Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Ships as Characters

Anyone who has read this blog has probably come upon my 'rant' about how many Star Wars adventure modules seem to treat player character ships as being disposable. A large majority of adventures include the player's ship crashing, being stolen or even being outright destroyed. While I realize that by removing a player's ship you can 'guide' them into a situation that might otherwise be bypassed by simply flying away or strafing the hell out of a target...but come on, game authors. Do you ever WATCH Sci Fi series?

Think about it for a moment. In almost all science fiction movies and television programs, the 'main' ship of the setting becomes just as much a character of the show as any of the organic cast members. Examples:

Star Trek: The Enterprise
Dr. Who: The TARDIS
Blake's 7: the Liberator
Starblazers: The Argo
Star Wars: The Millennium Falcon
Robotech: The SDF-1
Battlestar Galactica: The Galactica
Farscape: Moya (okay, this one is LITERALLY a character, since 'she' is alive)
Firefly: Serenity

See what I mean? In these shows, the ship either was or became a big part of the show. It wasn't a disposable plot device. In fact, the DEATH of a ship in these shows was a HUGE event emotionally and for the story as a whole. It signified a time of great change. Who didn't feel a little catch in their throat upon seeing the Enterprise blow up, then burn into the atmosphere in Star Trek 3? Who didn't sympathize with Adama in the recent Battlestar Galactica when his ship was falling apart and there was nothing he could do to save it.

In my Star Wars campaign I always tried to keep this in mind. In those situations that arbitrarily called for the destruction of the party's ship, I had to actively work to find some other way to make the adventure work. Those times I 'allowed' the ship to be downed, I tried to make it a 'fair fight' rather than an automatic lose. And even when it was taken out in a Kobayashi-Maru type scenario, I tried to make it recoverable. Yet in looking back on my campaign, I see that most of the main ships in it did eventually meet their ultimate fate. I'll talk next about the main ships in the campaign.

The Lightblade
This was the first ship in my Star Wars campaign and the one that probably saw the most action. She was a YT-1300, just like the Falcon (very original, I know) and went through major transformations in her career- from a rather ramshackle and 'average' boat to a thinly disguised gunship with all kinds of support gear built into her. Personality-wise, the Lightblade reflected the party. She was cobbled together over time and looked a bit rough around the edges, but was very effective when push came to shove. She could still go undercover as a legitimate freight hauler, despite the fact that its combat specs were pushed WELL past factory settings. The 'Blade was a dependable and versatile workhorse that saw a lot of good and bad times. She was also home to a large population of droids (that the party picked up, piecemeal, along the way)- giving it a very organic and 'living' feel. As I recall, the ship was fire-bombed at one point, severely damaging her. She also survived numerous crashes. Right now I'm working with its pc owner (Marko) to determine her final fate. Though I'm pretty sure at this point that the official story is that the Lightblade was destroyed in action during the New Republic Era, a few years prior to the current timeline of my campaign.

The Stormbringer
This was another Y-1300- only this time, the cockpit was on the other side! Okay, so at its base level it doesn't sound all that original, but the concept for this ship certainly was. It began as a 'shell' but was transformed by player effort (and saved up wages) into a gunship. There was NO way this vessel could ever pass for 'legit', and thus her use was restricted to full-out combat missions and to ports where such design violations were ignored (Mos Eisley, Nar Shaddaa, etc.). The ship was the brainchild (and property) of the character Rick Oman- and was used in the New Republic era as a transport for his Bounty Hunting career. The Stormbringer had a very different 'vibe' than the Lightblade. She was an aggressive ship- a tough soldier who gave as good as she got. She served with distinction throughout the latter stages of the War with the empire and well into the New Republic Era. She was the flagship of the group who liberated the planet Mandalore. Fittingly enough, she met her end in service to that planet- destroyed during the contest that would determine the 'New Mandalore' of that people. Her death signified a big change in the life of her owner.

The Trivial Pursuit
Probably one of my favorite ship names, ever. The 'Pursuit was a big, beefy Barloz-Class freighter owned by the PC, Adrienne. In some ways, she was a contrast to her rather petite owner, but like certain other ships, this one 'had it where it counted'. She may have been a bit unwieldy, but she was fast as heck- and in the hands of her pilot, the 'Pursuit could hold her own in a lot of dangerous situations. Personality-wise, I always saw the pursuit as a big, loyal, tough, brick. A constant and a foundation in the life of the character who piloted her. Apart from her enhanced speed, however, the ship wasn't really a gunboat- a fact that also seemed to reflect the pilot (a person who tried to avoid conflict when she could). The pursuit was heavily damaged at one point and had to be partially rebuilt. Fittingly enough the ship became a hybrid of Corellian and Santhe-Seinar technology (just like its owner). Oddly enough, I can't for the life of me remember how she 'died' later in the game, but I am pretty sure she did. I'll have to ask her owner's player about that...

Anyway, I think I've made my point. I have quite a few fond memories about the 'ship characters' in the campaign. And in most cases, the death of the vessels in question was not something arbitrary, but rather marked a dramatic moment in the life of its owner. I feel that this is how it should be.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Shields and Aerodynamics

I came upon something relatively recently (within the past couple years), in one of the 'incredible cross-sections' Star Wars books. In the listing of statistics for various Episode I-III spacecraft, the speed in the atmosphere was dependent upon whether or not the craft had its shields up or not. And the difference between shields up speed and shields down speed was quite dramatic (to the tune of several thousand KPH).

This is actually kind of an interesting new development that has never been talked about before- certainly not in the Star Wars roleplaying game. What it seems to suggest is that starship shields can be 'shaped' to give a craft a dramatically better aerodynamic profile. On the one hand, this seems to make a lot of sense. Afterall, shields obviously have an effect on matter and energy- so why wouldn't they work against atmospheric particles. It would certainly help explain why the Millennium falcon (not exactly the most streamlined of ships with that huge radar dish), could soar through the atmosphere of Hoth and Bespin without any trouble at all. In fact, the 'shields as aerodynamics' could help explain away a LOT of things we see in the movies that would otherwise be some major physics problems (of course, it still doesn't explain why Lambda-Class shuttles have such huge wings...).

On the other hand, it kind-of makes you wonder how MUCH effect this aerodynamic shielding would have. If it is as much as the books show, then any non-shielded aircraft would be next to useless in trying to fight a shielded one (at least speed wise). It also makes you wonder why any fightercraft would NOT have shields. The TIE fighter, for instance, would likely be crap in an atmosphere, 'realistically' speaking, what with those huge panels. Any kind of crosswind would be a bitch to handle, especially considering they don't seem to have any control surfaces on them.

That's why I'm inclined to allow shields to have SOME aerodynamic effect on craft, but not as drastic as some of the books suggest. In fact, I'm just good knowing that shields can help to 'gloss over' why brick-like Starships can fly in atmosphere at all.

Why do I play Star Wars?

In reading posts from other bloggers that relate to Star Wars I have come across a particular 'sticking point' more than once. Namely, a lot of gamers seem to have a problem with playing in a setting where there is an over-arching Storyline (such as the six movies that now make up the Star Wars saga). To me, this attitude is perplexing- but I think I see its root. I just seem to have a different mind-set when it comes to things like this. Evidently it works as follows:

Some people see a movie-setting like Star Wars and say to themselves: Gee, I'd like to BE the heroes in the movie.

Some people see a movie-setting like Star Wars and says to themselves: Gee, I'd love to adventure in the same world as those heroes.

The former type of person is likely to feel constrained if they are not at least as powerful as the heroes were in the movie. Likewise, they don't want to have the spotlight stolen from their own characters by the people in the movies. I can understand this outlook, both as a player and a GM. Afterall, who wants to play 'second fiddle' to someone else, especially someone else who is only a hero because the 'script' says so. This type of person wants to carve their own path and (hopefully) become the main focus of the story.

The latter type of person probably enjoyed the characters in the movie more than the setting or even plot. They revel in the thought of actually interacting with those characters and being a part of the larger storyline. I can understand THIS outlook as well. I mean, who wouldn't want to hang out with Han Solo and Chewbacca for a while. They're cool. And besides, who says that just because there are other heroes out there you can't have your own adventures and, in your own way, become a major player in the events of the Galaxy.

If I had to pick, I'd say that I fall into the latter category. The reason Star Wars appeals to me isn't just the space ships or blasters or the Empire vs. the Rebellion— a lot of sci fi movies have those— its the people. Though Luke was my personal hero (the one I 'played' on the school yard), I never wanted to 'supplant' him in the game with my own character. I just wanted to be a part of the world that had Luke and Han and Leia in it. But then, maybe my view is a bit skewed, since I'm usually the GM, and not a player.

But quite honestly I just do not understand the argument some people put forth that if you follow the movies it somehow 'limits' what you can do as a player or even GM in the Star Wars setting. Maybe it does in the broadest terms- i.e. you 'know' that the Rebellion will win. But there is just so much room for 'other' heroes in the Star Wars that it frustrates me when people say this. I mean... is being the 'only' or 'main' heroes of a setting the most important thing? It obviously seems to be for some people. But then I've probably gone over this a jillion times in other posts. So I won't go into it much further.

Suffice it to say that, for me, without having the storyline of the movies and the characters who brought it to life (even if they are only in the background of your own game), it just doesn't feel like Star Wars. It just becomes some other Science Fiction/Space Fantasy setting with all the trappings you see in the movies. To me, it feels hollow. But if you have all this backstory and plot development IN ADDITION to an entirely original campaign that a group develops itself– If you have the stories and characters weave in and out– it makes the universe feel all that much larger and (ironically) more 'real'. Well, that's my story anyway. And I'm sticking to it.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Why do I still like Star Wars?

I greatly enjoy the 'Zero Punctuation' game reviews on The Escapist Web site. They're incredibly clever and amusing. But today, the review was also a bit thought provoking. In his review of "The Force Unleashed II", Yahtzee (the reviewer) panned the game. I'm not surprised. But he also brought up the fact that the "Bad" of the franchise (movies, games, books, etc.) now greatly outweighs the "Good". He lamented (before amusingly insulting us) that Star Wars fans must be having a pretty difficult time of it recently. And you know what? He's right.

I find myself really having to work hard to pull out any 'goodness' from the slew of crap that has been glutting the Star Wars 'marketplace'. If you'll look back through my posts about the expanded universe you'll see a lot of backpedaling on my part: "Such and such wasn't very good, but if you take this or that aspect of it, you'll see that there is something to 'salvage'". And that's kind of sad.

In his review, Yahtzee pointed out the "good" of the franchise being: Star Wars (Episode IV), The Empire Strikes Back, and Knights of the Old Republic. And you know? He's right. Those are probably the only well-known Star Wars 'products' that I can whole-heartedly endorse as being pure awesome. I personally would include the Han Solo Novels in this list- but those seem to be largely forgotten by everybody. Other than that? Well there is always an 'but...' or an 'if' or an 'except for...'.

I guess that the reason I became a Star Wars fan- and the reason I remain one- is that when /I/ was growing up- those formative years between the ages of 7 and 13- Star Wars was synonymous with high-quality entertainment. The special effects were ground-breaking, the stories were entertaining and (at the time at least) original. The action was mixed with snappy dialogue and the acting (even when cheesy), was at the very least charmingly passable (i.e. the actors looked like they gave a damn). So, like I've said before in many posts- all of these things just became 'part' of who I am. Star Wars came to mean very specific things in my mind- and those things stuck with me (and continue to stick with me) even as the franchise as a whole gets seemingly run into the ground.

The first real 'downturn' came with the ending to Return of the Jedi. While I do not hate the Ewoks, I remember even at the time thinking they were kind of a sell-out (moichendizing! where da real money from da movie is made!). In fact, I'd have to say that the Ewoks were my first 'allowance' in the Star Wars universe: I 'allowed' myself to enjoy the movie despite the fact that they were mildly annoying.

Following Return of the Jedi, there was a relatively long stretch of nothing at all going on with Star Wars. Then the Roleplaying Game came out in 1987– and for the most part, this game only reinforced my love of the movies. West End Games, in my opinion, did a great job maintaining- and even raising- the standards I had come to expect from the movies I grew up with. To me, the writers of this game seemed to have something very important- a respect for the source material. With very few exceptions, they introduced nothing that contradicted or otherwise made 'lame' the things we saw in the movies. They simply started filling in the blanks with plausible explanations of all the things we DIDN'T see. And even then, they couldn't begin to completely 'flesh out' the entire universe. As a Game Master I ALWAYS felt as though the Galaxy was mine to shape as I saw fit. What the game did was provide me with examples of how other people had done so. I took the ball and ran with it.

So once more, I found myself a very happy fan. And that persisted pretty much right up until Episode I came out. And then I honestly found myself in the position of walking out of the movie disappointed. I 'allowed' myself to like this and that aspect of it, but for the most part it just didn't deliver. And still, as a fan, I endured. Hoping for better. It did get better- a little better- in Episode's II and III, but nothing in the movies- or the slew of novels that accompanied them- seemed to measure up.

Just as Yahtzee had pointed out, the only 'bright spot' for me as a Fan was with the Knights of the Old Republic game. Once again, it captured that Star Wars that I remembered. It rekindled by affection for the universe as a whole- though it has been difficult going ever since then.

So, I guess that's why I still like Star Wars. Because I'm Luke. I can sense the good in it. Every once in a while, there will be a break in the clouds and something good will shine through. I will say, however, that without my own Star Wars game- without my ability to express and share my own interpretation of that Galaxy Far Far Away, I probably would have stopped being a Star Wars fan a long time ago.

Friday, November 12, 2010

My feelings

This image pretty much sums up my feelings on the Star Wars "Legacy" comics. While I can appreciate the artwork (and the Twi'leks) and a few interesting concepts (... 'Lawful' Dark Jedi?!) these stories really don't 'do it' for me. I must be getting old.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Nagai, Revisited

A long time ago, I detailed the new 'Villain' species that I am currently using as the main antagonist in my New Republic Era Star Wars galaxy. I based the species upon the Nagai from the Star Wars marvel comics (a race of deadly warriors from another galaxy), but gave them a radically different background which I detailed here and here.

With the war against the Nagai coming to a head in my campaign—and with one of my player characters having (unexpectedly) come to a position of power within them, I felt the need to expand upon a few ideas I had about the race and their motivations. Though previously I described the species in broad strokes, I will now examine the different philosophies present among the Nagai and how that affects the way they function. My players read this blog (or at least have in the past) so everything here is going to be 'public' knowledge that they are going to find out for themselves IC. So without further ado, here we go.

The bulk of the Nagai population (an estimated 50-percent of it), conforms to the generalities laid out in previous posts. To summarize, the average Nagai is very superior in attitude to other species. They are supremely confident in their own abilities (as well they should be, considering their are 'near perfect' physically- and quite intelligent and beautiful). They are also, on the whole, rather selfish, self-centered and hedonistic. They indulge in various personal pursuits—often artistic in nature. One such pursuit practiced by nearly all Nagai is melee combat. Almost all of them are masters with blades. More rarely, these personal pursuits take other forms—such as the presence of a few highly-skilled pilots or even a few reported master marksmen. One particular pursuit (that of science and technology) has actually led to a splinter group of the Nagai (the Technologists) that will be detailed below. On the whole, "Core" Nagai view themselves as superior to other species. They can appreciate "exceptional" members of other races and often keep such as 'pets' or slaves aboard their world-ships.

Another, smaller group of Nagai (roughly 20-percent of the population) are much more focused and driven than others. These Nagai are planners and organizers. They enjoy swaying others (particularly the "Core" nagai") to their causes and are generally more practical and pragmatic. It is from the ranks of this group that the great leaders of the Nagai have emerged. They otherwise embody the same supreme and self-centered attitudes of their race—and exemplify its bigotry towards other "lesser" species. It is this group that has pushed for and led the conquest of their home galaxy and the invasion of the Star Wars galaxy. Though ruthless, Leaders are not necessarily bloodthirsty. Like the Core Nagai, they see other races as useful tools and enjoyable toys. They would not hesitate to crush any who stood (or rose up) against, them, however. The Leaders have an intense rivalry with the Dark Nagai stemming from both feeling as though they should be in charge. Thus far it has been the better organization of the Leaders that has allowed them to remain in control over the more chaotic Dark Nagai.

The Dark Nagai represent the most depraved aspect of their species—delving into bloody practices and self-indulgences that members of most species (including their own) would find repulsive. Constituting about 20-percent of their race, the Dark Nagai are masochists and sadists who enjoy pitting conquered species against each other in gladiatorial combat. They also enjoy inflicting 'blood tribute' from conquered species—sacrificing beings in honor of their 'godhood'. The Dark have completely bought into their own superiority and think the Galaxy- the universe, should be their plaything, with none of the 'restrictions' that other groups (like the Leaders) would place upon them. Unfortunately for the Dark, their own selfish and fractious natures have kept them from attaining true power among the Nagai. Even so, some of the most fearsome warriors in their fleet come from this group, easily a match for ANY other Nagai.

Though all Nagai are extremely intelligent, most choose not to focus their vast intellects on technological or scientific areas. The Technologists are the exception to that rule. Though making up only 5-percent of the species as a whole, Technologists have achieved a high status within Nagai society. Nobles and Dark Nagai alike look to them for answers when problems arise. Though they do not have a complete grasp of the technology their species has stolen from their progenitors, they know enough to be able to operate and maintain—and in some cases even modify—what is required for their 'great task'. It was the early technologists who modified Ancient genetic techniques to create the "Alpha" and "Beta" subspecies to serve as their armies. It was technologists who figured out how to use the crystal 'spire' technology to pacify conquered worlds and even how to construct new crystalline starships. On the whole, Technologists are obsessed with their work, to the point of near-insanity. It is this aspect which has prevented them from seeking or achieving any direct political power within their society. Most of this group have openly aligned themselves with the Leaders, but a few are rumored to be working on dark and dreadful 'toys' for the Dark Nagai. Members of other species are seen by Technologists only as 'subjects' to be studied. In regards to scientific minds of other species, Technologists have a superior and egotistic attitude. They see little reason to study the teachings of 'lesser' beings.

Constituting the final five-percent of the Nagai species, the fifth column represents those Nagai who have grown more and more sympathetic to the other species they encounter—to the point where they now wish to stop their supremacist "crusade" and learn to coexist. They typically pretend to be members of the other groups (though very few are found in the ranks of the Dark Nagai) and have been working behind the scenes to try and bring about change. Only recently, several of the group have actually struck out, gathering around the symbol of an old leader seemingly 'reincarnated'. It is entirely possible that this group, coupled with the unexpected difficulty of the Invasion may cause a schism or even civil war within the Nagai fleet. Exactly how this will all play out, however, is anyone's guess...

There are actually very few of these beings, and most of them exist outside of Nagai society proper. In general, they represent Nagai who have gone completely rogue and struck out on their own in the Galaxy. However, outcasts also include various half-breeds who have been sired by Nagai scouts who came to the Star Wars Galaxy in the thousands of years leading up to the current invasion. One such outcast (Nom Anor) had even developed Force powers (something that has thus far not been seen among the species). Horatio S. Flynn (the PC in my campaign) was recently discovered to be a hybrid descendant of a long-lost great leader of the Nagai, and thus could also be considered a member of this group.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Putting the FU in The Force Unleashed


Seriously, The Force Unleashed? Seriously?

I'll make this a quick one, because I'm sure my ranting about the crap that is 'The Force Unleashed' is boring everyone by now. But now that the game has been out for a little bit, I have taken a look at the 'storyline' of the game- both its summary on various wikis and the cut-scenes as shown on YouTube.

The verdict? It is stupid. Am I surprised? No.

So this time around, Starkiller (still a stupid name) defeats Vader. Oh. Wait. He did that in the first game. What's surprising is that he didn't defeat the Emperor again. Which automatically makes the ending of this game an anti-climax after the first one. But they did 'switch it up' a little. See, this time you not only DEFEAT Vader, you capture him and turn him over to the Rebellion to stand trial for his crimes.


So you not only defeat the main bad guy of the series (again), you capture him. Part of the value of a villain (in a dramatic sense) is their strength...their air of menace. When your main character routinely beats up on the villain, that villain ceases to be strong...ceases to be a menace...ceases to be a villain. In fact, they become somewhat comical. Its a 60's-style Batman thing. "Egads, that pesky Vader is on the loose again!" That's how this piece of crap ends. With the heroes flying off with a defeated Vader to take him to 'prison' to stand trial.

Of course, there is a set up for the third installment- with Boba Fett trailing after the heroes- evidently to rescue Vader. But so what. Again I have to say: What is there in the Galaxy that could possibly pose a threat to Starkiller at this point? I mean he can now hurl capital ships around seemingly at will and evidently survive planetary re-entry THROUGH a planetary defense shield.

That's right. During a particular space battle, he stands on the bridge of a ship as it heads down to ram a planet's shield. Along the way, he hurls pieces of ship wreckage out of the way- including practically whole Corvettes. The ship (somehow) survives the collision with the shields and a re-entry angle that is pretty much straight down. At this point, Starkiller smashes out the front window of the ship and leaps out. Though... moving at terminal velocity, I don't see how this is physically possible. But he's Starkiller, so... Right. He then free-falls next to the ship as its going down and...that's about the time I turned off the video in disgust. This isn't Star Wars. This is a superhero movie. A bad superhero movie. Only in this case, Starkiller apparently doesn't have anything akin to 'Kryptonite' (though Vader alludes to the fact that his love for Juno Eclipse is Starkiller's weakness- wow, how original Haven't seen that one since- oh, pretty much any Superman movie).


I guess a lot of people actually like this game. Hell, it will probably win another award for its great story.


Monday, November 8, 2010

The Charon

It is no secret to folks who know me (and/or who have read this blog), that I'm a fan of the movie Aliens- and subsequently that one of the reasons the Star Wars "Otherspace" adventures appeal to me so much is their 'Aliens-esque' nature. In these adventures, the characters are twice called upon to thwart the galaxy-destroying aims of an alien species known as the Charon. Why do I like them so much? Well, let me count the ways:

1) They have a cool backstory. The Charon homeworld was destroyed by a black hole. Those who escaped began to worship the destructive power of that 'void' and launched a crusade to 'help' all other species get in touch with the void (i.e. kill them). In short, they are an implacable foe. They don't want resources or power or anything. They can't be bargained with. They just want you dead.

2) They don't just kill you. They take your lifeless husk, stitch it together with the husks of other vanquished enemies- or even of their own, fallen bretheren, then reanimate it as a zombie. So as they kill their enemies, they swell their own ranks- and also face their enemies with the prospect of fighting people who they once knew.

3) Their ships are alive. Or once were. Though not much detail as provided, Charon ships used to be a 'race' of huge, spacefaring creatures. The charon killed them all and turned them into huge, 'undead' transports. The concept of a bunch of 'bugs' 'infesting' the rotting carcass of a huge beast is...unsettling. At least to me.

4) They are bugs. Or, more precisely an 'arachnoid' looking species. That is always creepy. They have the whole spider motif going- complete with being able to sling webs to capture their prey. Unlike spiders, however, the Charon seem to be a hive species rather than a solitary hunter. They have warrior and worker castes and leaders above those. Thus, in addition to spider creepiness you have the whole hive attitude going, where they don't care how many they lose, they just keep coming.

5) They are smart. The Charon are high-tech. They developed space travel and advanced weaponry to allow them to carry out their crusade against life. Apart from the previously mentioned ability to turn fallen foes into zombie-like 'constructs', they are quite capable of adapting alien technology to suit their needs and of using their 'wits' to overcome challenges. They aren't a mindless ravening species, they're cold and calculating.

6) They have a funky and relatively unexplored connection to the Dark Side of the Force, via strange black obelisks they keep on their starships. Evidently, these things are integral to the operation of their ships or even of their society. This leaves all kinds of room for interpretation by GMs- and opens the door for the possibility of Charon Force users.

7) They are victorious. As written, the Charon come from another 'dimension'- though this can be interpreted in various ways. Either literally or that they simply come from another part of the same universe- some remote galaxy perhaps. And in this home dimension, they have actually succeeded at their task of eliminating all life. This means that they are a viable threat to the Star Wars galaxy- an unknown force, likely numbering in the billions, that could conceivably destroy the Empire, the Rebellion, all of it. Admittedly, the numbers here are my own interpretation of what is presented in the adventures, but... they seem to make sense. It certainly makes for more drama that way.

Admittedly, the Charon aren't everyone's cup of tea, but for me they've been a great villainous species. I would hesitate to bring them over 'en masse' into the Star Wars Galaxy, however- as they would have a significant impact on the Galaxy that could alter the whole feel of the Sage. Still, they could be inserted into a New Republic Campaign as an alien race to replace the Vong in a galaxy-wide invasion. In my own campaign, they were a threat that had to be 'fended off' by a small group of players- one of those situations where the Galaxy doesn't realize how close it came to being overrun. Though, I did run an 'alternate future' adventure where the Charon were in the process of finishing their conquest of the 'known galaxy'...

In any case, I do have one problem with the Charon. The original artwork depicting them just makes them look... well. Silly. Goofy even. Certainly not terrifying. So it was that one of my earliest things was to give them a makeover. Thus you'll see the images above showing a 'before and after'. The original look and my revamped. You tell me if its an improvement. I think its okay.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Social Skills

Yes, I know, when speaking of Star Wars geeks or role playing games, Social skills don't immediately come to mind. But what I'm actually referring to are Social skills in the Star Wars D6 game system. These are a character's ability to Command, Con, Charm, Persuade, etc.. I know there are a lot of gamers who chafe at the idea of such skills. The main argument here is that by having skills like this you are actually detracting from the roleplay experience. Instead of the player coming up with a lie to get past the stormtroopers, you just roll Character's Con skill and see what happens. Many feel it should be up the player to figure out challenges- it shouldn't left to a skill roll.

First of all, I would like to say that I agree wholeheartedly. A skill roll should never be allowed to take the place of player ingenuity and thought. To do so reduces any game to an exercise in dice rolling. However, I still feel that such skills have merit. After all, in a role playing game we are not playing 'ourselves'. In most cases we're actually playing a character quite different from our real selves. They're Stronger, Faster, Smarter, more Charismatic, etc. Why then is it okay for us to play someone who is stronger or faster, but our character's mental and social abilities should set to our own? In my book that isn't okay. That's why game systems HAVE stats like Intelligence and Charisma and all the skills associated with them. I don't think many gamers can claim to be a 'supra-genius'. Not all of us are master con-artists or political speakers, either. But that shouldn't prevent you from playing the archetypes.

So what is the answer, then? How do you balance skill levels and role playing. Well, I'm proud to say that the Star Wars D6 rulebook actually speaks to just this thing. I'm paraphrasing here a bit, but essentially, the 'official' word on this was:

"It is often a good idea to use a combination of roleplaying and die rolls to figure out what happens. If a player comes up with a brilliant plan, con or persuasive argument and explains it IN CHARACTER, that should count for a lot more than a die roll. On the other hand, if a character has a high level of skill, but the player isn’t quite as eloquent in getting his ideas across, the GM may want to depend more upon die rolls to determine success or failure (as long as the player is making an honest effort).

GMs should reward players’ ingenuity and intelligent roleplaying with bonus modifiers. Conversely, if the players insist on doing something that isn’t too bright, the GM-run non-player characters should get a bonus modifier to reflect poor player character decisions."

There. That's how you do it. Skills are a framework on which you build, they should never replace actual player-generated ideas. I do feel they should have an impact, though. Only rarely do I just give an automatic success on a social skill roll- no matter how persuasive the argument. Why? Well for a couple reasons.

Even a great idea or argument can be ruined if it is poorly delivered. Say your character stammers or sweats or seems uncomfortable when presenting an argument. People could be put off by that, even if what you're saying makes sense. Don't believe me? Just look at the Nixon vs. Kennedy debate. Nixon made some good arguments, but he didn't LOOK good while saying them. Kennedy had more Charisma. Better social skills.

From a purely gamist perspective, Social skills are important as they are another place a character can spend experience points. If someone wants to be a great commander or learned scholar then they should have to put the points into it, just as a master marksman would have to with his combat skills. If Social and Intelligence based skills were simply 'covered' by how well a player plays, then the actual game stats themselves could just be used as 'dump' stats. A player would never need to develop them.

And this leads me to the flip side of the coin. If a player DOES take Charisma or Intelligence as a dump stat, then, with a social skill system, there IS a piper to pay when it comes to interactions with NPCs. No matter how good a con a player thinks of, they could still be sabotaged by their character's lack of social 'dexterity'. A character who chooses to have low social (or intelligence) skills should be willing to play a character who is none-too personable or bright.

So what am I saying? Well, to all those 'haters' out there, I say that Social Skills are a useful and logical extension of any skill system when you're playing a character who is NOT yourself (social/mental capacity-wise). However, in a solid game system, with a good GM, such skills should never take the place of role playing.


What with Halloween just passing and the premier of the new 'The Walking Dead' series on AMC, zombies have been on my mind a lot recently. And fair warning- this post doesn't have a lot to do with Star Wars- except in a fairly oblique kind of way (that you'll see later).

My fascination with zombies didn't begin until my adult life- and rather late into that, in fact. I attribute part of this to the fact that as a kid I was a a chicken when it came to scary movies. In fact, I still am. For most of my life, I had only an oblique knowledge of zombies based upon popular culture stereotypes ("Brains! BRAINS!"). The first zombie movie I ever saw was probably 'Night of the Comet'... and that 80's monstrosity probably doesn't even qualify. It wasn't until I finally watched Romero's Night of the Living Dead that I got my first exposure to a 'real' zombie movie.

What struck me most about this movie was the scope of it. On the one hand, you had the typical scenario of a small group of people in a remote area menaced by monsters. But on the other, the news reports in the film showed that this wasn't just an isolated incidence. It was happening everywhere. Though the end of the movie had the "good guys" showing up to put down the menace, there was an unresolved feeling to the whole thing that was unsettling. It was a first inkling as to what would become a new genre: The Zombie Apocalypse.

In relatively short order I delved into other zombie movies: Dawn of the Dead (original and remake), Day of the Dead, Land of the Dead, Diary of the Dead. I tried the "Return of the Dead" series, but gah. Way too campy and gory for gores sake. Oddly enough, it is these parody movies that give rise to the whole "Brains!" stereotype- something that is absent from the Romero films entirely. 28 Days later is another great zombie movie (though with a different source of the zombie plague). I won't say the same for 28 Weeks later. That was just terrible. The latest great zombie movie (in my opinion) was Zombieland- which was a comedy and a parody, but charmingly so rather than trashily so. The 'Resident Evil' series also falls into this mold, but despite its great visuals and budgets, it just feels.. stupid.

In any case, between those movies, the Walking Dead Comics (which I obliquely follow) and Max Brooks' 'World War Z', I would now count myself as a real zombie fan. The idea of the Zombie Apocalypse is a powerful and frightening one. It makes for great storytelling (or rather, it CAN make for that). Unfortunately, almost every zombie movie seems to be retelling the same story. What's the story? That humans are selfish, self-destructive things who, when the chips are down, will turn on each other and become even worse 'monsters' than the zombies themselves. Not only do I find this story boring (after having seen it in movie after movie), I also think that it does not ring entirely true.

Human beings are communal by nature. We live in communities. In our primitive, tribal origins, we did so for many reasons, not the least of which being protection. But also, community allows you to do much more than you could by yourself. We do so even today. What are 'countries', if not large communities formed for mutual protection from other communities. While it is true that modern society does tend to focus on the individual a lot more than it used to, I don't think that the communal instinct is even remotely being 'bred out of us'.

Most zombie movies contend that humans resort to their 'base instincts' when faced by danger and horror. This can lead to brutality, cruelty, random acts of violence- all the worst things of our instinctual side. But on the other hand, I think people forget that community is also part of our instinctive behavior. Think about it. When faced with danger, is your first instinct to run off somewhere and be alone? No, it is to get with friends and family- or hell, ANYone. Yes. I agree. Humans have animal instincts because we are, deep down, animals. But being an animal is not synonymous with being selfishly evil. And yet, in most zombie movies, that's all we see, people trampling over each other to survive at the expense of everyone but themselves. While I am certain that WOULD be the case in a lot of dangerous situations (look at Hurricane Katrina, for instance), I also think that phase would 'wear off' in a lot of people once the immediate danger had passed. When you get past 'fight or flight', most people would want the security (however fragile) of a community of some sort.

THAT is what ticks me off about most zombie flicks. There is almost always the cliche 'selfish guy (or gal)' who screws everyone else over. I'm not saying it wouldn't happen. It probably would. I am saying that I think its getting to be a tired plot point. As is the whole 'humanity is the worse monster'. Yes. People are capable of doing horrible things to each other. They are also capable of doing selfless and caring things and of accomplishing great feats together. I think that is what I liked most about World War Z. Here we see humans at their worst and their best. It rang true to me- and felt more 'real' than any zombie plot I'd experienced to this point. It didn't rely on the "We are so terrible, we deserve this" diatribe that is getting so tedious. It was a horrible event, people did horrible things during it, but people also came together to overcome it. Of course, there is also the chance that a bad person may come to lead a 'community'- and that is a truly terrifying thought (and one explored in many zombie flicks: The military in Day of the Dead and 28 Days later, and the 'Governor' in The Walking Dead come to mind).

Yeah. I know. I sound like a hopeless optimist, and maybe I am. But I also think that real history has proven my point for me. There are many examples of horrible things happening- natural disasters, for instance. And people DO come together (even if it is 'eventually') to get through those times.

I do realize it is difficult to make an optimistic Zombie movie. It would probably flop. But I would really like to see some story other than the typical "Humanity deserves what it gets".