bluebeard

Polaris: Session 1

Originally published at PeterCHayward.com/blog. You can comment here or there.

I’ve started RPing again, for the first time in almost half a decade! It’s a game of Fate with my cousin Gavin, my friends Tom and Tom, and me GMing. We’re playing a Firefly-esque space adventure game, and I thought it’d be fun to type up each session after it happens!

Today consisted mostly of creating the characters and setting, but we had time to play the game for about two hours. Here’s a rough overview of the universe the game is set in, as well as each character.

If you know the Fate mechanic, I’ll be including aspects* (and relevant skills) – if you don’t, this should still make sense, but I thoroughly recommend checking out the free rulebook. It’s by far the best-constructed RP system I’ve ever seen – it makes creating stories and characters easy and fun, and sessions never (/rarely) get bogged down in rules, unlike most RPGs that I’ve played.

*aspects will be in italics and bold.

Polaris

Polaris:

Polaris is a small space-faring vessel, crewed by Captain Ezekiel Black, engineer/gunman Gabe Able, and merchant/diplomat Ex-Duke Chirp Feathersby II. Privateers by profession, they contribute to the Human Empire’s attempts to claim as much territory as possible (for pay) and take on any other paid work that they can get; legal or illegal.

In three words – “Firefly, with aliens.”

The Three Factions:

When humans left their home planet of Genera and began aggressively expanding, they were shocked to discover two other alien species doing the same – the Byrdmen, a flying race from the planet Atheta (Byrdman being, of course, a human nickname for the winged merchants – they call themselves Athetans) and the Eelian Court, a group of aquatic aliens who no one really knows anything about. Are they diverse members of the same species, or a group of allied creatures? Why do they expand to so many planets without putting down colonies? What’s their deal?

The impending War of the Three Factions alternates between being background noise and the centre of our heros’ lives, as they take on a variety of jobs, and adventure on a variety of planets – some that have been civilized for decades, some that are covered in backwards native life, just begging to be colonised…and some that have dark secrets, yet to be uncovered.

Captain Ezekiel Black:

Hobbyist Captain of the Polaris. Ezekiel Black was born into money – he was given the best Human education possible, but his family has fallen on slightly harder times of late, and so he put a significant percentage of his fortune into buying a ship (“I’ve sunk a lot of money into this!”). The Polaris is now his home, and he spends his time taking on any work that he finds interesting. (No job too strange.)

The mission comes second. Despite his financial investment in the ship, the Captain does this primarily to keep himself amused – if something comes along that strikes his fancy more than whatever work he’s been requisitioned to do, Ezekiel won’t hesitate to jettison the cargo and go after whatever’s caught his eye. And, like so many who are born rich, he always has a drink handy.

Gabe Able:

He’s more machine than muscle, and on loan from The Science Divison. Human by birth, Gabe suffered a horrific accident – he would have died if The Science Division hadn’t augmented him with cybernetic enhancements. Now he’s trying to earn enough to buy himself back from the Division – his enhancements include a highly-sophisticated gun hidden in his right arm, an affinity with computers bordering on technophilia (some call him the Computer Fiddler) and a fierce loyalty to the human race who saved his life.

Gabe acts as the ship’s muscle and engineer, able to repair any mechanical problems that the Polaris may be having and effortlessly communicate with the ship’s computer. Humans come first with him, above the mission, above any other races – and he lives by a simple mantra - if in doubt, punch it out. There are few physical threats that intimidate Gabe, and none that he isn’t able to take down.

Ex-Duke Chirp Feathersby II:

A member of the Athetan race, this dandy bird merchant considers himself the voice of the ship. Without his diplomatic connections, the crew of the Polaris would struggle to get work – and without his savvy haggling skills, they would be paying much more for almost everything. Ostrichsized from the lofty circles of the Athetan nobility after sleeping with the daughter of one of the Athetan Empire’s most important officials, he threw his lot in with the Human Empire, and uses his skills as a merchant of favours to help out on jobs…and make a little money on the side.

Don’t underestimate him, though – he may look soft, cultured, unable to hold his own in a fight, but this bird’s got claws - a standard part of Athetan upbringing is knowledge of all civilised fighting methods, and Chirp can duel with the best of them. His biggest weakness often comes back to bite him, however - if he wants it, he needs it, and once Chirp has his eyes on a valuable object, nothing can deter him.

The Plague of the Swamp Planet

Most of the crew’s jobs come from Rear Admiral Chippingsworthton (of the Chippingsworthton Chippingsworthtons) – a high-ranking member of the Earth Empire who, until recently, had never left his home town, let alone his solar system. He’s now stationed on the opposite side of the galaxy, on the planet Caepra, where he insists on dressing and acting like he’s home, toxic atmosphere be damned. The crew are eager to impress him, because once they’re in Chippingsworthton’s good books, more prestigious jobs are sure to follow.

He’s given them a simple task – travel to Swamptown, Mosquite: home of basketball-sized flying insects who suck blood, nicknamed (originally) “mosquitos” by the humans stationed there. All mosquitos are controlled by their queen – there are hundreds of queens on the swampy planet, each controlling a small island’s worth of the flying creatures. The crew are to collect a sample of the chemicals that the Blood Queen (as each queen is known) uses to control her subjects – they’re sentient, but once the chemicals hit, they find their motivations strangely in-line with whatever the queen wants them to do.

There’s something the report isn’t telling them, however – it alludes to medical issues, but it’s not until the crew land at the small town that they discover what the problem is – a significant percentage of the hundred-odd people living on the island have come down with a mysterious plague.

Once the crew acquire the chemicals used to control the mosquitos, the Human Empire will be able to step in, wipe out the queens, and take the planet as their own – with the population’s unwilling approval. And just to add to the fun, there’s rumours of underwater Eelian bases all over the island, with one even said to be right near their destination…

Session 1:

The crew land and head straight to the tavern-hut – the small village is made entirely of similarly crude mud huts – where they find “Mayor” Jenkins, an Empire man who was sent to get things in order. As they enter, they notice everyone is drinking what looks like beverages made out of the swamp – in an act of solidarity, the Captain pulls out his ever-present hip-flask and takes a swig.

“Care to share that around?” a man asks, and Captain Ezekiel offers him a taste of the potent alcohol. After taking a mouthful, the stranger tries hard to clean off the mouth of the bottle, and collapses into a coughing fit.

“I think there’s something wrong with him,” Gabe points out as the man hacks up three large, bloody chunks.

A quick inquiry reveals that the man struggling to breathe on the floor is their contact, and after letting him recover, they press him for everything he knows about the situation. All he can tell them is that there are a group of rebel mosquitos two clicks out of town, beyond the reach of the queen’s chemicals, and that everyone is drinking swamp-distilled alcohol because anything more pure sent by the Empire attracts the mosquitos’ attention – they’ll literally suck a man dry to get to it.

The Captain nervously realises that he’s a prime target, and decides to spend the next twenty-four hours hiding out on the ship. Until he has another drunk, he’ll be dry and grumpy. Chirp, innately sensing corruption, launches an investigation to see who’s distilling and selling the swamp booze – so that he can get in on the action. And Gabe, seeing the suffering of the townspeople, swears that he won’t leave the planet until he’s worked out exactly what’s making everyone sick.

Gabe visits the closest thing the small town has to a doctor – a large man who once lived down the road from a hospital. He’s known, ironically, as “Doctor” Phillips, and he’s kept a detailed diary of the town’s goings-on, including when people got sick. Gabe manages to talk him out of a copy, despite the man’s reservations dealing with anyone who isn’t completely human, and Gabe uploads it to the Human Empire’s dataspill to analyse it and see if there’s anything he can do to help.

After a day of trading favour and hobnobbing with the locals, Chirp has discovered that “Mayor” (an equally ironic title – no election took place) Jenkins has been brewing and selling alcohol to the townspeople. He was sent in by the Human Empire due to his reputation as a man who gets things done, but since he’s arrived all he’s really managed to do is swindle the people out of their paycheques in exchange for disgusting liquor.

Gabe is unsurprised to discover that an analysis of the diary reveals people started getting sick around the same time that they started drinking the swampwater (everyone on the planet is utterly miserable, and insist on some form of drink to dull the pain of their posting).

Chirp is keen to discover the specifics of the Mayor’s distilling method, so he and Gabe convince the Captain to confront the man. Mayor Jenkins’ initially tries to hide his activities from the crew (them being Empire representatives who technically outrank him), until the Captain offers him his entire personal supply of off-planet alcohol in exchange for him showing them the distillery. Outside of town are all the ships used to get to Mosquite, but one of them is just a hull, with the distillery hidden underneath.

To everyone’s disgust, Mayor Jenkins proudly shows them how he’s been distilling the swamp-water – a ring of eight mosquitos are trussed up under the hull, with the first drinking swampwater, and the second drinking the excretions of the first…until the last pumps out a thoroughly disgusting, but drinkable, liquor.

Captain Black tries to explain that the swampwater on this planet is, itself, alcoholic, and Gabe offers to put together a basic distillery so that the people can drink something that won’t make them sick (and hasn’t come out of an insect) – for a cut of the profits, Chirp is keen to add. The Mayor refuses, however, and after an explosive rant from Captain Black, ensuring that the Mayor will turn the town against him, the crew storm out and head back to the ship to work out what to do next.

“Let’s make our own distillery anyway,” Chirp suggests, and Gabe is able to put one together quickly. The planet’s swampwater takes 6 hours to distill into a pure – but hopefully not strong enough to attract the mosquitos – drink. The Captain tastes the test batch, declaring it disgusting but distinctly alcoholic, and they put a week’s worth of drink on to brew.

By the time it’s almost done, the Captain is looking sickly – he’s coughing up blood, and having trouble breathing. Gabe wants to work on discovering exactly what’s causing the illness, but the Captain has had enough of this backwater planet, and wants to get the job done so they can get paid and move on.

The two almost come to blows, with Gabe imploring the Captain to listen to reason, but Ezekiel pulls rank, and leaves Gabe recoiling. He shot at the king and missed, and even worse – while they were fighting, he failed to notice Chirp leaving the ship and offering free samples of their new alcohol to the townsfolk.

The crew manage to acquire a boat and head out to meet the rebels – after observing humans and their complete autonomy, some mosquitos decided that they want a similar kind of freedom, and implore our heroes to help them. Lying through their teeth, the crew promise to do what they can and, after learning that the queen is located somewhere in the very centre of the island, they decide to go back to the ship and work out exactly what they want to do next.

Meeting them at the shore, however, is an angry mob – incited by the Mayor after discovering Chirp’s actions. The crew drop the bombshell that the Mayor has been serving them drinks straight from a chain of mosquito arses, but the Mayor reveals that putting it through the mosquitos is the only way to stop it being toxic to humans – he, and anyone else who has fallen ill, drank the swampwater before they discovered that method of refining it.

“But it’s still gross!” the Captain declares, and the mob is forced to agree.

Before the mob can be swayed either way, warrior mosquitos sent by the Blood Queen attack – she heard of the humans meeting with the rebels, and overheard rumour of her subjects being held captive to secrete alcohol. Chirp and Ezekiel flee from the battle, while Gabe fights to defend the humans. “Doc” Phillips is hit by pellets of hardened blood, shot by the swarm of angry warrior mosquitos, and Gabe manages to take out half a dozen of them with one shot.

The Captain runs back to his ship, where he decides to open fire on the Mayor’s distillery – and misses it by one ship. The townspeople, Gabe, and the mosquitos fight it out, while hunks of molten hull land all around them…

To be continued…

Meta:

This was my first time GMing a full session, and considering I put the whole thing together in just a few minutes, I think I did pretty well! Things to work on – compels. Looking back, there were a number of times that I compelled characters without realising (and thus without giving them the fate points they deserve), and I need to remember to make my compels more story-based, instead of motivational-based.

(For example, I compelled Gabe with something like “You don’t want to leave until you work out how to help the humans get better” – that’s not really how you’re meant to use compels. Something more like “He doesn’t want to help you because you’re more machine than muscle“ is more in the spirit of the game.)

Story-wise, I think we had an interesting session, and I’ve already got the next one roughly plotted out. Originally the mosquitos were going to be attracted to soft-drink or sugar or something like that, but I mentioned the swamp-water that the townspeople were drinking, and the players got really hooked on that small detail – fortunately it was extraordinarily easy to turn “soft drink” into “alcohol”, and bring the Captain’s always has a drink in his hand aspect into play.

The “convincing the mob not to riot” sequence started as combat, but I quickly realised it should have been a contest – who can influence the mob? As well as that, I should have given “Mayor” Jenkins an aspect like “Trusted by the townspeople”, because that shouldn’t have been as close as it was – next time I’ll actually be able to write out character sheets for the NPCs, which will obviously solve most of those problems.

Lastly, I need to get better at aspects in general. They’re such a brilliant mechanic, and I can use them so much more than I am, in such more interesting ways. I need to start adding situational aspects, scenic aspects, etc etc. I’ll have a stack pre-prepared for the next session, and I’ll also make sure that one or two are added each time a new scene starts.

Having said that, the above was the single greatest RP experience of my life, and I’m thoroughly looking forward to more! I expect Plague of the Swamp Planet to be wrapped up next session, and I’ve already got ideas brewing for the next adventure the Polaris’s crew will be undertaking…