Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Effective use of Lethality in Old-School RPGs

A few days ago I wrote about lethality in older-school RPGs. Many responses were enthusiastic; other correctly criticized my post regarding arbitrary as opposed to non-arbitrary death; after all, "gotcha" death usually sucks in RPGs, and if the Referee just wants to kill the PCs, he could always bury them in a landslide or under a collapsing ceiling. This, of course, will be no fun. So I am obliged to further elaborate regarding the use of lethality and Save-or-Die elements in older-schools role-playing games.

Lethality should always be the result of a choice. An informed choice, at least to a certain degree. As I've noted above, and as obvious to any good player or Referee, "gotcha" lethality is not very enjoyable. A Save-or-Die situation should arise as a result of a player choice. Taking risks sometimes warrants an immediate risk of death. For example, if you choose to go toe to toe with a venomous snake, you take the risk of getting bitten, which may be fatal. Typically, a good Referee will describe a snake or, at least, hint at its existence. If you choose to ignore the warning and take the risk, you can definitely face death. After all, venomous snakes are scary for a reason - many of them can kill you. A dead king's tomb still containing treasure after centuries of potential grave-robbers is bound to be trapped to the hilt, and its exploration warrants great care and many precautions. If you take the risk and rush your exploration of such a dungeon, a trap may kill you. There should always be a chance to avoid the trap by player skill and attention to details. But deadly traps in such tombs are part of the adventure genre. If you choose to drink a mysterious potion found in an underground temple of Chaos, you risk being poisoned or worse. If you enter the dungeon corridor strewn with many human bones and skulls of possible victims of a horrible monster - you might actually encounter the monster itself, and you risk turning into yet another pile of bones in the corridor. If you enter the curious garden of strange statues, you might face the Medusa - capable of turning you to stone with a single gaze.

The thing common to all of these cases is that there is a warning before the decision to take the risk or avoid it. Either an explicit warning, such as the town's elders speaking in hushes whispers about the horrors of a haunted tomb, an environmental cue such as bones of former victims or the petrified victims of the Medusa, or a risk known to common sense such as the notion that strange liquids in deep chapels of Chaos might have negative effects on you or the basic fact that venomous snakes might kill you with a bite. Taking the risk is a player's choice, and typically holds a potential reward. A pile of gold under the slithering snakes, rumors of great treasures guarded by the Medusa, stories of potions holding wondrous effects on their imbibers. If you wish to reduce risk, you also reduce the reward in many cases. You wish a big reward - you'll have to take risks.

The same goes in Traveller. In character generation, if you choose to be a Marine, you should be tough as nails - as a Marine should be, or you face a high risk of death in the line of duty. Even if you're tough, Marines are people who get kicked out of a starship in orbit and told: "conquer that planet!". This is badass, but very, very risky, especially in times of war. The reward is first the badass title of a Star Marine, and also all manners of combat skills, easy retention and relatively easy promotion. Scouts are more extreme - you die easily in the line of duty just like Marines, because you go into the Unknown and the Unknown has teeth, claws, and tentacles, but you may receive the ultimate reward - a free starship of your own! A clever character entering the Merchant Marine risks a far lower risk of death, but if you do gain a starship, it has a heavy mortgage attached. You can try and save hard-earned Credits by travelling in Low Passage, but you risk Low Berth failure and death. You can try and save on expensive refined fuel by doing frontier refuelling, but unrefined fuel can do bad things to the delicate and finicky civilian systems of your Free Trader.

Risk and reward, accompanied by at least some hint regarding the risk and reward at hand, are key to enjoyable death threats in older-school RPGs. This could add much tension, excitement and thrill to your game of handled right. This is why Save-or-Die effects are so useful in such games.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

In praise of lethality in old-school RPGs

A common complaint about older-school role-playing games (RPGs) is that they are highly lethal and, as the complaint goes "unduly and arbitrarily punish characters and players". And indeed, many newer-school players view such lethality in disdain and prefer their games to include more moderate dangers, less "arbitrary" threats and much stronger player characters. Dungeons and Dragons(TM) 5th Edition is a prime example of this. Around levels 3-5, player characters are already very powerful and are rarely killed by ordinary monsters; I found my 5th level party mowing through undead supposed to be scary, and only moderately challenged by a mummy, energy-draining wraiths and shadow-demons capable of moving through walls. Risks were mitigated; healing was made much easier; and many frightening abilities from earlier editions, such as level drain, poison and disease, were made far more forgiving. Don't get me wrong - we are enjoying the hell out of our D&D 5E campaign set in the Barbarian, Conqueror, King setting with some ACKS rule additions. But the ruleset feels to me more and more forgiving - and sometimes "flat". Risks and threats seem a bit minor compared to what the horrors of a haunted dungeon, a cemetery in midnight or a giant-toad-infested swamp should be.

Older-school games were certainly lethal. Highly lethal. A venomous snake could kill you. Green slime could kill you. Triggering a trap could kill you outright. A fight with several zombies at low level could certainly kill you. Medusae could turn you into stone with a single failed saving throw. At low levels, one or two sword swings had a potential to kill you. In Classic Traveller, you could die during character generation as well, using unrefined fuel could kill you, a single well-placed and lucky laser shot could blow your ship out of the sky, travelling in low passage could kill you, the "first blood" rule could get you severely injured from a single shotgun blast.

Why the lethality? There are plenty of reasons why this actually enhances your game. First and foremost, you typically play adventurers. Why do typical "Normal Man" level 0 villagers eke out a living at 1gp a month from the sweat of their brows, toiling on the harsh soil under the constant threat of starvation - when there are dungeons laden with marvellous amounts of gold and wonderful magical items a day's travel from the typical hamlet? Becuase dungeons are dangerous, and most who venture there do not come back. Adventurers are those brave - or some might say insane - souls who dare delve into these deadly places reeking with the stench of death. The YouTube video linked above - a promotional video for the excellent old-school dungeon called "Barrowmaze" - strikes the nail right on its head. Horrors await those who dare stray away from civilization into the wilds and the ruins of the eldritch past. Villagers huddle in the relative safety of their hovels and even soldiers - typically "Normal Men" as well except for the most grizzled veterans - find safety in their numbers and rarely dare fight anything but other Men, or at most Beast-Men hordes. Only a few foolhardy adventurers dare descend into dungeons in hope of finding gold and glory. Most find their untimely death. But a few survive and carry back sacks full of gold back to civilization, eventually becoming lords and magisters.

But adventuring carries risks. Horrid risks. This is part of the challenge of the game. This is a major source of excitement for the players. A mistake can kill you. Monsters can rip you limb by limb. A venomous snake, like a real venomous snake, is dangerous and frightening - a bite is very likely to kill you. Rush into combat like a fool - and you will typically get butchered. Tread carelessly, and you risk death. Player skill is important. This is a similar challenge to the "Roguelike" genre of digital games which is now enjoying another golden age after existing from the very dawn of digital gaming, from the sci-fi FTL: Faster Than Light, through the post-apocalyptic N.E.O. Scavenger to the fantasy Dungeon Crawl: Stone Soup. In these games, unlike more typical digital games of our day and age, you die easily. And death is permanent - you can't just reload a saved game when you die. When you die - you die. Yet players - myself included - come back and play these games again and again. Why? Because the challenge is exciting, because facing the challenge is enjoyable. Survival is its own reward, is a thing of pride. Player skill is important. Learning how to survive in the N.E.O. Scavenger world, for example, is something you - the player - have to learn; no character skill will save you from contaminated water, hypothermia and infection setting into your wounds; you have to learn how to cope with them. This is challenging. This requires thought and learning. This is also enjoyable for many gamers. An old-school RPG is the tabletop equivalent of "Roguelike" digital games; player skill is important and survival is a challenge - and its own reward.

Finally, having survived the horrors of the low levels, when death hangs over your head each and every moment in the dungeon or in the wilds - is the best background your character can have. Not even ten pages of backstory can mean as much for your character as actual experience you and your fellow player went through with your characters. You start, more or less, as a nobody, and you build your character, your personality and history - by actual adventuring. Classic Traveller adds to this a "lifepath" character generation system where you actually - though briefly - go through risky careers and face a threat of actual death for your character, making your choices and risk management crucial for your character's survival even during that early phase of the game. But even in Classic Traveller, the background your past career - rolled on a few tables in 5-10 minutes or so - is only a paragraph of text in most cases, and then you strike out to the stars to make a real name for yourself. But facing risks and threats builds your character. When a significant portion of the encounters in the game might end in a Total Party Kill (TPK), reaching Name Level - typically the 9th level in D&D-type games - is an achievement to be proud of and not just a given stage in the game.

In short, lethality in an RPG - when done right and framed correctly - can be a source of challenge, excitement and enjoyment. This is what makes older-school so appealing to many people, and this is something every tabletop gamer should try; some might not like it, but others will be thrilled.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

The lessons of Mass Effect for military sci-fi RPG campaigns

The Mass Effect trilogy is one of the best computerized sci-fi RPGs in existence, with the first game earning a 89% rating on Metacritic (the second game even got 94% and the third again 89%). In it's most basic essence, Mass Effect is a third-person shooter with RPG elements, set in a wide open galaxy with an enormous number of worlds open to exploration. It boasts one of the better and more interesting sci-fi settings ("IP". as it is customary to call them these days) of the past decade, complete with a magnificent story, a wide-open galaxy, and multiple alien species, all with interested, detailed histories and cultures. This is a rebirth of sorts of the "space opera" genre, supplanted somewhat by hard sci-fi and nano-punk in the early years of the century. It stands at the same level as Star Wars, Star Trek and Babylon 5 - a true beauty to behold. But here I will talk about one specific aspect of these games, which has little to do with the combat mechanics or even with the specifics of the universe. I will focus on the first game as it has the most "classic" structure in this regard.

What Mass Effect did very well is build a military sci-fi RPG campaign. Generally speaking, military sci-fi RPGs have to deal with three main challenges. The first is how to justify a diverse team of characters - as typical for a group of player characters - in a military setting. Typically militaries are highly uniform, heavily regulated environments, and all the odds and ends you see in the typical RPG campaign stick out like sore thumbs in a military setting. The second is that, in a quasi-realistic military situation, the command team of a starship, or any other group of ranking people calling the shots and having agency (freedom of action), rarely see direct ground combat action. Instead, they command their subordinates to do much of the actual fighting. But players love to have both agency for their characters and get into the thick of things with guns blazing. Third, even if the characters are a command team on an independently-operated starship, in military settings you usually have a clear chain of command and relatively strict orders to operate under.

How does Mass Effect solve all of this? It puts the player in command of a small team of elite operatives, who are further removed from the usual military chain of command by being galactic-government special operative (i.e. a Specter and his/her entourage). The player still serves the military on the long run and in the big picture, but he or she still ahs much freedom of action. The powers that be give him/her a large-scale mission, and the military gives him smaller tasks to accomplish, but since Shepard (the protagonist) is a Specter, he or she can act as desired on the smaller scale. Furthermore, with this semi-military semi-special-agency milieu, Shepard can recruit various assistants, some of whom are mercenaries, rebels, and renegades. Whatever gets the mission done. Finally, as Shepard and his/her entourage are special-forces soldiers in addition to Shepard being the captain of the ship, they do get to carry out commando missions. The rest of the command crew and ship officers do not participate in such missions. This would be an interesting framework for a tabletop sci-fi RPG; detached-duty special forces and/or ranking government agents, rather than being directly subjected to chains of command and rigid micromanagement by superiors.

The overall plot structure is also of interest for the tabletop military sci-fi RPG player and referee. One may call it a quasi-sandbox. Following a short exposition, Shepard becomes a Specter and gets his/her command of the Normandy, and then the galaxy opens up. He/she gets three leads to check in search of the villain he/she is after, but can explore the wide-open galaxy. Around the galaxy, there is a good number of side missions, sometimes hinted at by NPCs and sometimes found by exploration. The typical side mission - sometimes small "dungeons" and sometimes in more open locations is one to three "scenes" (or encounters) long, typically closer to one than to three; on the tabletop, one could probably finish one of these side missions in a single session of play, and the bigger central-plot missions in around three sessions of play each. The player may approach the three leads and the side missions at his or her order of preference, and usually has some choice regarding their outcome, sometimes significant choice which will affect the plots of later games in the series as you can import saved games from game to game. Once you explore the three leads you enter the main chase after the villain, which is essentially two big plot missions and the final battle.

Finally, the way characters are built and used is also of interest. The big villain of Mass Effect is built very well - given a strong exposition - you actually see the big villain in the very first tutorial mission and given ample reasons to go after him with extreme prejudice and the game revolves after getting to the point where you can actually lay your hands on him and stop his infernal plan. There is a big surprise in store for the player in regard to the villain, but generally speaking, you get a strong villain from the first minutes of the game. The NPCs are also interesting - except for one or two more relatively generic human characters who - if they survive - become more interesting in later games in the series. Each alien character is interesting, has a strong personality and a detailed history - and each has his or her own side-quest. All appear in later games and develop into central characters of the series.

All in all, interesting from the point of view of an RPG gamer interested in military sci-fi games.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Greetings from the new reptile proprietor!

Nom Nom Nom*
So, you have been wondering, what happened to the fabled Space Cockroach? Well - I ate him! Nothing fills a lizard's belly better than a fat, juicy bug from outer space! Now instead of his hideout, I, Agamemnon the Lizard King - AKA Omer Golan-Joel - hold my reptile throne, and choice basking spot, here. And from my throne room, I will offer you a wealth of new gaming material unheard of in the past of this blog. Because I have excellent news for you all - great things are happening! Things are changing for the better, not just for me, but for my humble contribution to the gaming world. I am getting published, on several channels. Far beyond my old Outer Veil and USE ME work for Spica Publishing and Alternative Armies, respectively.

Stellagama stellio, Rehovot, Israel
First things first - I have finished the full Barbarian Conqueror King manuscript last week and sent it, in all its 70,000-word beauty, to Autarch LLC. This will probably take some significant time to reach a release, as it needs rebalancing, editing, playtesting, proofreading and art, but now I am free to pursue other projects, while doing any further necessary work on BCK as needed - and hopefully within a year or so, it will be ready in its full glory!

Second, I am still translating Stars Without Number into Hebrew. As this is a pro-bono job, it is always lower-priority than anything putting bread on my table, but I'll try to finish this by March so we - the Israeli Society of Role-Players - will be able to publish it by Autumn 2016.

Third - and most importantly - I am now forming my own publishing "company" - Stellagama Games! You can see our logo to the left, drawn by the magnificent Luigi Castellani. My partner in this endeavor is none else than Richard Hazlewood - my co-author of good, old outer Veil. We will use the ease afforded by modern digital distribution to publish various role-playing games online. What will we publish? Initially, smaller supplements and adventures for White Star, Mongoose Traveller - and possibly also Stars Without Number and Swords & Wizardry: White Box. later on, something big is planned. Really big. More on that in the following months...

* I know, I know, this isn't a Stellagama but its Australian relative, the Bearded Dragon (Pogona vitticeps). I simply couldn't find a picture of a Stellagama eating a cockroach...

Sunday, October 11, 2015

History of Alkonost Cluster - Part II

Following Part I, which covered the period from ancient history to the end of the Silence, this second and final part will detail the post-Silence history of my Stars Without Number setting, Alkonost Cluster. See the sector overview and map HERE.

Rise of the New Terran Mandate and the Incunablis Machines - 3054 CE to 3161
Kedesh Orbital Shipyards
The Mandate Bruxelles-class Battlecruiser Mumbai was in deep patrol, with a full marine battalion onboard, when the Scream hit in 2665. With its Psychic navigator instantly killed in the shockwave, it dropped out of Drillspace far outside the Kedesh system in the Alkonost region. Its engines severely damaged by the sudden dimensional shift, and unable to drill back into drillspace, the Mumbai faced 400 years of sublight travel back to the local colony at the minimal remaining thrust. Captain Aharon Durnhal and his crew thus entered cryosleep in hope of surviving the slow, centuries-long creep to settled space.

Meanwhile, the world of Kedesh, a former promising industrial colony on the high frontier, made its own slow climb to recovery following the Scream. In 3054, it launched its first orbital flight, and in 3061, staged landings on its two moons. When Kedeshian radio telescopes picked up a strange radio transmission - the Mumbai's distress beacon - from orbit in 3065, they sent a spacecraft to investigate. Its pilot boarded the enormous, highly advanced ship, and soon inadvertently activated the cryo-revival process. The revived crew and captain were quick to capture and interrogate the low-tech interloper. Soon after they used the ship's many shuttles to land at Kedesh's capital and present themselves as representatives of the long-absent Terran Mandate. Having enough firepower to wipe out anything in their path even with their crippled engines, they quickly installed themselves as Kedesh's new rulers, establishing the New Terran Mandate, with Durnhal as its Director. They used the ship's stockpile of Pretech anagathics to keep the old captain and his command crew alive and young for almost a century and a half. The same Old Mandate officers who took over Kedesh are also in power today, in 3200.

The ship lacked heavy manufacturing equipment or even experts in manufacturing apart from the partial knowledge of the ship's engineers. But with enough hard work and many sacrifices forced upon the Kedeshian population, the New Mandate reached TL4 in 3111. Soon after, Kedesh sent ships across the Sector to start building the new Mandate. The various warlords and petty tyrants of the outlying worlds were relatively easy to subdue, either with token gifts of Pretech origin, or more commonly, by a token demonstration of the New Terran Mandate's Pretech military might, usually by landing a small, but impressive, force of power-armored troops and a few grav tanks on the target world. The typical backwater ruler had no clue that this force was more or less all that the New Mandate actually had in the way of Pretech military hardware - and that the rest of its military was composed of TL3-4 troops of highly variable quality and morale.

So thus was built the New Terran Mandate, composed of a small Core ruled directly by Mandate officials, and a much larger Periphery - in the Shallow Blight - subordinate to it, which was paying the Kedesh administrators an annual tribute. The sleepy, backwater world of Alkonost was one such vassal-world of the New Mandate, its Archdukes subservient to the high-tech interstellar overlords. And so was, after a fashion, the even more backwater world of Laana, where the weak Presidents bowed to whatever bully who showed up in orbit with starship-grade weapons and good bribes, be that the New Terran Mandate or the inhuman Incunablis Machines.

The latter - the Incunablis Machines - reached from their mechanized factory-world to the stars in 3070s, and quickly built their own pocket-empire on the border of the New Terran Mandate, occupying the wolds of Isis, Osiris and Sicarii and exacting tribute in Pretech and in cyborg "volunteers" from several other neighboring worlds, chief among them Laana. Border skirmishes with the New Mandate were relatively frequent, but never escalated into a major war, as both polities were distant enough from each other to prefer to invest in their respective cores rather than risk a head-on confrontation.

Meanwhile, the AI Cores from Incunablis ordered and rebuilt their new colonies along the lines of Incunablis society - that is, a hierarchical system topped by unbreaked and partially-breaked AI Cores, beneath them lesser (breaked) AIs and sentient robots, beyond that cyborgs and at the bottom - "organic" serfs, each tattooed on his forehead with a barcode for easy identification by machines, who toiled at the menial jobs where the limited number of Pretech AIs and robots could not be applied. For, indeed, the post-Scream industrial capabilities of the Incunablis Machines were, and still are, limited, lacking the components and capacity to produce Pretech armatures and create more "proper" AIs, breaked or unbreaked, except for the most rudimentary; so cheap human labor, cyborged or otherwise, was always in high demand in the mechanized, industrialized society of the Incunablis Machine Empire.

The Great Alkonost War - 3161-3169
Alkonost Republic frigate fleet, circa 3163

Old Alkonost, under Archduke Leonid II's rule and de-facto New Terran Mandate domination, was little more than a colony of the New Mandate. Its population toiled in the many factories and fields, suffering poverty while their higher-tech products were either consumed by the aristocracy or shipped away to the distant New Mandate. New Mandate officials walked through the Alkonostan streets like mighty lords, eclipsing even the local nobility in their power and prestige. But by the late 3150's, the local population grew tired of this autocracy and its off-world masters. This resentment gave rise to the Free Alkonost movement, an underground movement initially engaged in agitation against foreign rule and its subservient aristocrats - and later outright clandestine political organization and acts of sabotage. The regime knew well enough how to deal with such dissidents. Countless would-be rebels were gunned down or sent to remote labor camps away from the temperate equatorial zones. So the rulers felt secure - after all, who will dare challenge a centuries-old regime backed by the energy cannons of New Terran Mandate gunships? Or so they thought.

Their mistake became apparent in 3161. No matter how many Free Alkonost activists were jailed or shot, the movement grew to massive proportions with cells in every factory, farm and neighborhood. In September 3161, the movement staged a lightning insurrection, rising up in arms around Alkonost. The overwhelmed Archducal officers found that their supposedly loyal soldiers were mostly won to Free Alkonost as well; the soldiers turned their guns around to face their old masters. The revolt was quick; within three weeks, the entire Archducal regime collapsed and was quickly replaced with a Provisional Government, soon giving way - in turn - to the Alkonost Republic, ruled by a President and a Duma (parliament). Archduke Leonid II himself fled to Kedesh, when he eventually died in 3189. The entire planet celebrated; the hated masters were overthrown, the many riches once held by nobles and off-worlders were quickly broken up and sold to locals, in part, or kept (in part) as state enterprises aimed at serving the people of Alkonost.

But the celebrations were premature. The New Terran Mandate was furious at the loss of its profitable subject-world of Alkonost, and soon sent its fleets to Alkonost and the rebelling Chernobog and Poludnitsa to bring the troublemakers back in line. Because sending outright legions of enforcers to crush such dissent was well beyond the New Mandate's capabilities, what this attack mean in practice was an "intervention" by New Mandate expeditionary forces in support of local Monarchist (pro-Archducal) forces on Alkonost and its neighbors. This war - fought in its main part between the nascent Alkonost Republic and local forces supporting the old order of things (and backed by the New Mandate and its orbital fleets) - consumed much of the 3160's in a haze of hellfire, orbital engagements and the cities of Alkonost, Chernobog and Poludnitsa changing hands multiple times. Eventually, around 2166, the New Mandate-backed forces began to fall back under Alkonost Republican military pressure, firmly clearing the worlds of Novaya Verkuta, Alkonost, Chernobog and Poludnitsa of any pro-Mandate forces.

At this point the war moved to its second phase - that of Alkonostan assault on New Mandate territory proper beyond the subjugated Archduchy of Alkonost. Fighting in the hellish swamps and alien mushroom-forests of Belobog raged for three years, but the Alkonost Republic also backed various anti-Mandate forces on several vassal worlds, hoping to entangle the New Mandate in a multi-front counter-insurgency war it cannot win and thus forcing it into a cease-fire agreement under favourable terms for the Alkonost Republic.

One such world was Laana - in part, a vassal-world of the New Terran Mandate, and in part, open hunting ground for Incunablis cyborgs and robots. The Laanese government was little more than a formality - a weak Federal Government controlling little but the run-down starport and sometimes sending its forces to protect whatever local gentleman from rebelling peasants. Slavers from nearby worlds, as well as Incunablis Machines, plied their nefarious trade and cyborg-raids unhindered. However, some of the Laanese population did resist this state of affairs. The remnants of the Perimeter Agency, members of the old Unity party, and the remains of the Order of the Mind found their way to the crags and caves of the deep south, protected even from orbital sensors by the rough terrain. And there, a new alliance was forged. In 3143, these three groups united into the United Liberation Front (ULF), a unified resistance group fighting against the ineffectual regime, tyrannical gentry, slavers, the New Terran Mandate "traders" and "tax collectors" - and the Incunablis Machines and their nightmare cyborging raids.

Thus the guerrilla war on Laana has begun in the 3150's, in the first years in sporadic sabotage and raids on isolated groups of Incunablis cyborgs or particularly nasty gentry, but later a better-organized campaign. Still, they were restricted to operating in craggy terrain or under the cover of hemisphere-wide dust storms, as the Machines, the slavers and the New Mandate ruled the skies above them with one orbital battle station per hemisphere. But underground, or in deep, shadowed crags, they built their strength, forging new communities of survivors and escapees. One of their best war-leaders was Johar Saleh, a cunning tactician and brave raider, who, in 3155, was elected the Chairman of the United Liberation Front. But the war still went on, harsh and exacting a high price in blood. Here entered the Alkonost Republic.

The greatest strike against the New Mandate and Machine overlords on Laana came in 3168. With help of Alkonost Republic military advisors and special-operations gear, teams of ULF warriors managed to infiltrate both of the orbital battle stations, purchased from the New Mandate at a high cost by the Laanese government and run by Mandate personnel. The raid on the southern hemisphere's station was led by Chairman Saleh himself, who left his young but talented aid, Ameena Miran, to lead the ground-side ULF in his absence. The New Mandate, of course, resisted this incursion with all of its might, but the ULF was victorious although at a terrible price: all of the ULF fighters who have infiltrated the two stations had to sacrifice themselves to destroy the stations, Saleh included. But they were victorious: both stations were destroyed and the New Mandate had to evacuate its presence from Laana.

Forced out of Laana and unable to hold Belobog, the New Terran Mandate finally capitulated in April 3169, signing a long-term ceasefire agreement with the Alkonost Republic, recognizing its independence and vowing to avoid any support of local monarchist forces. This ended the Great Alkonost War, with the Alkonost Republic having the upper hand and the New Mandate left to lick its wounds. While the losses incurred by the war were monumental for both sides, the wave of patriotism released inside the Republic by this victory was powerful enough to stimulate its economy and lend enthusiasm to the Alkonostan population in their reconstruction of their war-ravaged worlds. But soon after the New Terran Mandate was sent packing, a new threat appeared to the embattled Republic - the Incunablis Machine Empire.

The Incunablis Conflict - 3170-3189
Alkonost Republic Hecate-class Frigate, early 3180's
Prior to the Scream, the technologically-advanced world of Incunablis specialized in robot and computer products in general and breaked AIs in particular. There were rumors, however, of illicit research into ubreaked AIs, maltech cybernetics and unsanctioned robotics. Despite Incunablis' planetary government's strong protests, the Perimeter Agency launched several investigations into these suspicions, but found nothing substantial. The rumors, however, were true. The major corporations on Incunablis, backed and supported by the planetary government, were deeply involved in illegal research in the field of robotics, cybernetics and unbreaked AI, and have evaded notice of the Perimeter Agency. Shortly before the Scream, a network of unbreaked AI Cores was set up, its insights greatly speeding up the world's research into cybernetics; following the Scream, these Machines were in power.

By the 3160's, Incunablis controlled its own multi-world empire, under its mighty cybernetic yoke. Imprimatur, Incunablis, Osiris and Sicarii were its worlds, all managed by unbreaked or semi-breaked AI Cores and their legions of "puppet" robots and cyborgs; Laana - while not under direct Incunablis control - was also under strong Incunablis influence. During the latter days of the Great Alkonost War, the Incunablis Machine Empire sensed the weakness of the embattled Alkonost Republic, and began raiding its worlds for resources and potential "candidates" for cyborging. From its bases on Imprimatur and Sicarii, the Machines could easily strike Alkonost, Poludnitsa and Chernobog directly. In late 3169, knowing that the Republic was still recovering from the horrors of the Great Alkonost War, the Machines launched coordinated raids against Republic worlds. Following several waves of raids, the Alkonost Republic had no option but fight back, and it began concentrating its efforts at the weakest link in the Incunablis chain of subjugation - the semi-vassal world of Laana, where the Republic had connection with the local guerrillas from the Gret Alkonost War days.

On Laana, the young, energetic Ameena Miran, 31 years old at the time, was elected the next Chairwoman after Chairman Saleh's death, and very soon proved herself more than capable of leading the ULF. While not as brilliant a tactician as her predecessor, she was - and still is - a highly charismatic leader, capable of moving masses of people with the mighty force of her personality. Under her leadership, unhindered by any consistent Incunablis or New Mandate orbital capability and supported with arms and equipment by the Alkonost Republic, the ULF launched an all-out open war for the liberation of Laana from the AI overlords once and for all. In 3174 they were victorious. The ULF led by Chairwoman Miran entered Laana City under the cover of a massive dust storm and ousted the last President. They were free at last from off-world tyrants and from any organized opposition by the gentry. Celebrations in Laana City - now renamed The Liberated City - as well as in the rest of the world lasted for weeks. But the world was devastated by the prolonged wars and the Laanese were extremely reluctant to use any leftover Incunablis robotic technology, as it reminded them of the horrendous Machines.

Chairperson Miran moved quickly and decisively from leading the war against the New Mandate, the Machines and the Federal government - to leading the campaign for the re-industrialization of Laana. Led by her charismatic vision, the Laanese people willingly put long hours of hard work into rebuilding their world; they personal rewards for this in terms of their quality of life were quite minor, as the majority of economic output went towards industrialization and building a mighty Inter-Stellar Liberation Army (ISLA), but they were free - and worked for forging their own destiny. Analog technology, augmented by the rapidly developing field of psionics and by psionic "Mentants" (Humans trained to replace computers), replaced the Empire's digital technology.

Between 3174 and 3185, the Incunablis Conflict simmered on at a much lower intensity, both sides rebuilding for the inevitable next round of fire. The next target in the prolonged, if lower-key (when compared to the Great Alkonost War) Incunablis Conflict was Sicarii, and unlike Laana it was a world directly under Incunablis rule, its human population kept in line by robots and cyborgs and worked as slaves producing spare parts for the Incunablis machines or more commonly - left in abject poverty and under the constant threat of cyborging raids. As Sicarii served as a base of operations for many raids into the Republic and against Laana, it was the next logical step in the ongoing war against the Machines. It was, however, heavily fortified. This is why the invasion of Sicarii involved three integral parts - Alkonost naval strikes against Incunablis battlestations in Sicarii orbit, landing elite expeditionary troops to engage the Machine forces on the ground, and most importantly - supporting and bolstering the local human resistance (the Human Revolutionary Movement - HRM) which will do the bulk of ground fighting against the local Incunablis-supported "puppet" troops, their supporting robots and their cyborg officers.

The joint Alkonost-Laanese forces together with local HRM rebels launched the Operation Burnt Offering in May 3185. It began with coordinated naval attacks on the two Incunablis battlestations in Sicarii orbit, and once they were neutralized, Alkonostan transport ships landed a ground force mostly composed on Laanese ISLA troops. As these invaders integrated with the HRM locals, they began retaking Sicarii from the Machines, inch by inch. But unseating the Machines required the removal of their AI cores from Starport City, which were heavily defended and fortified underground. Thus, the HRM/ISLA forces executed a daring plan in 3187 - multiple commando raids on the five nuclear 'snuffers' protecting Starport City. These were almost suicide attacks against highly sophisticated mechanized defenses, but the sacrifice of most operatives paid its dividends when Starport City lost its 'snuffer' protection. Before the Machines could reactivate their 'sunffers', the Laanese frigate Harriet Tubman launched several deep-penetrating nuclear missiles into the heart of the Machine Cores, utterly destroying Starport City and thus eliminating any coordinated Machine fighting ability on this world. Within a few months, after repelling several Incunablis naval raids and mopping up the remaining Puppet forces, the Machine Empire had to admit its defeat, and Sicarii was liberated, soon to be integrated into the new "Liberated Worlds" polity headed by Laana.

Defeated, the Incunablis Machine Empire offered the Alkonost Republic a peace treaty beneficial for both sides. This Treaty of 3187 meant an end to all hostilities between the Machines and the Republic, and the Machines giving up any claims to Sicarii and Laana, in return to the Republic giving up any claims to any of the three remaining Incunablis Machine Empire worlds. Furthermore, both sides agreed to set the world of Imprimatur apart as a "treaty port" - a world where Alkonost-registered ships can land and trade raw materials and pretech components for advanced electronics and nanotechnology manufactured by the Machine Empire - far above and beyond anything the Republic could produce. The Republic agreed to deny its citizens access to Incunablis itself or to Osiris. While Alkonost signed this treaty with a sigh of relief, the Liberated Worlds refused to sign it, claiming that this will mean betraying the hopes for liberation of any humans left on the Incunablis worlds. But nonetheless, the Liberated Worlds does honor this treaty (though they did not sign it), at least for now, out of respect for their Alkonostan allies.

Later Developments 3189-3200 (present day)
Alkonostan Stalkers survey a lost world, mid 3190's
Peace finally arrived at the Alkonost Republic, and with it - the new prospect of colonizing new worlds (such as Domovboi) and raiding the various Blight worlds for highly profitable Pretech components to which the growing technological base on Alkonost ahs developed a voracious appetite. Many of the veterans of the last two wars - the Great Alkonost War and the Incunablis Conflict - found new employment as Stalkers, raiders of the Blight who treat on dangerous ground to bring back Pretech components to sell at a fat profit margin back on Alkonost. This is a time of exploration, of expansion and trade; and the Republic flourishes. But there are those who think that its democratic demeanour is a sign of weakness, and that a more authoritarian regime will steel it to face the challenges of the universe; the Psionic Committee and its allies in the Navy officer corps do plot a coup towards this direction, slowly but surely working their plan for regime change.

Meanwhile, the Liberated Worlds saw less peace than the Alkonost Republic. While Laana and Sicarii are undergoing fast-paced industrialization (and some would say, militarization), the Liberated Worlds have recently acquired Apep as well. When the Grand Pharaoh of Apep decided to seize the Laana-registered trader, Song of Moses in 3198 and imprison its crew, little did he predict the firestorm that would follow. When another free trader passed the news of this to Laana, especially with graphic descriptions of the torture and execution of crewmembers, the Laanese public was enraged, and soon enough Chairwoman Miran stepped up to the plate. Soon enough, three battalions of ISLA special forces landed with heavy TL4 arms and air (and orbital) support and spurred the local insurgents - with whom the Liberated Worlds had some dealings in the past - into an all-out assault on Pharaonic forces. When the dust settled, the Pharaoh was on a fast ship en route to Kedesh, and the insurgents were in power. Within a month, the leaders of the Revolutionary Provisional Government of Apep came to visit Laana itself and returned home with a 10 billion credit low-interest loan (usable for purchasing Laanese goods) for industrialization. Thus in early 3199, Apep formally joined the Liberated Worlds.

Both the New Terran Mandate and the Incunablis Machine Empire are still reeling from their recent defeats. Of these two, the New Mandate had had its three decades of recovery, and is now preparing for renewed expansion. In fact, rumor has it that the New Mandate's Harmony Bureau is behind the Luddite insurgency on Sicarii and the Royalist terrorism on Apep. Meanwhile, the Liberated Worlds and the Alkonost Republic are stirring trouble for the New Mandate on Svarog and Chemosh... A proxy war might be brewing, while the Incunablis Machines do seem to be quite as of late.

Interesting times...

Monday, September 28, 2015

Mars has liquid, flowing water!

NASA has just discovered liquid water flowing on Mars! Granted, the water flows seasonally, in the (relatively) warm summer, and thanks to the high saline content of the Martian soil, it does not freeze or boil as readily as it would otherwise, but this is still - flowing liquid water on Mars! This is the astronomy discovery of the decade, for the very late, and it will doubtlessly keep a good number of scientists busy for a while. This also means that there are greater chances for native (bacterial) life than anticipated. And it also means that terraformation might be more readily possibly - if still monstrously costly - than believed in the past. In any case, a monumental discovery in our solar system!

Now, in Traveller terms, it would probably be UWP X411000-0 right now, hopefully within a generation or two D411220-8 with a good scientific colony! And in my Visions of Empire setting, by 2260 AD, it would be a major colony undergoing terraformation - B433942-D...

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Trying to fight and forge ahead despite setbacks

It ain't easy being me. Between PTSD and depression, both of which originate from very bad things I underwent in my childhood, life is a struggle. I struggle to stay alive; I struggle to do something meaningful with my life despite the black pain which returns and floods me once and again like a dark wave. But I fight. I have no other option. I do far less than I would like to, I have so many great ideas but only a little of them get realized as sometimes my free time is taken over by dark thoughts and darker crying.

But I am trying to fight ahead! Despite all this pain, I am trying to do something with my life. Gaming gives me joy; writing gives me a purpose in life and a reason to live. The other reason I have to live is my spouse, Einat Harari, and my mother, Sarah "Suri" Golan. I live for them, and I live to write. And I am fighting. The struggle is difficult, and other than the support of my spouse and mother, and a few close friends to whom I reveal my inner darkness, and some mild sedatives, there is no outside support. I have to fight on by myself. And I will continue to fight as long I am alive, hopefully for many years.

My next goal is to finally finish the draft for Barbarian Conqueror King. Once BCK is finished, I am going to work on Visions of Empire as a commercial setting for the next edition of Mongoose Traveller (I will start writing it only AFTER BCK is done). All the meanwhile I will continue to run my bi-weekly BCK campaign using D&D5E/ACKS hybrid rules (there might be some conversion notes ready after I finish writing the draft).

I will fight! I will never give up to darkness! I will forge ahead no matter the pain!