Last night I wrapped up a three-session adventure for those characters whose sheets are in the thread linked above. It was played by way of the “Jitsi” internet chat thingummy, and it starred Our @RogerBW as Dr Bharee, my ancient gaming chum @marq as Sigurd Claudius Pulcher, and my old gaming chum Paul as Anton Amehara. And though it was not my best work I think it went alright, and I felt that my GMing improved from session to session as I got back into practice.
The PCs, a small firm of pseudo-freelance effectuators on retainer to the College of Archivists, were commissioned to go to the planet Sparta, and there investigate the disappearance of, if possible rescue, and if necessary recover the body of one Sinjin Edda, a hot-shot young archivist on the fast track to the fellowship of the college.
My plan was that the PCs ought to start out with the impression that Dr Sinjin had been disappeared by her hostesses, the wealthy and powerful Glenguile Commune, and that if not already dead she was being held either in the vast and rambling Glenguile Palace or at one of their outstations. My intended first act denouement was that she had left when they said she left, but had not departed from the city of Kiddervik (where Glenguile Palace is) by any conventional means, that her disappearance corresponded with the departure of a drovers union of lurid reputation, the Budini Union. My intended second act was the PCs tracking the Budini Union across the Cumaean Steppe, with a denouement that Sinjin Edda was not a captive, but was travelling with the union in disguise as a man. And then the third act was supposed to deal with finding the site of a deposit of native amber that Sinjin Edda had learn of while in Glenguile Palace, and the revelation of her plot to seize it for herself by establishing a spurious commune on the site.
The event turned out alpha-playtest quality. I entered the story too early and spent too much time on establishing the status quo ante, then I did not give the players enough misleading information to form the intended false impressions. They exercised a bit of unanticipated ingenuity to discover things earlier than I meant them to. So that when the PCs were tracking Sinjin across the steppe they already knew that she was using the Budini as a means to get to the amber and that they were not on their way to rescue her. Also, it ran slower than I planned. In the end about 25% of the Budini were casualties (one killed), and the PCs delivered a very angry and badly wounded Sinjin Edda to the Accessorium of the College of Archives at Menalaion to collect their fee.
Did things go as planned? No. Did I have a good time? Yes. So if I were writing this up for publication, I might well put in more of the misdirection, but as an adventure played and enjoyed it was not lacking.
I think the lynchpin for me was the amount of information we got from Sinjin’s property at the Commune. That immediately let us derive what had happened (“Oh, Sinjin found something in the diaries that led her to disguise herself and run off somewhere”) and shifted our investigations to figuring out why (“What did she find?”).
Fun was definitely had, especially (for me) in the heist in the second act.
I didn’t see it as hard-boiled, but I have some fairly specific ideas about what hard-boiled means and they may not agree with yours. For example, I didn’t feel that we were uniquely honest; a better-resourced local force of Guardians might plausibly have worked out what was going on and performed the rescue. They were obviously somewhat in the pocket of the local bigwigs, but “somewhat” isn’t “completely”.
In another thread, which is about genre in RPGs (Lessons from a TV series bible. #2: genre), I mentioned that Saving Sinjin Edda played more like a hard-boiled mystery than like typical genre sci fi (which it did for structural reasons). @whswhs commented as follows:
Leaving aside the question of how much typical genre sci fi actually consists of stock plots and situations crudely transplanted into space or to another planet, I’m going to take this as a jumping-off point to describe the adventure Saving Sinjin Edda more fully, discuss its speculative content, and revisit some of the things I wrote back in the thread The Nature of Flat Black — 5 things it isn’t.
Back in 1953 Isaac Asimov wrote an essay that was published in Modern Science Fiction and that was titled “Social Science Fiction”. In that essay he argued that all science fiction stories boil down to either (1) gadget stories, (2) adventure stories, or (3) social science fiction, which can be sketched respectively as follows:
Man invents automobile, holds a lecture about it.
Man invents automobile, gets into a car chase.
Man invents automobile, gets stuck in traffic.
It is important to note, regarding Asimov’s category of SF adventure stories, that “Man invents gadget, gets into a car chase” is not the same. That’s just a stock adventure plot with a sciencey-sounding Mcguffin. What makes the car chase SF in Asimov’s example is that the invention of the automobile is what makes the car chase possible.
In justice to Asimov, I’m going to note that he did get better. The essay “Social Science Fiction” is not collected in Asimov on Science Fiction. A year after writing that essay he went on to write The Caves of Steel to prove to John W Campbell that it is possible to write an SF mystery story that is structurally a mystery and that could not be reverse transplanted into a contemporary or historical setting.
My defence of Saving Sinjin Edda, and of adventures in Flat Black in general, against a possible charge of being merely stock Westerns, detective stories, romances, or Graustarkian adventures that are transposed to another planet, is not going to be that they are hard SF idea stories in which the point of the story is to reveal a scientific idea in a surprising but retrospectively inevitable way (old Asimov’s type 1 and 3 SF stories) nor that they are type 2 SF stories in which the action hinges on using the new gadget for a purpose that no element of a stock setting would suffice. (I have run some adventures in Flat Balck that were like that, but Saving Sinjin Edda isn’t one of those.) My defence is going to be that most adventures that I have run in Flat Black, including this one, may be thrillers, hard-boiled mysteries, capers, action adventures, police procedurals, and even cozies, both in their structure and in terms of the pay-off that they deliver in their denouements, but that they have not been simply transplanted to another planet or into space, and could not be transplanted back, because each of them belongs in and is inseparable from a science-fiction setting.
Okay. First, let’s talk about amber. Amber is a fossilised resin from trees. But most trees’ resin doesn’t fossilise, it rots. Even if they resist bacterial attack, almost all kinds of tree resin decompose in the ground rather than spontaneously polymerising. In all the history of life on land, only a few types of trees have produced resin that will fossilise as amber. It’s altogether possible that very few of the planets occupied by people in Flat Black would have had any species in them that produced amber. Deposits of native amber in Flat Black might well be unknown. And the Terran biomes established by terraforming are are most 830 years old, which is far too recent for natural amber to have formed. Little amber seems likely to have been exported from Earth in that Age of Emigration, and all the amber on Earth would have been destroyed when Earth was. So by 606 ADT amber would be priceless: so rare and precious that the few articles existing all belonged in museums, and no market exists to establish a usual price.
In Saving Sinjin Edda all the scheming and skulduggery turned out to be about establishing ownership of a deposit of native amber on the planet Sparta, the only known deposit of amber in the known universe. If you accept geology as s science and bio-terraformation as an SF concept then that makes the amber on Sparta a science-fiction idea. But since the amber is only a mcguffin — something with no function in the plot except that the characters want to seize it — the SFnality of that idea doesn’t make the story an SF story. Scientific ideas about the formation of amber and the bio-terraformation of alien planets didn’t make any difference to the course of events in the adventure.
But the society on Sparta did.
In the colony Sparta (in Flat Black) there is a peculiar household structure and an extreme difference between the gender roles assigned to women and to men. Women live in matrilineal “communes” that own tracts of land and draw their incomes from plantations, commercial real estate, mines and so forth. A settled way of life in the ancient mansion of one’s kin, accumulating substance, is considered feminine and proper to women. Boys are ejected from their mothers’ homes and communes between the ages of eight and thirteen, and they are recruited or adopted into occupational “unions” that amount to guilds or workforces (e.g. the crew of a large ship are usually a union). Men draw their subsistence from skilled trades, from the sea, and at very worst from labour. It is considered effeminate for a man or union of men to own land, or to occupy a permanent structure on land, and on the contrary properly masculine to live in a vehicle and follow an itinerant way of life, subsisting by a skilled trade or profession, or at least in trade.
One part of Sparta is the Cumaean Steppe, and expansive continental grassland too dry to support plantation agriculture (at least, until a vast investment irrigates it) and therefore not yet settled by women. Part of the steppe is grazed as a common range by drovers’ unions, who follow their herds of grazing beasts along traditional itineraries, but who would consider it an affront to their masculinity to be accused of owning the land that they roam over. The city of Kiddervik is a major river port serving the western end of the Cumaean Steppe. Each of the dovers’ unions of that vast area brings its herd in to Kiddervik once per local year to be delivered of its accumulated products, and there they are loaded onto river boats to be taken to populous, agricultural parts. Important bits of land around Kiddervik, including the shambles, the wharf, and a lot of commercial real estate, belong to the Glenguile Commune, which has been wealthy for centuries and occupies a huge and rambling palace there.
Sinjin Edda was an arrogant, ambitious, and unscrupulous woman from Beleriand, a much wealthier planet. She came to Sparta to look for some trove of historical documents that she might acquire or at least scan for the interstellar College of Archivists, and thus gain enough prestige to be elected a fellow of the College. She befriended and seduced a member of a high lineage in Glenguile Commune and thus inveigled her way into an invitation to stay in Glenguile Palace. There she found (a) an archive of illuminated personal diaries that the commune had accumulated over centuries, and (b) a ceremonial hall of considerable size panelled with amber. Possessed by avarice, she searched the archive to find some account of where the precious substance had been obtained. She found that it had been mined out on the edge of the steppe, in a valley in the foothills called “Koyamaki”.The location was not described well enough to find it, but it was noted as being in the range traversed by, and containing a ceremonial site for, the Budini union. Sinjin checked some schedules, and fond that she had little time to prepare before the Budini returned to Kiddervik. She rushed off to the spaceport to arrange for (a) some earthmoving equipment and air delivery to her beacon, when she activated a beacon, and (b) a workforce of women from off-planet. But she left in such haste that her dupe in the Glenguile commune mistook it for a breakup and abandonment. The Glenguile clan were affronted, and when she returned would not allow her to stay with them any longer. Sinjin therefore disguised herself as a man, applied to join the Budini, accomanied them on their nomad wanderings, seduced the tanist of the union and started to undermine the captain, and tried to pressure them into taking her to their sacred site at Koyamaki. Her plan then was to activate her beacon, fly in her off-world workers, declare them to constitute a commune and own the land, strip-mine the amber deposit, create an interstellar market for natural amber and become fabulously wealthy.
Unfortunately for her all this was so hurried that she stopped updating her backups with the local office of the College of Archivists, but left her desk computer behind with her heavier luggage at Glenguile Palace. The local accessor of the College tried to do a welfare check, got the brush-off from the Glenguiles, lodged a missing-person report, got a brush-off from the local ~police at Kiddervik, and supposed that the Glenguiles must be covering something up. Sinjin had a rescue policy paid up, so the College of Archivists hired the PCs to find out what happened to her, rescue her if possible, and recover her body if necessary.
So the PCs — who were off-worlders — went to Sparta and travelled to Kiddervik, where they came up against the problem that as men they were not allowed into Glenguile Palace, except for business in some peripheral receiving-rooms, not to stay in the hotel for women in which Sinjin had stayed before and after her time in the Palace. Glenguile stonewalled their investigations, and turned out to have surrounded their palace with hired security (because they feared an attempt to steal their amber room, not that the PCs knew that). Nevertheless, it was possible by investigations in the town of Kiddervik to discover that Sinjin had been seen in company with the tanist of the Budini Union just before they left town. The Budini had a very unsavoury reputation, and following them would be tricky, besides which Glenguile sent the cops around to see the PCs out of town. The PCs being ingenious would overcome some problem or other and find a way to find the Budini and Sinjin, and when they showed up to “rescue” her her nefarious plan would be revealed.
The situation there, the opportunity that Sinjin Edda saw, and the complicated decipherable things she had to do to set up her scheme were dictated by the social and legal peculiarities of Sparta, and produced the situation that she was in when the PCs came to find her. Those peculiarities also created obstacles, subsidiary conflicts, and areas of secrecy that the PCs had to work around, resolve, and investigate, those evasions, conflicts, and investigations constituting the course of the adventure. In short, the situation of the adventure and most of its incident could not have occurred (without substantial changes) in any contemporary or historical setting. It is not a stock mystery story arbitrarily transplanted to another planet, but rather one that could only take place where it did, in a science fiction setting.
This brings us back to a few of the things that I wrote before that Flat Black is not. It’s not hard SF in any of the three senses that are current, one of which is a term of approval for SF purists. But on the other hand, it isn’t space opera either. Not in the sense of being grandiose adventure set in space. But not in Forrest J Ackerman’s original sense either. It’s not for stock stories and clichéd adventure, in which the SF setting is pure stage-dressing, in which the spaceship could just as well be a stage-coach or a horse, the blaster a six-shooter, the aliens Injuns. Though Flat Black adventures should be adventures first and foremost, they ought really to be adventures in which the distinctive physical and cultural background of the exotic alien planet makes a big difference. Not stock adventure that could be re-skinned to be set anywhere, but adventures so rooted in the oddities of their own exotic worlds that they could not be set anywhere else.
I think Raymond Chandler was being a bit hyperbolic in his comments about the man who is neither tarnished nor afraid, but of course you might disagree.
I ought to have portrayed the Ravens as more violent and brutal (but at that stage I was worried about a credible threat producing a delay, which we would not have had time to recover from) and the Mulgraves as more blatantly keeping order for the Glenguiles. I’m out of practice.
Maybe you would find that Paul is less than willing to play a character who will take any man’s money dishonestly or any man’s insolence without a due and dispassionate revenge. He is a lonely man and his pride is that you will treat him as a proud man or be very sorry you ever saw him. You and Mark I am less familiar with, and perhaps I ought to have said some more during character negotiations.
The other side of the claim that “this is just an (X) plot translated into Outer Space” is that there’s only a limited number of plot structures that actually work (the number varies depending on whose model you follow). So someone who just wants to talk up contemporary mimetic fiction can say “that’s plot #17, you could set that in Peoria”. And sure, if you bash enough things about, you could, and it would still be plot #17… but it wouldn’t be Saving Sinjin Edda in any way more than that.
If one were to set out to rewrite this recognisably but without that nasty science fiction stuff, one would need at the very least a thing of very great value that can be legally claimed by someone who’s just found it. I’m not there’s anything on modern-day Earth which would fit that.
I don’t think I had any particular expectations around genre — I was more or less anticipating a missing person/rescue mission complicated by local Vancian social quirks, which is what we got.
I think with a more established character, I might have had clearer motivations around how to handle things at the end. As it was, fulfilling the essence of our contract and returning Edda (even though she immediately turned around and went back to claim her riches) seemed like the only plausible course.