It seems that in this last period I can’t help but look back to the distant past and re-examine some gaming experiences never exactly explored. In particular, I have realized that I have never properly put in writing what I consider to be the best experience with a twosie I have ever had, a fantastic game of Mars Colony. I’d like to focus on it and with any luck extract some interesting thoughts from it. I also kept some notes on some of the doubts that arose during the game, which I will try to integrate to the best of my ability.
Premise and setup
At the time – 2018, if I remember correctly – I was about to complete my master’s degree. I was lucky enough to be in an accommodation with wonderful roommates, and to get to know a fair circle of people through them. One of them stayed as a guest for one night; a very pleasant person and especially intrigued by the world of role-playing games, despite having never tried one. Knowing that they were also part of my interests, this person asked me if we couldn’t play a Dungeons and Dragons one-shot on the fly.
“I wouldn’t know if it would work, I’ve never tried D&D in two,” I replied, “but I should have games specifically for this situation, if you’d like.”
So, we mutually agreed on Mars Colony. It was something quite different from the initial idea, but that did not diminish my playmate’s initial enthusiasm.
Although I had only had a chance to read the manual for an hour or so, the setup phase was very quick and full of insights. Mars, as I remember it, was in this case a planet plagued by corruption and police brutality against a race of insectoid aliens and their sympathizers, an extra-parliamentary leftist fringe intent on blocking the drilling plans of the big captains of industry. From the creation process, Kelly was a young woman, an experienced environmental scientist whose father, who abandoned her during her college years, turned out to be one of the big drill owners on the red planet. I think the game loads a lot of cues at this stage, perhaps too many, but at the same time we felt reassured by the author’s suuggestion of not having to reicorporate everything that had been generated from the get go, but simply use it as a guide when we were stuck. If I remember correctly, we didn’t really make use of the contacts in the four main Organizations: with the notable exception of a reporter of News Corp., they ended up being names spitballed for colour during the Crisis Scenes. This generated a story more focused on the intimate, close relationships of Kelly.
The father turned out to be Kelly’s privileged relationship in this case, and we insisted on him a lot during the personal scenes. The very first scene was the one that set off the spark: I felt as if my contribution was being picked up by this new player and thrown back at me at triple its power. Kelly, from the very first scene, does not mince words: when her father welcomes her at the spaceport, she immediately accuses him of being a coward, and of having no right to introduce himself to her. Playing his relationship as that of an opportunist cloaked in gentle manners, I felt immediately displaced and galvanized at the same time. We ended the first scene with definitely palpable tension-a great start for the person Kelly will have to deal with!
Later, I had the opportunity to introduce an old college friend of Kelly’s, and observing how she related-in a way that implied an interest that was more than friendly-put me in a strange situation, as if I was following a definite lead and not generating on the spot an unplanned relationship. What I mean is that between me and my playmate there were no interruptions, no “but what does this mean,” or “let’s go back, I need to get clearer on this”: input was being launched, and redirected with virtually no effort to the other side. It was very exciting. Going further, the heat of the failures pushed Kelly’s player to ask for more Scenes of Progress. But I think the Personal Scenes, in particular, worked wonders.
Small doubts, big intents
While the Personal Scenes served as a counterpoint, the Opposition scenes marked the corruption and, gradually, the stance of the minority fringe protesters toward terrorist attacks. One of the things I noticed is that we missed an important rule, which requires us to narrate the effects for every single roll of the dice in the Progress Scenes. This way, we probably would have observed even more depth with the phases of Kelly’s plans. Although it was not a significant obstacle in the end, it is something I would like to focus on my next try.
Regarding other concerns at the time:
1) In a progress scene, Kelly decides to advance her own anti-corruption bill after a scandal forces one of the council members to resign. My playmate then describes the measure, and after filing the draft bill rolls dice to see progress on the “corruption” health indicator. He totals a miserable 9 points, and decides to stop immediately. At the time, I remember I was a bit confused whether that result:
(a) indicates the state of corruption as a general phenomenon, and so it fits that it is narrated how the law passed completely after being discussed, but endend up doing nothing, or
(b) also shows the progress of the law, and therefore it would be appropriate to narrate a half solution, such as “it has been filed, but months drag on and squabbles between the parties postpone a final passage”. This was the solution we eventually adopted.
2) After a series of monstrous political beatings, Kelly desperately needs to see her measure passed. So she tries to pressure the institutions from the outside, setting herself the goal of organizing a large protest march to get the bill passed. And she failed immediatly (on the first roll! I really heard a heartbreaking violin in the background). My desperate friend falls back on the mechanics of deception. Again, I was a little confused about the outcome: does deception in this case help turn the march or the general pressure on institutions into an apparent success? We reverted to the first solution, describing how Kelly relied on one of his contacts at News Network Corp. to fabricate genuine fake news about generalized protests in the districts as expressions of discontent over corruption; an event that leads to a hasty passage of the bill.
The problems have not been a significant hiccup. But here a definite choice by my friend emerged: not to use, with the single exception of the march, the mechanics of deception. Even being faced with plans that failed immediately, even confronting him with that temptation of success, for my friend to get his hands dirty remained inconceivable. This began to take its toll on Kelly’s personal relationships, and in particular on her college acquaintance – who in the meantime became her lover. The latter in fact confronted her with her inability to save Mars, and claimed that at least the terrorists were doing something.
At this point, it was getting pretty late and I had suggested we stop, but my friend definitely wanted to know how it was going to turn out, even though he had to run off for another meeting. I remain of the opinion that this very last part was the weakest: we stepped on the pedal on the Progress scenes, and that was when the situation and the narration of events became most frayed, uninteresting. In the end, Kelly failed to bring change to Mars, and she is ignominiously driven from her position. It was still rather emotional, although I remain of the idea that even leaving the game hanging, perhaps during one of the Personal Scenes, would have constituted a more solid climax.
Even so, I still think about the tragic fall of this heroine, and how a game played for the first time with a person totally new to RPGs gave me such strong emotions.