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Wednesday 12 October 2016

RPGPundit Reviews: Interstellar Overthruster/A Star For Queen Zoe

This is a review of the twinned RPG book "Interstellar Overthruster" and "A Star For Queen Zoe".  It's a single book, with one half covering the first title, and the other half (flipped reverse from what would otherwise be the back cover) being the second title. This is a review of the print edition, which was written by Jed McClure, with no listed publisher.

The book is a slim volume, made in a style highly reminiscent of the old "Traveller" booklets; with "overthruster" being 62 pages long, and "Queen Zoe" 34 pages long. The cover of the former features an image of a field of hexagons with a starship flying over it, and the latter features what looks like an old heraldic crest with a rocket as the central motif.  The interior art is black and white, with some maps and comic-style drawings.

So Interstellar Overthruster is presented as "a set of rules to generate a hexcrawl sandbox game in a space opera setting". It should be noted that it is not a set of game rules; instead it would theoretically be used with some set of sci-fi rules from an existing RPG.  The author lists games like Traveller, Stars Without Number, and Copper Sea as his inspirations, so presumably the mechanics could be used in those games.

The presumption of the setting is that there are many worlds that were at some point colonized by humans, but that some cataclysm cut them off from contact. There are also non-human aliens, which would have varying cultures and levels of technology. The setting also supposes that terrestrial human-like life (that is, animal life capable of existing in the same general environments as humans) is the most common type of life. It is also listed as a presumption of the setting that every star system will have something unusual about it.

The assumption of the setting is that the PCs are space explorers coming from one of these worlds just emerging out of a dark age, and going forth to discover or rediscover the local star systems. Alternately, the PCs could be explorers from a more civilized area of space, going out to the far frontier regions to map new worlds/civilizations; or they could be lost in an uncharted region of space, due to some kind of wormhole accident or the like. Anyways, you get the general idea. Whatever the reason, the PCs are travelling through space, on a ship, in an area they know almost nothing about.

There's an interesting detail to the methodology the book suggests when it comes to rolling up the hexes of the space sectors you're creating with Interstellar Overthruster. Normally, when I was rolling up a sector of space for Traveller for example (or for that matter, of random wilderness areas in D&D), I'd choose a whole big section, and roll it all up ahead of time. Then I'd figure out how each area rolled fit into a greater whole.

But the author of this book suggests the exact opposite. In fact, he emphasizes in bold that the GM "should resist" rolling up all the star-systems beforehand! Instead, he claims "the intention in the rules is that the referee rolls up each hex at the table", in front of player view, or even let them roll the dice. The justification is that this helps to "maintain suspense". And the GM should only incorporate each located area into the larger campaign after the fact.
In fact, the book argues that you should start out the campaign by taking a blank 'subsector' hex map, and roll randomly to choose a starting hex where the ship begins (and just start rolling random star systems from there).

The also book suggests that resource maintenance is important; some guidelines are given for the handling of supplies, fuel, parts, and oxygen for the PCs' starship.

I'm not sure I'm convinced. I mean, sometimes I do that exact thing, when I'm winging it. But to take that up as a matter of absolute principle strikes me as a bad idea. An entire campaign run that way can very easily look half-baked.

The intended play process covers three main phases. The "scanning phase" is performed from an adjacent hex as the PCs (on their starship) are exploring.  Here is where you would roll to see if a hex has a star system and any qualities thereof.
The "survey phase" is conducted when the PCs reach the system, and here is where you roll to see the number of planets.
Finally, the "contact phase" is where an away-team goes to some inhabited world and encounters the intelligent life forms there. This is where rolls are done to determine just what that life and its culture consist of.

Each of the phases are very well delineated, with a sequence of random rolls and tables. You roll first to see if the area of space has some kind of unusual detail (like if it's under control of some alien race, or is part of a weird space phenomenon, a nebula, or plasma cloud, etc.).  Next you roll to see if a given hex has a star system of some kind in it. If it does, you check for the type of star; the table included is quite detailed in terms of the various star types.

The survey phase involves figuring out the types of planets in a system. A set of roles determines how amenable to life potentially habitable planets are; qualities of gravity, moons, atmosphere, climate, hydro-sphere, and ecosystem.

The "Contact Phase" is used to determine the specific type of lifeforms; first the most dominant indigenous lifeform (which may or may not be intelligent), and then to see if a lost human colony is present. A human colony, if present, could be at anything from totally stone-age to advanced space-faring technology level. There are tables to determine what the purpose of the colony originally was (if it was military, a mining operation, agricultural, a prison world, etc.), and optionally the dominant human ethnicity. Finally, there's tables to determine if the world also features a presence of an advanced space-faring alien race, present as a research mission, military base, or colony. And likewise a table to determine what form of government either the human or aliens present might have.
There's also a 'cosmic strangeness' table to determine if there's something weird about the world or system.  This is rolled on a d100 table, so there's a good amount of variables.

This is the whole of the "Interstellar Overthruster" half of the book. I have to say, while the tables here are not identical to those in Traveller or other sci-fi games with world-making mechanics, they also aren't so unique and different that they would stand out to me as radically special. Yes, it's not as technical or trade-focused as what you get in Traveller, and a bit less hard-sci-fi. But I certainly wouldn't say these tables are generally better than Traveller, or even that they make more interesting world-building results. They do, however, make a slightly different 'style' of world. More 'soft' than 'hard' SF.

So now we get to the flip-side of the book, the sourcebook/campaign "A Star For Queen Zoe". It starts with a four-page in-game fiction piece; which is on par with almost all other game fiction. That is to say, a waste of space. After that, in the introduction to this book, the author talks about how as a teen he was tremendously impressed by Traveller's universe, but never ran a campaign there, as its scope was just too huge and intimidating. Thus, he clarifies, his system for sci-fi setting creation, and his Zoe campaign, operates on a far smaller and more intimate scale. And it creates the setting as the Player Characters go along in it, the theory being that in this way everything in the universe of the setting will be oriented around the PCs.

It's said that the Zoe setting, which is usable for any sci-fi ruleset, does not have any kind of overarching plot. Instead, it provides background for the main planet ("Essex"), and then tools for exploring the sandbox of the local uncharted space.

The default concept of the Zoe setting is that it's been some 1500 years after humanity began to expand into space. Colonization happened in waves, first by sleeper ships then by FTL. Terraforming allowed for the remaking of worlds into earth-like environments. But a great plague managed to wipe out human civilization and lead to a dark age.

Essex, the starting world, just began being colonized when the plague hit. On top of that, a quirk of the world caused an incredibly cold period every 22 years. Thus the Essex colony bordered on total collapse, and colonists ended up regressing and breaking into warring camps. Technology fell to 1800s level.

Details are provided for the various kingdoms of Essex.

Two years before the start date of the campaign, an Earth starship landed on Essex, re-establishing contact.

Obviously, the campaign setting (like Interstellar Overthruster itself) is set up to be system-neutral, but it does have some add-ons for character creation.  There's a very simplistic mechanic for rolling for social class (I say simplistic, because there's totally same odds for getting to be a peasant as to be titled aristocracy; something that I strongly suspect was not designed to reflect the intended social divisions of the setting). There's also a list of suggested professions, with some suggested specialization/skill-titles for each profession.
Then there's a list of possible skills along with what ability score should govern it (the abilities being the D&D baseline). Note that these latter skills are not the same as the specializations that each profession has (which have no governing attribute and are far more broad subjects).

There's also a very simple table (d10, where 10 means 'roll again twice', so only 9 actual choices in all) of special resources your character might have on Essex.  These range from having a 'secret sordid past' in a criminal underworld, to being an academic prodigy or natural athlete (these two give the vague suggestion of granting a 'bonus to skills', without stating what that bonus should be).

There's a section describing the role of psionics on Essex, but with the suggestion that if your game doesn't have psionics then the section can be ignored wholesale. In either case, no actual psionic rules are provided, only guidance on how to integrate psionics in terms of how they are treated on the planet Essex.

At this point we get to the adventure setup. The PCs are on a mission for Queen Zoe, the queen of the kingdom of Richmond.  It is revealed to the PCs that Essex is going to be turned into a colony of the Terran Empire, unless Essex can establish an interstellar empire within two years. This would seem impossible, except that a polar expedition of Richmond's found an intact scout ship, long buried. The PCs are asked to take this ship, go out into space, and find a suitable world to claim as a colony of Richmond.  This will alter Essex's status for the Terran empire, which will be constitutionally forced to make them a member-planet rather than an (inferior) colony (and will put Queen Zoe at an advantage over the rival King John who is allied to the Colonial officers from Earth). The PCs will receive some basic training for the mission; they will also have to watch out for Terran agents, who will likely  not want Essex to succeed.

A floorplan is provided for the scout ship, and a list of provisions.  They will be accompanied by a pilot and an engineer, who are very briefly described.

And that's it. There's a starmap, but all that's filled in is the hex for Essex and the immediately surrounding hexes.  Everything else is unexplored territory, and is meant to be filled in with the system provided on the flipside of the book in "Interstellar Overthruster".

So all in all, this is an odd little product. It amounts to some detailed rules for a make-it-as-you-go system of space exploration, and a very basic campaign setup. These rules are different from other rules, but not radically different. They're neither intense hard sci-fi (far from it) nor are they incredibly gonzo; they're just fairly middle-of-the-road soft sci-fi; maybe even more mainstream than Traveller, what with the lack of emphasis on trading.  The one conceit of the product is not actually anything to do with with the mechanics or setting material per se, but rather it is the slightly gimmicky notion that the GM should have to roll up each patch of space only as the PCs themselves get there.

I think that if you are already running or planning to run an OSR-style science fiction campaign (be it for Traveller, Stars Without Number, White Star, or any other type of game), and if you find the conceits of Interstellar Overthruster and its methods appealing, then this book might be worthwhile for you. Particularly if for some reason you do not find the various other 'space sector generation' mechanics (like in Traveller or other products) to be quite what you're hoping for.

As far as I can see, that's the only condition in which this book will be of use to you.


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  1. Sounds pretty awesome to me. I'm all about the roll-as-you-go method. This could be a worthwhile asset to Alpha Blue, particularly if the campaign is less silly, sleazy, and gonzo than what I provide.

    1. There's zero sleaze in Interstellar Overthruster. So yes, I guess it could be used to help normalize an Alpha Blue campaign!

  2. It could easily be that the PCs home planet is isolated and wholesome, and as they venture out to the stars, they find it is a sleazy violent universe like Alpha Blue/Farscape/Lexx.
    Some of the results on the Cosmic Strangeness Table could work as Alpha Blue adventure hooks. Actually result 46 is an orbiting space brothel, run by a 300kg inscectoid pimp named Bar-thak. A GM could have that be the Alpha Blue Station, or simply something like the alien casino from the old BSG pilot.