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On Vonnegut and the (Post)Modern Condition

If you really want to hurt your parents, and you don’t have the nerve to be a homosexual, the least you can do is go into the arts.

~Kurt Vonnegut

I confess I don’t know much what to make of Kurt Vonnegut. I first picked up a novel of his – Slaughterhouse Five – in high school. I didn’t get very far in it, mostly because I couldn’t quite get a fix on what I was supposed to think about what was going on. It all seemed a jumble to me, and weirdly empty of…of something. I read Cat’s Cradle in college and felt much the same way. “What the hell is with this guy?” I thought. I was surrounded by people who worshiped him – said he was funny, poignant, the best American author of the modern era. I just didn’t get it.

Pictured: Great Author I Don’t Get

Fast-foward to this past week, where I finally sat myself down and read Slaughterhouse Five all the way through. It is a brilliant work, no doubt – age and experience and the state of being a writer has taught me to notice good fiction even if I don’t care for it – but I still don’t know quite what to make of it all. I did not dislike the book, but I also cannot say with any truth that I liked it. I am left in a kind of artistic limbo.

The word that most strikes me when I read Vonnegut is “empty.” Not that nothing happens, but that no motives, no reasons are allowed to attach to the events. People just are the way they are. Things happen because they do. So it goes.

This is a derivation of postmodern thought, clearly. Vonnegut is quite adept at pointing out the absurdity of the human condition, and expounding upon how that absurdity is compounded by the human race’s fervent desire to prove that it isn’t absurd at all, but instead invested with deep meaning. He is by no means the only author to do this, nor do I dislike those other authors necessarily, so it isn’t Vonnegut’s philosophical grounding that alienates me from his work. Indeed, I find it really fascinating how he can be so aggressively post-modern without being bitter or angry or horrified.

But then, part of me I guess wants him to be bitter and angry and horrified. I don’t, in the end, find his dark brand of humor funny because I guess I care too much to laugh. I find myself flailing around in his books for something to hold on to and it just isn’t there. There’s nothing – it’s all absurd, it’s all nonsense. And there’s Vonnegut, evidently kicking back and relaxing despite all this. Just shrugging, saying “So it goes,” as though the tragedies he just described don’t matter.

And I guess he’s right – they don’t, not in any cosmic sense – but to me, I feel they ought to. Each time a bomb goes off because some ridiculous asshole decides to blow himself up for his imaginary, absurd vision of the divine (or his bitter hatred of his mother or because he’s a closeted homosexual and can’t handle it or because of no reason at all), I am of two minds. The first is horrified, angry, and craving justice. My heart weeps for the victims – innocent girls, this time – and I want very much to do something. But then there’s that second mind, that dark, postmodern one: 22 dead people, in the end, don’t really matter much. If 120,000 people could die on one day in Dresden and the world kept turning, no amount of stupid little kitchen-made bombs made by bitter, angry men will make much difference. In the Second World War an average of about 27,000 people died each day. And yet the world is still here, making the same damned mistakes, giving power to the same damned monsters, and spouting the same damned bullshit. Same with any other war. We don’t learn.

I gotta say, I hate the part of my brain that thinks this way. It’s defeatist, even if it does seem to be right. And maybe that’s my problem with Vonnegut, too – he might be right, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it.

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Burning Down the Forest

There’s a running joke/metaphor in my RPG group: anytime the players are faced with a complex problem, somebody will quip “why don’t we just burn down the forest?” I know it isn’t funny at first glance and, indeed, it might not be funny at all, but I find myself thinking of this metaphor a lot lately. It’s origins date back to junior high school. I was DMing a Dungeons and Dragons campaign for my friends and they were lost in a swampy rainforest infested with lizardmen who kept ambushing them (or it might have been a temperate forest and they were ambushed by hobgoblins – it hardly matters now). They couldn’t successfully track the lizardmen, so attacking their camp was impractical. Still, the lizardmen attacks needed to stop – they were running out of healing potions. Their solution?

“Hey guys,” one player said, “let’s burn down the whole forest!”

Hmmm...our situation has strangely not improved.

Hmmm…our situation has strangely not improved.

They had the magic and the equipment to do so, and flushing all the lizardmen out into the open seemed like a great idea, so they set about burning the place down. As you can imagine, it did not go well. In the first place, not only did it flush out the Lizardmen, but also everything else, meaning they had to fight hundreds of angry creatures all at once. It also rendered the forest impassable, and since their objective was to get through the forest, their plans were ruined. It also lost them a large number of allies – the elves that lived in the forest, the people of nearby towns, the ranger’s friends, the cleric’s god, and so on. Basically, the whole thing, while seemingly obvious and simple on its face, made everything much, much worse.

From then on “burning down the forest” was our term for a seemingly simple and elegant bad idea.

Beyond the gaming table, I feel this metaphor has relevance to the real world. A lot of relevance – too much, in fact. The world is constantly coming up with really simple, easy to understand wrong answers to complex problems (thanks, HL Menken!). All too often, these solutions come in the form of “throw more bombs at it” or “have more guns!” Then we have the audacity to be aghast as more people get blown up and shot.

Folks, this isn’t rocket science. The long term solution to violence is pretty much never “more violence” – it never has been and never will be. Violence is certainly easier, more satisfying, and a hell of a lot quicker. It even sometimes appears to work for a time (it sure settled WW1, right?) but later on it becomes evident that what you did was just create a new, bigger, and even more difficult problem (World War 2). This is not to say violence is not occasionally or even often necessary in self-defense, but we need to remember that such acts do not, in and of themselves, constitute a solution to anything. The Nazis weren’t destroyed because we blew them up; they were defeated in the long term because of the Marshall Plan, because of how badly they treated their own people, and because of how much those same people wanted to become something different than what Hitler had made them. The war was a big part of that, yeah, but it wasn’t the only factor and wouldn’t have been a lasting one save for what came after.

Now, here we are setting the forest on fire again, and apparently hoping that what grows there afterwards will like us. Call me a cynic, but I say we were better off staying out of the woods in the first place, regardless of how satisfying it might be to watch those hobgoblins burn.

Waging War with Pen and Paper

They asked for it; they got it.

They asked for it; they got it.

A couple years ago, whilst I was still hashing out a novel set in Alandar, I decided to run an RPG set in the world. I adapted Wick’s Roll-and-Keep system, got a bunch of my friends to play, and so on (the focus of this post isn’t really on those particulars). Before the game began, I had my players vote on what kind of storyline wanted to deal with most in the campaign. The categories were ‘Exploration’, ‘Intrigue’, ‘Romance’, and ‘Military’ and each player had 100 points to distribute. When the dust settled, the party had voted overwhelmingly for Intrigue and Military while Romance came in third. Almost nobody wanted to explore.

Now, one of the things I knew was going to be essential if I was to run a campaign with a significant military element: I needed a way to adjudicate large battles that would both allow for the players to have control (more or less) over the actions of their army while simultaneously allowing for individual acts of heroism. Now, as it happens, the 7th Sea core rules (Roll and Keep system, Wick) had a system for running mass combat, but it didn’t work too well for me. Accordingly, I do what I almost always do with the games I run: I fiddled with it to no end.

The basic premise of the old 7th Sea system was that each player would pick their level of engagement in the battle (whether they were in the thick of things or way back in the reserves) and they would roll on a table that would determine if they had heroic opportunities or not. These opportunities were various things like ‘claim the enemy banner’ or ‘duel the enemy general’ or some such and they could add to your reputation, get you wounded, and help tip the battle this way and that. The battle itself was essentially decided by a dice off between generals. If you won three rolls in a row, you won the battle.

Now, I’m a fan of strategy games, military history, and military strategy in general, and this system left me a bit flat. The battles themselves were just window-dressing for heroic derring-do and little more. Now, this works great in a swashbuckling game like 7th Sea, where the nitty-gritty of strategy isn’t really part of the game. It wasn’t going to work in my Alandar campaign, where I had two and later three characters who were heavily involved in military campaigns. So, here’s what I changed:

Armies Are Characters

I made the armies themselves (or, more specifically, the divisions or regiments of those armies) into ‘characters,’ much like ships or vehicles. They had a set of characteristics to adjudicate their armaments, morale, mobility, discipline, and training. This changed the battle from something abstract to something more concrete and, since the system lent itself to duels, battles simply became duels between ‘characters’ comprised of tons of NPCs. I gave everybody sets of maneuvers they could use (advance, charge, flank, shoot, envelop, hold, withdraw, etc.), crafted specific advantages armies would have over each other, and established a rudimentary system for game balance. I will not claim it is perfect, but it worked well enough.

Battles Are Session-long Events

A major battle in a war is not a simple affair. Before the armies even take the field, there is weeks of skirmishing, supply lines to maintain, ground to scout out, enemy movements to spy on, and (in the case of Alandar) ritual magic to decide upon. I could get every player more-or-less involved with the planning and execution of these battles, even if they weren’t warriors, per se. The battles themselves would go on for a long time and, within them, there would be multiple different opportunities for individual heroism, periods of dialogue, and even skullduggery that could be committed against each other.

It’s All About Morale

In war, and particularly in pre-modern war, the plan isn’t really to kill all the enemy combatants, as that rarely is achievable or happens. The plan is to break the enemy army’s morale; if they no longer wish to fight, the war is over. Morale was sapped by casualties; the longer a battle went on, the more morale was sapped on both sides. There were occasions during the campaign when one side or the other would sound a retreat long before their forces broke, knowing that having a cohesive army was better than risking losing the whole thing on a gamble. Winning battles and engagements enhanced morale, but not by so much that you could willy-nilly charge your guys at that fortified position and expect to come out scott free (unless you were a particularly inspirational leader, that is). The PCs who were the generals of the armies in use had to be very careful keeping their army together, which in and of itself was a campaign element and recurring challenge.

The Outcome

The result of this system was, to my eyes, quite successful. My friends in the campaign still talk about the Charge of Atrisia against the 4th Kalsaari Heavy Legion, they still grin at the Sack of Tasis and shudder over the bloody fields of Calassa. Their characters became legendary figures in the history of the world and the war they fought in – The Illini Wars – I’ve made an integral part of Alandarian modern history. The Treaty they negotiated to end the war with the Kalsaaris was a two-session long arc in which there was more back-stabbing, political plotting, and nerve-wracking negotiations than at almost any other time in the campaign. I showed my players a map – a map they had bled and worked and even died over for the past 5-6 months of gaming – and told them to list their demands. I countered, we haggled, and in the end they negotiated a treaty they hated but that was the best they could do. They’d won against all odds, and I like to think I gave them the closest thing to being a Napoleon I could.

In the end, what I learned was that running a military campaign requires players who want to be in a military campaign, just like anything else. If you have players who want that kind of game and you work hard to give it to them, some pretty crazy stuff can happen.

Super-soldier, Thy Name is Woe!

I’ve got a game of Warhammer 40,000 against a friend of mine coming up this weekend, which has led me to give the idea of the ‘super-soldier’ some thought, as the Warhammer 40K universe is one awash in so many super-soldiers that the one army that doesn’t use genetically engineered/cybernetically enhanced/psychically modified supermen to fight their battles is a notable exception in the whole length and breadth of the galaxy. (For those of you who care, that one faction is the Imperial Guard, and they make up for it by taking gigantic tanks everywhere)
Anyway, all of us should be familiar with the bog-standard super-soldier storyline. It goes like this:

  1. Government/Madman/Religion/Secret Society creates super soldiers to destroy enemies.
  2. Super Soldiers Destroy Enemies and HOW!
  3. Government/Madman/Religion/Secret Society no longer needs super soldiers/doesn’t want super soldiers anymore.
  4. Super Soldiers feel marginalized.
  5. Super Soldiers proceed to smash government/madman/religion/secret society or their designated representatives.

This is, essentially, the plot of everything from Soldier to the Horus Heresy to Universal Soldier and so on. To be perfectly honest, it’s a fun story, if a bit predictable. The extent to which the story is silly or powerful or interesting varies widely dependent upon execution. That isn’t really what I want to talk about here, though. No, what I’m mostly interested in is the following question: Why do we like this story so much?

I mean, in the first place, when objectively considered, the whole idea is terrifying. Creating people who have no other purpose but slaughter and destruction is bad enough, but then to have them run amok is even worse. The genetically engineered super-soldier isn’t (or shouldn’t) be ‘cool’, since what he/she does is objectively terrible. We, of course, come from a society (among many societies worldwide, mind you) that glorify war, so the whole ‘terrible-ness’ of their behavior is easily lost on us.

You don’t want to be this when you grow up, Timmy.

Furthermore, when you consider their daily lives and what it consists of, the appeal of the super-soldier should drop even further. I mean, all these guys do and all they can do is practice killing things. I know many of us think that killing things, at least in the abstract, is fun, but I strongly suspect that it is anything but. Even career soldiers in our professional military don’t spend their whole lives fighting in wars against overwhelming odds. Heck, many of them don’t even kill people at all. Those that do have to work very, very hard and those that go into battle wind up dealing with really terrible amounts of stress, anxiety, and, well, violence. Violence is rather inherently unpleasant and, indeed, much of the joy of victory in violent encounters is the knowledge that the violent encounter is over. I would question the sanity of any person who prefers being shot at to not being shot at, full stop. If we consider that a super-soldier has nothing to look forward to at all beyond a violent death, it at once becomes obvious (a) why they tend to revolt against their masters and (b) why being a super-soldier is an inherently raw deal.

This brings me back to the original question, then: if the actions of a super-soldier are naturally reprehensible and the life of a super-soldier isn’t appealing, then why are super-soldiers such popular implants in science fiction writing? Heck, many of these stories make a point of showing us just how terrible it is being a super soldier, and still we think “man, Kurt Russel was soooo cool in Soldier!’ Isn’t that just a little, you know, perverse?

There are, of course, a whole host of answers to this question, some of which are likely contradictory. We, being contradictory creatures anyway, shouldn’t be troubled by this, however. I would like to present, however, a brief list of reasons why I think we love super-soldiers so much.

  • We Love Violence, But We Don’t Like Getting Hurt: The super-soldier allows us to enjoy the adrenaline rush of warfare without the pesky realities of human frailties getting in the way. We don’t need to worry about Van Damme in Universal Soldier because he’s not a real guy, anyway. He can take it. The super-soldier is the superhero of warfare: gets the job done and can skip over the pesky consequences involved in murdering dozens of people and being shot a bunch by bad guys. It justifies the things we like about action heroes already, except with ‘Science!’. It is safe to identify with him, since he can survive where we could not.
  • Our Grotesque Love-Affair with War: Some super-soldier stories have been referred to as ‘war-porn’, and the metaphor is an apt one. Wars, as far as we violence-loving action fans are concerned, have the disadvantage of being either fairly short conflicts waged by ordinary people in modest theaters or long, drawn-out conflicts involving complex political and social upheaval. In both cases, the act of blowing things up is constricted by the pace of history or the ugliness of human behavior. The super-soldier lets us condense what we want to read about in warfare (explosions and glorious battle!) while leaving out the stuff we don’t want to read about (why are we fighting anyway? Is this war just?). Bah! Phooey! Just bring on the robot-ninjas, give the space marine a machine gun, and let ‘er rip!
  •   They Can Destroy The Problems We Can’t Engage: Many of us live with unrestrained frustration at the political world. We don’t trust the government. We fear terrorists. We worry over nuclear war. We want somebody to do something about organized crime. Regardless of the respective realism of these concerns, the super-soldier, much like the superhero, gives us an outlet to vent them. In this sense, he isn’t altogether unlike any action hero, except he is something constructed which inherently makes him achievable. None of us are likely to become Superman and there is little chance of there being more than one John Rambo in the world, but super-soldiers can be mass produced. They are the very literal answer to the question ‘what can be done to stop ‘x”. The answer is ‘fifty Adeptus Astartes in Power Armor will Shoot Them All!’ Viola! All our murderous social fantasies embodied!

So, there you go, my .02 on the issue, if, indeed, it is an issue at all.

Now, if you’ll pardon me, I need to organize a company of Imperial Fists Space Marines to smite their brothers, the Ultramarines, in glorious battle.

 

 

You’re In the Army Now (Again)

Just finished John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War. It had been recommended to me by a variety of people for years, and has received glowing praise, including one guy – a writer and industry insider I met – who called it ‘the best military scifi out there.’ Now, I’d been hearing a lot about Scalzi in general, as he’s very popular, and I’d read a couple short stories he’d put out in various venues (which were okay, but not fabulous), so I picked up Old Man’s War to see what all the fuss was about.

As it happens, I’m still not sure.

Now, I’m not saying that the book is bad – it’s not and, indeed, as an introduction to the subgenre that is military SF, it’s a great place to start – but there really isn’t anything all that exceptional about the book. I liked it, more or less, but it was kinda…well…boring. I felt like I’d read it before. There was nothing flashy, nothing new, nothing to get my blood going. The science he discusses was interesting, but most of it I’d heard elsewhere before this (from sources published prior to Scalzi’s book) so it wasn’t precisely riveting. The dialogue was snappy, but it seemed like everybody was approximately as clever as everybody else, which sort of made it bland. The characters weren’t flat, really, but also fell just short of compelling. I wasn’t fully engaged with the struggle of the main character, John Perry, mostly because he didn’t undergo any kind of change and encountered precious little conflict. It was a book that seemed to avoid creating an antagonist.

If I felt like I’d heard this story before, it’s because I have. It’s been told a lot, actually, and it’s the basic ‘join the army, go to war, change your perspective’ thing that’s shown up over and over again in both the military SF genre and military fiction in general. It started all the way back with All Quiet on the Western Front (or possibly earlier, though that is the most influential book for the modern era), continued with The Dirty Dozen and its WWII cousins, went on to be showcased extensively through the Vietnam War era with movies like Platoon and then, later, with Full Metal Jacket. Robert Heinlein did it with Starship Troopers, and, when it was made into a movie, Paul Verhofen did it again, but gave it a distinctly different feel. The short-lived Fox series Space: Above and Beyond did it, as did Timothy Zahn in the Cobra War series and William C Dietz did in Legion of the Damned. Basically, if you’ve read or seen any of those books or movies, you’ve essentially already read Old Man’s War.

The trope shows alarmingly little variation. It goes like this:

Figure A

Step 1: Guy joins army for reason (x), but doesn’t really know what he’s getting into.

Step 2: Guy goes to boot camp, wherein he meets Drill Sergeant (see figure A), who is tough and mean but who whips the group into shape and, even, comes to begrudgingly respect his recruits.

Step 2A: Guy bonds with buddies in boot camp.

Step 3: Guy goes to war, feeling he’s tough, but then meets real soldiers, and realizes he’s wrong.

Step 4: Guy gets in first engagement, earns respect.

Step 5: Guy’s friends start to die. This has (x) effect on guy.

Step 6: Guy is finally involved in The Big One–some pivotal battle–and manages to achieve some manner of distinction (only guy who survives, guy who saves the day, guy who saves his buddy, etc., etc.).

That’s it. Story over.

Now, the good Military SF stories shake this formula up a bit in various ways. Heinlein, of course, is the template since he’s the guy who ported this story into science fiction first. How you change and/or depart from the template is the way you distinguish yourself from the pack and add something new and interesting to the story. Additionally, since the external conflict in the story is so abstract and impersonal (especially in sci fi, where the enemy is mostly inhuman and noncommunicative), the really important aspects of the story are the internal conflicts and/or the message being conveyed by the author about war.

War is, at its heart, a deeply political subject and most authors tell this story for the express purpose of engaging with it. This can be very interesting, and creates a lot of variation in the structure. Zahn in the Cobra Trilogy, for instance, deals with PTSD in cybernetic super-soldiers. Remarque in All Quiet on the Western Front, seeks to expose the cruel lie of a ‘glorious or just war.’ Deitz’s story is one of redemption, wherein you have a former criminal coming to terms with his new role in life. Scalzi’s is about…

…ummmm….

Being old and in space? No, could have been about that but nothing was really done with it. Finding the love of your life again during wartime? Nope, not really. Kinda, maybe, but, again, that plotline doesn’t go anywhere. Is it a political message about the necessity of war? No. Again, potentially, but not really pursued. Is it anti-war or pro-war? Errrr…ummmm…I sort of have to say both? There are moments where either side is supported, but the author doesn’t really come down on one side or the other. This would have been okay, if the general thrust of the story was to show some kind of moral ambiguity or conflict over the necessity of war, but that was very much absent. It’s more like Scalzi just doesn’t want to talk about it. He’s more interested in battle scenes and blowing things up and fancy technology – all of which is cool, mind you, but the lack of anything else leaves the story a bit thin. Light. Hollow. 

Perhaps, in the end, I just had really high expectations that weren’t met. I was looking for something that would cement this story in the pantheon of scifi lit for years to come, but it wasn’t there. This isn’t literature – it’s a fluff tale of explosions and battles and, for all that, it isn’t even as full of Awesome as some other stories in the same category. It was just another story about a guy (in this case, an old guy) who leaves home to join the army and has random adventures against a rotating cast of aliens. You know, that old yarn.

How to Execute a Proper Portal Attack

Saw The Avengers finally last night. Great superhero movie – tons of fun, lots of good stuff for comic book fans, enough for non-fans to enjoy, and with snappy dialogue and good pacing. A popcorn movie, certainly – nothing terribly profound or emotionally compelling about the whole thing – but the exact kind of movie the big screen does so well.

There are a number of tactical liabilities to bringing space jet-skis to bear on NYC.

Anyway, it isn’t a spoiler for me to point out that, at some point in the movie, a whole bunch of bad guys attack New York city from a portal they open above it. If you’ve seen the previews, you can surmise as much. It also isn’t much of a spoiler for me to reveal that, through much trial and tribulation, the Avengers win the day and the portal assault fails. This failure, however, I feel has as much to do with poor planning on Loki’s part as it does with the interference of the Avengers. Indeed, Loki is committing the same errors that every portal assault plan executed by every alien/extradimensional being has made since they started doing this portal thing.

The Portal’s Advantages

The primary benefit of using a portal to teleport your army into battle is that of surprise. Since you can get your army to show up anywhere, this is a useful way to hit the enemy where and when they least expect it. I suppose, in the long term, it would also serve as a logistical benefit, as well, since supplying your troops could be as easy as trotting down to the Stargate room and lobbing through some sandwiches and spare clips of ammo. Given that I’ve rarely seen a portal assault go well enough for this to come into play, I’ll leave that part by the wayside for the nonce.

Anyway, surprise is great. Surprise can turn a battle in your favor. Surprise is a big deal. Surprise, however, is not the only factor you need to consider. You also need to consider when and how to use surprise to your best advantage. Attacking New York City, for instance, is a crappy place to utilize this surprise attack. Why? Well, New York City isn’t a direct threat to your invasion. It’s not a fortress. It isn’t an armed camp. Hell, the place can’t even feed itself. If you conquer New York City, you don’t ‘win’ the battle for Earth automatically. You definitely ruin the investment portfolios of many millions of people, but that’s much different than conquering the Earth. Plenty of military forces still out there, ready to mess you up.

Besides, attacking New York City from right out of a portal isn’t likely to work, anyway. This, however, speaks to the portal’s various disadvantages.

The Portal’s Disadvantages

Portals suffer from a number of very important disadvantages. First among these is the size of the portals themselves. Typically (such as in the Avengers) they are portrayed as being only large enough to admit a relatively small number of troops at a time. Now, any general will tell you that trickling your forces through a narrow space into a hostile landing zone is a great way to get yourself walloped, as the Persians learned at the Battle of Thermopylae. This is part of the reason why amphibious assaults are such dicey propositions and require so many resources to successfully execute – you’ve only got so many guys in so many boats. Each boat you lose means you lose a proportionally large part of your assault force.

Related to this, portals also suffer from the ‘eggs in one basket’ problem. If you’ve only got one portal and the enemy closes that portal, you instantly lose the battle. Bummer. Why, then, do the bad guys always seem to open these portals in places that are easily accessible to the enemy, in positions that allow the enemy to easily engage them, and at times when, far from surprising the defenders, gives them sufficient time to organize a counter-attack?

Well, bad planning, obviously.

How to Do it Right

If you want to bring in your otherworldly invasion force through rifts in space/time, then I have some advice for you:

  1. More than One Portal: You are going to need more than one portal to deliver your forces. These portals need to be operated in a decentralized fashion – i.e. if one is taken out, the others still work. This kind of redundancy is crucial in warfare, and why the Allies stormed the beaches of Normandy in lots of little boats instead of one big giant boat.
  2. Establish Beachhead/Regroup Forces/Invade World: Don’t have your alien locust swarm stumble in all disorganized and piecemeal right into the jaws of the enemy. Pick a better spot–one softened up beforehand somehow, or one that is relatively undefended. Move your whole damned army through after your shock troops punch a hole, get everybody organized, and then attack all together at the target of your choosing. For this to work, you need to put your portal somewhere less obvious than, I don’t know, floating in the sky above the most populous city in the US. Idiots.
  3. Set Realistic Early Invasion Goals: Conquering a city of millions takes a lot of time, no matter how many damned space jet-skis and aero-whales you have. You aren’t going to conquer the place in an afternoon. Probably not even for a week. Pick something else. I’d, personally, advise ambushing the forces most likely to toss you back through the portal. SPOILERS: I suppose Loki was going for that in the movie when he took on SHIELD HQ, but he didn’t do a very good job of it. That would have been a much better place to open the portal on or near–then you can use your space-whales to eat the main threat without the distraction of shooting random people going to the mall. Once you’d focused your power on eliminating them, then you can worry about conquering New York.

So, there you have it. The best way to use your portals is to use them carefully and, ultimately, with a mix of caution and long-term goals in mind. Shock-and-Awe only works if you are dropping hundreds of portals producing hundreds of thousands of soldiers into the mix, so if that’s not in the cards, don’t try it.

Victory Conditions: Earth

Thank you for playing Planet: Earth. Thank you for sticking with us through the development process, since the game really is quite buggy at the moment. We promise to stop releasing new Errata and FAQ documents sometime in the next million turns or so.

Anyway, if you’ve gotten this far (turn 4.3 billion, or so), that means you’ve managed to build and sustain life on this planet despite numerous potential extinction events, including various meteor and asteroid strikes, pandemics, and so on. If you still have dinosaurs active in the game, congratulations! You earn +10 achievement points to be spent on new atmospheric events, including ‘fire rain’ and ‘rainbow lightning’.

The game, as you may have guessed, is nearing its final stages. If you developed Humans (which you should have, otherwise the odds of earning anything other than a draw are slim), they’ve now grown to the point where, within the next couple hundred turns, they will have consumed most of the natural resources left on the board. This, of course, is the Final Event. If you can manage to surpass this one, you will have won the game. There are, however, several victory options still available.

Option 1: Global War 

For every space on the board occupied by humans, you may draw one card from the ‘Violence’ deck and remove a number of population tokens as indicated by the card. If you can draw sufficient cards to manage to remove all Civilization tokens, you win the game. Bonus Points: +0

Option 2: Environmental Disaster

Trade in sufficient human tokens to draw from the ‘Meddling Humans’ deck. Keep drawing until you get sufficient flood, wildfire, drought, and tornado cards to remove civilization tokens as described above. Do this, and you win the game. Bonus points: +25

Option 3: Pandemic

This works similarly to all Pandemics, however you must generate sufficient Virulency points to overcome all human population centers’ Resistance Rating. If you can manage to make humanity Extinct, you win the game. Bonus Points: +15

Option 4: Multiplanet Species

Generate sufficient technology tokens to purchase draws from the Breakthrough deck. If you can play enough ‘Space Development Cards’ to create a Mass Migration event sufficient to reduce population tokens below the number of remaining resource tokens, you win the game. Bonus points: +100

Option 5: Pan-global Utopia (Non-Human)

Invest sufficient improvement points in non-human populations (we recommend apes, computers, extraterrestrials, or dolphins) to successfully gain Breakthrough draws sufficient to play the ‘Self Awareness’ card. Then, follow the procedure for Global War, above, but with non-humans fighting humans. Bonus Points: +150

Option 6: Pan-global Utopia (Human)

Invest sufficient improvement points in human populations to gain Breakthrough draws sufficient to play the ‘Limiteless Energy’ card. Then proceed to spend technology tokens as indicated on the card to move the human race’s Psychology Meter to a rating between ‘Languid’ and ‘Acquisitive.’ Then reduce population tokens to lower than resource tokens to win the game. Bonus points: +250

We realize that this is a bit unbalanced and we promise to work out the bugs in the retail version. Thank you very much for playing the Beta-test version of Planet: Earth!

The Hard Truth About Space Combat

Just ran another mission of an RPG I wrote entitled ‘Frontier: 2280″ (which all my friends call ‘Battlelords”, but that’s a whole different game–one I played, liked, and then decided to completely depart from and make into my own paramilitary sci-fi adventure game). In this one, as in some of the past sessions, space combat has played an important role to the party’s survival. As with the rest of the game, however, I’ve tried to keep things as close to ‘real science’ as I can, and I’ve spent a good deal of time thinking about how space combat might work in the future and why. Here’s what I’ve come up with:

Overview

No, not this.

It is important that prospective space combat cadets push from their minds the flash and zoom of pulp sci-fi. Fighting in space doesn’t work that way. Indeed, it is actually quite boring for those people not crunching the math on incoming ordnance with white-knuckled urgency. If you’re lying in your accel couch after the maneuver alarm, nothing much is happening so far as you can tell. Watch a movie or something.

Tactical Assumptions

1: Space Combat Happens Over Long Distances
In the early years of ship-to-ship combat, the boarding action was generally considered the be-all and end-all of the space combat arena. This was the case because neither side really liked the idea of punching holes in things as expensive as spaceships and, furthermore, it is really, really hard to hit a moving spaceship with any kind of conventional weapon. It is akin to hitting a bullet with another, smaller bullet and, frankly, the difficulties involved made the whole affair impractical.

This, however, is no longer the case. As sensor systems improved and the guidance AIs on missile got better, the prospect of actually crippling or destroying an enemy vessel that was still >5000km away became more of a reality. Furthermore, given the efficacy of close-range laser attacks and the brutal finality of boarding actions, it became preferable to blow up the enemy when they were so far away you needn’t worry about debris from their exploding vessel putting holes in your own vessel or their last laser strafe cutting your fuel lines or some kind of last F-U virus being uploaded into your system and killing your computers dead.

Modern ship-to-ship combat has more in common with the largely mythical submarine duels of the 20th century Cold War than it does with the Milennium Falcon. Enemy vessels are barely and intermittently visible to sensor suites and advanced targeting systems are constantly calculating a likely intercept course for sophisticated missiles to fly out there and hunt down the enemy. All the while, one’s own vessel is hoping no missiles are coming in towards them or, if they are, they are picked up by tactical radars and targeted by point-defence laser systems before they get too close. Close-quarters combat is extremely rare unless the enemy is actively trying to capture and not destroy the enemy vessel in question. Sometimes they are so far away, one can’t ever be certain if they did, in fact, kill the enemy. All they know is that the ship has stopped popping up on their sensors.

2: Let Space Do the Killing For You
Fun Fact: the vacuum of space is the most hazardous environment known to mankind. Accordingly, space-based military technology has oriented itself towards creating circumstances wherein the vacuum of space is the thing doing all the killing–it does so for free and with a minimum of fuss. You really don’t need to blow up an enemy ship. All you need to do is kill their engines and then let the crew drift off into the void and starve–easy, see?

The vast majority of naval weapons are missiles. They run in a couple general types:

-Spikers are fragmentary explosives on a massive scale. Their purpose, quite simply, is to put holes in ships–lots and lots of holes in lots and lots of places and, if possible a really big hole somewhere. This often doesn’t result in explosive decompression (though it can), but more practically makes portions of a vessel unusable, causes them to leak fuel, and can make them much, much easier to spot on sensors.

-Rad-blasts are intense radiation munitions designed to cook the people inside ships until they are dead. These work best after a spiker has put lots of helpful holes in a vessels radiation-shielded hull. Volleys of missiles are often timed to have Spikers detonate immediately before Rads.

-Killers are direct-impact high-explosive munitions. They are designed to blow a ship into smithereens, and they do so quite well. The problem with them, however, is it is very difficult to score a direct hit on an enemy vessel at ranges of thousands of kilometers while both ships are moving at incredible rates of speed and, often, on conflicting courses with limited sensor information. In a practical sense, Killers are saved until it is clear that an enemy ship is crippled and spewing enough radiation to be easily found by the Killer’s pAI guidance system.

-Nukes are effectively useless in space combat. They do spill a good amount of radiation (though Rads kick out more), but their ‘explosive shockwave’ is dependent upon the presence of an atmosphere to be effective (you don’t get a shockwave if there is nothing to push). Nukes are used exclusively as orbital bombardment ordinance or as ship-to-ship weaponry for the desperate.

-EMPs are electromagnetic pulse weapons intended to disrupt or disable the electronic systems aboard a starship. They are very effective at doing this, but at the cost of making the other ship harder to detect for anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours as they get their systems back online. Also, they don’t kill ships or even people aboard them, so long as they still have operational generators. They are often used to precede boarding actions.

There are numerous other forms of ordnance, but those are the major ones.

It is important to remember the sheer number of ways space can kill ships. Only a few of these ways are ‘hot’ (hit by a Killer, Spike-rad combos, atmospheric re-entry, boarding action, short range laser-strafe). Most of them are ‘cold’, including starvation, dehydration, freezing, or asphyxiation. To affect these ‘victories’, the enemy need only disable the enemy vessel’s engines or power systems, for the most part, and let them drift into the Big Empty, never to be heard from again.

3: ‘Fighters’ are for Suicidal Nut-Jobs
The idea of a ‘fighter’ has been roundly abandoned by pretty much everybody by the 23rd century. The idea of a small, manoeuvrable vessel with good acceleration and high weapon payload exists, but those things are called ‘missiles’ and they are ‘manned’ by pAIs, not people. That way, when they don’t come back (and they don’t), you don’t care. You also don’t need to worry about things like inertial stress on the pilot or keeping life support active. It is cheaper, more efficient, and easier to just fire missiles that maintain fighters. Fighters still are very important in atmospheric roles, but not in space.

The notable exception to this is the HBV (Hostile Boarding Vehicle). These are basically assault boats used to board enemy vessels. They are only launched at short range when the odds of interception are very high (miss your intercept on an HBV and welcome to Cold Death) and they are also one-way trips, most of the time. Once attached, an HBV is not easily disengaged from this ship it’s boarding, and their boarding team needs to win the boarding action or wind up the prisoners of the enemy crew (or dead–there’s always that option). Ideally, HBVs are launched at crippled ships with disabled or non-existent point-defence systems, and they are usually launched in groups (why send one when you can send three?). ‘Ideal’ situations, of course, are not always possible. It is for this reason that marines are considered crazy.  

4: Fuel = Life
Due to the likelihood of Cold Death in the Big Empty, power is of utmost importance. Everything a ship does takes power and, therefore, fuel to accomplish. Want to change course? Fuel is needed to power the reactors which power the engines. Want to operate your point-defences? Fuel is needed to power the reactors which power the lasers. Want to speed up or slow down? Fuel. This is the primary reason, by the way, that missiles are preferred over other weapons (railguns, lasers, wavecannons, plasma throwers, etc.) because, unlike all those other weapons, missiles require a minimum of power to fire and are every bit as effective.

Without fuel, a ship is as good as dead. It’s life support can’t function, it can’t stop, turn, or speed up, it can’t fight, it can’t even see. Again, this has a huge impact on space warfare. Fighters aren’t used in part since the power needed to retrieve them is power wasted. Ships focus on crippling and letting enemy ships drift since, usually, the power needed to kill them isn’t necessary and needlessly weakens yourself. Battle happens at extreme ranges since the power needed to outmaneuver and intercept a ship isn’t necessary and can be a disastrous waste of resources.

Most vessels operate a main fusion reactor with a number of auxiliary fission reactors in reserve. The fusion reactor eats He3 fuel at a relatively speedy rate, but is able to reliably power all systems at once. The fission reactors are much less powerful, but work through their fuel rods at a much slower rate. Some ships maintain a store of chemical boosters and emergency beacons that run on their own, self-contained power in case of emergency, but those aren’t going to push a ship anywhere quickly nor are they especially likely to save a ship that’s drifted too far out of course. They only really buy you time.

5: Sensors are Limited
Star Trek is a load of nonsense. Unless you’re within a hundred clicks of a ship (give or take a few), you can’t tell whether an enemy vessel is powering weapons or how many lifeforms are aboard or really much of anything, especially not if the other ship doesn’t want you to scan them…or it’s venting radiation or it’s in the middle of a dust cloud or there is unusual solar flare activity or any number of other environmental concerns that render even the most sophisticated sensor arrays pretty useless.

‘Sensors’ refer to a couple distinct systems: RADAR, radio and conventional telescopes, thermal detectors, spectographic scanners, and gravitic recorders. All of these things work at the speed of light (c) or slower, meaning a vessel that rests 7 light-seconds away, when scanned, will be delivered information 7-14 seconds old (7 to get there and in some cases 7 to get back) or even more. If you have a *really* good fix on another ship, you know its velocity, direction, acceleration, and, if you’re very lucky or very good, can make an accurate guess at its mass. Typically, all you get is a read on its drive signature–either ion trails being picked up, telling you more-or-less where the thing is headed, or the gravitic warping effect of a slip drive, telling you basically the same thing. By crunching a lot of math, you can make a fairly accurate guess as to the velocity of the thing and, eventually, take a guess at its *average* acceleration. By crunching even *more* math you can hazard a guess at how much power it has at its disposal, giving you an idea of its size or, at least, the size of its reactor. If in a fight with a ship, the only good way to know if you’ve damaged it is to notice erratic patterns in radiation spillage, drive streams, or maybe even register a large explosion (if you’re lucky). Clever tacticians, of course, learn how to fake these things pretty well, so crews learn to stay on their toes.

The best way to learn about another ship is to talk to it. Again, communications run at the speed of light, so there is usually a slight delay. All non-military vessels and most military vessels that aren’t on active duty broadcast a callsign unless they are up to no good, which tells anyone who’s listening the ship’s name, complement, mass, and intended destination. Thanks to pirates, a ship’s callsign can be assumed to be inaccurate to varying degrees, even though SPIT-NET considers this behaviour illegal. Still, talking with somebody can reveal a lot–if nothing else, you can see if what they say matches up with your sensor data and guess if they’re lying and maybe even postulate why.

The tactical fallout of all this is, essentially, that most ship-to-ship space battles end before one side knows what’s happening. Getting blindsided by a spike-rad combo before you have your point-defence system running at optimum is a regrettably common occurrence (and also a reason to have your point-defences *always* operating), as is finding yourself under attack from a ship you can’t even see. Space combat is a giant game of lethal hide-and-seek, and if you don’t know you’re playing, you are usually going to lose.

Conclusion

So, that’s the gist of it. I’ve been running it this way, and so far it has given way to white-knuckled suspense for the players aboard their little souped-up merchant vessel. They haven’t been hit by a missle yet, but it will happen. Then the fun will really start…

Heghlu’meH QaQ jajvam!

"What, we lifted *another* idiom from humans? Dammit!"

For those of you who don’t speak Klingon (don’t worry, I don’t either), the above translates as “today is a good day to die”. It is a battle-cry, meant presumably to show the warrior’s willingness to die in the pursuit of victory. The funny thing about it, though, is that Star Trek isn’t where the phrase originates. Supposedly it was first spoken by Crazy Horse, the Sioux war leader. Under what circumstances he said it, I’m not sure. I’m betting it wasn’t just before taking a nap, though.

Along those same lines, I’m reading Beowulf again, in preparation of teaching it to my lit survey class over the next few weeks. I just recently gave them a rundown of Anglo-Saxon culture during the Dark Ages. It involves a lot of war, a heavy emphasis on a warrior’s code of honorable conduct, and a preoccupation with dying in battle. Chiefly, in accordance with most Norse and Germanic tribes, they needed to die in battle (eg: with a sword in their hand) or go to hell. If you’ve ever seen pictures of medieval knights being laid out in tombs with swords on their chests, that’s part of the cultural mythology that placed them there, even after the rise of Christianity. They, of course, had their own traditions of chivalrous conduct in war and so many battle-rituals that it boggles the mind.

Throw on top of this the warrior mystique of Japan’s samurai, the harsh martial customs of Sparta, the glitter and glory of the Roman Legions, and even the romantic and frightening popular image of modern special forces teams like the Navy SEALS and Green Berets, you gotta ask yourself a few questions:

  1. Who are the real Klingons, here?
  2. Why the love affair with a violent death?
  3. What’s this have to do with geeky things like video games and RPGs?

Whaddya mean we're a warrior culture? It's not like we entertain ourselves with...oh...nevermind.

Who are the Real Klingons, Here?

Science Fiction and Fantasy is filled with ‘warrior cultures’ because we humans are, in the end, made up of a bunch of warrior cultures. Granted, many of us have sort of moved on from that idea (though by no means all of us), but the mystique of living as though death is waiting around every corner and we are ready for it is still powerful. What is important to remember about those old warrior cultures, though, is that the reason they believed those things isn’t because they were awesome, but rather it was because life sucked.

Do you know what the average life expectancy was during the Dark Ages? Around 35. It wasn’t a hell of a lot higher in medieval Japan and certainly not much higher in Sparta. War was commonplace. Strange, bearded men might stumble out of the dark, wolf-infested forest and slaughter your whole clan on any given day of the week. Disease, starvation, exposure and more made it rather unlikely for you to make it to your golden years unless, of course, you were one mean son of a bitch. So, what’s a successful culture to do? Train people to be mean sons of bitches. Next thing you know, you and your badass Zulu buddies are kicking butt all across South Africa. Do you keep it up? Hell yes. Does this make it a form of behavior we ought to emulate or admire? Well, not really.

Why the Love Affair with a Violent Death?

In the historical sense, this is pretty easy to manage. If you died violently in battle, you did a couple things:

  1. You have successfully evaded a long, agonizing, and demoralizing death from disease, age, starvation, or infection. Yay!
  2. You protected your way of life to the bitter end. Kudos to you.
  3. You earned a little piece of immortality for yourself in the form of one crazy story. (“Hey, remember when Hrothgar went up against those six Romans with nothing but an axe-handle? What a badass!”)

Some that stuff still holds its appeal for us today in certain circumstances. More generally, though, the idea of the heroic death against impossible odds appeals to something quite primordial in all of us: the Fight or Flight instinct. By choosing Fight, you are throwing your cards down on the table and calling the other guy’s bluff. You are drawing a line in the sand. You are making a gamble on the future–you win, and everything is yours; you lose, and you’re dead. In a culture as heavily based on competition and shooting for the stars as ours is, there’s a certain animal thrill in watching somebody take that risk that we never could. Even if they die, you can stand there and whistle under your breath and say ‘there was one brave guy/gal.’ In a sense, it’s that same ‘immortality’ that drove the Anglo-Saxons and Achilles–you will speak their name again.

(cue theme music to Fame)

What’s all This Have to Do With Geeks?

Well, in my experience, most geeks are also dreamers. They want to shoot for the stars. They aren’t settling for what’s readily available, they’re going for what might be. They’re pushing the envelope, whether it’s in art, science, medicine, academia, or what have you. How did they get that way? Hell if I know–it’s a unique road for all of us, and I think a little bit of every person understands the geek desire to change the world around them and, thereby, earn its respect. In a very simple way, the Battle or Thermopylae or Beowulf’s clash with Grendel is an ego boost, a rush–the metaphorical representation of their own battle against their High School (or their Job, or their Love Life, or whatever it is that has them down). In a video game or when you’re in an RPG, you want your character to look danger in the eye and spit. If you lose, well, you gave it a shot.

But if you win…

There are two instances in which I have witnessed grown men get up and jump around hugging each other. The first is a sporting event and the second was during a variety of RPGs I’ve run during my life. I’ve already explained the first one above. I’ll leave it to your imagination to figure out the circumstances of the other one.

Let the Bodies Hit the Floor…

Violence is ubiquitous in scifi and fantasy. The number of specfic tales that don’t include some kind of violence are few and far between. Indeed, the most attention and interest surrounding tales of the future or alternate worlds circle around the methods by which the people of that time or place fight one another. I think it’s worth asking the question why.

In the first place, we have to consider the audience. The majority of the audience in scifi and fantasy is male; men are more violent than women (if crime statistics are any indication) and have been raised in an environment where violence is romanticized. To say, however, that this is all there is to it is naive and, dare I say it, a bit sexist. Women may not commit violent crime as often, but to take up the mantra of ‘if women ran the world there would be no war’ is disingenuous towards men. I can point you towards plenty of female rulers who waged as many wars as their male counterparts (Elizabeth I, for instance, supported institutionalized piracy against the Spanish culminating in a massive naval battle; Catherine the Great didn’t conquer most of what is now modern Russia with smiles and handshakes alone). Certainly, men have been socialized for centuries to be the primary purveyors and consumers of violence, but women, I feel, have aided and abetted the process, if passively. The male/female controversy isn’t, however, my primary point here.

Albert Camus once wrote:

“The truth is that every intelligent man, as you know, dreams of being a gangster and of ruling over society by force alone. “

There is truth in this statement. The world is full of people we disagree with, often violently. We think them fools, monsters, or, most charitably, misled simpletons who ‘just don’t understand’. In our heart of hearts–our deepest, most animal self–we wish we could MAKE THEM LISTEN. Herein lies war and violence. Wouldn’t it be easier if we could bash in that jerk’s face and make him obey than take the long route round? That route involves compromise, engagement, patience, and humility. Why bother? We’re right, aren’t we? When we have cast down our enemy and toppled their proud works into the dust, we are the victor; we are admired, we are the future author of history. “Americans,” said George Patton, “hate a loser.” I don’t think Americans are necessarily alone in this.

Even more simply than this is the fact that we have desires–physical, emotional, material, etc.–and resources to supply these desires are seldom so abundant that we can have them without conflict. Wars are been fought over money, food, land, and political influence. Helen’s face launched a thousand ships; any given episode of Jerry Springer has shown us two people fighting over affection, heredity, ownership–desire, all by other names. Lao Tzu, in the Tao te Ching, advises us to practice ‘not wanting’ as a path to both spiritual and political peace and enlightenment. Simple enough, but easier said than done.

To come back to science fiction and fantasy, we must consider that the human condition is one defined by conflict. If the speculative genres exist to explore the human condition in a kind of fictional laboratory separated or made distinct from our own society, then conflict–violence–is going to be part of that discussion. I tried writing a story in college once for a writing workshop wherein the main character simply wanders off into the woods and comes to a personal epiphany with some local wood sprites. The story was fantasy in a fantastic world; my professor (one of those specfic haters) asked me ‘why not put it in the real world? Why bother with fantasy?” I rankled at the question then, but I’ve come to look at it differently now. If all I was doing in that story was exploring a young man’s understanding of his educational opportunities, then fantasy was too blunt an instrument. I was tapping in a thumb tack with a sledgehammer–no, fantasy is a bigger, heavier genre than simple literary fiction. It is for exploring those massive issues which litfic need not or does not. These large issues are things that lead us to the mighty cataclysms of our species–war, violence, murder, chaos, anarchy, deep evil, and gleaming good. If specfic errs on the side of violence, it is merely because it is doing what it should and can do better than other genres.

Of course, spaceships exploding and armies of goblins also sell books. Mustn’t forget that, either.