Archive for August, 2009

Gen Con Roundup

August 25th, 2009 No comments

Eclipse Phase coverThis is very belated, as I just gave myself about a month off to regain some sanity, but here’s my roundup of this year’s Gen Con.

The big news from where I sit is obviously Eclipse Phase. It’s finally out, and it’s a beautiful baby. At 400 pages, it’s a big baby, too. Catalyst had only a limited number of copies to sell at the con, so the people doing retail in the exhibit hall booth were cracking open one box each morning and selling out as fast as they could run the cash registers. I’m pretty sure we could have beaten some records for units sold at Gen Con if we’d had more copies, but trans-Pacific shipping (from Thailand, specifically) cuts deep into your margins if you airlift in too many advance copies.

Despite the dearth of actual books to sell, we had full tables for every demo we ran over in the Catalyst room at the Hyatt, and I was running demos more or less nonstop in the exhibit hall. I’m thankful to everyone who spent some of their time trying the game out. After all, there’s a lot to see at Gen Con. I even got to play in a demo run by Sprite (or “Rob Boyle,” as they call him there in Gondor). It was great getting to just be a player after writing and GMing a playtest group for two years. But this gets to the heart of what I told one blogger who stopped by to talk: we made Eclipse Phase because it was the sci-fi game that we all wanted to play.


Games for Which I Want to Write

The Gen Con exhibit hall is a non-stop assault of amazing new stuff, much of which a true gamer wants to buy and take home. One unexpected (and lucky, maybe) side effect of having moved to Massachusetts is that I can’t bring back much stuff due to airline weight restrictions. If I bring ten pounds worth of chapbooks with me to the con and get rid of all of them, I’ve got ten pounds of swag and purchases, max. This year I took a an approach to shopping I’d never tried before. I took my mandatory swing through the Indie Revolution booth and picked up a board game there (Andre Monserrat’s intriguing House of Whack). I eyed a really neat-looking storytelling game set in Asian antiquity whose mechanics apparently call for serving tea and stabbing other players’ character sheets with a knife (whose name I forgot, damn it!).

I then spent most of my time in the hall looking for games on which I’d want to work as a writer. I love running games, so for me, the litmus test of whether I’m going to love a new RPG is whether it immediately gets the creative gears turning in my head. There were some clear standouts. Some of these won’t be news, but having spent the last two years completely absorbed in making our game (and barely having gotten to leave our booth last Gen Con), I’d missed a few things.


Desolation RPG coverDesolation (Greymalkin Designs)

When I saw this game’s tagline, “post-apocalyptic fantasy,” I was immediately intrigued. Take your typical happy high fantasy world. You’ve got lots of self-satisfied elves, dragons soaring over mountaintops, happy halflings at work in their barley fields — in other words, a wellspring of boredom as old as the Silmarillion. Really, your only option is to destroy it and set your game in the ashes. Now the halflings are resorting to cannibalism and the elves are wearing cloaks of elvenkind that haven’t been washed in eighteen months. Suddenly things are interesting! I wasn’t able to bring this one home, but I’m definitely giving it a read when I can grab a copy.


Geist (White Wolf)

I’ll admit: I’ve been known to beat up on White Wolf a little when I discuss RPGs with my friends. I love Exalted, but there are times when I’ve talked about them as if they were the Quentin Tarantino of the RPG industry (“I’m not into Kill Bill, and other than that, what has he done for me lately?”). Maybe I was bored with the formula for World of Darkness game titles (parodied by White Wolf themselves in the card game Pimp: The Backhanding). Maybe it was petulance at their killing Wraith (was I the only person who ever loved this game?). And to be fair, they’ve put out some products that I just didn’t like (Hunter: The Reckoning comes to mind).

Geist is not one such product. The people at the White Wolf booth were very quick (defensively so, it seemed) to tell me that the game is not a reworking of Wraith. That said, it retains in some form what I think was one of the most powerful aspects of Wraith: the shadow. Instead of playing ghosts with an evil twin, though, this game tells the story of living humans, recently returned from near-death experiences, who’ve bonded to an entity called a Geist. The Geist is a former person whose death was so emotionally charged that it transforms them into a near-archetypal persona whose drives and desires thereafter pull constantly at the Sin Eater, the mortal to which it bonds. Less brutal in its disempowerment of the PC than Wraith, yet no less spooky, Geist looks like a nice addition to the WoD franchise.


Alpha Omega (Mindstorm Labs)

And here I confidently thought we were going to be the prettiest game at Gen Con. Damn. We’ll have to settle for prettiest new game, since this one’s been out since 2007. Mindstorm had their core book and a book of monsters on sale, both gorgeously produced at an appealingly unusual aspect ratio. Post-apocalyptic occult horror games aren’t exactly new ground in the industry, but this one boasts a solid combination of compelling writing, innovative mechanics, and totally eye-popping art. The added presence of angels and demons (with halfbreeds as playable characters) introduces some interesting storytelling possibilities to a world that’s already gone through some over the top transformations by fire, flood, and comet.


Song of Ice & Fire RPG (Green Ronin)

The history of RPGs is littered with failures, a surprising number of which are games licensed off of properties that probably seemed to their developers like a sure thing due to the built-in fan base. Some failed due to poor design (Aliens), others due to weird restrictions imposed by licensors who didn’t understand the RPG industry and developers who agreed to their terms when they should’ve just walked away (Indiana Jones, Star Trek). These failures have become no less common over the years; they’ve just gotten more expensive (witness Buffy, a property that no RPG company in its right mind will ever touch again). So after the rather spectacular failure of Guardians of Order’s Song of Ice & Fire RPG, it’s heartening to see a good company like Green Ronin taking a whack.

It looks like they’re off to a good start. Rather than producing a door stopper of a core book full of material that’s only marginally useful (did anyone really need stats for every single knight in Westeros?), Green Ronin’s core book comes in at a slimmer, saner page count while maintaining great production values. Need setting material? GRRM’s notoriously incomplete series has what you need. Need a game for it? It’s right here. The fact that Green Ronin’s web site is currently offering it on sale makes it even more tempting. Oh, and in case you still haven’t heard: George R. R. Martin is not your bitch.


Pathfinder (Paizo)

One of the big pieces of news this year was Paizo’s release of Pathfinder. The running joke on the con floor was that Pathfinder is what D&D 4th Edition should have been. Maybe this is a little unfair to WotC, who, let’s face it, weren’t going to make anyone happy by releasing a new edition of a game whose last edition only came out five years ago. D&D 4th Edition was clearly intended to bring new players into the hobby by producing a product that would be friendlier to massmorg players, and in this it will perhaps succeed. Whatever the case, I don’t need to be miffed that the game I’ve played for 26 years has suddenly gone from semi-realism to a much more video game-like experience, because Pathfinder is there to keep D&D 3.5 in print.

The execution is great, and the price is right. Lest you think from the last section that I don’t like big, beefy core rulebooks, think again. I just don’t like them when they’re full of useless NPC stats or other filler that any good GM could generate themself while in a vegetative coma… which this book is not. At 576 pages, Pathfinder may knock a few vertebrae out of alignment when carried in your messenger bag, but the MSRP (only $50) is right, especially when the book contains everything you need to play. Contrast with D&D 4th Edition, where just the two players’ books will set you back $70, and this is a steal (although WotC was offering a very nice deal on Player’s Handbook I at the con this year — which I took). The anime-inspired art is phenomenal, and the fact that the Pathfinder setting book won an ENnie last year doesn’t hurt in piquing my interest, either.


Cthulhutech (Catalyst Game Labs)

Last but not least, there’s Cthulhutech, not a new product this year but one I didn’t get my hands on until Matt Grau handed me a signed copy at this year’s Con. Despite sharing a booth with them last year, I hadn’t gotten a chance to check out their product. I’m now devouring the book and enjoying it immensely.

The first lesson I’ve learned from this game (in combination with working on Eclipse Phase) is that if you’re doing an RPG and want the art to be effin’ slick, hire Mike Vaillancourt as your art director. This is a damned pretty book, with a very consistent visual style throughout. Is there a little bit of fan servicing thrown in there with the giant robots and unspeakable horrors? Well, yeah, there is… but it’s largely pretty classy.

Second lesson: it’s possible to design a fun, playable vehicle combat system without resorting to everything-but-the-kitchen-fabricator Star Fleet Battles-esque rules. I was initially a little skeptical about this game because I didn’t see how the designers could cram workable mecha combat into such a slim core book along with everything else this game covers. But Cthulhutech’s mecha rules build elegantly off of the personal combat system without adding more than a handful of special rules for handling vehicles.

Final observation: the writing is bang on. This isn’t just some silly “Cthulhu versus Battle Mechs” genre mixing mess. The writers have successfully envisioned a world transformed by contact with cosmic horrors, and they’ve followed through on all of the implications. I haven’t yet gotten a look at Vade Mecum, the first major rules expansion for the game, but I’m now pretty psyched for it.

New Rule: No asking me about Gates if you’re a cop.

August 12th, 2009 1 comment

Dear Law Enforcement Personnel,


I’m not sure why you expect an honest, man to man answer about the Gates incident from a guy whose car or luggage you may or may not be about to search. Yet every time you see I live in Cambridge, you ask… as if I’m really going to tell you what I think while you’re inspecting my passport at the border or checking my boarding pass. And if you’re not looking for an honest answer, then you can go jump in a lake. Either way: please stop asking.

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Lonesome Robot at Gen Con

August 11th, 2009 No comments


I’ll be at Gen Con 2009 in Indianapolis, Indiana from August 12-16. Mostly, I’ll be at the Catalyst Gamelabs booth delivering my elevator pitch on Eclipse Phase to anyone who stands to close to me. I’ll also be running some demos of the game and will be on the panel for a Q&A seminar. I posted a full schedule of these events on the Eclipse Phase Facebook page if you’re interested in stopping by.


The scheduled demo games are ticketed events. I have no idea how sold out they are, but odds are usually good of getting a seat if you show up with a generic ticket, as we’ll frequently have two tables running simultaneously in the same room. I believe anyone can show up for the seminar. And we’ll be doing booth demos, for which you just need to show up at the Catalyst booth. They’ll have a schedule posted.


Finally, I’ll have handmade chapbooks of my stories Caribou and Chat Perdu available. They’re free if you play in a demo, buy a copy of Eclipse Phase, or just really want to have one. Donations are most welcome, though, as my chapbooks can best be described as a loss leader.


And now, back to packing and making aforementioned chapbooks. Hope to see some of you in Indy!


Worldcon: the Quick Version

August 10th, 2009 2 comments

(This was mostly written last night.)


In an hour I’m heading to the Hugo Awards, then driving home to Cambridge immediately afterward. (Holy gonna be cracked the frak out at work tomorrow). I’m excited to be going to sci-fi’s version of the Academy Awards; hooray for being in a field where this kind of stuff is accessible to anybody who wants to show up! My head’s spinning with all I’ve taken in during the last few days, so this post is an attempt to assimilate some of it.


First off, I’m incredibly happy I came and feel very fortunate Worldcon happened to be nearby in one of my favorite cities this year. It made traveling up and giving it a shot with no real idea what to expect a much easier leap to make. My entire experience of cons to date had been with gaming conventions (Gen Con, Origins, and a few minor ones), and while there are similarities, Worldcon is a very different animal (and I gather the same is true of SF cons generally). Sci-fi fandom is a more cohesive, close-knit subculture than gamers, with a lot of traditions and odd little rituals. (Example: They have a thing for collecting as many stick-on ribbons as possible and hanging them from the bottom of their con badges, which are kind of huge to begin with. At Gen Con, you get to be awesome if you have an exhibitor’s badge, and that’s about it).


This was a working trip for me, but it was fun work. I went to a lot of panels, took voluminous notes, gave away a lot of chapbooks, visited all of the publishers in the dealer’s room, schmoozed, and listened to what a lot of sci-fi editors had to say. So. Much. Information. As far as the writing and editorial panels, the one person I didn’t get to listen to that I regret missing was Gordon van Gelder from Fantasy & Science Fiction. I also didn’t go to any of Tom Doherty’s panels, but I’m not trying to sell novels yet, so I can live with having missed that. I was hoping to see more workshops about electronic publishing, but the one I did sit through was excellent. Bottom line: if you’re a writer, go to a Worldcon or another major SF con that has all the wheels doing panels. I feel like my knowledge of what’s really going on in the field is parsecs ahead of where it was five days ago.


The science and culture panels I went to were uniformly outstanding, and I wish I’d been able to go to more of them. Too often, though, they either conflicted with each other or with editorial panels I needed to attend. Get a bunch of sci-fi writers and fans with the appropriate real world credentials talking, and, well, how can it not be awesome? I’m going to devote another post to the panels (hopefully later this week, although Gen Con preparations might contravene that).


Finally, I met some really excellent people (which I figured I would, I mean, they’re SF fans, they’ve gotta be cool, right?). I finally got to meet Jacob Weisberg of Tachyon, whose web site I redesigned several years back, although his awesome managing editor, Jill, wasn’t there. My roommate, David O’Neill, who I met on the internet at the very last minute, turned out to be an excellent fellow. He’s doing a cell phone startup out in Seattle; if I were a rich investor, I’d trust him to do good things with my money. I met James Bacon, a charming Irishman who seems to be something of a mover in British fandom. And I got shnoggered Saturday night with the absolutely delightful Camille Alexa, who edits flash fiction for Abyss &  Apex. I haven’t gotten to read her writing or anything she’s edited yet, but I’m now very eager to do so. I’m going to take a risk and say that you should go out and buy anything with her name on it, anyway, because after hearing her talk in panels, I highly doubt it sucks.


I met a zillion other nice, awesome people, too, and if I yammered on about all of them, this post would get really long, so I’m going to stop now.


In summation, yay Worldcon! Now I just have to figure out where the hell I’m going to get the energy to make it through Gen Con next week. Ha. Who am I kidding? I’m already vibrating with excitement for Gen Con, which is good, because I need to stay awake for a five hour drive after the Hugos.


Aujourd’hui Montreal, Demain la Système Solaire!


I Twittered the Hugo results as they came out. If you haven’t seen them yet, they should be visible on my Twitter feed if you’re reading this within a few days of posting.

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Announcing Empyrean, a new RPG from Lonesome Robot Press

August 2nd, 2009 5 comments

Lonesome Robot Press is pleased to announce Empyrean, a pen & paper science fiction role-playing game set in posthumanity’s distant future. Inspired by influences as diverse as Cowboy Bebop; the original Traveller RPG; and the writings of Vernor Vinge, Peter Hamilton, Bruce Sterling, and Alastair Reynolds, Empyrean uses a richly developed Milky Way galaxy as backdrop for the meeting and clash of humanity and numerous alien races. Players can choose to portray characters from one of humanity’s many cultures and subspecies, AGIs, or aliens designed to be culturally distinct yet playable.

Although the possibilities for an Empyrean campaign are nearly limitless, the default campaign casts the player characters as the crew of an FTL (faster-than-light) ship. The rules and setting material focus on the challenges and opportunities for such characters, whether they choose to seek hire as mercenaries, ply the galactic trade lanes as merchants, or pursue more obscure goals. An elegant system of rules for modeling the technology levels and available resources in various star systems helps to determine the challenges and potential rewards of the missions upon which characters embark.

Player character roles are designed to encourage a cohesive “adventuring party” style of play, with some or all of the following possibly present within a PC group:

  • Starship command crew: commanders, navigators, and helms
  • Groundside ops personnel: drop ship pilots, groundpounders, infiltrators, and even bounty hunters
  • Spacing professions: salvage crew, fighter pilots, and fleet ops specialists
  • Social & sciences professions: biologists, linguists, astrophysicists, infobrokers, and trade negotiators
  • Sentient starships whose robotic avatars can accompany the rest of a PC group groundside

A range of races and human subtypes are available as playable characters:

  • Humans from planetary cultures, including the Normans, Aztlánistas, and Vegans.
  • Humans from spacefaring cultures, including the technology-trading Ming Lu and the awesome mercenary fleets of Kombine Mercantile Marine.
  • Lynn’Ryn, a race of tradition-bound blue skinned humanoids whose ancient culture teaches the discipline of manipulating physical reality at the quantum level.
  • Al-Mogur, entrepreneurs and merchants who grow their ships from organic matter and whose science appears weirdly mystical to outsiders.
  • Sovizen, humanoids descended from arboreal amphibians. Their aptitude for macro-scale building is unparalleled, extending to the planetary scale.
  • Bagduarh, a race descended from flightless avian carrion eaters. They are new to the stars, having rapidly assimilated new technology gained from other races.
  • Dholi Ghat, the children of the Mold, a race of rudimentary humanoids connected by slime mold implants in their bodies to the Bloom, a self-aware information network that is the only known method of faster-than-light communication.

In addition to unique PC races and a variety of interesting antagonists, Empyrean will eventually include spaceship combat rules at two scales: micro, for GMs wanting to include small craft and fighter combat in their games, and macro, for star system-spanning battles between capital ships. This and other features of the game setting and rules allow GMs to decide on what balance of hard sci-fi versus space opera elements they wish to include in their game.

Empyrean was co-authored by Jack Graham and Derek Swirsky between 2003 and 2009. The core Empyrean book will be released in two sections: a setting book detailing the game universe, and a separate rules book. The rules book uses the Eclipse Phase game mechanics published by Catalyst Gamelabs and developed by Rob Boyle and Brian Cross of Posthuman Studios. In accordance with the Eclipse Phase Creative Commons license, the Empyrean rules book will also be distributed under a CC license. Wherever possible, rules for Empyrean material will be made backwards-compatible with Eclipse Phase, allowing EP gamemasters to borrow from Empyrean.

Empyrean material will be released online starting in Autumn of 2009.

“One more sin/ ’til the dreams kick in” (Bon Savants going away show at Great Scott)

August 2nd, 2009 No comments

You know what? I’m going to write a review of an indie rock show in my blog-that-is-ostensibly-about-sci-fi.

I went to see the Bon Savants at the Great Scott in Allston, Massachusetts (just a part of Boston with a different name, for those unfamiliar). Their singer, Thom Moran (described in their Wiki entry as a “part time rocket scientist” at MIT) is moving off to Cali, so this was their last show with Moran as a local, although the band promises to continue.

I was moved. And I was kicking myself for not having discovered this band sooner, as they’ve apparently been around since ’97. It’s rather boggling that they’re not signed. The sound is like the Arcade Fire if you got rid of all hints of whining and instead put the front man from the National into the mix. Moran’s vocals are like a Gitane smoldering over a glass of stout, guitarist Kevin Haley provides dead solid backing vocals (and leads, on one of the songs that I heard), and bassist Wessel is forceful. I knew I was going to at least credit the band for effort before they even started playing because of Moran’s methodical & elaborate pedal setup, and because keyboardist Tia Carioli had some kind of weird little toy keyboard on the stand above her Roland controller, plugged into what looked like a fader box.

The Arcade Fire/National comparison is apt, but just when I thought I had the band figured out, they went into the fourth to last song in the set with a riff that sounded like it belonged in a Mountain Goats song, and then Moran started doing a stage moan/croon/plaintive-not-really-scream voice that was somewhere in between Thom Yorke and the dude from Destroyer. Not long after, Carioli began methodically pleasuring a device that looked like a domed Kaoss Pad with a Maglite. (She had some pretty cute shoes going on, too, and I suppose if I’m going to mention that, I should also say that Moran is one of the few men out there who can pull off a mint green shirt and pink tie without looking like an asshole).

From there, they went into a densely layered ballad-y track that was emotional without wanting to make me laugh at the band and wave an imaginary cigarette lighter, and on into a very rock & roll wrap-up. It was fairly epic (especially for the Great Scott).

Despite being around since ’97, the band has only one record, Post Rock Defends the Nation
(2006), although their web site mentions a forthcoming album. And though I kind of hate Rock Band, it’s worth mentioning (for people who don’t) that the Savants are part of a Harmonix beta program to bring their music to the game (more on this in their Rock Band Dev blog).

Finally, props to whoever was working sound for this show. After seeing a succession of shows with crap sound at the Great Scott (although I admit, I mostly go there for the Pill), I’d begun to think the place just always had lousy sound. All in all, a good use of ten bucks.


Photo by Melody Hadap. She has more photos from the show here.

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Indie rocketry on the Black Rock playa

August 1st, 2009 No comments

Rocketry in the Black Rock Desert (photo by Steve Jurvetson of the Photo Synthesis blog)Burning Man? Yeah, sure, it’s nice… but these photos and videos by Steve Jurvetson of the Photo Synthesis blog (whose name is just three letters off from “Jetson”) made me wish my Playa experience involved more rocketry and fewer exploding oil derricks. The post linked to here is full of rocket porn and geeky stats. Jurvetson is associated with a group called Rocket Mavericks, who appear to be the exact opposite of burners — except for the drive to build crazy but impractical stuff and then play with it in the desert. Their photostream is plenty of fun, as well. At one point I was very skeptical about the idea of civilians marshaling the skill and resources to conduct space launches, but the rocket pictured here apparently has six times the thrust of most cruise missiles. These folks are hobbyists, but it shows that the game is changing.

“Happiness is Earth in your rear view mirror.”

Thanks to Aunt Emma for alerting me to this one.

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