Sunday, April 26, 2015

Raygun Fantasy and Scientifiction

I'm working on a more complete essay on the subject, but I wanted to get some initial thoughts down about the difference between what I am calling "raygun fantasy" and "scientifiction". The basic idea is that raygun fantasy takes ideas and themes that are most common in fantasy stories, such as spirituality, heroism, and other human concerns, cloaking them in imagery related to technology but without concerning itself too closely with the actual plausibility of those images. Scientifiction (the term is taken from Hugo Gernsback's preferred term for science-oriented fiction), on the other hand, tends toward matters of the sciences, dramatizing either scientific concepts or technological speculation, without much concern for realistic human issues. I use the term specifically for "retro" forms of SF, which are based in forms of science, technologies, and hypotheses that have not proven to be useful or practical, from theories of the luminiferous ether to ideas of negative mass. Of course, there is a certain overlap where raygun fantasy fades into scientifiction, and certainly other terms could be coined to more precisely situate various stories along a continuum between the two poles.

For example, many episodes of the original Star Trek series were basically raygun fantasy. The various episodes in which powerful aliens - or computers! - who masquerade as gods, angels, or who act in much the way that spiritual beings are said to act here on Earth are especially indicative of this. "And the Children Shall Lead", "Metamorphosis", "Wolf in the Fold", "Arena", "Who Mourns for Adonais?", and many other episodes of that series typify that sort of approach. Northwest Smith encountered many beings that were from other dimensions or planes of existence and were no different than otherplanar beings in fantasy fiction. Star Wars is notable for its fantastic elements, especially the various manifestations of the Force, and draws many of its plot concepts from myth and legend. The Lensman stories tend toward scientifiction, but the Arisians resemble occult concepts of Ascended Masters to a great degree, the Eddorians invade our universe from an alien space-time continuum, and the telepathic powers of the Galactic Patrol are largely similar to magic.

Another frequent element of raygun fantasy is the use of swords. This can be either unexplained, as in Flash Gordon where fighting with swords just happens or Krull where the presence of swords is taken for granted, or else given a rationale of some sort, such as the interaction of light sabers and the Force in Star Wars or the shield belts of Dune. This happens often enough that I had considered calling the subgenre "sword & blaster".

That last brings up an important area of crossover in subgenres of SF. The SF New Wave frequently drew inspiration and concepts from the era that gave us the core of raygun fantasy, and as a result often fits well into the concept. In fact, the influence occasionally went the other way as well, after a fashion, as when the 1980 film of Flash Gordon featured an Emperor Ming who controlled and enhanced his soldiers with drugs, a common New Wave motif.

To my way of thinking, the ideal of raygun fantasy stories are C.L. Moore's Northwest Smith stories, Flash Gordon, and Star Wars. Those form the core around which I am building my ideas of the subgenre. There are many other examples, from Lost in Space and Battlestar Galactica (the 1978-79 series more than the 21st century remake) to Richard Corben's "Den of Earth" stories and Leigh Brackett's Eric John Stark tales, plus the Masters of the Universe toy line and television series, not even to mention videogames like Final Fantasy. One of the most recent manifestations of the idea is found in the blockbuster film Guardians of the Galaxy. I'll discuss this all more completely later.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Spectacular Science Stories and Psychic Powers (and Tales of the Space Princess)

I finally got hold of John Stater's Tales of the Space Princess (not to be confused with James "Grim" Desborough's Machinations of the Space Princess, which is a very different game), and I love it! I especially love it because it's very similar to what I've been trying to do with Spectacular Science Stories. Oops. Still, there are differences in our respective approaches, so I'll keep going. I want to write a more complete review of Stater's game, but I need to do some research first, so it will wait. In fact, I want to talk about many of the other games that cover similar territory, from TSR's High Adventure Cliffhangers: Buck Rogers to Warriors of the Red Planet. Maybe even the FGU Flash Gordon game if I can manage to afford a copy.

Instead, right now I want to talk about Psychic Powers and the Psychic Warriors of Spectacular Science Stories. My initial brief for them was "like a cross between Jedi and Lensmen, by way of Blue Ă–yster Cult", and I didn't have much more than that to go on at first. I've been playing with different ways to represent their psychic powers in the game, initially looking at a variation of the D&D Vancian system (discarded as not really good at representing either Jedi or Lensmen), then thinking about ways to adapt the WEG Star Wars RPG approach to the Force (also discarded as it would push the class far too close to Jedi for my liking). Finally, I decided to examine what makes Lensmen different than Jedi, and to consider what it was about "Veteran of the Psychic Wars" that I could import to make a real difference in the class.

Not wanting to abandon the Jedi connection entirely, I looked at the WotC Star Wars method of handling the Force, too. Most of it was either too complex, too tied in with "Feats", or too close to the WEG version to be useful to me. I did like the idea of using hit points to power the abilities, though, as that helps to emphasize the fact that hit points aren't physical damage, plus it gives a potentially interesting tactical puzzle to the Psychic Warriors - spend hit points for powers or save them to soak damage?

The main thing about the Lensmen is that their powers don't really have much of an effect on the physical universe directly. Their real strength is in their ability to affect the minds of others and to sense things at a distance. On the other hand, I didn't want to completely discard the Jedi ability to manipulate things at a distance, though I also didn't want Psychic Warriors floating space fighters around by wiggling their fingers.

What I think I am going to do is divide abilities into Power Groups, like Telepathy, Psychic Combat, Self-Control, and so on. Each Power Group will have five levels of ability, each with one power. At each character level, the Psychic Warrior's player gains two levels to distribute among the Power Groups as he wishes. I currently have six Power Groups (Healing, Probability Manipulation, Psychic Combat, Remote Sensing, Self-Control, and Telepathy), so it would take a character being at 15th level to have all of the abilities at their full capability. Since that would require 20,480,000 experience points, that is a long way off for most characters! Plus, I do plan to come up with other Power Groups (and let my playtesters come up with some if they want), as well as providing loose guidelines for Referees to develop their own. Psychic Warriors do not become a master of every psychic ability there is.

Here are my current notes for Psychic Powers. Note that most of them are not defined enough to even have a cost yet. Also, the Healing abilities will only be usable on others, never on the Psychic Warrior using them (except for "Transcend Death", which can only be used on the Psychic Warrior using it).

Healing


  1. Soothing Touch (heal 1d6+1)
  2. Cure Disease
  3. Healing Hands (heal 3d6+3)
  4. Neutralize Poison
  5. Transcend Death (become an astral being)



Probability Manipulation


  1. Lucky Break (reroll one die roll)
  2. Gremlins (machine malfunctions)
  3. Serendipity (useful coincidence)
  4. Probability Control (specify one die roll)
  5. Telekinesis (move object up to 10', cost: 1 per pound or fraction)



Psychic Combat


  1. Mind Block (counter most mind-affecting psychic powers with a save)
  2. Distraction (minor hallucination distracts target)
  3. Psychic Whip (1d6 damage, can't wound/kill)
  4. Invisibility (become unobtrusive)
  5. Neural Overload (save or fall unconscious 1d6 turns)



Remote Sensing


  1. Danger Sense ("I have a bad feeling about this.")
  2. Sense (get a general description of a remote location "A room containing four dogs", "An open plain with a tree, and no animals or men present", and so on)
  3. Clairvoyance (perception as if at a remote location)
  4. Psychometry (detect history of an object)
  5. Precognition (general sense of future events)



Self-Control


  1. Ignore Pain
  2. Rapid Recovery (recover from wounds faster)
  3. Resist Heat/Cold (save for half damage)
  4. Strength/Endurance (feats of strength, increased damage, and so on)
  5. Regeneration (regrow limbs, super-fast recovery from wounds, etc)



Telepathy


  1. Empathy (detect emotional state of a target)
  2. Read Thoughts (detect surface thoughts of a target)
  3. Send Thoughts (transmit thoughts to a target)
  4. Suggestion (Jedi mind tricks)
  5. Mind Control (direct control of actions, edit memories, etc)



Keep in mind that I am also going to be disconnecting hit points from injury. Basically, while you have hit points you aren't injured, but when you run out and get hit you roll on an injury table. Note that the Healing Power Group doesn't actually allow you to heal physical injuries! This is deliberate. I am thinking about the idea of Advanced Powers, which require two Power Groups at high ability to be able to choose them, and which give one powerful ability instead of improving any of the Power Groups.

I'm still thinking of ways to play up the "Veteran of the Psychic Wars" angle. Maybe introduce a streamlined Sanity system from Call of Cthulhu? I dunno. Maybe the Mind Control ability is enough, since it will allow editing of a target's memories.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Aliens In Spectacular Science Stories/Rockets & Rayguns

Yeah, I am still thinking about which name to use. I think that, at least, SSS will be the working title.

Anyway, aliens. Since the game draws on a wide range of sources for its inspiration (I'll do an "Appendix N" post soon), it also draws on a wide array of types of alien races. On the one hand, humanoids, even ones that can intermarry with Humans, should be really common. On the other hand, some of the aliens in the source material get really weird and "out there". A really common trope is the alien race that is a lot like our stories of spirits and demons, being non-physical and capable of manipulating the physical universe in various ways. The original Star Trek series was particularly good for providing visual examples of these, but they were common throughout the history of the pulp raygun fantasy stories.

I'd talked earlier about the idea of the Flanaess Sector, but that was originally targeted at a more "hard" SF setting, where what we know of physics was important. That isn't a concern in raygun fantasy, so I've been looking at other monsters to include as aliens. I probably still won't include elves, since that would make things look a little too much like 40K for comfort!

I'm particularly interested in some of the more obscure entries to be found in the OSR, actually. The Kzaddich and Tsalakian (pdf), originally found in Footprints magazine (and John Turcotte's dreams prior to that), were put into the OGL when they were added to the Swords & Wizardry Monster Book. I think that they would be perfect for raygun fantasy. In the Adventures Dark & Deep Bestiary, Joseph Bloch provides an interesting creature called the "Genius Loci", which resembles a number of creatures from the original Star Trek, from various adventures of Northwest Smith, and so on. Mr. Bloch helpfully included that entry under the OGL.

I mentioned a number of creatures that fit in the Flanaess Sector article, such as the Flumph, Grell, Otyugh (or Neo-Otyugh), Myconids, Ropers, and so on. I think that I can replace the Mind Flayers with the Thelidu (they fit into the idea of raygun fantasy a little better anyway, since they were specifically developed for a science-fantasy influenced setting, Dwimmermount), which were included in the Swords & Wizardry Monster Book by James Maliszewski. The Umber Hulks who attend on Neogi could be replaced by Joseph Bloch's Underground Goliath.

All of that aside, it should be pointed out that nearly anything that fits into a fantasy world will also fit into raygun fantasy worlds. Notably, some of the horrors in Rafael Chandler's Teratic Tome are extremely appropriate to the sorts of pulp SF that falls into the raygun fantasy category.

I should write a manifesto, of sorts, of raygun fantasy.

The main thing that I'll need to do is work out which aliens are most common and have star empires of their own. I already know that I want the Thelidu to have one, with a sector of Ropers resisting them, and I certainly want an empire of Myconids (or maybe Skathros's Mushroom-men).

In the end, though, all of that is pretty much background to the central theme of the game, which I will talk about next time.

Edit 4/26: I didn't get around to talking about that central theme in the next post, but I will. I started to approach the discussion a couple of posts later, when I began to lay out what, exactly, I mean when I say "raygun fantasy".