Those Dark Places
Industrial Science Fiction Roleplaying
You’re far from home, sailing through the heavens in a constricting metal monstrosity of human innovation. The air is recycled and stale. It’s cramped, unpleasant, and your only relief comes from the occasional spaceport with a space slightly larger than your own to stretch your legs. You’re in the middle of now where. Help is millions of miles away, if at all. What’s that? An ominous shadow streaks across the wall. An uneasy feeling settles in your stomach, and the hairs on your neck stand erect. You’re not alone. Something is with you, and it isn’t your other crewmates. A sound, another shadow, what’s that! Nowhere to go, no one to call, nowhere to hide. Something is lurking in those dark places waiting for you.
Inspired by the movie Alien, Outland, Silent Running, and Moon, Those Dark Places: Industrial Science Fiction Roleplaying game is a rules-light, story-focused roleplaying game that uses paranoia, claustrophobia, and isolation to induce tension and suspense—horror survival in space. There are no high-tech weapons or alien technologies to rely on. It’s you, your fellow crew members, and your ship of dials, switches, and levers to quell your fears.
Crews of no more than seven individuals, with overlapping talents, running month/year-long missions from Earth into the vast expense of space to ferry cargo, personnel, or other reasons at the behest of their employer. There is no experience awarded in Those Dark Places, only payment for a job well done and retirement after 25 years. Do you have what it takes to make it to retirement?
Note: Osprey Publishing provided Rolling Boxcars with a review copy for this article. If you have an item you’d like Rolling Boxcars to review, please visit our Product Review Request page.
What is industrial science fiction?
Industrial science fiction is heavily rooted in the industrial technologies of the 70s and 80s—analog switches, boards of colored flashing push-button lights, manual levers, knobs, spinach-green viewscreens, etc. It is the less glamorous side of science fiction technology—grim and dirty. It is dimly lit corridors filled with steam escaping from pipes large and small twisted amongst each other in a chaotic dance of industrial design. Add claustrophobia, loneliness, helplessness, isolation, and strange unknown things hiding in the shadows, and you have Those Dark Places.
The text in Those Dark Places is presented in a conversational tone. There is no dedicated character creation section to speak of. One must simply read through the book to understand how to build a character. It’s not a complicated process. It’s quite easy, just not easy to locate quickly.
Characters begin with four characteristics: Charisma, Agility, Strength, and Education, or CASE for short. Each attribute is assigned a number no higher than four and no less than one. The higher the number, the more proficient the character is with that attribute. There are no skills in this game, so attributes play a large part. Next, each character chooses crew positions—one primary and one secondary. Crew positions are general designations like Helm Officer, Science Officer, Medical Officer, and the like, giving the characters the abilities to perform those positions’ duties in broad terms. There are seven positions available with a brief overview and the attribute associated with each position. Since the game revolves around a vessel with a small crew, groups should build characters together to ensure a diverse crew.
As a story game, Those Dark Places uses minimal game mechanics—a solitary D6 for all dice resolutions. The single D6 die is used in conjunction with a character’s attribute and crew position to hit a target number of seven. A character’s primary position awards them a +2 to dice rolls, whereas their secondary duties give them a +1. Results are categorized into three levels: failure, partial success, and success. Any result below the target number is a failure, an exact result of the target number is a partial success, and results above the target number are a success. The target number of seven is just the starting point. When tension rises or a task requires additional skills, the target number may rise as the Gamemaster (GM – General Monitor) sees fit.
When a physical conflict arises, the character with the highest die roll plus Agility score goes first. Combat is played out in 5-second rounds where a character can fire a weapon, make a physical attack, move, or perform a task. In the confines of the character’s vessel, combat is challenging. The last thing anyone should be doing is firing a concussive projectile in a confined space filled with vital systems meant to keep you alive. With the closest vessel or station being thousands if not millions of miles away, breaching the hull of your ship or an air supply conduit with a bullet is a recipe for a slow cold death. Firearms are an option but not a good one. That is not to say there is no lethal weaponry in Those Dark Places. There certainly is; it’s just not wise to use them. A better option is to fight hand-to-hand or use stun projectiles. Characters use their Strength attribute for hand-to-hand and Agility for any ranged attacks.
Damage & Healing
Damage from hand-to-hand combat, whether it’s your fist or a spanner, will do less damage than a projectile weapon. Hand-to-hand combat damage ranges from one to two points of damage, whereas ranged weapons do between three and five. There are only a few weapons to choose from, fists, feet, a held object, gun, rifle, shotgun, stun gun, and explosives. All are generic with no details or variations to choose from. Each weapon has its own damage value. Damage can also come from the environment—lack of oxygen, radiation, poison, gas, fire, etc.
When a character is injured, their Strength attribute is reduced by the damage dealt. When a character’s Strength reaches zero, they lose consciousness. At -2, they are at death’s door and only have their original Strength value left in rounds to live. Damage past -2 is death. A character that holds the Medical Officer position can restore a character’s Strength at one point per hour. The uses of an autodoc, the same as a Medical Officer, will grant the same return to Strength, but the rules lack any details about the autodoc. If a Medical Officer is not being played, medical kits are available, giving a wounded character one point of Strength back until better help arrives.
Cramp confining vessels creates stressful environments. Mix in life-threatening struggles or alien intruders and a crew’s blood pressure is going to rise. How your characters deal with the added stress is measured with a Pressure Test. Each character has a Pressure Bonus comprised of their Strength plus Education attribute. When the pressure builds up, and the GM calls for a Pressure Test—a D6 plus a character’s Pressure Level. If the result is 10 or more, the character is able to keep their cool under pressure; if the result is 9 or less, and their press level increases.
Characters’ Pressure Levels begin at zero at character creation. With each failed pressure check, increasing levels subject the character to episodes of mental breakdown. When a breakdown occurs, a D6 table of consequences is referenced. The result can not exceed the character’s current Pressure Level. As the character suffers more episodes, their chances of harmful effects significantly increase.
In space, characters don’t have many options to bring down their Pressure Levels. The environments in which they live are stressful. To reduce their stress requires a few stress-free days on Earth or a stay in a LongSleep Chamber. LongSleep Chambers allow the crew to go into deep hibernation states where the ship can conserve energy during long flights. Characters are placed in a sub-zero environment with special gases and drugs to ease one’s stress. They reduce a character’s Pressure Value by one per day while in the chamber but drain a lot of power from the ship, so they are not always an option.
Space Travel & Gameplay
Space travel is slow, with technology not too far advanced from our own. Once a vessel leaves, the crew has several days of pre-flight inspections before retiring to their LongSleep Chambers. The crew sleeps while the ship conserves energy until they are three days out from their destination. Once out of their chambers, post-flight checks are made. Cargo is unloaded, or other mission-related tasks are completed once they arrive at their destination before the ship is resupplied for the return run. Ships always stay in space and only land on planets with permission or in emergency situations. Taking off from a planet requires lots of resources, so they are frowned on. Upon their return to the Earth, characters receive their payment and are one step closer to retirement.
The types of missions or types of crews the players wish to play are up to them and the Gamemaster. The game provides several types of ships which will aid in their decision. There are cargo transports, tugboats, passenger ships, service vessels, science vessels, arbiter ships, tactical vessels, or multi-role vessels. Each ship only has a few paragraphs outlining the type of mission a vessel of that type would most-likey be involved with. There are also places for them to visit, like research facilities, resource management stations, survey outposts, and military bases. None of which contain deck plans or structural statistics.
Those Dark Places provide useful tools to hook characters into adventures through the use of reports, personal reports, accident reports, survey reports, etc. You get the point. Reports that can’t go unanswered or uninvestigated. There are eight types of reports which gamemasters can build upon to get their stories moving.
Within these stories, the characters are likely to meet other people. Those Dark Places doesn’t have a large collection of ready-to-use NPCs. Instead, it has seven examples of NPCs with very simple rules for creating and using them. They also have a small section on artificial intelligence and alien creatures. Again not statted out ready-to-use characters to use. Only suggestions on what they may look like and work within the game. The Gamemaster is left to develop their own. Luckily, Those Dark Places provides an introductory adventure that a Gamemaster can use right away and model future adventures off of.
For this review, I was provided a PDF by the publisher. The publication is digest size, 6″ x 9″. The star of the book is its art. It is absolutely fantastic. It uses simple line drawings with a solitary accent of color which accentuates the tone of the piece. It’s by far my favorite part of the book. The conversational tone of the writing is well written but makes it difficult to pick out the game’s few mechanical elements. The PDF uses bookmarks, which aids a little bit but not much.
A lot of success in this game will come from the Gamemaster. It will be up to them to compile a captivating and horror-filled story for their players to explore. The seeds of creating a good adventure and its tone are clearly represented in the text. The introductory adventure is a good guide to base more adventures on. If you enjoy running or playing rules-light story-based games set in industrial science fiction environments, look at Those Dark Places. You’ll find it seeping with flavor for your player’s palette.
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