Orbital Emergency Playtest and Feedback

I “recently” (mid-March) ran my second playtest of Orbital Emergency. Here's a mini-after-action report from that second playtest, plus feedback.

The Pioneers​

My most recent playtest had two players, each with their own character I rolled up beforehand:

Jeska. Technician (7 Terms)
Admin 0, Astronavigation 1, Carouse 2, Computer 1, Deception 0, Electronics 2, Engineering (Aerospace) 1, Engineer (Electrical) 1, Engineering (Mechanical) 1, Explosives 3, Heavy Equipment 1, Investigate 0, Jack-of-all-Trades 2, Language 1 (pick), Mechanic 3, Medic 0, Persuade 0, Recon 1, Remote Ops 1, Sensors 1, Vacc Suit 1, Zero-G 1.

Dr. Komatsu. Scientist (6 Terms)
UPP: 7567D7
Admin 1, Astronavigation 2, Carouse 1, Comms 1, Computers 1, Deception 0, Electronics 1, Investigate 1, Language 0, Mechanics 1, Medic 1, Persuade 0, Pilot 2, Remote Operator 0, Science (Physics) 3, Science (Chemistry) 2, Science (Astronomy) 2, Science (Cybernetics) 1, Sensors 0, Streetwise 0, Vacc Suit 1, Zero-G 1.

At the start of the session, I let the players pick their missing skills from the Required Skill Package. Jeska took Astronavigation, Computers, and Sensors. Komatsu took Comms, Electronics, Mechanics, and Vacc Suit.

What happened​

My very first playtest took five hours, so I made two modifications to this run of Orbital Emergency to fit a three hour timeslot.

The first was to leave the Peregrine’s payload undefined at launch. During the EVA, players could declare they brought some piece of equipment up with them and “spend’ the required cargo space. This saved about an hour of payload planning/“shopping.”
The second was to not use a random encounter. Along the same lines, I decided not to introduce any complications via the Hydra X crew. This likely made for a worse experience, and I’ll discuss it in the feedback sections.

While gearing up, my players decided to roll for the faster one-orbit rendezvous. Dr Komatsu and Capcon succeeded in their rolls, so the Peregrine met the Hydra X at T+97 minutes. The players were dangerously hasty and nearly collided with the Hydra X while surveying it, so they took their sweet time during a second sweep to see the Hydra X’s damage.

Figuring both the engine and the hull would take a lot of time to fix, the players split up. While Komatsu began the tedious process of replacing tiles, Jeska flew over to inspect the engines. Jeska’s survey of the engines and the viability of repair was interrupted by the Hydra X’s -1D6m/s orbital velocity reduction. Jeska paused their task and used their MMU to board and pilot the Peregrine back to a reasonable distance from the Hydra X. Since both the engine repair survey and the tile replacement were taking long (at T+185 minutes after launch, Dr Komatus just finished tile seven), they determined help would be useful for station-keeping. They asked if someone at capcon could manage stationkeeping while the Komatsu and Jeska did work, and luckily Jeremy (the KSP and Orbiter-loving intern) was on staff that day to handle that.

By this point (T+185 minutes), Dr Komatsu only replaced seven of the thirteen tiles, and had yet to start analyzing the hull damage underneath. Dr Komatsu pressed on while Jeska squeezed back to the fuel line. By T+240, Jeska diagnosed engine #1’s fuel line problem. Jeska, confident in their capabilities (DM+5 from INT, Mechanic, and a remote computer program) against the Very Difficult task, hastened their repair (DM-2). Unfortunately, they fell short and wasted an hour (T+300).

Temporarily defeated, Jeska decided to switch tasks and find the cause of the failing telemetry. Jeska easily found the shredded wires. Unfortunately, they also didn’t have luck with this task. Dr Komatsu, meanwhile, slowly but surely finished removing each tile and replacing the tiles that didn’t obscure the deeper hull damage. Running out of power on their PLSSs (T+430), the two returned to the Peregrine to swap PLSSs and plan their next moves.

They decided to continue on their current course. Jeska slipped right back past the engines to repair the fuel line. With exhaustion onsetting, Jeska failed expedited attempt after attempt. On the third attempt (T+610 minutes), they managed to roll boxcars: success. Jeska then quickly patched up the TLM wires (on their first try).

Meanwhile, Dr Komatsu still dealt with the tiles. With most of the problematic tiles replaced, all that remained was the crack in the hull. Exhausted, Jeska flew over and repaired the underlying hull damage (T+750). The two of them placed the final tiles and returned to the Peregrine for reentry (T+860). Luckily, the fuel line repair held, and both the Peregrine and the Hydra X landed safely.

The first playtest, briefly​

I said this was my second playtest of Orbital Emergency. The reason I didn’t report my first playtest (back in December) was because I took incredibly poor notes that would have been useless for an after-action report.
However, I bring it up for three reasons:
1. We played it as close to RAW as possible (given we were still learning everything). This means I didn’t let players define the launch payload after they launched: they needed to pick their gear before launch. I also rolled for a random event (which I’ll discuss in Referee’s feedback).
2. Doing it this way took us about five hours to play. The players were successfully able to successfully bring the Hydra X back to Earth in one piece, with ~150 minutes left on the in-game clock.
3. The feedback my first players gave is nearly identical to the feedback from this most recent playtest.

Players’ feedback​

Overall, players enjoyed the adventure.

In both this and my previous playtest, the players found the mission’s stakes compelling enough. In addition, both groups enjoyed the core time management puzzle. It made the out-of-reach technical details concrete and actionable. Both groups also enjoyed deploying the observation balls. It seems even with limited capabilities, players like the flexibility of telepresence (and cute robots).

However, both groups had similar concerns. Players expressed a concern about the emphasis of certain skills in this starter adventure. Even though it made sense given the context, they felt everything resolved with just Engineering, Mechanics, or Recon. It felt monotonous.

Along the same line, they expressed a lack of surprise; there weren't a lot of unexpected complications. In particular, the second group was expecting something bad to happen as a result of the fuel line being repaired.

Finally, both groups found the tile replacement tedious and anticlimactic, and felt it sidelined whichever player was in charge of that task.

Ultimately, the players enjoyed the puzzle aspects, but were underwhelmed by the perceived lack of variety.

Referee’s feedback​

Like the players’ feedback, I’ll focus on the adventure. I’ll save system feedback for another, later post.

To start positively: this adventure clearly demonstrates the resource-management core to the system. Time, launch mass, delta-V, air, and exhaustion were the main considerations for my players, and they were clear conflict points in this puzzle. This seems like a compelling template for spacewalk missions.

In addition, the two simple engine diagrams were very helpful for both my players and me to understand the situation.

Unfortunately, the rest of my feedback is negative. From most to least important:
  • This adventure was a bore to referee both times. It was only exciting when a player rolled boxcars to fix the fuel line. The players’ actions and the outcomes felt predictable, and there was nothing anyone could do to make this exciting. Even a random encounter didn’t save the adventure from feeling uninteresting to referee.
  • Middling organization and writing. While not “bad,” the writing was detrimentally verbose. The various “read-aloud” paragraphs are also too long, and players did forget details because of that. The mission’s timeline was also made needlessly difficult to understand thanks to an inconsistent T+0.
  • Many rolls felt needlessly long and complicated. SAS and the roll to get to the fuel line especially come to mind. They waste real-life time with no drama or interesting decisions. The few Task Chains also felt unnecessary.
  • Muddy distinction between Engineering and Mechanics/Electronics. Probably more of a systems design complaint, but this adventure didn’t demonstrate the differences between Mechanics/Electronics and their sibling Engineering cascade skills. As a real-life aerospace engineer, I know the difference between them. But it feels like there’s no real difference between them in this adventure.

In addition, there were a few ambiguities that came up during this adventure:
  • Capcon’s capabilities are ill-defined. As far as the game presents it, Capcon is just made up of Natalia Sousa and Callie Das. I ruled they’d be able to control the Peregrine (hence the “con” in “capcon”), but that feels like it undermines some of the challenge.
  • I noticed some Recon checks don’t have timecodes listed. Is that intentional?
  • There don’t seem to be rules for flying with the MMU.. I ruled “long-distance” travel as a Zero-G check to avoid wasting propellant (like how it’s handled for the Peregrine rendezvous), but a codified procedure would be nice.
  • The Hydra X seems to lack Hits. This is in line with other launch vehicles, but not in line with orbital vehicles. This is a problem if you roll a Micrometeorite Impact event and want it to damage the Hydra X. I rolled this event during my first playtest in December, before I hastily switched it to a Minor Equipment Malfunction.
  • Orbital Emergency references a “Burning Up” section of the adventure, but it doesn’t exist in the current version.
I think there’s a good adventure in here. It just needs a variety of challenges and streamlined text.


Besides addressing those ambiguities, I have five concrete suggestions I think would improve this adventure:
  1. Add a clear timeline of events to the starter adventure. In addition to listing the schedule of narrative events (with T+0 being the Peregrine’s launch), also note when to roll for a random encounter, when the players roll GLOC, SAS, get their rendezvous, when to roll for drag on the Hydra X, when the players will get exhausted, and when the Hydra X will begin reentry.
  2. Create a simple worksheet for tracking time on an EVA. Four columns with start time (count up from mission/EVA start), end time, task, and result.
  3. Flesh out actual encounters that showcase other skills. Instead of just saying “you figure it out, Referee,” give interesting things for characters with social, medical, and other skills to contribute.
  4. Make it so capcon lost all communications with the Hydra X. This adds tension, gives a reason to check on the pilots, and is a natural way to introduce any complications with Angel or Norm.
  5. Simplify some rolls: Convert many of the task chains into just one skill roll. Change the roll to get at the fuel line to:"
    "Getting into position to see the fuel line is a Difficult (10+) Remote Operator or Vacc Suit check (1D Minutes). On a failure, the Pioneer chooses to either back out and try again or take 1D damage and push forward."
    This will make it simpler, more dangerous, and focuses on the decision to take it slow vs pressing forward.
  6. Enforce brevity, especially with the boxed text. Brevity in GM-only text makes it easier to read the first time, learn the scenario, and find information during a session. Brevity in read-aloud text means players will actually remember the boxed text. It also makes it cheaper to print.
  7. If you do decide to give the Hydra X Hits, incorporate Hit damage as a consequence of failure while rushing. This will make things more exciting and make the decision to go fast vs go slow more interesting (since Hits can only be deducted on a rushed failure).


Despite my issues with the adventure, my players still enjoyed it. I really want this game to succeed, so hopefully this is useful to that end.
Hey there,

Excellent feedback, thank you - you have touched upon issues we have had an eye on and will be going through your notes with a fine toothcomb :)
The key issues with hard science and real space exploration...

you train and train to make every task as routine as you can, you plan before the mission for when and where you need to do stuff. If you have to improvise things have already gone wrong...
I “recently” (mid-March) ran my second playtest of Orbital Emergency. Here's a mini-after-action report from that second playtest, plus feedback.
Really excellent to see this. Would that I could persuade my group to break off the current campaign we are in (although the next mooted game is 2300AD, so I shouldn’t complain!). This type of playtest is the best feedback though.
The key issues with hard science and real space exploration...

you train and train to make every task as routine as you can, you plan before the mission for when and where you need to do stuff. If you have to improvise things have already gone wrong...
It's definitely an issue, but I think there are ways to work with or around it:

1. Make planning the fun focus of the game. If planning is where the decisions are made and the problems are rehearsed and solved, make that the most dramatic parts of the game. Instead of focusing the rules on space travel and EVAs, focus on procedures and complications for designing and assembling spacecraft, on procuring equipment, on the stress and drama during training, on lobbying Congress or the FAA, on getting customers (or keeping them after multiple mission failures), and on negotiating with other space agencies.
That turns it into a ground game rather than a space game (which will disappoint people), but that can still be its own fun. And it can easily be reskinned as space colony management if we are set on keeping the focus on space rather than Earth.

2. Further emphasize flashbacks/retroactive planning. From the success of games like Blades in the Dark, a lot of players don't like planning. But if we want Pioneer to be about EVAs and space activities wile while not compromising on the importance preparation plays, we can make flashbacks and retroactive planning more mechanically important and interesting. Blades does this by tying your available Flashbacks to personal Stress and your Load, and my second playtest of Orbital Emergency tied it to the Peregrine's launch cargo budget.
Pioneer already has flashbacks. All that needs to be done is to make them more core to the experience.

3. Provide in-universe justifications for improvisation. One justification is that the players work for a fly-by-night private space company focused more on "moving fast and breaking things" than on trivial matters like safety.
This fly-by-night justification also solves the issue of making the Astronaut career a prestige career (rather than an automatic qualification in a game about being astronauts). The reason a former paramedic, NSA analyst, Twitch streamer, and Army helicopter pilot are easily turned into astronauts is because they're working for an illegitimate, safety-last space agency powered by dreams and stolen investments as part of a wannabe-Musk's vanity project.
Or maybe the players work for a underfunded/unfunded space agency, playing underdogs on a shoestring budget. Like Brazil, Nigeria, or Pakistan's space agencies. They don't have <edit> a large pool of pretrained </edit> native astronauts, so they would source talent from a variety of civilian and military disciplines, with maybe one or two foreign experts. They're reliant on table scraps from larger countries (in terms of equipment and specialized knowledge) and cunning improvisation to get the job done.
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