Monday, January 23, 2017

Hyperspace Travel as Airplane Trips in Star Wars

Rewatching the Star Wars films and animated series, one thing I'm noticing is hyperspace travel seems to be an awful lot faster than most role playing games tend to assume. For example, in Rogue One, the protagonists bounce across the galaxy in fairly small vessels without anything really in the way of comforts. The Rebels series does show a ship with crew quarters, but one still gets the impression of fairly quick travel times.

My own thought is the model of considering FTL travel in Star Wars as being akin to ocean travel may be a bit off the mark - it seems closer to modern airplane travel, where one might have an overnight trip but is unlikely to need full accommodations.

That said, there are still some destinations pretty far off the beaten path and we do see the suggestion of trade routes and hyperspace lanes. I'm still contemplating how, if at all, I want to make use of these thoughts in our upcoming game. What connects the worlds of a sector? What does it mean for worlds to be close to each other? How far does it take to cross the galaxy?

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Fiction Review: The Shining

Stanley Kubrik's film version of The Shining casts a rather long shadow over King's original novel. Jack Nicholson did a masterful job portraying Jack Torrance, caretaker of the Overlook Hotel as he goes insane. However, the Jack Torrance of the film is rather different from that of the novel. To paraphrase Stephen King, of course he goes crazy. He's played by Jack Nicholson.

So let's take a look at the novel on its own. Set in the then-contemporary mid to late-1970s, it tells the tale of the Torrance family. Jack Torrance, the father, is a moderately successful writer who was fired from his teaching position for beating up a student who had slashed his car's tires. Jack is a recovering alcoholic who did not stop drinking because he broke his preschool son's arm but because he and his wealthy friend, Al, after a night of drinking, struck a seemingly abandoned bicycle on the road. What was it doing there? Did they hit someone? Jack as a child adored his own father who was also an abusive alcoholic.

His wife Wendy is a housewife. She loves her husband but is not blind to his problems. She was close to divorcing him when he stopped drinking. She has her own parental issues, with an overbearing judgmental mother who blamed Wendy for the breakup of her marriage and always suggests Wendy is an inadequate mother.

Their son, Danny, is gifted (or cursed) with a form of psychic ability - "shining". He has visions of things he shouldn't be able to see or of the future. He can read what people are thinking - often not intentionally. He often gets these visions via an "imaginary friend", Tony.

The family is up against a wall - with Jack unemployed the family is just about broke. Al gets job at the Overlook hotel as its winter caretaker. Located in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, the hotel must close between September and May due to the extreme weather. His job is to keep the hotel in good condition, monitor the furnace and boiler, and prevent the elements from getting a foothold. The Overlook has quite a checkered past, including some organized crime murders taking place within it. It is haunted in some way, with the psychic impressions of all that happened there. Dick Halloran, who the Torrances meet when the hotel is closing for the season, also possesses the shining. He explains it to Danny and talks about some of the scary things that Danny might see because of his abilities - but he tells Danny they are just images, they can't hurt him. Though in truth, Dick isn't quite certain of that. Like the rest of the staff, Dick is leaving the hotel as it closes for the off-season.

At first, the Torrances time in the hotel goes well. It gives Jack a chance to clear his mind and make progress on the play he'd been working on. In their first several weeks , before the weather turns foul, the Torrances have access to the nearby town of Sidewinder. But over time the hotel begins getting to them, especially Jack and Danny. In a sense, Danny "energizes" the hotel with his psychic abilities. Jack becomes obsessed about the hotel and his drinking habits, save for drinking, begin to return. He engages in self-destructive behavior and his temper, always hard for him to reign in, begins getting the best of him. And then the snow hits and the family is trapped at the hotel, with Jack going mad and Danny a bight target for the hotel.

Unlike the film, Jack Torrance come off somewhat sympathetically. He's a bit of an ass, but he knows he is. He is trying to do better for his family. Despite once breaking Danny's arm in a drunken fit of anger, he is Danny's favorite. His son adores him. And for a time, he does begin to do better. It's unclear if he'd succeed without the hotel - his inner monologues show him to not fully have accepted responsibility for the mistakes he'd made - but with the hotel working on him he is very much a doomed character. The tragedy is he might have reformed on his own.

Like many of King's early works, The Shining deals with psychic phenomenon and explores the idea of a place absorbing impressions of what happens within it. King creates an interesting character in Jack Torrance who serves as both a protagonist and an antagonist. As the weather turns foul, it almost becomes a character itself, trapping the Torrances and making reaching them a near-impossibility for any would-be rescuers.

To this day, I think Kubrik's film version is a masterpiece, but he definitely made a very different tale than the one King told in his novel. They both work very well in my opinion, but both need to be considered on their own merits.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Prepping FAE Star Wars

After a brief Gaslight/Pulp Cthulhu game in the autumn, this winter we'll be playing a Star Wars campaign using Fate Accelerated. The game will be set some time prior to Star Wars: A New Hope, with every possibility of advancing beyond it.

I'll likely post my impressions of Pulp Cthulhu actual play at a later point. My overall impression was it worked fine but I think I have a preference for a classic-era and style campaign. That said, I liked gaming in the late 19th-century and I think I'd really enjoy a non-Cthulhu adventure game set in that period.

The decision to use Fate Accelerated came out of a desire to use something less complicated than Fantasy Flight Games' various Star Wars RPGs. They are great games and I enjoyed Edge of the Empire but with my pursuing my master's degree part-time and taking on a new position at work, low prep-time is a must. We gave some thought to Star Wars D6 but decided to go for something a bit more on the narrative side.

I've had mixed experiences with Fate. What I'm hoping to do in this experiment is to make use of the Fate Accelerated game so we can really focus on the core of the system. We're staying clear of Jedi and the like to start so that we won't need to worry about bolting on any additional systems (and I suspect after some play we'll see how it can be done without bolting on any additional systems). What we discovered is the rules as-written seem to fit a basic Star Wars game just fine. We'll probably need to play fast and loose with any vehicular combat, but confession time - that's what I've done in every incarnation of Star Wars I've ever played.

We did some character generation last night and I liked the thought process that went into assigning aspects and approaches. Given that approaches define how a character tends to handle various challenges, they go a long way to defining a character's personality in addition to his or her abilities. For example, a former clone trooper who mustered out spent some time as a swoop racer (which was incorporated into one of his aspects). But his Quick approach wasn't all that great - indicting both he's a bit older and if he were to need to race, he'd make use of something like his Sneaky approach ("old age and treachery will always beat youth and exuberance"). Right now we've three characters with another to come:

  • A former clone trooper who's been around the galaxy a few times. Spent time as a swoop racer and a mercenary. Even time to have a family (can they reproduce - well this one can or adopted). He's taking care of his granddaughter after the Empire was responsible for her parents' deaths.
  • A former Imperial Army officer. He too served in the Clone Wars. He has an idealized vision of the Old Republic, forgetting how bureaucracy and corruption infested it in its last days. However this idealism left him with no place in the Imperial Army. 
  • A rogue Imperial demolitions droid. Perfect for the player who likes to blow up stuff and quote HK-47 from Knights of the Old Republic. The Empire would really appreciate the return of this droid...
All of the characters so far are former Imperials and the human ones are a bit further up there in years - I've an image of your typical Traveller RPG group of PCs. They've all seen the corruption of the Empire first hand and from the inside. 

As a campaign frame, the characters will be operatives for  Senator Organa of Alderaan. We've not settled on exactly how close it is to A New Hope - in the range of a few months to possibly a few years. I might make that a feature instead of a bug - after all, the characters won't know just when Alderaan is going to be destroyed. I suppose that prevents the opportunity for the ultimate total party kill...

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Reflections on Ringling Brothers

I read this weekend that Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus will be ceasing operations this May.

When I was a kid in the mid to late 1970s and the early 1980s, I used to spend a lot of time visiting my grandparents and uncle in Brooklyn, New York. Though I originally hail from there, most of my childhood was spent living in Connecticut (and a few other places). However, I did spend part of kindergarten living with my grandparents and spent many school vacations there.

While my grandfather took me to a ton of places in New York City, for whatever reason it was my uncle who would take me to see Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus every April vacation at Madison Square Garden. I also remember seeing it at the Hartford Civic Center as part of a high school band trip back in 1989 (also notable at that trip I picked up a trade paperback copy of The Dark Knight Returns on that school trip).

I used to have a blast at the circus. For whatever reason I remember these cheap flip-top flashlights that'd be attached to nylon strings and twirled around by the audience when the lights dimmed. Though the animals were a highlight for most (my uncle loved watching animal trainer Gunther Gebel-Williams) though I have to confess I really liked the acrobatics - I especially remember a contraption called "the wheel of death". 

I'm not too shocked they are ceasing operations - the last time I myself went was 1989. I'd thought of taking my kids, but it was never something that particularly interested them - tastes change with generations. I'm not qualified enough to judge the allegations of animal cruelty or how much of a difference their decision to retire their elephants further diminished ticket sales. I am thinking about sneaking a trip to one of the final shows if I can manage it. Best wishes to all impacted by this.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Star Wars: Analyzing Anakin and Padme's Relationship

I've been rewatching the Star Wars movies over the past few weeks in bits and pieces. Watching Attack of the Clones I'm coming to understand what my problems are with the Anakin/Padme relationship and the missed opportunities - and what worked.

I do believe the fact that neither Anakin nor Padme are really equipped for a serious relationship was in fact intentional and probably a good dramatic choice (assuming it was). Anakin has spent his life first as a slave with his only real tie to his mother followed by a life in a quasi-monastic order. Padme has also spent a life of service, first as queen and then as senator. One gets the impression her personal life is fairly close to non-existent. Anakin can't see beyond the immediate "omigod I'm in love". Padme sees things a little more clearly, but nowhere near enough to view the possibilities of a relationship in any realistic manner.

Clearly Palpatine wanted them together - it kept her out of the Senate at a critical time and dangled a temptation in front of Anakin. It may have worked better than he had intended - after Anakin massacred the Tusken Raiders, Padme essentially gives Anakin a pass for the slaughter. One could have made the argument it was necessary - even the children would have grown up to be a threat. But Anakin admitted he acted out of hate and Padme explained it away that anger was human. After slaughtering Tusken Raider children in Attack of the Clones, the slaughter of the Jedi children in Revenge of the Sith becomes that much easier.

However, Anakin was far too much of a "stalker with a crush". His obsession was as clear as could be - and was rather frightening. Declarations of thinking of he every single day should have set off a million alarm bells in Obi-Wan. Moreover, even with Padme's lack of experience there's no way she would have gotten within a million miles of such a creepy stalker.

What, Dan, would you propose? To be honest, I'd not be taking a hatchet. Rather, I'd have had Anakin acknowledge to Obi-Wan "I had such a crush on her when I met her" but leave it at that - the suggestion that he's more adult, he's moved on. I'd also have made his relationship with Obi-Wan less filled with tension - I think his fall would have had more meaning if he was a more likable character in Attack of the Clones. Instead I'd slow down the development of the relationship between Anakin and Padme - let him realize he still has feelings for her and she him. By the time they're alone on Naboo they discover they've strong feelings for each other. It's no longer "Anakin wears down Padme" but rather a more organic, mutual attraction.

Much of what follows would remain - Anakin slips toward the Dark Side with the slaughter of the Tusken Raiders and his fear of Padme's death leading him the rest of the way has a nice classic touch of tragedy, where he sacrifices everything and in so doing makes him lose Padme - and himself. But by hiding his relationship from the Jedi Order and from his friend and mentor Obi-Wan, he's cut himself off from much of the guidance that could help him - which is just what Palpatine wanted.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Old School Computers in Star Wars

I'm old enough to remember quite well life before the internet - at least the internet as we know it today, When I was in college in the late 1980s and early 1990s going online was a process - the modem on my PC would connect to a BBS or to UConn's dial-up line to allow access to mainframe and Unix systems. Being poor college students. we'd often shamelessly copy installation disks to share games.

I was reflecting on this with the whole Death Star plans plot of the Star War films Rogue One and A New Hope. There's some really minor spoilers for Rogue One here so if you've not seen the film you might want to stay clear - though in all honesty, it's nothing major.

In Rogue One, to obtain the Death Star plans on Scarif, the team has to reach a massive vault and retrieve the plans from that vault. They get transmitted to a Rebel starship whose crew copies them onto a data tape or disk of some sort - the same plans that Princess Leia passes on to R2-D2. At no point does anyone upload the plans to some sort of a data network. Admittedly Scarif is a military installation so if there were a civilian data network it would likely be difficult to access there. And the Empire would almost certainly have massive control over such a network.

That said, a viewing of all the Star Wars films makes the existence of a data network, at least in the sense of one like we have in the 21st century, seem very unlikely. This is not surprising given it was conceived of in the 1970s. At that time, Usenet (an online discussion system that could be distributed across the internet) did not even exist, being conceived in 1979 and launched in 1980 - but with a very limited user base. While we see a lot of evidence of real-time communication being possible in the Star Wars universe, it seems rather limited - essentially limited to audio/video transmissions. It's a little unclear how it works in the setting. For example, in Attack of the Clones, Obi-Wan tries to contact Anakin on Naboo initially and then widens his search, discovering his tracking signal on Tatooine. The message he sends isn't even automatically recorded, though R2-D2 does record it for Anakin. The Holonet, referred to in many supplemental materials, seems like it could perhaps best be compared with the phone networks and over-the-air communications/transmissions of the 1970s and 1980s.

Regardless of how it works, computers in Star Wars are clearly not a part of some enormous cloud. Your computer on Tatooine is not able to easily communicate with a computer on Coruscant. Moreover, I can't think of occasions where characters use any portable data entry device - computers are always things that are approached, not put in your pocket. If you want something portable, you use a droid. And if a droid needs to talk with a computer, it plugs into it directly.

What does this mean in a Star Wars RPG? I think it both limits and enables characters. For example, if some data needs to be stolen from the Empire, it is not a hacking job, it is a matter of breaking into the place that has the data. However, this is also something characters can take advantage of. If a list of Rebel agents has been obtained from a Rebel base, it is possible for the characters to retrieve that list before it is delivered to Imperial security.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Examining the Rebellion Prior to Star Wars: A New Hope

The default Star Wars RPG campaign tends to be a Rebellion against the Evil Galactic Empire. It's actually been a while since I ran such a game - my previous Star Wars campaign was focused on smugglers and bounty hunter type characters who, while not fans of the Empire, were not outright Rebels. During the WotC era I found the Knights of the Old Republic campaign to a lot of fun. Taking place some 4,000 years before the Star Wars films, it dealt with the Republic fighting threats like the Mandalorians and the Sith Empire. Dark Horse Comics first explored this era in their Tales of the Jedi comics, followed by BioWare's Knights of the Old Republic video games. Dark Horse later did their own Knights of the Old Republic comic - one of the best Star Wars comics written, dealing with the renegade padawan Zayne Carrick and his motley group of companions. Though no longer a part of the official Star Wars canon, the tales remain fantastic and are now available from Marvel Comics (at least digitally - I don't believe they've yet done a physical reprint).

What of the Rebellion? West End Games focused the Rebellion on the period between Episodes IV and VI, an understandable decision given the period prior to Episode IV was fairly vague until the late 1990s with The Phantom Menace. Newer material has fleshed that era out quite a bit, given a number of options for a game against the Empire.

From the very start there was resistance to the Empire. In deleted scenes from Revenge of the Sith and in its novelization, the Delegation of 2,000, during the end of the Clone Wars, petitioned Palpatine to release his emergency powers. It didn't go so well.

The novel Catalyst, set during the Clone Wars and in the years shortly after it, deals with the initial construction of the Death Star and explores Galen Erso's role in it. It serves as a prelude to the film Rogue One. We find Imperial officers like Tarkin dealing with Separatist holdouts. Saw Gerrera, seen in Rogue One, Clone Wars, and shortly in Rebels, led partisans against the Empire in the Salient System, 19 years before the Battle of Yavin.

The novel Lords of the Sith shows a far larger insurgency on Ryloth, led by Cham Syndulla, father of Hera from Rebels. While the novel takes place 14 years before the Battle of Yavin, the insurgency itself was well established by that point and would go on for years after, being featured in Rebels as well.

The animated series Rebels began 5 years before the Battle of Yavin and deals with the crew of the Ghost as they fight against the Empire - first as an isolated cell and then as part of a larger cell. The novel A New Dawn dealt with the Rebel Hera first meeting the former padawan Kanan, taking place 11 years before the Battle of Yavin. The previews for the second half of season 3 suggest we'll soon be seeing the various cells being brought together by Mon Mothma - by the time of Rogue One, taking place just before A New Hope, the Rebel Alliance fully exists, though one that relies on a difficult to achieve consensus prior to performing major operations.

As far as the timeframe for our game goes, its something I'll be discussing with my players. I suspect the game will be most satisfying if the Rebellion has at least some maturity - the earliest I could see doing the game would be around the time of the first season of Rebels. This allows the characters to have a large role in the formation of the Rebel Alliance and have their own victories against the Empire. The other possible starting points I could see would be shortly before Rogue One, with the Alliance in full existence or shortly after A New Hope, an event which likely helps the Alliance greatly with recruitment (and probably leads to some dangerous optimism that the Empire quicky quashes - one could picture a Tienanmen Square like scene).

I'll note Rebels is a great source of inspiration for a Star Wars game - it's a very well done show. It's seen a number of elements that had been relegated to the Legends continuity brought back into the main canon, sometimes in different form. For example, Rebels introduced the B-wing fighter as being built at Shantipole and saw the return of Grand Admiral Thrawn.