Every Week It's Wibbley-Wobbley Timey-Wimey Pookie-Reviewery...

Saturday, 18 November 2017

A Science Fiction Past

It is almost four-hundred-and-fifty years since the Kuramaja, a sleeper ship from Earth is crash landed on the newly discovered world of Taranis. It is almost four-hundred-and-fifty years since memories of Earth and the location of Earth were lost. It is four-hundred-and-twenty years since the Big Seven—C&C: Colonisation & Construction, Hardcastle Haulage, Hayden Bank, the Mining Conglomerate, Moritasgas Pharmaceuticals, Open Technology, and Smertios Security—took control of their respective monopolies and gained the power as the Consortium that they continue to wield today over colonised space. It is almost three-hundred-and-fifty years since the first wormhole was discovered and opened to exploration. It is three-hundred-and-forty-years since first contact is made with the tentacular, amphibious species, the Eulutians, in the neighbouring Damara System. It is two-hundred-and-sixty-three years since wormholes are stabilised as Jump Gates and two-hundred-and-sixty-two years since first contact is made with insectoid Ximians and ends disastrously, beginning the Bug War which will last for almost two decades. It is sixty-four years since contact is made with the tree-like Vilithi, who subsequently rebel violently against their god-leader and request permission to join the Consortium. It is almost forty years since the former CEO of Hardcastle Haulage led an open rebellion against the Consortium for their having sanctioned him and his company for its extensive smuggling operations. It is almost thirty years since the first cranial implant was developed and a little more than twenty years since the first neurally-controlled limbs were developed. It is only a year since the Resistance revealed plans by members of the Big Seven to wipe open the non-human races in the Consortium. It only this year that Gaia Adaptation and Adjustment, the Eulutian-led company which developed Enviromorphic Fungi, the edible fungi capable of growing anywhere, is invited to join the Big Seven—which becomes the Big Eight. This is despite several assassination attempts on its CEO, Gueya.

This is the history and setting for Era: The Consortium, a Science Fiction roleplaying game released by English publisher, Shades of Vengeance. It is set in the far future and takes place across twelve planets and moons spread across three systems connected by Jump Gates. It is dominated by the major corporations of the Big Seven—later the Big Eight—and despite the influence of the Senate, political body consisting of representatives from the other corporations, is a ‘corporatocracy’. Throughout its history, the Consortium has been beset by two tensions. The first is between the Big Seven and the Senate, the malfeasance of one leading to the dominance of the other, but in the case of the Senate, never for very long. The second is racial tension, in turn against the Eulutians, the Ximians, and the Vilithi, the Big Seven often extorting them for their labour. Even as each of the new species is accepted into the Consortium as citizens equal to Humanity and the Big Seven and other corporations employ them on an equal footing—though this often appears to be for publicity purposes than anything else, factions within the Big Seven are formulating and executing terrible plans of extermination against them. The setting is supported with an extensive equipment section, which covers weaponry, spaceships, cybernetics, and more, including personal shield technology.

The major point of Era: The Consortium and its history is that the Game Master and his players can drop into key points along the timeline and play out the events at each of those points. To that end, the core rulebook gives six campaign concepts set at these points. These include a multi-character exploration of the founding of the Consortium in ‘The Origin of the Consortium’; a multi-team military campaign against the Ximians in ‘The Bug War’ a la Starship Troopers, including the use of armoured battlesuits; and ‘The Resistance Begins’ explores the rise of the rebellion against the Big Seven that would eventually see the elevation of the Gaia Adaptation and Adjustment corporation. Each campaign concept is broken down into two, four, six, or eight sessions, each session being outlined with the events that should occur during that session. Both the length of these outlines and the level of detail they contain varies from campaign concept to campaign concept, but there is enough in each, backed up with the descriptive content contained in the lengthy history, for the Game Master to extract multiple sessions of gameplay.

The setting and campaign concepts allow for a wide variety of character concepts, whether that is a sharp pilot, bodge-it engineer, studied scientist, determined soldier, crafty corporate officer, learned scholar, sneaky spy, radical revolutionary, dogged investigator, slippery lawyer, and so on. Most of these are familiar from any other Science Fiction setting or roleplaying, but what marks the character options out as different are the alien races in Era: The Consortium. Humans dominate, but Era: The Consortium does a good job of presenting its alien races as being different, but having integrated themselves into Consortium space. So for example, the Eulutians wear thought-controlled exosuits that resemble human bodies to survive outside of water and better interact with Humans. The suits though, allow the Eulutians to continue expressing their emotions as shifts in colour and even have interfaces through which they can extend one or more tentacles. The insectoid Ximians, consisting of three castes—Worker, Brain, and Politician—and each of these has adjusted to roles within the many corporations of the Consortium, such as Politician negotiators or lawyers, Brain engineers and scientists, and Worker soldiers and labourers. The tree-like Vilithii can actually physically adapt to the desired form. As a consequence, they tend to be humanoid in shape, but multi-armed, multi-legged, and no-limbed forms are common. It is also possible for a Vilithii to change shape, though this takes time.

To create a character in Era: The Consortium, a player selects a concept, a race, and backstory, assigns attribute points and skill points, and then selects skill specialities, implants, and equipment. A character has eight attributes, divided into three groups: Potence (Strength, Intelligence and Charisma), Defence (Stamina and Willpower), and Reaction (Dexterity, Wits and Luck). Each group is assigned a pool of points—six, five, or four—which are then divided between the attributes in the group. Similarly the skills are divided into three groups of six—Personal, Technical, and Interpersonal. Each group is assigned a pool of points—eleven, seven, or four—which are then divided between the six attributes in a group. If a character has a value of three or more in a skill, he can select specialties related to that skill. Specialities are also available that are related to derived stats and from a character’s species. A character begins play with a maximum of three specialities. In recent years, it is standard practice in the Consortium to be fitted with a cranial implant to enhance the memory and allow easy computer interface, but other implants are available and a player character begins play with one of these. 

Numerous suggestions are included in Era: The Consortium, for both Consortium characters and Resistance characters. They include a C&C: Colonisation & Construction Engineer, a Hardcastle Haulage Pilot, and an Open Technology Hacker for the former, and a Resistance Defector, a Resistance Face, and a Resistance Forger for the latter. Our sample character is a Consortium corporate accountant specialising in fraud detection.

Woollan

Concept: Forensic Accountant
Race: Eulutian
Backstory: Hayden Bank Accountant
Quirk: Obsessive

Potence
Strength 2 Intelligence 4 Charisma 3

Defence
Stamina 3 Willpower 3

Reaction
Dexterity 3 Wits 3 Luck 3

Personal Skills
Brawl 3, Investigation 4, Larceny 3, Melee 0, Stealth 1, Survival 1

Technical Skills
Computer 3, Drive 0, Engineering 0, Explosives 0, Gunnery 0, Medicine 0, Pilot 1

Interpersonal Skills 
Commercial 3, Esteem 0, Instruction 1, Intimidation 0, Persuasion 3, Seduction 0

Specialities
Investigation (Thorough); Computer (Knowing the Back Doors); Persuasion (That was Convincing).

Derived Stats
Size 4, Health & Pain 7, Initiative Modifier 6, Speed 9, Defence 3, Encumbrance 9, Damage & Kill Modifiers 0

Morality: Straight Arrow
Exosuit: Kirii Suit
Implants: Neural Interface

Mechanically, Era: The Consortium uses the Era d10 ruleset. This is a dice pool system, with a player a number of dice equal to his character’s attribute plus skill. Specialities, Quirks, instructional help, and situational bonuses will add dice, whilst situational penalties will reduce the number of dice. A Success is scored for each result that exceeds the Threshold, this varying according to the difficulty of the task—Very Easy (two or three), Easy (four or five), Medium (six or seven), Hard (eight or nine), or Very Hard (ten). Tens explode, allowing more dice to be rolled, but rolls with more ones than Successes result in a fumble. This can be as mild as a weapon jamming or as bad as the character losing a limb, depending on how many ones are rolled. Likewise, the number of Successes rolled will determine the effect, from a minor success for one or two successes rolled to an extreme success for seven or more Successes being rolled. Unskilled rolls instead rely upon a combination of the selected attribute and the Luck attribute. In general, the fewer the number of dice a player has to roll, the greater the likelihood of any roll resulting in a fumble of some kind. Players also have access to Luck Points, which can be used to add Successes to their rolls or deduct them from the opposition’s rolls. Conversely, the Game Master has access to Bad Luck points to spend on the opposition.

The mechanics in Era: The Consortium cover personal, vehicle, and spaceship combat. Combat is notable in Era: The Consortium in that although a character can suffer pain and loss of health incrementally over the course of a fight, it is possible for weapons to exceed a character’s Kill Threshold, which will result in the character’s death. Era: The Consortium is not a space opera, but is much grittier as well as much deadlier. Armour, personal shields, hitting first, and of course, avoiding combat in the first place will all help counter this likelihood. Running combat is aided by the inclusion of several flowcharts, whilst ‘Hardcore Rules’ enable the Game Master to adjust his game if he and his players want it to be more challenging.

The bulk of the advice for the Game Master is devoted to the aforementioned campaign outlines. What advice there is, really amounts to a page of bullet points. Physically, Era: The Consortium is a thick and sturdy book (both softback and hardback copies are available). Notably, it is profusely illustrated in full colour and these illustrations are never less than decent. The layout is cramped though, with the timeline often seemingly hidden in the timeline fiction, and the editing often underwhelming. The history in particular suffers from this and is in places, laborious going.

There is no denying the ambition and effort which has gone into Era: The Consortium. The idea of being able to go into its history timeline and play out its events is interesting, but this may not be to everyone’s liking and the advice for the Game Master does not explore what happens if the players and their characters change the course of events and so change the course of the history of the Consortium. What this feels like is as if the Game Master is expected to run the author’s campaign rather than his own. It does not help that the fiction illustrating the various scenes throughout the history is often just a bit obtuse and either gets in the way of the facts being given by the timeline or in effect, simply replaces the timeline. The author also leaves the Game Master on his own if he wants to explore the future of the Consortium rather the past. Another issue is the xenophobia that runs through that history as not every group is going to want to explore or play that through. 

Despite these issues, there is an interesting setting at the heart of Era: The Consortium for the Game Master to develop and it comes with a solid, if deadly and not unlike the Storyteller System used by White Wolf, Inc., set of mechanics. There is capacity to do a variety of different games and genres, including cyberpunk, military, espionage Science Fiction as well as others. The setting is also supported with a number of supplements. So there is room for the Game Master to run the Era: The Consortium as he wants rather than adhering strictly to the timeline.

—oOo—


Era: The Consortium - A Universe of Expansions 2 is currently being funded on Kickstarter.