Art and Experience, Life and Death

This hangs above my TV. The top picture is by my mum, Rosie Birtwhistle, and the bottom two are by my dad, David Hensel.

This hangs above my TV. The top picture is by my mum, Rosie Birtwhistle, and the bottom two are by my dad, David Hensel.

Art and Experience, Life and Death

I’ve grown up surrounded by art and creativity. Ali, on seeing the house I grew up in, commented that it was like an art gallery. But almost everything in the walls is by one or other of my parents and to me it feels entirely comfortable and normal to be surrounded by art. Art galleries are some of my favourite places, although i’ve actually not been to one in far too long – I should rectify that!

Everyone in my family is creative. As well as my parents, I write (as you can tell right now!), and of my two older brothers, one is a photographer and the other was a musician.

My brother, Tim Hensel, is an excellent wedding photographer, amongst other things

 

Sadly the word “was” is very relevant. My brother, Will Hensel, died unexpectedly about a month ago, and my mum, Rosie Birtwhistle (her chosen nom de plume), died of cancer about 6 years ago. Death focuses the mind in unexpected ways. I have spent a long time thinking about art and people and expression and life – the four are inextricably linked. I think it is important to remember people, as Terry Pratchett said “A man is not dead while his name is still spoken”. So I speak their names here. I refuse to let my relationships with these people end in sadness, instead I say we learn from them.


I can hear a lot of my brother Will in this track, which he produced.

Art can instil emotions, or ideas, it can be challenging or comforting, threatening or protective, funny or sad. All this and more. Art allows us see the world in different ways, be it paintings, music, sculpture, dance, or anything else.

And it is this I think we must learn from these wonderful people.

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Genre: Cyberpunk And Friends

The best known book in the genre is probably Neuromancer by William Gibson, and barring a few glaring anachronisms (in either this book or its sequel Count Zero, someone tries to sell “three megs of hot RAM”) it still stands up as a damn good book. The roots go back much further, though, to the sci fi of the 60s and 70s, perhaps even as far back as The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester, from 1957 (also an excellent book, if a little dated, incidentally).

Cyberpunk is a genre characterized by a dystopian society, huge wealth inequality, and large amounts of technology – usually body modification and computer technology. Protagonists tend to be outsiders, fighting the megacorporations, all-powerful AIs and corrupt law enforcement for the little guy. Often these heroes are using scrounged together tech and stolen weapons to fight overwhelming odds and somehow coming out the other side through a combination of skill, luck and panache. There is also usually a lot of neon and chrome.

This makes it a great genre for roleplaying in. Much of the genre plays it straight, varying names of megacorporations and specifics of technology available in much the same way as classic fantasy will vary the names of kings and magics available. But one of the most popular blends this with classic fantasy to create a setting where megacorporations employ elven mages to fight anarchist shamans while expert hackers go toe to toe in the matrix and orc street samurai wade into battle with a katana in one hand a and a shotgun in the other (okay, that was kinda my last character) – that game is Shadowrun. I love the setting but the system… well the system not so much. Recently, though, I played a Shadowrun Anarchy campaign which worked far better than the standard version, and the computer games, Shadowrun Returns, Shadowrun Dragonfall and Shadowrun Hong Kong capture the feel of the world rather well (well I’ve not played the third one yet, but I have a copy).

Variants

Much as the cyberpunk ethos encourages tearing technology apart to build something new, so the genre has been torn apart and rebuilt to create many variants, all helpfully identified by the suffix “-punk”. Generally they maintain a dystopian future and a punk attitude, but the nature of the technology and the emergent threats change.

Magic-punk is where technology is replaced with magic – gigantic magical machines power everything, often magic can be almost coded like a computer, and personal augmentation may be replaced by daemonic – and often demonic – summoning and possession. This hews closer to classic fantasy than Shadowrun, which is definitely a cyberpunk system despite the heavy influence of magic.

Dieselpunk is not, as you may guess, a setting in which everything is powered by Vin Diesel, but rather one where the technology being hacked is more likely to be cars and trucks and the most valuable resources are likely to be fuel and water. The most famous example is probably Mad Max.

Steampunk started out as a kind of retro-Victorian variant of the genre in which all the amazing technology was powered by that latest of inventions the steam engine. It has since taken on a  life of its own however and become genre and style involving an awful lot of brass cogs!

Transhumanism

Transhumanism is kind of a special case of a variant. While cyberpunk focuses more on the technology, transhumanism is more philosophical and asks the questions “What is human?” and “how far can we alter a person before they stop being a person and become something else?” These questions are not unique to transhumanism, of course, but it places them front and centre.

Transhumanists take ideas to their logical conclusion –  If you replace a leg or an arm then a person is still a person, but what happens if you replace more? The heart, the sensory organs, the brain? If the brain can be mapped, then can it be modelled in a powerful enough computer? If so is that computer a person? If you copy someone’s brain is the copy the same person? How about if you then download that brain into a new body? What if it’s an entirely robotic body?

These and more questions are clearly very very hard to answer and don’t obviously lend themselves to a roleplaying game so much as a discussion down the pub! So the most popular game in the genre, Eclipse Phase, hews back towards cyberpunk with powerful corporations and evil AIs to fight, and revolutionary politics to foster that conflict, but those corporations are not megacorps, they’re smaller and more agile than that, and the AIs are hyper-intelligent beyond human comprehension, and have fled for reasons unknown.

The Future

So is cyberpunk the future? I hope not – the technology is pretty cool, and the style is certainly striking, but the dystopian inequality and constant threat of violence for those on the fringes is less promising. Personally I’d like to skip past all that and just upload my mind to the internet!

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Gaming History: Loz

I’ve been gaming for so long I genuinely can’t remember the details of my first games. I was 12 when my older brother Tim got into Warhammer 40k. So I played 40k against him, and lost a lot – but I enjoyed it. I think he had Eldar, Orks and Space Marines, and I used his models as I didn’t have my own.

For I think my fourteenth birthday I received the Warhammer Fantasy boxed set. It had elves and goblins in it. I built an orc and goblin army, and played that for ages, against my brother’s dark elves, and against my friends various armies – it’s at least in part from here that my lifelong dislike of fantasy dwarves stems, because of a friend’s really cheesy dwarf army.

Somewhere around the same time I picked up my first role playing game – Warhammer Fantasy Battle. I honestly cannot remember most of the games we played with it, they probably made little sense as we didn’t know what we were doing, I mostly remember creating characters by the dozen. It clearly triggered something inside me though, because I’ve loved RPGs ever since.

By the time I was doing my A-levels (17ish) I had a regular gaming group, and we played White Wolf’s various games (Vampire: the Masquerade, Mage: the Ascension, Werewolf: the Apocalypse), and Dungeons and Dragons second edition. Planescape is a fantastic setting, but due to having too few players we played two characters each – I had Bjorn Bjornson son of Bjorn Bjornson’s son Bjorn, a taciturn norse fighter, and his twin brother a wild mage named simply Krapotkin.

I went to university in Bangor. I went there hoping there would be a gaming society of some sort. It turned out they had what was at the time one of the largest and most respected university gaming societies in the country – Bangor Wargaming and Role Playing Society, or BWRPS. I also met Ali there.

While there I played and ran just about anything I could. I was rarely in more than three games a week though, which was probably wise – I knew someone who was in eight (one every night and two on Sundays), and he failed his course and dropped out! That’s not to say my studies were unaffected by gaming – in my third year I would regularly go to a Vampire game run by Ali on a Tuesday evening, play until 2am, then go home and work on my project until my nine o’clock lecture in which I would frequently fall asleep!

I also played a lot of different wargames at BWRPS, including various historical games, something I still find interesting but don’t really get a chance to do any more. I kind of stopped playing any wargames after a while, I never really intended to, it just happened that way.

After graduating I lived in Bangor for a few more years, it’s a very pretty part of the world and I had good friends there, but eventually I managed to escape and moved to Manchester, where i stil live. Here I fell in with Vague, Manchester Metropolitan University’s gaming society. Here I’ve played and run a lot of different RPGs as well with a lot of very good people over the last decade or so.

But to bring things full circle rather nice, I’ve recently finished playing in a Warhammer Fantasy Role Play (second edition) game, and the latest edition of 40k has got me back into the game as well – my Space Marine army even has some of my brother’s old models in it! .  

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Geeking About Gaming: Loz on Board Games

What do I like about board games? Well that’s a difficult question. I’ve been a gamer for over two decades, but my primary interest is roleplaying games, and then tabletop war games, with board games falling somewhere down the list. My first introduction to this form of geekery was when I was 12 and my brother introduced me to the original Warhammer 40,000 Rogue Trader (not the more modern RPG of the same name).

So what attracts me to these things? I guess the answer is creativity. I like the creating stories in RPGs, and I like the lore and background of wargames, plus the emergent story of how a battle plays out – I often theorise about how unusual things happen, like the Space Marine with a missile launcher defeating a Striking Scorpion in close combat by shoving a Krak missile somewhere unfortunate! I like the tactics of wargames too, and enjoy that in RPGs like Dungeons and Dragons – In all honesty I’m not very good at it, but I do enjoy it.

So what pushes board games down the list for me? Part of it is simply a lack of experience, it’s not something I grew up with in the same way so there is less emotional attachment. Another issue is rules – I don’t much like learning them. With an RPG or a war game I’ll likely have to learn the rules once and then use them many times, but with a board game that is less likely to be the case as they are usually more limited in scope and so have less replayability. Oddly this isn’t helped by the fact I am actually quite good at analysing rules, which means if there is a particularly good strategy I can often see it even if I can’t actually master it in practice.

So what do I like? I like storytelling games, and I like games that are rules light (or at least quick to learn) but have some depth. I also prefer competitive games to co-op games because playing against other people provides a different challenge than playing against a simple AI (Artificial intelligence in computer games is another matter – it can be significantly more complex and less predictable).

I do like creating games – it scratches a similar creativity itch to writing, but with a more mechanical bent. I try to design games I think I would enjoy so previously it has mostly been RPGs but recently, at the prompting of Ste and Amy, I’ve been thinking about board games. I have ideas, oh so many ideas, but I don’t know how many will actually end up working out. I guess only time, and experimentation, will tell.

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The End of the (Instant) Universe

The End of the (Instant) Universe

Last Thursday our kickstarter campaign for sci fi concept cards ended. It was, all things, considered, a rousing success.

The final tally was £5,544 and 244 backers. Thank you to all our backers – we couldn’t do this without you and we like doing this!

We have reached the stretch goals for two extra cards per deck, and three extra suit symbols.

What Remains To Be Done

Elvis may have gone home to live among the stars, but we still have work to do. There are a few cards left to write, more now we have reached that stretch goal, and we need to commission more art.

Then comes the process of proofreading. To be honest it’s my least favourite part of the job, not least because I’m not very good at it. Fortunately Ali is, and we have a couple of volunteers to aid in the process. It is very necessary, though – I am rather prone to making typos. By the time it goes to print I am confident that every error but one will be squashed (that one will show up three weeks later…).

After that is done we send files to the printers, and wait anxiously for them to send us boxes of decks.

Then we package and post them to the backers.

If you missed the Kickstarter it’s not too late to get in on the action – you can still join us on Backerkit

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KS Updates: Stretch Goals and Add-ons

Stretch Goals

On Wednesday Loz mentioned that we were going to be releasing some more of our Stretch Goals after we had a chance to triple check the details – and here they are:

Full-bleed Borders at £6000

Black borders are traditional on cards – but that’s partly because of printing technology, which has improved over time. On a larger run it’s perfectly affordable for us to add some detail to those borders, allowing the starfield effect to slowly fade out, creating a slightly deeper feel to the cards

The “Even More Art” Goal is at £7500

It’s a little over double where we currently stand – and is at the top end of where Kicktraq’s projections put us – but we have confidence that it will be reached.

While far from vital, it’s an improvement we would certainly like the opportunity to implement – we just need the funds to pay the artists.

£9000: 64 Cards

The First of our Sky-Pie goals, and the only one we’re announcing for now, is making the deck up to 64 cards – 16 of each suit, for a total of 2^6. The new cards are currently planned to be a full suite of jokers (one per suit, rather than just red and black) along with a Pilot and an Admiral for each of the suits – but the precise names are not set in stone, so let us know if you would prefer different bonus cards.

56 Shares: A 10 Page Solar System

We’re not marketers – we’re writers. So we want to harness your desire for our writing in order to gain the power of connections!

If the Kickstarter page is shared a total of 56 times on social media (we’ll be watching Facebook and Twitter, but let us know about others) in non-spam contexts, we’ll give every backer access to a 10 page piece detailing one specific solar system – with four inhabited worlds split between two very different species.

We picked 56, because we’re pretty sure that’s how many cards the deck will have when this goal is reached!

112 Shares: Another 10 Pages

Simple enough – the solar system gets more detailed, with more information about the culture on each planet, and some of the individual people living there.

 

Add-Ons During the Kickstarter

You can increase your pledge for more decks of the sci fi cards at the same cost as the backer levels – that is:

  • £12 per deck or
  • £30 for a full set of all three.

Assuming we reach the social stretch goals for the Solar System Setting Shard mentioned in the previous update you will be able to add that too – you will automatically get the PDF, but you may want a printed version. The cost depends in part on the printing costs which we are investigating – the simplest option would be to use something like DrivethruRPG’s Print On Demand service. Once we reach that point we will, of course, announce that.

After the Kickstarter

We are using Backerkit again as it seems to have worked well for us in the past. This means you will able to adjust your pledge at that stage too. You will be able to grab the above options then, but if you do so before the end of the kickstarter we are more likely to reach our stretch goals and you will get more!

You will also be able to add the fantasy cards at that point, too. We are not making them available as an add-on at this stage because we want to keep things focused on the current project – not least so we have a better idea of how many sci fi decks we need to order, and know we can afford to do so.

After That

The cards will be available in various retail locations. We have a retailer level (Generation Ship), and of course will let you know who they are so you can point your friends at them. If you know any games stores who would be interested in carrying our cards please point them at the Kickstarter.

Or you could try to find a shop which sells them here
Or you could try to find a shop which sells them here
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KS Update: Who are your most unusual characters?

If you’re anything like me you have dozens of characters, ideas for games and general strangeness floating around in your brain (That’s probably why I write them on cards…). Today I’d like to relay a couple of them to you, and ask what’s the strangest character you’ve come up with, whether you actually played them or not?

TBD-768, aka “Teebee”

We were about to start a superheroes-in-space campaign and Ali had a character worked out mechanically, but didn’t have a name. The character was a space ship brought to life by a hyperspace accident. As a space ship she needed a name that was suitable, so I put TBD (for To Be Determined”) and some random numbers. Weirdly she liked it and stuck with it, only adding the diminutive “Teebee” as the character was incredibly inquisitive and eternally upbeat and optimistic.

As the original crew were smugglers, and the contract between them stated that the payout for their current cargo would be split between the crew, and as the rest of them had died in the hyperspace accident that brought Teebee to life, she determined she deserved the money. These funds were then used to buy a near-indestructible humanoid robotic body from aliens, only to discover shortly after purchase that the body was stolen!

That character inspired this card

You could retain the upbeat attitude if you like.
You could retain the upbeat attitude if you like.

 The Incomprehensible Party

A long time ago we were going to play a Star Wars campaign. It never got off the ground for a variety of reasons, but we did propose the least comprehensible party ever – three Wookies and an R2 unit! This was back in the days of the West End Games system, which stated that if you played a character who could not speak common were only allowed to speak in character in imitations of the noises that character could make. This would result in the Wookies’ players only ever saying “Worraaagh” and the R2 unit’s player only ever making bleeping noises. As the GM didn’t speak either Shiriwook or Binary that would have made life difficult to say the least.

Probably for the best those characters never got played!

How About You?

So, share with us your weirdest characters – especially ones you could never actually play but are cool ideas none the less!

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Kickstarter Time: What do the cards mean:

For all Decks:

The main suit of each card defines it, or is what you notice first, while the numbers represent how strong it is.

For Characters

Hearts Represents Desires: 
Maybe they want to travel the universe or rid the galaxy of aliens.

Spades are Physical Descriptions:
They be very small or bright green and cybernetically enhanced

Diamonds Mean Professions:
Spaceship Captain or Interstellar Lawyer would go here.

Clubs are Connections:
Politicians or teachers are people who know people.

The Secret: Every card has a twist. A hidden mutation or a shady past with space pirates might go here. And it can modify the others.

For Locations

Spades Mean Physical Features
If it is decorated with star charts or really noisy it will say here.

Clubs Represent Dangers
From robust safety measures to death by exposure to vacuum.

Diamonds are Resources
The value within may be gold and jewels, or hidden knowledge.

Hearts Show Inhabitants
You could find the medical officer or a smuggler with a heart of gold.

The Secret: Every card has a twist. An alien hunter lurking in the shadows or impending staff walkout. And it can modify the others.

For Planets

Clubs Show Politics
A weak leader clinging to power or the beating heart of a star empire.

Hearts are Inhabitants
Scientists studying local plants or a teeming metropolis of billions.

Spades Represent Environments
There could be methane snow, or fourteen moons and two suns.

Diamonds Show Resources
Rare chemical isotopes or star ship building yards are found here.

The Secret: Every card has a twist. Hallucinogenic plants or long lost alien cities can appear unexpectedly. And it can modify the others.

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The Night Before Kickstarter

Tl;dr: Sci Fi Concept Cards Kickstarter launches tomorrow.

‘Twas the night before Kickstarter, when all thro’ the house

Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse;

The cards had been written on the computer with care,

In hopes that St. Kickstarter soon would be there;

The creators were nestled all snug in their beds,

While visions of sugarplums danced in their heads

Well it’d be nice, wouldn’t  it? Not gonna happen though. We’ll be tweaking the page and trying to improve things right up until launch.

It’s akin to stage fright.

But that’s okay. Some things are scary and they’re still worth doing, This is one of those things.

We launch tomorrow at about 4pm (give or take a few minutes for last second typo spotting). This time we are offering three decks of Concept Cards, science fiction ones.

  • Characters – people from all over the galaxy
  • Locations – places you might find on a space station or a city on another planet
  • Planets – worlds scattered through the cosmos

 

Our first Kickstarter, about four years ago now for the first set of concept cards (called Character Cards back then because we didn’t know there would be more of them) was funded in a day, an our best was funded in four hours and ha taken more than twice its original target in a day – It would be wonderful to beat that!

To facilitate that, we’d love it if you would do a couple of things for us:

  • First go to the Kickstarter preview page and click the “❤ Notify me on launch” button near the top on the left. Take a sneaky look at the page while you’re there, and then on launch day try find what we changed.
  • Second: Spread this blog post, or any of our other social media posts (Facebook / Twitter) you see to anyone you think might be interested.

 

The faster the total rises at the start the more prominently Kickstarter will display the project meaning more people will see it, meaning a higher total and more people get to enjoy our work. A higher total means more stretch goals and a better product for you – and helps us stay in business to make more products in future.

So I’m off to tweak the page some more – you’ll have to do the dreaming of sugarplums!

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Sci-Fi Concept Cards: What do we Mean by Sci-Fi?

In space, no-one can hear you complain about the colour palette

 

As you hopefully know by now, our next major project is another set of Concept Cards, this time Sci Fi Concept Cards. (If you don’t know what Concept Cards are, take a look at the fantasy ones here.)

Science fiction is a huge genre – it encompasses everything set five minutes or more into the future, and some thing that are set in the past too – especially when you include time travel. We couldn’t possibly hope to cover all possibilities in one deck – characters would range from the Victorian dandy making strange steam powered inventions in his basement, via cyberpunk corporate salarymen, to star ship captains. While there is no doubt scope for some variants of those in each other’s sub-genres (the steampunk airship needs a captain), there are enough differences that we don’t think it would be helpful. In future perhaps these will get their own decks – but not right now. (n.b. In the Fantasy Epic Locations deck there is already one sci fi reference – the Urban Emperor, The Last of the Ancients, is a man in stasis wearing a bathrobe, and references both Red Dwarf and the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy)

What we mean here, then, is the kind of sci fi that involves starships and blasters. From Star Wars to Star Trek, to Firefly, to Warhammer 40,000 and even Eclipse Phase and The Foundation Trilogy.1)Ste Note: I’m drawing a bit from Schlock Mercenary too

These settings feature relatively ubiquitous space travel, some form of interstellar travel, aliens, blasters and/or laser weaponry, huge threats larger than a person, a city, or even a planet, and so forth. There are exceptions, of course – The Foundation Trilogy only features humans, Firefly takes place entirely in one solar system, In Eclipse Phase interstellar travel is limited to Pandora Gates, and Stargate has present day humans exposed to a far more advanced setting.

How interstellar travel works is something which can help define a setting – for instance in 40k the Warp is incredible dangerous, while in Star Trek, travelling at Warp Speed is rarely a problem (barring unusual accident, which inevitably happen to the Enterprise). The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has such unusual methods as the Infinite Improbability Drive (whereby it is incredibly unlikely you will simply teleport from one point in space to another, so if one can increase the level of improbability high enough it’s bound to happen), and Bill the Galactic Hero has the Bloater Drive (which works by expanding the space between atoms such that the ship is the size of the entire distance between the start and the end of the journey, and then condensing them back to normal.)

Then there is the question of psychic powers. These show up in many forms and are surprisingly common. In Star Wars the Force is a natural energy that connects all things, but in Eclipse Phase it’s caused by an infection by a sentient techno-virus, while in 40k if you overuse them you’re likely to get eaten by daemons (as is anyone standing too close to you). Regardless, they are usually rare and barely understood (even by the practitioners), but the subject of much research.

Faith also plays a surprisingly large part in sci fi. In Star Trek the Federation is atheist, but many of the other cultures are not – notably the Klingons are deeply religious, but they killed their gods for holding them back! But despite this exploration of faith, the genre doesn’t allow “gods did it” to be an explanation very often, and when it does the gods usually turn out to be extremely powerful aliens or fakes by people using technology or psychic powers.

Beyond all that there are new people, new places, new planets, and new ideas to explore. In Dark Heresy they are probably evil cultists hell-bent on causing death and destruction, and must be stopped at all costs, while in Babylon 5 the aliens have most likely come to the space station rather than the protagonists going to them, but the point stands.

And that, I think, is the key to science fiction –

Exploration of the new and the unknown.  

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References   [ + ]

1. Ste Note: I’m drawing a bit from Schlock Mercenary too