Wednesday, 7 December 2011

The Dark Space: Black Waltz Campaign Diary

This is just a straight infodump of the notes I took during the Black Waltz campaign. Unfortunately it doesn't look like I kept it up to date for the last couple of sessions, so it peters out before the campaign ended.


08:00 The characters are all passengers on board a tramp freighter, the Alchemist, heading from Apelitar to Quancette.
  • Gottlob Asche (Andrew) - A human with aspirations of nobility.
  • Adder (John) - An escaped Library "Doppelsoldner" combat robot that has gained sentience.
  • Merru Rah (Mel) - A fugitive Valon warrior, on the run for theft with menaces.
  • Xar-Kar-Shek (Roh) - A Vin Monk of Shek, whose ultimate goal is to end the Universe.

The Alchemistʼs captain, Lance Batraskan, summons them to the lounge. He is not present, but communicates via screen from the bridge. The ship is being pursued by an Imperial yacht. To avoid trouble, Lance offers a choice - he can hand them over to the Empire, or drop them off on the nearest planet, which happens to be the Crypt.

Merru gets Lance to agree to come back for them in a week or so, if he is able.

12:00 The PCs are marooned on the Crypt.

12:00 - 13:00 The PCs investigate one of the giant crystal spires, and uncover a ship buried underneath it.

13:00 - 14:30 After exploring the ship and talking to its AI, the PCs discover that the ship, apparently named the Black Waltz, moves according to their will. It moves into orbit using an unknown dimensional jump technique.

14:30 - 16:30 The PCs continue to explore and examine the ship, discovering the dance floor and the power exchange.

16:30 - 17:00 A decision is made to warp to Quancette. Surprised at the instant travel time. They pass customs and land on the planet (Gottlobʼs erratic piloting smooths out to a perfect landing).

17:00 - 19:00 Most of the crew rests while Gottlob trades for food using a beam pistol as surety. He also sends his card to a local contact, Yenoff Uller.

19:00 - 00:00 Sleep.


00:00 - 04:00 Sleep.

04:00 - 05:30 Breakfast, dayʼs prep.

05:30 Black Waltz returns to orbit to await the Alchemist.

06:00 The Library yacht Valiance arrives at Quancette, but ignores the unknown Black Waltz.

07:00 - 07:30 The Alchemist arrives at Quancette, and is intercepted by the Black Waltz. Gottlob reclaims most of his trade goods, minus a small fee kept by Lance for not turning them in. Gottlob offers use of the Black Waltz as a high-speed courier to Lance, should he need one.

07:30 - 08:30 Black Waltz lands again. Gottlob buys a hat and mantle to disguise the robot, whom he has dubbed Adder.

09:00 - 10:00 Gottlob, Adder and Merru visit Yenoff Uller. Yenoff reveals Merruʼs crime, but offers to buy her debt so they will owe him instead. He also provides Gottlob information on a lawyer that his father had dealings with.

In addition, Yenoff has a job in mind so Merru's ¢200 debt can be repaid. He wants a rival small offworld-supplied arms dealership shut down, and gives the group information to contact them. Wants his name kept out of it.

09:30 Alone aboard the ship, Xar figures out how to activate the bracelets to form a customised, powered vac-suit. He communicates via the suit to Adder.

10:30 - 11:00 Group returns to the ship so Gottlob can get the appropriate papers to identify himself as a relative of Leonid Vink to the lawyer. Xar demonstrates the suits. Merru activates hers, but Gottlob wants to get a designer to sketch something up for him first.

They also post a message to arrange a meeting with Ullerʼs rival arms dealers.

11:00 - 12:00 Gottlob, Merru and Adder visit the Gaudelain lawyer Darden Elwen. Darden is the trustee of a fund that is paying a C60 monthly stipend to a woman in the city – Lalani Fraden, and her child Ratis. Darden offers to redirect the stipend, but Gottlob wants it to continue as-is.

12:30 - 14:00 Merru accompanies Gottlob to a tailor, where he has a custom design made for his bracelet-suit. Adder returns to the ship.

13:00 - 13:15 Xar and Adder are the only ones aboard the ship when it is declared impounded at the spaceport. A Librarian and his escort demand the right to board and search it as an Imperial vessel. Xar takes off, and Adder tries to blast the Librarian with the main gun. He misses, causing minor damage to the port building. The dock cannons return fire, but cause no damage. The Black Walts flies into the sea and hides. The Valiance searches for a while, but eventually gives up.

13:15 An APB is issued for the Black Waltz and crew, on charges of violation of impound order, violation of port airspace without approved flight plan, discharge of weapons within port area, damage to port facilities.

14:30 - 15:00 Gottlob and Merru visit Lalani and Ratis. Gottlob finds out about his father’s dalliance, and that Ratis is his step-brother. He also hears of Markus Kravmarg, and how Lalani lost her position as courtesan due to the affair.

Two of Kravmarg’s men come to harass Lalani; Merru kills one, and Gottlob captures the other. They hire a cab and move to rendezvous with the Black Waltz at the coast outside the city.

16:00 The crew is reunited on board, and the ship returns to the bottom of the sea.

16:15 - 18:00 Adder takes the prisoner to a cell and interrogates him to find details of Markus Kravmarg’s compound.

Gottlob contacts Darden Elwen to find out how they stand legally. There is an APB out on the Black Waltz and her crew. A loophole manages to reduce the amount owing to Port Authority – as the BW is not an Imperial ship, the Library has no right to board and thus the Impound order was illegal. There still remains, however, the issue of damage to the port and recompense for disobeying Port Authority directives. The total amounts to ¢6000.

19:00 An email notification is received from the arms dealers, notifying of a meeting place in the city for first contact – a small café in a downtown suuk, at 21:00.

20:00 Merru scouts the location of the arms deal from above, using her flying suit. She takes up position on a rooftop opposite.

21:00 - 21:30 Xar remains on the ship to monitor comms and to fly in if needed. Gottlob and Adder head to the cafe in a crowded suuk to meet with the arms dealers - a Gaudelain front man and a female human minder. Gottlob recognises the human from the crew of the Alchemist, but she fails to recognise him or Adder. Gottlob negotiates for a large quantity of arms, which the Gaudelain says may take some time to acquire. They agree to meet offworld to sample wares, and the dealers depart.

21:30 - 22:30 Gottlob returns to the ship. Merru follows the arms dealers from the air, and Adder follows at a distance through the alleys. When they split up, Adder follows and captures the Gaudelain while Merru stalks and captures the human after a struggle. All return to the ship.

22:30 - 23:30 Adder interrogates Gaudelain, discovering financial details (personal and business- front accounts currently totalling ¢1200) and connection to Markus Kravmarg. Gottlob questions human, Lucita Alvarez, about Lance. Adder follows up with a mind reading interrogation, revealing her loyalty to the Alchemist and the Corian Privateers.

23:45 Gottlob hatches a plan to make Yenoff the contact for Lance rather than Markus. Sleep is had by all except Adder.


00:00 - 06:00 Adder transfers the Gaudelain prisoner's funds to the Port Authority. Debt now owing is ¢4800.

Threatens the street thug with torture and death, and he offers to work for Adder. Adder plans to start a garden on the upper engineering deck.

09:00 Arise for the day.

Gottlob, Merru and Xar return Lucita Alvarez to the Alchemist. Negotiate with Lance about changing allegiances from Markus to someone else. Sets up a meeting between Lance and a middle-man for Uller.

Adder talks to Ratis. The boy is intrigued but cautious.

Upon returning to the ship in the hatbour, Gottlob, Merru and Xar witness a gas attack at a restaurant. Merru talks to a suspicious Vin in an alley, but they part ways. On board the ship, Xar recognises the gesture Merru saw the Vin perform as a secret gesture of the Order of Shek.

Discuss means for taking out Markus, including parking the ship over or in his house. Adder interrogates their captured Gaudelain again, going as far as cutting off a node. They gain info about the mansion interior and Markus' secretary, Pandro Rhebàn. They also get info on Markus' warehouses, and the location of various weapon caches. They decide to hit a couple of warehouses to acquire weapons and distract Markus' security forces, hopefully drawing some away from the mansion.

Gottlob hires a truck, and puts together a civil worker uniform with Merru's help. Xar and Adder scout the warehouse compound before dusk. They talk their way in, then take out three guards. The warehouse is raided for weapons, and a small box of narcotics is also discovered. A outfits himself in many weapons.

While others load up, Merru heads out to hunt the remaining guards. As the two patrol guards head towards the looted warehouse, Adder steps out and shoots at them while Merru drops on them from the roof. They are defeated after a brief scuffle. The guard at the gate calls in for backup, but is pinned down by Adder and slaughtered by Merru. They finish loading up (guns, drugs, a table, preserved food) before setting the warehouse on fire (with all guard bodies in it) and driving away.

They rendezvous with Black Waltz by driving AG-truck out to sea. They notice that there are patrol ships over the harbour. After a quick unloading, they drive to the second warehouse complex by about 10 pm.

Merru scouts from the air, spotting a few pairs of patrolling guards. She lands on a roof and takes out the light in front of their target warehouse. A few minutes later, the rest drive up to the front gates and Gottlob talks their way in as electricians again. Truck is stopped in garage area and searched, revealing Xar and Adder and precipitating a fight.

All guards defeated (Adder administers coup de grace where necessary).

Weapon crates missing from warehouse. Random looting and burning. Looting cut short by sirens approaching. Leave with two extra stolen trucks, and evade police dragnet.

Drive to a remote valley out of town, where they summon Black Waltz. They discover that the unpleasantness affects them even when not on board.

Xar rigs the two wheeled trucks to explode. Gottlob gives his relatives the hire truck and sends them back to the city.


After midnight, Adder and Gottlob drive one truck, with Igor in the second, to Markus' mansion. However, he has called in Port Authority support, and they are forced to withdraw. Park overnight to wait.

Mid afternoon, Library yacht Valiance spots the Black Waltz and attacks, dropping out of orbit. Merru and Xar defeat it after a brief dogfight, destroying it utterly.

Heat at Markus' does not clear all day. At 22:00, Gottlob calls Pandro Rhebàn to propose selling Library robot (Adder). Will call them back at 23:00. They wait in car park, driving the trucks near Markus' place a bit before 23:00. They notice that the police patrols have died down, but the PA ship is still overhead.

At 23:00, Gottlob calls back and sets up a meeting with Markus, through Pandro. Agree to meet at an abandoned freight yard. Many potential plans are discussed, until a luxury car emerges from the estate. The two trucks attempt to pursue and block the car, but Adder and Igor fail to get their truck started amd return to wait near the mansion. Gottlob tails car to yard and blocks the gate after it drives in. The Black Waltz leaves the ocean undetected and flies towards the yard. As Gottlob gets out of the truck, he spots concealed Port Authority assault unit vans. He runs into the yard, suits up, and flies to top of building. Port Authority vans pull up, but exploding truck slows them down. Gottlob announces himself as the son of Leonid Vink just as Black Waltz strafes overhead and blows car up. Gottlob flies to meet it, and they fly to Markus' estate.

Meanwhile, Adder and Igor break through estate back wall and raid secret weapon stash. Adder grabs a missile launcher and starts blowing up random buildings. He breaks into the main building as Black Waltz arrives, and starts heading to office wing in search of Pandro. Black Waltz blows up both anti-ship guns and disables the Port Authority Cutter before landing in the garden. Adder debarks onto mansion roof, entering through explosion hole.

Adder encounters Markus and Pandro, with guards, in front foyer. Adder and Igor engage the guards while Markus and Pandro move towards garage under covering fire. Adder briefly captures Pandro in the garage as Gottlob turns up, but Pandro escapes when Adder returns to the foyer to secure Markus' briefcase. The guards are overpowered or flee, and Markus is captured. Meanwhile, Merru and Xar raid Markus' secret weapon stash and load up the Black Waltz.

As they load up the Black Waltz, a squad or Port Authority ships begins to converge on their position. They quickly load up and warp out. Due to some disagreement over the destination, they end up parked in deep space close to Gaudelia.


Spend a day in space. Adder interrogates and tortures Markus, with Gottlob present. He isn't very forthcoming, so Gottlob leaves and Adder tortures him some more. Adder also experiments on the bag man, cutting off his remaining nodes to see what will happen. The bag man becomes depressed, but not suicidally so. Adder puts him out an airlock anyway.

Did anyone else do anything of note? Not that I recall.

Led by Gottlob, a "consensus" is reached to travel to Coria and get involved with the Privateers - or at least offload the surplus weaponry and trade goods to buy necessary items and supplies. Adder acts as a telepathic intermediary between Gottlob and Lance Batraskan. Lance fills Gottlob in on some good contact names among the Privateers. BW warps in-system behind an outer planet, just before midnight.


Approach the Corian Belt, and are intercepted by the Wraith and another vessel. Boarded by Maxa Grendev, Rrendis Rah and... their Vin. After mentioning Lance's name, they are welcomed rather than held to ransom or robbed. Gottlob also does a superlative job of charming Maxa. Rrendis introduces himself to Merru, and upon learning her identity he challenges her to a duel to satisfy the honour of their clan.

Black Waltz is escorted to a major asteroid with a large station built into it. They also sight the Esmeralda, but aren't aware of its role as flagship. Upon docking, Maxa helps clear a space on the zocolo for the Valons' duel. Merru wins in short order, knocking Rrendis safely unconscious with an aerial drop-cut to the hip.

Gottlob decides to go to a bar, and Maxa acts as escort. Gottlob continues to chat up Maxa, who responds favourably. Adder and Xar head out to go shopping, but surprise Vitus and Royce. Vitus "sees" Adder psychically, and runs to Maxa. Maxa doesn't seem put off too much. Gottlob makes inquiries about a letter of marque, and Maxa offers to make arrangements.

The group goes shopping at Big Hilda's, trading most of their weapons for a tech/ chemistry lab, medical lab, hydroponics gear, food, grav sled and a psychomantium (allowing those inside to see into Sylphspace).

Spend most of the afternoon shipping things to and from the ship by grav sled. Adder and Xar (with the help of Tak and Igor) start installing new equipment. Maxa turns up again, and takes Gottlob out for the evening.


Xar and Adder spend most of the day installing tech bay, medical bay and hydroponic equipment on the ship (although no plants yet).


Within a couple of days, the group made contact with Imperial loyalists among the Privateers, who claimed the Privateers were secretly in league with the Kingdom of Noc DiVane. The Privateers requested the Black Waltz take out an Imperial ship that was sitting close to their border, but Gottlob instead decided to alert the Imperial ship to the impending pirate attack in order to score points with the Empire.

First though, they decided to test out Black Waltz's space-jump capabilities by warping to the Imperial homeworld, Niverase, which had been lost fifteen years ago to a spatial anomaly known as The Hole, which prevented regular ship travel through Sylphspace. They discovered Niverase had been devastated, and was under orbital blockade by an armada of alien vessels known as the Nameless. Teleporting into a lake near Gottlob's childhood mountain estate, they made contact with the locals and took a couple of their Librarians back with them.

Rendezvousing with the Imperial ship they were meant to destroy, they discovered that it was actually a Library vessel, acting as a communication waystation. The head Librarian, Lysandra Hydrergot (Andrew's character from the first Dark Space campaign) was actually part of a secret society dedicated to the preservation of humanity. She was intrigued by the Black Waltz' capabilities, and sent a group of Librarians aboard to travel back to Niverase.

The game ended here, as John managed to annoy everybody by constantly suggesting the Black Waltz should emerge from the lake, thus exposing Gottlob's estate to orbital bombardment.

Thursday, 1 December 2011

The Dark Space: Black Waltz

Around the end of 2011, I finally got some inspiration for running a new campaign with my own game system, PowerFrame. It would be based on a gothic sci-fi game I'd run about five years prior, but set 50 years after the end of the previous campaign. Rather than focussing on the xenophobic human-ruled Mandel Empire of the old game, the new campaign would start in the cosmopolitan, diverse heart of the Gaudelain Trade Concern.

I discussed the game's set-up and expectations with all the players, billing it as a cross between Blake's 7 and Captain Harlock. I indended this campaign to be a vehicle for trying out a bunch of the new theories I'd read about recently. My main idea was to bind together a group of disparate characters with strong individual goals, and explore the conflicts that arose as they pulled each other in different directions. I would run it as a sandbox, responding to the proactive plans and actions of the PCs.

After character creation, we had the following cast:
  • +Andrew played Gottlob Asche, a minor noble whose family had fled the Mandel Empire just before the loss of the homeworld to a mysterious dimensional hole. However, his family's lineage was bogus, and he was hoping to surreptitiously return to the Empire and claim a position among the aristocracy.
  • +Melysa played Merru Rah, a catlike Valon hunter from the distant reaches of space. The Gaudelain had recently made contact with the Valon, and Merru had stolen a weapon and hijacked a ship. She was fleeing the Trade Concern's pursuit, but in turn her goal was to track and hunt worthy prey. 
  • Rohin played Xar-Kar-Shek, a turtle-like Vin and member of a cult that believed enlightenment was achieved at the moment of death. He was fleeing his home planet after a purge of the cult's headquarters, harbouring the ultimate goal of destroying the universe to enlighten all life. 
  • John played Adder, a cowardly combat android who had gained sentience and fled from the Empire. He was desperately fleeing the agents of the Library of Arcane Technology, who had created him and were now hunting him down; ironically, his ultimate aim was to use his developing psychic powers to manipulate and take over the Library, using them as his puppets and liberating his fellow enslaved robots. 

The Black Waltz

The four began the game on board a tramp freighter. The captain got word they were being pursued by a Library ship, and figured they were after one or more of his passengers. He insisted on dropping them off at a nearby desolate world, and said he would come back and pick them up once their pursuers were off the scent. On the planet, the group discovered a mysterious abandoned but as-new spaceship buried in the desert, and decided to make it their own. They discovered it was called the Black Waltz, and possessed some fantastic capabilities - it couldn't travel through SylphSpace like other ships, but instead had the ability to teleport instantaneously to any location, based only on the wishes of its crew. It was also a fully-functional "Dancing Ship"; a model that had not worked properly since an event 50 years ago, when the souls of Sylphs bound into the Imperial ships were emancipated. The four PCs became psychically linked to the ship, thus cementing the group together.

For a while, the game played very well. I gauged which direction the PCs intended to go, and only then prepared material for what they would find. Initially I could probably have offered a few more options in response to a stated intent, but they always had the option to ignore something and go in a different direction. As it was, Gottlob ended up following a thread related to his family all the way through, waging a war against a criminal syndicate, destroying their power base, stealing all their weaponry, and imprisoning their head.

Group Dynamics

Despite Andrew eschewing the role of captain, it was largely only he and John putting forward proactive opinions. Melysa's character Merru took on a fairly passive role as Gottlob's bodyguard (although she enjoyed the occasional active combat outing), and Rohin's Xar-Kar-Shek was mainly interested in collecting weapons and the technology to create weapons. Adder was acutely paranoid of the Library; while desperately trying to avoid them on a Gaudelain world, he brought the Black Waltz into disrepute, which angered Gottlob who was hoping to establish a power base there. This sort of conflict is exactly what I was hoping to provoke, making people deal with the consequences of their own actions and the actions of the others in the group.

Gradually, Gottlob's desire to have his claim to aristocracy legitimised by the Empire so he could return and live the good life became one of the major driving forces in the game. This was fine with me, as I could see the inherent conflict in this - Gottlob wanted the Empire to welcome him with open arms, while the Empire wanted to capture Adder and held no love for the two aliens. The closer Gottlob came to his goal, the harder life would be for the rest of the group. However, despite the players pointing this out, nobody acted definitively in-character to alter the campaign's direction.

As the situation became more tense, there were occasional raised voices; usually, it was Andrew and John butting heads, as their characters expressed the strongest drives. Whenever this happened I made sure that the argument was in-character, between Gottlob and Adder, and that it was not the players themselves getting upset. However, despite their assurances, in the end the pressure-cooker environment I had subjected the PCs to boiled over into real-world tensions. One extremely hot summer's day, Adders's repeated attempts to exercise a petty vendetta against Gottlob led to flared tempers and the dissolution of the game.

After the End

While the game had been going swimmingly as far as I was concerned, I think there were several factors at play that caused the game to collapse. These are my opinions, and while I don't want to re-open any old wounds, I encourage any of the players to express their opinions in the comments if they disagree or have other insights. I can only see things from my own point of view, after all.

At the very least, it was a valuable exercise in crystallising the gaming priorities of some of the players. Andrew expressed a clear distaste for intra-party conflict. Melysa thought that she would have been happier if the game had taken longer to reach boiling point; that she expected it to take six months to reach the point of seriously considering shoving PCs out of airlocks instead of less than two.

Because PowerFrame is a fairly old-school system, it doesn't contain any mechanisms for resolving anything other than physical conflicts between PCs. It's possible to use social skills to influence NPCs, but players always have final say over what their characters think and believe. Therefore, conflict between PCs was largely mediated by the players' own abilities and willingness to argue with each other. Dominant voices tended to get their way, and those who didn't want to rock the boat ended up being dragged along into undesirable situations. After the game ended, I thought a system like Smallville might alter this dynamic by mediating disagreements through a universal conflict resolution system, but now I think it's mainly a matter of approach - "social contract" rather than mechanics. For a game like this to work, the players need to be willing to make poor decisions, and to have their PCs experience adversity - often caused by the other PCs - without taking it personally or treating the game as a secret information war.

I also learned some lessons about open and hidden secrets. In a game where you just play your character and experience the world as they do, you tend to only want to know what your character knows. If the group's working together, this is no problem. If the group is working at cross purposes, this tends to manifest as secret meetings and note-passing, which can generate mistrut and paranoia in the group. Nobody knows who's out to get whom. It was this style of play that Andrew expressed a fervent distaste for. Just before the end of the campaign, I had invited John to privately message me about a secret plan he wanted to discuss. I soon decided that was a bad idea, but he didn't end up messaging me anyway.

In a game with open secrets where the characters are at cross-purposes, all of the players know what everyone is up to, but the characters don't. This requires a more active separation of in-character and out-of-character knowledge, which I think tends to interfere with the "immersion" of just being your character. For a game with open secrets to run smoothly, not only do the players need to not act on OOC knowledge, but I think they should try to minimise peer pressure on the other players to alter their plans just because it will make life difficult for other PCs. After all, the aim of this type of game isn't to keep your character safe, or to "win" by beating all of the other PCs; instead, it's to experience a rich drama with highs and lows, victories and setbacks. The GM acts as mediator, but the conflict is largely initiated and driven by the other players, which I feel could result in more worthwhile adversaries than the GM trying to run several NPC villains. It requires more a spirit of collaboration than competition, though.

After the Black Waltz campaign finished, I started feeling more limited by games that required a rigid party structure and enforced co-operation between PCs. I yearned for a game where the players could feel free to express their characters' desires without being considered a disruptive "special snowflake"; in other words, a game about the PCs, not about the scenario. This was the sort of game I'd been trying to run with the Black Waltz, which had ended with mixed success.

This vague feeling of dissatisfaction led into my odyssey to try different games with innovative mechanics; mechanics designed to provide a gaming experience I'd never had before. I wanted to find out if the gameplay I was looking for could be found in a rule system, or if it was just a matter of player buy-in to a particular style of play.