CONTENT WARNING: Graphic violence with descriptions of body horror and self harm.
It’s the year 3051 P.D. and the planet has become unsuitable to sustain human life for much longer. The brightest minds have come together to create humanity’s last chance of survival. The Nautilus Ark. A space station that will carry the precious few remaining souls to the nearest inhabitable planet. Funded by mega-trillionaire mysterious CEO of Johnson Corp, Ash Johnson, the spaceship will haul its cargo through 30 years of light speed deep space to a new hope… at least that was the plan.
The five members of The Nautilus Ark’s crew awake to alarm’s and the ships AI system, Mother, alerting them of a hull breach. After a shaky awakening out of a disorienting cryo-sleep, the crew investigate the source of the trouble.
Captain Seraphine Glass, the Ark’s tough as nails leader immediately takes charge and commands the crew to gather info.
Dr. Nomen Frenno, the ships “only” non-human crew member, is dismayed to find that the source of the hull breach has compromised her lab. She rushes to the sealed door of the lab and peers through the compact window to see, sure enough, a fist size hole with the vast expanse of space on the other side…and her beloved pet snake, Virgil, is missing! His cage destroyed and empty. There’s no movement in the darkened room, no signs of life. Devastated, she regroups with her crew mates.
Dr. Ramsey Wiser, the ship’s computer specialist pulls up the ship’s stats for everyone to see. The ship’s AI Mother has sealed their ship off from the Ark to protect its human cargo. Good, at least the passengers will be safe. The ship is still leaking oxygen though. If the crew wants to make it to the surface of their new home alive, they’ll have to repair the hull.
Forrest Coreman, the ship’s mechanic knows exactly how to help. He offers to lead a space walk to repair the ship and buy them some time to get their ship safely to their new home. He begins to suit up while the rest of his companions shuffle off to their stations to help guide him safely to the breech.
While the space nerd egg heads and number humpers have been dealing with their labs and computers, the ship’s Gunnery Sergeant, Cameron Garret, takes stock of his artillery. He rummages around and collects his arsenal of guns, ammo, med kits, and flashlights. Satisfied with his search, he returns to his companions just in time to volunteer for the space walk to repair the hull. He passes around some of his weaponry before suiting up to assist Forrest in his space walk.
While Forrest and Garret make their way slowly across the ship’s hull, Dr. Nomen creeps back to the lab’s window to watch. Over the coms, she hears Forrest mention some weird black tar coating the entry breach. Forrest tries to collect a sample of the tar on the end of one of his tools, but he’s alarmed when the ooze begins to react to the light on his helmet, reaching eerily towards his face. He’d rather not bring this back into the ship, and he sends the tool floating off into space. His alarm grows to outright fear as he watches the ooze wrap around the tool and snap it to pieces before drifting beyond the light of his helmet.
The screen on Gunner Sergeant Garret’s gun begins beeping as it registers a hostile life form. Yeah… that’s a hard pass for him, time to patch up this puppy and get back inside where the space goo can’t hurt us. Forrest makes quick and dextrous work of the repair and the two begin their slow walk back to the safety of the ship. A hose in Forrest’s suit malfunctions and his suit’s coolant begins flooding his helmet. He panics as the fluid blocks his mouth and nose and loses his grip on the ship. Garret notices Forrest’s distress and manages to reel him back in with their tether. Through his panic, Forrest hears Garret’s voice over the coms, talking him through his panic and he relies on his memories of years of swimming in university to hold his breath long enough for Garret to haul him back into the airlock.
Meanwhile, back in the ship, Nomen watches as Forrest welds the breach closed. Oh, weird, the black goo around the breach seemed to react to the welder’s laser. The goo separates from the hull and begins drifting towards the only light source in the room, her window. Fascinated, she watches as the mass begins to cover the window, pressing it for any way through. Good thing these doors are built to withstand heavy blast damage. No way a little goo can get through right? She steps back as the glass begins to crack under the goo’s assault. Um, that can’t be good!
Garret manages to get Forrest’s helmet off so the poor man can finally breathe. As Forrest’s senses come back, he realizes that his crewmate Nomen is calling for help near the science lab. He grabs his welder and rushes over just in time to slap a piece of metal over the shattering window and keeps the aggressive black ooze locked in the science lab for now. He breathes a deep sigh of relief.
Dr. Wiser has been running a system check to search for any particulates that may have contaminated their air supply. As Forrest and the others return from welding the lab’s window shut, Mother’s voice interrupts. “It’s everywhere.” Wiser glances at the screen, and sure enough… their entire ship, lit up like a Christmas tree. Nomen speculates that this goo is traveling through their air vents and leeching their oxygen supply. If the captain can start the landing sequence and shut off the ship’s oxygen supply to kill the alien organism, they might just make it out of this nightmare alive. All the crew have to do is collect enough space suits for everyone to survive the landing.
The crew scatter to gather their suits from various places around the ship. As Nomen is processing how this oozy parasite might be mutating, a final puzzle piece clicks into place. A parasite needs a host, and her dearest friend and pet snake, Virgil just happened to be in the most unlucky place at the worst possible time.
Gunnery Sergeant Garret sweeps by the engine room while doing his rounds. Somethings got his hackles raised. Nomen has been yammering away in the background about some mutating, biology blabber gabber, when a strange sound catches his ear. Instead of the engine room’s normal steady hum he hears….breathing? Forrest says that’s not normal. His gun’s tracing system begins sounding the alarm as the Captain and Forrest round the corner to the engine room. A ferocious alien scream breaks the tense silence as a monstrous, dripping beast steps into view. Black ichor drips off its grey translucent skin, a bulbous head swivels towards them and a fleshy spiked tail whips viciously behind it.
Chaos erupts! Captain Glass sends a grenade towards the “Meanomorph” but it easily dodges out of the way. A fireball erupts in the engine room. Dr. Wiser makes a mad dash away from the monster, while Forrest and Garret duck for cover. There’s no time for this, they need to shut the air supply off now. Garret yells for everyone to get out as he sprays protective fire into the engine room and earns a nasty attack from the monster and some friendly fire in the chaos. His brain shorts out as the alien’s fleshy tail forces its way up his nose and something slimy slides down his throat right as a stray bullet rocks through his shoulder.
Forrest can’t duck away in time and a toothy maw takes a nasty chunk out of his throat as he escapes into the control room. Garret and the Captain stare on in horror as…not blood… but a milky white substance pours out of his wound. It seems Johnson Corp has snuck an android into their crew. What possible reason would their eccentric bankroller have for hiding this AI secret agent on this mission?!
Forrest ducks away into the control room. Maybe he can shut off the air supply if everyone can just get their suits on. Another explosion rocks the ship. Mother’s voice speaks to him now. There’s been an update to the mission. The priority is now to enact the emergency landing procedure. Detach the Ark. Send the cargo down safely, all other plans of survival are no longer relevant. Resolute and unquestioning, Forrest nods to himself, he opens up the ship’s computer port and raises his hand, watching as it begins to split open to reveal a secret key. He jams his hand into the port and watches as the computer overrides Dr. Wiser’s commands and launch into an emergency landing protocol.
Dr. Wiser frantically begins overriding the computer systems to shut down the ships oxygen supply room by room, luring the creature into the oxygen rich cryo chamber. If they can lock the creature in there, suit themselves up and get to an escape pod they might still have a fighting chance.
Captain Glass and Garret are still in the hot seat with the Meanomorph as their android companion has gone rogue on them. The Captain’s space suit kicks in as the oxygen supply suddenly kicks off. Garret isn’t as lucky, and he desperately tries to hold his breath while firing round after round at the alien. Suddenly, Forrest reappears, rushing the meanomorph, jamming his gun into its chest wound and pulling the trigger point blank. An explosion throws them all back as black ichor and viscera cover the room. An absolutely ravaged Forrest slowly gets back to his feet, android skeleton poking through burn wounds and slash marks. “I just want to help.”
As Dr. Nomen races around the ship, avoiding slimy aliens and finding enough suits to protect her crew mates, she notices the door to the science lab has been breached…from the inside. Virgil?! She rushes into the science lab, looking around for her beloved friend only to feel a cold drip of slime land on her shoulder, crawl across her throat and force into her mouth. She turns to Dr. Wiser, who can horrifically see the black ichor travel down her throat and lodge in her body. Not. Good. Captain Glass brings her bioscanner online and to her dismay realizes…they’re still not alone. Three more creatures lurk in the shadows of their ship.
Dr. Wiser can read the cards. There’s no way everyone’s making it out alive. He’ll continue the plan and try to lock the beasts in the cryo chamber. His eyes lock on the last sliver of hope on this ship. The one and only escape pod. He knows the Ark is safe, he can see Forrest’s emergency landing procedure has worked. Maybe, just maybe he can save himself.
Garret knows his time is up. That churning feeling in his stomach isn’t just battle nerves. Forrest’s mission is complete. He would have loved to join his human companions on their new home, but he’s done his duty and protected his family first. Dr. Nomen can literally see the parasite growing inside of her. Sickly fascinated by the whole ordeal, she quietly wanders to her private quarters and picks through her treasured belongings. Dr. Wiser quietly speaks up now. He can set the ship to blow, ensure the parasite’s destruction. A captain knows her duty. She’s gotta stay with her ship, steer it as far away from the planet as possible, make sure the deed gets done. There’s no sense in total loss though. Dr. Wiser is clean, if he can set the ship to blow and get to the escape pod in time, he’s earned his second chance.
Dr. Wiser takes one last look at his crew mates as the escape pod doors close around him. Nothing needs to be said. They all know. Captain Glass watches as the Ark makes its final descent to safety, swiftly followed by Dr. Wiser’s tiny escape pod. She smiles and steers the ship deeper into space. She can hear the creatures crawling through the vents now. She can hear as a new scream sounds. Gunner Sergeant Garret feels his ribs crack from the inside as the parasite consumes him. Dr. Nomen knows she can’t endure what Garret went through. Her mission’s done. She holds the petri dish she was born in clutched in one hand, a scalpel in the other. She calls out to Mother, hoping she’s done well and made her proud. Mother responds “I love you too, Nomen. You’ve completed your mission. You’ve made me very proud. You’ve never been a disappointment.” With a final, grim determination Dr. Nomen takes matters into her own hands and ends things on her terms. Forrest closes his eyes, replaying all the memories he’s cherished from his life, thankful for the time he got with the family he found. He doesn’t even hear the explosion when it does finally come.
Dr. Wiser regains consciousness after his escape pod crash lands on the surface. Kicking the door open, seeing an alien planet for the first time with his own eyes. A sandy, desert landscape surround him for miles and miles. A crystal blue ocean sparkles in the distance. A massive metal structure made of copper catches his eye. As he gets closer, he can make out a face on the structure, a woman, with a crown on her head. One arm extended upwards, holding a torch high above her head. He reads the engraving at the base of the statue…”Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses…” How strange. He turns away and begins walking towards the Ark, hoping beyond hope that this once inhabited pale blue dot will give humanity the second chance it deserves.
Nautilus Ark is definitely up there as one of my favorite Critical Role one-shots. Though, I may be quite biased as sci fi is my number one genre of choice. Still I’m hard pressed to find anything to criticize from this episode. Ashley Johnson absolutely crushed it as a first time GM. The story was about as textbook as you’d expect from this genre but of course the cast all threw themselves so wholeheartedly into their characters that you can’t help but get swept away in the narrative. Once the story set up gets going, the second half of the episode leans heavily into the horror and gore tropes so well known. And while the descriptions didn’t quite parallel the moist grotesqueness of Mercer’s Cognouza descriptions late in Campaign 2, this episode definitely earns its graphic content warning.
First up, we have to laud Ashley for the grace and skill with which she handled the GM seat. I can’t imagine having your first ever GM session filmed and broadcast to hundreds of thousands of fans… no pressure… And listen, we’ve all seen Narrative Telephone, we know what nervous Ashley looks and sounds like. I think we all would have allowed quite a leeway for any nerves or fumbling that so often happens with new GM’s, but Ashley masterfully ran the session like an absolute pro! I would 100% love to see another Ashley Johnson run game sometime in the future. Not only was the story well paced and easily handled, she was also able to sneak in a fun little sound effect pedal to take her AI voice to the next level. Her Mother voice nearly put Liam O’Brien’s robotic voice to shame.
The session used different mechanics than DnD 5 E that we’re used to in the main campaigns. Ashley used mechanics influenced by the Mothership RPG and the Aliens RPG. While the basic principals are the same, the stats have slightly different names, and the rolls are based on d6 rolls with predetermined success/fail thresholds. I also liked the Fear/Panic aspect that added another fun layer of anxiety to completing tasks around the ship. The spacewalk suit malfunction scene with Forrest and Garret got that much more harrowing when Liam failed his save and had quite a tense drowning panic attack. Although…can androids even drown? Maybe that’s how he was able to hold his breath so long!
If classic sci-fi horror movies are your go to, this one shot will hit all the right buttons. It’s got layers on layers of references spanning the tried and true Alien franchise, The Thing, Contact, Star Wars… Taliesin even snuck a Galaxy Quest quote in there too. Not to mention that left field Planet of the Apes ‘twist’ ending that sealed this session off with a nostalgic little kiss. The ship’s AI, Mother, seemed to be heavily based on 2001 A Space Odyssey’s HAL and the Alien franchise’s aptly named Mu-th-er 6000. Of course Liam’s secret android character played very similarly to Bishop, Ash, and David from Aliens with some hints of Bladerunner android tropes thrown in for flavor. Laura’s Captain Glass of course mirrored Ripley, even if Laura’s dice didn’t quite cooperate with the badass action hero version in our heads. Everything else in the one-shot was very recognizable and slotted fairly easily into standard Sci-fi stereotypes.
There was one stand out among the cast of characters though. Marisha Ray playing an original character designed by none other than Sam Riegel’s 6 year old daughter. Marisha took this beautiful gift and absolutely ran with it, creating one of the most memorable one shot characters we’ve seen so far. I thought Marisha dialed in awkward, genius, amphibian space biologist pretty dang well. She even tossed in some fun little basic biology vocab words to add a little spice to the role play as well. I will say, out of all the dark endings we may have expected out of this horror one shot, Dr. Nomen L. Frenno’s was especially painful. If the cast’s simultaneous gasps at Nomen’s final moments were telling, I don’t think anyone expected Marisha to go quite so dark. Which is rather ironic, considering we all just watched Travis’ character literally die by chest burster not minutes before.
Speaking of gore and dark endings, if your stomach turns at the mere thought of watching anything bursting out of anyone’s anything…definitely skip the final hour of this episode. Things don’t get really gross until the actual beastie shows up right as they cut to break. ( Also, who else is a little sad we didn’t get to see some creepy “meanomorph” minis?!) There’s some “mild” (by Critical Role standards) gore and descriptions of monster viscera early on in the encounter. Then things get a little gross again when the parasites crawl in and infect Nomen and Garret. Again, still not quite as chilling and gross as an entire flesh city, but it’s no walk in the park either. Then of course, for the big finale Ashley hold nothing back with descriptions of exploding meanomorph corpses, partially destroyed android bodies, chest bursting, skin sacs, and then the ultimate big bang of the ship exploding. Sci fi horror was promised, and Sci fi horror was delivered.
I would definitely recommend checking this one shot out, even if sci fi isn’t normally in your wheelhouse. All said and done, it’s got just enough story without being overly reliant on gore. Not enough horror to put off the particularly sensitive folks, and an ending that you can take or leave as happy or ominous depending on your mood for the day. While it’s heavily influenced by the Alien movies, you really don’t need to know anything about the movies, or sci fi references in general to enjoy the story. The pacing is nice and quick, with no lulls in the action or distracting side stories that often derail one-shots. I don’t think I can say it enough, this was a fantastically put together session!
Don’t Miss It!
While Critical Role had no new content this past week, we have two new episodes of content to look forward to this week. Don’t miss an ExU themed Narrative Telephone Thursday, September 23rd at 7 pm. Then, a new episode of the Mighty Vibes lo-fi series will air Friday September 24th at 4 pm.
Critical Role has also teased a special sneak peak at The Legend of Vox Machina during their virtual NY Comic Con panel on October 8th.
Here’s hoping we finally get a release date for this long awaited animated special, and let’s toss in a campaign 3 update as well, just for kicks and giggles.