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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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!

RPG Review: Gods of the Fall by Monte Cook Games

Gods-of-the-Fall-CoverIt’s time for an RPG review! Trying to get back into the swing of things, while fulfilling two Kickstarters, planning three more, and handling regular life.

I feel busy. But this week was a good week. I received fulfillment rewards for 5 Kickstarters in the last month, and I’m slowly working my way through them for review.

First up, Gods of the Fall by Monte Cook Games. Gods of the Fall is the first book in the new line of settings for MCG’s Cypher System, a generic ruleset identical to the one that powers the wildly successful Numenera and The Strange games.

Gods of the Fall was a Kickstarter reward, and the game does require the generic ruleset in the Cypher System Rulebook to play the game (think along the lines of the new White Wolf World of Darkess/Chronicles of Darkness line of games).

Players take on the role of adventures who discover they have a divine spark, 40 years after Heaven fell and crashed through the Earth, killing all the Gods. It’s a post-divine, post-apocalyptic fantasy game.


1.) Size and Production Quality.

A nice 188 page hardcover, full color book. Like all MCG productions, the book is a mixture of gloss and matte on the cover, and feels sturdy and durable. It feels solid, and fits nicely along the rest of the MCG games on the shelf. It’s a little thin for $45 USD, but RPG pricing is a hard line to nail down, and I certainly don’t feel like my money was wasted.

8/10


2.) Art

This might be the single most beautiful RPG book I’ve ever owned. Every piece of art in the game is brimming with beauty, evocation and talent. Seriously. I just flipped through the book looking at what might be the most amazing fantasy art I’ve ever seen compiled in a single RPG rulebook.

The graphic design is the normal MCG layout (sidebars with page references and tips, multi-colored chapters), and it holds and contains the art and words in a truly stunning manner.  Can’t rave enough.

It frankly reminds me of the beautiful 4th Edition Legend of the Five Rings books.

11/10


3.) Content / Rules

Ok. So. The Cypher system seems to be a bit polarizing. I haven’t made up my mind about the ruleset in a final decision.

It’s the usual “I’m a _adjective_ _noun_ who _verbs_” but with the addition of a new type, called a domain, that adds on the the end of the Character descriptor and says “and is the _God of _________”.

Ok, that works, and it’s a solid way to get into that. I approve fully, and as always, I like the “adj/noun/verb” char-gen set up. The Domain powers are pretty slick, and there’s wonderfully generic so you can let your imagination run wild. Domains can be as specific as you want, from “God of Winter” to “God of the Morning Frost” to “The Snowflake God of the North” and mechanically the same ruleset will completely cover all the aspects.

The rules for Divine Shifts are a simple variation of the superhero rules in the Cypher corebook (makes sense, and fits), and here’s where the game gets awesome.

You have to complete legendary labors (a la Hercules), fulfill a 7 part prophecy (which is excellent written), gain servants, and help restore the (or create a new) kingdom of Heaven with some semblance of Glory.

It’s amazing. The list of legendary deeds the setting has prebuilt is extensive. Aside for my (admittedly undecided) reservations about the ruleset, this whole section is great game design, evocative setting integration, and exceptionally well dome.

9/10


4.) Game Master Section

The GM section here is designed to be appended to the GM section in the corebook, so it’s a little sparse. It talks about how to run an “epic” game and deal with questions of divinity, god-hood, and integrating some of the fiddly bits of the Cypher System into Gods of the Fall.

7/10


5.) Pre-made Adventure

There’s one here, designed to get you started on your path to Godhood. It’s pretty fun, but as always, all pre-mades suffer from a need to cram all the little bits you need to learn about the game into this book. Wasn’t for me, something with a little more epic (like the GM section advises) around the pre-made would have felt better.

7/10


Total Score: 42/50

That’s a pretty high score, and it reflects my impressions of the game. I am exceptionally impressed and glad I got in on this. I’m already planning a full campaign and how I’d run that, and my head is full of cool visuals, ideas, and plot threads.

This game is awesome. Full stop.