Wednesday, June 12, 2024

My First Dungeon’s Orbital Blues: The Saddest Space Cowboys

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Using the Orbital Blues system by Soul Muppet Publishing, the latest season of My First Dungeon asks what it means to survive in a world that only cares about the bottom line. DM Brian Flaherty guides a found family of sad space cowboys through the devastating reality of late stage capitalism – but in space. 

With a returning cast of MFD regulars (Shenuque Tissera, Abby Hepworth, Elliot Davis, Carolyn Page, and Drakoniques) and a stunning soundtrack composed by Be/Hold, this season stands out as one of the most exquisitely designed actual play podcasts I’ve come across thus far. While sadness is the name of the game, this season cuts through the emotional devastation of each character’s journey’s with MFD’s trademark sense of raunchy comradery (though…Trigger Warning for episode two.)

The Fandomentals sat down with Brian, Elliot, and Abby to talk the heartbreaking mechanics of Orbital Blues, production in collaboration with Be/Hold and Soul Muppet, and how to use narrative design to engage your audience.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Can you give us a little rundown of what Orbital Blues is?

Brian Flaherty: Orbital Blues is a game of sad space cowboys where sad equals XP. It’s the rock and roll future that never was and no one wanted. It’s space but a la 1990 where it was all wood paneling and cassette tapes.

I believe Orbital Blues touches on what’s happening in the larger cultural zeitgeist. I don’t know if you’ve heard of the term TESCREAL. It’s this Silicon Valley neoliberal/fascist  philosophy, part of which is “We need get into space, by any means necessary.” It’s the Elon Musk kind of approach. 

Elliot Davis: I have to commend you for giving me a new word to hate.

There’s a line that you say “space isn’t different, it’s just bigger.” It’s touching on this idea of creating new worlds and expanding into new worlds, but just reiterating everything we have here on earth already, all of the structures, all of the power dynamics. What is the impetus for using Orbital Blues by Soul Muppet and telling this story at this moment?

Brian: This is a game I’ve had on my shelf for a while. Partially because it’s gorgeous, but it’s a game that is trying to simulate things that are like space operas, but in the realm of Cowboy Bebop. This isn’t Star Wars where everything is beautiful and shiny and you’re going fast and light all the time. 

Everyone has the same problems. It’s just we now have a bigger playground in which to try to figure them out in. I really do like that line, because of the idea of going to the final frontier, the last place, the last bastion of human exploration, and we get there and there’s a Coca-Cola sign. 

It’s like oh, nothing is different. There was never an escape. And now that we’ve conquered the final frontier, as it were, there’s no other worlds to conquer. And so Alexander wept. We’re just back to the same old thing. It’s a fun area to play in. 

Abby Hepworth: Orbital Blues is a game that, because of the structure and world that they’ve set up, makes it easier to explore much more emotional or difficult topics, or to build characters that are more emotionally complex. It’s supposed to be a sad space cowboy. It’s a very interesting combination of fantasy and future, but it’s not so far removed from the world that we know, and also a “nostalgic world.”

It’s a perfect combination of “You know and have been in this place,” and fantasy, so that when you start touching on these difficult emotional poles or character builds, it’s exactly the right mix to actually let you touch on those things. 

Elliot: What you were saying Rowan about this time being such a being such a relatable aspect, myself and so many people right now are dealing with the feelings that this game is satirizing to an extent. Brian has this line that comes from one of our NPCs where he constantly says, “I’m just trying to get to zero, man,” and he’s just trying to get his debt down. That’s so many people. It’s just like trying to get your debt down, just trying to make it to zero so you have some semblance of freedom. 

And I love that you brought up the TESCREAL thing and that’s something that is just gonna rattle around in my brain with a hot rage. I think that there’s a moment happening right now, and AI is the latest version of this, but every time that there is a new technology, you can see for one second how it could be really good for people. And then the second second, some corporations have stepped in and made it horrible for everybody. And that’s exactly Orbital Blues. It’s what if that just kept happening, ad infinitum. So yeah, it feels super related to this world in a bad way, but I’m having a delightful time playing in it.

Yeah, it hits maybe a little close to home. For all of you and for everyone reading, look into the work of Dr. Nese Devono, specifically into TESCREAL. Very interesting person, really amazing work. 

Abby: I’m excited to go look this up.

Orbital Blue My First Dungeon Alpha edit title card
You’re talking about how everyone’s just trying to get their debts. They’re gig workers, they’re going after this guy, Dick Whiskey, who isn’t even worth the bounty they put on his head. That’s such a fascinating idea, of doing things that aren’t even worth the time, just because you have to survive. I think there’s a thematic connection, an intertextuality, with Dimension20’s Starstruck. What about Orbital Blues, the system, does things better than 5E to tell this kind of story?

Abby The Troubles immediately leans into the sad, I think. The troubles are so phenomenal for character creation and giving you your motivation for character creation. With 5e,  you can come in and you can build a lot of things and if you have a cool idea, that’s great. But if you’re new to this, or if you’re like, space or cowboys aren’t usually my jam. And you don’t even know where to begin, it’s built in there for you. And then I mean, there’s tons of other super cool mechanics, but for character creation specifically, that was a real boon. 

Brian: The meta currency of 5e is experience points. The metacurrency of Orbital Blues is sadness. So if you’re trying to tell a deeper story, the DNA and the bones of this game, or at least if you’re trying to tell a very specific sad story, the DNA of this game is trying to get you to reckon with troubles and sadness. And, 5e kind of does that to an extent with like ideals and bonds and flaws, but that is very much an ancillary part of 5e. Like if you look at the 5e book, that much of it is bonds, flaws and ideals. And I’ll bet you a fair number of 5e players don’t even know that those are parts of the player’s handbook. Whereas most of Orbital Blues is explaining what kind of troubles you can have, what blues are and how you can, how you can gain blues throughout the game to eventually have your troubles come and brew it and reckon with your troubles.

All of the mechanics (and this is something that we love with My First Dungeon) push you towards a single experience. Orbital Blues is trying to get you to have your blues boil over and you have to reckon with your trouble. And it gives you all the tools to do that between your troubles and your gambits, the possibility of doing a swan song where you go out in a blaze of glory or a blaze of infamy. Who knows what that blaze is, but you’re going out no matter what. All of the mechanics go towards that experience. Whereas something like 5e is kind of a Swiss army RPG. It is very good at doing a lot of things and being a physics engine and being a combat engine. But if you’re trying to tell a story that is working around more like human moments, Orbital Blues is just something that is built to attempt to do that. Not to say that 5E can’t do that because obviously like Starstruck did it. But I think out of the box, Orbital Blues is attempting to get you there whereas 5E is giving you all the tools you need. You’ll just have to spend a lot of time putting together the Ikea furniture. 

That’s a really, really good comparison. You’re just like, these instructions mean nothing, but I’ll figure it out eventually.

Abby: Something will come together and it’ll look like shelves and I’ll put books on it, but we’ll see. 

Brian: 5e gives you all the tools, but you do have to do a lot of work for yourself if you want to tell any specific type of story that isn’t high fantasy.

Elliot: Yeah, and I think there’s nothing heroic about your character in Orbital Blues. 5e assigns a certain heroism to your character right off the bat. Even if the cards are stacked against you in 5e, you still have this like hero’s journey model that, while you can adapt it to not be that, it is  inherently that. And Orbital Blues is like, no, this deck is stacked against you and you might not succeed.

Honestly, the way this system works, you probably won’t reach some grand conclusion. You’re not going to emerge from the smoke untouched and unaffected. Whether you emerge from the smoke or not is a question. And what kind of person you are when you emerge is a total other question. Like you might not be a good guy at the end of this game, and you might not have been a good guy to start.

Brian Also, if you emerge from the smoke in this particular game unaffected… I don’t wanna ever tell someone they’re playing a role playing game wrong, but if you emerge unaffected from the smoke, you probably didn’t interact with this game on its terms.

Music is very integral to this season and Orbital Blues as a game. We don’t have Be/Hold here, but like what was that process working with him like, and knowing that you were going in using this musical world to kind of fill out the narrative.

Elliot: I could gush about Be/Hold all day. 

Brian: I know, right? Be/Hold, for anyone who doesn’t know, Be/Hold is the the musical pseudonym of Colin McClutchie, who’s a wonderful musician in Brooklyn, New York, who’s done music for us for our Yazeba season, for Project Ecco, for DIE.

Specifically started working with us in the die season where we made initially just a theme song. And then he and I got so excited to do more stuff. We’re like, “Hey, let’s do character themes too.” And those became so integral to the story. I mean, they’re one of the big reasons that season was so good, because we had such powerful music to accompany each of our players.

Elliot: I think the thing with working with behold is that you can give him just a crazy ask. The ask that we gave him is like, “Here are these five characters. They all have pretty different vibes. Also here’s the shared playlist we made, which is a variety of vibes. Can you synthesize (pun intended I suppose) all of this stuff into both a theme song and like character themes that, while being really distinct and character-centric, also feel like part of a cohesive whole?” And he did that. I mean, like he really did that. 

Brian, Be/Hold and I are in constant communication when he’s working on it. We have like a group text where he’s dropping demos and then Brian’s going and sharing it with Abby and discussing and we’re texting about it. And so it’s a very collaborative process and a lot of references, a lot of references that like Brian loves, like Brian’s a huge fan of, what’s the Cowboy Bebop band?

Brian: Seatbelts.

Elliot: Then Be/Hold brings, he brings his own thing to it. On top of all the things we ask of him, there is still something very distinctly behold about the tracks.

That’s a testament to Behold’s ability to have grasped and understood what it is you are trying to do with these characters in this story. 
Orbital Blues Podcast Album Cover
Something that I think that was very interesting about the beginning of the show and the first episode is that you start in the middle of a battle. You start in the middle of this action adventure sequence that kind of just establishes what this world is. What are you trying to get across to the audience from the moment you get in this world with this sequence of chasing down Richard Dick whiskey?

Brian: The opening chase scene is both a huge boon and a huge bane to this season. And the boon first is that, going into any new game, I’m always nervous I’m going to get the mechanics right. I’m nervous that we’re going to do things quick enough to make sure everyone gets their characters together, and also like that we’re going to establish characters and stakes quick enough. 

Opening with like the very first line is “This story doesn’t start in the stars. It starts on the ground and you’re not flying. You’re running.” And then I just get to it. Like, now the onus is not entirely on me as the game master, as the storyteller, as this system calls it. It’s kind of on the players. 

When you ask incredibly pointed questions to your players, they respond with much more interesting and actionable answers. So if I say there’s a guy running and he’s your meal ticket out of here, what do you do? You’re gonna get people telling you crazy, cool things. Whereas if it’s like, all right, we’re on a ship and we all like each other, you’re still gonna get a cool story out of that, but it’s gonna take much longer. Whereas you learn immediately from the first action that people do in that opening scene, who they are, because they lead with who they are.

Abby: Being a crew on a ship and chasing someone who you want to get down, it also immediately helped define relationships and how we work with each other when we have a task at hand. To immediately jump into the game and be like, “Aha, we should figure this out as well. And we’ll do it in the moment.” It was great.

Yeah, it’s a lot more compelling than meeting at a tavern.

Elliot: Or even meeting on the ship. Even if we had started on the ship, we wouldn’t have gotten that. I sing the praises of that move in the talkback of that episode, but I was so pleased with starting it that way. As a player, it was such a gift to get given like, “Here, show me in three sentences who your character is in a tough situation. Not who they are when they’re done up and they’re like hanging out looking cool on the spaceship and like smoking a cigarette or something. Who your character is when they’re chasing someone and like they really need to catch them?” It’s great.

Brian: Yeah, it’s also like a kindness. It’s a gift to receive as a player when someone asks you those kind of questions or says those things, because they’re asking you a very particular question that has a smaller range of answers, kind of where if it’s just like, all right, Elliot, “Who’s ward? What are you doing on the ship?”

Abby: It feels like the kind of thing where you’re in a job interview and they’re like, tell me about yourself. And you’re like, “Well, what do you want to know? Do you want to know my childhood? Do you want to know like what I did today? What do you mean? Tell me about yourself.”

Brian: It’s not a helpful question. Whereas you’re running, this guy’s chasing you. What weapon are you pulling out? Like now you get to choose from five options instead of infinite. And of those five, you can make the exact right choice rather than the infinite options of anything where it’s like, I’m going to get close.

Elliot: And I don’t think we even chose weapons in session zero. I think you deliberately had us not choose weapons in session zero. And it was like, when you introduce your character in episode one, decide what weapon you have, which is very fun.

Brian: Yeah, I’m going to pretend that was a high level move and not just us running out of time. 

No, it was deeply intentional. Every single thing that happens in a finished product of an actual play is intentional. The curtains are blue because of symbolism.
But speaking to it in the context of larger mediums and novels and films and creating actual play as a medium itself, thinking about it in this way of you are introducing the characters in a moment that is revelatory of who they are as people. Do you think that goes for every session that you play as well? Do you think you learn something new at the beginning and end of every session of this game?

Brian: I think there is the old screenwriting adage of like, start as close to the end as possible, which is very good advice just in general. I have a bad habit in any of our games of going minute to minute when I really should do some time skips. By making a show that is designed to be listened to by other people, you wanna have a strong start that gets people interested and you wanna have a strong finish that leaves them wanting to come back.

And even though there’s a lot of my brain that’s doing that, like for an outside audience, it ends up working really well for the players at the table as well. Ultimately the first audience is your friends around the table. And when you have those big epic, bomb drops at the end, everyone’s excited to come back for the next episode. And when you start up at a hundred, you don’t have to kind of like rev up into it. You’re like, all right, we’re already here and we’re going and we’re gonna be at high octane the whole time.

Elliot: Orbital Blues pushes you to discover things about the characters as you play, like much like, and I think we make this comparison in one of the talkbacks, like much like Yazeba’s, bingos and whoopsies, this game, when you have a trouble has three things that in session trigger you to automatically gain one blues. And that’s connected back to your trouble. I have found those three things to be incredibly informative for learning things about my character as I’m playing. One of them is you rely on a trick taught to you by an old friend. And there’s this theme throughout of Ward’s brother is the person he learned everything from. And so it often reveals something about my backstory to do something cool or fun in a combat scenario or in a whatever scenario. So the game is really good with those pieces of like, these are the three things connected to your backstory that might come up in session and for you to turn to in session when you don’t know what else to do.

Brian:. It’s also just like a worthwhile trick for like NPCs or player characters of any system. Like write down three things that are their default three things. And it’s like that tells you what does this NPC do at any time? Like, Richard Dick Whiskey goes, “Ah, man,” like, I could always lean back on. “Ah, man. I’m just getting back to zero, guys.” And once you have that, you know exactly who that character is. 

Is there anything that we haven’t touched on that you guys really wanna get out about this season? What is one thing that you’re like, ah, I need the world to know about this game?

Elliot: I think I would highlight just the fact that for us, this is a first time collaboration of its kind with Soul Muppet Publishing for us at My First Dungeon. We often work closely with the publishers of games that we’re playing and we have them on the show, but this is the first time that we’re sponsored by a publisher. And I think that that’s allowing us to. Like you said, like put even more into it than we’ve been able to put into in the past. And so I’m really excited for that. I’m really excited to see how many people were able to drive to this Kickstarter and like help lift up Orbital Blues: Afterburn, help lift up a publisher like Soul Muppet. And I think that my hope, and I think all of our hope is that this is the first of many relationships like this for future seasons.

Kind of rounding this out. I really love that every season of this game that you play and this show that you produce teaches people about these systems and teaches people not just like here’s the kind of story that you can tell your friends, but like here’s how you play this game mechanically and you do it in such a very seamless and such a in such a cinematic way and I think that is a testament both to like all what all of you do, but also
What you can show other actual play producers who are showing off their games. Cause there’s a lot of conversation going on in the world of TTRPGs right now, like why people make actual plays for narrative reasons, for educational reasons. And I think you guys are showing that you can kind of do all of the above.

Abby: It’s also nice remembering that like our goal is to just have fun and do it, but also to like demonstrate these games and share the things that we love in a very literal we want you to go play this yourself way; not just we want you to ingest what we’re making way. And it’s nice as a player too, because  we’re constantly like we want to make a good story. But also it’s totally fine to interrupt it.

Wait, how does diving save work again? Or like, what is a swan song? Because the person listening also needs and wants to know the mechanical things. So it’s just nice, because it also feels kind of natural. If you’re at home and you’re playing a thing, you’re like, what do I roll? What do I add? What’s math? 

Brian: It’s also great, because we’re only ever playing the games that we want to shove in people’s faces and be like, play this game, this is so much fun, you don’t even know.

And so it’s great to get to uplift those games and give them like the epic actual play that some of these games just haven’t had just because not enough people know about them or not enough people have decided to make an actual play of this game.

You can order a copy of Orbital Blues here.

The complete 6-episode season of My First Dungeon is available wherever you listen to podcasts.

You can find My First Dungeon on Twitter @MyFirstDungeon, at or on Instagram at Many Sided Media. You can also find their Patreon where they do bonus actual plays and talk backs of their current seasons. 

Images Courtesy of Many Sided Media

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