Thursday, September 29, 2016

Six Reasons your Sci Fi Setting Might Require Cold Sleep During FTL Travel

We've seen and read it countless times: our protagonists, be they Ellen Ripley or Richard Riddick, need to go in to some sort of deep sleep, either by means of stasis, cryosleep or "other" until they arrive at their remote destination light years away. Sometimes it's a rather formal process and lots of wires, diodes and catheters are involved. Other times it involves being frozen in some substance or even locked in to some sort of "between time" state. Or maybe it just involves a wrist-attached device pumping you full of stasis-inducing fluids. Who knows!

The question though is....why?

Sure, space is ridiculously big, and it is often the case that SF writers realize this enough to decide that concepts like cryosleep make sense when your implied universe requires a journey lasting months or decades. Maybe the ship needs to keep its resources to a minimum, and hauling ten months' of supplies for a live crew is precious weight that the ship can do without, so locking everyone into a dreamless sleep where they don't wake up, die, or even age is a good idea from the point of view of the bean counters. But.....maybe there's some other, possibly more unusual, even sinister explanation....

Here's six I can think of:

1. Hyperspace Warps the Brain

When you tavel at FTL speeds the human mind can't take it. The technology for FTL travel might put you into another higher dimensional space, or maybe it cuts corners through a neighboring universe. Either way, the implication is that humans can't handle the trip awake, and maybe not even physicially. Something bad would happen to them if even one of the human woke up in the middle of hyperspace....

2. FTL Travel would Cripple or Crush You out of Stasis

Advancing faster and faster to travel into FTL space could take time. Maybe the actual "journey" from point A to point B takes mere minutes, but it's the first light year out and the last light year in where the steady acceleration and sudden deceleration are most taxing. Once you're in hyperspace it's nearly instant....but the before and after would leave a person not in stasis a smear on the wall.

3. The Hyperspace Parasites Will Get You

Long ago space travelers figured out that the dominion of Hyperspace, wherever it is, is rife with mysterious alien parasites that latch on to wakened human minds and ride back in to "normal space" to start zombie apocalypses, wars, or just become serial killers. To solve this issue, everyone has to be locked in stasis for the duration of the journey.

4. Event Horizon and Doom were Right

It turns out there is a parallel dimensional space that makes FTL travel fast...but bad news! It's the dimension which has lent our collective memories to the concept of hell, and hideous entities exist over there which seek to infiltrate our minds (sort of like the parasites, but demons) and ride back to normal space to start the End Times. Your friendly Megacorporation realizes this is not in their profit margin, so they figured out that a dreamless passenger in stasis does not attract the attention of the demons in hell. Usually. Don't worry, they've got specialist cleaners for the "special exceptions."

5. Actual FTL travel Leads to Quantum Displacement

Actual FTL travel in this case is a bit like quantum teleportation....where you "destroy" the entity in one region and remake it in an exact duplicate somewhere else. Hyperspace is just the "journey" through which the quantum process takes effect. No one like experiencing utter destruction and reconstitution, so stasis is the only solution. That, and even moving around slightly during this process can lead to you're particulate matter being stretched out over a few light years' distance so everything, passengers included, has to be locked down for the ride.

6. FTL Travel really does Take a Long Time

Turns out your universe's FTL travel still takes enormously long times. Moving at twice the speed of light might let you imagine ways that relativity is ignored or bypassed, but 2Xc. is still a 2+ year journey to our nearest neighbor star, Alpha Centauri. In a case like this, it may just be that the resources for such a journey are at a premium, and stasis is far preferable to an aging crew arriving years later.

Alternative Concept: The Bioformation Process

It's been suggested that realistic space travel, especially at STL speeds, would need to be conducted over decades or centuries. Even in a matter of years, it might make sense for a future transhumanist society to send out AI-controlled ships with the digital recordings of human explorers ready to upload into freshly grown bodies on the other end, tailored specifically for the environment they will soon be facing. And when those explorers are done? They can retire those bodies (or leave them to their fate), and move on to the next destination, with uploads in the next new bodies....

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Space zombies for White Star

Shockingly, for a game which covers a vast swathe of sci fi tropes in its covers, the closest White Star gets to space zombies is their version of the reavers (space savages) or possibly the assimilants (totally not-Borg). Here's a customizable Space Zombie to liven up your White Star explorations...

Space Zombies
Armor Class 8 [11] (normal), 7 [12] (large), or 6 [13] (fast)
Hit Dice 2 (normal), 4 (large) or 3 (fast)
Total Hit Bonus +3 (normal), +4 (large), or +3 (fast)
Attacks slam and bite 1D6 (normal and fast), 2D6 (large)
Saving Throw 17 (normal), 16 (large) or 15 (fast)
Special hard to kill, possible contamination, other (see zombie specials below)
Movement 10 (normal), 12 (large) or 15 (fast)
HDE/XP 2/30 (normal), 4/120 (large), or 3/60 (fast)

Space zombies typically appear to be the dead or seemingly dead remains of spacers and other travelers to the stars who have somehow hideously reanimated and returned to some sort of unlife, with an insatiable lust for humanoid and living flesh, often (but not always) with an intense craving for brains. Zombies as presented here appear in three types:

Normal zombies are slow, shambling beasts who are either too degraded or too "out of it" to move very quickly. They are a threat in numbers but can usually be outrun by all but the stubby yabnabs.

Large zombies are mutated hulks, either of large infected aliens or normal humanoids who have been mutated by their zombification.

Fast zombies are usually zombies either early in their conversion stage (so tissue degeneration has not set in) or they are mutated naturally this way, perhaps even enhanced by the zombification process to make them dangerously fast, hungry predators.

Space zombies arise in various forms on various worlds (and sometimes in the depths of space) due to an array of unusual conditions. If you're looking for a reason they exist, roll a D12 and consult this table for some examples:

1 - exposure to a mutated virus on a hostile alien world or comet's tail
2 - Alien nanoweapon found by accident which reanimates the dead
3 - Exposure to dark energy in the depths of space had an unintended side effect
4 - Extremely strange radioactive substance, from either an experiment gone awry or an alien artifact
5 - Black ops for the Commonwealth/Federation/Empire's Special Intelligence Program leads to manufacture of zombie-like victims
6 - ASI (artificial super intelligence) creates a genetic bug which destroys humanoid's intelligence but leaves the feral part intact
7 - A bizarre side effect of hyperspace travel causes the effect but the reason and nature of the zombie plague is unknown
8 - Brain worms infect sentient humanoids and turn them into zombies
9 -  Hostile aliens use a powerful virus or chemical agent to turn enemy population on itself
10 - Other dimensional beings from a hell-like parallel universe invade the galaxy, using psionic magic to turn humanoids into their unwilling zombie army
11 - An ancient alien artifact warps the minds and flesh of those who hear its psychic all, turning all in to zombies (or worse!)
12 - An engineered virus manufactured by a bioweapons corporation is accidentally unleashed

Space zombies have two specific traits:

Hard to Kill: when a space zombie is reduced to zero (or fewer) hit points it makes a saving throw. If it succeeds, the zombie recovers at the start of the next round with 1 hit point. If a character targets the zombie's head (-4 chance to hit) then if the shot reduces the zombie to zero hit points it does not make this save.

Additionally, most zombies are not damaged by normal toxins, poisons, the vacuum or space or radiation...they're effectively undead or necrotic, even if it's through mutation or transmogrification in some manner. Special exceptions would be "living zombies" which are in fact still living and require the ability to breath, and are susceptible to attacks which harm normal humanoids even if they themselves cannot feel pain normally. Examples are noted below as either "necrotic," "undead" or "living" zombies, with undead in this case meaning they are really, absolutely dead and animated by forces beyond science.

Contamination: space zombies are often exposed to horrifying chemicals, viruses, nanotech or other reanimating agents which can be infectious. If your space zombies have a contagious risk, then any target which takes direct damage from a space zombie attack must make a saving throw or risk being contaminated in turn. Typically contamination leads to conversion in to a zombie in 1D4 hours unless there is a cure for the plague. Kindly GMs may allow the victim a saving throw each hour (with a +2 bonus if proper medical attention is received) to fight it off. Once the victim converts....he's a zombie.

Special Space Zombie Abilities: Each of the twelve examples of zombie origins above has one special ability that is optional. Increase the zombies HDE by 1 if you use these. The list as follows corresponds to the origin list above:

1 - Hostile mutating alien virus zombies (necrotic; exposure through bite, wound, see contamination above); these zombies begin mutating over time, and have a 25% chance of a hideous tentacle attack (1D6+1 damage, can grab and pull a target in and does +1 damage for each additional zombie attacking the same target).

2 - Nanovirus (necrotic; body "explodes" when zombie dies, all within 10 feet must make the save to avoid infection); zombie has metallic skin (+1 AC) and often merges with metal weapons, even star swords, to graft on its limbs as weapons!

3 - Dark Energy Powers (necrotic; zombie does not infect until death; dark energy entity attempts to possess the target that killed the zombie); this type of zombie can use confusion once/day and can fire a ranged attack (dark energy burst) dealing 2D6 damage once per combat turn.

4 - Radioactive Zombie! (necrotic; zombie does not infect, but any exposed to the same radiation or killed by a radioactive zombie must make a save on hitting zero hit points or become a radioactive zombie in 1D4 turns); anyone within 15 feet of this zombie must make a save each round or take 1D6 radiation burn damage.

5 - Black Ops Zombie (necrotic; might infect, using normal rules); these are usually always fast zombies, and have rudimentary intelligence. They are usually armored with medium (+4) or heavy (+6) armor and usually carry mono-axes (1D6+2) and laser rifles (2D6). They are cunning but not "smart" so they can open or chop down a door but maybe not electronically hack into a sealed door.

6 - Wild Living Zombies (living zombie; do not infect, but the ASI that created them might do so through any attempt at a neural interface in computers it controls); these are usually fast zombies and just ravenously mad and hungry. Their aggressiveness gives them a +1 initiative due to ferocity.

7 - Hyperspace Zombie (necrotic; might infect at GM's discretion); these zombies can phase through walls as if they weren't there, and worse yet can make an attack roll to grab a target and then try to drag them in to the phased space, leaving them there. If the target fails a save after being so attacked, they take an additional 2D6 damage from being fused to part of a wall or other fixture, and may have to be cut out and hospitalized for a lengthy period.

8 - Brain Worms (necrotic or living; infectious if more brain worms burrow in to you; could be through saliva, or any physical contact with someone; some population  may be carriers but not actual zombies!); brain worms drive their hosts mad and control them even after death. The brain worms seem to be inimical to humankind and are keenly intelligence, using their undead hosts to spread more of their kind to the stars. 25% of brain worms have access to meditations, including charm person (3/day), confusion (2/day) and detect life (at will).

9 - Chemical Zombie (necrotic; only risk of infection is to an area saturated with the chemical agent, but some large zombies may "explode" on death releasing the agent for 15 feet around them!); these zombies were made through alien chemical weapon attacks and are usually incredibly dangerous, as the chemical was designed to turn the world's population on itself, making the aliens' enemies their own worst threat. Such zombies ooze toxi chemical blood; any melee attack that spills their blood requires a saving throw by the attacker to avoid getting 1D6 damage from chemical burns, and a 10% chance of exposure to the zombie chemicals.

10 - Zombies from the Devil's Nebula (undead; they don't infect, but their masters might); these zombies are horrifically dangerous and burst in to flame, causing an extra 1D6 fire damage on an attack. When a zombie is brought to zero hit points, if they make their save to come back they do so by levitating in the air in a nimbus of fire and return with 1D6 hit points instead of just 1!

11 - Warped Call Zombies (necrotic; these zombies don't infect, but the psychic broadcast of their ancient artifact might); these zombies come in all three flavors, each reflecting a stage of mutation. They actually strike with razor blade-like arms for 1D6+1 damage instead of normal attacks (2D6+2 for large zombies), and they seek to dismember; on a natural 20 attack, the target must make a saving throw or, if the attack reduces them to zero hit points, they lose a limb! The zombie will take the next round to retrieve the limb and meld it with it's own flesh, adding +1 to hit on future attacks.

12 - Biohazardous Zombie (necrotic; these zombies definitely infect with a bite, and infected become zombies in 1D6 combat turns); the madmen at Bumbershoot Corporation are at it again! The engineered virus of the bioweapons corporation is devastatingly fast, and that makes it quick to spread through large, dense populations. They also mutate! Each time a zombie kills someone, roll a D20 and if you roll equal to or under the zombie's current hit die it gains +1 hit die, +1 to damage (when at +3 already the next +1 makes it an extra D6), and modify the saving throw accordingly. The zombie may grow larger, take on extra limbs, or become deformed, growing extra eyes or other parts. When a zombie reached 10 hit dice it becomes a tyrant zombie and gains a horrific ranged slam attack where it projects its own limbs up to 30 feet, like battering rams or blades, to crush or eviscerate targets.


Tuesday, September 27, 2016

What's Out and What's Hot: Mythras, Genlab Alpha, more Fifth Edition Fantasy and Fantasy Age Bestiary

Stuff just keeps rolling in! Here's some of the more exciting finds recently....

Mythras Core Rules

Mythras arrived in the mail today. I am basking in its impressiveness and especially enjoying the slick, easy-to-use, easy-to-read and easy-to-reference layout. It's not all that different, really, from RQ6....but a slight reformatting and better use of space works wonders for the books' utility, which is amazing. The book remains focused on fantasy and historical gaming, with the rules to simulate any realistic setting in which the verisimilitude isn't just for flavor, it's baked in to the mechanics.

If you haven't ordered a copy yet now is the time; check it out here. If you're into Runequest but not keen on Glorantha, then know that your bus has arrived, time to get on. If you're into all of it, then no excuses....this is a very comprehensive one-stop rule book for realistic fantasy gaming.

Fifth Edition Fantasy 

Goodman Games has been releasing lots of new adventures for D&D 5E, and the latest three present a level 5, level 8 and level 10 adventure module. Named The Castle in the Sky, The Fallen Temple and the Eye of the Leviathan, each of these modules brings classic Goodman Games style dungeon delving to D&D's latest edition, and are worth checking out. There are ten modules now in the Fifth Edition Fantasy lineup.

Genlab Alpha

The first big supplement for Mutant Year Zero (from Modiphius) is a cool exposition on playing funny animal animals in the Mutant Year Zero universe. It's an interesting expansion and is loaded with detail for fans of the core system. I admit, I've had a hard time really getting in to the MYZ system, and deep down inside wish Goblinoid Games could make a version of Mutant Future that played like MF but had the layout and art style of MYZ....but this book will be worth checking out for any weird apocalypse fan.

Fantasy Age Bestiary

It's out in print at long last from Green Ronin, and worth your consideration if you happen to be a fan of the Fantasy Age game system. It adds a hundred+ new monsters with lots of detail to make them interesting, and manages to provide an interesting roster that does not feel like another D&D Monster Manual rehash; these creatures feel distinct, and would contribute to a world of unique nature, as well as contributing to the distinct feel of the Fantasy Age system and its implied universes. I have plans to run Fantasy Age again, soon, although they need one more expansion book to really provide the range of character generation options my players crave in order for them to embrace the system.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

White Box!!!!! S&W Redux

Charlie Mason at the White Box blog recently released a cleaned-up, fancy version of Swords & Wizardry White Box titled (of course) plain old "White Box." It's not just a reprint with better layout and art: it includes a sort of redux edition of the cooler bits that many people (such as I) consider essential to our classic D&D experience. A few bits in White Box that are not in S&WWB Core include thieves, the elven fighter-mage spellcaster option, demons, dark elves, and other juicy bits that you had to collect from various other resources to make other versions of S&W complete.

I've got a print copy on the way and will comment more then, but if you're a fan of A: Swords & Wizardry, B: collecting every edition of S&W out there, and C: like your S&W full of thieves, elven warrior-ages an demons, then I suggest you grab White Box. Before you do, look at Charlie's blog first, as he has several versions available. I got the red dragon cover on the way in soft cover, but the blue cover is kinda neat, too.

Anyway.....White Box might meet the "minimum standard" I need in my White Box experience (ahem). Will I ever convince my players to go Back to Basics and try it out? Who knows....but sooner or later, my kid's going to be old enough to play D&D with*, and when that time comes, I plan on having this book handy!

*We've tried "No Thank You, Evil!" from Monte Cook Games and we sorta had fun but were making up a lot of rules as we did. As he's developing, I think five is going to be the "big age" when he starts showing a lot of comprehension for RPGs, based on where he's at now. We'll see...I can say this much, NTYE is good, clean kid-focused fun, but I suspect in the end it's no substitute for straight up classic D&D. But hey, Dad is biased!

Monday, September 19, 2016

Life vs. Blog

Just a note that I am not dead or missing.....but this is a very busy time for my work schedule, and I have (alas) not had even enough time to preload blog entries to simulate the appearance of my being around. More soon, when time permits!

Monday, September 12, 2016

Check out the new D&D 5E Ranger

Well, in the tradition of this century we now have a ranger revision to compensate for the arguably substandard ranger from the D&D 5th edition Player's Handbook. The new ranger can be found here, and is a full 20 level build for people to test out. I'd say tentatively, without seeing it in action yet that the new design for the class definitely addresses some of the issues with the ranger my game table noticed, and which I house-ruled a bit to fix.

Some of the context of this article is with regards to how WotC needs to approach such larger rule changes in the future for D&D, which up to now they have preferred avoiding. From the looks of it, they have plans in the (near?) future to publish an Unearthed Arcana rules tome with new rules, house rules, alternative class builds like this and other things. For my money, I hope that book comes sooner than later, simply because my table loves more options than less.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Film Review: Morgan

Morgan (2016)

(Mild spoilers in the review)

It's possible you'e heard some not-so-nice reviews about this movie, but I will squelch that right now: this is a really good film. It's not a perfect film....I have more than a few questions about some of the implied dynamics of the near future universe Morgan resides in, especially the ethical and experimental controls that the corporation behind Morgan exercises, but all those aside, this was a compelling mix of SF and horror....with a lot of horror toward the end. Also, a touch of existentialism, framed from the view of what is essentially a tale of the origin of Blade Runner's replicants.

Morgan's tale is set in the not too distant future, when controlled experimental live hybrid AI are a thing under development: techniques described which seemed (to me) to suggest implanting programmed nanites into a host egg allowed the nanites to control and direct the creation of a unique sort of life form. Android might be one word, but anyone knowing Ridley Scott's son is the director will immediately think "replicant." In a great many respects this film feels like it's taking place in that universe, the one where Dekker hunts down rogue replicants......and we're getting to see another, similar kind of hunter in Morgan.

Anyway, a corporation is funding research into this hybrid "human" which is grown to adulthood over a space of five years, directed by the nanites in her system that make her uniquely NOT human. Morgan (Anya Taylor-Joy) is the result of this experiment, one of several it is suggested, including the alluded to Helsinki event in which it sounds like we have the makings of a future "prequel" movie. Morgan herself appears to be a somewhat emotionally disconnected teenage girl, with a grey tone to her skin and and interesting affect. She's surrounded by a research team in a remote woodland location which is utterly dedicated to her.....she is clearly perceived as their first great success story, an artificially intelligent being which has "grown" a human body from donated tissue/egg cells, directed toward specific and intense purpose and intelligence by the nanites suffusing her very being.

Until, of course, a little incident that starts the movie off, in which Morgan displays a sudden burst of psychotic anger and badly stabs one of her caretakers. In comes a company Risk Management Assessor, a "cleaner" named Lee Weathers (Kate Mara) who is a no-nonsense professional here to protect company interests and ideally insure that the asset (Morgan) is retained for further study and use, if possible. Lee is very business focused and no-nonsense.....and has an agenda on behalf of the company, to get the mess cleaned up by any means.

As Lee pieces together what has gone on at the research location, she sees scientists deeply invested in Morgan, who have seen her grow up over five years from a baby to a little girl to adult, at a rapidly accelerated pace. Each of the scientists have their own private agendas clouding their judgement, of course....the couple who see Morgan as like the child they cannot have, behavioral psychologist Amy who has projected deep emotional feelings on to Morgan, Dr. Ziegler and Dr. Cheng who see Morgan as their chance at redemption for the failings of Helsinki and other prior experiments in the field.

Amidst all of this is are even bigger problems, revealed slowly over the course of Lee's investigation: not the least of these is the fact that despite the research team aiming for an artificial being who is emotionally capable, Morgan is in fact part of an experimental weapon project. Also, Morgan kind of likes killing things, but she doesn't know why (yet), though visiting psychoanalyst Dr. Shapiro (played as always to the hilt by Paul Giamatti) will, ultimately, get down to the brass tacks on this problem.

The film has a slow but steady build up, with an increasing level of menace that just oozes with every word, every unpleasant engagement with the powder keg brewing at this research station. It's not a conventional horror film in this sense, and if you came to the movie expecting a more conventional terror ride you will be disappointed; there's a level of psychological malice at work here that does a fantastic job of setting the mood for later, when the shit really hits the fan.

Ultimately the film gets to where it's been building up, as Morgan proceeds in the way we've all been anticipating since the first second of the movie, leading to a brutal finish. There's a surprise or two along the way, of course, but at a couple moments I really felt a sort of resonant throwback to Rutger Hauer's performance in Blade Runner....not in any dialogue so much as the "feel" of where Morgan is at, what she is. If you wonder why, in Blade Runner, replicants are built with short lifespans....well, this movie is explaining it to you.

I had mentioned some plot issues earlier. SPOILER ALERT!

Here's my beef: the film establishes that other "incidents" have taken place, in which bad stuff happened (Helsinki). In fact, it implies that this is "round 3" of the program. So if there's a really bad track record for these projects, why not include a greater level of control and security? Sure, they run the program in the boonies, far from civilization.....but it's clear that wasn't going to cut it, no matter what. Maybe the charisma of the lead researchers was enough to persuade their employer that they could do it this time? But even so, five years of limited supervision, with a team of researchers who all have hidden psych issues that have "psychotic android AI" as a key trigger....well, I guess it wouldn't be as exciting if they were all balanced and had lots of heavily automated weaponry protecting the place, would it?

There's also a scene where Lee has to escape from a location deep in the secured bunker where Morgan is normally held. Morgan's been there five years and never escaped on her own, but Lee does it in a few hours. the scene where Morgan first makes a break for it, power goes off. There was no explanation (that I could detect) for why this happened. The vague reference to her "precognitive abilities" couldn't have been a hint, could it? How would precog have allowed her to do so? She also seemed to know a heck of a lot about people she had never met, but it was never established in he movie just how she knew this.

And finally: I love Paul Giamatti when he shows up to chew the scenery as "batshit crazy middle aged dude with an agenda" in any film, but I really felt it was a bit odd that he was apparently operating with a death wish, because if his specialty was evaluating the pysche of potentially rogue AI experiments, what on earth prompted him to goad Morgan like he did? Her referencing his teen daughter? The fact that he apparently had no idea how violent she could be because he didn't review the footage of her prior acts of carnage?


I don't know if Morgan is deliberately intended to suggest it belongs in the Blade Runner universe, but it resonates very well with that film. If you're in to an intense blend of near-future SF, psychological horror and brutal down-and-dirty murder-porn, Morgan is going hit all of your buttons at least once or twice. For me this was a sleeper gem, flawed but fascinating, which I almost ignored until I (luckily) read up on what it was about. If you want some cool SF and horror but the barest minimum of CGI, this is a good choice.


Tuesday, September 6, 2016

The Art of Guillem H. Pongiluppi

Check out his site here and at Artstation here. I'm really impressed....I don't often talk art on this site, but the imagery Guillem conjures up is singularly amazing (even the really odd stormtroopers & sith vs. Aliens panoramas!)

Some examples (last one is slightly NSFW):

Dystopian Cyberpunk Barcelona

Dawn of Time

Sith Lord vs. Xenoforms...!!!

Avoiding zombies

Avoiding zombies with less success

Ummm....good question...???

Monday, September 5, 2016

Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea Second Edition

Along with the announcement that all copies of The Mystery at Port Greely had shipped (I got mine over a month ago, and yes, it is as cool as we've come to expect of North Wind Adventures), this graphic was attached:

As cool as the boxed set was in all its mighty retro-ness, a deluxe hardcover of 2nd edition is really more functional for the kind of game table I run, so I will definitely be backing this one. October 21st, mark your calendars!!!