The Binary Challenge in Sword’s Edge

In the last couple of posts, I’ve written about some of the perceptions and ideas that helped design Sword’s Edge, how I view failure and the purpose of Momentum. Let’s now look at an example of a binary challenge and how SE replicates it . . . or fails to do so.

By a binary challenge I mean something that is generally seen as a “do it or don’t.” The example I want to use is jumping over a chasm. In general, when viewing this, it looks binary – one gets over the chasm or one does not. How does a binary action work with Momentum and then Action.

To be honest, when I run a game, this isn’t something I would make a mechanical challenge. There would need to be something significant about it to justify making it a mechanical challenge – a Narrative Character (NC). Does a PC have fear of heights? Is there something about the challenge that touches on a PC’s pivots or other qualities? Generally, things like climbing trees (or buildings), jumping, or smashing through doors are part of a scene, but aren’t the heart of a scene (the goal or purpose of the scene), so I don’t really bother with them.

Let’s say we do. Let’s say there is a good reason to make this an NC, I would then ask myself: “Is this a prelude to something?” For example, to see the sniper before the sniper takes the shot or notice the warriors waiting in ambush. If it is, I would give the NCs a Quality (generally an Element) specific for Momentum that reflects this. The success or failure of Momentum then tells us if the PCs succeeded or failed.

In the case of jumping the chasm, is it to get into a fight? To rescue an individual? Is it in pursuit of a villain? In some of these cases, I would build it into the NC as above. In the case of pursuit, I would represent it as an Element for special use – something like “Using ground for advantage (Physical) +4.” This provides a mechanical replication of the chasm to be jumped over which remains binary for that round, but then does not follow through to the next – the PC either overcomes it or is delayed by it.

What if there is a good reason to create this NC all on its own. It doesn’t matter then reason, but let’s say there is a good story or character reason to create a binary challenge – a do it or not kind of challenge.

In this case, I would definitely make it a minion – one success is all that is needed. I would make sure its rank represented the difficulty of accomplishing the task, and give it a fitting Concept. Still, looking at something like jumping over a chasm and considering how I have described Momentum, one might wonder how it fits together. What happens when the PC has Momentum but fails in the Action Test? What happens when the PC fails Momentum? What happens if the PC fails both Momentum and Action?

Okay, in general I allow the players to narrate the results of their Test. Leading up to the Test, I ask, what they are trying to do, and when we have a result I ask what happened. Sometimes, the player asks for input, so this would be my input.

What happens when the PC has Momentum but fails in the Action Test? The PC makes it across but doesn’t land well on the other side. They barely made it and are hanging over the edge. Think of Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark, at the beginning when Alfred Molina leaves the whip on the other side of the chasm. Indy jumps, doesn’t quite make it and is hanging there. Another failure? Starts losing handholds. Another failure? Falls for a bit but catches a root or outstretched rock. Etc.

What happens if the player fails Momentum but succeeds in Action? The PC thought they were ready to make the jump but realizes, as they reach the edge, that they aren’t going to make and skid to a halt before going over. Catching their breath, the PC can try again – they can try to Seize Momentum – or maybe they realize there’s no way they can simply leap over this chasm, and they stop to consider alternatives.

Failing Momentum and the Test? I would use a narrative similar to the one above about landing badly and scrambling for handholds, but in this case, the bad landing knocks the wind out of them – or worse. Since this would likely be Physical Stress and therefore Penalty Ranks to Physical, I would continue to represent failures as things that would hurt, like a the slipping down the side and grabbing something wrenches out the character’s arm, and then fall they lose their grip and fall, only to land hard on an outcropping of rock or protruding root.

To be honest, SE doesn’t work great for binary challenges. It’s not really designed for that. As with any generic system, it has its weaknesses, and this is one of them. SE was designed to run the kind of games I like to run, and in those kinds of games, most binary challenges are part of a greater action scene and so rarely stand alone as an NC.

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Representing Momentum in Sword’s Edge

In my last post, I tried to illustrate some of the thinking regarding success and failure in Sword’s Edge, and specifically with Momentum. This time, I want to talk about how one can represent that in the narrative.

To reiterate, Momentum is about who controls the conflict – who is in the driver’s seat. The winner of the Momentum Test is considered “active” and the loser “passive,” but this is only because the terms “attacker” and “defender” have the context of combat whereas Tests in Sword’s Edge can be about anything. In this article, let’s agree that the active character is attempting to change the status quo in a manner that benefits them and the passive character is attempting to stop that change. Both might be active, but only one is acting on the status quo – the passive character is instead acting on the active character.

How does this relate to the narrative of the game? What does this look like? Consider a fight scene in a movie: while the protagonist might generally be shown succeeding – especially when facing mooks – there is often a point at which there is some kind of setback (especially in a Jackie Chan movie!). The character is momentarily thwarted, but this generally leads to a new and different attempt that succeeds in some way. The character in this case did not lose Momentum – they really still controlled the fight – but they did not succeed in that particular action.

Now, this is different from the big fight scenes when the protagonist is fighting a boss or mini-boss, as this is much more like a fight against a regular or hero – a success doesn’t result in an outright win, merely progression towards a win. Sometimes, in such a scene, you can actually see where the opponent Seizes the Momentum. This usually leads to another moment where the protagonist steals it back, but there is often a moment when the tables turn on the protagonist until they can reassert control of the fight.

But what about other situations in which the visual of controlling a situation is not so obvious. Let’s take the example of a starship crash-landing on an alien planet. In such a situation, what does failing to control the situation look like? To me, that would be the PC unable to concentrate, unable to focus, forgetting the processes or lacking a real solution to the problem. Failing Momentum means that the situation is out of the PC’s control. She’s flailing about, maybe doing something, but not doing anything right.

And then a failure when the PC is the passive party – on the defensive – means that the PC has done exactly the wrong thing due to this lack of confidence or confusion. I’d likely narrate this as the PC having a crisis of confidence, questioning her ability and knowledge (a Penalty Rank to Cunning).

I think we can all think of examples in our own lives in which we did not have control of a situation. We were faced with a problem and lacked a way forward. We did not have Momentum. But then we took a chance, took a stab at a solution – uncertain if it would work but unwilling to allow the situation to persist or even degrade. That was us Seizing Momentum. Get it right, you have control of the situation and can now influence the status quo in your favour. Get it wrong? Yeah, really bad things can happen.

So that’s how I think about representing Momentum and failure in the game. It can be more clear when one is representing combat, but the same dynamics carry over into all resolutions.

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Failure in Sword’s Edge: A Consideration

My buddy Bruce in the UK asks the best questions, questions that make me really think about my game and why it does what it does. From those conversations, I’m cribbing some thoughts to share in order to help give people a better idea of the philosophy behind Sword’s Edge design.

I want to start off by discussing failure. A component of the philosophy of failure in Sword’s Edge is if a player character (PC) is unable to succeed, it generally means the narrative character (NC) can Seize Momentum, which is what the NC should do. This is not the case if the player is simply getting bad die rolls. That’s frustrating but it doesn’t highlight a power disparity on which the NC can capitalize. Bad runs of dice rolling can be frustrating, but there are no real ill effects for the PC. In the case where the PC and NC are pretty evenly matched, it’s kind of up to the GM if they want to risk a Seize Momentum which could end the scene very quick.

I generally have NCs attempt to Seize Momentum whenever it appears at all likely to succeed.

So that’s the idea behind Momentum, but how does one narrate failure on a Momentum Test?

Here’s the thing with Momentum – it’s controlling the situation. That’s kind of easy to see in a fight, especially something like fencing or martial arts. In both of these cases, once that kind of control is established, the controlling party generally ends up winning the exchange. That’s the idea of Momentum.

While I tend to use the terms “passive” and “active” actors, Momentum and Action in SE is really about attacker and defender, if we define attackers as the character attempting to change the status quo and the defender as the character attempting to counter the attacker. Both are active, but one is attempting to change the status quo to gain an advantage (attacker) and the other is attempting to obstruct or redefine that change (defender). The defender is not affecting the status quo, only affecting the attacker.

So, a Momentum failure means that the character does not have control of the situation and is trying to counter the actions of the attacker. In the Action Test that follows, a success by the defender means that the character has foiled the attacker somehow. The character does effect the action, but not in a way that moves the character toward completion of a goal. The character’s success in this case is directly related to the actions of the attacker.

The case of a Momentum win followed by an Action failure is the reverse of this, where the PC is the one attempting to redefine the status quo to their benefit and the NC foils this attempt somehow. The PC may even succeed at their action, but the outcome does not benefit them in the way they had hoped and this is due to the interference or other action of the NC.

That’s a kind of dive into how Sword’s Edge envisions success and failure, and how Momentum is intended to feed into that. It is somewhat different than many other games, so I hope this helps give players and GMs a better idea of the mechanics and narratives of Tests.

 

 

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All Quiet On The . . Wait, No It Isn’t!

It may have been quiet in the internet-facing portion of Sword’s Edge Publishing, but there’s been lots of work behind the scenes. The files for the Sword’s Edge books are with the printers and I’m awaiting a proof. Once that has been approved, the final PDF will be available to Kickstarter backers and I’ll be in contact with Magpie Games to take care of the shipments.

Plans continue apace for the Patreon which will go live in September. Both “Lawless Heaven” and “Face ‘Splosion” are ready to go. The third release looks like it will be an adventure for Nefertiti Overdrive which bridges the period between “Rumours of War,” presented in the Nefertiti Overdrive Quickstart Rules and “Get Netiqret,” which was presented in Nefertiti Overdrive. December will see “Swords & Searchers,” a revision of “the Nor’Westers” as I believe a sword & sorcery setting will work better than early 19th century Canada. Swords & Searchers” will be a mini-campaign and depending on how many pages it encompasses, it might end up being two releases. It uses the Sword’s Edge rules.

At that point, I’ll be taking stock of the Patreon. I have two stories in the sword noir genre ready to go, and I may also be releasing the Wall RPG, depending on the backers and their preferences. I also have “Gang War,” a take on the Warriors – which was itself an update on Anabasis by Xenophon – using Sword’s Edge. I’m going to keep working on possible releases as I want to make sure the Patreon is stacked for at least a year. Once that first year is done, I’ll review and adjust accordingly.

So rest assured, I am busy working. I want to make sure I have a buffer of product for the Patreon just in case real life happens, as it always does.

Until the Patreon launches, if you haven’t picked up Sword’s Edge, the pre-order is open but will close once the books start shipping, so this is your chance to get it at Canadian rather than US prices.

You can find the Sword’s Edge pre-order page here.

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Sword’s Edge Pre-Orders

In case you didn’t back Sword’s Edge through Kickstarter, the PDF is now available on pre-order. It is not exactly the final PDF and is considered an advanced preview. I won’t be sending anything to print for another week or so, and some changes might still be made. Once the print version is finalized around mid-August, a finalized PDF will be available and will be delivered through the pre-order site at Backerkit.

The PDF won’t be available anywhere else until well after print copies have shipped – hoping that most of the backers will have their print copies before non-backers have a chance to purchase – so the only way to get the PDF before October if you didn’t back the Kickstarter will be through pre-order.

It’s also important to note that the price for a PDF is in Canadian dollars while the final product will be sold in US dollars, and since the Canadian dollar is only about 80 cents US, you can save some money by buying early.

And I didn’t even mention the work being done for my Patreon. That’ll be coming in September.

Save up your pennies!

You can pre-order here.

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Studio Firebase Oats Rakka

Neill Blomkamp isn’t resting on his laurels but is creating some amazing speculative fiction shorts. Both Rakka and Firebase are out now, and each of these provides tons of inspiration for both writers and RPGers. I’m only going to look at it from an RPG perspective.

Rakka is kind of an apocalyptic/bodyhorror/alien invasion short which looks at the way humans try to fight back. There are shades of the backstory for Terminator – which became a frontstory(?) with the imperfect Terminator SalvationAliens, eXistenZ, and District 9 while still remaining briskly original. For inspiration, there is the enemy itself – one that has both technological superiority but also psionic superiority – those humans that survive the aliens’ experimentation (maybe the super-powered PCs?), and the hinted-at saviours of the world. Is the Earth caught in the middle of an interstellar war, useful because of its strategic location? Does one side view Humans only as an irritating pest while the other recognizes sentience? Or do our saviours merely seek to use us as proxies, to avoid their own casualties while still hitting at their opponents?

I actually enjoyed Firebase more than Rakka. Neither one is really complete, although Rakka feels like its complete, just ambiguously so. Firebase teases more to come. It has many elements similar to Rakka, but this time it’s in Vietnam during the war and the force being faced seems more supernatural than interstellar. What could be interesting is taking the premise of Firebase and transporting it to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, trapped in decades of fighting and insecurity, and use it along with a riff on “Heart of Darkness” – itself the inspiration for Apocalypse Now. As the team gets closer and closer to the River God substitute, things get weirder and weirder. Reality is breaking down, but the characters/PCs are able to stand outside this decay for some reason – maybe for reasons they also don’t understand. I think the premise is very cool, and it is ripe for use in an RPG.

I can’t wait to see what else comes out of Oats Studios, because I will bet it will be as pregnant with inspiration as these two pieces have been.

You can see both Rakka and Firebase at Oats Studios.

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Values and Rewards

I’ve been bugging a couple of other designers about their games, one because he asked me to and one because I’m helping with playtesting. I really like both of these games and I think I see ways they can be improved. As with any critique, it’s up to them to decide if there is value in my comments, and value is what is forefront of my mind right now.

Games have values hard-baked into them. Whether intentional or not, a game has activities it values and others it does not. Just because an activity is necessary for a game to function does not necessarily mean the game values that activity. All my games include rolling dice as a randomizer, but the games do not value this. I can confidently say/write that because none of my games reward dice-rolling. They reward the results of dice-rolling, but that could be the result of any randomizer, and I have chosen dice because they are the randomizer I understand the best.

Right there I revealed what I’ve been thinking about: rewards as signifiers of value. A game will reward what it values. The main mechanical reward in Dungeons & Dragons is experience points. There are other rewards which have a mechanical function – they effect the “behind the scenes” system that gives structure to the narrative/story – but they also exist within the story. Experience points – at least as I understand them – are wholly mechanical. PCs gain experience points from defeating enemies. In 5e, one can provide story rewards or rewards for noncombat challenges, but these are optional. The system rewards defeating monsters, so the game obviously values defeating monsters. You can do a lot of things with the D&D system, but if you are running it “rules as written,” your PCs will be fighting and defeating monsters and other opponents because that is what the game values and what it rewards.

If there is a reward in the game, it is because that is an activity in which the game wants you to engage. However, when designing a game, I think it is easy to disassociate rewards from values. Sometimes, we design at an instinctual level and only later review and consider what we have created. Rewards are a part of design, and the giving of rewards is not bad, but it does make the activity one is rewarding a required part of the game. Sure, one does not need to engage in that activity – no one is coming to your house to force you to defeat monsters – but the character will actually be penalized for not doing so. The character will not be rewarded while other characters undertaking the activity will be.

In my experience, when designing a game, it’s super important to ask yourself does the activity I am rewarding have value? Do I feel it is valuable? If it is not and does not, why am I rewarding it? So in Sword’s Edge, there are two activities which the players control that provide rewards – hitting Pivots and having a character act in a way that might seem sub-optimal, but that fits in the genre being replicated. Like D&D, there are other optional ways, but these two are “rules as written” (basically, Luck exists to reward players as a way of reinforcing activities at the table to which the GM or group has assigned value).

Why do Pivots have value? Pivots are the signposts that tell everyone about the character’s goals, quirks, and style. They are also signposts to help GMs design adventures. By hitting those, the player is reinforcing the character as expressed by that player. This in turn means that if the player wants to change her vision of the character, there is incentive to change the Pivots which then assists the GM in fashioning adventures that will speak to the player and character. There are two levels of reinforcement, but the mechanical one is likely the one that will motivate as the other – the enjoyment of the game – might not be significantly impacted.

You know who I’m talking about . . . right?

Why does following genre conventions have value? Following conventions has value as it helps to support an atmosphere and approach which the group has agreed it wants to foster. There’s no problem playing a Stormtrooper in a Star Wars campaign, but remember that the characters in Star Wars are basically good. They can be anti-heroes, but they fight the good fight, so that Stormtrooper needs to abandon the Empire/First Order and help the Resistance. The player still gets to play the character desired while being rewarded for sticking to the genre on which the group has agreed. This balances the desires of the player and the group.

So when designing a game, consider what your game rewards. That signifies value. Did you intend your game to value that activity? Is it in keeping with the concept or stated aims of the game? Rewards are good. Values are good. Consistency is better because it generally delivers a better play experience, closer to the stated aim of the system.

At least that’s what I think.

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Patreon-izing

As Sword’s Edge slowly moves towards completion and delivery to its backers, I have been using what time I have to get some other projects in order. Right now, both Lawless Heaven and Face ‘Splosion are ready to go. These are Sword’s Edge adventures designed for convention play, meaning they are one-shots with prepared characters, although they could be introductions into longer campaigns if so desired. Right now, I am working on the Nor’Westers, which may get a new name for its release, and is different than the other two releases in that it is a campaign, though one built of the truncated summaries I use to run adventures, which I tend to lump together as one-pagers.

Along with these three Sword’s Edge products, I have a Centurion and a Nefertiti Overdrive adventure that I could release, as well as a possible second campaign product (a covert special forces campaign set in modern Africa) that could be completed.

You may wonder about this flurry of activity. It is because I am intent on exploring another type of crowdfunding – Patreon. Unlike Kickstarter, Patreon is a subscription service in which one pays a specific amount per month or per release. My intent is to set mine to “per release” and to release adventures as well as some other items at a planned rate of once per month.

As it stands, I’ll have three months (possibly four) covered, and I intend to keep that buffer going – so I will always have some extra time in case there is a month in which I am unable to get a product completed. Each product will be around 20 pages. The idea is that they will be provided to backers of Patreon. Depending on the amount of money I am making on Patreon, the products may then be sold elsewhere or they may remain available only through Patreon. Along with adventures, I intend to offer game supplements – such as an Egyptian history and culture supplement for Nefertiti Overdrive and a Sword Noir supplement for the new version of Sword’s Edge – and fiction – I am toying with the idea of a serial novel along with speculative fiction short stories.

This will happen once Sword’s Edge reaches its backers as a PDF. I don’t want to put a date on that as all is going well and I don’t want to raise expectations only to then have to dash them.

I’ll be talking about this both at the SEP Google+ community and on Twitter.

I hope that you’ll be kind enough to support me on Patreon when the time comes. If you like what I do, it is a way to make sure I keep producing.

You can find the SEP G+ community here.

You can find me on Twitter here.

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Centurion Ruminations

A discussion elsewhere has led me to consider choices made in designing Centurion – one of my games that was not inspired by other systems but was wholly independently designed. Centurion: Legionaries of Rome, as its title implies, is a game about Roman legionaries, and more specifically the kinds of special troops that might find themselves in a testudo facing raging barbarians, but which are more likely to be in advance of the legions, scouting out the activities of those barbarians or even infiltrating the camps or cities of rival civilizations. The development of Centurion seems so long ago (I guess 2012 was a few years back), but I had some very clear design goals.

For a simple system with a strong focus on narrative, Centurion’s dice mechanics are somewhat complex, certainly much crunchier than the other aspects of the game. This was the result of an intent to develop a relatively light game that still required a level of strategy – or, to be more true to the definitions, tactics. Since it was a game about legionaries, the idea was to incorporate the kind of tactical thinking required when you were in a legion. Legionaries had to make decisions for themselves – when to receive attacks and when to strike – but these decisions also had effects on their squadmates – when shifting a shield for a strike, one left the legionary to one’s right vulnerable. So the decisions made on who to build one’s hand to best counter the GM was intended as an extension of the decisions required of a legionary.

In a Test, the GM must assemble their hand of dice first – the character’s stats are based on a number of d6, and these can be used to buy larger dice or used as d6s, and this collection of dice is the player’s “hand” – and this gives the PCs a decided advantage. This was not an unexpected result but was the goal of that design decision. PC s are intended to have an advantage – actually, a few – and the major advantage is the ability to respond to the GM’s hand. This is one way to mirror the incredible professionalism and level of training of the Roman legionaries in comparison to almost any foe that they faced. While PCs had certain other advantages, this one was the primary way in which the training of the legionaries was modelled.

Centurion is certainly not the most popular game that I have designed, but I think it is the one about which I am most proud. This was something that I designed completely from the ground up with a very strong idea about what I wanted it to do. I really believe that I accomplished that, though others might disagree.

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How Starship is Commandos?

Starship Commandos is very explicitly inspired by the movie Aliens and the novel Starship Troopers. Recently, an individual had a bit of a disconnect between the perceived nature of those intellectual properties and the game. Basically, the interlocutor saw mortal threat as an important part of both inspirations, whereas in the default mode of Starship Commandos, there is no threat of PC death.

My response is rather lengthy, but as a TLDR, I guess I would just say that the PCs are Ripley and Rico in those pieces of inspiration, and the survival of those characters is never – in my opinion – in question. I would further opine that observation has led me to conclude that players do not invest in characters when they expect those characters to die, that the way players build characters in such situations changes. I explicate a lot more for clarity below, but it’s a bit of a slog.

This isn’t to try to claim that my way is the correct view, just that this is how I interpret the media properties and link that to my game design.

In regards to theme, it is my opinion that while Alien was absolutely survival horror in a science fiction setting, Aliens was not. To me, the question is not will Ripley survive but how. Elements of horror are woven into the story, and that helps to escalate the stakes. The lack of supplies provides the same, while also setting in motion the ticking clock aspect of the plot. The xenomorphs are horrifying and their use of humans in their life process is horrifying, and in this sense the movie is a monster/horror movie. But all of the Alien movies have attempted to approach the subject matter from a different angle and provide a different story – although Alien Resurrection came very close to mimicking some of the themes of Aliens – and rather than survival horror, Aliens seems much more an action movie with horror trappings.

For me, survival plays even less of a role in Starship Troopers. It has aspects of a coming of age story but I read it as an investigation of a militaristic society. I believe the story uses the alien threat as a backdrop to discuss civic engagement, public service, and the military as a focus for both. Again, this is Johnny Rico’s story, and I don’t believe there is much fear as one reads the novel that he might not survive.

So, for me, survival and threat was not a chief theme in either of the identified inspirations. Both included military responses to alien menaces, and that’s what I took for Starship Commandos.

Still, what about the threat of death as a means to build tension? I believe that when adapting intellectual properties to RPGs, one is generally dividing up the role of a single heroic protagonist (in this case Ripley or Rico) into the PCs. The novel/movie focused on just James Bond or Jason Bourne, but in the game, the PCs embody different aspects and competencies of the character. In the novels/movies, the protagonist generally has plot immunity, and in my RPGs, that extends to the PCs. One expects Ripley to survive because it is her movie (something that was not clear in Alien, which allowed it to play much straighter as survival horror), and this extends to the PCs. The PCs are all Johnny Ricos rather than one Johnny Rico and some supporting players.

The threat to the PCs in Starship Commandos is much the same as it is to Ripley and to Rico – there are narrative elements that can be considered a threat, but death is not an obvious outcome.

And this leads me to the death of PCs and the investment of players. To my knowledge, there are no real studies on how players react to RPGs, so we all base our assessments on our own experiences and the experiences of those whom we know. As such, I have no data, only anecdotes. What the anecdotes have led me to believe is that in RPGs with high PC mortality, players build mechanical PCs – PCs built for tasks within the mechanics of the game. They may initially infuse their PCs with personality and backstories, but the effort to do so declines with the repetition of creation. It is my belief that one does not invest in the fifth character of a campaign in the same way as one does a character that been part of five different adventures – or five different stories. One does not identify as strongly with and so one is likewise not as invested in the PC’s story.

I have not noted nor witnessed tension at the game table lessened due to the removal of death as a threat to PCs. I received strong evidence of this during the playtest of Starship Commandos, in which the players knew that their PCs had plot immunity but were nevertheless freaked out and extremely tense when they finally did encounter the xenomorphs. Just as with watching Aliens or reading Starship Troopers, it was the build to the scene rather than its mechanics or specifics that fed the tension. I have seen the same when I have run Nefertiti Overdrive, which very explicitly has no mechanic for PCs to receive damage (there is a method to degrade their ability to succeed but not to “harm” them – and this was specifically part of the design philosophy).

So, very long-winded, but I hope it gives some insights into some of the design decisions made in Starship Commandos and how that might run contrary to expectations.

You can find Starship Commandos here.

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