A New World, Part 6: Mythology – Darac’s Descend into the Underworld

These turned out to be longer than I thought, so I decided to split them up. Part two of the Mythology arc:

Darac’s Descend Into the Underworld

Darac’s victory felt hollow to the great hero, as he knew that his mother was still trapped in the Underworld, suffering unmentionable pain every day. And not only his mother – he knew all too well that there were hundreds, maybe countless, people who had been taken by gods over the eons.

Two year after his return from the Pantheon he called his companions to him. Three answered the call, and after they arrived, Darac proposed that they should descend into the Underworld, to free his mother, and any other humans they could. His companions agreed they would follow him, but said that such an endeavor was plainly impossible. Everybody had known, they said, how to get to the Pantheon. Nobody knew how to get into the Underworld. Darac told them that he had thought about this, and had come up with a solution. He asked his companions to swear that, no matter what, they would be loyal to him, and the cause, and all three agreed and swore this oath.

Darac smiled and gave a sign to his servants. They opened a large door at the other end of the hall, and armed guards led in eight priests and priestesses. Each was in chains. Each served a God known to be particularly cruel – Thachac, Mmoldar, Teggogh, Yor-Sothan, and others.

“You serve your Gods well, do you not?” Darac asked the men and women. They nodded in agreement.

“And what you see, your Gods see, do they not?” Again, the priests agreed.

“Then know this. We are coming for you. We will hunt down every one of you, and kill each and every one of you, until your masters stop us. Banish us to the Underworld, I dare them! Nothing will stop us!” and with this, Darac drew the sword of Yorhorh, and killed each of the eight priests and priestesses in turn.

Darac revealed to his companions that he had used the treasure of the red dragon to gather a small but highly trained and fiercely loyal group of mercenaries – five thousand men in total. And he intended to carry out his threats. At first, the companions were aghast, but Darac reminded them of all the evil the Gods had committed, and convinced them that his way was just.

For the next six years, Darac’s army traveled through the lands, and they killed every servant of those gods they could find. As word of his deeds spread, some cities and kingdoms denied him entry, and so he forced his way. He spared the God-Queen Nuria, but only after burning down her temples and palaces.

At the end of six years, the Gods decided that enough was enough. They banished Darac and his companions, and his entire army, to the Underworld. Darac and his companions used every trick at their disposal, all the power of the dead god Rarthot, to protect their men from the torment, but most succumbed and died in the first weeks. The rest marched on and made war on the demons of the Underworld. They even freed some people, who then joined their crusade.

At long last, Darac found Iruwa. She had not aged a day since Rarthot had imprisoned her, and she was physically unharmed, though her soul had been broken. She did not know who the strangers were who suddenly faced her, and had long forgotten the notion of a life without eternal suffering. She followed, but not out of enthusiasm to be free once more; she followed like any broken slave would in fear of the whip.

Despite having achieved his goal, Darac had a great moment of doubt. It seemed that despite all the hardship, he could not even save his mother. He nearly gave up, there, in the deepest levels of hell, but his companions reminded him of the good he had done, of the people he had saved, and that it was not, after all, too late for his mother – if Darac would lead them out of the Underworld.

Darac agreed, and with a heavy heart took charge of the men again. They soon found that their entry had been easy – all the guardians of the Underworld aimed at keeping people and souls in, not out! Roads that had been free were now open. Rivers of molten lava had appeared where there had been serene lakes of blood before. Things with sharp teeth came for the men when they rested, and the gods sent armies of the dead to confront them. Darac’s army, already reduced to a fraction of its size, dwindled. They fought and defeated Zotsa, whose phlegm dissolved a man within seconds. They came across a lake where a dozen men would not heed warnings out of thirst and turned to stone as they drank. They climbed a wall made out of the writhing bodies of disloyal temple slaves. They braved the burning air of Genvahorr and the frozen caverns of  Ucpelardi.

It was in these caves that they nearly found their end, were it not for a strange coincidence. Through the thick snow-storms, they saw several shapes. As they got closer, it became clear that what they saw was a battle. It was a naked woman, with dark hair, surrounded by a dozen winged demons. Her skin was pale, almost blue from the cold, and the demons had frost-covered skin. She was using a horn she had ripped off a demon’s head as a club. Then Darac recognized her, it was the God-Queen Nuria! Without much thought, Darac charged the demons, and his companions and men followed him.

After defeating the demons, and providing some of their clothes to the God-Queen, Nuria explained that she had been cast into the Underworld as punishment for being spared by Darac. She was not the ally Darac would have chosen, but she was a familiar person. More-over, she said she thought she could find the way back, even though she was feeling too weak to make it on her own.

Darac agreed to trust the God-Queen Nuria, and she was true to her word. She led Darac’s now very small group of men to the surface, where they emerged amidst the volcanoes of the southern islands.

 

A New World, Part 5: Mythology – Darac’s Origin

As promised, I’ll continue to flesh out the New World setting I created for the January Blog Carnival. I haven’t really had time to work on the map, so I am doing something different today and maps will come later. I’ll deal with the Colonist’s religion. I’ll try to make this semi in-character:

Darac’s Origin

In the past, Gods walked the Earth. Everybody knows this, and everybody learns the stories about the Old Gods – how they created the world, and how they made it their own; how they gave it life. The Old Gods were very much invested in mankind, and interacted with it frequently. A traveler could come across the goddess of beauty bathing under a waterfall. If he was lucky, she would take a liking to him. A fair maiden might be visited by a god as she brushed her hair in front of a mirror, and if she was unlucky, he took a liking to her. The gods were whimsical, unpredictable, sometimes generous and often very, very jealous.

Mankind continued to thrive, learned to make better tools and more powerful weapons. Humans built cities, connected them with roads, founded kingdoms and began to explore the oceans. But they did not contest the power of the gods until Rarthot, one of the Old Gods, came across a group of young women near a village. All of the girls fled at the sight of the God, except for the most beautiful of them, Iruwa, who faced him without fear. Impressed by her beauty and her boldness, Rarthot took her to be his mistress.

Rarthot, however, soon discovered that Iruwa was carrying a son. Enraged that she was not pure any longer, Rarthot took the son from her and threw him to the Earth without a thought. He then banished Iruwa to the deepest levels of the underworld; a place of eternal pain and suffering. She was tormented by the underworld demons, a suffering only surpassed when Rarthot would visit, and unleash the worst cruelties he could imagine. This went on for sixteen years before Rarthot’s visits became less frequent and he, eventually, abandoned Iruwa, so she might suffer for the rest of eternity.

Rarthot had never thought a second time of Iruwa’s son, however. He survived and was found by a poor shepherd. Desperately poor, he nonetheless took the child home, and he and his wife raised him as his own. The boy was given the name Darac.

Darac grew to be a healthy young man – strong as an ox, quick as the lightning, agile as the cat but also of sound mind, he was well-liked in his village. He left his home during the Navorish wars, and learned to use sword, spear and bow. He distinguished himself as a very capable warrior, his skill and fighting-spirit inspiring those who saw him in the thick of battle.

One day, a priestess came to bless Darac’s legion before an important battle. As she touched Darac’s head, she fainted. As she recovered, she sent everybody away and told Darac of his true origin as the son of a woman taken by Rarthot – it had been revealed to her as she had been unconscious.  At first, Darac did not believe it, but after the war he returned home and his foster parents told him that, indeed, they were not his true parents but had found him. Now Darac was filled with doubts, and decided to find out more about his origin. He left his village again, vowing to return once he had discovered the truth.

Over the years, he lived through many adventures. Darac’s Voyages led him to all known lands, and far beyond. He saw things no mortal had seen before him, fought gruesome monsters, and received audiences from priests and kings alike. He was led astray often, made wrong decisions at times, but never gave up on his quest. He gathered a group of four friends, who assisted him. He obtained a sword blessed by none other than the god Yorhorh, which he used to slay the Red Dragon. The gods took notice of this, and some began to aid him, while others toyed with him. The God-Queen Nuria told Darac of his mother’s fate. Darac swore that he would kill Rarthot for this, and rescue his mother.

Rarthot was at first annoyed, then over time frightened, as Darac overcame one hurdle after the other, defeated every enemy that challenged him. Eventually, Darac and his friends forced their way into the Pantheon itself, and confronted and killed Rarthot in a mighty battle that was witnessed in all of the world as a violent thunderstorm that lasted three days.

Darac was offered to replace Rarthot in the Pantheon, but Darac rejected this. Instead, he returned to the world. He parted ways with his companions, each vowing to use the powers they gained from the dead god Rarthot to protect the peoples of the land.

 

A New Year, A New World Roundup

RPGBlogCarnivalLogoSmallJanuary came and went and it’s time to close our “New Year, New World” Blog Carnival. With a slow start, we still got a number of really cool – and in some cases very long – entries. Posts were, in chronological order:

Thank you all for participating! Be sure to check out February’s carnival, over at Leicester’s Ramble, on the topic of How/Where You Write/Prep.

If you’ve got any late articles, please post below or on the original post and I’ll add you to the list. I’ll also continue building my small colonial setting over the next months.

A New World, Part 4: Mapping the Coastline

Now that I know a little about the situation of our colonists, I’d like to know what the geography is like. Usually, I make up my maps from complete stretch, but the other days I saw a map of Sumatra on the BBC News site and I decided that its eastern coast looks pretty awesome. The New World setting being a fairly small one, I thought it’d be quite okay to actually use Sumatra and modify it.

The source map I picked is one provided by Wikimedia, and is public domain. (Always respect other people’s copyrights!)

I set up an Inkscape document with dimensions of 420x594mm, that’s DIN A2 format. This will allow me to create enough detail for a medium-sized posted map, if I so wish, and I can easily halve the size to make it an A3 size for a 2-page spread in a booklet or magazine. Landscape format for the same reason. I realize that I am probably overthinking it, but then, it doesn’t hurt.

My Inkscape Setup
My Inkscape Setup

Normally, you’ll want to avoid using real geographic features as much as possible, despite it having a long tradition (the D&D pioneers based their settings off a fantasized version of the USA), because humans are insanely good at recognizing patterns and players will spot your sources. All my settings are “officially” parallel Earths, though, so at least I have a rationale for it.

Tracing the coast
Tracing the coast

As you can see I trace the coastline in many small sections; this is so I can do it zoomed in. I don’t try to match it precisely, and I am ignoring the islands off the coast for now. A little filling action later, and we have ourselves an east coast.

First Draft of East Coast
First Draft of East Coast

It looks bland at this stage, but that’s okay. Do note two things: One, I’ve marked a possible site for the colony. Two, the coast is not contiguous in the south and extends “off map”. This could be a bay, or the New World might be split by a strait. I’ll leave this up for later.

Now it’s time to add higher elevations. I add rivers first, because I find it helps to use them as a guide for mountains rather than the other way around. For the elevation colors, I am re-using the palette I used for my Northern Territory map. In the following screenshot, I’ve filled in some preliminary mountains – as you can see, each “height range” is a separate layer. In this map, they are abstract levels, but on some maps I go by numerical height bands.

Going Vertical
Going Vertical

Note that only the coastal layer has an outline (dark blue) to provide better contrast; all higher elevations have no outlines because here I find outlines to be distracting.

Looking at the map, it does seems too sterile. Let’s add some quick islands.

You gotta have islands
You gotta have islands

And there we have it, a nice, fairly dynamic coastline, some cool islands that beckon, and you almost can’t tell that it was Sumatra once. To see how it works as a hexcrawl, I added a 0.5 inches hexgrid to the map. I use an online SVG hexmap generator, open the resulting SVG file, group all elements and copy them over into a new layer.

Hexgrid Overview
Hexgrid Overview

And a zoom:

regional002b-cropped

I am, if I may humbly say so, quite happy with how this turned out. Next time, I will work on the interior – and work on some local details.

 

A New World, Part 3: What’s the Colony Like?

Log_Cabin_BAHAccording to Wikipedia, it took the Mayflower pilgrims three weeks to build their first common house, 6×6 meters in size. They were severely hampered by disease. They assigned single men to families to reduce the number of houses that needed to be built. They completed their initial settlement another month later, with 30+ people dead (about 25%).

In the case of the lost colony, there is no major disease (our settlers have it hard enough), but a severe shortage of food and other supplies, and unrest among the refugees.  The group is also much larger, so ideal logs for building have to be brought in from further afield, or less ideal trees used. The refugee fleet was not as well prepared as the original fleet, but there are some woodworking tools on any (wooden!) sailing ship.

Size

How many houses does the settlement need? Assume six to eight people per house, or 250-330 buildings. Some of these will be common houses, storage barns, and the like. The available land will be split into long, stretches; the house is at the front of the grant, at the roadside; the rear will presumably used for agriculture. Common houses will be clustered in the center of the colony, near the waterside. There are native tribes in the New Lands, but none survive nearby; with food and shelter an urgent matter and the settlement being fairly large, the town will not build any defensive structures.

As a side note, I realize that 2000 people is a lot. That’s basically the entire population of the Thirteen Colonies in 1625. However, with contact with the old world completely lost, 2000 people is a very, very small population – perhaps too small to survive in the long run. I also decided that I’d like to have the main colony have some semblance to a real town.

Timing

The colonists had a while to set up before the refugees arrived. The less time before winter arrives, the fewer houses will be built; this means more overcrowding and might also mean that the buildings that are built are closer together. It also leaves less time for foraging and creates a greater strain in the colony.

Location

The colonists explored the coast for a short while, maybe a few weeks, until they found a suitable spot (they also tried to find the site of the original outpost, since some maps of that area existed and a few native settlements there were known to be friendly). Features: Defensible hill, old growth forest, a protected natural harbor, and a river. (The river for easier transportation and travel inland, and for building watermills.)

Administration

The settlement is governed by the leader of the original colony fleet, let’s use the term “Governor”. He is authorized – by the King personally – to run the colony in the King’s name. He is supported by a handful of officers and administrators, and ten men-at-arms. Another few dozen “trusted” men make up the settlement’s militia, though of course in any larger attack everybody who can hold a weapon (or a club) is expected to help in the defense. It is noteworthy that no members of the refugee group serves as guards or militiamen.

Resources

The original fleet carried some crops and some livestock – especially the later is among the most valuable property of the colony. A few cows, chicken, sheep, pigs. None of these will be used for food, as they are needed for breeding.

Both fleets also brought cats (to keep rats and mice in check) and dogs (as guard dogs). I am considering to omit horses and donkeys,; locating an animal suitable for riding or as a beast of burden could be a priority for the colony.

Tools are “colonial” property and issued as needed. Anything anybody owned privately that was deemed useful for the colony was confiscated, with promises of payment “if and when” the colony survived.

Ships: The colonists probably stripped a few ships for supplies. Some ships might be suitable for fishing. Two – with minimum crew – were sent back to the old world, they have not yet returned. Some others are used to explore the coast.

Money

There’s no official currency. Some people barter for what little surplus there is, or use old world gold and silver coins. Most other metals are way too useful for tool-making to be used for coins. Written IOU’s are used in some cases.

Name

The settlement needs a name. I was thinking “KIng’s Cove”; there are a real life King’s Cove in Canda and a King Cove in Alaska. I think that’s okay. The colony was named before the arrival of the refugees, so it will have a “normal” colony name, and not anything connected to its status as a refugee camp.

 

A New World, Part 2: Assumptions

Before I start working on maps or any such things, I like to “nail down” some of the basic assumptions of a new setting. Basically, my process is a “top-down” approach, but very iterative – I decide on the big issues first, and then bounce back and forth between detail work and large-scale work. If that makes any sense?

First, what is the setting about? Mostly survival and exploration:

  • Man vs Nature: The colonists are short on equipment, supplies, there’s no infrastructure. There used to be natives, but a Tsunami wave has destroyed coastal settlements – there are surely survivors somewhere, but they aren’t easy to reach and might be worse off than the colonists.
  • Man vs Man: Let’s face it, some people just crack when they are in a life-threatening situation. There will be those who will take what they need – or want – without any regard for others. There will be power struggles, either over practical matters or over ideology.

Second, what sort of starting situation have we?

  • The New Lands were discovered a few years ago. The original explorers built an outpost for their own use, but the colonists couldn’t find it (presumably it was destroyed) and settled nearby.
  • The colony fleet consisted of seven ships, the “refugee” fleet of nine. A rough rule-of-thumb for the number of people this gives us could be using thing the Mayflower as an example; she carried 135 people. Our settlement starts of with about 2000 colonists and refugees. This is a large number, but attrition will run fairly high (half of the Mayflower settlers did not make it through the first winter).
  • The colony fleet would include craftsmen, soldiers, trained administrators; in short every type of profession you’d need to set up a settlement that is far from the homeland. The refugee fleet just carried whoever had the random luck to make it on board.
  • Arrival was probably timed to be late winter, very early spring, so that the colony could be established well before the next winter. For dramatic purposes, I will assume that it is late summer/early autumn. This means the colonists can not get farms going. I might change this depending on research.
  • It’s a “humans only” fantasy setting with no, or very limited, magic.

Goals

Finally, one word about goals: I’d like this to be a usable mini setting by the end of the month. This probably means that I won’t be able to go into great detail. Of course, if anybody would like to use this setting, I could keep working on it after the Carnival is over.

A New World, Part 1: The New Lands

I still remember the excitement of our departure. The wind picked up. The cheers from the crowd as we set sail. Picking up speed as we passed The Pillars, the open ocean before us. We were the vanguard, the pioneers, the first fleet amongst many that would be sent to the New Lands in the west to build new settlements, new homes, and eventually, glorious cities for our King and country.

Three weeks into the voyage we observed something strange to our east. Thin pillars of flame descended from the heaven, five in a row, lasting but a moment. The men argued about the event, fearing a bad omen, but my officers convinced them that it was a sign of a safe voyage. I think none of them really believed it, but it quelled the unrest, and over the days the excitement of arrival took over.

Here, the note written by Lord Admiral Corwyn Thynne digresses into some of the plans for the initial settlement, at a site picked shortly after the original discovery of the New Lands. Later, and on a different day, he continues:

My first glance through the lense revealed utter chaos and destruction. Fallen tree and debris all over. We followed the coast but found no sign of the fort set up during the voyage of discovery. We found no native villages, and no sign of life. But everywhere was destruction. Our maps, necessarily crude to begin with, did not match the coastline. We knew we were in the right place, and verified it by the stars once more. But dramatic change had taken place, not long ago.

We landed the next day, Benedict says it looks as if the area was flooded very recently. We ventured a few miles inland, but nothing changed. We have no explanation, but we will carry on with what we set out to do. We have selected a new site, it has everything we require.

Most of Lord Corwyn’s following notes concern themselves with establishing the settlement. Two weeks later he remarks, in hurried script:

The second fleet was not to arrive for months, yet today we sighted sails on the horizon. Nine ships, and all crowded, made landfall nearby. I met with their commander, one Sebastien of Orolai. The ships’ crews and passengers were a mess – wretched, dirty souls. of Orolai told me that a searing fire had consumed much of the Kingdom, and that the small fleet consisted of vessels commandeered in Westhaven. They first sailed along the coast, but found no port city not in flames or already destroyed. Not knowing where else to go, they set sail across the ocean, having been lucky to have a navigator who knew about the routes.

I talked to a few of the refugees, and I never got the same story twice. Whatever happened back home – one thing seems certain, we will not get any supplies or help. And now we have hundreds of extra mouths to feed. Let’s hope that wee can forage enough for the winter.


The Lost Colony is a small setting I will be designing over the course of January. The premise is, as you read above, that a fleet set out to establish a colony, but reinforcements never arrived. Instead, it appears that a catastrophe has destroyed their homelands. Overcrowded, low on supplies, and isolated from civilization, the young colony begins to explore the New Lands to build a future for themselves.

 

Blog Carnival: A New Year, A New World

RPGBlogCarnivalLogoSmallThe start of a new year is traditionally a time that motivate people to change. For some people this means an attempt to lose a bad habit, but true adventurers are in the last stage of preparation for their spring departure – to go over the next hill, across the ocean, down into the depths of subterranean realms, or into deep space, to explore the strange new lands that lie beyond.

This month’s RPG Blog Carnival is about new worlds, about their discovery and about the women, men, and other sentient humanoids who explore and colonize them. Do you run an exploration-centric campaign? Maybe a hexcrawl in a fantasy world, or about setting up a colony on an alien planet? Share your methods – what aspects do you emphasize, and how do you handle them? How do you create a sense of wonder, and maintain it? What strange lands are your characters exploring? What equipment are they using? What vehicles or other means of transportation – a wagon train, flotilla of barques, or slower-than-light Sleeper Ship? Who are your explorers, what motivates them, and who are their patrons and followers? What equipment helps them? What obstacles lie in their paths?

Share your new lands with us, if you can do so without spoiling them for your party. Show off your maps and designs. How do you approach setting up your worlds? Share your favorite world-building tips!

The RPGBA Blog Carnival

The Blog Carnival provides a monthly topic to inspire RPG bloggers to post about. December’s topic was “With A Twist”, check out the round-up post; and a full archive of topics is available if you’d like to see what was done in the past.

To participate, you simply post about the topic in any shape, way or form and post a link to your article as a comment to this introduction post. At the end of the month I’ll post a round-up with links to every post so readers have one central place to look up everything.

Enjoy… and HAPPY NEW YEAR!

Update, February 1st: The Roundup has been posted.

Stargate: Universe

If you’re a sci fi geek or even any sort of regular fellow who watched blockbusters in the 90s, you know the premise of Stargate: A network of ancient portal devices has been left on various planets by an ancient race, and can be used to travel from one planet to another with ease.

It’s a high concept setting, but not quite as original as one may think. Tunnel in the Sky comes to mind as an obvious source of inspiration, but that doesn’t matter so terribly. There are no new ideas, as they say, anyway.

Like most people, I did watch the movie and then watched some of the TV show (Stargate: SG-1). Didn’t follow it for too long and never really watched any of the spin-offs until a year or so ago. Stargate: Atlantis seemed very silly, and I never even heard of Stargate: Universe until long after it got cancelled. After watching it, I felt quite mixed about the show but eventually decided that it was overall a fairly decent effort. Much like my post about Star Trek: Enterprise, I thought I’d offer some notes from a world builder’s perspective.

SPOILER WARNING – Some plot details will be mentioned in this post.

The Premise In Short: Earth discovers a special stargate – one that leads not to another planet, but to a star ship that has been traveling for aeons. Due to an unfortunate incident, a group of unprepared soldiers and civilians is stranded on this ship, with no way of getting home.

The Setup: The series seems to have been Star Gate’s take on the Star Trek “planet of the week” premise. On a fundamental level, it’s about humans and their relationships and conflicts in an extreme situation (cut off from Earth) and exploration (of strange new worlds).

The Worldbuilding: I have an okayish understanding of Star Gate lore, and SG:U doesn’t really expand it all that much. The idea of an ancient starship travelling towards an unknown destination is a pretty cool one – and one I must steal at some point – as long as you are willing to accept that your audience’s suspension of disbelief will be a bit strained when your ship inevitably arrives at its destination during the show’s run on TV. Talk about cosmic coincidences, right?

I’m definitely amazed that anybody in their right minds thinks that something like the Stargate project could be kept secret for decades, to the point where Earth has hyperspace capable spaceships of their own. I guess the show creators simply didn’t want to tackle the implications for Earth’s society – nor spend the money on the sets and cgi necessary for anything that does not look like “present day earth” – but it’s still bad worldbuilding.

This becomes a real immersion breaker when the Lucian Alliance bombs Stargate HQ/Pentagon/whatever in one episode. If you want to damage Earth’s government and you have access to spaceships – just land one in a public place and hold a press conference. You’re safely off based elsewhere in the galaxy; the governments on Earth suddenly have a big problem on their hands.

Lessons learned: Don’t do it if you can’t explain it. In the case of SG:U’s unchanged earth, even a short piece of dialogue could have helped. “How did you manage to keep all this secret,” Eli asked. Lt. Gen O’Neill shrugged. “Really tight security. Luck. Most people who get involved realize that there’s a lot of dangerous stuff out there and we can’t simply open the floodgates. We’ll go public when we have a handle on things.”

It’s not perfect but better than the NDA in the pilot. Of course an even better way to do it would have been to just not show Earth much at all.

Consider the implications of changes you introduce. They never stay confined to your group of protagonists – earth-shattering revelations have a tendency to shatter earth. Don’t use them unless you can deal with the consequences.

The Plot: The writers of the show had clearly no plan of where they were going, and were incredibly bad at handling the situations they wrote themselves into. Without checking for script credits, I have to assume that writers changed constantly and were each responsible for a handful of episodes at most. There was also quite obviously no-one on the show’s staff who cared for consistency or the show’s plot arc.

There is an arc, but it’s so jumbled together that it would have been better to just throw it out the window completely and go with the “Captain’s Log – today we find ourselves in orbit around a hitherto unknown class M planet” of Star Trek tradition.

This is most apparent in season two where, when faced by a seemingly insurmountable obstacle in the form of berserker drones, the only solution the authors could come up with was “Well, let’s just leave the galaxy”. Cancellation, it seems, is a logical consequence of such a weak showing.

But this is not the only example. Another problematic one: The castaways don’t know how to control Destiny at first, which, combined with their need for information and supplies, is great if you want to run a “planet of the week” show. The crew found Destiny’s control center when the writers wanted a more “star ship combat” show, which ruined the planet of the week setup – the crew could always just jump away – and indeed required artifice when they did want to create conflict. Why not just go FTL? Because technobabble reasons. It’s the science fiction equivalent of modern day haunted house horror movies: Why wouldn’t the characters just call for the cops on their mobile phones once bad things happen?

Other examples include the Rush-Young drama, the Lucian attacks, the mystery aliens, the silly time travel stuff, and the Novus colony.

Lessons learned: If you create a series, it’s not only important to have a cool setup – you also need to know what your destination is. This applies to the overall arc as well as minor arcs. “Cool, let’s throw berserkers at them” should have immediately been followed by “…and their weakness is xyz and that’s how they are eventually defeated”. This goes for all your major conflicts, really. Even if it’s not in the scope of what you are doing now, know where it’s going. Say your show or series is set to the background of a civil war. Who is fighting, and why? Who will win, and why? If you know this, you’ll know what events will happen in between. You’ll need to show the world’s background sooner or later, and it simply helps you to stay on track and consistent. It’s fine to have one-off’s, but you should stick to your show’s general theme.

Technology: The technology used by the characters is all “present day”. They use notebooks, flashlights, guns, mobile phones appropriately – though they gloss over how they charge them and ignore the difficulties in hooking any of these things up with the Ancient technology of destiny. The actual “sci fi” technology is just “magical”. The communications stones are a particularly bad design: Not only do they work by magic, they also result in characters swapping bodies. Unfortunately, this allows the Destiny folks to just bring in the world’s greatest experts on any subject unless they add artificial barriers that prevent the stones from working.

Now, one could argue that not having them also limits the type of problem the castaways can encounter and thus lessen the diversity of plots. But if your protagonists can’t deal with a problem at hand, you’ve got a classic case of deus ex machina. And that’s been crappy design for thousands of years.

Lessons learned: Larry Niven famously pointed out that it got hard to write for the Known Space setting because of all the wonder technologies he had introduced: Indestructible hulls, super-intelligent Protectors, longevity drugs, super-fast hyperdrives and antimatter fuel. The communication stones, as presented, are such a technology. Always consider how anything you introduce could short-circuit your story down the line. Plan for it or don’t use the magic technology or whatever it is.

Characters: Oh, what a dysfunctional bunch. Character design in SGU is mostly good, with some exceptions. The good part is that they clearly designed the characters as a group – pretty much everybody has a foil, for example. Some characters are way over the top, which in itself isn’t necessarily bad. I felt that the Rush-Young conflict escalated too much, for reasons that were too flimsy, and wasn’t ever really resolved properly. It just seems that after some point everybody got tired of writing for it, and their near-civil war dropped to occasional insults.

There is an obvious problem with the cast in that – as mentioned above – they had to constantly bring minor character on board destiny to solve this crisis or that. In my opinion this severely detracted from the protagonists. They also thought it necessary to bring Lucian Alliance (“terrorist”) soldiers aboard. My initial thought was that they did this to add characters that might appeal more to their target audience, but that wasn’t the case; it was probably another subplot-gone-wrong.

A minor nitpick is that even after two seasons, there were still chubby characters on the ship. Everybody survives on tight rations that are almost entirely vegetarian – no candy, no surplus; everybody should have slimmed down considerably.

Lessons learned: Design your protagonists well. Don’t just design them as people, make sure they are capable of dealing with their environment and the conflicts you throw at them. That doesn’t mean they always succeed – and not all of them will survive; it’s quite acceptable to kill off characters. But don’t make it a habit to magically introduce someone who was never mentioned before and then goes on to solve the problem in a significant way.

If you do have a situation where contact with the outside world is limited, write up a complete roster of characters. And I do mean complete, if you are looking at, say, 100 or so characters at most. Not everybody needs a full bio, but at least note down name, age, profession, appearance if you are working in a graphical medium, and a reason for why he is where he is. A few words suffice. Some ties to other characters – colleagues, love interests, etc – are a nice bonus. You can flesh them out later or change details, but if you need, say, a cook, you know who in your roster fills that slot.

The same, by the way, goes for equipment in such a situation, though you can always have crates of unspecified items. Just, for the sake of all that is good and holy, don’t have your characters unpack an item that could have been REALLY useful in last week’s episode. They would have taken a stock and known about it.

Aliens: There are few aliens in the show, which fits well with the human-centric setting. There are a few nonsentient species; a species of tiny swarm creatures that shows at least rudimentary intelligence; the berserker drones mentioned, the Novus colonists (a really dumb subplot), and two alien races that use spaceships.

One of them is a race that was in conflict with the berserker drones and lost. I liked the physical design; they were very humanoid and vaguely lemur and corpse like. I am not sure if they were cgi, puppets, or actors – maybe a mix. They didn’t play any sort of major role, interaction with them was minimal and they were killed off once they fulfilled their role as a plot piece. The show probably would have worked just as well without them.

The other race is more involved with Destiny; they wanted to get on board for a long time and failed. Which is odd, since they do manage to get aboard during the show’s first season and kidnap a crew member. Their physical design was less impressive, being clearly CGI in appearance. The conflict with them, too, is left unresolved; that is, it is simply “written out” when the writers got tired of it.

Lessons learned: Just because it’s science fiction, it doesn’t have to have aliens. If you do set one up as an antagonistic species, make sure they integrate into your overall story arc and you figure out how to deal with them properly.

In closing, I see why SG:U was cancelled. It was the right decision; too much was wrong with the show. It’s still a bit sad because the premise and basics were all there to make it a great show. I do recommend watching it – there are just barely enough good episodes to make it worth-while. And it is great as an instructional piece. Pay attention to the characters and their conflicts. Pay attention to the problems the antagonists face and how they solve them. Think of each episode’s story on its own, and how it relates to “mini arcs” and the “overall arc” of the show. It’ll be a really good lesson for your own storytelling.

 

 

A Short Note on Evil Clowns

Enrico_Caruso_As_CanioLife oftentimes writes the best stories. A French town has banned clown costumes and makeup after several cases of assault.

Of course, evil clowns are one of the big tropes of horror and while the current issue is – hopefully – just another social media fad, this incident is also perfect for a story or role-playing game session.

Your protagonists, who likely grew up on King’s “IT” and other horror lecture, may suspect the worst when they hear that clowns are terrorizing a small town for Halloween – and might actually be relieved when it turns out they are just local kids being idiots. Of course, and especially in the next few months, or based on their reaction, you could pull a switcheroo on them – some of the clowns are actually evil creatures.

If I were to run such a scenario, I would present ambiguous evidence and then swing the story based on my players’ theories and fears. And I’d bring circus music on my iPad and play it very faintly whenever they get into a clown encounter or are getting close to the Nest…