I was lucky enough to get in on an intensive 5-day online playtest of New Agenda Publishing’s Orun RPG last week. Orun is an afro-futurist-inflected high-concept SF RPG in the tradition of Star Frontiers and Mass Effect.
The default presumption is that the PCs are troubleshooters for an interstellar peacekeeping and law-enforcement organization. They’ve got access to some specialized tech and a mantle of authority they can use to solve problems and help shepherd their galaxy towards a more peaceful and prosperous future.
Which leads us right into a game-state that can present a problem in settings like this, and is directly relevant to my interest in superhero gaming. How do you give the characters the license and means to effect positive change while still making sure they’re actually challenged. Where’s the line between just another cop and full-on deus ex machina space god?
If you’re going to play Orun, or any other game where the PCs are empowered as agents to effect societal change but be somewhat insulated from the consequences of doing so, I’d start with a discussion before the game. One of the minor hiccups in our run was that we didn’t have an explicit discussion about that beforehand, so it took me a few games to dial in exactly what it made sense to try in-game. Did our authority give us the right to waltz into the Planetary President’s office and and make demands? Could we arrest aliens and haul them off-planet? Could we call in a fleet of warships if we needed to? After a couple of games it became pretty clear that we were sort of like Interpol, or maybe FBI agents: we had a broadly-recognized remit to pursue criminals, and were generally respected and could get our questions answered. We had a powerful organizations to back us up who could provide technical and research assistance.
But we were also field agents, and our GM Misha did a great job of regularly reminding us that yes, we had a powerful org backing us up, but space is big, and just because they knew where we were didn’t mean they could get to us in anything like a timely manner. We knew that if we got disintegrated they’d send a bigger team in to find out what happened, but that’d be several weeks later, so we needed to be mindful of local conditions.
It seems to me this is important GM technique for any kind of heroic SF: Star Trek, Star Wars, Ashen Stars, even something more horror-focused like Mothership. You can be really good at your job, even borderline superhuman, but reinforcements are a long way away, so always remind the players that they’re all they’ve got planetside right now, and you can give them license to be better than a typical life form, but never the confidence that’ll be enough by itself.