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.
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?