Friday, April 19, 2013

An incredible new view of the Horsehead Nebula

NASA/ESA/Hubble Heritage Team
NASA has released a new image of everyone's favorite gaseous equine-shaped stellar object. But don't take my word for it. Straight from the --uh, horse's mouth:
Astronomers have used NASA's Hubble Space Telescope to photograph the iconic Horsehead Nebula in a new, infrared light to mark the 23rd anniversary of the famous observatory's launch aboard the space shuttle Discovery on April 24, 1990.

Looking like an apparition rising from whitecaps of interstellar foam, the iconic Horsehead Nebula has graced astronomy books ever since its discovery more than a century ago. The nebula is a favorite target for amateur and professional astronomers. It is shadowy in optical light. It appears transparent and ethereal when seen at infrared wavelengths. The rich tapestry of the Horsehead Nebula pops out against the backdrop of Milky Way stars and distant galaxies that easily are visible in infrared light.

Hubble has been producing ground-breaking science for two decades. During that time, it has benefited from a slew of upgrades from space shuttle missions, including the 2009 addition of a new imaging workhorse, the high-resolution Wide Field Camera 3 that took the new portrait of the Horsehead.<
You can download a wallpaper-sized version at NASA's image gallery.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Holy @#%$! Check out the trailer for Neill Blomkamp's Elysium!

Now, THIS looks promising. From the guy who brought us District 9.

Synopsis from IMDB:
Set in the year 2159, where the very wealthy live on a man-made space station while the rest of the population resides on a ruined Earth, a man takes on a mission that could bring equality to the polarized worlds.
Stars Matt Damon, Jodie Foster, and Sharlto Copley from District 9. Some choice stills (click to enlarge):

Yes, that is a Stanford Torus Wheel space station!!!


Monday, April 8, 2013

Classes, skills, and a thought experiment...

YES, I'm still working on classes for the Rad Astra. It's taking longer than I expected because, well, I keep having "ideas" about stuff. And I put that word in quotes partly because it feels more like a curse that leads to me never finishing!

Hey, I'm only partially to blame. I mean, part of it is Matt's fault (from Land of Nod) for coming up with cool "ideas" that spread like a bad cold I can't shake. I'm sure what you're about to read has been considered (with more brain power than mine) by somebody before, but here's my thought process:

DIY Classes
I really like the idea of players making up their own "class" (using Matt's definition of just a way of categorizing skills, attributes, etc.). But then I thought--what if everyone was the same class to start out and then they grew their skills gradually (I'll get to that in a minute) and that eventually led them to a class/vocation.

So the steps would be:

STEP 1: Class: Adventurer - every PC is the same class and rolls up their attributes, 3d6, etc. etc.
STEP 2: Assign per your or your GM's preferences.
STEP 3: Pick skills based on attributes and then follow this handy chart for each attribute:
  • 9-12 pick one skill
  • 13-15 pick two skills
  • 16-18 pick three skills
STEP 4:  Start adventuring! Start earning XP and keep good records.

Now right about here is where the first idea I had starts to break down. I wanted to give players a chance to be more mindful of what skills they acquire--sort of like deciding you want to learn welding, even though you're a piano player. You WANT to learn a different skill despite what your natural talent might be. So the next step was going to be:

  • Gain 1 skill when you reach level 1 (oh, should clarify, everybody starts at level 0)
  • Gain 2 skills when you reach level 2
  • At level 3 - let's make it a Class! Can you categorize your skills? Great! Because by now I'd have made some funky chart that says you should be a space wizard if you have lots of intuition skills, or a space spy if you're really good at hacking computers and crawling through Jeffries tubes holding a sonic dagger between your teeth.

And if your skills are just too varied? No worries: "Professional Adventurer" it is! I'd cap it all off with some kooky rule like:

  • PCs who take up a class get XP discounts when they want to earn more skills, level up; or
  • Adventurers can keep accumulating skills, but they can never sub-specialize (so you can keep racking up skills--like say you take "Space Mechanic", but you can't get into being an expert in space bikes because you're supposed to be a jack-of-all-trades, blah, blah, B.S., B.S.)

But then, I had another IDEA. 
[Sigh.] Actually, something kinda' bugged me. I never liked the idea that classes just "had" skills. Like, when I went to college, I had to learn skills and eventually I adopted a vocation--but it didn't work the other way around. I didn't say "I'm a fireman!" And then, instantly, like in the Matrix--did I get knowledge of how to put out fires. (Yes, I'm aware that Neo never learned to put out fires.)

YES, I know not all games work like this. But rules light games, like X-plorers, tend to simplify things. So if you've got Slight-of-Hand as a skill, you're basically just "learning to get better" as you advance in your class (by levels). You get better by bonuses. It never really feels like you're achieving anything in the way of growing your vocation. Well, okay, that's a bit much--but your PC doesn't get to say she or he is refining those skills. Just racking up bonuses.

Essentially, XP = experience, but not really.  Not XP from practicing that skill.

Go back up to steps 1 and 2 up top. Then instead of step 3 --which now occurs during game play-- tell your GM you want to try to do something. Like, say hack an automatic door (pick a lock).

You roll, and you record your attempt as one.

Then (maybe immediately, maybe later), you try it again. You roll and record your attempt as the second try.

You are awarded XP for each attempt of the skill. The XP you gain from your attempts ends up purchasing you that skill.

Now to make this work, you'll need some things, like a list of skills and how much XP they cost. Also, it helps to have a GM who's willing to work with you on skills that may come up during game play.

In a recent game, our heroes rode a zipline over a 200 foot drop into an alien jungle. Now "riding a zipline" is pretty lame-o skill. But if a player asked to put the attempt towards, say--an Acrobatics skill--that would be worthwhile.

So how much XP for which skills? Do certain skill types cost more than others? What about their rolls? Does rolling a 1 have an impact on skill cost or if you can purchase the skill? Does rolling a 20 mean you nailed it and you're a natural?

I came up with a 1-2-3 rule (again, in the interest of trying to keep things simple).

  • 1st Attempt = 25% XP
  • 2nd Attempt = 25% XP
  • 3rd Attempt = 50% XP

So in 3 tries, you'd have 100% of the XP you need to purchase that skill. Why 50% on the back end? Because, you've tried it twice before. And let's wrap this shit up already. You want the skill, you've tried it 3 times, it's yours.

What about training? Couldn't I take a lightsaber fencing class at the nearest psionic swamp academy to get better? YES!

In which case, the chart is reversed:

  • 1st Attempt = 50% XP, earned upon payment and attendance
  • 2nd Attempt = 25% XP, earned outside class 
  • 3rd Attempt = 25% XP, earned outside class

So 50% is yours, BOOM. Here's your diploma. You paid up front to take the course, you probably saw the syllabus, pestered the teacher before class. So you get 50% first. Yes, it seems like you could just buy your way to a skill. To which I'd reply--AND?

It's called college. If you've got $ you get to take a class. But real world experience still counts for something. BUT you've still got to earn the other two attempts in game play. You have my permission to say "Oh, I know this one--I totally learned this IN CLASS LAST WEEK," when you roll your attempt.

How much do skills cost?
Ha! See, that's what I'm wondering too. Seems like something like brain surgery should cost a lot. Whereas, riding a giant space lizard, maybe not as much? Yeah, still working out the details on that. "Wouldn't brain surgery require more attempts than just 3?!" Yeah, probably. "What about in a class--wouldn't it cost more to learn that skill?" Yeah, that too. See what I'm up against? I still like 1-2-3 attempts better, but not having a sliding-scale solution causes problems. Tune in next time on that one kids.

What does "getting" a skill get you?
Not sure yet. Maybe you still get bonuses? So when you level up, your effectiveness still increases. Once you adopt a class, the cost for skills gets cheaper and you can therefore afford to get more of them.

Let me just caution you--the answer to all of these questions is: I don't now yet. I'm sure someone has figured that out in some RPG, but for X-plorers I'll likely playtest al this jazz and see what works best. 

So what about those rolls?
Ah, see I DO have this one figured out. At least I think so. If you fail all 3 times, it doesn't matter. Because failure = you get the skill anyway. Why? Ask anyone who's ever tried anything and didn't give up. Eventually they figured it out by trial and error. Shouldn't you be awarded for succeeding? Sure, why not.

But I'm not going to write that rule. Not today.

Actually I already did a whole chart and everything. But it doesn't matter. You could use this:

  • 1 = no XP
  • 2-19 = XP per that attempt's award
  • 20 = full XP, no more attempts needed

But that's bogus, see. In life, (ha!) you can fail and learn by failing. You can also succeed--but that doesn't mean you nailed it. If anything, it was probably beginners' luck and you have no idea WHY you nailed it.

Real skill is refined through practice. Which is why the roll doesn't matter. I mean it does matter in the context of the game. Surely you'll be happier when you roll a natural 20 trying to blast an angry Klingon in the eye with a laser rifle (Sniper skill). That's great--the roll is still relevant.

But if it's your first better keep practicing!

P.S. If none of this makes sense, just remember--most of these thoughts come to me late at night when I have only a tenuous grasp on consciousness. So pardon my sandman dust while rules are under construction!

Friday, April 5, 2013

These are the adventures you're looking for!

Ever wonder what your favorite cheesy sci-fi movie would look like if were a Star Wars (West End Games era) adventure module? Or what would sci-fi classic Forbidden Planet might look like if it were  set in a galaxy far, far away?


Star Wars RPGer and Force adept Rologutwein (I think I'm spelling that right) of Star Wars Dakota has crafted these awesome module covers for some conversions he's working on. I hope to Yoda he's planning on making those available.

These are just some of the ones he's posted, check out his blog for more. And BTW, you all should be reading his blog. [Wags finger sternly]

These are just so supremely cool--even the text reads like those old books.. Man I miss West End.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Totally rad boombox comercial

I remember this one--but who would have guessed it was for General Electric?

Via Boing Boing

Refining Rocket Raccoon for the big screen!

Marvel has dropped several new stills and illustrations (and a now redacted-from-the-web video) showcasing the next phase of their movie universe. From the look of this concept art for Guardians of the Galaxy, it appears my favorite interstellar rodentia, Rocket Raccoon is really starting to come along in the design process.


I'm convinced! Now if they'd just tell us who's going to voice him. Here's another shot of RR with some of the other Guardians in a seedy space saloon...

Good stuff! Here are a few more of my favorites, including a couple'a spaceships from GotG...

Falcon spreads his (I'm guessing Ultimates-inspired?) wings in Captain America 2: The Winter Soldier...

And here's a still from Thor 2: The Dark World. I really liked the first one--just the right amount of Silver Age fun and frivolity!

And I'm THRILLED that Ant-Man is actually happening! I've been a Pym fan for many years.But if we can get an Ultron showdown out of this, then we'd be REAL close to finally seeing my personal favorite superhero on-screen for Avengers 3: THE VISION!

I think they did right by his helmet, giving it a real old-school look. (I should clarify though that these stills are from live-action test footage. So it could change.)

One can only hope. Anyway, I need to get caught up on Guardians of the Galaxy comics ASAP!

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Why don't they make RPG source books like this?

Seriously contemplating handing my players this on their next shopping trip. Or maybe I'll keep it for myself and just pluck out a "new" pissed-off race to chase after them:

Unbeknownst to the PCs, straight-up antennae are essentially the same as flipping the bird.
It's the Star Trek Visual Dictionary and it is wondrous. I have the Star Wars version, which is also, just eye-googlingly fun. Idea books based on images are always my favorite. I don't look at these guys and think "Oh, I should stat up some Andorians." I think, "Oh man, who are these guys in my space opera and what's why do they look so angry?". (I'm certain you'll agree on that last point.)

That laser rifle is way rad.

"I need some low-level laser fodder, stat!"
From now I decree: No more WALL OF STAT BLOCKS source books! No more eye glazing! Even the rules-light OSR books can get really monotonous. These are great, whether or not you're a Trek or 'Wars fan. Often there's just enough detail to get the brain fired up.

Even better--if we could do them electronically. Just touch the image to bring up the stats (and hide them when needed). Get out there and start building your own source book on Pintrest or Tumblr. (Pintrest boards would be my weapon of choice. Easy organization for different catagories: e.g., races, artifacts, arms and armor, equipment, etc.) But it would be cool to actually get official books that way too.

RPG publishers, take note!

Play Report: "The Horror at Borah"

So this is a few weeks late AND it's long. If you're not into play reports, then skip it. But I wanted to record a few lessons I'd learned during this last play session. It was fairly by-the-numbers as adventures go, but I'm getting the newbies warmed up to playing RPGs as well as practicing my ref skills with saving throws, judgement calls, etc. Okay, as you were--

A few Saturdays ago, the folks from the first play test returned to the table to make it a campaign! So now we're off and running around the galaxy on a regular basis. There's still the possibility of running a game over at the Source (my FLGS) too, but I've yet to organize anything formal for that one.

Back at "The Ranch"
We return to our greenhorn cadets (a scout, scientist, and soldier)  who are back on the spacestation (called The Ranch), where they're based as freelancers for Karlo (the pawn shop owner from the first game). They took the chance to explore the station's grand market and happened upon a place to pick out capes and cowls at Lando's House of Capes--which they thoroughly enjoyed. Two capes and a cowl are ordered.

They had some time to kill while their purchases were tailored and ended up bumping into (or being bumped by) a surly alien on the promenade.

The scout rolled an incredible PRE check and was able to convince him to forget the offense over drinks at PFLURGG'S!, a nearby saloon. Turns out the alien is a freighter captain for Karlo. His name is unpronounceable in the common spacer tongue, so he goes by "Josh". He works the salvage end of their gigs (going in afterwards to tow large hauls). Basically looting. This was a revelation to them--learning that Karlo is using them as muscle in his "Brawn n' Pawn" schemes, which are highly illegal. They don't have much choice though as Karlo's their only paying gig at the moment.

Just another typical hive-of-scum-and-villainy space saloon.
Josh asks them how they came to work for him and they tell him the sad tale of getting expelled from the Star Alliance Academy. Turns out the captain "knows a guy who knows a guy" back at SAA that may prove useful for digging up some info on why they were unceremoniously kicked to the curb, just before graduation.

The most important thing gleaned from this little confab though is that Josh runs salvage and some rescue ops for a lot of freelancers as well. They trade transpoder codes and now have a contact who can work for them exclusively, without Karlo needing to know (for a hefty 15% fee, of course!).

The cadets' sartorial accessories are ready at Lando's. They pick up their stuff and head back to the hangar where Bema the space yeti is finishing the new paint job on their ship, The Mockingbird. Karlo, riding a massive hover chair to carry his slovenly form, meets them in the hanger to give them their mission: they must complete their original mission to the planet Borah, which is the same planet they tried to get to last adventure. That went awry when their ship dropped out of warp at the doorstep of a space wasp hexa-nest.

They're able to leverage the bonuses from their new duds to get Karlo to let them have RIG-B the robot again PLUS Bema as a Technician, for extra help.

Old Foes and Masters
The scientist made a Intelligence check and noticed that the coordinates for this hyperjump were different than the last one. When the ship really did arrive at Borah this time, it was clear their last mission was sabotaged to go to the wasps' nest. When RIG-B is questioned about the discrepancy, he claims his memory has files missing.

It turns out the wasps are here too--at least in orbit--with three, spaceship-sized wasps about to attack. They're able to remain cool under pressure and evade combat, but the wasps pursue them into the atmosphere. Borah's thick atmo ends up being a deterrent, and they lose the bugs in the cloud cover.

Our heroes land on a high bluff, overlooking a wide jungle expanse. Buried beneath the canopy on the opposite rim of what appears to be a huge sinkhole, are ruins. First order of business: scale down the cliffs into the jungle.
Like this. But WIDER.
It won't be easy since RIG-B has to be carried over rough terrain. The soldier offers to carry him (most of him--Bema removes some of his legs for the others to carry).

This won't be easy as the cliff walls are a sheer 200 feet down. But the enormous trees filling the sinkhole jungle are within reach. The Mockingbird has a rear-firing grapnel with winch (100 meters long). They fire it into the top of a tree and clip on some carabiners as a makeshift zipline.

RIG-B ends up being dropped on his head before they can get him secured to the soldier (that's what rolling a 1 will get you). A plate pops off and etched on the inside is the following: "PROPERTY OF COL. ZIGG ZAYNE".

Colonel Zayne, best space ace in the galaxy has been missing over a year.
A quick check from their Star Alliance History 101 courses and the kids recall that Zayne is a war hero who disappeared about a year ago. Bema, hangs his head upon hearing the name and finally lets out a forlorn howl heard throughout the jungle--his antennae flicker in futility. RIG-B suddenly remembers that he and Zayne were working for Karlo--and came to this very planet--before disappearing (but the rest was, of course, erased). The cadets discuss the possibility of coming across Zayne, should they pick up his trail.

The soldier finally gets RIG-B secure and zips across easily. The other two space-pukes, not so much. The scientist gets stuck half way and dangles high above the jungle. His flailing causes the line to snap at the opposite side and drop him into a full-speed swing towards the cliffside! He survives (a few HP shy) but they have to start over and the entire escapade becomes a lesson in problem-solving skills.

Eventually they all make it down, but now they're at the mercy of the jungle beasts!

Run Through the Jungle
Light's fading, and they need to get through the jungle fast. They run into a 7-meter-long serpent covered in caustic sludge. This turns out to be the "easy" monster, having blasted it from a distance wide enough to avoid back-splash.

A mile or so later they're attacked by a hunting party of Borahthals (neaderthal's with radium-dipped spears). They fight most of them off but--and to my own amazement--they not only get the remaing dude to speak with them, but (they believe they) convince him to be their guide by giving him a lighter (which he promptly tosses into a satchel filled with lighters from previous "tourists"). They name him "Doug".

He might look like a savage, but Doug's no dummy. The cadets, however, are very trusting. He tells them that they can take a shortcut through the jungle to a "side entrance" (a cave tunnel a little over a mile away). He leads them as far as a clearing with a large patch of sand (in the middle of a jungle?) surrounded by thick trees....and promptly bugs out.

The next sound they hear is the loud, low growl. Trees are mashed. A terrifying roar breaks the din of the jungle. And they come face-to-face with this:

Art by nebezial
...but red, actually. 'Cuz that's meaner. They get beat up. A lot. Have a look at that tail for a moment. It levels a row of trees outlining the pit that, in turn, knock the scout into the sand--which we all know is quicksand, right? On the opposite "shore" of the pit, are the soldier and scientists, staring in disbelief at what can only be called "Xeno Rex".

The soldier, impaired by the weight of carrying RIG-B can't do much besides blast at the beast with his laser rifle. The scout, tosses a graple line to her friends in hopes she can be pulled to safety before being chomped by the X-Rex (he's got a long reach--enough to get to the middle of the sand trap). The scientist devises a plan to toss grenades at Rex's feet, causing the soft ground on the opposite side to cave in and trap the beast.

The plan more or less works. The scout is injured, but not too bad. It's a miracle toss (read: roll) that the creature's acid blood isn't spilled before it sinks into the sand. It's carrying enough inside it to melt a well-armored tank.

The newbs drag themselves another mile to camp and bandage. And find themselves in front of a rocky outcropping--and a cave mouth. It's dark inside, but the faint. violet glow of biolumiescent mold outlines the walls.

Above the entrance, is carved stone, gilded in gold. It reads:


Xeno Rex
This fearsome predator tops the food chain on whatever planet it inhabits. When encountered, the "X-Rex" will first attempt to tenderize its meal using it's tail, which acts as both spear and mace. Most small arms cannot penetrate its hard exterior shell--and a nasty suprise awaits any of those stupid enough to try at close range. Good luck suckers!

(Modified from the Raptus Rex in the X-plorers manual)
AC 18
HD 8d6
THB +8
ATT 3d6 (tail) / 3d6 (acid blood, if punctured) +1d6+1 ongoing for 3 more rounds
ST 11+
MV (7)
Special abilities:
Roar (must make save vs. fear) and Swallow (can eat prey whole--don't worry about damage from teeth, it'll be too late to do the math!).
XP 1,800

So, lessons?
1. Too much time on the spacestation, which was my fault. I need to keep them focused on the mission. Though they appreciate the new swag--and the new contact--they wanted to get right to it. My bad!

2. All three players commented on how much they enjoyed the exploring and problem-solving aspects of the game MORE than combat. Go figure, this old-school style WORKS!

3. You can prepare for an adventure and you can over-prepare. I was just-barely prepared (as far as beasts go) and that seemed like enough to get by. I would have like some more original monsters, but sometimes you just want something big/mean/nasty. So let's not reinvent the wheel. Still, I think I'll over-prepare next time, just to be safe.

4. Everybody loves new capes!

Dark Horse Comics to adapt original "The Star Wars" story

So this is pretty darn cool: Dark Horse comics is going to publish an eight-part series based on George Lucas' original treatment for the eponymous first film from notes and a script written in 1974. They swear it's no joke--here's the news straight from the Horse's mouth:
Three years before his 1977 film, George Lucas put down on paper his first story set in a galaxy far, far away—a tale of fantastic adventures, daring escapes, “lazer swords,” romance, and monsters. A story of Jedi Annikin Starkiller and General Luke Skywalker, an alien named Han Solo, and evil Sith Knights. The screenplay was titled The Star Wars!

“I’m not sure where I first read about The Star Wars—it was years and years ago—but the idea of Luke Skywalker being an older Jedi General, and Han Solo being a six-foot-tall lizard, turned my Star Wars fan brain on its side,” said longtime Star Wars editor Randy Stradley. “I always assumed this would be one of those stories that would be ‘lost to history,’ so getting to work on bringing it to life is kinda like a dream come true.”

“While researching in the Lucasfilm Archives I’ve found many treasures—but one which truly astounded me was George’s rough draft for The Star Wars. His first complete imaginings were hallucinating to read—mind blowing,” said writer J.W. Rinzler. “While working with George on another book project, I once asked if we could adapt his rough draft. He was hesitant. Years later, with Dark Horse’s invaluable help, we showed him a few drawn and colored pages of what it might look like. He gave us the okay.”

I'm a sucker for alternative takes on Star Wars, but more importantly--the art looks amazing!
Check out that proto-Milennium Falcon in the background! Watch for the first in the series this September.

More info at io9 and concept images at Bleeding Cool.