Category Archives: Science Fiction

Tips for running the “Alien: Destroyer of Worlds” RPG campaign

In 2020, Free League Publishing released Destroyer of Worlds (DoW), an adventure for their new and well-regarded Alien roleplaying game. It’s the second published adventure for Alien (if you don’t count the short scenario included in the core rulebook).

In contrast to the relatively claustrophobic scale of Chariot of the Gods, the first adventure, DoW is incredibly expansive and action-heavy. That makes it a great purchase for any Alien RPG gamemaster—there’s enough material in here for months of gaming. But ironically, its very “bigness” can be a weakness. There’s simply so much going on in this adventure that it’s tricky to run.

I ran DoW across three game nights (about 10 hours total) and have some advice for other GMs thinking about running it for their Alien game group!

A quick note before we dive in: this isn’t an “is it bad or good?” review of DoW. That kind of review can be found elsewhere online. I really enjoyed running DoW, but after we finished, I knew that if I ever ran it again, I would approach it differently in some specific ways. I hope you find these suggestions helpful, or at least worth considering.

Tip #1: Take your time

As written, DoW is intended to take “at least three sessions to complete.” I’d like to emphasize the “at least” part of that!

There’s a lot to do and encounter in DoW. Running it across three sessions required my group to barrel through extremely complicated situations and encounters at high speed. While keeping the pace does provide some cinematic tension, it also meant that the players didn’t have time to engage with any of the adventure’s events or NPCs in anything but the most superficial way.

My advice is that you plan from the outset to spend at least four, and more probably six, game sessions with DoW. With all of the factions and agendas at play, you could actually make this a full-blown campaign and spends months in it–but 5-6 sessions is a good middle ground between making it a full-fledged sandbox, and ramming the players through it at breakneck speed.

If you know you’ll be spending more time in the setting, you can also be a little more deliberate in introducing some of the many major plot-propelling events that occur regularly throughout DoW. Many of the semi-random events in DoW are designed to close off areas/stories and push the PCs into the next act of the story; they’re a useful way to prevent PCs from noodling around aimlessly and losing track of the plot, but they can also feel like they’re roughly shoving the PCs down the plot pipeline. Take a note of the specific cataclysmic events that seem most interesting to you, and trigger them intentionally at points that fit the pace your game table wants.

Tip #2: Expand the player options to include non-Marine locals

DoW’s setup is that the player characters are Marines sent to track down a band of AWOL soldiers in a mining colony town that is sitting on the brink of collapse (due to an assortment of looming threats). That’s a fine setup that has the virtue of giving the PCs a clear goal and some helpful constraints on their actions.

The downside is that this setup means the PCs arrive on the scene of this collapsing colony with no personal connection to anything that’s going on. But wouldn’t the plot twists and dramatic moments hit harder if the PCs have personal stakes in the colony and its fate?

I highly recommend expanding the player options to include non-Marine locals. Any of the character archetypes in the Alien core rulebook (pages 38-54) would work well. Here are some examples of how you could plug more archetypes into DoW:

Colonial marshal: it makes sense that the colony’s sheriff would accompany or even lead a search for AWOL marines who have disappeared into the colony population. In fact, there’s an NPC marshal in DoW already (p. 26) who could easily be a PC.

Kid: did you like the dramatic elements that Newt brought to Aliens? It’s easy to imagine that in the chaos of the collapsing colony, a clever local kid might wind up in a group of PCs. Maybe they were separated from their family in the evacuation. And maybe they know the secret ins and outs of the colony better than the grown-ups do!

Medic or scientist: there’s a small hospital in the colony staffed by “one doctor, an intern, and a medtech”—those all sound like perfectly viable (and useful) PCs!

Pilot: DoW has a sideplot involving two spaceships that might be escape routes off the planet–one medical frigate and a freighter grounded with a damaged reactor. The freighter’s captain is an NPC who can be found drowning her sorrows in the colony bar. She’d make a good PC, especially if you want to allow for the possibility of the PCs repairing, hijacking, and/or escaping on one of those ships.

Roughneck: the colony is populated by gruff oil refinery workers. One or more might be deputized to help track down the AWOL soldiers, especially if they know the colony and its hiding places well.

Adding just one or two of the above civilian PCs adds a personal connection between the PCs and the doomed colony, and add a lot of roleplaying possibilities. Any of these civilians could have secret agendas of their own—the roughneck oil worker could be a secret communist sympathizer, for example. I highly recommend expanding the PCs to include more than just marines.

One thing to keep in mind, however, is that civilian PCs won’t necessarily have access to all the firepower that marines do. This will obviously affect how they’re able to respond to the inevitable alien outbreak. For this reason, you might want to adjust the types and numbers of aliens in the adventure to accommodate a less-well-armed group of PCs. More on the aliens later!

Tip #3: Focus on just a few major threats and agendas

Trim down the list of factions in play.

Did I say there’s a lot going on in DoW? Let’s take a look at a slightly simplified list of the different groups and factions pursuing their agendas in this adventure:

The aliens: obviously there are aliens here—in fact, there are a lot of them. We’ll talk about the aliens in tip #4 below.

The military: There’s a huge military presence near the colony in the form of Fort Nebraska. Although the adventure notes that it’s down to a “skeleton crew” of troops, that’s still about 200 personnel—a significant force. The commander in charge (who gives off real “Colonel Kurtz” vibes) is intent on evacuating with secret illegal alien research and wiping out all evidence of it on the way out. The military base is a huge “dungeon” filled with complications like a restrictive AI, a quirky android, and an unstable nuclear reactor; it could be the site of an entire adventure all by itself. Its space elevator is the “escape route” that DoW really wants the PCs to use to get off-planet at the end of the adventure.

The corporations: Mallory Eckford is a Weyland-Yutani corporate agent also looking for the AWOL marines; she has dispatched a team of hunters to find the missing soldiers before the PCs and/or the army do. She serves as a sort of wildcard in DoW and could be an alternating enemy and ally to the PCs.

The AWOL marines: four marines who have escaped from Fort Nebraska—some of whom have been infected/implanted by different strains of alien—are laying low around town, looking to escape and possibly blow the whistle on the alien research.

The UPP: The Union of Progressive Peoples (space communists) is planning a full-scale military invasion of the colony to seize the alien research in Fort Nebraska. This invasion occurs about halfway through the adventure as written.

Desperate civilians: the remaining population of the colony is in a panic to escape before the UPP invasion. Some are crowding at the local starport to find a way off the planet.

UPP sleeper agents: the local population has been infiltrated by UPP agitators who are spreading unrest and laying the groundwork for the coming UPP invasion.

Unidentified bombers: partway through DoW, an unidentified spacecraft appears and blankets the entire colony with the alien “goo” (as seen in Alien: Covenant). DoW deliberately does not tell the GM who this faction is or what they want, but it’s implied that they may be the bad guys from Heart of Darkness, the third published Alien RPG adventure.

That’s a lot of factions and agendas at play, and many of those agendas have been forming in the months before the PCs arrive on the scene. The PCs have no stakes in most of them. Think about the best Alien movies—how many competing factions do they feature? In most of the movies, you have two or three agendas that clash with and complicate each other. Having 6+ factions at work in one adventure is overkill.

Instead, consider choosing (say) three of those agendas and focusing on them, setting the others aside for now. The factions and agendas you choose can help you achieve a specific “feel.” For example, focusing on the UPP invaders and spies could add a Cold War “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” vibe. Focusing on the manhunt for the AWOL soldiers through a frozen, partly-abandoned colony could evoke some of the isolated frozen horror of The Thing. Focusing on the military and corporate shenanigans would highlight the dystopian hyper-capitalism of the setting.

My point is that choosing a few of these agendas and focusing heavily on them, rather than diluting all these themes by using them all at once, will give your DoW game a more coherent theme.

Tip #4: Use fewer aliens

Just like there are a few too many factions at play in DoW as written, there are too many aliens in it.

I know that probably sounds like heresy when talking about an Alien adventure. But DoW contains nearly every type of alien that has ever appeared in an Alien film, and a few that haven’t. Here’s the alien situation in the colony:

Regular xenomorphs: the PCs’ first encounter with an alien is likely with a single “regular” xenomorph, which they’ll hunt (and be hunted by) through the colony. This part of the adventure feels the most like Alien.

“Black goo” abominations: the PCs’ second encounter with aliens is likely to be with one or more of the “abominations” seen in Prometheus. These are humans that have been mutated into disturbing hybrids by exposure to the “black goo.” At some point the entire colony gets blanketed in this goo, turning the planet into a mutating hellscape.

An alien hive and queen: a whole hive of aliens, led by a queen, has taken root in the depths of Fort Nebraska. (The timeline of how and when this nest formed is a little fuzzy, like some other timeline details in DoW.) Assuming the PCs are evacuating via the space elevator, they’ll have to navigate a military complex overrun by an Aliens-style swarm of xenomorphs.

A “crusher” alien: in the alien hive is a special xenomorph called a “Charger,” a gigantic tank-like alien that would be an interesting “final boss,” except that there’s already a queen alien.

In addition to these, one or more PCs are highly likely to be infected by or impregnated with aliens, so you can count on at least one “Nostromo dinner table” scene.

I love all these aliens, but I think putting the entire Aliens bestiary into one adventure is too much. As with the factions in tip #3, I recommend choosing just a few alien types and centering the adventure around them.

The types of alien you choose will greatly affect the theme and even genre of the game you’re running. Choosing a few lone xenomorphs—setting the hive and Prometheus aliens to the side—will produce a tense, terrifying hunt atmosphere and would work well with mostly-civilian PCs.

Focusing on the hive as the main alien threat evokes the action of Aliens, especially if some of the PCs are heavily-armed marines.

Focusing on the Prometheus-style black goo aliens can emphasize body horror/transformation themes, and is a good way to keep the players on their toes (since the “life cycle” of these aliens is less well-defined and probably less familiar to the players).

Use the “charger” as a terrifying revelation for players who have seen all the movies and want something new.

When it comes to aliens in DoW, keep it simple! You can always complicate things later by throwing extras into the mix. As with the factions above, being intentional and spare with your alien threat lets you give your game a more consistent theme.

Bonus tip #5: Skip the opening briefing

This is a quick one, but: go ahead and skip the introductory “cutscene” where the PCs are briefed, then sent to Fort Nebraska to equip their search party. The briefing is a gigantic wall of text that you don’t want to read at your players. Instead, skip right to the action: start as the PCs step out of the cold and into the colony bar that will almost certainly be the first stop in their investigation. You can fill in briefing details as needed. If I had done this in my game, I would’ve cut out at least 30 minutes of meandering gametime that didn’t contribute much.

I hope you’ve found these tips helpful! If you’ve run DoW and have made alterations of your own to it, please share them below. DoW is a great adventure—it’s even better if you spend some time customizing it to deliver the exact experience your game table wants.

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Who’s Flying That TIE Fighter?

One thing that’s always struck me a little odd about Star Wars is that, for a film series that features so many epic spaceship battles, few of those spaceship battles feel very personal. With a handful of exceptions, the spaceship fights in Star Wars films feature our heroes facing off against hordes of faceless minions.

The heroes in a Star Wars space battle are always quirky personalities: Luke, Han, Lando, Poe, etc. But there’s almost never a matching personality on the enemy side—no Red Baron, no grudge-bearing enemy ace to duel with our heroes. Instead, it’s mostly waves of generic TIE Fighters piloted by black-uniformed Imperial minions:

TIE Fighter pilot

(Darth Vader’s presence at the Death Star run in A New Hope is the main exception, and not coincidentally, that space battle is the most compelling one in the entire series.)

So, that’s a little boring. Wouldn’t it be more fun if at least one of the TIE Fighters in that squadron you’re fighting was an ace, a coward, a psycho, or just anything other than a generic, faceless minion? I got to thinking about my old Why Is This ‘Mech So Terrible? chart and decided to create a chart for making TIE Fighter encounters more interesting.

This chart is for use in a tabletop RPG or other Star Wars game. When the heroes encounter a batch of TIE Fighters and you want to shake things up a bit, pick one of the TIE Fighters, roll a d20, and find out who’s sitting in the cockpit.

Die result (1d20) It’s piloted by a… What’s their deal?
1-3 Loyal Imperial Citizen-Soldier Like most of the Imperial military rank-and-file, this pilot is a decent, hard-working guy who signed on with the Imperial navy because he believes the Empire is the best hope for peace in the galaxy. He has faith in his leaders even when his orders are unpleasant, trusting that his higher-ups know better than he does. He follows orders to a tee.
4-5 Bitter Conscript Drafted into service against his will, he just wants to get through his term of service in one piece. In combat, he does the absolute minimum needed to avoid being executed for cowardice, but otherwise takes no risks and shows no initiative. He doesn’t like the Empire but also has no interest in the Rebellion. His only motivation is to get back to base alive each day.
6 Conscience-Stricken Imperial When he signed on with the Imperial navy, he thought he’d be helping to bring peace and justice to the galaxy. But the more he sees (and is ordered to do), the harder it’s getting to reconcile that idealism with the reality of Imperial rule. This pilot is close to defecting; the right set of circumstances might see him refuse an order on the battlefield or even switch sides in the middle of a fight.
7 Zealous Political Officer This pilot is a political officer and true believer whose job is to make sure his squadmates act with sufficient… enthusiasm for the Imperial cause. In battle, if one of his squadmates shows “insufficient aggressiveness,” he just might decide to turn his guns on the coward to set a vivid example for the rest of the squadron, even if it means turning away from the Rebels for a few precious minutes.
8 Ambitious Promotion-Seeker This pilot has lofty ambitions for a career in the Imperial navy, but lacks the political and family connections needed to secure promotions. He’s just putting in time in the TIE Fighter service while hoping to catch the approving eye of his superiors. He cares more about looking good for the promotions board than he cares about the Imperial cause. Accordingly, he plays it safe in battle but is carefully watching for a chance to score a flashy victory that puts him in no real danger… and he’s not above secretly collaborating with the enemy to stage such a situation.
9 Imperial Avenger He just learned that Rebel scum killed his family in a terrorist bombing on Coruscant (or at least that’s what his Imperial masters told him), and he’s out for blood. He’s not going back to base until he’s killed every Rebel (real or imagined) he sees, no matter what his orders are. His rage gives him an offensive edge in combat, and he won’t retreat even if ordered to.
10 Rebel Spy This pilot is actually a Rebel spy who funnels Imperial military plans to the Rebels, and he’s looking to transmit stolen data files to the first Rebel ship he encounters. But he’s got to do it without blowing his cover… and without getting blown up by the Rebels he’s trying to contact.
11 Imperial Test Pilot The Imperial navy is evaluating some souped-up new TIE Fighter variants, and they’ve placed one in this squadron to test its combat performance. This TIE’s armor, shields, firepower, or manuverability (pick one) are one notch higher than average. To make sure this expensive prototype is handled properly, its pilot is almost certainly a cut above the rest.
12 Unknowing Force-Sensitive This pilot is your typical Imperial serviceman, loyal and brainwashed to follow orders. Except for one thing: he’s sensitive to the Force, although he doesn’t realize it. He’s prone to remarkable “luck” in battle—every now and then he pulls off impossible shots, and when his TIE Fighter gets hit, the damage always seems to just narrowly miss vital systems. Once per combat, he can reroll any die roll that didn’t go his way or which caused him harm.
13 Imperial Ace Uh oh. This guy is bad news; you can tell by the number of X-Wing silhouettes painted on the hull of his fighter. All of his combat and piloting skills are way above average.
14 Secret Pacifist He was drafted into the TIE Fighter service, but in his heart he just really doesn’t want to hurt anybody. He’ll go to almost any lengths to avoid actually harming anyone in combat—making sure his shots miss, pretending not to notice potential targets on the long-range sensors, faking weapon malfunctions, etc. His commanders will soon figure out that he’s dragging his feet; he’s already planning how he might use the chaos of battle to make a run for a backwater system where he can hide from the Galactic Civil War.
15 Victim of Sabotage Enslaved aliens working at a TIE Fighter factory sabotaged some key components, and nobody’s noticed yet. At a key moment in the next battle, something will go horribly wrong for this TIE Fighter: maybe the guns or other key systems will abruptly stop working, or the torpedoes will target friendly Imperial ships instead of Rebel ones, or the wings will fall off. Use your imagination!
16 Imperial Psycho TIE Fighters are cheaply built and utterly expendible, as are their pilots. Everybody knows that, especially the poor suckers forced to fly them. For obvious reasons, most Imperial pilots jump at the chance to be promoted into a better spaceship. But not this guy: he actually likes his TIE Fighter and he keeps turning down opportunities to fly something better. He’s crazy and he scares all his squadmates, but he knows how to coax unbelievable stunts and maneuvers out of his lowly TIE Fighter. For game purposes, his TIE Fighter is treated as a TIE Interceptor, and his piloting skills are close to maximum.
17 Marked Man This pilot’s gambling problem has put him far into debt with the Hutts, and now there’s a bounty on his head. Partway through the next battle, a bounty hunter shows up on the scene. The bounty hunter ship ignores everybody else and focuses on destroying or capturing this TIE Fighter.
18 Pampered Scion This lazy dilletante from a wealthy Imperial family is grudgingly doing his time in the navy. He’s a terrible pilot, but he’s used his family’s wealth and connections to ensure that he always flies in the best spaceship possible. While his squadmates make do with aging, cheaply-built equipment, he’s flying a souped-up TIE Interceptor with all the upgrades money and influence can buy. Will his advanced fighter compensate for his lack of instinct and skill?
19 Former Classmate This pilot attended the Imperial Academy with one of the heroes (before the hero joined the Rebels), and may have been a terrifying bully or honorable rival to the hero (pick one). And there may still be scores to settle!
20 You Don’t Want to Know You know how you sometimes read about kings and generals quietly visiting the common soldiers in the trenches, to get a sense for morale, pretend to care for the everyday grunts, and remind everybody what they’re fighting for? Darth Vader’s not that gracious, but he does like to show up unexpectedly to terrify recruits into obedience. And he’s been known to fly along unannounced on random TIE Fighter patrols….

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Stephen King Short Story Project, #27: “I Am the Doorway”

The story: “I Am the Doorway,” collected in Night Shift. First published in 1971. Wikipedia entry here.

venusSpoiler-filled synopsis: Years after he took part in a space mission to Venus, a crippled astronaut discovers that a hostile alien presence is using him as a “doorway” through which to observe Earth. This is manifested in the appearance of alien eyes on his hands. As the aliens’ influence over the astronaut’s body grows, he is forced to use extreme measures—self-mutiliation and ultimately suicide—to close the “doorway.”

My thoughts: What’s waiting for us out there in the void of outer space? Science fiction has given us many different forms of alien menace to fear. In “I Am the Doorway,” King declines to show us a clear picture of the aliens, but their influence and awareness is spread by something like a virus or mutating agent contracted by an astronaut passing through the orbit of Venus. This is another science fiction story—although typically for King, the science fiction is mostly background for more down-to-earth horror. “I Am the Doorway” plays out much like a “demon possession” story, with the protagonist Richard waging a losing battle to preserve his free will in defiance of an entity that wants to use him to carry out horrible acts.

The horrible acts in this case are two murders: one of a stranger, and the second of a friend in whom Richard tries to confide about his bizarre situation. Many years after a mission to Venus, the wheelchair-bound Richard discovers that eyes are growing in his hands, and that he can dimly perceive the presence and mindset of the beings behind them: they’re alien, and from their perspective, humanity is terrifying and revolting. Seen through the strange lens that is Richard’s body, humans look like monsters to the alien presence—and as its control over Richard grows, the presence begins channeling supernatural-seeming powers through Richard to kill other humans. This seems an unsubtle jab at humanity’s own propensity for reacting violently to things that look different or make us uncomfortable. Whether the aliens have a coherent plan for Richard, or if they’re just using him to randomly strike out in fear and loathing at Richard’s fellow “monsters,” is never explained.

Richard temporarily drives away the presence by dousing his hands with kerosene and setting them on fire before the presence can stop him. But when a new set of eyes appears on his chest years later, he surmises that suicide is the only way to shut the door. But even that may be overly optimistic, as the presence has demonstrated that it can restore Richard’s crippled body long enough to carry out its tasks. Will the presence stop Richard from killing himself, and if not, might it not go on controlling his dead body? That’s a little creepy, and that’s where the story ends.

“I Am the Doorway” is filled with questions—what is the alien presence? what does it want? how did it infect Richard? where does it live? etc.—but answers very few of them. I think that’s probably for the best; too much exposition would dilute the effect of the short, focused narrative. So if you’re here just for the sci-fi and aliens, this story won’t likely satisfy you. There isn’t much depth here, and there doesn’t need to be. “I Am the Doorway” is a sharp little tale that doesn’t rank up there with King’s best, but which you’ll be thinking about for some time after you read it.

Next up: OK, we’ve got time for one more King story before October ends. Let’s go with… “The Fifth Quarter,” from Nightmares and Dreamscapes.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedinmailby feather

Falling back into The Black Hole

cygnusI just watched The Black Hole with Michele. I haven’t watched it in probably twenty years, but it’s always held an extremely powerful nostalgic pull on my imagination. When I was a kid, I went through a period of obsession with this film—we’re talking a Black Hole lunchbox, a Maximillian model, a Black Hole storybook/record… the works.

I don’t know why it’s taken me so long to revisit this as an adult. It’s widely regarded as a mediocre film, and perhaps my subconscious has been trying to spare me the tragedy of seeing a piece of nostalgia exposed as just another overwrought B-movie.

But having re-watched it at last, I’m happy to say that, to my surprise and relief, I very much enjoyed it. For all its shortcomings, it works—the whole turns out to be much more than the sum of its parts.

While it’s fresh on my mind, here are a few of the elements that make The Black Hole shine, despite the failings that critics have, with just cause, pointed out.

1. The ships and effects. Put simply, the spaceships, set design, and overall visual atmosphere are superb. The Palomino nails the Millenium Falcon aesthetic: a bit ugly and looking like it’s been around the block a few times, yet rugged and appealing. But of course the Cygnus, palace of the mad space scientist Dr. Reinhardt, is the star of the show; it’s one of the most unique and impressive-looking spaceship designs I’ve ever seen. Its strange latticework structure; its cathedral-like spires; the cavernous inside spaces that make life seem so tiny and out of place inside it. Other films have used spaceship design to suggest a cathedral-in-space (Event Horizon‘s Core, the recent Battlestar Galactica‘s Resurrection Ship; the Auriga of Alien: Resurrection), but none match the Cygnus, a drifting temple to its captain’s hubris.

The Black Hole will also make you pine for the days before real, actual, physical models were replaced by the CGI apocalypse. There’s a visceral, tactile appeal to the models here that more than compensates for the now-dated special effects.

2. Dr. Reinhardt is a wonderful villain. He’s a great mad scientist in the classic vein. Those fools told him that what he was doing was impossible, even insane! But he’ll show them. It’s probably a serious misstep that The Black Hole makes Reinhardt’s Ahab-style madness apparent from his very first appearance; it dulls the impact of our eventual discovery that he’s a totally crazy murdering megalomaniac. But hey, we knew that anyway, and it gives Maximilian Schell lots of opportunities to ham it up.

maximillian3. It’s weird and dark, with lots of unnerving details. The “robot” unmasking scene scarred me for life as a child, and it retains some of its shock value today even though it’s obviously a guy in makeup. The “robot” funeral leaves you wondering uncomfortably how much humanity might still lie buried away, despite one character’s insistence that the mental damage is irreversible. At one point, after the deeply creepy Maximillian has murdered Kate’s crewmate, Reinhardt leans close to her and begs her to protect him from Maximillian. Is he mocking her? Is he living in constant terror of Maximillian, who might really be running this horror show? Wonderfully, the movie never tells us.

And then there’s this surreal closing scene, which is a perfect metaphor for Reinhardt’s ghoulish kingdom and an evocative, unsettling picture of a personal, self-created hell:

OK, so I’m in love with this film. But it’s certainly not perfect. What keeps it from greatness?

Professional critics have more than weighed in on it’s shortcomings already; I won’t dispute those critiques, but I can’t say that the commonly-cited problems (weak script, uneven acting, a continual contrast between the film’s exciting imagery and plodding dialogue) bothered me as much as they should’ve. I will point out a few things that kept me from wholly buying into The Black Hole despite my enjoyment of it:

1. The actions scenes are weak. It feels wrong to knock a movie for having insufficiently awesome action scenes, but the action scenes in this movie are universally unconvincing and unexciting. The evil sentry robots, described as an “elite” force at one point by Reinhardt, have worse aim than Stormtroopers—look, I know they’re not really supposed to hit anything or anybody important, but they have to look like they’re trying. There’s one large gun battle in particular that is so ineptly staged that it really damages the sense of immersion.

2. Reinhardt’s secret is too obvious and revealed too early. Look, we know Reinhardt’s an insane mad scientist, but the “big reveal”—what really happened to the crew—is telegraphed continually throughout the movie’s entire second act. When we finally get our confirmation, it’s lost most of its effectiveness.

3. The science is distractingly bad. For the first few minutes, it seems like The Black Hole is going to at least pay decent lip service to Real Science—enough to let us suspend our disbelief about all this black hole business. Nobody’s asking for Stephen Hawking levels of scientific integrity here. But the movie’s final act, which takes place while the Cygnus is being pulled inexorably into the black hole, throws all believability out the window. Characters breathe in open space. They outrun meteors. It’s really distracting.

Despite its flaws, this is a worthwhile film. I’m glad I finally mustered the courage to revisit this piece of childhood nostalgia, and I’m quite confident I’ll return to it again.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedinmailby feather

More human than human

Hey, ‘net punk! Look what some clever console cowboy has revealed on the inter-tron today:

OK, so it’s just a video game. But this is a kind of a big deal if you’re into tabletop roleplaying games, because this is a video game based on Mike Pondsmith’s venerable Cyberpunk 2013 (later Cyberpunk 2020, later Cyberpunk 203X) roleplaying game setting.

And that’s interesting for a number of reasons. First, the Cyberpunk RPG is an oldie, firmly planted in the mirrorshades era of the cyberpunk genre; the kind of cyberpunk where you brush aside your ’80s bangs and “jack in” to a Gibsonesque (and by “Gibsonesque” I mean “ripped straight out of Neuromancer“) proto-internet and talk sneeringly about “meatbags.” There are “fresher” cyber-themed RPGs out there (Eclipse Phase, Shadowrun, Transhuman Space) that might be thought to offer a nicely updated cyberpunkish basis for a modern game.

Pondsmith’s Cyberpunk hasn’t been much in the public eye for years. The last time it was the focus of any attention, its most recent edition was being dragged over the coals for using what can only be described as “doll art” to illustrate its rulebook:

Let’s just say that it didn’t emerge from those discussions with a lot of dignity intact.

But I don’t mean to mock. (Let me go on record as believing that the “doll art” thing contains a seed of genius, but was badly executed.) This new Cyberpunk video game is a reminder that there is a long history of tabletop RPGs—even obscure and mostly defunct ones like Cyberpunk—that are ripe for reinvention and re-exploration, in video games or other media. That’s exciting.

So let me offer a few comments on the Cyberpunk 2077 trailer above.

  • The “2077” is presumably a reference to the year in which the game is set. Interesting; I believe that Shadowrun, the most prominent cyberpunk RPG still in print, is also currently set in the 2070s. I guess that “50-60 years from now” is about what seems right for a setting that needs to have advanced significantly beyond current technology levels, but not so far that it isn’t recognizeable and relatable.
  • This game follows on the very popular cyberpunk video game Deus Ex: Human Revolution. Is vintage cyberpunk making a comeback?
  • The technical quality of this trailer—the animation style, the music, everything—points to a pretty spectacular end-product.
  • The lady in this trailer isn’t dressed very appropriately for a dangerous nighttime urban dystopian environment; but then again, she’s got the retractable arm-scythes, so she can wear what she wants. The future is cheesecake.
  • I’ll expand on that a bit. The association of eroticism with violence in entertainment media, such as this video game trailer, makes me uncomfortable, but I’ll concede that I’m probably a few decades too late to raise that particular concern (and it’s been a staple of cyberpunk since Ghost in the Shell and probably earlier). I will say: the cyberpunk genre is about a future defined by out-of-control marketing of all types (including sexual) and the augmentation of the human body, so in theory there are some interesting, and possibly even prescient, points to be made about violence, sexuality, and the ultimate victory of style over substance. But I’m not holding my breath that this video game is where we’ll see that handled with insight.

Well, we’ll see where this all winds up. But we can be sure it won’t top this artifact from the glory days of cyberpunk gaming:

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This is Free Trader Beowulf, calling anyone…

Also, your character could die during character generation. Or so I am told.

As fortune would have it, I’ve read a number of (non-Dungeons & Dragons) novels lately that have contained clever references to D&D. Ready Player One by Ernest Cline is chock full of them. Lev Grossman’s The Magicians has a good number as well. Nerd references are the cool thing these days. But The Magician King, the sequel to The Magicians, has officially one-upped it with an even more nerdy RPG reference in the name of an online mental-health support group one of the protagonists joins:

…the support group really was pretty dandy. It was something special. It was founded by a woman who’d worked successively at Apple, and then Microsoft, and then Google…. before she rolled neurochemical snake eyes and a bout of clinical depression knocked her out of the sky…. So she retired early and started Free Trader Beowulf.

Free Trader Beowulf—you had to be at least forty and a recovering pen-and-paper role-playing-gamer to get the reference, but it was apt. Google it.

It would’ve been even better if Grossman had not let on that it was an RPG reference, so that people like me could feel all superior for noticing it. It’s a shout-out to Traveller, a classic sci-fi RPG first published in the 70s. (It’s still around.)

If D&D references have become commonplace, then a Traveller reference is at least kicking it up a notch. Mark my words, next year it’s going to be Tékumel and Tunnels and Trolls references. You read it here first!Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedinmailby feather

“We’ll have to destroy them ship-to-ship. Get the crews to their fighters.”

I like library used-book shops, because you never know what you’ll find in them. Usually they’re little more than a closet full of James Patterson novels selling for $.25 each. But the library shop in my parents’ hometown is a good one where my family has made many an unusual discovery over the years.

That trend continued over the holidays; while visiting my parents, we stopped by the library shop and I picked up these two treasures (still shrinkwrapped) for a buck apiece:

Those are two of the most fondly-remembered space simulators in videogame history: X-Wing and TIE Fighter. They came out during the heyday of LucasFilm’s (now LucasArts) game development, before they decided to stop making interesting games and make only mediocre Star Wars titles.

X-Wing and TIE Fighter were, obviously, Star Wars titles, but they weren’t mediocre. Their roots lie in Lawrence Holland’s World War 2 flight simulators, one of which (Their Finest Hour) absorbed many an evening on my Amiga. (Their Finest Hour even came with a 200-page history of the Battle of Britain that I used as the primary source for a high school paper. Hey, it was better than anything in the school library….)

There are plenty of space simulators out there today, but they seem to have slid into a niche below the radar of most gamers. X-Wing and TIE Fighter hearken back to bygone days when, for a glorious stretch of years starting with Wing Commander and (probably) ending with Freespace 2, space combat simulators were the kings of gaming.

So I hope to relive those halcyon days with these two gems. That is, assuming I can find a computer with a floppy disk drive:

What about you? Were you gaming during the Great Space/Flight Simulator glory days? What ships did you pilot to victory?Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedinmailby feather

The reason for the season

It’s that time of year! That’s right; it’s time to turn on the holiday music, assemble the Christmas tree, and haul this sucker out of the basement where it has slept dreaming for the last year:

It's even clearly labelled and everything.

What treasures await us inside the box? I think you know.

Yes, Virginia, that is a Sy Snootles and the Max Rebo Band ornament. Jealous?

No Christmas is complete without a Christmas tree completely buried in Star Wars ornaments. This year’s decoration went reasonably well, although our three-year-old did request that the Darth Vader ornament be moved to the back of the tree because it was scaring her. (The stormtrooper ornament was banished as well.)

In retrospect, I definitely missed an opportunity to lecture her about one of life’s hard realities: fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering. And that, in turn, leads to you eventually getting tossed down into the Death Star’s power core by your apprentice.

Oh well. Life will teach her that lesson soon enough without my help. Also, Merry Christmas.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedinmailby feather

The walls of this 10×10 chamber are adorned with…

When my wife and I finally made the choice to became real Americans (i.e. go tens of thousands of dollars into debt to buy a house), one of my requirements was that said house have some sort of subterranean chamber which I could convert into a basement game room. One year later, my game lair is finally ready.

Of course, no game room is complete without cheesy posters adorning the walls. No longer being 13, I can’t get away with supermodel pinups or Megadeth posters. But this is a perfect excuse to dig out those vintage game posters I’ve been hauling with me around the country for the last two decades. After a few trips to Hobby Lobby to pick up some cheap poster frames, here’s what’s hanging on the walls of my game room. (I apologize for the flash glare in some of these… if my game room had adequate lighting, it would not be authentic.)

First up is a pair of (unfortunately fairly weathered) Battletech Mech schematics, bought way back in the early days of FASA:


The 85-ton BLG-1G Battlemaster. Awww yeah.


The infamous Warhammer, complete with two PPCs and a cheesecake illustration of Natasha 'Black Widow' Kerensky in the bottom right (for scale purposes, of course).

On the opposite wall, découpaged to an oh-so-classy piece of wood, is the map that came with one of my favorite Infocom games, Beyond Zork:

Quendor map

I love this map, although I could do without the dozen compass roses pasted across it.

And now back to Battletech. The only Commodore 64 game I played as much as Wasteland was Battletech: The Crescent Hawk’s Inception. It was my introduction to Battletech, and ever since, the poster that came with it remains the iconic Battletech image in my mind:

Crescent Hawk

A tiny Locust mech faces off against... what is that, a Marauder? That's not very fair, but it looks awesome.

Moving along, we have (surprise) another Infocom poster, this one of one of their least-known games: Quarterstaff: The Tomb of Setmoth. It was a quirky RPG/text-adventure hybrid (and only available on the Mac, strangely); but I really enjoyed it back in high school.


Am I the only person who played and enjoyed this game?

No game collection in the late 80s/early 90s was complete without at least one SSI Gold Box AD&D game. Here was mine:

Champions of Krynn

Champions of Krynn, one of many SSI Gold Box classics.

The next item is a change of pace: a poster that came with one of my favorite NES games, Dragon Warrior. This game was surpassed not long after its release by Final Fantasy I, but was a great deal of fun. And it has one of the most annoying/awesome catchy soundtracks of any NES-era game.

Dragon Warrior

One of the first great JRPGs on the NES.

And last but not least, I devoted most of an entire wall to one of the most iconic locations in D&D: Undermountain, the megadungeon. I framed three of the four maps that came in the 2e Undermountain boxed set:

Undermountain maps

There are a LOT of places to die in Undermountain.

So that’s what’s hanging on the walls of my basement game lair. I like to think of it as inspirational artwork. And believe it or not, there’s a stack of maps and posters that I’ll have to put back in storage because there wasn’t room to frame them too….Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedinmailby feather

Cool gaming finds #2: Space Master extravaganza!

My last post recounted one of my favorite used-game-store discoveries. Here’s another one, which differs from the last story in that it involves a game I might actually play someday.

Not long ago, I was making a rare visit to a comic store in a town I don’t often travel to—it’s about an hour’s drive from home. They had a big table stacked high with used games, all priced at a few dollars. I immediately spotted this little gem:

Space Master 2nd edition boxed set

That’s the 2nd edition, boxed set of Iron Crown’s Space Master roleplaying game. I’m a sucker for anything from the heyday of Rolemaster, so I snatched it up for $5 without thinking and raced home. The box was bound up with rubber bands and I was in a hurry, so even though the box seemed really heavy, I didn’t give it much thought.

When I got home, I opened the box and discovered why the box had felt so heavy. Here’s what spilled out:

What I found in my Space Master boxed set

That’s the Space Master rules, all right… and a whole pile of adventures and modules published for it. In fact, I’d say that’s a sizable percentage of the entire product line.

I think I’m pretty set as far as Space Master goes!Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedinmailby feather