The Psionic Mines – GenCon 2002 Demo

This demo for potential customers, like many at the con, began with the genre of Science Fiction. Our setting for the game was a mining colony on a distant world. It was to be a gritty realistic setting with no virtual reality cyberspace, or other cyberpunk extremes.

There were, however, psionics. The humans were there to mine psi crystals which were extraordinarily valuable for they allowed people to tap into latent psychic powers. The humans had wrested control of the planet from the native species of alien beings whose psionic powers were so developed that they’d never developed a need for advanced technology themselves. There were two problems, however. One, exposure to that many crystals over time could enhance a man’s psychic powers to extraordinary levels…while simultaneously driving him insane. Two, the aliens who’d been driven away from the colony site wanted it back, and the psychically deranged human miners were their ticket home.

My instructions to this group of players was the same as I’d used many times. To think in terms of a powerful opening scene for a movie. When a player thought enough background had been developed to give them an idea for one, the game would move to the first scene. Being a demo, we developed the background much more sketchily than I normally do for games meant to be played over several sessions, but this proved to be a perfect amount to promote quick, movie-like, one-shots.

The first scene of the game opened in a deep shaft of the mine. There were several miners in enviro suits equipped with sonicvibe mining tools. One of them, a man named Kurtz, had been in the mines too long and his latent psionic ability had just burst forth. Wracked with pain and Screaming Crazy, Kurtz lashed out at he stumbled around the mine shaft. A nearby miner died with the tip of Kurtz’s vibro tool bursting through his chest.

Against the far wall of the mine shaft, standing on a high platform of scaffolding was Engineer Blackthorn. He was in charge of this mining crew and this wasn’t the first time he’d seen a miner go berserk. He was prepared for it and drew forth a heavy gun loaded with powerful tranquilizing darts.

In the Complication that followed, Blackthorn managed to shoot Kurtz with a dart, but it wasn’t enough to put the miner down. Enraged, Kurtz ripped apart the metal scaffolding with unleashed telekinetic powers sending Blackthorn plummeting to the floor far below. As Kurtz escaped deeper into the mine shafts we saw Blackthorn’s fall slow and stop. The Engineer hovered just off of the ground before landing on his feet. Blackthorn, its revealed, is a powerful telekinetic himself.

In the next scene, the Framing Player flashed forward in time several days paying each of the other players 1 Coin to do so. The location was a detention center in an orbiting space station above the planet. Kurtz was imprisoned, ineffectually raging, in an energy field. Blackthorn, revealed as an undercover psi cop, was reporting to his superior officer.

We ended the game session with a dialog on the dangerous increase in violent psychic reactions among the miners and what it could possibly mean. All in all it was a powerful opening for a continuing campaign in just a brief 30 minute demo with first time players.

Featured Element, Flash Forward:

The ability to set the time of any scene is one of the most powerful tools in Universalis. For most scenes players will use the default free setting of having the scene occur immediately after or concurrently with the previous one. But on occasion, a well framed flash back can be key to really opening up depth in the story.

In this demo a first time player demonstrated a skillful use of the more difficult-to-master: flash forward. Thinking like a movie director cutting the scene (or more accurately the movie editor), this player skipped ahead to the important stuff. The second scene could have been a continuation of the first, with a scene of Kurtz running through the mineshafts being hunted by Blackthorn and various security elements complete with lots of violence to innocent miners and equipment and plenty of psionic special effects. But the player intuitively recognized that the story was not about this confrontation between Kurtz and Blackthorn. This was just a taste to cue the audience on what was to come. The real story lay in uncovering the alien plot and dealing with what was likely to be a full psionic war complete with mind controlled deranged miners. There would be plenty of opportunity for high FX scenes of wanton violence in the mines later on.

So even though this was just a brief demo played right in the booth in the exhibitor hall, and we ended the game with the scene in the orbital station, it was obvious that we had the makings of a pretty decent story; complete with a group of players who understood the concept of scene framing and pacing. Even though I needed to end the demo to get back to other things, I was left really wondering what this group would have come up with for a third and fourth scene.

—-Ralph Mazza


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