Monday, November 30, 2015

Chessiecon Battle Reports (part 1)

This past weekend, Solar Echoes was at Chessiecon running demo's in the gameroom. We had quite a number of players, and from the time we arrived until we left, there was never a shortage of gamers at the table. This week, I'll share some of the highlights from the fun and creative players, starting today with the opening to the first mission of the weekend, Gun Runners. The team of Union Guard operatives arrived at the warehouse and it wasn't long before one of them detected a robot security drone walking on patrol. One of the team—a Reln specializing in wordplay—was detected by the robot and was warned to leave. The Reln managed to confuse the robot momentarily by displaying his UG badge and stated that he was authorized to pass. While the rest of the team got into position, the robot finally resolved its confusion and insisted the Reln leave the area. The team quickly learned the advantage of focus fire in Solar Echoes—everyone aimed at the unsuspecting robot and fired, gaining a +2 to hit because at least 3 people were targeting it. Everyone hit, and the combined damage of their weapons blew the robot into smoldering, metallic pieces. Unfortunately, their stealthy approach was now lost, and the smugglers inside the warehouse knew they were there. How did the team decide to proceed? For today, I'll just say that it could be called the “direct” approach. Find out more tomorrow!

Friday, November 27, 2015

Is Tech Accelerating? (part 5)

Ultimately, it is true that we live in exciting times, where new i-phones and other trendy tech devices emerge on an almost yearly basis. Yet history may show that our era might actually be a slowing in advancement. Our innovation-driven societies may have lost sight of the bigger picture, and that is, how have we advanced economically on the world stage? Have living conditions improved overall? Has production increased? Are fewer people starving and is there less disease to contend with? The periods of technological advancement that are truly landmarks in history are those periods where cultures have risen above their previous state and entered into a new age entirely. The true test of technological advancement in a society is not how many new technologies have emerged, but if these new technologies have significantly impacted and improved a society. Right now, for this generation, the jury is still out.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Is Tech Accelerating? (part 4)

Another question to ask is whether our technological advancement is achieving its full potential. If not, what factors might be negatively influencing this potential? Government intervention through regulations, the resistance of technological implementation by unions concerned about job loss, and even the re-purposing of technology towards areas in which it will not flourish or come to full fruition—all of these contribute to the slowing of advancement. Other concerns involve the length of time it takes for technology to move into our culture, and this can be affected in a number of ways. Consider the time it sometimes takes technology to move from early adopters to mainstream use, or the time required to build particular infrastructure to support new technology (for example, car charging stations are still not prevalent in the U.S.) How is one to accurately measure the rate of technological advancement, especially when all these and other factors are considered?

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Is Tech Accelerating? (part 3)

Productivity, energy usage, and a number of other factors can all be approached as a means of measurement when considering the rate of technological advancement. Yet even these yield less than quantifiable results because of the countless variables present in each. Productivity, for example, might be measured by examining prices, the result of supply and demand. However, supply and demand are influenced by an amalgam of changing variables among a complex assortment of different industries that fluctuate wildly in production levels. Another approach to measuring technological advancement is to measure processing power, but this, too, is flawed—while it is certainly more quantifiable in itself, it can only be used to measure growth in certain areas, such as information technology. Processing power has little relation with other technologies, and cannot be accurately used to determine increases in productivity throughout the world.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Is Tech Accelerating? (part 2)

Is the rate of technological change actually getting faster? It certainly seems so, from the perspective of a consumer, but notable economists seem to believe the opposite. They think that we have exhausted most of the easier technological advances and that genuinely new breakthroughs will take much more work, and much longer, to be developed. Technological change is actually very difficult to measure, as it requires a wide range of factors to be considered. When we think of technological change, we are obviously biased by the present and it is difficult to accurately assess all the changes that have happened along the way. Each type of change is different as well. In the late 1800's we experienced a mechanical revolution, but this is obviously a very different technological change from the information (IT) change we have experienced in recent years. Another difficult factor to measure involves the implications of an advancement. A new discovery may not be fully implemented or be practical until other discoveries are made that allow everything to come together into a larger, practical change. However, economists have devised approaches towards discerning our rate of advancement...

Monday, November 23, 2015

Is Tech Accelerating? (part 1)

We live in an age where technology is advancing so quickly, it's almost impossible to keep up with the latest tech unless you have money to burn, and even then, every few months you'll be discarding previous devices. I'm sure you must feel it too—things seem to be advancing faster than you remember in years past. A new computer falls behind the curve in a year or two, and within five years, you'll almost need to rebuild or replace the entire thing if you want to upgrade to current technology. I used to custom design my computers, but it quickly reached the point that I often had to switch out to a new motherboard because newer components simply wouldn't interface anymore. Gaming consoles (Sony's Playstations and Microsoft's Xboxes) have a predicted life of 6 to 8 years before a new version is released –this is a rather long lifespan when considering that within a year, newer and more advanced models of smartphones and computers are on the market. But is technology really advancing at an exponential rate?

Friday, November 20, 2015

Hopkins Mission Control (part 5)

Another aspect of MC'ing a Solar Echoes mission is being sensitive to the dynamics of the players themselves. If a player seems frustrated that nothing he is attempting is working (whether it is because of bad rolls or his ideas are outside the mission “box”), the MC should find ways to allow him some success. Even if his roll was a little low, sometimes it's ok to give him a win if it means that the game will move forward and the players will have fun. The rules exist to govern the game so that players don't expect that they can remotely hack an entire space-station by interfacing with a cleaning droid. There will always be things the players think of that are not in the mission and that totally catch the MC by surprise. In those cases, the MC needs to quickly think up a reasonable level of difficulty and let the player make an attempt at his idea. The role of the MC is to spin a great story, present challenges that the players feel they just barely managed to overcome by their choices and skills, involve all players as a team, and keep the momentum/pacing of the entire experience moving forward. Being an MC is a bit like directing a movie, and it is demanding work, but from what I saw last Friday night, the MC at the Hopkins HPPRPG club has a great start!

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Hopkins Mission Control (part 4)

Another difficult MC situation is if the players are headed entirely the wrong way with a mission—Derelict is designed for the players to end up on an alien planet, but if the players are doing things that would prevent that, there are two options for the MC: railroad the players there anyway, or completely improv the rest of the mission. Railroading is looked down upon if the players are feeling like they have no choice, but if an MC cleverly creates circumstances that are the result of the players' actions, the players will have little clue that they've been guided along a certain story arc. The key is, the players need to feel like they are writing the story. Ultimately, in my opinion, the mission itself is a set of guidelines and scenarios that inform the MC and can be assembled however he or she thinks would create the most exciting experience for the players. The Hopkins MC managed to adjust to the innovative choices of her players, and through a few subtle nudges that I don't think the players even detected, she was able to keep them on the story path by presenting them with options related to their decisions. In the end, players have the most fun when they have exciting stories to tell based on their characters' choices.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Hopkins Mission Control (part 3)

Solar Echoes is a very team-focused game, so if a team splits up, it not only hurts the groups to be separate (gaps appear in necessary skills among members, and there's of course strength in numbers), but it also slows the gameplay for some of the players. As an MC, one of the top priorities should be to keep the game moving and for all players to be actively involved, but when members split up, it is understandable that some players may grow bored while waiting for their group's “turn.” Another concern in gameplay is when one player isn't engaged because his particular skillset might not seem relevant to the situation. For example, last week this particular group had a Reln specialized in persuasive/dialogue skills. I was worried that, in a mission that involves mostly combat until the end, this player would feel as if his character didn't matter. Although this player was not present for the Derelict mission, if he had been, it would have been up to the MC to find ways to challenge him that might be outside the mission text. Thinking back on Friday's game, there were several dialogue opportunities that could have been expounded upon, had he been there. However, it is also important to remember that a player should be encouraged to develop several skillsets for his character. A “one-trick-pony” often has a hard time contributing to a team except in those moments when his specialty can shine.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Hopkins Mission Control (part 2)

It's usually a very bad idea to split up the team, but when investigating a mysterious, derelict starship floating through space, it was a good plan to have someone stay behind on their own ship when the rest of the team boarded. When enemies attempted to seize the team's ship, there was at least one person to resist, and oh did he resist! Even when things were looking bleak, he managed to scuttle his own ship by setting fire to the engine room to prevent the pirates from easily commandeering his starship. He jumped into an escape pod and jettisoned himself toward the surface of an alien planet below, hoping that his team could somehow catch up to the escape pod and rescue him. The MC made sure to give the other players an opening to follow their teammate while the pirates were busy trying to put out the fire. After landing on the alien planet (which, by the way, had an atmosphere comprised of CO2 and Argon), the team put on space suits and began a search for their missing teammate. Thankfully, he had some creative ideas of his own to signal his whereabouts, and the team was eventually re-united!

Monday, November 16, 2015

Hopkins Mission Control (part 1)

This past Friday, I was again invited to the Johns Hopkins University's role playing club (HPPRPG), but this time I was there on an advisory basis only—one of the club members was ready to try her hand at running a mission for the group. This intrepid Mission Controller (MC is the name we give to GM's in Solar Echoes) was conducting a very difficult mission called “Derelict.” The Hopkins players were methodical and creative, moving “off-script” more than a few times. This might have posed a significant challenge for a new MC, but she quickly adjusted and came up with creative options for everyone. One of the important things to always keep in mind when running a Solar Echoes mission is that you want the players to drive the story with their choices, and if this doesn't entirely align with the events detailed in the mission, improvise! This week, I'll touch on a few examples and share some tips for effective MC'ing.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Battle Report: Johns Hopkins (part 5)

Ironically, the Reln diplomat had not invested any skills in terrestrial vehicle piloting when he'd built his character—the only one that had was the stealthy Reln, and he was busy finishing a gun battle against the remaining criminals. That didn't mean the Reln couldn't drive, but it meant any contested skill checks would usually go in favor of the character with skill ranks invested in driving. The car chase ensued, and road obstacles, traffic, and even a pedestrian kept both drivers on their toes. The Chiraktis in the car attempted to fire at the fleeing criminal's vehicle, shooting EMP nets. The criminal responded by releasing a cluster of magnetic caltrops, which the Reln was unfortunately unable to pilot around. The caltrops were sucked up into the skimcar's anti-grav drive, and it was only a matter of time before it would fail—a 6-sided die would have to be rolled each round, and a roll of 1 meant that the car would crash into the pavement as the anti-grav system failed.

However, the Reln was able to get their car into close range of the criminal's skimcar, allowing the Chiraktis to target a specific system on the vehicle with the EMP net. She fired and hit her mark—the enemy's antigrav drive. Now, he too must roll a 6-sided die each round. Meanwhile, the stealthy Reln caught up to the group in another skimcar, and he tried to ram the criminal from the side. He missed, and narrowly avoided plowing into the car of his teammates! After circling around to follow them and try to catch up, a slow driver up ahead became an obstacle each car had to avoid. The first two did, but the stealthy Reln with the rank in piloting failed, slamming into the car of an elderly driver. However, luck was still on the team's side, because the very next round, the criminal rolled a 1 for his anti-grav check. It failed and slammed into the ground at speed, crashing into a horrible mess. The renegade Omul was easily apprehended, and the team succeeded at their mission!

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Battle Report: Johns Hopkins (part 4)

The group followed the lead they had discovered while hacking the mall computers, and found themselves outside an elementary school, closed for summer. Apparently, criminals were using the school as a base of operations. When the team of agents located suspicious vehicles at the back of the school, they prepared to enter through the back door, while the Reln-diplomat scaled the building, ran across the roof, and lowered himself to the front of the building. As the Chiraktis and the stealthy Reln entered the building and heard angry voices in a nearby classroom, the Reln diplomat decided to break the front windows with his knife as a distraction, only to discover the windows were made of shatter-proof glass. Frustrated that his plan had not worked, the Reln tried again, this time with a gun. Although only tiny holes appeared in the glass, the gunshot was loud enough to alert the criminals inside. Unfortunately the timing of this was not quite perfect and the element of surprise was lost as the criminals were slightly forewarned just before the other two bust the door open. A fight ensued, and almost all of the criminals were defeated except an Omul that managed to escape and get to his skimcar. If not for the foresight of the Reln diplomat, he would have escaped successfully, but the Reln had closed the metal gate at the school parking lot. It only slowed the Omul down for 1 round as he attacked it with the chain gun on his car and then rammed through it, but that 1 round was just enough time for the Reln to get his car going and to pick up the Chiraktis that was in close pursuit.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Battle Report: Johns Hopkins (part 3)

The mall robots were service-oriented drones programmed to prepare and serve food, do maintenance work, sell cosmetics, and clean the floor, in addition to a number of security drones. The team faced a variety of robots in combat, but some of my favorite moments include the Chiraktis character being blinded by a pheromone spray used by the cosmetic robot—she stumbled around randomly while hoping to avoid the violent robot that was seeking to introduce her to other chemical products. At one point, the Reln sniper failed to notice a maintenance drone behind him, and he was sprayed with a large spurt of oil. The Reln struggled to escape, but the oil was so slick he could not get back on his feet. When he saw that the robot was about to ignite the oil with its propane torch, the Reln pulled a blanket out of his backpack, dropped it in front of him, and kicked off a nearby wall to slide across the floor, just as the flame caught the oil. The flame continued after him on the oil track left by the blanket, but the Reln thankfully made a leap, just in time, into a nearby fountain! Meanwhile, the Reln-diplomat was busy with a rogue cleaning-bot, and when the aggressive robot aimed its vacuum gun as it prepared to fire trash at high velocity, the quick-thinking Reln shoved his shock-baton into the opening. The vacuum exploded, destroying the robot, but unfortunately, the Reln's shock-baton was demolished as well. At least he was still alive!

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Battle Report: Johns Hopkins (part 2)

The team was joined by a mall security guard as soon as they entered the mall. The panicking shoppers had cleared out of the mall at this point and the security guard, a large Archaeloid, did his best to help out the agents in their investigation, though it did take a little intimidation from one of the Reln to “encourage” the Archaeloid to cough up the whole story. The diplomat-Reln actually spoke a little Archaeloid, but unfortunately failed his check to speak in the foreign language (he needed a few more ranks for 100% fluency). Otherwise, it would have been much easier to get all the details from the Archaeloid initially. The team was able to gather some important intel and successfully hacked into the computers at the mall's security terminal. What they learned there would present them with two mission options, and this particular team of agents chose a more direct approach than I've seen with other groups in the past. Meanwhile, they still had the matter of the malfunctioning mall robots to deal with, and they needed to try to damage one just enough so that they could hack into it and copy the corrupted AI—a feat much harder than it sounds!

Monday, November 9, 2015

Battle Report: Johns Hopkins (part 1)

The Johns Hopkins University has a number of clubs, and this last week I was invited to run a Solar Echoes demo with the Hopkins Pencil and Paper Role Playing Group (HPPRPG). Some of the group had already designed their own characters, and were ready to jump into their first mission, while others observed. For the most part, the team of characters covered all skill areas, including a Reln focused on languages and the persuasive arts, another Reln with hacking and stealth (the group's sniper), and a Chiraktis worker focused on Biotech and Engineering. When their mission assignment was given to them by their Operations Sergeant, the agents learned that they had to investigate the cause of a robot rampage at a local shopping mall. This week, I'll be highlighting some of the most memorable (and comical) moments of the mission—the players succeeded at their mission, though there were definitely some challenges they met along the way! Stay tuned this week for more...

Friday, November 6, 2015

Strange and Confusing Alien Customs (part 5)

Omuls don't understand private ownership very well, and have been called thieves and kleptomaniacs when they are quite used to “borrowing” and “sharing” others' “possessions.” Also, don't show up on time when invited to an Omul's home—if you show up early or on time, you are considered greedy or over-eager. The Omul concept of time is very subjective, which is part of the reason Omuls often have difficulty holding down a job because they often show up an hour or two late. They don't want to seem desperate for money! Another Omul cultural oddity is their extreme lack of tact—they consider all points of view, no matter how seemingly offensive, as totally acceptable, and are known for their bluntness in social situations. To an Omul, there would be absolutely nothing wrong with pointing out the large, inflamed zit growing on your nose. Why would you take that personally?

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Strange and Confusing Alien Customs (part 4)

Archaeloids consider it rude for others to be able to see what you're eating. Granted, they have many long tentacles covering their mouths while they are chewing on something, but humans that chew with their mouths open and Omuls that, well, can't exactly hide the food floating in their cytoplasm are generally considered to be without manners by Archaeloid standards. Archaeloids are also quite formal in social situations, greeting each-other with slow bows and approaching with measured steps. This often leads to the misconception that they are slow-moving creatures (even though they are a little slower than some of the other races!) Archaeloids consider fast, casual movements as disrespectful and suggestive of impatience. Another cultural consideration to keep in mind is that colors mean a great deal to Archaeloids, which use the shifting coloration of their skin to communicate emotion. Because red is associated with rage and anger, it is a very bad idea to wear the color red to any event with Archaeloids present. Sending red roses—considered as “flowers of death”--will greatly alarm and offend Archaeloids for the perceived death threat and Erwani for the morbid act of sending a butchered corpse as a gift.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Strange and Confusing Alien Customs (part 3)

Don't expect salt from a “salt-shaker” in a Chiraktis home or restaurant. Chiraktis put sugar on everything, and I mean, everything they eat. They even carry packets of sugar around with them, because they consider the food of other races far too bland. Like Omuls, Chiraktis also tend to be rather blunt and direct, though they are not very conversational in general so often their brevity is somewhat excused when compared with the Omul tendency to ramble tactlessly. Chiraktis do not “beat around the bush” as many others are accustomed to in conversation, primarily because they are always focused on being efficient in communication. Regarding the Erwani plant-race, the way you treat your plants at home can become a great offense. If you haven't watered your plants for a while, or if you haven't positioned them in a place where they can receive optimal sunlight, Erwani will find your care of their “kin” quite offensive, and you may be faced with a long tirade about how adoption screening procedures should exist for those that seek to raise a plant. “Gifts” of plants or flowers are associated with death in Erwani culture, and flower-shops are considered “butcheries.” If you send flowers to a grieving Erwani, you will have just made things much worse. Don't expect any thank-you cards!

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Strange and Confusing Alien Customs (part 2)

Reln are known for their acute hearing sensitivity, so it is unsurprising that they are bothered by things that the rest of us barely notice. Ticking clocks, humming electronics, loud music, and elaborate “surround sound” entertainment systems all drive the Reln into a high state of annoyance. Infant toys that make any kind of music or sound are considered the worst gifts to bring to Reln baby showers, and non-digital clocks of any kind will be quickly re-gifted by Reln to another alien race—clocks are considered the “fruit cake” of Reln gifts. Another race, the reptilian Krissethi, are somewhat infamous for their “misunderstandings” about the small pets of other races. To a Krissethi, seeing a small animal on a leash or in a cage is no different than keeping seafood alive for freshness in an aquarium. Even though it isn't uncommon to see headlines in the news about the outrage against yet another Krissethi for devouring someone's small pet, Krissethi continue to make these supposed “mistakes.” Public opinion is beginning to form against the Krissethi in these matters, with some people outright stating that, until there is a law, Krissethi seem quite comfortable with continuing this offensive behavior. It has become common knowledge: if you own a small pet, don't invite any Krissethi to your home, even for a short visit!

Monday, November 2, 2015

Strange and Confusing Alien Customs (part 1)

If you've ever traveled to a foreign country, or have been around someone long enough from a foreign country, you're bound to come across at least a few customs that seem odd to you. As an American, you may at first be put-off by someone who enters your house and immediately proceeds to remove his shoes. From an American perspective, most of us are probably thinking, “Gross! I don't want to smell your feet, put those shoes back on!” Yet in other cultures, it is considered rude to walk through a clean house with the dirty shoes you've worn all over the place, including upon the floors of dirty public bathrooms, so why would you want those same shoes treading upon your the clean floors of your home? Another tradition I encountered that struck me as a little odd was when a Korean friend brought me a housewarming gift of toilet paper and laundry detergent. I didn't know quite what to say, and acted appreciative, but later learned that Koreans consider the bubbles produced by detergent as good luck, and back when Korea was a poor, toilet paper and detergent were considered pricey items. These cultural differences are minor, though, compared to some of the more extreme traditions of the aliens in Solar Echoes. Imagine what a different culture from another planet would be like, and then add on top of that the various physiological differences and requirements of an alien species. This week, we'll discuss what you might be able to expect if one of these aliens comes to visit you at home!