This is Gaming Notes, the weekly news-magazine about all kinds of games and the home of Space Gaming News, Designer Spotlight, Blog Watch, and SciFi Smackdown.
This week’s special guest is Rob Eaglestone, the author of The Third Imperium: Deneb Sector.
Rob’s Traveller bookshelf…
Jeffro: Several sector books have been done over the years, ranging from the small, little black book of Supplement 3 on down to the third edition GURPS treatment in Rim of Fire. What design principles guided you as you made choices about how detailed to go and in what to intentionally leave out…? Can particular books that were examples of what to do or what to avoid…? Did Mongoose gave you specs…? Or did you just write the book as you saw fit?
Rob Eaglestone: Mongoose did not give me specs. I gave Matt an outline of how I planned to break it down, and then I ran with it. M. Dougherty’s Spinward Marches and Reft books were good examples of how to divide the text into topical categories, and suggested some of the overarching topics as well. One general concept that was in the back of my mind is that the sector book needs at least one ‘something interesting’ behind it. Not only plot hooks, but also an overarching concept that brings a sector together, helps define it as its own thing, rather than just another sector list of UWPs and random encounters.
As far as level of detail. There’s enough space to give a sampling of a sector’s worlds — and that’s it. Specifically with the world descriptions, I used a distribution, with a few worlds having either very short or very long text, and a larger number of worlds with something in between.
One thing I determined to do was to detail several alien races — something I found lacking in Traveller for decades, simply because aliens are so difficult to do. Once the conceptual barriers are overcome, though, it only takes a couple pages to have enough technical and color text to produce a playable character from them, or at least a reasonable description. I actually used Traveller5 to generate the aliens, then mapped them into Mongoose Traveller’s system.
Jeffro: The Spinward Marches was a frontier crowded by Aslan land-grabbers, Vargr pirates, Zhodani warships… and full of nefarious imperial research stations and mysterious ancient artifacts. The Solomani rim had a cold war with racist, goosestepping commies… and lots of whales to save and scientists to help defect to Imperial space. What’s the essential shtick of the Deneb sector as you present it?
Rob Eaglestone: Unlike the Marches, Deneb is not quite frontier, and has much less of a border problem. The central shtick of Deneb, I think, is the Curse of Civilization. Due to a case of Bad War in the 600s, there is no sector duke. So, we have actively squabbling subsector dukes (think subsector-funded small-ship squadrons occasionally duking it out; big ship battles would bring the wrath of the Navy).
The 2,000 ton Sydkai-class Cruiser was ported into Mongoose Traveller for this book, as was the 800 ton Brilliance-class passenger liner, known more famously by the unfortunate accident off Regina with the Trimkhana-Brilliance. We also have some “interesting” research bases; the only Imperial world at TL16; a starship chop-shop; an alien race that raises the population digit of the system when their trading planetoids exit jump; a subsector whose main population (including the duke) is Imperial Vargr; and more.
Jeffro: It seems to me that being away from the borders (and being without a different Major Race on each of three sides of your sector map), the sort of themes in your game would tend to focus more on the actual nature of the Imperium itself. Maybe it wouldn’t be cast at either extreme of good or evil, but more as an impersonal bureaucracy that blunders forward into the future, inadvertently damaging worlds and peoples in the process. Given the scale at which the players are usually forced to operate, how can they do anything to change the status quo of the Deneb sector in a positive way?
Rob Eaglestone: Remember first that Deneb is deliberately not a static political and social cog in the Imperium. As mentioned earlier, if interior sectors are all alike then they will be boring. What you can say with certainty is that the political structure of Deneb is different from the political structure of the Spinward Marches. If anything, the ability to change the sector for good or ill is amplified.
Note that the major power in the Marches is the Imperial Navy, whereas In Deneb more power rests with the duchies and the Megacorps. And, by breaking Deneb into competing Imperial duchies, small troubleshooting groups become more numerous (and more profitable) here than in the Marches, and by extension relatively small groups of characters with can have a huge impact. The actions of a crack squad of agents, in the right place at the right time, could topple a coalition government — a subsector government — and tip the balance of power in the sector.
Old School D&D (Necropraxis) Simple Corruption — This is best house rule for D&D that I’ve seen in some time. I’m not sure how many of the “corruption” side effects I’d necessarily want to use, but I’ll be passing an index card to clerics hinting that attempting to turn evil magic-users might be a good idea. (Turned magic users cannot cast spells, they lose a number spell levels equal to the margin of success, and a “D” result is the same as a hold person spell. Awesome.)
Old School D&D (Geek Dad) Has the Earliest Version of D&D Been Discovered? — Yet more evidence that role players have all too much in common with theologians and biblical archaeologists.
GURPS and Old School D&D (Dungeon Fantastic) Mixed Feelings on Wandering Monsters — The interesting thing about this post is how it demonstrates that the significance, usefulness, and fun of a random monster encounter can vary tremendously based on the rule set being used. Even so, even Gary knew when to say “when” on the topic of wandering monsters.
As of this writing, Jasper T. Scott’s Dark Space is #34 on Amazon’s top 100 Free Science Fiction and Fantasy books. It’s got spaceships on the cover and its prologue opens up with star-fighters whizzing around tossing missiles at each other and shooting energy beams. A few problems are immediately leap out at me:
- “Frek” is sufficiently like “frack” that I can’t stop thinking about Battlestar Galactica. Once you start saying “frekker”, you might as well just start using real cuss words. “Motherfrekker” is right out.
- You want to put women in combat? Fine. Give me Vasquez. I’ll take Honor Harrington or River Tam if that’s all you got… but if the bantha poodoo is hitting the fan, I want to see a freaking ballet of destruction where the sex of the combatants absolutely does not come into it. Seriously, though, the last thing I want to see is a damsel in distress on the freaking battlefield.
- So there’s fighter group A from ship B fighting fighter group C… and ship D comes along and also fighter group E… which is from who knows where. You know… I have no freaking idea what is going on here. Draw me a diagram, already. Or else take a little more time to sketch out the situation. I know we’re going for a fast paced in media res that’s building to a dramatic knife twist of emotional investment here, but if I don’t understand what’s happening here none of this matters.
- And the combat situation… it seems very linear and static to me. I do not get the relentless pace of The Battle of Yavin… neither do I get the feeling of mindblowing 3D maneuver à la Ender’s Game. The pilots come off as being like monsters from a third grader’s D&D game: they’re just sitting in a “room” waiting for the people with agency to come and encounter them. These passages don’t sound like the author has played very many tactical space combat board games.
- Afterburners…? On a starfighter…? The original Battlestar Galactica show at least had the sense to rename it to something spiffy. (The automotive themed “turbo” was at least marginally better than “afterburners” which sounds too much like an atmosphere-dependent jet fighter thing.)
- “Gina” and “Ethan”? And numbers instead of call-signs? Robotech Macross and Top Gun beat this. Heck, even “Red Five” is better. I prefer Traveller: TheNew Era’s derogatory two syllable appellation that is given to you by your squad mates early on and then sticks with you for the rest of your career. They can also be colorful enough that I’ll remember who is who– especially if it’s something like “Pom Pom” or “Monkey Butt”! (The latter two served on the U.S.S. Ronald Reagan.)
- And what’s up with dude not knowing how to work in a team? Heck, I wouldn’t go into a bar without a wing-man. Even if I wasn’t used to being one, I’d expect anyone that knows how to fly to pay attention to the concept if the laser beams were letting fly.
I know it sounds like I hate this book, but I really want to like it. (I dearly love small spaceships shooting at each other.) Moving on into chapter one… we get a triply layered scene: dude looking out the window and thinking about all the background setting information we need to know… while talking to babe-woman-girl-thang… while a mysterious star-fighter of some kind docks at the station. Problems here:
- You’d think that a slower paced scene would be a good contrast to an explosive prologue… but this is too much brain dump with too little action. I like the setting details, mind you…. And sure… not everyone could set it all up the way Joss Whedon did in ten minutes of Serenity… but I’d rather have an Asimovian style dialogue than this.
- The most beautiful girl in the known universe alone with this guy… but he doesn’t notice her most of the time. Wait… what?! This is the main protagonist. There is NO WAY I can relate to this sort of nonchalance. A Heinlein protagonist might be the ultimate playa of the universe, but even the sort of guy that had seen everything would still notice a woman like this one’s supposed to be. If these are androids or something, this is not the way to introduce that fact. My head is caving in here.
- They are in a room and there’s a squeaky bed in it. But you just tell us that fact. I mean… can’t dude just sit on it so that we hear it? Something. Anything! I could forgive everything else… but that squeaky bed is a deal breaker. Why do I even need to know that the bed is squeaky? Wait… don’t tell me… the squeakiness of this bed is actually going to be pivotal to a later plot point? Heh… now if that is true, then the bed needs to be far more significant in the scene!
You know… I’m no Jack McDevitt… and I don’t know where the author is going with this but taking it more or less as is and running with it, here’s what I would do. Eradicate the grimy window and the squeaky bed. If this dude is alone with a mindswimmingly hot woman and ignoring her, then it’s for one of two reasons: he’s either a Jeff Godblum type character obliviously engrossed in solving some sort of technical problem… or he is a Jack Nicholson type guy that is ignoring her on purpose just to mess with her. I don’t know how you could incorporate your setting brain dump into their dialogue… but if an opportunity presents itself, go for it. She might turn on the news really loud just to bug him and we might pick up some stuff that way… or when the ship approaches, they might verbally ask the computer for an assessment of it.
Honestly, the authors of Cyberdrome did a pretty darn good job of getting the reader up to speed with action and more action instead of doing any kind of brain dump– you could do a lot worse than copying their approach to pacing a novel. Kudos to them! Cyberdrome goes to the top of my to-read list while Dark Space takes a distant second. Tune in to next week’s edition of SciFi Smackdown to see how they each handle a new challenger…!
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Apropos of Nothing:
Dungeon Bastard: Ask The Bastard: Men Playing Women — “If you think a lady can’t sport facial hair and a husky voice, you skipped an IMPORTANT chapter on dwarven culture!”
Priceless: Users of pirated copies of Game Dev Tycoon complain that… wait for it… pirates are ruining their in-game business. “Guys I reached some point where if I make a decent game with score 9-10 it gets pirated and I can’t make any profit.” (Hat tip Ken Burnside.)
Currently Listening To: Devo’s 1982 album, “Oh no, it’s Devo!” — Listen to this seminal work in order to fully deconstruct Weird Al Yankovich’s classic pastiche, “Dare to be Stupid.” The core riff is lifted from “Out of Synch.” The catchy turn-around is from “Deep Sleep.” In the video the cowboy playing guitar is reminiscent of the redneck guys from the video for the earlier hit “Whip It.” The special effect of Al and his bandmates riding down the street is similar to the one in “We’re Through Being Cool.” The bit with the band members wearing pantyhose on their heads is of course in reference to the even earlier video for “Jocko Homo,” which Yankovick also reprised in his medly, “Polkas on 45.” Say what you want about Al, but the guy knew his Devo.
Currently Watching: The pilot episode of Fringe — I can handle a show that is taken up with a wooden and low-chemistry relationship that I don’t really care about. I can handle a show where somehow the main character makes me constantly reevaluate just exactly how hot she is. I can handle a show where you can practically set your watch by the plot’s inflection points. But can I handle a show where the government’s black ops people know less and are less trustworthy than the bionic vice presidents of stereotypical multinational corporations…? Eh…. You know, Lost was absolutely riveting for the first few seasons, but this show has a very lackluster beginning.
For some reason, this doesn’t surprise me: ‘We’re just average folks’: The family sending all ten of their home-schooled children to college by the age of 12 — “We find out what their passions are, what they really like to study, and we accelerate them gradually.”
Meanwhile, back in the real world: (From a comment on an article at the Atlantic) “Our kindergartner reads at a relatively high level. I couldn’t tell you what that level is, but as an example, he reads Tolstoy’s short stories before bed. He also writes very well for his age, he wrote a 16 page story about his day at school on Monday using full sentences and paragraphs. So, he’s a bright kid. His homework yesterday was to write the letter ‘Y’ ten times. He accomplished that in 20 seconds and he was done for the evening. They have been teaching a letter a week for the last 25 weeks and three-letter words. They give him a book and he sits around and reads all day. They are learning to count to 20 and he already knows his multiplication tables. His day is a complete waste.”
Real Science: How Social Scientists, and the Rest of Us, Got Seduced By a Good Story — “Well accepted effects are turning out to be hard to replicate outside of the labs of the people who discovered them. Social Science research is vulnerable to all manner of statistical shenanigans, and a number of academics seem to be exploiting those vulnerabilities, either accidentally or deliberately.”
Currently in drydock: An assembled Starline 2500 Gorn DD awaits priming.
Real Science: The Real Problems With Psychiatry — “The DSM is created by a group of committees. It’s a bureaucratic process. In place of scientific findings, the DSM uses expert consensus to determine what mental disorders exist and how you can recognize them. Disorders come into the book the same way a law becomes part of the book of statutes.”
Life Imitates Gaming: Who knew a monstrous Saturnian hurricane could look so lovely? — There is a strange hurricane-like storm inside of a inexplicable hexagonal shaped weather pattern at Saturn’s north pole. In the first place… I would never put a natural phenomenon in my game that is this weird. Secondly, this has “ancient” precursor race written all over it– I’d totally expect the navy to interdict the world and the scout service to concoct some sort of lame scientific cover story.