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

Saturday, 9 March 2019

Pulp Sci-Fi Jockeying

Britannia Game Designs Ltd is best known for continuing to publish Chivalry & Sorcery, the roleplaying game of medieval chivalry with an emphasis upon realism, first published by Fantasy Games Unlimited in 1977. It makes a complete switch in terms of both genre and realism with the recently published Rocket Jocks - Blast Into the Future, a roleplaying game of Pulp Sci-Fi inspired by the Saturday morning serials starring Flash Gordon and Buck Rodgers, by the Skylark and Lensman novels of E. E. ‘Doc’ Smith, and so on. Thus this is a roleplaying game of the space opera from the 1930s and 1940s, when men are real men, women are real women, and anthropomorphic tigers from the jungle planet of Venus are real anthropomorphic tigers from the jungle planet of Venus. This is a roleplaying game where a crazy, bearded scientist builds a rocket ship, gets a crew, and together they escape the bonds of Earth to find new civilisations across the Solar System. This is a roleplaying game where mankind’s first interstellar destination is a star system of multiple occupied worlds under the rule of a tyrant. This is a roleplaying game in which the men and women of the Inter-Planetary Patrol keep the space lands free of pirates, investigate mysteries, enforce interstellar law, and more. This is a roleplaying game which can do all three in a future history which takes mankind from the year 1927 to 2148.

Eighteen years in the making, it should be no surprise that being published by Britannia Game Designs Ltd, Rocket Jocks - Blast Into the Future, a roleplaying game of Pulp Sci-Fi uses ‘Essence’, the same rules first seen in 2011’s Chivalry & Sorcery Essence. For a character to do anything, his player simply has to roll under a Success Chance with a twenty-sided die. This target is typically the total of an appropriate attribute plus suitable skill, modified by various penalties or bonuses. Higher rolls are better than lower ones, and a critical result is scored if a player rolls the target number exactly. The penalties—known as ‘Murphy Numbers’—are quite harsh though, running from -1 for even a ‘Very Simple’ Murphy Number up to -24 for a ‘Seemingly Impossible’ Murphy Number. A player can have his character take a Risk by lowering his Success Chance and in return a +1 bonus to the roll. Although this increases the chance of the character failing, it increases—ever so slightly—the chance of a critical being rolled.

Combat uses the same basic mechanic to cover everything from punch-ups and sword fights to Colt .45 pistols and beyond—the beyond including rocket guns, atomic bullets, sliver guns, and ray guns—blasters, stunners, and disruptors. This is covered in ‘Mad Scientist Levels’—as Rocket Jocks’ Tech Levels are known—which run from the Stone Age at MSL 0 to teleportation at MSL 10. Combat takes place in thirty second rounds with characters capable of a number of actions depending upon their Agility and the size of weapon being wielded if a melee weapon and the Rate of Fire if a missile weapon or a gun. Range modifies both the roll to hit and the damage done, with damage also being modified by half the attack roll made by the player as well as half the character’s Strength if the attack was made by a melee weapon or muscle-powered missile weapon. Ray guns have needle settings that use up two shots, but which can pierce armour and wide settings to hit more targets.

Combat is the most complex aspect of Rocket Jocks, primarily because there are a lot of fiddly little technical details as to what a weapon does, how it is reloaded, and so on. Given how relatively simple the Essence mechanics are supposed to be and what Rocket Jocks’ genre is meant to be, it just feels overly complex. Conversely, the rules for starship combat are covered in barely half a page, little more than a series of modified rolls. Sadly this is more coverage than spaceships receive elsewhere in the book, such that there are no stats or deck plans of any kind. Just what kind of a rocket is a jock supposed to ride in this near future?

Rocket Jocks does devote more than a few pages to other types of technology. Not just arms and armour, but also lots of ray-powered gizmos—because, hey, this is a Pulp Sci-Fi future—vehicles of all types (except spaceships), communication devices, sensors, and just some of the best entries from ‘The Megalomaniac’s Catalogue of Cunning Contrivances’, such as the Brainstawm Incorporated Neural Scrambler and The Handee Dandee Nerve-centre-of-evil-o-matic™. Of course, every robot comes with a chance of brain madness. Lastly, there are alien healing devices and there are psionics. The latter because despite the power of rays, the power of the mind is superior to everything else (except, of course, love and a punch to the snoot). Each psionic power gives a psionicist access to a range of abilities, so Heal, Pain Block, Purge Poison, and Sustain for the Autosophy (or self-healing) psionic power, and is bought in levels that are both a character’s skill with the ability and its power. Psionic use is fatiguing, though mysterious alien devices called Sunstones can aid a their use. Overall, the psionics rules are simple enough and suitable whether running a psionics-based campaign or wanting to give them to any villain who has a preference for mind control.

Characters in Rocket Jocks are defined by nine attributes—Strength, Constitution, Agility, Intelligence, Wisdom, Grit, Appearance, Voice, and Conviction. These are rated between six and fifteen, a player halving the roll of a twenty-sided die for each one and adding five to get the final value. A player’s choice of Species, Environment (the equivalent of home world and its gravity), and Background (social class) will provide some modifiers to the attributes as well as some skills. Humans are the baseline species, but others include the Tigermen of Venus, the mobile, intelligent crystals known as Electromen, the merman-like Nitholest, and the ursine June who find buying things weird. These are not the only species given in Rocket Jocks, there being more in the campaign settings. Backgrounds include not just Working Class, Middle Class, and Upper Class, but also Barbarian, Barbarian Aristocracy, and Escaped Slave so that other genre character types can be created by the players or the Game Master. Finally, a player selects a Vocation, such as Athlete, Merchant, Engineer, Solitary Inventor, Journalist, and so on. There are just eighteen of them, but really there are actually sixteen of them, since Deposed Space Tyrant and Unemployed Minion are probably best suited to NPCs. Unless of course, the Game Master is running a decidedly odd game, perhaps in the vein of Doctor Smith in Lost in Space.

Our sample character is Wilf Goadsby, a Gentleman’s Gentleman. From a Yorkshire farming family, he entered service as a lad and has accompanied his master all over the world, including into the Space Patrol. He is unnerved by it all and believes that mankind were not meant to leave the planet. Nevertheless, he is determined to make the best of it and not show his master up, whatever scraps they get into. This means that he is never without the means to make tea, press a suit, sew on a button, or serve cocktails.

Name: Wilf Goadsby
Species: Human
Environment: Normal (Earth)
Social Background: Working Class
Vocation: Soldier

Strength: 08 Constitution: 15 Agility: 13
Intelligence: 09 Wisdom: 15 Grit: 10
Appearance: 09 Voice: 12 Conviction: 14

Beguiling 2, Brawl 1, Craft (Farming) 1, Craft (Tailoring) 2, Dancing 1, Healing 1, Pilot 1, Rifle 1, Sleight of Hand 1, Sports (Lawn Bowls) 1, Survival (Temperate) 1

As well as advice for the Game Master, Rocket Jocks come with three settings, which can be used singly or as three consecutive periods in a short timeline. These take the player characters out into the Solar System, then interstellar, and finally intergalactic. All three settings come with adventure ideas, new character Species, threats, Vocations, and puns—terrible puns. There is a fair degree of gameable content around which the Game Master can create games. These are very much the most fun parts of Rocket Jocks

Unfortunately, Rocket Jocks can be described as physically disappointing at best. Its greyscale look feels outdated and bland, the artwork is adequate if uninspiring, and the layout scrappy and inconsistent. In places, it is so inconsistent that some of the game’s technical information is lost in a game example box such that it is incredibly difficult to find. That said, the real problem is the editing. It is simply not of a professional standard, which is disappointing given the fact that there has been an eighteen year wait for this roleplaying and really, a few weeks’ delay whilst it was in the hands of a professional editor would have made a great deal of difference.

Another problem Rocket Jocks is its untimely release. Eighteen years ago, this would have been an unusual release. Plus, it would have just been in time for release of Rocketmen, WizKids’ constructible strategy game produced in 2005. In 2019 though, Pinnacle Entertainment Group has released the Flash Gordon roleplaying game for use with Savage Worlds and Modiphius Entertainment will soon release John Carter of Mars - Adventures on The Dying World of Barsoom, so when it comes to Pulp Sci-Fi, a gamer is going to have more choice and more colourful choice.  

Rocket Jocks is designed to emulate Pulp Sci-Fi, a fairly broad, muscular genre, and it a great many ways it does this. Whether it is the discussion about ‘Ray’ technology, weapons such as ray guns and atomic bullets, the inclusion of the Deposed Tyrant and the Unemployed Minion as Vocations, the nicely done three-in-one settings, and the tone of the writing, Rocket Jocks actually has quite a bit to like. It is also obvious how fond the author is of the genre. Yet, the rules feel overly technical in places, as if an adherent sense of realism had wandered in from another roleplaying game, hampering the author’s pulp intentions. And that despite the fact that spaceships are all but ignored. The real problem though, is the physical layout and editing, which makes the book awkward to both read and use.

There are some good ideas and some fun content within the pages of Rocket Jocks, but without spaceships it feels unfinished and incomplete. Of course, a Game Master can get around such omissions as Rocket Jocks is hindered by, just as she will have to get around the disappointing layout and editing. Rocket Jocks - Blast Into the Future is not a terrible game, but it is one with problems and that is an issue in a hobby that expects better.

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