Friday, 23 December 2016

Star Trek Conception: A Narrative & Puzzle-driven Roleplaying Game

I've been kicking around ideas for an alternative Star Trek roleplaying game system for years now, with little solid progress. Work keeps getting in the way of my train of thought. But this time, I think I've really got something solid. Find below version 1 of the rules booklet, standard blank character sheet, and introductory adventure (for GM's eyes only):

Star Trek Conception (The rules, 15 pages)
Standard Character Sheet (1 page)
Sample Episode, titled "Keep It Down" (2 pages, Spoilers, do not read if you're not the GM)

"I cast Magic Missile!"

The rules might make more sense if you know the background process of how they came to me.

Step 1 is that I've stolen some ideas from Fiasco. Specifically, the bit where the game is divided into scenes, and that's about as low as the game's resolution goes. No rolls for individual actions, no splitting hairs about exactly how awesome your stats are. Just the story, unpredictable and organic, yet still clearly made from the players' choices.

You could run a totally GMless Star Trek game with little more than this loose structure, but I think an important part of any Star Trek episode is the central mystery or puzzle to solve in each episode, and it's useful to have an impartial GM who can prepare these ahead of time. I tried coming up with an automated mystery generator, but it didn't seem like a satisfying solution. I may add that in future updates, if I ever find a good way to handle it.

So instead, step 2 is acknowledging that this is a GM-led game, though hopefully it leaves fairly little for a decent GM to do, beyond initial setup and verbal description.

There are some dice rolls to be made, and I'll admit that they aren't as elegant as the plot-generating rolls of Fiasco. They're just simpler plot-resolving rolls, pretty similar to the Warhammer speed combat house rules I proposed back in June. In the case of Conception, I think I've gone even further, with just a single roll representing the whole scene, rather than a condensed number of rolls per character, as in the Warhammer.

And then the other big thing I noticed (let's call this step 3) is that Star Trek is always about ideas, concepts, beliefs, points of view. Sure they've got piles of technology, but that's not what the show was ever really about. We mock the episodes that use easy technological solutions to deus ex machina a major problem away, and we venerate the episodes that dig deeply into human emotions, ambitions and principles.

To reflect this, I've made personal ideology a major part of the rules. How things turn out is directly affected by what your characters believe. This was something we originally played around with in a Planescape game, years ago, where each player was required to formally define with their character's core beliefs, and these served as both roleplaying guidelines and a way to add dice modifiers. I have something similar in mind for Star Trek, except that where belief literally reshapes the universe in Planescape, in Star Trek it should be viewed more as shaping personal intention and action in a more abstract way. On the other hand, where personal beliefs were just modifiers to normal gaming statistics in our Planescape rules, for the Conception rules, personal ideology effectively is your major set of gaming attributes. It's much more qualitative than quantitative, which is something new for me.

We've tested the rules out once, using that sample episode I prepared, and it seemed to work well enough. Character depth was lacking, but this is not surprising whenever a new game starts up. Of course, I know this wasn't a perfectly fair test, since I already knew both the outcome I wanted and how to play that to my very familiar group of players. Blinded testing would probably reveal some useful flaws I could correct, so if anyone does have feedback after trying these rules, please do let me know.

Thursday, 15 December 2016

How Many People Did Neil Armstrong Kill?

To answer the title question: I don't know. It's not clear to me if anyone knows the answer to that question for certain. It's quite likely that Armstrong (yes, first human on the Moon Armstrong) did kill people, and yet there's no clear (public) record of it. Very few sources even seem to want to report it, only noting slightly euphemistically that he flew combat missions in Korea, and then they rush off to his later, cleaner exploits.

That's kind of weird. The actual violence tells us something about Armstrong, but the whitewashing of his background arguably tells us more about ourselves.

To spell it out clearly, he was mostly involved in ground attack flights, for example bombing anti-aircraft guns (which would likely have killed the people firing those guns), so that later bombers could pass by unimpeded (and possibly kill more people with their own bombs). This is what Neil Armstrong did before he became an astronaut.

I don't think this is the defining activity of his life, if such a thing even really exists. We all mainly know him as the Moon guy, but we also get that this wasn't his whole life. Most people would think of him also as a scientist or pilot, and those who've done their homework would be more specific and call him a naval aviator, test pilot, engineer, and academic. Some might focus on his family life, or his religion, or his media presence. But it doesn't take that much thought to go beyond purely "Moon guy". So why the resistance to also giving him the title of "someone who has probably killed people"?

This is something that's bugged me about many astronauts. Quite a lot of them have military backgrounds, and more than a few have shot people. In most sane professions, that's something that keeps you from getting even the first interview, and yet NASA considers it a virtue instead? We put these people up on pedestals and expect kids to regard them as rolemodels. (Are we hoping the kids will never find out about the violence? Or that they will?) When the first astronauts were hired, it was widely considered damning that most of the early ones were having a lot of sex with a lot of people (oh noes!), and yet not damning in the least that they might have ended someone's life on purpose. That's a pretty fucked up set of priorities.

I've responded to this by doing what any sane, well-adjusted individual would do, and spent several days scanning through every single astronaut/cosmonaut/taikonaut profile page on wikipedia (plus other sources, notably, where greater clarity was needed) to build up a spreadsheet that categorises all of them by the level of violence they're known to have embraced. Below is the google docs version of that.

The first column with the H's denotes whether they're known to have killed non-human animals, mostly through hunting/fishing. I had a hunch early on that there might be a link between that behaviour and violence against human animals.

The second column gives the person's violence level, on a scale from 0 to 3. 0 indicates no known violence; 1 indicates military employment, with no known actual violence; 2 indicates participation in violent activities, but uncertainty about whether this actually killed anyone or not; 3 indicates definitely actually killing someone.

The fourth column supplies a couple additional notes, clarifying context.

This analysis is mostly only good for spotting major incidents of publicly documented violence. Statistically, it is probably missing all manner of bar brawls and sexual assaults, and it's not inconceivable that someone on this list could have covered up actual murders. But I just don't have evidence for most of that, so I only go with what I can confirm with reasonable certainty.

A separate sheet, in the same format, records space tourists separately from the working spacecraft crews.

There's a lot to process there, even summarised down to this table, so I also put columns 2 and 3 in graph form:

Violence level 1 deserves quite a bit of explaining. It makes the most consistent line in the graph, especially in the early years. The military origins of human spaceflight (and spaceflight in general) are no secret. Very few nuclear-armed missiles can't trace their origins somehow back to the V-2, and most human-carrying rockets were either originally weapons, or were designed by the same people who also designed weapons. The governments that funded putting things (human or otherwise) in orbit knew very well that they were mainly doing it to cover up development of military satellites and nuclear bomb launchers. This intention was naturally kept secret at the time, which is why the cultural narrative about spaceflight is so distorted, but it's well-established historical fact today, if you take the time to learn about such things. (I'm enjoying Teitel's Breaking the Chains of Gravity, if you're looking for an introduction to the topic.)

This was also the only real reason that military pilots were chosen to be the first astro/cosmonauts. The same essential skills could be found among civilians, especially during the earliest spam-in-a-can phase, when the spacecraft required no pilot, and the human inside was really just a big guinea pig. So why insist on military crews? Because they'd be working with classified military technology all day long, and Dwight Eisenhower personally decided it would be simpler for NASA to only recruit crews who already had established clearance to work with military secrets. The Soviet government made a similar choice, and it seems China has more recently done the same, all for pretty much the same reason: Military space travellers aren't extra-skilled, they're just less likely to sell your secret weapon designs.

It is true that military pilots are more likely to have fast jet experience, but it turns out that this experience doesn't necessarily translate to spacecraft flying skill any better than other types of piloting experience. And as spacecraft got bigger over time, and crews expanded beyond just the pilot, they started needing people with completely different skill sets, and that's where we start to see the military test pilot fall slightly out of favour. The Soviets were the first to embrace civilian crew, and today many of the most experienced Russian cosmonauts have no military background at all. The US followed along later, mostly during the shuttle years. Yet despite a growing list of purely civilian spacefarers, that line of military ones remains pretty solid too. And it's still because rocketry is considered, first and foremost, a military area of interest, with secrets that need to be kept from "tha baddies".

Violence level 1 is also complicated, because I certainly wouldn't say that everyone at that level is definitely equally violent. It encompasses everyone from those who are trained and willing to use some awful weapons, but simply never got the opportunity to use them, all the way to those who are technically military employees, but whose work is clearly non-violent and may never even contribute to violence, such as medical professionals. It's tricky to find a neat dividing line between the two extremes, though. A test pilot or weapons manufacturer may never actually use their weapon on anyone, but they are clearly developing it so that someone else can use it to kill people later on. So are they morally suspect or not? Senior commanders of military units may never go anywhere near the combat area, but it's hard to argue that ordering people's deaths at a distance is an ethically positive thing. And even logistics support people are indirectly responsible for deaths, when the food they deliver gets eaten by the guy who will go off to kill people. Delivering food clearly isn't violent, and yet if that food wasn't there, the guy doing the killing couldn't have hung around long enough to kill anyone, and the logistics people know that, which is why they deliver the food. It wasn't a coincidence that they fed the guy, it was part of a plan to kill people. So it's hard to draw a very clear, solid line between "good" and "bad" military employees. I think it's much simpler to view the whole military as a killing tool, and to be at least suspicious of anyone who works as part of that tool.

But that doesn't make my astronaut list that much clearer, which is a slight annoyance to me.

Violence level 2 is something I'd really rather not have, because it's ambiguous and imprecise, but unfortunately that's the best level of detail currently available to me. I'd much rather know for certain who is definitely level 3, and who can drop back to level 1. Unfortunately, around the time of the Apollo program, astronaut biographies started getting sanitised. Where fighter pilots had previously been very eager to boast about the people they'd killed, competing as if it were a sport, that publicly went out of fashion, and so it was no longer reported as clearly. We know for certain that John Glenn shot down 3 planes, possibly representing 3 dead pilots, in addition to the unrecorded number of people he killed in ground attacks. (That distinction in how much they valued - and thus recorded - air kills versus ground kills is noteworthy.)

At some point, the US military public relations people realised that a lot of the public didn't want to hear the gory details of war, didn't want to know how the sausage was made, and perhaps there was also a counter-intelligence argument for not boasting your war successes too openly. And so every published combat record from the Vietnam War onwards merely reads that the person took part in "combat operations" or "flew combat missions". That euphemism could mean anything from blowing people up, to helping others blow people up, to flying in circles aimlessly for hours, just so long as it's done within an area where fighting is happening. So, for my purposes, I'm stuck with level 2; some people put at that level may never have done any direct harm at all, but at the very least, we can say with some certainty that they made an effort to try to kill people. That willingness to be violent, I think, counts for something.

(I also wonder if there's something similar with column 1, the hunting thing. Has hunting become less popular than half a century ago? That would fit increasing urbanisation trends. Are animal-killing astronauts as common as ever, and the PR people just keep that off their official profiles now? Or describe it with euphemisms that I'm not spotting, like "hiking" or something? Maybe. I still think there's a general inclination to kill, whether humans or non-humans, that should produce a correlation, but the unexpected big void in column 1 makes that hard to check. Good news if it's a realistic void, at least.)

With that all clarified (I hope?), I'd like to point out a national distinction: Almost all the level 2's and 3's are American. It's possible that the Soviets/Russians simply never admitted that some of their cosmonauts had combat records beyond the few from the Second World War, but I think that's unlikely. The far more obvious explanation is that the Soviet Union didn't go to war nearly as often as the United States. From 1945 to 1990, the Soviet Union may have supported or encouraged or sponsored conflicts, but very seldom participated directly in any major way. The decade-long Soviet-Afghan War was the one big exception, and it is a little surprising to me that no cosmonauts seem to have emerged from that. Post-Soviet Russian conflicts have been much more numerous, but generally less intense and less persistent, mostly related to resolving post-Soviet borders by force. The Americans, on the other hand, have been incredibly violent for most of the last 60+ years, with heavy involvement in some of the biggest contemporary wars. Korea. Vietnam. The Gulf War. The US wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. And always lots of smaller conflicts in between as well, with the possible exception of the Carter years. The Syrian civil war is probably the first time since the 1940s that the Americans and Russians have had comparable participation in the same conflict. Beyond the three main spacefaring countries, the most violent source of astronauts is France, with some noteworthy anomalies from Belgium and Vietnam.

Analysing and explaining all of this is a huge, textbookworthy topic of its own. My sole point for now is that it shouldn't be surprising if few Soviet/Russian military pilots had ever actually seen combat. This is even more true for Chinese taikonauts, as China has been remarkably peaceful for decades.

I think it's also important to avoid excessively monolithic thinking. Not all Americans (or Russians or Chinese) are the same, not all NASA administrators are the same, there has to be some room to consider individual and local quirks. One interesting example is that it was NASA that convinced the Russians not to take any guns to the International Space Station, and not the other way round.

The implications of this are worth debating. Does it mean that Americans are the Klingons? That soldiers are or are not responsible for their wars? I don't think this small data set is enough to be sure of too much, but it does get you thinking, I hope. The main reason I bring it all up here is to illustrate one point: Combat experience is not needed for good astronauts. Killing people doesn't make you handle spaceflight any better.

And so it's weird that NASA has evidently chosen to hire so many astronauts on the basis that they've killed before. It means that someone once sat down and wrote that in as a job requirement, a positive trait for potential recruits to have. I doubt they worded it exactly that way, but they didn't do it that many times in a row, hiring several dozen candidates with combat experience, purely by coincidence. If nothing else, they haven't viewed it as a negative trait.

To be clear, I'm not saying all of the non-military spacefarers are uniformly and perfectly good people. Some, I'm sure, are dicks. But they're dicks who haven't killed anyone, which is a better starting point. As an example, Schmitt's position as first purely civilian American astronaut is spoiled a little by his current deeply unscientific views on global warming, which he insists on publicly espousing. That's not really a violence-related thing, but it does definitely dent his reputation - but less than if he'd shot someone, I think. Of course, some really are great; it's hard to criticise my two favourites, Ride and Jemison, for example. They weren't just non-violent, they actively worked to make the world a better, safer place. Jemison is still at it today, and Ride's legacy will hopefully continue on. Even some of the level 1's seem to have a lot of genuinely positive traits going for them; I'm fond of Hadfield and Cristoforetti, for instance, to the point that I strongly hope they wouldn't ever have pulled a trigger, if they'd been told to. But realistically, I have to concede that they probably would have. And I think that's one of my big conclusions here: If you join an armed organisation that deals primarily in violence, then your choices are automatically suspect to me. Either it means you accept violence, which is bad, or that you're so blind to violence and its consequences that you really shouldn't be trusted with anything more dangerous than a plastic spoon. If you actively oppose violence, your alternative solutions may not work, but at least you've chosen not to kill anyone.

I'm not certain I can draw anything else much more conclusive from this relatively surface-level analysis. I think there's enough unsettled about all of this to warrant a full PhD thesis, if anyone is looking for a topic.

Since I don't like ending on a hanging thread, I do have a couple little notes on smaller things I picked up on while writing this:

My recording of Joe Walker versus James Halsell is worth explaining a little. Both were involved in fatal vehicle accidents, but I've marked Walker as level 1 and Halsell as level 3. Walker's collision appears to have been a genuine accident, certainly not something Walker wanted or could have predicted or controlled. Halsell, on the other hand, intentionally drove drunk, knowing full well what that entails. That's not anyone's fault but his own, and if that caused him to speed, or if he would normally speed while sober too, then the blame still lies with him.

Linnehan's involvement in the Marine Mammal System is as laughable as it is tragic. What these veterinary quacks do to dolphins and sea lions is simply cruel (whether you accept war or not), and if we're supposed to value fighting in wars (which I clearly don't) then surely this should be viewed as a cowardly technique anyway.

There's a fairly unsurprising gender split, with relatively more women in level 0 than men, and none confirmed in level 3.

The space tourists, even less surprisingly, are all level 0. I did briefly wonder whether Shuttleworth might have been conscripted into the South African army (I wasn't sure whether he was young enough to have missed the conscription years), but it's apparently fairly widely known that he skipped the country to avoid that. Elon Musk did the same, which is part of the reason it disappoints me that he now wants to feed rockets to the US military. That's kind of hypocritical.

Mark Kelly is an idiot. After an assassination attempt on his wife, former member of Congress Gabrielle Giffords, the two of them remained pro-gun. Kelly himself has dropped bombs on people (I have him at level 2 above), but it's not unheard of for the physical distance between pilots and their targets to lend them some very unrealistic emotional distance. They don't often actually watch their victims die, from way up in the sky. But you'd think that when 6 people die, including a poor fucking little 9 year old girl, and his own wife is horribly injured, along with a dozen others, then surely he'd get it? Surely he must, however briefly, have drawn the connection between what he did and what Loughner did? If he did, then it was a very weird connection he drew, simply calling for the mythical "bad guys" to have their gun access restricted, while he and the "good guys" kept theirs. (I'm pretty sure there's a fair bit of psychology or cultural anthropology research that could be done on these people.)

This has been a pretty grim, disheartening post to research and write, so let me end on Leland Melville's official astronaut portrait. It's hard not to be happy about this.

Saturday, 12 November 2016

Lessons from a Lebanese Family History

It was my grandfather’s funeral yesterday. I’m typing this at the desk he made for me. I’ve had a few family history-related thoughts swimming through my brain for a while, and seeing so many relatives (some for the first time in decades) has brought these all to the front of my mind.

My dad’s side of the family have clear roots in Lebanon, with migration to South Africa a little over a century ago. The history of Lebanon under Ottoman rule is well-documented elsewhere, and I’m far from an expert on that. But the short summary for now is that the Ottoman Empire was divided into lots of population zones with differing religious and ethnic identities, and most of these were run feudally, with peasant farmers taxed by local authorities, who passed on wealth to regional authorities, who in turn competed to send the most wealth to Istanbul. The competitive nature of this system meant that the peasantry were generally treated pretty poorly, coerced into paying up as much as possible, sometimes through violent means. One story goes that people started building their homes with the smallest possible doorways, because Ottoman cavalry were less likely to dismount to advance indoors and cause trouble on foot.

There were also local conflicts between religious and ethnic groups, sometimes intentionally stoked by the Ottomans to break apart any unity against their rule. One particularly violent internal conflict in 1860 had my ancestors very much on edge, and not long after that, the opening of the Suez canal completely upended the economy, smashing trade routes that had been stable for centuries. This economic shift led to more pressure from tax collectors, unwilling to set their goals lower. By the end of the nineteenth century, Lebanon was not the best place to live, so many families uprooted and travelled halfway around the world to make new lives. The Lebanese Diaspora is pretty varied, with most settlement in the Americas, Australia, mostly Central Europe, and all over Africa (taking advantage of the Europeans’ Scramble for Africa that was going on at around the same time), but I’ll focus solely on my own ancestors moving to South Africa.

The Shams set out in the 1890s, apparently spent a short while living in Bermuda (no idea why there), and then several years in Australia, before settling in the southern African European colonies in the late 1890s (which then became South Africa in 1910). My grandmother’s side, the Leichers, came a few years later, and this family had planned on only a temporary migration, saving up enough to re-capitalise their old farm. But the group of them who returned got there just in time for World War 1, and the Turkish rulers were especially brutal in this period. The starkest examples of this were the Armenian, Assyrian and Greek genocides, but my relatives caught part of it too. Crops were simpy confiscated, farming became unsustainable, and starvation was widespread. Trudging on foot, begging for meals, they set off back to Beirut to try to sail back to South Africa. Of the Leichers who returned to Lebanon, only one boy (Joe, around 11 or 12 years old) survived to rejoin the South African family.

I am the product of refugee immigrants. When I see people today moaning about refugees and other foreigners, all it makes me think is that, a century ago, they would have been refusing to help my family, and it was probably the same sort of moaning, a century ago, that left poor little Joe Leicher to fend for himself in an unfamiliar city, in a state that more or less wanted to kill him.

Of course, in South Africa, things weren’t all rosy either. My grandfather was born in 1925, and he was legally classed as ‘White’. This was still a new advantage to have, as his parents and older siblings had been classified as ‘Asian’ until a 1923 court case “upgraded” them – and ultimately also me. (If nothing else, the flimsy flexibility of this racial definition shows how subjective and nonsensical it all was.) If you know anything at all of South African history, it should be pretty obvious that re-classification as white was a huge advantage. Prior to that, British colonial authorities were just as shitty to non-whites as the later apartheid authorities were. They were barred from a number of jobs, barred from owning property, barred from decent schools, barred from political processes, and subject to harassment by police and paramilitary forces. Many Lebs had been in the habit of lying and pretending to be Greek, as it gave a slightly better chance of being hired. (Apparently many Chinese immigrants similarly pretended to be Japanese to gain their “honorary white” status, at least temporarily). My definitely-undoubtedly-white British mother wouldn't have been legally able to marry my dad if that 1923 decision had never been made, which would have made my subsequent existence pretty unlikely.

The big book of Leb family history that I got this from presents the 1923 case as an early blow against apartheid, but I have trouble reading it that way. It looks to me more like my ancestors were climbing over other oppressed groups, foot on face, to lift themselves to a higher status. If there was a plan to help share this status change with other groups, it never went anywhere, but I don’t think that ever was the plan. In the generations before mine, for every relative I can name who opposed apartheid, however passively, it’s not hard to name two or three others who were (and still are) hugely and unapologetically racist, especially against black South Africans. I don’t know if the Lebs very quickly forgot what life had been like before 1923 (I get the impression that few Lebs in my dad’s generation are even aware that many of their own grandparents and parents weren’t officially born the same race as them), or if white schools trained that hatred into them, or if anti-black racism had already been common among them (somehow) before that, or if it was some sort of disguise mechanism that went too far, trying to fit in better among “real” whites by making a noisy show of putting down non-whites. Perhaps it was a combination of several of these factors. At least in my generation, that prejudice seems far less common.

To be clear, there’s never been any doubt that I’m white. Legally, I’ve never had even a flicker of a question about it. And socially, school bullies were apparently never well-informed enough to question whether Lebs should count as real whites, they just knew it made me something different from them, their default target group. But I’ve probably had just as much bullying over my Scottish origins as my Lebanese origins. More people have worried (worried!) that I might look somewhat Jewish than that I actually do look Lebanese. I have always had all the privileges our society affords an English-speaking white male, enough that I could write an entire post on that topic alone.

One final bit of family history worth sharing also concerns my grandfather. I didn’t know this story at all until about 3 years ago, when he felt I needed to focus better on sorting out my teaching qualifications. In the late 1940s he had gained entrance to study mining engineering at the University of the Witwatersrand. He did well in his first year there, but the family still wasn’t wealthy, and funds ran out. Attempts to find a bursary failed, because at the time most of these were reserved for war veterans. And so his studies just had to end. He always regretted that, and consequently always placed great emphasis on education, ensuring that my dad would get his engineering degree (and later an MBA), as well as supporting both of my aunts’ tertiary studies; today they’re both PhD’s, one specialising in education. A strong emphasis on education carried on into my generation, and I think that the 7 Sham cousins have between us 10 or 11 degrees so far, plus who knows how many other qualifications. I have little doubt that all of this shaped my own interest in becoming a teacher.

So it’s been disappointing to see a couple Lebs opposed to the pro-education goals of the Fees Must Fall movement; unsurprisingly, there is overlap between those opposing it and those who are openly racist. Imagine what my grandfather might have achieved in the ‘40s if he’d had the benefit of fully state-subsidised tertiary education to allow him to finish his degree. Imagine how many other Lebs (not to mention literally everyone else) have been held back in life because they couldn’t afford to study. I still have cousins today who’ve been stopped from studying for purely financial reasons. (Now imagine your entire racial group of millions of people has that same problem, with no wealthy cousins to help them out; sympathy ought to be your natural response.)

Family history is an interesting thing. I think it’s often abused to try and force unity for unity’s sake, a way to increase exclusivity, while I’d rather use it as a way to learn from past mistakes and make the world better, more inclusive. I don’t really care if anyone identifies as Lebanese or not; most of us haven't ever been near the place anyway. And I don’t miss my Jidoo because he was Lebanese, I miss him because he was my Jidoo, and now nobody will cook for us the way he did.
Billy Sham
1925-03-08 to 2016-11-05

Thursday, 6 October 2016

Teacher's Bits: 14-body solar system diagram

While looking to plagiarise other people's diagrams of the solar system (using nothing more complicated than a googly image search), I realised how many old and outdated diagrams are still out there, showing 9 planets. The internet never forgets, so that's not too surprising. But what actually bugged me is that all of the newer diagrams now only show the 8 full planets. This, to me, seems to have missed the point. We added more stuff, we didn't take things away. And I couldn't find a nice, simple diagram of the orbits of the 5 confirmed dwarf planets either. (There are also plenty of astrology-woo versions floating out there, all with at least one major error on them.)

So, I made my own, now available for public use and plagiarism:
Click to embiggen, save to save.

This is a very rough, rushed version, with as few details as possible. Consider this a template for anyone to borrow and improve on however they need to. For my grade 8s, for example, I plan to add label blocks for them to fill in as we discuss them all. Future versions might have proper colour images pasted over the simple circles (printer access permitting) - though there's also something to be said for letting the kids colour them in themselves. And I'd really like to make (or copy) a version that shows the more interesting eccentric orbit shapes of the outer dwarf planets. You could also add asteroid groups, the Kuiper Belt, the Oort Cloud, whatever suits you.

The main thing I've learned by drawing my own version: It's not difficult to do a simple version, but doing it neatly is the real challenge. I used paint.NET's standard circle-drawing tool, and it's a pain.

Saturday, 16 July 2016

2016 Local Elections - Joburg party summaries

With the 2016 local government elections coming up soon, I've been thinking through my options again, and thought I'd make my basic reference list public, in case it helps others to reach a decision. This is obviously just a super-abbreviated summary of the parties contesting the Johanneburg municipality, my way of trying to keep track of who's who. A lot of these parties have shared origins, and can be hard to tell apart. In particular, if you want some African socialism, you're spoiled for choice.

I've marked parties with a * if they have a candidate standing for my ward, just for my own reference. To see who's standing for your own municipality and ward, check these lists from the IEC. They're not the nicest format, but not impossible to read, if you're patient.

Sadly, a lot of the smaller parties haven't taken advantage of online publication, making it hard to find out anything about them. And maybe that suits some of the smallest ones, with no need for them appeal to anyone outside of one or two wards. But since I still technically have the option of giving them my proportional representation vote, I'd definitely prefer to know if they're preferable to any of the larger parties, even if they weren't planning on getting my vote.

African Christian Democratic Party* (ACDP): Anti-abortion, anti-gay, anti-condom, pro-business, pro-death penalty. Just doing their bit to make the world shitter.

African Independent Congress* (AIC): The ones who didn't go very far to distinguish themselves from the ANC when they split off. Originally formed on the single issue of local border placement between KZN and the Eastern Cape.

African National Congress* (ANC): The ruling party, nationally and municipally.

African People's Convention (APC): PAC splitters, and thus also Pan-Africanist socialists.

African People's Socialist Party* (APSP): APC splitters (so also PAC splitter-splitters), not to be confused with the American organisation of the same name. There's some he-said/he-said between their leaders over who's the power-hungry monster, and who truly wants to help the people.

Agang South Africa (ASA): With a history of being poorly organised, they've never made much of an impact. Pretty vague policies, considering the level of experience it started out with; I'd say more or less pro-business.

Al Jama-ah*: An oddity. Islamist party who believe they shouldn't participate in secular law-making, but want to influence it by "having a voice". Feels like cheating to me, but they're only cheating their own rules, so I don't care.

Azanian People's Organisation* (AZAPO): Another socialist party with a Black Consciousness element.

Bolsheviks Party of South Africa (BPSA): Vaguely Leninist, with pictures of Soviet guns on their facebook page.

Building a Cohesive Society (BACS): Often when a party opts for a name that's a whole sentence, with verbs and everything, instead of a couple key words, it's because they're aiming for some clever acronym. What's BACS? Apparently, well-meaning amateurs who could really use a good proof-reader. No clear ideological leaning (apart from some prominent feminism), more of a loose collection of community-building projects.

Congress of the People (COPE): Capitalist ANC splitters. Lots of history of in-fighting.

Democratic Alliance* (DA): The official opposition. Beige as fuck on the outside, pro-business on the inside.

Economic Freedom Fighters* (EFF): Anti-capitalist ANC splitters. Lots of history of out-fighting.

Freedom Front Plus* (FF+/VF+): The party for openly racist whites.

Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP): Zulu monarchists.

International Revelation Congress (IRC): Religious monarchists. I think their logo might have plagiarised the R100 note.

Operation Khanyisa Movement (OKM): Political branch of the Anti-Privatisation Forum.

Pan Africanist Congress of Azania (PAC): Originally ANC splitters (which makes the APSP splitters from splitters from splitters), back in the '50s, over the issue of whether the ANC should be purely Africanist, or aim for multiracialism.

Patriotic Alliance (PA): Anti-crime party led by former convicts. No idea how genuine they are.

Patriotic Association of South Africa (PASA): Party for what it terms "marginalised minorities", i.e. anyone who's neither black nor white.

People's Civic Organisation (PCO): Looks like a very localised party, with an urban service delivery agenda.

Prem Peoples Agenda (PPA): The agenda of the people named Premram Sookmungal. Can't find a damn thing about this.

Socialist Party of Azania (SOPA): AZAPO splitters. Regular unsplitting talks have yet to work out.

Truly Alliance* (TA): Truly what? Protectionist, mostly non-white-minority focus.

Ubuntu Party (bleh): The ridiculous Ancient Aliens & Free Money party, which refused to clear away their posters after the 2014 elections, so they just hung there, fading in the sun and the rain, for months. Their claim at the time was that they were too broke to pay anyone to collect all the posters. I see someone's beamed down more cash to Tellinger to waste everyone's time again this year. Can't tell if this is a direct scam, or just a crooked author's self-promotion scheme.

United Democratic Movement* (UDM): The christmas tree party. Social democrats. They originally formed in a somewhat unusual and interesting way, and have steadily achieved very little since then.

United Front of Civics (UFC): Gauteng branch of the United Front, which is the attempt at a political branch of NUMSA.

Monday, 11 July 2016

Pizza and Voice

Just a short thing to record an analogy I've been thinking about, to explain the concept of non-literal political voice, in the simplest way possible. I was aiming for something I could explain to my youngest students, if necessary.

Say we're ordering pizza as a group. In a dictatorship, you (yes, you) get no say in the toppings. The dictator decides that. Maybe you can persuade the dictator to give you what you want on the pizza, but most dictators will want something in return, and even if you're nice to them, there's still no rule that says they ever owe you anything. If they want cabbage on their pizza, and not your olives, there will be cabbage and no olives.

So we have democracy instead. In a democracy, everyone gets a say in the pizza toppings, so that's definitely more fair. But sometimes democracies don't run perfectly. Sometimes there's a loud guy, just yelling "BROCCOLI!" over and over, and the person on the other end at the pizza place can't possibly hear you saying "olives..." in a quiet voice. The pizza you get then will most likely have broccoli and no olives.

So what's the solution? To shout as loud as broccoli guy? That could certainly help temporarily. The problem with that is that you then become a problem too, your louder voice starts blocking out someone else's. And that means they have to start shouting too, and soon everyone's shouting all at the same time, and pizza place can't hear any of it. And even if they can make out the loudest voices, that means those who can't shout loud still can't get heard. You still end up with people not getting a chance to order the toppings they want.

And sometimes it's more important to hear some voices than others, like the one saying they're fatally allergic to olives.

The best long-term solution, something that'll work every time you make a group order, is to make the ones who start out loudest learn to control their voices and shut up long enough to give everyone else a chance.

Saturday, 9 July 2016

Corrupt Governance as a Consequence of Fear of Change

Apartheid was bad. If that's a controversial statement for you, then you may not be ready for what follows.

One way that apartheid is not often presented, though, is as a form of corruption. There are already enough bad things to say about it, so this seldom seems necessary to add, but I think it's useful to frame it that way, to compare with current national problems we face.

Apartheid can be seen as nepotism on an unusually massive scale: Ensuring the financial and political success of "your people" over anyone else. Unlike the usual individual-level acts we normally associate with nepotism (giving a less qualified person a position or perk, contrary to official requirements), apartheid went a few levels further, ensuring that only the desired people could even become qualified, and that the undesired majority wouldn't just be deprived of jobs, but of all sorts of resources, right down to their choice of homes. Apartheid enshrined pro-white nepotism as the official requirement to follow, not something contrary to it.

There was also, of course, plenty of conventional, "lesser" government corruption by the apartheid government, and it's ridiculous to say that things only became corrupt here after 1994. And yet, it's become widespread, almost cliche, for white South Africans today to bemoan current government corruption, with the implication that this is a new, black thing.

And of course, not all whites opposed to government corruption have consciously racist motives, and of course we'd all be better off, black and white, if corruption was ended. It's a good goal. And it's hard to argue that certain individuals are anything but obviously corrupt. The trouble is, most white South Africans don't seem to see, in the bigger picture, how they're indirectly complicit in corrupt systems, and are often making it easier for corrupt officials to justify their actions.

Consider this: Service delivery protests have become so routine in South Africa that the media no longer bothers to cover the smaller ones at all, and usually only covers larger ones if there's an element of violence (because that sells better, apparently). This is ordinary black South Africans, complaining to the government that they should be providing the essential services a modern state is supposed to. Water. Electricity. Housing. Sanitation. Education.

You don't see white people staging service delivery protests, though, because for the most part, we're still fine. The buckling of the electricity grid over the last few years was one major exception. Apart from that, white South Africans are as comfortable (if not as happy) as ever. Whites like to whine a lot, but we have little to drive us to take any greater action, because the status quo still measurably favours us. We remain more employed than other race groups, better paid, better educated, and still tend to live in the best-resourced areas. We know this isn't a coincidence; this is exactly what apartheid was designed to produce.

Note that white incomes started going down back in the '80s, and went up again from 1994. Black income can fairly be characterised as "pretty damn flat".
Source: The Economist

"But the government and/or the ANC is black!", white people often shout at me. And it's not a crazy question to ask (provided you re-word it into a question): Why is the black-majority post-1994 government not doing much more - as much as possible - to bring about racial equality at an economic level? Why not push with maximum urgency for the full extent of the goals set out in the Freedom Charter? Why hold back?

Explanation 1 makes no sense at all: That they hate the wider black population as much as the unapologetically racist apartheid government did. I reject this out of hand.

Explanation 2 is that too many key government officials have become corrupt, and are now more interested in their own pockets than in the bigger project of nationwide equality. There's certainly some evidence of this, but it's an incomplete explanation, if you look at it closely. How would so many people get so corrupt so quickly? The racist assumption (sometimes subtly hinted at, sometimes stated plainly) is that it's a "black" thing, that whites are inherently more law-abiding, or shit like that. As my opening paragraphs illustrate, the apartheid government was no stranger to corruption, same as anywhere around the world. This explanation also always glosses over one very important follow-up question: Who's paying the bribes? Corruption takes two. A corrupt government dealing only with lawful entities will never have any chance to act corruptly.

And this leads me to explanation 3: White people. And here it gets a little complicated, and it's easy to see why even well-meaning people don't naturally come to this conclusion, and how less well-meaning people can use that to conceal selfish intentions. I'd even say this explanation starts out with good intentions, probably.

In the late '80s and early '90s, when it became accepted that South Africa would become democratic, there wasn't just a simple hand-over of power. There were years of negotiations, some public and well-recorded, others private, informal and maybe not recorded at all. The bottom line of these negotiations was that white South Africans would be welcomed to stay and participate in the democracy, keeping their experience and savings around for as long as possible, with an emphasis on stability. Nobody would benefit, it was argued, from any sort of rushed scramble. Things were generally set up to keep whites happy. Nothing was to be taken directly, nothing had to be surrendered, and very little would actually change for whites, apart from symbolic things, like the national anthem (well, part of it), the flag, and details like that. Land restitution was done on the "willing seller, willing buyer" principle, as if it were a normal market transaction, and not the compulsory return of stolen property. There would even be a government of national unity, sharing the executive branch among many parties, instead of just letting the parliamentary majority take it for themselves. This meant there were still white apartheid officials in senior posts after 1994, not to mention all the lower levels of state bureaucrats.

The only noteworthy scheme that might have cost whites anything was affirmative action (and its sequels, BEE and BBBEE), but this is pretty heavily over-hyped. It only applies to state employers, and to private employers looking for state money, which immediately makes it irrelevant to a large number of employers. It's also had virtually no impact on white employment rates, which have remained comfortably above 90% for decades, while black employment rates have wobbled wildly in the 60%s and 70%s (and as the graph above shows, black incomes also didn't suddenly rocket with the adoption of affirmative action. White fears of afirmative action turning us all into paupers never materialised; meanwhile, black South Africans have not really gained that much from it. I think it's a reasonable, fair policy, but clearly not enough on its own.

(I'm focusing solely on race in this post, but note that there's definitely a similar pattern along gender lines too. The apartheid people were total misogynists, and only ever gave white women the vote to try to undermine growing cooperation between feminist and Africanist movements, and all the economic stats for women are now predictably always worse than average. Homosexuality remained a criminal offence until 1994. Non-christians didn't get much respect either. This system was shit for most people, and all of those consequences need to be dealt with too. For simplicity and brevity, though, I'm keeping this post on race; assume that many of the same principles apply to other factors too.)

So, in general, the average white South African man has seen little real change in his quality of life. (But try communicate this big-picture perspective to him when he's too emotional to want to look at graphs and statistics, too biased to care if he's wrong, and too hung up on individual-level anecdotes to pay any attention to the over-all national pattern!) So how does this cause government corruption? Well, so far, it doesn't, although it should be obvious that it becomes much harder to pay for improvements for 90% of the population if you're not allowed to significantly reduce the unbalanced, excessive spending on the other 10%.

Another part of the "keep whites happy" compromises of the '90s was not aimed at individuals like me, but at business. The private sector isn't elected, it isn't ANC, it isn't black (and again, the handful of anomalous exceptions you can point to don't override the broader patterns). Very often, it isn't even South African, and the mining sector especially has been channelling billions to mainly British and American shareholders for over a century.

And that's why explanation 2 doesn't make full sense on its own: Because it ignores that the people paying the bribes are still predominantly wealthy whites, and without that influence, there would be little a corrupt government official could achieve. It may have started with big-scale scandals, and it may be most obvious with truly evil abuses, but it continues a bit at a time whenever any one of us uses our greater wealth to elbow our way through life. This is just as true of the times we do so illegally (like when we bribe a traffic cop to escape a ticket) and the times we're technically, legally doing nothing wrong (like paying domestic workers as little as possible, or hiring top teachers away from government schools to more expensive private schools). We all know people who boast about it, and often we even benefit from it indirectly. During my undergrad years, for example, we had plenty of parties in big, expensive, Northern Suburbs houses that later turned out to have been funded by guys ripping off a rural employment scheme in the Free State - and the faces in the photos from those events all look pretty uniformly white. We may not have committed the crime, but we undeniably benefitted from it. And those black women in rural FS undeniably lost their livelihoods. It's one case that encapsulates everything I'm trying to say here.

In effect, white South Africa has spent the last 22 years paying to keep things from changing, to keep from having to sacrifice any level of comfort, rather than paying to bring about the changes that will make things more fair and just. It seems like a bad deal to me.

A lot of commercial and social media outrage has gone into condemning the corruption accusations associated with the India-based Gupta family, and I have to agree that these have been pretty egregious. But they're also something of an exception; most corrupt businesses that we know of are not Indian. I almost get the feeling that, in some circles, the outrage against the Guptas is less about the specific things they've done, and more about how they've gate-crashed someone else's corrupt turf, and spoiled the party by failing to conceal things the way their predecessors did. (Cultural differences... what you gonna do?)

I suppose this also partly reflects the big spike in Asian South African wealth on that graph; wealthy whites have hardly set a good example for the even smaller Indian minority.

This is not the easiest problem in the world to visualise. It's a puzzle with a lot of different pieces, some in different rooms, and some in different times. I've tried to lay it out as neatly as possible here. And I think the one feasible solution I can see in all of it, is for white South Africans to admit we're still fucking things up (whether intentionally or not), and stop trying to control the national narrative. We basically have to shut up, stand back, and let ordinary black South Africans lead the way. We should have done that decades ago already.

Friday, 1 July 2016

Star Trek Fan Series: New CBS/Paramount Restrictions follow up

The author of the new fan Trek guidelines, John van Citters, has discussed the intent behind the rules, and some of my concerns have been assuaged. Obviously we don't know what all his colleagues think, nor the limits imposed on him by studio management, nor how people other than van Citters will try to impose the guidelines in future, but I'm prepared to accept that his intentions are good, at least.

The main concern he mentions, which you can hear in more detail in the podcast above, is the indirect (presumably unintended) escalation in commercialisation of fan Trek productions over the years. Every impressive new step that anyone takes raises the stakes for other fan productions (at least, the ones with competitive personalities), and it's not hard for CBS/Paramount to point to examples of this getting out of hand, with fan donations going to things other than essential production costs. You could argue that the examples so far aren't that serious, but combined with the trend of escalation, it's not unreasonable to act to cap this trend before it gets too silly.

I think that's fair. I'd hold up Star Trek: The Romulan War as an example of a fan production that didn't let serious underfunding get in the way of making something shitty-but-good. Fan productions shouldn't be about having expensive, expert-quality resources bought right off the shelf, with no personal effort by the creators. The DIY aspect is clearly an important element of a fan production.

I'm even coming around to really approving of rule 7, the way van Citters intends it, though it may be the hardest to enforce. One of the most frequently recurring complaints you'll see in my list of fan Trek reviews is the problem of stories that go directly against the core ideals that Star Trek is built around. And I don't mean testing the limits of these ideals in interesting and creative ways, I mean just flatly rejecting or ignoring them. Violence is the most obviously common of these, and you can read in detail all of my objections to mindless shooty pew-pew without any attempt at diplomacy. Many fan productions also have problems with the inclusivity Trek has (almost) always pushed for, and this is trickier, because sexism, racism, and other such discrimination isn't usually as immediately obvious on screen as phasers blasting and things exploding. It takes more focus and concentration to identify problems like that.

But the point is that rule 7 is aimed at keeping fans on track a bit better in these ways. It's going to be very difficult to say what is and isn't "real" Trek morality, and edge cases may be very difficult to judge. What I think is good here, though, is that rule 7 puts the burden on fans to think it over for themselves, because that's what I think has been lacking from the worse fan scripts: They're not intentionally malevolent, probably, they're just written by people who've not been critical enough of their own ideas, not stopped think exactly what it is they're communicating. And if you don't like a lot of stopping and thinking, then maybe Star Trek isn't really for you after all.

The rule I still have the single biggest problem with is rule 1, the 15 minute time limit. Van Citters argues in the podcast that fans shouldn't limit themselves by thinking that Trek has to be a certain length, and I'd turn that back around at him: Why does it have to be the certain length of 15 minutes? I've seen some great shorts, it's true. But I've also seen plenty of great longs that would be really hard to cut down. If there were a really good reason given for why there needs to be a time limit at all, I might concede that it could even be good for fan writers to be challenged to fit things in that tightly. But since there doesn't seem to be any clear motive for the time limit, then why bother with it at all? A longer run time doesn't favour anyone unfairly, it doesn't escalate the funding problem. Long productions have been part of fan Trek for as far back as my records go.

What's also still unclear is what the line "no additional seasons, episodes, parts, sequels or remakes" is supposed to mean. The Potemkin Pictures people have interpreted it to mean only episodic series are allowed, with no sequels to specific episodes, no ongoing unlimited strings of episodes to get around the 15-minute limit. I hope that interpretation is right, for now, though even that I'm not certain is really a good restriction. If the 15-minute limit goes, then that part ought to go too.

Rule 5 is an interesting case. It can be argued both ways pretty well, and I'd suggest the solution is to have a separate third category between official productions and fan productions; call it 'alumni productions'. Ring-fence those professional-amateurs in their own separate play pen, so we can still see their ideas, but make it clear that they're not pure amateurs. I can see that getting more complicated, as they need to bring in non-alumni to help out, but since these professionals are the people the studios can speak to directly most easily, I'm sure they can work it out between them.

I'm now less concerned than last week, and I still don't trust the upper management of CBS and Paramount (who, after all, let Abrams fuck with the integrity of their IP way more than any fan production could). But I'm optimistic that at least there's someone there who'll be fairly fair and open to corrections.
no additional seasons, episodes, parts, sequels or remakes.   - See more at:

Thursday, 23 June 2016

Star Trek Fan Series: Comments on New CBS/Paramount Restrictions

In the short time since I've mutated from someone who knew nothing about Star Trek fan series into someone who knows an unreasonable amount, the official reaction to these productions by the copyright holders has gone into major flux. Until 2015, fans were left pretty well free to create what they liked, and my list in the link above shows they did so vigorously, often in lame and awkward ways, sometimes in wonderful, exciting ways. Then the Axanar lawsuit sprang up, and 2016 saw a grinding halt to many fan productions. The May dropping of that suit seemed to signal a return to the previous status quo, or something close to it. Even though they got Abrams to announce that, it did otherwise feel like a conciliatory gesture, and acceptance of symbiosis, rather than parasitism.

[Edit: It seems I'm a little behind, and the lawsuit has not actually been dropped at all, despite the public claim by Abrams.]

Now an official set of guidelines has been jointly released by CBS and Paramount, who control the Star Trek intellectual property, and it seems they've rather missed the fans' point, or were bluffing us all along. Their new restrictions seem to expect little more than volunteer brand advertising, not deep story-telling that creates entirely new material. In particular, their requirements that fan productions not exceed 15 minutes, and not form ongoing series, using only officially licensed merchandise, would seem to spell out almost exactly: "Make a standard short Youtube clip to sell our toys."

Maybe that's just my interpretation, but I think what they're undoubtedly not saying, in any sense, is, "Please continue to tell stories of your own that expand on all the many possibilities of this setting".

Applying these guidelines retroactively to the list I've been drawing up in my older blog post, and cutting out all productions that violate them, would leave hardly any behind. Of the 42 series and movies on my list (at the time that I write this), I believe only the following don't break the new guidelines and would be allowed:
  • Redshirt Blues
  • Steam Trek: The Moving Picture
And that's it. Two little parodies made decades ago - and I'm not even certain Redshirt Blues passes the 'officially licensed merchandise' rule perfectly. A couple others might sneak through if they take the words 'Star' and/or 'Trek' out of their titles, but these are still only tiny little shorts. The remaining 90% of productions are the big, narrative-driven ones, the ones with actual stories. And sure, I've already claimed that many of those stories are shit, but that's the nature of art; it can't all be good. But absolutely none of it can be good, if it's banned outright.

I have strong thoughts about the jurisprudence behind intellectual property laws, and that inevitably leads into a much wider socio-economics lecture. But let me keep this post short and focused. The bottom line is that these new guideline are a de facto ban on exactly the kinds of productions that fans have been making. CBS/Paramount may have found it awkward from a publicity point of view to shut down Axanar so late in its gestation, but these new guidelines effectively shut down everything of this nature that might be made in future. It's really the same demand from them, but with a grandparent clause added to keep the Axanar hubbub from spoiling their 2016 movie and 2017 series releases.

And that's the major point of this post: To point out that CBS and Paramount really didn't back off at all. They just stepped more quietly to the same point. (I knew we couldn't trust any apparent good news delivered by Abrams.)

[EDIT: This proposal seems like a reasonable, constructive response, if it can grow large enough.]

[EDIT: A week later, there's some useful follow up to consider.]

Saturday, 11 June 2016

WFRP2E Speed Combat (House Rules WIP)

I really like the 2nd edition of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay. For its intended function and within its intended setting, it's one of the friendliest, smoothest-running systems I've seen. Its links to WFB remain obvious and sufficiently useful for inter-game borrowing, but it also stands alone as a proper roleplaying system of its own. It's not perfect, but it's flexible enough that even a mediocre GM can improvise through most complications and uncertainties.

The biggest trouble I've had with it has been excessive combat. I realise we're talking about a setting designed to maintain perpetual war between every group that can pick up a stick and call it a war banner, but that's to serve the miniatures game. The roleplaying game just uses that huge conflict as background flavour, something the player characters seldom enter directly themselves. Most of the official early '80s and '90s WFRP adventures (especially the excellent Enemy Within campaign that we're currently playing through again) were explicitly written in a style based more on Call of Cthulhu than Dungeons & Dragons. And their character levelling system (the 'careers') fits with this too; it's very unlikely any PC will ever reach the point that they can stand toe-to-toe with a major demon, dragon, or similarly powerful monster.

Yet WFRP2 remains burdened with a more D&D-like set of combat rules, inherited and adapted from the Warhammer minis combat rules. And combat in WFB (any edition) can be tedious as fuck when you've got a huge block of basic troops flailing stupidly at another huge block of basic troops, each side gradually wearing the other down with millions of dice rolls over several rounds. WFRP seldom has such great numbers, but its combat rules allow for more detail and complexity, so a 5-vs.-5 skirmish can last for even more rounds, and see just as many dice rolled, dragging the game on for hours, all to reveal that... a group of scholars and merchants and peasants are not very good at hitting stuff!

From a story-telling perspective, that's lame: A huge time investment to do very little and not advance an investigation plot at all. And that's annoying enough when the plot-as-written calls for a big fight scene against a group of, say, Chaos cultists. Then everyone's neatly boxed in to a fairly featureless warehouse for 2 hours, all to reach the final point of saying, "One side or the other won, and the following people got injured doing it." Unless you specifically want a combat game over a more plot-driven game, that's pretty inefficient and even boring.

And it's worse again when the combat wasn't even planned. It makes sense that the thief character would try a bit of burglary while in town. It makes sense that she'll fail from time to time. And it makes sense that sometimes that failure will be so terrible, no matter how lenient the GM wants to be, that it only makes sense that the town guard will be fully alerted, drawing a huge fight to the players. Sometimes there are believable ways around this, but the towns of the Empire are usually small and compact and densely populated; raising the alarm is easy to do (in a setting where invasion is frequent), and sneaking around is not. So now we're running an impromtu cops & robbers scene, where the only interesting outcomes are death, capture or escape. Three outcomes. Shouldn't be hard, should be a minor blip in the story-telling process. And instead, the rules as written turn it into yet another half hour or more burned away rolling dice.

So this is the long, waffling background to my new house rules. The combat in WFRP2 definitely isn't the most painfully slow I've experienced by a long margin (Pathfinder has, at times, been far worse, and the various Star Trek RPGs always seem to get shitty combat rules, as I've noted before), and sometimes it's even fun and interesting to play a decent WFRP fight scene. If you want to run a weapon-centric game, then it's actually quite a good option. But if you want to rush through most combat, then I propose the following (and bear in mind, this in the first version of this, pre-playtest). The main idea is to reduce combat to a single skill check, over a single round, same as any other skill check.

When a fight scene occurs, at the GM's option, each character in the fight rolls one attack roll (WS or BS, as appropriate).

If a character rolls a failure, note the number of degrees of failure. Otherwise, that character scores no significant hits.

If a character rolls a success, note the number of degrees of success. For each degree of success, that character has scored one hit against an opponent. Assign hits to specific targets. Assume all characters are free to move around as normal; character position only matters if the GM rules that someone definitely can't be hit (out of range, no matter how the attacker moves around).

(If you're using hit locations, the first hit is on the usual location, with the attack roll's dice swapped around. Subsequent hits land in locations equal to the original location value, plus or minus (attacker's choice) 10 x the number of the hit beyond the first. The attacker may never choose hit locations greater than 100 or less than 01. For example, you score 3 hits with a roll of 23, so hit 1 (n=0) lands on location 32 (23 reversed). Hit 2 (n=1) could be either location 22 or 42 (32 +- 10n). Hit 3 (n=2) could be either on 12 or 52 (32 +- 10n).)

For each hit, roll the attacker's damage, per the standard weapon damage rules, and subtract from that per the standard armour and toughness bonus rules. Defending characters with parry and dodge may use these as normal too, once each per attacker. (I've assumed that once per attacker is a reasonable substitute for once per round). The guiding principle is advancing the plot, adding more chances for the player characters to do interesting things, not roll dice.

If any target is killed and there are still hits assigned to it, re-assign these to other targets.

If either side is completely killed, they lose by default.

Once all individual hits have been resolved, for each side add up all its characters' degrees of success, and subtract from that all their degrees of failure. The side with the higher total degrees "wins" the fight scene, however the GM chooses to intrepret that.

The default assumption should be that the losing side flees. This is what most people would do in real life.

It's up to the GM to decide what sort of fleeing would be appropriate and possible, though if the player characters are the ones fleeing, then they should have some say in where they hope to escape to. Consider movement speed, encumbrance, stealth, terrain, dumb luck, and any other relevant factors.

If there is a compelling reason that the losing side might want to hold on to the bitter end (special training, Orc culture, defending their homes, etc.), then the closest thing the group has to a leader character may make a Command roll to try to keep everyone in place. With a successful Command check, that side still loses, but not by fleeing (see capture/kill, below). If the winning side includes the Terrifying talent, then the losing side automatically loses all Command rolls to resist fleeing.

(It's weird that WFB has this mechanism more or less built in, as Leadership checks, and yet WFRP's rules just assume that everyone's default choice is to fight to the death.)

If a losing group is incapable of fleeing (trapped, rooted to the ground, zombie mindlessness, geas, etc.), then they still lose, but not by fleeing (see capture/kill, below).

If a group loses, but doesn't flee (for whatever reason), then the winning group has to decide whether to capture or kill the losing group. Capture keeps more story threads open (especially if the players are the losing side!), but certain characters may be immune to capture (ghosts and such, which must instead be busted; characters with suicide pills, etc.). For other characters, capture may mean pretty much the same as kill, unless the captors take special precautions (I'm thinking fish out of water?). Resolve this decision on a case by case basis, i.e. roleplay it out. Consider each side's motives, morals, resources, and context.

(I think far too few roleplaying combat systems have substantial capture rules, even though that's a very common result in real skirmishes. It basically means the Altdorf city watch, by the letter of the roleplaying rules, will almost always kill suspects, and almost never actually arrest anyone.)

The one thing I know I haven't accounted for yet is magic. Maybe some sort of channeling test, similar to an attack roll, to see by degrees of success how many castings may be attempted?

This is still a lot of detail, a lot more bookkeeping than most other skill rolls in the system, but I think cutting out the multiple rounds and piles of pointless rolls will speed things up a lot, without altering the end result to the detriment of a good game. You'll also notice that I intentionally haven't removed anything at all from the original character and gear stats, so that when the GM does want to run a more detailed combat (maybe a boss fight against the supreme villain NPC, or a player-vs.-player duel to decide the fate of the party), then it's easy enough to revert to the official combat rules. Nothing is lost, and the GM gains the ability to fast forward through the more tedious slogfests.

I'll revise this once we've given it a play test. In the mean time, feel free to add suggestions for getting this to run even smoother and easier.

Saturday, 23 April 2016

How EC Henry Missed the Point

Random youtuber EC Henry wants you to know that JJ Abrams and his writers totally, seriously got Star Trek, you guys. And, lucky you, I've got a free morning to spell out exactly why he's talking crap. His video "Did JJ's Writers Know ANYthing about Star Trek!?", is built around the central straw argument that visual and dialogue references clipped from TOS are what trekkies hated about the Abrams movies and yet are what make the movies so close to TOS.

First, I've never heard anyone complain that 2009 and Into Darkness were bad because they contained callbacks, references and homages. These were expected, and mostly they were done adequately. However, they're nowhere near as subtle as EC Henry seems to think they were, and he's pretty patronising when his video suggests that I must have just missed all those "clever", "hidden" references. I'm a serious trekkie, I hold the pretend rank of captain and own the uniform(s) to match; of course I fucking spotted the "Yesteryear" links immediately. I just didn't give too much of a shit, because these stolen images (including the primary colours uniforms) are not what make a good story. What makes a good story is putting the images and dialogue together in an interesting, meaningful way. "Blowin' shit up" was not especially interesting or meaningful, especially by Star Trek's past standards.

What many fans (including me) have instead complained about is how obvious and clunky many of the references to TOS were, especially in Into Darkness. We got some pretty crappy storytelling from the crude stitching together of as many well-known and unmistakable (but generally unrelated) references from TOS and the TOS movies as the Abrams writers could manage. It's also the exact opposite of the subtle and clever referencing that EC Henry claims is so remarkable. I'm not impressed by either style of referencing, though the crudely obvious stuff was really annoying.

At the same time, I've never heard anyone suggest that the Abrams writers knew nothing at all about Trek, so the title of EC Henry's video is also made of straw. Sure, JJ Abrams himself is brick-ignorant and even antagonistic towards Trek by his own admission. But obviously his other writers knew just enough to show us that they knew exactly enough to fuck it up and no more than that; THAT's the real complaint.
via W. Wheaton

Second, as I've argued in excessive detail already, the thing that made Star Trek what it was, the truly distinctive aspect of the original series and the main link between it and the later series, was not the look of it, nor anything else that superficial, but Roddenberry's sense of human optimism. EC Henry is eager to dismiss this "philosophical stuff" as a post-TNG contaminant, but it was plainly there all along, and Roddenberry and the TOS writers are on record explaining, repeatedly, that they always wanted the show to be about making the world better, in a humanist, social justice sort of way. The silly action scenes were usually crammed in there at the studio's insistence, on the assumption that audiences are stupid. EC Henry apparently doesn't know the historical background of the series well enough to get this crucial detail right. He is, of course, entitled to his opinion about what he personally enjoys and doesn't enjoy, but he steps into Bullshitland when he tries to second-guess the original creators' intentions.

Third, a lesser complaint, EC Henry implies that trekkies hated 2009 because it was a reboot, and then tries to use TMP and TNG to say that we've already accepted these reboots in the past, so we're stupid for not accepting it again now. I don't think this is true. I was genuinely eager for the 2009 movie when it came out, and what left me disappointed was not that there were New Things, but that they'd done such a shitty job with those New Things. TNG changed things from TOS, true, but nearly all trekkies accept these changes as good, worthwhile and for the better, no matter how much they loved TOS before it. But 2009, as previously noted, just fucked things around, adding little new of any value, while also failing (contrary to EC Henry's assertions) to bring back lost wonders from TOS. It wasn't bad because it was a reboot, it was just a bad reboot.

I write all of this, not just because I have some time to kill and it amuses me, but also because I remain hopeful that the upcoming 2017 series will finally return us to my idea of "real" Star Trek, in the sense of being good science fiction (and not just "a thing that happens to be in space") with a strong sense of optimism and progressive ethics. I also hope that all of the many fan productions out there will choose to head more and more in that same direction, and show just how many great stories can come from a wide variety of creative minds all playing around with the same shared vision, but with fresh characters and contexts. I would find that far more satisfying than EC Henry's unimaginative notion that we just have to keep repeating the past, over and over, cutting and pasting from what has already been done, without really understanding what it's all for.

Tuesday, 5 April 2016

Titan V and the flight of the Phoenix

The Phoenix, Zephram Cochrane's first warp vessel, was a pretty great design. It looks like a very realistic modern rocket, then transforms into an unmistakeably Trekkish-looking spacecraft, which is clever, since those are often two very different looks. And the name really fits beautifully with the swords-to-plowshares metaphor of its construction.

(Twenty year old spoiler warning: Clip from Star Trek: First Contact)

While reading about it, what caught my eye was that the First Contact designers built their Phoenix around the Titan II missile. This is interesting in a few ways. The Titan II launched the Gemini missions from 1964 to 1966, a century before the Phoenix (which every young Trekkie now knows went up on 5 April 2063). The Titan II was in use for 41 years, and the whole Titan family of rockets were launched for 46 years over all, with the last Titan IVB going up in 2005. When First Contact was released in 1996, Titan II had been going for decades and Titan IV was still quite new, so it wasn't crazy to assume that later versions of the Titan rocket might still be flying many decades later, especially if the fictional Titan V (as the movie-makers dubbed their version) had similar longevity to the Titan II

That said, is over a century of persistence likely for a rocket family? We have no idea. There hasn't been a full century of spaceflight yet. We can say that some families have endured well so far, notably the R-7s and the Atlases. But we can also say that some rocket families are really only families on paper, with early models and late models having very little in common. Sometimes, I suspect, the family name is only transferred from one design to another, totally different, design, as a sort of marketing gimmick, a brand recognition thing. So it's certainly feasible that a future ICBM with roughly the same specifications or role as the Titan II might be given the same name. Even so, I would guess that the Titan V that Cochrane's team launches must have been a museum piece to them, a very old left-over missile. If the 40 year lifespan of the Titan II is a guide to what's feasible, then the Phoenix's first stage may well have been built in the 2020s or 2030s.

What we do know is that the Titan V must have had the same 3 meter diameter as all other Titan first stages, partly because the real Titan II museum piece that represented it is clearly seen on screen with that diameter (you could do the geometry on some screen captures, but we don't have to, because that's a real, retired missile body they filmed with, we already know for certain how big it is), and partly because we're told in the movie that the cockpit section is about 4 meters long, which scales well with the 3 meter diameter.

The Titan V (or 5?), compared with real Titan rockets.
Mixed image credit to Ex Astris Scientia and Historic Spacecraft

The Titan V in the image above fits in well enough, apart from bucking the general trend of moar boosters(!) and increasing height. It also has a distinctly larger first-stage engine bell, replacing the pair of smaller engines of the Titan I & II, and the single small engine on the III & IV. The V's engine bell looks almost as big as those on the SRBs that most IIIs and IVs had strapped to their sides. This was a result of the movie people needing to build one as a physical piece of their set, when people are seen walking around the bottom of the launch silo; apparently the real engines had been removed and no realistic fakes had been installed by the museum. We later see that the Phoenix's second stage engine is roughly the same size, though not quite the same shape. [Edit: If the second stage is intended to operate solely in a vacuum, we can surmise that its similar size actually produces different performance, as explained here.]

(I also listened carefully, and the Titan V sound effects do not include the Titan II's distinctive ignition bwoop.)

Most of the interior of the cockpit section seems to be hollow and unused. It's very spacious in there; compare with the much more cramped Gemini crew module. With the pilot sitting in the front and the engineers in the rear, it's clear that most of the cockpit section's length is dedicated to crew space, and it probably doesn't have a big equipment bay right behind them.

Phoenix cockpit section. Mostly empty space. Approx. 4 meters long. Three crew.

Gemini crew module (greeny-blue in this image) and equipment module (white). Combined length of 5.6 meters. Two crew, cramped. Only the crew module returns to land on Earth, while the equipment module is abandoned.

What's interesting about the Phoenix's one known flight is how we can see it's reached quite an altitude, and Earth keeps quickly shrinking further away, and only then is the first stage jettisoned. We never even see the second stage firing; the warp nacelles immediately extend and it goes to warp without any further chemical boosting. This is an altitude comparable to the highest Gemini flight, which needed two Titan stages and an Agena booster rocket (joined in orbit) to get that far up. How does Phoenix manage it with only one stage, even with a much more advanced 21st century model?

Top: Phoenix, first stage still firing, after travelling/boosting for no more than 55 seconds.
Bottom: Gemini XI, all ascent boosters spent, after travelling for over 40 hours, including total apogee-boosting time of around 7 minutes.

A rough eyeball suggests fairly similar curvature to the Earth, so probably fairly similar altitudes, roughly.

It would be easy to dismiss this as typical Hollywood bad science, but I think there's a better solution. The answer lies in the Phoenix's trajectory, pretty close to straight up. You can also see that it's still over North America, so there's not been much horizontal motion. So, I would guess this was a suborbital launch, pretty close to vertical. The advantage of this is that if the warp drive test fails, you're probably going to fall right back to Earth, without the need for a retro burn. I use this trick for simple test flights in Kerbal Space Program all the time, letting gravity do the hard work of getting you home. And if the warp drive does work, then you can just warp out of Earth orbit, and then presumably either warp back again or fire the still untouched second stage rocket to push back towards Earth's gravity well. (Note that there is no clear, canonical relationship between warp speed and realistic sub-warp momentum, so that's harder to discuss.) If the Titan V can reasonably be assumed to have a more powerful, more efficient engine than the Titan II, then this sort of high-apogee suborbital boost may be wasteful, but it's inherently safer for a quick systems test than a full orbital flight. Assuming the landing systems all function...

I have two thoughts about landing the Phoenix. On the one hand, it's assumed (I think even by original designer John Eaves) that the cockpit section is jettisoned as a traditional, parachute-equipped crew module. Only the crew would come home, and the warp drive, the first of its kind, would be abandoned and burned up on re-entry. It would be sad and wasteful, but much easier. This method has plenty of real precedent.

On the other hand, that second rocket motor is pretty damn big for a mere retro booster. It could instead be a landing engine, for a vertical powered landing of the sort that the New Shepard and Falcon 9 rockets have recently demonstrated. The concept was already known in 1996, with the DC-X testing various necessary systems at lower altitudes throughout the '90s. I have no evidence that anyone connected with First Contact was thinking about this at all, but we can at least consider the possibility that Phoenix could potentially make powered vertical landings.

A compromise possibility is that the warp section and crew section each land separately under their own parachutes, perhaps also jettisoning the heavy second stage rocket motor to make things a little easier.

Image credit: LCARS24, I think, if not J. Anderson.

Since we have no idea how big Phoenix's warp core is, we don't know how much internal space it fills. But if we trust the fan diagram above, then the fuel tanks on the second stage rocket might be relatively tiny. You wouldn't get much delta-v out of that, pushing so much heavy warp drive section plus the cockpit section. But it might just be enough for a suicide burn on a vertical landing, or for a last-ditch emergency de-orbit burn. Does someone want to do the maths?

Remember that when the warp drive works, presumably exactly according to plan, it ends up out beyond Lunar orbit. If there isn't a warp trip back in the other direction, then the Phoenix would have had to take a slow sub-light drift back, something similar to the 3-day return trips that the Apollo Moon missions experienced. I'm not sure where they keep the life support (and snacks) for that scenario. But since Cochrane is back on Earth by nightfall the same day (the movie strongly implies), I think we have to assume that not only did it warp back closer to Earth, but it also landed (by whichever means) with great precision very close to Bozeman, so that Cochrane could get pissed with his (surviving) engineers just in time for the Vulcans.

My last major thought about the flight of the Phoenix is how weird it is that it didn't fry all the spectators on the ground and set fire to at least some of their shacks. I don't know what the minimum safe distance from a Titan launch is, but I've got a hunch it's quite a lot more than the maybe 10 meters between the silo opening and the bar.
He's dead, Jim.

And I also suspect that NASA rules would usually prevent people from standing this close to even quite a small rocket.

Maybe I worry too much, but I've got a suspicion that Newton's laws and a powerful rocket exhaust would at least knock these people over and deafen them, if not actually roast them. Little wonder the camera pans away from them so quickly.