Once More Into the Void tells emotionally fraught RPG stories in a Mass Effect 2, Picard framework
The duo behind the upcoming game talk translation, betrayal and the joy of being a Renegade.
Jamila Nedjadi is always thinking about games. The Philippines-based tabletop designer admits they find it difficult to watch a movie or television show without mentally translating its narrative and themes to the tabletop.
Their latest title, Once More Into the Void, emerged from an eight-day fugue state after watching a scene in Star Trek: Picard - the 2020 series that follows a now-retired Jean-Luc as he and other former members of the crew deal with life post-StarFleet. One scene shows him reenter the life of an old friend at their lowest point, weaponizing their shared history for a favour. He hates it but doesn’t stop prying at old wounds for leverage. Nedjadi found it “immensely powerful.”
“I start going through my head really quickly what the mechanics look like in the scene,” they told Dicebreaker in an interview. “I'll be like, ‘This is Powered by the Apocalypse again - did they have to roll? Was it a move? Are there stats involved? No, I feel like this is flowing really quickly, going back and forth. I think they're going off prompts.”
Nedjadi and publisher Jason Pitre also talk at length about the gravitational pull of Mass Effect 2, a Bioware video game and second entry in a popular sci-fi trilogy known for its engaging interpersonal relationships. The early version that Pitre first noticed on Itch.io in February of 2020 had been constructed around Meguey and Vincent D. Baker’s Mobile Frame Zero: Firebrands, a sci-fi tabletop RPG that uses a series of minigames to prompt character interaction - often romantic and fraught with conflict.
Pitre remembers the moment he knew he wanted to see Once More Into the Void published. “Every character playbook has a little colored box of ‘Play this if you want X, Y, or Z,’” he said. “I was reading, ‘Play the veteran if you want the sadness and joy that come with it, and are ready to play out a story of the long journey of giving yourself another chance and healing your damaged relationships.’ That is some masterclass game design.”
He reached out to Nedjadi with an offer to collaborate, understanding that their living in the Philippines denied them access to Kickstarter, the largest source of potential income for tabletop and board game designers. Earlier this year, the Our Shores team successfully Kickstarted an RPG joint project by following the a similar formula - team with an individual or company in a part of the world where Kickstarter operates (largely the US, UK and Europe) and shake hands on any decision regarding money. It’s a scary level of trust, but alternatives are few and often mean significantly crippling a title’s potential reach.
If I give the players a sharp question that's built on a specific premise, it's easier for them to be creative.
Pitre had no intention of fleecing Nedjadi. In fact, Once More Into the Void aligned with his own body of work, which includes the sci-fi horror RPG After the War, and he was dedicated to seeing it reach the audience he felt it deserved. The pair split the duties in a fairly traditional manner: Pitre shouldered the duties of a publisher, coordinating with artists, editors and other contributors along with promoting the project and other “boring but necessary work; Nedjadi was free to stretch their creative legs in new directions.
Perhaps the most personally meaningful addition was the ability to bring on Avery Alder, designer of The Quiet Year and Monsterhearts 2, as a game development consultant. The result impressed Nedjadi and left them wishing more indie creators could afford to pay for their own consultants, if only to benefit from the institutional knowledge in the tabletop space.
“I can sense the conversations that we have in design among ourselves are conversations that were had years ago, but we don't have access to what that was like before,” Nedjadi said. “We end up just going back into the same cycle. Being able to work with someone like Avery and other people helps move the whole medium forward.”
Those familiar with Nedjadi’s past and upcoming work will know they are also currently working with Evil Hat Games to produce Apocalypse Keys, a tabletop RPG that mashes up Mignola’s vision of the Hellboy universe with a heavy dose of falling in love on the battlefield.
That urge to transform beloved media into games and playable experiences springs from two sources, according to Nedjadi. One is the pure joy of working in established and comfortable thematic arenas, perhaps helped along with Powered by the Apocalypse. The system, also created by the Bakers, has been a huge influence into the indie design space for over a decade and functions as a “genre emulator.”
The more practical side of the coin is that games with easily recognisable influences are much easier to market. “If you can use touchstones that people understand - if you say this is a Hellboy-inspired game, this is a Mass Effect inspired game - people immediately start to spark,” Nedjadi said. They’re careful not to use it as a crutch, though. It’s important to play in commonly understood spaces without enshrining them.
I wanted to give players the space to be like, "No, you were really a terrible person," and do you want to play around with that?
The version of Once More Into the Void advertised on the game’s Kickstarter page isn’t too different from that early version on Itch.io, at least from a conceptual sense. The team has expanded nearly every aspect and mechanic - from the abstracted classes that include concepts such as The Broken, the Strange and the Captain that binds them all together to the Mass Effect 2-esque suicide mission recruitment spree that comprises the first part of the session.
Like Firebrands, Once More Into the Void gives players a knot of connections between each other that will act as both ammunition and armour in roleplayed scenes. Each player takes turns choosing a minigame that will test the characters’ connection and mettle, burning through precious loyalty tokens to make sure everyone survives without too many scars. The final game is a veritable gauntlet of seven challenges with the very real possibility of one or several players ending up dead, either at their own hands or the word of their Captain.
Reading through the rules, a group may find it odd that it says “best played in two sessions”. Nedjadi say they have been interested lately in creating games that are more than a one-shot, which can lean into humour as fuel, but didn’t stretch into the territory of campaigns doomed to die on the altar of real life scheduling complications.
They also wanted the strength of the Firebrands system to shine, taking each of the minigames presented in that core game and alchemizing them with all of this Star Trek-specific tension and shared history and dog-tired soldier archetypes until they sang. The exercise was a personal one.
“A lot of the laser sharp questions, that evocativeness to set up leading questions right is built from my experience as a GM,” Nedjadi said. “If I give the players a sharp question that's built on a specific premise, it's easier for them to be creative and answer rather than if I give them a super open question where they'll have to think about it for a while.”
I can sense the conversations that we have in design among ourselves are conversations that were had years ago, but we don't have access to what that was like before.
Sessions are meant to leave the Captain player - the lynchpin of the experience in many regards - feeling like a manipulative piece of garbage doing dirty, necessary work. Both designers bring up the oft-neglected Renegade route of the Mass Effect trilogy, which presents a callous Commander Shepard who knows only the mission and brooks no resistance.
“I wanted to give players the space to be like, ‘No, you were really a terrible person,’ and do you want to play around with that?” Nedjadi said. “I really wanted a game that focuses on what this redemption means to you and to have a conversation about that.”
Despite those heavy themes, Once More Into the Void wants to position itself as an inviting and inclusive tabletop experience. Nascent hobbyist won’t have to juggle seven different kinds of dice nor reference spells and feats from a separate book. Instead of a love for math, Nedjadi and Pitre said their game requires only a love of science fiction stories and a willingness to be vulnerable with other players. Alternatively, they want veteran players to be able to really stretch those roleplay muscles using structures outside of other, more popular narrative-focused games.
Once More Into the Void’s Kickstarter campaign runs until June 10th, having exceeded its initial ask of $16,000 CAD (£9,332) and currently resting just above $45,000 CAD (£26,249). Backers can secure a digital or physical edition for $20 CAD (£12) and $50 CAD (£29), respectively. Books are expected to start shipping to backers in December of this year.