Going, Going, Gone

Sometimes it’s the first nuclear detonation, sometimes the first spaceship to break the earth’s atmosphere. Everything from HG Wells’ The War of the Worlds (1898) to 1951 movie The Day the Earth Stood Still dramatizes this moment: technological static has attracted the attention of aliens and they have come to punish humankind.

The aliens, of course, are a reflection of our own existential dread: what are we doing to ourselves? Where Wells used The War of the Worlds to amplify his anxieties about colonialism, The Day the Earth Stood Still was made in the wake of the Second World War, just as the boom in popular science fiction was taking shape. These kinds of stories allow us to address the world-sized concerns we ignore in our everyday lives.

Recent depictions of alien invasions in films and roleplaying games have tended toward either end of the scale between spectacular and spooky: I like those that combine both. War and the despoliation of the planet inform the tropes of these narratives but so does the relationship between human and animal life. If our existence is evolutionary in scale, how can it be any more than a fight for survival?

Brazilian science fiction game UED: You Are the Resistance – written by Julio Matos and Fabiano Saccol and now available in an English translation by Tom McGrenery – uses a diminishing dice pool to heighten the relationship between threat of the robot invaders and the human propensity to scarcity: every time a character rolls a die, she sets it aside. Once the resources the dice represent are gone, they’re gone. Every human action has a larger consequence.

British science fiction game Starfall – written by Paul Mitchener from a version of the Wordplay game engine by Graham Spearing – sets the alien invasion shortly after World War II, consciously off-setting well-chosen nuggets of historical research against the classic films of the period, such as Them! and Quatermass and the Pit:-

The only sign that something was horribly wrong was the blue tint to the sun that was visible at dawn. Meteorologists explained that this was due to particles in the atmosphere from extensive forest fires in Canada that summer. They were incorrect. On September 28th 1951, the world ended.

That day, devastating explosions destroyed the twelve most populous cities in the world. Then the aliens came — the giant beetle-like Scarabs. They came, and conquered, enslaving and destroying.

Art by Jonny Gray

I’m not ordinarily a fan of huge pools of dice – ironic for a guy who wargames every week – but I like the way Wordplay links the size of its dice-pools to the interrelationship of narratively tagged ‘Traits’, not altogether dissimilar to those used to define Aspects in FATE.

Your hand of six-sided dice starts with a Foundation Trait – Obsessed Scientist (6d), say – and may be supported by one third of the dice in two Supporting Traits, rounded down. In this case, Physics at 5d might add +1d, and Fascinated by Scarab Technology (3d) might add another +1d.

Someone assisting you can add one third of their dice in a single Trait. The pool of 8 dice could, for instance, be augmented by someone adding +1d from their Trait Eye for Detail (3d). Bonuses for equipment, such as Electron Microscope +2d, can be added in their entirety, here granting an overall pool of eleven dice with which to attempt the task.

Each die showing a 4 or 5 counts as one success, while each die showing 6 counts as two successes. These are rolled against a pool of dice set by the difficulty of the task, or by an opponent’s own combination of Traits – Observe Scarab Virus (9d), for example.

It seems like a lot of adding and subtracting but it’s fairly intuitive in play and allows players to come up with creative ways to include their Traits. This fuels the drama and the detail of events.

The book also includes some crisp and well-researched observations on the socio-political make-up of 1950s Britain, a gazetteer of the effects of the Scarab invasion on the world, and, my personal favourite, two separate chapters on the ways in which Scarab physiology and society reflects and is different from human and animal life on earth. There are also pre-generated characters, scenario seeds and a complete scenario, Angel of Berlin. The whole is clear and concise and easy to use.

The idea of alien invasion has a long and meaningful literary heritage, one which in my view has until now been better served by audio-visual adaptations such as War of the Worlds and District 9 than by roleplaying games. Starfall evokes the human scale of the planetary catastrophe.

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