Thursday, December 6, 2012

Review: Starships & Spacemen 2e

First of all, I would like to congratulate Dan Proctor for getting Starships & Spacemen 2e (S&S) out in a timely fashion. Of all the various Kickstarter and Indiegogo projects I have had the disposable cash to contribute to, Dan’s is the first to actually show up at my door.

S&S is a loving RPG tribute to Star Trek and all of the sci-fi imitators it spawned. If one has been a regular reader of my blog over the years, you might be surprised that I would spend money on something related to Star Trek. Admittedly, I do not much care for the franchise, especially in its most recent incarnation. As I have grown older and wiser, I have found the foundational principles of the Star Trek Universe to be dangerous, I have found myself deeply offended by episodes of TNG and I never really bothered with either DS9 or Voyager because of the lazy way they went about telling their own stories.

I did, however, grow up around Trekkies and remember with great fondness watching original episodes, the short-lived animated series and the first movies with those Trekkies. Though I never shared their enthusiasm, I did learn to appreciate why they had that enthusiasm. Thus, the idea of divorcing Star Trek from its foundational utopian illusions while capturing the enthusiasm that I grew to appreciate so much really appeals to me — especially when one considers that S&S is part of the Labyrinth Lord line of products with the built-in potential for a mash-up of Star Trek, Mutant Future and a D&D retro-clone.

My initial reaction when I did my first perusal of the rules was mixed. I laughed out loud with glee when I found out that there are rules for playing Red Shirts. That in and of itself makes the purchase of the game worth every penny and I truly hope that I get the opportunity to take full advantage of those rules some day.

However, Dan’s claim that S&S is “fully compatible” with LL is a bit of a stretch. For example, combat uses a mechanic where the goal is to roll below the target number. I assume that this is an homage to S&S’s Fantasy Games Unlimited roots (Villains and Vigilantes uses the same mechanic), but it does necessitate a bit of conversion if that Star Trek/Mutant Future/D&D retro-clone mash-up is to happen anytime soon. I will grant that the conversion is relatively simple, because the percentages of each system is basically the same; however, since every monster in the monster section assumes the roll-low mechanic, such a conversion will take some time upfront in order to reproduce the Armor Class of all those cool new monsters.

Here are some of my thoughts after a more thorough reading of the game:


Character creation will be very familiar to those who have ever played D&D; however Wisdom has been replaced by Psionic Potential. There is a very cool universal table of bonuses that has four columns. Each column is used in different contexts as detailed with each ability.

When determining a class, characters choose from one of three branches — Military, Scientific, or Technical. Each of these branches has sub-classes (for example, Military has Command, Security and Fire Control subclasses). These sub-classes will offer a secondary skill (more on that later) or other mechanical bonuses. If one eschews a sub-class, the character receives an experience point bonus. One can also choose between being a CO or an NCO. The CO track requires more experience points to advance and has more mechanical bonuses while the NCO track requires less experience for advancement and allows players the joy of being a Red Shirt.

Over-all I think this is a rather clever way of dealing with classes and is a loving homage to Star Trek and its ilk. The one draw-back is that one player in every group has to take the Commander sub-class. The upside is that every party gets to command its own ship regardless of level.


There are eight different races available: Adromedans, Daelans, Dreipeds, Gorrans, Humans, Hykhot, Rigel and Taurans. There are plenty of homages to Star Trek races plus a few extra with built-in racial and political baggage with each in addition to all the various mechanical bonuses one receives. One of the nicest touches is that each race has one of three Metabolisms which determine body chemistry and therefore susceptibility to various diseases etc.


Since this is based on Star Trek, which laughably got rid of a money-based economic system, equipment is not based upon how much money a character has, but rather by their branch and rank. In addition, there is an optional rule where a party can have a stash of extra equipment that can be traded out depending upon the needs of a mission.

While I don’t think the origin of this system is very realistic, I do like its elegance and could see it easily justified within the context of a military organization regardless of genre. This is certainly one of the modular rules that I would like to experiment with in other frameworks.

Skill System

As seems inescapable with modern or sci-fi RPGs there is a nascent skill system. It is broken down into three types: Primary, Secondary and Other. Depending on the level of the character each skill type has a target number. Primary starts out at 60%, Secondary at 45% and Other at 30%. If one considers that Combat is one of these skills, that means that Military Branch characters are twice as effective in combat than other Branches. In comparison to LL classes, Military Branch characters are slightly more effective in combat than Fighters overall, but every fantasy class is going to be a better combatant than either a Technical or Science Branch character.

Despite my normal reticence about skill systems, there are two things that I like about this one. Firstly, it is wide-open enough that one could easily see both of the following scenarios play out in the same game session:
Player: Since an object in motion wants to stay in motion, if we apply that to our current situation we should get the outcome we want. Star Master (the S&S version of a GM): Sure. Done.
Player: Captain, if we redirect the shield capacitor to reverse the current in the thrust of the nacelle unit, we should be able to force the door open! Star Master: Okay. Roll versus your science skill (with a bonus if said phrase of technical jargon was performed in a passable Scottish accent).

Secondly, this has potential further applications in other contexts. For example, if one wanted to create a non-Vancian magic system for a fantasy world, this is a potential model for how to proceed. Various classes would combine different skills-groups including combat, divine magic, arcane magic and other non-combat skills. The success or failure of a particular spell would be based upon these skill tables and could be modified by the difficulty of the spell, the number of people trying to cast the spell, the place where the spell is being cast, etc. This is another modular section of this game that I will want to experiment with.

Starship Combat

One of the most frustrating aspects of any sci-fi RPG for me is spaceship combat. There is inevitably one class that is significantly better at it than anyone else, which makes things frustrating for anyone who is not a member of that class. If the party is on one ship (as in S&S) there inevitably won’t be much for everyone to do, since the unit of combat is not the individual character, but the ship. There is also the real possibility of a TPK if said ship is destroyed. This can be made much worse when there is the possibility that there will be players who had no way to control or influence the outcome.

S&S tries to mitigate these failings in two ways. Firstly, all ship actions require Energy Units (EUs). EUs also determine when a ship is destroyed. Thus, combat requires that each ship decide how and when EUs are allocated. This gives an opportunity for every member of a party to have a say in the outcome of a battle. Secondly, starship commanders are required by military doctrine to flee combat when their EU count reaches 25%, and there is a mechanic that allows for this retreat. Thus, the chances of the TPK due to the destruction of the party’s ship is minimized (though not eliminated).

Overall, I must say I like this section of the game. It has a nice tip of the hat to Starfleet Battles without all the complication. It also has all the elegance needed to be a potentially fast and exciting part of the game.

World Creation

This is perhaps the weakest part of the whole book. Dan understandably (and correctly) assumes that most sci-fi games actually suffer from having a pre-generated setting. It often consumes the game and makes the task of the GM too daunting to even try (later versions of Traveller are an excellent example of this). Unfortunately, the reverse is also true. Creating an entire sector of space from scratch is also a daunting task — much more so than a small wilderness map on which is a town and a dungeon.

Although Dan provides an example sector map and a sample adventure there is little else in terms of guidance with which to create your own maps and adventures. Thus, S&S does little to inspire confidence in overcoming such a daunting task.

Perhaps S&S suffers from a comparison with Stars Without Number (SWN) which has an absolutely fantastic system for creating not only entire sectors of space with awesome descriptors which inspire adventure after adventure, but has rules for factions that might exist within that sector of space. Fortunately, SWN has a free version, so it is very possible to simply use SWN’s sector creation system for use in an S&S campaign.

Final Thoughts

I am not 100% satisfied with S&S. As a stand-alone product it does a very good job of emulating a Star Trek-type sci-fi game. While the lack of a world generator is annoying it is far from crippling. I am not a big fan of the roll low mechanic (it is one of the few things that I don’t like about V&V). I don’t know why, but the aesthetics of rolling high just appeal to me more.

The strength of S&S, however, is not as a stand-alone product. Rather, it is another set of modular options within the Labyrinth Lord line of products. The reason that LL remains my favorite of all the various retro-clones out there is that it is designed to be modular. We are free to pick and choose various sections of rules from each of these products to make our own unique home brew without having to house rule. Want a 0e-style elf? You got it. Want mutant plant PCs? You got it. Want an extensive AD&D-like spell list? You got it. Now, with the addition of S&S you have the option of space combat, alien PCs, a robust system for running a military-type campaign and some intriguing possibilities for a simple skill system and a non-Vancian magic system.

Ultimately, it is this modularity that makes S&S such a good product and one that I am very happy to have in my library.


Dan of Earth said...

Thanks for the review! The roll high versus roll low issue was difficult for me to resolve when I was deciding on a design. Classic D&D avoids this because the only skills are percent-based rather than d20-based, so they don't conflict with the attack mechanic. Even though you could look at attack ability in LL as a "skill," it isn't articulated that way. In the end I felt most people would have trouble grasping, or at least aesthetically dislike, a skill that starts high and goes down each level. But as you mention, it can be converted without too much trouble. For monsters and AC, if you want to convert to LL you start with a baseline of AC 9 and subtract whatever number is listed under Armor in the S&S creature listing. So for example a sand dragon has Armor -5, which translates to AC 4. There are really only a couple of places where a simple conversion is necessary, and I will post a short conversion document in the near future.
Thanks again!

FrDave said...

Thank you, Dan, for continuing such great work on the LL line. I am really pleased to hear that you are working on a conversion document to make all that upfront work a breeze! I look forward it. Again, thanks.

Doc Savage said...

Thanks forthe review. I was wondering about this game and you did a good, in-depth job.