Dauntless Mission #4: the Ruby Aurora

The DAUNTLESS flies again! This was literally a “just finishing breakfast, sitting around in our pajamas, saying hey we could play a quick game of InSpace” kind of deal. As usual in less than two hours we had crafted an entire gripping story arc out of nothing and then sat back and admired the game’s beauty and patted ourselves on the back. Which is why InSpectres (and no-prep games in general) rocks so hard.

Ping ran the game, with me and Steve playing. He was an InSpectres newbie, which I point out because you would never know from reading how well the game went — fishes to water, etc. We also had technical assistance from our special science advisor, the eponymous Ruby. We played this game a little while back (before I released InSpace) so I may be fudging some of the details.

Paging Dr. Ego

I’m playing Hollis again and Steve is joining in with Dr. Pierre Duchamps. Duchamps is not part of the regular DAUNTLESS crew — he’s a visiting mission specialist, the chief scientist in charge of his own team preparing to deploy a gravitic space telescope to observe the interaction of two gas giants.

At first glance Duchamps is the worst kind of scientist. He’s an arrogant tyrant, more concerned with furthering his grants and his reputation than with finding answers. As far as he’s concerned the DAUNTLESS is just a taxi service to get him where he needs to go — Hollis may be the X-O but as far as Duchamps is concerned, his experiment is the top priority of the ship. His special talent is “cost benefit analysis,” as in “will this project make me look good?”

This is excellent stuff because in addition to an authority conflict it sets up a ideological schism between Hollis and Duchamps, which as we’ve said before is a very good thing. As usual we’re planning on a halftime huddle and we’re writing on the table so everyone can keep track of the emerging answer to the mystery.

Ping starts us off: the DAUNTLESS is en route to the site where Duchamps’ telescope is to be deployed, but we’ve spotted a strange phenomenon on the fifth planet of the Ruby star system: an unidentified aurora hangs over one of the planet’s poles, just outside the atmosphere. That’s all we know, and since it’s InSpectres that’s all Ping knows either — we’ll make up the answer to the mystery as we uncover it.

I get the ball rolling by having Hollis order the sensor officer to make the obligatory scan (successful Contact check) and I narrate that the shape of the cloud doesn’t seem to match the magnetic pole — something else must be causing it. Duchamps elbows his way in and fine-tunes the sensors (successful Technology check) and Steve adds that the cloud is filled tiny debris or particles — physical matter not just gas or some energy field. Like I said, it didn’t take Steve long to get the hang of the system.

Initially Duchamps bristles at the idea of a delay (“your mission, Commander, is to get me where I’m going”) but now that the aurora looks like it might be something interesting he’s willing to consider a detour. Who knows, it could something he could name after himself?

Hollis decides to bring the ship in for a closer look. How close? asks Ping. Real close, I say. Probably dangerously close. Ping grins and describes how as the DAUNTLESS approaches, energy flashes out from the cloud. Stress dice!

As the ship is reeling in the turbulence, arcs sparking from control panels, Hollis pulls himself to the helm to get the ship back under control (successful Athletics check). While everyone else is on the floor he sees the flashes on the view screens aren’t just random, they appear to form geometric patterns like flickering cubes in space. [Yep, I made an Athletics check to resist the turbulence but once I made the roll I used it to narrate something totally unrelated. That’s how it works.]

Just to make things interesting I also narrate that instead of veering away from the cloud, I am forced to pilot through it, putting the DAUNTLESS in the high atmosphere between the planet and the aurora. Can we escape without going back through the cloud? At this point we don’t know. For now we’re parked in a low orbit doing damage control, with the glittering aurora filling the sky above us.

That’s no ordinary space cloud…

Fictional hours go by as we get damage reports and make sure the ship is operational. Duchamps spends the time in his lab analyzing the patterns Hollis spotted in the cloud (successful Academics check) and finds recurring sequences of prime numbers — 11,000 of them! There is no way that could happen by chance. His lab peons are freaking out (Stress!) but Duchamps whips them back into shape.

We’re halfway through the mystery dice, so we stage the halftime huddle: there’s still sharp tension between Hollis and Duchamps, so they have a secret meeting to discuss the situation without having to posture for authority.

To push Steve into a tight (i.e. interesting) spot I declare that the sensor array project Duchamps is in charge of could probably provide much better readings on the aurora, but it needs to be assembled in space to operate and it’s a one time thing — you can’t just take it down again and pack it up. If we assemble it here, we’ll be unable to observe the gas giant conjunction the whole project was funded to study. He’ll be in hot water. It could, I say, end Duchamps career. Naturally I can’t (nudge, nudge) ask him to make that sacrifice (nudge, nudge).

There’s a gleam in Duchamps’ eye as he strokes his beard, then he antes up — he’s in. Duchamps started off as an egomaniacal jerk, but as we talk it looks like this discovery might be awakening an idealistic streak in him (more on that later). Hollis and Duchamps shift from adversaries to co-conspirators.

“We are not alone…”

If you’ve read the other InSpace mission reports, you know what comes next: space walk! Duchamps and his team suit up to deploy the sensor array, monitored by Hollis from the bridge of the DAUNTLESS.

After a suitable construction montage the sensor is powered up so the data can be piped back to the ship, but as Hollis is monitoring the situation from the bridge (successful Technology check) it looks like something has made the cloud unstable — it’s orbit is rapidly decaying. The array was originally defined as a gravitic lens. Did that interaction cause the change? Or was it something built into the cloud by design?

We don’t know, but it’s too late now — Hollis orders Duchamps to get his team back to safety aboard the ship. Duchamps sends his team back, but refuses to leave until he can finish calibrating the comm link so the DAUNTLESS can get any data the sensor collects before the aurora collapses. [I think this the point where we got hit with more Stress and Duchamps wound up getting a point of Cool, which was just too poetic.]

As often happens, we got so into the action we forgot about the confessional, but as Hollis is barking at Duchamps to get back to the ship before it’s too late, Steve jumps up and narrates a flashback of a younger, energetic Pierre Duchamps fiercely arguing the virtues of science before a cynical academic board, years and years ago. He wasn’t always a manipulative glory-hound — he was an idealist once.

The moment he finishes, I jump up and segue into my own confessional of Hollis in his quarters before the mission began, reading Duchamps’ record and reviewing an old vid recording of the very scene Steve just narrated. Hollis wonders aloud to his personal log about the man Duchamps had become. Could a man who was once so passionate about finding the truth ever really change? Could that idealism inside him ever really die entirely? Hollis doesn’t believe it (tagging Duchamps with the “scidealist deep down inside” characteristic). So that becomes the subtext for the entire game that preceded — Hollis has been watching all along to see if Duchamps was still the man he once was, if that idealism was still deep inside him. Which fit perfectly.

[And yeah I know, only one confessional per scene, but I figured I was technically extending Steve’s confessional instead of making a separate one. So there.]

Back in the present, as the cloud decays and particles cascade across the hull, the DAUNTLESS tries to pick up the communications from the sensor but fails (failed Contact check).

Floating alone in space, the particles raining down around him, Duchamps refuses to let it go and plugs directly into the array, analyzing the data on his suit computer (successful Technology check). Steve narrates that he finds a message encoded in the cloud, left behind by the intelligence created it, but with the aurora coming apart around him he only has time to relay one brief message to the ship: “WE ARE NOT ALONE.” And then the particles of the aurora rain down on the planet, burning up in the atmosphere and destroying the message.

Dr. Duchamps, caught in the cascading energy of the decaying cloud, takes the secret of the Ruby V Aurora to his grave.

What’s for lunch?

As usual we finish, look up, and are pretty amazed to find we’ve been playing for less than two hours. That’s dense gaming goodness.

Having Duchamps die was a perfect end to the game. There’s nothing in the rules that made it happen, we just decided it seemed right: he’s completed his character arc, he solved the mystery, and he died happy. It makes the story that much more serious and meaningful. Double points for personally finding the answer but keeping it mysterious.

    Ben Robbins | January 20th, 2009 | InSpectres, what we played | leave a comment