Monday, February 25, 2013

Things of Interest: Freefall

Here's an awesome little webcomic that is criminally unknown. Although, "little" may not be the best word to describe it. Although it uses the three panel format native to most newspaper comics, Mark Stanley's Freefall already has over fourteen years of contionuous tri-weekly updates, during which it was able to explore many serious issues wrapped in a nice and well-thought-out hard sci-fi package.

The story is set in distant future on the planet Jean, still in its early stages of terraforming. Human colonists, living safely in the few habitable places on the planet (giant dome cities), are working on turning the hostile Jean into a more hospitable Earth-like planet, but also establishing their culture and improving their homes and lives. And in the middle of all this, we meet our main characters.

Sam Starfall is the "heroic" "captain" of the "spaceship" Savage Chicken. Well, he's more of a petty criminal who's already managed to teach most of Jean's population to watch their wallet whenever he's around. Sam takes the shape of a humanoid in a blue environmental suit, but he's actually a Sqid, an intelligent squid-like alien scavenger (a fact he often uses to justify his crimes). His sidekick is Helix, a none-too-bright warehouse robot and apprentice ne'er-do-well. Although there is a moderately tragic backstory to Sam, these two are mostly used as a comedic duo, and their wacky adventures usually don't have much impact on the overall plot.

The more serious plot threads are carried out by the third and final crewmember, gravitational engineer Florence Ambrose. She, unlike Sam and Helix, has a strong sense of morality and upholding the law. From this stems the early plot's main conflict, as both Sam and Flo attempt to convert each other to their way of seeng the world. Florence, as a part of her occupation, is very knowledgeable about technology, and thus is used to explain, or have explained to her, many of the background elements of Freefall's technology, from various details of Jean's terrafroming, to methods of interstellar travel, to theory and reality of artificial intelligence. Oh, and she's also a Bowman's Wolf, a specimen of red wolf genetically engineered to raise her intelligence and give her bipedal locomotion and hands capable of operating small objects. Her backstory, explaining why she is what she is, is revealed throughout the comic's long run, but the most important fact is that technically, she is classified as an AI, putting her at the same level as Jean's innumerable robotic population.

Oh, yes, the robots. Surrounding them is the main plot of the comic. Since Jean is still largely inhospitable, the planet houses over a hundred thousand times more robots than humans. Normally, this shouldn't be that much of a problem, since all robots are created as the stereotypical Three Laws Compliant, inherently logical and kinda dumb machines, but as Florence soon finds out, the robots start becoming more human-like in their character once they age beyond a certain point. And while Florence investigates the causes and ramifications of this bevaior and the robots themselves start establishing their culture and building towards their push for AI rights, certain humans attempt to undermine them in order to "save" humanity.

Of course, only a small percentage of the strips are dedicated to this main storyline. Most of the comic's run focuses on various episodes in the character's everyday lives. Sam and Helix try to return something they stole in the past, only to incite a hostage situation at the local museum. The crew gets a job deploying sattelites in Jean's orbit, only for Sam to accidentally have a video of him getting his scarf stuck in the toilet sent to other ships' captains. Florence goes shopping for ship supplies, while accompanying a friend to the mall. Sam steal some bread, which results in a fight in the Strategic Pie Reserve Warehouse (seriously). The thing is, the stories are not only consistently funny, they also flow into each other naturally, forming a consistent narrative all the way through.

There are currently over 2,300 Freefall strips published, so if you decide to pick this webcomic up, you'll have a lot to chew through, but let me assure you it's all worth it. You shall be entertained, and a bit educated, all the way through to the, well, today.

Monday, February 11, 2013

I'm a rogue, I do rogue stuff

Here's something that annoys me greatly about traditional RPG systems, something that, unfortunately, is seen as inherent to the very core of role playing games, and that something is the concept of character classes and experience levels. I do realize that RPGs have to take certain liberties with "realism" in order to offer you, the player, comprehensible rules of the game universe, which is how we get hit points as a stand in for a character's health or skill ranks that quantify the character's abilities. However, I believe that the traditional class and experience systems are far more restrictive than they need to be.

For those of you who don't know, a "class" is the RPG term for a character's profession. One way to look at it is that a class is basically a pre-packaged bundle of skills, feats and special abilities that define the character's role in the adventure. Fighters fight, wizards cast spells, bards do bard stuff, rogues do rogue stuff. The problem with this is, though, that your character usually ends up defined entirely by their class. You're not Lord Gabriel of Asken, you're The Fighter. You're not Moonslip the Orphan, you're The Thief. Players are discouraged from differentiating their cleric from the bajillion other clerics that came before. The cause of this problem is the way in which the class system restricts what skills is any given class allowed to possess, either by making investing in cross-class skills expensive or outright impossible. If you're lucky, your system will allow the thief instruct the ranger on how to pick pockets or let the monk train the mage in advanced staff combat skills. If you're not, well, better hope you like having no identity.

I have encountered a particularly nasty case of this in the Czech knock-off version of Dungeons & Dragons called Dračí Doupě ("Dragon's Lair"). In this system, a character's abilities are given entirely by their class, of which there are five (each of which then branches out into two different prestige classes at level 6). The rules spend a lot of time outlining what each class can or can't do, including what equipment they're allowed to use, but then the DM's Handbook contains a section that essentially says "well, of course these things aren't forbidden per se, you just have to think real hard about why they're said so and rule accordingly". In other words, the system forbids perfectly rational actions (such as a ranger using a stolen heavy weapon when breaking out of jail or a wizard wearing armor) for no reason other than ballancing issues and then provides the DM with no way to resolve these issues apart from "use your best judgment".

I have mentioned the traditional experience system, too. Unlike the class system, this one doesn't really irk me all that much and I can see why it's so popular, after all, a character's level is a clear indicator of how strong that character is. Also, it provides an easy way to simulate the growth of a character's capabilities. My only problem with it is that it's really not all that important and it allows the flaws of the class system to exist. This is especially evident in systems that allow players to make multi-class characters, as their experience levels count towards their classes, not the character as a whole. I like to say that the levelling system solves problems that would otherwise not even exist.

Saying all this, I believe it's no surprise that I have decided not to implement a class or levelling system in my homebrew, instead opting to go with an alternate system that has appeared in parts in other games. The cornerstone of this system consists of what I call "advancement points" that are either "bought" for collected experience (the homebrew specifically set the price of one advancement point as 100 experience points) or awarded directly by the GM. These points are then used to, well, advance the character, mainly by increasing skill ranks, but also by buying feats or improving hit points (if your system has those things). I'll be the first to admit that this system is far from perfect - it is rather simplistic, even though its implementation requires balancing out the costs and the rate at which the points are awarded - but I like the way it smooths out character progression.