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Sunday 8 March 2020

Far Future Dungeon Delving

Far out beyond the Humanity Sphere lie the Glogotha. Located deep in the Dust Spheres, the remnants of alien civilisations ground up in the vast and ancient Everwar between the mysterious Erix Absolution and the powerful Concordant of Shelz, their names conjure up  images of wonder and great danger—the Paradox Spire, the Grove, the Resurrection Hive, the Delphia, the Glass Labyrinth… They are tombs of fallen cultures—mortuaries, amouries, data centres, research bases, and more. They can be surface facilities, or underground or under deep oceans of liquids other than water, orbital bases, ringworlds, or even dyson spheres. Many hold great secrets and ancient technologies which the Overseers, the caretakers of the Human Sphere, mysteriously covet. Recovering such technologies—fragments, baubles, and mechanisms—is the province of Scavengers.

Getting to the Golgotha requires permission from the Overseers as well as a Star Map. This is because they control access to the esoteric subspace fractures which enable Portal Ships to travel between worlds at faster than light speed—a science that along with true A.I. that mankind was unable to discover or develop before the Overseers made contact. Armed with a contract and a Star Map, the Overseers will plot a Scavenger team a course down the Fractureways out from inner machine planets, past the verdant pleasure worlds, sanctioned war worlds, and separatist fringe worlds to the dead empires of long ago where both the Erix Absolution and the Concordant of Shelz have forbidden humanity to go. Once they reach their target they have limited amount of time before either the Erix Absolution or the Concordant of Shelz becomes aware of their presence. Neither may notice every time a Scavenger team lurks on the fringes of their war, but when they do, the only thing the team can do is run. The technology of the Erix Absolution and the Concordant of Shelz is highly advanced and there is little that Humanity can do in the face of it. This is a danger that the Scavengers are likely to encounter as they are fleeing the Golgotha. There are other dangers they may face before then—the dangerous environments of each and every Golgotha, internal countermeasures and guardians of the facility where the desired mechanism is believed to be located, rival Scavenger teams, pirates, and other aliens with an interest in the Golgotha. And then there is the question of why a Scavenger team would go to such lengths and face such dangers to recover ancient technology for an incredibly advanced race? In the post-scarcity Human Sphere, simply enhancements to the personal genome—modifications, adjustments, and boosts—beyond human technology. The question is why? What does each Scavenger want from these enhancements? Who does he need to be better than?

This is the set-up for Golgotha: A Science Fiction Game of Exploration and Discovery at the Edge of Known Space published by Fire Ruby Designs following a successful Kickstarter campaign. It is a standalone Science Fiction humanocentric roleplaying game which uses The Black Hack for its mechanics. So it is an Old School Renaissance roleplaying game which uses simple, player-facing rules—that is, the players roll, but the Game Master never does—for faster play. Humans are the only player character species and the players have four Classes to choose from. These are Blade or warriors; Ghosts, adjusted by the Overseers to be capable of manipulating Glimmers, the remnants of Golgotha control architecture (this leaves them weak though); Pathfinders are scouts, navigators, pilots, and reconnaissance specialist able to spot ambushes and deal with Golgotha countermeasures; and Operators, who handle negotiations and similar situations, but also know how to make their escape. To create a character, a player decides on a concept, name, and past, and rolls three six-sided dice in order for the traditional six attributes—Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma—with any roll of fourteen or more meaning that the next attribute value is set at seven. A character also starts play with a Talent from his selected Class, a unique piece of gear, and a Drive. The latter is his motivation for becoming a Scavenger and once per session grants his player a reroll if he can persuade the Game Master that the Drive is relevant.

Name: Earond Jackson
Class: Ghost Level: 1
Drive: To discover the secrets of the Golgotha
Hit Points: 5

Strength 13, Dexterity 13, Constitution 13, Intelligence 16, Wisdom 7, Charisma 16

Ability: Use Glints (Advantage)
Talents: Decipher (+1)
Weapon Proficiencies: Small Weapons (d3)
Equipment: Condensed Needle Pistol, a couple of interesting hats

To the player-facing rules of The Black Hack, the rules in Golgotha add rules for Portal Ships—ships are treated the same way as player characters—and the dangers of both space and of Golgotha, such as Countermeasures, the traps left behind by the original builders or occupiers of the now sepulchral planets. When exploring Golgotha, the Ghost Class has some advantage in that he has been given the ability by the Overseers to access remnants of Golgotha technology known as Glimmers. These being able to observe other parts of a Golgotha, hide the presence of a Scavenger party, illuminate an area, and so on. In mechanical terms these are simple attribute tests as per The Black Hack, often at varying degrees of difficulty for different effects. So the Access Glimmer is a Wisdom check which lets a Ghost open any door he touches, but at a +3 penalty to remotely open any door he has passed through in a Golgotha, and at a +5 penalty to open any door he knows about in a Golgotha. 

Additional threats come in the form of fellow scavengers like the Octos, who always operate in the armoured environment suits which contain the liquid atmosphere they need to survive and who strip and break down Golgotha to rebuild shell-like installations; Sharks, another aquatic species which needs breather masks to survive and goggles to protect their delicate eyes, which take any species it can as slaves; and the Goblin-like pirates with their multifaceted eyes and weird gait. Although the Scavengers are unlikely to encounter either the Erix or the Shelz, they may well encounter their client species. The Erix client species have an insectoid look to them and are typically led by the diamond-hard Erix machines, whilst the Shelz client species have a demonic cast to them. Whilst the client species are easy enough to use, the independent races are more difficult to bring into play, primarily because their motivations are not really developed. For example, the Goblins are described as pirates, but pirates for whom, why are they pirates, and what do they do with the captives and plunder they take?

The point of visiting the Golgotha is of course to find ancient, alien technology. Here Arthur C. Clarke’s Third Law which states that ‘Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.’ comes into play, the Game Master being advised to handle the various fragments, baubles, and mechanisms hopefully waiting to be found in the Golgotha as flavour  and as mystery rather than something quantifiable. This might not work in other Science Fiction roleplaying games, but in Golgotha the point is that such technology is not intended to be used by the player characters as in those other roleplaying games, but handed over to their Overseer patrons in return for upgrades. 

A typical Scavenger mission follows a three act structure. Taking up the contract and getting to the Golgotha, exploring the Golgotha itself, and then escaping before either the Erix or the Shelz become aware of the Scavenger’s presence. The design of Golgotha, much like the Scavengers’ exploration to find particular artefacts—or magical items—shows all of the hallmarks of the dungeoneering style of play and design of the ruleset the roleplaying game uses and inherited from the very first roleplaying game. Yet it differs in that obtaining the artefacts is for their use as currency with which to purchase upgrades—as opposed to straight Experience Points—and in that the design of Golgotha is done more by node than by room after connected room. This does not mean that travel between locations is necessarily ignored, but rather that it can be used for purposes of drama or flavour, and further, that Golgotha can be designed without needing to draw maps. Golgotha does include a few tables to help the Game Master design her own in terms of architecture and location, but these are more spurs for the imagination. Once a delve into a Golgotha is complete, it is time for the Scavengers to make their escape to the nearest fracture in space in the last act, and this is made all the more dramatic by the possibility that the Erix or the Shelz might appear. This is handled with a timing die, rolled as  a Usage die—beginning with a twenty-sided die and reduced to the next smaller die type on a roll of a one or two down to a four-sided die—which the Game Master has been rolling since the start of the mission whenever seems appropriate. Once one or two is rolled on the last die one or both of the combatants in the Everwar comes to investigate the intrusion in what it regards is its territory. 

If the Scavengers are successful, the Overseers will reward them with upgrades and genetic augmentations. In game terms, this is essentially a player character going up a Level, but thematically it is a nice explanation. However, it is not without its problems, and Scavengers may be left with genetic quirks as well as upgrades.

Rounding out Golgotha is a selection of example Golgotha, including the Hall of Whispers, a series of blisters on the wall of a chasm of the third moon of the gas giant Pellos, where physically dense memory core may be found, and the Inseminator, an industrial complex buried under acidic, toxic sludge in the crust of a greenhouse planet in the Suul system where an A.I. which controlled a massive breeding programme is believed to be found. Each of the twelve Golgotha, all written by Kickstarter backers, includes a summary, a description of its structure, function, quirks, guardians and other dangers, example encounters, and what might be found there. All are ready to run with some preparation upon the part of the Game Master, but all together, the dozen can serve as the basis for a campaign.

At its heart, Golgotha is an excuse to do dungeon bashes or delves in space. After all, it is a Class and Level system and the Golgotha are abandoned tombs or crypts—but with an advanced technological look and feel. Golgotha does not go out of its way to hide this, but instead presents a compelling set-up and thus the reasons why for its playing style. Apart from the Golgotha, the setting is only given cursory detail, leaving the Game Master to develop that herself. In fact, she has carte blanche and scope to develop the universe of Golgotha as she wants. Yet if there is anything really missing from Golgotha it is inspiration for player character motivation. There is mechanical motivation provided—that is, get artefacts, get augmented, go up a Level, but not personal motivation in the context of the setting. Instead it leaves it up to the player and the Game Master to decide what such motivations might be, and whilst that is obviously possible, it does feel as if both are coming to the decision cold. Thus some examples, some context, could have made the process easier. Similarly, some of the motivations of the various independent races could have been better developed and given context. 

Physically, Golgotha is a well presented book. It is well written and comes with a lot good full colour artwork that captures the feel of exploring and plundering the abandoned worlds of ancient civilisations. Overall, Golgotha: A Science Fiction Game of Exploration and Discovery at the Edge of Known Space combines the simple mechanics of The Black Hack with a compelling set-up which brings classic dungeon delving style of play—with its mysteries and dangers—to a high Science Fiction setting.

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