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Sunday 11 December 2016

RPGPundit Reviews: Starcluster 4: Zero Stage

This is a review of the RPG "Starcluster 4: Zero Stage". It's published by Flying Mice Games, and written by Clash Bowley, Albert Bailey and Klaxon Bowley. As always, this is a review of the print edition, which is a softcover book, clocking in at 112 pages. The front cover features a full-color illustration of a trio of what appear to aliens (though in fact the two in the back might just be blurrily-drawn humans) exploring some kind of large weird cavern that gives off the look that it might actually be the inside of some giant creature (in the style of the asteroid-monster in Empire Strikes Back).

The back cover features a cheesecake-shot of an alien; I would say a female alien but it's actually a Jeshen, who are hermaphroditic.

The interior art is relatively sparse, and in the typical Flying Mice style of illustrations that look like they are based on doctored photographs of people; mainly more pictures of Jeshen, along with some starmaps and cartographic maps of worlds.

This book is a part of a new series of Starcluster books whose goal it is to be a complete product for those who "want to just pick up and play the game". The material for players is "pre-created/selected" allowing players to get right to business.

This is also a new edition of Stacluster, with changes from the previous "Starcluster 3" edition, mainly simplifications.

The setting itself is "Jeshen Space", a system where humans arrived as refugees of a sort (from the basic setup of all the Starcluster series of books, where humanity expanded outward into the stars to escape the destruction of Earth), and in this setting they are a junior species to the native Jeshen who run things. There's thus a lot of opportunity for interesting social roleplaying in terms of inter-species interactions.

The Jeshen themselves look very similar in terms of general shape to humans, but they're not actually related to humans at all. Jeshen mostly look like short human females with spotted skin, a tail, and sharp teeth (being a carnivorous species). In fact, as I already mentioned, the Jeshen are hermaphrodites, a species capable of performing the reproductive functions of what humans divide into male and female (that is, a Jeshen can both impregnate or be impregnated by another Jeshen).

At the base timeline of the setting, humans and Jeshen have been living together in the system for centuries, and generally get along very well. This includes relatively common occurrences of human/Jeshen interspecies romantic partnerships, though of course they're not actually capable of interbreeding.

The book then gets right into character creation. And I have to day, it is definitely vastly more streamlined than the earlier version of Starcluster or other Flying Mice games.  This is, to me, a very good thing, having a strong dislike of very open-ended unstructured character creation.

You start out by having a racial profile to choose, either Human or Jeshen. This has baseline stats for the character. You can use random rolls to modify each of the core attributes to add a personal touch. You also pick some traits related to attributes.
Then you choose skill templates. First there's a set of background and basic education templates, these give you some starting skills. Background templates are selected according to one of nine qualities of social class (Poor, middle class, rich, etc.).  Education templates are divided into nine educational backgrounds: hard knocks, apprentice, engineering, management, pre-med, science, art, military, and athletic.

Then you choose your age, which gives you a certain number of points with which to buy career packages. These packages work through a set of lifepath-trees. So for example, in the "academic" tree, the starting point is 'scholar', from which one can then move into 'lawyer', 'clergyman' or 'teacher', and each has further choices ('teacher', for example, moves on to 'professor' and then 'dean').  Certain professions have pre-requisites besides prior professions, like already having certain skills (that would have to have been obtained either from background, education, or some prior job).

Each step in the profession tree grants you some new skills. The older your character's starting age, the more points you have to buy your way up the profession trees, but after a certain age you get penalties to attributes.  High-end points in profession trees can also grant "Edges", which we later learn give a +1 to the target number of any roll the player can reasonably relate to the subject of the Edge.  These subjects are pretty broad and general, stuff like "disease" for a medical specialist, "Protect" for a bodyguard, or "explosion" for a stunt man. And yes, all of those are actual professions on different trees.

There's quite a lot of profession trees to choose from. The various categories are: academic, art, athlete, business, civil service, criminal, emergency, entertainer, hunter, machinist, medical, science, server, sneak, soldier, space, warrior, and writer.

Interestingly enough, unless I somehow missed it there doesn't seem to be any part of the book where the skills are explained. They are listed, by name, arranged under the attribute that governs them; so for example we know that Discern, Discipline, Organize, and Study are all skills related to the Endurance attribute.  We also know any skill over +2 must veer off into 'specialties', so for example "Discern" has "observe, acquisition, assess, and alert" as specialties. But nowhere that I found is there an explanation of just what "alert" is, or how it is different from "assess"; or what exactly is covered by Discern itself (except maybe via the hint of what it's specializations are).  I don't personally think this is much of a problem, it's clear that the point here is to be fairly broad and open as to when players are allowed to use a skill bonus, and for this to be ruled by the GM.  But I could imagine some gamers more anal-retentive than I might feel rankled by the lack of clear explanations.

There's also a one-page optional set of rules for "PSI skills". It's pretty bare bones, suggesting to combine PSI (which is an attribute in the game, but has no skills related to it) with skills from other areas, so for example, a psychic who also has the 'conceal' skill could use PSI+conceal to psychically blend-in with his surroundings; or someone with the 'missile' skill could combine PSI+Missile to create a medium range psychic bolt doing 1 damage per success.   It's clear that this is totally optional, and that's fine, but the guidelines don't even give a suggestion as to how to determine if a character would be psychic or not.

Unlike earlier Flying Mice games which sometimes had a variety of different possible resolution mechanics, this game comes with one single fairly simple mechanic: the "Starpool" system. In it, you roll 1d20 plus 1d20 per skill rank. Each die that gets equal or less than your relevant attribute rating counts as a 'success'. If you can invoke a trait, you get two dice. If you can invoke an edge, you get a +1 to the effective ability score. The GM can modify checks by a +1 or -1 on the effective ability score to reflect small modifiers; or by +/- 2 dice to represent big modifiers.
Initiative is a simple D20.

The entire rules for basic mechanics takes a single page.
The only significant rules besides this that aren't found in character creation itself are the rules for damage with weapons and armor; these take up about one or two extra pages.

While I strongly dislike dice-pool systems, I have to admire the brevity and simplicity of these rules.  At the same time, there are no examples of complex play and such, and pretty much all cases are left up to the GM to wing it from that very basic set of skeletal mechanics. Some GMs might feel it is too little structure. For me, it's fairly good.

This gets us a little less than halfway through the book. All the rest is dedicated to the setting. The setting in question is Jeshen Space, described as a region of ten stars. Jeshen space is controlled by the Jeshen but has a substantial human population as well.  When the human refugees came into Jeshen space and made first contact with the more technologically advanced Jeshen, the two totally different races found they were surprised by how similar they appeared to one another (a case of parallel evolution), and also, just how well they got along. They had the same sense of humor generally speaking, the same sense of appreciation of music.  In spite of humans being omnivores and Jeshen carnivores, they even enjoyed each other's food within those limits. Humans initially thought the Jeshen had to be some kind of strict matriarchy, and only after a while (essentially, after a human and Jeshen decided to try getting it on) did they make the discovery that while humans have two biological sexes, Jeshen only have one (being hermaphrodites). The Jeshen gave humans considerable territories in their systems that they could colonize, and after a while many humans came to live among the Jeshen and vice-versa as well.

This all sounds very idyllic and not a great source for conflict. The peril of the setting comes from a third force:  a mysterious alien race known as the Gelviani. From the point of view of the PCs at the start of the campaign, what they'll probably know is that Gelviani are a centauroid-type race that are extremely and unreasonably hostile, and have had several battles with the Human/Jeshen forces as they border each other's space. There's a sinister secret twist to the Gelviani, which for reasons of spoilers I'll not reveal here. I will say, it's a very clever one, and an interesting bit of sci-fi.

What follows is a very large section of descriptions of the different regions of Jeshen space, and their various weird details.  A lot of it is highly creative. There are some other less common alien species in this area, like the Teruvar, which are an alien hive-mind species that, from the point of view of humans/Jeshen, would appear to be enormous sentient asteroids. Friendly enormous sentient asteroids, or mostly friendly, in any case (they do have an agenda).

Naturally, there's a lengthy section on the Jeshen themselves. We learn that they are equivalent to mammalian, having evolved from a creature resembling an terran seal in some ways.

We get details about Jeshen senses: they can see colors beyond what human eyes can see. They also have a hugely acute sense of taste/smell which lets them even judge human emotions/intents by smell. We also get details about jeshen relationships: they engage in both monogamous and polyamorous relationships, but do not ever engage in casual sex. Instead they enter into a profound biologically-derived emotional bond with their romantic partners. Jeshen can feel this way about humans, and humans can of course feel attraction to Jeshen if they're into that kind of thing. Being two totally separate species from two totally different worlds, they can't actually reproduce together.
There are various ethnic types among the Jeshen just as there are among humans. These are given some basic detailing. They don't have any significant racism among each other, but then neither do humans in this setting, with humanity having interbred to the point where those distinctions don't matter much anymore.
We also get some explanations of Jeshen government, and of ideas or theories of why the two races are so relatively similar.

The various worlds/systems of Jeshen space are well detailed. They come with basic planetary maps, details about size, gravity, population, population centers, etc.

You get about 40 pages of description of quite a lot of very different worlds.
The descriptions of the Teruvar worlds are especially amusing. We're told, for example that Larilet is "calm, mature and analytical", while the world of Wonat is "pompous, shy and stutters". Agarana, on the other hand, is "touchy, sensitive and moody".

Finally, there's a short description and details of the "Unifactoid", an interplanetary news agency that is meant to serve as the patron organization for a group of PCs.  It's mainly meant to be something to provide the GM with a set-up for starting play. You get details about its history, scope and resources.

So all in all, there's two ways I would like to judge this book: first, as a product in the continuity of Flying Mice's house games. In that sense, I'd say its a big leap forward in terms of its clarity, simplicity, focus and ease of use.

Second, in general terms, including for people who've never bought a Flying Mice product before. I'd say that in that sense, it may have a few gaps. The rules mechanics end up being left very open and up for interpretation. That may not be a bad thing for some GMs, however!  
The setting itself is very interesting Sci-Fi! But it also may not be to everyone's tastes.  It's not strictly speaking a military type of campaign, nor is it a hard sci-fi game exactly. But it does have a very strong focus on travel, on curiosities, and especially on socially-focused roleplay. 

The system, even for a dice-pool game, is not bad. It's certainly straightforward and easy to learn.  As for the setting: if you liked the glimpse I provided of the setting in this review, well, then you'll like the game. 


Currently Smoking: Mastro De Paja Bent Billiard + Stockebbye's Bull's Eye Flake 


  1. Thank you for your - as always - excellent review! Zero Stage was the first StarCluster 4 game, but there are now eight released. Four new games, and four revisions of older games including Cold Space, FTL Now, Sweet Chariot, and The Necklace, all of which you have already reviewed, so I haven't sent them your way.