All RPGs and Storygames by Tod Foley are now available at DrivethruRPG. Bring these games to your table!
Game development-focused feminist non-profit Pixelles highlights problem areas--and solutions--in retaining women within game development studios. ...
I recently had the opportunity to chat with Josh Fox about his latest game currently on Kickstarter, Last Fleet. I have a few different genres that I’m drawn to like a bear to honey, and space opera and its more serious cousin, science fiction, is one of those genres I find almost irresistible. Before I go on too much about my own love of this genre, let’s let Josh tell us about this particular journey through space.Can you give us the elevator pitch for Last Fleet? Why play this game over another?
Last Fleet is set on a rag-tag fleet of ships, fleeing across space from the implacable inhuman adversary that destroyed their civilisation. You play the brave pilots, officers, engineers, politicians and journalists who are trying to hold the fleet together, keep themselves in one piece and keep humanity alive. It’s a game about action, intrigue and personal drama in a high-pressure setting.
What the game does really well is to create this atmosphere of high stakes, high pressure, fear and paranoia, and then make it human. We’ll get to see your individual contribution, whether it’s flying tense space missions, hunting for infiltrators and saboteurs, or handling political dissent, resource shortages or breakdowns in the fleet. But we also see how the stress and strain of the situation generates interpersonal drama, driven and supported by the mechanics of the game.What are some of your influences on Last Fleet? I can guess that Battlestar Galactica is in there, but can you expound upon that some more?
Yes, Battlestar Galactica (BSG) is the number one influence and the fundamental reason for writing the game – I wanted to be able to play through those tense exciting situations, explore the paranoia and distrust, the faction politics and so on. As the game has developed I’ve folded in influences from other SF I love like Star Wars, Star Trek, the Ancillary Justice books and more. Plus I’ve developed a unique set of bad guys that are sort of a cross between the Tyranids from Warhammer 40,000, the Borg from Star Trek and the Goa’uld from Stargate.
BSG remains the closest analogue, though. It’s got the white-knuckle space battles that put individual lives at stake, with officers shouting orders from the command room or civilians watching helplessly. It’s got the paranoia and self-doubt that comes from knowing that anyone on the fleet could be working for the enemy – even to the extent of distrusting your own motives. It’s got the fractious faction politics, the sense of a fleet that is never far from collapsing into in-fighting. It’s got the post-apocalyptic resource crises and technological problems. And threaded through it all, it’s got those dynamite interpersonal relationships – the rivalries, the romance, the feuds and the fights.What were some of your RPG influences on making Last Fleet?
The big ones are Night Witches and The Watch. Both games are playing in the same wartime drama space. They both use ingenious mechanics to provide just enough depth and detail about a large conflict, and showing those highlights of what your individual characters are doing. They both make interpersonal interactions and drama key to generating the game currency you need to win battles later on. In both cases you get a virtuous cycle where the trauma and terror of the war provide grist for the mill of your relationships and conversations, which in turn help to make the conflicts matter by providing human stakes.
The other influence I’d mention is Bite Marks, which my partner Becky was developing at around the same time I was writing Last Fleet. I like to think that both games have influenced each other, and I’ve definitely learned a lot from how Becky builds relationships and cultivates interesting tensions between characters. That cycle I mentioned above is present in Bite Marks too.Why PBTA (Powered by the Apocalypse)? What about that specific system spoke to you for creating this game?
It’s no coincidence that all the games I mentioned above are PBTA. It’s my favourite design framework to GM and play in, and so it’s more like I was waiting for a concept I could use PBTA for. What I love about PBTA is the way that each individual component of the system is tuned to do one specific thing. I’ll talk about some of Last Fleet’s moves in a bit, but it’s enough to say that you’ve got moves that are designed to generate interpersonal strife, moves that are focused on bringing characters closer together, moves that are tuned to feed into a sense of paranoia, and moves that are built to create exciting action sequences. And because they’re individually designed in this way they are interlocking, feeding into each other and coming together to be more than the sum of their parts. It’s excellent for creating a highly specific genre experience, and that’s what I’ve done here.The playbooks are very intriguing, built around the zodiac. Can you go into how that works, and the reasons behind theming them to the zodiac?
The playbooks have been a lot of fun to write. I had clear ideas about what I wanted them to be like, but initially struggled to come up with evocative names for them. So as an experiment, I assigned them zodiac names, mostly as a tip of the hat to the BSG influence (in BSG the planets and their peoples are all named after zodiac signs). But it had an interesting effect on the design process because I ended up creating new playbooks driven by the zodiac conceit – and the ones I made because of that are some of the best in the game.
The playbooks are designed around personality or story niche rather than a functional role. So you can be a hotheaded person who likes to take risks and break orders (Aries). You can be a tough person who cares deeply about their friends and their principles, with a bit of a martyr complex (Taurus). Or a serious person who strives to do their best and puts themselves under enormous pressure as a result (Virgo). Some of the playbooks are slightly more about story niche, like Scorpio is about being a sleeper agent and the self-doubt and fear that comes from that, and Pisces is about having strange psychic abilities that might connect you to the enemy.
I should stress that they are only loosely linked to the actual astrological signs, before any astrologers (or indeed, Scorpios) come and yell at me.Can you tell us about some of the unique moves that were created specifically for this game?
The core of the game’s mechanics is the pressure system. Each character has a five-box pressure track. You mark it when bad stuff happens to you, so physical wounds for sure, but also emotional and social stuff like if you fail at something that was super-important. But more importantly, you can voluntarily mark it any time you want to get a bonus to a dice roll – one point of pressure yields a +1 bonus. You get to do it after rolling the dice, so you can get at least a partial success on almost any roll you want, if you’re prepared to pay for it.
If you let your pressure track fill up, you hit Breaking Point, and then you have to choose from a list of Breaking Point moves, including some that will be unique to your playbook. Each Breaking Point action is something outrageous or dangerous that your character does to express the fact they’ve reached their limit. One of them is to take your character permanently out of action (usually through death).
If you want to avoid hitting Breaking Point, you have a number of options, including specialised playbook moves, but the two that are available to everyone are Letting Loose and Reaching Out.
Letting Loose is arguably the easiest of the two to do, because all you have to do is go and indulge a vice in an uncontrolled way. It’s simple enough to go and get drunk. It’s also the most reliable, because any time you roll a hit you’ll get a pressure reduction for everyone involved. But it’s also automatically generates consequences, even on a strong hit, such as making a promise you really shouldn’t, revealing a secret that you oughtn’t to, or falling into the arms of the wrong person. The fallout is fun and dramatic.
Reaching Out is much more controlled. You have to reveal your innermost thoughts to another character, whether it’s your fears and doubts or your hopes and dreams. If they respond positively then you both stand to reduce your pressure. The downside of Reaching Out is that, although it doesn’t generally produce high-octane drama right now, it gives you a (game mechanical) relationship with the other character. If a character that you have a relationship with dies or betrays you or cuts you off socially, all the pressure you lost by Reaching Out to them comes back, all in one go. That normally means you hit Breaking Point, which means more drama in the future.How well does the game work with one shots or campaigns? Does it do better with one over the other?
The game is definitely optimised for campaigns, as quite a few of the mechanics really get going over multiple sessions, as does the process of building up compelling relationships. I also enjoy the ability to do some leisurely character generation and world-building, which is easier in a campaign. As usual for my games, though, I’ve put a lot of thought into how you can make it work for a one shot. The quick-start scenario that comes with the game provides a pre-generated situation and relationships, and mechanics that have been set to be just at the point of crisis, to ensure that you get juicy charged action and drama straight away.What was your inspiration to start working on Last Fleet and carry it through to publishing?
Last Fleet is a game I’ve been waiting to write for years. I’ve been passionate about the ideas in the game, and kind of working on them in the back of my mind, the whole time. Other things took priority but when I found myself with an opening I took it, and that stored up energy carried me through the design and promotion process. The experience of producing Lovecraftesque and Flotsam: Adrift Amongst the Stars has left me with an abiding love of the delivery side too – the art creation, commissioning and editing the stretch goals and doing all the work to get a beautiful physical book in my hands, are all (mostly) fun to me. I can’t wait to look at the finished book!
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…and I love it.
Back in November 2019 I attended Kamcon, a budding convention in Canada in its second year of conception.
While there I did one of my workshop panels, where I talked about messing with your players and how to secretly manipulate the pacing of the game to a science but that’s not what this article is about. While I was there I was able to play several games I haven’t had the chance to, well, play as I spend a large amount of time GMing instead. It can be hard when you’re GMing constantly, exclusively for systems that mostly only other people want to play. Despite tabletops supposedly being in a new golden age, with new games coming out left and right with more players than ever before, for the majority it kind of only boils down to people wanting to play Dungeons & Dragons 5e.
I’m not saying that that’s a bad thing, but despite having just under 50 differing systems I own and am capable of running, I’m constantly being asked to run 5e. It took several weeks alone to open up my current players to even giving Fantasy AGE a shot.
Either way, I was able to sit down and play Savage worlds and likely had one of the greatest player sessions in my entire life. Admittedly when I sat down at the Savage Worlds table I had my reservations; as someone that’s been gaming for the last 11 or so years, right before the Critical Rolepocalypse, I was used to often being one of the only women at the table. In those years, it was a world dominated by older men that would talk over you, get their fingers coated in Cheetos dust, and then go on to describe their character’s bathing habits in excruciating detail.
When I sat down at the table, surrounded by those exact people I’ve dealt with all those years ago, the stereotypes and concerns were at the front of my mind. I was fairly ready to want to run back to my group of 20-30 somethings with horror stories. For that, I’m deeply sorry.At the table
The moment I sat down, my ears were immediately flooded with talk of Pathfinder 2, which turned to Pathfinder 1, then went into AD&D 2e and finally D&D 3.5e. I was quick to join in and suddenly the table was chattering on using jargon and references I haven’t heard in nearly a decade. Nods and references and grins and smiles accompanied “Vow of Poverty monk?” “No, it’s the chimera druid. HYDRAS man” “I miss reserve magic” “guys, guys, CHICKENMANCERS.” In moments I’ve felt more at home, more with my people, than I have in many many years.
I’m in several 5e circles. While it can be fun, I tend to hear the same stories and get a solid idea of what a character is like as soon as I hear a race and class. In 5e there’s honestly only so much variance and even the Warlock—whom of which is regularly praised for its breadth of character options—only has so many possibilities. Running back to the 3.5 days held a world of… esoterica of a certain kind. Through a spot of content split between sourcebooks and hundreds of Dragon Magazines, 3.5 held nearly 27 base classes and I want to say 70-130 prestige classes(don’t quote me on this); back in those days, prestige classes were near required due to the design flaw of ’empty levels’ which you could level up and gain absolutely nothing. In those days you couldn’t stop at class and race to describe your character, but had to go through what they could do completely, often going through the long list of saying you were a “Human Stalwart-Battle Sorcerer 5/Abjurant Champion 5/Swiftblade 10.”
Through all the highly specific jargon going on, I felt air rush into and fill my lungs. It was thick, musty, and I could swear it was the same air as when I first opened that used 3.5 Player’s Handbook.
“These were my people,” I realized.Playing the game
We were going to be playing Savage Worlds that session. Despite only having 4-hours we had to use 1 for character creation. Admittedly I didn’t think we’d get through all too much that night. I played this one character, Kitty Kat(herine), a mediocre bar singer in the roaring 1920’s who was hiding she was secretly Sandra Dee, a country bumpkin from Alabama, who was also secretly Katyusha, an intelligence agent for Russia. We worked for The Duster, an underground boxing ring and bar during prohibition times. When we started playing I was ready for a fairly standard session.
How wrong I was.
You see I’m very used to players wanting to get in on the action at every turn, often leaping in logic as to why they’re at each and every scene. It tends to clog up scenes. But that wasn’t the case here. When we had to pick up Jenny, a bar singer that hadn’t shown up to work in a week, three members of the crew sat back, having no reason to be at the door. One kept a lookout, but the other two just hung out by the car, completely at ease. It allowed the scene with the bodyguard and I to go incredibly fast. We moved onto the next scene where I sat out of it, then the next where two others sat out. Through the other player’s experience, they wanted to act in line with their characters first and foremost, even if they didn’t get any action.
Others in my own circles don’t understand why I don’t clamor to be everywhere. For me, I’ve played a lot and will for decades to come; I’m in no rush. I knew, deep inside, that the members of my party felt the exact same way.
We ended up rescuing a girl from an abusive relationship, killed the guy that did it, recruited a seedy boxer to stage a fight, dealt with the scene leading up to the major fight, watched as a riot broke out, then handled a wild car-chase scene through the streets of 1920’s Atlanta.
All in 3-hours.
While Savage Worlds is known for being a particularly fast-paced system, this was a speed I hadn’t really expressed before. For me, it had to be in part due to the players, in part in their ability to race forward on strong character-driven actions, but also in their patience to know when to sit out. Through this, it allowed those in those scenes to really shine and have their own epic moments.Where I’m at
It’s been a while since I’ve really felt the degree of synergy I had with others as I did with this party. While I have many similarities with people in my various ttrpg circles, I’ve always felt… a bit removed and distant. I’ve always attributed it to the types of systems we were into, or the difference of experience. I’ve GM’d every week of my life since I’ve started and there was even a period of time where every single day of Summer had a tabletop waiting for me. While I’ve been able to avoid burnout, I was scared I’d become jaded in that time compared to the newly hatched chicks telling me about their 5e characters.
Yet here I was, with this group of 40-something guys having the time of my life.
Despite being a caricature of diversity as an lgbt filipino/chinese immigrant woman, I started to wonder if, somewhere deep inside, I was secretly just like everyone else at the table.
Would I have had a blast, rocking it with Gary Gygax in the Tomb of Horrors?
Did I secretly have the soul of an older man, born twenty, maybe thirty, years too late?
Maybe. Just maybe.
~Di, signing out.