“Terror in the Stars”: A “Don’t Rest Your Head” Space Horror Hack

(As discussed previously, the Don’t Hack This Game book for Don’t Rest Your Head was canceled this week. This is another entry from that project by Veredium, covering space horror. –ed)

You have been selected to boldly go where no one has gone before, but as your voyage commences, you have the dread feeling that space is not a place meant for man. Instead of exploring strange new worlds, you find yourself having strange new thoughts and boldly bending reality in a way that has your crewmates eyeing you all too suspiciously.

Evoking the psychological terror of Event Horizon and Dead Space, Terror in the Stars is a hack for playing science fiction horror. Carefully selected crews travel beyond the speed of light to seek new life and new civilizations, only to find what waits for them frighteningly full of unfathomable horrors. The crew must rely on one another to complete their mission, but are increasingly unable to trust anyone, even themselves.

Getting Started

Why was your character chosen for this mission?”

This sums your character’s perceived qualities and will determine your System Die.

Think About: These missions are rare, so why would you be chosen? Was it technical skills or because the powers that be know of and think you can survive the horrors of space?

Why It Matters: Part of the tension is needing the other characters to do things that you are less suited for. Don’t hesitate to be creative, but make sure that you make each character’s role on the ship unique and vital. It may not be that everyone’s character thinks that a ship needs a Psych Officer, but make sure the table understands the character’s intended purpose.

What are your character’s insecurities?

Hyperstellar travel turns a character’s worst tendencies into an impossible Paranoid Talent.

Think About: Your character excels at something, but what drives that success? Is he seeking parental approval that can never be gained or is he pathologically afraid of failure?

Why It Matters: Your character’s worst fears power the game and fuels their own failure.

How does your ship work?

The game’s primary setting is your ship, so outlining some preliminary facts about it that each player contributes to should help everyone collaborate and understand the game going forward.

Think About: Does your ship have an intelligent computer? If so, what is it like? Does someone want to play the AI or should the GM control it? Is your ship cramped and claustrophobic with only crewers as the characters or is a larger vessel that requires a large team to keep operational? How do you get around the ship?

Why It Matters: A few basic ideas about the setting will assist collaboration between Players and GM. It avoids getting hung up on the details at the expense of the overall experience.

What was your character briefed on?

This is your chance to foreshadow some of the horrors to come.

Think About: Has the doctor seen classified reports on space madness? Has the Captain been briefed on the first failed test mission? Does the Ship AI have the means to lock down compromised crewers?

Why It Matters: It’s not fun for the entire crew to know precisely what they’re facing, but having certain characters briefed on particular aspects of the dangerous mission is a built-in paranoia device. It also helps to have have a ‘default’ understanding of space flight for other characters so that the mood matches the unfolding weirdness aboard the vessel. Be sure to create a compelling motivation for keeping secrets, as well. It may be shown from previous experiments that discussing space madness increases its prevalence or perhaps your character has a mental block or a bomb set to go off he divulges classified information. Secrets should sow mistrust, not be a means to build bonds.

How well do you know the other characters?

You need to rely on your crewmates, but what exactly do you know about them? Too much and you know why they can’t be trusted and too little and it’s difficult to rely on them.

Think About: Who in the crew do you know and who is a stranger?

Why It Matters: If you know another character come up with two facts that you find unsettling about them. If you don’t know a character come up with two questions about them that concern you. Share these with the other players and discuss any scenes they would inspire.

Why did your character accept this mission?

In this setting, space travel still has a mystique to it. It’s not commonplace like flying in an airplane today: it carries substantial risk, and it is socially crippling to leave the planet for months or years.

Think About: Are you leaving for your own benefit or for someone else’s? Did you commit ethical violations and this was the only way to avoid public humiliation or are you such an egotistical bastard you need to be one of the first people to reach Planet X? What exactly constitutes success of the mission in your character’s eyes?

Why It Matters: As the mistrust builds and the mission becomes imperiled, the answer to this question will help you prioritize what your character ultimately cares about accomplishing and why it matters. Maybe surviving the mission is simply not enough, you have to complete it.

How are you afraid you’ll die?

During spaceflight, the character’s fears and paranoias break through from thoughts into reality. Their own fear of death has the potential to be manifested as a reality-bending mind-warping Nightmare.

Think About: Your character’s insecurities, relationships, mission motivation, and training influences their worst fear. Perhaps they push themselves so hard because of their fear of failure. Maybe they worry they will overlook a critical aspect of their work and die, a failure, by their own hand.

Why it Matters: The GM has almost unlimited leeway on the descriptions and abilities of the Nightmares the crew will face. To better personalize these, this question allows him to target your character directly and increase his paranoid feelings. Moreover, if the Nightmare plays on familiar aspects of your character’s psyche, and the other crewers realize this, it will help sow mistrust amongst the crew.

Your Own Personal Nightmare

Nightmare rules are unchanged, but the nature of their existence is different. To fine-turn Nightmares to the setting have them play on the crew’s fear of how they’ll die, their paranoia, and mistrust. These creatures are not bound by reality and consider having their Pain dice manifest in different ways to different characters. Challenge each character’s core assumptions on the basis of reality on board the ship and meddle with the interpersonal relationships of the characters. Undermine their motivation for going on this mission, make them fear their allies and love the Nightmares. Consider even having the Nightmares manifest in ways that could be blamed on other characters.

Rules Changes

Systems Die

Instead of using Exhaustion, change this to Systems. The ship itself becomes a fraught shared commodity that the crew can wear down and abuse at the cost of its durability. State of art technology ought to function perfectly traveling faster than light, but there is something not quite right about space travel. Have minor malfunctions occur first and begin to make it clear the problems should not be happening. Based on why you were chosen for the mission, pick a Systems Talent. For instance, an Engineer may have a System Talent of “Jury-Rigging” or “Repair” while the Pilot may have “Piloting” or “Navigation.” Because this is tied to your Systems die, make sure it has a plausible connection to the ship’s systems.

When a character would gain a System die, he can increase his Systems score by one or he can increase another character’s System score by one. Increasing another character’s System Score represents passing on problems to someone else or using up another’s resources and access. Encourage in-character discussion to increasing a System score. As GM, do your best to ramp up the character tension that comes when such decisions are made. You cannot increase someone else’s Systems score enough to cause them to crash.

Paranoia and Paranoid Talent

Paranoia functions just like Madness, but higher Paranoia means characters believe that their own survival hinges on neutralizing their fellow shipmates. Consider your character’s insecurities when you choose your Paranoia. Maybe your character Can’t Trust Men because of a troubled relationship with their father, or Never Admits Being Wrong because they have a suffocating fear of failure. Choose a Paranoid Talent to help guide your reactions and roleplay your character’s Paranoia. When a result forces you to choose your response seek to have it play into your character’s Paranoia.

The Madness Talent reflects the above change by becoming a Paranoid Talent. During faster than light travel, reality has a strange way of malfunctioning. The characters in Terror in the Stars learn to tap into that possibility. For instance, if your ship’s engineer Can’t Trust Men you might decide his Paranoid Talent is Truthsense. Considering his Paranoia it may be that he distrusts male crewers after catching them in incidental and harmless mistruths.