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

Sunday 19 June 2022

The universe is damned, and you do care

The Big Crunch has begun. The constant expansion of the universe has halted and gone into reverse. The universe is shrinking, grinding down into an inevitable nothingness. It came at a point where civilisation neared a great revolution, but destroyed its potential in a flurry of greed and conflict. In the bleak and dreary Tenebris system, explorers had discovered gemstones which grew naturally cyst-like in the soils of the system’s barren moons and planets. The refractive qualities of these gemstones led to technological advancements such as the giant bridger ships which tore through the fabric of spacetime, as well as a Gem Rush. Individual prospectors and corporations raced into the system searching for gems to mine, the inevitable tensions and confrontations escalating into the Gem War which lasted decades, spread beyond the Tenebris system, disrupting central control and leading the isolation of system after system as the war ended. That was a decade ago. In the Tenebris system, survivors cling to life aboard the outposts and spacestations, aligned with one faction another, trying to get by even as technology breaks down and is recycled again and again… Static seems to emanate from any and all electronics. From the Void between the stars come strange and portentous whispers of things to come, even as it reaches out and corrupts and mutates those it touches.

This is the set-up to Death in Space, the blue-collar Science Fiction survival roleplaying game published through Free League Publishing following a successful Kickstarter campaign. It is from the same design team as Mörk Borg, the pitch-black pre-apocalyptic fantasy roleplaying game which brings a Nordic death metal sensibility to the Old School Renaissance. Inspired by 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Fistful of Dollars, Alien, Blade Runner, Escape from New York, The Expanse, Firefly, IO, Moon, Outland, Prospect, Sunshine, Total Recall, and The Warriors, it is a game of desperate survival and building and relying upon the your reputation, of creating a home or refuge in the face of an unknown future as the universe winds down…

A Player Character in Death in Space has four abilities—Body, Dexterity, Savvy, and Tech. He has an Origin, and details such as a Background, Trait, Drive, Looks, Past Allegiance, and Hit Points and Defence Rating. He also has some starting gear and starting bonus as well as a personal trinket. Each ability is determined by rolling a four-sided die and then subtracting the result of another four-sided die roll from the first. This gives a value between +3 and -3, which is used as the modifier for Player Character actions and dice rolls. The six Origins include four humans—Punk, SolPod, Velocity Cursed, and Void. The Punk is a rebellious non-conformist; the SolPod spends years in hibernation; Velocity Cursed, who have begun to lose their connection with reality and shift and flicker and glitch; and Void are berobed and mask-wearing nihility shamans who visions at the edge of the universe. The other two are artificial, the Carbon being short-lived exo-womb grown androids who prefer to live in an EVA suit, and the Chrome is an ancient A.I. turned cyborg. Each Origin has two benefits. To create a character, a player rolls the dice for his character’s abilities, chooses or rolls for an Origin, picks one of its benefits, and then rolls for Background, Trait, Drive, Looks, and Past Allegiance as well as starting gear and bonus plus the personal trinket. He also determines Hit Points and Defence Rating. He also has some starting gear, and possibly a starting bonus if the Player Character’s abilities are all negative, as well as a personal trinket.

Body +2 Dexterity +1 Savvy+0 Tech +2
Origin: Punk
Benefit: Green Thumb
Background: Moon Outlaw
Trait: Cynical
Drive: To never show weakness
Looks: Trucker Cap with Patch
Past Allegiance: The Winning Side
Hit Points: 3
Defence Rating: 13
Holos: 16
Equipment: Nomad Starting Kit

Once the players have their characters, they jointly create a Hub, their home and base of operations which can be a small outpost on a moon, a module attached to a larger space station, or a small spacecraft. Each has a power source and a set of core functions, the latter consisting of a command centre, crew quarters, life support, and a mess. This Hub has a Background and a Quirk, both of which are rolled for. During play, the Player Characters can add further modules, but need to maintain both power and oxygen supplies, and this is a major drive within the game.

XR-3A-29 Hab Bloc
Defense Rating: 11
Max. Condition: 5
Fuel Capacity: 4
Power Source: Standard Industrial Generator (OP 3)
Background: Site of a Holy Pilgrimage. Pilgrims still show up.
Quirk: Interior is painted in luminous colours, charged by UV light.

Mechanically, Death in Space is simple. If a player wants his character to act, he rolls a twenty-sided die and applies the appropriate ability to the result. If the total is twelve or more, the character succeeds. If the situation is combat, the target number is the target’s Defence Rating. If the Player Character is at an Advantage or Disadvantage, his player rolls two twenty-sided dice and applies the higher or lower result respectively.

However, a failed roll grants a Player Character gains a Void Point, to a maximum of four. These can be expended to gain Advantage on an ability check or attack roll, or to activate a Cosmic Mutation. A Cosmic Mutation can be a ‘Code Generator’ which converts part of the brain into a computer that can write programs—encoded with the character’s DNA—and then be transferred by skin contact or ‘Feedback Loop’, which enables them to leap back in time ten seconds at the cost of an important memory. (A Cosmic Mutation can be gained at character creation, though this is unlikely, and instead is usually gained through advancement and then randomly.)

Further, if a Void Point is spent to gain Advantage on roll and that roll is still failed, there is the possibility of the Player Character gaining Void Corruption. This can include suffering daymares and nightmares about a suffocating darkness, a part of the body being surrounded by cloud of darkness, seeing through someone else’s eyes when you sleep, and so on… They are in the main weird or odd and personalise the strangeness of the Big Crunch.

One aspect missing from the rules in Death in Space is anything covering fear or sanity. This is because it is not a blue-collar Science Fiction horror roleplaying game. It is a blue-collar Science Fiction survival roleplaying game, its focus is so much on this that you barely notice the absence of any sanity or fear rules. Then when you do notice, it feels refreshing, to not have to roll for either, to leave that entirely in the hands of the players and their roleplaying as needed.

The technical aspects of Death in Space being a Science Fiction roleplaying game are kept relatively simple in keeping with the lightness of the mechanics. They highlight how everything is wearing out and that repairs are often a necessity. They also highlight how important it is to maintain or obtain supplies of both oxygen and power. Similarly, the rules for combat are kept short and brutal, even those for spacecraft combat.

In terms of a setting, Death in Space begins with a number of principles—that nothing is new, communication is limited, that the scars of the war remain and have not been forgotten, travel takes time and little is known about places or stations at the edge of or beyond the Tenebris System, and whilst it is possible to live beyond the normal human lifespan, typically through cryo-sleep, the result is often a life of loneliness and loss. The actual given setting is the Tenebris System, the focal point of the Gem War, home to seekers, scoundrels, and miners, as well as various cults, all doing their best (or perhaps their worst) to survive. Several planets and moons across the system are described, but the starting point is the Iron Ring, a dilapidated structure consisting of thousands of old space stations and spacecraft shackled together and surrounding the yellow moon, Inauro. The ramshackle structure is divided into numerous irregularly sized sectors, connected to each other, but not always easily accessible, some inhabited, some not. Life is harsh, the inhabitants typically needing to ally themselves with or join one faction or another to get by, often relying upon their word and their reputation as the ultimate currency.

The Iron Ring is the setting for the starting scenario, ‘Welcome to the Ring’. The Player Characters have arrived with their Hub, towed into place and attached at a convenient docking port at Aurum 80 in the Aurum sector. They are low on supplies, and they owe a debt for the docking fees. How they pay this off is up to them, but perhaps they can involve themselves in the growing feud between two gangs which between control the subsector’s main resources. Both the set-up and the areas of Aurum 80 are described in some detail, but there is no one solution to the situation given. How their characters become involved in the situation and how they resolve it is entirely open and up to the players. What is notable about this is that perhaps the most obvious solution—the application of violence—is not immediately available. Player Characters in Death in Space rarely enter play armed, and whilst it is certainly possible for them to obtain weapons, initially it will be down to their wits and their persuasiveness to make any progress. This is indicative of the roleplaying game’s genre, the blue-collar Science Fiction of space as a working environment.

Beyond ‘Welcome to the Ring’, Death in Space provides the Game Master with table after table of ideas and inspiration. These include tables for Iron Ring locations, but deep space nightmares, obstacles, and space encounters, as well lists of modules and spacecraft and more. The Game Master is free to refer to these, but also encouraged to accept player suggestions too. Notable amongst these table are the only mention of aliens in Death in Space. These are a mixture of tools and threats and oddities that add to the unknown of the end of the universe. Their inclusion here also moves them away from being the focus of the game, and they could even be ignored all together if the Game Master wants to keep her Tenebris System wholly humanocentric.

Physically, Death in Space is black, a lot of black. Or rather, rather it is primarily white text or line art on black, with the occasional spot of colour as contrast. It is stark and elegant, befitting the vast loneliness of space and the Tenebris System. At first glance, it does look like the layout of Mörk Borg, but it is far more subtle and less in your face upon further examination, and therefore, may be easier to read. At least visually, the only connection between the two might be the coloured cross motif used on the chapter pages. The artwork is excellent, and the book is well written and engaging.

Death in Space is a roleplaying game about survival in the face of nihilism and an uncaring universe. It is a roleplaying game about hope and co-operation in the face of nihilism and an uncaring universe. Where in Mörk Borg, the Player Characters can be darkly and often humorously adversarial, this is not the case in Death in Space. The Player Characters have come together and need to work together to survive what is a starkly brutal and often unknown future, a future which can see them radically altered, and ultimately, this is what sets Death in Space apart from other blue collar Science Fiction roleplaying games.

1 comment:

  1. The game is great and they have said there is more setting info to be revealed in future projects.