Sunday, 22 November 2015

The Fleet Stub Wing, I first drew it at 14 and I don't have the heart to change it

Sunday, 22 November 2015
Icar has grown up with my friends and I. A collective hallucination that has become more detailed (and complex) with each passing year. There are still strong echoes from the early days: infectious mutant-zombies, killer robots and lots of big guns. One thing that has morphed only slightly is the Fleet's Stub Wing. Here's my latest render showing it at full thrust (click for a biggy).

From 1998 to 2015

My first scribble was in pencil and paper around 1991 but I've since lost that folder with all my original drawings in. I did a 3D model in 1996 but that died on a hard-drive so the oldest incarnation I have of the Stub Wing is from 1998 - and I still have the 3D model for it! Here is old (left) and new (right) side by side.

It's easy to see how far my 3D modelling has come, although it can be pretty painful sharing the old models. Here they are without the polygon lines.

The spikes that stick out of the back are the energy thrust vectors. The idea was that all that thrust forced from the back would go in all directions, so you need an energy field to try and contain it. In turn, that energy field would need some strong emitters and that's where the spikes come from. In the original model, the spikes were fixed but in the new one I have them all rigged up so that they can move around.

Next steps

Now I have the new Stub Wing rigged (with the thrust particles and lights), it's ready to go. I can now use it in a scene with a Mark 4 Droid and get that into the Fleet Setting book. I'm tempted to put some on the front cover too - I didn't before to stop it from looking busy. I'll give that another thought.

Do you like seeing the works in progress and archive images from yesteryear? Please do let me know on Twitter, Facebook, Google+ or in the comments below.

Sunday, 1 November 2015

Spacecraft systems

Sunday, 1 November 2015
Technically minded players love science fiction detail and being one of those roleplayers, I love it too. Giving tech-minded players technology detail gives them more choice to delve into. When the spacecraft is broken and can't light jump to Arcturus, rather than "it's the doohicky" that's broken, you can say that the Energy Well is broken. If the player is interested, they can then offer a solution and earn roleplaying points or a bonus to the Skill roll.

Technology what?

"How Icar stuff works" was defined around 1999 in Word document files. I've recently returned to them and my blood curdled in horror. By 2005, I had converted them into 55 html pages but printing was a nightmare. Imagine printing 55 separate html pages. I am in the process of recreating the whole lot in a PDF (along with all the other unfinished PDFs), starting from the first principle science and building.

I thought I could leave that on a back burner but my hand was called recently when a new (technically minded) player volunteered to be the spacecraft engineer and (reasonably so) wanted a diagram. The diagram and text below are from the unfinished technology index, I hope you find it useful. I aim to blog some of the other sections as I edit them.

Spacecraft Systems

Spacecraft share many of the properties of other vehicles. They have an energy web for transferring power, provided by the main generators. They have artificial intelligence, Grav engines, Grav plates an so on. Most importantly, spacecraft include the means to travel between stars. This is the different between a Heavy Grav and a Spacecraft. If your Light Jump Engine is broken what you have is a Heavy Grav, not a spacecraft! Below is a diagram of all the main systems on a modern spacecraft (click for a larger image).

The Energy Web

Woven into every strut, hull plate and floor of a spacecraft is the energy web. A mesh of cables of varying size but the vast majority are the size of hair. Blowing a huge hole in the outer hull not black out an area of the spacecraft, only destroy the systems it encompasses. The web can be used to power anything, taking feeds off it is easy. The energy web is also the main communication system, tiny intelligent agents whiz around the web communicating almost instantly with every other system on-board.

In emergencies, the web can be used as storage and itself can be depleted to drive systems. A depleted energy web takes roughly 15 seconds (5 turns) to bring back to full power.


Power is inexpensive and many systems (in the dotted box) have their own generators. The large generators that are used to power the most hungry systems are simply referred to as the Main Generators. A spacecraft is usually equipped with twice the number of main generators needed to perform a faster-than-light light jump.

Energy Well, Light Jump Engine, MTF Emitter

These three separate systems are required to travel great distances faster than the speed of light. To perform a Light Jump, the main generators charge up the Energy Well (which takes ten minutes). The Jump Engine then orchestrates all that raw energy into a particular shape and dumps it all at once into the Mass Transmission Field Emitter (MTF Emitter). The MTF Emitter creates a bubble around the outside of the spacecraft, which moves the mass of everything inside it into the second medium. The Grav Engine then performs a tiny push down the feint gravity gradient of the star you're travelling to and the spacecraft moves through the intervening space in just a few seconds. Once the jump is complete, the mass transmission energy field that is attached the spacecraft (and everything in it) takes an hour to dissipate. A spacecraft cannot emit another Light Jump field until the previous one has dissipated (roughly an hour).

Spacecraft usually keep the Energy Well charged. Charged Energy Wells are very easy to detect, as are spacecraft waiting for mass transmission fields to dissipate. When the spacecraft jumps, any ions in the space it travels through begin spinning in a very specific direction. This is called an ion trail and can be used to track spacecraft. Most spacecraft can route power from the Energy Well back into the Energy Web but with some risk as the Energy Well holds a great deal more than the web!

Grav Engine, Distributor and Grav Plates

These systems work together to move the spacecraft around wherever there is any kind of gravity. The Grav engine is given a command to move and it creates a special energy pattern that it gives to the distributor, which in turn feeds the Grav Plates. The Grav Plates turn the energy pattern into a force. Grav Plates powered without a working Grav Engine will hold position relative to the nearest large gravitational source. Grav Plates without power at all will not produce any force.

Life Support

Life Support is an umbrella term for thousands of tiny gas bioreoganisers spread around the spacecraft. The bioreorgnaisers take in stale air and produce fresh air, usually with the fresh scent choice of the Captain.


Used for protection against incoming projectiles, asteroids or extreme radiation. Most spacecraft carry multiple shield generators. Only one generator can be active at a time. If a shield takes a large amount of damage (or a single pulse laser round), it will take 3 seconds to disappear, at which point the next shield generator will spark into life. Once a shield is taken down, all that energy is dissipated back into the second medium by the shield generator (which will appear offline). Once finished (usually around 10 minutes), the shield generator comes back online. Shield generators are synonymous with "Shields".

Grav Field Emitter

The Grav Field Emitter creates thousands of artificial gravity bubble that can be used for a number of uses. The most common is giving gravity to all personnel in the spacecraft so that there is a common "up". Other uses include stopping atmosphere from leaking out through hull breeches, allowing engineers to walk on the surface of spacecraft and changing the gravity in any part of the spacecraft for comfort.

Tractor Beam

A way of pulling objects toward the spacecraft. All tractor beams have a maximum range and they work by setting up an external gravity field around the target.

Artificial Intelligence

The Artificial Intelligence (AI) orchestrates the systems on-board. Each system has its own intelligence that is a slave to the spacecraft intelligence. The spacecraft AI can answer questions, help with simple tasks and control low-AI power Automatons that have it has been handed control of. Some spacecraft have an Avatar, a humanoid Automaton that represents the spacecraft itself.


A medical facility that can cater for humans and bionics as standard (required by Imperial law). The size is proportional to the crew. Many spacecraft come with a medically trained automaton but it is not equipped as standard.

Light, Doors, Airlocks

These all take power from their own generators and all doors have a mechanical alternative to open them. Opening a door mechanically is slow!


Weapons are mounted in clusters in divots in the hull. They are usually 20 gauge pulse lasers. Ammunition must be replenished manually.


These use raw energy to turn organic blocks (called biomatter) into any kind of food depending on the Gaia entities loaded into the bioreorganiser. The more exotic the food, the more biomatter required. A good rule of thumb is that 1kg of biomatter can feed a human for 1 month and is the shape and size of a Rubik cube.

Monday, 17 August 2015

Text first: a new way to fill in campaign detail

Monday, 17 August 2015
The Deep Space campaign cover, a field of stars taken by the Hubble telescope. Work in progress My Imperial Investigation campaign came to a close. Although it was Total Party Kill, they did win in the final act - scything the best possible path through what were seemingly impossible odds. I doff my cap to them and say "Bravo"! It has been the most complex series of plots I've ever run and the players have reasoned brilliantly. I could not have asked for more thanks for all my hard work. I am now designing a Deep Space campaign, where the player team will be exploring the outer reaches of human civilisation. I've adjusted the way in which I fill in the detail of a campaign, both scratching the itch of my writing nerve and also better describing things for my players. I am running this new campaign using the online, which is not as good as face to face but means we can play more often and I appreciate that.

The old way

I design a campaign as a series of steps:
  1. Write the ending. As much as there might be dead ends and side quests, the main arcs should lead somewhere. The ending is usually "what would happen if the players did nothing". The ending gives me a benchmark.
  2. Write the premise. The premise is the philosophies that I want to explore in the campaign. The premise should be written around the question "what are the cool things that the players will do?". For example, in the last campaign was, the premises were: "What will the players do with unlimited support from the Imperium and no guidance?". The ending was "What happens if you take away the support?"
  3. Sketch out story arcs. Story arcs give the players a way to explore the premise. Story arcs are grouped into those that explore the premise and lead to the ending; and side quests, which are just for fun! The output of this are timelines and relationship diagrams.
  4. First Session Plan. The first few sessions are extremely important. Do we fill in character back stories or get stuck in? I need to make sure I have enough resources and the first story arcs planned out.
  5. Detail. Usually I start creating resources like mad at the point, character portraits, NPCs, spacecraft plans and so on. This time, I'm doing this bit a little different.

Doing detail the old way

Where this campaign preparation is different is in the detail. Before now I would jump in with pencils, paper, notebooks and draw, draw, draw. Spacecraft, NPC portraits, maps, diagrams and images that get my creative juices flowing. When in front of the players, I describe my scribblings verbally. I think that conversion process is letting me down. I hear the words come out of my mouth and cringe. The sketch on paper doesn't come across right. My games run quickly, I don't have time to stop, rethink and go back. Words said become canon, the players latch onto them and add spin, questions and so on.

Detail done differently

This time, I'm writing the text first and driving the imagery from it. For example, one NPC is described as:
A round, kind face smiling up around plump cheeks and small, twinkling eyes. White hair fussed into a bun. Skirt, cardigan and blouse in matching pastel green. Round vowels softly spoken and creaking with age. Proud, upright, short; hands clasped in front.
The spacecraft that will be their home wasn't drawn first but instead described as:
A shiny baby blue ball with large hole running through it covered by huge doors. Depressions, bumps and pock marks betray the complexity beneath. A childish, ungainly design, bulbous and bold.
From these descriptions I can then create resources - if needed at all. By being text-first, it forces me to take a more ordered view of how things are being set-up and I waste less time trying to get the 3D model looking just right. This is particularly important as the 3D models in-game are of limited use beyond the flavour.

Monday, 22 June 2015

Work in progress - the Fleet Setting front page

Monday, 22 June 2015
I have an image in my mind of a Mex city in the thick of a firefight. I want a Mark 8 droid busting its way through in the background, while Fleet Troopers and Mark 3s battle in the foreground. I want to get a Stone dropship in there, lots of streaks of lasers, smoke and a few battered buildings. In short, I want it to be a coherent mess.

I've got a lot of the 3D models ready, they just need to be composed into a nice picture. What I've never been very good at is creating depth, lighting, atmosphere and people! I find that when I try something complex, it turns into an incoherent mess with nothing for the eye to latch onto.

The image below is an early test render showing the larger, more static bits of the scene. You can see a Mark 8 moving through the buildings, which are set out in red and green for the moment (will be replaced later). I've made some cuts into the foreground buildings and these will have a few interior walls. The cut out curved section in the building on the left will hold a smoking Mark 6 (pod).

I am tempted to finish off the scene by hand (in GIMP) as it is much easier to apply grime/burn marks after the rendering has finished. I'll try the same for the laser blasts but that might need some experimentation. I'll need to work out how to do volumetric fog/smoke and atmospheric lighting. I've tried doing smoke by hand in post-rendering and it looked terrible when not on the horizon!

Wednesday, 3 June 2015

New Download: NPC Character sheet

Wednesday, 3 June 2015
What is the bare minimum you need to know for an NPC? Well, it depends... it depends on how much time the characters are going to spend talking with the NPC. Sometimes a single sentence is enough, or a few adjectives. There's usually a name. There is a point where you need to start collecting more information about the NPC and that's where character cards and NPC sheets coming.

Character cards

A character card is a playing-card sized player handout with a picture of the NPC and some details. You can download the ones I use on my Free RPG Blog. The players can add notes to the inside of the character cards - they are for them.

NPC character sheet

For NPCs that become a regular fixture, you need a little more. Consistency in their abilities, initiative order and skills is vital in making the character appear real. Now you could use the normal character sheets for this task but the amount of paper you'll be carrying around might get out of hand really quickly. Instead, I have created a cut-down version of the character sheet for use with the NPCs.

The strangest thing about the character sheet is the empty deviant wheel. Pick four pairs of deviant entries that you think best apply to the character and fill just those in. Check out the example that I am including the up-and-coming Fleet Setting, a Stone (dropship) pilot called Holly Bridges (don't worry, no spoilers there).

Design note - YAGNI

In extreme (or agile) software development, there is a phrase called YAGNI: You Ain't Gunna Need It. YAGNI means that you should never develop something until you need it, keeping features in systems costs money and if you're not 100% sure they will be used, don't put it in. I treat game design the same way.

I have lots of ideas (check them out) about what to put in and not all of them make the cut. Just because it goes through my head, it doesn't mean it should go into the book (some poor ones do get through).

I didn't want to make an NPC character card as the vast majority of my NPCs are little drawings in relationship diagrams. That's usually enough to make them stick for me. I was writing the NPC description for Holly in the Fleet Setting and realised that there was a lot of structured information that was needed. It looked weird in the middle of the text. I wasn't going to be able to avoid it: I needed an NPC sheet. That was the point at which I needed it and not before.

Download it now

I will be adding it to the Core Rules on the next update but rather than wait for that, here's the PDF now (Google Drive, 1.2MB PDF).

Tuesday, 5 May 2015

Quite the unexpected surprise: Droid Mk8 complete!

Tuesday, 5 May 2015
I probably shouldn't be posting this so soon but I'm really excited! I've managed to create the Droid Mk 8 - and I don't hate it! I've been sketching like crazy for what seems like an eternity and this one made it into 3D. I'm happy with it, I'm going to move on. The description from the Fleet Setting:
The Mark 8 is the final word in colony cleaning. At 150m tall and 50m wide, the the Mark 8 is designed to peel apart even the most stubborn subsurface colonies and inject Droids from inside. The hardened shell closes to form a smooth pill and using energy fields and a billion microscopic claws, it can burrow into colony and Orbital alike. Some later variant Mark 8s have also been known to burrow into the shells of Orbs but this is exceptionally rare.
I will do some more renders with it in a city so that you can gauge the size of it. Its width will allow it to scythe through Mex cities without much problem. I've rendered it in its "perfect" state, I imagine that as soon as they get anywhere near dirt, dust and gunfire the pristine outside would soon become marked.

The best bit

My main reason for celebrating is that this has been a mental block for some time. I could not relax and just enjoy building the 3D model without worrying about if the idea behind the Mk 8 is right. How do I know it is right? Because I've fallen in love with it again. It has a purpose beyond the desires of the 14-year-old me to have a giant city killer stomping about.

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.
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