Book Review: The Martian by Andy Weir

The Martian by Andy Weir is a science fiction novel set in the not-too-distant future. The book's protagonist, Mark Watney, is a botanist and mechanical engineer who is extremely intelligent and always wisecracking. In other words, he's the kind of guy I'm pretty sure I could hang out with if he was a real person... except for the pesky little issue of me being here and Mark being stranded on Mars.

There are some people who just love their hard sci-fi. I'm not one of them. I tend to fall in the Stephen King camp of appreciating the story a lot more than the technical details. However, since the majority of the story is told in first person from Mark's point of view, we get all of the science from the mouth of a very likable character. It makes the chemistry digestible, as if you were learning this stuff from your best friend rather than from a professor's monotone lecture.

I recall Mark mentioning several times that he would spare me the science, and even though the character makes the subject more palatable, I still remember thinking, "Man, I wish you would save me a little more of it!" Likable narrator or not, there is a lot of technical mumbo jumbo in The Martian that I felt could have been condensed. The botany didn't bother me at all, probably because my sense of humor got stuck somewhere around age twelve, but the chemistry was a little much at times. Even though it helps explain exactly how the protagonist was managing to survive, if you don't find the protagonist's explanations funny, you might find yourself bogged down in chemistry rather than enjoying the story itself.

I'm sure there is a demographic out there, however, that loves all the technical detail that Andy Weir included in The Martian. I'm certainly not a scientist myself, so I don't know whether he actually knows his stuff or not, but it certainly sounds like it... and since the plot revolves around improvising ways to survive in a harsh environment without the necessary supplies, some might even say that the technical details are necessary.

All in all, I really enjoyed the book. I may sound overly critical of the abundance of science in this review, but the story underneath all the jargon is excellent. Even if you think the science is a slog, it is presented by a character whose commentary is usually amusing and sometimes downright hilarious. If you like science fiction at all - even if hard sci-fi isn't normally your thing - I highly recommend this book.

Note: Special thanks to for providing me a free review copy of the Martian.

Thankful for Gamer Friends

I've been known to post holiday themed content from time to time, but it isn't usually my thing. However, "my thing" or not, I feel the need to show my thankfulness publicly today, because this year has been awesome for me as a gamer. Let me explain why...

I started playing D&D with my dad when I was six, and as I grew up, I continued to play RPGs with family. The occasional friend joined in, but I have logged more hours of roleplaying with family members than any other demographic. However, over the last few years, my family has just stopped playing. My brother will argue that he still plays computer RPGs, but let's be honest. Computer games don't count, despite how much overlap there may be. 

After months of fruitless attempts to organize another game night with my old group, I decided to quit bugging people who were clearly no longer able and/or interested in playing. People get married. People have kids. Work keeps you busy. Priorities change. Life goes on. I understand.

What followed was a search for gamers in the area, and I started a Pathfinder campaign with just two players. Since then, the group has grown and evolved into what it is today: five of us who meet every week to get our geek on. That original campaign is still going, and we've added several more to the mix, but no matter what the game of the week is, I know that every Thursday I can look forward to spending the afternoon with good people having an awesome time.

I am truly grateful. Thanks, guys.

Savage Worlds: Some Observations and Comments

I've owned the Savage Worlds Deluxe Explorer's Edition for quite some time, and even threw together some stats for a few characters I was writing about when I first purchased it. However, for the most part, it has just been gathering dust on a bookshelf between my D&D and Rifts books, overshadowed by the two systems I grew up playing.

A friend mentioned the system about a month or so back, though, and I figured it would be perfect for the science fiction setting I had been working on: Alpha Enigma. So I blew the dust off of the old Savage Worlds book and opened it for the first time in over a year. The possibilities flew off the page at me.

I have gotten quite a few puzzled looks and inquiries since we started, probably because my group is still getting used to Savage Worlds after playing D20-based systems for so long. This is a collection of my thoughts on the system and what my players have asked me about it.

Game Mechanics
  • The concept of the action deck was one that I turned up my nose to when I read the book the first time, but I have grown to love it. In fact, it's something that I would port over to my D20 games if I could figure out an easy way to do it without penalizing players who have Improved Initiative or similar feats/class abilities.
  • It takes a bit to get used to using correct vocabulary for raises and aces. I mixed up the terms at least twice during our first session, and I think some of it bled over into the second session. By the end of the second session, I think we all had it right, but it would have been easier if I had been more attentive on day one.
  • A single Extra probably won't be challenging for a group of heroes regardless of its toughness. Aces make it easy for players to deal a lot more damage than the dice would suggest.
  • "Did I re-skin these powers so that they made more sense?" Sort of... except the rules are pretty un-skinned to begin with, and I just added whatever flavor made sense for each character.
  • "Where's the system reference document for this game?" Apparently, there isn't one. But seriously... the book is like ten bucks. This is the cheapest RPG I've ever purchased, and the scope of what is possible within the ruleset is definitely worth the investment.
  • It seems like the hardest thing for players to remember is the penalties to die rolls for being wounded and/or fatigued. There has to be an easy way to help new players remember, but I'm not sure what that is yet.
Setting Creation
  • It might be easier to stick to one identifiable genre or sub-genre when you describe your setting. Unless you have a lot of images, describing your world as a mix of Mass Effect, Firefly, and Phase World is probably too broad.
  • There are tons of fan-created converted settings that are already out there. Just do an online search for "Savage Whatever," and more than likely an appropriate document will be on the first page of results. I was able to find Savage Mass Effect and Savage Firefly pretty quickly, and even though I didn't use much from either one, they were still good reads. 
  • I purchased the Science Fiction Companion, but I really didn't need it. I think I could have created everything I needed from the core rulebook.
What might be the craziest thing is that we agreed to go back to the Underdark campaign for a while... but I'm actually feeling a little indifferent to a campaign with a heavy drow theme. The ease of play and shortened prep time of Savage Worlds has made me want to stick with it instead of playing drow.

Next step... drow in Savage Worlds.

Alpha Enigma Campaign Log #2: Escaping the Asteroid Mine

The ship detailed here is based on this one
in the Maps of Mastery line.
When we last left off, our heroes were investigating an asteroid mining complex that had been attacked by orks. Their mission was to recover the ore the Nova Eclipse was supposed to pick up, and rescue the captain's brother if he was still alive.

  • Jane/Iris/Avery/Rose (Jammie) - a smuggler and rogue with multiple personalities
  • Alistare Nameless (Andrew) - a tech-savvy follower of a secretive religious order
  • Joseph Wrenly (Jake) - a man out for revenge, tracking down the man who stole his ship, stole his wife, and kicked his dog
  • Julian (Stetson) - an mercenary with a sniper rifle, a survivor's horror story, and a chip on his shoulder
The group continued exploring, and managed to rescue a maintenance worker who had barricaded himself in a room. He was grateful to see humans again, but not completely trusting, and he was right to be nervous. Julian decided that keeping the man around wasn't worth the effort or the risk, and shot him. The shot didn't penetrate the armor that the worker had taken from the barracks and strapped on haphazardly, but it sparked a scuffle in the group. After a few moments of infighting, Julian found himself unconscious and without any weapons. Jane dropped off the would-be murderer's rifle and knife elsewhere before he woke up, and Julian ended up taking the maintenance worker's old slug thrower for the remainder of the mission.

They continued exploring, eventually finding and killing the ork leader, and venturing into the mine shafts themselves. Not far into the mines, they found the ore they had been searching for atop a broken hover-palette. Alistare was able to get it back online, though, and the first step of their mission was complete.

Farther down the passage, they stumbled onto the body of the captain's brother. He had not survived, but it didn't look like he had been killed by orks. Joseph threw the man's body over his shoulder to carry him back to the ship, but they would find his killer on the way back to the complex, a giant vaguely humanoid creature made of stone. It pummeled Alistare into unconsciousness, but Jane got the drop on the creature by jumping up onto it and shooting as she climbed. It didn't take long for the creature to fall.

Back on the ship, Julian managed to convince the captain not to blow him out the airlock for his actions on the asteroid, but the captain's decision wouldn't matter for too long. Later that night, the captain was shot in his own bedroom, and nobody saw the killer. Unlike the last few crew members who went missing, this time there was a body, and after a thorough investigation, it seemed the party was convinced that the killer was using the ventilation shafts to move through the ship undetected.

Just in case an unknown passenger might be hiding there, the group decided to release the rat drakes into the vents to flush out any unwanted stowaways... but the execution of that plan will have to wait until next time.

Friday Link Dump 11/21/2014

With all the Alpha Enigma Savage Worlds stuff we've been playing (and I've been writing), this week's link dump is very sci-fi focused...

If you're looking to generate a random solar system for your sci-fi universe, this is a pretty decent place to start. It isn't perfect, but it'll do in a pinch. Note: If you know of a better one, please send me a link!

Need to figure out exactly what's in the cargo hold? This random generator will do the trick!

Looking for some sci-fi miniatures, and don't want to go through the trouble of painting them yourself? Here's one option...

Looking for sci-fi maps with a 1" grid? Maps of Mastery is one of my favorite lines.

Worldport, The Planar Hub

The Tomb is a planet-sized megalopolis, a world that is covered from coast to coast on every continent with post-apocalyptic ruins. Abandoned by the ancients thousands of years ago, The Tomb once supported billions of inhabitants but is now sparsely populated. Landscapes filled with abandoned structures stretch from coast to coast on every continent. Dimensional portals rip through space and time, sometimes to snatch The Tomb's unlucky inhabitants from where they stand, and sometimes to drop off bewildered immigrants from across the planes.

One place stands out in contrast among the savage ruins, a city called Worldport. Here, nobody fears the dimensional portals, because they never open within the city. Here, elves in the arcane college study the dimensional portals in hopes of someday harnessing their power. Here, refugees from any solar system, any time, and any dimension are welcomed as long as they can survive long enough in the ruins to reach the city gates.

Because so few people who ever come to The Tomb ever venture any farther than Worldport, many in Alpha Enigma have come to refer to the entire planet as Worldport even though the city occupies only a tiny percentage of the planet's surface area.

The Tomb, and Worldport
Gravity: Normal
Atmosphere: Normal
The Tomb is very similar to Earth in terms of size and composition.
Dominant Terrain: Artificial
Although much of the planet is now overgrown with plant life, the plants have had to adapt to the urbanized landscape that the ancients created.
Population Density: Very Sparse / Dense
In Worldport, the population is quite dense. People of many different races compete for living space in the only area of the planet that is safe from the dimensional portals. Beyond the gates of Worldport, the population is very sparse, as almost nobody chooses to live there, and the life expectancy of those who do wind up there is quite short.
Dominant Government: Magocracy
Worldport is ruled by a cabal of elven spellcasters whose only real concern seems to be their research.
Dominant Law: Lenient
The mages who rule Worldport don't really care what happens in the city, as long as their research isn't interrupted. Thus, the farther away from their tower one is, the more lawless the city seems.
Technology Level: Significantly Higher Than Average
Between the technology of the elves (which is more advanced than humans) and the salvaged technology of the ancients (which is beyond even the elves' understanding), Worldport is the source of Alpha Enigma's most advanced tech.
Spaceport: Large
As a major hub for technology and magic, Worldport's spaceport has to be equipped for visitors from all over Alpha Enigma and beyond.

Elves 25%
Humans 20%
Orks 10%
Other* 45%

*Hundreds (perhaps thousands) of intelligent races call Worldport home. However, none other than the elves, humans, and orks make up more than half a percent of the city's population. In fact, some number fewer than a dozen individuals. None of these races are native to Alpha Enigma, and none have established more than a foothold in Worldport.

Kickstarter: RPG & TableTop Gaming Audio Collection

My gaming group has mentioned a few times having music playing for game night, but the one time I tried to look up some background loops, what I used was more distracting than anything else. This might be the answer...

The Nova Eclipse

The ship detailed here is based on this one
in the Maps of Mastery line.
Paragon class transports are often used to move goods from colony to colony in Alpha Enigma. Their design has since become rather outdated, and paragon class transports are no longer in production. Despite this, paragons have a reputation for being rugged and dependable, and are still used by plenty of organizations and independent contractors.

The Nova Eclipse is one such vessel, with an aging captain who has somehow managed to survive many a dangerous job through a combination of daredevil stunts and dumb luck. The jobs he prefers are often risky and occasionally illegal, but always high profit. He would likely be a millionaire if not for his habit of spending money as soon as he gets it. His "crew" is constantly in flux, as not many are willing to stay (or able to survive) in such a stressful and dangerous work environment for long stretches of time.

Medium Starship: Size 8, Acc/TS 55/700, Climb 2, Toughness 25 (6), Crew 5, Cost $8.24M, Remaining Mods 8
Notes: Anti-Missile Countermeasures, Atmospheric, Crew Space (12), Garage/Hangar, Planetary Sensor Suite, Speed x2
Weapons: Light Missile Launcher and Medium Laser on on turret, Twin-linked Light Lasers on the other turret

Alpha Enigma Campaign Log #1, From the Cybernetic Logs of Jane Hatfield

For some awesome sci-fi maps,
check out Armored Cartographers.
As has happened quite often lately, I haven't had time to write up a proper campaign log. Luckily, Jammie shared with the rest of the group her character's "Cybernetic Logs," a summary of the session's events from Jane's point of view. With her permission (and a little censorship just in case my students find my blog), here are the events of the first Alpha Enigma session from Jane's point of view:


  • Jane/Iris/Avery/Rose (Jammie) - a smuggler and rogue with multiple personalities
  • Alistare Nameless (Andrew) - a tech-savvy follower of a secretive religious order
  • Joseph Wrenly (Jake) - a man out for revenge, tracking down the man who stole his ship, stole his wife, and kicked his dog
  • Big Julian (Stetson) - an mercenary with a sniper rifle, a survivor's horror story, and a chip on his shoulder

Status Update: 5014.11.6


I've booked us passage on a ship. Alright, "ship" is a charitable word for this pile of rust and rat leavings, but beggars can't be choosers. It's called the Nova Eclipse. The security's a joke and we're rooming with three other people, including a gadget freak and interplanetary super cop Victoria Chamberlain.

Yeah, way to bury the lead, I know. The techie doesn't seem like he'll be a problem, his sort tend to have a fluid relationship with the law anyway. As for the law woman, well, let's just keep our head down.

Our bunk is bottom, first to the right of the dorm door, crew and captain's quarters are out of bounds.

Avery, if you discharge our weapon on this ship for anything less than a bone fide emergency, I will dye our hair neon pink, so help me God.

Status Update: 5014.11.7


Do it, Jane! Please?

Also, yuck. I am going to need a tub of rosewater to get the stench of unwashed man and, what is that? Canned meat? Ugh. Lord Almighty knows the trials I face. He sees and he sympathizes, I know it in my heart. Where's this law lady, anyway? I've been up since six ship time and I haven't seen hide nor hair of her. Speaking of hair, is hers amazing? I bet it is. I bet she's glamorous like nobody's business. Why didn't we become pirate hunters?


We are all very sympathetic to the trials you face, Iris. Make sure to give Rose some face time in the head tomorrow morning so she can process where we are in private. We don't want another Lando Creek meltdown on our hands.

Nobody knows where the cop is. I say a grown woman should be allowed to find a quiet corner by herself, especially one where she's nowhere near us, but the crew is getting itchy so we're spliting up and searching the ship for her. This pain in the *** meathead--Big Julian? Juliard? Let's just call him Julie. He stinks to high Heaven, can't miss him--is going to the top deck to search so I figure this is a good time to poke around engineering. This ship may be a bucket, but it'll be good to get an idea of her capabilities in case of an emergency.

Huh. The engineer seems a little...twitchy.

Oh. Huh. Looks like our law lady friend might have decided to take a walk outside. And the engineer doesn't want to tell the captian. This can only end well.


Don't worry, Shug, I got this. I'll just convince this nice man that we can go togeth--

Welp, he's definitely on the sly. Can't get blood from a turnip.


You SOB. Oh, forgive me, was that uncouth, Jane? Let me rephrase that for you ladies' DELICATE SENSIBILITIES. I would APPRECIATE IT if in the future you would give me some idea of what the is going the **** on when I wake up with a GUN pointed AT OUR HEAD.

Oh, I see it now. Why do you got to use so many words to say simple stuff? Gun in face? Emergency. Simple.

So I'm guessing this is the captain? He and a bunch of other people just ran in. I still oughta shoot him.

Pink hair, huh?


I'm pretty sure Iris is itching to try out matching finger and toenails, too. Good choice on lowering the gun. Remind me to pick you up a present when we get back in port.

So the airlock deployed last night when the engineer was on shift. He swears it wasn't him, and Victoria is definitely no longer on board. Everyone's antsy, but we dock tomorrow at some backsystem asteroid mine. We might not find answers there, but it'll be good to get off this ship for a few hours. There's something not right here.

Status Update: 5014.11.8



Omigosh. Ohmigosh. Ohmigosh.

We're going to die. Oh no. Oh my.

Should a ship have this much rust? This can't be spaceworthy. I think I just heard a creak. What if the hull breaches?

I don't see why you keep bringing up Lando Creek. That was a long time ago and I feel I've grown as a perso--

OH MY GOD THERE WAS ANOTHER ONE! We're going to die.


Good God Almighty, Rose. Why don't you just rub our face with sandpaper next time? I can't imagine it being any more red and blotchy if you did.

Oh great, now there's somebody trying to get in. You have left me no time to fix this mess, you big baby. I need a hot towel and hair brush, stat.

Why doesn't this heap have an adequate number of bathrooms?!


That's right, Iris, you just focus on the big problems. Meanwhile, it looks like someone jettisoned the engineer last night. I can't say he'll be missed, but I don't particularly want to be next. I was with Alistare--the techie--when he "accidentally" accessed the ship's records to find out when the airlock was accessed. 2:30 Ship time, each time. I'll be happy to get on that asteroid.


...Or maybe not. Something's up. It looks like the mine might have been attacked. The captain is sending me, Alistare, that meathead Julie, and the other passenger, a quiet cowboy type called Joseph down to check it out. Did I happen to mention I got the ticket cheap by promising a bit of muscle if needed? Yeah...maybe I should've spent the extra credits.

We're taking a shuttle down to the surface. The mission is to find out what happened, find the captain's cargo... oh, and also his brother. They must not be a close family.


This place is a war zone. Definite gun fights, traces of on edge, people. We're trying to find a security badge to get through these fire doors.


This place is crawling with Orks. The first group was dispatched easily enough--well, Joseph was hit, but he seems sturdy enough--but there's definitely more. We found a security card, so we're making out way to the control room. Just got to keep it together.


ORKS! This place is crawling with Orks! How do I get out? How do I get out?!


Oh **** yes. You should'a seen the way that Ork's head flew clean off. Thanks for running away, Rosie. All the others got the first shots at the Orks. There ain't hardly any left. On the other hand... You just gave me a little thing I like to call an ENTRANCE. It's my time to shine.





Don't worry, it's over. Well, for now. Good job, Avery. Doesn't look like the Orks left much by way of cargo or survivors so far, though.


When you buy my present, I want a girly magazine.

Alpha Enigma Campaign Setting

Some time ago, I rambled a bit about how I was interested in running a science fiction campaign. The campaign that grew from all that rambling started last week, and though I didn't have time to write up a proper campaign log for the first session, I do want to share the player information that I sent out to everyone in the group a few days before the first session.

We are running this as a Savage Worlds campaign, a system that I think is versatile enough for players to run just about any character concept they want without getting bogged down in the minutiae of D20 rules... plus it is a ton easier to create adventures since monster stat blocks are so easy to throw together.

This is the first time in ages that I haven't run either Rifts or a D20 variant, so the rules are taking a bit to get used to, but I like the system so far. But I'm getting off topic... here's the player info I promised at the beginning of the post.

Underdark Campaign Log #21

Our heroes, having just defeated the last of the duergar defenders standing between them and the ancient dwarven city, rest in the duergar lair and then move on.

More of Jake's artwork here. As we
have grown in number and changed
characters, this image is only 60%
accurate at this point.
  • Blue, Human Fighter (Jake) 
  • Rurik, Dwarf Barbarian (Stetson) 
  • Mercy, Half-Orc Ranger (Jammie)
  • Temerith, Tiefling Wizard (Andrew)
  • Naga, Nagaji Cleric (Rurik's Cohort)
  • Beltin, Aasimar Summoner (Temerith's Cohort)
Deeper in the duergar lair, the party finds a lone svirfneblin who had been captured by the duergar. He explains to them how he was captured, and brings them to his homeland, a heavily fortified area of the ruined city that the svirfneblin have claimed as their own. He goes through the customary scolding for revealing his home to outsiders, and then the leader of the svirfneblin, an aged gnome called Irzangle, comes out to meet the heroes.

Our heroes immediately ask about the Shards of Day, and Irzangle admits that he knows about the blades. However, before he will tell them, he requires a favor... specifically a favor that requires their sword-arms and spells. He tells of an eye monster that hunts the tunnels between the svirfneblin and a cavern full of edible fungi, and he wants the group to guard his engineers while they collapse tunnels to seal off the beast. 

I used an oversized D6 for our
beholder, but here's a cool
alternative to the official D&D
Of course, our heroes aren't content just to contain the eye monster. They decide instead to hunt it down and kill it instead... and it doesn't take them long to find just such a monster.

They do attempt to talk it into leaving, but that strategy was far from successful, and they destroyed the floating eye in just a single attack. Surprisingly, it exploded in the midst of their barrage, and a trio of driders attacked the group. They didn't fare well, either, though they were able to harry the party with spells before being defeated by superior melee capability. One did manage to escape into the city ruins, though, using an invisibility spell to aid in its escape.

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