Planet Mercenary – A retrospective?

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Planet Mercenary is a game I helped to write and did a majority of the rules design on, especially the initial engine and concepts.

It’s a game I’m very proud of. Exceptionally so, and I consider it firmly in the “Best Work” category of my career (which while small, is growing rapidly.)

Last night, the Game Chief Secrets PDF was delivered to backers.  That marks the last big item from the Kickstarter owed to backers.

It also marks at least three months of downtime without thinking about Planet Mercenary (the team is taking a break.)

With the looming conclusion of the first round of the Planet Mercenary lifecycle, and the break hanging over my head like the famed Damocles Sword, I find myself reflecting about Planet Mercenary and the journey it set me on.


That’s September, 2013. That’s is the day I sat down with Howard at the Dragon’s Keep (a game and comic store) in Orem Utah, and we talked about how I’d approach a Schlock Mercenary roleplaying game.

He told me a mechanic he had in mind that had been roughly outlined (Mayhem), and basically put me in a on-the-spot job interview, asking how I’d approach the design problem.

Howard has a mind for story telling, humor and understanding what an audience needs as opposed to their wants. It’s these qualities (among others) that make Schlock Mercenary amazing, and it was apparent even in that first conversation, that those qualities were going to be core to how he approached Planet Mercenary.

You all know the phrase: “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.” That’s exactly what this meeting was. Years of homebrew, entering online adventure and RPG writing contests, and dinking around as a freelancer or consultant made for a fun hobby.

Suddenly, it was a job.

And when Howard sent out those tweets that night after our meeting, it was a job like one I’d never had.

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This was the day I had to sell Sandra Tayler on Planet Mercenary (to the best of my recollection.)

If you don’t already know, Sandra is…sort of the gatekeeper for Hypernode Media. She’s business-minded power behind Schlock Mercenary, and her and Howard handle all of it together.

This was the day where the project would live or die. Kinda a big deal. Sandra has a mind for business and potential I find myself jealous of. She understands what she does in a way I can only hope to approach.

In the Game Chief Secrets PDF, Sandra talks about this day and meeting, so I’ll avoid it. Just one note.

She says I was focused and sharp. All I remember is throwing up on the way to the meeting from nervousness, and the rest of the meeting is kinda blurry.

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This cover mock-up is an older one, and it wrongfully omits Sandra’s name (which thankfully, the actual book has printed on there.) I’m terribly at google-fu. No skill points there.


The Schlock Mercenary fandom is rabid (in a single word.) There’s an active reddit, Facebook group, forum thread, all the pieces. They support Howard and Sandra, and were exceptionally welcoming.

There’s even a whole, very active Facebook group for Planet Mercenary. It’s one thing to make something, it’s another to be able to watch it be embraced, criticized, and commented on.

It’s apparent that Planet Mercenary has a life of it’s own.


At the core of the experience are Howard and Sandra.

At points we were talking once to twice a week, with emails every day in between.

When you work with someone that much, you either learn to appreciate and love them, or you learn to hate and dread them.

Luckily, on my half (and hopefully Sandra & Howard’s), I landed squarely on the love and appreciate side.

Sandra & Howard are wonderful collaborators, among the best I’ve worked with (and I’ve worked with some serious talent.)

They’re supportive, understanding, engaged, and passionate about all their projects and all parts of their jobs. Even the ones that grind on, or drag, or could be considered tedious. They bring the same zeal and drive to everything they do.

I couldn’t have asked for better partners, and I’m grateful that they invited me in to their world and let me play around in their sandbox for bit.

I count myself lucky in some ways I never thought I would.

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One quick note. I often comment on how only a handful of folks know how the popular sophont type of Esspererin got named.

During the Kickstarter, one of the stretch goals was more playable sophont types. We hit it, Howard and I were reviewing the list (at this point, we had something like 30 sophonts prepped for the game.)

Howard sent out an email listing the sophonts we hadn’t included, and some requests for “something robotic”, “something small”, and some other requests. I sent back a something small that became the Queltro (a popular sophont in it’s own right.)

With a wry joke (I’m not funny like Howard or Sandra), I also sent in a bonus small sophont (because “two Something Smalls, make a Regular Sized Sophont.) I had asked my wife for some feedback before I sent them over (as I’m wont to do.) She mentioned the game needed gremlin space fairies.

Below is the original pitch for the Esspererin (dated 5/12/2015.)

Extra Something Small: Extra Something Smalls are tiny little humanoids with 4 wings. They can actually survive in the vacuum of space without breathing, and LOVE mechanics (their home planet never developed technology like that, due to their size). They’re considered bad luck, and tend to act like pilot fish, following ships around space ports and repair station, doing “unauthorized repairs, which usually go horribly wrong.”
  • Gremlins: Anytime a Extra Something Small does a Mechanic, Engineering, or Computer’s check, invert the color of the Mayhem dice. That’s right. The two regular dice are now Mayhem dice. The mayhem dice is now a regular dice. However, the GM automatically gains the Mayhem card before a player can look at it and this card can’t be negated by a player. The Extra Something Small gains a RiPP every-time they make one of those skill rolls. 
  • Flight: Extra Something Smalls can fly. Simply allow them to move in 3 dimensions. No biggie here.
  • Skill Bonuses: +1 Dodge, +1 Computers, +2 Engineering, +1 Mechanic.
  • Skill Penalties: None. 

Obviously it changed. I have to confess, I’m exceptionally proud that the Queltro and Esspererin are such integral parts of the Schlock Mercenary canon, and that I could provide the story seed that Howard was able to take and spin into something wonderful and unique. Every time they appear in the comic or a player raves about them, I smile. Knowing something I helped start is going to last a long time and bring enjoyment to others is a feeling I never thought I’d have.

And since I promised: Esspererin stands for “As Per Erin”, since the base idea of space gremlin fairies came from my wife in a conversation with her.

Howard says: “Small correction. Esspererin is not “as per Erin.” It’s “Extra small something, per Erin.” E.S.S., per Erin.”

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You can buy Planet Mercenary here. And I think you should. Not just cuz I get paid if you do (I do), but because it’s the smart thing to do if you like good, clever, unique games.

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Star Trek: Discovery Thoughts

So, I watched the first two episodes of Star Trek: Discovery last night. First thing you need to understand, is I’m a massive Star Trek fan. Hugely so. It’s likely my favorite IP. There hasn’t been lots of Star Trek stuff to go gush over til recently (new RPG, which is amazing. New TV show. Kelvin timeline finally gets good in Star Trek Beyond) so my fandom has lain rather inert the last decade plus.

Well, no more. Star Trek: Discovery is airing, and I can finally let loose the rampaging beast that is my Star Trek love affair.  I have lots of feelings here.

So what *did* I think of Discovery? Well, anonymous internet reader, I’m glad you asked. Spoilers abound below the logo here.

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Let’s do this right:


THE GOOD

  • The Visuals: It was very pretty. The ship and uniforms screamed Star Trek (I adored the new ship designs they’re working with). It was a high quality and pleasing show to watch.
  • Michelle Yeoh: First off, Michelle Yeoh can do no wrong as far as I’m concerned. Also, she’s the perfect fit for a Star Trek captain. I can’t imagine a better choice. And of course, she was excellent as the captain of the Shenzhou.
  • Sonequa Martin-Green: Excellent acting, considering the writing she got (more on that later.)
  • The rest of the Cast: Solidly turned in performances. No complaints. They looked like a Starfleet crew (visually, acting, and more).
  • New Intro: I really liked the new intro music and graphics.

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This is the big section. THE BAD

Ok, so. I can’t bullet point this section because it’s way too big.

War Story: Why is Discovery a war story from the start? Star Trek has always been about exploration, hope, and diverse species working together.

I mean the famous opening leads with: “”to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations.” I’m not saying you can’t have violence or physical conflict in Star Trek (obviously you can, and should), but TNG and DS9 (which were the most “war-like” of Star Trek) still had the focus revolve around exploration, discovery and the future.

Sigh. There was nothing to indicate this is anything more than a science fiction war story, which really irks me.

Inter-crew conflict: Gene Roddenberry famously had a “no long-term inter-crew conflict” rule (which obviously was broken in the past, but never seriously, or with long term intent.) Now, as to the sanctity of that rule, I don’t think it’s necessary. We all know conflict drives good stories, and the Discovery writers have long made their intent to dispense with this rule clear. Shockingly, guess what didn’t work for me.

Good drama, pathos and conflict among a crew drives good storytelling. Having your first officer lead a mutiny against her captain of seven years (who wants to give her a command, and clearly serves as a mentor who things highly of her)? That’s stupid and lazy.  Especially when there was nothing given to us in the prelude up to that moment that suggested Burnham would take Sarek’s advice over her captain. It’s an absurd level of conflict with no basis for existing. Completely stupid. I mean, what’s the thought process?

Here I am, a highly trained, very successful Starfleet officer, raised by Vulcans to be logical, confronted with an enemy empire we’ve not contacted in a hundred years. My adopted father, a Vulcan ambassador, says the Vulcans always attacked Klingons on sight, and then the warlike race sued for peace. Hm, my captain won’t open fire based on my recommendation, based on this single piece of information, only I am aware of! I know! I’ll directly break the chain of command on the bridge, and then attack her when she reprimands me! Then I’ll order the crew to open fire on an enemy who hasn’t attacked us, or even powered up weapons?

It’s inane. Martin-Green turns in such a great performance, I feel so bad that she got such terrible writing and plotting.

I don’t even know what to think.

The Klingons: Oh. Yeah. Sooooo, this was a thing. First off, NONE of those Klingons were memorable. Their scenes dragged on under the weight of all Klingon dialogue and subtitles (and I love subtitled films.) Their make-up was uninspired, and it was just a mass of 90s goth club costumes, dialogue spoken through a mouth full of cotton, and unmemorable characters.

Other Star Trek has been so good at making the individual Klingon’s individuals that, it was jarring to have to deal with the opposite.

WHY IS IT A PREQUEL?If you made some minor adjustments and updated a few details, you could slap this movie into the timeline 100 years after Star Trek: Nemesis (the last stop in our canon timeline) and we’d have an all new story that moves Star Trek further into the future. This obsession with prequels and re-writing what has gone before didn’t work for Enterprise (even when Enterprise is good, the prequelness hurts it), and I have no faith it’ll work long term here.

Sarek: What the crap was that? I know Spock and his father didn’t get along or talk much, but did Sarek have a human ward he never told Spock about…who..also served in Starfleet? And was probably somewhat infamous (as that mutiny would suggest?)

It really throws the claims of “main timeline” into murky water and tells them to tread for a bit.

Here’s a bullet point list of the rest:

  • Holograms (I can’t recall a time they used Holograms like this pre-TNG, and not even in TNG/later shows that much after season 1.) Does Sarek have a desk in the exact spot in his office, so he can mirror Burnhams? How does that sitting thing work?
  • Burnham’s placing her opinions over Starfleet values: Geez, someone did not get a complete psych eval. Why is a commanding officer so willing to throw Starfleet ideals and values to the wind to satisfy their own needs/beliefs?
  • The idiotic plan to capture the Klingons? Why would you beam TWO human Starfleet officers (Captain and First Officer) into enemy territory because you “need to redeem yourselves?” I mean, first off: A living officer with years of military experience is still worth more alive than dead to the Federation. It’s a boneheaded tactical decision.
  • WHERE WAS THE DISCOVERY?

Look, for all my complaining I’m glad there’s a new Star Trek on TV. And I hope it’ll be good. But I’m gonna be waiting til the season is wrapped up. I canceled my CBS All Access this morning.

I hope Star Trek: Discovery finds its feet and moves itself forward into something resembling Star Trek in the long term, and for it’s sake, I hope it happens fast. I’m not sure how long viewers are going to pay for CBS All Access to watch ST:D without more to it.

Vinyl Review: Traveller by Chris Stapleton

One of my big “off-line” hobbies is listening to, and getting vinyl records.

This week I got Chris Stapleton‘s Traveller record, so here’s a review!

Traveller is a 2015 release by Stapleton and is his first debut album (although he’s done lots of work on very popular country songs as a lyricist and backing vocalist).

I got my copy from Amazon (because I haven’t found a vinyl store here I’ve liked, though I haven’t tried very hard).

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PHYSICAL IMPRESSIONS

  • The record isn’t a 200 gram weight pressing, and it might not even be 180 grams. (160 would be my guess).
    • Note: There’s no sound quality benefit to a thicker pressing inherently (there are some around the stability of the record for your needle and arm), but higher gram albums last longer, so I prefer it.
  • The record is a carbon black pressing, so points in it’s favor for that!
    • Note: Colored vinyls look cool, and are often thematic, but the carbon black increases the lasting power of the physical record itself, so I prefer that.
  • The Black and White photos on the cover and back are attractive and set a certain look and impression that I find appealing. It conveys a “worn” or “well-used” aesthetic that matches Stapleton’s vocals and lyrics.

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TRACK LISTING

Of the 14 songs on the track, 12 were written (at least collaboratively) by Stapleton. This is not a kid friendly album (as a note).

SIDE A

  • Traveller – The title track is a strong track, focused on establishing the tone of the album and it does a wonderful job. At times melancholy, at times defiant and joyful, Stapleton establishes his brand of country and the backing vocals from Morgane Stapleton (his wife) are strong and serve well as a compliment to his lead.
  • Fire Away – A down turn after Traveller, this song is likely my least favorite on the album. While Stapleton delivers great vocals, the song itself seems to wallow and drag itself on.
  • Tennessee Whiskey – A singularly fantastic cover by Stapleton, this song is one of my favorites on the album. It’s strong, thematic, and highlights Stapleton’s unique sound. Morgane Stapleton’s vocals again serve as the perfect compliment.
  • Parachute – A popular radio hit from this album, this is another very good song. Stapleton digs his heels into the lyrics, dragging them out into the song with some serious panache.

SIDE B

  • Whiskey and You: A heart-wrenching comparison of love and alcohol, I give this song high marks for it’s stripped down nature, and it’s natural sound.
  • Nobody to Blame: A track that puts Stapleton’s lyrical prowess on display, this might be my favorite song on the album. Comparatively, it’s fast moving and a bit more “rock” in it’s pace and tempo than the others on this album, service as a great second track on the B-Side.
  • More of You: A middling track, this feels like a filler track on the album. Put here to keep it going, but not really serve to showcase much. It has a very classic country sound, and it sorta rolls in and out of your ears and listening field.
  • When The Stars Come Out: Probably my second least favorite track on the album, this one is nice, but it just doesn’t fill a need on this album another song doesn’t feel better.

SIDE C

  • Daddy Doesn’t Pray Anymore: Probably the most heart-wrenching song on the album, you can hear Stapleton’s voice cracking and breaking with emotion on this song, lending it a crushingly haunting and personal feeling.
  • Might As Well Get Stoned: There’s a strong sense of resignation and triumph alternating through this song. It’s not “fun”, but it’s energetic, interesting, and a listening pleasure.
  • Was It 26: A cover of the Charlie Daniels classic (the second of two non-Stapleton penned songs on this album), Stapleton has chosen a great classic to cover here, showing an unique take on a staple of country music.

SIDE D

  • The Devil Named Music: A condemnation of the stresses of touring and road life, this track hits hard, and keeps moving. I really like this one.
  • Outlaw State of Mind: A track that seems more inspired by AC/DC than country, Outlaw State of Mind is an aggressive, tough sound on this album, and a great way to (almost) close off the album.
  • Sometimes I Cry: At the end of the album, Stapleton returns to the melancholy and heartbreak that has defined most of this album. A good, solid closer song, though I’d have preferred to swap the track order, and put this ahead of Outlaw State of Mind.

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FINAL THOUGHTS

I really like this album. The listening sound on vinyl sells the authentic nature of this production, and the whole thing feels very personal. Stapleton has a strong grasp of simple, yet deep lyrics, and the whole album resonates with a personal touch throughout.

His wife provides excellent backing vocals, and the entire production team which was Stapleton and his producer, Dave Cobb really cut against the standard country mold here.

The more I think about it, the more I’d push this album into the 9/10 range (a few weaker tracks hold it back). I can’t wait for his next album.

RPG Retrospective: Halloween 2015

Some context. Every year, I build a massive Halloween game, where I go all out on minis, terrain, costumes, food, and just an overall gaming environment. Today, I started prepping for the 2016 run, and I thought it’d be fun to share some photos of last years!

These are in as much chronological order as I can summon.

The RPG of choice that year was Numenera, and the theme was trying to determine the strange goings on in a blasted clockwork town to the North.

Of course, as befits Numenera, there was some…shenanigans going on.

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David Gemmell Reread!

It’s that happy time of year again, where I get to reread and revisit the works of my favorite fiction author, David Gemmell!

Every August, I dive into a massive reread of all of Gemmell’s fiction works, and this year, I’ve decided to review and talk about each book as it goes on (this blog needs some serious love, so here’s something to start with). I read each of his books in their respective groupings/series, and for clarity’s sake, here is my reading order.

If you wanna read along, or discuss the work, I’d love that. I don’t get to rave or talk about the themes in Gemmell’s work enough.


505352Rigante series – Flintlock Fantasy before “Flintlock Fantasy” was really a genre, this book series is probably my absolute favorite work of his. I love the take on cultures from across the sea, the detailed worldbuilding, and the century spanning timeline.

  • Sword in the Storm
  • Midnight Falcon
  • Ravenheart (my personal favorite in the series)
  • Stormrider

 

 

 


Drenai Series – Second favorite, because it’s a classic. You can’t go 618177wrong with the best Heroic Fantasy on the market. Or ever.

  • Legend (it’s a classic, and it’s my favorite book of his).
  • The King Beyond the Gate
  • Waylander
  • Quest for Lost Heroes
  • Waylander II: In the Realm of the Wolf
  • The First Chronicles of Druss the Legend
  • The Legend of Deathwalker
  • Winter Warriors
  • Hero in the Shadows
  • White Wolf (The Damned Series Book 1)
  • The Swords of Night and Day (The Damned Series Book 2)

 

last-guardianStones of Power – This one is a little weird, so I just copied the Wikipedia description. It reads like two vaguely connected series.

“This series is known by several names. The entire series deals with the Stones of Power, also known as the Sipstrassi. The first two books contain a re-imagining of the Arthurian legend. The last three novels involve the protagonist Jon Shannow.”

  •  Ghost King
  • Last Sword of Power
  • Wolf in Shadow
  • The Last Guardian
  • Bloodstone

 


Hawk Queen  – Dimension hopping fantasy. Love it.

  • Ironhand’s Daughter
  • The Hawk Eternal

 


Standalone Novels

  • Knights of Dark Renown
  • Morningstar
  • Dark Moon
  • Echoes of the Great Song

Troy series – Historical Fantasy!

  • Troy: Lord of the Silver Bow
  • Troy: Shield of Thunder
  • Troy: Fall of Kings

Greek series – More Historical Fantasy!

  • Lion of Macedon
  • Dark Prince

 

Alan Watches Star Trek: The Next Generation

TNG_headSo, horrible geek confession, but I’ve never watched all any Star Trek other than The Original Series in series chronological order. Not to mention movies or other tie-in media.  But hey, The Next Generation is on Netflix, and I have always have a hankering for science fiction, especially Star Trek.

So I decided to chronicle my feeble attempts to dig into a show older than I am, and see what I get. I will try to watch a chunk and post them as large blog-posts with my thoughts and impressions, and see what we get from that. Expect several episodes a blog-post.

bdbd12a07a0e022966f4cdbb864076f12a632d36Season 1, Episode 1 & 2: “Encounter at Farpoint”

Wow. Long episode. I was not prepared for this. Also, maybe it’s cuz I’m 30+ years behind the airing date, but there feels like there’s very little character development. I mea, I see this Geordi La Forge character wearing a visor thingy, and it seems to let him see other wavelengths? Also, Data is an android (ok, sure, I knew that), but why is he here? Why does he exist on this ship? Who the crap built him?

Also, Q shows up and just randomly decides he wants to mess with The Enterprise. Ok. Omnipotent being is swayed by Picard. Yeeah.

Oh. SPACE JELLY FISH! That can poop out a space station. Why isn’t this two episodes? I mean it basically could be split down the middle into two. No problem. But hey, Q, shows up to book end the episode, so I guess it’s one!

Rating: Meh. This wasn’t mindblowingly good in any way. Maybe a 2 of 5 stars. Turns out it’s two episodes when I check the episode guide. Whoops. There’s almost no real character here, you just kinda…crash headlong into behavior and tropes. It’s…kinda confusing.

Season 1, Episode 3: “The Naked Now”

Ah! Here we go. This feels like an episode of classic Trek. Collapsing stars, trapped science vessels, boldly going. Frozen people. Hey! It’s the helmsman with the visor. He caught a frozen person.

Oh. People are being weird, and there is a tie in to the original series now. But the tie-in is really only fan service. Cute.

Oh, awkward security chief and android romance scene.

Hey! Young Wil Wheton got infected. He’s like some techno-genius, and made a…tractor beam? That seems REALLY dangerous to let someone have in a ship. Especially a kid. I mean, what if he starts shoving people into bulkheads or throwing them around the ship.

Oh. Everyone is gonna die unless Super-Android, and Genius Boy can save the day, which they do. With (gasp), a tractor beam. And everyone is really cured.

Rating: Wtf. I literally have no idea what I watched. We met the chief engineer, and I feel like there was actual character development, which was sorely needed, but I suspect all the character development I saw is…false? Everyone was forced to act out of character, and I just don’t know.

Season 1, Episode 4: “Code of Honor”

Alright. So, we fly to a planet where they base their culture on customs similar to ancient Africa. This culture has a needed vaccine, and after we all meet, the leader decides to kidnap the impressive Chief of Security for the Enterprise…who…gets kidnapped. Thus not being very impressive as the chief of security. Hm.

Oh, now the chief wants to marry Tasha Yar, for some political shenanigans. Fight with poisoned weapons, and stuff, death, and legal jiggery-pokery. Picard goes full Kirk and does generic Starfleet captain trickery.

Rating: I don’t know what to think, but this episode felt crazy racist. Maybe I missed something key? But hey, we get more La Forge and Data character development. Which is far more than everyone else is getting.

Summary

Well, I’m only four episodes in, and there’s…22 more to go. Ok, how did this show MAKE it? Was it simply carrying on through nostalgia? Was there a dearth or good television at the time? Also, what the crap? Is character development not a thing on 80s TV? Do they not believe in establishing dialogue?

Oh man. I actually find myself dreading the rest of the show (I mean, I’ve seen it before out of order, so I know there’s good there, but I have to get there).

Review Policy

So, there’s a weird juncture, where as someone who is trying to publish a game, and a consumer of the same industry products, that you have to keep your opinion to yourself.

As such, I will no longer be reviewing roleplaying game products. In the interest of honesty, I’ve left my previous reviews up (all except the one right before this was determined. I said what I said, and I will adhere to that), but it’s unfair of me to publicly express these opinions, nor appear to demean, or detract from my colleagues, and their efforts and hard-work.

If you wish to hear my private and personal opinions, you’re welcome to message or contact me asking for them.

Otherwise, enjoy my past reviews, and I’ll find other items to fill the void on this blog!