Saturday, December 31, 2016

Happy New Year!

Thanks for making 2016 a great year! 2017 will be even better! After all, double 6's make a 7, the best roll you can get!

Friday, December 30, 2016

VR Analytics=Privacy Invasion? (part 4/4)

Data collected from VR users can easily be used to manipulate by those who control VR platforms. In fact, commercial third-party software designed for VR developers already allows for data collection to help identify which parts of their worlds are most engaging and which parts need more work, based on the reactions of users in real time. These systems are also capable of influencing people using VR, manipulating them, for example, to make more environmentally conscious choices and or affecting their choices in tests for racial bias. AI-controlled avatars can be used to “nudge” users into accepting certain ideas or views through seemingly innocuous AI-avatar conversation responses such as smiling or frowning, and these avatars could be even more effective if they are able to access data about the user’s emotional responses through eye-tracking or emotion capture. Emotional data collection and influence upon VR users is currently without limit, as no laws exist to restrict the types of behavioral data VR companies can collect from users, nor are there laws restricting how that data will be used. There are also no laws to protect against who will have access to this data—data which could be used and shared among profit-seeking advertising companies, insurance companies, the police, and the government. Laws were finally enacted against subliminal advertising in the 1970's—will VR users have the same protection someday? Or will anyone care, in a technological landscape where giving up all privacy is increasingly accepted?

Thursday, December 29, 2016

VR Analytics=Privacy Invasion? (part 3/4)

VR products are considered to be excellent sources for a new field that is being called “emotion detection.” Sensors mounted on VR headsets can read micro expressions by tracking eye and muscle movements in the face. A benefit to users is that this information can give their VR avatars facial expressions that mirror their own, and VR avatars are—at least with Facebook—the next intended step for VR insertion into our online social lives. The company founder of Fusion said their primary goal is to “unlock human emotion,” a goal shared by Affectiva, an MIT company that offers “emotion detection as a service.” Clients of this service will be able to mine images and video feeds from webcams for data revealing how people react to certain cues. It is thought that eventually VR systems will be able to capture the entire range of body motion, forming a “kinematic fingerprint” for each user. This fingerprint could be used to uniquely identify and analyze a person, both inside and outside of VR. Gait recognition already exists within some security camera monitoring systems, so kinematic fingerprinting is the next step for the technology.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

VR Analytics=Privacy Invasion? (part 2/4)

In 2012, Facebook data scientists conducted a study titled, “Experimental evidence of massive-scale emotional contagion through social networks.” The study involved the secret modification of users’ news feeds to include positive or negative content. The emotional states of the users were then analyzed by studying their posts. “The goal of everything we do is to change people’s actual behavior at scale…We can capture their behaviors, identify good and bad behaviors, and develop ways to reward the good and punish the bad,” said one chief data scientist in a conversation with Harvard business professor Shoshanna Zuboff. Cookies and other tracking code are already being used by online advertisers to track the behaviors and habits of internet users, with details including the sites they visit and how long they spend scrolling, highlighting, or hovering their mouse over certain parts of a page. Google scans emails and private chats for information useful in “personalizing” content and for ad targeting. Yet that information is considered primitive compared to the kind of data that can be harvested through VR.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

VR Analytics=Privacy Invasion?

What exactly is VR Analytics? VR, or Virtual Reality, is the next trend in technology, and though still in its infancy, many believe that it is going to change the way we live in the same way the internet has done—it’s nothing short of revolutionary. “VR Analytics offers a way to capture much more information about the interests and habits of users, information that may reveal a great deal more about what is going on in [their] minds,” says Michale Madary, a researcher at Johannes Guttenberg University. Physiological and behavioral data is valuable to companies like Facebook, which seems to be taking VR very seriously after acquiring the crowd funded Oculus Rift for $2 billion. Considering Facebook’s record, however, is it really a good thing that they are aggressively delving into VR and its uses? An infamous study conducted by Facebook data scientists in 2012 raises a lot of questions…

Monday, December 26, 2016

New Planets in Solar Echoes

Some RPG game systems detail entire cities, with a full book dedicated to everything you'd ever need to know about adventuring in that city. These books covered the various races that would be commonly found within the city, talked about the major geographic areas, the culture of the people, and the economy. A number of ideas were listed regarding possible adventure seeds—short summaries of plots that could be expanded and explored by GM's looking to flesh out a campaign, or fill the gaps between adventures. These books made a simple setting into a robust world that a GM could immerse his players in for an entire campaign if he desired! I have recently taken up the task of preparing a new product based on the original Explorer's Pack for Solar Echoes. In the original, we detailed 4 different planets, and included a new alien lifeform with each. Each planet had basic details and some missions seeds for ideas. Though I'm not going to make this new product into a huge book, I am spending a little more time on detailing a single planet. The product will focus on that planet alone, including planet details, a new alien lifeform, and a short adventure involving that new lifeform, plus possible maps and icons to use in the mission. I've already got a good start, but what types of things would you like to see included in the planet details?

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Problematic Characters (part 4)

That villainous character could become a lot more interesting if you present him with a possible angle towards redemption. Maybe he's coming from a background that puts him at odds with the rest of the characters, but one of those characters begins to realize he's just misunderstood and tries to help others see him in a new light. Perhaps he is as problematic as you present him, but he begins to undergo a transformation because of what he goes through with the other characters. Perhaps he is shown compassion or given something he's never had before, and this softens him or changes his perspective. Or maybe he suddenly becomes the unexpected hero through circumstances or his actions—perhaps it was even an accident that he became the hero! The key is in giving your problematic character motivation and background. You can even use the angle I've seen in a lot of Japanese anime: reveal the villain's motives to the audience in a way that helps them identify with him, understand him, and even sympathize with him to the point that they can't exactly blame him for being the flawed character that he is—in a way that almost makes one say, “If I were in those circumstances, I might do the same things!” Ultimately, if you want that character to have depth, you need to develop him. If the problematic character changes and develops throughout the plot, he often becomes the very hook that keeps the reader with the story!

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Problematic Characters (part 3)

So now you've written a problematic character into your story. How do you prevent that character from ruining your story? Very few people want to read about a character they hate unless there is something compelling about that character they can identify with in some way. For example, I experienced a story where the main character began as a rough, self-serving, violent person. Throughout the story, he remained the same, and by the end of the story, even though he had grown to care about one other individual, he was still a rough, violent person, and I considered him a psychopath—I literally hated this character and, as a result, I hated the entire story told around him. I felt absolutely no connection with that character, and because he didn't change, I remained disconnected from him the entire story. If you set your readers against a character to convince them he's a really serious villain, you need to provide them with a hook to keep them with you. It's a balancing act, because if the problematic character stays an unlikeable bad-guy the entire story, he'll easily become a one-dimensional villain. Your villain/problematic character needs development, and a hint towards redemption...

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Problematic Characters (part 2)

Tension is necessary in a story, because without it, readers will quickly lose interest. The plot itself is often the main source of tension, and sometimes the plot can be so involved that adding too much tension among characters can unbalance the flow of a story. However, characters that are without some form of conflict, internal and/or external can quickly become mundane and uninteresting. It is definitely a difficult trick, though, to figure out just how much conflict is necessary. One way is the slow build, where the problems might not be especially overt at first, but over time, the problematic character might develop into something that the others have to finally contend with. Another angle for balancing out a problematic character is to give the reader insight into his motivations that the other characters don't yet have. This helps the reader find more patience with a character that they otherwise might have quickly decided to dislike. Slow discovery of a problematic character's motivations through other characters in the story also helps readers to be patient with a character that seems unlikeable from the start. Ultimately, though, the writer must tread a precarious line between making a problematic character intriguing or risk causing that character to be so disliked that he or she ruins the story entirely.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Problematic Characters (part 1)

One issue you've likely experienced, whether you're a novelist or a role-playing gamer, is when a character is difficult in the story he's involved in. My many years of playing role-playing games involves a number of situations where someone's character didn't exactly get along with the others in the group. In novel writing, it is important to have a level of conflict among the characters--if everyone gets along together without any tension at all, quite often the result feels rather idealistic and boring, though this can sometimes be mitigated by a plot that is so full of tension, the stable characters are the only relief. At the same time, though, characters can be so disruptive and problematic that the reader hates them enough to stop reading. There are several ways to handle difficult characters, however...

Friday, December 16, 2016

Weekend Discount: Explorer's Pack only $2

Weekend Discount! The Explorer's Pack is on sale for only $2, in anticipation of the upcoming Explorer's Pack 2 (releases when finished, hopefully in time for Christmas!) If you're interested in information about 4 new planets with 4 new alien lifeforms, the Explorer's Pack has the details! Use this discount link to get the sale today, before it starts tomorrow morning!

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Writing Character-driven Stories (part 4/4)

Writing a science fiction novel became, for me, a chance to role-play each of my characters in my own game, in a sense. I knew the larger plot, but I got to act out, through every character, how they would handle each situation and respond. Often, their responses would create new paths for my story, and these paths would assist in further developing the characters and the world in which they existed. My plot timeline was always ticking, but along the way there were a lot of side-plots, interactions, and other developments that made the story much more about the characters than the plot. This is the essence of a character-driven story. In my opinion, any plot, no matter how common and cliche it might be, can be made interesting and refreshing if it is character-driven.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Writing Character-driven Stories (part 3/4)

When I set out to write a science fiction novel based on the Solar Echoes universe, I had a large, fairly complex and intriguing plot in mind. But from the very beginning, my plan was for the plot to be a framework upon which to hang the characters of the story. The characters would interact and react to each other and the developments of the plot--THEY would write the story. I liken this to the process involved in any table-top role-playing game: the game master (GM) sets the narrative, but the players end up dynamically telling the story through their characters. This is why, when I run demos of Solar Echoes for different players, each game is a totally different story, even though I'm using the exact same "mission" plot each and every time.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Writing Character-driven Stories (part 2/4)

When I set out to write about something happening in the Solar Echoes universe, I resign myself to admitting that no matter how unique I might feel my plot idea is, there is a very good chance I'm subconsciously drawing from other themes I've been exposed to in my life. It is also quite possible that an original idea I've had has been used before, without my knowledge--it's almost inevitable that someone will find a good comparison. For instance, I'd never seen or heard about the plot of the TV series, Babylon 5, but a friend of mine compared the "preserve the balance" theme in Solar Echoes to that show. Last year, I finally decided to watch the first season of Babylon 5, and he was right, there are definitely some similarities. Yet what makes Solar Echoes different is not only the variations in plot from Babylon 5, but the characters themselves. The personalities and cultures of the seven alien races in Solar Echoes shape and drive the story in a way that transcends a simple plot comparison.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Writing Character-driven Stories (part 1/4)

I recently gave a talk on how to design a role-playing game, and one of the topics I covered was writing the overall story. I have found that the approach I detailed works for me in novel-writing as well. When I think about science fiction stories, whether in novel form, in a game, or even on the big screen, many of them can be likened to other stories. There are so many stories out there, it is difficult to write a plot that is truly unique--in fact, writers usually draw upon their own experiences and other themes they have enjoyed before, which results in a final product that often involves fragments of these themes. Their plots are unlikely to be entirely derived from their own ideas, with conscious and unconscious decisions being influenced by the ideas of others they have been exposed to. Good writers can take an old theme and make it feel fresh, but there are so many iterations of these themes out there, it takes something special to really draw an audience. That, in my opinion, is the characters.

Friday, December 9, 2016

John Glenn

American hero and space pioneer, John Glenn, has passed away at 95. Glenn was the first American to orbit Earth (and the 5th in space) on February 20, 1962, only 7 months before President Kennedy's famous Moon speech. Glenn sped around the Earth three times in only a few hours, traveling over 65,000 miles. President Kennedy considered him too important of a symbol to risk losing in an accident, so Glenn had to step down from NASA, but he would later go to space again in October of 1998, while still serving as a Senator (he served in the Senate for four terms). He undertook this second spaceflight at age 77, making him the oldest person to ever fly in space—a record that still stands. Glenn was a humble man who inspired the American spirit. In a NY Times interview, he said, “What got a lot of attention, I think, was the tenuous times we thought we were living in back in the Cold War. I don’t think it was about me. All this would have happened to anyone who happened to be selected for that flight.” John Glenn has inspired us to dream, and to look forward to the future of America's endeavors in space!

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Drone Control

Drones are filling the sky at an impressive rate, but this has become a safety and privacy concern for many. Already, an incident occurred where a drone collided with a jet airliner near London's Heathrow Airport. Drones have also entered secure areas, such as the drone that crashed near the White House last year. Drone-control has been an issue tackled from a variety of angles, including the use of net guns, anti-drone drones, and even trained eagles that will fly in and destroy drones in the air. A company name SkySafe has developed a system to take unwanted drones out of the sky, remotely shutting them down with options to either safely land them or to simply bring them crashing down to the earth. This technology is certain to find its way into a number of places, such as sporting events and high-security areas. However, what is to prevent similar technology from being used against self-driving cars in the future? New technologies will of course be developed to compete against that, and rival technologies will rise up in response. At least one good thing can come of all this—there will be more tech job openings in the future!

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Solar Echoes Website Redesigned!

The new and improved Solar Echoes website at is now live! Please check it out and let me know what you think! Special thanks to my webdesigner, Dineda, for all her help and collaboration!

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Shorehammer—A Weekend Among Warriors (part 2)

As you all probably know, Solar Echoes has recently entered the realm of miniatures. Paper stand-up icons were the cost-efficient way of playing the game initially, and though I'd always hoped to have miniatures, manufacturing, injection-molding, and everything that goes into making miniatures was extremely cost-prohibitive. Then came along 3D-printing, and I suddenly found a way to make my vision a reality—there is now a figure for each Solar Echoes character available at Shapeways, with low-detail prints for general play and high-detail prints for advanced artists and collectors: When I attended the Shorehammer convention, I knew I was in for a treat, because Warhammer hobbyists are what I'd call “hardcore” miniature painters. What I saw there literally blew me away—these guys are amazing artists!
On Sunday, there was a miniatures competition and people entered massive armies arranged in detailed dioramas. I got to talk to some of them about their approach, and most of them preferred hand-painting over airbrushing.
One of the competition winners told me it took him 2 years to finish, with about 6 hours a day invested. I was extremely impressed with the talent I saw on display! I would love to see what these guys might do with a Solar Echoes miniature, and I'm definitely inspired to generate more figures someday in the future!

Monday, December 5, 2016

Shorehammer—A Weekend Among Warriors (part 1)

This past weekend, from Friday through Sunday, I attended the Shorehammer Wargaming convention in Ocean City. I was invited by the convention organizer, Scott, whom I met several years ago at the Farpoint convention when he purchased the Solar Echoes Player's Guide. Scott asked me to run Solar Echoes demos and I also had the chance to host a panel discussion, where I talked about “Making Your Own RPG.” This weekend was a blast, and I am honestly shocked that it was the first time the convention had been run! Everything was incredibly well-organized and never felt rushed. It was my first time seeing gamers playing Warhammer, and I realized how involved and precise the game is. Gamers had brought their own highly-detailed miniatures, painted with incredible skill. Maps and battle areas featured impressive terrain, buildings, and other features that players would strategically move through with their armies. And on the last day of the convention, an award ceremony was given to reward tournament winners as well as the winners of the best-painted miniatures competition. Everyone I met at the convention was very friendly, and there was a gamer-comradery that rivaled that of other conventions I've attended. Shorehammer was an awesome experience, and I highly recommend you reserve the first weekend of December 2017 for next year's convention!

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Shorehammer Convention!

Solar Echoes will be at the Shorehammer wargaming convention in Ocean City this weekend, from Dec. 2-4, for game demos and a panel discussion on how to develop a role-playing game. Free prizes and tons of fun!

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Neuromorphic Computing (part 2)

Neuromorphic computing—computers that aren't dependent on a power source and can remember their processes despite power loss—raises a question that might disturb futurists like Elon Musk: What about artificial intelligence? AI has long been deemed safe because people assume “we can always unplug it” if things go wrong. Yet a rogue AI using neuromorphic computing will continue to operate despite the loss of a power source--unplugging the system will not halt its processes or clear its data. An AI will always focus on completing whatever tasks it has been assigned, or has assigned itself, and if those tasks could be disrupted by being unplugged, the AI will prioritize eliminating the possibility of this hindrance to its goals. Neuromorphic computing could potentially allow an AI to persist indefinitely, regardless of a power source, making things that much more difficult to isolate and contain. Hopefully, safeguards will be implemented as AI's are developed, such as preventing AI from existing on or having access to computers utilizing neuromorphic components.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Archaeloid vs. Omul Battle Art Update

I'm still working with John Fell on poses for our two sci-fi alien warriors, and the Archaeloid stances with the steel bo-stick are just about decided, though they are rather contingent on what happens with the Omul. Not to be too “punny,” but the situation with the Omul is still rather “fluid.” We're trying different poses with the Omul to figure out just what to do with his arms with regards to the katana he's wielding. One arm just didn't look right to me, but the current approach with two isn't exactly right, either. I've given John some suggestions to try for the next iteration, and we'll see how that goes, but below is where we're at right now. The Omul bottom is also a concern, but we haven't started working on that yet. My idea is to take the stances of humans and convert that over to an Omul somewhat, but I told John to draw the legs like someone wearing really baggy pants. I don't want the Omul to look like he has legs per se, but I think his base needs to look like he has some kinetic energy wound up and releasing as he strikes with his sword.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Neuromorphic Computing

Engineers have been developing microprocessors which mimic the biological synapses of the human brain. The projection is being led by Joshua Yang and Qiangfei Xia, professors of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Massachusetts. Their work focuses on ionics instead of electronics, specifically “memristors,” which “enable neuromorphic computing by reproducing the functions in biological synapses and neurons in a neural network system, while providing advantages in energy and size.” These synaptic emulators have a distinct advantage over traditional microprocessors because they are not dependent on a power source. Essentially, a memristor has a memory, so even if it loses power it can remember what it was doing before and continue the action. Computers of the future may be able to shut on and off as fast as a light bulb without losing any data, files, or processes. What implications might this technology have upon our future?

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Website Re-design Underway!

The Solar Echoes website at is going through a complete make-over. It has been nearly four years since the website's initial launch, and I've been feeling that the current website looks a bit dated. Plus, it isn't optimized to display well on tablets and smartphones, which a large percentage of us are using to browse the web these days instead of desktop computers. I've also wanted to use the artwork of artist John Fell for the website, and an overhaul was a great opportunity to put his talent on display. With his fantastic alien artwork and the new alien emblems, the website re-design is looking good already. Here's a sneak peek at some of the homepage. I'll definitely let everyone know when the new Solar Echoes website is live—I'm hoping it will be very soon! It's a good time to go visit for a last look at the old site, because it's about to vanish into memory.


Tuesday, November 22, 2016

French Game Club Mission Report (part 2)

By crossing-checking the information gathered from the hacking of the captain’s computer and the interrogation of the crew, the team discovers that the rendezvous is set in a bar on the Hemera Spaceport, a space station in orbit around the mining planet Lithos. The captain never met his contact, and he is supposed to find out his identity in a coded conversation with the bartender, which will reveal the contact who is ready to offer payment for the smuggled cargo. The team leaves the smugglers in the custody of the agents onboard the XR-Celthrin and takes the cargo ship to the rendezvous point on the Spaceport. On the way, they take a closer look at the cargo, and Khassim discovers the hidden Chiraktis eggs. Khassim also manages to plant a passive tracker in one of the Chiraktis eggs crates in order to trace the cargo if it moves beyond their surveillance. A few hours later, the cargo ship arrives in sight of the spaceport, and the team manages to work together to solve a problem that could have had dire consequences--they realize the smugglers deactivated the ID beacon of their ship to be less detectable, which could have triggered the spaceport to shoot them down if they did not reactivate it on time. Once the team docked their ship at the Spaceport, they looked for the bar mentioned by the captain, the Star Wrangler. A success on their Awareness check allows them to spot a holo-animation, where a Krissethi with a large cow-boy hat captures stars with a lasso at the bar entrance. The Star Wrangler is crowded by many patrons when they enter, and members of all the different races occupy the establishment. The team decides to split up around the room, just in case things take a violent turn when they approach the smuggler contact.

Monday, November 21, 2016

French Game Club Mission Report (part 1)

The French gaming club, Les Petit Joueurs (“Little Gamers”) has recently played the “Egg Drop” mission in Solar Echoes. The mission involves intercepting an operation to smuggle Chiraktis eggs and then posing as the smugglers to determine where the eggs were being moved to. Chiraktis are known for trying to illegally expand their kind outside their own borders, and their actions violate the Non-Proliferation Addendum of the Interstellar Union. When the team finds the smuggler's ship, the Reln, Prof. Zholtaân, decides to communicate with the ship’s captain. He attempts a bluff to pretend he is a young and inexperienced captain, that the communication array of his ship is damaged. The high persuasion score of Prof. Zholtaân also allows him to convince the smugglers that he is the nephew of a rich Reln merchant, and he offers part of his cargo in exchange for repairs. Once they are onboard, Prof. Zholtaân, flanked by the Archaeloid Oosnubu, negotiate with the smugglers, who ask for all their cargo for the repairs. They are distracted by the cunning words of the Reln and the imposing presence of the Archeloid, and fail to spot the third member of the team, Khassim, the Krissethi infiltrator, stealthily moving between the crates of the cargo bay, arriving suddenly at the captain’s back to hold him at gun point. Khassim uses his intimidation advantage to convince the captain to order his crew to surrender and get onboard the XR-Celthrin without resisting. Once the smugglers are placed into custody within the ship’s cabins, the team reveals they are in fact UG agents, and proceed to a quick interrogation, as well as a search of the crew and cargo.

Friday, November 18, 2016

ESPodcast_42 Group Plays Solar Echoes (part 4/4)

The ESPodcast group consisted of 6 players, which in some other role-playing games might result in slow gameplay. However, the pace moved quickly in combat and when the group was out of combat, their interactions were very entertaining across all of their different characters and personalities. There was Mike, who played the well-spoken Reln, the “face” of the team in social encounters and commander of the crew aboard their starship. There was JT, the lurking Krissethi that seldom spoke but often assisted from the shadows, also serving as the team's Science Officer aboard the starship, helping the pilot maneuver into blind spots. The tough Archaeloid was played by Nick, who often used his presence to intimidate and served as the team's tactical officer, operating the starship weapons to great effect. The pilot of the team was Stacey, aka “ACE,” played by Dominick (Dom), who not only piloted the team out of danger in starship dogfights but also was quite effective in social encounters, especially with human males. Dave played the team's Erwani, who helped with the investigation and sometimes took over as captain so Mike's Reln could use his engineering skills to assist in battle. And finally, there was the chaotic Omul “Jones,” played by Jordan, who was the team's hacker and Com Officer aboard the starship, often jamming the sensors of enemy ships to confuse them in battle. Together, the 6 players made every game session exciting and very interactive, and it was great to see everyone working as a team aboard their starship, using their respective skills in their investigation, and to survive or bring down enemy starships in the starship race known as “The Tarball Run.”

Thursday, November 17, 2016

ESPodcast_42 Group Plays Solar Echoes (part 3/4)

An interesting encounter with the group of players was when they happened upon a Reln black-market dealer of Voidsea artifacts at the race. He was of course advertising his wares as if they were “curios” from a past culture, but when the Arena Security guards were not around, he revealed that what he really had were powerful pieces of ancient technology discovered in the Voidsea. Most of the team wanted to move on, but two of the player's characters were very interested. They let him make his sales pitches and he explained that he'd just sold one of his most powerful items to another racing team, so if this team had any chance of beating them, they needed one of his artifacts. Despite the constant warnings of the Archaeloid teammate that they was being scammed, the human female, ACE, and the Omul on their team, “Jones,” really wanted to pool the team's resources so they could afford to buy one of the expensive items, the “Comet Harness.” It was a lot of fun watching the players interact during this encounter, as they argued and reasoned together—the role-playing was excellent. Unfortunately, in the end, the supposedly wiser heads won the argument and they moved on, though later in the race, they did encounter the racer that had purchased a Voidsea artifact and witnessed a spectacular display of technology they had never seen before.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

ESPodcast_42 Group Plays Solar Echoes (part 2/4)

The mission for the team was to infiltrate a famous sporting event—a starship race—and locate a particular pilot wanted by the Union Guard (UG). The pilot had won the race 5 years prior (the race occurs every 5 years) and the UG had tried to capture him then, but he had used deadly force and killed the agents pursuing him. One problem was that this pilot was very good at hiding and changing his true identity, so the team had very little to go on. The plan was for the team to enter the arena several days before the race to talk with various racing teams and try to narrow things down to locate the target.

Things did not start well, because the team's pilot, a human female character named Stacy (aka. “ACE”) failed her pilot check as she was entering the landing bay, scratching their starship against the inner walls in the tightly-packed starship bay. This earned them a bit of a negative reputation right from the start, and it was difficult to be taken seriously when word spread to the other racing teams in the competition. The player who was playing “ACE” did a great job with his character, though, and stayed in character through a number of challenging situations. One comical theme that continued to return with his character was her desire to win the race—“ACE” kept losing sight of their mission goals and was intent on figuring out how to beat the other teams. The Reln character, “Ki,” on their team that played the role of commander continually had to reprimand her and remind her of their true purpose, and the players did a fantastic job at acting this out.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

ESPodcast_42 Group Plays Solar Echoes (part 1/4)

Sorry I missed my post Monday—I got in at 3am thanks to a late-night Solar Echoes game, and had to be somewhere at 4:30am, so I spent a few extra hours sleeping! The last couple weekends, I ran a Solar Echoes demo for some of the guys over at ES_Podcast. Their group of players is much more role-playing focused, and the six of them seemed to not be very interested in combat. I decided to run a mission for them that was focused on investigation and story, with a variety of characters. The only problem was that this mission is written for character levels 8-9, and these guys were just starting out at level 1. However, one advantage of the Solar Echoes game system is the ability to quickly adjust level challenges without having to rewrite everything. If you'd like more details on how this works, check out the free download of “The Overnight Elite Pack,” which explains how to quickly level up a scenario—this same process can be used in reverse as well. In the end, I think the mission challenges felt very balanced and the usual fast gameplay Solar Echoes is known for was not affected. This week, I'll cover a few of the memorable moments during the mission and share with you some of the fun role-playing moments of the ES_Podcast gamers!

Friday, November 11, 2016

D&D arrives in Toy Hall of Fame

Congratulations, Dungeons and Dragons, for making it into the Toy Hall of Fame! My many years playing D&D (I still have the original purple-cover set pictured below!) provided many memorable experiences, and inspired me to create my own tabletop RPG, Solar Echoes! Thanks Gary Gygax, TSR, Wizards of the Coast, and everyone else involved in keeping this great game going all these years! 

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Mission: The Seeds of Chaos

An excerpt from Sunday's mission report of an agent that encountered rampaging, malfunctioning robots at a shopping mall:

At this time, we were attacked by a Cleaning Bot. “Help me relax, so I don’t have to wax, keep the floor clean.” Why do we program these bots to project themselves as sentient? Their entire mechanical purpose is to clean. Why is this one requesting a reduction in his labor?
I move Nassarius away from danger and follow the unit into formation.
“Please drop your valuables for me, I accept tips.” Again I have to question the intent of the command. Are the robots collecting tips for the creators? The maintenance crew? Themselves?
Jones makes a strange request for me to throw trash. I assume this is some sort of gleamed information regarding the robots purpose. Jones nanite-swarmed the robot. He was then counter attacked and made a tactical dodge. UG training pays off.
“You drop it I mop it.” This cadence seems much more sensible.
I move Nassarius against a wall, and deployed the contents of the local trash receptacle, as per my ally's request. Ka repositioned within my peripheral view, so I monitored his blind spots, with Nassarius to my rear.
The robot attacked Jones. I believe he was hit. Ka discharged his weapon into the combat zone. It is reasonably assumed that his attack was successful.
“Please don’t litter, it makes me bitter.” This is the 3rd abnormal statement made from the malfunctioning robot...

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

"What is the Voidsea?"

 I was asked this question during a Solar Echoes game Sunday night. As soon as you enter the Solar Echoes universe, it won't be long before you know the answer to this question, because the Voidsea is the most noticeable and prominent feature of known space--it is a massive dimensional tear in space from which few have ever returned. Only the Reln have figured out how to enter and leave the Voidsea. The secrets they have uncovered there about a vanished, powerful alien race and an ancient war are secrets the Reln are keeping to themselves. But what is the Voidsea, exactly? Uncover some of the mystery here: 

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

It's Election Day! Vote for your favorite alien government!

Archaeloid Demarchy: Rule by officials that met requirements and submitted their names to a lottery from which they were randomly chosen. After term, citizens vote either for continuance or for a new lottery.

Chiraktis Monarchy: Rule by the queen with absolute power over the Hive

Erwani Technocracy: Rule by technical experts, scientists, and engineers

Human Meritocracy/Democracy: Rule by the intelligent and skilled, with appointments made by votes of the citizens

Krissethi Confederated Oligarchic Aristocracy: Rule by the largest tribe with the most status and wealth, with power from the top down among competing, lesser tribes

Omul Collectivist Anarchism: Officially lacks any specific ruling leaders. Production is owned collectively and managed by the producers, shared among all citizens.

Reln Noocracy: Rule by the educated elite

Monday, November 7, 2016

Omul Miniature Painted!

Saejin Park finished painting my Omul miniature last weekend, and he has done an impressive job! It looks just like the art by John Fell that the sculpt was modeled after by 3d-sculpting artist Jeremy Gosser. This sculpt is available online from Shapeways, where you can order your favorite Solar Echoes character and receive the 3d-print in the mail at your doorstep.

Friday, November 4, 2016

Anniversary Sale Ends Soon!

The 4th Anniversary Sale (40% off our products!) ends Monday, November 7. Don't let the weekend pass and miss out on this once-in-a-year sale, we only slash our prices this much during our anniversary week! Monday (Halloween) was officially the fourth year since the release of Solar Echoes! Thanks for staying with us these past four years! A lot has happened since release, and looking at where Solar Echoes is now, it's exciting to see how much it has grown and how the gaming community has grown as well. Since the initial release of 3 books (the Player's Guide, Mission Controller's Guide, and Starter Kit) 23 other online products have been released for the game. In addition to that, there are now 7 miniatures available at through 3D printing—a miniature for each Solar Echoes alien race! New art, new maps, new supplements and missions are all on the horizon. Enjoy the sale this weekend!

Thursday, November 3, 2016

The Process of Designing New Artwork

As I usually do when I work with artists, I try to provide images of some things I have in mind. I went online and did a search for “Bo-stick vs. Katana,” and I found a few youtube videos of martial artists engaging in fights with these two weapons. Then, I paused at a few cool moments and took screen-shots of the image. Here is an example of an image I liked (one of the eight images I sent to John). I've also taken some of the original Solar Echoes artwork by Jay Darnell and made a few sloppy alterations with photoshop so I could make the Omul look like he was wielding a katana. Of course, the final poses drawn by John Fell will be different than these, but this is almost like a “story-board” piece of preliminary concept art to help visualize a few things. I can't wait to see these two in battle, and I'm excited to see what John does with the poses. Making an Omul look like an agile ninja-type warrior with a katana is going to be a challenge, but it's going to be really cool!

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Help Design New Artwork! (Which Weapons?)

From the feedback I've been getting, the Omul is looking like he is going to be the Archaeloid's opponent in the upcoming Solar Echoes alien fight artwork! (I ran a popularity contest last week and the Omul was the clear winner, and people I've been talking to would all like to see him fight the Archaeloid.) Now the question is, what weapons should these two be using to fight? I want them to be up-close and personal in a melee fight, so ranged weapons (firearms) are out. We already have a variety of melee weapons available in Solar Echoes, but a number of them hint at Japanese culture: katana, bo-stick, razor-ono (axe), and throwing knives (kunai). I've always seen the Archaeloid as kind of a samurai-type character, considering his thick, armored shell. The Omul almost seems like a ninja, so I'm leaning towards the Archaeloid using a steel bo-stick while the Omul uses a katana (maybe with a few kunai in a pseudopod, as well). Past art for the Archaeloid has him holding two energy swords, and I considered an energy sword instead of a katana, but then I'm sure everyone will be arguing about whether it can cut through a steel bo or not (trust me—just google online about “lightsaber capabilities” and you'll find tons of geek discussions about it). Yet, if I use the steel bo and a katana as the character's weapons, will it look sci-fi enough? They'll of course have other gear and firearms in holsters and such, so hopefully that will be enough to convey this is still sci-fi. Thoughts?

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Help Design New Artwork!

I've worked with several very talented artists on new artwork and miniature designs, and I'm looking forward to future projects with them. One of my newest endeavors is to produce some Solar Echoes art showing a battle between two characters, and I've recently talked with artist John Fell about this project. I'd like to get your ideas for which two races you'd like to see fighting, and what weapons, armor, and gear you'd like to see them using! I'll select my favorite (and most popular) ideas, and then relay that information to John so he can start working. I'm going to share some of the images of the process with you as we work on putting this scene together! So, let me know in the comments below or through a personal message what you'd like to see in this artwork!

Monday, October 31, 2016

4th Anniversary Sale! 40% Off!

Happy Halloween! Did you know that Halloween is also the 4th anniversary of the Solar Echoes release? We first released our Player's Guide, Mission Controller's Guide, and Starter Kit back in 2012 on this very day! So, to celebrate our 4th Anniversary, I'm putting ALL Solar Echoes products (that are priced over $1) on sale, with 40% off! This is the biggest price cut we've ever had, and it's only going to last 1 week, so take advantage of it while you can. Thanks, everyone, for your interest and support over the last 4 years!

Friday, October 28, 2016

Interstellar Popularity Contest Results!

The results for our interstellar popularity contest are in! With 30% of the vote (including online polls at twitter and everyone I interviewed this week), our most popular alien is the amorphous Omul! Our second-place winners include the Archaeloid and the Erwani, and the Chiraktis, Krissethi, and Reln are tied for third. 

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Favorite Solar Echoes Alien Races (part 5)

You may wonder what my favorite alien is, but to be honest with you, I really can't choose. I've put so much time and thought into designing each of them that there's a lot in each of them that I like. However, we often choose something that we identify most with (my wife, for example, is an extremely tenacious person and she chose the Chiraktis as her favorite), so if I had to pick a personality type I identify with, I'd say the Reln. Reln have the highest natural "influence" attribute of all the alien races, and they are master wordsmiths. I love writing, so that appeals to me, but on the other hand, Reln are also great with the spoken word, and I'm, well, not great at public-speaking. I can do it, but I'd much rather write to express myself. The mysterious nature of the Reln, too, is appealing to me, because they've seen things in the depths of the Voidsea that no other race has. What mysteries and secrets do they know? To me, these aliens are very intriguing, and I can't wait to write more about them in the future! Yet at the same time, the reptilian Krissethi holds a special fascination for me, because I have always loved lizards—I had a pet iguana back in high school that grew to be 5.5 feet long and bit me on the face (I had to get 9 stitches.) Lizards are so cool! The Krissethi totally fits my combat preference—they love sneaking around in the shadows, sniping at enemies and attacking from behind. They can climb walls and ceilings, shift their skin color for natural camouflage to blend in with their surroundings, and at high levels, they can even snatch weapons out of enemy hands with their sticky tongue! But honestly, there are things I like about each of the Solar Echoes alien races. Who is your favorite?

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Favorite Solar Echoes Alien Races (part 4)

I asked the GM of the French RPG group, Les Petits Joueurs (“The Little Gamers”) what his favorites were, and he talked about his players' favorites:

Fabrice plays Oosnubu, an Archaeloid tank/sharp-shooter. He was attracted by the resilience of the Archaeloid race, and having a background in wargaming, he associated the movement disavadvantage, as well as the shy and protective nature of the Archaeloids with the classic fantasy Dwarf, that he tends to play in a number of other settings. We also have a running joke in the group that one of the players MUST have a character with Swimming in his skills, and with their aquatic full movement, it was quite fitting.

Guillaume plays Khassim, a Krissethi inflitrator. He was attracted by the stealthy aspects of the krissethi, but also their tendency to be brash and greedy, that he associated with gangsta hip-hop. It was also an obvious choice for him since he prefers to play rogues and archers. More than that, he also wanted to play a "Bad Cop" character, so the reputation of mobsters of the Krissethi was weaved into his smuggler backstory.

Nicolas plays Prof. Zholthaân, a Reln negociator and Battlefield Controller. He was attracted by the Reln social advantage, and highly amused by their racial concept of stoicism (he insists every session that his character doesn't "believe" in radiations). He also tends to play spies and "Black Barons", morally dubious characters with extensive secret knowledge, so the Reln and their link to the Voidsea was an obvious choice for him. Oddly enough, he also decided that in his family (he is the son of a famous veteran), the concept of government-issued procreation rights of the Relns was pushed to the extreme, and his background is based on his rivalry between him and his brother to gain the approval of his father, that will decide which of the two will get the right to get married first. 


Favorite Solar Echoes Alien Races (part 3)

I asked two friends of mine, one that used to play RPG's and another that still does, what their favorite alien races are in Solar Echoes.

Chad: “I would have to saw Erwani because it's a non-humanoid species. Of course the Omul would fit into this category as well, but I like the Erwani better. I think role playing from the perspective of intelligent plant life creates many interesting scenarios.”

Gregg: “All of the Solar Echoes races hold some appeal, but the one I keep coming back to is the Omul. Part of the reason is that I see myself first and foremost as an individual, and the notion of collectivism makes me cringe (I would not make a good Chiraktis.) But the true appeal of the Omul is that I wonder what their culture and society look like. Is it as formless and mutable as the Omul themselves? What does their architecture and art look like? Would life in an ever-changing world be ultimate freedom, or total madness? I imagine that like the Omul themselves, the answer is a paradox.” 

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Favorite Solar Echoes Alien Races (part 2)

Matthew, my friend and the co-author of the Solar Echoes game, emailed me about his favorite alien. He wrote: “My favorite Solar Echoes alien is probably the Archaeloids, though they are all interesting races with cultures that mesh well together in a roleplaying game. The Archaeloids are a prime example of how a book should not be judged by its cover, but on multiple levels. On the one hand, they are physical hulking and mighty creatures with strange bodies and an aquatic origin that is utterly alien to not only people who play Solar Echoes, but the other races in the game. In short, they appear disturbing and dangerous. On the other hand, they are often gentle giants that face many challenges integrating into the community of alien races because of their unusual nature, remote home-world location, and need to catch up to the technology advances of the other races. But aliens, like people in real life, can have many layers to them, and Archaeloids are well suited for this role. Those who don’t know them assume that they are big, dumb, and deadly. Those who do know their race assume they are relatively peaceful and perhaps a bit innocent or even backwards. But reality could be anywhere in between or something else entirely. A mighty, battle-hungry Archaeloid warrior as a player character would be unexpected – as would be one who is skilled at manipulating others by using the seeming innocence of his race as an advantage. And an Archaeloid villain – cruel, cunning, and as deadly as his physical bulk would indicate – is something nobody would expect. So, for interesting variety and a race with many layers, some of which are easily understood, some of which are not, I’d go with the Archaeloid as my favorite alien race in Solar Echoes.”

Monday, October 24, 2016

Favorite Solar Echoes Alien Races (part 1)

This week I've asked a few friends and family to tell me what their favorite Solar Echoes alien is, and why. I'd also like to hear from you and know what you think in this inter-stellar popularity contest. At the end of the week, I'll share the results and let you know who won! So, to start today, I'll share what some of my family thinks, starting with my wife. Her favorite is the insectoid Chiraktis, which she likes because they are intelligent (she must be referring to the worker drones of the race, not the warriors) and are extremely tenacious workers. She's definitely right about their tenacity, because the worker drones get a racial talent called "Devoted Tenacity." Plus, she thinks they look really cool, which is saying something because my wife hates bugs! My own parents, however, both chose the amoebic Omul, which might be because they've both read my unpublished Solar Echoes novel (know of any agents or publishers that might be interested? I'm looking...) My mother said she likes the Omul because it is a clever, intelligent creature that lacks social graces, interrupting conversations while acting like a child needing attention. Omuls do, in the Solar Echoes game, have the lowest possible "influence" attribute, meaning that they are really, really bad at persuasion-related skills. My father said he chose the Omul because it is the creepiest creature, especially with its "displace loyalty" and "inhabit other" racial talents. In his words, the Omul is "totally weird."

Friday, October 21, 2016

Virtual Reality is Real (part 5)

I have had a number of other VR experiences, including the “Sports Bar VR,” “Invasion,” some of the 360-degree short films in “Within,” and some of the games from the “VR Playroom.” Invasion was a miniature animated movie where you are standing in one place (with the body of a rabbit) and can observe what is going on around you. It is a neat way to watch a movie. “Within” allows you to look around in a 360-degree film, but I must admit I became motion-sick in one that had me strapped into a moving wheel-chair in an insane-asylum. Motion sickness is not something I have ever experienced from a game, but it may take a while before my brain can adjust to the belief that I am moving without the inner-ear sensation of actual motion. “Scavenger's Odyssey” in VR Worlds was very unsettling in regards to movement, and I could only play it for short sessions before I had to stop. Women naturally get motion-sick more easily than men, and my daughter barely managed a minute in Scavenger's Odyssey before she had to take the headset off. Despite this side-effect, though, a number of games I've played don't induce this feeling, and the experience of VR is really something you can't fully imagine—you really need to experience it yourself! This technology is not the gimmick I first suspected it might be. Virtual Reality is a revolution in gaming, and we're going to be seeing it implemented into the entertainment industry from all angles, not to mention its military, educational, and medical applications. In my opinion, VR is here to stay, and its only going to get better!

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Virtual Reality is Real (part 4)

After finishing the “VR Worlds” passive experience of Ocean Descent, I decided to try "London Heist." This felt very much like an immersive movie and video game combined. In one of the early scenes, it began with me seated at a table in a smoky bar. I was using the two "move" controllers, and I had two hands in the game that I could move like my own to pick up and manipulate objects. In front of me was a cigar and a lighter on the table, so I picked the cigar up in my left hand and the lighter in my right. I clicked the trigger on my controller (I think it was the trigger--I don't remember which, it felt so natural) and the lighter lit with a flame that I used to light my cigar. Then, I pulled my left hand close to my face and breathed in--the embers on the cigar glowed. I then blew out onto the air, and the microphone on the VR headset translated that into smoke blowing out of my mouth in VR! I was smoking a cigar, without the risk of lung cancer! Shortly after this, a man showed up and sat at my table, talking to me about a jewel heist. I felt like he was right there—the physical presence was almost palpable. His cell phone rang and after answering it, he said it was for me. I reached over and took it from him, and when I instinctively held it up to my right ear, I could hear the voice of the other guy on the line, in my right ear! The 3D audio in VR is impressive! Later, I picked up a handgun in one hand, smacked a magazine into the handle with my left hand, and began shooting with amazing pinpoint accuracy at bad guys on motorcycles outside the van as an incredibly life-like VR character drove. I even leaned out the window and looked behind the van to see more bad guys coming, but in reality I was staring right at the back of my couch. The weirdest thing is, when I touched my couch, I actually thought there was some kind of invisible object I'd bumped in the game!

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Virtual Reality is Real (part 3)

Instead of my reactions, I'll share those of my wife, who is not a gamer at all and is generally unimpressed by technology. Immediately, she was looking around, leaning over and reaching out, waving her arms trying to touch the fish, and getting nervous the deeper the cage was lowered into the ocean depths. She was "oohing" and "awwing" when she saw manta rays, sea turtles, and jelly fish. She asked, "is this a movie?" not understanding it was a video game--she said it looked incredibly real (And this is coming from someone that thought Uncharted 4 on an HDTV "still looks like a game.") Finally, the great white shark showed up, and my wife pulled her legs up onto the couch each time it circled the cage. When it attacked and bit onto the cage, trying to tear it apart to get to her, my wife was screaming at the top of her lungs, hugging her legs and leaning away from the virtual shark, shouting to me, "I don't like this!" After the game ended, though, when she took of the VR headset she told me she thought it was amazing and felt incredibly real, that even though she knew the shark wasn't real she believed it was. I know exactly how she felt, because when I first experienced it alone the night before, I had been shouting at the people above on the boat to pull me up. My daughter and I laughed silently when watching my wife go through this, and when it was my daughter's turn to try, even though she knew what would happen (we'd watched it together on the tv screen, which showed everything my wife saw) when she tried it herself, she had all the very same reactions.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Virtual Reality is Real (part 2)

During the unboxing, I have to say that I was impressed with the packaging. I don't normally care about or notice such things, but this impacted me the same way that some Apple product packaging has: it was very stylish and almost classy. Just opening the box and removing the compartmentalized components made me feel like I'd bought something special. The instructions were very straight-forward and easy to follow, short and simple on each page. I had it all hooked up in minutes and was ready to go. The device fit easily onto my head and was surprisingly light and comfortable. The only thing I didn't like was that it has a cord and I had to figure out where to adjust that so it didn't interfere with my movements or break my suspension of disbelief. I decided to purchase VR Worlds, which has several short games. I first tried Ocean Descent, which is an entirely passive experience where you just observe. You start in a shark cage submerged in the ocean about 50 feet below the surface, and are then slowly lowered down. I'll discuss reactions more tomorrow, but I can tell you this--VR is not just another 3D-gimmick, it is incredibly immersive, and I truly believe it will completely change the future of gaming and entertainment!

Monday, October 17, 2016

Virtual Reality is Real (part 1)

Last Thursday, Sony released their new virtual reality (VR) headset to the public. I've been skeptical about virtual reality ever since we all started hearing about the Oculus Rift, the HTC Vive, and other competing VR devices. The motion-controlled games that were a passing fad back with the Nintendo Wii were at first taken seriously by Sony with their "Move" controllers and even more seriously by Microsoft with their attempt to make their "Kinect" motion-controlled device mandatory with the purchase of their Xbox 360. Microsoft continued to stubbornly insist upon this despite massive gamer protests against it and dismal sales until they finally relented months later and offered the Xbox without it. Motion-controlled games are now seen as a fad and a failed venture, so it's very easy to understand the reluctance of these companies to get behind VR, and even easier to understand the hesitance of gamers to invest in it. The PlayStation VR headset isn't cheap, running at about $400 for just the headset and $500 for the bundle that includes the camera and two motion controllers. Thankfully, I already had the camera and motion controllers, so I bought only the headset (which I learned was a bit of a feat, since my pre-order for this was apparently rare and available during only a very small window of time earlier this summer.) The night before release, I went online and downloaded a lot of the free VR offerings, since I hadn't decided which official game to get yet and wanted to wait for reviews. I later bought and downloaded PlayStation VR worlds, and this week I'll cover my initial impressions...

Friday, October 14, 2016

Writing an Entire Universe (part 5)

Finally, once we had established the histories and positions of the races, we needed to fill in the blanks, so to speak. What was trade like? How did they travel and how long did it take? What other factions existed? Questions like these prompted miniature stories and we filled our universe in with details that “fleshed out” the game world we had created. One example involves the gigantic, roaming asteroid-prison called “Thanatos,” where I imagined a futuristic, isolated Alcatraz-like penal colony for the very worst prisoners. Another example involves the three biggest criminal organizations in the universe and what their goals are—you can read more about these in the recent release of the Union Guard Handbook. Even a disturbing cult exists in our universe, which believes in a mysterious alien race that they are convinced will elevate them to immortality, hence the cult name, “The Immortals.” Many of the other details in our universe were inspired by actual events in reality, and some of the stories we tell through our missions actually reflect these events with occasional, subtle commentary implied through the telling of these stories—what will happen to us if we keep going down this path?—for example. I've always seen science fiction as a warning, reflecting truths about our reality and spinning them forward into the future to show the dire consequences of our choices. The Solar Echoes universe is an imagined space opera, but interwoven throughout its fabric is a lot that might challenge players to reflect upon the direction and choices we are making as humans. At the same time, the game universe is ready for you to write your own stories—there is plenty of room in the reaches of outer space for everyone!