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Friday 24 April 2020

Graverobbers in Outer Space

In some distant star system, great armada mass, dreadnoughts manoeuvring to bring their massive batteries to bear on their enemies, starcruisers unleashing barrage after barrage of missiles, destroyers darting in to fire torpedoes, and carriers launching wave after wave of single seat starfighters to swarm over their targets to attack pinpoint weaknesses. Energy beams scour away ablative armour, explosive missiles shatter ships’ hulls as nuclear-powered missiles explode and pump their energy as laser blasts which pierce ships’ hulls, freeing oxygen and ships’ crews to the vacuum of space, setting fires to race between the bulkheads, and compartment after compartment is lost… When the battle ends, it does not matter who won, for massive hulks remain, whole or broken by the battle, some still burning or fizzing with freed energy, others venting life preserving, whilst still contain sealed compartments holding the last of their crews, desperate to escape or hoping for rescue. Clouds of energy and radiation swirl amongst the fields and trails of debris left behind by damaged or destroyed ships. The combatants may have gone bar perhaps a picket ship or rescue boat perhaps, but into this scene of devastation come other ships and crews, each bent on other missions. Perhaps they have come to salvage the wreckage, to rescue the survivors, or to get aboard the ruined ships to go in search of data, secrets, or something else… 

This is the set-up for The Graveyard at Lus: A Dynamic Space HexCrawl for OSR Sci-Fi Games published by InfiniBadger Press. Designed for use with White Star: White Box Science Fiction Roleplaying, its contents would not only work with other Old School Renaissance Science Fiction roleplaying games, but with other Science Fiction roleplaying games in which large scale space battles take place. Mostly obviously, Traveller, but also Starfinder, Golgotha: A Science Fiction Game of Exploration and Discovery at the Edge of Known Space, and These Stars Are Ours!.

What The Graveyard at Lus does is take a staple of Dungeons & Dragons-style fantasy roleplaying games and apply it to another genre—that is, Science Fiction. Specifically, it takes the Hexcrawl and turns it into a Spacecrawl, but instead of exploring a a region of space marked with star systems and planets and asteroid belts, and so on, or the ruins of a previously unknown planet, it has the Player Characters exploring a much smaller area and really, during a particular period of time. That is, in the aftermath of a great space battle. It is a toolkit, but one in which the designer takes the Game Master step-by-step through the process of creating her own space graveyard.

By default, starship graveyards created using The Graveyard at Lus are twenty-by-twenty hex grids. From this starting point the Game Master can roll for or choose the height and width of the battle area, the factions involved in the battle—those suggested can come from White Star: White Box Science Fiction Roleplaying or from the new ones included in The Graveyard at Lus, debris fields and their density and degree of radioactivity, what starships can be found in the graveyard and how damaged are they, and lastly populate unique space hexes—for example with a starbase or a rip in the fabric of space. Further tables enable the Game Master to generate events which could occur whilst the Player Characters are exploring the graveyard.

Once defined, in order to help the Player Characters explore the graveyard, The Graveyard at Lus provides the Game Master with expanded rules for exploration and combat by spaceship. Building on the rules in White Star: White Box Science Fiction Roleplaying, these cover movement—both realistic and cinematic, dangers such as debris, collisions, and radiation, scanners, weapon ranges and targeting, rounding out with notes on explosions, surviving in space, and singularities. Already included in earlier tables, the new alien species in the supplement include the giant jellyfish-like space-going Dremwan who can harden their skins and eject bolts of venomous plasma; the Koldar are a parasitical scorpion-like race which strip planets of their resources; Neemen are a genetically engineered human species whose egos drive them to become the dominant version of humanity; and the TakTakTak, a four-armed race of telepaths divided into three castes, each with different psionic abilities. Stats are given both races and their starships—or just the race in the case of the Dremwan—but they do feel slightly underwritten in terms of  their motivations. The Dremwan seem written to be mysterious, the Koldar strip planets, and the Neeman want supremacy, but the TakTakTak? No idea as nothing is really said.

As well as updating some of the races from White Star: White Box Science Fiction Roleplaying to include the ships they use, The Graveyard at Lus includes several new creatures. Feroozes are magnetic oozes which squeeze through hulls and exude acid break down other species for their iron content; Graveworms feast on dead starships; Space Sharks feed on the energy given off by starships and sometimes their engines too; Space Syrens are energy beings which psionically lure ships’ crews to dangerous stellar objects and feed on their dying life energy; and the Unquiet are space zombies. There is not great invention on show here with these creatures, their parentage being fairly obvious as they are adaptations of classic Dungeons & Dragons monsters. To be fair though, White Star: White Box Science Fiction Roleplaying is a pulpy kind of Science Fiction roleplaying game and monsters like Space Syrens and the Unquiet do not feel out of keeping with the genre.

Rounding out The Graveyard at Lus is a selection of new technology, such as FTL Jammers and Teleporters, before it provides a fully worked example with ‘The Graveyard at Lus’. It nicely takes the Game Master through the process step-by-step before presenting it as an example for her to run. Lastly, the supplement provides half a dozen forms ready for the Game Master’s use when she comes to create her own space graveyard.

Physically, The Graveyard at Lus is neatly and tidily presented, though an edit is needed here and there. There are no illustrations as such, but silhouettes are used for ships throughout and together with several hex maps serve to break up the text. The various forms are very nicely done and the tables clear and easy to read.

The idea of a space graveyard is full of possibilities and adventure, and if the Game Master’s Science Fiction campaign can support them, then The Graveyard at Lus is a worthy addition to her toolkit. Indeed, it would also be possible to adapt the concept to the fantasy genre, whether that is on the high seas of the Game Master’s fantasy campaign or in a space-going fantasy a la TSR, Inc.’s Spelljammer. And yet, what The Graveyard at Lus leaves the Game Master to decide is the motivations of the Player Characters—just why have they come to this graveyard in space? And since this is a ‘SpaceCrawl’, what spurs them on to go from one location to another, rather than simply head for the dead or dying ship they want? And once the Player Characters have got there, what do they find aboard the space derelicts? Just a table of hooks and ideas would have been enough to answer these questions and possibly serve as spurs for the Game Master’s imagination. As written, The Graveyard at Lus does feel as if it tells the middle of the story, but leaves the beginning and the end for the Game Master to develop herself.

The Graveyard at Lus: A Dynamic Space HexCrawl for OSR Sci-Fi Games takes a fantastic idea and does a good job of developing it into a solid little toolkit for creating an interesting, and of course, dangerous environment. However, it needs the input of the Game Master more than it should to fully round it out and perhaps a new addition might address the purpose and the destination in a way that it currently does not.

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