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

Saturday, 17 October 2015

A River of Heaven Dammed

The year is 2701 and mankind has reached the zenith of the Bright Age or Third Renaissance. In the past four centuries, world after world has been colonised and whole polities have declared their independence from Earth, but Faster Than Light travel remains a scientific impossibility. The first colony ships were slow, but in the wake of the near disastrous Solar System War that followed mankind’s first contact with the extra-terrestrial species known as the Spooks, recovered technology gave us the Step Drive and thus the Stepship. Piloted by Stepdaughters—each trained and provided by the Guild of Pilots and integrated into their vessels, these kilometre-long vessels are capable of achieving near Light Speed, cutting interstellar travel times by years—though passengers are still required to remain in cryogenic vitrification. This has enabled the Guild of Pilots to become one of the most powerful economic agencies across the River of Heaven, alongside the Guild of Engineers that maintains all Stepships  and the Guild of Communications that maintains the near instant Quantum Communications network along the 'River of Heaven'. More recently, the Machine Civilisation—descended from the first A.I.s built by mankind that escaped beyond the Solar System—returned to present us with amazing technological advances, including the Visser Cube. When linked Visser Cubes are placed in separate star systems, they enable interstellar travel via wormholes, further cutting travel times to as little as instantaneous or minutes.

The gifts from the Machine Civilisation have enabled the feudal corporate polity of the Kentauran Hegemony—centred on Alpha Centauri—to eclipse Earth and the Red Empire of Mars. This is a golden age, one that other worlds want to participate in, whilst others see the relationship between the Kentauran Hegemony and the Machine Civilisation as a threat to their individuality and their independence. Worse, away from the Cardinal Worlds of the Kentauran Hegemony, there are signs of interstellar piracy in the Outremer Worlds and a growing number of Renouncer Zealots—each intent on destroying all Artificial Intelligences.

This is the default setting for River of Heaven: Science-Fiction Roleplaying in the 28th Century, a far future, near Transhuman Science Fiction RPG published by D101 Games following a successful Kickstarter campaign. Notably, it is written by John Ossaway, who is best known for Cthulhu Rising, a near future setting in which mankind went out to the stars and discovered that the secrets best forgotten about the universe in the 1920s had a basis in a reality. It was a setting that showed much promise and was well supported by the author, but never received the support it deserved from Chaosium, Inc. bar a pair of Miskatonic University Library Association Monographs. The influences upon River of Heaven are as diverse as John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War series, Alistair Reynold’s Revelation Space series, and Frank Herbert’s Dune novels—the latter in particular.

Mechanically, River of Heaven uses D101 Games’ OpenQuest, a stripped down version of Chaosium, Inc.’s Basic Role-Play, the original generic RPG first published in 1980 and most recently republished in 2008 whose  mechanics underlie  so many of the RPGs published by Chaosium.  These mechanics are still percentile-based, but OpenQuest keeps the number of skills and possible modifiers to a minimum. For the most part it does this effectively, but its combat mechanics cannot escape a certain degree of extra complexity, surprisingly more so for personal combat rather than for vehicle or space combat. Personal combat is also very deadly, two shots or a single critical hit being enough to disable, if not kill, a player character. This is particularly important given that under OpenQuest and thus River of Heaven, the ‘monsters’ or opposition are often as deadly as the player characters. Indeed, the advice for the Games Master is to keep the number of threats or foes faced by the player characters to a relative few lest they be overwhelmed. Over all, the rules are simple and straightforward and for anyone who has played Call of Cthulhu or RuneQuest, very easy to pick up.

Character creation is also simple. A player selects  Human Subspecies—Baseline Humans (from Earth or Outremer Worlds), Genies (most of humanity from the Cardinal Worlds), Skinnies (microgravity environments), Tweaks (bio-engineered pilots, soldiers, or for Zero-G environments), or Bioroids (biological robots) and either buys his character’s stats from a pool of points or rolls for them. Every character receives the same pools of points to spend in turn on his Resistances and his Combat, Knowledge, and Practical skills. A character also has a pool of points to spend on Augmentations—Biotech, Cyberware, and Nanotech like a GPS, Hypaedia (personal encyclopaedia), improved organs, subdermal communications, and so on. Many of these need to be activated to work and for every one installed, it pushes a character towards a personal singularity at which point he becomes Transhuman and a Games Master NPC. Every character has two Hero Points that can be spent to gain a re-roll, downgrade a Major Wound to a normal wound, and to avoid death. Options allow for Personality Traits that can triggered for skill bonuses and Motives that once fulfilled grant Improvement Points which are spent to better skills.

Our sample character is a minor member of House Harper-Yung of the Kentauran Hegemony. Of the Noble caste, he was caught up in a sex scandal two years ago and was exiled on a low remittance. Thus he has to be careful when he is in the Kentauran Hegemony. He is persuasive and well-mannered and prior to his exile was training to work in the family corporation. He had barely begun his studies when the scandal occurred. Now his primary skills are his charm, and his swordsmanship and ability to play chess.

Xiang Tu Harper
Human subspecies: Genie
STR 16 CON 13 DEX 18 SIZ 11
INT 17 POW 12 CHA 17
BioEnergy 12 Transhuman Points 6
RESISTANCES
Dodge 53% (+20%) Persistence 37% Resilience 35%
COMBAT SKILLS
Close Combat 64% Ranged Combat 45% Unarmed Combat 44% Heavy Weapons 17%
KNOWLEDGE SKILLS
Computer 17%, Culture (Kentauran) 47%, Culture (Other) 27%, Language (English) 67%, Language (Mandarin) 37%, Natural Sciences 27%, Religion 27%, Religion (Other) 17%, Technology 17%, Science 17%
PRACTICAL SKILLS
Athletics 39%, Craft 27%, Deception 35%, Drive 35%, Engineering (Type) 17 %, EVA 45%, Influence 47%, Medicine 27%, Mechanisms 35%, Perception 34%, Performance 27%, Pilot 37%, Streetwise 39%, Trade 37%
AUGMENTATIONS
Beacon/1, Combat Reflexes/2 (+4 to Combat Order), Cortical Shunt/1, Pheromones/2
Motivation – to be restored to House Harper-Yung

River of Heaven’s chronology runs from fifty years hence up to the early years of the Fourth Millennium. It is fairly detailed, whilst still allowing room for the Games Master to run his games. The setting at the time of the Bright Age is similarly detailed—if not more so—and that is something of a problem because River of Heaven does not quite get the presentation of its setting right. The primary focus of the RPG’s setting is physical in nature. Now this is understandable. After all, River of Heaven is a near space Science Fiction game set on other worlds, so some detail is needed about the physical nature of these worlds and the star systems they are in. Yet River of Heaven concentrates on the physical details—such as each star’s Metallicity and each planet’s Obliquity to orbit—at the expense of other background detail. Again, this is a Science Fiction RPG and some of these details are needed when running a Science Fiction campaign.

Yet others are not and what is lost in this focus is a feel for the people and organisations of the River of Heaven as well as their aims and objectives. So what are the aims and beliefs of the governments and corporations of the Kentauran Hegemony or the Empire of Mars? What does a Guild Engineer know and believe? Why does a Renouncer hate the Artificial Intelligences used throughout the River of Heaven? What does the Machine Civilisation want? To an extent, some of these questions are addressed in the Friends and Foes chapter under the individual entries, but even the given answers feel underwritten and unhelpful. This is despite the back cover blurb suggesting various roles that a player could take on, including “a crew member on an interstellar trader, a member of the mysterious Engineers’ Guild, a body-hopping Intercessionist agent – out to manipulate human cultures to its own secret ends, a Renouncer Zealot – intent on destroying Artificial Intelligence in all its forms, or perhaps one of the Reclaimers – planetary engineers dedicated to terraforming any viable planet they happen upon…” Unfortunately, River of Heaven just does not provide enough information or advice on how to create and portray such characters, and similarly, not enough information for the Games Master in creating interesting NPCs and plots.

Creating an interstellar Science Fiction RPG in which there is no means of Faster-Than-Light travel was always going to be a challenge because Slower-Than-Light makes travel from one star system to another very slow and thus slows a story down. River of Heaven works around this with the advanced technology of the Visser Cube, but only to an extent, so that interstellar space travel becomes more of a storytelling device for the Games Master. Where River of Heaven is actually interesting is in that it presents several centuries of playable history. The default time period is the Bright Age during which contact with the Machine Civilisation advanced humanity by several centuries, in particular enabling near instantaneous interstellar travel. Yet other timeframes also lend themselves to campaigns. for example, during the Solar System War against the Spooks in the late twenty-third century and then later during the Renouncer War at the end of the third millennium. Of course, the Bright Age framework suggests its own campaign possibilities, such as merchant traders—though the extreme high cost of starship ownership means that the player characters are likely to working for someone else or renting space aboard a Step Ship; participating in the ongoing cold war between the Kentauran Hegemony and the Empire of Mars; and archaeologists exploring the Solar System and the ravaged Earth for its secrets.

Physically, River of Heaven is a brightly and breezily presented. The artwork is decent, though it may not be to everyone’s taste. Unfortunately, the editing inconsistent and the presentation suffers towards the end of the book, as does the writing, almost as if the layout artist and editor began to lose interest. If there is one thing definitely missing from River of Heaven, it is a star map. Which is an odd omission given that the RPG is meant to be set in an accurate representation of the stars near Earth.

As a Science Fiction setting, River of Heaven benefits from a simple, but familiar set of mechanics and a far future setting that is interesting and not without potential. Unfortunately, the setting of  River of Heaven: Science-Fiction Roleplaying in the 28th Century feels undeveloped and under-presented, and until the author and D101 Games can give us better support, is something for the Games Master to develop.