Monday, February 29, 2016
I’m not sure if it’s because we’ve all become busier or if it’s because technology has made things more convenient, but some gamers have been opting for online play over sitting around a table together. I remember how excited I was in 2002 when Neverwinter Nights released on the PC—finally, there was a way to play Dungeons and Dragons in a virtual environment with people online! I spent many nights running adventures for players from all over the world, and dedicated player groups would form and come back every week for another episode of the adventure. I would spend hours programming the adventure beforehand, laying out maps, pathing non-player character actions, and setting up encounters, basically pre-scripting as much as I could anticipate...
Friday, February 26, 2016
A vital aspect of a good sci-fi story is the moment your characters face a challenge. Sometimes the challenges your characters face are interpersonal, and sometimes the challenges are more tied to your plot. When you've established the world your characters live in, it's time to let your characters act out their personalities in that framework while dropping a few challenges in front of them and writing how they respond. Let your characters react to events and shape the plot itself, rather than rail-roading them down a pre-scripted path. Writing a story is actually a lot like playing a role-playing game, because players often do the most unpredictable things and end up with a story to tell that is even more exciting than you originally planned!
Thursday, February 25, 2016
In addition to characters, a successful sci-fi story has great world-building. Why is everything the way it is? What do people wear now, what vehicles do they drive, what weapons do they use? What is the government of this sci-fi world like, and what were things like before? Include information about the history of your world or universe to explain, or at least imply (because world building can go on forever if you're not careful) why things are the way they are in your story. Decide on how far-future your world is, and if it's far beyond what we know now, you're going to have to spend more time explaining things. Be careful not to linger there too long, though, because people really are most interested in your characters.
Wednesday, February 24, 2016
Another consideration for writing successful science fiction is that you should write the story about the characters and not the plot. The plot is only a framework, a playground for your characters. Drop interesting characters into any cliche plot and you'll have an interesting story to tell, because it's not the plot that really drives the story, it's the characters. As an example, how many sci-fi stories are there about rag-tag resistance armies (rebels) that rise up to defeat a powerful and evil empire? Yet we didn't mind the cliche in Star Wars at all, because the characters were so compelling. Attend just about any Star Wars related event, and you'll see people dressed up as the iconic Star Wars characters. People love great characters, so make sure you have them telling your story!
Tuesday, February 23, 2016
I have my theories, and I know what I like, so I have a few observations and opinions to share regarding what a science fiction writer should consider when crafting his or her work. I think an important step is to abandon any illusion that your plot is going to be totally unique, thinking that it won't fall under one of the many cliche categories in science fiction. That sounds depressing, but don't let it be--some of our favorite science fiction stories can easily be categorized and compared with other similar, cliche plots. It's not necessarily a unique plot that captures an audience, but how that plot is used to tell a story that transcends its own cliche.
Monday, February 22, 2016
Writing a good science fiction plot has become an increasingly difficult task over the years, as the genre has exploded in popularity and is now riddled with cliches. Have aliens traveled across the universe to visit Earth and steal resources they could have found in greater abundance on planets they passed on the long journey to ours? Is there yet another bad guy that has traveled through time to retroactively kill someone important? Has a computer AI become self-aware and decided to eliminate the human race? There are countless other cliches, too many to list, yet science fiction is alive and well, generating impressive results across all forms of the entertainment industry. Just what is an aspiring science fiction writer to do to stand out and gain some traction in this market?
Friday, February 19, 2016
Go under-cover as a civilian into a mafia-owned bank, ready for a heist that you know is coming. Use your wits to survive, your stealth to elude, and your resourcefulness to craft weapons from common items in the bank in order to sabotage the bank robbers. Gather secure intel off the bank servers during the distraction of the heist, and escape with the agent who set the heist in motion to cover your operation. However, the police are waiting for you, and so is the mafia!
Without giving anything away about the new mission that will be released tomorrow, “The Heist Stratagem” involved a lot of sneaking around the bank while the bank robbers were busy in the vault and the safe-deposit box room. The players at the Farpoint convention were great at finding useful items throughout the bank that they used to craft their own homemade weapons. The crafting system involved first noticing an item in an area with a successful Awareness check, and then also making a successful Resourcefulness check. If those checks were made, then the character knew what other items he needed and how to construct a particular item. Once he found all the items, he was then able to build the desired weapon or item, combining them together and crafting something that represented an actual weapon in the Solar Echoes game, with somewhat lower values (a crafted item isn't going to perform as well as the real thing, of course.) Look for more details later today on “The Heist Stratagem."
Thursday, February 18, 2016
I had been waiting to try a new mission I have been working on, hoping to have a few players with a little Solar Echoes experience. I was joined by one of the players from the first game that day, and another player who has enjoyed Solar Echoes at a number of different conventions, and they both agreed they'd like to try it out and be my “beta testers.” So, I began the Heist Stratagem, a new mission I'll be releasing this weekend that focuses on the team playing undercover civilians in a bank. The team has been assigned this mission because the bank is owned by a Krissethi mafia, and the Union Guard wants some of the data on their isolated servers. However, the UG has been unsuccessful getting any agents hired to work at the bank and so they have embedded another undercover agent in a local gang, and he has planned a bank heist with the gang. The time of the heist is secretly conveyed to the UG so the players' team can be in place and operate during the distraction of the heist. The second part of the mission, after they've achieved their objective, is to sabotage the heist and get the undercover operative out alive, while still making the entire thing look like a bank heist so the mafia isn't suspicious that something else went on! This is a complex mission, especially because the characters will not be able to bring any weapons or armor with them—they have to pass bank security and be convincing civilians! The characters had to use their wits and craft weapons and other items from simple items that were found around the bank. There was definitely some MacGyver and Michael Westen influence in this one!
Wednesday, February 17, 2016
An entirely different group of players played the same scenario the next day, with different results. One of their team also had the same idea as the player from the day before—he tried to board the smuggler's ship. His character had actually spent some time doing some research on the smuggler gang, making sure his disguise included the proper gang symbols and colors. He almost pulled off the ruse, but when he got on the ship, the smugglers all did, too. They were about to leave to escape the UG agents outside, but this player started acting suspicious, trying to get into the engine room (to sabotage the ship). Even with the best disguise, some activities are very tough to explain away with words—the smugglers finally forced him out of the ship back into the starport, even though some thought he might still be a new member of the gang. The smuggler's starship took off, and the UG agents quickly boarded their own starship and gave chase. After an intense starship battle, the smuggler's ship was too damaged to continue, so they surrendered. The UG agents decided to try to board the ship to retrieve the contraband, but the first person to open the airlock door to board the ship was gunned down with focus fire by all the smugglers. Their teammate down, the other UG agents pulled him back to safety, disengaged their ship's docking umbilical, sent the message: “You chose your fate,” and fired a final missile at the smuggler's ship in retribution, blowing it to pieces. They may not have recovered the military contraband, but at least it didn't fall into enemy hands!
Tuesday, February 16, 2016
I always see something new each time I run Solar Echoes games, and this weekend was no exception. When the players' team chased the smugglers to a local starport, they had to figure out which terminal the smugglers were using to load their starship with contraband. When they located the smugglers, there were still a lot of civilians walking around the terminal, so the players all tried to hide the fact that they were Union Guard agents as they approached. One player managed a very successful disguise check, and managed to get close to the starship cargo bay without being noticed. When the other agents were recognized and battle ensued (causing screaming civilians to run in all directions), the disguised agent used the distraction as a chance to slip onto the ship unseen, closing the cargo bay door behind him. The smugglers were locked outside their ship and had to face the other UG agents in battle, but then things took an unexpected turn. One of the UG agents, who had left the group earlier to warm up a UG starship, showed up on the scene in the starship and started sending threatening messages to the smuggler's starship, not knowing his own team-member was already aboard. Despite attempts at communication, he decided to start firing missiles at the starship...regardless of the potential damage to the starport and the civilians. Local police quickly responded in their own starships, and after giving the rogue UG agent an order to stand down and stop firing (he refused), all of the police starships fired upon him and he was destroyed. Other than that, the mission resolved nicely, but that event was a sobering reminder that this is a game with real consequences for actions. The players are, after all, supposed to be working together on the side of the law.
Monday, February 15, 2016
This weekend, I attended the Farpoint Convention and ran Solar Echoes games in the gameroom. I met a lot of great people and had a ton of fun seeing them try Solar Echoes for the first time. This week, I'll discuss a few of the memorable moments during our games together! To begin, the first group consisted of four people, later joined by a fifth. A couple of them designed their own characters and the others decided that they liked some of the pre-made characters that were available. After I gave everyone a briefing on the basic rules, we jumped into our first mission. Intel indicated there was a gun sale being made of illegal military weapons, and the players' team needed to go break it up, and get a key person out of the situation alive. When the team arrived at the warehouse, they detected a security robot on partrol—a mechanized, dog-like, walking tank. One of the team determined (with his Robot ID talent) that the robot was over-sensitive to bright light, so the team used the headlights of their car to blind it while attacking. They managed to finish it off, but not before another player noticed a second robot coming around the corner. Most of the team ran to the side of the building, but one stayed behind and chose to drive the car into the robot, ramming it up against the side of the warehouse. This tactic paid off nicely, and the rest of the team was able to easily destroy the remains of the crushed robot with focused fire from their firearms. All hopes of a stealthy entry into the warehouse were lost—the smugglers knew they were there from the noise--but the team was alive and well after defeating two tough sentry robots!
Friday, February 12, 2016
One of the last stages of designing this mission has been introducing an event track. These pre-scripted events need to occur to advance the story. Without them, all I'd have is a realistic sandbox for players to mess around in, but nothing to give them true purpose or definitive goals. These events can prompt players who might have deviated too far off track—this is a dynamic, open-ended game, and being part of and shaping a larger story is much more gratifying to players than aimlessly searching for a reason to be playing the game. Each event presents characters with a situation they must react to, and these events are designed to challenge the players in various ways. For instance, the first main event in the upcoming heist mission is when the bad guys burst into the bank and quickly take control of the environment. Over the course of the game, I am excited to see how players will take advantage of the bank robbers during moments of oversight, finding strategic advantages, subtly creating problems for the criminals, or even using clever words to talk their way towards their goals. Look for “The Heist Stratagem” sometime in the next few weeks, it's going to be fun!
Thursday, February 11, 2016
The next phase of designing this mission involved planning what would happen if the players weren't involved. Basically, how will everyone (the NPC's) act and conduct themselves without outside player influence? Each time I've run a mission, players do something different than the last group--it's nearly impossible to predict. A large part of the fun is dynamically adjusting to the players while still keeping the story flowing. If I've designed the scenario well enough and defined the roles and behaviors of each NPC, then it's much easier for the GM to create believable reactions and events in response to the players' decisions. It's like planning a movie out completely so it's ready to film, but then a group of new actors shows up on the set and jumps in to improv. Or, imagine a video game environment with NPC's operating with realistic AI, performing across a variety of dynamic situations prompted by the player.
Wednesday, February 10, 2016
After the map was finished, I needed to design the NPC's (non-player characters). These are the people that work at the bank and the patrons that happen to be there for various banking needs. Since NPC's are average civilians and not trained Union Guard agents like the players' characters, they have lower ability scores for the most part and far fewer skills. I focused on briefly describing what each NPC was like in appearance and behavior. I also included backgrounds, which are small pieces of info that can be noticed and revealed with a successful skill check. Often, this information will give players an edge in influencing and using an NPC, but sometimes, using that information can backfire and create an unwanted reaction!
Tuesday, February 9, 2016
When I began designing this mission, the first thing I realized was how vital it was for me to have a clear idea of the bank layout. Rather than try to write from a visualization, I immediately began to work on a map of the bank. This was no easy task, as it was difficult to get much detail online about actual bank floor plans (I wonder why? ;) I managed to find some information, and after a lot of investigating, I came up with a floor plan for a bank that felt realistic and practical. Each area had a specific function, and the design also enhanced the opportunities the players would have for sneaking around during the heist. In the mission itself, there will be a smaller, single page map of the entire bank for reference, and four separate, full page quarters of the bank for printing and immediate battle-map use.
Monday, February 8, 2016
Sometimes I'm great at keeping secrets, but in this case not so much--I'm in the process of writing a new mission for Solar Echoes called “The Heist Stratagem,” which I'm hoping to finish before the weekend sci-fi convention at Farpoint. Farpoint gamers will be the very first to try this new mission, beta-testing it before I publish and release it soon after. Without giving away too much of the story, I will say that the players' team is going to get caught up in the middle of a bank heist, and as undercover operatives, it is their mission to achieve their secret mission goals while simultaneously thwarting the heist. More details to come...
Friday, February 5, 2016
However, many believe that aliens are here, either visiting earth or already living among us. The increasing number of UFO sightings in recent years (which probably have nothing to do with the ease of using special effects and personal drones to create convincing Youtube videos) suggest that the aliens are becoming far more comfortable with us knowing they are here. It is suspected that people in our government already know the truth, and some believe they are withholding evidence so as not to cause mass panic (if the 1938 Orson Welles fake radio broadcast of “War of the Worlds” is any indication, people will indeed panic and commit suicide for fear of an alien invasion.) It isn't a stretch to believe that our government would lie to us--there's already plenty of history there--but is evidence of an alien crash in Roswell really being hidden in Area 51? One day it might be announced that aliens actually live among us, visit our planet on occasion, or have made contact. But if that day never comes and we are alone in the universe, it certainly doesn't hurt to wonder and imagine—that's the stuff that makes great sci-fi!
Thursday, February 4, 2016
The so-called Fermi Paradox (Hart-Tipler argument) is another theory that addresses the question, Why haven't we discovered alien life? The theory highlights the contradiction between the high estimates of probability for the existence of alien life and the total lack of evidence for it. The tenets of the theory state that our sun is a common star, and there are billions of stars in the galaxy. With high probability, some of these stars will have Earth-like planets, and it would stand to reason that some of these planets would therefore develop intelligent life. Some of these civilizations would develop interstellar travel (which we Earthlings are currently developing.) Even if we consider that developing interstellar travel is likely to be slow, our galaxy could be completely explored in about a million years. When considering all this, some have pointed out that we have no convincing evidence of aliens, nor any signs of alien intelligence anywhere in the universe. The famous question essentially sums up the theory: “Where is everybody?” The “Fermi Paradox” indicates that, due to a total absence of evidence, it can be concluded that aliens don't exist.
Wednesday, February 3, 2016
Another theory to explain the absence of alien contact so far is that, if they ever did exist, they are all now extinct. Considering the volatile process for a planet to become habitable, it is very unlikely that microbes and other forms of life could have existed long enough or be plentiful enough that they could help balance the process. Life on a planet actually regulates greenhouse gases such as water and carbon dioxide, but without it, surface temperatures would be too volatile to support life for very long because most early planetary environments are unstable. Sudden and erratic heating and cooling on young planets would make it difficult for early life to survive and flourish. This delicate window of time is just one of the many factors that makes life on another planet very, very unlikely, even if they have habitable environments.
Tuesday, February 2, 2016
One theory explains that alien life is probably so far advanced from our own that aliens would have no desire to contact us. It wouldn't be difficult for an advanced alien race to mask their presence, considering our very primitive methods of looking and listening. They are probably much more concerned with their own affairs, and it's not hard to imagine that such an advanced race would look at Earth and quickly lose interest, considering all of the diseases, wars, and depletion of natural resources we have here on our home planet. What do we really have to offer an advanced alien race?
Monday, February 1, 2016
Do aliens exist? Why aren't we certain? With fairly recent discoveries like the star, KIC8462852, which blinks in and out at such irregular intervals that scientists are suspecting alien activity, we still lack definitive proof that alien life exists. There are a number of theories to explain this, and though some people are convinced they have seen UFO's in the sky or have been abducted by aliens, these people are still considered fringe groups with large imaginations. It's difficult, though, to look out at the billions of stars and to think that we really are all alone. If we're not alone in the universe, though, why haven't we had contact with aliens yet?...