Holiday update 2007

December 2007
Holiday 2007

As I prepare to move my blog from MySpace and Yahoo, here’ s a look back at one of my first posts (note that some of the links may be broken):

Friends, I hope that your holidays have been happy thus far. Instead of sending out the usual annual update letter, I hope that people are reading this blog.

The week before Christmas was busy, even though Janice and I had finished most of our gift shopping. Working on two issues simultaneously to get most of this week off kept CW‘s copy desk humming. On Saturday, 22 December 2007, we went to the local dump and post office, and I got my car inspected (which went more quickly and was cheaper than the previous week’s repairs). 

We also had a Chinese-American buffet lunch at the Hunan New Taste, stopped by the Walpole Mall and the Big Y supermarket, and picked up my subscription at the New England Comics in Norwood, Massachusetts. 

On Sunday, we stayed in because of the latest snowfall and caught up on television. What are your favorite holiday specials? Mine include classics such as A Charlie Brown Christmas, Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas, and various versions of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Janice’s include A Garfield Christmas, Bill ‘n’ Opus: A Wish for Wings That Work, and Will Vinton’s Claymation Christmas.

Of course, numerous Rankin-Bass cartoons and stop-motion specials have marked the holiday for generations, including Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, The Little Drummer Boy, ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas, and The Year Without a Santa Claus. More recently, we have A Muppet Family Christmas and Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas, The Nightmare Before Christmas, Robbie the Reindeer, and Shrek the Halls

I also had a quip-filled City of Heroes (CoH) virtual session with David I.S. and company, and Janice baked in preparation for seeing her folks. We plan to have a relatively quiet New Year’s Eve, since we’ll both be working that day. 

We drove to Upstate New York on Monday, Dec. 24, first to Janice’s parents’ home. Like my parents, Marvin and Linda M. live atop a hill on five acres in the country. Unlike my family, they have numerous pets and a steep, icy driveway. Janice’s middle sister Shelly was already there with her husband Melvin W. and children Rebecca, Laura, and David

I checked out photographs of friends on teenager Becky’s Clie handheld device, played chess with tween Laura, and played pool with 9-year-old David and his father. Shelly told us about her missionary work in inner-city Utica, and after a tasty lasagne dinner, we drove down to Janice’s youngest sister’s home, where we were staying.

We joined Melinda and Gary L. and their children Amanda and Joshua for Christmas Eve. I helped keep the kids occupied while the other adults finished wrapping a pile of presents. Amanda demonstrated her recent violin lessons, and I talked with 6-year-old Josh about various superheroes. Their cat Chocolate kept us company as we slept.

On Christmas morning, unwrapping continued, as the Manwillers and Wrights reconvened at the Lewis home, which has the most open space. Among other things, we got DVDs and an electric snow shovel. We had a ham luncheon, followed by Laura and 8-year-old Amanda playing with animal toys and David and Joshua playing with action figures and videogames. Becky is old enough to participate in most adult conversations.

Thanks to Gary’s PlayStation 2 and Xbox, I played an off-road racing videogame with Melvin, as well as Justice League Heroes with Josh. Although I don’t have the money or time to add console systems to my crowded tabletop (pen-and-paper, dice-and-pizza) role-playing, teleconferencing, and CoH PC gaming schedule, it was nice to try them out once in a while. Josh also demonstrated Spider-Man and Star Wars Lego II for us. (Lego Batman and Indiana Jones games are coming!) 

I telephoned my family in Virginia, but I still missed being with my parents, brother Peter, sister-in-law Kelly, and nieces Ava and Lili. I hope to see them sometime in spring of 2008. But first, we’ll be at Dexter V.H.’s latest wedding in New York City in just over a week!

We returned to the Boston area on Wednesday afternoon after taking out the Lewises and Janice’s mother to lunch at Applebee’s. On Thursday, I caught up on e-mail and prepared for various games, including last night’s D&D3.5 “Vanished Lands: Holy Steel” teleconferencing team and tomorrow’s D&D3.5 “Vanished Lands: the Broken Chains” holiday makeup fantasy session. I’ve got to work today. 

Of course, no year’s end blog post would be complete without a set of “best of” lists. has a pretty good rundown of movies, genre television, and comics, but here’s my abbreviated version for 2007:

Favorite movies: Children of Men, Pan’s Labyrinth, and Ratatouille

Favorite SFTV shows: Avatar: the Last Airbender, Doctor Who, and Pushing Daisies (Fellow blogger Ken G. has also noted the untimely demise of the underrated time-travel drama Journeyman, but at least Pushing Daisies and Reaper got picked up.)

Favorite comic books: Captain America, Detective Comics, and The Spirit

Favorite musical singles (and videos):Gone Gone Gone” (Robert Plant and Alison Kraus), “Rehab” (Amy Winehouse), “Umbrella” (Rihanna)

Favorite RPG releases: D20 Mutants & Masterminds 2nd Ed.: Ultimate Power, A Practical Guide to Monsters (Dungeons & Dragons 3.5/4e), D20 Star Wars: Saga Edition

What were your faves? I look forward to blogging about such entertainment and more in the coming year, and may it bring good health and prosperity for all!

10 August 2010: “Vortex” decisions

The Milky Way galaxy
The Milky Way galaxy

Fellow role-players, here are some notes from the Boston-area group’s “Vortex” planning session of Monday, 9 August 2010, which I hosted at my second duplex in Needham Heights, Massachusetts.

>>Favorite science fiction and expectations

I’ve already posted about influences on my homebrew space opera setting, including the novels of Isaac Asimov, movies such as The Fifth Element, television shows including the original Battlestar Galactica, and games like Star Frontiers. I asked everyone about their favorites and found interest in traditional pulp fiction.

Paul J. cited Star Trek: the Next Generation and Deep Space Nine (“DS9”), the anime Outlaw Star and Cowboy Bebop, and Joss Whedon’s space Western Firefly/Serenity (which other people liked). Beruk A. added the British TV shows Red Dwarf and Doctor Who, which mix humor and surrealism.

Greg D.C. mentioned Edgar Rice Burroughs‘ Mars/Barsoom books and the exploratory thrills of early 20th-century planetary romances. Sarah F. named the 1990s SeaQuest DSV, Lexx, and Farscape, which featured ship-based adventures and exotic environments. Josh C. added the interplanetary diplomacy and wars of Babylon 5 and DS9. Brian W. reached further back to the 1970s for Space 1999 and classic Doctor Who, which had shaky production values but strong characters and plots, not unlike the original 1960s Star Trek.

We only touched upon cyberpunk such as Blade Runner, transhumanist speculation such as David Brin’s Uplift stories, and retro steampunk like the works of Jules Verne. We missed Dave C. last night — what’s your favorite science fiction?

>>Initial Player Character concepts

Brian described his Trinoid, a trilateral amphibious alien xenobiologist and anthropologist sent to the Sol system around the time of open and official First Contact between Terrans and galactic societies. (See my earlier post regarding nonhumans.) The strange (to human eyes) being plans to observe and conserve Earth’s lifeforms.

Josh had two human proposals: an honorable sniper that’s a hybrid between an Army Ranger and a knight Templar, and a martial artist/freedom fighter similar to early Capoeira practitioners. I noted that he’d have to specify the soldier’s code of honor and organization, which he described as one that would defend humanity and seek its place in the stars. The rebel could be a colonist struggling against control of Mars or other places by Earth-based corporate or governmental authorities.

Sara designed a Tharian, an alien with wings (like a Star Frontiers Yazirian) and reptilian skin, similar to a gargoyle. Although the Tharians aren’t technologically advanced, her character’s home village was destroyed by interstellar pirates (possibly Ru’ulok). She stowed aboard the invading vessel and was subsequently found and trained as a mechanic with some larcenous skills.

Greg described “A.R.T.H.E.R.R.,” an artificial intelligence/robot probe designed by human mining conglomerate Vimeco about a century ago (in “game time”). After the megacorporation realized that it didn’t need robots to gather information from harsh environments but that it instead wanted to control access to information, the robot worked odd jobs but retained its desire and ability to explore.

Beruk created a former government operative with communications and piloting expertise. Perhaps he saw something related to First Contact on the frontier that he shouldn’t have, or maybe he made the wrong enemies (a la Outland). He’s trying to keep a low profile but find out more.

Paul, who had to leave early, talked about a Scoundrel or Jack of all trades who is actually a near-human psychic. He uses telepathy to help him persuade people to cooperate. Overall, the gamers agreed on an exploratory theme for the campaign, so the new party will probably get access to a ship sooner rather than later. Military, diplomatic, and trade missions will still be possible, but they won’t be the group’s shared focus. I’ll try to provide a mix of environments and challenges.

>>Rules systems

With help from Josh, Sara used BASH! Sci-Fi Edition for her Tharian, and she liked the relatively simple point-buy method of character building. The d6 multiplier was a turnoff to Paul and Greg, and the group agreed that since Basic Action Super Heroes was the least supported and the least familiar to everyone, the representative of rules-light and retro-clone games should be set aside.

Beruk and Josh noted that D6 Space (similar to West End Games’ old Star Wars RPG and Marvel Superheroes) and Mecha & Manga and Tomorrow Knights for D20 Mutants & Masterminds (about to have its third edition in combination with DC Adventures) were fairly simple, but the others were more interested in other games. We’ve looked at numerous science fiction systems over the past several months.

Brian and Josh used Steve Jackson Games’ Generic Universal Role-Playing System. Unfortunately, even the combination of GURPS 4e Lite and Space was complicated for character creation, especially for Brian’s Trinoid. While it might be good for “simulationist,” lethal games, GURPS also failed to get any strong support.

Beruk and Sara (and Dave, who was absent) had looked at Star Wars: Saga Edition. They noted that it was compatible with numerous other D20 science fiction games, used the familiar species/class/level system, and supported aliens and robots. However, reservations about the Force and Jedi as imbalancing and concerns about D20/Open Game License rules proliferation put Saga in second place of the games we considered.

Brian easily created his Trinoid with Fantastic Adventures in Tabletop Entertainment, or FATE 3e. Greg and Paul eagerly looked at Brian’s hardcopy of the FATE-based Dresden Files RPG, which Josh ended up borrowing (in addition to my Pathfinder Campaign Setting). Ultimately, Brian, Paul, Greg, and Josh voted for FATE, which is the rules set we’ll be using for “Vortex!”

We’ll be using a few science fiction references for FATE. Diaspora has an online System Reference Document, brief and straightforward rules descriptions, and a “hard SF” edge. Starblazer Adventures lists numerous aspects, stunts, and pulpy tropes, but it isn’t as well organized. Mindjammer supports transhuman elements such as psionics.

In addition, we’ll be using the dice-rolling mechanic from the Icons superhero game (2d6-7), Starblazer Adventures’ “gritty” starting level (15 points for skills), and phased acquisition of aspects as part of group character/party design. Brian and I will try to post more information in the coming weeks.

Beruk, as you requested, here are some links about conversions from some space operas to FATE:

I look forward to talking with all of you about your characters’ species, occupations, motivations, and FATE 3e writeups soon! -Gene

4 August 2010: “Vortex” Player Character concepts

Vortex PC party

In one future, humanity has colonized the Sol system but still struggles with population pressures, competition for resources, and ideological differences. Open and official First Contact with galactic societies, themselves at war, raises the stakes even as frontiers broaden and beckon. Who will rise to the challenge?

Fellow role-players, here are 10 steps to take as we begin considering Player Characters, a new party, and the setting for my upcoming “Vortex” space opera campaign!

1. What species is your Player Character? Human, near-human, gennie/synth, or alien? How close are you to the norm?

2. Where does your character come from? What’s his/her/its homeworld? What is the P.C.’s nationality? What was your family and educational background? How old is your P.C.?

3. What’s your current occupation? I’ve used classes based on Star Wars: Saga Edition as examples: Diplomat, Explorer, Mystic, Trader, Warrior, but you can also think of things like spy, engineer, martial artist, and space marine.

4. What are your ethics? Does your P.C. have a personal code of honor, allegiances, or duties? The more specific, the better.

5. What’s your motivation? Why is your character adventuring, and why would it be part of a mixed team? What are your shorter- and longer-term goals? We’ll also be discussing party tone and objectives.

6. Who are your associates? As I mentioned previously, what affiliations does your P.C. have with other people and organizations? What are your attitudes toward things such as other species, governments and megacorporations, or various regions or factions? This is related to our setting conversations, and as with the Pathfinder teleconferencing team, we may have group generation of supporting characters.

7. What are your other interests? Does your character have any distinguishing features? What are your hobbies or personality traits? Are there any strong likes or dislikes? Signature items or style? How will others first see you?

8. Share your initial concepts. The “Vanished Lands” Yahoo/eGroup and “Holy Steel” Google Group message boards can help us coordinate. So far, this is what I’ve heard (and feel free to elaborate here):

Paul J.: male near-human Mystic with exotic weapons

Beruk A.: male human Trader with a mysterious past, possibly a former government agent

Brian W.: Trinoid (trilateral amphibious alien) Explorer, xenobiologist

Sara F.: female alien (species and occupation to be determined)

Josh C.: male Terran human Warrior, sniper with a strong code of honor

9. Write it up. Pick two of the rules sets we’re consideringBASH, FATE, GURPS, and Saga — and see how your concept looks. I can help with nonhumans and setting notes.

10. Bring it! Be ready to discuss concepts, rules, and themes in the next week or two! Nothing’s written in stone yet, but I look forward to tightening up our ideas and role-playing! -Gene

3 August 2010: “Vortex” — why rules matter


Fellow role-players, here is my last major post before we get into the specifics of group setting, Player Character, and party creation! Why does our choice of game system matter? Wouldn’t any set of generic or science fiction rules work for my upcoming “Vortex” space opera campaign?

Well, yes and no. As with my other settings — the “Vanished Lands” for fantasy, “Gaslight Grimoire” for steampunk, the superhero/espionage world of the “S.J.I.,” and the shared time/dimensional travel of “Voyagers II” — I’ve been running 5,000+ years of continuity through different editions of various games, most notably Dungeons & Dragons.

On the other hand, some games are more generic than others, which bundle specific worlds, genres, and rules. For example, Shadowrun Fourth Edition combines aspects of traditional fantasy (demihumans and magic) with one dystopian cyberpunk future and dice pools. It might work well for steampunk, but probably less so for lower-powered settings, optimistic superheroes, or certain types of horror.

I want to find rules sets that are easy to learn and teach, offer room for character development and player creativity, and provide support for basic space opera tropes — species, technologies, and environments. After looking at dozens of games over the past several months, I’ve narrowed down our options to the following:

>>GURPS 4e Lite/Space

Pros: I used the third edition of Steve Jackson Games’ Generic Universal Role-Playing System for several campaigns back in Virginia in the 1990s, including “Vortex,” so my background notes would need less conversion effort. Character creation is point-based and granular. GURPS set the standard for well-written reference books about different genres and real-world history. GURPS Lite can be downloaded for free.

Cons: The full fourth edition of GURPS isn’t user-friendly to newcomers, and advanced character options are spread across several books. The rules are moderately “crunchy” and less cinematic than some of the others listed here.

Related GURPS 3e/4e sourcebooks: Aliens, Bio-Tech, Blue Planet, Cyberpunk, Cyberworld, Espionage, Lensman, Magic, Mars, Martial Arts, Mecha, Powers, Prime Directive, Psionics, Robots, Space, Terradyne, Thaumatology, Transhuman Space/Changing Times, Traveller, Ultra-Tech, Uplift, War Against the Cthorr

>>D20 Star Wars: Saga Edition

Pros: Most of the current Boston-area groups are familiar with the D20 Open Game License and system reference documents based on it. Along with Mutants & Masterminds, Saga Edition is arguably one of the most streamlined implementations of D20 and is compatible with numerous other D20 science fiction games that I own. Character creation is fairly simple, and most classes need little modification. George Lucas’ updating of space opera from the serials of the 1930s and 1940s to the 1970s and 1980s is obviously a major inspiration for “Vortex,” so it’s close in tone.

Cons: Wizards of the Coast has dropped the Star Wars license, and the “e20” generic system being written using the D20 OGL isn’t complete yet. Players familiar with “A long, long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away,” will have to set aside their preconceptions for the futuristic setting of “Vortex,” and the Jedi in particular would need rework for the Mystic occupation.

Related D20 games:

Babylon 5/Babylon Project

Big Eyes, Small Mouth/Centauri Knights (also in Tri-Stat edition)

Blood & Space/Bulldogs

Core Command/Jovian Chronicles/Heavy Gear/Mecha Compendium (also SilCore) *

e20: System Evolved Project


-D20 “Lite” (see recent “Gaslight Grimore” steampunk fantasy)


-D20 Modern: Future/Alternity

Mutants & Masterminds 2e: Mecha & Manga

Prime Directive (“Star Trek,” also in GURPS edition)

Spycraft: Stargate SG1Star Wars (West End Games D6 edition)

Traveller (“T20” and “T20 Lite”; also in GURPS and other editions)

True20: Reign of Discordia

>>FATE 3e Diaspora/Starblazer Adventures/Mindjammer

Pros: Fellow Game Master Brian W. has demonstrated Fantastic Adventures in Tabletop Entertainment in his “Spirit of the Caribbean” and “Fierce Frontier” one-shots, and he has been successfully running fantasy using the Legends of Anglerre variant. FATE has gotten good support (including the Icons superhero game) and allows for collaborative storytelling and world building.
Cons: There is a learning curve because FATE is conceptually different from most class/level-based systems. Starblazer Adventures, which is based on 1980s British comics, is a heavyweight tome and not as clearly organized as other books. It also requires Mindjammer for transhumanist and psionic elements, while Diaspora is Traveller-style hard-SF rather than space opera. (Here are more comparisons between Starblazer Adventures and Diaspora.)

Other games:

Icons: Ion Guard

Dresden Files RPG

Savage Worlds: Slipstream

>>BASH Sci-Fi Edition

Pros: This representative of the rules-light and retro-clone movements has the slimmest and cheapest core rulebook. Basic Action Super Heroes! is a point-based system with a d6 mechanic, and the Sci-Fi Edition is meant to be a simple but complete game.

Cons: Some players may prefer the D6 rules, the anime-flavored Big Eyes, Small Mouth, or one of the third-party systems below. BASH doesn’t have the support of multiple splatbooks, a large user base, or years of playtesting.

Other games:

Aeon/Trinity (White Wolf’s “Storyteller” system)

Cyberpunk 2020Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space (and FASA, other editions)

Dune (Last Unicorn, D20, GURPS editions; PDFs only)

Eclipse Phase (transhumanist science fiction) *


Iridium/Sleeping Imperium/Thousand Suns Revised (PDFs only) 

Serenity (Cortex, Firefly)

Shadowrun 4e

Space Opera RPG

SpaceMaster (Hero System 4th/5th Ed.)

Star Frontiers (“remastered” retrofuturist PDFs) *

Star Trek (GURPS, FASA, Last Unicorn, and Decipher editions; see also Prime Directive) –StarSiege: Event Horizon


So how do we pick one game to use? Josh and others have come up with a good recommendation: Each role-player who plans to participate in the upcoming Boston-area face-to-face campaign should create a character using two rules systems. You should pick the two you’re most interested in and be prepared to critique them. Next Monday, 9 August 2010, we’ll start comparing notes and discuss your “VortexPlayer Characters and group party/setting creation in more detail! My next posts will lay out some steps to help with this. Have a good week, -Gene

25 July 2010: “Vortex” occupations and affiliation

Vortex occupations

Adventurers wanted! From the teeming megalopoli of Terra and the Sol system’s far-flung colonies to the vast reaches of interstellar space, humanity needs brave explorers and warriors, wise diplomats and mystics, and canny traders. Some aliens offer assistance, but others provide new dangers. Can you be a hero?

Fellow role-players, as my “Vortex” space opera approaches, here is more information for your Player Characters. While the D20 Star Wars: Saga Edition role-playing game is only one of the rules sets we’re considering (along with FATE Starblazer Adventures/Mindjammer/Diaspora, BASH Sci-Fi Edition, and GURPS 4e Lite/Space), its occupational classes are similar to those I’ve used in past versions of my homebrew campaign setting.

Diplomat (Noble): These people are interested in facilitating relationships among factions ranging from tribes to interplanetary alliances. Around the time of First Contact, diplomats can use their social talents as spies, peacemakers, or journalists. They tend to work best in the upper echelons of society.

Explorer (Scout): Just as humanity is colonizing the Sol system and encountering extraterrestrials, so too are aliens investigating Terra and numerous uncharted worlds. Scientific and survival skills are at a premium in hostile environments.

Mystic (Jedi): Terrans have just rediscovered abilities loosely classified into ecomancy (healing), elementalism (ergokinesis), probability control (luck), technomancy (machine control), telekinesis, and telepathy (drawn in part from GURPS Psionics). Unlike the Jedi knights, Mystics are secretive, specialized, and not necessarily militant. Still, their unusual abilities are much sought after.

Trader (Scoundrel): Freelance “fixers” work in gray markets, privateers and pirates ply the space lanes and cyberspace, and interstellar guilds try to control the threads of commerce linking worlds. Traders put a high priority on profit, but knowing when — and when not — to haggle is key, and they often work best
in the shadows.

Warrior (Soldier): Times of chaos increase the demand for the protection or aggression. Bodyguards, mercenaries, and members of regular militaries fight on land, under the seas, in the air, and in deep space. Martial artists and professional athletes entertain others with their feats of prowess, while Marshals enforce
frontier law.

So now you have a range of species and occupations to choose from. (If we use Saga Edition, there would be talent trees for further customization; there are similar mechanics in other systems.) What about alignment? When “Vortex” was more closely tied to AD&D2, I devised the following ethics:

-Justice (Lawful Good)

-Altruism (Neutral Good)

-Freedom (Chaotic Good)

-Order (Lawful Neutral)

-Balance (True Neutral)

-Anarchy (Chaotic Neutral)

-Might (Lawful Evil)

-Selfishness (Chaotic Neutral)

-Void (Chaotic Evil)

Those guidelines are still valid for individual beliefs, but for those gamers who prefer more nuance or flexibility, I recommend thinking about affiliations instead. Does your Player Character have a personal code of honor, and are there things he or she won’t do? How do species, personal history, occupation, group memberships, and socioeconomic status affect your P.C.’s outlook?

Returning to GURPS or FATE for a moment, each character should build ties to the “Vortex” setting through a web of associations with the following:

-Allies (peers such as fellow party members)

-Contacts (who can provide information)

-Dependents/followers (who need you for support)

-Enemies/rivals (not necessarily bad guys)

-Patrons (who can provide missions and material support)

These affiliations can be with individuals, groups of similar species/occupations (like a band of smugglers), or larger organizations such as megacorporations or militaries. I don’t expect everyone to have identical motivations or associates, but I hope they can at least be in parallel.

For example, “Miriam Accolon” is an Olvar Mystic stationed on Earth just after First Contact. Unlike her predecessors, who were spies disguised as Gennies or Synths, she operates openly as a Technomancer advising the United Ecumenical Movement on behalf of the Kharvamid Alliance.

I would previously have described Miriam as Altruistic, but now I’d say that her connections to the Kharvamids and U.E.M. show that she is firmly aligned with the “good guys.” That’s not to say our heroine is incapable of chaotic actions (she is Olvar, after all) or of evil, but she’ll likely use violence only in self-defense, try to help those weaker than herself, and behave in a rational fashion.

By contrast, “Adam Reutan” is a Terran human serving as a gunner in the North American Aerospace Marine Corps. He’ll follow the military code of honor only when necessary and is always “looking for an edge,” whether it’s against someone playing cards, a girl in a spaceport bar, a competitor for a mech suit assignment, or an enemy vessel. This Warrior isn’t malicious, just a bit self-absorbed, so I designated his ethics as Freedom in the past and would note that his orders are sometimes outweighed by his impulsiveness.

Regardless of the rules set we ultimately use, I plan to have some group character creation and discussion of party goals, and I’d also like your help developing relevant N.P.C.s and groups — Jim J.D’B. and Byron V.O. have already offered ideas.

I hope these examples are helpful, and I’ll post soon on why our choice of rules matters! -Gene