The third act of Andy Slack's gaming blog

Archive for June, 2018

The Mearls Hypothesis

“Of all the prep you do, maybe 10% will actually come into play.” – Mike Mearls

Let’s check Mr Mearls’ hypothesis by looking at the Dark Nebula.

  • There are over 50 systems on the Dark Nebula map, and over the last 20 years, only a dozen have been adventure sites rather than just refuelling stops. So about 25% of that work bore fruit.
  • The Arioniad was originally intended as a way to try out settings and explore them before unleashing my players on them; that has been useful twice in the last eight years; about a 2% success rate. It was also intended to avoid skill fade on the Savage Worlds rules; but as I’m using Solo’s higher level of abstraction now, it no longer does that. It has been enormous fun, however.
  • I’ve run through the boardgame about four times in various ways, trying to get the Aslan Border Wars right. None of that work has ever been useful in an adventure beyond the simple idea that there are rival empires on opposite sides of the PCs’ area of operations. 0% success rate.
  • I’ve tried a few times to design assorted starships from the boardgame in different RPG systems. None of them has ever appeared in a game. 0% success rate.

So it looks like Mearls is right, and I could have saved myself a lot of effort by using a published setting. Traveller has something very similar to the Dark Nebula in the form of the Trojan Reach (detailed in the Pirates of Drinax campaign set), and in Savage Worlds, the United Confederation and the Tazanian Empire could stand in for the human and aslan states just by the GM saying so. Nor would it be hard to come up with a way to transfer Arion or the Old Musky into those settings; some sort of ship-scale Ancient stargate, probably.

However, it might not have helped… my plan was to reduce my workload as a GM by consolidating all my SF campaigns into one setting, but actually each group of players moves around in its own little bubble of adventures, NPCs and locations, and there’s not much overlap between those bubbles. They may as well be in different settings for all the work it saves me.

Instead, it looks like my GM workload is driven by the number and size of player groups. I should’ve seen that coming, because that’s why the original Dark Nebula campaign collapsed in the late 90s – this is reassuring, because if I had the same problem 20 years ago, it can’t be caused by advancing age.

At the moment, as Poul Anderson wrote, “Duty calls, in a shrill, unpleasant voice.” But eventually it will be satiated, or shout itself hoarse, and then I shall again consider the best way forward. For now, game on, and I’ll see you on the other side, if spared.

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Arion, Episode 21: The Eye of the Cat

Gazzain, 141-3401

Before parking this game for a while, I wanted to get Arion to a natural break point in the story. This is also the last stop on the railroad before I revert to random developments.

Another onplanet week, so we need a world encounter from p. 58. Today, I’m going with 24 – dangerous encounter with local wildlife.

The gang need a plan (pp 22-25), and it’s shaky and dangerous: Track Schrodinger through the jungle, sneak into his camp and steal the Eye of the Cat. This fails, with a bad consequence of serious injury to Arion…

After a few days resting up and planning at the archaeological dig, and a couple more days dodging Schrodinger’s Gimirri, we find Arion, Coriander and Dmitri moving quietly through the jungle, now equipped with suitable clothing, camping gear, and sidearms.

After a while, the group comes upon a statue of a cat, half-buried and covered in vines.

“Is that what the giant cats look like?” asks Dmitri.

“Yes,” says Coriander. “Except they’re usually more giant. But, it’s a good likeness.”

Arion pulls off vines, pokes and prods in an attempt to find some sort of concealed compartment or secret lever, looks at the markings chiselled into the stone, and at length stands back and mops his brow.

“Just as I thought,” he says. “I have no idea what this means. Coriander, do you know anything about these statues?”

“No,” she admits. “Not that will help us, anyway.”

The trio move off, deeper into the jungle.

At length, Arion and his compadres emerge into a clearing. This has a couple of tents, a campfire, and a large open space – big enough to land a small freighter in. Schrodinger is at a ruined altar atop a small knoll. He holds aloft what appears to be a fist-sized green emerald; he is flanked on one side by a Dinobastis of prodigious size, and a group of half a dozen Gimirri with their trademark ayloi form a professional-looking defensive perimeter around him.

“The Gimirri go after those things with ayloi?” says Dmitri. “They’re tougher than I thought.”

Warned by some instinct, or more likely his psionic powers, Schrodinger turns towards them, throws his head back, and laughs.

“Excellent! You’ve brought a sacrifice for my beauties, or should I say a snack? Behold the Eye of the Cat; as prophesied in the Green Book of the Gimirri, I am now the Master of Two Beasts!” The Gimirri make a ritual gesture with their ayloi, and move to place themselves between Schrodinger and the adventurers.

“Two beasts?” Dmitri mutters. “Where’s the other one?”

“You are honoured, Arion, Dmitri!” Schrodinger continues. “You have a place in history forever now! For you shall be the first to fall before the new order! Kill them, my beauties, and feast on the fallen!” He gestures the Dinobastis forward.

There is a thunderclap, and four armed men in tactical black suddenly appear at Arion’s back. He turns around, and starts to open his mouth to ask obvious questions; but the leader of the group nods to Coriander, and says brusquely: “We’re telepaths. She’s a telepath. We can teleport. Try to keep up.”

Arion closes his mouth and draws his pistol. Schrodinger points at the group and utters an inarticulate roar. The Dinobastis appears to understand all the same; it surges forward at improbable speed and pounces on the leader of the psions in black, tearing him apart while Dmitri and Coriander duck into cover among the nearby trees. A second Dinobastis leaps on the men in black from the rear, killing one instantly. Arion and the two surviving guards shift position and open fire, but the Dinobastis shrug off the 10mm caseless like gnat bites.

“Come on!” Coriander says to Dmitri. “If we can get behind Schrodinger we can get the Eye and turn the Dinobastis on him!”

Both Dinobastis are now slashing about them with abandon; Arion catches a claw and flies through the air, only stopping when he hits a tree. He slumps to the ground at its roots, unconscious, while the Dinobastis tuck in to psi-cop on the bone.

“Arion!” calls Coriander, raising a hand to her mouth.

“Time to go,” says Dmitri. “We can’t win here. We’ll radio for help, come back for him later.”

“That’ll be too late!”

The Dinobastis are stalking towards Arion when they suddenly turn towards Schrodinger, as if summoned, and start padding away. The Vegan’s Dream appears over the jungle canopy and lands; the Gimirri herd the two giant cats aboard, and Schrodinger stalks up the ramp after them. As the freighter lifts off, Dmitri and Coriander run over to Arion; the slashes in his torso close and heal under her hands.

Dmitri raises an eyebrow. “Laying on of hands, huh?”

“Cheirotonia,” she corrects him, absently. Arion stirs and wakes.

“How are you doing?” Dmitri asks.

“I’ve been better,” Arion admits, gesturing at his ruined clothing. “But you should see the other guy. I don’t suppose you managed to take down Schrodinger or get the Eye back?” Shaken heads and downcast glances are answer enough.

“Well then, I suppose Schrodinger gets his seat on the Council. We’ll have to do something about that. Just as soon as we get out of this jungle…”

GM Notes

Much as I wanted to tell the story of how the group came together, in hindsight it would have been better to start them off together like a normal group of PCs, and use Savage Worlds Interludes to tell that story in flashback; and if I do something like this again, I’ll use that approach.

The crew are mostly archetypes from pp. 18-19 of Savage Worlds Deluxe; Arion is a Pilot with the extra skill point in Knowledge (Astrogation), Dmitri is a straight-up Investigator, and Coriander is a Face who swapped Strong-Willed for Arcane Background: Psionics, with boost/lower trait, healing, and mind reading, and Taunt for Psionics. Arion’s Hindrances are Heroic, Loyal and Outsider; Coriander has Clueless (due to being raised in isolation by the Psionics Institute), Loyal and Wanted; and Dmitri has Curious, Loyal and Wanted.

There’s one plot thread that hasn’t really been teased out yet, and that is why Arion is indebted to Captain Anderson even though they clearly dislike each other. Maybe he learns Coriander’s secret and uses that as leverage? That’s the best idea I’ve come up with yet, but I have about six months to figure it out, as if they follow their current flight plan, it’ll be the end of the year before Arion & Co. are back at Mizah.

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