Witness Protection RPGs

“Retma in his caution, Estelle in her compassion, Dee in her fear all would be giving birth to some version of the standard model; but Amalfi had driven the standard model until all the bolts had come out of it, and was so tired at even the thought of it that he could hardly bring himself to breathe.”
- James Blish, The Triumph of Time

Here’s another thought experiment along the lines of Desert Island RPGs: Witness Protection RPGs.

While that was about choosing a limited number of items to be cast away on a desert island with, this one is about starting over.

Here’s the premise… On your way home tonight, you’re taken into witness protection. You literally can’t go home again; you’re given a new name, relocated to a new town, and can’t contact any of your family or friends again, because it’s too dangerous for you and for them. You can still enjoy gaming, but you can’t do anything that could be traced back to your old life.

QUESTIONS

  1. What games that you currently own would you buy again? How would you change them to be new, exciting, and unrecognisable?
  2. What new ones would you buy and gamemaster, or hope to play?
  3. How would you find new players?

MY ANSWERS

Nobody who has seen my usual level of tweaking and mashups would suspect me as long as I stick to the Rules As Written and just a couple of games. Especially if neither of them are Traveller.

  1. This one is easy. I would repurchase Savage Worlds Deluxe and Beasts & Barbarians, and possibly Stars Without Number. I would run those exactly as written, casting aside my reservations about things like starting at Seasoned rank.
  2. This one is harder, because it has to be a game I haven’t tried before; but I’m tempted by Night’s Black Agents, because it rocks and I don’t normally do horror.
  3. I’d try Google Hangouts and Roll20 for online gaming.

CODA

Tell me about your answers, please; I’m curious. Then, look at them – carefully. They’re telling you how to break out of your comfort zone and reinvigorate your gaming.

What’s stopping you?

Review: Ashen Stars

“Your players decide whether to make it matter. You decide what the truth is.” – Ashen Stars

I’m still looking for the game that will enthuse and re-invigorate my SF gaming the way Beasts & Barbarians did for fantasy, and given how impressed I was by Night’s Black Agents, the obvious next place to look is the space opera game from the same stable.

In a Nutshell: Space opera RPG that strives to emulate a gritty reboot of a TV series that never was. 305 page PDF, $25 at time of review, author Robin Laws.

CONTENT

Where the Stars Turn Grey (2 pages): What a roleplaying game is, although the book (reasonably) assumes you know that by now; other Gumshoe games you might want to try; overview of the rest of the book.

All the Justice Credits Can Buy (12 pages): The game premise is that a utopian interstellar society much like Star Trek’s Federation (the Combine) was recently destroyed in a great war, by enemies who have since mysteriously vanished (the Mohilar). While the core worlds rebuild themselves, the frontier worlds are left to their own devices, and everything the USS Enterprise would have handled previously is now contracted out to freelance mercenaries like the PCs.

PCs are created in several steps: Choose a species, assign crew skill packages to ensure that between them the party can do everything the PCs will need to do, choose other investigative and general abilities (these would be characteristics and skills in most games), choose a drive; then as a group, choose your ship and equipment and rate the group’s Reputation. Players are also encouraged to create a personal arc for each PC, a quest which will be woven into the campaign plotline as it moves forwards. Like the icon relationships in 13th Age, this is a way of ensuring that the PCs matter in the context of the game; on its own, this concept takes up four of the 12 pages in the chapter, which tells me it’s important.

There’s a lot of flipping backwards and forwards through the book as you create characters, and it’s best done as a group process, since the group needs to cover a lot of different skills between them, characters need to be differentiated so they all have a chance to shine in play, and they need to agree on how they spend shared points on buying gear and a ship.

Reputation is the mechanism by which the game’s key theme is rewarded or punished; at its core, the game strives to maintain tension between doing what’s right (which increases your Rep) and doing what’s good for yourself (which generally decreases it). The higher the group’s Rep, the more often it will find work, and the better off it will be.

The Seven Peoples (12 pages): Here are the playable races, which I really like.

  • The Balla are part-elf, part-Vulcan; nature-loving, striving to contain their emotions and occasionally failing with disastrous consequences.
  • Cybes are genetically- and cybernetically-enhanced humans, created as super-soldiers for the war recently ended, and now unsure of their position. I can’t help thinking of them as liberated Borg.
  • The Durugh are short, ugly former enemies of the Combine who changed sides before the end of the recent war. They have the ability to go out of phase, enabling them to walk through walls.
  • Humans are, as usual, the Mario; numerous, adaptable and determined.
  • The Kch-Thk are a proud warrior race of humanoid locusts, who at death can migrate their consciousness to a nearby larva, much like the skin jobs in the Battlestar Galactica reboot, or a videogame character respawning at the last save point. The downside to this species is a voracious need to consume organic matter, like terrestrial locusts. The Combine’s decision to remove restrictions on Kch-Thk breeding to produce vast armies for the Mohilar War means there are now huge numbers of ravenous combat veterans looking for food and trouble.
  • The Tavak are another proud warrior race; it’s unusual for a game like this to have more than one, but here they are. Serene and sleepy under normal conditions, these humanoid armadillos are roused to berserk frenzy when they need to fight.
  • The Vas Mal are few in number and resemble the Greys of UFO lore; they are the de-evolved remnants of godlike energy beings, physically weak but retaining some of their former psychic powers.

What You Can Do (26 pages): This covers investigative and general abilities, starting with the skill packages for each role a PC crew will need; each PC has both a shipboard and a groundside role, and based on these it looks like the optimum party size is six characters (some of whom may be NPCs). This is where my first beef with Gumshoe as a rules engine arises; too many skills, 50 investigative and 30 general.

Drives (9 pages): 32 different motivations for your PC, 7 of which can only be taken by specific races. These guide roleplaying but have no mechanical effect, unlike (say) Savage Worlds Hindrances.

Gumshoe Rules (22 pages): As usual, Gumshoe is divided into clue-gathering skills and general abilities. Reading through this implementation soon after reading Night’s Black Agents, I’m less impressed this time round – maybe that’s because of implementation differences, maybe it’s because I’ve given the rules more thought, maybe I’m just a grumpy old git who’s worked too much overtime this month.

Clue-gathering skills always succeed. Gumshoe makes a big thing about this, but really you can do it in any system by looking at the PC’s skills or character class. Aragorn is a ranger? Fine, he finds the orc tracks and the hobbits’ dropped brooch then, no need to roll for it. This is my second beef with Gumshoe, I think this part is needlessly complex.

General abilities (including combat skills) succeed if you make a skill test, which in Gumshoe you do by spending points from a pool, rolling 1d6, and meeting or beating a target number to succeed. Your PC’s “skill level” is the size of the points pool for that skill. Pools refresh at certain points, and you can increase pools by spending what are effectively experience points.

Damage is deducted from the PC’s Health, and he passes out when he has none left.

Starships (40 pages): It’s a given that the PC team has a starship. We have a range of ship types, a recommended ship for players not sure what to take, and upgrade options. Where this game is different is in the highly abstracted combat; it’s like watching the Star Trek bridge crew, or playing the Artemis computer game, in that there are several key roles in ship combat, each of which has a chance to shine. Mechanically, the objective is to accumulate enough points to achieve your objective – each ship may have a different objective (there are 10 to choose from), and the first to achieve its goal wins, in the sense of ending the engagement on its own terms. At the extremes, you need 6 points to Escape, and 21 points to Destroy your opponent. These numbers increase dramatically if you’re outnumbered.

Each turn, the crew decides which of four attack modes to use (fire, manoeuvre, override the opposing ship’s computers, or trickbag, which is a collection of dirty tricks); the PC responsible for that mode engages his opposite number on the other ship, and the winner garners points. There are penalties for overusing one attack mode compared to the others. The loser of the “showdown” may take damage or casualties, which bring the other two roles (medic and engineer) into play to repair/heal them.

Tech (23 pages): The gear chapter. Again, I applaud the game for its Preparedness attribute, also seen in Night’s Black Agents; rather than obsessing over minor items of equipment, your Preparedness allows you to have one available if you succeed at a skill check. We have communicators, some unusual cyberware which is tightly integrated into the game mechanics, medical and forensic items, protective gear (most of which defends against non-standard attacks such as pheromones), investigative equipment, tailored viruses which give you assorted genetic alterations, weapons and accessories. This is the section where the game transcends the usual sci-fi setting and edges into New Space Opera, in line with the gritty reboot theme.

Between the end of this chapter and the start of the next is a basic map of the Bleed, the volume of space in which the game takes place. Space is divided into clusters, in which FTL travel is easy, and outzones, in which it is not. Like the beacons in The Last Parsec, this allows the GM to choose whether the PCs reach their destination in hours or weeks.

The Feed and the Bleed (18 pages): This section provides extra detail on the setting; but the GM is advised that until a piece of information is discovered by the PCs, it is not yet part of the established “series continuity” and can be changed at whim. The GM is encouraged to do this to incorporate player input.

Here we find provisional goverment structures for the Combine, which have been imitated by most worlds; the Combine’s (cursory) presence in the Bleed; the concepts of synthcultures and nufaiths, which allow the GM to insert a world based on any culture or religion into the campaign with ease; a history of the Combine and the Seven Peoples; how to handle the Bogey Conundrum, a mysterious effect which makes it impossible to remember anything about the Mohilar; Bleed slang and jargon.

On the Contact (13 pages): This chapter explains the business the PCs are in, namely freelance problem solving and law enforcement, and what they can (and cannot) do. First we look at Reputation, mentioned above, and how if can be influenced by Public Relations material spread by the PCs and others.

This segues into a discussion of what sort of contracts PCs get, and how much downtime they have between contracts – the better their Rep, the more they are in demand. During downtime, all the boring stuff happens, and upkeep has to be paid for the ship and your equipment; if you can’t pay the upkeep, items have to be taken offline. There are also a number of side deals you can take on in parallel with the main mission, and loans in case the contracts are too far apart.

Next comes an explanation of law and justice; which laws apply, jurisdiction, trial procedures, sentencing and punishments. Not that your PCs would ever get in trouble with the law, or course, but they may actually be the law on a world.

Worlds are Stories (16 pages): This section profundly affected my thinking on SF RPG campaigns, and I’m still working through the ramifications. In short, it extols the virtues of spacefaring as a way of constantly refreshing the game, and casts aside any notion of world generation; the important thing is the scenario, the story of the episode; you start with the adventure premise, and build the world to bring that premise to life, linking it to the PCs’ personal arcs and your overall story arc if any. This central premise is well thought through, and fleshed out at some length.

This chapter also explains how FTL travel works in the setting, and introduces the ubiquitous meson shrapnel and the ashen stars for which the game is named, relics of the Mohilar War which interfere with technology to explain why the PCs’ gear works differently according to what the plotline requires.

The Bad, the Worse and the Alien (22 pages): Here’s the bestiary and a selection of stock NPCs. Some of them are designated as Class-K species, ones so inimical to sentient species that any PCs encountering them need to abort their official mission to eliminate them, or at least get out a warning. You get nine Class-K entities, nine stock animals, and 23 stock NPCs.

Here we also find that Gumshoe is player-facing, which means that if at all possible the players roll the dice; for example, if sneaking up on someone, the PC makes a Stealth check, but the NPC they’re stalking doesn’t roll at all.

Running the Bleed (22 pages): This is about constructing scenarios; the game calls them cases, or episodes. In each episode, the players travel to a new world, where they face a problem to solve, mostly by gathering information; encounter a plot twist; and may advance an overall story arc, or the personal arc of one of the characters. Episodes consist of scenes, which the PCs may traverse in one of several sequences, gathering clues as they go. As well as detailed guidance on how to do this, a wide range of sample episode premises (adventure seeds) is provided, any of which I’d be comfortable running off-the-cuff as an improvised scenario.

That will take you as far as a monster-of-the-week campaign, but the chapter also includes advice on building those individual scenarios into a larger arc by introducing links to personal arcs, gradually revealing an over-arching and escalating threat, and adding recurring characters. It then covers how to avoid the appearance of railroading the PCs, before finishing with an example of play.

The Witness of My Worth (23 pages): The obligatory example adventure, in which the PCs respond to a distress call from a war-ravaged planet, and find things are not as they seem.

Appendices (31 pages): Sample names, detailed example of ship combat (you’ll need that), character sheet, tables and charts.

…and we finish with an index.

FORMAT

The PDF download includes a pretty version of the game, and a printer-friendly one. In either case, two-column black text, quite readable,  especially the tables – most games make these too small or otherwise hard to read, but they are very legible here.

Colour illustrations every few pages, as is the norm, and a tasteful but non-intrusive background in the pretty version.

SUGGESTIONS FOR IMPROVEMENT

Since character creation is complex and requires knowledge of the setting, the playable races, and the use and relative value of 80-odd skills, this game could really do with some pre-generated characters.

CONCLUSIONS

Ashen Stars is essentially a gritty reboot of Star Trek; imagine if the Federation had lost the Dominion War big time, but then the forces of the Dominion had mysteriously vanished and whatever those things in the wormhole were had lost their powers and been precipitated into normal space. I can’t help observing, though, that gritty reboots are often franchise-killers; look at Star Trek: Enterprise or Stargate: Universe, for example.

Mechanically, I feel that the page count and skill list for intelligence gathering is overdone. Since the PCs are always going to find the clues anyway, do I really need 50 different skills and many pages of rules to explain that? I think not.

I love the setting, and the advice to GMs is very thought-provoking, but I’m not enamoured of the Gumshoe system, so I would probably want to Savage this.

Bulldogs, The Last Parsec and Daring Tales of the Space Lanes tell you there is no starmap and not much setting, and leave you to get on with it. Ashen Stars tells you how to turn that into a series of adventures and a grand story arc; the GM advice alone is worth the price of admission, Robin Laws has clearly spent a great deal of time and effort in understanding what players and GMs need, and how to give it to them.

Overall Rating: 4 out of 5. Great setting, great advice, but the Gumshoe system doesn’t do it for me. I’ll probably Savage the Bleed at some point. Meanwhile, this game has made me question and rethink what I should be doing in my SF game slot, and that’s a bigger topic for its own post; I am more likely to play Night’s Black Agents, but Ashen Stars may have a bigger impact on the way I game.

Not for Trafficking

We travel not for trafficking alone:
By hotter winds our fiery hearts are fanned:
For lust of knowing what should not be known
We make the Golden Journey to Samarkand.
- James Elroy Fletcher, The Golden Journey to Samarkand

What I’m finding is that interstellar trading, simple though it is in the Science Fiction Companion, is very boring for me. You may enjoy it, and if you do, more power to you; it’s just not what my games are about these days.

I spent some time crafting a faster, easier system, and some time researching how contemporary tramp freighters actually operate – mostly on charters arranged by brokers, it turns out; speculative trading of the kind SF RPGs emulate has practically disappeared since (and possibly because of) the invention of radio.

None of that made it any more fun, sadly. So I’ve circled back around to the Daring Tales of the Space Lanes approach; the characters spend a lot of time trading, but that all happens off-camera and generates just enough money to offset the ship’s operating expenses; the players don’t get involved in it.

Since this has been the outcome whatever setting and rules I’ve used since the late 1980s, I’m going to knock trading on the head now; you won’t see it here again.

That does leave me with the question of how much money PCs should reasonably have available, so for the time being I shall adapt the Savings rules from Beasts & Barbarians, summarised and modified as follows:

  • At the end of each adventure, PCs get paid or fence their loot, replenish supplies, and replace lost items.
  • They retain $500 per Rank (more than in B&B because the SF PC tends to have more, and more expensive, gear) for emergencies. This is adjusted by the Rich and Filthy Rich Edges, and the Poverty Hindrance, as usual.
  • They then spend everything else they made on the adventure before the next one starts – on the traditional “ale and whores”, starship repairs, training, collection of pet fish, or whatever.

I’m also bored by the hyperspace astrogation rolls and variable trip time. Henceforth jumps succeed and take a week each, and we’re not interested in how much of that week is in hyperspace and how much in realspace. So there.

So much for trafficking. On with the lust for knowing what should not be known!

Review: Night’s Black Agents

"One of us always stays awake, in case of vampires." – Peanuts

It looks like I might get to GM for another group, and in looking for something exciting and different to run, I landed on Night’s Black Agents.

In a Nutshell: It’s The Bourne Identity meets Underworld; badass secret agents vs vampires with the world at stake. (Hur hur.) No pressure, then. 233 page PDF, written by Ken Hite.

CONTENT

Introduction (3 pages): This explains the goal of the game, which is to create a vampire spy thriller, and the modes in which this can be done: Burn, which focusses on the psychological cost to the characters of what they do; Dust, which tones down the over-the-top cinematic defaults to give you a gritty, deadly game; Mirror, which focusses on issues of trust and betrayal; and Stakes, which assumes the PCs are driven by a higher purpose. You can of course mix and match those; my all-time favourite vampire show, the British TV mini-series Ultraviolet, was a Dust/Mirror mix with some of the characters having Stakes as well.

Characters (34 pages): Character generation is a point-buy system in four stages. First, you choose a background, or several; this isn’t a character class per se, but does denote the PC’s role in the team – wheelman, muscle, hacker, and so on. Second, choose investigative abilities – streetwise, tradecraft and so on; these always work, so the PCs will never miss a clue, although they may misinterpret it. Third, choose general abilities – shooting, hand to hand, driving; these require a die roll (on 1d6) to succeed, but the points you put into them can be spent to modify the roll. In this stage you also pick the PC’s MOS; this is one general ability at which you excel, even for a superspy, and once per session you can declare that you automatically succeed when using it. Finally, you create the PC’s personality and dossier; this is partly just backstory, but also optionally includes sources of stability – the people and places that keep the PC sane, and allow him to destress between operations. (Naturally, these will at some point become targets for his enemies…) The PC also has a Drive, which is the thing that motivates him to keep fighting the vampires rather than run and hide.

Adventures in NBA are composed of either intelligence gathering, which uses investigative abilities, or confrontation, which uses general ones. At its most basic, dangerous situations get you information, which leads you to the next dangerous situation, which leads you to another clue, and so on.

General abilities also have "cherries"; these are special features that kick in when you have at least 8 points in the ability. My favourite is Preparedness, which is the ability covering how well you select and pack your gear for the mission. At 8 points, you can retroactively prepare timely specific actions in flashback during play – "I thought this might happen, so last night I rigged his car; I can cut his engine anytime using this…"

Character creation works better as a group effort, because the group will need every investigative ability at some point, so you need to make sure that between them, the group has them all. If you are using the optional trust and betrayal rules, the PCs also need to record how much they trust each of the others. Trust acts as a kind of roving modifier whereby one PC can help another; by betraying each other, PCs can get significant one-time bonuses on actions that hinder the one betrayed.

Players are allowed to reserve build points and spend them in play, as a staple of the genre is suddenly revealing that you could speak Bulgarian all along.

Rules (51 pages): The rules chapter is long, and mostly special cases. What you need to know is this:

  • You always find the clues. Always. You may not understand them, but you will not miss any. However, by spending points, you can get more information – you don’t need this extra information, but it can help speed things up.
  • In a confrontation, you roll 1d6 plus the number of points you want to spend on it, and try to hit a target number, usually 4. You commit the points before rolling the die.
  • Points you spend grow back either at specific points in the game, or when you do something especially cool (for example use your 8 points in Athletics to free-run across the roofs of Paris).
  • Points are not skill levels in the usual sense. Points are a way to signal how much a particular scene is about your character doing cool stuff.
  • You have Health (resistance to damage, lose too much and you die) and Stability (resistance to emotion shocks and betrayal, lose too much and you go insane).

Tools (25 pages): Here’s the gear chapter, and my eyes are not glazing over, which is almost unique. The PCs are superspies, and they have access to any conventional item appropriate to the genre, or anything a middle-class European would be able to buy. Acquiring gear only takes up screen time when it has narrative importance (like Bourne’s cache of passports in the Swiss bank) or can be handled very quickly. There’s no money in the game as such; if something is easy to get, you’ve got it, and if it’s hard to get, you make a general ability test to get at it. The gear list is therefore a short descriptive paragraph for each item, generally with no stats attached.

The Tools chapter is more than just gear, though; it’s also a primer on tradecraft for players. It encourages the group to maintain an adversary map – one of those things the protagonists in the movies always have, a cork board covered in photos, notes, and little pieces of string linking them together. How is the terrorist cell in Marseilles connected to the overall conspiracy? Who sent the hitman after them? Why?

Vampires (45 pages): This is where GM-only territory starts, with a build-your-own vampire kit. Are the vampires supernatural, damned souls, aliens, mutants, or some combination? Where did they originate? What are their powers, weaknesses and objectives? How many of them are there? Can they be cured, and if so, how? Some modes work better with some types of vampire, and there’s guidance on this. There are five different example vampires if you want to cut to the chase and start staking, and a dozen unnatural creatures they might have in support, as well as animals related to vampires in various folkloric traditions. (Stock human NPCs are elsewhere in the book.)

The vampire kit is followed by a conspiracy kit, and the GM’s conspyramid, which is a pyramid of nodes in six levels, from street gangs to the vampire elders themselves. This is the narrative framework of the game, showing who the opposition is, what clues can be found when they are defeated, and – when linked with the vampyramid below – what the conspiracy does in retaliation for being poked at that level. In the example conspiracy provided, a raid on a radar station (level 1) can provide clues leading to a member of the Israeli mafia (level 2) or a ring of heroin smugglers (level 3).

There are several non-pyramidal conspiracy structures, but my instinct is that they would be too confusing for the players.

Cities (24 pages): Most of the action in NBA, especially gathering information, happens in cities – the game as written assumes somewhere in Europe. The chapter explains how to set up one or more cities for the game, with a few examples; provides capsule descriptions of the nations, and also the real-world intelligence, terrorist and criminal organisations operating on the continent.

Stories (10 pages): This is advice to the GM on how to set up adventures; the rhythm of spying and fighting scenes which drive each scenario, the conspyramid which shows where the clues take the PCs and who they fight when they get there, the framework of scenes in a standard thriller and how to modify them, the types of missions that the PCs or their opposition mount, and the vampyramid I mentioned above; this is a list of retaliation options the vampires have when you poke their nest with a stick, such as offering to pay you off, framing you for murder, etc. The GM is encouraged to avoid repetition here; being framed once is a challenge, being framed twice is boring.

Scenarios dealt with, we move on to campaigns; the default NBA campaign begins with the PCs learning that vampires exist, the vampires finding out that they know, and then shifts into a race to see which side can wipe the other out first.

Finally, there is a section on alternatives to the vampire conspiracy; straight-up spy stories, Cthulhu, or psionics.

(S)entries (9 pages): This is a introductory scenario, in which the PCs are hired to suppress evidence of something. The action takes them across the Balkans, through fights, car chases and double-crosses, to the realisation of what the evidence is, and how far the opposition will go to suppress it.

Addenda (15 pages): Character sheets, GM worksheets, quick reference sheets.

FORMAT

Unusually, this document is laid up in three columns, black on white with red or grey headings, and the occasional colour illustration. Crisp, clean, a pleasure to read.

CONCLUSIONS

I love spy stories almost as much as I love science fiction, I love playing with conspiracy ideas, I’m OK with vampires, and Ken Hite is the ideal author to merge those elements into a kickass game, which he has duly done.

It does rely on the players sharing responsibility for the narrative, and in my experience not all groups are comfortable with this. The conspyramid is effectively a sandbox; like a dungeon map it presents the PCs with choices of routes to follow, but they must decide which lead to follow up and how.

The GM also needs to prepare quite a lot in advance; the actual sessions may be improvised, but you need to know what your vampires are like, how their conspiracy is structured, and what their objectives are; these give you the framework within which you can improvise.

If you plan on running this game, watch Ultraviolet first. Seriously.

If you don’t, there are a lot of ideas here that are worth pilfering. The conspyramid for the overall campaign structure; the vampyramid for how the bad guys react to the PCs’ meddling; the notes on how to run a thriller story. These are things that I will take with me into the next campaign – in fact I can retrofit them into the Shadows of Keron adventure in Caldeia which will start next time the PCs foregather. Be a shame not to, really.

Overall Rating: 5 out of 5. Man, I want to run this now; and I think it could be done online, too. Got some prep work first though…

Shepherd, Episode 10: Better Judged by Twelve

"Better to be judged by twelve than carried by six." – Booker T Washington

Omaro, 068-3015

The second gunman didn’t have any more information, or a good idea for how I could let him live. So I spaced him too, and the dead body, and had the Joker vaporise all the corpses with the laser turret.

It was 8 days back to Mizah, and I spent most of them turning it over in my head. Was there a way I could’ve let them live and stayed safe myself? I couldn’t think of one. I would spend a lot of time over the next couple of years asking myself that question.

Mizah, 077-3015

Greg needs to get back to Hasara, and the best way to do that is via Tangga. So he sells the Ore at $2,800 per unit, and buys Timber at $800 per unit, since that is the thing with the best markup at Tangga.

It’s 9 days to Tangga; a 5 of Diamonds means no encounter.

Tangga, 087-3015

Greg sells the Timber at $1200 per unit, checks the prices at Hasara, and buys 5 units of Technology. He refuels and replenishes stores, then jumps for Hasara, which takes 3 days; he burns an extra two days of fuel to arrive just before the commodity prices change. Again, there is no encounter.

Hasara, 090-3015

Greg arrives, refuels, and sells his cargo. Tomorrow, the prices will all change and he will pick up another cargo. Then, he will descend to the Hasaran Badlands and recover Sofia’s data slate. I think that’s important enough to warrant a scene to itself, don’t you?

Status at Scene End

Level Up! Greg gets an advance, but spends it to restore the Agility die step he lost when savaged by bugs on Simba. Oh well, easy come, easy go…

Hasara, 090-3015. Fuel 25, Food 25, $159,580, Cargo hold empty. Bennies: 1 (more unheroic behaviour).

Chaos Factor: 5.

Characters: Greg, Sofia (deceased), PRR, insectoid raiders, Confed, Hierate, Egemen Kaptan (happy corporate exec), Tunaydin Uygun (creative, patriotic scientist), Abeid (crude crawler driver), Tunaydin’s grad student, Takanashi Hiro (celebrity-watching port official).

Plot Threads: Avoid capture by PRR; recover Sofia’s slate from Hasara; solve mystery of Sofia’s slate.

Shepherd, Episode 9: The Safest Treasure

“No thief, however skillful, can rob one of knowledge, and that is why knowledge is the best and safest treasure to acquire.”
― L. Frank Baum, The Lost Princess of Oz

I should be on episode 10 by now, so here’s the first catchup episode…

Omaro, 068-3015

Let’s get some housekeeping out of the way first; Greg sells 5 Food for $25,000, and buys 5 Ore for $3,500, 12 fuel for $7,200, and 6 food for $60, taking his cash in hand to $121,470. Then he leaves Omaro with his prisoners, as he needs a quiet conversation with them. This is not at all how I saw the visit to Omaro going, but that’s the Mythic Game Master Emulator for you; full of surprises.

By the time the lead gunman came round, he was sitting uncomfortably on the floor of the main airlock, trussed up in cable ties.

“Hello,” I said. “As you can see, you are in an airlock. I have control of the temperature, air pressure, and gravity in there.” He said nothing, but I could see him testing his bonds and looking around for opportunities of escape. I hoped I hadn’t left him any, but if I had, there was always the outer door control.

“What about my men?” he asked. “Dead,” I said. “Never bring a pistol to a starship fight, my friend.” Actually one of them was still alive, but I wanted him to feel isolated.

“You won’t get away with this, pirate,” he spat. He could be right on that one, but that line of thought wouldn’t get either of us anywhere.

“I’m new to this interrogation thing,” I said, “But I’m sure you’ve done it before, so let’s try this; you ask me your questions, and I’ll answer them. I might ask some myself to clarify points. If I don’t like your questions, I’ll put the airlock on a rinse cycle. How does that sound?”

He responded with a torrent of obscenity and personal insults, so I used the grav plates to rattle him around a bit.

“Ask me a question,” I prompted. I could see I had confused him, which was the plan, but after a bit more rattling he complied.

“Where is she?” he asked. “Sofia?”

“Somewhere you can’t find her or hurt her ever again,” I said. This was at least half-true, because she was in an unmarked grave on Hasara. I could see him thinking furiously.

“Look,” he said. “No offence, but you’re a small fish. Give us the girl and we can cut a deal.” I rattled him around the airlock again.

“I’m sorry, but you didn’t frame your response in the form of a question,” I said. “Please try again.”

“Where is the girl’s data slate?” he asked.

“She still has it,” I said. “What do you want with her and the slate? Oh, and this time it’s okay not to respond with a question.”

“I don’t know. I was just told to bring them both back to Ria.” I rattled him again.

“You’re lying. You’re five weeks from Ria, so there’s a ten week turnaround if you ask for new orders. You must have more autonomy than that, so you have to know why you’re doing this.” And they must have some plan for flying the ship back to Ria without my cooperation, because whatever their attitudes to inherited wealth the rebels wouldn’t leave fifteen million credits worth of starship sitting around waiting to be stolen. I started the airlock cycling this time.

This looks like a good time to find out what’s on that slate, so let’s think… Is the slate a treasure map (Likely)? 75% – yes (only just). That explains why the gunmen are Gung Ho; the PRR is trusting them to bring back the cash instead of just disappearing with it. Unless they’ve already gone rogue (50/50)? 93%, no.

“Wait!” he said. So I stopped the cycle.

“Sofia’s family had a lot of money offworld,” he said. “We think her slate explains where it is, and how to get to it.”

“The rebels – pardon me, the new government – must trust you very much. What stops you just disappearing with the money when you find it?”

Unconsciously, he sat up straighter. I saw a trickle of blood from one temple where he had banged into something.

“Unlike you,” he said, “Some of us can’t be bought with a few measly credits.”

“Thank you,” I said. “You’ve been very helpful. Now, I have one last question for you: Can you think of any way I can keep you on this ship that absolutely guarantees I will stay alive, free, and in control of it?”

The accused stood mute. I sighed. I was really hoping he’d have a credible answer for that.

“Neither can I,” I said, and opened the outer airlock door.

Status at Scene End

Omaro, 068-3015. Fuel 25, Food 25, $121,470, Cargo 5 Ore for Mizah. Bennies: 2 (one lost for unheroic behaviour).

Chaos Factor: 5.

Characters: Greg, Sofia (deceased), PRR, insectoid raiders, Confed, Hierate, Egemen Kaptan (happy corporate exec), Tunaydin Uygun (creative, patriotic scientist), Abeid (crude crawler driver), Tunaydin’s grad student, Takanashi Hiro (celebrity-watching port official).

Plot Threads: Avoid capture by PRR; recover Sofia’s slate and decode it.

Shepherd, Episode 8: Unexpected Hero

“Ĉu vi parolas Esperanton?” the port official wanted to know. Which sounded unusual, coming from a pureblooded ethnic Japanese; but this far from Manhome Earth, you tend to get the cultures that were poor, or strange, or just wanted to be left alone, and who am I to judge?

I didn’t know what the right reply was, so I settled for a puzzled look and “Türkçe biliyor musunuz?”

I got a blank look back. Okay then, how about “Do you speak English?”

I turned out he did, which is not that uncommon among spacers and ground crew; when the region was cut off from Earth during the interregnum, none of the worlds in it had a majority of English speakers – they were in the first wave of the diaspora and got nice worlds close to Earth, not places like Omaro – but English has been the language of trade and traffic control in space for centuries, and a lot of ship crews were marooned here; over time they formed a kind of traveller subculture. Like me, they grew up around ships, and in ships, and talking about ships, in the ships’ language; so it’s not too surprising that a high proportion of them work on ships or in ports.

However, you can’t judge that by looking at someone, it’s more a matter of intonations and phrasing – and if you’re unlucky, the flat, calm, absolutely clear speech of a spacer reporting serious trouble.

I have no idea what awaits Greg on Omaro, so there’s no point checking for altered scenes or interrupts; instead, I use the GME to generate a random event. Percentile dice rolls of 56, 72 and 98 tell me the event has a PC-negative focus, with an action of “arrive” and a subject of “fame”.

“Hey,” said the port official. “Aren’t you the guy who got Princess Sofia off Ria? You know, in the revolution? My wife loved that story, said how romantic it was. Hey, there are some guys from Ria in the bar over there, maybe you should say hello…” he turned to point at the bar, but three hard-looking guys were already stepping out into the hangar space and heading my way. They must’ve seen the Joker coming down on the ship lift; most of Omaro Station is underground, including the spaceport.

They did not look friendly, but they were wearing the blue armbands that are as close to a uniform as the rebels get.

“Oh, here they come,” said the port official, unnecessarily. “Hey – why do you Rians always go around in threes?”

“Easy,” I said, as they started to run towards me. “One can read, one can write, and the other one is there to keep an eye on the two intellectuals. You might want to find solid something to hide behind, this could get loud.”

Let’s call the opposition stock Soldier NPCs with Glocks; however, we’ve established off-camera that the rebels think Greg, or the Princess (who was alive and on the Joker when they last saw her), know something useful – so they won’t shoot to kill just yet. I have no idea what that something useful is, yet.

Greg is about to reach for his gun, when I have a better idea.

I raised my hands, so they slowed down and went into that slow, crouching walk gunmen use to keep their weapons on target. So, they’d had some training then.

“Joker,” I said softly, to the metal spider on my shoulder, “Failsafe. Three armed rebels, my ten o’clock, prepare to engage.”

“Acknowledged,” said the Joker’s calm, contralto voice. The turret peeled back its fairing and swivelled slightly to cover the advancing rebels. It would now burn them down either at my command, or if I were suddenly unable to give commands, say for instance because I had been perforated. There had been a lot of time in hyperspace recently, with not much to do except change the dressings on my bug wounds, think paranoid thoughts, and come up with contingency programming for the AI based on those paranoid thoughts. Amazing what being nearly killed will do for your frame of mind.

“Gentlemen,” I called, somewhat louder. “Those tubes pointing at you are dual-linked 15 megawatt lasers. We can talk like civilised people, or you can be a bad smell in the air conditioning for the next couple of weeks.”

That sounds like a persuasion roll to me, so let’s check the personalities of the thugs using the table on p. 93 of SWDEE. Three d20 rolls, leader first, give me 6, 10 and 6; two Gung Ho and one Dumb. That sounds like it will take success with a raise to get anywhere, and as he is unskilled, Greg is rolling d4-2 with a wild die. 3, 2w is modified to 1, 0 – that didn’t go well. Looks like it’s time for initiative; Greg draws a King of Diamonds, the gunmen draw an 8 of Diamonds.

TURN 1

“Stand down or we fire!” shouted the leader. For a second, the image of Sofia flashed into my mind. We had been nothing to each other – she was a Princess, for goodness’ sake, and I wasn’t even the chauffeur, I was the guy who delivered her daddy’s mail – but she had been young, and scared, and she had trusted me to get her away from people like these, who had killed her parents and mortally wounded her. Maybe her parents deserved it, and maybe they didn’t; but she hadn’t. She was just a kid. So I got angry, just for a second.

“Engage,” I said, then belatedly realised the lasers could only burn them down one at a time, but there were three of them. I drew and fired, more to put them off than anything, then fell prone. There was no cover within diving range, so it was the best I could do.

The Joker’s AI has d10 skill but no wild die; it rolls a 1 and misses. Really? Oh come on.

Greg fires with a multi-action penalty, then uses his movement to drop prone. He rolls d6w (I’ve adopted that terminology from the Odds & Evens dice roller I often use, it means d6 with a wild die) and scores 4w, 3 (4 on the wild die and 3 on the trait die), which is enough to hit; 4 damage isn’t going to do anything, though.

The three gunmen blaze away, using double tap at a prone target, then close in from 18″ away at a run. Their attacks are each d6-3; Shooting d6, +1 for double tap, -2 for prone target, -2 for running. They roll 7, 3, 3, adjusted to 4, 0, 0, and one of them hits Greg, doing 8 damage, which beats his Toughness by one, Shaking him. They score 2 on their running roll, and end the turn 10″ from him. Notice that even though they run after firing, they still suffer the extra penalty.

TURN 2

New turn; Greg Heart 7, gunmen Spade 7 – gunmen go first, as ties are resolved in reverse alphabetical order of suit. Running still makes sense, as the lasers are likely not to fire if they get close enough to Greg, so they come forward again, shooting first. Modified rolls of -2, 1, and 1 aren’t good enough, though. A 2 on their shared running die brings them in to 2″ from Greg at the end of the turn.

First, Greg makes a Spirit roll (d6w) to recover from Shaken; 8, 4w means he succeeds with a raise and can act normally. He double-taps one of the gunmen (d6w = 4w, 3) and gets an adjusted 4; it always puzzles me that there is no penalty for firing on a running target in SW, but there it is. Since they moved their full pace, they can’t be crouching (which halves pace and gives -1 to be hit). 4 is a hit, so Greg rolls 2d6+1 damage; 12. Wait, are they wearing concealed body armour (50/50)? 94%, no. In that case the leader has just suffered a terminal case of kinetic energy poisoning.

Next, the Joker opens up; 1d10 = 18 (it aced), so damage is 2d10+1d6 = 19, a second one greased. Unfortunately, that was the Dumb one, the second Gung Ho fellow is still in play.

TURN 3

Initiative: Greg 4 of Diamonds, gunman 6 of clubs; gunman goes first. I’d have a normal NPC make a Spirit roll to stay in the fight, but this guy is Gung Ho, so he carries on. Gung Ho doesn’t mean stupid, though, so he moves right up to Greg and tries to grapple him. This is an opposed Fighting roll, gunman’s d6 vs Greg’s d4w; that becomes 7 vs 1w, 1 – ack, snake eyes! Not having that, Greg would be Shaken because the gunman succeeded with a raise. Spend a benny to reroll; 7 vs 6, that’s more like it, entangled but not Shaken.

Greg, on his turn, can make a opposed Agility or Strength roll to break free; they’re the same at the moment, so it’s d6w vs d6, which turns into 7 vs 1; since that’s success with a raise, Greg can break free and still act this turn. He chooses to run from the fight, and gets 7″ from it – lousy running roll. Never mind, the lasers, which have been tracking the brawl impotently, unable to fire for fear of hitting Greg, can now open up and do so. Success with a raise again, resulting in 34 damage; a bad smell in the air conditioner indeed.

Just goes to show: Never bring a gun to a ship fight.

AFTERMATH

Greg checks the downed opponents; each gets a Vigour roll to avoid death. Scores of 11 (this is a trait roll, so it can ace), 4 and 2; the leader succeeded with a raise, so his wounds are not as bad as they looked, and he will function normally; the dumb one survived, so I make a second Vigour roll and get a 5 – he is walking wounded, and can shamble around but not fight or do anything useful; the third guy died, not surprising since he took 34 damage.

I checked on the fallen; one dead, one looked like he would recover with time, the third one – the leader – had only been creased, he would be fine in a few hours although he would have a cool new scar. I left the Joker covering them while I ran inside to get some cable ties, then trussed them up.

The port official emerged from behind a crate while I was doing this. I gestured at the carnage.

“Will this be a problem for me?”

Time for his personality (d20 = 19, Cowardly) and a reaction test (2d6 = 6, neutral). He’s not going to make an issue of it, especially not while that laser turret is still active.

“No, I don’t think so.” He brightened. “My wife will be so excited! The hero of Ria fighting off brigands! Yes! And I was there beside him!”

“That you were,” I said. “You can tell your wife I couldn’t have done it without you.”

“Without me?”

“Of course. You distracted them.”

“I did? Oh, I don’t remember that.”

“No need to be so modest, my friend. You could even say you saved my life.”

You could, I thought. It wouldn’t be true, but you could say it.

I should have killed him, because him spreading that story eventually caused me even more trouble; and I confess I thought about it. But he was so happy at the thought of being a hero himself, just for tonight, just for his wife, that it would have been like shooting a puppy. Some things, you just don’t do.

“I’ll just take these guys inside and take care of them,” I said. He could make of that what he wanted. “I’ll send out the ship’s drone swarm to clean up.”

“Could you come over for dinner? Can we meet the Princess?” he asked, beside himself at the thought. For the first time I looked at his name tag; Takanashi Hiro, it said, in Latin and Kanji script. How appropriate.

“I’m sorry, Hiro,” I said. “Can I call you Hiro? Where there are three of these men, there may be more. I couldn’t put you and your wife at risk. We should move on, as soon as we can.” He looked even more like a puppy at this perceived loss. I threw him a bone.

“Maybe the next time I’m on Omaro? Perhaps it will be safer then.” He brightened a little.

“Yes! Yes, I’m sure it will!”

I clapped him on the shoulder and headed back onto the ship. I’d find some sort of souvenir for him, so his wife could believe she had married a hero as well as a Hiro, at least for a while; and then I would ask the surviving gunmen some questions.

I was very interested in why they had come all this way to find me. And in why they wanted to take me alive.

Dark Nebula: And Now, The News

We got the bubble-headed bleach-blond who comes on at five
She can tell you ’bout the plane crash with a gleam in her eye
It’s interesting when people die, give us dirty laundry
– Don Henley, Dirty Laundry

We’re far enough into the storyline now that it starts to matter what the news is like; 001-3015 was a busy day, with the Hierate invading Valka and the Rian government overthrown by rebels.

So, I now need to make an assumption about how fast news travels; the PCs are on Mizah, four jumps away from Ria, and six jumps from Valka. Confederation headquarters on Maadin are seven jumps from Ria, and nine jumps from Valka. The longest possible route on the board is 15 jumps, from Karpos to Mir without going through Taida Na.

Let’s use as a yardstick how long it takes people on Mizah to learn that the Rian government was overthrown on 001-3015.

Savage Worlds and Science Fiction Companion: The jump is actually instantaneous, it’s the travel to the destination world that takes the time, and while you’re travelling you could send the news via message laser, or radio, or whatever. So under the SFC, it seems reasonable that the news travels at one day per jump; if you add in the instantaneous communication between nav beacons in The Last Parsec, it could easily be less. Mizah learns of the revolution on 005-3015.

Stars Without Number: The time spent in hyperspace is six days per hex, divided by the spike drive rating, plus two days tooling in and out of system to refuel. If we assume spike-2 ships (some jumps are two hexes) and the message being handed on, pony express style, Mizah gets the news on 019-3015; if spike-2 ships are used only where needed, that increases to 025-3015.

Traveller: Time spent in hyperspace is always one week. Again assuming pony express handovers, Mizah learns of the revolt on 029-3015.

In both Traveller and Stars Without Number, the ships on the runs in and out of Daanarni would have to carry double fuel loads, as they can’t refuel there; but it’s credible for a Savage Worlds ship to double jump with a normal fuel load.

The most elegant solution is to say that SW/SFC ships stay in hyperspace for their 2d6 days, and emerge relatively close to their destination; so there’s my house rule. I can then extend that to say NPC ships and crews doing stuff while the PCs aren’t looking always take one week per jump, which is about the average; that brings the three game systems into alignment on how fast news travels, and is easy to remember and use.

So, news of the major events so far arrives at Mizah (where the PCs can react to it as they wish) and Maadin (where the Confederation will start dusting off its contingency plans) as follows:

Event Occurs Mizah Knows Maadin Knows
Rian revolt 001-3015 029-3015 050-3015
Valka invaded 001-3015 043-3015 064-3015
Fall of Valka 090-3015 132-3015 153-3015

That partly explains why Greg doesn’t know about the Valkan conflict yet; although he has had more pressing issues recently…

Long-Range Planning

"I’ve felt the cold hand of my own mortality." – Frank Herbert, Dune

The events of the last couple of years have shown me that the end of my gaming career is now in sight, like it or not. Considering how the previous generation got on, and the plans people have already discussed with me, in big handfuls the future looks like this…

FUTURE HISTORY

2015-2025: I’ll still be at work, still playing every few weeks with my WFRP3 buddies (who will change game systems at least twice during that time), and gamemastering for the Shadows of Keron players every few months – most likely Beasts & Barbarians, but maybe something else.

Things to do:

  • Solo gaming – ten years of campaigns lasting six months each is 20 games; in reality I expect not many will be renewed for a second season, so I expect to exit this period still playing no more than a couple of them, having got the others out of my system.
  • Group gaming – ten years of (say) one session every three months is 40 sessions. Realistically, that is no more than another two campaigns at best; I’ll have to think long and hard before changing setting again.
  • Learn how to paint figures properly, while I still have eyes and hands good enough for it. If I assume one figure per month over that period on average, it’ll still be over a hundred; that should be enough to get me up to tabletop standard.
  • Sort out online gaming via Roll20, Google Hangouts and whatnot.

2025-2035: I’ll be retired, but still reasonably fit and healthy. The WFRP3 group’s regular GM will retire to France – either one of the others, possibly me, will take over as GM, or the group will break up at that point. However, my grandchildren will be in the 8-12 age range and ready to start playing, which will be great fun; especially if their parents join in too. I can hope for a face to face game every few weeks, but realistically every couple of months is more likely.

Things to do:

  • Teach grandchildren the joy of roleplaying. It would be remiss of me not to equip them with basic D&D skills as part of this, as if they carry on playing, that is what they’re most likely to encounter. It would be equally remiss to limit them to that.

2035-2045: This part is unlikely to be much fun; I’ll probably still be mentally active, but physically things start to look dodgy. The children will be the age I am now, the grandchildren leaving home to live their own lives; roleplaying with a decrepit grognard will not be a big part of those lives.

Things to do:

  • Get myself digitally uploaded into cyberspace. A destructive read will be fine by this point.

REFLECTIONS

That’s not so bad, is it? Just as well; I suspect there’s not much I can do about it.

The lesson to take away? You’ve got less gaming time left than you think. Make it count. Don’t waste it on anything less than the best, whatever that is for you.

"To suspect your own mortality is to know the beginning of terror; to learn irrefutably that you are mortal is to know the end of terror." – Frank Herbert, Dune

Shepherd, Episode 7: Back to Mizah

Simba, 060-3015

As Shepherd hobbles out of hospital and back to the hangar, a couple of questions spring to mind for resolution by the Mythic GME. First, though, I roll 1d10 against the Chaos factor. The most likely next scene is Greg taking Egemen back to Mizah; I roll a 10, which is more than the Chaos factor, so that is indeed what happens next.

  • Is Tunaydin coming too (50/50)? 58% – yes, with this chaos factor.
  • What about the grad student (very likely, since Tunaydin is coming)? 37% – also yes.
  • How about Abeid (very unlikely)? 86% – no.

OK then, party of four for Mizah. Greg refills the fuel tank (11 x 6 x $100 = $6600) and pantry (2 x 10 = $20), and after about five tries over 42 minutes manages to calculate the hyperspace jump, which would have him arriving 8 days out of Mizah, but that would mean running out of food; he needs to arrive at least two days earlier, which would cost an extra 4 days’ fuel, and if he arrives the same day (cost 16 fuel) his cargo will still be worth $6000 per unit – that’s a no-brainer, so he burns 16 fuel and arrives at Mizah on 060-3015, just before the monthly cargo price reset, with 3 fuel left in the tanks. A bit of metagaming, but never mind, a PC would’ve done it.

The Mizah system is a patrolled area, so there is no event draw. Greg lands, bids Egemen and company farewell, sells the cargo, replenishes everything, and takes the day off while the commodity board resets. At this point he learns about the Hierate invading Valka – I’ll explain how I came to that thinking in a couple of posts’ time.

The next day, he sees that the best deal in the Fastnesses (the cluster of seven worlds centred around Mizah, if you don’t have the Dark Nebula boardgame to hand) is buying food on Mizah for $1500 per unit, and selling it on Omaro for $5000; on the way back he can buy Ore at $700 per unit and sell it at £2800 per unit. Omaro is a good place to visit next in narrative terms because I already have it half-worked out, so that’s also a no-brainer.

After eight tries Greg gets the jump coordinates set, and succeeds with a raise, cutting the jump time to 6 days. The encounter card is the 4 of hearts, so no encounter. That’s all fine.

Omaro, you may recall, is a Failed Core (or if you prefer, a Cold Mercurian; Titan-like) with Esperanto-speaking Japanese who venerate Professor LL Zamenhof, and giant lobsters outside the viewports. But more of that next time…

LIST UPDATES

Status at scene end: Omaro, 067-3015. Fuel 13, Food 19, $107,230, cargo 5 Food.

Chaos Factor: Back to 5, Greg is more in control now than last time.

Characters

Greg Shepherd; Princess Sofia of Ria (deceased); People’s Republic of Ria; Insectoid raiders; Solomani Confederation; Aslanic Hierate; Egemen Kaptan, Happy Corporate Exec; Tunaydin Uygun, Egemen’s girlfriend, Creative (and patriotic) Scientist; Abeid, Crude crawler driver; Tunaydin’s grad student.

Plot Threads

Avoid capture by the PRR; understand that Sofia’s slate is a mystery (then solve it); take Egemen back to Mizah; learn what Tunaydin was doing at the wreck site.

REFLECTIONS

Interstellar trading is still not very interesting, which is what I found last time when using Classic Traveller for it in the Arioniad. I’ll have to see if I can work out some sort of shortcut; in my youth I would have coded a short programme to work out the average monthly income and expenditure, but this time I will probably say something brutally simple like trading exactly defrays operating costs, and any real monetary advance has to come from adventuring. Or perhaps I should use an advance to buy Greg the Rich Edge to represent successful trading, upgrading it to Filthy Rich later on.

You will notice I never had to decide what Tunaydin’s exciting discovery was, which is just as well as I have no idea what it could be. We’ll leave the Dice Gods to bring it back into play as and when they see fit.

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