ars ludi

if you asked Ben's brain about gaming, this is what it would say

Surprise, it’s Amazon!

Lulu seems to have unexpectedly cut some kind of cross-publishing deal, so the print version of Evil Genius #1: World Domination is now on Amazon.

Yeah, I was surprised too. I just got an email that they were doing it and spang, there it was. Go figure. Pity they didn’t come up with this plan back when I was releasing M&M stuff. Originally they said there would be a 30% markup (!) of the Lulu price, but they’ve already realized that was a bad idea and reverted it to the normal price.

No Zodiac Ring though…

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.

InSpace blasts off

Beyond man’s small blue world a vast cosmos awaits. What wonders of the universe are yet to be discovered? Is space more grand or terrible than we even imagine? Are we alone?

InSpace is out. You can download it from RPGNow or straight from the Lame Mage website. And yes, it’s free.

Thanks to Shock: by Joshua A.C. Newman for proving you can tackle big sci fi in small games, Geiger Counter by Jonathan Walton for showing our crew that shared authority can be fun, and of course to Jared A. Sorensen for making InSpectres in the first place and turning detective work on its head.

Kudos to the brave crew of the DAUNTLESS (Mike “Stark” Frost, Jem “Conrad” Lewis, Ching-Ping “Kessler” Lin, and Stephen “Duchamps” Scholz) and our other InSpectres gamers from the Third Eye Detectives, the Copernicus Agency, and the Gentlemen of the Royale Arms (Greg Gorden, Chris Haddad, Robert Haskell, and Kevin Lewis).

Now go explore. And if you make it back tell us how it goes.

InSpace Mission Update

The InSpace draft is done and in the hands of bold peer reviewers. With a little luck it should be ready for download in the next few days. It’s packed with just about every iota of wisdom we gleaned from our missions aboard the DAUNTLESS. And what did we learn about playing a good cosmic mystery with InSpectres? You’ll find out soon enough.

Your Mission… InSpace

“Wow,” you say, “life on the DAUNTLESS sure looks exciting! I wish I could navigate deep space and explore the mysteries of the cosmos and roll d6 and stuff!”

Well gnash your teeth no longer. I’ve got the greenlight from Jared Sorensen to release InSpace as a micro-supplement for InSpectres.

InSpace should be ready for download in November. How much will it cost you? Free, as in free. You’ll need the InSpectres rulebook, so if you don’t already have it stop stalling and go buy a copy.

If you don’t think you can stand the wait, use this time constructively to come up with cool names for your ship, because you cannot roam the uncharted reaches of the cosmos without a cool ship name.

It’s a rule.

Dauntless Mission #3: Plague at Prospect Station

Spoiler alert: Like the other DAUNTLESS games, mission three was a lot of fun. Unlike the other missions the story didn’t really wrap up in one neat package. Why not? We accidentally skipped the mid-game pow-wow. Seriously: do not underestimate the power of the pow-wow.

Once again Jem takes the GM helm and Ping and I take the player seats, bringing back Kessler and Hollis from game two, Trapped in the Void. Mike isn’t around so Stark is still absent, leaving Hollis the XO at the helm again.

The DAUNTLESS is responding to a distress call from a remote colony. The colony itself is fine, but a mysterious illness is afflicting the crew of the orbiting Prospect Station. The station is actually the used up old hulk of the colony ship that carried settlers to this planet (which we spontaneously named Valora) years back. It was stripped for parts and left in orbit as a docking station and communication point, manned by a skeleton crew.

So ends the intro. The DAUNTLESS is at 10 franchise dice but we don’t want a super long game, so we settle upon a 12 die mystery.

There’s always a little moment of pause when we look at the total dice needed to solve the mystery. After all, with reasonably good rolls you can win 2 dice with every skill check — you can wrap up a mystery very, very quickly. Sometimes that makes things a little intimidating: everyone’s a little shy to roll the dice and potentially lock-in a chunk of the mystery.

We agree that we’ve already spoken to the surface and gotten the intro, so the focus is on the station. I break the ice and open a hailing frequency to the station (successful Contact check) but narrate that all I get is a recorded message warning anyone to stay away. The tone is unmistakably hostile: they say they’ve sealed the hatches and they’ll repel anyone who tries to board.

So friendly! It’s a recording so we have no idea how long it’s been in place. Kessler makes a sensor sweep of the station (successful Technology check) and announces that the station’s engines are warming up. Ping was clearly paying attention during the intro and is now taking advantage of the fact that the station is actually a decommissioned space ship to put us under a little more time pressure. Thanks Ping!

We’re ready to move in but Jem decides to give us a push and reaches for the Stress dice: there’s a blaring alarm and a crewmen on the scanner yells out that the station has fired a missile at us! There’s a distinct pause, a “why does an old colony ship have missiles?” moment, and after a little consideration Jem re-describes it as some kind of a cargo pod they jury-rigged with boosters to launch it towards us. Crude but dangerous in close orbit. Clearly the act of desperate men. We embrace the idea and prepare to take our lumps.

[GMs take note: Jem certainly could have just said "yes, that is a good question, why do they have missiles? Now duck!" and made the incongruous fact part of the mystery, but after he thought about it for a moment he didn't want to so he edited instead. Either one works, so long as everyone is on the same page about whether what just happened is a) expected or b) unexpected.]

The junk-missile rockets towards the DAUNTLESS and we take evasive action. Kessler gets pummeled with Stress damage, while Hollis remains cool as a cucumber and navigates the ship to a higher orbit where the would-be saboteurs won’t be able to get another shot at them. This becomes an ongoing theme for the game: Kessler takes a total of 5 Stress hits this game and Hollis takes nada, zero, zip.

Space is better with space walks

Leery of more drastic measures by the crew of the station, Hollis orders a boarding party to don vacc suits: they’re going to keep the DAUNTLESS at a safe distance and then space walk over. Yeah it’s true: any chance I get I suggest a space walk. Really, what’s the point of going all the way into space if you aren’t going to go for a walk? Sitting on the bridge reading sensors all day is for sissies.

Since we’ve already been met with hostile force the boarding party is a mix of security and medical personal. It’s still a rescue mission, but everyone is armed and sternly ordered to defend themselves if they have to. Hollis is leading the party personally (of course) and Kessler argues that she should come along to head up the medical team (of course). That’s all just as it should be.

Hollis makes a check for the space walk (successful Athletics). It’s a breeze, but I narrate that even as we drift cautiously towards the silent hulk, what we _don’t_ see is that on the far darkside of the station there are glowing trails criss-crossing the hull, like the luminescent trails of some alien snail. Dum dum dum! Are they only on the far side, or are they only visible in the dark? We don’t know.

After the boarding party touches down and is milling around trying to override one of the cargo airlocks to sneak aboard, Ping decides to drum up some trouble, so she says that while Kessler is standing around taking readings (successful Technology check) she spots a hint of the glowing stuff at the edge of the darkside of the hull and wanders over — alone — to check it out. But just as Kessler’s stooping to take a closer look Ping narrates that the ethereal slime lashes out at her! She yells and recoils and the rest of the party bounds over, but by then there’s no sign of motion. Was it just her imagination? She’s frazzled and her frantic protests that “it moved!” are met with skepticism — no one listens to the person who’s already taken Stress damage on their Contact.

Just like in the last game, I’m secretly angling to show different sides of our characters than we have before. Sure enough, we’re once again in different roles: faced with a medical threat to the crew and the possibility of armed resistance, Hollis is all hard-nosed authority, issuing side-arms to the boarding party and warning them to exercise extreme caution. Kessler wants to go play with goo on the hull, but Hollis is shutting her down and telling her to stick with the plan: the people on board probably need medical attention. They come first.

It’s a flip (again): now Kessler is the idealist (um, scidealist) and Hollis is the close-minded by-the-book commander. After all, he hasn’t seen anything weird yet and she has.

Kessler grumbles but falls in line, reluctantly agreeing to save further goo examinations until the station has been secured and the crew located. Ping doesn’t mind, because at the end of her narration she had already said that though Kessler didn’t notice it, a strand of the goo had reached up and stuck to the back of her suit…

Zombies in the Engine Room

Attentive readers will now notice our mistake: that little chat on the hull was the halfway point. We should have had a pow-wow to theorize about what our characters thought was going on. We did have a good roleplaying interaction, but we never discussed the actual mystery.

Once inside Hollis orders the boarding party to split up into teams and secure the station (successful Contact check). Its spooky creeping through dark hallways with flashlights — still in spacesuits of course — and with my success I narrate that we have to overide the lock on the engine room because a dead crewman has sealed himself inside. The logs show that he set the engines on autopilot to fly the whole station into the sun (as soon as they finish coming online). I also add that he’s not just dead, but whole sections of his body have vanished — they’re still there in some sense, because for example his arm is still attached even though his whole shoulder has faded into non-existence. Are they invisible, warped into some lower dimension but still physically attached? As usual, we don’t know.

Kessler gets the call to come examine him, but as soon as she starts Jem grabs the Stress dice and declares that the not-as-dead-as-we-thought crewman opens his eyes and grabs her. There’s a quick “wait, do you mean he’s alive or do you mean he’s a zombie” dicussion which comes down on the “he’s alive” side. More Stress damage for Kessler and then the hysterical crewman is sedated — which we rapidly decided was probably a dramatic misstep, since asking him what had happened would have been more interesting.

Too late, he’s out. Kessler goes ahead and examines him (successful Academics) and uses her success to narrate a completely unrelated fact that the whole station suddenly starts shuddering. Sneaky duck! Now normally that would be fine, but this is the second to last clue and it doesn’t get us any closer to an answer. We also don’t know if the shuddering is the engines firing up to fly us into the sun or the slime on the hull coming to life godzilla style.

Down to our last mystery dice, Hollis overrides the engines (successful Technology) and forced to wrap-up I describe that the goo on the hull does indeed seem to be reacting to the sudden firing of the engines (the vibrations? the radiation?) but once we cut them off it settles down. It isn’t an intelligent creature, more like a space mold or fungus.

Prospect Station is saved and (theoretically) we’ll be able to tend to the other crew members, assuming we find them. The end, sort of.

“I need closure on that anecdote!”

I know what you’re thinking: that game wrapped up somewhat inconclusively didn’t it? Yep. We didn’t move towards answering the mystery fast enough, so when the last franchise dice got earned we still had a lot of explaining to do. As I mentioned at the outset, a big part of the problem was that we unintentionally glossed over the half-time pow-wow, so instead of solving the mystery in the second half we were still wading through random events.

The details were all there, so I think with a little liberal epilogue we could have wrapped it up if we tried. A fairly simple explanation (in hindsight) is that the goo on the hull was something carried along in space that hit the hull and then spread. The crew either brought it aboard for examination or (more likely) carried it in by mistake while working out on the hull, just like Kessler with the goo on her suit. As far as treating it, we’d already seen that it wasn’t making the hull disappear, so we could have easily narrated that it behaved differently in vacuum than it did in atmosphere.

InSpectres has a rule that you only earn half the franchise dice if you solve the mystery early, and I think the same penalty would fit for solving the mystery late or not at all. On the bright side we already played game four and it was a win: we learned from our mistake and made sure to pow-wow.