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    Alex Baker's Battlestations Session Report 1/26/05

    Here is a session report for a Battlestations game I played recently. It was only the second game any of us had played, but it ended up being a total blast. Below is a thematic retelling of the tale, but I have inserted some italicized comments which explain things in mechanical terms to give some insight into how things actually went down as we played.

    Also, in case you noticed, yes I have largely strayed from the backstory provided by the book in favor of a pretty bare-bones one. Basically, the Tentacs are the bad guys, everyone else is the good guys, though more details are being fleshed out and adopted as I go along. I don’t think that this mission suffered though!

    Featuring:

    Alex – GM
    Nathan – Dr. Leonov, Human Science Officer
    Geoff – Pepsau Muschz, Tentac Engineer
    John – Identify Yourself (Idy), Canosan Pilot
    Mike – Booster Chu , Human Marine

    The brave crew of the S.S.S. Max Power had just returned from their first mission, and let me tell you, they received less than a hero’s welcome. Corporal Bitburger, who had been skeptical of the crew from the first, seized upon the opportunity to point out their failure to recover the artifact they had been sent to retrieve. It was only the fact that they had successfully destroyed the ship carrying the artifact, and thus denied the Tentac empire access to its secrets, that spared the crew the full brunt of his wrath.

    After their debriefing from their first mission though, things slowed down a bit for the crew. Days passed, they licked their wounds, and got acclimated with their newly acquired equipment, including a new wrist computer for Leonov. Just as the crew started to relax though, they were summoned in the middle of the night to briefing room Beta, where Corporal Bitburger greeted them once again.

    The Corporal explained that given their inexperience and failure to impress on their maiden voyage in the Max Power, he was reluctant to give them such an important mission. But given the ravaged state of the Alliance fleet in general and the Earth 7 base Alpha in particular, he saw no choice but to send his least favorite crew once again into the fray.

    The Iron Barbell

    The Corporal explained slowly that the Alliance had intercepted a distress signal from a damaged Tentac ship in deep space. According to the message, the ship’s hyperdrive was thoroughly slagged, and no one on board was capable of fixing it.

    “Normally”, Bitburger said, “we would simply send a fighter to finish off the downed ship. But this ship is different. Its layout doesn’t match any manifest we are familiar with, and it appears to contain technology we have never before encountered. We need information about this ship, which we have dubbed the Iron Barbell. This is why you are going to be sent on a mission of subtly and subterfuge, something I fear may be beyond a crew of such sub-human intelligence. But I must, alas, make do with what I have [sigh]”

    The Corporal explained that the Alliance had obtained the credentials of a mercenary repair ship known to be allied with the Tentac empire. The Max Power was to use these credentials to masquerade as a friendly repair ship, board the Iron Barbell, gather as much information about it as possible, and destroy it.

    “There is one module in particular that we are not familiar with. You should try to discover its purpose, and anything else you can about this mysterious craft. But most importantly, you cannot allow it to return to the Tentac empire in one piece. If this is a prototype or early version of this ship, we must deny our enemies the chance to develop it.”

    On the table was a set of modules representing the enemy ship. However, most of the modules were covered up. Only the engines, guns and missile bay  were revealed, as their operation would be obvious from the external appearance of the ship. Discovering the remaining makeup of the ship would require some scouting or clever use of the science bay. Meanwhile, behind my screen, I had recreated the ship in its entirety, giving me a place to secretly move its crew and plan my defense. Also, the tractor module was not a tractor module at all, but was standing in for the mysterious alien technology. Now, on with the story:

    With their mission in their minds and the inspiring confidence of their commanding officer in their hearts, the crew of the Max Power boarded their mighty vessel and leapt into hyperspace.

    Soon they arrived in a sparse asteroid field, with the Iron Barbell floating helplessly nearby. Early science scans indicated that there were at least 6 life forms on board; the crew was outnumbered, and based on the size of the opposing ship, likely outgunned.

    Luckily, though, it appeared that the ruse was holding up so far. Pepsau, the Tentac Engineer, made contact with the enemy crew and arranged to dock with them. The presence of a Tentac among the crew seemed to improve their credibility as Tentac-allied mercenaries, and soon the crew was preparing to board through the aft cannon module. Several strategies were discussed, involving splitting up and allowing the pilot and science officer to stay aboard the Max Power, but eventually the decision was made to stick together. The four friends were to leave their ship behind and enter an enemy vessel, with little knowledge of what was to come. A risky gambit to be sure!

    When the docking bay doors opened, the crew was greeted by the Tentac captain and his head engineering officer. While sheepishly skirting the issue of his own ineffectiveness, the engineer lead the crew to the damaged hyperdrive, where Pepsau agreed to get to work. The rest of the crew, nervously fidgeted and looked for an excuse to work their way to the unexplored fore sections of the ship.

    While Pepsau feigned difficulty making his repairs and tried to explain that the experimental nature of the ship complicated things greatly, Leonov explained that he needed to use the science bay. After some awkward negotiation, he succeeded in convincing the wary Tentacs that he could use the bay to gather diagnostic information that might aid his colleague. While he and Chu were lead to the science bay, Idy and Pepsau lingered in the hyperdrive and waited for their chance to strike.

    Most of the negotiations were handled with a generic, luckable die roll, the difficulty of which was heavily adjusted for the convincingness of the argument made by the player. At times I thought it would be nice to have some sort of charisma attribute / negotiation skill that I could be referencing, but really this worked fine. Some of the haggling I describe below only succeeded due to a combination of luck of the dice, and the  profuse use of luck points, which ended up being a lot of fun.

    Leonov quickly set to work in the science station, covertly hacking it rather than using it for the ends he had advertised. He learned a little bit about the ship’s nature, but too much was still a mystery. And none of this really got them anywhere, the crew knew. They had not learned much about the ship, and if they were going to destroy this thing, they increasingly realized, they would need to do some damage to it from the inside. Their ship couldn’t possibly go toe-to-toe with this beast, and that didn’t even account for the fact that they were trapped in it, even if only by social expectation of repair crews. So they started to take more chances.

    After Leonov had been “working” for some time, the Tentac head engineering officer popped in to see how things were progressing. The human tried to explain that there might be a problem with the ship’s missile bay, and that perhaps that had caused the problem with the hyperdrive. The Tentac was understandably skeptical, and in general, things started getting a little touchy. Leonov tried to explain “Zee missile, zee missile, trayles, zee exhhaust trayles, may have caused zee intehrfeeerence with zee, with zee hyderdrive…”  But the more he explained, the more the engineer grew suspicious, until eventually Leonov, sensing he was getting nowhere, and seeing an opportunity to poke around, asked to speak to the captain.

    This ended up being a good idea, as the engineer lead them to the forward helm, where they spoke to the captain about the possible conflict between the missile launch system and the hyperdrive’s (highly experimental, very new, mind you) operation. In the midst of this discussion, Leonov heard a squealing noise, very faintly, coming up the hall from the back of the ship. It sounded like a Tentac screaming, he realized, and quickly did his best to talk loudly and change the subject as obnoxiously as possible.

    What was that noise, you ask? Well, you might have been wondering what our good friends Idy and Pepsau Muschz have been up to this whole time. You see, Pepsau pretended to work on the hyperdrive, frequently cursing its newfangled design and general slagged nature, until eventually the Tentac who had been watching them curiously wandered off into the aft life support chamber and went to sleep. While Idy crept over to the entrance to their ship in case things went sour, Pepsau followed the Tentac and found it sleeping in a pool of regenerative goo. Figuring that this was as good a chance as any to seize the initiative in this conflict, the engineer lowered his pistol into the slime, pressed it lightly into the mass of Tentacles, and pulled the trigger.

    Trouble Brewing
    (And even more Tentacs are hidden nearby!

    While he had hoped for a quick, muffled, coup de grace, he was instead greeted with a slimy, injured, shrieking Tentac, which shambled frantically over to the port engine. Cursing, Pepsau told Idy over their headsets to head off the escape. In a spray of laser fire, the Tentac was cut down, splathering apart into its constituent tentacles all across the floor of the aft cannon module. A lack of frantic commands to retreat from their friends reassured Idy and Pepsau that perhaps the enemies in the forward half of the ship hadn’t been alerted by the commotion. Unfortunately, there were other Tentacs in the aft of the ship, one of whom had been slacking off in the starboard engine module and who then came to investigate.

    The slacking enemy engineer saw the crew members standing over the dead Tentac, and the crew members saw the enemy engineer. Of course, the engineer bolted, and of course, Pepsau and Idy followed, with phasers set to kill. Unfortunately, they weren’t quick enough, and the witness reached a battle station in the starboard engine, where he alerted the rest of the Tentac crew of the foul play that was afoot.

    Leonov and Chu had been doing a reasonably good job of covering the noises being made by their friends with sudden, important exclamations. They had even snuck a peek at the mysterious weapon in the top left corner of the ship. But when the message came over the ship's communication channels that the repairmen had killed one of the crew, there was little negotiation left to be done. With no less than 5 Tentacs in the fore of the ship, guns quickly began blazing as the science officer and marine made their retreat from the helm. They holed up in the science bay, lurking around the corner and blasting a Tentac as soon as it entered. But there were too many of them. The stray gunfire quickly slagged the science bay, which provided enough smoke and sparks and general chaos to allow the heroic crew members to retreat all the way to the missile bay.

    Meanwhile, once the alarm was raised, the Iron Barbell sprang to life, disconnecting from the Max Power, thus cutting off the heroes' escape route. Then the Tentac ship began gaining speed and turning around the large asteroid that was nearby the point where the two ships had been docked. This asteroid figured quite prominently into the feats of daring do that are to come, so we will name it. The Iron Barbell began to maneuver near Asteroid Omega. As the ship turned, its crew took the opportunity to blast the helpless Max Power with a cannon shot across the bow, much to the outrage of her crew.

    And what did our intrepid instigators in the aft do all this time? Why they messed stuff up, of course! First, they sabotaged the port engine to the point of slagation, and then started to hunt the Tentac who had revealed them. They entered the aft helm from the hyperdrive module, and began a cat and mouse gunfight with the Tentac. It also became clear that they did not have a numbers advantage, as another, albeit more timid, Tentac made its presence known and scurried about in the starboard engine. Just when things looked bad, one of the Tentacs was slain, and Idy and Pepsau started moving towards the missile bay, ignoring the other. They would meet up with their friends, and perhaps they could hack the missile bay. Then they could use boarding missiles to return to their ship and finish this fight right. They had learned a little bit about the ship, but at this point the crew just wanted to live to fight another day, and ensure the Iron Barbell didn’t.

    Now, before we move on, let us take stock of the situation. Chu is standing in the science bay, right next to Leonov, who is standing in the missile bay. They are right on the cusp. Below, Idy and Pepsau are moving towards the missile bay from the helm to meet them. Above, several armed Tentacs crowd the science bay. Then one last, ominous, thing happened. The Tentac ship turned to face Asteroid Omega, and it was moving fairly fast. Something was happening.

    What happened was, amid flashing lights and industrial steam, a large steel door began to lower from the ceiling between the missile bay and the science bay. Between Chu and Leonov. The ship was splitting in two. And it was decision time.

    It was phase 2, and the ship was moving at speed 3. It was a mere 2 spaces away from asteroid Omega. When the two ships split, they become independent ships, each  with half the power the original had, but with the same heading and speed information. This meant that the back half of the ship was going to crash into the asteroid on phase 1 of the next round, unless someone changed its course.

    The Ship Splits!
    The crew knew they were in real trouble. Both halves of the ship were on a collision course with Asteroid Omega, but presumably the Tentacs would be able to turn their front half of the ship in time to avoid it. The crew of the Max Power, on the other hand, did not have access to the back half’s helm. They would have to run back to the helm, hack it, and turn the ship, and they would have to do so quickly. Being in the front half of the ship was no better, as it was thoroughly packed with Tentacs. The crew was in trouble. Pepsau and Idy were too far from the closing door to have any choice of ship-half, so they briefly considered escaping in boarding missiles to the Max Power. But then they decided, if the Tentac wanted to give them half their ship, they were going to take it, and sprinted back to the helm without a doubt in their minds.

    Chu tried to leap under the closing door, but in the slagged module he couldn’t get his bearings and was stuck. The decision was Leonov’s. Did he stay where he was and join his friends in the aft half of the ship, or did he leap into the smoke and fire with Chu to fight off the Tentacs for the other half? With only a moment’s hesitation, he dove under the closing door as it slammed shut behind him. And with the whoosh of the closing seal, the two halves of the crew of the Max Power drifted away from eachother in the void of space, each with their own seemingly insurmountable challenges to face. We will call the front half of the ship, with Chu and Leonov trapped in the science bay against insurmountable odds, the Barbell Alpha. The back half, meanwhile, with Idy and Pepsau on board and hurtling towards an asteroid, will be dubbed the Barbell Beta.

    Idy and Pepsau knew that everything had to be just right. As they skidded to a halt in the helm, they glanced up at the view screen. They saw the Barbell Alpha bank in space, and saw looming behind it, enormous and terrible, spinning slowly, Asteroid Omega. Deep breaths all around, Idy lamented being without their science officer, and prepared to work. With a catastrophic collision looming, Idy worked the computers of the helm for all he was worth. And slowly, with his preparations, a little help from Pepsau, and a lot of luck, he was in! All that remained was to turn the ship itself, an easy enough task for such an expert pilot, but none too soon. The Barbell Beta groaned, creaked, and finally veered, missing the asteroid by a split-second (phase) and cheers erupted from the crew.

    Of course, the cheers of Chu and Leonov came over their intercoms, across space, and from the middle of an intense battle. Slowly working their way through the slagged science bay, the two crew members proved their effectiveness in their respective tasks. Chu demonstrated he was a true marine, adept in both absorbing and meting out punishment in large doses. At the conclusion of a lengthy, back-and forth battle that raged in the ravaged science facility, a couple of well-placed shots killed another of the Tentacs. After some very effective and much-needed medical attention from his science officer, Chu peeked around the corner of the science bay and advanced into the life support chamber.

    Unfortunately, he wandered directly into a trap. As he reached the intersection of the corridors through the life support module, a laser blast slammed into him from the side, thanks to a Tentac engineer. Chu returned fire and exploded his assailant, but things were still grim. Moments later, the Tentac captain stepped around the corner, uttered the vilest of Tentac curses and fired. And finally, the ship’s gunner came from the starboard side of the helm and fired, knocking Chu unconscious with the final blast in an outright barrage of death.

    Stunned, Leonov gathered his wits and adeptly healed his fallen friend, and the two retreated to the slagged science bay. Once Chu was once again attended to medically, the two battered humans considered their next move.

    Pepsau and Idy had meanwhile fully gained control of the Barbell Beta, and at last chased down the last Tentac on board. Pepsau showed no mercy on the vile creature as he cornered it in the far end of the engine room and sprayed its stringy parts all across the walls. Once the adrenaline had stopped pumping, the two crewmates had time to reflect on the cruel irony of their situation. All of the hard work they had done destroying the enemy's ship came back to haunt them. With damaged engines, it would be especially challenging to pilot this hunk of junk to safety and there was little time for repairs.

    While they pondered this, things only got worse as the Barbell Alpha came to bear and unleashed its secret weapon, a ray that quickly sapped the strength of the Beta’s shields. Left nearly defenseless, Idy and Pepsau reeled as a cannon blast ripped through the ship, damaging their own cannon module. Battered, but not beaten, they moved to the helm and maneuvered the crippled enemy ship out of range and over to the Max Power. With extreme skill, and using every last ounce of helm power, Idy swung the ship into dock in one smooth motion and they prepared to disembark.

    At last, the two crewmates boarded their old ship; being home never felt so good. But they listened with increasing concern to the transmissions coming from their friends.

    For it seems the Tentacs are the vindictive types. Sensing that the tide had turned in the battle for the front half of its ship, the captain began enacting a vile plan and turned the vessel once again towards Asteroid Omega. Chu and Leonov gathered their wits, and bravely stormed into an unwinnable situation. Chu stood at the edge of the storming science bay where the Tentac’s mightiest warrior awaited him. Though the human fought valiantly, he was quickly dispatched and once again lay unconscious on the cold metal floor of an unfriendly ship, floating towards certain doom. Leonov stood helpless. He could raise his friend once again, but by the time they had won this war of attrition, collision with the asteroid would be inevitable. He was a fifty year-old Russian scientist, not a warrior. What chance did he have?

    We realized later that collision with the asteroid was by no means certain death, but not knowing any better we treated it as such at the time, and things worked out decidedly more dramatically as a result.

    Taking a deep breath, the awkward Russian science officer gripped his pistol and charged out of the smoke and straight past the deadly Tentac. Grimacing through the attack the foe made against him as he passed, Leonov turned, faced the Tentac, summoned up every bit of combat training he could remember and pulled the trigger.

    He could hardly believe it when his mighty foe lay spread across the floor, its tentacles draped across Chu ’s unconscious form, testament to Leonov’s unlikely, but spectacular success. But there was no time to rest on his laurels, to bask in the glory of his victory in mortal combat. This was it.

    There was just Leonov and the enemy captain left on the ship now, and there was no time to do anything but turn that ship before it hit the asteroid.

    We later realized that the helm had not been hacked, and that the time spent preparing would have been needed to hack the station instead. But at the time we didn’t realize this, and I don’t think it takes away from the experience. Back to the action-

    Leonov would have just enough time to run to the controls, prepare for the briefest of seconds and try to throttle the ship out of the way of the asteroid. He would be in the helm at the very front, very center of the ship. If he failed, he would likely take the full brunt of the impact, and likely not survive, even if the ship did. He wiped his hands, ran up to the controls and got ready. He made one last effort to reason with the Tentac captain, but the foe was crazed with rage and would not alter his course. The crew on the Max Power set up for one last desperate gambit as Idy fired up the enginers and Pepsau frantically sprinted to the ship's cannons. Trying to clear the path of the doomed alien ship, the engineer took aim at Asteroid Omega. Steadying his nerves, Pepsau took aim and fired a direct hit, right in the center of the asteroid! The crew cheered, but soon their mirth was soured as the desperate truth of the situation was layed bare. When the dust cleared, nothing had changed, and the asteroid remained in the ship’s path, as uncaring and deadly as ever. All contingency plans were off, there was only one more chance.

    It was do or die time for Leonov. He had to turn the ship.

    At this point, despite having the “lucky” perk, Leonov was completely out of luck. The ship was size 4, the speed was 6. Leonov had one point of piloting skill, and he had prepared. He *needed* a natural roll of 8 to turn the ship.

    We made this clear, and got ready for the roll. We psyched ourselves up and leaned forward on the couches. Nate readied himself, and rolled the dice. The first die came up a 2. Immediately. We all agreed afterwards that there was a subtle but distinct backward motion in each of us, as we slouched backwards in defeat and disappointment. It was just instinctual, you see a 2, and its over. 2’s are really, really bad. But that damn second die just spun on its corner, I can still see it now. It spun and tumbled and came down a flippin’ 6. We totally lost it.

    Jason told me at Gencon that this was a game where the GM was on the players’ side, and was there high-fiving along with everyone when the players succeeded. I believed him at the time, but I’ll be damned if this didn’t just prove it. We just completely lost it when, after that split second of calculation and recovery from misinterpretation, we realized he had done it. He turned the god damn ship. I am not even making this up. Does it get any better than that?

    At the absolute, last possible second, with the dust borne of millions of millennia spraying from the surface of Asteroid Omega, Leonov felt the ship pull to the side, and pull to the side, and pull to the side and brush just past the asteroid and into the glorious expanses of wide open space beyond. The Tentac pilot, now beyond rebellion, its crew dead, its spirit broken, turned from the controls and surrendered.

    Soon, the halves of the ship were reunited, and along with the Max Power, the ship was warped through hyperspace back to Earth 7 under the control of the crew. They could hear the disbelief in the voices of the dock controllers when they requested assistance in docking the damaged, but fully intact enemy prototype ship.

    While Corporal Bitburger’s approval was thoroughly grudging, the Alliance subcouncil on Earth 7 had no such mixed feelings. They awarded the Astral Star award to the members of the Max Power, and the additional prestige each gained for not only gathering information about the enemy ship, but gathering the enemy ship itself, was sufficient for each member to see an increase in their rank in the Alliance ’s military.

    Of course, other awards awaited the valiant heroes. They were generously paid for their completion of the mission, and had access to a recently arrived supply ship from Earth 2 for their requisitioning pleasure. But the most important thing that they gained was a great amount of experience about the ways of interstellar combat.

    Not to mention a great experience. Quite a game, easily the most dramatic thing I have had happen in a game of any kind, let alone an RPG. This really confirmed my love of the Battlestations system in general. The luck system is a lot of fun, the merging of the onboard and outer space systems works well, and the system is flexible enough to allow for some unusual situations.

    Part of the fun was the degree to which things strayed from what I had planned, and the degree to which the system was up to the challenge. I had expected the crew to sabotage the ship and return to their own, at which point a 2-on-1 space battle would ensue. The back half of the Barbell would launch boarding missiles, and raucous space combat would be the order to the day. Instead, some insane, onboard high adventure unfolded, that was entirely more satisfying.

    And most importantly, the system was simple enough and quick enough not to suck the fun out of games like this one. I hope that I was able to convey some of the drama of the game to you here. If you haven’t tried Battlestations, I certainly encourage you to, it is space age swashbuckling at its best.

    One final comment; there has been some talk lately about an upcoming charisma-type stat. While I think the largely arbitrary rolls I used worked out alright, I was left wanting in some ways, and I welcome the addition. While I'm not sure if being a full-time diplomat is going to appeal to too many people, I like the idea that someone can specialize in diplomacy to some extent, becoming a sort of communications officer as a sub-profession if they like. The simple fact that some characters are better at dealing with other life forms leads might lead to interesting task assignments and encourage roleplay for characters with high and low charisma alike. And hopefully, in addition to the profession I am hearing about, we might see some cool dimplomacy-based perks? I think there is a lot of potential there; certainly this mission shows that there is some fun to be had in a little negotiation and subterfuge before the action starts in earnest. Food for thought. Until next time,

    Alex Baker
    abaker@uci.edu

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