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Button Kin Times: September 2023
Orbital Blues play report and development diary
Well. It’s a long one this month. I’ve got a first entry in a development diary for my new game, plus a play report for a system I’ve just run for the first time. First, though, a brief update.
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I’m writing a game. I’m not sure how to write about writing, but I’m going to give it a try as things progress.
Hot on the heels of my cartoonish, comedic satire of the reality TV industry I am, of course, writing a coming of age game about divorce. A seamless and organic progression if ever I saw one. I bet you even saw it coming.
As I’ve mentioned over at my current preferred spots for spouting ideas at strangers (mastodon and bluesky), my husband and I recently tried a co-op video game called It Takes Two. Its revolves around a parent trap scenario where a preteen turns her divorcing parents into dolls. They’re doomed to remain transformed until they submit to couples therapy from a talking self-help book and consequently (?!) fall back in love. The game is a lot of fun and a real accomplishment from a mechanical and visual standpoint, but as a child of divorce I have issues with the premise, the implicit message, and frankly even the title. And where there are complex feelings there’s surely a solo journalling TTRPG waiting to be made.
At first my concept was more than a little snarky. I’ll admit I was annoyed. I wanted to make a game that explored the deep selfishness and cruelty of manipulating two unhappy people into staying together. I wanted the player, in the role of the parent-trapping pre-teen, to feel increasingly uncomfortable with the morality of their choices. I still want a dash of that, but the more I mulled on it and the more I reflected on my own childhood experiences, the more I wanted to ground things in compassion for all involved. I want to make this a story about growing up, making formative mistakes, and coming to see your caregivers as the imperfect but hopefully still loveable people they are.
Mechanically I’m working with a tarot deck for the first time in my game dev career. I just finished playing through Persona 3 Portable on the Switch and the way that they mapped tarot cards to characters and storylines within the game is providing some inspiration. I’ve also played around with tarot for years prior and have long been aware of the “Fool’s Journey” expressed through the Major Arcana, which is neatly thematic for my concept. I have to say I’m really enjoying having a lot of pre-existing symbolism to work with. The cards are designed to help the human brain construct a coherent narrative out of a random draw, so what better tool could one use?
I’m working on getting something play testable in the next few weeks. Watch this space!
Play Report: Orbital Blues
I just got back from a small, invite-only TTRPG convention in Scotland. I ran or played 7 games in total over 3 days, trying out a bunch of new systems. In addition to running a giggle-filled session of Drama Llamas I also took this opportunity to run a game that’s been on my to do list for a while: Orbital Blues. Here’s how that went.
I pitched my game to potential players like so:
Salutations, space cowboys! And many happy returns on this, the birthday-eve of one of the sector’s most illustrious crime queens: Mama Malice Divine. On a related note you, being the motley mercenary crew of The Big Slick, just took a new job. Malice’s wife, Griselda, has hired you to “acquire” the gift of her beloved’s dreams: an extremely rare and deadly tropical fish named Xaxophin. There’s only one small hitch. The last known specimen in this galaxy is currently on display under tight security at the mega mall on Moonrise Vista Orbital Station in the heart of the Schröder System. Also you only have 48 hours and you may not be the only party looking to satisfy the big boss’s fish fancy. Oh, and apparently some religious types have been crowding onto the station on some kind of mysterious pilgrimage? So that’s actually a few medium sized hitches. Not ideal. But hey, you really need the cash, so what are you going to do?
I’ll be vulnerable and post my full session plan here. It’s most detailed at the start and end with a brief list of potential obstacles in the middle. This ran smoothly for just over 2 hours:
Hand out characters - spend some time coming up with who they are, getting to grips with mechanics, etc.
Explain the setting: what sort of things will they find here, who are they
Describe Moonrise Vista Orbital Station, the six storey fish tank at its heart
Then cut to the heist in medias res. They’re in position. Ask who’s would be where and then zoom in on the chars in this order:
The getaway driver waiting onboard The Big Slick
How are you occupying yourself while you wait for the others?
The distraction somewhere on the station acting wild
You’re in a big fancy shopping mall. How are you making a distraction?
The tech person on the comms, waiting with the high tech carry case they designed to hold Xaxophin
What does this case look like?
The divers - 2 in the giant tank. They clobbered some employees and stole their gear to get into position with the fish.
This is a big tank - what have you brought with you to help you catch this fish?
Obstacles on the way out:
Access to the tank is tightly controlled by security airlock
There are guards on the airlock who have to believe you work here
The ground around the tank is covered in pink-robed cultists - Xaxophinites sitting and chanting in the lotus position
The only place they could dock was quite a way away - there’s a bit of concourse between here and there (bars, cafes, parks, guard stations…)
Rival crew: The Snakes will be on their tail with a hull breaching charge
Stowaway: Tranquility Sunchild - a member of the cult of Xaxophin who will try to “rescue” the fish.
Xaxophin: it’s said if you look into both its eyes you’ll see through time
At Mama Malice’s they’re met by Dr Milton Forde - a respected exobiologist who’s been corresponding with Mama Malice for some time. He’ll lead them to the “garden” (a holodeck imitation of the real garden where the birthday party is actually happening) and stall them until the Snakes can get there (if they haven’t been dealt with), then berate the Snakes for not doing their job sooner and leave them to “earn their fee”. Shoot out!
Griselda and Mama Malice are up in the real garden - Griselda will get impatient and call them to ask about the location of her fish if they’re embroiled in a fight too long.
At the end Xaxophin unfurls into a bipedal being with two dark eyes. If anyone looks into them they’ll have a trippy and seemingly profound vision.
Orbital Blues is a game with a strong aesthetic, so in addition to the plan above I put together Pinterest board full of retro space stations and interiors, plus some character art inspiration for the principal NPCs. Check it out if you’re curious.
I also had six pre-made characters each with a mix of stats, plus one Trouble (source of Blues) and one Gambit (special skill) each. We ended up with lovesick captain Shelby, party animal Nat, well adjusted Doctor Laurie, ace pilot Wesley, and a religious fanatic named Freddie who was unnervingly keen to push someone out of an airlock.
The heist went off with barely a hitch. Some lucky rolls and creative player decisions saw them scatter station security and the cultists, find and extract a near invisible fish from a gigantic tank, then run frantically through the Moonrise Vista Orbital Station while a false red alert evacuation protocol opened every door and kept every guard too occupied to notice their theft.
The crew made it back onboard their ship, The Big Slick, and out into open space without taking a hit. However, they soon hit upon some in-crew tension as party animal Nat insisted on trying to lick Xaxophin to test for psychedelic properties, while Doctor Laurie determinedly protected their bounty from harm.
Late at night while the good doctor slept, though, Nat snuck down into the med bay where the fish was being kept safe in its carry case. Here our Hawaiian shirt-clad psychonaut bumped into a stowaway cultist who introduced herself as Tranquility. Nat faked going in for a friendly handshake before knocking the stowaway out cold, nearly killing the waifish young woman in the process.
Nat woke the rest of the crew. After the doctor revived their guest they learned that the Xaxophinites believe that Xaxophin is a deity and that if you look directly into both of the fish’s eyes at once you will see through time. The crew tried to accomplish this using mirrors, sadly to no effect. Freddie then threatened to throw the “heathen” out of the airlock if she wouldn’t convert to the church of “The One”, while lovesick captain Shelby took a moment to really look at Xaxophin and felt something strange - a wordless psychic greeting from the creature. He immediately became extremely attached to it, demanding to take it to his room. The crew effected a micro-mutiny to prevent this from happening, questioning his motives.
Meanwhile at the helm ace pilot Wesley took the practical step of checking the internal security feeds for more uninvited guests. He found none, but did see a blip on the long range scanners - another vessel travelling on the same heading and close up by space travel standards. He decided to bring the ship to a full stop to see how the other vessel would respond. They also came to a full stop. Considering his options, Wesley decided to outrun their tail with a one-off burst of power re-routed from the ship’s systems to its rather sub-par engines. This was a risky manoeuvre which threatened to damage both engines and systems, but he pulled it off and left the other vessel in the dust. The crew assumed this vessel belonged to the cultists, although Sunrise Tranquility denied all knowledge of it.
At last they reached the swirling Kentara Nebula and Mama Malice’s golf ball-esque base. They had received a message from Griselda, the boss’s wife and the client for this job, saying that they’d be met by noted exobiologist and museum curator Dr Milton Forde. She said he would check the fish over before they presented it to Mama herself at her birthday party, which was already in full swing.
The gang arrived, met the doctor, and were led by to a tacky tiki bar in a lush tropical garden within the base. Dr Milton checked the fish’s vitals, then told them to go join further into the garden to join the party and to get their reward. Smelling a rat, the crew placed hands on Xaxophin’s case and refused to let the fish out of their sight until they’d seen their money, or at least their client. The good doctor sighed and uttered a command phrase. The holographic garden disappeared, becoming instead a seedy dive bar. Their rival crew entered - the Sharks, who’d been paid by the doctor to tail them and acquire the fish before they could reach the base. They’d failed in that mission, but the doctor offered them this chance to redeem themselves.
A quick and lethal combat ensued. Distracted by the fully stocked bar, Nat went down first under a machete blow. Freddie took a shoulder wound, receiving timely treatment from Laurie before she tranq’ed one of the Sharks. Then captain Shelby put two shotgun slugs between Dr Milton’s shoulder blades as he tried to flee with the fish. With their patron dead The Sharks parleyed their way to freedom - “We’re just guys, just mercenaries like you. You’d do the same for some credits." The crew mercifully let them gather their wounded and leave.
As the doors shut behind the Sharks, the case carrying Xaxophin bursts open. The fish transforms into some kind of glowing, bipedal being. Its iridescent, lifeless fish face folds back to reveal a pair of soulful, dark eyes. It utters the words “don’t be afraid” before pulsing with vibrant light. Xaxophin disappears and Nat is restored to life. Cutting their losses, the gang beat a hasty exit without even meeting Griselda or Mama Malice.
Back on the ship Nat wakes Tranquility and asks her what it all means. She says that Nat has been chosen, and gives them the name “Sunchild”.
Starting in the middle of a heist and giving the players clear roles really worked to get the session going immediately. No awkwardness, just hi-jinks.
The Pinterest board worked, though not quite as I intended. I expected I’d refer back to it in play as I described locations and people. I might have done that more if I’d used fewer images or organised them better. In practice I was too flustered to find things in-game, but it was useful to look at just before the session to prime my mind’s eye.
The retro, soft sci-fi setting is so inviting for a narrative game. The players were able to draw on their genre knowledge to creatively solve problems - re-routing power from the systems for a one-off burst of speed, setting off the emergency evacuation alarm on the space station, dreaming up the details of the high-tech briefcase they used to transport Xaxophin, cauterising a wound with a plasma torch.
The Muscle, Savvy and Grit stats and d6-based resolution mechanics are flexible and simple and I was able to write a one-page cheat sheet that got my players going right away with very little looking-up of rules. They seamlessly moved through ranged and melee attacks, stat checks, observation rolls, healing, etc.
I also threw in a gag about a sun named Maureen Watson after the woman who’d been gifted it by her husband 100 years prior on their 50th wedding anniversary, which went down well. Love it when a joke lands.
What I could’ve done better
We didn’t really use the most iconic mechanic of the game: Blues. I awarded it at various points and encouraged the players to keep track, but for a one shot the consequences were unlikely to come up, and in practice they didn’t. Even if they had then adding new Trouble and potentially a new Gambit to a character mid-game might have eaten too much time to be worth it.
Combat was over before most players got a turn, which is a bit of realism at least! I imagine most shoot-outs IRL are quick and deadly. The game allows two actions per turn and an attack is an action, so I allowed Shelby to shoot twice with a shotgun, which did for Dr Milton very quickly. I’m not sure if that was the correct call, although no one complained.
I ended up relying on Savvy rolls as a go-to for a lot of things that didn’t seem to quite fit, like persuading people. Maybe that should’ve been Grit? Or maybe this isn’t a system with an equivalent to the classic D&D “Persuasion Check”? I’d put this down to my lack of experience.
I feel I should mention that I went against one of the pillars of the setting by adding an alien life form. The book is very clear that humans are alone in this galaxy. I also should’ve upped the sadness by orders of magnitude. But we had fun and the story resolved so I’d say all in all it was a success. I would play again and will likely offer to run this down at my FLGS in the near future.
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