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Prison Planet

Started by Jason Morningstar, July 18, 2011, 12:22:42 AM

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Jason Morningstar

I don't have a better name right now; The Fatal Shore is taken. Here's the background!


The place is a throwaway planet orbiting a dying K-spectrum star, twelve months beyond the edge of otherwise-inhabited space. After an enthusiastic initial survey, someone had the bright idea of turning it into a prison. Send convicts to the frontier. Have them build a new world and, by their labor, rebuild themselves. The planet is a prison where walls are unnecessary - to leave the colony is to die. The very landscape mocks them, but it isn't just the prisoners who are trapped, of course. Everyone was sent here to be forgotten.


At the top are the Governor and the Dimber-Damber, a pair who eat well and kill with a word. They are, in theory, above the fray. But heavy hangs the head, right?  Food is an escalating problem, and it reaches the very top. Crops imported at hideous expense are sickly, stunted. The colony is slowly starving to death, and theft of food is a capital offence. But that stops exactly no one.

Below them are the Functionaries - Captain of Marines, magistrate, the Dimber-Damber's enforcer and procurer. People who eat regularly and kill with impunity. These paragons of corruption and vice sit atop the social hierarchy. The wise supplicate themselves before the Functionaries to beg indulgence.

Below them are the Planters, both free settlers and Ticket-of-Leave Men. People who eat mostly and kill when they have to. If the colony succeeds - if - maybe they'll be rich plutocrats some day. That day is not today. Free men came here on their own dime, of their own free will as settlers. The Ticket-of-Leave Men were conditionally freed by the Governor, former prisoners who have made good - but are always one word away from their former sentence. A successful Settler inevitably drifts into Authority service, because that's where the money is.

Sometimes convicts (and even, occasionally, Marines)  chuck it all and become Bolters, running away from the settlement toward a short but eventful life in the wilderness. Those that hang around form ragged criminal gangs that the Marines hunt for sport. To the convicts, these men are princes and heroes.

Below them are the majority of the colony - hungry, grasping people who kill for bad reasons or no reason at all. Lags - convicts sent out for some petty crime not worth mentioning - and Marines, as imprisoned as the Lags they guard. Both were schooled to ugly life on the transport, two sides of the same dirty coin. The chain of stupidity and grief that brought most to this shore is long and unbroken. Still, the most ambitious insinuate themselves into the good graces of the elite.

Part and parcel with the permanent Marine and Lag underclass are the Sables. One currency is universal, and the young and healthy have bags and bags of it, until they don't. The Sable motto is "best to spend it while you can". Sables sell their bodies for money or, more often, goods and services. They are common Lags, free courtesans, and even Authority spouses. A Sable with a bit of scratch might set up as a planter or enter some other business. A Sable with ambition might even end up as the Dimber Damber - or even an Authority Functionary. Failing that, it's a downward spiral.

In a world of mischance and misadventure, Outcasts have staked a claim to the farthest, most forlorn parcel. They will never belong. On one hand are Authority contractors, free specialists  like scientists, doctors, or agronomists; the sort who would accept such an offer. On the other hand are Croppies, slaves in all but name who work the farms, and Wreckers, political prisoners with zeal but not much else. Wreckers are reviled by Authority, and with good reason - they destroy entire planets occasionally. With their brains. Those Outcasts who survive long enough become Crawlers, the oldest and most useless of all.

The world is like a pair of ladders joined together. One is right and one is, well, wrong, but if you are at the top that hardly matters. And the boldest men do hop to and fro, don't they?

Jason Morningstar


Host: Have a blank Colonial Survey and Record printed and ready. Have some pencils and index cards on hand, as well as three six-sided dice.  Give a pencil and two index cards to each player, including yourself. Explain the rules for generating the colony and hand the record sheet to the player on your left.

Player to the left of the host: Name the planet and hand the sheet to the player on your left.

Next three players in turn: Choose one of the survey assessments to be wrong. Cross out the nice version and pass the sheet to the player on your left. The third player to choose a bad assessment should cross out the unused negative options, so only six facts are visible.

Next player: Name the colony and hand the sheet to the player on your left.

Next three players in turn: Choose one of the colonial status reports to be wrong. Cross out the nice version and pass the sheet to the player on your left. The third player to choose a bad status should cross out the unused negative options, so only six facts are visible.

Next player: Write down the name of a Colonial Notable, both on the Colonial Survey and Record and on an index card. If you are creating a convict, also write down their crime on the index card (nothing dramatic or heinous. Perhaps they cheated on their taxes or stole industrial batteries). If you are creating a servant of authority, write down their reason for being in the colony. Why are they here when a reasonable person would not be?

Next players in turn: Continue rotating the Colonial Survey and Record, with each player writing down the name of a Colonial Notable, as well as their crime or rationale. When everyone has written down one name, each player will, in turn, write down a second name on the opposite side and in a different position on the ladder. Thus you cannot name the Governor and a Marine (both authority) , or the Governor and the Dimber Damber (same position on ladder).

Host: Fill in names on the Colonial Survey and Record (but not index cards) for any blank spots on the Colonial Notables list.

Everyone: Hand one of your two index cards, respectively, to the players on your right and left.
For each of these characters, write down the one thing they have sworn they will never do as long as they draw breath. This should be a very serious thing, and it should be something you are very interested in seeing them do. "I swear that I will never take a life" is excellent. "I will never abandon my wife" is, also. When you've finished, give the cards back to their original authors.

At this point you have a complete Colonial Survey and Record and a set of characters, two of whom are the responsibility of each player. Each player also knows about the solemn and unbreakable oaths of two other characters, because they authored them.

As a player, your principal objective is to move your characters up the ladder into positions of security and power within the colony. Those already eating well will naturally want to preserve the status quo. Outcasts may have ambition, but they may also operate outside the established power structure toward their own ends. One helpful tool in your arsenal are the oaths you are aware of. Any character who breaks their oath immediately descends a rung on the ladder, in fact if not in title, leaving a power vacuum others will quickly fill.


Starting with the host, each player in turn directs a scene.

Director: Either pursue the agendas of your characters or shine the spotlight on some other interesting area of the colony as you wish. You should be curious about what is going to happen, and have a question that you can ask out loud. "I wonder if the Governor has the stones to put the Dimber Damber on trial?" is a fantastic question. It isn't up to you to answer it, so be bold and aggressive in crafting your questions. When in doubt, ask questions about character's oaths.

Everyone else: Build a scene that can answer the question posed by the Director. Scenes are explicitly about the Colony Notables. Although there are many people in the colony, only introduce new ones if it is absolutely necessary. Put your heads together, create a scene, and set the stage for the director. Let everyone know which characters are present and which might enter at their player's discretion. Assign minor roles as necessary and play out the scene. The Director can, of course, participate as either of his characters. Scenes with only one character - or none at all - are fine. These become monologues or third-person descriptive scenes and are encouraged. They are a great way of revealing new information. At some point you will need to know how the question will be answered. As soon as any player feels this point has been reached, you should go immediately to the dice.


When the outcome of a situation is obvious or necessary, either fictionally or thematically, it is usually best to trust your instincts and go with it. But ultimately you should go to the dice when an answer is uncertain and the scene needs guidance and resolution.

The three dice should be in the middle of the table on the Colonial Survey and Record, each in its own box corresponding to Servility, Terror, and Desperation - the trifecta of life in a penal colony. When it is time to roll:

The player of the highest ranking character involved: Choose one of the three dice to lock. If two characters are tied in rank, the Authority character's player chooses a die to lock. A locked die is not rolled in the resolution of that particular situation. Lock dice tactically to help ensure an outcome you want.

Director: Roll the two non-locked dice to determine how the scene will ultimately resolve.

If Servility is greater than Terror, dominance and obedience reign.
If Terror is greater than Desperation, violence and savagery carry the day.
If Desperation is greater than Servility, panic and rebellion take center stage.

On a tie, the outcome is interrupted by some important event - use the tied number to determine which event table to use, and the third number to determine which specific item. On a three-die tie, a transport arrives. Go to the event list.

It is possible that more than one option will present itself. In this case, the Director decides which path to follow.

Everyone: Finish the scene, guided by the flavor imparted by the dice.


A character that breaks their oath immediately enters a personal crisis and descends one rung on the ladder. This may be purely social - a Governor who is no longer respected but remains the titular head of the colony, for example - or it may be more direct - a Captain of Marines who is forced out of Authority service, for example.

Jason Petrasko

This is vibing with me strongly, and it looks pretty cool. Its hard to grasp some of it though, missing the charts and sheets that it references. I really dig the whole play setup though and its focus on questions (for the record, my entry is so far billed as a game of questions). The ingredients are snuggled in nicely too. I can see exile, forsworn, and nature pretty clearly even in this short form. Nicely played.

Jason Morningstar

Thanks Jason. I wish I could edit posts here, since this has evolved. The accompanying colonial survey and record will be a useful aid - it tells you what to do and provides a visual reference throughout the game. Because it is also a dice mat, my hope is that it will be constantly referenced in play, reinforcing the cool bits of setting the group authored.

Jason Morningstar