Apollo 47 Technical Handbook: a material review-essay

The moon cropped from a photo by Partizia Strippoli. It is used under CC BY 4.0.

When you open an RPG book’s cover, the first thing you see can tell you a lot about what to expect from the game.

Apollo 47 Technical Handbook by Tim Hutchings. © 2022 Petite Guignol, LLC.

In a time when stylized and functional endpapers are the vogue in TTRPG manuals, Apollo 47 Technical Handbook’s are blank. In its own ironic way, this sets the tone and expectations perfectly. The lack of expressiveness is expressive in a way entirely appropriate to the game.

Apollo 47 does not play like the majority of other space RPGs, which tend to default to serious and high-stakes conflicts in a sci-fi setting. The Technical Handbook’s single paragraph of lore sums up the game’s tone and situation well: in an alternate-history 1986, moon missions are so regular and routine that they’ve become downright mundane for everyone involved.

The moon is a big, empty place, and your human concerns are very, very small in comparison.

The Book

After the endpapers and the title page, the reader encounters a copyright page dominated by a diagram of a lunar rover, and on the facing page is a reference sheet that outlines the game’s basic procedures, serving as a sort of informal table of contents. It’s formatted in a dual-column layout with a basic outline and generic remarks as well as some hand-written notes, making it look like an actually used document.

The next several pages are devoted to descriptions of the game’s procedure and some tips for playing. These instructions are presented in a single-column layout and printed in Courier-mono typeface, giving them the appearance of authentic typed reports. The facing pages reproduce additional technical diagrams of a space suit, the lunar module’s landing gear, other more esoteric equipment. This juxtaposition creates the illusion of balance in content, but the diagrams are reproduced at relatively small scale, ironically downplaying the scientific-technical content’s preponderance in the book at large.

The Technical Manual then provides some transcripts of sample scenes and list after list of lunar and technical terminology (some authentic, some imagined), sample phrases, and mundane personal conflicts.

This all amounts to less than 30 pages of proprietary game content. The rest of the book is well over 1,000 pages (and I mean that literally) of technical documents reproduced from NASA’s archives.

It’s probably the most rules-lite but book-heavy experience in all of tabletop roleplaying.

Play Procedure

Players take turns portraying a spotlight astronaut. The other players become voices on the radio: the Earthbound personnel supporting the astronaut, fellow mission members, or any other conceivable character that the spotlight astronaut could come into contact with. (Maybe the Make-A-Wish Foundation brought little Timmy to Mission Control so he can talk to a real, live astronaut on the moon.)

Each scene is a few-minute conversation between the astronaut and the voices. The astronaut describes what they see and what they’re doing. The voices introduce minor technical complications or conflicts for the astronaut to navigate. When the astronaut achieves a satisfactory resolution, the scene ends, and the spotlight shifts to another player and astronaut.

Apollo 47 has no mechanics—no die rolls, no arithmetic—just this general procedure guided by yes-and improv and based in communication. What drives play is introducing technical jargon and using it to escalate a scene’s conflict.

Don’t know any space jargon? Not a problem! All but a handful of—again—over one thousand pages of the book consist entirely of technical descriptions and diagrams. Players aren’t required to understand any of it; all they have to do is riff off of it and make stuff up.

Additional Materials

If you want the deluxe gameplay experience, you can use the Apollo 47 Optional Card Deck (sold separately), which consists of selected prompts from the book and some landscape illustrations to inspire players.

These cards are almost entirely redundant—but I mean that in the most respectful and affectionate way possible. The landscapes serve to set the scene and remind everyone that the moon is a big, empty place filled with little of superficial interest. They create a backdrop that forces the players’ attention to the human scale of technology and language.

The Technical Handbook suggests also bringing some additional materials to the table to serve as inspiration: some tech or objects from the ’80s and some books about space exploration (preferably also from the ’80s, I suspect).

The objects, if available, are a particularly good choice, I think. Players can pick them up, fiddle with them, use them as props, and generally draw tactile, kinesthetic motivation from them. Likewise, additional books can provide alternative inspiration that some players may find more accessible and engaging than page after page after page of technical diagrams and documentation.

Space Oddity

At the material and gameplay level, the Technical Handbook and Apollo 47 are exercises in bullshit (as defined by Harry Frankfurt): unconcerned with truth or falsity, only with creating an impression or affect.

The Technical Handbook revels in its enormity, conveying relatively little of what we’d normally call substance for the game while supplementing that substance with paratextual materials that aren’t strictly intrinsic to gameplay. At the same time, those materials are critical for the player’s own bullshit—adopting, inventing, and using technical jargon without any concern for what it means or how it may actually be used. It’s a delightful paradox.

While reading Apollo 47 Technical Handbook, I wasn’t sure if Hutchings has delivered an absurdist masterpiece or if he’s once again artistically trolled the TTRPG community.

I’m still not sure, but I think the answer might be both.

You can get the Apollo 47 Technical Handbook in print and PDF from DTRPG or PDF-only at itch.io. The optional card deck is available at DTC.

The header image is a cropped version of a photo by Partizia Strippoli. It is used under CC BY 4.0.

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