Sudden Grey Sunday, Nov 30 2008 

In which our intrepid hero dredges up a favourite piece of Heavy Gear fanfic from 1999.

The smoke from Levant’s cigarette curled up into the air duct. The door in front of him was painted dull green, unmarked. He swallowed, lifted his hand, hesitated, then finally knocked. Rap!

“Come in, Markus.” It was Levant’s CO, Barnard; that, at least, was a hopeful sign. Levant reached for the handle and twisted hard. The door opened and a painful blast of grey light hit Levant in the face. Had it been that long since he had seen natural light?

“Markus, sit down, relax, you’ll be fine.” Commandant Barnard was about 85 cycles old; the silver at his temples and moustache contrasted starkly with his dark brown skin. “We’ll get through this. Hell, in another couple of years, they’ll ship me off to the Grey Berets, and all this’ll be yours.” He spread his arms wide and grinned.

Levant smiled weakly and strode across the cheap carpet. The grey-brown Siwan horizon peered through the grimy windows; Levant peered back, his face long and drawn. His mahogany hair was disarrayed and the deep black cyberoptic on the right side of his face mirrored the eyepatch on his left. He blew smoke at his own reflection.

“…nothing, really. Don’t worry, I’ll back you up.” Barnard’s voice drifted in, and Levant snapped out of his reverie. “We’ve got a while yet. Calm down.”

As if to contradict Barnard, a knock came at the door. “Enter.”

A young lieutenant popped his head around the door and spoke: “She’s arrived, sir.” Levant looked back outside. He tried to open the window, but it wouldn’t open; it was sealed closed. He stubbed out his cigarette on the glass, turned and sat.

Barnard looked confident, smiling directly at Levant, as if to reassure him. Levant stared straight ahead.

The doorhandle jerked downward and Levant jumped. A woman, perhaps 40 cycles old, strong, attractive, walked in and calmly sat down before Barnard had risen half out of his chair.

She opened her briefcase, pulled out a personal assistant. “Very well,” she said, through perfect white teeth, “let us begin. Commandant, you have a new priority assignment. But there are other matters at hand. Mr Levant,”—Levant unconsciously touched the two silver bars at his throat—”your record is thus far exemplary, but there are concerns about your attitude.”

Levant glanced at the window, wishing he could claw his way out of the room. “Concerns?” he said, glancing back at the woman across from him. Long, straight chestnut hair, blue eyes—she could be Ashantite, if not for the dark grey power suit. Strange—there were no insignia or rank pins. Who was she?

“It is feared that you may be suffering some psychological problems. It appears that it has been”—she checked her notes—”nearly four cycles since you last took leave, Mr Levant. You live permanently in the facility’s staff quarters. It is not healthy, not normal, to spend that amount of time underground.”

Levant pulled his face into a smile and gritted his teeth. “I miss Bethany. It reminds me of anything but home.”

The woman glanced at her notes again. Her brow creased as her lips silently moved: Innsmouth? Her face straightened again and she spoke: “How have you been since your accident, Mr Levant? No depression, insomnia—”

“No, I don’t think so. Permission to smoke, ma’am?”

A smile flickered at the corners of her lips. “Please, go ahead. Your academic record is impressive, Mr Levant, as is your service record —”

“He’s one of our best men,” Barnard said, smiling.

“Yes.” The woman glanced at Barnard, obviously annoyed at his interjection. “I have been assured that you are an expert in your field, Mr Levant. I have also been assured that this facility is an appropriate launching point for the project that I am about to describe. Are you confident that you are up to this task, Mr Levant?”

Mister Levant. Not Doctor Levant, nor Sous-Commandant. Mister. What was it with this woman? “That all depends. What does it entail, if I might ask?”

She smiled again. After a brief pause, she reached into her briefcase and pulled out a large metal cylinder. It obviously unscrewed at one end, but otherwise was unmarked. She handed it to Levant, noting his curiosity. “What you hold in your hands cost us a great deal of money to procure, Mr Levant. We want a return on our investment.”

“What is it?”

“It is called variola, Mr Levant. Or, rather, the basis to create variola.”

“Variola?”

“A virus, Mr Levant, thought destroyed over four thousand years ago. It was the most lethal naturally-occurring virus known to humankind.”

“Then what am I holding?”

“Fragments, Mr Levant, fragments. Pieces of the virus’ genome, extracted at great expense and peril from an archaeological site on Earth. We—I—want you to reconstruct the virus, Mr Levant, to improve upon it.” Her clear blue eyes bored into him. “What do you say now? Are you willing to commit, Mr Levant?”

“I’ll give it my best shot.”

She smiled. “Good. That is all we ask. Further data will be relayed to your office by the end of the day.” She turned to face Barnard. “Commandant, I must leave. I have other engagements.” She slipped her personal assistant into her case and rose from her seat.

“What about a vaccine?” Levant asked.

She looked him straight in the eye. “Of course.” She turned toward the door and walked a few steps, then turned slightly and looked over her shoulder at the two men. “Good day, Commandant. À la prochaine, Sous-Commandant Levant; I have a feeling we will be seeing much more of each other.”

With that, she turned and disappeared through the door.

The two men looked at each other, and Levant saw what his CO was thinking, even before he uttered it: “Fuck.”

Levant walked to the window, peering at the glowing cinder of his reflected cigarette, and at the grey-brown skies beyond. Levant’s single eye reflected a dark microcosm of Siwa Oasis below. “Here we go again,” Barnard muttered, somewhere behind him.

Yes. Here we go again. A twisted smile teased the corners of Levant’s lips.

    Detail in Worldbuilding Tuesday, Apr 17 2007 

    In which our intrepid hero writes something sensible—for the second time in a fortnight.

    I try not to repost my comments on other people’s blogs here too often, but I’m always proud when I write something that (at least prima facie) seems to make a lot of sense. Like my opinion on intellectual property, in response to a recent post on my friend Craig’s blog, for instance.

    Martin Ralya’s Treasure Tables blog is (in my opinion) one of the best GMing resources on the Internet. His recent post—“Is Worldbuilding Pointless?”—prompted me to make the following comment:

    Most GMs I know enjoy worldbuilding. It’s a good exercise in creativity, and a well-reasoned worldbuilding process can be a goldmine for adventure plots.

    On the other hand, it’s a case of diminishing returns—the greater detail you go into, the less likely your players are to come across that detail.

    If you’re constructing languages, then there’s almost zero chance that your players are going to use them; there’s simply no point. Likewise, John Arcadian’s point on the name of the elven queen’s third cousin—unless such a fact is crucial to the plot.

    I agree with BluJai’s comment on internal consistency. But (as steve states) you only need to do enough work to ensure a degree of verisimilitude; everything else—whilst it might be cool for the GM—is essentially wasted on the players.

    The best guideline I’ve found for this was in the first edition of Dream Pod 9’s Heavy Gear rulebook—the “Y-cubed Rule”. To quote:

    When you design a scenario, examine every major element, character and plot twist by asking yourself the following question three times: Why?

    If your answers to all three questions make sense, then your plot element is likely to be believable. For example, you decide that Harvey “the Killer” Burns is not trusted by the rest of his gang. Why? Because Harvey beats up his fellow gang members every once in a while. Why? Because Harvey has a major problem controlling his temper and is prone to fits of blind rage. Why? Because Harvey is addicted to a strong mood-altering drug. According to the Y-cubed Rule, the lack of trust Harvey’s gang shows towards him is credible and can lead to additional plot elements.

    I’ve found that it’s a good compromise. You don’t waste enormous amounts of time creating every detail of your world, but it’s solid enough that most players can suspend their disbelief. It also ties in well with Monte Cook’s suggestion in his old Dungeoncraft column of attaching a “secret” to every major fact in a campaign.

    If your PCs want to push deeper, then it’s fairly easy to amend on the fly. Just make sure you record these impromptu plot developments somewhere where you can quickly refer to them, as needed.

    (Update: I’m reliably informed that the “secret” thing is from the Ray Winninger days of Dungeoncraft. My bad.)