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Friday 30 January 2015

RPGPundit Reviews: Rocket Age

This is a review of the RPG "Rocket Age", published by Cubicle 7, written by Ken Spencer.  It is the print edition (as always) which comes in the form of a hardcover book, 255 pages long, with a full-color cover featuring a pair of spacesuit-wearing adventurers, and decent black-and-white interior art.

Rocket Age is an RPG after my own heart in many ways.  One of the list of "games I really like but haven't had as many chances to run as I might hope" is Space:1889.  You could easily call Rocket Age "Space: 1938".  The similarities were pretty intense to me, but of course I think this wasn't just a case of borrowing from an earlier game as much as it was a case of being inspired by many of the same sources.  1889 was inspired by Victorian Sci-fi; while Rocket Age is inspired by 1930s pulp sci-fi, and yet the two overlap a great deal, and the overall concept is very similar: terran adventurers reaching out to explore and colonize the solar system in an alternate history where easy space-travel was developed at an anachronistically early age.  In fact, it would seem to me that if anything Rocket Age takes a lot more of its influence from John Carter of Mars than it does from Buck Rogers or Flash Gordon, although it does have the "Rocket Rangers".

Interestingly, the game is also run using the same system as C7's Doctor Who RPG, which I played some part in developing as one of its more involved playtesters (being, among other things, the guy who convinced the designer to use 2d6, and the inventor of the initiative system; which people think was based on some indie-storytelling concept but was actually inspired by B/X D&D initiative). I would refer you to the earlier (recent) review of the Doctor Who RPG for the basic mechanics of the game, which are identical (from what I can tell) to the rules herein, other than a few innovative shortcuts in character creation, and obviously those specific benefits/drawbacks, and other setting-specific elements (tools, monsters, etc.) that are relevant to each game.

On the whole, I'd have to say that these rules are totally suitable to this kind of game.  They're relatively light, fast-moving, and malleable; though I think anyone used to them from playing Doctor Who would inevitably end up getting a sense that they're playing in the setting of some early Doctor story (30s pulp sci-fi not being that far removed from early-60s tv sci-fi)!

The first part of the book is dedicated to detailing the setting, rather than the system (which shows up in the second half).  I generally prefer to see it the other way around: give us system first, then setting, but obviously this is a aesthetic choice more than anything.  The very first thing the book tells you about is the central setting premise: how in 1931, after years of collaboration, Einstein, Tesla and Goddard successfully constructed a rocket ship capable of flying into space.  Einstein and Tesla (along with a young pilot named Ray Armstrong) flew the ship to Mars, where they discovered it was inhabited by an ancient and decadent civilization (think the Carter of Mars stories, or for that matter, Space:1889).  By the early 30s, the US, Germany, France and the British were all sending expeditions, soon followed by the Italians and the Japanese. By the time of the setting's start date, 1938, Mars and Venus have both been at least partly colonized by the human great powers, and exploration has charted the Moon, Mercury, the asteroid belt, Jupiter and its moons, and the exploration of Saturn, Uranus and Neptune have begun.

There are alien civilizations on several worlds.  On Venus, the aliens there are apelike primitives who live in that world's lush and dangerous jungles.  On Mars, the Aliens live in city-states along the canals of this otherwise ecologically poor world; Martian civilization is ancient and the world once flourished but now it is near-dead, with nature only thriving along the canal system.  Martian cities and technology were all built in a golden age but the modern-day descendents of this civilization are decadent and have lost much of their knowledge and skill.  On Europa (a moon of Jupiter, if you didn't already know) there is a highly advanced super-civilization, clearly more powerful than Earth's and not decadent like the Martians.  They seem highly nervous about the human expansion into the solar system, and initially tried to restrict expansion into the outer planets.  There are also intelligent races on Ganymede and Io.

Obviously, a great deal of this sounds a lot like Space:1889.  The premise for Mars and Venus are pretty well identical.  In many ways, I could imagine someone who ran a successful 1889 campaign pulling out Rocket Age and running a 'sequel campaign' with only a few modifications to the setting.   But of course, the later setting date also makes some things a bit different; we're not dealing with the Victorian imperial powers here.  The Germans aren't the tough but still-sane servants of the Kaiser, they're Nazis, so you get to have them as the bad guys, as they plunder their section of mars and engage in general troublemaking on an interplanetary level.  This is quite an improvement in terms of a setting-villain than the 'ruthless Belgians' of space:1889. Plus, if you want more absurdly bumbling fascists, there's even the Italians!

And obviously, both the U.S. and the USSR have a bigger part in this setting.  The U.S. has conquered part of Mars and is pretty active in general throughout the solar system, while the Soviets have brought bolshevik revolution to another part of Mars.

The book dedicates a truly excellent amount of setting material to the main planets, more obviously to Venus and especially Mars than the other worlds.  This setting material (unlike that of the recently-reviewed Victoriana) feels like it's well organized and like it focuses on what a GM actually needs to run his game (rather than irrelevant trivia) and on adventure hooks/inspirational material. Mercury gets two-and-a-half pages, Venus about 13, the Moon gets one-and-three-quarters (its largely a lifeless rock but with some curious ancient ruins that have yet to be explained or fully explored).  Mars gets 38 pages, clearly meant to be the default setting location.  The asteroid field gets 2 pages; and in the Mars section we learn that this field was once a planet, destroyed in a cataclysmic war with Mars that also ruined Mars' ecosystem and led to that civilization's long decline (interestingly, this is also similar to Space:1889, where the asteroid field was also once a planet). Jupiter gets almost 12 pages, divided into its various moons (including Europa, where the ominous super-civilization is found). Saturn gets two pages; Uranus, Neptune and Pluto get three and a half pages collectively; these worlds have barely been explored yet.

On the whole, the setting section is awesome; though there's very clearly one planet missing in all this: Earth.  We don't get much of anything about the homeworld, not even a primer for those people who might not be altogether clear about what real-world Earth was like in 1938.  Never mind the question of just how space exploration would have affected human culture and history from the 30s onward; even if we assume (as the book seems to want us to) that nothing much has changed yet in the 5 short years that humanity has rushed out into the stars, there are still some really pressing questions: is there still a great depression? Is the League of Nations still useless (or even more useless)? Did Hitler still expand in Europe or would he be too busy looking for "lebensraum" on Mars?
I think there was something of a missed opportunity there, even if the plan was to change very little on the home front.  We don't even really get a simple breakdown of the world powers; the closest we get is that Mars has sections detailing each of the colonized/occupied areas by the Earth powers.  At the very absolute least it would have been a good idea to have 1-3 pages saying "ok, these are the major world powers going into space, these are their leaders, this is how they're handling space exploration/conquest, and here's a quick-read index of where in the solar system they are and what they're doing", then have fuller explanations in each planetary entry pretty much as they already did.

The mechanics for character creation start at p.94.  They're pretty similar to the aforementioned Doctor Who rules, but with a few modifications.  You start out with a set of (42) character points.  With these, you must buy a species package (possible species include Earthling, Europan, Ganymedian, Ioite, Venusian and 8 types of Martians, separated by caste).  Then you can buy an Occupation package; this is a great element to reduce the lousiness of point-buy, since it shortens the process considerably.  It is not strictly obligatory, however; with GM approval you could theoretically just make your own set of choices.  Occupations include things like citizen, diplomat, explorer, merchant, military, miner/scavenger, native, scientist, law enforcement, Europan Emissry, Deutsche Marskorps War Walker Pilot, Martian War-Priest, Rocket Pilot, Rocket Ranger, or Venusian Harvititoi (essentially, a 'wanderer'; it's a Venusian thang).
Then you choose any extra skills or traits (the list of traits is a bit different, obviously, from Doctor Who, but still pretty close to the same thing). The races and occupations are given detailed information in their own chapters, as are attributes, skills and traits.

The section on equipment provides a good list of standard terran equipment (cavalry sabers, swords, machineguns, etc.) as well as more unusual objects like Martian or Ganymedian equivalents to the bow, Martian stun balls, Europan Disintegrators, plus some earth-made pulp stuff like Tesla's "RAY guns" ("ray" standing for Radiation Accelerating Weaponry, apparently), armors of human and alien make, vehicles from the 1930s (and pulp sci-fi vehicles like the "rocket car" or "rocket pack"), Nazi mecha (why do they always have mecha?) like the Panzerschreiter (a "four legged war walker with a ray canon") or the one man two-armed two-legged armored vehicle called the laufpanzer. There's a large-ish section on interplanetary rocket ships, including detailing just which nations have them (apparently even the Brazilians have a couple, while the Mexicans have built a single ship but they don't actually use it, just keep it on display in Mexico City as an example of national pride), as well as the UFO-like Europan space saucers. There's about three pages on ancient Martian technology too.  The chapter ends with a section on "equipment traits", which provide statistical guidelines that could be used to make other allowable high-tech items.

The chapter on the system rules is pretty much a repeat of the Doctor Who rules, with some changes to details for the new setting (for example, alien diseases and poison from Mars, Europa, etc.).  As before with these rules, a 'story point' can as written be used for various purposes, and one of these is to "bend the plot" (which really means doing an out-of-character change to the universe).  This is obviously shitty, but it is also something that can be completely excised from the game without any real consequences, thus maintaining the game's regularity as an RPG.  They've kept the same initiative system as in Doctor Who, which means that people talking go first, then movement, then non-combat actions, then fighting; this will flavor the nature of play somewhat.

In any case, the GM section lays out four very clear-cut rules in an excellent way, that makes it very clear where this RPG stands (and if only these rules were found in every regular RPG!):  first, have fun. Second, the GM is always right.  Third, be consistent as a GM.  Fourth, be fair (in terms of not favoring one player over another or favoring pet NPCs or that sort of thing).  Really, if that had been the whole GM section, I'd have found it satisfying (and the way this has been stated is pretty much how every RPG book should be forced to have it!).  But in any case the section goes on to give some relatively useful guidance for what kind of games ('series') you can run with Rocket Age:  stuff like being agents (like say, Rocket Rangers), explorers, alien natives (for an interesting twist), pirates (in space), soldiers, or a ship-and-crew scenario. Five sample scenarios are presented in a pretty broad format, each taking about a page.

The section on creatures is quite good and varied; they very cleverly give a few of these monsters a section on potential plot-hooks; but strangely this seems to peter out and they don't carry on with it throughout the chapter. Even so, you get a pretty good selection (13 alien animals; the first four with plot hooks) of unique alien creatures; not really a full 'monstrous compendium', but enough to give a GM an idea of how to make alien wildlife.

So, to conclude: Rocket Age is a great RPG.  If you dig pulpy sci-fi 1930s style, if you want to go punch space-nazis, engage in exploration of John Carter of Mars-style planetary civilizations, you'll dig the game.  If you liked Space:1889, you'll probably really like this game.  If you enjoyed the Doctor Who RPG, you'll already know the system. Altogether a fine product.


Currently Smoking: Lorenzetti Poker + Image Latakia


  1. It would be interesting to see what you think of the third Vortex system game: the Primeval RPG. Is there a way we can induce Cubicle 7 to send you a review copy? ;-)

    1. I guess you could write to them! Or maybe they'll see these comments.
      Do they do anything different with the system there?

  2. I find it odd that anyone would use such bland, unevocative artwork on the cover of a game I assume he hopes to sell. Whoever designed this would have done much better to look at some pulps or movie serial lobby cards and rip off wholeheartedly instead of this boring image. The best I can say is maybe the artist was going for art deco and failed.

    1. The cover is not really anything to write home about, it's true. It reminds me of some of the less-interesting GURPS covers.
      Ironically, the second image I posted in the review would probably have made a much more interesting cover, even.

    2. Yes, the Rocket Rangers recruitment poster is much more evocative of the setting they are going for. In color it would have made a better cover.

    3. Their other setting books have had fantastic covers BTW.