Monday, May 10, 2010

Review: Starships & Spacemen...

Good Evening, All:

Today, I wanted to review the recent re-release of Starships & Spacemen, now owned by Goblinoid Games. I had never heard of this simple sci-fi RPG until Goblinoid announced that they had purchased the rights. Based in creating a Star Trek-inspired gaming experience using rules similar to OD&D, this little game quickly piqued my interest. I went about the internet and read a few reviews here and there, and finally decided to splurge on the PDF, just to see what a rules-light Star Trek game looked like. Since I own Amarillo Design Bureau's D20 Prime Directive, which is built in their licensed Star Fleet Universe, I was curious to see how Starships & Spacemen stacked up. In the interest of full disclosure, I purchased this PDF on my own, and was not solicited to provide a review. In short, all of this was my idea.

While Starships & Spacemen is available in perfect bound soft cover and in hard cover, the review focuses on the PDF (or softcopy) product.

The Starships & Spacemen PDF is a 93 page document in black & white. The front cover depicts a ship in orbit about a gas giant or large planet, and is evocative of science fiction roleplaying. The interior text is written in a very plain typewriter-style font (for those of you old enough to remember what a typewriter is, of course.) Aside from the front cover, the title page, a copyright page, one page of a table of contents, and a blank page at the end of the book, the rest is all gaming material. There are eight pieces of art in the document, four of which are evocative pieces and the other four are used to explain rules for starships and movement. The traditional pieces are nice, but the four rules-related pieces are quite amateurish (but still what you'd expect back in 1978, when this was first released.) While the presentation was probably state of the art back in the day, and is perfectly functional, it's not nearly as pretty as what we've come to expect by today's publication standards. Still, there are those that will feel that keeping the style of the original release in this PDF is nostalgic, and I can see where they are coming from here.

The different sections of Starships & Spacemen are organized much like an outline. Section One is four pages long: the first page is a brief introduction to the concept of roleplaying games, followed by two pages of basic history on the setting against which the game is written. The last page details the equipment needed to play, namely dice, paper, the rules and imagination.

Section Two is fifteen and a half pages long, and focuses on Characters. Some of this is a little confusing, but in essence, there are eight ability scores: Marskmanship, Intelligence, Technical Skill, Contact Skill, Charisma, Strength, Psionic Potential and Loyalty. The first four are considered acquired skills, generated much like D&D characters and can be improved as the character advances in experience levels. The last four are considered inborn. Charisma and Strength are generated like D&D stats, but Psionic Potential and Loyalty are determined from a value based on your selection of race and class, plus a d6. Ability scores frequently represent a target number that must be rolled under in order to succeed, much like Non-Weapon Proficiencies from the late AD&D 1st Edition and 2nd Edition Eras. (In this regard, abilities in Starships & Spacemen represent a cross between ability scores and skills.) Psionics are abilities with a certain cost, and characters purchase their abilities during character creation, up to the value of their Psionic Potential.

After three pages on ability scores, Starships & Spacemen then proceeds with information on the various classes of the Space Fleet Service, which are built as classes. There are three core classes (Military Branch, Scientific Branch, and Technical Branch). Each core class has two or more subclasses (Military: Command, Security-Guard and Fire Control; Scientific: Alien Life and Medical; Technical: Communications, Navigation and Engineering.) Each class describes the circumstances under which they gain bonuses on certain rolls, and when they gain experience. That's right; combat is not how all of the classes gain XP. This little detail, in and of itself, probably encourages people to play their respective roles moreso than anything else in the book.

The book then spends a page discussing NPCs, and then goes into experience and ranking. Like the D20 System, all characters advance on a single advancement table. Each level gained grants a bonus to one of the four acquired ability scores, and allows the character to take more equipment during missions. Level also represents a character's rank, which impacts the size of ship they are assigned to, as well as other systems within the game.

Three pages on races provide some good background fluff and game mechanics to support characters from x different races. Options include Terrans (humans), Rigel (human-Zagrid hybrid mercenaries), Taurans (emotionless psionic heavyworlders, aka Vulcans), and Andromedans (small empathic blue "care bears"). Two NPC races, the Zagrids (angry cousins of the Taurans, aka Romulans), and the Vidani (religious zealots on a interstellar jihad), are not detailed in this section but elsewhere in the book.

The remainder of this section focuses on equipment. The list is perfectly functional for a Star Trek style game. Gear is picked based on a character's level, and reminded me of Spycraft's equipment package rules rather than shopping for equipment in exchange for gold coins. I think this works very well for the paramilitary nature of the Space Fleet Service background.

At thirteen and a half pages, Section Three focuses on Starships and all related matters. Six pages describe the different sections and capacities of a starship in the game, and how characters can use those capacities to aid them in their adventures. After a page of ship statistics, Starships & Spacemen describes the use of energy to power the various systems onboard a starship. A page and a half discusses Enemy Ships, and then wraps up this section with three and a half pages on Ship To Ship Combat.

Section Four is fourteen pages long, and focuses on Galactic and Planetary Adventures. This section discusses how to create a galactic map, discusses the time scale and play sequence for various stages of exploration, travel and adventure, provides details on galactic hazards, and introduces some random encounter tables. This section then discusses star system creation, time travel, diseases, and wraps up with starbases.

Section Five focuses on Alien Encounters, and spends twenty-five pages covering many different types of encounters on alien worlds. Three pages cover monster encounter tables, and then we get into specifics: two pages on humanoids (including details on the Zangids and Videni), six pages on animals, a page on plant creatures, a page on machines, two and a half pages on psionics, a page on miscellaneous creatures of an unusual origin, three and a half pages on alien artifacts, and then three pages on combat itself.

The Referee of the game, called the StarMaster or SM for short, is the star of Section Six. Four pages provide information to the SM, including general advice, details on experience points, and notes on inspirations and sources for the game.

The remainder of the book is bonus material that has been released since the original book was released back in 1978. First, we see some sample missions (four pages worth), followed by the Starships & Spacemen Expansion Kit. The Expansion Kit covers errata and clarifications, reference sheets, a simple character sheet and a character creation summary page.

My Thoughts
This book packs a lot into a small number of pages. The system is archaic, yes, but it's not far off from some of the retro-clones that are out there. I can see some elements of what I would call modern games present here. I love how earning experience is designed to emphasize the different roles of a character. The system itself is designed to create a strong feeling of engaging in Star Trek-esque missions of exploration.

The setting is simple, yet evocative enough to conjure a number of adventure ideas. Between those and the two chapters on adventures and encounters, there's plenty here to lend itself toward running a great Star Trek game. You can tell that this game is a labor of love by its creator. Personally, I found that the book inspires the urge to run such games in me, even though I have a few problems with the rules as they currently stand. I understand that Goblinoid Games is creating a Labyrinth Lord version of the system, and I'll definitely be picking that up, simply because it will marry rules that are closer to my D&D experience with a great setting and information that inspires a Star Trek style game.

I would definitely recommend this game to anyone looking for a rules-light science fiction RPG. The adventure and encounter system is very evocative and interesting. The rules are designed to be unobtrusive, and while they may take a little getting used to, they leave a lot for the GM to handle on the fly as needed. For $5, it's well worth it. I'm also looking forward to seeing the Labyrinth Lord version of this game. If I have to admit, though, that if you were only going to get one version of this game, you should probably consider waiting until the Labyrinth Lord version is available. However, for only five bucks, it won't hurt to pick up this PDF while you wait. The layout leaves a bit to be desired, but don't let that detract from your enjoyment of the material inside.

All in all, I'm going to give Starships & Spacemen a 7.5 out of 10.

Hope This Helps,


Brutorz Bill said...

I'm definately looking forward to the LL version of this game!

Robert said...

Thanks for the review!

John Matthew Stater said...

I'm still wondering if this isn't another Encounter Critical sort of thing ... Of course, I'm interested just the same.