Design Diary: Reach for the Sky Episode 2

(Originally posted on on July 29, 2008)

After about 14 months spent in the first episode of my play-by-post game, Reach for the Sky, we’ve almost reached the end of Episode 1. About 42 hours of game time passed. That always amazes me how long things take to resolve in a PbP game, but it’s fairly typical for a high-action/disaster-movie type adventure.

To summarize, Episode 1 is set at the end of the War on a moon orbiting Hera. The major battles which will bring the war to an end are about to ignite. Skirmishes in space have been going on for weeks. In a Independent surprise attack, one of the massive Alliance cruisers gets very badly damaged. Part of the superstructure actually breaks away and plummets to the surface of Howell’s Moon. The impact and resulting disaster form the backdrop of the adventure.

Each character begins at the moment of disaster. Some are Browncoats taking cover in bunkers as they see the disaster coming. Others are prisoners trapped in spacecraft downed on Howell’s Moon before the disaster. Some are crew members of ships sitting on airfields on the moon’s largest town of Ferguson. The idea is that as each character survives, they encounter the others and end up working together to survive. Ideally, bonds form in the cauldron of such dire circumstance.

I won’t get into the details of Episode 1 since I intend to use it as a basis for a module called “Reach for the Sky”, but let’s just say that some survived and made it off the moon in a ship. They are headed out of the war zone with all manner of refugees aboard. This is where I’m starting in my design of Episode 2.


Designing Episode 2

The Approach

Many interesting characters and events were covered in Episode 1. Potential enemies were created as well as potential allies. We cycled through several player characters as players came and went or PCs were killed. My first step to approaching the second episode is to review the first episode and catalogue all the things that I might want to draw in as threads into the new adventure.

I started reading the first episode from the beginning and I really covered a lot of ground in a small sandbox. Being trapped on the moon, they didn’t travel to other locations and until the end didn’t step on to a spaceship. It ran well, but I think my players and I are ready to see some more of the ‘Verse.

We’ve got three players continuing from Episode 1 and 2-4 players joining the group. It is really important to analyze the Traits and background the new characters are bringing to things so they get incorporated quickly. Don’t want a character whose concept is wrapped around running from the Alliance to never have to actually run from the Alliance.

Adding things to the list and shaking it out, I realize that I have a lot of possible non-player characters and some will never see the light of gameplay. Just too many. I’m going to make a limited list of at least one background-based NPC/encounter for each character and try to work them in over the Episode. If they can factor into the real plot, all the better.

Once I get all that squared away, I’ll need to establish some strong quick hooks to bring the action in. I like to start following the general stages of writing a play: Inciting Action, Rising Action (with Exposition, Complications, and Revelations), and the Climax.

The Details

Alright, the Long Reach has become pretty central to the future of the campaign. One of the three characters from Episode 1 was neck-deep with them earlier in life. One of the new characters is a doctor looking for a job. That should be enough to pull them in. Since the rest of the characters are drifters or not picky about what jobs they take, I don’t see anyone competing to take things a different direction.

I really want to keep things simple. Since my players are all over the country (and international) and many have never played together before, they will be creating much of their own turmoil as they stretch their acting legs. I’ll keep the inciting action simple and direct.

A straight job offer to work for the Long Reach could engage the existing LR member and the potential new member (doctor). The others would just be help for hire which is fairly common with the Long Reach. So they need to take medicines to a remote community on Persephone. For some reason the boss of the community ordered his men to shoot at the LR’s hovercraft that they usually use for such jobs ‘on planet’. But the workers still need the medicine if a disaster will be avoided. Basic job with a complication.

That’s enough to oriented the pre-game threads I’ve got going (new PCs meeting each other and striking up connections). But too often, I just GM by the seat of my pants and end up driving the game into doldrums because I’m not focused on where the possible plot paths are going. So I need to know more than that.

Who’s the Boss?

The remote community is a primarily a farming community centered on a town called Hobbville. The lands around Hobbville are fertile but still too broken up to be easily corporate farmed. Give ‘em a decade or so of peace and they might be bought out, but for now, they are the backwater of Persephone.

In charge of Hobbville is Cletus Hobb, sixty years old and meaner every year. He claimed about 20,000 acres during the last land rush on Persephone, getting a mixture of rough hills, pasture, and rich till-land. He’s been growing it ever since, slowly bringing in field hands and hired guns until he’s shipping a lot of the produce eaten in Eavesdown each day.

Logical questions abound. That big? How does he ship it to Eavesdown?

The Hobbes Railroad was built twenty years ago. The train takes three hours to steam its way over the 160-odd miles to Eavesdown and unload the produce. It travels to Eavesdown at night and back to Hobbville in the daytime. (For the theft-minded, that means she’s ridin’ light on the return trip but has the money). That gets the produce there in time for the dawn markets and gets the train back in time to be loaded late in the day and evening.

How many field hands and hired guns does he have?

Well, it should be enough guns to make the PCs think twice about just barging in like they own the place. Since the gunhands are more like minons than full NPCs, I’d say a 3-1 ratio would work. We’ve got 7 PCs right now so about 20 gunhands. Normal operations has 6-7 of them asleep, maybe 6-7 riding the fields managing the business, and 6-7 in town protecting Hobb or just enjoying the life of a “lawed man.”

For the field hands, I’m thinking hundreds of indentured workers. There should be evidence of families of workers (workers marry, have kids, kids grow up as workers). That means a lot of barracks, big mess hall, should be a doctor around but let’s say the Hobb skimped on that. For accuracy, I’ll say 800 field hands plus 100 non-working dependents (the aged, young children, injured).

Really, we’re aiming for that Company Town atmosphere where one man’s word is Holy Write and the people are no better off than slaves. Lots of juicy indignation and moral quandries for the PCs that like chewing that sort of scenery.

Why does Hobb not want the free help of Long Reach?

Ah, now here’s the rub. Hobb is a greedy, calculating bastard so there must be something in it for him to give up free medical care for his workforce. Just not wanting the interference, or fearing that his slave plantation will be uncovered isn’t enough in my opinion.

Enter the Right Reverend Hezekiah Lawkins! Holier-than-thou master of Parson City, the Right Reverend might be interested in locking up Hobb’s produce, bringing it into the canneries and processing plants in Parson City, and profiting handsomely for selling nutrient-depleted and chemically-stunned foods to Eavesdown. Yes, it is time to have the hand of the Right Reverend affect play.

So fine, Hobb’s is considering this deal. Maybe he thinks he can get more money out of Lawkins or maybe he thinks he’ll lose out overall if he gives up his own link to Eavesdown. Lawkins should definitely be pressuring him and one of the ways is having his own people, the Sisters of Mercy, there treating the ailing workers. Perhaps Lawkins and the Long Reach have a history of hostility. I should plant a seed about that early on as the characters get to know the Long Reach and get pitched the job.

So you’ve got a hostile plantation owner and outside influencers in the Right Reverend’s Sisters of Mercy. The heroes are being paid to do the right thing in addition to the fact that it is the right thing to do.

We’ve got a minor powder-keg set up. Will the players start shooting? How will they get the medicine to the workers? Do they just have to drop it off and get out alive or do they need to administer it as well? The easier I make it, the less time they will spend here.

Let’s say that Hobbville has a doctor, but he’s a poor excuse for one. Dr. Emmett Lukens is content to sit back and… just being a drunk is too cliche’… sit back and play with hybridizing plants. There we go. He’s got a greenhouse and makes the right noises if any government man comes around asking about the welfare of the workers. He actually doesn’t like people that much and only incidentally has a medical license. He’s actually a doctor of botany.

The key to success in Hobbville will be getting everyone innoculated with the medicine. So what is ailing the good workers of Hobbville? The scourge of the 26th century, polio. (Here is where I do a brief amount of research so the science sounds like it would hang together… Wiki Polio Entry.) Officially Type 5 Polio, the origin of the disease is a mystery, though rumors run rampant that it came from an Alliance experiment or accident. The fact that it is only appearing on Rim and some Border worlds fuels the conspiracy theories.

So the Long Reach is trying to get a vaccine to outbreak zones. (Side note, they will ask all the PCs to be vaccinated for their own protection.) The Polio vaccine is expensive and difficult to come by. The LR will not accept just dumping the vaccine on the edge of Hobbville and hoping someone uses it instead of re-selling it. (Good time to see if any characters are going to go “Jayne” on me and explore how much selling it would be worth… let’s say 4 credits/dose (~$100) but it only takes one dose. To vaccinate all of Hobbville will take 1,000 doses or 4,000 credits worth of medicine.)

So they have to find a way in and a way to get all the workers vaccinated. I’ll rely on my player’s creativity to think of a way: by subterfuge, force, bribery, etc. And it wouldn’t do to get too far ahead of myself. That’s enough for now.

Stay tuned for the next diary after we see how things progress a bit.

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