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Ice Station Zebra 24, Part 2

(Continued from Part 1.)

"The ride to K-1138’s surface takes 14 minutes," reads the text, "during which time the players can interact and try a little roleplay." The problem was that my players were working from pre-gens that are basically collections of stats, with no "character info". This was intentional; I wanted them to be something of a blank slate so the players could make of them what they wished. This backfired somewhat; the players were feeling a little, "Who the hell is this character anyway?" That might've been fixed iof I'd drummed up some "character notes" for each pre-gen, but I think the only real alternative is to have the players create characters so that they can build their personalities as they go. On the night, I just glossed it over and skipped ahead to the landing.

Something that annoys me nowadays about a lot of RPG rules sets is the "yes/no" nature of resolution for anything non-combat related. If a player wants to try something, or if the GM requires a roll of a player, there's a single roll, maybe with modifiers, that tells the player whether the whole attempt is a success or failure, and if the player fails, that's it, no second chances, or they can wait for an horu or two, during which bugger-all else is likely to happen anyway, and try again. This means you have rolls for stuff that either really doesn't matter to the progress of the game, or that can bring the players to a frustrated halt, or wind up being meaningless anyway as, if no one else wants to do anything in the meantime, the GM can skip time and allow the player can keep trying until he or she succeeds.

There's a case of the former during landing, when the driver of the truck needs to make a roll to get the truck out of the shuttle's bay, while the shuttle is hovering over a fragile ice shelf. The adventure text reads, "failing this check may send a worrying screech of metal-on-metal, but otherwise causes no major damage to either the hauler or the dropship." Which makes sense, you don't want the adventure to be over before it starts be wrecking the truck, but I keep thinking, if the negative result barely affects the rest of the scenario, why roll for it?

The team drove on to the Ice Station. I described how the lights were out; Simon called for a Technical (Structural) roll, and his success let me tell him how the external structure was still intact. Cristel decided a quick once-round-the-building would be good, which confirmed Simon's skill roll. Cristel also checked the shuttered windows at the South end of the building (Perception), and aside from some overturned tables she couldn't see anything in the gloom inside.

Simon's run of bad luck started here. He had his trooper examine the locked door on the external power generator (linked to the main building by an underground tunnel) and tried using his Sabotage skill to pick the lock. He rolled an unmodified 1, so I ruled he'd managed to snap his pick in the mechanism. In the end, the team went in via the main airlock. A check of the building's main corridor revealed dried blood and a Cliff Mite, a small species of Bug (think a foot-and-a-half tick) that attacked the players (along with six friends).

My initial impression of the Cliff Mites in play was that they sucked. In theory, they're great little saboteurs, but I discovered that in direct combat against troopers, they're shithouse. The adventure text specified ten in the base, but as the players started polishing them off at no risk to themselves (the maximum damage a Cliff Mite can inflict is 2 points, soaked up by the Mobile Infantry power suit's Damage Reduction of 4) I left it at seven. Still, it allowed the players to get to grips with the combat rules. Also, it set the trend for Simon's Will saves for Fear for the rest of the adventure.

To explain: All Bugs have a Fear score. The first time a trooper claps eyes on a specific, individual Bug, the trooper must make a Will save against that score or freeze. The trooper can attempt a recovery on its next action, but if the save fails again, the trooper runs like crazy. Cliff Mites have a Fear value of 8, which gives you a three-out-of-five chance on an unmodified roll to not freak out. Simon's trooper, unfortunately, had its lowest Attribute score in Wisdom, imposing a negative modifier on all Will checks. Simon failed his, and although he recovered not long after, he kept failing them for the rest of the adventure. The great bit, though? Simon never lost his sense of humour about it.

Now, there's something a little confusing about the Fear rules. In the Combat section, where they first appear, it states that PCs must roll aganst the Fear value of any opponent that has one. However, further into the book in the Arachnids section, the text states thet the Fear score also represents the minimum Wisdom required to ignore the Fear effect entirely. As Cliff Mites have a Fear of 8, and the lowest Wisdom anyone had was 9, that woul have meant no-one would have needed to make a check.

On the other hand, though, the Fear rules also state that if there are more creatures present at once, the Fear check increases, so with ten Cliff Mites (had I thrown them all at the player characters, as I now think I should have), the PCs would have been rolling Will saves versus 11. Of course, poor Simon's trooper probably would have gone catatonic much earlier in the game, but still.

In the end, the Cliff Mite encounter is there to let the players experience both the Fear rules and the basic combat mechanic with minimal risk. I think that if I'd realised that in the first place, I might've treated the Cliff Mites a little differently.

(Continued in Part 3.)

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