Friday, November 02, 2007

The Tabletop: Battlestar Galactica- The Roleplaying Game

Roleplaying games. I play them, when I have a group, and I've reviewed them for before. They're a unique hobby and medium, and the books are always a fun browse. So, I'm going to start posting game reviews up here, and fellow geeks can enjoy, and everyone else- well you can read them too, or just read the other articles. I said I'd been planning to expand the site's remit a bit. So, to start, the official licensed BATTLESTAR GALACTICA RPG. (The following review, minus this intro paragraph, appears on here.)

Back before the new BATTLESTAR GALACTICA actually made its way to our screens, word got out that showrunner Ronald D. Moore, in the series bible no less, had proclaimed that “Our goal is nothing less than the reinvention of science fiction television.” How could we possibly have expected him to deliver on that? As much as the skepticism of sci-fi fans before the miniseries aired is derided now, with the show not just a cult phenom but a mainstream critical darling, comments like this (along with rumors of sexy female Cylons and the like) couldn’t help but make me skeptical, reacting the same way I would to the young guy who walks into a boxing club for the first time and proclaims he’s ready to take down the champ. (Granted, for this metaphor to work you have to assume I’ve been in a boxing club and not just seen them in movies.) Even when the show was on it took me a while to warm to it; it was dark and intense and grueling, not really my style. But around when I caught the second season finale (the one where they demolish the status quo about halfway in) I realized there was quite a lot going on, and quickly became wrapped up in the show’s unique blend of gritty drama, moral ambiguity, and pure mind-frackery. I remember hearing about the RPG a long while back, but was a bit surprised when I happened to see it on the shelf at the local big bookstore. I’m not entirely sure why I wrote all that, but consider it context.

The BATTLESTAR GALACTICA roleplaying game comes to us from Margaret Weis Productions, Ltd., the group behind the popular and award-winning SERENITY RPG from 2005. This isn’t quite as good a pedigree as it sounds, as the SERENITY game, while not bad, lacked a few things like explicit rules for starship combat (and, in early printings, a character sheet), and felt rushed to come out roughly around the same time as the movie. Seeing that this game uses the same system as SERENITY, which didn’t exactly blow me away the first time I saw it, made me seriously question the policy of every game company having one house system that they apply to everything by default. Still, I picked the book up, and I think it’s a success. It’s a solid system matched to setting material that gets the vibe of the series down right and offers many suggestions for expanding the game’s possibilities beyond standing behind Commander Adama as he does everything cool. There are a couple of areas where it doesn’t work so well and a few nitpicks, and it’s a bit pricier than I expected, but none of that really does much harm.

So, the premise. The Cylons, sentient robots who a while back rebelled against their human masters and left to find their own home, have come back with the intention of exterminating us all instead- and they generally do a good job of it, driving humanity from its home on the Twelve Colonies and sending a group of less than half a million survivors off in search of the fabled Thirteenth Colony, known as Earth. The Cylons, who have now evolved to the point where there are versions that are almost indistinguishable from humans and “resurrect” on death to pass their experiences along a nearly-infinite line of clones, are in hot pursuit of the capital ship Galactica and the fleet of civilian transports it both leads and defends. Resources are scarce, tensions are high, and nobody’s really entirely sure that Earth actually exists, let alone knows where it is. So, it’s up to the PCs to defend humanity, or screw the whole thing up, and also to deal with personal drama and the moral question of whether humanity is worthy of survival and so on. Full character write-ups are given for the main characters of the show (well, most of them- it’s a big ensemble), and the thing seems to be “set” at about the start of the series. (Practically, a licensed RPG inevitably lags behind any ongoing source material due to lead time and the approvals process and so on- I’m not exactly sure how long the lag for this game was, though they obviously don’t incorporate a lot of later series developments.)

Characters are defined by six attributes- Agility, Strength, Vitality, Alertness, Intelligence, and Willpower- a decent-sized selection of skills, some derived attributes, and finally general Traits that can have roleplay or mechanical effects. What really defines the Cortex system is that these are all defined by die type- the overall scale reaches from d2 to d12 and some combinations thereof. Human attributes range from d4 to d12+4 (for some characters) and skills start at d2 and go as far as d6, but specialties can go as high as d12+d4. You get points to spend in each category based on whether your character starts as a Recruit, Veteran, or Seasoned Veteran, each level respectively getting more points than the last. Interestingly enough, character generation also incorporates, as a roleplaying mechanic, the idea of a character’s “home colony”- since there are 12, and they all relate to star signs (Caprican, Sagittarian, etc.), you can use the stereotypes for each world to influence your character concept. It’s kinda neat and a nice kick for ideas- after reading that Aquarians had a reputation as storytellers, I latched on to the idea of a grizzled writer of pulpy adventure novels, trying to find a useful place in the middle of a genuine war. Point-buy is relatively easy since every attribute costs its maximum die value in points (6 points for d6 and so on), with skills being similar but kind of different due to specialties. Equipment is basically a matter of GM fiat, since the Colonial economy has more or less devolved to whatever’s on hand. Experience comes in the form of Advancement Points, which can be turned into Attribute Points, Trait Points, and Skill Points (albeit expensively.)

Traits where were I was most apprehensive about how well the game would emulate the source material; I remembered them from SERENITY as not always covering the various psychological quirks I wanted to give my characters, with the expectation that these things would be roleplayed out. Which is all well and good for that setting, but on BATTLESTAR GALACTICA characters don’t just have drama; their drama impacts on their ability to do their job, and it’s not just the obviously crazy people (see Baltar, Gaius) who have issues. Traits are divvied up into Assets and Complications, each rated with a die type, sometimes with that die coming into play on actual tasks, while other times it just represents the cost. Again comparing against SERENITY, there seemed to be just a few more psychological/roleplaying Complications, and most Traits have a variable cost representing degrees to which they work for or against you. This works pretty well, and I haven’t run into any problems yet. Well, one- there’s no “Dark, Potentially Life Destroying Secret”-type Complication, though I’m sure most BSG characters have at least one (and this ties into something I’ll get into later.) I’d still have preferred something like the Madness Meters in UNKNOWN ARMIES or even PENDRAGON’s Virtue/Flaw system, but this’ll do. Of course, there are also the more tangible Assets and Complications, like Two-Hand Fighting and Dull Senses and the like.

Anyway, so far, so good. The basic system is a beat-the-target-number affair- you roll your Attribute plus Skill/Specialty, plus any modifiers, and try to beat a target number. There are 8 categories of action to roll for, ranging from “Easy” (difficulty 3) to “Impossible” (difficulty 31), and each also has a number which, if rolled, represents an Extraordinary Success at said task. Most rolls involve a Skill, but “Attribute” rolls can involve two Attributes or one rolled twice. There are three of these that are actually common enough to have names- Endurance, Initiative, and Resistance. One wrinkle I like is that with opposed rolls, characters can actually roll different Attribute/Skill combos for the same task if they go about it a different way- the example is Starbuck, Tigh, and Boomer playing cards, and one trying to bluff, one trying to be cautious, and one looking for tells. There are Complex Tasks, which have much higher difficulties that you reach over a number of rounds of rolling. Plot Points are supposed to play a big role in overall play- every character starts with six, and they can be spent in play to add dice to an action, add to the total after an action (more expensively, of course), reduce damage, and manipulate the plot in small ways. As far as dice go, one PP gets you a d2, two a d4, and so on up- and each die has a “minimum bonus” equivalent to the points you spent, so if you spend 6 points for a d12 and roll a 1, you still get a 6 added to your total. That’s a good guard against one of the common frustrations of “add a die” mechanics. Judging from the play examples and online chatter, you’re supposed to spend these points frequently, and earn them equally frequently as well- you get them for various plot and roleplaying accomplishments, coming up with cool ideas, etc., as well as playing out your character’s complications.

Combat works mostly in terms of opposed rolls, as you’d expect, and there are a number of modifiers which cover most major situations. Damage is based both on the weapon and by how much you exceed the difficulty, and each character has an equal amount of both Stun and Wound points, both based on Willpower and Vitality plus any relevant Traits. When you run out of Wound Points you’re dying and have to make Endurance rolls to stay alive until treated. Looking at the damage most weapons do and the average number of Life Points characters have, this comes across as a reasonably lethal system- combat is dangerous enough to reflect the rough, gritty nature of the show, and while a lucky shot is unlikely to kill a character outright (especially with Plot Points in play), it’s going to be enough to make him or her think hard about getting out of the situation as soon as possible. It’s hard to say how well this works without having had the opportunity to actually playtest it, but on paper it looks good. We finally get a Starship Combat system in this book, and it works on much the same principles; Ranges are different (given rather counterintuitive names like “Skirmish”, “Capital”, “Short DRADIS”, and “Long DRADIS”), and there are rules for vehicle pursuit and operating a vehicle you’re not quite strong or quick enough for and so on, and it covers some common show situations like escaping from a missile that’s locked on to you (though not shooting it down, which happens a couple times in the miniseries.) One qualm I have is that the damage system for vehicle combat doesn’t really reflect damage to specific ship systems, like FTL drives and landing gear and so on, when in most sci-fi movies and shows, BSG included, that’s most of what happens- a gimbal fails, sensors are acting wacky, so you have to do X to fix the ship and can’t use that system until you do. The rules imply that the GM can roleplay or rule on specific effects, but it’s a bit unsatisfactory. On the other hand, there’s a very good sidebar about how to run the big battle scenes the show is known for- zoom in on the stuff your PCs are involved in, zoom out to show the players some of the major effects of the combat, etc. We get stats for most of the major ships in both the Colonial and Cylon fleets, including, of course, the Galactica itself (there are also some nice interior maps.)

The Game Mastering section combines general advice on running an RPG (involve the players, share the spotlight, that sort of thing) with specific talk on the themes pervading BSG, as well as campaign building and adventure building and all that fun stuff. There’s nothing here that’s terribly new but it’s all solid, and the writers definitely “get” most of the conflicts and ideas inherent in the series. This section also talks about the Cylons a bit, and what we know and don’t know about them. The final chapter contains a number of writeups for supporting characters, both specific and generic, and including the Cylons (numbers 6 and 8 are statted out, albeit without Traits.)

This brings me to the game’s one major omission. When I was thinking of characters I would like to make for this game, the concept of a Cylon infiltrator or sleeper agent came up. I expect this is not atypical thinking. Now, the game doesn’t say you can play a Cylon. It doesn’t say you can’t. It doesn’t say “well, maybe, that’s up to the GM”, or “look for this to be addressed in the BATTLESTAR GALACTICA GAMEMASTER’S GUIDE”, or anything. I find one mention of it that seems to imply it as a possibility, but they never say so explicitly. The idea seems either to have not occurred to the writers altogether, or (more likely) been dealt with somewhere that got cut for space reasons. To be sure, it’s something you can easily kitbash- the basic information on humanoid Cylons is on page 211, and there’s nothing really game-breaking about them except their tendency to come back from the dead with extreme regularity. Now, the timeframe the book covers may have something to do with this. In the early episodes the Cylons were mostly distant and mysterious, and it’s only relatively recently that we’ve actually seen more of their culture and interactions, but even then you have one major character who’s unwittingly a skinjob, and it should have been obvious to everyone involved that every single player group would have at least one guy asking to be Number Six (though come to think of it, the kind of guys who would ask to play that character are usually the people who should not be allowed to under any circumstances.) I really hope they get around to addressing this in supplemental material, because it’s a very curious thing not to mention.

This is an attractive looking book- I’m not sure about $45 attractive, but then again it’s been a while since I’ve bought a new corebook and maybe that’s just what they cost nowadays. As a nice touch, all the pages have these little “missing corner” borders to reflect the look of paper in the BSG universe, and the whole thing has a vague military notebook feel. The text also tries to emulate a kind of genre-appropriate tough-as-nails tone at times as well, but it’s sort of inconsistent about it and the colorful intros don’t mesh well with the straightforward gamespeak. There’s the rare goofy collision between the two, as with “When you need to know if you succeed for (sic) fail, the Cortex System stands tall.” The writing’s not bad but I think there are certain narrative voices that don’t go well with rules for roleplaying games. On the upside, the appendix supplies us with all sorts of military lingo, as well as a full wireless “alphabet” (Alpha Bravo Foxtrot, etc., and this is actually the first time I came across an explanation as to why this practice is used.) There’s a decent-looking character sheet as well, and a good-sized index.

The word that best describes the BATTLESTAR GALACTICA RPG is “solid”. It looks like it’ll work just fine for a campaign based on the show, or even the classic series if you’re so inclined. There’s a degree to which I wish it were as daring and dynamic and wild as the show itself, or at least had more of that spark. But I can’t let such a lofty standard demean the achievements of what is, as far as I can tell, a good RPG that most fans will have a positively grand time with. You could do a lot fracking worse.

Grade: B

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