For Mage: the Ascension:

Some believe it is a powerful talisman that wards off Paradox.

Some believe that its mere presence can shatter the paradigms that define reality.

All we know is that other people are willing to kill for possession of it, so it must be worth all that bloodshed.

After all, it is the only remaining grilled cheese sandwich prepared with green cheese retrieved by an Apollo mission.

I liked Robin Laws’ work on Feng Shui, and wanted to see what he’d do with a “gritty space opera” game. This was my first exposure to Pelgrane PressGumshoe System, which is designed for investigation games, with a lot of support for the narrative of exposing clues. It has four dozen skills ranging from “Bullshit Detector” and “Cop Talk” to “Forensic Accounting” and “Evidence Collection”, and assumes that the players are creating characters in a group so they can get good coverage of the spectrum of specialties. The space combat system is also narrative, accumulating progress toward a goal like “Escape” or “Cripple for Boarding” rather than a more typical simulationist view with maneuvers and damage tracks.

The setting is in the aftermath of an interstellar war, with the player characters being the special operatives of half a dozen sentient species trying to keep civilization from falling apart, accepting contracts for investigating problems, solving mysteries, and managing their image (yes, there is a “Public Relations” skill). The wreckage from the war provides ample trouble for game masters to invent. The worldbuilding is in keeping with the game’s emphasis on being like a space opera TV series, not hard SF, more on style than consistency; I expect that if I were in a game, I would be coming up with a lot of “if they have this then they should be able to do that” fill-in work. The provided background gives the Cliff’s Notes for the next five centuries of history and then gives plenty of room for improvisation from whatever cool thing you read in the past week.

I’m impressed by the Gumshoe System; the design looks great for a police procedural game.

In a gaming setting with at least slightly-ahead-of-future technology, everyone has personal infotech, including the bad guys. And when the player characters defeat them, they can still act through preprogrammed incentives.

One of the obvious ones for mercenaries is to have their gear detect defeat in combat and pop up bounties for the defeated mercenary to be delivered to competent medical care. The value would need to compete with the value to the victor of “kill the bad guys and take their stuff” (or sell them into slavery or killing them and harvesting their organs or whatever amoral profiteering the players can come up with). This also creates a rational in-game incentive for characters to rush to the sides of people who were, moments ago, trying to kill them, and performing first aid and packing them into ambulances.

It’s also an amusing way to play with the traditional “treasure drop” phenomenon, dating back to original Dungeons and Dragons, where monsters would be carrying treasure that it would make no sense for them to have. (“Where does it keep that stuff? Why would it keep that stuff?!?”) The offered ransom might be in hard credit, or in particular goods, or an interesting item that might itself be a new plot hook.

On Twitter, BuddhistHulk has been making a number of LOLisattvas lately. The LOLisattva depiction of Palden Lhamo reminded me that Buddhist Hulk introduced himself as a “MODERN DAY FIERCE DHARMA PROTECTOR”, a dharmapāla— a notion out of Vajrayana Buddhism that there are wrathful deities (which could be anything from an ancient hill spirit to an emanation from a powerful bodhisattva) ready to battle the opponents of Buddhism. Buddhist Hulk takes his icon from a Tibetan artist depicting pop culture icons in traditional form, including one picture of the Incredible Hulk as a dharma protector. So we have ancient deities and modern superheroes reflecting off one another here— we can take it one step further for use in a role-playing game.

In a supernatural timeline, the exile of the Dalai Lama from Tibet in 1959 might have caused a number of dharmapālas that had previously been tied to monasteries to be turned loose upon the world, just in time for the Silver Age of Comic Books. A spirit might take on a human form with mask and cape initially, then pop out in their most terrifying form when the time comes to strike fear in the hearts of criminals. The open-ended goal of a bodhisattva to liberate all sentient beings provides an easy plot hook for bringing in such a character as a good guy or helpful NPC. A character could be portrayed as ancient and worldly-wise, or freshly arrived from the hinterlands with lots of chances to make comical mistakes about modern culture. In a game like Feng Shui, the character would probably be a Supernatural Creature with the Transformation schtick to allow them to pretend to be a human being when not actively battling evil.

Regarding LOLisattvas, BuddhistHulk and I had an exchange:

* This is a reference to “All dharmas are Buddha-dharmas”, a quote from the Diamond Sūtra.

The basic idea behind the Seas of Chaos campaign was to have an in-game excuse to rip off any fantasy setting (whether novel or comic book or video game) that we wanted. When I sat down to browse the D&D 3rd edition books for ideas, I noticed that they had really gone overboard on all the hybrid characters; there were rules not just for half-elves and half-orcs, but half-dragons, half-demons, you name it. And that gave me an idea for a plot theme...

A background thread from a recent storyline )

A couple of times now, characters in the high fantasy game have chosen to embrace particular mystical powers during the course of the game. Between the role of theurgist (like the priest and paladin classes in D&D) and the pure-roleplaying of religion in the other professions, I decided to riff on the notion of initiation into old-style mystery religions.

A couple of initiation rituals )

Today’s Darths and Droids reminded me of a moderately silly magic item I handed out recently: the Piñata Bat. This is a Jō staff with a mischievous enchantment on it: every hit point of damage inflicted on an opponent becomes one piece of candy, and an opponent killed by the staff bursts open, releasing as many pieces of candy as their full hit point total. (It is rather difficult to resurrect someone who was killed by the Piñata Bat.)

This fit into a culinary thread that has been running through the campaign (probably as a side effect of [ profile] obsessivewoman enjoying the Food Network), which has included such things as a magical attack technique that visibly detects the spices that would make a target taste good when cooked (resulting in an intimidation effect as someone sees themselves surrounded by phantasms of herbs and spices and cooking instruments), attack spells that cover opponents in batter and deep-fry them in hot oil, targeted muting of spellcasters by filling their mouths with mochi, Candyland, and the Mithril Chef competition.

There is nothing like handing out an item like the Piñata Bat to get the player characters beating on each other with it to find out what candy they get. (The druid yielded honey-and-herb candies; the monkish martial artist rice candies; the Chaos wielders, the equivalent of Bertie Bott’s Every Flavor Beans; the Light-priest (who had to heal everyone up from this!), marshmallows; the (purple) dragon, grape jelly beans.) Sadly, being experienced adventurers, they waited until they were back at their secure base before trying out this nifty new magic item, or it would’ve been the perfect time to have some goons come through the door with swords.

John and I were discussing software failure modes and complexity issues over lunch, and speculation turned to just how tricky cybernetic interfaces would be to implement and debug. I noted how annoying it would be to get brain surgery every time an upgrade came out, and speculated that a good interface would be one that could grow organically (like the Tytan NN-II nerve net in Daniel Keys Moran’s books) to integrate with your brain instead of requiring difficult surgical intervention.

This then hooked up with Ray Kurzweil’s notion of one-neuron-at-a-time uploading: replace one neuron in your brain with an artificial one that is trained to function just like the organic ones and you’re still basically the same person; repeat 100 billion times and you could potentially upload your consciousness to a different substrate altogether. So if you already have an organically growing cybernetic interface, in addition to its interface work, you could also have it deploy new neurons to replace old ones that die off, one at a time. It would take decades to get to the point that you could actually upload, but one could accomplish a lot of living in that amount of time (and it provides a relatively natural decision point for “retiring to cyberspace”).

It then occurred to me that impatient transhumanists might become incredible party animals, indulging in huge amounts of neuron-killing behaviors to hasten the transition to being able to upload themselves. (This would probably increase the error rate, so sane people would follow a more temperate strategy.) So remember, kids, be careful at those parties with the radical extropians!

Normally, the escape-to-hyperspace is a point at which a chase scene breaks off in a science fiction game. NASA has found that neutron stars that are in a close binary with a regular sun can slurp down hydrogen and helium and then explode the surface layer like a pipsqueak Type Ia supernova. And they do it at a regular interval. I can just see the light freighter full of player characters, pissed-off capital ship in hot pursuit, taking advantage of their knowledge of the local astrography to drop out of hyperspace and dive toward a neutron star, with the intention of making the capital ship take the brunt of the next upcoming explosion... (Discovered via io9.)
A deranged notion that occurred to me as I was clambering toward consciousness this morning:

The Church of the Eternal Profits treats the following theological tenets as revealed truth:

  • The Supreme Executive Being and his Angelic Accountants, Auditors, and Actuaries calculate all of the economic externalities that you incur. Creating positive externalities is a virtue; forcing other people to pay for your negative ones is a sin.
  • The world you help create in this life determines the characteristics of the world in which you will spend your next life. e.g.: if you contribute to pollution and litter, you can expect to find yourself in an environment choked with it in your next life, and will need to spend that life cleaning up your own externalities (which will have developed with compound interest at current market rates) before you can go on.
Preachers are in the habit of wearing business suits, holding a staff surmounted by a lamp patterned after the original street lighting on Wall Street, and standing in the financial districts of large cities haranguing passersby about paying off their credit cards every month, reducing their externalities, saving for the future, market transparency, and exhorting their government representatives toward fiscal rectitude. They tend to quote from classic economics books as if they were scripture, e.g.: “Is it not written in The Wealth of Nations that...?”

If the church gets any larger than street-corner preaching, they incorporate for tax-exempt status, provide free financial planning services for the poor, and eventually begin creating financial instruments that allow people to profit from virtue.

If I had the time and energy, it would be fun to put this together as performance art (put together a web site, put some sermons on YouTube, go stand in front of major banking skyscrapers and sermonize publicly), but I’m just turning this notion loose instead. [ profile] exoterica, please feel free to pass it to anyone you know who would enjoy taking the idea and running with it.

The Ghosts of Galaxies Past brings up an astronomical feature I was previously unaware of: stellar streams (also called tidal streams), remnants of dwarf galaxies that have been caught in the gravitational pull of the a larger galaxy. These rivers of suns eventually merge with their captor galaxy, but stand out from their neighbors with a slightly different chemical composition; the Arcturus stream and the Virgo Stellar Stream are examples of such galactic immigrants.

Stellar immigrants in a space travel campaign )



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