Sunday, May 25, 2014

Blood Red Mars design notes

Ken Spencer talks about the design of the Rocket Age supplement. This article can be found here.


Blood Red Mars is the first planetary supplement for Cubicle 7's Rocket Age role-playing game of retro pulp sci-fi (Rocket Age). At the time of this writing it is available in pdf (Blood Red Mars) and the print copy should be hitting stores and mailboxes soon. Now, on to a walk through of Blood Red Mars and my comments on the design decisions I have made.

Martian Gazetteer

we start off with a gazetteer of Mars. Quite often setting supplements are nothing but lists of places and descriptions of sites, and I wanted to go beyond that. Each locale offers a sample NPC for easy use in game, and as an example of the leading figures and average people of the region. Story hooks are given for the most prominent locations, and these not only provide pull out and play ideas, but also help to expand the descriptions. Not every square meter of the surface of the Red Planet is covered in the gazetteer; indeed plenty of areas are left lightly sketched in order for game masters, players, and later writers to fill in. In fact, there are a few areas on the map of Mars that are labeled, but not given much (or any) detail.

The development of Mars for Rocket Age began during work on the corebook. There were a couple of directions I could have gone when I first sat down to build Mars for Rocket Age. I considered breaking from the retro-sci-fi and planetary romance tropes and making Mars an arid cold desert, but I ditched this idea fairly early on. Hot deserts are a thing for me. I grew up in the chaparral in Southern California, the street ended at the edge of the desert. The first movies I remember seeing were Star Wars (back when there was only one and we didn't need to use episode numbers) and Lawrence of Arabia. In college I studied Spanish and Arabic (though I know both languages are spoken in areas other than deserts, their association to me is rather dry). I cut my teeth as an Archaeologist in Colorado and Nevada, digging in the sandy soil and exploring Anasazi ruins. Given the choice between a hot and cold desert, I will take the heat any day.

Thus Mars played into the planetary romance tropes and became a hot, arid world. I wanted to make it themed, as all the planets in Rocket Age are, and that theme would be conflict. Violent conflict and bloodshed is common, especially between the Martians and the invading Earthlings. Blood Red Mars is a story of colonialism, but also one of insurgency, ideological crusades, and nation building. From the American, British, and French activities in the Kalond Canal Valley, to the growing Nazi held Mars, and on to the many freebooter bands trying to usurp local princes in favor of alien rulers, there is plenty of armed aggression on Mars.

If that is not your thing, there are other forms of conflict on the Red Planet. Explorers must contend with the background hostilities mentioned above, but also with the natural environment. The deserts aren't trying to kill you, but it's hard to not personify the sandstorms and burning heat. The native flora and fauna are likely going to treat you as an easy meal, and the unwary are bound to end up as gnawed bones bleached by the wind and sun. There are great discoveries to be made, from the natural world of Mars (the ecology, geology, and other phenomena are largely unknown to Earthling science) to the ruins of Ancient Mars and the technological wonders that hide beneath the sands.

There is also the ideological struggle on Mars. While many Earthlings have arrived bent on conquest, many more want to help the Martians, especially those who seek to end the practice of slavery. The Lincoln Brigade has done more than liberate the city-state now known as Emancipation, they have also set up a network of 'underground railroads' in order to ferry Julandri out of bondage. Other organizations seek to free the Martians, or at least improve their lives in a meaningful way. These attempts may be misguided, are sometimes inept, and stray into heavy-handed or shortsighted approaches, but at least their motives are good.


Blood Red Mars introduces the concept of organizations into the Rocket Age. Basically, an organization is a military unit, political movement, religion, corporation, or nearly any organized group of sophonts. Organizations serve as convenient hooks for characters to be built off of, prime examples from Blood Red Mars would be the 1st Mars Expeditionary Force or the Order of the Sacred Hamaxe. A character need not spend any character points to be a member of an organization, just simply state in the character's back story that they are part of this group. However, if all a character has is a notation of membership, their connections to the organization are not terribly strong, and neither is the organization's connection to the character. Instead of having membership require an expenditure of character points, such as with a new trait just for organization membership, and thus penalize a character for being tied into the setting or have a trait that duplicates existing traits, characters should purchase traits that already exist and give them concrete advantages. Such traits could be Adversary, Code of Conduct, Dark Secret, Friends, Obligation, Owed Favor, or Owed Favor. Membership in an organization can be used to explain certain traits the character has, such as Fighting Man or Woman for a former 1st Martian Expeditionary Force soldier, or psychic traits for a member of the Order of the Sacred Hamaxe.

Organizations are not just for the players, and not every organization listed in Blood Red Mars is a heroic one. Game masters have a lot of new information here, and the organizations active on Mars expands the setting beyond the geographic and political information contained in the Gazetteer chapter. Each organization has a full description of its history, structure, operations, and members, a sample member, an occupational package for members of that organization (often the best trained or most specialized members, and thus the ones most suitable as heroes and villains), a list of three character hooks and a list of three story hooks.

I really like the concept of organizations for Rocket Age, mostly because I loved the splats that were common in role-playing games in the Nineties. I love how splats tied characters into the setting and especially how they had a set of worldviews (at least the best ones) that formed a sort of short hand. If you said your character was a Gangrel, everyone new the stereotypes of that splat, even if your character played against type the other players knew something about your character's role in the setting and background. The disadvantage was that splats often pigeonholed characters into a limited set of options and were often so closely tied to the games' mechanics that a character playing against type (or even slightly off the 'norm' for their splat) was penalized. I wanted to bring the good parts of splat in, and leave out the parts that frustrated so many players. Organizations allow for the tight tie in to the setting and the shorthand character description, provide a set of worldviews that allow for improved characterization, yet are not required and are not mechanically restrictive. Your character will not be penalized for being a member of the Lincoln Brigade or the Orthodox Fellowship. For those of you who love the organizations concept, future Rocket Age products will introduce new organizations, starting with Anne Toole's episode (A Prince's Ransom ), and continuing in Heroes of the Solar System which (in addition to more detail on the various species of sophonts and four new sophonts) will offer up several Solar System spanning organizations for the 'good guys'.

Flora and Fauna

The ecosystem of Mars was wrecked millennia ago, but life finds a way, and the current flora and fauna of Mars are well adapted to a planet of empty deserts where life is cheap and death is around every corner. Blood Red Mars offers up eleven new dangers to explorers, from the black silt spider to the predatory stigia bird. In between we have the massive silt dragons, the deadly desert well tree, and the royal karn (as well as the Silthuri chariots they pull). It was not my intent to model a complete ecosystem in this chapter; Mars is a planet after all and has a range of ecosystems from the relatively fertile Western Highlands to the vast silt seas. Instead, I created a cross section of the most interesting of Martian wildlife, with an eye towards ones that have good story potential. As in the Rocket Age Corebook, each entry includes a list of story hooks.

The Chanari

One of the oldest conflicts on the Red Planet is between the free roaming nomadic Chanari and the settled castes. These two groups are not simply different castes; they are different ethnic groups, possibly even different species entirely (all Martian castes cannot interbreed, and are thus technically different species, but the non-Chanari come from a different evolutionary path then the Chanari). My goal with the Chanari was to create something more than the 'noble savages' of Mars, and to expand on their description in the corebook. For inspiration I drew on a variety of sources, mostly hunter-gatherer or nomadic cultures from Earth's history. Those who make a study of ethnography might find familiar facets, but no one cultural group can be found in the Chanari, I rather loathe the tendency, especially in fantasy settings, to model a fictional people after a real world one. It is not only lazy world building, but it is somewhat offensive. Instead, with the Chanari I looked at how different cultures across the world and throughout time adapted to a nomadic existence, and began building based on commonalties, and developing new ideas from there.

Who are the Chanari? There are a few secrets about their past that is revealed in Blood Red Mars, and you'll just have to buy the book to discover those. What I will tell you is that they are the dominant culture on Mars, though it might not look like it. As the planet's ecosystem has dried and heated, the non-Chanari have retreated further and further into their urban enclaves. This has allowed the Chanari, already physically and culturally adapted to harsh lifestyles, to expand into the vacuum. In the Chanari view, they have already conquered Mars, the remaining non-Chanari are just holdouts waiting for the end. At least this was the view before the Earthlings came.

This chapter details everything you might want to know about the Chanari, their religion, lifestyle, diet, tribal groupings, technology, and more. There is enough here to do an all-Chanari series (what we call a campaign in Rocket Age). In fact, there is enough information and game mechanics inBlood Red Mars to not just set a series on Mars, but to do one that focuses on a part of Mars. You can have an all Order of the Sacred Hamaxe warband series, one that focuses on the life of freebooters, or even join the space pirates of the Cilician Brotherhood. It's your game, and there is a lot you can do with it.

New Traits, Equipment, and Equipment Traits

What does every supplement need? How about new mechanical aspects for your game. My personal preference is that these be limited, I really do not like to read supplements that are nothing but lists of new feats, spells, powers, advantages, or what have you. I want setting and story, not just new ways to crunch numbers. With that in mind, this is one of the shortest chapters in Blood Red Mars. Despite its brevity, a lot of territory is covered, but most of it adds to the setting as opposed to merely adding to the system.

Adding new character traits is a tricky thing, especially as Rocket Age already has most of the bases covered in the corebook. The traits found in Blood Red Mars are very Mars focused, though some could be used in other parts of the Rocket Age setting. Gone Native allows for those characters that have forsaken some aspects of their home culture in order to embrace the exotic foreigner or alien. Ancient Artifact lets characters purchase wondrous technological marvels of the Ancients, but at a steep price in character and story points. The Sand Gets Everywhere, inspired by my youth in the desert Southwest and not as some have assumed a line from Attack of the Clones (honestly, it does get in everything and often causes chaffing in the least expected places, especially when you spend your days bouldering and canyoning). There are a few new psychic traits that are commonly used by Martian religious orders, most notably Psychic Healing.

New equipment meant the development of some new equipment traits. This was due to the nature of the new equipment; after all if the Red-Blue Chanari Caravan is a huge rolling monster it needs Crushing Wheels, I mean, why wouldn't it? Likewise the Ancient Martian Auto-Loader needs Hover 2 in order to float along off the ground. That's right folks, Blood Red Mars expands the range of Ancient Martian technologies that can be dug out of the sandy wastes of Mars. These include the psychic dampener, cable extruder, auto stretcher (do not get in unless you are an Ancient Martian), and rocket guns. There are many more, and a whole set of Chanari weapons and vehicles primed for pulpy sci-fi fun!

The Stolen Artifact

A supplement might be seen as incomplete without an adventure, or in Rocket Age parlance, an episode to go with it. Blood Red Mars has The Stolen Artifact, a pulpy noir tale of murder, intrigue, chases, gun fights, and a scramble for a powerful Ancient Martian artifact. This episode owes a lot of inspiration to the classic Dashiell Hammett novel, The Maltese Falcon. We have a MacGuffin, the artifact in question, a sleazy artifact dealer (Mac Stone), plenty of rivals (ranging from a native princess to a Nazi officer), and The Rocket Cat, a hopping nightclub in the center of Emancipation. At some point a door gets kicked in and men, as well as a Venusian, with guns burst into the room (following Chandler's Law, of course). There is a kidnapping, a double cross or six, and a host of twists and turns. In addition, the city of Emancipation is given a closer look, and the mixture of native Martian traditions and new ideas battle as fiercely as our heroes do.

That's Blood Red Mars in a nutshell, or at least my thoughts on it and its development. Next month The Future will be back with an all new column where we look at the Two Headed Megaultrasquid, in other words, the classic sci-fi monster movie. We're going to need a bigger column.