How Starship is Commandos?

Starship Commandos is very explicitly inspired by the movie Aliens and the novel Starship Troopers. Recently, an individual had a bit of a disconnect between the perceived nature of those intellectual properties and the game. Basically, the interlocutor saw mortal threat as an important part of both inspirations, whereas in the default mode of Starship Commandos, there is no threat of PC death.

My response is rather lengthy, but as a TLDR, I guess I would just say that the PCs are Ripley and Rico in those pieces of inspiration, and the survival of those characters is never – in my opinion – in question. I would further opine that observation has led me to conclude that players do not invest in characters when they expect those characters to die, that the way players build characters in such situations changes. I explicate a lot more for clarity below, but it’s a bit of a slog.

This isn’t to try to claim that my way is the correct view, just that this is how I interpret the media properties and link that to my game design.

In regards to theme, it is my opinion that while Alien was absolutely survival horror in a science fiction setting, Aliens was not. To me, the question is not will Ripley survive but how. Elements of horror are woven into the story, and that helps to escalate the stakes. The lack of supplies provides the same, while also setting in motion the ticking clock aspect of the plot. The xenomorphs are horrifying and their use of humans in their life process is horrifying, and in this sense the movie is a monster/horror movie. But all of the Alien movies have attempted to approach the subject matter from a different angle and provide a different story – although Alien Resurrection came very close to mimicking some of the themes of Aliens – and rather than survival horror, Aliens seems much more an action movie with horror trappings.

For me, survival plays even less of a role in Starship Troopers. It has aspects of a coming of age story but I read it as an investigation of a militaristic society. I believe the story uses the alien threat as a backdrop to discuss civic engagement, public service, and the military as a focus for both. Again, this is Johnny Rico’s story, and I don’t believe there is much fear as one reads the novel that he might not survive.

So, for me, survival and threat was not a chief theme in either of the identified inspirations. Both included military responses to alien menaces, and that’s what I took for Starship Commandos.

Still, what about the threat of death as a means to build tension? I believe that when adapting intellectual properties to RPGs, one is generally dividing up the role of a single heroic protagonist (in this case Ripley or Rico) into the PCs. The novel/movie focused on just James Bond or Jason Bourne, but in the game, the PCs embody different aspects and competencies of the character. In the novels/movies, the protagonist generally has plot immunity, and in my RPGs, that extends to the PCs. One expects Ripley to survive because it is her movie (something that was not clear in Alien, which allowed it to play much straighter as survival horror), and this extends to the PCs. The PCs are all Johnny Ricos rather than one Johnny Rico and some supporting players.

The threat to the PCs in Starship Commandos is much the same as it is to Ripley and to Rico – there are narrative elements that can be considered a threat, but death is not an obvious outcome.

And this leads me to the death of PCs and the investment of players. To my knowledge, there are no real studies on how players react to RPGs, so we all base our assessments on our own experiences and the experiences of those whom we know. As such, I have no data, only anecdotes. What the anecdotes have led me to believe is that in RPGs with high PC mortality, players build mechanical PCs – PCs built for tasks within the mechanics of the game. They may initially infuse their PCs with personality and backstories, but the effort to do so declines with the repetition of creation. It is my belief that one does not invest in the fifth character of a campaign in the same way as one does a character that been part of five different adventures – or five different stories. One does not identify as strongly with and so one is likewise not as invested in the PC’s story.

I have not noted nor witnessed tension at the game table lessened due to the removal of death as a threat to PCs. I received strong evidence of this during the playtest of Starship Commandos, in which the players knew that their PCs had plot immunity but were nevertheless freaked out and extremely tense when they finally did encounter the xenomorphs. Just as with watching Aliens or reading Starship Troopers, it was the build to the scene rather than its mechanics or specifics that fed the tension. I have seen the same when I have run Nefertiti Overdrive, which very explicitly has no mechanic for PCs to receive damage (there is a method to degrade their ability to succeed but not to “harm” them – and this was specifically part of the design philosophy).

So, very long-winded, but I hope it gives some insights into some of the design decisions made in Starship Commandos and how that might run contrary to expectations.

You can find Starship Commandos here.

Featured Commandos

This might be a little too “inside baseball” for many, but bear with me.

One Book Shelf owns both Drive-Thru RPG and RPG Now – the two primary sources of RPG e-product. As a publisher, one gets a certain number of “Publisher Promotion Points” based (I believe) on one’s sales. One can spend PPP on various services, one of which is the Feature Product Message which is a kind of in-site advertisement.

I ran a message for Starship Commandos on its release. It has cycled through all its impressions on both the front page/homepage and the category page. The click-through rates were very interesting.

The Drive-Thru RPG homepage click-through percentage was 68.28%, while the same on RPG Now was 0.32%. That’s a pretty stark difference and I have no idea what it means, but it surely means something. Here’s the thing: category pages were also starkly different from the DTRPG homepage. The category page at DTRPG had a 0.24% click-through while the same at RPG Now had one of 0.08%.

Again, I have no idea how to interpret this, but that click-through at DTRPG is insane. I don’t know how many sales come from which source, however no matter where the sales are coming from the turnover is a bit sad – of the 1,719 clicks I’ve only sold 23.

So, am I doing one thing right and another thing wrong? Some kind of gremlin in the reporting system? Complete anomaly that means nothing?

I haven’t a clue . . . which is part of my problem as I try to sell stuff. I’m about as good at marketing as I am at water polo (hint: I don’t play water polo).

Starship Commandos at Drive-Thru RPG (where it’s most popular!)

Designated Marksman for Starship Commandos

Starship Commandos should be out soon. It is in the final stages of layout right now. It’s going to be 6X9 or digest size. Right now, we’re looking at 47 pages, which means it may be possible to put out a very thin book. I have to look at the cost per copy to see what the price might be, but the PDF will be out first.

image by algol

To give you an idea, here’s the character that’s presented in the book. It’s different than what has been presented before because the game uses the mechanics from Riggers. The way Riggers runs is pretty much perfect for Starship Commandos.

So here is Sgt. Sara Cooper, the designated marksman for the 121 Marine Special Armour and Tactics squad.

Sgt. Cara Cooper, Designated Marksman

Scout d8

Physical d10; Mental d12; Social d20

Stealth d8, Awareness d10, Marksmanship d10, Athletics d12, Survival d12, Tracking d12

J25S Long-Range Reconnaissance
Stealth d6; Long-Range Sensors d8; Indirect Fire Support d10

Disconnected, Unconventional

Never the Innocent (Cooper will not target non-combatants, Ever)

Heinlein Meets Cameron

Right now, a second proof copy is winging . . . rolling? . . . posting its way to me and I’m in a holding phase until all is settled. I don’t feel it’s wise to move forward on other projects publically until I have fully delivered Nefertiti Overdrive. For those who don’t know, I technically delivered Nefertiti Overdrive‘s PDF on time, but things are not looking good for the print copies. And I can’t market Nefertiti Overdrive to the wider world until the backers have their chance to get their product, so probably November.

Until then, I am in a holding pattern, but I can tell you what is coming next.

Starship Commandos.

Armor by Odobenus

This game has been around for a year and a half, maybe longer, but while I was working on getting Nefertiti Overdrive out, I didn’t have a chance to do anything with it. Right now, I’m cleaning it up and preparing it, hoping that it will get the chance to get out into the wild.

Starship Commandos is about the MARSAT – Marines Special Armour and Tactics – a special purpose squad within the Colonial Marine’s MEU – Marine Expeditionary Unit. The conceit is that human colonization has identified life on other planets, just not sentient life.

Until now.

The idea would be to publish an 8,000 to 10,000 word rulebook and then the introductory adventure which sets up the opposition in the game I ran.

How is this coming out? I don’t know yet. Do I want to try to Kickstart a 20 page PDF? I might be able to get some real art, but then again, the Kickstarter itself is a whole separate project from the creation of the work, and sometimes takes more effort – since it hits on talents I don’t have.

I’ve mentioned before about Patreon, and that is something I am strongly considering.

Or do I just say “fuck it” and release it with some stock art, a very basic cover, and see how many I can sell for $2.99 USD?

We shall see. But likely not until November.

You can find out more about Starship Commandos here.

Edge of Inspiration: Armoured Up

There’s a lot of really cool stuff happening in Edge of Tomorrow, but the thing that caught my eye first was the power armour. It seemed very low-tech, like some of the rigs that have been proposed and even tested. Given that my game Starship Commandos also uses power armour, I think it’s evident I dig the idea.

But how do you use power armour in your game. What does it do?

It really depends on the system you are using. It might not even be noticeable, just another power/talent/feat that gives some advantages but doesn’t super-power the PC. In other games, it might amp up the character so much, she is far more powerful than characters without it.

For Starship Commandos it provided a series of benefits, and if one of these benefits applied to the situation at hand, the character gained a bonus die (best two dice added together against a target number). Without power armour, the characters weren’t defenceless, but they came to rely on their “harnesses” a lot, so when they lost access to those benefits – say, when someone triggered an EMP – they felt exceptionally vulnerable.

MJOLNIR Powered Assault Armor from Halo Nation

For a game like D&D, powered armour could basically be highly enchanted magical armour – giving AC bonuses as well as stat bonuses and perhaps some other benefits. In Marvel Heroic Roleplaying, power armour – like Iron Man’s – is simply the narrative framework for powers and does not necessarily make the character better or worse than any other character.

And, honestly, it’s not the mechanical benefits of power armour that intrigues me – it’s the aesthetics of it. Power armour just looks cool, whether it’s the armour from Edge of Tomorrow or something more like the suits in Halo.

You can read more about Edge of Tomorrow at Wikipedia and IMDB.

You find more Edge of Inspiration articles here.

You can find out more about Marvel Heroic Roleplaying here.

You can find out more about Starship Commandos here.

Give the People What I Want

I have a lot of ideas – ideas for games, ideas for adventures, ideas for fiction – so when it comes time to choose, I sometimes have problems. What should I work on? How should I do it? Who is it for?

This is easy in with my home group – whom I call the Ottawa Warband, since its inception was with the Viking adventure that led to the creation of Kiss My Axe: Thirteen Warriors and an Angel of Death. With the Warband, I can have them vote. I give them the kinds of games that are banging around in my skull, and they vote on which one they want to play: majority rules. So far, this has not cause any problem. The biggest problem is that I regularly change up my games (always chasing the bright shiny object).

Skydiver by Dean Martin
Skydiver by Dean Martin

When it comes time to release games to the public, I am faced with the same problem but lacking a clear solution. I can’t really get the public to vote. The one mechanism that is available for that – Kickstarter – is really its own beast. I suppose I could try a Kickstarter that offered a choice of games, but that’s going to run into problems as people might be willing to pay for an RPG mash-up of Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers and James Cameron’s Aliens but not for a military special operations RPG.

So here I am, getting a game ready for release (once Nefertiti Overdrive is delivered) and honestly uncertain if this is the game on which I should be spending my time. It’s not just the system, it is also going to be a collection of adventures. The investment is only time – I’m using stock art I have from the Spec Ops line of SEP products and I’m doing the layout myself – but this is also the flagship for a new enterprise and business approach, so picking the wrong game could be a problem.

Still, it’s always a gamble, and I understand there is no way I’ll be making mad cash in this industry.

More on this new approach later.

You can find out more about Kiss My Axe: Thirteen Warriors and an Angel of Death here.

You can hear some of the adventures of the Ottawa Warband here.

You can read about Heinlein’s Starship Troopers at Wikipedia.

You can read more about Aliens at IMDB or Wikipedia.

A Team of Nefertiti Commandos

I wanted to pop in and give an update on what has been happening on the RPG front over here at SEP.

NO_G+cover-photoI’ve received back the edits for the Nefertiti Overdrive Quickstart. I will be amending the text and then sending it to layout. I am expecting one more piece of art before it gets published, which should be happening around September.

The first playtest of Starship Commandos wrapped up. The system has changed in that I have adapted the original damage and stress system that I was planning for Nefertiti Overdrive. Nefertiti Overdrive evolved into something very different, and that system was never used, but with Starship Commandos, it fits really well.

A Team of Losers is going to be a pulp action-adventure game with the first adventure taking place in 1936 Manchuria, creating a mix of Supernatural, the Losers, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and the Good, the Bad, the Weird. It is going to use the system of Starship Commandos and adapt it changing the Harness to Equipment.

Here’s a version of Pulp Sara Cooper for A Team of Losers.

Sara Cooper, Marksman

Mental d10; Physical d8; Social d6
Marksmanship d12; Survival (temperate) d10; Scout d8; Lived Experience d6
Quiet Professional d10; Hunter d8; Patient d8; Exceptional d6
Scoped Winchester Model 1894 Lever-action Rifle d12; Mauser C96 Broomhandle Auto-loader Pistol d10; 30m braided rawhide lariat d8
My Word Is My Bond (Cooper keeps her promises and fulfills her contracts), Buy the Farm (She’s always talking about the farm in the country she’s going to buy when she retires), and Never the Innocent (Cooper will not target non-combatants. Ever).

Starship Commandos – LC-427 the Landing

MJOLNIR Powered Assault Armor from Halo Nation

Here’s a quick rundown of what happened in the first playtest for Starship Commandos. For those not in the know, Starship Commandos has the PCs as specialized troops in the far future who utilize power armour. This is as much for my gaming group as for your entertainment, but I hope it sparks some curiosity and maybe some inspiration.

The PCs are attached to 121 MARSAT (Marine Special Armour and Tactics) with the 71st Fleet Special Purpose Force as part of the ground combat element of the 7th Marine Expeditionary Unit aboard the Command Support Vessel MARLOW. On anti-piracy patrol in the Tau Ceti system, the MARLOW is diverted to the Asterion system (Beta Canum Venaticorum) for a possible support to civilian authorities operation. LC-427 (also known as Logan’s Cross) has gone dark – no signals, no transmissions and they haven’t broadcast their no-fail signal for three days running.

On planetfall, the PCs learn that the MARLOW’s ARVs (autonomous reconnaissance vehicles) have all been neutralized by EMPs created through electro-static discharges (ESD). While it might be natural, it sure looks like a coordinated attack, and so MARSAT is sent down using landing pods (atmospheric entry person torpedoes) to secure a landing site. Further ESDs bar the use of landing craft, and so a follow-on security detachment is sent down also using landing pods. The site secure, MARSAT advances on the civic centre (city hall) to seek survivors.

On the way, MARSAT uncovers a collection of bones, lacking any tissue or garments, beneath a building that has a signals relay tower on it. Triangulating all known ESDs, the team traces the events to buildings with signals relay towers. Sending their own ISR (intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance) assets, they discover more bone pits in the basements. Investigation uncovers biological residue very, very similar to native species similar in size to racoons and squirrels, however other information leads the team to believe the beasts that undertook the killing and eating ranged in size from a large tiger to a rhinoceros.

Further, short range sensors uncover a flow of energy beneath them. Scanning for further such flows, they plot them and expect they will intersect under the civic centre.

Reaching the civic centre, the team uncovers a mainframe and server centre beneath the building that is awash in glowing green goo. They also discover an area the size of an aircraft hanger beneath the building that is not identified on the blueprints. The lieutenant decides to lead MARSAT into the unknown area.

The unknown area turns out to be a laboratory with a bio-hazard containment area. Inside that area is a container of glowing green goo.

Sundown, and the xenomorphs come out to play. Sensors detect movement burrowing toward the building while the team’s ARVs witness an attack en masse on the landing site. The security detachment loses more than half its force before barricading in the terminus of the off-line orbital elevator and calling down an orbital bombardment, destroying the surrounding area.

MARSAT is trapped in a lab as the xenomorphs advance. A fight ensues during which a marine accidentally initiates an ESD which leads to an EMP shutting down the team’s power armour. At about the same time, a grenade is dropped. Blood, terror and lots of damage ensue for 30 seconds while the armour reboots, and then the team destroys the xenomorphs.

They are left out-of-breath, cut off, and more than a little nervous.

You can read more about Starship Commandos here.

Starship Commandos – Getting it Done

Mjolnir Assault Armour from Halo Nation

Reporting in from the first playtest of Starship Commandos. It went very well. It was mostly story until the last 30 minutes, when the crew met their first xenomorphs. It just so happened one of the team triggered an electro-static discharge of immense proportions that created an EMP and the team faced the xenomorphs during the 30 second re-boot of their power armour.

Oh, and someone dropped a grenade.

So there was a lot of blood, a lot of bad dice rolls, and a lot of fear. In the end, everyone survived. But, boy, it really did get Aliens there for a bit.

There are going to be a fair number of changes to the system. Not how it works, but some of the specifics, like how many dice are rolled and success level target numbers. I’ve also figured out lethality and how it can be dialed up or down.

So, very much a success.

You can read more about Starship Commandos here.