Friday, June 26, 2009

Flying In To A Black Hole

I've been doing a little reading, and I believe the following adequately summarizes the likely visuals and clues as your spaceship approaches and fall into a black hole:

Black Holes cannot currently be directly observed, since they swallow up the light and radiation we would use to see them. It would be possible to detect distortions where light is bent by some unseen object of great mass. Determining whether such a distortion was from a genuine black hole, as opposed to distortion caused by a Massive Compact Halo Object or other hypothetical form of Dark Matter would probably be difficult and dangerous. As such, a Black Hole might serve as a navigational hazard in a role-playing game.

In most settings, we can assume there will be some way of detecting and avoiding a black hole. Established space lanes and commonly traveled routes will avoid black holes and suspected black holes. The ships' computer might analyze visual data from the sensors, compare them to star charts, and compute likely gravitational distortions in the vicinity. With superscience or applied phlebotinum you might be able to build a sensor that accurately detects the warping of spacetime that occurs near a black hole.

So, black holes should really only be a danger to vessels exploring remote areas of space, or to ships that for whatever reason have lost their navigational sensors, computers, or star charts. For the sake of drama, though, we'll assume you've somehow bumbled upon a black hole without warning. It's not going to look like a big area of darkness as you might expect, at least not until you get very close. Instead, light from objects far beyond it will be bent, so you'll actually see behind the black hole. Objects on the other side of it will be distorted, but if they're just distant stars the distortions might not be immediately obvious. At near ranges to the event horizon, you'd be able to notice the big black spot, but the relativistic speeds used by most fictional space propulsion systems may well mean you have very little time to react.

At the Event Horizon, light is in orbit. As you cross that horizon, if you look perpendicular to your motion, you'll see light that has circled around. If the Schwarzschild Radius is small enough, you may actually see yourself in the distance, or even a chain of yourselves, as light runs circuits around similar to what happens on a hypersphere. Of course, if the black hole is large, the diameter of the event horizon may be so long that you and your spacecraft are tiny specks. One dramatic element the GM could narrate in would be the ship's automated proximity alarm going off, as the computer suddenly detects several other ships. This phenomena would alert you to the fact that you'd reached the Event Horizon, but it'd be too late to escape unless you have an FTL Stardrive. Unless you can travel Faster Than Light, the best you could do at this point is establish an orbit of the black hole. Again, the likely speed your craft was traveling at, and the relatively narrow band of the event horizon, means you're not likely to be in the orbital plane for long.

As your orbit decays and you fall into the black hole, things start getting distorted. This is going to be a nightmare, but at least you won't be staring a multiples of yourself any more. You'll be stretched in the direction of the black hole, and squished in the directions perpendicular to that. The parts of you closer to the singularity will feel much greater gravity, and start falling inward faster than the parts of you that are further from it. This stretching is called "spaghettification", but it'll actually look more like what happens when you stretch a broken rubber band. As you get longer, your midsection gets thinner.

Objects closer to, or further from, the singularity would get dimmer, and the light coming from those directions would have a reddish tone. This is the result of red shift, the phenomenon of the light taking longer to reach you. Looking perpendicular to your velocity, everything would be brighter, and have a slight bluish tone. This is the result of blue shift, the phenomenon of light taking less time to reach you. Your view would become distorted to include more of the plane perpendicular to the radius of the black hole, and our binocular vision would have serious trouble interpreting the distorted space. It would appear that the universe had been flattened into a plane perpendicular to your motion. These distortions would eventually become so strong that you would die, and then be crushed into the singularity. You'd be ripped apart on one axis, and crushed on the others.

Time would dilated as you accelerate into the black hole, but you'd be unable to notice. If your spacecraft were very large, you might be able to notice things ahead of you slowing down and stretching. It probably depends on the size of your ship, the size of the black hole, and the speed of your approach.

An outside observer watching your approach on the Schwarzschild Radius would see a very interesting display, though. First, you'd start to fade - this is the redshift effect again, as light coming from you takes longer to travel the distance to them. You'd appear to stretch. Your travel toward the center of the black hole would speed up, but the dilation of time would mess up their perception of it, and your other motions would seem to slow down. Eventually, as you cross the event horizon, you'd vanish from sight completely, as the light bouncing off of you would get stuck on that side of the Event Horizon.

Caveat: I do not have any scientific credentials, so it's certainly possible that I may have misunderstood something in the sources I read. It's not like your players can say "that's not what happened the last time I fell into a black hole" though, so it's probably accurate enough for gaming. At least, accurate enough if your players aren't professional astrophysicists.

3. Non-Fiction Book: Hyperspace by Michio Kaku

Read more about Black Holes at Arcana Wiki.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Infallibility in Trail of Cthulhu

The other night, we wrapped up the second mystery/adventure of my Trail of Cthulhu campaign. This session exposed elements of the mechanical base of ToC's GUMSHOE System that I hadn't really noticed before. I knew that it was "impossible" to fail at an investigative task if you think to use your skills, but I hadn't really realized just how much power the players have in regards to combat mechanics. I guess I knew it in theory, but seeing this in action had more impact than I imagined. If anything, I would have imagined this to be a "bug", but I now think it's one of the coolest features of a system I'd already fallen in love with. (That said, this feature I'm raving about works best in the Pulp idiom, and would seem a lot less wonderful if I were trying to run a game within the hard-core Purist idiom.)

The adventure revolved around a fairly nasty monster that had, until recently, been human. There were several possible solutions / conclusions to the adventure. There was the firepower solution, the spellcasting solution, and the noble sacrifice solution - not to mention the very real possibility of failure and death.

Given the nature of the player character in question, Sarah decided the noble sacrifice was the best way to go. An Elephant Gun, a Tommy Gun, and a Tome containing the spell that summoned the critter were all available in the scenario, but she felt the character was most inclined to go the "I can save you" route, which was essentially a "bell the cat" scenario.

Thing is, neither of us realized that the noble sacrifice solution really didn't require a sacrifice. I'd previously established, during a spend of Cthulhu Mythos Lore, that there existed a magic amulet that would protect a person from becoming possessed by a particular entity. The amulet forces the entity out of our dimension, basically. An NPC casting a dangerous spell without that amulet had resulted in the creation of the monster in the first place. Therefore, putting the amulet on the monster should at least greatly weaken the monster. However, first you have to face down the beast, and get close enough to bell the cat.

Difficulties in Trail of Cthulhu range between 2 and 8, with hitting a target typically being a 3 or 4. I set the belling action at a 6, knowing that the monster would get at least one attack first. I was certain it was suicidal, but if the PC wanted to go out in a blaze of glory, she could. Wanting to keep a sense of mystery in the conflict (she was about to wrestle an inhuman monster, after all), I kept the difficulty secret. If she wanted to bell the cat, it'd take a leap of faith.

First, she sets up a safe haven, and invokes the once per session refresh of traits, returning her athletics pool to 7. Then lays an ambush of the monster. It shows up, and smells her. Having a higher action pool, it acts first. Being a big powerful monster, it rushes straight at her. The attack eats up her health points, not enough to knock her out, but enough to raise the difficulty of all the PCs actions by 1. Then she takes the very nasty Stability test for being attacked by a supernatural creature. This drops her into "Shaken" territory, which applies another +1 to the difficulty of all actions. Finally, it's the PCs turn - and the difficulty has risen to 8, on par with the most difficult of possible actions, and both her Health and Stability are in the negatives. It's all or nothing time, if she were to fail, she'd be dying in vain. So she spends all 7 athletics, which, unbeknownst to her is exactly the amount needed to succeed even on a roll of "1".

It was a beautiful thing to behold. Like a perfect moment out of the movies, the hero who faces down the Big Bad without dodging, and takes a serious wound without flinching, surviving out of pure willpower. Breathtakingly cinematic, yet with no fear that one bad roll would have undone it all. The PC lost a little Sanity in the process, and the contorted former-monster is irretrievably insane, but the player got exactly the win she deserved, and didn't have to die to get it. She had just enough points left in other skills to get out of the monsters path while the amulet did it's thing.

Afterwards, I just sat there going "wow, these mechanics are cool." I wish I could say I'd planned and carefully orchestrated this - but honestly, I'd been hoping she'd take the ritual sorcery solution. This sort of scene is how I'd always wanted Scion to work, but instead I get it in a Cthulhu game. Not sure what to think of that... other than "GUMSHOE rocks!"

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Space Alert

As usual, I made this post way longer than it needed to be, so here's a to-the-point summary:
Space Alert is a fast-paced cooperative boardgame with a sci-fi theme. A single game of it is about 20 minutes, so you can cram in several plays in a night. It has some similarities to roborally, but the short length and real-time pressure means it is more tense and frantic. The short and exciting nature of it has promoted this to the slot of being my favorite cooperative game.
And now for the long winded raving:

My wife and I are semi-quarantined, so we spent the weekend (and last night) playing the new boardgame that I bought just an hour before the doctor said "It might be swine flu, so stay home, sleep as much as possible, and call me if your symptoms worsen".

That new boardgame is Space Alert, and man does it kick interstellar butt!

Space Alert is a cooperative game, where you are the under-trained crew of a "Sitting Duck"-class spaceship. You are exploring a new sector of the galaxy. You'll be attacked by enemy spacecraft and giant space amoeba, discover you're on a collision course with a comet, fight off boarding parties, contract exotic infections, try to manage your power core to keep fuel running to the shields and weapons, etc. It's good zany sci-fi fun.

And it's hectic and tense. The game comes with two CDs of 7 to 10 minute soundtracks. These soundtracks have the ships computer narrating events that happen in real time. You play cards, programming your actions like in Roborally, but instead of being in turns it's as you see fit in response to the events of the soundtrack. When the soundtrack is done, there's a 5-10 minute process of resolving the cards you'd played.

Like Roborally, if you played the wrong card, or a card in the wrong order, it messes up your later actions. That creates all sorts of craziness, where the whole crews plan hinges on the one character that goofed up. Picture the most dire Star Trek scenario, surrounded by an enemy fleet and barely enough power for shields and phasers if Scotty's working his miracles. Now make Scotty drunk and incompetent - that's Space Alert when you played the wrong card.

I've always loved Roborally, but I like Space Alert better. Roborally had problems with the "runaway leader" syndrome, where one player would get way ahead of everyone else. Clever track layouts could mitigate that, but not completely rule it out. If you made your track too hard, one person could be the clear leader for 30 to 45 long anti-climactic minutes. In Space Alert, the game is over in 15 to 20 minutes, the first 10 of which seem to pass in the blink of an eye. And you're so excited at the end of it, that you want to play again. Roborally is hard to teach to new players, as well, because it's a little overwhelming and they're guaranteed to lose the first two or three games. With Space Alert, you're working together, so the experienced players are motivated to coach the newbies, and can pick up the slack if someone's confused or making mistakes.

Speaking of "easier to teach new players", I feel Space Alert also compares very favorably to the Battlestar Galactica boardgame. It's got just as much going on (It feels like more is happening in Space Alert, but that may be an illusion because of the time pressure), but each individual component is a less complicated. You feel like your choices and actions have more impact, and there's less randomness. Space Alert is like the most tense critical moments of BSG, wrapped up into 15 lightning-fast minutes. It lacks BSGs long pregnant hours of sizing up the other players, trying to decide which challenge is worth spending which resource on, and regretting every action. So, if you were buying BSG because you wanted a game about space ships, Space Alert is probably the better choice. If you were buying BSG for the specific Galactica branding/flavor/characters, however, then stick with BSG. If you wanted a long, slow, cerebral puzzle, BSG is your ship. (If you were buying BSG because of the "Who's the Traitor?" element, I'd say get Shadows Over Camelot instead, as it's got that same feel with a lot less arbitrarily fiddly mechanics than BSG.) If you want decisive action and an adrenalin rush, Space Alert is definitely the better game.

And speaking of other cooperative and team games, Space Alert has replaced Pandemic as my favorite (which replaced Shadows Over Camelot, which replaced Lord Of The Rings). In that chain of replacements, there's a noticable theme. Space Alert is shorter than Pandemic which is shorter than Shadows which is shorter than LOTR. So, again, it never gets long or anticlimactic, and you can squeeze in an extra play or two into the evening. As far as complexity, though, Space Alert occupies a place somewhere between Shadows and Lord of the Rings, being much more complicated than Pandemic. If there wasn't the real-time element, you might overthink all the fun out of Space Alert, as every scenario is mathematically solvable - but you just don't have the time to do so, and it maintains its fun as a result.

As my last game comparison, it reminds me of one of my favorite computer games - Weird Worlds: Return To Infinite Space. It has that same goofy feel, and same quality of lasting just 20 minutes to a play. If you liked WW:RTIS, I think you'll get a kick out of Space Alert. Play WW:RTIS when you're alone, and Space Alert with a group.

The one worry I had about Space Alert prior to buying it was the soundtracks. I feared that they might limit the replayability of the game, because I thought they were entire scenarios unto themselves, and that you'd only want to play each one a finite number of times. Instead, the soundtracks don't tell you what's attacking, just what category of threat it is, when it shows up on sensors, and what trajectory it's approaching on. Something like "Alert! Time is T+3. Serious Threat detected in Red Sector." Then you flip over the top card of the Serious Threat deck, and discover it's an enemy stealth fighter, which you can't get a weapons lock on until it reaches the midpoint of it's approach vector. Or it's a giant "Space Octopus", that has to be destroyed from far away or else it will become enraged and rip your ship apart. Or it's a malfunctioning warhead in your missile bay, which has to be jettisoned before it explodes. As you can imagine, those three problems take very different solutions. Thus far we've mostly played soundtracks on the first disk, which typically give you about three such threats to deal with. Judging from our one play on the advanced disk, it gets much more frantic. In this one weekend of being ill, we've more than gotten our $60 value out of Space Alert, and we still haven't played three quarters of the soundtracks or seen half the cards.

One warning, however. My copy came with two production errors.
  • A misprinted card, which they detected at the factory, and tucked a corrected card (and an explanatory note) into the box. Kudos to Rio Grande for catching and solving that problem.
  • The other error was the swapping of labels on the two CDs. This they didn't catch. The Tutorial disc was labeled Mission, and vice-versa. So we played our very first game with the hardest difficulty soundtrack, which referenced all kinds of events that weren't covered in the introductory rules. Man, was that ever confusing. Your very first game should be one of the 7 minute tracks. If it runs 10 minutes or mentions an "Unconfirmed Report" or "Internal Threat", you're on the wrong disk.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Fourth-Dimensional Lifeforms

I just finished a big page on 4th-Dimensional Lifeforms over at ArcanaWiki, and I'm kind of proud of it. It took a little bit of library research, and a lot of brainstorming / extrapolating. I'm definitely going to have to work a 4th-dimensional monster into a game sometime soon, or maybe run a one-shot based on Flatland.

One reason why I did this reading and made the page was because Trail of Cthulhu mentions that the Titans / Great Old Ones may be higher-dimensional beings, and I wanted to know what implications that would have.

I'm putting the text of the ArcanaWiki page here, as a back-up. However, the formatting is a lot nicer over at ArcanaWiki, and the links will work there (whereas here, the links just look like random capitalization mid-sentence) so it's definitely the better place to peruse this. Go There Now. Thank you.

Fourth-Dimensional Lifeform

This page is about creatures or intelligent beings native to the Fourth Dimension, particularly the spatial interpretation. Read that page too, as the basics it gives you on how the next dimension up works may prove helpful in explaining why the Fourth-Dimensional Lifeform can do what it can.

We Live In A Fishbowl. Let's hope the cat doesn't notice us.

That is to say, our three-dimensional universe occupies only a tiny sliver, infinitely thin, within the greater fourth-dimensional context. For the sake of this page (and the fun implications for gaming), we'll assume that there are life-forms that exist naturally in four-dimensions. We may be beneath their notice, thinner and less pesty than the tiniest ant in comparison to them. Or, they may turn their microscopes upon us, and mess with our reality. We may be more noticeable than we imagine as well, being as obvious to them as man-sized paper-thin silhouettes pressed between two mile-wide planes of glass would be to us.

So one day, they may take note and decide to intrude on our reality. If we're lucky, they may be smart and compassionate. Alternately, they might regard us the way a cat does a goldfish in a bowl.

Either way, by virtue of being fourth-dimensional, it's going to have some creepy powers over us.


The fourth-dimensional lifeform has a better vantage point. At the very least, it can rotate around our little slice of reality in the same way a cat can maneuver around the outside of a fishbowl to get a better look at the helpless little swimmer. Now give that cat X-Ray Vision, and you'll begin to approximate the way in which a 4D critter will be able to spy on us. It can see around corners. It can look through walls. It can see what's in your belly. [1][3] [4]

Even if it's got no greater intelligence than a germ, it's likely to sense us before we detect it.


It has the ability to move via the fourth dimension, to step out of 3-D space, and then re-enter it somewhere else.

If there's a 4D thing coming after you, don't rely on walls or obstacles to protect you. You can run, but you can't hide, and you can't take shelter. Three-dimensional prey trying to flee from a fourth-dimensional predator is going to have a very hard time.

This isn't quite the same as Teleportation, but it may feel like it. It will have a few restrictions on the 4D movement that might save you:

  • It won't be as fast as teleportation. It can pop in and out of our reality pretty quickly, but still has to move through the 4th Dimension to get to the vantage point from which it will step back into our reality. On open terrain, or sliding down an embankment, you'll be able to keep pace with it - unless it's also a speed-based predator back home, or has a fourth-dimensional motorcycle, or some similar speed boost.
  • The main advantage it has is the ability to sidestep three-dimensional obstacles and hazards. While it wouldn't be able to materialize inside solid matter, but it would be able to step out of our reality, move beyond where a 3D wall is, then reenter our reality on the other side.
  • If fourth-dimensional space is made up of infinite sheets of tightly-packed parallel 3D universes, then this movement may be slowed significantly. It may have to move through hundreds of parallel worlds to find one without the wall that you just "took shelter" behind. As it moves through these parallel worlds, it may become distracted or choose to dine on a parallel you instead of returning to our universe.
  • If, on the other hand, 4D space is as empty as our 3D universe, then there may be a large void between us and the next nearest 3D world. in that case a shift out of our reality and back again is like leaning or sidestepping to it, much easier than using the door or climbing a cliff. It could choose to move 50 feet to the door, a foot through it, and then 50 feet back to where you are. But why not just lean an inch perpendicular to our plane, then a foot parallel to our plane, and an inch back perpendicular to just suddenly appear between you and the wall?

Should you try to stand your ground and fight it, it won't be easy. It has the ability to remove itself from the 3-D frame of reference. Probably pretty easy, as instinctive as a dodge. A bullet may be fast enough to hit it, but if it understands the significance of you drawing a gun, it'll just vanish and watch from outside our plane until you let your guard down. See Fair Escape.

There is some small chance that if you can get it into a freefall, it won't be able to move into or out of our reality. Maybe. Assuming the freefall extends to it's whole body, the majority of which will already be outside our reality. Not really the sort of thing you want to test by jumping out of an airplane without a parachute while a monster from beyond is chasing you.

Variable Size and Mass, possibly even Shape-Shifting

To us, the fourth dimensional being will have variable size, and thus variable mass. The 4D character won't perceive any change, it's just a matter of how much of it's body extends into the 3D frame of reference. There's a number of tricks this allows:

  • By reaching just a couple limbs or digits into our reality, it may give the impression of being more than one creature. We see half a dozen wormlike creatures intruding into our reality, but they're actually just its fingers.
  • What you're seeing, by the way, is just a 3D cross-section of the creatures body. Or maybe even a cross section of its' clothing. Depending on the size of the thing in the fourth dimension, it may be able to radically change it's appearance and coloration, which you'd perceive as a limited form of shapeshifting. It may or may not be aware of what is visible to you, depending on how clearly the boundaries of our three dimensional space are demarcated from its point of view.
  • Assuming it's intelligent and has knowledge of its own anatomy, it can keep its vital organs outside our reality, making a critical hit impossible. Our weapons may pass right through it from our point of view, looking like a mighty cleave, while making only a shallow wound as far as the creature is concerned.
  • It was pointed out that it can see inside us. It can probably reach inside us as well. It may get automatic critical hits.
  • Even an unintelligent 4D beast might be lucky enough to have the metaphysical blubber to be Immune To Bullets, especially if it's body extends a great distance in the fourth spatial dimension.
  • If tool-using, it may only extend weapons or probes into our reality. Especially if it hunts 3D prey, what we encounter might in truth be no more than the point of a spear or fishhook.
  • Likewise, it can "shrink down" to an unnoticeable size (from our point of view) for stealth purposes. It may have enough energy to exert great force even when manifesting only a tiny presence in our reality. Or, it may be limited to only having the force derived from the portion of it's mass that is in our frame of reference. The GM has some flexibility here: either it gets tiny but is weakened (so it will choose to manifest as largely as is practical), or it has a tiny stealth mode (like pushing with just your fingertip) where it can pull all kinds of poltergeist nonsense.

Plucked from our own Dimensions.

The 4th Dimensional being may have the ability to yank us out of our frame of reference and out into the greater reality. This could yank us into parallel worlds, or just a big void outside our universe. An angry 4D Being might maroon us in a radically different environment. Our senses won't be adapted to it, and we'll have a hard time figuring out what we're looking at.

It may even throw things at us, knocking us out our frame of reference. Or it could anchor us, leaving us rooted between worlds or fixed in space. And what if it just exhales steadily into our 3D space? Can it blow us loose without ever setting foot in our reality? Can it scramble our organs with a trans-dimensional bronx cheer?

Let's say the 4D being is kind enough to put us back. There's still some ways this could mess you up.

  • It can pluck people and things out of our dimensional plane, flip them, and put them back. If it did this to you, your left-right symmetry would be reversed. Your face would look just a little different ("Is that a new hairdo?"), your heart would now be on the right side of your chest, and your handedness would change.
  • Whether or not the flipping of the right and left hemispheres of your brain has other effects is pretty much up to the GM. You could ignore it, or it could justify some major personality alterations.
  • Rather than a full flip, it's possible it might be able to just tilt you out of sync with our reality. You'd be facing handicaps that were inversely related to the fourth dimensional beings advantages. You might be split between multiple worlds, each cross-section facing a different parallel reality.

Fun With Forces.

The fourth dimensional being may be able to bend or ignore various forces and properties of the natural world. It may resist gravity, electromagnetism, and/or the strong nuclear force or weak nuclear forces. For an explanation of why, see Riemann's Bookworms.

If light is is a fourth-dimensional vibration, then it's possible the 4D being might appear as if it were made of light, or it might emit light with every motion it makes. This would be consistent with theories that it takes a lot of energy to breach dimensions. While I mentioned the ease with which a 4D critter can move into and out of our reality, there is the high likelihood doing so will take enormous amounts of energy. It's 4th Dimensional nature may give it that power, or it could be an extreme effort for it to interact with our reality.

If light is instead cast from some higher dimension, or cast from a different source withing the 4th Dimension, then we can assume a 4D object will cast a 3D shadow over three-dimensional space. In fact one way scientists attempt to visualize 4D objects is by contemplating their 3D shadows.

Time Travel

Because of how vanishing and reappearing dodges 3D understanding of Causality, it may seem that the 4D creature is a Time Traveler, moving into the future when it's actually just stepping outside our reality. Relativity and Spacetime are full of weirdness like that.

It's also possible to have a creature that moves freely in the Temporal Dimension instead of (or in addition to) a spatial dimension. Such a creature would combine the advantages listed above with genuine Time Travel, for a truly superior foe that kills you before you're even aware of it.

One other notion involves parallel universes and branching time. Let's assume the model of temporal physics where every action or decision creates multiple parallel worlds, one for each possible outcome. The Fourth-Dimensional Lifeform may drift between them freely, and it's actions may create such alternate worlds. In fact, it may have an infinite food supply made up of a single person (or a specific animal) that it likes to eat. Each time it snatches up that meal, it creates another world just like that one, except where the favorite meal hasn't been taken yet. If you think about it, our world could be just the latest variation on another - one that's identical except it's version of you is now a missing persons report. Meanwhile, just out of phase with our reality, the thing that eats only you is napping. Should it awake and grow hungry, it will hunt and devour you. Doing so will create a new reality, where a duplicate you exists, who's read this paragraph, and laughed it off, and another world with a duplicate you who read this paragraph and started trying to figure out how to fight back against the fourth-dimensional horror. Which you do you want to be?

Psychological Impact

Trying to anticipate the actions of a fourth-dimensional foe will be mind-bogglingly difficult, testing the limits of even a battle-hardened warrior with a degree in astrophysics. It's enough to drive you batty. See Alien Geometries and Go Mad From The Revelation for more ideas on how unnerving it would be to be hunted by a time-traveling dimension-hopping Eldritch Abomination.

Always A Bigger Fish

For added fun, there may be Fifth Dimensional creatures that can do to the 4D beasty all the nasty things it can do to us.

Wikipedia on the Fourth Dimension
Wikipedia on Spacetime
Hyperspace by Michio Kaku
Flatland: A Romance Of Many Dimensions by Edwin Abbott Abbott
Some of the works of H. P. Lovecraft, in particular From Beyond, depict creatures that might be Fourth Dimensional

Since very few resources exist that give serious thought to what the ramifications would be of a 4th Dimensional predator, I've had to extrapolate a bit. I feel pretty confident that I didn't mess anything up, but I should mention that I don't have a degree in physics. The parts I extrapolated are mostly couched in terms like "it may be possible", or "if light works this way", so that I don't pass off my own conjectures as certainty or scientific theory. Things I've read as bonafide scientific theory are phrased (above) more like "it can" or "you can't", more definitive than my own speculation, even in cases of theoretical things that haven't been proven yet. In other words, if a scientist tells you something on this page is just wrong, be inclined to believe them over me. If they claim something is wrong that I foot-noted, it may be time for someone (me? you? them?) to read up on the subject. Luckily, Hyperspace and Flatland are both quite enjoyable reads as well as being highly informative.

The version on ArcanaWiki has citations embedded indicating which source contributed or corroborated which ideas.

Game and Story Use

  • To make a Monster or Alien really creepy or, well, alien, make it fourth dimensional.
  • In Trail of Cthulhu, it is suggested that the Eldritch Abominations, or at least the really nasty ones, are fourth (or higher) dimensional beings. Not all of Great Cthulhu is shaped like a cross between an octopus and a dragon, just the part of him that passes through three-dimensional space is. See also Alien Geometries.
  • Shadow People might be the sentient shadows of greater 4-D creatures that look down upon our reality, but never enter it.
  • Alien Greys might be 4th Dimensional. It could explain UFOs that vary in size or vanish suddenly. They'd be able to abduct you without a trace, and you'd be powerless to move against them. See We Live In A Petri-Dish.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Expositionary Tool: Discussion Cards

At the beginning of tonight's one-shot, I needed to lay out some exposition. It was 2011, and the PC astronauts on the ISS were using the newly installed Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer. They were processing the data from it, when they noticed an anomalous reading that might just represent confirmation of Dark Matter or Strange Matter, in quantity, and alarmingly close to the earth. There's plenty of theoretical particles cropping up in such a discussion. The characters are scientists and astronauts, likely to be well versed in theoretical and technical aspects of spaceflight and astrophysics. How do you get that information dump in an organic and non-boring fashion?

I tried a method, that worked pretty well. It has a lot of potential, anyhow, and I'll likely use a similar method the next time I find myself in such a position. I made two decks of "cards" - just slips of paper, really. One was a "nuts-and-bolts deck", listing possible instrument malfunctions (and the likely fixes) that could account for the anomalous readings, and one card indicating how long it would before a new spectrometer sweep could be done. The other was a "theoretical particle deck", listing interpretations of what the readings (if accurate) might mean, with details of whether or not they constituted a danger. Each deck was only 6-8 cards in size, each card just a couple sentences.

Depending on character background, you got two to three cards, either from the same deck or one from each. I gave everyone a minute or two to read their own cards quietly to themselves, then started the scene. We roleplayed out the crew's discussion about the strange spectrometer readings, with each player doing their best to slip in the information presented on the cards they drew.

While it was a little rough around the edges , I think it worked a lot better than a dry info dump. In a few cases, folks had cards that were semi-contradictory, and that allowed them to banter about which theory (WIMPs vs MACHOs vs Strangelets) was correct, and that worked well. What few problems this method had involved the random deal. If I do it again, I'll use pregen characters or player-made characters whose personas are established, and customize the cards to the PC.

Overall, it seems to be a useful tool for downloading info to players without a long boring speech from prepared notes / boxed text. The differences between techies and physicists were established in scene one, which was nice. All the characters came off sounding like experts (or as close to experts as my non-expert-level research and understanding could fake), and that gives me hope that this method could be used for future scenes in other games where the PCs are experts in fields the players are unlikely to know much about.

And don't worry, this wasn't as dry a science game as the above might make it out to be - before the end there were Positron-Emitting Dark Matter Zombies aplenty, and the PCs had to crash the International Space Station into the alien ship to save the earth.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Hard Sci-Fi meets Zombie Apocalypse

I'm GMing at Wayward tomorrow, and trying something a little different. The PCs are Astronauts aboard the International Space Station when something goes terribly wrong. I plan on bombarding the earth with Dark Matter, then making them face a Zombie Apocalypse and Post Apocalyptic Decay. But, at first, it'll be hard sci-fi, and I intend for it all to feel like hard sci-fi. This may fail, it's a grand experiment, which was perhaps o'erhastily concocted. Basically, I have a whole bunch of library research I've doing lately about various science topics, and I wanted to put them all together into a one-shot. Fingers crossed.

Recent Thoughts On Savage Worlds

A friend of mine recently stumbled across an old post from October where I lamented the dice mechanics of Savage Worlds and how there wasn't much motivation to stat yourself out with anything above a d8, maybe not even above a d6.

He pointed out, correctly, that it all depends on whether or not you have any Edges that give bonuses for Raises. To which I'll add, some GMs probably give more situational bonuses than others for getting a Raise. The rules read as just +1d6 damage or a handful of other specific benefits in specific situations. I've played with, and often try to be, the type of GM who improvises wildly, and thus could see how a GM might exist who makes something fun happen everytime someone gets a raise. In those circumstances, a d10 or d12 would be justified.

As Erik put it:
Now, exactly as you say, if you want to succeed at a standard task, ie roll a 4, you really don't gain much going above d8 until you start to get the static adds of d12+1 and d12+2. However, if you want to roll raises, ie an 8, which you might if you were say a spell caster as they get extra effect and with a certain feat reduced energy cost if they do, then things change. d4, d6 and d8 are about the same in rolling 8's but there is a significant increase when you go to d10 and d12. So oddly, if you are just interested in regular successes then moderate levels of skill, d6 or d8, are for you. If you want those raises to show just how amazing you are then a high skill, d10 or d12, is for you.
Very good points. What you want out of your gaming experience defines whether your character should be a d6 generalist or a d12 microspecialist. One nice feature of the game is that both character archetypes will feel potent.

Thinking about this, it occurred to me that I haven't really blogged much about Savage Worlds lately, other than in the context of the plotline of my Deadlands campaign. There's a few observations I'd like to make.

After a lot of waffling, I eventually decided I like the system. It's still a little more complicated than it really needs to be. Especially the Deadlands Reloaded version. I think normal Savage Worlds is 10% to 20% more crunchy than I want it to be, and Deadlands is 10% crunchier than vanilla Savage. It's very versatile though, and remains a good generic system for use in campaigns where characters should be hardy and competent but can still have some fear of being killed by an unlucky roll.

On a related note, the game has more Edges than it needs, and they don't all seem terribly well balanced. There's no game-breakers (at least none I've found so far), but some are definitely better and more popular than others. There's a few that only shine if you combo them, and I don't much care for that style of character design, since it rewards system knowledge at the expense of character concept. It's still a far cry better than Scion.

Likewise, the Magic system is losing a bit of it's luster for me. Again, the powers aren't well balanced, and since a new power requires the New Power Edge, you also have to consider them against the rest of the Edges as well. Some are much better than most Edges, others are really weak. Throw in trappings, and that gets even wonkier. Despite the problem-solving freedom of being a Mad Scientist and a Gadgeteer, Kevin finds himself wanting to buy a big attack power, and I can't blame him. The Blessed have found that the Barrier and Raise/Lower Attribute outperform everything else in their arsenal. The Huckster and Mad Scientist can't compete with them in any arena but damage (which is why Kevin wants the attack Ryan already has). Probably, this is a trouble-spot specific to Deadlands, not all of Savage Worlds. If I'd made my own campaign setting from the ground-up, I wouldn't be having this trouble. In a setting with less magic, or fewer flavors of magic, or smaller spell-lists for each variety of magic and no overlap between schools, this would be less of a problem.

Lastly, I've dumped my 1 hit = 1 wound house rule. I'm no longer using it in my Deadlands game. On paper, it was great, and may still be of good use in speeding up combat and preventing anticlimactic character death in some other game down the road. However, I found that I give out so many bennies, it's pointless. Especially in Deadlands Reloaded with its special Red, Blue, and Legend bennies. Soaking damage became too easy, and there wasn't enough challenge in my fights. I waived the rule for the climactic showdown with Finnegan Cobb, and found that the resulting fight was much more enjoyable. It even drained the PCs of bennies for once, whereas the session prior everyone finished with 4 or more bennies in reserve (you start with 3). If I didn't give the darned things out like water, then the 1 hit = 1 wound rule would be helpful. At the rate I award bennies, the house-rule becomes a tiny shaving of time at the cost of reducing dramatic tension. It's going by the wayside starting next session.