Void Star: Nova Praxis – A Transhuman Sci-fi FATE RPG, Usually I begin my interviews with a brief introduction about my relationship to the game or the author(s). This time, before my interview with Mike McConnell, the author of the Nova Praxis – A Transhuman Sci-fi FATE Role-Playing Game, I put forward two quotes by Erich Fromm (German-born American psychoanalyst and social philosopher).
“Education makes machines which act like men and produces men who act like machines.”
“There can be no real freedom without the freedom to fail.”
– Erich Fromm
I hope these quotes serve as an inspiration and you enjoy the following interview as much as I do.
obskures.de: Hi Mike McConnell, let us start with a brief introduction and a bit about your gaming experiences?
Mike McConnell: I’m Mike McConnell, Owner, Lead Developer, and Head Writer of Void Star Games. I’ve been gaming for about two decades now, cutting my teeth on the D&D “Black Box”. That’d be the big one with the red dragon on the cover. From there I went on to explore other D&D products, eventually finding the gold mine that was the D&D Rules Cyclopedia. Eventually I went on to AD&D, and discovered Vampire: the Masquerade during the “dark times” between TSR’s death and WotC’s purchase of D&D. Vampire was probably the game that most influenced me to make my games more about telling a story. From that point on I tried several different game systems, all with an eye toward story telling. Over the years I’ve engrossed myself in the various versions of D&D, the World of Darkness (old and new), GURPS, Savage Worlds, Cortex, and a few others. And then I finally found FATE.
obskures.de: You published Strands of FATE – your version of the universal FATE system. The upcoming Nova Praxis – The Transhuman Sci-Fi FATE RPG combines the game engine with a specific setting. How would you describe it to a potential new customer?
Mike McConnell: That’s a simple question with a big answer, but here’s the long-winded one sentence pitch: “Nova Praxis is a post-singularity sci-fi setting that utilizes the FATE system to explore transhumanism and post-scarcity societies set against a backdrop of action, adventure, conspiracy and intrigue.”
To delve into that a little more, let’s start with the system.
Strands of Fate was developed to be this massive toolbox for FATE fans. The idea was to create a book that would make it a little easier for players of more “traditional” games to grasp FATE, and to provide all the tools you’d need to use FATE to run pretty much any sort of game you could imagine. So Strands presented this core set of rules and dozens of optional rules you could pick and choose to customize your game. Most of these were the same rules you’d find in other FATE games. In a few places, such as the stress system, Strands presented an option that was a little easier for new player to grasp. And the “classic” FATE way of doing things was presented as an optional rule.
I said all that to say this: What Nova Praxis is, from a game mechanics standpoint, a specific collection of the rules presented in Strands of Fate. We went through Strands of Fate, picking and choosing the bits of the rules that we felt best worked with the Nova Praxis setting. Once that was nailed down, we started looking at places where we needed new rules sub-systems, better streamlining, and tightening of the system.
Ironically, the end result actually favors “classic” FATE more so than what you’d get if you played using the default rules from Strands of Fate. That wasn’t something we did intentionally, it was just the end result of that custom fitting and streamlining process I mentioned above. Because we were focusing on a single setting, a lot of the options needed for a “toolbox” weren’t required. A good example of this was the shift from Strands’ Abilities to the more classic Skills.
In regards to the setting, well, I’ll try to be as brief as I can. Nova Paxis is big. There is a LOT of room to play in this setting, and it can support lots of different campaign styles. The setting takes place around the year 2140, almost 100 years after a near-godlike AI triggered a paradigm shift in technological advancement. Earth has been lost. Humanity has changed, and continues to change. New forms of government and economic models have replaced those of Earth. This new government, the Coalition, represents the possibility of a Utopia to some… and the worst kind of oppression to others.
obskures.de: What are your major inspirations. What do you think about the real world transhumanist movement and philosophy.
Mike McConnell: Most of my inspiration comes from non-fiction. I highly recommend the books written (and speeches given) by given by, the likes of Ray Kurzweil, Peter Diamandis and Ben Goertzel.
Fictional inspirations include the Takashi Kovacs novels (starting with Altered Carbon), the new Battlestar Galactica, Blade Runner, and several video games like Mass Effect, Deus Ex and (to some extent) Halo. There are several others as well, but those are the big ones.
Regarding the real world transhumanist movement… I’m a fan, but I think we need to be cautious.
I believe we started down this road a long time ago. The average lifespan used to be 30. Pneumonia or infection was a death sentence. The whole of your education came from what your family and neighbors told you. Compare that to where we are now. The average high school student carries in his pocket a device that links him to a repository for the whole of human knowledge.
I can’t leave the house without my cell phone. I feel nervous or… incomplete. These days lots of people feel that way when cut off from the internet, and there is a reason for that. The more we get used to depending on the net for information, the more we depend on it for storage. By that I mean, we don’t have to know a fact, we simply have to know where to find it. So we start to “learn” in new ways. Instead of storing the data, we start indexing it. And like a book index, it’s not very useful without the book itself.
In that way, many of us have already become cybernetic organisms. We are not “complete” without the connection. The fact that the devices we use to make the connection are (for now) outside of our bodies is largely irrelevant.
I think “transhumanism” is really just “humanism”. This is what we, as a species, do. We tamed fire and we made the wheel. We developed guns and the printing press. We created a Polio vaccine and walked on the moon. And in the next few decades we will invent AI, cure cancer, double the human lifespan, and walk on Mars. And honestly, I think that’s a conservative estimate.
We just need to be careful, and hope that with intelligence comes wisdom.
obskures.de: The Coalition of Free States reminds me of a nearly perfect surveillance state with small back doors by the Houses (state-like corporations). Officially, the Houses are working together. In the shadows they fight a cold war over influence and resources.
While reading your RPG I thought this is like Orwells 1984 and the Paranoia RPG without the funny cynicism. There is this grim cyberpunkish perspective. But the characters are usually not lonesome rebels or teams of punks or (Shadow-)runners. They are connected to a house or a free minded Apostate faction. I like your vision a lot, but the superiority of the described system with the nearly omnipresent drones, sensors and the Mesh („Web“) prevent in my opinion any kind of „realistic“ subversion. What do you think about this critic?
Mike McConnell: I recently released an update to the playtest doc that addresses this very concern. Throughout the book we talk about how crews working for the Houses as agents of the Shadow War can operate, but I realized it needed to be a little more front and center since it’s such an important aspect of the setting.
Here is an excerpt from that update that addresses this topic:
“So how do groups of would-be lawbreakers get anything done in a society that relies on such extreme peacekeeping measures?
In short, they are allowed to.
The Shadow War is, at its heart, a battle between the Houses. And the Houses have the power to create “opportunities” for their agents.
False CIDs go a long way toward bypassing the worst of the security measures. Each time a false CID is used to make a purchase, call in a Favor, bump or hit someone’s Rep, or make any other overt use of the identity, it risks exposure. But until it is exposed, the all such transactions are linked to the false CID.
Even without a good false CID however, an agent can often get around simply by knowing the right people. The Networking Skills represent the quality and quantity of friends, allies, contacts and informants. And they can be used to request information and services. This can be handy when trying to locate an area that isn’t covered by the local mesh sensors, or when striking a deal with local security personnel to ignore suspicious behavior or help you slip contraband through. Friends in low places can be as useful as friends in high places.
Like all modern technology, the security systems utilized by the Protectorate are based on Mimir-tech. This means they are immune from attempts to hack them. That is, of course, unless you have access to Savant Programs or a CIST. Savants and CISTs can activate Programs that can hamper local security, or even turn it against its owners.
In truth, many of these ways through and around the system could be closed by the Coalition if it so desired. But it doesn’t. It’s through the use of these methods and tools that its agents work. This allows the crews to perform their missions, but are also commonly utilized by the Houses to keep the Shadow War itself under wraps.”
So, these sorts of exploits, hacks, and back doors are left in place for agents of the Houses. But that doesn’t mean that your PCs have to be agents to use them, or even know about the Shadow War to know about the ways around the security system. All sorts of illegal operations use them regularly, and most have little or nothing to do with the Shadow War.
obskures.de: Maybe I have overseen something, but what about the media and the Shadow War. Think about the bloggers in current North African conflicts. What happens if a hacker, a savant hacks the drones, the Mesh sensors in a combat zone and makes the information public.
Mike McConnell: The Houses spend a lot of effort to conceal the war. This means that operations tend to be very small and concealable. AI monitors are later wiped clean, and the major news networks actually assist in keeping the war hidden to some degree.
As for the average citizen and their cameras, there are two problems:
The first is that the Houses have done a good job of damaging the credibility of those who work to reveal the Shadow War. It’s much like the way people are seen today who try to prove that 9-11 was an inside job by the US government, or that our government is run by a secret society, or that the moon landing was fake. Despite a lot of good evidence, nobody pays much attention to it. It’s regarded as little more than a curiosity.
Also keep in mind that the technology available in Nova Praxis makes any evidence suspect. The average teen can create audio and video that is very nearly indistinguishable from reality. So the Houses make sure that any recordings are condemned as fake, or twist the truth to make it seem like an attack against remnant forces.
Essentially, once the public has made up its mind, no amount of evidence is going to matter very much. Coalition citizens are too happy and comfortable. They don’t want to believe in a Shadow War.
It’s very much a commentary on the current mindset in America. Our system is broken, our politicians corrupt, and yet nobody cares because their lives are too comfortable.
obskures.de: Are there any other important real world comments or allusions in you game. Do you follow a political or sociological agenda. I think e.g. Cybergeneration (R. Talsorian Games) or Werewolf: The Apocalypse (White Wolf) transport a strong ecological influence or meme.
Mike McConnell: I don’t know, I don’t think so. For me Nova Praxis is more of a question than a statement. It’s an exploration. A “what if”. I believe the Singularity is going to happen, in some form or another, so long as we can avoid some sort of global catastrophe.
Of course, by its very nature we can’t know exactly what life will be like after the singularity. The version of it that I went with, the birth and death of Mimir, was a version of the singularity concept that makes for an interesting RPG. And while I think a Mimir-like AI may be born of the singularity, there is no reason to think it’d “die” the way it does in Nova Praxis.
I’m also a fairly religious person. But my view of religion, and its place in the world, has changed somewhat in the last few years. I used to be very politically conservative, and that’s changed as well. The politicians here in the States want to argue about same sex marriage, mandatory health insurance, and the legalization of marijuana. But in a few decades the arguments are going to be over human cloning, the rights and citizenship of non-human intelligence, and elective genetic augmentation.
Since beginning work on Nova Praxis about four years ago, my own beliefs and outlooks on the world have changed rather drastically. I’ve been exploring my own beliefs about these things, and I suspect Nova Praxis strongly reflects that.
I don’t put forth anything as the right answer. I’m still gathering the questions.
obskures.de: You released an update for the Beta rules with campaign and mission ideas. Most of the missions remind of Cyberpunk or Shadowrun „runs“. I think your thought provoking background has more to offer – like political intrigue, exploration of planets or establishing new enclaves etc. Do you plan to explore these rich aspects of the Nova Praxis universe with the next releases or do you follow the „runner“ approach for the fans.
Mike McConnell: I hope so. As mentioned above, the setting is huge and there is a ton of potential for all sorts of stories. While the “crew” or “runner” framework provides a nice jumping off point for gaming groups, there is nothing at all to prevent gaming groups from exploring the setting from other perspectives.
In fact, I’ve tried very hard to insure that is the case.
I suspect many groups will begin play using the crew framework, only to see their campaign evolve in new directions. In most cases the character’s Aspects will be the driving factor for this sort of thing, tugging them in directions that may not be related to the mission at hand. And as that happens more and more, the story will begin to shift its attention to what’s going on between the missions until the point where the mission-to-mission campaign structure falls to the wayside.
I see a lot of potential for a sort of organic transition from a Shadowrun-like mission focused experience to something more personal and cohesive. But then, there is also room for things like hardcore military campaigns. And there is nothing at all wrong for sticking with the mission based structure.
obskures.de: What do plan next, when can we expect the finalized Nova Praxis RPG and further support material. Can you say anything more about the GM’s Companion or the adventure Vantage Strain. Do you plan more Kickstarters or any other kind of distribution.
Mike McConnell: It’s a little early to tell at this point. Much depends on the success of the core book, which is obviously the number one priority at the moment. The PDF is very nearly complete at this point, and will hopefully go on sale around the end of February. Once that’s finalized, I’ll begin work on the layout for the print version. This second round of layout is going to be required since the PDF was formatted specifically for tablet or laptop screens.
After that, the GM Companion is on deck. And after that, if the fans demand it, the Vantage Strain will be on deck. It’s too early to tell, but we might Kickstart it. Just not sure yet.
I’ve got ideas for three or four more products after that. Two are “event books” that offer a pre-written campaign to guide the PCs through some major events in the setting. Another, which I really want to do, is a book that shows what happens when a House makes a big discovery from Mimir’s Archives and releases a new type of technology. It’d include details about the new tech, new weapons, armor, gear, vehicle Stunts, and an exploration of the effects of the new tech on the setting itself.
I’d also very much like to turn the PDF into an iOS and Android app, complete with character generator, dice roller, etc.
obskures.de: Finally, some fun and quick questions. We start with: Role playing is …
Mike McConnell: A fun way to spend an evening with friends, challenge your problem solving skills, exercise your creativity, and explore worlds of infinite possibility.
obskures.de: Favorite House or Apostate faction?
Mike McConnell: I struggled hard to make all of the Houses and factions interesting, and as a result, would happily play a character from any of them. However, while not an actual political faction, I have to say that I love the Savants. They’re a character concept I’d been kicking around for a long time, and even though they showed up in Strands of Power, it’s not until now that they’ve become fully realized.
Players love magic systems. I love magic systems. And I wanted Nova Praxis to have a “magic system”. But I didn’t want it to have magic. There is nothing supernatural about what the Savants do (though some members of the Mimirian religion might tell you otherwise).
Many of the setting’s details came about by trying to nail down the Savants, how they worked, and what they could do. In a setting where everything is ran by machines, the person who can control those machines is a person to be feared.
obskures.de: Major design inspiration for the game system? Your FATE interpretation has some specialties (Aspect Alphabet and tools/weapons give specific bonuses).
Mike McConnell: While Nova Praxis leans a little more closer to “classic” FATE than the default rules in Strands of Fate, we certainly took a lot from Strands. The Aspect Alphabet, the inclusion of Persistent Aspects, and the ditching of the Adjective Ladder are the big ones. But we added a lot too. The Coalition runs on a post-scarcity economy, meaning that money is worthless. Instead, your Reputation (“Rep-Rating”) determines what you can “afford”. We introduced a new game mechanic to model the reputation economy.
We also introduced something called Sequences that provides the GM with a system for running complex situations with a minimum of prep time. For example, we ran a Sequence that allowed a crew to infiltrate a secured warehouse full of thugs. They all went their separate ways, working toward a common goal from different angles. We were able to run it without any sort of maps or NPC stats, and completed the entire Sequence in less than a single game session. And most importantly, it was fun. It felt like an infiltration. It had suspense, and it required strategy.
obskures.de: A design tip for established or upcoming game developers?
Mike McConnell: Two things. If you’re not obsessed, don’t bother. There isn’t a lot of money in it, there isn’t enough time in the day, you’re not going to get any sleep, and your family and friends are going to hate you at times. And you’ve got to be able to manage all those things while also managing the development of your game.
Second, use technology. Social media, print on demand, crowd funding, crowd sourcing, and modern computers have transformed the business. Learn them. Love them.
obskures.de: What was your first role playing book and what is your favorite role playing game of all time and in recent years?
Mike McConnell: First RPG book was actually a three ring binder containing a photocopy of the D&D “Red Box” books. It’s hard to say what my favorite game is, but I guess I have to say D&D (any edition) for nostalgia reasons. Maybe Vampire: the Masquerade. But if I were actually going to play a game right now though, it’d be FATE.
obskures.de: Favorite game designer and/or artist?
Mike McConnell: I like a lot of game designers, so I really can’t pick a favorite. Artist? Probably Larry Elmore or Todd Lockwood. For more modern stuff I’ve got to go with Andree Wallin, and not just because his work is going to be featured heavily in Nova Praxis. Dude is amazing, and I was floored when he agreed to let us use his stuff for NP.
obskures.de: What should everybody check out first, if they interested in the transhumanist world view (non-Fiction/fiction)?
Mike McConnell: From the fiction side, I’d say Altered Carbon was probably the book that hooked me. But after running across several “transhuman sci-fi” books that I just couldn’t get into for one reason or another, I started focusing more on non-fiction and video. Ray Kurzweil’s The Singularity is Near is a great book that gets into transhumanism a bit. But if you are looking for more immediate inspiration, I’d suggest just hitting up YouTube. Search for “Singularity” plus any of the following names: Ray Kurzweil, Vernor Vinge, Jason Silva, Peter Diamandis, Ben Goertzel. Good stuff!
obskures.de: I get the best ideas for my games when … or I am most creative when … ?
Mike McConnell: Driving. I tend to spend a good bit of time on the road. I like to throw on a good movie or game soundtrack (the Mass Effect 3 and Deus Ex soundtracks are great!) and let my mind wonder. That’s when I often have my best ideas. Thank God for voice-to-text dictation!
obskures.de: What ist the meaning of your nick name „Mechalus“?
Mike McConnell: I’m a mechanical designer by day, game developer by night. “Mechalus” came about while attempting to come up with a name that fit what I did for a living at the time. More specifically, it was also inspired by the Mechalus from the old Alternity RPG. They were an alien race that were a fusion of organic/synthetic biology. I just stuck with it. It’s a good fit.
obskures.de: Thank you, Mike McConnell. Anything else you want to share with the fans?
Mike McConnell: Just a huge “Thank you!” Many thanks to those of you who picked up Strands of Fate, and many more for the Nova Praxis Kickstarter backers.
And thank you for the opportunity to do this interview.
All images provided by Void Star. Used with permission (14 January 2013).
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