Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Review: Supernova


It has been a while since I did my last review. Part of the reason for this is that I got pulled into other projects, but I'd say another part is that I have reviewed most of the products that I am most familiar with. Thus, it takes me a while to re-read the books enough to make a fair (or at least informed) review. Supernova is a perfect-bound book in the style of many of the later West End Games adventures supplements—a collection of shorter adventures that are related.

The framing device for this particular collection of adventures is the world of Demophon—a planet in a system who's sun is about to go supernova. The first part of the book covers this system, offering details on the planet and the situation that will become important later. There are six adventures in the collection, and I'll go through each one in turn, starting with...

In this adventure, it is assumed that the player characters are free-traders, come to Demophon to make some quick money by hauling goods off the doomed planet. Things quickly become more complicated when it is discovered that the 'goods' are actually crates filled with refugees—people whom the Empire did NOT want to leave the planet due to their rebel sympathies. After a harrowing escape, the PCs make it off planet and transport the refugees to a safeworld. There, they are asked to make a return trip to Demophon to rescue the man who helped the refugees escape in the first place—a kind-hearted businessman now likely being held by the ISB (Imperial secret police). From there, the story assumes the players book passage on a passenger ship back to Demophon, do some investigating, then plan their infiltration of ISB headquarters. After the rescue, the PCs must figure out some way off the planet—either by stealing an Imperial shuttle or returning to the transport they arrived on.

Now, in reading this, you may have already seen a few problems. The assumptions that this particular plot makes feel very railroady to me. And neither do I like the fact that the PCs are assumed to be smugglers/tramp freighters. The latter is just kind of a peeve of mine—I always prefer to at least give the option of being freighters OR Rebel operatives (not that the adventure isn't easily adaptable to either). The whole thing where the players book passage on a LINER to go BACK to the doomed planet in the midst of an evacuation just seems goofy to me as well. Because yeah... a bunch of people booking passage ONTO a death world isn't suspicious at all.

To it's credit, however, the last part of the adventure (the break-in to the ISB headquarters) is left pretty free-form. Quite a few options are presented for gaining entrance, and hints are offered at how to handle each. The method of break-in and how the players act inside are all 'unscripted'. There is also a HELL of a lot of information on various NPCs, vehicles and locations, as well as a highly detailed map of the interior of the ISB base—this latter could easily be re-used for other adventures (considering the Empire's fetish for pre-fabricated bases).

Overall, I would say that Infiltration is an 'okay' adventure. It will require some tailoring to mesh with different campaign types and in all honesty, the break-in at the ISB base could be a death-sentence for foolhardy players or even inexperienced characters—so GMs beware (and players) beware.

The Mynock Conspiracy
In this adventure, the players are assumed to be Rebel agents, making contact with sympathizers on a very odd agricultural world (odd because all the farming takes place on floating platforms in the super-fertile atmosphere of a gas giant). Things quickly turn bad when the sympathetic ag platform is found nearly destroyed—evidently by a virus that turns droids homicidal. From there, the party is hired by one of the other ag companies to investigate this apparent sabotage—and stop it from happening again (and perhaps use it against the bad guys).

This adventure has only a very loose relation to any of the others in this collection. It just happens to be in the same sector as the other planet(s) in questin. That doesn't really /bother/ me, but it is a little confusing. Likewise, the fact that the party in this adventure is assumed to be a rebel team, while in the first, they are assumed to be smugglers...well, it doesn't do anything to help the cohesiveness of the collection.

As with the previous adventure, however, this one is rather linear in its design—often making assumptions about how the Characters will act or react. But there are enough options provided for GMs to keep it from being TOO linear (though I wouldn't remotely consider it a 'sandbox' type adventure). The adventure concept is interesting enough, combining various different elements: from the spooky investigation of a 'dead' base; to tense negotiations with suspicious corporate types—trying to convince them of the danger before it can claim them, too; to the possible infiltration of a hostile facility for some 'in kind' payback.

Overall, this is a good little stand-alone adventure. It could easily be inserted into any Rebel or Smuggler campaign and it offers an interesting selection of adversaries and obstacles—not just your typical shootouts and dogfights.

This adventure once again finds the party traveling to the doomed planet of Demophon—this time to the once pleasant domed city of D'larah. The party is assumed to be a freighter-crew, hired to evacuate a family—an apparently simple mission that quickly turns nasty as they encounter a city in the grip of panic. Desperate citizens and criminals attempt to steal the party's ship or their money, or both. Is the hard-pressed police captain really an ally? Or does he have an angle...and the family the party came to rescue isn't exactly innocent either.

Right off the bat, I have a couple minor problems with the set-up of this adventure. First of all, if this IS played as part of the whole 'collection' of adventures in this book, it would come after the PCs (and their ship) have TWICE caused quite a disturbance on the planet Demophon. Yes, I realize that planets are big and that the chaos surrounding the evacuation of a planet can disguise a lot, but it would seem to me that the first adventure (Infiltration) would have made the party number one on the Imperial hit list. It would make more sense to me to have this adventure be the FIRST in the series rather than the last.

Another issue is that the party is once again classified as a freighter crew, not rebels. Again, this is minor, but the fact that this seems to switch back and forth every other adventure points out quite blatantly that the book was not conceived of as a cohesive 'campaign', but just a collection of somewhat related adventures. Normally, this is fine, but in this case, by making a planet 'too hot to go to' in one adventure, then having the players return in another as if nothing happened, it stretches believability and makes the adventures difficult to run for the same group.

While I am normally all for background material in my adventures, I can't help but feel that the four pages devoted to describing the city of D'larah, its government, politics, organizations, etc., was a bit excessive for a 'disposable' location. I mean, the city, the planet, the entire system is going to blow up. Why do we need ALL of that detail. It isn't as though we can have the players return here for further adventures at a later date.

Though at first glance (and as written) this adventure seems rather linear, I feel the framework allows for a lot of variation. In fact, if I had run this adventure for MY group, I know several major 'events' never would have happened. But that's the way things go when you allow for players to 'jump the rails' of a story line. There is one event in particular that I think most adventuring parties would thwart—the part where the party's ship is stolen while they are out and about in the city. I can't think of many groups who would leave their ships completely unprotected, especially when landing on a planet where people are desperate to get off world—and indeed, someone tried to steal it the moment they landed. The 'assumption' that the ship is just stolen is a big one. The party may have left one person behind to guard it, or an NPC or even droids.

But, for all these negatives, there are things to recommend the adventure. The plot is solid enough, and has some good twists and turns (though the 'triplecross' may be a bit misleading—its not as convoluted as that). The encounters are varied and include moral choices (do you shoot the sweet old couple that is trying to rob you in order to raise money to escape the planet?), which is always a good thing. The NPCs have motivations and secrets, making them more than just obstacles or allies—easier for the GM to hook into and play with a purpose.

Overall, its a good enough adventure, but GMs with healthily-paranoid parties may find that the entire third act (ship theft and recovery), just doesn't happen—at least not as written.

The Evacuation of Jatee
In this adventure, the party (assumed to be working as operatives for the Rebellion) is sent to a remote asteroid in the Demophon system to evacuate a fellow agent and her 'friends' who had been sabotaging Imperial mining operations. Upon arrival, the party's ship is destroyed and they must make use of armed power-suits to navigate the asteroid and find their evacuee. Unfortunately, the party discovers that there are a lot more beings to evacuate than one agent and her 'friends'. Thus begins a quest to recover a suitably large starship and find a safe place to move all of the evacuees.

This adventure is the worst in this book, and probably one of the worst produced by West End Games. It has many glaring plot holes and contrivances intended to force the players into one particular course of action. As far as the plot holes go—you would think that when being sent on an evacuation mission, someone would ask the question "exactly how many people are we trying to evacuate?" and you think that the agent on-site would at least give SOME indication as to how large a ship to bring. But no. Neither Alliance command nor the on-site agent think to ask or provide this information—so when the party arrives, they find themselves woefully unprepared for the magnitude of the task.

And then there is the ship the players are assigned. Setting aside the fact that most PC groups would have their own ships, the one the players are given is barely functional—and yet intended to run a gauntlet of Imperial security droids and the like. The NPC commander says this is because they can't spare any resources. Right. So... why exactly is this barely functional ship equipped with numerous suits of combat power-armor (which, according to the stats provided, are each worth 30,000 credits—more than the cost of a used starship). Why? Because the plot says so—and because the ship will be destroyed and the players will have to use their suits to battle the bad guys. It is one big excuse to (for whatever the reason) use power armor. In fact, once the group gets to the evacuation site, the agent there has even MORE and different suits of power armor for them to use. It is a contrivance and a blatant one at that.

And that's just the first part of the adventure. From there, you have a pretty straight-forward "raid the Imperial base" scenario, to steal a starship. The stolen starship, of course, has a tracking device on it—which it is assumed will not be discovered by the players. Thus, they have to battle their way out past more Imperial security droids. This done, they retreat to a safe planet to offload the refugees—only to immediately find that the planet is being scouted by an Imperial ship (which they need to somehow deal with). And after THAT, the safe planet is attacked by Pirates who think the PCs are after their buried treasure (or some nonsense). There is no real 'flow' to the action in the latter half of the adventure. The climax that should have come when the players escaped from the doomed asteroid is then followed by this string of anti-climaxes that seemed 'tacked on'.

Since I am generally an optimist, I CAN see the kernel of goodness amidst this mess. The idea of a 'full-scale' evacuation is an interesting enough one. And the plight of those being evacuated is a poignant one—because not everyone is going to be able to leave. Thus, there is a bit of drama when the players realize the magnitude of what they're doing. I remember actually running this adventure for my group. But unlike other adventures, of which I have very vivid memories, I don't really remember much of this except that it fell kind of flat because I was using it as a 'last minute' adventure—one I hadn't prepared for and one I didn't realize was as big of a mess as it is.

As a GM, I would be wary of using the adventure as written. It could be made to work, but it would take effort to do so. I would also consider cutting out the whole power-armor angle, as it just makes NO sense in the context of what is going on. At least not to me. This is ironic, I feel, since the armor seemed to be the whole point of the adventure from the author's point of view.

The Beginning of the End
The final chapter in the Supernova collection, this adventure has the players making one final run to the doomed world of Demophon, this time to recover a lost rebel agent. With the situation growing ever more critical, the players must infiltrate the city of Byrne and follow a trail of clues to find the lost agent. Along the way, they will be faced with the apocalyptic chaos of a city on the edge—looters, desperate survivors looking for a way off planet, ruthless Imperials striving to keep order with the last few evacuees (and get off the world themselves) and even a band of bloodthirsty (and greedy) pirates.

In rather stark contrast to the previous adventure, this one is probably the best in the collection. Here, we have a true sense of desperation and doom. The epic scale that is so much a part of Star Wars is on display here—with an entire world and millions of people going to die. And the players are actually flying INTO this mess. Though there is a trail of clues to follow in order to find the lost agent, the encounters along the way are rather open ended, offering a 'flexible' storyline.

Unfortunately, the story makes one very bad 'assumption'. It isn't a deal breaker, but it is annoying in an otherwise solid adventure. This assumption is that the players are going to just land their ship at the starport and, when demanded by the Empire, simply turn it over to them. In a situation as desperate as this, I would imagine that MOST PC groups would choose to land their ship outside of town and try to sneak in. I also imagine most groups would NOT simply surrender their ships. And yet, the author seems to take this as something the PCs will just do in order to facilitate his story. This point could easily be cut out of the adventure and it would work just as well (though it may make the final encounter with the pirates a bit less desperate, as the PCs will have their own way off planet and wont have to rely on 'acquiring' one as the adventure outlines).

It has taken me quite a while to get to this review of Supernova. This is partly because it was one of the later books produced by West End Games. But it was also because of the personal dislike I have for this collection. Honestly, I can't tell you why I have this prejudice—perhaps it stems from my running of the Evacuation of Jatee (which left a sour taste). In re-reading the adventures, I have found some things to like, and yet still I am left with an overall 'meh' feeling towards this book that isn't entirely warranted. Perhaps if I had gone into it knowing that some of the adventures within were crappy, I would have had a better time dealing with it—and could have prepared better. Consider this fair warning, and GMs out there reading this. As Luke said: "There is good in you. I can feel it." It is just going to take some work on the GM's part to bring that good out.

1 comment:

  1. Good review. I've long owned this book, but each time I've flipped through it hoping for inspiration, I've always been left cold.