A role-playing game of science fiction military drama on and off the battlefield, by Elle Addison, Dana Fried & Yanni Cooper.
I’ve written about role-playing podcasts and my enjoyment of them previously, including “I Podcast Magic Missile.” Three of the hosts have got together to make a science fiction role-playing game which is a ‘hack’ of Apocalypse World. There are several hacks out there, each of which take the simple system and refit it for a different type of storytelling. This one is all about the people who pilot massive vehicles or mechs in the far future. The playbooks aren’t roles within the military so much as the stereotypes for this kind of drama; the Rookie, the Hotshot, the Misfit and so on.
I Podcast Magic Missile have spent the past few months with some epic-length playtest episodes of Souls of Steel, something which really whet my appetite for running games which were something like a combination of Battlestar Galactica, Starship Troopers and Mobile Suit Gundam. Fortunately the designers created a community on Google Plus where people could request access to the playtest documents and discuss the game. (side note… if you’re a role-player, have you checked out Google Plus? I know everyone assumes it’s a barren wasteland but role-players use the communities there a lot)
I downloaded the playtest files, printed out the playbooks and reference booklets for everyone, jotted a couple of questions down on post-it notes and was ready to run the game.
The players were each handed a couple of playbooks and asked to read them out so everyone could get an idea of what they wanted to be, then go through the menu-looking character sheets, picking options where they were prompted to.
The rough order (which the players didn’t follow at all, but makes for a good guideline) is: Personal details (name, gender presentation, how they wear their uniform), Virtues (character stats), Moves (abilities) and Vehicle/Weapons. About half the group made a bee-line for the vehicles. The layout of the playbook actually fit the vehicle and the weapon sections perfectly, allowing the menu of options and the place to fill them in to be visible at the same time.
Steve played Inferno! – I had to check whether that was his character’s name or the mechs. His mech was Tiamat, a fire-breathing colossus. He was a Loose Cannon who acted as their heavy weapons specialist in battle. He had a blond quiff, overly-large hands and always had a scruffy uniform.
Alex played Copernicus – His mech wasn’t cared for enough to be given a name, so it was just a TKX1337. He was the Specialist of the group, performing projects which might win the war. He acted as a scout in battle, was clean-shaven but with a lazy posture and a uniform one size too big.
Jacob played Trixie McGee – She was the Rookie of the group, but not for a good reason. She was a convict forced into duty. She rode Belle, an experimental stealth mech which would help with her role as sniper (and general fear of battle). She was very nimble, had a problem with authority and wore a low-cut uniform.
Lee played Rex Logan – The Hotshot and the ranking officer. He was pretty much pressured into taking the role of ranking officer for fear of Steve’s character taking it instead. He rode the agile mech Firefox, had crazy eyes, an athletic build and a uniform with some personalised flair on it.
Powered by the Apocalypse games recommend asking questions of the group, especially as this is a prep-light game and you ought to customise the story to fit the characters in it. That statement sounds obvious but believe me, it’s often forgotten.
I knew Lee wanted to be a Hotshot so I had his questions from the get-go. The rest I developed as they made their characters, asking a few simpler questions as they were making characters. Once everyone introduced their characters, I asked the questions and the players’ answers are in green below:
We don’t know what Jacob meant by ‘donkey jacking’ and he made up the term as something science-fictiony which could be expanded on later, but it sounds like something which no one should Google. I quickly made up a bunch of names in the margin of my bit of paper and their superior officer would be General Danial Conquest.
There were still a couple of questions to go, which we would all answer together.
What were they fighting? There were a few ideas but they settled on giant bugs, mainly spider-looking, with six legs and large enough to require 20-foot tall mechs. Their own military was called SCUBA, “Strategic Command Unit, Bug Annihilation!”
Then the only real bit of prep I’d done game into action:
“What does your mobile base look like?”
Jacob answered that it was a hover fortress with giant spires which each act as launchers for different mechs. The spires often have rivalries.
“Why is it grounded on an alien world?”
Alex answered that someone set fire to the hover part.
“What is this world like?”
Steve said that it was a jungle so tall that it towered over the mechs, with webbed structures between the trees.
“Why does the enemy want it?”
This is one of their breeding planets.
We had our setup, we had character sheets and a campaign world. I explained that if this ‘went to series’ after our D&D game (read about that here then we could pick up and treat this like a pilot. I have a sheet of options about why this war is going on and the greater scale of what’s out there. For now they had to concentrate on getting off this damn world full of bugs.
General Conquest briefed them on their mission. Engineers were outside the ship, repairing what they could. Over half the mech squadron were protecting them, but there were incoming blips. The team had to drive them away and try to secure the location for long enough to finish the repairs. Now the action could start.
The players narrated the mechs launching out of their respective spires, all apart from the experimental Belle who grappled out, hoping to draw less attention from enemies. There were enemy blips and the trees were lightly shaking in the distance. Firefox launched at them, only for Copernicus to notice that the shaking trees were a trap, Firefox was falling towards a massive network of webs and underneath that was a giant spider with a rocket launcher!
Belle shot the weak spots in the webs, causing them to fall so Firefox wouldn’t get caught. Tiamat wasn’t doing anything, so of course Inferno ran rampant with flamethrower and shotgun, unleashing all his weapons at once to flush the remaining blips into the open. He set fire to the forest and managed to bring out some skirmish units of the spider forces, their foreclaws sharpened into long blades. Copernicus assessed where the enemies were weak (they were coming from a central source far in the distance), what was the biggest threat (somehow not Inferno, but instead the rocket troops) and what could they use to their advantage (the trees are their terrain and should be taken away).
Firefox landed fist-first on the rocket troop, smashing it to pieces. Tiamat tried to hinder him (the pair were rivals) knocking Firefox over and slipping down a massive slope towards the origin point of the monsters.
Belle jumped and grappled Tiamat, but wasn’t strong enough for the bulky mech so it fell into the giant transparent sentient blob which was birthing the spiders. After that ‘help’, Belle decided to retreat back to the ship and ‘guard’ the engineers. Firefox whirled around, attacking a bunch of enemies from his position on the floor. Copernicus decided to also back away towards the fortress (despite the orders to stop the spiders from advancing instead of just defending). Unlike Belle, Copernicus decided to actually help and jam the transmissions between the spiders. We decided he was flooding their signals with Enya. Spiders can’t stand Enya.
Inferno blasted his mech out of the ooze by launching all his weapons at once, his second time doing it and as a Loose Cannon it’s a move he can do but he needs to stop and reload or suffer penalties…. Inferno was not about stopping and reloading.
By this time Firefox was back up and running. He rescued Tiamat, pulled him out of danger (removing their rivalry) and took a shot at the birthing chamber in the ooze, disabling it as some half-formed spider soldiers were visible. Copernicus failed to assist Belle in driving off the bugs in a rare moment of Trixie being courageous. They failed and Copernicus accidentally shot several of the engineers working on the fortress. He recovered his posture and assessed the situation as it was now… The biggest threat was Tiamat’s fuel tanks which were leaking and likely to go up any time soon. Belle tried firing at the broken fuel line with her laser to seal it shut, causing an explosion instead. All of the fire had driven the spiders away, meaning the group were wounded but victorious!
Back on the fortress, Copernicus restocked and reloaded his TKX1337 while Inferno took a lap of victory around the hangar. He started pressuring engineers to fix Tiamat, however four engineers were wounded in Copernicus’ misfire and they weren’t pleased. Trixie read the room and saw that they were going to do a half-arsed job of repairs, if they were going to do them at all. Jarrod was the third in command of the engineers and the instigator of the bad feels from that faction. Copernicus wrapped his head about fixing the mechs. His friend Andromeda, the quartermaster, would be able to help.
Inferno decided to go to the source and spoke with Leola, the lead engineer. She was in the hospital and hot in a great way. Inferno tried to connect with her and wanted to know how to make things right. Apparently beating the hell out of Copernicus would do the trick.
Copernicus and Andromeda started scavenging an old experimental warehouse filled with discarded mechs. I forget how we decided this was a thing, but on the crude map the fortress was so huge that we decided there would be areas like this which no one went to. Copernicus was beginning to come down from his stim-based highs and as they picked apart the remains of several mechs, some of them were twitching. We knew that some were experimental AIs which had turned on their owners and had to be shut down. Whether these were those mechs or just Copernicus hallucinating, no one knew. He removed a flamer unit from the arm of a mech, only to find blood pouring out. Human blood.
Time was drawing to a close, so I used a technique I learnt from Richard Williams when he ran MonsterHearts at DragonMeet. I wanted them to treat this like a pilot for a TV show. We’d probably return to Souls of Steel after D&D was over with, so I wanted them to pitch me a snapshot of them from later in the ‘season’ as a tantalising tidbit, something to make the viewers return.
Copernicus – Was in the hangar, desperately pulling mechs apart, frantic, like his life depended on it.
Inferno – Was in General Conquest’s office, listening to him scream about how Inferno had hospitalised Copernicus twice.
Rex Logan – Was in a top secret lab, being shown an experimental mech.
Trixie – Was half-naked in her quarters, turning to camera and saying, “Wait… you’re my father!”
Then we cut to the hover fortress flying in the depths of space, then pull back and we see several spider ships descending on it.
Souls of Steel went down well. The system had a little bit of getting used to after our recent excursion back into trad gaming. There were a few issues which I have since raised in the playtest community on Google Plus.
The playbooks were all brilliant, very indicative of the kinds of heroes you get in military dramas. Making them distinct from the specialisations was a great concept as the dramatic role of the characters is more relevant in this kind of game. I’m a fan of Mobile Suit Gundam and found a lot of RPG systems involving mechs to be too crunchy. This uses the *World concepts to make simple stats and turn them into something which has some mechanical weight to it without the dry, boring stats you often get for vehicles. I’ve seen some interesting talk about using dinosaurs as vehicles instead of mechs or spaceships, I’ve also seen people using the system for a TIE Fighter RPG. The beauty of the system is its versatility, after all.
There are some clarifications which will be needed before the eventual release but at the moment the designers are banking on playtesters being aware of Apocalypse World or at least one other game which is Powered by the Apocalypse. I felt like some of the moves needed a little more distinction from one another and evidently the designers did too as there’s some clarification in the rules as given by some of the playbook personas. After a while in game we were able to easily debate what action someone would be doing, but it took a while to sync up with the design intent.
I’m not really that certain of damage and some examples of the amounts of damage and proper use of hit locations would be good. That will probably happen in the future. No matter what’s currently missing or in need of clarification, this is a really interesting game and caused some great moments of drama both in and out of the suits. I’m looking forward to more talk of it in the community and its eventual release.
You can listen to podcast playthroughs from I Podcast Magic Missile here and you can join the community and request playtest rules here.