Thursday, July 9, 2009

Review: The Isis Coordinates

As modules and supplements came out for the Star Wars RPG, I eagerly scraped together my meagre resources to buy them all (or at least, I tried to). For several years it seemed that every thing I bought was of really excellent quality. The first real dip in this seemed to come with this module. To be honest, it may be more of an issue of personal taste, but this perception has stuck with me, even looking at the book years after the fact.

The adventure begins with the players stopping over at a secret Alliance shipyard (on the planet Isis)—only to discover an Imperial scout ship nosing around. The rebels manage to down the scout-ship, but are themselves disabled and have to give chase on foot over the rugged, crystal terrain of the planet. This sets up an encounter with the native crystalline-humanoid tribesmen (a typical 'prove your worthiness and friendship' situation). From there, the characters finally catch up with the Imperials, just as they break into the Rebel shipyards and steal a gunship! What follows is a 'Die-Hard' like situation, where the Imperials and Rebels are both onboard the stolen ship as it races away in hyperspace towards the Imperial fleet. The party tries to regain control while the bad guys try to stop (and or) kill them all. Whether or not they succeed in time, the characters wind up captured and are subsequently imprisoned and interrogated—only to escape at the last minute and sabotage the Imperial's nav computer, thus thwarting the Imperial attack on Isis.

In reading the above, you may already begin to see the signs as to why I have problems with this adventure. More than most of the preceding modules, the story line of Isis Coordinates is very railroady. The plot DEPENDS on their ship crashing (a big cliche used in a LOT of Star Wars adventures—and starting to get really old by this one). The plot DEPENDS on the players failing to stop the Imperials from boarding the gunship. The plot DEPENDS on the players being unable to recapture the ship in time to avoid being captured. In story adventures, there is often a bit of this kind of thing, but when you string so many situations like this together, it not only strains credulity, it is also frustrating to players.

Though it is probably blown more out of proportion in my mind than it actually was, I recall my players being just a little miffed at their seeming inability to affect the course of the plot. The instance I remember most vividly is when the players finally regained control of the gunship and subdued or otherwise neutralized the Imperials onboard. They were trying to fix the ship and get it turned around back to base when the Imperial Star destroyer arrived and took them onboard. Unfortunately for the Imps, the characters (through some ingenuity and good skill rolls) managed to get one of he gunship's missile launchers going. They fired a shot WITHIN the hangar bay. It messed up the destroyer, to be sure, but also damaged the gunship. The Imperials were unwilling to let them go, however—thus leaving the players with the very real choice of allowing themselves to be captured or blowing themselves up—which I informed them was a very real possibility if they fired another missile. Rick Oman's player (easily one of the most mild-mannered in the group) was certainly miffed at this point, but conceded In Character that they had called his bluff. He had to make the decision to try and 'live to fight another day'. But he didn't like it.

I can't help but equate this whole adventure to a Kobayashi Maru scenario in Star Trek. The no win situation. And honestly, it bothered me a little—though I only realized the extent of it as I ran it. To my player's credit, even frustrated, they got over it and reacted in character—toughing out the rest of the adventure and pulling together at the last to defeat the bad guys. But still, I didn't enjoy the sessions of this adventure as much as others. This is NOT the only time the players had ever had to face a losing situation. They got themselves into trouble on numerous occasions (Mission to Lianna). But this was one of those rare times where they were FORCED into the situation because that's how the adventure was designed.

Looking back on it, it was probably my fault for not modifying the adventure enough prior to running it. I say 'enough' because I DID actually modify it quite a bit (cutting out the whole scene with the native crystal-humanoids). But in any case, I was left feeling a bit put out by this module. And that was a rare thing with the RPG products up until this point. 

All this having been said, there are redeemable elements in the adventure—the whole 'Die Hard' concept is great fun (even if it had been done in Black Ice). This was a bit different, because the intention was to pit a party of exceptional player characters against a party of exceptional NPCs—not a bunch of lower-level 'grunts' or one high-power baddie. THAT more than anything stuck with me. In fact, this was the adventure where I came up with the concept of Rina Nothos—a recurring villain and nemesis in the campaign. She and one of her henchmen survived this adventure and put together another party that came back to plague the party again. 

The adventure also included an NPC undercover Rebel agent who helps the players out. I replaced the 'generic' guy in this slot with one the character's had encountered before (Tiree). Thus making him a recurring guest star (he went on to be in at least two other module adventures and more of my own). 

I'd previously talked about modifying and personalizing stock adventures. This is a prime example of that. I took a group of generic NPCs that had no ties to the players at all, and by switching them I was able to create a hook that added depth. 

But I digress into personal memories again. Back to the reviewy part—once you get over the railroad feel of the adventure (or write your way out of it), the module has the usual good things you'd expect from a Star Wars story: lots of action, interesting locales, puzzles (in this case actual handouts that you can use to try to repair vital components of the stolen gunship), and a large consequence for failure (thus giving it a bit more impact). 

Overall, the adventure was usable, but to me it never quite measured up to the quality of the other adventures. If I had it to do all over again, I would wind up re-writing an awful lot of it—mainly to take into account player character's tendencies to jump the tracks in any railroad situation.


  1. Not only was this adventure railroady, but I think another 'problem' with it, if you will, is the fact that the party is getting captured. In my (very limited) GMing experience, something I've noticed is that players HATE getting captured. To most players, getting captured means they screwed up somewhere, and it's incredibly frustrating knowing that you've done everything right, (which, as I recall, we pretty much had in this adventure), and you still end up in the belly hold of a Star Destroyer with no outs. It doesn't FEEL good. We all knew Rolo wasn't going to kill our characters, but you get immersed enough in the adventure that it still really feels bad when you've done all you can and it's not enough. The forced capture is, in my mind, one of the worst elements you can put into an adventure, be it a pre-published module or one you came up with on your own. If you MUST have it, then START the adventure with the players captured, don't lead them into it. That way they will A) understand that this is supposed to happen, and B) Not do something suicidal to avoid being captured, which many players are likely to do.

    My 2 Credits worth ;)

  2. I have a soft spot for this one; I always run it directly after Freedom for Edan (making the gunship relief supplies for the retaking of Edan II)- mirroring the order I got my first two modules in. In fact, I'm just getting ready to run it for my new gaming group (my fourth... ish...).

    That said, I can't help noticing- there seem to be some MAJOR quality control issues. A lot of info is just NOT provided. For a game running on timetables, the Imperials' timing aboard the Handree is nebulous. Neither the map or narrative tell you where the PCs come aboard if they made it up the repulsor-beam. The bombs being laid on deck 2 are 'marked on the map' according to the text... only they aren't, unless I'm majorly missing something. Much as I love the Handree parts of the adventure, the scenario leaves a LOT of blanks to be filled in to coherently carry it out as-written.