You Should Be Playing…
Mars Colony: 39 Dark
“I believe in you, Lane,” he said when you told him the mission. “I believe in Mars.”
John Marshall was always just that, a true believer. You’d known him since you were both children, playing in the common area of the northwest residential habitat. In those days, he dreamed he would be the King of Mars, and you would be his loyal knight, righting wrongs and saving the Barsoomians in the stories your parents told. When his parents died of a CO2 filtration failure, he believed it when the Colony Government said it would not happen again. When it did, it was John who joined the revolution, believing they could change it all. And you followed him, because you were angry.
That anger had grown the last few months, and it had changed. They all saw it around you. You spoke and others listened. John listened. John believed in you now, and that was why he was willing to plant a bomb in the Colonial Parliament on the day they were going to vote in the new regulations, cementing a plan which distributed water not to the needy, but the wealthy. You did not push the button when he got caught, but you did not have to. He did, because he believed in you. John Marshall killed himself so your voice could be heard.
There are hundreds now standing at your side during his funeral, but none can fill that void he left. Was it worth it?
39 Dark is the sequel to the amazing Mars Colony, written and produced by Tim Koppang. Released in 2014 after a successful Kickstarter campaign, 39 Dark is a science fiction roleplaying game for two players. Meant to be played in a single session, 39 Dark takes between two and six hours run completely. PDF copies can be purchased through the TCK Publishing website, for $6 and print copies will be made available late in 2014. Similar to its predecessor, they are anticipated to retail for $12.
Written originally as a sequel, those who are familiar with Mars Colony will immediately be drawn to 39 Dark for what they share. Both games focus on an intimate, driven narrative structure provided by the two player format. As with Mars Colony, one player assumes the role of Savior and the other player assumes the role of the Governor. While the Savior is the more traditional player role, and the Governor the more traditional Game Master, both share in the narrative weight of the game. Both games deal extensively with science fiction and politics, examining the latter through the lens of the former, and both take place on the titular Mars Colony. While 39 Dark is a standalone game, it can be also run as a direct sequel to Mars Colony, allowing the Savior to examine their actions from another perspective and play through the aftermath of Kelly Perkins’ likely unsuccessful attempt to save Mars Colony.
39 Shades Of Grey
The more one examines 39 Dark, however, the more the differences come to light. In 39 Dark, the Savior takes on the character of Lane Novak, a native born citizen of the Mars Colony who has joined the revolutionary group 39 Dark. Lane Novak has been chosen to take over the mantle of leadership after the assassination of Eckhardt Poulson, the founder of the group. Named after the 39 minute difference between the Martian day and the Earth day, 39 Dark works towards Martian independence from Earth and the removal or massive reform of the Colony Government. Lane Novak is an insider of the existing power structures of Mars and is in the unique position to affect lasting change.
Compared to Mars Colony’s themes of public expectation and governmental failure, 39 Dark asks questions about the lengths one is willing to go to affect change. While Kelly risked returning to Earth in shame, Lane risks capture or death at the hands of the Colony Government. Rather than accept the corruption of Kelly’s ideals, Lane is given the option to escalate the situation in the Colony while feeding its citizens hope. Whereas Kelly only had a single tie to Mars Colony on which to draw emotional connection, Lane is provided with three direct Followers whom can themselves be captured or killed as Lane’s story progresses. In just about every way conceivable, 39 Dark escalates the excellent ideas found in Mars Colony and provides with an even more robust, compelling experience.
A game of 39 Dark begins by constructing its world and the narrative tools to be used by the Savior and the Governor to make the story more cohesive and meaningful. Games themselves require three worksheets provided in the 39 Dark, several note cards, and six six-sided dice. The rulebook provides several pre-generated worksheets for players eager to jump into a game, but taking the time to personalize each game of 39 Dark is by far worth the investment. While knowledge of fringe political movements and the oppression experienced in economic exploitation is not needed to enjoy 39 Dark, both of these are elements that the game examines in depth. Some knowledge and a little imagination will go a long way.
Players begin by collaborating on three Anger cards each, describing something that angers them about their real-life government. These cards are then shuffled and set aside. Both players then decide on four fringe political groups, and assign them to a worksheet. These fringe groups are then mixed into the four Factions which make up the 39 Dark movement. While no single group dominates the movement, they each seek to affect lasting change to the politics of Mars.
One of these Factions will be the one Lane belongs to. The Savior chooses which Faction Lane comes from, and creates their three Followers. One Follower is a relative, another is their lover, and the third is a fanatic connected to the 39 Dark movement. Each of these followers also belong to a Faction, and serve to personalize the struggle of 39 Dark and its members.
Likewise, The Governor chooses four characters and assigns one to each Faction as well. These are not necessarily the Faction they will belong to, but rather a Faction which will potentially become involved with them. Each of these characters belong to one of four major Organizations who help maintain the Mars Colony, including the government, the works, the media, and the police.
Once these have been assigned, the Savior finishes the setup by assigning tokens to their Loyal circle, representing the Lane Novak’s reputation as a loyal citizen of the Mars Colony. Over time these tokens will be moved to the other circles on the sheet, Treasonous and Hope, representing how Novak’s own reputation changes.
Finally, both the Savior and the Governor collaborate on creating the first Agenda that 39 Dark will pursue under the guidance of Lane Novak, representing an underlying problem being experienced by the Mars Colony and a Call to Action that Novak provides to solve it. Once the first Agenda has been created, the game is ready to begin.
Similar to the original Mars Colony, 39 Dark’s play proceeds in a series of scenes, narrated by both the Savior and the Governor. In these scenes, the Savior guides Lane Novak while the Governor controls the supporting cast and surrounding factors. Each scene and its accompanying cast is set by either the Savior or the Governor, with the settings alternating between the two players. Scenes may either be Personal, Progress, or Opposition.
Personal scenes can be set by either player, and serve to flesh out the world around Lane Novak, bringing their followers to life and featuring their relationship with Lane. Opposition scenes can only be set by the Governor, and feature the problems opposed by the Agenda and 39 Dark, driving the narrative forward through making life harder for Lane Novak. Progress scenes can also only be set by the Savior, allowing for Lane to enact their Call to Action for 39 Dark. The game will only have at most nine Progress scenes, at the end of which the fate of Mars Colony will be decided.
Similar to the previous game, the mechanic behind 39 Dark involves rolling sets of six sided dice, adding them to a total, and trying to get the total above a certain threshold to resolve an Agenda. 39 Dark, however, adds a degree of escalation to this mechanic, strengthening the themes of the game while making the Push Your Luck mechanic shine.
At the beginning of the roll for a Progress scene, the Savior determines an Action Level that reflects just how radical and criminal 39 Dark’s actions are. The more criminal the Action Level, the more dice the Savior rolls. If the Savior rolls no 1’s on the dice, they total their roll together, and can either roll again or apply it to a Call to Action. Should the Savior get to a high enough total on their Call to Action, they have succeeded at their Agenda. Once the Savior accumulates enough points to succeed at their Agenda, they move one token from Treasonous to Loyal, reflecting the renewed faith of the Martian people in 39 Dark.
This continues until either the Savior rolls a 1 or they choose not to roll again. Should the Savior get the Agenda past the halfway mark, they collaborate with the Governor to create an additional Agenda and a Call to Action for future scenes. Further Agendas can be created in game, allowing Novak to have multiple goals to work towards – though they can only enact a single Call to Action per Progress Scene.
Call To Action
Like in Mars Colony, rolling a 1 in 39 Dark indicates something going wrong with the Call to Action. The Savior is then given a choice. They can either accept the failure, escalate the Action Level, or feed the people Hope.
Accepting the failure means the Call to Action fails, and the Governor narrates how the situation gets worse. All points accumulated in that Progress Scene are lost, and the Savior moves a token from Loyal to Treasonous. By contrast, escalating the Action Level lets the Savior narrate how the Progress Scene turns more violent. The higher the Action Level, the more 1’s the Savior can ignore when rolling for Change. Ignoring a 1, however, moves tokens from Lane Novak’s Loyal pool into a Treasonous pool, representing the government’s growing distrust for Novak and their plans to have them removed. Should the Treasonous pool get too high, Lane Novak is either arrested or assassinated, and the game ends. Finally, by moving a token from Loyal to Hope, Novak rolls with the punches of their failure, letting the Savior narrate how Lane’s defeat becomes a cause for celebration for 39 Dark. All the accumulated points are then added to the Agenda as Hope, and the rolling ends for the Progress Scene.
Hope can be a very dangerous thing, however, as it represents the little lies Lane Novak tells to make people believe in a better tomorrow. Should the Savior ever roll more than a single unmitigated 1 on a roll, they suffer Humiliation, where Lane Novak’s plan fails spectacularly. Additionally, relying on Hope risks Disillusionment, with the risk growing greater with every token placed in the Hope circle. If a Progress Scene cause Disillusionment, the people of Mars will turn on 39 Dark and Lane Novak. All Hope from Agendas is immediately lost and all the tokens from the Hope circle are moved to Treasonous. This alone can swing a game of 39 Dark quite suddenly from a solid victory to a crushing defeat if the Savior relies too much on Hope. Without Hope, however, actual success will be hard to accomplish.
The Savior may negate moving a token from one pool to another by letting one of their Followers be Sacrificed. Depending on the Action Level, this Follower is either arrested or killed. For a Follower to be available to be Sacrificed, they must have been featured in a previous scene, ensuring that their loss hits Lane Novak hard.
Once chosen, the Savior narrates how their Follower is lost in the fallout of the Progress Scene. While making progress on a Call to Action can lead to an arrested Follower being released, their relationship with Lane Novak has been permanently changed. They cannot be Sacrificed again, and as such, the Savior may only make at most three Sacrifices per game.
39 Dark ends when either more than half the Savior’s tokens are in the Treasonous circle or nine Progress scenes have been resolved. In the case of the former, the Colony Government chooses to take action against 39 Dark and Lane Novak is captured or killed. In the latter, 39 Dark changes enough that a new leader rises to power within the group, displacing Lane Novak for a different purpose. In either case, both players each narrate a short vignette to close the game. The Governor describes the state of the Colony at the end of the game, reflecting on any succeeded Calls to Action and the fates of Lane’s Followers.
If, for example, the Savior didn’t succeed at any Agendas, then they failed to affect anything in a good way, and Mars Colony winds up worse than it was. Should the Savior have succeeded at three or more Agendas, though, then 39 Dark has affected positive, lasting change upon Mars. Anything in between is up to interpretation. The scene narrated by the Savior covers the same details, but from Novak’s point of view, discussion their legacy and the sort of world they left in their wake.
39 Dark continues the story of Mars Colony, and succeeds at capturing all the same wonder and excitement that made its predecessor amazing. The game is not content to simply stand on the shoulders of a giant: it manages to build upon the original game in every way imaginable. Ideal for both the Immersionist and the Daredevil, 39 Dark provides players with a compelling narrative driven by idealism, yet weighed down by inevitable chaos. The odds are overwhelming and the stakes personal in 39 Dark, with the players forced to balance the need for radical change over the risk of losing that which truly matters to Lane Novak. 39 Dark is another bravura success in hard-hitting, socially conscious science fiction RPGs from Tim Koppang – one that will make you feel the fire in the heart of the revolutionary and the fear of being the leader of the stampede.
And that is why you should be playing Mars Colony: 39 Dark.
David Gordon is a regular contributor to the site. A storyteller by trade and avowed tabletop veteran, he is always on the lookout for creative tabletop games. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Photo Credits: Mars Colony: 39 Dark by TCK Roleplaying; Casey Novak from Law and Order SVU NBC Studios; Lego by Lego; Spy vs Spy by Mad Magazine; Top Grunge from Carmen Sandiego by PBS; V for Vendetta by Warner Bros.; Indiana Jones Temple of Doom by Paramount Pictures; Mars Surface by NASA