#RPGThursday – The Expanse RPG (@GreenRoninPublishing, 2019) Fermenting Juice?

I have a soft spot in my heart for science-fiction tabletop roleplaying games. My first RPG ever was the Little Black Books of (Classic) Traveller back in 1979. More recently, Green Ronin Publishing kickstarted The Expanse Roleplaying Game: Sci-Fi Roleplaying at Humanity’s Edge in 2018 that delivered in 2019. At that time I passed on it but recently I acquired a physical copy of the hardback edition.

During the Kickstarter campaign for The Expanse RPG I looked at, and was turned off by, the artwork. I also was not sure of the core mechanic (Green Ronin’s Adventure Game Engine – AGE). Now that I have the product in hand, what do I think?

Expanse-ive Expectations

When I look at The Expanse, I see a space opera-like story with some hard-ish science-fiction behind it. My expectation from an RPG using The Expanse as a setting is that is should enable the players and GM to create drama but not in a manner that is too disconnected with reality. Where handwavium is used, it must be plausible given the conditions of the setting.

My first introduction to The Expanse was via the TV series. During Season 1 I picked up the books and started catching up by “reading ahead.” Although I like the TV series, I am a book reader at heart and will always take the book version of a setting over a TV interpretation any day. Therefore, I was very excited to see that the authors of The Expanse were part of the making of this RPG. Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck (together known as James S.A. Corey) are credited with “Development and Story Consultation.” They also contributed the short story that opens the RPG book. In terms of spoilers, the default setting for The Expanse Roleplaying Game is the period between the first and second novels of the series.

[Interestingly, in all the references to The Expanse Fiction in the RPG there is no mention of the TV series. Looks like a separate licensing agreement? This doesn’t bother me as I am personally a fan of the earlier books in the series but I can see how some rabid fans of the TV series may be upset.]

The Look

The Expanse Roleplaying Game book is a hefty 256-page hardcover in full color. There is lots of material here and the format is very busy. I’m glad I got this as a deadtree product because looking at the pages and thumbing through an ebook would be very challenging for me unless it is very well bookmarked.

I previously complained about the artwork in The Expanse Roleplaying Game. My opinion has not changed but I better understand my reaction now. It’s the people. I just cannot connect with the characters shown in the book. Maybe I’m letting the TV series actors influence my expectations too much but even when I recognize that bias and try to look at the character art with that consideration in mind they just don’t work. At the end of the day the character images used in the book are so different are just not The Expanse-like to me.

Setting the Scene

I’ll just go ahead and stipulate that, given the intimate involvement of the series authors in this project, The Expanse Roleplaying Game has all the juicy world-building details a GM needs (and the players want?) to create a story set in The Expanse universe – of the books. A reminder that the default setting is the time between the first and second books (Leviathan Wakes and Caliban’s War).

The MEchanics behind the story

Given that The Expanse Roleplaying Game has all the needed settings material, my real test of the game is how well the core mechanics and supporting rules create a play experience that I feel fits the setting.

Coming of AGE

The core mechanic in The Expanse Roleplaying Game is Green Ronin Publishing’s Modern Adventure Game Engine (AGE). AGE is built around a basic Ability Test resolved by a 3d6 die roll:

TEST RESULT = 3D6 + ABILITY SCORE + 2 FOR ABILITY FOCUS (IF ANY) vs. [(Target Number (TN)) or (Opposed Test)]

The number to beat in the Ability Test is usually set by a difficulty ladder. The TN of an Average test is 11. This quite literally means that a test with the usual “hero” character +1 Ability level will PASS the test 50% of the time. When rolling your 3d6, one die must be different from the others. This is the Drama Die which helps measure degrees of success and can activate Stunt Points (SP) – but only on successes.

When making an Ability Test in The Expanse Roleplaying Game, if the test roll includes doubles the player gains Stunt Points (SP) equal to the Drama Die. Each different encounter type (Action/Exploration/Social) in The Expanse Roleplaying Game has its own suggested set of Stunts which is the “flair” of your actions. There are many different classes of Stunts for each encounter type and more than a few stunts for each class. There are so many here that the GM will be challenged to keep track of it all; for the player’s it may be all-but-impossible. The extensive listings also seemingly encourage a “menu selection” approach to play. I would much rather see some guidance to the GM and players and general costs (or ideas) and let character roleplaying define a stunt instead of giving a pick ‘n choose menu that in my mind diminishes narrative agency.

The other major character resource in The Expanse Roleplaying Game is Fortune. Luck is expressed in the game by that Fortune score; the more Fortune the more luck the PC has to change or influence the outcome of events. Fortune can be used to change the results of a die roll or even avoid damage. Fortune regenerates (slowly) between encounters and needs an Interlude (longer downtime between game sessions) to reset completely. Indeed, Fortune is probably the most powerful narrative-altering device in the player’s kit bag.

Buried way back in Chapter 12: Game Mastering of The Expanse Roleplaying Game is an optional rule called The Churn. It’s really sad that this concept is buried deep in the book and then presented as an optional rule because The Churn goes a long way towards making an adventure in The Expanse Roleplaying Game more thematic. The Churn is a track the GM keeps to show when the fickle hand of fate intervenes. At the beginning of an adventure The Churn pool is ‘0’. As events happen The Churn builds until it boils over into a game effect. Some might say The Churn robs the GM of plot control but I see it as a guide (and challenge) to the GM to move story along, sometimes in an epic change of direction.

Interestingly, although The Churn is described as an optional rule, the associated tables are prominently placed on the GM Screen. It’s as if Green Ronin is telling us we should be using The Churn although the rules seemingly tell us not.

In terms of “crunch,” I would call AGE “medium-heavy” for me. It is far cruchier than my beloved Cepheus Engine and relatively comparable to the Fantasy Flight Games Star Wars Roleplaying Game (GENESYS) or Cortex Prime (especially as used in Firefly Roleplaying Game) although with less narrative control by the player than either of those two systems.

Who Are You?

Character generation in The Expanse Roleplaying Game is done using a ten-step outline. This is a concept-driven design process; you decide at the beginning what you want and then tailor your character to get the desired result. At first I was worried that this process was going to be too player-directed and subject to min/maxing of characters. In reality, I discovered the system strikes a good balance between player desire and random chance.

The AGE system defines characters through nine abilities. The score for each ability ranges from -2 (quite poor) to 4 (truly outstanding). The book goes out of its way to say that a score of 1 is “average” for characters but everyday individuals are 0. As a long-time Traveller RPG player where characters are often “ordinary sophonts thrown into extraordinary situations” I’m not sure how I really feel about “special” characters.

For my first character in The Expanse Roleplaying Game I decided I wanted to generate a captain of a small subsidized freighter that moves about the Belt. Here I step through the 10-step process:

  1. Concept (Player choice) – Subsidized Freighter Captain
  2. Abilities (Rolled) – Accuracy 0 / Communications 4 / Constitution 3 4 / Dexterity 3 / Fighting 0 / Intelligence 3 / Perception 0 / Strength 2 / Willpower 2
  3. Origin (Player Choice) – Earther
  4. Background (Rolled, some choice) – Outsider/Exile (formerly Middle Class/Academic); Constitution +1, Focus: Willpower (Self Discipline), Talent: Fringer (Novice) plus Focus: Communication (Bargaining)
  5. Profession (Rolled, some choice) – Fixer gaining Focus: Intelligence (Evaluation) and Talent: Improvisation (Novice)
  6. Drive (Rolled, some choice) – Networker. Membership: Rank 1 Recruit (new Captain?), Quality: Gregarious, Downfall: Overwraught, Talent: Contacts (Novice)
  7. Income (Defined by rules) – 0 (Equipment buy will be later)
  8. Secondary Abilities and Fortune (Defined by rules) – Defense = 13 / Speed = 13 / Toughness = 4 / Fortune = 15
  9. Goals and Ties (Player driven) – Short Term > Move to better ship, Long Term > own ship. Ties – ??
  10. Name & Description (Player choice) – Chester “Chessy” Smith

Generally speaking, I am pleased with the result. I certainly generated my Subsidized Merchant Captain, but the process also created more than a few hooks that I as a player (or the GM) can build on. What makes a middle-class academic turn outsider?

One aspect of character generation in The Expanse Roleplaying Game I find very interesting is Step 7: Income and Equipment. Characters do not track money in credits, but instead use an Income Score that shows a relative financial condition. When combined with the rules for income and lifestyle it is possible to put the “cost of living” into the game and make it a contributing narrative element of the story.

Although the character generation process in The Expanse Roleplaying Game is not super complicated, I would have liked to see a beginning-to-end example. I also am very interested in how the iconic characters were created because as an AGE system neophyte I easily see how the stats presented came to be. It would be very insightful for the authors/designers to show their work here.

Spaceships

What is The Expanse without Rochinante? Ships are just as important as any character in The Expanse, and The Expanse Roleplaying Game gives spaceships its own chapter. The chapter starts out with a science lesson on space travel in The Expanse.

Note I said science lesson, not rules.

I know, even Classic Traveller used a few formulas, but in The Expanse Roleplaying Game at this point we learn all about motion and velocity and the handwavium science of the Epstein Drive. There is also a discussion of Hohmann Transfer orbits and Brachistochrone Trajectories and….

STOP!

When I said I was looking for a “hard-ish sci-fi” setting I did NOT mean to give me a course in astrophysics. It is not until we get six (dense) pages into the chapter that we get information useful for PLAY. Table 2: “Average Communication Time Between Locations (In Minutes)” and Tables 3A-3D: “Average Travel Time Between Locations (At XXG) (In Hours)” is finally something that has real relevance (and use) to the players and GM.

The next section of the chapter describes space ships. The Expanse Roleplaying Game uses the tried and true “ships as characters” approach to ship descriptions. There are no ship construction rules in the book; that’s coming in a future expansion. What surprised me the most is there is no Rochinante described here. I’m guessing the Frigate on page 126 could stand in for the Roci, but given the Roci is part of the book could Green Ronin not have included some sort of Roci ship referenced as such? Sigh….

The adventure included in The Expanse Roleplaying Game is a good example for the GM in the how Parts, Scenes, Encounters and Interludes all come together to make a story. Too bad it’s nothing more creative than a dungeon crawl in space.

My Story vs. Canon

One worry I always have about licensed IP games is the inevitable canon wars. I’m very happy to see The Expanse Roleplaying Game address this head-on in Chapter 15. This chapter provides many different ideas for running a multitude of different types of stories. It even encourages the GM and players to go “beyond canon” where they see fit. Not that I was not going to make any game my own; it’s just good to see the authors encouraging creativity beyond the bounds of the published IP.

Game Gravity

The Expanse Roleplaying Game is clearly aimed at Detailed Role Players – those who want to deeply explore the motivations of their characters. The rules are far too heavy for Social Role Players to pick up (or even play with no familiarity). There is little-to-no rules that support a Systems Engineer Role Player – the world building here is basically done for you.

The problem I have with the rules in The Expanse Roleplaying Game is that, after playing around a bit and running some shadow adventures, the core mechanic just doesn’t seem dramatic enough. The Ability Tests seem too formulamatic (and far from dramatic). The menu of Stunts encourage PBM (Play-By-Menu) and actually reduces the narrative drama of play. Being able to call upon Stunts only when successful also seems to take away the “narrative of loss” by which I mean being able to narrate failure is just as dramatically powerful as narrating success. This is why I believe the narrative dice in Fantasy Flight Games Star Wars Roleplaying (aka GENESYS) are so awesome; rolling Despair is just as narratively powerful as rolling a Triumph. I also feel the Fortune pool is just too big. In other systems the economy of Fate Points or Plot Points or Lightside/Darkside Points is tight and their use has a palatable value. Calling upon them is a major dramatic moment. In The Expanse Roleplaying Game when even Thugs have over a dozen Fortune points it just feels so non-dramatic. Is this simply a symptom of low level characters or is the core mechanic truly that sad?

At the end of the day, I am going to give The Expanse Roleplaying Game a hesitant, if not very reluctant, thumbs up. I think the game does a good job of creating a setting and rules that players who love The Expanse can play around in and feel “at home.” I’m a bit hesitant to go all-in because the rules seem a bit too heavy in places and more complex than they maybe need be. I also worry about the balance between narrative and “menu-driven” play the rules are built upon. Maybe as I play around with the rules more they will ferment a bit and become better with age.

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