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Sunday, 12 May 2019

The Fate of Transhumanity

Image result for mindjammerIt has been 193 years since the discovery of 2-space and the invention of the planing engine granted humanity with the ability to travel faster than light. It reinvigorated Earth culture—moribund for over ten thousand years—lifting it from introspection within the Mindscape and driving them out to explore the universe once again. Within days and months, the new explorers made contact with worlds that had been first discovered millennia before by the wave upon wave of slow and generation ships during the First Age of Space. What they found were colonies whose inhabitants had diverged from Earth, both culturally and biologically, having either evolved or been engineered. This included a range of hominids such as post-human and para-human subspecies, xenomorphs or uplifted animal species, new cultures and those based on old Earth cultures and even fictitious ones, wholly synthetic species, even alien species. As they made contact, the explorers were culturally contaminating the new worlds, the cultural contamination went both ways, forcing Earth to set protection methods that worked both ways. Even then, it did not prevent cultural and technological contamination of the Empire of Venu that would lead to a vicious war with Venu.

In the Second Age of Space, the New Commonality of Humankind presides over an expanding sphere of influence and control, seeking to maintain and protect its culture as it maintains and protects those of other worlds through the offices and agents of the Security and Cultural Integrity (SCI) Instrumentality. New worlds and old colonies are being discovered daily as explorers push ever further at the frontier whilst wily traders trail in their wake looking to make a killing in new markets and diplomats and cultural agents rush into ensure cultural and diplomatic integrity.  Billions upon billions of people, from one system to another have access to the Mindscape, part skills system, part virtual reality, part library, and part recorder of memories, all accessed via an implant and each user’s Halo that also enables amazing technopsi abilities as much as it leaves users vulnerable to mindburn attacks. Depending upon your authority and/or the right implant, the Mindscape is also a new arena for cultural and technological warfare, acts of terrorism, and worse. Though faster than light communication is impossible, gigantic Mindjammer vessels travel from system to system, transmitting messages and data and updating the Mindscape of each system as they go. Each Mindjammer is an sentient ship with a real personality, often of a person or hero long dead, and they are not the only sentient vessels to pilot the spaceways. As well as accepting a Mindscape implant, members of the New Commonality of Humankind and beyond have access to an array of technological and genurigic modifications, for whatever world you want to live on, environment you want to adapt to, and job you want to do, the most common of which besides the Mindscape implant is longevity and a five hundred year lifespan.

This is the set-up for Mindjammer – The Roleplaying Game: Transhuman Adventure in the Second Age of Space, a roleplaying set fifteen thousand years into the future. Published by Mindjammer Press, it was originally published as a supplement for Starblazer Adventures: The Rock & Roll Space Opera Adventure Game, but has since been expanded into a roleplaying game of its very own and been adapted for use with Traveller. Like Starblazer Adventures though, Mindjammer is ‘Powered by Fate’. Not FATE Core, the most recent version of the roleplaying game, but the mechanics between the two versions are compatible. It presents a universe in which there are worlds to be discovered, cultures to be protected and invaded, trades to be made, a border with the Empire of Venu to be patrolled, virtual worlds to be explored, and more. All this is presented as a positive Science Fiction future with the New Commonality of Humankind as a technocratic dictatorship with the best interests of mankind at heart, though some cultures may disagree and many individuals chafe at its collective outlook so driving them to the frontier, and the only definite evil being the theocratic Empire of Venu. This is a setting where Humanity is evolving beyond its physical and mental limits through scientific and technological means, but still feels bound to protect culturally what it means to be human.

In terms of what a player can take as his character, Mindjammer offers a lot of options, including soldiers of the Armed Forces Instrumentality, SCI agents, Space Force crews, intrepid 2-space pilots, canny traders and wily rogues, explorers, mercenaries, scientists, diplomats, spies, scouts, and then sentient starships, uplifted xenomorphs that include like Canids, Cetaceans, Felines, Pithecines, and Ursoids,  Synthetics like Mechanicals, Organics, and Installations, and Hominids, like the Chembu, master genurgists whose homeworld is a planetary intelligence. It all depends upon the campaign that the Game Master wants to run. Not only are the players expected to buy into this, they are expected to create their characters together as a collaborative process in order to tie them together. Further, the players and the Game Master are expected to discuss the nature of the campaign and agree on what issues it will involve. Such issues will become Aspects that can be Invoked and Compelled to bring them into play and have them affect both campaign and the player characters.

Character creation is a fairly involved process, a player deciding upon a High Concept—essentially the thumbnail definition of the character—and then selecting a Culture, Genotype, Occupation, and Trouble—what messes up the character’s life, at each stage creating an Aspect which can be brought into play. Then in the Phase Trio, the player will co-operate with the other players to create his character’s latest adventure and how he crossed paths with their characters just he will do the same with their characters. Again, the character is given an Aspect for each of the three steps of the Phase Trio. Then the player assigns some Skill ratings and selects some Stunts which enable the character to do some amazing things. These start at three, but more can be taken, though the more a character has, the lower his Refresh value is. This limits the number of Fate Points the character has, so in order to get more, the player will have to accept more Compels on his character’s Aspects, which of course, means both trouble and more opportunities for roleplaying.

Perhaps the most complex step is spending the character’s Extras budget. This consists of further Aspects, Stunts, and Skills which can be used to buy genurgic enhancements such as a Mindscape implant, personal equipment like Dispersion Field, or even a starship, complete with its own Skills. The end process is not just a character with some special abilities and skills, but one with backstory and connections that tie him to the other player characters. Done together and three, four, or five players have essentially collaborated to create a team, whether that is a starship crew, a unit of SCI agents or soldiers, Mindscape white hacker band, or just a group of adventurers making their way in a brand-new universe.

Our sample character is a Xenomorph, a Pithecine or Chimpanzee, descended from a colony set-up team sent to a now lost world to build and prepare the planet for human colonisation. The follow-on colony vessel never arrived and the construction team was forced to adapt and settle the world themselves. Over the centuries, their society devolved into one that worshiped the humans whose arrival was foretold and the technology the brought with them originally which over time stopped functioning. This left the world vulnerable to the pirates and slavers that rediscovered the planet. Me-Jane’s curiosity got the better of her and she was captured and spent two years as a gladiator and bruiser for the pirates. Fortunately she got rescued and now happily travels aboard which does not engage in such activities and which just about tolerates her curiosity and her attitude toward technology.

Name: Me-Jane
High Concept: Barbarian Chimp
Culture: Lost World
Genotype: Pithecine 
Occupation: Barbarian
Trouble: Forward Chimp from a Backward World
Aspects: To us, Humanity were gods (Culture); Can I Try That? (Genotype); Curiosity Got the Chimp (Phase One); Rage and Rage Again! (Phase Two); One Chimp is better than… (Phase Three)
Skills: Melee Combat (Great +4); Physique, Rapport (Good +3); Athletics, Notice, Stealth (Fair +2); Drive, Knowledge, Technical, Unarmed Combat (Average +1)
Stunts: Archaic Melee Weapons, Danger Sense, Percussive Maintenance
Extras: Mindscape Implant (Aspect); Expert Climber, Jumper (Stunts); Chimp Chain (Armour 2), Chimp Club (Melee Combat 2), Library Chip (Knowledge +2)
Physical Stress: 1 2 3 4
Mental Stress: 1 2
Credit Stress: 1 2
Tech Index: Poor (-1)

Mechanically, as has already been mentioned, Mindjammer – The Roleplaying Game uses Fate. To undertake an action for his character, a player rolls four dice—or ‘4dF’—and counts the pluses and minuses rolled on the die. To this value is added the character’s Skill. Stunts enable a character to get better or specific results if the roll if successful, whilst Aspects can be Invoked to gain a bonus to the roll or get a reroll. Invoking an Aspect requires the expenditure of a Fate Point which can be regained either up to the character’s Refresh value each session or accepting a Compel for an Aspect to bring some complication into the current scene. Typically, the dice are rolled to successfully Overcome a goal, Create a situational, but temporary Aspect that other characters can Invoke, Attack, or Defend. A player only has to roll equal to the target number or the total rolled by the opposition to succeed, but roll above the target and a player can achieve Shifts, extra effects like increased damage.

Being ‘Powered by FATE’ means that Mindjammer – The Roleplaying Game has certain cinematic feel to it a la Space Opera, but being ‘Powered by FATE’ means that it does one other thing really well—and that is, scale up. This is because it combines the descriptive elements of the Aspects with a ladder of adjectives that goes from Terrible and -2 all the way up to Legendary and +8, a combination which not only works well with characters, it works well with constructs like starships and their personal avatars, installations, vehicles, organisations—including agencies, corporations, and polities which can be up to interstellar in size, cultures, planets, and more. Numerous examples of all of these appear throughout the book for the New Commonality of Humankind setting along with the means for the Game Master to create star sectors, worlds, cultures, aliens, and more. The scale though, also means that they interact with each other highly effectively, so that not only could a battle between two fleets or a culture clash between two worlds or a trade war between two merchant houses be handled with same ease as player character/NPC interaction, so player character interaction between these can also handled with the same ease, whether that is implanting a virus in the command ship’s computer to disrupt its command systems, blocking a meme attack in the cultural war, or besmirching the reputation of a rival merchant prince.

Mindjammer – The Roleplaying Game includes chapters not just on character creation, cultures, genotypes, and occupations as well as the ‘Powered by FATE’ rules, but also technology, the Mindscape, constructs, starships and space travel, vehicles, organisations, cultures and their interactions, worlds and civilisations, stellar bodies and star systems, and aliens. Quite a bit of this could divorced from the New Commonality of Humanity setting and used to run a Science Fiction setting of the Game Master’s own design, for example, the worlds, civilisations, stellar bodies, and star systems mechanics work well in any Science Fiction interstellar setting. Of course, many of the examples that support these rules are specific to the New Commonality of Humanity setting and there is great deal in the book that is still integral to the setting. Primarily this includes the history of the New Commonality Era and the Second Age of Space, but it also includes a sample octant of space, the ‘Darradine Rim’, a section of the Darradine Restoration subsector. Descriptions of just twenty of the key worlds in the octant are given, but there are hundreds more not yet located on the map and so ready for the Game Master to create. Just a pair of final scenario hooks are given, but sadly no starting scenario. This though is understandable in part, because every campaign would have different set-up and therefore require different sample scenarios.

Physically, Mindjammer – The Roleplaying Game is a sturdy slab of a book. Black and white throughout, barring the world writeups in the ‘Darradine Rim’ chapter, the book does feel as if it should be in colour. The writing is engaging throughout, clearly showcasing the author’s enthusiasm for the setting, the lengthy index decent, and the editing reasonable. The book though could be better organised, especially when it comes to character generation, which involves a lot of flipping back and forth of pages in what is probably one of the most complex means of character creation seen in any FATE roleplaying game.

What amazes about Mindjammer – The Roleplaying Game is the scope of game, whether that is in terms of the huge array of character types possible or the range of campaign types that setting and the mechanics both allow. Yet Mindjammer – The Roleplaying Game does not just amaze both reader and Game Master, it daunts them too. There is almost too much to take in in the pages of this roleplaying game such that despite the ease of play with the FATE mechanics, Mindjammer is not a casual roleplaying game. As a one-shot then yes, but a campaign requires the players to sit down with the Game Master and together work out what they are going to play as a group, though the small group of free agents with their own ship a la Firefly or Traveller is essentially the default. Indeed, character generation works best as a group endeavour. Then there are the individual parts of the rules and the setting which almost need to be learned separately, the chapter on the Mindscape for example, requires a different approach to that needed for the rest of the book and the setting. 

Nevertheless, if Game Master and players alike are prepared to step up, then what they will discover in Mindjammer – The Roleplaying Game: Transhuman Adventure in the Second Age of Space is a Science Fiction setting which offers a surfeit of choice when it comes to character types and campaign set-ups combined with tried and tested mechanics that support great roleplaying. All of which will play out against a Space Opera setting with a harder, more contemporary Science Fiction edge. 


Mindjammer Press will be at UK Games Expo which will take place between May 31st and June 2nd, 2019 at Birmingham NEC. This is the world’s fourth largest gaming convention and the biggest in the United Kingdom.

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