Insomniacs Playtest: Flight Crew Alpha

This is the first in a series of Insomniacs playtests I’m porting over from G+. My local group was kind enough to take my half-baked game for a spin after our usual game.

We setup the campaign by lightly RPing a committee/focus group/boardroom tasked with launching the Somnambulist, a cryogenic colony ship taking 1500 humans to a new home… somewhere. The Earth was doomed due to some sort of super solar flare/gamma burst that could be predicted with just enough warning to send one ship. They made pretty dirtbaggy characters. Evangeline Oda, an Experimental Air Corps Pilot was a decent human, but Clement James Bowie, a Survival Specialist, basically had Jayne Cobb and Merle Dixon as his guiding stars. Brayden Krosse, a Ruthless Corporate Shill, had Carter Burke as his spirit animal. They all knew they were signing up for a one-way trip, but none of them knew the truth about the impending doom threatening their home.

They woke up a few years into their journey with Captain Carla Ramos dead after the ship’s AI NOAH tried to bring her out of stasis too quickly. There were problems with waste heat and we tried out the mechanics for the first time. Evie and Clem repaired coolant leaks while Brayden managed to salvage a single 3d printer before NOAH had to shunt the waste heat into the manufacturing decks, slagging their remaining printers and raw materials.

Then they learned about Earth. Despite his tough talk, Clem seemed to take it the hardest. The guy practically lived outdoors before. On that somber note, they went back into their pods.

Roughly 35 years later, ship time, the Somnambulist arrived at TRAPPIST-1 to refuel and the three crewpeople ventured to the surface of the fourth planet to investigate some metallic anomalies. They discovered multiple crash sites, each containing wreckage of their own (quite intact) shuttle. On top of that weirdness, they also had to contend with a fragile crust that broke away to reveal boiling hot springs, heavy gravity, a rough stone face hewn into the bedrock, and a man with blue for a face that emitted hard radiation. There was much discussion, some science, some running in terror, and eventually Clem “joined” with the Man. The other “versions” of their shuttle disappeared along with the Man with Blue For a Face, leaving the rough-hewn stone face. A face that looked a lot like Clem.

The Great
I think we really walked the line between horror and wonder. Keeping the tech level low (for sci-fi, I mean) meant that outer space peril couldn’t be dealt with by throwing a force field over it or using artificial gravity. There were no enemies to shoot. The bleakness of the opening contrasted really well with the high weirdness of the planetary landing, with inexplicable radioactive humanoid anomalies under skies of constant auroras.

I was really sad for Clem to sacrifice himself – I really liked all three PCs, but it was totally the player’s choice and it was poignant and well-played and wow, just everyone brought their best to this session.

My players thought the system (once grokked, see below) worked well to promote that sense of unease and being unsure how well any given action would go. I think I’m on the right track, more or less. Just needs refinement.

Selfish note: I was running a playlist using the No Man’s Sky OST and Explosions in the Sky softly in the background and they fit perfectly.

The Not So Great
Everyone had a great time despite some mechanical hangups. I didn’t expect things to go smoothly here, and I got a lot of useful notes.

The campaign setup where everyone RPs these “board members” or “cabal” is cute. It might be unnecessary, but having these half-fleshed out awful NPCs on the ship for later shenanigans is a good thing to have in one’s pocket. It dragged though, and I think having the campaign setup revolve around choosing options rather than trying to invent from whole cloth will make future attempts smoother.

The base system is essentially Lasers & Feelings wedded to shock gauges from Unknown Armies 3e. It makes sense in my head but I clearly am not at the point where I can explain it easily. There was also some concern about how hard it is to nail a full success compared to a partial success.

The actual actions I chose, in play, are kind of vague. They work well with how the mental trauma part of the game works but sometimes it was hard to point to one action over another when it came to actually doing stuff. I had been taking a tack similar to Blades in the Dark, where you tell the GM what action you want, but I am considering maybe a more concrete PbtA move-style thing might work better. It’s a fairly big shift, even though at the end of the day you’re still generating miss/partial/hit results.

I don’t feel comfortable yet with how injury works. I don’t want a character funnel – what’s the point of super high lethality when the “fun” is watching a character change over time under this stress? But I felt maybe the dangers weren’t quite dangerous enough. I was also lowballing things for the first game. I might hold off on this until another playtest.

For Now
I’m stoked to continue working on this game. I love getting to see designs hit the road like this. I still don’t have mechanical support for “wonder”; it may end up being “GM Principles” type stuff. The game keeps tricking me into thinking I need to design it as a sandbox, but it totally is not. It’s a road trip of about 6-10 sessions in length, with certain key events meant to evoke the thematic “space tropes” that are most important to me.

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