Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Frankenstein [NORTON]

I've read Frankenstein a couple of times before, but it was still enjoyable to read it again.  One of the things that stands out is how the most iconic scenes from pop culture and movies (the moment of creation, the creature chased by a mob, etc.) are completely different in the novel, and how the creature is quite smart and well-spoken.  To me, the most evocative scenes are set in the desolate,  frozen wastelands as Frankenstein chases the creature.  There's also a few bits that stand out to me as unnecessary, such as the over-long backstory of the Turkish visitor to the blind-man's hut.  The essays in the Norton Critical Edition are good, but they start to get repetitive as almost every one focusses on various feminist readings of the text.  My favourite essay is the last one, "Frankenstein, the True Story; or, Rousseau Judges Jean-Jacques" as it cleverly critiques critical scholarship on the novel as being constituted primarily of interpretations that rarely engage with each other.  I know I'm rambling a bit, but overall this is a good edition of the novel and, from the essays, it seems like the version included here (the original 1818) is much better than Mary Shelley's later revision.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Piers Anthony's Steppe (Planet Stories # 23)

Steppe is a Piers Anthony science-fiction/fantasy novel from the mid-1970s that anticipates, in a surprisingly accurate way, some concepts that have become commonplace today.  The story involves a 9th century Uigur warrior from the steppes of central Asia being abducted into the future in order to play a role in a vast game.  The game, run by a powerful central computer, allows people to take on roles in a historical simulation and tracks their progress (and rewards) by how well they succeed.  If a character "dies", the player exits the game but can pay to come back in with a role that could be better or worse depending on how well the player did with the previous role.  In short, it's the idea of a massively-multiplayer online RPG about twenty years ahead of its time!  Anthony's story has a clever way that the computer anthropomorphizes entires countries as individual people in order to teach players history before they enter the game.  The story drags a little in the latter half and could have a more interesting conclusion, but the basic concept is really cool.  A good add to the Planet Stories line.

Mynock Squadron Recap # 16 [RPG]

[4.7.19 continued]

Having returned from a conference on immunology, Warrant Officer Kero Andro lands her shuttle in one of the Flourishing's many hangar bays. The information she obtained about the nanoshape virus is not good: researchers have had no luck compiling a shutdown signal for the virus, and only extreme cold seems to keep it from spreading quickly. In a bid to prevent panic and preserve military security, the existence of the virus is being kept highly confidential.

When she lands, Kero is greeted by Private Mikaela Sor, a new member of Mynock Squadron responsible for communications and operational support. Sor tells Kero that with Torga still in hypo-stasis and Stavros having received a medical discharge, Tuvolo has arranged for a new member to be added to Gamma Flight named Max Cindarion. Sor goes on to tell Kero that her fellow members in Gamma have been sent on a Search & Rescue mission to find Max, but they haven't returned. Kero resolves to go after them, but first prepares for the inhospitable climate of Haruun Kal by requisitioning a slughthrower and some valuable crystals to serve as currency.

Meanwhile, after an uncomfortable night's sleep inside the Y-Wings, the other members of Gamma Flight awaken. Keth quickly realizes that jungle nexu are circling the vessels, and one has even jumped up on the fuselage of Waric and Tazo-Rhi's ship. Realizing the threat, Waric tries to spin his turret around rapidly to knock the creature off, but it nimbly avoids the maneuver and starts scratching at the turret canopy. In their vessel, Trill and Max commiserate over being forced to fly such antique starfighters. When she hears about the nexu, Trill orders Keth to lift off and serve as a spotter so that Max can advance on foot towards Waric and Tazo-Rhi's Y-Wing and shoot the nexu that are surrounding it. Max resists the order at first, but eventually complies and opens the canopy of his vessel's cockpit. A nexu hidden under the fuselage claws and scurries its way on the vessel's top surface. Max tries to retreat by climbing up a tree, but falls and lands awkwardly on the ship's port thruster. The nexu advances, but Trill slows it with a blast from the Y-Wing's ion cannon turret. Max executes a perfect somersault, draws his blaster, and kills the creature seconds before it can leap on him.

Kero, having first stopped at a Korrunai village to trade for some portaak amber to insulate electronics from the native spores, arrives at the scene in her shuttle. Seeing several nexu circling the grounded Y-Wings, she draws upon her knowledge of predator carnivore physiology and broadcasts an extremely high-pitched frequency to drive them away. After Waric, Trill, and Max receive first aid, Waric and Keth succeed in repairing the engine on the downed Y-Wing and Gamma Flight is able to escape the dangers posed by Haruun Kal.

When they arrive at the Flourishing a few hours later, the pilots are told they have a short period of free time before a major briefing that will involve the entire Squadron. Kero chats with the newest member of the group, and Max tells her his military specialities include flying, dueling, and infiltration. Kero explains that she was extremely bored at the medical conference, and the two decide to share some blaster target practice. Keth requisitions a new sidearm to replace the one that was damaged on Haruun Kal and then joins them. Warik runs a self-diagnostic on his cybernetic equipment and then writes an after-action report on the failed mission to secure the Guiding Heart. Warik writes that he suspects the unusual manifestations of energy and strange behaviour of Gamma Flight may have been caused by some sort of anomalies in the Force. Later, Kero talks with the director of the Flourishing's medical team and suggests that if the native Haruun Kal spores disrupt electronics, they may be useful in suppressing the nanoshape virus. The medical director seems intrigued by the new line of inquiry and promises to research the idea.

When the members of Gamma Flight enter the briefing room, they see that the members of both Alpha and Beta Flights are there as well. With Mikaela Sor operating the holodisplay, Lt. Tuvolo explains that the sudden withdrawal of Grand Moff Artis Kain's Pentastar Alliance from known space has left the Imperial-held planet of Nishr vulnerable to attack. Mynock Squadron has been tasked by the Provisional Council with liberating the planet, and Tuvolo explains each Flight's role. Alpha is to establish air superiority near the Imperial garrison and Beta is to sneak in and destroy the garrison's shield generators so that regular New Republic infantry can lay siege. Meanwhile, Gamma Flight has been tasked with freeing the four remaining members of Nishr's past elected government to serve as transitional leaders once the Imperial grip on the planet has been broken. 

The members of Gamma Flight pay close attention to this part of the briefing, and learn that the four politicians, and many other prisoners, are held in a detention camp about twenty kilometers from Drushar. The camp is operated by DuraSun, a mercenary group hired by the Imperials. A small contingent of TIE-fighters have been assigned to the camp to provide combat air patrol, but the camp is also defended by multiple E-Web blaster towers, an electrified durasteel weave perimeter fence, and armoured landspeeders. However, a member of New Republic Intelligence known to Gamma, Marrass, has infiltrated the camp in the guise of a captured member of a rival Imperial warlord and is able to provide some intelligence through a short-range synthflesh transmitter. Sor will be coordinating the entire operation in orbit in a shuttle, and will land to pick up prisoners once the evac signal is given.

Tuvolo says that the C.O. of each Flight should decide on a tactical plan in consultation with their subordinates, and that a proposal should be brought to him in the morning. The members of Gamma Flight proceed to discuss various options long into the night, including whether they should go in "hot" and fight their way into the camp, or go in "cold" and infiltrate the camp. Warik suggests that a combination may be feasible, with someone on the inside to help Marrass secure the high-value prisoners and the others on the outside to destroy the E-web towers. There is major disagreement on the best way to handle the E-web towers, with Warik initially suggesting that he could sneak up and plant explosives on each one, but Kero stating that the idea is too risky. She suggests, instead, using the group's assigned Y-Wings to destroy the towers with proton torpedos, but Max expresses his view that the turrets might shoot down the aged starfighters, and there is some general concern about what will happen if a stray torpedo hits the prisoner blocks.

Discussion turns to whether someone should infiltrate the camp. Max suggests that the infiltrator could start a riot of prisoners to provide a distraction, but Kero says there is no guarantee they would assist during a battle. Discussion is had as to whether two Gamma members should infiltrate: Max as a prisoner, and Keth as a mercenary. Warik and Kero clash over the idea of someone infiltrating as a prisoner, because Kero doesn't see the value of having one of their few assets trapped inside during an attack, unarmed. Warik replies that they could provide useful intelligence. 

After thinking over the various proposals, Kero tells the others that she has made a decision: most of Gamma will remain in their Y-Wings to destroy the TIEs and E-Web towers from the air. Meanwhile, Max will approach the southeast corner of the compound on foot, cut or blast through the fence, and release the prisoners. The plan is for him to carry with him several stealth suits so that he, Marrass, and the prisoners can sneak away while the guards are distracted from the heavy bombardment coming from the Y-Wings. Once the prisoners are a safe distance away from the camp, the shuttle can fly down to extract them. 

At first, Kero's decision meets with resistance. Max says it's suicidal to have just one or two people on the ground going up against over a dozen hardened mercenaries. Kero remains firm in her decision, however, and replies that the air support will provide enough of a distraction to keep the guards from heavily defending any particular part of the base. Warik suggests using a concussion-missile launcher from the ground to soften up the E-web towers without the danger of proton torpedoes, and preparing some proximity mines for aerial dispersal at select points inside the camp. Kero agrees.

Having decided on a general approach, the members of Gamma set to work deciding on equipment to requisition and sorting out other important details of the operation.
Director's Commentary (November 13, 2016)

I thought this session had a really nice mix of action and role-playing.  The conclusion of the Haruun Kal cliffhanger was exciting and proved a great introduction to Max Cindarion.  I was really struck by how clever Kero's player was in suggesting that the native spores on the planet (which suppress electronics) could be the key to stopping the nanovirus--it makes perfect sense, but I hadn't planned any such solution at all!

The latter half of the session featured a lot of strategic planning.  This is something I really wanted to see happen since it's one of the things that distinguish a military-themed campaign from the usual "bunch of adventurers stumbling into trouble" sort of campaign.  I think it went pretty well, though it did reveal that some players couldn't separate the in-character disagreement from out-of-character disagreement, and that some players didn't have a lot of patience for planning.  Still, as we'll see in a couple of sessions, their plan went off like gangbusters . . . 

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Friday, November 4, 2016

Mynock Squadron Recap # 15 [RPG]

On the planet Sellia, three members of Mynock Squadron find themselves in desperate straits! Trapped in uncoupled segments of a spacecraft, Waric, Tazo-Rhi, Keth, and New Republic Intelligent Agent Marrass plummet through the atmosphere. In seconds, the segments will crash into the surface of the planet and crush all inside. Unless they discover a way to save themselves . . .

[4.7.16 Continued]

Inside the falling segments, Keth desperately tries to revive his unconscious allies. His skill with a medpac leaves much to be desired, however, and they fail to stir. Marrass shouts that Mercre must have electronically overridden the emergency repulsor compensators, and that there should be a manual bypass somewhere. Searching quickly, the two find an access panel hidden behind a painting. Inside, three levers are stuck in the "up" position through some sort of adhesive--Mercre had been planning this escape maneuver for some time! Keth puts all of his weight into trying to wrench the levers free, but to no avail. Marrass, however, despite her slight build, is filled with adrenaline and has no difficulty in breaking the bonds of the adhesive and moving each lever to the "down" position. The emergency repulsor compensators kick in, the segment starts to slow, and a safe landing ensues.

Keth and Marrass see the shuttle the Mynocks arrived in parked nearby, and decide to drag Waric and Tazo-Rhi to it. The two then exhaust the shuttle's supply of medpacs and Waric and Tazo-Rhi begin to stir. The group quickly make the decision to lift off and set hyperspace coordinates for their temporary home, the New Republic battlecruiser Flourishing.


The journey through hyperspace continues. A subdued air reigns in the shuttle, as those inside ponder their failure. Marrass vows to track down Mercre, but admits she still doesn't know the source of the strange phenomena that affected them.


The shuttle drops out of hyperspace near the Flourishing. After a safe landing in the hangar bay, the Mynocks are immediately ordered via comm to Briefing Room # 2. Although Keth was unharmed in the firefight aboard the Guiding Heart, Waric and Tazo-Rhi remain bruised and singed despite receiving some emergency medical attention. When the three of them arrive at the briefing room, they notice that the red light above of the door is lit, indicating that a session is in progress. However, the door has clearly malfunctioned, as it hasn't closed all of the way and a voice can be heard coming from inside. The three Mynocks overhear the distinct accent of Lt. Tuvolo:

"I'm just sayin' Major, I don't think they're ready! Even Alpha's gonna be hard pressed, not to mention Beta and stars forbid Gamma! Ya know their background as well as I do--one em's gotta habbit a runnin' when things get bad, the other's not all there, and don't even make me bring up the third's psyche profile!"

The voice goes silent for a moment, and indecipherable murmuring can be heard before Tuvolo continues:

"Yeah yeah, I now they've got a few weeks while the new shielding goes on, and I know they done good on Nal Hutta--but this is sumptin' completely different!"

Another pause, and then:

"Yes, sir. No sir, I'm not suggesting we disobey the Provisional Council. Well, with your permission I better comm-off--Gamma's gonna be comin' to get briefed on a S&R."

When Tuvolo admits the three Mynocks, he is obviously angry over their failure to secure the Guiding Heart. However, he says there's no time for a full debriefing because an emergency is underway: a new recruit to Mynock Squadron and a pilot from Beta Flight have not turned up on schedule, and the emergency hypercomm beacon has been activated from their vessel. The coordinates have been traced to a jungle planet called Haruun Kal. Tuvolo says he hasn't had time to scour the data on the planet, but that there's some sort of spore in the air that can render electronics inert after several hours. Gamma Flight is ordered to travel to Haruun Kal in three Y-Wings to retrieve the two downed pilots.

As Warrant Officer Kero is still at a conference on immunology, Ensign Waric is again the commanding officer of Gamma Flight. He salutes smartly and orders Keth and Tazo-Rhi to proceed directly to the hangar. The three make quick time and are soon strapped in their respective cockpits and entering hyperspace for Haruun Kal. The journey lasts just a few hours before the three vessels emerge into realspace and pick up the emergency beacon's signal. Finding a place to land is difficult in the dense jungle, but the Y-Wings are able to set down a few hundred meters away from the beacon's coordinates.

When the three pilots emerge into the hot, humid air, Waric takes one look at the dense undergrowth and vegetation and then begins to act erratically! He shouts something about "meatbags" and "servos" and charges into the jungle in the direction of the beacon's signal. Tazo-Rhi comments to Keth on Waric's strange behaviour, but both of them follow.

Meanwhile, a short distance away, Private Max Cindarion is in trouble! A brown-haired human with amber eyes, Max had been journeying to the Flourishing with Beta Flight's Trill Dunerunner when their vessel suffered sudden mechanical failure and was pulled into Haruun Kal's orbit. Both survived the crash landing, but there was no choice but to wait for rescue. Establishing a temporary campsite on a small hill, Trill ordered Max to stay put while she went in search of food and water. Hours later, however, Trill had not returned--and now Max was hearing the howling of strange creatures at the base of the hill!

Max tries to climb a tree, but falters on the slippery bark. Seconds later, massive fanged feline creatures appear: jungle nexu! Max decides to run for it, and sprints between the two nexu, but one of the creatures is fast and rakes the pilot's back with sharp claws before taking a bite out of his ankle. Suddenly Waric appears in the area. One of the nexu tries to rip out his abdomen, but the pilot's partially cybernetic flesh keeps it at bay. With one nexu on Waric and the other on Max, the arrival of Keth and Tazo-Rhi is timely. Keth blasts the nexu on Max and then ducks back into concealment behind a tree. The wounded creature cringes and flees.

Waric, however, is not so lucky. His opponent gets past his guard and bites into his crotch, severing arteries and felling the soldier instantly. The nexu then leaps for Keth, but accurate blasts from he and Tazo-Rhi kill the beast. Tazo-Rhi succeeds in staunching Waric's bleeding, but he is clearly badly hurt. With the three conscious victors being of equal rank, Tazo-Rhi asks who is going to be in charge. No answer is forthcoming.

Max volunteers that Trill Dunerunner is probably dead, and that they should carry Waric back to the rescue vessels and depart because this jungle planet is obviously too perilous to remain in for long, especially given the fact that all they have is their service sidearms. Tazo-Rhi observes that there is some logic to his words, but that, were she in a similar position, she would hope her fellow Squadron members would at least try to find her. Keth insists on trying to pick up Trill's trail after Waric is safely deposited in the cockpit of a Y-Wing. 

Although the dense undergrowth might normally make tracking an individual through the jungle difficult, the Zabrak reveals a surprising proficiency in the art and leads his Squadron mates to an area where a dark hole leads into a low mound covered in vegetation. The darkness is impenetrable, but from the entrance Keth hears a strange groaning. Climbing in on his hands and knees, he feels around and discover a roughly-humanoid shape covered in a sticky covering. He begins to pull it out.

Meanwhile, just inside the entrance, Max suddenly sees a shape silhouetted against the grey sky: a winged creature that is at least a couple of meters long and that looks like a giant insect. Max fires at the creature and the blast tears through one of its membranous wings. A giant tongue lashes out from it, however, wraps around Max's blaster, and slams it against the cave wall until it shatters! The creature then flies forward and lands on Max, burning his flesh through some sort of acid emanated from its limbs. Tazo-Rhi joins the fight, as a weaponless Max bolts for the outside, but she is quickly overcome. Fortunately, Keth has appeared on scene and throws his sidearm to Max--the pilot catches it and somersaults underneath the creature, firing bolt after bolt into its vulnerable abdomen! It falls to the side, dead.

Tazo-Rhi is stabilized, and the cocooned Trill is cut free but barely conscious. The walk back to the Y-Wings is a long and arduous one for Keth and Max, as the jungle heat and the effort of dragging Tazo-Rhi and Trill combines to wear them down. Still, they do make it back safely and decide that everyone should rest in the safety of the Y-Wings for the night.


The next morning, Tazo-Rhi has recovered enough to be able to fly. Waric and Trill are still unconscious, however. With Keth, Tazo-Rhi, and Max in the cockpits and Waric and Trill in the turrets, an attempt is made to lift-off. But ill fortune strikes in the form of Haruun Kal's spores: Tazo-Rhi's Y-Wing won't start.

Trapped on a foreboding jungle planet full of hostile creatures, how will the Mynocks escape?

Director's Commentary (November 4, 2016)

I was back at the helm this session, resolving the cliff-hangar from the previous guest-directed session and telling a one-shot of my own.  The big news this session was the arrival of a new player!  When we finally accepted that the person who played Stavros was not coming book, I put a call out on the Internet and found a player all the way over in England.  That meant we had gamers on three continents--its pretty cool to live in an era like this, as I can still remember the days
Max Cindarion, intergalactic swashbuckler!
that if you couldn't find a group in your own town, you were pretty much screwed.

I foreshadowed a major storyline for the future with the PCs overhearing Tuvalo's conversation, but for this session I really wanted to tell a story that would be accessible and have clear goals but also be a fun way to introduce a new PC, so I went with a military-themed classic: the Search & Rescue.  I couldn't think of any more forbidding place to crash than on Haruun Kal, the jungle planet described so evocatively in the novel Shatterpoint.  I loved it when I was able to integrate something from the novels into the campaign, as it made the whole thing seem so much more "real".

The session went fantastically.  There was some exciting, cinematic combat, and the new player did a great job in enthusiastically describing his character's actions.  As a director, it's always a little nerve-wracking to welcome a perfect stranger into your game, but I have always had great luck--so many of the gamers I've met and friends I've made have come from a forum post launched into the darkness.  The session even ended on a natural cliffhangar, and really couldn't have gone better.

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