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Friday 8 March 2024

Friday Fantasy: The Lost Universe

Exlaris was once a peaceful world where Dark Elves, Elves, Orcs, Goblins, Halflings, and Tieflings lived in harmony. Above all, these different peoples valued knowledge and scholars, wizards, and sorcerers were widely revered. They learned to harness the energy of the vacuum surrounding their planet, and they continued to grow and prosper, until The Breaking when Exlaris, along with its moon, was literally broken out of its orbit by too close an encounter with a Black Hole. Chaos erupted across the world as perpetual darkness fell and the heat from Exlaris’ sun was lost. In response, an archmage brought together a team of scholars and wizards who wove magics together that created a shield that surrounded the planet. This had two effects. First, it protected the rogue planet from the dangers of space travel and second, it maintained its atmosphere. This was magic so powerful it was kept secret lest it fall into the wrong hands. The energy drawn from the vacuum was harnessed to power lamps, both to light cities and heat the fields so that the farmers could continue to grow food. In the four centuries since, the peoples of Exlaris elevated the studious to positions of power and followed a tradition of making information freely available. Five major cities, all connected by a teleportation network, have specialised in the study of various sciences, but study of the cosmos is paramount. More recently, this has included making contact with the Earth in secret via the Hubble Space Telescope in order to learn about the world and its knowledge. Yet something has gone wrong in that contact and the Hubble Space Telescope has not only gone missing, it is as it never was… It is going to take a team of dedicated scientists and engineers from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, mysteriously flung from the Earth onto Exlaris, to adventure on what is to them a whole new world in order to discover what has happened to the missing telescope!

This is the set-up for The Lost Universe, a scenario published by the last organisation you would be expecting to write and release a roleplaying scenario—NASA! It is designed to be played by a party of between four and seven Player Characters of between Seventh and Tenth Levels and is easily adaptable to the roleplaying game of the Game Master’s choice, the most obvious being Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition. It is intended to be played in a single session and designed around certain scientific principles. These include the ‘Energy of the Vacuum’, ‘Gravitational Lensing’, and ‘Red shifts/blue shifts’. These, as well as details of the Hubble Space Telescope and its Control Centre, are covered in several appendices at the back of the adventure, adding depth and detail to the scientific basis for the scenario.

Although the Player Characters are actually scientists and engineers from the Goddard Space Flight Center, what the players actually roleplay are characters native to Exlaris. These are typical adventurers found in Dungeons & Dragons into whose bodies, the minds of the engineers and scientists are suddenly cast, effectively tripling the strangeness of their situation. Not only do they have to get used to whole new world and a rogue planet cast into darkness at that, but they also have to adjust to new bodies and the sometimes strange and wondrous abilities that these bodies have, whether that is being able to wield a sword effectively or cast spells straight out of fantasy fiction. This aspect is not played up in the scenario, but rather the characters intrinsically know what they and their new host bodies can do, so there is no great sense of discovery there. That said, the Game Master could expand this aspect of the scenario if she wanted to. The Player Characters arrive at a transport hub for the teleportation portals between the planet’s major cities, and will quickly learn that they are in the city of Aldastron and that the city has been beset by a rash of disappearances powerful researchers in the last few weeks, which the city guard thinks were successful kidnap attempts. No one has yet claimed responsibility and tensions in the city are rising as a consequence. The Player Characters have a couple of avenues of investigation here. They can either approach the city guard, get introduced to a fixer in the city’s criminal underworld, or both. Of course, neither the fixer or the city guard have any love for each other and dealing with leads to some tension. Whomever they deal with, it quickly becomes apparent that people of Exlaris are aware of Earth and have a good idea that the Player Characters are from there, before they are directed to visit the city’s observatory.

At the observatory, the Player Characters are able to find out more information, including how they got to Exlaris and the fact that the Hubble Space Telescope is missing. Part of the explanation involves the scientific work that the Hubble Space Telescope was being used for and the Player Characters will learn something about this too. They can even find some notes related to the observatory’s study of the Hubble Space Telescope, its origins, and what it is being used for, these being provided as scientific handouts in the appendices. The clues point to Mokhsana, the former capital city of Exlaris.

If the play of The Lost Universe began with roleplaying in the city and continued with research at the observatory, the third shifts to Mokhsana, a city in the dark, and exploration and puzzles. The latter are tied to the scientific principles underlying the scenario, so there is an element of informing and educating to The Lost Universe. This should be no surprise since that is part of NASA’s remit, but here the players get to use that knowledge in practical, if literally fantastical, fashion as well. The scenario quickly comes to close with a confrontation with the villain responsible for the disappearances and a successful conclusion to the Player Characters’ investigation.

There are however, three things that The Lost Universe either does not include or includes only very lightly. It does not include a set of pre-generated Player Characters or stats for any NPCs or monsters, whilst its inclusion of rules and mechanics is very light, though what mechanical detail that is given definitely indicates a Dungeons & Dragons-style roleplaying game. This is all by design, because it means that the scenario is not tied to a specific rules system and NASA is not seen as favouring one particular Dungeons & Dragons-style roleplaying game over another. So, The Lost Universe can be played using Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition, Old School Essentials, or Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplay, with the Game Master providing the mechanical details of the rules and the monster stats, as necessary. The absence of pre-generated Player Characters means that the players can create their own characters or the Game Master can create her own. That said, whilst all this does make the scenario easily adaptable to the roleplaying game of the Game Master’s choice, it actually increases the amount of preparation work she has to undertake before running the scenario.

Behind the eye-catching cover, The Lost Universe is cleanly and tidily laid out. It does need a slight edit, and bar photographs and technical drawings taken from NASA’s extensive library of images, it is very lightly illustrated. This has two consequences. First, the majority of the images are at the back of the scenario, and secondly, the scientific and historical details of the science behind The Lost Universe, are far better illustrated than the scenario’s fantasy elements. This is understandable though, given NASA’s prominent role in space sciences and the scientific basis for the scenario, but it does leave the Game Master without anything to take inspiration from visually when describing the world of Exlaris. A map of Aldastron and its surrounds is included, but not of any one particular location. The advice for the Game Master is decent throughout and the roleplaying advice on portraying each of the scenario’s NPCs is very good.

It is an odd day when NASA—yes, NASA!—writes and publishes a roleplaying scenario. Not just a roleplaying scenario, but a fantasy one rather than a Science Fiction one! Of course, that fantasy is used as a vehicle to teach the players about the research being conducted via the Hubble Space Telescope, so in comparison to other fantasy roleplaying scenarios that is likely to feel heavy-handed because it is not something they are designed to do. Nevertheless, The Lost Universe is a solid scenario, good for a one-shot, but with a setting that is intriguing enough for a return visit or a sourcebook of its very own.

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