Monday, May 6, 2013

HelgaCon VI - Asteroid 0x57

For the final session of HelgaCon VI (about a month ago now), in the Sunday morning-to-afternoon slot, I ran a game of classic Star Frontiers. As you may have seen from my Saturday posts thus far this year, I'm on a bit of a kick for the Star Frontiers: Knight Hawks spaceship combat game (some 30 years late) -- so to complement that, I figured I'd run a session of the original man-to-man roleplaying game (i.e., Alpha Dawn as it got called in later years).

Abstract of the adventure that people signed up for -- "The planet of Qutera is an up-and-coming world at the edge of Frontier space, populated by miners and new settlers bringing creature comforts from more civilized worlds. But now, a recently-spotted asteroid is poised to bring doom upon the world in mere days. Can the local outpost of Star Law agents do anything about it?"

For this adventure I had 8 pre-generated Star Law characters designed to showcase most of the parts of the classic RPG system of which I've always been fond. They were fairly high level (each maxed out at 6th level in a key skill), displayed all the different races (2 of each race), almost all the skills (everyone had their key skill plus one ranged and one weapons skill of various types), a good array of starting equipment (various weapons, protective skeinsuits, powerclips, technical kits, and flavorful miscellany). These would be the top-notch Star Law agents on this frontier world who would have 3 tense days available to save it from the mystery asteroid on a direct collision course.

In some ways, this adventure was pretty frustrating and I feel badly about that. An initial problem is that I only had 4 people signing up for it, so they were lower in numbers and lacking some key skills that I would have expected (no one took the Medical, Robotics, or Psycho-social experts, for example). See last year's Hall of the Fire Giant King for the effects of having a party outnumbered for the expected scenario.

The other problem is that it was a detective-investigation heavy game, and the players simply weren't picking up on the clues or leads that I was planting in places. Now, I went in knowing that this is a common problem with "mystery" games, and I had planted multiple different paths that might lead to the culminating source of the threat (actually, there was more than one way they could possibly deflect it; although there weren't any spaceships or weapons systems that could directly fend it off in time). I was even mentally prepping myself for a "be flexible, any reasonable new approaches should be rewarded" mindset. But the session still came up basically dry on the action front, and at the end it turned unexpectedly, darkly philosophical. Probably the low number of players also contributed to this (fewer ideas being bounced around), but nonetheless -- I'm seriously on the brink of swearing off any more mystery-clue-investigation games again in my life.

A brief recap of the action:
  • Agents first fly by aircar to the Red Badger Mining Company HQ in the capital city where they're based. Agents enter the large, mirrored-glass building and are confronted by security bots who say the HQ is closed and that they will be removed by force. Violence erupts and agents successfully render the bots nonfunctional. Agents find one person in the building, Vice President Salenni Gold who is emptying his office. The VP apologizes for faulty security protocol and offers assistance. Agents ask about space-mining equipment or large explosives that could break up Asteroid 0x57; the VP says they don't do space mining and don't have that quantity of explosives. Agents leave.
  • Agents fly to the residence of Minta Toliver, a professor at the local university who several years ago first reported on an alien ruin containing carvings seeming to depict worldwide ruin around the current date. Minta is a very old human female who takes some time getting to the door in her walker, but then invites them in to answer questions. Their questions mostly come up empty, since the specific threat wasn't clear in the carvings, according to Toliver. She offers to give them a copy of her academic paper (for which she walks into the next room and takes several minutes to output on a dot-matrix printer, to great general amusement). Agents thank her and leave.
  • Agents return back to the deserted Red Badger HQ and break in via a back door, search the President's offices for any useful papers on space mining, and attempt to hack into the company computer system for info. Unfortunately, even though the Computer specialist is the maximum 6th level, the roll for this fails and they are irretrievably locked out of the system.
  • Agents seem to be coming up empty, so they proceed to the local spaceport to use their dedicated shuttle to rendezvous with the asteroid itself. As they prepare to board, part of a desperate crowd at the external fence breaks through and runs toward the shuttle, but a well-placed doze grenade and a 1% roll for intimidation successfully convince them to retreat.
  • Agents launch into space and a half-day later, they rendezvous with the asteroid and find an artificial installation on the dark side. They enter and engage in a zero-g battle with a pair of deadly alien combat robots, and turning their lasers to maximum power, end up victorious. The computer specialist tries to hack into the computer system to redirect the ion drives mounted on the installation, but is unable to do so. She then tries to access information from the system, and gets several points of data on the installation's construction, but again fails on at least one key piece of information.
  • Agents return to orbit around Qutera. Given that there is one Hull Size 20 mining starship, the PGS Tamayo, loading up equipment for the Red Badger Company to evacuate, they come up with the idea of possibly stasis-freezing some fraction of the population and putting them in the exposed-to-space storage hold. They contact the Captain of the ship and ask for his assistance, to which he replies that he must take orders from the Corporate President. Clearly somewhat frustrated, agents threaten a martial takeover of the ship, to which the Captain says they will defend themselves and cuts off communication. Agents direct staff at the spaceport to commence freezing civilians, proceed to fly their shuttle to the mining ship, hack their way in through an external hatch, and invade the bridge. Shots are fired and another successful intimidation roll causes the Captain and his armed lieutenants to surrender.
  • The ship is filled with as many frozen civilians as possible (10,000 of a planetary 50,000) and takes off for an interstellar jump. Agents remain in-system on their shuttle to watch as the asteroid completes its plunge through the atmosphere, wiping out all remaining life on the planet. Several days later, UPF military starships arrive to pick up the agents, at which point they file their official report.
The last bit of the Star Law agents actually invading the mining ship by force was unexpected, and I had to wing that whole scene by memory and improvisation (the possibility of mass stasis fields and borrowing the ship from the company was in my notes, but the whole name/layout/security/captain/personnel/armaments were being made on the fly). In some sense, it seemed appropriate for the frustrated agents to say "fuck it" at the end and engage in some boot-down-the-door shoot-em-up with the last person who wouldn't cooperate with them, and it did give them at least a partial victory in saving some of the population of the planet.

This latter part is where it got, as I said, surprisingly dark in the game session. There was a fairly long conversation about whether it would be a better service to inform the planet that a small fraction would have to be evacuated, versus actually lying and saying that some UPF ships would deflect the asteroid, so as to prevent panicked acts of violence. Similarly, there was some question about whether it was actually feasible to let a subset of the population to the spaceport freezing facilities without causing a mad crush and overwhelming it. One of our players is a real-world manager with the Red Cross and has some personal experience with situations like that, so I felt like I couldn't contradict his concerns there. Then the fact that the agents committed to staying in-system and witnessing the final death-plunge of the asteroid to make the most complete report they could was both appropriate and quite chilling, I thought. I suppose I shouldn't be completely surprised that this is a possible outcome, when I sent up such a doomsday scenario in the first place -- and likewise I should be immensely thankful that our RPG hobby, with its emergent and participatory play style, manages to "accidentally" spawn a real and essential discussion of philosophical and ethical issues. That's probably not something you get from a lot of other pastimes.

Am I just hopeless for the mystery-detective-investigation play style? Do you avoid them like I think I might have to in the future? Is Star Frontiers even playable under the Star Law/security theme as laid out in the original rulebooks?


  1. This reminds me of something I do not like about skill systems. I do like skill systems, in general, but I dislike the following situation.

    Thief says, "I check the chest for traps". DM rolls and say, "You don't find anything". Thief says, "Well, I open it up". DM says, "It explodes. You failed to detect the trap".

    Just feels a bit underhanded that the player thought of checking, but they were thwarted by a random roll.

    Now, the above is just a generalized form of the issue. For traps, I do like to actually think out how the trap works and ask specifically what the player is searching for and just give an automatic success if it is possible they could detect it.

    1. Yeah, to some extent I agree -- I play my D&D original-style, where thieves don't have any special "find traps" ability (that responsibility is equally spread out over the whole party). Although I don't think the "describe in detail" method works for more abstract stuff like computer hacking, say.

      More generally in this game, the missed computer skill checks (which were really abysmal rolls) didn't make an immense amount of difference. The real misses were the follow-links that were possibly from the professor or the corporate VP, that the players just totally blanked on asking. I felt pretty crappy about arranging that kind of "think as I thought" puzzle, and I really don't want it to happen again.

    2. The thing I've really come down against is rolls that mean you fail and that's it. My mantra is that failure should cost resources - particularly time.

      So, if someone tries to bash down a door and fails, that causes a roll for random encounters (from noise). Trying to pick a lock takes an exploration turn (and thus eventually a roll for random encounters). But I don't cut them off after an arbitrary number of attempts. The players are free to make as many tradeoffs between their exploration time and getting through this door as they want.

      Not everything works this way. But if I don't have another rigorous system (like attack rolls, saving throws, and reaction rolls) then this is my first guideline for modeling tasks.

  2. Call of Cthulhu is sort of the quintessential mystery rpg game, and this issue of missing key clues has been noted almost since the beginning. So much so, that in recent years an alternate system called Trail of Cthulhu was published who's main claim to fame is that it addresses the issue (fairly successfully, I believe). Looking at mystery fiction as a model, the interesting part is almost never the question of whether or not the detective finds the clue. The interesting part is in the interpretation of the clue and linking it to others - either to eliminate routes of inquiry or to open new ones. So the Trail of Cthulhu system eliminates randomness in discovering clues. Essentially, if you arrive at a scene or speak to a person with a clue, you describe how you employ a plausible investigative skill, expend a resource point from that skill, and the GM provides the clues. Indeed, when I run a mystery I usually go further and eliminate the expenditure of resources and address revealing clues descriptively in a similar fashion to how you handle traps (e.g. if you search the apartment, you find the diary). Only non-essentialy information (e.g. context, motive, history, etc) is gated by a skill roll or specific action.

    But understanding the frustration on the player side of flailing about blindly, I also take the active position of a Raymond Chandler-esque noir writer. If they still don't find the clue, trouble arises that is a result of missed information and implies what was missed. Not in an attempt to enforce some idealized, railroaded "Adventure-Path" narrative but in a desire to provide the players with the information they need to make interesting choices.

    Nonetheless, despite the downbeat ending it sounded like your players DID get to make some interesting, but cruel, choices even with limited information. And at that level I would rate the game a success in my book.

    1. Yeah, I'm glad to hear from an expert on running mystery games. :-) And I'm very thankful to my players here for following through with the game and creating the unexpected ending. Definitely the major disconnect was on the "interpretive" end about where would be a good next place to search or explore.

      I've seen the theory of having "trouble arise" for the PCs if the clue-hunting goes awry, but in a conceit such as the one here, it wouldn't work... the "bad guys" are literally worlds away, and that was kind of the whole point of the plot in question, their being very much above any events on the ground where the PCs are.

      Appreciate the comment!

  3. Is it possible that they didn't realise that it was a mystery game? In your setup you tell them the most important thing that is going on 'the planet will be destroyed in three days by an asteroid'. There is no mystery there.

    Deep Impact and Armageddon are not exactly mystery movies. There is an asteroid coming, let's blow it up. They can worry later about whether it was natural or artificial or how to stop it from happening again.

    I think this is a great article that might help you:

    Also, have you run any mystery games successfully? If so, what made them successful do you think?



    1. Well, I have read that essay, and it was expressly on my mind when I salted this adventure with a multitude (indeed, at least 3) of links to key people or places to search next. But of course, if we're fundamentally on different wavelengths, then my conclusion from this experiment is that it doesn't matter what number of clues I insert. The players don't think like I do, and whatever seems obvious to me is just frustrating for players (times some multiplier). And the fact that I'm spending more time trying to spit out every conceivable clue I can think of, and the players still totally miss them, puts kind of a foul taste in my mouth for the enterprise.

      Truthfully, I don't think I have run any successful mystery games, and this was close to my last attempt at it, thinking something like the "3 clue rule" would finally solve it. So I think I'm pretty much settled back at the start of that essay, "Mystery scenarios in RPGs are a bad idea."