[In 2022 I tried to do a series of posts looking at roleplaying game (RPG) character generation in my collection of games. I went in chronological order starting in with Traveller (Game Designer’s Workshop, 1977) and made it up through the Serenity Role Playing Game (Margaret Weiss, 2005) until my postings dropped off. This is the first post in a renewed effort to restart that series, but I don’t want to just look at character generation but also explore a bit about the core game mechanics. So here goes…]
Golden Age Imperial Sci-Fi
Thousand Suns by James Maliszewski and Richard Iorio II was published in 2008 by Rogue Games. This roleplaying game (RPG) uses what is called the 120 System to play science fiction adventure in a universe that draws its inspiration from the ‘Golden Age’ of science fiction, the 1950s-70’s.
Every age has its myths and many of the central myths of the 20th century took the form of science fiction. Science promised humanity the knowledge of the inner workings of the universe and its daughter, technology, promised the ability to harness those inner workings to improve the species’ lot in life—a heady brew for the imagination that would flower into the literary genre we call science fiction. From its humble beginnings in the scientific romances and speculations of Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, and others, science fiction came into its own in the years between the World Wars, as the readers of pulp magazines thrilled to the adventures of Kimball Kinnison, Buck Rogers, and other space-faring heroes whose tales evoked both wonder at the possibilities the future might bring, as well as hope for a better world.
These same themes would form the foundation upon which much of later science fiction was built and then expanded upon throughout the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, when many talented writers remade what had been derisively called “space opera” into a sub-genre of remarkable depth and sophistication. It is from this sub-genre of science fiction that Thousand Suns proudly takes its primary inspiration. This was a period where man of the stories were, as the authors/designers call it, in the ‘Imperial Sci-Fi’ vein.Thousand Suns, Chapter 1: Basic, p. 8
In particular, Thousand Suns turn hard into the ‘Imperial science fiction’ corner of space opera:
Imperial science fiction — whether classic or contemporary — is a vast genre, both in terms of its literal scope and its diversity. Of necessity, it takes place over a large canvas, with hundreds, even thousands, of worlds as potential sites for adventures. Having such a large canvas allows it to encompass almost any kind of science fiction story, big or small. This makes it even easier to create whatever adventures appeal to you and your players. The real trick is to give them all that classic SF “spark,” that connection to the grand themes of the genre, most importantly humanity’s destiny among the stars.Thousand Suns, Chapter 1: Basics, p. 9
In many ways Thousand Suns occupies a very similar part of the sci-fi genre as the grandparent of sci-fi RPGs do, Traveller. Thus, the comparisons are inevitable. To avoid going too deep into a comparison/contrast, let’s look at Thousand Suns through the lens of character generation and the core mechanic, that 120 System, to see if this game engine can deliver on that ‘Imperial Sci-Fi’ expereince.
Character Creation in Thousand Suns
Character generation in Thousand Suns is in Chapter 2: Character Creation.Generating a character is a seven-step process:
- Choose Abilities: Divide 25 Ability Points between your character’s five Abilities.
- Choose Species: Select your character’s species. Spend whatever bonus points listed under the Traits section of your species on skills of your choice.
- Choose Homeworld Package: Select one Homeworld Package for your character.
- Choose Career Packages: Select three levels of Career Packages for your character.
- Choose five Hooks, one based on your character’s species, one based on your character’s homeworld, and three based on your character’s career or careers.
- Add up the Benefits Points acquired and spend them.
- Finishing Touches.
As you can probably deduce, character creation in Thousand Suns is a modified point-buy system. This system certainly give players more control over creating their character than the mostly random Traveller approach.
The five Abilities in Thousand Suns are Body, Dexterity, Perception, Presence, and Will. Note there is no ‘Intelligence’ or similar ability. As the designer’s explain:
Unlike many roleplaying games, Thousand Suns includes no Ability that measures native intelligence. The reason for this is simple: the skill system already does this to a large degree. In most cases, an Intelligence Ability actually measures a character’s ability to piece together disparate bits of information to form a conclusion, sometimes logically and sometimes intuitively. In Thousand Suns, that’s exactly what Perception does, which is why there is no Intelligence Ability in this game.“Why no Intelligence,” Thousand Suns, Chapter 2: Character Creation, p. 21
The next step of character creation in Thousand Suns after divvying up the given points across your Abilities is to choose a species. Depending on the species chosen, there may be modifications to the Abilities and extra points to spend on Traits and/or skills. I’ll just state for the record I feel that species choice should come first as the potential Ability adjustments and Traits and skill bonuses can make a dramatic difference in your character; the player should be aware of those changes BEFORE assigning Ability scores.
The next step for players of Thousand Suns in creating a character is to choose a Homeworld Package. Fortunately, these are somewhat generic (Core – Upper Class/Middle Class/Lower Class, Civilized, The Marches – High Population/Low Population, Wildspace – Low-Tech World/High-Tech World). The next step is to them pick a Career Package, very similar to careers in Traveller or what other games might call archetypes. There are 22 Career Packages in the book, though the designers do also offer the option for ‘Free-Form Career Packages’ which is basically an unguided point-buy system. Each Career Package has three levels, Novice (1), Experienced (2), and Veteran (3). Players can ‘buy’ up to three ‘levels’ of any career packages they desire For example, as you will see below, I bought Bounty Hunter – Experienced (2) and Spy – Novice (1) for my character’s Career Packages.
Skill Ranks now make their appearance in Thousand Suns. When adding Skill Ranks together from the Homeworld Package and the Career Packages, you simply add them together. Thus, if the Homeworld Package awarded Computers 1 and the Experienced Career Package had Computers 2 and a second Novice Career Package had Computers 1 the total Skill Rank would be Computers 4. But not necessarily…
In Thousand Suns any Skill Rank at 2 or more can be made into a Specialization. If I had Vehicle Operations 3 I could take one Rank away and give myself Vehicle Operations – Grav 2/4. Confused yet? Now trying doing this multiple times for different skill and Specializations.
Speaking of Traits, in Thousand Suns they actually only apply to alien species, at least as the rules are written. While Chapter 2 is where character creation is found, the Traits list is actually buried in Chapter 6: Setting Design. Traits are found under Species Design – Alien Traits with 45 different Traits presented. Not discussed in Chapter 2, Traits fall into two broad categories; advantages and drawbacks. Advantages are usually purchased whereas drawbacks award bonus points in character creation.
Remember, we are still in Step 4 of 7 of character creation in Thousand Suns and we aren’t done here yet. That’s because in order to make informed decisions on the Skill Ranks and any Specializations, as well as to understand the impact of Traits, one needs to understand the core game mechanic in the 120 System.
Interlude – The 120 Core Mechanic
As you may be able to guess, the 120 core mechanic used in Thousand Suns uses d12’s. Each player (and GM) will need 2d12. When making a Test players roll 2d12 and must roll UNDER the Target Number (TN). The TN is the sum of the the relevant Ability Rank and Skill Rank plus or minus any modifiers (usually a difficulty modifier ranging from Simple +4 to Impossible -4). Using the example from the book, shooting a blaster with Agility 6 and Shoot 6 and no other modifiers is a TN of 12. A roll of 11 or less on 2d12 is a success, but a roll of 12 or higher is failure.
Success or failure in Thousand Suns comes in three forms: Dramatic Success (roll 2 on 2d12), Dramatic Failure (roll 24 on 2d12), and Degrees. For Dramatic Success or Dramatic Failure I think of these in terms of the later Star Wars Roleplaying Game rules for Triumph and Despair. The player character has either succeeded in a spectacular fashion or they have failed and placed themselves (and others) in danger. Degrees only applies to success with the thought being the more you succeed the more likely the success results in some benefit. A 10 minute task might take only seven with three Degrees of success. Or maybe you gain a bonus on a future Test.
Understanding the 120 System in very important during character creation because the choices you make about Skill Ranks and Specializations as well as the impact of Traits go far in determining if your character will succeed. Admittedly, there is a small discussion of it in Chapter 1: Basics but it is not explained in detail until Chapter 3: Skills, Hooks, and Psionics.
The next step in creating a character in Thousand Suns is to create five Hooks. One Hook comes from your species, one from your Homeworld, and three from your career(s). What is a Hook?
As noted in Chapter 2, starting characters begin the game with five Hooks. Hooks are special attributes that describe important elements of the characters’ personality, background, or relationship to the world around him. They are shorthand ways of painting a more detailed picture of the character, aiding both the player and the GM not only in how the character is portrayed and how others relate to him but also in just what the player considers his character’s role to be in the campaign. They are thus both a player and GM’s tool.
Hooks are also the best way by which players can spend Action Points to give their characters an edge in the course of an adventure.Thousand Suns, Chapter 3: Skills, Hooks, Psionics, p. 75
Hooks are the vital narrative roleplaying element in Thousand Suns. Players can use a Hook by spending an Action Point. Here is the rule from page 76 of the book:
As noted previously, the activation of a Hook gives Action Points greater utility, namely:
Thousand Suns, Chapter 3: Skills, Hooks, and Psionics, p. 76
- Re-roll any Test result, or
- Add 2 to your Target Number.
But there is another important use for Hooks, found in Chapter 2: Character Creation:
Action Points can also be used to “edit” an adventure to introduce additional elements, provided that they don’t directly contradict anything that’s already been established by the GM or otherwise disrupt its flow. For example, your character and his companions are having a drink in a seedy cantina on some world in Wildspace when a pair of bounty hunters enters intent on capturing them. You spend an Action Point to establish that the cantina not only has a back exit but your table is conveniently located near it so that you and your friends can make a hasty retreat unseen by your pursuers. Unless the GM had specifically stated that there was either no back exit or that your table was located far from any exit, this is a perfectly legitimate use of an Action Point. On the other hand, if you had attempted to use an Action Point to say that the ceiling collapsed on the bounty hunters just as they entered the cantina, killing them in the process, the GM would have been well within his rights to overrule you.
In general, GMs are encouraged to be fairly lenient with the use of Action Points to edit adventures, particularly if the player makes some connection to one of his Hooks. In the example above, if one of the player’s had had a Hook for his character called “Easy Getaway” and has established that he always made sure that he knew where multiple exits where to escape from potentially dangerous situations, the GM would have even less reason to deny his use of the Action Point to find a back exit.Thousand Suns, Chapter 2: Character Creation, p.58
That ‘Editing’ certainly makes a difference. It is more like ‘Bennies’ found in Savage Worlds or Plot Points or Story Points in Cortex or FATE or so many other systems. It can be more than just a die bonus to call upon in a Test. So why did that part of the rules get buried in Chapter 2 instead of the rules for Hooks in Chapter 3? Sigh…
Step 6 (not done yet) of character creation in Thousand Suns is to spend Benefit Points. Benefit Points are earned from careers and translate into MONEY! For example, my Hen Jaa Experienced Bounty Hunter / Novice Spy earns three Benefit Points. and starts with 15,000$ cash. There is also a chance for a pension or to use it as a 1/40th share of a starship (where have I seen a starship mortgage before…).
Finally comes Step 7 for Finishing Touches. Name, Age, and Gender (yes, Thousand Suns was written ages ago).
Warg – A Hen Jaa Bounty Hunter Spy
Let’s take a look at Warg, my Hen Jaa Bounty Hunter Spy.
Step 1: Choose Abilities – I distribute my 25 points evenly across the five categories because…why not?
Step 2: Choose Species – I decide I want this character to be different from so many of the others I generate so I decide Warg will be a Hen Jaa.
- Hen Jaa are the major galactic opponent of Terra
- Hen Jaa are six-limbed cephalopod-like beings
- Hen Jaa breathe chlorine
- Hen Jaa have the reputation of being cruel and uncaring
- Hen Jaa have a tragic history
- Hen Jaa pursue terraforming with abandon
- Traits – +1 Will, Extra Limbs (x2), Hypersensitive, Scent. Armor Restriction, Equipment Restriction, Weak Immune System (9 bonus points to buy additional skills or Abilities)
I decide to spend 2 bonus on the Trait ‘Curious’ and throw the third over to +1 Perception.
Step 3: Choose Homeworld Package – I decide on Wildspace – High-Tech World and take the five listed Skill Ranks. None is higher than Skill Rank 2.
Step 4: Choose Career Package(s) – I decide on Experienced Bounty Hunter and Novice Spy. The Bounty Hunter yields 14 different skills with some as high as Skill Rank 4. Spy has 12 different skills of which eight overlap with Bounty Hunter. Eleven of those skill are Skill Rank 3 or higher meaning they are eligible for Specialization. Oh, for each Skill/Specialization you need a line on the Character Sheet because yo need to track Skill – Rank – Ability – TN. Problem is the book Character Sheet has only 13 lines; I have 23 skills BEFORE Specializations! Figuring out al the skills/Specializations then filling out the character sheet TAKES LOTS OF TIME.
Step 5: Choose Hooks
- Species – “”You’re different.” Puts on the air of being pro-Concord
- Homeworld – “Down this alley.” Uses urban environment to advantage
- Career 1 (Novice Spy) – “Home office sends.” Occasional access to ‘gadgets’.
- Career 2 (Bounty Hunter Novice) – “Tied up.” Knowledge of binders and other restraints
- Career 3 (Bounty Hunter Experienced) – “I know somebody…” Contacts in low places.
Step 6: Add up and Spend Benefits – 15,000$ in cash for Benefits. [PASS…I HAVE ALREADY SPENT TOO MUCH TIME ON THIS TODAY!]
Step 7: Finishing Touches – Name – Warg, Age – 30 Terran Years, Gender – Male.
Abilities: Body 7 / Dexterity 5 / Perception 6 / Presence 5 / Will 6 // (Derived) Vitality 33 / Resolve 25
Traits: Curious / Extra Limbs x2 / Hypersensitive / Scent / Weak Immune System // Armor Restriction / Equipment Restriction
Skills: (read Skill – Homeworld Rank/Bounty Hunter Rank/Spy Rank//Total – Ability = TN)
- Bargain – 0/4/2//6
- Bargain – Bluff 2/5 – PRE = 10
- Bargain – Fast Talk 2/5 – PRE = 10
- Computer – 2/0/0//2 – PER = 8
- Culture (Hen Jaa) – 2/0/0//2 – PER = 8
- Defend – 0/0/2//2 – BOD = 9
- Diplomacy – 0/0/1//1 – PRE = 6
- Empathy – 0/0/2//2 – PER = 8
- Intimidation – 0/2/0//2 – PRE = 7
- Intrusion – 0/2/2//4
- Intrusion – Electronic 2/4 – DEX = 9
- Intrusion – Mechanical 2/4 – DEX =9
- Investigation – 0/4/2//6
- Investigation – Criminal 2/4 PER = 10
- Investigation – Search 2/6 – PER = 12
- Language (Hen Jaa) – 2/0/0//2 – PER = 8
- Melee – 0/2/0//2 – DEX = 7
- Observe – 0/4/2//6 – PER = 12
- Profession (Bounty Hunter) – 0/4/0//4 – PER = 10
- Profession (Spy) – 0/0/2//2 – PER = 8
- Shoot – 0/4/2//6
- Shoot – Archaic 2/4 – DEX = 9
- Shoot – Handgun 2/5 – DEX = 10
- Shoot – Rifleman 2/4 – DEX = 9
- Stealth – 0/4/2//6
- Stealth – Hiding 2/5 – DEX = 10
- Stealth – Shadowing 2/5 – DEX = 10
- Streetwise – 0/4/2//6
- Streetwise – Contacts 2/7 – PRE = 12
- Subterfuge – 0/3/0//3
- Subterfuge – Sleight of Hand 2/4 – PER = 9
- Survival – 0/3/0//3 – PER = 9
- Tactics – 0/2/0//2 – PER = 8
- Tech Science – 2/0/0//2 – PER = 8
- Unarmed Combat – 0/4/2//6
- Unarmed Combat – Brawling 2/7 – DEX = 12
- Vehicle Ops – 2/0/0//2 – DEX = 7
As you can tell, I sorta gave up working my way through this. How much time did this take? I didn’t work on it straight thru on this day but I started reading the book about 9am and its now 4 pm and I probably spent a good 90 minutes on making the character with the majority of that time working out Skill Ranks and Hooks. What do I have to show for it?
I’d say my character is mildly interesting. I imagine him as a Hen Jaa bounty hunter working the edges of Wildspace and The Marches. Outwardly, one might think this Hen Jaa is ‘friendly’ to Terrans but the hidden truth is much darker.
As much as I wanted to play Thousand Suns I never got more than a session or two in. Mechanically speaking, the game with the interaction of Skill Ranks and Abilities and Traits with Hooks added in just doesn’t play that smoothly. I also don’t understand the Action Point economy in Thousand Suns:
Hooks have another purpose beyond roleplaying: they let you gain and spend Action Points (see below) for your character. Hooks provide you with a justification for using Action Points at an appropriate time in an adventure. Conversely, if you can connect one or more of your Hooks into the current adventure in a way that makes your character’s life more difficult (which is to say, more exciting), you gain an Action Point. Likewise, the Game Master may at certain times decide that one or more of your Hooks is relevant and introduce new obstacles to your character’s progress because of this, in which case you also gain Action Points.
Hooks should be noted on your character sheet in the section entitled “Action Points” (see below).
Every newly created character starts with five Action Points. Action Points are a meta-game element that allows you, as a player (rather than as your character), to influence events in the game in small but interesting ways. Action Points can be used in one of several ways.
The most basic use of an Action Point is to grant a +1 bonus to the Target of any dice roll.Thousand Suns, Chapter 2: character Creation, p. 57
So…every character “starts” with five Action Points and can earn or spend more during a game. But is that spending per session or per encounter? In other words how do Action Points refresh? I can’t find it in the rules, but if my expereince reading these rules so far is any guide the rule is probably in there but in the least expected place.
It’s reasons like these that cause Thousand Suns to sit on my shelf and gather dust in between these once-in-five-years rules relook. Overwrought character generation combined with opaque rules and a setting that frankly feels ripped off from Traveller is, at the end of the day, uninspiring to play. Given that in 2008 when Thousand Suns came out I had Classic Traveller, Behind Enemy Lines, James Bond 007, FASA Star Trek, Paranoia, Twilight: 2000, Traveller: 2300, and The Babylon Project on the shelf, and more recently (in those immediate days) Serenity The Role Playing Game and Savage Worlds Explorer’s Edition on the gaming table it was very easy to see why this one was put aside.
Feature image courtesy Rogue Games