Monday, April 27, 2020

Moonbase Blues Play Report

I recently ran my scenario Moonbase Blues with a few players from the Mothership discord who had never played the system before. They did an excellent job getting into the spirit of sci-fi horror, and I had a great time playing with them. Our mini-campaign ran for two sessions, over the course of about 6.5 hours.

The Players:

  • James playing: Sam Lodes (she/her), Teamster
  • Adam playing: Chian Lang (he/him), Scientist
  • Jamie playing: Kew-15 (it), Android

The players wake in the Security Room of Azure Base, an isolated astronomical research outpost on a small moon. None of them recall exactly how they arrived, and I discussed some potential backstories with each player as their character began to make sense of the situation.

  • Kew-15, a walking terrarium-bot with experimental plants covering its dirt-filled exterior, was nominally assigned to the base as a botanist for its greenhouse but carried a secret mission to report back to Azure Horizons HQ on the outpost's status. 
  • Chian Lang, an Azure Horizons-employed mathematician by trade with an intense interest in the mystical, heard some corporate rumors about a secret research project with mysterious aims and pulled some strings to get himself assigned.
  • Sam Lodes, a freelancer who ran afoul of Azure Horizons following an engineering mishap, was gently coerced into long-term deployment to one of its facilities by the corporation's lawyers to pay off her debt.

The players explore their surroundings, discovering a ransacked armory and a barricade blocking passage deeper into the base. The security computer terminal helpfully directs them towards several menial jobs that need doing around the base, including a disconcerting message to "GO OUTSIDE IN 4 HOURS 32 MINUTES 9… 8… 7… SECONDS AND LOOK UP." Kew takes note of the countdown while the humans stress out. On the terminal they also discover maps of the base, normal operations logs that turn suddenly morbid then cease dated 1 week ago, and systems logs that indicate periodical power surges throughout the facility.

Player-facing map of the main base

The players scavenge what's left in the room, finding just one of their loadouts in a duffel bag--Lang's, and an unmarked, outdated punch card for a computer hidden underneath a locker. They divvy up the gear, dismantle the barricade, and press on.

In the Greenhouse, the players find several colonists behaving strangely. One intently counts down seconds in the thousands. Kew does the math, it's the same countdown from the terminal. When Lang calls out to ask what's going on, the colonist loses its train of thought and begins to panic. Kew jumps in with the count that's been running in its processors, helping the colonist to find its place and diffuse the situation. The players carefully creep their way through the Greenhouse, noting the unnatural size of the plants and avoiding the other colonists who are each preoccupied with its own pursuit. One's unblinking eyes slowly trace the path of some unseen thing through the floor, others' faces are buried in vegetation.

The players move on without further incident, heading across the base to the Observatory. Inside they find a gruesome altar traced with strange geometries and surrounded by brutalized corpses beneath the telescope. In the adjacent Geology Lab, the players find a meteorite fragment glowing with blue light. The plants attached to Kew perk up when bathed in the light, but the humans do their best to avoid it. This is a bad place, and they only stay here long enough to push the punch card into the lab's terminal and learn that it contains a fragment of a wavelength.

Lang, who's been scanning the comms channels for signs of life, finally picks up a signal. The crew gathers around the communicator to hear a garbled local weather report predicting meteor showers. They don't like this.

By this point, they're thoroughly scared and stressed out and want out of this place. They head to Habitation in search of vaccsuits. Along with an obviously tampered-with stimpack, they find them. Everyone suits up, including Kew who does so to protect its plants despite not requiring protection from zero atmosphere itself, and head through the massive main airlock.

Out on the moon's surface, the players take stock of their surroundings. Through Lang's binoculars, they spot a drop-pod crash site to one side, and an array of solar panels partially obscuring another structure to another. Kew checks the time remaining on the ominous countdown--under 2 hours. They decide to head for the structure, which should be the Mechanics Bay according to their map. Lodes does her best to give the novice crew a moonwalking tutorial, but it's for naught. Halfway to the solar panels, Lang misjudges a jump and goes headfirst into a crater.

Cracked helmet, not good. Lodes does her best to patch it up, but there's still air leaking and now Lang can't see for shit. They press on, now in haste, with Lang attached to Lodes via her vaccsuit's safety line. [END SESSION 1]

Past the solar array, the players find the Mechanics Bay crawling colonists--without vaccsuits. Kew finds this most unsettling of all, but after being shaken out of it by Lodes fires off its flare gun towards the crash site. Some of the colonists follow, but 2 remain. As the players approach, they see one with bloody arms prostrating itself in the direction of the main base and crying over its imperfect, red blood. 1 hour remains. The other has scintillating prisms where eyes should be and a rigging gun in hand, and demands the crew stop and face the meteor's rise. Lang tries to play along and chants in his best impression of a madman, but the others take action.

A shot from the flare gun streaks past the mad colonist's face and for a brief moment the area is cast in dazzling light from the prisms. Lodes goes for the airlock panel, but is pinned down by the rigging gun. She decides to slash open her vaccsuit to free herself from the harpoon's filament, hoping she can hold her breath long enough to get inside. Kew jumps on the harpoon before the colonist can retract it again, throwing it off balance and pulling it down from its perch atop the building. Lodes hits the airlock panel. Locked.

A voice comes over the intercom, "this better be a rescue." It doesn't sound hopeful. When Lodes responds, the voice sounds shocked and the airlock begins to slide open. The crew pack inside, but Lodes is suffocating. Agonizingly long seconds pass as the airlock cycles and pressurizes. Lodes feels like she's dying, but then air fills her lungs. They're safe, for now.

It's pitch black inside, and the light from the crew's headlamps sends several light- and food-starved colonists scrambling to shield their eyes like cockroaches. It's a mess in here. Empty MRE packets and other refuse from days of survival litter the room. Geometric lines reminiscent of those at the telescope-shrine line the floors, walls, and ceilings--scratched into the metal and concrete. Accusations fly between the survivors.

The players don't understand why the survivors have kept themselves in the dark. Did the power surge knock out their lights? One of the survivors responds that it's the only way to be sure there's no blue light coming in. They don't want to end up like the rest. Lodes gets to work repairing the rear axel of the rover that dominates the room. Kew tries to keep the peace between the survivors when it discovers a cache of food one was hoarding. Lang checks the computer terminal for a connection to the station's comms satellite--the reason why they came here. It's damaged, smashed by a meteor when it first arrived according to the colonists. It's running on minimum power and needs manual repair to get a signal out beyond the base. They'd need to get up there to have any chance of rescue.

With just minutes to spare on the ominous countdown, the players decide to take the now-repaired rover and head for the crash site to see if the drop pod has any fuel. Maybe they can use it to get to the satellite. None of the survivors want to head out during "the event". As Kew drives the rover into the airlock (under the theory it would be the safest driver because androids might be immune to the light, subsequently proven correct), the crew can hear one of the survivors over their shoulders, "those guys are fucking dead."

Almost immediately, long shadows begin reaching across the surface of the moon. Moon dust flecked with blue kicks up from the rover tires. The Meteor rises. Unaffected by its supernatural pull, Kew still marks it as one of the most beautiful things its ever seen. Lodes ducks for cover behind a seat and Kew pushes Lang's face down into crash position, but it's too late. Both have seen the light, and both begin to change. Lodes does her best to fight it, straining against her impulse to become one with the Blue. Lang, so close to uncovering the mystical truths he seeks, goes off the deep end. He grabs the wheel, and the rover goes flying off the lip of a crater.

Under the wreckage of the rover, Lang peers out in awe at the Blue Meteor. He pumps himself full of the tampered stimpack he found earlier, filled with corrupted blood. A blue-painted hand reaches inside the wreckage and pulls Lang out. He's with them, now. The others almost panic at the sight as they struggle to escape. They manage it working together, and roll out from under the chassis just as a colonist with a hand welder brings the whole thing crashing down.

Kew and Lodes fight for their lives with the colonists they'd distracted with the flare earlier and the thing that used to be Lang. Both suffer injury in their desperate attempts to disentangle themselves from the mad colonists and make it to the drop pod, pursued by Lang. Kew pulls a tranq pistol from its duffel bag of gear recovered in the pod and uses it to pacify their former crewmate. They put the thing into cryo and head outside to dig out the half-buried pod under the light of the Meteor.

The crew takes off from the surface of the moon. A last gasp of the pod's fuel reserves pushes them within EVA range. Lodes rushes to manually angle the satellite's remaining solar panel towards the Meteor in the hopes that she can harness its power to send out one last message. She fails. The meteor passes behind the surface of the moon, leaving the fuel-less drop pod, dead satellite, and sleeping madman in the cold blackness of space.

Saturday, April 18, 2020

Review: The Black Heart of Paradise

This 48 page setting and adventure for Mothership is both one of the best TTRPG books I've ever read, and possibly the least usable. It flips the spirit of OSR on its head, requiring scrappy and inventive problem solving not from its players, but from any intrepid Warden who attempts to run it. Its use of language is obtuse, its maps and other visual aids inscrutable, its organization haphazard, and yet I like it more than any other Mothership material I've read.

The easiest and perhaps the best way to run The Black Heart of Paradise is as a surreal but welcoming destination for rest and recuperation, without any of the horror (more on that later). The Planetary Trader Skaana, the module's setting, hosts all manner of destinations for recreation and stress relief. Each delights and intrigues more than the next:
  • Tour classic ships docked in port, complete with hokey, larping employees and goodie bags.
  • Indulge in a glut of dining experiences, drugs, comics, and film.
  • Stroll in the Skaana's bizarrely landscaped and architectured walkways and parks
  • Visit my favorite attractions: A whopping 7 karaoke bars, each with its own theme and multiple songs complete with lyrics for your players to sing!
Last and potentially least are the 10 casinos which dot the ring-shaped strip surrounding the Skaana. Each encourages your group to play an out-of-character mini-game to represent the games of chance played inside. You'd expect to find these games in the pages of experimental RPGs and lyric games, but here they feel somewhat out of place. Many involve physical tasks, and range from standing pencils on end to playing popular-media-spoiler chicken. The success of these games depend largely upon the tone of a given campaign and the people at your table. For some groups, the extra-diegetic break from typical Mothership horror will provide levity and much-appreciated psychological relief, and for others it will fall flat.

Stopping here and using only the abovementioned material, a Warden gains an invaluable tool for between-adventure R&R and a location players will adore. There's more than enough material here to make each trip to the Skaana memorable and supremely charming. I cannot stress how much I enjoyed reading and look forward to running this portion of the module. Idiosyncratically evocative writing breathes vivid life into the Skaana and its many attractions, and I've rarely wanted to visit an imagined world more than this. It's weird and specific in a way rarely found outside intensely artsy indie video games and poetry. That said, beyond lies madness for both you and your players.

Details of the horror that befalls the Skaana hide in the text, requiring thorough investigation on the part of a reader who hopes to make sense of it. Nuggets of critical information intersperse unrelated sections throughout the book, and unsourced references to as-yet-undescribed people, things, and events abound. This will not make sense on a first read through, and it's still fairly fuzzy on my second.

The thing is, the horror is really good. It's disturbing and fascinating and I really want to run it to see how players handle it. I'm just not sure it's worth the monumental undertaking required to make it usable. I'd need to re-write large sections and re-organize the entire sequence of events to have any hope of running this successfully. I just might do it, and I'll be sure to post my notes if I do, but the prospect is daunting. Below lies spoilers.

The setup for the horror is genius. A religious manufacturing plant produces a new line of parasitic prayer-aid chips called "Motherchips" that burrow into your skin and foster divine communication. Of course, things go awry when the chips call forth a terrifying creature from another dimension rather than any god conceived by humans. This "Hermit Horror" arrives near the Skaana, warping time and space and spawning a host of horrific chimeras of beast, man, and machine to ravage the pleasure station and other surrounding vessels.

Beyond the eternally confounding organization of the Horror's arrival and the catastrophes that follow, the implementation of a few key elements left me somewhat disappointed. The instigating Motherchips themselves provide paltry mechanical benefits rather than something more open ended and interesting that you'd expect. Here begins a pattern of design that I tend to associate with D&D 5th edition play: overuse of mechanical effects rather than descriptive ones and railroaded plot. The PCs in Paradise are often treated as VIPs for no discernable reason beyond being the PCs. They're made privy to important information and tasks with little to no preamble. Things happen at them constantly and monumental decisions hang on their whims.

But you'll recall that I said that the horror was good, and it is. It begins with a pod of hybrid orca and shadow-spiders arriving on the Skaana and consuming everything in sight. More equally frightful chimeras follow, and the station descends into panic. My favorite part from this section are the tools the module provides to help establish atmosphere. The players witness scenes of horror caused by the extra-dimensional visitor on viewscreens. In the midst of these stressful events, the casinos and bars (those still in tact) stay open to service patrons such as the PCs, and the module includes several spine-tingling scenes witnessed from inside the windows of such establishments. This stuff is gold.

There's a whole section dedicated to assisting a pregnant woman's birth aboard a ship that crashes into the Skaana during the infestation. It's both morbid and sweetly human and I think it's a brilliant inclusion amidst the carnage. At the end of it all, if your players haven't died or fled the Skaana, they'll have the opportunity to either engage the Hermit Horror in ship combat or delve inside it to put an end to this madness.

The Hermit Horror dungeon is a microcosm of the module's strengths and weaknesses. There's a procedure for rooms moving around that I still found confusing even after a user on the Mothership discord helpfully broke down the process. The map is unhelpful, to say the least. The space is poorly defined and rooms vague in shape and size. The things in those amorphous rooms are some of the best material in the book. Bizarre creatures and machines found within are the stuff of nightmares, and would make for an unforgettable session even if the GM failed to rise to the task of describing and managing the space.

There's more I could talk about here, much more than I could reasonably contain in a review. The ascii art and maps that both define the module's unique aesthetic and compound its problems with clarity, for instance. Reading over my review, I fear that I was too negative. I think I've been fair in describing the module's shortcomings, but it's difficult to put into words exactly why I loved it so much.

The Black Heart of Paradise reads like something uncovered on a forgotten, haunted forum or deep within the files on a hard drive left in the woods. To wrestle with its language and navigate its eccentric structure is to ply the labyrinthine strip and battle aberrant creatures aboard the Skaana. Its distinct voice and aesthetic are inseparable from the mayhem of its complexity. The deeply intimate prose enveloped me in an atmosphere all its own, and I soon felt at home nestled in its peculiarities.

If you enjoy RPGs of any kind, you should buy and read this. It pushes the boundaries of what RPGs and RPG writing can be. It will inspire you, and there's plenty here to lift directly into your games even if you don't feel up to the task of running it in its entirety.

The Black Heart of Paradise was written by Schwa Kyle and is currently available in PDF form for $4 on DriveThruRPG. Here's a link:
Buy it.