One Hit Wonders: Blue Planet

Blue Planet was sort of a poster child for why I wanted to start doing the One Hit Wonders. It is the pinnacle of “games bought because it sounded neat but no one ever actually wants to play.” And we played it, oh yes.

Many game lines will put out the “adventures with water” sourcebook. Shadowrun had Cyberpirates, oWoD had Blood-Dimmed Tides and Changing Breeds: Rokea. There were a few different things that came out over the years for D&D, I think.

Invariably they seem like a weird marketing choice, because they seem to be loathed by many people I talk to. And they are a little useless, because you really have to want to run an all-aquatic game. And not many people are really jazzed by an all aquatic game. Otherwise you can’t really make a character based off that sourcebook in many games. Being a cyberpirate in the Redmond Barrens is as useless as a fish on a bicycle.

It takes a special sort of dork to really want to play with these weird little settings. And I am that special sort of dork, my friends. I buy these books, put them next to my copy of Shadowbeat and practice my contrived slang from Shadowrun. (“Hoi! What the frag is up with all this hoopy drek, chummer?”)


Pre-Game

We didn’t have a game picked out when we wrapped up Paranoia, and no one had any input on the subject. So in the follow-up email I sent, I polled people on who would be willing to run what. I offered up several games, my girlfriend had a handful to put in the pile, someone else offered to run yet another game. So I picked some front-runners from the three prospective GMs and subjected it to “instant runoff voting.” By a very narrow margin, I ended up in the hot seat again. I was whining at one point that this was the third game in a row that I ran, but the truth is that it was only the second. Warhammer technically broke the streak. Technically.

Character Creation

The rules for character creation looked relatively simple: three different power levels to choose from, a simple point spend and “grab bag” to picking equipment. Once someone said that they heard it could take over an hour to make a character, however, everyone wanted a pre-gen. As it was, it took over an hour for everyone to pick a character and copy it out of the one book floating around. In retrospect, pre-gens were probably the best choice. This included the discovery that we’d mistakenly printed out the wrong edition of character sheet. There were many furrowed brows as we tried to figure out why the stats didn’t match up. Bizarrely, the 1e character sheets are the first thing to come up with you put in “blue planet character sheet” in Google. The 2nd edition version took a great deal of looking after the fact. By strange fortune, the person hosting the game this month had a photocopier so he just copied the sheets from the book. Zowie.

While it lacked the very long list of incompressible options listed out on your sheet like the pregens in Mutants and Masterminds or Shadowrun, they were still confusing. The equipment didn’t have any helpful notes on what they did, and figuring out what they did do was often challenging. There were “custom points” but it wasn’t clear at a glance whether they’d been spent or not. This proved to be a recurring motif through the session.

Also strange: Only three of the ten pre-gens were geared towards underwater activity. Two of them were statted out in the lowest of the three power levels: the orca peacekeeper and the aquaform (genetically modified human adapted for water living) ecoterrorist. Doesn’t seem like playing to the setting’s strengths. Our group consisted of a game warden, a field biologist, a gangster and an engineer. Why on earth would they be together?

In Play

At a glance, the rules looked pretty simple and straight forward. They called their rules engine the Synergy System. (Which makes me half wonder if cool names for your game system was the thing for the late 90s.) It has a ability-plus-skill setup, with the whacky twist that you were trying to roll a d10 under that number. Your relative margin of success or failure determined how well things worked.

As an added kink, you could have skill groups that you had an aptitude in. This aptitude allowed you to roll either two or three dice when using skills in that group, and take the lowest die roll.

Sounds nice, right? Fast, simple, everything I’d want in a system. I was damn excited by these rules. But this is where trying them out in play makes the difference.

Get this: An average human had an ability score of 0. Yes, zero. For skills, 1-2 was “basic,” 3-4 was “intermediate,” 10 is “elite.” So if you were slightly below average in an attribute and only had 1 or 2 in a skill, you were effectively useless unless it was a very easy situation. You could not succeed at an “average” task. There was no auto-success with rolling a 1. If your target number to roll under was 0, you couldn’t roll. You had to milk for any advantages you could. Which makes sense when a Dolphin has -15 in Dexterity. You don’t want him doing slight of hand with his flippers. But it was the nickel and dime crap that was most frustrating.

One thing I realized I fumbled though, was the “ability rolls.” If you were doing a straight ability roll, as opposed to an untrained skill check, you rolled 2 dice against your ability score plus 5. We remembered it in some situations, but we didn’t really apply it well in others. The most epic fail was trying to figure out how the dolphin engineer could ram someone that fell in the water. It said you rolled straight Agility with no combat skill, and we read it as an untrained skill check. This sucked, since the dolphin had an Agility of 0, which made us think he could only attack if he had a good modifier. What it really meant was that he had to roll two dice under 5 in order to ram someone. I feel kind of dumb in retrospect.

Overall, the books were just unhelpful. There were things mentioned that were hard to find rules for in the book. They were scattered in unhelpful locations, assuming we found them at all. What does it mean when it says the transhuman gangster has “accelerated healing?” What are the stats for the dolphin’s remote? What does a dolphin firing a gun through a remote drone base his dice roll off of? What do you roll to notice body language? To see someone sneaking up on you? (For lots of the “noticing” rolls, we just rolled the Awarness ability, but I think we broadly forgot the special exception for rolling off of raw ability versus untrained skills. I guess other games have just conditioned us to treat straight ability rolls as the same as skill rolls.) When someone is trying to use Persuasion on an NPC, does the NPC get a roll to resist?

The thing that really blew me away was how lethal combat was. It was easy to die in this game, especially with guns. I don’t think I’ve seen any other game quite as lethal as this, aside from some gross overkill in D&D 3.X or Hero 5e. In Shadowrun, a grenade probably won’t kill a healthy character. In this game, it probably will. Oh, yes, it probably will. I very nearly had my first ever TPK in this session. Damage was three dice rolled against a target number dependent on weapon, from which you subtract your armor rating and Toughness. (Remember that average Toughness is 0.) A light pistol, for example, had a 6. A submachine gun fired on burst is 9. If you get one die under the target number, that’s a minor wound and you have some penalties. Two dice under the target number? You receive a serious wound, have more severe penalties and have to roll to remain conscious. With three dice under the target number you have a critical wound, have to roll to see if you die instantly and, if you live, roll to see if you stay conscious.

We had one combat, it lasted two rounds, and 50% of both the PCs and NPCs were either dead or unconscious.

Beyond the rules, the setting is difficult. The split between aquatic and non-aquatic characters is tough. They try to soften it a lot, especially with giving dolphins and orcas drones. But really it was hard to keep our one dolphin involved.

The scenario I used was a simple: “Someone’s been murdered, you’re trapped in the island’s underground settlement because of a storm and there’s a ‘treasure map’ being pursued.” Even operating under the assumption that there were underwater caves that the cetaceans had access to, it didn’t seem reasonable for everything to be aquatic. Unlike the novel Startide Rising in the early 80s, which I think introduced us to uplifted dolphins, there were no robotic harnesses to give dolphins access to dry land. This may have been due to the logistics of “what do you do with orcas?” The compromise is to make remote drones available (“My dolphin is a rigger?” the dolphin’s player commented) and that is meant to bridge the gap. But the rules involving the drones were severely lacking. This mainly meant that the dolphin had an omnipresent eye floating around and he could safely flee whenever he wanted. The game is built around being set on an aquatic planet with uplifted cetaceans and it’s got extensive scientific research behind it. And then they skimp on the rules for getting dolphins and humans to work together?

The book is a two volume player/moderator guide. Most of this is fluff. A good chunk of the fluff is based around Earth, which is effectively inaccessible from the setting planet (Poseidon) in terms of what you will do during play. I would have much rather had one book with clearly written rules, just enough setting to get me going and that’s it.

My last commentary about the setting is a little petty, but I feel it needs to be said. The game has allegedly got extensive scientific research behind it, it’s set on a mostly aquatic world, it has uplifted dolphins and humans genetically adapted to live in an aquatic environment. As an extension of that, they have some other genetically modified human races to give a sense of the larger setting. So there’s the broadly enhanced “alpha” human, the zero-gravity adapted spacer, the ape/human hybrid, the cat/human hybrid, the– Wait, what?

It’s an aquatic setting, it’s geared around aquatic activity, it’s a hard-science homage to Jacques Cousteau, and they couldn’t resist the urge to put in cat girls? Really?

Compared to the Leading Brand

Two games that immediately come to mind for comparison are Shadowrun and Fading Suns. In terms of core concepts behind the rules, both character creation and basic mechanics, I lean a bit more towards the Blue Planet. The whole “I cannot accomplish an task with average difficulty” thing is kind of absurd, but that might be easily worked around.

Shadowrun is an exercise in “Fun! With Spreadsheets!” Though their latest iteration of the dice mechancis runs faster than the previous three, Shadowrun is still a klunky beast. At a glance Blue Planet seemed like a great alternative to the Shadowrun rules. The execution needs a lot of help, but the core idea seems to strong.

For Fading Suns… It’s a bit of a toss-up. Again, I like the simplicity of the ideas behind the Synergy System. The character creation looks faster and lighter than the Victory Point System. The dice mechanics are both have their rough patches.

The other aspect to the mechanics is the growing understanding of how fast and loose can screw over a game. Blue Planet has a loosely defined “whatever seems appropriate for the character” approach to equipment. The only cap is basically how much cyberware you can have, and at the top tier of power level (“elite”), there’s no cap. Which sounds nice in a “let’s hold hands and sing songs of friendship” sort of way. And with the right group that can totally work. But… I’ve just been in too many games where players abuse that trust. (This is why I love John Wick’s “Wanker Rule.”) Some GMs have the energy and discipline to keep those players in line. For me, it’s just draining and kills the game for me. If I am putting my energy into keeping one or two players in line, I’m not putting my energy into making the game good for everyone. I don’t have a good solution to it, though, since heavy rules are a bane to my existence and just encourage a different kind of wankery.

Final Verdict

Overall, it was kind of a let down. Which has left me feeling extra cranky. It’s the sort of bitter I felt after Phantom Menace or when John Wick went with a narrative control mechanic for Houses of the Blooded. This game could have been soooo awesome, and yet… I didn’t feel the love.

The mechanics didn’t work as well as I would have liked them to. Really, there’s absolutely nothing that recommends them to the setting aside from providing the proper scale in stats for dolphins and orcas. And really this boils down to “they can have really low Dexterity scores.” And the statistical wonkiness of the Synergy System is a big turn off. If a person doesn’t even have a chance of succeeding at an “average” task without milking some advantages, it seems like it would be too frustrating to use. I may as well use Savage Worlds or some other generic system.

The setting… I want to love the setting. But I don’t. Once you get past the awesome of dolphins with guns, the setting makes me wonder, “Why?” When you have a setting that different from what you’re used to, it makes me wonder what sort of story you’re trying to encourage. I had a similar problem when I played an evil D&D game with 3.5. Mostly it seemed to be the same thing as regular D&D, except we were fighting paladins and angels instead of assassins and demons. Oh, and we weren’t likely to pay for a teammate’s resurrection. Woo?

Blue Planet seemed to suffer from a similar problem. It’s very reminiscent of Shadowrun or Werewolf: The Apocalypse in many ways, with it’s villifying of human greed, environmental destruction and corporations. But Shadowrun has a very clear cut notion of what you do in their world and how it all ties together. Blue Planet didn’t seem to have that same strong focus. There were lots of really strong plot hooks, and a metaplot for the cosmology that was neat but a little unnecessary. But for the most part, it didn’t have any reason why it needed to be on a mostly-water world aside from, “Because it seemed neat.”

And there’s no driving focus on playing any faction, or even being from the same faction aside from logistics. There’s no reason not to play a group of corporate bigwigs or starburst poachers. It’s like they dumped the toybox open, threw their hands up and said, “Make a game!”

Since a portion of the profits went to the Cousteau Society, I’m guessing they wanted to instill a love of oceans in players. But mostly I just felt like… I don’t need a new game for a few macguffins and uplifted cetaceans. We already had GURPS Uplift for that. I think what I wanted was a game that really made playing in an aquatic setting different and compelling. In one of the last Amber campaigns I got to play in, I devoted significant brainpower in trying to work up a non-human culture for my aquatic, shapeshifting son of Caine. For his character journals I tried to do it in the form of an epic told by an oral tradition. For the last couple AmberCon’s I’ve run a game called “Rebma Confidential,” which is about being in the poor part of town in a mythic underwater city. I love weird and alien underwater settings. I wanted a game that really brought out all the beauty, savagery and utter non-humanity of the ocean. This wasn’t it.

There are many games that have impressed me by how they approach world building. A cornerstone for my favorite games have been a strong sense of what the assumed challenges your character is supposed to face without shackling you to them. There may have been more of that in the Moderator’s Guide, but that got a lighter read than the Player’s Guide, since most of the rules were in the first book. But ultimately what I would want is a greater focus on the aquatic experience as a centerpiece for the game (and no, not just rules for surviving underwater) combined with a clearer sense of some archetypal antagonists on the planet. No cat people, no extensive background on what life is like on a planet you’re unlikely to go to in the game. Just really focus on, “This is a game where you will be underwater, these are the people who live underwater, this is why you will be underwater and this is what you will probably do.”

I’m off the hot seat for next game, and we will be playing Gear Krieg. This was the less well known “mechas in WW2” game that was put out by Dream Pod 9.

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