Adventure Log: Living on Borrowed Time Part 5

A small Imperial hovercraft lay on its side on the plains of Toprawa, smoke pouring from one engine up into the clear blue sky. Two stormtroopers stood guard outside of it, although to a trained eye the armor seemed less fitted than it should, the troopers’ stance not as rigid as usual. Scanning the horizon, one of the troopers spotted a Sentinel-class landing craft in the distance, headed roughly towards the crash site. The trooper banged on the hovercraft’s hull, and a moment later a man in a crisp-looking Imperial Army officer climbed out of the wreck. Patience Johnson checked the read-outs of his holographic armor and straightened a stolen officer’s cap. It was time for the man who could con a Hutt to make Imperials look like idiots.

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The Borrowed Time rebels had learned from Agent Castor that the facility responsible for processing stygium crystals would be reinforced with stormtroopers, and even gained knowledge of the route the reinforcement transports would be taking. Thanks to the Rangers the rebels had nearly complete maps of the facility, but actually getting into it without being seen would prove quite the challenge. So why not make sure that being seen wasn’t going to be a problem?

Just as the Sentinel’s pilots would be able to see the smoke trail from the Short Trip, cleverly engineered by Bas, Patience opened up a channel with his comlink and began claiming that his craft had been hit by the rebel scum while scouting out Passage. Asking for mechanical help and medical assistance, Patience spat out a series of regulations and codes meant to confuse anyone listening into going along with him, finishing by declaring a ‘Code Purple’.

He was quickly informed, by a pilot whose voice was colored by dawning suspicion, that there was no such thing as a Code Purple.

Despite having failed his roll, however, Patience’s player had gotten quite a bit of Advantage and a Triumph, so while his initial lie didn’t quite work he wasn’t immediately victimized by a strafing run. Keeping his comlink open Patience spent a few moments yelling at one of the stormtroopers (an increasingly confused Sacha in disguise) for having gotten the codes mixed up, and quickly spun off an apology and another string of nonsense capped by a ‘Code White’.

Whatever a Code White actually is (as of this writing the party stillhasn’t found out) it lit a fire under the Imperials, who quickly responded in the affirmative and began a quick descent to the mock crash site. Not only that, but thanks to another Triumph the entire craft’s contingent of Stormtroopers disembarked to set up a perimeter, while the pilot left the co-pilot at the controls and walked towards Patience, intending to help get the hovercraft get back in the air and check in with his fellow officer. Of course, just as he was extending a hand in greeting, the pilot turned as he heard the sound of more thrusters: another Sentinel heading towards the crash site.

The Long Haul bore down on the site, Verjylla managing to briefly convince the Imperials that they were also responding to the Code White. It only had to convince them briefly, after all, since Nak and Caleb were on the guns and eager to strafe some stormtroopers. The Imperials had a brief moment of alarm when Verjylla suddenly began jamming their communications, and then the Trandoshan and Mandalorian opened fire. Two squads more or less evaporated under the guns as Cole brought the Long Haul in for a hard landing; he didn’t manage to flatten any troopers this time, but put the ship in between the stormtroopers and their Sentinel. The landing ramp dropped, and the crew of the Borrowed Time charged out – followed by Antarian Rangers and screaming Toprawan militia.

The Wookiee’s axe-swinging charge was actually stopped for a change by a trooper with a quick vibroblade parry, but Bee’f circled around and laid into the Imperials with his force pike. Caleb and Nak left their gunnery stations and followed the others down the ramp, opening fire and taking down the better part of another squad. Patience exhorted the Toprawans to fight for their freedom, while Sacha and Patience’s other disguised Ranger struck the Imperials from behind. The Imperial pilot had managed to run back into his Sentinel before Cole could land, but Cole quickly activated his personal stealth field and followed him onto the ship.

Cole managed to stun the pilot and co-pilot just before they were able to get the Sentinel in the air, and the Imperials on the ground had been taken completely by surprise. That shock, combined with the heavy casualties in the opening moments of the engagement, was used by Verjylla when she got on the Long Haul‘s external speakers and demanded the Imperials’ surrender. With their officers down, their ship stolen, and their remaining troopers suddenly outnumbered by the Toprawans who had ambushed them, the stormtroopers gave up and threw down their weapons. The rebels hadn’t suffered a single fatality; it was a lightning-quick victory that emboldened all of them.

A quick interrogation of the pilot and co-pilot got the rebels the codes to land at the processing facility, so without further ado the Short Trip, Long Haul, and the second stolen Sentinel loaded up and took off (the players had quite a laugh over the Imperial inability to keep their ships un-stolen). While some stormtroopers and a single AT-ST had already managed to reinforce the facility, the rebels went unchallenged as they landed. For the second time that day Imperial troops were taken by surprise as ships they thought were theirs dropped desperately aggressive rebels into their midst. While the element of surprise bought time, the Imperial Army garrison and Stormtrooper reinforcements had the numbers to recover, so it became a race. The Rangers had picked out four targets within the facility consisting of reactors, fuel supplies, and the like. Destroying all four wouldn’t outright level the facility, but it would destroy a large portion and render it inoperable.

Caleb took Bas, Patience, The Wookiee, and his Toprawan trainees and went after one target. Nak grabbed Bee’f and Verjylla and headed for a second, while Captain Solm and a five-man squad of Rangers went for a third. Whoever finished their goal first would head for the fourth target. Shikte, Cole, and the rest of the Rangers and Toprawans would make as much noise as they could to buy time and damage the garrison. Caleb and Nak quickly challenged one another to reach their target first; the partners in mayhem were excited to be engaging in sabotage, and each wanted to one-up the other.

While neither Nak nor Verjylla were particularly stealthy, Bee’f proved to be an expert at sneaking through the facility, managing to steer Team Nak around several squads from the Imperial Army who were rushing towards the fight. Team Caleb attempted to be stealthy, but once again The Wookiee turned a corner and walked vibroaxe first into a trooper. Caleb took a hit that literally did nothing to him, and the Imperials nerves broke. Still, Team Caleb’s drive towards their target became a running blaster fight. Outside the AT-ST deployed, inflicting casualties on the Toprawans. Cole, getting piratical again, managed to climb to the roof of the facility and began looking for an opportunity for some boarding action.

Team Nak reached their target first, and Nak and Bee’f began setting demo charges while Verjylla kept watch. Thanks to another Triumph their target was going to explode so violently as to trigger the fourth, unclaimed objective, saving a lot of time and effort. Verjylla, aware that a large part of the actual workforce for the facility were Imperial civilians, proposed that they trigger an evacuation order. Nak, no doubt remembering the accidental civilian casualties from her anti-Imperial activities on Coruscant before joining the Borrowed Time, agreed. As evacuation alarms joined the ‘under attack’ ones Team Nak began to make their exit, at about the same time as Captain Solm commed to say his team had reached their own target.

Outside Cole managed to make the leap to the AT-ST’s top from the roof, unaware of just how much trouble the stealth field was keeping him out of. With a quick application of burning gel to the top hatch and some more stun bolts, the pilot claimed his second stolen vehicle of the day. Back inside Team Caleb rushed into the target room, Caleb himself firing back they way they’d come and putting a few bolts into the door controls to seal it shut. The Mandalorian quickly joined Bas in attempting to sabotage a power generator, but the Sluissi quickly became distracted by a nearby crate of processed stygium crystals (failure with yet another Triumph). The reptilian engineer spent a few moments scooping crystals into his pack, thinking of the technical applications, before turning back to the actual objective. With a cleverly constructed contraption Bas and Caleb rigged the generator to blow. Which is when a black-armored figure walked in through another doorway.

Of all the things Team Caleb had expected to see that day, another Mandalorian in full armor with a pair of Verpine shatter pistols on his hips and a massive shatter rifle on his back hadn’t counted among them. Even more surprising was the Mando’s attitude; the man practically sauntered in, seemingly unconcerned by being outnumbered, and addressed Patience and Caleb by name before asking them where Cole Strutter was. He hadn’t been able to find him outside, you see, and was hoping Cole’s friends might shed some light on the subject. Patience, seeing an opportunity to talk his way out of this since the Mandalorian wasn’t immediately opening fire, asked what he wanted Cole for and what his intentions were. The Mandalorian answered honestly: with the theft of an Interdictor cruiser, the death of an Inquisitor, and the recent shenanigans on Toprawa, everyone on the Borrowed Time was marked for death by the Empire. The Mandalorian’s personal mission, however, was Cole’s capture. Intact, if possible, but “All I really need to return him alive are his head and torso. Limbs are optional.” The look on the face of Cole’s player, listening in, was priceless.

Perturbed but determined, Patience began pointing out the problems with the current situation. Even Team Caleb didn’t know where Cole currently was; causing trouble, no doubt, but he’d developed a habit of going off on his own. Even if they did know, they weren’t likely to tell the Mando without violence being involved. While the Mando was no doubt willing to involve violence, Patience argued that 1) he was outnumbered and 2) the facility they were standing in was already doomed. The Mandalorian would have a much better chance at acquiring a bounty and making his credits if everyone walked away and agreed to try and kill one another some other time.

The Mandalorian looked over Team Caleb as Patience made his argument, particularly eyeballing The Wookiee’s vibroaxe, before nodding slowly. He told them to tell Cole that Duron Skirata was coming for him (a Triumph, and the players wanted to know his name), told Caleb that Caleb’s brother still hadn’t lifted the bounty on him (which nearly had Caleb shoot Skirata on reflex), and walked out. Patience, The Wookiee, Bas, Caleb, and the Toprawans breathed a sigh of relief and without further ado legged it for the exit. However, the same roll that convinced Skirata to leave also resulted in two Despair . . .

Teams Nak and Caleb rendezvoused with Cole and the others outside to find the garrison retreating mostly intact, apparently giving up the facility for lost instead of risking getting caught in the explosions. Sure enough, a few minutes later the sabotage and demo charges cooked off, slagging the majority of the facility and completing another objective for the Borrowed Time crew. The rebels celebrated, and with good reason; while the Toprawan militia had taken some casualties, there were plenty of Toprawans who had just seen the facility they’d been forced to mine for destroyed, and Jilam and some other Rangers were exhorting them to head for the mountains. Only a single of Nak’s trainees had been wounded, and she began reiterating How to Duck to the poor man. It was at about that time that everyone realized that nobody had seen Captain Solm and his team.

Searching outside of the burning facility, they found the Captain and his five Rangers. Two were carrying weapons that they hadn’t even gotten to fire. Three had only managed to squeeze off a few shots. Even the Captain, a Force-sensitive, had only made it to his second power pack. All of them had been killed with shatter gun rounds. It appeared that while Skirata had been convinced that he couldn’t handle the Borrowed Time without help, the black-armored Mando had no such worry about the Rangers. He’d decided to send the Borrowed Time a message about what would happen next time, and the Rangers had been just the people to help him send it . . .

If you want to hit your players where it hurts, go after their friends.Oh, sure, killing their characters might deliver quite the punch, and as Fiddleback would say every GM probably wants to get that merit badge at some point. But the problem with a dead PC is that (barring shenanigans) the player isn’t going to be roleplaying the character’s reaction to what’s happened. They’re busy building a new character already. So if you want to drive home the fact that things are dangerous and the bad guys are Bad Guys, consider that helpful NPC that the players made friends with a few sessions back.

Players can, sometimes without the GM meaning to, get pretty attached to NPCs. Whether the NPC in question is a helpful ally, friendly acquaintance, studious underling, or even a mostly useless but well-meaning tagalong, the character can become an important part of the player characters’ lives. Once the bad guys figure this out, that NPC can quite easily become a target. Just targeting such an NPC might do the trick; players might treat an attack on their own characters as business as usual, but will often treat an opponent more seriously if they are targeting the players’ friends. But if an enemy actually manages to capture or kill the group’s ally, there’s a good chance that your players will want to track that enemy down at nearly any cost. The only thing that even comes close to getting player characters that up in arms is stealing their gear, and at least in my experience killing an ally still wins by a fair margin.

The party had counted themselves lucky to avoid a violent confrontation with the Mandalorian, but their emotional reaction to the session’s events took a sharp 180 when they found Captain Solm and his team dead. Not only were the implications of the Rangers losing their longtime leader troubling, but the manner in which the Mando had been able to find Captain Solm had Patience at least wondering if it was his fault. As books were put away and dice gathered up, most of the players were already talking about paying the Mando back in full.

As another example, years ago I ran Seekers of the Ashen Crown for 4th Edition D&D. Over the course of the adventure the heroes made a series of allies, only to see many of those allies be betrayed and killed by a spy within their midst. Already feeling the sting, the players soon found a journal left behind by a fallen ally – detailing her initial disdain for the characters, but chronicling how their deeds over the course of the adventure had grown her respect and admiration for them. That did the trick; the adventurers traveled across national borders and into the depths of Sharn to get vengeance for their fallen friends, with a fervor that frankly caught me by surprise at the time.

Of course, this is an item in the GM’s toolbox that should be used carefully. Kill the player characters’ friends all the time and they’ll quickly stop bothering to make friends in the first place. Instead of netting an emotional impact you’ll soon find yourself with a pack of detached players who won’t care about the plucky street urchin who’s following them around; he’s going to get killed anyways, so why should they care? If everyone around them is doomed, or the players see it that way, then you’ll have a lot of trouble engaging them with the world their characters live in. So: hit them where it hurts, but don’t be relentless about it.

You may have noticed by now that the Borrowed Time has nine crewmembers. By any stretch that is a lot of players, and by the numbers it’s more than I expected to deal with per session for this campaign. This particular group had some attendance issues in the D&D campaign that preceded Age of Rebellion, so I decided I’d pull an FDR and pack the court, so to speak. More players in the pool with the same less than stellar attendance rates would allow us to run sessions more often, obviously. And then everyone started showing up, more or less, every session without fail.

Now, before I go any further, I will say that I wouldn’t even contemplate having this many players on the docket with certain systems. D&D, for instance, comfortably caps at five or six and any more than that requires the willpower of a god. Nine player characters in Exalted will make the Storyteller weep even more than is normal, and nine Shadowrunners will just have the GM send hordes of Aztechnology murder squads after you in an effort to end his or her suffering. So the following advice is by no means universal. But if you have or somehow end up with lots of players, consider the following.

Split the party. I know, sounds pretty heretical and/or suicidal. But think about it, particularly with a system like FFG Star Wars that isn’t built around iron-clad classes that have mutually exclusive abilities.  The crew of the Borrowed Time have two melee fighters (Nak and the Wookiee), two faces (Patience and Verjylla), two mechanical experts (Caleb and Bas), two skill monkeys (Shikte and Bee’f), four computer experts (Bee’f, Bas, Verjylla, Patience), four shooters (Caleb, Shikte, Cole, Nak), two pilots (Cole, Bas) . . .

In any system that’s more about archetypes than classes, and with a large number of players, splitting the party can actually become a very viable tactic, without leaving people lacking their valuable abilities. Team Caleb and Team Nak in this session had fighters, technical experts, and faces enough for both groups to cover all the issues they might run up against. Not only did this let the party as a whole cover more ground, but it let players take a break from giving 100% of their attention to the table. Now that last bit might not sound like such a good idea to some groups, but this particular group happens to cook up a solid dinner every session, acting as the social event of the week, and between everyone there’s three kids under 3 years old running around under foot. Going back and forth between teams lets your players take a break, grab a drink, watch the kids, and socialize off to the side while you the GM deal with the current goings-ons. It requires a certain amount of willpower from the GM to wrestle the players back to the table, and cooperative players, but it does work.

Until next time, go play some games and have a good time! I’ll see you all back here when the Borrowed Time crew rally their allies, go all-in on the offensive, and push their luck to the limit on the next installment of Star Wars Age of Rebellion: Living on Borrowed Time!

Star Wars belongs to Disney, while Age of Rebellion and its related products are the property of Fantasy Flight Games. Any other products used or mentioned within the game remain the property of their respective creators, and player character names and concepts remain the intellectual property of their respective players.

Originally posted 6/24/16 on the Mad Adventurers Society!

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