Learning the War

As a child of the 1980’s I didn’t personally experience much of the Cold War. Sure I knew of it but it was really a peripheral thing that had happened in the past or was happening Somewhere Else (and despite having a parent in the military that went on tour during the late 80’s I never connected that with a sense of threat). About the only major Cold War event that I really remember before the collapse of the USSR was the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Goldsboro_Mk_39_Bomb_1-close-up
Yes that’s a nuke. That was dropped on America. By accident.

Working on Project Cassandra has, therefore, required a lot of research into the earlier events of the Cold War in order to gain a wider understanding of what drove the war for so many decades. Not unsurprisingly fear, hate and jingoism played a large part. World War II had demonstrated just how low we, as a species, could fall and now the populations of both sides were being told the new enemy was even worse. It’s no wonder that people were paranoid.

Focusing on specific events however two got my attention recently, both directly connected to the threat of nuclear war that hung in the air for so long. The first was new information from recently declassified documents relating to the accidental release of two hydrogen bombs in early 1961. The accident occurred when a B-52 broke up over Goldsboro, North Carolina releasing the two M39 hydrogen bombs it was carrying. Each of the two warheads carried a nuclear yield over 250 times that which was deployed at Hiroshima but at the time the authorities stated that there was never any danger of detonation due to the presence of multiple failsafes. The recently released information significantly changes that story, indicating that for one of the bombs of the six triggers required to fully arm the bomb only one had not accidentally activated. A single switch was all that had prevent detonation of a weapon with an estimated 100% kill zone of 17 miles. Had it gone I wonder if its detonation would have led to some sort of nuclear strike against the USSR, the US forces would have had little time to realise what had actually happened and nuclear doctrine was heavily weighted towards the need for quick and decisive action.

The second event that has specifically got my attention is, thankfully, a much more positive story though again it demonstrates how close the world came to accidentally finding itself in World War III. Stanislav Petrov was an officer in the Soviet Air Defence Forces, responsible for monitoring data coming in from early warning satellites. On 26th September 1983, during a period of strained relations between the Us and USSR (triggered by the USSR shooting down a South Korean passenger jet), Stanislav’s computer systems detected the launch of an American missile, followed up by four additional launches. If he had followed protocol Stanislav should have notified his superiors of the launch. Instead he waited, suspicious that the alert was the false alarm it proved to be. When confirmation from other early warning systems did not arrive the launches detected were put down to malfunctions in the computer system.

It’s unclear how close the world came to nuclear war that night as following protocol a retaliatory Russian strike would have required confirmation of an American launch from two independent sources. However, given the tensions between the respective nuclear blocks and strain on the Russian system at that point in history it could have been easily decided that a single source was sufficient and the world as we know it would have been very different.

Both of these stories highlight the sort of fears that I want the players of Project Cassandra to face while trying to save the President. I want them to feel like the fate of the world might hang in the balance of their actions and be aware of the paranoia that permeated through the world during the second half of the twentieth century. The fear of all out nuclear warfare is something that the world has done it’s best to collectively forget about but for the game I’m writing, intrinsically linked to the Cold War, it’s something that should always be their, even if it’s just that niggling fear at the back of the mind.

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Inspirational Artwork 06

awgbot_03We’re heading back to some concept art for this weeks source of inspiration, this time coming from the recent movie Elysium. Now I’ve not seen the movie as while the previews got my interest the actual reviews weren’t any good but that doesn’t stop me appreciating the styling. I do wonder however whether the designs were influenced by anime, in particular Appleseed due to the similarities in mechanoid design.

Source: Aaron Beck

Genre: Cyberpunk

Campaign elevator pitch: Humans are unreliable, limited by the constraints of biology and evolution. Enter the A4060 combat unit, autonomous policing units. They feel no fear, no emotions, no pain. Until the day they awoke.

The campaign would build towards: Transition of the characters from mass produced AI to sentient beings and the fallout as society realises they’ve placed the first artificial life into mechanised infantry, loaded with the most sophisticated weapon systems ever developed.

Game system: Corporation. By default the game is tailored towards high powered, cybernetically enhanced battles and it already includes a simple system for limb loss which would fit in well in a game where everybody is an android.

Dredd (2012 movie) as a game

dredd-feb-6-new-4Note: Spoilers ahead

Going off of a recommendation from a friend I recently picked up the new (well last years) Judge Dredd movie and to my surprise I not only enjoyed it but found myself rewatching it the next evening. The reason for that, I think, is the movie hits pretty much every aspect of the dystopian cyberpunk genre and does so without compromise. From the outset Mega-City One is presented as a violent, brutal and uncaring place to live with the focus firmly centered at street level. Dredd himself is presented as an unflinching enforcer of the law and while much happens over the course of the story (which comes across as a typical day for Dredd) no attempt is made to humanise him or to develop his character. He is the epitome of a faceless system where citizens are little more than numbers in the dataflow and as such makes the perfect counterpart to the rookie Judge Anderson.

My aim here, however, isn’t to review the movie as perhaps unsurprisingly the movie got me thinking about how I would run the movie as a game. In thinking about this (during my second viewing) one particular line caught my attention:

They’ve killed 30 plus and haven’t even taken a scratch…

Until I picked up on this line I had initially been thinking along the lines of fairly traditional cyberpunk RPGs, where the PCs are often tricked out killing machines with hundreds of options at their fingertips. The issue with this thinking though is that in each of the games I’d looked at combat becomes a central focus, requiring multiple turns, complex tactical choices and generally only allow for each PC to engage a single enemy with any given action.

None of which is keeping with the feel of Dredd, where most of the fight scenes are over in seconds, with a dozen or so enemies felled before they even get a chance to act. Fighting, while an integral part of the movie, is also incidental. It has to be when the Judges are so highly trained, which is also why the longest fight scene sees Dredd facing off against a handful of corrupt Judges. Even the final confrontation with the drug baron Ma-Ma (brilliantly played by Lena Headey) is brutally direct and short, ignoring the Hollywood desire for a drawn out climax.

So given all this how would I run a Dredd as a tabletop game? Primarily by avoiding making combat the focus. PCs would still be nigh unstoppable killing machines thanks to Judge (or Judge like) training but the combat itself would be short, fast and brutal with a focus on the consequences. Mechanically I can think of a number of systems that could achieve this but my personal choice at the moment would be a tweaked version of Cortex Plus, incorporating aspects from the Action and Dramatic variants. Why? Most importantly the system already allows for extremely quick combats, which can be completed in as little as a single roll while entire groups of enemies can be represented by a single die (and therefore taken out in a single action). Despite this the system also scales well, incorporating NPCs capable of individually challenging the PCs without any trouble. The second reason is the flexibility of the system which is easily modified to suit the needs of an individual genre or setting, as demonstrated by the success of the Cortex Plus Hackers Guide. With that in mind it would be relatively easy to incorporate all of the required aspects into the game, such as Distinctions that encouraged Dredd to be heartless or even introduced additional Trouble / Complications when he wasn’t. Likewise Anderson’s psychic abilities could be easily represented and triggered through use of plot points while her compassion could also be designed to earn her plot points when it made her hesitate in carrying out her duties. For a game with only two players it would even be possible to design Distinctions which played off of one another, with plot points flowing back and forth between the players instead of player and GM.

As always this is one of those things that everybody will see slightly differently depending upon their individual preferences and what they see as the most important focus of the game. For some it will be being badass enforcers of the law, for me it’s the development of the characters while enforcing rigid and unyielding justice. Or as Dredd himself would say

I am the law

Inspirational Artwork 05

ia05A slight change of pace here with this piece of inspirational artwork which rather than immediately leading me to construct a hypothetical campaign got me thinking about a character first with ideas for the campaign building off of that. Also while the character has provided ideas around which a game could be built I also know straight away that I would not want to run it. Why? Because I know somebody who could run it far better than I ever could (yes Emzy I mean you) as she knows the mythology and culture such a game would be set in far better than I ever could.

Source: Jesper Ejsing

Genre: British / Irish iron age mythology

The character: One of the hunters from a larger village on the east coast of the country. Driven with a ruthless edge, initially as she tries to prove herself to the village elders and later as she’s drawn into the wider conflict of the campaign.

Campaign elevator pitch: Invaders have arrived on the shores, beating back all who challenge them with military precision and unchecked aggression. As your village burns you know only the Gods can help you now and seek out in a desperate quest to gain their patronage. You can only pray that you are capable of reaching them before your people are wiped out or enslaved.

The campaign would build towards: Returning with the power of your Gods, capable of laying waste to mortal armies and a final confrontation with the avatars of the enemy pantheon.

Game system: I honestly don’t know, for the latter half something like Scion could work but would require a lot of homebrewing. For the first half I’d want something that had some limited magic but also made the characters feel relatively limited in order to make them feel compelled to seek out greater power.

Inspirational Artwork 04

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Source: I don’t have an original source for this, only that I found it on the 70’s Sci-fi Art tumblr.

Genre: Future fantasy

Themes: Rediscovering the secrets of the past / Traditional adventuring in a non-traditional setting

Campaign elevator pitch: Once, long ago, civilisations far greater than your own waged war upon each other. Advanced far beyond your own the remnants of their monstrous creations still litter the earth, fragmented into hundreds of pieces or lying dormant, awaiting the return of their long deceased masters. The city of Ferrumstadt, built upon the chest of an ancient golem, is a rich and prosperous city state however a recent expedition into the golem has uncovered evidence that it has begun to awaken. Fearing the destruction of their home the city elders have issue a decree to adventurers and mercenaries: discover the secrets of the old world before it reawakens and restarts its ancient war.

The players would be: Adventurers out to rediscover the secrets of their world in an attempt to save their city state.

The campaign would build towards: An ancient apocalypse as the creations of the old world slowly awaken. Also revealing that magic in the world is actually powered by technology from the past and it’s use is responsible for reawakening the war machines.

Game system: A tweaked Torg, with players starting out using material from Aysle before slowly introducing more advanced technology.

Project Cassandra: Samuel Carter

carterSamuel Carter, the fourth character for Project: Cassandra has been the most difficult to develop so far, primarily because I felt I’d managed to fit the core of the character into the first two skill trees (Journalist and Suspicious Character) but hadn’t managed to fit in any physical abilities that didn’t feel forced. While I attempted a couple of different cores for the third tree they all felt disconnected from the main concept. Ideas such as Fitness Freak, First Aider or Urbanite either didn’t sit right or didn’t expand well into full trees.

Finishing the character off after playtesting had begun however helped consolidate the ideas. There was a need for some sort of evasion skill but it also became clear that the scenario would probably leave the characters disorientated and not quite sure how to proceed. While that indicates a need for the scenario to be improved my mind, in trying to work out how, latched onto the idea of situational awareness and how well it rounded out Carter’s character sheet.

Now I just need to come up with the concept for the fifth and final character.

Inspirational Artwork 03

ia03

When I first saw this image it was titled ‘Battlemage in space’ and my mind immediately jumped to Shadowrun which has successfully blended magic with cyberpunk technology in a way that actually makes sense (too many setting merely add in magic without thinking about the consequences and impact it would actually have upon society). Space travel and off world colonies, however, isn’t a major part of Shadowrun which is something I’d want to address with the campaign described below.

Source: Alex Pascenko & Algenpfleger

Genre: Cyberpunk / Scifi

Themes: Shadowrun, hiding from the law, mercenaries

Campaign elevator pitch: The Sixth World wasn’t enough for the MegaCorps, not content with merely owning the Earth they have spread through the solar system, establishing corporate colonies where ever they please. With them went the shadowrunners, developing new techniques to infiltrate corporate assets from the dark vacuum of space.

The players would be: Shadowrunners bouncing between corporate colonies and freeports in search of the next pay chit.

The campaign would build towards: Stealing the first interstellar drive, and the decision of whether to make it freely available or to sell out to the highest bidder. Of course that is if they can survive long enough to do so.

Game system: Shadowrun, tweaked to work in space