The new and improved defender of RPGs!

Wednesday, 15 February 2017

RPGPundit Reviews: Starcluster 4: Dark Orbital

This is a review of the RPG "Starcluster 4: Dark Orbital", which is part of a series of "starcluster" games. It's published by Flying Mice, which for the interest of disclosure I'll mention once published my "Forward... to Adventure!" RPG products. I don't think that'll affect my ability to review the product, but now you know.

Dark Orbital is written by Clash Bowley, Albert Bailey, and Klaxon Bowley. This is as always a review of the print edition, which is a softcover book, 85 pages long. It has a full-color cover featuring some people at what looks like some kind of futuristic diner, one of said 'people' is a humanoid racoon smoking a cigarette (is Clash trying to cash in on the Guardians of the Galaxy?).

In what represents a disturbing move toward furry art, the back cover features what appears to be a female humanoid cat dressed up in a slutty red outfit.
Interior art is moderately sparse, featuring some of the images of sample races, some planets, and some images of some designs.

The back cover that "dark orbital is a nasty place", without actually saying just what kind of place it is. And that people are 'trapped there by cold hard economics".  It also suggest that you can "put the punk back in cyberpunk with Dark Orbital".

So let's find out what this is all about.

Like the other products in the Starcluster 4 series, this one appears to be set up for quick character creation so you can get right into play.  So right off on the first real page of the book you jump right into the character creation process.  You have to choose a template, which can be either human or from a selection of 'uplifted animals' (which explains the furry stuff).

From the basic species profile you personalize the stats slightly, then you choose your starting age, purchase a number of skill templates based on your age, pick some specialties, and traits, equipment and then you get right to play.

Humans are just humans, but the uplifted species are strangely specific: you have Spotted Hyenas, Angora Cats, Shepherd Dog, Raccoon and Hare. The artwork isn't really the typical 'furry fandom' style.  They look less anthropomorphic and more like images of actual animals stood upright and then photoshopped to give them some slight human articulations. The dog one looks ridiculous, like a German Shepherd on its hind legs given human hands and holding a gun (the rest of the body still being completely animal).  The hare and the raccoon are not much better. But hey, at least it might not turn the furries on.
Though, maybe that's too much to hope for.

As with other games in the Starcluster series, your skills are obtained based on your age.  You get a background set of skills based on where you came from (if I'm reading this right, apparently cats all come from the 'sex worker' background, which I have to say as a cat owner is profoundly disturbing).

 Then you get another set based on your 'apprenticeship' in your youth. After that you have a  number of points, based on your starting age, that you can use to buy more sets of skills, along career trees (eg. 'advertising', 'civil service', 'criminal', 'gambler', 'security', 'sneak', etc).  So for example the 'tinker' career tree starts out with "tinker", and then someone who has that bundle can buy either "machinist" or "expert tinker".  An "expert tinker" can move on to "mainteneer" or "master tinker". And so on.  Each pick gives you a few skill bonuses.

There's also rules, as to be expected in a game advertising itself as cyberpunk, for 'implants'. They seem pretty straightforward. There's only 22 examples offered, so it's not definitive, and that list included several 'cosmetic implants', which have no mechanical effect in the game, they just change something about the character's look.

There's a bit more other equipment (mostly weapons) and then some optional rules on psionics, identical to the ones in the other starcluster 4 games.

The resolution mechanics are the same too. In brief, you roll 1d20 plus 1d20 per each rank you have in a skill. You compare the various die rolls to the relevant attribute.  Any result that is equal to or lower than the attribute counts as a 'success'. Invoking a trait gives you two extra d20s.  Edges, when applicable, add 1 to the value of the attribute for the purpose of the skill check. Situations can modify the roll by up to two dice, or the attribute value by 1 point.

There's also a totally different mechanic available; the one above is the 'starpool' mechanic.  The alternate is called the star100. In this one you determine the percentage of success by adding 40 + a modifier based on your relevant attribute + a modifier equal to the skill rank times five.
Then you roll a percentile die, and if you roll under the target number, you succeed.  The level/quality of your success is judged by a number of multiples of ten by which you made the check.  Traits give you +20 to the target number, edges give you +10. Modifiers can alter the target number by up to 20 points.

Next, we get to the setting: the "Cry in the Dark" star system.  It's a small dim red sun, with two planets, five moons, and two space stations. Right off, you get that the place seems unappealing. Apparently it has great mineral wealth, though.

The planets are Friday XIII, which has a slightly toxic atmosphere but is hotly contested.  It has lush vegetation and some ancient ruins;  and Bantu, a gas giant with the five moons. The only place that isn't completely crappy is "Cry in the Dark", one of Bantu's moons. But the main setting of the book is Dark Orbital, which was originally the colony ship that brought the settlers to this system.

Dark Orbital now serves as a space station. It's quite large, and a lot of it has been adjusted for living quarters.  There's some areas that don't have artificial gravity. The people living in the edge of the antigrav areas are basically slum-dwellers, surviving off scraps from the higher rings of the station/ship where the well-to-do live.

There are various important families/gangs that run things in the slums, chop shops for cybernetics, unauthorized black markets, cat-prostitute dance halls, raccoon fences for stolen tech (raccoons were originally uplifted to work maintenance on the colony ship), hare mediators, free clinics which act as fronts for drug lords, gangs, vigilantes, pirate entertainment networks, and more.

Most of these things are only detailed with single paragraphs. There are some floorplans, but not in detail of the entire station.  You do get a page which lists the various neighborhoods in Dark Orbital, along with their specialty stores, manufacturers, and services. None of these are elaborated beyond their names (stuff like "Guierrez Family Electronics Store", "Mao Boonmee Guinea Pig Farm and Butcher Shop", or "Spotted Pack Recycling Center").  It's clearly up to the GM to fill in a lot of the gaps in terms of what these places are about or what to use them for.

You do get a random-table "Situation Generator". It lets you roll at random (d20) for an "actor" (eg. local gang, Hop Congress, gambler, rickshaw puller, etc), "reason/object" (eg. token cache, mechanical part, illicit love, secret passage), "location" (eg. local noodle shop, brothel, empty tanks, internal stairwell), and "action" (eg. Kidnapping, cheating, take-over, politics). Again, none of these are detailed in any way. What it basically does is give the GM four words/phrases, that he then has to put together into an adventure.

There are some examples of actual play, which can give you perhaps some hints of the type of stuff you can do in Dark Orbital.

So on the whole, I'd say I'm not quite as impressed by Dark Orbital as I was by Zero Stage , the last Starcluster product I reviewed. Zero Stage seemed a lot more detailed, and presented a lot more interesting stuff. It was more vast, and more unusual.

But if you're looking for a skeletal framework for a claustrophobic cyberpunk type of setting inside the shell of an old starship, there's some utility to this product. It just requires rather a bit more work on the GM's part to fill it out.


Currently Smoking: Neerup Hawkbill + Image Virginia


  1. Awesome! Glad you liked it, Pundit!


  2. I've had my eye on the Starcluster series since I first came across it a few years ago, and I'm shamed to say I still haven't run or purchased it, but then there's a lot of awesome stuff out there I have yet to buy/play/run. What I particularly like about Clash's approach is his inventiveness and his attempt to avoid obvious clich├ęs, something at which SF in general (with one or two honourable exceptions) notably fails. But then I guess you could say that about RPG products as a whole.

    The Pundit has been very fair in mentioning things he likes about the book as well as those parts he thinks don't work quite so well, which is just what you want in a review, 'This game is pants' and 'This is awesome sauce!' not being terribly helpful to potential GMs and players trying to decide how to spend their Galactic Credits.

    I've always been a fan of mega-space stations that are home to a variety of cyberpunky, Mos Eisley-style ne'er-do-wells, including the relatively toned-down Deep Space Nine and Babylon 5. The planet/moon names are terrific too - Friday XIII, very clever - and I love the souped-up animals Clash has peopled (animaled?) this one with - racoon fences and hare mediators ftw!! Also, cat prostitute dance halls. (Btw, for the record, I'm perfectly happy with cat prostitutes, although as a sleek black panther I would of course be a very high-class one). All in all it's a great-sounding gameworld, and I look forward to playing in it one day.