Monday, November 26, 2012

Remember when we were awesome? pt.5

Throughout its history, the Royal Canadian Navy has deployed British-designed and built ships, from the HMCS Rainbow, which entered Canadian service in 1910 to HMCS Bonaventure and even today, with our less-than-stellar Victoria-class submarines. However, Canada really began to come into its own during the Cold War, relying less on the UK for military procurement. The first Canadian-designed warship was the St.Laurent-class destroyer escort. Seven were commissioned between 1955-57, HMCS St.Laurent, HMCS Skeena, HMCS Ottawa, HMCS Fraser, HMCS Assiniboine, HMCS Saguenay and HMCS Margaree. Though based on the British Whitby-class frigate, the St.Laurent-class incorporated some distinctly Canadian features, notably the rounded deck edge to prevent ice buildup on the foredeck. The St.Laurent-class ships also included several design features for dealing with nuclear, chemical and biological attack, including sealed crew quarters and a pre-wetting system to wash away contaminants. The later Restigouche-, Mackenzie- and Annapolis-class destroyer escorts were modified versions of the St.Laurent-class design. The seven St.Laurent-class ships underwent DDH conversion in 1963-66, allowing them to take advantage of the newly-developed 'beartrap' helicopter retrieval technology and all were equipped with a CHSS-2 Sea King helicopter. The last St.Laurent-class destroyer escort, HMCS Fraser, was decommissioned in 1994.


Thursday, November 22, 2012

RuneQuest 6 - chargen

I will illustrate the process of character generation in RuneQuest 6 by going through it step-by-step. Anyone who has played Mongoose's RuneQuest II will recognize the procedure is pretty similar. My character is Kassar, an infantry soldier from Polmaro, a city-state with a culture similar to Late Imperial Rome. Deciding on these sorts of details early helps later on when making decisions regarding skill selection.

The first step is generating attributes. There are several ways suggested, but I will go with point-buy since that is the approach we typically use in our games. There are seven attributes: Strength (STR), Constitution (CON), Size (SIZ), Dexterity (DEX), Intelligence (INT), Power (POW) and Charisma (CHA). Most of these are pretty self-explanatory except POW, which represents a character's magical potential and luck. Anyone interested in playing a spellcasting character will want to have a high POW score. Each attribute will have a minimum and maximum value to begin. For humans, the maximum for each is 18. The minimum varies depending on the attribute. INT and SIZ have a minimum of 8, all others have a minimum of 3. You have 80 points to spend on a one for one basis including the points necessary to buy up all the attribute scores to their racial minimums. So, in the case of humans, 31 out of the 80 are already encumbered buying up to the minimum for each attribute. At this point, I should talk about optimization. My gaming group includes a couple of notorious min-maxers (you know who you are), and all of us engage in it to some degree, so we're all cool with it. RuneQuest is not a game that provides a lot of opportunity for min-maxing, but point-buy attribute generation is one place where you can optimize. This is because there are a lot of secondary characteristics that are generated from attributes. Typically, these result from the sum of a couple of attributes which are then compared to a table of brackets. For example, action points (in effect, the maximum number of actions possible in a round) are derived by adding INT and DEX. If the total is less than 12, the character gets one action point, 13-24 provides two, 25-36 provides three and so on. So, an optimizer would try to set his INT + DEX near the bottom of one of the brackets to ensure few points are wasted. Adding to the potential for optimization, SIZ + STR determines damage modifier, while SIZ + CON determines hit points, so some manipulation of the numbers is needed to get the best use of your attribute points. After crunching the numbers, I came up with the following set of attributes for Kassar:
STR 18 CON 13 SIZ 18 DEX 9 INT 8 POW 7 CHA 7

Now, to generate the secondary characteristics: INT + DEX = 17, giving me 2 action points. STR + SIZ = 36, good for a +1D6 damage modifier. CHA = 7, giving me a zero for my experience modifier. This means when it comes time to make experience rolls, Kassar will get no bonus rolls for high CHA, but won't be penalized for having an especially low CHA either. CON = 15, giving Kassar an impressive healing rate of 3, which he will need in his chosen profession. Strike Rank is the average of DEX and INT. It is a modifier that is added to one's initiative roll. Kassar's strike rank is 9. Kassar also receives magic points equal to POW. This is important because even though Kassar is not a dedicated spellcaster, all characters are able to utilize some minor magic in this game. Hit points are provided for each hit location based on SIZ + CON. Kassar ends up with:
Head = 7, Chest = 9, Abdomen = 8, Each Arm = 6, Each Leg = 7.

The next step is the selection of skills. All skills are defined by a percentile. The base value is equal to two relevent attribute scores added together or a single attribute score doubled. There are a subset of standard skills that all characters have. These include physical skills such as Brawn or Swim, social skills such as Deceit or Influence, knowledge skills such as First Aid or Customs and combat skills such as Unarmed or Combat Style. Combat Styles are a bit more involved than mere weapon proficiencies. They usually incorporate a couple of weapons and are, to a certain degree, defined by the culture from which the character derives. There are also other skills, professional skills and magic skills that may be acquired at this stage based upon character background and concept. Starting with standard skills, even though every character gets all the skills, he or she can only add starting skill points to a select few of them based on the character's cultural background. Being from a city-state, Kassar is civilized. I will assume also that he is of the default Freeman social class. The standard skills for a civilized character are Conceal, Deceit, Drive, Influence, Insight, Locale and Willpower. He may also select three professional skills from a list of suitable choices. Kassar will have Streetwise, Lore (Monsters) and Craft (leatherworking). He will also take Combat Style (Polmaro Militia), which allows him to use the shortspear and target shield combination typical of his home city's militia. Finally, all characters get a base +40% to Native Language and Customs. 100 points may then be distributed among this list of skills with each point equal to one percentage point.

Next, the character profession is selected. Kassar is a Warrior. As such, he gets a second list of standard and professional skills from which to choose and another 100 points to distribute among them. In most cases, there will be some overlap in the lists of cultural and professional skills. Finally, there is a pool of bonus skill points based on age. They can be used to top up any skills already on the character's list and/or add one new professional skill representing a personal hobby of the character. For Kassar, this bonus skill will be Folk Magic. So, applying the base values, plus 100 cultural skill points, 100 professional skill points and 150 bonus skill points, here is Kassar's final skill selection:

Standard Skills: Athletics - 32% Boating - 31% Brawn - 51% Conceal - 15% Customs - 56% Dance - 16% Deceit - 15% Drive - 16% Endurance - 71% Evade - 63% First Aid - 17% Influence - 24% Insight - 25% Locale - 16% Native Tongue - 55% Perception - 35% Ride - 16% Sing - 14% Stealth - 17% Swim - 31% unarmed - 37% Willpower - 49% Combat Style (Polmaro Militia) - 82% Combat Style (Polmaro Archers) - 62%
Professional Skills: Lore (Monsters) - 26% Lore (Strategy and Tactics) - 21% Craft (Leatherworking) - 27% Streetwise - 34% Survival - 25% Folk Magic - 29%

More to come...


Monday, November 19, 2012

RuneQuest 6th ed. - first thoughts

I thought for sometime on whether to invest in RuneQuest 6th Edition, before deciding to buy it. I already own Mongoose's RuneQuest II, a similar iteration of the classic game written by the same authors, Peter Nash and Lawrence "Loz" Whitaker. Even after reading several positive reviews and interviews explaining what improvements have been included in RQ6, I remained skeptical that the differences were sufficient enough to justify the purchase. What finally changed my mind was the apparent lack of interest in tabletop rpgs being demonstrated by Mongoose. That's not to say they've abandoned rpgs, but their publication frequency has dropped considerably in recent months and with so many properties to support, it seems unlikely there will be much coming out for the Legend and Elric of Melniboné product lines any time soon. The guys at The Design Mechanism, however, seem committed to enthusiastic support of RQ6.

It's a massive tome, weighing it at 456 pages. At over $60, I would have liked to see it in hardcover, but it's a small company and so, I'm a little more forgiving. I can't say I'm overjoyed with matte finish of the cover, however. It really shows fingerprints and they don't just wipe of like they would on a glossy finish. The cover art is nice. It shows a female warrior named Anathaym battling a reptilian humanoid called a slargr. Sidebars throughout the book describe the story of Anathaym in order to illustrate many game concepts. As one can deduce from the style of Anathaym's equipment, the default setting for RQ6 is more of an Ancient Greece/Rome style than the typical medieval Europe we're accustomed to. Nonetheless, the rules are flexible enough to play in any setting from ancient times to the renaissance. The interior art is sparse and without colour, but what is there is decent and appropriate. It should be noted that there is little in RQ6 that ties directly to Glorantha. There are no Ducks or Dwarfs made of metal in the bestiary. Although future Glorantha supplements for RQ6 are planned, the basic rules are intended to be generic. There is so much to discuss about this game, I will have to spread it out over several postings. Stay tuned for more thoughts in the weeks to come.


Remember when we were awesome? pt.4

Canada is, in many ways, a unique country with unique national security concerns. We are in the advantageous position of sharing our only land border with a strong and friendly neighbour, but we have a ridiculous amount of ocean to patrol and a fairly modest population. Furthermore, much of our territory is remote and frozen, so we have few options for land-based military resources to aid in protecting our sovereignty in the far north. Without the option of massive aircraft carriers, nuclear submarines and numerous coastal airbases to patrol our seas, the Canadian navy has been forced to use ingenuity to deal with its security challenges. One example of that ingenuity is the Beartrap, a Helicopter Hauldown and Rapid Securing Device (HHRSD) developed in collaboration with Fairey Aviation of Canada. Designed to allow helicopters to land on small ships in rough seas, the beartrap consists of a heavy winch system that can rapidly pull a cable suspended from the helicopter to haul it down and hold it securely to the landing pad. The helicopter can then be pulled into the hangar and secured. The technology has been refined and is currently used by several other countries, including the United States, Australia, Spain and Japan. As well, all of Canada's larger naval vessels, the three Iroquois-class guided missile destroyers, twelve Halifax-class patrol frigates and two Protecteur-class supply ships are equipped with the technology, giving much needed air support to our modest fleet.


Friday, November 16, 2012

Our evolving blog

Anyone who is still regularly reading this blog may have noticed there haven't been many posts about gaming of late. We have recently lost one of our contributors and my other blogging partner has been somewhat quiescent of late. In addition to these personnel developments, I have noticed a recent lack of activity in the tabletop rpg publishing business. With the new edition of D&D still more than a year away and Paizo just quietly going about its business of producing APs and an occasional rulebook of ever-decreasing significance, not much is going on of particular interest to me. I've been trying to keep up with what Mongoose is doing, since I am interested in their 2300AD and Legend product lines, but they seem to be scaling back on their publishing activities as far as tabletop rpgs are concerned, concentrating more and more of their energies on miniatures games.

For these reasons, I have been blogging more about my other interests that are at least tangentially related to gaming, sci-fi novels, military history, space exploration, etc. I hope you, my loyal readers, will continue to find some reason to drop in from time to time and I promise I will have more to say about gaming in the near future. I have recently purchased RuneQuest 6 and I will have a lot to talk about once I have fully absorbed this impressive work. Game on.


Remember when we were awesome? pt.3

At its peak in 1958, Avro Canada was the third largest company in Canada, with about 50,000 employees. It is best known today as the company that designed the Avro CF-105 Arrow, one of the most advanced fighters of its day, intended to achieve speeds in excess of Mach 2 and operate at altitudes exceeding 50,000 ft. Only five were built before the project was cancelled in 1959. All materials and prototypes were destroyed. To this day, many Canadians see the Arrow as Canada's Apollo project and its cancellation still rankles.

The Arrow was not the only audacious design to come from the Avro Canada braintrust. One of the crazier ideas was the VZ-9 Avrocar, a VTOL aircraft designed as part of a classified US military project. Resembling a flying saucer with a single large turborotor in the center, it was hoped the Avrocar would function like a high-performance attack helicopter, but it never performed satisfactorily and was ultimately cancelled in 1961. Only two prototypes were built.

Though not as impressive or cool as the Arrow or the Avrocar, the most successful design to come out of Avro Canada was the CF-100 Canuck, the only Canadian-designed jet fighter to ever reach mass production. First entering service in 1953, 692 CF-100 variants were built. Most were used by the RCAF/CAF, but 53 were purchased for the Belgian air force. Though not as maneuverable or glamourous as Canada's top day fighter at the time, the Canadair Sabre, the Canuck was a solid night and all-weather interceptor and served the Canadian air force well for decades.


Thursday, November 15, 2012

Remember when we were awesome? pt.2

Most Canadians have heard of the Avro Arrow, Canada's most famous (or perhaps infamous) foray into advanced military research during the Cold War. Much less well-known, unless, like me, you were born in Halifax in the 1960s, was the HMCS Bras d'Or, Canada's military hydrofoil project. I remember seeing the sleek little ship in the harbour when I was just a wee lad and even though she never got up to speed anywhere within sight of land, she was beautiful. Fifty metres long and displacing 240t, she had a ship's complement of 25. Being an experimental vessel, she was never equipped with armaments. Bras d'Or was built for speed and boy, could she go. Nicknamed the "Flying 400", she reached a maximum foilborne speed in sea trials of 63 knots and was described as highly-stable in rough seas at speeds of up to 40 knots. The project was cancelled in 1971, but the Bras d'Or remains on display at the Musée Maritime du Québec.


Remember when we were awesome? pt.1

Does anyone recognize the ship in this picture? It is the HMCS Bonaventure, Canada's last aircraft carrier. I'm betting some of you are surprised to learn Canada ever had any aircraft carriers. In fact, we've had three. In 1946, the RCN took possession of HMCS Warrior from the Royal Navy. In 1948, we gave her back and replaced her with HMCS Magnificent. Finally, in 1957, the Magnificent was decommissioned and replaced with HMCS Bonaventure, which served in the RCN until her decommissioning in 1970.

The "Bonnie" was initially equipped with McDonnell F2H-3 Banshee fighters, as well as Grumman CS2F Tracker aircraft for anti-submarine warfare and Sikorsky HO4S helicopters. In 1962, the Banshees were retired and in 1964, the newer Sikorsky CHSS-2 Sea King helicopters were added. In 1967, she underwent a major refit which included improved radar and upgrades to her 76mm antiaircraft guns. The Bonaventure had a displacement of 16,000t and was 192m in length. She had a crew of 1200 and a top speed of 24.5 knots.


Tuesday, November 13, 2012

What I'm reading...Darkship Thieves

My reading time is precious, so typically, when I decide on my next book, I will choose something based on word of mouth from a trusted source or select an old classic that I'd always intended to read, but just never got around to it. However, when I picked up my latest book, Darkship Thieves, by Sarah A. Hoyt, it was for an entirely different reason. Ms. Hoyt is a Portuguese-American science-fiction/fantasy writer and outspoken libertarian who contributes to a couple of political blogs I frequent. I became interested in her fiction by reading her online political musings and though most of her books might be described as historical fantasy, Darkship Thieves and her soon-to-be-released sequel, Darkship Renegades are pure space opera in its finest tradition.

Darkship Thieves is best described as a sci-fi romance. Settle down, you guys, there are no heaving bosoms and I do not recall a single use of the word "bodice". It is the story of Athena Hera Sinistra, the wayward daughter of a member of the ruling class in a far future Earth, centuries after a vicious pogrom cleansed the planet of genetically-modified humans including the dreaded rulers, the Biolords. Following a mutiny on her father's spaceship, Athena is forced to flee in an escape pod, only to be captured by a darkship thief. Darkship thieves are mysterious pirates who steal energy pods in their technologically-advanced and stealthy darkships. Athena's captor turns out to be a genetically-enhanced human with cat-like vision and reflexes named Kit Klaavil, a descendent of exiles who escaped Earth during the uprising against the Biolords. Though no match for Kit's superhuman reflexes, Athena had always been unusually adept in a variety of ways and her fighting prowess was no exception. Kit senses something unusual about her and decides to take her back to the hidden base of his people. What follows is a story of growing love between Kit and Athena and growing dread for the future of Kit's people. The climactic confrontation is action-packed and the big reveal is awesome.

Overall, Darkship Thieves has a distinct "golden-age" feel. There is little in the way of technical jargon, even though the main character is something of a gearhead. Although the budding romance between Athena and Kit is central to the novel, it doesn't read like chick-lit. There's plenty of action, interesting world-building and a smattering of Heinleinesque political commentary thrown in for good measure. Indeed, Darkship Thieves won the Prometheus Award for the best novel of 2011, from the Libertarian Futurist Society. Well worth a look.


Thursday, November 08, 2012

More on Election 2012 and the bright future

Seems I may have been a bit hasty in suggesting the Obama administration is uninterested in manned space exploration. NASA has unveiled ambitious new plans for future missions in light of the election result. Manned deep space missions, visits to near-earth asteroids, even a possible manned mission to Mars by 2030, that's some pretty exciting stuff. Admittedly, it will require a commitment from future administrations, but any momentum is encouraging.


Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Election 2012 and the bright future

I can't say the final result is unexpected. Outside of the partisan bubble, most sources were predicting a fairly convincing win for Obama. I was surprised by the vote, however. The final tally isn't quite in yet, but Obama looks to be down about nine million votes from 2008. Clearly, the enthusiasm has ebbed dramatically in four years. Yet, Romney got about two million votes less than McCain. The Republicans definitely own this defeat. Either they couldn't bring themselves to vote for their guy, in which case, shame on them. Or, there just aren't as many of them as there were even four years ago. If the Republican party is declining at a rate of half a million voters per year, they definitely have to redefine what they represent. I wish them well as many of the best values of America seem to be Republican values.

So what does it mean for the bright future? Sadly, I don't think it's at all good. In general, Democrats do seem to be a bit more pro-science. They certainly don't adhere to some of the strange views of the religious Right. However, I don't think they're all that interested in space exploration. Democrats tend to think small. They see America as smaller than Republicans do. Sure, America is exceptional, they say, in the same way Greece or Brazil is exceptional. Grand visions of humans in space seems like fantasy to them, especially when there are so many social issues down here on earth that require immediate attention. Money that could go to space science will more likely be directed to green energy and you can bet the military will not have a lot of discretionary spending capability to direct toward establishing strategic assets in the high frontier. President Obama has done a decent job of encouraging private industry to participate in space exploration and, for that, he should be applauded, but for the most part, I think over the next four years little will be accomplished in the effort to hasten the arrival of the bright future.


Monday, November 05, 2012

Government and the bright future

On the verge of an historical US election, it seems an appropriate time to discuss the role of government in the "bright future". I identify politically as a blue Tory. In the lexicon of Canadian politics, that means fiscal conservatism and relative indifference to social conservatism. As such, I prefer free markets with, at best, a light touch of government to ensure everyone plays fair. However, I do not share the antagonistic view of government of American conservatives. Government, as I see it, is inefficient and large. For this reason, it should stay out of anything in which size is unimportant. We don't need, for example, government broadcasters or oil companies or airlines (all things which we in Canada currently have or have had in the recent past). The private sector has proven amply capable of providing these services. However, I think really big things are beyond the purview of the private sector and space programs seem to be a good example. Sure, big companies like Apple or Exxon Mobil could probably afford to bankroll a project like the Apollo program. A modern version of the Apollo missions would cost about $10 billion per year for about 15 years. Apple, for example, had net profits over the last year of about $40 billion. So theoretically, the largest corporation in the world could afford to fund something like the Apollo program assuming all of its shareholders could be convinced to relinquish a portion of their dividends. However, the mandate of corporations is not to invest in projects which can pretty much guarantee not to be profitable. That is not to say there isn't any money to be made in space. Energy and resources are in glorious abundance in the Solar System and eventually, fortunes will be made, but not on timescales that good capitalists can abide. A long-term investor is someone planning for his retirement in 40 years, not his great-great-grandson's in 140 years. Of course, I don't mean to suggest that governments take a long view either. Most can't see beyond the next election. However, they can commit to projects that aren't profitable as long as enough of the citizenry is inspired by the effort to represent an attractive voting bloc. Now, it might be a bit mercenary of me to say so, but when it comes to motivating governments, a small, but vocal group can often have influence far in excess of its size. In 2004, George W. Bush beat John Kerry by only about three million votes out of over 120 million votes cast. The presidential election of 2008 was one of the more one-sided in recent memory, yet Barack Obama beat John McCain by less than ten million votes. Imagine how much influence a solid block of five million Americans who are committed to space exploration and willing to vote that way could have on the US political landscape. It is certainly more likely to succeed than trying to get that same five million to fund a private space program at $2,000 per person per year for 15 years with no hope of a return.

The real trick and one I don’t know how to overcome is to convince politicians on both sides of the political spectrum that those five million votes really are available to the guys with the best offer for future space exploration. In the recent Republican primary race, Newt Gingrich made a rather surprising pledge to establish a lunar base within eight years of his presidency. Not surprisingly, he was widely-ridiculed within his own party. Setting aside the question of affordability in tough economic times, Republicans are likely to be wary of chasing votes within the scientifically-literate community of space exploration enthusiasts. Their sometimes bizarre views on evolution and climate change and, more recently, human reproduction make many of them seem to be a bunch of ignorant hicks or conspiracy theorists. In order to influence them to embrace space exploration, they need to know that space enthusiasts would be willing to overlook the occasional weirdness from the fringes of the party in exchange for a firm commitment to the bright future. Too bad Newt didn’t win.


Sunday, November 04, 2012

The bright future

Lately I find myself thinking a lot about what I tend to call the "bright future", the future I thought I'd be living in today when I was a kid. I was a space-crazy introvert with visions of Star Wars and Star Trek in my head. The Americans had already sent men to the moon, there was Skylab and Viking and Voyager.  Then there was the space shuttle and Marc Garneau, the first Canadian in space. We in the West had bested fascism and outlasted communism. Infectious diseases were becoming a thing of the past and despite our ever increasing global population, we always seemed to find a way to feed most of them and when we couldn't, it was invariably because of bad governments, not inadequate food supply. As I entered adulthood in the mid-80s, it seemed obvious that the awesomeness would continue. I wasn't naive enough to believe I would be moving to Mars someday, but I certainly would have imagined there'd have been a manned Mars mission by now.

Well, it hasn't quite worked out that way. It isn't all bad, of course. NASA still sends those marvelous little rovers to Mars and the International Space Station still passes overhead 16 times a day. But we don't send people to the Moon anymore, Marc Garneau is a politician (a Liberal MP, no about destroying my adolescent hero worship) and a manned Mars mission seems more like science-fiction now than it ever has. As for things down here on Earth, we still can't cure cancer or AIDS or the common cold. Nuclear fusion remains stubbornly elusive. We may (or may not) be facing a climate catastrophe unless we wean ourselves off fossil fuels, which we won't without embracing nuclear energy, which we won't because...well, I don't know...radiation scary! We have declining birthrates because we're rich and spoiled and children tend to get in the way of our jet setting lifestyles, so we're aging quickly. Soon, nobody will be able to go to space because our osteoporosis-ridden skeletons won't be able to handle the Gs. Besides, there's no internet on Mars and cellphone reception on the Moon is terrible. How are people supposed to follow their twitter feeds under circumstances like that?

This post is an introduction, of sorts, to a series of future postings in which I will share my thoughts and observations on getting back to the spirit of '69. Feel free to disagree, but be civil about it, if you please.