Monday, May 23, 2022

Ludic Dreams III - My Body is a Cage


At long last, I turn my Ludic Dreams series to what I probably should have been doing all along: reviewing games and adventures about dreams, the dreamlands, and general phantasmagoria. It’s like coming home—if your home was Dylath-leen. I have a few more in the pipeline, so stay tuned!

This time I am reviewing My Body is a Cage, a game by John Battle, with editing by Jared Sinclair, and seven accompanying 2-page dungeons written for the system by Alex Damanceno, Ema Acosta, Jim Gies, Josh Domanski, Maria Mison, Nevyn Holmes, and Julie-Anne Muñoz (who also illustrated several of the other dungeons). You can buy it as a PDF here or here for $20. 

I play-tested My Body is a Cage over 3 short sessions (~2 hours each for a total of about 6 hours), running 3 players through “The Atkinson Hotel” by Ema Acosta, one of the 7 adventures included with the game. Two of my players, Nick Kuntz and Aleks Revzin, play in my long running dreamlands campaign. The third player was Bones’ own Anne, author of the Dungeon Dioramas series. Since this game is in some ways a crossover between indie and OSR sensibilities, it is worth saying that all three of my players had broadly OSR type expectations and preferred play styles. After the final session we spent a little while debriefing the game.

The Concept


John Battle says it best: 

"Awake: You’re broke or struggling. Life is hard. You go to school and work a job, just trying to make enough for rent. Maybe you wanna be a youtuber, or draw your web-comic. Perhaps you want to travel, or at least move out of your parents’ house. You gotta find a way to make money. In this game you play as a person, someone other than yourself, in a slice-of-life story. 

Dreaming: When you sleep you dream of a dungeon. It’s filled with treasure. If you steal it, you awaken richer. This is your chance to fight back against the struggle of life. But the dungeon holds dangers, and you are still just a person. So be careful. Good luck, don’t die."

Here at Ludic Dreams, I hope we can all agree: that's a great concept. 

Char Gen and Gameplay Loop


Character generation is genuinely interesting in this game. Players dice three times each on two d100 tables, one of positive sounding adjectives (e.g. lucky, cool, innocent), and one of negative sounding adjectives (e.g. overwhelmed, fraudulent, paranoid). The player then assigns these as their six stats, each with an ability modifier that ranges from +3 (the strongest stat) to -3 (the weakest stat). 


One neat thing about this use of stats is that it allows you to assign positive sounding adjectives to one of your penalty stats, and negative sounding adjectives to one of your bonus stats. For example, Anne played Stephanie, assigning the adjective “Cool” to the worst -3 stat position, deciding that Stephanie wanted so badly to look cool that it was a liability. Similarly, Nick assigned Fraudulent to the +3 stat for their PC Simone, on the rationale that Simone was a very compelling fraud.

The personality of the character takes shape from the assigning of stats and is further elaborated as you pick bonds that tie you to other PCs, select a flaw that your opponents can target, an ideal that you can voice once a game to your advantage, and two weirdly specific skills. You also roll once on a “genre” for your character, which can be a musical, cinematic, or literary genre that is somehow the theme of your character, which you can evoke one time per session to double your dice on some roll. Character generation caused us to laugh out loud several times. It created memorable PCs who were tied to one another in interesting ways. We all had a real sense of who the characters were before we started playing. I definitely recommend doing it together at your first session. I's fun to collectively watch the characters take shape and for people to play off one another.

The game employs a loop perhaps influenced by the Persona series of games. (So Nick tells me, I haven’t ever played the games.) There is a daytime period that is charted out over a calendar month, with a daytime action available whenever the character has a day off (at least I think this is how it works). This is randomly determined as you have a 1 in 8 chance each day in the month to have a day off (oof, life is tough for the PCs). While the daytime system is never spelled out, there is a sample map of a waking world city that shows how the GM might construct daytime activities for their players. 



These includes wilderness hiking to heal your character, researching topics in the library, apartment hunting with associated living expenses (and bonuses for living somewhere fancy!), selling your dream treasures at "the dream merchant", visiting the mall to have your fortune told, going to the movies to add dice to your dice pool for the next adventure, etc. The presupposition seems to be that the daytime portion will involve a mix of dice rolls and perhaps scene-based play, with some pressure coming from “big events” like rent being due or final exams or family events on set calendar dates.

After the daytime portion comes the nighttime portion set in the dream dungeon, which has an exploration turn based structure, familiar from old school games, and appropriate to a high peril environment. This phase is the more familiar “dungeon crawl”, although in a dreamy form. It is left open how these two phases relate. Perhaps the players decide how frequently they will enter the dream dungeons, allowing them to set their pace throughout the month under the pressure of making rent or tuition payments. Or perhaps the adventuring happens at set times, say every two weeks.

In our playtest, we used the waking world mainly to characterize the player’s relationships to one another and to an NPC who sent them into the dream dungeon. In other words, we focused mainly on the dream dungeon segment of play. This is too bad, because I think in an extended campaign the waking-dreaming loop would make for fun and dynamic play. The waking world portion would require probably the most investment from a GM, because Battle gives you a lot less to work with than in the dream dungeons. Battle does build some connections between the two phases by tying NPCs in the waking world to NPCs in the dream dungeon, with effects that can cross into the waking world in interesting ways. Were I running a campaign, I would probably develop more connections across the two cycles of play – including more ways to affect dreams by doing things in the waking world and vice versa. What would a rival adventuring party look like in a game like this?



The Atkinson Hotel and The Other Six Dungeons


The adventure we ran was "The Atkinson Hotel". It’s a very memorable location, a vaguely creepy turn of the (20th) century hotel, with an alarming staff and treasures from real world luminaries (e.g. Borges’ typerwriter, or a larger version of Duchamp’s painting The Bride) who used to frequent the hotel in their dreams, and may even have died there. I prepped for the dungeon for about 1 hour, mainly to flesh out the rooms and connections between a bit. Otherwise I was easily able to run the dungeon from the two-page spread. Two-page dungeons are hard to make work, but this dungeon is a masterclass in layout and design.

The three hotel staff NPCs are presented with brilliant lucidity: a tiny paragraph, three one line motivations or quirks, and a clever way to make a state block look interesting. They absolutely came alive in play with almost no effort. Check out the list of treasures at the bottom of the dungeon as well! I always love memorable treasures and the idea of using heirlooms from literary and artistic luminaries in the waking world is a gorgeous premise.

The dungeon itself is a pointcrawl between eight hotel rooms. The starting room is very dynamic with three different exits, one normal (hotel room door) and two surreal (at the back of the closet, under the bed). In our playthrough, the players reported the dreamlike quality of the dungeon came through strongly. There were some memorable moments that emerged in play, including the surreal experience of climbing out of a small and claustrophobic (indeed shrinking!) storage room into a huge storage room surrounding it. Another memorable moment involved Aleks’ character Alecs waking the perennially sleepy hag he carries on his back (random “equipment” he started with) with the tempting smell of soup, and setting her off into kitchen to taste all the soups to the hysterical consternation of the bustling chefs in the room. A final memorable moment came when Stephanie shot the infernal title to Borges’ typewriter out of the hands of the hotel manager with her bow, sticking it to the wall, right before the PCs made their getaway back to the waking world, Borges' typewriter in hand.

The players liked the dungeon on the whole, although they did feel limited by its linear pointcrawl nature. Although you can get on the crawl 3 different ways from the first room, each other room has one entrance and one exit, meaning that once you made your initial selection you are always on a linear path. Were I revising the dungeon I would Jaquays it by introducing maybe 4 extra rooms, looping paths, and multiple exits from most rooms. 

They had a deeper criticism which comes from what I think as the "dream aesthetic dilemma". In dreams, scenes are often disconnected, spatial logics break down, and "people" often function more as symbols than living beings with their own distinct agendas. Old school dungeons by contrast work on spatial logics. One explores the space, learns to navigate it, and works it to one's advantage. The people one encounters are not figments or parts of tableaus, but factions with their own agendas and desires, who occupy regions on the map or move through it in intelligible ways. This (fantastic) naturalism enables lateral thinking, problem solving, and open-ended negotiation. The dilemma is that the absurdist, disconnected, symbolist aesthetic of dreams pushes against this. (As you might imagine, I of all people have thoughts about ways to navigate this dilemma, but I'll save those for another time.)  

It's not surprising that my (OSR style) players remarked that there clearly was no map of an actual hotel, but only dream scenes snipped from a hotel and connected by pseudo spatial connectors. They had the sense that each was a static scene that would stay where it was when they closed the door. They noted that this limited their sense of agency, which depends on the logic of real world space, and made the dungeon less interactive than more “naturalistic” dungeons. For some of the NPCs, they also wondered how much "they were really people". 

Still, I think this is an excellent starting dungeon for this game. I would wholeheartedly recommend a less linear, properly Jaquaysed version of it as a near ideal introduction to My Body is a Cage.

Behold the Nyxosphere in all its glory!

The other dungeons included in the game are more variable in their quality. Two more of the seven are roughly of the caliber of “The Atkinson Hotel”. One is the gorgeous “Nyxosphere” by Alex Demanceno, a sort of open world demonic dreamscape with a more classical D&D in dream hell vibe. It especially leverages the mechanics of monsters in interesting ways. It also has a more naturalistic approach to (an absurd demonic) space, so it will probably run more like D&D than some of the other dungeons. The other is “Animalia” by Jim Gies, a text-heavy two-page adventure that pulls a trick on the players by having them appear in the dream dungeon in the form of animals. The dungeon is interesting and it would be a delightful second or third adventure to run. It certainly opens with a bang, with the players dicing to see what animals they are and replacing one of their stats with a suitable animal trait.

In a second tier we have two dungeons that have excellent material but need some work. The first is “The Desert”, a depth crawl by Josh Domanski. It’s evocative and interesting. It uses a nice mechanic of randomly generated locations + details + events, with modifiers for depth. But the different locations don’t give you quite enough information to make them interactive and playable, and there is no treasure even listed. The second is “Seasons Amiss” by Nevon Holmes, illustrated by Julie-Anne Muñoz. This “dungeon” has an amazing concept. It consists of a pointcrawl across a surreal map. At the starting place there is a lantern that can be turned to red or blue light, shifting the whole map into summer or winter phases. Certain things are revealed in each phase, given the map a wonderful interactivity and puzzle solving vibe. Excellently, the two lights also introduce countdown clocks to environmental hazards in the form of heat waves or blizzards that will punish the players and keep them moving. While I adore the concept of the dungeon, it contains no encounters, no monsters or NPCs, and no treasure. 

In the third tier, we have dungeons that work less well. "Stiff Bargains", another team-up by Nevyn Holmes and Julie-Anne Muñoz, consists of a punny series of fetch quests for absurd NPCs. The whole is alarming and absurd enough that it could be fun for a certain group. But the linked chain of fetch quests is not the best format for a dungeon crawl. The last adventure I hesitate even to speak about. It is called “The Seven Orifices of Omniscience”. It is not clear who wrote it or what it is. It reads like something from the Book of Revelations. It is in no way a dungeon. 

Core Mechanics


Let’s talk about the innovative mechanics of the game. The games core mechanic is that when your character does something, a GM or another player can ask you to roll. You choose one of your attributes to roll on and apply the modifier to a 2d6 roll. If the roll is unopposed you must roll a 10+ to succeed. If the roll is opposed then the GM or other player rolls 2d6 as well, perhaps adding a modifier. Whoever rolls higher gets to say how the thing turns to their advantage, and the loser can choose to up the stakes and try again if they want. Combat uses opposed rolls but works a little differently. I’ll talk about that below.

You can add extra dice to your rolls in a number of ways, including most importantly from a dice pool that functions as a kind of meta-currency. You are incentivized to employ negative attributes because whenever you roll an attribute with a penalty you add a die to the pool. You also add dice to your pool if you use all six attributes over the course of the adventure. Most importantly, you add dice to your pool by selecting a bingo card that corresponds to a class for each session (both daytime and dream dungeon). The bingo card incentivizes playing to the type of the relevant character class. You get a die each time you cross off something on the bingo card. You get a whopping 10 dice if you get bingo by completing a row, column, or diagonal. At the end of an adventure, unused dice in your pool can be converted to treasure or used to buy skills, bonds, or a chance to raise an attribute. This flexible use of the meta-currency is interesting.

The players in this game had mixed feelings about the meta-currency aspect of the game. On the one hand, they experienced the core mechanic as straightforward and intuitive. Since near certain failure (rolling to hit 10+ with an attribute penalty) is incentivized by the meta-currency, and since adding dice nearly always ensures success even on opposed roles, the players experienced themselves as often choosing between failure and success. They found this a little strange. But this is also a game where you play to win in high peril circumstances (dungeons). This meant that they were incentivized to choose strategically to fail in low stakes situations in the service of collecting rewards (dice saved as treasure or XP style rewards) or storing up meta-currency ammo to win in higher stakes circumstances. This “failing in order to win” dynamic felt unfamiliar to them and they didn't entirely love it.

There was also a lot to keep track of on the character sheet in terms of the meta-game currency, including attribute modifiers, dice pools, a few other ways of boosting dice (genre, bond, skill), and the massive bingo card. As OSR players used to assuming that “the answer is not on your character sheet”, they found the meta-currency worked against this expectation. Since the meta-game currency dominates the players strategic experience, the players reported feeling like the answer to pretty much everything really was on their character sheet. 

One of the players in particular wished that more of their attributes were relevant to the kinds of physical actions on performs in a dungeon, which is a very physical space. Sometimes that reported that it felt like a stretch to find an appropriate attribute, most of which refer to personality traits, to roll on for physical tasks.

None of this is to suggest that the meta-currency core mechanics don’t work. But the mechanics do perhaps push towards a different playstyle than old school play. If you are open to a fusion of indie and OSR styles, then I think you may like this. If you are more solidly OSR in your preferences, you may find some of the mechanics a stretch.

Combat


In combat, one uses opposed rolls with the winner scoring a hit against the loser. Damage is recorded by marking off inventory slots and sometime incurring conditions like burning or bleeding that also occupy inventory slots. The use of inventory slots as hit points is elegant. Having conditions occupy inventory slots--as Mausritter does--created an elegant unified mechanic. I especially enjoyed the robust role for conditions in the system, although we didn’t see this in our play test, which had little combat. For example, the condition of burning spreads to additional inventory slots until the fire is put out, and if you are stressed you lose 1 die from all your actions (!), but you can pass to other players, presumably by unloading it on them. 

The application of this system to monsters works elegantly too. Monster have inventory slots corresponding to their HD. These slots contain their various attacks or abilities, so you incapacitate your foe as you score hits against them. For example, if you can score enough hits against a giant lobster you might break its claw. 

My Body is a Cage also uses a lower-is-better initiative system that has you roll different sized dice depending on how time consuming or slow what you’re doing is. You can do up to 3 things in a single round, but you have to roll all 3 initiative dice if you do. So there's an economy between going first, or doing more things in each round. 

I found opposed rolls a strange fit with the otherwise innovative individual initiative system. Opposed rolls represent a struggle as a two-sided affair, combining the activity of both sides in a single dramatic face-off roll. But the individual initiative system seems more geared to representing attacks as one-directional affairs, where each participant gets their own separate actions that are resolved in sequence. If I’m understanding the system, then if someone is facing multiple foes, they get a very large number of attacks each round in the form of opposed rolls: each of their opponent’s attacks trigger an opposed roll (up to 3 attacks each), and on top of that, opposed rolls are also triggered by their own actions (again up to 3).

In play I stumbled over this system, only coming to the above understanding by the time I was done running it. I started out thinking that there was only 1 opposed roll per pair of combatants, but then realized that this didn’t work with the individualized initiative system and multiple actions a round. It was a little strange that I walked away from reading the brief rules about combat so unsure about how they were supposed to work. Maybe if Battle had said a little bit more, it would have been clearer to me from the start.

Graphic and Information Design


This brings us to questions of design. My Body is a Cage is laid out in landscape orientation. Each page or two-page spread is colorful and uniquely designed, focused on a single idea or rule. Sometimes there’s a paragraph of text, or a big table, and sometimes there’s just a few sentences.

If you love this kind of thing you’ll probably like this a lot, and if you hate it then you probably won’t like it here either. Personally I’m agnostic about this trend in graphic design. I did find that it worked in one specific way for me here. Many of the rules and ways of tracking things used in My Body is a Cage have a gimmicky toy-like feel. Each character has a bingo card that you print out and mark up in play. There is a word search you complete to get random starting equipment. You stack dice in a little circle on your character sheet to represent your dice pool. There’s a paper fortune teller that the GM cuts out and assembles to determine random treasure. The bright and splashy layout made it feel like the game was composed of activities drawn from a colorful children’s activity book—the kind you might have bought in a convenience store before getting on a long family trip or bus ride. While it won’t come across quite as clearly in online play as it would in person, with a little prep it and having players print out sheets in advance, I think you can capture a fair bit of this activity book vibe.



This is an ambitious design choice that was relatively well-realized. Some of these features could use a little fine-tuning. The character sheet presupposes you will record your dice pool by stacking dice, and the bingo card seems to presuppose you will use tokens, since there's no way to mark off a black square with a pen. We found this awkward for purposes of storage when an adventure was spread out over multiple session, as they often will be. (Skills are also missing from the character sheet, by the way.) But the basic thing I want to say is that it's impressive how well John Battle pulls off this tactile, festive, childlike feel in the design. The aesthetics of the graphic design have a real point that fuses with the rules for the game in interesting ways.

When it came to information presentation the design of the book does less well. The book wastes no words on explaining how the rules work in play or even fit together, often assuming you’ll sort of infer the logic of the game from the different terse but colorful rules spreads. I found this frustrating. I spent far more time trying to understand the game than I would have had there been more text to help me. Not all minimalism is sleek information design; sometimes less is actually less.

Exacerbating this problem, there are several things that seem to be implied by the rules but do not otherwise appear in the game. For example, the initiative system is geared around weapons of different size, but there are no mechanical effects for different sized weapons. Another thing is the selection of character class for each session. The only mechanic presented is the bingo sheet that incentivizes certain kinds of behavior for each class by adding to your dice pool when you check off the box. But the game includes a list of spells that you’re supposed to dice for. Do you get a spell if you took the magic bingo card? But do you also get something if you take the fighter or rogue bingo card? Maybe one of those weapons of different size? 






This raises an interesting design question. I’m all in favor of systems that enable hacking and presuppose that everyone who plays them will trick them out to play in their own special way. How do we distinguish that as a positive design goal from a game being unclear or half-baked? One test might be whether you have to spend energy just trying to figure out what the rules to the game are or how they work together. Although the rules for My Body is a Cage are neat, I found Battle’s strong preference for saying as little as humanly possible about his game left me guessing at times or having to piece it together. 

In Sum


My Body is a Cage is an interesting game that blends indie and old school playstyles to produce something new. It has a great premise. It suggests a promising gameloop structure, with a strong separation between slice of life downtime in the real world and adventuring in dream dungeons. Some of the mechanics might need revision (i.e. combat), but others are creative and well-suited to the game. The dungeons that it presents have a dreamy vibe at the cost of less open environments and lateral thinking. The aesthetics of the whole will contribute to your play, especially if the group can meet around a table and enjoys tactile activities. There’s an excellent game in there if you’re open to old school games that are played in an indie style. 

Monday, May 2, 2022

Eldritch Mousetrap - Distant Lights

Let’s stick to space, shall we? Last time on eldritch mousetraps I reviewed Death in Space, and today I’m going to be shifting gears and looking at the latest Stars Without Number supplement: Distant Lights.

The cover page of the book. Text reads Distant Lights by Kevin Crawford. The sub-text reads "creating borderworld outposts for your campaign."
The cover of the book, in standard Sine Nomine fashion


Introduction

Distant Lights is a Stars Without Number supplement by Kevin Crawford. As most readers of this blog probably know, Crawford is renowned for his sandbox-oriented books, complete with hundreds of random tables and guidelines for game-prep. 

Distant Lights is dedicated to helping GMs (and players!) create borderworld outposts for your campaign. What does he have to say about it?

Distant Lights gives the busy GM the tools they need to fashion remote planetary outposts, secluded deep-space asteroid habitats, or brash colonial footholds on far-flung worlds. Tables and guides are provided for generating outposts adventure hooks, troubled NPCs, and restive native populations. Additional materials give players the prices and guides they need for establishing their own interstellar outposts on distant worlds.

While Distant Lights was written for the Stars Without Number role-playing game, the tools in this book are largely system-neutral, and usable with your own favorite gaming system or sci-fi setting of choice.

Big promises, Crawford. Can you fulfill them?

Rather than review the book page by page in great detail, I’m going to follow in the footsteps of a couple of my favorite reviews on Bones, Filling in the Blanks by Ben and In the Light of a Ghost Star by Anne. In that, they reviewed a book designed to help generate a hex map for play, and as part of the review ran the “procedural engine” to churn out some content. It really gives you a good sense of the results that you can get out if you shovel dice into the book’s furnace.

There are player-facing rules as well, that allow a group to manage an outpost of their own. We’ll dive those a bit at the end. 

So, let’s generate a border outpost, shall we?

The Generation of Outposts

Crawford provides GMs with expansive random tables that can spur creativity and ease the burden on prep. They never eliminate prep, but they can certainly help with burnout and creating new places to explore. I think the contents in the tables are great, but I don’t actually think that the entries themselves are the best thing about these books.

Rather, Crawford’s best gift is the ability to present us with vectors to leverage that we might not have thought of immediately. If someone kicked in my door right now and asked me “what things make up a border outpost?” I’d probably say “who the hell are you and how did you get in my house?” After some discussion, I could certainly come up with vectors on my own, but Crawford has given them all to us. Even if you don’t like the entries on the tables and want to make your own, it’s hard not to appreciate what the table provides overall—a skeleton to flesh out with your own prep.

In regards to “when you should use this book” Crawford gives us a north star: “planetary outposts are space villages.” This book is useful for creating smaller, more intimate places for characters to adventure when they leave the sprawling super-metropolis. 

And now, an important caveat before we begin: I’m going to roll on every table. This isn’t how I would normally use these kinds of tools, but I’m going to push the tables to their absolute maximum and see what happens. As such, some rolls might be discarded later on to make things fit, or if they’re not interesting.

The Outpost’s Mood

The mood is a good touchstone for the rest of the outpost—a place to fall back on when an entry maybe doesn’t make sense and you need to force the jigsaw piece. 

Where is the mood most obvious? The way the local workers and inhabitants behave when off duty.

What is the outpost’s overall mood? Bitter. They don’t want to be here and resent that they are stuck in this place.

The Outpost’s Context

These are tables that help flesh out why an outpost exists, and are separated into three sections: external relations, local relations, and historical outpost events.

External Relations

This section is built using my favorite of Crawford’s techniques: six tables, one of each dice size. You can pick up your entire set, roll it, and then check the results.

External relations refers to how the outpost deals with outsiders and connection to the wide world. There’s advice here that you should tie this into the tags of the planet itself, so we’ll create a planet first. 

(Using Stars Without Number revised edition to create a planet, we get a low-tech, cold world, locked in a holy war, and populated by warlords. There’s more details, but the bare skeleton will serve us nicely.)

How do they treat adventurers? They’re cheerfully willing to deal with them.

What patron founded it? A religious or philosophical sect.

What is the current main product? Useful manufactures built by the outpost. 

Is it serving its purpose? Yes, it’s managing to do what was intended.

Why was it founded? Mining or extracting a local resource.

What twist exists in its context? A new patron seized it from the founders.

Local Relations

This refers to the connections between the outpost and others living on the planet—specifically the closest group that could conceivably interact.

What outpost dwellers interact most? Low-level workers or native commoners.

What’s the worst the outpost’s done? Seized useful or religiously-important land.

What use is one group to the other? A specific tech or knowledge they have.

How frequent are the interactions? They almost never engage with the other.

What’s the current problem? Hate. A group is abhorrent to the other.

What’s happening right now? A new group is trying to get involved.

Historical Outpost Events

This is a single d12 table, but each entry on it is covered in more detail with a paragraph.

What event happened? An accident, one that almost wiped the outpost. Some unexpected failure of tech or judgment caused an accident that almost wiped out the outpost. Irreplaceable tech may have been lost, or the colony might have been left with a dangerous zone of rubble or radioactivity as a legacy. Local neighbors may have suffered as well.

Checking In

So, let’s take the current rolls and try to get a brief glance of what we’re dealing with here.

  • The local workers are bitter about this place. 
  • They’re on a cold world plagued by holy wars waged by warlords.
  • The outpost itself was founded on religious ground, created to extract a local resource, and they’re succeeding at their task.
  • A new patron is in control of the outpost after an accident in the past almost destroyed the outpost.
  • The outpost itself is anathema to the local warlord, who considers where they set up holy ground.
  • The outpost has higher tech gear that the warlord wants.
  • A third faction is trying to get involved.

The Outpost’s Government

This section helps us outline who’s in control of the outpost. Rather than focusing on broad strokes, we’re drilling down to what’s important—an NPC that the players can deal with.

Forms of Government

What’s the type of outpost government? Tyranny of brute force by a warlord. The outpost is run by the person with the most force at their disposal. They are not necessarily any crueler, more unjust, or more rapacious than any other administrator, but they obtained their power by virtue of violence, and are usually perfectly willing to keep it in the same way.

Who’s in Charge?

The spread showing the "who's in charge" tables.
All the tables required for the "Who's in Charge" section fit on a single page.

The popular attitude about them: No strong feelings; an adequate leader.

How were they chosen? Random chance pushed them into it.

What’s their strongest tool of rule? They have powerful off world backers.

How long have they ruled? So long that they’re getting complacent.

What do they want from the PCs? Deal with a troublesome rival.

Quirks of the leader? They excessively idealize the local natives.

Who’s Opposing them?

Who are their main supporters? Criminals, ruffians, and social outcasts.

Why are they supported? They have a very attractive ideology.

Why haven’t they taken over? They don’t trust their own subordinates.

How known is their opposition? They’re thought a loyal supporter.

What’s their latest action? Construction of a profitable enterprise.

Quirks of the rival? They need to be ruler or face a dire fate.

Checking In

So, let’s take the current rolls and try to get a brief glance of what we’re dealing with here.

Previous entries:

  • The local workers are bitter about this place. 
  • They’re on a cold world plagued by holy wars waged by warlords.
  • The outpost itself was founded on religious grounds, created to extract a local resource, and they’re succeeding at their task.
  • The outpost itself is anathema to the local warlord, who considers where they set up holy ground.
  • The outpost has higher tech gear that the warlord wants.

New or revised entries:

  • After an accident almost destroyed the outpost, a new leader was installed—a hardened mercenary veteran who rules over the outpost with force and might. We’ll generate the most basic stuff for them: Elsa Catlow, she/her.
  • The second in command is an ex-pirate who controls a frigate. They’re preparing to betray Catlow, as they’ve promised their untrustworthy crew that they’ll get control of the outpost and its lucrative exports. Using the same generator, we get: Flint Kiani, he/him.
  • Flint Kiani has recently connected with the local warlord, and are secretly taking the hardened warriors up to space, where they set up connections to sell their services as mercenaries.

The Outpost’s Site

Now that we understand the politics and situation of the outpost, the next few tables help us decide on the physical characteristics of it.

Architectural and Layout Styles

Popular building shapes and outlines: Domes and geodesic structures

Color palettes: Sci-fi white and crystal motif.

General outpost layout: Long and narrow against a local feature.

How vertical is the architecture? Single floor or partly subterranean.

What’s a local infrastructure problem? A local danger tends to break in at times.

Quirk of the place: An abnormal number of security cameras.

An Average Outpost Citizen

Most common hair style: Close-cropped or aggressively short.

Common skin color ranges: Olive, light browns, tanned shades.

Common natural hair colors: Dark browns or mahoganies.

How big are most of them? Unusually tall, whether thin or bulky.

Common outpost casual wear? Snug-fitting jackets, shirts, and trousers.

Common local style, habit, or quirk? They use a lot of recreational drugs.

Services and Costs

This isn’t a list of tables, but rather a list of goods and services that the outpost might offer. Crawford encourages you to go down the list and mark down if the outpost offers it or not, so we’ll do that.

There are two tables provided, both what do they want and why can’t they offer the service that can be rolled on to provide sparks of inspiration.

Carousing: Yes, because of the heavy recreational drug use.

Crime: Kiani can offer a connection to criminal enterprises, being an ex-pirate, he still has ways to bring in contraband from off world and make other deals.

Gear: The outpost will sell the basics, especially cold-weather gear, but nothing military grade. Catlow is the mercenary in charge, and the only people allowed to open-carry are her troopers.

Information: Information about the world and the warlords nearby can be freely given.

Medical: They have an extensive suite of high-tech medical gear, brought in because of the fights they have with local warlords.

Recruits: Catlow doesn’t allow her troopers to take on side jobs, but if the characters are going off-world, Kiani can introduce them to some of the local fighters that are willing to sign up.

Refueling: They can provide starship fuel.

Ship repair: They can handle maintenance and light scuffs.

Transport: If the characters don’t have a ship of their own, Kiani can take them off world and arrange transport.

Weapons: Catlow won’t allow weapons to be sold. Kiani can be convinced, but will make sure they can’t be traced back to him.

Putting it Together

At this point, we’ve got a lot of solid foundation to put together the outpost. It’s taken me about an hour to roll on the tables and write this review, so I imagine that doing this in a less-formalized situation could have you done in twenty minutes or so. But that’s just the foundation, and it’s a bit jumbled up as either bullet points or simply the rolled entry from the table. Depending on your GMing style, this might be enough to roll with. I’d probably take another half hour or so and try to summarize this in a way that I could bring it to the table either tomorrow or six months from now.

The outpost is at the edge of a deep, frozen crevasse. There are multiple lifts that drop into the crevasse. Pockets of ice can be drilled away, revealing a sludgy, unrefined material the outpost calls havoc-serum or just havoc

Refining the havoc-serum into a consumable material is done on site. Once in its refined form, it can be injected. The high bestows heightened senses, aggression, and blocks pain receptors. The user doesn’t become a raging berserker, but an incredibly capable combatant.

Elsa Catlow is in charge. She’s been in charge for many years now, and has grown comfortable. She and her troopers have all the weapons, and she enforces the outpost as a tyrant. The workers here don’t mind though—she keeps them safe. She wants to test herself and her troopers against the local warlord, but hasn’t been given the okay by the outpost’s off-world patron.

Flint Kiani is Elsa’s second. He’s trying to betray her. He’s made connections with the local warlord, and his ex-pirate crew (whom he doesn’t trust) have been promised luxuries and riches once he overthrows Elsa. He has a frigate that is still operational, but stays docked at the outpost. Characters coming to him can utilize his criminal connections.

The local warlord hates the outpost. They too use havoc, refining it with their own methods. The outpost has been erected on a particularly rich vein of havoc-serum. They’ve made a deal with Kiani to help kill Elsa (though Kianai plans on betraying them.) Catlow’s superior firepower makes this difficult.

The outpost work crews partake in the havoc regularly. But they keep the doses small, using it for recreation instead of war. They’re all addicted.

I could keep going, here—I’ve been given a huge amount of structural support from the tables, and it’s not hard to create powderkeg situations.

Mechanical Toolset

Along with the outpost generator tables Crawford also includes a set of mechanics to build outposts—whether that be as a baseline for the GM or for the players to leverage in creating their own off-world base of operations.

This is pretty mechanically heavy—but it essentially breaks down into four categories: population, staff, power, and workspace. Population is how many people comfortably fit, staff is how many people are needed to run the place, power is self-explanatory, and workspace is how much room you have for industrial pursuits. 

This gets the job done neatly, in my opinion. Setting up an outpost as players can be a lot of fun, and groups that want to dig into the myriad of components will enjoy the variety and trying to carefully balance power, workforce, and space in order to maximize profits.

One of the strengths of this is that once you’ve set it up on the provided record sheet, the outpost is pretty static. You know what kind of profit you’re making (or losing) and the associated costs. There’s not a lot of fiddling going on month to month or anything. 

Crawford provides a procedure to handle everything once the colony is set up, including how to solve problems like lack of food, supplies, or angry locals. There’s also some provided ways the GM can push on an outpost, along with advice and guidelines about how hard to go on the PCs.

The rules provided are fun and simple enough grasping them is easy enough. It makes me want to run a space game where the outpost is everything, and I think that’s very possible with what’s provided.

Lastly, there’s also two pages of new colonial gear that players can purchase in defense of their outposts.

A spread containing text and a sheet that details the components of your outpost.
The outpost sheet, including the procedure of how to get it running.


The Weaknesses and Strengths

This is a great resource for a very specific niche. That said, there was one area that missed the mark.

Having a full page dedicated almost entirely to a population’s physical characteristics seems like a lost opportunity. Do we really need to roll for common natural hair colors? I think the entire “average outpost citizen” page could have been replaced with something that’s more gameable—maybe a way to generate a specific citizen with a problem, or even a group of citizens that the players might interact with. Right now, we get a solid picture of the leader of the outpost and the rival, a less clear picture of the local leader, and only broad strokes about the actual people living in the outpost.

In my example above, we know that the general populace is “bitter” and then we know five things about what they look like. A better use of tables could have generated “an ally the PCs can make”, “an enemy the PCs might draw the ire of”, and some kind of powderkeg situation that’s about to happen. 

The way the book is laid out (I bought the PDF) is phenomenal. As usual for a Sine Nomine book, all of the related tables are packed onto one page for easy use. The PDF has bookmarks set up, so navigation is a breeze. It’s only 31 pages, but it’s dense with information.

Here’s the other strong point that’s easy to miss: you can use this book for small fantasy towns. Most of the tables provided don’t actually have hard sci-fi hooks built in, instead relying on generalization to provide structure. You apply the sci-fi skin after you’ve rolled, but you could just as easily apply a fantasy skin or a modern day skin to these things. The mechanical player-facing stuff is very sci-fi oriented, but the basic structure is layed out clear enough that an aspiring GM could hack together a fantasy “build our keep on the borderlands” version of it without too much work. 

Conclusion

If you’re familiar with other Sine Nomine books, you probably know what you’re getting. If you’re not, the simplest way to describe it is a toolset for GMs to prep upcoming games. 

This deeper dive into preparing for a game does go against a lot of the current crop of books, filled with spark tables and things designed to be rolled at the table or a few minutes before the game. Those sorts of things can easily provide a fun night of gaming, but sometimes the fun of prep comes from taking a deeper dive into something and avoiding the low hanging fruit that’s always tempting us.

Distant Lights gives us a good foundation for creating border outposts. It won’t generate something immediately gameable without work on your part, but it will spark your creativity.

Distant Lights can be purchased from DriveThruRPG as either a pdf or a softcover book. 

A Pinch of Salt: The Drain

  The Drain Author: Ian Yusem Reviewer: Dan D. System: Mothership $4.99 pdf  Run as Referee   General Disclaimer: I share a couple discord s...