Saturday, March 10, 2012
Rogue Space: The Dark Frontier, by Christopher Brandon
Before launching more into the substance of the book, I'll address some cosmetic issues. First, regarding the art: half of the art is great. It was custom-made for the book by the author's wife (?). It's got a consistent style, she's a great artist, and it's of a sufficient resolution to not look off when printed. The other half of the art, I can't be so positive about. It's largely public domain, low-resolution 40's/50's pulpy-style art of generic space exploration sort of settings. It's reminiscent of the art that's plastered all over the covers of my Alan Nourse and Theodore Sturgeon novels from that time period. This is not necessarily a bad thing; I happen to love pulpy space art (and the genre), and that's why I've collected those sorts of novels. However, the problem is the resolution. The problem is that these are obviously low-quality, compressed, low-resolution pictures that have been expanded to fill the space on the page, and the result is aliasing, pixelation, and a generally washed-out appearance. Too bad. I think that a lot of that could probably be solved by rinsing the pictures through the posterize tool in GIMP since they're pen-and-ink or lithograph style pictures; fewer levels of grey, cleaner appearance. But I digress.
I really hope that the stock art is just placeholder material for when the artist (Valerie Brandon) can replace it with some more of her great, stylized, distinct artwork. Though I've spent a whole paragraph complaining about it, I'll conclude by saying that it's not even that bad. There are only a couple pictures that are bad enough to groan at, and that's a better track record than even Chaosium (some of the art in Call of Cthulhu is shameful, and has been reprinted for 20 years). If Rogue Space ever gets another update, with more art from Valerie Brandon and any rules updates, I'd probably buy another copy. Valerie Brandon's art is also pulp-influenced, so it's at least not inconsistent with the stock art. However, in parting for the art section, it does decidedly lead the reader to assume that the game is "supposed" to be run in a pulp style, which is not necessarily the case. I'm honestly not sure what the long-term plans are for this game, but I'l say that, even despite these reservations, I'd categorize everything in the book, visually, as "good enough." You can download most of the relevant stuff for play from the website anyway, so the low resolution doesn't hinder that.
The book itself is standard lulu fare: 8.5x11" printer sheets perfect bound between a high-gloss light cardstock cover. I managed to spill my tea on it shortly after opening it, but the glossy cover was able to resist all of the potential liquid damage, and cleaned up well. I got a little bit of waviness on the bottom where the tea touched but I clamped it and it looks fine now. I honestly feel like, given the amount of material and the thinness of the book, I'd have preferred it to be in a different format, like 6x9" like the Savage Worlds Explorer's Edition; but I have no idea what options are available from lulu and what that does to the cost. I'd probably have preferred, overall, for there to be less art as well. There's at least some sort of graphic on nearly every page; some is helpful as it directly reflects something written on the page, but a lot of it is filler. Anyway, at this point I think I'll take off the editor hat at this point and put it in the drawer. And then lock the drawer. And give someone else the key for safe-keeping so I don't get any ideas about putting the hat back on. Oh, before I put the hat away, I will say: I did not spot any spelling or grammar anomalies, so at least in that regard Brandon's got a leg up on some major RPG publishers. Ok, hat away.
On to the rules. For the purposes of this review, I will distinguish between the two rule sets. The original, the PocketMod Basic Rules, I'll call PMB. The expanded, book-sized rules I'll call TDF (for The Dark Frontier). There is not terribly much different between the two, but there's enough that the distinction, I think, is reasonable to make. There are a couple conflicting concepts regarding initiative in the book. In PMB, initiative is determined by 2d6+current HP. In TDF, on one page, it says there is no initiative and players all declare their actions resolve them simultaneously. On the following page (under the Combat heading) it has the PMB rule of 2d6+HP. I guess (thanks to a commenter for pointing it out) that I'd still stick to the 2d6+HP rule under Combat for combat situations, and relegate the simultaneous resolution system for noncombat situations where time is still a factor. However, I'd still be tempted to break that into initiative order (since two people might be working on the same thing, and the order by which they perform their actions would have an effect on the time it takes to complete the task), and in which case I might make the initiative count current HP+relevant skill bonus. But that might be a bit too simulationist for an otherwise pretty easygoing and "abstractified" game, so nevermind. :)
Other additions to the combat system, plus a greatly expanded weapons and armor section, plus even more non-combat and supplemental items, are all very welcome. These sort of details, while not exactly necessary, are great starter ideas and I'm glad to see them. TDF also includes rules for disruptor-type weapons (remember how I was talking about that in my PMB review?), which includes a save-or-die mechanic that I really like. I can't off the top of my head remember any instance where someone survived a direct blast from a Klingon disruptor, but I'm sure it happened at some point because Star Trek is like that.
Reading through The Dark Frontier, perhaps on account of the pulp art, I was thinking that it would be more appropriate for a Star Trek: TOS sort of game, rather than a TNG sort of game, as I was thinking with the PocketMod rules. This might be also because of the sorts of items which are described as well, but I think it just goes to show how very subtle changes and details in the writing can (inadvertently?) lead the reader off in different directions.
In reading the PMB rules, I was constantly thinking that modding the game with some elements from Diaspora would probably make it more fully-realized, and give it more of that old school Traveller sort of vibe. Upon finishing the TDF book, which includes details on ships, sectors, and space travel, adding in any Diaspora elements seems less necessary. But, since 2d6 (which Rogue Space uses) and *dF (which Diaspora uses) both map out in a bell curve, the two are probably pretty easily compatible; one could probably even adjust Rogue Space to utilize 4dF instead of 2d6 and have to change virtually nothing else.
You can occasionally track the influences that Brandon had while he was writing the book, and that helps to give an idea of the sort of directions he was thinking of going with the game. For instance, in the example for how to develop an alien playable character, he outlines a sort of "Space Elf." However, it sounds remarkably like a Vulcan (and not an Eldar, shame on you for immediately thinking that when I said Space Elf!). In the section on developing alien enemies, he outlines an Alien Xenomorph, from the eponymous science fiction film trilogy (I refuse to acknowledge the existence of Alien: Resurrection, or either of the AvP films). In the section talking about psionic characters, he refers to them as psykers (which may or may not lead to complications from Games Workshop).
A few more notes, in brief. There is a choose-your-own-adventure style sample adventure in the book. I've already expressed multiple times how much I love these and encourage their inclusion as gameplay-introduction tools in RPG books, so I won't go on about that in length, but suffice to say, it's great, and almost has a Lamentations-of-the-Flame-Princess-in-space sort of feel to it. There are rules on building NPC robots, putting together and statting out ships, creating PC and NPC alien races and threats, and creating unique sectors, star systems, and worlds (remember how I said Diaspora was no longer necessary to augment this?).
Brandon does seem to love his anagrams for stats. PC stats are abbreviated FASER (Fighting, Acquiring, Scientific, Empathy, and Repairing. Ship stats are abbreviated SHIPS (Structure, Howitzers, Interior, Propulsion, Shields). Alien types are abbreviated HAIKU (Humanoid, Animal, Insect, Known, Unknown). Alien sizes are abbreviated TSARZ (Tiny, Small, Average, Really big, ZOMG!). Alien stats are abbreviated PTTPSZMVARDMHPSP. Ok, thats not an anagram. No, alien (enemy) stats are one-liners highly reminiscent of any retroclone you can probably name, so it's very easy to understand even without immediatly knowing what the letters are for. I think that "Howitzers" as a stand in for "Ordnance" is a bit forced, especially because "Howitzer" to me very highly suggests a particular kind of light artillery between a full-sized cannon and a lighter-still mortar. Plus, having two S's, tsk tsk. When I was reading it, I was thinking, why not HOLES (Hull, Ordnance, Logistics, Engines, Shields), or HOPES (Personnel). That's a joke; SHIPS is fine. It's self-referential, which is a kind of punning that I can get behind. Additionally, ZOMG! as a size for comparison is something I will be laughing about for a really long time. Anagrams are memorable, and I bet without even trying anyone who reads this will be able to remember those stats now. It's certainly better than Shadowrun's shameful "BARSCILWEdgeEssMInitIP" (which I remember, in part, as "Bar Skill? Ew!).
Lastly, there's a brief section (reminiscent of the Savage Worlds books), on a "sample" setting, Pirates & Peril, plus a short adventure within that setting. These two things help tie together all the pulp artwork throughout the book with a pulp setting. The book ends with links to other bloggers who have developed their own Rogue Space material, which is, I think, a fantastic touch. Shout outs make the world go 'round, plus, as I've said again and again, the style of the game is pretty limitless in the kind of setting you can create with it.
As Savage Worlds is my go-to for just about any sort of homebrew, inpromptu modern fantasy sort of game I'd want to run, I think Rogue Space will take that role for any sort of spacefaring, heroic kind of game. Warhammer 40K, Stars Without Number, Diaspora, Traveller, and others I think have their place, but for me, Rogue Space rises to the top as a great little universal system for playing among the stars. The rules take about 5 minutes to explain, creating a character takes even less time, and then you can just get right in to it and start having fun (without 400 pages of special conditions to wade through). All in all, I'm glad to have randomly downloaded the original a few months ago, and I'm doubly glad there's a book to buy with expanded rules. I'd recommend checking it out to anyone who likes spacefaring sci-fi.
Edited to add: The PocketMod rules that I have been referring to are apparently an outdated version. There is practically no difference between the "big book" TDF rules and the PocketMod Basic rules in terms of damage, hit points, or armor at this point, so the distinction between PMB and TDF is less important now, upon review of the most recent PocketMod version. I downloaded the basic rules some months ago, read them, forgot about them, and then only recently decided to revisit them. I must apologize for any confusion related to pointing out differences where there are, in fact, no longer any differences.