Friday, February 28, 2014

Why Sci-Fi? (part 5)

Does Solar Echoes ever stray towards the realm of fantasy? Perhaps slightly--the mysterious rift in space known in Solar Echoes as the “Voidsea” involves ancient artifacts that violate the known laws of the universe. In a way, this could almost be considered “magic,” but we are careful to confine these powers, which we justify by attributing them to extra-dimensional technology. Many sci-fi stories take the same route, whether it is magic such as “the force” in Star Wars being attributed to psionic discipline resulting from “midi-chlorians” inside human cells, or teleportation in Star Trek being explained as matter conversion to energy and back. These little side-steps still manage to fall within the realm of sci-fi because we can explain them in a somewhat scientific way, rather than having to attribute them to something supernatural. There is a degree of license that is taken when writing sci-fi, and there are many parameters that writers must navigate. Sci-fi is a tricky genre, but it is likely that part of its popularity is due to the excitement that such things might, someday, be possible.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Why Sci-Fi? (part 4)

Should Solar Echoes be considered “hard sci-fi?” First, let's define that term: Hard sci-fi “is characterized by an emphasis on scientific or technical detail, or on scientific accuracy, or on both.” (Wikipedia) Soft sci-fi, on the other hand, “refers to science fiction stories which lack a scientific focus or rigorous adherence to known science.” Solar Echoes is a mixture, to be honest. In our universe, Faster Than Light speed (FTL) is common, and exists without time-travel paradoxes. Though this would seem to strongly lean towards soft sci-fi because it violates known laws, there are many examples of FTL that can be found in stories considered as hard sci-fi. The existence of numerous advanced alien civilizations in the Solar Echoes universe also leans towards soft sci-fi, yet this is also not exclusive to the soft sci-fi categorization. However, Solar Echoes is largely based around the currently understood laws of the universe—black holes will crush matter to oblivion and starship fusion engines can't be overclocked for more power, for example.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Why Sci-Fi? (part 3)

There are a lot of challenges when writing a sci-fi game or story. Unlike fantasy, there feels like there is a lot more accountability. If the story wanders too far from reality or too far from the known laws of our universe, it begins to segue into the realm of fantasy. Although that's not inherently a bad thing—I really enjoy fantasy and I'll always consider Tolkien a visionary genius for the genre—science fiction ceases to be if “magic” enters the picture. The challenge to sci-fi writers is to make it believable and not fantastical. Could it happen? No? Then it's probably not sci-fi. This makes writing in the genre quite difficult because it requires a tremendous amount of research. For instance, just writing about hacking in the Solar Echoes universe involved consultation with several people working in computer security. Reading information online wasn't enough—the security experts were needed to let me know what was already on its way out and what would be likely to survive into the future. Try to imagine a future with CRT monitors on spaceships and telephones with cords. While it's not impossible that things might have gone that way, it feels very unlikely considering where we are now.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Why Sci-Fi? (part 2)

Consider one of my favorite quotes from my wife, also a sci-fi fan: “There's nothing better than good sci-fi, but there's also nothing worse than bad sci-fi.” So true! But what is good or bad? We all have our favorite styles. Some love the corny style of “Lost in Space,” while others insist on the hard sci-fi of “2001: A Space Odyssey.” There are Star Trek fans, and there are Star Wars fans. There are even debates between loyalist factions around particular sci-fi icons about which would win in a fight—Aliens vs. Predator, for example. Some of the most heated arguments over preferences and categorizations can be found among the sci-fi community, probably more so than with any other genre. There are obviously a lot of challenges to overcome in order to gather a following around a new sci-fi universe. With so much disagreement and disparity, why risk an endeavor in a genre with such a volatile fan base? Our hope is that the sci-fi crowd will recognize our love for this genre and see it expressed in everything we've designed. We might not capture everyone's interest, but even if a small fraction of the sci-fi community enjoys our universe, it is worth it. Having fans fuels us to write more, develop further, and continue creating with the same fervor we had when we started.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Why Sci-Fi? (part 1)

I've been asked this question a number of times when I tell people that I am one of the authors of the science-fiction role-playing game, Solar Echoes. From a marketing standpoint, the sci-fi genre in role-playing games is not nearly as popular as the fantasy genre. If the online store at and DriveThruRPG is any indication, there are at least three or four times as many fantasy games as sci-fi. Right from the start, it doesn't look like this niche within a niche has much of a chance of doing well, but dedicated sci-fi fans would tell you otherwise—we love our sci-fi, and if it's good, we'll hungrily devour as much of it as we can consume!

Friday, February 21, 2014

Expansionism and Opportunity in a Vast Universe (part 5)

The fascinating and seemingly least viable reason to explore and colonize space is often the one that compels us the most—because it's there. New frontiers have always beckoned the hearts of men, but not a one of us hasn't looked up to the stars to stare at the vast universe and wonder what is out there. It is no longer a dream of circumstance, where we might consider colonizing another planet if we happened to already have the capability to do so. Now, there are private companies like Virgin Galactic and Mars One that are extending the possibility to enter space, or even become a colonist, to anyone that would pay. These companies are putting together the necessary funds, technologies, and other resources to make it possible. A ride into space aboard a Virgin Galactic vessel is priced at $250,000, so it is clear that such ventures could eventually be seen as profitable. Private enterprises could fuel the future of space travel, exploration, and colonization, without the shackles of government bureaucracy.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Expansionism and Opportunity in a Vast Universe (part 4)

Though current data and predictions aren't entirely conclusive, the chances a catastrophic impact with an asteroid could occur are around once every thousand years. In the future, if such a case is forecast, earth inhabitants might have another reason to relocate. There are a number of other events that could cause earth to become uninhabitable, so exploration to find other worlds to colonize would become a greater priority if a disastrous event was determined for the future. Other catalysts that might cause off-world colonization to become a priority could include a massive nuclear war, extreme pollution, a deadly outbreak, or even an encounter with an advanced alien species. It is difficult to say what might compel us to make another world our home, but more and more, it appears closer on the horizon.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Expansionism and Opportunity in a Vast Universe (part 3)

It is hard to believe that our expansion of the human race would stop with Mars. Someday, we may achieve faster-than-light (FTL) speed travel, and planets far beyond our own solar system may be more desirable for colonization. Even if we don't manage FTL travel, however, there are other possibilities that may take us beyond our solar system. Theories about wormholes, which are hypothetical shortcuts through space-time, suggest that they might indeed exist. In Solar Echoes, the human race had sent out starships with colonists. One group, called the Ark 3, discovered a wormhole by accident. They were catapulted across the galaxy and not only discovered a habitable world, but soon after discovered the existence of 6 other intelligent alien races. Christopher's Nolan's upcoming movie “Interstellar” addresses the same concept—humans transcending normal limitations on space travel.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Expansionism and Opportunity in a Vast Universe (part 2)

Why are we looking to the stars so much lately? There are a number of likely reasons, but among them is the hope to start fresh. Consider the first pioneers to leave Europe and arrive in America, or those that participated in the Land Run of 1893--people were hoping to expand, to find a place to call their own, or to escape a failed and oppressive government. Though we are still infants in our technological and inter-stellar capabilities, it is easy to imagine that someday, maybe even in our lifetimes, we will see a similar run on lands beyond Earth itself, possibly for the same reasons.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Expansionism and Opportunity in a Vast Universe (part 1)

We see it around us all the time—expansion creates jobs, hope, and opportunity. The world is said, by many, to be overpopulated. Though borders shift occasionally, it has been a long time since the human race found new, undiscovered territory to settle. Is it any wonder, then, that in the last few years there has been so much talk about establishing a small colony on Mars? Private interests, not government, have fueled the drive towards these goals and there is no shortage of the number of people willing to leave Earth and become part of the proposed Mars colony. Thousands have signed up in hopes of being chosen! There is something in us--the human race--that yearns to discover, to expand, and to start again.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Debriefing (part 5)

The gang leader immediately took cover behind his vehicle and ignored the Omul's warning that he would fire his rotary canon at him. The gangster must have figured the Omul wouldn't use the powerful vehicle weapon in a public place, for risk of hitting other cars on the freeway. The gang leader fired his assault rifle at the Omul, who barely managed to duck in time as the windshield was shattered. However, the gangster was quite surprised when the Omul returned fire with the rotary cannon, shredding the entire rear half of the skimcar and nearly hitting him. He quickly surrendered in disbelief, wondering how a UG agent could fire a heavy vehicle weapon near civilians. Shortly after, the Human and Krissethi agent caught up, and the gang leader was apprehended. After some clever interrogation attempts, the team was able to determine that a group of smugglers was waiting at the starport for the gun shipment.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Debriefing (part 4)

It wasn't long before the Omul managed to catch up to the gang leader's skimcar, but it was clear that the gangster had better driving skills. For instance, the gangster made a sharp turn by drifting around it without having to slow down, but the Omul couldn't manage the same maneuver without slowing and fell further behind. However, he managed to close the distance soon after, and began firing at the gangster's skimcar with his hood-mounted rotary canon. The gangster eluded the gunfire by skillfully swerving, and answered the attack with an attack of his own—magnetic caltrops. The tiny devices successfully attached themselves to the anti-grav generator of the Omul's skimcar, risking a malfunction at any moment as a result that would send his skimcar crashing into the ground at high speed. The Omul pressed forward despite the risk and continued his pursuit, firing at the gangster's vehicle continuously. Finally, the gang leader's skimcar was so damaged that he had to stop in the middle of the freeway.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Debriefing (part 3)

Unfortunately, the gang leader managed to get to his skimcar. The Krissethi attempted to shoot him with his sniper rifle, but only managed to shoot out his window. As the garage opened, however, the Omul agent outside was ready and waiting. He fired a hail of gunfire at the gang leader's vehicle and tore up the front of the skimcar. However, the gang leader managed to speed away successfully, and the Omul immediately began pursuit. Meanwhile, the Human agent had to take cover behind a crate and narrowly avoided a spray of gunfire from a gang member wielding one of the illegal assault weapons. The agent's return fire was enough to render the gang member unconscious. The Krissethi spotted the last remaining gang member running for another car, so he dropped out of the air duct and threw a bola at him. This primitive weapon was surprisingly effective, as it hit the gangster and entangled him before he could enter the vehicle. He was promptly cuffed and stuffed into the trunk of a gang skimcar, along with the other captives, so the Krissethi and Human could try to catch up to the Omul on their team.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Debriefing (part 2)

The team of UG agents made sure to cover the two exits of the warehouse—the side door was covered by the team's Human, while the gelatinous Omul trained their squad car's rotary canon upon the garage door in the front of the warehouse. Meanwhile, the team's stealthy Krissethi had climbed to the roof and managed to creep into the air exchange ductwork, allowing the rest of the team to have some eyes on the inside. There were five gang members working out a gun deal, selling powerful, military-grade firearms enhanced with stabilization technology. The agents knew that they had to prevent these weapons from getting out on the street. When everyone on the team was ready, the Krissethi tossed a tear-gas grenade from the air duct towards the gang below. At the same moment, the Human agent burst through the side door of the warehouse and opened fire. The gang members were temporarily blinded by the tear gas and their wild gunfire missed the agents. The Human seized the opportunity and tackled a gang member, cuffing him quickly before exchanging gunfire with another. The Krissethi managed to have a clear shot at one of the blinded gang members, and put him down with his sniper rifle.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Debriefing (part 1)

This debriefing is for the benefit of other aspiring agents that may be entering the field soon. On Saturday, February 8th, a team of Union Guard agents was called to action. The agents were on patrol when they were alerted by headquarters about a lead on a gun-running gang. Through a tracking device, it was determined that the gang was meeting at a warehouse near the Vega Starport. The UG agents approached carefully, and discovered the presence of a robotic security drone outside the warehouse. They managed to destroy the drone quickly but were thankfully not surprised by a second drone emerging from a nearby shipping container (they had earlier determined with their rad-scanner that the container had an unusually high radiation signature.) Fortunately, both drones were unsuccessful in sounding the alarm or inflicting harm because of the agents' quick thinking, a few EMP grenades, and the rotary cannon mounted on the team's squad car.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Solar Echoes: Five Games in One! (part 5)

The core system in Solar Echoes is the squad combat system, and players will be spending a lot of their time in battle. This system is the only one of our combat systems that requires the use of a battle-mat: a grid of 1-inch squares for keeping track of character movements. We found that it was necessary to measure movement distances in squad combat because it otherwise became too chaotic and unfair for players. The fast-paced system works well, and players will quickly find themselves working as a team to survive and succeed at their goals. Combat moves more quickly than other RPG's, and keeps all players involved throughout every phase of combat. Characters may be customized and designed with talents and skill investments as well as a variety of weapon and armor choices. Our first mission, which can be found in the Starter Kit called "Gun Runners," has been beta tested countless times, and each time, we've seen players making entirely different choices with their character design and combat style. The bottom line is that, if you've seen it in an action movie, it's almost certainly possible that your character will be able to do the same things in Solar Echoes.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Solar Echoes: Five Games in One! (part 4)

Starship battles are another aspect of the Solar Echoes experience, ranging from intense, one-on-one dogfights to the clash of entire starship armadas. We made sure that the core elements of our car chase rules carried over to starship battles so that players won't have to learn an entirely new system, and only a few additional details are necessary to learn. The system is abstract, so measuring distances and movement is entirely absent from the experience, which keeps the action moving fast. All players will need to work together to manage different aspects of the starship during battle, affording various bonuses that often mean the difference between success and defeat. Imagine the entire group of players managing one character--the starship--working together to maximize its potential in battle. There is an important role for every player, and the teamwork we've seen in beta tests is often more impressive than what we see in squad combat.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Solar Echoes: Five Games in One! (part 3)

Dialogue in Solar Echoes is another mini-game that was developed to quantify things for players when conversing with a non-player character (NPC.) Often, in other RPG's, conversational ability is represented in the game through a single die roll indicating success or failure. Sometimes this approach degenerates into a form of "mind control," where players with high ranks in the ability will be able to convince an NPC to do whatever they want. In Solar Echoes, we have designed the system to incorporate a few more angles. An NPC will have a target "Posture" players must achieve with their persuasive abilities, with risk and rewards attached to each type of persuasive attempt (diplomacy, bluff, or intimidate each raise or lower NPC Posture different amounts.) All players on the team may participate as well, instead of waiting around for the one character with high ranks in persuasion to do all the talking--other players can use their skills to determine possible conversational advantages that can be gained. For instance, an NPC may have an unusual, customized pistol and a character with high ranks in the firearms skill may have a chance to notice this--admiring it and making a successful firearms check will allow the player to say something about the gun that will impress and raise the NPC's posture an additional point. A failed check might cause the comment to come off the wrong way--the NPC might misinterpret the comment as covetous or as mocking.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Solar Echoes: Five Games in One! (part 2)

Hacking in Solar Echoes is essentially a quick mini-game intended to be used to access important, plot-related data or to enter a secure location. Unlike other RPG's that require all players to wait around while the "thief" makes rolls to unlock a door and/or disarm a trap, hacking involves all players and each player can use his best skills to help bring down the security system. Hacking is not necessary in Solar Echoes for every locked door or secured piece of information--it is intended for more important instances in the game so that players will feel they had to go the extra mile and take a risk by hacking a security system. Sometimes, clever players may come up with an idea the MC didn't expect--in one beta test, a player decided he wanted to have his team hack the star-port's passenger manifest to locate a target. The MC decided that an endeavor like this would require a hacking challenge, and when the players barely succeeded, they felt they'd earned the information. If the MC had simply said "ok," and given out the information they sought, it is likely players would have been a little frustrated and questioned the game world itself--what kind of star-port would have such information so easily and freely accessible?

Monday, February 3, 2014

Solar Echoes: Five Games in One! (part 1)

There are a variety of gameplay modes in Solar Echoes because we wanted players to be able to experience the different types of action we'd seen in our favorite shows and movies. Car chases are almost an essential ingredient in action movies these days, and some movies, like the Fast and Furious series, are based upon over-the-top vehicle action and stunts. We have a streamlined set of rules for exciting car chases in Solar Echoes, with pre-scripted scenarios as well as the tools for the MC to design his own exciting action sequences. We worked to keep the rules as simple and as related to our basic combat rules as possible so that players would not have to learn an entirely new system. From our beta tests, players assimilated to the car chase system within a few minutes and were immediately engaged in the excitement of trying to chase down or escape enemy vehicles, guns blazing.