Monday, June 22, 2015

Space Madness

I've been apartment hunting for the last few weeks, and it has put a serious damper on my ability to post, my time for thinking about much else, and my mood.

I love my city. New York, NY remains the greatest place on Earth in my opinion, but it is a hard place to live if you aren't making a lot of money. It's not just expensive, it demands you have more than adequate funds for practically every facet of life.

I will endure. Just over the horizon is my home sweet home, my next big pay check, and my happily ever after. I am sure of it.


I know, I need to get back to Superheroes. I know. Just bare with me for a bit longer.

My last post on Science Fiction gaming received more views, and responses than I've gotten in a while. That's interesting to me, and fuels my desire to talk a little more about Science Fiction RPGs.

What I think is really wonderful about gaming in the Science Fiction genre, what I'd really love to run, is...

Have any of you seen the trailers, and related footage for the upcoming video, and computer game No Man's Sky?

No Man's Sky is an action/adventure Science Fiction game designed for both the PC, and Sony's PlayStation 4. The game consists of an open universe, sand box of procedurally generated planets complete with extraterrestrials animals, terrain, starships, space battles, and more.

The procedurally generated nature of the game, based on recently revealed information from game creator Sean Murray, means that players will be able to explore as many as 18,446,744,073,709,551,616 planets. Yeah, that's not a typo. That's A LOT of frickin worlds.

During his demonstration of No Man's Sky for the E3 Game Convention this year (2015), Sean Murray played through taking off from a planet's surface, and going into space. From a space view map, he was able to pull back the camera, and show the audience the local stellar group. It looked something like this:

Which then became pulled back a little further to reveal this:

The image above was then followed by this ridiculously fast cascade of stars, nebulas, and void, rushing past like a raging river, a deluge of light and color too vast, and moving too rapidly to fully comprehend.

THAT is what I want my next Science Fiction RPG to be like, because THAT is what Science Fiction RPGs are all about.

As noted in my previous post on Science Fiction RPG podcasts, one thing they never seem to do is go into why those who like Sci-Fi games think they're fun. Another thing they don't tend to cover is why you (the player, and Player Character) actually do in a SF RPG.

Questions about the second issue came up a few times during the Play On Target podcast, with Lowell Francis specifically noting that he didn't grok* what PCs do in a Sci-Fi setting.

Let's see if I can't address both of these points simultaneously.

What's So Great About Science Fiction?

Underwater on the planet of New Eridu
From No Man's Sky

Well, to begin with, at the very core of a Science Fiction RPG for me is a universe of nearly endless possibilities, that must still make relative sense. In truth, it is more an exercise in pushing the boundaries of what constitutes sense based on what we know now.

For example, could life form in a place with no water? Can anything ever really move faster than the speed of light? If genetic engineering eventually enables us to live for hundreds of years, what will it mean to our cultures, and industries from medicine, to cosmetics?

Well...Carl Sagan was among the many scientists who theorized that life could exist in ammonia, or use hydrogen fluoride. Four years ago, an experiment by CERN seemed to indicate the neutrinos may potentially move faster than light. Sadly, the data was discovered to be incorrect, but it resulted in a much greater understanding of particle physics. Who knows what the future might hold in that area? The Transhumanism movement believes we can fundamentally alter the very nature of the Human condition by improving, and enhancing our physical, and mental capabilities through science.

It is this kind of speculation that fuels plots, and Player Character goals in an SF game. What do you want to do? Who do you want to be? How can we do the impossible? What will we become?

Can you explore these ideas in Fantasy? Yes, I guess so, but in what way? Seems to me the answer to all of these questions in Fantasy is 'Magic'. Everything interesting is answered through the word Magic. Much easier, and (IMHO) much less satisfying.

What else is cool about Science Fiction?

Certainly exploring and expanding the limits of our knowledge and imagination are fascinating but sometimes you just want to zap a robot with a ray gun, right? Science Fiction has cool stuff like spaceships, laser guns, anti-gravity vehicles, and thinking machines.

Fantasy Player: "I went on an adventure and found a +2 Sword!"

Science Fiction Player: "Cool. I went on an adventure, found a component that enabled me to design and build a remote drone that could survive a hazardous atmosphere."

Fantasy Player: "I used my +2 Sword to kill a Goblin."

Science Fiction Player: "Wow. I used my drone to make first contact with a sentient species of methane breathing, gas giant dwelling starfish/squid creatures. They informed me about this unusual hydrocarbon material in their lower atmosphere that we are now trading with them for materials that are easy to find on Earth but don't form naturally in their environment. I'm rich, famous, and I've developed a group of allies and enemies who have expanded the campaign setting."

Fantasy Player: "The...the Goblin had 12 copper pieces on it."

Science Fiction Player: "Uh-huh. Congrats."

OK, personal bias against D&D Fantasy aside, the awesome tech is pretty awesome in a lot of Sci-Fi.

Is it about the tech, or the science?

No, it's not really. Good Science Fiction has all that cool stuff, but it isn't about the cool stuff. Not unless the wild concept, or the fancy gizmo is going to be a major plot element.

Science Fiction is about people, and how people deal with the science, the technology, and the big ideas they find themselves confronting. Star Trek is a perfect example. Star Trek at its best is not a story about warp field anomalies, phaser fights, and transporter accidents. It's the episodes that ask "What does it mean to be Human?", "Should an artificial life form have rights if it proves to be sentient, and self aware?", "If the death of one  innocent person would save the life of millions, do they deserve to die?".

What do I do in a Science Fiction game?

I've listened to a number of podcasts, watched a slew of videos, and read a bunch of articles on Sean Murray, creator of No Man's Sky, and his least favorite question.

"What am I supposed to do in this game?"

If you had a universe, and the means and gear necessary to explore it, what would you do? How can I possibly tell you how to have fun? Do you like exploring, and discovering alien life forms? Yeah? Do that. Don't like that? Well, if you think that's boring, go do something else. Want to get into epic space battles, with starfighters dogfighting between massive capital ships as they hurl blasts back, and forth? Go for it.

Science Fiction, especially open universe, sandbox Science Fiction, isn't about holding the PCs' hands while you guide them from Point A to Point B. More than any other genre, I like to see pro-active players, and PCs, in my SF games.

Where do YOU want to go? What do YOU want to do? Find a way to go there, and a way to do that. This is basically how most of my Traveller games begin. It's how my current one began. It's a challenge, but very rewarding, and creates a much deeper connection between the players, and the game setting, and story.

Something I am no relearning for the first time. ;)


Barking Alien

* I found it especially interesting and humorous that he used the phrase 'grok' to imply that he didn't quite 'get it' when it comes to Science Fiction gaming, since grok comes from a Science Fiction novel. The term originates in Robert Heinlein's 1961 book, Stranger in a Strange Land.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

I am Sci-Fi

I've been on a pretty strong Superheroes kick lately, but getting back to my roots for a moment, this blog owes much of its genesis to my desire to talk about Science Fiction gaming.

For my tastes, not enough people talk about Sci-Fi RPGs.

Remember, it isn't called Barking Cowboy, Barking Faerie, or even Barking Cape. It's called Barking Alien and there is a reason. Science Fiction is my first love, my default field of interest. It is my go-to genre when I'm running what I love to run most.

Mars 2030 - Concept Idea and Art by Рем Борейко

The Play On Target Podcast recently posted an episode in which the group discusses Science Fiction gaming. You can, and you should, listen to it here.

This isn't the first podcast on Science Fiction gaming, and it won't be the last, but it is, in some ways, typical of the SF RPG podcasts I've heard before.

It is also a Play On Target episode, so it has an identity all its own, and for that it is definitely worth listening to. It made me think, and to me there is no greater praise I can give to such an endeavor. At the same time, it didn't do what I was hoping it would - explain why Science Fiction gaming is so awesome.

I'm in space, by M0tt0M0

Although it was the Play On Target episode in question that inspired this post, I don't intend this to be a review of that episode. I don't really feel much would be served by overanalyzing the podcast, and what each individual said. Rather, I want to address the big picture elements I heard, and didn't hear, from the discussion, and tell you my feelings on the subjects. This is more what I took from it, mixed with what I already think, if that makes any sense.

First, there seems to be (generally speaking) a difficulty in locking down what one is talking about when they say Science Fiction. This was evidenced clearly by the PLOT hosts, who seemed to feel that everything from Shadowrun, to RIFTS is Science Fiction. is. And, it isn't. I'll explain...

I have one hard and fast rule for identifying the genre, or subgenre of something (be it books, movies, games, etc.), and that is:

'If you can identify something by a name, other than the genre heading, then it is that thing, and not the genre heading'.

In other words, Cyberpunk 2013-2020 are considered Cyberpunk games (duh). Although Cyberpunk is a subgenre of Sci-Fi, it is also it's own entity. Therefore, Cyberpunk isn't (IMHO) a Science Fiction game. It is a Cyberpunk game.

Eclipse Phase is Transhumanist Science Fiction.
Gamma World is Post-Apocalypse, though possibly crossed with Science Fantasy.
RIFTS is a Multi-Genre game. If you Google, 'What Genre is RIFTS' it will say just that.

So what qualifies as straight up Science Fiction for me? Anything that doesn't easily qualify as something else in Science Fiction, is plain ol' Science Fiction.

Traveller, especially 'Classic Traveller' is to me, Science Fiction.

I guess it could be said there are few others. At the same time, I would place Star Trek, Star Frontiers, Ringworld, and Dune in this category as well, even though it could certainly be argued that some of these are also Space Opera.

Second, I often find these kinds of episodes are done by a group of people who aren't especially fond of the subject. A Science Fiction podcast by people who aren't into Science Fiction...well...perhaps not the easiest thing to do.

The members of the group who do like Science Fiction didn't really assert their opinions, or their past, successful experiences, over those who haven't had such experiences, or have negative opinions.

Taken from the final thoughts, it felt a little like a Science Fiction podcast that said, "Yeah, Sci-Fi is OK I guess, but isn't Fantasy awesome!"

Sardu Reef, By Alex Ries

At one point Sam notes that modern gamers are more sophisticated because of our increased exposure to both Science Fiction, and Science Fact. I would word it differently. Spoiled is the term I would use.

Because of this more extensive exposure he speaks of, modern gamers expect to be spoon fed all the ideas they will need to play Science Fiction (or any genre for that matter, but that's a different conversation).

When I started running, and playing Science Fiction games, we made up a lot of stuff. How? We read freakin' books. We loved Science Fiction novels, and comic books. We looked at issues of National Geographic, DISCOVER Magazine, and other sources of information on technology, and science. Also, tons of easy reference existed/exists for Science Fiction in pop culture in the form of movies, TV shows, computer and video games, and animated series.

For reasons I've mentioned before, but to this day do not understand, D&D, and Fantasy overall has always been viewed as more understandable, and accessible, but there is barely 1 Fantasy movie for every 5-10 Sci-Fi movies. I don't remember a single Fantasy TV show on television while I was watching Lost in Space, Star Trek, and Space:1999. Somehow everyone knows what medieval Europe looks, and feels like. How? How at 8 years old was I supposed know Fantasy better than Sci-Fi?

Sorry. I was ranting. A little.

Lowell notes that Fantasy is easy, conceptually. It is. And how much is an easy thing worth?

The thing is, if Science Fiction, the genre, is something you know, and love, you will make the effort to understand the elements that make it work. This goes from the basic tropes, to the basics of the science, to more advanced theoretical concepts.

You will then figure out what works, and what you want, in the Science Fiction Role Playing Game you want to play, if indeed you really want to play a Science Fiction Role Playing Game.

Barking Alien

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Precious Metals

It occurred to me the other day while re-reading my last two posts...

"Crap, I love running Superhero RPGs, and I'd LOVE to run one in a DC Universe".

Damn. Grife! Sprock it all!

Excuse my language*, but Great Krypton folks, what am I to do?

Left - Superman in the Golden Age - 1942
Center - Superman in the Silver Age - 1962
Right - Superman in the Bronze Age - 1982

I've mentioned that my group is a bit, er, unfamiliar with the type of Superhero comic books I love most. Through a discussion with my players this past Memorial Day, I discovered that one in particular really doesn't comprehend the distinctions between Silver Age, Bronze Age, and how either of them differ Modern.

I tried very hard to understand where he was coming from, and attempted, perhaps unsuccessfully at the time, to explain the distinctions. I believe I focused on the variations between Silver and Golden, and by comparison, Modern.

I don't feel I did a respectable job of explaining the differences though. Possibly because I was internally, mentally, losing my s#^t, and had to focus all the power of my indomitable will to prevent myself from flipping out.

More over, I think it was because I'd never had to explain it from scratch before.

You see, to me, the eras of comic book history are clearly defined, if not by exact dates, then by tonal changes in the fan base, in society in general, in the comic book industry, and in aesthetics.

You don't wonder why the Bronze Age of Man was called the Bronze Age of Man in Human history. The name comes from the growing use of copper, and tin ore smelting to create bronze. It followed the Neolithic, or 'Stone', Age, and was in turn followed by the Iron Age.

Most (although perhaps not all) individuals living in our modern day, advanced civilizations, with a high school level of education, should be generally aware of this chronology of 'ages'.

Now, I am not so foolish as to assume that the average person on the street is as knowledgeable about the history of comic books as they are the history of our species.

I do expect that anyone even remotely familiar with comic book fandom, and the Superhero genre, be generally aware of the various ages of comic books. I can comprehend not knowing exactly when each era starts and stops, what age a given character is identified with, or even why some like a given era over another. Not knowing what it means to say Silver Age, or Bronze Age however, is very hard for me to fathom.

 I will never comprehend what people see in the Iron Age, but I know what it is. As a matter of fact, knowing what it is, or was, allows to realize why I don't enjoy comics from that period of time.

I think my best bet is going to be doing a few posts that define these eras, at least as I see them. I can, hopefully, make it clearer as to the feel, and atmosphere I'm going for by pointing out the specifics of the periods I'm most interested in. By identifying the tropes of each age, the comics that are so precious to me, won't seem such a mystery to others.

It's worth a shot.

Barking Alien

*Grife, and Sprock are expletives used in the 31st Century of DC's Legion of Superheroes comic. I assume they are untranslatable from the common interstellar language of the United Planets of that era, known as Interlac.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

DC You Maybe, But Not DC Me

I have come to a rather startling realization.

After completing the post on DC Comics' Convergence series (specifically it's finale), and what the finale of that series could potentially mean, I got into no less than three conversations on Facebook on the subject that nearly went 'flame war'.

Much of the fault for the escalation of those arguments being mine.

Why? I'm not like that.

Sure, I'll make a snarky comment, or discuss why my opinion is my opinion, and I do like a good heated argument about pop culture entertainment, but does it really matter to me so much that DC Comics' universe now isn't the one I grew up with?

Then it hit me...Yes. I care a great deal about the subject of pre-nu52 DC Comics.

From the 1982 DC Comics Style Guide
By the incomparable José Luis García-López

I really, deeply care that Superman has an awful costume now, that the origin of Wonder Woman sucks, that the Golden Age heroes of Earth-2 have been completely revamped, and that there is no Legion of Superheroes comic of any kind.

I miss the old DC Universe. More than ever before in fact. I really loved those characters, that setting, and all the potential for stories, and adventures it represented.

Now, there's DC You...

Are You Ready for the New DC Universe?

Following the Convergence series, DC has done a soft reboot of it's milieu. No longer will it be referred to as 'The New 52'. The new name, or at least the name of the PR campaign, is DC You.

The 'New DC Universe' is not really all that new, since it largely continues the stories found in the nu52 incarnation of the setting. Essentially, the nu52 continues, just without the name.

Added to this are a bunch of new series that focus on either new, and/or updated takes on their iconic characters (like Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman), or brand new books that may be slightly out of continuity (such as Bizarro, Bat-Mite, Batman Beyond, etc.).

One of the tag lines for the marketing of this endeavor is, "Whether you’ve been a DC fans your whole life or whether you’re new to comics—there is a story just for you."

Well...I've looked at all the previews. Practically nothing in there current line up interests me. About the only thing I thought was cool, and it was actually pretty cool, is the new Bizarro series.

Some of their other tag lines for DC You include:

"Are You Ready to Hashtag This?"

No. I'm looking to read.

"Are You Ready to Root for the Bad Guys?"

No. Never. I'm looking for SuperHEROES. Do you have those?

"Are You Ready for the New Awesome?"

Yes. When will you have some?

And what did you do with the previous awesome? How about the old awesome?

DC You?

I guess DC someone. Definitely not DC me.

Barking Alien

Monday, June 1, 2015

Converging on Convergence

So many things are churning, and popping in my noggin that I hardly know where to begin. Among them a follow up to my 'What Are You Good At' GM Challenge, and a whole lot on Superheroes, and Star Wars. The obstacle I'm facing this month is that I some point before June's end, I willing be moving to a new apartment. I may not have a lot of time to post.

Sigh. Might as well get started. The first thing I want to talk about this month is...

You'll notice these are actually two images that I merged together from Convergence #8.
They could easily have been better linked, or merged, to appear as one, continuous image.
To me this is very indicative of what DC has become since the New 52.
A company that doesn't put in that extra effort, and as a result
their universe just doesn't gel.


Hardhats and protective eyewear
are required beyond this point
at all times.

Thank You - The Management.

I first addressed the DC Comics publishing initiative known as 'The New 52' back in June of 2011, eventually returning to the subject a few times to discuss my utter disappointment, and disgust at the entire endeavor.

Four years have past, and although there has been a handful of interesting books in the interim (that's a handful in FOUR YEARS), overall nothing has changed my mind that the entire thing was poorly planned, badly executed, and completely ineffective in the long term. The near constant release of 'First Issues' worked for a while, but eventually you have to produce a second, third, fourth issue, and so on.

The charlatan show of DC Co-Publishers Dan DiDio, and Jim Lee managed to sell the initial New 52 titles like hotcakes, even finally winning the top sales spots from Marvel Comics for a while. However, by December of 2011, only four months after the New 52 began,  Marvel had already regained the top position in both dollar amount, and units sold.

Add in the terrible treatment of female, and minority characters over the span of the New 52, the numerous issues of 'creative differences' between the writers, and artists, and DC editorial staff, and the less than stellar treatment of long time DC fans by DiDio at conventions, and New 52 was doomed to failure. It was only a matter of time. It was as if Rube Goldberg, and Jean Tinguely collaborated on a sculpture together.

That brings us to Convergence, the latest DC 'event' limited series, which itself spins out of two previous events, Earth 2: World's End, and The New 52: Futures End.

For something created to begin a both new direction, the New 52 was really focused on endings wasn't it? Sorry, where was I...

The oddly formatted Convergence event consisted of a nine issue limited series of the same name (Convergence #0-8), and forty (you read that right - 40) titles that would run for two issues each. The two-shots ran from April to May, just enough time to cover DC's move from their New York offices*, to their new digs in Burbank, California to be closer to their parent company Warner Brothers.

Apparently no one informed them that we had these new fangled doohickeys called computers, and planes that can take people all the way across the country.
Marvel is still in New York, but Disney is in Burbank, just like Warner Brothers, and you don't see Marvel moving.

Now, IMHO the Convergence series was very weak. The art was good for the most part, although the art in the final issue wasn't especially sharp for some reason. The writing however, and especially the characters they chose to focus on made for a tale I did not really care for, or about.

Some of the two part tie-in were decent, a few even very good, but overall they shared poor, rushed art, and a weak premise with the main title.

I did like the Captain Marvel/SHAZAM! story by Jeff Parker, and Evan Shaner a lot. This book, like the Multiversity one shot, 'Thunderworld' by Grant Morrison, and Cameron Stewart, shows that when you get why people like these characters, and you imbue a story about them with that quality (whatever it is), people will respond positively to the comic.
These four fellows did in three issues what DC as a company has been unable to do with the Marvel Family for many, many years. Get them right.

Enough backstory, let's get to the real reason I called you all here today.

The End of Convergence.

While a lackluster series in general, not really worthy of the term 'event', Convergence did have a rather surprising ending, and one that gives me the slightest glimmer of hope for DC's future.

In the finale of the series, a group of pre-New 52 heroes, including the Silver Age Superman, Supergirl, and Flash (Barry Allen), along with 'Zero Hour' Hal Jordan as Parallax, travel back in time, and essentially prevent the 1985 comic book series event known as Crisis on Infinite Earths.

That's right. Crisis didn't happen.

There are now an infinite number of Earths. More importantly, the characters, and histories from every incarnation of the DC universe, exist as a canon part of the current DC multiverse.

Much like the proposed idea of Hypertime created for the DC series The Kingdom in 1999, DC's current continuity says that everything, EVERYTHING, that was ever in a DC comic book, movie, TV show, cartoon, game, or novel, happened. In the words of Mark Waid (in regards to the Hypertime concept), "It's all true".

On some Earth, at some point in time, somewhere, the stories, and characters you love, are there.


But does it matter?

Following the Convergence series, DC is dropping the New 52 name from it's collection of publishing lines, and putting out a series of new books, as well as continuing some of the ones currently running.

Wait. Aren't the ones currently running still the New 52?

While they will no longer be called that, yes, the continuity (heheh, almost managed to say that with a straight face) established in the New 52 books prior to Convergence shall continue on into the ongoing titles, and new ones. brought back every idea you every had, you finally really embraced your history, and you are books utilizing the idea?

At least right now, it seems like none of the new titles are set on any of these alternate Earths. The real Justice Society of America of Earth-2 will NOT be joining us on the shelves of your favorite, local comic shop. There are no plans as of this writing for a Legion of Superheroes comic, or a Teen Titans comics that doesn't royally suck.

I've looked at the preview pages for about half of the titles coming out this month, and still not one interests me. Not. A. One.

So in final analysis, is the news that the DC multiverse has returned good news. Yes. In, and of itself, it does make me smile, and I can hope, and dream that someone will do something cool with it one of these days.

Am I still boycotting DC? Yes. I will purchase no comics, graphic novels, books, t-shirts, or toys featuring DC characters, for myself, or anyone else, until they can make at least one, decent comic book monthly that I want to follow.

The ball in now in your court DC. Actually, you have an infinite number of balls at this this point. Surely you can figure out how to make one of them bounce.


Barking Alien

* I used to visit the original DC offices at 666 Fifth Ave., in New York City every once in a while as a kid thanks to my uncle, who worked with their distributor at the time. I would later go there again to visit friends who worked there.

I also went to their next office location a few times as well, also visiting friends.
I think moving DC out of NY is very sad, very unfortunate, and frankly silly.
But that's DC right now.