Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Science Fiction Month! Starblazer Adventures RPG

The folks at Cubicle 7 Entertainment were kind enough to send me a copy of their latest role playing game, Starblazer Adventures. I was pretty impressed with the game, especially as a good choice for beginner players.

Starblazer was a British comic book published in the 1970's and 80's. The title was a short story anthology in which a given issue would tell a self contained story. Some characters might return in future issues but each comic was complete in itself. For this reason there is no single "Starblazer Universe" in the same way there is a Star Wars Universe. A better analogy might be with television shows like CSI, in which self contained stories are told in a variety of locations and with a variety of characters.

For people who like a summary quickly, the Starblazer Adventures game has several appealing qualities. The rules are liberally supplemented with examples and explanations and written in an engaging and informative style. It's relatively easy to create a character and the system is well suited to new players who have a specific idea in mind, for example, "I want to be a space pilot who can use kung fu and climb like a ninja." Finally, the rules for play are straightforward and can be simplified or beefed up depending on your own preference and the abilities of your players. I would absolutely recommend this game for people looking for an approachable science fiction role playing game.

Now off to the details. The rule system is related to the rules of Zorcerer of Zo, reviewed here months ago. Players create characters and describe their characters' strengths and abilities. The game provides clear instructions as to how many strengths and special abilities a character may have, and provides explanation on how to make these descriptions work in play. One noteworthy quality of Starblazer Adventures is that virtually all character traits and qualities can be expressed in descriptive words rather than numbers. This is in contrast to many traditional role playing games in which a number might be used to describe a character's strength or intelligence.

For example, rather than saying "my character's strength is 17," the players would say "my character is "strong as an ox"." This is called an Aspect. Other aspects could include "Honest face," "stalked by ninjas," or "climbs like a monkey." Each of these is a fun way to describe the character and suggests both advantages and difficulties that could come up in a game. Players choose thier own aspects and can be as precise or as silly as they wish. Aspects come up during play. They may create an advantage in a situation or the game master could bring it up to make a situation more exciting or complex.

In addition to Aspects all characters will have Skills. As you might guess these are things the character is good at doing. Skills range from starship piloting to investigation. They're typically the sort of things that a person would acquire from training rather than personal qualities like Aspects. Skills are also qualified verbally, one might be "great" at driving and "fair" at sneaking. For an example I've included a sample character sheet here on the left.

As with all role playing games the remainder of the rules concern how to succeed at various challenges which may occur during the game. Say for example that the character above has to sneak into a spacecraft hanger. The game master would say "OK, to sneak and not be noticed you need to roll two dice and get a nice high number. Roll too low and you've failed and someone notices." The player would respond "Lucky for me I have Stealth skill so I can add 2 to whatever I roll. That skill has made it much more likely that I'll make it inside safely." That dynamic is repeated with some variation and fine tuning throughout the game- roll two dice, add in any bonuses you can get, and try and get a high number.

In honesty the rule system is slightly more complex than the above. There are a variety of twists as to how Aspects come into play and how they may help or hamper the character. There are also some additional rules regarding special "stunts" a player may do during the game which act as extra interesting or unique abilities. Nevertheless as a whole the rules are very approachable and manageable, certainly more so than recent editions of Dungeons and Dragons for example. I believe a parent with virtually no experience in role playing games could get Starblazer Adventures running with little trouble.

I love the character and rule system of this game. Role playing is about characters and their adventures. The rules concentrate on just that- what Aspects make this character unusual and fun? Are they "sworn enemy of the Red Star Gang?" I just made that up but it suggests adventure right off the top. Maybe the character is stuck in the desert but gets across driven by a unyielding desire to bring the gang to justice. Maybe the character is approached by the Federal Hill Gang and they offer him the secret of the Red Star's HQ, but only if he helps them rob a outer space bank! What a dilemma.

The system is also much more approachable for a role playing beginner. Other games might ask "what level of pilot skill do you want to purchase?" What? Level? Purchase? In this game the player says "I want to be an awesome pilot, good at kung fu, and I want an alien dragon who rides on my shoulder." As good as done.

The rule set does also provides the reader with an unbelievable wealth of background information. Do you want rules for starships? Alien empires? Giant space monsters? Robots? How about ideas for plots and sample planets? You may or may not need any of these things but if you do then they will be found within this very complete product. In addition there are dozens of pages of evocative comic art like the panel to the left. This rule system is as complete as it can get.

Readers may be struck by the book's length- six hundred pages! Be forewarned that this is largely the result of examples, explanations, and advice. I think this could be a very intimidating book to look at but once you begin reading you find the authors have gone out of their way to make sure every rule element is well explained. In fact I'm not sure I've ever seen a set of rules that is better presented. Again, this is a terrific product for beginners and don't be put off by the size of the book.

In summary I think Starblazer Adventures has a lot to offer. It's ideal for an experienced game master to use to introduce new players to role playing. An inexperienced game master might need to do a bit more background work on creating a setting but would be rewarded by the simplicity and elegance of the rules. At present it's a favorite role playing game for general science fiction and one of my top recommendations for new players. You can buy Starblazer Adventures through the company's website. At present it's available in pdf form but expect the book form to be available soon.

Pros: simple elegant rules, good for beginners

Cons: Big rulebook, wealth of material may initially seem intimidating

Beyond the Basics: Good for beginners but plenty there for experienced players and role playing purists.

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