Monthly Archives: October 2017

Tech Noir Setting Rules

Tech Noir is a genre that mixes the tropes, themes, and archetypical characters and stories of noir and hard boiled fiction with science-fiction technology and aesthetics. It’s the genre of stories about illegal psychics on the run from a government that wants to put them in internment camps and the one ex-psy-cop who can help them escape; or a missing microchip that can hack any computer and the detective hired by corrupt cops to find it since it’s believed to be somewhere in Neon Town; or the billionaire inheritor of a megacorporation who wants to know why her parents were killed in an aircar accident, and doesn’t know who to trust so she turns to outsiders to solve the crime.

The Starfinder Roleplaying Game isn’t specifically designed to emulate Tech Noir, but if everyone in a group is willing to give the tropes a try, there’s only a few things that need to be adjusted for it to do the job quite well.

Gear

Tech Noir isn’t about killing monsters or taking their stuff, though both those things can happen. It’s about investigating, surviving, exploring themes, and earning experience points. The GM ignores wealth per level, and “treasure” may be as little as 5 credits a day plus expenses. Instead, you get to pick gear at every character level, with some gear getting special rules on how its recovered or recharged.

“Gear,” in this context, is anything that would go in the equipment chapter of the Starfinder Core Ruleook, so cybernetics and such count. You can even take “services” as gear, in which case they count as contacts (and treat “item level” as the npc contact level), but you have to go to them for help (no more often than once per game session)—they aren’t cohorts.

This equipment has a minimum item level of 1, but even at first level it’s important to know which gear fills which slot (since recharge/reuse rules are different).

Armor has no environmental protections, and always looks like typical clothing. Mostly suits and trenchcoats.

*You get one piece of gear of your level+1 or less. If it uses charges or batteries you never run out of supplies for it, though you do need to take time to reload normally, and you can’t use those supplies for any other equipment. If you lose this, it is restored or replaced within 24 hours or as soon as you get back to your base of operations.

*You also get one pieces of gear of your level or less. If it uses charges or batteries you get one spare every time you hit your home base. If you lose this, it is restored or replaced as soon as you get back to your base of operations (but not more often than once per 2 days.)

*You get two pieces of gear of your level -1 or less. If it uses charges or batteries you get one spare every time you hit your home base, no more than once per game session. If you lose these, they are restored or replaced near the beginning of the next game session.

*You get four pieces of gear of your level -3 or less. If you lose these, you’re out of luck until you gain a new character level.

*If you are 5th level or higher, you get four pieces of gear of your level -4 or less. If you lose these, you’re out of luck until you gain a new character level.

Adventures

Tech noir adventures are much more likely to be mysteries than jungle exploration, first contact with new alien species, or raids into ancient dungeons—though tech noir CAN tell those stories, with an additional mystery/drama subplot.

In the first or second session of a new tech noir adventure, the GM should make clear why the mystery or complication of the adventure is. After each successful encounter, the GM must give the PCs a lead. No skill check is needed for this (though additional clues may be available with successful skill checks). The lead is, at minimum, a way to get to another encounter related to the mystery or complication, which in turn leads to another, and so on. After 13 successful encounters, the mystery or complication is solved (by shooting the bad guy and finding his diaries explaining everything, if nothing else). Noir detectives and agents often fumble about most of the story, getting jumped by foes they’ve never met and finding allies suddenly getting cagey for no good reason. By tenaciously pulling through, the noir protagonist eventually uncovers the truth. A tech noir adventure should be set up the same way.

Example of Tech Noir in Fiction
Akira
Blade Runner
Blade Runner 2049
Brazil
Dark City
Dredd
Gattica
Ghost in the Shell (anime)
Metropolis
Minority Report
Soylent Green

Source of Inspiration
Shadowrun—all forms of this RPG are well suited to draw ideas for magic-infused tech noir.
Garrett Files Series. These books by Glen Cook have no tech, but they combine noir with fantasy in a way that should be inspirational for anyone looking to create Starfinder Noir adventures.

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Fictional Sites for Sci-Fi RPGs

Infosphere Sites

These sites are designed for the Starfinder Roleplaying Game, but can be adapted to different sci-fi games as desired.

Each of these sites is popular and powerful enough to exist in the infosphere of hundreds or even thousands of settled worlds. While each planetary infosphere has its own local iteration of these sites, where residents on that planet can interact with it in real time, the offworld sections are regular updated by automatic downloads from the databanks of ships and transmissions from other worlds.

Each site also lists a focus. For every 5 ranks in Computers and Culture a character has (whichever skill they have the most ranks in – you don’t get twice as many foci for having ranks in both), they receive a focus in one infosphere site for free. (A GM may also use inforsphere site focus as benefits for things like themes or story awards.) This represents a strong understanding of how the site works (both technically and in regards to its culture.) Focus with each site gives you a minor bonus when you take specific actions, or allows you to take actions you normally couldn’t. This requires you to have access to the planetary inforsphere, and if the action requires the involvement of people on other planets, its effect is delayed until a ship or transmission  carries the request to and from that world (normally double the time requires for a hyperspace trip.)

Blather: A popular venue for extremely short-form messages (known as “blats”), Blather is used both as a way to have public conversations and to push specific marketing ideas. Many Icons and leaders use Blather as a way to send a message directly to their fans, followers, foes, and the general public.

Focus: You can gather information (as the Diplomacy task) with a Computers or Culture check. The first gather information check you make each day takes no time, as it represents your general knowledge gained from being up to date on Blather.

Chekkit: A distributed messageboard with specific-topic sections (subchekkits) on tens of thousands of topics. Chekkit is largely free of corporate control (though it is owned by a coalition of companies) and is self-moderated by members. This freedom allows it to be used as a populist place for discussion, research, and crowdsourcing obscure questions, but also allows it to be used to promote and organize antisocial, bigoted, fringe, and actively harmful social movements.

Focus: You can attempt Diplomacy and Intimidate checks with individuals connected to an infosphere by driving campaigns of popular opinion in the appropriate subchekkits. This takes a minimum of 1d6 days, and you can’t have more than one pending skill check of this type at a time.

Infopedia: Infopedia is a user-driven repository of information, with articles written by, and edited by, the general public. In general this method produces articles with considerable accuracy, and it often allows subjects that do not draw scholarly notice to be thoroughly covered. However, it is also vulnerable to both accidental and intentional falsification of facts.

Focus: You can take 20 on a skill check for a skill you have no ranks in, even for checks that normally require you to be trained in that skill, but doing so takes twice as long as is normally required to take 20. Additionally, with a Computers or Culture check you can attempt to make a Bluff check to introduce a false piece of information to the search results of a planet’s infosphere. The base DC of this Bluff check is the same as the DC to discover the accurate information. Anyone who researches the question with a skill check result below your total to introduce false information cannot determine which fact is real. If they also fail the original research DC by 5 or more, they accept the false fact you introduce as true. Your skill check may be modified by the same kinds of modifiers that make Bluff checks more difficult, and the effective total of your check goes down by 5 per day as the general public corrects the misinformation.

MyFace: The most popular social media infosphere site through the homeworlds and their allies. Users have profiles with extensive personal information, and generally post thoughts, pictures, and even video of everything from their political beliefs to what they had for breakfast. A powerful tool for keeping in touch with friends who are far away, but also a massive tool for corporate opinion-shaping and data-mining and a growing encroachment into the privacy of everyone, as any public event may be broadly broadcast on MyFace.

Focus: You can disguise your online activity by using a false MyFace account as the sign-in and basis of everything you do. Individuals attempting to figure out who you are must make a Computers check with a DC of 10 + your Computers or Culture bonus, or they are fooled into assigning your online activity to a fake MyFace account. You also gain a +2 circumstance bonus on Diplomacy checks with creatures that you have successfully identified the true MyFace accounts of.

Speaking of Sites…

I have a Patreon, and so does one of my Sponsors, Justin Andrew Mason! He’s the sponsor for this post, so if you want to thank him, go check out HIS Patreon!

I got so excited I even wrote up a fifth, self-referential, site on my Patreon — the fundraising sci-fi site “Sponseor.”

The Cinematic Sci-Fi Timeline

This is a cinematic sci-fi timeline, and effort to create a rich history of advancing technology and the issues, heroes, and morality tales that lead to a moment rich for player character involvement. That moment might be at the end of this progression, or at any point along the way the GM finds interesting.

This isn’t an effort to actually jam all these differing stories into a single continuity, and I am not claiming RUNAWAY is actually the precursor to RoboCop. I am also aware that some of these do have official crossovers (half of then through Dark Horse comics), and I don’t care if I invalidate those either.

Nor am I trying to fit ever science-fiction movie in existence into a single reality. Just a specific subset I feel have some themes and throughlines in common that make for an interesting potential universe.

This is just a thought experiment, designed to place actual inspirations into slots where a pastiche of each *could* form a logical continuous timeline with just a little tweaking.

Each movie includes the year the movie was released, for clarity. No specific set time is suggested for when these movies should occur, but I assume the timeline runs roughly 200 years from 1970 to 2170. The timeline movies forward with each italicized breakdown of how the listed movies represent the events of that point in the timeline.

The Timeline (1970-2070)

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
The governments of the world come to accept that alien life is real and travelling the stars, but keep the information from the general public.

Terminator (1984)
Crucial moments in the development of the world are impacted by a very small number of time travelers, resulting in multiple, overlapping alternate timelines, proof of some variant of the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics.

Carrie (1976)
Firestarter (1984)
The Fury (1978)
Perhaps as a step in evolution, perhaps as a response to the first cases of time travel and alien contact, verifiable psychic phenomenon begin to sporadically manifest. The governments of the world alternate between exploiting and just killing such talents, but needless to say thigns often go poorly.

Predator (1987)
Aliens continue to visit Earth in small numbers and without the public learning, but such visits are not always friendly.

Looker (1981)
As technology advances, the wealthy and powerful begin to realize it can be used to control the lower classes, to focus even more power in the hands of the few.

Runaway (1984)
As society groans under the need to provide for an expanding population and worsening natural resources, autonomous robots become increasingly common in advanced societies. Something they go rouge, and must be put down. Sometimes an increasingly tech-savvy criminal class makes use of them.

Push (2009)
Scanners (1981)
Suspect Zero (2004)
The number of individuals with psychic powers grows, and organizations begin to form to deal with them exclusively.

A Clockwork Orange (1971)
Predator II (1990)
The pressure on society begins to lead to the collapse of institutions and social norms. As the middle class ceases to exist, the underclass becomes increasingly violent and hard to control. The tiny sliver of the wealthy and powerful, and their increasingly independent corporations, seek to control the masses through any means. This is a rich environment for a small number of alien visitors to exploit conditions for their own amusement or gain.

Red Lights (2012)
Slowly, the scientific community begins to publicly study psychic powers, though skepticism remains high.

RoboCop (1987)
Governments begin to collapse and corporations gain more power. This leads to efforts to have corporate-controlled paramilitary forces, and to use cybernetic technologies to enforce obedience on a soldier-servant class.

Event Horizon (1997)
The strain humanity is putting on Earth is clearly unsustainable. The oligarchs and mega-corporations experiment with ways to spread to other worlds, though their reckless willingness to attempt anything that might succeed leads to horrific failures.

Outland (1981)
Total Recall (1990)
Thanks to advanced in space travel, humanity begin to move to new worlds, though all still within the solar system.

Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972)
The need for cheap labor leads to attempts to uplift other simians. But if we made apes intelligent and independent enough to serve as slave labor, they are intelligent and independent enough to rebel. Such efforts are outlawed.

Furtureworld (1976)
Rollerball (1975)
Solent Green (1973)
Westworld (1973)
The world is in near collapse. The upper classes have literally fantasy worlds to play in with their nearly unlimited wealth, while everyone else fights for scraps and is distracted by death sports. Early cyborg technology begins to advance to primitive androids, though these require fairly regular maintenance and human-augmented control.

(If society does totally collapse, a new timeline forms here, with Damnation Alley, Mad Max, A Boy and His Dog, and so on, eventually reaching Thundarr. Our timeline doesn’t go that route.)

Minority Report (2002)
The existence of psychics is publicly accepted, and they begin to be integrated into the government and corporate efforts to control a growing population that is increasingly dissatisfied and dangerous.

Blade Runner (1982)
The total collapse of human civilization is prevented by creating autonomous androids to serve as the ultimate slave labor force, while humanity begins to truly move to the stars. But only those who are healthy and talented are chosen my megacorporations to be shipped off Earth, and it turns out intelligent and independent android slaves have many of the same issues intelligent and independent ape slaves did.

Alien (1979)
Silent Running (1972)
Robots begin to be replaced by androids in most tasks, though simpler robot technology is more stable. Though some governments have gone to the stars, it is the corporations who have the money and resources to push the boundary of the final frontier. What they find doesn’t always go well for the corporate employees who find it.

Blade Runner 2049
Back on Earth, things still boil (details left out as spoilers for the movie)

Aliens (1986)
Colonization becomes standard, and most android behavior issues are solved. But as humanity’s sphere of influence spreads, so does its interactions with other alien life.

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Spoiler-Free Blade Runner 2049 Thoughts

I saw Blade Runner 2049 with some friends.

I think it does a wonderful job matching the style and world and storytelling style of Blade runner.

This despite doing some things I normally think of as terrible ideas for sequels. But in this case, they were good calls.

I also think it was full of thematic and philosophical nuggets that are more interesting in conjunction and contrast with the original than they would be alone, but going into detail would be spoilers, so I’m not doing that yet.

In any case, I’d be happy to watch Blade Runner 2079 when it’s released in 2052.

Blade Jogger

Blade Jogger

In preparation for seeing Blade Runner 2049, Lj and I opted to watch a version of the original.

I’d like to claim it inspired me to write a post about how the only innocent character isn’t the protagonist or antagonist, or thoughts on what we owe our inheritors, an essay on the value of a life lived for a single moment, or my analysis on why the universe itself cries throughout the entire film, or something classy like that.

But that just wouldn’t be me.

Instead you get:

Ten Mash-Ups I’d Watch But Have Never Heard Anyone Suggest

(and their advertising tag lines).

Blade Runner vs. Predator
Who hunts the hunter?

Robocop V – Chucky Cop
When the police are demonic dolls, who do you turn to for help?

Christine: Transformer
Evil is changing.

Dungeons and Dagon
You are not high enough level.

Men in Black Mirror
Whatever’s going on, it’s weird and depressing.

Doctor Clue
Master Mustard, in the 11th century, with the lead pipe.

G.I Joe vs the Volcano
Amercia’s Best can Get the Job, but can they Do the Job?

Gremlinbusters
Who You Gonna Feed After Midnight?

The Last Star Writer
A fanfiction forum is a test from an alien alliance to pick the one geek who can think of ideas awesome enough to save the galaxy.

Guardians of the Galaxy Quest
They’re going to need Guy’s leg.

Honorable Mentions
The Fhtagn Four
Mr. Fhtagn. His mind can bend into any shape!
Invisible and Insane Woman. Out of Sight, Out of Mind.
Eldritch Thing. It’s Cthulhuing Time!
Human Torch. We set a guy on fire. He… doesn’t do much.

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But WHY Kickstarter?

Why Kickstarter?

So let’s open with this – Rogue Genius Games (RGG) has a Kickstarter running at the moment (until Oct 15th). That obviously colors my opinions, and I want my biases up front. And, to be clear, I hope you’ll click on that link and consider backing my KS campaign. This post serves triple duty, as content for my blog, as an ad for our current KS, and as a way to start a conversation about how the industry is evolving.

That said, there are a lot of people, including many in the game industry, who feel an established company, or a big company, “shouldn’t” fund projects with Kickstarter. What counts as established or big varies by person (and, honestly, sometimes by conversation, and in some cases without an accurate idea what the actual size of some of the companies involved is), and in many cases RGG is likely small or struggling enough we come in under the theoretical line for it being “fair” for us to use Kickstarter

Now to be clear, if someone doesn’t want to back a Kickstarter that’s an entirely reasonable position, regardless of their reasoning. It’s a company’s job to convince you to invest in a KS campaign, and no project is “owed” support by backers. A Kickstarter campaign being run professionally has to expect both doubt and even naysayers, and one that isn’t being run professionally is a much bigger risk to backers.

Even so I think it’s worth taking some time to explain, from my point of view as someone running a company that has used (and plans to continue to use) Kickstarter for bigger projects why I find it useful and believe it’s a legitimate and useful tool for business of any size. Of course as a producer of tabletop games, mostly RPGs, that’s going to be the focus of my thoughts.

  1. In the Modern Tabletop Era, Pre-Orders Are Largely Meaningless

The idea of selling a product that doesn’t exist yet is not new. From the early days of gaming, companies would take orders for books they hadn’t finished, known as pre-orders, and use that money and information to finish the book and determine how many to print.

When I was first getting into the game industry in the 1990s, many of the people I worked for were already decrying the death of the pre-order system. At least for many companies, it used to be that if you announced a product that would come out 6-9 months later, you could expect a decent percentage of your sales to be pre-orders. Fans would pre-order from game shops, game shops would pre-order from distributors, and distributors would pre-order form game companies. With that information, and historical context, you could make a reasoned estimate of how well a product would do, and set the size of your print run accordingly.

The size of a print run has a huge impact on the profitability of a game product (with the exception of Print on Demand, which has its pros and cons but is generally a discussion for another day). The more books you print, the less each book costs. Which is great—as long as you sell them all. It can be very difficult to know if you are better off printing 1,000 copies at a unit cost of $2.75 each, or printing 1,500 for a unit cost of $2.55 each. Obviously the difference in pure profit is notable, and having more to sell means more potential income. But it’s also $2,750 vs. $3,825 to pay for the whole print run. If you end up selling 999 copies, the lower per-unit cost doesn’t matter.

Working with many game companies in the modern era, the feedback I get is that not only are pre-orders much smaller and less reliable than they used to be, they are no longer particularly useful for predicting total popularity. Books tend to get roughly the same number of pre-orders regardless of how well they end up selling. I presume this means that only hardcore fans and stores are pre-ordering, and thus tend to do it regardless of a product’s general appeal, but it’s also possible that online sales have changed how the system reacts to demand. Regardless, the point is that knowing I pre-sold 40 copies of a book does nothing to tell me if it’ll sell 1,000 copies, 1,500 copies, or 3,000 copies.

A Kickstarter goes a long way to solving this problem. First, the number of Kickstarter backers a book gets almost always exceeds what it would have gotten in modern preorders, which helps replace the funding pre-orders used to give companies to do books. Also, it sets a floor for how many copies I need, helping narrow down print run sizes. Third, it seems to be a better tool for determining the overall success of a product. Both from my own experience and having spoken to numerous game companies and even retailers, books with more successful Kickstarters generally are also more successful in sales after the Kickstarter. That’s useful information to have.

  1. Failure Is Useful

It’s especially useful information for a game company when a Kickstarter fails to reach its funding goal. That’s frustrating, but it’s also crucial information. Game companies can be killed by a single massive failure in a book they printed. Numerous companies HAVE dies from a single big flop, though admittedly usually companies with other problems as well. But discovering a project can’t raise the minimum needed to finish it before you spend that money is a huge help. It allows game companies to take risks, which leads to innovation, because they have both a read on popularity and a source of income to do things that might cost more than their normal efforts. Discovering that something is a bad idea, or at least needs retooling, before spending all the development and print and shipping and warehousing costs for it is an enormous incentive to try riskier things. I believe that is both good for the industry overall, and for creative endeavors of specific companies and creators.

  1. It’s Good Advertising

There aren’t all that many great, affordable venues for reaching tens of thousands of potential customers in the tabletop industry anymore. At one time Dragon magazine had a circulation over 100,000 copies. While there are successful game magazines still running (Rite Publishing’s Pathways is amazingly steady and has affordable ad options – but again, I am biased as someone who works for Rite), none of them have anything like that reach. The closest I can think of with that kind of power is John Reyst’s d20pfsrd.com site, and numerous companies I know have made great use of it… to advertise Kickstarters.

I strongly suspect that one (admittedly of many) reasons pre-orders are down in the modern era is that there isn’t a “magazine of record” for RPGs and tabletop as a whole. Dragon was, at least for a good chunk of its existence, much more than a D&D magazine. I read reviews of and saw ads for many competing game systems in its pages, and nothing with that broad base appeal and vast reach seems to still exist.

A Kickstarter is an event, and it’s one that encourages word of mouth. Because of the structure of stretch goals, people already backing you have an incentive to tell their friends and get THEM to back you, so the end product is better. And it allows a game company to push advertising for a specific time period—the duration of the Kickstarter campaign, and know that those efforts pay off in terms of total product size and quality, and likely long-term sales.

  1. Speaking of Stretch Goals

If a Kickstarter goes crazy-popular, and the creator manages it properly (and yes, you can mishandle a Kickstarter as a creator, but that’s hardly a problem unique to the platform), you can discover demand for something is much higher than you thought. If you offer a campaign to fund a 32-page supplement on Halfling War Baking, and it turns out what the world really wants is a 160 page hardback full color book on the topic, it’s great to discover that while there’s time to value-size your project. Similarly done properly (again, which doesn’t always happen), a Kickstarter can also let you test the waters for supplements and related add-on products. A game company might well have no other way of getting this information, and thus customers might have no other change to indicate they want it. As a connection directly between creator and consumer, this is huge. Speaking of which:

  1. It Creates a Community

There are pros and cons to this one, on both sides, but having a venue where people who have put their money where their mouth is can speak directly to creators has a vast potential I think creators are still learning the right way to benefit from. For customers, being able to pledge $1 to be able to speak directly to the creator, in a venue where other customers can publicly see your opinion, has a strong potential for encouraging accountability. Or course it also creates a new potential for trolling, but you take the bad with the good in this case.

Creators can also ask question directly of the people already paying them, adjust a product based on popular feedback, explain their processes—it’s a weird combination of written seminars, ad space, and forums. At its worst, it can become a toxic pool, but so can most means of online communication. At its best it’s an open and creative forum of stakeholders in a developing project, and I think that benefit is both underappreciated and still developing.

Compared to entertainment option creators like movie studios and big novel publishing houses, even the largest tabletop RPG game creator is tiny. I think there is a strong benefit in having a new and interactive way for just folks who have proven their interest in a project get to interact with the creators of it to try to build bonds and (hopefully) earn trust and buy-in.

  1. Finally, From Folks Smarter Than Me

Monte Cook Games are great, smart folks, who do RPG Kickstaters well. Like, expert-level well. Since it’s a public post, I am going to link to a Facebook post of Shanna Germain, where she talks about and shows a post by Charles M. Ryan that speaks to “Why Kickstarter?” I think it’s well worth the read.

Speaking Of Online Funding Sites

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