Friday, 21 November 2014
RPGPundit Reviews: Mindjammer: The Roleplaying Game
This is a review of the RPG "Mindjammer", written by Sarah Newton, published by Modiphius. This is a review of the print edition, which is a stunning book (in terms of production values, and sheer size, coming in at almost 500 pages). It has a full color cover with some starships, interior-cover starmaps, and mostly black-and-white interior illustrations (except when you get to some sample planets, where the planetary images/maps are in striking color). The book comes with a built-in ribbon-bookmark, something that I think every hardcover RPG above a certain size needs to have, so it gets extra style points just for that.
Now, a few years ago I reviewed the original Mindjammer book, which at that time was a sourcebook for Cubicle 7's Starblazer Adventures. It was a bit of a curious mix: Starblazer was an RPG inspired by a 1980s British comic magazine that told space-opera 80s sci-fi tales. Mindjammer was a transhuman setting that was quite serious by comparison, and certainly not 'space opera'. The book itself was excellent, though it didn't feel totally complete, and something of an odd match to its rule-book. Even so, in some ways the gaps found in the book allowed you to fill in the blanks with your own ideas; in my own Starblazer campaign, I made extensive use of Mindjammer to introduce some modern sci-fi elements to the otherwise 80s brit-scifi aesthetic.
The new Mindjammer is its own RPG now; but largely uses the same FATE-based system as Starblazer did, so there's continuity there. However, it's hugely expanded: the original Mindjammer book was only just under 200 pages long; the new Mindjammer just about 500 pages. And the difference is definitely not from 300 pages of game mechanics!
But is it better than the old one? Is it a good RPG? Of course, those are two different questions. Let's consider each.
To address the latter question first, I'd say yes, it's certainly a good sci-fi RPG. The FATE system is tried and true, and lends itself to this sort of setting. That said, the FATE system can be tweaked into many different things, everything from very rules-light (ICONS) to extremely rules-heavy (Starblazer). Mindjammer chose to continue with the same structure as Starblazer had; and I don't know if that wasn't a mistake. I know some people like the very complex versions of FATE a lot, but I think that in 2014 this feels a bit 2010, and it could have been wiser to go with a more slimmed-down model. I'm certainly no longer super-enthused about choosing from tons of pre-written "stunts" (not that I ever was, but my tolerance used to be higher), rather than having a simple guideline-mechanism for creating one's own. I don't know that a ton of explanations of mechanics is a better choice than a system that leaves far more room to GM rulings. I do know that I totally prefer the latter to the former.
I'm going to assume that the FATE system is mostly familiar to readers at this point, what with it being one of the major 'generic' game systems in use today. If you don't know it yet, spend a moment to google it, then get back.
In this particular iteration of the system, the default assumes that you're using the special (and at this point somewhat out-of-favor) FATE dice (d6s with a '+', '-' or blank space on them). However, optional guidelines are provided for using the now more common d6-d6 variant. As with most versions of FATE, characters have aspects (that are used to invoke FATE points), and skills (that add bonuses to one's roll). There are also stunts, which are special abilities (mostly tied to skills) that allow you to perform special actions; in this version of the system the stunts are spelled out explicitly (to give one example, the 'starship pilot' stunt lets you use your pilot skill in place of a ship's maneuvering skill while piloting). There are also 'extras', which are elements that a character has besides skills and stunts; things like genetic modifications, technological enhancements, major possessions (like starships), or membership in organizations. There's also "halo", which are abilities/extras related to the "mindscape" (the virtual reality or communication system practically ubiquitous to the Commonality, the great human spacefaring civilization of the setting). Damage is handled by Stress, of which there are physical and mental varieties; characters who take damage of certain kinds mark them on the appropriate stress track, and stress can be removed by taking "consequences", which represent injuries or other inconveniences that prove disadvantageous but allow one to keep going without being 'taken out'.
As usual with the FATE system, aspects can be invoked with fate points in a variety of ways (re-rolls, bonuses, etc.), but aspects can also be Compelled (usually but not always by the GM) to oblige certain situations on the player character, unless the player spends a FATE point to avoid it. Compels give the player another FATE point, so there's a built in motivation to accept compels in certain circumstances.
So this is really FATE with all the fixings. And again, that might be fine for many people. For myself, I ran Starblazer (which was pretty much this system), and it was a fairly long and successful campaign. But then I ran ICONS, and felt it was a much better way of presenting the FATE system. I don't know if that would have been the way to go with Mindjammer, but at least something in between may have been better, a system where things like stunts and extras were a bit less defined and more room left to GM interpretation. That said, I have to credit Mindjammer for providing a lot of sidebar-alternatives to the standard rules, lots of options, and room to maneuver.
So what about the setting? Mindjammer is theoretically a "transhuman Sci-Fi game", though more accurately it could be termed a 'nearly transhuman' setting. The concept of the setting is that it is in the distant, distant future. Humanity had gone out to the stars, early space civilization had receded (though never entirely vanished), until a period of renewal began, and the core began to expand outward again in the "second age of space" with the "Commonality". This is the great galactic civilization, still expanding outward and absorbing the old colonies; some of them very willingly, some of them reluctantly, and just a few with intense struggle. The Commonality's success has been due to the combination of more advanced interspace travel (the second-generation "Jump Drives"), and the aforementioned Mindscape. Commonality technology is incredibly advanced; it allows for a near-unlimited potential lifespan, instantaneous access to information, genetic modification, and many other such perks.
Now, there are some details to the setting that are worth noting: first, the Commonality is not presented as either entirely good or bad. They are very sure of themselves, and of their mission; you could say they're neo-imperialist, wanting to spread what they consider their superior culture (both in the technological and social sense, as those two are almost indivisible) to the entire galaxy. But they're quite willing to do this regardless of the opinions of those distant colonies of ancient earth they encounter. In some cases, they will use coercion and trickery to wind up getting a world to join them, in some cases more aggressive tactics. At the same time, the Commonality is also extremely controlling of its own people in many ways; they are constantly on the lookout for elements of culture and ideas that could be damaging to their own stability, and repress these. In some cases this means certain worlds that have cultures just too "dangerous" to be integrated and too difficult to subvert are instead isolated and contained. The Commonality is neither the utterly benevolent utopian society that the players will be happy to defend, nor the evil Empire that the players will resent and want to take down.
I do think there were some opportunities missed in making the setting a bit less than a true Transhuman setting. Its transhuman in the sense of things like the Mindscape, easy genetic manipulation, Artificial Intelligences, etc; but it isn't Transhuman in the sense of the Commonality being a self-governing post-singularity entity. Even though something like the Mindscape could easily be rationalized at allowing that, what we find is instead the Commonality is controlled by a tiny group of mysterious shadowy overseers that decide everything crucial for everyone. Seems a bit of a waste to me. I get that this is one potential fear of a trans-human world where no one dies of natural causes (that is, the very old ending up keeping all the power), but you'd think in 15000 years there would have been a solution to that.
There are only a few other details where we see some odd mis-steps on Newton's part. For example, with the setting at least 15000 years in the future from our time, it would make sense that place names on old earth would have radically changed (particularly with implications of ancient cataclysms wiping out our own civilization); so in the section on Old Earth we read about Shine (in what was China), Yoosa (as in "U.S.A"), etc. So fine, I can buy that. We're told that the Commonality speaks a language known as Galingua (an "amalgam of Anglic, Hispanian and Shinean").
But then we also find out that in spite of being all trans-human, the Commonality still has Corporations, with names like Darradine Industries, Hydrodyne Technologies, Neverine Pharmaceuticals or Pleskov & Son Armaments. We could be fair and say that these are translations from Galingua (and it should also be noted that the Corporations were (re)invented recently in the Commonality's new expansion period to deal with the reality of economics that were no longer necessary on Earth).
O.K., a bit of a stretch but fine; but THEN, we also find out that there are ships with names like "Botany Bay-class Explorer", or "Adam Smith-Class merchant" or "Icarus-Class Scout". What?! So 15000+ years into the future, they don't know how to say "U.S.A" or "China" (and we're told that by the "time of the first Commonality, Yoosa was largely a wilderness inhabited by scattered tribes"), and yet people are naming starships after Adam Smith, Keynes, Friedman, or the Botany Bay?
It's a small detail, I know, but a pet peeve of mine.
Alright, now let's get past the Grumpy Historian's complaints, and look at what's good about Mindjammer. The rules are extremely detailed. Character creation gives a huge range of possibilities; just looking at 'race' (if you could call it that) as an example, you can play humans (from a plethora of possible types of cultures), Xenomorphs ('uplifted' animals), synthetics (artificial life forms), and also outright aliens (yes, these also exist, they just don't occupy a very central place in the setting). As to that last option, humans in the setting are fairly unique as to just how predominant and how spread-out they are, there is no alien rival to the Commonality (there's not any real rival at all, and the closest contenders to that title are old human colonies that have become moderately powerful in their own right and want nothing to do with the Commonality due to radically different culture). Since moderate-weirdness is already found among the variety of possibilities within the human spectrum, and standard weirdness within the human-created non-humans like xenomorphs or synthetics, the true aliens are all highly-weird in nature.
There's also a large range of suggestions for possible occupations. The FATE system not being class-based, these occupations are instead essentially 'sample builds', with suggested aspects, skills, stunts, and enhancements to fit each role.
The guidelines for how to run the game are remarkably thorough; all skills are explained in (almost excruciating) detail. Skill listings also provide several stunt choices for each skill. A wide range and variety of "extras" are provided for characters, everything from special abilities (obtained either through technological modifications or due to alien background), cybernetic enhancements, ultra-high tech, vehicles and space vessels (both of which are very thoroughly detailed with rules for their creation and use, and lots of sample starship templates, with the aforementioned anachronistic names), and membership in organizations (organizations and how to run them on a kind of meta-scale are also provided).
There are very detailed guidelines for the GM for running the game, ranging the gamut from how to handle things like rockfalls, to how to accurately portray the super-advanced sci-fi of the setting, to all kinds of little side notes all over the place on details about the setting background (details like how there's synthetic intelligence in one form or another in just about every piece of Commonality tech, but there's no such thing as "computers" per se, because that ubiquity of inter-communicating technology makes the actual computer a pointless relic). There's more than sufficient rules and guidelines about the Mindscape as to not make running that aspect of the setting too difficult; and unlike the less-transhuman "cyberpunk" type games, the near-ubiquity of the mindscape means that you won't need to have some kind of break-time for the 'hacker' to fool around in the 'net' while everyone else just twiddles their thumbs. Further along, you get the more standard pragmatic guidelines for how to structure an adventure or a campaign; as well as guidance as to the big themes of Mindjammer: stuff like optimism, transhumanism, cultural conflict, how to range your play from gritty to epic, philosophical to light-hearted, etc. (and types of campaigns, whether to focus on exploration, conspiracies/mysteries, trade on the frontiers, conflict, and such).
There's a tremendous amount of top-level detail on the Commonality, its workings, and its culture. Speaking of culture, there's a guide to the latter; as in, how to create and regulate cultures. That includes standard sci-fi RPG stuff like Tech Levels and government types, but it also includes a lot more. Stuff like cultural 'stunts', and how to regulate cultural actions and inter-cultural conflicts; in a setting where one of the main events is the Commonality trying to absorb the cultures of all the old earth colonies, that's an important detail of the game. As always, samples are provided.
There's also a more standard type of "world construction" in the Traveller sense, with rules to create star systems, planets, and the inhabitants of said planets. Obviously, this is done in a FATE kind of way, but there's some strong resemblance to old Trav world-creation there as well. Lots of sample planet types are provided. You also get guidelines for weird space hazards, stuff ranging from debris fields to cosmic radiation to Time Dilation effects.
There are similar rules for creating alien life, again with appropriate examples.
As well as a broad overview of the galaxy, and of the Commonality as a whole, there's a specific entire chapter dedicated to one subsector of the setting: The Darradine Rim. Here you have an area of space that contains 4000 stellar bodies, of which 20 are detailed as being significant to the Commonality. These are detailed with full-page (and full color) statblocks and maps; but as you can see there's also plenty of room left to add all kinds of other stuff in the area of the GM's own invention.
So what to conclude about Mindjammer? If you like FATE based games, and very modern-style sci-fi with a transhuman element, this is a winner for you for sure. If you're not familiar with FATE, how much you will like this particular version of it may depend on just how much rules-heaviness you enjoy; this game is on the heavier end of the spectrum for FATE. It's still much easier than something like Shadowrun, mind you. If you appreciate great production values, the game has you covered to. I suppose you would want to give it a miss only if you are really not into FATE, or into the specific style of sci-fi Mindjammer represents.
Oh, and if you owned and liked the original Mindjammer book, you'll find this one to be a much-expanded and worthy successor.
Currently Smoking: Castello 4k Collection Canadian + Image Latakia