Monday, December 28, 2020

(Trinity 1e)Alien Encounter: Deception

I've got a certain ambivalence towards rpg adventures. What I like about them is the way they can act as a window into the setting. You see things from a player-level view and often learn how the designers meant for the world to look. What I dislike about them is the way they, by their very nature, must attempt to second guess the most chaotic and perverse people on the planet - i.e. average player characters.

Alien Encounters: Deception has a particularly unsubtle example of this in its second adventure. "The Norça try to stop the characters from shooting the drones or the sasq, since the aliens are the only possible way out of their current situation." It's a variant of an idea that comes up a few times in this book - if the PCs look like they're going to do something to derail the story, have a nearby NPC remind them that it's not a good idea.

To a degree, that's just weak design. In an rpg, whatever happens at the table is the story, and thus if you're going to try and tell an rpg story, you've got to be flexible enough to just run with whatever the players try and do. So maybe instead of having the Norça scold the PCs for trying to kill an alien, you let them do it and then instead of the rest of the game being about infiltrating the mothership, it is now a guerrilla campaign set on the planet the Coalition is plundering. Of course, that's a whole different adventure than what Alien Encounters: Deception is about, and since the book can't be infinite pages . . . well, that's just  problem with pre-written adventures. Hence my ambivalence. I think the best you can do in these situations is point out the off-ramps and wish people luck.

Since they don't do that here, this book winds up being useful mostly for the narrow track where the players think like show-runners and have their characters do the dramatically appropriate thing at dramatically appropriate times. However, let's take it as read that the diplomacy-focused story have players who buy into the concept of diplomacy, and the infiltration-focused story will have player who buy into infiltration, and simply accept the book on its own terms. Do the adventures work?

Sort of. Both adventures offer a tantalizing glimpse at potential Trinity campaign models, but as written they each have a fatal flaw.

For the first adventure, the flaw is subtle - the book is not entirely behind the idea that you're supposed to play it. Seriously. There's a sidebar called "Why Them?" that struggles to find an answer more convincing than "because they're PCs."

"Honestly, field-agents wouldn't normally be sent to negotiate with high-ranking alien officials," but the question left unasked is "why are the PCs field agents?" You've got a scenario built around diplomacy, where the characters are going to the opera with diplomats, hopping from embassy to embassy, operating at the highest levels of government - so why aren't the PCs themselves diplomats? So many of the obstacles in the scenario are made more difficult because there's absolutely no reason why any of these people would put up with these random weirdos butting in and asking questions, and it's completely unnecessary. I figure it's a bad habit Trinity inherited from the World of Darkness. Your various vampires and werewolves and mages are outsiders, who must operate in mortal society indirectly, whereas if the Qin ambassador only wants to talk to someone who speaks on behalf of the UN, that's something Trinity PCs can actually be.

If you get past that hump, the first half of Alien Encounter: Deception has potential. Someone tries to assassinate the alien ambassador! The PCs investigate, but find that the ambassador is strangely reluctant to assist them. Aeon wants to know what's up, but the human-Qin alliance is paramount, and thus the PCs must be circumspect in their investigation. They discover the seedy underbelly of Qin politics and must carefully navigate the competing alien factions while calming the fears of their fellow humans, who are primed to see betrayal around every corner.

It's a setup you build a campaign around. This book isn't quite enough, on its own, to run it, but it's a useful starting point.

By contrast, the flaw with the second scenario is about as subtle as a sledgehammer. There's no delicate way to put this - the Coalition are rapists. Content warning ahead as I talk about this.

There were parts of this book that were tough for me, an ordinary guy with no direct experience with the subject, to read. One of the briefing materials is a transcript of the first contact mission. . . ugh. You visit a never-before-seen inhabitable planet that the Coalition is harvesting for resources . . .  including the genetic material of the natives. At one point you have to rescue prisoners.

Something I've been struggling with lately is the construction of villainy in genre entertainment. If you want heroes, you have to have someone for the heroes to stop. And if you want the people stopping these someones to actually be heroic, then the things they're getting stopped from doing have got to be bad. And yet "no, it's all right, we're depicting the thing and showing it's bad" isn't an air-tight excuse. You may be depicting the thing voyeuristically or fethishistically, and then covering your ass with a pro-forma "it's bad." It may be unquestionably awful to tie people up and hit them with whips, but if I make a whole villain faction that specializes in that sort of behavior, people are going to ask questions.

The Coalition are probably on the right side of the line. . . technically. We're supposed to be horrified by what they're doing, and I was. There's no apologetics for their behavior and the ones responsible, the Progenitors, are not portrayed as cool or powerful or enviable in any way. This isn't like the sidebar from Exalted: the Lunars, putting this kind of behavior in characters meant to act as a player power fantasy.

However, it was unsettling to read and it made me unhappy, and thus I much prefer the second edition presentation of this species.

Assuming you can make your peace with the Coalition's villainy, it's a fairly decent adventure. If the players are the sort to make good decisions, you can even play it as-is. I think it probably works better as a campaign model, where the events of the adventure are stretched out over 3-4 stories, but maybe that's just because I found the Coalition's victims to be pretty sympathetic, and I wished there was more you could do to help the stone-age people of Beta Canum Venaticorum or the chemically-enslaved masses of the Coalition Ark ship.

Overall, I'd say that Alien Encounter: Deception works best as a setting book. The strongest parts were the descriptions of various locations and the people or creatures who lived there. Beyond that, it's a useful source to mine for campaign ideas. As for the actual stories themselves . . . well, if things play out that way, good, but it would be a mistake to include the NPCs who exist only to nudge the players back on track.

Ukss Contribution: Something simple and from the real world this time - the Russian city where the PCs escort aliens to the ballet has natural steam baths. It's kind of a visual cliche in the crime/thriller genre, but I like it nonetheless.

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