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Saturday 24 July 2021

The Other OSR: Warpstar!

Warpstar! is the sister game to Warlock!, and much like Warlock!, it looks like just another Old School Renaissance Retroclone—and it is, but not the sort you might be thinking of. Published by Fire Ruby Designs —previously best known for Golgotha, the Science Fiction retroclone of far future dungeon scavenging in shattered battleships—Warpstar! makes its inspirations known on the back cover blurb which reads, “Warpstar is a rules-light science fiction roleplaying game that aims to emulate the feeling of old-school British tabletop games of wondrous and fantastical adventure in the depths of space.” Now there is a slight disconnect here in that there are no such ‘old-school British tabletop games of wondrous and fantastical adventure in the depths of space.’—or at no such roleplaying game. In the case of Warlock!, the inspiration is Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay and Maelstrom as well as the Fighting Fantasy solo adventure books which began with The Warlock of Firetop Mountain. So what then is Warpstar! inspired by? 

In fact, the original inspirations for both Warlock! and Warpstar! are both miniatures wargames. For Warlock! that inspiration is Warhammer Fantasy Battles, and then the roleplaying game, Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, which would be derived from it. For Warpstar! that inspiration is Warhammer 40,000: Rogue Trader, a miniatures wargame which actually had strong roleplaying elements, but was not a roleplaying game. Indeed, it would be another twenty-one years before the setting of Warhammer 40,000 would receive its own roleplaying game with the release of Dark Heresy in 2008. So the claim that Warpstar! is a rules-light science fiction roleplaying game that aims to emulate the feeling of old-school British tabletop games of wondrous and fantastical adventure in the depths of space.” does feel slightly disingenuous. However, if you instead see Warpstar! as a roleplaying game inspired by a roleplaying game of grim and perilous adventure in the depths of space and the very far future that never was (but which would have been the Science Fiction equivalent of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay and likely would have been as popular) then Warpstar! feels as if it comes from something material rather than the ineffable. 

As with its fantasy counterpart, Warpstar! is a Career and Skills driven game rather than a Class and Level game. A Player Character has two attributes—Stamina and Luck, but unlike in Warlock!, does not have a Community, such as Human, Halfling, Elf, or Dwarf, which grants societal benefits rather than mechanical ones. Instead, he has a Talent, an innate, biological, or mechanical ability which provides an in-game benefit. For example, Natural Charm or Sleep Anywhere. These can be used to model alien races along with whatever cosmetic aspects that a player decides his character has, but despite this, the setting for Warpstar!, the Chorus of Worlds, does not have any Player Characters races detailed in the core rulebook. He also has thirty-two base skills, ranging from Animal Handler, Appraise, and Astronav to Thrown, Warp Focus, and Zero G, and all of which range in value from one to twenty. To create a character, a player rolls dice for the two attributes, selects a Community, and sets ten skills at a base level of six and another ten at level five. The rest are set at a base level of four. The player then rolls four six-sided dice. These generate the four choices he will have in terms of Basic Career for his character. Once selected, a Career provides four things. First a quintet of skills which can be increased during play whilst the Player Character remains in that Career and a maximum level to which they can be improved, either ten or twelve. For example, the Ganger receives Medicine 10, Sleight-of-Hand 10, Intimidate 12, Small Arms 12, and Thrown 12.  The player divides ten points between these skills up to their maximum given values. Second, it provides a sixth skill, named after the Career itself, the level for this Career skill being the average of the other skills the Career grants. Third, it provides some standard equipment, and fourth it gives a pair of background elements specific to the Player Character’s time in that Career, both of which are generated randomly. For example, a Ganger’s two die rolls would determine what he did to earn him a criminal record and who hunts him. Lastly, a player picks three personality traits for character. 

Name: Gottschalk Einstein
Community: Human
Career: Warp Touched
Past Careers: —


TALENT: Sleep Anywhere

Animal Handler 04, Appraise 06, Astronav 06, Athletics 05, Bargain 06, Blades 04, Blunt 04, Brawling 05, Command 04 (10), Diplomacy 05, Disguise 04, Dodge 04, Endurance 05 (10), History 05, Intimidate 04 (12), Language 05, Lie 04, Medicine 05, Navigation 04, Persuasion 10 (12), Pilot 06, Repair 06, Ship Gunner 06, Sleight-of-Hand 04, Small Arms 05, Spot 06, Stealth 04, Streetwise 05, Survival 05, Thrown 04, Warp Focus 12 (12), Zero G 06

Warp Touched 7

Cloak with mathematical emblems, metal staff affixed with an opening eye, several books on warp theory, pills and tinctures to ease the pounding headaches. 


Charming, Faithful, Unfriendly 

Where have you been? – The Fighting Maze of Fellus IV.
Where have you seen? – Beautiful fractal patterns of the Warp? 

Character generation is for the most part straightforward, as is character progression. A Player Character should receive one, two, or three advances per session. Each advance will increase one of a Player Character’s Career skill by one level, up to the maximum allowed by the Career. As a Player Character’s Career skills rise, so will his Stamina, representing him becoming tougher and more experienced. When a Player Character reaches the maximum skill level, he can change Careers—this will cost him a total of five advances. Whilst this grants him access to other skills, it will not increase the cap on the ones he already has. For that, he needs to enter an Advanced Career, such as Assassin, Cult Leader, Duellist, Lawbringer, or Warp Lord. This raises the maximum skill levels to fourteen and sixteen rather than ten and twelve for Basic Careers. There are thirteen Advanced Careers in Warpstar! and twenty-four Basic Careers. In general, a Player Character will be undertaking two or three Basic Careers before entering an Advanced Career—probably ten or fifteen sessions of play or so, before a Player Character is in a position to do that. 

Mechanically, Warpstar! is simple. To undertake an action, a player rolls a twenty-sided die, adds the value for appropriate skill or Career and aims to roll twenty or higher. More difficult tasks may levy a penalty of two or four upon the roll. Opposed rolls are a matter of rolling higher to beat an opponent. Luck is also treated as a skill for purposes of rolling, and rolled when a character finds himself in a dire or perilous situation where the circumstances go in his favour or against him. Combat is equally simple, consisting of opposed attack rolls—melee attacks versus melee attacks and ranged attacks versus the target’s Dodge skill. Damage is rolled on one or two six-sided dice depending upon the weapon, whilst mighty strikes, which inflict double damage, are possible if an attacker rolls three times higher than the defender. Armour reduces damage taken by a random amount. 

Of course, Warpstar! has to take into account Science Fiction weaponry, so there are rules for slug-firing guns, laser weapons, pulse guns, needlers, and more. They each have a code attached, such as ‘S1d6+1P’, which in turn indicates the size of the weapon, the damage, and the type of damage. It looks a little complicated and is at first, but once you get used to it, it is easy enough. Damage is deducted from a defendant’s Stamina. When this is reduced to zero, the defendant suffers a critical hit, necessitating a roll on a Critical Hit table. Warpstar! has four, for slashing, piercing, crushing, and energy damage. Of course, the precedents for Warpstar! had more, and more entries on them, but for a stripped back game like Warpstar!, they are enough—and they are brutal. Damage below a defendant’s Stamina acts as a modifier to the roll on the table, so once dice are rolled on the critical damage tables, combat takes a nasty turn. 

For example, Gottschalk Einstein is aboard a D-Class Charger, the Stolen Dodo, when it is boarded by pirates and he is spotted trying to hide by two pirates—Wilmar and Bruna. Both have clubs and slug pistols (S1d6+1P), and 14 Stamina, a Blunt skill of 3, a Dodge of 4, and a Small Arms skill of 4. The two pirates are under orders not to kill any of the passengers as they can be ransomed off, so raising their slug pistols, they demand that Gottschalk Einstein surrender. The Game Master assigns them an Intimidate skill of 4, and adds four to account for the fact that there are two of them and they are pointing guns at Gottschalk Einstein. His player will simply be adding Gottschalk’s Intimidate to the roll. The Game Master rolls five and adds the eight to get a total of thirteen. Gottschalk’s player rolls fourteen and adds Gottschalk’s Intimidate skill to get a result of seventeen. He is not surrendering any time soon! 

Combat then ensues… Both sides roll Initiative. The Game Master rolls a four and Gottschalk’s player rolls a three. Wilmer will act first, followed by Gottschalk, and then Bruna. The Game Master will roll Wilmar’s Small Arms skill and Gottschalk’s player his Dodge skill. The Game Master rolls three and adds Wilmar’s skill of four to get a result of seven. Gottschalk’s player rolls eight and adds his skill of four to get twelve—Gottschalk has clearly ducked back into hiding. It is his turn though, and Gottschalk’s player will roll his Small Arms skill versus Wilmar’s Dodge. Gottschalk’s player rolls seventeen and adds his skill to get a result of twenty-two! The Game Master rolls just two and adds Wilmar’s Small Arms skill to get a result of just six! This means that Gottschalk’s result is three times more than Wilmar’s and counts as a Mighty Strike. Which means that the damage from Gottschalk’s laser pistol (S1d6+2E) is doubled. Gottschalk’s player rolls a total of eight—maximum damage, which is doubled for an end result of sixteen damage! Fortunately, Wilmar is wearing light armour, so the Game Master rolls a three-sided die and reduces the damage by the result. She rolls one and Wilmar suffers fifteen damage! This reduces his Stamina to minus one and counts as a critical hit. Gottschalk’s player rolls two six-sided dice and adds the one negative Stamina as a bonus to get a result on the ‘Critical — Energy’ table. The result is ten—which is ‘Skin and bone seared, dead.’ Bruna looks around nervously as her colleague has been blasted dead in front of her! 

Being a Science Fiction roleplaying game, Warpstar! has rules for spaceships, but in keeping with the design, the rules are simple. Spaceships travel the Warp and although heavily automated, including having an intelligent computer or Mind aboard, which can perform many functions, the various positions aboard need to be manned to be used effectively, quickly, or at critical moments. For example, the Mind, which will always maintain contact with its crew if it can, can initiate the Warp engine, it takes time. The positions aboard are Pilot, Gunner, Scanners, and Astronavigation. Ships are rated for their Manoeuvrability, Ship Gun (of which a ship only has the one), Anti-Personnel Gun, Scan, and Astronav Computer—all of which provide a bonus or penalty to a Player Character’s skill. Armour and Structure work like Armour and Stamina for Player Characters, but at a ship’s scale, as do weapons, which of course have their own weapon codes. 

Numerous example spaceships are detailed, many of which can be taken by a crew of Player Characters, some only by NPCs, and once they get into spaceship combat, there is a ‘Critical — Ship’ table. Vehicles are given a similar treatment.

Spaceship travel involves travelling through the Warp and some, when exposed to the Warp, learn how to channel it in their mind in certain patterns, known as Glyphs. They are known as ‘Warp Touched’ and considered all but insane, though it is possible for anyone to learn Glyphs through time and concentration. It costs Stamina to cast a Glyph, whether it is successfully cast or not, and if a one is rolled when a character manifests a Glyph, the Warp Touched suffers ‘Warp Bleed’. Their manifestation is not only a failure, that failure is deadly. The effects of which might be minor, such as the caster’s hands catching fire and inflicting Stamina damage, but they might be a warp mutation—for which there are tables—or being swallowed by the Warp! Some thirty-six Glyphs are listed, their effects ranging from the minor to the major, such as ‘Burnout’, which burns out small electronic devices, and ‘Stutter’, which stutters a target out of reality and freezes them in place for several rounds. 

The setting for Warpstar! is drawn in broad strokes. Humanity has spread out across the galaxy from the lost cradle of Earth in a rough sphere of space called the Chorus of Worlds. It is ruled by the Autarch from the world of Jewel, from which he creates and dispenses Cadence, the drug-like material which extends life and enhances the senses. As the only source of Cadence, the Autarch’s power is balanced against the Hegemony, the military might of the Chorus with its deadly Nova Guard star marines, the Merchant Combine, the economic might of the Chorus, and the Warp Consortium, its scientific might. Worlds are ruled by lords and ladies as they see fit, who pay planetary tithes in return for Cadence, whilst the individual worlds are home to billions upon billions. 

In addition to the description of the politics and structure of the Chorus of Worlds, there is a discussion of its currencies and its technologies—robots, weapons, armour, communication, and more. Only an overview is given of its worlds and the Warp, more specific details being given for its various denizens and how to design them. Examples include Anthromorphs—hybrid species based on animal DNA from Old Earth, Fruiting Dead—undead humanoids infected with a soporific fungal spore spread via the Warp, and Kronux—a species with acidic blood which aggressively attempts infect other lifeforms with its DNA! Several creatures from the Warp are listed also, including the Warp Dragon, Warp Entities, and Warp Ticks. 

For the Game Master, there is decent advice about running Warpstar! from handling the rules to establishing the tone of the game and setting. It discusses what the Player Characters do, such as exploring the galaxy, fighting evil, solving mysteries, and generally adventuring—essentially little different to almost any Science Fiction roleplaying game, all the way back to Traveller! The advice highlights the fact that Warpstar! is not a hard Science Fiction setting and its technology should be interesting in terms of its storytelling rather than its mechanical effect. Overall, the advice is decent enough, and like Warlock!, what it comes down to is that Warpstar! is designed to be hackable, and given how light the mechanics are, that is certainly the case. 

Of course, Warpstar! lacks a scenario, much like Warlock! Yet in some ways, Warpstar! has a huge library of adventures to draw from in terms of other Science Fiction adventures, so many of which would be easy to adapt, whether that would be mechanically or storywise. Traveller, for example, being Imperial Science Fiction in tone and feel would be a ready source of adventures, but then so would something like Star Frontiers. Even the publisher’s own Golgotha could serve as inspiration for taking a starship crew of Player Characters far out beyond the borders of the Chorus of Worlds. Plus, the simplicity of Warpstar! makes adapting them easy. 

Warpstar! is a buff little book, starkly laid out and illustrated in a suitably rough style which feels suitably in keeping with the period inspiration. It is very handy and especially combined with the lightness of its mechanics, makes it easy to reference and to run from the book. 

Warpstar! brings the simplicity and tone of Warlock! and its inspirations—Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay and Fighting Fantasy to a Science Fiction setting, a galaxy of grim and perilous in the very far future. It is again lean and fast, often brutal, but again with plenty of scope for the Game Master to easily develop her own content. Overall, Warpstar! is easy to pick up and play, presenting a quick and dirty Science Fiction roleplaying game that will tick many a gamer’s sense of nostalgia.


Fire Ruby Designs will be at UK Games Expo which will take place between July 30th and August 2nd, 2021 at Birmingham NEC. This is the world’s fourth largest gaming convention and the biggest in the United Kingdom.

1 comment:

  1. Reading this review makes me very frustrated.

    One of my favorite books of all time is the original 40K Rogue Trader, and it occupies a place of honor on my shelf. I have read it, lovingly, many times and wished and hoped that there was an adequate way to adapt it to an RPG. But the FFG RPGs eventually published for the 40K universe are all informed by latter-day gaming conventions (both with regard to late edition 40K and more recent RPGs), rather than something of the "older school." I WANT the 40K version of WFRP.

    And then along comes THIS game: a game whose art and themes appear to match EXACTLY what I'm looking for, that takes its cues from WFRP with a career system and deadly, ugly combat (hopefully promoting non-violent means of resolving conflict), and I can see from this review...from the sample character alone!...that the system/mechanics they've worked out is absolutely going to tank it for me. "Gyphs?" Intimidate skill rolls? No, just...no.

    This sucks. I want a game that looks like this...but it needs the substance, too, not just the style. And it's all the more frustrating because even if I had the mind to write such a game myself, I'd never get it to look this good.

    Maybe I'll pick up the PDF and give it a read through. But probably not. Why throw money (and time) away on a product that will just irritate?

    Thanks for the review, though.