“Something Wicked This Way Comes” can be a good way to start an adventure. But what happens when the “something wicked” is the person you admire and look to for help? I found the horrors of Call of Cthulhu and its sanity loss mechanism to have been the most viscerally scary role playing system I have played, but the psychics in Stars Without Number hold a whole new level of emotional distress for me in the games I have been playing.
The background premise of the game is that humans invented the “spike drive” that allowed them to leap out into space. Travelling through spike space altered humans giving many of them psychic skills. The most powerful of those operated star gates and galactic comms taking the human race to the level of galaxy spanning civilisation. Then came “The Scream”. The network of high level psychics went mad and civilisation fell apart.
So my character Barney set out from his ruined world Endeera, where people were now more or less primitive, to revive the glories of pretech civilisation (ok, he’s young and naive). Imagine my delight at discovering an operational, level 6 spike drive in an old lab full of psychic clones in tubes! Not only that but we found a psychic in suspended animation upstairs and I revived her and took a liking to her. We discovered a Doctor Zeus had been cutting out bits of her brain to add to other psychics and enhance them.
Then I made a horrible mistake. Really horrible. Really really. I had the other players begin cleaning the meta bugs off the spike drive, which immediately increased its power and started to revive the test tube psychics. Oh cool I thought. So I brought our revived psychic down stairs. “Get the gang together and maybe rebuild star gate travel”, I thought, “Yes!” This dream lasted 13.87 seconds. As the last meta bug was removed and the spike drive spun into full thrust, with psychedelic light displays and zoom, zoom noises my psychic locked eyes on the fully developed test tube psychic. “There can be only one!” they both declared and the screaming started.
We tried to shoot the psychic in the test tube, but she exploded the brains of our revived psychic (a la Scanners) and then threw herself onto the spike drive yelling “I’ll take you all with me!!!”. She died while hurling us all into the great sector sargasso between the dimensions.
Now to understand the impact of this you have to remember this isn’t some story we were reading, we were role playing, and I had a personal, emotional investment in what was going on. I wanted to revive the psychics and use the spike drive to begin a utopian revival. Instead what a got was a nightmare of screaming, death and failure. I was a bit disturbed and started looking sideways at our psychic player character, Nazia.
So we find ourselves in this inter dimensional ships graveyard, clustered around what appears to be an old star gate. After some adventures we finally end up in part of the control center for the star gate and meet a newly revived master psychic. He seems to be a great guy and I like him a lot but, oh my, the arrogance. We try to warn him about the scream and its effect but he more or less pats us on the head and says “yes children, its ok, daddy’s here now”.
You’ve seen it in horror movies where the arrogant adult patronises the kids while the monster sneaks up on them. You yell at the screen but of course it doesn’t help. Only here I was, on the other side of the screen, in the movie, and it still didn’t help. “I’m just going to wake up the others, and fix up the stargate. Then we will see what’s going on”. Nooooooooooooo!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
The outcome is still too disturbing for me to describe fully. Lets just say our benefactor held sanity together just long enough to get us through the gate back to dimension zero, and to implant a spike map to the galaxy into Nazia’s mind that almost killed her.
And so after this second encounter with high level psychic power I am terrified of meeting such power again. When we go to Muhammadi and the director there starts doing a psychic probe on us, while holding an old leather book in her hand, my mind has retreated to a dark corner where it jibbers pathetically in a small huddle. Has Nazia now been infected with some kind of psychic command? Is psychic power worse than the out of control nano technology that has been released in the star system’s anomaly, also created by mad Doctor Zeus the uplifted simian? What about the great AI systems, are they all mad? Will Dinky Ratchet submit to the AI virus that the psychics created and pilot us into a star?
This sci fi adventure is capable of so much darkness, and it has filled me with a fear of psychics!