Serenity RPG Once-Offs

I have done more once-off Firefly games than I can actually remember. They are a very different challenge to the campaigns, in that you need to make a story, with a beginning, middle and end, and pack it all in to three hours or less, with enough stuff for every character to do. If campaigns are a TV show, once-off are movies: they need to have more of a punch due to the inherent short term nature of them. In this post, I’m going to go through four once-offs that I have written, and talk about it about what worked and what didn’t.

First up is “Stonewall”, which was my attempt to tie in the Firefly universe to the American Civil War much like the Battle of Serenity Valley did. Only, I was more interested in the beginning or things, and so came up with Firefly’s version of the First Battle of Bull Run. I can’t remember too much of what actually too place there, apart from the basics: the crew were a bunch of Independent spy/scouts, infiltrating an Alliance city ahead of a big battle to take place afterwards, with the Browncoats led by famed General Chiek Xun (think about it). It was a fun, simple game, that I recall being punctuated by a riverboat chase at the end of the second act, before the main point, which was stopping a human wave-esque Alliance assault using some howitzer guns, just like Stonewall Jackson’s defence of the Confederate position at Bull Run, that marked the turning of the battle from Union hands into an unlikely southern victory. This was Firefly as a rather brainless action movie, and was played as such: the game lacked any larger point or deep philosophy, but it did have lots of explosions and chase scenes.

The Mark” was a bit different. For many of my games, having learned the necessity of improvisation, I didn’t have detailed notes, limiting things to a basic outline, key plot points, and the backstory on character sheets to flesh things out. But for “The Mark”, which I ran at a convention, I needed better notes because of the possibility of another GM running the same game, so I tried to be a bit more detailed. The story was of a crew of bounty hunters being hired by an M.P., to extract his runaway daughter from a David Karesh-esque cult on the other side of the system, a fairly simple thing. But I micromanaged too much in the notes in basically suggesting pathways for the players to take ranging from an all out assault to a covert infiltration, and when the players playing the actual game tried to take things in their own direction – because no-one likes being blatantly railroaded – I struggled to adapt things, as did the other GM unlucky enough to be left with my unimaginative, if detailed, notes. The game quickly devoled into what I considered to be a rather dull shoot-out that took up nearly the entire second half of the story, which is not the kind of game I usually like to run: while not badly received, “The Mark” made me realise that I needed to be a bit more circumspect when it came to expanded game notes.

Bosworth” was a game that was an effort to combine my love of Firefly with my love of Shakespeare, inspired by things like this. It re-cast the characters of the show into a Medieval setting, depicting the events of Serenity in the same vein as one of the Bard’s history plays, “Bosworth” passed off as a sort of extra chapter after Richard III. Sir Malcolm of Shadow is a veteran of the Yorkist side of the War of the Roses, who lost everything at the Battle of Bosworth Field, and has since taken to piracy/general mayhem on the high seas as the master of the Bosworth, along with a crew that worked as a period facsimile of the “real” Serenity hands: Hoban the tiller with his Moorish wife, a greasy sailor girl making things work, a fugitive apothacary and his touched sister, a whore with a heart of gold, etc. It was very easy to fit them all in, some things remaining generally constant from genre to genre. The plot itself was more Seven Samurai than Serenity in many respects, defending a small coastal village from the ravages of stand-in Reavers, bloody cannibals from a mysterious island far off-shore. This was a fun one to play, though I admit it was hard to got the players into the Shakespearian mood. One of the things I worked on a lot for “Bosworth” was giving every character a sub-plot of some kind: the Doctor had to cure people in the town suffering from a mysterious malady, the tiller had to scout out the Reavers, even the whore had to go seduce a local Robin Hood-type into helping the village. In the end, a violent blowout where the town was saved from the Reaver menace capped it off, and while I wasn’t able to give it the right Bardic flavour that I really wanted, I was still able to count “Bosworth” as a success.

Then there was “This Be The ‘Verse”, the Firefly game that re-ignited my love for the RPG after a few years absence of serious playing. I had just finished the TV show Justified, and was inspired to write something in Firefly that borrowed a few elements, especially the series’ primary antagonist Boyd Crowder. In the game, the crew are sent to stop “The Fang”, a legendary art thief, from stealing a famous sword, unaware that the villain is a former acquaintance of the Captain from his time in the Independent military. Hi jinks abound: a bare-knuckle fist fight in a dingy pub basement, disarming a bomb inside an art gallery, a one-on-one aerial duel, a High Noon-esque showdown and going up against the Fang himself, inside a gigantic storehouse of stolen artwork and cultural treasures. “This Be The ‘”Verse” was a game where I indulged myself in terms of grander story-telling and deeper themes, tying in the fate of the villain to a family drama involving the crews employer, and tying all of that back to the Philip Larkin’s poem that I got the title from. Unfortunately, the problem was that I really put too much into the game, at least too much for a three-hour once off: the one time I was able to get the game going properly, I ended up having to skip much of it due to time constraints. I might one day adapt “This Be The ‘Verse” into campaign of sorts, which would be a better fit for the myriad of ideas and concepts that I had: that, or shave down the existing premise so that it’s a better fit for three hours.

That’s a small taste of what I got up to wth Firefly RPG’s in-between the campaigns. As it happens, I am actually in the middle of a campaign right now, and next time I’ll use that as an example of how Firefly’s general premise works really well when it comes to assembling a party with different skill-sets and roles.

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