Little I got Tanks: Panther vs Sherman (Gale Force 9) for Christmas. For his birthday, Brother T got him the Tiger I expansion. In a wonderful show of brotherly love, T not only gave him the model, but then built it and painted it up!
Little I is very excited as his collection is getting much more personalized. T also has shown a natural ability to paint miniatures. I have several old Mongoose Publishing Starship Troopers Miniatures Gamesets that I know I won’t get around too…maybe it’s time to turn them over to T and see what he can do!
In the most recent Star Trek Adventures RPG living playtest email from Chris Birch at Modiphius he wrote, “Hope you like this new image!” I usually don’t have any real opinion of art in RPG products. Honestly, I rarely even think about it. But this time I did and I definitely have a reaction to it. But before I tell you what I think about this picture a little of my Star Trek RPG history may help you understand where I am coming from.
had a “new” Klingon on the cover. The art content fell broadly falls into two categories; people and ships. The people art was generally staid with little dynamic action; what I term “poser” art. Then, like now, I find the artwork very neutral – indeed almost too neutral – and not exciting or deeply inspirational.
Call to Action – Prime Directive
As I was a fan of the board game (and miniatures) of Star Fleet Battles, when Task Force Games brought out their RPG for that universe I scooped it up – with mild disappointment. But looking back on the artwork of Prime Directive, I see a few things that I like. For instance, the cover has action. Here I see what is likely a Federation Prime Team, with jackets on and phasers ready, in a temple-like structure being attacked (?) by an alien wielding a long spear with a bladed end. Take note that the team is facing the threat. Later versions on Prime Directive, especially the more recent d20 and d20 Modern variants, went to a style of art that I am not a fan of, but still harken back to core themes of the Trek universe. Like this cover from D20 Modern.
Here I see another Prime Team with each character acting in an iconic fashion; the blue-shirted scientist is pointing out something, the red-shirted security guy is getting ready to die, and the gold-shirted commander is leading. Not a lot of action, but each character captures (inspires) a role to play.
The Vanguard of My Imagination
There is another influence on my “expectation” of a Star Trek RPG, coming from the Star Trek Vanguardseries of books. This series appeals to me because it is an Original Series-era setting but with a more confrontational and mysterious adventure. In terms of their book covers, they all consist of ship art and are full of action. I especially like Reap the Whirlwindwhich shows off the small USS Sagittarius daringly passing in front of a much larger (and dangerous?) Klingon ship. Now that is adventure inspiration!
A Call to New Star Trek Adventures
Which brings me back to the new Star Trek Adventures. Much like FASA Trek before, the art shown to date consists of ships and people. In this case the ships are trying to evoke a nostalgic reaction as they portray the iconic Enterpriseacross the TV series’ and movies. But it is the people art that catches my attention. To me, the people art shows how the writers and publishers of this game see their own game. Through those images they show me, the player (and customer), how they think the game should inspire me to play.
The first people image I saw was a crew on the bridge of what appears to be a Original Series ship. I like that it is Original Series and that it is full of action. But to me it is the wrong action. I see a Federation ship that has been boarded by Klingons with at least two injured (dead?) already. The Captain is desperately fighting another ship even as the Klingons board his ship and threaten his bridge. This doesn’t look like it will end well. Indeed, this image reminds me what I see as an overused trope in too many Star Trek movies; Abandon Ship! How many times has the Enterprise now been destroyed? I personally am tired of the trope and it infuriates me because I see it as lazy writing for it has been used too many times to do nothing more than generate emotions (nostalgic longing for the ship) move the adventure off the to a different location.
The next image very different. It changes eras (to theNext Generation) which I am only “meh” to (except if we are talking about the alternate Federation found in Yesterday’s Enterprise). There is a lot of action going on here; from an exploding planet above to collapsing towers in the background to explosions. I also see a blue-shirted scientist studying a mystical hologram while two gold-shirted security guards are near a mysteriously glowing obelisk. A red-shirted officer is pointing, probably commanding the group since she is the only one wearing the red-shirt of command. On the far left we see a second blue-shirt scientist racing towards the group. That is a lot of action, and I see this as the moment the plan has gone sideways and the PCs are faced with a choice. It is the classic “Oh, Crap!” moment.
This picture, the one that that started all my ramblings, appears to take place shortly after the previous “Oh, Crap!” moment. The scientist previously seen racing towards the group is now racing away. He is being followed by a somewhat acrobatic gold-shirt security man. Our intrepid red-shirt leader is also on the run with the blue-shirt scientist previously studying the hologram(?) now also sprinting away. In the right top, two more characters not seen in the previous image are visible; a red-shirt being rescued by a gold-shirt. There are also at four characters in the left background; two (?) gold, a blue and a red-shirt.
There’s at least ten people in this scene. I’m going to assume the blue-shirt hippie dude, the acrobatic blue-skin gold-shirt, red-shirt leader and blue-shirt hologram scientist are player characters. A fifth PC may be the other gold-shirt security in the previous picture. That means this scene has a PC party of five with five supporting NPCs. To use the words of the man in the White House, “That’s yuge!” I have to wonder if Star Trek Adventures is playable only by large groups. Is there something in the game mechanics that makes this necessary or desirable or is it optional?
In a bit that I find very important all the characters seem to be running awayfrom the threat. This runs (no joke intended) counter to what I see as a core tenet of the Star Trek universe; characters always face the threat. I am not saying that a strategic withdrawal is never in order but to show me a scene where everyone is running away – it makes me think of Doctor Who where the characters are always running. If I want to play game with running, I’ll play Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space (11th Doctor) which I already own.
I can already hear some critics saying, “It’s your game. Play it like YOU want to play!” I heartily agree, and will do so, as long as the mechanics of the game allow me to!
“How do you like this image?”
Sorry, Chris. I don’t.
I don’t like it because although it looks Star Trek (the uniforms and alien species) it doesn’t look like the heroic Star Trek I expect – and want – to play.
At first I was confused by all those fancy dice with their crazy symbols. Now I see this system as one of the best matches of narrative gameplay and setting. I don’t see any other way to play a cinematic science fiction adventure. The nearly-identical Age of Rebellion and Force and Destiny round out the trilogy of adventure just like the original trilogy of movies did. Although low on my list, I am the GM in a campaign for the RockyMountainNavy Boys using this system.
I always thought I would not enjoy transhumanism settings in my sci-fi RPG adventuring. At least, that was until I found the FATE Core-driven Mindjammer. Another exploration into narrative-driven RPG systems. (Avoid the Mongoose Traveller version.)
More a guilty pleasure than a game I play. Many people deride the rules but this is my go-to version of Traveller when I want to do some hardcore setting creation. Actually, as long as one avoids Melee Combat the rules hold up surprisingly well. It’s a shame this one gets so much bad press, the game is actually very good – its the bad reputation the first rulebook got that I think makes people stay away.
Driven by the Cortex Plus system, this is another game that shows my tilt towards more narrative-driven games. The setting is also in keeping with the Original Traveller Universe (and not all that far from Edge of the Empire either). The production quality of the books are so shiny!
Strictly rules, this slimmed down version of FATE Core is the best rules set I have found to introduce new players to narrative RPG gaming. Some people accuse this game of being too simple; I disagree and say it is the ultimate “rules-lite” system.
Atomic Robo is a fine example of what happens when authors and game designers are of the same mind. The rulebook is one of the best I have ever seen, effortlessly taking source content and marrying it to game system and examples. The Brainstorming Rules are absolutely essential to ANY narrative-driven game played.
Going old-school here, but James Bond 007 has stood the test of time. The Chase rules, where one bids for initiative is very cinematic. I now recognize that this was the first RPG I played that had a Game Economy in the form of Hero Points. There is also the best-ever Example of Play which puts iconic scenes from the movie Goldfinger opposite game play.
Cepheus Engine is the modern 2d6 Sci-Fi RPG system that is the natural evolution of Classic Traveller. Except this one uses the Open Game License and not Mongoose Traveller’s much more restrictive legal obstacles to third-party publishing. Though a youngster, there are several great settings that take advantage of they rules including the awesome The Clement Sector, Orbital 2100, and the brand-new These Stars are Ours!
Diaspora uses the older FATE 3.0engine, and could probably use an update to FATE Core. But the designer’s don’t have to be in a rush because Diaspora is a great game as-is. Occasionally called the Traveller version of FATE, I love it for many of the same reasons I love Traveller; it is a sci-fi adventure RPG with moderate rules overhead. The Space Combat rules are a unique take on vector-combat using range bands (and should be retrofitted to Classic Traveller).
It was 1979 that I first discovered roleplaying games, and my gateway game was the three Little Black Books of Traveller. Who can ever forget the simple text on the box cover:
“This is Free Trader Beowulf, calling anyone…Mayday, Mayday…we are under attack…main drive is gone…turret number one not responding…Mayday…losing cabin pressure fast…calling anyone…please help…This is Free Trader Beowulf…Mayday….”
Now known as Classic Traveller, the rules are still a model of “complex simplicity.” Complex in that all the tools for making your own adventure are there (there is no default setting or Third Imperium in the original LBBs) and simple in terms of rules. Maybe a bit too simple, as shown by the modern rules version in Cepheus Engine. It really doesn’t matter to me what today’s version is called, Classic Traveller will always be the one dearest to my heart.
The setting of TSAO is a logical outgrowth of 20th century UFO conspiracies:
Set in 2260 AD – two years after the Terrans took Keid and forced the Reticulan Empire to capitulate the book introduces the player characters to the immediate aftermath of the Terran victory in the Terran Liberation War against the mighty Reticulan Empire and its many thralls. For their part, the upstart Terrans, bolstered by their victory against their old masters, now move to become a power to be reckoned with in interstellar affairs. Against this background of espionage, maneuvering, and saber-rattling, and on the new interstellar frontiers, the player characters can forge a destiny of heroes or villains of the new United Terran Republic. (DriveThruRPG)
TSAO is delivered in a 209 page pdf (also now available in a POD option). This meaty setting is explained over six chapters and two appendixes.
Chapter 1 – The United Terran Republic provides much of the history and setting background. Included is not just a recap of events to date, but also many groups or factions or agencies that the player characters (PCs) could interact with. Psionics has a role in this setting. Given the assumed Tech Level (TL) of 11-12 (with some military at 13), TSAO (like Omer Golan-Joel’s earlier Outer Veil setting) is a high-tech but small-ship universe.
Chapter 2 – Aliens describes the humans neighbors, opponents, and allies(?). In the space of just a few pages many races are fully described and (again) are rich with adventure seeds and story hooks for development.
Chapter 3 – Characters and Careers is a great example of how to take the basic character generation system in Cepheus Engine and stretch it to showcase it’s full potential. PCs can be the default Humans or select from several alien races. Careers are taken from 13 civilian careers in Cephesus Engine or an from the 20 new ones in TSAO, including seven (7) alien “careers.”
Chapter 4 – Starships showcases alien saucers and Terra’s ships along with a few other alien constructs. Art is provided by the ever-dependable Ian Stead and others. Make sure to look at the 300-ton Terran Shaka-class Light Military Transport (and especially the Decommissioned Shaka-class Transport) for a not-to-subtle nod to Serenityand the Firefly-class.
Chapter 5 – Terran Borderlands is combination gazetteer and Referee’s Information. The worlds of Known Space is detailed, along with many story hooks and adventure seeds. The usual World Generation process from Cephesus Engine is expanded upon here with an Expanded Universal World Profile that adds a bit more detail but also a whole many more ideas that PCs or Referees can grab onto.
Chapter 6 – Patrons describes 12 Patrons that might engage the PCs. The chapter is not only a grouping of ready-made adventures, but also provides insight into the setting as viewed by the authors.
Appendix A – Terran News Agency Dispatches, February 2260 is a call back to the Traveller News Service snippets that were a staple of Classic Travellerand its successors. Again, these short news items can be the start of yet more adventures!
Appendix B – Sources of Inspiration, Literary and Otherwise is TSAO‘s Appendix N. I always look over these lists to see what inspirations the authors took and to see what I may want to add to my reading/viewing.
The last part of TSAO is an index. This is one of the best indexes I have ever seen in a book. However…the pdf is not cross-linked. This highlights some of my pet peeves with so many pdf products; page numbering and no linking. TSAO is paginated like most books, with page 1 being the interior title page. Unfortunately, this is “page 3” of the pdf, meaning if using your pdf page search you will always be three pages off from your target! The publisher could of avoided (or lessened the impact) of this issue if the Table of Contents (or even that great Index?) was linked.
Production quality is very good. Compared to Stellagama’s previous The Space PatrolI can see definite improvement. Get the linking and page numbering issues nailed and I will likely have nothing to complain about….
The authors call TSAO the first in the Visions of Empire (VoE) space opera settings. If TSAO is any indication, the VoE series will be settings rich in background using (and stretching) the Cepheus Engine rules to their finest.
Victory in the Pacific (VITP) is one of the oldest games in my collection. Originally published in 1977, it won the Charles S. Roberts Award for Best Strategic Game that year. My copy is a Second Edition with a 1988 Avalon Hill Game Company catalog inside. For many years the game sat on my shelf partially because – as itself states – it is an Introductory-level wargame and my personal tastes run to other difficulty levels. However, with the RMN boys now getting into more wargaming, I pulled VITP out to see if it would make a good game for them. What I discovered is that VITP is a “diamond in the rough.” The game itself (mechanics and gameplay) are wonderful, but the game suffers from early wargame publishing issues that present challenges.
1.01 The rulebook for VITP is short but difficult to understand. It is laid out in the old SPI style (numbered paragraphs) that should make it easy to cross reference. However, the arrangement of the rules is not intuitively easy to follow; finding even basic game concepts like the Sequence of Play or the Combat Round Action Sequence [my term] is very difficult. It’s all there, but buried within walls of text with little real cross-reference or even logical order. I do not want to turn this game over to the RMN boys “as-is” because the rules will likely create confusion. Even if I was to introduce the game to them, I eventually will need to let them go it alone; the rules as written are not very supportive of that course of action.
The mapboard is functional. The colors are very 1970’s – not totally hideous but abstract in a classic Monopoly sort of way. The mapboard is in some ways too big; there is some real estate around the edges that could possibly be used for port holding boxes (like Yokosuka or Truk or Ceylon or Pearl Harbor). This would certainly help with stacking counters on the map!
Speaking of counters, they are nice and big. This makes them easy to stack or sort. The counters themselves are a great example of functional simplicity with easy-to-read factors. The color palate is a bit bland, but once again it was the 1970’s!
Reinforcements – Movement – Combat – Control. Speed Rolls can be a bit confusing because the Speed Factor on the counter is not a “speed” in terms of areas moved but number that must be rolled under to move an additional area. Combat resolution is from the school of “Yahtzee combat”; roll a number of d6 equal to your Attack Factor and try to get 6’s (or 5-6 if the firing unit has an Attack Bonus). A 5 Disables, a 6 is a Hit with another d6 rolled for the amount of Damage. When Damage exceeds the Armor Factor (defense rating) a ship is Sunk (removed from the game) or an air unit/amphib destroyed (to return two turns later). Doesn’t really get much simpler.
Now that I look at it, I see that movement is “roll low” but combat is “roll high.” Another rules area of potential confusion?
Although VITP is an Introductory-level game, I was pleasantly surprised (and delighted) with the “historical feel” of the game. At the strategic level, the Japanese start out dominating in force but must husband ships for the long conflict. This is neatly in contrast to the Allies who over the course of several turns build up huge forces. Thus, the Allies will likely favor a longer view of battle (i.e. the Allies must be patient and not rush for a quick victory). This in turn drives a strategy that is very historical where the Japanese player pushes out to establish a defensive perimeter and then tries to attrite the Allied player as they start the island-hopping campaign across the Pacific. Having the US move second in each phase also is a nice nod to the historical intelligence advantage the US possessed.
At the operational level, the choice of Patroller or Raider makes for an interesting dynamic. Patrollers move first and can control an area at the end of the turn. Raiders move later in the turn (after Patrollers have been set) but cannot control an area. Like at the strategic level, having the Allies move second is a nice nod to the operational advantage intelligence gave Allied commanders.
At the tactical level the choice of Day (air strikes) or Night (surface gunnery) actions is evocative of the era. Even the use of a simple Attack Bonus creates the feel more capable/better trained/elite forces.
All that said, it is indicative of just how “game changing” the Japanese battle plan for the opening of the war was that it requires special rules to handle. The Turn 1 Pearl Harbor Air Raid and Indonesia rules actually “break” the game to force a more historical opening. I look forward to playing where the Japanese forego the Pearl Harbor Air Raid and see how that war develops.
If I had to pick a weakness of the game, I would point to the Order of Appearance charts. Not that they are ahistorical, but I wonder if they give too much information to the players. The Japanese player can easily see that the forces they start with are pretty much going to be it for the war, whereas the Allied player will see his forces grow turn after turn. This potentially creates a metagame situation for the players; does knowing what reinforcements are coming unduly influence player decisions? I understand that this is addressed by the Japanese player bidding Points of Control at the beginning of the game, but this is a mechanic to balance between players and in effect recognizes that the game (like the historical situation?) is not balanced. In effect, VITP is “play with what you get” not necessarily “what you need.” Does this make it a failed game? No, but it explains other strategic Pacific War games that introduce resources and variable reinforcements. It certainly gives me a new appreciation of the Card Driven Game (CDG) mechanic used in games like Mark Herman’s Empire of the Sun (GMT Games, 2005) which has, to borrow an RPG term, more player agency (and complexity).
Even given its warts, VITP is a good introductory-level wargame. Like I did for GDW’s Mayday game before, I come back to my “simply complex” characterization; the game is simple in mechanics but complex in the depth of gameplay. That said, on the scale of game vs. simulation VITP certainly falls on the game side of the spectrum. That doesn’t make it bad, but highlights to me how I need to frame any “history lesson” that my boys may derive from play. I will eventually hand VITP over to the boys, but not before I search grognard.com or ConSimWorld for some player aids to help “smooth the edges” of this great game.
I am going to have to spend some more serious reading time if I am to get through all my new books this year (seen here and here). I really am short of time; this is only my “serious” reading and not my gaming or other guilty pleasure books!
Going all the way back to the first book in the series, Leviathan Wakes, the small shuttle Knight gives us some insight into the technology of The Expanse:
It wasn’t long before Alex called down, “Okay, Boss. It’ll be about a four-hour trip flying’ teakettle. Total mass use at about thirty percent, but we’ve got a full tank. Total mission time: eleven hours.”
“Copy that. Thanks, Alex,” Holden said.
Flying teakettle was naval slang for flying on the maneuvering thrusters that used superheated steam for reaction mass. The Knight‘s fusion torch would be dangerous to use this close to the Canterbury and wasteful on such a short trip. Torches were pre-Epstein fusion drives and far less efficient. (Leviathan Wakes, Chapter 3)
From the book we know that the trip covers 50,000km. Working with classic space travel time equations, we can compute the Knight is traveling at about 1.0368 m/s or just over .1G acceleration.
Later in Chapter 5 we see the Knight running flat-out at 2G acceleration. At this speed the same 50,000 km trip should take only 53 minutes, which is a bit shorter than the approximately 70 minutes obliquily stated in the book. At this point it is unclear if the 2G speed is the upper limit of the teakettle or the fusion torch at low power.
The Knight does eventually clearly light it’s torch:
“Roger that, XO. Bleeding-g burn-and-flip laid in. Angled approach course so our torch won’t burn a hole in the Cant. Time to rock and roll?” Alex replied. (Leviathan Wakes, Chapter 5)
Here we have to interpolate the fusion torch acceleration based on Holden and his apparent weight. When lighting the torch Holden weighs 500 kilos. Assuming he is an average 75 kg to begin with, this works out to almost 7G. Interestingly, from the novella The Drive we know that 7G is the instrument limit on Solomon Epstein’s ship that he installed his new drive on, indicating that the fusion torch may have an upper limit of 7G.
In summary, we can say the shuttle Knight has maneuvering thrusters (teakettle) that operate efficiently at .1G. The shuttle also has a fusion drive (torch) that can accelerate it at up to 7G.
The Knight‘s torch drive could deliver a lot of thrust, but at the cost of a prodigious rule-burn rate. But if they could save the Cant, it wouldn’t matter. (Leviathan Wakes, Chapter 5)
The missiles that are fired at the Canterbury are also very impressive:
As if in answer, six new objects appeared on his radar, glowing yellow icons appearing and immediately shifting to orange as the system marked their acceleration. On the Canterbury, Becca yelled out, “Fast movers! We have six new high-speed contacts on a collision course!”
“Jesus H. Christ on a pogo stick, did that ship just fire a spread of torpedoes at us?” McDowell said. “They’re trying to slap us down?”
“Yes, sir,” Becca said.
“Time to contact.”
“Just under eight minutes, sir,” she replied. (Leviathan Wakes, Chapter 5)
For these six missiles to cover 200,000km in 8 minutes means their acceleration has to be around 150G!
In Leviathan Wakes, Chapter 51, Holden tries to remember how fast the Roci can go:
He tried to remember the Roci‘s maximum theoretical acceleration. Alex had already flown it at twelve g briefly when they’d left the Donnager. The actual limit was one of those trivial numbers, a way to brag about something your ship would never really do. Fifteen g, was it? Twenty? (Leviathan Wakes, Chapter 51)
In the episode “Home” if I caught the screen correctly it looks like the Roci was accelerating just over 17g. This again is in line with the book; and way faster than the 6g of Classic Traveller or Cepheus Engine and far ahead of the technology in Orbital 2100 where the alternative Nuclear Pulse Fusion Drive tops out at 1.2g! Compared to the Traveller RPG or Cepheus Engine universe, the ships and weapons of The Expanse are way faster and likely far more deadly too.
As late to the game as I am, I look forward to reading more of The Expanse series and seeing what further ship secrets are hidden within.