more apocalyptica

Last entry I wrote about the impact of living on the brink of apocalypse though, in keeping with the theme here, mostly about how it impacted my gaming. My gaming was atypical even in the apocalyptic crowd though, it seems.

metamorphosis alpha coverFrom a young age I cared inordinately about science. My first “mutants” game was Metamorphosis Alpha and it was silly. I recognized it as silly. I knew mutation didn’t work that way. But it was also encapsulated — the story was that this was a kind of radiation in a particular place (maybe a particular universe) where this kind of mutation happened. That was fine by me. Internally consistent. There’s a vast generation ship (based at least in part on the classic SF novel Orphans of the Sky by Heinlein, but there were other similar novels and short stories) and it goes through some kind of radiation event and thousands of years later you are a possibly mutated person on this ship but with no idea that it’s a ship. It’s a whole game with one built-in wonder gag (WE LIVE ON A SPACE SHIP?!) that only pays off once, really. It’s a cool concept, a classic game, very familiar mechanisms mostly about how mutation affects combat, and an opportunity to draw space ship floor plans. Fun stuff. It’s also, at its heart, comedy.

mad maxBut my apocalypse was fucking serious. It was the real thing and I pretty much knew, if not what that would mean, at least what the plausible parameters were. And so my apocalypse in gaming never had mutants. I never even bought Gamma World — it held zero interest for me. In fact I was kind of offended by its frivolity (as 14 year old no less): I was facing extinction here. My apocalypse looked like something between Threads and Mad Max, using a sliding scale depending upon my mood (we called depression a “mood” back then).

And I think that this is why my apocalyptic gaming became community-oriented. I never once bought into it as an adventure playground, a fantasy of a future with irradiated others to dominate. If there was violence or even plunder, it was because of scarcity and because our heroes had to choose to favour their community. They were protecting and preserving something and in so doing also had to recognize that so was the other side. We could certainly invent villains, people that were making immoral choices in order to survive, but also that they were dealing with a very bad fucking day as well.

I just wasn’t going to get onside with anything that made my apocalypse a sweeter pill to swallow: part of the horror I wanted to confront (that I was confronting, in some ways, already with the perfect certainty of impending disaster) was that everyone was going to be desperate. This is probably the origin of my interest in the moral quandry of everyone in a conflict having some kind of moral position to defend. Evil was not interesting. Desperation was interesting and to be desperate you must be trying to preserve something. So in my apocalypse the predominant theme was trying to claw back enough society to feel safe again (because I felt profoundly unsafe). And that makes arch moustache-twirling villains unappealing. And it makes the reconstruction of other survivors as monsters (mutants) whose needs can be ignored especially disgusting. My reaction was very visceral. Gamma World was off the table.

So I think that’s the path I travelled in that period, the reason why we wound up doing little desperate violent community studies. And also why we had Asskickers — the only way I was interested in violent dispatch of monsters was as comedy. And my apocalypse wasn’t comedic, so I invented something for the comedy.

I’ll talk about my Traveller games another time because they are something else entirely.

terror of the scientific sun

I think I was about 13 when I realized I wasn’t going to live to see 20.
I recall a vague terror of nuclear war before that and I recall thinking about fallout shelters and what to do if those sirens went off, but it was at the age of 13 when I sat far from home in the house of a friend of my social studies teacher playing D&D with the two of them (playing with adults! I was pretty fucking proud of that) and the air raid sirens did go off.

It was a test, of course, or a mistake. There was no warning that reached me.

I nearly pissed myself. Before that I had thought about post-apocalyptic gaming and toyed with “what would you do” scenarios but after that everything changed. Because I instantly realized that all my super-heroic ideas of post apocalyptic survival were entirely and perfectly bullshit.

What went through my mind when that siren went off was first, will I be close enough to just die outright? I sure hoped so.

Then, if not, where will I go? Who will I connect with to deal with the next days? For sure Mark and his pal here would do but I was already evaluating them and was pretty sure they were not going to be survival heroes. Nor, and I was increasingly becoming aware that this would be more important, did I feel that they were the kernels of a functioning post-apocalyptic community. Maybe Mark.

For many years after that, at least until I reached the surprising age of 21, I waited again for that siren. I heard it when it wasn’t there, heard it in the wind, heard it in the traffic. For at least eight years I was on tenter hooks waiting for that siren to indicate my life was over and the best I could hope for was to be at ground zero. Second best would be to be with people. Lots of good people.

During those eight years my gaming completely changed. D&D was phased out in favour of Traveller and then Twilight:2000. Throughout we mashed up every game system we contacted to do one of two things: either we played in an immediately post-apocalyptic world (which is to say that the session started with the sirens) or we played in a desperately stupid comic world of my own based on Jim Stenstrum’s Asskickers of the Fantastic comics. My responses in leisure were either preparation or escape.

My post apocalyptic gaming evolved from out-of-the-box Twilight:2000 to something other in very short order. The first games were war-porn survival tales during which I learned a startling amount about weapons. Enough that years later when I first fired a pistol and then an auto-loading rifle, I didn’t require any instruction. That’s pretty creepy, I think. I can still field strip a Walther P-38 I bet. But then they began to focus on us. On modeling us and what we would do and how we would do. I recall many wonderful (though short) games that involved establishing island communities. Creating sustainable locations. Thinking about logistics as well as defense. And above all, eventually, thinking a lot about people helping people get by.

When I thought I was going to die my “politics” were of a punk anarchist. When I realised I wasn’t (and started reading politics in college) I would have to align myself with socialism or even further left. Societies that protect themselves earnestly, practically, and down to individual needs were the only societies I wanted to explore.

asskickBut the other side of my gaming is harder to understand. Given that I was basically in a state of terror 24/7 we have to imagine almost anything I did was poisoned by that terror, so what do we make of the Asskickers of the Fantastic?

These were almost entirely ad libbed (and maybe the debut of my ad libbing successes). They all started with one image.

The Werewolves of BC Place started after a Michael Jackson concert. The team of Asskickers (kind of Ghostbusters crossed with the A Team) are contacted by venue management and show up at their office in the stadium. It’s a big office and it’s filled with body bags. He wants to talk about what happened at the concert and hoe it can be cleaned up — and kept quiet. Hijinks ensue.

The Shadow Over Ambleside begins with the shoe department at Woodward’s contacting our heroes because some of the shoes are being replaced with footwear clearly designed for no human foot. Antics (and failed sanity rolls) traversed the offices of podiatrist Dr. C.T. Hulu, the beaches of Ambleside (where Paul managed to rig an autowinder and flash to the action of his M-60, allowing him to take candid photos of startled Deep Ones in time to the gunfire), and the caverns under Woodward’s itself which, had anyone chosen to map it, would reveal a portrait of Bill Vander Zalm, the right wing loonie in charge of the province at the time.

ally zombieAnd finally, another traumatic event in my childhood surfaced as the New Coke Zombies, which were finally defeated by my friend Glen’s character, badly wounded but strapped into a motorized wheelchair armed with seltzer bottles full of 7-Up. Clearly no New Coke zombie could stand before the Un-Cola.

So essentially my gaming response to imminent doom was to oscillate between planning and panic. For eight years. Massively creative and desperate years.

It’s little wonder then that my gaming since then has become about building, about saving, and about repairing. And yet somehow still essentially, no matter how light the rules, very traditional. I really want to prod a traditional structure into becoming about these positive things rather than deeply encode these into the rules. I want players to discover that that’s what they are interested in and not just be compelled by the rules to address them, to have only those options. Partly that’s because choice really really matters, I think: to have many options open to you and then choose to repair a community is most meaningful to me. You could align yourself with the bad king. Nothing stops you. There’s no mechanical disadvantage in doing so. I trust, however, that when you develop your character and your organization and confront your first real problem, that you will choose to repair and to heal.


The King Machine is available in print from Lulu, in PDF and print from DTRPG, and in PDF only (50% off until March 2019) at

new school old school

Sure, OSR lacks a decent definition. Many have tried. Let’s not try again.

A lot of attention gets paid to the mechanisms and the meta-mechanisms, things like stats & skills; roll to hit, roll for damage; hex maps; rulings not rules; and like that. But that might be a little superficial — after all, I think every one of us has occasionally found a game that hits a sweet spot while at the same time having mechanisms we thought we would dislike. What is that sweet spot, and what would it look like on an OSR game?

Now, I’m pretty old and was teethed on Basic Dungeons & Dragons. I played Traveller and Twilight:2000 well into the 80s. Later I’d get back into gaming and it would be D&D again. I know the old school. I grew up there and I literally taught there.

I find, though, that my game design does not map on to that old school game design at all, but my play does map onto my old school play. So I’d like to wonder out loud about that now.

The Soft Horizon system is sort of powered by (more set off by) the apocalypse. But there are no playbooks. Instead there’s a very simple skill system — there’s a small set of skills (we call them methods, but whatever) and you have all of them at some level or another. That’s because I like my character definition generalizable — I want a set of blocks to fit together to make who I want to play. I don’t really want classes and playbooks smell of classes to me. Again, leaning more towards Traveller in some ways, but definitely Old. But even that’s a little superficial. I talked about how play is old school, and not specific system elements.

Map.pngA critical element of play for me is exploration. Characters are going to new places and solving problems there, both their own problems and the problems of the people they meet. By my recollection of old school gaming I have to place exploration, whether revealing the contents of hexes or just narrating a new space to be, as an element of the OSR. You don’t need a literal map (it’s only one tool that enables this function). You just need the game to have a focus on exploration in some form.

Another element is discovery. This goes hand in hand with exploration but I more mean finding out secret knowledge, making connections between disparate things. Unveiling mysteries to discover more mysteries. In Soft Horizon games I make this happen in very different ways than in my old gaming days — instead of the ref inventing it, the system delivers it or tricks the ref into delivering it at the last minute — but it’s the same objective, the same function.

biostorm.pngAnd then there’s wonder. You discover something truly fucked up. You develop an image in your head that’s mind-blowing. A seeming contradiction reveals that the whole universe is not quite what you thought. It’s that pot-smokers whoooah moment that makes everyone sit back a second and take it onboard. And then start spewing wild theories for the why of it. That wonder comes from making sense of contradiction and from everyone being surprised at once. Ref included. That’s something that many struggle to find and it’s not in the basic mechanisms of a world simulator. It might be in your awesome cover image or interior illustrations. It might be in some fiction. But those only happen once each and then you’re done. A system that’s really, solidly OSR needs to deliver it reliably. It needs to be intentional. I don’t know how well I solved this but goddamn I took a stab at it.

So there is a way, I think, that these games are OSR in spirit. They are hand made. They favour player development of character. They lean into exploration and discovery to reveal wonder. The target play is OSR. I for sure found a mechanism that does it for me, every time. I have no reason to believe that you are all that different.


I used to work as an alchemist.

No really. It was probably the coolest job I ever had, though technically it was called “fire assay” and not alchemy. But it has clearly alchemical origins since it apparently turns lead into gold. It doesn’t really, of course, but when it was discovered it sure must have seemed like it.

What it really does is extract platinum group metals (and silver, as it turns out) from a mixture. In our case the mixture was a “flux” of borax, lead oxide, silica, and flour; and a powdered rock sample. What happens is, the whole thing cooks down, the platinum group metals in the rock sample bond to the lead, and then you separate the lead from the other metals. Measure the recovered metal and compare with the mass of the original rock sample and you have the proportion of gold in the sample. It’s a great technique for surveying very large areas and looking for regional spikes of relatively low value, indicating a possible gold source underground.

The steps are great fun. Easily the most butch job I had.

Crucible. Or, as it is in the filename on my desktop, “curcible”. Apropos.

It doesn’t start that way. It starts more like cooking — take a pre-measured volume of flux in a ceramic crucible and add the powdered pre-measured sample. In my case this was just 10 grams since we were doing very broad survey stuff. Then test the sample with a drop of nitric acid. Does it smoke? Then it’s a carbonaceous rock and you want to add a little extra silica. No smoke? Silicaceous, maybe add a little borax. Then add a measure of flour. Flour is the critical reagent because it’s the source of carbon that will make the whole process work. Too much flour and you’ll draw out too much metallic lead. Too little and you get no lead. You want a very consistent amount of lead. So if you have carbonaceous rock, add a little less flour. If you have a soil sample (always a nightmare), no flour at all is probably best. Finally, plop in a very precise and tiny amount of silver nitrate.

Row upon row of very fucking hot.

Next you put your crucible in a 1500ºC furnace. In fact you put 24 in at once — this is a production line process! Let that cook for 40 minutes or so. While it’s cooking, the carbon will bond with oxygen in the lead oxide producing metallic lead. This lead will alloy with all platinum group metals (and the silver) in the mixture. So when it’s done you have a crucible full of molten glass and borax and a little slug of molten lead at the bottom.

pouring out
Mmmm, muffins.

Now you pour these out into an iron muffin tin. Seriously, it looks exactly like a muffin tin except the cavities are conical — pointed at the bottom. Let it cool and you have a bunch of glass muffins with lead tips. And then the fun begins.

When they are solid but still very hot, you put the muffin tin by your smashing station which has protective goggles, an anvil, and walls to keep everyone but you safe. You bang on one of the muffins with your cold ball peen hammer and it fractures from the temperature differential. Scoop out the lead divot with your giant tweezers and bang it into a cube on the anvil. This is mostly to get all the glass out of the sample. Now you have a lot of shattered glass and 24 little lead cubes that are allowed with valuable other metals.

A cube of lead! Now how do you turn it into gold?

Cute little poisonous cups.

You put each lead button on a porous ceramic cupel, a little cup with a very thick base. Then those go back in the furnace but — critically — with the vent open. As the lead melts it oxidizes away thanks to the air from the vent, disappearing up the reclamation system and hopefully not into the atmosphere. But the platinum group metals do not oxidize and the silver won’t oxidize much (and you’re not measuring it anyway). After a few hours your cupels are yellow-orange from absorbing all the lead oxide and each contains a little bead of silver — the silver from the silver nitrate you put in at the beginning. Also gold and platinum but mostly silver — you put the silver in in the first place so you get something practical to analyze since the volume of gold is usually very very tiny.

See that little bead? That’s not even the gold. That’s the drop of silver you put in at the beginning. Once I saw actual gold in there and the geologist was arrested shortly thereafter for spiking his samples.

Then you give these to a real chemist who dissolves them in acid and fires them through a spectrometer of some kind to get the final results.

What’s not to like? Furnaces, molten lead, broken glass, and cooking. Best job ever.

conscript wednesday

Technically a blast from the past, this is resurrected from the old skunkworks wiki — a constructed script for our lizardfolk overlords from a Burning Wheel game in the ancient past.

The Anatake


Literacy in humans originates from the lizardfolk and has recently spread to humans since cultural contact with the lizardfolk has progressed beyond territorial warfare. The alphabet of the lizardfolk, the ”anatake”, is not particularly well suited to the human tongue and it remains to be seen how the language and the alphabet will evolve under their use. As there is no formal method for transcribing the ”anatake” to human languages, spelling will vary widely from place to place and time to time.

The ”anatake” is a composed syllabary. It is not ideographic and while it is essentially alphabetic, pure separation of consonant and vowel does not exist in the lizardfolk tongue and is consequently poorly represented in the alphabet. The ”anatake” is written from right to left. Each syllable is composed of a main stem or ”pane” (meaning exit) and a decoration or ”faru” (meaning entrance). The exit stroke is the vowel that terminates the syllable and the decoration is the consonant that begins the syllable. When preceding vowels are necessary (as in ”anatake”) they are free-floating characters.

The ”anatake” is best suited to a brush or oblique cut quill, but can be cut in stone with simple tools with only some minor stylistic changes to reduce curvature.


In the ”pane”, pronunciation is roughly standard for Latin alphabet transliteration of Japanese. That is, ”u” is pronounced like ”oo” in ”boot”, ”o” is a long ”o” as in ”boat”, ”ai” is a long ”i” as in ”bite”, ”i” is pronounced as ”ea” in ”beak”, ”a” is a simple ”ah”, and ”e” is pronounced as ”eh”. Vowels have no special modifying characteristics as they would in English. Adjacent pronounced vowels are mysterious to lizardfolk and consequently letters like ”w” have no obvious translation. It remains to be seen how humans will adapt to this.


When transliterating it is common to use the ”u pane” for terminal consonants as in the terminal position a ”u pane” is barely pronounced in the lizardfolk tongue. Sometimes other ”pane” will be used however.


These entrances are all inscribed against the ”a” exit.


The origin of the ”faru” is not known, though presumably they are stylised from a previous ideographic character set. As the lizardfolk have been literate for a profoundly long time (while they appear to periodically lose technology they never seem to lose the art of writing and reading), the ”anatake” has undergone substantial normalisation since its origins.

Free-floating vowels

The free-floating vowels are used to precede the initial syllable when used in the lizardfolk tongue:


In human literacy these characters might be present before an internal syllable to indicate a dieresis or even stacked to indicate multiple vowel sounds as in, for example, the traditional transcription for Three Ways:

Transcribed literally as “tha-ri u-ai-su”


In some of the advanced cities of the lizardfolk a more cursive form is frequently seen. This is used more often in copies of books intended for rich patrons and are typically also illuminated.


Typographic details can vary quite dramatically in the e, a, and in some ways the u ”pane” without creating any ambiguity. The following variations on the a ”pane” are all feasible:


Obviously a stylistically consistent font can be made by inverting and reversing these for the e ”pane”.

The ”faru” are rather less amenable to variation and can rapidly lose their distinction if pushed too far.

Design Notes

In designing the ”anatake” I assume that the instinctive solution to creating a text from oral language is to map words onto symbols rather than phonemes as the phonemic structure appears to be the result of a deeper analysis — a greater level of generalisation than might initially be available to civilisations. The structure of the ”anatake” suggests, however, some of this deeper analysis in its construction and it might therefore even be the result of a later wave of lizardfolk to make sense of an earlier wave’s technology. That is, the reptiles may once have achieved the higher level of abstraction but when the technology was lost so was the context in which it existed. The ”anatake” would then be the result of a culture without sufficient context trying to make sense of an alphabetic system, ending up with the hybrid of a composed syllabary. The irony of this is evident in the Korean system of composed syllabary which is of explicitly modern design, though as a compromise between the power of an alphabetic system and the tradition of the existing Asian syllabaries rather than as the result of any lack of analysis.

It strikes me as interesting also that the inevitable battle between pronunciation derived purely from the written forms and pronunciation derived from the context plays itself out largely in the effort to abuse the ”anatake” by trying to get it to represent the human tongue, which is highly analogous to our own context-sensitive use of the Latin alphabet to transcribe English. The ”anatake” has a limited set of vowel sounds, for example, that are insufficient for English and has a pure syllabic structure that is also insufficient and therefore correct English pronunciation has to come from contextual interpretation of the letter forms that would not be necessary to the originators of the syllabary. In real languages forced to operate under the inadequately generalised Latin alphabet we solve this with contextually relevant groupings (”th” does not sound like a ”t” followed by an ”h”), contextual back references (vowels are elongated if they are followed several characters later by an ”e” as in ”rote” or ”lathe”), and diacritical marks. In Spiritus Mundi we have a world that is only now stumbling over these obstacles and will have widely varying unstandardised solutions.

There’s also an interesting translation problem that relates to the transliteration problem — when we talk about the human language of Spiritus Mundi, are we talking about English? The names suggest both yes and no. Does it make sense to transliterate English words into the ”anatake” if they are essentially translations of an unelaborated tongue? Further muddying this is the fact that we have used some certainly English words for names and some obviously Latin words as well, yet one of the tenets clearly indicates there is only one tongue amongst humans (and it’s certainly not believable that a society with only one language would have English as that language). This probably only bugs me and there can be no solution except to not transliterate English into the ”anatake” and that would suck so I choose to ignore the problem hereafter.

blast from the past: traveller musings

This first appeared on the now defunct skunkworks wiki for VSCA. It’s a love letter to the way I used to run Traveller and a response to canon fanatics on the Traveller Mailing List.

The Imperium According to Brad

There are many ways to interpret the setting details for Traveller — between multiple revisions of the game, board games with implied (and explicit) historical information , the ramifications of the technology, and the myriad actual games being played, the divergence is (pardon me) astronomical. So this here is just mine. When I run Traveller, this is the context.

The Imperium

The Imperium is an effort at maintenance — a philanthropic project that confronts the limitations of technology head on and makes hard decisions about how to minimize human suffering within that reality. It has no loftier (nor lesser) goal than the minimum suffering of Humaniti. The mechanism by which this is accomplished, however, is a vast disorder — a loosely connected and barely controlled balkanization of trillions. The secret to the success of the Emperor is an almost total release of command.

The Speed of Civilization

The core limitation of the Traveller universe is the speed of information. The only superluminal mechanism for transmission of information is the Jump drive which has a maximum range (approximately six parsecs) and a minimum time (a week). Nothing travels faster than that. We’ll take for granted that Special Relativity is wrong or incomplete so we can ignore causality issues. Anyway, this limitation means that you can’t maintain central control over any interesting distance — the minimum time between an event and your response is two weeks. The practical response time is vastly larger and the response must physically travel along one of a small number of calculable paths, making interception or blockade quite feasible. Empires that tried to maintain central control have fallen.

So this means that an existing high technology society cannot sustain neighbouring technologies — if a given society is suffering a major setback (war, future shock, catastrophic ennui) there is no certainty that it is possible, let alone economically viable, to sustain it externally. A critical tenet of the Imperium’s ruling philosophy, then, is that you can’t save everyone. The practical goal that follows is that there is a minimum level of technology that can be sustained on average given the limitations of travel speed and economics. That tech level, it turns out, is around 10.

The Imperium’s concrete efforts are to ensure that jump technology gets to societies that have lost it and to help create and sustain sufficient infrastructure to do so. They do not make any effort to control the leadership of these systems except where that leadership inhibits the primary goal of sufficient technology. The net result is a kind of feudalism and certainly the trappings of ancient feudal societies have been cheerfully adopted.

Fealty: The Exchange of Servitude for Jump Drives

The transaction that all systems in the Imperium undergo is an oath of fealty: the system agrees to have its economy and industry influenced (sometimes outright controlled but not necessarily) by an Imperial agent of noble blood. Their duty to the Emperor is to see to it that their charge attains and sustains at least tech level 10 — establishing a space port and the technology to make and keep making jump drives and therefore participate actively in interstellar trade. Their authority relies in large measure on the fact that he’s a conduit for improvement of the local way of life, but also on the military guarantee of the Empire — if things go badly the marines will show up. Not necessarily in any great hurry, but the Empire will assert itself.

These governor/observers usually carry some traditional feudal title like Duke or Count depending on the region, the social standing of the individual, the value of the holding, and the culture of the location. This Imperial delegate lasts as long as they are needed — sometimes that is decided by them, sometimes by the Imperium, and, in some unfortunate cases, it’s decided by the populace with the tacit approval of the Imperium. The actual mechanism of the observation and its connection to local authority is entirely at the discretion of this noble, but usually pursues an established ((Imperial Advancement Strategies|advancement schedule)). As long as they are demonstrating results their methods are rarely questioned.

The Reality of Technological Limits

Maintenance of a culture past tech level 15 appears to be impossible — no post-15 cultures have demonstrated any lasting stability and those currently at that state are all on the cusp of failure. The Imperium has tried to maintain these in the past but it is now considered an unarguable fact that these civilizations will fall. 15 appears to be a relatively stable level of technology and consequently this is the target technology level for all systems. It is not, however, commercially viable to try to do this outside of the immediate core of the Imperium, so the Empire stops pushing once a system can communicate and compete in interstellar affairs on its own.

A side effect of this is that the Imperial core worlds are all a little paranoid about technology — there is an effort (sometimes deliberate and sometimes unconscious) to fail to progress. Typically this expresses itself in an accretion of mysticism and in socio-political rituals around technology, limiting its efficiency and therefore its capacity to accelerate itself. Imperial core worlds are high tech places with low tech appearances. Swords are favoured over lasers, costume is highly decorative and hand crafted, the nobility ride horses to court, but everyone carries their hand computers and communications gear and is hooked into the world network. Technology has produced a great deal of leisure and luxury and the Imperials are determined to choke technological advancement with it. This as much as their goal of maintenance may explain the durability of the Imperium.

Client States

The systems that fall inside the Imperial borders that have shucked off the Imperial guidance are free to pursue their own interests as long as they do not disrupt Imperial interests. The obedience thus demanded from the Emperor is simple:

* You don’t interrupt the mail. The X-boat routes and the people and ships that ply them are absolutely sacrosanct. Problems with regular X-boat deliveries will result in the eventual arrival of the Imperial Navy and its Marines. Resolution will be swift and under the local discretion of the arriving military commanders (you can’t wait for clarification on orders with a six month turn around in the sticks).

* You obey interdiction zones. If the Imperium says you can’t visit a system, you can’t visit the system. An Imperial response here is usually restricted to systemic exploitation — systems are interdicted because it would be dangerous if colonised or exploited on a large scale. Sometimes, however, red zones can be very strict indeed with Imperial attention even to individuals crossing the line. Again, the threatened response is autonomous naval units with marine support.

* You don’t mess with the elevation exercises. Systems without jump technology are not interdicted, but any effort to keep the Imperium from achieving its goal of elevating the local technology to an interstellar one will be frowned upon. With ships and guns.

Other than that you are free to wreck your own and other civilizations through devastating local or interstellar warfare. Be careful of unplanned side effects that might attract Imperial attention though — when the Imperium chooses to end a war it takes the simplest possible route.

The Imperial Marines

Few things command faster compliance with Imperial dicta than the arrival of a squad of black and red battle dress uniforms — featureless visors, the whir of electro-mechanically enhance strength and mobility, and the blunt snouts of man portable fusion guns all contribute to the staggering awe inspired by these troops. Rumour of their dispatch is often enough to compel even the most stubborn rebel.

These troops are the expensive elite of a much broader organization, of course, but they are also the face of Imperial force, so while they are deployed as part of a more complex order of battle, they are nearly always present in every order of battle. The Imperium only sends troops when it intends to fight — there are no idle Imperial threats — so it never holds back to cut costs. The unit types available to any given deployment include:

Elite Imperial Guard

These are what you think of when you hear “Imperial marines”. They wear full battledress armour and wield FGMP-15s for all duties except boarding or the interdiction of high value structures, in which case they will carry a mix of Gauss rifles and laser rifles, retaining the FGMP as a squad support weapon instead of the standard longarm. These units are deployed to swiftly crush all resistance through sheer shock — they land without warning dropped from orbit individually and their missions are simple.

Imperial Interdiction Forces: Infantry

The IIF units are a little less imposing than the EIG but what they lack in enormity they gain back in number: the IIF deploys unpowered combat armour with FGMP-15 sidearms. The armour is lighter and cheaper but can’t be used for individual re-entry, so the IIF is deployed by carrier landing groups en masse. These units are used to occupy and defend ground taken by the EIG shock troops and will also provide the bulk of any counter-attacking forces.

IIF units will also maintain artillery components and nuclear damping units.

Imperial Interdiction Forces: Armour

The IIF infantry is supported by fast fire and maneuver grav tank platoons capable of delivering direct and indirect heavy weapons fire on distant targets. As they are extremely expensive to move (mass is cost when you’re shipping a hundred parsecs) these armour units are often built to specification at the nearest TL-15 industrial base and as a result will vary in specific loadout depending on local resources and, perhaps more relevantly, local terrain and opposition.

Armament will vary most widely ranging from rocket-assisted low velocity CPR artillery to VRF gauss anti-personnel only to Z-category fusion weapons. Closer to the Imperial core meson guns may also be present in some numbers.

Armour is always the most bonded superdense that can be manufactured and deployed on the frame and power supply: the marines like their armour invulnerable.

Supporting gear will include laser detection and counter-measures, a full range of target detection and acquisition electronics, and nuclear damping gear.


The Imperial marines are further supported by a broad base of logistic and command personnel wearing uniform cut black and red combat environment suits. The standard sidearm for support troops is the ((IMS-66 TL15 Snub Pistol)), an autoloading variant of the snub pistol loaded with self-guiding subsonic ammunition with a dual purpose explosive warhead and a sophisticated ranging and target marking system.

The Solomani

The Solomani are a loose confederacy of interstellar governments that achieves by accident what the Imperial devotes effort to. No central authority exists and efforts to make one happen are stillborn. The difference in actual effort results in a similar result but with a different statistical profile — Solomani systems have the same mean technology level but the distribution is closer to even. In the Imperium there is a big bump in the curve around tech 11-12 because of Imperial management policies. In the Solomani space there is no such bump — any efforts to elevate pre-interstellar cultures are purely local efforts.

Similarly there is no resistance to technological advance. Practically speaking this means that there are more TL15+ worlds than in Imperial space because there are no brakes on progress, but there are also many more recently fallen cultures that have reached there socio-technological barriers and been crushed back to pre-atomic industrial capacity. Or worse — there are plenty of scarred and empty wastelands in Solomani space too.

The nature of this near anarchy is such that further describing the Solomani as though they were a single entity is fruitless. Where they war with the Imperium their war is local in both effect and context for the Solomani even where it is of Imperial interest.

The Express

The Solomani do have an X-boat system and it is the reason they continue to exist as an interstellar entity, but it is not centralised as it is with the Vilani. Instead meddling with the Express is something of a cultural taboo — it’s simply not done. This means, of course, that it is indeed occasionally done, but it’s generally reacted to violently by all affected systems. It most often happens in times of war though its impact on systems nearby that are not involved in the fray makes it an undesirable tactic for the aggressors, almost to the point of being considered a war crime.

The Express is a system of private companies that manage the routes between themselves. In high density subsectors the competition is fierce and a valuable system may have as many as a dozen competing Express companies, some inter-sector and many inter-system. This system is less efficient than the Imperial X-boat network but is also completely unmanaged, making support of the system the problem of the interested parties rather than all citizens. In practice the differences are negligable. Basically in the Imperium your delivery is a near certainty with a very predictable schedule whereas in Solomani space your delivery is marginally less certain and you have a wide variety of choice for delivery speed, insurance, route, and of course, cost.

The Vargr

While not truly alien in any strict sense, the Vargr represent a problem in perspective as well as practical politics for the Imperium. They are loosely organised, much like the Solomani, but have much less of a pre-disposition towards order. Their internal communications are again similar to the Solomani but, due to their cultural tendency towards piracy, not nearly as reliable. This means that there really is no one in Vargr space for the Imperium to talk to — at least with the Solomani they can negotiate with the various Express companies and big traders, but with the Vargr the largest clans represent only a few thousand individuals at best.

The most obvious consequence of this is that, where the Imperium borders on Vargr space, a military presence is provided to deter Vargr piracy but no actual effort towards political contact is made. This seems to suit the Vargr just fine.

The Incursion Zones

The Incursion Zones are a series of systems in the ((Arbalest)) sector that have no clear relationship but that are the source of significant attention from an otherwise unaggressive alien species — the Khelkevarians. Each of the systems were colonised many years ago by designated Imperial colony forces but have been in a constant state of warfare since their inception. Whether they were previously occupied or have since been invaded is not clearly understood though the Imperium, in choosing the terminology of “Incursion Zones” has declared their position on the matter.


The first contact in the Incursion Zones occurred in the colony of ((Typhoon: Khelkevaria|Khelkevaria)), a habitable moon of a gas giant in the bio zone of a yellow star in the region. Early technology imports established an industry there in the lush jungles that proved a rich source of organics ranging in utility from tailored bacteria to anagathics. Valuable both for its stratgeic location on a single jump path through the Corridor and for these natural resource, it soon became hotly contested by a species that has come to be knowne as the Khelkevarians even though they do not originate from that system.

The Khelkevarian moon is a deep jungle with a dense canopy that reaches dozens of kilomters above ground. The base of the forest is an organic soup in a high pressure atmosphere while the upper zones are dominated by predatory avian species and flimsy light gathering foliage. Only in the middle zone is there a suitable region for habitation and this is where the colonies themselves lie — using the trunk and branch systems of the huge World Trees for both foundation and transportation in the mid-zone where the atmospheric pressure is roughly normal for human habitation.

It is in this forested world that the Khelkevarians, a pseudo-reptilian high technology race battle Imperial forces for control. No real attempt at communication has ever been made between the two forces and the war has raged for many years. The electromagnetic interference from the gas giant makes ship detection extremely difficult and so both sides regularly attempt rapid deployment of ground troops while larger scale naval battles occasionally break out in deeper space. Both are essentially attempting to blockade access to the surface and both are largely unsuccessful.

The Khelkevarians appear to excel in gravitics technology — in these areas they are closer to TL15.

Khelkevarian Assault Forces

The Khelkevarian invaders have substantial technological and industrial resources somewhere on the moon — something that is very easy to hide in the dense forest that covers the entire planetoid — and produce effective fighting forces well suited to the environment. They do not appear to be able to breath the atmosphere in the mid-world (nudge nudge) but may be more suited to the higher pressures below. Their technology level is approximately TL13 but they exhibit both higher and lower variations, leading to speculation that they have a widely spanning empire not unlike the Imperium in which some variation of technological capacity exists.

Incursion Troops

Human mercenary in a captured gravcan.

The basic unit of the Khelkevarian forces is the Incursor — a Khelkevarian in TL13 hardsuit combat armour with a “gravcan” on the lower half that can be detached instantly if needed. The gravcan provides rapid propulsion and lift allowing for speedy traversal of the World Tree branch networks. Incursors are typically armed with some Gauss rifle system, often the ((KM-119 Khelkevarian Close Quarters Gauss System|KM-119 system)) designed for very close quarters combat. These troops obviously specialise in very rapid deployment and ambush and will typically establish an ambush with two or more wings of reinforcements ready to exploit or extract the ambush once sprung. The Khelkevarians invented the gravitically polarised charge, TDX, that is now prevalent in Imperial forces and the Incursors always carry a great deal of it as demolitions charges or grenades.


The logistic and command arm of the Khelkevarians have not bee sighted and certainly not captured. They may not exist or they may not be distinct from the Incursors. Certainly when heavy weapons installations are established (such as the usual VRF Gauss brackets often installed on Khelkevarian owned branches) they are installed and manned by Incursor troops. There appear to be no distinct engineers or other supporting units.


Somewhere along the way marketing an independent game got way harder for me.

With Diaspora we had a lot of community contact during development through and many of the readers and posters there bought the game, wrote about their experiences, and voted in the ENnies. We won a gold for Best Rules. We sold (and still sell) a lot of Diaspora.

Three years later we released Hollowpoint. There was some engagement at but a lot of the contact was through the blue collar space blog (now defunct): existing VSCA customers looking forward to the next game. Hollowpoint sold well (not as well as Diaspora) and still sells. It’s a great game. We didn’t win an ENnie but we were nominated for best game. Given the sales (and therefore the voting body for the game) that’s not surprising. And I am very proud of that nomination.

Zero Dark Thirty was a casualty. I think I’m just still pissed that they stole my title for a movie.

Then there was a long break. I moved from Vancouver to Toronto, lost my gaming group. my wife got very sick, and generally I was unable to create. During this period Kickstarter emerged as a way to get enough pre-sales money to do big production books. Lots of colour, pretty product, and most importantly connection to a lot of people who seem very eager to put money down on product that won’t show up for a year or two. Also during that period started banishing any post that smelled like shilling your game to a subforum that no one reads. A new community emerged that made no sense to me and a valuable community for an independent community designer got shut down.

I tried a few little things in the interim, not trying very hard. Elysium Flare was baking in the back of my head. Soft Horizon was just being troublesome.

Well perhaps I waited too long. The original audience, the VSCA fans, had become dispersed. Some of them just grew out of role-playing games (not sure how that happens). They forgot who we are. The locations of the communities changed. There are more and they are stranger, full of young people (get off my lawn). There’s a lot of video and audio (which I really can’t use in my home). Kickstarter became sort of the only way to sell games.

So for me, mostly interested in making a book about a game, selling it to you, and then moving on to the next game, my market disappeared. Or went into hiding. My old home,, makes the pretense of being non-commercial by ghettoizing independent game announcements (though strangely there’s a whole thread just for Kickstarters pinned to the front page of tabletop-open — I am not sure I understand what privileges Kickstarter). And Kickstarter dominates — it’s kind of the only game in town. And I just don’t like it (for me, in my opinion, your mileage may vary, and all that good shit).

Worse for me, I think I pissed off some people with the power to generate buzz and thanks to the way the Internet works, when someone pisses you off you can kind of shut them off forever, meaning any miscommunication can become banishment with no chance of reconciliation — there’s no accidental meeting at a dinner party where you get drunk and in a maudlin fit explain each other to each other and bury the hatchet. Now you just get disappeared. Or maybe everyone grew up but me. I know at least one grew up and I miss him a lot.

That doesn’t mean there’s no way to do this any more. It just means that the ways changed (and in ways that are mostly social, not technological) and the audience got harder to find. And my tastes have changed as well and since I sell what I love to play, when my tastes change I have to actively try to find the audience that changed with me. That turns out to be very hard. Exhausting, even.

So I am at peak creativity — two releases this year and maybe a third (though more likely Sand Dogs will be coming out in 2019). More planned for next year. But at a low point in my reach, which is very demoralizing.

The games, however, are still going out since the zero-risk model is still in effect. This mess is not stopping me, just disappointing me.