Written by Adrian Thoen
The game space Powered by the Apocalypse occupies has become fairly bloated in the last five years. With any mechanic that becomes popular, there is a high chance of the output becoming diluted with less than stellar content. One genre that designers have made multiple attempts at using the PbtA framework with has been space opera/science fiction action. It’s this type of game that designer Adrian Thoen has sought to leave his mark on with the ever evolving Impulse Drive. Thoen credits Firefly, Mass Effect, and Farscape among his influences and they can be felt in every aspect of the game.
My third Games on Demand table was run by the adroit Richard Rogers. Rich is a strong presence in the online tabletop RPG community with both Indie+ and The Gauntlet podcasts network. I’d heard about how skillfully he GM’ed for a few years now but just never sat down at his Origins table to find out for myself. In fact, I’d heard his Lady Blackbird games talked up a lot, I’ve pretty much decided I need to watch him run it before I attempt it myself. All that said I was pretty excited to experience his style of running the game and finally play Impulse Drive, which had been in my peripheral since it first popped up on the scene.
Impulse Drive, like almost all PbtA games, has playbooks that the players choose from and give a framework of how to play the character, as well as handing off some worldbuilding power. In our particular game, we ended up with The Infiltrator, The Mystic, The Outsider, The Tempest, and The Warhorse. For example, our Outsider was a colony of genetically engineered ants grown in a Dyson sphere with a shared consciousness, likely the strangest of a very strange crew. I chose The Warhorse described in the game content as: “You’ve seen the violent side of space for most of your life, and it had hardened you and honed you to a razor’s edge. Few have more experience at fighting and controlling the battlefield than you. Where others may be overwhelmed by the horrors of battle and space, you shrug, pick up your weapon, and stride once more unto the breach.”
Because this was a convention one-shot, some stats were pre-chosen for us. My Warhorse ended up very strong in Stalwart (connected with Keeping Your Cool and Assisting teammates) while my deficit was in Slick (Acting Quick and Manipulating). Unlike most games that use the PbtA mechanic, you don’t get any playbook specific moves at the start of play, though you do have a sort of special move that once used has to be recharged during an appropriate rest. My particular playbook did get to create some fiction through a Background option. I could either pick between “War Eternal” which gave me the advantage to Intimidate or Manipulate people from my particular culture or “Wardens” which allowed me to create the threat my people have fought against for decades. I chose the latter and came up with some notes of being a Prisoner of War behind enemies lines, having to kill my way out.
There was one mechanic that seemed to have little purpose, or least a purpose that wasn’t tightly clarified, Foibles. From a fiction point of view, they provided me with some extra material to roleplay with my felt like they have very little mechanical use in play. Like aspects in Fate, they are statements about your character that are supposed to be pressed on to create advantages and disadvantages apparently. My two Foibles were “Crude antique cybernetic leg” and “PTSD from POW Camp.” I felt like I brought these into the fiction during play, but they never seemed connected to anything I did when rolling dice.
Our scenario had us arriving at a space station where our Mystic was meeting with a colleague to help negotiate peace between a miners’ guild and a large governmental union. Certain factions involved didn’t want this peace brokered, so our new friend had a big target on his back. It was also established that our Tempest had gotten into a brawl at the same bar the meeting was scheduled to take place so I, as the Warhorse was keeping an eye on him while watching out for our Mystic.
When the shit finally hit the fan, the game kept a nice flow of action, Rich did a fantastic job of switching the spotlight around just enough, so every character felt like they had many beautiful moments. Our ant-like Outsider had a particularly gnarly scene of crawling inside the diplomat we were meeting to internally extract an ident chip that was being used by his enemies for tracking purposes. Rich also knew when to let the roleplay scenes breathe and those moments helped even this convention one-shot feel like a piece of a larger series of stories. The relationships between players who hadn’t met till this table felt totally genuine and exciting.
My favorite mechanic and one we didn’t get a chance to play with due to the abbreviated nature of convention games was how Impulse Drive deals with Harm. You take ticks of Stress when damage would occur, and at the fifth tick, you have a choice: a series of physical harm descriptions with healing conditions OR Calamities. Calamities take that Harm and transfer it into fictional complications. My Warhorse, for example, could choose “Your allies in the war are under siege, and call for reinforcements – you” or “You are given an opportunity for a great victory, at the cost of a part of your body – an eye, a limb, etc.”. I’ve always found the least interesting part of tabletop roleplay is just subtracting hit points. When those failures can be translated into significant complications in the fiction, it’s a much more entertaining game.
Overall, I was very pleased with Rich Rogers very fluid control of the table, and he definitely lived up to the hype. It also has me interested to possibly run Impulse Drive myself and explore it as some of the more embedded mechanics get a chance to shine over a small campaign of games.