Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Heists, in Spaaaace: Another Sci-Fi Into the Odd Session Report

We met up again earlier this week for the next session in our open table, clock-ticking-down short campaign of Into the Odd - as space opera. Included in this report:

+ comments on running a Heist mission using Into the Odd
+ a session report recapping play
+ comments on suppression fire to complement my comments on automatic fire from the last session report

Once again I'm glad to say that everyone seemed to have a great time. The evening's session revolved around a heist; after last time, it was clear that public safety in the Scythian system now depends on securing a MacGuffin - sorry, I mean an ancient alien Control Orb. The players knew of several sinister places that might have one, but they also knew of one place that definitely had one - the Gadareiks Museum of Cultural Excellence. The corporate Gadareiks family controls the mining rights to an entire world, and its members have committed to harvesting all its mineral resources within seven generations. The black sheep of the family is the eccentric Count Gaston Gadareiks, a viciously cruel, deranged aristocratic art lover who owns a small subcontinent and runs his entire island as a private museum-estate. His collection ancient 'Olmec' Control Orb. It seemed pretty clear, based on what is known of his persona, that appealing to his better nature in order to save 5 billion lives would probably lead to him laughing, making popcorn, and sitting back to watch the catastrophe unfold. The Count is Not A Nice Man. So buying or asking nicely for the Control Orb = a no-go.

Enter the PCs.

As an open table campaign, the game's roster shifted slightly between sessions. Still present were the Police-Psychologist machine gunner, the Engineer/Scientist with a bionic arm, and the Soldier-Scout with a facial holographic projection unit. Unfortunately, the Criminal-Clergyman wasn't able to make it. In his place we gained a new player and character: C. plays a Scholar-Criminal - as he explained, his character is a xenobiologist who started selling xenomorph organs on the black market as delicacies. :-) So, quite a crew.

This group would be responsible for infiltrating a 1000 km-wide island, its jungles crawling with hunting packs of genetically-engineered carnivorous lizards...The island had four key facilities: the Mansion Vaults, where the Count resided, kept his personal museum collection, and tortured workers for fun in a private Laboratory...the Exhibition Hall (a private starport, hotel, banquet hall, and viewing area for exhibits - the Count being selfish and paranoid enough that nobody else is allowed into his actual home museum - so that artifacts are carried in an armored train to be viewed through glass by special guests at the Exhibit Hall, then returned to his personal sanctum); Operations, a mountaintop control center in the island's depths; and finally, Shantytown, a working dock and staff recreation area, where the Count's employees go to burn off steam and where supplies from the mainland mining settlements arrive at the private island. The four major centers on the island are linked by high-speed rail lines.

The office of the System Prefect, still deprived of actual military assets due to the civil war and rapidly losing public authority by the week, insisted that the PCs' actions must not be tied back to the Prefect, but otherwise stood ready to provide whatever intelligence and logistical support might be needed for this high-priority mission. As it happened, a representative from the Prefect's office would be attending a high-society gala at the Gadareiks Museum Exhibition Hall coming up in one week's time. Now the PCs just needed to research the Museum, tell the Prefect what gear they needed, and get ready for their desperate heist...


Part of the beauty of Into the Odd (ItO) is its elegant simplicity. There's not a lot there, but what is there works very well and plays nicely with most sub-systems you want to bolt on. So, when I talk about using ItO for a heist, I'm of course talking about combining its minimalist rules with ideas from elsewhere. Many readers, I imagine, are already familiar with the quiet revolution in rpg heist design that has happened in recent years, thanks in no small part to the narrative/story gaming community. In general, a heist mission back in 'the good old days' might require one or more sessions of detailed planning, itself drawing on pretty in-depth GM prep, followed eventually by execution of a plan that might go off smoothly or might just collapse into anarchy despite all the hours dumped into preparation. In contrast, some new games - none more prominently than the grimdark fantasy heist game Blades in the Dark - have pioneered a different approach that allows fast, exciting heists without a ton of prep time.

Since I've explicitly designed this campaign as a short set of a few sessions, each one with a pretty tight time budget (about 3 hours max per session), at an open table, the old style of generous planning simply wouldn't work. I needed a way to make the heist - both planning and execution - fit into 3 hours tops, and still be fun. Thus, I needed to lean heavily on the new-school ideas, but adapt them to Into the Odd's simplicity. None of the ideas below are really original to me at all, but I'd never combined these approaches to try to run a heist before.

Here's what I tried:

+ Right at the start of the session, after getting players up to speed with the general situation, I told them that the Prefect's office had secured them each a fake pass that would get them into Shantytown - the Museum Island's staff recreation settlement. Here, they would have a chance to cultivate assets, do quiet research on the island's security, and generally do on-site planning. Unfortunately, those fake passes weren't quite good enough to spoof the security elsewhere on the island, so they'd need to figure out some other plan to infiltrate the island itself for the heist.

+ Going around the table, each player rolled 1d8 to learn what rumor they overheard at the staff bars in Shantytown, then told me what aspect of the island's security they wanted to infiltrate or research. Each player rolled an ItO WIL Save: no matter the result, their action succeeded, but failure on the Save meant that the party gained 1 HEAT.

+ Ah, HEAT. I announced that the party had # of PCs + 1d4 HEAT to burn. I did not, however, tell them what # I had rolled, so they were always uncertain about just how much leeway they had when risking further engagement. I told them that when they ran out of HEAT, the island's security forces would have followed enough bread crumbs to figure out what was going on, and then they would drop the hammer on the PCs. I also announced that at 10:15 p.m. in real-world time, no matter what, security would figure out the game and come after the PCs.

+ After going around the table once, I told the players they could continue pushing to learn more about security, but at this point Save rolls to avoid HEAT would entail a penalty die.

+ Following Blades in the Dark, I let the players know that during play they could employ flashbacks - like the ones used in the Ocean's 11 movies - to show how whatever new problem/obstacle the thieves encounter was actually accounted for and part of the plan all along (if the players passed a relevant Save).

+ Finally, as the players' plans started to form, they could reach out to contacts or to the Prefect's office staff to arrange special gear or favors. Some of these were just no-brainer freebies, but for really significant or heavy-pull items, I simply told the players they could have it for free...if they paid 1 HEAT up-front.

+ finally, a few other things complemented these measures while running the actual heist later: I continued to be very liberal about what gear players could bring along, but ran a very tight ship about the actual inventory slots (we use a modified Knave-style inventory and encumbrance system). I take a page from Dungeon World and allow players to bring "Operational Gear" (in DW it's just 'adventuring supplies') - which takes up 1 slot, and can be defined at will when it's needed in play ("Uh, I reach into my pack and pull out a grappling hook." "Ok, sure, cross off an operational gear and write in 'grappling hook' instead."). And finally, because I'm using backgrounds as a skill system (advantage on a d20 Save roll if your background would help), I encourage players to talk through who is the best match for difficult tasks, etc.

All in all, I was very happy with the way it all came together.


So, as they prepared for the heist, the players did several proactive things: they had a contact in the criminal underworld elsewhere in the system make a replica of the Control Orb (in the last mission they rescued a scholar specializing in ancient xenoarchaeology, so they had help - but this cost them 1 HEAT). They cultivated another contact who made them more effective fake badges capable of infiltrating the keypads across the island itself. Infiltration: Check. But what about an exit plan? The island's Operations center maintained a radar and a pair of light fighters to police the island's airspace. Agreeing to pay 1 HEAT up front, the players had Abby (the A.I. of their own ship) equipped with a stealth/cloaking system by the Prefect's office. Now, they could get away without being seen. Or so they hoped.

During their research, they decided that the most vulnerable point for hitting the Control Orb would be on the train carrying it between the normal Museum Vault and the Exhibition Hall. Unfortunately, they had also learned that said train would be guarded by 5 security droids, 10 pistol-packing security guards, and an unknown number from "The 20," the Count's personal force of assassin-mercenaries. I must admit that I was impressed (and a bit worried, collegially) by the players' daring; whereas I assumed that they'd set up an ambush in the jungle and attack the passing train with heavy firepower, they instead set up a complicated plan to hack into the Operations Center computers, re-assign their own (fake) badge ID numbers as members of the crew of 10 rent-a-cop guards scheduled to protect the train, and attack the shipment from the inside. What could possibly go wrong?

But they had a secret weapon: they brought along an EMP. They also brought gas grenades and rebreathers hidden on their persons.

So: after about an hour-forty-five to two hours of planning, with only half an hour left in real-time before the security caught up with them, the PCs boarded the train, dressed in security jumpsuits and hard hats, and sat uneasily in the midst of the rest of the squad of security guards in the rear car of a four-car train. Artifacts in the middle cars....droids in the front car.

Go time. 

On an agreed signal, one PC casually reaches into his gear and whips out a gas grenade and rebreather, as the others also insert their own rebreathers. The grenade goes off with a bang, filling the car with haze.

(I had ruled on the fly that the grenades would incapacitate anybody failing a STR Save for 30 minutes). Of the 6 real guards in the car ... 3 passed out, and 3 made the Save and resisted the gas. Uh-oh.

Mayhem ensues, as close-range brawling impaired by gas-smoke devolves into a point-blank-range shootout. (when planning the mission, the PCs displayed a commendable desire to limit collateral damage, which was part of the reason they chose to board the train instead of just dropping it off a railbridge in the jungle. Oh well). After a few tense moments, only the PCs are left standing in the foggy car.

One PC opens up the door at the rear of the car for fresh air. Another triggers the EMP.


All the lights go out; the only illumination is now ambient daylight through the back door. The train shudders and begins to slow down. (The EMP, by the way, also knocks out all the security droids in the lead car, a good move).

And, with my best EVIL-GM-POINTING-OUT-UNEXPCTED-CONSEQUENCES voice, I inform one player that his bionic left arm immediately stops working, and tell the player with the facial holographic projector that his face stops working, too.

I am an incorrigible softie at the gaming table; instead of calmly informing one of four PCs that he is now blind and can not see or communicate verbally for the rest of the session, I kindly invite the player to justify how he can still see anything with his electronic face deactivated. We come to an understanding; the wartime injury that disfigured most of his face left his natural eyes intact, and they are still there beneath the one-way see-through screen on his face. Ah, I've no standards at all. ;-)

The train has slid to a stop in the jungle. Players regroup and bang on the door leading to the second car, trying to get the professional assassins inside to open up ("something's gone wrong...we need help back here!") but from their muffled reply, it seems clear that the assassins are not to be fooled so easily. So the players plant a door-charge, blow the door in, and the shooting starts up again. The second car is completely dark, but the assassins have taken cover behind crates and they start blasting at the doorway, which (from their perspective) is framed by light coming from the open door at the train's rear. One assassin lays down suppressing fire on the doorway while the other takes more direct shots at anyone wanting to present their silhouette for inspection. (I believe one player received an 8 hp shot at one point, but they survived).

Another gas grenade and a lot of bang-bang-bang later, the second car goes quiet. All PCs are on their feet. One opens up the car's side-door...and they hear soft footsteps outside. The two assassins in the next car forward have chosen a more proactive response! One has taken cover behind a long near the train (oh, the irony...I had allowed the players to draw the terrain they wanted for the ambush site in the jungle, so a player actually drew the log protecting that assassin). The other assassin opened up with suppressing fire on the side-door, so now the assassins had the players pinned.

In this next, even more desperate firefight, one player was shot and incapacitated before a decisive response by the others took out the final assassins.

The PCs dug through the crates on the train, found the alien Control Orb, left the decoy orb in its place, and stole several other priceless treasures to make it look like they'd come to steal those valuables. Their EMP had knocked out their own comms with the ship-AI Abby, but Abby is no dummy, I pointed out, there was a good chance that she would take the initiative to come pick up the team according to the timetable.

We had previously statted up Abby as an ItO character (STR = ship's durability, DEX = Maneuverability, WIL = sensor systems etc.). So I simply said that once per turn, a player would make a WIL Save for Abby, and when she passed the save, she would show up. But each turn we'd also make an encounter check to see whether the lizard packs showed up (my players are very scared of the hunting lizards in this system), and I rolled a d6 to see in how many turns the security light fighters would show up (it was now after 10:15 p.m. The answer was = in 2 turns. Gulp).

Abby passed the first WIL save. The team climbed aboard with the loot and fled the planet on their cloaked ship, one step ahead of the security response, finishing the whole session at about 10:25 p.m.

One violent, exciting, plan-plus-heist session, all carried out between ~7:45 and 10:25. I'm really, really pleased with how it went, and the players seemed to have a really good time too.  Once again, Into the Odd, plus whatever light-weight subsystems you want to add, plus a willingness to let rulings-not-rules fly at will, led to a very enjoyable evening. Hats off to the players for pulling off what looked kind of sticky at some points...


In my previous session report I talked about borrowing Into the Jungle's rules for auto fire (although I limit these for heavy weapons, like squad automatic weapons and up). Back in Session 1, the PCs fought a force of ex-policeman cultists, but those were fairly provincial troops and they didn't fight with great acumen. For session two, I wanted to make sure that the professional assassins fought more intelligently, so I made sure to lean on suppression fire rules. Here's what I've settled on for now, after kicking some ideas around on the ItO community interwebs [EDIT: if I remember correctly, these ideas are influenced by a wargaming mechanic from the Osprey Games title Black Ops, which I haven't read or played, but read about a while ago]:

If you fire a full-auto weapon to suppress a specific human-sized area (like a doorway), anyone taking action other than cover or running away in that suppressed LOS area takes your weapon's Max damage first - unless they pass a WIL Save (but they must still pay 1 HP, either way). When you suppress a broad, general area instead (like spraying fire over a road intersection), anyone taking action or than jumping into cover or running away in that area takes Impaired (1d4) damage unless they pass a WIL Save (but, again, they must pay 1 HP loss either way). If more than one firer suppresses the same area simultaneously, then targets taking relevant actions there suffer a penalty die when they attempt their WIL Save to act safely under fire. Roll your weapon's ammo usage die at the end of every turn in which you conduct suppressing fire (normally, players roll it just once at the end of each combat in which they fired). 

I liked these in action. As noted above, the PCs conducted two firefights of 4 PCs vs. 2 NPCs during which NPCs used suppressing fire. I think the reason the PCs got off so lightly (only 1 PC incapacitated) was because the assassins didn't get to team up and combine forces. Had all 4 assassins fought the PCs at once, I think these suppressing fire rules would have made things quite nasty; as in real-world infantry combat, one fireteam of 2 could have shut down angles of fire while the other team maneuvered for their own cover, etc. Of course, the PCs could - probably, would have to - use these rule creatively too. I definitely intend to use these to further effect in later sessions, as appropriate.

Fun times. Thanks for reading! And if you're mainly here instead for the ancient-history-and-archaeology stuff, don't worry, that's still pending. :-)


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