Firefly: Something Rotten in Heaven

We had a long weekend here in Canada this past weekend. That made it a perfect weekend to take advantage of the extra day off to fit in the first session of our Firefly RPG campaign. We had completed setting and character creation a couple of weeks back, and I managed to get our setting details typed up just barely in time for the the game on Sunday evening.

Now, because I am a lazy bastard, I wound up getting up Sunday morning with only the vaguest idea of what the adventure for that evening would be. I had some thought about converting over one of the Echoes of War scenarios to remove the canon PCs and fit it into the campaign frame the players had come up with, but that didn’t feel like I was giving enough play to the work everyone had done on the setting creation ((But I hasten to add that the Echoes of War scenarios are all very good. I recommend them unreservedly. And each one comes with all the rules you need to play, so it’s a great way to try the game out.)).

I whined about this on Twitter, and Cam Banks immediately ((It might not have been immediately, but it sure seemed that way.)) responded with a great suggestion:

Use the Leverage tables and tweak!

I had completely forgotten about the great set of tables in the Leverage RPG designed to let you put together a job for your crew of criminals very quickly. The campaign frame for this game meant that the Crew were not criminals ((I was, frankly, agog at that development.)), but instead were subcontractors for someone who held an Alliance contract to carry mail. Still, I figured that I’d give the tables a whirl, and see if I could twist things enough to get them to fit our game. This is what the dice gave me:

Client: Politician/Public Servant

Problem: Framed

Pressure: Police refuse to help; running out of money

Mark: Financier

Mark’s Angle: Greedy, hardnosed

Mark’s Power: Wealthy

Mark’s Weakness: Guilty conscience

Mark’s Vulnerability: Family

Who Else is in Play?: The Vizier

The Twist: It’s personal

Given those factors, and the fact that one of the issues of the game is the lawlessness and corruption of the Rim and Border planets, I boiled these issues down to the following points.

  • Annie Pan, the Federal Marshall based in Bao on Heaven, is a moderately friendly face for the crew. She’s been framed for accepting bribes, and is in jail awaiting trial on corruption and conspiracy charges.
  • The person who has framed her is local business mogul Bunmei Ndiaye, who wants to bring the lucrative flower block market ((See, Heaven has a weird terraforming flaw. It produces beautiful flowers, but they all emit the same kind of smell as a corpse flower. This makes the whole planet stink. But the flowers, encased in clear substances like glass, crystal, or acrylic, are popular exports. Thus, flower blocks.)) under the control of his collective, meaning him and his cronies.
  • Marshall Pan ((That’s the first time I’ve typed that pair of words out. I’d like to claim it was a sly reference to the European Recovery Plan, but it’s just a fluke.)) was concerned about the collective violating anti-trust laws, and so Ndiaye framed her and replaced her with a more… compliant head lawman, Noel Antoniak.
  • Ndiaye’s chief assistant, Gisela Novak, had some undetermined shady ties in case I needed to bring in a gang of skilled criminals to make the crew’s life difficult.

The canny observer might notice that I’ve pretty much ignored mark’s weakness and vulnerability, as well as half the pressure. I kept the notes of these things, but I’ve found that, in Cortex Plus – particularly the Action iteration, like Leverage or Firefly – it’s easier, more fun, and creates a more organic, surprising story to leave a lot of the oppositional details up to the system of Complications. As the game played out, I didn’t really need that stuff ((But if I had needed it, it was there for me to use.)).

The last bit of prep I did was putting together some stats for the various NPCs. I used the archetypes from the rulebook for three of the major NPCs – Annie Pan, Gisela Novak, and Bunmei Ndaiye. Then I stole the sheriff stat block from the intro adventure for Noel Antoniak. And then I spent three minutes writing up stats for minor NPCs – Cops d6, Thugs d6, and Hit Squad (Physical d8, Shoot d8, Fight d8, Knives d6).

Start to finish, prep for the first session took me less than an hour. I giggled about that, and did a little dance.

So, how did things play out? Well, I put together a first scene, with the crew arriving on Heaven, and being greeted by Antoniak who shook them down. I figured that would get them invested enough to go poking into what had happened to their old friend Annie, and I was right.

Almost too right. Walter, being a former lawman himself, got a little cute with Antoniak and his bully-boys and wound up arrested for assault ((Shackled d8 complication, that quickly got stepped down to a d6.)). The fact he kept asking about Annie – who was currently awaiting trial on charges of accepting bribes and conspiring with criminals – increased suspicion about him ((Also the fact that he was being a complete belligerent dick to the cops.)). His plan was, apparently, to get arrested and put in the same cell as Annie, but I really couldn’t see that happening once he kept asking about her. Even these cops weren’t that incompetent. Instead, he “fell down” a few times and wound up in his own little cell ((Me: Take a Beat to Crap d6 complication. Walter: On top of the Shackled d6?. Me: No, just change Shackled to Beat to Crap. They’ve taken the shackles off. Walter: That’s how complications work? That’s cool!)).

After that first scene, though, things started grinding slow. I realized partway through the evening that I had forgotten some important things about running a Cortex Plus Action game:

  1. Skip the boring bits, and go to the action.
  2. Any plan is the right plan, because the characters know what they’re doing, even if the players don’t.
  3. Don’t sweat the details of the plan. That’s what assets and flashbacks are for.

Trying to get back into this mindset, I started pushing the characters a little bit more to be awesome and to get into the right mindset. But we are all steeped in the games of our past, and it was a tough shift for us all. Here’s an example:

Every time they did something illegal, they kept telling me they were wearing gloves. Now, in a more traditional game like D&D or Call of Cthulhu or even Trail of Cthulhu, that’s not only expected, it’s good play. But in Cortex Plus, they’re not going to leave fingerprints at the scene, because they’re competent professionals. Unless, of course, they roll a jinx and get a complication. And then it doesn’t matter what the player says, the character has encountered a problem. Wearing gloves? Fine. The police have a Hair Sample d6. Or they sneeze and set off the audio sensors. Or whatever.

That’s the mindset I need to embrace and share with the players.

So, yeah, the game was a bit rough. Not unexpected, because it was a first session. But it was still fun.

Eventually, they cleaned Antoniak out of all his cash at a poker table, found out who was backing him, and stole a package that was supposed to go to a Jiang Triad front to put in Ndaiye’s office. And Price Jiang, the pilot of Peregrine, had been arrested by Antoniak and was sitting in jail. The players were dithering here about the right order to do things in ((“We need to warn Price that we’re gonna do this.” “Okay, should we warn him before we steal the package, or before we get the package to Ndaiye, or before we…” “JUST DO SOMETHING!”)), so I stole the idea of the end-of-job Mastermind roll from Leverage: I got each character to decide how they were contributing, and put the appropriate skill die into the pool, along with all the assets they’d created throughout the game. Then, one player volunteered to essentially be the anchor, and threw in his/her attribute die, a distinction, and any signature assets that applied. I set the stakes in roughly the same way for the antagonists.

The players handily raised the stakes. So, suddenly Price was released, as was Annie, and Ndaiye was returning to his family home on Bellerophon. Novak, who had Yu Triad tattoos on her arms, was missing after her house burned down. And the Federal Marshalls were showing up to see who was messing with their duly licensed representative.

Summing things up, I was pretty frustrated in the early part of the game, because I couldn’t figure out why it wasn’t clicking the way I thought it should. When I finally got my head on straight regarding the system, one of the players said, “Now it’s starting to feel like an episode of Firefly!” It’s a success, if not as smooth as I would have liked it to be.

To fix that, I am rereading the Episode Guide of the core rulebook ((I just realized I never wrote a review of the Firefly RPG core rulebook. I will have to remedy that.)). This chapter is so much better than any other episode guide I’ve seen, as it uses the summaries of the episodes to teach the game in small chunks, with hefty examples from the TV series. Sheer bloody brilliance.

Next session, I’ll be better prepared, rules-wise. And things’ll go smooth. Right? ((As I typed the question mark here, my iTunes shuffle started playing the theme song from The Weird Al Show. I guess that answers that, huh?))

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2 Responses to Firefly: Something Rotten in Heaven

  1. akaAelius says:

    Nice write up. I’m wanting to try this new system out myself but the physical copy of the book got pushed back to January of next year for some reason so I’ve held off for now.

  2. Rick Neal says:

    Hmmm. Latest update I saw was that it was due around the end of July. Where did you see the announcement of a further delay?

    Rick

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