GAME THE GAME: Retrostar Design Blog #2: Space Chickens and Galactic Eggs

I have been hitting my head against a wall for awhile. Cynthia, Spectrum’s Big Boss has told me she had the same problem when she was designing Slasher Flick and the Kill Scenes in that game. In college, my buddies Zach and Gerry came up with the idea that when you hit your head against a wall, often you need to look up to realize that you are on a huge step and need to pull yourself up to the next level. So, I have been trying to resolve a whole lot of Retrostar stuff, and I think I have finally pulled myself up to the next step.

Cynthia came up with the following stats: Adventure; Thought; Drama. We will be using those. They are different and cool, and jump you right into the proper vibe.

So, I have always been using those in the back of my head.

And I have been focused on the narrative elements of the game, and read through my very old copy of Hoyle’s looking for card games that might be fun, but it always felt a bit off. I love the poker showdown mechanic in Deadlands: Reloaded, it feels genre appropriate and is very cool in play. Does the card game pitch have anything to do with 70s sci-fi? I think “no” is probably the answer. But I really like the idea of the main prep for a game and series of Retrostar being coming up with a list of things. I think that is innovative and fun and different. I am still working on what exactly this will look like, but I think it will be something akin to the GM (called the Creator) dealing out 5-6 cards. Why 5-6? Research shows that most dramas in the 70s had 5-6 acts or scenes in them, so these 5-6 cards will power that.

For my other breakthroughs, I found inspiration in a couple games. In Battlestar Galactica, what makes Apollo and Starbuck different? In a crunchy system with defined skills, they would probably be pretty similar. In a more creative/ descriptive “skill” system they would still likely have a bunch of similarities. Then it struck me; it wasn’t so much about the skills as it was about the characters. We are trying to emulate a 70s TV show, so why not look to that? Indeed, there will be stats, and there will be “skills,” but what if there was also Casting and Role? Would this not have been a big part of a 70s TV show? Is this not how the two characters would be better defined compared to one another? Think as a TV producer would:

Role: Starbuck is a crack pilot, with a devil-may-care attitude, he is not afraid to stand up against authority. He is best friends with Apollo.
Casting: Roguish good looks, dirty blonde/ light brown hair.

Now, if you saw that on a character sheet, doesn’t that tell you something about the character?

Related sidenote: something I also want included in series creation is the clothing and appearance for the series and characters. The attire and styles of 70s sci-fi is certainly a big part of what made them unique: turtleneck shirts, awesome hairstyles, skin-tight suits, padded jackets, odd color choices! This, of course, is likely all just flavor, but who knows….

Back to the casting and role, another key element of 70s sci-fi series is that indeed some characters were the stars and other characters were the supporting characters. Now, who really wants to be a red shirt? OK, so maybe no one wants to be a red shirt, but certainly some characters were more significant than others. Players being players might all want to be the spotlight characters, so we will want some fun stuff to encourage players to be the supporting cast. I don’t think it will be anything as granular and crunchy as the rules in the Buffy the Vampire Slayer game. Of course, there will be episodes that focus on these background characters. So, stealing a bit from Hong Kong Action Theatre (1st Ed.) and Cartoon Action Hour: Season 3, there will be some sort of Star Power mechanic, possibly with some episodic adjustments. After all, as much as we might love Boomer, was he really the star?

My second “breakthrough” came in regards to the SFX pool. I have been focusing on one way to do it, and none of these rambling rumblings will necessarily negate any of that, but I want to think about other ways to accomplish this. My first way of thinking had players having individual pools, and coming up with neat and fun (and genre-appropriate) ways to increase the size of and replenish this pool. So, there would be a lot of exchange of glass beads or chits of what not. Not unlike Exalted. Then, I realized that a mechanic similar to the Escalation Die in 13th Age might also do the trick, after all, it would encourage the use of SFX to occur later in the game (IE later in a specific episode) as the story was drawing to a climax. So, I am toying around with this, making it more intuitive, more genre appropriate, less fiddly, and also encouraging the story to climax at the appropriate time!

I am getting really excited, and although there are established series I am looking at for guidelines on how to do things, I also have my own series that I am thinking about, because, as much as folks might want to come up with their own version of Galactica or the 10 Million Dollar Father and Son (two bionic characters, not just one), we also want to help provide a tool kit so that Creators can come up with their own original series. Mine will have roller skates as an integral part of the story. Don’t laugh.

Ok, you can laugh, but, know that it will all make sense! There will be a reason for the roller skating!


The Back Issue Bin: Solarman #1: “Whatever happened to Marvel’s hottest hero?”

Is there such a thing as an unholy grail?  My fellow columnist, Ellie’s holy grail of comics is Wonder Woman and the Star Riders.

Solarman might just be the opposite. It might be the monkey’s paw. It might be the box. There are stories of Solarman, but no one will confirm or deny.

I came across this comic book during a back issue mining expedition. I gazed with wonder upon it. Before I read it, I did some research. I wanted to know what I was getting into. I cast all my buff spells.

Solarman may have been the last character Stan Lee wrote for Marvel comics. Marvel had big expectations for Solarman, offering a poster, and even producing an animated television pilot.

Ok, but why were only two issues produced? That was the mystery. This was network television. You didn’t get numbers and then cancel something after one or two episodes (farewell Lone Star, I have a theory about you and James Wolk, breakout star from Mad Men, but that will wait for later).  Only two issues seems unfathomable. Art must have been done, scripts must have been written.

What evil lay within these pages?

Some historical perspective: 1987 saw the Giffen/ Maguire/ DeMatteis Justice League title launching, and Marvel was beginning to see work by such artists as this guy named Jim Lee. So, maybe Solarman was anomalous of the time, maybe it was a little behind the times, but a good comic is still a good comic, right?

Certainly, 1989 was a time when the comic landscape was beginning to change, so maybe that is it. Maybe this was the comic book equivalent of It’s A Wonderful Life, Office Space, or Fight Club, commercial failures, but now considered classics?

I rolled initiative and began to read. I was ready.

The art is quaint; nothing terrible. Jim Mooney is the artist, he was older in 1989, but had a respectable portfolio of work.

Blue skinned aliens want to rule the universe.  Old man alien doesn’t like evil alien overlord. Old man alien also has white hair and a beard. Ok, I’m still invested, I can appreciate this stuff.  Wait… is that a robot named Beepie?

Ok… so maybe this was meant to appeal to kids, that makes sense, a bit immature, harkening back to annoying sidekicks on classic 80s action cartoons. I took a deep breath and continued reading. I should have stopped.

bib_sm1The protagonist looks like Peter Parker, maybe with slightly wilder hair, and shorter. He is supposed to be working out on the Exerciser. Alien crash lands, when he pulls himself from the ocean, bystanders think he looks drunk, not noticing he has BLUE SKIN! Our hero shows up, helps the alien, and ala Green Lantern, he has cool powers.

Oh, did I mention the protagonist wants to be an artist… for Marvel Comics?!? The rest of the issue plays out pretty much as you might guess…. not well.

When Seeker 3000 gets a shout-out by Brian Michael Bendis, and Wolf from Team America/ Thunderiders gets a mention as a possible recruit in the Initiative program, and US 1 shows up with Deadpool and even in the Avengers, I know that I am not alone in embracing some of the more obscure parts of the Marvel Universe. But Solarman, after Issue 2, nothing.  No ironic mentions. Solarman is still out there in the Marvel Universe. Maybe someone needs to do something with him. Alan Moore?

The Back Issue Bin is a regular feature where we revisit and examine something from the past, either an old favorite, or something recently introduced to us. It could be a run of comics, an old game, a movie, tv show, anything that strikes our fancy.

GAME THE GAME: Tell Me About Your Character: Edition Wars Edition

The latest edition of Dungeons and Dragons is due to hit the streets this summer, with a boxed set coming in July, and the first of the hardcover books slated to premiere at GenCon. I might be swept up enough in the hysteria to pick one up, I can’t lie.

The publisher, Wizards of the Coast, is doing some interesting things with this 5th Edition of D&D: the first was that they did an open playtest. We Acts of Geek members played several sessions, and were left quite unimpressed. The second, and more significant is the fact that they will be releasing a FREE pdf with rules sufficient to play the four core classes, a small handful of iconic races from levels 1-20. For Free! How will this affect actuals sales? Who knows?

But with the impending release of 5th Edition, I thought a reflection on D&D was due, with my biased opinion and thoughts:

Dungeons and Dragons is more than just a game, it is a genre. D&D is about killing monsters, taking their stuff, and cool magic items. I am stating this as fact, although this is my opinion. But, this is my column, so, my rules.

A game doesn’t need to be called D&D to be D&D. Many of these other non-D&D branded games are what is termed “fantasy heartbreakers:” games that are trying to do what D&D does, but better.

D&D has six stats, our system has nine stats!

Fun stuff like this.

Amongst my circle of gaming friends, I have advocates for all 4 editions of D&D. I’m going to break down each one in terms of characters and gameplay through my inimitable filter. And I am going to do it in terms of characters, because one thing everyone likes to do is talk about their characters.


1st Edition

Advanced D&D (differentiating from the Basic, Expert, etc line of games, by branding it differently, thus excluding Mr. Arneson from any share of the profits, as it was a different game, but this level of backstage drama is unnecessary for this column) did several things:

The type (class) of character you played was likely determined by the roll of your dice during character generation. Perhaps your DM let you move your stats, but at the end of the day, if you wanted to play a monk or paladin, you needed some pretty impressive dice rolls. Good luck.

Your character was a vessel for the player, but your character likely lived or died based on the player. Read through some old 1st Edition modules, if the player was not sharp as a tack in regards to problem solving and the like, the character would likely suffer (and by suffer, if the module was written by Mr. Gygax, I mean die). I have some fond memories of this style of play, but at this point in my life, it is not where I am at. I game for fun, and here is a Jack Handey bit of gaming wisdom and insight that I live by:


When I play a game, I might want to play a character who is stronger than me, or a character who can fly, or who is a ninja, or I might want to play a character who is smarter than me.

 (and if this last quote raised a grammar flag for you, might I suggest you click here)


200px-S2_White_Plume_MountainThus, this level of problem solving by the player is not the most fun thing for me. Maybe I had a long day at work, and I want to kick back, drink some delicious soda, munch on some wonderful snacks, and roll some dice. Maybe I am off my mental game. But, if I am playing a character with a high INT and WIS should that not be reflected in how they approach some of these deadly Gygaxian conundrums? In the rules as written, likely not.

Lastly, as your character advanced, they were also defined by their magic items. So, if you had the Black Razor (and who didn’t want the Black Razor? Did this not become a defining feature of your character. But, maybe you didn’t want to deal with the drawbacks, so the sake of this point, let us say that your character has a +5 Vorpal sword. This very much likely defined your character. But, what happens when your character dies in the middle of a dungeon (likely because you stepped on the wrong color tile, or failed your Death save). The next best fighter-type in your party is going to pick up that +5 Vorpal, and you as the player might shake your fist and weep, that sword is now theirs, and it will define their character.

So, your character is defined by the initial random rolls of the player, the savvy of the player, and by their magic items.

When you discussed your character with someone else, you would tell them your class (“oh, you got the stats for a Paladin, that is awesome!”), race (with racial level limits, and even gender stat limits in effect), and their magic items. We all spoke a common language based on some of the iconic modules we no doubt explored, and we all have stories, but if I show you my 19 Int elven wizard, you are going to have questions about how I got that Int, how I raised my level above the racial maximum, and why I am allowed to carry a Holy Avenger. Wishes were probably involved.

Join me next for a dissection of 2nd Edition, and see what is different, and what is the same!

Game the Game: Retrostar Design Blog #1: Embrace the Cheese!

So, Spectrum announced Retrostar awhile back. The intention of it is to emulate the sci-fi shows of the 70s: BSG, Bionic Man, Buck Rogers, etc. Not the films of that era, but specifically the TV shows.

I have taken it upon myself to dissect this “genre” and my goal is to come up with a game the forces the GM and players into an experience that feels like a 70s sci-fi series, with all that implies.

Instead of designing a core mechanic that allows players to punch, and shoot, and pilot, I am starting someplace else.

What makes these shows special? What makes the 70s sci-fi experience unique? There are lots of systems out there that let players fight and shoot and pilot. I want the play session to feel authentic. Steve Austin doesn’t solve every problem by just using his bionics. The scenes with bionics are the highlight of the show. To use a cinematic example (I know this is about TV shows, but bear with me, this is a great example), we don’t see lightsabers in every scene.
Why? SFX budget.

So, one of my design goals is to have each session have an SFX budget.

Secondly, frequently these shows had some real 70s-isms in them, stuff that makes them feel dated and topical (and in this situation, usage of these terms is a positive). So, I want some way to bring these sort of 70s-isms into play, whether it is a discussion on race, or divorce, or a cheesy disco scene. We want to embrace these things and make it so that a session of Retrostar feels unlike any other sci-fi game out there. We do not want folks saying “man, this system is awesome, I can’t wait to run a hack of Retrostar for my hard sci-fi campaign.

Third, TV shows have certain tropes. An most episodes of BSG will have a dogfight, Steve Austin will have to run fast or jump high, etc. So, any series being played with Retrostar should have this built in.

These are my three primary goals for Retrostar, and I have been taking notes, and jotting down ideas how to make these be an integral part of the game. Referring back to Intention, Mechanics, Setting: I want them to mesh perfectly together. It’s a big challenge I have set for myself, and I really excited thinking about the possibilities. Will there be a core mechanic for fighting? Absolutely. But I want these three design components an integral part of the game, so I am starting there as opposed to having them be a secondary concern.

To give a teaser and peel back the curtain a little, one idea I am toying with is a card based mechanic that helps control the flow of the game, ensuring that each BSG episode would have a dogfight or two, and so on. It is an idea in the early stages of germination no doubt, but some neat ideas are coming out of the design process.

Please feel free to comment with your thoughts and suggestions! And know that I am not adverse to letting you on the design process as well! For now, my internal tagline is:
Science fiction- take a scientific principle; pose a question or hypothesis about that principle; and then explore the effects of that principle on society/culture. Now, add disco!


IMAGINE IF: Batman, Release Date 1943

Imagine if Hollywood had released tent-pole comic-book movies starring their iconic characters around the time of the source material’s release date. For the purposes of this experiment, we will say that a movie would be released 5 years after the introduction of the character, and only movies that have been made would be made.


Bruce Wayne/ Batman-Robert Mitchum

After Superman didn’t rake in the money as producers had hoped, they went a bit more edgy with this darker franchise. Mitchum, known mostly for noir, westerns, and villains was cast against type as the caped crusader. Cary Grant was also considered, but producers insisted on going a different direction.


Dick Jones-Robin

Dickie Jones (lest we avoid a Robocop quote) was a skilled trick rider and roper starring in western movies as a child, so his athleticism would be well known. He also provided the voice for Pinocchio.


The Joker-Milton Berle

A vaudeville and radio star, producers kept thinking outside the box.





The Penguin-Mickey Rooney

A huge star known for his song and dance and all-American roles, producers were taking a gamble that American audiences would be able to see Rooney as the sinister Penguin.



Ralph Richardson The Fallen IdolAlfred-Sir Ralph Richardson

Noted Shakespearean actor and contemporary of Sir Laurence Olivier and Sir John Gielgud.

Imagine If: Superman, Release Date 1943

Imagine if Hollywood had released tent-pole comic-book movies starring their iconic characters around the time of the source material’s release date. For the purposes of this experiment, we will say that a movie would be released 5 years after the introduction of the character, and only movies that have been made would be made.

Gary CopperClark Kent/ Superman-Gary Cooper

This was a tough decision, coming off his Oscar win in 1942, Gary Cooper had been a movie star for some time, and his likeability was a major factor in his casting. At 6’3” with dark hair, he was able to bring gravitas to most iconic of superheroes. Producers also considered John Wayne (6’4”), that iconic cowboy, and Gene Kelly, who was deemed much too short.


220px-Spencer_TracyPerry White-Spencer Tracy

Already one of Hollywood’s biggest stars, and always a leading man, Tracy would have shared top billing with Cooper.




walter_brennan2Lex Luthor-Walter Brennan

The only man to win three Supporting Actor Oscars, he was beloved, recognizable, and was known for the variety of characters he portrayed on-screen.





1943JenniferJonesLois Lane-Jennifer Jones

Also an Oscar winner (though she would have won this same year), producers were looking to hit this one out of the park. Jones was relatively unknown on-screen in 1943, her primary work having been in a Dick Tracy serial. So, she would get the “And Introducing” credit. Think of her as the era-appropriate Jennifer Lawrence, holding down a big franchise and turning in Oscar-worthy performances in more “serious” fare.