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Archive for the ‘Arioniad’ Category

Arioniad – Season 1 Retrospective

This year, I’ve run 40 episodes of the Arioniad using a mashup of Savage Worlds, Mongoose Traveller 2, and Zozer Games’ Solo. Here, I’ll focus on how Solo works as a game engine, and what else I’ve learned from the experiment.

Solo

As a solitaire game engine, Solo works very well. Although designed to support Traveller, it doesn’t ask for much from those rules; give it a starport class and a law level for each world you visit, and it’s happy. As far as characters go, Solo asks only that you know whether a given PC is an asset or a hindrance for your latest cunning plan, and abstracts physical, social and mental combat into a couple of dice rolls. I especially like the way it’s possible to fail in a lucky way, or succeed at a cost.

The central mechanic, the Plan, is completely portable to any solitaire RPG, although the situations it exists to resolve are driven by Solo’s encounter and event tables, and those are tied to space opera, so for fantasy or horror you’d need to modify them.

At this point it’s taking me about half an hour to run through each episode, making it ideal to slot into lunch breaks at work or those odd slots while dinner is cooking or I’m waiting for the shower water to heat up. No more than five minutes of that is dice rolling and looking up tables; most of it is figuring out what narrative ties the dice rolls together. This suits me very well.

Other Lessons

Sticking to a rigid weekly schedule of posts, with one game week per real week, did bring home just how big space is, but meant that sometimes I’ve ignored things that looked interesting, or written a post about a situation I wasn’t really inspired by, just to keep things moving at a self-imposed pace. In a group game, having a regular ‘drumbeat’ keeps things fresh in the players’ minds and simplifies scheduling the next session; but these are not required for a solitaire game, so it would be better to discard this constraint, and let the dice take me where they will, at their own pace.

In a year of wandering, Arion has visited 13 systems out of the 52 on the map, and of those 13, maybe 6 have the potential for further adventures. Even as their creator, I must admit that very few of these systems are going to interest me long-term, and a lot of gaming time is expended travelling across multiple uninteresting systems to the next scenario. The Savage Worlds approach, where every world is one jump away from every other world, makes a lot of sense from that perspective; otherwise, it’s better to press Fast Forward occasionally and zip the PCs across the map to the next obvious plot point, like Indiana Jones.

Having an overarching metaplot, in this case the Aslan Border Wars, is neither necessary nor desirable. It generates more work without any real benefits, and this is especially true for the solitaire player. All I actually needed to know was that Arion is based on a rich trade hub world in the no-man’s-land between two rival states.

Where Next?

I think Arion needs to lie fallow for a while now, as I feel a little burned out. He will return, no doubt, as he and his little band are my favourite characters, and I generally prefer science fiction to fantasy. There are a number of options.

As far as rules go, the Savage Worlds/Traveller mashup works very well, since each game has rules I can use to replace areas I dislike in the other; I prefer Savage Worlds for characters and combat, Traveller for ships and worlds. Stars Without Number has superior rules to both in a number of areas, notably world generation, but doesn’t mash up easily with either of them. Solo needs only minor tweaks to work with any of them. Fringe Space is another option; it doesn’t mash up well with anything, but being completely self-contained, it doesn’t need to.

Turning to settings, while one can always create homebrew settings, they’re a lot of work for very little reward. This means Traveller and Fringe Space have an edge; Traveller luxuriates in richly-detailed published settings, and Fringe Space has an emergent setting which is created organically during play. Stars Without Number has no published setting to speak of, and I struggle to get my head around SW’s Last Parsec.

So, it’s most likely that when Arion returns, it will be a Savage Worlds/Solo/Traveller mashup again, somewhere in or around the Third Imperium. Fringe Space is the second most likely, with Stars Without Number in third place.

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Arion, Episode 40: Fast Forward

Ten weeks later…

Mizah, 343-3401

Aksunar Karagoz looks up from his desktop, currently displaying choice selections from Arion’s report, and gazes across the desk at Arion, Coriander and Dmitri.

“That’s quite a story,” he says at length. “So to summarise, there’s a previously unknown alien race at Karpos, which wasn’t there when the Rule of Man set up their base on the system; Confed is involved in a low-key, covert war with them, for unknown reasons; and everywhere rimward of Bulan is overrun with pirates and smugglers. That about cover it?”

“Pretty much,” Arion agrees.

“How much should we worry about these aliens?”

“They didn’t seem that hostile, to be honest. The drone data suggests Karpos is a military outpost for them, but they haven’t shown any interest in expanding coreward. Given the numbers they have and the technology we saw, a handful of Confed patrol corvettes wouldn’t hold them off; if I had to guess, I’d say they’re waiting for something.”

“Do you know what?”

“No idea, sorry,” Arion shrugs.

Karagoz taps his teeth thoughtfully with a thumb. “We all know it’s only a matter of time before Confed and the Hierate start fighting. Maybe these new aliens are co-belligerents with the aslan? One gets all the Earthlike worlds, the other gets all the Venus-like worlds?”

Arion spreads his hands, gesturing to indicate “I don’t know.” Karagoz sighs.

“Well, get some rest. The Dolphin will be in drydock for at least two weeks, maybe three, for annual maintenance – you’re on leave until that’s over. Have fun, relax, and come back in the new year. You might want to drop in on the Archive and see Isabella.”

“Who’s Isabella?” asks Coriander with an edge in her voice.

“Umm, this girl I know… no, listen, I can explain…”

Elsewhere

In a darkness lit only by the glow of monitor screens, a female voice speaks.

“Well, that one moves like he’s got a purpose. Are you going to promote him to level two?”

“Not yet,” replies a male voice. “Let’s give him a run in a different environment first, see how he copes with that.”

“You know, every run increases the risk that he figures out what’s going on.”

“That’s why I steered him towards Coriander early on. He’s one of the least introspective agents ever, and when he’s focused on her, the odds of him working anything out by himself are low enough to be acceptable.”

“I hope so. Remember the last one that went rogue? It took forever to dig him out. And I’m not sure we got him even then, he could still be out there.”

“Yeah, well, we do select for resourcefulness. That’s a double-edged blade.”

GM Notes

There’s nothing I want to focus on between Bulan and Mizah, so rather than slog through the intervening systems I decided to fast forward to Mizah and set the game aside until I’ve figured out what would be the most fun to do next.

However, I’ve learned quite a bit from this season’s antics, so a retrospective seems in order; watch out for that next week.

Arion, Episode 39: No Show

Bulan, 273-3401

  • World encounter (p.58-60): A crime, but we manage to avoid losing anything.
  • Plan (p. 23): Go hang out at the Birdwatchers bar, drop off a package in the agreed dead drop, and see what happens. That’s a shaky, dangerous plan. A roll of 9 shows it fails, but further rolls of 11 and 5 show that there was a good outcome, specifically it took half the expected time.

“This isn’t likely to work,” says Dmitri, over boat drinks at the Birdwatchers. “The are at least two groups looking for Ihsan; one wants him dead – probably us too, because they have to assume we’ve found out what he knows – and the other knows he’s the better part of two months late for the rendezvous and their contact on Changa is blown. Either of them might have people here watching to see who shows up, but the smart move would be to roll up their network and start over.”

“Just put that back in my pocket and walk away,” Arion says, and turns to look at a local urchin. “These are my party clothes and I don’t want to get blood on them again. Understand?” The child turns to run, but before he can get away, Arion grabs him by the wrist and takes back his wallet.

“You’re new at this, aren’t you?” Dmitri asks the urchin. “Look, if you’re going to pick pockets, you need friends to box in the target and distract him.” He reaches into his own wallet and pulls out a note. “Here, get yourself something to eat, you’ll think better.” The urchin takes the note and runs off.

“And you, Arion,” Dmitri says, “Follow the local rules please. Most places where they still use cash and have pickpockets, the done thing is to leave a low-value note visible in one back pocket. That gets taken, and nobody gets their head smashed in with a pipe. Think of it as a toll.”

“Come on,” says Coriander. “Dmitri’s right, we’ve been here hours and no-one has shown up. Ihsan, you sure you want to stay on Bulan?”

“Yes. Look at it – it’s beautiful. Warm weather, beaches, boat drinks…”

“You sure you’ll be okay?”

“Sure. I’m a good mechanic. Everyone needs a mechanic sooner or later.”

Dmitri adds a cautionary note. “Ihsan, one thing. See all those guys with the high, tight haircuts? And the big lizards? Confed marines. If I were you, I’d keep my head down. Talking about Karpos or piracy will get you an all-expenses paid vacation in a Confed interrogation facility, and maybe a bullet in the back of your head.”

GM Notes

Here we see a current trend in RPGs; it’s possible to fail but in a lucky way, or succeed but at a cost. Fantasy Flight Games implement this using funky custom dice, and Solo deals with it by the way the plan resolution rolls interact. I prefer the latter.

I’ve decided not to pursue what Ihsan is up to, as previous solitaire games have shown me that the optimum party size for me over the long term is 3-4 PCs, and I already have a basic group of three humans and an AI. So this writes Ihsan out of the story. He’s untrustworthy, so he probably stole something – maybe a tool kit, if he’s going to set himself up as a mechanic – and he might try to sell information and wind up in an unmarked shallow grave, but if so it will happen offscreen.

Arion, Episode 38: Pump and Circumstance

Jumpspace, 266-3401

  • Starport Encounter leaving Changa (p. 39): Not applicable because we didn’t land.
  • Starship Encounter leaving Changa (pp. 40-46): Type M subsidised merchant, politely ignores us.
  • Onboard Events in jump (p. 56): Fuel pump fails again.
  • PC Reaction Tables in jump (pp. 19-20): No problems this week.
  • Starship Encounter arriving Bulan (pp. 40-46): Mining cutter, politely ignores us. (Being ignored happens a lot, but then it is statistically the most likely result.)
  • Piracy warning arriving Bulan (p. 40): No.
  • Starport Encounter arriving Bulan (p. 39): Cargo is pilfered or damaged. Since we have no cargo, this is of little import.

Arion and Ihsan are back at the fuel pump again.

“We need to get this replaced, you know,” Ihsan offers. “It might last until the next overhaul, but do you want to bet your life on it? Or Cori’s?”

“No,” says Arion. “It doesn’t matter how good the warranty is when you’re three parsecs from the nearest stockist. We can run on one pump to the end of this jump, but I’ll get the scout base at Bulan to replace it when we land.”

GM Notes

Well, that was an unusually quiet week. The Dolphin obviously has dodgy fuel pumps because this event keeps happening; I hadn’t anticipated that the Onboard Events table would spontaneously create ship quirks, but it does.

Normally I would try to elaborate and weave something more out of even this sort of quietude, but things are busy of late in real life, so I’ll roll with it.

Arion, Episode 37: Whistle Stop

Changa, 259-3401

  • World encounter (p.58-60): I can’t see any value in landing, so we won’t; that seems to rule out a world encounter, so I’ll roll for another ship encounter instead. It’s a Type C cruiser, which politely ignores us.
  • Plan (p. 23): Get the Hell out of Dodge.

“Does anyone actually want to stop at Changa, AKA Pirate Heaven?” asks Arion. “Show of hands?”

No hands are raised. Ihsan purses his lips and shakes his head.

“All right then. We’ve got enough supplies, and I can’t see any good outcome from docking, so wilderness refuelling and immediate jump outsystem it is. Dolphin, the nearest gas giant please, and step on it.”

GM Notes

Sometimes, in solitaire play, nothing happens. And that’s OK.

Arion, Episode 36: Lovers’ Quarrel

“The course of true love never did run smooth.” – William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Jumpspace, 252-3401

  • Starport Encounter leaving Duduki (p. 39), Starship Encounter leaving Duduki (pp. 40-46): Not applicable, Duduki has no starport and no traffic.
  • Onboard Events in jump (p. 56): Typical trip, with highs and lows.
  • PC Reaction Tables in jump (pp. 19-20): Argument with another PC. The dice reveal that Arion and Coriander have a tiff.
  • Starship Encounter arriving Changa (pp. 40-46): No.
  • Piracy warning arriving Changa (p. 40): No.
  • Starport Encounter arriving Changa (p. 39): Nothing out of the ordinary.

Dmitri is again nearly bowled over by Coriander storming out of the crew lounge, and again finds Arion sitting alone at the mess table.

“What is it this time?” he asks.

“Coriander wants to go to Maadin to see her family. I think we should go to Mizah and report in.”

“Isn’t her family on Gazzain?”

“Her father was, last time we were there, but that was months ago now. It’s likely he headed home after that affair with the giant cats, he was after the Eye of the Cat and we know Schrodinger took it.”

“We can’t really add a two-month delay into the flight plan.”

“I know that. Her head knows that too, but her heart? Not so much.”

The two look at each other and sigh.

GM Notes

It all builds a picture, doesn’t it? As Ed Teixeira of Two Hour Wargames says, “It’s all about the story.” I was initially dubious about Solo’s rules for in-game reactions, but they really do help to flesh out the characters.

Arion, Episode 35: The Package

Duduki, 245-3401

As there’s no world here, there are no world encounters. Following Ihsan’s revelation last time, the logical thing is to get Dmitri to open the package… Tell Me, D6, how good is the trap? 1; shoddy, put together quickly by an amateur. Dmitri makes a skill roll and succeeds with a raise.

“Are you sure this will work?” asks Arion.

“No. Don’t interrupt, this is delicate work,” Dmitri says.

Everyone is in the scoutship’s workshop, where Dmitri has repurposed various survey and maintenance tools to open Ihsan’s package, hopefully without triggering the booby-trap.

“You know,” Dmitri says, conversationally, “We have no idea what the booby-trap is. If it’s a bomb, you might want to be the other side of that door. Just sayin’.”

Nobody moves.

“Suit yourselves, then… ah, that should do it. Yes. Here we are; one holographic data crystal, contents unknown, one vial of unknown-but-probably-unwholesome fluid, one trigger mechanism to spill the latter on the former. Whoever put this together, I hope it’s not their day job, because they did not do it well.”

“I’ve got a sandbox ready for it,” the Dolphin announces. “Plug it into the socket and I’ll see what’s in there.”

Several minutes pass. “Hmm. Very straightforward encryption. It would keep out a child, or a household pet, but it has no chance against an insane unbraked AI such as myself.”

“Wait, you’re insane?” asks Arion.

“I’m flying with you, aren’t I? Now then… shipping routes and schedules, cargo manifests, signs and countersigns… I’d say this is a commmunication from a pirate gang on Changa to their inside man on Bulan. Ihsan, do you know who you have to deliver it to?”

“No. I’m supposed to go to the Birdwatchers and stick it under the cushion on a specific chair.”

“Amateurs,” mutters Dmitri under his breath.

GM Notes

The skill for disarming a booby-trap is Lockpicking, which none of our little band has. As a professional spy, Dmitri probably has more idea of what to do than the others; in terms of game mechanics they’re all equally bad and rolling d4-2 for an unskilled attempt, but from a narrative perspective it ought to be Dmitri. He finally nails it on the fourth try, having exhausted all his bennies.

In face to face play I would make this a dramatic task to build tension, but in solitaire play that seems less appropriate.

From time to time I consider setting the Arioniad aside to make way for other things; and then something like this happens, and I want to know more…

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