Sunday, June 29, 2014

The 8 Dirtiest and Most Dangerous Jobs in Space

Now there are dirty jobs out there in the universe - garbage scow, xeno-coroner, warp engine lube technician. Likewise, any soldier or space merchant faces his share of danger. But there are also jobs that are both insanely dirty AND dangerous, and which only get done because of the small chance of a large payoff they offer. Here are the most notorious ‘Double D’ jobs in space:

Ordinance Recovery

When local pisspot baronies start an interplanetary shootout, there are those who see it is a chance to turn a profit. Missiles or rockets fail in a number of ways – software glitch, fuel leak, chaff or jamming. Unexploded ordinance such as missiles are worth a nice bit on the black market, but are also highly illegal to resell. Some scavengers go in ‘hot’ and sweep in while the battle rages, clamp onto a juicy piece of ordinance and jet out before they become a target themselves, fingers crossed that their cargo doesn’t go supernova. Others go in ‘cold’, picking through debris after the war is won, carefully defusing and disassembling the rockets and their payload before safely storing them and moving on. Either way has an equal chance of making you rich or dead.


Space is so unimaginably huge that anyone not looking to be found can easily and effectively do so if they stay on the move. Cops are usually limited to peace keeping and beating down the locals, while mobile criminals cross jurisdictional lines and make things messy for the law. That is why most places either sign on to the bounty hunter treaty or else turn a blind eye to their activities. The big problem is the restriction against lethal force unless fired upon, which means that you better either get the drop on your prize with whatever netgun or stunner you’re using, or else hope they miss once before you gun them down. It doesn’t make it any easier that the most dangerous and most rewarding bounties are wanted alive.


There are all kinds of treaties protecting indigenous life, but for an unscrupulous corporation or a desperate group of refugees looking for a new home, extermination of local flora and fauna might be the only option. The sounds good on paper, but life has a way of carrying on, or at least taking a lot of other lives with it into oblivion. Then there’s the advanced life that can send killers right back at their employers…

Wildlife Transport

As hard as it is just killing off alien life, imagine the challenges of capturing and carrying it somewhere. That tame-looking spacecat you’ve lured into your hold doesn’t seem so cute when it grows tentacles then starts teleporting around the ship eating crew like ruffled potato chips. Add to that your violation of numerous space treaties and local laws in transporting or delivering the critter and you’ve got a galaxy strength headache to deal with.

Test Piloting

As dangerous as test piloting was back in the day of simple aeronautics, with the reality-warping engines used nowadays, things get a whole lot weirder. Pilots can return before their departure, or come back mad from an eternity in the warp lanes, or else sound crazy claiming that the world is the same except for one detail like the color of the skies or that people don’t have forked tongues like they used to. Maybe the ones that just disappear are luckier.

Rat Catching

Imagine an abandoned spaceport the size of a moon needing to be cleared out in two weeks. Now imagine the number of hiding places in such a structure. The rats in the walls could be any number of things, from disgruntled employees, to squatters, activists for some cause, alien critters, rogue AI, or even ghosts. Since most of these jobs are on a timetable, your chance of going home empty handed are higher than those of going home in a box – but not by much.

Artifact Transport

Just like the Fermi Paradox told us, other intelligences rose and fell long before humanity spread out into the cosmos, and from time to time we find their relics, and even their junk. The problem is that we’re still in diapers in terms of technology, and can’t tell if we’ve picked up the cure for cancer or a loaded gun. Artifact transporters are subject to spontaneous mutations, space-time distortions, and whatever malevolent designs the defunct creators of the artifact set in motion. Add to this that on the off-chance you do get a useful artifact AND figure out how to use it, every space pirate, scavenger, and spacy frigate you encounter will be aiming to take it from you.

Space Anomaly Survey Team

Space is just plain weird at times, filled with anomalies that don’t follow any of the laws of physics, and thumb their nose at reality. Shrinking black holes, anti-matter planetoids, heavy midget planets, and gas or liquid mega-giants without the gravity they’d need to exist are all out there for the finding. They can make your hull disappear, crush you like a tin can, or have you reliving moments from your childhood. Figuring out what makes these anomalies tick, or better yet finding a way to use them for profit, can make the effort and risk pay off in spades.

If you and your crew are in need of a quick payoff or a huge push towards the good life, these jobs are for you. Just remember that they won’t be easy, clean or safe. You were warned.

Monday, June 16, 2014

DMing Derivations - Terror & Information Control

PART ONE – The Thing & Splitting the Party

Since fantasy gaming was the progenitive genre of roleplaying games, it is no wonder that the fantasy storytelling mode has come to dominate game mastery across all genres. The DM is the quintessential storyteller, with the screen as his tome and players as questioning children listening to the tale unfold, who also take on the parallel imaginary role of knights around a physical round table questing together for a goal. The Princess Bride, with its framing device of Peter Falk as a grandfather narrating to the young boy and improvising on the fly, is a perfect example of this pattern. The movie even has Rats of Unusual Size, a D&D staple if ever there was one.

This storytelling mode implicates an open style of information control and dissemination. The DM’s descriptions are carefully chosen to allow players to visualize the world but not see it wholly omnipotently. This supports old school fantasy gaming, where the DM had to describe enough that players could make informed choices but not see all the dangers and traps that lay in their path. DMing advice was a staple of early D&D, but has decreased in later games as the tropes and techniques fossilized and became an unquestioned and unquestionable modus operandi of roleplaying. This style has gone unchallenged save for some story games like Fiasco, which succeeds at breaking the mold of traditional DMing by delegating narrative responsibility to players, yet sacrifices the demands of certain genres such as horror for a one-size-fits-all DMing paradigm shift that ignores subtleties of genres.

This open style of information access works well in fantasy gaming, as well as adventuring scifi sandboxes like Traveler, but breaks down in other genres of games, especially terror and horror, where it is precisely the unknown nature of the threat that is the point of the game. In such genres, information is missing or incomplete, and finding it out or piecing it together is one of the driving forces of characters in the genre.

As thought exercises, I will take two of my favorite scary movies, 1982’s The Thing as an example of terror, and 2000’s Battle Royale for horror, and attempt to see how information dissemination can be changed from the standard fantasy format to better emulate the genres of these game settings. In this session I will concentrate on The Thing and save Battle Royale for next time.


There is a The Thing RPG out there, an unofficial d20 product called Who Goes There? 
in homage to the original novel upon which the story is based. There is also a Phoenix Command adaptation of the material, but which focuses more on tactical simulation and the grittiness of the scenario

Although both rpgs stat out the monsters, paradoxically they give no extra DMing advice on a genre that is supposed to be based on paranoia, mistrust, and existential terror. From a quick read one can tell that the standard paradigm of ‘tell us a story’ they employ fails to support genre themes in any satisfying way here.

One could argue that a simple change of system could make terror more playable, for example from a high hit point system to a more lethal one like BRP or GURPS. This is probably what motivated the adaptation to Phoenix Command. Indeed, although it is hard to feel terrified for the fate of one’s character with d20’s high hit points and lack of damage effects (see d20 Call of Cthulhu for an example of this systemic failure to support genre), a change to a lethal system increases mortal terror but fails to address the problem of open information access in a closed information genre.

Instead, the incisive criticism of the film available in Rob Ager’s YouTube videos gives many hints as to what makes the film work, and thus imply what an rpg would need to emulate it. Ager notes that the depiction of intelligence and counter-intelligence between the humans and their alien foe is the main theme of the film, as symbolized by MacReady’s chess game against a ‘cheating bitch’ computer at the start of the film.

How can we emulate this chess game theme in an rpg? One way is to emulate the move structure of the game. By breaking the day into several segments, such as morning, afternoon, and night in which players must declare their character actions, the DM can control information and keep actions of his antagonist hidden. This method necessitates that the traditional ‘roundtable’ environment of the role-playing game would also need to be overturned, except in Scooby Doo Mystery style games where the characters largely stay together aside for some chase scenes.

For example, a map of Outpost 31 could be provided so that players could decide their characters’ location and actions for a giving time segment. Players would announce intent publically, the DM would note each PC’s action and location (i.e. “Joe’s character Childs will be in the radio room trying to fix the damage done this evening, along with Radio.”), then pair off with each player in turn and resolve each action and possible encounters/consequences one by one. The DM would then resolve the action and indicate whether the PC was assimilated by the thing or not (so far as they know), record any plans they wish to keep from the others, and importantly what their motivation would be if they were turned into creatures. Perhaps such an unfamiliar style would require a shift to PBEM (play by Email) or some other staggered time format, but although players weaned on fantasy gaming might balk at first, aficionados of terror tales would relish the paranoia of such a paradigm as well as the power of keeping secrets.

Obviously, this closed information style of DMing and separated PC action violates the first rule of fantasy gaming – Never Split the Party! However, since the powerlessness of terror is the antithesis of the power fantasy of gaming, I feel that such a change in paradigm would be liberating and satisfying for players and DM alike. In a few fantasy games I played where characters were split, the anxiety of separation was palpable and well worth the hassle of staggered action resolution.

I am currently working on a BRP adaptation of The Thing, and feel that pairing this closed information DMing paradigm with a change to a high lethality system would make roleplaying in a world of terror like The Thing both enjoyable and rewarding.