After our last excellent InSpectres game (the Matter of the Missing Mummy -or- the Case of the Peripatetic Pharaoh) we decided to take it out for another spin and see what else we could do with it.
If you’re unfamiliar with InSpectres, the idea is that it takes traditional game structure and flips it on its head. The GM creates the starting point of a mystery (“there are strange lights in the old Crowley manor!”) but the GM doesn’t decide what is really going on. Really. The GM doesn’t know any more than the players do. The players come up with ways to investigate the mystery (“I’ll sneak into the basement after dark!”) and if they make the skill roll, they _make up_ what they find and how that reveals the answer to the mystery (“Ummm, I stumble against a bookcase that opens a secret door to a room with a radio and a codebook in German. Crowley must be a Nazi agent!”). You’re not just rolling for narrative control of what happens, you’re deciding what reality was in the first place. If all goes well the pieces each player adds creates a coherent answer to the puzzle.
The game is written for a Ghostbusters-like paranormal investigation setting, and it would obviously work well for any mundane detective work game, but since we weren’t interested in playing those we wondered what else could you do with it. Obviously there had to be a central question, a hidden plot that the players were revealing/creating. The question had to be overt at the onset so everyone was on the same page.
We decided to try it with a cerebral “mysteries of space” game, in the tradition of 2001, Solaris, Ringworld, and Contact. After we nailed down a vague setting all the GM had to do for each game was come up with a strange cosmic phenomena or an inexplicable alien artifact and we’re good to go!
We decide to make the characters the key crew members of the space vessel DAUNTLESS. Despite its bellicose name the DAUNTLESS is not a military ship, it is a science vessel committed to exploration. Its fearlessness is of the unknown, the mysteries of uncharted space, the wonders of the limitless universe. After all, this isn’t going to be an action game, it’s a cosmic wonders game.
The characters are:
Stark — seasoned veteran, decisive commander in a crisis, and as it turns out human supremacist (an older but possibly more rigid James T. Kirk) / Mike
Conrad — optimistic thrill-seeker, in love with the excitement of space and theoretically lucky with the ladies (best misquote of the game “I’d rather first base than first contact”) / Jem
Dr. Miranda Kessler — incurable scidealist, unstoppable once she gets an idea in her head (think Jodie Foster’s character from Contact). Why does Kessler have a first name when no one else does? We don’t know / Ping
These characters are in charge, but the ship has a crew of maybe a hundred or so because we want to be able to narrate big science things like building whole space stations, sending out survey teams, etc. For the confessional seat we substitute personal entries in the ship’s log — a perfect fit.
To start the game I throw out a mission briefing: urgent messages are coming from the terraforming colony on Telos-3. The planet’s rotation is slowing down, and the deceleration is increasing.
How is such a thing possible? The sheer energy involved to slow down a planet is staggering. Could it be a natural yet unexplained phenomena or is something else at work? That’s the point: I have no idea.
Whatever the cause, it could lead to catastrophic seismic activity in the planet’s crust. The colony includes twenty thousand people and there are no ships nearby to evacuate that many people. The DAUNTLESS is the only ship in the area, so EarthGov is diverting them to investigate and render whatever assistance they can. Other help is on the way, but there is no guarantee it will be in time.
[From a GMing point of view this was "mystery of space" with an added motivation to rescue the colonists. I could just as easily have made the planet uninhabited and kept it pure scientific investigation, and in the future I probably would, but a more pressing situation seemed a good place to start.]
To start off the action, Dr. Kessler makes a careful examination of the initial data sent from the colony. Ping makes her Academics check and narrates that she finds unexpected concentrations of gas in the planet’s atmosphere — the atmosphere was only semi-breathable in these early stages of terraforming, but these gases seemed incongruous with the natural atmosphere of the planet or the breathable atmosphere being expelled by the terraforming plants (fact #1).
Dropping out of lightspeed the DAUNTLESS shudders violently (Stress!). Conrad’s skillful piloting saves the ship and brings it into normal space in one piece (Technology success), and he narrates that the turbulence was caused by gravitic interference emanating from Telos’s second moon, unfelt in normal space but sufficient to cause dangerous ripples for a vessel coming out of lightspeed (fact #2).
Stark contacts the nervous colony and assures them that help is underway. Kessler leads a survey team down to the surface to take further samples of the strange gas (failed Technology) but winds up lost in the thick fogs after communication and transponder links are blocked by strange interference.
Meanwhile Stark and Conrad land a vacc-suited team on the barren second moon. Delving into the deep lunar caves (successful Athletics), the team finds strange glowing crystals in a grotto far below the moon’s surface… just before piercing electromagnetic waves shriek out from the crystal, overloading their suit communications and driving the hapless explorers to their knees (think the lunar monolith scene from 2001 — the skill check was actually a complete success, but having the strange crystals lash out was just too cool to pass up so Mike voluntarily narrated this as part of his victory).
We’re at 5 out of 10 franchise dice meaning the mystery is half-solved, so following the lessons learned from the Case of the Missing Mummy we narrate a half-time pow wow. Kessler and her team have slogged out of the wilderness and made it back to the ship, and the never-say-die Stark managed to drag away his incapacitated crew members, and even take away a sample of the crystal in the process (hey, he won the skill check after all, and making a second trip just to get a sample would be boring).
Back aboard the DAUNTLESS the characters compare notes (and fish for story consensus). The players take the chance to amp up the roleplaying and start an ideological slap fight. Everyone had forgotten about the confessional during the first half of the game, but as the discussion heated up suddenly confessionals are flying left and right (well, one per scene, but every scene without fail). Kessler won’t let a theory go once she latches on to it! Conrad is dangerously naive! Stark pretends to be open to establishing contact with undiscovered alien races, but really he just wants to make sure humanity stays on top. He’s a human supremacist, a space racist!
Tempers flare. Kessler is strongly in the “clearly these crystals are signs of an alien presence, and we should try to communicate rather than destroy them” camp, and Stark is in the “thousands of lives are at stake! To hell with first contact!” camp. Lover-not-fighter Conrad is embarrassingly misquoted as saying “I’d rather first base than first contact.”
Kessler analyzes the crystal sample in the lab (successful Academics, burning a franchise die to increase her odds) and discovers an energy field linking the crystals on the moon with crystals buried all over the surface of the planet! See! Signs of intelligence, rants Kessler.
Stark says screw it and orders an examination of the energy matrix to see if there’s some way to disrupt it (successful Technology, kicking in his decisive command talent). We still have a strange mix of clues, and Mike’s success puts us at 9 out of 10, but he pulls it all together and narrates that while examining the energy matrix they discover that it’s actually a communication system, that the crystals on the moon are sending instructions to the crystals on the planet and collecting data from them. The whole matrix is actually an alien terraforming system, placed here who knows how long ago. When the human terraforming plants started changing the atmosphere, the alien system went into overdrive to correct and push the atmosphere the other way. War of the terraforming systems! That explains the strange gases (expelled from the alien system). The alien system draws its power from the rotation of the planet itself, so when it went into overdrive to counter the Terran terraforming it literally drained the momentum from the planet.
Big points for Mike, and normally that would wrap up the mystery (a premature wrap-up actually, which would be bad), but in this case knowing the answer doesn’t solve the problem of how to save the colonists. They try to follow it up with a signal to interrupt the matrix, but that fails and starts a crystal meltdown. Oops.
Dr. Kessler jumps in with an urgent communication to the colonists to “shut them all down!” (successful Contact). If you can’t stop the alien system, take away the counterforce: without the gases released by the Terran terraforming (possibly even reversing the systems, but we didn’t get into that) the alien system has no reason to escalate, dropping back to a fairly stable state and buying time to evacuate the colonists. Victory!
The verdict? A solid win for InSpectres in space. We’ll be sending the Dauntless out to explore more cosmic mysteries soon.
update: the free InSpace supplement for InSpectres is done so you can play it yourself