[Review] The Dark Heart of Space (3PP SWN); In the void, the distant gleam of sulfur

Requested content

Thief of Whispers, a longtime fan of the blog, has requested I review his homebrew SWN adventure. I don’t normally take requests for free stuff, or blog posts or whatever [1], but I am making a rare exception.

SF gaming and especially SF adventure writing is different from the regular OSR material. The capabilities of the PCs tend to be weighed more heavily in the direction of equipment. Explosives, scanners, environmental suits, gas masks, gravity skimmers, all these factors can drastically influence play and must be accounted for in some fashion. There is also no definitive body of work for space adventures in the same way there exists one for fantasy adventures. So what do we fall back on? We go back to that which comes BEFORE structure which is the fiction that inspires it.

The movie Event Horizon is basically the template for the entire genre of supernatural space horror, and can be summed up as Satan in Space. Mankind fiddles with powers he should not and awakens dormant powers of evil that threaten him with destruction. The trope is well established in SF, going back as far as Frankenstein, and hitting Alien, Prometheus, Stanislaw Lem’s The Invincible, Alaister Reynold’s Revelation Space and A.E. van Vogt’s The Black Destroyer along the way (to name but a paltry handful) only the twist is that the allegory is literal, and the new technology or artifact LITERALLY summons demons from hell. From this follows Doom, Abandon Hope, Warhammer 40k, Ghosts of Mars, Dead Space etc. etc. etc.

Dark Heart of Space is an SWN adventure that follows in this vein, substituting Satan for the less comprehensible but no less menacing Hastur in a gore-y, Lovecraftian action set piece. It seems fitted for a one shot or a series of modules, sloughing off a lot of SWN’s faction and sandbox mechanics in favor of gruesome, punchy high-octane action. It gets many things right but also many things wrong. Thus this review.

The adventure opens with what is essentially a 3 page set-up and here I think we run into the first unique challenge of SF games vs fantasy games in that in a DnD module its usually considered alright to throw 2 paragraphs of dialog in there and since the technology level is fixed anyway the GM is trusted to sort of integrate the premise of the damn thing into his game but with Stars Without Number the technology level varies considerably and can have an immense impact on the game, therefore the writer has to pin some things down. I still think the decision to briefly describe the sector and its factions is probably superfluous for this adventure and should be placed in the appendix if it comes up in the next one.

The premise is a classic, decently adjusted to the SWN universe, and thus its structure develops along classic lines and should be judged by how well it manages to evoke them while remaining true to general OSR adventuring principles. It is the Hyades Cluster, ruled over by planet-controlling Weyland-Utani/Dynamars mega-corporations, with some pirates and frontiers somewhere in the background. A decent choice for a post-collapse sector, my one recommendation would be to use the framework that SWN provides to statt out these factions fully, since this can be done briefly and quickly and you are going through the trouble of describing them anyway.

On the Carcosa-1 Research Facility (a little on the nose), things are not good. The discovery of an alien artifact that allows meta-dimensional manipulation on par with the Pre-Collapse Jump Gates is a pretty great find. Despite worrying side-effects on the research staff, Atlas Corp immediately puts Dr. Samuel Hayden leading Psy-tech researcher and psychic Ito Nakamura in charge of the facility. Cue several months later and all communications have been severed. I think the biography of Dr. Ito Nakamura is probably superfluous considering the party will later be interacting with him by screaming and shooting bullets at him but if you are going to do it as fluff, I recommend you use some sort of aliens-like sterile corporate font and you write either a psych-eval or even worse, a soulless cyberpunk HR-report on the man and include it in the appendix for fluff.

Same goes for the sector-wide rumors, which don’t really fit into the adventure all that well, so its fluff, and fluff gets to be in the appendix in the back of the bus. Mind you, the rumors are awesome.

Atlas has a secret genetics wing where they develop biological weapons and experiment on people to create genetic super soldiers. Atlas Corp denies this of course, but leads the sector in development of gene therapy for crops and livestock animals

No level range is given, do that now. The adventure moves to the Kickoff and resolves a lot of ambiguity by putting everyone in jail on Crematoria Miskatonic, presumably stripped off their equipment. There is a modernist trope in here where the PCs decide whether or not they were guilty of the crime they are convincted of or not, with different results allowing a different reroll. I don’t really see the direct correlation, but having it have some sort of effect in the form of equipment or starting skills is a nice idea. Rerolls are very powerfull, consider the power of the Expert in SWN.  

The opening is essentially a cut-scene, which can be effective and even is, but the time that is taken to describe it is too long. The temptation to go into all these flourishes to add to the atmosphere is great, but must be resisted. The gist of this scene can be conveyed in a paragraph or three, and will be no less effective for it. The PCs are brought in front of evil businessman (Colonel Sanders Weyland), told the bare minimum, and implanted with cortex bombs linked to the vital signs of their  handler, Alcoholic Mexican with Temper Problem, and assigned a comm officer, Anxious Blonde that will Fall Apart The Moment Shit Hits the Fan. Dejectedly Ellen Ripley, Riddick, Hicks, Isaac Clarke, Android Michael FassBender and Doomguy get on the shuttle and are assigned standard equipment.

So the cranial bomb tied to a flunky CAN be really good but IS usually railroading. In this case it is handled incorrectly by having the explosives function, until a critical time, when the daring escape must be made, in which case they have been disabled by SOMETHING. Ideally you want to write the adventure so that on the base there is some method of getting rid of the transmitter, or blocking the detonation signal, or perhaps taking the remote from the handler and hacking it while he is out cold, or knocking him out and putting him in suspended animation etc. etc. etc. Then it becomes a gameplay element that must be handled. It’s not QUITE bad here either, since the character does become and extra obstacle for the PCs to navigate, I think it would just be better if it had the follow through.

The second problem in space is that shuttles are too good and thus they have to be disabled otherwise they would provide an insurmountable advantage to the PCs that is difficult to tackle. Therefore Carcosa-1 has…the ion storm! Immediately the SF problems of omnipresent communications and hyper-mobility are rendered null and void. For a horror scenario this is probably acceptable as both of these features are detrimental to a feeling of isolation and claustrophobia that is necessary for a good space horror yarn.
Planet is well described, breathable but desolate and stark, reminds me of Prometheus. Frozen trees with red sap. Eerie marks scribbled into surfaces. Nightmares the moment you land, which is via drop pod so there is at least one day of overland travel to reach the facility proper. Points for not slowing the adventure to a dead stop as soon as a single overland Navigation check is failed, instead introducing complications etc. etc.

Build up is pretty good, ominous visions, horrific imagery, tension, dead guards, a single horrifically mutilated, maddened survivor etc. That’s all effective. The initial entry into the facility is still effective, but the adventure is a bit one note, and in horror that is deadly. ONE horrifically mutilated survivor is scary, but once you have reached the second or third encounter, PCs become inured. The adventure avoids the trap of using only straight up combat encounters but could use a bit more variety. The mad crewman that wants to commit suicide but can be stopped if the PCs think quickly is a good start, but then he has no immediate use during the adventure, and I think that is a shame. I am honestly a little surprised that the adventure gives you a heavy machine gun on a tri-pod but there is no hoard of dirty, disgusting former human mutants to lure into a narrow corridor and mass suppress fire behind an impromptu barricade. There’s the trope of the semi-reliable survivor, which I kind of like, Michelle Rodriguez, who will join the party but can snap at any moment.
Maybe halfway through another ship is in orbit and sends down a dropship with marines? There are so many tropes to choose from. Again, not terrible, Torched Psychic that summons Spirit of Madness is kind of awesome.

The map is pretty good, hand-drawn, which is charming, but a little hard to read. I’d mark what section is on what floor a little bit better and include a legend with some common symbols, although anything but doors and locked doors is a luxury surely. I think repetition is something to work on here. There are multiple rooms with a sentence from R.Chamber’s Carcosa poem, multiple instances of horrifically mutilated bodies etc. There’s a single use of a pretech knife that functions as a cursed item and treasure is at least better then cred stick worth 10 credits and so on, instead you can find blackmail info on one of the PCs that will allow you to get away with one Capitol Offence on an Atlas Corp controlled planet, or art objects or whathaveyou.

Another thing about weirdness. I notice it here and I notice it in Mörk Borg. There is a tendency to have only negative environmental hazards, especially since its more realistic. The hydroponics bay is mutated, what does it do, it kills you if you stay inside, that’s boring, then PCs will become too cautious and no longer investigate. Every once in a while fiddling with something should yield some sort of advantage. I mean the poison can be harvested, which is a twist I like, but every once in a while I’d like to see something inexplicable where it looks weird but fiddling with it actually yields some sort of advantage. I am probably okay with using radiation as a hazard, even though it is a scum bag thing to do since by the time you notice it you are already fucked. A real shitbag thing. Better bring a fucking Geiger counter in space.

There’s two robots which can be shut down from a server room (!!!!!) but they can’t be reprogrammed (LLL). Why not? I think there’s also a missed opportunity of using password protected computers with the passwords cleverly hidden somewhere else, or in possession of one of the survivors or something. Clearly the fundamentals are grasped but the follow through is sometimes lacking.

Since this is Aliens, there is a ship on the premises, and a fusion reactor you can detonate. I don’t like it that some instructions on Speedy Gonzales’s actions are included in this entry. Clearly, in our subconscious, we understand that something is going to break loose or be unveiled, and that the PCs are going to have to blow up the facility and then get away, or something like that. I like it that there’s all these complications like getting the right access codes or being able to overload the reactor remotely, or manually if everything fails, but the problem is getting this shit together and presenting the information in a way that the GM can easily reference. I still don’t know on what terminal the ship codes are located, and that’s critical information.

A key gives access to the ruins underneath the locked facility where dr nakamura is opening a gate into the plateau of Leng but the final battle is strange, almost video gamey, with nakamura protected by an all but insurmountable energy shield and infinite hordes of mutilated men spawning in that are abstracted and as a result, lose some of their potency. In my perfect world, you can use the map and the controls to seal off areas to delay the monster, so you get to set the fusion reactor to overload and then get the fuck out but OH SHIT WE DON’T HAVE ENOUGH TIME SOMEONE WILL HAVE TO STAY BEHIND. This was clearly thought of, since there are rules for a manual override, and a result, but the end boss battle doesn’t really lend itself to that.

There’s multiple endings being discussed, with several possibly ending up with the PCs getting fucked in the dirt by the C.S.S. Hydra but I appreciate it that at least its possible to escape Atlas Corp and set out on your own with your spike drive shuttle thing. I don’t know what I think of having the success or failure of the expedition rest on a piloting roll but then again its SWN so you do that every time you roll a Navigation Roll.

The appendix prevents a series of alternate sanity rules, cementing the more call of Cthulhu esque vibe the adventure is going for, as an alternative to the sanity rules in Silent Legions, which are more comprehensive but are only effective over prolonged campaigns. This shows adequate foresight in how the adventure is most likely going to be used.

I can dissect this adventure a little more but I think you know enough. The Dark Heart of Space is an ambitious take on a well worn trope that delivers well in terms of execution while leaving room for improvement. The core is there, but the screws need to be tightened. I think as is its biggest hindrance is its layout and the way it presents the information that you’d need to run it. The explicit connection with Hastur might be a bit much for people well versed in lovecraftiana, and the horror needs a few more off-beat scares. If I were to treat this as a published product I would probably give it something like **, mostly on the utility related issues. The beginning buildup is well done, there’s some nice encounters, decent balance between combat and interaction, some stuff to fiddle with and the classic reactor/ship part. I think if the fundamentals of going in, exploring, encountering that piece of shit and then having to run are tightened up a bit more you have yourself a fine bit of space horror.     

Between this base, Fuchsia Base, OPERATION Counterstrike and perhaps some upcoming Mothership, I’m starting to accrue quite the collection of starbases to use as templates should I ever venture into space. You can check out the adventure here. For now, Vaults of Oblivion is somewhere on the horizon, and there’s another project in the works. Stay tuned!

[1]The Problem is one of time. I already have barely enough time to cover the classics, and the most popular of the new stuff, alongside occasional requests, forays, areas of interest etc. etc. etc. Even here I should probably show much more diligence and review more selectively, along a particular line or with a pronounced goal in mind.


6 thoughts on “[Review] The Dark Heart of Space (3PP SWN); In the void, the distant gleam of sulfur

  1. Dude, thank you so much for the review, and for not pulling your punches. You nailed the issues that I was thinking were there, but wasn’t quite sure how to identify.
    [On Fluff]
    You’re right, the fluff at the beginning seems superfluous on what it does. It doesn’t add to what is happening for the PC’s, but I was hoping it may be useful for an on going game in the future. Putting it in an appendix in the back and expanding a bit on the sector. That seems more of a personal vanity though. Will definitely be tightening and focusing the intro.
    [On Railroading]
    This one was hard, as I was trying to find some way spur on the adventure to the climax, as the party can potentially leave as soon as they find codes to the ship, completely skipping the end, (although it would mean making an enemy of Atlas Corp). But I should have been clearer that the guy with the bomb becomes increasingly erratic, like a child holding a gun to your head, and that when it eventually doesn’t go off, it becomes much more satisfying to kill him. I might even just make it a bluff, that as soon as a PC can inspect themselves with some medical equipment, it turns out to be little more than an elaborate hoax, one that even the crazy guy believes
    [On Passwords]
    Passwords scattered about are a great idea. Fuck, I don’t know how I didn’t think of that. The codes for the ship are meant to be scattered about in multiple, so that it PC’s could find it even if they didn’t go to a certain spot. With the groups I play tested it with, it’s amazing how many don’t think to get the ship ready or establishing a way off the planet before moving on. Lotta tpk’s off that.
    [On Repetition]
    You are right, I relied to heavily on just dead bodies scattered about. I think there’s only one instance of a larger room of maddened survivors to fight before the end, but that should definitely be increased. My hope was that a clever player might count the corpses and realize there were not near enough to represent all the people working at the facility, but I should do a better job hinting at that.
    [On Bossfights]
    This one took a bit. A lot of the groups I’ve run this with don’t quite understand that it’s ok to run away from stuff, and I didn’t want it to just be a slaughterfest. On a next go through, I think I’ll give them all full stats, and have less of an abstract to flee. The idea there was to make it more on skill checks, and if players were creative, letting the GM run fast and loose with what happens, though that mini game kinda defeats the point of using the SWN systems.
    [On Layout]
    Not even gonna argue with that. I have a friend who does some editing, and I’m gonna do a major overhaul on that. It’s a bit fucked.

    Over all, thank you so much. I really appreciate the earnest effort of what you do, and the honest critiques. Things need to be fixed and I can’t do it with my head in the proverbial sand. I think some of these things were fixed in the last adventure I did, This Vessel of Flesh, but I do not expect you to review or even read that one. You’ve done more than enough taking time out of your schedule to review this, and I appreciate it. Thanks again, and I will take these lessons to heart

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    1. You are one of my earlier readers, and have always been supportive and a good commenter so make nothing of it. The secret to getting good at writing adventures is reading and running them a lot, that’s all. I’m just an asshole with some free time.

      There is a tendency to be kind or charitable to people that come bearing gifts, or that you like or that are in your circle etc which makes reviewing projects like this tricky. Some people take things to heart or don’t see or understand the affectation so they get pissed off. I hope this review will help you and others, and maybe drive some people to check it out.

      [Fluff]

      If you do more then one adventure you were going to have to flesh out the sector anyway so don’t write yourself out entirely. Try to find a balance. When I did Palace there’s a temptation to showcase the entire setting thats behind it. Of course there is, its the most enjoyable part of writing, the creation of a fantastic universe, there’s pride whatever. But a good writer knows how much to reveal and not a word more. I strive to at least vaguely emulate a good writer.

      [RR]

      Why not have him be a legitimate threat, and allow for some way the PCs might be able to disable it. I got the erratic stuff, I would have placed his behavior in a seperate entry, probably at the beginning of the adventure so the GM figures out its an important part to keep track off while he is studying your adventure. Making it a fake-out is cool too though, but then you can add a complication where the PCs need him because he has access codes to the Hydra or whatever other shit.

      This reminds me of a Dark Heresy adventure I once ran using a similar scenario, with a defunct Astropathic relay station at the edge of the sector, good shit.

      [Passwords]

      Multiple passwords scattered about is good, as well as being able to retrieve them via a method that is not rolling high. If you want to improve useability I’d make a cheatsheet or a side-bar or whatever.

      [Repetition]

      Its also my reading of the event. If you run the scenario and it works like a charm, I wouldn’t change anything. Atmosphere and pacing are subtle things because so much relies on the players and the GMing style so it can be hard to judge unless it is done exceptionally well or exceptionally poorly.

      [Bossfights]

      I think I had a GM pull that on me while we had a chase-scene in 5e and I was just confused why I wasn’t allowed to use the abilities at my disposal so that can be a problem. There’s something about the arbitrary invulnerability that tastes bad, if you get me, maybe it’s Bruce Cordell’s fault but it really grinds my gears.

      [Editing]

      I know what that’s like let me tell you that. After starting myself blind on Palace for months, having a fresh pair of eyes is a godsend. There were so many little things were I was like HOW THE FUCK DID I MISS THAT but we did a fine job all things considered.

      Good luck with the rewrite, if you decide to do so, and keep gaming man. Peace.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Right on. I do appreciate what you do with reviews, and respect where respect is do, it seems that even when you don’t like something, you still try to improve on it. That’s not something you do if you don’t like something. Seems that to many are a bit afraid of having anything bad said about their work. Criticism is good, it let’s you know where you improve.
        [Fluff]
        As a big fan of the Age of Dusk setting, I see where you’re coming from. Having read through your blog posts on it and comparing it to Palace, I can see where it focuses in. Nothing superfluous, which reads so different from a novel or a gazetteer.
        [RR]
        You’ve just given me a lot of great ideas, and I may just set it up so GM’s can make that decision when they run the adventure, having a sidebar for how it would play out, and maybe putting NPC behaviors in little side bars on certain points. Usability is key, and you hit it on the head in that that’s where this adventure shits the bed. Same thing with passwords and getting around obstacles. Rewarding players for good rolls to get past stuff, but also not grinding gameplay to a halt behind arbitrary rolls.
        [Repetition and Boss fights]
        Flowing around with some of horror and scary stuff would work much better. Maybe another cheat sheet to give GM different things to put in, or just variations. That creep chart needs some more mileage. Bossfights too, but I sometimes worry about the old adage, “if you stat it, they will kill it.” That being said, it might be more enjoyable, or add a new element to the ending. Trying to invoke the idea of Cosmic Horror, in that you can’t win, just hold it off is sometimes difficult in RPG’s, as the players can punch pretty hard.

        As to Palace and Prophet, everything flows together perfect to make an adventure that succeeds in what it wants to be. With the release of WWN, that’s gonna be one of the first adventures I run in that system.

        Thanks again dude, and will do. Much appreciated

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    2. It sounds like you did a lot of work, and your setting material is quite interesting. I wouldn’t sweat the love of fluff too badly, my usual solution is just to go hog wild in the appendices. I don’t know how much stars without number is played in the baseline setting assumption or if it is in each person’s own personal science fictional universe so why not just fully elaborate on yours but make your adventure setting non-specific as much as possible. That is my basic philosophy when I run science fiction at least. What’s

      Liked by 1 person

      1. SWN has some core assumptions that are difficult to deviate from as they are baked into the core ruleset but on the plus side anyone can make his own sector as the universe of the former Terran Mandate is quite immense. Its not a bad comparison to say that SWN has a setting in the same way that D&D 1e has an assumed setting.

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      2. Good call on the appendices. SWN is fairly setting neutral, that you almost have to put some common elements of a setting in just to have some assumed points to build on. I do think that the setting specific parts of the adventure could be fairly easily ripped out without losing anything, but I like your idea to really expand in the appendices, especially as it fuels my ego. Thanks though!

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