Director’s Commentary: Five Parsecs from Home, turn one

Magical creative engine.

Here I follow up on Space Adventure! with an attempt to relate that story to the process of playing and daydreaming that inspired it. The process was iterative and non-sequential, posing a fun challenge to explain in this format. Let me know how I did.

Space Adventure! Episode 1. Director’s Commentary.

Film producer Clarius Delling hatched a new idea for a serial broadcast. Space Adventure! would be filmed as a reality TV documentary series, following a scrappy crew on their daring exploits around the Fringe. His pitch landed with a ship construction magnate named Stender Benissard. “Imagine the sales this broadcast could generate!”

To kick off the game I chose a six-person crew, mostly human, based on my miniatures collection. Beyond that, I tried to keep an open mind. In Five Parsecs, you roll dice and refer to a collection of tables to randomly determine each crew member’s background, motivation, and class.

The crew comes together

I ended up with a few genre staples as expected: soldier, mercenary, starship crewman, etc., but one result really stood out. I rolled Artist for class and Adventure for motivation.

“Wait, artist?!”

I decided right then to make the artist my captain. I had a vague impression of a deluded romantic pursuing inspiration for sci-fi dime westerns, and an Anvil Digital model I adore that fit the image perfectly.

Clarius Delling, played by “Planetary Governer” from Anvil Digital

I remember the exact moment Delling moved from novelist to documentarian. In bed musing over what to name my crew, I had a few ridiculous ideas but nothing grabbed me. Then it struck: Delling wouldn’t need a melodramatic name for his crew; he’d need a marketable one. From there it was a short leap to other self-descriptive names I remember: reality TV shows Cops and Dog the Bounty Hunter. Casting my Five Parsecs campaign in that same mold amuses me more than I can explain. Sleep arrived late that night, and Space Adventures! was born.

Benissard commissioned Delling to track down a Nodoom-Chowell Gradient Refocuser for the shipyard museum collection. Despite their ubiquity in the early days of interstellar travel, one could hardly find them anymore. They tended to kill their operators. An antiquities broker called Palmer had announced she would soon offer one for auction, but no one had heard from her since. Benissard believed Palmer was hiding in an abandoned desert outpost, pursued by local mobsters who were probably already heading there.

Five Parsecs offers a list of different ending conditions for a campaign, such as completing a number of encounters, or upgrading crewmembers a set amount. Given my crew’s concept, I chose Complete 3 quests for my victory condition.

Quests are a special type of mission the crew can undertake. They offer better rewards, but a crew can only embark on a quest by accumulating an in-game resource called Rumors, requiring a mix of success and luck over time. Usually. Thanks to the motivation of one of my crew members, I started the game with a single Rumor. This entitled me to roll a die on the very first campaign turn to see if my Rumor kicked off a quest. Sure enough, I rolled the “1” result needed to succeed. What a great start!

The premise of Five Parsecs resembles shows like Cowboy Bebop or Firefly; the crew are basically freelancers in a wild-west space gig economy. Every campaign turn, you can assign crew members to attempt to secure a Patron willing to pay a premium for performing a Patron Job. Their rewards are good, but they often come with time limits and strings attached. Again, since this was the first turn, I had a few patrons lined up from my crew’s backgrounds. Like most things in Five Parsecs, I rolled the patrons’ attributes randomly. The most interesting result was a Wealthy Individual with the Connected attribute. This means he pays a lot, and each successful job completed for this patron earns the crew a Rumor. Since I need lots of Rumors to “win” my campaign, this guy will be important. What’s more, I only had one turn to complete the job. The choice was obvious.

I ended up playing through the job and finishing the campaign turn before Benissard and his coveted antique snapped into focus. I knew the crew was on a Quest to pursue some object, but only found the details after letting it sit in the back of my mind a while (with hat tip to fantasynamegenerators.com).

Delling and his photogenic crew raced breathlessly to the given coordinates. They found neither Palmer nor any mobsters, but only an unsettling stillness as they crept among the discarded habitation modules. Suddenly nearby boulders began to shift, shedding a cascade of fine sand as they rose to reveal themselves. Those weren’t boulders at all; they were deadly krorgs! A pod of four bellowed their rage and loped toward the Space Adventurers, their massive claws churning a cloud of dust in their wake. Bullets seemed only to anger them further, and within moments they were in mauling distance of crewmate Ethel Hardy. Ethel’s crude machete scored a deep gouge in one krorg before his pod-mate knocked her into a crumpled heap against a nearby wall.

Space Adventurers!

The job itself is where minis and dice hit the table and Five Parsecs becomes a wargame. The largest challenge with solo wargaming is player bias, and the rules address that bias by limiting player choice when setting up the scenario, choosing the objective, and deploying and maneuvering the enemy. The specifics of the objective and the enemy type, number, and capabilities are all rolled randomly, while enemy behavior is governed by descriptive rules of thumb based on enemy type.

I did not expect to encounter krorgs. These things are very tough and absolutely deadly in melee combat. In fact, they are so tough they award bonus experience to a random surviving crew member after the battle. My team started out well-equipped and well-connected, but not tough or quick on the draw. What’s worse, I had also rolled a complication that required I leave a randomly-chosen crew member out of the fight. When I saw I was facing four krorgs, I worried my crew would end up in sick bay or dead. 

Sure enough, the first two rounds were horrifying, because the krorgs seemed to ignore all my gunfire. While getting to know the rules, I also neglected a couple key details. Krorgs’ toughness is balanced by an attribute that offers bonuses to hit them, which I failed to employ the entire first round. Also, I took a full round to realize that I could remove enemy models from play by stunning them three times before their next activation. Since the krorgs were stunned even if they shrugged off a hit, by coordinating fire perhaps I could have prevented Ethel from being taken down.

Sustained shooting started to slow and stagger the assailants. As the last of her pod-mates fell dead, the biggest, meanest krorg summoned the deepest, most terrifying roar. She leapt onto the hab module roof where Delling himself was perched, swinging her claws and all of her fury. Delling sprang back and emptied his machine pistol into her towering form. As the claws came down, he knew he was doomed anyway. Just then, he tripped on a pile of hab junk and tumbled straight off the roof, as two rounds from Casey Rowland’s auto rifle stilled the krorg’s fury forever. As he sat up and probed is bruised shoulder, Delling called out, “did the camera drones get that?”

Watching Ethel fold like a wet napkin really woke me up. Once I started hitting one krorg at a time with everything I had, they started to drop. Unfortunately, one stayed up long enough to brawl with my dear captain. I managed to roll extremely well for that combat, even stunning and pushing back the krorg, but the beast was just so much better at melee, Delling was taken out of action immediately. Thankfully, the captain starts the game privileged with a point of Luck, which I spent to cancel the out-of-action result and allow him to dive a random distance in a random direction. He dove off the roof and survived.

Palmer had camped at the outpost and left in a hurry. The crew found a dropped computer with encrypted storage, but no sign of violence or any bodies. Maybe she had noticed the krorgs in time. Ethel lived, but she would need to rest in sick bay. She had suffered worse before, out in the bush. The crew made a decent haul in salvage parts, and the data would be enough to keep Benissard interested, once it was decrypted. Overall, not a bad run. Still, Delling suspected the mob was onto them now, thanks to Casey’s drunken bragging in Shipyard City. It was time to regroup and plan his next move.

Great success! After the fight Ethel’s fate was randomly determined, and I got lucky. She only needs to spend one turn in sick bay, precluding her from doing any useful tasks before the next fight. 

Rolling for loot and other goodies was a joy I can’t wait to repeat. I especially liked the random events that come at the end of each campaign turn. In this turn, one of my crew mouthed off to the wrong person, and now they have an additional Rival. Rivals will eventually show up to ruin my future endeavors, unless I hunt them down first. Decisions, decisions.

Final thoughts

Five Parsecs did everything I want from a narrative solo campaign game.

The rules for fighting encounters felt light enough to manage everything solo (with a little practice), but substantial enough to stay interesting over time. I couldn’t molly-coddle my beloved crew and I had to watch krorgs beat them up. That mild dread echoed well the feeling I enjoy when playing against a human opponent.

I could sense the thought put into the turn sequence and all the random tables; it came through in results that were unexpected and somehow also made sense. The cycle of surprise, cognitive dissonance, interpretation, and synthesis produced a steady drumbeat of dopamine hits I’m eager to continue in turn two.

I’d like to do a little narrative write-up after each turn of Five Parsecs, but I’m not sure whether to attempt a “director’s commentary” each time as a separate post. Maybe next time I’ll try a brief commentary section at the end of the narrative post. I’d like to hear your thoughts about it in the comments.

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