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Wednesday 19 July 2017

RPGPundit Reviews: These Stars are Ours!

This is a review of "These Stars are Ours", a setting book for the "Cepheus Engine" rules (which are themselves a kind of retro-clone of the Traveller rules).  This is a review of the print edition, which is a hardcover book written by Omer Golan-Joel, Richard Hazlewood, and Josh Peters. It's published by Stellagama Publishing.

The book's full-color cover has a Traveller-esque image of a spaceship, in orbit over an Earth-like planet (possibly Earth, since it's central to the setting), approaching what is either a larger spaceship or a space-station, I can't quite tell which. The interior art is black and white and rather sparse, but includes ship deckplans and star-maps.

I'm pleased with someone making an alternate setting for use with Traveller rules (or second-hand Traveller rules). I don't have any particular dislike for the Imperium. But I've always thought that Traveller as a system really doesn't need to be bound to one setting.  Of course, there are other alternative settings, most recently I reviewed Traveller:Mindjammer.  We'll see how These Stars Are Ours rates as an alternative.

The basic gist of the setting is that it is the year 2260, shortly after a war between of Terran Liberation against the mighty Reticulan Empire. The Reticulans (who look a lot like the 'grey aliens' of countless abductions from trailer parks) showed up en masse in the late 21st century, with promises of advanced technology, and the spineless world elites quickly handed over absolute power to them. Soon it became obvious that Earth had become a slave-state in the Reticulan empire. After various atrocities and failed rebellions, the Terran Revolution finally took off in the 2230s and gradually, after decades of war and with the help of a couple of other oppressed alien races and an internal rebellion among the Reticulans, the Reticulans were finally forced to sue for peace and give up an important chunk of their empire to the new Terran Republic in 2258.

 This led to the United Terran Republic becoming a major interstellar power. The setting is designed for (I quote) a "background of espionage, maneuvering and saber-rattling, and on the new interstellar frontiers the player characters can forge a destiny of heroes or villains of the new United Terran Republic".

The book details an area star-map of 16x10 hexes, with 64 major worlds in that area.

(note: the map in the printed version is in black & white)

We're told that to use the book you need the Cepheus Engine SRD (available through DriveThru) though I suspect you could also just use any Traveller rules.

The chapter starts out with setting material about the United Terran Republic, which frankly I think is a bit of an organizational error.  The chapter is very text-heavy, detailing the history of the Republic's rise (for like, 6 pages of pure text), then several more pages of society and government, ideologies, military forces, psionics, terrorism and other stuff.  It's a lot to read, and I think it would  have been wiser to start out with character creation (which often tells you a lot about the implicit setting) and then leave the heavier stuff for a later chapter.

Anyways, the very broad gist of it is that the Earth just won a war of liberation for itself, along with some alien allies, against a ridiculously older and more powerful species.  Now, on the whole, a spirit of optimism, certainty and expansionist thinking dominates the human race. I like that, it's nice to see a sci-fi game where you don't have everything being decadent or everyone being nihilist.

There is still a kind of Cold War going on between Earth and the Reticulans, and there's various major ideological schools of thought about that and and about expansion.  Some favor a focus on making peace on the Reticulans and leading them to change their culture through peaceful means. Others are nativists who want to more or less remain isolationist, then there's some who want to keep on a hawkish warlike footing with the Reticulans, and finally there's the 'hawkish nativists' (basically human-supremacist imperialists) who want a Terran Republic where humans dominate over the other species that are now in their territory.

As far as psionics in the game, the Terran Republic's position is generally benevolent but watchful over psychics. They are helped by a government bureaucracy to train their powers, but there are restrictions and laws about what are legal or illegal uses of psionic abilities.

Unlike a ridiculously vast majority of sci-fi settings, Corporations in this setting are not Evil by Default. That's certainly a nice change.  Most are just involved in business. One or two have some shady dealings, which makes sense, and one or two are very straight-laced and even 'moral' inasmuch as a corporation concerns itself with morality. What  you won't see here is what you get in a lot of other settings where "evil megacorps try to run everything and do evil things because they are evil".

There are some terrorist and criminal organizations in the setting: the more radical nativists have an ultra-radical wing called the "Children of Gaia" who engage in violent crimes against aliens. The "Consortium" is basically like the 23rd century version of the mafia, organized crime families. The "Exalted order of Fomalhaut" are followers of the Reticulan's religion (which was the state religion of Earth during the Reticulan occupation), who were declared illegal as 5th columnists during the war of Terran liberation, and today exist as a shadowy order engaging in espionage and infiltration on behalf of the Reticulans. The "Interstellar Liberation Army" consists of people (many of them "old guard" revolutionaries and military) who seek to restart the war and finish the job of liberating all of local space from the Reticulan Rule.

These are all fairly well-thought-out groups in the context of what the setting is about, and can make very useful sources of enemies or potentially patrons in a campaign.

The chapter on aliens is next, and starts with a detailed breakdown of the Reticulans and their empire. This includes details on their biology, their political groupings, their internal rebels (the Technocrats, who take the rationality of the Reticulan species to the conclusion that the Imperial structure of the empire is an outmoded anachronism to be overthrown), their military, and guidelines for playing a Reticulan character.

The Cicek are humanoid warm-blooded reptiles. They were the closest allies to the humans in the war of liberation. Cicek males are aggressive, anarchic, individualistic, and territorial, obsessed with personal glory. They were barbaric only a few centuries back before their world was conquered, so they still have a lot of relatively 'primitive' cultural features.

The Zhuzzh are an insectoid race. They're traders, scavengers and pirates. They're space nomads, with a shamanistic type of culture. They're pragmatic and opportunists.

Ssesslessians are reptilian snakelike beings. They were liberated by Earth but bear a lot of resentment toward Terrans, because they had failed to successfully plot their own liberation or revenge against their former overlords. The Ssesslessians had long ago been an interstellar power in their own right, but were brutally conquered by the Reticulans after refusing to surrender to their superior power, and their homeworld was rendered uninhabitable. They  have a complex polytheist religious system and are governed by their priest caste. They see themselves as tools of their gods and felt it was their divine mission to avenge themselves on the Reticulans (a revenge that the humans thwarted). They are skilled assassins.

The Chiwak are a birdlike species, though more in the "velociraptor" sense than, say, bluejays. They're carnivorous pack hunters. They were not slaves of the Reticulans but rather have their own stellar empire on the other border of the Reticulans from Earth. They used the war of liberation opportunistically to take a great deal of territory.

A couple of other minor species are detailed in shorter segments, as well as the "Precursors". The latter are mysterious aliens (this setting's version of Traveller's "Ancients") who had dominated space something around 15000 years ago, and then disappeared or destroyed themselves in an apocalyptic war. Several species (including the Chiwak and the Reticulans) claim to be descendants or inheritors of the Precursors.
There is also a much older 'lost species' referred to as the Gardeners, that some hypothesize spread relatively-compatible life around the whole area of space some 70 million years ago.

Chapter 3 deals with character creation, at long last. We're now 79 pages in, and while it was all interesting, it feels like a shitload of information before getting to how to make a character.  This is probably not as big a deal on account that most people getting the book will already be familiar with Traveller, but even so I think that (as my single big criticism of the book) it would have been wiser from a layout perspective to put character creation first (after maybe a very brief couple of pages of introduction).

The chapter starts out with some details about how to play alien PCs; the default is humans, but modifications and guidelines (as well as several whole careers) are provided if a GM wants to have non-human PCs.

The particulars will be immediately recognizable to anyone who's ever played Traveller. 2d6 for stats, get a homeworld, background, then start a career. All the standard stuff is there: survival, advancement, skills, aging, mustering out etc.

I'll note that it seems the Survival rules doesn't actually let you end up dead in character creation. But if you get an injury you roll and END check (with a penalty) and depending on how it turns out you can go from a range of effects between "cool scar" to "lose both arms, both legs, and blinded".  Luckily in the latter case, there's rules on cybernetics.  The character creation rules also cover psionic characters.

The Cepheus engine rules include a number of civilian careers which are listed as acceptable for this setting, but there's also a number of new careers which are presented here (16 in all) specific to the setting. This includes various alien careers, the CRC-8/16 (the Terran intelligence unit), CRC-32 (psionic intelligence), Elite (high class characters), Merchant, PRI (psionic, non-military), Scout, Terran Army, Terran Guard (irregulars), Terran Marines, Terran Naval Infantry, Terran Navy, and Terran Police.

There's event tables (as an optional rule), and also a War Events table (for events that the character experienced during the war), and a Civilian Events table.  A character can even end up in prison, and there's a table for skills gained while in prison!

Next up is the starship rules. These basically cover the differences for spaceships accounting for setting-technology of the book's setting (as opposed to the Traveller/Cepheus-Engine default).

A number of starships are provided, with floorplans, from different setting races.

The chapter on the Terran Borderlands starts by presenting the changes to the world-creation rules in the standard rules.  This includes a table for world temperatures, and some new spectral classes.

An overview is now presented for Terran space, with a standard star-map (Traveller Style), centered on the Terran Republic but featuring the bordering areas of the Reticulans and other races. All the planets in the map are presented with their world profile, and a paragraph or two of descriptions.  The whole thing is pretty rationally organized and the setting is (as one would expect) pretty coherent. The border areas and unclaimed worlds in particular provide a lot of rich potential for adventuring.

The final regular chapter presents a dozen patrons, outlined with a description, GM information, and a table of potential complications. It's essentially a small set of options for adventure seeds.  I think it is some ways a better choice than trying to provide a more rigid introductory adventure. The patrons vary considerably, everything from generals to celebrities to aliens.

There's a few short appendices. The first one lists some recent news items, five in total. They're all basically adventure seeds in the form of news updates.  The next appendix lists inspirations for the setting: literature is largely military sci-fi. There's Heinlein (Starship Troopers, of course), the Man-Kzin wars by Larry Niven, John Scalzi, and Barry Longyear's Enemy Mine, among others.  Film inspirations include the Alien series, Enemy Mine (again), Outland, and Serenity. TV has the expected stuff (Andromeda, Babylon 5, Space Above and Beyond; definitely NOT Star Trek). The longest list (with 14 items) is actually Video Games, including Wing Commander, Star Control and Mass Effect.

There's no character sheet, but I suppose that comes with the Cepheus Engine rules.

So, what can we conclude about These Stars Are Ours?  Simply put, it's a very well designed 'hard sci-fi' style of setting for Traveller-compatible use.

If you're a Traveller fan, and want an alternative to the Imperium, but not something that goes too far away from the Traveller standards, this is a good way to go.  If you want something that moves more toward the trans-human and modern sci-fi, you may want Traveller: Mindjammer instead.

If you like the sound of the setting, even if you haven't played Traveller before, you can always pick up the Cepheus Engine rules and run this setting.

As far as running it with other systems, that's certainly possible, though you might end up having to do quite a bit of conversion to get some of the more worthwhile stuff you get out of the character creation process here.


Currently Smoking: Davidoff 400-series + C&D's Bayou Evening


  1. Thank you for the wonderful review! And very interesting commentary.

  2. Are those Sathar and Vrusk in the pictures?

    1. From left to right:

      Upper row: Reticulans, Terrans, Zhuuzh
      Lower row: Chiwak, Cicek, Ssesslessians.

      The Sathar were inspired by worms, the Ssesslessians by snakes (and old-XCOM Snakemen). The Zhuuzh were definitely inspired by cockroaches, and are as opportunistic and hardy as roaches, unlike the more ant-like Vrusk; in fact, they might be more similar to N'Grath's species from Babylon 5 (underworld kingpin insectoid).

  3. Count me interested. Do you think this setting could work with Star Without Numbers, Pundit ?

    1. Definitely so, if you change the technological assumptions a little bit, especially in regard to star travel. Reticulans would be SWN TL5, Terrans TL4+ in military matters and TL4 in the rest, Cicek TL4. Character generation will, of course, work differently. Converting the ships, on the other hand, should be easy, and so will be adding Tags to the worlds.

      (One of TSAO's authors here :-) )

    2. Excellent then ! Thanks to both of you.

  4. I totally agree with your criticism of organization of the book. It would make a much better introduction to the game to have just a very brief overview of the setting and aliens, and then get into character creation, and then save all the gory details of the history and alien factions for the end of the book. I know the authors are proud of their world-building, but this is like having to read all of The Silmarillion before you get to read The Hobbit.