Deep Dive: Impulse Drive

Last week I talked about how I’ve finally jumped into the deep end of the online roleplaying pool. The game we’re playing is Adrian Thoen’s Impulse Drive, a Powered by the Apocalypse game in the spacefaring scumbag genre. It’s the first of many games I’ve played that has really captured the kinetic romp I want out of the genre. I’ve played most of the recent ones (Edge of the Empire, Stars Without Number, Coriolis, etc.), and I’ll do a big comparison/contrast at some point, but for us, Impulse Drive delivers the goods.

Let’s get into it.

First Up: Prep, Clocks Strains, and Editing

This bit might sound complainy but don’t read it that way. I just want to get these out of the way, because the game plays well despite these issues.

Prep is Hard

When we started Impulse Drive, I had no idea at all what we’d be doing with the game. There are four ship types that have their own campaign-generating moves, and it’s nifty tech. There’s the Smuggler (spacefaring scumbag default, aka Firefly or the Millennium Falcon), the Predator (a roving mercenary company, think Dark Matter), the Vanguard (a Star-Trek-y government vessel), and the Marauder (pirate ship, yarr). On DriveThruRPG, you can also pick up the Outpost (Deep Space 9) and the Pioneer (Battlestar Galactica, hold the toasters). It’s similar to Scum and Villainy’s spread of ship/crew options, where the ship choice implies or mandates new moves, options and obligations.

But once you’ve chosen your ship, there’s little else to guide you. The book says to start with “a tense situation,” and we did, but that off-the-cuffness didn’t feel as good to me as when you just follow characters around for a day in Apocalypse World. You’re not trying to establish community or setting; it’s mostly a technical demo so players can use the system. It works fine but you obviously need to listen closely for implied setting bits. You could also bring a strong premise to the table – we’re going to play in Star Wars or Farscape or some other recognizable setting – and build up from there.

Stars Without Number, Impulse Drive, a dash of Traveller, and some cyberpunk corpocracies. Map backdrop via Other World Mapper, terrible graphic design by me!

Because I wanted to set up for a potentially long run, I resorted to using Stars Without Number for its outstanding system for generating sectors full of interesting systems. I didn’t understand the assumptions Crawford had to make to create a sandbox space adventure game, a lot of which don’t fit well with the more character-driven vibe you get off most PbtA, Impulse Drive being no exception. But after several hours of massaging the SWN system, reconciling it with the Impulse Drive system for making locations, and trying to make the whole thing feel cohesive, we had a setting to play in.

Our last spacefaring scumbag game had been Scum and Villainy which, like other Forged in the Dark games, comes with a setting and strongly implied campaign hooks. There’s nothing like that in Impulse Drive. Prep was a heavy lift for me. I’m not sure that it has to be, though. I think you could probably make stuff up on the fly, although the game’s systems for making Locations, NPCs and Groups (anything from gangs to factions) are not improv-friendly. The book comes with lots of examples, though, so it’s easy to just pull out a pirate crew or an evil empire gunship.

What Even Are Strains?

Impulse Drive borrows heavily from some of my favorite games and remixes their ideas in interesting ways. One big one is a new take on clocks, here called Strains, which land halfway between Apocalypse World’s take and Blades in the Dark’s take. Strains are allegedly optional but many moves reference them. I’ve tried and given up trying to make them make sense, other than where they appear on the ship playbooks.

The Blades-y bit of Strains is that there are Scene, Episode, and Season length options. Scene-length Strains are what you’d expect in a Blades session: something urgent will take place within this scene when the Strain’s fuse is filled. Ditto episode length (some larger thing) and season length (think Fronts in Apocalypse World). The problem is that the whole thing feels undercooked. I’ve written before about how “clocks” are different ideas in PbtA and FitD, despite sharing the name. It doesn’t feel like the designer shares my opinion!

Unfortunately, that means Strains don’t really work right, particularly the player-facing Strain that mediates a Workshop-like move called “Personal Project.” In other PbtA games, the Workshop equivalent is a list of fictional positioning goals the character needs to hit. But in Impulse Drive, the connection between the fiction and the Strain is weak. GM-facing Strains tick down mostly due to neglect (i.e. if you didn’t try to evade the cops, the cops are still coming when the Cop Strain fills) or misses, and that’s fine as long as the GM remembers to also narrate a change in situation along with the tick. That’s easy to forget, and can also feel like double jeopardy to the players when they miss.

Player-facing Strains fell apart in our game, in large part because you can tick Personal Project Strains via the game’s various downtime moves. We hashed this out in our session this week by making Personal Project ticks prescriptive: if you have downtime or resources to tick a Personal Project, that means you hit the fictional trigger without having to play it out. If you needed to make a deal with an unsavory operator, well, then we just say you made that deal off-screen. It’s fine, and leans more heavily on treating Impulse Drive as a TV show emulator than I was comfortable with.

Okay, the Editing

Between the prep difficulty and the untestedness of the Strains, I can’t escape the feeling that the game has lots of little last-minute changes that slipped in right before printing. I feel that way because in every case I can tell what the answer should be. That implies, to me, that the game’s going to work just fine if you have experience in the games that inspire Impulse Drive, and maybe not so well if you’re doing your damnedest to stick close to the Rules As Written. There’s a lot of that, all of it eminently forgivable, all of it making me hope a second edition shows up someday to polish it up.

The Good News: Solid Moves and Playbooks

Impulse Drive is not an ambitious reinvention of the PbtA style. It’s not groundbreaking. Adrian says it’s based on Dungeon World, and I can see why: you earn XPs on missed rolls, there’s a Spout Lore type move (a distinctiveness of the DW hack style, imo), and so on. Impulse Drive is built on a solid chassis, and has a few bits that take it to the next level.

Solid Moves

There are some interesting choices in the basic moves that give you a lot of leeway in interpreting the situation. The theme I see is pairs: a pair of moves each for fighting, for social interactions, and for Defying Danger.

There are two combat moves: Firefight, for when you’re duking it out and Alpha Strike, for when you’ve got a clear drop on a target. There’s also Recover, kind of a combat meta-move, that ties into the game’s Discharge economy (many moves and gear can be Discharged, giving a big bonus but only once) as well as the harm system.

There are two “act under fire” type moves: Act Quick, for when speed and agility are what’s needed, and Keep Your Cool, for when endurance and level-headedness are what’s needed. Honestly they could have been one move, kind of Defy Danger style but constrained to +Slick and +Stalwart. They have identical outcomes. This is one of many places where I see a round with an outside developer or development editor could have smoothed things out.

There are two social conflict moves: Intimidate, which is an elaborate version of Go Aggro from Apocalypse World, and Manipulate, which is pretty much what you’ve seen across the PbtA spectrum – if you want something and have a carrot, you manipulate.

There are two info-gathering moves: Scope it Out (basically Read a Sitch and its descendants) and Share Expertise (the Spout Lore type move from above). They’re fine. Scope is like Read in that there’s a narrow list of questions that don’t always fit what the players want to find out. I like that the lists are mismatched in theory but I know it aggravates my players sometimes.

The helping move is called Lean on Me, which ties into the game’s Advantage and Stress rules. And there’s an Open Your Brain type move called Into the Abyss, which raises all the same questions about the cosmology of your game that the Maelstrom does in Apocalypse World. What does it look like? How do you access it? There are two other Abyss moves as well, one having to do with what happens when the Abyss “assaults” the character (interesting implications!), and another is a simple list of pointed questions the Abyss will ask of anyone that accesses it.

There’s a second list of moves that fill in downtime, which to me feels a lot like the formal downtime phase in Blades in the Dark. There’s a literal Downtime move, and The Crew is Back In Town for stirring shit up between visits, a Personal Project move that’s effectively a Workshop – or, more likely, Ritual from Dungeon World – for anyone in the game, moves for before and after the PCs take on a contract, and on-ramp/off-ramp moves for each session. They’re nice, they get the job done, they keep stuff stirred up. We’re never at a loss for new things to think or worry about.

Strong-But-Narrow Playbooks

There are eight playbooks to choose from. They’re what you’d expect, and I wasn’t surprised by any of them: Hound (bounty hunter), Infiltrator, Intellect, Mystic, Outsider, Scoundrel, Tempest (super-powered and dangerous, actually this one is a bit of a surprise) and Warhorse. Given the game’s goal of easily modeling other space adventure media, it’s a fine spread.

Advancement comes via missed rolls, Dungeon World style, as well as bringing Hooks (based on Goals, Instincts and Traits, straight out of Burning Wheel or Torchbearer) into play and, sometimes, your background. Every playbook has a choice of two backgrounds, which doesn’t really double the number of playbooks but provides for nice/naughty versions of each one. Each playbook also has a starting Signature Move.

The basic advancement scheme of the game is to improve each of your five stats once, buy playbook moves (there are eight per), or buy more gear slots. Gear is determined ad-hoc like in Blades in the Dark, so the more slots you have the more options for having just the right thing at the right time you get.

The Killer App: Calamities

You can see a lot of Impulse Drive’s inspirational games on clear display: Hooks are character flags that read a bit like BITs in Burning Wheel, Stress is an alternative harm system that looks like it came out of Blades in the Dark, and Advantage/Disadvantage is the newest OSR/D&D flavored hotness, replacing +/-Hx type modifiers in this and other PbtA games. They work well together. But the game’s big innovation is called Calamities.

Each playbook has a list of seven events; one of the seven is a once-in-a-lifetime move roll, one is a “you’re permanently disabled” type thing, the rest are a mix of benefits and opportunities. As the character racks up Stress – usually in lieu of taking damage, but also on 7-9 results on Act Quick/Keep Your Cool, or the GM inflicting Stress on a miss – the track fills up, you clear the track, and pick a Calamity. The first couple are good stuff! The Intellect has a flash of brilliance and executes a Personal Project (workshop/ritual) quickly, or the Scoundrel comes into possession of something rare/valuable but it’s also stolen/illegal. Then you’re faced with less-good options, like old enemies coming after you or an NPC you care about being in danger. You can take the moves in any order you want, which is terrific. And because it’s (mostly) tied to the harm system, it’s a way for the players to pick their character’s ending at a time of their choosing.

The Calamity list for every playbook, and how Calamity interacts with Stress and Harm, puts a lot of control in the players’ hands. They can choose to not be harmed, but that choice isn’t inconsequential. It also sketches out a pretty clear dramatic arc for each Playbook, telegraphing to the GM what to try and set up early so those choices make sense when they appear. I’m not always good at that, and on more than one occasion a player has chosen a Calamity that just doesn’t fit the fiction right now, so I have to move them to the front burner and prep around them so they happen faster. Our relatively short online sessions – two or three hours – also mean it’s hard to fit everyone’s spotlight moment into play right away. I don’t love that but everyone gets their time to shine eventually.

Stress leading to Calamities feels an awful lot like the Corruption system in Urban Shadows, ultimately. The triggers are different: Urban Shadows incentivizes players to pursue thematic moral choices, while Impulse Drive cloaks the characters in script immunity, incentivizing the players to take big cinematic chances.

How it Feels

We’re eight or so sessions in now, which is a long stretch for me. The pressures of reading and playing stuff for the blog, combined with my short attention span, usually has me scampering off to a new game every month or so. But the combination of accessibility, the overall clarity of the game and what it’s trying to accomplish, and I think our shorter sessions as we play via Zoom are adding up to a nicely sustainable game.

The way advancement and Calamities work makes the playbooks feel like they play out a single arc. Obviously every game will play out different in the details, but there’s only one advancement list to buy through (unless you use the option of buying from other playbooks after you’ve gotten your first four – we do and it’s a good option). And the Calamity list for each playbook is the same: a couple “good” options, a couple situation-creators, a couple finale type options.

Once I worked out the baseline prep, I had a much better sense of the places they’re playing. I’m still working out what mix of star-faring and planetary action that feels good. The game is built around crews carrying out Contracts, which can be anything from literal contracts they pick up from bounty boards or patrons or whatever, or orders from superiors back at HQ.  Depending on the ship choice, you may have more or less focus on actually making money. There’s a bit of a grind to keep your ship going, which is always good to motivate crews who find themselves between personal dramas.

All in all, Impulse Drive feels like a game beautifully tuned to play one — and only one — exciting season of your favorite space adventure TV show.

Last Thoughts

Spacefaring scumbags is a genre I’ve always craved, even tried to design toward, and it’s never worked out for us. But Impulse Drive came to us at the right time, when we needed a familiar game in a familiar genre that wouldn’t outlast its welcome.

Impulse Drive is a good reminder to me that a good game need not be a perfect game. It’s riddled with missing and under-explained bits, some bigger than others, but the overall shape of the game is functional and you know exactly what you’re going to get out of it. More time in the oven might’ve baked out my issues – in particular, the Strain system – but I’m not sure it’d be a consistently better experience. This is a place where I’m happy to bring my own experience in all the games that informed this game, and finish the job myself. If you’ve played Blades in the Dark, Burning Wheel, and Dungeon World, you’ll know what this game is trying to get at. And you’ll easily get it there yourself.

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