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Saturday 16 March 2024

Solitaire: Thousand Empty Light

Thank you for accepting this assignment. As a valued employee of the HAZMOS CORP we have trust in your resilience and reliability to undertake this task. TEL 022 is the only artificial structure on Unadopted Planetary Body 154, or UPB 154. HAZMOS CORP currently owns the maintenance contract on this facility and the Department of Offworld Contact Monitoring has detected that TEL 022 is currently without light or power. The Department of Offworld Contact Fulfilment has signed you, a fully trained LAMPLIGHTER, to fulfil the immediate terms of the contract. You will be transported to UPB 154. An atmospheric vehicle will insert you onto UPB 154 and you will gain access to TEL 022. Once inside you are directed to descend to the bottom of TEL 022 and proceed section by section through TEL 022. In each section you will restore power and light. In each section, please record your visual assessment and maintenance report in the MemoComm module for HAZMOS CORP records as part of the contract. You are advised that TEL 022 is a sub oceanic facility. Please record any depth complications in consultation with the PNEUMATIC AND NARCOTIC INCIDENT CHART, or PANIC reference, provided. Throughout this assignment you are reminded to adhere to the standard practice for the fulfilment of HAZMOS CORP maintenance contracts and follow the OBSERVE RESOLVE ACT CONCLUDE LEAVE EVIDENCE, or ORACLE, System. By following the ORACLE System, you will ensure your safety and HAZMOS CORP’s continued responsibility for your safety and wellbeing. Failure to adhere to the ORACLE System may threaten your safety and wellbeing, the capacity of HAZMOS CORP to fulfil the contract, and negate any liability HAZMOS CORP is contractually obliged to fulfil with regard to your physical and mental status. On behalf of the HAZMOS CORP, the Director thanks you for your attention and action in these matters and looks forward to you being a continued and valued member of the HAZMOS CORP family.

This is the set-up for Thousand Empty Light, a supplement for MOTHERSHIP Sci-Fi Horror Roleplaying Game, published by House of Valley following a successful Kickstarter campaign, which is several things which together make it more than a straightforward supplement or scenario. On the one level, it is actually the manual and guidance book released by the HAZMOS CORP for fulfilling the maintenance contract for TEL 022. On another, it is actually a piece of horror fiction which follows the progress of the assigned Lamplighter as he descends into TEL 022 and makes his way along it one segmented tunnel, visually scanning each area, reading the reports recorded by the previous Lamplighter to conduct maintenance on the facility, recording his report, and coming to the realisation that there is something odd going on in TEL 022 and that HAZMOS CORP is not telling its employee the true purpose of the facility. And lastly, it is a solo adventure for MOTHERSHIP Sci-Fi Horror Roleplaying Game, one whose rules can be adapted to use in other scenarios for MOTHERSHIP Sci-Fi Horror Roleplaying Game. As a solo adventure, it can be played as written, but the player can also record his reports, turning Thousand Empty Light into a journaling scenario. Further, given that Thousand Empty Light is designed for solo play and thus one player, it could actually be run one-on-one, with a single player and a Warden. The latter will be easier than in most solo roleplaying experiences because the structure of TEL 022 actually informs the structure of the scenario—it is linear. Although it is interactive fiction, Thousand Empty Light is literally straightforward as opposed to the non-linearity of most works of interactive fiction such as the Fighting Fantasy series.

TEL 022, the setting for Thousand Empty Light, is situated deep under the ocean of UPB 154. It is accessed via a caisson that juts above the ocean surface, the Lamplighter descending via the caisson and undergoing hyperbaric intervention. At the bottom, the Lamplighter is tasked with proceeding through the five sections of the facility in order, each one sealed at either end. In each section, he must follow the standard WORKFLOW: review the reports previously recorded on the hand-cranked MemoComm module, assess the situation, and restore both light and power, record his own report, and check for depth complications. This includes following the ORACLE System.

Notably, the ‘O’ or ‘OBSERVE’ step of the ORACLE System uses Semiotic Standard as a means of providing a randomising factor. Semiotic Standard is actually a system of signs and symbols—‘Semiotic Standard For All Commercial Trans-Stellar Utility Lifter And Heavy Element Transport Spacecraft’—created by the American film designer, Ron Cobb, as icons for the commercial spacetug, Nostromo, in the film Alien. There are fifty of these and they are recreated on the back cover of Thousand Empty Light and numbered. Where there is a degree of doubt and uncertainty, the player can roll to determine which one will influence the actions of his character. Each has been amended with a potential outcome, either ‘Yes’, ‘No’, ‘Yes, But’, and ‘No, but’, to prompt the player along with the icon itself. They are not the easiest of prompts to use, but their verisimilitude and the sense of worldbuilding they enforce are undeniable.

In addition, the player, as the Lamplighter, has to record incidents and near misses and record them on an Incident Form. These can be trips and falls, injury and illness, unsafe disrepair, excessive noise, newly-identified, and more. When they occur, they are randomly assigned a value between one and ten. They do not have an immediate effect, but if another incident occurs which is randomly assigned the same value as a previous incident, it triggers repercussions from that previous incident. The higher the assigned value, the greater the effect of the repercussions. It also triggers a PANIC check upon the part of the Lamplighter which requires referring to the PANIC reference. This is also required when the Lamplighter transitions from one section to another.

In terms of a Player Character and his abilities, Thousand Empty Light recommends Mechanical Repair and Jury-Rigging as skills and training in industrial equipment. Otherwise, it adheres to standard rules for character creation for MOTHERSHIP Sci-Fi Horror Roleplaying Game. He is assigned a flashlight, a rebreather, and a dive gauge, and some of the hazards he will face are explained—depth complications, unlit areas, corrosive seawater, flooding, raiders, and an array of strange creatures and environmental effects. Once the Lamplighter has signed a Letter of Last Resort, he enters the caisson and the first section. It is at this point that Thousand Empty Light begins to resemble a journalling game, because what the player will be in each section is using its description and the MemoComm module recordings his Lamplighter has access to as prompts to ask questions. Answers to these questions are determined by rolling on the Semiotic Standard table on the back of the book, as well as other factors. The player can then decide how his Lamplighter responds, what action he takes, and so on, following the ORACLE System again and again until the section has been fully explored and the Lamplighter has completed the WORKFLOW for that section.

As the Lamplighter proceeds from one section to the next the oppressive, often claustrophobic atmosphere grows, the unsettling nature of even the first four sections of TEL 022 exacerbating his sense of panic. This is first forced by the need to make a PANIC check when entering a new section and then by events generated by the player from the questions prompted by the descriptive content. One thing that Thousand Empty Light does not explain is what is in the fifth section. It is described as a High Value Asset early in the maintenance manual, and the Lamplighter is cautioned not to interact with it. In a sense, it does not matter, since getting to the last section will have been trial enough and asking those questions may be too much. Like the story of his Lamplighter’s progress through TEL 022, it is up to the player to decide, though there is, perhaps, the hint that it lies closer to home…

In addition, there are secrets in Thousand Empty Light that are hidden by a code. These are not decipherable without further purchase by the player. They are not necessary to play through Thousand Empty Light though.

Physically, Thousand Empty Light is impressive. The writing captures the right tone of corporate attitude and care, which of course, is never going to be enough as a playthrough reveals. Similarly, the layout adds to this and the combination of the two is why Thousand Empty Light actually works better as a piece of fiction perhaps more than it does as a solo adventure or a set of solo rules for MOTHERSHIP Sci-Fi Horror Roleplaying Game. Part of that is due to the fact that the explanation of how they work is written as a corporate maintenance manual rather than as a roleplaying game supplement. At the same time though, if it actually had that clearer explanation of the rules, it might actually have disrupted the veracity of the atmosphere in Thousand Empty Light.

Lastly, it should be noted that the name of the scenario has been randomly generated. By any stretch of the imagination, it is meaningless.

As a piece of horror fiction and interactive fiction, Thousand Empty Light superbly and successfully combines a sense of corporate sheen and corporate creepiness, the former ratcheted down, the latter ratcheted up, as the player and his Lamplighter proceeds further into TEL 022. As a set of solo rules, Thousand Empty Light underwhelms due to under-explaining and that, combined with their specific application by the HAZMOS CORP here, makes them difficult to apply elsewhere for MOTHERSHIP Sci-Fi Horror Roleplaying Game. Perhaps a new ORACLE System and PANIC reference is required?

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