Alien RPG Spaceship design – gah!

I don’t think Free League should have included ship design rules in the Alien Core book. We didn’t really need them, and I don’t think they create ships that are useful mechanisms for play in the Alien universe.

Now, admittedly, I am basing this on my frustration with trying to build a UPP battleship with the tools provided, and on Dave’s attempts to do the same for the Three World Empire in the last show. It could reasonably be argued that neither are the sort of ships we should be building for an Alien adventure, and neither are they the sort of ships players would want to build. But even though I am using these tools to do a job they were not designed for, I will argue that my frustrations point to a flaw in the philosophy of ship design in Alien that, by putting the rules in the core book, Free League have now stuck in our (the fans’) mindsets and which will be difficult to change.

But first of all, let me tell you about my response to the the challenge. I had been warned by Dave’s failure to make HMS Yamato anything but an aircraft carrier – the rules as they stand push you towards that solution because there is precious little else to fill your larger spaceships  with. So for a while I thought about not making Potemkin a battleship at all. I flirted with the idea of making it like one of those little vessels that haunted British seas in the eighties, passing themselves off as fishing boats while actually packed with all the latest Russian surveillance gear. (When I say the eighties, its only because we heard a lot about them at the time. We hear less now, but perhaps we should assume they haunt our waters still.) But its the Potemkin, the ship which started the Russian Revolution of 1905, and the subject of a film which started a revolution in film production (called “editing”). It deserves to be better than a spy-ship dressed up as a fishing boat.

So, I turned to the core book with a determination to make a battleship, not another aircraft carrier. And the first problem I discovered is – how big should it be? Of course all this is abstracted, But the book lists four classes: C, G, M and R, and suggest m class vessels are what PCs should aspire too. So if an M class vessel is Nostromo, and G – Class vessel is Serenity (errr… I mean “The Betty”) what class, in size terms, would a warship be? They give us a warship, the frigate Conestoga. Its about the size of a R class but has many fewer modules – a R class can have 21 or various sizes.The Conestoga has … 9. Oh – hold on it has 20 EEVs – so its has … er 28… hmmm. An R class has capacity for six weapon systems. The Consetoga has … 8. So it doesn’t follow the Rules as Written – OK, author prerogative. Thats OK (he fumes). (And he notes that in the listing on page 180, each vessel has its class listed – except the Conestoga, which has a class of … Conestoga.)

The Potemkin is a Battleship though, so has to be bigger than this vessel. Should I invent a class? My notes say S?, T? V?

V… in my head-canon the Potemkin is a V class or Volga class ship. Mmmmm yessssss. But still, what size should it be? I try instead to build it from the inside out. What are the components I want? I will build it and size it around those. Redundancy is a theme I want to include on this UPP ship. Two of everything! Even two AIs! I have a lovely idea about ship AI conflicts, mirroring counter-revolutionary vitriol in communist politics. I even think of calling them LEN.N  and Tr.T.S.K.Y. for a while, before deciding that is too heavy handed. And I am looking through the list of modules with a sinking heart, realising that there simply are not enough components of a suitable size to even double up in a warship, when my eyes alight on the hanger. A size five hanger can accommodate a Class M ship.

And suddenly my vision is transformed. Potemkin will be a ship of two parts – the hanger does not contain a class M but rather is a complex set of systems that allows the class M vessel to be connected with the… errr… the other part (class R?) to make an even bigger vessel. YES! And the class M vessel of course has the Planetfall Capacity upgrade (don’t get me started on upgrades) so its  like a big landing craft, while the other section becomes an orbital bombardment platform! Yes! This is starting be be a thing.

So, I start with what I am now calling the Atmospheric Interface Komponent. Two sets of size three scrubbers (redundancy you see?) then one size four cargo hold (this ship has to feed its orbital mother) and a size four vehicle bay packing ten APCs (for the marines, it has marines now) plus a size three bay for a tractor, and two size two bays (for Gyrocars – who else thinks about Edward Olmos’s car in Bladerunner when they read that word? Just me?). So now we have marines we’ll need a size four cryo unit and a size four galley too for when they wake up. Not duplicating those at all, they have their own redundancy. But there are four class D lifeboats, three medlabs, and two docking umbilicals. An M class is not a weapons platform and I consider the Added Hardpoints  upgrade but in the end decide against it. So just one heavy and two medium rail-gun turrets. Oh! And even though the glorious UPP does not have decadent things like corporate suites it does have a Diplomatic suite which is where you will usually find the Commissar. 

One more thing to note. This component has no AI or displacement drive. Those are both on the CosmoKomponent as the weapons platform is called. And of course so are their redundant systems. Most the core components are duplicated of the CosmoKomponent – two bridges, two sensor arrays, comms arrays, reactors, and drives. That will fill up a lot of space. Plus two more sets of scrubbers (size four) and two class D lifeboats. Another, smaller galley and cyro deck, another couple of med-labs. Maybe just one science lab. I am not sure I am using up all the modules this way but I have stopped counting. 

Instead I am giving it all the weapons on the Conestoga, but two of each. Because I can … because this is a class V and there are no rules for a class V… yet. And because now, I am having fun.

But that brings us to the nub of my argument. Free League have given us a simple, fun system not massively different from that found in Coriolis. No its doesn’t really work for building battle ships, but that can be solved with a later supplement, if that’s what the audience wants. 

But I argue that ships in Alien shouldn’t be fun. It can be fun in other space games to spend some big haul you earned (or stole) on an upgrade for your ship, just like to might upgrade your armour or your gun or some other tool. But the ships in the Alien verse are not tools, they are settings. They are not meant to be fun, and definitely not meant to be upgraded. They should be imposed on players – PCs should feel weighed down by their responsibility to their ships, not liberated by them. They should find them confusing and get lost in them, not know it with a designers eye. If they had not included ship design in the core book, this philosophy would be inherent in the system, even if later on some supplement gave players the opportunity to design or … ugh upgrade, their vessel.

But now Free League have handed over the keys to the car, they can’t ever take it back…

Havaleh – money transfer and banking across the Third Horizon

Copyright Martin Grip/Free League Publishing

Here, where we live on old Al-Ardah, we have become used to the convenience of modern banking. The recent covid related changes have encouraged an accelerated adoption of contactless technologies, a little like the money-tags in the Third Horizon. But our world is small, the distances tiny and complex transactions don’t take long to travel. Now, most of us carry a computer in our pockets that can send money to a friend on the other side of the world, seemingly instantaneously. 

Each world in the Third Horizon may have networks and transfer technologies that are just as quick. I am sure it takes moments to transfer money from Coriolis itself to the Monolith on Kua for example. But when the start talking about transfers across systems, or between systems, the speed to light becomes an issue. Money can not break the laws of physics. Instantaneous communication of data is just not possible. So the modern banking systems that we think of today just aren’t up to the job.

However, the Third Horizon has access to a tried and tested alternative. One that started in 8th century India when communications along the Silk Road were just as slow as would be across the Third Horizon.

Havaleh basically works like this: it is the day of settlement, and your group must facilitate their regular payment on their ship loan, but they are three portals away from their generous benefactor. All they need to do is find a local Havaledah or money broker, give them the birr, and the details of who it is intended for. If their creditor needs the money on that day,. they will visit their local Havaledah, who will give them the sum, on trust that the group’s will have paid another Havaledah somewhere in the horizon and effectively, they are owed the money by that Havaledah. Trust is an important factor here, and there is very little paperwork involved. Indeed the word “havaleh” is synonymous with the word “trust” in many languages. It is considered somewhat rude (but not entirely unacceptable) to even ask for a receipt when you make your deposit with a Havaledah. 

Sometimes however, there does need to be some security and passing of authentication between different Havaledahs. The first level of security is to chose your havaledah from your trusted network. All firstcome factions maintain their own havaledah networks, and among the Zenethians, only the Consortium and Hegemony mistrust the very concept of havaleh. All the faction networks are interoperable, and money can be exchanged between them. The largest and most used, especially for inter-faction exchange is that of the Syndicate. Indeed, there are those that say that without its havaleh network the Syndicate would be nothing more than local criminal gangs and crime lords, and thus the Syndicate IS is havaleh network. The consortium tries to maintain what it calls “a civilised banking system” via the Bulletin’s communication technology but to do any real business it resorts to havaleh, and is the Syndicate’s biggest customer. The Zenithian Hegemony however generally does not use havaleh, and its propagandists like to talk about the way it enables crime, tax evasion and political unrest. 

The second level of security is a complex system of verbal code-poetry that havaledahs use to authenticate their own communication. While generally the system works on trust, sometimes one may have to resort to a distant havaledah one has not worked with before, so send someone to a havaledah they don’t know – and of course that havaledah is unlikely to hand out money to someone who comes in off the street. So, sometimes, a creditor will be a given a code-phrase to use to identify themselves as the legitimate recipient of the money. By necessity, given the slow speed of travel between systems, such phrases are exchanged among havalehs in advance, and usually they are two-part cyphers, to ensure that if a transmission of codes is intercepted, it can’t be used on its own to defraud the havaleh for whom it is intended. Traditionally, the two parts of the cypher are sung, not written down, and for generations families of talented song-poets have served the havaledah community as code couriers called angadias.

What happens when it goes wrong? When the intended recipient doesn’t get their money? Well, first of all, the recipient always gets their money. The debt is between two havaledahs. And the havaledahs don’t cheat each other, not even when two different factions are involved. So they work together to see where “failure of communication” (as it is euphemistically known) occurred. They will likely enlist investigators to help. The nature of these investigators varies by faction. The Free League and the Nomads use private invetsigators, but most of the firstcome factions have their own investigative systems. The Syndicate is unusual, they use their own angadias, who possess not only beautiful soprano voices, but the tools and authorisation to collect the debt by any means necessary. The very least anyone who is caught cheating the havaleh system can expect is ostracisation, loss of faction standing and previous friends and allies turning their backs to them. Of course they are no longer able to use the havaleh network to move birr, and for most sensible  people this is deterrent enough.

Debtors are rarely killed, its more difficult to get your money back from dead people, but that does not mean and anyone who owes birr to the Syndicate can relax on the Day of Settlement.

A date standard for the Third Horizon

Art by John Salquist
Inspired by the article below, John Salquist and I created a beautiful calendar which is available in PDF format from the Free League Workshop.

In any space-travel setting, there are going to be local calendars based on local orbits. A 24 hour day means little if your world spins around in nine hours, or 37.74 hours. We know as well that in the Long Night, when the third horizon cultures rejected portal travel and turned in on themselves, local calendars would have become even more entrenched. We are not entirely sure how long the Long Night lasted, and that’s partly because for some systems it may have been one hundred years, for others it might have felt like 300, or even, for one to two, something like one long year. 

But with the coming of the Zenith, and the Consortium’s design to rebuild communication and trade across the Horizon, a shared standard was required. That standard would, of course, have been based on the movement of the planet that the Zenithians decided was their new home. On page 232 of the core book, we are told that the Coriolis Cycle is based on the time taken for the planet Kua to orbit it’s star, and on page 248, we discover that is 336 days, so Kua’s year is slightly short than ours on old Al-Ardha. But remarkably Kua’s day is exactly the same length as ours, 24 hours!* We are also told that each year or Coriolis Cycle (CC), is divided into nine months or Segments as they are called, each one named for one of the icons. Each segment is 37 days long. So that accounts for 333 days. The three remaining days are annual holidays: The Founding; the Cyclade and the Pilgrimaria. 

So we know the length of the year, and the length of the months, we know the hours of the day, but not the days of the week. 37 is a prime number, which means that its only divisible by itself and one. So it does not quickly suggest how long a week might be… but if we go with the 37th day being an “extended rest” which the core book mentions, then 36 is divisible, not by seven, but by six and nine.

So this calendar works on a nine day week, or Novena. The word Novena comes from the latin, not middle eastern tradition, but it means “nine days of devotion” so it feels like a good fit for the theme. Nine days of course reflect the nine icons. But rather than name the days, as well as the segments, after the Icons I was inspired by the four transformations mentioned in Mercy of the Icons. The four transformations are represented by four things that are important to many Firstcome cultures, which I am sure the Zenithians would adopt without necessarily realising what they mean. So rather than name the days, in this calendar the weeks are named – the Novena of Grain, the Novena of Water, the Novena of Light and the Novena of Incense and they days numbered, so you might say “the second day of water, segment of the Deckhand”, or write “2 water Deckhand” or abbreviate it “2wDec.” In notation the Segments are capitalised because they are Icons and the novenas are often written in lower case because they are mundane.

Given that our day of rest on old Al-Ardha is actually a day of worship in a monotheistic culture, I don’t think the idea of an “extended rest” quite works. Instead the extra day in every segment “the day of settlement” or “the day of accounting”, when ship loan payments are made, and other bills are paid, no matter when during the segment they they were incurred. Maybe it is a day when no trade takes place and no work (other than accounting) is done, because people are rushing around paying what’s owed. Maybe its also a day when darker debts are repaid. Perhaps its a day when those who have crossed powerful people hide in fear – a day for assassinations.

For the calendar we created, I also wrote nine short parables, and attributed them to the mysterious Storyteller of Dabaran:

No one really knows if Fadma al Kamath, the Storyteller of Dabaran ever really existed. The collection of parables and homilies which is attributed to her, may not even have been written by one person. They are it seems, somewhat impolite about every system’s culture other than that of Dabaran which is held always in high praise. This alone suggests that the stories come from one place, if not one writer. There are versions the parables in pre-Zenithian literature, but the translations included in this calendar appear to be more modern as some of them refer to Zenithian institutions.

*There is some discrepancy on this detail. It is clear that the day on Coriolis lasts 24 hours (four six hour shifts), but according to planetary data, Kua’s day is 26 hours. Perhaps this is why most business is conducted in “shifts” rather than hours.

Gorham’s Folly

Last episode I was challenged to imagine the Three World Empire’s Northern Ireland. It was my own stupid fault – I made the case in the last episode that the Three World Empire should be a reflection of Britain in the last seventies and early eighties. It should probably also reflect Japan and India in that period too, but I know nothing about the political situation there at that time, so lets leave that aside for the moment and concentrate on The Troubles.

©️Fria Ligan/Martin Grip

And as I type that, I am immediately aware that as an English man, I actually, really, know next to nothing about that conflict, even though it was something I grew up with, and even though I had friend on both sides of the conflict in the 90’s. But for the sake of context I am going to attempt the stupidest thing in the world and try to summarise the conflict, in as non-partisan a way as I can.

The Troubles refers to a specific period starting in the late sixties and ending with the Good-Friday agreement in 1998, in Northern Ireland, the corner of the island of Ireland which, since the creation of the Irish Free State in 1922, remained part of the United Kingdom. I am not going to get into the detail of why, which would take us into the realms of being an entirely different sort of podcast. Instead I am going to oversimplify the situation by saying that there was, and is a significantly large population of protestants in some of those north eastern counties, and those people considered themselves Unionists.
In the early sixties around the world, civil rights movements began to make headway. Just as Martin Luther King spoke and organised in the Southern US, so too in Northern Ireland people spoke out against inequalities between Catholics and Protestants. Though I promised I would not go into detail, I think its important to list some of these inequalities, as they have resonance with the situation in other parts of the world at the time and even now, and with potential situations in the future Alien universe…

For example there was gerrymandering of electoral boundaries, to ensure that the poterstant Unionists retained political power even in places with Catholic majorities. The gerrymandering was made easier because there was not universal suffrage, – only “householders” could vote (remember this is the early sixties I was shocked when I found out). The police force was 90% Protestant, and had Special Powers of search without warrant and arrest and imprisonment without trial, which of course were pretty much exclusively used on Catholics. And of course there were plenty of examples of “softer” discrimination – preference given to protestants for jobs and housing.

This isn’t meant to be a history lesson, but long story short, some small concession were made to the catholics, protestants protested, tensions were raised, clashes became more violent. From south of the border, the Irish Taoiseach called for a UN peacekeeping force but instead the British Army was deployed to build a barrier between the most violent communities. Militants on both sides formed militia units. Things got worse. The rest, as they say, is history.

So, how am I going to reflect that in Alien? And why, even?
The why is the easy bit. Because conflict is messy, and Alien is a messy world. Because two communities clashing over a long and complex history is exactly the sort of conflict your space marines would be dropped into, not knowing which side has justice on their side, or who might be trusted, or whether your assigned targets are the “right” ones. There is only one certain enemy in Alien… and that’s the Xenomorphs, everything else should be a moral maze.

So the how. And the where. Last episode I said Corona. I have no idea where that is, its not mentioned on the map, just in text on page 224. That gives us the opportunity to put it anywhere, but thinking about it, it should be pretty close to the solar core, both to mirror the nature of Northern Ireland’s proximity to Britain, and to imagine a relatively long history on the colony itself so that deep-seated historical differences can be found on both sides. Perhaps it is in the cluster of stars known as Proxima Centuri. But there are lots of mentions of USCM bases there. So perhaps I should switch it to the named colony that IS mentioned on the map, Gorham’s Folly…

But who lives there, what is that central conflict between two communities? Now my first thought was to better reflect the more international nature of the Three World Empire. But this is a quagmire I am not going to step into. Who am I, a European to start creating strife between two interpretations of Buddism, or between Muslims and Hindus, or between Hindus and Buddists? So my future conflict will at least be a based in the Judeo-Christian culture that I know a little about. But it won’t be between Catholics and Protestants. I will create two new space-denominations to clash on Gorham’s Folly. And we have already got inspiration for one of those. Arceon, the wooden space station dreamed up for an unused Alien 3 script, and given new life on page 157 of the RPG. All we know about the “monks” who inhabit Arceon is that they were and named :”back to nature” movement who released the New Plague (no – not corona virus, but a computer virus that wiped out “an inordinate amount od data on Earth” and it seems handily for our aesthetics, all displays more advanced that green-screen CRTs). Well I have a name for them. It the name of an order I created for a Firefly RPG – actually it was Shepherd Book’s order back then but it fits even better for the inhabitants of a wooden space station: The Carpenters.

So a significant proportion of the population of Gorham’s Folly are Carpenters. They are not as radical as the followers of Saint Tomas, but they are tainted with his reputation. The New Plague was considered an act of terrorism, and Carpenter citizens on Gorham’s Folly suffer from various forms of discrimination – poor housing, persecution by non-representative police force, gerrymandering, poor employment opportunities etc. For example, perhaps Gorham’s Folly is famous for its shipyards, perhaps the new Royal Navy joint flagship, HMS Yamato is being built there. But none of the skilled jobs go to the Carpenter population. Note, they are not direct analogues of Catholics in Northern Ireland – the Carpenters as their name and “back to nature” philosophy suggests they are more protestant in their worship and organisation, and I would be inclined to draw influences for their way of life from Quakers and Amish.

Which means that the oppressive established church on Gorham’s Folly is a more colourful catholic (with a small c) faith. In my old Firefly the Carpenters were going to eventually face off against the Intercessionists. So I might as well port that name over for the “majority” faith on Gorham’s Folly. Though be aware that gerrymandering may be keeping them as a electoral majority, while they could in fact be outnumbered statistically by the Carpenter Population. Of course 70 percent of the colony’s police force are Intercessionists and perhaps most of the rest are made up of other faiths, Sikhs, Muslins, Buddists etc as befits the nature of the Empire.
There are no good guys and bad guys here. Neither the Intercessionists nor the Carpenters are “evil,” even though a “Carpenter Terrorist” did wipe out most of humanities computers that time… and forced us all to use green screens. But there are radicals in both populations, who perhaps value human life less than their ideals.

In the playtest of Destroyer of Worlds we tried a character I enjoyed having on the team but who didn’t make the cut for the publish version – local marshal having to work with the marines. I am already revisiting that situation in my head – a local Constable from the minority Carpenter population, trusted by neither side, who has to work with a squad of Royal Marines to uncover a plot by an Intercessionist militia, who plan to blame something more horrific than a bomb on the Carpenters.

#RPGaDay2020 – Want

This year, as I have said Dave and I were not up to doing a (short) podcast a day, as we have for the last couple of years of #RPGaDay. Instead I have been using it as an opportunity to review the podcasts that we have put out over the last three years. You might not want this, you might want daily audio content from two old geezers recording five minute conversations prompted by an RPGaDay topic.

Today it downed on me that you CAN have what you want, and we can carry on promoting old episodes at the same time. We just promote our old RPGaDay episodes. The first year, especially was pretty good. Check out day one 2018 here.

#RPGaDay2020 – Light

This is an easy one. As you recall, this year we are not creating new brief podcasts for #RPGaDay, but rather talking the opportunity to celebrate particular episodes of our almost three years of production. Todays episode is one from May 2019. I like it because it has an article it in that helps GMs and players better understand a “faction” that are poorly described in the core book, without spoiling the campaign. Lets shine a light on We are the Light of Peace.

#RPGaDay2020 – Shade

I was struggling to think of what to post today, until I realised that the 8th of every month is (on Twitter at least) #PodRevDay when listeners are encouraged to leave reviews of podcasts. “Aha!” I thought “The perfect opportunity to let our listeners throw SHADE at us.”

So, while we set out to use this year’s RPGaDay to showcase our best episodes, today I thought I could cast a curator’s eye over our worst episodes. Now, of course a proper curator does not make value judgements. But though I am (something like) a proper curator in my professional life, I will pick what I consider to be our worst episode, and link to it, not from our website but from Podchaser, the cross platform Podcast Review site.

The content isn’t dreadful for this episode, it was our first Actual Play, and we used a Blue Snowball on Omni to record it. But we learned a lesson about our usual habits of eating during play, and especially a lesson about Pringles.

I will only consider this exercise a success if we get five reviews for this episode. They don’t need to be GOOD reviews though. So get reviewing!

#RPGaDay2020 – Couple

I am cheating with this one but with good reason. Day seven’s topic is couple, and I have been playing with a couple of brothers pretty much since I first touched a polyhedral. Actually Tony is the one I really like. In the year above me at school he was part of crowd that welcomed young un’s like me into the “War-games” club, which at that time was exclusively playing AD&D and Traveller.

Dave was the annoying little brother that turned up a few years later, when the club met at my house every Saturday. I didn’t like him then and I don’t now, but he is my co-host, so don’t tell him. 🙂

Anyhow, Tony and Dave are one half of the “home group” I now play semi-regularly with even though Andy and I, the other half, live a few hours drive diametrically opposite each other with Dave and Tony in between. Long story short, COVID has disrupted our face to face group and Andy does not play online. So I said we should start playing the Coriolis campaign with Tony and Dave playing a couple of noirish detectives. It’s gone really well. I was finishing editing todays episode, Quassar, earlier this morning, and I thought it would be a perfect episode to show the two of them working together.

So here it is:

#RPGaDay2020 – Forest

Dammit! I forget to click “publish” on this yesterday! If we are talking RPGs, and we are talking forests, then we are talking Symbaroum.

Here are Effekt towers, we are not huge fans of the d20, and Dave, our Symbaroum GM is not a fan of only the players getting to roll dice, but we all love the setting – the Forest of Davokar.

Back in 2017, we went to Stockholm to talk to Mattias Lilya and Martin Grip about the game and it’s influences.

#RPGaDay2020 – Tribute

One of the most fun things we did as part of the Podcast was in 2018 at Dragonmeet. The first printing of Forbidden Lands had just come out to Kickstarter backers, and a few copies were going on sale at Dragonmeet itself. Nils and Mattias JH were there, working the Modiphius stand.

Dave and I had fallen in love with the Legends and Adventurers character creation method, a simple randomised life path style of character creation. As part of the PodcastZone, we invited people to come and make a character with us in the morning, then fight to the death in the Grindbone Challenge, a bit like Tributes in the Hunger Games (see what I did there? 🙂).

The recording was done by a fellow podcast, and somehow, somthing had gone wrong, meaning everyone was recorded only though that laptop’s own mic (which I don’t blame them for. It’s easy to do, we lost an episode of our Coriolis actual play that way). Anyhow, we salvaged enough of the audio to make a very entertaining, match of the day style report of the session:

Let’s finish this post by paying tribute to the great players who joined us, especially those that lasted just one action, the winner, and Nils and Mattias, who joined us for a round and contributed prizes.