Tuesday, 3 April 2018

Race and gender in Icar

Tuesday, 3 April 2018
Icar is set 90,000 years into the future. The races that left Earth to live on the the Ariane 1001 space station intermingled for thousands of years, producing a single human race. That race then evolved over the 90,000 years to cope with the broad variety of worlds. The human race could have branched again but regular space faring kept the human race as one. Skin colour, gender, fitness and body shape morph in each individual human depending on their environment and choices. This is quite jarring for us living in the 21st Century but for the purposes of playing Icar, it gives you cues about the life of the non-player-character you meet.

While there is one human race, there are two machine races: the Droids and Automatons. Droids are the killer robots, whose simplified intelligence seeks to destroy all life. Automatons have philosophically driven artificial intelligence, which is immune to the Droids. We'll concentrate on humans here.

Galactic vs Local Cultures

Humans are still programmed with prejudices while growing up within their culture. There are two cultures at work here: the Galactic culture, which is influence via Gaia media (news, games and interactive stories) and the local culture via people they live with. Local culture tends to drive short lived fashions whereas Galactic culture drives long term traditions. Every local system can have its culture measured in how far from the Galactic norm it is. The more remote a system, the less travel there is and the further from Galactic norms the system will be.

For each topic below, Galactic and local cultural differences are outlined.

Skin Colour

In Icar, you skin colour changes depending on how much time you have spent exposed to sunlight. Spacefarers will have pale skin, while as those living on the surface of worlds will have darker skins. Unlike in the 21st Century, each individual human's skin colour changes over time. If you were born on a space station, your skin will be an pearlescent ivory; if you then lived a life on a planet surface spending long hours under the sun, your skin would turn a deep chocolate black over the years. From planet surface to space is the same process in reverse. Every shade in between. In this way you can tell where someone spends their time but not where they came from (unless they are very young).

Local cultures usually form a preference to the opposite of the norm for that culture. If you live on a planet surface then whiter skin is seen as daring, interesting and exotic. If you live in a space station then dark skin is associated with wealth, freedom and being exotic too. Bleaching and ultraviolet baths to try and emulate the other tone and go in and out of fashion. There are medical procedures that can fix your skin colour but they are expensive and in most local cultures are seen as something of a tacky joke.

Body shape

Most humans live on planets that have a gravity between 0.8G and 1.2G. Living on a planet with a higher G will make your muscle density thicker, while living on a lower G planet will give lower muscle density. There is no-muscle wastage, even for those that spend huge amounts of time in zero gravity; the human body has adapted to keep musculature at a minimum. Culturally, there is no preference for either; fashion throughout the Galaxy swings back and forth between being plump and thin.

Gender

In Icar, gender is a non-binary choice. Medicine has advanced to a point where gender can be invented such that it no longer matter what your gender at birth is. Although inventing genders isn't common, it is easy and allows a huge variety of options. For example, a couple can switch genders to facilitate having children naturally, which is particularly important as the Genus 2 mutation can kill the mother of a child. It is regarded in the Galactic culture as fair to take it in turns to have children.

As gender no longer matters, neither does sexual preference. People fall in love with other people, regardless of their biological configuration. Consummation can require a simple medical procedure first but this is viewed as a practical necessity rather than unnatural. As such, gender is no more a conversation point that changing the colour of your hair or choosing a new job.

Medicine can synthesize any organ, sperm, ovaries, eggs, wombs and any other component of human creation (except genetic code), taking humans completely out of the process if needed. The Galactic culture has chosen not to take that route except in extreme situations (such as in violent planetary environments).

Genetic Hacking

Our genetic code has long since been unraveled and understood by science. However, every social experiment with genetics has failed; often spectacularly and as such editing the human genome has been outlawed. That's not to say it doesn't happen but it is extremely rare (good fodder for a campaign plot). Genetic code comes inbuilt with chaos, which keeps humanity healthy and improving over time. Any kind of intervention causes the genome as a whole to become unbalanced and although one generation might be alright, the problems occur much further down the line as the chaos reasserts itself.

Bionics

While applying biological medicine to yourself to change gender/hair/skin is seen as natural, applying bionics is seen as unnatural, even across the wider Galactic culture. This is where the major philosophical divide appears between Humanists, who believe in obeying your genetic code and Technologists that believe that the future of humanity is in upgrades with technology. From the smallest Gaia neural interface to replacing everything but the brain, people with bionics (Borgs and Cybers) are generally seen as another race entirely, not to be trusted or treated equally. The Galactic culture is one of caution but locally the culture can swing wildly one way or another: from being a machine cult to a hippy paradise.

For most, bionics is a choice but there are many whose genetic code contains defects that cannot be corrected with biological medicine. If you wish to run a campaign that shines a light on prejudice and bigotry then use augmented humans.

Friday, 23 February 2018

Version 5 - Space combat progress update

Friday, 23 February 2018
Version 5's core mechanic comes into it's own when built into space combat. The core principal is still the same as in version 4: every player character has a job to do, they roll skills to keep the spacecraft together and help the gunners shoot. Everyone (except the gunners) has more options and the effect of any action is more obvious. For example, if an engineer chooses to put power to the engines then the pilot gets +2 to their roll. It's also easier to see how one character can hold up the team. If the pilot is unskilled then their failing doesn't have a negative effect but the lack of positive effect makes it hard for the gunners to fire. The engineer then has the choice to try and buff the pilot (normal difficulty) or to buff the combat initiative directly (more difficult). Those choices are extremely important as simple systems can sometimes feel like they are "roll to win or lose". I'm currently writing up the rules in Trello, you can see them (and my progress) on the right. It's free to use, click through and see what I'm up to.

Designing in pen

I took a conscious decision to design in pen for version 5. The reasons are:
  • Pen is quicker.
  • Going straight onto digital bogs me down on getting things too perfect or programming it.
  • It's easier to take design materials to the park for lunch.
  • Sitting scribbling in the evening is less socially excluding than using a laptop.
  • It's easy to be distracted on a computer.
For the play test I need example builds of characters that are stripped right down, so it made sense to write them out. I can then put them together by myself for fun before giving over to some players. This isn't really for min-maxing but for understand the effects if each role.

Playtest coming

I hope to get the playtest down by the middle of March so that I can write them up. The space combat rules are like the new vehicle rules but more prescriptive. If I can get the spacecraft rules nailed down then the vehicle ones should come out in the wash.

Saturday, 17 February 2018

What can - and can't - be hacked in Icar

Saturday, 17 February 2018
Hacking is good fun. As virtual worlds bleed into and augment the real world, the amount of fun you can have increases. In Icar, reality and the virtual seep into each other seamlessly such that inventive hacking can cause chaos in the real world. There are limits to what can be hacked and in this post we explore why.

What is Gaia?

Gaia is the internet after 90,000 years of evolution. A virtual world that mimics the real world. Physically speaking, it exists in a parallel dimension (called the third medium) that is filled with a constantly changing ocean of energy patterns. The third medium is superimposed over the real world, as you live your life, your representation in the third medium also changes.

Gaia's energy patterns can't be sensed from the real world directly as they have no shape or mass in our dimension, instead you need a Gaia chip to do that translation for you. The Gaia chip translates specific energy patterns and updates them like a C21 computer reads and writes data to a hard drive. The Gaia chip could be laced into your bionic cerebral cortex or, more commonly, installed in a holoroom or Gaia card.

Gaia is a Virtual World

When you use a Gaia, be it immersed in a holoroom, viewing a three dimensional projection from a card or from within your own head; you interact with a virtual world that is based loosely on the real world. The vast majority (but not all) of the planets, stars, colonies are reproduced in Gaia but you are not bound by physics; allowing you to virtually visit anywhere instantly - as long as you know where you're going.

On the smaller scale: spacecraft, buildings, rooms, farms, forests, vehicles are all modelled in Gaia. When your car's autopilot plots a route through a city, it uses both its own sensors and what it can see in Gaia. They do not always match but they do enough for safety and efficient route planning.

Not everything in Gaia has a real world doppelganger. Intelligent software called Gaia Entities live and work in Gaia and make up the bulk of the action inside. Simple Gaia entities (such as security guard entities) are not very intelligent and can be duplicated easily. As the entity's complexity increases, copying introduces faults until artificial intelligence reaches level 5 and the entity is considered unique and not copyable.

What cannot be hacked

The Imperium make the tiny Gaia "chips" that read and modify the energy patterns within the third medium. Inside that chip is a unique energy pattern whose parent is owned by the Imperium. The energy pattern cannot be read, nor can it be copied but access as an encryption key for everything in the third medium. This hardware cannot be hacked. The encryption key is woven into the hardware and unlocks Gaia - attempts to read or modify it would change the key, rendering it useless.

In a C21 sense, the hardware and operating system of Gaia cannot be hacked.

What can be hacked

The virtual world inside Gaia can be thought of as data: malleable, constantly changing and morphing. That data is open to abuse and that is where our hacker comes in. Hacks can change and delete parts of the virtual world and the Entities living in it.
The more complex a Gaia Entity is, the more difficult it is to hack. Entities with a high Artificial Intelligence power require more time, perhaps even a life time and are, as such, impractical to hack.

Critical systems are protected by being able to generate billions of Entities very quickly and root out compromised Entities. This is why spacecraft are impractical to hack. You can break in through their security and start deleting Entities but you would need to do that faster than every single intelligent Entity in the spacecraft can create them and that simply isn't practical. For example, the Life Support system typically has over a million duplicates of each of its monitoring and control Entities. Even if you could find and destroy a thousand a second, one of those Entities would spawn thousands more. If you modified a thousand a second then your modified Entities would soon be spotted and deleted by the others.

Hacking examples

  • Change the Gaia representation of your car into an ambulance, other traffic will give you right of way.
  • Convince a security systems that you are allowed into that secure room.
  • Steal hidden documents.
  • Delete security footage of you shooting that bad guy (for the common good).
  • Change all the holographic adverts for a company to a dancing banana, this would appear in the real world too.
  • Make a derelict colony look thriving by hacking the Gaia representation and filling it with fake entities.

Campaign Ideas

Bending the rules I've given above can lead to some interesting campaign events. Be warned that some of them have side-effects!

Star Sci are no longer the only ones to make Gaia chips

An artificial intelligence has figured out how to read and write to Gaia directly. The players need to destroy the AI and anyone with the knowledge.

Gaia seeps into the real world; for real

As Gaia is stored in the third medium along with the energy patterns of everything in the universe, it is possible that a Gaia chip could create an energy pattern and insert it into Gaia and for it to appear in the real world. Gaia chips are naturally low energy devices so whatever it is would exist only for a short period of time.

Trapped in Gaia

A standard holodeck adventure: the consciousnesses of the player characters are trapped in Gaia and need to find bionic bodies that they can inhabit before their energy patterns loose coherence and they become noise. Someone in the real world is going to have to help them.

Beaming through Gaia

Not possible; but if it was then you would be able to cross any distance immediately - as long as there was a Gaia holoroom there.

Gaia goes down

Imagine if the internet completely went down for a day; the chaos would be extraordinary! In the aftermath, people would trust it less and look for alternatives.

Friday, 19 May 2017

Pubfinders play Icar and I shed a tear

Friday, 19 May 2017
They say don't blog in an emotional state. Oh well, here goes.

Coincidences can be powerful. They can cause cognitive dissonance. They make you stop and think.

I've been struggling to keep motivation on Version 5. With kids in the house (Felix, 7; Naomi, 5 months), I snatch morsels of time at random. To make best uses of those small blocks of time, you have to keep organised and force yourself to do work. I don't play weekly at the moment (due to Naomi) so getting my brain back into it is hard. And then, out of nowhere:

Pubfinders play Icar

Watch live video from Pubfinders on www.twitch.tv I know that others have played. DOC Argen on the forums is part of a group that plays and his feedback has always brought about a flurry of output. After Chris from Pubfinders kindly tweeted me: I stopped what I was doing and sat, I watched. The player handouts, the deviant wheel... it hit me in the feels. I teared up. My ribs hurt. These three guys - unsolicited - had picked it up and were playing my game. I'm writing this having watched three and a half hours and I can't wait to see it through.

Icar's failings in sharp relief

Chris (the GM) gets Icar. Not just understood or read but he gets it. I could tell from the language he used, where the focus was. I enjoyed the characters and the story as it played out as he, John and Corey delved into a wreck.

I could see more clearly than ever before that Icar was failing at some very core things. I've known about them for some time, even writing a blog post about it but seeing others play shone an oblique lamp, bringing it all into sharp relief. They weren't eccentricities anymore, they were problems.
Every GM has their own take...
That is a sentiment I agree wholeheartedly with but being an invisible, virtual, future fly on the wall I could see that the system repeatedly hung poor Chris out to dry. He did astoundingly well given that some core things are just bonkers.
You're being a bit harsh, you've played it for years...
Yes and my players too. They could play the game without any character sheets or rule books. Byrn literally knows the game better than I. I am writing version 5 now and as such I look at the current version under a microscope. I don't want to fail the GMs who dare to download and print my game and spend their precious free time playing it. I owe them more than that.

Things I learnt

  • It's not obvious when to roll an attribute and when to roll a skill.
  • There are two many overlapping skills, especially in technology.
  • When pre-building characters choosing the Psychotheatrics is a really good idea and avoids difficult to play characters.
  • Meat is still a funny attribute.
  • Droid origins may be well known if you grow up under a normal Imperium colony but if you grow up in a backwater they might be seen more as a myth.
  • Players will always assume that the Imperium is evil.
  • "Are the Droids a species?" A concept I need to explore.
  • Need more pictures showing simple things such as using Gaia.
  • Keeping track of ammo and stuff is boring.
  • Encumbrance is worth keeping as it forces an in-game choice.
  • GM needs more ideas on what to do on a wreck so there is choice.
  • There needs to be a list of antique swag - it's too difficult to come up with things off the top of your head.
  • Need a better cheat sheet of Shift and distance per turn.
  • All the spacecraft look like willies. This isn't something I learnt but it's worth repeating!

A thank you

Thank you to Chris, John and Corey for playing Icar and entertaining me. It's given me energy and enthusiasm back! I'm looking forward to joining you on the text chat for the next one. :)

Thursday, 7 July 2016

Void Rescue

Thursday, 7 July 2016
Void Rescue is the space rescue service. If your spacecraft has broken down, you can call Void Rescue to come and help. With over 1 million spacecraft across all Human Occupied Space, their yellow and black stripes are instantly recognisable and affectionately known as Bees. The crews are highly trained engineers, who can help find problems with your spacecraft. Most trade spacecraft have Void Rescue insurance cover and some colonies require it before awarding a trade contract.

Service Levels

Void Rescue will always attempt to repair your spacecraft. They carry a huge array of spares, which you can buy from them. If they can't repair your craft, then will try to attach temporary equipment (see below) to your craft and jump you to the nearest star dock, where you can negotiate repairs. If the spacecraft is in tatters then Void Rescue will guarantee to safely deliver you and your crew to a nearby system. Void Rescue will also pick you up from a planet, asteroid or orbital if you spacecraft is destroyed. Used in this way makes Void Rescue a very expensive courier service but then if you have paid for it, you might as well use it!

Droid Space

Void Rescue do offer cover for Droid Space but they do not guarantee to get to you. The deeper you are, the more unlikely it is that you will get a message to Void Rescue. If you are any more than 4 clusters into Droid space (the Sectors of Typhon and Eos) then it's unlikely that you'll get a message back to Human Occupied Space, let alone be picked up.

Pricing

The more you pay up-front, the cheaper it will be overall.
ContractLocationPrice
5 years in advanceHuman Occupied Space500,000
1 year in advanceHuman Occupied Space200,000
Immediate pickup (no payment in advance)Human Occupied Space300,000
1 year in advanceDroid Space1,300,000
Immediate pickupDroid Space2,000,000

Response times

In Human Occupied Space, a Void Rescue craft will be with you within 10 hours. If you are close to the centre of the Sector (where the star density is highest) then the usual time 3 hours.

Temporary Equipment

Not only does a Bee carry a large number of spares, they also carry specialised equipment for making your spacecraft (anything smaller than a hulk) go far enough to get to a star dock. Anything included in the diagram on the Spacecraft Systems blog post can be temporarily replaced.

The Gaia show: The Hive

A very popular, romanticised Gaia soap opera called The Hive has always danced along the interstice between fact and fiction. It follows the beautiful crew of a fictional Bee called Stardust, each show performing a daring rescue. The crews of real Bees hate the show. For many it was the reason they joined and its false glamour feels like a betrayal. Mentioning The Hive in conversation with Bee crews rarely goes down well.

The Star Enforcer Alternative

If you have no Void Rescue insurance and you cannot afford the cost of an immediate pickup then you can put a distress into the Star Enforcers. The Star Enforcers will take your crew to the nearest system and your spacecraft and cargo will immediately be listed as salvage. This only works in Human Occupied Space, in Typhon Sector you can try the same with the Fleet but you are likely to be their lowest priority.

Void Rescue Engineer Skeleton

Void Rescue Engineers can make great engineers for you space based campaign. Schooled amongst the harsh reality of the Void, these engineers have a tight focus on spacecraft.
There's no buzz like that hum of a Grav engine warming up from cold. There's no smile broader than caused by an old tub pulling under its weight again. There's no thanks sweeter than a Captain's open hand. I've seen the innards of every kind of spacecraft humanity has sculpted. Each like a giant living thing that I get to make well. It's enough to bring a tear to this old engineer's eye...

Suggested Attributes

  • Wit: 5

Skills

  • Gaia Know
  • Pilot Heavy Grav
  • Pilot Cruiser
  • Zero-G Operations (5 x Shift) + 3D10
  • Spacecraft Know (6 x Wit) + 3D10
  • Spacecraft Systems (5 x Wit) + 2D10
  • Energy Know (3 x Wit) + 4D10
  • Energy Systems Wit + 2D10
  • Mechasys Know (5 x Wit) + 2D10
  • Mechasys Systems (3 x Wit) + D10

Starting Equipment

Shakespeare Mech Kit. 2 Changes of clothing. Moss Hardened Environment Suit (with communicator and Grav pack). Personal Effects.

Saturday, 23 January 2016

Air grenades - where you should stop worrying about the science

Saturday, 23 January 2016
I had a great idea for a grenade that had super-compressed air in it. When it "explodes", it's harmless but lets out enough breathable air to pressurise a sphere 5 metres in diameter. What a great non-lethal device! Pair it with a portable Gravlock (a bubble that keeps the air in) and you have a vacuum-to-survivable bubble in a second (Byrn's idea back in 2006). Got the airlock shut but no pressure? No problem! WOOMF! You have pressurised air.

Step up Byrn

Long standing Icar legend, memoriser of the rules, mathematician, cyberneticist and excellent friend then hit me with the science and my lovely idea unravelled.

Here's his reasoning.
A 5 metre diameter bubble has a volume of 62.5m3
Air density at 1 atmosphere (sea level on Earth, nice and comfy) 1.2kg per m3
Therefore, the air of a 5m bubble would be 75kg mass or roughly 750N.
So my pressurised grenade would be the same weight as a human. Probably too heavy to pop on a utility belt! Byrn tried to come to the rescue.
Use pure oxygen at 0.2 atmospheres. That's the maximum partial pressure (PPO2) of oxygen that divers need to survive. Oxygen at 0.2 atmospheres is 0.26kg per m3. For our air bubble, that's still a 16kg grenade.
Byrn also calculated that a single person could use that oxygen up in 4 hours if they were working really hard or 23 hours if at rest. The more people in the bubble, the shorter the time.

Pseudoscience possibilities?

Icar has a pretty stable science foundation for its technology. All matter can be represented with an energy pattern. The more complex the matter is, the more difficult the energy pattern is to make. You can store energy patterns in other materials (this is how generators and food processors work) and then use a little energy to unpack the larger stored energy into something else.

So, the grenade could be filled with a special material that turns into a large amount of gas. The problem with introducing this new material into canon is that you need to see what the knock-on effects of this are. What else might this gaseous material be used for?

Icar is a space opera

Space operas are not hard science fiction. I accepted that a long time ago. For the game to be fun to play, you have to run rough-shod over some physics. As a GM, I have to remain as serious as possible or the players will have no suspension of disbelief. If there is anything too outlandish, then everything breaks down too fast. I think air grenades are OK, so they will be making an appearance!

Monday, 18 January 2016

Fleet Setting Released

Monday, 18 January 2016
I am proud to announce that the Icar Fleet Setting source book is ready for you to download.

You are a proud member of Recon Squad 2 of Trooper Unit 555 operating from the Star Clipper Orion’s Scabbard. Your job is to protect the human race from the onslaught of the Droids. In this setting you will start with the odds against you and use ingenuity, technology and firepower to fight your way back to rejoin the Fleet.

You will make difficult choices, bring down orbital bombardments, direct Stub Wing strafing runs, commandeer civilian resources, fight pirates, drag crippled spacecraft into life, detonate planets, cajole civilian spacecraft Captains, battle Droids and the scum of humanity.
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