I recently had the opportunity to chat with Josh Fox about his latest game currently on Kickstarter, Last Fleet. I have a few different genres that I’m drawn to like a bear to honey, and space opera and its more serious cousin, science fiction, is one of those genres I find almost irresistible. Before I go on too much about my own love of this genre, let’s let Josh tell us about this particular journey through space.
Can you give us the elevator pitch for Last Fleet? Why play this game over another?
Last Fleet is set on a rag-tag fleet of ships, fleeing across space from the implacable inhuman adversary that destroyed their civilisation. You play the brave pilots, officers, engineers, politicians and journalists who are trying to hold the fleet together, keep themselves in one piece and keep humanity alive. It’s a game about action, intrigue and personal drama in a high-pressure setting.
What the game does really well is to create this atmosphere of high stakes, high pressure, fear and paranoia, and then make it human. We’ll get to see your individual contribution, whether it’s flying tense space missions, hunting for infiltrators and saboteurs, or handling political dissent, resource shortages or breakdowns in the fleet. But we also see how the stress and strain of the situation generates interpersonal drama, driven and supported by the mechanics of the game.
What are some of your influences on Last Fleet? I can guess that Battlestar Galactica is in there, but can you expound upon that some more?
Yes, Battlestar Galactica (BSG) is the number one influence and the fundamental reason for writing the game – I wanted to be able to play through those tense exciting situations, explore the paranoia and distrust, the faction politics and so on. As the game has developed I’ve folded in influences from other SF I love like Star Wars, Star Trek, the Ancillary Justice books and more. Plus I’ve developed a unique set of bad guys that are sort of a cross between the Tyranids from Warhammer 40,000, the Borg from Star Trek and the Goa’uld from Stargate.
BSG remains the closest analogue, though. It’s got the white-knuckle space battles that put individual lives at stake, with officers shouting orders from the command room or civilians watching helplessly. It’s got the paranoia and self-doubt that comes from knowing that anyone on the fleet could be working for the enemy – even to the extent of distrusting your own motives. It’s got the fractious faction politics, the sense of a fleet that is never far from collapsing into in-fighting. It’s got the post-apocalyptic resource crises and technological problems. And threaded through it all, it’s got those dynamite interpersonal relationships – the rivalries, the romance, the feuds and the fights.
What were some of your RPG influences on making Last Fleet?
The big ones are Night Witches and The Watch. Both games are playing in the same wartime drama space. They both use ingenious mechanics to provide just enough depth and detail about a large conflict, and showing those highlights of what your individual characters are doing. They both make interpersonal interactions and drama key to generating the game currency you need to win battles later on. In both cases you get a virtuous cycle where the trauma and terror of the war provide grist for the mill of your relationships and conversations, which in turn help to make the conflicts matter by providing human stakes.
The other influence I’d mention is Bite Marks, which my partner Becky was developing at around the same time I was writing Last Fleet. I like to think that both games have influenced each other, and I’ve definitely learned a lot from how Becky builds relationships and cultivates interesting tensions between characters. That cycle I mentioned above is present in Bite Marks too.
Why PBTA (Powered by the Apocalypse)? What about that specific system spoke to you for creating this game?
It’s no coincidence that all the games I mentioned above are PBTA. It’s my favourite design framework to GM and play in, and so it’s more like I was waiting for a concept I could use PBTA for. What I love about PBTA is the way that each individual component of the system is tuned to do one specific thing. I’ll talk about some of Last Fleet’s moves in a bit, but it’s enough to say that you’ve got moves that are designed to generate interpersonal strife, moves that are focused on bringing characters closer together, moves that are tuned to feed into a sense of paranoia, and moves that are built to create exciting action sequences. And because they’re individually designed in this way they are interlocking, feeding into each other and coming together to be more than the sum of their parts. It’s excellent for creating a highly specific genre experience, and that’s what I’ve done here.
The playbooks are very intriguing, built around the zodiac. Can you go into how that works, and the reasons behind theming them to the zodiac?
The playbooks have been a lot of fun to write. I had clear ideas about what I wanted them to be like, but initially struggled to come up with evocative names for them. So as an experiment, I assigned them zodiac names, mostly as a tip of the hat to the BSG influence (in BSG the planets and their peoples are all named after zodiac signs). But it had an interesting effect on the design process because I ended up creating new playbooks driven by the zodiac conceit – and the ones I made because of that are some of the best in the game.
The playbooks are designed around personality or story niche rather than a functional role. So you can be a hotheaded person who likes to take risks and break orders (Aries). You can be a tough person who cares deeply about their friends and their principles, with a bit of a martyr complex (Taurus). Or a serious person who strives to do their best and puts themselves under enormous pressure as a result (Virgo). Some of the playbooks are slightly more about story niche, like Scorpio is about being a sleeper agent and the self-doubt and fear that comes from that, and Pisces is about having strange psychic abilities that might connect you to the enemy.
I should stress that they are only loosely linked to the actual astrological signs, before any astrologers (or indeed, Scorpios) come and yell at me.
Can you tell us about some of the unique moves that were created specifically for this game?
The core of the game’s mechanics is the pressure system. Each character has a five-box pressure track. You mark it when bad stuff happens to you, so physical wounds for sure, but also emotional and social stuff like if you fail at something that was super-important. But more importantly, you can voluntarily mark it any time you want to get a bonus to a dice roll – one point of pressure yields a +1 bonus. You get to do it after rolling the dice, so you can get at least a partial success on almost any roll you want, if you’re prepared to pay for it.
If you let your pressure track fill up, you hit Breaking Point, and then you have to choose from a list of Breaking Point moves, including some that will be unique to your playbook. Each Breaking Point action is something outrageous or dangerous that your character does to express the fact they’ve reached their limit. One of them is to take your character permanently out of action (usually through death).
If you want to avoid hitting Breaking Point, you have a number of options, including specialised playbook moves, but the two that are available to everyone are Letting Loose and Reaching Out.
Letting Loose is arguably the easiest of the two to do, because all you have to do is go and indulge a vice in an uncontrolled way. It’s simple enough to go and get drunk. It’s also the most reliable, because any time you roll a hit you’ll get a pressure reduction for everyone involved. But it also automatically generates consequences, even on a strong hit, such as making a promise you really shouldn’t, revealing a secret that you oughtn’t to, or falling into the arms of the wrong person. The fallout is fun and dramatic.
Reaching Out is much more controlled. You have to reveal your innermost thoughts to another character, whether it’s your fears and doubts or your hopes and dreams. If they respond positively then you both stand to reduce your pressure. The downside of Reaching Out is that, although it doesn’t generally produce high-octane drama right now, it gives you a (game mechanical) relationship with the other character. If a character that you have a relationship with dies or betrays you or cuts you off socially, all the pressure you lost by Reaching Out to them comes back, all in one go. That normally means you hit Breaking Point, which means more drama in the future.
How well does the game work with one shots or campaigns? Does it do better with one over the other?
The game is definitely optimised for campaigns, as quite a few of the mechanics really get going over multiple sessions, as does the process of building up compelling relationships. I also enjoy the ability to do some leisurely character generation and world-building, which is easier in a campaign. As usual for my games, though, I’ve put a lot of thought into how you can make it work for a one shot. The quick-start scenario that comes with the game provides a pre-generated situation and relationships, and mechanics that have been set to be just at the point of crisis, to ensure that you get juicy charged action and drama straight away.
What was your inspiration to start working on Last Fleet and carry it through to publishing?
Last Fleet is a game I’ve been waiting to write for years. I’ve been passionate about the ideas in the game, and kind of working on them in the back of my mind, the whole time. Other things took priority but when I found myself with an opening I took it, and that stored up energy carried me through the design and promotion process. The experience of producing Lovecraftesque and Flotsam: Adrift Amongst the Stars has left me with an abiding love of the delivery side too – the art creation, commissioning and editing the stretch goals and doing all the work to get a beautiful physical book in my hands, are all (mostly) fun to me. I can’t wait to look at the finished book!