Scum & Villainy War Story #1: Milkrun
So, I’ve been running games for a long time, and because I never write anything down as I’m going, I only have these brief snatches of memories from all of the hundreds of games that I’ve run. That’s, first of all, kind of tragic from my point of view since most of those games (with some glaring exceptions) were really fun! But second, and more important for this blog, if I don’t write about those games, I’m not really doing my due diligence to really dissect what went right and what went wrong, and that means that the lessons and concrete examples vanish back into fantasyland and no one gets to really learn anything. I mean, I suppose the really big train wrecks get written into permanent memory in my think-meat, but the little nit-noid stuff, the real juice of experience, kind of falls by the wayside.
I don’t like that. There’s good stuff in there. Stuff that I think people can use: helpful examples of what might work, what not to do, and maybe some laughs. So, I’m going to write my post-mortems the morning after I run a game from now on. Every Sunday. I’ll have a cup of coffee and then scribble a little war-journal, and maybe we’ll learn something together. Keep me honest.
Coffee’s poured, magical item of the week is posted, and I have a scratchy throat and congestion that means that I’m probably getting sick. So, before flu-brain sets in, let’s get down to business.
We Begin With an Explosive Decompression
We’re playing Scum & Villainy, which I highly recommend to anyone who’s a fan of that whole Star Wars/ Firefly/ Cowboy Bebop space-opera kind of milieu. My crew elected to roll up a band of just-starting-out bounty-hunters and extraction specialists with a brand new–to them anyway, we’ve taken to calling it The Alleged Ship— Cerberus class patrol craft. Our cast includes a rogue medical android (M-N-K-088 or Mink), an escaped clone scoundrel with a gambling problem (Tycho), and a dispossessed Core noble mechanic who may or may not have a head full of ancient progenitor alien ghosts (Bastien). We’ve also got a roguish pilot and an honorable, armored bounty-hunter, but neither of those guys could make it this week. That sucks, but scheduling is a CR 20 encounter, as always.
We elected to push on, because our history as a crew is still in that fluid phase where we haven’t nailed anything down. That means that we could easily swing this first engagement into a split-the-party mission, or an under-pressure meeting, or whatever. “Who are you? Not important! Drive!” The Scum & Villainy handbook encourages treating the adventures like episodes in a television show, and so I went into this game kind of leaning into that.
So we got our establishing shot:
We open on a shot of the edge of the Casmov Sector, doing the slow zoom in from the rim and past a field of drifting asteroids. The camera pans between two dun-colored planetoids brushing against each other like sleeping giants, and in toward the center of the system where a giant metal bulk eclipses the sun for a moment, and we’re treated to that classic “Imperial Stardestroyer flyover” shot as a ring-shaped space station enters from the left. It’s gleaming, white, pretty much a symbol for core-world prosperity. The subtitles fade in, “Kazwell Station, PharmaMark Consolidated Arcology.” Gleaming crystalline spires extend from the top of the ring, but our gaze is drawn toward some flashing lights on the side of the ring. In a rush, there’s a silent crumpling as an airlock gives way and atmosphere begins flooding out, carrying three humanoid forms in gray jumpsuits with it. We smash cut inside where someone has their hand on the airlock control panel. Who is it?
It turned out to be Bastien, though he made it clear that it wasn’t his idea to space those guys. Tycho had spotted something going wrong with the terminal and pointed it out to Bastien, since he was the mechanical-minded guy, but Bastien decided that he hadn’t gotten to it in time. So he and Mink were hunkered against the bulkhead next to this venting airlock, Tycho was a little ways ahead, sheltering next to one of the patrol craft in this cargo area.
So, if you’ve only played Dungeons and Dragons, understand that Scum & Villainy, and by extension Blades in the Dark and all of the PbtA games, are all more conversational than you’re probably used to. I established the scene that I thought was cool, and following the agenda items in Scum and Villainy, I put my characters in a spot and asked them to do some narrative lifting for me. Who opened the airlock? Bastien, but not really. He was trying to fix it. Cool, I like that. Who’s next to you as you fight for control of the damaged panel? Mink is! “You know, there was no logical reason to space those men, right? We could have simply talked to them. The one had atherosclerosis. If we had waited five-to-sixteen years, poor eating habits would have killed him for us.” And on we go, building on the scene until there’s some question as to whether something that we’re doing is risky enough to reach for dice to resolve.
We decided that a venting airlock required dice to navigate. They needed to get out of this docking bay and on to their objective: retrieving a beloved pet, something called a rintin, from a midlevel manager’s estranged wife. It should’ve been a milkrun, but even thinking that is tantamount to asking for everything to go wrong, right? So we reached for the dice and prepared to roll to scramble out of danger. Predictably, everything went wrong. Tycho nearly got sucked out of the airlock, Bastien managed to snag him with his stolen grappling hook (stolen from the off-screen pilot through a flashback–more on that later), and everyone managed to cram themselves into a ventilation shaft and shinny up and out of danger before the lock-down doors cut off all avenues of escape.
Now, this was a tough situation, because narratively I really didn’t want to murder my characters right out of the gates. It’s the pilot episode, and watching these guys get sucked out the airlock isn’t going to exactly make for good TV. But the dice were not on the side of the party tonight, and it took a lot of failing and stress to reach an impasse in the vent. Technically, there was more than enough failure to warrant murdering the party, but instead, I decided to use a different consequence…because that’s something that Scum & Villainy equips me with. The thing about Scum & Villainy is that failure is not a binary choice like in other systems. I could’ve inflicted harm, or ticked some clocks toward further badness, or used up resources, or put them in an even more desperate position. One of our players, Tycho, as a rogue clone is, by his very nature, living on borrowed time. There are people who are out and searching for him, and so evidence that leads to their doorstep felt like a good consequence, rather than making my heroes make an impromptu spacewalk. So we got out of the vent and out of immediate danger, but our escaped clone left behind some damning evidence of his existence which totally won’t cause trouble for our heroes down the line.
So, out of the vent and into the next problem.
Adventures in Rintin-Sitting
We managed to fast-talk our way past the damage-control crews who had come to respond to the hull-breach by impersonating a station medic (thanks, recognizable medical uniform gear) escorting two wounded crewmen to medbay. That wrinkle neatly avoided, we are treated to a moment of weirdness in the corridor.
Data-panels and viewscreens dot the corridor as you make your way toward the middle of the Arcology. The soft blue glow flickers momentarily, as something seems to ripple behind them, breaking the surface like the sinuous line of shark breaking the surface of the water. The lights dim for a moment and then resume their glow. Do we press on?
Hell no! Bastien pulled out his hacking rig and dove in to investigate. We came into this game light on details and any bit of setting detail to ground the players is basically an open invitation. So Bastien asked some questions from his gather information. He tells me that in this universe decommissioned Precursor AI modules are sometimes used to administrate bigger stations like this, ghosts in the machines. They can sometimes acquire quirks, just like the Urbots that they are usually used to control. I liked that a lot, so Bastien’s deep dive brings up an AI called G.H.O.S.T. (Generic Hyper-Optimized Systems Taskmaster)…and it’s got a bug. Someone has introduced malicious code into the system and is trying to wrest away control. To what end? We’re not sure yet. But there’s some tension. They need to get the rintin and make good their escape before it all goes pear-shaped.
They enter the arcology sector and are horrified by the corporate drones shuffling to and fro, taking their company mandated breaks for recreation in the public green-spaces, basically hydroponic air-scrubbers with added aesthetics. This gets visceral reactions from Bastien and Tycho…this is Coreward stability and security: slavery. A new slur for these prosaic people under the heel of the Hegemony and the Corps is coined by Bastien, habs. I imagine that it will graduate to in-world profanity before long.
The crew makes it into the hab-complex and Bastien takes over the security systems with a well-timed hack, looping camera feeds and making their progress invisible. Mink marks the specific apartment on the crew’s map. The estranged wife, Erika Ivanovich, is in the apartment, watching vid and petting some kind of pebbly-skinned creature that looks like a pot-belly pig was mated to a crocodile. This thing must be the target. Bastien and Tycho consider their equipment. They’ve got stun-grenades, electro-stunners, shock batons. Mink questions their willingness to flashbang this woman in her home and steal her pet.
So we smashcut to Mink knocking on Ms. Ivanovich’s door and announcing a screening for a pathogen that was released into the hab-complex. Tycho hastily adds that the vector is presumed to be an unvaccinated animal. That’s enough to get them in the door, though it’s clear that the little rintin is concerned, it growls and backs toward a corner. Erika assures the doctor and her companions that “Brex had all of his shots, I have all of the paperwork…” but Mink is clearly more concerned about her rather than the lizardpig. “I’m going to administer a simple blood-test and then we’ll move on, though I’d advise staying indoors for the next day or two.” One dose of knockout drugs, and Erika is down and it’s left to our heroes to snaffle up the creature.
What happens next is kind of a slapstick montage of Bastien trying to commune with the animal, calm it, and win it to his side. The thing bites his hand, mauling him until Bastien is forced to shock baton it into unconsciousness. Some words are bandied about easy ways and hard ways, and the crew looks for something to bundle up this obviously dangerous animal in before it wakes up and decides its hungry again. They don’t have anything on their sheets, so Tycho calls a flashback.
Flashbacks are a cool mechanic in Forged in the Dark games that let players make retroactive preparations for the cost of stress (the hitpoint, sanity, endurance analogue in Forged in the Dark games). Tycho describes talking to the middle-manager who put them up to this milkrun and getting the specialized carry-crate with antigrav struts from him. It costs him two stress, but he’s now got a box that will keep the critter asleep and no one has to carry it. Helpful, because their hacker only has one functioning hand right now, and everyone else might have to keep theirs free to fight their way clear. But they’re feeling good. They’ve got the package, it’s safe and secure, and now all they need to do is link up with their ship.
The PA crackles to life in the station as the other shoe drops.
G.H.O.S.T.s and Science
Ladies and Gentlemen of Kazwell Station, may we have your attention please? We of the Suneaters would like to thank you for volunteering for our latest and most exciting experiment to date. Do not panic. You are in no real danger. Safety protocols for your power core have been overwritten and quasi-space inductors have been fitted to all decks and all sections. Spool up for hyperspace transfer protocol has begun. This station will attempt what no man has ever attempted before, we are going to punch a hole in time and space, and utilize Kazwell Station as a subspace conduit for…well, that’s hardly important. Sit back, relax, and strap yourselves in. This could get a little bumpy.
The whole station’s going to go for a ride if our heroes don’t act fast. Third act of the show is in full force as we come back from commercial break and Bastien drops his hacking rig onto the nearby table. He tells the others to get to the ship, do the job, but neither of them move. Mink offers her additional processors for extra hacking bandwidth, Tycho watches the street for approaching trouble.
What ensues is a hacker-duel as Bastien engages the Suneater scientist inside metaspace. We have some racing clocks, a lot of choreographed cyber-fightscenes and a conversation about why Bastien and the rest of the crew are ready to drop everything and risk themselves to save this station full of habs.
See, this is one of the things I love about roleplaying games. We’re fresh off the heels of a Blades in the Dark game where this same party was a bunch of amoral ghost-thieves. This time, we’re playing big damn heroes. They had a chance to get away clean, but they dropped it all to save a bunch of corporate wage-slaves. Pretty neat.
I didn’t know that I was going to put in a counter-hacker here. It actually came of a Devil’s Bargain that Bastien accepted. Typically when someone’s spoiling for an extra die to roll, I’ll give a couple of choices. I was either going to have G.H.O.S.T. recognize Bastien as an enemy, start messing with necessary systems like gravity and light on the station, or else introduce an enemy hacker. Bastien thought that having a fight in cyberspace sounded cool, so that’s what we did. I took the clock that I had put out to demonstrate how much progress had been made toward shutting down the malware and put out another one. Now we had racing clocks. Both of these hackers were trying to get their stuff done first. When Bastien succeeded, it made his clock go up, but when he failed, it made the other hacker’s clock go up. Bastien’s was labeled “Shut Down the Malware.” The counter hacker’s was “Fry Bastien’s Brain.” Sorry, Bastien.
The hacking goes against Bastien. He manages to slice through encryption, jam through countermeasures, but the counter-hacker eventually overloads the connections in Bastien’s full-head VR goggles and sends a wave of deadly feedback through his head. He goes down and we’re a mere tick away from victory. Mink, still plugged into the hacking tools pushes herself to complete the program and lock out the opposing hacker. They’ve foiled the plot, and now have to take their limp mechanic and this weird animal out through the commercial docks.
With some lucky maneuvers and well-spent resources, our heroes make it to the ship just as security closes on their heels. The ship ramp closes up as Tycho exits last with a hearty “You’re welcome and screw you, habs!”
Our heroes are victorious in this first foray, but they’ve brushed against a powerful enemy in the Core and so the Alleged Ship lays in a course for the Procyon Sector, a loosely governed group of four systems where, with any luck, the Suneaters will not follow. Time to get paid, space cowboys.