Impulse Drive: That’s a Wrap!

My home group finished our season of Impulse Drive this week. We played it entirely via Zoom, character keepers in Google Sheets, rollforyour.party for dice, and Pinterest. It was my first successful run at playing a tabletop RPG online. I learned a lot about online play, and I’m looking forward to the next online experience. I can safely say I’m over my online play fears.

Click here to read the first half of my deep dive into Impulse Drive. I describe the meat and potatoes of how the game works there. These are my closing thoughts and I make several references back to it. Go refresh, I’ll wait here.

Good? Let’s do it.

The Pleasure of a Formal Finale

Bringing our game to a satisfying end reminded me that we frequently don’t do that. Far more often I just give up on a game, get distracted by something shiny, give in to impatience. Bad habit. I’ve shut down many games that needed to push past a hump.

I’m not sure what the inflection point is. For us it was around 10 sessions. Everyone was fluent with the system (even the little-used moves), their character options, and understood my interpretation and style of using the rules. Everyone’s storylines had momentum, so players could express their characters in more subtle and less urgent ways. We understood the setting better, including its underlying metaphysics. Every interpersonal connection had solidified – the pilot and the bounty hunter’s shared interest in professionalism, the pilot’s fear of the weird alien AI’s judgement, the mystic’s connection with the AI over their outsider-ness, and so on.

Arrrrgh!

A satisfying finale is, I think, satisfying because it’s your last chance to complete patterns. But to make the finale grand, you need to be willing and able to imply very large patterns leading up to it. The pattern-completion of each move playing out is a tiny little hit of happiness, but closing out the accretion of 40-50 hours of bits? Oh boy, it’s the final jigsaw puzzle piece being dropped into place. Actual, physical relief.

One thing that makes Impulse Drive play out one (and only one) campaign/season is that each playbook’s Calamity list includes a move that will take your character out of play, one way or another. It’s a neat, variable alternative to “retire in peace.” Two of our characters, the bounty hunter and the mystic, got to end the game with them. The bounty hunter faced off against the recurring villain with one final “only one of us walks away from this” move…and against all odds, missed. Astonishing. He rolled against his best stat – +3 – and missed. It was perfect. Meanwhile, the mystic had to burn through so much Stress to survive during the grand showdown that he picked up two Calamities, which allowed him to narrate taking over his mystic order and his sister becoming an estranged apostate of the same order. Marvelous.

It’s a Crew Game, but #notallcrews

“Space adventure” is a sprawling genre, particularly in the scamp freighter vein. We had chosen the smuggler ship playbook, which is baseline Impulse Drive. While fun-loving troublemakers are easy to understand, though, I think Impulse Drive forgets the genre also centers on frequent low-level conflict among the crew: Mal and Inara’s on-again-off-again relationship, Luke convincing Han to rescue a rich girl, everyone versus everyone every episode of Farscape. Sometimes everyone’s on the same page – particularly when they’re on mission – and sometimes they’re not.

The greatest ship crew ever conceived. I will not be taking questions at this time.

PbtA type games, especially when they’re close to Apocalypse World’s baseline, are tricky to maneuver through when it comes to PvP type conflict. All my players are experienced with Burning Wheel, and BW is our gold standard for fair-but-tough PvP play. The Duel of Wits system lets the players mechanize and resolve their arguments without any GM input. Impulse Drive doesn’t offer that. The PvP advice in every PbtA game I’ve ever run, including ID, is simple: follow the fiction. But in terms of gameplay affordances, it’s easy to push against that.

Like straight AW, there are essentially two mechanized social interaction sequences: intimidation and manipulation. Intimidation is in the Go Aggro vein: make a real threat and asking the target to force your hand or submit. Manipulation requires you have something on offer in return for agreement. Those choices are fine when it comes to pushing against NPCs. They’re less good against another player, because they both demand the target give up agency. There’s no counter-offer in the intimidate, and there’s no enforcement in the manipulate. Manipulate, in fact, is purposefully quite weak: the stick is that a PC must roll to get out from under it. The carrot half – XP if you do what I say – becomes non-incentivizing for reasons I cover below.

I mean, this is just how these games work without a ton of PvP infrastructure, like you find in Monsterhearts. What Impulse Drive is quite good at, though, is mechanically reinforcing a functional team. For example, you can support each other with a great move called “Lean on Me,” which covers both direct support and emotional comfort. It’s my current favorite version of helping rules, mostly due to the move being tied into the Stress rules. Not only can you provide help toward succeeding at the roll, you can also help them recover from Stress while you do it. Very neat. There are other examples of group decision type moves throughout the game as well.

Let us contemplate the fruit-filled gap.

On the other hand, leaving that gap in place is itself a design decision. If you’re not willing to actually harm someone, and you have nothing specific to offer, what does that leave the players? I know my BW-head players want a system cudgel, and not having one reflexively bugs them. But either the game goes on, or they dig in their heels and the game stops. This is also a legitimate outcome.

Story time!

We had an excellent moment in the game, near the end, where two characters had been acting like they were on the same page but were definitely not. Tons of marvelous dramatic irony, and the players reveled in it. But when the secret agent receives orders to get the mystic out of the way so the agent’s master can do a thing, the agent drugged the mystic and flew him out of the current system. The mystic eventually woke up, liberated himself, armed up, and got ready to murder the agent. Wow! But after some mystical psychic probing, he discovered the agent was following outside orders and would never physically harm anyone on the crew. That prompted a frustrating discussion.

The mystic wasn’t willing to blow away the agent, so no Intimidate. So instead he promised to mind his own business if only the agent would fly back – it’s the only thing he had to offer. He rolled Manipulate, but the agent got out from under it by succeeding at the Keep Your Cool roll. I think it cost a Stress, but whatever. So the players were left without a clear mechanical way forward. Interesting! I could have stepped in and offered something, but the real-world social pressure of both of them knowing the cost of digging in their heels meant they worked it out on their own.

Sometimes no system is itself the system. Sometimes frustration is okay.

The Long Game

As I suspected the last time I wrote about Impulse Drive, the playbooks are set up to play through one season of a TV show. It was a show with lots of little subplots, of course. Think Agents of SHIELD: three big acts within a larger arc. But the short list of advancements (you only buy from your own playbook, unlike Apocalypse World), the rapid pace of session-based advancement when sessions are short, and the list of Calamities you’ll eventually run out of all add up to a system-mandated endgame.

Would the game be improved with a … holy hand grenade? It wouldn’t not be improved.

To my mind, that’s a good thing. Because advancement is tied to missed rolls (Dungeon World style) and you use your Hooks to invoke more frequent misses and there are end of session questions, the shorter the session the faster the advancement. Everyone in our game of 12 sessions (or so, I lost count) advanced all five stats, bought all their playbook advances except each book’s “grenade” move – for real, every playbook has a special use of grenades, of all things – and most of their loadout slots. They did that a couple sessions short of burning through all their Calamities.

Our game shifted from lots of advancement-incentivized missing via Hooks, to all the stats improving, to everyone growing beyond advancement as an incentive and just killing it with boosted stats and no more Hooks. Which, you know, awesome. Love me some good competency porn. But since the Space Master (GM/MC) makes moves in the usual PbtA ways, I found myself grabbing more “when they expect you to say something” opportunities and making harder missed-roll SM moves because they were so rare. Giving up on advancement also meant the players spent less time thinking about and updating their Hooks at the end. If they had engineered better hooks I would not have minded a slower, longer focus. Ours didn’t, not really, and once hooks stopped mattering for advancement the players didn’t care about them.

The Work:Fun Ratio

It used to be fashionable in indie circles to loudly, angrily declare: “If the game doesn’t work, play a different game.” I think that has led to weird design choices, over-explaining rules, perfectionism and general paralysis among designers. It’s also led to much better, tighter, more focused design – even in mainstream games. Trade-offs! But as a culture-of-play value? I propose a different formulation: “If the game is too much work to make fun, find a game with a better work:fun ratio.”

Impulse Drive is an imperfect game. Its Apocalypse/Dungeon World origins are readily obvious if you’ve played either game. The new bits, like Calamities, stand out as novel. The bits of design tech from other games like Blades in the Dark (Stress, scene-scaled clocks) are also easy to suss out if you’ve played those games. In other words, the more different games you’ve played, the better you understand what Impulse Drive is trying to get at. You may need to help get it there sometimes.

The work:fun ratio to make Impulse Drive not just playable but fun is quite low, particularly if you’re experienced in the PbtA space. I would not suggest Impulse Drive as anyone’s first PbtA game, but third or fourth? It’s very easy to bridge over the game’s rough bits.

Parting Thoughts

In the end, I really enjoyed this campaign. I learned a ton about related subjects as well:

  • Character-driven PbtA play doesn’t really interface well with Stars Without Number style sandbox setup. Still a useful tool! But I learned a lot about both PbtA and sandboxes by trying to combine them.
  • Fruitful voids are still a thing, and I need to give the players space to navigate them (even if they’re frustrated with fumbling around).
  • It takes time for folks to get comfortable with a game’s systems, characters, and setting and situation. It’s almost always worth it.
  • There are notable technical upsides to online play, particularly the utility of a shared character keeper and the ability share screen media. I’m never giving up on live table play but I’m proceeding with online play with more confidence.
  • Clear endings are powerful enough that they’re worth intentionally pursuing.

Next up: still deciding! I’m leaning toward Imp of the Perverse. Which happens to be just $20 for the very beautiful book right now, by the way.

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