“Isolation” is a rather generic horror plot, inspired by a map created by Stephen Joy, and the conversation that followed on Twitter.
— stephen joy (@mstephenjoy) 4 May 2016
Scientists discovered some months ago that a planet has large pockets of minerals and/or other materials that’s very useful in the futuristic setting. Fuel for spaceships, construction parts, and more. All this is vital for humanity’s continued exploration of the vast space, but the drain on resources makes such dreams difficult to achieve. If this planet really has the resources needed, humanity could improve their spacefaring explorations for the next centuries.
But the government is keeping the news a secret, except for a chosen few, at least until the find has been confirmed. If the news of the find leaks out to the press, people would put themselves in harm’s way to start mining, and they might not even find anything. Because the planet is extremely inhospitable.
Near constant storms are the least of the problems. The air is unbreathable, the terrain is treacherous, the heat is either too much or it is freezing, and communication is unreliable due to the weather. But the government really needs this break, and success is therefore vital.
The player characters are not soldiers, but rather they are scientists and engineers of various degrees. Geologists, meteorologists, biologists, chemists, medical doctors, construction engineers, electricians… Any sort of specialists. Although smaller groups would be ideal, the government is ready to put extra funds into this project if it’ll mean greater chance of success.
What they are tasked with doing is to reach the surface and set up camp. Most of this is automated and expands from the ship that takes them down. Secondary group, carrying the scientists, will then arrive and begin extracting samples. A third group stays in orbit to monitor the weather and relay both messages and delivery ships. All the player characters are down on the surface, where all the action is.
The real game starts only a few days after arrival. The first delivery ship is preparing to leave with the latest samples that have finished preliminary testings. No need to ship off some samples that show no sign of usability, so they are all tested at the station first.
The supplies delivered should last for over a week, more than enough before the next delivery arrives. This is another opportunity to introduce the player character as newly arrived scientists, either adding to the list of employees or replacing someone who came with the initial landing party.
The biology lab is buzzing with excitement. They believe they’ve discovered some bacterial living on the planet and have already prepped samples to go with the delivery ship.
The delivery captain is eager to leave quickly. The orbital station has warned that a powerful storm in the upper heights of the planet is imminent in the next couple of hours. If the ship hasn’t left by then, it could be stranded for days.
The newly arrived scientists get shown around. This is an opportunity for the players to get acquainted with the station.
- Dorm and lounge: This is where the staff rests and recreates. There are some classic games that can be played there, and each room has two beds. In addition, in case of emergencies, such as the delivery ship getting stranded, the sofa in the lounge can be turned into a bed.
- Dining Hall: This is where the staff eats its food. It doubles as a kitchen, although the food mostly consists of protein gruel or cold food. Cooking is limited, for safety reasons. However, one of the scientist who is leaving smuggled some cooking instruments and the staff had Taco Friday.
- Laboratories: There are at four laboratories at the station, although only three of them are in use. Each one is dedicated to a broad field of science. Anything geological is examined in one lab while biology is studied in another (medical care is also given in that second one). The third lab is used to study geography, meteorology and geothermal activities. The fourth lab is not being used, other than for a second storage room. Supposedly, it was built to study psychological stress of the staff, but no psychologist has yet to arrive.
- Landing Bay: This is where the delivery ship arrives. It is built with a hatch on top, but before it can be opened, the area needs to cleared and sealed off. Once the ship has landed and the hatch closed, the landing bay is vented and toxic gases from the outside are removed. In addition, a short range ship is docked in the landing bay, for emergencies. It only has enough fuel and power to reach the orbital station.
- Engineering: All primary and secondary devices and engines are kept here, and engineers make sure they are operating. This includes oxygen generator, gravity equalizer, thermo moderator, power generator, and so on.
- Security and Communications: Although security is not given a specific room on the station, there is at least one security officer at the communication center. That person is given a single pistol to carry, and a second weapon (likely another pistol, or possibly a rifle) to lock away. This security officer needs to be trained in flying the short range ship.
- Finally: There are also bathrooms, showers and more storage area. Anything that the Game Master might think is necessary can be added.
Once the new arrivals have been shown the station they’ll be living in for at least the next week or two, the delivery ship has already left. A stern warning comes from the orbital station: The storm is coming early. Before long, the delivery ship returns with haste. Too much in fact, and crashes into the landing bay’s hatch.
The landing bay is put on emergency lockdown. Anyone who was inside the landing bay is either dead or dying from exposure, and the storm is coming. The lockdown can be overwritten, but it could expose everyone inside the station. With the storm coming, there is no time for safety. There are suits that can withstand the toxic air, but only for a short time and there are only two of them.
Anyone in charge needs to make a decision. That some is a Doctor of high esteem, but clearly not built for decision making under pressure. His indecisiveness lingers until the storm rolls in, at which point any action would be futile. The crew on the delivery ship, as well as the scientists who tried to leave, and those finishing up any work on the landing bay, are lost.
Morale is already shaken. People start whispering about the good Doctor who stood and did nothing. Others point at the security officer, who was too much of a coward to step up and take action against orders. Before long, fingers get pointed and emotions run high.
The situation needs to be defused. The security officer commands everyone to calm down, and unholsters their gun when the situation seems to be getting worse. The gun fires and hits someone in the shoulder. The security officer is as surprised as everyone, and the victim is rushed to receive medical attention. The security officer swears that they didn’t pull the trigger, that the gun just went off.
When things have calmed down, the staff of the station realize that the storm is interfering with communications with the orbital station. At the moment, no messages seem to reach them. The best thing anyone can do is get some rest.
This is where someone dies. A freak accident perhaps. The Doctor decides to try improving everyone’s morale by having cooked food. The gas burns unusually hot and small explosion erupts, sending metal shrapnel flying. Onlookers are hurt, but the Doctor definitely dies.
The security officer has every right to be worried. It could have been an accident, but someone could have rigged the cooker to explode. Interrogating the staff yields no results. If anyone did rig the cooker, they are hiding it.
While interrogating the staff, something else happens. The player character are there to see it. The oxygen generator stops working. The oxygen is worked from delivered ice that needs to go through a grinder, and that grinder stops. One of the engineers thinks that he sees something stuck in the grinder, so they take the machine offline and reaches into the grinder to pull it out. Right then and there, the grinder shifts and rips the engineer’s arm apart.
The engineer is also one of the staff who got pointed at for not doing anything, since they could have overwritten the lockdown.
Sabotage is still the believed explanation, but no one is exactly sure how it was done. The security officer interrogates everyone, some people more than once. The player characters should notice that the security officer is panicking.
The security officer needs to confide in someone, likely one of the player characters, especially if that someone is a new security officer in training, and hands them the secondary weapon. The security officer doesn’t trust the other staff members. One of them could be a murderer, so the security officer needs someone to watch their back.
The storm continues outside and there have been no word from the orbital station yet. But then the static begins to break and something seems to come through. A single word: “Why?”
While everyone is asleep, a sudden cry wakes everyone up. It is sudden, and inhuman. Someone will try to explain that it must have been the wind, but it won’t hide two important facts. The injured engineer is dead, and the biologist who doubled as a medical doctor is missing.
The security officer commands everyone to stay in the room while they, and whoever they confided in, search the station. If the other player characters offer their help, the security officer will reluctantly accept. If that is the case, they will all split up into two groups, each group searching assigned areas of the station. Since there are only two guns, each group will have a weapon.
The search is uneventful and the biologist won’t be found. The biologist is actually hiding in the psychology lab, which has been locked until a psychologist arrives. Unless someone suggest searching there sooner, the security officer will mention the unlikely possibility that they may have opened it and gotten in.
The lab is dark and full of boxes. A figure stands in the dark corner. Any attempt to communicate, or even shining a light into the figures direction prompts it to move. The lost biologist moves with unnatural grace and speed as they rush towards the security officer. In a blink of an eye, they have thrust a scalpel into the security officer’s throat, and the biologist stares at their victim and asks “Why?” before yanking the scalpel out again.
The biologist is lithe and more athletic than they should, and moves about the lab in ways that shouldn’t be possible, such as clinging to walls and ceiling. The darkness does not hinder them either, but neither does bright light. Bullets do bring them down however, and their body reacts to pain and trauma in the same way as it would anyone else; either killing the biologist or knocking them out ends whatever possessed them.
Now begins the survival for real. There might still be a handful of NPCs left alive, or the player character are the only ones left, but they need to survive long enough for the storm to blow over and help to arrive. The GM decides how long it will take.
Here are some additional twists and threats to throw at the players and their characters:
- You may have noticed that this is a ghost story as written, but it doesn’t need to be. The bacteria discovered by the biologists could also be to blame; the bacteria infects a host and drives them to murderous frenzy, slowly at first but finally drives them completely mad (once the host dies, the bacteria infects someone else at random). Alternatively, this could be the work of a slasher; the biologist blames everyone at the station (possibly themselves as well) for the deaths of those onboard the delivery ship, and is driven by a twisted sense of justice. Just skip the ghost sounds in the communication and you’re pretty much set.
- In case of the slasher, traps become the primary weapon. One killer among many victims is not going to win a direct fight, and the killer knows it. The easiest way to get everyone killed is sabotaging the oxygen generator, and that is what they’ll do. The generator can be fixed though, at least long enough for the storm to blow over, so the killer has to make sure that becomes impossible. Additionally, the killer is driven to kill key individuals who they believe deserve death more than anyone, including the Doctor in charge and the security officer. They don’t deserve quiet deaths.
- The story is set in space, but that doesn’t need to be the case either. Just as likely, the station can be set on earth, where a meteorite has been found. There will be fewer people on site however, and the entire staff will likely only include the player characters.
- Likewise, a similar situation can be created in a different type of setting, such as fantasy. Instead of scientists, we’d have scholars and wizards. It wouldn’t be set in space, but a storm could just as well trap everyone at an excavation site. The camp would be set either outside or just inside the caves, which lead down into the dark and forgotten home of a lost civilization.
- Those who died in the crash could instead get lost in a blizzard, calling out for help but no one daring to leave the cave to search for them.
- There would be less of an exploding cooker or malfunctioning oxygen generator, but similar situations could still work. The wizard who is in control of the site dies in what appears to be an accident, but could also be sabotage. The mining foreman is gravely injured when trying to fix a mechanical tool of some sort.
- Heading deeper into the caves might be an option, unless there is something that makes sure that it isn’t. Maybe the caves lead to a closed gate, that requires solving a puzzle or performing an unknown ritual. The excavation is partly an attempt to open that gate.
- Everyone has a secret or two. During the interrogation, if the player characters begin asking around, those secrets begin to come alight. The biologist, who doubled as a medic, might have had a sister on board that delivery ship. The engineer might be secretly gay and afraid of what the others might think, or in love with the meteorologist. The meteorologist is having an affair with the Doctor. And so on. Everyone has a reason to harm this or that guy, and the player characters don’t need to figure out what’s going on right from the start.
- The psychology lab is closed off and used for storage because the psychologist hasn’t arrived yet, but what if one of the player characters is the psychologist? Obviously, the lab will be opened, as soon as all the boxes and samples being stored there have been moved out from there.
- A player character could be running the shots when the delivery ship crashes, or they might take control. Even if they act fast enough, they won’t be able to save everyone. Some might have died on impact, some might die from the exposure even after getting inside.
- Opening the doors to get to the landing bay could also introduce a foreign element. Nobody knows what could get into the station while the doors are open. Perhaps it’s a parasite that eats people from the inside, driving them mad during the slow process. Maybe it’s the ghosts of a lost civilization. Maybe it is some terrifying, alien monster.
- Venturing outside in protective suits allows for short walks outside, maybe an hour, before the corrosive environment starts damaging the suit. During the storm, this time is severely decreased, and the suit starts suffering damage in a matter of minutes.
- To be fair, it only takes a few minutes to reach the short range ship, but there are only two suits. Creative players might still be able to get most, if not all, of the staff to the ship. That sort of success should be awarded. The ship is relatively safe, especially if you’re using the bacteria or slasher scenario. Flying the ship is not easy in the storm, so actual escape may not be possible.
- The final act, Act 5, is a freeform part of the story, where nothing specific happens, while at the same time it is the deadliest part. The player characters need to survive long enough for the storm to clear and help to arrive, which means they have to survive malfunctions to critical equipment, more possessions, and supernatural events.
- Obviously, if the oxygen generator malfunctions, someone really needs to make sure it’ll function again before everyone suffocates. Without the generator operating, everyone will start to suffer lightheadedness within hours. Before they suffocate, they will pass out. It is a slow process, so they have a lot of time to fix the problem, if they won’t get killed first.
- The gravity equalizer makes the gravity feel more like how it is on Earth. So what will happen if it stops working? It depends on how you want the planet. Everything could feel heavier, or it could feel lighter. There is still gravity, so things will hit the ground, but extreme gravitational pull could severely hinder movement.
- If the thermo moderator stops functioning, the planet’s atmospheric heat will start to affect everyone on the station. This is not a very slow process and it will be felt within minutes. Exhaustion is likely, but more importantly, any cooling system will eventually stop having any effect. This means that the ice used for the oxygen generator will melt, which means that water must be delivered into the generator manually and nearly constantly. Food will also spoil, although most it will still last for days before it becomes inedible.
- If the power generator stops working, the station loses power. Batteries will kick in, but they are only built to last for a short while. If the station loses power completely, and depletes any reserves, the other devices listed above will also stop functioning.
- Short circuiting the electrical technical stuff could be enough to open the door to the landing bay, exposing everyone to the toxic air outside. On the positive side, there is also the slight chance that the hatch will close, so the landing bay can be vented.
- A mean GM could introduce some undead goodness by letting those who died outside shamble into the station.
You may notice that this story is perhaps more detailed than you’d like. The players will always do something that’s unexpected and change the plot. Don’t worry about it. You can run this story however you like but the important parts should remain. The delivery ship needs to crash, so that at least someone dies; the morale needs to be shaken and someone starts blaming someone; the Doctor, or somebody else, dies or is seriously injured in a freak accident; the accidents become more frequent; the voices on the comm system; the disappearance of a scientist or a staff member; the revelation of a possession; and finally the survival.
If you have more ideas, either for twists or turns or threats, feel free to put them in the comments below. I’d love to hear more ideas, and by this time my brain has pretty much stopped working and is on a strike.