Flatlined

Though I’ve been GMing games for over thirty years, I’ve never run anything for a group of people I didn’t know before, and it’s something I haven’t been comfortable about wanting to try. So when a discussion about RPGs with people I’d met (online) at WorldCon turned into a desire by some to actually play something, I’m not sure what I was doing when I offered to run.

As it turned out, my apprehension and nervousness were unfounded, because the game went really well. The players seemed to enjoy themselves, and I had fun running it, so in the end, all was good.

As well as my other half, we had someone who had played their first ever RPG (of D&D) at WorldCon, someone who hadn’t played for a long time, and someone who was an experienced player. I did consider maybe running We Be Goblins, a rather fun Pathfinder adventure, but having got away recently from running D&D-like stuff, I decided to instead go for some Traveller. I’m already running Traveller, so it’s fresh in my head, plus it would give everyone an introduction to something completely unlike D&D, since even the experienced player hadn’t done much in the way of non-fantasy before.

The adventure I went for was Great Rift Adventure 3: Flatlined. Partly because there was no way I was going to be able to fit it into my existing campaign, and partly because it starts off with the characters lacking any memory of who they were, and how they got there – so is excellent when the players know nothing about the setting. Spending the first hour of a game trying to describe the background and setting wouldn’t have worked well.

I also started with pre-generated characters. Traveller character generation is a game in itself, and quite a fun one, but for something that was possibly going to be a one-shot, it would have been a waste of time. So I asked the players ahead of time what type of characters they wanted to play, and built some using the package rules in the Traveller Companion.

The adventure also made it easy for me to start the game in the middle of things – the characters wake up from cold sleep in a crashed spaceship with no memories wondering where they were, and therefore having to immediately react to things.

As is usual, I ran things on Roll20, which was a new experience for most of the players. I tried to keep things simple through the use of my API macros (though there’s still some bugs I need to fix), and we used Discord for the video chat. Having everyone on video definitely made it easier to judge how players were reacting to things, which is important when you don’t know them well enough to be able to tell from voice alone.

What follows contains spoilers for the adventure, so if you’re a player who may play it in the future, it’s probably best to stop reading here.

The exploration of the small ship they were in went smoothly, with the players interacting well together and playing their characters being confused as to what had happened – which was easy because the players were didn’t know anything either. Even one player turning up late was easy to fit in by simply having her character wake up later.

They explored the ship, figuring out they they had been left to fend for themselves in a crashed ship that was now sinking into a lake, probably brought down by an EMP device that they found evidence of in the hold. Grabbing important supplies (such as the ship’s store of coffee) they managed to escape and make it to the shore.

The only sign of civilisation was a radio mast in the distance – so they head in that direction, finding signs that at least a couple of other survivors have headed that way recently. They find a dead, abandoned body of another crew member along the way, as well as encountering a large insect-like creature that was trying to eat it.

There were some skill checks along the way to figure things out, some good, some not so good. I tried to keep the rolls more narrative in style, but didn’t want to avoid them altogether. I tried to split things up as much as I could to give everyone a chance to use their skills and get a chance at the spotlight. I think I mostly succeeded. Fortunately, I had a good set of players and there wasn’t anyone who either tried to hog the spotlight or needed a lot of coaching to make decisions and do things.

The second part of the adventure was at the mining site where the rest of the crew had made it to. This had not only been affected by the EMP bomb, but had suffered an attack from the oversized insect creatures in the night, and most of the workers had been killed.

Also here were the two crew members of the ship – those who had abandoned the PCs to their fate in their cold berths, and who were also possibly responsible for their kidnapping.

I did have concerns about this part of the adventure, since I had no idea how it would play out for real. As written, there’s meant to be suspicion between the PCs and the ship crew, but no outright confrontation as everyone tries to prepare the camp to resist a second attack by the ‘creepers’. Even with the limited guns the PCs had salvaged from the ship, with a different group it could have easily gone straight to violence – or even forcing violence from the other side.

As it was, there was an assumption that the crew had been planning to sell the PCs into slavery (it’s called “skill jacking” in the adventure, but it’s really just slavery, even if it’s technical skills they were after), but with no hard evidence they bided their time, and did some sneaking around camp and questioning of the NPCs as it got closer to nightfall.

Speaking of NPCs – there was an NPC about the ship who had been kidnapped along with them, but I mostly forgot about her. She was useful to make the odd suggestion now and again, but otherwise was probably underused due to not really being needed.

They managed to find enough evidence (through talking to people, and some sneaking around) to their satisfaction to implicate the mining site’s medic and the ship’s captain, as well as coming up with a good escape plan for the morning by befriending the young mechanic who obviously wasn’t used to being befriended by a young intelligent woman, but was capable of fixing one of the jeeps and showing her how to drive it.

Once night fell, it was meant to become more of a fight to keep the creatures from overwhelming the camp. They’d already made the connection between the creatures and electricity though (a really good Biology check), so quickly came up with a plan to switch off the electricity to their hut. The adventure did have an answer to this, but it didn’t make much sense and to be honest, a big gun battle really wasn’t needed at that point so I saw no need to try and force one. Besides, they’d come up with a good idea so I wasn’t going to take that away from them.

There was one point where the ship’s captain opened the door of their hut and tried to attract some creepers to them. After all, if they were dead then there would be nobody to complain about being kidnapped. Since they’d been sensible enough to keep watches, they survived this minor encounter, and decided to return the favour by rigging together an electronic device to attract the creepers and throwing it up onto the roof of the medic bay where the medic and captain were holed up.

Much gun fire and screaming later, there was silence and just a group of creepers milling around the medic hut. One thing I had allowed the players to do was to have the option of gaining 2 points on any skill as they suddenly ‘remembered’ something they were good at. So one of them remembered being good at explosives, rigged some mining charges together and ended the night with a large explosion – which also gave the biologist a sample of a ‘thinker’ creeper which had never been proven to exist before.

As dawn arrived, a ship turned up to investigate the loss of communication, and we brought things to a close.

It took about six hours to play through, which was reasonable, and seemed to go about as well as I could have hoped. The players enjoyed it, and are interested in doing another session.

I’m not entirely sure at the moment where to go from here. There is the option of following up on the skill jacking ring, though not all the characters would be interested in going off and doing something dangerous like that if given a choice, and would probably rather leave it to the authorities.

So I’ll need to think about what to do for the next adventure – something that all the characters have reason to want to do, and a reason for them to be together again. We don’t have a set date yet, so I’ve got time to think.

Samuel Penn

Samuel Penn