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Space the Final Frontier – Introducing Colonization

These are the words that have inspired role players and fans alike for decades. When we think of adventure science fiction with a realistic angle, we think of Star Trek primarily. This loved franchise has seen its reboots ridiculed by a loyal and knowledgeable older fan base throughout various stages. When we think of gritty science fiction we think of the seminal works of Alien and Aliens but there are many more stand out examples like Outland and Soldier.

Then there are other science fiction space offerings like Star Wars, Dune, Flash Gordon the space western/opera. Supernatural science fiction such as Event Horizon, Night Fliers and Life Force all add an element of horror and otherworldliness to the genre.

Another really stand out science fiction series which never reached completion was Firefly, when this first came it was a breath of fresh air for the genre blurring the lines with its take on a colonisation attempt/post-apocalyptic space western with supernatural elements.  Where does Firefly sit, can it simply be called science fiction drama. The writers of the series really tried to portray space as the hash environment which it is and added a vast number of human stories by focusing on interplay between characters. The overarching class struggle was very present, but the writers did not focus on the heavy-handed approaches taken by modern science fiction such as snow piercer, Firefly was made for a more intelligent audience much like earlier Star Trek.

What is space science fiction? Does it need to be defined into subgroups what elements make it through and what does not?

If you are creating games for your players, then as a game master you have all of these influences to draw from, and as our game is open to interpretation you can pick and choose how much you focus on the horror, action, grit, social, political or other elements from these works. Your players and you are making a shared story the most important aspect of which is the enjoyment of the experience for all the participants.

What tools does Dark Stars offer?

The Dark Stars core rule book provides a good starting point, and you can try downloading the playtest kits or free rules from the website. We have expanded these rules with the Off the Rack equipment book, which has a large selection of vehicles.  We really wanted to add a space colonisation setting and through our Kickstarter we were able to do that. The Colonisation book was born out of a campaign where characters from the Block worked through a series of challenges as Peace offers in the block then eventually won their freedom and way out joining the British Fleet. The players all then had the task of colonising and exploring planets. Using the long running task system and some custom generation systems, the colonies were able to be created, supernatural elements were first used (because my games often include them at some point). As a group they succeeded in creating a colony and were preparing to join the new coalition of local stars. It was a long campaign, spanning about a year. During this period all the systems, rules and equipment were thought about but not really codified and defined.

After the Kickstarter, I jumped right on getting all this written down and codified I always underestimate how long a book takes to develop, but it was completed around February this year. The art took a few more months and proofing and printing then took another 3. I’m pleased with the Colonization book, it has what I wanted to do a system for colonizing a world including researching new technologies, discoveries and mining prospects and the establishment of a permanent space colony. I hope you look at the book and find it useful for your campaign. Once again, thank you to the supporters on Kickstarter who made this happen, reached out and asked for some specific features like the complete creation of alien species. We did it, it is done it’s got some good stuff and it will help you with systems and thoughts for running a space colonization game.

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Simulation. Adjudication and Resolution of Asymmetrical warfare in Dark Stars With reference to the gameplay pillar of player agency

Dark Stars is a system that encourages cooperation between players and GM’s to create great experiences and stories. One of the things that the focus on player agency allows in the rules is the possibility for unconventional tactics and strategies that cannot be predicted and therefore cannot be covered by specific rules.

In a game system where everything is rigidly defined then the ability to perform heroic acts outside the bounds of the rigidly defined actions described in the rules system is limited and the GM must invent rules on the fly to cover the situation. The goal of our system is to provide the GM with a set of tools in the task resolution system that allow the GM to adjudicate unconventional and unpredictable tactics used by the players.
Where this relates to the theory of Asymmetrical Warfare is in regard to the disparity of power between the characters and enemies in the setting like corporations or government agencies. In a cyberpunk setting, the cyberpunks are hybrid adversaries, they usually have access to some advanced stand-off weaponry but are overall much less powered than their corporate enemies. Outnumbered and outgunned, the cyberpunks must turn to unconventional tactics in order to survive and achieve their goals. Much like the various insurgent groups throughout history, cyberpunk characters are insurgents fighting a shadow war against massive mega-corporations who have forces that cannot be easily countered by the cyberpunks. The cyberpunks then behave like criminals, striking and then returning to blend in with the population to avoid the overwhelming retaliation of the corporations or governmental agencies. Throughout history there have been countless groups forced into these situations, freedom fighters, vigilantes, criminals or terrorists, no matter what they are called they all resort to unconventional tactics and strategy to combat an opponent who has a massive conventional advantage.

Dark Stars allows the GM and the players to come up with actions that are not explicitly detailed in the rules by having a set of flexible task resolution mechanics and a detailed character generation system that allows various aspects of the character to be defined. By taking into account all of the factors in the character’s skills, abilities and background the GM has all the tools they need to use the task resolution system to adjudicate any action the player wishes to take.

A couple of examples of this in actual gameplay: A party was attempting to hijack a truck belonging to a corporation but the truck was armored. One of the players was on the 10th floor of a building and overlooking the action. Upon finding his weapon ineffective against the truck the player, whose character was heavily cyber-enhanced, decided to leap from the 10th floor window, smash through the windscreen with the character’s cyberlegs and kill the driver of the truck. The character then leapt from the cab and climbed onto the roof of the truck and proceeded to shoot at people while street surfing on the top of the truck. The skill and task resolution system covered all this with very little arbitration needed by the GM and the player rolled well enough that this plan worked out quite well, at least until the driverless truck crashed into a building.

A second example involves power armor and the vehicle combat rules.
Two players whose characters were wearing powered armor, one heavy suit and the other in a light scout suit. The players found themselves engaging some IFV’s (Infantry Fighting Vehicles) The character in the light suit being faster and more nimble than the heavy suit made line of sight contact with the IFV’s while the heavy suit remained behind a building beyond the line of sight of the IFV’s. Using cover and movement to avoid the direct fire of the IFV’s, the light suit lacked the firepower to destroy the
IFV’s alone. The player decided that he wanted to use his targeting data and transmit the data to the heavy power armour suit so that character could use the guided missiles that the heavy armor was equipped with to fire indirectly at the IFV’s using the targeting data so they could engage the targets while not being exposed to direct return fire.. While this is not explicitly allowed in the rules it does make sense. The GM ruled that the player in the light suit would have to make a skill roll as if they were
attacking the vehicle to establish a target lock, then the player with the heavy suit could use that lock on to launch an attack with a guided anti-tank missile, while still remaining hidden behind the building.

So the rules are flexible enough to allow situations that are not explicitly handled by the rules, to be adjudicated easily and smoothly without disrupting play. The reason that this is important to us is because of the way it affects player agency. It allows the players to have their characters carry out any action they can imagine this allows players to create a cinematic experience that will become a story shared around the gaming table for years to come.

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Rules are Strange

Rules are strange. Some people want more rules and some people want less rules.

I have been thinking about this lately and it seems to me that some gamers want the game rules to be like the Constitution of the USA, that is a set if rules that limit the power of the government or in this case limit the power of the GM.

This kind of thinking comes from an adversarial viewpoint where the game is the GM vs the players, this adversarial approach seems in my opinion, to be too common in the table-top gaming hobby. I personally favour a collaborative approach where the GM and the players are working together to create a shared experience for everyone to enjoy. All of the games I work on are predicated on this philosophy, the rules leave a lot of room for adjudication by the GM and allow the players and the GM to work together to decide on actions that might not be covered by specific rules. Since it would be impossible to cover every conceivable situation then we try to provide guidelines so that the GM has the tools to adjudicate when the players want to do something crazy that we haven’t thought of.

Perhaps players that want the powers of the GM to be limited have had bad experiences with being railroaded by a GM or by a GM that is adversarial and wants to “Win” the game against his players. I don’t know if that is the case but for me personally, if I had a GM like that, I just wouldn’t play the game that they run. The whole point of the game is for everyone involved to enjoy the experience, to try out playing the role of a hero in another world and create epic stories together. That means it has to be fun for the GM and fun for the players and in my experience the best way to achieve that is to make the GM and the players co-conspirators in a conspiracy of fun.

While Dark Stars seems like a “crunchy” rules heavy system at first glance, all the rules are merely in place to provide a framework for the GM to weave a world for his players to live in, with stories where they are the protagonists. The world we created in the books is just the beginning, it is up to the GM and their players to tell the story, so that each groups experience is their own.

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In the Beginning

For 10 years we have worked on a game system and a setting to recreate the
science-fiction experience we, as gamers and fans of good sci-fi crave.

Originally it was not our intention to try and sell this game, it was just for our group. Now however, we are so proud of what we have created that we want others to experience it as well.

We settled on a percentage based d100 system for Dark Stars because it provided us the most flexibility and ties in with our core philosophy of Player Agency. We tried many other dice systems, we tried a d6 based system and that didn’t give us what we wanted, the numbers were too small to allow for lots of variables and adjustments based on Player actions. Next, we tried a variant of the d6 system based on d10’s, but again it didn’t deliver what we wanted. Then we turned to a d20 system; we tried a roll-up d20 system where target numbers were set, and modifiers were applied to the d20 roll. We tried a roll under system where the target number for the roll was determined by the character abilities plus modifiers, and that didn’t give us what we wanted.

The main reason was the lack of variability of the dice. Even with a d20 everything is done in increments of 5% and that didn’t provide enough granularity for us to be able to have modifiers of very small increments to the roll. We chose a roll-under d100 system to give us that granularity. In a roll-up d20 system like Pathfinder or D&D, everyone loves rolling a nat 20 and dreads roll a nat 1, but each time you roll you have a 10% chance of one of those results occurring, which cheapens the miraculously lucky result and lessens the value of the story of how the character defeated the enemy with lucky hit. With the roll-under d100 system, the much coveted 01 result only occurs 1% of the time, making a rarer occurrence but all the sweeter when it happens, the rarer the event, the more memorable it is. That’s what we want, to create memorable experiences and that is why use d100.

All the effort to get something like Dark Stars ready for production and release to an audience is not easy, it has been hard work and we have contracted many artists to create the awesome artwork in our books. This is the culmination of many people’s efforts and I hope you will enjoy the game and the setting and take a moment to appreciate the hard work that all the contributors did to prepare our books.

If you like the look of what we are doing, if you’re a fan of good sci-fi and table-top RPG’s, then please check out our Kickstarter and consider supporting our efforts by clicking play below.

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Mistakes Were Made

During the long development of Dark Stars RPG, we made some mistakes in creating our systems and our settings for Dark Stars. We had several fairly amusing little hiccups in the process and some not so funny ones. There was a lot of frustration and tears, even some wailing and gnashing of teeth. Here are some examples of what we went through.

First of there was the combat system. Now we are all big fans of R. Talsorian games and Mike Pondsmith and we played a lot of Cyberpunk 2020, we had every book and consumed every piece of content that they produced. Now there are a lot of little things about the Fiday Night Firefight that don’t go smoothly in all situations, especially when it comes to automatic weapons and vehicle combat. It’s a fun, fast flowing combat system but in certain cases it breaks down. One of our stated goals was to make a combat system that was as realistic as possible and could be used for vehicle and personal combat seamlessly. So that’s what I did!

The mistake I made initially was to make the system too realistic. I had a system that assigned both a damage value and a penetration value to weapons based on the amount of kinetic energy they produced or the amount of joules an energy weapon produced. Then there was an adjustment to that based on the projectile characteristics for a projectile weapon or the pulse rate or burn-time of an energy weapon. Then we had an Armour Value for each type of armour and each type of damage; blunt impact, penetrating impact and energy damage. Then there was a simple equation that scaled the damage based on the comparative difference between the weapon’s penetration and the target’s relevant armour value, simple right?

In addition to a realistic approach to damage and penetration there was a realistic approach to wounds and death, if a character takes a bullet to the head then their one-way ticket is punched. In a fantasy setting there is usually magical healing but in a realistic setting without magic taking damage is terribly inconvenient for a character, realistic rates of healing mean that a character with a few bullet wounds could be out of the game for weeks of game time. We mitigate this with things like nanobots that heal a character and drugs that speed up natural healing but a bullet in the brain usually means it is time to roll a new character.

So feeling very proud of my brand new realistic combat system and confident that I had succeeded in the goal of making a combat system that was realistic and could be seamlessly applied to both shooting at vehicles and shooting at more squishy life forms, I ran a game.

The game went ok but the combats bogged down a bit, the players it seemed did not like to have to complete an algebraic equation to work out how much damage they di to the enemy. Also the realistic wounding was not too popular either and combat took to long to do as people struggled with the different armour values and the equation to work out the damage that went through the armour. In an attempt to alleviate the equation problem we created vast tables and colour coded all the damage types and penetration values so that a player could look up their result in a table without having to solve and equation. Well that bogged the game down even more than the equation ever did, so with great regret and a feeling of frustration I went back to the drawing board.

The take-away from the playtesting was that players didn’t really want realism no matter how much they said they did. Or at least they weren’t willing to deal with the level of complexity realism involves. Therefore the next order of business was to make the system more abstract, more streamlined. I rebuilt the entire combat system from the ground up, I ditched the different types of damage and the concept of some armours being better against different types of weapons. I ditched the concept of staged damage based on gradiated penetration vs armour values. I even ditched the whole system of damage calculation for weapons and went with an arbitrarily scaled system. The concept of multiple hits from a shotgun or fragmentation device? I ditched that too, everything that could contribute to bogging down a combat and get in the way of playing the game was ditched entirely.

A all terrain vehicle
Our Neighbour Titan Cover

My new concept was to make armour ablative, so the armour absorbs the round and is degraded, so a character was potentially bulletproof as long as their armour held out. The concept of penetration values of weapons was kept but that really is only there so we can have extremely high penetration weapons that can ignore personal armour. It’s silly that someone in body armour can take a hit from an anti-tank missile without taking damage, so anti-tank missiles have penetration values higher than any unpowered personal armour.

Well now we tested the new combat system and I was pleased to find that the games were much smoother, faster paced and a combat could be completed in much less time than before, leaving more time for roleplaying and adventure.
I guess the moral of the story is, the more realistic the system, the more complex it gets and the more complex it gets, the more time it takes for players to use it. The old adage that the simple things are often the best is applicable to game development just as much as to anything else.

In the next Blog I will talk about some of the problems we had in formatting the book and I will regale you with the tale of the missing mono-knife.

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How we got here.

Dark Stars has been in development for a very long time, since early 2005. It began as a Cyberpunk 2020 campaign that I ran a year or two before that, where the players were part of a UN mission to re-establish contact with outposts on Mars in the aftermath of the 4th Corporate War. I must confess to some relief now that the Jumpstart Kit for Cyberpunk Red is released, I am glad that Mike Pondsmith’s vision of the aftermath of the 4th Corporate War differs from mine.

In seriousness though, the group that I played with liked the concept of a future Cyberpunk with spaceships and aliens, so we decided to make our own. We were not content with just making a setting for an existing game though. In our first attempts we wanted to take the influence of our favourite systems and eliminate the things we perceived as shortcomings in other systems, and the first Dark Stars was born. Over the years we have made the system and universe truly rich and unique.

It was a long and difficult labour though, initially we only wanted the game for our group, we never really gave any thought to publishing it so there were several things that just were not priorities for us, such as a good name. We just called it “The Space Game” for about 10 years. During this time we went through several iterations of the system, we designed and re-designed as we playtested and players complained about various features. Eventually we got the game to a point where our players were very happy with the result and we were able to have several long running campaigns as well as many shorter games.

Push It to the Limit!
Push It to the Limit!

At some point in 2017 we decided to publish the game and devoted a lot of time and resources to sourcing art work, getting the book formatted by a graphic designer and writing new content and source material. The editing and re-editing of the book seemed like a herculean task. Something about stables and an endless pile of dung… Eventually though, we got there after many trials and false starts Dark Stars and some supplements are up for sale online, and now we’re doing a Kickstarter to try and share our game with more people!

It’s been a long road and this is not yet the end, but seeing our work as a book that people can buy is a great feeling. I will be releasing more blogs and in the next one I am going to talk about some of the failed systems and mistakes that we made along the way.