Space Cowboy Diplomacy

Retief and the Aga Kagan by Jack Gaughan

When you’re a pop culture archaeologist – ignoring the new to dig through the old – you often have that moment when you discover something that’s been around for decades, and which many others probably already know about. Still, it’s new to you, and thus a fun revelation you want to share. And so I present my latest old discovery – Jame Retief.

I was thumbing through some old issues of Worlds of IF on Project Gutenberg, and came across a story titled “The Madman from Earth” by Keith Laumer and decided to give it a read. Boy, was it fun. Then I looked at Wikipedia, and thought, “Well, I guess I’m late to this party.”

Mr. Laumer was a former officer in the U.S. Air Force and a diplomat in the American foreign service. Both of these jobs contributed to his satirical take on the exploits of Jame Retief, a rebellious diplomat in the Corps Diplomatique Terrestrienne (CDT), an organizations of bureaucrats and lick-spittles doing everything in their power to sponge off the galactic taxpayer while doing as little work as possible. Puffed up, arrogant and duplicitous, one gets the idea that Laumer wasn’t a huge fan of the diplomats he worked with, and thus invented “regular fella” Jame Retief to settle the score in dozens of short stories and novellas written in the 1960s and 1970s.

Jame Retief is cut from the same cloth as many heroes from the period and from pulp literature. He’s got a powerful punch, an appreciation for the finer things in life (a stiff drink, cigar and beautiful woman topping his list) and a sense of right and wrong that often puts him at odds with the CDT, his bosses therein never quite understanding why he threatens his chances for promotion by constantly going off the diplomatic script.

I’ve had tremendous fun reading about the “new life and new civilizations” that Retief and the CDT interact with, from the insect-ish Groaci who serve as the CDT’s most common competitors in the galaxy (as the Russians were to the Americans in the Cold War) to the expansionist and lobster-like Soetti, the fabulous Yillians and the ray-like Jaq. All of them come combine elements of human culture and something wonderfully alien. Aliens and humans in these stories are not just carbon-copies of a mono-cultural ideal, but given some individuality. An individual alien might be a good Joe or a scum bag in a Retief story, and the hero takes them as he finds them.

His sketches of alien planets are full of inspiration for sci-fi game masters as well. From “Cultural Exchange” (1962), here’s a sketch of the farming planet Lovenbroy, which holds a Terrie (human) colony:

“We’ve got long seasons back home. Five of ’em. Our year’s about eighteen Terry months. Cold as hell in winter; eccentric orbit, you know. Blue-black sky, stars visible all day. We do mostly painting and sculpture in the winter. Then Spring; still plenty cold. Lots of skiing, bob-sledding, ice skating; and it’s the season for woodworkers. Our furniture—All local timbers too. Lots of metals in our soil and those sulphates give the woods some color, I’ll tell you. Then comes the Monsoon. Rain—it comes down in sheets. But the sun’s getting closer. Shines all the time. Ever seen it pouring rain in the sunshine? That’s the music-writing season. Then summer. Summer’s hot. We stay inside in the daytime and have beach parties all night. Lots of beach on Lovenbroy; we’re mostly islands. That’s the drama and symphony time. The theatres are set up on the sand, or anchored off-shore. You have the music and the surf and the bonfires and stars—we’re close to the center of a globular cluster, you know Autumn’s our harvest season. Most years we have just the ordinary crops. Fruit, grain, that kind of thing; getting it in doesn’t take long. We spend most of the time on architecture, getting new places ready for the winter or remodeling the older ones. We spend a lot of time in our houses. We like to have them comfortable. But this year’s different. This is Wine Year.”

 

Retief and a quornt by Gaughan

I like the way Laumer uses hints and glimmers to build his make-believe world. Things hang together just fine, but without much detail. Rather than spelling out the rules of his creation, you get glimpses. You’re never sure when it is set, but it follows a couple hundred years after a human government called the Concordiat that also featured in a series of stories he wrote about artificially intelligent war machines called Bolos. There is space travel, and it’s faster-than-light, but spaceships still have to follow real physical laws in terms of entering planetary orbit. There’s nothing like the Star Trek transporter, computers presumably exist, but humans and aliens take center stage, people still smoke (cigars, dope-sticks), drink and eat (lots of great descriptions of alien booze and food) and kill each other with power pistols and 2mm needlers.

Now, I like to put something gameable in these posts, and my first inclination was to do some Grit & Vigor stats for Retief and some of these gear in these stories, but then I changed my mind. Making up stats for somebody who is strong, tough, quick, smart, etc. is no big deal, after all. Instead, I got an idea for addressing a common problem in translating fantasy, sci-fi and adventure literature into gaming, namely – a lack of team work.

Some of the best loved characters in fiction are loners – James Bond and Conan come immediately to mind. They sometimes have assistants, and even team-ups, but these characters are often little more than NPC’s. The stories written for them work best with a single protagonist, so translating their adventures into RPG’s meant for a party of three to six characters can be difficult. Thus my latest notion, Group Solo Play.

Group Solo Play

“Well, now what do I do?”

In GSP, a party of players control the actions of one larger-than-life hero. Every player is given the same number of chips – say 10 to start. When the character is presented with a big decision – a plot point, one might say – those players who have an idea of what they want him to do put any number of chips down on the table. For each chip played, the player rolls one dice, totaling them, with the player with the highest total taking over the control of the character. Once a chip is put on the table, win or lose, it is lost. The player in control stays in control until a new “big decision” comes up, when a new bidding war begins. This leaves many players on the sidelines, watching the story unfold as an audience, but with the chance to take the reins when the current controlling player is messing everything up.

The use of the chips means that no one player gets to dominate forever. One person might win a few bidding wars early, but eventually they run low on chips and the other players are going to win control. Ultimately, everyone has to work together to get the character through the adventure successfully, and in doing so competitively maybe gets a chance to appreciate the different methods of their fellow players. When everyone has run out of chips, and if the adventure is still ongoing, just hand out another 10 chips to everyone and keep going until you achieve ultimate success or failure.

The key role here is played by the Game Master, who needs to decide when a bidding war is to take place – you don’t want too many, or too few – and who needs to create a story telling atmosphere to keep the non-controlling players interested in the game while they’re waiting for a chance to take control.

Less Than Ideal

Here’s a little idea that just popped into my head that I thought folks might find useful when one needs to generate a NPC personality on the fly with very little to go on. It works on the idea of, for lack of a better term, stereotypes.

In D&D – heck, in so many things – there is a general conception of what an elf or dwarf or magic-user (etc.) should be. Maybe these ideas come from the game books or other pop culture, and maybe they change over time, but they do exist. Take elves, for example. Lots of RPG’ers have an idea in mind of how an elf behaves and what they look like. Consider this as, rather than a stereotype, an ideal. The ideal elf in old D&D was 5′ tall, Chaotic Good, came from the woodlands, etc.

How many elves, though, live up to this ideal? Perhaps, when an elven NPC shows up, we can roll a dice, perhaps a good old fashioned d6, to find out how close the NPC is to the ideal. Maybe a “6” means we have the perfect elf in front of us. But for every point lower than a “6”, we dial that elf one step from the ideal.

Here’s where we get free-form with this thing. The ways in which the NPC differs from the elven idea is up to the DM. Say we roll a “5”. We have an almost ideal elf, but he differs in one particular way. If we think of elves as having happy personalities, maybe our elf is morose. Maybe he doesn’t come from the woodlands, but instead the coasts. Maybe he’s a step away from Chaotic Good – Neutral Good or Chaotic Neutral. Maybe he’s stout instead of lean, dresses in scarlet instead of green – whatever your conception of an elf is, this guy doesn’t quite live up to it.

Roll a “3” for a dwarf, and he differs from he dwarven idea in 3 ways – he’s Lawful Neutral, lean instead of stout and is funny instead of dour … or he has auburn hair, prefers the woods to being underground and thinks elves are groovy.

A simple d6 roll, an idea of an ideal, and a little imagination to get a memorable NPC.

Yes, But …

treasure-chest11It’s been a long slog through a dangerous wilderness and then a devilish dungeon. Henchmen have died, PC’s have bled, but in the end, Law triumphed over Chaos (with an assist by Neutrality) and the dragon is dead.

Yes, but …

The PC’s have “won” the game. They’ve completed the adventure. They’re done. Or are they? Since the name of the game is adventure, the end of a particular adventure can be a temporary thing. I draw to your attention Mr. Edgar Rice Burroughs and his planetary romance set on Barsoom. If you haven’t read about old John Carter and his incomparable princess, you should, and in between the Martian sight-seeing you might also pay attention to how ERB paces the books and ends them, at least how he ends the first one because it’s a great way to run adventures.

220px-Princess_of_Mars_largeIn A Princess of Mars, every success by John Carter is a doorway to a new challenge that must be faced (and must be faced NOW!). Once John Carter gets used to the red planet, it’s pretty nonstop action – challenge followed by resolution followed by complication or new challenge, etc. When the book finally ends, the adventure does not. Like all of us wide-eyed kids who saw Han frozen in carbonite and Luke get a rough lesson about his family tree, readers of the first Barsoom novel are left hanging, waiting for the next installment.

The Notion

Almost every success in the game drives the adventurers to a new challenge, and the end of each “module” leads directly into the next for at least three “modules”. After every three, the adventurers have a chance to rest.

The idea here is not a story-driven piece, in which the players are led by the nose. The players can always choose to give up. They just have to face the consequences. They intrude on a dungeon and decide not to face the dragon – fine – but the dragon is now awake and cranky and everyone for 100 miles is suffering for it.

Moreover, when they kill the dragon, a new challenge arises from that now moldering corpse. Think about some of the classic module series of AD&D and how they linked – you finish the slavers in the under city, but now you’re led to their stockade to strike another blow against their evil.

When you design your adventures, think about how to turn one adventure into a trilogy (or how to break a mega-adventure into a trilogy of smaller adventures).

This might involve:

  1. Foreshadowing the trilogy in its first two stages – not in ham-handed way, but in such a way that as new things are revealed, the players get that light bulb moment and start making connections. It might make sense to make sure the players know there’s more in store. If the group is heading off to deal with some kobolds in the woods, an old man in the tavern might mention that he thinks the kobolds are being put up to it by the weird cult in the hills. Another might scoff and say something like, “Oh, I suppose next you’ll tell us the dragon beyond the mountains is causing the drought.” Now they know there’s more out there than just some kobolds in a 1st level dungeon.
  2. When you write the adventures, figure out how they link together, and how each is a separate adventure in its own right. Give the players bite-size chunks – bring the courses of the adventure meal out one at a time rather than all at once. The best way to do this is to make the end of one the beginning of the next one. Each adventure needs a beginning (“You all meet in a tavern …”) a middle (the delve) and an end (“… you open the treasure chest and find …”). The end holds the key to the next beginning, “… but as you fill your packs with treasure, the ground shakes and the giant diamond falls into a crevice … it looks like there’s another dungeon below the one you’ve just conquered.”)
  3. The big idea here is about transitions from one state of play to another. You might think about this in terms of PC level. The trilogy that drives PC’s from 1st through 3rd level will be different from the one that drives them from 4th to 6th level. When the PC’s move from the “basic” levels to the “expert” levels, they leave who they were behind in some ways and must enter a larger, more complex and more dangerous world. The old game had this in mind with the idea of hitting name level and building strongholds – the old life of wandering adventurer would end, and the new life of settled ruler begins. In play, this was also a transition from RPG to wargame.
  4. alternatefuturesHere’s where consequences come into play. In our own lives, there are moments where we have to choose about moving forward – say from childhood to adulthood. We can choose not to, but there are consequences. Choosing to reject adulthood does not mean the world of your childhood lives on. Things still change, and often not for the better. When the players choose to ignore that next challenge, the campaign world they inhabit changes because of their choice. This doesn’t have to be a severe change designed to force them into tackling the next adventure, but it should involve loss and a noticeable change. If in the end the players decide not to follow up, they have to live in the world they’ve created and you can embark on a new trilogy. They just have to accept that the campaign world is different and move on.

Just a notion – do with it as you will.

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