BEST GAME EVER!
This was it; this was the game I had wanted to run for almost six months. Karen Twelves gave me the idea. Hack the awesome desperation of Apocalypse World into the super tense setting of Battlestar Galactica set in the time period of the amazingly good episode “33”. I had run the Apocalypse Galactica hack once before at the EndGame Minicon but even though it was a con game, I still thought of that one as a playtest. It was a preparation for “33”. The first game ran very well, but I knew some serious changes needed to be made.
I was running for six players for six hours. The time wasn’t daunting but the number of players was. This meant that I REALLY needed to keep a tight focus on the players’ interactions with each other. A prevalence of NPCs would be the death of this game. Still, to keep the feel of BSG the threats had to be external and uncaring. Cylons are science fiction Yog-Sothoth and their threat needs to be the overwhelming pressure cooker that makes every little scrape the characters have with each other into a potentially catastrophic disaster. I knew the key to this was the love letters. Make the players fighter over what to do with ambiguous NPCs and they could interact with each other all day long while still keeping the biggest threats outside…in the black.
I also needed new playbooks. For the first game I make the most obvious playbooks: Pilot, Commander, CAG, and Engineer on the military side and President, Opportunist, and Visionary for the civilians. This game was set in the time period of the first episode (after the mini-series) call 33. In that episode a ship (the Olympic Carrier) went missing for 3 hours and when it returned, out of fear, paranoia and misinformation the fleet destroyed the ship to protect themselves. It had been contaminated by the “other” and everyone was terrified it would lead to their destruction. The premise of this game was asking the question “What happened on board the Olympic Carrier?” and to answer that, we needed playbooks that were appropriate to the ship. The Commander, President, CAG, and Pilot were all out. In their place I added the Doctor, Activist, Partisan, Marine, Captain, and Businessman. Phew, that was a lot of work to create.
I needed to capture the horror of the episode. This was a horror convention after all, the episode itself was terrifying, and I needed that terror in my game. I used several things to capture it.
The love letters were grim. They presented each playbook with a disaster on their hands that was only going to get worse.
I used an egg timer. This might have been the clinch that made the game. At the start of the game, before they were even making characters I set the egg timer to 33 minutes and then set it down. When the timer went off, even though character creation wasn’t done interrupted what everyone was talking about and had them all describe their actions when the cylons appeared. We weren’t ready for dice rolls at this point (not everyone had stats, Hx, etc) but that didn’t matter. The point was, what does the first jump look like (or rather the 275th) where everything is just starting to get out of control. Does the Businessman knife a customer who won’t pay? What does the marine say to the civilians who are demanding to speak to their families on other ships? Each player narrated a small scene in response to my question, then the fleet jumped and I set the timer again. Another 33 minutes.
For most of the game that timer was running and when it went off the Cylons appeared. Man, did that get under their skin fast.
I played the hard moves really hard. A woman trying to open an airlock? She must be a Cylon! Until her six year old daughter runs out after her, moments after the marine had killed her. A captain with a ship full of mutineers. A nuke that ended up in exactly the wrong hands.
Also, to get the game started I had pieced together snippets from the episode “33”. All the pieces that pertained to the Olympic Carrier. I showed everyone the clips which went just until the point where Apollo fires on the ship and then abruptly cut off before we saw the fate of the 1,345 souls on the Olympic Carrier. That’s when I told everyone “You’re all on that ship. Let’s see what happened.”
The Play is the Thing
The game started with some pretty intense situations. A woman wanted to sacrifice herself in hopes of saving the ship so she had climbed into the FTL drive. One wrong move there and she could be vaporized. Getting her out though meant spinning down the FTL…which took 20 minutes to spin back up…on a good day. Things just pretty much went downhill from there.
The PCs had some phenomenal interactions
Engineer – Captain. I think Karen was channeling Scotty this game. I swore she was going to say “She can’t hold up much longer, Captain, she’s going to blow” in a horrible Irish accent. But she didn’t, instead she told her “we’ve got a problem, I have fix, but you’re not going to like it, but we have to do it anyway. Awesome!” Later, when the Engineer revealed as a Cylon and met with the captain again, it had been established that what the Engineer says the ship needs, the ship needs, no matter how crazy the request is. What you REALLY don’t want on a ship is your chief engineer, that everyone trusts because gods-damn it they have to, working for the other side!
Visionary – Captain. Ralph really stepped up in this game. He started off trying to play ball. His people were hoarding supplies on the ship (food, toilet paper, etc) and he tried to convince them to stop. When he found his wayward sheep trying to kill herself, he brought her back into the fold. All of this complying with the captains orders. In truth, she started trusting in him because he was at least keeping a small group of people from total panic. When he met the mutineers on board, however, things changed. He discovered their motive and decided he agreed with them, to the point of taking the ship hostage. Which he did! The first made even mutinied and had to be killed by the captain to gain a semblance of control again. Ralph the visionary as the face of the antagonist was never something I expected, but he did it amazingly well.
Marine – Captain. Mike played his marine pretty hard core. He wasn’t good at crowd control, didn’t know how to talk to people, he just knew he had to keep a mutiny from breaking out. The captain on the other hand was respected but tough. She gave him license to do is work and set a good example herself. This militant stance of course led to them having a bloody shoot out in the passenger cabin and nearly everyone dying just as it should have been.
Damn, I’m noticing a trend here that many of the characters had a pretty strong relationship with the Captain. We also has a lot of illegal activity going on.
Activist – Businessman. These two were great because though they were both trying to subvert the system, the Activist was almost entirely operating from his conscience and trying to change the political climate. The Businessman was just taking advantage of the chaos as an opportunity to improve his own standing. Seeing the two clashing both over ideological beliefs and fighting over the same resources was awesome. Then when they turned out to both be Cylons, both working on the same side, everything suddenly took on a new meaning. It was awesome.
We started with the Crisis from the love letters, which was nearly enough to keep us busy all game (not all of them were even address) but then more spilled on (as they do) due to missed rolls, ugly choices, and natural repercussions of extreme actions. All in all, shit went to hell and I commend everyone who played for holding things together as well as they did.
The end of the game, though I wasn’t pushing for this ended up remarkably similar to the end of the BSG episode. The Olympic Carrier arrived back at the fleet, followed by the Cylons (one of the Cylons that revealed called in an attack), with the lights out (the cost of a ugly choice from the Engineer) and a nuclear warhead ready to go off (thanks to the Activist). The fleet really had no other choice but to destroy them.
As the game ended the players all wanted to see the very end of the show, where Apollo, under orders from his father, destroys the Olympic Carrier, which the audience all believes (and our players knew) had over a thousand souls on it. The is some crazy high tension music playing as he finally says “Mark” and fires on the ship, causing the entire passenger liner to explode…and the egg timer went off! I couldn’t have planned it better if I tried. I had totally forgotten about the egg timer by that point, and when it went off, we were all startled. It was awesome.
Thoughts on the game
I was somewhat liberal with the egg timer. At times I decided that we had deliberated a long time over what was actually a very short scene so I bumped the time back up. Other times I forgot to set it immediately, so I ball parked how much time I thought we had left, or just set it to 33 minutes to give them some reprieve. I think having this kind of fiat really improved the tool. It still created tons of tension but allowed me to dial that up and down as appropriate.
I did have a blast interrupting the action with the description of the fleet starting to jump and Cylons appearing. At one point the ship was damaged as a result of a miss and rafters collapsed on the Visionary. That the antagonists were the ones to come save him really changed the tenor of the game. After they turned against each other, I think salvation was impossible. Yay!
I had a blueprint of the ship, or a map if you will. I didn’t want to get overly tactical, but I did find that having it, having a general sense of where things are was phenomenal.
Kristin told me a few times that it all felt so helpless. As the captain she kept trying to keep things from falling apart but eventually they stacked up and overwhelmed her. That statement could easily have sounded like a critique of the game, but she loved it. I don’t want to run all of my games as impossible scenarios, but as a horror game, that sense of all your efforts being drowned out by the an uncaring and antagonistic universe, was awesome.
As I expected my players were all amazing, they really brought their characters to life and fought for what they believed in, which was even more awesome because I got to see that change throughout the game. The visionary sided with the terrorists. Three of the other characters revealed as Cylons. The lone two keeping to their mission (the captain and marine) has to resort to killing their own people to keep the peace. Nobody walked out of that game unchanged, which for as a fan of character development, is a huge win.
Props for this game were pretty light. I spent most of my effort on just creating the playbooks and love letters. Props included. Tokens from the board game to mark experience (Raiders, Heavy Raiders, Raptors and Vipers), to indicate the Cylons arriving (Basestar), and to indicate possession nuke (nuke token). I wore Joe Harney’s admiral coat as I had last time and this time used a safety pin to keep the collar tight and in place. We had the playbooks for the characters, Cylons, and love letters (no need for the fleet or Battlestar playbook for this game). I cobbled together some of the show to play them the Olympic Carrier related bits of the episode 33. Finally, I pulled out my egg timer (that I originally used to summon Batman in My Life with Joker years ago) for the clock! Nothing particularly remarkable in here, but they complimented the game nicely.
A pic we took after the game. Look at that bitchin’ table tent Matt Steele made for me!