Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Price Points

According to this advertising flyer from 1979, the AD&D Monster Manual and Players' Handbook hardbacks, as well as the Holmes boxed set and other boxed sets were priced at about $10, while the supplements for the D&D boxed set and the adventure modules were about $5. According to the CPI Inflation Calculator, those are approximately equal to $30 and $15, respectively, in 2011 dollars. If I recall correctly, the Dungeon Master's Guide cost $12, which would be about $37.50 today.

So, in today's dollars, the original AD&D set of books would have run about $97.50, for about 470 pages of material that we're still mining to this day.


Friday, September 16, 2011


Beyond the borders of the Paynim Empire lie the lands of the Ablashian barbarians. Comprising a number of tribes (which they call "Counties") both independent and interrelated, the Ablashians have a sophisticated and rich culture that is treated as simple and backwards by the patronizing Paynim envoys to the Ablashian Courts.

Ablashian society is centered on the idea of the contractual obligation (though they would not conceptualize it in this way - their concept would be of reciprocity for favors). A young Ablashian who wishes to rise in society (as a farmer) will indebt himself to a patron by borrowing capital goods, such as cattle, land, a plowshare, and so on. There are traditional amounts of each that are based on the status of the client's family and other matters. In return, the client will pay about half of what could be built from that capital (about half of the expected calves, half of the expected crops less the seed, and so on) for a period of time, usually seven years, then the client will return value equal to the items originally loaned. During this period of time, the client also owes certain responsibilities of loyalty to the patron.

Skilled trades, such as smithwork, are handled similarly, but the prospective smith apprentices himself to the smith in exchange for training. The smith gains the service of the apprentice, and will eventually loan the necessary capital goods to the apprentice when he becomes an independent smith on the same sort of terms (though at a much lesser interest rate).

In addition to these areas of society, there are also intellectual and warrior trades. These are handled much like the skilled trades, with apprenticeship, but since the output of these trades is not so easily quantifiable as material goods, different methods of repaying the training are developed. [Details are vague at this point, but probably include indenturing and such.]

Ablashian government is based on the client/patron-apprentice/master system, in that clients owe loyalty to their patrons or masters. However, there are some necessary institutions which exist to limit the abuses that this basic system can engender. For instance, each tribe has a groups of priests called "Judges". The Judges hold Court at Alehouses (see below) and hear cases brought up by one person against another. Judges are assisted by an order of priest-investigators called "Advocates" whose jobs are to investigate the facts of a case, especially criminal cases, and by the "Counts", who are a group of warriors whose mandate is to find criminals and bring them to justice at the Courts. The Counts are empowered by the Baron, who is given his authority through election by, and from among, the landholders, a position that he will hold for life. Not that life is necessarily long, as the Baron is expected to operate in the front lines of any war the County is prosecuting.

A town is governed by a Mayor, whose position is chosen by vote of the business leaders of the town. There are usually a few towns per County.

There are other priestly castes, as well. Some include:

The Holy Doves: Priestesses (and the occasional priest) of Valentina, the goddess of love and beauty.

Duelists: Wandering devotees of Dullahan, the god of fighting. They can be either a benefit or a bane to a community, and are greatly feared for their immense, nearly magical skills at fighting.

Trappers: Mountain ascetics devoted to mountain spirits. They collect fur pelts to trade in the towns.

Taverners: The maintainers of special temples called Alehouses. The Alehouse is the center of a community, and includes, at the least, a room devoted to the rites of the Holy Doves and the service of alcoholic beverages, and another for the Court of the local Judge.

(There's more inspiration to be found in the American Old West.)

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Science Fiction Film Space Travel

Note: For the purposes of this post, I am using "Science Fiction" to refer to reasonably plausible scenarios. This includes what is sometimes called "Hard Science Fiction", but is not limited to that, as some minor bending of the rules of reality is acceptable in the interests of the story. Hopefully, what exactly I mean will be made apparent by some of my examples below.

I love Science Fiction movies. I also love Science Fantasy movies, but here I'll just talk about the former. First, my nominations for best Science Fiction movies of several decades:

1950-1959: (tie) Forbidden Planet and The Day The Earth Stood Still
1960-1969: 2001: A Space Odyssey
1970-1979: Alien
1980-1989: Blade Runner
1990-1999: Gattaca
2000-2009: Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind

Of those, I'd say that the 1960s-1980s were the best time for Science Fiction film, and would count those three as far and away the best three of all time (in which specific order? That would vary depending on my mood, I think. Right now, Blade Runner is pretty much leading the pack).

Did you notice something about those? After the 1970s, spaceships are passé. Gattaca has a trip on one as the ultimate goal, Blade Runner mentions them almost offhandedly as something that other people go on, but they're pretty much removed from the table otherwise. Before then, anyone can go into space (with one exception). There's a stereotyped cook in the 1950s who makes bootleg liquor. In the 1960s, there are low-level receptionists on the space stations. In the 1970s, we're back to an updated version of the 1950s-era lowlife spacemen. After that, it's only the élite who travel beyond the bounds of gravity, if anyone does at all.

I've been kinda obsessing on this topic for the last few weeks, in the wake of the effective end of the USA's space program (yeah, yeah, they're working on another one - wake me when it flies, but I'm going to go out on a limb and say that it won't happen in the next decade or more; don't even get me started on the private space companies). Before we went, space was full of possibilities. Anything could happen, and we imagined so much.

Then we actually got there.

I will never denigrate the achievements of the Apollo program. Landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to Earth was, frankly, an absolutely incredible success. As I've learned more about rocketry and space travel in the real world, it has become more and more apparent to me just how amazing it was.

But, that success is leavened by the lack of anything of real interest to humans on the Moon. Sure, there's a wealth of scientific information that we should be glad we have, and there are potentially valuable resources if we can just work the bugs out of the devices that will hopefully use them. But there's not much that we can use now. We can't plant crops, because the Lunar soil lacks many of the necessary nutrients available in an organic biosphere, so we'd pretty much have to bring those with us. There aren't many useful metals that we don't already have in abundance on Earth. There are no organics, such as petrochemicals, at all. It's an expensive trip with little material return.

When we found that out, it seems, there was a drop in interest in space travel. Some visionaries tried to leverage concepts that would make space productive, but those haven't gotten very far. There are a few industrial processes that might be improved by microgravity, but that hasn't been proven yet. Microgravity might make a useful retirement community for the wealthy (who might desire the reduced strain on aging organs), but that isn't exactly "productive".

Basically, we've learned that space is mostly good for communications and observation satellites (possibly weaponized ones, as well, but those are currently agreed to be banned), which don't really need people. It isn't all that long until they plan to de-orbit the International Space Station, and that would pretty much be the end of space for humans. Sure, we might build another one, but we couldn't even build a new highway system at this point. We can barely maintain the one we already have. I think that we're done in space, and Science Fiction movies have been reflecting that, for the most part. There are occasional examples otherwise: Avatar, for instance, but those border on the realm of Science Fantasy (as, really, does Forbidden Planet. I make no claims to a foolish consistency, and one could dismiss this argument on that basis if one were so inclined. Keep in mind that the idea is that of "plausibility", which varies depending on the state of knowledge). Moon is the big exception, but it is an exception.

So, some other Science Fiction films I really like:

Alphaville: une étrange aventure de Lemmy Caution (1965)
Solyaris (aka Solaris, also remade as Solaris) (1972)
Outland (1981)
Escape From New York (1981)
War Games (1983)
Aliens (1986)
Hardware (1990)
Until The End Of The World (1991)
Strange Days (1995)
Hackers (1995)
Koukaku Kidoutai (aka Ghost In The Shell) (1995)
Abre Los Ojos (aka Open Your Eyes, remade as Vanilla Sky) (1997)
Banlieue 13 (aka District B13) (2004)
Children Of Men (2006)
A Scanner Darkly (2006)
District 9 (2009)
Inception (2010)
Limitless (2011)

This is not, of course, a complete list, just what I can think of offhand. Also, I left out some after considering them (such as WALL-E and Paprika), as they went too far into the realm of Science Fantasy for what I am trying to discuss here.

What you see in all of those is that space travel is definitely something that becomes more uncommon with time, and more relegated to élites when it is present. Even Moon fits into this latter category by limiting its spacemen to one individual at a time, not having entire colonies with janitors, receptionists, store clerks, and so on.

For our games, this might mean that it is worthwhile to consider Science Fiction settings that don't include space travel. Even (perhaps especially) cyberpunk, postcyberpunk, and realistic transhumanist settings might start to consider that we might not be getting off of this planet in any significant way.

Some time, I'll discuss the whole Peak Oil/Limits of Growth thing and how that affects this possibility.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Refining My Games Wantlist

A little while ago, I made a list of games that interest me. As I think about that list more, my interest has been refining, and some other games have come around in my interest. So, here's the most recent list of RPGs I would like to play and/or run:

D&D (0E, B/X, BECMI/Cyclopedia, 1E, or Retroclones)
Top Secret
Space 1889
GURPS (depending on background*, with a preference for 4E)
Traveller (any edition, though CT or MT are preferred)
James Bond 007
Cyberpunk 2020
Fantasy Wargaming
Flashing Blades
Realms of the Unknown

*Some specific examples, chosen from published backgrounds:

GURPS Voodoo: The Shadow War (updated for GURPS4E and the Path/Book magic system)
GURPS Traveller (with a preference for the G:T revised timeline in the 1120 era)
Transhuman Space
GURPS Bunnies & Burrows
GURPS Reign of Steel

Friday, September 2, 2011

Top Secret Retroclone Character Creation

In the original game, characteristics were rolled on 1d100, and gained bonuses based on the number rolled. So, if the roll were 01-25, you'd add 25 points, making the stat 26-50. This is a little bit complicated, and it results in situations where a roll that was higher results in a stat that is lower (for instance, a 25 becomes 50, while a roll of 26 becomes 41). That annoys some players, even though I don't personally care.

The average roll using the basic Top Secret method comes out to 62.73, with a minimum roll of 26 and a maximum of 100. After experience additions, stats have no theoretical limit, though there are some practical limitations.

I'm thinking that I will include both that method and a simpler method. Instead of rolling 1d100 straight, roll 2d10 and choose the larger die as the tens digit, the smaller die as the ones digit. This results in an average roll of 65.45 with a minimum roll of 10 and a maximum of 100. Perhaps I will include the option of allowing the player to choose which method he prefers.

I'm definitely going to incorporate all of the various secondary and tertiary traits from supplementary material, which basically means that it will include the three traits from the Top Secret Companion and the two traits from "Operation: Zenith", Rasmussen's article from Dragon 120 that introduced the space program as an arena for espionage roleplaying. In addition, there are a few sections in some alternate rules that I plan to incorporate where averages of various attributes are used without declaring a new secondary or tertiary trait. I think that I'll designate some new traits to cover those.