Tuesday, 24 February 2009

Old fashioned space opera, digitally remastered. Star Frontiers.

Join forces with friendly aliens against more angsty, less friendly aliens in an old-school space opera. Star Frontiers is an out-of-print TSR RPG that has been lovingly remastered by Bill Logan. It has the texture of old Sci Fi but the production values of a modern game. Characters will be laser toting, space ship driving, criminal chasing heroes. It's free now, so has stumbled into my domain!

Character Creation

Characters have four pairs of abilities: Strength/Stamina, Dexterity/Reaction Speed, Intuition/Logic, Personality/Leadership and are based in a percentile and are all named appropriately. Some other secondary attributes are derived from these, which gives skill bonuses. You pick a race, which modifies these scores. You then pick two skills, one as a specialisation and then another as something else you can do. After that, you buy equipment and finish with the details (name, weight etc).


When you perform and action that might have a chance of failure, you roll a percentile under one of the attributes. Modifiers are applied and opposed rolls are done with largest difference winning. As you might expect, every eventuality is catered for: running, jumping, swimming, floating in space, skipping, eating shellfish, wrangling mothers-in-law and peeling potatoes. Ok, not eating shellfish.

Echoes of roleplaying's wargame roots come out in the combat system. Lines of sight, fields of fire and so on. Combat turns are simply explained, initiative, loser decides what to do first. Break out the battlemaps! You can get as complex as you like with the firearms rules, careful aim, cover, bursts, target size, gun colour, shape and size of target's hat and so on are all included. If you like crunch, Star Frontiers has enough crunch to cause astronomical dental bills. Stamina is used to work out how much damage you can take where shields and armour makes the system a lot less lethal. Vehicle combat slides unashamedly into the realm of board games and another set of rules for air vehicles. Nothing for space vehicles, which was a welcome surprise! Experience is handed out if you exceed the expectations of your employer, which is a fitting touch.

The setting

Star Frontiers is set in a dense cluster of stars towards the galaxy's core. There are four friendly races (including a race very much like humans) and a race of unfriendly worm-like warriors who spoil every one else's fun. Boo! Hiss! Organising groups into good guys (United Planetary Federation) and bad guys from the start allows you to concentrate on the other space opera facets, such as faster than light travel and so on. The bad guys, faced with the combined might of the four races became hit-and-run guerillas in space.

The setting has a limited number of settled systems (17 with 23 planets in total) - enough for the choice you would come to expect from a space opera but not too many to be overwhelmed. It also includes 21 unexplored systems for the opportunity of throwing in gallivanting Kirkery into the mix. The colonies are well explained and there is a white-on-black map (printers beware!). There isn't too much detail, allowing the GM to add in their own little touches. The races are different enough to be make a fair number of interesting combinations.

Other sections

As with all truly old-school RPGs, nothing is left to chance: everything about roleplaying games is explained. You could dump this book on a base culture and it could use it as a basis for civilisation. There is an extensive weapon, equipment section and robot section; with pictures - some more Sci Fi than others (an M16?). The GM section is well put together (a third of the book) with some solid advice. It's a little bit authoritarian in places. If you are a fan of more story-based games, you might find the suggestions somewhat draconian. If you're saddled with disturbed, flesh-eating maniac players who exist in a moral vacuum like me, you'll welcome the Machiavellian tilt to the explanations. It has a very good example of actual play but this might be better put in the general section. There's also a bestiary of extraordinary animals. I liked the Cybodragon - a dragon with a laser on its head and a description of the bad guys. The last 40 pages is an example adventure. It's very good but I won't spoil it.

The book and community

Fat, chunky borders. Bold images. Angular fonts. It's got the right look. I never owned the original but I am willing to bet that this is as close as you will get. It feels like an old school RPG. It has a picture-assisted story to describe how the game runs. Bill is obviously thrilled at being given guardianship of Star Frontiers and he's making every use of it. There is a huge amount of supporting material. And I mean HUGE. I think most of it is remastered but that doesn't matter.

Is this your cup of tea?

My main reservation is inline with my reservations of old-school RPGs. They are wonderful time-capsules of a by-gone era but some of the more modern developments do make RPGs easier to play. The rules do stray into a board game, something I try to avoid in Icar and some of the images would delight a pubescent boy devoid of any right-hand literature. There is little space in the opera, most of the action occurs at ground level, so could be set on one planet with continents separating. Perhaps it is not surprising that there is little fault to find as this was a published game, once.


Space opera born in a more innocent time, when RPGs had just walked upright and stepped away from their war game cousins. Star Frontiers will be very popular to the Old School crowd but I feel that there is plenty here for more liberal gamers, too. It is AD&D in space but it does it very well. It would be unfair to view the principles in Star Frontiers as a cliché, they are simply a bedrock upon which to build fantastic adventures. A huge thank you must be directed to Bill for putting so much time and effort into reviving and propelling Star Frontiers into its modern PDF form. He continues to do a superb job.

Many thanks and well done!

Tuesday, 17 February 2009

Ascend into the upper reaches of hyperbole with Sufficiently Advanced by Colin Fredericks

Sufficiently Advanced by Colin Frederick is a free Science Fiction RPG set in the distant future where possessions are cheap and wealth is derived from intellectual property. Dive into a narrative driven system of wildly imaginative Civilisations, intrigue and the very pinacle of technology. A great work, plastered with passion and inventiveness. You'd be foolish not to download it.

The genius is in the setting

Imagine a future where physical objects are so cheap to produce that they cost virtually nothing. You want for nothing. Travel is free and there is an infinite galaxy to inhabit and explore. What holds value in a place where physical things have no worth? Ideas and intellectual property. That is the nub of Sufficiently Advanced: the premise that ideas are worth money. It's novel and bloody clever to boot. If you're scared by that idea, then I recommend averting your eyes as the rest of this review might just send you into a cardiac arrest. The logical flow of thought from this strong initial condition is palpable... Patent offices act as treasuries, as ideas replace gold as the base of currency.

Your character is an agent of the patent office, a daring mix of roles from law enforcer to diplomat via assassin and bastard. Essentially, anything you can turn your hand to, which gives loads of scope for the game. As Colin points out: you're not a patent clerk. So, no need to come up with your own theory of space and time, then.

The Patent Office is run by a series of Artificial Intelligences called Transcendentals that receive messages from themselves in the future. This is where the characters get their marching orders from. Fantastic! This allows the GM to justify just about anything. Cue evil laughing around the GM fraternity. Ally that with planet-vaporising technology that comes with a handle-with-care sticker emblazoned upon it and you have the ingredients for some tense situations. Obviously, I'd never hand that sort of power over to my players, they'd abuse it within the flash of an eyelash and the universe would be sucked into a galaxy-sized black hole before you could say "Don't point that at me..."

In the course of play, Characters will visit a civilisation, ascertain the elements of the dispute and then try and "fix it", through a variety of means; limited only by the player's cunning or love of planet-busting nukes. The cultures are most likely to be one of the fourteen Civilisations or a subsidiary group:


Colin has raised two rigid and proud digits to "Earth" and the tediously cliched area around it (bravo!) and settled on the limits of the Universe as his boundaries. Plenty of scope there, then. To make life more manageable (how do you manage infinity? infinitely badly!), there are 14 core Civilisations for you to play in, around and with. Each one is distinct, with conflicting principles and some are a little wacky. Frivolity is well represented as you might hope from a universe where survival is free. Some of the Civilisation are sheer genius, such as "The Association of Stored Humans". Brilliant.

Your mind might be boggling at all the possibilities of interaction between the 14 disparate Civilisations and a series of other organisations but Colin has provided a handy diagram to represent them all and their relationships. A relief to see that some Civilisations just don't have much to do with each other. Even the soap opera addled mind of a couch potato could rustle enough starch driven brain power to conjure a campaign from it.

Societies and Aliens

The are organisations that stretch across the different civilisations. They are simply described but can be affective in finding common goals with characters from different civilisations. I was reminded feintly of secret societies from Paranoia but without the necessary secrecy. There are also four alien species, each with their own facets. I'd imagine that you could play without them if you felt so inclined. Colin doesn't dwell upon them so neither shall I.

Character Creation

After such an incredible setting, Colin could have defecated onto papyrus and it would not have mattered. But no! There's a complete system and Character creation too. You begin with choosing a Civilisation. This sets up the sort of person you are. You then choose four Core Values (such as Worship or Humanity), which are hinted at by your Civilisation. You then assign how strong these are to you on a simple 0 to 10 scale. Core Values aren't fixed, so there is a list provided covering everything I could think of. You then pick a name, which you have some help with too. Next, you choose your Society Membership, which will give you some more in-game benefits.

Rather than statistics, you get six Themes: Plot Immunity, Intrigue, Empathy, Magnetism, Comprehension and Romance. You get a score in each of these. As you can tell from the names, they are less about doing physical things (jumping, carrying, thinking) and more about putting influence on the story of the game. That would put a story telling lilt to the game. Each Theme influences the game through things called Twists, which more tightly define an action, such as persuading someone not to shoot you in the face.

You then choose the Capabilities of the character, which describe the inherited abilities - such as training, implants or genetic enhancements. No skill lists are needed either, you pick a profession that generally covers a load of skills. There is little Character advancement in this game but there is plenty of character modification for those who want that. At first glance, this is a worrying trait but then it does make sense: your characters can't be first-level freshmen to do their job.


When you want to do end diplomatic stalemates, end wars, start diplomatic stalemates or start wars then you need to choose which Profession and Capability are most applicable. Roll a d10 for each, multiply the roll by the skill and then take the highest. Colin's example is the best, so if you want to play football well you roll a D10 for each: Athletics skill level 3 (Profession) and Biotech level 4 (Capability), you roll 4 and 7 respectively, you end up with 12 and 28. 28 is higher. You then modify this number and compare against a difficulty table.

You can spend 'Reserve' to re-roll. Reserve is gleaned from the facet you know is weaker. In the example above, Athletics is weaker, so you can use that as reserve instead of rolling for it. Conflicting rolls are highest-wins with some extra methods for dealing with reserve.

This simple system is somewhat undermined by listing a whole load of different conflicts that might occur. I have come across this problem with the rewrite of Icar, you have to end up specifying so much. Close combat, weapon combat, vehicle combat, ship combat, etc etc. If you have a system that acts upon the narrative, you have even more conflicts to resolve. How do I resolve an Advertising Campaign? What about a Manhunt? There is so much here that you would have to put considerable effort into resolving any issues. Add onto this your Themes acting upon these actions (in the form of Twists and story Triggers) and I'd imagine the game slowing. Having examples of the sorts of Conflicts that might arise - as an example of play - is fine but to specify so many is somewhat bewelidering. The way my group likes to play is to resolve conflicts at the table, in open play, arguing, shouting, throttling each other and sacrificing quadrapeds in a candle-lit vigil to some evil filth messiah who's secretly terrified of his roleplayer followers and wished they would stop cremating farm animals on the new carpet.

Other sections and the Book

As you might hope, there is a huge list of technology to salivate over. I'd recommend dipping the whole lot into acrylic. Every far future technology available to common man is described and has game effect. As obsessed as I am with high tech, I felt that there needed to be more organisation here and some careful pruning. A few more images in this section for the more outlandish devices would help too. The GM section has some tips and tricks and relies heavily on suggesting the GM improvises. There are some example hints at adventures but not an end-to-end example of play. The Contents page is well ordered and the Index is simply breathtaking. The graphics are of a high quality and spattered throughout (with a bias toward the first half). The bordering is a little large (as is the text) but it does give the book a grand feel to it, so fits beautifully.

You can't have everything

Sufficiently Advanced is a rich setting, which might put some off. The Quick Start is anything but. It won't get you playing in an hour but acts as more of a series of sign posts to help you through the background. I was rather saddened by this because I read "Quick Start" only to spend three hours reading! I also wanted to see how Colin had managed to quick start a Sci Fi game so I could crib for my own devious and filthy ends! It's a fearfully tricky task to achieve.

Sufficiently Advanced is crying out for a full adventure and lots of examples of play. I like novel systems. When reading 2 or 3 games a week, seeing something very different is a blessing. However, the burden is then on the game to provide more examples of play - you simply can't rely on the reader's previous experience. Having said that, the principles are well explained and the writing is consistently good. Colin has an obsession with abbreviations. Core Values jump from their full title to CVs, which can be jarring. I'd recommend avoiding abbreviations altogether. There is also no character sheet, which is a shame as I imagine it would be rather good with gold bordering and such. No doubt the reason is that no two characters are Sufficiently similar to warrant a standard format.

Sufficiently concluded

Sufficiently Advanced is just that. It is a step forward on the RPG evolution track. Some may like that, some may not. The system has its foibles that very well may evaporate in play. The setting is so strong that the system could very well be replaced by the Fate system with no detriment to play. I'd go further: you could replace the mechanics with a block of mature cheddar cheese and a claw hammer without ruining this sublime setting. Sufficiently Advanced has successfully married together every single possible piece of Sci Fi technology I can think of into a single, cohesive setting. A remarkable achievement. One hundred and Eighty Six pages of golden charm, wrapped in high-tech delight and pregnant with imagination.

Many thanks for sharing, Colin.

P.S. Why isn't this for sale? Are you barking mad? ;-)

Tuesday, 10 February 2009

Players will never forget their friends - or enemies...

Help your players organise who they know in your compaign world with NPC contact cards. Download 8 examples, with four contact cards on each page in a handy zip file. When the characters have been in the game for a long time, they tend to end up with a large number of contacts - people they know and will help them or will sell them stuff. This is a simple system for helping them keep track of who they know. Download, print, cut into four (with the help of a responsible adult, if you can find one) and then fold down the middle. You'll find that when they get a bit of a stack of these contacts, they will shuffle through them like trading cards to find the person that can help solve their problem.
[edit]Thanks to misterecho for spotting the link was dead. I have updated the file host.

Instant NPC contacts

I always have a bull-dog clip of these attached to the back of my GMing folder to whip out when I need an NPC quickly and one that is likely to stick around. By giving the players the card, it forms a semi-permenant relationship for the characters.

Why use celebrities?

I've tried faceless people from Google Images and assigned them random names but the players would find it difficult to attach the name to the face. If you use celebrities, then it's a lot easier for the players to do just that. Also, you can have a bit of fun by selecting a celebrity that sort of fits the bill. For example, I used Robert Deniro as a gangland boss. When they met him, they knew instantly what he was about. I then tried a terrible New York accent that invariably ended up sounding like Michael Caine. Players cackled, some sharpened knives, others vomited blood but that's just normal for them. What's more, I used this at Gen Con 2008 and although the players had only been sitting together for 2 hours, then instantly knew what the NPC was likely to be about and easily recalled their name. I've chosen a few UK-centric celebrities, which might act as 'unknowns' for you but that can be good too.

See it in action

I've cheekily lifted these contacts from one of the goat-legged, horned demons I have the mispleasure to play with each week. They're printed on standard 90gsm paper, although I still refer to them as 'cards'. As you can see, one of them is even hurried scribbled in ballpoint when I hadn't any ready to go. Laughter ensued but I'm not allowed to change the contact card for a printed one now. The whole lot fits with the mini bulldog clip I got from Staples. You'll also see that I've added some printed text to some of them. This is because they were all premade contacts that the characters got at the start of the campaign setting. Worked a treat.

I am experimenting with other things to put on the sheet (such as scale for friend/foe) but I think the minimal system here is neat and functional. If you have any ideas or find use for these, then please do let me know.

Saturday, 7 February 2009

Fate - The system that might make you change the way you play

Fantastic Adventures in Tabletop Entertainment (Fate) by Robert Donoghue and Fred Hicks is a smart, generic game system that will guide you into towards delightful, fascinating and wholly unpredictable story-driven roleplaying experience. That sounds like saccharin marketing material but I do believe it's true. If you're a more traditional roleplayer, like me, you will uncover something for you to add to your game. Onward then, as I review Fate and panel beat some truly dreadful metaphors from the grey steel of the English language.

The system

Fate is based upon Fudge. Although I've reviewed Fudge before, I'll go through the basics so that you can see how Fate massages the moisturising cream of story into Fudge's hard mechanical skin.

Fudge describes difficulty using a series of Adjectives called the Ladder. The adjectives are Abysmal, Terrible, Poor, Mediocre, Average, Fair, Good, Great, Superb, Epic and Legendary. You use these words to represent your proficiency in various things. You roll 4D6, each 1 and 2 you roll sends you down the ladder (for example, from Poor to Terrible), each 5,6 you go up. Before you roll, there will be a target adjective on the ladder you're trying to get to - for example to do a reverse-handbrake-turn in a car, you might need to get to 'Good'. If you beat this, you get a Margin of Success, if you don't get up the ladder enough, you get a Margin of Failure. Two characters rolling against each other compare results to find the winner. Fate adds challenges, where you can chain lots of rolls together. A challenge allows a character to do something much more difficult by breaking the task down into a series of small checks.

Character creation

This is where Fate takes its first bold paces into story. Many of the ideas presented here can be lifted and pasted into your own game. It's where I start frothing excitedly with anticipation.

It begins with the GM overview. The GM describes the setting, theme and tone. Is it a Space Opera hack and slash? Is it an intrigue set in dusty vaults and tunnels under London in 1901? This is where you find out. If you have a formal setting, that's OK but you can also thrown caution to the wind and soar into the unknown - buoyed by the thermic drafts of your GM's imagination.

Characters are moulded in a series of phases. Each phase is part of your characters life where things happen. These things are what give you Aspects, Skills and Extras. For example, if you survive a University degree in Mechanical Engineering, you might get a skill in that and an Aspect of Learned with an Extra of a tool kit. Perhaps also skills in drinking, sleeping in late and vomiting into the coiffured gardens of unsuspecting neighbours. It depends on the setting, naturally. The number of phases depends mainly on the GM and setting.

A character is made up from Aspects, Skills and Extras. There are no set attributes or feats, you have to dream them up yourself. Settings will have a list of Aspect examples but the players are spurred on to go off-piste, down the steepest side of their imagination mountains. Aspects include attributes (quick, intelligent), descriptors (charming, attractive), careers (soldier) or setting specific ideas. When you choose an aspect, it starts with one level, you can choose to boost it in subsequent phases if you wish.

Skills are bought using skill ranks. Each phase, you get to add ranks to each skill and they then translate into the Ladder (Average, Good etc). You can't pump all your ranks into a single skill, you need to balance by having twice as many in the rank below. For example, if you have 2 skills with rank 3, you must have 4 at rank 2. And 8 at rank 1 you need one more at the next skill down. For example, if you have 2 skills at rank 3, you must have 3 at rank 2 and 4 at rank 1 (many thanks for the spot, Little Shepherd). They try and justify this but I think the reasons feel more like excuses and they should just be content with saying that it's a game mechanic - live with it.

Once you've been through all the phases, you then set a goal - this is really to help the GM and as I am a serial one, I like any system that can help me satiate the frothing, rabid thirst of those putrid, gnashing, slavering, Darwin-baiting genetic-throwbacks I call my player group.

Aspects and Extras

Aspects are more than just advantages and disadvantages, they can represent traditional attributes, such as Strength but can also also represent connections to the criminal world, an ugly face or anything that might have an impact on the game. To use an Aspect, you explain to the somewhat suspicious GM how the Aspect helps in the task. You can then re-roll, or change one of the values. Alternatively, the GM can invoke the Aspect and do something detrimental to the character, the player can either spend Fate points to avoid it or gain Fate points by letting it happen. This is simply superb. You can keep using Aspects; once used, they lie dormant until refreshed. Extras are more raw abilities and 'stuffs' (such as a rocket launcher) and are bought with skill ranks.

Fate Points

These are points that can be used to add +1 to each roll and also to take narrative control of the game. In English, that means that Fate points are used for the players to tell the GM what's going on. There are other uses for Fate points, all encircling the concept of teamwork and character interaction. There are lots of ways of handing out Fate points, too - mostly concerned with putting effort into the game.

Other Sections

More than half of the book is concerned with describing, illustrating and supporting these rules. The GM section is all-important when you are trying to describe a new sort of gaming. After all, it is normally the GM that explains the rules to the players. The items of the GM section scream out that they are the result of long play testing. Magic and superpowers are dealt with as are a large list of Aspect example and Skill. Not an exhaustive list but enough to demonstrate what Aspects are for. The appendices hold alternative rules, the Fudge minimalist system and some design decisions. Hurrah! This is exactly where they should be. There is also a sample creation of game that reads like a film script. I liked this a lot as it shows how Fate can be used. There's also an index.


Fate will be a paradigm skid for most and that is a downside. This review echoes one problem with it. You will have to spend more time explaining it to your players. It will take more effort to get to grips with as the manner of play is new. You might think that's a beautiful thing, then great! This is definitely the system for you. Also, at some points the explanations are too tied up with examples. It could be ordered a little better with introduction sections. For example, Fate Points are mentioned seemingly at random before really explained about them. There could be a description page where it went through each concept and how they interact.

And that's it

Fate is a professional inspiration made free. Beautifully typeset, free of grammatical or typographical errors, its 90 pages present a game system for a very different sort of roleplaying. Allow the players some control, after all, why not? If you're looking for something different, Fate might just be the system to refresh your ideas about roleplaying.

Monday, 2 February 2009

Rob Lang bollockses it up, come forth and mock him

I thought it might be quite cool to ask John Kim, the curator of the simply superb List of Free RPGs, if he could recommend something to review. He suggested the game he's actually playing: Spirit of the Century SRD, the free version of the buyable Spirit of the Century. I thought bloody good idea. Thank you, John! 

So I set about reviewing the pulp action game in my usual way of skim-reading and ploughing deeper furrows through the novel bits (of which there were many). As I was screwing the lid back onto the pot of lyrical wax, I thought I'd confirm the statement 'based on the Fate system' with a handy link. So, I went and downloaded Fate (on my list for later) and realised with that grim, sinking feeling that I've reviewed the wrong bloody thing first. I should review Fate first. So, my SotC is put on pause while I read through the core rules and craft a review. My blatherings on SotC would make so much more sense after giving you Fate first. I'm a pillock.

Feel free to leave abusive comments.

Rather than wait for next Tuesday, I'll publish the Fate review as soon as I've finished it.