How Cool Was That? Babylon 5

 

Back in the early 90’s, I was a full-time university student, father of two, part-time pizza delivery boy, and US Navy Reservist. Needless to say, I had very little time for TV.

My wife, however, was a little more fortunate. She was a night nurse for a home health service and was able to have a TV on as she caught up on the office’s paperwork. One morning, she came home to tell me all about this new show I’d never heard of called Babylon 5.

Now, I’ve ALWAYS been a science fiction fan (I was born during the premiere of Star Trek’s Friday’s Child in 1967), and I immediately started pumping her for information. She described the show as almost British in style, very unlike Star Trek, with great characters, and a well-defined universe. Since we didn’t actually have a TV of our own back then, I had to wait until a night I could bring her lunch to work for her in order to watch the show.

Frankly, I was intrigued right off the bat.

Bab 5 grabbed hold of my imagination and refused to let go. Sure, I still liked Star Trek and in some other post I’ll wax philosophic about how good Voyager and Deep Space 9 were in the 1990s. But Babylon 5 struck me as unique. Here was a franchise unbeholden to any previous book or film, presenting a fresh canvas. The show was creating its own rules, it’s own life, as it came fresh off the screen without a debt to some fourty-year-old fan base dragging it down.

How rare is that?

Let me ask this, do you like the new Star Wars movies or hate them? Is it because they’re too like the original trilogy, or because they’re too different? How about the spin-off films like Solo and Rouge One? Are they true to the vision of the original Star Wars or despicable abominations to be sent to Dante’s basement?

Having something fresh and original to offer means that a writer can take the story wherever it needs to go without fear of fan backlash. Frankly, I’m amazed that authors like Timothy Zahan seem to do their best work when writing in other people’s fictional universes. And although every author borrows inspiration, I must say a great deal of the fun in my writing in the Star Run Universe comes from the fact that I created it.

But Babylon 5 wasn’t just very original…it was also very, very good!

Good acting, good special effects (for the time), good music, and great writing by J. Michael Straczynski, resulted in a show that was sometimes frightening, sometimes hilarious, sometimes insightful, and never dull. The themes that Bab 5 played with were also quite relatable; loyalty, trust, morality, and the easy wrong vs hard right.

I was at Dragon Con in 1994 when Mr. Straczynski was asked by an audience member if he’d based his writing on the Balkan War that was raging at the time. He answered, “No, it’s based on human behavior, and that never changes.” And now almost thirty years later, I have to agree because, sadly, today’s news could just as easily inspire the international strife portrayed in that old show.

Now, the history of the Babylon 5 show is a bit of a jumble. Basically, Hollywood execs never quite got a handle on how to market something this good. Forced to jump from network to network and time-slot to time-slot, Bab 5 bravely soldiered on until all five seasons envisioned by Straczynski were completed. Afterward, two spin-off shows and a made for TV movie were produced, none of which, however, matched the quality of the original show.

If you’ve never seen Babylon 5, I highly recommend you do. Not as a piece of science fiction archeology, but as one of the greatest space shows ever put on the small screen. Its brash, its brave, it’s funny and it’s still very relevant.

Enjoy.

Clayton J. Callahan

 

Advertisements

Going to Orycon 39!

So…it’s coming up on my favorite Con of the year. I haven’t missed but one Orycon since I moved to Oregon, and that year I was in Iraq.

This year I’m once again a panelist and will be speaking on such wide-ranging topics as Getting Your First Professional Sale to Wonder Woman How to be her and feel comfortable doing so. And you can be sure the guys where I work are more than a little curious as to how I’m going to pull that second one off. I will also be doing an after hours, erotic reading (with a little help from my wife) of Seka Heartley’s classic Passion Pirates of The Lost Galaxy.

So, If you find yourself in the Portland area next month, I know this great party and recommend you check it out at the Red Lion Hotel in Jenson Beach, Oregon. Learn more by checking the link below.

http://39.orycon.org/

New Book, THE SPIRIT OF CAHIR MULLACH, Now on Amazon

So, I did it again…I committed novel.This is my first “Fantasy” novel. No science fiction gizmos, just some Irish magic, and ghosts. It starts in the Viking age and then the reader is woodshed eight hundred years into the time of the American Revolution when a war weary redcoat returns to the British Isles and is ordered to billet in a haunted castle.

This time I skipped the whole publisher thing and went straight to Amazon so I could keep the price low. Frankly, I don’t see any reason for people to pay more than $5 for an e-book or more than $10 for a print on demand.  I hope folks like it.

I hope folks like it.

Conspiriacy Theroies = Bad Science Fiction

11825788_738733412916087_3775435348695635423_n

Okay, so I write science fiction. I come up with fantastic yet plausible futures to say something insightful about the human condition. It’s a thing that has made me some money and folks often enjoy my stories. Unfortunately, these days I am frequently exposed to fiction that is designed to frighten people and nobody seems to enjoy it.

These stories might make good science fiction, but instead are designed to spread parinoia…not entertainment. The plan is to first give us health care and then eliminate the dollar to put the US on the “One World Currency.” Next, the government (I suppose they mean the federal government but they seldom name a department) will take away our guns. Once the populous is disarmed, UN forces will invade to round up all dissidents and put us in concentration camps run by FEMA. And in this new dark age, our only hope for freedom will be militia groups who will wage a heroic guerrilla battle against the New World Order.

Seriously, as science fiction goes, this could be a good story (black helicopters and all). Unfortunately, nobody is finding it entertaining or insightful. They are finding it terrifying. And this fear is making them stupid. A recent example of this stupidity just took place in my home state of Oregon–when a bunch of militia nutjobs took over a bird reservation of all things.

The real problem is not the New World Order or any other imagined government boogieman. The problem is we simply can’t seem to have intelligent discussions about how to solve real problems in this fantasy-laden environment. This means as our imaginary problems grow, our real problems continue fester– a perfect lose-lose for everybody.

Let me state this clearily: NOBODY can predict the future. Instead of gorging ourselves at the troth of paranoia, wouldn’t it be better to work together to solve the real problems. Then let the fear mongers die a natural death from lack of attention.

Alex Jones, asshole

How to Write Your Own Role Playing Game

 

star-run-ind

Ever sat there with an RPG book in your hands and ask, “Who writes this dreck?” Yep, me too.

In fact that’s what inspired me to write my own darn game. The genesis of Star Run was my frustration when I went looking for a science fiction game as an adult. When I was a teenager I played a lot of Traveller, but even then I found the rules a bit clunky. I joined the navy after high school, saw the world and didn’t return to gaming until I was in my late 20’s. Perusing the shelves of my local hobby shop, I discovered that SF RPGs were no longer in style. In fact, the only one to be to be found that year was something called Mark Miller’s Traveller by Imperium Games. To be honest, the game was a disaster. Over complicated and contradictory rules custom designed to drive a gamer mad.

“Screw this!” I shouted to the world, “I’ll write my own damn game. the question then arose, “Where do I start? Well, if you read this post you will not only have a start, but an insight into what the finish looks like as well.untitled

In the fundamental, every role playing game consists of the following elements in this order:

1. Character generation– How do players create characters? Do they roll dice on random charts or do they allocate points. What are the attributes that measure a character? Attributes such as strength, intelligence, charisma, dexterity, education or wealth define the basic outlining of what a character can and cannot do. Being so basic to your game, each attribute must have a specific definition. For instance, you may choose to have two separate attributes for strength and endurance, but what is the difference between the two? Finally, what skills can the character has needs to be answered here. These decisions will guide you as you write the rest of the rules–as will become obvious as we go along.

2. Task resolution- This refers to how “mundane” things get done in the game. What does a player have to roll so that his character can fix the warp drive on the starship? Or, can a wizard cast a healing spell on a dragon? Your system of task resolution must be somehow based on the character’s attributes or skills (or else why have attributes and skills in the first place?). Also, a given task may be easy or hard, and your rules should reflect that in some way to give your game realism. For instance, a doctor preforming first aid should be a fairly easy task, brain surgery with a pocket knife…not so much.

3. Combat system- Now we’re getting to the meat and potatoes of the game. How combat is resolved will have a great deal to do with how successful your game is. Players relish combat, mostly because it is a hallmark of adventure.  The basic questions to be answered are: (1) how to hit a target, (2) how much damage is inflicted when a target is hit, (3) how does the damage effect the targets performance as the combat progresses? How to hit can be guided by the task resolution rules you already wrote. If shooting a gun is a skill you can easily use your existing rules as opposed to creating new ones. Damage inflicted is often measured by subtracting points from a character’s attribute (such as endurance). Once the given attribute is reduced to zero, most games consider the character to have been killed. You of course will have to define death in your game as well. Now that you have those basics out of the way, you can write rules for how much cover helps a character to avoid being hit or how much damage is absorbed by armor. Which leads us to the next fundamental.

4. Equipment- This can be a bit tedious for the game designer but it must be done. Players will want to know what their character’s can buy, how much it costs and what it dose. Guns, swords, radios, body armor and medical kits must be listed and described. Important information includes the limitations of the various items for sale. How much ammunition can a gun hold in it’s magazine, or what is the range of a walkie-talkie, are questions demanding an answer. I advise you not try to creat a list of every possible thing that a character can buy. Just stick to the kind of adventure gear that will be basic to your game and that should suffice.

5. Vehicles and or monsters- If your game takes place after the invention of the car, cars are sure to play a part in the action. Taking that one step further and you will need rules for aircraft or perhaps even starships. How fast will the vehicle go? How many characters can ride in it, and how much equipment can they take? Then comes the issue of combat in vehicles. What does it take to knock out a vehicle? What happens to the characters inside when a vehicle is damaged? A tip from me; the closer your vehicle combat resembles your standard man-to-man combat the simpler it will be for you. Now, if your game has dragons or other monsters they will need to be defined in terms of their attributes; much like your characters are. If the dragons can fly the question becomes how far and how fast? Can the characters ride a winged beast, and if so, what’s involved in that?

However, after you have knocked out these five fundamentals you’re still not done. The next step is play-testing. Honestly, you have no idea how well or poorly your rules work until you get a bunch of folks together to play a game. I guarantee you will discover things you need to improve on in the first pass, and probably on the tenth as well. Lets say you have chainsaws in your equipment rules but never considered that a character would use one as a weapon. On the third night of play-testing one of your players decides to pick up a chainsaw and do just that–congratulations, your about to write a new rule. After a while, however, most of the kinks get worked out and you have a customized, enjoyable role playing game for all to enjoy.

Well, that’s it. Writing your own game can be extremely rewarding and, who knows, you might just try to sell it one the internet someday. Just remember, if the game isn’t fun your doing something wrong. On the other hand, if it is fun your doing great. Good luck.

 

A Hot Time, In The Old Town, Tonight

Startown cover

Sure, your Traveller characters are all about the bold action and daring do–I get that. But sometimes your star-spanning heroes just need to unwind. Of course…that doesn’t mean they have to sit around and play tri-level chess all evening.

A night on the town can be an adventure in itself. It’s a chance for players to explore another side of their characters and see the grittier side of a starport. The song “Banned Form Argo” by Leslie Fish is a hilarious take on the shore leave activities of the famous crew of the USS Enterprise (NCC-1701). To get an idea of the possibilities for your characters you can check the song out at

 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FH8lvwXx_Y8 .h

Naturally, a lot of the fun of a startown adventure is the random stuff that just jumps up and smacks your characters in the face. For this, I recommend Startown Liberty, a supplement for the original Traveller RPG, by Gamelords Ltd. Now to be clear, Gamelords went out of business decades ago. But due to the magic of the internet, their books can still be acquired through Different Worlds Publishing at  http://www.diffworlds.com/gamelords_traveller.htm for around six bucks. The book is only about 40 pages. It’s filled with random encounter tables for the carousing party of adventurers. Wandering bands of drunk space marines, criminal activity, corrupt police officers and the occasional tourist are all to be found mucking about Startown Liberty on a given Saturday night.

Startown insideAs a GM, it’s good to have something like this in your pocket for those times when the game bogs down, and you need to give it a little kick. In case you’re wondering; no, I don’t make any money from Different Worlds. I don’t even know those jokers personally. But I do know a good thing when I see it and I do recommend this book for any space RPG you have in mind.

Role Playing Your Writing

Ever heard of Mary Sue?

mary sue

If not, you’re lucky. According to legend, Mary Sue was a character in a  fan-fiction story that took place on the USS Enterprise (NCC-1701). As Kirk was the youngest captain in Starfleet, Mary Sue was suposidly the youngest ensign. Never the less, despite her lowly rank, on the most prestigious ship in the Federation, Mary Sue saved the day.

If you just leave it as described above, a natural response is, “so what?” What’s wrong with a minor crew-member getting the chance to shine every once in a while? Well…it’s more a matter of how she did it. You see, Mary Sue was so smart and so capable that every little thing she did was magic. She was a master of all skills with and uncanny ability to immediately see the answer to every problem, rendering all other characters (Spock, McCoy, Kirk) totally unnecessary. In short, a smart-assed little know it all.

In role playing games such annoying characters can not exist. Why? Because in  RPGs characters are defined by their character sheets and restricted by the rules. A typical RPG character has a set score to tell the player how strong, how smart and how charismatic he or she is. Furthermore, the characters skills and abilities are recorded, giving exact information about what that character can and can not do.Character Sheet 006

Writers of fiction can learn a lot from role players in general. But specifically right now I’m talking about characters. As a writer, it’s easy to paint yourself into a dramatic corner. Your hero is up against insurmountable odds and you need him or her to resolve the plot somehow. But when “Mary Sue” strikes, and your gunfighter performes brain surgery to save the day; you can expect your reader to toss your story across the room and never pick it up again.

For characters to be believable they must be limited; only so smart, only so strong, only so capable. Treating fictional characters like role playing characters forces you to tamp down your worst “Mary Sueish” impulses and tell a compelling, realistic story.

Readers crave characters that win despite their limitations because that make it easier to put themselves in the hero’s shoes. So do yourself a favor, future writer, play a role playing game.

…I recommend Star Run (see catalog).