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.
Any and all feedback is welcome!
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.