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Saturday, 9 April 2016

RPGPundit Reviews: Foreign Element

This is a review of the RPG "Foreign Element: Science Fiction Roleplaying", published by Precis Intermedia.  It is written by Nathan J. Hill.  The book is a softcover, 100 pages long, with a full-color cover of a very typical sci-fi scene (of a couple of people in armor by a starship on an alien landscape aiming large blasters at some kind of extraterrestrial life).  The interior art is relatively sparse, in black and white, and features some images of sci-fi landscapes or explanatory images of things in the game.  The art, though sparse, is high-quality.

(EDITED TO NOTE: The cover here is slightly different from that of the actual physical copy of the book)

I should mention that the book's publisher, Precis, is also the publisher of my Lords of Olympus and Gnomemurdered games.  There's even a full-page ad for Lords of Olympus at the back of the book.  In spite of this, I feel confident that there won't be any danger of bias.  Even so, now that you know you can judge that for yourself.

The core premise of the game is of a "cinematic and fast-paced science-fiction roleplaying in a universe gone mad".  The back cover explains the larger context: "Humanity's ambush (ed: ambitious?!) push into the stars is halted with a mysterious even known as the Great Blackout", where thousands of ships, colonies etc. all mysteriously go silent.  The PCs are agents of the "Interplanetary Union", sent to investigate the cause of this mysterious situation.

The introduction to the game sets up this scenario, with the game taking place only three years after this mysterious silencing of many of the outer colonies.  In the 30th century humanity had expanded to a vast area of space, in a combination of a centralized human government along with the efforts of (typically corrupt) mega-corporations. You know, just once I'd like to see an RPG that featured corporations that were not corrupt or evil. That might just be the libertarian in me talking, but it would also at least be a creatively bold move.

Now, the PCs are a mix of heroic volunteers, forcibly conscripted criminals and malconents, and government and corporate agents, heading off to some of the lost colonies to try to figure out what happened. The introduction to the book consists of a mix of straightforward explanation and in-game fiction.  The switching back and forth between the two is a little awkward.

After this we get into some setting details: outlines are given of the current situation in the solar system (Earth, Mars, Venus, the Global Com Space Station), and also some of the systems that did not disappear in the "great blackout":  Andromeda Regal (a luxury world for the ultra-wealthy), GR-77 (a rich mining world), Island (a world full of corporate headquarters), and Nokish (a tundra world that became a major refugee center after the blackout).

Then we have a list of major players in the setting: the Interplanetary Union (which is the PCs' boss and the last vestige of centralized government), and the various megacorporations, which are somewhat stereotypical.  You have the opportunistic megacorp that makes crappy stuff and steals people's ideas, the unethical megacorp that gets rich of weapons dealing while engaging in corporate espionage, the desperate shipping megacorp that is Too Big to Fail, the outright evil megacorp mercenary company, the flashy starship megacorp that hasn't been following safety regulations, the shady R&D Megacorp that's really eager to get back some of its projects that vanished with the blackout, the innovative AI Megacorp that's secretly worried its AIs are going nuts, the abusive entertainment megacorp that takes advantage of its reality-show stars, and the crappy food megacorp that is obsessed with corporate branding.  You also get a listing for a mysterious and influential association of war veterans, a wikileaks-like organization of truth-tellers that are a thorn in the side of the government and all those corrupt corporations, and a seemingly progressive and enlightened new-age non-profit organization beloved by everyone that just might be holding onto terrible secrets (including having known the blackout was about to happen).

We're also given info about the state of technology in the setting, describing in brief what spaceflight technology is like, terraforming, biomedicine (the average human lifespan is somewhere around 150), weapons, robots, and other gear.

After this, we're told about some of the big fish among the lost worlds, those places that might be particularly interesting to get back to, and those that have dark secrets that complicate things.

After this, we get into character creation. Characters are created by selecting one of six possible archetypes, and then modifying their basic stats to individualize the character. Archetypes are: volunteer, mercenary, corporate agent, ex-con, government agent, or offworlder.
Characters have six basic traits: prowess, smarts, empathy, toughness, focus and reflexes. Characters also have certain 'marks', which are descriptive qualities that can add a bonus to the basic trait level.  For example, "gunslinger" adds to focus, "loves to talk" adds to empathy, "Certified doctor" to smarts, or "dance instructor" to reflexes.  Characters also select a core motivation, which is what drew them to join the team to search out the 'blackout' worlds.

On the whole, character creation is extremely fast and easy, but I could see some players not caring for how structured it is, or how it lacks randomization.

Next we get into task resolution.  First, we are told that events happen in 'scenes', which are 'just like a tv show or movie'.  Not really the way I like to frame play. Scenes have a "scene difficulty number", which has to be dropped to zero for the scene to be resolved. Hmm, sounds very gimmicky and anti-immersive.

Actions are then handled by choosing a trait relevant to the action, adding any relevant marks, and then rolling a number of D6s equal to the total of trait+marks.   You also get 2 bonus dice for any action that matches your motivation.  You count any even-numbered dice result as a 'success'. Successes subtract from the scene difficulty. If the PCs figure out some very clever way to approach the problem, the GM can choose to double the successes.

You can also get bonuses from using equipment, from a highly abstracted 'equipment pool' that depletes in a completely artificial fashion, not based on any actual immersion in the virtual world or real resource-management, just totally arbitrary.

What the fuck?! I thought this was an RPG!  Apparently not. What happens in the game is not based on resolving actions as based on the world, but on a totally abstract system for handling abstract difficulties. What a huge let-down.

There is at least some lip service paid to there being actual other things in the world so that it's not just all a complete Potemkin Village.  With very important NPCs (e.g. 'named villains'), as opposed to mooks, you can roll opposed checks, where you subtract successes from the opponent's successes, and only the difference from the two is subtracted from the Scene Difficulty (presuming the PC got the higher of the two success numbers).

You can also create scenes with multiple scene difficulties, where there are different challenges in the same scene.  For example, if you were in a firefight even as you need to open a door, you would have one scene difficulty for the fight and another for the fight.  You can also make scenes that have deadlines, for example if you were defusing a bomb, where you would need to eliminate the Scene difficulty before a certain number of turns had passed.

In combat and other perilous situations, every round where the Scene Difficulty hasn't been eliminated, the enemy forces will make a roll to see if they inflict damage on the PCs (which will be opposed by the PCs' reflexes or toughness rolls). If they do not beat the successes of the attackers, they take damage.  There's some suggesting that this mechanic could also be used to inflict other kinds of more abstract or social consequences in non-combat scenes. Damage (in regular combat, that is) is taken to toughness.

Characters who die can be brought back to life with nanotechnology, although this can have side-effects, and PCs only have an automatic allotment of 3 extra lives, after that they will need to obtain special approval or purchase additional lives.

In space combat scenes, enemy spaceships have their own Scene Difficulty. Pilots make prowess checks to avoid damage to their ship, while those manning weapons make attacks. To escape an enemy ship piloting checks are needed.

Characters can ostensibly flee a scene without resolving it; the text on this as written seems to suggest that this can, again, happen in a completely arbitrary way without actually considering what is going on in the virtual world of the game.  The GM is also allowed to add any unresolved Scene Difficulty points to a later scene, again, potentially in an arbitrary fashion.  Now, a sensible GM might impose certain structure on these mechanics based on what is actually happening in-setting, but the rules as written do not seem to demand that.  Again, really disappointing.

Experience in the game is based on obtaining monetary 'credits' for missions accomplished.  These can be used to purchase more extra lives, gain new marks or traits, and pay off debts.

The next chapter, "stories in space", ramps up the pain by telling you how to "get started down the path of making some great, great stories". We're told that Foreign Element replicates the "(often) terrible science fiction B movies". Then we get some information about what type of mission objectives you can set, and suggestions about how to incorporate a character's motivation into the adventure.  On the whole, the rest of the chapter from here, at least, does not turn out to be so awful as the introduction to the chapter suggests.

There's also a section on 'hordes' (aliens and creatures), which suggests how to base the Scene Difficulty that any given monster or group of monsters represents; some samples are provided in very simple statblocks (scene difficulty, prowess, and any special quality they might have).

We also get sample vehicles (a couple) and some sample villains.  For the latter there's "the ooze" (an alien blob), an insane survivor, an insane AI, and an assassin.  These are the 'named' opponents, so they have more full stat listings.

Finally, the chapter gives some consideration as to just what it is that really caused the Great Blackout.  Four different suggestions are given as to the cause, some of which are better than others.  To avoid spoilers I won't list them here.

The last regular chapter of the book is a sample adventure (about 15 pages long), entitled "into the red planet".  I'll note the 'red planet' mentioned in the title is not Mars, but one of the planets lost in the Blackout, a mineral cornucopia that was owned by a mining megacorp. The adventure involves dealing with an AI gone nuts, with native alien life forms that are hostile, and with the few desperate human survivors of the doomed world.   The adventure itself is somewhat linear bordering on being a bit railroady, but on the whole it's not bad.  The handling of the system is fairly sensible, within the limits of being a system that has an excessive level of abstraction for my tastes.

The book ends with a few appendices.  Appendix A is a short and idiotic politically-themed essay by the increasingly annoying author.  He tells us about how much of an optimist he is but that the game is one about screwing up the future.  He talks about how evil 'corporate excess' and 'rich people' in 'their gated communities' are.

Appendix B. is the table for unusual reactions to the nano-tech resuscitation process.  It's a table that's rolled on 6d6 but has only five results.  Most of the results involve changes to one's abilities as a result of imperfections in the cloning or rebuilding process or whatever.

At the end of the book is the character sheet and, ironically at this point, a full-page ad for Lords of Olympus.

So, suffice it to say that Foreign Element is a game that is not to my tastes.  It can't quite be defined as a storygame, but it is definitely a game that is full of bad fashionable notions of designs influenced by the Forge and other Swine.  It also comes down to being mostly uncreative as a setting, aside from the mildly creative premise.

I think on the whole you would be better off checking out some other sci-fi RPG, personally.  Precis' own classic RPG Shatterzone comes to mind!


Currently Smoking: Lorenzetti bent billiard + Rattray's Old Gowrie


  1. I'll stick with Traveler '77.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. Thanks for taking the time to review this. Your take on the corporations is a little off though.

  4. Well...the title is good. :-)