad at, or if they have a particular strength or vulnerability. It’s okay if a mook’s aspects are really simple.
  5. Mooks have zero, one, or two boxes in their stress track, depending on how tough you imagine them to be.
  6. Mooks can’t take consequences. If they run out of stress boxes (or don’t have any), the next hit takes them down.

This method is found in the Fate Accelerated Edition but used widely throughout the Fate range of implementations. It works very well for the lowest category of speedbump adversaries, dangerous mostly when in numbers or as impediments to slow the PCs down and let the real target escape. For example, I give you the hooligan: Continue reading “The Expanse in Fate: NPCs”

The Expanse: Ariadne’s Spindle

As I’ve mentioned a couple of times recently, I have put in a lot of work in creating modules for Evil Hat Productions on the Roll20 virtual tabletop (VTT). Of the 36 modules I have worked on, 29 have been Fate modules, 21 of which have been released on Roll20 already. And this really drove home the point that circumstances have driven me to a Fate-less gaming schedule right now: none of the games I have played this year are powered by Fate. This is unacceptable and there was only one thing to do: start a Fate game.

Setting-wise, I have been itching for a long while to play hard science fiction. Rather than going for a ready-statted Fate setting, I decided to adapt The Expanse. It’s funny, of course, because the book series and later television series have their origin in a role-playing campaign led by one of the authors (GURPS, I believe). A couple of years ago Green Ronin Publishing picked up the license and published The Expanse Roleplaying Game based on their AGE system, which I had played in Dragon Age and run in Blue Rose 2nd edition.

I feel that Fate is a great system to run and play exciting adventures in this setting, and it certainly makes preparation easy for me as GM. On the other hand, The Expanse RPG is crammed full of information and I want to get as much of this goodness as I can, not reinvent the wheel. This led me to hew as close as possible to the original character stat profiles.

Player Character Creation

Here is how I paralleled the AGE character creation in my Fate version. The steps listed are those from The Expanse RPG and the notes describe how I adapted them.

Continue reading “The Expanse: Ariadne’s Spindle”