To many sailors, every ship has a personality. When I deployed aboard the aircraft carrier USS America (CV-66) during the Gulf War, the ship had a bent shaft that vibrated at higher revolutions. Just before the Gulf War, all the water fountains (“bubblers”) had been removed and we deployed without all of them reinstalled. When we ate chow, we often placed a glass of water in the middle of the table and noted how much jet fuel “skim” there was at the top when we finished eating. It’s no stretch of the imagination to say that USS America was “quite the character.”
The Traveller Roleplaying Game taught me that ships are systems, and while they may have quirks, they are engineered. Not every roleplaying game uses that same engineering approach. My first real encounter with “ships as characters” was Battlestar Galactica – Role Playing Game from Margaret Weiss Productions (2007). Coming forward to 2021, The Expanse Roleplaying Game, treats ships like characters. I often struggle with myself in trying to rectify these two different approaches to ships in roleplaying games—the system-engineer player vs. the narrative player.
Ships in The Expanse Roleplaying Game are described with just a few characteristics; Size, Drive, Sensors, Weapons. This is followed by Qualities and Flaws. One doesn’t “build” a ship as much as one “describes” a ship in The Expanse RPG. That’s an important point to remember as one looks at what Ships of the Expanse brings to your game.
For myself, I bought Ships of the Expanse because I wanted more ship construction rules, more combat rules, and some ship examples to inspire me. This is how Ships of the Expanse describes itself:
Ships of the Expanse offers an in-depth look at spaceships, ships, combat, and life in space in the universe of The Expanse. The ships and rules herein describe ships and technology roughly up to the beginning of the novel Nemesis Games…This book contains several new rules; ship qualities, stunts, ship maneuvers, and more.Ships of the Expanse, Introduction and How to Use This Book, p. 3
Ships of the Expanse is 144 pages long and divided into four major chapters, “1. The Shipyard,” “2. Ships in Action,” “3. Shipboard Life,” and “4. Spaceship Specifications.”
What immediately struck me when reading the 24 pages of The Shipyard in Ships of the Expanse was the overall lack of ship construction rules. To me, the 3 pages of Qualities and Flaws and 4 pages of Ship Rewards (~5% of the total book) constitute the entirety of the “new” ship construction rules. The balance is background material on shipyards and shipyard life.
Ships in Action
Ships in Action is 20 pages of the Ships of the Expanse book. The majority of the chapter is given over to operating ships and hazards; new combat rules are the 3 pages of Stunts and 2 pages of Ship Maneuvers. Five (5) pages, or ~3% of the overall book.
Ahh, the life of a sailor. The Shipboard Life chapter of Ships of the Expanse is 23 pages long and, again, has lots of information on living aboard a ship and various challenges. There is alot of setting-appropriate information here.
This chapter of Ships of the Expanse starts off with an interesting 2 pages where how to buy a ship is discussed. Bottom line – it’s really expensive. I guess this is in keeping with the setting where you see very few personal ships. What follows is a long (72 pages or ~50 percent of the book) section with specifications, deck plans, and background on many different ships which is what I guess I wanted…
Flip (pages) and Burn (your brain)
I guess by my own expectations I should be happy with The Ships of the Expanse because over half the book is “what I wanted.” Well, yes, but. While the (many) ship descriptions are welcome, the many deck plans here suffer from the same problem so many ship books suffer from in this digital book world—how can I use them? I also have to ask myself if the other 12 pages of ship construction and ship combat are really worth it.
By my rough numbers, 42% of Ships of the Expanse is not really useful to me. Honestly, that’s a bit of an unfair statement. Forty-two percent of Ships of the Expanse was not what I expected. So why does it bother me? Arguably, that 42% is the “in-depth look at spaceships, ships, combat, and life in space in the universe of The Expanse” that the introduction proclaimed.
I think what bothers me most about Ships of the Expanse is the same thing that bothers me about The Expanse RPG in general. It’s too preachy. Throughout the core rule book and now this expansion, there is plenty of exposition on the science behind The Expanse. I am not sure this is all totally necessary. I mean, The Expanse RPG is based on a popular intellectual property and I feel that if you play The Expanse RPG you are likely familiar with either the books or TV series. That familiarity brings with it certain “expectations” and player knowledge.
Ships of the Expanse is the type of source book I expect a GM to read. There is nothing in here that players cannot read, but how many of them will? As a GM, Ships of the Expanse offers many inspirations to use during adventures. For players, there are a few new rules but the rest of it is kinda a “Standard Operating Procedures” that you should understand/follow lest the GM let you walk out an airlock without a vacc suit.
Then again, that’s the sort of thing you just might want to do in an adventure of The Expanse RPG. I’m not sure if all the science exposition in the books help or hinders that sort of adventuring.
At the end of the day, for myself I don’t necessarily feel that Ships of the Expanse is a must-have expansion. Maybe that’s because I am comfortable with the setting and especially the science behind it. Maybe players and GMs who love the adventures of The Expanse but don’t really grok the science behind it need this sort of help.
Feature image courtesy Green Ronin Publishing
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