Saturday, March 9, 2019

Campaigns I Want to Play - Dead Travellers, Psychedelic Cosmonauts, & Full Parsec Five

A couple years ago, at this point, there was a meme going around Google Plus of people posting screenshots of a randomly generated Traveller character made using the Devil Ghost website:

Here's an example. Generate your own.
Yes, I did keep going until I got a woman
who died during char-gen.

So, my friend Peter, who runs the Fantasy Heartbreak Workshop blog and the Starship Graveyard tumblr ended up having a couple conversations about the idea of playing dead Travellers. Since Google Plus has crashed into an iceberg and is current taking on water as it disappears beneath the waves, I'm going to transcribe part of those conversations here.

It started when Peter shared a tweet from Dennis Detwiller (no relation, as far as I know, to the immensely talented Dirk Detweiler Leichtey), and I responded with interest: "I want a game where you play Traveller Ghost PCs who died in character generation trying to save others from gruesome fates."

PETER: I never played Traveller (thought it always sounded cool enough) and games focused around ghosts generally seemed to abstract for me to wrap my mind around. But this idea gives it interesting focus.

The idea of a ship's ghosts trying desperately to prevent the crew from re-enacting an Event Horizon type incident or some similar catastrophe, seems really appealing. 

ANNE: Alternatively, the ghosts don't interact with the living at all, they just go off to have their own super-phantasmagorical adventures IN SPAAACE! 

PETER: I was going to say that seems a little abstract for my tastes.  But, you know what, might be cool.

ANNE: Yeah, I mean the idea of having the ghosts be on the same ship as the living characters (who are NPCs?), unable to interact with them, but somehow trying to save them from danger sounds kind of challenging to play. Like, that kind of thing works on tv and in books, but I don't know at the table.

(Maybe play the scenario once as the living characters, keep really good records, then play again as the ghosts who can "see" what the living characters are doing? I dunno, it's more work that I would want to do, especially because...)

The idea of playing ghosts who encounter crazy weird hallucinatory stuff on outre science-fantasy planets just seems so much cooler and more fun. I don't know if the heroes would be anything like Space Ghost, but the villains could totally be like the things Space Ghost finds and fights.

PETER: Yah. The dead among the living could be tricky. I'm not entirely sure how to structure it perfectly so the PCs have some capacity to influence things, but have to do it subtly.

The bizarre space phantom situations you suggest are the sort of thing I'd always pictured more for mortal Astral plane travellers. No reason one couldn't split the difference though.

You haul freight for the Imperium for half a lifetime. It isn't until death your real voyage begins...

He went on to suggest that a good starting adventure for this campaign would be Astral Marines - Patrol Sector Omega, a community-keyed hexcrawl, apparently inspired by a Luka Rejec post, with map by Gus L, and published on the Save vs Total Party Kill blog by Ramanan S.

Astral Marines - Patrol Sector Omega map by Gus L
Incidentally, one of the comments on that initial tweet was a link to one of my favorite Threadless shirt designs, "The Madness of Mission 6" - which included the following, appropriately insane text as part of its artists' note:

In 1976, Cosmonaut Nikolai Peckmann was sent alone to an orbiting space station for what would be called Mission Six- to study the radiation levels and strange circumstances that killed all four crewmen of the last research mission. By the third day, Peckmann’s broken transmissions were coming back to ground control filled with increasing paranoia and delusion. He claimed that the spirits of the dead cosmonauts were coming to claim him, and that he had to keep moving to evade them. He shouted that if he could capture consume these spirits himself while he still had strength, he could move to the next level of consciousness…Truly the rantings of an insane man. Indeed, video recovered later would show Peckmann running around the confined but maze-like station, downing emergency sedatives like a madman….pausing in a corner momentarily, only to throw back vitamin pills and give chase to his invisible demons. He had exhausted the entire cargo of vitamins, pills, and fresh fruit well ahead of schedule…It was determined that another mission to recover any remains or gather any more research would be a waste of the people’s money, and the station was allowed to drift out of orbit and into space- a failure never to be mentioned again. It was ordered and assumed that all video and paper evidence had been destroyed.

Madness of Mission 6
Anyway, so Peter and I both liked the idea of this game, but neither of us have played Traveller before, and both of us are sort of busy with other gaming and/or life projects.

Eventually my interest was rekindled when Peter posted an image of some appropriately awesome 1970s scifi art. I think it was around this time that I began to think of this as the "psychedelic cosmonauts" campaign.

Found on the 70s Sci-Fi Art tumblr
ANNE: This makes me think of our idea to do some kind of psychedelic space adventure with dead Traveller characters.

PETER: Every now and then I'd been puttering away at a little work on this sort of setting. There are usually about half a dozen different settings warring for attention in my brain, but I carved out a little time to separate this one from the pack into a mini-supplement for Minimal d6 system. It had gone on the back burner for several weeks until you reminded me about it tonight and I finished up a few details.

Not exactly what we discussed, but maybe you'll still find it of some interest:

What he posted next was a Google Plus link to a blog post. I'll post the blog link in a second, but it's worth sharing what we said at the other link as well.

PETER: Full Parsec Five is a sort of undead space opera setting for the Minimal d6 / Miso-Six systems.

Thanks to Anne Hunter jogging my memory tonight about our discussion that inspired it. Finally gave me the kick in the pants needed to add a few more details and get it up on the web.  Still think it would be great to give it a more thorough treatment some day. But perfect is the enemy of extant, so...

ANNE: I'm really digging the four types of astral space. I also think you're right that although they were ordinary astronauts before they died, they need the chance to become as weird as the things they're fighting/exploring.

The link Peter posted was to his blog entry on Full Parsec Five, a very rules-light ruleset he put together as a potential starting point. He also put together a list of other space opera RPG systems.

At the time, I wasn't sure what rules, if any, would be a good fit for the campaign we had in mind. Peter, meanwhile, was busy collecting links on his Google Plus feed. I won't lose much when G+ dies. I mostly posted links to my own blog, and mostly wrote a lot of "cools" and "thank yous" on other people's posts or in response to their comments on mine. I won't miss these archived conversations evaporating like snow on a too-sunny day any more or less than I regret the fact that none of my spoken conversations have transcripts. But I will miss this ongoing conversation with Peter, which is why I'm archiving it here. And it was Peter's own use of G+ to reshare so many links that first got me worried about the effect of the shift away from blogs and onto social media, long before Google announced that it was letting the air out of Plus and allowing it to float off into the atmosphere. Any social media feed may archive your thoughts, but without the ability to go back through that archive, search through the depths, or link back to anything, those thoughts are already as good as lost.

Anyway, Peter compiled quite a list of inspirational material, so I'm going to link to it here, so it's not lost. I have some of my own inspirations, and my own thoughts about rules, that I'll share next.

Giant Evil Wizard - D12 Things What Just Fell Out Of The Orbital Rust Belt

Monster Manuals Sewn From Pants - Plane Scrap

Markerslinger - The Mind Mine

Robert Moorehead - Space Hulk Generation Rules

Gorgo Mormo - Demons of the Outer Dark

Sheep & Sorcery - Tables for Derelict Space Ships

Cavegirl's Game Stuff - Astral Projection for OSR Games

Tarsos Theorem - Derelict Deserted Dreadnoughts

Tarsos Theorem - Sci-Fi Adventure Location Generator

In the mean time, the things that have inspired me have been images of people wearing salvagepunk spacesuits, or wearing spacesuits to explore dreamland, the afterlife, or other planes.
On Stranger Things, Eleven wears a diving suit to enter a sensory deprivation tank...
... and then psychically travel to another dimension called The Upside Down.
Psychics on The OA use a slight different kind of underwater suit to travel to the afterlife.
I don't know where the Euthanauts travel, although I would guess it's also the afterlife.
This is basically the plot to Flatliners and The Discovery too, right? Just without the space suits?
Prospect so makes me want my own space suit...
... so so sooo so want it.
I live in a noxious, pollen-filled atmosphere beneath a scorching, lethal sun, too.
Should I be penalized just because I live that way on Earth?
Also in the meantime, some more scifi gaming rules have come out that I think might be suitable for playing this campaign. The first is Highland Paranormal Society's "In the Light of a Ghost Star" ruleset. I think it was actually one of Peter's links that first made me aware of Nate Treme's art and gaming materials. This one is also pretty rules-light, but it's based enough on D&D that it seems intuitive to me, a person who is familiar with D&D.

The second is the "Mothership" game by Failure Tolerated. People looove Mothership. Throne of Salt loves it. Dungeons & Possums loves it. Tarsos Theorem loves it (and continues making cool scifi stuff unrelated to it at the same time.) I haven't seen people this excited about a ruleset since I noticed the existence of the GLOG-o-sphere (and actually, there's some overlap in the fandoms here...)  Mothership uses d100 ability scores and checks, which means that it's compatible with Eclipse Phase, and probably with Grand Tapsetry's Urutsk setting as well. Like Ghost Star, Mothership gets top marks its graphic design. It also has Stress and Sanity mechanics that might be useful for any kind of space-horror gaming.

But if I'm being really honest with myself, the rules that most excite me as a possible basis for a psychedelic cosmonauts campaign are Troika's. I'm not familiar with the older British games that Troika's rules are modeled after, but one peek at its gorgeous, utterly bizarre artwork (by Andrew Walter the aforementioned Dirk Detweiler Leichty), one glimpse of its text about golden barges and crystal spheres, and I'm already smitten. The art-heavy reprinting is called the 'numinous edition," and it is numinous indeed. The character occupations are so great I'm adding them to my list of favorite lists, and Dirk's art brings them to weird-Baroque life. Sure, you can play as a burglar or a questing knight, but you can also end up as a Rhino-man, as escaped servitor created by a dead wizard, or a robot powered by a mechanical analytic engine. I'd need to re-read the rules to fully understand them, but it seems like Brits my age are nostalgic for Fighting Fantasy the way Americans are for 1st edition AD&D (or maybe for Choose Your Own Adventure? the exact analogy is a little unclear to me) so I assume the mechanics are easy enough to learn and provide satisfying resolution most of the time.

Troika Numinous Edition cover by Andrew Walter
Lonesome Monarch by Dirk Detweiler Leichty
Monkey-Monger by Dirk Detweiler Leichty

Ultimately, the choice of rules will probably be up to Peter, or whoever the two of us can strongarm into running a the game for us, because while most of the entries I tagged with "Campaigns I Want to Play" are really campaigns I want to run, "psychedelic cosmonauts" truly is a campaign I want to play. Or maybe Peter will talk me into it. Or I'll talk myself into it. Time will tell.

What adventures do I think would work well for this sort of campaign? Well, not-so-coincidentally, I think In the Light of Ghost Star, Mothership, and Troika all have adventuring scenarios that look eminently rob-able.

I suppose my go-to mental image is something like the strangest episodes of the original Star Trek, combined with the various "only one person notices the rest of the crew has gone crazy" episodes of Next Generation, mashed up with AE Van Vogt's Voyage of the Space Beagle - where the crew first meets a giant displacer beast who takes over the ship, then flies too close to a planet of psychic bird people whose mental noise-pollution drives everyone but one crewman crazy, then meets an extradimensional alien assembled from spheres and cylinders who takes over the ship, then flies too close to a psychic nebula who drives everyone but one crewman crazy...

I'm also partial to some of the ideas and imagery from the new Shade the Changing Girl comics series, where human emotions are like drugs aliens take to get high, and madness is both a physical place you can go to, and a sort of unstoppable force of chaos that reacts to our actions and moods.

So far, so inspiring. And I think Peter's suggestion to use Astral Sector Omega is very solid. The initiating adventure for a campaign like this could be something completely doomed and hopeless - these are dead astronauts, after all, so Black Sun Death Crawl or Null Singularity are both pretty viable options.

The adventures that tempt me both, primarily on the basis of their reviews on Ten Foot Pole, are Paul Keigh's entries in Geoffrey McKinney's Psychedelic Fantasies series - Dreams of the Lurid Sac, Streams of the Lurid Crack, and Gleams of the Vivid Crack. Truly regrettable names aside, TFP's review suggests that these probably have the level of gonzo alien weirdness that I'm looking for:

"This thing has a core concept and it is focused on it. Elements of this adventure have been found in other adventures in bits & pieces, but no other adventure has, I believe, put them all together in one shell. You’re adventuring inside of a creature, the titular Lurid Sac. Remember Fantastic Voyage? The interior sets looked … alien? Weird fibers, colors, flows, creatures. Well that’s what’s going on here. Most of the “adventuring inside a create” things I’ve seen have been half-efforts. There are doors, or stairways built in, or something like that. None of that is in this one. No stairs or doors or comforts of home brought in by travellers. This is a truly alien environment … exactly the way an alien environment should be. Imagine a hundred overlapping bubbles, on maybe three layers. That’s the map. Where they touch you can massage the membranes to get through. Some of the bubbles have special purposes: the cortex, the mouth, the neck, the 'sponges' that allow access to the outside, and so on. The rest of the bubbles are procedurally generated, as are the contents. There are random monsters, events, contents, humours … you get the idea."

So that's what I want. The ghosts of dead astronauts exploring an invisible galaxy full of aliens, monsters, nightmares, madness, and phenomena that defy classification, forever.


  1. A psychedelic space adventure with dead Traveller characters sounds almost unspeakably cool.

    1. Right? So you can understand why I've been intoxicated by the idea from the first moment I heard it.

  2. The comic 8House: Kiem might be useful here, and might this post of mine. At least the image I made for the start of it.

    1. Astral Sargasso MIGHT work very well indeed! Is 8house collected in any way, or do I need to look for the single issues?

    2. The Arclight story arc was collected, but alas, neither of the others were completed, and so haven't been collected.

    3. Oh that's too bad. Maybe there'll be a final, but incomplete collection of all the 8house stuff into one volume someday. In the meantime, I'll see if I can scare up the Kiem issues...

  3. I think Mothership looks very cool, and since it is percentile, it will work with Urutsk: Worlds of Mystery.
    I'm also completing my Traveller homage game system, so... :)

  4. Semi related- Spiral Isles. Not so much astronauts (rooted in fantasy), but playing as a spirit exploring a strange and bizarre ethereal void of floating lands and terrifying monsters.

    1. I hadn't heard of Spiral Isles before. Thanks for the rec, it does sound like the kind of thing I'm interested in!

  5. Another ruleset to consider: Solar Blades and Cosmic Spells.

    In The Light Of A Ghost Star looks good to me too.

    A supplement of potential interest: Towers of Krshal.

  6. Replies
    1. Ooh, nice inspo, Casey!

      SB&CS is on my list to pick up the next time I make a DriveThru order. I've heard it might be good for some Saturday morning cartoon style hijinx.

  7. This is wonderful.

    NPCs could come from anywhere. A FLAILSNAILS of NPCs -- anyone who has been lost on the Astral Plane in any other game system might be wandering Patrol Sector Omega. Swallowed by space leviathans and vomited into a whole new game system.