Paul Mitchener came up with a new writing challenge on role-playing games called “12 RPGs for the 12th Month” (see the full list of questions here.)
Question 9: 17th to 18th December
You’re planning to run some science fiction, in a setting of your choice. Is there any particular technology you want to include because the possibilities intrigue you. Is there any standard piece of “future technology” you’d rather leave out?
Ah, another fun question.
Let’s start by narrowing it to subgenre, since the scifi genre is so vast. While I enjoy cyberpunk, space opera, time travel, post-apocalypse, planetary romance, and fighting dystopian futures, I particularly love space exploration adventures with a realistic feel.
They don’t have to be excruciatingly accurate to the latest scientific journals, but I like when you feel the danger and the fragility of human life in the blackness of space, the sense that everyone aboard has to pull their weight for the ship to survive the voyage. I particularly like keeping things at the scale of colonization of the Solar System.
That means no FTL drives, and the only artificial gravity comes from rotation or acceleration. No light sabers, no replicators (except 3D printing), no teleportation.
A few years ago I reviewed Robert Bohl’s role-playing game Misspent Youth. Well, two exciting things are happening with that game right now.
The Revolution Will Be Televised
First, it was demo’ed by Wil Wheaton on his show Tabletop (Geek & Sundry channel on YouTube), with geek blogger / vlogger / podcaster / actress Amy Dallen (Geek & Sundry, Future Girl, Nerdy But Flirty), and comic book writers Kelly Sue DeConnick (Bitch Planet, Captain Marvel, Pretty Deadly), and Matt Fraction (The Invincible Iron Man, The Immortal Iron Fist, Casanova).
This demo provide a very good impression of what the game is like. I recommend viewing the episodes in the following order:
Part 1 for the first three minutes and 15 seconds or so, in order to get the introduction.
The entirety of Part 0 for the full setting and character creation.
Second exciting happening: A revised edition and a supplement full of new playsets, ideas, and art are being released soon, and the Kickstarter funding campaign is under way.
The new edition will be published through Burning Wheel Headquarters. The development team comprises writer and creative director Robert Bohl, book designer Joshua A.C. Newman, lead artist Jennifer Rodgers, editor Adam Dray, and publisher Luke Crane.
Contributing authors include some fantastic people:
Nolite te bastardes carborundorum. [Don’t let the bastards grind you down.]
— Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale.
The rate at which proposed regulation, crafted by the American Far (“Christian”) Right, targets women’s most basic rights has been accelerating over the last several years. Bills that used to be outlandishly unthinkable are now commonplace, what with the Republican Party having wholly embraced the right-wing fringe, especially in its Dominionist flavour.
A protest against proposed draconian restrictions on abortion last week at the Texas legislature was only the most recent to draw parallels with Margaret Atwood’s 1985 dystopian novel about an ultra-Christian future of gender-regulated servitude, The Handmaid’s Tale.
Of course, the upcoming release of Hulu’s series based on the novel has also brought the book to the forefront of pop culture again, but the novel has been increasingly mentioned in news, streams, threads, and conversations about the Right’s treatment of women.
Earlier this week I was reading about the original critical reception to Atwood’s landmark book. It was darkly funny to learn that some reviewers — like the New York Times’ Mary McCarthy (Feb. 9, 1986) — felt its premise was too unbelievable to be successful:
“Surely the essential element of a cautionary tale is recognition. Surprised recognition, even, enough to administer a shock. We are warned, by seeing our present selves in a distorting mirror, of what we may be turning into if current trends are allowed to continue. That was the effect of ”Nineteen Eighty-Four,” with its scary dating, not 40 years ahead, maybe also of ”Brave New World” and, to some extent, of ”A Clockwork Orange.” “
“It is an effect, for me, almost strikingly missing from Margaret Atwood’s very readable book ”The Handmaid’s Tale,” offered by the publisher as a ”forecast” of what we may have in store for us in the quite near future. A standoff will have been achieved vis-a-vis the Russians, and our own country will be ruled by right-wingers and religious fundamentalists, with males restored to the traditional role of warriors and us females to our ”place” – which, however, will have undergone subdivision into separate sectors, of wives, breeders, servants and so forth, each clothed in the appropriate uniform. A fresh postfeminist approach to future shock, you might say. Yet the book just does not tell me what there is in our present mores that I ought to watch out for unless I want the United States of America to become a slave state something like the Republic of Gilead whose outlines are here sketched out. “
It’s worth reading the entire review, it seems like a point-by-point comment on current news, 32 years after publication. It’s hard to believe these days that McCarthy found A Clockwork Orange’s dystopia more likely than the one in Atwood’s “palely lurid pages.”
[Edit: Here are some very current topics touched on in The Handmaid’s Tale which I jotted the last time I read the book:
Patriarchy and kyriarchy
Rise of religious fundamentalism
Feminist reactions to pornography
“Freedom to” versus “freedom from,” and safety versus liberty
Abortion, contraception, and reproductive choices
Self-determination, ownership of one’s body
Right to take one’s own life
Surveillance and information technology
Sexual orientation and choice
Access to education, knowledge as power
Status of and relationships between U.S. and Russia
Public apathy and the creep of authoritarianism
Televangelists and the Christian media industry
And I bet I missed some.]
Partisanship has been increasing over the past 25 years. The Republican Party now controls the U.S. Presidency, Senate, and House of Representatives, as well as the “trifecta” (governorship + both State congressional houses) in 25 state legislatures, the senate in 12 more states, the house of representatives in six more states, and governorship in eight more states, and soon the ninth and deciding seat on the U.S. Supreme Court. The trend is clear, and it is frightening.
Credits: Photo by Nan L. Kirkpatrick, as seen on Vulture.
We’ve heard about a number of prodigiously insulting marketing decisions at the intersection of merchandising, pop culture and genre fiction, such as the disappearance of Black Widow from lines of Avengers merchandise and Rey from Star Wars: The Force Awakens merchandise. It’s been made clear that boys are the target market for toys. But do you ever wonder if it’s not also a deliberate ploy to manipulate supply and demand for price gouging?
We just learned that to mark the 50th anniversary of the original Star Trek series, CBS has licensed toy company Mattel to produce a line of Barbie-style dolls based on Lieutenant Uhura, Captain Kirk, and Commander Spock. I immediately checked on Amazon, because I want Lt. Uhura on my desk! But I discovered that she’s unavailable, even though the other two can be purchased just fine for $34.99 each.
But Amazon went on to offer me other lopsided-deals on memorabilia Barbie-like dolls. How about Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman figures based on the recent movie Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice? Hey, good news: all three are available. And priced at…
Last night we watched the classic Star Trek: Deep Space 9 episode “Far Beyond the Stars” (Season 6, Episode 13, originally aired February 11, 1998.) I had never seen it before; I had entirely missed the last two seasons of DS9 and was spotty on seasons 2-5 until our current re-watch.
The episode has aged very well; nearly two decades later, it is very, very current. The premise (not a spoiler) is that Captain Benjamin Sisko has a full sensory vision of himself as an under-appreciated science fiction magazine writer in 1950s America. The cast regulars play alternate characters in this vision, all without alien prosthetic make-up.
The episode is a success that can be appreciated on multiple levels: the illustration of hope and despair, of prejudice overt and insidious, of how far we’ve come and how much further we have to go; the geeky enjoyment of the portrayals of characters based on real science fiction writers; the actors playing alternate parts with interesting symbolism in harmony or contrast with their regular parts; the musings about the relationship between ideas and change.
The story ties in painfully well with such current topics as the need to even state that Black Lives Matter, and various Sad/Rabid Puppies droppings. For my money, actor Avery Brooks, who also directs the episode, chewed the scenery too much in the climax scene; however, it remains a very strong piece.
You don’t need to be familiar with the metaplot of the show to appreciate this episode on its own; see it on Hulu, Netflix, or Amazon. Read more about the episode here and here (spoiler alert.)
Up-front warnings: (1) This review contains spoilers. (2) I didn’t like the movie.
Not spoilers: The premise of this movie is that Main White Guy Character Caleb Smith (played by Domhnall Gleeson), a programmer at an internet-search giant, wins a competition to spend a week at the private mountain estate of the company’s brilliant and reclusive CEO, Antagonist White Guy Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac). Upon his arrival, Caleb learns that Nathan has chosen him to be the human component in a Turing Test, charging him with evaluating the capabilities, and ultimately the consciousness, of Nathan’s latest experiment in artificial intelligence — Sexy Fembot Ava (Alicia Vikander).
[Edit: A couple of friends have told me that Oscar Isaac, who is Hispanic, doesn’t read as white to them. That really surprised me, I read both the actor and the specific character of Nathan Bateman as white, but you may have a different impression. I have to add that if Bateman is supposed to read as a person of colour, it doesn’t help the movie for me, on the contrary.]
The movie tries to be a thriller but all the plot twists are predictable for science fiction aficionados. Nothing you haven’t read elsewhere. It also tries to be visually stylish and to feel intellectual; your mileage may vary. Mostly, Edmund and I spent our time asking the characters on screen: “Really? You didn’t see this coming?”
Welp, having used the example of the Frankie West character from Deep Dark Blue (Evil Hat Productions) in yesterday’s post, I was then haunted once again by the wish to play or run in that kind of setting. (I loved Fantasy Flight Games’ Blue Planet v2 way back when). I loaded the first season of seaQuest DSV on Netflix, and longingly thumbed through David Brin’s Startide Rising.
After the stupid kerfuffle about whether you could have a character who uses a wheelchair on a science fiction submarine, and looking at Streaker and seaQuest built to accommodate frickin’ dolphins throughout their length, I want to yell at people who lack both empathy and imagination. Even as I wish I could play right this minute!
How can you not see how great it would be to have someone like this:
Popping out on the bridge or in the lab alongside this dolphin:
I swear as soon as I get a chance, I will play this character. How is that not the coolest thing in the middle of a big battle scene for the character to unlock their powered wheelchair from the gunner station, dive into the nearest moon pool opening, swim to the lab, get the macguffin, dive back in, zip to the torpedo bay, fix the problem, and swim back to their station?
The game is written by Anna Meade and Brian Engard, with system development by J.D. Yearsley. Applications for the first public playtest just opened today and will remain open through November 30. (Here is a link to the application form.)
Corruption. Betrayal. Intrigue. Just another day in Paris Nouveau.
In a cyberpunk, dystopian future, the citizens of Paris Nouveau are no more than indentured servants. Virtual reality has come at a cost they can never pay, a tradeoff of freedom for technology. But there are freedom fighters who reject the system, unplugging from the illusion and working to make things right once again. They are La Résistance. Rise up and defy the corporations in the Dystopian Universe RPG, set in the same universe as The Resistance, Coup, and One Night Revolution from Indie Boards & Cards.
The Dystopian Universe RPG is a stand-alone game that uses a customized version of the Fate System. Within these pages, you’ll find:
Playsheets for nine character archetypes with tie-ins to the cards found in other Dystopian Universe games
New aspect rules to help reflect the intrigue of the Dystopian Universe, where no one is exactly what they seem
Two new systems to help GMs escalate conflicts based on character actions: blowback and the Vigilance Track
New equipment rules using Fate points from a character or from their supporters at La Résistance.
A streamlined modular system for creating missions, along with sample missions to get you started
Thanks to the magic of the Fire TV Stick we recently bought, Edmund and I are half-way through watching the first season of the Space channel series Dark Matter (no spoilers on episodes 7 through 13, please!) We’ve been viewing this very much as someone’s role-playing campaign, with classic players: the Fast-Talker (1), the GM’s Spouse, a.k.a. the only one that is sensible enough to be trusted as party leader (2), the Gun Bunny (3), the Ninja (4), the Weirdo (5), the Real Role-Player (6), and the GMPC (Android).
END OF EPISODE 6:
GM: OK, we’ve been playing this for a while so we’ve reached a milestone. You guys can change one of your aspects now. Think about taking something that will anchor your character in the story, build connections among you.
4: I change my Trouble from “Wanted for Murdering my Father” to “I Will Avenge my Father’s Death.”
GM: Uh, OK… you realize you guys are the hunted crew of a damaged ship, earning a hardscrabble existence on the edge of known space, and you won’t interact much with your family, right?
4: That’s what my character would do.
GM: (Sigh) OK. What about you guys?
6: I took “I Must Bring the General to Justice.”
GM, weakly: OK… you realize you guys are the hunted crew of a damaged ship, earning a hardscrabble existence on the edge of…
6: Yeah. But that’s what my character would do.
GM: (Sigh) OK. What about you, 3? You’ve had some time to become familiar with the premise, you saw the background plots everybody else is taking. What about your own mysterious past? You could take something to add a little depth to your character?
3: Nope. I’m fine.
GM, looks at character sheet: Your aspects are Big Gun, Other Big Gun, and Even Bigger Gun, your High Concept is Gun Expert, and your Trouble is Trigger-Happy!
3, proudly: And I have the stunt “Two-Handed Shooting”!
GM: I fucking hate you all.
[Edited to add:]
GM: Hey guys, 3’s player can’t make it this week but my friend Chris is in town and will play 3. I hope no one minds?
We saw The Martian and found it as advertised. We liked it, it was a good choice for thrills, fear, humour, and hope.
Visuals and special effects: 5. It feels real through and through. I don’t recall a single moment when effects made me disconnect, and the motion shots in low gravity are very nice.
Soundtrack: 4. Orchestral stuff is appropriate and works fine; plus they found a way to add some songs I hate and make me like them. For a bit. In context.
Writing: 4. This made me want to read Andy Weir’s book, which had not made my list. It’s got vibes of Apollo 13 and Castaway, of course, and The Lonely Astronaut. It also resists the temptation to create villains when none are needed; the opposition of an uncaring universe is faceless. As a bonus, homages and Easter eggs are buried throughout for viewers to measure their nerd cred. (This is where it’s hardest to resist spoilers, when I feel like comparing notes!)
Casting: 4. Good choices, and I thought some of the actors might feel pleased to get some roles so different from what they often play. Lots of familiar faces and great actors.
Direction: 4.5. Like in (nonfiction) Apollo 13 before, the movie steers clear of one of Hollywood’s favourite tropes, the Great Man or supergenius who single-handedly makes everything all right. The central character of Mark Watney is obviously extremely smart, resourceful and tough, but you soon realize that he’s pictured that way not because he is supposed to be the Chosen One but because of the selection and training process that brought him to Mars. It’s necessary that he be an exceptional individual but so are all involved, and they are all needed. As a bonus, the right touch of humour (which I understand is in the novel) is preserved.
Editing: 4. Tight. The passage of time is handled pretty well; good and relatively sparing use of techniques like montages and voice-overs.
Science: 4.5. The most hand-wavey portions happen in the opening scenes; the reason protagonist Mark Watney is left on Mars is out of whack with what we know of the planet. Amusingly, some of the criticism levelled at the science in some later scenes seemed to me to show the commenters’ lack of grasp of the context.
Diversity: 4. Some excellent choices, reflecting a good deal of real-world racial and gender diversity. Bonus points for international cooperation. Still centers on a white man, of course, but strong, significant roles to non-white and/or non-male people. Alas, I noticed no hint of disabled, non-hetero, or non-cisgendered characters. Only one non-white woman, with no lines in English.
Feminism: 4.5. It passes the Bechdel test within minutes, as well as the Strong Female Protagonist benchmark. Lead female character makes life-and-death decisions and they are respected.
The Bart Sibrel Award for Verisimilitude goes to Ridley Scott, Arthur Max, and Dariusz Wolski. We’ve finally reach the point where we can make really good hoax expeditions, as long as no one on the filming crew, post-production, and support team of hundreds talks, and no one notices the large mobilizations to Hungary and Jordan.
Thanks to Ridley Scott’s own Alien movie and its, ahem, progeny, we’ve had a lot of space horror movies in the last three or four decades. But in the end, the thing that should really scare us is that the universe doesn’t give a damn. If we are to survive, we need each other. That’s the message I took from this movie, anyway.
I will leave you with two images I really like: the cast poster, and the good ship Hermes (my new screen background).