Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Review of Starsiege: Event Horizon

ConDFW was a lot of fun, in spite of some last-minute cancellations due to the “Snowpocalypse” of ’10. (Yeah, Oddysey, I can hear you snickering all the way across the Appalachians. ;p ) One of the highlights for me was the presence of Troll Lord Games. The con is primarily a literary event, and gaming, while usually represented, was a bit anemic this year. I took advantage of that to sit in on some impromptu Castles & Crusades gaming. The game is fun; take out skills and relegate feats to class-based special abilities and you go pretty far to returning a lot of the 1e flavor back into the game. Throwing together some 10th level characters was a snap, and the brief combat we played went fairly quickly. It’s not enough to drag me away from Labyrinth Lord, but it would certainly be contender if I wanted that 1e experience and despaired of acquiring enough of the original books for my gaming group.

They were also selling Starsiege box sets. Yep, before everyone else was jumping on the boxed set bandwagon, Troll Lord was already there. The box itself is attractive, with a very blue, Babylon 5 space-scape and orange lettering. I’m not crazy about the art. It certainly doesn’t make me go, “Ooo! I wanna be on that starship!” But it makes it pretty clear what you can expect to find inside.

What you will find inside is a copy of the GM booklet, called an Operations Manual, four copies of the player booklet, called a Field Manual, a setting booklet (“Victory: 2442”), two nice little d20s, a double-sided character sheet on card stock (clearly for taking to your neighborhood copy shop for reproduction), and some card-stock reference sheets (vehicle record, planet record, and a “trappings cheat sheet”). In short, everything an entire group needs to play the game, short of pencils and paper. I love the fact that they’ve included multiple copies of the player’s booklet for the game, and it seems a great way to load a boxed set.

The booklets themselves are SHORT! The GM book is 44 pages long and the players’ book is 28 pages long, making them even shorter than my beloved Moldvay/Cook D&D books. This is due in part, I’m certain, to the dearth of art. There is some art, but not a lot, and entire pages have nothing but the three columns of text with a few drop boxes. Starsiege isn’t about to win any beauty contests in terms of layout and design. The books work, but that’s about it.

Of slightly greater importance is the complete lack of a table-of-contents or index in any of the books. I can understand the impulse; the books are so short and the rules so simple that referencing them in the middle of play is unlikely and simple to do. Still, I’m gratified to see that the author, Josh Chewning, has posted tables-of-contents on his website.

Before I decided to buy the game, I went online to find some reviews, and one of the first that came up was naturally Dr. Rotwang’s rather glowing description, and I have to echo just about everything he said. Starsiege really is a sci-fi construction set. There are even suggestions for making the game more or less deadly, more or less gritty, more or less wahoo-out-there-superhero-comics. The rules for radiation, for example, are vague enough that they can be tied to pretty much any atmospheric pollutant, and can either result in simple, long-term damage to your character, or wacky, old-school Gamma World mutations, with a built-in mechanism to give you a broad spectrum of results.

My reflex here is to compare it to GURPS, but that’s not really fair to either game. Starsiege is simple, light, broad, and vague. If you’re all about modeling the differences between the Barrett .50, the Sharps Big 50, and the Spencer Carbine (yes, Savage Worlds, I’m looking at you), Starsiege is not your game.


And the caveat is there because of the awesome little trappings system the game includes. It basically gives you quick-and-dirty points-buy system to create just about any little tool, mutant power, gun, starship, ringworld, multi-dimensional planet-eating monster or what-have-you. (Can you say, “Apocalypse Box?”) While the default is to paint with broad strokes, there’s no reason you couldn’t drill down to more detail, though I’m not quite sure yet how much granularity the game will support. But what you can do with it is basically recreate whatever you need to emulate the genre you’re after, whether it’s Death Stars and lightsabers or Klingons and tricorders or datajacks and wired reflexes. The system doesn’t care if your ship is powered by dilithium crystals and has a warp drive or relies on a steam boiler power plant and is propelled by aether screws. It’s a completely effects-based system: how far can it go, how fast can it get there, how many people can it transport, and can it blow things up once it gets there.

And if that’s not enough, it’s got a rather sweet little planetary conflict system, where you can stat out your planets (or interstellar empires or megacorps or spy agencies or war fleets or…) and then have them duke it out for domination of the galaxy.

As a toolkit, it’s shockingly complete for such a little game. It’s not the easiest thing to use (in part thanks to the painfully obvious lack of an editor) and I suspect if you poke it hard enough, it’ll break in lots of places. Likewise, its obsequious genuflections to BALANCE are a bit over-the-top; do I really need to break down every piece of gear to its component abilities and chart out its stats? Certainly not, but it does give me a good place to start, helps me answer questions like “how much should this cost” and will be a great boon to setting-builders who suffer fits of stark terror when confronted with a blank page. There are so many little options, tweaks, and suggestions for other ways to handle things that it’s incredibly flexible. While I was reading it, I couldn’t help but imagine the sorts of campaigns I could create with this, which is a huge improvement over my reaction to Savage Worlds, where I couldn’t stop thinking about how I’d build my own rules.

But it is a toolkit. It’s not everything you need to play in one box. The example setting provided is only 24 pages long and includes no maps. It does have a nice collection of weapons, starships, and alien races to play with, but not much more than that. Before you can start rolling dice in earnest, you (or you and your players) will need to sit down and build your campaign. Frankly, that sounds like a heck of a lot of fun to me. I think I’ve found my go-to game for space opera sci-fi.


Natalie said...

Hey, I'll admit that 10" is a lot of snow for Texas. And for D.C., too. If I didn't have so many pictures of my dog looking confused because he can't see over the snow outside our house, I'd be very impressed.

Sounds interesting. I've already got X-Plorers, Mutant Future, and Mongoose Traveller, but I guess if the Trappings system is awesome enough, there's certain campaigns that this could be made to fit better than any of those three.

I'm curious about the planetary conflict system. Is that mostly a DM background tool kind of thing, or is there enough there that you could run a game where each player was in charge of a planet, say?

And now I'm really curious to hear more about what you think of Savage Worlds. ;)

David Larkins said...

Yeah, I'd be interested in hearing your take on Savage Worlds too. I've been on the fence about it, but I picked up a couple SW setting books from the Gamers Helping Haiti thing and I've been thinking about making it my next big rules purchase.

I bought Starsiege a year ago on the strength of Dr. Rotwang!'s review, but I haven't really cracked it open and started feasting on the goo inside. It patiently awaits the day I finally (after two decades of gaming) run a proper SF campaign.

(Also, it's in a moving box right now so I can't check, but I sure don't remember my copy coming with a setting booklet OR character/reference sheets on cardstock. Hmmmm.

trollsmyth said...

Oddysey: Yeah, the idea is definitely that players would be running some of these planets, at least from the examples given. The basics are that your planet has stats analogous to a PC’s stats. There are rules for building planets out of a points system, so you could easily set up a game kinda like your classic explore-exploit-expand-exterminate galactic strategy conquest game.

Planets have three damage tracks: Populace, Society (really more culture, from my reading) and Resources. You can use your resources to attack any of those three, though some resources are more useful as weapons against a particular damage track than others. For instance, your Entertainment facilities can produce propaganda to attack the enemy’s society, or you can use your merchant-marine fleet to wage economic war against their Resources. Or you can just use your war fleet to drop virus bombs on their Populace. Once any track is down to zero, the planet falls into anarchy, allowing you to do really nasty things to them, like plunder and pillage their wealth or even attempt to take over.

And because it’s all rather vague and handwavey, it’s easy to scale it up to conflict between galaxy-spanning megacorps, or religions, or empires, or down to clashes between underhive gangs fighting in the sewers of an arcology or, with a bit of tweaking, clashes between the New Wave and Old Guard in a university English department. ;)

It does swerve glancingly into stuff I’d rather play through, but since it directly references physical assets owned by the planets, things like fleets, mining operations, network hubs, etcetera, it’s pretty easy to see how a small band of swashbuckling heroes can help influence the conflict.

It’s a really neat system, but not as neat as the encumbrance system that’s actually so simple, it’d be a crime not to use it, and that’s saying something for a guy like me who is happy to handwave that sort of thing. ;p The system is full of neat little options like that. But you have to give the game a chance, because, honestly, the editing is so bad and the layout and art so meh, that it would be easy to set it aside and not check out the details.

That all said, I don't know X-Plorers or Mongoose Traveller well enough to say it's better than either of them for any particular sort of game. I suspect if what you want is Traveller, nothing will beat Traveller. But if you're wanting something a bit more out of the ordinary, it's easier to work with than GURPS.

Savage Worlds: Yeah, ok, I’ll get cracking on that. I haven’t finished reading it, and I know I’m being a bit unfair to it. It did a few things right off the bat that rubbed me the wrong way, so I need to take some time and give it a fair reading-through.

Anonymous said...

Wow, great post! I hadn't heard about this game, but now I suddenly find myself really wanting it. I'm going to have to stop by Troll Lords' site a bit later.

I've never actually played any Trek RPGs, but the idea of building my own (or a scifi with megacorps, my personal favorite sci fi trope) is quite intriguing.

Thanks for the informative review!

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Actually it was a really good game! there's no doubt about it!