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Friday, 17 February 2017

For Imperial Friends

In more recent years, James Maliszewski has become known for his championing of the ‘Old School Renaissance’ via his blog, Grognardia and of TSR Inc.’s Empire of the Petal Throne: The World of Tékumel via his House of Worms campaign and his fanzine, The Excellent Travelling Volume, but before that, he was an author and designer of RPGs and supplements. One of these is Thousand Suns, the RPG published by Rogue Games that was the author’s love letter to the ‘Imperial’ Science Fiction of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s written by authors such as Poul Anderson, Isaac Asimov, Alfred Bester, Gordon Dickson, Larry Niven, H. Beam Piper, Jerry Pournelle, and A.E. van Vogt. This is not the Science Fiction of Space Opera, it is much dryer and harder edged than that, though it is no less fantastic. In later 2016 the designer decided to return to Thousand Suns and support the RPG if not necessarily the ‘Thousand Suns’ meta-setting with new material via a new fanzine, Imperio.

Imperio #1 comes as a twenty-eight page black and white A5-sized fanzine that is very professionally presented with fine artwork and decent writing. It includes contributions from other writers besides James Maliszewski, in particular from Greg Videll, the author of Starships, the Thousand Suns supplement. The inaugural issue contains adventures, a new species, description of a spaceship, some NPCs, and more. Which is quite a lot to pack into just twenty-eight pages.

The fanzine opens with ‘Deep Background’, the first of two adventures by Greg Videll. In ‘Deep Background’, the characters are hired to check the background and bona fides of the man his daughter is to marry. Six options are given, ranging from the prospective son-in-law having a few debts to unsavoury types to his being a deep cover agent for the Terran State, plus variations. These variations include the need to visit a second world and the involvement of a major arms manufacturer, and both the two worlds and corporation potentially involved in this adventure are detailed such that they can be added to a GM’s campaign. To be fair this is not so much an adventure as a Patron encounter a la Traveller, but with greater detail and more options. In fact, there are almost too many options since the GM is unlikely to use all of them here, although there is room to mix and match them a little, or indeed adapt them for use elsewhere.

Greg Videll’s second adventure is ‘Runaway’. This touches to a varying degree upon Asimov’s Robot stories and takes place at a deep space refinery in an asteroid belt. A runaway maintenance robot has forced the shutdown of all traffic in and out of the station and the Portmaster hires the characters to chase it down. Again some six options are given, including there something being found with the robot, the characters being used as decoys or patsies, and the robot being operated by someone other than the Portmaster. There are also fewer variations given with this adventure and while this means that it is is not as sophisticated as ‘Deep Background’, it means that it is much more direct and easier to use.

In ‘The Ĉaristoj: Nomads of the Thousand Suns’, Robert Saint John describes a strange bio-mechanical alien species that travels individually travel in sealed,  upright, floating, sea-turtle-like suits. Collectively, the species is currently fleeing a disaster in its home sector towards the galactic centre. They are designed in the main for use as NPCs, although stats are given so that they can be used as a player characters. Both player and GM alike can have fun playing these species as all of the Ĉaristoj knowledge of Humanity comes from Terran pre-starflight broadcasts. Admittedly, it is something of a cliché, but this does the Ĉaristoj fun to portray and it does take the Ĉaristoj away from feeling just a little too much like the Puppeteers from Larry Niven’s Known Space tales. It also adds some colour to an otherwise slightly difficult to use or play species, which is indicated by the underwritten adventure seeds.

James Maliszewski’s first contribution to Imperio #1 is ‘The Fast Freighter’. This describes in further detail, the Bizono-class freighter, previously described in the Thousand Suns: Starships supplement. The stats remain in the book, but here the ship is given a full deck plan—it only has the one deck—and a description of how it is by its operators, its interior, and its armament, plus slight variants. In Traveller terms, it feels like something in size between the Type-S Scout ship and the Type-A Free Trader, although the cargo capacity is tiny at just under eight tons.  In some ways it feels more like a courier vessel than a freighter. The combination of a description of a spaceship and its deck plans is a always a plus because it always a great tool to add to a Science Fiction game. Certainly the players always want to to know what their spaceship looks like and what its layout is, and ‘The Fast Freighter’ is a good combination. The Bizono-class freighter is a good fit for most groups and suitable for four or five players.

‘Random Name Generation’ is James Maliszewski’s second contribution. It is simple set of tables for creating names. Now what makes this is interesting is that it draws from the positive, even utopian elements of Imperial Science Fiction and from its explicitly non-American, multi-cultural vision of the future. This is because Thousand Suns uses Esperanto as the universal Terran language in its future. The tables allow the creation of names that feel different, yet familiar. Just exotic enough to enforce that the world of Thousand Suns is set far into the future.

Rounding out Imperio #1 is ‘Allies and Antagonists’, James Maliszewski’s third contribution. One of the highlights of The Excellent Travelling Volume is the ‘Patrons’ section, presenting NPCs that the player characters could encounter or be employed by. The author repeats the exercise here with three such patron or NPCs, but simplifies the format so that each can be an ally or an enemy for the player characters. They include the hereditary ruler of a planet who wants to regain her throne, a belter who is an amateur archaeologist, and an ESPer for hire. Each has full stats, some background, and options to use him or her as a friend or foe. Each is also useful and a solid addition to the fanzine.

Physically, Imperio #1 is presented to a high standard. It is well written and the artwork is excellent. The deck plan of the Bizono-class freighter is nicely done too.

James Maliszewski has had six issues of The Excellent Travelling Volume to get the format of his fanzines right and this shows in Imperio #1. Of course, Imperio #1 is much more of a traditional fanzine in that it is written by others as well as the publisher, but that does not detract from the quality of the writing or presentation. A good first issue and a good issue, one that provides excellent support for Thousand Suns—as well as certain other Science Fiction RPGs—Imperio #1 is as professional a fanzine as you can get and still be a fanzine.