Starblazer Adventures (English review)

The rock & roll Space Opera Adventure Game

It seems like Science Fiction Role playing is coming back into season. How else does one explain that we have been seeing more and more SF RPGs being released over the last few years, taking us back out to the stars? Not only did we see the release of [I]Traveller[/I], but also games like [I]Thousand Suns[/I], [I]Hellas[/I], licensed products such as [I]Battlestar Galactica[/I] and [I]Serenity[/I], [I]Eclipse Phase[/I] is expected to be released in a few months, and new editions of both [I]Fading Suns[/I] and the [I]Battletech RPG[/I] have been announced. Wonderful times to be a SF RPG nut! Part of this new wave is a rather unusual licensed product that I’ll be talking about at great length: [I]Starblazer Adventures[/I] by British publisher Cubicle 7.

[I]Starblazer[/I] was a British Comic series released between 1979 and 1991. Unlike most other comics each issue was a complete, self-contained SF adventure story without a real continuity, even though some protagonists kept on croping up in other stories. The stories from [I]Starblazer[/I] can best be described as wild Space Operas, and left a very strong impression on many British kids (Like me). These stories, which can only be called a setting in the most loose of terms, have been married with the FATE 3 rules originally used in [I]Spirit of the Century[/I] to create a „Rock and Roll Space Opera Adventure Game“. So how successful is this symbiosis?

[I]Starblazer Adventures[/I] is BIG. The only books I know that compare are [I]Monte Cook’s Ptolus[/I] or AEG’s [I]World’s Largest Dungeon[/I]. The binding on this hard cover is very good, very stable, and feels like it will withstand a lot of punishment and carrying around in a backpack. The cover is – like all internal illustrations – taken from the [I]Starblazer[/I] comics. I for one agree with the decision to use the comics to illustrate the book, this makes it easier to convey the atmosphere of the comics and helps everyone at the table get onto the same page. Every chapter begins with a full-page panel from the comics. The book is completely in black and white, with a layout that is easy on the eye, easy to read without wasting space. The same can be said of the chosen typeface. The text is separated into 34 chapters, six appendices and and introduction by Ian Livingston, co-founder of Games Workshop. Also included is the Open Gaming Licence and a [I]very[/I] complete index. The writing is friendly without being too familiar with the reader, and the chapters are nice and short.

The introduction covers all the usual questions, things like „What is [I]Starblazer[/I]“, „What is FATE“, and things like this. Unlike most games that use FATE, [I]Starblazer Adventures[/I] doesn’t require any special „FUDGE-dice“. Instead this game uses two normal d6. The Author included a section on recruiting players to this chapter, something I find very helpful, especially as he specifically mentions the internet and the online community.

„Rules and Characters“ is the title of the next chapter, which includes an easy and understandable introduction to the most important elements of the system. If so inclined a Game master could just copy these ten pages for his players to use as a primer, and just get on with the game, yet another example for the ease of usability of this book. The chapter begins with an explanation of the character sheet, and this is where most experienced gamers will be in for their first surprise: Characters in [I]Starblazer Adventures[/I] don’t have attributes in the conventional sense, instead they define themselves by their Skills and Aspects. Aspects are basically descriptive elements of characters or locations with mechanical influences, but we’ll go into Aspects in greater detail later on. After the description of the character sheet the basic mechanic of the game is described. All abilities and difficulties are described with one of twelve expressions of quality, each with it’s own numerical value. These „steps“ on the „Ladder“ go from „Abysmal“ (-3) to „Legendary“ (+8 ). Whenever a player is required to make a check he rolls 2d6 – one of which has to be declared as „negative die“. This „negative die“ is subtracted from the other die, then the ability level is added to the result, and compared to either the result of the opponent’s check or the difficulty of the attempted task. After the basics we get short introductions to other systems explained in more detail later in the book, and a quick character generation system.

Character creation is the topic of the next chapter. After the quick system in the last chapter we are treated to the „extended version“, which should be done as a group. Every player has to go through five simple steps, with the first two steps being „Think about a concept“ and „find a cool name“. The third step is split up into phases. The first phase is described as basic training – make some notes about where your character comes from, what he learned in boot camp, and write down two aspects that belong to this phase. Next your character embarks on his first „Starblazer Legend“, an adventure he had before the game begins. The player makes some notes about what happened, and writes down two further aspects. The third stage involves a further player character as „Guest Star“ in this legend, describes how the characters met, and what happened afterwards – along with yet another two aspects. Depending on how powerful the characters are supposed to be the players either stop here, or include more Guest Star – phases. After going through the phases every player gets to spend twenty points on skills. A skill at „Average“ costs one point, „Fair“ is two points, etc. – however, you can only buy skills at a certain level if you have at least one more skill at the next lowest level than you do at the current level, building up a „skill pyramid“. After skills characters gain stunts – these are based on the selected skills, we’ll get back to these later – pick up equipment, and calculate stress levels and fate points. A method to randomly generate a solo character finishes off this chapter.

The next six chapters describe different elements of a character. The first of these is a chapter about „Careers and character types“, describing typical careers from the comics that could be chosen as Aspects and stunts that can be „unlocked“ by taking these aspects – a character with the aspect „reporter“ could, for example, claim a universal travel ticket as a stunt, or an explorer could chose to own a stack of star maps that hint at hidden alien treasures… A character doesn’t HAVE to choose one of the suggested careers as an aspect, but they do offer more options. Next up: toys, with „Equipment and Gadgets“ as a huge selection of tools and weapons from the comics, with costs, rules and explanations. Despite the large amount of items described here this chapter is nice and short, using the same simple rules everything else does.

Chapter six finally explains aspects. Aspects have two functions in [I]Starblazer Adventures[/I]: first of all they are used to mechanically describe elements of character background, setting, or items while still using the basic rules, thus removing the need for specialized, more complex rules. Secondly, they are a chance for the players to tell their game master „Oi, this is what we want to see in our game!“. Aspects can come into play in two different fashions, they can be invoked or compelled. If an aspect is invoked and a fate point is spent, the character using this aspect can either make a re roll or add two to his result. An example would be a character with a code of honour who refuses to betray his friends by invoking this aspect. Invoked aspects don’t have to belong to the invoking character, they can belong to a character involved in the scene or even the environment, as long the aspect is relevant to the action. If an aspect is compelled however, the game master can use this aspect to either force the character to take a certain action, or at least reduce his choices. The character’s player then has a choice: he can either spend a fate point to remove the compulsion, or he can ride with the compulsion and GAIN a fate point. Aspects are wonderful tools for creating good stories that can be used by both game masters and players.

Chapters seven and eight are two sides of the same coin: skills and stunts. First of all we get a complete description of all the skills in the game, each skill listing not only what it does but also including normal uses for that skill. Anyone looking for poison rules, for example, will find them under the endurance skill, as this skill is used to withstand poisons. After the skill descriptions we are treated to the stunts list. Stunts are „special applications“ of skills that have to be „unlocked“ by selecting these stunts. As an example, a character with the „academics“ skill could select a stunt that lets him understand all major languages of the galaxy. A different character could pick the „Weird Science“ stunt for his „science“ skill. Some especially „powerful“ stunts require the player to spend a fate point. Those readers who are asking themselves what fate points are will be happy to read that they are described in chapter nine. Fate points allow a player to brake the rules of the game in certain ways. Apart from using them to fuel aspects and stunts as described, a player can also spend them to raise a die roll by one, or to define the plot of the session in a certain way, for example by declaring that a character is carrying a secret weapon, or that he happens to know someone who knows someone, or… The game master has the last word when it comes to deciding if this use of fate points is permitted, but he is advised to err to the side of „cool“.

Chapters ten and eleven form another „double chapter“. Chapter ten picks up where the basic descriptions of the first chapter ended, and adds details to the system, explains combat, and describes modifiers and options that can be used by the players. Chapter 11 on the other hand is meant for the game master, describing how to select a difficulty level, presenting optional special rules and situations. These two chapters, the „actual rules“ of the game take up less than thirty pages. Character advancement is just as simple: every character receives a skill point at the begin of a new session, and can either replace an aspect, change an aspect, switch two skills around in the skill pyramid or replace a stunt. Chapter 13 might accidentally be overlooked as it’s only a page long, but that would be a mistake – the scaling levels described here will become most important in the following chapters. Many elements of [I]Starblazer Adventures[/I] – for example organizations, Starships, or Alien Monsters – can be of various sizes, from „tiny“ (anything smaller than a normal human being) right up to „galactic“ (Does this need an explanation?).

Aliens belong to a Space Opera like Cowboys to the Horse Opera, so guess what chapter 14 has to offer. Yes, it’s time for Aliens and Mutations. This chapter is a tool kit for anyone who wants to play an alien, a mutant or a psychic. This game uses stunts and aspects to describe these things, another example of how this game keeps itself simple. However, thanks to [I]Star Trek[/I] and the like, huge Star monsters and galactic War machines have also become part of Space Opera culture, and the next chapter delivers everything you need to create an planet-killing monster. This is the first chapter to use the scaling rules mentioned earlier. Also included are optional rules to let the game master make things more interesting, like separating one big monster into smaller, easier to handle segments (Like some boss monsters in computer games), or for using huge swarms as attackers. „Star Empires and Battle Fleets“ are other classical elements, elements [I]Starblazer Adventures[/I] describes in a fashion similar to characters. This introduces the possibility of running games where the players actually play Nations or organizations instead of characters. Robots, vehicles and starships are designed in a similar fashion, including ship „skills“ and „stunts“, and a whole chapter of examples taken from the comics.

The „Storyteller Tool kit“ begins with chapter 23, „Collaborative Campaign Creation“. This chapter offers a simple and loose system that lets the group work together to design the campaign region together with the worlds and organizations that are important for the campaign. This is followed by a selection of systems to help the game master make the lives of the characters more… interesting. The first option is „Campaign Stress“ – various actions that the players may take produce various amounts of stress, and when certain levels have been reached, predetermined situations occur. Other possibilities include the „Adventure Funnel“ and the plot generator, two randomized adventure creation methods. The tool kit is rounded off by a world generator and a very good collection of game master tips. The last six chapters concern themselves with the various worlds of the [I]Starblazer[/I]-comics. The book offers a summery of the various vague „periods“ of [I]Starblazer[/I]-„History“, followed by a list of the worlds mentioned or features in the comics. Truly epic dangers can be found – both as inspiration and as adventure – in the chapter titled „[I]Starblazer[/I] Legends“, followed by a selection of comic characters (Stats and biographies). Some of these characters are aliens, of cause, and the information on playing a member of one of these alien races is also included. Those game masters who still need inspiration after all this material will find some in the last few chapters: comic antagonists and adventure seeds.

After all that one might think there could not possibly be more that could be included into such a book. One would be wrong – there are still six appendices to go. The first appendix is a quick run-down of the years in which [I]Starblazer[/I] was published. Appendices two and three contain a quick summery of the rules and all important charts. All manner of character sheets, starship data sheets and other paperwork can be found in appendix 4. More adventure seeds are to be found in appendix 5, a collection of generic location maps. The last appendix is the designer’s notes, followed by the very, very large and complete index. This index has to be one of the best I’ve seen in a gaming book, including a section titled „How do I do“, which points the reader to the most important sections.

We’ve all read the words „this is a complete game“ often enough, only to find that we would, in the end, need perhaps one or two other books, and that companion looks good, and the screen has that booklet… Not here. This book is absolutely [B]complete[/B]. Starships, Aliens, galactic Empires, star-eating Space-goats, anything you might want from a weird Space Opera is in this one massive tome (Well, apart from the Space-goats…). Add to all the options the fact that the rules included are not only quick and easy but also customizable as hell, and you have a sure winner. However, I have to warn you – it’s BIG…

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