Monday, March 21, 2011

Humanspace Empires Playtest Recap

There is a special room in Hell cordoned off for us gamemasters. In that room of perdition, the only medium for running a game is Skype. To give it that little added twist of anguish the players are granted crystal clear connections while our own cuts out randomly over and over again in the middle of explaining a long exposition or presenting the tension of rising action.

Or so I became convinced after a good hour and a half on Friday of hair pulling trying to run the Humanspace Empires playtest. It's a testimony to the strength of that game and its first crew of players that I still managed to have a serious amount of fun all the same.

Bellyaching aside, we kicked off the first-ever game of Humanspace with a cast of seven players—one of those groups of raucous, gut-wrenching funny players that you would kill to have come play in your dining room every other week.

The cast almost read like a joke about Tekumel: a Shen Egg Fertilizer, an Ahoggya, a Pe Choi female, and four human vagabonds all get picked up by the planetary authorities. For the full cast you see the rundown here on the blog of the game's creator, The Drune.

To cut a long exposition short (repeating three times the other night rather kills the buzz for me) said cast is threatened by the Governor of the metal-rich colony world of Marb IV with impalement unless they helped perform a little errand (yes, I told the players you hear the sound of a loud train whistle far off in the distance).

The little errand is, of course, a major one carrying a small lead box--a thermonuclear device with a 15-minute timeout it turns out—straight into the command center of a asteroid generation ship hurtling toward MARB IV. Loading onto the small scout ship, the Chirine, with five clones and a shit-talking, bellowing monster of a drill instructor, Sgt. Rokk Clone.

Maneuvering past the burned out hulls of the planetary defense force ships wiped out by the asteroids' defenses, the small ship closed in and was presented with four airlock entry choices into the complex.

Right here is a cautionary tale for others. If you are designing a scenario for a one-shot and/or a playtest don't use your standard old school, non-linear campaign dungeon approach. My 32-room asteroid “dungeon” with it's multiple entries, looping interconnections and vertical sub-layers virtually cried out for the players to not visit a good 75 percent of the complex—which they obliged me by doing.

Of the four airlock entrances three would lead them first through areas stacked with Saturday Night specials--as the good professor would call them--and one, the cargo bay, would lead them through a whole mess of fights. They choose the latter. (Perversely and unwittingly they managed to stay clear of a good chunk of the other rooms even after moving out of their initial quadrant.)

The hilarity of said mess of fights though made the evening in many ways. It's been a while since I have seen a group of players botch so many rolls so consistently. Shot after shot, blow after blow against the robot onslaught went amiss wrecking the hell out of the scenery.

I hate to admit it—since it breaks every principle of how I run a game at the tabletop—but I had to tone down the numbers and frequency of the complex's guardians just enough to let them get through to have a satisfying denouement for the night. They did manage to find the command center fair and square, but likely without a downscale in the opposition they would have either never made it there or never made it off the ship before the sucker blew in 15 minutes. Like any self-respecting old school GM I felt a little dirty later having done so, but it felt right at the time.
I was so close...

So that was the game, how did the rules hold up? Very well in what we managed to do: combat and exploration. Unfortunately due to my design choices they didn't use as much the special powers, skills, and gadgets.

If you have run—and loved—an older edition of D&D than you will be completely comfortable running this system. In fact I rather enjoyed it as it felt--I would imagine--closer in spirit to the simple, pre-TSR OD&D variant Empire of the Petal Throne than the published one.

I loved the fact that many of the interesting EPT variant twists were there in the rules: a simple but rich skill system, exploding-dice critical hits, a success check for psychic powers.

The steepest learning curve is in the crunchy equipment lists and special powers. Much of the gear has special rules to govern what they do, something I like but takes some digesting before using comfortably. Same goes for the special, psychic powers (the stand-in for spells) which likely will take some study and play before getting right.

Punchline is overall a fun game, that at the free price tag is a great gift from the Drune to the rest of us. Definitely one that I will likely try and run again the future at a convention—or a Skype game if I can get over my recently instilled anxiety and tech set-up problems.  


  1. You have my sympathies on the Skype difficulties. Everytime I try to play online, there are *always* technical problems. You'd think this would all be easy by now...

    I hate to admit it—since it breaks every principle of how I run a game at the tabletop—but I had to tone down the numbers and frequency of the complex's guardians just enough to let them get through to have a satisfying denouement for the night.

    No shame in this. In a one-shot, the most important thing is that the session end well and dramatic pacing is critical. You can always reclaim your old-school cred during your next regular campaign session. :)

    Sounds like a great session, technical difficulties aside.

  2. Don't let the Skype troubles dissuade you man or I might never get to game with that bunch again! I can't remember the last time I've had as much fun! One of those sessions I really wished we had recorded.

    The game itself was pretty fun, there were some loopholes in the rules we had, but having The Drune there to answer the questions was a really nice added bonus. All in all, it was a great time, and by far the best Skype game I have played.

  3. @Risus
    Thanks for the empathy, misery does indeed love company. And yeah on second thought if anything I should have moved some contents of the rooms around to show off some of the better bits.

    I guess I'm not too dissuaded since I just went and bought a new mike on my lunch hour. I have been contemplating putting another game together so I can recycle the bits not used Friday night.

    Glad to hear you had a good time, it was hard to GM at points I was laughing so hard.

  4. I was a bit frustrated with the Skype trouble at the beginning, but only because I'd already been through it with my regular group when skype changed over. Even during that portion of the game I was laughing pretty hard. Was it just me, or did Dan seem far more mature and civilized than the rest of us?

  5. @Aos
    "Was it just me, or did Dan seem far more mature and civilized than the rest of us?"

    Umm...yes and he's about a decade and a half younger than most of us to boot.

    Come to think of it I am going to reserve a section of Hell next to us for the designers of the new Skype. They will be forced to listen for all of eternity a tape loop of our various litanies of abuse.

  6. We'll have to look into Skype. Sounds like the game was a success and the rules got tested-out nicely. Go Shen!

  7. You would have had fun with the running theme of what the role of an egg fertilizer exactly is. Sgt. Rokk Clone didn't miss a beat with that one.

  8. I had a great time, but would love to have seen more Humanspace specific powers and tech stuff play out. Perhaps next time?

    As for my maturity, I swear this was due to the fact that my timezone meant I couldn't drink half as much as all the other players! I'll fix that problem next time...

  9. Sounds like fun, despite the technical glitches.

  10. Nice recap and thanks for running the playtest. I'm happy that most everyone seems to have had a good time. I would definitely be up for getting the group together again sometime.

  11. Sadly, Dan, I must admit to being stone cold sober, throughout.

    I would also be up for a repeat.