It takes just a quick Google to find well researched and articulate essays on how horror and sci-fi reflect current concerns.
When the West, for example, was worried about an insidious creep of communism, we had movies like “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” in which people looked exactly like us but were actually swapped out an unseen threat when we worried about nuclear war, the nuclear charged Godzilla levelled cities, worries about advancement in bio-science gave us zombie plagues, and so forth.
Is the same true for tabletop games? Well, Biohazard Games has a Kickstarter live right now, and already there’s maybe a clue in the name, and it’s for Blue Planet: Recontact. I took one glance at it, saw dolphins armed with lasers apparently defending a watery world and immediately thought of the timely relevance to modern ecological concerns.
The catch? This will be the third edition of Blue Planet, and no one can access designer Jeff Barber for leaping on a bandwagon. So can RPGs be a lens to modern concerns? Should they? As it happens, Jeff took part in our Round Table on inhospitable settings, and so I took the chance to ask him about both.
Is Blue Planet a reflection of contemporary environmental concerns?
The short answer is yes. Absolutely. The longer answer is that sadly, these concerns were no less contemporary when the first edition was written, and have only become more urgent over the lifetime of the game. Blue Planet was often criticized for having an environmental agenda, and though I always felt that was only one aspect of setting, we are certainly leaning into that intent now as the threats to the Earth’s ecology have become existential.
Let’s backtrack a bit. Could you tell us a bit about the history of Blue Planet and how we’ve got to where we are today?
We published the first edition in 1997 as Biohazard Games. We produced a couple supplements before licensing the game to Fantasy Flight Games for a second edition in 2000. Under the guidance of my partner, Greg Benage, they went on to produce a great line of supplements covering equipment, wildlife, locations and adventures and a whole book on cetacean characters. Steven Jackson produced an adaptation for GURPS in 2003 and FASA produced what they called a revised second edition in 2012. The lP remained Biohazard’s throughout and was inactive after the FASA edition up to now.
During the process of Kickstarting and publishing our Upwind RPG a couple years ago, I formed a great working relationship with Alan Bahr of Gallant Knight Games who suggested we do a new edition of Blue Planet. Given my long simmering desire to create a full-color, updated version, the game’s loyal fan base and the ecological threats that have become a real world global focus, it seemed like the right time for a new version. Some family health crisis and COVID slowed us down for a year and some, but here we are with the Kickstarter and Blue Planet: Recontact.
As well as the ecological concerns, I noticed the phrase “native insurgents” used in the Kickstarter pitch. As a Brit, albeit a Scot, I’m very aware of my country’s colonist past. I found myself wondering whether “native insurgent” was an oxymoron or a fluffier term for guerrilla or terrorist. Did you have to do similar mental calculations?
The truth of terms like that are always a matter of perspective. Freedom fighter is a good descriptor too. The natives who have begun to fight back against the Incorporate exploitation of Poseidon – the eponymous Blue Planet – may be scattered and disorganized, but they are definitely intended to be the most sympathetic faction in the setting. The game has always had anti-colonial themes baked into the setting, and like with the environmental elements, we are leaning into these in the new edition. There is an overdue reckoning going on in the world and it can be valuable to reflect it even in something as seemingly low stakes as a roleplaying game.
And should GMs? Whether it’s Blue Planet or any other game, is it wise for anyone running a game with friends to steer clear of potentially provocative topics? Or are games a safe way to approach controversial subjects worthy of conversation?
I think that is entirely up to the GM. If that’s their jam, and their group consents, and there are safety rules, absolutely. I think most long standing tables can probably navigate those questions relatively easily, and new tables may need to discuss intent before diving in. Gaming is a great way to explore lots of things we otherwise can not – ruined castles, poster-filled dungeons and distant water planets – so they can also be safe, meaningful ways to explore new perspectives, feelings and personal growth.
Do you have any tips for GMs on how to do that with Blue Planet?
Discuss your intentions with your group and use safety tools like the X-Card and Lines and Veils. Be respectful both in the narrative and at the table. Just take a break and even abandon the game if it’s making anyone uncomfortable.
At the inhospitable round table, we touched on corruption but didn’t have time to further explore it. What sort of corruption is there in Blue Planet? Is it another lens? Is it a story hook?
There is no meta corruption in Blue Planet: Recontact like some games and settings have. Characters do not suffer corruption or degradation by using evil magic or by having too many cybermods or whatever, and the setting does not feature a supernatural, environmental corrupting force. Corruption does however play a very important, albeit mundane, thematic role in Blue Planet. The environmental corruption that has toppled civilization on Earth in 2199 and has been transplanted to the exploitation of Poseidon, is an existential background threat that strongly informs everything in the game, while hopefully inspiring players to consider the stewardship of our own, real-world blue planet.
I also see in the Kickstarter that Blue Planet: Recontact makes it easier for GMs to get started telling stories in the watery world. Can you give us some examples of what you mean by that?
The only consistent criticism Blue Planet has received over the years is that the setting is so vast and wide open, it’s often challenging for game moderators to know where to start. They struggle to choose a single campaign current from among the sea of ideas in the setting. In the new edition we are therefore providing a range of campaign archetypes to provide ready-made options for GMs new to the game.
It’s common practice for RPG books to present a range of character archetypes, providing players with detailed examples of the kinds of PCs available to play. These campaign archetypes are similar in that they offer guidance for a variety of different adventure types that can be run in the world of Blue Planet, providing GMs with starting points, directions and enough details to get a variety of different campaigns underway. Each archetype outlines a premise, PC suggestions, unique NPCs, key locations, resources, themes, and plot threads from which a GM can build their perfect Blue Planet campaign.
I admit, I was intrigued by the concept of playing an almost exclusively water-bound campaign when I watched your pitch video. It was enticing, but I worried I might struggle to keep the familiar but different feel of a water game fresh in my players’ minds. Do you have any tips on how to keep the water feeling significant in, say, session three and beyond?
Truth is, it’s not really a water-bound game. I’ve a thousand of hours of BP at this point, and in truth a small percentage of that time has been spent under, or even on, the water – and there is 3% land after all. Like a vacation to Hawaii, the water is always there, and the ocean influences every aspect of the experience on the islands, but most people actually spend only small parts of their trip in or on the water.
The oceans are where most of the environmental and ecological dangers are found – and for many campaigns the oceans therefore most often represent the dangerous edges of civilization, serving mostly as an ominous backdrop. In other games it will be the wild and dangerous ride that you can’t ignore because is like being on an out-of-control rollercoaster. For still others – and these are my favorites – the waterworld becomes just another character in the story and plays it’s part as it enters and leave the stage, making Blue Planet a unique experience.
As ways to keep the oceans in mind, moderators can:
-Make the characters deal with challenges imposed by natural phenomena like tides, waves, saltwater, pressure and seasickness.
-Stage encounters with strange or massive or dangerous (or all three) wildlife – they can be threatening leading to fights, or they can be majestic, leading to awe. Or both.
-Throw a massive cyclonic storm at their characters city, village, island or boat and have them fight through the event.
-Lead the players to have to travel on or under it, dealing with the associated risks and challenges.
-Remind them of the constant ocean smell and humidity. Remind them how their diet is almost entirely seafood. Remind them that there is always sand in their shoes and their clothes never quite dry. Remind them how there is usually a vast, flat and glittering horizon in at least three directions.
Thanks, Jeff. The Blue Planet: Recontact Kickstarter is live, and Geek Native thinks it’s worth checking out. Thanks also to Nor Cal Mythos, running LokDown and Valiant Fox Gaming of the Fading Embers setting for their time on the Round Table too.
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