Category Archives: Science Fiction

On the challenge of giving your interstellar empire a cool name

Have you ever thought about what a challenge it is to come up with an original, yet cool-sounding, name for your type of interstellar empire?

It’s a challenge keenly felt by the major factions in most science fiction game settings, judging by the wide variety of near-synonyms for the word “empire” that crop up in their names. As we all know, every good interstellar empire’s name needs to follow the format [faction name] [government type]. And we also know that there can be no more than one instance of any particular type of interstellar government in existence at the same time. Look at the effort game designers go through to avoid duplicating faction names in, say, the Traveller universe:

Traveller factions (current Mongoose edition)

  • Vodani Consulate
  • Vargyr Extents
  • Aslan Hierate (is that even a word?)
  • Solomani Sphere
  • Hive Federation
  • Third Imperium

Imagine the embarrassment of being unable to think of a cool, unique name for your interstellar empire! The factions of the Battletech universe feel your pain:

Battletech factions (in 3025 or thereabouts)

  • Free Worlds League
  • Federated Suns (Hey, “Suns” isn’t a government type! Sneaky.)
  • Draconis Combine
  • Lyran Commonwealth
  • Capellan Confederation
  • Marian Hegemony
  • Outworlds Alliance
  • Taurian Concordat

The powers of the (sadly defunct) Star*Drive universe had to really break out the thesaurus to name themselves:

Star*Drive factions

  • Borealis Republic
  • Rigonmur Star Consortium
  • Nariac Domain
  • Orion League
  • Orlamu Theocracy
  • StarMech Collective
  • Thuldan Empire
  • Hatire Community

And we’ll close with Hero Games’ Terran Empire setting, which is unique in featuring more than one “Empire”:

Terran Empire factions

  • Terran, Varanyi, and a few other Empires
  • Conjoined Civilizations Republic
  • Thorgon Hegemony
  • Velarian Confederation
  • Mon’dabi Federation

The point is not that these aren’t interesting or well-imagined settings (I happen to appreciate them all). It’s just amusing to watch the settings’ creators jump through vocabulary hoops to come up with unique names for the different factions.

Pity the poor latecomer to the galactic superpower scene, who must make do with being a “Community” or “League,” rather than a much cooler-sounding “Hegemony” or “Theocracy”!

(And real-life country naming conventions are a bit bizarre, too—for instance, the more politically repressive and un-democratic your country is, the more likely you are to have “republic,” “democracy,” or other wildly inappropriate words in your country’s official name.)

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Witness to the end: the final hours of Tabula Rasa

Last night I witnessed the final hours of an MMORPG.

Several years ago, I read this fascinating account of the last days of Asheron’s Call over at Wired. That article, and this strangely touching collection of quotes and screenshots from the game’s final minutes, has stuck with me ever since. What does a doomed MMORPG look like in its twilight hours? Is it a barren wasteland devoid of players save for a faithful few long-timers mourning the game’s passing? A madhouse of activity as thousands of gamers crowd into the game to experience it before it goes away forever?

So when word came out late last year that Tabula Rasa was going offline in February (and more importantly, that its last few months would be free to play), I knew I had to at least check it out. My original intent was to play the game fairly heavily throughout February, trying to experience as much of it as possible before the end. Unfortunately, reality (and house maintenance, parenting responsibilities, the lure of other games) shot down that dream. Nevertheless, I wanted to be there for the game’s final few hours, especially when I read that the TR developers were planning to shut down the game with an apocalyptic in-game event.

The bad guys of the TR universe were going to launch an all-out assault, and everyone was going to die. The cities and bases that players had gotten to know over the last year were going to fall. Players would be pushed back to Earth for a final stand. At least TR players could go down in a blaze of glory.

So last night I logged into TR for the game’s final hours. I didn’t stay to the bitter end (1am my time; I didn’t think my church choir director would appreciate me showing up to the service crashing from a Mt. Dew-fueled late night gaming). But I was online for 2-3 hours up to about midnight.

So what was it like?

It was interesting.

Players gather to hold back the invaders as long as possible.

Players gather to hold back the invaders as long as possible.

There were a few problems. First, the game was crowded. For the first hour or so of the final event, the game was nearly unplayable due to lag. (Some players joked that the Bane apparently planned to defeat humanity by bringing their servers to a halt through lag.) From what I gathered in the in-game chat, a lot of players from TR‘s European and other servers (which had shut down earlier in the day) had flocked to this, the last online server, to replay the end again. Throw in who-knows-how-many curious observers like myself, and you had one crowded gameworld. The lag problem eased as the night went on.

Another problem was my lack of familiarity with the game. I’d only played a few hours throughout February, so I had only a basic grasp of how to travel around the game universe. It took me a while just to figure out how to travel to the “frontlines” where the invasion was expected to begin. Also, there was the little matter that my level 5 newbie character was probably going to last about 2 seconds against the sorts of epic alien invaders that were coming to destroy the world. (This did, in fact, turn out to be the case.)

I don't think my level 5 character is a match for these walkers.

I don't think my level 5 character is a match for these walkers.

But it was nevertheless a worthwhile experience. The invasion kicked off at 9pm Eastern time. In the hour leading up to the invasion, the in-game chat was so abuzz with chatter that I could hardly read messages before they scrolled off the screen. The game developers were present and participating actively in the chat. It was fascinating to read, with the same questions coming up over and over again:

  • Where was the final stand taking place? How do I get there so that I, too, can take some alien scum down with me?
  • Who’ll group up with me to visit [cool game location] or do [cool game quest] before it goes away forever?
  • Can the developers make me level 50 so I can slog it out against the invaders in the final stand? (A rumor was flying that developers were levelling people up to level 50 upon request. I did see one developer saying he’d do this if people asked him, so apparently it was happening.)
  • Lots of people thanking the game developers for creating the game and making it a fun world to play in.
  • People trying to sell in-game objects for high fees. (Capitalists to the end!)
  • People hatching crazy and impractical schemes for “saving” TR.
  • A lot of people whining about the lag. (Geez, people….)
  • A lot of people discussing which MMORPG they’d be moving to after the end of TR.

Then the end began. At 9pm reports started rolling in from players in various bases throughout the game world: the attack was underway. Aliens—big aliens, allegedly controlled by the developers themselves—were hitting bases. The chat started to fill with calls for assistance, players trying to rally others to defend important locations, other players calling out sightings of the ultra-powerful Neph (the Big Bad Guys).

Heading out to the frontlines for a final stand.

Heading out to the frontlines.

One by one, player bases fell and became inaccessible. Players made plans for a final stand on Earth.

And I had to log off.

All in all, it was a curiously touching experience, even for somebody like me who had no emotional tie to TR, its gameworld, or its community of players. TR wasn’t the empty wasteland that Asheron’s Call apparently was; a lot of people showed up for its final moments. There wasn’t a sense of a tight-knit community dying forever, although it was clear from the chats that people had formed friendships with other players and with the developers. One imagines that, in 2009, it’s pretty easy to relocate to another MMORPG when your favorite one goes offline. But there was still an edge of sadness as the bad guys swept through the game universe, shutting it down as they went.

All in all, it was a classy way to end a game. I hope TR‘s players and developers both enjoyed their final fling with the game. Let it not be said that TR didn’t go out with a bang.

It was a beautiful world, while it lasted.

It was a beautiful world, while it lasted.

[Note to Tabula Rasa veterans: if I got any of the details here wrong, I apologize—I’m just going by what I was able to gather from my few hours of play yesterday.]

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All these worlds are yours except Europa

Wow, is mankind ever playing with fire. First there was the Skynet thing. Now we’re messing around with Europa despite explicit instructions from omnipotent aliens to the contrary. At this point the natural next step is to create a race of slave robots (that are stronger and smarter than us) to serve humanity; or possibly start designing really creepy-looking warp drives for the space shuttles.

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Always be careful when destroying the Enterprise

The Enterprise blows up.You’ll forgive me, I hope, if I yammer about a board game for a few minutes. It’s been a while since I’ve subjected you to such trivia.

As I have no doubt mentioned, I am a fan of the Star Fleet Battles board/wargame. Now, this is a game with a lot of rules. The “master rulebook” runs over 400 pages, and a second master rulebook covering a different quadrant of the galaxy recently came out at an additional 340 pages. While it’s a very fun game, those rules do not make for a riveting read-through (not that that’s stopped me, of course). But every now and then you hit something quirky in the midst of all the rules legalese that makes you grin.

For example, here’s one of my favorite little rules in the entire game. It’s something that will probably never happen in a typical game. It describes what happens when a starship captained by a “legendary captain” (think Kirk or Picard) is destroyed:

[G22.223] If his ship is destroyed, he has a 1% chance of doing something that results in his being aboard and in control of the nearest enemy ship of the same or smaller size class…. All legendary officers and remaining crew arrive with him. (Don’t ask how he did it; that’s what legends are made of!)

I assume that rule is inspired by Star Trek III, which features Kirk self-destructing the Enterprise yet shortly thereafter taking control of the Klingon Bird-of-prey through various bits of trickery. Who could forget this classic scene (thank you imdb):

Torg: [the Klingons have boarded the Enterprise only to find it is deserted] My Lord, the ship appears to be deserted.
Kruge: How can that be? They’re hiding.
Torg: Yes, sir. The ship appears to be run by computer. It is the only thing that is speaking.
Kruge: Speaking? Let me hear it.
Enterprise computer: [Torg walks over to a console, placing his communicator towards it] 9-8-7-6-5…
Kruge: [shouts] Get out! Get out of there! Get out!
Enterprise computer: 2-1…
[the Enterprise bridge explodes]

Other fun rules cover similarly rare but cool game events, like crew mutiny on Klingon ships whose security officers have been killed (in the game universe, Klingon ships are crewed largely by slaves) and what happens when you tractor an enemy ship and then drag it at high speed into a planet. They’re situations that rarely if ever come up in your average gameā€”but you know that when they do, they fuel Gamer Stories for years to come.

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Roleplaying in the final frontier: random thoughts on Star Trek and RPGs

I’ve been in a big-time Star Trek mood lately. I’ve discovered that an episode of Deep Space 9 is the perfect length to watch while feeding The Littlest Gamer at 4am in the morning, and thus have been progressing quickly through the series—I’m partway through season 4, and have recently upgraded my rating of the show from Not Bad to Pretty Awesome.

To complement my DS9 viewing, I’ve also been catching up on The Jefferies Tube podcast, which I neglected (along with all my other blog reading and podcast listening) during the Birth of The Littlest Gamer and the Flood of Family that followed. One of the recent podcast episodes focused on Star Trek RPGs, and I can’t resist adding some of my own thoughts.

I’ve owned each of the three Star Trek RPGs discussed in the podcast. (Well, almost: I owned FASA Trek and Decipher Trek, but the version of Prime Directive I owned was the first edition, not the (much better, going by the podcast’s description) GURPS version.) While I was not overly fond of Prime Directive, I like both the FASA and Decipher games—although I’ve played them a grand total of twice and once, respectively.

I like Star Trek. But despite enjoying the setting and finding the games themselves fairly interesting, I have never felt a strong desire to roleplay in the Star Trek universe. Judging by the fact that almost none of the numerous game publishers to acquire the Star Trek license has managed to keep the game alive for more than a few years, I suspect I’m not the only one who finds Trek a difficult gaming prospect. Why is this?

The podcast points out some of the big reasons that Trek is a tough setting to game in—it’s a setting where your character’s rank in Starfleet (or the equivalent alien organization) leads to the same difficulties that military-based games run into: somebody’s character is going to end up being the captain, and somebody else is going to have to play the ship’s counselor (or another sideline role). One of those is significantly more appealing to most gamers than the other. And the podcast notes that the massive amount of Star Trek canon material makes it hard for even the nerdiest gamemaster to run a game that can’t be sabotaged by a particularly knowledgeable Trekkie.

For me, the big problem is the very strict narrative structure that defines the Star Trek stories we love to watch on TV. In a typical Star Trek episode, the demands of the storyline define everything else about the show—the technology available to the characters, the outcomes of battles, who gets killed and who doesn’t, even the means by which the heroes eventually win in the end—it’s all tightly scripted to make sure the story works out in time (and usually with a nice moral lesson to boot). The high level of technology involved makes this especially important: in a Star Trek game, if Romulan Guard A gets lucky with a phaser shot in battle, a hero dies and the story comes to a screeching halt. In the TV show, by contrast, nobody dies unless it’s integral to the storyline. The heroes in a Star Trek TV episode often have their normal tools and skill rendered useless by narrative fiat (something that would infuriate most RPG players) to prepare the way for a clever technobabble solution at the very end, in just the nick of time. (And how to simulate that staple of Star Trek, the last-minute “I could try rerouting power through the polarized chronoton pulsator, which might give us just enough energy to return us to our own dimension!” solution?) That all makes for fun stories, but it’s hard to model in an RPG game, where players expect more freedom of activity and dislike any hint that the the gamemaster is manipulating everything to force them along a particular narrative channel.

I imagine this problem is not a complete game-killer, as plenty of people enjoy gaming in the Star Trek universe. But it bugs me enough that I’ve never tried to run a full Star Trek RPG campaign. I suspect that this might be the sort of situation that could be handled by certain indie roleplaying games that grant extra narrative power to the players and which are more like mutual storytelling sessions than traditional roleplaying games. But I’m an old-school dungeon-crawl gamer, and on top of that, I don’t think my wife would really want me heading off down yet another money-draining branch of this hobby.

So maybe Star Trek gaming just isn’t for me… although you can be sure that won’t stop me from plunking down my hard-earned cash for the next gorgeously-illustrated Star Trek roleplaying game that comes along. I love this hobby….

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I know gratuitousness when I see it

What’s the first thing you notice about this image, from an upcoming game called Star Wars: The Force Unleashed?

The issue here is, of course, why sci-fi females seem to wear such impractical armor. And that’s a good question to ask. But I’d say that the most striking thing about this image is not the Star Wars equivalent of the chainmail bikini that our Jedi friend here is wearing. The real question was noted by this Metafilter commentor: are those some kind of nightstick lightsabers?

Allow me to quote liberally from his comment:

People, this needs to stop.

Back in Ye Olde Days, people did not sit around nailing swords to just about everything and calling them weapons. […]

Thus how it should be with lightsabers. Yeah, I know every saber is an expression of its user, but more and more these days that expression is “I am a dolt more impressed by flash than keeping to tried and true rules.” There are still a host of sword varieties out there that could be lightsaberified, from slightly curved katanas to monstrous zweihanders. Let’s see some more of those before we even hear the whirling whine of lightchucks, smell the ozone-laden tang of the lightmace, or shield our eyes from the horrible glare of the “I just duct-taped 40 lightsabers to my body” lightgrizzlybear encounter suit. A sword is fine. It’s all you really need. It’s a classic for a reason. Everything else is needless flash.

Well, except for the lightscythe that my alter-ego Darth Deathilicious has. That’s totally justified in her character history

How right you are, brother. (How do you use lightsaber nightsticks without chopping off your own arms?) In the original Star Wars trilogy, everybody seems quite content with the normal, longsword-style lightsaber. And that was really cool. But in the prequel trilogy, you can’t help but notice a weird sort of lightsaber arms race: first there’s Darth Maul’s dual-bladed lightsaber quarterstaff, then Anakin dual-wielding lightsabers, and Count Dooku dual-wielding stylish, curved-handled lightsabers. And then General Grievous wielding like forty million lightsabers at once. It’s all kinda cool… but there’s just something classier about those old-fashioned, ordinary lightsabers. This is where it’s at, my friends:

But I do like the mental image of Darth Deathilicious and her lightscythe. She sounds like a worthy companion to my own alter-ego, Darth Darkreaver Souldoom (fifty times more powerful than Mace Windu, and beloved by all the ladies; so awesome that he bucks the standard Darth naming scheme), who wields all of the lightsaber types mentioned above, but he also throws lightsaber shurikens.

I sure picked a bad day to stop writing Star Wars fanfiction.

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Watch your head, TK-421

This is probably old news to most of you, but on the off chance that a few of you have not seen this priceless Star Wars blooper, I must post it. During the escape-from-the-Death-Star sequence midway through the film, a group of stormtroopers comes through a door; watch the one on the right closely:

It happens very fast and is easily missed if you aren’t paying attention. The sound of his helmet smacking the bulkhead is audible, so I assume it was deliberate. Nevertheless, I watched this movie dozens and dozens of times throughout my childhood years before noticing it one day in college. It was something new in a film whose dialogue I (and most of us back then, before the dark times, before the Empire) could recite entirely from memory. I recall scrambling frantically to the orange dorm room phone to summon my fellow SW geek Jeff, one of only two people I know who can recite poor doomed Greedo’s cantina dialogue in the original Rodian. We probably rewound the tape (VHS, in those days) to watch that scene 20 times.

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By their reading list ye shall know them

I am sure that those of you who follow politics have heard about Mitt Romney’s incredibly significant and newsworthy gaffe. When asked to name his favorite book, he cited Battlefield Earth by L. Ron Hubbard.

Cue a whole lot of snickering and mocking overanalysis by every blogger and pundit in the universe–all of whom no doubt curl up each night in their favorite cozy chair to read from a dog-eared copy of Crime and Punishment. A presidential candidate who likes a book about (snicker) aliens? A candidate who appreciates a nice pulp sci-fi story? God forbid a candidate respond to that question with a title that falls outside our vaguely-remembered high school Intro to World Literature syllabus. Thank goodness the pretentiati is on hand to assure us that anyone who would read, let alone enjoy, such a novel is, obviously, unfit for any sort of serious position in government. Can’t have our betters and those Europeans snickering at a U.S. President, can we?

Fortunately, Romney was quick to recant, assuring a worried public that his favorite novel is really Huckleberry Finn. Clearly, that’s an answer straight from his heart, and isn’t just a book title deemed by his political consultants as the Book Most Likely to Evoke a Positive Response from the Most Potential American Voters. (Let me guess: other Romney favorites include apple pie, the Bible, the soulful poetry of Maya Angelou, and freedom; and his heroes include Jesus, Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr.) Good save, Romney, good save. For a minute there I was worried that I’d spotted a glimmer of an actual interesting personality beneath the soulless political mask, an honest-to-goodness quirk that hadn’t yet been sanded down into inoffensiveness by focus groups and asinine political cliches.

I exaggerate a little; Romney has not completely renounced his enjoyment of pulpy sci-fi. And a few brave defenders are standing up to the literary snobs. But this shocking scandal has got me on the defensive, as I enjoyed Battlefield Earth as a teenager and did not grow up to be Scientologist or an illiterate. Whether or not you think that presidential candidates should be reading B-grade sci-fi, mark my words: Romney’s Battlefield Earth answer was the most honest thing you’re going to hear from any candidate for the next 18 months; and it was us who, at the first sign of deviation from the predicable norm, mocked him into repenting (so we could then mock him for flip-flopping). Xenu help us–it’s going to be a long and stupid campaign season.

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