Wednesday, 28 January 2015
RPGPundit Reviews: Machinations of the Space Princess
This is a review of the RPG "Machinations of the Space Princess", published by Postmortem Studios, written by James Desborough, with illustrations throughout by Satine Phoenix. I mention the last one because I certainly think the particular style of the art is significant enough to make an impact, a psychological one at least, on the mentality the reader will approach the game with: the book itself (I'm reviewing the print edition) is a smallish-sized softcover some 232 pages long, with a glossy full-colour cover and black-and-white interiors; and the artwork borders between the cartoony and the sophisticated, with images that scream out "gonzo space opera".
I've been reviewing a number of sci-fi games with old-school leanings lately: there was Hulks & Horrors, Traveller (the Mongoose edition) and now this one. You'd think it might get repetitive, but in fact each game has a slightly different and unique tone (I'll add all are also slightly different from Stars Without Number, as well). Traveller (and SWN as well) is fairly serious, hard sci-fi. H&H is still serious though not exactly hard, with a "dungeon crawling in space, with some weird stuff" motif.
Machinations of the Space Princess is by far the most gonzo of the games in question. The description the author provides for it is "Sexy, sleazy swords and sci-fi".
Of course, that's somewhat to be expected, given that the game is a sci-fi game derived from the "weird fantasy" game "Lamentations of the Flame Princess"; and written by the (fairly infamous) James "Grim" Desborough, a figure embroiled in (and, in my opinion frequently chasing) seemingly endless controversy that fuels outrage for his career and very person among the pseudo-activists of the hobby for what they perceive as his often offensive content.
The real question in reviewing the game, then, is just how well it stands up as a game, rather than an exercise in salacious offensiveness or posturing. "Lamentations of the Flame Princess", for example, does quite a bit of posturing of its own (its creator James Raggi being somewhat of a like mind to Desborough in that sense), looking to intentionally shock with its content and art alike; but at the same time its one of the most kick-ass versions of D&D I've ever had the pleasure to read and play.
Does Machinations measure up?
Well, let's get started: to begin with, Machinations does involve a kind of assumed-setting, a little more detailed than LotFP does, but without really becoming a full-blown detailed setting a la Greyhawk or even Traveller's "Imperium". You won't find a vast chunk of detail on the specifics of the setting. Instead, most of the setting-implications are built-into the rules (for example, there's a vast variety of alien life, so you have a character creation system where you can mix and match all kinds of alien qualities), along with a few tid-bits of highly optional setting flavor (for example, on the bottom of each page there's a one-line phrase that details some kind of setting flavor, ie. "the Ghantian Church is bankrupting itself hiring assassins to take out pornographers", or "the book of Dai, a martial arts handbook, is a total scam traded by con artists").
The premise is that most of known space was governed for a thousand years by the Urlanth Matriarchy; this empire has now fallen into disarray when the previous Empress was assassinated unexpectedly and her 99 daughters took to fighting amongst themselves for the succession. At the same time, various other groups who had chafed under the Matriarchy's rule have broken into rebellion, including various guilds/corporations and part of the (male) military that have embraced a radical "male liberation" ideology. Remember what I said about Desborough courting controversy? This sort of background concept would probably be tolerable had anyone else written it up (though the pseudo-activists would complain about it regardless, unless of course it was one of their pet authors who was writing it, then it would be "brave"), but when its James Desborough who is doing the writing, he's basically once again painting a big target on his forehead.
Mind you, none of the above is extremely significant in terms of actual play; the setting is sufficiently "implicit" that a GM could choose to just totally ignore it, there's nothing in the game that forces you to bring sexual politics into a campaign if you don't want to, and most of us probably don't.
System-wise, being based off of LotFP, it plays (as LotFP) does, quite similar to Basic/Expert D&D. There are some variations from LotFP, however. Saving Throws, for example, are a roll-under mechanic based on 1/2 their governing attribute. Attributes can be rolled by a variety of methods. There's complex race and skill choices to be made; more about these below.
Speaking of attributes, as well as the six standards, Desborough has added Unearth Arcana's "Comeliness" attribute, which we thought we'd never see again! But there it is.
Now, one would think in what is described as a "Vast" galaxy filled with multitudinous aliens, physical attractiveness wouldn't be very important at all, and certainly wouldn't be something "objective"; one would assume that the prettiest human would be just as ugly as any of the rest to an 8-armed Insectoid creature of Deneb IV. But no! Apparently in Desborough's world, how hot you are follows objective boundaries across species. I mean, I know why he says he did it (because its supposed to be "sexy sci-fi") and I know why he really did it (because he's obsessed with getting attention to himself and courting controversy as the perviest RPG designer on earth... and let me say, after reading Courtesans, much less Maid or Carcossa, he's got his work cut out for him, because Machinations is all pretty mild stuff really compared to things in those, or in a whole lot of the Forge games you never hear the Pseudo-activists complain about). But seriously, did Desborough really have to include comeliness? I think it (and all the other allegedly "titillating" parts of this game) add nothing to what would otherwise be a solid production.
One interesting but problematic detail about character creation is the "race traits": to simulate a setting that is supposed to have an immense plethora of alien species, a long list of different physical, cultural, and miscellaneous qualities have been provided. A PC can choose up to three of these without penalty, beyond those choices he starts to lose points to his various ability scores. Traits include a wide variety of things, from qualities like venemous, to cultural qualities like "spiritual", to exotic stuff like "methane-based". My main problem with this is that its not done by some kind of random system; instead, the expectation is that players will look through the VERY long list of stuff, and go along picking stuff up; I suspect this would lead to a stupid amount of min-maxing and a very lengthy character creation process.
To be fair, in the appendix at the end a few sample races are provided, as well as tables for random trait generation. I do think, however, that these should have been the default, and selection the option. That would have been more in keeping with old-school play.
There are four basic classes in the game: Expert, Killer, Psion and Scholar. These are all pretty self-evident in terms of what they do, though there will be more info about psychic powers later.
The Skills system will only add to the complexities of character creation (one of the best features of LotFP is how fast character creation works; clearly that is not something that gets repeated here, between racial traits and skill choices). Skills are divided into different categories (like "everyman", "general", "Scholastic" etc) and each has its own list of potential skills. Classes get a set number of skill points with which to buy stuff. Skills aren't just knowledge-type skills, but also stuff like "sneak attack", or combat skills that often mimic 3e-style feats. There's also "psi skills" which are not the main powers of a psionicist but additional stuff they can get (like psychic defense to reduce damage from psychic attacks, or training that reduces an opponent's saves against your own psychic attacks).
In all, while there's an impressive amount of material for fooling around with character creation, I'm very unimpressed by how it fails to keep the old-school aesthetic of structured fast character creation in favor of a "choose whatever you like"-type of process which is time consuming and leads to attempts at character optimization. I think Desborough's lack of experience or natural affinity with the OSR is shining through here: this is not his natural environment.
Experience, leveling, hit points, etc. all seem to work in pretty much the standard way; with the notable exception that the rules as written state that any money earned that isn't spent by the end of the adventure is lost in "carousing". This definitely isn't Traveller; it isn't even standard-play D&D; characters in Machinations can never end up being wealthy, though with these rules they'll always be as well-equipped as possible. I don't particularly care for these rules, because of course it ends up taking options away from the PCs; you can't have a player character that wants to become rich (at least, not successfully).
Armor works as damage reduction rather than AC bonus by default; and there are rules to optimize or specialize armor.
Weapons, at their most basic level, are kept very simple, but once again like armor they are provided with all kinds of options for specialization.
Starships are handled with statblocks, and operate on a level of "scale" (where for example, the damage one can do to a starship is divided, or multiplied, by the "scale" of the starship relative to the weapon). There are some very basic examples, but once again you have a big list of potential customizations.
There's also all kinds of miscellaneous equipment, retainers and services, and also cybernetics. The latter can be better than their flesh-and-blood equivalents, but also bring with them risks of ability score loss or mental problems.
Next we get to basic task resolution; skills are rolled on a simple D6 (in the same style as specialist skills in LotFP); and there are rules for things like disease, poison, radiation, recreational drugs, falling, wilderness survival, the vacuum of space, sneaking, healing, etc.
Later on, there are also rules for wealth levels and basic lifestyle maintenance.
The combat system is pretty standard and aside from aforementioned details isn't too different from LotFP's. There is a cool "permanent injury" table for those who have survived being brought down to negative hp.
The starship combat section is only a couple of pages long, and it suggests that in Machinations, everyone who is on board ought to get to participate in some fashion and that "these things aren't just empty gestures", but here there is no particular quantification of how PC actions should be meaningful (aside from pilots or gunners, of course, which is pretty straightforward). There's a vague implication that things any other character does can add a point to a ship's statistic for a round, or repair a point of damage, but given that some of the suggestions include "offer moral encouragement", that brings us right into abstract-mechanic territory, which I'd consider a big OSR-no-no.
Psionics work in a way similar to spells; with psionic powers having different levels (from level 1 to level 9 in power). A psionic PC can choose a certain number of powers, and has a certain number of points he spends to use each power. The powers are often direct equivalents to certain D&D spells. The list is not incredibly large, but certainly large enough to accommodate a basic campaign.
There's about six pages of very straightforward sort-of-simplistic "advice for players" (though I have to admit, the idea of advice for players is in and of itself refreshing, since normally we only get a "GM advice section"); then about 14 pages of advice for GMs too, properly speaking. It includes advice like how to express a "big" universe, how to bring the "sexy" (nothing explicit, though also not very useful, but it tells me a few things about what Desborough believes to be the definition of "sexy"; including "cool guns", "biker jackets", "musky scents", "simple and understandable motivations... the desire for food, sex, money and power being the top four", and everything from what we do with "computers, advertising, cities, crime, drugs and sex... and dial it up to eleven"). He also explains how to bring on the "sleazy": "sleaze is a certain aesthetic, that of the bar and strip club, that of biker clubs and bawdy houses, of adult book stores". I don't know about you, but I don't particularly want my RPG campaign to take on the ambiance of an 'adult book store'.
The GM is also given some very basic instructions on how to put together an adventure, and what to avoid (like railroading). The section then moves seamlessly into a more practical (and mechanical) set of subjects, like templates for designing traps, creating monsters, generating "goons" (of different degrees, from "cannon fodder" to "hard bastards").
After that, it shifts back again into the less concrete and equally less useful, talking about how to put a group together and where to play; do people really need this kind of advice?! I skipped all this bullshit altogether when I designed any of my games, because I simply assume that 99% of the people who will buy my small-press game are ALREADY GAMERS. I don't really need someone to tell me "gaming shops often have play spaces that you can use to meet up at". Really? Does anyone seriously think that's really going to be a necessary piece of advice to 99.9999% of anyone who will ever give a second glance to a small-press hobby-driven RPG?!
Ok, let's move on: we get to the section of how to make worlds. First, there's a random table of 100 plot hooks related to a world. That tells me at least that this section has its priorities straight: generate what could be interesting to the PCs about this world, and THEN design the mechanics of it. The rules for planet creation are pretty simple, mercifully based on random tables (unlike almost any of the other rules for design of anything so far), and sort-of take inspiration from Traveller but are clearly far more gonzo. You roll a D20 for "type of world", for example, with lists like "desert world", "ice world", "tomb world", "city world", etc. And governments are generated the same way. None of Traveller's careful mathematics here, but I think it probably works for Machinations. There's also rules for planetary allegiance (ie. are they part of the Empire, or allied to one of the rebel factions), religion and religiosity, population and cosmopolitanism, and a d100 table for "interesting features".
Next up, there's a sample adventure: "The Siege of the Proxima Bar". Its intended to be introductory, its about 10 pages long, and there's nothing particularly special about it; there isn't even anything particularly salacious about it; with the exception of the presence of a pair of "stripperbots", and a bunch of rampaging naked clones (male clones, if that makes any difference), neither of which are played up for any kind of "naughtiness"... at least, I'm really hoping that this isn't what Desborough thinks of when he thinks "sexy". If so, he certainly shouldn't take up a career in romance writing (shit, or even porn writing).
In the last real section of the book, you get a listing of some sample goons and sample creatures, only about 6 pages worth, but hey, its something.
The appendix or "reference" at the back is quite detailed: it contains the aforementioned sample races and trait generation tables (as well as random tables to determine appearance), sample detailed weapons and armor, sample ships and vehicles, optional carousing tables to determine everything you did with all that lost money (the tables are quite detailed), a list and summary of all the species traits, and finally the character sheet.
So to conclude: first of all, in spite of the author, and the claims the author makes, this game is neither particularly sexy nor exceedingly sleazy. As usual with James Desborough, what we do get is a touch of sophomoric (I'd dare to say adolescent) titillation and cheap controversy that is radically overblown both by the author himself and his howling critics.
But in that case, how does it hold up as a game? Particularly, in comparison to other old-school sci-fi games? For starters, the production values are better than Hulks & Horrors, though not quite as good as Stars Without Number or Mongoose Traveller (though depending on one's artistic tastes, some people might enjoy Satine Phoenix's drawings more than what they'd find in those other games).
In terms of mechanics, I think that Machinations is certainly more complete than H&H, but its also less streamlined; furthermore, its less elegant than Trav or SWN. If you use random tables for racial traits, you avoid one major pitfall of the system in terms of the length and potential for abuse inherent in character creation, but even then you still have skills to contend with. These complexities of a burdened character creation system run counter to one of the central points of appeal of old-school play: the quick generation of characters.
All in all, if you like any of the games I mentioned above, or likewise if you're a Lamentations of the Flame Princess fan, you'll be likely to find stuff you'll like about Machinations too. Its got some flaws, but there's certainly a good amount of redeemable material about it too. On the whole, I'm lukewarm here.
Currently Smoking: Winslow Crown Cutty + C&D's Crowley's Best
(originally posted November 28, 2013)