Warbirds: Prologue

A fluffy, fictional re-telling of the first session of our Warbirds game. Warbirds is set in a dieselpunk world of WW2-era technology, where islands of the Caribbean were forcefully spirited away to an unknown world now called Azure in the early 1800s. A new order has arisen from the descendants of those taken, a world of floating islands far above the Murk, of airships and fighter aircraft, of celebrity and scandal, of heroics and pulp and all the adventure a pilot could want.

A flight of fighter aircraft was hardly an uncommon sight in the skies of Azure. The mismatch of fighters would, at first glance, likely look like pirate craft; pirates often used whatever was available, while Azure’s nation-states would field patrols of matching fighters. A closer examination would reveal these were no regular airplanes.

These were Guild aircraft.

A twin-boom, twin-engine SG-21 “Ibis” lead the very loose formation of fighters. An unusual fighter, barely recognizable as a YN-18 “Nighthawk” trailed off the leader’s port wing, heavy laden with bombs but seemingly able to keep up just fine due to its unusual push-pull design with props both at the front and the back of the craft. Further aft and to starboard, a GC-112 “Viscount” cruised the air with both grace and power, seemingly eager to be off the leash. Its design was classic in form and the most “traditional” of the fighters, with a single puller prop, graceful main wing and tail in a typical configuration and skinned in aluminum. Finally, at the back of the formation but with extra altitude, was a pusher canard design identifiable as a rebuilt SF-22 “Thrush”.

Its pilot, Miles O’Dolan, was bored.

“Weeks of patrol and not a pirate to be found,” he grumbled under his breath, leaving his radio off. “Hawk needs to find us a better job.”

His radio wasn’t as off as he thought. “We get paid regardless,” Felix Jaager, the unofficial leader of the flight, called back. “And they wouldn’t be paying Guild rates if there wasn’t a problem.”

Miles started to reply, but a static-filled voice interrupted the conversation. “May…ay…are un…ack…pirates,” a voice called.

Miles scanned the sky, and he knew the rest of the Guild pilots would be doing the same. One of the many technical problems caused by either the Eye or the Murk – he didn’t know which – was electromagnetic interference that ensured radio ranges were limited to ten kilometers at the most. Jaager tried to reply, but the pilot on the other end of the radio clearly didn’t hear him.

A faint glint of light reflecting off metal caught his eye – the extra thousand feet of altitude Miles had insisted on gave him a bit of a different vantage point. “Aircraft off to the north, 10 o’clock low,” he announced as he opened his throttle.

“How are we doing this?” Esther Hewlett, the push-pull Nighthawk pilot, asked tightly. There was tension in her voice – tension and eagerness, Miles thought.

“Sylvain and Miles stay high to watch for any surprises. We go in and hit these pirates,” Felix decided out loud.

Sylvain Bernard, in his spotless Viscount, hung off Miles’ wing as they clawed for an extra thousand feet of altitude. “You’ve got my wing,” Sylvain said.

“Not likely,” Miles muttered.

The Guild aircraft, at full emergency throttle, could make more than five hundred kilometers per hour in level flight – and more than six hundred kph in a dive. Covering ten kilometers, even starting from their relatively slow idle speed, took two minutes, during which the static on the radio cleared as they closed.

“This is the La Conquistadora, and we are under attack by pirates,” the heavily accented voice said. “Is anyone out there? We are under attack by pirates!”

From altitude, Miles evaluated the situation as they closed. The extra climb he and Sylvain and put on left them behind and well above as Felix and Esther closed on the fight below. The victim aircraft was a four-engine, large aircraft suitable as either a bomber or long-distance courier. Six small black and red biplanes, aircraft that were out of date by at least fifteen years, were harrying the larger aircraft, lacing it with light machine gun fire.

A wordless growl flooded the radio – an animalistic sound filled with venom. At the same time, Esther’s push-pull Nighthawk opened throttle to full emergency power, bypassing Felix in the lead. Felix slid back into the wingman position and also opened full emergency power just to keep up.

The biplanes didn’t see the Guild pilots coming.

Felix and Esther both fired as they streaked through the fight at a speed the old biplanes couldn’t hope to match. Machines guns fired, the flicker of tracers visible even from altitude. Two of the biplanes shredded, spiraling out of control toward the Murk far, far below.

“Let’s bounce them!” Miles ordered, a grin on his face. This was always the best part.

Sylvain protested – Miles thought it was probably about taking orders from him, but he wasn’t really paying attention – but followed into the dive on the biplanes.

The biplanes were breaking off from their pursuit of the courier plane, turning toward the two Guild pilots that had just ripped through their formation – completely oblivious to the threat of the two fighters diving from above.

Sylvain and Miles both fired, Sylvain with a stream of tracers from his light machine guns…while Miles’ Thrush sported a 20 mm cannon with a lot more firepower. Sylvain’s target fell away in flames, the tracers having ignited the fuel tank.

Miles missed altogether, his heavier rounds falling behind and below his target.

Damn! I need more practice with this cannon!

As Sylvain and Miles crossed below the surviving biplanes’ altitude, Miles saw their formation begin to fall apart as their numbers were reduced by half in less than a minute. And then Felix and Esther roared through again, and two more of the pirate biplanes fell smoking into the Murk.

“The last one is breaking off,” Felix called. “Looks like he decided to live.”

“There’s an airship out on his outbound vector,” Sylvain announced excitedly. “Coal black. I bet that’s the pirates’ drop carrier.”

Miles muscled his Thrush through a tight turn, seeing the surviving biplane flee east. The words drop carrier echoed in his ears but didn’t penetrate the red haze descending on his vision. I don’t miss.

“Do we want to engage the carrier?” Felix asked the rest of the flight hesitantly, and with good reason – the pirate airship was likely a flying fortress of floatstone and guns, and was far from the fragile and relatively easy targets the biplanes had been.

“Looks like Miles has already decided,” Esther said dryly. The three pilots began to form up for a strafing run on the airship.

Miles registered the airship in his vision and dismissed it as irrelevant. This biplane will die, he told himself.

The pirate was no fool and lined himself up to land on one of the two landing decks, convinced he would be safe if he made it to the deck of the airship.

The airship was exactly the sort of floating fortress Felix had expected. Built around a core of floatstone – the unexplainable rock which defied gravity, allowing both the islands ripped from Earth-That-Was two centuries prior and man-made airships to stay safely out of the crushing storms of the Murk – it featured two landing decks and would launch aircraft by dropping them vertically into the sky. It also sported multiple anti-aircraft turrets, designed to keep fighter patrols at bay.

Miles ignored all of it to pursue the biplane as it tried to land. The airship’s gunners held their fire as the two fighters approached, apparently unwilling to risk their comrade’s life to shoot at the Guild pilot. The Thrush’s cannons roared again.

The pirate almost made it.

The biplane hit the deck hard, fire erupting from its engine. It skidded down the runway, then slid over the edge, out of control, and began its long tumble to the crushing Murk below.

With the kill secured, Miles realized just how much danger he was in.

As it turned out, it wasn’t much.

The other three Guild pilots hit the airship together, with Esther’s heavy bomb load at the front of the attack. An explosion rocked the airship as the airship’s bridge filled with fire and concussion, and though the pirates didn’t know it, the battle was lost in that first strike.

Felix strafed over the antiaircraft guns, knocking defenses out. Sylvain’s burst of guns and cannons penetrated the airship’s core, and something broke loose, as the airship began to list to starboard.

Past the airship, Miles circled back into the fight, letting loose with guns and rockets as he flew past, hitting the engines. The airship’s listing threw off the aim of the other Guild pilots, though, and Esther’s second bomb missed entirely with much of Felix’s next strafing run wasted on empty deck instead of defenses. Sylvain continued to pour fire into the hole he’d already opened in the airship.

Then a rumble, more felt than heard, reached all of the guild pilots. “Break off, break off,” Felix called, and they scattered away from the airship as it began to descend uncontrolled into the depth of Azure below.

“Back to the Seraph,” came the call. “We’re almost out of fuel.”

Miles allowed himself a small smile. This is just the beginning of a long and glorious career.

Warbirds: A New Adventure

A friend of mine decided some months back to make his first attempt at running a tabletop game and asked me if I’d like to join. Knowing the friend in question, I said “yes” without hesitation before even finding out what game we were playing.

And that game turned out to be Warbirds.

Warbirds is a relatively fringe game. Made by Outrider Studios, Warbirds was crowdfunded into existence for a mere $6000 dollars in 2013. The focus of the game is on fighter pilots in an alternate history world, with the rules fast and easy to play with an eye towards pulpy, over-the-top heroics by the player characters.

Set in the fantastical world of Azure, a small subset of humanity was ripped from Earth in an otherworldly storm and found themselves on floating islands in the sky of Azure – islands that were themselves ripped from the Caribbean on Earth around 1805. Several hundred years have passed, and technology has progressed to a roughly WW2-era equivalent. “Floatstone” is the key to much of the world, with small amounts falling slower than it should and large amounts outright defying gravity. Airships have been built around floatstone, allowing people to transit between islands safely above the ugly Murk covering the face of Azure, which is itself certain death for anyone who ventures down into it.

The players are rookie pilots in the Guild – a relatively high-tech mercenary group for sale to the highest bidders. Well-managed publicity around Guild members’ exploits have made them all celebrities of sorts, with corporate sponsorships providing plenty of cash inflow to individual pilots and to the guild as a whole.

Our game master setup the game for us on Roll20.net, an online platform for playing tabletop games remotely. Given that the players are widely spaced geographically, actually getting together in-person on a regular basis isn’t possible – but the Internet finds a way.

The game, as mentioned before, is played fast and simple with just a single six-sided die and addition/subtraction based on a set of rules called “Rapidfire”. Players can take and level various skills to improve their character’s abilities, acquire equipment of varying effects, and have both Advantages and Disadvantages (which, as a whole, must balance out to zero – if a player has a minor advantage, they need a minor disadvantage). The limiting factor is really the creativity of the gamemaster and the player.

The player group – four of us in total – decided to start our game as members of the Green Dragons squadron. Each of the Guild’s squadrons have varying reputations and are run differently; the Green Dragons are notorious hedonists who were originally military washouts too undisciplined for regular service. They’re very talented and unpredictable, which can make them deadlier than expected in a fight, but they’re difficult to work with and cost less than other Guild squadrons to hire.

Felix Jaager has unofficially become the leader of the group. The most balanced of the group, he’s been doing the job of herding the pilots of the new flight into something resembling order before hot lead starts flying. He flies a P-38-inspired fighter and is the most comfortable swapping between dogfighting and ground attack roles to ensure the job gets done.

Sylvain Bernard is the prettyboy of the flight, definitely seeking the limelight. He’s most comfortable in the thrill of a dogfight or posing for publicity photos…when he’s not stripping some poor fool of his coin in a game of chance. He flies a classic aircraft in the stylings of a real-world Spitfire.

Esther Hewlett didn’t get what she signed up for. She came on board with the intention of joining the disciplined, deadly-efficient Grey Falcons squad…but she ended up shuffled into the Green Dragons by accident. A British native of Nassau, she was a nurse before she became a fighter pilot, and learned to loathe pirates as she tended to the victims of their raids. She flies a push-pull design akin to a Do-335.

Miles O’Dolan rounds out the flight, an Irish man who fancies himself a sniper but has found himself incapable of the discipline required of military life. He seldom goes anywhere without carrying his rifle, “Joanna”, with him, even when it leads to awkward social situations. In the cockpit he prefers dogfighting to ground attack, and is the only pilot in the squad to lean on heavy cannons instead of machine guns. He flies a fighter inspired by the Japanese J7 Shinden design from WW2 and is played by yours truly.

Did I mention that there’s a second character sheet?

Not only do players fill out a sheet on their character’s quirks and skills, but there’s also a second sheet for the players’ aircraft. Each Guild fighter can be tweaked and tuned to the player’s liking, starting with guns and ordinance types, but also including traits which impact a plane’s performance in a fight. Traits may be things like “extra ammunition” to give a plane more rounds of ammunition – yes, it’s tracked, and yes, you can run out mid-fight – or drop tanks to extend a plane’s range or a reduced turn radius to give the pilot a +1 to dogfighting rolls. Players customize their fighters to play to their liking.

Actual combat is played very abstractly. Rather than a map with maneuvers and dials and measurement, the Rapidfire system determines everything based on dice rolls and modifiers. In a dogfight with an enemy pilot? Make opposed Dogfighting rolls – the winner gets the opportunity to shoot at the other with a follow-up Gunnery roll. The loser of the Dogfighting roll then has to choose how he wants to try to evade, with varying levels of risk involved – executing a Stunt as a defense may put him in a better position for the following round, or it may put him squarely inside the attacker’s gunsights this round and end in him falling to the island below – or even worse, into the Murk.

Next up: Session 1, our introduction into the world of Azure with a Guild assignment to patrol for air pirates.

A Different Kind of Sequel

Those who follow me online have probably observed that I almost never refer to my son by name. Online, he is usually referred to as the Gremlin (formerly the Peanut, which went right out when he started growling), as it’s generally good Internet practice to minimize identifying information. Further, parents often have nicknames or code names for their kids (especially before they’re born – I chatted with a friend who had a daughter this last year, and he mentioned the baby code name was Monkey Ruckus). Such names usually have something to do with a kid’s traits or behaviors (hence the Gremlin’s nickname).

But after three months of development, there’s not much for identifying traits yet. For brevity and wit, the wife and I decided that our number two is best described as the Sequel. Hopefully, Sequel will be more along the lines of The Empire Strikes Back than, say, Spider-Man 3. We announced at Christmas; I’m curious as to see how many people will click through from Facebook or Twitter to read this, and how many will tell me in a couple months, “I didn’t know you and your wife were expecting!”

Coming soon – hopefully after I have a couple more books out. Yes, I’m hard at work on those sequels too, but my side business has really picked up and I need to build a new bedroom in the house, too.

Review: Star Wars Rebels Season 2, Episode 4

“Brothers of the Broken Horn” was last week’s episode of Rebels, so this review should be out just hours before the newest episode, “Wings of the Master”, airs and is made available for streaming.

The episode begins with Ezra training under Rex, using a Clone Wars-era rifle for target practice. Cue the arrival of Kanan, who is irritated that Ezra is missing Jedi training, leading to Ezra’s off-hand comment that perhaps he shouldn’t be a soldier or a Jedi and sets up Ezra’s conflict for the episode.

With the rest of the crew off on a mission, Ezra and Chopper are left behind to perform maintenance on the Ghost. While complaining about how life was simpler on his own, Ezra receives a distress call from criminal Vizago, a recurring Season 1 character to whom Ezra owes a debt. Deciding to ditch his responsibilities for the moment, Ezra takes off in the Phantom with Chopper in tow.

Vizago is nowhere to be found, but his ship, the Broken Horn, is now apparently under the captainship of Clone Wars fan-favorite pirate Honda Ohnaka. Poor Hondo has gone through tough times since the Clone Wars – he has no crew, just one ship he won in a card game, and is apparently broke. The Empire has been hard on business.

Enter a game of scheming not seen since Lando Calrissian’s Season 1 appearance in “Idiot’s Array” as Ezra and Chopper scheme both with and against Hondo, face-off with Season 1 villain Azmorigan (also from “Idiot’s Array”), and spring Vizago from his own brig, turning the climax into a three-way match which ultimately ends with no one completely happy with the conclusion. (Best line goes to Vizago – “I hate children.”)

Ultimately, Ezra tells Kanan that he used to be like Hondo, scheming and out for himself, but he’s on a different path now – the Jedi path.

Ultimately, though, the episode falls flat and leaves a few head-scratchers. Ezra can’t carry an episode by himself the way Kanan can (though I’m very interested to see if Hera can manage it tonight in “Wings of the Master”), which means Hondo steals the spotlight. We never do find out how Hondo managed to both lock Vizago up and how he stole Vizago’s droid controller. Also, why did Hondo leave Vizago alive? During Clone Wars he was clearly capable of and had no compunctions about killing.

Further, Ezra’s conflict isn’t really explored. He begins the episode as “I’m not sure I want to be a Jedi or rebel”, and partway through he questions whether he wants to join Hondo as a pirate, but at the end he tells Kanan, “I’m on a different path.” Those are all great mile markers on a road, but they’re just markers; what’s missing is the road between them. At no point does Ezra express discomfort with what he, Hondo, and Vizago are doing – he never, for example, takes a moral stand. On the contrary, when Vizago demands Ezra spring him from the brig, Ezra tells him that he has other problems to deal with, and only relents when Vizago brings up the favor Ezra owes him. Overall, the arc in the episode is too much tell, not enough show.

It doesn’t mean there aren’t some great moments in the episode, particularly involving Hondo. “One of my best friends was a Jedi! At least, I think we were friends.” And, as expected, Chopper is the one who schemed furthest, ensuring the Rebels ultimately acquired the cargo they needed – again, not unlike “Idiot’s Array” when Chopper played a long-con game to steal Lando Calrissian’s fuel. (Though in “Idiot’s Array”, Lando was ultimately the long-term winner.) Hondo explaining to the Rebels crew at the end how he and Ezra worked together against Vizago is laugh-out-loud worthy; the Weequay can lie like a politician.

In totality, though, the episode comes off mediocre. It’s certainly not terrible, but as a character-centric episode for Ezra it’s no match for Season 1’s “Empire Day” and “Gathering Forces” two-parter.


Review: Star Wars Rebels Season 2, Episode 3

Remember how I complained the opening two episodes of Season 2 were a bit weak? Episode 3, entitled “Always Two There Are”, is a return to form.

The episode opens aboard the Ghost and quickly devolves into an argument between Jedi Kanan Jarrus and clone captain Rex. The undertone is clear – they’ve been arguing like that since Rex arrived, and there’s definitely still tension between the two. Kanan may have forgiven the clones, but it’s a work in progress, not an instant fix.

Ezra, tired of being in the crossfire, slips away to join Chopper, Zeb, and Sabine on a mission to retrieve some medical supplies from an abandoned Old Republic medical station. (Side note – I saw some viewers complaining it was ridiculous for the Old Republic/Empire to abandon a perfectly good facility. I live in North Dakota, which is home to plenty of abandoned military installations.)

The facility is mostly shut down, with a near-perfect creepy vibe not out of place in any number of horror movies. And horror is coming – the Rebels crew soon find themselves hunted by not one, but two Inquisitors.

And they thought the Inquisitor from last season was the only one of his kind.

Full marks for mood and setting in this episode – the darkness of the station is a perfect compliment to the new Inquisitors. And as is fitting dark side adepts trained by the Sith, there’s clearly tension between them, with hints that all of the members of their order are jockeying for power in the vacuum left when Kanan offed the Grand Inquisitor in the Season 2 finale.

The limitations of a children’s show did restrain the actions of the Inquisitors. Rebels is pitched at a younger audience than Clone Wars was, and it showed. The “torture” inflicted by the Seventh Sister on hero Ezra was literally an invisible use of the Force, and neither of the Inquisitors actually did anything to Sabine when attempting to use her to get Ezra to talk. (In a more adult setting, I would have fully expected something like limb loss or, at the very least, lightsaber burns.)

The Fifth Brother also picked up the dummy ball at one point in a completely nonsensical way; after besting both Sabine and Zeb, he picked up Sabine and told the Sister’s droids to do whatever they wished with Zeb…minutes after he’d been angry with the Sister for denying him the killing of Ezra. I have a hard time believing he wouldn’t have run Zeb through with a lightsaber just for the fun of it.

Nonsensical survival aside, it gave Zeb a shining moment of character development. For once, the big guy isn’t just the big guy – he expresses doubt and a feeling of inadequacy when he’s measured against the Jedi and the Inquisitors…but ultimately decides to take a chance, set aside his doubts and brawn, and uses his brain to attempt a rescue via deception. Ultimately, I hope they’re sewing the seeds for some real character development for Zeb later in the season, because he’s been very undeveloped thus far.

Ultimately, Zeb’s rescue mission and the escape from the Inquisitors was fairly well-handled, with the Inquisitors showing more raw strength than I would have expected. But the best scene of the show happened upon their return to the Rebel fleet.

Rex and Kanan are still feuding, with Kanan triumphant in a game of dejarik. Rex’s comment, “Looks like you can be disciplined when you set your mind to it,” sparks Kanan’s irritation again, with him observing, “I’m not sure if I like you more or less now.” Clearly, some tension is going to remain for now.

But when the crew tells Kanan that they just escaped a pair of Inquisitors, he can only gape at them. And when they ask him why he didn’t tell them there were more Inquisitors, he has no answer – just stunned silence.

Kanan continues to be the most interesting character on the show (and this coming from someone who, as a rule, isn’t a fan of Jedi), and the episodes ahead look to be more interesting than ever. Killing the Grand Inquisitor in the Season 1 finale wasn’t really a victory, it turns out – it was just kicking over a bees’ hive.

I suspect Season 2 is going to get much, much darker. This was definitely an episode worth watching.

Review: Star Wars Rebels Season 2, Episodes 1 & 2

Star Wars Rebels is back and coming out with new episodes regularly. I’ve been a bit behind, so I hadn’t gotten a chance to review as I’d intended. However, it appears the fifth episode is going to be B-wing-centric, and I figured I’d better catch up on my review duties before it came out.

The first two episodes of Season 2 are a back-to-back story arc, and really deserve to be reviewed together.

The Ghost crew head out to an uninhabited world, looking for an unnamed military officer recommended by Ahsoka Tano. Ahsoka herself is present only at the very beginning and end of the arc; otherwise, she is presumably investigating the Dark Lord of the Sith, Darth Vader, who was once her master, Anakin Skywalker.

The leader in question was unnamed for a good reason – it’s Captain Rex of Clone Wars fame, and a clone to boot. Order 66 survivor Kanan Jarrus understandably distrusts a member of the army that slaughtered Jedi from Coruscant to the Rim, leaving his own apprentice, Ezra Bridger, to handle the three Clone Wars veterans, all dysfunctional in their own ways, while he deals with his own anger and hatred.

There’s a danger to Star Wars Rebels in this arc. It spent the first season carefully building its own identity and feel, returning to the more adventuresome spirit of A New Hope that is a distinct contrast to the darker, war-is-hell approach of Clone Wars. With the return of Clone Wars characters, it could quickly revert back to the spirit of its predecessor.

The writers seem aware of that, and took things a bit too far in the light-hearted direction. While the fishing-for-sand-worms bit was hilarious and clever, it also made too light of the fact that the clones had risked Zeb’s life as bait – and were well-aware that their own equipment wasn’t in great repair, as evidenced by Rex’s warning to Sabine that she had to keep it going or Zeb would die. And at the end of the sequence, the only person that seemed angry – and legitimately so – about the near-loss of Zeb is Kanan. Everyone else, including Zeb, just brushed it off like, “Oh, those wacky clones.”

The no-consequences feeling continued with Wolfe, who contacted the Empire to turn Kanan and Ezra over as Jedi. At the end of the first episode, it’s brushed off as a no-harm, no-foul affair, even after he was exposed as intercepting messages from Ahsoka to Rex to ensure Rex never saw them. This isn’t a live-and-let-live situation; his poor judgement almost got them all killed, and he was interfering with a friendship where he had no right to be.

The Empire responds as expected in the beginning of the second episode, arriving at the planet in response to Wolfe’s message and deploying AT-AT walkers to hunt down the Rebels and the clones on their Clone Wars-era AT-TE.

In one of the best sequences in the series thus far, the good guys realize they’re outmatched and flee into a dust storm, blinding both friendly and enemy sensors alike and allowing the Jedi to gain an upper hand. With Kanan guiding the clone crew, Ezra mans the AT-TE’s weapons as the only other one capable of hitting a target in the storm.

Agent Kallus, the Imperial Security Bureau agent who has been pursuing the Rebels since the beginning of the series, proves a competent commander. He underestimates the Jedi in the dust storm, losing one of his walkers, but still has the situation fully under control until his air support is pulled without his knowledge, allowing the Rebels crew to escape aboard the Phantom while the clones cover their escape.

In a sequence reminiscent of “The Charge of the Light Brigade”, the clones take on the two remaining Imperial AT-ATs in a head-on confrontation. The new Imperial armor is more than a match for the clones and their twenty-year-old equipment, however, and the battle quickly turns against them. Only Kanan’s change of heart and the return of the Phantom and its crew turn the battle back in time to save the clones from dying.

While the first episode of the two-parter came off too light-hearted for my taste (save Kanan’s well-deserved dislike of the clones), the second part was a great take on both characters and warfare as we’ve seen it in Star Wars. There’s no fanservice done here; although the clones, particularly Rex, were favorites from Clone Wars, they clearly lost the fight. The final reunion between Rex and Ahsoka aboard a Rebel blockade runner was touching as well: “You grew up,” the clone observes.

Overall, though, the stakes seem small for the season opener. It made sense for Season 1 to start small; it was introducing us to new characters and a small crew, and the stakes grew throughout, culminating in the rescue at Mustafar that brought a Rebel fleet out of hiding. Season 2’s movie kept the tension high with Darth Vader’s appearance, the Imperials crushing the spirit of the Lothal Rebels, and the final space combat between Imperial and Rebel forces that saw most of Phoenix Squadron wiped out and their command ship destroyed.

And suddenly, we’re back to a desert with three characters, aside from the Ghost crew. I understand very well that the stakes can’t always continue to escalate, and breather episodes are necessary, but this would’ve made a great episode 3 and 4 for the season. As the premiere? A bit weak.

Broken Game Mechanics

In some ways, sports fans have great advantages over those of us who are computer gaming nerds. In general, most popular sports were established decades ago at the minimum. The vast majority of the flaws and loopholes in the rules have been corrected and closed, so sports are, in a sense, predictable. (As predictable as anything run by humans, of course.)

Video games, on the other hand, generally don’t last long enough to work out all the problems. Developers may patch the biggest problems, but very few games have a lifespan of a decade plus with active development to improve the game and remove options for play that are game-breaking.

And make no mistake – sometimes code, implemented as designed, is game-breaking. Developers are not gods; they make mistakes, miss implications of their own ideas, and generally screw things up.

As you may have guessed, I’ve been pondering some elements of Star Wars Galaxies.

Before talking about the particular game-breaking issue I have in mind, I suppose I should define “game-breaking”. And to do that, I need to point out that what’s game-breaking in a multiplayer game is not necessarily game-breaking in a single-player game.

Take, for example, KOTOR 2. KOTOR was, first and foremost, a lightsaber game. There is no doubt the devs intended it to be played as a Jedi, swinging a lightsaber to cut down Sith Lords. KOTOR 2, on the other hand, introduced feats and specials to make ranged combat viable – even against lightsaber-wielding enemies. On the balance, the game still favored lightsaber combat over Force combat over ranged combat; however, the game was playable and beatable with any sort of build. Some were certainly more optimized than others, but players had options.

If you carry that paradigm into multiplayer, it fails, especially if it’s player-vs-player multiplayer. As a rule of thumb, you have three types of players: min-max players, who do everything to minimize weaknesses and maximize strengths to make their characters as powerful as possible; casual players, who generally choose skills and options they perceive of as “cool” without worrying about overall effectiveness; and players looking for a challenge, who either gimp their characters deliberately or try to pull off feats that the developers intended to be impossible.

When player-vs-player is introduced, you’ve now put your casual players at a great disadvantage. The min-maxers are going to stomp on them, and the challenge players are probably going to be min-maxing too.

With that in mind, in an MMO, I’d define game-breaking as “Skills, items, or game mechanics that render entire player classes moot.”

In Star Wars Galaxies, particularly pre-CU, that mechanic was Armor Piercing.

SWG had some amazingly in-depth systems. The crafting system was insane (and is still something I struggle to completely grasp) in its depth. Space and starship outfitting was almost an art in mass and power management to maximize fighter performance. Entire cities were built and managed by players. Even decorating was almost a profession in itself, due to the options available to players.

But parts of combat were very wrong.

Raph Koster wrote a series of posts on SWG this year, and they’re well worth reading from a game design perspective, so I understand why they got it wrong and things didn’t work. But there are still fans of the old pre-Combat Upgrade SWG that don’t seem to understand how broken several aspects are.

I’m now six hundred words in, and I’ll finally get to the topic I wanted to talk about!

SWG’s damage reduction worked in several ways. If you had the appropriate skill to examine a creature, or if you picked up a piece of armor, there were several sets of stats to look at. Damage reduction from armor was handled by two separate, yet equally important stats: Resistances and Armor Level.

Resistances offered a flat reduction to incoming damage based on the percentage. If the armor had 80% resists to energy, and you attacked with an energy weapon, only 20% of your damage got through on a successful hit. Not rocket science. The proliferation of the best armor in the game, composite, due to overpowered doctor buffs led to many people using stun weapons, since composite’s lowest resistance was always to stun.

Armor Levels for a target could range from 0 to 3. Think of it is unarmed, light armor, medium armor, and heavy armor. (That’s how it was described in game.) Player armor maxed at 1, but creature and NPC armor went all the way up to 3. Armor Piercing on weapons could also range from 0 to 3 (none, light, medium, heavy); player weapons were acquirable at all four levels.

The interaction of those two numbers was catastrophically game-breaking.

When AP was compared to AL, damage penalties and bonuses applied, starting at 25%. AP2 attacks against AL1 meant 25% bonus damage; AP3 attacks against AL1 meant 50% damage bonus.

Flipping that, an AP0 attack against an AL3 creature meant 75% damage reduction…before the flat damage reduction from resists. Attacking a creature with AL3 with your AP0 weapon, and said creature has 80% resists against your damage type? You’re doing 5% of your weapon’s rated damage.

“Get yourself a weapon with higher AP rating!” seems like the obvious answer, right? The problem is that many classes couldn’t get an AP3 weapon. Particularly gimped were Pistols-based builds; no pistol had a ranking higher than AP1. Period.

Entire classes built around weapon types were utterly useless at high-end PvE or PvP. (Yes, some PvPers could pull off pistols at various points, mostly due to bounty hunter’s eyeshot and a Geonosian sonic blaster for stun damage, while maximizing dodge by taking points in fencer. I’m talking casual play here, not min-max. Also, no one could PvE at high end with pistols.)

At the time, the implications weren’t well-understood. It took time for players to understand the mechanics in-depth, and quite often those at the top of the food chain weren’t in a hurry to share that information with others. But years have passed since then; now days, log into a SWG emulator for pre-CU, and what classes are almost everyone playing?

Rifleman: Armor Piercing 3 T-21 blaster rifle.

Swordsman: Armor Piercing 3 blast hammer.

Could something have been done to fix it?

I would argue, from Raph Koster’s posts, that no, nothing could be done about it. Giving all classes an AP3 weapon would be a very stopgap “fix” – it means everyone needs to use their high-end weapon. The way weapon refire rates were calculated meant speeding up lighter weapons wasn’t an option; pistols were already at the 1 attack per second cap, and combat speeds even faster than that simply weren’t an option at the time. (See Raph Koster’s post on the server hardware limitations.) Slowing down the heavy AP weapons would’ve been virtually impossible, again due to how weapon speeds were calculated. (With a full set of skills in a weapon, everyone attacks at or very near speed cap.)

I have no doubt the idea of Armor Piercing/Armor Levels was designed to allow more diversity in weapon choice. Instead, it killed off all but a few viable options for combat.

When designing a mechanic, think long and hard about all the repercussions of it. Also, bring in a min-maxer or three and see if they can figure out a way to exploit it that you haven’t thought of. I guarantee they’ll find something new.

Who is your god?

Two general rules of thumb for polite conversation are to never discuss politics or religion. With a title like the one for this post, you’re probably assuming I’m going to be breaking the second part. Further, most authors are reluctant to discuss politics or religion for fear of alienating readers.

I’m going to break the rule. It’s for a good cause.

Anyone who knows me and has read this site knows I’m a Christian. It might not be the focus of most of my posts here, but it’s readily apparent in large and small ways.

Matthew 6:24 has been on my mind recently: “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.” (NIV translation) Most sermons and lessons I’ve heard couple the verse with 1 Timothy 6:10: “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.”

The problem with this pairing is that Matthew 6:24 isn’t just about money – it’s about serving two masters. Money is incidental and common, but hardly singular.

My social media feed is filled with all types: political activists of most stripes, hunters, vegans, weightlifters, video gamers, blue-collar workers on food stamps to middle management, wage slaves and contractors, government employees and private business owners, and authors both independent and signed with a major publishing house. In short, I see a lot of diverse opinions on virtually any subject that comes up.

Many of them, perhaps most of them, don’t realize what god they worship. (Lowercase god is intentional.)

It’s important to me that I note here that I’m not criticizing anyone here – this understanding only surfaced after some long reflection on myself and my own priorities.

I see self-proclaimed Christians who seem to focus solely on their jobs. All of their energy and concentration seem to be bound up in their employment. Self-employed people tend to have this the worst: a focus so intent on a business succeeding that there is no time for spiritual affairs or the business of the church.

Those who work for others spend their off-hours energy elsewhere. Many worship at the altar of fitness – their Facebook and Twitter posts are about Crossfit, about marathon running, about triathlons or powerlifting. Often related to this are the latest diet fads, be they paleo or vegan or Atkins. These people are focused on the body and absolute physical health, believing it necessary or perhaps even the key to finding spiritual health and happiness.

Others revel in leisure activities, ranging from the intensely indoors (video games – MMORPGs tend to be the worst) to the intensely outdoors (hunting, fishing, boating, hiking, camping). They worship creation, not the Creator, with their actions betraying the lies of their words.

The idol of human knowledge is the target of much worship. Even among those who line the pews on Sunday morning are quick to ignore the Word for the next six days while seeking only the secular.

I’m as ugly a sinner as any. This is not a holier-than-thou post. But if you’re a believer in any faith, and you read this, I ask you: by your actions, by your money, by your time and energy, what do you worship?