Friday, 20 October 2017

After-Action Report: The Prologue

  "This cell has been compromised, so only limited information will be relayed by this channel. Your mission hasn't altered – get to the pre-arranged location and retrieve the Mark. You'll know it when you see it."

That was the last communiqué the operatives of the Razor Cell acquisitions team received before all channels went silent. No more information would or could reach them, but that was to be expected. The Shadow Syndicate works so well and evades the long arm of the law precisely because everyone works in the dark.

Going in with poor intel wasn't unusual. It was in the job description.

Within the Far Cancer Moving Group, the FTSV Jade Courier drops out of hyperspace and burns into orbit around a planet without a name. This star cluster has been so poorly charted that most stars don't even have real names, just catalogue codes. The second planet of the orange dwarf star USIC CN-H1-D8-GB is a barren Terra – Earth-normal gravity with a balmy nitrogen atmosphere and liquid water oceans but no life and no oxygen. The planet's giant moon is tidally-locked, making each day over two hundred hours long and agitating the planet's core, volcanoes bubbling up and spewing ash and sulphur dioxide into the sterile air. The planet had been host to a small team of archaeologists within the last year but as the planet neared aphelion and the star's warmth dwindled, the planet settled into a cold orbital winter, making survival harsh and excavation next to impossible as the soils froze into permafrost. Now the ice is melting, the planet warming up once more and the archaeologists should have come back. But unforeseen administrative problems delayed their departure from American Federation space, which just so happens to be extremely convenient for Razor Cell...

The crew is formed of three operatives. Torstein Gunderson is a culturally Norwegian archaeologist from the Nine Star Concord, a disgraced academic and expert in the extinct Titans, who made his money in the illegal artefact trade before joining the Syndicate. Thyra Beto is a Mars-adapted parahuman and precognitive psychic, as well as a "private security specialist", born and raised in anarchist freetowns on barren worlds. Orianne Choffard is a French pilot with a chip on her shoulder and a disrespect for authority that drove her into exile from the Pan-European Republic's space forces. Their ship is small; an old interstellar private space yacht retrofitted with concealed armour and basic weapons. It's only meant to carry a small cargo from this world.

Orianne decides upon a ballistic atmospheric entry, sparing the fuel and the time. The landing site they've been given is on the daylight terminator, a plain of old lava flow covered with dust, ash and snow, wedged between ash dunes and and the snowy foothills of a supervolcano. While entering the atmosphere, angling the nose to keep the sensors free of the EM interference of the re-entry plasma, Orianne detects something. Another ship. It's a similar size to Razor Cell's, and is entering the atmosphere a few tens of kilometres ahead of them. All information points to them heading to the same place; their heading is the same and there's literally nothing else on this barren, frozen hellscape of a planet.

Orianne pitches the ship sideways, pulling off towards the plume of ash and gases belching forth from the supervolcano. It will hide them somewhat, at least until they can switch to stealthier in-atmosphere propulsion. Once they're back at merely supersonic velocities, Torstein gets busy with the radar, charting the ground for what they might be looking for. Two artificial structures can be seen, around three kilometres apart. One coincides with the location they were given, so they decide to head for there, using the plasma liftors to fly in low and quiet.

The radar picks up the other ship, already landed. Orianne decides to put down behind a hill, so they can approach with some modicum of stealth. From the top of the snowy dune, they spot three people walking around the archaeologists' base camp, wearing armour and carrying carbines. They were supposed to be the only ones here, and since they're also rummaging through the archaeologists' basecamp, the only logical conclusion is that they're here for whatever Razor Cell are. No reason to talk. Thyra opens fire first, laying prone in the snow a few hundred metres away and opening with three-round bursts from her scoped electromag rifle. The first interloper is taken by surprise and goes down quickly.

With some quick thinking, Orianne manages to gain control of the laser turret in the interlopers' ship, and uses it to roast one, then suppress the other long enough for Thyra to close and open fire with a volley at point blank range. By the time the battle is over, two of the three are dead. The last – the one that Thyra shot point-blank – is babbling incoherently in Mandarin and soon looses consciousness from blood loss. While stabilising him might be useful to know who else is trying to loot this place for Titan artefacts, in the end they don't want any witnesses. Thyra puts him out of his misery with a shot to the head, then the team moves on to searching the base camp.

The data indicates that the archaeologists were excavating a site that coincides with the other artificial structure they spotted from the air. The progress they made was slow – Titan excavations have to go at a glacial pace because of the risk of advanced nanotechnology – but they breached a chamber that held a large artefact that the archaeologists took to calling the Lodestar.

Thyra and Torstein trudge overland to get to the other location while Orianne heads back to their ship to bring it around to the digsite for loading. The pair find a small bunker-like structure peaking above the snow. Around it are scattered small cargo containers with scientific equipment, many of them partially covered against the snow. The entrance to the bunker is visible, and meltwater is gently trickling down into the structure.

The entryway leads into a dark passage straight across the hexagonal shape of the bunker, the corridor covered in translucent white plastic and analysis instruments. The Titans were master of nanotechnology and after the four hundred thousand years that their creations have stood silent, the reactions of that technology can be unpredictable. The plastic sheeting is a strong armouring polymer designed to resist (though not stop) nanological attack. Titan archaeologists advance this shielding inwards as they probe ahead of it with analogue tools, ensuring continued excavation is safe.

The passageway turns sharply left, then corkscrews in a circle downwards, the shroud still covering the walls. As the pair move further inside, panels raise gently from the stony, monolithic surface of the walls, still shrouded by the antinano plastic. They light up and throw cryptic, chaotic holograms of kineglyphs into the air – the almost untranslatable Titan language. After a full half-turn, the spiral staircase ends in a large hexagonal chamber.

The Handler said they'd know it when they saw it. Well, this is definitely it.

The room is large, the size of the entire structure that was visible aboveground, and within the centre is a hexagonal plinth, with a mirror-image hanging on the ceiling, stretching to meet each other. Pinched between these stony structures is something that looks like an old electrical fuse. The cylinder is glass – or at least glass-like – and capped with dull gunmetal on either end. Within the object, enclosed in the centre, is a pinpoint of cobalt-blue light, glowing gently. It seems to distort light around it and tendrils of liquid mercury have formed into spikes that reach for the nucleus of blue light from the caps inside the glass, not quite touching it. This must be the Lodestar the archaeologists had mentioned in their data.

This is Torstein's time to shine. With over twenty years of experience on Titan excavations, he knows what to do. The antinano shroud is just under halfway through the chamber, barely a metre from the central plinth. Torstein finds the computers that interface with the shroud and connects to them. Then he starts advancing them forward, gently and slowly.

But there's a reason Titan excavations should be done carefully. As the shroud extends outwards, the mote of light within the Lodestar begins to glow brighter, turning into a fierce, burning point. A concussive wave of force washes over the chamber, tearing open the antinano shroud and shoving the team backwards. The stone walls of the bunker seem to light up, glowing a gentle blue in circuit patterns. The stone of the far side of the chamber seems to morph like a mass of cells dividing, the very walls themselves spitting out two things that begin to shape themselves into vaguely anthroform configurations.

Torstein is a brave man. But he also knows when to run. He launches forward and grabs the Lodestar, then turns tail and runs. Thyra follows him, aiming her rifle briefly at the human-like stone constructs but eventually fleeing without firing a volley.

Shorter than Torstein and carrying more weight from her armour and guns, Thyra is slower. By the time she and Torstein make it outside into the ankle-deep snow, she's five metres behind and the constructs are gaining on them both. Thyra's precognition spikes and she ducks as she runs, narrowly missing a bright blue beam as it lances through the air, snapping like a hypersonic projectile. Shouting over the radio, Orianne lowers the ramp, booting up the ship's systems. But there's still ten metres of deep snow to go.

The Titan constructs fire again, one of the blue beams finding it's mark. Thyra falls to the ground, left shoulder pierced through and rifle thrown forward. She's unconscious the moment she hits the cold snow. Torstein doesn't even turn around. Carrying the artefact, he sprints up the ramp and yells at Orianne to pull up and away. More of the blue beams impinge on the landing ramp, and as Orianne warms up the engines, the hull there picks up dangerously high thermal emissions, like a fusion torch burning against the hull. But she pulls the ship up, backing up and away from the constructs with the liftors before gunning the main fusion drive and shooting up into the atmosphere. Now alone, the two constructs turn to the crippled form of Thyra, her breath coming in wet, rasping shudders as blood seeps into her lungs.

Behind the Scenes
While I can't say what's really going on behind the scenes, as my players have a link to this blog, I can give some perspective on how this was done.

This was the "Session -1" I mentioned previously. I created a team of four characters occupying traditional sci-fi adventurer roles with a point total of 75 each. I chose this because it was half of what I planned to give the PCs, so was a nice demonstration of how to build competent but specialised characters without being so large or varied as to be confusing. Each character had a section describing appearance, personality and backstory to help get my players into the mentality that GURPS allows you to represent your character's history and personality mechanically, not just in roleplay. I let my players pick from the four sheets on the day and as there were only three players, one of them was retconned out. The characters and their niches were:
  • Alar Enriquez – Mechanic/Expert (the unused character)
  • Orianne Choffard – Pilot
  • Torstein Gundersen – Scientist/Expert
  • Thyra Beto – Warrior (with a minor in Psychic)
My original intention for this session was to have the same things occur up to the point of leaving the planet, whereupon all the characters would be murdered horribly by something. This would serve the purpose of hammering home how lethal GURPS combat can be. But the first four-hour session only got as far as the end of the skirmish at the base camp. By then the players felt confident in their ability to build characters and play, so we just kind of forgot about it.

Then once I did some planning regarding the storied history of their newly-acquired spacecraft, I figured a way to tie the prologue and main characters together. I won't go into too much detail here since I may do more AARs of those events but the players eventually found the Lodestar (or at least an object very much like it) secreted in one of their ship's liquid hydrogen propellant tanks. Then I gave them my evil grin while I handed out the character sheets from the prologue. The players played through the rest of the prologue detailed above, eventually resulting in the capture of the (or a) Lodestar and the death of Thyra. Then we switched back to the main characters.

This is based off techniques used in TV, especially TV series in the post-Game of Thrones era. The characters see this object, then we as the viewers get to see some history of it so we know how important it is even if the characters don't. This technique is used extensively by Adam Koebel, who I learned the majority of my GMing praxis from while I watched the Rollplay Swan Song campaign that he GMed and livestreamed on Twitch. If you have the time and inclination to watch 40+ episodes of four hours each I'd highly recommend it.

The very first roll of the session was actually a critical success; this was Orianne's roll for descent to the planet. Normally re-entry plasma blocks all electromagnetic waves and blinds sensors but I felt a critical success meant some way around that, which gave the players much more information on their uninvited guests.

The debacle with the Titan constructs coming out of the walls was the result of a critical failure on Torstein's roll against Archaeology to safely advance the antinano shroud. And in a wonderful confluence of probability, after the prologue was resolved another player tried to use some sensors to probe their Lodestar and rolled another critical failure! I'd like to think this makes the players afraid of this artefact. As they should be.

The Setting
The campaign is based in a homebrew setting called Pantropy that I've been working on on and off for about three years, starting back when I was a NEET and had literally nothing else to do with my time. The setting mixes a variety of hard science fiction and space opera tropes to make what I call al dente sci-fi. It was designed from the ground-up to support RPGs and teams of player characters, though only as gritty heroes who succeed through struggle and hard work and a bit of luck, rather than larger-than-life heroes with a capital H.

The setting has a set of guiding principles that inform the look and feel of everything else and establish hard limits on what is and isn't possible. These are:
  1. There is no reactionless drive or gravity manipulation technology. Ever.
  2. Technology is mostly realistic with a few spices to make it fun, useful or convenient. E.g. there are no reactionless engines but fusion drives are torch drives. "Limited superscience" options are king here.
  3. Humans are diverse and there are no monolithic political, cultural or economic entities. For example, the United Nations Commonwealth is a supra-national entity rather than a government, there is no "Galactic Basic" lingua franca that absolutely everyone speaks, and there's no universal currency.
  4. True aliens are rare and truly alien. Genetically modified humans and pantropic parahumans occupy the roles of "rubber forehead aliens" or "green alien space babes/hunks".
I might do more in-depth posts about this setting if there's demand for it. That said, the blogging community already has some fantastic bloggers that specialise in or dabble with worldbuilding, so there's plenty to keep you satisfied if you're interested in that.

The Verdict
I was really happy with how this session went. I think it's an extremely good idea to do this when introducing players to GURPS, since the biggest pitfall of the system lies in building characters. When you build your very first character, you have no yardstick to know what ST 12 or Guns-15 means in practice, so you can't design effective, balanced or appropriate characters.

By handing your players pre-made characters, they get to understand how the system is played and how conflicts and skill challenges are resolved, and they learn to understand intuitively what the mechanics represent. Once they've done this – even for as little as one session – they're much better equipped with the experience needed to create characters.

Of my players, one was an experienced RPG player who had never played GURPS before, one had played one or two campaigns of D&D or Pathfinder, and one had never played an RPG before. All of them managed to do character creation fine after Session -1, coming up with cohesive, balanced and capable characters.

A Session -1 can also be useful narratively. There's nothing wrong with having it be a completely unrelated adventure but it can be used to tie into the events of whatever story or plot the main characters will eventually face.

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