Insomniacs is a cryoship starcrawl where you resolve crises aboard your colony ship, the Somnambulist, and explore potential worlds for the remnants of humanity. Swapping out players and being more intentional and thoughtful about which moves triggered slowed our pace down on the crew’s first away mission but we got in some good playtesting.
Also, Roll20’s dice roller hated us. More on that later.
One of my hopes for Insomniacs is that it will handle players dropping in and out without too much hassle. Weyland and Ramirez’s players couldn’t make it this session, but another one of our regulars could (so regular this’ll be his third Insomniacs playtest). Character creation went quickly – I’d say the main hangup was refining the actual text of aspects. With only two players there’s more pressure to try to wordsmith to cover more bases.
- Craig Daniels, PhD, a mountaineering expert and bullshit artist. “Doctor” Daniels lied and forged his way onto the Somnambulist’s crew to escape Earth. Played by Daniel Craig.
- Majida Kol, PhD, an actual rocket scientist who underpromises and overdelivers. Unlike Daniels, Dr. Kol is legit, and designed some of the systems in use on the Somnambulist. Played by Letitia Wright.
While Kol’s player was filling in the shared google sheet we use for characters, Daniels was faced with what to do about Captain Carla Ramos, who died in her stasis pod when NOAH, the Somnambulist’s AI, tried to revive her too quickly before the events of last session. The final part of the “tutorial” is answering the following question:
Who did Captain Ramos leave behind on the ship? Her son, her spouse, her extended family, your character, several or all of these, someone else?
We then learned that Captain Ramos smuggled Daniels, her lover, onto the Somnambulist. When Daniels tried to clear the last remnants of his true identity from the system, he rolled a setback and ended up being registered as Ramos’ next of kin. Without anything further to do and with life support strained from flushing the waste heat from last session, he went back into stasis. I loved Daniels’ player’s addition to his backstory here. It grounds a potentially jokey character (“I’m not even supposed to be here today!”) with a plausible reason for being brought out of stasis.
In Insomniacs, you have a pool of bonus dice that you can channel through your aspects. When you roll a setback, you gain one aspect die – sort of an “XP for failure” mechanic that takes the sting out of getting screwed over by Roll20’s RNG. This happened a lot.
40 Years Later
There is a move wake up in Insomniacs, where you have a chance to describe your character’s experience in stasis between away missions or crises. Because character creation is so sparse, this move provides snippets of backstory and personality. You might dream of Earth or play out your character’s greatest fear, and it provides some opportunities to make callbacks during the session. Kol chose “dream of fear” and had a nightmare about being a passenger in a spaceplane crash, a vehicle she didn’t design. Dr. Kol might have control issues. Daniels chose “dream of memory” – Ramos and their last moments before heading off to the Somnambulist separately.
NOAH informs the crew that they’re in the final stages of their braking burn around TRAPPIST-1e, roughly 40 light years from Earth. This is a hail mary system – unlikely to be habitable but close enough that it’s worth exploring and resupplying reaction mass. I rate exoplanets in Insomniacs across five categories – atmosphere, temperature, water, gravity, and resources – and it’s here where we hit our first speed bump.
40 Minutes Later
Daniels and Kol want to use NOAH’s sensors to learn about the TRAPPIST-1 system, which is perfectly reasonable, but they roll a setback on their discover action. They send a probe and get yet another setback. This isn’t the players’ fault. I’m the one fucking up here. Learning about the planet isn’t interesting, yet I was calling for rolls because… why? Just used to making Notice checks? Was I going to withhold information about an exoplanet that we can discern from Earth, today? I’ve playtested this part of the game only once, and it was showing. Luckily everyone was patient and we fumbled around and finally settled on learning that the probe picked up evidence of refined metals near its impact point, an anomaly that prompted Kol and Daniels to take a shuttle to the surface.
Room For Improvement
I think I’ll need better guidelines for what to do when the Somnambulist arrives in a new system. Oh wait. “When the Somnambulist arrives in a new system” sounds like a move trigger to me. So what’s the goal? It’s not really to find a new home for humanity, else the game would be over. The idea here is that NOAH is waking up crewmembers because there’s something it can’t deal with on its own. The PCs need to leave their (mostly safe) starship and go down to the planet’s surface to have an adventure. This nascent move should help set that up instead of falling into a trap of unnecessary rolls for basic information. My bad.
Stick the Landing
Dr. Kol brings the shuttle, Sleepwalker-1, down from the Somnambulist and they finally get the environmental overview.
Kol plants the shuttle in some sort of sticky mud flat. It’s in no danger of sinking, but Daniels notes that it’s strange that it’s not a frozen mud flat. The discover move works perfectly here, in stark contrast to our bumbling about in orbit. Daniels suggests that volcanic activity might contribute to the state of the landing site, and rolls… yup, a setback. Instead of being wrong, I decide that Daniels is absolutely correct. The shuttle’s parked on top of a potential infant volcano, and they can’t just move it because it’s got just enough fuel to take off again due to the cost of Kol’s partial success bringing it down.
This worked great. We got an explanation for the toxic atmosphere, for the mud flats on an otherwise near-inhospitably cold planet, and a potential danger for the mission. Kol and Daniels use the scientific equipment they brought to take samples of everything and then set out towards the refined metals marked on their wrist computers. I enjoyed asking the players about their gear and what they’d brought with them (after the fact, of course, Blades in the Dark-style). “Do you have a HUD or some sort of pip-boy or a big scanner thing slung off one shoulder or what?” Everyone’s been flavoring the technology with an eye towards reliability over high-tech. Nothing’s stopping them from describing things like phasers and tricorders, but they’ve kept to a more Alien-style actual buttons-and-switches baseline. They also explicitly said they weren’t bringing anything more dangerous than Daniels’ ice axe, and I gave them aspect dice for playing to their aspects. I run a lot of games with fighting and shooting and having everyone take a different tack here was really nice.
Daniels spots the anomaly as they crest one of the stubby caldera ridges. It’s a crashed shuttle identical to the one they came in. He even makes out the “Sleepwalker-1” on the twisted fuselage before he loses his footing and tumbles hard down the rocky slope. It was another setback, and I tagged him with the harm move. Here, at least, roll20 took pity on them and left Daniels with no lasting effects. Some back-and-forth with NOAH in orbit reveals a total of 4 Sleepwalker-1s, including the shuttle they landed in.
Kol and Daniels wisely decide to abort this clusterfuck of a mission and leave this shitty mud planet. As they make haste back to their Sleepwalker-1, they pull up short when they spot an impossible sight. A figure in a black business suit with a radiant blue glow where its face should be stands between them and their shuttle. Their suit geiger counters start ticking and the strange phenonemon triggers the get traumatized move, which neither crewmember fails, thank goodness.
We called the session there and each player chose an experience aspect for their character. They didn’t have to choose the same thing, but they did – Can’t Talk, Leaving!
What Would RNGesus Do?
Seriously, what was up with Roll20? Trying to get a 5 or 6 on 3d6 or even 4d6 proved nigh-impossible. The only full success was Kol’s get traumatized result at the very end. This losing streak did make me certain that granting aspect dice on setbacks was the right way to go.
If I had a mulligan, I would’ve triggered wake up and then just given them the rundown of the anomalous metals on the surface. Here’s some weird stuff that the AI can’t figure out, we need boots on the ground. Refining that transition, from orbit to trudging around getting into trouble, is my current design priority.
I like that in theory Insomniacs can handle erratic player schedules. You just thaw out different PCs for each mission or crisis. Where this falls down is when I have to cliffhanger a session, but that’s no different than any other game, and when I get better at time management, those occasions should be less frequent.
I’m also constantly resisting the urge to put in some sort of resource management for the Somnambulist itself. Balancing something like a “Do Not Let Us Die in the Long Dark of this Coldsleep” is vital for maintaining tension – if you don’t, it’s either too easy to stave off badness or it crushes you under a poorly-thought out grind. The latter isn’t fun (grind is fine, poorly-thought out isn’t), and the former doesn’t really add anything to the experience except bookkeeping.
It’s weird, since it wasn’t my intention when I started this design process, but I’d use this to run a Star Trek game.