Friday, May 30, 2014

Different Dark Suns

Dark Sun is an evocative setting as is, but there's nothing wrong with a little variety. Maybe there are two great tastes that taste great together? Try these:

Art by Kevin O'Neill
Dark Sun, Red Sands
Killraven (and the War of the Worlds tv shows, and perhaps The Tripods series of novels by John Christopher) posits a world where the Martians from Wells's novel return and succeed in their conquest. The Masters would no doubt turn their vast, cool, and unsympathetic intellects toward areoforming Earth in the image of their homeworld. Desertification and cooling, accomplished by casting dust into the sky (making the sun appear darker and redder).  Over time, the Masters became decadent and lost the ability to produce much of their technology. They amused themselves with bloodsports and petty intrigues. The mutants and monsters they had bred for various purposes escaped into the wilds. Earth becomes almost Mars, and almost Mars becomes Athas, or something pretty close.

Art by Frank Frazetta
Dark Red Sun
Two ideologies fought a centuries long war, unleashing weapons they destroyed their world's environment, mutated its creatures, and cast both civilizations back to a more primitive state.Perhaps these competing tribes were called the Kohms and Yangs, but certainly the victors in their struggle flew a red flag (as ERB had it, in the original version of the book that became The Moon Maid). In any case, their former differences don't matter as much anymore in a harsh world where human and inhuman is a bigger distinction. Sometimes, though, the desert tribes still give the ancient war cry: "Wolverines!" though none remember what it might mean.

Art by Ken Kelly
Dark Western Sun
This riff is to BraveStarr what McKinney's Carcosa might be to Masters of the Universe. When galactic civilization tore itself apart in civil war, many frontier worlds, left on their on, backslide into primitivism. The strange, psionic races of Darksun left their reservations and remote hiding places and turned human habitation into settlements isolated by wilderness, where the only law comes from the barrel of a gun.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

They Always Get Their Man

The ngghrya are humanoids native to a world on the border of the Coreward Reach and the Vokun Empire. Their population has slowly dwindled under Vokun occupation. Today, ngghrya are confined to the montane forests of their world, but exiles and refugees are not infrequently encountered in the Expanse.

Appearance and Biology: Ngghrya are thin, almost skeletal in appearance with rough, nodule-covered skin that almost resembles carapace. Their thinness belies their strength and durability. Their skin is scaled in places with dermal denticles, but also has ridges and horns of calcium carbonate deposition that begin to form at puberty and elaborate as they age.

Ngghrya exhibit slightly less sexual dimorphism in terms of size than baseline humans, but some male ngghrya grow "tusks" of keratin from both ends of their upper lip.

Psychology and Psi: Ngghrya are a somewhat superstitious people, but do not revere gods or supernatural beings as such. Rather, they seek to avoid notice of spirit entities by the proper ritual behaviors and taboos (some of them idiosyncratic) except at certain times. 

They tend to be a taciturn people by the baseline standards but fairly accepting of other cultures so long as they are respected. The stresses of their current existence on their homeworld have led to increased substance use, violence, and a mistrust of non-ngghrya.

Some ngghrya (a disproportionate number found off-world) are trackers, bounty hunters, or skiptracers, thanks to a psi-like ability. They are able to track any quarry across any distance, even light-years of space. This ability (called yaa'hii by the ngghrya) is thought to be instilled by a ritual involving an hallucinogenic substance native to the caves of the mountains of their homeworld.

Psi-researchers believe this ability creates in their brains circuits the equivalent of time loop logic computer, using telepathic data sent back through time by their future self and the Novikov self-consistency principle for error correction. This theory is lent support by the assertion by ngghrya trackers that they cannot catch any quarry they haven't already caught. 

Stats: Stars Without Number:  Ngghrya have +1 to Constitution. Tracking: On a failed Mental Effects saving throw, the target will be found by the ngghrya. Note that being found doesn't necessarily mean capture or defeat. Escape may mean another saving throw, if the ngghrya is alive and still on the job.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Wednesday Comics: Nightfire

Here's the next installment of  Jim Starlin's Metamorphosis Odyssey. The earlier posts in the series can be found here.

"Nightfire (Metamorphosis Odyssey Chapter XI)"
Epic Illustrated #7 (August 1981) Story & Art by James Starlin

Synopsis: Zygotean cruisers swoop down on our protagonists, so they make for the shelter of Vanth's ship. Aknaton wants to resort to magic, but Vanth suggests it's his magic power that they followed to begin with. Better to use Vanth's ship that's small, fast--and loaded with weapons.

They could easily slip past the slower cruisers, except those ships must have been transported there by a swifter dreadnought.

First, they need to deal with the cruisers. Vanth turns the ship and comes up behind his former pursuers.

Now for the dreadnought. Even the Osirosians were ultimately unable to stand up to their power.

Vanth asserts they didn't study their enemies' ships closely enough. The dreadnought has dispatched all its cruisers to catch them. Its hangars are open and its shields are down. Vanth flies inside the dreadnought, firing.

The dreadnought is destroyed thanks to its unshielded power pods. Vanth's light cutter's shields hold. Cunning did what Osirosian power could not. Aknaton wonders if they had had warriors like Vanth, if they would have had to resort to the plan they embarked on.

They're off. To a planet called Dreamsend.

Things to Notice:
  • We get some Star Wars-esque space battles.
This chapter injects some action after the exposition of the last one. It also serves to highlight just how Vanth will be able to defend the others.

Aknaton's tale last chapter did its job. Vanth now seems to come around to Aknaton's way of thinking about the Zygotean menace.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

The Alex Toth Casting Agency

Need a different look for an NPC or a weird monster of some sort? Check out the model sheets and concept art created for Hanna-Barbera by the late, great Alex Toth:

"futuristic city dwellers", maybe. Or maybe some fantasy city:


The rulers of the cat people:

A wizard and his pets:

A wizard with a nose piercing and fairy lackeys:

Visiting dignitaries:

Friday, May 23, 2014

Strange Stars Update

Thrax warrior in progress by Waclaw Wysocki
Work on Strange Stars continues. The artists I'm working with have been turning out a lot of cool stuff only some of which I shared here.  I'm also happy to announce that John Till of the blog FATE SF is lending his extensive knowledge to the Fate adaptation of the setting. Given John's blog output, I can't think of anyone better qualified to collaborate with.

My current plan (still subject to change, based on POD restrictions and what not) is for a full color setting book that's systemless bundled with a "just the facts,"  no frills game stat companion for both Stars Without Number and Fate. I've lately thought of patterning the stat after the old Ace double novels in format, but we'll see. The reason for the separation is to keep costs down (pages of game stats don't have to be printed on glossy full color paper), but it also means the setting book could be used as an in game reference.

Anyway, there will be further updates as things develop.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Do the Time Warp (Again)

With X-Men: Days of Future Past about to drop this weekend, I was thinking about alternate futures. They're a staple of comics and have made appearances in movies and TV. Outside of the superhero genre, they probably don't show up much in gaming--and I 'm specifically excluding settings that may technically be alternate futures, but have no interact with a different present. I mean an alternate future of a current campaign world.

It's not a stock fantasy concept, admittedly, but since when has that ever stopped anyone, particularly in the old school crowd? There are so many ways it could be utilized. The old Dark Shadows show had a parlor room that led to a parallel time line; there's no reason a whole dungeon couldn't have links to an alternate future. Like on Star Trek: Enterprise, maybe the Big Bads behind--well, something or another--are from an alternate future, perhaps different alternate futures.

The PCs could interact with alternate future versions of themselves  traveling to the past for some reason (usual to cause/prevent their future occurring). For extra fun, the big bads could actually be one or more of the PCs.

Anybody ever done something like this in a non-supers game?

Meeting one's alternate future self always means getting to see one's snazzy alt-future duds

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Wednesday Comics: Requiem

Here's the next installment of  Jim Starlin's Metamorphosis Odyssey. The earlier posts in the series can be found here.

"Requiem (Metamorphosis Odyssey Chapter X)"
Epic Illustrated #7 (August 1981) Story & Art by James Starlin

Synopsis: Aknaton shows the others the history of the Zygoteans. Their world was once a veritable Utopia, but it fell into the hands of venal and incompetent rulers. First, they despoiled the planet.

Unfortunately, few of the people seemed to notice. They were consumed by their distractions and amusements and complicit in the despoiling of their world:

The people eventually realized what had happened. The gap between have and havenot was large, but the cries for social justice went unanswered. Instead, it was determined some would escape their dying world. Thanks to the influence of the military and religion, the many were inspired to toil to launch a few into the stars.

Zygotea died, but the Zygoteans lived on. They repeated the same process on every world they came to. The more monstrous they became, the more they came to resent those that reminded them of their origins. The Osirosans, the progenitors of all humanoid races, were the greatest reminder of how far they had fallen and so had to die. But the Osirosans conceived of the Infinity Horn--and a way to end the Zygotean menace.

The others are silent as Aknaton finishes his tale. Elsewhere, though, their enemies mark them all for termination:

Things to Notice:
  • The Zygoteans originally look just like humans.
We see the Zygoteans at last and...they look just like us, at least at first. Starlin is obviously offering a critique on and perhaps a warning to our own society. Interestingly,the Zygoteans wind up with long noses and bald heads, looking like a slightly more monstrous version of the Osirosans--or at least Aknaton. Maybe this is because they're bookends: the Osirosans started humanoid life and the Zygoteans were going to be the end of it.

Or perhaps, they are two sides of the same coin, given Aknaton's intentions.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Four-Color Mutant Futures

Looking for some for some good inspiration for a Gamma World or Mutant Future game? You can do a lot worse than comic books. Here are my picks for the best, alphabetized for easy reference:

Atomic Knights
Not as many mutants here as some places, but it's got knights in plate armor riding giant dalmatians.  Read more about them in this previous post.

Cobalt 60
Vaughn Bodē's titular character is out for revenge the man who killed his parents. There are mutants and aliens a plenty.

Everybody knows this one, right? If not, start reading it here.

Mutant mayhem after Martians invade earth in a second war of the worlds. And its all been collected!

Hercules Unbound
Mashup Thor and Kamandi and you get this short-lived series. In fact, it ties in to both Kamandi and Atomic Knights.

A half-human, hunter fights against mutant-kind ("goblins") on an irradiated future earth. Dark Horse has put it out in a nice collection.

Mighty Samson
In a devastated N'Yark (that seems like the inspiration for future of Thundarr) the mighty Samson fights a lot of improbable mutants. Read more about it in this post I wrote a while back.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Giant Fire-Breathing Lizard vs. Giant Space Robot!

With a new Godzilla movie in theaters, it's a good time to stat him in terms suitable for my quick-and-dirty Giant Space Robots! old school minigame. A close examination of the films might lead to different tactics or special abilities being applied to each of the versions, but I'll leave that to the Gojira-philes amongst you. (bear in mind that all creatures are giant in GSR!, so the scale of hit dice and what not are shifted).

A 50-55 m giant fire-breathing lizard has 3 HD (a less robust giant dinosaur might have 2+1) and does 1d4 with a bite or 1d6 with a tail slap. Their breath attack does 1d6+1.

An 80 m specimen has 5 HD and a 1d8+1 breath attack.Their bite and tail slap are 1d4+1/1d6+1, respectively.

The 100 m version is 6 HD with a 2d6 breath attack. Its bite/tail attacks do 1d6/1d8

The truly monstrous 124-150 m variety has 7 HD and a breath attack doing 2d8. It's bite/tail slaps do 1d8/2d4.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Androids & 'Zines

Looking for a little weekend reading? I've got a couple of suggestions:

On the "directly gameable"side, you could do a hell of a lot worse than picking up Tim Shorts's latest issue of The Manor. It's got a brothel locale by Matt Jackson, some clever pairs of rooms that can be stuck into any dungeon by Ken Harrison, and a class and a one shot adventure by Tim. Then, there's that Jason Sholtis cover.

On the fiction (but with game inspiration potential) side, you can do a lot worse than Charles Stross's Heinlein homage, Saturn's Children. It's the twenty third century and humanity is extinct, but their androids are keeping interplanetary civilization going in the solar system in a "something's missing," Toy Story sort of way. There are few android lineages missing something more than the main character Freya and her template sisters, sexbots all. Trying to escape a vengeful aristocrat, Freya stumbles into political games and goes to work for a spy agency (Jeeves Corporation) run by a former gentleman's butler. Jeeves is trying to prevent (maybe) the synthesis of a human by a black lab on the dark edge of the solar system.

This is the first book set in the universe of Neptune's Brood (which I discussed here), albeit in a much earlier era than that later work. There are a lot of cool ideas that could be worked into a science fiction of post-apocalyptic setting including androids or robots--or even a fantasy setting, as my other post discusses. Also, Stross spends a lot of time on the very real difficulties of interplanetary travel that will give you a lot to think about, even if that level of realism isn't typical for games.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

More Strange Stars Art

I've shared these on G+, but for the non-Gplussers amongst my readership or those that might have missed them, here's a couple of art pieces from the Strange Stars setting book:

This is a moravec named Lincoln-5 Rhadamanthus-beta-27, a lawyer and judicial duelist in Circus, as rendered by Waclaw Wysocki.

Every sci-fi setting needs its cantina scene, right? This is a rough obviously, but it gives a hint of how great the finished image by David Johnson will be. It showcases a number of different Strange Stars sophonts having a drink somewhere in the Zuran Expanse.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Wednesday Comics: Absolution

Here's the next installment of  Jim Starlin's Metamorphosis Odyssey. The earlier posts in the series can be found here.

"Absolution (Metamorphosis Odyssey Chapter IX)"
Epic Illustrated #6 (June 1981) Story & Art by James Starlin

Synopsis: Using the talisman which holds the secret to the Infinity Horn's location, Aknaton performs a ritual, casts a spell. He reaches out into the void to find something greater than himself. And his call is answered by a being the awestruck Aknaton calls "Ra."

By whatever name, Aknaton begs the entity's help. The entity replies that the need of his worshipers is the whole reason for his existence: what does Aknaton need? Well, Aknaton needs advice--about what he's planning to do.

The entity is aware of the Osirosian plan to destroy the Milky Way. Does Aknaton want to know if it will be successful? Or does he want aid, perhaps?

Neither are Aknaton's desire. He is fully confident in the success of the plan (though the entity points out that in giving the sword to the Byfrexian, Aknaton may have created a variable beyond his control) and he needs no aid. He wants to know if what he is doing is right.

The entity shows him the horrors of the future where he doesn't act. After these visions he asks: "Is the question, do you have the right to play god? Or is it, do you have the duty to play god?"

Aknaton awakens alone, unsure if he actually communed with a god, or did part of him merely conjure the experience for reassurance? No matter:

Aknaton returns to the others. Vanth confronts him about his plans. Aknaton suggests he wouldn't question the plan if he saw the face of Zygoteism--and the future it will bring.

Things to Notice:
  • "God" is a pretty standard Starlin cosmic entity.
  • Finding the location of the Infinity Horn (the stated reason for this episode seems almost an after-thought.
The purpose of this chapter seems to be to show the Aknaton's internal conflict regarding what he must do. Starlin chooses to dramatize this in his signature cosmic style, though he toys with the literal reality of the situation and the "god" in a way that is not far off from the sort of thing that might have been seen in a Verigo comic a decade later.

It all comes off as a bit of a cheat, perhaps. Does Aknaton earn his "absolution?" There aren't really any pros and cons to weigh--only pros are presented. The horrors of the Zygoteans are worse, we're told again and again. No additional evidence is really presented here to convince the reader Aknaton is right, though perhaps it makes him a bit more sympathetic by showing he's conflicted.

Monday, May 12, 2014


A biosculptor is a limited form of bio-assembler, made for the purposes of plastic surgery. It's alterations are not as extensive or as customizable as those available with a trained technician and a full surgical suite (for instance, genetic alteration only of the grossest sort can be performed), but it has the advantage of being portable and easy to use. 

The biosculptor can reduce mass (up to 40%), but not add it appreciably (5%). It cannot create new subcellular assemblies (like chloroplasts in a nonphotosynthetic organism), lay down neural pathways involved in complicated behaviors, or alter body plan extensively (e.g. four-limbed to six-limbed). In general, it's changes will not alter attributes (GM discretion).

The biosculptor folds up to about the size of a briefcase, and self-extends as soon as it's booted up. The operator simply chooses the desired template from the devices library (or downloads another template) and uses the key pad or voice command to add further specifications.

Once that's done, the patient enters the biosculptor and applies the appropriate sensors. The unit anesthetizes the patient and fills compartment with a gel-like nanotech solution. The nanites begin the task of disassembling then reassembling the patient's body into the desired form.

[Inspired by the device appearing in the images above from the comic Lost Horizons by Juan Zanotto.]

Friday, May 9, 2014

Audience Participation: The Next Illustration

As I've shown hints of here, artists are diligently at work on material for the Strange Stars book. The only problem is, I can't decide on some of the species and cultures to have them illustrate!. So, I thought I'd see if you guys have any preferences. Here's the list of possibilities with links to refresh you memory:

Atozan - Keepers of the Great Library
Caliban - Vicious sophontophagists
Circean - Psychic witches
Kosmonik - Space-adapted travelers.
Minga - Slave race out to covertly conquer the galaxy
Phantasist - Dream-merchants.
Quicklings - Tiny, fast-living humanoids
Sisterhood of Morrgna - Cloned Amazons.
Virid - Photosynthetic humanoids from a sophont biosphere.
Zhmun - Wealthy invertebrates.

So are any of these guys worthy of illustration? If you have a preference, let me know in the comments.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Worlds of the Vokun Empire

by Arve Sellesbakk
EBEN: (Primary: Ushkalish, F9.5) The homeworld of the ibglibdishpan--or at least where they are found currently. Eben is a highly ordered world where everyone knows their place, assigned by aptitude testing in adolescence. The importance of their service to the vokun is stressed in all facets of ibglibdishpan life.

by Sam Mulqueen
UTU-AN: (Primary: Matari ) The watery world of the aquatic Dragon Mothers and their human worshipers/pets the kuath.

Art by Fernando Rodrigues
YANTRA: (Primary: Suryana, G7V) The paradise (before the arrival of the vokun) inhabited by the primitive humanoids called the Yantrans.The vokun occupation has been plagued by a number of unusual setbacks.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Wednesday Comics:Sunrise on Lartoprez

Here's the next installment of  Jim Starlin's Metamorphosis Odyssey. The earlier posts in the series can be found here.

"Sunrise on Lartoprez (Metamorphosis Odyssey Chapter VIII)"
Epic Illustrated #5 (April 1981) Story & Art by James Starlin

Synopsis: Aknaton has brought his group together. Now, he's got to unlock the secrets of the amulet so they can locate the Infinity Horn. Unfortunately, that sort of secret can't be discovered "on a plane of existence such as this one" or in the company of others, so Aknaton leaves them for an appropriate place.

With him gone, Whis'par, Za and Juilette are able scrutinize the newcomer. They are not much impressed with Vanth and his beard. Za starts to check under Vanth's hood to see if the little man is hiding special powers there.

Vanth storms off to keep watch on a nearby ridge. Za, rubbing his head, opines that "Master chose well." Juliette asks Za why he calls Aknaton "Master." Za replies that Aknaton saved him from death. Save him from himself.

"What did he save you for?" Juliette asks. Za isn't sure. "Maybe a better death," he replies, finally.

Whis'par finds Vanth. She apologizes for their testing him earlier thanks him for not hurting Za. She says they were nervous, but she recognizes Vanth must be as well. He agrees. He doens't know why he's here.

Whis'par knows--and she thinks Vanth does too, really. His eyes have death in them. Aknaton needed someone who could understand the Zygoteans. Vanth realizes she's right:

He wonders what he's gotten himself into. "Death," Whis'par says. "On a scale undreamed of." She can't believe he doesn't know, that he hasn't guessed. Vanth begins to get angry at her obscureness. She realizes her people have had a long time to become inurred to the horror of "Aknaton's madness." She surmises Vanth just can't accept the truth.

Vanth still isn't buying it. Everybody's talking about death and destruction, but nobody is saying when or where or who. Whis'par reminds him there has also been talk of suicide.

The Orsirosians couldn't defeat the Zygoteans. They looked into the future and saw the galaxy enslaved by their foes. They devised the Infinity Horn, the ultimate doomsday weapon:

Things to Notice:
  • "Pulsar sucker" is another space insult.
  • Starlin has the Infinity Horn here and later the Infinity Gauntlet when he returns to work at Marvel.
After all the hinting and circumspection, Aknaton's plan is finally revealed: He's going to destroy the galaxy to get rid of the Zygoteans. Whis'par describes it in negative terms, though she is clearly going along with it. It's unclear at this point how much Juliette and Za know, and we don't get to see Vanth's reaction to the revelation this chapter.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Five Worlds for Space Opera

Genres run on tropes (or cliches, if you're less charitable).

Planet of Amazons
Whatever strides the future will have made in terms of gender equality, there still always seems to be some place out there with warrior woman who are either hostile to men, find them fascinating and strange, or both. This is perhaps just a variant of the Woman Dominated Planet (where men are present but second class citizens, and the women aren't necessarily a warrior race) with less cool a name.
Examples: Queen of Space (1958), Star Maidens Buck Rogers "Planet of the Amazon Women," Space: 1999 "Devil's Planet," Omega 3 in Starstruck, the Femizons from Marvel Comics, Lyrane II from Second Stage Lensmen.

Casino World
If your space opera setting doesn't have a world like this, where would Lando Calrissian play sabacc? There are probably very few whole planet casinos, but there might be casino cities surrounded by wastelands or casino space stations--bonus points if it's shaped like some sort of gambling device. There may be some overlap with the Pleasure Planet.
Examples: Buck Rogers "Vegas in Space," Cowboy Bebop "Honky Tonk Women," The Wheel from Marvel's Star Wars comic, Ventura the Gambler's World in the Legion of Superheroes.

Forbidding Planet
Some planets have secrets. Dangerous secrets. These worlds are usually desolate and hard to get to. Those who have sought their secrets before may have died for them--or maybe they've somehow become their guardians. If the secret is particularly dangerous, this might be a Hellworld is disguise.
Examples: Forbidden Planet (1956), Planet of Vampires (1965), Miranda in Serenity (2005), LV-426 in Alien (1976), LV-223 from Prometheus (2015); any number of worlds in the Star Trek series fit the bill, but Talos IV is probably the most archetypal; there are a couple of these in the Deathstalker novels.

Some planets just want you dead. Maybe they've got super-hostile sapient inhabitants, a deadly biosphere, or a poisonous atmosphere, the result is the same. It's going to take something of value to attract PCs to a Hellworld; this may be a natural substance or some person stranded there. As mentioned before, there is some overlap with the Forbidding Planet.
Examples: Aliens (1986), Star Trek "Whom Gods Destroy" and "The Way to Eden," Nu-Earth in Rogue Trooper, Lythyl in Legion of Superheroes, Spatterjay in The Skinner by Neal Asher, and of course Deathworld by Harry Harrison.

Pleasure Planet
Everybody needs a little relaxation and recreation, and a Pleasure Planet is it. This may be a fairly tame resort world, a place of supreme decadence and indulgence, or seedy planet with deadly secrets.
Examples: Doctor Who "The Leisure Hive," Wrigley's Pleasure Planet and Risa from Star Trek, Delirius from Lone Sloane, Raggashoon from Omega Men.