Podcasts I Love: Pandas Talking Games

I’m a dedicated podcast listener – I got hooked on them in the early days and they’ve become a constant source of entertainment, from filling the time during long commutes to being a welcome distraction while being stuck at home during the current crisis. I’ve got a number that I want to give shoutouts to in these quick posts. I’ve picked each of them based on a simple parameter – they’re the ones that I regularly push to the top of my queue and do my best to keep up with.

Panda’s Talking Games is a weekly advice podcast from the Misdirected Mark podcast network hosted by Senda Linaugh and Phil Vecchione. Each episode the hosts answer listener questions from alternate perspectives, typically but not always One-Shot vs Campaign. Those questions may range from topics such as balancing immersion with mechanics to discussions on the approaches of new vs old games or even how to translate their favourite Ditch Lilies albums into game mechanics.

The alternating viewpoints provide a really refreshing approach to the topics compared to many podcasts where the hosts often just end up agreeing with one another. It’s especially welcome because Phil and Senda don’t just play devils advocate with one another, their points are always well thought out and complementary rather than trying to compete with the old ‘this way is better’ argument.

What really makes the show stand out though are the hosts and their attitude to gaming. The fact that they love the hobby is apparent from the energy that they bring to every single episode of the podcast and I think it’s a safe bet that they’re the sort of people that would not only bring that energy to the table but help everyone else find it as well.

You can find Panda’s Talking Games on the Misdirected Mark site, on all the major podcast aggregators and on twitter.

Project Cassandra: Inspiration and Origins

Project Cassandra: Psychics of the Cold War header with image of an ominous man smoking a cigar and stamped Classified

With the release of Playtest Packet 2 over on itch.io I wanted to take the chance to sit back and think about how far Project Cassandra has come since its inception. I first started working on it in 2013 with the intention of putting together a hack of the amazing Lady Blackbird RPG. That game is a masterclass in design, especially with how much depth it manages to convey in only a few pages. The characters are fully realised, the rules are elegant and the minimal description of the setting somehow flips a switch in your brain to fill in the gaps without you even realising that that is what you are doing. I’ve played Lady Blackbird numerous times and while the setup for the scenario is predefined the game always plays out in a unique way.

My aim with Project Cassandra was to replicate that, with a scenario that started the same way each time (a premonition of the President being assassinated) but that naturally spun off into its own, contained story.

But why Cold War psychics? The inspiration for that is, as it turns out, a little more disjointed. I’d reread the original Jason Bourne novels, which are set during the Cold War, not long before starting work on the game and had subsequently gone digging into some of the conspiracy theories from the era. It was a bit of a Wikipedia rabbit hole. Most, such as the Majestic 12, are just that – conspiracy theories with no actual evidence but as is often the case truth is stranger than fiction and I ended up reading about dozens of formerly classified projects.

The most famous is probably Project MKUltra – which explored extreme approaches to interrogation and mind control. That project was itself preceded by Project Artichoke – which sought to determine if a subject could be programmed to perform an assassination against their will. Then there was Project Stargate, which investigated remote viewing and psychic abilities as a method of gathering intelligence.

With all these real world examples to draw the only thing that I needed to introduce with Project Cassandra was the element of success. The secret project that had trained a group of psychics but then ignored their warnings, forcing them into direct action.

In the summer of 2013 the final piece of inspiration came into play – a video game. Specifically The Bureau: XCOM Declassified. The game was fun without being spectacular but two aspects stood out. Firstly, it was rooted in the aesthetics of the Cold War which helped reinforce my choice of backdrop. Secondly, the abilities of the characters struck me as something that would complement the system. I had already started to develop Project Cassandra, including the use of Powers (again inspired by the abilities in Lady Blackbird) but the way the game implemented them, and encouraged interaction, cemented my desire to make them a core feature of the game.

From there the game went down the usual route of alterations, tweaks and dead ends that I’m sure are familiar to any designer but looking back it’s comforting to see that many of the core elements were present early on and I can’t wait to finally release the game next year.

State of the Conspiracy: Playtest Packet 2 Released

During the last few weeks I’ve been working towards a fairly major milestone in the development of Project Cassandra – the completion and release of a second playtest packet for the game which is now available as a free download via itch.io.

Playtest Packet 1 featured a minimal rules set, a single mission and pre-generated characters. Everything was there from a technical point of view but for anybody other than myself it would have been a stretch to run the game in the way I have always intended. This new release improves on the prior one in almost every way. The rules have been placed into context with explanatory text while new explanatory text sets the game and how to play in context. Crucially this includes additional detail on the central role of precognition to the game, from the opening questions during setup through to the use of premonitions during play.

Project Cassandra – draft cover page

Framing all of these changes is a test layout that I have been working on since purchasing Affinity Publisher earlier this year. While there are still tweaks to be made it looks great and helps immensely in setting the tone of the document. I’m hoping that in the coming months I’ll be able to use it for some test printings, both to test out a couple of zine options and to show it off in the run-up to the kickstarter.

Yes, kickstarter. Specifically ZineQuest 2021.

I’ve been considering the possibility since this years ZineQuest as the format is an ideal match for Project Cassandra, which I have always envisaged as fitting a small booklet form. It would also allow me to bring an editor, and possibly some writers, on board. That gives me five months to complete development and more importantly spread the word about the game so if you download the playtest packet I would greatly appreciate any comments or shout outs about the game. As a tiny indie designer it can often feel like I am shouting into the void when it comes to my work so any boosts are greatly appreciated.

Playtest Packet 2 is available for download from: https://lunarshadow.itch.io/project-cassandra

Example of play with layout

System Building: Transformations (The Pressure Cooker)

After partaking in a Demon Hunters roundtable discussion last month (or was it the month before? Time is weird right now) one of the points that I’ve been pondering is how to model transformations more deeply in the system. Part of the complexity is that transformation covers a wide range of possibilities. From an at-will shapeshifter like DS9s Odo to a traditional, only at the full moon werewolf.

Rather than try and cover all of the options in a single post (or with a single rule) I’ve focused initially on what one of the attendees termed the Pressure Cooker, a transformation type where you have to build up a meter before you can transform into a powerful but focused alternate form. The Hulk would be a clear example, with Bruce Banner having a Rage track that must fill to a certain point before he can transform into the Hulk. Once transformed his ability to do anything more than smash things is severely curtailed.

I had initially intended to present these rules with an associated, rotating character sheet but that is taking longer to put together than I had anticipated (I decided to use it as a challenge to learn how to use Affinity Designer) so instead here is the current rules draft:

When you take harm you may redirect up to 5 hits to your Rage track – tick off 1 box per hit. If the track crosses the first boundary marker you may transform with a successful roll of Forceful + Fringe (werecreature), difficulty 10. If it crosses the secondary boundary marker you transform automatically and against your will.

After transforming rotate your character sheet 180 degrees.

While transformed you may only take actions actions that align with your reduced Approach + Discipline list. All other rolls are at 2d4 or impossible. While transformed you have 3 approaches rated at d10, d8 and d8 and 2 disciplines rated at d10 and d8. You may raise 2 of these by +d6 to represent the supernatural enhancements of your alternate form.

While in your Rage form you clear 2 boxes per turn (DM discretion out of combat). You may extend your rage by passing Demon Dice to the DM – tick off 1 rage box per die, up to a maximum of 3 per turn. Allies and antagonists may extend/shorten your Rage by invoking relative aspects – for each Faith/Demon die spent fill or clear a Rage box. Example aspects which could be invoked may include Scathing insult or Tranquiliser serum.

You may attempt to return to human form only after your Rage drops below the willing transformation boundary. Roll Forceful + Fringe from your human form, with a transformation difficulty equal to the number of filled Rage boxes. If the number of filled Rage boxes ever drops to 0 you automatically transform back.

First Thoughts: The Summit of Kings from Swordsfall Studios

Note: This isn’t a review as I’ve yet to have a chance to play through The Summit of Kings so the thoughts presented here are based only on a read through.

The Summit of Kings is a stand alone RPG module set in the Swordsfall universe, an AfroPunk setting by Brandon Dixon. The setting itself was the focus of the wildly successful Welcome to Tikor kickstarter last year and this game builds on that, showcasing both one small section of the world and the system that powers the RPG line associated with it. The game is centred around The Summit of Kings, a yearly tournament that brings together Jalen’s, the wordsmiths of Tikor, to battle it out through lyrics and rhythm in the hope of being crowned the Supreme Jalen. Included in the 27 pages are half a dozen pre-generated characters, character creation rules, a full system for musical battle and background information for the event.

One day I want to make a page spread as beautiful as this.

One of the most striking elements of this module is that it is absolutely stunning. The artwork is gorgeous and just speaks of the amount of depth that has gone into creating the world. There are so many elements that have gone into each that are clearly a reference to defined parts of the setting, it’s a level of detail that just wouldn’t be possible without the weight of a fully fleshed out world behind it. Alongside the art is the layout. It’s clean, crisp and works perfectly. Not many people get away with shifting between one, two and three column layouts but here everything flows smoothly and you are never left in any doubt about the intended structure of the page.

Mechanically the game is focused almost exclusively on the battles between individual Jalen’s. While this may seem limiting to some degree it is used extremely well to highlight the system and how it can be tweaked to shift the focus of the game. Rap, which was the inspiration behind the tournament, isn’t a genre that I know much about but the system included here showcases it effortlessly, from how techniques flow from Openers to Transition to Finishers or to the way that winning can be achieved by exhausting your opponents Pride. I love it, and can’t wait to see how it is expanded further in future material.

Being inspired by the Genesys RPG the system leans into the narrative elements of successes/advantages and failures/disadvantages. There’s a table to convert regular d6/d8/d12s included in the book but personally I find this approach rather clunky, especially as the conversion of each die size doesn’t completely align with the others. I believe the custom Genesys dice are compatible with the game but where the mechanics will really shine is with online platforms that tally everything up for you (and it’s worth noting that Swordsfall is a launch partner for the upcoming Role platform).

While they’re relatively minor there are a couple of points aspects where I would have appreciated either clarification or more details. The ‘How to play’ page omits the fact that you subtract failures/disadvantages from successes/advantages to get a final tally, though this is covered in the example of play. It also wasn’t clear to me whether Performance was the only skill that could be used during the Battles or whether Jalen’s were expected to mix and match (personally I quite like the idea of each skill only being usable once per contest). Finally, while a number of side hustles are described for scenes outside of the main tournament there’s no guidance about setting difficulties.

Ultimately The Summit of Kings left me wanting more – Yes, there are parts in the book where I’d have appreciated more detail but really I just can’t wait to see more of Tikor and the Swordsfall Universe. If this is a sample of what is to come then it is going to be one hell of a product when it lands.

You can purchase The Summit of Kings from:

The Swordsfall website – https://www.swordsfall.com/

as well as

Itch.io and DriveThruRPG (DriveThruRPG link includes the LunarShadow Designs affiliate ID)

Kickstarter: Modern, Mythos and Machine Stock Art by JEShields

Disclaimer: James reached out to me directly in advance of his project going live and asked if I would be willing to share my thoughts about it when it went live. He provided the sample artwork used in this piece and a pre-launch preview of the campaign.

If you’re operating on the smaller end of the publishing scale like I am then one of the things you quickly learn is that artwork is expensive (and rightly so given the work that is involved). It’s why I use stock and royalty free artwork as much as possible. Amongst the artists producing stock art specifically for RPGs the one that I have turned to repeatedly is J. E. Shields, thanks to his consistent style and extensive catalogue across a range of genres.

His latest Kickstarter has just launched and is focused on 3 genres where stock art is often limited to come by – modern, the Cthulhu mythos and science fiction. Each genre will receive a mix of art covering full page/cover art, vehicles, half-page scenes, effects, characters and items. While the artwork will initially be black and white line art the stretch goals will cover upgrading the artwork to full colour.

This is very much a project to fill the gaps in the market, driven by discussion with small publishers and one that is definitely needed as just like gaming itself the majority of stock art out there covers D&D flavoured fantasy. The pledge levels start at $30, for which you’ll get access to a selection of the material while higher levels will net you all of the material produced for an individual genre or even all of the art that comes out of the project.

At $30 entry it represents tremendous value as this is typically the minimum you should expect to pay for a single piece of custom art. Backers will be able to submit illustration ideas to the project, while this won’t provide the control that an independent commission would include it does mean that you’ll get at least a couple of pieces that are influenced by your individual needs.

The Kickstarter has a goal of $4,900 and runs until the 23rd June. At the time of writing (on the day of launch) it was already 27% funded. You can also find James’ existing stock art catalogue on drivethruRPG (link includes the LunarShadow affiliate ID). Also, if you’re wondering about the value of the colour stretch goals I think this preview (left) speaks for itself.

State of the Conspiracy: Lockdown Update 1

So it’s mid May which equates to week 7 or 8 since the start of lockdown for me here in the UK. It sucks and having been through a similar process when writing my thesis many years ago meant I had an inkling of just how much it would sap my creative energy. Which is why I decided I wasn’t going to make any big goals about pushing Project Cassandra forward, even though it was next on my list after the release of Mission Packet 1: N.E.O., my mini supplement for The Sprawl RPG.

That’s not to say that I’ve made no progress. Following the play tests at BurritoCon and Dragonmeet I have been slowly working my way through the text, filling gaps and preparing for the dreaded rewrites. Given they’re likely to be extensive I decided the first step was to clarify my contents, which are currently:

Teaser / Blurb
Introduction
Defining the scenario
    Setup / Questions
    Pacing
    Sample questions
    Alternative setup
Agendas
    Make events extraordinary
    Build towards a dramatic climax
    Take suspicion and twist it towards paranoia
    Play to the era
    A note on historical accuracy
Safety tools
    Lines & Veils
    Script change
The Vision
Rules of Engagement
    Taking actions
        Aiding
    Premonitions
    Conditions & consequences
    Visions
    Powers
    Knowledges
    Gear
Enacting the Conspiracy
    Building the conspiracy
    Genre and tone
    Following the action
    Challenges & The Opposition
    Nulls
Example of Play
Creating characters
Sample Characters
    Secret service agent
Small time criminal
    Academic analyst
    Reporter
Two Minutes to Midnight
    Ich bin ein Berliner
    The dark of the moon

On the face of it that feel like a lot but many of those smaller sections come out to a single paragraph and my aim is to keep the finished product to within the limits of a zine.

Why?

Because I’d like to participate in ZineQuest 3 on Kickstarter next year. Having followed it the last couple of years it seems like the ideal way to launch Project Cassandra and actually produce physical copies. It would also provide the potential for something I just can’t afford right now – an editor. It’s part of the process that I really don’t get on with and where I know the game would benefit from a fresh set of eyes.

So alongside writing I’ve been slowly putting together a budget and trying to estimate the various costs. That, in and of itself, is a rabbit hole and I’m quickly discovering how much I don’t know, so I’m glad that I made this decision with enough time to just learn.

Thankfully I’ve got plenty of time to do that, so fingers cross next February I’ll be able to include Project Cassandra amongst the list of successfully funded ZineQuest Kickstarters.

Review: Chiron’s Doom by Nick Bate

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of Chiron’s Doom from the author in exchange for a copy of The Synth Convergence.

There is a monument at the edge of civilisation, an enigmatic object known as Chiron’s Doom. Nobody knows what it does, or who made it, or why. It has defied all previous attempts at understanding. Countless expeditions have torn themselves apart trying to learn its secrets.

There’s no reason to think your expedition will be any different, but here you are. Three more explorers standing before the monument, driven to try where all others have failed. How much are you willing to sacrifice to solve the mystery of Chiron’s Doom?

Over the past few weeks I have been slowly making my way through a solo playthrough of Chiron’s Doom, published by Nick Bate and available on itch.io. The game chronicles the story of a doomed expedition as they set out to explore a foreboding and mysterious monument. Each scene is driven by a narrative prompt, chosen by drawing from a randomised deck, after which it is up to the players to decide how events play out. The expedition deck starts with a selection of Diamonds and the 2’s of the other suits. Draw any of those 2’s and you introduce a disaster deck – four additional cards that serve to build the danger and threat to your explorers. Draw a King and an explorer pays the ultimate price in their search for knowledge.

Playing solo I took charge of the trio of explorers and set out to explore the Dyson Array 03x65a, a massive orbital satellite from The Dyson Eclipse, a space opera setting that I am slowly developing. For the playthrough I decided to run the game as a series of blog posts, which start here and from the outset things got complicated for the intrepid explorers. By the end two of them had been taken by the monument while Arol, a wayward navigator had been shown his new path, tasked with protecting the secrets of the array from those that unknowingly walked the way of the light.

While I have written numerous pieces of short fiction in the past this was the first time I have taken to playing a solo RPG in this manner and I have to say that not only did I really enjoy the process but the prompts helped to flesh out the setting of The Dyson Eclipse in ways that I had not imagined. With the exception of the Arrays and the XenoArchaeology Protectorate virtually every detail in the setting was developed or fleshed out using inspiration drawn from the prompts. As a tool it was tremendously useful and I suspect I will do further playthroughs if only to help develop ideas.

Playing solo, and choosing to focus on only short scenes for each card, I did find that a number of the prompts difficult to use. For example the very first card I drew, the 8 of diamonds, reads

You experience a sudden, dramatic shift in perspective. What happened?
What does your new view reveal?

and it took me quite a while to work out how to incorporate a sudden shift in perspective into the very first scene. In a similar vein I found it difficult to link a couple of the draws to one another, although I suspect this would have been easier if I had played out each scene further than I did.

The one thing that I felt was missing from the game was the sense of the journey. The card prompts did well in representing revelations and challenges but I wanted more about the expedition itself, something that portrayed the more mundane steps in between revelations, perhaps as a separate deck that you draw from after round of drawing from the expedition deck.

Overall I would recommend picking up Chiron’s Doom if you are interested in exploring your own expedition, either with friends or as a solo storytelling game. It drew me into the unfolding story, piqued my interest in solo RPGs and I know that I’ll be replaying it in the future.

All reviews are rated out of 10, with Natural 20s reserved for products that go above and beyond my expectations.

Playthrough: Chiron’s Doom (Part 5)

This is Part 5 of the playthrough. Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4 can be found by following the links.

Arol Hernez (9 of Spades)

With the drones converging on their position the pair had few options. The continued gravitational pulses prevented retreat while it was only a matter of time before the Knights noticed that the drones had abandoned their work and Varis had made clear her opinion on turning themselves in. With Varis having dashed any chance at subtly he took a chance and activated his suits embedded sensor suite to map the hanger. The high-energy pulse took only a fraction of a second to build a framework while followup directed pulses worked on elucidating fine details. Numbers and trajectories overlaid his vision as the suit sought to highlight the details and buried amongst it he found what he’d sought.

An exit.

It was on the far side of the hanger, beneath the curve of an enormous engine cowl that was being slowly manoeuvred into position but it was there. A way out. A flick of his wrist sent the data to Varis.

“If we’re going to get across this hanger we need to move now.” He backed the words up by breaking into a run, trusting in the initiate to follow. The route through the hanger was convoluted, a maze of components and partially assembled compartments that they were forced to scramble over and around. After losing a further two of their number to Varis’s blade the drones kept their distance, circling above and behind them like vultures waiting for them to falter and fall. As they neared the hatch his HUD pinged with an incoming transmission, the priority code of the XenoArchaeology Directorate forcing it into view. The file was small, and decrypted almost instantly. A system wide warrant for his detainment, matched with an unnervingly accurate list of his crimes since leaving the service.

There was only one that he hadn’t committed. The most recent. The murder of Knights Initiate Saiya Varis.

Varis (King of Clubs)

She was only a second, or at most two, behind Arol as they reached the far side of the hanger and made the last dash for the hatch. The drones that had followed them had maintained a perfect 21.35 metres from her since she’d downed the third but now, with machine precision they swarmed towards her. Three times her knife lashed out, precise arcs that sliced through their cores and dropped them to the floor. As formidable as her training was it was also incomplete and as she ducked under the welding arms of one assailant another latched on to the control disc in the back of her suit, overriding the servos and freezing her to the spot. Silent alarms flashed in her vision as the drone reprogrammed environmental controls, cutting off her oxygen supply. All she could do was watch as Arol made it to the hatch, untouched by the drones that had prioritised her as a threat. As he turned and realised what had happened she took a desperate gamble, flicking the gravimetric dagger from the tips of her fingers. The field generator did the rest of the work, accelerating the blade into the control panel beside him and triggering the release of the emergency bulkhead.

Arol Hernez (3 of Clubs)

He’d lost track of how long or how far he had wandered. After the bulkhead cut him off from Varis he had grabbed the dagger and run. No direction, just away, deeper into the interior of the Array. Eventually he came to a door that was unlike anything the others. A light, grey metal painted with a fading symbol that was familiar to even the youngest children. It had been carried by the colonists as they had left their home so long ago. A yellow star in the centre surrounded by a blue circle with a single green dot. Earth. The silent ancestral home.

Dagger in hand he pushed it open, though at first the hinges resisted any movement. It opened into what he could only describe as an endless tunnel that fell away from him. Instinct led him to trigger the maglocks on his boots such was the feeling that he was staring not across but down into a vast abyss. As he tried to calm his senses motion along the smooth, pale wall caught his attention. As he watched the surface peeled back and a tube of blue glass extruded itself. A trio of drones approached, seemingly from nowhere carrying someone.

No, note someone but Varis, stripped of her suit and unconscious but seemingly alive. As two of the drones slid her effortlessly into the tube the third redirected itself towards him. Tired, scared and confused he made no effort to flee.

“Transmigration. Lifeboat stage IV incomplete. Containment protocols have been compromised. You will protect,” came through the intercom, the voice metallic but clear.

“I’ll what?,” was all he could manage in reply.

“You will protect. You are Navigator 1st Class Arol Hernez. Born 2287, died 2341. Current status: Fugitive from Knights of Ceres, marked by Interface for immediate termination. You. Will. Protect.”

As he struggled to process the meaning behind the voice there was a flash of light from the drone burned its way into his mind. Images flicked through his head, meaningless but structured. A light, all encompassing and so immense that it hurt to even think about. Schematics of the arrays, one after another. Some that had been lost, some yet to be constructed. A transmission received that had yet to be sent. Knowledge so overwhelming that it would have killed him if the Array had not intervened, reinforcing and expanding synaptic junctions in the time it took for the impulse to traverse them.

Eventually he understood. All of it. Others would be tasked with extinguishing the flame, his job was to safeguard the future, to protect the lifeboat and its occupants so they could be sent to the only place out of reach. Home.


This concludes my playthrough of Chiron’s Doom – You can find my review of the game here.

First Thoughts: Alien RPG

This is not a review, merely my thoughts based on two thorough readthroughs of the Alien RPG. Before I put out an actual review I want to have run at least one session of the game in its cinematic mode to get a proper feel for the mechanics.

I picked up the Alien RPG at Dragonmeet 2019 after originally avoiding the wildly successful pre-order earlier that year. I hadn’t ordered the game at that point for a simple reason – I’ve never watched Alien. Or any of the movies in the franchise. It’s impossible not to know the overall plot and tone of the movies though so when the first reviews of the game came in it piqued my interest. Everything seemed to suggest that Free League had succeeded in releasing a system that helped to build tension and explosive terror. That was enough to make me check the book out at Dragonmeet, where I was pulled in by the extensive, evocative art and sales pitch of the Effekt crew who were running the stall.

Dragonmeet was the end of November and unfortunately I’ve yet to get around to playing the game. What I have done is a couple of thorough read throughs and I’ve got to admit that I’ve come away feeling conflicted about the product and wanted to see if I could pull those thoughts together into a cohesive whole.

Remember: This isn’t a review, it will focus primarily on the issues I have rather than considering the game as a whole.

So what’s my issue? The big one is that I don’t understand the focus of the game. It feels off balance. The buzz I’ve seen surrounding Alien has been centred on the cinematic style of play – one off, high attrition scenarios designed to mimic the tone and pacing of the movies. Reading the book though they feel more like an afterthought. The GM chapter has a mere 2 pages dedicated to this style of play (though 2/3 of one page is taken up by artwork) in addition to the cinematic scenario Hope’s Last Day. Well, I say scenario but its not even the full thing, as it states in the text that it is only the third and final act of a larger adventure. This 18 page (that count includes the characters and maps) teaser isn’t even meant to occupy a typical session as, according to the text, it can be played in under 2 hours. A full cinematic scenario, Chariot of the Gods, is available as a separate purchase but I don’t understand why you wouldn’t want to showcase this mode of gameplay in the core book, especially when the recommendation is that you should start with a cinematic game before considering a campaign.

I’ve heard that page count was a constraint and I’ll admit that the book is a fair size but that’s also deceiving. There is a significant amount of artwork, more so than most books and I’d estimate you could cut the page count by a quarter (or more) and still have a beautiful book if there was less art and a more condensed layout.

The artwork is atmospheric and extensive, almost to the point of outshining the actual game

Which brings me to my second issue – campaigns. Despite having an entire chapter dedicated to them it feels lacklustre and incomplete. There are quick summaries of the three campaign types (space trucker, colonial marine and frontier colonist) and a series of tables to aid in the random generation of jobs/missions, star systems and complications but it just feels like it lacks any depth. Personally I’d have preferred a sandbox of a small region with some colonised planets and a border between two major powers to help get a campaign started.

One of the aspects that particularly stood out was money. The book makes it clear that the setting is one of hyper-capitalism, where you should expect to be living job to job, paying off debts and just struggling to stay afloat. The problem though is that it then fails to follow through in any real sense. Each framework lists a typical weekly salary, anywhere from $400-$960 while the minimum reward listed in the jobs table is $21,000.

So what can you spend all that wealth on?

Well there’s living costs, which is given a single tiny table that takes up less than a quarter of a page otherwise dedicated to yet more art. Or you could splash out on food and drink, including individual cups of coffee (Free – $1.50 per cup) which are given a page and a half of space. Yes, the book dedicates space to describing coffee.

Really though you’re going to be after gear and upgrades. Most of the personal equipment has costs in the hundreds to low thousands but ships and their upgrades may range into the millions. Oh, and you’ll also need a supply of spare parts for repairs. They cost $100,000 or more unless you can salvage them and will be consumed by even minor repairs. Which you could be doing regularly if you fail the weekly maintenance rolls.

Living expenses. Yup, that’s the extent of the mechanic.

All in all it just doesn’t add up into a coherent system. Somebody has clearly gone to the trouble of thinking about the fact the setting is one where ships should be breaking down regularly and needing expensive repairs. There’s a list of modules a ship might have but do I then need to list all the handheld equipment on the ship? If we start with a ship do we have to also purchase space suits, tools, food etc as well or does it come with a reasonable amount of equipment? Who knows, the rulebook certainly doesn’t say.

Now you may think I’m being unfairly critical here, or putting too much of an emphasis on it but I do so for a few reasons. The first reason I’m doing so is because of how many pages are taken up by gear and equipment, all of which are dotted with prices. Earning enough to get by on is clearly meant to play a significant role in campaigns but I honestly don’t think there’s a coherent and complete system here. Incidentally this isn’t a problem unique to Alien but is shared with many other systems.

The second reason I’m bringing it up is because I’ve recently read Scum & Villainy. While the tone of that is very different the gameplay also includes the completion of missions and constant need to earn credits. The difference there is that it’s baked squarely into the system. Every mission includes a structured way of having to deal with maintenance, upgrades and personal spending in a way that enhances the game and reinforces the need to do the next job. It transforms it from dull bookkeeping to an integral, and enjoyable, part of the game. I just wish Free League had managed the same here.

So with all these apparent issues you may be wondering what I’d have done differently. Primarily I’d streamline the book by removing campaign play elements entirely and focus it on cinematic play. So out with most of the gear and equipment, in with a complete three act scenario and proper guidelines on creating/running cinematic scenarios. It may be that this is the approach Free League have taken with their upcoming starter set but honestly I just don’t understand why they didn’t go in that direction from the outset.

I’m just going to close with a repeat that this isn’t a review, just things that got under my skin while reading the book. I think the core system is good, like the look of the stress mechanic and am looking forward to running a game, hopefully sooner rather than later. At that point I’ll revisit it and do a proper review but honestly, I suspect it’ll just reinforce my desire to focus on cinematic gameplay.

If my ramblings haven’t put you off the game then it is available for purchase on drivethruRPG (includes affiliate link).