In 2002 I was stationed overseas with the U.S. military. If you have ever been stationed in the military overseas you will know all about the American Forces Radio & Television Service, or AFRTS (pronounced “A-FARTS”). What you will very likely remember is that AFRTS had no real commercials; instead you got “public service” and command messages.
What you also didn’t get was the latest television shows, which is why I didn’t get around to watching the 2002 season of the TV series Firefly until after I returned stateside in mid-2004. By 2005 I discovered the movie Serenity and the Firefly TV series and eventually even a new RPG, the Serenity Role Playing Game from Margaret Weis Productions (2005)
Technically speaking, I didn’t actually discover the Serenity RPG until 2007 when I got the Battlestar Galactica Role Playing Game (Margaret Weis Productions, 2007) and then went hunting for the older game. But in this 2022 CharGen Challenge I’m working my way through titles chronologically by publication date which is why this game is here.
The books for Serenity are beautiful, full color hardbacks that are lavishly illustrated with extensive use of the intellectual property. They were then, and still today, bloody expensive. But between those covers I discovered a RPG game engine that reinvigorated my RPG mojo after a decade of darkness.
Serenity was written by Jamie Chambers and uses a game engine that eventually came to be call Cortex. Unlike many of the RPGs I played before, Serenity uses a dice pool system. The fact I needed to buy d2, d4, d6, d8, d10, and d12 to play was enjoyable. Characters were easy for me to understand as they have Attributes and Skills. Finally, a game that doesn’t have Classes or Feats or Talents!
While I had grown very comfortable over the decades with a lifepath character generation system of random tables and the like, Serenity uses a point-buy approach. Yes, this demanded a change in my attitude, but here it seemed so natural. I will admit that the first time I came across Traits, Assets, and Complications it was a bit tough to understand, but again the whole package was put forward in such an enjoyable and understandable way I just went with it.
Little did I realize it at the time, but with Serenity I was moving into a more narrative style of RPG play. Nowhere was this more evident than with Plot Points—a form of currency used in-game to “buy” a bonus or create a short-term, expiring “reward” for players. The other part major change Serenity showed me was the concept of “ships as characters.”
Let Me Tell Ya About this FREE Trader…
Up until this point in my tabletop role-playing game experience, vehicles—be they ships or aircraft or ground vehicles or whatever—were always thought of and described simply as equipment. That is, they had a very mechanical description for they were really nothing more than tools for characters to use. Going a bit further, given the wargame heritage of designer Frank Chadwick it’s not surprising that vehicles in the Traveller Roleplaying Game were described in wargame terms. The listing for any ship in Traveller is little different than one finds in Janes’ Defense journals.
Not so for Serenity. While ships are given some encyclopedic entries (Dimensions, Tonnage, Crew, etc.) the in-game statistics mirror characters with Agility, Strength, Vitality, Alertness, Intelligence, Intuition, Willpower, Initiative, and Life. Ships even had SKILLS! Add to that the different traits and complications and every ship could be given a personality. Which really does make sense and is totally in keeping with the sci-fi roots of the game. Enterprise (Star Trek), Eagle 1, Space: 1999) the Millennium Falcon (Star Wars) , Galactica (Battlestar Galactica), and Serenity (Firefly) all are more character than setting in each of those franchises.
In the Serenity Role Playing Game building a ship is like building a character. You start with a Concept, determine Ship Attributes, figure out some Specifications, and then assign Ship Traits, Ship Skill, and so on.
Concept: Small(?) courier ship to move (few passengers) and (some) cargo between planets. Usually owned by corporations or governments but few operate “freelance” in the verse.
Agility d6 “Average Maneuverability”
Strength d4 “100-1,000 tons / Small Transport”
Vitality d8 “Requires low maintenance”
Alertness d4 “Basic, typical needs for privately-owned vessel”
Intelligence d4 “Substandard; can handle mundane flight details”
Willpower d4 “Basic; automatically seal bulkheads at critical sections, backups for the most critical systems”
I was but a wee lad, a bit less than 10 years old when Space: 1999 burst onto my TV screen (and it was a small screen, still black & white). Space: 1999 was cool—cool spaceships (Eagles forever!), cool uniforms, and cool science (not that it all made sense to young me). I took in the first season and remember being absolutely frightened out of my skin at the episode “Dragon’s Domain.”
I also remember being so confused at the second season of Space: 1999 with shapeshifting aliens and…well, better to forget that season.
So I did. Ever since then Space: 1999—Season 1 at least—continued to exist somewhere in my headspace. It helped that I had a few Space: 1999 toys like a die-cast Eagle and several models. In more recent years I “rediscovered” Space: 1999 and added UFO to the lore as well as the graphic novels. The RockyMountainNavy Boys helped me find new plastic models and kept my memories alive.
Breaking Down the Breakaway Manual
Moonbase Alpha: Technical Operations Manual is a 272-page book formatted in a 9.5″x12″ hardcover. The cover illustration is a faintly lined Eagle Transporter that I wish was a bit easier to see. Inside, the Manual is organized into seven major sections (chapters):
Internal Layout – Covered in 73 pages (~25% of the Manual) this is a great mix of set photos and illustrations; many details I never noticed in the series
Nuclear Waste – At first I was like, “huh?” but after reading I better understand why this essential story element gets the attention it does
The Eagle Transporter – In many ways I love the Eagle Transporter over Star Wars vehicles and this chapter reminds me why (it also gives me details to help me paint up my other MPC model of the Eagle Transporter)
Supplementary Craft – Much more here than I remembered; give me the Hawk Mk IX for the win!
Uniforms & Equipment – What good sci-fi fan of the 1970’s didn’t have a jacket that looked a bit like one from Moonbase Alpha?
Current Command Roster – Only later did I learn about how the production company, ITV, used international stars; I always though that Moonbase Alpha was simply “international” much like Star Trek was.
There are also two major Addendums covering “Alien Technology” and “Emergency Evacuation Operation Exodus.” Buried within individual chapters are other addendum boxes of relevant subjects.
[Warning – Spoilers Ahead] Sometime in the past decade I became aware of the connection between the TV universe of UFO and Space: 1999. I was really excited to see some connections in the Technical Operations Manual. What I appreciate the most about the connections is the secrecy; there are little references to UFO in the Manual like “the Straker Doctrine” but as a whole UFO is treated as, well, a secret. There are other nods too but I’ll leave those for you to discover on your own.
Generally speaking, my personal experience with “in-universe” background books based on pop culture intellectual property (IP) is mixed. In order to enjoy many IP-based productions I have to really, and I mean really, suspend my disbelief. Books like Star Wars: The Essential Guide to Warfare (Jason Fry, Ballantine Books, 2012), which as a military veteran and wargamer I should have wholeheartedly embraced instead helped me realize that I am a science fiction fan that hems more towards “gritty” or “hard” sci-fi rather than “space fantasy” like Star Wars. All of which is a round-about way of saying the Moonbase Alpha: Technical Operations Manual is much more “believable”—and enjoyable—than I expected.
Roleplaying Space: 1999
As I also play science fiction roleplaying games (RPG), “in-universe” books like this Technical Operations Manual serve as a great source of gaming inspiration. I have played the Traveller RPG (Marc Miller, Game Designers’ Workshop, 1977) since 1979 and science fiction RPGs are definitely my thing. As I look across my science fiction RPG collection, there are several different game systems that are candidates for use in a Space: 1999 RPG. Generally speaking, I look at each set of rules from the perspective of character generation, technology, and narrative support (story generation) when looking at how they might be used to create a Space: 1999 game.
Characters – When creating a character, most systems I am familiar with use careers. Moonbase Alpha is staffed by departments which might be a good starting point. The Manual tell us the different compartments are Command, Main Mission, Services, Flight, Technical, Medical, Science, and Security (pp 209-210). We also can see in the series the Space Commission (Politician?). If we expand our “canon” to include the 2012 Archaia Entertainment graphic novel Space 1999: Aftershock and Awewe also find other “careers” like the United Nations Coastguard using Eagle Transporters.
Technology – Space: 1999 is a near (alternate) future heavily grounded in technology we would recognize as our own. The major handwaves I see are nuclear fusion rocket engines, artificial gravity, and a hyper-light drive.
Narrative Support (Story Generation) – Although Space: 1999 the TV series was of the “adventure of the week” kind, different episodes covered many different genres and adventure types. A Space: 1999 RPG needs to be able to handle a wide range of story lines, from military to exploration to horror and more.
Characters – No single rules set has the right combination of careers to represent Moonbase Alpha staff, but by synthesizing careers from Cepheus Deluxe, The Clement Sector Third Edition, and Hostilea fairly representative collection of careers and skill could be assembled.
Technology – Using Cepheus Deluxe, the “average” Tech Level (TL) is 8 to 9. To create the spacecraft of Space: 1999 will likely be a kludge of Cepheus Deluxe and Orbital: 2100 rules for sublight craft.
Narrative Support (Story Generation) – Cepheus Deluxe does not focus on a single genre of science fiction so it should be flexible enough to cover a diverse set of adventures.
Characters/Technology – Star Trek assumes the characters are in the service after attending the academy and served prior terms to gain experience and rank. The various Departments in Star Trek map directly to Moonbase Alpha Departments though the skills will be different because of the different technology assumptions.
Narrative Support (Story Generation) – Like Space: 1999, episodes of Star Trek (The Original Series) were episodic. The game system is capable of handling most any genre, but is highly dependent on Game Master preparations.
Characters – The Babylon Project uses a concept-driven character generation system. Using the roster in the Manual, it’s possible to map most any character in terms of the Attributes/Skill/Characteristics which can be a good example of how to make a Moonbase Alpha character.
Technology/Narrative Support (Story Generation) – Technology takes a backseat in The Babylon Project. Instead, story comes to the front. Much like Babylon 5 was one of the first TV series to do a story arc, The Babylon Project gives advice on how to do the same for your adventures.
FATE Core (Evil Hat Publishing, 2013)
Another rules set that is a candidate for Space: 1999 is FATE Core from Evil Hat Productions (2013). FATE Core claims the game, “works best with any premise where the characters are proactive, capable people leading dramatic lives” (emphasis in original). Character generation in FATE Core is not a lifepath or point buy system, but rather “concept” driven which I find a bit harder to imagine. The core mechanic, using FATE dice, is also more suited to “pulp” gaming than gritty or hard sci-fi. Technology is what you make of it.
Characters – Character generation is a form of point-buy built around archetypes. The generic career list would have to be tailored, but there are many examples in the various Star Wars Roleplaying Game books to draw inspiration from.
Technology – Technology is again what you make of it. Unlike Cepheus Deluxe which tends to portray technology in “harder” sci-fi terms, in Genesys technology is there to aid the narrative.
Narrative Support (Story Generation) – Genesys is a highly narrative game system that again is suitable for many different genres of play.
The Expanse Roleplaying Game (Green Ronin Publishing, 2019)
Another “generic” system that may prove useful is the CORTEX: Game Handbook (Fandom Tabletop, 2021). CORTEX comes in several flavors and different versions have powered the Serenity Role Playing Game (2005), Battlestar Galactica Role Playing Game (2007), Smallville Roleplaying Game (2010), Marvel Heroic Roleplaying Game (2012), and Firefly Role-Playing Game (2014). The CORTEX Prime System described in the CORTEX: Game Handbook is highly modular and tailorable to genre and setting.
Characters – CORTEX Prime characters come with three Distinctions (Background, Personality, Role) and then a “Power Set.” Looking across the options, I feel a Power Set combining the Classic Attributes (Agility, Alertness, Intelligence, Strength, Vitality, Willpower) with “Roles” based on Department assignments may be a good starting point.
Technology – There are plenty of examples of how to define a piece of technology in the other CORTEX rule books.
Narrative Support (Story Generation) – The different flavors of CORTEX can support different genres of adventure; CORTEX Prime attempts to synthesize those different play types under one rules set.
Unlike my wargames and boardgames, I’m kinda poor at tracking my RPG collection. So this week I worked on organizing what I took in this year.
I finished watching the Apple TV series Foundation this week. Yes, I know Season 1 ended a few weeks ago but I needed to reset my approach to the show. I initially started watching the series expecting a story close to the books. When that wasn’t there I was a bit confused and, frankly, unaccepting. So I laid off watching for a few weeks and recalibrated my thinking. I decided I was going to watch Foundation “as-is” and try to set all my preconceived notions aside. It also helped that with all the episodes out now I could binge-watch the season. Much better this go around…am looking forward to Season 2. While I still think Foundation and the Traveller Role Playing Game are closely related, I am glad to see the Genetic Dynasty from Foundation which is very different from Traveller’s Third Imperium.
It took a few extra days but my hardcopy of the Compass Games catalog arrived. Several games are given “provisional” (my term) delivery dates which, alas, all are in 2022 (one actually doesn’t have even a provisional date—which is kinda worrisome). We’ll see how that works out! Now to mark the catalog up with already have, on order, and like to haves.
74 major Titles in catalog
6x Titles of Interest (3 available now)
I really need to be careful and not get too carried away with ordering from Compass right away. I already owe Mrs. RMN (aka “Family Accountant”) an explanation of why GMT Games and Canvas Temple Publishing are charging within days of each other. I also won a local auction for Sekigahara (GMT Games, 2011) that I’m picking up this weekend—only a week after Tapestry (Stonemaier Games, 2019) arrived…
I have to say I heartily agree, especially with the “most Traveller thing.” Which is funny in a way because if you ask me to point to what Traveller looks like I’m probably going to show you this—the Little Black Books of 1977-1980.
Thumbing through the books I challenge you to find artwork. There is a single black and white drawing of a persons head on page 25 of Book 1 and nothing in Book 2 or Book 3. Even the box back only has a single, somewhat abstract, image of a soldier firing a weapon. The next picture is that of a “Mercenary Striker” in the front of Book 4 Mercenary. Even Book 5 High Guard has no images. Those iconic Traveller ships like the Free Trader (which I swear I saw in Foundation Season 1 Episode 1) don’t appear until Supplement 7 Traders and Gunboats in 1980.
For a while it looked like Traveller was going to be a Star Wars knockoff. Look at the box art for the 1981 wargame Invasion: Earth with what looks something like an Imperial Star Destroyer on the cover. Fortunately, Traveller never became a Star Wars or Star Trek RPG, both of which have their own distinctive and iconic visions.
Since the 1980’s, and especially with the rise of the internet, there has been moreTraveller RPG artwork. Much of it revolves around starships. In the early 1980’s it was black & white artwork in the pages of new supplements or adventures or the pages of The Journal of the Travellers’ Aide Society or Challenge magazine. Marc Miller’s Traveller (Traveller 4) used Chris Foss artwork with little success.
The computer graphics artwork of Andrew Boulton, though primitive compared to today’s computer graphics, was “right” in the vibe it communicated.So sad he left us so early…
The modern work of Ian Stead has graced the pages of many Traveller products in recent years and more than a few feel he has captured the vibe of Traveller the best since those early days. But, like so much of that early art, it is almost exclusively focused on the ships.
Marc Miller himself has two more recent visions of Traveller. The first is expressed in Traveller 5 which is sparsely illustrated using mostly recycled artwork from previous editions. Then there is his book, Agent of the Imperium, which has no illustrations at all and cover art that is…questionable.
It’s in your head…
Such is the power of the Traveller RPG— the game creates in many minds a vast, sweeping vision with relatively sparse artwork. What I’m hearing is that Traveller RPG created, in many minds, the vision of a vast empire spanning from a long dynastic center to a very unsettled frontier. This despite a majority of artwork that is of ships—not imperial palaces or emperors or harsh frontiers.
What’s most incredible is that very “in-your-head” vision is being “found” onscreen in the Foundation TV series. Take note that starships are NOT a prominent feature of the first three episodes of Foundation; they appear but are very much “background” whereas Traveller RPG tends to put starships in front. Traveller RPG delivers a vision of an entire universe without the need for lots of artwork because it stimulates the mind. That many seem to find Traveller in Foundation is in reality incredible praise for the Marc Miller and his vision expressed in plain text over 40 years ago..
I am hoping that GMT Games finds a way to get the four titles that are at “At the Printer- No Ship Date Yet” moving. The latest update from Gene tells me that Tank Duel Expansion 1: North Africa is in a container somewhere between China and California and will be charging early October. Hopefully this means that backlog will work off over the next few months. I look forward to a regular GMT P500 delivery schedule.
I might also be better informed if I watched the Compass Games Live / Town Hall on YouTube every week but it goes live at an inconvenient time for me to easily catch it. I have five titles on preorder form Compass and, as best I can tell, none are scheduled for delivery through the end of this year (deep sigh).
My lone Multi-Man Publishing title on preorder shows that the preorder goal was passed. I guess that means it is moving forward in production, but when that is remains a mystery to me.
The big boardgame industry news this week is that Asmodee is looking for a buyer...and they want 2 BILLION Euros. This past year+ of COVID certainly has seen the boardgame industry do well, but with the current raw material shortages and shipping challenges is it truly sustainable at those high levels? I almost feel like the VC group that owns Asmodee is trying to take their money and run. Remember, one of the oldest adages in business is“Buyer beware.”
Foundation and Role Playing Games
I rarely watch TV these days, but I did indulge in the first two episodes of Apple TV’s new series, Foundation:
I thought about rereading the books before the series started but I am glad I didn’t as I am looking at the series with (sorta) fresh eyes and just taking it in. I am especially enthralled with the world-building. I read articles about how the producers were trying to establish a look for the series that is neither Star Wars or Star Trek (Warning: Minor spoilers at the link). If I was put on the spot, I would say that there are many elements of Marc Miller’s Third Imperium setting for the Traveller roleplaying game. Or maybe it’s better to say there are many classic space opera elements in the Third Imperium and Foundation is just catching up. I have to admit I also enjoy watching the series with the RockyMountainNavy Boys who have not read the books (I know, Bad Dad!). They are taking it in without any preconceived notions. So far they like it, which is high praise from the hardcore Stars Wars fans they are.
From Foundation to Blade Runner
What’s this? Hot on the heels of ALIEN: The Roleplaying Game, Free League has announced publication of Bladerunner: The Roleplaying Game in 2022.
The core game and its line of expansions will push the boundaries of investigative gameplay in tabletop RPGs, giving players a range of tools to solve an array of cases far beyond retiring Replicants. Beyond the core casework, the RPG will both in setting and mechanics showcase key themes of Blade Runner – sci-fi action, corporate intrigue, existential character drama, and moral conflict – that challenge players to question your friends, empathize with your enemies, and explore the poisons and perseverance of hope and humanity during such inhumane times.
Bladerunner: The Roleplaying Game, The Game
Investigative RPG’s are an interesting subgenre of roleplaying games. Some game systems, like Gumshoe from Pelgrane Press, are designed from the ground up for investigations. Other systems rely on a form of “social combat” game mechanism to handle player vs. PC interactions. Indeed, The Expanse Roleplaying Game (Green Ronin, 2019) has a separate mode of play called Social Encounters that covers investigations. It will be interesting to see how Free League adapts the Year Zero Engine to handle Bladerunner-style investigations.
Although I didn’t totally enjoy ALIEN: The Roleplaying Game I am nonetheless happy to see Free League lean into the 1980’s sci-fi IPs and turn them into RPGs. Philip K. Dick’s short story “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep” was the basis for the movie Bladerunner and is a very deep story. I hope the game does real justice to the IP.
Season 5 of The Expanse TV series is streaming now, which means its that time of the TV season that I look once again at how I can take the hard-ish science fiction of James S.A. Corey and depict it in a roleplaying game campaign. This time I am focused on one foundational aspect of the setting that I took for granted before – gravity.
Getting Down with Gravity in The Expanse
Gravity in The Expanse is kept fairly realistic. The sources of gravity are what we expect from our current understanding of physics. Gravity is created by mass (planets, moons, planetoids, asteroids), spin habitats, or along the thrust vector of ships. Gravity is also a vital part of the cultures in The Expanse. From Belters who are tall and lanky from growing up in low-g but weak in normal gravity to Martian Marines who train at 1-g to be ready to fight on Earth, gravity is an important descriptor (discriminator?) between different factions. Gravity also has important impacts to space travel and combat; look no further than the need for “the juice” to withstand high-g acceleration or maneuvers or how it acts to limit human activities if one’s body is subjected to high-g stress for long durations (not to mention the catastrophic consequences of decelerating too quickly, yuck).
I really appreciate how all these various rule sets can work together to create an internally consistent, plausible setting. Although I use all these different rules sets and settings for reference, I will describe my rules interpretations primarily in Cepheus Engine terms for ease of integration across the various rules incarnations. My goal here is not to “science the sh*t” out of gravity in my RPG campaign, but to lean on a reasonable set of rules to provide good setting “flavor.”
Characters and Gravity
Characters in Cepheus Engine are described using three physical characteristics; Strength, Dexterity, and Endurance. The usual character generation method is to roll 2d6 for each characteristic. Each characteristic can range from 1 to 15 with 7 being a human average. Interestingly, when creating the physical characteristics of a character, there is no adjustment in the rules based on a low-gravity homeworld. Instead, an (assumed) low gravity homeworld grants certain default skills. Specifically, a homeworld with a Trade Code of “Asteroid” or “Vacuum” earn the Zero-G-0 skill (CESRD, p. 26)
The CESRD also has rules for alien species that are not specifically intended for human characters but I note them here as they may prove useful:
Notable (Characteristic): Some species are notably dexterous, intelligent, tough or strong. Characters from such races have a positive Dice Modifier when rolling for that characteristic (+2 unless otherwise specified), and their racial maximum for that characteristic is increased by the same amount. (CESRD, p. 44)
Weak (Characteristic): The opposite of Notable (Characteristic), some species are weaker, less resilient or less well educated than others. Characters from such races have a negative Dice Modifier when rolling for that characteristic (-2 unless otherwise specified), and their racial maximum for that characteristic is decreased by the same amount. (CESRD, p. 45)
The Clement Sector setting supplement Tree of Life: Altrants in Clement Sectordefines an altrant as, “groups of humans which, from birth, have been altered thanks to advanced genetic manipulation, to have abilities different than a baseline human. These changes were most often made to allow humans to be able to perform tasks and live in environments which would be difficult or impossible for baseline humans.” If one ignores the “genetic manipulation” and instead views the change as “naturally evolved” then two Body Alterations found in this supplement may be useful:
Muscle Increase Package: Often referred to as the “Hercules” alteration, this procedure alters the body to make it as strong as it can possibly be. This alteration is the equivalent of years of strength training and will give the body the appearance of a successful bodybuilder. Taking this alteration gives the character +3 to their STR and -3 to their DEX immediately after the full alteration time period has passed. (Tree of Life, p. 45)
Vestibular System (Improved): This alteration improves the sensory system which provides the user with their sense of balance, spacial orientation, and balance. This gives the character a +2 DM to any physical task performed in gravity of less than 0.50 standard. However, the character will suffer a -2 DM to any physical task attempted in gravity of more than 1.25 standard (Tree of Life, p. 49)
The CESRD is also limited in what affect gravity has on characters. The skill “Zero-G” provides some guidance for actions in zero-gravity environments:
Zero G: The Character is acclimated to working and living in micro-gravity environments and freefall. The character is trained and familiar with the use of weapons and combat in such environments. In addition, the individual has been trained in the wearing, care, and maintenance of all types of Vacuum Suits and Combat Armor commonly used in these conditions.
CESRD, p. 57
[As an aside, looking back over the history of Traveller, the Zero-G skill, seemingly so foundational to a science fiction setting, has evolved in interesting ways. In Classic Traveller Little Black Book 1: Characters and Combat, one finds the skill Vacc Suit but not Zero-G. The CESRD has Zero-G but not Vacc Suit. T5 has both Vacc Suit (which it names as a Default Skill that all characters start with) AND Zero-G.]
Rules for “High and Low Gravity Worlds” are found in Chapter 12: Worlds of the CESRD:
High and Low Gravity Worlds: Worlds where the gravity is 0.75 or less are low-gravity worlds….Humans tend to find life on low-gravity worlds to be initially pleasant, but regular exercise regimes and medicinal supplements are required to prevent bone and muscle degradation. Those who spent too long on low-gravity worlds cannot tolerate higher gravities. Characters on low-gravity worlds suffer a -1 DM to all skill checks until they acclimatize, a process which takes 1D6 weeks. Characters with Zero-G skill at level 0 or better acclimatize instantly.
High-gravity worlds have a gravity 1.25 times or more than of Earth….Humans find high-gravity worlds unpleasant. Especially high-gravity worlds require the use of pressured or powered suits to support the human frame. Characters on high-gravity worlds suffer a -1 DM to all skill checks until they acclimatize, a process that takes 1D6 weeks.
CESRD, p. 168
Going back deep into the Classic Traveller lore, Module 2: Beltstrike includes rules for activities in zero and low gravity. Basically put, anytime the characters attempted to move or otherwise act in zero-g they had to make a saving throw of 10+ (on 2d6), applying modifiers as found on the Zero-G Activities Chart:
The more recent Orbital 2100 also provides rules for activities in zero-g environment. The task roll in Orbital 2100 is the spiritual successor of Beltstrike but greatly simplified:
Every crewman on DSV [Deep Space Vehicle] or orbital vehicle will have Zero-G skill-0 as standard. Higher levels of the skill are indicative of much greater experience of working in zero gravity. A crucial task, whether it is aligning and antenna or an EVA, shooting someone with a revolver or trying to shut an airlock door quickly to prevent an intruder forcing their way in, requires a skill check. For regular activities, skip the rolls entirely.
Avoid Losing Control in Zero-Gravity: Zero-G, Dexterity, Instant, Average (+0)
Apply the following DMs: Using a tool to repair/construct -2, Firing a gun -3, striking with tool, weapon, fist etc., or pushing/pulling -4, using a handhold +2
Losing control means that the task has failed until control reestablished, the character is tumbling! Roll again to regain control, but this time there are no DM’s, either positive or negative, except for those derived from Zero-G skill and Dexterity characteristic.
Orbital 2100 v3, p. 125
Before we get into making a character for The Expanse, let’s also consider what the spacecraft in book and TV series show us.
Ships and Gravity
The Expanse Canon
Way back in October 2016 and February 2017 I did two posts on how I viewed the depiction of spacecraft in The Expanse in Cepheus Engine-terms. To recap, there are three basic forms of Maneuvering Drive (M-Drive) shown in The Expanse; the “Teakettle,” the fusion torch, and the Epstein Drive:
Flying teakettle was naval slang for flying on the maneuvering thrusters that used superheated steam for reaction mass. The Knight‘s fusion torch would be dangerous to use this close to the Canterbury and wasteful on such a short trip. Torches were pre-Epstein fusion drives and far less efficient.
Leviathan Wakes, Chapter 3
By doing some backwards math I worked out that the “Teakettle” tops out at 2-G acceleration. Based on the upper limits of the instruments in Solomon Epstein’s ship, the fusion torch appears to have a limit of 7-G acceleration. In the novella The Drive, Epstein’s new drive pushes him at something like 12-Gs and in Season One of The Expanse the Rochinante pushes upwards of 17-G acceleration. As fast and exciting a high-speed run is, the mundane reality of travel in The Expanse is that ships usually plod along at a much slower cruising rate. Judging from the book Leviathan Wakes and the novella The Drive it appears that “cruising speed” is somewhere around 0.3-G acceleration. This ‘minimal acceleration provides just enough g-force to avoid the penalties of zero-g activities. This low-G acceleration is also important to note because it plays into the design of the ships.
Ship Gravity Using Cepheus Engine
One of the major “handwavium” technologies in Classic Traveller and now Cepheus Engine is that with the advent of the gravity-based maneuver drives you also get artificial gravity, known in the Traveller setting as “Compensators”:
Compensators. Integral to Maneuver Drives, Gravitic Drives, and Lifters is an inertial compensation component which counteracts the effects on acceleration on occupants of the ship. (T5 v5.10, Book 2: Starships, “How Maneuver Works,” p. 101)
In The Expanse there is no artificial gravity device for spacecraft so we need to find some rules to help us depict what happens with too much, or too little, gravity and what design decisions can be made to compensate.
In The Expanse, there are two technologies for dealing with the crushing force of high-g acceleration. The first is acceleration gel; “Thirty minutes later, the engines kicked on, pressing him into the acceleration gel at a joint-crushing high-g burn for thirteen days, with one-g breaks for biological function every four hours.” (Leviathan Wakes, Chapter 46)
The second acceleration compensating technology is “The Juice:”
Going on the juice was pilot-speak for a high-g burn that would knock an unmedicated human unconscious. The juice was a cocktail of drugs the pilot’s chair would inject into him to keep him conscious, alert, and hopefully stroke-free when his body weighed five hundred kilos. Holden had used the juice on multiple occasions in the navy, and coming down afterward was unpleasant.
Leviathan Wakes, Chapter 5
Standing Up In Space
The design of ships in The Expanse is also driven by the lack of an artificial gravity device. Fortunately, the setting of Orbital 2100 is in our near future and leans heavily into pre-gravitic spacecraft design similar to The Expanse and therefore can be used as a guide:
The biggest difference in space technology is the absence of anti-gravity….Not only are the drives different but the lack of on-board gravity means the crew must operate in zero-G throughout the mission. The only way to mitigate this is the installation of spin habitats, or rotating sections of the spacecraft, that ‘simulate’ gravity.
For every four week period of continuous micro gravity exposure there will be a one point strength and endurance characteristic loss that will require 1d6 weeks of recover in a one standard gravity environment.
The two main methods of producing artificial gravity are:
Producing “rear is down” gravity
A ship under acceleration will produce thrust gravity. In this instance the ship’s internal layout will need to be perpendicular to the axis of the ship or ninety degrees to the line of flight.
Producing “out is down” gravity
For any type of method using centrifugal rotation to produce gravity, the internal layout must be aligned so that decks face inward towards the center of the rotation arc.
Anderson & Felix Guide to Naval Architecture, “Artificial Gravity,” p. 106
Having looked at many rules of Traveller and Cepheus Engine, how do I think characters from The Expanse could be portrayed?
Building a Better Belter
For Belter characters, at character generation I give each the Weak (Strength) and Weak (Endurance) trait from the CESRD alien species listing. I also give Belters the Vestibular System (Improved) alteration found in The Clement Sector supplement Tree of Life. Note that Belters grow up with the Zero-G skill so they instantly acclimatize when moving between different gravity world unless they cannot exercise or medicinal supplements are not available. To simulate the absence of such I ruled that they suffer loss of strength and endurance the same as if they were exposed to micro gravity for long periods.
I tend to generate and play Martian characters pretty much as a standard human. Being born, raised or living on Mars for any extended length of time automatically earns the Zero-G skill. Martian Marines, of course, are generated using the CESRD Marine career although I also draw upon materials found in The Clement Sector, in particular the sourcebook Hub Federation Ground Forces.
There are no specific rules in Cepheus Engine or Orbital 2100 for acceleration effects on characters. Looking at “Falling and Gravity “in CESRD (p. 164), we see that on a 1g world, a character suffers 1d6 damage per 2m of fall. The rules further specify that for higher g worlds, multiple the 1d6 by the planet’s gravity number. The Epstein Drive accelerates at 11-G which we can compute as 11d6 damage. The question is the time period in which this damage takes place. Falling is assumed to be instantaneous, but declaring 11d6 damage per combat round (every 6 seconds) does not seem to fit the events of The Drive. This seems excessive because an average character in Orbital 2100 (7 Strength/7 Dexterity/ 7 Endurance) only has 21 damage points until death. The “average” damage from 11d6 is 44, meaning an average character is dead twice over!
Perhaps we should assume the 11d6 damage takes place every space combat round (1,000 seconds/16.6 minutes) instead? This better reflects the painful, but non-instantaneous death like Solomon Epstein experiences in The Drive. It still seems like an excessive amount of damage guaranteeing a quick character death.
Looking around for a solution, and not finding one in the rules, I suggest a “house rule” that acceleration couches (built with that acceleration gel) absorb some of the damaging g forces. In This New Ocean: A History of Project Mercury, acceleration couches in the Mercury spacecraft were designed to absorb 9G (assumed to be the maximum G at reentry). If we use couches to absorb, say, 10 of 11G, the character will have only 1g of damage (1d6) per space combat round. This means an average human may last as long as six space combat rounds, or about 100 minutes, before succumbing to the strangling G forces. We could also say that prolonged exposure to high-g, defined as more than 1-G acceleration but less than the 9-G acceleration gel couch rating, will subtract one from the strength and endurance characteristic every 16 space combat rounds (around 4 hours) unless there is a four-round (1 hour) break in acceleration at 1-G or less. This fits with the time period in Leviathan Wakes when talking about acceleration gel.
These Boots Are Made For Walking
One important piece of equipment is The Expanse is Magnetic Boots. Characters with the Zero-G skill automatically can use Mag Boots; other need 1d6 hours to acclimatize. (I’m so tempted here to say that, based on canonical events in the TV series, female characters get an automatic -2 DM on the time roll, but that would be gender biased, eh?)
Working In Space
When the player characters are in low-G or micro-G environments, I makes sure to use the Orbital 2100 working in space task check unless they are wearing Mag Boots (count as a handhold for the +2 DM) or the ship is moving with at least 0.3-G acceleration. I also enforce the A&F prolonged micro-gravity exposure rule.
Rochinante, Meet Broadsword and Azhanti High Lightning
Ships in The Expanse are built using what I call a “tower-ship” or “tail-sitter” design where the decks are arranged like floors in a building perpendicular to the axis of thrust. Classic Traveller and Cepheus Engine don’t have many designs to reference, but I will point out that the Azhanti High Lightning-class of cruisers (Classic Traveller Game 3 – Azhanti High Lightning) or the Broadsword Mercenary Cruiser (Classic Traveller Adventure 7: Broadsword) are built using a tower-ship/tail sitter design like the Rochinante. If you want to see a Cepheus Engine ship design that uses the tower-ship configuration I recommend you get Ship Files: Atticus Class Freelancer from Moon Toad Publishing (2017). This 100dTon ship is a tail-sitter not that much smaller than the Rochinante….
Strom turned his attention from his mapping instruments and looked over at the panels that Ga’de, his co-pilot and fellow Scout, was now studying intently. The optical array had picked up something and flashed an alert. Whatever it was, it was unidentified for the moment.
“It’s small and cool,” Ga’de reported. “Maybe 5 dTons in size. Why is it in a retrograde orbit?”
“Yeah,” Strom thought out loud. “It’s coming straight at us.”
Ga’de glanced away from his instruments and over at Strom. His brow was furrowed. “They’re attacking?”
Strom was thinking out loud. “Since we got here, the western continent has not liked our presence. They’re the most vocal about the ‘danger’ of ‘outer space aliens’. They’ve made announcements that they are willing to fight to keep us out.”
Ga’de harrumphed. “What imbeciles. They just can’t accept that they’re not alone in the universe and somebody else made it to the stars before them. We offer them technology and they reject us because we threaten their ”culture’. Why can’t they see that we offer them the future?”
Inwardly, Strom agreed but talking about it was not the solution right now. “Can we get any sort of ID on it?” he asked.
Ga’de turned back at his instruments. “Hard to tell, optics seem to show something winged. Do they have manned small craft?”
On a small screen next to his station Strom consulted the few files they had on the planet so far. In a previous expedition they had raided what passed for a library on this planet and acquired an “Encyclopedia” but it was a physical paper document. It had taken a while to scan it into the computer and the cross-references were poor. Imagine that; a planet so backwards they didn’t even have the SmartNet yet!
“Yes, they are working on a crewed launch capability using capsules. But the only thing shown here is crude ballistic missiles, nothing more than TL5 at the best. Wings…that’s different,” Strom trailed off.
“Do we maneuver?” There was a nervous edge in Ga’de’s voice.
Strom considered. “We’re higher tech. And we have to finish this mapping mission. Besides, we can’t let them think they can push us around.” He paused for just a moment. “No. We maintain course.”
Optics continued tracking the black winged object. A bit nervous now, Strom nudged the thrusters a bit to slightly change their vector; a few moments later the black winged object adjusted too.
“That’s not right,” Strom thought. “It means it’s guided…by a hu-man?
The range was closing rapidly. The approach looked like it was going to be close.
Somewhat belatedly, Strom stirred into action. “Ga’de, get to the turret, fast.”
Ga’de got up and raced from the control cabin. The winged craft kept closing.
Strom watched his panel as the turret indicator light came on. His heart sank when Gade made his first call.
“Damn systems rebooting! Something about an urgent update!”
Strom strapped himself in as he started throwing switches. “Strap in, we’re gonna burn!”
Time seemed to slow to a crawl. Strom saw on the optics the winged beast release a smaller object that flared briefly and accelerated quickly towards his saucer. He saw out of the corner of his eye a warning from the radiation detector. He heard Ga’de cursing the Gods in the turret.
He reoriented the ship and punched the M-Drive. As Strom was slammed back in his chair by the acceleration he thought about his mission. The Quorum had sent them here to expand the frontiers of their small empire. Surely, this lesser-developed planet, just at the cusp of spaceflight, would welcome them. After all, they were a highly compatible species as secretive missions before had shown. Some of the specimens captured were still alive and helping the Quorum even now. Sure, some had resisted, but they were the exception, right?
The small missile flared again but brightly this time. It changed course to intercept Strom’s saucer. Before he could manuever again the small object exploded with a blinding flash of light. As the expanding atomic fireball rapidly washed over his saucer, Strom thought that, surely, their superior technology would save them. Surely….
Deep inside a bunker buried under a mountain, the General watched intently as the stream of information from SIDS, the Space Intruder Detection System, reported the nuclear detonation in orbit above. The Eastern Pact would be upset by the large EMP event above their continent, but setting them back while destroying the alien intruders was but a small price to pay for saving the planet.
The General glanced to his right at the two ‘Agents’ dressed in identical black suits. They kinda looked like that a-hole J. Edgar’s men, but something was not quite right. The older one had never smiled. The younger one kinda fidgeted until the older one glared at him then he too stood by emotionless. They didn’t even laugh at his spark plug joke. Shaking his head ever so slightly, the General swore under his breath that he would never understand why they wore sunglasses this deep inside the mountain.
Sighing, the General spoke up, “Control, take us to DEFCON 5. Ops, make sure all reports are are captured for Project Blue Book. Comms, get me a channel.”
The RockyMountainNavy Boys are modern Star Wars fans. For myself, well, the only true Star Wars is the first movie (Star Wars), Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi (with some reluctance), and Timothy Zahn’s Thrawn Trilogy. Now that I have offended you, let’s talk about Star Wars boardgames, specifically Star Wars: Outer Rim (Fantasy Flight Games, 2019).
At the suggestion of RockyMountainNavy Jr., we randomly drew characters. This was to avoid a problem we had in the past where RMN Jr. always took a certain character and ran away with the game. As luck would have it, all three of us drew Bounty Hunters for our characters. This lead to several interesting situations where one player was hunting another to get their crew member. In the end, RockyMountainNavy Jr, with Bossk flying a Firespray raced to fame ahead of RMN T (Ketsu Onyo still flying his Starfighter Starter Ship) and myself (Boba Fett in an Aggressor). Unlike other games we played there was alot more player-vs-player interaction this game.
And it still fell flat.
The primary reason I think Star Wars: Outer Rim doesn’t get strong table love is that it just takes so long to play. Our 3-player game took 2 1/2 hours. We talked about the game time and agreed that the game overstayed its welcome by about 30 minutes. We don’t think we were playing slow; it’s just the game is slow by design.
That said, the RMN Boys were very interested if FFG was planing expansions for Star Wars: Outer Rim. The new The Mandalorian TV series seems rip with good content. Once we started thinking, we even wondered if Solo: A Star Wars Story would make for good content. The game is so thematic that Star Wars fans should love it. So why does FFG give it so little love?
Speaking of Kickstarter – In April I backed No Motherland Without, a 2-player card game about North Korea since 1953. It really looked interesting. I had really high hopes. It was cancelled – for all the right reasons I am sure. I hope they come back and try again, maybe with a stronger publicity campaign. Personally I watched The Players Aid review and was sold:
Veterans in The Expanse (very mild spoilers for S3E4) – I like The Expanse TV series but one line got me going last week. Alex states he has done his time and is an honorably discharged veteran. His implication is that he is special. As an honorably discharged veteran myself I resent this attitude. Unfortunately, I see it everyday – too many veterans who believe that since they served they have a special privilege above “mere” civilians. They grouse when a place does not offer a veterans discount or the like. Being a veteran does not make you a special citizen. This is not the world of Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers (the book, not the horrible movie) where only veterans are citizens. Veterans get many privileges; be humble not an entitlement baby!