Friday, October 31, 2014

Which Solar Echoes alien race are you most like? (part 4)

What do you typically do when something breaks? An Erwani would of course study it carefully, and then try to fix it himself, but some of us (myself included), like the Krissethi, would rather pay someone else to deal with it. The Chiraktis would immediately set to work, convinced that he could fix it by himself without any help. Omuls would jump at the chance to replace it with something new, excited by another opportunity for change. Find out what alien race you have the most in common with by answering five questions from Monday's Solar Echoes quiz:

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Which Solar Echoes alien race are you most like? (part 3)

If one of the Solar Echoes aliens was invited to play a sport or a game, the competitive Krissethi would be the first to jump in, eager to show off. Erwani love strategic games involving many hours of thought (they consider chess to be too slow!) while Omuls love the chaos of games based on pure chance. Reln and humans both enjoy gambling to a degree, but Archaeloids are ready to try anything to prove themselves. The stoic Chiraktis drones, however, consider games to be a complete waste of time—after all, there's work to be done!

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Which Solar Echoes alien race are you most like? (part 2)

The second quiz question asks how you would respond to a situation where you have to talk to someone you don't know. Some of us are confident that we can keep a conversation going, just like the very social Reln, but like the Chiraktis, some of us might feel that we'd prefer to let our actions speak for us instead. Omuls are the absolute worst at social encounters, so they will probably try to get out of this situation and get someone else to talk for them (of course, it's entirely possible that the uncouth Omul might not be aware of his lack of social graces and communication skills, which can make for a comical character!) Despite the intimidating appearance of the mighty Archaeloids, they actually are quite shy and nervous in social situations.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Which Solar Echoes alien race are you most like? (part 1)

Our first quiz question asked what you do when presented with a job or task. A Chiraktis immediately focuses on a task with intensity and does not look up until it is complete—it is the nature of insect drones to behave this way. The reptilian Krissethi will likely achieve the same results of the Chiraktis, but their motivations are entirely different, because Krissethi are extremely competitive and live in a society where status is everything. The analytical Erwani might take a while before starting—they are information-gatherers and want to be certain they fully understand something before attempting to work at it.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Friday, October 24, 2014

Writing a Mission for Solar Echoes (part 5)

A final consideration for mission design involves player rewards. If players have put themselves at risk and worked hard to achieve mission goals, they need to know how well they did. At the end of every mission, I review all the challenges and decide if any of them are significant enough to deserve an experience (XP) point. Usually, an average mission will yield 10 to 15 XP. In Solar Echoes, characters level up every 20 XP, so these points aren't given out for every single thing that is done. We usually don't award XP for killing anything, unless the mission was an assassination mission. XP rewards are sometimes in the negative, too. For instance, if the players' characters didn't bother to question an important non-player character (NPC) and just killed him outright, then they will earn -1 or -2 XP points! In other situations, if players managed to avoid a fight with a dangerous foe and bypassed or defeated him in another way, there might be an extra XP point or two awarded for their creative approach. Another important consideration with player rewards is loot—players should find interesting items, weapons, and armor during the course of the mission. Also, at the end of the mission, players should be awarded with several thousand credits for doing their job. The UG typically awards 2,000 to 5,000 credits per mission at beginning character levels. I want the players to be excited about the things they find during a mission, and to have enough money to start making long-term plans for their characters—buying better equipment, cyberware prosthetics, or even their very own starship!

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Writing a Mission for Solar Echoes (part 4)

I've written my basic plot, I know generally how I want things to proceed, but the problem is one I'm faced with every time I sit down to start working on a new mission. That problem is that this game is so open-ended: the players can do anything. That is the strength of table-top role-playing games, because there are no pre-programmed parameters (like in a video game) that restrict a player from choices. However, it is also one of the biggest challenges I face, because I have a story I want told and yet I don't want to railroad the players along. Giving players specific mission goals helps, and the experience point system revolves around objectives completed, so that does make things easier. Yet it is difficult to avoid trying to anticipate every player choice and write if/then scenarios for every imagined instance. The thing that has worked best for me is to set forth how each person they encounter will function according to preset motivations. If a bad-guy is fanatically committed to his cause, I'll indicate in the mission that no amount of persuasion will deter him, and that he will do whatever he must to achieve his goals. Then, I leave the rest to the MC—he'll just have to play out that personality in every situation the players generate.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Writing a Mission for Solar Echoes (part 3)

An important aspect of designing a mission is making sure that there is a variety of challenges within each of the challenge types (squad combat, vehicle combat, hacking and dialogue.) For instance, rather than just another gunfight, throw in some environmental changes that would make the fight more interesting--low gravity could allow for long distance jumps, and extreme weather could make it difficult to see and hear. Another way to vary combat is to introduce unusual weapons that the characters don't see every day, or combos of weapons that might be more challenging when used together, such as the stun gun and tormenter (a gun that does cumulative damage, the longer it is aimed at you. If you're stunned and not moving...) New enemy abilities are also an exciting challenge, and even specialized combinations of talents can be thrilling, though remember, clever players can turn all this around eventually and use the same tactics themselves!

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Writing a Mission for Solar Echoes (part 2)

The second thing I try to consider for a mission is still related to the plot—what types of gameplay will characters experience? I like to have a good balance between squad combat, vehicle combat, dialogue encounters, and hacking. I've found that missions that are almost exclusively combat-oriented aren't as fun for some players, because it doesn't give them much of an opportunity to role-play their characters and feel like they are part of developing the story. Players really want to feel like their decisions made a difference in the larger scheme of things, so giving them options to steer the story in different directions really creates a memorable experience where they can say that they affected the course of history. Combat is essential too, because without it, players will walk away feeling unskilled and the lack of action results in less exciting stories of heroism to be told later. Players like to feel the danger of risk for their characters, and the sense of accomplishment and pride that comes from surviving against extreme odds.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Writing a Mission for Solar Echoes (part 1)

Designing a mission is an involved process, but that is because it requires several elements to work well. This week, I plan to spend some time putting together a new mission, and I thought I'd walk through my process a little as I do it. The starting point should be the plot, though that also has to be considered within the context of the character levels you're aiming for. This is important because you don't want to send low level characters into a plot that involves some of the deadliest aliens in the game, for instance. Some things are better saved for later levels, not just because of difficulty, but because of realism—a low level team would not be sent on a mission requiring high levels of security clearance.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Mission Recap (part 5)

Kray and Kashyr traveled aboard the Starliner for 15 days, and during their trip, they talked to various people aboard the ship. One of the people they talked to was a Krissethi loan shark looking for an Erwani with a bad gambling habit that owed him a lot of money. The characters later bumped into this Erwani, and tricked him to follow them to have drinks with "a friend." They promptly turned the Erwani over to the loan shark and in doing so, gained a contact they hoped to use later for information. What happened to the poor Erwani, though, seemed to not concern the players...

When the starliner finally arrived at Ourea, the characters noticed that the Starshine Foods crates were being unloaded and transferred to a Starshine Foods truck. They spoke with the workers and decided to follow them on their delivery route, using a car they borrowed from an Ourea Security officer. During the route, the truck broke down, and it was discovered that the recently-replaced drive belt had broken. The workers called in and a second truck was sent to pick up the goods and continue the route to keep the delivery schedule. The characters decided to set up an ambush inside the truck, suspecting that the second truck would be smugglers.

Yet when the truck arrived, the people unloading the truck appeared to simply be more Starshine Foods employees. The characters were getting frustrated, but were suspicious. Despite questioning the workers, nothing seemed suspicious--the workers were on a schedule to deliver the food, including the Kethsa eggs crates that the players knew contained the illegal Chiraktis eggs. The characters decided to follow the second delivery truck on its route. After only a few minutes on the road, however, they noticed two skimcars fast approaching from behind, and these cars were decked out with weapons!

The two skimcars closed quickly on the characters' skimcar and began shooting. The characters sped up to get closer to the Starshine Foods truck, but suddenly the truck's passengers--the supposed Starshine Foods employees--were leaning out the windows firing automatic weapons at the characters. When one of the skimcars fired a nano-flak canon, which created an obstacle right in front of the characters' car, the characters skidded and stopped their already badly-damaged vehicle and watched the truck speed away with one of the skimcars. The other skimcar stopped a distance away, waiting to see if the characters were going to try following. When they didn't, it eventually left them standing alone in the road with their smoking car.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Mission Recap (part 4)

The characters went back to their starship and waited for the Krissethi smuggler to arrive. He was the next link in the smuggling ring, and the characters were supposed to hand over the cargo of their ship, posing as smugglers themselves. The characters were undercover, hoping to learn where the contraband was headed by leaving things in play. The Krissethi and his crew arrived and began unloading the cargo from the starship.

Everything was going smoothly, and the characters noticed that some of the Starshine foods crates, labeled "Kethsa Eggs" (a favorite Krissethi delicacy), were being scanned with a bioscanner by the Krissethi's crew. The players' suspicions were correct--the Chiraktis eggs were hidden among the Kethsa eggs. After moving the crates from the starship onto his loading vehicles, the Krissethi pulled out his MPC to transfer payment. All would have gone well if Kray had thought to bring along the smuggler captain's MPC for the transfer, but instead, he pulled out his own--a UG-issued MPC!

The Krissethi immediately recognized the UG protocol on Kray's MPC and attacked--the characters' cover was blown! The Krissethi pulled out a customized energy blade with the fire augment, and his flaming sword cut through Kray's armor, seriously injuring him and lighting him on fire! Kashyr, however, was quick to fire his rifle at the Krissethi, and the smuggler went down. His crew fired a few shots as they jumped in the loading vehicles and sped away with the cargo.

Kray was able to put out the fire, and Kashyr injected Kray with some healing nanites to stabilize him. The team turned their attention to the critically wounded Krissethi, and demanded to know where the cargo--specifically the Chiraktis eggs--was headed. The Krissethi told them the shipment was going to the Epsilus 54 Starliner, headed for the Ourea colony. Kray and Kashyr notified starport security about the captured smuggler, and the Krissethi was arrested. The team had to find out where those eggs were heading in Ourea, so they could shut down that end of the smuggling operation. It was time for Kray and Kashyr to do a little traveling, on a 15-day flight aboard a civilian Starliner!

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Mission Recap (part 3)

We left off yesterday with the characters, Kray and Kashyr, confused about how to meet the smuggler contact, since the smuggler captain had lied to them about the secret conversational exchange they needed to have with the bartender at the Star Wrangler Bar. They left the bar and called up the crew on the UG ship that was flying the captured smuggler captain back to UG headquarters. The smuggler captain was smug, but finally gave them another set of exchanges to say to the bartender.

The second attempt was met with confusion by the bartender again, so the characters angrily stepped out of the bar and called their crew back. This time (after yelling at the indignant smuggler), they asked their crew to look at the smuggler's MPC (micro-personal computer). After a little hacking, they managed to access the smuggler's emails. There was the answer--the exact exchange that needed to be spoken with the bartender. With the new information, the characters went back to the bartender to try a third time...

The exchange worked, and the bartender finally pointed them to a Krissethi sitting in the back of the bar. At this point, the Krissethi was a little suspicious, considering how many attempts the characters made, but he still conducted his business with them. They made an arrangement to meet at a dock later to transfer the cargo to the Krissethi. With a little free time, the characters checked out the shops on the Starport, and even met with a black-market salesman, though they decided not to buy any of the mysterious items he was selling for fear of being ripped off. Plus, it was almost time to meet the Krissethi smuggler at the dock...

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Mission Recap (part 2)

We left off yesterday with our Union Guard characters hacking the smuggler's communications under the guise of repair techs. Once they had shut down communications to stop the smuggler's from sending out an alert, the team sprang to action. Even though they were outnumbered on the ship's bridge, 3 to 2, they had the element of surprise!

Kraykalon, the Union Guard Archaeloid, first attacked the human female, and knocked her out cold using his steel staff (which he'd brought on board, passing it off as a walking stick.) Kashyr, the Union Guard Reln, attacked the smuggler near him (green) and the battle continued. In the end, although Kray was seriously wounded, the smuggler captain's crew was defeated and the captain himself was critically wounded.

Kray and Kashyr then interrogated the captain, asking him to reveal who his contact was. The captain confessed that he didn't even know his contact--the Chiraktis kept their operation very compartmentalized--and all he knew was that he was supposed to meet his contact in the Star Wrangler Bar at the Hemera Starport. He handed over his MPC (micro-personal computer) and the characters transferred him to the brig on their ship, then took the smuggler's ship and flew to Hemera.

When they arrived at the bar, Kray spoke the code phrase given to him by the smuggler captain: "The weather sure is nice in Hemera, this time of year." The bartender, however, looked puzzled, and replied differently than they'd been told he would, saying, "Weather? What are you talking about, we're on a space station!" Kray was perplexed, and leaned over to Kashyr and whispered, "It's not worrrrking!" It was then that they realized the smuggler captain had lied to them!

Monday, October 13, 2014

Mission Recap (part 1)

I have a few snapshots of a recent Solar Echoes game, where we ran the “Egg Drop” Mission for the players. The goal was to stop a criminal operation that involved smuggling the insectoid Chiraktis eggs into various colonies, where the Chiraktis could establish a strong foothold and influence colony governments by increasing the Chiraktis population. Find out more...

The first part of the mission involved the player's characters intercepting the smuggling ship that had recently left Chiraktis space. The characters had to conceal their identities and avoid revealing that they were Union Guard agents, or the smugglers might have sent a transmission ahead to warn their contacts that the UG was on to them. 

The players managed to convince the smugglers to allow them to board their ship, indicating that they were an emergency maintenance crew that had been dispatched to contact the smugglers. The characters succeeded at their persuasion check, and the smugglers allowed the characters to board their ship to “fix” a problem that had supposedly been detected when the smugglers passed the last starship checkpoint, though the smugglers were still a little suspicious and the characters were told, at gunpoint, to leave behind any weapons they had.

The characters had to make sure that the smugglers couldn't transmit a warning, so they continued their ruse and logged in to the smugglers' communications array, explaining that they had to run a diagnostics test. The smugglers waited patiently for the characters to "fix" the problem, but the characters proceeded to hack the array while in cyberspace, shutting down security nodes so they could take control of the system. Once they had crippled communications on the smugglers' starship, they were ready to move to the next phase of their plan...

Friday, October 10, 2014

Uplifting Neuro Enhancement (part 5)

Neuro-prosthetics may be a new stage for humankind, and incredible advancements are on the horizon. Greater memory capacity could be achieved, and new information could be learned quickly, such as in the movie, “The Matrix” and through “Talent Chips” in Solar Echoes. Eyesight could be restored in some cases, as well as hearing, motor-control, and other physical functions. Beyond restoration, such physical functions could also be potentially enhanced far above normal human capacity. Neural implants could also allow for the control of complex machinery with a mere thought, producing greater accuracy and also providing safety for the users by allowing them to remotely operate machinery in hazardous environments. Implants could assist the user in focusing, stabilize mood, and allow for other mental functions that might not be normally possible for brain-damaged patients. We could even potentially communicate telepathically through neural implants! Of course, potential downsides exist for neural implants as well—imagine the problems that could arise if these implants could be hacked, monitored, or even used as a mechanism to influence or control the user!

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Uplifting Neuro Enhancement (part 4)

It is considered to be inevitable that we will need to deal with the prospect of uplifting animal intelligence, as uplifting will result from our studies to cure degenerative brain disorders like Alzheimer's. Bio-ethicists like George Dvorsky believe it is our “ethical imperative to uplift” animals with our technology to “free them from the anguish of survival of the fittest.” Yet others, such as Paul Graham Raven (a researcher at the University of Sheffield), see this view as human arrogance—a belief in human superiority over nature. Raven questions why we believe we have the moral authority to make this decision for the animals without their consent, and states, “It assumes we know what's best for species other than ourselves. Given we show little evidence of knowing what's best for our own species, I'm inclined to mistrust that assumption, however well intended."

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Uplifting Neuro Enhancement (part 3)

Have you ever heard of “neural prosthetics?” Normally, we consider prosthetics to be replacements for lost arms or legs, but neural prosthetics are brain implants designed to monitor and correct the function of neurons in the brain. An experiment was done in 2011 where five monkeys were used to study the factors that influence people with mentally degenerative diseases like Alzheimer's. The monkeys were trained to identify images and symbols in a learning test, were tested and scored, and then were given doses of cocaine. As a result, their dulled intelligence produced poor results when the test was repeated (don't do drugs!) However, the same monkeys were then surgically implanted with neural prosthetics. These implants successfully restored brain functions to the monkeys. Even more impressive, however, was that when different monkeys (after having undergone the same training and then taking the test) were given the implants without ever being drugged, the monkeys' performance was beyond the original test results! Even though the intention of these implants was to restore brain function, it was proven that neural prosthetics can make monkeys smarter!

Uplifting Neuro Enhancement (part 2)

If we haven't learned anything from stories like "The Rats if NIMH" or the recent "Planet of the Apes," we ought to. In the NIMH series, lab rats at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) have had their intelligence enhanced, and as a result, the rats escape and formulate plans to end their dependence on human society and to form their own. In "Planet of the Apes," researches improved the intelligence of apes in their attempts to find a cure for Alzheimer's. The apes quickly decide humans are a threat and an enemy, and begin an aggressive revolt against humanity. Yet despite the fairly logical conclusions these movies suggest will occur when "uplifting" animal intelligence, there are people like George Dvorsky (of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies) who state that it is our "ethical imperative to uplift," and that "As the stewards of this planet, it is our moral imperative to not just remove ourselves from the Darwinian paradigm, but all the creatures on Earth as well. Our journey to a post-biological, post-Darwinian state will be a mutual one."

Monday, October 6, 2014

Uplifting Neuro Enhancement (part 1)

We humans are quite accustomed to being the highest form of intelligent life on planet Earth. Human intellect rivals other intelligent creatures on this planet, such as monkeys, dolphins, whales, and octopi. However, scientists at MIT are discovering methods to increase the intelligence of animals. Mice have been genetically engineered, using a human gene known to be associated with learning capacity and speech in humans. These mentally enhanced mice distinctly out-performed normal mice when placed in mazes with rewards at the end. The process of improving mental function and capacity in animals is known as "uplifting," and the looming question is: Can we engineer sentient animals with intelligence that could possibly rival our own? In my opinion, the bigger question the science community needs to answer first is: Should we?

Friday, October 3, 2014

Notes from a Mission Controller (part 5)

In some of the games I've played, the players were all bent on proving to the GM that he couldn't stop them or hurt them, and the GM was bent on proving otherwise, with the game rules being the only arbiter. However, I am convinced that the role of the GM (the MC in Solar Echoes) is to try to keep the players' characters alive—to create a challenging and exciting experience where the players end up feeling like heroes, with stories they'll be talking about for weeks, possibly years later. The MC, in my opinion, should strive to provide the characters with the means to survive and not place them in an impossible situation. However, I think the MC is absolved of this responsibility if players deliberately do something deserving a serious consequence, like throwing a grenade to land near an ally, or walking out into the open when they know several thugs with machine guns are waiting in ambush. In cases like those, well, the rules are the rules, right?

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Notes from a Mission Controller (part 4)

It is really the MC's responsibility to actively adjust the difficulty level of the game. If the players are having too easy of a time at everything, though they might be having fun at it for a while, they will start to feel like their success is coming to them for free, without cost. We tend to not value things we get for free as much as those that we paid for in some way. Games without a challenge lose their reward, and players are likely to move on to something else that feels more difficult. Yet overwhelming difficulty is discouraging, too, so an MC should keep a healthy balance running throughout the game. As an example, in a recent game I ran, the enemies the players faced were generally level 1, but the players were level 2, which gave them a solid advantage over most of the enemies. However, by using terrain, advanced tactics and outnumbering the players, I was able to make the encounters difficult for the players--there were certainly moments when things looked very dire for them! Still, while I was conducting these encounters, I was careful not to overdo it. I know how it feels to have a Game Master out to kill you, and this just builds resentment between the players and the GM.

Notes from a Mission Controller (part 3)

A feeling of utter helplessness can be extremely discouraging, especially in an RPG. It is easy to question the decisions you've made when developing your character, and to worry that perhaps you may have invested in the “wrong build” for your character. In Solar Echoes, sometimes there are moments where a team will realize that they are missing a vital skill to move forward. Or so it seems—it is the MC's job to make sure that there are always other options, though perhaps some of those options won't be so desirable. As with the situation I mentioned yesterday involving the enemy sniper team, the players finally had to choose an option they weren't very happy with—they realized they had to allow their devoted NPC ally to serve as a decoy (he was willing to make that sacrifice), knowing that their new friend might not survive. It was a tough choice, but thankfully, their ally survived (barely) and the players' characters managed to take out the sniper team.