Monday, 4 May 2015

Fleet Setting progress report and how I stay motivated

Monday, 4 May 2015
I've been hammering away at the Fleet Setting and it's coming along very well. Most of the graphics are ready and the Droids (as you've seen from the other posts) have mostly crawled from my digital easel. I'm rushing towards getting an very rough alpha out so that I can get some feedback while I build some more assets to pretty-up the book; not to mention the front cover.

Aren't you bored of it by now?

Working on one thing is really boring. Don't let anyone tell you that there is some sort of zen nirvana you can attain, it doesn't exist. The hot rush of starting something is replaced with the cliff face. You've got to grind through it. There's all the life detritus around the edge sucks out your creative energy. My personal time is shoe-horned in around work and family, often starting at 20:30! You're tired, it is easy to fall into the trap of "just 30 minutes of Elite:Dangerous", 10pm rolls around and you've run out of evening.

Get organised to get motivated

If I have something ready to start when I sit down then I am much more productive. If I can break something up into smaller bits, then I am more likely to finish something. I use two main things to keep organised, the wonderful Trello and a Notebook.


Trello is a way to organise everything. You arrange cards into lists, each card is a "thing to do". Cards can store lots of information such as lists, images, links, text and so much more. I arrange my lists by areas of Icar that I want to work on. The Fleet Setting, being the most important thing I have, so it gets its own list. Two of the lists are a bit special: Done Since... and Just Ideas. Done Since has all the cards that are complete since a certain date (in the title); It's important for me to see that because it's a track of progress. Just Ideas is where I put things I don't want to forget but don't want cluttering up my brain. Trello also has a mobile app; I use it to organise what I do in a given week. You might find useful for capturing ideas. I prefer my notebook for that...


I always carry a notebook (Moleskines). Touching pen to paper is an immediate pleasure and I find that I write far more notes and doodles with it. Yes, my smarthphone can do all of that but I find it much easier this way. My notebooks contain everything; lyrics, new words, equations, diagrams, Christmas lists, rule ideas, quotes, scribbles, cartoon and Icar ideas. Here's a snap of the notebook page for some experiments in the Fleet Setting front page:

It's a lot less tidy looking in the flesh. At the end of a notebook (if I don't wash it), I go through an number the pages, and create and index. I don't think it's entirely necessary but I have found that useful.

How I keep organised in the rules

I prefer a top-down strategy for sorting out my rulebooks. I write out all the topic headings, then sub headings and finally work on the content itself. If there is something I get stuck on, rather than spend time mulling it over, I'll either make an entry in Trello or put a bunch of "XXXXXXX" in there. I can then move on, knowing that I will search for "XXXXXXX" before I send the document out. For example, below is the entry in for the Trooper timeline chart:

That's been in there for about 2 years! Now I am going back through the rules, I add the graphic in:

What's next?

I think the next big target for me is the Droid Mark 8. It's the city-crusher. I've talked about my relationship with the idea of the Mark 8 and now it's time to just do it. Drawings going into the notebook this week. After that, it's getting the text finished.

Thursday, 15 January 2015

Droid Mk7 - a colonial factory turned destroyer

Thursday, 15 January 2015
When the Droids overran the Imperium's artificial intelligence in 91001, it raided humanity's knowledge and chose those designs that best helped wiping out all life. The Droids turned a beloved colony factory robot known as a Big Eye into the mobile Droid Mk 7 factory.

Big Eye

A Big Eye could take in raw materials delivered by Hoppers and smaller robots and then produce just about anything from buildings to robots. Eighty colonial buildings could be built in a day, housing eight hundred people. Before the Droid war, every Fleet cruiser would carry between 8 and 10 Big Eyes to help colonies stricken by a natural disaster. The brightly painted Big Eyes were adored by the colonists that they served. They were named after local personalities and decorated with murals and bunting. Once a colony had built a more permanent manufacturing plant, the redundant Big Eye would become a proud restaurant or hotel.

Mk 7

The Droid Mk 7 is an unpainted Big Eye programmed solely for the construction of Droids, which it can spew at a fearsome rate. Rather than minerals, the Mk 7 feeds on the colony buildings it was originally designed to construct. If the supply of raw materials is slick enough, the Mk 7 can create a Mk 3 Droid in a minute. This is much slower than a Droid-captured colonial manufacturing plant but is often enough to turn the tide.

How it is used

The Mk 7 is usually deployed by a Droid cruiser if the resistance on planet is stiff and the Droids haven't taken over a manufacturing plant already. It is deployed into Orbit stocked with resources and then makes its own way to the surface in a few hours, building its own fighter defence (Droid Mk 4) on the way down. Mk 7s prefer to circle the edge of the city (an echo of their original programming) and will build a workforce of Mk 1s to feed its enormous gaping mouth.

The Mk 7 is part of the up-and-coming Fleet Setting. Check my progress on the Trello board.

Tuesday, 6 January 2015

Droid Mk 6 (the pod) complete

Tuesday, 6 January 2015
Success! If you've been following along, you'll know that the Droid Mk6 (Pod) has been something of a saga. My first attempt to create it fell over because the Droid Mk3s that I needed to go inside were too high in polygon count and it took forever to do anything. I ended up recreating the models. Cathartic but not helping me finish the Fleet Setting.

That complete, I began diligently working on the Pod only to discover that what I was creating was far too similar to the WH40K Space Marine Drop Pod. No doubt while I was creating it, I was channelling a deep subconscious echo from my past.

This weekend I managed to squirrel myself away for just long enough to work on the model. Notebook sketches lay strewn across my desk, so it was easy to see it in my mind's eye.

As the Pod enters a planet's atmosphere, the rings eject and fly back along its path until there is just the base of the Pod with the Droids standing on it. It's important that the Droid Pods are not a perfect design; they were simply ideas in the Imperial intelligence when the Droid scourge came and the Droids are unable to evolve designs. Every time a Droid Pod lands, some of the Droids inside do not survive.

Now the Mk6 is out of the way (and not particularly exciting for me), I can take a deep breath and plough into the other remaining Droids.

Monday, 29 December 2014

An example of the graphics going not-so-well

Monday, 29 December 2014
I want to show you how my art can go quite wrong. I'm currently working on the Droid pod (the Mk6), a single use light-jumping lump for delivering Droids to a distant system. The idea for the pods has been around for years, inspired by the Apollo Command Module. Here's the description from the Fleet setting book:
A Droid pod is an egg shaped one-use space craft that can perform a single light jump up to 4 units (4 squares on the cluster map). A pod carries a selection of Droids with the intention of landing on a planet, securing a manufacturing facility and then destroying all life. Pods carry a variety of Droids up to Mark 3. All Droids in a pod are the same variant.
So I started with 8 Droids Mk3s facing outwards. Even if a few are mashed in the landing, there's plenty there to ruin the day of a player team of Troopers. I began by arranging the Droids in a circle and then built the pod around them using lots of octagon sections and cloning in a circle. I stopped when I got this far:

It had the right kind of feel to it but looked a little too much like this:

Which is a Warhammer 40K Space Marine Drop Pod. I know I can't invent everything afresh but I think my model cuts a bit too close to the bone on this one.

Stop, salvage, start again

At times like this, you can either keep going or salvage what you can and start again. For me, I can't put art into a book that is so close to something else. Anyone would have thought that I had copied the Space Marine Pod. Perhaps there was a subconscious draw toward the familiar. I can salvage the eight Mk3s in the middle but the outside is going to have to go. I might have to be a bit more literal with the egg shape. I hope that these thoughts give a little solace to other RPG authors who struggle with their art; you're not alone!

I'll post up the finished Droid Mk6 pod when it is complete.

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Never leave well enough alone

Wednesday, 17 December 2014
A problem with any mature homebrew system is that it doesn't necessarily mature at the same rate you do. I started Icar when I was 14 years old: mutants, guns, killer robots, warrior monks, more guns were all prime features. As I grew up, so did the game, settling on its core mechanics in 1996. Since then, the largest change has been Space Combat (which got more complex then less complex) and Hacking (which got less complex).

I believe that if the ethos of the game's background is strong enough, you can swap out the mechanics without too much harm. DnD has done that successfully for years. You might not like the mechanics on any given iteration but the DnD ethos of background and core concepts remains familiar enough to be called DnD. I've even (semi-jokingly) suggested swapping out all the Icar mechanics for the lightweight Shared Pool; just to see if it was still fun to play.

Backgrounds can mature, mechanics can be swapped but that leaves the assets of the game: its art, layout and phrasing of text. As your experience grows and the tooling becomes more affordable, you will undoubtedly find that the assets do not age well. You can see how much the Droid poster-child, the Mk3 has evolved over the years on the right. It pains me to post the old images but I hope it helps budding artists see a very long progression!

Perfect is the enemy of done

I'm a tweaker. I tweak. Endlessly. I see something I am not happy with and I want to change it. Once I have seen something that I'm not happy with, it will eat away at me until I do something about it. I know that it is useless to fight it. It's part of what makes me me.

Raymond Loewy, a legendary industrial designer, wrote the book "Never Leave Well Enough Alone" where he made the case for looking at things that had a long established style and then changing them. When creating an RPG from afresh then I would recommend doing just that - looking at the long established style of fantasy/supers/sci fi/modern RPGs and then changing them. When you have a lumbering monolith of 20 years work, you can't do that - you would end up going around in circles. In that respect, working on mature games is just like writing a new one. Sometimes you have to accept that something wasn't quite right and move on to the next thing.

Not quite following my own advice

Icar began life on a Zenith 2Mhz PC, single colour (yellow Hercules monitor) with dot matrix printer and everything saved on a 360KB 5¼ inch disc. Today Icar is created on a PC running four cores at 2.67 GHz with 12GB of RAM. The current Icar assets folder is 11GB on a 2TB drive. When I started doing the 3D models in 1996, I had a 200Mhz computer and a modest render would take a day and a night, in 1999 I went to 400Mhz and it would take the same time because I would use more complex models! The more I learnt, the more power I needed. Spare time is my new enemy.

While working on the Fleet Setting book (check my progress on Trello), I have been detailing the Droids and I'm up to the Mk 5 (the Droid pod). The Droid pod is a one-use spacecraft for delivering a clutch of Droids to a planet's surface. I wanted to start the model by clustering together a clutch of Mk3 Droids (my favourites) and building around them.

Then I started to see the errors in the model and began fixing them. I finished four hours later. To help you understand why I had to change it, I've put together an image that points out what I see when I look at a render. You might need to click through to the large image as the details can be subtle. Icar's rulebooks are all created at 600DPI and downsized to 300DPI for the PDF, you'll see them at 300DPI.

Saturday, 23 August 2014

New vehicle: The Bull utility vehicle

Saturday, 23 August 2014
The Bull, a bullet shaped utility vehicle in yellow with black chevrons. The Bull is a ubiquitous utility vehicle found across human occupied space. It attaches onto a huge variety of rear sections, making it extremely versatile. Get it in the free, updated Equipment Index on DriveThruRPG.

The size of the Bull is ideal for use within a Mex city; while not being too small to fit a powerful set of generators and a Grav engine. Orbit capability and a ubiquity means that it fills and important gap in the Icar universe that has been missing for a very long time. If your group are up to any dodgy shinanigans then you can't go far wrong with a Bull, they are everywhere and the vast majority are yellow with black stripes!

Notes from the sheet

Originally designed by The Vehicle Boutique in 34519, the Bull utility vehicle was an instant hit. Since then, the design has become a standard and Bulls are built without license by small manufacturing companies across Human Occupied Space. Reliability, simplicity and low cost, it can serve a huge number of functions from pulling spacecrates to medical evacuation.

The Bull itself is the cab of the vehicle, the rear part changes depending on its use. The most common Bull load is a common 10m cube space crate (pictured). Other common uses are flatbeds, heavy lifters and utility vans for small businesses.

The Bull can operate between the planet surface and orbit, although it is notoriously slow.

Being so commonplace, Bulls are connected with organised crime as they are the perfect vehicle for performing criminal acts in without raising suspicion.

Bulls lose their value immediately on purchase as second hand Bulls are difficult to determine the age or lineage. It can be difficult to tell if it is 10 or 1000 years old and what sort of a life it had.

Sunday, 10 August 2014

The Fleet Cruiser

Sunday, 10 August 2014
The Fleet Cruiser is the most common warship in the Imperial arsenal. It is the jack-of-all-trades spacecraft that carries Troopers and Stub Wings enough to take down ten or more Droid craft of a similar size. All are atmosphere capable and at 1700m long are the largest craft that come down to the planet's surface.

General statistics

  • Command crew (Captain, First Officer, Chief Tech, Chief Medic, Chief Combat Operations)
  • 200+ Stub Wing pilots with 300+ Stub wings.
  • 20 Drop ship pilots with 40 Stone drop ships.
  • 2+ Trooper Units (100 Troopers)
  • 100 Engineers and Medic staff.
  • 30 support staff (gunners etc).

Power and drive

All Fleet craft use Ion generators that pull energy in its raw form through from a parallel dimension (the second medium). The generators are situated around the spacecraft such that if catastrophic damage is taken then it can still operate. It has 15 light jump engines of three different kinds. The standard engine is the Curve Surf engine that can chew through roughly 15 light jump units in an hour. The second type is Point-To-Point Light Jump engine, which allows the craft to jump a little further and instantly but requires a "cool down" where the spacecraft cannot jump. This is the same type of engine as used by many civilian craft. The final type is a standard Light Jump engine, which can only be used away from heavy masses (such as planets and stars). The reason for having different types is that each engine is progressively more reliable when faced with oddities in the space-time continuum.


The Cruiser has 25 20-gauge pulse laser clusters, allow it to fire up 25 different targets at once. Like civilian craft, each of these must be operated by a human gunner. The Cruiser is also fitted with two "from orbit" weapons that are used to support troopers on the group. The first is an Orbital Canon, which can fire devastating area-affect kinetic shells at a planet's surface and an Ion Lance, which is a beam of energy akin to a constant nuclear blast without radiation.

Model Designer Notes

The shape for the Fleet Cruiser has been exceptionally difficult for me to nail down. I have had the shape in my head for more than twenty years and getting that into 3D modeling software is exceptionally difficult. I have had many failed attempts and notebooks filled with drawings, designs and ideas. I finished the model in April this year and set about texturing it, making use of very high resolution "UV" image maps and lots of detail - far more than put into any other model.

That's where it stalled. The shape was right but the renders looked wrong. While writing another post on "why spacecraft don't have windows", I realised that the Cruiser had to be smooth. I had piled on detail and with each line, indent, and sheen, I had stepped away from what a Fleet Cruiser is: a dark grey, featureless utilitarian craft. Smoothness is strength, every indent or nook is a weakness to be exploited. The semi-random "hull plate" patterns I use on the civilian renders would not be right on a Fleet Cruiser, the hull is woven in one piece, it's repaired by minuscule robots. The final render is plain but it is intended to be.

Where's the spec sheet?

I do not plan to create one as the Fleet Cruiser is not something that players can own. Instead they are to be used for awe in most campaigns, support in the up-and-coming Trooper's campaign.
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