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Sunday 12 November 2023

Blue Collar Sci-Fi Horror IV

In the ecologically ravaged future, twelve billion people live on Earth in environmentally sealed kilometre high city blocks clustered around ‘lungs’, the colossal city-sized atmosphere processors located on the coasts. Many attempt to get off Earth and sign up to crew the service vessels maintaining stations, outposts, and mines in other star systems; the tugboats hauling the refineries back to Earth; the Arbiter ships as Colonial Marshals investigating crimes on behalf of the Interstellar Department of Trading; as military units preventing (or even conducting) civil unrest or hostile takeovers; as scientific survey teams; or as Deep Space Support Teams—DSSTs, or ‘Dusters’, effectively serving as troubleshooters for their employers. Last twenty-five years and you get to retire to a life of luxury. However, it is not that easy… Space travel takes time, even with the Gravity Assisted Drive, a minimum of a week per light year, meaning trips can take months with most of that time spent in LongSleep. Starships are places to work, utilitarian, but capable of protecting you from the vacuum of space, radiation, and random asteroids. Therese though are not the only dangers involved in space travel and mankind spreading beyond the Solar System...

Spending time in space has a psychological effect and has been known to send men mad. Murderously mad. A.I.s and other systems can malfunction. Outbreaks of diseases and viruses—known and unknown—can ravage colonies, starships, and space stations. Terrorist groups have their own agendas, like The Children of the Cradle, which wants to stop mankind spreading beyond Earth. There are cults too with their own aims and even corporations have their often, highly secret aims. Colonists, scientists, star crew and others report ghosts out in the black, but who believes that? Does not mean that it cannot send them mad... There is even the whisper that the Gravity Assisted Drive itself has a psychological effect on people, though no one has been able to prove and to be honest, no one wants to, especially the corporations. Of course, nobody has yet found any sign of any alien species, and certainly not any face-chomping xenomorphs. Faced with all that, it is wonder that anyone engages in any space travel, and if any starship crew run into any of this, the best they can do is survive. There are those that will do more then just survive. They will investigate. They identify the nature of the threat and they will nullify its effects—if they can. Special Operations Squads (SOS), equipped, armed, and trained to deal with dangerous situations, have been trained by the government of Earth to face these problems, even though it often means working for one of the corporations.

This is the set-up for
Pressure: Industrial Science Fiction Roleplaying, a roleplaying game inspired by the Blue Collar Science Fiction of the nineteen seventies and early nineteen eighties, such as Alien, Outland, Silent Running, and Blade Runner, plus computer games like Dead Space. Published by Osprey Games—the imprint of Osprey Publishing best known for its highly illustrated military history books—Pressure: Industrial Science Fiction Roleplaying is in fact a sequel to Those Dark Places: Industrial Science Fiction Roleplaying, in which the Player Characters are members of corporate Deep Space Support Teams—DSSTs, or ‘Dusters’. In Pressure, the Player Characters are members of the Special Operations Squads Division, knoen as SOS Operatives. If Those Dark Places is the equivalent of Alien, then Pressure is the sequel, Aliens. Notably, Pressure uses the same conceit as Those Dark Places, that the play of the roleplaying game is actually an internal training programme, a test of the potential abilities of the ‘Duster’, or in this case SOS Division operatives. This does not always have to be case, but it is what the roleplaying game defaults to, and notably, Pressure is more upfront about it. Further, in addition to being a sequel to Those Dark Places, this roleplaying game is also an expansion, both in terms of the mechanics and the setting. That said, the Game Master can run Pressure without needing to reference Those Dark Places.

An SOS Division operative is defined by his name and description, CASE File, his skills, and Pressure. His CASE File represents his actual attributes—Charisma-Agility-Strength-Education, which are rated between one and four. It should be noted that Strength works as the equivalent of a Crew Member’s Hit Points, as well as his physical presence. Where in Those Dark Places a Duster has one or two Crew Positions he is qualified for, such as Navigation Officer or Medical Officer, SOS Division operative has skills and this includes combat skills, which notably, Those Dark Places did not have. Some skills require specialist training and if a player does not invest any points in them, his SOS Division operative cannot use them. To create an SOS Division operative, a player assigns ten points to his operative’s CASE File and then three points to skills of his choice. The process is more complex than that of Those Dark Places, but only slightly so, and it is still very simple. In addition, the player is encouraged to answer a number of questions to help develop his operative.

One alternative offered instead of a standard SOS Division operative, a player can roleplay a SAM or Synthetic Automation. A SAM is not affected by Pressure, but all Charisma or Education rolls require an extra round of processing to complete. A SAM is also not fully human in appearance, with smooth features, lack of hair, and unblinking eyes. SAMs are banned from the massive HyperCities of Earth.

SOS Division Operative Rosen was recruited into the SOS Division pending a conviction for computer hacking. Despite her technical role, she has put through the routine physical training, but this has not curbed her cynical edge. She is fascinated with discovering secrets still (which is what got her into trouble in the first place) and knows that being part of SOS Division will actually give her greater access than before.

Rachel Rosen
Charisma 3 Agility 1 Strength 2 Education 4
Pressure Bonus: 6
Pressure Level: 0

Skills: Charisma/Con 1; Education/Computers 2

Mechanically, Pressure is very simple and requires no more than a six-sided die or two per player. To have his SOS Division operative undertake a task, a player rolls a six-sided die and adds the values for the appropriate Attribute and skill, or just the Attribute if the SOS Division operative does not have the skill. The target Difficulty Number is typically seven, but may be adjusted down to six if easier, or up to eight if more difficult. If the task warrants it, rolling the target number exactly counts as a partial success rather than a complete success. In that case, the player needs to roll over the target difficulty.

In the long term, the combined value of an Attribute plus Skill cannot exceed six. If all the skills of an SOS Operative reach their maximum, he is considered to have achieved Elite Team status. One element of game play preventing this that Experience Points can be be spent immediately, during play, to modify rolls. This can be rolls made by the player and rolls made by the Game Monitor—as the Game Master is known in Pressure—so that a player can improve his SOS Division operative’s chance of success at succeeding in an action or chance of failure when an NPC acts against him. This can be before or after the roll. Experience Points spent in this way are permanently lost.

As well as adding skills to the setting of Those Dark Places, what Pressure also adds is a set of combat mechanics. Combatants can undertake two actions per round, initiative is handled via an Agility roll, mêlée is handled as opposed rolls, and ranged combat as standard tests, with the number to hit being seven, increased to eight if the target is in partial cover. Attacks can be dodged using the Dodge skill, but the defending combatant can only focus on this action and loses his next action. A partial success means that he will suffer only one point of damage, a complete success means he avoids all of it. Damage is rolled on a six-sided die, but each weapon or attack type has a Damage Cap. For example, a punch or kick inflicts one point of damage, but a Gauss Pistol inflicts three. Damage is still rolled for, with a roll higher than the Damage Cap indicating that the maximum amount of damage has been inflicted. In addition, each point of damage suffered serves as a penalty, raising the Difficulty Number for all tasks. Combat is brutal, but SOS Division operatives are given BallCom Mk II body armour as protection. On a roll of five or six, this will protect the wearer against direct kinetic attacks, but not explosive or energy damage.

However, Pressure does get more complex when dealing with stress and difficult situations, or Pressure. An SOS Division operative has a Pressure Bonus, equal to his Strength and Education, and a Pressure Level, which runs from one to six. A Pressure Roll is made when an SOS Division operative is under duress or stress, and all a player has to do is roll a six-sided die and add his operative’s Pressure Bonus to beat a difficulty number of ten. Succeed and the SOS Division operative withstands the stress of the situation, but fail and his Pressure Level rises by one level. However, when an SOS Division operative’s Pressure Level rises to two, and each time it rises another level due to a failed Pressure Roll, the SOS Division operative’s player rolls a six-sided die and the result is under the current value of his Pressure Level, the SOS Division operative suffers an Episode. This requires a roll on the Episode table, the results ranging from ‘Jitters’ and losing points from a SOS Division operative’s Attributes, up through Exhausted, Rigid, Catatonia, and ‘Insane Fear’. Whenever an SOS Division operative’s player needs to make a roll on the Episode Table, the maximum result possible is limited by the SOS Division operative’s Pressure Level. So at Pressure Level 3, an SOS Division operative can only be In Shock and suffer points lost from either his Agility or Strength, but not anything worse.

One issue with Pressure Level and Episodes is that a Crew Member cannot immediately recover from either. It takes time in LongSleep or back on Earth to even begin to recover… Worse, once an SOS Division operative suffers an Episode, its effects linger, and he can suffer from it again and again until he manages to control his personal demons.

And that is almost the extent of the rules to Pressure. There is a list of equipment and of typical salaries for a range of roles, a range of NPCs, and there are rules for vehicles and vehicle combat, spaceships and space combat. Spaceships are working spaces, with only a fifth of their displacement dedicated to crew and cargo space, the rest being ship’s system. In keeping with brutality of personal combat in Pressure, the rules for spaceship combat are equally as brutal, but on a bigger scale and a greater chance of death or damage from explosions, fire, electricity, and decompression.

If Pressure expands the rules from those in Those Dark Places, it also does something of greater significance—it greatly expands the setting shared by both roleplaying games. This is delivered as part of the Officer’s Briefing that Pressure is written as, but what both this Officer’s Briefing and Pressure do is present information that the average person on Earth does not have access to. Already, SOS Division operatives are being treated as different and as being part of elite, privy to information that they cannot share. This includes what the SOS Division operatives might encounter ‘Out in the Darkness’ of the furthers reaches of space, such as dangerous terrorists and cults, rogue A.I.s, malfunctioning SAMs and bio-pets, ‘ghosts spirits’, and so on, but again, notably not aliens, bug-eyed or otherwise. In terms of the setting, Pressure provides a complete future history with a timeline from the early twenty-second century to the mid twenty-fourth century, descriptions of the four dominant corporations and other organisations (including criminal and terrorist), and information about the state of Earth, installations and stations in orbit and throughout the Solar System. It touches upon what might be found beyond in ‘Explored Space’, but leaves much of this to be developed by the Game Monitor herself.

Rounding out Pressure is a short mission, ‘The Foster Report’, intended to be played as part of the SOS Division operatives’ training in the ‘Edu-Net’. The squad responds to a distress call from research facility run by Foster Private Endeavours, reporting that it has suffered a containment failure. It is a quick and dirty affair, with advice for the Game Monitor for handling various aspects of the rules, and should offer a single session’s worth of play.

Physically, Pressure is cleanly and tidily laid out. Although it is an attractive looking book, Pressure does have an issue in being delivered as an officer’s briefing because it does not make all of the content easy to use. So for example, the rules for SOS Division operative creation is spread out over several sections where the relevant rules are explained and there is no one cheat sheet guide to operative creation. Similarly, the rules for using Experience Points to adjust rolls are listed under the general rules for Experience Points, but not mentioned in the explanation of the core rules, and the rules for using cybernetics are squirrelled away in the description of Earth and its environs. That said, Pressure, being delivered as an officer’s briefing, is written in an engaging, conversational style.

What Pressure does is take the background and setting of Those Dark Places and expand from a tightly-focused genre emulation into a full Science Fiction roleplaying game. Within the setting itself, it moves Those Dark Places from the survival horror genre to more actioned-orientated horror, where the Player Characters, or SOS Division operatives, have to investigate and confront the horror, rather than merely do their best and run away. It opens up the possibility of Pressure being run as a more general Science Fiction roleplaying game as well, and thus a wider range of plots and possible source material to adapt. Fundamentally no less brutal—even with the guns and the armour—Pressure: Industrial Science Fiction Roleplaying is not just Aliens to the Alien of Those Dark Places: Industrial Science Fiction Roleplaying, taking the action straight to the horror, but a fuller, more detailed roleplaying game whose expanded rules and setting open up a wider range of stories and adventures.

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