State of the Conspiracy: Lockdown Update 1

So it’s mid May which equates to week 7 or 8 since the start of lockdown for me here in the UK. It sucks and having been through a similar process when writing my thesis many years ago meant I had an inkling of just how much it would sap my creative energy. Which is why I decided I wasn’t going to make any big goals about pushing Project Cassandra forward, even though it was next on my list after the release of Mission Packet 1: N.E.O., my mini supplement for The Sprawl RPG.

That’s not to say that I’ve made no progress. Following the play tests at BurritoCon and Dragonmeet I have been slowly working my way through the text, filling gaps and preparing for the dreaded rewrites. Given they’re likely to be extensive I decided the first step was to clarify my contents, which are currently:

Teaser / Blurb
Introduction
Defining the scenario
    Setup / Questions
    Pacing
    Sample questions
    Alternative setup
Agendas
    Make events extraordinary
    Build towards a dramatic climax
    Take suspicion and twist it towards paranoia
    Play to the era
    A note on historical accuracy
Safety tools
    Lines & Veils
    Script change
The Vision
Rules of Engagement
    Taking actions
        Aiding
    Premonitions
    Conditions & consequences
    Visions
    Powers
    Knowledges
    Gear
Enacting the Conspiracy
    Building the conspiracy
    Genre and tone
    Following the action
    Challenges & The Opposition
    Nulls
Example of Play
Creating characters
Sample Characters
    Secret service agent
Small time criminal
    Academic analyst
    Reporter
Two Minutes to Midnight
    Ich bin ein Berliner
    The dark of the moon

On the face of it that feel like a lot but many of those smaller sections come out to a single paragraph and my aim is to keep the finished product to within the limits of a zine.

Why?

Because I’d like to participate in ZineQuest 3 on Kickstarter next year. Having followed it the last couple of years it seems like the ideal way to launch Project Cassandra and actually produce physical copies. It would also provide the potential for something I just can’t afford right now – an editor. It’s part of the process that I really don’t get on with and where I know the game would benefit from a fresh set of eyes.

So alongside writing I’ve been slowly putting together a budget and trying to estimate the various costs. That, in and of itself, is a rabbit hole and I’m quickly discovering how much I don’t know, so I’m glad that I made this decision with enough time to just learn.

Thankfully I’ve got plenty of time to do that, so fingers cross next February I’ll be able to include Project Cassandra amongst the list of successfully funded ZineQuest Kickstarters.

Review: Chiron’s Doom by Nick Bate

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of Chiron’s Doom from the author in exchange for a copy of The Synth Convergence.

There is a monument at the edge of civilisation, an enigmatic object known as Chiron’s Doom. Nobody knows what it does, or who made it, or why. It has defied all previous attempts at understanding. Countless expeditions have torn themselves apart trying to learn its secrets.

There’s no reason to think your expedition will be any different, but here you are. Three more explorers standing before the monument, driven to try where all others have failed. How much are you willing to sacrifice to solve the mystery of Chiron’s Doom?

Over the past few weeks I have been slowly making my way through a solo playthrough of Chiron’s Doom, published by Nick Bate and available on itch.io. The game chronicles the story of a doomed expedition as they set out to explore a foreboding and mysterious monument. Each scene is driven by a narrative prompt, chosen by drawing from a randomised deck, after which it is up to the players to decide how events play out. The expedition deck starts with a selection of Diamonds and the 2’s of the other suits. Draw any of those 2’s and you introduce a disaster deck – four additional cards that serve to build the danger and threat to your explorers. Draw a King and an explorer pays the ultimate price in their search for knowledge.

Playing solo I took charge of the trio of explorers and set out to explore the Dyson Array 03x65a, a massive orbital satellite from The Dyson Eclipse, a space opera setting that I am slowly developing. For the playthrough I decided to run the game as a series of blog posts, which start here and from the outset things got complicated for the intrepid explorers. By the end two of them had been taken by the monument while Arol, a wayward navigator had been shown his new path, tasked with protecting the secrets of the array from those that unknowingly walked the way of the light.

While I have written numerous pieces of short fiction in the past this was the first time I have taken to playing a solo RPG in this manner and I have to say that not only did I really enjoy the process but the prompts helped to flesh out the setting of The Dyson Eclipse in ways that I had not imagined. With the exception of the Arrays and the XenoArchaeology Protectorate virtually every detail in the setting was developed or fleshed out using inspiration drawn from the prompts. As a tool it was tremendously useful and I suspect I will do further playthroughs if only to help develop ideas.

Playing solo, and choosing to focus on only short scenes for each card, I did find that a number of the prompts difficult to use. For example the very first card I drew, the 8 of diamonds, reads

You experience a sudden, dramatic shift in perspective. What happened?
What does your new view reveal?

and it took me quite a while to work out how to incorporate a sudden shift in perspective into the very first scene. In a similar vein I found it difficult to link a couple of the draws to one another, although I suspect this would have been easier if I had played out each scene further than I did.

The one thing that I felt was missing from the game was the sense of the journey. The card prompts did well in representing revelations and challenges but I wanted more about the expedition itself, something that portrayed the more mundane steps in between revelations, perhaps as a separate deck that you draw from after round of drawing from the expedition deck.

Overall I would recommend picking up Chiron’s Doom if you are interested in exploring your own expedition, either with friends or as a solo storytelling game. It drew me into the unfolding story, piqued my interest in solo RPGs and I know that I’ll be replaying it in the future.

All reviews are rated out of 10, with Natural 20s reserved for products that go above and beyond my expectations.

Playthrough: Chiron’s Doom (Part 5)

This is Part 5 of the playthrough. Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4 can be found by following the links.

Arol Hernez (9 of Spades)

With the drones converging on their position the pair had few options. The continued gravitational pulses prevented retreat while it was only a matter of time before the Knights noticed that the drones had abandoned their work and Varis had made clear her opinion on turning themselves in. With Varis having dashed any chance at subtly he took a chance and activated his suits embedded sensor suite to map the hanger. The high-energy pulse took only a fraction of a second to build a framework while followup directed pulses worked on elucidating fine details. Numbers and trajectories overlaid his vision as the suit sought to highlight the details and buried amongst it he found what he’d sought.

An exit.

It was on the far side of the hanger, beneath the curve of an enormous engine cowl that was being slowly manoeuvred into position but it was there. A way out. A flick of his wrist sent the data to Varis.

“If we’re going to get across this hanger we need to move now.” He backed the words up by breaking into a run, trusting in the initiate to follow. The route through the hanger was convoluted, a maze of components and partially assembled compartments that they were forced to scramble over and around. After losing a further two of their number to Varis’s blade the drones kept their distance, circling above and behind them like vultures waiting for them to falter and fall. As they neared the hatch his HUD pinged with an incoming transmission, the priority code of the XenoArchaeology Directorate forcing it into view. The file was small, and decrypted almost instantly. A system wide warrant for his detainment, matched with an unnervingly accurate list of his crimes since leaving the service.

There was only one that he hadn’t committed. The most recent. The murder of Knights Initiate Saiya Varis.

Varis (King of Clubs)

She was only a second, or at most two, behind Arol as they reached the far side of the hanger and made the last dash for the hatch. The drones that had followed them had maintained a perfect 21.35 metres from her since she’d downed the third but now, with machine precision they swarmed towards her. Three times her knife lashed out, precise arcs that sliced through their cores and dropped them to the floor. As formidable as her training was it was also incomplete and as she ducked under the welding arms of one assailant another latched on to the control disc in the back of her suit, overriding the servos and freezing her to the spot. Silent alarms flashed in her vision as the drone reprogrammed environmental controls, cutting off her oxygen supply. All she could do was watch as Arol made it to the hatch, untouched by the drones that had prioritised her as a threat. As he turned and realised what had happened she took a desperate gamble, flicking the gravimetric dagger from the tips of her fingers. The field generator did the rest of the work, accelerating the blade into the control panel beside him and triggering the release of the emergency bulkhead.

Arol Hernez (3 of Clubs)

He’d lost track of how long or how far he had wandered. After the bulkhead cut him off from Varis he had grabbed the dagger and run. No direction, just away, deeper into the interior of the Array. Eventually he came to a door that was unlike anything the others. A light, grey metal painted with a fading symbol that was familiar to even the youngest children. It had been carried by the colonists as they had left their home so long ago. A yellow star in the centre surrounded by a blue circle with a single green dot. Earth. The silent ancestral home.

Dagger in hand he pushed it open, though at first the hinges resisted any movement. It opened into what he could only describe as an endless tunnel that fell away from him. Instinct led him to trigger the maglocks on his boots such was the feeling that he was staring not across but down into a vast abyss. As he tried to calm his senses motion along the smooth, pale wall caught his attention. As he watched the surface peeled back and a tube of blue glass extruded itself. A trio of drones approached, seemingly from nowhere carrying someone.

No, note someone but Varis, stripped of her suit and unconscious but seemingly alive. As two of the drones slid her effortlessly into the tube the third redirected itself towards him. Tired, scared and confused he made no effort to flee.

“Transmigration. Lifeboat stage IV incomplete. Containment protocols have been compromised. You will protect,” came through the intercom, the voice metallic but clear.

“I’ll what?,” was all he could manage in reply.

“You will protect. You are Navigator 1st Class Arol Hernez. Born 2287, died 2341. Current status: Fugitive from Knights of Ceres, marked by Interface for immediate termination. You. Will. Protect.”

As he struggled to process the meaning behind the voice there was a flash of light from the drone burned its way into his mind. Images flicked through his head, meaningless but structured. A light, all encompassing and so immense that it hurt to even think about. Schematics of the arrays, one after another. Some that had been lost, some yet to be constructed. A transmission received that had yet to be sent. Knowledge so overwhelming that it would have killed him if the Array had not intervened, reinforcing and expanding synaptic junctions in the time it took for the impulse to traverse them.

Eventually he understood. All of it. Others would be tasked with extinguishing the flame, his job was to safeguard the future, to protect the lifeboat and its occupants so they could be sent to the only place out of reach. Home.


This concludes my playthrough of Chiron’s Doom – You can find my review of the game here.

First Thoughts: Alien RPG

This is not a review, merely my thoughts based on two thorough readthroughs of the Alien RPG. Before I put out an actual review I want to have run at least one session of the game in its cinematic mode to get a proper feel for the mechanics.

I picked up the Alien RPG at Dragonmeet 2019 after originally avoiding the wildly successful pre-order earlier that year. I hadn’t ordered the game at that point for a simple reason – I’ve never watched Alien. Or any of the movies in the franchise. It’s impossible not to know the overall plot and tone of the movies though so when the first reviews of the game came in it piqued my interest. Everything seemed to suggest that Free League had succeeded in releasing a system that helped to build tension and explosive terror. That was enough to make me check the book out at Dragonmeet, where I was pulled in by the extensive, evocative art and sales pitch of the Effekt crew who were running the stall.

Dragonmeet was the end of November and unfortunately I’ve yet to get around to playing the game. What I have done is a couple of thorough read throughs and I’ve got to admit that I’ve come away feeling conflicted about the product and wanted to see if I could pull those thoughts together into a cohesive whole.

Remember: This isn’t a review, it will focus primarily on the issues I have rather than considering the game as a whole.

So what’s my issue? The big one is that I don’t understand the focus of the game. It feels off balance. The buzz I’ve seen surrounding Alien has been centred on the cinematic style of play – one off, high attrition scenarios designed to mimic the tone and pacing of the movies. Reading the book though they feel more like an afterthought. The GM chapter has a mere 2 pages dedicated to this style of play (though 2/3 of one page is taken up by artwork) in addition to the cinematic scenario Hope’s Last Day. Well, I say scenario but its not even the full thing, as it states in the text that it is only the third and final act of a larger adventure. This 18 page (that count includes the characters and maps) teaser isn’t even meant to occupy a typical session as, according to the text, it can be played in under 2 hours. A full cinematic scenario, Chariot of the Gods, is available as a separate purchase but I don’t understand why you wouldn’t want to showcase this mode of gameplay in the core book, especially when the recommendation is that you should start with a cinematic game before considering a campaign.

I’ve heard that page count was a constraint and I’ll admit that the book is a fair size but that’s also deceiving. There is a significant amount of artwork, more so than most books and I’d estimate you could cut the page count by a quarter (or more) and still have a beautiful book if there was less art and a more condensed layout.

The artwork is atmospheric and extensive, almost to the point of outshining the actual game

Which brings me to my second issue – campaigns. Despite having an entire chapter dedicated to them it feels lacklustre and incomplete. There are quick summaries of the three campaign types (space trucker, colonial marine and frontier colonist) and a series of tables to aid in the random generation of jobs/missions, star systems and complications but it just feels like it lacks any depth. Personally I’d have preferred a sandbox of a small region with some colonised planets and a border between two major powers to help get a campaign started.

One of the aspects that particularly stood out was money. The book makes it clear that the setting is one of hyper-capitalism, where you should expect to be living job to job, paying off debts and just struggling to stay afloat. The problem though is that it then fails to follow through in any real sense. Each framework lists a typical weekly salary, anywhere from $400-$960 while the minimum reward listed in the jobs table is $21,000.

So what can you spend all that wealth on?

Well there’s living costs, which is given a single tiny table that takes up less than a quarter of a page otherwise dedicated to yet more art. Or you could splash out on food and drink, including individual cups of coffee (Free – $1.50 per cup) which are given a page and a half of space. Yes, the book dedicates space to describing coffee.

Really though you’re going to be after gear and upgrades. Most of the personal equipment has costs in the hundreds to low thousands but ships and their upgrades may range into the millions. Oh, and you’ll also need a supply of spare parts for repairs. They cost $100,000 or more unless you can salvage them and will be consumed by even minor repairs. Which you could be doing regularly if you fail the weekly maintenance rolls.

Living expenses. Yup, that’s the extent of the mechanic.

All in all it just doesn’t add up into a coherent system. Somebody has clearly gone to the trouble of thinking about the fact the setting is one where ships should be breaking down regularly and needing expensive repairs. There’s a list of modules a ship might have but do I then need to list all the handheld equipment on the ship? If we start with a ship do we have to also purchase space suits, tools, food etc as well or does it come with a reasonable amount of equipment? Who knows, the rulebook certainly doesn’t say.

Now you may think I’m being unfairly critical here, or putting too much of an emphasis on it but I do so for a few reasons. The first reason I’m doing so is because of how many pages are taken up by gear and equipment, all of which are dotted with prices. Earning enough to get by on is clearly meant to play a significant role in campaigns but I honestly don’t think there’s a coherent and complete system here. Incidentally this isn’t a problem unique to Alien but is shared with many other systems.

The second reason I’m bringing it up is because I’ve recently read Scum & Villainy. While the tone of that is very different the gameplay also includes the completion of missions and constant need to earn credits. The difference there is that it’s baked squarely into the system. Every mission includes a structured way of having to deal with maintenance, upgrades and personal spending in a way that enhances the game and reinforces the need to do the next job. It transforms it from dull bookkeeping to an integral, and enjoyable, part of the game. I just wish Free League had managed the same here.

So with all these apparent issues you may be wondering what I’d have done differently. Primarily I’d streamline the book by removing campaign play elements entirely and focus it on cinematic play. So out with most of the gear and equipment, in with a complete three act scenario and proper guidelines on creating/running cinematic scenarios. It may be that this is the approach Free League have taken with their upcoming starter set but honestly I just don’t understand why they didn’t go in that direction from the outset.

I’m just going to close with a repeat that this isn’t a review, just things that got under my skin while reading the book. I think the core system is good, like the look of the stress mechanic and am looking forward to running a game, hopefully sooner rather than later. At that point I’ll revisit it and do a proper review but honestly, I suspect it’ll just reinforce my desire to focus on cinematic gameplay.

If my ramblings haven’t put you off the game then it is available for purchase on drivethruRPG (includes affiliate link).

Playthrough: Chiron’s Doom (Part 4)

This is Part 4 of the playthrough. Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3 can be found by following the links.

Arol Hernez (2 of hearts)

The presence of the Knights finally broke the silence between them as Arol turned to Varis, who was staring down at the encampment in dismay

“What the fuck are we meant to do now? Hey, are you even listening?”

She wasn’t, not really. It was only when he grabbed her suit by the arm that he got a response. With slick efficiency the former Initiate had him pinned to the closed airlock, dagger at his throat. It was his first time seeing the blade up close. Pitch black metal, etched with silver filaments that snaked their way up to the hilt with mathematical precision. The weapons had a fearsome reputation, capable of emitting gravity pulses that sliced effortlessly through armoured plating and scrambled organs.

“Hey,” he said, being careful to look her directly in the eyes, “I don’t know what your history with them is and frankly I don’t care but if you hadn’t noticed even if we could get back to the ship Layla had the command codes. Which means they might be our only way off…”

His suggestion was cut off as she flipped and pinned him onto the floor before he had even realised what was happening. If this was the level of ability of an Initiate then what were the Knights capable of? The train of thought was cut off as the dagger was pressed against his visor. Warning icons flashed across the HUD, the sensors protesting of a sudden reversal of external pressure.

“I am never going back!”

Varis (2 of clubs)

Instinct and fear had driven her reaction. That same combination had marked her out during training. Made her a target for the instructors. A Knight knows purpose. Begin with an Instinct, rapid and borne of experience. End with a Thought, logical and calculating.

React, Assess, Adapt.

She’d absconded from the academy before learning to control her instincts, which was why Arol almost died on the floor of the Array. Another soul lost to greed and the thrill of illicit exploration. It was the intervention of the Array that saved him. A drone, perhaps attracted by the distortion of the gravity field, set off her proximity alarm and once again she reacted. Without thought the dagger flew from her hand with an accuracy afforded only to those blessed with implants. It sliced through the drone with ease before the emitters reversed its direction, slinging it silently back to her waiting palm.

The achingly long second that it took was enough for her mind to finally catch up, to realise the danger she’d placed them in. Sliding off Arol she checked the hanger, her HUD re-assigning the pale grey dots of the drones to an angry red. Dots that were rapidly converging on their position.

This playthrough of Chiron’s Doom continues here.

Playthrough: Chiron’s Doom (Part 3)

This is Part 3 of the playthrough. Part 1, Part 2 can be found by following the links.

Arol Hernez (4 of diamonds)

Spooked by the approaching shuttle Varis pushed the group hard, into the superstructure of the Array where still functioning gravity plates negated the need for magboots and filament tethers. Having spent most of his life aboard ships Arol was the first to drop the pace set by the initiate, his suit barely managing to keep up with the sweat pouring down his face.

“We must be… half a click… deep by now,” was all he could manage between breaths, “there ain’t nobody… picking us out from here.”

It took the support of Layla but with no signs of pursuit he was able to convince Varis to slow the breakneck pace to one that allowed the expedition to properly take in their surroundings. They’d entered into a faintly lit tunnel, roughly twenty meters in diameter and lined with smooth, glass-like panelling that stretched endlessly into the distance. It was another twenty minutes before they same across the body, impaled on the curved wall by a broken panel only metres from another narrow entrance. While Varis helped aided him in cutting it free their patron explored further down the tunnel, hoping to come across anything the poor soul may have dropped.

The body was in poor condition and had clearly been exposed to the vacuum of the tunnel for some time. It was only once they had retrieved it that the scale of the injuries became truly apparent. Bones broken in multiple places while the suits control modules had crumpled in on themselves. Patching into the suit Arol was able to gather only the last few seconds of data, a silent video of individuals running towards the opening while the tunnel pulsed with a faint light. The perspective went haywire, as the fateful individual was thrown from their feet and met their end. The suit recorded a series of gravametric spikes, cycling between from weightlessness to 25g in a fraction of a second.

Beneath their feet the light pulsed without notice. A flash, then another, the separation between them closing with each repeat of the cycle.

Layla Saidi (King of Diamonds)

With the exception of the body it appeared that this section of the tunnel was empty. Whatever expedition they had been a part of was either unsuccessful or had chosen loot over the body of their companion. As she delved further it was the tunnel itself finally caught her eye.

“Did you see that? The light is getting stronger,” she voiced over the comm, kneeling down to inspect the surface more closely.

“What did you say,” came Arol, his voice only barely audible over a static that had suddenly swamped the channel.

“The light,” she shouted to ensure she was heard, “there’s a pattern and it’s getting stronger. The tech is active, there may be something to salvage here.”

It was only then that she looked up at her employees who were frantically waving, trying to get her attention. The static dominated the channel now, drowning out the words as the Navigator and Initiate ran for the nearby opening. Panicked by their actions she sprinted after them, getting mere metres before finding herself afloat, gravity having disappeared in an instant. As her hands fumbled for a filament line the gravity pulse hit, a fatal wave of acceleration that flung her from sight in an instant.

Varis (3 of Spades)

Varis and Arol had made it to the entrance with seconds to spare and could do nothing but watch as Layla was swept to her death. Death amongst Initiates was rare but not unheard of, the Knights were a martial force above all else, but the death of this woman she barely knew hit surprisingly hard. Without conscious thought she began to recite the Homeward Prayer, the words of return and rebirth that had comforted humanity through their long voyage to the stars.

“…you who have never known the soils of Earth yet yearns for its embrace. Find the beacon, your way home child of Sol. Walk the path, follow the Light and be at peace…”

The decision to turn their back on the tunnel required no words and the three that had become two continued on in silence. After only a few minutes they passed through an airlock and the passageway opened up onto a large, open space teeming with activity. Compact XenoTech drones buzzed through the air, working on an object at least the size of a small frigate. The noise would have been overwhelming without the suits, as materials were cut and welded into place with machine precision. At the base of the object was a small encampment. Human figures in stylised armour that mirrored the design of her own lightweight suit.

The Knights of Ceres had a foothold within the Array and there was no turning back.

This playthrough of Chiron’s Doom continues here.

New Release: Mission Packet 1 – N.E.O. for The Sprawl RPG

The Sprawl is built around missions – The Corporations have no shortage of Credits but if you want their money you had better be prepared to do the dirty work. Steal a prototype, extract an assets or trash the market value of a rival – all in a days work for the deniable, and disposable, teams that work outside the system.

Within this Mission Packet you will find three one page job outlines to offer up to your operatives. These three missions have been constructed around the core theme of N.E.O. – Near Earth Orbit.Each one page outline provides background, mission directives and advice on running the mission.

The remaining details? They’re up to you and your operatives.

Mission Packet 1: N.E.O. includes

The Geller Protocol – A liberated AI seeks a route to the stars while its corporate masters will do anything to return it to their private networks, including recruiting a synth bounty hunter to erase any evidence of the leak.

The Shynom Bombardment – Radicals have taken hold of an orbital refinery. Before the Corporations crush the rebellion they need you to ensure an appropriate rival is blamed for the uprising.

The Equatorial Ascension – An ailing King has summoned his successor to the orbital palace but it’s time for the dynasty to enter the modern age. Switch out the Crown Prince with a doppelgänger while they ascend towards the heavens and bring the family into the Corporate fold.

Mission Packet 1: N.E.O. is available now from Itch.io or drivethruRPG and for the duration of the Coronavirus epidemic is available as Pay What You Want download. Like what you see? Then check out The Synth Convergence, a full trilogy of missions for The Sprawl available from Itch.io and drivethruRPG.

Mission Packet 1: N.E.O. requires a copy of The Sprawl RPG, available from drivethruRPG. Links to drivethruRPG include the LunarShadow Designs affiliate ID and may earn me a small commission at no cost to yourself.