Explore the Colony, Not the Planet. You should absolutely consider taking the action outside the colony domes. Mars is significantly smaller than Earth, but it’s still an entire planet. There are ice caps, mountains, and canyons. The list of Colony Health Markers provides at least one option, “Others,” that allows for the possibility of alien lifeforms. If you were so inclined, there is an entire game’s worth of material outside the domes. And if your genre preferences tend towards exploration and the tropes of the John Carter series, Mars provides. But — you really shouldn’t overdo it on this type of action.
Mars Colony, for all its trappings and technology is not a sci-fi survival game, and it’s not an action-adventure game. The title is purposeful, and it guides you towards the happenings inside the dome even if the lives of those living outside the dome affect those within. Most people on Mars, by far, live under the colony domes. Keep the action focused on those people, and keep the larger planet as a symbol of Mars’s potential. It is an expanse of barren, ochre rocks, but it’s the only home known to many of the inhabitants in the colony. Celebrate the planet’s beauty, but do so through the perspective of politics and struggle.
Nonetheless, when you do venture outside the colony dome (if you do), there are a few ways to make your excursions punchy and memorable. First, you might bring the outsiders in. There are plenty of tiny outposts and loners doing work for the colony out there in the cold. If the political policies of the colony interfere with their way of life, they are likely to venture inside and make their voices heard. Second, you might treat some of the outposts as extensions of the colony to be toured by Kelly in the same way she might visit any other part of the colony. The difference, of course, is that her safety is at great risk when away from the protocols and relative security of the dome. If you want a dose of action in your game, feel free — but reserve it as a moment of intensity that stands out over the course of the entire story. Finally, you can always bring the environment of Mars inside the colony. A breach in the dome is potentially catastrophic. Maybe the colony needs to get in touch with its pioneering, rough and tumble origins to finally come together. There are many options, but my overarching advice is to find a way to keep the confict centered on human interaction even when the Martian desert asserts its dominance.
I’ve been working on a larger hack for the minimalist OSR game Knave that will eventually (probably, maybe) include details and random generators for the setting material. For now, however, I thought I’d post some of the rules additions I’ve been noodling with. You can find the rules here. Take a look if you please! But here’s a summary of the basics:
The first is a system for integrating the spells and catastrophes from Wonder & Wickedness (which I love). But because the Knave system is so reliant on inventory for everything, including magic, I built off of another suggestion by a fan to use crystal shards for containing each spell.
The second system allows for some lightweight specialization for each character. This isn’t a class system (which I thought would be inappropriate for Knave given its design goals), but it does create complications for characters inexperienced with some of the most common yet stressful actions undertaken during fantasy adventures. I call this system “Doubt,” and I’m looking forward to playtesting it.
Remember Optimism. It’s okay for Kelly, her colleagues, or the players to be optimistic and believe in something. When you are playing a game about failure firmly planted in the mire of contemporary fear, it’s natural to allow the game to descend into a similarly dark place. Exploring cynicism is a fine way to play Mars Colony, but try to stay connected with a sense of humanity and hope. Failure isn’t really failure without loss — especially if that loss is accompanied by the erosion of hope. Hope, though, isn’t something that needs to die. A fundamental conceit of the game is that Kelly really wants to save the colony. She may be an idealist, or she may be an opportunist. Good or bad, what doesn’t change is an underlying desire to see the colony succeed. If you lose track of that fact, the game will transform into a fatalist exercise in passing the time. Don’t allow that to happen.
As Governor, one of the most powerful things you can do is introduce a character who reminds Kelly of what she’s fighting for. It may be a counterintuitive realization, but, if Kelly seems to be stuck in a cycle of negativity, the best Opposition Scene may be one where Kelly is forced to encounter unlikely optimism amidst the struggle to survive. This may come in the form of her Sympathy character. It may be more powerful, on the other hand, to show Kelly the citizens of the colony most affected by the over-stressed infrastructure, poor safety conditions, draconian restrictions on speech, or the like. But don’t stop there. Show Kelly one or two specific characters with likable personalities who refuse to give up, who are still fighting for some of the things that Kelly gave up on. In other words, in extreme situations, the best opposition may be unwelcome inspiration to do better.
I should probably port over some of the higher quality posts I made on Google+ for the sake of posterity. Let’s start out with a review I originally wrote back in April of 2017 for a wonderfully designed two-player rpg that is unfortunately underrated.
One of the highlights of Forge Midwest for me was getting a chance to play Matthew Gwinn’s two-player game, The Hour Between Dog & Wolf. The title refers to that twilight hour when the light is dim enough you can’t tell the difference between a friendly dog and a killer wolf — fitting enough considering the game is about a serial killer. And oh boy is it ever! But here’s the thing: I’ve heard people say that Dog & Wolf is too dark, too disturbing, and too difficult to get to the table. Nonsense! As Matt points out in the text, how many hours does the average American spend watching all manner of crime dramas, both tv shows and movies? And how many of those are about grim murders motivated by everything from greed to sexual predation? The answer is a lot, especially if you’re a fan of Law & Order (even more so if you’re into Criminal Intent) or films like Seven. Sure the topic can be rough, but so is your tv watching habit. At least with Dog & Wolf, you’re 100% in control.
When I sat down to play the game with a friendly guy going by the nickname “Troll,” I had already read through the book. To undercut a little of what I was saying above, my experience reading the text was a roller coaster. The first half of the book is dedicated to teaching the players about what it might be like to get into the mind of a killer or an obsessed investigator trying to stop the killer. Matt’s informative research works both for and against him here. On the one hand, I was drawn into the world Matt was creating, fascinated by the psychological studies he references to explain why someone might feel a yearning to kill again and again. On the other hand, I was starting to feel a bit squeamish by the end of the section because Matt isn’t pulling any punches. You will know that serial killers are real, and that they do some extraordinarily nasty stuff. Combine that with the photo-realistic “illustrations” peppered through the book and you have a recipe for some second-guessing. I think that’s intended, and you should embrace that feeling, but also press on.
Once you get to the game mechanics, you’ll understand and appreciate all of Matt’s research because understanding a character’s motivation makes everything else about playing the game natural and engaging. From here out, reading and playing the game is much easier. You begin to understand just how much leeway you have to create a story anywhere along the spectrum of PG to R-rated. Character creation was a breeze. Both Troll and I were able to come up with two convincing characters without much hand-wringing over the details. He decided to play a classic police investigator (a midwesterner transplanted to big bad L.A. and desperate to prove himself) while I created a thrill-seeking killer (driven by an unhealthy obsession to impress an abusive older brother).
My favorite part of character creation was coming up with an “engram,” or fantasy that plays out over and over in the killer’s mind and helps to explain his motivation for serial killing (i.e., trying to make the fantasy true, but never getting it quite right). In the case of Niles, the killer, his engram was all about murdering a stand-in for his older brother, the sports star. Most of all, Niles wanted to kill with thousands of people looking on, as if he was a sport star in an arena. The twist was that, in Niles’ mind, this killing would impress his brother such that Niles would finally get the recognition he thought he deserved. All of this came naturally as a product of character creation. The process is relatively brief so you can easily get through character creation and a full game in a single evening.
A couple other features worth mentioning are the Framing Table and the Setting Chart. The first is a circular chart that looks like a target. It’s divided up into eight pie-shaped wedges, and each wedge has an inner and an outer segment. Into these sixteen segments Troll and I filled in eight characteristics associated with the killer and eight associated with the investigator. So we had things like “I carry a picture of Dirty Harry in my wallet” and “Bribes serve the overall good” for the cop. For the killer we had things like “My brother won’t talk to me, but I need him to” and “The Public doesn’t appreciate my genius.” These items can be related to the setting, but they are always tied to the characters; and therefore they work brilliantly to firmly plant the characters in the setting. In-game, the Framing Table serves as a dice drop — wherever the high die lands determines an element around which you frame the scene. Awesome!
Second, you have what I like to call the “Setting Chart” (it doesn’t actually have a name as far as I can tell, but I’m claiming reviewer’s prerogative to give it one). This thing looks like a series of Scantron bubbles divided up into six rows of seven bubbles. Each row is arranged on a number line from one though the ominous looking “+”. And each row is associated with a single attribute from either the killer’s or investigator’s character sheet. There are no mechanical implications here, but as a tool for setting scenes and characterizing NPCs, it’s a marvel. The way it works is, you fill in the bubble on each row corresponding to the appropriate attribute. From that bubble’s position along the number line you determine the way in which the two main characters perceive the world around them. For example, if the killer’s Compulsion attribute is a five, the Setting Chart tells me that society (as perceived by the killer and investigator) is “Selfish.” If that same Compulsion rating were a two, then society is more “Sacrificing.” What a neat idea! In-game, Troll and I were able to look at the chart and immediately know how to play our NPCs — and more importantly, how to play our characters in relation to those NPCs. Like the Framing table, the Setting Chart plants the characters in a setting and (fitting for two obsessed people) filters that setting through the solipsistic eyes of both people.
So what actually happened in our game? To begin, Troll’s investigator, Lt. Svenson, investigated Nile’s latest murder. The game opened at the local YMCA where Niles had murdered a woman before pushing her off the high-dive — while filming the entire crime, of course. Svenson arrived early enough to see the body still floating face-down in the pool with a ring of blood emanating outward. We played though a few interactions with the beat cops before Svenson got down to business. Climbing the high-dive before remembering he was afraid of heights, Svenson found a few bloody footprints on the diving board. That said (if I’m remembering correctly), the dice were not with Troll and he failed his investigation scene. Side note: nearly all rolls in Dog & Wolf are opposed, pitting the investigator against the killer. In this case, it was the investigator’s Obsession score against the killer’s Cunning. If Troll had succeeded, he would have earned a point in Evidence (a high score in Evidence is needed to catch the killer). However, Svenson’s fear of heights had him scooting along prone on the diving board and inadvertently tainting the evidence. Result: Niles’ Cunning goes up a point and Svenson is left feeling duped.
Next it was my turn to frame a scene. I don’t remember the precise order in which we played, but I do know that, early on, Niles decided to mess with Svenson. I called for a Manipulation scene and decided to use Svenson’s serious meth addiction against him. Niles began to plant drugs and drug paraphernalia in Svenson’s suburban mailbox. At first, Svenson took Niles’ pranks in stride, but as the days wore on and Niles became bolder, the neighborhood and local cops took notice. So too did Svenson begin to crack, just a little bit. I made my roll, which meant the investigator’s Stability trait went down by one. I was in his head!
Skipping ahead a bit, after another successful murder (this one involving a tanker truck and a chase scene), Lt. Svenson was getting desperate. Troll decided it was time to “Cross the Line.” (In game terms, this means the investigator can potentially gain two points of Evidence in one go, but not without losing a point in Conscience.) Svenson tracked some of the drugs Niles had planted at his house to a dealer in the bad part of town. Hoping to tie the dealer to Niles, Svenson descended the stairs that led to the dealer’s packaging warehouse. The only problem was the warehouse was guarded by a rather large tough guy with a decidedly anti-cop personality. No matter, after a very brief exchange, Svenson pulled his sidearm and shot the tough (you know, in “self defense”). So Svenson gained access to the warehouse and was able to get Niles’ name and M.O., but not without a serious dead body problem.
There were some other scenes that saw Svenson and Niles locked in a cat and mouse game, but the truth is both characters were so brash and obsessed they were never going to last very long. Our final scene was atop a huge apartment building. By this point, Niles had lured another victim into one of his thrill-seeking stunts; however, Svenson arrived in time to interrupt what was quickly turning into a straight-up murder. And then Troll went all out, calling for another Crossing the Line scene! He allowed Niles to kill the woman by dropping her from the side of the building just so he could get a clear shot — and it worked. The game ended with Svenson amassing more than enough evidence for a conviction, but it didn’t really matter because Niles was dead, very dead.
Funny thing is there were five deaths during the game, but only three of which were perpetrated by the killer. That’s probably a bit much, but we were in a hurry trying to finish the game in a short time slot and didn’t have the luxury to mess around with more subtle forms of investigation. I’m sure with a slightly less gonzo pace, we would have amassed even more atmospheric, tense, and unexpected scenes pitting one obsessed man against another. As is, we both thoroughly enjoyed our experience, albeit a brief one. We accomplished a lot in a short amount of time, and it all made sense, and it all felt like a part of a bizarre and engaging crime movie.
So please don’t let this game slip your notice. If you’re looking for a rock solid game that expertly ties theme to mechanics, go for Dog & Wolf. It’s worth it.
With the demise of Google+, the online indie roleplaying community has lost its home. I’ve been supplementing my online reading with good, old fashioned blogs and Paul’s Indie Reading Club Slack channel. But I’ve also resolved to write a little bit more here on my blog, which has fallen by the wayside since G+ became my primary place to talk about longer material (Twitter being for short comments).
I think I’ll start by finishing up the last four posts in my criminally incomplete 12 Principle series for Mars Colony. It’s only been a year and a half! … Yeeeesh. The good news is that I already have three of the final four posts outlined in my notes. So look for those starting next week. Let’s finish this thing up!
After that, I think I’ll write a bit about the current state of development on my next roleplaying projects. Here’s to blogging again!
Let Fear Inspire Your Play. Fear Cards ensure you are thinking about how the real world interfaces with your fictional Martian setting. Once created, however, they don’t intrude, and they don’t get pushy. There is no mechanic that forces anyone to pull a new card. They are simply waiting for you when you need them. Don’t be afraid to use them, but likewise don’t feel obligated to make use of every aspect of every card. Even the act of writing the cards is enough to set most players’ creative potential in motion. The cards are as much for establishing tone as they are for in-the-moment inspiration. In a two-player game especially, you can’t rely on a table full of creative minds. So instead let the little details created during the preparation phase fill that void.
When you do use a card, use it immediately to color whatever is happening in the current scene. Fear Cards often hint at large systematic problems. But the cards are not obligations. Resist the urge to describe the entirety of an insurmountable problem. Don’t put that sort of pressure on yourself. Instead, start small and leave it at that. Let the problem, like all problems in the colony, spool out naturally and gradually. Your real-world fear becomes the seed within your fiction that transforms into something much more frightening as it develops and combines with other Fear Cards. Allow each idea to mutate into something new and horrifying.
Think about that for a second, and what you might create using someone like Trump as just the seed of something bigger. On second thought, maybe don’t.
Sympathy Complicates Everything. During the preparation phase, the Savior generates a single Sympathy character — someone close to Kelly that could prove a thorn in her side, a weakness to be exploited, or a source of humanizing strength. Kelly’s reaction to the Sympathy character often says a lot about where she is as a person because the Sympathy’s life is messy. When someone close comes to Kelly for help, will she take time out of her schedule to assist a single person or turn him away as an unnecessary distraction? Or perhaps the Sympathy will seek to undermine Kelly’s efforts for selfish gains. If so, is Kelly’s compassion a character flaw given her larger mission? All of these are questions worth considering, especially as the Sympathy evolves with each additional scene.
As Governor, Kelly’s Sympathy is always a character worth developing. He can be used as a tool to generate action. He can be deployed as a means to humanize Kelly. And he can be used as an exemplar of the colony populace. However, even if you use Kelly’s Sympathy character as a plot device, never do so without humanizing him first. Otherwise, your plot device will ring hollow and lead to nothing worthwhile. Set the character up first, even with a single scene, so that Kelly’s potential sympathy for the person rings true no matter if she betrays or embraces it.
Failure is Always an Option. The tagline for Mars Colony says the game is about “personal failure and government.” That’s true, but more generally, Mars Colony is a game about reacting to failure when the stakes are high. In an ideal world, government leaders would be as competent as they advertise and as graceful as we hope. In reality, no one is competent in all situations, and politicians often choose optics over grace when they fall short. Martian politics are no different.
When Kelly arrives, she is preeminently qualified, but the situation is impossible. Try to save the colony, but also accept that you are perched precariously on the verge of failure. The game’s dice mechanic forces you to take risks, often when you’d rather not. Embrace the dice mechanic and what it represents thematically. Embrace risk. Embrace bold plans, and try to ignore the potential consequences of failure — until you actually fail. The real decision point in the game is what you do when failure finds you. It is then that Kelly will have to make compromises because pragmatic success is often linked with bad deeds, and graceful failure is often linked with a doomed colony. That’s not cynicism, but rather a purposeful choice designed to elicit disgust and empathy for a politician in an impossible situation.
Problems are Like Viruses: They Keep Spreading. The Colony Health Markers define three to five potentially catastrophic problems standing in the way of the colony’s longterm survival. They are existential threats, and you should treat them as such. That means the problems are really, really bad. However, it also means they are anything but isolated. The rules encourage both players to discuss the nature of a Colony Health Marker after choosing it from the list of possibilities. You should think of that discussion as an initial briefing, not the whole story. It’s something to get the creative process started. It is not a set of limitations. Problems have a way of spreading, of overspilling their boundaries, and of infecting other aspects of colony life that were not at first apparent. As Governor, you should complicate each Marker, using the dice results and Kelly’s plans (both successes and failures) as inspiration.
For example, if you choose “water” as your health marker, and further define it as a problem with contamination in the drilling and heating equipment, you might start out with a sober scene in the Martian Council Hall where Kelly fights for increased funding for the engineering teams. Maybe you transition to a scene where Kelly tours one of the water reclamation facilities and “gets to know” the people behind her infrastructure. But unless Kelly fixes the problem straight away (very unlikely), you might find that the simple contamination is actually sabotage carried out by disgruntled workers. Or maybe Kelly’s request for increased funding uncovers an embezzlement scheme by Earth Coalition representatives. Whatever you do, allow the problem to spool out such that one problem hints at another and another. In this way, the political and environmental realities will feel all the more real, and all the more daunting.
Kelly is a Person, Not an Office. Personal Scenes are the secret weapon behind quality Mars Colony games. It’s easy to seesaw between the two main scene types reserved for the Governor and the Savior: Opposition Scenes and Progress Scenes. These are the main focus of play, and they keep the game moving forward. Introducing problems for Kelly to deal with, and then resolving (or attempting to resolve) those problems, creates a natural rhythm that suits the two-player format. However, you must learn to break that rhythm and introduce some Personal Scenes. It’s only when you are able to divorce yourself from Kelly’s political troubles and gain a glimpse into her personal life that you will truly feel her pain when she has to make difficult decisions that affect all Martians.
Whether she turns out to be an angel or a monster, Personal Scenes reveal Kelly’s motivations as a human being. They don’t have to be long or elaborate. They may be quiet and contemplative. They may depict a moment in Kelly’s life with no conflict whatsoever. Of course you might also use Personal Scenes to develop Kelly’s relationships with her Sympathies, and to deepen her sense of compassion or create troubling conflicts of interest. Whatever your choice, it is within these personal moments that you’ll find an imperfect politician capable of good and bad — but always for complex reasons.