Every Week It's Wibbley-Wobbley Timey-Wimey Pookie-Reviewery...

Friday, 27 November 2009

Space is Big...

...and not just to avoid having to give you the rest of the quote from Douglas Adams’ Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, but also to get to point, so is Starblazer Adventures: The Rock & Roll Space Opera Adventure Game. Seriously, this is a big game. Weighing in at 632 pages long (and 34 chapters long), Starblazer Adventures from Cubicle Seven Entertainment, is one of the bigger RPGs available in a hobby that has seen the size of its books grow and grow. That said, the book is relatively light given its size. On the other hand, in an age when core books are expected to be in colour and possess an element of graphical sophistication, Starblazer Adventures has neither. Do not let either fact put you off though, because instead of the aforementioned graphical sophistication, what you get is very cleanly and tidily laid out, making the book all the more accessible. As to the lack of colour, well that is purely down to the source upon which the game is based, a black and white comic published in Britain the early 1980s. Starblazer presented “spacefiction adventure in pictures,” each issue containing a complete story, and although the comics did not share the same universe as a comic series today might, numerous characters appeared again and again to allow the development of a setting for those characters. Over the course of the 281 issues, stories appeared written by Grant Morrison and John Smith, and drawn by Mike McMahon, John Ridgeway, Colin MacNeil, and others, and you can hardly turn a page in Starblazer Adventures without seeing a sample of the artwork from the comic.

As its subtitle suggests, Starblazer Adventures is a game about the Space Opera subgenre of Science Fiction, so more technically more fiction than science with big spaceships, weird alien worlds, even weirder aliens with alien queens of probably an amorous disposition, and the occasional big space battle. Which not to say that some clever thinking and perhaps a little science is never going to get the hero of the adventure out of a scrape or two (indeed, one of the heroic archetypes in both game and comic is the Scientific Hero), but he really needs to have a good blaster strapped to his side and a stalwart alien companion by his side. In modern terms, the territory for Starblazer Adventures is Star Wars or Star Trek, but the rules sets (and I use the term “sets” because it is appropriate) in the game are comprehensive enough that not only could the Story Teller run a game in either setting, he could also do a Mechwarrior, a Firefly, a Judge Dredd, or a Battlestar Galactica game just was easily. What allows the Story Teller to do this is two factors. The first is the way in which the book is organised, with “Alien Races & Mutations” in one chapter, “Star Monsters & Machines,” and so on, enabling him to create these elements with easy reference. The second factor is that Starblazer Adventures uses the FATE 3 engine for its mechanics.

First seen in Evil Hat Production’s superb pulp action RPG, Spirit of the Century, the Fate system is a Fudge variant, one in which Fate Points play a major role. Just as in many other RPGs they can be spent to gain a bonus to a roll, but here they have a greater versatility. Like many “Indie” style games, a player can spend them to create and bring small elements into the game, what is known as “dramatic editing,” but under the Fate system, Fate Points can do a whole lot more. They can be spent to invoke a character Aspect and bring it into play, to tag another character or location related Aspect to bring it into play, to power a Stunt, or to make a Declaration, adding some small element to the story. The Fate system also ditches traditional attributes, instead defining characters by skills, Aspects, and Stunts. It plays fast and easy – the player rolls two six sided dice, each of a different colour, and deducts one from the other to a number from +5 down to -5 (unlike Spirit of the Century, in which 4dF or four Fudge dice are rolled and added together). This number is added to any bonuses derived from Skills, Aspects, or Stunts to try and beat a target number, or to roll higher than an opponent in a contested roll. In a contested roll, the amount by which one side beats the other determines the amount of damage inflicted.

Characters are defined by their Skills, Stunts, and Aspects. Skills are areas in which a character is trained in, his knowledge and expertise; his Stunts are related to his Skills and grant a character small bonuses or permissions within the game; while Aspects define the character in some way, such as “Muckraking” or “This is Bigger Than I Thought!” and are the more interactive elements within the game. Sample skills might be Weapons – Fair (+1) or Science – Great (+4), while possible typical stunts include abilities like Lip Reading and Impossible Detail (both tied to the Investigation skill) or possessions such as Custom Ride gives you a favoured vehicle that you have added a gadget to (tied to the Drive skill). Most Stunts do not require the expenditure of Fate Points, but those that do are slightly more powerful. A Fate Point can be spent to Invoke one of a character’s Aspects and so gain a bonus, but if Compelled by the Story Teller and brought into play, so developing complications and driving the story along, then the character earns a Fate Point. Lastly, Aspects belonging to another character, or to an object, place, or a scene can be Tagged by another character, again by paying out Fate Points. When choosing Aspects for a character, the designers’ advice is that they should never be boring and it should always be possible to view an Aspect in a positive and a negative light. Otherwise, a character cannot participate in the game’s Fate Point economy – bring negative Aspects into the game and letting it act as a story hook, gets a character more Fate Points to spend in his favour.

At its most basic, character creation is simply a matter of choosing Skills, Stunts, and Aspects. A quick method of creating characters is provided, but of course, the game wants a little more than that from its players, asking them to create a simple background and tying Aspects to their character’s origins, training, career, and so on. There is plenty of advice to aid the players, including a set of tables for randomly creating a character’s liftepath and the discussion of many and varied careers available. As with Spirit of the Century, it is also suggested that the players create their characters together and build a background in common.

The basics of the game – character creation, Skills, Stunts, Aspects, gadgets and gear, the use of Fate Points, and running the game, including combat, are all covered in the book’s first eleven chapters, roughly a third of its contents. It does dwell on Aspects and Fate Points and how they work, almost to the point of repetition, but both lie at the game’s core. One interesting element of combat is that when a character takes damage, or Stress (this can be either Physical or Mental depending upon the type of attack), he can absorb it by taking a Consequence. Depending upon the type of attack, a Consequence can be anything from a bloodied nose, a phobia, or losing the mortgage to your spaceship. It usually takes time for a Consequence to wear off, but in the meantime, it can be Tagged or Compelled exactly like an Aspect.

After this, Starblazer Adventures gets a little more interesting, particularly for the Story Teller. The interesting bit though, starts by setting out some basic assumptions, and these are all a matter of size, or as the book puts it, “Size Matters!” Covering everything from Tiny (smaller than human sized) to Galactic (bigger than a solar system), this scale is used throughout the rest of the book to handle everything, from robots and spaceships to star empires and mandroids (cyborgs). The following chapters deal in turn with “Alien Races and Mutations,” “Star Monsters & War Machines” “Star Empires & Battle Fleets,” and “Hoover Cars, Robots, & Mandroids” before hightailing it for the stars aboard the starship of your Choice. With these it is a matter of choosing the right Aspects and Stunts to create the right package, though the chapter on “Star Empires & Battle Fleets” adds another element in the form of organisations, not just how to create them, but also how to run them (not dissimilar to a standard character is the short answer) and how to get the characters involved with them. If a player wants to play an alien, mutant, robot, or mandroid character, he can either use these rules to create his own package or take one any of the examples given.

Starships receive almost as much attention as characters in Starblazer Adventures, with five chapters devoted to their design and creation; their Skills, Stunts, and Aspects; how to use them in the game; and lots of sample ships. Some of the more entertaining ship Aspects include “Who in God’s Name Painted It Pink?”, “Steers Like A Cow,” and “Scotian Engineer.” As with other elements of the game, ships are treated much like characters, with Skills and Stunts used to handle the usual factors that you would expect a starship to have – Manoeuvre Drive, Cargo Hold, Ships Systems (Communication Systems, Crew Quarters, Life Support, and so on), Ships Marines, and so forth. At first glance, this might look a little odd, but it means that when a ship takes damage, the effects are more easily modelled and they can suffer Consequences in exactly the same way as characters do.

At just two pages, the “Collaborative Campaign Creation” chapter is not the shortest in the book – that honour goes to the one devoted to “Basic Scaling” at a single page. It describes a process much like that of joint character creation discussed earlier in the book, but is more freeform and freethinking, the aim being to create a map of the area where the campaign will be set. In allowing the players to take part in the process, a Story Teller will find what they want to see in his game.

This is followed by a chapter devoted to “Plot Stress,” which works in a fashion similar to the Stress damage taken by both characters and starships. What Plot Stress does is track the effects of plot actions – taken by both the player characters and NPCs, upon a campaign and assign Consequences when certain levels of Stress are taken. In the sample given “Spacestation Theta 9,” several causes of Stress are listed and when enough Stress has been accrued, the station’s Energy Shields fail after a power failure as the result of a Minor Consequence, but will be boarded by pirates as the result of an Extreme Consequence. What the “Plot Stress” rules do is twofold. First it allows a Story Teller to keep track of the plot’s progress, and second, it pushes the plot forward and ups its tension. Complementing the “Plot Stress” chapter is the “Plot Generator & the Adventure Funnel,” the first a set of random idea tables for creating a scenario, while the latter has the Story Teller work backwards form the his plot’s desired goal, adding complications and twists. Which is really rather clever.

Much of the remainder of Starblazer Adventures is devoted to what makes a Starblazer game exactly that and providing a who’s who and a where’s where of the Starblazer comic. There are no stats given for any of the peoples and places, but then the book is already large enough. Advice is given on how they might be used though, and where appropriate, Aspects are given too. Stats are given for “Monsters, Minions, and Mad Scientists” providing the Story Teller with a ready supply of protagonists and threats.

The book is rounded out with six appendices. These in turn discuss and list the 281 issues of the Starblazer comic; give a summary of the rules; provide useful tables, sheets, and maps; ad lastly discuss the game in the Designers’ Notes. The book is rounded out with an excellent – and necessary – index. Over all, the writing is light and easy, often friendly and direct, making the game much easier to read than its size might otherwise suggest.

Fans of Spirit of the Century wanting a Science Fiction game will themselves able to pick up and play Starblazer Adventures with hardly a hiccup, but for anyone new to the Fate system, Starblazer Adventures is well written and well presented, making it relatively easy to learn. For the Story Teller, the various tool sets – “Alien Races and Mutations,” “Star Monsters & War Machines” “Star Empires & Battle Fleets,” and so on, enable to either create his own setting or adapt a favourite, whether taken from a book, a film, or a television series.

As good and as comprehensive Starblazer Adventures actually is, it is not perfect. Its sheer size is a daunting prospect to anyone coming to it afresh, and while it is gloriously comprehensive, it also means that there a lot for the Story Teller to take in. The look of the book is also something of an issue. With all of that black and white line art, and as good as that art is, it does make the book quite grey in places. Nevertheless, that art is good, and it goes some way to give Starblazer Adventures something of a unified look and feel, a necessity given that the game does not come with its own setting. Which in this modern day and age marks this game as being something of an oddity, because it is to be expected of a “genre” supplement, but not a core book like Starblazer Adventures. Instead, the game offers ideas and story hooks aplenty as well as discussing how to get a game started, providing a plot generator, and looking at typical Starblazer settings from “Space Cowboys & Smoking Lasers!” to “Who Elected the Guy with Two Heads?” via “Fortress Earth & The Thermal Wars” – essentially adventures during the trailblazing, the cosmopolitan, and the expansion eras.

Yet seeing the lack of a background as an issue is to miss the point. Starblazer Adventures is a toolkit, a big fat toolkit designed to help the Story Teller create a Space Opera game, one that leans towards a sense of grandeur when it comes to scale. Indeed, it could be argued that the game itself approaches its genre with that same self grandeur, and there has never been a book that approached Space Opera on such a scale as Starblazer Adventures: The Rock & Roll Space Opera Adventures.