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.

Saturday, 8 March 2014

The Pink Stripe - scavenger spacecraft

Saturday, 8 March 2014
The Pink Stripe is a Scavenger Spacecraft based on a Blackwater design with lots of "modifications". The invention of two of my players "Aggro" and "Byrn" for our current campaign.

The Pink Stripe, a burgundy Blackwater with a pink stripe.

Download this ship as either an image or PDF. Here's the marketing information:
The Pink Stripe used to be a lot of things. It used to be a Blackwater. Bits of it used to be a Bailey. It used to be two perfectly serviceable spacecraft. It is typical of a Fringe “Salvage Vessel”, modified on the move, making the best of components that are available without ever really having enough investment to make it a good vessel. A Scavenger would recognise it as one of their own instantly.

The Pink Stripe, a burgundy Blackwater with a pink stripe. Click here for the jpg sheet.The Pink Stripe’s heritage is firmly with a Blackwater. The Grav Plate fins have long since been replaced with larger, more capable plates. The legs that attach them to the forward crew compartment have been bent outwards and strengthened to make way for a rear cargo bay that shields the vital organs of the craft: its Grav Engine and Generator. The rear cargo bay also houses a weathered Orbihaul and enough room for a considerable amount of salvage. A number of hidden gun clusters provide the Pink Stripe with combat versatility and patchy armour toughens up the hull considerably.

Even with a stronger light jump engine and some suspicious Grav Engine modifications, this Scavenger craft is slow through light jump and does not have enough scape pods for the crew it can service.

One has to look deeper into the Pink Stripe before you really get a feeling for this vessel. The quality of the welds is exceptional, the energy web that serves power throughout the craft is armoured, the AI is tough and useful in an difficult situation and compared to its Blackwater bretheren it’s exceptionally tough. The iris airlocks (usually a weak point) have been armoured, making them structural and the inside is in very good working order. For a small vessel, it really has had a lot of love poured into it.

Wednesday, 12 February 2014

Going off-grid in Icar

Wednesday, 12 February 2014
Off-grid is when you live your life without touching Gaia. Being on-grid does not mean that you're being tracked all the time by the Imperium. The Imperium have very strict laws to protect people's privacy and will not track someone's actions on Gaia unless they have overwhelming evidence against them. Being on-grid is the norm, you chat with friends, keep in touch with family, book seats at a restaurant or on a space cruise. Living off-grid is really, really hard. However, being on-grid means that there are chances that illegal organisations (called Info Brokers or Hackers) can be collect, store, analyse and use you data from across human occupied space. Point a hacker at something within Gaia and if there is any trace of information left there, then it might be found. Off-grid is a problem. As a Syndicate operative in Sayshell Sector with your feet up, enjoying a glass of brandy; you can't order a hacker operating out of Dorian Sector to find anything out about a person in Remmar Sector. If the target is off-grid, you can't even call them over Gaia. You have to put down your brandy, collect your things and go there. Rather than a problem being resolved in minutes, you have to travel for days to actually find them.

Why go off-grid?

The most obvious reason to go off-grid is to avoid the Star Enforcers or a Syndicate. It's not foolproof but it makes their life much harder. Some go off-grid by accident, their lifestyle simply having nothing to do with Gaia anymore. Some go off-grid because they believe that the virtual world of Gaia is dimishing the human experience. Some go on a detox, knowing that plenty more time in Gaia is coming but they just need a break from its pace.

Living off-grid

In the simplest form, you can go off-grid by switching off your Gaia card. Like turning off your cell phone, no-one will be able to get in contact with you. If you interact with nothing technical from this point on, you're off-grid. You will pay for things with disposable data cards. You live in a self-sufficient place and use services and companies that never ask for your identification. If someone asks for a name for a booking, you can give a false one and no-one really minds.

If you need something from Gaia (such as information on your favourite Gaia soap star) then you can use Gaia without using a Gaia card. However, people will be able to see you looking at the information. It's better to have someone else find it for you, although you will need to ask them face-to-face.

Travelling off-grid

Interstellar travel from your colony (be it planet, Orb or orbital) can be really difficult if you're being off-grid. Most reputable spacecraft will need your picture and a name. You can have cosmetic surgery to change your appearance but the machines that do the work use Gaia. You don't want off-grid cosmetic surgery, not if you ever want to use a mirror again.

Switching Gaia cards

Your Gaia card is your identification. Buying a new one is essentially buying a new identity. If you don't tell people that your old and new identities are connected and you use different profile information for the new card, then you can use Gaia safely under this new identity. If the reason to live off grid is to avoid an crazy 'ex' then a new Gaia card would be enough. However, if you're on the run from the Enforcers or a Syndicate then one small slip and they will catch up with you with terrifying speed and won't let you go off-grid so easily next time.

How to go off-grid

  • Go to a well populated planet surface (or orb).
  • Move all your contact information and money from your Gaia card onto a datacard.
  • Dump your Gaia card into an incinerator.
  • Buy passage as far aways as you can with the money on the data card (see the black market prices).
  • Buy a house (with cash) in the middle of nowhere for cash where you can pick up supplies from a nearby village.

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Information, privacy and the law in Icar

Tuesday, 12 November 2013
In this post, I look at how I deal with information, privacy and the law in Icar. When far future technology allows you to record everything with amazing levels of detail, how could criminals operate? What are the ramifications for privacy?

The tricky problem

In Science Fiction roleplaying you're posed with a tricky problem. One one hand you can extrapolate where you are today, assume everything gets better and make up your universe around that concept. On the other hand, you want it to be fun to play. If law and order kept getting better then sooner or later there would be no crime. Even for good characters, a bit of crime is fun. Science Fiction roleplaying also allows you to enjoy the biggest game of "What If...". If you set your game far enough into the future (as I have), you can write out racial and religious differences, which leaves you with a very different society to play with. For the players to be able to suspend their disbelief society and technology must remain plausible. There is a balance to be struck and for each game, that balance will be different.

Extrapolating technology

Sensors in Icar are amazing. Scanners can detect the finest detail of a life form's health from a distance. You can see the entire electromagnetic spectrum with the cheapest, tiniest sensors and storage space is infinite. Artificial Intelligence can be used to survey huge amounts of sensor information and is intelligent enough to recognise suspicious or downright illegal actions.

Evidence and the Law

Law is dispatched by The Nexus, which is the Imperial Artificial Intelligence. The Nexus takes in evidence submitted by the Star Enforcers, matches it up with the body of Imperial Law and then passes judgement. Where there is not enough evidence, or it is conflicting, the Nexus questions the Enforcers, who must fill the logical holes or the accused goes free. The Nexus is impartial and operates only on the evidence, avoiding cultural biases. More hard evidence is required to convict someone in Icar, a few eye witness accounts are not enough.

Where is the fun in that?

Sensor data can pick up every crime and The Nexus can pass judgement at huge speed and accuracy. That pretty much means the end of criminals, doesn't it? If you don't want crime, then just install sensors everywhere (which is very cheap to do) and when there is a crime spotted, the criminal is immediately judged and dispatched. That, in itself, isn't very much fun. It limits the things that the players can do and if they want to do some criminal actions then the campaign will be very short.


The Imperium holds personal privacy high in the list of freedoms it protects. If you're being recorded by all sorts of sensors all the time then this is clearly an invasion of privacy. So, you're not allowed to. It is illegal to collect sensor data in public or commercial spaces. Sensor data may be collated in private, personal areas or where the sensors are "Point of View for the sake of safety" (such as with bionics or a space craft navigating). That makes sensor creation exceptionally difficult to do.

Privacy, the Nexus and Common Sense

If the Nexus is provided with evidence from a source that breaks the privacy laws then the evidence itself is immiscible and the owner of the sensors will be charged. Where the Nexus is very intelligent is in the application of common sense. Breach of privacy charges brought on a space craft that needs sensors to navigate would be dropped but if the space craft was using its sensors to track or monitor a private individual then The Nexus will bring about the full force of the law.


Sensor information can be faked, so the Nexus usually needs lots of corroborating evidence to convict someone of a crime. Getting this corroborating evidence is usually the difficult task for The Enforcers.

In play

Here are some examples of what you might do in play.

Are you being watched lawfully? As a player, it is best to assume that your character is not being recorded all the time. If you are entering an area with sensors that are recording you and you have the capacity to detect them (or it's obvious) then the GM will ask you for a Wit Attribute Check.

If you need to incriminate someone or falsify sensor data, requires a Forgery Skill check.

If you want to remove traces of your presence in a building, you need to use the Hacking rules to get into the sensor logs and delete them. This would be 1 Hacking check to get into the system, and 1 Hacking check to delete the data.

If you want to rig a sensor system to not record you entering an area, you will need the Hacking rules. This is approximately 4 Hacking rolls (1 to get in, 1 to break into the cameras, 1 to kill the Security Entity and 1 to install a Hacking looper).

Crime is possible

Even though Icar has a huge amount of advanced technology, it is the rights of the individual that stop it from being used. Of course, if you are being hunted by criminals, they will have no problem with recording you, following you and blowing you up. That's what they do. They're criminals.

Tuesday, 23 July 2013

Summer 2013 Update

Tuesday, 23 July 2013
Icar has been updated, the new PDFs are ready for download from the homepage. The changes include:
  • New full colour Sector maps for Dorian, Sayshell and Remmar.
  • Updates to Space Combat
  • Additional rule examples

The New Sector Maps

It is difficult to represent space because it is really very big, not to mention 3D. I have sidestepped this issue by pretending the Galaxy is pretty much a flat disc. Space is organised into Sectors and Clusters, a Sector containing a bunch of clusters. A Cluster contains systems, a system contains planets, orbitals and so on.

The Sector maps have been black and white for a long time because I found it very difficult to make them colour and still print sensibly in black and white. While playing with Photoshop recently, it occurred to me that I could select colours and then increase the contrast massively. That should allow me to make them both nice in colour and appear different shades in grayscale.

The next difficulty that I had was that old sector maps were arranged in a format that was not very easy for me to convert, change or play with. Furthermore, I did not generate the whole Galactic arm - I just did the three sectors of human occupied space. This became a problem because I now need Typhon Sector for the Fleet setting. It was not possible just to generate a single cluster and have it match the others. I decided to regenerate the entire galactic arm again, and then clean it so that I could use it more easily.

I'm proud of the new maps and am looking forward to getting them printed A3 at my local print shop.

Space Combat Update

I took an evening out of our Fleet campaign to playtest the Space Combat rules. Although they have been there for a long time, the only testing I had done was on paper. Although extensive (edge case testing etc), it was not obvious how it would play. A run through with Byrn and Aggro was long overdue.

The feedback was excellent. I introduced Combat Initiative to give a bonus to spacecraft that are well suited to space combat and adjusted all the to-hit modifier on spacecraft systems. That meant an update to the Equipment Index too, which I'm glad to say did not take long thanks to InDesign's master pages.

The other changes included turn length becoming 3 minutes and that the initiative modifer only affects the Pilot Manouvring check. Failing the Pilot Manouvring check now gives a modifier to Gunnery. In essence, the teamwork is still there but it is less loaded on the initiate.

Grab the PDFs now from the homepage.
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