Thoughts on: The Expanse RPG Kickstarter

With two weeks still to go in the campaign the Expanse RPG Kickstarter by Green Ronin is on track to be a massive success. It’s blown through one stretch goal after another, having funded in under an hour and is currently nearing $300,000 in pledges. Yet despite being a big fan of both the novels and TV series I find myself struggling to build any enthusiasm for it. Spectacularly underwhelmed to be exact, enough that I felt the need to dig into why.

So lets start at the start: The pitch for funding. It’s professionally put together, contained achievable and realistic stretch goals and even had a short word from the creative force behind the novels, James S. A. Corey (yes I’m aware it’s a pen name for the two authors but I’m going to refer to them by that name as it’s the one they chose to use). It is, however, very light on the pitch. If I wasn’t already aware of the franchise then I don’t think I’d give it another glance, there is simply nothing that grabs me and screams PLAY THIS GAME! Or even that sells me on the setting beyond standard space opera.

One thing that I was very happy to see was that from the get-go they provided a free to download quickstart rules document. It has been professionally produced, looks great and provides both a breakdown of the core rules and a sample adventure. It’s the sort of release that I think all of the bigger RPG companies should include on their Kickstarters – it shows that they have put in the work beforehand. Rules are written, character sheets designed, artwork and layout styles selected. While it’s not achievable for most of the smaller indie companies it shows that they are serious about this game.

Despite this I was, once again, underwhelmed. There’s a similar lack of setting information, I could pick up what was included and drop it into a generic space opera game without really having to tweak anything.

Then there’s the system, which feels… generic. I can’t really put it any other way. Now don’t get me wrong, it looks like a solid and serviceable system but nothing about it stands out to me. I’m totally willing to accept that this may just come down to a matter of preference but overall the mechanics feel like they have barely iterated on design ideas from a decade ago. Stunts (one of the most exciting aspects of The Expanse RPG according to the quick start) are interesting and provide special bonuses but the non-combat variants seem limited with their value restricted to very specific situations. I was also disappointed to see that one of the stunts was ‘Knock prone’. Given much of the setting is in zero or low-G environments it felt like quite an oversight to not reword this. Simply renaming it Offbalance would suffice and it makes me wonder how much the system has been tweaked to fit both the setting and genre of the novels. The added Fortune and Churn mechanics also failed to impress (seriously, spending the equivalent of your HP to change dice results? Even if they recover quickly people will hoard them). They’re ok but they don’t set my world on fire.

So that’s my rambling thoughts on The Expanse RPG and its Kickstarter. I don’t know if I’ve really got across my point and I understand it comes across as excessively negative (which wasn’t my intention but I needed to write this to work through why I felt so uninterested in the game). It’ll probably be an ok game but only that, ok. Will I back it? I seriously don’t know, I’m leaning towards yes just to get the setting material but I don’t know if I’d ever run it which disappoints me immensely.

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Inspirational Artwork: Visions of the Future

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Stylised posters always seem to get my GM imagination going, when they’re well done they serve the same function as a good book cover – to set a scene that you want to know more about. Some of the best, in my opinion, are those that recreate early sci-fi books focused on exploration and the colonisation of the solar system. They provide not only a sense of hope for the future but also one of exploration, perfect for any light hearted sci-fi games. The ‘Visions of the Future‘ set from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory provide a perfect example of this and after only a few minutes I already have a half dozen ideas bouncing around my head for the next time I run a game.

QuicFic: Collapse

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I awoke to the taste of my own blood. Caught unaware and half out of my impact webbing the blast had thrown me awkwardly from my chair, my head ricocheting against the console to my left. Ship time indicated I had blacked out for only a handful of seconds, the pain made it feel like days. Sensory warnings already flickered at the edge of my vision, my arm was broken in multiple places and neural overrides had settled into place to prevent the onset of debilitating pain. I didn’t need my implants to know that my lip was split open, the taste of blood in my mouth ensured I was aware of that. The radiation exposure warning that demanded my attention explained the burning heat emanating from the side of my face, a worry given I was acutely aware of what was required to penetrate the considerable shielding that lined the hull of the Guardian class IGS Aari.

My crew, barely a segment into their first tour, were struggling to function, unsure of their priorities in light of the sudden battering we had taken. “Stat Op! Tactical, sound off,” my command cut through the bridge alerts on a priority channel, feeding directly into the ears of the crew. “Shields stabilising, laser batteries alpha through delta online. All squadrons initiating immediate combat launches.” Lieutenant Narra’s report summarised what my own screens had already confirmed but her verbalization of our readiness lifted a noticeable weight from the rest of the crew. I turned to my right, where Ensign Issa was cocooned within the navigation pod. “Helm, sensory replay.”

There was a slight delay in her response, no more than a second but enough to betray distraction. I knew from the initial medical reports that her clone twin in engineering had received a serious injury, likely bad enough to disrupt the neural link between them. The potential feedback from unexpectedly severing connections had, on occasion, been reported to render the active twin catatonic, so the quiet “Aye Captain” as she fully engaged the pod came as a relief. “Logs report the appearance of a gravitational sinkhole, duration 135 milliseconds, local increase approximately 15 thousand times Earth standard. Triangulation places likely origin point at 2.9 million kilometers ahead with an exponential strength increase at the epicentre.”

The Ensign didn’t need to add that directly ahead lay the lifeless planet of IK3576-D, host of staging post three and home of the 3rd, 5th and 11th fleets. Of far greater concern was the shockwave that had hit us, only gravitational collapse munitions, crushers in naval slang, produced such an effect. I knew instinctively that the scale of the sinkhole meant the unremarkable planet, and the crews stationed in orbit, were gone. Their mass compressed in a near instant, held together by an artificial gravity field just long enough for nuclear fusion to occur. Tens of thousands of lives extinguished by a single warhead, an entire planet gone. The devastation was why gravitational weapons were banned across known space, no spacefaring civilisation was willing to risk their complete and utter annihilation in such a manner.

My shock was interrupted, if only briefly, by Lieutenant Sar. His voice, normally so full of warmth and energy, was quiet, flat. Scared. “Captain, telemetry coming in from the jump gate. The relays… The relays are reporting total communication failure with staging posts four through seven. They’re just gone…” His report hung in the air, silence descending over the bridge. With a single strike action the rebels had taken out almost a third of the loyalist forces, hundreds of thousands of souls dispatched to the judgement halls of their ancestors. The war for control of the Gerandas Empire had begun.

It was also, I was sure, already lost.