So I had the opportunity to play another game of Finding Haven with three excellent role players. I’m doing this write-up here not so much for purposes of game design feedback, but more to focus on my decisions as a GM (in Finding Haven, that stands for General Manager), including the details of prepping situation, and how one scene flows into the next. I’m interested in any analysis of how I/we did those things, as well as alternative ways of doing them.
So, first came the GM portion of prepping the situation. I’d already played several scenarios of the mutiny-in-space type, so I wanted to do something different this time. My plan was to do an earth-based game, to contrast with the space-faring ones; the one I had in mind was where the players would try to rescue a comrade from a Thought Therapy Re-education center.
But when the time came to do the actual prep, I kept finding myself thinking about being on a spaceship. I was still really in the mood for a space adventure. I also found myself going more in the direction of what the big megacorporations might have up their sleeves, rather than focusing on the alien threat directly.
The thought of the players receiving a distress call kept popping up in my mind, reminiscent of the old Traveler days I guess. But I didn’t want it to be a simple trap, like: some pirates are sending a distress call just to lure unsuspecting people in. That would be kind of boring, and that kind of situation doesn’t have quite enough meat to it, in my opinion.
So I got my pencil out and started sketching and free associating. I drew a distress call, had some pirates in there, and then I found myself focusing on the ship that was actually in distress. I have a habit in this kind of process of asking myself questions and writing down the first thing that comes to mind, with no evaluation or censorship. OK, I asked myself, so why was it in distress?
Because someone sabotaged the engines, in a tricky way so the damage isn’t immediately obvious. Why did they sabotage the engines? Because they were horribly mutated, and no longer wanted to go where the ship was headed. How did they get mutated? Well, several of the megacorporations were doing advanced biotech-type research, and one of these projects involved developing a rejuvenation technique (which had not been perfected yet). Materials and instruments for further research on this technique were being shipped to the laboratory facility on Titan on this vessel.
Why would this person - I roll up the name MRV, so “Marv” - be so desperate he’d try this risky procedure on himself? Perhaps because he’s 39 years old, and this is his last trip before he has to enter the Culling grounds. If the procedure worked, he’d look years younger, and it could make his physical features malleable, so that he could grow a whole new face. That way, he could adopt a new identity and avoid the Culling.
Unfortunately, the experiment doesn’t work out, and his face becomes *too* malleable - he turns into a faceless horror: where his face used to be, is either featureless flesh, or flesh that seems to ripple and bubble.
All right, so that sounds pretty bad. Now, why doesn’t he want to go to Titan? Well, because once there, he'd be imprisoned and experimented on. So he wants to either redirect the ship he's on to another location, or escape the ship entirely onto another.
Now a further complication comes to mind: the rejuvenation process affects a primitive part of the body, analogous to the regenerating process of salamanders. This has altered Marv to the point where he "splits" every few hours - he basically reproduces asexually, producing a duplicate of himself. He's done this twice so far, so there's three of him onboard. Further, the reptile part of his brain has been stimulated to where his desire to reproduce is very strong; the words "make more! More!" echo in his consciousness. He's also extra strong, and can survive for some period of time in vacuum.
Ok. So what's the ship called, and who else is aboard? I come up with the name The Agamemnon, commanded by Captain SPNZ, or "Spinoza". The physician is HLC, who secretly helped Marv with the experimental treatment. Engineer SNG is resentful of the Captain and wants the ship for himself. The gene-altering treatment is developed and owned by Genomorph Technologies, who also own this ship.
I want to add in another feature, namely that the ship’s present course will take it into a particularly thick section of Saturn’s rings. The chance that the ship will take some significant damage from this is high. This adds some urgency, a time factor, to their predicament.
Ok, so there's conflict between Marv and the rest of the crew, but I want to add another major player into the situation, someone with different, opposed goals to those already stated. What makes sense? Corporate espionage works. So, suppose Nomsamto corporation found out about this gene-altering tech, and hires a pirate ship to steal it from The Agamemnon. I come up with the name Steel Aurora for the pirate ship, commanded by captain Hobbes. Hobbes is vicious, but she has an XO who has humane tendencies, fancies himself more of a rebel than a pirate. The Steel Aurora has been accelerating towards The Agamemnon for some time, and will arrive within about 14 hours.
So I’m pretty satisfied with that; the situation is volatile, with plenty of conflict already happening. Now, how to get the players in on it? Well, I figure I need an opening scene that will quickly get the players up to speed on what’s at stake. So, they’re in space, and their ship receives the distress call from the Agamemnon.
Now, if they’re just crew members aboard a bigger ship, their ability to choose whether or not to respond, and how to respond, is limited. I could of course have the captain be an NPC, and simply order them to board the Agamemnon. I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with this, but it just felt bad to me - I wanted to give the players a bit more influence. So that suggested to me that the PCs were all partners and owned their own ship. It would be a small mining ship, making money by extracting minerals from asteroids or moons, or shipping ice from the outer planets to stations on the belt, like Ceres, Pallas, etc. Here’s the summary I give the players:
“You and your fellow players collectively own the small mining vessel The Whitestar; you owe money for the ship to Cyberdrake Systems, but you’ve managed to make your payments on time - except for this month; you’re late.
“You make your money by mining asteroids or small moons, like from Saturn’s rings. The ore is worth good money, and water is among the most precious commodities. Sometimes, when things aren’t working out, you’ll grab ice from Enceladus and sell it to one of the settlements in the asteroid belt, usually Ceres or Pallas.
“You’ve had a spot of bad luck: one of your laser drills broke, which slowed down mineral extraction, and on top of that once you’d gathered a good haul you caught the attention of pirates. You narrowly escaped, but had to dump your cargo to do it.
“You know that if you don’t pay soon, Cyberdrake is likely to send some Collectors after you - and they’re known for getting their pound of flesh, often quite literally.
“After some discussion, you’ve decided to just grab some ice from Enceladus, head for the asteroid belt, and hope for the best. But as you’re approaching Saturn, you start receiving a distress signal:
“To any nearby ships, this is Captain Spinoza of the Agamemnon. Our engines are down and we are adrift without power. Can you assist us? Our current coordinates follow. Message repeats.”
“They’re not that far from your present position. This is a big opportunity; if you help them, they’ll owe you something, maybe enough to make your payment to Cyberdrake, and potentially a lot more if you just take what you want (but do you really want to be pirates?). You’re even obligated to help, according to World Management, but this situation is not without risk. After all, who else is out there?”
This setup I figure will give the players strong incentive to want to check out the Agamemnon. The possibility exists that they might choose otherwise, but I’m not too worried about it: I’ll just check in with what the various NPCs are doing, make a few rolls, and go from there - same as if they did anything else.
The PCs consist of (summarizing a lot): Zirkus (security officer whose Goal is “I want the truth!”), PJ (pilot whose goal is “I want love!”), and Qwim, the communications officer who wants vengeance. They also have a few NPC crew aboard.
When play begins, the players are immediately concerned that the distress signal could be some kind of a trap. After some discussion, they decide to cautiously approach. They open a communications channel with Captain Spinoza, who informs them that they’ve lost power and don’t know why, and are headed straight into a dense portion of Saturn’s rings unless they can change course.
The players mull this over, and decide that the risk is worth it: Zirkus and their NPC engineer will take a shuttle over to the Agamemnon, check things out and see what they can do. They’ll keep a communications link open to the Whitestar throughout.
Now I don’t say anything out loud, but at this point I’m thinking, “oh oh, they’re splitting up. Will the ones staying behind have anything to do? Will they be bored?” I’m a bit nervous here, wondering if I should change anything that I prepped in order to give the folks on the Whitestar more to do. I decide not to, and just to make a habit of checking in with their players to see how they’re doing.
Zirkus and QZY (“Queezy”, the NPC engineer) dock and are met by SNG “Sing”, the Agamemnon’s engineer. He gruffly greets them and leads them to the engine room. The center of the ship has zero gravity (it spins to provide centrifugal force, so the highest simulated gravity is on the outer diameter), so they proceed using a combination of rungs and zero-g maneuvering.
Once in the engine room, Sing explains they’re currently running on emergency batteries, and he can’t figure out why he can’t get power from the engines to the rest of the ship, and why the controls are unresponsive. Zirkus and Queezy chip in to try to figure it out. I make this a roll for Zirkus’ player, with bonus dice for help from the two NPCs. He gets a success with no drawbacks, so I let him know a power line in a hard-to-access spot has been cut, clearly indicating sabotage. It will take some time to install a new power line but they should be able to do it, hopefully before entering the rings. Queezy and Sing get to work, while Zirkus goes back to the central corridor, wanting to consult the Captain about the sabotage.
Now I check in with my NPCs. Spinoza is on the bridge monitoring communications, and worrying about whether the newcomers can be trusted. The Steel Aurora is still on its way, no changes. The main issue is Marv. There are currently 3 versions of him in different positions throughout the ship. The one nearest the airlock - let’s call him Marv1 - is aware that a shuttle has docked, and is making his way down towards the central corridor. So, the next scene will be Zirkus encountering him there.
I say that, as Zirkus is making his way to the bridge, he sees a figure emerge from a doorway ahead of him. He sees the man from the back at first. As he gets closer, the man turns around, revealing himself to be a faceless horror. Zirkus is shocked.
Marv1 reacts aggressively. He doesn’t want Zirkus to warn anyone, so he launches at Zirkus. Zirkus tries to get away using his stun rod as a weapon, but fails. His weapon goes spinning off down the corridor, and Marv1 grapples him. As they tumble through the air, Marv1 mumbles about how he must “make more,” which concerns Zirkus.
PJ and Qwim hear this and are worried but don’t know what to do. I check in with my NPCs: Marv2 hears something and starts heading down to investigate, Marv3 and everyone else don’t know anything. Marv1 wants to beat Zirkus unconscious or kidnap him.
So, Marv1 and Zirkus keep fighting; Zirkus gets hurt but manages to push bubbleface off and make it to the bridge. As the door irises shut behind him, Marv1 starts pounding on it.
Zirkus brings Spinoza up to speed, who shakes his head. He suspects what happened, and contacts doctor HLC, who blows him off (she would never admit to anything). Zirkus discusses the situation with PJ and Qwim, and figure the best strategy is to focus on getting the engines back on line; there’s no need to confront Marv1 directly at this point.
This calls for a roll to repair the engines. I feel a little weird about this, since none of the PCs is directly trying to fix them, so how does a roll make sense? However fixing the sabotaged engines is a major task IMO, and requires a couple of successes. I have a player roll, with a bonus for the NPC helping. IIRC, PJ or Qwim got in on the action by providing guidance to Queezy, which means they made a successful roll to create a beneficial condition (gives a bonus die to anyone able to make use of it). Anyway the roll is successful so they make good progress on the repairs. Zirkus heads back to the engine room to help more directly.
So now I turn my attention to Marv1. If he wanted to break in, he could try using a laser drill or something like that. But, his main goal is to leave, not to attack, especially since Zirkus has already spilled the beans at this point. So what does he do? He knows Zirkus just recently arrived from another ship, so he starts checking the airlocks. Well, he quickly finds the Whitestar shuttle docked to an airlock, and empty; so he goes aboard and starts detaching the vessel from the Agamemnon. I tell the players the shuttle is leaving.
Also, I figure the Steel Aurora should probably appear on the Whitestar’s sensors, since it’s only a few hours out at this point. I mention this to Qwim’s player, who is concerned. The players start rapidly discussing what to do.
Meanwhile, out of sight of the players, Marv2 realizes something is up, and also checks the airlocks. He’s upset that he’s missed the shuttle, but is able to get to a scanner and realizes a ship is out there. He exits an airlock, relying on his ability to survive in space for short periods of time, and launches himself towards the Whitestar.
Qwim calls Marv1 on the shuttle, but Marv1 isn’t in much of a mood to negotiate. He’s got a ship, however small, and is headed away from Titan, which is good enough for him. Still, Qwim tries to persuade him to relinquish control of the shuttle, but the roll fails. Marv1 starts heading away from them at renewed speed.
I let Qwim know that the new ship on their sensors is clearly on an intercept course. PJ maneuvers the Whitestar so the Agamemnon is between them and the approaching vessel.
At this point Marv2 has reached the Whitestar, and I tell the players they hear a thump on the hull of their ship. Activating external ship’s cameras, they see a faceless man on the hull, making his way to an airlock. The players are confused and worried - “wait, so who’s in the shuttle?”
One or more of the players ask if they have the ability to pilot the shuttle remotely. I hadn’t thought of this, but given the level of technology in the setting, it made sense that this would be a common feature. I tell them yes, but the person on board will try to disrupt it. They make a successful roll and gain control of the shuttle.
Now PJ wants to remotely pilot the shuttle so that it crashes into Marv2 and scrapes him off the hull. I think this is a creative and clever idea, but tell him it’s going to be a tricky maneuver. He makes the roll, but with a drawback. I say he’s successful in scraping Marv2 off - he’s now basically a pulp in space. But the shuttle hits the Whitestar too hard, breaching the hull. The Whitestar starts spinning out of control as atmosphere ejects from the breach, and the shuttle starts spinning away too.
Meanwhile, as the Agamemnon draws ever closer to the ring, Zirkus et al are desperately trying to fix the engines. I call for a roll, and the player makes it but with a drawback - the engines are fixed but he takes damage from an electrical discharge. The engines are back online, and the ship has power.
A player makes a successful roll to fix the hull breach, and they contact the approaching ship to see what they want - maybe they’re just answering the distress call. The conversation with Captain Hobbes is polite, and she insists she’s just coming to check on the Agamemnon for humanitarian reasons, but it’s pretty obvious she’s a pirate.
The players discuss whether they want to fight or run, and (partly because it’s getting late in the evening for a couple of players) they decide to flee, through the rings using the distortion and cover they provide to escape. I ask for one final roll, which succeeds. They’re on their way to Titan, Zirkus still aboard the Agamemnon and discussing appropriate remuneration for their assistance.
Unfortunately, they’ve lost the shuttle, which the Steel Aurora will certainly pick up, as well as Marv1. You may have noticed that Marv3 is still aboard the Agamemnon, but no one knows that. If this were part of an ongoing series of games, these things would play a role in the next session.
Overall, as GM I quite enjoyed myself. I was concerned that some of the players had little to do for extended periods, and I worried that the situation might be a little too complex, as a couple of times people seemed to freeze in place for a bit before responding.
Anyway, I’m interested in any analysis y’all might have as far as my GMing reasoning went. Any different or useful approaches to thinking about any of this? Including the prep.
As far as game mechanics go, I was happy with the results of the rolls - I liked the fact that people sometimes got successes with drawbacks, and the drawbacks were fairly easy to add, unlike in some of the AW games. On the other hand, no one got really damaged enough by conditions to be really worried, and their beliefs and drives weren’t threatened that much. It might be that this will happen over time over a series of games, like the Mountain Witch, and that’s ok. I guess that’s what playtesting is for.
Another doubt I have is about the process of determining the dice to add to rolls; players get to add dice for positive conditions when they’re relevant, for example a PC is trying to hold onto something during explosive decompression, and they get to add a die because their character is strong. In play this seemed to slow things down a bit as players mulled over what conditions they could use. I’m not sure how much of an issue this is. More playtesting, I guess.
Finally, a deeply heartfelt thanks to the wonderful players who participated! Please do fill in any gaps I’ve forgotten, and add your perspectives on the game session in the comments.