It may be hard to imagine, but the Traveller roleplaying game was originally a “setting-less” set of rules. Sure, there were hints of the Third Imperium, but at its heart the Classic Traveller rules were sans setting. In much the same way the Cepheus Engine rules, or “Renaissance Traveller” as I call them, are also setting-less. Fortunately for us, more than a few indie RPG publishers have stepped in to create settings. Amongst my favorites are The Clement Sector by John Watt at Independence Games (formerly Gypsy Knights Games) and Orbital 2100 by Paul Elliott at Zozer Games. Another of Paul’s settings I tried in 2017 was HOSTILE. In 2021, Zozer released a new, revised edition of the rules in the HOSTILE Rulebook.
Sorry, John, but The Clement Sector now has some real competition!
I like the HOSTILE Rulebook for four reasons:
- The gritty setting
- The familiar, yet different Task Resolution system
- Highly thematic character generation
- Stress, Panic, and Hazards.
What really makes the HOSTILE Rulebook attractive to me is its simplicity. Some might look at a 239-page rule book and say, “That ain’t simple!” Yet, it is. Part of the simplicity is familiarity; I don’t think there are actually any new rules in the book, and what its there is not complex, but they are assembled and tweaked in simple ways that are highly thematic and reinforce the gritty sci-fi setting.
The HOSTILE setting is straight out of science fiction movies of the late-1970s and early-1980s. This is Alien, Outland, and Bladerunner all wrapped up into one. Here is how author Paul Elliott introduces it to us:
The future is not as optimistic and rosy as many SF writers had us believe. Space exploration is difficult, hard and dangerous and the thriving interstellar society made up of hundreds of populated planets never materialized. Instead space is the preserve of the big corporations that focus on extracting minerals, oil and other raw materials from the extra-solar planets and moons to be shipped back to Earth in order to support the vast population there.
Space is not a place for tourists or fortune-hunters; it is a hostile and brutal frontier, where blue collar men and women work hard, rely on nobody but themselves, risk death every day and face the Unknown. And out here the Unknown is real – it is horrific; there are rumors of the disturbing effects of hyperspace, of ancient horrors entombed on icy moons, and of monsters – killer aliens, perfectly evolved to survive the hostile wastes of space – at any cost.HOSTILE Rulebook, p.7
HOSTILE is not the space western Firefly Roleplaying Game, nor is it the politically charged machinations of The Expanse Roleplaying Game. As Paul says, ‘Think of it as Alaska-in-Space, with the crews of the star freighters playing the role of the Ice Road Trucker…” While HOSTILE is not the dark, deadly horror of ALIEN: The Roleplaying Game, “there is always a kink that makes life tough, whether it’s the biosphere, the seasons, the radiation, the atmosphere, or one of a score of other deadly effects.”
There is also lots of HOSTILE-related gaming material to chose from. The two “core” books are the HOSTILE Rulebook and The HOSTILE Setting Book. The setting is also linked to other Zozer Games settings, such as Outpost Mars, Orbital 2100, and Zaibatsu (the HOSTILE-adjacent cyberpunk setting). There are also many other supplements available to help you tailor the game the way you want.
Getting the Job Done
The basic Task Resolution system in the HOSTILE Rulebook is covered in a short four pages. That’s a little under 2% of the rule book. Looking back in Classic Traveller, there really was only one Task Roll, that of 2d6 against a target of 8+. In the HOSTILE Rulebook there are four different Rolls specified. The first time I looked at this list I asked myself, “Why do we need more than one?” Once I looked at each of them it all makes sense:
- Attack Roll: This is the standard 2d6 against a target of 8+ where a combat skill is the main modifier; other modifiers are found in the combat rules
- Characteristic Roll: A Characteristic Roll is 2d6 against a target of 6+; Die Modifiers (DMs) are your Characteristic Modifier and Difficulty can range from -2 (Difficult) to +2 (Routine)
- Perception Roll: Basically a chance to notice something (or set initiative in combat); 2d6 against 8+ using your Intelligence (INT) characteristic modifier and the Recon skill
- Skill Roll: The other “classic” skill roll of 2d6 against a target of 8+ with skill level as a DM.
The HOSTILE Rulebook uses difficulty modifiers to the basic roll. Difficulty ranges from Routine (+2) to Formidable (-6). The degree to which the roll fails or succeeds is the Effect which can be used as a narrative prompt or a DM in other situations. All in all, Task Resolution in the HOSTILE Rulebook is nothing extraordinary but it is a nice repackaging of the basic Cepheus Engine rules in a complete, very compact presentation.
Who Are YOU?
The HOSTILE Rulebook is built around different crew types that occupy this hostile universe. You can be a Colony Work Crew or the Corporate Investigative Team or even a Freelance Mining (Roughneck) Crew. You might be a Commercial Starship Crew or a Resource Exploration Crew. Finally, one can alway be a Marine Corps Squad or Private Military Contractors. The HOSTILE Rulebook has 15 different careers. Most use a very standard Classic Traveller/Cepheus Engine-style career progression but one, Androids, is a special, separately detailed career. You can also role play a “Prole;” short-lived genetically created laborers.
While character creation in the HOSTILE Rulebook will be familiar to most Classic Traveller or Cepheus Engine veterans, there are a few twists that add “flavor” from the setting. You cannot die in character generation but you can suffer a mishap. You can also add “Final Details” like some notable physical feature or item, a Psych Evaluation (of course, we ALL are crazy, eh?), and a random seed for why you left Earth. You can also randomly pick what unofficial badge or patch you wear, like “What’s My Bonus Situation?”
Of course, you can always use an alternate point-buy character generation system, but why would you?
One section of the HOSTILE Rulebook that I really like is in the Skills chapter and called, “What Those Skill Levels Actually Mean.” Here, Mr. Elliott gives us some “setting names” for different skill levels. Like a civilian with Technician – Electronics-2 has an “Electronic Maintenance Certificate.” Or a Space Command officer with Comms-1 and Computer-1 is an “Electronic Warfare Officer.”
I really like how monthly salaries in the HOSTILE Rulebook are a base salary plus a multiplier based on rank. For example, a Non-Commissioned Marine rank 2 (Corporal) makes $1000 plus $500×2 or $2,000 a month.
Like so much before, none of these rules in the HOSTILE Rulebook are really new or highly innovative. They are, however, highly thematic and enhance the play experience of the characters in the setting.
…”it’s a hostile universe.”
Stress is an integral component of the HOSTILE setting, so much so it actually makes up a fifth Roll. When certain stressful events occur, like, say, the character catches fire, a Stress Roll must be made. This is a simple Average difficulty roll using the Intelligence Characteristic Modifier. Success means all continues as normal, but failure is a temporary -1 to Intelligence (Overstress) and a stun for one round. As more Overstress is accumulated, the character will become less rational, less focused, and more likely to get into trouble. That is because Stress can lead to Panic where the character might lose control of their sanity.
The balance of the hazards in the HOSTILE Rulebook are, again, nothing that hasn’t been seen somewhere before. However, this collection of hazards works well to build the theme of the setting.
- Acid – Rules not only for exposure but also fumes and immersion
- Hiking – Never really thought of this as a hazard but when you factor in encumbrance and water…
- Falling – Gravity can suck
- Fire – More dangerous than one might think
- Diseases – Hmm…no COVID-19 so I guess the future figures it out (can’t wait)
- Poisons – Nothing good here either
- Suffocation – Important for a space setting
- Hostile Atmospheres – Get used to these rules
- Temperature – Water and food are just as important as clothing
- Radiation – Often overlooked in space opera settings
- Pressure Loss – Ramius was ahead of his time when he told Ryan, “Most things in here don’t react well to bullets”
- Zero Gravity – Losing control is a Stress Roll.
- Hunger & Fatigue – Eat, drink, and sleep
- Climbing – What goes up…
- Weather – Mother Nature gets a vote
The Hostile Rulebook also has rules for survival in Desert or Arctic environments.
The Best of the Rest
The balance of the rules in the HOSTILE Rulebook are, yet again, nothing really new under the sun. Combat uses that Perception Roll to help determine initiative and Melee combat always goes before Aimed or Area Fire. Space travel uses a hyperdrive. Of note, the rules for spaceship construction are NOT in the HOSTILE Rulebook; those appear in The HOSTILE Setting Book, although the rules for starship combat are in this book. Combat in space uses an Advantage system vice Initiative.
As befitting the HOSTILE setting, world creation goes a bit beyond the basic approaches and adds some more details. All those little extra details are important in determining the hazards one
might will encounter on many worlds.
As much as I like being the Referee and creating an adventure, more recently I have embraced liberal use of random encounter tables. In the HOSTILE Rulebook, “…random encounters help create the illusion of a universe that exists outside of the adventurers’ own experience, thus creating a sense of verisimilitude” (p. 177). These rules also feed into animals and…exomorphs.
The HOSTILE Rulebook has two faces; outwardly it is a highly thematic, gritty sci-fi setting. On the inside the rules are in many ways “recycled” from prior products. Most importantly, the two faces work together to create a very interesting setting that novice or experienced Traveller or Cepheus Engine players can enjoy.