Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Notes from a Mission Controller (part 2)

When confronted with an experience in a game that seems almost impossible to surmount, I realize that for me, it really depends whether I'm going to enjoy the challenge or not. I'm not too into puzzle games, because I have very limited time to play games in the first place, so I need to feel like I'm making progress. Challenging puzzles sometimes require many long minutes or even a few hours to solve, and though some people feel incredible elation at finally solving a puzzle and consider their time well-spent, I become annoyed and irritated, feeling like I wasted my time. Most video games and table-top RPG's like Solar Echoes are designed to feed the player a continually developing experience—we players love to see our character's skills and appearance develop and feel the story progress. Yet sometimes, if we are met with a challenge that halts this momentum, it can potentially spoil the experience for us...

Monday, September 29, 2014

Notes from a Mission Controller (part 1)

I've run countless Solar Echoes games, and each time I run another one, I notice new things. It is difficult to predict the mileage each person will get out of different experiences in the game. There is an aspect of these experiences that needs to be carefully measured: difficulty. This is managed by the MC, and there are several approaches one can take. It is easy to strictly follow the mission as written, regardless of the circumstances the players might have placed themselves in, but in my opinion, it is the job of the MC to keep things challenging, sometimes even right at the edge of seemingly impossible, but to still make sure the players have a chance to succeed. It's much more fun for players to feel like almost all hope is lost but then emerge later with success—this is what makes them feel heroic. Yet one recent scenario in Solar Echoes was received differently by two players. The situation was that the two had taken cover inside a dark cave because somewhere outside, hidden among the rocks, were two very accurate and deadly snipers that had already managed to critically injure one of the team with a single shot. There was a point where the players felt helpless and trapped—they knew that poking their head outside was suicide. Yet through discussion and a plan of desperation, they managed to use a distraction, run quickly for cover, and locate the snipers during the process as they were shot at. The team was able to kill the sniper team, and, though the players' characters were injured from the encounter, they survived. The reaction to this experience from the players was very informative: one loved it, but the other felt it was too difficult, perhaps even unbalanced.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Battle Tactics (part 5)

Planning a strategy is crucial for success in Solar Echoes. Unlike other RPG's, walking straight into a battle without taking advantage of tactical opportunities can get you and your team killed fast. Solar Echoes is designed for you to care about your team member's injuries, and your own, because with each injury after the first, you start to suffer penalties. These penalties not only affect you, but the effectiveness of your entire team as a whole. An injured teammate can give your opponents a distinct advantage. This goes the other way, too, of course—injuring an enemy can bring down the overall effectiveness of their team as well. In a recent game of Solar Echoes, a group of smugglers were trying to escape the players' characters at a Starport. One of the characters managed to shoot one of the smugglers just before he boarded his starship. The players' team had to board a UG starship to chase after them, but they were more successful in the starship battle because the smuggler that they had wounded earlier was the smuggler team's pilot! The smuggler pilot's wound penalties affected his piloting checks, giving the players' team the advantage. Protecting your team members is one of the most vital strategies in Solar Echoes—think of your team as one big character, with each player performing different functions for the entire unit to function effectively.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Battle Tactics (part 4)

Sometimes well-laid plans can go awry, and tactics collapse into utter hilarity. During last weekend's game, it was all I could do to keep a straight face as the players prepared for their next mission. One of the players decided to spend his money on tear gas grenades, reasoning with his teammate that during their previous mission, they had only encountered one robot and many “organics” that would have been affected by tear gas. As soon as they began their next mission and were informed that they needed to stop a bunch of malfunctioning, rampaging robots, the other player smiled and looked at his friend smugly, saying sarcastically, “Tear Gas Grenades!” Later in the same mission, a player's character was attacked by an alien dog, which locked its jaws onto his leg before being killed. Removing the dog from his leg would be impossible without causing damage, and the player's character was already critically wounded-—it would have killed him to take the dead dog off. So, the player limped around for the next few hours with a dog attached to his leg, even during a tense interrogation where the target finally had the courage to ask, “What's the deal with your dog?”

Battle Tactics (part 3)

Great planning and foresight can go a long way in Solar Echoes. One of our players had served in the Navy, and his careful planning and excellent tactics resulted in zero injuries to his team and a complete capture of all the enemies. This player utilized almost every resource available to him, and one of his most effective tactics was positioning his team's squad car near the garage of the warehouse, aiming the car's rotary canon at the door. When one of the criminals attempted to speed away in his car, the rotary canon made short work of the vehicle and the criminal was brought to a screeching halt. Just this last weekend, another team of players had the idea to sprinkle magnetic caltrops around the waiting skimcar of their target. They first studied the four cars in the parking lot and noticed that one was facing out, positioned so that it would be ready to drive away quickly. They reasoned that this must be their target, and judged correctly, because when some of the criminals managed to get past the players' characters and jump into their skimcar, the magnetic caltrops the team had sprinkled around it were suddenly sucked into the anti-grav system when the car was started. Though the team jumped into their own car to pursue the criminals, it was a very short chase—after only two rounds, the anti-grav system malfunctioned and the skimcar crashed into the ground. The criminals were quickly captured.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Battle Tactics (part 2)

Sometimes players make tactical errors, or the situation unfolds unexpectedly and they have to improvise. Just last week in the warehouse scenario, a team of players realized that their Archaeloid character—who was attempting to crawl through an air duct--wasn't stealthy enough. The enemies heard him and were suspicious, but just as his location was about to be filled with bullets, another team member burst in the side door, pretending to be a confused drunk. It was just enough distraction for the Archaeloid to get out of the ductwork and drop down to attack. I've seen another scenario where a player decided to send his female Reln (an alien race that excels at word-play) right into the warehouse to the criminals to flirt and distract them while a second team member moved into flanking position. In yet another situation, the team was supposed to apprehend a gang leader but he managed to get into his car and began to race away. Before he could pull away, though, one quick-thinking player threw a smoke grenade through the window of the car. Even though the gang leader managed to race away, it wasn't long before his car filled with smoke and he crashed, enabling the players' characters to catch up to him and apprehend him.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Battle Tactics (part 1)

I've seen quite a variety of strategies in Solar Echoes games, and the different tactics that were used to carry out these strategies ranged from impressive to comical. I usually refrain from detailing these approaches until after people have experienced a scenario themselves and come up with their own ideas, since it's easy to borrow from others. However, much like in football, military strategies are often reviewed to develop them even further. Consider this scenario, taken from a Solar Echoes mission: your team needs to get inside a warehouse occupied by enemies and there are several options. There is a closed garage, a door on the side of the warehouse, and an opening into an air duct system on the roof. With just these three options, I've seen people open the garage door and start attacking right away, but I've also seen people use stealth to slip inside the warehouse, unseen, through the side door. Sometimes, brave players will even send their character into the air duct system, though this is one of the riskiest approaches if they are heard moving around. One team of teenage players decided to drive their car through the garage door, breaking through with guns blazing. Another time, a team decided to use a fork lift they found nearby, hoist up a shipping container, and ram it into the garage while storming in through the side door during the distraction. I can honestly say, the same scenario has never played out the same way, not even once in the countless times I've run the demo!

Friday, September 19, 2014

Will humans be different by 2050? (part 5)

Military applications in the future may also see a change in humanity. As robot soldiers become an increasingly viable option, human soldiers may need to integrate their bodies with technology to both keep up with robots and to coordinate with them. Smartphones and tablet computers may be fully integrated into the body, with subcutaneous phones and ocular overlays. Targeting, nightvision, visual analysis, and other options may become available to a soldier in the future. Quicker reflexes, faster running speed, and possibly even greater strength and jumping distances could all be the results of implanted technology. Direct interface and coordination with remote, flying drones through thought alone could produce enormous differences with future military tactics. In Solar Echoes, players have the option to spend money on upgrading their characters with “cyberware” that affords the very same options. However, there are limits to the amount of cyberware a person can have installed without adverse effects. The question is, how much is too much, and when are we no longer human?

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Will humans be different by 2050? (part 4)

Technology is advancing so quickly and being embraced so immediately that we humans are generally rather unaware of how it is changing us. Technological integration with our physical bodies is predicted to become a standard form of self-advancement in the future. The competition for work with robots and AI may result in humans choosing to have implants surgically grafted into our brains for increased mental processing power. We may even seek other biological upgrades so that we can better compete with robots, such as bionic implants in our hands or legs that enable us to perform as quickly as a robot. Ocular implants may not only be chosen to improve eyesight, but may also project menus and videos into our vision, and allow us to take pictures or record videos just by looking. This technology already exists with “Google Glass,” and though it is undergoing a challenge with social acceptance, we may see this same technology re-emerge in other ways. If technological implants enable us to do our jobs better and to compete with the growing robot work-force, human cyborgs may not be as uncommon in the future as we might think right now. Becoming a cyborg may even be a necessity to survive the demands of future society, and we may see that the biggest earners in the future are those that have decided to invest in “upgrading” their bodies.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Will humans be different by 2050? (part 3)

Humans may spend far less time in contact with each other in the future, if current trends continue. There is some speculation that we may live out much of our lives in virtual reality environments. Already, people are working from home more and more--telecommuting has already allowed for an incredibly wide range of jobs to be conducted remotely. When was the last time you had a lengthy conversation over the phone? We are already preferring quick texts to email, email to voicemail, and voicemal to actual conversation. As we continue to separate ourselves from other humans, we may turn to other sources for interaction. Virtual reality environments may afford us leisurely “getaways” and pseudo-social interaction with artificially intelligent people. The Japanese are already developing programs for the VR headset—the Oculus Rift--that involve an animated woman who wants to talk with you while your head rests on her lap. The movie “Her” suggests that a man can form an emotional bond with an AI program. We are becoming increasingly disconnected from reality and genuine human interaction and experience!

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Will humans be different by 2050? (part 2)

Changes in society may affect us physiologically. Researchers are already suggesting that humans will demonstrate delayed sexual maturation as a result of societal changes. As technology continues to improve and robots begin to replace menial tasks, we will have more free time. Robots will dominate unskilled jobs, making it more difficult to find work without an education, thus necessitating a delay in having children. Brain size is expected to increase as well, and as a result, we will need more energy and time, resulting in less reproduction. Medical technology may allow for changes to the “biological clock,” and possibly an elimination of it altogether. It may be entirely feasible for couples over 60 to have children in the future, and we may also have longer lives, living until 120 by the year 2050.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Will humans be different by 2050? (part 1)

Where are we heading, and what will humans be like in 2050? One change that is already taking place is when we choose to have children. Today, the average age a British woman has her first child is late in her 29th year. In the United States, compare the change from 1970, where one percent of first children were born to women over the age of 35, but by 2012, that rose to 15 percent! It is becoming increasingly common to put off child-rearing until later years, as both men and women are focusing on finishing advanced college degrees and getting settled in a job. This is also reflected by the median age of first marriage, where the average age of males marrying in 1950 was 22.8, and the average age for women during that time was 20.3. By 2010, that had changed to 28.2 for men and 26.1 for women. As countries become increasingly advanced socioeconomically, people are choosing to focus on extending their child-free years for leisure time or career development. Studies have also found that trends in business are showing decreasing job security and increasing demands upon workers to work during unsociable hours. With educational “inflation,” more and more degrees and certifications are being required of people, resulting in extended years in school and larger loans to pay off.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Artificial Intelligence already creeping into our society (part 5)

It may seem that I am simply focusing on examples of computer errors in all this, and not actual AI. Yet Artificial Intelligence is a conglomeration of complex algorithms that allow a computer to make conclusions based on data sampled through various means. What we might call a computer error is really a matter of perspective—to us, it is an error because it violated our intent for the computer. But in the cases mentioned this week, the computer arrived at that “error” through a logical application of its programming. The AI on the International Space Station had a task to complete—the launching of satellites on a specific schedule—but when the AI realized it could not maintain its objective if it was delayed any further, it simply resumed its task, regardless of the fact that it had been told to stop. The peak-rewards situation was a mere application of programming to a situation: it was hot, everyone was using their AC, and the computers decided to shut down the AC of everyone on “peak rewards” because too much electricity was being used. I've even heard a story of a hospital situation where orders for medicine suddenly stopped being printed out, and pharmacists did not realize that the queue was building internally in the computer system. Patients no doubt suffered for the delay in their medication, but because of a computer program re-routing the notifications to a computer instead of a the usual printers, the pharmacists were delayed as they tried to figure out what was going on. Why are we even considering developing AI for any system that could profoundly affect our lives? Smart phones, smart homes, and Google's smart car...does AI make you feel safe?

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Artificial Intelligence already creeping into our society (part 4)

Even in our everyday lives, we encounter small forms of AI. If you've used a word processor on your computer, or have been typing a text on your smartphone, you've probably encountered what I call “predictive technology.” The program tries to assume what you are trying to type and auto-completes it for you. We all have funny stories about how our intended message has been mangled, and unless you've figured out how to turn off the auto-complete process on your computer or phone, you are probably very annoyed and frustrated at having a computer finishing your sentences for you. Voice-recognition technology is another example of how far computer recognition of human intent still has to go. Perhaps you have tried Siri on iphones, the Kinect on Microsoft's Xbox, or Sony's PS4 voice-recognition “feature”--all of these fail far more often than they succeed. Computers are far from understanding what we really want, yet we are placing them in some very important positions in our lives.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Artificial Intelligence already creeping into our society (part 3)

On May 6, 2010, the stock market plunged 4%, and then in mere minutes, sharply fell another 6%, before mysteriously rebounding almost as quickly. A reactive, computer execution system had caused roughly $2 billion worth of shares to be sold in just seven minutes in reaction to someone's trade, and the ensuing panic exposed the fragility of our stock market. After review, the The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) determined that a computer algorithm was to blame for the incident, and measures have been put in place to prevent computers from causing such sudden, volatile swings in the market. Today, markets depend on the volume generated by high-speed traders and their computers, but the computers don't have a sense of when to intervene during a crisis—they are entirely oblivious to the catastrophic effects that may be caused by certain actions. While it is obvious that computers are an integral part of the stock market, have we allowed them too much of a role in our fragile economy? What kind of oversight is there? What are the failsafes? In the end, the computers were only following their programming, regardless of the possible outcome. As computers have been integrated into vital components of our civilization's infrastructure, it is chilling to consider how far-reaching a computer error can be upon our way of life.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Artificial Intelligence already creeping into our society (part 2)

Just how much do we want AI handling systems we rely on in our daily lives? “Smart houses” are supposedly the wave of the future, where AI controls ambient temperature, the scheduled activation and deactivation of devices such as the coffee maker or the laundry machine, and it even regulates the usage of power within the house. Some states have energy usage programs, where electricity is cycled automatically off during certain peak periods to prevent high rates. But what happens when these systems malfunction? Several years ago in Maryland and D.C. on an unusually hot day, air conditioning units hooked up to the peak-rewards program all cut out. Residents were unable to control their own AC, and despite calls to the electric company in the affected counties, the system could not be bypassed. People were without AC for several days, and many of them had to stay in hotels to survive the outdoor heat. While this situation doesn't seem directly related to AI, it is a prime example of a computerized system overriding human input. Do we really want to yield control to these systems? I'm sticking with manual control of my AC, even if it costs me more in the long run!

Monday, September 8, 2014

Artificial Intelligence already creeping into our society (part 1)

There was recently an unexpected event caused by the Artificial Intelligence on the International Space Station. Two satellites were launched without human permission—the AI had been programmed to launch the cubesat satellites on a regular schedule, but apparently this schedule was delayed by the humans aboard the ISS for various reasons. The AI got “tired of waiting” and decided to launch the satellites anyway to try to maintain its schedule. This incident may seem small, but the ramifications are enormous. When we have an AI system plugged in to something as delicate as a Space Station making decisions that could potentially endanger humans, we have a very big problem. For instance, what if there was a structural situation on the space station that warranted the interruption in the satellite launch schedule, and the AI ignored human input to halt the schedule? In that situation, launching a satellite could have torn the structure apart, created a hull breach, and doomed the humans aboard to the vacuum of space.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Choosing Talents and Weapons For Your Character in Solar Echoes (part 5)

You can see how many of the choices made in character design are inter-related. Sometimes, you may have your heart set on a particular weapon, and you'll end up designing your entire character around that. Other times, you may find that your weapon choices are made to supplement the style of your character. Talents can also be equally defining for your character, and in the case of my Archaeloid, one of my talent choices was made to exemplify his personality. My Archaeloid is a very devoted, loyal protector, and regards his team as his own family. He can now literally take a bullet for someone with the Sacrificial Shield talent, which enables him to quickly shift 5 feet and step between a nearby ally and an oncoming ranged attack. It may not seem like the talent of choice for most people, because my Archaeloid suffers the damage if the attack hits him, but I just had to take it—it's what he would do!

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Choosing Talents and Weapons For Your Character in Solar Echoes (part 4)

However, I didn't stop there with my Archaeloid. I really wanted to ensure that he was difficult to escape, so I looked at a few other weapon choices. The primitive bola seemed an excellent choice—this throwing weapon consists of weights on the ends of interconnected cords, which can entangle a target and prevent them from running. Another weapon I selected was the whip. It doesn't have the range of the Glob Pistol or the bola, but I could use it to entangle or trip any opponent within two squares. Tripping them put them in the prone position, which causes them to suffer a -1 penalty against melee attacks and requires them to expend their movement just to stand up again. All of this is music to the ears of a dedicated melee fighter. I had decided to make my Archaeloid a martial artist, so I purchased a pair of spiked gloves and spiked boots (which both give me armor-piercing for unarmed attacks) and I selected the Thrust Kick talent so he could seriously kick some...yeah. But, I also know that being a one-trick pony can really backfire in Solar Echoes, so I played it safe and bought a couple long-range weapons: a Phoenix Blaster which fires energy rays, and a handy revolver, which would not only work well with my Quick Draw talent, but also added a little flavor for my Archaeloid—he seems to prefer low-tech fighting methods. Plus, I had fun imagining him walking around with a 10-gallon hat and a southern accent. Howdy, y'all!

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Choosing Talents and Weapons For Your Character in Solar Echoes (part 3)

For the combat-focused Archaeloid, I chose the “Deadly Focus” talent, which allows him to gain a bonus to attack and damage if he hasn't moved that round. This makes him a particularly scary melee fighter, and the only defense is keeping a distance from him. Archaeloids run a little slower than some of the other races, so I decided to compensate with my weapon choices—I wanted to make it easier for him to close and get into melee range. So, I chose the Omul Glob Pistol, which glues an opponent in place for 2 rounds. This would allow my Archaeloid to catch up to those fast runners, and hopefully give him a chance to use Deadly Focus the next round to really put the hurt on. Another concern, though, was that I might miss with the Glob Pistol, because Archaeloids start with a 3 Reflex (4 is the best you can get.) Since I hadn't put my 1 extra point into Reflexes to bring it up to a 4, I needed to give my Archaeloid a better chance at hitting with a firearms attack. So, I chose the Quick Draw talent, which gives me a +1 bonus to a ranged attack that round. Now, I could draw my Glob Pistol quickly, fire it with a bonus and have a good chance of hitting, which would glue my opponent in place and allow me to move right next to him to start my melee assault. I feel sorry for anyone that is glued in place long enough for my Archaeloid to use his Deadly Focus talent! Ouch!

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Choosing Talents and Weapons For Your Character in Solar Echoes (part 2)

A lot of the decisions I made for one of my characters, an Archaeloid, was based on my friend's character, an Omul. With only 7 skill points to invest in 7 different skills, we wanted to make sure that most skills were covered between us. Solar Echoes is a team-based game, so much so that you'll want to plan your character out with other players. If, for example, both my friend and I chose to play melee-focused attackers, we might both have neglected to select any Persuasion, Cybertech (hacking), or Biotech (medical) skills. Then, if we ran into a situation where we needed to get information out of someone, neither of us would be very good at wordplay, neither of us would be able to hack into a computer database, and both of us would be in big trouble if we were wounded. So, once I knew that my friend's character had invested skills in Persuasion, Stealth, Disguise, Discern Motive, Awareness, Firearms, and Language, I knew what we were lacking. We needed a melee fighter, someone who was athletic, tough, and was great with all forms of weaponry. My Archaeloid focused on these skills, but we still needed a hacker, engineer, medic, and someone who was skilled at driving and piloting starships. We agreed to add one more to our team—an Erwani, and he covered those skills. The talent choices I made next reflected the roles that I had chosen for my characters...

Monday, September 1, 2014

Choosing Talents and Weapons For Your Character in Solar Echoes (part 1)

This weekend I designed two characters for Solar Echoes to play with a friend of mine. I've talked about considering skills and attributes in the past, but selecting talents and equipment will probably take up the bulk of your time with character design, simply because there are so many choices! For example, there are over 270 Talents to choose from, though not all 270 are available at level 1. In the Player's Guide, you can see this in the helpful quick reference table for talents, where it indicates the requirements (if there are any) for each talent and the earliest possible level the talent is available. Choosing equipment for your character feels just like you're going shopping--that is, if the store is a military stockpile of high-tech weapons, armor, and other special-forces-worthy equipment. There is a lot to choose from, with 86 weapons total (that's significant, almost 3 times as many as other sci-fi games!) You can choose from a variety of guns (pistols, submachine guns, longarms, assault, and heavy firearms), over a dozen grenade types, lots of “simple weapons” (katana, whips, crossbows, etc.), and some very unique cyber-weapons (essentially short-range remote controlled robotic drones.) There are lots of armor types, some of them only usable by certain races, and if you really want to “build” your character, you can install cyberware and become a powerful cyborg--if you can afford it. With only 5000 credits for starting money, you'll need to be judicious with your choices and make certain that your character's equipment covers a range of situations.