Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Twice As Powerful With His Crew Stabbing Him In His Shirtless Back

Update: Rereading this, it seems far more bitter than I really intended. I don't have the time to edit it right now, so it'll have to stay, rant and all. So I'll qualify it with "it was actually quite fun, just really frustrating at the same time". Like get-up-and-walk-away-from-the-table-for-a-moment-because-you-need-to-calm-down-and-can't-believe-how-bad-the-other-player-just-screwed-up-your-plans fun. Anyhow...

Several weeks back we arrived a little late for this sci-fi short-shot we were playing in. Four other players had already made their characters when my wife and I got there. No problem, the GM says, character creation is fast, flexible, and a little experimental. So, I ask, "what positions in the crew haven't been taken yet?" They say, "actually, we don't have a Starship Captain yet. Why don't you play the captain?"

We're late, I don't want to hold up the game, and as it happens it was the day I was diagnosed with Achilles Tendinitis, so I name the character "Captain Achilles". Top of the character sheet says "Character Concept", so I write "Captain Kirk with Prosthetic Leg". We'd recently watched some season 1 classic Trek - before he develops the strange pause-laden over-dramatic speach method that marks his characterization in season 2 & 3 and the movies. In short, I'm thinking I'm making a heroic and competent captain - Star Fleet's finest, beloved by his crew, etc, but with an old war wound as a handicap to keep me from dominating the game.

Next step in character creation is handing your character sheet to the left. That person adds an aspect to your sheet. Then they pass it left, and another person gives you your second aspect. I get my sheet back, and my two aspects are "Twice As Powerful With His Shirt Off" and "Compensating For Something". Thanks, guys.

But that's just the tip of the iceberg. All I knew was that the setting was ostensibly that of the old Traveller system. Now, I don't know Traveller very well, but it never struck me as slapstick or a parody. What I didn't know, was that in the 20 or 30 minutes we'd missed, they'd decided the crew would be the worst most dysfunctional crew that had ever been press-ganged into service. But they didn't tell me that. Nope, no clue had I till my first attempt to give a real order.

Now, when I'm playing a ranking PC, I don't pull rank often. It's not any fun to be bossed around, so I play it a lot more casual than any military or workplace would ever allow. In recent memory, this has burned me twice. So, it's not till the situation is dire that I start making command decisions, and the Pilot, Engineer, and Ship's Surgeon decide to do their own things instead. Total cluster. "Oh, well," I think, "that's what I get for showing up late. At least it's just a one-shot. I'll just roll with the punches." For the second half of the session, I switched from Captain Kirk to Zap Branigan, 'cause clearly that's the type of captain the rest of the players wanted. Any attempts at using logic, charisma, or discipline were going to be disrupted by the other players. Worst crew ever. We end up crashed, our passengers and crew imperiled, on this desolate ice planet run by a mad scientist. But, we didn't all die, so I considered that close enough to victory for a one-shot.

Imagine my surprise then, when, several weeks later, I come back from vacation to discover that a follow-up session to this game has been put on the schedule. Now I'm stuck reprising my over-compensating, shirtless on Hoth, incompetent captain, doomed to be disrespected by his crew. "Oh, well," I mutter again, and try to put on a good front.

Twenty minutes into this second session, it becomes clear that our NPC "host" is not just a mad scientist, but a genocidal fiend. He was marooned on this planet after being back-stabbed by the Draconian Empire, for whom he'd been a designer of superweapons. In the decades he'd be stranded here, he'd built a new super-weapon, a space ship with artificial intelligence and the power to destroy entire solar systems. He was now planning on obliterating a third of the galaxy to get his vengeance.

So, I talk to my horrible, incompetent crew. I know ordering them to fight won't work. But it is "Space Hitler" we're facing here, so I figured the players would grok that he's the badguy. "We need to figure out how to deal with this villain," I say. "We need to separate him from his ship, and knock him unconscious. Then the pilot and engineer will be able to jerry-rig a distress signal or possibly disable the AI in the ship." We discuss this, we lay out signals (blink three times, as silly as that sounds), we discuss it again and again, disseminating this information to all the PCs. Everyone is on-board.

A few scenes later, we have an opportunity. The mad scientist is in room with us in his base. All the PCs are present. There's two sets of 40-foot hangar doors between us and the evil AI ship. We've all got weapons drawn, because it had turned out one of our passengers had been a Draconian spy. The spy was subdued, and the Mad Scientist stood with his back to me. I blink three times at the Pilot's player, and attack the Mad Scientist. The game has no sneak attack rules, but the GM gives me initiative. I get a good hit, but it's not quite enough to take the Scientist out in one blow. Even though we had weapons at the ready, I started with an unarmed attack, because we wanted to capture the Mad Scientist and keep him as leverage so the supership couldn't just vaporize the planet. The scientist counter-attacks with a laser, but misses because I burn through a bunch of character resources to stay alive.

It gets to the PC Pilot's action. He shoots at me. Yep. My character is his target.

Then it's the Engineer's action, and he starts throwing pies at me. I kid you not.

3 other PCs flee the room. They're not really combat characters, and one had already been wounded by the Draconian spy, so I can't really blame them.

On my actions, while focusing my attacks on the Mad Scientist I shout orders to my crew to help me stop this madman - all the while reminding them that he is planning the genocide of billions. I even chose not to attack in round three so I can make a Leadership roll to force the Pilot to do his duty to not just his Captain but also Humanity. The player of the Pilot character blows through a big stack of Fate chips to resist it.

About 4 rounds into the fight I finally get some help from one of the other PCs, but by then I've burned through all my Fate Chips and taken a lot of damage. Even that PC decides to wrestle me to the ground on round 5 or 6, because she decides that's easier than fighting the villain plus all the other PCs. Total freakin' chaos.

The session ends with me in the brig of the evil super-ship, and everyone else buddy-buddy with Space Hitler. "Oh, well," I think, "at least it's the second-half of a two-parter. I'm out for a couple of scenes, but it'll all be over soon."

This Thursday, we're playing part three.


Anemone said...

Ahem. Seems about right for this group. By the way, sorry I contributed with at least one of your previous bad experiences with the chain of command...

r_b_bergstrom said...

You at least your loyalty in the right place.

Refusing to let the captain sacrifice himself is a lot more noble than shooting the captain in the back because he's going forward with the very plan the group had worked out and discussed 3 times.

Anemone said...

Believe me, I understand very well where you're coming from -- both on the issue of dealing with a chain of command in-game when you're an easy-going, cooperative player, and with the frustration of a group that is playing Toons or Paranoia when you thought you were playing Traveller or Firefly. This particular group is all good people, but they often want to play goofier scenarios than I would prefer.

r_b_bergstrom said...

I'm a-o-k with goofy scenarios, as long as it's been previously identified as such.

What bugs me is when the pitch for the session is serious, and the first scene or two is serious, and then an hour in someone starts getting slapstick. I find that very jarring.

It's tough to anticipate, because games fall all along the spectrum. It's not black & white - just serious or silly. There's also mostly serious but with decidedly quirky characters. Or almost completely serious, but one person gets to play the comic relief. Or games where bitter dark comedy is okay, but silliness is not.

With a rotating game like we have with this group, it's sometimes really hard to get everyone on the same page for 4 hours.