#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.

#SundaySummary – Slow #Boardgame #Wargame times thanks to @USPS (but a good shout-out to @ADragoons)

Wargames & Boardgames

I am really looking forward to getting the last few games mailed in 2020 to the gaming table. That is, once they arrive. Kudos to the US Postal Service for the 18th century service! I mean, my C3i Magazine Nr 34 with designer Trevor Bender’s Battle for Kursk is ‘only’ on day nine of the 2-8 days expected delivery with a present status of “In Transit” but unlocated. Then there is my Buffalo Wings 2 – The Deluxe Reprint (Against the Odds, 2020). The good folks at ATO, recognizing the mailing mess, sent all the packages by 2-day Priority Mail but the USPS was so helpful they let it sit for the first THREE days at the initial mailing point with a status of “Shipment Received, Package Acceptance Pending.” I know; First World Gamer problems and all those that ship international ain’t impressed!

Without new games I went to the shelves and pulled out an old game that I recently acquired but had not played. Harpoon Captain’s Edition bills itself as, “fast, simple, and fun to play.” Six hours and 16 (!) scenarios later…well, you’ll have to wait a few weeks and see what I thought.

Harpoon Captain’s Edition (photo by self)

By the way, playing Harpoon Captain’s Edition 16 times now “officially” makes this game the most-played wargame in my collection since I started (sorta) keeping records in 2017. HCE is just ahead of Enemies of Rome (Worthington Publishing, 14 plays), Hold the Line: The American Civil War (Worthington Publishing, 12 plays), Root (Leder Games, 11 plays), Table Battles (Hollandspiele, 11 plays), and Tri-Pack: Battles of the American Revolution (GMT Games, 10 plays).

I was happy to see the Compass Games Kickstarter campaign for No Motherland Without by designer Daniel Bullock successfully fund this week. I have had my copy on preorder with Compass Games since October 2019. I backed the original Kickstarter and was disappointed to see it cancelled in May 2018 but am very happy Dan ended up with Compass Games so we can get a copy of what looks to be a very interesting game!

Courtesy Compass Games via BGG

Roleplaying Games

This coming week I continue my Traveller RPG wargame series with a look at the strategic wargames of the Traveller RPG in “#Wargame Wednesday – Searching for My Strategic #TravellerRPG Wargame.”

Regardless of the mail challenges, not all my gaming has been lost. My roleplaying game hobby has reenergized in 2021. To start off the year I went ahead and jumped on the Bundle of Holding offering for The Expanse Roleplaying Game and the Modern AGE materials from Green Ronin. My thoughts on The Expanse Roleplaying Game are coming in this week’s #RPGThursday so stay tuned.

The Expanse Roleplaying Game (photo by self)

I also picked up the latest The Clement Sector offering from Independence Games, Wendy’s Guide to the Fleets of Earth Sector, Volume 2. That’s not the Rochinante from The Expanse on the cover but in some ways it’s close….

Courtesy Independence Gams

Books

This week’s upcoming “#RockyReads for #Wargame” is China as a Twenty Century Naval Power by Rear Admiral Michael McDevitt from Naval Institute Press (2020).

Courtesy Naval Institute Press

Look for my thoughts on The Craft of Wargaming (Naval Institute Press, 2020) and War by Numbers (Potomac Books, 2017) in the coming weeks.

Recent Posts

#RPGThursday – Searching for My Personal/Tactical #TravellerRPG #Wargame

#ThreatTuesday – @RANDCorporation “Command and Control in US Naval Competition with China”

Coming Soon to Armchair Dragoons

Pending the Regimental Commander’s final approval, my thoughts on Iron Curtain: Central Europe, 1945-1989 (Multi Man Publishing, 2020) will be posted soon to the Armchair Dragoons website. This title was my 2020 Wargame of the Year Runner-Up so you know I like it – read the Armchair Dragoons article to see why! While you’re at it, check out the ACD Digital Convention 15-17 January (that’s next week for you non-military date sorta folks).

The Gygax Rule for GMs – All you need is good rules and good books

gary-gygax
Courtesy http://rpglabyrinth.blogspot.com

In my gaming pantheon, I clearly play wargames first, other boardgames second, and role playing games (RPGs) a distant third. Spending-wise, I have bought very few RPG products since April. In the past month I came close to buying two new RPGs but didn’t. Along the way I learned a valuable lesson taught to me by no other than the Godfather of RPGs, Gary Gygax. Gary reminded me that RPGs are inherently a personal creation; if a product is “not quite right” there are tools available to “do it my way.”

The big RPG splash of the month was the Kickstarter launch of The Expanse Roleplaying Game from Green Ronin Publishing. The project currently (as I write) has over 3,330 backers pledging upwards of $239,000 against goal of $30,000 – and 24 days to go.

I initially pledged to support at the Ship’s Boat-level which is $20 for the pdf version. I then downloaded the free Quickstart pdf and took a look. I am no hard-core The Expanse fan but I generally like the universe. I initially missed the books and became acquainted with the setting through the TV series. After looking at the Quickstart I mulled it over for a few days and then cancelled my pledge.

First, the Quickstarter did not appeal to me; indeed, it actually turned me off. My initial negative reaction was to the artwork. I think my expectations are biased from the TV series and the artwork in the Quickstarter just feels too different. More importantly, it is not what I see as evocative of the setting. It almost seems too cartoonish to me whereas I imagine The Expanse though a more hard sci-fi lens.

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Courtesy The Expanse RPG Kickstarter

Secondly, the RPG core mechanic (based on Green Ronin’s Adventure Game Engine – AGE) just didn’t capture what I think feels like The Expanse to me. I admit I was a bit confused at first because I was expecting to see the Chronicle System used in A Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying Game which is my only other exposure to Green Ronin. I really like the Intrigue Mechanic in Chronicle and it perfectly captures (is evocative of) the Game of Thrones setting.

Looking at the Quickstarter pdf, I weighed my pledge and thought about what I was getting. I decided that I actually already have a version of The Expanse RPG. I actually have two of them, both from Zozer Games, and both using a system I am comfortable with (Cepheus Engine):

  • Orbital: 2100 – “Realistic spacecraft, using reaction drives and rotating hab modules for gravity. Orbital is set in our own Solar System and has a real hard-science feel to it.”
  • HOSTILE – “A gritty near future setting inspired by those late-70s and early 80’s movies like Alien, Bladerunner and Outland.”

I seriously weighed getting The Expanse RPG if not for the system then for the setting material. Then I (fortuitously?) came across this article by Gary Gygax himself and published in 2001 where he talks about author Jack Vance and the Dying Earth books. In particular, Mr. Gygax writes:

There is a truly great advantage offered to the Game Master when devising a campaign set on the Dying Earth. It is not highly detailed. There is no strict timeline laid down. All that has happened before is not “recorded”, nor is there an accurate gazetteer of for the world. What magic operates? Nobody can say or guess, because in the long eons of the Dying Earth’s history, likely every form possible was discovered, used, and then forgotten…almost. That means that all that’s necessary is to have the game in hand, the books that Jack Vance wrote about the world, to create a really compelling campaign environment. Using the creative base of the author, the GM’s own imagination cannot fail but to rise to the occasion. (Emphasis mine)

 

In my mind, I already own The Expanse RPG. My version uses a core mechanic that I feel is evocative of the setting (Cepheus Engine). I have the sourcebooks in the form of several TV seasons and multiple books and short stories. I don’t need somebody else’s vision that doesn’t strike me as evocative of the stories or setting.

The second RPG I nearly bought was another Kickstarter campaign. Tachyon Squadron from Evil Hat Productions is basically Battlestar Galactica with the serial numbers filed off rendered using the Fate Core system:

Tachyon Squadron is a Fate Core supplement that blends space opera and military sci-fi. It’s Evil Hat’s take on popular stories about interstellar battles, like the ones that have ships with wings named after letters and the one where robots chase the human race through space. If you’re interested in deep space dogfights, friendly—well, usually—rivalries with fellow pilots, and playing scrappy underdogs with the deck stacked against you, this game is for you.

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Courtesy Evil Hat

The project funded with 1,401 backers pledging $25,295 against a $7,500 goal. Like The Expanse RPG Kickstarter, Evil Hat was very generous and offers a free download Quickstarter version. It is pretty much as I expected as Evil Hat has previously sold a smaller, similar setting found in Fate Worlds Volume One: Worlds on Fire. In Kriegszeppelin Valkyrie the PCs are pilots aboard a giant War Zeppelin taking on “a horde of WWI mechanical monstrosities.” For Tachyon Squadron I actually was more interested in Stretch Goal 7:

STRETCH GOAL 7 (UNLOCKS AT $26,000): The Battle of Britain: At $26,000, we’ll start work on The Battle of Britain, a 5,000 word electronic supplement that applies Tachyon Squadron’s dogfighting rules to a WWII squadron of Spitfire pilots defending Britain. This supplement will include plane stats and mechanics to help you take to the skies with the Allied forces.

Alas, this stretch goal didn’t unlock. My potential Pilot-in-Training pledge of $12 would not have made a big difference.

What really turned me off about Tachyon Squadron was the over-the-top SJW proselytizing. It is so in-your-face I think it overwhelms the game setting. Even if I am able to put the SJW part aside I see the the game offering me little new. The major rule of difference, dogfighting, is likely not far from that found in Kriegszeppelin Valkyrie which I already own. Much like The Expanse, I have a Battlestar Galactica RPG in the form of the officially licensed Battlestar Galactica Role Playing Game (Margaret Weis Productions, 2007). This game uses the CORTEX Classic system which I generally like (indeed, I am still awaiting my CORTEX Prime: A Multi-Genre Modular Roleplaying Game Kickstarter to deliver – only 3 months overdue…so far). If I want to do Battlestar Galactica using Fate Core I already own all the setting and rules material; why should I invest more money into a near-version that alleges to be ruleset but comes across more like a SJW propaganda tract?

Passing on The Expanse RPG (Green Ronin’s AGE System) and Tachyon Squadron (Evil Hat’s Fate Core System) got me thinking about the games and systems I do have. Last June I listed Star Wars The Edge of the Empire RPG (Fantasy Flight Games) as one of my Top 3 RPGs. I like the Narrative Dice System and want to play more with the RockyMountainNavy Boys. Thinking about expanding beyond Star Wars I picked up GENESYS: The Roleplaying Game for All Settings.

Genesys is a role playing system designed for flexibility and adaptability, specifically tooled to work with any setting imaginable. The Genesys Core Rulebook not only contains an overview of the rules and how the innovative narrative dice system works, but everything a GM and players need to run adventures in five completely different settings. Everything from equipment to adversaries, character abilities to an overview of narrative tropes, all is provided in the core rulebook for Genesys. With a system so adaptable and expansive you can explore every popular roleplaying genre, from classic fantasy style campaigns, to modern day detective thrillers, and even to a far off sci-fi future, Genesys doesn’t fit into any one genre of roleplaying, and instead invites players to craft their own stories with unparalleled freedom.

Taking GENESYS and combining it with Gary Gygax’s Dying Earth GM approach, I can likely make a version of The Expanse or Battlestar Galactica – or any other setting I chose to explore – for myself.

The most important RPG lesson I learned this month is that I don’t need Kickstarter to make an RPG for me that “isn’t quite right”; I just need good books and a good ruleset.

RPG Thursday – Song of Ice and Fire Campaign Guide

Courtesy Green Ronin

Creating a setting guide or a campaign guide based on an established property is surely a formidable challenge for any RPG company. For many years I have looked at Maragret Weis Productions as the standard bearer for the RPG industry, especially their Serenity and Battlestar Galactica product lines and even Smallville. More recently I have delved into Green Ronin’s A Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying and gained a new respect for that company. I especially like the new Campaign Guide: A Game of Thrones Edition because, well, its relatively spoiler free!

From the Introduction:

“Specifically, the game focuses on the last year before the start of A Game of Thrones. As a result, no details about the plots and fates of the various characters are revealed, and each house and individual is presented as they are at the opening of the novels.” (p. 4)

I really appreciate the effort Green Ronin is making to avoid railroading characters into actions and settings. The real challenge will not be the setting, but players who have read the books or watched the series and use that meta-game knowledge.