Wednesday, 17 February 2016
RPGPundit Reviews: The Necklace
This is a review of "The Necklace: a Starcluster 3 Game", written by Clash Bowley, Albert Bailey and Klaxon Bowley. It's published by Flying Mice games. I should preface by stating that Flying Mice is the publisher of my very first RPG: "Forward... to Adventure!" and its sourcebook the "Forward... to Adventure! Gamemaster's Notebook!"
I don't think that's likely to have an effect on the quality of my review, but disclosure is important.
As always, this is a review of the print edition, which is a softcover book in the standard format common to all Flying Mice games. The book is 245 pages long. It features a full-color cover of a kind of painting of two dark-skinned people touching foreheads to each other. One of them appears to have some kind of gecko on their head. I have to admit that by the cover at least, you don't get the slightest clue what the hell this game would be about.
The back cover shows an image of what appears to be some kind of either hovercraft or spacecraft floating on water, next to a forested island, with a pair of people rowing a primitive canoe toward the scene in the foreground.
Still not much to go on but slightly more informative than the front cover, I guess. The interior art is sparse, black and white, mostly in the photo-realist style of art that is typical of Flying Mice games.
The back cover does also have some text, where it tells us that "The Necklace" is "a ring of breathable gas in space; a river a billion miles long; asteroids covered in vegetation; three human and one alien culture; a symbiotic brain parasite; a thread of silver with emerald stones". Much more informative than the images, but in some ways leaving us with a lot more questions than it answers.
The text of the book jumps right in to telling us that The Necklace is actually "the thickest part of a gas torus around a neutron star, itself part of a binary with a hot F-type star". This torus developed life, and atmosphere. A very advanced species which evolved on the core of the gas giant ended up engineering the torus, establishing more asteroids, and a gigantic river that circles the neutron star, and brought in a variety of strange species. Then they buggered off.
The inner dense part of the torus is thus breatheable, and about 20000km in diameter, there's a wider band that is livable for certain types of creatures but not humans. The River that circles the torus is a 'gravitational artifact' made by the superscience of the former inhabitants. It has rafts of vegetation that are liveable, it also has many ruins from the ancient builders. In the peripheral area there's a zero-g environment which still has atmosphere and has a wide variety of plant and animal life, entire 'spherical jungles' floating in the zone.
There's also a cluster of asteroids formed by the builders, which is connected by loops into the river. These contain a variety of self-sustaining ecologies, with a variety of species brought here by the builders. The area is called "the zoo". Additionally, there's a huge bubble-sea called the "Ocean Globe"; the river does not quite connect to it. Finally, just outside of the atmospheric envelope of the torus there are a half-dozen massive asteroid-stations. Each of these have their own population.
On top of this, the book also tells us about the old core of the gas giant, an icy water world in the system, and its moons.
That's a pretty huge setting.
But just as we're getting a taste of it through the overview, the book switches over to mechanics, specifically the "Company creation rules". This is a variation of a very common feature of many recent Bowley games: rules for creating a framework to justify the existence of the PC party. This includes tables to determine the group's 'capital', the type of company it is (some examples include 'trading company', 'resource extraction company', 'bounty hunters', 'pioneer unit', 'pirate company', 'politician's henchmen', 'diplomatic mission', 'cult/religious', 'courier service', 'musical/theatrical group', and a few more), and the composition of the company (whether they're a cooperative run by the PCs, part of an extended family, a node of a criminally funded group, a state-financed group of agents, a private company funded by venture capital, etc. etc.). You also generate the group's home base; which can include things like an asteroid, warehouse, trading post, a derelict ship, a secret base dug into an asteroid, a river rock, lab, city-state, habitat, nomad camp, bubble sea habitat, cathedral, etc. But the home base is not randomly determined, it can be purchased with the group's capital; and you can choose to purchase the 'good quality' version, or the 'poor quality' version of the base. You can also purchase security forces, spy networks, vehicles, medical assets, research libraries (with details on the types of subjects covered and the likelihood of information being found with them), training facilities, etc. You can also expand your company over time by generating fame and effort.
After this, each type of group gets several story seeds. They're very short, but helpful.
Character generation is handled by getting a set of base stats (str, coordination, agility, endurance, charisma, and intelligence) and then rolling to modify each of those base values. A non-random method of generating variations is also provided. There is also a luck, psionics, and social class stat, which can be raised or lowered giving a deficit or bonus of points.
Following the establishment of your base attributes, the next step is to choose certain augmentations, then get background skills. You then get into a Traveller-style lifepath method of advancing the character. He may take higher education, go into a profession, advance in the same; however long you do this, you can end up with a character that has more skills, but is older. You can also choose to get implants, and then you choose some character traits, and get equipment.
There's also derived stats: constitution (which are hit points, in essence), attribute modifiers (for use only with certain task resolution methods, more on this later), and skill chances or attribute multipliers (used likewise in other methods).
Time for some detail on the racial choices: aside from your standard humans, you have several options. "Carnivales" are described as "low tech level" humans, originally from Brazil on Earth. "Altisherpas" are humans that have been genetically engineered to live in zero-G environments. "Rasi" are high-tech level humans who live along the River. "Pucks" are aliens native to the world embedded in The Necklace. "Javans" are humans from a gas giant moon in the same system. And "Hermeans" are humans from another gas giant moon.
The Pucks are actually a dual symbiotic race, consisting of the Losonta and the Elena. The Losonta described as "winged omnivores who can walk upright on their back paws". They have three fingered hands on their arms. They're furry and have leathery batlike wings, stretching from their pinky fingers to their hips. In a planetary gravity, they can glide, but in the lesser gravity of The Necklace they can fly. They were apparently pets of the ancient 'builder' aliens. They have no intelligence without the Elena.
The Elena are cat-sized slick silvery creatures with no eyes and six tentacles. They perch on the head of their Losonta host and grant their host sentience.
In other words, this is the person with the 'iguana thing' on its head in the cover of the book!
A note about the presence of space-Brazilians, and humans in general: the background of the larger Starcluster setting (which I had previously reviewed) is that human ships escaped from Earth on the verge of an extinction event, and ended up settling the vast area of space known as the Starcluster. In the case of the Carnivales, they were escapees on a Brazilian spaceship named Carnivale. The ship broke up on entering the Necklace, and the survivors were left with practically no technology, and within a short time went down to a low tech level. Thus, the Carnivales now have a renaissance-level culture along the river.
The Altisherpas, Rasi, Javans, and Hermeans all came along on similar ships, but had more luck in terms of preserving their tech levels. The Altisherpas (descended from a ship full of Nepalese, Canadians, Swiss, Filipinos and Bolivians) used genetic engineering to breed their descendents to adapt to zero-G life. They live in a megacity that was built around their old starship. The Rasi (descended from a ship full of Norwegians, Koreans, New Zealanders, British, Arabs and Malians) settled in a series of towns on the river. The Javans (descended from a ship full of Zulu, Sudanese, Norwegians, Chinese, and Ukrainians) landed on the major moon of the gas giant in the system, a cold water-world covered in ice; they are the only interstellar culture in the system (with ships able to travel to other systems). Their culture reproduces in artificial wombs, considering natural childbirth to be a primitive and risky anachronism. The Hermeans (descended from a ship full of South Africans, Inuit, Icelanders, Mongols and Malayans) settled on an ice-moon in the system, living in deep underground settlements.
There are also rules for genetically augmenting your character. People from races of Tech Level 8 or higher can get augmentation depending on their social class. These augmentations include bonuses to ability scores, but also special qualities like exotic appearance, enhanced senses, leaping, innate weaponry, bursts of speed, special immunities, etc.
There's considerable detail on the lifepaths and skills gained by the different possible choices for education and career experiences. There's quite a lot of these, and they're also organized by culture (for example, the Carnivales have special education paths that reflect their more primitive society). Professions often have pre-requisites, but also a percentage roll chance of a 'waiver', of someone being able to get a job in spite of not qualifying for the pre-requisite.
The skill table is quite large, and PSI skills are also included (these are things like telepathy, healing, psychic interrogation, psychic stunning, or telekinesis, among others).
Like many other Flying Mice games, The Necklace features the oddity of having multiple task resolution mechanics. In this case, there's the "Starpool" mechanic (which is a d20 dice pool), the "Starworm" mechanic (which is a different kind of d20 dice pool, a more storygamey type, utilizing 'stakes'), and the "Starnova" mechanic (which uses a d6 dicepool). Equally curiously, the different mechanics are set up to work using the same stats (with only a few tweaks), so that you don't need three entirely different RPG systems.
The equipment section gives guidelines for pricing and the variable tech levels of the different cultures around The Necklace. There's your standard list of sci-fi technological devices. Encumbrance is settled simply by saying that a character should only carry whatever would be 'reasonable'.
Special attention is given to technological implants. These each provide benefits, but can also give drawbacks. For example, computer jack implants allow one to have an edge on computer checks, but if a computer goes down while a person is jacked into it, there's a 50% chance they'll be stunned for an hour. Subcutaneous ballistic armor provides damage resistance, but it reduces one's agility. There's a list of special equipment available only specific cultures (the rasi, altisherpa, and the puck). There is of course a list of weapons, both archaic and high-tech.
After this, we get to the part on Setting Creation. This is done by making a kind of map; you mark a central spot, and then draw a curvy line around that spot, marking the path of the river through the play area. Then you begin doing a set of random rolls to determine points of interest in the setting. These elements can be things like large rocks, asteroids, freestanding structures, the bubble sea, shallows, reefs, a wreck, etc. You roll a percentile die to judge roughly how far it is from your central point on the map.
Each set of randomly determined elements can then be flushed out with their own random tables; for example a rock in the river might be a Carnivales settlement, a Rasi settlement, a trading post, etc.
A freestanding structure can be a trading post, an ancient builder race ruin, a rasi shantytown with poor gravitics, a factory, etc.
Settlements are then further developed, generating their size, technology, important details (like if they have rich food stocks, mines, merchants, lumber, a cultural center, etc.), and even more specific cultural oddities. So for example, if the settlement is corrupt, has odd gender roles, gambling, the people go nude or wear elaborate shoes or the women wear veils, if there's certain taboos, if people engage in drug use, or practice religious dances, etc. The particular details of each settlement depends on cultural type; so a Rasi settlement will have different details than a Carnivales settlement. There are similar settlement tables for multi-species trading posts or pirate hideouts. Permanent settlements also get rolls for the quality of infrastructure or living facilities.
This is probably the most interesting and innovative part of the book so far; it certainly allows for the generation of a unique sandbox area!
We also get similar setting design random tables for the space stations, including their amenities, facilities, services, how many cultures are found in the station, and cultural oddities.
If you're lazy, there's also a 15 page sample play environment with stuff ready-made.
All in all, a fantastic chapter!
Next we get a section slightly less interesting to me, but maybe interesting to others: starship design. There's a step-by-step process for starship creation, from the hull, armaments, passenger cabins, medical, scientific, entertainment, etc.
Ships can be given 'traits' like "reliable", "comfortable", "unpretentious", etc.
There is likewise a set of vehicle rules and rules for vehicle modification.
There is a final short section at the end, about three pages, on creatures. It really isn't much more than a couple of sample alien creatures.
All in all, The Necklace is another good product by Flying Mice; but like most of their games, it won't quite be for everyone. Even so, in this case there's some really great old-school style goodness in the setting-creation rules, even if the mechanical part of the rules might not be to a D&D-fans liking. The setting material can be run quite rules-neutral, meaning that if you wanted this to be a really weird setting for a Sci-fi OSR game, you could use it that way.
Of course, if you like slightly rules-heavy Sci-fi with slight resemblance to Traveller, you might like the rules here. And if you're already a Starcluster fan, you'll probably find this a great addition to the various books/games set in that universe.
Currently Smoking: Mastro De Paja Bent Billiard + Rattray's Old Gowrie