#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.

#RPG Rulings – Understanding Gravity in #TheExpanse Using #CepheusEngine #TravellerRPG

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).

Courtesy pintrest.com

Rules of Gravity

I don’t presently own The Expanse Roleplaying Game from Green Ronin so I do not know the details of how they handle gravity in that setting. However, I am a long-time Traveller RPG player. These days I enjoy the modern incarnation of the Original 2d6 Science Fiction Roleplaying Game by using the Cepheus Engine rules set.

For my exploration of of gravity and The Expanse, I focused on five RPG rule sets or settings:

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 Sector defines 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)
Courtesy geekwire.com

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:

Classic Traveller Module 2: Beltstrike, p. 11

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.

Courtesy Syfy.com

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.

Gel-y Juice

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.

Orbital 2100, Chapter 5: Spacecraft Design, p. 37

For The Clement Sector setting, ship design is found in the Anderson & Felix Guide to Naval Architecture. Included in A&F is a module for designing Pre-Gravitic Drive Spacecraft. Here we actually get rules for continuous micro-gravity exposure as well as alternate methods of producing artificial gravity, both of which are also featured in The Expanse:

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:

Thrust

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.

Centrifugal Rotation

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
Courtesy syfy.com

Expanse-ive Characters

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’ll point out here that the Belter career in the CESRD is perfectly adequate for generating a Belter character. However, if you have access to the Cepheus Engine supplement Uranium Fever: Asteroid Mining Rules for the Cepheus Engine from Stellagama Publishing (2018) the Independent Belter, Company Belter, and Planetary Miner careers are well worth the small cost of the product.

For Mars – Hu-ah!

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.

Acceleration

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?)

“Now you just walk around like you’re in pumps.”

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….

Courtesy Moon Toad Publishing

Expanding #GameNight with The Expanse #Boardgame: Doors and Corners (@wizkidsgames, 2019)

“I keep warning you. Doors and corners, kid. That’s where they get you. Humans are too f***ing stupid to listen.”

― Miller in James S.A. Corey’s Abaddon’s Gate

I recently posted how a newer play of The Expanse Board Game made me reconsider the game. As a direct result of that play I purchased the new expansion, The Expanse Boardgame: Doors and Corners (WizKids, 2019). The expansion is actually a collection of five sets of new rules that can be added to your game as desired. The modular plug-n-play expansion makes the original The Expanse Board Game more interesting and much more thematically satisfying.

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The Expanse Boardgame: Doors and Corners (photo by self)

Before getting to the new rules it is important to point out the new cardboard in the expansion. Doors and Corners comes with a revised Game Board that clearly separates the Outer Planets sector into two movement spaces. It also contains revised ship tokens which look more like the ships seen in the TV series.

The heart of Doors and Corners is the five new rules modules:

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Box Back (photo by self)

The five modules included in this expansion are: LeadersExpanded TechnologiesResource TokensProtomolecule, and Variable SetupLeaders go with fleets and can add influence when they move with a fleet. Expanded Technologies allows variety and surprise in what powers are available. When a tech is earned you have three random choices for that tech. Resource Tokens can be spent in several ways including helping to pay CP [Control Points] costs, adding AP [Action Points] to a card (max 4), moving up the initiative track, and earning bonus points for having the most at final scoring. Protomolecule adds a new scoring opportunity. Variable Setup allows fleets and influence to be placed anywhere at the start of the game.

For our first foray we played with Expanded Technologies and Leaders. The easier of the two to grasp is the Expanded Technologies which immediately adds variability into the game. I often felt that the technology upgrades in the original game felt a bit too alike and didn’t show the asymmetric power of the different factions too well. The new technologies take the asymmetric nature of the different factions and dials each up in highly thematic ways. The fact you get three different technologies at each upgrade but only draw two and keep one also means it will be much more variable from game to game. This module is a MUST PLAY.

Leaders is an interesting module and easy to implement. Leaders act like fleets but for one AP can move AND place an influence. The more powerful action is to make a Power Play. Instead of your normal turn, one can invoke a Power Play which can score huge bonus points. The most immediate effect I can see is an increase in scores by at least 10% and probably much more as we become more familiar with using Power Play.

We haven’t used the other modules yet but I think the next one we might try is The Protomolecule. This is because we usually play a 3-player game and Protogen and the Protomolecule don’t really make an appearance. This might be a way to get some of that theme into a three-player game.

Looking at the last two modules, I feel that Resource Tokens and Variable Setup go hand-in-hand. Resource Tokens get you away from the scoring bonuses on the cards and allows a bit more freedom in strategy. The Variable Setup seems needed to avoid getting locked into “an outdated policy” and enable the players to flex to the new scoring Resource Tokens introduces.

The new expansions is not without its problems. The new rule book warns that game length may increase “significantly” as players learn new abilities and options. Personally, I feel the use of “significantly” is a bit overblown and after very few games the time of play will be close to the original. Many folks demanded a new board and complained about the blandness of the original. Uh…did any of you watch the series and note the very bland color palette used? I also found it sad that the the Initiative track on the revised board is too small for the original tokens [Sigh]. Personally, I had little trouble with the old board and it was easy to remember that going from Jupiter to Saturn was an extra AP. Further, the colors on the new board actually don’t help me; when I look at the blue UN cubes on the board they “blend” a bit under anything less than bright light.

One of my earliest criticisms of The Expanse Board Game was a seeming lack of theme. The new Doors and Corners expansion does a great job of bringing more theme to the game. Whether you play with one or all five of the modules, I am sure the game will thematically resonate in a more satisfying manner.

Postscript

So…is it BOARD GAME (two words) or BOARDGAME (one word)? I ask because the first title is The Expanse BOARD GAME while the expansion is The Expanse BOARDGAME: Doors and Corners.


Feature image WizKids

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

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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.

“You’re using Star Wars and physics in the same sentence….”

I had an unusual exchange on Twitter the other day. Unusual because I (frankly) was a bit of a jerk to @beltalowda_ and unusual because I let popular sci-fi get under my skin.

First, the exchange:

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I cut off my response because I was a bit of a jerk and talked down to @beltalowda_ (hey, if you’re reading this, sorry!).

The main point I was trying to make (on Twitter? I must be crazy!) is that science fiction and science fact don’t mix well, especially in the realm of gaming. Star Wars is nominally science fiction (I would argue it is more science fantasy but that is another, fruitless, discussion) and the games related to the franchise reflect that origin. Star Wars: X-Wing Miniatures Game today is ranked as the #63 game overall on BoardGameGeek as well as the #7 Customizable Game (interestingly, Star Wars: X-Wing Miniatures – The Force Awakens Core Set is ranked #4 in the Customizable Game category). These games use what gamers often refer to as “cinematic movement,” i.e. they fly about in space like airplanes. This is far different from what space combat will likely look like. Atomic Rockets, IMNSHO one of the best sites on the internet, devotes a whole section to Space War and what is closer to reality. For me, one of the hallmarks of a hard sci-fi game is the use of vector movement, ala (loosely) The Expanse.

Overall, The Expanse is better at hard sci-fi than many shows but even here there is a good deal of “handwavium” involved. Scott Manley on YouTube has made one of the better explanations so far:

My personal gaming experience has shown the same conflict between hard and popular sci-fi. I have bounced between hard (realistic?) sci-fi and more cinematic portrayals. Here is a list of a few games in my collection and how they looked at space combat:

Finding the right balance between popular sci-fi and hard sci-fi gaming is tricky. For myself, games like Star Fleet Battles and its derivatives are fun because of the theme since when playing these games I am choosing theme over mechanics. Some of the more hard sci-fi games are fun with a bit or realism thrown in (like Mayday) but some go too far (Squadron Strike: Traveller) where the fun has a hard time overcoming the difficulty of rules and play.

The upside of all this is that the gaming scene is broad enough that either preference, cinematic or vector, can be accommodated. It’s a matter of choice, and the game industry is healthy enough to give us that choice. Even if I am choosing not to play.

Hattip to @TableTopBill who commented on my tweet with the title of this post.

Random Gaming Thoughts (Good & Bad) on the First Weekend in May 2018

Sort of a hodgepodge post today. More a collection of random gaming (and beyond) thoughts than anything in particular.

Travel Gaming – Took along several solo games to play while on the road this week. Only got to play one – Merrill’s Marauders: Commandos in Burma 1943-1944 (Decision Games, 2016).

RPG Gaming – Gypsy Knight Games had their May the Fourth Sale going on so I picked up the new Manhunters: Bounty Hunters in the Clement Sector (2018). This has a very Classic Traveller RPG and Firefly-like vibe to it. I also picked up Uranium Fever: Asteroid Mining Rules for the Cepheus Engine (Stellagama Publishing, 2018). I really need to get back into RPGs. I am still awaiting my now-delayed Cortex Prime: A Multi-Genre Roleplaying Game by Cam Banks from Kickstarter. As much as I like Fantasy Flight Games Star Wars: Edge of the Empire RPG I probably should pick up the “generic” Genesys RPG.

Speaking of Star Wars – I hear that FFG is going to be publishing X-Wing Second Edition. This one will be app-enabled.

I think I’ll wait for Ares Games and their Battlestar Galactica version instead.

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!

Narrowing #TheExpanseBoardGame – or – Expecting too much from theme

IMG_2055My first impressions of The Expanse Board Game (WizKids, 2017) were less-than-favorable. In the few weeks since I have been able to sit back and reappraise my feelings towards the game. I now see that I focused too much on theme and not enough on game play. If I remove many of my feelings about the theme, the game that emerges is a good influence-placement game using the theme of the The Expanse TV series.

I will be the first to admit I am not a hardcore fanboy of The Expanse, but I do like the TV series (Seasons 1 & 2) and have enjoyed the first few books. I came to the franchise backwards, seeing the TV series before I started reading the books. In several ways my perception of theme is colored by the TV series. The Expanse Board Game draws almost exclusively from the TV series, so in my first impressions I inevitably compared the two. In my first impressions I didn’t like the game because I kept trying to see the game as a replay (or version of) the TV series. The Expanse Board Game, though based on the TV series, is actually a very different look at the franchise. I should have paid more attention to the front matter in the rule book:

The Expanse is a game of politics, conquest, and intrigue for two to four players. Players spread their influence through the solar system onto important Bases using characters and events in the Expanse Universe, and must make clever use of their special faction abilities to gain an edge.

But even this summary is a bit misleading as I believe there is little “politics,” no real “conquest,” and very limited “intrigue” in the game. What The Expanse Board Game does deliver is a (sorta) asymmetrical influence-placement game based on The Expanse Universe.

Politics – When I see a political game I expect negotiation or a focus on indirect warfare (the Diplomatic, Intelligence, or Economic factors). The Expanse Board Game has no real negotiation element, a bare nod to diplomatic (i.e. the UN Diplomat cubes) and only a limited nod to economic (each factions key resources).

Conquest – Unless one conflates the definitions of conquest and influence there is no real conquest in The Expanse Board Game. Even when there is “confrontation” the result is limited to removal of fleets or influence cubes. Sure, fleets must be rebuilt but the relatively non-violent nature of the confrontation does not make it feel like a conquest to me.

Intrigue – Intrigue to me comes across as some form of secret plans or the like. Certainly, there is an element of secrecy in The Expanse Board Game but even that element is minimized as the game has almost no hidden information. Indeed, the game is mostly open information with cards on the Action Track visible to all and Kept Events remaining face-up in front of the players.

Asymmetrical Abilities – What The Expanse Board Game does well is using theme in the asymmetric abilities of the factions. From the UN being able to use superior planning to take the second card on the Action Track at no cost to the Martian battleships and the like, the use of theme to differentiate the factions is the most successful part of the game. This trend continues to a degree in the Faction Special Tech Cards that enter after different scoring rounds. These special abilities all are keyed to the placement – or
removal – of influence.

Influence – What The Expanse Board Game comes down to is influence. The game
is actually very simple; have the most influence at the right time for Scoring. Influence has two elements – orbital control and bases. Given the somewhat secret element of Bonus Sector selection, the players are challenged to have the right influence at the right times in the game. Players may find they need to “shift” influence around during the game as they try to guess (or manipulate) where the next Bonus Sector will be scored.

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Courtesy syfy.com

Rocinante – The Rocinante was actually the part of the theme I had the most trouble wrapping my head around. In the TV series the Rocinante and crew are the focus; the narrative element through which the story is told. In The Expanse Board Game the Rocinante has a far different role. With control of Rocinante going to the faction with the lowest Control Points, the ship becomes more of a pawn than a true protagonist. It is a bit disconcerting (disconnected from theme?) to see the ship only be used as a fleet (albeit one that can’t be removed) with special abilities that only come into play during Scoring. The special abilities also still very limited. Of the four, I actually find the Amos Burton ability the most powerful (“Remove 1 opposing fleet in the Rocinante Orbital for each friendly fleet there (including the Rocinante)”) which, to me, again doesn’t quite square with the TV Series where James Holden (special ability – “Place 1 influence anywhere”) comes across as the central character. I also have a bit of thematic dissonance when the Rocinante is controlled by the Protogen faction. So great is this dissonance that I have to rationalize the situation by telling myself that the Rocinante was not really being “controlled” by Protogen but more properly is being “manipulated” by the corporation.

Reappraising The Expanse Board Game

By reducing my expectations of theme, my respect for The Expanse Board Game has actually grown. The game is about placing influence – and little else. It uses the theme of The Expanse Universe to derive the asymmetric abilities of the factions. The Rocinante – a ship and crew with a key role in the TV series and books – has a lesser role in this game. In the end, The Expanse Board Game delivers what it promises – an Expanse-themed influence-placement game playable in around 60 minutes.

#FirstImpressions #TheExpanseBoardGame (WizKids, 2017)

From the publisher’s blurb:

The Expanse, a board game based on the Syfy television series of the same name, focuses on politics, conquest and intrigue similar to the board game Twilight Struggle, although with a shorter playing time. The card-driven game uses key images from the show, along with action points and events that allow players to move and place “Fleets” and “Influence”. (BGG)

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Authors collection

It is not often that a publisher’s blurb captures a game so completely as WizKids has done for The Expanse Board Game (TEBG). After purchasing the game and playing it a bit, I am torn in my feelings for the game. To me, TEBG feels very much like a “classic” Eurogame – in a negative connotation of the definition; great mechanics with a pasted on theme.

The BoardGameGeek Wiki defines Eurogames as follows:

“Eurogames (or alternatively, Designer Board Games or German-Style Board Games) are a classification of board games that are very popular on Board Game Geek (BGG). Though not all eurogames are European and not all of them are board games, they share a set of similar characteristics. A game need not fit ALL the criteria to be considered a Eurogame.

Most Eurogames share the following elements:

  • Player conflict is indirect and usually involves competition over resources or points. Combat is extremely rare.
  • Players are never eliminated from the game (All players are still playing when the game ends.)
  • There is very little randomness or luck. Randomness that is there is mitigated by having the player decide what to do after a random event happens rather than before. Dice are rare, but not unheard of, in a Euro.
  • The Designer of the game is listed on the game’s box cover. Though this is not particular to Euros, the Eurogame movement seems to have started this trend. This is why some gamers and designers call this genre of games Designer Games.
  • Much attention is paid to the artwork and components. Plastic and metal are rare, more often pieces are made of wood.
  • Eurogames have a definite theme, however, the theme most often has very little to do with the gameplay. The focus instead is on the mechanics; for example, a game about space may play the same as a game about ancient Rome.”

TEBG hits all of these points, but with mixed results.

TEBG does a good job of capturing the feel (theme) of The Expanse TV series. Using Eurogame mechanics the players place influence (tracked using small wooden cubes) on various bases throughout the Solar System. To place influence usually requires a fleet in the orbital above the base. Although the game mechanics are simple, each player/faction has unique asymmetric abilities which allow them to “break the rules” in thematically appropriate ways. For instance, while is usually cost 1 Control Point (CP) to take the second action card, the United Nations (UN) player has Planning as their initial Technology which means the first two action card slots cost 0 CP. As the game progresses, more thematically-appropriate technologies are gained by each faction.

“Combat” in TEBG consists of removing influence or fleets (which can be rebuilt). This is not a cooperative game; ruthlessly building your influence while reducing your opponents is the real core mechanic.

TEBG uses much artwork from The Expanse TV Series. Although this makes the game appear like The Expanse, some of the artwork does not have a clear connection to gameplay. For instance, the action card Scopuli can be used for 2 Action Points or as an Event by the Martian Congressional Republic (MCR) or UN. The Event states, “Place 1 influence on each Saturn Base where you do not have influence.” I do not see how this is related to the Scopuli in the TV series which is [SPOILER ALERT]:

…a Martian light transport freighter from Eros that was in service to the OPA. One of its crew was Julie Mao and it was attacked by the Stealth Ship Anubis. It was later used as a lure in the ambush and destruction of the Canterbury.

To me this is a thematic disconnect. I think Scopuli should be used as an Event to the advantage of the Outer Planets Alliance (OPA) or ProtoGen. Granted, most of the action cards have a picture that ties well to the event described, but I think to make the connection one must be a real fanboy. If a player is not knowledgeable of The Expanse the immersion into the game will not be served by the graphics.

The full impact of all these design and graphics decisions is an area control game that looks like The Expanse. The game comes across as very functional; simple game mechanics with some asymmetric differences in a kinda staid, plain package.

Finally, I have an issue with the component quality in TEBG. The board uses a non-glossy finish that, while good for pictures, has already shown rubs and scratches after just two plays. I also have a major problem with the Quick Start Rules which use white text on a semi-transparent background over a starscape page. The font, smaller than that used in the main rule book and the third layer of printing has lost all its edges and is nearly impossible to read.

It is going to be interesting when The Expanse Board Game lands on the Family Game Night table. All of the RockyMountainNavy Boys know a bit about The Expanse, but none are fanboys, Thus, the success of this game will stand not on theme alone (which appears to be much of the buzz around the game) but on its ability to blend graphics and gameplay into a enjoyable gaming experience.

 

#RPGThursday – Ship Files: Atticus Class Freelancer (Moon Toad Publishing, 2017)

 

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Courtesy RPGGeek

Ship Files: Atticus Class Freelancer, Written by Ian Stead, All Artwork and Layout Ian Stead, Compatible with the 2d6 SCIFI OGL and The Cepheus Engine SRD, Copyright © 2017 Moon Toad Publishing.

Atticus is my first Moon Toad Publishing (MTP) Ship Files book. I am a fan of Ian Stead (@biomassart on Twitter) and greatly enjoy his work for Gypsy Knight Games and their Alternate Traveller Universe/Cepheus Engine Setting Ships of the Clement Sector. I had seen several other MTP products but it was not until very recently that I made the connection between MTP and Ian.

Atticus is a 100 dTon fast (Jump-2 / 6G acceleration) multi-use vessel  – a perfect ship for a small group adventure in a small-ship universe setting. But what really sets the Atticus apart from the usual slew of Traveller/Cepheus Engine ships is the fact it is a tail-sitter! This makes Atticus a design closer to hard scifi than the usual “airplane in space” found in so much space opera. It also harkens back to classic Traveller RPG designs such as Broadsword or Azhanti High Lightning where the decks were stacked. In some ways I have to wonder if Atticus is Ian Stead’s version of Rochinante from the TV series The Expanse. Regardless, Atticus is an interesting design that can be dropped into any Cepheus Engine adventure from space opera to hard scifi.

The Ship Files book is a 24-page full color pdf. The file book starts with an in-universe description of the Atticus that right up front addresses the unusual configuration. This part is not to be skipped for there are many little details that a referee (or player) could use as adventure seeds. Statistics using Cepheus Engine are provided, as well as many line and color drawings and deck plans. Actually, there are two variants presented; the standard and a non-jump version. An example crew is also provided; three instead of the usual four members because, “it is currently one person down, the crewman having left over an argument about pay” (p. 16) Speak about an adventure seed!

MTP Ship Files books also include a two-page Spacecraft Record sheet. This sheet lays out the ship statistics in a much easier to understand manner than the simple table usually presented in Cepheus Engine.

I was very pleased to see that Ian took advantage of several Cepheus Engine products beyond the basic System Reference Document in creating this ship. Ian used the spectacular Anderson and Felix Guide to Naval Architecture (2E) published by Gypsy Knight Games as well as the recently released Cepheus Engine Vehicle Design System. I am very glad to see third-party publishers taking advantage of each other’s products; it builds community and gives us customers a better product!

Ship Files: Atticus is not without its flaws. Page numbering is laid out as in a book but the pdf file is sequential meaning page “2” of the pdf shows “1” at the bottom. This makes the table of contents one page off from the search function. The first Spacecraft Record sheet shows the class name as “Polixenes” which I take was a previous Ship Files product. Neither of these flaws are egregious nor in any way degrade the overall superior quality of the product. This product is also a real steal at $3.99 on DriveThruRPG.

Recommendation: MUST BUY!

 

#TheExpanse Ships in #TravellerRPG

Watching “Home” (The Expanse, Season 2, Episode 5) with the Rocinante at high-g burns got me back to thinking about the ships of The Expanse and how they could be portrayed in tabletop RPGs. I previously looked at the Epstein Drive and how it might be translated into game terms for use in Traveller RPG or Cepheus Engine or Orbital 2100.

**WARNING – Minor Spoilers Ahead**

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Courtesy SyFy

Going all the way back to the first book in the series, Leviathan Wakes, the small shuttle Knight gives us some insight into the technology of The Expanse:

It wasn’t long before Alex called down, “Okay, Boss. It’ll be about a four-hour trip flying’ teakettle. Total mass use at about thirty percent, but we’ve got a full tank. Total mission time: eleven hours.”

“Copy that. Thanks, Alex,” Holden said.

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)

From the book we know that the trip covers 50,000km. Working with classic space travel time equations, we can compute the Knight is traveling at about 1.0368 m/s or just over .1G acceleration.

Later in Chapter 5 we see the Knight running flat-out at 2G acceleration. At this speed the same 50,000 km trip should take only 53 minutes, which is a bit shorter than the approximately 70 minutes obliquily stated in the book. At this point it is unclear if the 2G speed is the upper limit of the teakettle or the fusion torch at low power.

The Knight does eventually clearly light it’s torch:

“Roger that, XO. Bleeding-g burn-and-flip laid in. Angled approach course so our torch won’t burn a hole in the Cant. Time to rock and roll?” Alex replied. (Leviathan Wakes, Chapter 5)

expanse20g20force
Courtesy NBC Universal

Here we have to interpolate the fusion torch acceleration based on Holden and his apparent weight. When lighting the torch Holden weighs 500 kilos. Assuming he is an average 75 kg to begin with, this works out to almost 7G. Interestingly, from the novella The Drive we know that 7G is the instrument limit on Solomon Epstein’s ship that he installed his new drive on, indicating that the fusion torch may have an upper limit of 7G.

In summary, we can say the shuttle Knight has maneuvering thrusters (teakettle) that operate efficiently at .1G. The shuttle also has a fusion drive (torch) that can accelerate it at up to 7G.

The Knight‘s torch drive could deliver a lot of thrust, but at the cost of a prodigious rule-burn rate. But if they could save the Cant, it wouldn’t matter. (Leviathan Wakes, Chapter 5)

The missiles that are fired at the Canterbury are also very impressive:

As if in answer, six new objects appeared on his radar, glowing yellow icons appearing and immediately shifting to orange as the system marked their acceleration. On the Canterbury, Becca yelled out, “Fast movers! We have six new high-speed contacts on a collision course!”

“Jesus H. Christ on a pogo stick, did that ship just fire a spread of torpedoes at us?” McDowell said. “They’re trying to slap us down?”

“Yes, sir,” Becca said.

“Time to contact.”

“Just under eight minutes, sir,” she replied. (Leviathan Wakes, Chapter 5)

For these six missiles to cover 200,000km in 8 minutes means their acceleration has to be around 150G!

In Leviathan Wakes, Chapter 51, Holden tries to remember how fast the Roci can go:

He tried to remember the Roci‘s maximum theoretical acceleration. Alex had already flown it at twelve g briefly when they’d left the Donnager. The actual limit was one of those trivial numbers, a way to brag about something your ship would never really do. Fifteen g, was it? Twenty? (Leviathan Wakes, Chapter 51)

cqb_main
Courtesy solotalkmedia.com

In the episode “Home” if I caught the screen correctly it looks like the Roci was accelerating just over 17g. This again is in line with the book; and way faster than the 6g of Classic Traveller or Cepheus Engine and far ahead of the technology in Orbital 2100 where the alternative Nuclear Pulse Fusion Drive tops out at 1.2g! Compared to the Traveller RPG or Cepheus Engine universe, the ships and weapons of The Expanse are way faster and likely far more deadly too.

As late to the game as I am, I look forward to reading more of The Expanse series and seeing what further ship secrets are hidden within.


PS: The math for figuring time and acceleration is actually easy, but to help there is an EXCELLENT site at http://www.transhuman.talktalk.net/iw/TravTime.htm that does the math for you!