I thought I’d talk about gaming. Specifically roleplaying. Partly because it’s always been an activity close to my heart, but also because I’ve actually done some of it again for the first time in… far too long. For somebody who still identifies himself as a roleplayer, I’ve done precious little actual playing lately.
My girlfriend has been going to the London Indie RPG Meetup for a while, and it’s had my interest too. I decided that I’d skip out of another regular SF meet I go to along. It’s annoying that they clash, but what can I do! I’m extremely glad I did, as I got a chance to not only play a rather cool new game, but I also got a chance to try out my first go at a GM-less RPG.
In this case, the game was Our Last, Best Hope. It’s a game in which the players make up a team, mostly of scientific or techie types, and then try to resolve a major crisis that will otherwise kill everybody. The game does make the case that we’re dealing with cinematic science here, rather than real science – there’s no reason it couldn’t be real science, but it would make it a bit harder to play, with all the fact checking, peer-review and academic / intellectual property bickering. I had enough of that when I was a real scientist.
Yes, I really was a real scientist for a bit – I worked on Artificial Intelligence and everything!
The game comes with three mission books, which aren’t traditional game scenarios as such – they’re just a bunch of stuff you can pull together to make a game around a particular theme, or which you can generate a scenario from with dicerolls. For our game we dismissed Zombie Apocalype as slightly done-to-death right now (heh) and declined the Snowy Apocalypse in favour of a Space themed apocalypse.
Choosing to let the dice decide on our crisis and run from there, we basically ended up with the premise of Sunshine. We decided to run with that and leave the nonsense premise of “the sun’s going to suddenly go out, let’s restart it by going there and throwing Science! at it” firmly in place.
We then got to introduce a few game elements that we could call on for bonuses and flavour and very loosely specify the first few threats we’d encounter (not the order, though). These were along the lines of each picking who in the crew makes us crazy, who keeps us sane, what secret we’re keeping, what resources we have to hand, etc… Calling on these in play would give us bonuses when dealing with threats. Example threats introduced were “Saboteur”, “Damaged solar shield” and “Microscopic Hull Breach”.
All of these things were written on cards, which were either placed in the centre of the table, in front of us as players or, in the case of threats, bundled into a deck to be drawn from as required.
How it works
The way the game works is that first we’re thrown an initial starting situation, which leads into the first scene. Scenes are led by each player in turn, and that player gets to frame it – setting where it takes place, who’s in it, when it takes place, etc… The scene then plays out for a little while before a specified player decides to interrupt events with the first threat. Those in the scene then decide who’s tackling the threat and the mechanics take over, with various skills, cards and story points being played to affect the dicerolls to resolve it. Resolution of the threat can lead to various dice being added to the crisis pool, affecting the probabilities of how the final endgame will play out – those dice can either be good dice or bad dice, depending on how things go.
For us, the game started with a randomly thrown curveball to get things rolling – a fatal virus that’s killed a fifth crewmember, leading us into the first scene. Since I was playing the doctor, that fell in my court… leaving me with a choice of how to deal with the situation and what to do with the body. So I started a scene in the highly advanced medical bay (which I’d introduced as an asset earlier) with the plan of “take samples, then put the body in a vented airlock to stop it spreading”. I pulled our engineer in to assist, as he was the character who kept me sane, allowing me to play my “keeps me sane” card and get some extra story points. We were getting somewhere with that when the first threat was introduced – a hull breach!
Because the rulebook tells us that threats need to be immediate threats rather than long, drawn out ones… they often got resolved only in the immediate sense. Some of them were addressed not by solving the problem, but by postponing it so it wasn’t a problem right now.
Each time a threat was resolved, a new one was written and added to the pool of future threats. Some of these new threats were actually revivals of old ones. For example, we had a recurring saboteur on board, and the virus from the first scene came back a couple of times. The immediacy of these threats allowed up to keep pressing on with a story, rather than it feeling like we were getting bogged down in an series of episodic threats. We actually ended up with two or three core threads of threat running through the game, which was pretty cool.
As an example, the first time we dealt with the saboteur, they were just driven off into the bowels of the ship rather than being an immediate threat at the airlock. They came back two or three times, and I even ended up playing him in a scene later on, allowing me to decide his motives as he was interrogated.
A game of two halves
When a certain number of dice have been added to the crisis pool, the game moves on to act two. In act two, the threats become tougher, but there are less of them. Everyone now just gets one more scene, and when that’s done and those threats are resolved… we face the crisis. It was in act two that I think I some of the best stuff happened. Which, given how things started for me in in the second act, might be seen as surprising.
My character died in the first scene of act two.
I was faced with a threat so tough that I couldn’t address it alone – the failure of our radiation shield. We didn’t have enough story points to bring anybody else in to resolve the threat, and my skills weren’t going to help. But there was another mechanic that helped out. Death Cards. These work in one of three ways, as far as I can tell.
Death cards were given out at random at the start, and each describes the nature of a death. We knew what was on our cards, but nobody else did.
If you die due to taking a lot of harm then you can play your death card. If your death matches what’s on the card then you die resolving the threat. If your death doesn’t match what’s on the card then you can cheat death and cash in your card to fix your harm and continue. But there’s a third option.
If it’s clear that a threat is going to kill you, and you can make the death on the card fit the scene? Then you get to have that death in a positive way that’ll put a pile of good dice onto the crisis. Choosing noble sacrifice helps the team resolve the final crisis in a positive way.
When faced with a damaged solar shield causing us to be bathed in killer radiation, I was the only one able to act… and nothing I could do would fix the problem. So I decided that I’d play my “you will die by your own hand” death card – opting to die carrying all of my crewmates to the one bit of the ship that was still shielded, giving my life that they might live.
Of course, because scenes can be (or can include) flashbacks, my death didn’t keep me out of the game!
As an example of still being in the game, one of the later threats was that the Sun Ignition Device was damaged… and that threat was resolved in a flashback scene. We played out how, before the mission launched, I’d been the one who persuaded the inventor of the device (one of the other PCs on the ship) that he had to go on the mission in case the device was damaged. This meant that this threat didn’t get resolved by action at the time, but just by the relevant character being there and inspired to fix the device. I was able to contribute to his resolution of the threat by my inspiring words before we even launched!
By choosing this way out, it appeared that I managed to start a trend. Two of the other PCs also died heroically in the final act, leaving just one to face the final crisis. With hindsight, we think that he possibly should have actually died in his final scene too, but we weren’t rewinding and fixing mistakes that went against us, so we didn’t rewind that either.
The final challenge our one survivor faced was the challenge of being alone at the end of the world, driven mad by isolation… which he pushed through admirably and was actually able to launch the Sun Ignition Device into the star and survive to tell the tale.
What I didn’t like:
I thought the pacing suffered at times, and it took me quite a while to get a hang on the structure of the games turns, scenes, cycles, threats, and so on. That said, I think I’d got a grip on it towards the end and I think it’d run more smoothly later.
My problem with pacing also got less severe as things moved on. As I understand from the chap who’d brought the game along, ours was a particularly slow starting game, and usually act one gets moving a bit faster.. Again, I think some of that was down to our inexperience rather than the game itself.
I feel that the GM-less-ness may have contributed to that, in that a GM in “facilitator-mode” can help smooth over those problems and keep the pace moving, whereas in a GM-less game that’s not an option. I’m mostly going to put that down to teething troubles, though, and a more experienced group probably wouldn’t have this problem quite so much
What I did like:
Pretty much everything else.
The game was fun from beginning to end, and when it did drag a bit it was easily resolved by introducing new threats. I liked the way that the game pulled in all the tropes from the “small group of scientists / engineers / space miners / doctors / soldiers must save the world when nobody else can” genre and folded them in together. I liked the way that flashbacks could be used to keep characters in the game after their death.
I liked the way that character death was handled, particularly the way that character defining heroic death was explicitly rewarded by the game and made to matter.
Would I buy it?
I already have. I was reading the PDF the evening after playing the game, and have a print copy winging its way across the oceans as I type.
What ideas did it give me?
Along with a host of ideas that could be played with the existing missions (space, zombies, snow) I can now see plenty of other options based on an assortment of films.
To name a couple of examples:
- Global supercomputer out of control – (Wargames, Colossus: The Forbin Project)
- Plague – (The Andromeda Strain, Survivors)